My Reading Adventure

I owe my love of reading to Scrooge McDuck, Tom Swift Jr., Lord Greystoke and John Carter of Virginia, Holmes and Watson, Kimball Kinnison, Podkayne Fries, Mithrandir, Steerpike and Fuschia, Conan the Barbarian, Cthulhu, Paul Janus Finnegan, Clark Savage Jr., and a host of other characters. Or, more properly, to Carl Barks, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward E. Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Philip Jose Farmer, Lester Dent, and a host of other authors.

My reading career started inauspisciously in the 1950s. In First Grade I was placed, by whatever placement process existed for kids so young, into the lowest reading group, the Robins. My fellow group members and I sat around in a circle, attempting to puzzle out the intricacies of Dick and Jane, while we secretly envied the more literate kids in the highest reading group, the Blue Jays.

I grew up in a brand new post-war suburb, Melrose Park, in a small brick house one block from the Philadelphia city line. Outside my bedroom window facing Philadelphia there was a large empty lot that I watched turn into a shopping center, anchored by a Grants department store. Along Front Street, running at right angles to my street a block away, was a Penn Fruit supermarket and another chain of stores, including a drug store, a cleaners, and Nick’s Barbershop. My Dad would joke about how that was a great name for a barbershop.

My Dad worked, and my Mom would take me to the Penn Fruit with her to do the food shopping. In the back corner of the supermarket was a rack of comic books. I would go there while my Mom shopped and look at the comics. Child care was easier in those days and no one worried about letting kids roam the neighborhood or a supermarket comic book section unsupervised. There I was introduced to the world of Carl Barks‘ Duckburg, the Beagle Boys, Magica de Spell, Gyro Gearloose, the Junior Woodchucks, and of course Scrooge himself with his giant Money Bin in which he would induge in his favorite pastime of money diving. This detailed universe was very attractive to my young mind, and more often than not I left the store with one of the 10 cent Dell comics. So I spent my formative years reading comics, until I had a drawer full of them. Oddly, superhero comics didn’t appeal to me, though I read them sometimes, especially when waiting in Nick’s Barbershop for a haircut. Nick had piles of Marvel and DC comics, though all with covers missing for some reason. Most important for me, I was reading, and within little time I climbed the reading group ladder, landing among the Blue Jays, and never looking back.

My Mom didn’t have a drivers license. About once a week or so she went department store shopping, taking a cab all the way to the other end of our township to the Gimbels department store. There she plopped me in the book section of the store. I was about 10 then, and was moving beyond comic books. I was enthralled by books in general. In the book section there was, along one wall, books for children, what we would call young adult fiction today. These were the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift Jr books. I liked science. I had an erector set, a chemistry set, and watched Mr. Wizard on TV. The Tom Swift Jr. books, with their yellow spines and bright exciting covers, were just my cup of tea. And so I, or rather my mother, who liked to encourage me to read, bought me Tom Swift Jr books. I spent many happy hours reading them, hoping one day to be a clever inventor just like him.

There were paperback books at Gimbels, and I looked at them, especially the science fiction books. I was attracted to their covers, showing rocket ships and aliens and what-not. I bought a few, but found I was not quite up to their reading level yet. However it wasn’t long before I outgrew comics and Tom Swift Jr. and graduated to what I thought of as “real books.”

This was the 1960s, well into the so-called paperback revolution. Paperbacks were cheap then, even considering inflation. Most were 50 cents, some 40 cents or even 35 cents. Copyright laws were more lax, and books long out of print were reprinted for new generations of readers. Two book companies, Ace Books and Ballantine Books, decided to reprint nearly the entire corpus of the adventure and scientific romance author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stories of the jungles of Africa, Mars, Venus, the Earth’s Core, the Moon, the Land that Time Forgot, and Beyond the Farthest Star—all with brilliant cover artwork by Roy Krenkel, Frank Frazetta, and others—were available and easily affordable. My parents would go shopping along Fifth Street in Philadelphia, where, on one corner, there was the Universal Bookstore. I remember going there in the muggy heat of a Philadelphia summer, with the windows open and fans on, perusing the treasures on the wire shelves, trying to decide which to buy. Eventually I bought and read them all.

A special treat was a trip downtown to Leary’s Bookstore. This old store, unfortunately long gone now, contained thousands of books. Down in the basement were the paperbacks. Since it was a rare pilgrimage for my parents to go downtown to center city—we took the train—I was permitted to purchase several books at a time. Afterward we went to lunch at Bookbinders Restaurant, and I would sneak a peak at the cover art and back cover blurbs of my new books during lunch. It was at Leary’s, surrounded by books, that I came to the realization that no matter how many books I read, there would always be more to read. Reading could entertain me my whole life.

You shouldn’t assume that I was unusually introverted as a child and spent all my time reading. I played outside, watched TV, went to school and did my homework like other kids. There wasn’t as much to do back in those days as there is now: three channels on TV, only one TV (black and white) that my parents monopolized at night, though it was mine to monopolize on Saturday morning. There were board games but no video games. No mobile phones. No social media. Books were a solace and an escape. They still are. Book stores have always been sanctuaries to me, though less so now, with the loss of independent stores, and chains that sell more toys than books. I have mixed feeling about Amazon and ebooks, but that’s a story for another post.

My reading branched out with maturity. My science fiction evolved from the “hard science” stories of Asimov, Clarke, and Niven to the droll works of Jack Vance and the social commentary of Philip K. Dick. I grew to appreciate the poetry of Thomas Hardy’s prose, the urbane wit of James Branch Cabell, and the darkness of the Brontë sisters. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I learned 19th century history from Harry Flashman and George MacDonald Fraser. I read everything from the pulps to philosophy. I am not a particulary fast reader, but I am steady. Recently, having studied French since retirement, I have had the joy of reading books by the father of science fiction, Jules Verne, in the original French.

As I realized long ago in Leary’s Bookstore, I know that there will always be for all practical purposes an infinite number of books left to read. This makes me both happy and sad at the same time.

Books Language

Ebooks for Learning a Foreign Language

I prefer reading real books. I love their feel, their heft, even their smell–musty and old, or inky and new. Some books have beautiful bindings, dust-covers with wonderful artwork, high-quality paper and lovely fonts. They are a pleasure to read. Even the lowly paperback with its fragile binding and quickly deteriorating paper can spark joy. But I have mixed feelings about ebooks. Certainly they are convenient when traveling. But I don’t like being dependent on a battery, or trying to see past the glare when reading on a bright sunny day.

There is one domain in which ebooks shine–learning a foreign language. This is so evident to me now that I am surprised when I come across language learners who are unaware of their utility.

Reading a book in a foreign language is a frustrating experience. You keep a dictionary nearby and stop to look up words. This takes time and slows down the flow of text. In theory this might provide an incentive to memorize words faster to avoid the constant interruptions. In reality effective memorization seems to be more a function of repetition than how “hard” one tries to memorize. The end result is that unknown words are often just skipped or guessed, perhaps inaccurately, from context and you may give up from frustration.

This is where ebooks shine. I’m talking about ebook software like Kindle, Apple Books, and Google Books, running on phones, tablets, computers or dedicated ebook readers. The beauty of these devices is the ability to quickly look up words. This is functionality I rarely use while reading books in English. When reading a book in a foreign language, however, this ability become very useful.

Touch a word and the definition appears instantly (from La Place du Mort by Pascal Garnier).

When I press on a word a short definition pops up. Select Full Definition and the full dictionary entry appears. This works whether or not there is an internet connection. With an internet connection, a Google translate box appears as well as a Wikipedia entry. You can highlight a whole phrase or paragraph and the Google translate box will perform a translation. The whole process is nearly instantaneous, barely interrupting the flow of reading. In addition you can highlight words and review the highlighted words and phrases at any time.

Full dictionary definition. Oxford Hachette French-English online dictionary.

All this works very well, at least with books in French. I also read some books in German, where the process is not quite so easy. German often splits its verbs, throwing the verb prefix to the end of the sentence, so just highlighting the main part of the verb and translating it isn’t so useful. The prefixes make a difference. For example, aufhören means “stop.” If hören and the auf are separated you might end up just highlighting and translating hören which means “listen.” Confusing! Someone should write a German dictionary extension that allows one to highlight and then look up both parts of the verb simultaneously.

This limitation doesn’t exist with French, and probably with many other languages as well. Even in German it is far easier to read an ebook than a paper book.

So even if you prefer physical books, you will have an easier time and probably learn more if you read foreign language books in ebook format.

Books Computers & Software History Science

Prank Calling Kurt Gödel

Kurt Gödel
Kurt Gödel

Prank calling used to be a common, albeit annoying, form of entertainment back in the days when I grew up, before the invention of caller ID ruined it forever. Some prank calls were just simple and stupid jokes, such as the “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” call. On a slightly more elevated level of maturity, there was the anti-corporate “screw the phone company” philosophy of prank calling. As an example, I remember in college my friends and I decided to call Victoria Land in Antartica. When the British operator asked who would pay for the call, we asked that it be charged to Her Majesty the Queen. We were informed very politely that that would not be possible. So we told her to make the call collect to Admiral Byrd. Amazingly she accepted that as legit. She then said it would take two hours to make the connection. Unfortunately, as I recall, we never got through to the good admiral.

Before you get too judgmental about this kind of activity, recall that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs got their start together by “phone phreaking,” designing (Steve #1) and selling (Steve #2) so-called “blue boxes” which were used to make long-distance calls without paying. So, as juvenile and even illegal as pranking the phone company might have been, you might not be holding that iPhone in your hand right now if not for it.

The most memorable prank call of all occurred the night some of my friends and I decided to call Kurt Gödel and ask him to help us with our homework. Gödel was a mathematical genius, most famous for his “Incompleteness Theorem.” The essence of this theorem is that in any mathematical system at least as complex as simple arithmetic, there are theorems that are true but can’t be proven. The actual mathematics of his proof are complicated. My limited understanding is that he found a way to translate mathematical statements into numbers (called Gödel numbers) and then show that you can use these numbers to represent a statement that states “this statement is not provable.” If this all sounds like gobblygook, there is a whole book that explains this (and a whole lot more) better than I can, Douglas Hofstadter’s classic Gödel-Escher-Bach, An Eternal Golden Braid. In the minds of many mathematicians and philosophers, there is something mystical in Gödel’s proof. Depending on how you look at it, the fact that there are truths that can’t be proven is either disturbing or profound or both. Some have felt the proof has implications as to whether machines can ever develop consciousness, and the self-referential nature of the proof may even have something to do with our own consciousness.

Textbook for logic class
Textbook for logic class

My friends and I were learning about all this in a logic class taught at Dartmouth in the early 1970s. One of the texts we used in the class was Nagel and Newman’s book, Gödel’s Proof. While struggling though this text, we collectively got stuck on some point that we didn’t understand. Unfortunately I don’t remember the exact question we had, or whose idea it was to call Dr. Gödel to see if he could answer the question. But for whatever reason (possibly fueled by low doses of intoxicants), it seemed at the time to be an excellent idea. Who better to answer a question about Gödel’s proof than Gödel himself?

We knew that Gödel worked at Princeton (where he had been good friends with Einstein), so we called directory assistance for Princeton, New Jersey and obtained his home phone number without difficulty. We then, sitting in a circle on the floor of my dorm room, called him. My friend Bob Lindgren, the boldest of the bunch, made the actual call while we all listened in.

Dartmouth Professors Kemeny and Kurtz
Dartmouth Professors Kemeny and Kurtz

Dr. Gödel answered the phone himself, and we all listened to the tinny German-accented voice with amazement. Bob said we were students at Dartmouth College studying his incompleteness theorem, and we had some questions. Professor Gödel very pleasantly said he would be happy to answer any questions, referring to our school as “Dartmoor,” and asked how his friend John Kemeny was doing. Professor Kemeny was president of Dartmouth at the time, was another colleague of Einstein’s, and was an early computer pioneer, coinventing with Tom Kurtz the BASIC computer language. Of course none of us were on speaking terms with Dr. Kemeny, but that didn’t stop us from reassuring Dr. Gödel that his old friend was doing just fine. We promised we would give him Dr. Gödel’s best wishes the next time we saw him.  We then proceeded to ask our logic questions to Dr. Gödel, who was gracious enough to waste his evening and precious genius explaining simple mathematical concepts to awestruck college kids. I don’t remember many details of the conversation, though I do remember one thing we asked him that may offer some insight into how he worked. We asked him if the idea for his proof came to him all at once as a Eureka moment, or if it was something that developed more gradually. He replied that it was definitely not a sudden insight. Instead it was something that he worked on over many years. He said he had a broad idea where he was going with his idea from the beginning, but it took his filling in the details over a long period of time before he got the result he wanted.

We thanked him for his help and he wished us well. He died a few years later, in 1978. Today in the world of mathematics his work is considered to be comparable in significance to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in the world of physics.  I am not a mathematician and I find Gödel’s incompleteness theorem difficult to grasp — slippery, self-referential and paradoxical, much like thinking about the nature of consciousness. Maybe the two are related after all.  On a more practical note, Gödel’s story about how he came up with his proof leads to the profound yet common-sense (the two aren’t necessarily at odds) notion that creating something new and wonderful requires more than just good ideas. It requires hard work, and lots of it. This is important to realize, even for those of us who are not geniuses.


Pirates of Space

Ed note: I wrote this post to provide some back story/rationale for my forthcoming (maybe) starship simulator app based on the Lensman series of Edward E. “Doc” Smith. I wanted to provide some exposition updating Smith’s pioneering use of the concept of “inertialess drive” in light of current physics. This opening parallels the opening of the original 1934 version of Triplanetary, though Smith of course gets the action going much quicker and more adroitly than I do. My title is also the same as the first chapter of Smith’s work — a work which he later retrofitted into the Lensman Universe as a prequel.  To those unfamiliar with the Lensman series, it is a classic that defined the genre of space opera, introduced concepts such as defensive screens and tractor beams that are familiar through their use in Star Trek and elsewhere, and was runner-up for the Hugo award for Best All-Time Science Fiction Series (Asimov’s Foundation took the prize).   This post is just a pastiche.  It is not allegorical and has nothing to do with medicine.  Tellus is a Latin name for Earth and is the terminology used in the Lensman Universe.  And, finally,  MICRO-AGGRESSION ALERT: 1930s sexism is present, but is integral to the storyline.


The Tethys II bored though interstellar space (modified from Charles Schneeman, Astounding, Jan, 1940).
The luxury liner Tethys II bored though interstellar space… (modified from Charles Schneeman, Astounding, Jan, 1940)


Chapter I

Pirates of Space

The luxury liner Tethys II bored through interstellar space at supraluminal speed, halfway between its Tellurian embarkation point and its first port of call — Centralia, the star system closest to the Galactic Core. Despite the several days required to reach it from Tellus, Centralia with its extraordinarily brilliant night sky was a popular cruise destination. The brilliance of its sky was due not only to the density of stars at the galaxy’s core but also to the presence of the Sagittarius A black hole.  This supermassive black hole emitted tremendous radiation in all visible and non-visible electromagnetic spectra as doomed star systems near the event horizon were accelerated and compressed to unimaginable degrees — generating a spectacle unique in the galaxy!

On the ship’s bridge, junior officers tensely scanned status screens, watching for any disturbance in the subether that might indicate the presence of unwanted visitors approaching. Second Officer Mullen, the officer of the watch, strode between the various command stations and peered at the glowing screens searching for any anomalies. Everything appeared nominal, but he was nervous nevertheless. He stopped before the security officer’s station.

“Picking up anything, Jenkins?” he asked.

“Everything clean, inside and out, sir,” the security man responded.

“Fine. But don’t let up on the spy ray sweeps. Right now we’re about as far from any Galactic Patrol outpost as we will be on this transit.” Mullen examined the read-outs carefully. “But you’re right, nothing suspicious that I can see.”

The security officer chuckled nervously. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Mullen hoped so. Space piracy and lawlessness had been increasing. Ships, both freight and passenger, had disappeared without a trace. No one knew if this was the result of external attacks or internal sabotage or both. But there had been too many ships lost recently and both crew and passengers were nervous. Tonight (it was night by ship’s time, though the concepts of day and night had little bearing other than on the comfort of the ship’s occupants) was the Captain’s Dinner, and the ship’s senior officers were engaged with the passengers, helping them (with the aid of liberal amounts of free mixed drinks) allay their anxiety.

In the first class luxury lounge, First Officer John Crittenden escorted one of the V.I.P.s of the voyage, Tellurian Senator Jacob Mendez’s daughter, Julia. They had just finished the final course of Baked Alaska, coffee and aperitifs. Captain Vandersteen had assigned Crittenden the task of entertaining Miss Mendez for the evening, and, despite his initial reluctance (related to his dislike of her father’s politics), he grudgingly had to admit that the daughter seemed to have none of her father’s political interests and was certainly more of a pleasure to escort than her father would have been.

They left the lounge and entered the Promenade Deck which circled the midsection of the ellipsoidal ship. Along the outside of the deck the visi-panels displayed stark visions of the interstellar void. As they walked side by side, Crittenden found himself momentarily distracted by the young woman’s charms, so much so that he had to ask her to repeat the question she had evidently just asked.

Used to her facility for distraction and the frequent awkwardness of men around her, she cheerfully repeated her question. “The stars we are seeing out the observation panels — certainly we are not seeing actual visual light at the speed we are going?”

Crittenden noted the stunning starfields that appeared in the viewports.  He launched into an explanation.

“Although they look like windows, these panels are video screens that function differently depending on our speed. At sub-light velocities they show actual light, though filtered as necessary to prevent retinal overload. Cruising as we are at about 90 parsecs per hour, there is no possibility of recording any vibrations in the ether. We are outrunning light by an order of magnitude of …” he paused, did some quick and rough calculations. It wasn’t often that he thought in terms of velocities as slow as light. “Well, we are travelling almost 3 million times as fast as light. So what we are seeing isn’t light. The detectors on the outer shell of the ship are tuned to record radiation in the subether. It is a simple matter to translate these images to visible light, which makes for pretty images.”

She studied the star patterns for a moment, which visibly shifted as she watched, reflecting the tremendous velocity of the star-liner. She seemed lost in thought.

“Commander Crittenden…,” she began.

“Please, just John,” he interrupted.

“Okay,” she continued, but then avoided either mode of address. “I have to admit that I have not studied the subject much, but I am interested in space travel and its apparent paradoxes, especially in light of some of the early theories of physics, such as those originated by Einstein in the 21st century.”

He resisted the temptation to correct her history.

“I’m not a theoretical physicist,” he admitted. “It’s true I have some practical knowledge of how this ship works, but…” He hesitated, unsure how to finish his thought without repeating himself.

She swooped into the breach in the conversation, not allowing the pause to become awkward.

“Oh, my,” she exclaimed. “Perhaps you are overdue to be back at your watch. You hardly have time to waste with me, giving me an astrophysics lesson.”

“Not at all. I am happy to answer your questions.” He wasn’t lying. Talking to Miss Julia Mendez beat manning his watch any day.

A worried look creased her brow. “I know how important it is to have competent officers helming the ship. Especially given the risk of space piracy. I always worry that if there is ever a good time for the pirates to attack, it is during the Captain’s Dinner, when the captain and so many of the officers are away from the bridge.”

“There hasn’t been a ship lost to piracy since,” he paused, thinking back. “Since the Oberon, a good 15 months ago.”

“But that’s not that long ago, and the ship and its passengers were never found.” She shuddered, and with her arm linked with his, pulled herself closer to him, so that their hips touched.

With the pleasant contact Crittenden, who was single and as susceptible as any male space officer to female charms, rather hoped that this young woman had lots of questions about space travel. In addition he felt he should try to distract her mind from the remote, but non-zero, probability of the Tethys II suffering the same fate as the Oberon.

“I think we should just get back to your questions about how space travel works,” he transitioned awkwardly. “What do you want to know?”

“As I said, I have read some popular articles about space flight, but I don’t really understand it. How can we travel without inertia? If I am inertialess right now, why doesn’t my blood move so fast it would kill me? Or maybe it shouldn’t move at all. Either way I would be dead. And why does removing or neutralizing inertia allow us to go so fast? I thought the speed of light was the fastest possible speed for anything.”

“Well…,” he began.

She wasn’t done. “And why do we still use terms like the ‘ether?’ I read somewhere that way back in the 19th century they proved there was no such thing as an all-pervasive ether in space. And…”

“Whoa!” he laughed. “I’ll give you answers, but I don’t want to have so many questions that I lose track of them. Let me tackle that bunch, and you can ask some more after that.”

“Sorry, but I’m just curious,” she said.

“Right. Well, maybe I’ll start with the last question because it is related to the others. You are referring to the Michelson-Morley experiments, which set out to show that the speed of light varied depending on the motion of the observer relative to the supposedly fixed ether. The experiments ended up showing no variations at all in the speed of light, despite the motion of the earth. As Einstein proved, I believe in the beginning of the 20th century, not the 21st, the speed of light is constant regardless of the motion of the observer. The implication was that there is no fixed frame of reference in space and time; rather everything is relative to the observer.”

She looked puzzled. “I’m kind of lost as to what that has to do with the ether existing or not.”


“That’s not clearing up my confusion.”

He smiled. “No, I meant you are right to be confused. Michelson and Morley thought if there was an all-pervasive medium in space then light would act a certain way, and it didn’t. This was because light doesn’t behave the way they thought it did. But it didn’t mean that was no such thing as an all-pervasive medium underlying space and time.”

“No?” she asked.

“Negative. Skip forward about a 100 years. Scientists began to realize that mass — and as it turns out inertia — was not an intrinsic property of matter, but instead was due to an extrinsic field, the so-called Higgs field. Atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons and so forth floated in a sea of particles that imparted the properties of mass and inertia to matter. Much like a person entering the ocean suddenly meets with resistance and drag and what-not.”

“You said some kind of energy field, and then said a sea of particles. Which is it?”

“What does it matter?”

“Huh?  Oh, are you making a pun?”

He thought for a second, then responded. “If I were joking I’d come up with something better than that.”

They had made the circuit around the Promenade Deck and had come to a dimly lit bar and lounge, where other passengers seated in plush chairs were having drinks and conversing.

“Could I buy you a drink?” he asked.

“I don’t suppose you really have to buy it, as a ship’s officer, do you?”

“Of course not,” he said, not entirely truthfully. Actually it did come out of his expense account, but in age-old male fashion, he decided not to let his companion, who could probably have bought the whole ship, know this.

“Only if you join me,” she said.

He ordered a non-alcoholic beer for himself. Miss Mendez ordered a complicated cocktail with which he wasn’t familiar.

Settling in with their drinks, she urged him to continue.

“Ok. I think you know particles, fields, vibrations, and waves are all ways to describe something we can’t really understand properly without using terms that we are used to in the macro-world. The truth is the micro-world doesn’t really act like the world we see. Why would it? If atoms were just like little solar systems then we wouldn’t have learned very much about what makes up solar systems, would we?”

She looked confused, and he realized this wasn’t his best expository effort. He envied the great science popularizers who could explain complex science principles to lay persons without any trouble.

She made an attempt to paraphrase him. “So I guess you’re saying that this pervasive field made out of whatever that gives particles mass and inertia is what we in modern times call the ‘ether.'”

He sighed. “I wish I could have summarized it that succinctly.”

She waved a hand. “Being a senator’s daughter, I have an ability to cut through the malarkey and get to the actual message. Not that you are telling me malarkey!” She seemed concerned that she had inadvertently insulted him.

Malarkey was not the term he would have used, he thought. He reflected on the difference between the daughter of a politician and a rough and tumble space jockey. In many ways, this was a contact between alien worlds.

She laughed. “Oh please go on. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll try to be clearer. The inertialess drive, as originally developed by Rodebush and Cleveland, and then enhanced by Dr. Bergenholm, is a field generator, much like the generators for our defensive screens, except the Bergenholm generates an anti-Higgs field. Matter within such a field loses its inertial properties, so that velocities are constrained only by the power of the driving projectors and the density of mass through which the ship moves. Removal of a driving force results in instantaneous cessation of movement. Moreover when an inertialess, or as we say ‘free,’ vessel reverts to its inert state, there is conservation of momentum in that the relative motion of the vehicle prior to its going free is preserved. It’s counter-intuitive, but so is most of quantum mechanics. In a sense we are seeing the bizarreness of the quantum world on a macro-level, and our intuitions about the behavior of matter under these circumstances are just wrong.”

“I think I got all that, though I’m a bit unsure about the conservation of momentum property you mentioned. But never mind that. I don’t understand the paradoxes I have read about. How can we exceed light-speed, inertialess or not? Why doesn’t time slow down or stop or reverse? Why does there seem to be inertia inside the ship?”

“All good questions,” he began. He had neglected his beer, so he took a few sips. He beckoned for the waiter. It seemed they had given him an alcoholic drink by mistake. He went on talking.

“The free state of matter is an unprecedented state of matter. It doesn’t exist naturally in the Universe. It is only through the enormous generation of energy that occurs with total mass-energy conversion, a technology that was unthinkable in the 21st century, that inertia can be neutralized. As an analogy, think of how surprising and unexpected it would be to discover the properties of liquids and gases if the only experience you had with matter was in a solid state.”

She gazed at him closely. “I think you are dodging the question. I grew up in a political family. That’s something I can recognize.”

The waiter had taken away his drink to get another. He had been apologetic and couldn’t understand how the mixup had occurred. Crittenden felt a little fuzzy brained, perhaps from the alcohol, perhaps from the perfume of the lovely woman sitting across from him.

“You’re right. It’s tempting to oversimplify this stuff. I think Einstein himself said to make explanations as simple as possible, but no simpler. Photons and accelerated inert matter cannot exceed the speed of light. Free matter can. It was probably as surprising to Rodebush and Cleveland when they took that first trip on the Boise as it still is to you and me.” He sensed the need to wrap things up and get back on the bridge. He felt uneasy for some reason.  And woozier than he would have expected from a few sips of a beer.  Perhaps he was falling too much under the spell of this young beauty who, honestly, would never show anything more than polite interest to an overworked and underpaid space officer. John, you are gullible, he thought. Always have been. Always will be.

He continued. “As far as time dilation, uh, time slowing goes, it happens maximally at plus or minus 10 percent of the speed of light. At speeds that are thousands of times faster than the speed of light, like our present velocity, or at slow speeds, like normal inert velocities, time effects are negligible. So the passage of time shipboard and outside the ship is similar.”

“Ok. And the problem with the ship being inertialess but us inside not?”

“Well, thanks to the pseudo-inertial and pseudo-gravity generators, the ship has it’s own localized gravitational and Higg’s fields, otherwise we would be in serious trouble.”

His words were cut off by the loud ringing of the claxon. Warning lights flashed.  He snapped on his communicator.

“Bridge, Crittenden here. What’s going on?” he demanded.

The voice of Second Officer Mullen from the bridge was stressed. “We’re under attack. Defensive screens have been tripped. Something, someone has snagged us with a tractor beam and we’re screen-to-screen. We need you and the captain up here pronto.”

There was panic in his voice, and Crittenden knew he needed to get up to the bridge as soon as possible. Suddenly there was a jolt. A jolt! Given that they were still inertialess and under the influence of the pseudo-inertial and pseudo-gravitation fields, that could only be a structural hit. Shields penetrated! Counter-attack was crucial or the ship would be lost!

He jumped up, stumbling a bit.  What was in that drink? he wondered.  He turned to make brief apologies to his companion, and found himself staring into the barrel of a blaster that was leveled steadily at him.

“You’re far too trusting, John. Too bad for you.”

He stood motionless, too shocked for words.

“Oh don’t worry.” The senator’s daughter smiled as she kept the blaster trained on him. “The ship will be taken but it won’t be destroyed. After all, I’m on board, and I am too valuable a prize to be wasted.”

Chapter II, Space Hostage, will be available on newsstands next month.  Don’t miss it!

Books Computers & Software Movies

Reading About Steve Jobs

The iconic Jobs and Wozniak Apple II photo
Wozniak, Jobs, and the Apple II

I am interested in the history of computer technology and over the last couple months have read a lot about Steve Jobs. To be specific I read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs, and a book published back in 2001, Alan Deutschman’s The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. To get the point of view of the other “Steve” I read Steve Wozniak’s autobiography, iWoz, How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It.  I watched the two biographical movies, Pirates of Silicon Valley from 1999 and the one from 2013 with Ashton Kutcher, Jobs. The first movie is a lot of fun, exploring the initial rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates.  The second has been criticized but I like it also, and Kutcher’s resemblance to Jobs is uncanny.  I am looking forward to seeing Aaron Sorkin’s version when it comes out. I also read Fire in the Valley by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger, which is a free-ranging and entertaining history of the PC era and on which the first movie mentioned above was based.  Finally there are a number of documentaries on YouTube that address the early personal computer era.  One of the best is the 3-part Triumph of the Nerds.  There are numerous videos on YouTube of Jobs in action, from the earliest days of Apple until shortly before his death.

Reading and watching this stuff makes me nostalgic. I bought an Apple II+ in 1981 shortly after moving to Houston, Texas and starting my fellowship in electrophysiology. It was my reintroduction to computers after my brief fling back in my college days in the early 1970s. As underwhelming as its capacities were judged by today’s standards (base configuration had 48 KB RAM, 40 column all caps text display, 128 KB floppy drives and a MOS Technology 6502 CPU running at 1 MHz), I loved that little machine and was amazed by it. Using its 8 open expansions slots (something Woz insisted on and surprisingly prevailed in getting over Jobs’s objections) I had that thing decked out with an 80 column lowercase text display card, a 1 MB RAM-disk, memory expansion to 64 KB, and a CP/M card — all at considerable cost on a fellow’s salary.  For software I had WordStar for word processing, Turbo Pascal for programming, VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program), dBase II (a database program) and lots of games, including the very first version of Flight Simulator. It worked well and was fun to use but over the years it was replaced by more powerful systems and eventually I threw it all out. Now I kind of wish I had kept it (or at least sold it on eBay). I kept all my old Byte magazines though, and paging through them is a trip down memory lane.  It’s fun to revisit those days when Microsoft with its software that could run on anything (as long as it was compatible with an IBM PC) appeared to be heading towards  victory over poor  Apple, despite the coolness of their Macintosh computers. As we all know, a lot has happened between then and now.

Isaacson’s book is very well written and, being the authorized biography, has a lot of material that the other books don’t. Nevertheless, the one period that Isaacson skimps a bit on, the time when Jobs was at NeXT and starting Pixar, is well fleshed out in the other two biographies, particularly Schlendler’s. His thesis is that the struggles at NeXT and Pixar were crucial for Jobs to become a better manager and thus be in a position to return to Apple and turn it around starting in 1997. Schlender also seems a bit more sympathetic to Jobs, though it is hard to paper over some of his worst characteristics.  For example, Jobs denied he was the father of his daughter Lisa, and he abandoned her when she was young. Later he acknowledged being her father and reconciled with her. This behavior seems particularly reprehensible given that Jobs himself was “abandoned” by his biological parents and was raised by foster parents. He eventually met his biological mother and his biological sister, the writer Mona Simpson. He discovered his biological father (who was a Syrian graduate student when Jobs was born) and actually had met him once by chance at a restaurant which his biological father owned, but neither realized the father-son relationship at the time. Jobs chose never to meet with his father again.

Jobs is a complex figure. He was self-centered and lacked empathy towards others. He could turn on the charm, but often in a calculating manner. His biographers point out his black and white approach to everything. To Jobs, other people and even things like food or computers or software programs were either perfect or they sucked. There was no middle ground. He may have mellowed somewhat as he grew older, but not much. Jobs’s genius appears to be that he was able to utilize both his strengths and his flaws together to inspire others to do their best (or get out of his way) and thus design and bring to market products that have certainly changed our world. In the process Apple became the wealthiest company on the planet.  But Jobs’s driving force was not wealth.  He aimed for perfection.

No Greek tragic hero is without his blind spot, and Jobs had his: his quirky views on health and diet. A child of the 60s growing up in California, he maintained a distrust of “western medicine” so that when diagnosed with a potentially surgically curable pancreatic cancer found incidentally on a routine CAT scan (he had a history of kidney stones, thus the CAT scan), he delayed surgery for 9 months. He tried various diets, alternative medicines, and acupuncture first. When he finally yielded to the surgery liver metastases were found, and after that, despite a liver transplant and aggressive chemotherapy it was only a matter of time before he succumbed.

Jobs’s genius was that he foresaw what most others didn’t: apart from the computer geeks like Steve Wozniak and the members of the Homebrew Computing Club back in the 1970s, most people don’t care about computer technology per se. They want to use these devices to listen to music, to read books and articles, to look up stuff, to keep in touch with friends, to watch movies, and to get their work done. For most, computer technology is just a means to an end. Steve Jobs realized this better than anyone else in the industry and had the overwhelming personality to find the best people and motivate them to do perform at levels they didn’t realize they were capable of.

One wonders what symphonies a 60 year old Mozart would have written. What songs were denied to the world when George Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38? What would Emily Brontë have written beyond Wuthering Heights if she had not died at age 30?  What other “insanely great” products were denied to the world when Jobs died at age 56?  Life at Apple goes on without Jobs. The hand-picked people he surrounded himself with continue without him. But his will be a tough legacy to uphold.

Books History

All the President’s Tapes

The Nixon Defense
The Nixon Defense

Richard Nixon’s downfall, a.k.a Watergate — a word whose suffix has become a part of the English language, has always fascinated me. In the summer of 1973, poised between graduation from college and the start of medical school, I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the television watching the Senate Watergate hearings. In those days before 24 hour cable news and CSPAN it was almost unprecedented for the networks to “interrupt our regular programming” and carry such an event live. I remember John Dean’s relating his March 21, 1973 conversation with Nixon, telling him there was a “cancer on the presidency,” a warning that Nixon ignored, instead reassuring Dean regarding the estimated million dollars of hush money that the Watergate burglars wanted that “we can get that … I know where it can be gotten.” I remember Nixon’s top men, Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, stonewalling it, denying the president had any knowledge of the cover-up. At the time it looked like it would boil down to Dean’s word against the president’s, with no evidence against the president other than hearsay. Then, on July 13, 1973 a relatively minor character, Alexander Butterfield, an assistant to the president, was called before the Senate committee in closed session. Apparently one of the lawyers on the committee (a Republican) had become suspicious by the amount of detail available relating to notes about a certain White House conversation, and asked Butterfield directly if there was a recording system in the White House. Butterfield, one of only a very few who knew of the existence of the system (Nixon’s top aides, other than Haldeman, did not know about it) had planned not to reveal the system, but faced with a direct question and the threat of perjury, had to answer honestly. So in public session on July 16th, Butterfield was asked the question by Fred Thompson (yes that Fred Thompson, who was a minority counsel for the committee) before all the TV cameras, and to the astonishment of everyone (including me who saw it live) revealed that every conversation and phone call in the Oval Office and in the president’s Executive Office Building was recorded automatically on tape.

The tapes of course are what destroyed Nixon’s presidency, a self-inflicted wound worthy of the most profound Greek tragedy. It is difficult to fathom the hubris of the man who wanted his every presidential conversation preserved for posterity and then went on to discuss with his aides an ever-evolving and increasingly complex cover-up scheme while his secret taping system was recording every word. Nixon eventually had to give up the tapes after the Supreme Court unanimously forced him to do so, and certain of the tapes, like the June 23rd 1972 “smoking gun” tape, in which Nixon has the FBI limit its investigation of the Watergate burglary for “national security” reasons, led immediately to his resignation. Beyond these several infamous tapes, there are hundreds of hours of tapes relating to Watergate that up until this point had never been transcribed or documented. In John Dean’s book The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It these recorded conversations are described and from the book there emerges a more complete picture of Nixon and what happened that led to his downfall.

The June 17th, 1972 Watergate break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Convention headquarters seem to have occurred due to the over-exuberance of certain of Nixon’s cronies who worked in the Committee to Reelect the President (which actually had the acronym CREEP) including former attorney general John Mitchell, born-again post-conviction Chuck Colson, and possibly Nixon’s top aids John Ehrlichman and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. They had hired Gordon Liddy, a loose cannon if ever there was one, to find out what the Democrats were up to. Nixon, who it is pretty clear did not know of the Watergate activities beforehand, nevertheless set a tone in his administration that dirty politics was the norm and his associates, only too eager to please him, ended up going beyond the bounds of legality to do so. After the Watergate burglars were arrested, from the very start Nixon tried to limit the political damage to himself. After all, he was running for reelection. He also felt he had to prevent his political allies from going to jail. He had a very difficult time in actually firing Haldeman and Ehrlichman, his two top aides, when it became clear he had to do so. In the Nixon-Frost interviews one can almost feel sorry for Nixon when he talks about this. Yet for the most part the recorded conversations reveal a cold, calculating, ruthless character with whom it is difficult to sympathize.

Nixon based his defense around the March 21, 1973 conversation with John Dean, the “cancer on the presidency” meeting. Reading this in the book (or listening to it; the important conversations are on YouTube), it is clear that Dean, though involved in the cover-up initially, was trying to warn the president (he was after all the president’s counsel) that he risked becoming entangled in the Watergate cover-up. Dean revealed the blackmail demands of the indicted Watergate burglars and clearly seemed surprised that Nixon was willing to raise money to pay them off. Later Nixon and Haldeman would claim that Nixon said on that day that “we could raise a million dollars … but it would be wrong,” but that was a bold-faced lie (here is what he really said). Nixon later blamed the cover-up on Dean and said that he (Nixon) started his own personal investigation into Watergate after the March 21 meeting with Dean.  This “investigation” was yet another cover-up created by Haldeman and Nixon.  It is ironic that in the recorded conversations when this March 21 meeting was discussed, Nixon is constantly worried that John Dean had somehow carried a tape recorder on his person during that meeting and had recorded evidence that would show Nixon was lying. Strangely, Nixon seems to have given little thought to the fact that he himself had made a recording, and that this recording would eventually become public, indeed proving that he had lied. Only occasionally did Nixon give any thought to the automatic recording system. At one point he briefly considered destroying the tapes before their existence was discovered, but Haldeman talked him out of it, because of the potential loss to history. Ah, hubris!

The book may not be as fascinating to those who did not live through the era as it was to me.  It is a long book, and for those interested in Watergate in less detail, Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men or John Dean’s earlier Blind Ambition are good. Nevertheless all Americans should be familiar with Watergate and how the government narrowly avoided a constitutional crisis.  Compared with the governmental dysfunction today, this was an era when the process of government actually worked.  Though Nixon had his defenders amongst the Republicans, as the evidence piled up against him, both parties united in the impeachment process. The Justice Department, the Supreme Court, and the Congress did what they needed to do. Despite the abuse of power in the executive branch, the other branches of government functioned properly and the balance of power built into the Constitution by the founding fathers saved the day. One wonders though what the outcome would have been if Nixon had not recorded himself, or had destroyed the tapes early on.

The Nixon Defense is probably the definitive Watergate book. Nixon was right about his tapes. They are of great historical interest, but not in the way he intended. They reveal a picture of the downfall of one of the most interesting political characters of the 20th century, a presidential reality show that, like most reality shows, can be banal and riveting at the same time.

Books Computers & Software Travel

Tips for an Extended Stay In Europe

IMG_20140615_103318243_HDRMy wife and I are heading back to Europe again for an extended stay.  A year ago we did the same thing, moving to Paris right after we both retired from our medical careers.  We are planning another 6 month stay.  Prior to this second visit, I was able to think about the things that we did right and the things we did wrong on the first visit. Here’s some of the lessons learned:

  • Staying more than 3 months in France. This requires a visa (in the UK you can stay for 6 months without a visa). Or, you need to be or be married to a European Union citizen.  If you are married to an EU citizen, as I am, you can apply for a Carte de Séjour, which is what I did last time. Be warned: it is much easier to get a visa!  If you go the Carte de Séjour route, you must bring your birth certificates, marriage license, financial records, must open a bank account in France and show you have a steady income, must get all your documents in English translated into French by a state-approved translator, and must be prepared to struggle with the French bureaucracy. Only the persistent persevere. I was able to complete the process, but I don’t recommend it unless your are planning permanent residency in France and have no other option.  Fortunately it will be easier for me this time.  Due to a recent change in British law, I was able to obtain UK citizenship via my mother’s being a UK citizen when I was born (prior to the recent change in the law, you could only claim citizenship through your father, believe it or not!). So I don’t need a visa and can stay in Europe as long as I want through my new UK citizenship.
  • Packing. Last time my wife and I took two moderately sized suitcases each and our carry-on bags with us. This time we are down to one suitcase each. We ruthlessly cut down on what we are bringing. In France nearly everyone dresses in black or gray clothes, so no point in bringing any other colored items. Except for our dictionaries and this essential book we are not bringing any physical books. They are just too bulky and heavy. As much as I love real books, this is one situation where eBooks are essential.  Last time I brought stuff I didn’t wear or use at all. Not this time.
  • Electronics. In order to continue writing posts and developing apps in Europe, I need my electronic gear! When I first came over last year, I was worried that I couldn’t get by with just my laptop with its 15″ screen, as opposed to my big screen system at home. As I have already discussed this is not a big deal anymore and I am totally comfortable doing all my computer work on my Mac Book Pro. Since I do Android and Apple app development, I need at least one device of each for app testing. I have my Android phone (Motorola Droid Maxx) and an Apple iPad Mini 2. I called Verizon about unlocking the phone and apparently all their 4G phones are unlocked by default (an interesting tidbit I hadn’t known). When I get to France I will take out the sim card (it is removed by pulling out the volume control) and get a French sim card. Cell phone data and phone minutes are very cheap and easy to buy as needed in France. Never use your US phone service in Europe, even something like Verizon’s International Plan. It is crucial to turn off your service when you leave the country, or you might be stuck with huge data fees. With all the data syncing that phones do in the background, you can easily run up hundreds of dollars of fees in a few minutes. Fortunately, at least with Verizon and AT&T, it is possible to put your contract on hold while you are abroad. You pay a minimal fee ($5-10 per month), are able to restore service when you return to the States, and as already mentioned, get to use the same phone in Europe with a European sim card. Note that the phone needs to have GSM capabilities which most modern phones have, and may need to be unlocked by the cellular provider — call them to do this. The only disadvantage to suspending or pausing your service is that the contract period is extended by however many months you suspend service, and your eligibility for a phone upgrade may also be delayed.
  • Pausing other services. Services like cable, satellite, internet, phone, trash pickup and so forth should also be paused. This is easy to do online or by calling each company. Again the monthly cost is low while these services are paused, and it is easy to resume service once you return. Mail delivery is a special case. For a brief trip you can have the Post Office hold your mail, but for a trip lasting months this is not possible. We use a mail forwarding service (US Global Mail) that can sort and scan the mail we get, with the option to open and scan or forward what we want to us. It is important to try to go paperless with all your utilities and services, so that you minimize the physical mail you receive, as it costs money to forward mail to France.
  • Health insurance. It is necessary to carry Health Insurance abroad. We use GeoBlue. It is relatively inexpensive but requires you maintain a Health plan in the US as well. We are working on getting health insurance in Europe which would be cheaper, but you can only qualify for this if you are European citizens.
  • Internet. I should mention that the internet service in France is very good, especially compared to the disgracefully slow service I get living just outside of Denver. Free internet at cafés and restaurants is somewhat less available than in the US. Usually you have to ask for a sign-on code to use this. There are some public hotspots in parks, though this is not as widely available as I would like.  TV and internet phones come with residential internet service, and the internet phones are handy for calling back home for free.

So these are some of the tricks we’ve learned from our last extended stay in France. I’ll be happy to answer any questions either here or on Twitter (@manndmd).


Lanark — A Life in Four Books

Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Sometimes a statement that is ridiculed still bears a kernel of truth. The Internet really is a “series of tubes” — tubes that I tend to journey through frequently without a clear destination, much like the “mystery tours” my wife and I will sometimes take in our car. Sure, these wild expeditions may be considered by some to be a waste of time (or gas). Nevertheless, sometimes Brownian motion can lead you to unexpected discoveries.

One such Internet tube which is often the starting point for my random walks is the tube known as YouTube. Hidden among the various Trololo songs and Hitler Downfall parodies in YouTube are some real gems. Things like Christopher Hitchens in debate, Juya Wang concerts in high definition, Cab Calloway performing at his peak, episodes of The Thunderbirds (F.A.B!),  Gigliola Cinquetti singing Dio, Come Ti Amo, Marc-André Hamelin, Helene Fischer, Shirley Bassey, Renée Fleming, — the list of stuff to watch and listen to is virtually infinite. I have discovered a lot by surfing through YouTube.

And so it was that I looked up a favorite author of mine, Iain M. Banks. Unfortunately Banks died last year, of gall bladder cancer. He was a Scottish author, living on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote both main stream fiction and science fiction. Most of his science fiction features a future galactic society known as “the Culture,” a near-utopia where there is no longer any want due to advances in technology. However humans, despite living the good life, are not their own masters, as artificial intelligence in the form of super-smart “Minds” has far outstripped human intelligence. The science fiction stories and novels of Banks are rife with clever plots and a wry sense of humor.

On YouTube there is the terminal interview with Banks, done at his home by a BBC reporter. The interview was done just a couple weeks before he died. Much like Christopher Hitchens, a fellow atheist, Banks shows little overt concern about his coming demise and indeed jokes about it. It is remarkable to see such sanguinity in the face of imminent death. But this post isn’t really about Banks (but go read his stuff anyway).

No, this is where the tangential nature of the Internet shows its face. In the midst of the interview with Banks, there is discussion of the novel Lanark, by Alasdair Gray. From the discussion it was clear that Banks admired Gray and this novel in particular. A little further reading on Wikipedia, and I found that Lanark is considered by many as the best novel written by a Scotsman in modern times. Being half a Scotsman myself, I was intrigued.

I am not a particularly fast reader, but I do read continuously and I am getting on in years, so I have read a lot. Much of what I have read may be considered by literary high-brows as trash: pulp fiction from the 1930s like Doc Savage or The Spider, however to counter this I have also read and enjoyed a lot of books that no one would consider trash: everything by Thomas Hardy from Desperate Remedies to Jude the Obscure, for example, or the works of all 3 of the Bronte sisters (yes, even Anne Bronte’s 2 novels) to William Makepeace Thackeray. I am somewhat of an omnivore when it comes to books, able to appreciate both Edgar Rice and William S. Burroughs. So, realizing that there was a great novel out there that I hadn’t read, by a Scotsman to boot, I went ahead and downloaded Lanark to my e-reader (which is just my phone at this point, my Nexus 7 tablet having kicked the bucket).

Lanark is a strange work. It contains the stories of two characters, seemingly unrelated, but possibly the same person. The character Lanark lives in a nightmare world, the city of Unthank, possibly in our future, but a future that is frankly psychotic. The characters are grotesque, à la Dickens or Mervyn Peake. Nevertheless the world of Lanark is certainly allegorical, with components paralleling our own governments, technology, and corporations. The satire is biting and scathing. Gray lists his own influences in the book (referring to these influences as “plagiarisms”), but the net result is certainly unique. There is a mixture of horror, humor, and pathos. Poor Lanark is unlucky in love and not appreciated, to say the least!

The other character is Duncan Thaw, who, as Gray himself admits, is largely autobiographical. Thaw’s story takes place in post-war Glasgow, and there are no fantastic elements to it. It is a story of an awkward adolescent, artistic to be sure, but also unlucky in love, unappreciated, and doomed by his own obsessions. It is touching, painful at times to read, and sad. But goodness, so well-written!

What is the connection between Lanark and Thaw? It’s not clear, though there are hints they are the same character (e.g. the sea-shells in Lanark’s pocket; Thaw’s last scene occurs on a beach). Gray plays with the structure of the novel which is in 4 sections. Books 3 and 4, the parts dealing with Lanark, wrap around Books 1 and 2, the parts centered on Thaw. Yes the order of the books is really 3, 1, 2, and 4. In addition there are similarly displaced Prologue and Epilogue, neither coming in the usual spot. At one point Lanark actually meets the book’s author, which is one of the funniest and strangest parts of the book. Following this there are footnotes referencing past and future chapters and characterizing the various “plagiarisms” supposedly present. Don’t skip those footnotes referencing future chapters because you are concerned about spoilers. Some of the oddest and funniest footnotes refer to chapters that don’t even exist in the book.

So what to make of this large (590 pages) book, first published in 1981? Like most great books, it is sui generis, a tour de force that is not repeatable. It was Gray’s first novel, taking 22 years to write, and none of his following works have been as popular. Inspired by Kafka, Goethe, Melville , H.G. Wells, William Blake, Dante, Vonnegut, as well as a slew of other authors that Gray lays out in a postscript, it nevertheless bears little resemblance to any other book I have read.  Despite the surrealism of the Unthank chapters, it is the very human and sad life of Thaw in the dreary city of Glasgow that is the most touching and memorable portion of the novel.

So I thank Iain Banks, not only for his wonderful novels, but also for leading me in his last days to Alasdair Gray and the marvelously bizarre Lanark.

Books Computers & Software Medicine

Maintaining Order in the Midst of Chaos

HP Lovecraft's Azathoth at the center of Ultimate Chaos.  "Azathoth". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
HP Lovecraft’s Azathoth at the Center of Ultimate Chaos. “Azathoth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are few jobs more chaotic than that of physician, at least based on my own experience. Yes there is a schedule of sorts: hospital rounds, procedures, office patients. Unfortunately things rarely go as planned. There is a particularly sick patient on rounds who needs a temporary pacing wire placed. There are more consults than expected. The procedure that was planned to take up to 2 hours takes 4 hours because of unexpected difficulties. Office patients are double booked. And then there are the phone calls. Referring doctors wanting advice or asking if a particularly tough patient can be seen quickly in the office. Nurses calling to clarify orders or to tell about a patient who isn’t doing well. Calls from Medicare or insurance company minions asking why a particular patient was still in the hospital and hadn’t been discharged yet. Other non-patient care related duties take up precious time. There are hospital staff requirements to take infantile online courses on Hazmat or Fire Safety. There are recurring CME (continuing medical education) and new MOC (maintenance of certification) requirements. Finally, believe it or not, doctors usually have a family life too. There have the same school concerts, hockey games, and sick kids that other working parents deal with.

As there are only 24 hours in a day, the net effect of all this running around was that I was perennially late for everything: late in the office, late for procedures, late, late, late.  I myself hate going to an appointment and waiting.  Most of my patients were understanding and good-natured about it, which only made me feel more guilty about being late.  But there didn’t seem to be much that I could do about it.

When things got really busy, interruptions would themselves have interruptions. For example, while writing my patient documentation in the office on my computer, my medical assistant would come in to talk to me about a different patient. While talking to her, a phone call would come in. I would take that call, then go back to the conversation with my MA, then finally back to the patient documentation — at least in theory, assuming I hadn’t forgotten where I was. This interruption process was so common that I began to analyze it — being the geek that I am — in computer terms. Computers also have “interrupts.”  A computer will be processing some task, say sorting a list, when you press a key on the keyboard. This generates an interrupt.  The current state of the task is stopped and pushed onto a certain area of memory called the “stack.” The keystroke is then processed, after which the original task is “popped” off the stack and resumed. Interrupts can also have interrupts with the result that multiple tasks are pushed onto the stack in backwards order (last in — first out).  It works for computers, but unfortunately human memory is fallible, so despite my analysis of the situation, I still often lost track of what I was doing when interrupted multiple times.  Utter Chaos!

Organization is the antithesis of Chaos. Like many people overwhelmed by disorder, I read a lot about the principles of organization. One book that I read in 2008 and that I highly recommend is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). Even if you don’t implement his entire system of organization, which is actually fairly complex, it would be hard not to come away from this book without some useful tips. A fundamental idea of GTD is to write things down. The whole GTD system is centered on having a “trusted system” to enter tasks so you don’t have to remember them yourself. This trusted system could be a notebook, index cards, scraps of paper, or, more high-tech, computer programs or apps designed to record notes. By writing everything down you can spend time actually doing tasks rather than worrying about what you are forgetting to do.

There is a lot more to the GTD system than just this and I encourage you to read the book. But even if you don’t implement the whole system, just getting things written down is a mind-lightening experience, almost zen-like. In the context of working as a doctor, I used a decidedly low-tech approach to implement a trusted system. I would have a piece of paper with me all day long — usually my hospital rounding list. I would use this to check off the patients I rounded on, adding diagnoses and billing level codes in tiny print. I would write down new patients on the list, including new consults and admissions, as well as patients I received calls about. I would write down little todo tasks, such as, check a troponin level or electrocardiogram, adding a little box that I could check when I completed the task. I could even handle nested interruptions with the list, jotting down a brief note about what I was doing at the time of each interruption so that I could resume where I left off. At the end of the day everything on the list should have been checked or crossed off, and I could discard it. Obviously my todo list often grew beyond one sheet of paper, in which case I would staple a blank one to the original. I realize that many physicians use such a system anyway, and this system is only in the most sketchy sense an implementation of the GTD system. Yet it upholds the spirit of the GTD system, which is to write your tasks down, with frequent reviews and updates.

Since I retired, I have had fewer tasks to organize and more time to develop more elaborate methods of organization. In the hectic world of medicine, nothing was faster or more effective than just writing things down with pen and paper. Nowadays, I gravitate more towards digital forms of organization. I don’t have just one program or app that I use for this. For ephemeral unimportant lists (like a shopping list) I like simple list making apps, such as Wunderlist. For entering notes or clipping webpages, I find Evernote is useful. As mentioned above, I am a longstanding computer geek and programmer. Ultimately the best organizational tool I have found is something called Org Mode which runs in the old-fashioned programmers text editor Emacs (I use that editor to write almost everything, including these posts). Unfortunately Emacs has a very steep learning curve, so I can’t recommend it (unless you too want to write computer programs). There are many other apps and tools to choose form nowadays to implement any organizational system imaginable.  So there are no excuses.  Life today is very complex and chaotic.  Everyone should work out their own organizational system and use it. With such a system, even in the field of medicine, order can come out of chaos!


Man of Bronze

James Bama's rendition of Doc Savage
James Bama’s rendition of Doc Savage

Unless you are an initiate, it is difficult to explain the appeal of literature from the era of the pulp magazines. In fact most literary high-brows would insist on putting that word literature into quotes when referring to the pulps. The heyday of the pulps was in the 1930s and 40s. Afterwards they quickly disappeared, replaced by comic books and paperback novels. During their golden era, coinciding with the Great Depression and World War II, they were a major source of entertainment for the people who had to suffer through those bitter times. The novels and stories printed in magazines featuring larger-than-life heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, and Doc Savage were churned out by a relatively small number of authors, who sometimes submitted works to competing publishers by hiding behind multiple pseudonyms. These writers worked under tight deadlines and produced hundreds of thousands of words each month. Under such stressful writing conditions, one does not produce masterpieces. Much of what was published back then is forgettable and forgotten. But some, despite blemishes and warts, lives on.

I wasn’t alive back then (I’m not that old), but was a teen of just the right vulnerable age back in the 1960s when Bantam Books started reprinting the Doc Savage tales, starting with The Man of Bronze in 1964. There is no doubt that the James Bama cover played a big role in my decision to purchase that paperback, and the multitude of reprints that followed. The 1960s were extraordinary years for the rediscovery of adventure and fantastic literature that otherwise might have been forgotten. Nearly all of Edgar Rice Burroughs works were reprinted by Ace and Ballantine Books. Tolkien was published in paperback in three thick volumes by Ace (violating copyright), and then republished again (with an intro by the good professor himself) legitimately by Ballantine Books. There appeared Mervyn Peake’s masterful Gormenghast trilogy. Lin Carter was reprinting fantasy by James Branch Cabell and others. You get the idea. It was a great time to be a teenager.

And so I read the adventures of Doc Savage and his 5 aids, plus his spunky and somewhat troublesome female cousin Pat Savage. Doc was not Superman (though he did have a Fortress of Solitude in the arctic before Superman copied the idea). Doc was human, but trained from birth to become an expert in all fields of knowledge. On top of that he was physically in top-notch condition. His father had, obviously without his consent, submitted him to this training in order to prepare him for a lifetime of fighting crime and evildoers. Doc had his headquarters on a top floor of the Empire State Building in New York. His 5 aides were there to help him, but also provided some comic relief, especially the homely chemist Monk Mayfair and dapper lawyer Ham Brooks. Each adventure (initially they were published monthly, then less frequently) pitted Doc against some master villain, mad scientist or monster. The names of the sagas are particularly evocative. Some examples: The Land of Terror, The Sargasso Ogre, The Thousand-Headed Man, The Annihilist, The Motion Menace.

Doc was conceived by a group of editors at Street and Smith Publications and first appeared in 1933. The author who wrote the majority of the tales and whose name is forever associated with Doc was Lester Dent. Dent used a formula to write the novels, which basically involved getting the hero in as much trouble as possible and then throwing in as many plot twists as possible. In general it works. There are some clunkers (mostly written by the “ghost” writers that Dent hired when he didn’t have time himself) but some of it is amazingly well-paced and well written, for example, the posthumously published The Red Spider in which Doc deals with the communist Soviet Union. As Philip Jose Farmer pointed out in this study of the Doc Savage books, Doc Savage, An Apocalyptic Life, it takes a reading of all of the books (181 original, plus newer ones mentioned below) to flesh out fully the character of Doc. Having read them all, I believe this is true. Doc starts out in the first books as somewhat flat, wooden, and invulnerable. He is not only a perfect physical specimen, but he is aided by various contraptions (such as anesthetic gas pellets) that he carries in a utility vest (much like Batman’s utility belt, clearly based on Doc’s vest), and, truth to tell, he has a good share of luck going for him that keeps him alive from adventure to adventure. As the years go on, and Doc enters the years of the Second World War, his resources seem to dry up somewhat, he becomes less dependent on gadgets, but also becomes more human and more vulnerable. He mentions his unusual upbringing and admits that it has affected him in a negative manner. He knows he is not normal. One wonders what his true feelings are towards his father, who arranged such an abnormal upbringing.

Around 1990 Bantam finished republishing the original Docs, and Philip Jose Farmer wrote a new one, Escape From Loki, published in 1991. Will Murray then took up the mantel. Starting with Python Isle in 1991 he wrote and published 7 more sagas. There followed a hiatus until a few years ago he resumed the series with The Desert Demons in 2011. He has written 8 of these new Wild Adventures of Doc Savage, the most recent as of May 2014 being The War Makers. This includes one cross-over novel with the King Kong universe, Skull Island.

Murray has studied Doc for years, and was acquainted with Dent’s widow, Norma. He is the authorized heir to the Kenneth Robeson name (the pseudonymous house name for Dent and the other Doc writers). His Writings in Bronze is a thick book of essays about Doc and his writers. If you love this stuff like I do, this is required reading, as well as works like the various attempts to fit Doc’s adventures into a chronology by Rick Lai and Jeff Deischer.

Murray does a great job emulating the style of Dent and the other writers from the 1930s and 40s. He makes no attempt to update Doc to the modern era. He is particularly good at coming up with quaint 1930s idioms that no one uses anymore. He emulates Dent’s habit of sometimes starting a sentence with a verb, which makes the action seem to rush a little faster. Instead of “There came a loud explosion,” he would write “Came a loud explosion.” He dutifully pushes all the buttons and rings all the bells when describing Doc and his aides, using phrases that are in all the books, but which anyone who has read every book already knows by heart. Things like Monk being so ugly that women are attracted more to him than to the sartorially splendid Ham, or Renny’s fists being like gallon buckets of flesh and bone, and so forth. All this is comforting when reading these new adventures. Clearly these are the same Doc and company that we know so well.

Murray is basing his new stories on unpublished outlines written by Dent. I am always a little curious about how much creative license is involved here. I remember the so-called “collaborations” between August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft, in which Derleth would create a 100,000 word novel based on two words Lovecraft had written at the bottom of an envelope (if that). But Dent often farmed out his work to other writers, and did so by writing outlines that the ghost writers fleshed out. So I think Murray is doing nothing more than what the other writers of Doc did. I feel these are legitimate additions to the canon.

The only criticism I have is that sometimes Murray’s writing style is “too good” compared with the original. One of the charms of the original Dent works is the sense of the haste with which these novels were written. There are the occasional grammatical and punctuation errors, or plot inconsistencies. Sometimes these spoil the stories somewhat, but sometimes they add to the feeling of very fast pace that is present, enhancing the excitement. Murray is a very good writer and he does polish his work, something the original pulp writers didn’t have the luxury to do. I am not complaining. The particular, peculiar circumstances that led to the pulps are long gone. Murray has taken Doc and his crew to new places, has introduced new and interesting opponents, and generally has done his utmost to keep the ride going. And this is something I, as a long-time fan, really appreciate.

If you want to check out some of the original Doc Savage novels, or the new ones by Will Murray, or other pulp heroes like The Spider, and a whole lot more, go to The All-New Wild Adventures of Doc Savage are available in various formats at

Stay away from the 1975 Man of Bronze Movie, however.