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The Big Idea: Doug Sharp

Doug Sharp:

I am honored that John Scalzi has published my article about Channel Zilch on his blog.

Originally posted on Whatever:

Some books take longer to write than others.Channel Zilch took longer to write than most. But to be fair, author Doug Sharp has a very good reason for that. Here he is to explain.

DOUG SHARP:

It only took me 21 years to finish Channel Zilch.

Channel Zilch is the story of ex-astronaut Mick Oolfson and geek goddess Heloise (Hel) Chin. NASA canned Mick for stunt-flying a space shuttle; his one desire is to return to space.  Hel is a testosterone-surfing evolutionary roboticist, cortical multitasker, and aspiring midwife to the technological Singularity. The first book in the Hel’s Bet series, Channel Zilch begins with the theft of a space shuttle. And that’s the easy part.

Here’s the deal:

In 1992 I needed a new computer game project. I was droolingly bored cranking out lucrative contract code. My game career was dead. I was determined to resurrect it.

In the mid-80’s…

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Pitcher Plant in Snow

Snow is thin on the ground. I hiked to the Tamarack Bog today to see if the Pitcher Plants were poking through.

Here’s a Pitcher Plant with frozen water inside it.

Winter Dock

The canoe is resting.
In 2 weeks the ice should be thick enough to hike on. Ice opens up lots of great hikes to beaver lodges and islands.
I always wait until ice fishing shacks are up on the big lakes before walking on my little lakes.

Canine Improv Theatre: Timmy Falls into the Well for the Very, Very Last Time

Travis is great at improv acting so long as his part is that of an enthusiastic dog. Trav-trav is a Collie/Shepherd/Something mix.

Travis is an enthusiastic kisser.

Today he looked particularly Colliesque so I called him Lassie which devolved into this piece of Canine Improv Theatre:

Travis delivers great news about Timmy.

For those of you too chronologically deprived to catch the Timmy/Collie reference, here is the opening of one of the best TV shows ever: Lassie.

The Lassie Theme Song is burned into my DNA.

Timmy was the clumsiest boy on Earth. His inability to avoid falling into wells stressed out poor, sweet Lassie day after day after day.

Travis and Mika and I evened the score.

Icebreaking–Last Canoe Trip of the Year

Last week Martel Lake froze and I thought canoeing was done for the year.

2011-11-19 Early Winter 006

This week we got a warm spell – temp in the 40’s F – so I decided to give canoeing one last shot.

I love icebreaking in a canoe. The ice was crumbly around my dock and along the shore so I was pretty sure I could make it to open water.

I wanted to get some crunchy icebreaking sounds so I stuck my trusty Zoom H2 in my jacket pocket and got this [crunchy ice with intermittent narrative at 2:00; best crunching sounds start at 4:05]:

I was too busy breaking through the ice to take pix until we hit the open lake.

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My dock is in the distance just right and up from center. We paddled through the thin shore ice and then broke through the white patch above.

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It felt good to break through to clear water. Icebreaking with a canoe is great arm exercise because you need to chop into the ice with the paddle and haul the canoe forward up onto the ice, breaking it with the weight of the canoe. Repeat until clear of ice.

Thin ice you can just cruise through. It makes a tinkly sound as it shatters.

Mika and Travis were not happy with our expedition. It’s Wisconsin’s Annual War Against Deer and gunshots in the distance kept them nervous.

2011-11-25 Breaking Ice for 1 last canoe ride 009

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After our icebreaking adventure I tied Mika to a tree and put away the boats and accessories for the winter. I hung lifejackets from the rafters of the screen porch while Travis watched, amused:

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I pulled my canoe onto the bank, where snow will soon cover it.

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The next time I canoe I’ll hear loons.

Inventing a New Sin: Personalism

I wrote this essay about compassion in 1975 at age 23. I was looking through old writing today and decided to post it, though it hasn’t much to do with Thanksgiving.

I still stand behind its spirit and intent and admire its earnestness and idealism.


I’m sorry to say that Dwayne was not a friend of mine. In fact, I doubt whether he had any friends. He was in the Monroney Junior High School Band with me, though I can’t recall what instrument he played. I do remember that he was very short, looked years younger than his age, and that he cried a lot. It was considered good sport by some to taunt him into a blubbering rage.

I don’t remember participating directly in hostil­ities toward him, but I smiled indulgently whenever I heard that he was crying again. After all, he was an immature crybaby who played only with elementary school kids, so he should expect to be teased.

I moved to a different area and school and when I returned three years later was informed that Dwayne had joined the Marines. Dwayne in the Marines, we all thought that was pretty funny. The next news I heard of him, two years later, was not so humorous. Dwayne was in jail. He had forced a car off the road and raped the woman driving it.

That news troubled me. As an aware young liberal I believed that crime was often a reaction to an oppressive environment, but up until this that idea had always been remote and stereotyped – an econom­ically oppressed person holding up a store to keep from starving. I saw that Dwayne’s crime was a reaction to the particular oppression of his environment; he had been emotionally scarred, systematically denied friendship, and to keep from emotional starvation had tried to steal some love. I saw that I had been a part of the oppressive social environment that had driven him to make his desperate bid for intimacy.

Being a nice person, I didn’t like to think of myself as an oppressor. Why, then, hadn’t I befriended Dwayne, something he so obviously needed? Easily answered, he was not what one looked for in a friend; he was immature, strange, and unhappy, and anyone who befriended or even showed kindness to him risked becoming an outcast for associating with a person who everyone considered an asshole. Basically, Dwayne had no friends because his personality and other personal attributes were socially unacceptable. How had he become so different from the rest of us?

First, how is it that most of us stay on good terms with our peer group? A person in frequent friendly contact with others tends to improve his or her social skills and so remain acceptable to his age group as it matures. In contrast with this benevolent cycle of growth is Dwayne’s vicious cycle which inflated an early difficulty in social­ization into a tragic crime. Dwayne’s initial socialization problem was probably due to personal troubles caused by being an orphan who was adopted late. His early unpopularity denied him the friendly social interaction that would have allowed him to develop the social skills that make one acceptable to one’s peers, and lacking which he remained unpopular. On top of this lack of social skills were the problems of loneliness, low self-esteem, and constant overt harassment by the more insensitive around him. His environment was overwhelmingly oppres­sive. In fact, he was as oppressed because of his personal characteristics as any human has ever been because of race, or any woman because of sex.

Dwayne’ s oppression is not unique; it is but an extreme example of a destructive element of our social system that touches us all. Dwayne was judged to be inferior and so excluded mainly because of his unacceptable personality, though no one really knew him. Whenever one person forms a poor opinion of another based on superficial knowledge much the same social mechanism is at work. Judgment based on insufficient evi­dence is called prejudice, and there is a prejudice based on personal charac­teristics, mental and physical, just as real and destructive as our pre­judices based on race and gender. We are all familiar with racism and sexism, but most are unaware of personalism.

A technique often used to make people more aware of sexism is to draw parallels between it and racism, and in the same way it is useful to compare personalism with racism and sexism. The first sim­ilarity that hit me was that each prejudice has its own vocabulary of abuse: racism — nigger, wop, honky, etc.; sexism — chick, bitch, piece, etc.; and personalism — asshole, jerk, fuckhead, creep, bastard, etc. These terms serve to make an object of their target so as to obscure that person’s humanity.

Another parallel between the three prejudices is that they are learned, no matter how “natural” they might seem. In much the same way that one learns that members of certain races are inferior, and that each sex has its own limited role, one also learns that certain types of personalities and physiognomies are inferior. The three prejudices vary from culture to culture; sexual roles and the races considered inferior differ in each society, as do standards for judging personality and beauty.

Personalism, like sexism and racism, fosters a feeling of superiority in the prejudiced by labeling some people as inferior. And, most heartening of all the similarities between these three prejudices, there have always been some people immune to them: non-racist whites working for civil rights, non-sexist men working for female suffrage, and there can be no more profoundly non-personalist statement than Will Rogers’ “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

This statement is a good introduction to how personalism works in practice, for, as hate to racism and condescension to sexism, dislike is the active tool of personalism. (Dislike – not to like, “like” having a very revealing similarity to “to be like”.)

The criteria used for choos­ing who to dislike are much more complex than simply discerning the openly apparent signs of race or sex. Some “reasons” for disliking a person are his: intellect, too much or too little; opinions; dress; habits of speech; way with money; friends; moodiness; height; etc. There are limits on just about every personal attribute, to overstep which invites rejection, aversion, dislike.

Most of us are careful to conceal our social­ly unacceptable characteristics except from those who already like us, but there are those who won’t or can’t or are only partially successful in their attempt to hide their “defects”. Other more subjective “reasons” for disliking a person are; hearing bad things about him; meeting her under unpleasant circumstances; his possession of traits one dislikes in oneself; embarrassing oneself before her; feeling inadequate in his com­pany. Yet all these subjective causes of dislike are usually ascribed to shortcomings in the other.

One would think that if a valuation of another person had to be made at all, it would be undertaken only after careful and unhurried deliberation. In fact, though, it is common practice to form an opinion of another quickly after very limited and superficial interaction, which is characteristic of all forms of prejudice. The way we judge people is so culturally defined, subjective, and done in such a haphazard manner that it is objectively meaningless.

As prejudice is always disruptive to communication between people, blinding one to the complete and complex humanity of another by focusing attention on a fragment of her whole, dislike is a barrier between humans. You can never really know a person unless you like him, for only to a friend can a person reveal herself without fear.

Dislike feeds itself, rejecting that which would tend to undermine it; any action performed by someone we dislike usually tends to confirm our low opinion of him, though the same act done by a friend might be interpreted favorably or laughed off. Once dislike enters a human relationship it distorts all interaction and communication. Once A begins to dislike B he notices mainly B’s unacceptable characteristics, ignoring attributes he might admire in another. B soon notices A’s attitude towards him and this alters his behavior around A, confirming A’s low opinion of him. B resents A’s attitude, begins to notice A’s disagreeable features, and soon they dislike each other equally, effectively shutting down any meaningful communication between them.

A person can’t really know someone she dislikes, and it also seems that one can’t really dislike someone she knows. Intimate knowledge of another person, no matter what “defects” he might have, leads to a sym­pathetic understanding of his problems and a diminished awareness of his departures from our culture’s ideals of personality and beauty. Most people have at least a few friends who they know well enough to overlook characteristics that might be reasons for disliking a stranger. And we don’t dislike the mentally ill and the cognitively handicapped, though they have in abundance the characteristics that in small quantities might inspire dislike, for our sympathies are engaged and we wonder not what we can do to avoid the person, but what can be done to help them.

Surely the most important consideration, as it is with racism and sexism, is whether getting rid of the prejudice might be a good thing, for both the prejudiced and the oppressed. Personalism is as damaging to everyone involved as are racism and sexism. A person who is rejected, to whatever degree, feels hurt by the rejection and tends to be less open for fear of further rejection. Continuous personal rejection can aggravate personal problems. The use of personalize standards in relating to others encourages a lack of empathy and even cruelty.

Personalism disrupts interpersonal commu­nications, contributes to the tension in our society, and fosters unhappiness. It is an unkind method of dealing with others.

What, then, would be the consequences if personalism were eliminated? People would be respected no matter what their problems and would have a greater opportunity to work out their difficulties through friendly, supportive interaction and communication without fear of rejection. Cruelty would be reduced because it would be harder for a person to think of another as an object. Getting rid of personal prejudice would not mean that everybody would have to be best friends; attraction and shared experiences and inter­ests would still be necessary to establish a really close relationship. Personal differences from the norm would be not only tolerated but welcome, further encour­aging interpersonal openness. The heavily judgmental nature of our pre­sent social environment, in which some are treated as if they were less than fellow humans, would be transformed into an environment of mutual respect and empathy. Personalism is a relationship of human surfaces, empathy is the relationship of human centers.

What this transformation would take would be a large change in our motives for relating to others. Right now we are friendly toward those who make us feel good, those whose company is prestigious, and those whose friendship might be useful to us, all relatively self-centered motives, as well as toward those with unacceptable characteristics who we know well and sympathize with. We can internalize and use the fact the that friendly interaction can help a troubled person deal with his problems; respecting outcasts purely because kindness is a generous and helpful way of treating any person.

Dislike is destructive; being friend­ly toward someone can be more than a matter of attraction; it can be a constructive effort to help him grow. Friendly social interaction is the most effective preventative therapy.

In talking of the destruction and oppression caused by personalism my purpose has not been to promote guilt for damage already done, but to promote awareness of the nature and consequences of our behavior by providing a new and useful analysis of our social system in hopes of encouraging benevolent change. The ideas basic to this analysis are not new or original, but as ancient as the golden rule and the injunction to love your enemy, as widespread as “I’m OK, You’re OK” and modern schools [ed: 1975] of humanist psychology.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the idea of personalism is its timeliness. It capitalizes on our present heightened awareness of racism and sexism by drawing parallels with them and using similar arguments – extends that awareness to include a prejudice until now unlabeled as such, and it may be able to draw on the same idealistic hope that motivates those who work against racial and sexual prejudice, the hope that all people will be happier when we eradicate destructive prejudice.

Only through awareness can personalism, or any prejudice, be attacked. With personalism it will have to be the aware, rather than the oppressed, that lead the effort to spread awareness, for at present the prejudice is so great that the assholes, the jerks, and the unpopular are most probably not going to organize to point out the injustice of their situation as women and blacks have done.

During the time I was writing this essay I came across a penetrating portrait of a victim of personalism in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (Scribner’s, 1929). In his description of a schoolboy, Edward Michalove, fictional counterpart of Dwayne, he shows remarkable insight into the destructive processes of extreme personalism:

At twelve he was a tall slender lad, with dark amber features, and the mincing effeminacy of an old maid. He was terrified in the company of other boys, all that was sharp, spinsterly and venomous, would come protectively to the sur­face when he was ridiculed or threatened, and he would burst into shrill unpleasant laughter, or hysterical tears. His mincing walk with the constant gesture of catching maidenly at the fringe of his coat as he walked along, his high husky voice, with a voluptuous and feminine current playing through it drew upon him at once the terrible battery of their dislike. They called him “Miss” Michalove; they badgered him into a state of constant hysteria until he became an unpleasant snarling little cat, holding up his small clawed hands to scratch them with his long nails whenever they approached, they made him detestable, master and boy alike, and they hated him for what they made of him.


2011: I still fight personalism when I come upon it. I refuse to let people call another “asshole” in my presence any more than I tolerate someone saying “nigger” to insult another.

The recent movement to stop school bullying is encouraging.

Every living thing is holy. Especially holy are sentient beings.

This world is more than enough for us to appreciate in our brief lives and we are blessed to experience what portion we do.

Love is the only reasonable goal.

Ice on Martel Lake

Today’s ice and snow will melt next week when it gets up to 50. It’s nice to have a preview of Winter.

Wisconsin’s annual War Against Deer started today. Neighbors to the south built a major anti-deer emplacement. They started blazing away at dawn. I woke up with a traumatized Travis trembling and panting on top of me. Mika is unusually affectionate today because of all the gunfire.

I blast loud music to cover the sounds of the epic battle, which relaxes the dogs somewhat. The next 9 days of deer season will be trying for all 3 of us.

Stuff and Nonsense

Tony Santucci and I enjoy a gorgeous dusk paddle.
Tony and I enjoy a dusk paddle on Martel Lake.

The Pad has been a social whirlwind this month. Tony Santucci camped with me on Ogre Island. Myrna and Paul took good care of me.

Angry Robot just signed their first two authors from their Submissions Open Month. I’m still waiting (im)patiently to hear from AR about whether they’ll publish Channel Zilch.

Snow expected Saturday so I’m stacking the last of my firewood today.

Next week is my dogs’ least favorite time of the year: Wisconsin’s Annual War Against Deer. I’ll play lots of loud music to mask the sound of gunfire.

Clouds on Fire


I spent an hour paddling in the chill dusk wind. My poor little camera did its best, but the sunset was waaaay more intense than this photo.

14 Years

Fourteen years ago I had one of the coolest, funnest, hectic-est jobs in my life: Demo God for Microsoft Research’s Virtual Worlds Group. I worked with coders, artists, writers, interns, and musicians to put together and run demos to show off our amazing Virtual Reality platform. I love to collaborate and the VWGers were a passionate, talented group to play with. At its best my job was exhilarating.

Demos are fickle beasts. Software in development is notorious for breaking when you demo it to anybody with clout. I remember frantically sprinting to my office to recompile a tearful intern’s project for an internal mass demo. I got it working and she was able to demo the work she’d spent months creating.

I had a blast in the Virtual World’s Group. Management politics was a mess but the geek troops made an amazing Virtual Worlds platform way ahead of its time.

Kevin Goldsmith and Doug Sharp in Doug's MSFT office celebrating Halloween

Before becoming Demo God I was co-leader of VWG world-building tools with Kevin Goldsmith. We had lots of laughs and did good work.

Fourteen years ago – October 17th, 1997 – I sat at my desk trying to code. I’d done no work the previous day although I’d tried hard. My epilepsy pre-seizure symptoms had been bothering me for days and on the 17th I had to admit that my Brainrot was back. I couldn’t work. Every time I forced myself to code the symptoms got worse. I was sad and afraid.

Doug Sharp as Himself

My MSFT office door.

At age 25 (1977), while student teaching for my Elementary Ed certification at the UofMN, I had some strange, nasty spells and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. While teaching my first 5th grade class I took Phenobarbital  for a year, which controlled my seizures. I hated the drug – I called its effects “living in a baggie” -  and when my symptoms abated I got off Pheno with my neurologist’s permission.

In 1988, while working on my biggest game to date for Activision – called Future Cop at the time – Brainrot hit hard. For 3 1/2 years (88-91) I was extremely sick and on massive doses of various numbing anti-seizure meds as we tried to find one that worked. By 1991 I was a candidate for brain surgery. Luckily the symptoms started to abate. Although I still had infrequent seizures and tons of pre-seizure symptoms I threw myself into completing the game, now called “Free D.C.!” Due to time pressure from company investors (release by Xmas or die!) the game was released before it was finished — the only one of my three games that wasn’t a hit.

In ‘93, through an insane sequence of events, I was hired as a programmer by Microsoft (not too likely with only a degree in El Ed.) I had 5 good years at MSFT although none of the projects I worked on made it to market.

Every time Brainrot hit me I’ve been neck-deep in highly collaborative, exciting work: Elementary Ed teacher training and big collaborative software projects. I love to collaborate with passionate people but it’s kryptonite to me.

Fourteen years ago today I sat at my desk with a head full of sparks, unable to code. For the next months we tried to find tasks I could do for VWG but I was too sick to work. From 1997-2003 I had frequent seizures (I don’t black out but am incapacitated by them.) By the time my neurologist found effective anti-seizure meds (Lamictal and Keppra) my seizures had caused brain damage which resulted in my Central Pain Syndrome and cognitive losses.

Since 1997 I’ve tried, when well enough, to work. I had a brief clear spell in 2007 and coded a very playable version of ChipWits (Margaret did a great job creating the art) but was too sick to polish it to my satisfaction for commercial release. In the last few years I completed Channel Zilch and now Angry Robot is giving it a good long look.

For 18 of my 59 years I’ve wrestled with brainrot. I hate the pain and the years lost but I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

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