NerdGuy #23: Holes Under Seattle

The “Holes Under Seattle” that I describe in my upcoming novel At the Clearest Sensation (Shadowforce: Psi #4) are all real.

There really are watermains 6′ high. A lacework of steam pipes heat almost 200 buildings in Seattle’s core. (The University of Washington has a similarly extensive, if not quite as massive, system for the small city (almost 50k) that is it’s campus.) There are train tunnels underneath the city. And even an abandoned story or two of the old city now known as the Seattle Underground.

The Seattle Underground

I used to work in a Seattle theater, one of the ones that eventually helped launch the fringe movement (though it went under before it could benefit from that). A trapdoor under our stage lead to the Underground, a convenient place to lose old sets. 1. we couldn’t afford the dump fees, and 2. we were so marginal that we’d go down to salvage the odd bits when something broke on a current show.

Of course, being in the Underground, that gave us access to the rest. Well, except for little bits that had been walled off and repurposed, like Merchants Cafe (which is in the story and we used to go for dinner after closing the show each night–arriving through their front door, rather than the trap door in the floor). The famed Seattle Underground Tour shows some parts of the old city (they avoided the room that was our theater’s set “storage” for some reason).

There is one room worthy of note down there. It was set up by the tour and is a spacious enough area to stop and lecture a group. (I also attended an Anne Rice book launch there once.) Old pictures and artifacts have been screwed to the wall. The tour guides have given the tour so many times that they don’t have to look. “Behind you is a photo of the horse and buggy that drowned in a mudhole on the original 1st Avenue very near this spot.” Etc.

One day we dropped in with a couple of screw guns between tours and rearranged all of the images and displays. We didn’t take anything–nerds, not nasty. And yes, for Broadway show fans, I might have gotten the idea from Bobby of Chorus Line, “I broke into people’s houses. I never stole anything. I just rearranged their furniture.” The confusion was splendid and rippled through the tour guides hanging at the local bars for a couple days, though we never said it was us.

Newer Holes

There are a series of newer holes under Seattle. They actually trace their origin to a monorail for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. This fair was a huge deal, the first one after WWII, and they managed to preempt New York’s goal of being the first to bring them back.

A whole section of the city’s residents were evicted and the area razed (read as slums that the city fathers were sick of, so, “please leave…now!”), and the Seattle Center built in its place (including the Space Needle). Ten million people would visit this then tiny city of Seattle that summer.

World’s Fairs were to “show off the future.” As a part of that, they installed a monorail that ran above ground from the heart of Seattle (hotels and shopping) over the mile to the fairgrounds.

buchman nerdguy
Seattle Monorail near North Terminus (c) Klaus with K

The developer wanted a showcase for his product, and offered to sell the city an entire monorail system at cost. The city didn’t want  such nonsense cluttering up their skies, making Seattle a world-class traffic disaster ever since. (It can now take fifteen minutes to drive that same mile…and that’s on a good day when there’s no game or rush-hour traffic.)

Now, at HUGE cost, they are boring bus and light rail tunnels under the city that offer far less connectivity and convenience. However, they’re out of options in this geographically confined city placed on a steep hillside above a harbor far too deep to fill in (or even anchor in–it’s one of the deepest in the world).

However, there is one hole under Seattle that is particularly amazing.


The Alaskan Way Viaduct was built in the 1950s. Sort of a monorail for cars. It was a two-tiered, 2-4 laned, high-speed, twisty-assed bit of freeway that was the only relief from the disaster of I-5 once Seattle began to grow.

Buchman Nerdguy
Alaskan Way Viaduct (c) Waqcku. All that gray bit darkened by decades of greasy car exhaust fumes. It was creepy to even touch the concrete.

It shrouded one of the most beautiful waterfronts in any city under a semi-permanent gloom. Most of the area directly underneath was bathed in a constant roar from above, as well as a shower of dirt and litter. It was mostly cheap parking and homeless villages, and remained that way for the next fifty-plus years. (This from the same people who didn’t want a sleek, quietly electric monorail system.)

Then They Made A “BIG” Hole

The old Viaduct was never meant for the traffic load of eventually carrying 100,000 cars/day. There’d been no understanding of being built to survive an earthquake–and Seattle is definitely in an earthquake zone. Not a lot of little quakes there. But like LA and San Francisco, all three cities are expecting a “Big One.” So, Seattle drivers along the Viaduct often talk about holding their breath for the whole length of that 2.2 miles run. A small quake in 2001 proved that it was going to come down and come down bad if something wasn’t done.

Many ideas were proposed. My favorite was to move it offshore into a floating tunnel. Now that would have been a cool bit of technology.

Instead, they went underground. Deep underground. Two hundred feet below sea-level kind of underground.

Eight years later, it opened. Rather than trying to explain all of the wonders of the world’s largest (57.5′ diameter) tunnel boring machine named Bertha, I’ll point you to a couple of awesome videos.

A Decent Quick Overview (ignore the PR voice if you can)
I LOVE This One

Not because it’s exciting, but because it shows all of the underground planning and takes us on a ride through the virtually modeled space.

An Overview…right after it broke (for 2 years)
A Splendidly Tedious Look At How Bertha Works (too tedious?)
A Cool Little Destruction Time Lapse

They had to take it down with businesses 20′ to one side and cars 20′ to the other. Slick.

And If You Want to Waste More Time

I certainly did in writing this book, visit:

Pre-Order Now for 9/29/20 Arrival:
At the Clearest Sensation

At the Clearest Sensation

Series: Shadowforce: Psi, Book 4
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Tag: Novel

Even the best feeling isn’t always the right one.

More info →

NerdGuy #22: Dragons

No, not the cool fire-breathing kind. Sorry.

A Russian Dragon racing on Lake Como, Italy. © VYGOcommand|Wikimedia

Okay, is it utterly ridiculous for me to whimper at this point?

Sailing geeks get it, of course. Here’s a (very) brief background as to why.

Dragon Coolness

Johan Anker was a Norwegian sailor who won Olympic medals from 1908 to 1928 (the last gold was with his son and the crown prince, and future king, of Norway on his crew). So, we can accept that he knew a little about boats.

Anker & Jenkins soon became on of the premier boat design teams in the world. And Anker’s design of the Dragon became an Olympic event from 1948 to 1972.  This made it the one of the three longest running keelboat classes in the Olympics, featuring in 7 Olympics over 34 years.

Today, it is still one of the largest one-design keelboat sailing classes anywhere with over 1,300 boats registered in 31 countries on five continents.

Okay, I can feel my wife is way ready for a subject change. I sailed all the time as a kid and through much of my twenties. Her experience with sailing was staying at her mom’s tiny houseboat in Sausalito, CA, where she moved after my wife went to college. When I get on a roll about sailboats, her eyes don’t just roll, they tend to roll right back into her head.

A few definitions

A wooden Dragon, super-extra cool as most are fiberglass now. © AHunt|Wikimedia

See that big fin underneath, below the water line? That’s called a keel. Even better, it’s called a full keel. (This is one of those points that cause endless debates in bars after sailboat races.)

Compare that with this “fin” keel.

Fin keel. You get the idea, right? Paceship 23 © AHunt|Wikimedia

The full keel is really good at going in a straight line. With all of that area underwater, it doesn’t get blown sideways very easily. Whereas the fin keel offers much less sideways resistance.

On the other side of the coin, the fin keel lets you twist and turn much faster as you don’t have to slosh so much water out of your way. The Dragon is actually what’s called a “modified full keel” because the underwater part doesn’t run end to end. Ocean-going ships will typically have true, full keels because they don’t need to turn except at either end of their journey.

My lovely “Lady Amalthea”. A boat I rebuilt from 1983-1985. Note the full keel (and the pretty new paint job).

The Lady was very slow to turn, but if I was headed in just one direction, she flew!

The modified full keel design of the Dragon is a compromise between “holding a line” and “turning on a dime.”

You’ll also notice that the Dragon and the Lady were very long and lean, compared to the Pacer. Lean means less resistance to the water, which means FAST! Sure, the  Pacer 23 (23′ long) probably had berths for 3, a tiny galley and maybe a toilet. The 29′ Dragon has some room for sails down below, but not much else. The 50′ Lady could sleep six and had a galley and toilet, but it was all very tight.

Two of these boats are about sailing and one is about cruising.

Sailers, Cruisers, and Stinkpots

There are two or three types of sailors.

Those aboard Stinkpots, boats with no sails, just a motor, call themselves sailors…they’re wrong.

Cruisers aren’t in a big hurry. They’re glad to loaf along from one place to another. They’re comfortable, have the kids aboard, and are taking their hotel room with them.

Sailors who sail sailboats, especially long, lean sailboats like Dragons and the Lady, care about the ride. So what if our accommodations would make a nylon tent look luxurious. It doesn’t matter that we’re heeled over enough to be inundated by cold spray (or the occasional cold wave). We haul up as much canvas as we dare and we thrill at the ride.

Big Cruising

My wife and I once toyed with the idea of taking our kid and going sailing around the world for a couple of years. We looked at big cruising boats. Perhaps as long as the Lady, but also half again as wide.

Suddenly the narrow pilot’s berth became a kid’s room with a guest bunk. The master suite wasn’t just a fancy name for the foam and plywood top laid over the sail locker. The galley wasn’t a charcoal grill dangling off the back rail and a battered cooler.

We ended up not going for a lot of reasons (money being one of them–big boats are very spendy), but I never quite recovered from all of that cruising space. I’ll take a long, lean, sailor’s boat any day.

That’s why I think that the Dragon is one of the most beautiful boats ever built. It looks like it’s flying even perched on a trailer. I came within inches of buying one years ago. I was traveling 8 months a year, remodeling a house, and had no time to even think about dating anyone. But I found one just sitting there, so pretty, so perfect. Walking away from it was actively painful.

I Still Dream of that Boat

I sold the Lady Amalthea after three years of rebuilding her and sailing on her every chance I got. I spent two months solo sailing her through the San Juan Islands in 1984.

The Lady under full sail. I tied a rope around the tiller and she just flew. Straights of Georgia, off Vancouver, BC, Canada
The Lady under full sail. I tied a rope around the tiller and she just flew. Going over eight knots on the Strait of Georgia, off Vancouver, BC, Canada.

I changed her sail color and gave her to the hero of Where Dreams Are Born (Where Dreams series #1).

No, that’s not the “Lady” on the cover.

The Dragon that I never owned? Well, you’ll have to wait until 9/29 to find out who gets “my” Dragon. It’s exactly the one I would have bought back in the early 1990s. You can pre-order At the Clearest Sensation now to be the first to read it, or jump in and read the first three in the series before the 29th so that you’re ready for this heart-warming series ender.

a paranormal romantic suspense
Shadowforce: Psi #4


NerdGuy #21: Submarine cables

You use them every day…perhaps 100s of times.

Did you glance at the BBC news? Send a message to a friend traveling in Thailand? Look at a webcam of a wildfire in California (but you don’t live on mainland North America)?

If so, you used an undersea cable. Satellite? Nope. By comparison those are both slow and very expensive. They’re better for beaming down large blocks of programming to a massive area to be picked up by big radio dishes to feed into local cable systems (and little ones at home). Bad weather can interfere with the signal, making frequent resends necessary (it’s all done automatically, but the repeating still slows everything down).

An Incredibly Brief History

  • The telegraph really worked well for the first time in 1839. A two-wire apparatus built by a British team.
  • By 1842, Samuel Morse had dumped a wire (his cheaper system required only one and, along with creating Morse Code, made him the father of telegraphy) into New York harbor. He coated it in hemp and India rubber, and submarine cable was born.
  • By 1853, a successful cable was laid across the English Channel.
  • There are now about 450 of them, many with a dozen or more interconnections to a single cable. I should amend that, there are about 450 active cables, there are (literally) 1,000s down there. Seriously cool active cable map:
  • There are more being laid every day.
  • A cable appears to have about a 20-year life. Not that they all fail, but because technology moves so fast that they’re simply too lame to bother with anymore.
  • Cables were originally mostly owned by telegraph and telephone companies.
  • Now, most of the new ventures are owned by Internet media companies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Netflix, with some phone companies thrown in for old times sake. They are all investing billions of dollars into this infrastructure. Private enterprise is going for a 100% connected planet as fast as they can (and as governments allow). If a government chooses not to get hooked up, they’re simply be bypassed and fall off the information superhighway (a near-fatal mistake in my opinion, even just from a commerce point of view). Look at the landing points of the upcoming 2Africa cable to see what I mean:

The Cable Itself

There’s an old World War II submarine cable sticking out of a hillside not too many miles from where I live. We went to see the old anti-submarine observer tower that’s smack in the middle of a very upscale neighborhood. The cable has just been chopped off and left behind in a road cut with no indication if back in the day it was merely connecting to Boston or it stretched all the way to Europe. An insulated core wrapped in heavy armor (that’s all the twisty steel, not for conducting, just for protection). There would then be another protective layer over that, but the rubber has probably degraded out of existence (the tower is at least 75 years old).

WWII Submarine watch tower, Cape Ann, MA
WWII Submarine watch tower, Cape Ann, MA
Submarine cable at base of tower
Submarine cable at base of tower








They’re now fiber-optic thread (or a bunch of them), inside a copper tube (which carries a current to drive the repeaters that boost the signal every 100 km or so), inside armor, waterproofing, and so on. The whole cable will be only 2-3 inches across, all of it in service of a dozen threads of fiber optic each finer than a human hair.

Speed? Try 26 Terrabits per second on a recent trans-Atlantic cable. If I did my math right, that about 135 1080p (hi-res) movies per second. Or 1.3 billion hi-res pictures. Per second. That’s one cable for 1/86,400th of a day.

Now multiply by those 450 cables (despite varying speed and age), and you can see how they connect our world together.

Damage, Sabotage, and Tapping?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Every few days a cable is broken by rock slides, underwater earthquakes, or fishermen. In an extreme example in 2007, a couple of Vietnamese fishermen essentially unplugged the country. They pulled up 27 miles of cable with the intent of selling it as scrap. For over a month the country had to limp along on a single, aged cable.

Cutting a cable is easy.  The main safety against a cable attack at this time is simply the vast number of cables. To target even a significant number, at least in the first world, would be a monstrous task. In less connected countries, which may have only one or two connections, or worse yet may only be linked through another country’s cable, this is a higher risk.

Tapping one is harder, but both the Russians and the US have submarines that appear to have been specifically adapted to do this. Consider these links:

The submarine USS Jimmy Carter (with an extra 100′ section) took over duties from the USS Parche worked for the NURO, National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (part of the NRO??). And if you want to muckrake a little deeper, try this article.

Tapping them on land is trivial, as Snowden revealed in his document theft from the NSA.

This is, of course, no surprise at all to any half-decent computer tech, and it is practically guaranteed that every country is doing it and has been all along. Snowden just happened to steal a document that exposed GCHQ (the British equivalent to the NSA).

The easiest attack point is where the cables come ashore. Any sailor knows the “Do Not Anchor Here” signs of a cable crossing. They often carry power to an island along with phone and cable. But they can also be crossing oceans. There are two options about what to do with the sea-to-land terminus: hide it or fortify it. Or do both. All of the examples in my recent release At the Merest Glance are real, except for the Senegalese one. I found solutions precisely like the ones I used there, but was uncertain of the precise location it actually comes ashore there. In the book I talk about the WWII solution at Porthcurno, Cornwall, where they buried the cables and the operators inside a sea cliff.

Yes, there’s an entire, utterly fascinating infrastructure that underlies our oceans and connects our world together. I hope that it only grows.

For the Total Geek

A neat 3-minute video of how cables are laid under the ocean.

A 43-minute special on how cables are: manufactured, laid, and fixed that I found riveting despite the narration style.

All this for a few scenes in Shadowforce: Psi #3

At the Merest Glance

At the Merest Glance

Series: Shadowforce: Psi, Book 3
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Tag: Novel

Sometimes seeing is believing, sometimes it takes feeling as well.

More info →


NerdGuy Friday #20: A bit of PSI

No, I’m not talking about atmospheric pressure (pounds per square inch), the Planetary Science Institute, or even the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano). I’m going to briefly nerd out on parapsychology.

It was a hot ticket in 1970s science fiction, perhaps most prominently led by Anne McCaffrey’s To Ride Pegasus and the seven follow-on novels of her Talents Universe. Also, the famous human-draconic telepathy of her dragon series and empathy of the Dragonsigner trilogy.

At that time, there was hope, perhaps even belief, that this was the next evolutionary step of humankind. Thought psi has faded far back in popularity, it still lies at the core of some stories, the movie Looper comes easily to mind.

I think that in fiction, interest in these skills was mostly wiped out by the superhero genre of the X-men and their ilk.

A Brief Background

Back in 2016, Desiree Holt approached me with an invitation to include a romantic suspense story in her upcoming Kindle Worlds launch. I was beyond flattered. She was one of the early powerhouses in RS. It was only later when I had read several of her books that I realized quite how different our styles were.

Desiree Holt was a queen of super steamy romantic suspense mixed with telepathy. While I’m not the former, my old love for McCaffrey as a teen kept me in the plan. Plus, it was only one short novella, to which I’d never get the rights back. That was clear in the Amazon Kindle Worlds contract and I was fine with that for the promotional opportunity.

I wrote the story (more on that in a moment), and it rocketed to #2 in Kindle Worlds and remained there for over a month. I made a little money as did Desiree, which was nice, but I was befuddled by the title’s popularity. No other title from that initial 10-book launch in her world came close.

Then, Amazon shut down Kindle Worlds. The rights reverted to a story I never expected to have back. Desiree offered to republish it under her own imprint, or fully revert the rights if I removed her characters. I chose the latter and redrafted the last half of the book with new secondary characters.

The Sum Is Greater became At the Slightest Sound. And, because I can’t write just one (writing is a lot like potato chips for me), I followed it with At the Quietest Word. Now books #3 and #4 in the series are coming to complete the series. (August 25th and September 29th)

But that’s not what I want to nerd about.

PSI Powers

Psi (or parapsychology) is the study of extra-sensory perception and even telekinesis (moving stuff with your mind).

Wikipedia offers these as the primary areas of study of psi:

  • Telepathy – mind-to-mind communication
  • Precognition – knowing ahead
  • Clairvoyance – seeing remotely
  • Psychokinesis – moving stuff with the mind
  • Apparitional experiences – seeing ghosts, or sensing from their belongings

The problem I had with writing about any of these is that they’re sort of the “first idea.” One thing that writers talk about when they’re together is the “low-hanging fruit” of the first idea that comes to mind. As we advance as writers, we learn to discard the first, second, perhaps even the third idea. Why? Because that’s what comes to everyone else’s mind too. How do we make it new?

Telepathy with dragons? Empathy with fire lizards? Absolutely unique. But Ms. McCaffrey’s “Talents Universe” is an obscure body of work by any comparison. Why? I think it’s because she went right up the middle lane. This person is a telekinetic and can move things. This one is precog and knows things before they happen (even if sometimes too late). They are flawed people with challenges of their new talents putting them in danger.

So, I set out to make my characters different. Nothing magical. Not Dragonriders of Pern. But different.

A Different Kind of Psi

For the original title, I went poking around for ideas that I’d never heard of before. I’ve had a great deal to do with sound in my life. I was a professional soundman for live theater for several years. I’ve sold high-end home stereos, even redesigned the entire living room of one of my first house specifically for the best acoustics from my ridiculously tweaky sound system. I’ve studied music for years on a wide variety of instruments (regrettably with little talent and a tin ear) but I love music and acoustics.

I’d never read about acoustics as a psi talent (not that its a genre I’d read heavily, but it sounded different). Then I got to thinking about the fact that it was a romance. How could I use an acoustic psi talent to bring my couple together?

At the Slightest Sound places a Night Stalker and a Delta Force operator in the weeds of an operation gone bad. She can create little sounds to distract the enemy. They quickly discover that, with the hero’s help, she can create far bigger sounds.

But that was too easy. It had that low-hanging fruit feel to it. Add in that my Delta Force heroine can’t hear the sounds she makes, and is debilitated whenever my hero amplifies them, and I felt I finally had something interesting.

Continuing the Quest

While putting my own characters into book #1 to replace Desiree’s, my characters informed me that this was a four-book series. I’d only intended to republish that first book, but the characters had other ideas.

So, I needed more cool psi.


Well, telepathy was a pretty easy idea. So, how to make it more interesting? It’s a romance, so having it strictly connect the hero and heroine rather than being some kind of broadcast made perfect sense. But what if it wasn’t that simple?

What if… Hmmm….

In writing, we often get a character’s internal dialog as distinct from their narration. Something that they might mutter aloud to themselves if they were alone. Smooth move, Matt. Way to really not make a good first impression. (Let’s just say that was practically a mantra back in my dating days. I was never, even remotely, Mr. Smooth.)

What if one character could hear the other’s internal dialog, but not vice versa? That should make them both a bit nuts. Oh, and add a distance limitation on that ability, but not on the telepathy? Cool. That gave me: At the Quietest Word.

Seeing and Tracking

The next couple was fun. I already knew that my hero was a remote-viewer, a clairvoyant…with issues. He could go out and look places. The problem was that he had to walk his vision there–even worse, if he tried to “run” his vision, it was beyond exhausting. So, he could go and look at nearby places, but only if he wasn’t in a hurry.

I wanted to match him with a complementary talent. The heroine…is a tracker. This is a fascinating skill that the deep practitioners call an art. A trainable art, but an art. What if–a writer’s favorite question–what if it was more than an art? What if our heroine could feel where people had been? A bit of the apparitional skill above?

And what if, like my first couple, their skills could somehow augment each other, but only in a strange, fractured way?

That last was an important part for me. I didn’t want superheroes. I wanted normal people whose exceptional skills had just as many problems as everyone else has with daily life. That gave me: At the Merest Glance.

The Empath

The empath decided that she stood at the center of my team. I’m not quite sure when that happened, and neither is she. But it had been useful to her Hollywood career to know exactly who had good intentions and who were the total shits.

But I couldn’t seem to find a psi talent that would be an interesting challenge for her. That would somehow match what was broken in her, or something like that.

It was my wife who solved the problem right away. Regrettably, as I’m a bit of a pigheaded writer, she had to suggest it several times before I could finally hear it. Who better for an empath, head of a team of psi talents, than a normal human–except he was the only human whose emotions she couldn’t read.

And, as an appropriate counter gift, he’s actually very good at recognizing everyone’s emotions (despite no special skills). Everyone’s except his own, of course.

And that’s how I came up with the many skills and four novels of Shadowforce: Psi.