short sci-fi: “Mission: Survival”, by Curt Fischer – from Boy’s Life magazine, August 1988

Mission: Survival

by Curt Fischer
Illustrated by Alex Gnidziejko
from Boy’s Life, August 1988

mission survival illo by alex gnidziejko

“We need a shibboleth!”

“A what?” said Tim Donaldson, the mining foreman of Xerxes 8, a mineral-rich planet on the far side of the Milky Way.

“A Shibboleth,” repeated Harvey Wheeler. “A way to determine the identity of the enemy sooner than we do now.”

Donaldson and the rest of the group stared at him blankly. The old man, Freiberg, leaned forward on his cane, as if to speak, but then he sat back quietly. The 20 others, like Donaldson, mostly uneducated miners, began to look at the floor, not wishing to show their ignorance.

Only 13-year-old Bobby Hall, whose parents had left him with Wheeler while they visited his ill grandmother on Sagis, had the courage to ask: “How does a Shibboleth work? What’s it look like?”

Wheeler, the planet’s Intelligence Technician, smiled. He had often felt useless since coming to this planet. The mining colony put high value on muscles, not brains. Now he had a chance to show his strength. ‘A Shibboleth isn’t a physical thing,” Wheeler said, “It’s a word, a password.”

“So what kind of password?” Bobby asked. “A secret one?” “Secret passwords don’t work,” groaned Donaldson as he paced the cramped underground chamber where the final human survivors of Xerxes 8 had gathered. “You know the Ardon robotoids can tune in on all our conversations and radio communications. Our ‘secret password’ wouldn’t stay secret for 10 seconds!”

“Just a minute, Donaldson,” the elderly Freiberg spoke up. “If I remember my Bible stories correctly, a shibboleth is not that kind of password.”

“That’s right,” said Wheeler. “The term comes from the Bible, and a shibboleth isn’t secret. It just can’t be pronounced or understood by the enemy.”

Bobby beamed with curiosity. “So what’s the Bible story. Mr. Freiberg?”

Freiberg looked at Wheeler and then about the room. Everyone listened intently, knowing that the story could decide whether they lived or died.

“Well,” Freiberg began, “in the early days of the kingdom of Israel, back on Earth, a battle occurred between two tribes. But it was hard for the tribes to tell each other apart, because they looked, dressed and talked alike. Then one tribe discovered that it could identify the enemy by asking each captured member to say a certain word. You see, because a distinct sound was missing in the speech of the one tribe, its people couldn’t say certain words, like … like … shibboleth. They instead said ‘sibboleth.’”

“So you think this will work with the robotoids?” spat Donaldson. “Nonsense! The robotoids slip in among us and replace us. Like those tribes, we can’t tell them apart from us, Why? Because of their programming. They can mimic us perfectly. They could even be among us right now.”

Freiberg, the mining company’s bookkeeper, shook his finger disapprovingly. “Look, Donaldson, they haven’t beaten us until our reason gives way to fear.”

Donaldson made a vocal noise of disdain and folded his arms angrily.

“Freiberg’s right,” Wheeler said. “The robotoids can slip in and replace any of us, but as long as one of us is still human, we must struggle to survive.”

“But, Mr. Wheeler,” said Bobby, “Mr. Donaldson is right in a way too, The robotoids are programmed to be perfect. There aren’t any words in any language that they can’t say.”

Neither Wheeler nor Freiberg spoke.

“Absolutely,” Donaldson added darkly. “They know every language, every tone, every word. They even pick up slang quickly—”

“And their ability to communicate with their fellow robotoids means we can only catch ’em once,” Wheeler said sadly. “Even if we made up a word or mispronounced one, we’d only catch ’em once.”

“They have no flaws. It’s hopeless,” grumbled Donaldson.

A miner stood so quickly that his chair fell over.

“Look,” he said excitedly. “l know nothing you’re talking about! I’m not real smart. But I’m scared!”

“Me too,” cried a man behind him. “I don’t want to die! But I’ve worked with robotoids and know that they won’t give up!”

“That’s it,” Freiberg exclaimed. “They do have a flaw. Think about it. They’ve been programmed to avoid being trapped by unsolvable puzzles. But to do exactly that, they’re also been programmed to never give up in other areas—like linguistics.”

“Right,” Wheeler said brightly. Then his enthusiasm died. “But how does that help us? That’s why slang words and made-up words won’t fool them. They just add to their memory banks, searching them until the problem is solved.”

“Mr. Freiberg,” Bobby said, “what kind of unsolvable puzzle did you mean?”

“Oh, things like asking a robotoids math or philosophy questions that have no answers,” Freiberg explained. “Ask a human for the last digit of pi, and he’ll admit he can’t find it because it’s somewhere in infinity.”

“Years ago,” he continued, turning to the miners, “our soldiers could uncover a robotoid with such a question, literally make smoke come out its ears as the circuits burned up searching for the answers. Then they were reprogrammed to accept failure, so today a robotoid will laugh off such a challenge.”

Wheeler brightened. “But, as you said, they still won’t accept failure in certain areas, like language. So… we could try some other branch of linguistics, like… spelling! We can feed ’em words that have silent letters.”

“Like ‘pneumonia’ or ‘sarsaparilla’?” Bobby asked.

“As Mr. Wheeler said,” Freiberg answered, “each would work only once. We need something to make a robotoid’s ‘brain’ go into a closed loop. Something that would force it to search for an answer until it actually burned up its circuits.”

“What nonsense,” Donaldson snorted.

“How about a rhyme?” Bobby suggested.

Wheeler and Freiberg smiled.

“No, Bobby,” said Wheeler, “I’m afraid a rhyme would be a bit too simple. A robotoid would come up with countless rhymes for every word that …”

“But what if the word doesn’t have a perfect rhyme?” Bobby persisted.

Freiberg said: “What do you mean, Bobby?”

“What a bunch of hopeless fools!” Donaldson shouted. “We’re on the verge of extinction. The robotoids are picking us off one by one. They’re closing in every minute. We’re cut off from everyone else in the galaxy, and we sit here dreaming about a magic word, listening to a child.”

Freiberg inhaled deeply. “Mr. Donaldson, first of all, we are neither fools nor hopeless. We are alive, and we are thinking. That’s two advantages we have over the robotoids. It’s also the key to survival. Secondly, Bobby is in as much danger as the rest of us. That fact gives him certain rights.”

Donaldson mumbled something and moved away, but most of the miners nodded, agreeing with Freiberg.

Freiberg turned to Bobby. “What word doesn’t have a perfect rhyme?”

“Well,” Bobby began, “I’m not sure about other languages, but I remember learning that in English there’s no word that rhymes with ‘orange.’”

Wheeler rubbed his chin. “‘Orange’ as a shibboleth?” He looked at Freiberg. “Can you think of a rhyme with ‘orange’?”

“None that I can think of,” Freiberg said. “Nothing perfect anyway.”

“Can you think of one, Donaldson?” Wheeler asked, turning to face the mining foreman.

But Donaldson didn’t answer. He stood strangely erect, staring straight ahead.

Smoke was coming out of his ears.

— via Ask MetaFilter.

Moar UNCLE …

Yep, Marcus Gipps is at it again with a new Kickstarter campaign:

As part of my research into the JP Martin archives, I discovered both a biography of JPM himself, written by his daughter Stella Currey, and around 50 pages of unpublished Uncle stories which either didn’t make it into the finished books, or were heavily reworked. I’m now running a kickstarter to publish these two things in one volume of around 400 pages, which will be available in paperback, ebook or a limited hardback with the same specifications as THE COMPLETE UNCLE. The details are all here:

My latest kickstarter campaign, to publish a biography of JP Martin, creator of UNCLE, is now live!

If you’re able to back this new kickstarter, thank you very much – we’ve already hit our goal, but the more support I get now, the more copies I can print for the bookshops. And apologies if you’ve already backed, or have had this email more than once.

Unpublished UNCLE tales & JP Martin – Father of Uncle

I am, of course, already on it like stink on Beaver Hateman.

Tidied-up edition of Bourgoin’s Arabic Geometrical Design sourcebook on

b-245Just uploaded Les éléments de l’art arabe: Le trait des entrelacs by Jules Bourgoin (aka Arabic Geometrical Pattern & Design) to This is much cleaned up from the Google Books scan, which had many duplicate pages and no metadata.

This is much better than the (now returned) Kindle edition

Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design (Dover Pictorial Archive) [Kindle Edition] review

Product link: Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design (Dover Pictorial Archive) eBook: J. Bourgoin: Kindle Store

Summary: Buy the paper edition; this book is illegible on Kindle.

The original book features very finely engraved line drawings, with construction lines showing how the patterns are built up. The Kindle edition has only low-resolution scans, so the lines break down into noise and are very hard to follow. You can’t zoom in, either. The figure numbering is entirely absent from the Kindle edition, so you can’t use this book for reference. Some of the page scans are squint and partially cut off, too.

Very disappointed in this purchase. You’re better off with the paper than trying to squint at these smudgy pixels.


(unedited text as simultaneously posted to Amazon)

I’ve been waiting for this day for more than 30 years …

I really never though I’d see this happen, but The Complete Uncle really looks like it’s going to get published.

Forward to Libraries: Toronto Public Library added

If you’re starting your research on Wikipedia, you’ll need to see what books are available on a subject for further study. Previously, you’d need to trawl the references manually, but John Mark Ockerbloom‘s Forward To Libraries (FTL) service makes that a whole lot easier. What FTL does is allow you to reach into nearly any library’s catalogue search from a subject link on Wikipedia.

John’s been getting some great press on this service, so I asked him to add Toronto Public Library to FTL. Here’s how it works:

Pretty neat, huh? Try other articles, like Pierre Trudeau, Arduino or the Canadian Shield.

It’s not actually that hard to add Library resources boxes to Wikipedia articles. There’s a tutorial in the Template:Library resources box page that shows you how. Researching the locator is the most difficult part, and that gets a lot easier the more you add.


For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on UncleWiki, a wiki about the Uncle books, by J. P. Martin. It’s a very rough framework right now, but I’m adding content as I go. Please join in!

don’t overcomplicate your sloth party …

David Barnes’s new book What’s Weird? arrived today. It’s lovely.

David has an — unsurprisingly — unusual youtube channel and an etsy store. One of his prints hovers above my desk, and an original runs on my work desk.

The Real World of Scrawl

Man, this kind of vandalism really gets my goat:

You know it’s bad when a scribbler has to start using a different colour of highlighter just to make their point.

The most annoying one isn’t shown, though. In one chapter, Ursula uses the phrase “technology as a means of control“.  The in(s)ane scribbler had  overwritten “technology is a means of control“. Grar!

Updated: Augustus Carp, Esq: by Himself

I’ve updated the markup for Augustus Carp, Esq: by Himself, and now host a local copy. Apart from changing the TeX-style quotes to proper Unicode typographic one, the main change has been converting the images to SVG for added crispness.

You’ll like it. It’s all about piety gone wrong.

Save Chambers Harrap in Edinburgh

Harry writes:

As you may have heard, the historic dictionary firm of Chambers in
Edinburgh is threatened with closure by the parent company Hachette

They intend moving the English dictionaries to London and the
bilingual Harrap titles to Paris, involving not just the loss of 27
jobs in Edinburgh but the end of a publishing tradition going back
nearly two centuries.  Chambers is a Scottish and British institution
dear to the hearts of word-lovers.

Yes, the advent of free resources on the internet has changed the
world of reference publishing, but it is far from clear whether all
options for the future of Chambers Harrap have been properly
considered in what appears to be a very drastic and possibly even
underhand move by Hachette.  I feel strongly we shouldn’t just accept
this as inevitable.  Hachette should be forced at the very least to
undertake a properly full and open review of the situation first, in
due consultation with the NUJ.  If you wish to join with others in
urging them to think again, you may like to sign the online petition
at  It only
takes a few seconds.

More at and


The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

—  Philip Larkin

an end to triangular, aching thumbs …

I could use a Thumbthing. I have been known to fall asleep reading in bed, with my thumb jammed in the spine of a book. Waking up hours later, my thumb is aching and decidedly tobleroneform

indigo’s most overpriced yet

I saw the most obscene markup in indigo this evening: the Linux Format special edition was priced at a hefty $34.95. This costs £10 in the UK.

The thing is, UK prices are quoted tax-inclusive. The ten quid you see is the ten quid you pay. Not so in Canada. In the most boneheaded move ever, our prices don’t include tax, so that $34.95 really costs you $39.84 (in Ontario, at least).

According to Google, £10 is $20.53. Indigo’s markup is almost 100%

M-W Visual Dictionary Online

M-W’s Visual Dictionary Online is rather good. F’rinstance: ENERGY :: WIND ENERGY.

Update: whoa, I just looked at this on IE, and it’s an absolute ad-beast. It has been a while since I surfed with ads enabled.

take it or leave it

I got Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael from the library on a friend’s recommendation. I tried, but I don’t feel the love for the psychic gorilla.

It’s not that the wise protagonist is a psychic gorilla. I can get past that. It’s just that the conclusions are so pat. I wonder how many readers come away with the romantic notion that they’re the only Leaver in a Taker society? (they’re wrong, of course; I’m the only one to which this applies …)

I also didn’t get the “Takers need prophets” deal. if you decide to follow the ideas in the book, what is Ishmael but a prophet? A not-for-prophet?

Writers like Jared Diamond (though flawed) and Julian Cope (though fried; but at least can play mellotron) wrote it better. Ain’t but the one way, as the Drude sang.

What I did like about the library copy that I borrowed was that it had clearly made an impression on a previous reader. Crabbed on every page in tiny, infra-neat madperson handwriting was a seemingly endless thesis about something. What, I can’t tell; the diligent guardians of the Toronto Public Library erased almost every word, so I couldn’t tell if a worldview had been shattered or affirmed. Maybe it was the wisdom of the ages. Who can tell?