Pyrotechnics #38: August 1986

Editors: Gail and Jamie Hanrahan

(Please pardon the extreme lateness of my letter of comment. I am posting this to RASFF [and my web site], on the theory that the editors' address is no longer valid, but if someone can give me a current pointer I'll be happy to forward it. Or post it to your LiveJournal, or whatever you're using. Kids these days. Sheesh.)

(Also, and more seriously, I apologize in advance for any social gaffes I may make in this post. I am ignorant of pre-RASFF fan circles; I don't know who, among the people I am about to respond to, is still alive, or still married, or still speaking to whomever, or still employed, or still whatever else they were in 1986. I approach this zine with the delight and naivete of the complete cluebag.)


A month ago, I found this fanzine in my basement.

My father's basement, actually. It was my basement too, but then I went to college and got a job and my own place and stuff, so it was just my father's basement. Then he moved -- twice -- but he took his stuff with him, so it was still in his basement. Twice. Then I went to visit, and picked up some stuff. Including Pyrotechnics #38.

I don't think I ever read the zine. I must have got it at... my first Balticon? No, that was 1985. Must have been an Evecon or Castlecon. Probably. This stapled, xeroxed thing. (I didn't know from duplicators back then, and still don't.) I may have tried to read it. I must not have been very interested.

Now it's 2003, and it's fascinating. Cultural artifact exhibit 00001. I'm an East-Coast person (as you can tell from my early con resume). I've just barely heard of General Technics. I recognize a few of the contributors' names from rec.arts.sf.fandom, but most of this is brand-new ancient history to me.

Let the analysis commence.

Pyrotechnics is, it seems, the fanzine and newsletter of the "organization club mob of tech-minded fen known as General Technics". A prayer to Google reveals that GT still exists, although Pyrotechnics appears to have been inactive since 1997.

Back in The Day, of course, the letters "H", "T", "T", and "P" were rarely seen in such close company. Pyro#38 gleefully advertises that submissions can be sent "electronically via Usenet" (sic?) to {decvax,ucbvax,ihnp4}!sdcsvax!calmasd!gail. Or by 5.25" floppy in IBM format, Kaypro, etc.

Set in finest Courier. I love technology.

Articles of note:

Why Times Are Hard for Hard SF (James Brunet)

"Today, I find very little hard SF that is really good, Sturgeon's Law not withstanding. The demand for hard SF is strong; yet editors and publishers complain that not enough saleable hard SF is being presented to them. And as the quantity of hard SF has fallen, so has the quality. The Bears, Brins, Benfords, Nivens, and Vinges are all too few."

An eyebrow-raising lead from this vantage. For a start, the number of Bears, Brins, Benfords, Nivens, and Vinges publishing SF has not fallen an iota since 1986. On the other hand, the recent quality of these authors has come under considerable question -- with the exception of Vernor Vinge, who some would say didn't even hit his stride until 1991.

(To be fair, I don't know whether Joan D. Vinge is regarded as having jumped the shark. But I don't think Brunet meant her.)

Anyhow, Brunet goes on to make three points:

Point one:

Science has gotten too complicated to follow. "Twenty years ago, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN[*] was for the most part accessible to the knowledgeable lay reader... In 1960, it was possible for the educated layman to have a moderately decent comprehension of what was happening at the boundaries of physics, astronomy, and biochemistry...."

...and, in the inconceivably modern world of 1986, nobody can know much about everything. (Especially not authors, who are probably trying to hold down a day job and write on top of it.) Research costs time. You can only spend so much time researching if you want to get to the writing part. Therefore, hard SF writers bungle stuff. QED.

I'm not convinced.

That is, yes, it's true that fields of science got really specialized. I don't think they're more so in 2003 than in 1986.

(Interestingly, I heard very much this discussion at Confluence 2003 -- a panel discussion on the lag between science and science fiction. (Hal Clement, Stephen C. Fisher, Geoff Landis, Diane Turnshek, Sarah Zettel.) Same point: it's hard to keep up. The panelists didn't put forth the 80s as the Good Old Days when it was easy; that's still the 50s and 60s. So I guess we all agree there.)

(One point that did get made is that the big advances in physics were all in the 20s and 30s! The first half of the 20th century turned science upside down and inside out. Everything has slowed down since then. All these varied, specialized, detailed fields of study is what science looks like when there aren't revolutions every half-hour.)

(And the 21st century? We could be teetering towards a revolution in biology and genetics. The same kind of revolution as quantum theory and relativity? Will we open up enough half-understood new principles -- enough ignorance at the cutting edge -- to make hard SF easy, once again? Beats me. Patent lawyers may make all that irrelevant, says the cynic.)

In any case: is cutting-edge really the point? If I write a story based on really well-researched 1986 science, is that not hard SF? It's not like a whole lot has been proved wrong since then. Some things, yes. Bujold gets twitted about making stress-induced stomach ulcers a plot point in her 1986 novel. But nobody claims that the existence of helicobacter pylori lowers the quality of her book.

Really, when I see readers getting pissy about science in "hard SF" -- when I get pissy about the science -- it's never the boundaries of physics and biochemistry. It's usually thermodynamics. It's mistakes that were obvious in 1986, and in 1960 too. Blatant failures of conservation laws, or of common sense.

I'd argue that you don't need in-depth research to write solid SF. You need broad, shallow research -- that "moderately decent comprehension". Just read the headlines. Make sure you understand the headlines. (You don't have to memorize them.) Then you do the research on whatever topic is germane to your story; just like authors did in The Good Old Days.

(Disclosure of bias: I, as a reader, don't do in-depth research. I just read the headlines, and try to understand them. Naturally, I claim this is adequate.)

Point two:

"SF comes of age." Literary standards have risen. You can't get by on a clever science gimmick any more. Hard SF, whatever that is, is competing with good books. The group of people who are well-read in science is small; the group of people who are great writers is small; "the intersection set of these two groups is smaller still."

This, I think, is perfectly accurate. Every art form goes through a phase when merely thinking up a new idea, a new angle, makes you notable. That's the Golden Age. SF's Golden Age ended a lot earlier than 1986. (Well, I mean written SF. Movies and TV -- those strange, stunted, over-moneyed arenas -- have never achieved the critical mass of innovators to reach maturity. Probably never will, unless home computer production takes off... but I digress. Magnificently, I'm sure.)

Now, it's also true that SF has gotten really big. It was growing in 1986, and it's grown enormously since then. We've got N-thousand titles a year now. Surely we shouldn't be starved for writers who are both skilled and science-literate? Well, we have Wil McCarthy and Karl Schroeder and Ken McLeod floating around, Asher and Westerfield and Stross. You may disagree whether one or another of these people is a great writer, or a hard SF writer. But it's a debate. I think things are looking up.

Perhaps the mid-80s were a nadir... pardon me, a local minimum... for hard SF. Debatable, but I'll let Brunet have the point.

Point three:

Readers are too goddamn picky. "A final part of the responsibility [for hard times] rests squarely with readers of hard SF who expect too much of the genre."

Yeah, I guess we are a picky -- nitpicky -- bunch. When I posted comments on a Karl Schroeder book, it was the thermodynamics argument that dragged out over RASFW for days, not anything I said about the book's quality.

However, I can't see that this was ever a problem for the genre. Were there really enough picky readers to depress the sales of hard SF books? Seems to me like strict scientific accuracy has always been a red herring; and most readers have always known it. I can't think of any careers that have been blighted by science mistakes. Bad stories, yes; total ignorance of science, maybe; but not mere errors. If the books are good, the readers will come.

(If the books are bad, the readers will flee screaming, no matter how hard the science. Why, yes, I am thinking of Forward's Timemaster. Weren't you?)

Brunet's conclusion:

He's optimistic. "Traditional hard SF survived the New Wave, becoming stronger and more resilient.... Now, the Cyberpunk Wave is simultaneously challenging traditional hard SF while infusing a new vitality into the field. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis...." Hard to argue with that. Scientifically-literate SF now treats computers, AI, and hardware-brain linkage as topics to play with -- right alongside physics, chemistry, and biology. Stross, and earlier Egan, have poked at the idea of SF where the science is algorithmic computer theory, or pure mathematics....

"...Good hard SF will continue to be written," finished Brunet, "if not in the quantity we might like."

So it has been. And so it ever was. When have we ever had enough good SF? Of any type?

Book reviews by Barry Gehm

Blood Music: Rated as scientifically flawless, but shaky plotwise; nonetheless highly recommended. I can't add much to that, since I -- erm -- never got around to reading the novel. I read the original short story, which doesn't have the strange and meandering bits that got stuck in to bring it up to book length. From what Gehm says, he would have been happier reading the short story himself.

Bridge of Birds: Gehm says this is "an amazing piece of work," and then spends the next paragraph apologizing for recommending a fantasy novel. Humph. Let's pretend we've all learned a lot since then. He does end by saying it deserves a Hugo nomination, without any mealy-mouthing on genre. Interesting. (Unfortunately, 1986 was past the book's period of Hugo eligibility -- the earlier hardback made no splash -- so no luck there.)

A parenthetical note: "The paperback is published by Del Rey Books, which goes some way towards expiating the shameful matter of Return to Oz, referred to in the last issue." I wonder what that was about... weren't ignorable movie novelizations already standard practice by 1986?

See Spot Float: A Dirigible Design Primer (Sam Paris)

This seems to be the dirigible issue of Pyrotechnics, as everyone is all hot to fly a blimp around at ConFederation (1986 Worldcon, Atlanta). Paris gives the standard physical parameters, PV=nRT, volume and moles, hydrogen and helium.

The only comment that caught my eye was this: "Hydrogen is a slightly better lifting gas than helium, but if you thought con committees got upset about a few He-Ne lasers, wait until you tell them you want to deploy half a dozen flying firebombs in the con hotel."

Lasers were an issue? Before my time, I guess. I remember a few 1990-ish East Coast cons that had "Coherent Central", a trance/lasershow room for people to veg out in. Come to think of it, that kind of faded away. Irate committees, or just gafiation of the people who owned lasers?

Mind you, it was only 1996-ish when diode lasers turned quantum physics into an executive office toy, and 1997 when the price began to drop precipitously. In 2001, I bought a keychain laser for $8.95 at a hardware store.[**] One assumes that con committees have mellowed out on the subject.

Buoyant Spirits: A Survey of Lifting Gases (Barry Gehm)

Proves, in more detail than we really needed to know, that blimps should use helium. "...The folks in Atlanta are mighty touchy about Yankees and fire, for some reason...." It's nice to have the lifting-power of hydrogen cyanide[***] but I don't think it'll displace "speed of sound in liver" for the treasured position of Most Useless Science Fact I Bother To Remember.[*#]

Up Ship: Progress Report on Dirigible Construction (Tullio Proni)

Practice is always more interesting than theory, and process is the best part of practice. This article documents six vehicles made by Tullio and Donna Proni (with help from a cavalcade of friends and minions -- Bill Higgins, Barry Gehm, Todd Johnson, Tom Snoblen, others). These were dubbed Ishercraft 1 through 6, for reasons which no doubt bring a nostalgic tear to the eye of people who are older than me.

We have diagrams, specs, graphs of helium leakage over time, and discussions of technique. I am well pleased. This article would be a valuable resource for anyone interested in home blimpation.

Historical notes: Ishercraft #1 was a test article, "built on the spur of the moment using... garbage bags." They then spent a long time testing the assembly and sealing of larger bags. Ishercraft #2 and #3 flew at Capricon (Feb 1985); #3 (the "Hindenbag") apparently managed to impale itself on a chandelier. #4 introduced true dirigibility via two independently wire-controlled motors. #5 went to radio control, and flew at Windycon '85, with some success. #6, flown at Conclave, was larger but underpowered.

So, how did the Worldcon Blimp Project turn out? I'm curious.

Cap'n Al's Stuffed Deep Dish Pizza Recipe (Al Duester)

This here is a pizza recipe, and I just made it. Ha! We call that two-fisted comment-lettering, we do.

(Letter-commenting? Commenting-letter? Gerund? Help?)

Note: What follows is the original recipe. As I live alone, I halved my implementation.

Crust: 1 cup water, yeast, 1 tsp sugar, 4 tsp ground dill seed, 1 tsp salt, 1/3 cup olive oil, 4 cups flour.

Make the crust. I'm not going to describe the process; it's easy, find a book[#] and read up. This is a standard pizza crust, with the addition of the dill, which is a nice aromatic flavor. I recently bought a nifty new mortar and pestle, so I used whole dill seeds and went all Baba Yaga on them.

I like to knead the dough and then let it rise overnight, in the refrigerator. You don't get super gas production that way, but that's fine. It's for pizza crust, not bread. You do get super gluten development -- the dough is extremely elastic. This is good. It does (sadly) turn pizza into a two-day production, thus demonstrating the value of planning in engineering projects.

Sauce: 56 oz canned crushed tomatoes, 12 oz tomato paste, 1 tbsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, rosemary, other herbs.

Duester has a complicated sauce procedure, where you throw half the crushed tomatoes into a pot with the spices, simmer it down, and then dump in the rest of the crushed tomatoes and the tomato paste. Cook until it just starts to boil, then remove from heat. "The idea is to leave some of the tomatoes unsundered by long boiling." Not sure how much this really gets you, but the sauce did come out tasty.

(I played a bit with the sauce -- I added a small finely minced red pepper, a splash of wine, garlic. It's pizza sauce. You add garlic. If you skip the garlic, you get a permanent mark on your passport, and then they won't let you into Italy or New York City.)

(If you skip the garlic in NYC, they hit you over the head and sink you in the East River. I don't know what happens in Italy. I think nobody's ever tried.)

Cheese stuffing: 2 lb fresh mozzarella, 1 lb provolone, 1 cup grated parmesan.

Divide the dough about sixty-forty. Roll out the larger portion, and slap it into a large deep-dish pizza pan (14-16 inches). Put in the mozzarella, the provolone, and half the parmesan. Unlike with standard pizza, you here want to slice the cheese and lay it in neatly -- excess air inside the crust isn't a bonus. Roll out the rest of the crust and drop it on top. Seal it to the bottom crust, all around the edge. Dump on the sauce. Yes, all of it. Sprinkle on the remaining half-cup of parmesan.

Bake at 425 F for 30 min, reduce heat to 350 F, continue another 15 minutes. Duester recommends poking holes in the top after the first 15 minutes, to let steam escape. I just did that before baking. Sharp knife, not fork.

Now, by any sensible standard this isn't a pizza; it's a calzone baked with sauce. And it came out pretty soggy. Maybe I was screwed over by the square-cube law -- as I said, I halved the recipe, and built it in a square 9-inch baking pan. Rather less surface area per unit cheese than the recipe called for.

So, no crust to speak of. There is no conceivable way I could have eaten the result like pizza. Would have been like holding a slice of lasagna. I used a spatula and fork. Probably it would have worked better -- given my pan -- if I'd baked it for a bit before adding the sauce.

This is not to say it was bad. Oh, it was good. Nice fresh mozzarella oozing out, caramelized tomato sauce, browned parmesan on top. Good. I ate two chunks. If you're wondering why my fingers are a bit giddy in this section, now you know.

My only regret (aside from not having a deep-dish pizza pan or a housemate to split the full recipe with) is that I didn't add pepperoni. Some pepperoni inside the crust with the mozzarella; some on top, right under the parmesan. I realize a lot of people in fandom are vegetarian or kosher or whatnot. That's okay. For me, it isn't pizza without the flesh of the pig.

Movie Reviews

George Ewing hated Highlander. He has no taste.

Greg Ruffa liked Brazil. "I found it interesting in its conception and would like to see it again, but it is disturbing as well, which doesn't give it much commercial potential in 'this happy land' of ours." I don't know how Brazil did in the theaters (and we all know the story of the Absurd Cable Edit), but it seems to have staying power. You've all seen it, right?

Ruffa also comments on F/X and Short Circuit, two movies I don't care about.

The Urban Eyeball (Greg Ruffa)

Part 4 of a sub-zine (also available separately, if it's still 1986 for you). The series seems to be a survey of the visible sky, throughout the year, with lots of stuff about the stars you're looking at. I wonder if it's worth making this available on the Web, these days? There are a thousand sky-guides out there, but this one is slanted towards SF readers, and I assume it was worth reading the first time around. (Not my thing, however. I am deplorably uninterested in looking at the neat things above my head. I'll stick with astronomical photographs. Yes, Mars was nice this month.)

The lettercol

We heard from: Harry Warner, Bill Higgins, Mike Glicksohn, Greg Ruffa, Harry Warner... sorry, already mentioned him... Alex McKale, Lee Hart, Walt Willis, Bill Stoddard, Brian Earl Brown, George Ewing, Garth Spencer, Harry Andruschak, Robert Coulson, P. L. Caruthers-Montgomery... if that is your name... Cathy Doyle, Janet Fox, Richard Gilliam, Ben Indick, Wendell M. Joost, Paul Tortobici, Laurraine Tutihasi, Franz Zrilich.

(Commenters' names are highlighted in C comment format: /* ... */ Was this cool in 1986? Were the Hanrahans in the programming business? Subtext begs for explication... okay, it doesn't beg very hard.)

** Lee Hart nominates the TV show "MacGyver" for "most obviously bogus pseudo-science". Hmm. I never watched it -- that was my sister's show -- but "Stargate SG1" is doing pretty well, scientifically. Even given its premise of nigh-magical alien technology. Blame not Richard Dean Anderson for the sins of others.

** Bill Stoddard says that while the novelization of Return to Oz may have sucked, the film was excellent. I guess the previous issue got pretty bitter on the subject. I still can't figure out why anyone cares.

He also objects to Chuq von Rospach's objections to Heinlein's Job. The editor (Gail Hanrahan) then objects "on the basis that it's a bad book." I don't think I have anything to add, except that it must be nice to remember a time when people looked forward wholeheartedly to new Heinlein books.

Aha, here it is: Brian Earl Brown gives enough context to make clear that the novelization of Return to Oz didn't have L. Frank Baum's name anywhere on it! Okay, that's pretty appalling.

** Grug Ruffa (the prolific) comments on computers in SF: "So little contemporary SF deals with computers as anything more than an adjunct to human activity." Now that's a change of perspective. "It's as if the closer we get to something like real AI, the less interest there is in dealing with it as a fictional theme." Yowza.

Here in the inconceivably (-ish) modern (-ish) world of 2003, computers have transformed industrialized society... by being an adjunct to human activity. The model of "computers are artificial brains" was the cliche of computers before we had computers. The Last Question, Mycroft Holmes, R. Daneel, "[ZAP] Now there is a God." That old stuff.

The cliche has slipped away so quietly, you might not have seen it go. But do you think of your computer as an "artificial brain"? No, I peremptorily insist, you do not. Artificial memory, yes. Artificial postman, artificial notebook and sketchpad. Artificial talisman of the creation of worlds. A computer is a tool for accepting information from a human brain, and returning it to a human brain -- the same brain or a different one. In a smooth and well-organized way. Data transformations optional. Yes, a few people here and there use computers as super-calculators -- simulations, optimizations, data analysis. That's the exception to the rule, and it's still not artificial thought; it's a lever-arm for human thought.

Modern science fiction takes this for granted, because the Internet Holy Crap of the mid-90s rubbed our noses in it. Cyberpunk was starting to get it in the 80s, but... not quite. I think. (My view may be biased; I didn't read all that much of the cyberpunk canon.)

Not that there's anything wrong with AI, and there's plenty of AI still in SF. (There was plenty in 1986, too. Did Ruffa miss Neuromancer? Wasn't Gibson's biggest plot point the revelation of a manipulative AI? Or Varley's "Press Enter_", or....) But the genie-in-the-bottle is now interesting for what it can do in association with humans.

** And then, many letters about the loss of the shuttle Challenger. (This issue appeared six months after the disaster, and two months after the official investigation commission released its report.)

Greg Ruffa: "...our present state of rocket technology is standing in the way of our good intentions for reaching into space. We have gotten too comfortable with a system that has an average five percent failure rate. That's not good enough for space development... and it certainly isn't good enough for manned flight (we're about where aviation was in, say, 1910)."

Hey, I still hear that refrain today. Lesson one: The US space program has learned exactly nothing in the past fifteen years.

Okay, that's not true. I retract it. DC-X happened, and even though it didn't get into orbit, it got off the ground, for cheap. Scaled Composites and Armadillo and those folks are in gear.

What's certain is that NASA hasn't budged an inch since 1986.

Also, I notice that Ruffa says "technology" is the problem. He goes on to say we should sink money into "research into improving the reliability of rocket propulsion". Well, we're down another shuttle now, and it wasn't the rocket propulsion this time. The Columbia disaster was completely different; and yet it was the same.

I don't know whether this is the blinders of the mid-80s, or the bias of hard-SF fandom, or the General Technics crowd, or just Greg Ruffa. But what we understand these days is that technology isn't the problem -- nor the solution either. Technology is what comes out when you run your development program sensibly. Sensibly means testing -- I'm quoting a panel I just went to, at the Toronto Worldcon, on space flight -- testing designs iteratively, and testing each piece of actual hardware repeatedly. I went to that Worldcon on a turboprop airplane which must have flown thousands of times before I got on. Its design had flown probably hundreds of times before the first paying passenger got on the first commercial instance. Nobody set out to research more reliable airplane technology. They set out to build a more efficient airplane, and demonstrated that it was reliable, because what the hell good is an unreliable vehicle?

The Columbia investigation board came back last week and said NASA's management process was the problem. Check. Then Hal Gehman (chairman of the investigation board) said "Separate the cargo from the people as soon as possible." Develop a vehicle which doesn't try to be efficient, doesn't try to be reusable, doesn't try to carry cargo -- its sole mandate is to be safe.

What a crock. No vehicle in use on the planet accords to that specification, and I'm including kiddie tricycles.

Harry Andruschak: "I do not think we should buy another shuttle." (That was never on the table -- even in 1986, restarting the production process was implausible[#*].) "...because it is a total 100% failure. The shuttle was supposed to launch cargoes into orbit at one-tenth the cost of Expendable Launch Vehicles...." (Yep, no kidding.) "...Bring back the ELVs as a stop-gap measure, and concentrate on some sort of heavy-lift vehicle to get into orbit cheaply."

Well, the ELVs never went away. Anyone who wants to get mass into space (as opposed to wanting to get stuff onto the International Space Station, or onto the temporary space station that is a shuttle flight) buys a launch on a Proton or a Delta or whatever.

However, ELVs don't guarantee you cheap, any more than RLVs guarantee you safe. Right now (and even, I suppose, in 1986) heavy lift has all the disadvantages of existing rockets, plus the problem that it's inefficient for all the cargoes that are actually on the launch market.

Keep watching Burt Rutan, I guess.


"Production of this Pyro has been greatly facilitated by our acquisition of a second Kaypro.... Both machines have been upgraded to be Kaypro 8's (an unofficial designation for a machine with a new monitor ROM that'll let it use 760Kbyte floppy drives)...." I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I've already made fun of 1986 technology, and it's so unfair. (I lived in a household with an Apple //e, which I worshipped.)

The semi-humble editors apologize for how late the issue is; they were busy running Westercon. They seem pretty pleased with themselves about how that went. Since I've never been to a Westercon, I'll take their words for it.

The words "stencil cutter" and "photomultiplier tube" keep cropping up in this epilogue.

"Bill Higgins informs us that Todd Johnson has 'enslaved Teddy Ruxpin'." Furby hacking lives, retroactively!

And, invaluably for us modern retrospectors, a bunch of quotes from contemporary fanzines about Pyrotechnics. Two-point perspective allows us to see in depth....

"Best of the clubzines... near-pro quality, 'fannish'... in fact it IS an old fashioned 1965 genzine reincarnated by accident...." (Hm, so everything I thought I'd learned about mid-80s fan writing is wrong. Okay.)

"...Under the auspices of General Technics, a group of fans who still goshwowoboyoboy about technology and space shuttles and stuff... crazy ideas float around...." (Yes, because they're pumped full of helium.)

"A very good SF genzine, with emphasis on technology." (Great, but now I don't know what a genzine is. Or what a non-SF genzine would be.)

My own colophon -- me, Andrew Plotkin, I mean

I hope you have enjoyed this free-fall down the memory hole. This will not be a regular feature; I've had great fun, but I need to get back to other projects. And I've got 5/6th of a pizza still in the fridge.

And now, my recipe for pickled Twinkies.

2 medium canning jars (or any glass jars, really)
2 Twinkies
2 red plums, thinly sliced
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
a bunch of fresh mint leaves
1 cup water
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup sugar

Place a Twinkie end-down in each jar. Carefully surround it with the sliced fruit, the ginger, and the mint leaves. Save two large slices of lemon to put on top of each Twinkie.

Put the water, vinegar, and sugar in a non-reactive pot. Heat to a simmer, and stir to dissolve the sugar.

Slowly pour the hot liquid into the jars. You're pouring onto the two slices of lemon. (Because if you poured directly onto the Twinkies, they'd dissolve, that's why.)

Let the jars cool, then put on the lids and put them in the fridge overnight.

The next day, you are faced with the problem of getting the swollen, waterlogged Twinkies out of the jars without causing them to disintegrate. Good luck. I drained as much of the liquid as I could into a bowl, then got a long spoon and sort of scooped the Twinkie out with the jar held sideways. This mostly worked, but there was some cake sludge and some half-dissolved "creme filling" left floating around, and that really was unappetizing.

The Twinkies themselves were... questionable.

My hope, in this alien experiment which no doubt seeped down from the stars long before the scurrying of Man and mortal dessert upon our ancient globe, was to combine the oversweetness and blandness of Twinkies with the very fresh, yin, herbal, sweet-and-sour tang of the pickled plums.

This failed. I think it failed more from consistency than from taste. A Twinkie that turns to sludge in your mouth is nobody's good time. I suspect that a more effective approach would be to make the pickled plums[#**] and let them chill overnight; then place a Twinkie in a bowl, pour the fruit-and-juice over it, and eat it immediately. It's not technically a pickled Twinkie, but you could eat it without involuntarily thinking the phrase "emulsified 'creme filling'".

I may even test this. Someday.

...Oh, just make the pickled plums. They're good. Use more fruit. Pears, apricots also good.

(This recipe is not a sterilizing procedure, so don't try putting a jar of the stuff in the cellar for a year. Keep it in the fridge, let it infuse for a couple of days, and then eat it. You'll have lots of leftover juice, which is really good over ice, or as a granita.)

PS: You know that nice golden surface on the Twinkie, which is toasted a little darker on the flat base? That's food coloring. Hot vinegar takes it right off.

"That is not toasted which is a pallid lie; and in strange pickles...." No, perhaps not.

Enjoy. Thanks for listening.

[*: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN apparently came to the same conclusion, as it was around 1990 that they changed over to dumbed-down stodge articles and political hype. Stick to AMERICAN SCIENTIST, children; it'll make you strong.]

[**: Hey, ThinkGeek has green lasers for $120. The price drop has begun for the 532 nm toys! Excellent!]

[***: 0.082 grams/liter. "Take a deep breath, Rocky -- maybe you can float clear!"]

[*#: 1540 meters/sec.]

[#: Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest has nice documentation, repeated in prose and sequential-graphical.]

[#*: Yes, the shuttle Endeavour was built after Challenger's loss. It was made from the "structural spares" produced during the original shuttle program. I don't really know enough to judge whether this was a worthwhile decision. If they hadn't been turned into a new shuttle, they'd be sitting in storage today. The process obviously cost money, but I don't know how much it was, compared to the cost of a complete orbiter. On the third hand, the economics of the STS program are funny; most of the cost is overhead. Having one more shuttle doesn't cost much; even having more shuttle flights costs less (per flight) than you might think, compared to the overall cost of the program. On the fourth hand, the shuttles are barely used as it is; it's not like Columbia's loss leaves the shuttle fleet overburdened. On the fifth hand, this is turning into a hell of a footnote, isn't it? Let's have that statistic again: the speed of sound in liver[*#], ladies and gentlemen!]

[#**: Same procedure minus the Twinkies, you fool.]

Updated September 15, 2003.

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