Pounce! Blog

The Meaning of Life



Jer of various places asks,

What is the meaning of life?

When I was growing up, we lived way out in the country. It was a convenient spot for people to drop off unwanted pets, so that was how we got all our pets who weren’t born on the premises.

One of these was a large Golden Retriever named John Denver — JD to company. He was about six months old when we got him. He was a moody dog — I think he’d suffered some early trauma — and I was a serious and solitary child, so we got along well.

When he was about two years old, JD learned to speak. He was shy (ref probable trauma mentioned earlier) and would only speak to me, my sister, and one of my brothers, which is why you’ve never heard of him. It didn’t change him as much as you might expect. Even though he was more thoughtful and articulate than most of my classmates, he still liked to roll in anything smelly, for instance. But he and I had some nice chats while walking in the woods.

When I was fifteen — a typical age to wonder about such things — I happened to ask JD what gave his life meaning. It was clear that he’d given the matter some thought, because after only a moment, he began to answer at length. He had a theory about the cosmic importance of things being in their right places, and being brought to those who needed them, and of his role in making that happen. There was some cosmological aspect of this that he started to explain, but, “Hold up,” said I. “You’re aware, right, that your breed of dog is called ‘retriever’?”

He gave me a squinty-eyed look. “What’s your point?”

“Could it be that you’ve used your powers of reason to ennoble something you just like to do because you were bred for it?”

Dog looked at boy. Boy looked at dog. There was a longish pause. “Shut up and just throw the damn stick,” JD said.

Believability and the Reader’s Representative

(cross-posted from wordsfromtheherd.com)

I’m at 4th Street Fantasy Convention this weekend. In a panel last night, there was a discussion about suspension of disbelief. One technique mentioned (by Scott Lynch) was “lampshading,” in which the author, knowing that they’re taking extreme liberties with the laws of physics, or medicine, or whatever, has a character point out the discrepancy so that someone else can confess that they also have no clue how it works, or say, “oh yeah, we found a way around that.” Or in some other way indicate that the author is aware of the problem, and that it’s part of the fantastic premise, not a mistake.

This, it seems to me, is a subset of a more general technique for addressing issues of plausibility – communicate to the reader that you haven’t dropped the ball, by having someone in the story raise the reader’s objection. Then dismiss it, as in the lampshading technique, or deal with it.

For instance, someone else asked about elements which readers will disbelieve even though they’re factual. TV and movies have trained people into unrealistic expectations of the effectiveness of gun silencers, crime labs, and the ease of opening electronic locks. Ancient Roman statuary was brightly painted. And so on. You have to decide whether you want to take time out from your story to fight this battle. Do we include something we know is inaccurate but that people will believe, or just omit that element so as to not have to deal with it? Or do we plunge in and try to correct the misconception? Or hope we’ve established enough authority that the reader will believe?

I think there’s another way. Use the silencer, but have someone else there (besides the shooter, who already knew, and the shootee, who has other concerns) to comment, “Wow, I thought silencers worked a lot better than that.” To which the shooter might reply, “Yeah, you watch too much TV.” No further explanation needed. If the reader’s really curious they can look it up, and meanwhile, it doesn’t look like the author made a mistake. The reader isn’t broken out of the narrative (unless they choose to go consult wikipedia immediately) and their confidence in the author is increased rather than damaged.

Or, if someone behaves totally out of character, you have to decide whether you’ve established sufficient trust as an author to say nothing about it and explain it later (and you’d better do that), or whether you need to show that you realize there’s a problem. Sam, always polite to everyone, is terribly rude to the jeweler. You know why; the reader doesn’t. So maybe someone else on the scene who knows Sam, remarks on it. “Wow, what was that about?”

Of course, you have to be careful not to make matters worse by having a character whose obvious purpose is to shill for the author. To make this work, the situation has to be such that there can naturally be a character who would be puzzled by whatever puzzled the reader.

We also don’t want an “As you know, Bob,” moment. That’s why I think immediately explaining the inconsistency, as opposed to just noting it, is usually a mistake.

So to summarize, the “Reader’s Representative” technique (my term) has three variants, at least:

  1. Lampshading, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem, which you claim as part of your allowed quota of pretend play.

  2. The Promissory Note, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem and you mean to explain later — then you’d better not forget to do that.

  3. The Gentle Correction, in which you show that you know the reader might take issue with what just happened, but they’re wrong and they should look it up if it’s going to bother them.

But don’t do this unless you need it. If you’ve done your homework and shown that you really know weapons, then describe one that works in a way the reader didn’t expect, they’ll likely go along with it. It’s hard to know when you’ve established that credibility, but that’s where beta readers come in.

Where to find time travelers

Secret Undisclosed Person of Minneapolis, MN asks:

Where can I find me some time travelers? I have questions I want to ask.

Under President Bloomberg, donuts will be illegal, and the US-sponsored War on Donuts will make them hard to get anywhere, and of uncertain quality when you do get them. That’s why the place to look for time travelers in Minneapolis is Glam Doll Donuts.

Glazed donut

Has the missing bite gone to the future?

Bioluminescent Reindeer and the Value of Diversity

Gerry Bartholomew writes:

Dear Tyler, is it just me or was Santa kind of a shit to Rudolph?

Gerry: it’s not just you. Santa has much to answer for. Did he go to little Rudy’s parents to reassure them that their glowing son was nothing to be ashamed of, not the product of some sin or unnatural act of theirs, but simply the unsurprising result of Arctic nuclear tests in the 1950s? Did Santa step in when the other reindeer taunted and excluded him, saying be kind, little ungulates, we must value difference? No, if the TV special is to be believed, Santa actually participated in the shaming (or, if you go by the song, was conspicuously absent) until he happened to need Rudolph.

I think Rudolph would’ve been justified at that point to say, “Oh, so you like me now, do you? Where’ve you been the last three years? You want me to work for you? What’s in it for me? Why don’t you use your own shiny red alcoholic nose to light the way, fatso?” Unsurprisingly, though, since Rudolph was young and his self-esteem had been much battered, he eagerly lapped up the attention.

The whole thing raises serious questions about Santa’s character. What about the other deformed reindeer we never hear about, those who couldn’t substitute for small-aircraft navigational lights? They’re probably venison by now. Three haunches off of one animal.

Or some poor kid who has spina bifida. What’s Santa going to say? “Sorry kid, it’s not that you’re not nice, I just haven’t found a use for you yet.” Do we trust this guy to determine what “nice” is? Was Susan B. Anthony nice? Was Nelson Mandela? Who would bring XBoxes to rich white kids in America, and fuck-all to some poor boy in Namibia who could really use just one decent meal for a change?

For that matter, what about Rudolph after his famous night? While a nose might serve in a pinch to light one’s way, it’s hardly got the wattage of a good battery-powered spotlight. This can’t have been Santa’s first foggy Christmas; he must’ve had a way to deal with bad flying conditions before the invention of bioluminescent reindeer. But you know how it is, you stick the light set in a closet, don’t use it for a couple of years, then when you haul it out, boom, it’s not working, the nearest hardware store is in Nome, and they’re already closed. This was before the day when every store would remain open until 11:55 PM on Christmas Eve in hopes of adding a tiny increment to the bottom line. The next year, you can be sure Santa was prepared with spare bulbs and maybe a spare light kit. Lesson learned. Mutant reindeer, ha! We’ve got technology, baby!

Resetting the #$%@!!* Honeywell Gas Valve on a Water Heater

If this article saved you money,

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Executive summary: Once it has detected a “water too hot” event, the gas valve will never work again. You need a new one. But you can save $hundreds in plumber fees by swapping out just the part that’s gone on strike.

Abner Rhizome writes:


My Whirlpool gas water heater is giving me the dreaded “four blinks” signal. That happened because I turned the heat dial all the way up. I turned it back down but now the machine is offended or something and won’t work at all. The Whirlpool helpline says I have to replace the gas valve. The thing is still under warranty for parts, but I have to pay shipping, and wait for it to come, and pay a plumber hundreds of dollars to install the f—ing thing. This would upset me less if I had hot water meanwhile!

I have a few questions about this:

  • Who came up with the dumbass design that when you turn the dial to a normal, albeit high, position, it breaks the water heater? Wouldn’t it make more sense to not let the dial go that high?
  • Is the designer still alive? If so, I want him shot.
  • How can this have been going on for years and not have been fixed? This is the second time I’ve had to replace the valve.
  • Why doesn’t Lowes carry repair parts for the water heaters they sell?
  • Isn’t there any way to tell the gas valve to quit having a hissy fit and get back to work?
  • There’s a little white reset button on the plate covering the combustion chamber, but that doesn’t seem to have any effect!?!

Abner, I will handle your questions in my own order.

> Who came up with the dumbass design?

I called Honeywell, but they wouldn’t tell me the engineers’ names.

> I want him shot.

This may be why they didn’t tell me.

> Why doesn’t Lowes carry repair parts for the water heaters they sell?

Because, when they shop at Lowes (and other DIY stores), people don’t always, every time, ask them, “You carry repair parts for this, right? And you also carry repair parts for other models that are now obsolete, right?” and then refuse to buy if the answers are not “yes” and “yes.”

But, don’t buy a water heater from the DIY in any case. Get a contractor model, jeez. You’ll save money and aggravation in the long term.

> How can this have been going on for years and not have been fixed?

I speculate it’s because they sell a lot more gas valves this way. Not only that, but people return their old ones, and parts of them at least can probably be reused in new hundred-plus dollar valves. In fact, not only have they not fixed the problem, some instructions I found online lead me to believe that they deliberately introduced this “feature” after the original design. I found instructions for how to reset the status light by turning the dial to “off” for five minutes, but that no longer works.

> little white reset button … doesn’t seem to have any effect!?!

The reset button only works if the overheating occurred in the heating chamber. In that case, the pilot light will not stay lit and you do not get the four flashes. Four flashes only happens if the water overheated, and there is no simple remedy.

> Isn’t there any way to tell the gas valve to [reset the error condition]?

Unfortunately, NO, there is not a way to reset the gas valve — or if there is, it requires special equipment and knowledge I don’t have. There’s a circuit board in the gas valve, and once it detects the water-too-hot situation, it writes something into static memory in one of its chips, and the valve will never work again. Deliberately, maliciously, and probably under the pretense of safety.

Special tool needed to repair gas valve

Special tool needed to repair gas valve

HOWEVER, you don’t need to pay a plumber to replace the evil valve. If you get a replacement valve, you can open it up and just swap the fronts of the valves, containing the recalcitrant circuit board, leaving the metal part that connects to the gas pipes in place. This does require one special tool, pictured at left. In case you haven’t seen one before, it’s called a “flat-bladed screwdriver.”

NOTE: Only do this if you’re sure that the problem that caused the overheating has been corrected. In particular, if you haven’t drained the sediment off the bottom of the tank, do that first. If you get it working and it overheats again, you’ll need to order yet another valve, or it will blow up, or something else you won’t like.

To begin, address the old gas valve. Say, “I’m going to rip you open, you dirty so-and-so.” See whether the light goes back to its regular one-blink mode in response to this threat. Probably not, but it was worth a try.

Turn off the gas, just to be on the safe side. Also turn the black dial to Off. This isn’t connected to house current, so don’t worry about touching any wires; you won’t get a shock.

Remove the ivory-colored plastic front of the gas valve from the back of the unit. As shown below, you must:

  1. Detach a black wire from a rectangular white plastic thingy. Pull on the wire below the thingy to separate them.
  2. Pull the black clips on the red and white wires straight outwards to unplug them. If you need to, stick the screwdriver in from below to lever them loose. The clips stay on the wires. There should be labels “red” and “white” on the gas valve to help you plug them back the right way. If they don’t match the actual wire colors for whatever insane reason, notice which is which.
  3. Unscrew one screw at the bottom of the gas valve.
  4. Two plastic clips at the top are holding the cover on. Press down on the plastic cover in front of the clips to release them. Depending on your levels of finger strength and determination, you might need the screwdriver to depress the tabs. Be gentle; it’s only plastic. If you need to look at the back to see how the tabs are arranged, look at the new valve.
  5. Pull cover straight out to remove it. It can’t flip up (actually it can if you try hard enough, but then you’ve probably broken it).
Removing the cover of the insidious old gas valve

Removing the cover of the insidious old gas valve

The cover is still attached to the back of the unit by a colorful ribbon of wires, with a plug at the end that connects to the circuit board. Tug gently, away from the board, to unplug the plug.


There’s a little white plug where wires connect to board; tug wires directly away from board to unplug

Note which color is on which side. Because of the shape of the plug, you won’t be able to plug it in backwards, but it’s quicker if you don’t have to try the wrong way to find that out.

Little white plug stays with wire ribbon.

Little white plug stays with wire ribbon.

Slide the ribbon of wires out of the clip on the housing, and the front of the gas valve is free. Free! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!

Repeat these steps with the new gas valve. Keep track of which front is which!

Reverse the above steps to mount the new front onto the old back that’s still hooked to the water heater. The result:

Frankenvalve!Make sure all the wires are connected, turn on the gas and follow the steps in your water heater owner’s manual to relight the pilot light. Set the dial to a reasonable temperature that won’t upset the finicky little thing, and you should be good to go. It may take a minute or so before the heating element comes on; be patient.

While you’re waiting for the water to heat up again, you might want to take a red sharpie and write a big “NO!” next to the top position of the temperature dial.

Note: You might be tempted to remove the circuit board and look for a reset control on its front. Don’t bother; there’s not one.

Becoming a Quantum Mechanic

Tyler Tork, Quantum Mechanic

Attitude is what makes a Quantum Mechanic

Dear Tyler (writes Woody Desmond of No Particular Place):

I saw from your FB that you have become a Quantum Mechanic. Is much training needed for this? I’m interested in a career change esp. if there’s money in it.


The field of Quantum Mechanics is new, and pretty wide open at the moment. All you really need are a few tools, arrogance, and a certain amount of confusing jargon.

To begin, the right tools are essential. Refer to the diagram below.

  1. No-one can be considered a proper Quantum Mechanic without a quantum spanner. “Spanner” is just British for “wrench,” but which one sounds classier, eh? Pictured here is a class 6 device. Most people’s idea of a q.s. is the class 8, as seen on TV, but the class 6 is more useful all around. You might want to keep a class 8 in the truck, in case you’re ever called on to work on a flux inversion system, but folks who use those tend to own their own tools. If your time machine breaks down, it’s a real drag to have to wait for the telephone to be invented so you can call for a tow. And have a class 3, of course, in case of reality striation, but I’ve never needed mine.
  2. Spin detection goggles. Possible spin values are 1, 0, -1, 1/2 and 1/3.
  3. Red-blue glasses to detect incipient trans-universe portals and other dimensional instabilities.
  4. The Particle Identification Handbook published by the International Association of Quantum Mechanical Engineers. I prefer the nth edition.
  5. Hilbert space manipulator.
  6. 16 oz. rubber mallet. Of course you could just whack recalcitrant machinery with your hand, but remember that the idea is to project authority. A mallet is much more official.
  7. Dosimeter. Quantum Mechanics should track their exposure to radiation and temporal distortion, and should maintain a medium to high level of caffeination.
Basic tools of the Quantum Mechanic's Trade

Basic tools of the Quantum Mechanic’s Trade

The jargon doesn’t have to be too precise so long as it’s spoken with confidence. If other people don’t understand it, well, they don’t expect to, so that’s just as well. Remember, it’s unlikely that anyone in the vicinity will be in a position to contradict your assertion that someone’s quarks are misaligned or their strangeness is out of balance. This is the same effect that lawyers, plumbers and psychics rely on. Use the words quanta, quark, neutrino, field, fractal, dimension, unstable, intermittent, temporal, polarity, spin, charm, invert, reverse, align, extend… in appropriate combinations, the more the merrier.

If anyone does presume to contradict you, the following responses may be useful:

  • “Well, sure, if you ignore the uncertainty principle.”
  • “Back off, man, I’m a scientist!”
  • (Contemptuously) “Amateur.”
  • “I see you haven’t kept up with the latest papers coming out of Russia.”
  • “Well, yes, that’s the establishment view.”
  • “I don’t have time to go into the mathematics just now.”

Remember, it doesn’t matter if one person knows you’re full of shit. It’s their word against yours, and the person whose opinion matters is the one who pays you. You are never uncertain. You are never wrong. Go get ‘em!

The Squirrel Alarm

Dear Tyler, (writes Ferdy Johns of Ely MN)

I’m not an early riser by inclination, but the last few mornings, I’ve been awakened by a tiny red squirrel who shows up at sunrise to throw pine-cones onto my roof. I’m far enough out in the country that nobody would be bothered if I just shot the little rascal, but he’s awfully cute and I’d hate to do that. Do you have any other suggestions?


Two things tell me that you must be new to rural life: that you’re not an early riser, and that you hesitate to shoot a squirrel, even if it’s a cute red one.

First, face facts. Your days of sleeping in are over. Your furry neighbors aren’t in the habit of wasting daylight, so even if you dispose of this pest, some other creature will pick up his fallen standard and charge onward, onward, under the motto, “Wake up you lazy slob!” If nothing else, you’re certain to eventually collect one or more dogs and/or cats – it’s kind of the same theory as whales and barnacles — and they’ll have tasks for you to perform early in the day, involving food, water, play, and doors.

To a city dweller, squirrels and other wildlife are generally rare and innocuous enough to be treated as a novelty (though I know lots of people in the suburbs who wish they were allowed to shoot deer in their yards). But squirrels in particular are rodents, with big gnawing teeth, and they’re a menace. You understand, there are probably hundreds or thousands of squirrels living on your property. Imagine what would happen if they teamed up.

Squirrels get good press; it’s possible they’ve pooled their resources to hire a good PR firm (though it’s not easy to find one that takes payment in acorns). But when you come right down to it, a squirrel is exactly the same as a large rat with a bushy tail.

The tail is a big part of their charm, and the other part is their name. As an exercise, right now, use your best baby-talk voice and say, “Ooh, look, a squirrel!” How did that sound? Plausible, right? Okay now, same voice, but this time say, “Ooh, look, a rat!” Hear the difference? Would you believe that was said sincerely? Based simply on its name, a rat cannot be cute while a squirrel can. But in fact, they’re members of the same union, and guess which one is more likely to chew through your siding so it can live (and poop) in your attic along with its extended family.

The fact is, there’s an ongoing, age-old battle between squirrel and man. The squirrels all know it. If you don’t, it puts you at a disadvantage.

So, go get your .22 rifle if you’re so inclined, but in the long run it won’t make a bit of difference. There are far worse things that squirrel could be doing than throwing pine-cones onto your roof. At least this way you know where it is and what it’s up to.

Making up new words

Corinth Terwilliger, of St. Paul MN, writes:

Is it OK to make up new words?

It’s a power that, like any, can be used for good or evil. All words were new once. Long ago, humans had no words, and if none had been invented, we would still have none. There are times and situations that might make that seem preferable — political campaigns and the ravings of conspiracy theorists spring to mind as examples — but I think we’re better off overall for having words.

It is, however, possible to go too far. We have a lot of words already, especially in English, so there’s not a severe deficit of expressive power. Except from the perspective of Scrabble players, it’s a waste of brain space to add words for which perfectly adequate terms already exist. (BTW if you do want to create words for the benefit of Scrabble players, be liberal in your use of Z, Q and J, don’t be too much of stickler about putting a U after the Q, and remember that W can be a vowel).

William Shakespeare, whom some people confuse with a porcupine, is known for making up lots of words1 (as well as being fairly creative with the spelling of his own name). For many of these words, it’s hard to understand how folks ever got along without them. Gossip, elbow, lonely, bump… what else were we supposed to call these things?

Which is kind of the point. Ol’ Bill made up words because there wasn’t one that meant just what he wanted (plus there was only room for one more syllable on the line, and it had to rhyme with “rump”). Making up words just to be different (from one’s parents, say) is an annoying affectation; making up words that actually have something new to say, when we already have so many, is sheer genius.

So for instance, whether or not you agree with Stephen Colbert’s political views, if you’re fair you have to admit that his word “truthiness” really gets the point across.

1 Some would dispute Shakespeare’s claim to the position of premiere word inventor, but I’m still using that example to make my point because, you know, it has truthiness.