Not Even Close

Now there’s a misleading headline!

According to CBS Denver, “Startup Offers ‘100 Percent Fatal’ Procedure To Upload Your Brain“.

Even a cursory reading of the article, something the headline writer must have neglected to do, reveals quite a different story.

What Nectome is actually offering to do is plasticize not-quite-dead people. Or maybe “glassticize” would be a better word; the article says the process will turn a body into “a statue of glass” that will last for centuries.

Regardless, there’s no cloud upload involved. The founders of the company are just hoping to preserve bodies at the instant their process kills their clients in the hope that someday there will be a way to read the memories locked in the glass brains and computerize them.

Assuming this isn’t a hoax–and it wouldn’t be the first time a news agency has been fooled–it’s still a horribly speculative notion. Reaching their goal would require at least three major and separate medical and technological breakthroughs:

There’s no evidence that memories are preserved in the brain after death. Nobody is anywhere close to reading memories out of a living brain, much less a dead one. And AI technology capable to preserving a human mind is even farther from realization.

I only see only significant difference between Nectome’s approach and the bizarre idea of cutting someone’s head off after they die and freezing it in the hope science will eventually be able to unfreeze it intact and grow it a new body: if you get Nectomed, your heirs can stand you up in the corner of the living room, instead of paying thousands of dollars to a cryogenic facility.

Someone needs to remind Nectome’s founders that it’s only in the performing arts that you can legitimately suggest that someone go out and knock ’em dead.

A Small Silver Lining In an Enormous Black Cloud

About that mid-October posting hiatus…

To put it briefly, my father passed away on October 11.

We all knew it could happen at any time, but none of us expected it when it happened. I’ll skip the details; you don’t want to hear them and I don’t want to relive them. He had been dealing with cancer for a long time; let’s leave it at that.

I said “dealing with” rather than “fighting” or “battling” very deliberately. Dad disliked the phrase “battling cancer”. His opinion was that thinking about it as a battle gives the disease too much of your time and energy. Far better, he believed, to acknowledge the effects cancer had on your life, make the necessary accommodations, and spend your real effort on doing what you love.

And yes, those accommodations include seeing a reputable physician who can explain the treatment options, their possible side effects, and all of their possible outcomes. (Side note–and this applies to any area of medicine, not just cancer treatment: if someone tells you there’s only one possible treatment, that a treatment is guaranteed to work, or that there are cures that are being suppressed by the medical establishment to preserve their profits, that person is not a reputable physician. They’re either sincere but deluded or, more likely, a scam artist. Either way, do not entrust your life to them. End of sermon.)

In Dad’s case, doing what he loved meant, in no particular order, spending time with the family (and especially with his grandson), cheering for the Mariners, and writing. He did plenty of the first two, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

He began writing his biography of Brun Campbell after he started chemotherapy. Forgetfulness and fatigue are common side effects, and Dad had them both. In the spirit of accommodation, he worked around them. He’d always been a note-taker, so he took more–and more detailed–notes. He took rest breaks when he needed them.

And, much as he hated to let anyone see his work before it was finished, he allowed a few people he trusted to read early drafts of the biography. I was pleased and honored to be one of those people, and as it turned out, we enjoyed working together more than either of us had expected we would.

Let me take a step back in time here. Even thought Dad spent twenty-five years as a specialist in high-risk obstetrics, and did it very well, he never considered it his true calling. In 1995, he retired from medicine and devoted himself to his real career: storytelling. Not “writing”: putting words on a page was just the mechanism for telling his stories. With that background, you can see why he was pleased, flattered, and more than a little amused when I stepped away from the tech industry to devote myself to telling my own stories.

Dad was delighted when I asked him to be one of my beta readers, and he always had excellent suggestions for improving my novels. He had a great ear for characters’ voices. Whenever he told me “I don’t think he’d say that,” he was invariably correct.

In addition to teaching me to listen to my characters, he was always there to remind me that rejection is inevitable in this field, and that the proper response to a setback is a push forward.

That was his attitude to more than writing. He handled disappointing medical news–an elevated PSA, an uncomfortable or awkward side effect, a new shadow on an X-Ray–the same way: “Onward!” If he was very tired or achy, he might drop the exclamation point, but that was as far as he would compromise.

When Dad finished Brun’s story–and it was at least as much a story as a history; Brun lived his life wrapped in fiction, much of it of his own creation–he needed a new writing project. Dad wasn’t going to stop telling stories, but he was concerned about his stamina, unsure if he could still write an entire novel. He had been kicking around some ideas for a time travel story for several years, and he knew I had recently shelved a time-travel novel that wasn’t working out. (That’s one of those coincidences you can’t put in a novel, because your audience will just laugh at the unreality. Fiction is limited, but reality has more flexibility.) We had worked well together on the Brun book and he thought we could expand on that.

When he asked if I would be interested in collaborating on a novel, I jumped at the opportunity and put my current project aside. We discussed some ideas about the story, and on August 18, 2015, he starting writing the first draft of Chapter One of what eventually became The RagTime Traveler. We wrote five drafts over the next ten months–incredibly fast work by both of our standards–and on June 10, 2016, we declared the book complete.

The first draft took five months; the next four averaged less than half that long. Rewriting is always faster than writing. When we took stock at the end of Draft 01, we knew we had something solid. So we did the logical thing: we started making plans for our second collaboration. I wanted to do a baseball book, something set before the modern era, and it took Dad no more than a tenth of a second to agree. He had some story ideas and so did I, so we put them together, roughed out a very high-level overview of where we thought we were going, and then started Draft 02.

When we declared The RagTime Traveler finished, we sent it to Poisoned Pen Press. They had published Dad’s previous mysteries, and we figured they’d like this one. We didn’t wait to hear from them, though. We immediately started working on Mo’less Jones. When PPP requested some changes to TRTT, we put Mo’less aside long enough to do the rewrite, and then dived back into it.

In late September, PPP sent us a contract for The RagTime Traveler. (Side note: Any publisher’s standard contract is going to favor the publisher’s interests over the writer’s–that’s no different than any other field. So if you’re offered a contract, read it, be sure you understand it, and if there are any clauses you don’t like, negotiate. Maybe the publisher will make changes, maybe they won’t, but if you don’t ask, they certainly won’t. End of sermon.)

Dad and I had a few concerns, so we decided which ones were the most important and sent PPP a counter-proposal. While we waited for their response, we agreed what we would do if PPP didn’t agree to our requested changes–and kept working on Mo’less Jones.

PPP’s response was favorable, but Dad died while we were still working through the formal process of revising the contract and confirming the changes were correct before we and PPP signed it.

Dad was excited about seeing TRTT published. He and I had been making plans for publicizing the book right up to the week he died. He won’t get to see it, and many of those plans have gone out the window with his passing, but at least he knew it was going to be published. Small consolation, yes, but it does help.

The RagTime Traveler will be released by Poisoned Pen Press in June 2017. It’s already up for pre-order at some booksellers. Over the next six months, I’ll be posting updates, doing a cover reveal, and generally whipping you all into a buying frenzy. Consider yourselves warned.

Mo’less Jones is on the Disabled List. Dad was wildly enthusiastic about the way the story was developing. So am I, for that matter. But I’m not ready to face that next chapter. For the first draft, we were taking turns writing chapters. I finished Chapter Thirteen* the day before Dad went into the hospital and most mornings I wake up with a little voice in the back of my head saying “Maybe Dad’ll have Chapter Fourteen ready for me to read today.”

* My superstitious side insists there’s some significance in that, and refuses to listen to the rational side when it points out that nothing bad happened after we finished any of our previous Chapter Thirteens.

If you’ve lost a loved one, you know that kind of reaction is typical. So are the grief spasms when I find something interesting online and realize I can’t tell Dad about it, the more-than-usually fragmented attention span, and the days that are just plain unproductive. So I do the best I can in acknowledging the problems, making accommodations, and getting on with doing the things I love.

Until that little voice shuts up, Mo’less Jones is going to ride the pine, but I will tell that story. For now, his position (center field) will be covered by the solo project I set aside when Dad and I started The RagTime Traveler. Progress is slow, but it is progress.



Bear with me while I try to parse this.

With the reports out of Minneapolis confirmed, it’s official: he’s now “The Former Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.”

What, too soon? We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I’m firmly in the “laughing so you don’t cry” camp whenever possible. It’s the same principle (no pun intended) that encourages wakes to emphasize music, jokes, and happy memories of the dead. If I’d had an equivalent line on tap for David Bowie back in January, I would have used it just as quickly.

I’ll freely admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Prince’s music; I enjoyed it when I heard it, but didn’t seek it out. But the loss of a unique voice can’t help but diminish the world, and Prince’s was, if you’ll forgive a misuse of the English language, more unique than most.

I just know we’re in for a rehash of “The Year of Death for Rock Stars”. Please, everyone, try to resist the temptation. Yes, we’ve had several more well-known musician deaths. Yes, I know Prince was only 57. But again, a certain number of deaths are statistically expected across any field of endeavor. And, probably more to the point, the media hype has sensitized our brains to deceased musicians. I’ll confidently assert that we’ll lose at least three more rock musicians who can legitimately be described as “famous” before the end of the year. I’d love to be wrong about that, naturally, but the odds don’t favor it–have you looked at last year’s list of deaths on Wikipedia?

But back to Prince.

He’ll be missed, just as we’re missing all of the creators–famous or otherwise–who’ve died, retired, or otherwise stopped creating. And, as always, the proper response is to step up and create something yourself.

And if you’re inspired to do something to memorialize Prince, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Me, I’d be tempted to go buy a Corvette–red, of course–but the $23.09 in my pocket isn’t going to cut it. On the other hand, I rock a pretty mean beret. Amazon’s got those starting at $0.99.

Don’t They Normally Go In Threes?

There’s much hullabaloo in the media today over a pair of deaths.

The tech community, we are told, is mourning the imminent demise of Winamp. Back in its day (the late 90s and early 00s), Winamp was the media player of choice on Windows.

Many of the online obituaries are praising Winamp for all it did in popularizing the concept of “skins”: the ability for users to redesign the application’s appearance and functionality in a shareable fashion. A user could change the background graphic, rearrange the controls in a way that he felt was more intuitive, and even add or delete controls. Those changes could then be bundled up and shared with others.

The problem was that Winamp did such a good job of implementing skins that it started a fad for skinning. For a while there in the early 00s, it seemed like the first question asked about any new program, regardless of what it did, was “Is it skinnable?”

“Hey, check out this great new word processor! It makes everything else obsolete!”

“Really? Is it skinnable?”

“Well, no.”

“Ah, forget it. It’s doomed.”

“What? Why would you want to skin a word processor?”

OK, I exaggerate, but only a little.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the expectation that programs should allow you to customize taskbars, keyboard commands, and menus derives directly from Winamp’s pioneering efforts in skinning. That’s a good thing, but boy were the intermediate steps ugly.

“Ugly” brings us to our second celebrity death. “Celebrity psychic” Sylvia Browne died Wednesday.

Ms Browne made in excess of $3 million a year through a combination of aggressively-marketed books on spiritual and religious topics and high-priced psychic readings.

She’s notably famous for her failed predictions. Repeated attempts to validate her work as a “psychic detective” have unanimously resulted in conclusions that she has never gotten a prediction correct. She’s assured parents that their kidnapped children will be found alive years after they were actually killed, and contrarily, kidnappees have escaped their captors years after Ms Browne told the world they were dead. Perhaps the most prominent such failure was the case of Amanda Berry, who was kidnapped in 2003. In 2004, Ms Browne told Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead. Her survival and escape earlier this year made news around the world.

It’s entirely typical that Ms Browne’s prediction of her own death was wrong: as many have noted, she predicted in 2003 that she would die at age 88. She only missed by 11 years.

Despite her uninspiring track record and her 1992 criminal conviction for investment fraud and grand theft, she continued to counsel the bereaved, charging a reported $850 for a 20 minute telephone session.

As of this writing, her website has not been updated. It still assures us that she will “psychically reach into your soul, pull out your Chart, and then recite back to you those things you have already planned for yourself.” How nice. Why would I pay somebody to go poking around in my soul and then tell me things I already know? Given her past, one would hope she at least washed her psychic hands before reaching into peoples souls, but the website doesn’t say anything about proper sterilization practices.

Any accusations that I’m being heartless in poking fun at the dead will be cheerfully ignored. I consider her actions to be fraud on the same level as those practiced by the Marks family, currently being tried for fraud in Florida.

My joy in knowing that Ms Browne will no longer be committing theft and destroying lives is tempered only by the knowledge that her son Chris is still following in her footsteps.

Winamp’s sins have largely been forgiven and forgotten. Sylvia Browne’s have not.

In both cases, however, it truly can be said that an era has ended.

Winamp, rest in peace.

Sylvia, go and sin no more.