Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Bodie, part 3

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 13 of this saga is here.
Part 7 of this saga is here.

Bodie, California was a Victorian-era gold mining town high in the mountains between California and Nevada. The Victorians weren’t very big on human rights, or treating workers well, or sex, or just about anything else, but there is one thing they liked very much, and that was technology.

At some point, today’s cutting-edge tech will look as hopelessly antiquated as the detritus littering the ruins of Bodie. But tech always starts somewhere, and the Victorians were all for embracing the bleeding edge, especially where it making money.

One of the many places Bodie kept up with the state of the art was transportation. When the town was founded, horses and stagecoaches were the order of the day, but that changed as the automotive arts gained ground. Today, the ruins of ancient cars lie scattered all over what’s left of the town.

The residents of Bodie were willing to adopt any new technology that offered to make their lives better or, more to the point, more productive. They may not have had a sewer system, they may have dug their wells directly downstream of their outhouses, but they were on top of mechanization as soon as it was out of beta.

And the trend of abandoning old tech where it lay and replacing it with new didn’t end with mining or stamping machines. The derelict wrecks rusting quietly into the hills span years of the automaker’s art.

They also used whatever worked. In the winter, snow in Bodie could get two stories deep. If that made it most practical to let the horseless carriages get buried and break out the sleds in winter, that’s what they did.

Some of the abandoned cars look personal; others look like working vehicles.

There’s a certain sleek beauty to the lines of this one, I think.

Compare that to the severe utilitarianism of this (possibly horse-drawn?) ore cart.

But they weren’t technofetishists. Their approach to technology was relentlessly, brutally practical. If it worked, they used it. As many of the vehicles dotted about Bodie are old tech as new.

This is a different relationship to technology than many of us have today. They wanted things that worked, not things that were new. If it helped them get gold out of the ground, they used it, and that was that. It’s hard to imagine that utilitarian a mindset today. “New iPhone? Why? My phone makes calls just fine.”

One of the creepiest and most splendid things about Bodie is the fact that when the gold left, so did the people, sometimes with such abruption it seems as thought they forgot to pack.

In reality, it’s more like they didn’t bother to pack. It’s difficult to get up and down the mountain even today; in a time when the only way in our out was by stagecoach (on a toll road!), there would be little incentive to take anything with you that could easily be replaced when you got wherever you were going.

So the buildings in Bodie have rooms that look like their owners stepped out a half-century ago to pop on down to the store for milk and eggs, and never came back. It’s both unsettling and marvelous.

The cast-off child’s toy in this room is a reminder that people raised their kids here, in this inhospitable mining town with its brutal heat and bitter cold and chimneys belching mercury fumes.

Bodie had its own post office, which doubled as the postman’s living quarters.

This was someone’s home. Someone cooked meals here, sang songs here, experienced joy and sorrow here, lived here.

It’s hard to forget that countless lives played out here, from beginning to end. These people lived in an inhospitable place, in a different time, but they lived here, and they experienced the same range of feelings that you and I feel.

This was, first and foremost, a working town. The town had a blacksmith. Apparently, according to the tour guide, this was it. I have no idea what those things on the table are.

The general store looks very much like it did when the town was at its peak, at least if you ignore the film of dust that has fallen like a funeral shroud over it all.

I bet the aspirin was a guaranteed best seller.

The plaster bandages too, I reckon. Industrial accidents in the stamping mill were horrifying.

The Bodie Hotel is one of the best-preserved buildings still remaining. The sign says “meals at all hours,” and I believe it. This place probably never slept.

This room still has a bunch of toys, long abandoned, and what looks like it might be a proto-skateboard of some description.

I wonder if the child these belonged to was sad to give them up.

This room looks expensive to me.

The headline is less interesting to me than the article beneath it: “Blast at magnesium plant injures 22.” There are people today who want to abolish OSHA. How short our memories are.

Bodie at its peak was home to many, many taverns. Today only one remains.

Next door to the sole remaining tavern is a gym. And you want to know something freaky? The cabin where Eve and I wrote More Than Two has that exact same model of hob.

Seriously. The exact same model. Check this out:

Freaky!

One of the guides explained that this was a “buggy,” as opposed to a “stagecoach.” There’s a big difference, apparently (and in fact the toll road into town had different tolls for buggies, wagons, coaches, and freight wagons).

We left Bodie as the sun grew low, and headed out to…well, that is a story for next time.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Bodie, part 2

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 13 of this saga is here.
Part 7 of this saga is here.

Bodie, California is a classic nineteenth-century California gold rush town. It’s high atop a mountain in the desert, and every part of the town exists for one purpose alone: to facilitate the extraction of gold from the surrounding hills.

The whole of the town exists to support the stamping mill, the large gray building about which everything else revolves. On our second day there, Bunny and I toured the stamping mill. This can be done only as part of a twice-daily guided tour group. The stamping mill, you see, represents the absolute apex of Victorian-era technology, and Victorian-era technology was not exactly built on a foundation of safety first. Even when it hadn’t been abandoned for nigh on a century.

This is a view of the mill from what’s left of the bank, which was, not coincidentally located right across the street.

In principle, a stamping mill is relatively straightforward. Ore goes in the top. It’s crushed into a fine powder—”about as fine as flour,” the tour guide said—by large mechanical hammers. Then, and this is where the famed Victorian indifference to human life really shines, the powder is sifted across a pool of mercury. The mercury reacts with gold to form a mercury-gold amalgam, which becomes a semi-solid mass that workers roll up into a ball and stick in a safe (I swear I am not making this up).

The rock doesn’t stick to the mercury and is discarded. The ball of hideously toxic mercury-gold amalgam is then, get this, placed in a furnace, where the mercury is boiled off, leaving molten gold behind. The molted gold is poured into bars, assayed, and then shipped off down the mountain.

The whole fearsome, dangerous, mind-bogglingly toxic process begins with getting bits of gold ore into the top of the stamping mill, which is done via conveyor belts.

Rain or shine, summer or winter, the gold ore is hauled into the small brown wood building behind the mill, situated atop a hill because Bodie often saw 20 feet of snow in the winter and the mine operators were stubbornly unwilling to let a little thing like that stop the flow of money. The building in the foreground with the very narrow chimney is the furnace where the mercury was boiled off, and I can’t believe I’ve now typed that phrase twice.

The mercury. Was boiled off.

Jesus.

Bodie is about money. That’s it. From stem to stern, everything about the town was in service of making money. The Victorians, ever practical, used whatever new technologies would help with that endeavor, and cast off whatever bits of technology were no longer useful. Even now, the ground around the mill is littered with broken bits of machinery, like this cast-off drive belt made of woven iron.

Or this enormous camshaft. His thing was mounted to an axle driven by an absolutely huge, room-sized steam engine or, later in Bodie’s history, an almost equally ginormous electric engine. The camshaft spun around and as it did, the cams lifted and then dropped hammers that crushed the rock. The hammers were more than a story long and weighed over a thousand pounds apiece. The din, according to the tour guide, could be heard halfway up the mountain. Workers wore cotton in their ears to keep from going deaf.

It didn’t work; deafness was a common problem among stamping mill operators. So were horrifying industrial accidents, mercury poisoning, and in at least one case, being sliced in half by a drive belt.

This being a Libertarian paradise, an injured, poisoned, or deafened worker was fired, given a couple of hours to pack, and kicked out of town.

Our tour started with the machine room, which was, naturally, the second most important part of the stamping mill. The mill had a state-of-the-Victorian-art workshop, with lathes, presses, and other metalworking equipment able to repair or even fabricate almost any part the vast machine required.

This is all that’s left of the huge electric motor that once ran the place. The Victorians were as pragmatic as they were reckless with the lives and safety of others. The mill had multiple stamps, each of which had multiple hammers. They reasoned that it was cheaper to build one enormous engine to power all that than to make numerous smaller engines to power each hammer individually. That presented a single point of failure, true, but as the saying goes, an airplane with three engines has three times as many engine problems as an airplane with only one.

The engine turned this pulley, which fed power to the rest of the mill via the biggest belt you’ve ever seen. It was, according to our guide, this belt that once cut a luckless worker in half.

This is the business end, literally, of the stamping mill: the stamps themselves. Each hammer is a ten-foot-long iron rod with a hook on the top end and a several-hundred-pound iron weight at the bottom end. The camshaft spins, lifting and then dropping all the hammers, and crushing everything beneath them into very, very fine dust.

The dust then poured down the slide and onto the pools of mercury.

Across from the stamps is yet another workshop, this one equipped with large metal-turning lathes to manufacture oversized parts. I say that is if everything in this entire building wasn’t oversized. We make things smaller and smaller; the Victorians, on the other hand, were size queens. If a part didn’t weigh a ton and a half, it was firmly in the province of jewelers and watchmakers, not machinists. It’s a wonder they could make a pocket watch any smaller than a manhole cover.

Once out of the mill, which even today probably violates a dozen EPA regulations on mercury exposure, we wandered around some more, looking at the old-school mining equipment scattered like weird metal vegetation.

Like this steam-powered elevator that lowered miners into the deep shafts.

When I say the castoff bits of Victorian tech were everywhere, I mean everywhere. You can’t walk anywhere in Bodie without tripping over, stepping on, or stubbing your toe on it. The Victorians believed the only thing better than iron was more iron. Subtle they were not.

The rod in the foreground of that last photo is one of the tops of the giant hammers from the stamping mill. You can see the hook that engaged the cams in the camshaft that lifted and dropped them. If a particular hammer or stamp needed to be fixed, the worker would take a block of wood, reach in to where the camshaft ran through the top of the stamps, and jam the piece of wood in under the hook to hold that hammer up…because, naturally, they wouldn’t stop the mill just for a paltry thing like service.

Workers lost their fingers doing this. They were fired and given a couple hours to leave.

When we came back out, Bunny and I saw…a bunny. A real, honest-to-God Bodie bunny, right there watching us.

This was not the end of our adventures in Bodie, or in fact of our adventures period; I still haven’t got to the copulating dinosaurs yet. Stay tuned!

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Bodie, Part 1

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

We are nearing the end of this tale, gentle readers, but what an end it is.

Bunny and I piled into the Adventure Van, headed to where we had heard of a large ghost town called Bodie, an 1800s gold-mining town in the rugged mountains of eastern California. Bodie was a–

“Hey, pull over!” Bunny said.

I pulled over near this apparently abandoned(?) building advertising bail bond services. Seemed legit.

We took some pictures, tromped about for a bit, then climbed into the Adventure Van once more, headed for Bodie. Bodie was a thriving gold mining town with more than ten thousand residents at its peak, located at more than eight thousand feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a huge and fantastically profitable gold mining town, producing tens of millions of dollars (in 1850s dollars!) in gold. Miners were paid $4 a week for dangerous, heavy physical labor under grueling conditions; of that $4, $2.75 per week was deducted for room and board.

You get there by following a narrow dirt track up and up and up into the mountain. Bodie is well off the beaten path, in much the same way that a manned excursion to Mars is not a jaunt down to the local grocery store. Fortunately, it was not a terribly steep grade–stagecoaches loaded with gold had to be able to make the trip, after all–and the Adventure Van was up to the journey with a minimum of grumbling.

We drove for a couple of hours. “I hope this is worth it,” I said. Bunny said something noncommittal.

It was worth it.

When at long last you’ve traveled up to the summit of the Bodie Hills, the first thing you see from the road, aside from a “State Park” sign, is this.

This was the jackpot, the mother lode, the Platonic ideal of a Western ghost town. This, gentle readers, truly was the bee’s knees.

We parked–with, I must confess, some excitement–and left the comforting shelter of the Adventure Van into the dry, dusty heat of Bodie, California.

The moment you step out of the parking lot, thoughtfully provided for you by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, you walk up a slight rise and see…this.

This small picture can not do justice to how amazing this place is. Click on the picture to see a (much) bigger version.

Less than a quarter of the town remains; the rest burned to the ground quite some years ago. At its peak, the town had sixty-five saloons, numerous brothels, and several churches that one could go to for absolution of one’s sins, which were numerous indeed. Bodie was by all accounts a very violent place; common hobbies included murder and various lesser crimes. According to one of the tour guides we spoke to, it’s not uncommon for people who do heavy labor at high altitudes without proper acclimatization to suffer psychotic breaks.

Bodie had an extensive network of roads, all unpaved. Again, click on the picture to embiggen.

The large gray building on the left-hand side of the first picture is the stamping mill, the entire reason for Bodie’s existence. I plan to write an entire post about that stamping mill. Raw gold ore was carried to the stamping mill, where the rock was crushed to a powder as fine as flour, and gold was extracted from it by a process that was absolutely and completely bonkers and showed a careless–indeed reckless–disregard for the life, health, and safety of the people who worked there. More on that later.

Bunny and I eventually spent two days in Bodie, wandering around taking pictures–many hundreds and hundreds of pictures. I’ve condensed the trove down to about eighty or so, which will likely take several posts to work through. Apologies in advance for what I’m about to do to your bandwidth, O readers.

Life in Bodie was not particularly pleasant. The air at eight thousand feet is thin. During the summer, the temperature routinely exceeds a hundred degrees Fahrenheit; during the winter, twenty feet of snow is not uncommon. Everything from building supplies to construction equipment had to be carried up the mountain. There was one road that climbed into Bodie from the west, ran straight through town, and exited to the east. Naturally, as it was the only way into or out of Bodie, it was a toll road (buggies 25 cents; carriages 75 cents; discounts for firewood and mining gear).

The houses we saw tended to be quite small and simple, save for this one, a veritable mansion belonging to the overseer of the stamping mill. You can click this picture to embiggen it, too.

The tour guide didn’t say, but I suspect the stamping mill overseer made rather more than $4 a week.

This place was more typical of the houses in Bodie.

You’ll notice the remnants of derelict machinery in the foreground. Bodie is littered with abandoned equipment rusting quietly into the desert; it’s everywhere.

Even with all its violence and squalor, Bodie was the absolute pinnacle of Victorian technology. It was on the cutting edge of mining industry, and there was no new, experimental mining tech they would not use if it would increase the rate at which they could mine or process ore. The town of Bodie was a bit like the Silicon Valley of the 1800s–it was absolutely state of the art for new machinery and new techniques.

Bodie was abandoned rather abruptly when the mines stopped being profitable. All that tech was left where it was, because Bodie is so remote and inhospitable that it simply wasn’t worth carting it all back down the mountain again. So now it lies scattered everywhere, remnants of what was once innovative, up-to-the-minute industrial know-how.

In fact, I’ll probably dedicate an entire post just to various bits of cast-off technology we found littering the countryside.

At one time, Bodie sported several churches. Today, only the Methodist church still stands.

The writing on the archway in the back reads “Praise waiteth for thee O God in Zion.”

The buildings are in remarkably good shape because of the foresight of one person, James S. Cain, who, as people left, offered to buy their houses or shops for a dollar. Since they were leaving anyway, and there was little of value remaining, almost everyone agreed. He continued to work the mine, making far less money than it had produced at its peak but still enough for him to turn a modest profit. Later, he hired guards to protect the deserted town from looters and vandals.

In the early 1960s, what was left of Bodie became a protected state park.

Being a closely-packed, densely-populated town made entirely of wood in deep desert, Bodie had several fire stations, only one of which remains.

In the 1930s, after the town was all but completely deserted, a fire swept through it, destroying a significant percentage of the remaining buildings, including all of the brothels (of which there were once many) and all of what had once been Chinatown.

Only a few of the buildings along what used to be Main Street survive, including a tavern and a gym.

At its peak, Bodie had a significant enough population of children that it featured a large, two-story school. I’m not sure I would have tried to raise children here, but hey, that’s me.

This is what happens if you leave an 1850s-era globe in a window exposed to harsh ultraviolet light for over a century. I think this is amazing.

The sun really is brutal at 8,000 feet. Bunny and I both got sunburned right through our clothes–something that, I gather, is quite common at that altitude. Wish I’d have known about it before we were there!

The mill overseer’s digs, as I mentioned before, were quite luxurious.

“Luxury” is not the first word that springs to mind to describe most of the other housing, but the accommodations weren’t really that bad, considering. That is, if you can get past the harsh environment with its blistering heat and brutal cold, the violence, the long hours of backbreaking labor without insurance or OSHA regulation, and the lack of medical care or sanitation.

It’s hard to imagine what this place must’ve been like when it was home to tens of thousands of people, when we see only the few remnants that are left.

One of the nicest houses we found was located a good distance from the mill that was the hub of Bodie’s economic activity. It was huge, even larger than the mill overseer’s mansion, and crafted to a much higher standard. I’d love to know the story of whoever lived there.

Bodie had its own prison–necessary given the proximity to extremely valuable resources, the general criminal proclivities of many of its inhabitants, and the tendency of hard manual labor at high altitude to produce psychosis.

It also had a rather large cemetery, which included a special wing just for infants. Infant mortality in Bodie was frighteningly high, with cholera one of the leading causes of death.

The Victorians knew rather a lot about steam technology but rather less about medicine. All the buildings had outhouses; there was no sewer system. Outhouses were built near houses, and higher areas were more desirable for houses. Water came from wells, which were easier to dig in low areas. So a common pattern you see over and over throughout Bodie is outhouses located just up the hill from a well.

We arrived in Bodie late in the afternoon and soon had to make our exit. I asked one of the park rangers where the closest town was. She said we could go back out the way we came, which would take us to a town about an hour away, or we could continue through the town and go down the other side of the mountain to get to Aurora.

We opted for the latter. It turns out that either I radically misheard her, or she was playing a trick on us. Aurora, you see, is a ghost town in Nevada, even more inhospitable and inaccessible than Bodie.

We got to the base of the mountain and discovered we could go no further. The Adventure Van simply wasn’t up to what passed for a road. So we camped for the night at the base of the hill, near a sign that warned us not to travel any farther.

The next day, we drove back up the mountain to Bodie, which will be the subject of the next chapter.

Some thoughts on being fifty

Three days ago, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

Well, perhaps “celebrated” is too strong a statement. I was in the middle of an allergy attack that made me miserable, so I spent it faffing about on the computer rather than engaging in the kind of orgiastic bacchanal that one might expect from an Internet sex gargoyle.

In any event, in between faffings on the Internet, I spent some time musing about what an absolutely bizarre trip it’s been, and some time cleaning in my writer’s loft. These two things are related, as it turns out, because in the process of cleaning I came upon some old photographs.

I started the journey through life in New Jersey. Before I was a year old, I realized that living in New Jersey was a bit rubbish, so I moved to Idaho, taking my entire family with me. My parents drove a Volkswagen Bug, something which apparently left quite an impression. What can I say? I was struck by the elegant simplicity and robustness of the design.

We stayed in Idaho long enough for me to pick up a sister, then bounced around the Great Midwest for a while, where I picked up the hobby of model rocketry. There is, it seems only one battered and scuffed Polaroid photo exists from this particular time in my life–peculiar, when one considers that model rocketry was pretty much the greatest thing in my life for quite a long time.

And yes, that’s a plastic model of a Romulan bird of prey from the original Star Trek on my desk. Don’t judge me.

I had a computer back then as well, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 that was a Christmas gift from my aunt in 1977. That thing might have saved my sanity. I didn’t have any friends while I was growing up in Venango, Nebraska, but who needs friends when you have a computer and a bunch of rockets?

Radio Shack published the complete schematic of the TRS-80. Seriously, you could walk into the store and buy not only the schematics but also books on how to modify it, and a complete, commented disassembly of the ROM chips–something that is beyond unthinkable today.

I modified the computer extensively, spray-painted it black, and overclocked it. Stock, it had a 1.77MHz Z80 8-bit processor, which I modified to work at 2.44 MHz (which caused some software to break) or at approximately 4 MHz (which caused it to malfunction frequently and required that I set it in a tray full of plastic bags of ice). The yellow LED you see in this photo would come on when I ran it at 2.44 MHz, the red LED would come on at 4 MHz. My parents were often horrified to see it spread out all across my bed, which was the only work space I had.

I kept it until I was almost 40, purely from nostalgia.

In my memoir The Game Changer, I talk about taking two dates to my high school senior prom. This wasn’t because I was suave with the ladies; it was because one person asked me to the prom, I said yes, another person also asked me, I said yes again, and it didn’t even occur to me that this might be a problem.

Fortunately, they were both totally cool about the whole thing. I took them both to dinner before the prom, which raised a few eyebrows.

Only two photos from that prom exist that I’m aware of, and I found both of them. Yes, I’ve always been a weird-looking motherfucker.

Until recently, I have not been much into partner dancing, though I do love to dance. My high school senior prom might’ve been the last time I partner danced until I was in my 40s.

I had a storied checkered educational career. I went to school at Lehigh University, where I discovered, and feel in love with, a Digital Equipment Corporation DECsystem-20 mainframe. Ours was a forbidden love. There were certain…allegations from the faculty of less-than-completely-aboveboard activities involving that mainframe. “Computer hacking,” they said. Also, “your scholarship is revoked.” And “don’t come back.”

I bounced around for a bit, worked fast food for a while, then ended up going to school in Florida again. Sadly, that part of my life is poorly documented–if any photos exist from that period, I don’t have them.

I did find this photo of me, taken in April of 1991, the last year I was in college.

My early childhood experience with my parents’ Volkswagen led to a long-term love for the cars, of which I’ve owned two. The first car I ever owned was a 1969 Bug; my third car was a 71 Bug, which, like my computer, I modified extensively.

There’s a passage in The Game Changer in which I talk about how absolutely clueless I was about sex and relationships, and how I could not recognize even the most obvious attempts at flirting:

Worse, I was in that awkward stage of male development where I was so desperate to try to figure out how to get girls to pay attention to me that I completely missed it when girls paid attention to me. Prior to that afternoon at Jake’s place, Caitlin and I had spent quite a lot of time together. We were great friends. But when I look back with wiser eyes, I can see she was trying in a thousand ways to tell me she was open to more.

One particular evening, I drove her home from work in my beat-up Volkswagen Bug. We sat in the car in front of her house talking for a while. She complained there was something on the seat digging into her butt. She dug around for a bit and came up with a small machine screw—a leftover, no doubt, from the work I’d just done replacing the back fenders with the half-sized fenders popular among people who liked to take Volkswagens through deep mud. “Hey!” she said brightly, holding it up. “Wanna screw?”

The whoosh of her flirt passing over my head might have sucked all the air out of the car had the windows not been open. It was years before I realized she’d been flirting with me all along.

This is the car in which that happened.

From about 1978 or so on, I had been involved heavily in the computer BBS scene. A BBS was the forerunner of modern Web forums–a computer running special software connected to a phone line, which you could dial into and leave messages on (text only, generally) at agonizingly slow speeds. Most BBS systems could only accommodate one user at a time, so if you called while someone else was logged on, you’d get a busy signal. Popular systems were constantly busy, so you’d set your computer up to keep redialing, over and over, until it got through, then alert you when it made a connection.

I was on systems with names like CBBS-Chicago, Pirate-80, and Magnetic Fantasies. When I started school in Sarasota, I ended up with a roommate who was, like me, an enthusiastic TRS-80 hacker and BBS fan. He ran a BBS called The Wyvern’s Den. I thought “hey, I can do that!” and started a BBS of my own, called a/L/T/E/R r/E/A/L/I/T/Y.

I ran A/R for about six or seven years, on a TRS-80 Model 4 that had been heavily modified. The IBM PS/2 computer had just come out, and the PS/2 systems used 3.5″ floppy drives that had a design defect: they were prone for going out of alignment. IBM would replace them under warranty and then, rather than taking the five minutes to fix the floppy drives, would just throw them out. I went Dumpster diving behind an IBM repair shop one evening, came out with a big pile of 3.5″ floppy drives, cleaned them up, aligned them, and connected them to the TRS-80 by way of a custom hardware interface I designed and built. These became the storage for the A/R message boards. You can see two of them, sitting bare without cases, to the right of the computer in this photo. There’s a third one sitting on the shelf just behind the center of the computer, and a fourth one under the 5.25″ floppy in the foreground on the right.

TRS-80 floppy drive controllers were only supposed to be able to access four floppy drives, but it turned out to be possible to instruct the floppy controller to access two drives at the same time, so with a bit of software trickery and a 4-line-to-16-line demultiplexer chip, you could actually get them to talk to up to 16 drives at once.

There’s a wooden box just barely visible in the right-hand side of the picture. It held a power supply that powered all the floppy drives. I used to warn guests to the apartment, “don’t touch that, you’ll get electrocuted.”

I was a late bloomer sexually, but made up for it through the rest of my life. In the late 90s, I developed a prototype of an Internet-controlled sex toy. It rose up out of a toy I’d developed in the mid-90s that was designed to be plugged into a telephone line and controlled by the tones from a Touch-Tone phone. My former business partner and I tried to bring it to market, with less than stellar success.

We designed a plastic cabinet for it, which we made with a vacuum-forming rig we built. We had a run of circuit boards made, and I would sit for hours at the kitchen table with a soldering iron in my hand putting components on them. The company we’d hired to fab the circuit boards made a mistake in the fabrication, so each board required reworking as well.

We called the device “Symphony.” This is the very first one we ever sold. It’s supposed to have the name “Symphony” screen printed on the front; somehow, this one ended up without the screen printing.

And now, decades later, Im still exploring the intersection of sex and technology.

From high tech to low tech: in the early 2000s, I was invited to speak at Florida Poly Retreat. One of the classes I taught was in how to build a trebuchet, a Medieval siege engine. During the course of that workshop, we designed and built a working model trebuchet.

The T-shirt I’m wearing in this photo reads “Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane.”

Even after my divorce from my ex-wife Celeste, which story forms the backbone of The Game Changer, I kept this habit of extensively hacking any computer I own. (That continues to this day; I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro that has had its DVD drive removed and replaced with a second hard drive, and the first hard drive has been replaced with an SSD.)

My partner Amber and I moved into an apartment together after the divorce. The living room looked like this.

I kept the TRS-80s and an Apple Lisa, even though they’d largely been retired by this point. The black thing stuck to the ceiling is an Apple //c monitor, spray-painted black. It had a green screen monochrome display that accepted a composite video signal, so it was easy to pipe just about any video into it. Most of the time, Amber and I had it showing Bladerunner on a loop. When I played World of Warcraft, though, I would pipe that to it instead.

Amber and I ended up rescuing two cats during the time we lived together. One, a rather handsome tabby, had climbed a tree to the third story of the apartment building next to ours, jumped from an overhanging branch onto the roof, and then realized he couldn’t get back down. He cried piteously for days. We threw food up to him until we could figure out a way to rescue him. We named him Snow Crash.

The other adopted Amber when we were out walking in a large park late one night. We heard a cat meowing from under some bushes. When we turned around, a cat came catapulting out straight for Amber and jumped up into her arms. She refused to let go, holding on to Amber until we walked all the way back to the car, then insisting on accompanying us home. We named her Molly, for the character Molly Millions in Neuromancer.

So here I am, fifty years old, and what a peculiar thing it is to be a human being. Life is amazing.

When I was a child living in Venango, the bus that took me to school would drive past a church with a sign out front that had pithy sayings on it intended to inspire us to live better lives. One day, that sign said “Your life either sheds light or casts a shadow.” I knew, at eleven years old, there was something wrong with that, but I didn’t have the words to describe what. Now, almost forty years layer, I understand: it’s bullshit. We are all, every one of us, made of light and shadow, good and evil.

I have screwed things up and hurt people. I have been hurt. I have gotten things wrong, made mistakes, been careless with the hearts of others.

I have also experienced the most amazing love. I have known and been loved by people who are so remarkable, I consider myself privileged merely to have known them. I have learned things and gotten some things right.

We are all made of light and shadow. It is on all of us to treat each other with care. We’re all confused. Being human is fundamentally weird and more than a little scary. We’re all making this up as we go along, even those of us–especially those of us–who try to pretend we Have It All Figured Out.

I’ve spent thirteen and a half billion years, give or take, not existing, and fifty years existing. That’s enough of a sample size to tell me that existing is better. It’s harder, sure. We have to do stuff. We have to make choices. You don’t have to make choices when you don’t exist. Making choices means sometimes we make wrong choices, and making wrong choices means sometimes we hurt people. Hurting people sucks.

I carry a lot of regrets with me. There are many things I have done that I wish with all my heart I could undo–times when I have not been as careful as I should be, perhaps too preoccupied with my own fears to be properly gentle with other people. It’s a consequence of being plonked into existence without a user’s manual.

We all get banged up a bit on the journey through life. But despite that, I would not trade a goddamn minute of it for anything. I am flawed and I make mistakes. All the people I know are flawed and make mistakes. And yet, this brief moment we share in the sun is a gift of inestimable value. I am grateful for every moment of it, and I hope to be here in existence for much, much more.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Disaster in Black Rock Desert and Reconnecting with my Roots

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

In ther North American continent is a state called Nevada. In that state is a desert. This desert has the rather ominous name of Black Rock Desert, and it’s noteworthy for two things: rich hippies who get together once a year to have sex, do drugs, and build implausible things; and for being one of the most inhospitable places North America has to offer. The latter fact may bear some relationship to the former, as it is, I gather, only sex and drugs that make the place bearable.

In the 1800s, people came to this place in search of riches. Most of them found only pain. Some of them found lead, and presumably also pain.

In my various attempts to research ghost towns online, I came across a reference to Leadville, an abandoned mining town high in the mountains in Black Rock Desert, not too far from Gerlach. Google Earth showed the place quite plainly, and it seemed interesting, so with considerable optimism we set off two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.

Black Rock Desert is, as it turns out, no place for two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.

I told Siri to navigate us to the ruins, having given up on Google Maps, which had plainly shown it knows fuckall about turn-of-the-century mining roads. We headed down a long, straight paved road into the desert, me driving, Bunny drinking tea.

“Turn here,” Siri said. There was a conspicuous lack of place to turn–nothing but straight road and fence. I turned around.

“Turn here,” Siri said. The road onto which we were supposed to turn continued in its stubborn failure to exist.

“Turn here,” Siri insisted.

“Maybe Siri doesn’t know where we are,” Bunny suggested.

I kept going. Eventually, after quite a lot of faffing, we discovered the road Siri expected us to turn on, about half a mile from where Siri thought it was.

I say “road.” Of course, I jest. The thing we ended up turning onto was less road than two narrow rutted tracks through desert wasteland. Still, we’d managed to take the Adventure Van into some unlikely places before, so off we went.

And went. And went. And went. The road trail rutted track was narrow enough and rough enough that we were forced to move at about five miles an hour or else risk breaking an axle, and the remains of Leadville was some considerable distance into high desert. We drive along for an hour or two, and started heading up, the road trail rutted track hugging the edge of a mountain that rose abruptly from the desert floor.

We didn’t realize we were playing a game with the desert–a game the desert was determined to win.

We continued climbing, up and up, until we just…didn’t any more.

The van didn’t break down, precisely. The engine kept revving, but the van simply stopped moving. The tires didn’t spin, the van just…stopped. Even in low gear, the engine turned but the wheels didn’t.

I shut off the engine to keep from burning up the transmission, which would have left us well and truly buggered. The road kept getting steeper ahead of us, leaving the inescapable conclusion that we were not going to be visiting Leadville.

We both got out, Bunny looking perhaps a bit more grumpy than I.

From our vantage point, we could see the “road” we’d driven in on. I say “road” in scare quotes because, while it was much more a road than the one leading to Susanville, it still wasn’t what any reasonable person would describe as a proper road at all, though there certainly was quite a lot of it.

That left us with the not inconsiderable task of getting back down. You know that scene near the beginning of the movie Serenity, where the spaceship Serentiy is making reentry and part of the heat shield falls off, and Mal says “just get us on the ground” and Wash responds with “That part’ll happen pretty definitely”? It was a bit like that. I knew we could get the van off the mountain; I just hoped we could do it without arriving in disassociated condition.

My first thought was to put the van in reverse and back down the mountain. I knew turning around was a non-starter, what with the narrowness of the road and the steep cliff on the side and all, but, thought I, that’s why they invented reverse, right?

The desert had other ideas.

The ground was soft and the incline was steep and we were carrying luggage on a rack sticking out the back of the van, and these things all conspired to cause the back of the van to dig into the ground as soon as I tried backing it up.

So with forward, backward, and turning around all off the table as options, that left little choice save “pray for a miracle,” “learn to fly,” “unload all of our gear from the van, take the luggage rack off the back, and try again,” and “wait out here to die.”

Bunny and I aren’t particularly inclined toward miracles, we’d opted to take the van and leave the X-wing fighter at home, and Bunny seemed to have very strong feelings about not dying out in the middle of the desert, so with some resignation and a bit of grumbling, we started unloading the van. Half an hour later, we’d offloaded hundreds of pounds of stuff and carried it down the mountain a bit to where the road, such as it was, widened enough to, with a bit of maneuvering. we thought er could turn the van around, provided we didn’t have a morbid fear of death.

That just left backing the van down the road without tipping off the side and arriving at ground level in disassociated condition. I will save you the descriptions of the white-knuckle bits of that endeavor, as there are plenty of white-knuckle bits still to come in future installments of this story, and instead just say that by dint of much agony and a few close brushes with an untimely demise, we were able to get the Adventure Van back down off the mountain, loaded up once more with gear, and pointed in more or less the right direction, whereupon we left the desert the same way we came in: slowly, and with great concern over the possibility of a broken axle.

Back on the road again, we beat a retreat from the desert. As we left the boundaries of Black Rock Desert, I squinted off into the distance. “Is that water?” I said. Bunny made a skeptical noise. I stopped the van and got out to look. It looked a bit like water, maybe, but it seemed…I don’t know, dryer somehow.

It was, as it turns out, salt, not water. There is collectively not enough water in this picture to drown a gnat.

Final score: Black Rock Desert 1, chaosbunnies in an ancient Ford van 0.

We set off down the road, wallowing in the misery of our defeat and drinking tea. As the sun set, we made camp on the side of the road, still wallowing in the misery of our defeat. Bunny made pasta to go with our wallowing, and we resolved to make it to Bodie, the next (and last) ghost town on our itinerary, the following day.

The following morning, we were up bright and early before noon, and headed off toward California. The day was clear, and the promise of success loomed in–

“Hey, what’s that?” I said.

“Looks like a billboard, maybe?” Bunny said.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Is that–?”

I pulled over. It was.

For those of you born after the advent of the Internet and broadband, there was once a thing called a “drive in.” Imagine a movie theater–no, not like that, a theater with only one screen. Outside. With a big parking lot in front of it. You would drive your car there and sit in it while you watched the movie. A little speaker about the same size and quality of a fast-food drive-through speaker was mounted at each parking space, but we people didn’t care because you didn’t go to a drive-in to watch the movie, you went to a drive-in to make out and/or have sex in the back of the car while a movie played somewhere in your general vicinity.

Changing demographics have not been kind to the drive-in industry.

We got out and poked around a bit. When this drive-in was abandoned, it happened all at once, it seemed.

Drive-ins had a small shack where the projection equipment was housed, and where the employees made popcorn. Before the movie started out, people in silly hats would come to your car and ask if you wanted popcorn. Then they’d run to the projection shack, make your popcorn, take it out to you, and let you get on with having sex.

We picked our way across a a field littered with broken glass and bits of rebar and electrical cable to the projection shack, which was an absolute catastrophe.

In a previous life, I was once a movie theater projectionist (at a regular theater, not a drive-in). To be fair, the projection booth I worked in wasn’t really a whole lot more tidy or organized than this.

I felt weirdly nostalgic, picking through the rubble of the projection booth. There was a fine layer of dust over everything, so it didn’t look like anyone visited frequently. Not even the local greasers with their pompadours and their muscle cars seem like they can be arsed to come out here all that often.

The concession stand was separated from the projection booth by a wall that ran down the length of the projection shack, without a door through it; the projection booth had its own door, and you couldn’t go from the concession stand to the projection booth. This seems to be typical from what I remember of my movie theater days. The projectionist occupies the most lofty stratum of the theater employee hierarchy, and the booth is his castle; riffraff like ticket sellers and concession workers aren’t permitted in his domain.

There was one lonely piece of graffiti in the concession stand, scrawled without any genuine effort at artistic merit on what was left of the popcorn machine. Honestly, the neighborhood truants, delinquents, and hoodlums really seemed to be phoning it in.

We made our way back to the van and headed off toward Bodie, which would prove to be the shining jewel of the trip. I have much to say about Bodie, and many many pictures. Those will wait for the next installment.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Creepy Motel

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said.

We were in the third–or was it the fourth?–day of the Faffing: wandering around more or less aimlessly, not finding any genuine ghost towns but still having great success photographing the many and varied ruins that dot the Pacific Northwest like acne on a geeky kid’s the day before the high school yearbook photo.

We were driving along a long, boring stretch of road in–god, I can’t even remember what state we were in. Possibly Oregon. Or maybe California. Weeks on the road will do that to you.

“Hey! Pull over!” My ears pricked up. Maxine had become quite adept by this point at spotting interesting things from the road, and she rarely disappointed.

We pulled into an utterly deserted parking lot, gravel crunching under the wheels of the Adventure Van. The sign said Juniper Lodge Motel and Restaurant. The creepiness of the surroundings said photographic gold mine.

We hopped out (get it? Hopped out?) and cautiously poked around. The first thing Bunny found was a portable toilet of the kind you usually see in the backs of campers and RVs, that looked a bit like someone had been cooking meth or something else equally unpleasant in it. I won’t disturb you with a photo, because I didn’t take one (if I had, it would be exactly the sort of thing I might like to share, so consider yourselves lucky, O gentle readers).

The Juniper Lodge Motel had been built as three long, low buildings on three sides of a square, with the road making the fourth side. I’m guessing the gas station used to be in the middle, perhaps, though it seems that would be a rather unpleasant arrangement for one who was wishing to sleep while all night long, people pulled in to get gas.

We cautiously entered the first building, wary of collapsing ceilings, snakes, and drug-crazed gangsters, all of which seemed like they might be a distinct possibility. All we found were ruins.

The bar and restaurant–at least I’m assuming that’s what this was–looked like something straight out of a nightmare horror movie, perhaps a movie called Freddy Krueger Visits the 1977 Guide to Interior Design Bar of the Year or something. That orange! Those beams! That fake wood paneling!

Someone had been there before us, which showed that fears of drug-crazed, machete-wielding gang members perhaps weren’t so far off base as all that.

The rooms were spacious, once upon a time, even if perhaps I might not have chosen that particular texture for the fake wall paneling, if it had been up to me.

The building to the right as you face the motel from the road, where the office once was, had reached a quite spectacular level of decay, one that made us fear for our safety dare we even to venture within. Much of the floor was gone, revealing that the building wasn’t precisely built on what one would call a “foundation” in any traditional sense of the word.

Photos taken, we set off again. We had, at this point, a new Plan. It was a Plan ambitious in its audacity, that would take us into Black Rock Desert questing after a…well, that will have to wait until next time.

Sex tech: Wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care

The street finds its own uses for things.
—William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Imagine, if you will, a device you strap onto your lower arm. This device has a bunch of embedded myoelectric sensors that respond to hand movements, and accelerometers that track arm movements. Yoked to these is a Bluetooth transmitter that relays a stream of data about your hand position and arm motion to a computer or smartphone. Sound exciting?

Meet the Myo, a gadget in search of a purpose.

It’s a neat, if pricey, device still in search of a killer app. It comes with a PowerPoint plugin that lets you flip through slides by waving your arm in the air. There’s an interface for Skyrim, though it’s a bit laggy and you can’t play for long before your arm gets tired. There’s also a bit of software that lets you control a small drone with arm gestures, though with less precision than a conventional remote control. It’s very much a “build first, look for a function later” gadget, reminiscent of many tech innovations from the age of the dot-com bubble.

In most industries, the “build it and they will come” approach to project engineering is looked at with less and less favor these days. I am a long-time mad scientist with a particular flair for designing and building all manner of high-tech sex toys, though, so to me “build it and they will come” is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

As soon as I saw a demo of the Myo, my mind instantly went to sex. Controlling a device remotely by gesture and motion? What could possibly be more fitting in a sex toy? (In fairness, I did once, many years ago, build an Internet-controlled sex toy called the Symphony—a name that might perhaps be more appropriate for a device that you can operate by waving your arms. Dance, my puppets! Dance!)

So imagine my surprise when I Tweeted that this would make a cool controller for a sex toy and shortly thereafter one showed up on my doorstep, courtesy of AV Flox over at Slantist.

Electronically, the Myo is a Bluetooth LE radio, a set of myoelectric sensors, a suite of accelerometers, and a low-power processor core running proprietary firmware. Information from the myoelectric sensors is interpreted and translated into a set of posture information. This information is combined with data from the accelerometer and transmitted as a series of gestures and motions.

Conceptually, it looks a bit like this:

The Myo communicates with a laptop or smartphone. The laptop or smartphone interprets the messages from the Myo, then sends appropriate commands to an Arduino with a Bluetooth board connected, instructing it to to run (or stop) a vibrator attached to the motor driver.

The Arduino is a small single-board computer that was designed to do easy experimenting with programmable devices. Think of something like a Raspberry Pi, only far simpler and without an operating system. You can get many additional boards for the Arduino to do all sorts of things—Bluetooth, WiFi, networking, sensors, motor drivers, and other boards exist. The Arduino and its add-on boards are designed to be stacked on top of one another, to make project development easy.

The laptop or smartphone is necessary because of Bluetooth’s design. Bluetooth is a computer-to-peripheral technology. A Bluetooth network uses a master/slave topology, which means a Bluetooth peripheral can’t communicate directly with another Bluetooth peripheral—a “master” device like a laptop or smartphone is needed as an intermediary. When I first started working on a Myo-controlled sex toy, I did the development on a Macbook Pro laptop.

The Hardware

For the first-generation version of the gesture-controlled sex toy, I opted to use an Arduino Uno with a Red Bear Bluetooth shield and one of Kyle Machulis’ Pen15 vibrator controller boards, largely by virtue of the fact that I already happened to have all of them sitting on my workbench.

The Arduino is a small electronics board, roughly the size of an index card, that’s easy to program and capable of talking to all sorts of peripheral hardware. As a controller for a sex toy, it’s a bit large and clunky. Combined with a Bluetooth board and a motor control board, the whole ensemble is about as big as a pack of cigarettes; not exactly discreet. There are several much smaller development boards available, and a later version of this project will probably be about the size of a quarter.

The Arduino, Bluetooth board, and motor controller, all stacked atop one another, look like this:

The blue board on the bottom is the Arduino itself, and contains the processor, power supply, and USB interface for programming. The red board in the middle is the Bluetooth board. The green board on top is the Pen15, an interface board designed specifically to run a sex toy from an Arduino. All together, this stack of boards cost about $40 or so.

The Software

Assembling the stack of components to make a Myo-controlled sex toy was the easy part. Writing the software turned out to be a bit more aggravating.

There are two parts to the software: a program running on the laptop (or smartphone, but for convenience I wrote the first version on my laptop), and a program running on the Arduino. The laptop software needed to pair with the Myo and the Arduino’s Bluetooth card, accept incoming data from the Myo, figure out how to translate those data into sex toy functions, and then send appropriate commands to the Arduino. The software on the Arduino needed to accept those commands and run the vibrator accordingly.

The Myo does a lot of on-board processing to figure out what hand gestures are being done, then sends the gesture data to the computer. It can recognize certain gestures, like making a fist, spreading your fingers apart, and tapping your thumb and forefinger together. It also sends information from the accelerometers, to report motion data.

For the first version, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to look only at hand gestures, rather than arm motion. Making a fist, I decided, would turn the vibrator off; spreading my fingers would turn it on. (I opted not to control the speed of the vibrator, even though this is fairly straightforward for the Arduino to do, just to keep things simple.) This let me ignore accelerometer data and look only at hand gestures.

The Arduino software was relatively straightforward. The Arduino Bluetooth card comes with a programming library, which, much to my dismay, failed to work right out of the box. That’s surprisingly common in the world of Arduino development, where hardware and software is often designed by small groups of dedicated enthusiasts and may or may not work as expected the first time. An hour’s worth of Googling and some trial and error let me get the Arduino Bluetooth library working, and after that, things were a lot easier. I chose a command that would mean “vibrator on” and another that would mean “vibrator off,” and wrote a simple program that would poll the Bluetooth card looking for those commands and send the appropriate signal to the Pen15 board. All in all, the Arduino side of the equation took an evening to get sorted.

The computer/Myo side was a bit more complicated. The Myo I received was one of the first to ship, and the Myo’s software development kit was a mess when it was first released. (It’s still something of a mess now.) I had considerable difficulty pairing with both the Myo and the Arduino—something that wasn’t helped by the fact that Mac development is usually done in a language called Objective-C, and my experience with Objective-C is limited. It’s mostly like C++, mostly, but there are just enough differences to trip up anyone accustomed to C++.

I finally gave up on accessing the Myo directly and opted for a shortcut. The Myo comes with software that maps Myo gestures onto the keyboard, so I decided to make things even easier by going that route. I mapped an open-hand gesture to the letter ‘a’ on the keyboard and a fist to the letter ‘z,’ and decided to write the software so that it would send a “vibrator on” signal when it saw the letter ‘a’ and send a “vibrator off” signal when it saw the letter ‘z.’ I figured once I had that working, I could get more fancy and sort out accessing the Myo directly later.

It took a good bit of time to get even that part working. The software development kit for the Arduino Bluetooth card is, if anything, in an even more sorry state than the Myo SDK. It took a lot of hair-pulling to get the sample code to work properly, and it tended to break whenever I tried to modify it.

In the end, I did finally get it to work, after a fashion. It was (and still is) quite crude: it recognizes only two Myo gestures, which it translates into “run the vibrator at full speed” and “turn the vibrator off.” The software still has a maddening habit of losing touch with the Arduino occasionally, for no reason I can discern, but it works.

The test

I decided to try out the vibrator with one of my girlfriends who was visiting from the UK, where she lives. We had just finished a whirlwind three-week camping tour of ghost towns through the Pacific Northwest, a journey I am still chronicling.

We spent her last night in Portland at a hotel near the airport, and I thought, hey, this would be an awesome time to take the new toy for a spin, and maybe even get some video of the device in action. She thought that idea sounded splendid.

Unfortunately, the software had other ideas. As often happens, somewhere between being tested on my workbench and being tried in the real world, it decided to quit working. I debugged frantically while she lay naked in bed waiting. Eventually, she fell asleep, and the opportunity was lost.

Later testing would have to wait for a more favorable time. Eventually I was able to get it working again, but the moment to use it with her had passed.

The future

The current prototype gesture-controlled sex toy is quite primitive. Put together, it looks like this:

The hardware is still clunky. I plan to rebuild it using a DF Robot Bluno, which combines the Arduino and Bluetooth on a tiny board roughly the size of a quarter.

This should make it possible to create a discreet, miniaturized sex toy that can be worn in public. I have one of these sitting on my workbench, but haven’t had a chance to play with it.

Eventually, when I’ve made more progress on the strapon the wearer can feel and I have time to return to this project, I plan to refine the software, adding accelerometer control and allowing the vibrator to be controlled more precisely—perhaps by adding patterns to the vibration. (I have visions of doing a PowerPoint presentation at a business function while one of my partners sits in the audience wearing this device, as it responds to the same gestures I’m using to control the PowerPoint slides.)

Finally, I want to compile the control software for my iPhone, so I don’t have to lug around a laptop wherever I might want to use it. I can keep the iPhone in my pocket, where it silently listens to the Myo and sends signals to the sex toy.

The possibilities of remotely operated, Bluetooth-controlled sex toys that respond to wireless sensors, controllers, and other devices has a great deal of potential, especially if you’re a mad engineer like me. There’s rich territory here, just begging to be explored by intrepid adventurers. The early Myo prototypes are, I think, merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I can hardly wait to see what else is possible!

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Faffing

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

Fresh from the spectacular triumph that was Susanville, the semi-mythical old mining town on the end of an ancient and long-derelict road that nobody save Apple knows about (and boy, would I love to know how Apple added it to their maps!), we spent the next couple of days in a kind of Ghost Town Limbo. We had entered that period in our adventure I have come to think of as The Faffing.

It is a fact known to anyone familiar with the Great Northwest that the ruins of nineteenth-century boom town lie in scattered disarray across the countryside like clothing at a drug-fueled Roman orgy. Once you get into the desert of the Great Northwest, it’s difficult to swing a cat without hitting the remains of some old logging or mining building from the 1800s.

That is, in fact, exactly the point of our journey. Other countries, possessed of a less exuberant excess of rolling countryside that nobody much wants, or perhaps gifted with a more pragmatic approach to resource allocation, don’t have long-abandoned towns that just kinda sit around for a century and a half because nobody can be arsed to do anything about them.

And even in places where people do want to do things with the land, there’s just so damn much of it that if there happens to be an old tumbled-down log cabin or a gold processing building building of some sort, nine times out of ten it’s easier to work around it than to move it. So it stays there, quietly being Somebody Else’s Problem.

It’s this sort of neglectful attitude toward the dwellings of times gone that drew Bunny to the tour, as her native land of the United Kingdom of Britainlandia is, being on an island, much more conscious of making use of every square meter or hectare or whatever the hell unit of measure they use all the way over there.

So during The Faffing, we saw, and photographed, a great many tumbled-down buildings standing silent testimony to times long gone, though we were rather less successful in finding any real ghost towns. What ghost towns there are are often poorly marked, and the ones that are well-marked, we discovered, seem to be conspicuous in their existential absence when one goes to the appointed spot.

The Faffing was not a time of no productivity, but it certainly didn’t compare to the discovery of what was left of Susanville. Still, we did discover some pretty neat stuff as we wandered about aimlessly in the Adventure Van.

Like this abandoned building and rickety, half-collapsed footbridge over a surprisingly deep and treacherous creek, spotted by Bunny’s eagle eye as we drove down some county road or other.

Or this house, which looks like it ought to feature quite prominently in an episode of Scooby Doo. It was on the outskirts of some quiet little town in Oregon whose name I’ve already forgotten, but man, if I were a kid living in this town, this place would likely haunt my nightmares.

There are tons of old farm buildings lying in ruins all about the Pacific Northwest, some of which look like they might collapse into dust if some poor unsuspecting sod the next county over sneezes too vigorously.

We struck gold with this find, the remnants of an old one-room school building a couple miles outside the semi-but-not-really ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon. Bunny, as per usual, spotted it and said “Hey, pull over!”

The schoolhouse looks a lot Little House on the Prairie and a lot more “Outtake from an episode of Dexter” these days, which adds, I think, to the ambiance. It’s a cool old building, for sure.

We took a random detour from looking for old ghost towns when we spotted a sign pointing to a lava flow in an ancient forest, because, you know, chaosbunnies. The detour took us a lot farther out of our way than the sign suggested, but after quite a lot of travel, we did indeed eventually come to the ancient lava flow.

Oregon’s terrain has been shaped by catastrophic geology, much of it volcanic. Enormous seas of lava once covered quite large expanses of it, wiping out everything around them and leaving behind terrain that, millennia later, still looks kind of like a lunar landscape.

Where these huge flows of lava encountered forests, the lava encased the trees in solid rock. The trees died and disappeared, leaving these formations as their only remains.

We took quite a few pictures, but as this was only incidental to our real purpose (if indeed chaosbunnies can be said to have a “purpose,” as opposed to a mere intention) we did not linger long, and were soon off.

We found some more ruins, this time just outside yet another town whose name I’ve already forgotten but that seemed to be a regional freight transportation hub, judging by the astonishing number of large trucks that formed an unending stream of traffic through the town.

It really is quite astonishing just how many of these ruins lie about, being ruins. We stopped frequently to take pictures of yet another ancient relic of centuries gone by, sometimes to the consternation of state police who wanted to make sure that we hadn’t abandoned the van and headed off through the countryside with cameras and bunny ears and tea because we were, you know, like, in trouble or anything.

Just what set of unfortunate circumstances might force someone to abandon a van armed only with these three aforementioned things is not entirely clear to your humble scribe. Still, it is gratifying to know that people were looking out for us.

We still had some interesting random discoveries, and a few moments of stark terror, closing inexorably in on us, which I shall detail in later episodes of this chronicle.

I have a small stuffed hedgehog that accompanies me almost everywhere I go. Her name is Lilith, and she was a gift from Eve. Those of you who saw us on the European book tour likely recognize her. Lilith rode on the Adventure Van’s dashboard during The Faffing, and appeared quite unfazed by the whole experience.

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Susanville, or, Siri knows better than Google

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of ghost towns, cunningly planned through extensive and repetitive Googling of “ghost towns west coast,” was Susanville.

It would prove an elusive target. Susanville was established in 1864 when some bloke found a big lump of gold in a remote corner of Oregon, and a bunch of other blokes came flocking to the spot hoping to find more lumps of gold. Times being what they were, it wasn’t considered a proper town because it didn’t have its own post office, so in 1901 a bunch of miners, ahem, stole the post office from a neighboring mining town, making Susanville an improper town. Or so the story goes. It is not clear to your humble scribe how one steals a post office, nor whether the legitimacy conferred by a post office remains if the post office is stolen. Such matters are not for me to understand.

I used Siri to plot us a route to Susanville, and we were off. The trip started promisingly enough when we found a turnoff precisely where Apple Maps said it would be, with a much-faded sign suggesting we were on the right track.

Alas, things soon became complicated. I navigated the Adventure Van for quite a long while on a narrow single-lane dirt, steadily moving farther and farther from civilization, until Siri told me to take a left turn onto a road that most completely and utterly did not exist. There was not the slightest sign that a left turn had ever existed in that spot, nor that one is ever likely to exist any time between now and when the stars burn out.

Bunny and I scratched our heads. “Let’s keep going,” she said. “Maybe GPS isn’t sure where we are. We’ll look for a left turn.”

We kept going. A left turn failed to appear. After we had traveled a considerable number of miles, with Siri telling us “make a U-turn, make a U-turn” over and over until madness threatened, I got the idea to try Google Maps.

This is not, I would like to point out, ordinarily such an insane idea. Google often knows better than Siri the ways of human navigation. In this case, however, Google was worse than useless. Siri showed us the road we were on, if I may be forgiven the literary excess of use of the word “road;” Google showed nothing but an endless expanse of featureless green. Where Siri believed there to be an exuberance of roads, including the one we could not find. Google showed nary a trace of human existence at all.

We turned around. “Turn right,” Siri said. Again, the road onto which we were supposed to turn persisted in its obstinate failure to exist.

“Maybe there used to be a road here,” I said. Bunny looked doubtful.

I stopped the van. “Siri says there’s a road right here,” I said. “Let’s get out and walk. Maybe we’ll find it.” Bunny still looked doubtful.

We walked for a while. “Siri says the road is right here,” I said. “Let’s just stay on the road according to GPS and see what happens.” Bunny looked very doubtful.

Still, the one thing you can count on if you’re a chaosbunny is there will be chaos. We set out through the field, watching the phone closely to keep the little blue dot centered on the road Siri insisted was there and reality insisted just as passionately was not.

When we’d walked for ten or fifteen minutes, Bunny pointed ahead. “I think this might be a road after all,” she said. “Look!”

Sure enough, there was a slight depression that was just regular enough to make it seem that, if you squinted hard enough and perhaps dropped acid, might seem it was once a road.

With a new surge in confidence, we kept walking. After another twenty or thirty minutes or so, and an inconvenient but fortunately narrow stream we were forced to jump across, we found… a road. A real, genuine, unmistakeable, honest-to-God road, exactly where Siri told us it would be.

We trotted along the road and rounded a large outcropping of rock, and then, there in front of us…a decaying house, tucked in the shadow of tall trees, glorious in its ruin. We had begun to believe it no longer existed, so as you can imagine, gentle reader, that moment when we rounded that corner made our hearts sing with joy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Susanville, Oregon.

We poked around the ruined buildings for a while, taking pictures like mad and giggling like…well, like we were mad.

The largest house we found maintains silent watch over what used to be an old gold stamping mill, there on the other side of the river. Little remains of the mill but a heap of lumber.

I’d love to know what life was like out here, back when people came to this place in search of wealth. The few remaining houses are quite large, and were probably surprisingly comfortable given the remote inhospitality of the place.

Some of the remaining structures look a bit creaky. I was reasonably sure they probably wouldn’t collapse on us without warning, entombing us in a pile of old lumber and avarice.

When tea-time came around, Bunny sat down on an ancient and massive tree stump and…well, looked very English.

Tea properly handled, we resumed our explorations. I have no idea what this is, but it’s quite lovely.

We forded the river to examine the ruins of the stamping mill more closely. At first, I thought it was a lumber mill, but Google says no, this is where gold ore was brought to be crushed and processed. Of course, Google also said there was no road out here, so what does Google know?

The view back to the largest house from the mill is quite beautiful. I don’t imagine life here was easy, but it certainly did offer scenic natural beauty in spades.

In fact, it’s so lovely I’m a little surprised nobody lives out here now.

Susanville was amazing, and it was with heavy hearts we bid farewell to it and started the long hike back to the Adventure Van.

As fantastic as Susanville was, still more wonders waited in our future, though we had to pass through stark terror to get there. That story will come in time.