Random notes from a trip to Scotland...


For Ann Arbor area friends: Driving in Scotland is much like Huron River Drive, but all the time and hillier and curvier and faster and with steeper drop offs on both sides of the road and large trucks coming in from the wrong side just as the road narrows to one lane. And sheep. For hours.


After a day of seeing amazing feats of Neolithic construction -- villages of stone, standing stones of stone, burial mounds of stone, tons of finely honed stone slabs piled on more tons of stoned and finished to near perfection and placed such that they've stood for thousands of years -- it took four of us three tries before we could cut through our dessert tart using a sharpened stainless steel knife which someone else made, sharpened, and brought to our table.


We toured a bunch of distilleries, and while this didn't make us experts in whisky-making, we got well-versed in the process and the generic tour, written from memory and then enhanded with real nouns:

To make whisky you need four kinds of stuff [1]. Grow some of the stuff [2], germinate it, and then stop germinating it by heating. That's called malting, and you can use other stuff [3] as the heat source if you want.

(Aside: Dry peat, which is basically fetal coal which needs a few million years more gestation, has no scent. It's the damp peat that you add later that gives the Islay malts their characteristic flavor.)

Now dry and turn the stuff [4], then run it through a thing [5], separating it into husk, grist, and flour. All these parts get mixed with stuff [6] in the mashing stage, and successive washes of varying temperatures extract sugar from the barley. The leftover mash is turned into feed for the approximately 6.022x10^23 sheep and cows in Scotland.

The sugar water that the livestock doesn't get is the stuff [7], and this heads into washbacks (sometimes made of wood like larch, sometimes metal), and at last, add the stuff [8]. Fermentation begins and, depending on who's doing it, will last from 40-100 hours. In the process it releases carbon dioxide, and if you stick your head in the washback and take a big sniff you'll regret it for the next half hour.

At the end of the process you basically have strong beer (7-10% alcohol) which actually tasted more like wine. Up to this point the processes for making beer, wine, and whisky are virtually identical. The difference comes in the next step, where if you do it wrong for beer or wine the end result tastes bad and if you do it wrong for whisky the end result will kill you [9]. Avoid tragedy by running the stuff [10] through the pot and the washback stills successively. These are made of copper and condense out the spirit, and you do this over and over until you get past the foreshots [11] and get to the heart. Carefully monitor the process and draw off the heart, recycling the heads and the tails [12] in later runs to extract all the good stuff. All of this stuff flows through a spirit safe, which is kept under lock and key so nobody can swipe any spirit and sell it without paying taxes.

The fetal whisky now goes into things [13]. The first thing is always made from American bourbon cask oak, charred on the inside first. Then the whisky sits for a minimum of three years, 2% evaporating each year -- that 2% is the angel's share.

(The barrels are monitored closely, since a) they're valuable, and b) still not taxable, since for a 10 year whisky the accumulated angel's share would be ~20% and nobody wants to pay taxes on stuff lost to the textbook definition of an act of god.)

Stuff [14] enters the cask to replace the lost whisky, adding stuff [15]. Sometimes there's another barrel/cask used, typically Spanish sherry, for finishing. Sometimes it just goes straight to the bottle, from which everyone drinks the stuff [16] and is happy.

1. water, barley, yeast, and heat
2. barley
3. peat
4. barley
5. mill
6. water
7. wort
8. yeast
9. ...or merely blind you.
10. wash
11. aka the head, aka the dangerous part
12. aka the feints
13. barrels
14. air
15. character
16. Scotch

Sign coming into Edinburgh: "No hard shoulder next 150 yards." I expect if I'd looked backwards it would have said "No hard shoulder next 1362 miles." (It should have.)

My hiking boots have been fully peated. The nose is awful. 

I'm in the middle of the first volume of Patterson's meticulous biography of Robert Heinlein (Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue with His Century: Learning Curve) and among the many interesting things RAH said, in interesting ways, the following two quotes stuck out.

The first one is a downer, but it goes to show that some things don't change fast enough, sadly enough. Writing to Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1964, he had this to say about behavior he experienced at the hands of people who ostensibly loved science fiction in general and his work in specific:

"The unique problem of organized fandom is one that I have wondered about for many years. Here is a group made up largely of well-intentioned and mentally-interesting people -- how is it and why is it that they tolerate among themselves a percentage of utter jerks?--people with no respect for privacy, no hesitation at all about libel and slander, and a sadistic drive to inflict pain. Marion, I do not understand it."

I've been lucky in this, and have encountered few utter jerks. A lot of friends and artists I've worked with have not -- this is especially true for the women professionals -- and I'm clearly no smarter than Heinlein, since I also do not understand it.

On a more positive note (in terms of maintaining sanity) RAH, writing to John W. Campbell in 1941, shows he knew not to be so foolish as to take reviews that glow to heart:

"The write-up made me sound so omniscient that I was tempted to call myself up and ask for some advice and a little coaching."

I've been lucky to get some flattering reviews myself, and I do wonder who that writer is they're talking about, and could I maybe meet him someday.

The converse is true as well. When someone hates your book (I just noticed my first one-star review for Feynman on Amazon) it doesn't mean I'm no longer omniscient...I just never was.

Now, back to writing things I hope I can be proud of, and that maybe some other people will like. 

It's finally getting cold again, and I'm staying inside and reading more. You might also plan to spend extra time indoors in the next few weeks. Or months. We'll see what the Polar Vortex has to say about that. So in case you wondered, here are the best books I read in 2014, complete with my brief notes to myself about them. They're in no particular order -- they're all good and some are even better than that.

I hope you find something new here that you like!

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Some Kind of Fairy Tale
Joyce, Graham
I couldn't wait to return to reading it. Not sure who was telling the story in the book, or whether that person is at all believable, but (and so!) it's an excellent evocation of mystery.

Banks, Iain M.
A Culture novel, full of great ideas. The plot didn't move me (or hold me) from start to finish, probably because I read it over too extended a period. Still, as always with Banks, a worthwhile journey.

The Martian
Weir, Andy
Super fun super hard SF. Everybody wants to be Mark Watney...or should. Read this.

Every Day
Levithan, David
Excellent premise, execution, and resolution. Though when we discussed this in our reading group the people who knew developmental psychology weren't as convinced by it, this hooked me from the start, held me throughout.

The Girl in the Road
Byrne, Monica
Interesting and well written, and even though I'm not sure I got every allusion or how things fit together in the end, it's worth re-reading to get those things, and I probably will. I still have images from it in my head.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Sloan, Robin
Quite a lot of fun, and would have been almost perfect if it hadn't failed on the cryptography front. Still, that's forgivable for many great scenes and quotes, such as one describing Google's many research projects, one of which was "developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris."

Howey, Hugh
Excellent. You probably already knew this.

Pump Six and Other Stories
Bacigalupi, Paolo
A clear and present and frightening near future, esp. the title story.


The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Rex
Colonel Roosevelt
Morris, Edmund
It's hard to recommend these books enough. They read like novels, even the bits that would be desert dry in other people's hands. This is in part because of Morris, and largely because of Roosevelt himself...what a life. It will be hard to read biography again after this. (Not really, but it's hard to imagine a better subject, handled better.)

Truck: A Love Story
Perry, Michael
Fully entertaining, with some especially good bits of writing and insight about writing. And i's about a truck.
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
Teachout, Terry
Very good, though I got impatient (mostly because of ignorance) with the analysis of the jazz in terms I don't understand. But this is a more complex and compelling book than others I've read about my favorite composer/arranger/bandleader.

The Sports Gene
Epstein, David
Interesting exploration of what makes top athletes what they are; so many factors, including sports-specific training and mental databases, but mostly? Optimized body types and good genes coupled with good training.

Ten Years in the Tub
Hornby, Nick
Combines previous books, but with a couple hundred pages I hadn't read. They are, like what came before, excellent. Makes me want to read even more.

Ali, Ayaan Hirsi
I learned a lot I didn't want to know about the world from this book, including just how much any success and happiness I've had is earned and not just a matter of almost unbelievable good luck. (Hint: it's mostly luck.)


Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
Collins, Billy
Poetry I like! A lot. Amazing! So many excellent choices in it.

Out of Sight
Leonard, Elmore
Entertaining, light, fun. Leonard writes so smoothly you forget you're reading a book.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Semple, Maria
Light and a farce and I read it just after Infidel so the mental relief was particularly good.

Lord of Misrule
Gordon, Jaimy
Fantastic storytelling and imagination and world-building. Magical realism? I'm not sure, but it works through-and-through.

Graphic Novels

[I read relatively few of these this year. Probably because I was absorbed with working on one of my own (and adding to another), so that part of my brain was super-saturated with comics most of the time. But I still snuck a few excellent ones past my own defenses.]

Clockwork Game
Irwin, Jane
Fascinating story, beautifully told and drawn. A graphic novel about the Mechanical Turk was like catnip to me, and it was fresh and good catnip and I'm still drooling and that's enough of that metaphor.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
Greenberg, Isobel
Very well done, and she's already so good that if she gets better still (I get the sense that she's young) she'll be a superstar.

This One Summer
Tamaki, Mariko; Tamaki, Jillian
Everybody already knows this book is terrific, right? 

The Shadow Hero
Yang, Gene; Liew, Sonny
Ho hum, another fabulous book with Gene Yang's name on it. Doesn't he get tired of being better than everybody else? (I hope not.) This time, a superhero story, with great art by Sonny Liew.

The Property
Modan, Rutu
Well done, and heavily layered. Worth reading again.

Phelan, Matt
Another book about summer, and this too captures it perfectly. It does so differently from the Tamakis' book, proving that there's more than one way to be wonderful.

Walt Before Skeezix: 1918-1920
King, Frank O.
Nostalgia for something I never knew, and wouldn't have participated in is a weird and wonderful feeling.

The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation
Mishkin, Dan; Colon, Ernie; Drozd, Jerzy
Excellent, detailed, and true to its subject matter.

The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy
Patton, Michael F.; Cannon, Kevin
Great introduction to the major fields of philosophy. You can't buy this yet, but when you can, you should.

Briefly: Suspended in Language will soon (where "soon" is a ways off, really, since translation takes a while!) be available in Japanese from Kodansha and Korean from Green Knowledge.

Kodansha -- via their Blue Backs line of books -- did a wonderful job with Feynman and I've been very pleased with all the Korean editions of my books as well, so I'm excited and pleased to have my two physics heroes meet up out on the Pacific Rim.
The title says it all, but in case you want more, you can read the press release: "New DRM-free Publishers at ComiXology".

I was happy when comiXology asked me to join the second wave of DRM-free books, since it allowed me to make the books available to a wider audience. Will some of that audience share the books in ways I'd rather they didn't? Maybe, but I suspect most won't, and the benefits of making the books easier to read will be worth it.

This isn't my first foray into DRM-free, though the first was a smaller scale. I worked with the Ann Arbor District Library a couple of years ago to release a few titles to AADL card-holders available. We went back and forth quite a bit on how that would work, and in the end instead of of requiring one of those hated click-through agreements, I wrote this and attached it to all the files:

A note from the author:

Hi! Jim Ottaviani here, writing to say thanks for downloading [BOOK TITLE]. You probably expected to see a bunch of legalese at this point, but I almost never make it all the way through those licenses myself, so you won't get that here. You also won't get passwords, due dates, or DRM. We want you to read this book however it suits you, be it on a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, a phone... From here on out, this copy is yours.

So, I hope you enjoy [BOOK TITLE], and if you do I have two requests.

If you want to share it with friends who live in Ann Arbor, please encourage them to get the book from AADL themselves. This is an experiment for both the library and me; we'd like to find out how many people want to read books this way. So if your friends live here, they can get it the same way you did, and that would help us learn more. And hey, if they don't already have a library card, now is the perfect time for them to get one! AADL is a wonderful resource, and you'll both be happy you introduced them to it.

And if you planned to send it to a friend from out of town? Well, while it's uncomfortable to say it so plainly, here goes: You and I chip in via taxes to support all the great books, music, and movies -- not to mention services -- AADL provides. Some of my share comes from sales of the books I write. If you give this to someone who hasn't chipped in, either directly or indirectly, we'll end up with fewer great things to watch and listen to and read. So instead of sending them your copy, please suggest that they buy one, or ask their local library to order one for its collection.

Thanks for reading, and again, I hope you enjoy the book.

So far, so good I think. And now, in partnership with comiXology, the experiment goes global.
It's Not Big It's Large

It's Not Big It's Large (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of my last year working for United Engineers and Constructors was spent in Syracuse, NY. And Oswego. I enjoyed some things about that phase, which was the tail-end of my nuclear engineering career -- the Syracuse Speed Skating Club and living on an expense account, mostly -- but I didn't love being on the road 8-10 months of each year, which is why it was the tail-end.

Not that I loved living in Philadelphia all that much, either. It's a great town, but I just wasn't a big city person any more. Visiting is excellent...I spent most of a day in Chicago a couple of weeks ago just walking around and looking at buildings and imagining eating at all the hole-in-the wall restaurants I passed. But the density of cars and people (too high) and trees (too low) always makes me glad I live in a small city in Michigan, minutes away from farms and forests.

Philadelphia did have WXPN, though...88.5 on your FM dial. That and WRTI (90.1) were the first public radio stations I consciously listened to. WXPN in particular introduced me to Bob Edwards, Sylvia Poggioli, Carl Kassell, and a metric ton of great music, and it's the first NPR affiliate I volunteered at. This was back when stations stuck volunteers in a small room with actual telephones with actual twisty cords and handsets dials and allowed strangers to take Visa and Mastercard numbers from other strangers so they could make next year's budget.

Because United Engineers wanted me at work at 8 every morning, I volunteered for the early phone shift during Michaela Majoun's morning show. It was her first year at XPN, and she was fantastic. (She's still there; she's probably still fantastic.) So I got up well before dawn and went to the University of Pennsylvania's campus and didn't commit any credit card fraud and had a great time inside an actual radio station.

As I left, I stopped at the water fountain to get a drink and while leaning over and slurping I saw a pair of pointy and heavily tooled leather cowboy boots out of the corner of my eye. They weren't mine -- I wore very plain brown ones when I was working at the Nine Mile Point nuke plant, and none at all with my three piece suit at the home office in Philly -- so they caught my attention. I lifted my head from the fountain and looked up and then further up and still further up and there was Lyle Lovett's unmistakeable face and further up still was Lyle Lovett's unmistakeable hair. So I did what comes naturally: I stammered. "I-I really really liked your latest album." He smiled, said thank you, got a drink of water himself (from th-th-the same fountain!) and then went into the studio to be charming with Michaela Majoun.

You were expecting more, right? Sorry. But I was expecting much less from that day, so it was 100% worth getting up at 5am for.

All this because we saw Lyle Lovett in concert a few days back, an anniversary present to ourselves. Almost three hours of great music, and as we left the Michigan Theater via a rarely-used exit we found ourselves in the loading area backstage. There, just past the bass player putting away his standup, and after thanking him and the cellist (yes, really, a cellist) for the great performance and picking up a discarded set list which I've used to recreate the concert as a playlist for Kat...there Lyle Lovett was, again, taking a photo and chatting with Jeff Daniels.

Nowhere near as close as public radio got me. But close enough.

He's still really tall.

It's been a while since I've talked about Primates, but the folks at Barnes & Noble Store #2107 and Gina at First Second have fixed that! So, if you're in the neighborhood, you can take a break from the Art Fair(s), skip the corn dogs and elephant ears, and come hear me enthuse about great apes.

The event is part of a nation-wide "Get Pop-Cultured Preview Weekend" held in anticipation of the San Diego Comicon. While I'm not the most pop-culture-y guy in the world, when it comes to being cool and heroic and stuff, you can't beat Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas.

I'll be working without a net (as in, no A/V) so this will be an interesting experiment in talking about comics with no pictures projected on a screen behind me! There are things to say and books to sign and fun to have. And B&N#2107 is a really nice store to hang out in. See you there?
"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."

Alan M. Turing (1950). "Computing machinery and intelligence." Mind, 59, 433-460.

If only that future had included many more years of Turing, and the products of his genius.

Posted in honor of The Imitation Game by Leland Purvis and me...read it at Tor.com, which concludes its online run today. Thanks to Leland most of all, but also Irene Gallo and Chris Lough at Tor.com, Joan Hilty, Nick Abadzis, and everyone else who made this possible. 
"A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can -- and often does -- give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this way. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and "carried on." There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing to do her duty under fire.

"Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic -- remember she didn't get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich."

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942, issued by the United States War Department in 1942, published by the Bodelian Library, University of Oxford, in 2004 (ISBN 1-85124-085-3)

"[W]e are not interested in the fact that the brain has the consistency of cold porridge. We don't want to say 'This machine's quite hard, so it isn't a brain, so it can't think.'"

Alan Turing (1952). "Can automatic calculating machines be said to think?" BBC Third Programme, 14 and 23 Jan. 1952, discussion between M.H.A. Newman, Alan M. Turing, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, and R.B. Braithwaite.

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