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WHAT THE WALRUS SAID--Our Authors' Blog--

Where Cows Once Trod

 

 

They had us at "Robots."

 

We'd never heard of this company, in Royalton, Vermont. But they'd set an open house, to show off their robot workforce. So we drove down I-89, to see kissing cousins of R2-D2 and C-3PO.

 

Richard's latest novel, Caliban Rising, a thriller, has a plot driven by artificial intelligence, controlling squads of robots. It reflects the  unease many of us feel, as the technology shaping our society evolves at high velocity—we stand on shifting ground. 

 

A tiny Vermont town seems an odd place to see cutting-edge tech. 

 

There's an old joke: "Vermont has more cows than people." In fact, decades ago, it did. When we settled here, Holsteins and Jerseys dotted the hillside pastures. Now, what farms remain are likely to raise organic kale or make gourmet cheese from goats' milk.

 

Vermont is still America's most rural state, but we aren't what we used to be.

 

Here's what we expected at GW Plastics: a  pipsqueak operation in a converted dairy barn. What we found was a sprawling factory complex in—yes—what once were cow pastures, with branches in San Antonio, Tucson, China, Mexico, and Ireland. They mold plastics into hyper-precise components for surgical instruments, hospital equipment, automotive parts….

 

We saw a menagerie of robots. But what really mesmerized us were the giant arms, housed in Plexiglas cubicles, each like an octopus's writhing tentacle. Under the sea, each octopus tentacle contains its own brain, and so it seemed with these steel tentacles.

 

A robot arm stretches far back to fetch a component, then whips around, like a striking cobra, to connect that part to another component, pluck up what it assembled, twist sideways, snap it precisely into a slot, and….

 

Every move exact, at lightspeed. Working all day and night, never tiring.

 

Human workers can't match that productivity. And the jobs these robots do would give humans repetitive strain injuries, and numb their brains. Even so, with all its robots, GW Plastics still needs humans to design and program, and to assist the robots. They actively recruit workers. So do other businesses. All over we see "Now Hiring" signs.

 

Tomorrow, though? Will your next attorney or physician be an artificial-intelligence algorithm?

 

Will the joke then be—"Vermont (replace with your favorite state) has more robots than people!"

 

—Joyce & Richard

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There But For....

Joyce and I recently visited an old friend from Florida at her new home in Virginia—a "lifecare" facility, offering varying degrees of care depending on need.

 

Our friend's husband died, and soon after she contracted a disorder that, for all practical purposes, left her paralyzed. She didn't give up. Through rigorous physical therapy, and determination that amazed the staff, she regained her ability to walk and to care for herself. She graduated from "assisted living" status to "independent living."

 

She uses a walker, for fear she might fall, but—she walks.

 

We arrived for dinner and I stood in the dining hall looking at the legions of residents, many using walkers, many in wheelchairs, all frail. 

 

Our friend told us about her fellow residents—that man was a general. That woman was vice president at a bank. And that one was….

 

I felt great sadness. Partly, I think, seeing all these people who had declined, I foresaw my own eventual decline, and its inevitability unsettled me.

 

"All these people," I blurted out. "All so vital once, and accomplished, and now…how do they cope?"

 

Not my most diplomatic moment, with our friend standing beside me, leaning on her walker. Thankfully, she didn't point out my insensitivity. Instead, she stood silently, musing. Then she spoke, and I've been thinking about it ever since, turning it over and over in my mind.

 

She said just one word.

 

"Acceptance."

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Song

 

 

I walked into our pinewoods to look at felled trees—two years ago, a freak windstorm devastated this forest, leaving heaps of dead wood. 

 

I'd hoped to see infant pines and spruces pushing up through the tangle.   

 

I saw only dead trunks and limbs and branches.   

 

I'd been felled myself, a week before—sudden pain, ambulance, emergency room, long wait while physicians figured out what caused the agony, then a midnight emergency operation and—at three a.m.—wheeled into a hospital room.

 

Now I stared at dead trees.   

 

What happened to me could afflict anyone, anytime. You can't prevent it. It's that tangle of intestines writhing inside us. They can twist. Friends lost a dog to it. She died in two hours.

 

We're all Frankenstein's monster. We're stitched-together scraps. We lurch through life.

 

Staring at those fallen trees, that's what I thought.

 

Then, something happened, an odd little thing.

 

Suddenly—out of that dead wood—a song welled up, ineffably sweet.  

 

No big deal. Just some bird telling other birds he owned this woodpile, keep out. At least, experts say that's what bird song is about. I don't even know what bird it was.

 

But it wasn't about the bird. It was about that stunning music, welling up from the dead wood.

 

I suppose it didn't mean anything. Just an invisible bird singing. Or maybe it means whatever I decide it means.

 

So I'll be thinking about that.

 

--Richard

 

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WHAT DOES A DOG MEAN?




A friend asked me—why, in most of your husband’s novels, is one character a Pembroke Welsh corgi?

And the answer is: “It’s personal.”

Sometimes that dog character is Henry. Sometimes he’s Tobi. But his real name—he was a real dog—was Nosmo.

“Nosmo King,” in full, chosen by his previous family because they quit smoking and named him for a “No Smoking” sign. Not a name we liked.

Then we realized Nosmo could be a Hobbit name, like Frodo or Bilbo. So he became Nosmo the Hobbit.

He was preternaturally bright. Read More 

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APPARITION


Joyce awoke in the night and looked out the window. She saw a full moon, shining on fresh snow.

I lay half-asleep. Then Joyce gasped. I bolted out of bed to see what alarmed her.

“Something’s out there,” she said.

I saw only snow. Then, behind the pond, I saw a shape, indistinct in the moon-cast shadows, but something huge.

Massive shoulders hunched, it glided across the snow.  Read More 

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MURDOCK WISHES YOU HIS HOLIDAY BEST

Our good friend and frequent visitor, Murdock Morse, sends his holiday greetings to all.

Go romp in the snow, he says. It feels good!

--Joyce & Richard

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GRACIE WEIGHS IN TOO!

Gracie Duke--another good friend of ours--wants to second her pal Murdock's message: celebrate!

It's the darkest days of the year, she says. So get out there and bark! Bark for the return of the light!. Bark loud! It'll come!

Joyce & Richard

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REMEMBER THAT?


We’ve been doing some autumn cleaning, looking into attic boxes and little-used drawers and closets, and we’ve found that, never realizing it, for decades we’ve been hoarders of our own lives.

We’re human packrats, we’ve discovered, hiding away bits and pieces of the past, and then forgetting where we put them, or even that we ever hid them at all.  Read More 

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PARSING A THRILLER

I’ve been thinking: what does a story mean?

It’s because I just published a new novel, Caliban Rising—it’s a thriller, and I hope it means: “Keep turning those pages!”

You sneak onto a mysterious Caribbean island. Nice beaches, but nasty murders. Maybe you get hurled out of a Black Hawk helicopter, or fed to the island’s feral Bengal tiger. Also, there are creepy robots….

Will you survive?

Every thriller, I think, underneath, means just that: danger besets us.

We lead thriller lives.  Read More 

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WOODCHUCK KARMA


We once tried vegetable gardening, but a woodchuck ate most of our carrots and green beans and squash. He got so fat he couldn’t run, only slowly waddle.

We say “he” because of his size. Females are smaller, and possibly more into weight watching.

Woodchucks have western cousins—marmots and prairie dogs—but woodchucks are more eccentric, like old-time New England hill farmers.

For one thing, they’re loners. In early spring, males go roaming the woods, hoping for one-night stands. Otherwise, they’re commitment-phobic. They’re just not that much into each other. No wives, no husbands. They don’t even want friends.

Here’s the karma part. Read More 

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