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

No comments: