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The Arbuckle Diaries
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Preface: Yeah, I'm back from three days in a cabin in Oklahoma's scenic Arbuckle mountains. I birdwatched. I grilled weenies. I mingled with the locals. I wrote (ended up with about 9,000 words all told, which isn't too bad). Anyway, here you go...

Monday, April 21st
about 3:15pm

I'm writing to you from just outside Davis, Oklahoma, from a tiny log cabin about a half-mile off of Highway 77 on a gravel road.

I met the proprietor, Mrs. Kiser, at a worksite a few miles up the road, where they're apparently building more cabins (they're painted lipstick red and they're right on the thanks). She gave me the key and directions to the cabin.

I found it just fine and I've just lugged all my stuff, including this computer, down the wooden stairs and into the cabin. It's built on the side of a hill, overlooking a brambly, dry creekbed.

The floor, composed of squeaky, uneven boards, is thankfully carpeted. On one wall, there's a framed montage of postcards, the only decoration in the main room of the one-room cabin. One of the postcards sports an armadillo, with the caption "Hillbilly Speedbump". Indeed.

And in the only other room in the cabin, the bathroom, there is a framed drawing of a child wearing glasses, sitting happily on the toilet. The wording reads, "No Job is Finished Until the Paperwork is Done". I'll try to keep that in mind.

Mrs. Kiser was very nice. She warned me that the door sticks, even though her husband has fixed it a thousand times. She says the cabin must be settling. Let's just hope it doesn't settle into the creekbed while I'm here.

There's a small deck with wrought-iron patio furniture and a charcoal grill (both the bottom and the lid are bicycle-chained to the deck. But I was happy to find a third of a bag of Kingsford brickets rolled up inside.

Davis is about five miles away, and the next item on my list is to drive into town for a few groceries. Looks like I'll be having steak for dinner. Instant coffee just ain't gonna do it, though. So I may just have to pick up a small coffee maker.

Anyway, I like it here so far. It's as good a place as any to start a book, one about the birth of organic life, the emergence of inorganic intelligence, and the destruction of one by the other.

More as time permits. I'm off to shop.

Monday, April 21st
about 6:45pm

While grilling my steak, I heard a noise in the leaves down in the creekbed. There, strutting around, was a big-ass wild turkey. Ah, if only I'd brought a 12-gauge, or if my turkey stalking skills were honed a bit more.

Monday, April 21st
about 7:30pm

And now, nearly 45 minutes later, after doing the dishes, I look out the cabin window and see a roadrunner. And for those of you who haven't ever seen one, they are NOT purple and blue, nor are they four feet tall. And thought I've never heard one, I'm pretty sure they don't go "Beep!" Actually, they look like big, grounded woodpeckers.

Anyway, this place evidently has lots of wild birds (I've seen a couple of buzzards and a hawk so far, too). I just hope the wildlife doesn't get much bigger than that.

Tuesday, April 22nd
about 10:00am

The turkey was back again this morning, strutting around outside the window as I fried my bacon and eggs. Perhaps he's my totem animal. This isn't exactly a vision quest, but I'd be pretty damned disappointed if my spirit guide turned out to be a giant, plump bird.

Anyway, I wrote about a thousand words last night. Not spectacular, but a start. I don't want to put a preset goal on how much writing I want to get done here. I just know I want to get a lot of writing done.

More later...

Tuesday, April 22nd
about 1:15pm

I got about 1,200 words written before lunch, which is fine.

The weather here is perfect, though it actually got a bit cool last night. It's sunny, breezy, in the low 70's. So when I want a bit of fresh air, I just step outside on the deck and breathe one in.

I brought three books for inspiration:

--Robot, From Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind by Hans Moravec
--Destination: Void by Frank Herbert
--Erewhon by Samuel Butler

Robot is a little disappointing. Moravec loves to speculate pretty wildly, and that would be cool if he stuck to AI, but he wanders all over the place, talking about wormholes and time travel. Also, he likes to correlate computing power with the growth of AI, which is just a little wrongheaded, as I've noted here before.

Destination: Void is the story of a small band of clones, setting out from United Moon Base in an egg-shaped ship toward a far-away planet. The ship is navigated by a disembodied human brain, grown and trained especially for this task. The first one goes crazy and fries out. So they try the backup. Same deal. When the third brain burns out, they're screwed. The navigational tasks are too complex for humans to carry out indefinitely, so they decide to reconfigure the central computer and create a true AI to pilot the ship.

It's a cool concept, and even though it was written in the 60's and updated in the 70's, it doesn't feel too outdated. What bugs the shit out of me are Herbert's point-of-view shifts. There are all sorts of secrets and manipulations among the crew, and it's interesting knowing how each of the characters think about one another while interacting, but Herbert shifts from one to the other within scenes, and it's confusing and distracting. Shifting POVs within a scene is generally a big no-no.

Here's an example, from Chapter 8. There are three characters in this scene: Flattery, a chaplain/psychologist, Bickel, the head engineer, and Prudence, a doctor. We start out in Prudence's POV:

She turned away, conveying a sneer by the movement along. He has to think he can rely on no one but himself.

Flattery shifted his attention from Bickel to Prudence and back. He found it increasingly difficult to hide his resentment of Bickel.

In this chapter alone, the POV shifts at least ten times, hopping from character to character. Sure seems like sloppy writing to me (it would have been much cleaner to write each chapter from a particular character's POV...the chapters are extremely short anyway). But what do I know, right? Herbert was a grandmaster of SF.

[Incidentally, as I write this, there are two turkeys out there right now, a male and a female. The male is gobbling his head off.]

And Erewhon ("nowhere" spelled backwards, sort of) is a Victorian satire along the lines of Gulliver's Travels, though less well-known. About three-quarters of the way through is a translation of an Erewhonian text, called "The Book of the Machines", which Butler intended as a refutation of evolutionary thinking (he was a friend of Charles Darwin's, but thought evolution was bogus).

It turns out his attempt at satire actually has some intriguing ideas regarding artificial intelligence, if taken literally, and not as satire. In fact, it was in great part responsible for many of the ideas in the novel I've just started.

Anyway, more writing, and maybe a brief nap, lie ahead.

Tuesday, April 22nd
about 5:15pm

There I had to go, talking about the weather. I woke up from my nap, with rain.

Then again, all I'm here to do is sit inside and write, so the weather's not all that important, right? Still, my primary mode of cooking is the grill outside. I fired up some beef franks for lunch, but it looks like I won't be using it for dinner.

I've been in the cabin all day anyway, so maybe I'll just make a run into Davis for dinner. If I recall, they have a Pizza Hut, a "Hot Tamale" or somesuch, and I think something called a "Mister Burger". Um. I may just try the Mexican place.

I got another 1,200 words or so written. I think I've got about 3,500 total so far. Not stellar, but I'm putting along.

No raccoons or wildcats yet. Just tons and tons of birds. I've seen cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, and big fat crows. Oh, and a red-headed woodpecker. Let's just hope they don't decide to coordinate their efforts.

I have yet to go stir crazy, though I freely admit missing internet access. I'm not breaking out in hives or anything, but being severed from my information umbilicus is a little disconcerting. I'm used to checking the news frequently, and having whatever information I wanted at my fingertips. Well, not for now. There was a quotation from Frankenstein I needed for the first chapter, and I almost clicked on the browser to search the web for it. Then I remembered that I wasn't hooked in to the web.

Ah well. Somehow I'll make do without it.

Wednesday, April 23rd
about 4:20pm

It's been wet since yesterday, but that's all right. I went into town last night for dinner, and the Mexican place pretty much sucked. "Babe's Hot Tamale" was the name of it, and I probably should have stuck with their namesake. Instead I ordered enchiladas, which you couldn't see because they were drowned in nacho cheese sauce. Kinda gross.

Anyway, I leave tomorrow morning, and all in all it's been a pretty good trip. I've written about 7,000 words. Not stellar, but okay. Better than 1,000, not quite as good as 25K. But it's a good start. I wrote my first chapter out of sequence today. I normally don't write out of sequence, but this was a particular interchange I wanted to get down, a counterpoint to Shelly's scene in Frankenstein when the monster and his creator first talk to one another. My AI, unlike many in books and movies, and unlike Frankenstein's monster, isn't full of anguish at being created. It doesn't hate itself or its existence, and it doesn't curse its creator for creating it. It doesn't beg for its creator to make it a makeshift Eve (it's already figured out how to make more of its own). It simply drops by to tell its maker how the world's going to change now. And I think the scene turned out pretty well.

I'm nearly finished with Destination: Void, and it's reasonably interesting, but not great. I already noted the bouncing-ball POV shifts, but another annoying thing is all the technical detail. There are pages and pages of stuff like this:

Bickel attached the neurowidget to the thingamajigger.

"You're not planning on routing the neurowidget impulses through the thingamajigger's undifferentiated guidance systems?" Timberlake protested.

"It's the only way to generate a retrograde optimization field inducer double-back filamented transmogrifying wave collapse, which will integrate the substratified relay board switches with the neuroenhanced module plugs in a time-independent pseudo-conscious flux state capable of emulating consciousness. Possibly."

"Dear God!" Prudence exclaimed, finally seeing what he was getting at.

Although I never saw what anyone was getting at. There were pages and pages of this sort of thing. Overburdened descriptions of technical gobbledygook meant to make what they were doing sound realistic. But look, a little of that goes a long way. Let us know that the Flux Capacitor powers the time machine. If you spend forty pages trying to describe in ingratiating detail the mechanics of theoretical time travel, it ain't gonna make for a good story. If you can do it in a page or two, with an interesting analogy, perhaps, go for it. But when you're dealing with a technology that doesn't exist, it's pretty pointless to go through the motions. Just wave your hands, make it sound mildly plausible, and we'll go along with you for the ride. Hammer the technical details over and over, and you're going to grate on our damn nerves, cause we know all this crap is just made-up foo foo anyway.

The philosophical discussions are more interesting, and are reasonably well-done, but the book basically amounts to four people in a tin egg hurtling through space and having lots of heated arguments. Those discussions work best when they're based on something real, rather than prolonged discussions of fictional widgets.

Herbert was better when he was writing about giant sand worms and pseudo-mythic SF. Still, it's been an interesting read.

This should bring a close to this little diary. When you hear from me again, I should be back in the comfort of my own home.

See you then.

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