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I am old enough to remember Richard Nixon.

I was in first grade during the 1972 campaign. My class had a mock election, in which I cast my "vote" for Nixon. Why? I have no idea. I was six; I liked his name better than that other guy, George Whoeverthehellitwas.

I remember the aftermath—Watergate, the resignation, the whole sordid mess. At the time, I recall thinking that this whole business of politics was a bit of shambles, and I'd probably never see anything worse. Ah, the optimism of youth.

Then, of course, came Bush/Gore, with the confusing ballots and the hanging chad and the election ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, some of whose members Bush's father had appointed. I remember Nader thinking he was all that, and Nader supporters thinking he was all that, and the peculiar brand of ardent zeal that has its roots so deep in the American psyche—the "take no prisoners, brook no compromise" approach to elections that usually ends up in the worst of two evils taking office.

I see that same cycle playing out again this election, which has unquestionably brought yet a new low to the American civic institution of voting. And I see the same arguments being put forth by a fresh new crop of take-no-prisoners, brook-no-compromise idealists absolutely convinced their candidate was the Chosen One, even though those of us who've been around longer knew he was unlikely to win. (Sorry, Bernie.)

And I see now, as I did with Nader supporters, a lot of folks saying "if I can't have my candidate, why should I vote for anyone? I don't want to vote for the lesser of two evils, I want to vote for someone who really represents me!

Which sounds reasonable right up until the moment you realize it's not. Because, you see, the world is not all about you.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is this: Other people are real. The world isn't the Story of You. Yes, I'm sure you're amazing and all, but other people are not supporting characters in the movie called You: The Reality.

There are three hundred million people, give or take, living in the US. Many of them (indeed, most of them) live lives different from yours. They face challenges different from yours, have priorities that are different from yours, and want things that are different from the things you want.

They deserve to be heard by the government that we live under, just like you.

A person who says "I want a candidate who represents all of my interests" is a person who's saying "fuck all those three hundred million other people; I am the only person who should count." And it doesn't—it can't—work that way.

A political candidate is not all you, all the time. In any reasonable democratic system, you will always be voting for a candidate who does not perfectly represent you, because it isn't all about you. A candidate must represent everyone, not just you, and a lot of people—real, legitimate people—are not like you. "Choosing the lesser of two evils" is just a self-focused way of saying "choosing a candidate who is not a clone of me, but who will, I think, better represent me than the other person will."

This is a huge problem for progressives, who rightly are horrified when they see candidates attempting to disenfranchise broad swaths of the population (gays and lesbians, say, or religious minorities, or women) but then in the same breath turn around and say "I refuse to vote for someone who I don't 100% agree with 100% of the time"—not recognizing that if the government were made up of people who 100% agreed with you 100% of the time, it would disenfranchise a whole lot of folks who are not like you.

Maybe not as directly as some politicians disenfranchise gays and lesbians or minorities, but make no mistake, it would still disenfranchise them just the same.

If a pluralistic society is to function, it must do so by recognizing that people have legitimate differences, and seeking to make sure that the voice of the government is not solely the voice of one demographic, or one person. This world is not the Truman Show, and you are not the starring character.

In this election, there has been no candidate who I agree with on all the issues all the time. And you know what? I'm okay with that. My job is to select a candidate who I think will best create the society I want to live in, while still recognizing that other people have to live in it too.

In the 2000 election, a lot of folks said there was no difference between Bush and Gore. That turned out, on hindsight, to be laughably, comedically wrong...and we're still paying the price. (Would Gore have led us into an invasion of Iraq post-9/11?)

I see that same thing being spouted in this election. There's no difference, I hear people say with a straight face, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And I boggle.

Or at least I did, until I realized what it actually means: "there is no difference between Hillary and Trump" actually means "I don't agree with Hillary and I don't agree with Trump, so I mentally place them both in the same cubbyhole." Which is, I think, a bit like saying "I don't eat eggplant and I don't eat arsenic, so they must be the same thing."

That's more than a little disingenuous. I don't like eggplant and I don't like arsenic, but one of them is a whole lot worse for me than the other. Given the choice of eating one or the other, it'd be pretty stupid to claim I don't see a difference between them.

We live in a pluralistic society. One of the current candidates is okay with that; one is not. I understand that a lot of folks are disappointed that their guy didn't win. I get it. That sucks. Of the choice ahead, though, one person better represents the values of a pluralistic society than another. And when you say "it's my guy or bust," you're basically saying that you don't care for a pluralistic society; you want things all your way or no way at all. There is a candidate who represents that view, but you might not like living in the society that results from his election.


Most of the folks reading my blog are probably familiar with the high tech sex toy my partner Eve and I are working on. Essentially, we're making a strap-on covered with sensors, that uses direct neural stimulation to allow the wearer to feel touch and pressure on the strap-on.

We've built several prototypes that validate the basic idea, and we're excited to move into the next phase of development.

To that end, we need your help! We're looking for two things:

1. A person skilled with molding silicone who is willing to work with us to do one-off and two-off custom castings that integrate sensors, electrodes, and electronics into the casting.

This person will know a great deal about custom-molding silicone and be willing to work with us with some fairly exotic requirements, like molding silicone with electrodes embedded in the surface.

2. A skilled electronics person with knowledge of RF analog electronics. I know digital electronics, and so far, the prototypes we've built have used electronics and firmware I've written. But I'm a bit rubbish with the electronics stuff. Specifically, what we need is someone who can design circuitry that can be controlled by an embedded microcontroller and can modulate the amplitude of an analog signal based on input from pressure sensors. Imagine a signal generator that produces a signal something like this:

What we're looking for is someone who can design a circuit that will modulate the amplitude of this signal in proportion to the input from pressure sensors...but, naturally, the human body being what it is, the correspondence is logarithmic, not linear (hence a programmable microcontroller doing the work fo figuring out how strong the signal needs to be).

We do have a budget for accomplishing these tasks. It's not a huge budget, mind you; we're a small startup, and that's how it goes with small startups.

If you are interested or know anyone who might be, please let me know! You can reach me at franklin (at) tacitpleasures (dot) com.

Want to keep up with developments? Here's a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6
Update 7
Update 8
Update 9

A while ago, I wrote about a new project I've launched, an uncensored erotica search tool for Amazon. Briefly, a couple years back Amazon started removing listings for some self-published erotica from the search results on their Web site, especially for non-traditional erotica that deals with subjects like BDSM. I discovered they do not, however, censor search results made using their API, so I built a tool that uses the Amazon API to do searches.

The site I built also keeps a database of Amazon erotica, all neatly arranged by category, so that visitors can either search Amazon directly or browse erotica by category.

That's when I discovered a problem.

A lot of books listed in the database, probably about 15% of them, go to 404 pages on Amazon when you try to follow the link.

"Huh," I thought, "that's weird." The books are still there, but the links don't work.

I looked further and discovered the ASIN—the Amazon Standard Identification Number that Amazon assigns to all Kindle books—had changed in the links that were broken. An Amazon link goes to a specific ASIN, so if a book's ASIN changes, the old link breaks and the book lives at a new link on Amazon.

Needless to say, this is bad. If you are an author and your book's ASIN changes, every link that anyone has ever posted to your book on Amazon breaks.

This happened to Thorntree Press books when we moved to a new distributor. Our new distributor removed all the old listings for our books from Amazon and re-listed them, causing them to live at new ASINs and breaking the old links.

I looked closer at one of the broken links and discovered something interesting. The book was still on Amazon, but with a new listing date. The new listing date was after the date the book had been added to Red Lit Search:

If you have self-published a book on Amazon and you wish to make changes to the book, you can upload a new file in your KDP Dashboard and you will not change your ASIN.

It is very important to make changes to your self-published book this way.

It seems that a lot of self-published authors will make changes to their books by deleting the old listing and re-creating a new listing with the changed file. Do not do this. You will break every existing link to your book, which will hurt your sales.

Instead, you can use the KDP Dashboard to edit your book and upload a new content file without breaking existing links. To do this:

1. Log on to your KDP Select Dashboard.

2. Find your book. There is a button labeled "..." to the right of your book's listing. Click it and choose Edit Details from the popup menu. It looks like this:

3. In the book's Details page, scroll down to the Upload Your Book File section. Click the Browse button and upload the new contents for your book.

Your ASIN is how the world locates your book. On Amazon's site, your book's listing is attached to the ASIN. If your ASIN changes, this will break any links to your book; and if your book is self-published erotica, there is a chance that it will not turn up in searches on Amazon's Web site, now or in the future. That means that links to your book are the only way people will find it.

If you self-publish on Amazon, it is very important to do everything in your power to keep your book's ASIN from changing. I can not stress this enough! Do not make changes to your book by de-listing and re-listing it. This will make your book harder to find.

MacKeeper: The Gift that Keeps On Giving

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A shady, disreputable company makes a dodgy bit of software they claim will protect a computer from malware, but that actually does nothing (at best) or harms your computer (at worst). They sell this software by creating fake Web sites that throw up phony "virus warnings" to visitors pushing the dodgy software, then use a number of devious and underhanded tricks to steer traffic to the fake antivirus pages. They get caught, they find themselves on the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit, and they sell the software to a new company, which promises to clean up its act but which ends up doing exactly the same thing.

If you're a Mac user, you probably recognize this story. It's the story of MacKeeper, a bogus bit of software that bills itself as a security and general cleanup app.

MacKeeper is a bit of software with a long and ignoble history. It was originally written by a company called Zeobit, which was so aggressive in marketing the software by shady means that it got hammered with a $2 million settlement in a class action lawsuit. Business Insider magazine has recommended that users stay away from it.

In 2013, a company called Kromtech bought MacKeeper from Zeobit. Kromtech claims to be a German company, but it's incorporated in the Virgin Islands and all its owners are in the Ukraine. And Kromtech is continuing the practice of pushing the software with phony antivirus sites and fake claims.

The scam works like this:

Booby-trapped ads on legitimate Web sites and redirectors placed on hacked Web sites steer users to fake antivirus pages. These antivirus pages, which live at URLs that look like official Apple URLs, pop up phony warnings of non-existent viruses.

These Web sites attempt to prevent you from leaving, and pop up alert box after alert box warning of a completely phony virus.

When you click on the button to do a "virus scan," you are shown--surprise!--a report that says your system is infected.

The supposed "tapsnake virus" that this warning talks about is bogus. Tapsnake does not exist; it is a scareware scam used to frighten naive computer and smartphone users into thinking they are infected with a virus.

And, naturally, when you click the "Remove Virus Now" button, you're taken to...wait for it...

Meet the new MacKeeper owners, same as the old MacKeeper owners.

I've seen a considerable uptick in phony antivirus sites trying to con people into buying MacKeeper lately, particularly in the last six weeks.

There is no Tapsnake virus, and your Mac is not infected. It's a con, designed to sell you a worthless piece of software.

Stay safe out there in cyberspace.

A trip down memory lane

I recently spent some time digging through a huge cache of old CDs and hard drives I found in a drawer containing files that date back to the early 90s, and one of the things I found was copies of the old xeromag Web site from 1998.

Man, it was appallingly bad. Dear god.

In April of 1998, the home page of xeromag.com looked like this:

Contrast that with how it looks right now:

I look at the old design and cringe.

I also found some old .ARC files that contain letters and other word processing files from as long ago as 1984(!), and source code for TRS-80 software I wrote in 1979(!!). I can't wait to see what's in there, but first I'll need to find software that can uncompress .ARC archives.


If you know any transhumanists or other forward-looking folks, you've probably encountered the notion of a "post-scarcity society."

I just got back from a two-month writing retreat in a cabin deep in the heart of rural Washington, many miles from civilization. The squirrels at the cabin are quite talented at stealing birdseed from the bird feeders around the cabin, and that taught me a lesson about transhumanism and post-scarcity society.

This might make me a bad transhumanist, but I think the hype about post-scarcity society is overblown, and i think the more Panglossian among the transhumanists have a poor handle on this whole matter of fundamental human nature.

I've written an essay about it over on Think Beyond Us, which includes a video of squirrel warfare. Here's a teaser:

We're moving toward the technology to do things in a completely different way: using tiny machines to build stuff from a molecular or atomic level. In the book Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler envisions a time when we will be able to fabricate almost anything we can imagine from simple raw materials and energy.

And on this foundation, futurists say, post-scarcity society will be built. If we can make anything from any raw materials cheaply or free, there is no longer a divide between rich and poor. Think Las Vegas where everyone is a millionaire whale. Want a car? A sofa? A cup of tea? Program assemblers with the characteristics of the thing you want, push a button, and presto! There it is.

In a society where everyone can have whatever stuff they want and nobody has to work, entertainment becomes very important indeed. And those who can provide it—those who can write, or sing, or perform—well, they control access to the only resource besides land that means anything.

So what, then, do we make of a society where the 1% are determined not in accordance with how many resources they control, but how creative they are? A Utopian might say that anyone can learn to be creative and entertaining; a look around the history of humanity suggests that isn't true.

Those who own land today command one of the few resources that will matter tomorrow. Those who can entertain command the only thing that can buy that resource. And the rest of humanity? Suddenly, Utopia starts to look a whole lot less Utopian to them, and a whole lot more like the same old same old.

Check it out! You can read the whole thing here.

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 13 of this saga is here.
Part 7 of this saga is here. Part 14 of this saga is here.

Bodie, California is a classic nineteenth-century California gold rush town. It's high atop a mountain in the desert, and every part of the town exists for one purpose alone: to facilitate the extraction of gold from the surrounding hills.

The whole of the town exists to support the stamping mill, the large gray building about which everything else revolves. On our second day there, Bunny and I toured the stamping mill. This can be done only as part of a twice-daily guided tour group. The stamping mill, you see, represents the absolute apex of Victorian-era technology, and Victorian-era technology was not exactly built on a foundation of safety first. Even when it hadn't been abandoned for nigh on a century.

This is a view of the mill from what's left of the bank, which was, not coincidentally located right across the street.

In principle, a stamping mill is relatively straightforward. Ore goes in the top. It's crushed into a fine powder—"about as fine as flour," the tour guide said—by large mechanical hammers. Then, and this is where the famed Victorian indifference to human life really shines, the powder is sifted across a pool of mercury. The mercury reacts with gold to form a mercury-gold amalgam, which becomes a semi-solid mass that workers roll up into a ball and stick in a safe (I swear I am not making this up).

The rock doesn't stick to the mercury and is discarded. The ball of hideously toxic mercury-gold amalgam is then, get this, placed in a furnace, where the mercury is boiled off, leaving molten gold behind. The molted gold is poured into bars, assayed, and then shipped off down the mountain.

The whole fearsome, dangerous, mind-bogglingly toxic process begins with getting bits of gold ore into the top of the stamping mill, which is done via conveyor belts.

Rain or shine, summer or winter, the gold ore is hauled into the small brown wood building behind the mill, situated atop a hill because Bodie often saw 20 feet of snow in the winter and the mine operators were stubbornly unwilling to let a little thing like that stop the flow of money. The building in the foreground with the very narrow chimney is the furnace where the mercury was boiled off, and I can't believe I've now typed that phrase twice.

The mercury. Was boiled off.


Bodie is about money. That's it. From stem to stern, everything about the town was in service of making money. The Victorians, ever practical, used whatever new technologies would help with that endeavor, and cast off whatever bits of technology were no longer useful. Even now, the ground around the mill is littered with broken bits of machinery, like this cast-off drive belt made of woven iron.

Or this enormous camshaft. His thing was mounted to an axle driven by an absolutely huge, room-sized steam engine or, later in Bodie's history, an almost equally ginormous electric engine. The camshaft spun around and as it did, the cams lifted and then dropped hammers that crushed the rock. The hammers were more than a story long and weighed over a thousand pounds apiece. The din, according to the tour guide, could be heard halfway up the mountain. Workers wore cotton in their ears to keep from going deaf.

It didn't work; deafness was a common problem among stamping mill operators. So were horrifying industrial accidents, mercury poisoning, and in at least one case, being sliced in half by a drive belt.

This being a Libertarian paradise, an injured, poisoned, or deafened worker was fired, given a couple of hours to pack, and kicked out of town.

Our tour started with the machine room, which was, naturally, the second most important part of the stamping mill. The mill had a state-of-the-Victorian-art workshop, with lathes, presses, and other metalworking equipment able to repair or even fabricate almost any part the vast machine required.

This is all that's left of the huge electric motor that once ran the place. The Victorians were as pragmatic as they were reckless with the lives and safety of others. The mill had multiple stamps, each of which had multiple hammers. They reasoned that it was cheaper to build one enormous engine to power all that than to make numerous smaller engines to power each hammer individually. That presented a single point of failure, true, but as the saying goes, an airplane with three engines has three times as many engine problems as an airplane with only one.

The engine turned this pulley, which fed power to the rest of the mill via the biggest belt you've ever seen. It was, according to our guide, this belt that once cut a luckless worker in half.

This is the business end, literally, of the stamping mill: the stamps themselves. Each hammer is a ten-foot-long iron rod with a hook on the top end and a several-hundred-pound iron weight at the bottom end. The camshaft spins, lifting and then dropping all the hammers, and crushing everything beneath them into very, very fine dust.

The dust then poured down the slide and onto the pools of mercury.

Across from the stamps is yet another workshop, this one equipped with large metal-turning lathes to manufacture oversized parts. I say that is if everything in this entire building wasn't oversized. We make things smaller and smaller; the Victorians, on the other hand, were size queens. If a part didn't weigh a ton and a half, it was firmly in the province of jewelers and watchmakers, not machinists. It's a wonder they could make a pocket watch any smaller than a manhole cover.

Once out of the mill, which even today probably violates a dozen EPA regulations on mercury exposure, we wandered around some more, looking at the old-school mining equipment scattered like weird metal vegetation.

Like this steam-powered elevator that lowered miners into the deep shafts.

When I say the castoff bits of Victorian tech were everywhere, I mean everywhere. You can't walk anywhere in Bodie without tripping over, stepping on, or stubbing your toe on it. The Victorians believed the only thing better than iron was more iron. Subtle they were not.

The rod in the foreground of that last photo is one of the tops of the giant hammers from the stamping mill. You can see the hook that engaged the cams in the camshaft that lifted and dropped them. If a particular hammer or stamp needed to be fixed, the worker would take a block of wood, reach in to where the camshaft ran through the top of the stamps, and jam the piece of wood in under the hook to hold that hammer up...because, naturally, they wouldn't stop the mill just for a paltry thing like service.

Workers lost their fingers doing this. They were fired and given a couple hours to leave.

When we came back out, Bunny and I saw...a bunny. A real, honest-to-God Bodie bunny, right there watching us.

This was not the end of our adventures in Bodie, or in fact of our adventures period; I still haven't got to the copulating dinosaurs yet. Stay tuned!

It's that time of year again, when Franklin realizes that the tax bill is coming due and it's going to be down to the wire about whether he can pay it.

But my distress is your gain. I've just created a new coupon code for registered versions of my sex game Onyx.

What is Onyx? Glad you asked!

Onyx is a sex game for 2-6 players. Think Monopoly, with a sexy twist. If you land on a property owned by another player, you have a choice of paying rent or working off the debt. If you choose to work off the debt, Onyx looks at its vast database of sexy fun things to do to show your gratitude for being allowed to stay on the other player's property.

You can download it free for Mac, Windows, and Linux. And if you want to register the game, use coupon code Summer16 to take $6.00 off the full version.

[ Download Onyx here! ]


I am a self-published erotica writer. I write BDSM fiction, including the novel Nineteen Weeks, a story I'm very proud of.

A couple of years ago, I discovered that the number of books I was selling suddenly fell off a cliff. I did some research and found that the same thing was happening to a lot of erotica writers, especially self-published writers. Amazon's Search function on their Web site was filtering out a lot of erotica, particularly erotica with themes of non-traditional relationships like BDSM.

However, I discovered something interesting a few months back: The Amazon search API, a set of programmer's tools that allows Web programmers to search Amazon's book titles, doesn't filter search results. You can log on to Amazon and do a search for a particular book and see no results, but if you write a Web site that uses Amazon's API and do a search, ta-da, there it is!

I'm sure you can see where this is going.

On and off for the past few months, I have been working on building a new Web site, called Red Lit Search. This site has a database of erotic books in Amazon's catalog--so far only about eighteen hundred or so, but the list is growing--and also allows you to do uncensored searches of Amazon. My hope is to grow it into a portal for erotic books; if it succeeds, I plan to add new sections with things like articles, interviews with erotica writers, and all kinds of fun stuff like that.

So check it out! Spread the word! Kick the tires, test the software, and let me know what you think!

[ Visit Red Lit Search, the erotica search engine ]

A couple of months ago, I was in the car on my way back from having dinner with Eve, her husband, and her mum. Without warning, while I was sitting in the car, the first chapter of a fantasy novel detached itself from the firmament and fell into my head.

Think Terry Pratchett meets Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but set in a Victorian London that never happened (partly because Queen Victoria herself never happened).

When Eve went to bed, I stayed up writing it. I roped Eve into helping to develop the world it's set in, only a little against her will, and it's taking shape into something big and weird and fun.

As I write the first draft of each chapter, I'm putting them up on a sooper sekrit page that's only available to people who back me on Patreon.

I'm putting the first chapter here on my blog to give you a taste of what to expect. If you want more, you will have to pledge at least $1 on Patreon, or possibly wait until the book gets published, assuming it gets published.

It was the rain that woke him. At least he hoped it was rain. In his experience, when you found yourself lying on the street with the feel of something wet falling on your face, you couldn’t always assume it was rain. There was a multiplicity of possibilities, nearly all of them far less pleasant than rain.

His head hurt. So did his shoulder, though not as much. And his back, that hurt too. The throbbing in his knee, he could probably ignore for now, though it might present a bit of a problem when it came time to stand. With a bit of luck, he wouldn’t need to run, though that, too, was something you couldn’t take for granted. Something in his pocket was poking most unpleasantly into his thigh, but he didn’t quite feel up to moving his leg just yet.

First things first. Where was he?

Reluctantly, and with great effort, he opened his eyes. Grey. Okay, that seemed right. Buildings towering above him, drab brick faces daubed with soot. Above them, a tangle of electrical wires, strung in hodgepodge fashion from building to building. Above that, zeppelins, a lot of them, floating in a flat gray sky. And rain, an endless drizzle of it. It pattered on the rough cobblestone around him, pooled in the cracks between the stones, formed larger rivulets that sought to find their way to the Thames, that enormous body of what was in theory water, or had once been water, or had water as one of the less odiferous components of it. Some of the tiny streams paused on their journey to join the sluggish mud-colored river of maybe-water just long enough to make him miserable. Cold wet fingers seeped into his cuffs, sent icy fingers of wet misery down along his back, and trickled from his collar to rejoin the rest of the water making its indirect way toward the lowest point of the city.

New Old London, then. The wires were a dead giveaway. That was mildly surprising. He was used to waking up across the river, in Old New London.

It hadn’t always been called New Old London. Once, it had simply been London. It sprawled out helter-skelter until it ran into the banks of the Thames, where it had paused its growth for a bit, building its strength until it had reached some critical mass and sprouted bridges across the river like brick and metal tendrils. Once those tendrils touched down on the opposite bank, the city resumed its growth with vigor.

For a while, the bit of London on the far side was called New London, which made the older bits Old London. Then, about the time the reigning monarch Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Margaret the Merciful, granted that name in a fit of excessive artistic license, was graduating from wetting herself to standing upright, her father, the late Royal Majesty King John the Proud, had decided Old London was a bit fusty and by royal decree had ordered much of it razed and rebuilt.

A handful of people objected to his bold—some said “audacious”—approach to civil engineering, questioning both the cost and the small but nevertheless still important matter of what to do with all the people so displaced, but a handful of beheadings soon sorted that out. It turns out that a man can accomplish quite a lot when he commands both the nation’s treasury and the headsman’s axe.

So Old London became New Old London, which meant that New London, more or less by default, was now Old New London, and there you had it.

He moved his arm, the one pressed quite uncomfortably against the curbstone. His father had always said that any day you woke up looking down at the gutter instead of up at the gutter was a good day. This was not shaping up to be a good day.

His father. That’s right, he’d had one of those, once.

A clue, then. He probably wasn’t an orphan or a golem. Orphans didn’t have memories of their fathers, he didn’t think—or did they? Maybe he would ask the next one he caught trying to pick his pocket. And golems—well, everyone said golems didn’t have thoughts at all. They were frightfully expensive, and as beasts of burden only moderately effective, but they’d been all the rage since that doctor with the German name had started making them a couple of years back. All the trendiest aristocrats employed one or two for manual tasks like carrying heavy loads or in some of the messier parts of home security. He found them creepy, with their weird (and often mismatched) dead eyes and their occasional bursts of unprovoked violence.

I think, therefore, I am not a golem. That seemed a safe bet.

He still wasn’t quite sure who he was, or what he was doing beyond lying face-up in a gutter in New Old London, but he didn’t feel an undue sense of urgency about that. At the moment, he seemed not to be bleeding from anywhere, and nobody was chasing him, so might as well take advantage of this unexpected luxury. He could work out who he was at leisure.

He looked down the length of his body. Both legs seemed present and accounted for, and in more or less the correct shape. Nothing obviously broken…but what were those ridiculous things on his feet? The shoes were gaudy, made of a patchwork of different kinds of leather that was the latest style among the fashionistas, with bright red clasps and pointed metal tips. They were, he felt, certainly not the sorts of things he would wear under ordinary, or indeed even extraordinary, circumstances. They seemed quite impractical for either running or creeping, two things he had a vague sense that he probably did rather a lot of.

The thing in his pocket poked into him with greater urgency. Time to do something about that.

He closed his eyes, summoning his strength, then, with a titanic effort, rolled over onto his side. That should sort it out. He paused, breathing heavily from the exertion. This new position squashed his hand rather unfortunately beneath him, so it wouldn’t be long before he had to move again. Baby steps.

A loud clattering sound from down the alley. He blinked again. A huge machine stomped past him, all black iron and copper. Smoke poured from its chimney. A clanker. Two-legged, this one, vaguely human-shaped—a newer model, then. Its driver, high up in his cage, didn’t even spare him a glance. It continued down the alley, dragging a cart piled high with freshly-fired bricks.

Alley. Another clue.

New Old London was arranged in a grid, the late and much-lamented monarch being of a mind more than a little obsessed with perfect geometry. It was said he could not eat unless every table-setting was properly arrayed, all the plats precisely centered in front of each chair, the service perfectly parallel, the chairs exactly the same distance from their neighbors. There were rumors of an unfortunate noble who had moved his plate from its appointed place before His Royal Highness had been seated, and consequently lost his title, or perhaps his head.

New Old London was arranged in two grids, to be more precise. You would, if you were to look down on it from one of the many zeppelins crowding the leaden sky above, see an alternating pattern of streets and alleys. The streets were broad and level, with wide sidewalks fronting tidy storefronts well-lit by gas lamps or, in the more fashionable districts, electric arc-lamps. The alleys were narrower, and more pockmarked, without sidewalks or lighting. The rows of buildings faced the streets, with the alleys running behind them.

Street, alley, street, alley: two different grids, slightly offset from each other. The people who mattered—aristocrats, merchants, skilled tradesmen; people with money, all—used the streets. Those without money used the alleys. Two different classes of people flowing along two different grids, living in two different cities, in a manner of speaking. It all made sense to somebody. Somebody in the former class, most likely. It seemed that wherever you went, the rich were willing to travel extraordinary distances to look at poor people, but went to equally extravagant lengths to avoid looking at the poor people closer at hand.

He felt at home in alleys.

His hand throbbed. Time to do something about that, then. Summoning his strength, he rose to his knees, then, with another Herculean effort, to his feet.

This must be what the heroes of Greek stories felt like, after they’d just skinned a hydra or defeated a twelve-headed lion or whatever it was they did.

There was a tangle of black silk cloth and bamboo struts on the ground where he’d just been lying, looking wet and broken. Strange, that.

He leaned against a wooden refuse-dump, trying to catch his breath. Its side was caved in, its contents spilling across the ground near the black silk whatever-it-was. By some stroke of fortune, the refuse that spilled around him was mostly vegetative. There were far less savory refuse-dumps around the city, like those behind the laboratories of people engaged in the business of golem-making.

He looked up. The rain gutter that clung to the red tiled roof of the building next to him was broken, two ends sending forlorn little cascades of water down into the street. A wide swath of tikes had been smashed and scattered, forming a path that led from the broken gutter to a large circle of pulverized clay about three-quarters of the way up the roof.

Ah. So that explained the various aches and pains, then. From the looks of things, he’d hit the roof pretty hard, then skidded down and over the edge into the refuse-dump, taking a bit of the gutter with him, and from there, landed in the gutter.

At least it explained the “how,” if not the “why.”

No, he thought, it didn’t even explain the “how.” It seemed that he had fallen onto the roof, and from there into the gutter by way of a large pile of moldy produce, but where precisely had he fallen onto the roof from?

And more to the point, why was he wearing this ridiculous getup? A sodden black jacket with tails—tails, for the love of all that was holy!—clung limply to him. A couple of feet down the alley was what had once been a top-hat, and was still trying against all odds to be a top-hat. He had a vague sense that it belonged to him, though he did not know for the life of him why he would own such a thing. He was still a bit hazy on who he was, exactly, but he was quite certain he was not the sort of chap who habitually engaged in the wearing of top-hats.

Nor in the habit of falling from the sky into a refuse-dump, either, he had to admit to himself, so perhaps he shouldn’t be too hasty in the matter of the top-hat.

A party. He had been to a party. In a top-hat and the ridiculously impractical shoes he was wearing, shoes he was certain he would never wear absent compelling need of the most dire sort.

He frowned, adding up what he knew. A party, a top-hat, shoes, a long fall onto a roof, a sudden slide into a rubbish-bin, and the wreckage of some silk and bamboo contraption that he knew, with abrupt clarity, had once been a kite.

A zeppelin. The party had been on a zeppelin. And he had left the party with some alacrity. Planned, evidently, to do so. From the look of things, he’d made arrangements in advance to depart over the side of the airship, rather than waiting for it to land to make a more traditional exit.

Damn, he thought, it sure would be nice if he could remember who he was.

The pokey thing in his pocket intruded into his consciousness again. The pants he was wearing were just as ridiculous as the shoes. Like much of what the upper class wore, they had been designed to show off the fact that their owner had no need to do something as profane as work, and therefore need not carry around anything larger than a pocket watch. The pockets, therefore, were vestigial, barely more than slits with a small pouch sewn inside. Whatever it was in his pocket was much larger than the pocket was intended to accommodate.

And it had sharp edges, or so it seemed. He would, he supposed ruefully, probably have quite a large bruise to show for it.

He stuck a hand in his pocket and drew it out.

Memory poured into him like wine into a wineglass.

He, Thaddeus Mudstone Alexander Pinkerton, ne’er-do-well and ruffian of the most despicable sort, had just robbed, though only by the skin of his teeth and at, evidence suggested, great personal peril, Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Margaret the Merciful.

He picked up the battered top-hat, set it atop his head at a rakish angle, and walked, or rather limped, down the alley, whistling.

Perhaps this would be a good day after all.

Kickin' it Old-School: Wololo

I've rediscovered a love of the old real-time strategy game Age of Empires II, which might arguably be the apex of the Golden Age of RTS games.

Those of you who share my love will get this joke.

In 1995, scientist and educator Carl Sagan published a book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is a manifesto of clear, rational thinking. If you're at all interested in understanding the physical world or, more importantly, understanding how to understand the physical world, you really need to read this book.

Seriously. I mean you. Go get a copy.

One of the many brilliant things in The Demon-Haunted World is the Baloney Detection Kit. In a chapter titled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Sagan lays out an excellent set of rules for determining whether or not you're being hoodwinked by pseudoscience--luncheon meat masquerading as knowledge.

I am not and never will be as brilliant as Carl Sagan. However, he lived in a time when pseudoscience, and specifically conspiracy theories about science, were not nearly as endemic in the public discourse as they are today.

So I would modestly like to propose an update to the Baloney Detection Kit.

Here's the updated version:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

  • In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.

  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.

  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.

  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise).

  • When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.

  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

  • Do not continue to make arguments that have already been discredited.

  • Do not trust a hypothesis that relies on a conspiracy to conceal the truth.

  • Arguments that rely on anecdotal evidence or have not been subject to peer review are not reliable.

  • While scientific consensus is not always correct, a hypothesis that contradicts the general consensus should be treated skeptically.

  • Correlation does not imply causation.

  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.

Click on the image for a (much) embiggened version!