Alas, Poor Harlan…

Harlan Ellison has died. Harlan was an extremely prolific writer over his lifetime and was active in science fiction fandom in the fifties before evolving into a full-time writer.
A glance at any of the stories popping up about Harlan will reveal how widespread his writing truly was: comic books, science fiction, fantasy, television scripts, movie scripts, essays about television, and perhaps a lot more we don’t know about.
While he might have been the master of short fiction and essays, Harlan never really produced the science fiction novel we all hoped for. He produced three non-genre novellas in the last fifties, but after that, we simply got the short material that was continually collected into books.
Harlan was our guest of honor at Kubla Khan in Nashville in 1977. During his rambling guest of honor speech, his topics included his promise that he had an idea for a novel that would be a national bestseller rather than just a book stuck in the science fiction ghetto. Reading between the lines, it appeared that the novel would be about a man in his thirties who has succeeded and finds that he has run out of momentum in his life – he feels lost and has no idea about what to do next. During the question and answer period, one fearless fan raised his hand and asked Harlan what the novel would be about. Harlan’s answer?
“Right, as if I’m going to tell you my idea for a bestselling novel.”
I really wish he had at least left us a note about the unwritten novel.
Harlan received a large number of well-deserved awards for his work, including Hugo awards from science fiction fans, Nebula awards from science fiction and fantasy writers, and Edgar awards for mysteries.  He also wrote two notable scripts for the Outer Limits television series: Demon With A Glass Hand, which won numerous awards, and Soldier, an episode that has striking similarities to Terminator.

The sheer volume of Harlan’s writing no doubt has influenced countless people, but perhaps his biggest impact came as an editor.  At a pivotal moment when traditional Science Fiction was challenged by the New Wave writers who seemed more concerned with literary accomplishments than the hard science stories of the past, Harlan was the editor who created Dangerous Visions.  That 1967 collection of short stories was a line in the sand that serves as a clear delineation of the New Wave through the utilization of storylines and topics that were previously considered off-limits.  Again, Dangerous Visions was a second, larger book that followed in 1972 and pushed the limits of SF stories even further away from the past.  A third volume, Last Dangerous Visions, was announced but never released.  Over 150 stories were possibly accepted for the last multi-volume set; many of the stories were later published elsewhere, and many of the authors have died without seeing either publication or being returned.  At dinner with Harlan at a DragonCon in the nineties, I casually misreferred to the volumes as the Lost Dangerous Visions; Harlan was not amused, but dinner continued (whew!)

If you’re interested in more details about Harlan’s work, you can start on Harlan’s own website.  A brief overview of his bibliography is there, and that page also links back to a lot more details on the other pages of his website.
I’ve had few heroes in my life; Harlan was one of them, and he will be missed.

We Lost A Non-Singing Musical Hero

Rock and Roll simply wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have shenanigans.  While you might take bending guitar strings for effect as normal and no big deal (unless, of course, you actually try to duplicate the effect yourself), there is little doubt that recording techniques and engineering tricks have given us some amazing sounds.

Please do NOT include autotune on any list of “improvements” in sound!

Glenn Snody was an engineer in Nashville who was working on a recording with Marty Robbins when a transformer in the soundboard went bad, resulting in a strange new fuzz tone on a guitar solo.  Marty and his producer liked the strange effect enough to leave the solo in place.  Grady Martin played the unique-sounding guitar solo starting about 1:25 into the record, and that simply has to be Floyd Cramer playing a piano solo at the start of the record.  The final result was a #1 country recording that crossed over to the pop charts and got as far as #3: Don’t Worry.

More details on the recording session and its impact can be found in an NPR article.

After demands from numerous artists who wanted the fuzz tone for their own recordings, Glenn created a box that could be used to create the sound on demand.  Perhaps the most famous single that used that fuzz tone came from the Rolling Stones on Satisfaction.

Glenn died at age 96 near the end of May, but it’s likely his legacy will live on to infinity and beyond.

Warning: Your 401k May Have A Trap!

As a result of over 45 years of working at various and sundry jobs, a few years ago I found myself with multiple sources of retirement funds waiting for me.

One insurance company I worked for in the 70s had been merged with another company which was then engulfed and devoured by another company, and I didn’t hear from them when I turned 65.  It’s not like they couldn’t find me…a simple search in Google and my name and address are very public.  I figured that somewhere along the line their pension plans had merged or been discontinued, but after researching the history of the corporate shenanigans I was able to determine which company had survived.  I made a phone call, talked to a few confused people, and eventually got a contact phone number for the company that the pension had been outsourced to.  That service company sent me a stack of papers that was pretty intimidating, but I did my best to fill them out and return them.  Naturally, they then demanded different forms and copies of all sorts of my identification forms, but eventually, I was set up with a lifetime income and a surprise: since my pension was supposed to start at age 65, they also sent me money for the months all the way back to that birthday.  The amount wasn’t overwhelming (about $150 a month), but every little bit helps.  It was really found money.

That’s pension is not what this is about, but it’s important to contact every company you ever worked for that had any sort of defined benefit that might be vested.

Beginning in 1974 it became possible to set aside funds for retirement using IRAs.  From time to time since then I’ve dropped money into multiple IRAs with different companies, and beginning in 1998 I also opened a Roth IRA.  Particularly now that there are Required Minimum Distributions from IRAs beginning at age 70 it makes a lot of sense to reduce the number of accounts to one (the tax law requires distributions from every…single…non-Roth IRA every year).  I picked one account as the survivor and contacted each of the other IRA custodians to roll their funds into that account. If you go through this step, it is important that you DO NOT have any money sent directly to you since that creates a withdrawal that is probably taxable; instead, you should direct each trustee to transfer funds directly to the survivor IRA.

I only had one Roth IRA, so I didn’t have to mess with that at all.

This left only one account to deal with: the 401k from my last employer (all previous 401k’s were closed out and transferred to IRAs when I left the former employers).  Once again I tried to simply transfer the funds into my surviving IRA, but there was a surprise: not all the funds could be transferred!

Like many other people investing for retirement, I put a portion of my 401k deposits into a fund that was essentially a money market fund (because once upon a time they paid more than a quarter of one percent).  Recently this seems a poor idea, but from January 2004 to December 2008 the total stock market return was a loss of about a half percent, so a 3% return in a money market helped moderate losses.  When I went to transfer my 401k funds to my IRA I was told I could not transfer the money from the pseudo-money market funds.  My choices: take the money out in ten annual payments (while it sat at the current minimal rates) or use the money to purchase a lifetime annuity.

Thanks to the Fed, interest rates have bottomed out in the past few years.  To get a return approaching even 3% or 4% it is necessary to invest in long-term fixed instruments like bonds or mortgages; if those investments have to be sold to allow customers to make withdrawals they may well have to be sold at a loss, so it turns out our 401k plan limited withdrawals from that bucket.

Repeating that: the 401k plan that my employer set up limited the availability of funds.  Leave your job, retire, or simply get tired of the low return on those funds and you cannot take them out except over ten (or more) years.

Taking a lifetime income would at least approach a 6% return on the funds I couldn’t have, so I took that option for the funds I couldn’t get out.  Long-term that may not be a bad idea, but it did force me to start another lifetime income before I really needed it.  All told I now already have a monthly income of $500, so at least I have enough money to pay for (sigh) health care premiums.

There was no mention of the withdrawal restrictions when I set up my 401k, and the human resources department at my former employer was surprised to learn about the restrictions as well.  I suggested that they make all past, present, and future employees aware of the problem; no word on whether they did or not.

If you have any money in a 401k at work you need to check and see if there are withdrawal restrictions on any of the funds you are using.  If there are, do your best to get the funds out of there as quickly as possible.  At the very least, make sure you don’t invest any additional funds into that kind of a vehicle; if you want to reduce your exposure to the stock market simply seek out balanced mutual funds instead of ETFs – but that’s a topic for another day.

Once upon a time in the dark distant past typewriters were manual, not electric.  No monitors, either – you pushed on a key and a metal arm flew up and hit a piece of paper and left ink on it.  If you kept typing, when you got near the end of the line a bell would sound to warn you that you were running out of space.  The Lovin Spoonful experimented with many different sounds on their records, from a jackhammer on Summer In The City to a record which used a typewriter as a rhythm instrument: Money also focuses on the process of saving and investing your money.