Organized Lightning

“Electricity is really just organized lightning”
― George Carlin

Beltline Road and the Glenville Bicycle Trail, Richardson, Texas

Along my drive to work there is, as there always is, a line of giant electrical distribution towers. Over the past few months, I have watched them replace the towers with even larger and higher towers. Twice a day I was treated with a show of technology while this operation proceeded step by step.

They did this without disturbing the wires. First they poured huge round foundations near the old towers. Jutting out of the concrete were rings of heavy bolts. The new towers went in – placed in multiple sections lifted by a crane. Modern crane operators cans sling these massive cylinders of galvanized steel around like they were chopsticks.

Once the new towers were in place, the wires from the old ones were moved over. I didn’t see this – it happened while I was at work. I assume the transfer was done hot – with untold thousands of volts coursing through the conductors. Think about that – a miracle taking place above your head while you only gripe about the traffic delay caused by a closed lane keeping you away from the danger.

Only then were the old towers sliced with a torch and removed.

The stubs are still there – I’ll keep an eye out for how they disappear.

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They Ring And You Run

“So that’s the telephone? They ring, and you run.”
― Edgar Degas

Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas



Oblique Strategy:
Always first steps

I think of the technological advances during the time I have lived.

In college, I had to punch cards to produce input into a computer that took up an entire floor of the business school. I would hand my precious stack – chits of holed paper with one corner gone – through a window to some anointed guardian like it was the gate to the Emerald City. I would then stare at an empty vending machine for hours until my stack of printouts flopped down into a numbered wooden bin.

Almost a decade later I was writing database programs to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80. I would write the program on an 8 inch floppy disk, and the data for each site was on another 8 incher. I think each held 180 K bytes. We kept having problems with data until I discovered my assistant was holding the extra disks onto a copy board with magnets. Reports were slowly spit out on an incredibly loud daisy-wheel printer. Still, as crude as this all was it revolutionized the storage and retrieval of information that we had been doing by hand.

The IBM PC was another incredible advance. Of course, I remember when it was kept in a wire cage and you had to get a key from a manager to use it. They thought it was a waste of money – and couldn’t understand why it didn’t get more use. I finally convinced management to get it out of the locked cage and let anybody sit there and type. Soon, a mouse wandered over and the early versions of Windows came out. It was painfully slow – but I remember when I realized I could cut information from one program (a spreadsheet, say) and paste it into another (a word processor). I remember that moment still – it was like a whole new world opened up.

Another moment like that was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a piece of 8.5 x 11. I think it was the silence that impressed me, even more than the quality of the work.

And on it goes – for most of my adult life, every year brought new wonders – having my own computer at home, laptops, video games, thumb drives, GPS. All amazing. It’s only recently, as the corporate behemoth ropes everything back in, gets its evil tendrils into and around every byte that I feel we have begun to fall backwards. Things are now getting harder and harder, less and less amazing.

When I talk to my kids about this, the quintessence of millennials, they agree without hesitation that it is the Smartphone that is the game changer. For me, it’s probably the internet… but for them it’s the little piece of glass in their hand – that goes everywhere, that does everything. They can’t imagine life without one.

Each little phone is, of course, many, many times more powerful that that immense leviathan that spread across that entire building when I was in school.

My Phone is Spying on Me

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone‘ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”
― Philip K. Dick

Oblique Strategy: State the problem in words as clearly as possible

As the Internet Of Things slowly makes its way, flooding our lives, I installed a new smart doorbell last night. The packaging was a thing of beauty, unfortunately I’m not smart enough to open it correctly and ended up having to tear it up to get the stuff out. Things were obviously carefully thought out – they had a lot of stuff in that beautiful little box – including a tiny orange plastic spirit level with a cute little bubble.

I love the postmodern slant on the installation instructions. For example, little plastic anchors are included – in case you need to put the doorbell onto brick or concrete. The instructions say, “If you’re installing on wood or siding, put the anchors in that drawer of stuff you never use and skip this step.”

It was dark and cold outside, but I managed to get the thing installed. I wondered why they were so anal to include the spirit level, but realized that, because the doorbell had a camera in it, if it was installed on a slant, the image would lean. It would look like a Batman Villain was at the door.

The only problem was that the best instructions were on videos which were played on the phone as the process proceeded. And, of course, there was some hooking up to the internet involved. The problem was, to install the thing, I had to throw the breaker to the doorbell transformer (24 volts won’t kill you, but it can make you notice your nervous system). Of course, the cable router is on the same circuit. Luckily, there was an abbreviated set of old-school paper printed instructions.

I only had to wait several time while the internet rebooted to go on to the next step.

The Creature from Cleveland Depths

“Who’s kidding?”
“You are. Computers simply aren’t alive.”
“What’s alive? A word. I think computers are conscious, at least while they’re operating. They’ve got that inner glow of awareness. They sort of … well … meditate.”
“Gussy, computers haven’t got any circuits for meditating. They’re not programmed for mystical lucubrations. They’ve just got circuits for solving the problems they’re on.”
“Okay, you admit they’ve got problem-solving circuits—like a man has. I say if they’ve got the equipment for being conscious, they’re conscious. What has wings, flies.”
—–Fritz Leiber, The Creature from Cleveland Depths

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

For me, one of the pleasures of being my age is recalling literature, especially short stories, that I read long ago, when I was only a sprout. For the life of me, I can’t remember my bank PIN or my work password on Monday mornings, but short stories I read, only once, more than a half-century ago are epoxy-stuck in my rapidly petrifying cabeza neurons. The plots are there, sometimes a little hazy or changed, as are the characters – but the authors and titles have long dissolved into the mist. That makes it a challenge to find the darn things when the fancy strikes me to revisit the fiction of my youth.

The internet, of course, is a vast and mind-boggling resource for idiotic flights of nostalgia. It is a never-ending maze of rabbit holes and time sinks – even if you can sometimes find what you are looking for.

But you already know all that.

I have written before about a story I read once about giant killer snails. In the years since I wrote that blog entry, a number of folks have emailed me that they had read the same story back in the day, and had been searching for it. I wrote a sequel and am thinking about a sequel to my sequel.

But there was one story that I remembered clearly (though, again, not the author or the title) from long, long ago. It kept coming back to my mind because it had been so prescient. The story, written long, long, before its time, concerned the invention of the Personal Digital Assistant and the smart phone… and, I guess, SIRI. There was this inventor that was having trouble remembering his appointments. So he developed a device, attached to his shoulder that contained a magnetic wire on reels (I remembered the magnetic wire in particular) and as the wire unwound, it would give the wearer a reminder at the appropriate time through a voice in an earpiece.

Things spun out of control rather quickly, however. The company that designed these devices made them more and more sophisticated, adding bigger and better features, and then connecting them together in a sort of internet. But as they became more refined and ingrained into everybody’s daily life the machines became self-aware and began to take over the world. The human race were reduced to slaves to their own machines.

Obviously, this story, as I remembered it, has more than a little applicability to our lives today. I thought about the tale the other evening as I tried to maneuver my bicycle through the park next to my house (I have to go through the park to reach the trails that lead to the West – to my work and to the DART train lines). It was a Saturday evening and all the parking lots associated with the park and the associated elementary school were full – cars were filing up along our street and the other neighborhood feeder roads.

The trails themselves were packed with throngs of people wandering in seemingly random routes. They were all oblivious to the world around them, walking zombie-like, staring into their phones. I had to dismount and walk my bike through the park. It was simply too dangerous to ride as the human automatons would cross the path at unpredictable intervals and stride into my path without warning. I don’t understand how they managed to avoid hitting each other.

They were, of course all playing Pokemon Go. There must be some valuable virtual critters in the park next to my house, because at peak times there might be a thousand folks there (though it is already dying down, of course). I don’t want to sound critical – I love that these people are getting out and using the park. But I do wish they would look where they are going… at least a little.

And the sight of all these people lost in their virtual world couldn’t help but remind me of this ancient story… where the same thing happened, more or less, and then went horribly wrong.

So back to the internet, where I ran search after search (PDA, computer, shoulder, wire recorder, short story, science fiction, on and on) to no avail. I could not find any reference to the story.

Then, when I wasn’t thinking about it, a word popped into my head. The word was, “Tickler.” That was what they called the machines, the reminder units with the wire recorder, “ticklers.” It is amazing that that word was still hiding back there in the cobwebs of my head, and that it finaly came back out.

Adding “tickler” to my searches brought immediate success. The story was written by Fritz Leiber in 1962, and was called “The Creature from Cleveland Depths.” Not only did I find out the author and title, but I found that they had let the copyright expire, and the story (actually more of a novela) was available, free of charge, on Gutenberg.org.

So I downloaded the Mobi version and read it again on my Kindle. I had remembered the main plot points pretty well. I had forgotten the semi-humorous style and some of the sociological aspects (probably over my head) but the rest was spot-on.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

I looked at the publication history and found the original version in the December, 1962 Galaxy Magazine (with cool illustrations from Wally Wood). I was only five in 1962 – which is a bit young – so I must have read it years later. It was in a 1966 Fritz Leiber collection called “The Night of the Wolf” and that cover looks familiar to me… that must be where I read it.

So, I’m sure you are asking… How did the hero inventor defeat the evil “tickler” that had taken over society and the world? You really want to know? You should, it’s a crackerjack ending.

I’m afraid I’m not going to tell. You’ll have to download the ebook, or read it here, or, listen to it here.

It is a bit dated, but extremely up to date too. Read it, you’ll like it. It’s amazing that the story, which foreshadows so much of today’s technology was written in 1962. This is what computers looked like in 1962.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

Indistinguishable From Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—-Arthur C. Clarke

concentration

I’m not sure what… but something today brought back a very old memory – and I’ve been thinking about it.

I’m guessing I was about eight or so, and that would make it 1965. I liked to watch the game show Concentration – Hugh Downs would have been the host. I especially liked the end of the puzzle, when the contestants had to guess the Rebus.

rebus

I have never been good at those things, and I think I enjoyed the frustration and release when a contestant was able to get it right.

At any rate, the moment I remember so vividly was when the contestant won a grand prize of some sort. With great blurry grainy black and white hoopla they wheeled it out to present it to the woman.

It was a videotape recorder/camera/playback combination. It was the size of two standup refrigerators. The camera (though demonstratively smaller than the studio units used on the show) was the size of a suitcase and seemed to weigh over a hundred pounds.

It seemed to take forever, but they managed to set the machine up and take a short segment of very bad quality recording of the woman that won the prize. She was standing there, shifting from foot to foot, and looking very uneasy – with that fake early-1960’s smile plastered on her face. The giant tape reels spun at a dizzying pace and after a bit more fiddling (this was live TV – they must have been brave to try and pull this off) the little black and white (I assume it was black and white – I surely wasn’t watching it in color) piece of the big-haired woman came up on the impossibly tiny Cathode Ray Tube almost lost in the maze of complex equipment.

Everyone cheered and the cat food commercial came on and that was that.

To this day, almost a half-century later, I remember how excited I was. Imagine! The ability to put your own moving images onto magnetic tape!

Then, equally strongly, I remember the internal backlash as I wondered what use something so large, unwieldy, and of such terrible quality would actually be. Where would that poor woman store the thing? It must have drawn an incredible amount of power (those huge cabinets concealed banks and banks of glowing vacuum tubes, no doubt).
My eight year old self felt the falling disappointment in technology.

Now, of course, I carry a card-sized device in my pocket which, among many other things, can take a high quality color motion capture with perfect sound, transmit it from my hand, and broadcast it all over the world where anybody that cares to (if anybody cares to) can watch it to their heart’s content.

Not only was that sort of technology unavailable in 1965, it was unimaginable. I know that was fifty years ago, but it doesn’t seem that long to me. Hell, Hugh Downs, the host of the show, is still alive. I’m sure he has a smartphone.

downs