Inhuman Swill : Page 20
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.
            

Squirrel's-eye view (sorta)
I think I've finally figured out how Ella can be all the way at the front end of our apartment and detect the presence of a squirrel in the back yard. Birds are the key. When a rodent invades their garden space, the sparrows set up a particular squawking racket that Ella has learned to associate with the presence of a squirrel. She hears that sound and charges toward the back door yipping and yelping like her tail's on fire.

Late one morning last week, alerted by one of these yelping fits, I rushed to the kitchen to open the back door for Ella. As usual, she tried to squeeze through the opening before it was wide enough for her. Then she clattered down the stairs from our second-story deck, and I could hear her charging around the yard like a wounded rhino. She started barking from near the gate at the side of the house, so I leaned over the railing to make sure the gate was shut.

What I saw when I looked down was a squirrel climbing past the security lights installed on the corner of our brick building. (I wished I had a camera but my iPhone was in the apartment, charging. The photo below is one I took a few minutes later.) Ella was on her hind legs, barking up at the squirrel. The moment the crafty little rodent saw me peering down at it, it changed direction and darted along the railing of the deck below ours.

I hurried toward the stairs, my only intent being to flush the squirrel in Ella's direction. (I'm a good wingman for her in that regard, as is Laura.) But the squirrel didn't stop when it reached the end of our downstairs neighbors deck railing. It launched itself through the air, over Ella's head, leaping six feet to snatch at the branch of a tree in the garden. In moments it had swarmed up the trunk of the tree and made its escape over the roof of the garage.

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curiosityshadow.jpg
One of my earliest memories is of standing with my father after dark on the front lawn of our home in Highland Park, Los Angeles. He pointed at the moon and told me, "There are men up there right now."

The Apollo 11 mission reached the lunar surface on my mother's 24th birthday. I was still weeks shy of my second birthday, so I find it doubtful that this memory (if, indeed, it isn't wholly apocryphal) comes from that first landing. Maybe it was Apollo 12 later that year, or Apollo 14 in 1971 (though that date seems too late). Doesn't matter. I remember feeling a childish awe that people had flown to that distant bright sphere.

No humans landed on Mars last night, just a robotic rover, but the wonder and awe I felt were perhaps even greater than on that Vietnam-era night. Because, in a sense, we all traveled along with Curiosity on its thrilling, harrowing, lonely plunge to the Martian surface. NASA brilliantly sucked us into the narrative by walking us through its "7 Minutes of Terror" in advance, then let us hang out with the gang in mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to live those seven minutes with them. Yes, this is something like the seventh time that humans have landed devices successfully on Mars, but never before have we observers all been able to experience the event with such immediacy, unmediated by professional reporters. I'm not ashamed to say that I burst into tears when Curiosity was reported to have landed safely, and I know from the conversation taking place on Twitter that I was far from the only one who did.

Kind of a silly reaction to the fact that we humans (or some of our smartest representatives) had fired a hunk of metal and glass through space to a soft landing on a neighboring ball of rock, right? Not really. Those first couple of pictures, featuring the wheel or shadow of a human-made object on Mars made clear that, even if most of us had long since come to terms with the fact that we would never set foot on the Red Planet ourselves, an emissary could still go there for us and make its first task upon arrival to send us back photos. And that was almost as wondrous as being there.

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8x8.png
A few weeks ago, Andrew Huff of Gapers Block issued me a fascinating challenge: to take a piece of original poster art by Chad Kouri and produce a piece of writing of between 1,500 and 2,500 words to accompany it.

The resulting art/writing combo, along with seven other collaborations between artists and writers, will be on display and on sale at The Coop on May 18th. All the info is below. Hope to see you there.

8 x 8
Friday, May 18, 2012
6:00 pm until 10:00 pm

The COOP | A co-working space in River North
230 W Superior, 2F, Chicago, IL 60654

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I learned something very cool yesterday. Of course, I'm a science geek, but I still thinks it's cool enough to share.

I'm in Los Angeles this week, doing what I hope will be ongoing programming work for a new client. The client is a big printing facility that spits out reams of paper by the minute, sorts, collates, folds, stuffs, and meters. If you've ever received a one-page explanation of benefits from your health insurance company, or a huge booklet with all the legalese for your policy, this is the kind of place that produced it.

I went on a tour of the facility yesterday afternoon. Among the huge laser printers and folding/inserting machines chained together like a mechanical version of the Human Centipede was a big blue roll printer. It was fascinating to watch in action. At one end was a giant roll of white paper, about six feet in diameter and 17 inches wide. The paper was fed at high speed into a unit that printed two pages side by side. As it emerged from that unit, the continuous paper strip went through a complex series of rollers, some set at a 45-degree angle, that turned the paper over so the blank side was facing up as it went into the next printer. As the paper emerged, now printed on both sides, a blade sliced it lengthwise. The two narrow side-by-side strips were then brought together, one on top of the other, and fed into a cutter that chopped them up into perfectly collated stacks of 8.5 x 11" duplex-printed paper.

That was cool enough, but I noticed that as the paper emerged from the machine that sliced it lengthwise, it passed beneath a piece of wire that had obviously been juryrigged. The wire was wound with a spiral of tinsel, the kind you'd use to decorate a Christmas tree. The tinsel brushed the paper as it sped past.

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At the doggie zoo
A couple of weird things happened yesterday. The first came relatively early, as Ella and I were out on our Sunday morning walk. Laura and I usually walk Ella together on Sunday mornings, but Laura had a cough and a fever so I was walking Ella alone. We try to walk her for a couple of hours on weekend mornings, to wear her out for the rest of the day. I took Ella on a long loop to the Lake Michigan shore (about a mile and a half from our house) to run around on the sand, then to a big adjacent park to chase squirrels.

We were on our way back home after nearly two hours out when Ella communicated to me that she would like to explore the alley we were passing. She did this by stopping at the mouth of the alley and looking down it pointedly. At this stage in our walks, I'm usually eager to get home so my custom is to tell her no and make her keep walking. But we had plenty of time that morning and I'd made her leave the park before she was quite ready, so I relented.

Ella spent a lot of time sniffing around a group of black plastic trash bins in the alley before she'd let me move on. Her fascination with squirrels is rivaled only by her fascination with rats, so I kept a close eye on her. We continued through the alley and then back up the next block where a squirrel with a peanut in its mouth taunted us from a tree behind a fence. Soon we were back on our original route home, but Ella tugged me into the next alley we passed. She made a beeline for another group of black plastic bins and darted into a gap between them.

I saw a little shadow with a naked tail flash through the gap. Ella struck, and when she drew her head back a rat the size of my fist was wriggling in her jaws.

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The Chicago Writers Conference is Chicago's only homegrown mainstream literary conference focusing on practical business advice for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The brainchild of Mare Swallow, it will feature such editors, agents, and authors as Chuck Sambuchino, Christine Sneed, Robert K. Elder, and Jennifer Mattson.

But it can only happen with support! The CWC is in the final eight days of its Kickstarter campaign and still needs to raise over $4000 for equipment rental, web development, speakers' travel expenses. There are lots of great incentives remaining for various donation levels, including art, signed books, and query letter or story manuscript critiques from Chuck Sambuchino and, ahem, yours truly.

But here, let Mare tell you more about the conference, and why you should support it:

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Every sperm is sacred

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Here's a Daily Show story from last week that just about made me spit a tooth across the room. It's about the amendment State Senator Constance Johnson attempted to add to Oklahoma's odious "personhood" bill. The amendment would have tacked this language onto the bill:

[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.
This video segment was the first I'd heard about the proposed amendment, and I'm embarrassed to say that it took me until partway through to realize that Sen. Johnson was making an absurdist pro-choice statement with her amendment. Then the story was twice as funny as it had been before.

Video link: "Bro-Choice" from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

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Let's keep Horan around!

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Let's keep Horan around!
The other day Laura and I were out walking the dog when we spotted a campaign ad on top of a taxi:

Elect Judge Kevin Horan

Yes, our minds went there almost immediately. We imagined his future reelection campaign:

Let's Keep Horan Around!

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The obligatory SXSW recap post

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Into the belly of the beast
I keep not finding time to post about my trip with Laura to the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but it was a swell time and I should probably jot down a few memories before a) they become totally instead of just mostly irrelevant, and b) they fall completely out of my head.

Laura has been to SXSWi a few times before, and she was adamant that I should come with her this year to feed the programming consultant side of my brain. We bought our memberships and booked our hotel last summer. We flew to Austin on the morning on March 8, the day before the conference started, which turned out to be a good idea in several ways, the first of which was entirely accidental. We ran into our good friend Scott Smith of Chicago magazine in the departure lounge at Midway that morning. With him were Andrew Huff of Gapers Block and Steve Prokopy of Ain't It Cool News. We were all on the same flight, and we ended up riding the bus from the airport into Austin together and all trekking to Frank for lunch (the only time that weekend we were able to get in, incidentally). We were also able to go to the convention center that afternoon and pick up our badges in fairly short order. The next day, lines at registration were a couple of hours long.

The panels themselves were varied and interesting. I attended discussions of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, smarter algorithms for pinch-and-zoom on touch interfaces, social/local/mobile services, online privacy, and even more abstruse topics. These panels all seem fascinating in retrospect, though I'm afraid that at the time most of them suffered from the problem of not quite living up to the promise of their descriptions in the program guide. Very useful stuff that, at worst, got me excited about doing more iOS programming.

There was time for entertainment, too. We made it out to Skinny's Ballroom to see Scott and Andrew (along with 18 other readers) participate in 20x2, an evening of two-minute readings. (They both crushed it. By which I mean they were good.) I saw a hilarious panel on comedy podcasting featuring Kevin Pollak and Doug Benson and others, and I attended Rainn Wilson's (sadly hit-and-miss) presentation about his spirituality site Soul Pancake. I managed to get into my own top pick of events, which was a live taping of Marc Maron's WTF podcast featuring Jeffrey Tambor. But it was Laura who scored the coup, using her Amex membership to get us a free pair of tickets to a special Jay-Z concert at Austin City Limits Live. ("HOVA! HOVA!")

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Chicago is getting its own down-home writers conference! The Chicago Writers Conference will take place September 14-16 at Tribune Tower in beautiful downtown Chicago. Speakers and presenters include Chuck Sambuchino, Robert K. Elder, and Cinnamon Cooper, while special readings will be staged by both Essay Fiesta and Tuesday Funk.

But the Chicago Writers Conference can only happen with your help! I'd explain why the conference deserves your support, but there's already a compelling plea from organizer Mare Swallow, Write Club founder Ian Belknap, and yours truly up on Kickstarter. Check us out:

So please kick in a few shekels and help support the Chicago Writers Conference. Several great incentives are still available, including a story critique (up to 10,000 words) from me for a mere $175 pledge. (The custom poem is already gone. Sorry!) Please help, and we'll looking forward to seeing you at Tribune Tower in September!

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