Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Incredibly Stupid Engineering by Whirlpool

We have a Whirlpool dishwasher that's about two years old. It was a gift to us, and we like it very much. But last night it developed its first problem. I found it partway through the wash cycle, not running, with the Clean light blinking. It would respond to nothing I did, including pressing the Cancel button.

Well, my first approach to fixing anything I don't understand is to google it. That I did, and I found lots of pages on the problem, including one that linked to a tech video showing all of the many things that might be behind it. Fortunately, near the end of that video, they gave the secret code you need to bring your appliance out of its coma. (Press Heated Dry, then Normal, then Heated Dry, then Normal. Voila! Machine back to life.) But that's not the stupid part.

Here’s the stupid part: The Whirlpool engineers included a test routine in the software that runs the dishwasher. About 8 minutes into the wash cycle, it tests the water temperature to verify that the heating coil is heating the water properly. If it's not, the dishwasher....well, before I tell you, what do you think it does? Do you think it flashes an alert and completes the cycle making the best of the hot water as it is?

Too logical? Do you think it comes to a complete stop—right in the middle of the wash cycle—and freezes its controls so that nothing works? You win! There you are, with partially washed, detergent-covered dishes, and a machine that has locked itself up until a repairman arrives (or until you google the problem and learn the secret code, whichever comes first). This is by design! In fact, the first tech page I found said, in no uncertain terms, The consumer will not be able to restore operation. And the reason for this intentional lockup (one more time)? The water isn't heating properly.

The moronicity of this is mind-boggling, and is only highlighted by a note at the end of the video: in later models, in order to reduce the number of nuisance lockups, they changed the software so that it only freezes the machine if the problem occurs three times in a row. So it's three strikes and you're out—but we're not going to tell you about the first two strikes! Oops—your bad! Call a repairman!

Now, call me naïve, call me an optimist, but if it were me designing the software, I'd have it finish washing the fracking dishes, you idiot! And then it could inform us of the problem. (Sir or Madame, our sensors indicate your wash water might not have reached an optimum temperature. We suggest you have this condition looked at.)

Sometimes I am just amazed at the stupidity of the engineering in American-made appliances. How did we ever make it to the Moon? Honestly. (And don't even get me started about the half-cent gasket in our Calypso—by Whirlpool!—clothes washer that caused flooding twice on our new laundry-room floor.)

Really. Don't get me started.

"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are." —W. Somerset Maugham

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

New SF on TV: Chuck and Journeyman

I'm not normally the first to see new TV shows, but acting on a tip from my friend Craig, I've already recorded and watched two new SF shows from NBC, Chuck and Journeyman. They premier on network broadcast next week, but they're available now for free viewing without commercials! In our area, they're on Comcast's free "On Demand," and you can record them like any other show. (You have to dig a bit to find them, though.) I think you can also stream them online, though to me that's not nearly as appealing.

My wife and I watched Chuck the other night, and loved it! I did not altogether expect to, because the premise of a computer nerd who accidentally downloads the contents of the U.S. intelligence network into his brain seemed—well, a little thin. And I suppose it is. But the story was written with such wit and humor, was so funny and well acted, that we were both hooked and can't wait for the next episode. On a scale of 1-5 secret government data discs, I give this one a 4, easy.

Journeyman's premise is a journalist who, inexplicably and involuntarily, gets zinged back and forth in time—how and by what force, we don't know—seemingly for the purpose of his setting something straight for someone in need. Summarized that way, it doesn't sound too original. A little like Quantum Leap, but without the channeling of another person. Again, the writing and the acting catalyzed everything; Journeyman was engrossing and moving, and handled the built-in "Honey, where the hell have you been for two days?!" problem with believability and finesse. On a scale of 1-5 time machines, I give this one, too, a 4. It might be a tougher premise to sustain, but I hope they get a chance to try.

We all know that good shows sometimes die early if they don't get the right buzz, so I hope you go and check these out. Next up, the new Bionic Woman, which I understand features not just one but several actors from Battlestar Galactica.

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity." —rejection slip allegedly from a Chinese economics journal


Book Signing, September 29-30

I almost forgot to post here (because I put it on my web site), I'm doing another book signing in Sandusky, Ohio, at the Kalahari Resort. This will happen the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 29 and briefly again Sunday morning. (Details) The occasion, aside from the fact that I had a great signing there in July, is that my Huron High School reunion is being held there that weekend. I haven't seen many of my classmates in several decades, so I'm going out for that—and the book signing will, I hope, help to defray the costs of the visit.

"I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning." —William Faulkner

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunborn Excerpt Now Online!

By popular request (well, by request of one or two people, anyway), I have uploaded the first three chapters of Sunborn, so you can get a taste of what's coming. I finished the final final final drop-dead revisions on the early chapters last week, and it should be going into production shortly. (Going into production, of course, means that it'll be out in a year. But even if I drop dead now, the book will survive me. Which, er, ought to be some consolation.)

Anyway, check it out, on my website at

"I always do the first line well, but I have trouble doing the others." —Moliere

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Beyond the Forest and Over the King's Highway

We've been threatening to do it all summer, and today we did it—Allysen and I rollerbladed all the way to the end of the bike path in Bedford, and back. It was about 17 miles roundtrip. We had done it once before, a few years ago, and weren't sure we'd ever manage it again. But today we made the trek in just a couple of hours.

This took us well past the Forest Perilous, and even way beyond the Lexington Wall. We crossed through the King's Courtyard, fallen into disrepair now, since there's been no king for centuries. (Some know it as Lexington Center.) And we passed over the old King's Highway (known to the local folk as I-95). It's now teeming with hard-carapaced orcs and trolls, speeding along on their evil business. We moved quickly on, before anyone could notice us. Finally, at the far end of the trail, we came to a reminder of the old rail line we were skating on—a nicely displayed old Budd railcar, along with a bike shop and some benches.

Upon our return home, we promptly made some frozen margaritas to celebrate our odyssey!

"One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily." —Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dark Matter Galaxies, and the Loss of a Literary Star reports the apparent discovery of "Hobbit" galaxies—tiny, ultrafaint, dwarf galaxies in our local group—which appear to consist mostly of dark matter. Though they were observed by their stars, which presumably are made of normal matter, gravitational calculations based on the movements of the stars indicate that the galaxies are 100 times more massive than the estimated total mass of their stars. The rest? Dark matter, more than likely. The findings will be published in the Astrophysical Journal in November.

Meanwhile, you may already have heard that Madeleine L'Engle died on September 6, 2007, another great loss to the book world. She is best known, of course, for the A Wrinkle in Time series of young adult novels, but she wrote many other books, as well. (Her official web site)

I never got to meet her, though we exchanged some correspondence once. Paradoxically, I didn't discover her books at a young age, but as an adult. (Someone tried to turn me on to A Wrinkle in Time at a particularly sensitive age—when I didn't want to read "YA" and I didn't want my SF to read like fantasy. So that effort failed. But I tried the book years later, and that time it clicked. Marvelous.)

Farewell, creator of Mrs. Who and all the others. And thank you.

"You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it's going to be too difficult for grown-ups, you write it for children." —Madeleine L'Engle

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Strange and Exotic Robots on TED

Dutch artist Theo Jansen has created an extraordinarily odd set of moving sculptures, which any normal person would want to call robots, though they have no intelligence and are purely mechanical creations. He speaks of them as being "Strandbeests," and when you watch, you will understand why. Take a look; it's about an eight-minute video. I'll wait.

You can also view it in a separate browser window and read some background info on it. While you've got that open, check out some of the other videos listed in the TED sidebar. (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. That's the name of the web site that presents these pieces.) They're all of a scientific and/or artistic bent.

"When I'm not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I'm working, it is quite clear I know nothing." —John Cage

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Return of the Ultimate SF Writing Workshop

Craig Gardner and I are running another intensive writing workshop this fall, starting on October 15, at the Pandemonium SF Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Obviously, this will be of interest mainly to people who live within easy commuting distance of Cambridge! But maybe some of my blog readers fall into that group.) It's aimed at aspiring professional writers, and runs the gamut of subjects, for ten successive Monday evening meetings. It's also intended as an intensive workshopping experience: learning to work as a group to provide mutual support. (Our last group went off and formed their own writing group afterward.)

All the details are online at

"A writer is a man who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do." —Donald Barthelme

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Forest Perilous, and Other Treacherous Paths

Rollerblading is what Allysen and I do for exercise and pleasure, a few times a week if our schedules and the weather cooperate. We live near a wonderful bike/recreational trail (former rail line), which gives us a perfect place to skate and a bit of nature. The trail itself is eleven miles long from beginning to end, though most of the time we stick to a wooded stretch that's maybe three or four miles long.

Lately we've taken to naming some of the landmarks along the way. For some reason, they seem more important on the homebound leg, maybe because it's usually starting to get dark, and we're getting tired, and we need some sense of progress. So if we've made it, say, almost to the center of Lexington, we might stop at what we call the Lexington Wall (not unlike the Wall of Gondor), marking the beginning of a stretch of dangerous territory (bad pavement) leading toward the center. Turning back, we head eastward toward home, and through some pleasant woods—although we must at one point cross the Trollway, a driveway where stern signs warn against trespassing. (Okay, we won't. No kill us, please.)

It's smooth sailing for a while, passing wood and field, and then under the Aqueduct, followed by the Mosquito Bench and Mare Scumtatis (or Sea of Scum, a lovely green pond). Once we've passed the Great Meadows (its real name!) and survive Bug Alley (bad only at certain hours, thank heaven), we cross out of the Lexington Gates and on through the Borderland that will bring us into Arlington—and into the Dimwoods, a long stretch that can be pretty tricky at twilight, especially when that Chinese restaurant somewhere out of sight fills the air with mind-altering aromas. The Dimwoods Trestle (a former railroad bridge) marks the approach of the eastern edge of the Dimwoods. But that just means we're about to enter the Forest Perilous—most dangerous stretch of all—where sticks and stones abound (on the pavement) and light does not. Here we slow, and wonder if it's safer to glide on two skates for greater stability, or continue stroking right-left to reduce the probability of a strike. No way to know.

We steel our nerves, check our pads, and press on. The homeward edge of the Forest Perilous brings us over the Trestle of Noxious Fumes, a bridge that passes near a natural gas facility that seems to vent in our direction periodically. Hold your breath, it's quick. Finally we break out into the sun again—freedom! But that does not protect us from having to pass the Field of Mortal Combat (which the lesser mortals think is merely the high school football field). We do this without complaining—we laugh at death!—until we are safely away, and on toward home.

So many dangers, so little time. And I haven't even mentioned the Legions of Fear—the berserker bicyclists who zoom by without so much as an "On your left!" That tale must await another time, another campfire.

"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." —E.L. Doctorow

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