Friday, January 23, 2015

Zombie Refritos

I hate zombies. I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer, so it's in my job description to think about these things. I don't mind them in a fantasy setting - I particularly like the draugr of Skyrim...but when the concept tried to enter the realm of science fiction...meh.

First of all, the zombies of the zombie apocalypse are frightfully boring. Always a product of a strange new disease, an engineered virus, always behaving in the same goddamned way. In groups, stumbling around, trying to kill everything that moves. They do work effectively as a metaphor for the consuming, dominating nature of contemporary American society, but that's a one-shot thing. Attack on Titan uses a similar metaphor for the giants who consume humanity, only, notice that there are no knockoffs to that series. It works once. After that, just another gimmick.

They'd be so much more interesting in a science fiction apocalypse story if they were mutated into something more sensible. The head-crab zombies of Half-Life 2 are the perfect riff off of the concept. They make zombies comprehensible in the Half-Life universe. Excellent storytelling. If you haven't played Half-Life 2, you need to get the game and experience Gordon Freeman's journey. I'm such a fan, guess who's in my home-screen background image on my phone: the G-Man.

Imitation is flattery. I chose to emulate Marc Laidlaw and the other developers at Valve in my exploration of the zombie apocalypse, the short story "Retirement Age." You can buy it here:  Much more interesting to think about the technology that could create classic zombies, who would use it, and the purposes to which they would put it.

First, there is only one technology that could hold the "promise" of creating undead creatures, nanotechnology. Diseases, even artificial ones, have a patient zero. Modern medicine understands the spread of disease. There's an entire branch of medicine focused just on this one thing, it's so important to the health of humanity. Epidemiology. Look at the smackdown the epidemiologists of the CDC - yeah, there's an entire federal agency devoted to this one thing - gave to SARS, are currently giving to Ebola, because they understand how biological entities cause disease. They understand the patterns. Blood-borne diseases find it especially hard to spread. We didn't all die of AIDS and rabies, did we? Rabies is a ferocious disease, by the way. Spread by contact with blood and body fluids, in its end stage it causes infected mammals, including humans, to become raging beasts bent on attacking and biting anything that moves. Kinda like zombies. Has the world fallen to hordes of rabies monsters? Nope. "See that man over there, foaming at the mouth and trying to bite everyone? Shoot him." Also, rabies victims loose the ability to eat or even drink, their bodies wear out after a few days, their brains eaten up from the inside, they die...for real. Nothing in nature can prevent a dead body from rotting away. If there ever were a zombie outbreak, their bodies would be eaten by dogs and pecked away into nothing by birds, rotted into the soil by bacteria. You gotta bend molecules, reshape the human body to keep it moving after death. You need micromachines.

We can't yet build spooky shit like that. If someone could, they couldn't be from the Earth. ET hates us. But why not bombard the Earth with asteroids? That'd kill us real good. The only thing is, our nice, juicy biosphere, the global ecosystem within which we live, that's unique. Even if life were everywhere in the galaxy, none of it would look like life on Earth. You're aliens, you hate us because we're a bunch of kill-crazy cave men with nukes and not a lick of sense, but you love the dolphins. You deeply crave the scent of flowers. How to smoke us without destroying the Earth's beautiful, abundant, glorious life? Asteroids out, nukes out, violence is out. We can fight back. Even engineered diseases are out, since we have just enough medical technology to defeat them.

What you need to get the job done is an army of robots programmed to kill only humans, preferably made up of humans. I suppose you could use your gnarly mind-powers to create a kill-crazy religion...only, maybe they've tried that already, didn't work out. Martin Luther was an alien? Mohammad was an alien killbot? Hong Xiuguan a telepathic ET with a grudge? What next? Nanotech. They build nanomachines, distribute them throughout the environment, wait until they reach saturation in the human population, and activate them all at once. There will be freaks with powerful immune systems who can withstand the nanomachines, so convert the infected into killing machines to hunt down the immune. Wait a hundred years - seriously, if you can build sophisticated nanomachines, you can engineer yourself to be immortal - come back, pristine Earth, beautiful biosphere intact, no more killer apes.

Isn't that just a little bit more interesting than an unexplained rampage of dead people? Not counting the draugr, of course. I <3 draugr.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When giants fight...

The two main ride-share companies are in a brawl. Well, not Lyft, mostly. Uber likes to play hardball. Remember, both these companies embody the Libertarian soul of Silicon Valley. It's an all-against-all hootenanny, where each company's drivers are pitted not only against the opposing company, but each other.

Right now, if you're thinking of driving for either company, you might want to consider that part-time job at Walmart instead. Both companies over-hired for New Year's Eve, which means in most cities there are too many drivers, too few fares. Uber wants to cut up Lyft's drivers by eliminating anyone driving for Uber who also drives for Lyft. They've designed a temporary program of perks to force their drivers into dumping Lyft. Uber also cut fares. Lyft cut fares. The get-rich-quick scheme peddled by both companies is a lie. Those perks Uber is using? If you don't follow the rules TO THE LETTER, you won't be getting that extra buck or two.

How does this make sense? It doesn't for a conventional company concerned about contractor retention and profits. It does for a startup. They don't want to make a profit, they want market-share, which they'll use on venture capitalists to generate more loans and investment. At the root, they don't care about the drivers at all. One of the two is more polite about it than the other one, but at root, yeah...

So why am I still driving? I am at the cusp of old age. The many years I spent as a caregiver, my life's work as a novelist, those aren't pluses when looking for work. I don't care about their games. I'm not in it to get rich quick. I'm in it to pay the rent. That's all. For that purpose, for the desperate, which I guess includes me, it's perfect.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Incidents on the Road

So you want to be a ride-share driver? Here's a common occurrence.

After a fare in the North Valley, a lovely couple who like to drink, and who are great rides. They tip well, too, always a plus. After taking them to their favorite neighborhood bar, I immediately get another ride request. Google leads me to a drunken young woman in the middle of the street. She's too drunk to give me her home address. It was a residential neighborhood. I approached a family out tinkering with a car in their driveway. They had no idea where she had come from. While we were talking, a man came out of the house across the street. He was this woman's boyfriend. He started screaming profanity at her. I stepped in and shouted, "Calm down!" I thought I'd have to punch him if he made a move toward the woman. Can't have that. I wasn't looking forward to it, I'm a hair's breadth away from being an old man. This guy was in his twenties. But I can't have a man beating up on a woman in my presence. Don't go there when I'm around. The father, son, and mom started shouting at the guy. The man cursed them. The dad went thermonuclear. He was going to beat the guy's head in. I stepped up and started screaming, "Everyone calm down!" Something inside me desperately wanted to prevent this family man from going to jail on ag assault charges. The wife grabbed his arm. The man stormed back into the house, the woman following him a moment later. The wife talked to her, tried to get her address before she left. The girl was just too drunk.  They were drunken guests of the woman across the street. She came out and apologized for their behavior.

If you can't do what I did that night, maybe you shouldn't be a ride-share driver. We deal with a lot of drunks. Most of the time, they're like the lovely couple at the start. Sometimes...yeah.

Personal note: I haven't been drunk since the day the first Gulf War ended in 1991. I think you can see the sense of that. I have nothing against stoners, by the way. The most someone high on cannabis has ever done to me: offer me a toke and a bag of chips. If you have to get high, smoke pot, don't drink.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ride-Share to Hell and Back

I'm a ride-share driver. This isn't a rant against the company I work for, since my experiences with them have been uniformly polite, so I won't say which of the three or five ride-share companies in existence is mine.

The first thing you learn, watch your back. The company's not out to get you for the most part, it's your passengers and the street. I work Sundays, and on a recent Sunday morning, I picked up a fellow ride-share driver. He needed transport to the impound lot. He had been carjacked the night before. Some guy walked up to his car while he was waiting for a couple of drunken women to get in, knocked on his window, stuck a big gun in his face, and made off with his car. The police had found his vehicle that morning and had it towed to the impound yard for safekeeping. The street will bite you in the ass.

What would the Birdman have done? I'd call the drunks and tell them that I was putting them on the clock AND I was going to drive around the block until they were read to go. "Call me when you're ready, I'll pick you up. The alternative, I can cancel the ride. You can call back when you're ready to go." Of course, these are my after-the-bars-close-drunks-three-in-the-moring rules. I have a different set of rules for afternoons when I'm picking up my usual fares. Always have a sense of where you are and the possible dangers around you.

Doesn't mean you have to be grumpy about it, though. I'm still cheerful to my passengers, even the drunks. I still have a positive outlook on the job, but my awareness of my surroundings has increased. My awareness was already at a high level - that's just me, a friendly nice, honest guy who has known murderers, grifters, burglars, barroom toughs, and shoplifters. Me, the nice guy, one of my ex-girlfriends was a thief who stole money from the purses of other women, who ripped off furniture to furnish her own apartment. "I'd never steal from you," she said to me once, when we were naked together. I'm honest, it's a karma thing for me. I know death is always close. Act the way the universe, quantum mechanics, M-Theory, Buddha, Jesus, the Tao, and Confucius tell you to act, and you don't have to worry about death. Just another transition. It's also the way I was raised. I honor my parents by my good behavior. But most of you fucks haven't a clue. You'll do anything to anyone to get off, get high, or get money. So, to borrow a phrase from popular culture, my Force Sense is active, my spider sense tingles, I know Voldemort is nearby...always.

That's how you have to act when you drive in an urban area, or anywhere, really. Lock your doors unless a passenger is entering or leaving. Always make sure a passenger enters their house or apartment after dropping them off. Only takes a few seconds, once they're in the door, then leave. This should be doubly true of female passengers. Women in American society are a prey species. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. It's up to all of us to change that.

Second, watch out for yourself. If a certain area creeps you out, leave that place. Don't stand there fucking around with the ride app. Don't wait on a passenger whose phone doesn't work or who won't answer their phone. GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE. Don't carry a gun or knife, it will make you overconfident. Rely on your Jedi training, on what you learned in class at Hogwarts. Listen to Master Yoda, pay attention to the Force, what it is telling you. Leave that place. "Keep you safe, it will!"

Thus ends the lesson for today.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Several of my novels are free today on amazon. My way of saying: "Merry Christmas!" to my readers. Take care this holiday season, take a Lyft if you are worried about your ability to drive. Who knows, I might be behind the wheel if you do. If I am driving you, please tip heavily.

Here's my author page on amazon:

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Case of the Haunted Computer

Back when I had a life, at least a part-time life, I fixed computers. I was also a college history instructor, but I took little joy from that job. Why? Two examples will suffice. A student disliked a grade I gave her. She complained to someone, we actually had a hearing, at which I was exonerated after many wild accusations were hurled at me. Second example: at most of my teaching gigs, I had upwards of nine bosses - supervisors on top of supervisors on top of supervisors. What the fuck?

Though it paid less, and I only worked for Gary of Gary's Computer Repair part-time - full-time during the summer - it was much more rewarding. People were actually grateful that I was able to fix their machines, retrieve files from crashed hard drives, and otherwise cure their computer ills. So I look upon my repairs with pride...unlike my other career. Even a letter of apology from the young woman who tried to get me fired didn't help. She graduated from community college and started at a big four-year university, and almost sank without a trace. Only the skills I tried to impart to her saved her. It was an awakening. That's when she sent me the note.

Long-way round to the central topic of this essay, fixing computers. One of my more memorable fixes involved sound.

This was during the summer, when Gary and his henchman were off laying CAT5 cable for a company and I was mostly alone in the shop except for another part-timer, a kid who showed up every now and again. A man brought in his PC.

    "It's making a funny noise, moaning sounds. I think the power supply is failing."
    "I'll check it out," I replied.

After he left, I took it in the back and hooked it up. There really was an odd throbbing sound coming from the thing. It was hard to locate, somewhat generalized around the case. It diminished a bit when I took the side of the case off, but it didn't go away. I started with the cheapest fix first, disconnecting the cooling fan. That stopped the noise. Not the PS after all.

Quick aside: "power supply" is a misnomer, it's just a transformer to turn alternating current from a wall socket into the direct current the computer components need. I didn't invent the term, that's what it's called...even though it's just a fucking transformer. Please don't poke screwdrivers into them, you'll get electrocuted. It's the only dangerous component inside a computer case.

I inspected the fan. After years of DIY, of part-time repair work, I could tell when a fan has gone. One sure sign: it stops spinning. Just kidding. Nope, it spun fine, no hesitation at all when reconnected. Next, the feel of the fan blades when turned off, moving them with a finger. There was none of the gritty hesitation normally apparent in a failing case fan. Good case fans "bounce back" when moved slightly with a finger. I was puzzled. I blew the thing out with compressed air, cleaned the entire case out, in fact. I even used the little homemade cleaner attachment for the shopvac on it. Dust bunnies be gone!

Another aside: fortune smiles on you if you've never had to clean out and repair computers owned by heavy smokers. Holy shit, it's disgusting. Black tarry crap over everything, gummy stuff...and it stinks. Literally stinks.

The sound was still there, especially loud when the case was put back together. I was leaning over looking inside the case when the moment of enlightenment came. My hand was inadvertently covering some of the back ventilation holes. The noise stopped. I removed my hand, the noise started. I then began to experiment with the placement of my hand. Noise starts, noise stops. It was as if I were working a flute. Which is exactly what was going on. For some reason, air flowing out the side of the ventilation grid at the back had started to make noise. By experimentation, I discovered just a few holes along the edge of the grid of vent holes were responsible for the sound. I went into Gary's office, got some scotch tape, and taped those holes along the edge closed. It wouldn't affect cooling, since only one short line was involved - like 95% of the vent holes were still open. Sound stopped for good. When the man came back for his machine, he was astounded by the fix. I showed him which holes were involved, just in case the tape needed replacement in the future. I charged him the base fee for any repair, $25, nothing more. He was so happy at the absence of that sad moan, he didn't care.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I'm still obsessing over No Country for Old Men

Don't ask me why. The story plagues my mind. There are two possibilities: the author's a scam artist who intentionally put the antagonist from a slasher movie into a noir crime drama, or it's a "metaphor." Fuck metaphors, though that choice is less damning of Cormac McCarthy. Either way, the story could have been grounded, put into a shape I might have liked, by one change.  Wells, the other narco errand boy, played by Woody Harrelson in the movie, is taken out by Chigurh in true slasher movie style. Chigurh appears from nowhere, corners Wells, and murders the hell out of him. One change would make it all better. Wells isn't sent by a competitor, he's sent by the same boss who sent Chigurh to recover the money. The boss is pissed at all the attention Chigurh's mindless rampage is bringing down on him. This has a basis in reality, unlike the story as it is. Local law enforcement isn't hung out to dry in the real world. In a drug case involving lots of bodies, the DEA, the FBI, and various state agencies would pour into the area. There'd be so many cops, they'd be bumping into each other. So the boss sent Wells to get Chigurh under control. One scene and Chigurh is transformed from a hellish Jason Voorhees into a real-world hitman. Chigurh corners Wells, but Wells reacts this way...


    "Point that little toy of yours somewhere else or I'll ram it up your ass. You know who sent me, dickhead. You know what will happen to you if you ignore what I have to say."
    Chigurh's demeanor changed slightly. A flicker of doubt crossed over his eyes. He lowered the mutated shotgun and hid it under his jacket.
    "What the fuck do you think you've been doing here?"
    "Getting back his money."
    "No, you've been spreading bodies all over the landscape. The fucking feds are involved. A couple of the dead men are linked to men who are linked to the boss, so now the boss has heat on himself thanks to your fucked up killstreak. What otherwise would have been a bunch of dead narcotraffickers in the desert has become a manhunt for you. They have a hard-on for the boss, they want you to take them to him. That's not going to happen, because you're going to ditch your weird little toys. Throw them in a lake. I've brought some tools we'll use, but only if we have to. Nobody anybody gives a shit about dies. No store owners, no cops, nobody. The cartel has people involved..."
    "We'll have to kill them."
    "Well, yeah. They're only here because of the mess you made."
    Chigurh was now contrite, as if the murders he had committed were school-boy pranks. His face took on some character, it was no longer dead. He looked at Wells with appealing childish eyes. "Will I be forgiven?"
    "You're already forgiven. You do good work, but you get carried away. Need to calm down, man."
    "You're here to help."
    "Yes. He would have sent the other ones down if you were in serious shit with him. Let's go out to the car and get my bang-bangs."
    Chigurh smiled. He must have smiled before at some point in the past, because the expression did not surprise Wells. "What did you bring?"
    "Clean weapons. Silenced .22s, a silenced Mac-11. I figure you'll want the Mac."
    "Yeah." It was drawn out. "Too bad about my other stuff."
    "We're going to have to ditch those. You can make more later."
    They left the room.


See? Metaphor or misplaced Freddy, keeping Wells alive, shaming Chigurh makes him human, which also makes him more sinister. Wells and Chigurh wipe out the cartel guys, leave with the money. Moss's wife isn't murdered by Chigurh, she's killed in a car accident driving back from his funeral. To me, this is a more satisfying story. I hate Jason and Freddy anyway. Don't mind Pinhead too much, though. Regardless, they don't belong in noir crime fiction. Noir addresses the underlying harsh realities of human existence. To mess with it by inserting metaphors or creeps from horror movies is an insult to the genre.