Friday, February 27, 2009

Penelope’s Business (Or, Loose Threads)

“That is the way this damned business works,” Penelope explained.

Her ex-boyfriend just listened as Penelope continued.

“Sara plays a tough girl on TV. So, when the two of you
get mugged, the media reports it with you getting knocked down
and Sara beating up the muggers, not what really happened.
This will be hours and hours of free publicity for Sara.
Her show will get millions of new viewers. Everyone profits.
Therefore that’s the way it goes in the press, columns and gossip.
You’re not a celebrity so nobody cares what you did
or didn’t do, what did or didn’t happen to you. Business
is business. Especially in this business. And the one thing
nobody in this business cares about is truth-for-truth’s-sake.
The patron saint of this business is Pontius Pilate. What’s truth?
Truth is what moves the project forward. Black ink, not red, is truth.
Hell, I’ve got a show around me like Sara. I’m part of this.”

“So what is all this to you?” Penelope’s ex-boyfriend asked.

Penelope said, “My interests are—let’s see—Byzantine.
If the real truth came out then Sara would look like a loser.
And that would suit me fine. Her little show’s on opposite mine.
If people turn off her there’s always a chance they’d turn me on.
But if the real truth did come out then you would be a hero.
And that would piss me off. After all, you dumped me for Sara.
After, I might add, I was nice enough to bring you out here.
And get you your first job. I love when business gets personal.”

“So where does all this leave you?” Penelope’s ex-boyfriend asked.

“Screwed,” Penelope said. “That’s nothing new. That’s this business, too.
Everyone adapts. Learns to deal with it. Learns to handle it.”

“So how will you handle it?” Penelope’s ex-boyfriend asked.

“Last night,” Penelope said, “I spent hours with a producer
from that tabloid TV show the hicks like. Tomorrow they’ll run
a segment re-creating Sara’s version of what happened.”

“So why did you arrange that?” Penelope’s ex-boyfriend asked.

Penelope made a spitting sound. She tugged at a loose thread
on her sweater. The thread got longer. She said, “That’s my business.”

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Star Above The Bug

Today I’ve got an astronomy thing to talk about and a bug thing. They’re not really related, but what they have in common is that they’re both kind of cool things that are easily visible if you keep on the look out.

Today’s post is more jambled than I’d like because I’ve been kind of tired and distracted lately. I keep getting up early to look for Comet Lulin, and I’ve got a lot on my mind with my house up for sale. [Just yesterday I got yelled at by a local politician because I threw out too much trash for the garbage men to take at one time. So I had to get more tired by shuttling two-thirds of the heavy stuff into my garage to put out gradually over the next three trash days.]

Crescent Venus

Just about everybody must have seen Venus very bright and very white in the western sky after sunset. But there is something almost magical about Venus right now. If anyone has a telescope—any kind of telescope, even a small one—a telescope reveals Venus to actually look like this. Venus right now is crescent Venus.

All through March, in fact, Venus will be moving closer to Earth and the crescent will be getting thinner and thinner. Toward the end of March only something like two or three percent of Venus will be illuminated. Oddly, as the crescent of Venus becomes ever thinner Venus only becomes slightly less bright.

March is a great month to check out Venus. There’s something almost magical in the odd beauty of the simple white glowing crescent.


About a week ago I was walking home from the local library. At a busy intersection I stopped to wait for traffic and I found myself looking around, thinking something was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I looked at a bush right next to the sidewalk. There was one dried leaf blowing on an empty branch. I stepped closer to the leafless bush and looked more closely at the one dried leaf.

It wasn’t a leaf at all. It was a cocoon!

It looks almost exactly like this.

It’s a bagworm cocoon. Right next to a busy sidewalk—right next to where school buses pick-up and drop-off kids—a bagworm larva built a home and now a bagworm moth is growing up inside there, waiting for the warm weather to start so it can come out and be a pest.

Even though bagworms are ‘pests’ I’m pulling for the moth. I’m hoping the kids don’t notice the cocoon and wreck it or bring it indoors where the heat may cause it to hatch prematurely. I’ll do a post later in the spring if I notice the cocoon has opened.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thrift Shops: Sex And Conspiracies

Back in December, I did a post [Egyptian Queen, Grace Slick, Beyond Apollo] about how nothing is good any more in pop culture. Nothing.

Monday afternoon I had a talk with a middle-age guy from Poland who told me a conspiracy theory about thrift shops. I’ll get to the conspiracy theory in a few paragraphs. But talking about thrift shops reminded me that a few decades ago Andy Warhol pointed out—in typical Andy Warhol fashion!—that there are things which are worse than nothing:

With everything changing so fast, you don’t have a chance of finding your fantasy image intact by the time you’re ready for it. What about all the little boys who used to have fantasies about girls in beautiful lace bras and silk slips? They don’t have a chance of finding what they’d always looked forward to, unless the girl had just made a trip to the local thrift shop, and that’s worse than nothing.


So Monday afternoon I was talking to a guy from Poland who’s been living in the suburbs here south of Chicago for a few years. He’s very well-connected, very in-touch. I told him I was emptying out my house and I had a lot of my parent’s Catholic memorabilia—mostly old rosaries and crucifixes—that I was trying to donate to an appropriate charity. I asked him if he knew of any. (I think of myself as a gung-ho Evangelical, but the Oliver Cromwell inside my deepest secret soul isn’t Cromwellian enough to just throw away rosaries and crucifixes.) He suggested I talk to a local priest.

But, then he glanced around and stepped closer to me. “You know,” he said, whispering now, “that you shouldn’t take stuff like that to a thrift shop, right?”

I’ve donated clothing to a thrift shop but nothing else. I’d never heard anything bad about thrift shops, however. I said, “Umm, no, I didn’t know that. Why not?”

Thrift shops just throw out Catholic stuff,” the guy said. “The people that own those stores have gotten together and decided that since they have so many Muslims shopping there now they don’t want any trouble so they just throw away Catholic stuff like rosaries.

As a general rule I don’t get into conspiracy chats with people in real life, so I just nodded and wrapped up the discussion.

I’ve looked around the internet and I don’t see any posted conspiracies about thrift shops being anti-Catholic. Maybe this is just a local rumor. Or maybe it’s the start of a new conspiracy theory that will spread. Time will tell.

So, that’s my thrift shop post. I like the Warhol bit best.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Comet Lulin Update

Just about six hours ago I was standing in my backyard freezing and looking at Comet Lulin!

I wrote about Comet Lulin last week.

This morning I got up a little before 3 a.m. and I pulled on a pair of jeans over the warm-up pants I sleep in. I put on a scarf and jacket and took my binoculars out into the backyard.

I had worked out a plan.

I knew from the finder chart I posted last week that last night Comet Lulin should be somewhere close to Saturn. Saturn is easy to find in the sky, and right now Saturn is just north of Sigma Leonis. The combination of Saturn and Sigma Leonis is great because the two objects so close together let you orient yourself in the sky to the directions in the finder chart, and also to the distances in the finder chart.

My plan was simply to start with a field of view around Saturn and Sigma Leonis and then check three ways: Down and to the left, straight down and down and to the right. Comet Lulin should have been visible just about two or three times the distance away from Sigma Leonis that Sigma Leonis is away from Saturn.

With my binoculars I saw nothing. It was very cold outside so I didn’t stand around long enough for my eyes to dark-adapt. Also I kept my binoculars hand-held.

But I didn’t give up.

I haven’t blogged about this, but around Christmas I bought myself a present. I bought myself a very inexpensive 4" refractor. This one. Of course it’s achromatic not apochromatic (apochromatic refractors typically cost a thousand dollars per inch of aperture!) and I have it mounted on a light tripod, but at 102mm it gathers more than four times the light of my binoculars and more than three times the light of my 2.4" refractor. Also it has an image erector, so up/down/left/right are all in the ‘proper’ directions.

So, after I didn’t see anything with my binoculars I tried my new f/5 4" refractor.

I checked south and to the east of Saturn and Sigma Leonis and saw nothing. Then I checked straight south along the line of Saturn to Sigma Leonis and there it was, Comet Lulin!

It was very dim. Under these skies south of Chicago I saw the comet as a colorless, indistinct smudge. But I did see it!

It reminded me a lot of what M13 in Hercules looks like under our awful skies. And, of course, that’s why Charles Messier made his catalogue in the first place, so that he wouldn’t mistake things like M13 for new comets.

I didn’t stay outside long in the cold, but I wish I had observed longer. I had already packed up my 2.4" telescope getting ready to move. I wish I had taken the time to unpack my old telescope and check out Comet Lulin with the 2.4". If it looks like the skies will be clear tonight, I might unpack my old telescope and check out Comet Lulin again tomorrow.

Comet Lulin is now speeding away from Saturn and Sigma Leonis toward Regulus. For the next few days, the combination of Regulus and Rho Leonis should make a good pair of objects to orient against. Comet Lulin will be passing directly south of Rho Leonis.

I’m not generally a big fan of Microsoft products, but I want to say that Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope helped me prepare a little bit for tracking down Comet Lulin. Yesterday afternoon I plotted Saturn and Sigma Leonis using the WWT software. Then I zoomed out so that I could see Spica to the east. That gave me a very realistic image of the sky to study before heading out under the real thing.

I’m pretty sure there must be a way to download the orbital elements of Comet Lulin into the WWT, but I haven’t looked around. Once you do that, you can just plot the comet itself.

So, the year is starting out pretty cool, from an astronomy point of view. It’s been more than ten years since I’ve seen a comet. Comet Lulin is pretty dim, but it’s still a new comet!

(I’ve got a new bug post to do, too, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. I didn’t expect any bug posts during the winter, but I had a very interesting encounter outside with the insect world a few days ago. And speaking of new and unexpected things, just yesterday I heard a cool new conspiracy theory about thrift stores. I may get to that tomorrow, or I may wait and do that along with an Andy Warhol comment on thrift stores. I’m not sure.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

T. J. Pughe: Chip-Making Fool




“I first assumed, of course, embezzlement,” T. J. Pughe said. He
stared at his production manager. Pughe continued, putting
his hand on a stack of accounting print-outs. “But these records
balance perfectly. I concluded, therefore, that the facts speak
for themselves. I don’t understand them. But I accept them. Now
I want you to tell me about this. How the hell did you boost
net profits by almost two percent? And why the hell did you
bury the gains and savings in summary reports instead
of celebrating this in a flash memo and also in
your accomplishment analysis? Why did you want to see
me pissed off and suspicious when just as easily you could
see me licking my chops at the profit increase and signing
off on a kick-ass raise for you? Tell me what you did. And why.”

The production manager of Pughe’s silicon chip foundry
in Zion, Wisconsin, frowned, shrugged and made a dismissive wave
with his hand. “Come on, boss,” Jerry Kaplan, the manager, said.
“Don’t micro-manage. A two percent year hardly qualifies
as a gift from God. Why take off the gloves here? Why turn hands-on?”

“Look, I know you modified your line,” Pughe said. “Normally I
don’t give a damn how a guy runs his shop. But I run six shops.
You kick two percent. If I transfer your kick to all my shops
Pughe Chipworks realizes a twelve percent kick overall.
Anything over ten percent does drop down gift wrapped from God.
Now come on, buddy. Pughe Chipworks needs a new pair of shoes. Give.”

Kaplan rubbed his chin. He took a long breath, let it out slowly.
“Boss,” Kaplan said, “as a personal favor, can we just let
this go?” Kaplan met his chairman’s eyes level, firm and steady.

“No,” Pughe said, immediately, his voice as level, firm and
steady as his gaze. “I never do favors with my eyes closed.
If you want to talk favors, do it after I know the score.
Now don’t make me ask again. Tell me everything. In detail.”

Kaplan signed, nodded. “Okay, boss. But can we talk in a car?
I want to introduce you to Pughe Chipworks’ smallest account.”


They took a company car. Kaplan drove. They headed down through
Zion proper, toward the sprawling south side. Kaplan pointed south.

“Down there,” Kaplan explained, “they call the area ‘South Zion.’
They think of themselves as a little city on their own. They
don’t like the big industry up north or the commercial strips
downtown. They like their little neighborhoods. Little businesses.”

“Neighborhood stores,” Pughe said, laughing. “I used to go to those things
as a kid in Chicago. Forty years ago. Horrible
places. Lots of slow, unpleasant old people standing behind
dusty counters. No selections. Neighborhood types gossiping
instead of buying things. And all the mechanics of retail
duplicated in every store on all the blocks. Delivery
people spending all day in one neighborhood making trivial
drops to mom and pop shops. No economies of scale. Bad news.
Warehouse outlets, mall centralization and TV sales brought
beautiful rationality to retail. And dispersing
industry to outlying fringe areas brought real beauty
to neighborhoods, clearing out the smoke, the factories, the riff-raff.”
Pughe shook his head. “Neighborhood life. People living in the past.
Living without real plan, design. Safety nets for idiots.”

Kaplan smiled. “Plan and design. Neighborhoods represent a kind
of emergent order. You know. Natural complexity.”

“Pure crap,” Pughe said. “You want complexity, look at Pughe Chipworks.
You want order, look at the mask for any one of our chips.
Rationality means planning something and then living it.
Neighborhoods only exist because some people won’t or can’t
approach life rationally. Can’t comprehend the big picture.
Can’t comprehend the interconnectedness of everything.
Can’t comprehend that everything must consider and account
for its relationship to everything. Living means design.”

Kaplan stopped at a red light. He put on the left-turn signal.
“We need to stop,” Kaplan said, “at a library a few blocks
from here. A little neighborhood library. No computers,
no microfilm, no videotapes. Just lots and lots of books.”

Pughe frowned. “Don’t tell me this library buys chips direct from us?”

Kaplan made the left turn. “No. But sometimes in the afternoon
the librarian keeps track of Henderson Fletcher. He buys
direct. And Pugh Chipworks’ smallest account doesn’t own a phone.”

“Someone who buys chips straight from us doesn’t own a phone?” Pughe asked.

“Not only does Hendy Fletcher buy direct, but he also
engineers his own masks. And he also dreamed up the line mod
that kicked our net profits up two percent. I can’t wait for you
two to meet. Hendy loves neighborhoods. Loves neighborhood living.”


Kaplan parked in a lot next to a two-story brick building.
The building filled half the block, the parking lot the other half.

“It doesn’t look like much on the outside,” Pughe said. “I think my
own library at home probably contains more square footage.”

Kaplan started to say something, then stopped. He shouted and waved.
“Hey, Hendy!” Kaplan called. A middle-aged man at a bike rack
next to the library looked over, then waved back. He mounted
a clunker three-speed and pedaled over. He stopped by Kaplan.

“Hey, Jay,” the man said. “I can’t talk now. A guy from Chinatown
traded me a year of self-defense lessons for an accounts
receivable package. I want to lose some weight this winter.”

“We need to talk,” Kaplan said. “Hendy Fletcher, meet T. J. Pughe.
T. J., meet Henderson Fletcher. Hendy, T. J. discovered
your modifications to our line’s calibration routines.”

Fletcher smiled. “Nothing lasts forever.” He extended his hand
to Pughe. “Wow. Fantastic. The founder, chairman and CEO
of Pughe Chipworks. You get good press in Newsweek. How do you do?”

“I do very well,” Pughe said, smiling, shaking Fletcher’s hand. “You?”

“No time to talk now,” Fletcher said. “Maybe we can talk later.”
Fletcher asked Kaplan, “Who tipped your boss? Gilder the Beard again?”

Kaplan’s eyes went wide. “You know, that never occurred to me! I
just assumed T. J. saw the surplus in the year-end reports.”

“We can talk later if you want,” Fletcher said. “Can you meet me
at the rehearsal hall in about two hours? Jimmy won’t mind.”

“Sure,” Kaplan said. “The warehouse on Ruby Street. We’ll see you there.”

Fletcher pedaled away. He waved. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Pughe.”

Pughe turned to Kaplan. “So you changed the cal and cleaning routines?”

Kaplan said, “Tell me, boss, just how did you notice the surplus?”

“Come on,” Pughe said. He opened the car door. “Let’s get some coffee.
We need to kill two hours. I’ll tell you things and you’ll tell me things.”


Kaplan parked along the curb next to a block-square, three-story
brick building. Kaplan said, “We can get coffee across the street.
A company called ‘Tulip Footcare’ based their headquarters here.
Last year they moved to Utah. Now they just rent out the building
as blank space—offices, storage rooms. Neighborhood musicians
rent the receiving dock and warehouse. They like the sound and space.”

Pughe frowned. “I don’t want to listen to teenagers bang on drums
and scratch guitar strings for two hours. Let’s just wait in a restaurant.”

“Well, let’s get some coffee,” Kaplan said, “then give a quick listen
at the warehouse. Don’t worry. You never know what you might hear.”

“I can imagine the restaurants around here,” Pughe said, sighing.
“Stools, counters, big coffee makers and long, greasy griddles, right?”

“Don’t forget,” Kaplan said, “cute teenage girls in pink waitress clothes.”

Kaplan and Pughe walked to a corner restaurant across the street
from the former headquarters building of Tulip Footcare.

A cute teenage girl in a pink dress called, “Hello!” to Kaplan.

“Hi, Linda!” Kaplan said. “We need a couple of bags to go.”

Kaplan stayed standing. Pughe sat down. “A couple of bags?” Pughe asked.

“Custom around here,” Kaplan explained, “lets anyone come to
rehearsals. But anyone who can afford it should bring food.”

The waitress approached behind the counter. “What can I get you?”

Kaplan said, “I’ll spring for five burgers, everything, five hot dogs,
everything, no peppers, two coffees and a six-pack of Coke.”

The waitress pressed keys on an electronic cash register.
The order and prices appeared on a full-color display
at the register and another display over the grill.

Kaplan paid. Pughe stared at the bright screens. He stood up. Pughe said, “Hey.”
Pughe leaned over the counter to get a close look at the screens.
He said to the waitress, “Nice point-of-sale terminal. What brand?”

“Do you like it?” she asked, smiling. “Watch this.” She pressed a key, twice.
The color screen filled with a sharp image of Harrison Ford.
Every few seconds, the image switched to other handsome men.
“Pretty cool, huh?” the waitress said. “When Tony works the counter
it shows pinup girls. Sometimes I keep Harrison Ford all day.
It can do lots of neat little tricks. It can show TV, too.”

Pughe stared at the high-resolution color screen. “Who makes it?”

The waitress said, “A neighborhood guy put all this together.”

Pughe nodded. The waitress smiled and left to wipe down the counter.
Pughe looked at Kaplan. “Let me guess. Henderson Fletcher made this.”

Kaplan leaned on the counter. He smiled, then smiled wider, nodded.

Pughe sighed. “Why on Earth did you want to keep this guy under wraps?”

“Boss,” Kaplan said, “before we leave South Zion you will know all.”


Kaplan carried two bags. Pughe carried one. They walked to the back
of the Tulip Footcare building. At the asphalt and concrete
shipping area, gusting wind created whirlpools of dust.
Weathered plywood, gray and splintered, covered the ground floor windows.
Black-red-orange rust splotches and lines spread across the wide, roll-down
metal door at the dock. Next to the big door, three metal steps
led up to a regular door, also metal and rusty.

Pughe stood at the three metal steps. Litter blowing in the wind
made crackling noises against the concrete and rusty metal.
Pughe looked at Kaplan. “It doesn’t look too inviting, does it?”

Kaplan walked up the steps, looked back at Pughe. “Neither do we, eh?”

Pughe said, “Speak for yourself, Mister California Casual.
Every stitch on this body of mine comes straight from London’s best.”

Pughe followed Kaplan up the steps. Kaplan pounded on the door.


Inside, on the other side of a tall, makeshift corridor
of stacked cardboard boxes, three musicians in jeans and tee shirts
played jazz, half a dozen neighborhood teenagers sat listening
and a very thin woman with very long hair stood sketching
the scene using a stylus on the biggest touch-sensitive
computer screen Pughe ever saw. Kaplan unpacked the food bags
on a table against the far wall. The young girl who opened
the door for Pughe and Kaplan went back to her friends sitting on
blankets on the floor. Pughe and Kaplan started on their coffee.
The artist continued sketching the musicians and the kids.

Pughe whispered to Kaplan, “I never saw a touch screen that big.”

Kaplan whispered back, “Hendy made it. The big screen consists of
thirty-five monochrome LCD panels ten inches square,
arranged as seven rows five across, for a total bit count
of eighteen million, one hundred and forty-four thousand bits.”

Pughe frowned. “Two and a quarter megabytes moving in real time?”

Kaplan smiled. He patted Pughe’s shoulder. “In real time controlled by
our chips. Well, Henderson Fletcher’s chips. His custom controllers.
Off our main fab process. Fourteen millimeter dies. Less than
two hundred thousand transistors in the core. One-twenty-eight
pin package. The most bizarre architecture you ever saw—
sixty-four bit addressing, but only eight bit data ops.
And, get this, totally un-clocked. Completely asynchronous.”

Pughe held up a hand. “Tell me now why I don’t know about this.
Tell me why I didn’t read all about this new processor
in an internal briefing? Why didn’t I see prototypes?”

“Boss,” Kaplan said, “when I first saw the mask spec I told Hendy
I wouldn’t make it. I told him it wouldn’t work. And even
if it did work, hell, eight bit data ops went out with sock hops.
Then he showed me a simulation. I realized that the
hand-laid blocks optimized the simple data ops so well that
I couldn’t assess the async ceiling. I thought it might work.
So I quoted a minimum run. Hendy thought about it,
then asked if we could swap in his mask during a cleaning and
calibration run. I started to say of course not, but then
I considered it. Hell. It let me eliminate down time
every quarter on the fab. We still get cost and overhead
for a run of ten thousand. Of course, the calibration eats
about sixty-five percent of the run, but Hendy didn’t
need ten thousand anyway. And, best of all, we can write off
the defects as a production loss at gross value rather
than as a flat expense at raw costs and time. I did the math
and when I quoted Hendy, he booked a run in each quarter.
The four sales didn’t amount to much, but with the modified
charge-offs on the defects, the net profits kicked up two percent.”

“But, damn it Jerry,” Pughe said, “why did you keep this quiet? Why
didn’t you climb on the roof and do a song and dance number?”

Kaplan signed. “Boss, think about it. If I put that process time
on the market, even at the ridiculous failure rate,
cartels would snap up the time for limited runs. Could Hendy
bid against the cartels when they start in against each other?”

“I see,” Pughe said. “Yes. The potential here exceeds two percent.
Why would you stand between my company and bigger profits?”

“Come on, boss, you get it,” Kaplan said. “You see what Hendy does
with his chips. We could spend a week looking at applications.
If we grab for profits we didn’t even know existed
before Hendy came up with this mod, we shut down all this stuff.
Do you know what Hendy charged that woman to build her big screen?
Less than two thousand bucks. He charged part costs and a hundred bucks
an hour time. Boss, this guy treats people fair. And all these people
get the benefits of some of the highest technology
this planet can put together. If we sell that process time
to the highest bidder the runs will go into car dashboards
and television remote controls and, damn it, cruise missiles.”

Kaplan stopped. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. He started
to say something more, but stopped. He said, simply, “Well. Now you know.”

Pughe nodded. He said, also simply, “Yes.” The two men stood for
a moment, listening to jazz, not looking at anything
in particular. Then Pughe shrugged, letting out a long, soft sigh.
“What a business,” Pughe said. “I think I’ll eat one of those hot dogs.”


“Hendy almost never misses an appointment,” Kaplan said.
He looked at his watch, then looked up. A man in a three-piece suit
walked around the wall of cardboard boxes. His gaze fixed on Pughe.
Kaplan whispered, “Here comes the guy people call Gilder the Beard.”

Set against white, almost translucent-seeming skin, the man’s red,
forward-jutting beard appeared to tug him directly to Pughe.

“Mr. T. J. Pughe, I presume,” the man said. “Please allow me
to introduce myself. Gilder George DeMohrenschildt. People
call me Gilder the Beard. I really admire you, your work,
your incredible success. I met Hendy at the Chinese
restaurant. He said you might stop by tonight. What a great honor.
Hendy asked me to tell you he expects to run about ten
or twenty minutes late. He needs to start a diagnostic
or some such thing on the book club’s system at the library.”

Pughe smiled as he shook Gilder’s hand. His eyes fixed on Gilder’s eyes.
Pughe didn’t blink. He studied every alteration, every
shift of Gilder’s gaze. “I came because of you, Gilder,” Pughe said.
“Well, because of the kind letter you wrote to me,” Pughe explained.
“I wanted to congratulate Jerry here on his success
with the Zion shop and see these controllers in the real world.”

Gilder made a face. “I don’t know if the little neighborhoods
of Zion, Wisconsin, qualify as the real world. But I
put great faith in big business. In the Fortune five hundred. You
can take the little successes stumbled on in backwaters
like Zion and make them count, spread the good news, propagate it
to civilization proper. It makes me crazy, seeing
this wonderful technology monopolized, in essence,
by people who don’t dream the big dream, who don’t see the global
empowerment Hendy’s processor design makes possible,
who can’t recognize that marketplace profits not only lead
individuals through their own life to their own destiny,
but also drag mankind kicking and screaming to its future.”

As Pughe, Gilder and Kaplan stood by the table of free food,
the musicians continued playing quiet jazz, the artist
continued sketching and the neighborhood teenagers sat still,
giving all their attention to the music and musicians.

“I knew that a brilliant business genius like you,” Gilder said,
“would see the rich opportunities in this situation.”


Kaplan and Pughe made up an excuse and left the rehearsal.
Kaplan drove them, quickly, back to the neighborhood library.
A gray-haired librarian directed them to the basement.
They walked down a dark stairwell, through dark corridors and through dark
storerooms. Eventually they arrived at a conference room
with no door but nice carpeting, furnished with a long, wooden
table, a dozen soft chairs and bright fluorescent ceiling lights.

Fletcher sat at the table by himself, watching two square-tooth
waveforms trace across an oscilloscope exactly in sync.
Kaplan knocked on the open doorjamb. Fletcher looked up, glanced at
his watch, then smiled. “Come on in,” he said. “I lost track of the time.
They use total cheese modems, really push the tolerances.
I needed to make all the serial lines more forgiving
on the box I made for the library’s book club. It needs to
accept the bad timing signals from the library’s mini.
I finished about ten minutes ago. Couldn’t stop tweaking.
I picked up Chinese for the musicians. I hope they stay late.”

Kaplan and Pughe sat down. “Gilder the Beard stopped by,” Kaplan said.

Fletcher smiled. He switched off his oscilloscope, unhooked the wires.
“Well, it takes all kinds,” he said. “Listen, Mr. Pughe, I enjoyed
working with your company. We accomplished a lot. Jerry
helped me, and I got lucky with that suggestion for your line.
But all living things die. All real things die. Our relationship,
by its nature a dynamic, creative relationship,
must pass on. I know that. Now you can’t control what you will do.”

“Hendy, you listen,” Kaplan said, “we can work out some kind of
favored customer schedule, where we, say, discount one run for—”

“Gilder tied Pughe’s hands,” Fletcher said, interrupting. “If Pughe failed
to maximize profits, for any reason, you get jackass
shareholder lawsuits coming out your ears. Or other places.
Gilder knows I couldn’t afford an open bid on your fab.
By forcing Pughe to bid the time, Gilder figures I’ll license
my controller to pay for the damn time. Then, in Gilder’s mind,
the cosmos comes back in balance, industry gets the cool stuff
and people like the people around here will get what they get.”

Kaplan started to speak, but this time Pughe interrupted him.
“You could do that,” Pughe said, softly. “You could license your design.”

Fletcher said, “Lawyers call corporations ‘fictitious persons.’
Businessmen become slaves. Slaves not even owned by real people.
In this world of sixty-four bit RISC chips and idiotic
multimedia computers, to license my chip design,
selling and support would take over my life. Business would take
over my life. Instead of me using the chip as a tool,
I become the chip’s tool. As fictitious person Pughe Chipworks
uses you, Jerry, and uses Pughe as tools. Even without
custom chips, I will keep working with these people around here,
doing new stuff each day, good stuff, power-to-the-people stuff.
And you guys will keep doing business each day. With businessmen.”

For a moment, the three men sat without talking. Then Kaplan
shook his head. “Damn,” he said. ‘Damn it. What about Gilder the Beard?”

Fletcher checked his watch. He stood and grabbed the bags of Chinese food.
“Some people build things,” Fletcher said. “Some people keep things going.
Some people destroy. It takes all kinds.” Fletcher shrugged. And he smiled.

Pughe asked, “Can we give you a lift over to the musicians?”

Fletcher said, “Thank you, but I kind of enjoy pedaling around.”

Outside, they all shook hands and said goodbye. Then Kaplan and Pughe
watched Henderson Fletcher pedal off on his clunker three-speed.

Kaplan patted the top of his company car. “Businessmen
keep things going,” Kaplan said. “Don’t we, fellow businessman tool?
Don’t we, boss? Don’t we, T.J.? Don’t we, chip-making fool?”

Pughe said nothing. He looked down, walked around the car and got in.
Kaplan stared at South Zion for a bit, then he got in, too.

The Pughe Chipworks company car drove away from South Zion,
toward civilization proper, away from free food and jazz.

The End

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Fifteen Syllable Problem

A few months ago, Apple hired a big time computer scientist away from IBM. Very quickly IBM filed a lawsuit to stop the Apple hire, but eventually the two companies worked out an arrangement that allows the scientist to work at Apple without endangering IBM trade secrets.

Mark Papermaster [that’s his real name] is known in the tech world as being one of the men behind-the-scenes on the development of a microprocessor called the PowerPC, a powerful chip that was intended to be the heart of an entire range of computers from desktop systems to mainframes. Although the chip never became that popular, it is still very common in high-end systems called servers.

When Apple first hired Papermaster I was very happy because I once wrote a short story about a guy who develops specialized microprocessor chips. I thought, “Cool—now I can post my story on the blog and it will look all contemporary and in touch with current events.” (Even though I wrote the story ten years ago..)

But I couldn’t post the story, “T. J. Pughe, Chip-Making Fool,” because of a formatting issue.

Ten years ago when I wrote the story I often wrote verse using fifteen syllable lines. My thinking was that in standard typesetting, a fifteen syllable line looks very much like a ‘normal’ line of prose. I thought I could get the pleasures of working in verse with something like the look of normal prose and maybe a normal magazine would consider publishing the story.

Well the story never got published. The story was rejected by eight magazines: The New Yorker, Playboy, Analog, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Omni, Esquire and The Progressive. (I don’t save rejection slips, but I made a note on my index card record that the fiction editor of Esquire rejected the story with a pleasant, hand-written note saying they liked the story but it “wasn’t quite right” for Esquire. [sighs])

I wrote a lot of short stories in that fifteen syllable format. And two complete novels.

One novel I wrote that way is called, “Impossible Kisses: A Verse Novel About Impossible Monsters And Death, Kisses And Life.”

Almost three years ago, one of the two main reasons I started this blog was to have samples of my writing in a place where prospective publishers could read them. I called this blog “Impossible Kisses” because I intended from the very start to post the entire novel here.

But it never occurred to me to study the details of the HTML specs for this blog template.

At normal text size for this template a line with fifteen syllables often doesn’t fit and has to wrap at an odd place.

For fifteen syllable lines I must either reduce the text size or manually wrap the lines at appropriate places.

In the past I’ve kept the text size normal and wrapped the lines manually. For instance in, “The Kings And Queens Of The Ancient Seas” [Part One and Part Two and Part Three]

I never really liked that business of wrapping lines. So I’ve been putting off posting stuff I wrote back then until I figured out a better way of handling long lines.

Tomorrow I’m going to post the complete short story in verse about the guy that designs oddball computer chips, “T. J. Pughe, Chip-Making Fool.” I’m going to reduce the text size, however, so that the lines fit this template without wrapping.

I’m nervous about this. It’s a 3,500 word story and I’m afraid the small font will give me—and everyone else—a headache. But wrapping the lines won’t work at all, so I have to give this a try.


The story, “T. J. Pughe, Chip-Making Fool,” is about the tech world and the business world and about neighborhoods.

On one hand, I enjoyed the technical parts of the story a lot. Experimental asynchronous chips are real things. The design I talk about in the story, however, is completely made-up.

On the other hand, I really wrote this story as a kind of fantasy, imagining what the world would be like if old fashioned neighborhoods still existed in this era of high technology.

Many people today might not remember—many young people might not ever have known—that old fashioned neighborhoods were like complete worlds in themselves. Nowadays neighborhoods are just different areas in a city, some are safer than others, some have higher taxes than others, but there’s little real difference from one neighborhood to the next. Three or four generations ago neighborhoods were much different than they are now. Three or four generations ago traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood was like traveling from one city to another. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to be born, grow up, go to school, get a job and die all within one neighborhood.

There were good and bad aspects to neighborhoods as little self-contained worlds. In the story I’m going to post tomorrow I tried to touch on both good things and bad things. And I tried to touch on how some characteristics would be good to some people and bad to other people.

I think the story is still contemporary because the social and business and political dynamics that destroyed old-style neighborhoods are still at work today, still pasteurizing human experience, still homogenizing human existence.


I had fun writing this story. It’s a little rough in some spots—I hope I’ve gotten a bit better in ten years—but I’ve left everything just as I originally wrote it.

I especially had fun making up names for the characters in this story.

None of the characters or events are based directly on real people or real happenings. But I wanted to use names that evoked the kind of person I was trying to write about.

The name T. J. Pughe was meant to echo T. J. Rodgers, the real-life semiconductor executive.

The name Jerry Kaplan was meant to echo, well, Jerry Kaplan, the real-life computer executive who wrote an extraordinary book called, “Start-Up” about a cool company he started that, sadly, failed pretty bluntly.

The name Gilder the Beard was meant to echo George Gilder, the real-life economist who almost always injected interesting philosophy into his essays about business and technology. (Gilder played some role in the very interesting face-off between Kendall Square Research and Thinking Machines. Sadly, apparently because of some naughty goings on at Kendall Square we never saw a real result from that face-off. I don’t think Gilder ever wrote about those events, but I would like to read his narrative if he ever does.)

Oddly, I have no memory at all of how I picked the name Henderson Fletcher, the ‘hero’ of the story. Of course, the idea of a brilliant hardware wiz designing digital magic is meant to echo the real life accomplishments of such guys as Steve Wozniak, Burrell Smith and Chuck Moore. (Chuck Moore is known for Forth, but he also has designed quite a few chips and some chip-design systems.)


Tomorrow:T. J. Pughe, Chip-Making Fool

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Happy Times And Kindle Sadness

We thought we was pretty good
We talked about keeping the band together
And we figured that we should
Cause about this time we was getting the eye
From the girls in the neighborhood
They’d all come over and dance around like

Stomp, clap, stomp, clap-clap
Stomp, clap, stomp, clap-clap

So we picked out a stupid name
Had some cards printed up for a couple of bucks
And we was on our way to fame
Got matching suits and Beatle Boots
And a sign on the back of the car
And we was ready to work in a GO-GO Bar

One, two, three, four
Let’s see if you’ve got some more

People seemed to like our songs
They got up and danced and made a lotta noise
And it wasn’t before very long
A guy from a company we can’t name
Said we oughta take his pen
And sign on the line for a real good time
But he didn’t tell us when
These good times would be something
That was really happening
So the band broke up
And it looks like
We will never play again...

My brother—ten years older than me—lived through that whole 1960s/garage band/bar band/music business thing when he was young. A few days ago I was continuing my effort to clean out my house—

(Yesterday I met with my real estate agent. She spent fifteen minutes telling me how awful the current real estate market is for selling homes. However when we reviewed the specifics of my house, she seemed oddly optimistic. Maybe it really is location, location, location. The last thing she said to me yesterday was, “Get busy and get rid of everything you don’t want because you are going to be moving soon!”)

—I was cleaning out my house and I found one of my brother’s old band cards:

My brother played guitar and trumpet. (That was in the days of Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat and Tears, when pop songs had trumpet parts.)

Unlike Joe and Mary in Frank Zappa’s rock opera “Joe’s Garage,” my brother and his wife have lived reasonably happy ever after because, I suspect, my brother got out of the music business when he was very young. He gave up the music life, got a corporate job, got lots of on-the-job training and now, today, he and his wife are enjoying a two week vacation in Hawaii. (He’s still an extraordinary guitarist, but he only plays for fun and to entertain friends.)

As a writer I’ve always made the opposite kind of decisions from those my brother made.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer and I’ve always been very nervous about the corporate world. Every time I’ve begun to feel comfortable in the corporate world, I’ve given notice and spent time living on savings and writing manuscripts. Then I’ve re-entered the corporate world to top off my savings and get ready to work on another novel manuscript. So, I’ve avoided getting ‘seduced’ by the money and distractions of corporate life and I’ve produced more than a half dozen novels. (All sadly damn it still unpublished.)

But while ‘re-entering’ the corporate world for some reason came easily to me when I was young, now that I’m an old guy I’m finding it almost impossible.

I’m very proud and happy that I’ve got a lot of manuscripts. But at the same time I’m frustrated and depressed that I’ve never gotten published for money and I’ve never made a career of writing. And I’m worried, now, that getting back into the corporate world is proving so hard.

As sad and frustrated and worried as I get, however, I don’t look back with regrets. Even when I get into a Biblical frame of mind, my sadness only goes so deep:

So I became sad about all the hard work I had done here on earth. People can work hard using all their wisdom, knowledge, and skill, but they will die, and other people will get the things for which they worked. They did not do the work, but they will get everything. This is also unfair and useless. What do people get for all their work and struggling here on earth? All of their lives their work is full of pain and sorrow, and even at night their minds don't rest. This is also useless. The best that people can do is eat, drink, and enjoy their work. I saw that even this comes from God . . .

Ecclesiastes 2:20-24, New Century Version

(What is the New Century translation?)

I don’t look back with regrets, ultimately, because I’ve always been able to eat, drink and enjoy my work. I gave writing my best shot. I worked hard and enjoyed everything I created. I’m sad and frustrated I never got published, never made a career out of it, but I tried. I lost fair and square, but ultimately I’m just very, very grateful that I had the opportunity to give writing my best shot.


On the topic of writing, a few days ago I was looking around the ’net for information about how Amazon’s electronic book reader the Kindle uses its WhisperNet. In the course of looking around, I Googled up a Steve Jobs interview from a few months ago. One of the things Jobs said has been haunting me ever since I read his words. He didn’t dismiss the Kindle because it’s badly designed or badly built or badly marketed. Jobs dismissed the Kindle because he views it as badly conceived:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” [Jobs] said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

The Passion of Steve Jobs

Yeah, well, I guess this is true.

Writing—in the sense of short stories and novels—in pretty much a thing of the past. It still exists in the modern world, but I feel that I need to face the facts and deal with the reality that, as a profession, writing is now something like, well, lion taming: People do it, but it’s not exactly a dynamic aspect of the modern world that in any way shapes or even impacts our culture.

I think the future of writing is in the fragmented forms: Scripts. Speeches. Essays. Corporate product.

I’m very glad I learned to draw a little. I suspect I have a much brighter future writing captions for cartoons than I do writing short stories or novels.


All that stuff being said, for the rest of this week—Ha! It's my blog and I’ll do what I want!—I’m going to be talking about old time writing!

Friday I am going to put up what I think is the longest short story I’ve ever posted. Tomorrow I’m going to introduce the story, talk more about writing and touch on one of the reasons I started this blog.


It’s a hurried up life
But it’s the life I choose
No use in asking me to slow down
Cause I got nothing to lose

Time and tide is all I’ve got
You know I born standing up
With a guitar in my hand
I’m not trying to come on like Hollywood
But Hollywood is what I am

When we come into a new town
Everybody’s there
When we play our music
Hands are in the air

When the music’s over
You wonder where we are
Out standing in the silence
With my old guitar

Rock is my life
This is my song

It’s a crying shame
But some of us have not survived
No use in asking how it happened
But very few are left alive

I just want to keep on making music
We’ve got to keep on keeping on
You’re only as good as your last record
I know that someday we’ll be gone, gone

When we come into a new town
Everybody’s there
When we play our music
Hands are in the air

When the music’s over
You wonder where we are
Out standing in the silence
With my old guitar

Rock is my life
This is my song

When we come into a new town
Everybody’s there
When we play our music
Candles light the air

When the music’s over, over
You wonder where we are
Out standing in the silence
With my old guitar

My only friend . . .

Rock is my life
This is my song

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Haven’t Seen Comet Lulin Yet

That’s a picture of Comet Lulin that I got from Daniel Fischer’s astronomy blog.

These days of urban sprawl and bright lights it’s pretty unusual for a comet to be visible to city dwellers or suburbanites. In my whole life I’ve only seen two. I saw Comet Hyakutake in 1996 and I saw Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Right now Comet Lulin is sweeping from Virgo to Leo and Comet Lulin may become bright enough for those of us who live under chronically bad skies to see.

Sky & Telescope: Catch Winter's Comet Lulin

There are good things and bad things about Comet Lulin. (The name ‘Lulin’ comes from the observatory that discovered the comet.)

The best thing about Comet Lulin is that if it brightens up a little bit it should be very easy to find.

Virgo contains one bright star, Spica. Although there are no easy-to-see patterns in Virgo, Spica is visible even in bad skies. Right now Spica clears the horizon clutter around my house about midnight. By two or three in the morning Spica is reasonably high in the south and in good position for observing.

Over the next week—Comet Lulin should reach its brightest around February 24—Comet Lulin will move from just north of Spica to just south of Saturn. Saturn is reasonably bright right now in eastern Leo. With Spica and Saturn to mark the sky, finding Comet Lulin is just a question of sweeping between the two bright objects with a pair of binoculars.

So far I’ve looked three times.

Saturday night I stayed up late and checked Spica when Spica was near the horizon. That’s a pretty bad time because the atmosphere is very thick near the horizon. But I was tired. I checked with binoculars and my telescope and didn’t see Comet Lulin.

Sunday night I went to bed early and got up early Monday ‘morning.’ Spica was high in the south and again I checked with binoculars and my telescope but I didn’t see Comet Lulin. Although Spica was high in the south—which should have been the best time for observations—the sky was fairly washed out from moonlight because the Moon was only about twenty or thirty degrees east of Spica.

I went out again early this morning but the sky was cloudy.

Comets are unpredictable and I’m hoping Comet Lulin undergoes some serious flaring and brightens by a magnitude or more than expected.

The bad thing about Comet Lulin is that early reports I’ve seen say the comet appears almost asteroid-like and displays very little halo, very little of the extended glow you expect to see in a comet. So I’ve been studying finder charts trying to familiarize myself with the field stars around Spica and Saturn so that if the comet appears as something like a point-source I will still recognize it as something out-of-place.

Comets are cool—temporary visitors to the inner system from the always interesting outer system. And, historically, comets have been regarded as omens, for better and worse.

I could use a good omen right around now. (More on that tomorrow.)

I will keep looking.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Ballad Of Little Red Riding Hood In Blue

I don’t believe in reincarnation.
If I did I’d be more comfortable
with being murdered two years in a row
between New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day.

Last year and this year started with a bang.
Not one bang. Rather, the rat-ta-tat-tat
of a Thompson submachine gun firing,
bang-bang-banging me to another world.

I don’t believe in karma. If I did
I’d suspect my incarnations were stuck,
replaying the exact same exit scene,
no growth, no regression, just loud, hot lead.

Both scenes begin when a beautiful cop—
an oddly familiar woman in blue—
steps out of the shadows in a garage
and forces me up against the brick wall.

I think the cop is going to frisk me
but behind me I hear strange clicking sounds.
When I look over my shoulder I see
the cop has a loaded, cocked tommy gun.

She takes off her hat, shakes out her red hair.
I recognize her and start to wonder
why the moment has a deja vous feel.
The cop pulls the trigger and starts firing.

Machine guns fire and then reload themselves,
pumping bullets one after the other.
Do incarnations sometimes just reload
and deja vous you through the same living?

My friend in the pretend blue uniform
works the trigger, sending short, controlled bursts
of forty-five caliber slugs through me,
killing me then and killing me again.

I see the bullets rip holes in my chest.
The bullets ricochet off of the bricks
in front of me. My first thought is, “I hope
chips from the bricks don’t hit me in my eyes.”

But then I think, “Well, it hardly matters
because the automatic weapon fire
from this woman’s Thompson submachine gun
is pretty much cutting me right in half.”

In the film version of the incident—
Lifetime’s made-for-cable TV movie—
after I collapse to the garage ground
the beautiful red-haired woman in blue

walks over to what’s left of my body
and, with the tommy gun in her left hand,
uses her right hand to aim a shotgun
and fire a coup de grĂ¢ce blast to my head.

I couldn’t say if that TV flourish
really happened then or subsequently
because by that time in the proceedings
I’m transcendentally gone, dead, dead, dead.

I blame myself. I didn’t own a car
when I lived by the lake on the north side.
But when I moved down to the south suburbs
I had to have a car to get around.

I never, not once, could have been surprised
in a garage by a blue sans merci
south side Little Red Riding Hood with guns
if I just never had gotten a car.

I might have gotten sold down the river
by a north side Little Red Riding Hood
but it’s more romantic to get gunned down
at a theater than in a garage.

At least to me. I never should have left
the north side. Even twice-told fairy tales
of magic girls with heavy weaponry
are more cool when you’re north of the river.

* * * * *

This is the week of St. Valentine’s Day. All my posts —

Prelude To Little Red Riding Hood In Blue

The Eternal Thompson Gunner

Death Itself And The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Ice Cream And The Mayor

— were inspired by the cool photos and very interesting text of Turner Publishing’s new book, “Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Years.” I’ve heard—yeah, I’m connected, I’m cool—that the book was used by costume designers and production designers on Michael Mann’s new film, ‘Public Enemies,’ in which Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger. (Dillinger mythology, of course, is that he was betrayed by a ‘lady in red’ and gunned down outside the Biograph theater on Chicago’s north side.) I enjoyed the book a great deal and I highly recommend it. Consumerism! Buy the book! Consume, consume consume!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ice Cream And The Mayor

“On February 14, 1929, four men, some wearing police uniforms, entered a garage at 2122 N. Clark, owned by gangster George ‘Bugs’ Moran, and murdered seven men. The event came to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and it marked the beginning of the end for Al Capone.”

“Law enforcement, as well as the public, was outraged by the incident (made even more embarrassing by the use of police uniforms as disguises by the killers), and increased attention was given to Capone’s crime syndicate. The result was Eliot Ness’s ‘Untouchable’ investigative task force.”

“The increased law enforcement effort to get Capone in the late 1920s included the investigations and raids by a young Chicagoan and federal agent named Eliot Ness. Despite years of work by Ness’s ‘Untouchables,’ Capone was not charged with murder, larceny, or violations of the Volstead Act. Instead he was undone by his failure to report the money he made from those illegal activities. In 1931, Capone was indicted on tax evasion charges, put on trial, and convicted. His 11-year sentence, though not a life term, effectively ended his career as a leader of the Chicago mob.”

John Russick

The accepted pop culture understanding of the 20s and 30s is that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 signaled the beginning of the end for Bugs Moran’s north side gang. And the work of Eliot Ness after the massacre signaled the beginning of the end for Al Capone’s south side gang.

Is that what happened after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929?

No more gangs?

* * * * *

In 1935, six years after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, two years after Prohibition ended, the Frejlach’s ice cream parlor was bombed. It doesn’t seem likely that this bombing was connected to alcohol or prostitution or drugs or gambling or counterfeiting—the most lucrative activities associated with the underworld.

The Frejlach brothers believed they were bombed because they did not hire union workers and they sold larger-than-normal servings of ice cream for the ‘standard’ price, undercutting their competitors.

* * * * *

This is the funeral of Anton Cermak.

In 1933 the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, was assassinated.

Anton Cermak was shot while shaking hands with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. As would happen many decades later with the Kennedy assassination, conflicting ‘theories’ about Cermak’s assassination make trying to understand the event generally hopeless.

However, one very interesting fact about the shooting of Anton Cermak stands out:

The shooting of Anton Cermak happened on February 15, 1933. The day after St. Valentine’s Day.

* * * * *

It is interesting as an exercise to try and imagine a line drawn through Chicago history. It is interesting to try and imagine sorting out Chicago’s history by putting people and events from Chicago’s political history to one side of the line and people and events from Chicago’s organized crime history to the other side of the line.

It becomes very difficult very quickly.

Many of the social activists who fought for women’s rights and universal suffrage were the same activists who fought for the abolition of alcohol and the establishment of Prohibition which certainly played a part in the empowerment of the gangster underworld.

Many of the progressive activists who fought for fair wages and workers’ rights created a climate where gangster extortion of businesses could be cloaked in a pretense of respectability.

Many individuals seemed to exist on both sides this imaginary line.

Gangster Joe Esposito was shot and killed in front of his wife and daughter at an official Republican get together.

Crusading prosecutor William McSwiggin was assassinated while partying with friends of Spike O’Donnell. (We saw Spike O’Donnell’s car back on Tuesday.)

* * * * *

In the tin foil world of bizarre conspiracy theories, looking for links between the government and organized crime—especially between the military and organized crime—is one of the few activities that seems to get researchers into real hot water. [I’m thinking of people like Danny Casolaro and Mae Brussell.]

I don’t think we will ever see anyone actually create a comprehensive, hot-linked chart with a line down the middle, politics on one side and organized crime on the other with cross-linked lines and arrows and call-outs explaining the various cross-overs and linkages between the two sides, between the two different [?] worlds.

Most of us enjoy dancing. And most of us enjoy moonlight. But very few of us want to dance with the real Devil in the pale moonlight.

* * * * *

Silent eyes
Burning in the desert sun
Halfway to Jerusalem
Where we shall all be called as witnesses
Each and every one
To stand before the eyes of God
And speak what was done

Halfway to Jerusalem
Halfway to Jerusalem
Halfway to Jerusalem

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Death Itself And The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

The aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. This is the police removing the bodies from the north side garage. About the aftermath of the ‘massacre,’ John Russick writes:

“The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre became a symbol of the unbridled violence and ruthlessness of Chicago’s criminal underworld, especially Al Capone.”

“...a symbol of the unbridled violence and ruthlessness of Chicago’s criminal underworld” — This is true. In pop culture history the event has become a symbol of wild violence. But in the context of its own time, was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre even an example of excessive violence?

Knowledge is contextual . . . By “context” we mean the sum of cognitive elements conditioning the acquisition, validity or application of any item of human knowledge. Knowledge is an organization or integration of interconnected elements, each relevant to the others . . . Knowledge is not a mosaic of independent pieces each of which stands apart from the rest . . . .

In regard to any concept, idea, proposal, theory, or item of knowledge, never forget or ignore the context on which it depends and which conditions its validity and use.

Contextfrom the Ayn Rand Lexicon

In the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, seven people died—six were established members of the ‘Bugs’ Moran gang and the seventh was a guy who enjoyed hanging out with gangsters.

In the decades leading up to the massacre, the citizens of Chicago had witnessed a lot of violence and death. Outside of the frantic headlines and editorials about gangsters designed to sell newspapers—consumerism—would ‘normal’ citizens really have invested much emotion in the deaths of seven underworld figures?

* * *

In 1919, a black child was drowned by white children at a segregated beach. The killing led to many days of rioting. The riots became so intense that the police were overwhelmed and the state militia was called in to restore order. Estimates are that more than 36 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

Thirty-six deaths is more than five times as many as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Interestingly, these deaths and these events have never taken on in pop culture history a catchy name and there is no widely known ‘mythology’ associated with them, i.e., there is no general knowledge of any of the specific names or specific circumstances associated with the events. They are simply known—when they are remembered at all—as the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

* * *

In 1905, the Teamsters took up sides with striking workers protesting conditions at the Montgomery Ward, Co. The Montgomery Ward, Co., hired replacement workers. Conflicts between Teamsters and replacement workers turned into weeks of street battles and wide-spread rioting. Reports of the number of deaths and injuries vary widely, but John Russick puts the number of deaths at 105 with many hundreds more injured.

Again, even though a hundred and five people died—or more!—the events have acquired no catchy pop culture name and very few people remember any of the individuals involved or the specific circumstances of the rioting. They are simply known as the 1905 Chicago Teamsters' strike.

* * *

In 2008, a very, ummm, credentialed writer named Nicholson Baker wrote a book with the title, “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.” The book never really lived up its title, but I thought its title was very good. I was especially interested to see a very successful and widely accepted contemporary writer put forward the view that there weren’t winners and losers to World War Two, but rather that the war may have signaled something like the start of the end of civilization.

Two years earlier, waaay back in 2006, I wrote and posted a short story where I put forward my strongly held belief that World War One was, in fact, the start of the end of human civilization:

Free Energy! Light Without Heat! Lifts And Separates! #1: Grandma Laura

Free Energy! Light Without Heat! Lifts And Separates! #2: How It Works

Free Energy! Light Without Heat! Lifts And Separates! #3: The Paperclip Nazis

Free Energy! Light Without Heat! Lifts And Separates! #4: “Let Me Tell You The Good Life”

That’s what I think was really going on in Chicago after the turn of the century — Just some minor skirmishes as elements of human civilization fought to defend themselves against the inhuman mess that was creeping around the globe and making itself at home.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about politics and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and some violence that occurred after the events in that north side garage. Friday will be a St. Valentine’s Day story I wrote this week, “Ballad of Little Red Riding Hood in Blue.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Eternal Thompson Gunner

Look—A Thompson submachine gun really could be carried around in a violin case!

How often does Hollywood myth have a basis in anything like real facts?

“Pictures of cloaked figures in trench coats and fedoras, and policemen raiding speakeasies, breaking up beer barrels, and smashing stills, tend only to reflect how the gangs behaved when they were out of the shadows, and how the policemen looked when they were aware of the presence of cameras. A collection of these images alone might fail to reveal anything but the theater the public was meant to see.”

John Russick

I strongly suspect that a great deal of what pop culture accepts as “history” is merely, “the theater the public was meant to see.”

The accepted pop culture understanding of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is that Prohibition caused a rising trend of violence in Chicago and that trend culminated in the cold-blooded murder of seven men in a north side garage on February 14, 1929.

Pop culture reinforces this view constantly however facts seem to contradict it.

People who enjoy philosophy love contradictions. Contradictions are like giant neon arrows pointing to the precise spot of some kind of misunderstanding or manipulation. Even philosophers who sigh at the mention of Ayn Rand typically endorse her view of contradictions:

A contradiction cannot exist. An atom is itself, and so is the universe; neither can contradict its own identity; nor can a part contradict the whole. No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge. To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.

Contradictionfrom the Ayn Rand Lexicon

(The business of contradictions is interesting. When I read Paris Hilton’s very entertaining book, “Confessions Of An Heiress,” written with Merle Ginsberg, I noticed quite a few contradictions, not just from chapter to chapter, but often from paragraph to paragraph. That’s odd. Once you start looking for contradictions, the search gets to be polarizing. Most people and most media are fairly straightforward with no contradictions at all. But every now and then you meet a specific person or a specific media outlet that turns out to be rich in almost endless contradictions. It’s very strange.)


Tomorrow and Thursday I’m going to look at specific examples of some contradictions surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and I’m going to speculate a bit about what I think the contradictions might mean.

Today I’m going to talk a bit about the technology of Thompson submachine guns. I’m going to close today’s post with my own little indirect and silly-ass connection to tommy guns.

Pop wisdom—if not reality—is that tommy guns were as iconic to the Prohibition era as cell phones are to the present world. Historians, however, usually use careful language that hints at a different reality. For instance, John Russick simply says, “Violent explosions and gunfire in Chicago were not so common during the gangster era as some might imagine.” However, that caption occurs under a photo of a dry goods store that has been gutted by bombs. That’s a bit of foreshadowing of one of the simple contradictions surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Historians know the era was not defined by violence. Yet they allow the truth to co-exist with “exciting” visuals because the excitement, to put it bluntly, sells. Consumerism. And if anyone makes even a cursory effort to look beneath the surface the truth is there, so, why not allow the buzz to be pumped up?

Check out this:

In this undated photograph, a man points to bullet holes in a car belonging to gangster Spike O’Donnell. This attack from the south side of Chicago is believed to be the first recorded use of a Thompson submachine gun by a gangster.

Go, Chicago!

The Thompson submachine gun was designed by a military man to be used in trench warfare during World War One. However, the war ended just as the first working guns were being manufactured. The company looked for other markets—consumerism—and soon began selling the weapons to the post office to protect mail from hijack attempts. The gun worked so well that police departments began buying them. Then, of course, the era’s entrepreneurs—the gangsters—began putting submachine guns to use.

And the rest is history! Or, at least, pop culture history.


My own indirect, silly-assed connection to tommy guns involves—of course—a song.

When I dropped out of Ball State University, I had to hang out around campus for a few days until my Dad could drive down to Indiana and bring me back to Chicago. I spent most of my time in the school’s library. They had a great collection of old magazines and I looked up and read every short story J. D. Salinger ever published. I also spent a lot of time in my dorm’s student lounge listening to cool songs on the juke box. I remember there were only four, two good Grace Slick songs and two good Warren Zevon songs. One of the Warren Zevon songs was, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.” Not only is this a great song, but it must have meant a lot to Zevon because when he was dying and Letterman had him on for a farewell performance, Zevon’s final public performance was “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.”

I suspect the final verses are a more interesting commentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre than the commonly accepted pop culture wisdom about that event.

Roland was a warrior
From the land of the midnight sun
With a Thompson gun for hire
Fighting to be done

The deal was made in Denmark
On a dark and stormy day
So he set out for Biafra
To join the bloody fray

Through Sixty-six and 'Seven
They fought the Congo war
With their fingers on their triggers
Knee-deep in gore

For days and nights they battled
The Bantu to their knees
They killed to earn their living
And to help out the Congolese

Roland the Thompson gunner
Roland the Thompson gunner

His comrades fought beside him
Van Owen and the rest
But of all the Thompson gunners
Roland was the best

So the CIA decided
They wanted Roland dead
That son-of-a-bitch Van Owen
Blew off Roland's head

Roland the headless Thompson gunner
Time, time, time, for another week of war
Norway's bravest son
Time stands still for Roland till he evens up the score

They can still see his headless body
Stalking through the night
In the muzzle flash of Roland's Thompson gun
In the muzzle flash of Roland's Thompson gun

Roland searched the continent
For the man who'd done him in
He found him in Mombassa
In a barroom drinking gin

Roland aimed his Thompson gun
He didn't say a word
But he blew Van Owen's body
From there to Johannesburg

Roland the headless Thompson gunner
Roland the headless Thompson gunner

The eternal Thompson gunner
Still wandering through the night
Now it's ten years later
But he still keeps up the fight

In Ireland, in Lebanon
In Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst
Of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it

Monday, February 09, 2009

Prelude To Little Red Riding Hood In Blue

This drawing—it’s graphite pencil and colored pencils—is based on a black and white photograph (DN-0082596) from the Chicago History Museum.

The photograph is collected in a great new book from Turner Publishing called, “Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Era,” text and captions by John Russick.

This is a very cool book. I’m going to be talking about it all week. For anyone interested in Chicago history or the Prohibition era I highly recommend this book.

The ‘sequel’ to today’s post will appear Friday. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about Thompson submachine guns. Wednesday I’ll be talking about organized violence in Chicago just before the Prohibition era. Thursday I’ll be talking about organized violence in Chicago just after the Prohibition era. Friday—of course—will be the sequel to today’s post, my St. Valentine’s Day effort for this year.

And all week I’ll be including great stuff from “Historic Photos of Chicago Crime: The Capone Era.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Who is Hymie Weiss?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Apple And The Status Cow

Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

Apple’s “1984”

What is Apple’s “1984?”)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tricia dreamed she was
a blue morpho butterfly
by a river bank.

Susan Kare’s Blue Butterfly


Who is Susan Kare?)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

... Apple had hired all these Hewlett-Packard people who were running the Apple II engineering, and they didn’t know anything about the Apple II. Apple went through various fads where it would hire engineers from a certain company. It had an HP period, a Xerox period, a DEC period, but HP was the dominant one in the early days. There were a few Apple II hobbyists like me, Bob Bishop, Charlie Kellner, and Rick Auricchio, who had bought Apple II’s and became so obsessed with them that they naturally migrated to Apple. But, they also hired all these guys who didn’t even know what an Apple II was when they started working there. To me that was totally incomprehensible. Why work at Apple if you don’t even like the Apple II?

Andy Hertzfeld Joins Apple

Who is Andy Hertzfeld?)

Status quo.

On Michigan Avenue there’s an Apple store.

Today people will walk into that Apple store

and they will buy Apple Macintosh computers.

All those people will walk out of that Apple store

with machines that run Intel microprocessors

with NeXT UNIX as an operating system.

Status cow.