Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Doomsday Now!

Doctor Strangelove would seem to be my favorite movie. I believe I've seen it more often than any other film--- I've watched Slim Pickens ride that H-Bomb to Laputa something like twenty times.

It was Strangelove that popularized the notion of the Doomsday Device. (The Doomsday Bomb was actually conceived by Leo Szilard, who also conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction and later [with Fermi] patented the idea of a nuclear reactor.) In Strangelove, the Device is a computer hooked up to cobalt-jacketed thermonuclear bombs, and programed to detonate the bombs if the Soviet Union is attacked, thus eradicating life from the planet for something like 93 years.

It turns out that the Soviets actually built one of these. It's called Perimetr and is buried under the Kosvinski Mountains in the southern Urals.

"Kosvinsky," Blair tells us, "is regarded by U.S. targeteers as the crown jewel of the Russian wartime nuclear command system, because it can communicate through the granite mountain to far-flung Russian strategic forces using very-low-frequency (VLF) radio signals that can burn through a nuclear war environment. The facility is the critical link to Russia's 'dead hand' communications network, designed to ensure semi-automatic retaliation to a decapitating strike."

Of course, there's a world of difference between a "semi-automatic" doomsday device and the totally automatic—beyond human control—doomsday device in Strangelove, something that Blair is careful to note. The Soviet facility does require a human hand for the final fatal push of the button. But Blair believes that the human brain behind that hand has not been programmed to suddenly turn peacenik. And the details of the device are far from reassuring.

"This doomsday apparatus, which became operational in 1984, during the height of the Reagan-era nuclear tensions, is an amazing feat of creative engineering." According to Blair, if Perimetr senses a nuclear explosion in Russian territory and then receives no communication from Moscow, it will assume the incapacity of human leadership in Moscow or elsewhere, and will then grant a single human being deep within the Kosvinsky mountains the authority and capability to launch the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal.

But why did the Russians keep this a secret? As Dr. Strangelove so cogently pointed out: "Yes, but the ... whole point of the doomsday machine ... is lost ... if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?

Turns out that Perimetr wasn't really aimed at the U.S., but at hotheaded Soviet generals who might be tempted to launch a nuclear counterstrike if their radars detected incoming flights of geese or meteors. With Perimetr assuring retaliation even if the Russian command structure was decapitated, the hotheads could stand down.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, says [former Soviet space official Alexander] Zhelenyakov says, was “to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.”

. . . If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil, after all, is far easier than confirming distant launches. “That is why we have the system,” says Valery Yarynich, one of the system’s designers. “To avoid a tragic mistake. “

There is no indication that Perimetr has ever been turned off. And with Putin announcing that Russian strategic bombers are now resuming their patrols, it would seem that Kubrick's brilliant film hasn't yet lost its relevance.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Trying Not to Blush

Christian Sauvé says some kind things about This Is Not a Game on his web site:
But there’s a bit more at stake than a look at games that bring together thousands of people in a global clue-hunt: As This Is Not a Game begins, our ARG-creating protagonist Dagmar Shaw sees her holidays in Indonesia become a catastrophe as the country is shut down and riots break around her hotel. Engineering her rescue away from this mess ends up being a problem that not even a well-financed Israeli security contractor can solve: In the end, Dagnar finds greater value in tapping the game-playing community and crowd-sourcing her own safety to the diverse talents of perfect strangers scattered around the globe.

And that’s just the first act, because once she’s back stateside, Dagmar’s life soon turns into a nightmare when friends are acquaintances are murdered. It’s clear to her that this is not a game-related development, but the players of her ongoing ARG aren’t so sure. When the police admit that the investigation may tax even their capabilities, Dagmar sees another opportunity to let the group mind of her plays chew on the evidence. But as she eventually discovers, it’s hard to get away from the game once it takes over…
While over at Tor.com, Jo Walton--- who I swear I am not paying for all the kind things she's said about me in that forum--- likewise has some good things to say.
I’ve written before about what a brilliant and versatile writer Walter Jon Williams is, so it’s no surprise that his new novel absolutely blew me over. This Is Not A Game is an exciting near-future science fiction story that does everything right.

There are four friends from a college RPG group, and they’re grown up. Charlie is a software millionaire, Austin is a venture capitalist, Dagmar is running a company that runs ARGs, and BJ is a failure working on a helpline and gold-farming to make ends meet. Dagmar gets caught up in Indonesia when the currency collapses and civilization breaks down after it. Her online resources and gaming friends turn out to be more help than she would have expected. But “This Is Not A Game.” There’s an interesting line between fiction and reality in a game like that, and while rescuing Dagmar is real, to the players she enlists to help, that almost doesn’t matter. Things get more complicated from there on, everything turns out to be more complex, more connected, and more satisfyingly resolved, than you would imagine possible.

Williams has always been good at extrapolation, and this is a terrific day-after-tomorrow near future. He’s been involved in various “reality” games and deeply understands how they work. The description of putting the game together and the way it works arefascinating and realistic. I often find depictions of gaming in fiction very irritating, but Williams knows why people play and what kind of people they are. Early on he uses a description of the four friends’ gaming styles to illuminate their characters. The forum messages between the gamers are just exactly the way these things work. Incidentally, I haven’t seen character developed through online messages done so well since A Fire Upon the Deep.

The economics and software sides of the book also make sense. It isn’t possible to talk about some of the niftiest stuff without major spoilers, and I’m reluctant to spoil anything at all because the pace at which information is revealed is masterful. Things that don’t look as if they’re connected are connected . . .
This is an exciting novel with great characters, including a very nice geeky female protagonist. It also has chewy science fiction ideas under the fast-paced action layer. I expect to see it on a lot of next year’s award ballots. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more buzz about it already. This might be because Williams is one of those writers who everyone infuriatingly takes for granted. Oh, another terrific masterpiece that’s not at all like the last book. Well, it’ll be on my Hugo nominations, because I definitely haven’t read five better books this year.
So there you have it! Don't just buy the book, start handing it awards! Don't worry about me--- I can take it!


Saturday, September 26, 2009


I've been off at Globalquerque, Albuquerque's weekend festival of global music. One way of describing this kind of festival is to describe the music I was listening to. (I'll probably get around to that later.)

Another is to just make a list of the weird and/or unusual instruments encountered for the first time.

The first was the hurdy gurdy, as played by Viva la Pepa!, a group that recreates French, Spanish, and Sephardic medieval and renaissance music.

This wasn't my first exposure to to the hurdy gurdy, of course, but it was my first exposure to, as it were, hurdy gurdy theory.

According to gurdyist Juan Wijngaard, the hurdy gurdy got invented in the Middle Ages because "violins were boring." Because when you bow a violin, you bow up, and then stop. And then you bow down, and then stop. And so forth. S0 what the hurdy-gurdy actually is, is a violin with a round rotating bow--- although, because of the sympathetic strings in the design, it ends up sounding very like a bagpipe. (And Juan Wijngaard also plays the bagpipe, so there you go.)

Another new instrument, also deployed by Viva la Pepa!, was the tromba marina, or marine trumpet, also known as the "nun's trumpet." The name is misleading, as the tromba marina is actually a stringed instrument, seven or eight feet tall, with a single string and (in some cases) another sympathetic string. It sounds as trumpet-ish as a stringed instrument is ever likely to sound. It's also called the "nun's trumpet" because nuns were sometimes forbidden to play actual trumpets, and played the tromba marina instead. (The reasons were unspecified, but maybe playing trumpet made their cheeks blow out unbecomingly, or made them spit, or maybe they were just too noisy.)

By far the strangest instrument encountered was the nyckelharpa, pictured above. This is a Swedish instrument of medieval origin. It features sixteen strings, eight sympathetic strings, a whole lot of buttons, is hung around the neck like a guitar, and is played with a bow. In short, it's the most diabolically complicated musical instrument created by mankind (that actually works).

It sounds like a tinny fiddle (those sympathetic strings, I imagine), but is a lot more flexible than a real violin.

If, that is, you're insane enough to actually learn to play one.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bonnie Brings the Winter

The other night we checked out the BonTaj Roulet tour, featuring Bonnie Raitt and Taj Majal, in the relatively intimate settings of the Sandia Casino Amphitheater--- 2000 people in an open-air venue, with glorious views of the mountains. Whatever else you may say about Indian casinos, they have sure built a lot of concert venues, and I see a lot more spectacular live concerts than I used to. (And Kathy pointed out that it really out to be "roulez," but I think "roulet" is acceptable Cajun French.)

I'd last seen Taj some time in the 1980s, playing solo and opening for someone else. He was maybe 40 pounds lighter and wore a white wide-brimmed plantation hat. He did mainly Caribbean songs. I believe he played piano at some point, and startled everyone with a country ballad. I have totally forgotten the musician he was opening for.

I first saw Raitt around the same time, at a low point in her career when she could afford to travel only with a bass player, and I've seen her three or four times since, now in very large halls. However large the space, she still manages to achieve the same intimate connection with her audience than she did in that first, modest setting.

Both Raj and Raitt have recorded a pretty eclectic mix of stuff over the years, but I figured that when the two played together, the concert would be about the blues. Which was mostly true.

Taj opened with his Phantom Blues Band, which featured a brass section, the Texicali Horns. He was good-natured and growly-voiced, and swiveled his hips like Elvis, and basically won everyone's affection in the first 10 seconds. He sang "Diddy Wah Diddy" and "Hey Josephine" and "EZ Rider" and a bunch of other songs I can't at this moment recall. He still wore his white plantation hat. I can't say much more about his set because Kathy and I kept getting chased out of one set of seats and into another by an undertrained amphitheater staff who didn't know where the hell our seats were supposed to be. (Eventually we ended up in the seats we started in.)

Raitt came on next. As always, her blazing guitar talent was obvious. And she was in good voice, too, which she isn't always.

Her choice of songs was, I think, a little odd. She did "Thing Called Love" and "Nick of Time," which were big hits for her, but the other songs weren't the big numbers, but things like "I Sho Do," tunes I'd put on the B side of the single.

I always want her to do her songs from the 1970s, her Warner period, but we heard few of those, and more from her mainstreamed albums of the 90s. And she was just wonderful singing without accompaniment on John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery."

During Bonnie's set it became obvious that it had become winter. A cold, freezing wind blew in, and everyone was huddling in their jackets. I'd come reasonably prepared, but the zipper on my colorful Guatamalan jacket was broken, so I had to hold it closed with one hand. The musicians were all dressed for the tropics, but they bore up under winter's assault like troopers.

Act III featured Bonnie and Taj and their two bands on stage at once. Put two six-piece bands together, and you've got a Big Band, particularly if you've got a brass section. Hot damn! The place rocked out despite the assault of General Winter.

I finally got my 70s fix with "Wah She Go Do," Bonnie's cover of a sassy, wonderful song by Calypso Rose. And they did Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back," and "She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride." They traded licks on "Little Red Hen" and enjoyed themselves hugely with the double entendre-filled "Gnawin' On It."

Their chemistry and their affection for one another was palpable. How they survived on the stage with the wind blasting was beyond my comprehension. My hats are really off to them.

This is my week for music. Friday and Saturday will be spent at Globalquerque, our massively wonderful world music festival. I expect to return with an armful of CDs and wonderful sounds echoing in my head.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Origin of Stupidity

Brainless religious zealot-zombies, led by Former Somebody Kirk Cameron, are going to be distributing copies of Darwin's Origin of Species FREE just before this year's Darwin Day, November 22. The book will be altered to include a 50-page denunciation of the theory of evolution by some Darwin-denying whackjob.

Cameron explains that this "very special" edition of the "Origin of Species" will include an introduction explaining "Adolf Hitler's undeniable connection" to the theory of evolution, and highlighting "Darwin's racism" and "his disdain for women." Cameron's edition also exposes the "many hoaxes" of evolutionary theory, while presenting a "balanced view of Creationism."

Here's what "ZOMGitsCriss" thinks about all that.

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Turn the Apple Green

Murderous baby-killing Holocaust-denying nutjob Iranian President Ahmedinejad is in the Big Apple today, to give what will doubtless prove to be an inept, rambling, psychotic, Holocaust-denying speech to the UN General Assembly. (To avoid being Chavezed again, our own President Obama will be hiding in the men's room till Ahmedinejad is safely away.)

Yesterday's chat by Muammar Gaddafi doubtless gave us a preview of the sort of thing we might expect.

Members of the Iranian opposition have offered the idea that New York turn green for the duration of the General Assembly. (Green is the color of the Iranian democracy movement.)

If you live in the Apple, plug in green light bulbs! Hang green Xmas lights in your windows! Wave green flags! Wear green! Hang out your green welcome mat!

Green isn't just for St. Paddy's day anymore!

Interestingly enough, the Empire State Building will be green tonight. Not because of Ahmedinejad, but because it's the 70th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz movie.

But we should tell Ahmedinejad it's all for him.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Days I Just Don't Feel Like Sharing

Obligated though I am by the Rules of Modern Publishing to maintain a blog in which I post something intelligent, thoughtful, and wise every single day (or failing that, at least try to be amusing), there are some days when I'm just not, as Richard III said, in the giving vein. In fact there are some days when I'm just Richard III. Or worse.

Right now the thought of putting together a blog post out of the scattered fragments of my life is a burden that I would just as soon not bear.

It's not like there's not a lot going on. The novel is racing along nicely. The water well has hit a pocket of fine yellow sand, so the water looks like pee, and the sand has clogged up the water softener, so I've called one repairman for the well and another for the softener. I'm going to see Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal tomorrow night, and Globalquerque is this weekend. I've dropped DirecTV and picked up Dish Network.

Any of these topics might serve for an amusing post. But I'm just not in the vein.

But I can at least link to something amusing, so here it is. John Crace liveblogs the new Dan Brown novel. Note: there are spoilers. But on the other hand, now you won't have to read the book.

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Hitler Bunnies and Terror Potatoes

At least one of these Hitler Bunnies is clearly plotting evil.
And the potato in the lower photo is either the result of black magic or perhaps an injection of thalydomide.
Yes, this means we've been to the State Fair.
Kathy's New Mexico Tech had a booth open at the fair, and Kathy got some freebie tickets that weren't all being used by Tech hustlers, so Pat and I joined Kathy for a wander through the Halls o' Wonder.
Aside from the Hitler Bunnies and the mutated potatoes, we saw white tigers, Death-Defying Death Devils in the Cage of Death, scary dinosaur puppets, dolls representing the Six Kinds of Starch Grown in Bernalillo County, and a whole lot of art, not all of which was made of Legos.
I'm still worried about those Hitler Bunnies, though.
They're clearly up to something.
[photos by Pat]

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

I Knew It!

Melting polar icecaps are exposing hundreds of secret lairs!

ZACKENBERG RESEARCH STATION, GREENLAND—Claiming it to be one of the most dramatic and visible signs of climate change to date, researchers said Monday that receding polar ice caps have revealed nearly 200 clandestine lairs once buried deep beneath hundreds of feet of Arctic ice.

"We always assumed there would be some secret lairs here and there, but the sheer number now being exposed is indeed troubling," said noted climatologist Anders Lorenzen, who claimed that the Arctic ice caps have shrunk at the alarming rate of 41,000 square miles per year. "In August alone we discovered 44 mad scientist laboratories, three highly classified military compounds, and seven reanimated and very confused cavemen. That's more than twice the number we had found in the previous three decades combined."

. . . Earlier this week a flying saucer surfaced and is reportedly still pulsating with increasingly intense, unearthly colors. And late last month, a mystical order of Nazi occultists emerged from an underground bunker where they had spent decades communing with the Hyperborean gods and attempting to breed a new Aryan super-species destined to destroy Homo sapiens and rule the earth for untold millennia.

The 12 elderly Germans were detained by local law enforcement in Wainwright, AK.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Deep Cover Monopoly

During the Second World War, maps and tools were smuggled to Allied POW's inside copies of the Monopoly game.

The British secret service conspired with the U.K. manufacturer to stuff a compass, small metal tools, such as files, and, most importantly, a map, into cut-out compartments in the Monopoly board itself.

"It was ingenious," said Philip Orbanes, author of several books on Monopoly, including "The World's Most Famous Game and How it Got That Way." "The Monopoly box was big enough to not only hold the game but hide everything else they needed to get to POWs."

But the question is, Will this work with the Xbox?

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Market Garden

John Appel reminded me that today is the one day when I count count on my dad having a hangover.

My father was a two-vodka-martini-before-dinner kind of drinker, at least until later in life when he realized he could save money by skipping the vermouth entirely. He rarely got hammered, but he always got hammered on September 17th.

The 17th was the anniversary of the beginning of Operation Market-Garden, the 1944 attempt to invade North Germany over bridges captured by Airborn troops. My father took part in this operation, as sergeant of an ambulance company attached to XXX Corps of the British army, which was the unit that was supposed to charge straight up Highway 69 to relieve the paratroops holding the bridges.

(My father's company was not part of any regular unit, but reported directly to SHAEF, Eisenhower's headquarters, and was sent wherever there were expected to be heavy casualties. Accordingly my dad landed on Omaha Beach, broke out of Normandy through St.-Lo, was at Falaise, the liberation of Paris, Market-Garden (under British command), the Bulge (still under British command), crossed the bridge at Remagen, and helped to liberate Dachau. They were under fire a lot, but being ambulance guys could not shoot back. (The best part of being under British command, my father said, was that the Brits had a daily liquor ration, whereas the Americans did not. On the other hand, he did not rate the British officers very highly.)

Anyway, back to Market-Garden. The operation was, to put it mildly, a fiasco. The commander of the British airborne, "Boy" Browning (who was, incidentally, Daphne du Maurier's husband) fired anyone who disagreed with his plan; Allied intelligence in fact noted the presence of a couple SS armored divisions in the drop zone, but the man who pointed it out to Browning was ordered to an insane asylum for doing so; British field radios failed to work; not all bridges were captured; some were blown up; and the only Allied soldiers to get near the final bridge at Remagen were killed or captured. The Allied soldiers fought with astonishing bravery, but bravery wasn't enough. The campaign was a failure.

The plan called for XXX Corps to advance up the single highway, which was elevated on an embankment above the Dutch polder and woods to either side. Since the Germans soon figured out that the British were funneling straight up the highway, they soon figured out that all they had to do was put all their fire onto the highway, and they'd be sure of blowing stuff up. On the elevated highway, the tanks and lorries were perfectly silhouetted targets for antitank guns or rockets, and the Germans found it criminally easy to set up ambushes.

My father spoke of the frustration of the advance. Every time the column seemed to get started, the British would stop to brew tea, allowing the Germans time to set up another ambush farther along. As long as they stayed on the highway, they were under fire all the time. A good many of my dad's buddies were killed. Another comrade won a Silver Star by pulling troopers from a burning tank.

The whole time this was going on, they were being hectored by the British MPs, who would insist that they had to be in the column, in a certain order, under fire all the time, and getting killed.

Eventually my father's company learned better---they just drove off the highway and rolled at top speed along the flat polder alongside, bypassing the traffic jam, the artillery fire, and the ambushes. They had no trouble doing this. (British intelligence stated it was impossible to drive vehicles on polder.) This drove the British MPs into a frenzy. They Yanks were Disobeying Instructions! They were Not Following Procedure! They were Endangering Discipline!

If the rest of XXX Corps had followed the example of my father's unit, they would have saved an enormous number of casualties and very possibly won the battle, thereby ending the war six months early. But. They. Were. Too. Stupid.

And so, as a result, my dad would get smashed every September 17th, as a way of dulling the painful memory.

Thirty years after the battle, I gave my dad a Father's Day present and took him to see A Bridge Too Far, the epic film of the campaign written by William Goldman and directed by Richard Attenborough. It's an extremely good film as war epics go, very accurate, and the filming was probably as logistically complex as the real battle.

My father watched the film in silence, except for a few remarks.

In the film, Michael Caine's Irish Guards fall into an ambush. The Germans are shooting from cover, British tanks are getting blown up, there's flame everywhere, it's a hideous mess. The Brits call in the air force, and Thunderbolts arrive to drop napalm on the German positions. There's flame and smoke and screaming and confusion and horrible death.

My dad leaned over to me and said, "That's pretty much what it was like."

Later, during a scene that showed a tank column advancing over an asphalt road, my dad said, "That road was actually cobblestone. The tank treads tore it up, and it turned into a mud bog."

Late in the film there's a meeting at the top of a windmill where Generals Gavin, Horrocks, Dempsey, and "Boy" Browning agree that the Arnhem operation was a failure, and that the last British paras should be withdrawn.

"I was there!" my dad said. "But I didn't know what they were talking about."

So that was pretty much the last comment my father made on Operation Market-Garden, except for the continuation of his September 17th ritual.

So last night I raised a glass to my dad and to his unit. I failed to wake with a hangover this morning, but I hope my father will forgive me.

[John Appel's blog of the battle, with photographs.]

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Saturn's Towers

The Cassini spacecraft has discovered giant structures towering in Saturn's rings. (The spike on the picture is the structure's shadow, not the structure itself.)

In recent weeks, Cassini's cameras have spotted not only the predictable shadows of some of Saturn's moons, but also the shadows of newly revealed vertical structures in the rings themselves. And these observations have lent dramatic support to the analysis presented in today's publication that demonstrates how small moons in very narrow gaps can have considerable and complex effects on the edges of their gaps, and that such moons can be smaller than previously believed.

[From Moshe Feder]

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Judicial Humor

A judge in Georgia has dismissed as frivolous the case of Captain Doctor Connie Rhodes, who asked to be excused duty in Iraq on the grounds that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen and lacked the authority to order her deployment.

Whew! The Republic is saved, yet again.

But what was really terrific was that the court's finding made savage fun of the plaintiff and her claims for fourteen whole pages. It's pretty wonderful reading.

As I can testify based on my time as a court reporter, judges taken as a class are not known for their comedic stylings; and it's nothing but terrific when a judge, faced with a baseless and witless case, points out with vicious, logical irony just how baseless and witless it is.
I was once the subject of such a lawsuit. My former agent sued my then-agent, a quondam employee of the former agent, for poaching me (and sundry other young writers) from his agency and for stealing confidential information (to-wit: my phone number, otherwise available from the phone directory). The suit was for seven figures. (I was impressed by my former agent's estimation of my earnings potential, or ten percent thereof.) Anyway, the plaintiff probably realized he was in trouble when the judge started ridiculing his case from the bench, during the course of the trial. That's never a good sign.
The comedy in this case was so good that my then-agent photocopied the trial transcript and sent it round to his clients. I still have a copy of it somewhere, just in case I'm ever in need of a good laugh.
But in the meantime, here are some choice excerpts from Judge Land's recent decision. (Sorry about the formatting problems, I can't seem to fix them.)

The Court observes that the President defeated seven opponents in a grueling campaign for his party’s nomination that lasted more than eighteen months and cost those opponents well over $300 million. Then the President faced a formidable opponent in the general election who received $84 million to conduct his general election campaign against the President.
It would appear that ample opportunity existed for discovery of evidence that would support any contention that the President was not eligible for the office he sought. To press her "birther agenda," Plaintiff’s counsel has filed the present action on behalf of Captain Rhodes.
Captain Rhodes entered the Army in March of 2005 and presently serves as a medical doctor.

The American taxpayers paid for her third and fourth years of medical school and financially supported her during her subsequent medical internship and residency program. In exchange for this valuable free medical education, Captain Rhodes agreed to serve two years in active service in the Army. She began that term of active service in July of 2008 and had no concerns about fulfilling her military obligation until she received orders notifying her that she would be deployed to Iraq in September of 2009.
Captain Rhodes does not seek a discharge from the Army; nor does she wish to be relieved entirely from her two year active service obligation. She has not previously made any official complaints regarding any orders or assignments that she has received, including orders that have been issued since President Obama became Commander in Chief. But she does not want to go to Iraq (or to any other destination where she may be in harm’s way, for that matter). Her "conscientious objections" to serving under the current Commander in Chief apparently can be accommodated as long as she is permitted to remain on American soil . . .
First, Plaintiff’s challenge to her deployment order is frivolous. She has presented no credible evidence and has made no reliable factual allegations to support her unsubstantiated, conclusory allegations and conjecture that President Obama is ineligible to serve as President of the United States. Instead, she uses her Complaint as a platform for spouting political rhetoric, such as her claims that the President is "an illegal usurper, an unlawful pretender, [and] an unqualified imposter." (Compl. ¶ 21.) She continues with bare, conclusory allegations that the President is "an alien, possibly even an unnaturalized or even an unadmitted illegal alien . . . without so much as lawful residency in the United States." ( Id. ¶ 26.) Then, implying that the President is either a wandering nomad or a prolific identity fraud crook, she alleges that the President " might have used as many as 149 addresses and 39 social security numbers prior to assuming the office of President." ( Id. ¶ 110 (emphasis added).) Acknowledging the existence of a document that shows the President was born in Hawaii, Plaintiff alleges that the document "cannot be verified as genuine, and should be presumed fraudulent." ( Id. ¶ 113 (emphasis added).) In further support of her claim, Plaintiff relies upon "the general opinion in the rest of the world" that "Barack Hussein Obama has, in essence, slipped through the guardrails to become President." ( Id. ¶ 128.) Moreover, as though the "general opinion in the rest of the world" were not enough, Plaintiff alleges in her Complaint that according to an "AOL poll 85% of Americans believe that Obama was not vetted, needs to be vetted and his vital records need to be produced." ( Id. ¶ 154.) Finally, in a remarkable shifting of the traditional legal burden of proof, Plaintiff unashamedly alleges that Defendant has the burden to prove his "natural born" status. ( Id. ¶¶ 136-138, 148.) Thus, Plaintiff’s counsel, who champions herself as a defender of liberty and freedom, seeks to use the power of the judiciary to compel a citizen, albeit the President of the United States, to "prove his innocence" to "charges" that are based upon conjecture and speculation. Any middle school civics student would readily recognize the irony of abandoning fundamental principles upon which our Country was founded in order to purportedly "protect and preserve" those very principles . . .
Plaintiff has not sought to be excused from all military service. She does not seek a discharge from the Army. She does not even seek to avoid taking military orders under President Obama’s watch. She simply seeks to avoid being deployed to Iraq.
So much for the claims of Captain Doctor Rhodes. But on the other hand, she's still a captain. In the army. And still a doctor.
If you were a serviceman and you were sent to Captain Doctor Rhodes, wouldn't you--- I dunno--- tremble? Feign wellness? Run screaming from the room? Because, y'know, some of the hay has clearly escaped the loft here, and our servicemen deserve something better.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Successful Moon Landing Test = $1Million.

Someone has qualified for the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. (Small steps, but still worth a million bucks.)

Armadillo Aerospace qualified to win a million dollars of NASA’s money today by accomplishing a rocket-powered round trip modeled after a moon landing. The team’s remote-controlled Scorpius rocket (formerly known as the Super Mod) blasted off from its Texas launch pad, rose into the sky and floated over to set down on a mock moon landing pad. After refueling, Scorpius blasted off again for what one observer called a “perfect flight” back to the original launch pad.

The judges confirmed that Armadillo satisfied all the contest requirements. Scorpius made pinpoint landings within a meter of each landing pad’s center target, according to William Pomerantz, the director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation.

That means the million-dollar top prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge will definitely be given away this year. But Armadillo’s rocketeers will still have to wait another month and a half to find out if they won, while other entrants in the competition try to do the same feat better . . .

John Carmack said: “Since the Lunar Lander Challenge is quite demanding in terms of performance, with a few tweaks our Scorpius vehicle actually has the capability to travel all the way to space. We’ll be moving quickly to do higher-altitude tests, and we can go up to about 6,000 feet here at our home base in Texas before we’ll have to head to New Mexico where we can really push the envelope. We already have scientific payloads from universities lined up to fly as well, so this will be an exciting next few months for commercial spaceflight.”

Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which manages the prize on behalf of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, said: “Carmack and the entire Armadillo team made it look easy … an overnight success after four years of hard work. Congratulations on two perfect flights. Now we’ll need to see if any other teams attempt the Level-2, Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. If no one does, then Armadillo will win $1 million in purse cash. I’m hopeful that this success will allow policymakers to see the power and success of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program.”

. . . The X Prize Foundation, which is managing the challenge with sponsorship from Northrop Grumman, estimates that the contest has generated more than 70,000 hours of skilled work on advanced rocket technologies, with just $350,000 paid out to date. In the long run, that payoff may dwarf the million dollars as well as the rocket ships built to win that cash.

“I think the government is getting a tremendous return on what they’ve put into this,” Carmack said. “When it gets to the point where we have to go and find more great people, we know exactly which people have demonstrated the right type of thinking, the right skill sets and the right determination.”

Go Armadillo!

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Heir of Skanderbeg!

So it turns out that my wife, at least on her mom's side, is a descendant of Albanian patriots and heroes. Who knew?

The person who knew was her cousin Jan, who was one of our dinner guests the other night, and who brought with her a history of the Italian Albanians, otherwise known as the "Arberesh."

During the 15th Century, Albania was preserved as a territory by the great hero Skanderbeg (short for Iskander Bey, Turkish for "Lord Alexander"), whose real name was actually Gjergi Kastrioti. During a truce with the Turks, Skanderbeg sent Albanian troops to Italy in 1448, and to Sicily in 1450, to help King Alfonso suppress rebellions. The troops arrived with their families and stayed behind in military colonies, twelve towns in the mountains around Naples and three towns near Palermo.

In 1461 Skanderbeg arrived in person to help Alfonso's bastard son Ferdinand against rebels, and the troops were given another ten villages in which to settle. Skanderbeg had to dash home to fight the Turks, but died of malaria. Albania was gradually conquered over the period of a couple decades, resulting in many Albanians fleeing to their Italian villages. Further reinforcements came from the Peloponnese (known in that time as "the Morea"), which fell to the Turks after 1500. The Greek element were gradually absorbed by the Arberesh.

The Albanian identity is preserved in these villages, which continued to provide soldiers to Neapolitan and Venetian armies through the Napoleonic wars. The villages continue to speak Albanian rather than Italian.

Apparently Kathy's ancestors came from San Costantino Albanese, which is somewhere near Naples.

Maybe she's a descendant of Skanderbeg. Maybe she can return to the motherland and bring peace and prosperity to her people. (They could use some rational management, that's for sure.)

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Got Euros . . . ?

Here we see pictures from the catalog of Dumont, one of my German publishers. This Is Not a Game got a four-page spread in the middle of the catalog! (Michelle Houellebecq, John Cheever, and Haruki Murakami only got two pages each!)
For a minute there, I thought they were going to keep the US title, but on further inspection I see the book has been retitled Off. I'm not sure what this has to do with anything, nor do I remember any carp in the book.
But hey, I'm stoked, so I'm not, you know, carping. (I had to say that before Larry Hodges did.)
Meanwhile, if you can't wait for the German edition, you can still read it in English.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lovely dinner party Saturday night, with seven people. We had linguini with Kathy's freshly-made pesto; caprici salad with basil, fresh mozzarella, and heirloom tomatoes from the farmers' market; and roast chicken coated with rosemary, garlic, and balsamic vinegar, with a red wine reduction sauce.
Dessert was Nadine's pound cake, with cream cheese frosting and fresh fruit.
Now that it's Sunday, I've been taking it easy and lolling about. Maybe I'm still digesting last night's dinner.
I've even been reading. When do I find time for that?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Technology Kicks Me in the Butt, Yet Again

For my current project, I invented some cool drone aircraft. Then reality went and invented something even cooler.

I refer to the Maveric UAS, made by Prioria Robotics. This little drone can be carried by a single person, folded up in a six-inch tube, then thrown in the air to see what's over the next hill. The drone can have a human operator, or operate on its own via GPS, and can carry two video cameras.
Capitalizing on advanced composite materials and patented technology, Maveric’s bendable-wings allow for the unparalleled ability to store a fully-assembled airframe in a six inch tube. Designed as the first smart customizable UAV, Maveric utilizes Prioria’s proprietary processing platform, Merlin®, to enable image processing and vision-based control to be performed on-board and, in general, aims to reduce reliance on ground station communication. This unique airframe design, combined with Prioria’s proprietary Merlin® gives Maveric the ability to fly in more complex environments and perform more effectively in those environments.
Or, to put it in words anyone can understand . . . Oooh. Shiny.
Here's a video of a guy taking his Maveric for a stroll.

Guess I'll have to go back into my head and invent something even cooler.


Baby-Eating Birds

[from Brad Smith]

A giant New Zealand eagle, extinct now for 500 years, may have snacked on human babies.

In a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, scientists make the case that an extinct giant predatory eagle might have been eating children. The eagle was not a scavenger, as some believed, but a deadly hunter. . .

The real significance of the paper is that the bird wasn't the scavenger that some paleontologists thought it was. It's evolutionary characteristics and brain size, as measured using CAT scans, indicate that it was more of a big-game hunter.

The paper also offers another example of how rapidly evolution can happen in a closed ecosystem like an island. The eagle's body grew much faster than its brain, in this case. This growth was apparently due to the availability of much larger prey. This prey was most likely the moa bird, but the study also suggests that the eagle might have victimized small children.

Of course, the eagles also carried Hobbits to safety, so the news isn't all bad.


Thursday, September 10, 2009


Today drifted away without my quite realizing it. I didn't post, so instead enjoy this picture I took at the Georgia Aquarium.

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Last Days in the Bunker

Wow. Adolf and I finally agree on something.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rodents of Unusual Size

I'm back from Dragoncon, and very tired and full of headache. I'm not sure why, since I actually got sufficient sleep during the convention, and had nothing to do yesterday but drowse.

Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions re my undying fame, my sincere thanks. I'll reply in more detail when I've recovered my strength.

In the meantime, please enjoy this scientific report about the Giant Rat of S/u/m/a/t/r/a/ Borneo.

A new species of giant rat has been discovered deep in the jungle of Papua New Guinea.
The rat, which has no fear of humans, measures 82cm long, placing it among the largest species of rat known anywhere in the world.

The creature, which has not yet been formally described, was discovered by an expedition team filming the BBC programme Lost Land of the Volcano.

It is one of a number of exotic animals found by the expedition team.

Like the other exotic species, the rat is believed to live within the Mount Bosavi crater, and nowhere else.

"This is one of the world's largest rats. It is a true rat, the same kind you find in the city sewers," says Dr Kristofer Helgen, a mammalogist based at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who accompanied the BBC expedition team . . .

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Online and Away

So . . . I'm off to Dragoncon. I'll try to check in with you all, but I may be having too much fun.

But since I'm going to be away for a while, I thought I'd leave you with a question.

Actually, it's the usual question. How can Walter get more fame and money?

I couldn't help but notice that this year's Hugo novel list was tilted toward people with a high online profile. Cory, Charlie, Neil, and John Scalzi all have a big web presence, and while Neal Stephenson doesn't, he's nevertheless idolized by cybergeeks for writing stuff like Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash.

It's not like I'm particularly letching for awards per se, but rather the sorts of things you get when you win lots of awards, which is to say a very large readership, respectful attention for your work, editors beating down your door, and money.

I had the whole interlinked web scenario laid out for me at this last Worldcon. "Your tweets bring people to your Facebook page, and your Facebook page brings people to your blog, and your blog brings people to your web page, and your web page brings people to your books." (Nothing in the advice about writing well, because that seems to be secondary. As we all knew, I'm sure.)

It was also explained how one person on the panel one an award. "I told all my online friends to vote for me, and they did."

More online charisma than me, I thought. Or very suggestible online friends.

How many people are really interested in tweets about what I had for lunch? If you are interested in my lunch, would you also vote me an award and buy my books when I told you to?

I asked the audience, two thirds of whom tweeted, whether they'd do Twitter if they had to pay for it. Two people raised their hands. (Just a data point, I don't really have a point about this one way or another.)

Oh well. Late night, after packing, and me not thinkin' too clear.

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Dragoncon Schedule

Here's my Dragoncon schedule, for those of you who may be attending:

Title: Writer's Apocalyptic RoundtableTime: Fri 02:30 pm Location: A601 - A602 - Marriott (Length: 1)Description: Want a chance to corner your favorite apocalyptic writer and ask them a question? Here is your chance to talk to some of the best in the business!

Title: World Building: Time: Fri 07:00 pm Location: Manila / Singapore / Hong Kong - Hyatt (Length: 1)Description: World building techniques for today's savvy readers. Tips from the best will launch your creativity toward building your own world

Title: Law and Disorder in a Dystopian FutureTime: Mon 11:30 am Location: L504 - L505 - Marriott (Length: 1)Description: All citizens are required to learn the rules of OneState, and the punishments for acting against the collective. It'll be DoublePlusUngood!

Title: Staying Afloat in an Ever-Changing MarketTime: Mon 01:00 pm Location: Manila / Singapore / Hong Kong - Hyatt (Length: 1)Description: What does the reader what? Or, better still...What do the editors want? Strategies for surviving in a rotten economy and a declining market.

Hmm . . . three of the four panels are about dystopia or the apocalypse, if you include the one on publishing (which you should). Guess I'd better saddle up and ride off with the Four Horsemen.


Reviews Too Late: Defiance

I watched my Netflix copy of Defiance the other night, and thought it would make an interesting comparison with Inglourious Basterds. I mean, here were real Jews, killing real Nazis, as opposed to cartoon Jews killing cartoon Nazis. The Bielski partisans did stuff that really mattered, like saving 1200-odd people from the Holocaust; whereas the Basterds did stuff that wouldn't have mattered much, even if it did happen. (Shoshanna did the heavy lifting in that movie; the Basterds were redundant.)

Defiance is heartening, if a bit heavy-handed. I doubt that any real partisan leader of the period would make idealistic speeches about freedom and resistance from atop a white horse--- these guys were too busy surviving to think much about political principles--- but on the other hand it was a damned stirring speech.

The film makes much of a rivalry between two of the four Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus, for leadership of the group. (The other two brothers mainly stand around and watch.) Tuvia wants to rescue Jewish civilians and wage war in a humane way, whereas Zus just wants to kill Germans, and eventually leaves to join a Soviet partisan band in order to do exactly that. The sibling rivalry is well drawn, as are the uneasy relations between the Bielski and Soviet partisans, and between the Bielskis and the surrounding civilian population, on whom they depend for food supplies.

The movie is about moral choice. To save a life is to become responsible for it, and Tuvia (Daniel Craig) takes that responsibility seriously. He'll take in anyone, even the sick and elderly, and worry about feeding them later. He later almost literally becomes Moses, leading his people in an epic migration across the Sea of Reeds--- and in case we miss the point, this happens on Passover.

In the final scene, when the Bielski group is trapped on a riverbank by soldiers and a tank and are about to be slaughtered, I had a horrid feeling I knew how the scene was going to be resolved, with a big blazing Hollywood finish . . . and I was right. (If Moses had just led the Israelites off to the right flank, where they could get into heavy woods and the tank couldn't follow, he would have made a better choice than Tuvia did in the movie.)

Still, it was a pretty darn good film. Four stars. Left me feeling good.

It was when I started looking up the historical basis for the film, I found out that pretty much all the action was invented by the director/screenwriter.

Let me explain. What the Bielskis actually did during the war was heroic, brilliant, and inspiring--- but from the dramatic point of view, dull. They built houses, they built schools, they scavenged food, they herded cows. (The movie didn't mention they had a large herd of cows. Cow-punching is just too deadly dull.) The Bielskis didn't spend a lot of time fighting Germans, they were much more interested in saving lives.

When the Germans attacked, the Bielski otriad didn't cross the Sea of Reeds in an epic migration, they just moved deeper into the forest. ("Where's the big climactic scene?" the director must have said to himself. "I know--- I'll crib a story from Exodus and throw in a tank!")

So far as I can tell (and I haven't read any of the books on the Biekskis, so I could be completely wrong) the sibling rivalry between Tuvia and Zus seems to be invented for the film. So is the detail about Zus joining the Soviet partisans. The commando raid on the German police headquarters--- to get a supply of ampicillin to cure typhus in the camp--- has to have been invented, because ampicillin wasn't available till the 1960s and wouldn't have done much for typhus anyway. A third brother, Asael, has his age changed from his mid-thirties to around twenty, apparently to give Daniel Craig more screen time as the mature leader.

So. Good movie, excellent performances, inspiring story. Not much to do with history, but that's normal for Hollywood, isn't it?

Comparison with Basterds? The movies are so different that I'm not really inspired to try.

There was one thing that needed further clarification. The movie made much of the fact that many of the men in camp had "forest wives," women who lived with them. Yet in one of Daniel Craig's inspiring speeches, he announced that it was forbidden to get pregnant. How did they resolve this contradiction? Free condom distribution? A second-base-only rule? I'd like to know how they dealt with these practicalities.

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Great Flaming Gas Bags!

Jess Nevins at No Fear of the Future has produced a history of the zeppelin pulps, a subgenre I never knew actually existed. (I thought it was all a joke.)
And yes, there really was a magazine called Spicy Zeppelin Stories.
The article details a rather unusual collaboration between pulp editor Frank Armer and the U.S. Navy, which wanted to buikl public support for its zeppelin program. (The problem: US Navy airships kept crashing in spectacularly fatal ways. The answer: start a pulp magazine, of course!)
The lead story in the first issue, in September, 1935, was “Death at 30,000 Feet,” starring John Paul Jones, Commander of the U.S. Navy Zeppelin Saratoga. Jones was clearly intended to be the poster child for the series and to act as a recruiting tool–his stories extol the safety and speed of zeppelins and confidently predict that they will be the future of air travel–but something unexpected happened: fan interest skewed away from Jones (who, to modern eyes, is colorless and one-dimensional) and toward Professor Zeppelin, the protagonist of the back-up story, “The Sargasso of the Skies.”
Modern readers dismiss Zeppelin as a Doc Savage rip-off–and, indeed, he is. Zeppelin is the “Sky Scientist.” Zeppelin is reputed to be “the smartest man in the world” and is an expert in every field. Zeppelin is assisted by a team of men, all experts in their fields, including Auberon “The Brigadier” Cooper, the world’s foremost export on aeronautics, and Hammond “Piggy” Higgins, America’s leading test pilot. Zeppelin has a floating base, the “Zeppelin of Silence,” stocked with technologically-advanced aircraft, including one-man “electric zeppelins.” The Zeppelin of Silence also a medical laboratory in which Zeppelin performs operations to remove the “sickness of evil” from the brains of criminals. And Zeppelin’s skin is deeply tanned from months spent in the open cockpit of his zeppelin.
The similarities to Doc Savage are pronounced. But it was these similarities which were the cause of Professor Zeppelin’s popularity. Doc Savage was at this time hitting its peak, both in quality and popularity, and the demand for more Doc Savage stories was greater than the supply, so Doc Savage imitations–like Jim Anthony and Captain Hazzard–were popular with readers.
So, too, with Professor Zeppelin. That a vigilante like Zeppelin should be more popular than a square-jawed, heroic Naval Commander like John Paul Jones was undoubtedly embarrassing to the Navy, but Armer was a wily veteran of publishing and knew to play to his strengths, so in the next few issues he relegated Jones to the back-up features and made Professor Zeppelin the pulp’s lead. Over the next nine issues–Complete Zeppelin Stories, like many other pulps, was bi-monthly–Zeppelin fought an increasingly colorful set of foes: the Prussian aviator Pontius Pilot; the Black Death, the “living disease;” Wu Fang, the Helium Mandarin; Dr. Okayuma, who vivisects spies in his zeppelin laboratory; Amenhotep, the simian Pharaoh of the Congo; and Baron Nosferatu, the Flying Vampire . . .
Street & Smith’s Zeppelin Story Magazine proved to be a minor hit, and its most popular characters, the humorous, tall-tale-telling cowboy “Gasbag” Gallagher and the Texas Ranger “Dirigible” Adams, made appearances in other Street & Smith pulps well into the 1940s. And Popular Publications, who in 1933 created the “weird menace” genre by turning the mediocre detective pulp Dime Mystery Book into the best-selling occult horror pulp Dime Mystery Magazine, made more money with another weird menace pulp: Strange Tales of the Black Zeppelin.
Strange Tales featured a variety of unusual characters and stories, two of which outlived Strange Tales itself. The serial “The Passenger in Berth 12,” written by Cornell Woolrich under the pseudonym of “K. Hite,” became the famous lost film noir The Passenger (1938), which starred Paul Muni and Ann Savage in her first lead role. And the series “Doctor Weird,” about an occult detective, was picked up by Chicago radio station WENR and turned into the horror drama “Doctor of Destinies.” Aided by its position following the notorious “Lights Out,” “Doctor of Destinies” was a hit for several years, and its opening was once as famous as The Shadow’s: a sepulchral voice intoning the phrase, “Do you dare step aboard the floating mansion of Anton Weird, Doctor of Destinies?”


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Feel The Burn

It makes this New Mexican's heart swell to bursting to know that the successful test today of the new all-American airborne laser assassination weapon was conducted right here in our state!

Tremble, evildoers! Someday soon you'll just be walking down the street working out your wicked schemes, and suddenly--- just as in my favorite scenes in the classic film Scanners--- your head will just explode!

For the rest of us, I recommend shiny protective headgear.

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The New Literacy

From the article by Clive Thompson (thanks to Blake Charlton).

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can't write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into "bleak, bald, sad shorthand" (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?

Andrea Lunsford isn't so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

And more.