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August 31, 2005: Can Humor Conquer Willful Ignorance?

One of the most potent tactics in any war of words and wills is to make your opponent and/or his position laughable. The tactic is little used these days, in part because everybody takes himself so damned seriously, and few are willing to take the half-step down from seriousness themselves in order to drop the other guy all the way into the dunk tank.

The tactic has made its way into the Intelligent Design wars in a couple of truly spectacular ways. First there was the estimable Onion piece on Intelligent Falling. Gravity is just a theory, say the IF proponents, and should be taught alongside the IF theory that things don't "just fall." A higher intelligence grabs things and forces them down to the ground. As the IF crowd puts it:

"Traditional scientists admit that they cannot explain how gravitation is supposed to work," Carson said. "What the gravity-agenda scientists need to realize is that 'gravity waves' and 'gravitons' are just secular words for 'God can do whatever He wants.'"

It's a painful kind of funny, but that's the whole point: to make Intelligent Design look ridiculous. A little irreverence in the cause of scientific integrity is justified. My guess is that God has a sense of humor (otherwise how could we have one?) and Jesus laughed once in a while, probably more often than anyone is willing to admit.

The Onion, however, is the epitome of reverence next to one of the zaniest political strategems ever devised: The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Read this first for orientation, and then go to the COTFSM's own site.(Otherwise you'll definitely feel like you're down the proverbial rabbit hole.) In a nutshell: A group of ID critics has devised a patently ridiculous religion, complete with a creation mythology, and has sued to place their theory of creation in schools, right alongside evolution and Intelligent Design. I'll let you take the links for the rest of the story, because there's a larger question to consider: Will it work?

My answer is this: It will work better than anything else. Science ultimately has to stand on its own merits, and as I've explained before, religion does not have to stand against science. I happen to think that God did design and build the universe—using physics and chemistry and a brilliantly conceived set of physical laws in an emergent and comprehensible process. I've seen that view gain more and more traction recently among reasonable people, and there is hope that it will eventually become mainstream. (I would advise the more livid of atheistic scientists to just shut up for awhile and let it work.) In the meantime, the foamy-mouthed adherents of the God-snapped-His-fingers-on-October-23-4004-BC-and-made-the-universe nonsense (at 9 AM, yet!) are doing serious damage, not so much to science as to the idea of religion itself.

So it's fair, in my view, to respond with the Flying Spaghetti Monster or anything else that shines the spotlight on antiscience ID foolishness (especially the Ussherite Young Earthers) and makes people laugh in the process. It's unclear how the ID guys can fight back. It's usually futile to make fun of a comedian, and points driven home under the cover of laughter are probably remembered longer (and by more people) than carefully considered logical arguments that put everybody but the combatants to sleep. We'll see.

August 29, 2005: WLS and the Silver Dollar Surveys

I came to popular music a little later than some in my peer group, and didn't begin listening to rock'n'roll radio until 1963, when I was 11. The leading teen rock station in Chicago at that time was WLS AM (FM was still a footnote) and every week the station distributed a little one-sheeter on colored paper to virtually all local record stores. The Silver Dollar Survey had the Top 40 stack-ranked along with weeks played, and an ad for one of their DJs at the bottom.

The survey was a great promo for WLS as a station, and also for the Silver Dollar Survey show itself, the countdown from 3 PM to 6:30 PM during which they would play every single 45 on the survey. Every Friday after school we'd tear-ass down to the nearest record store (for me, a fifteen minute haul on my bike to downtown Park Ridge) to pick up the latest and find out how well our favorite songs did.

What's interesting about that era is that popular music was completely monolithic. The local AM stations sometimes injected local artists and songs into their surveys, but mostly local AM followed the national Billboard charts, and the music you heard in Chicago was pretty much what you heard in Dallas or New York or LA. There was one Top 40. When FM went mainstream in the early 70s, album rock took over from 45 singles, and popular music fragmented into a hundred different genres, some of which varied hugely from region to region.

Radio lost much of its appeal for me about that time, since I have no stomach for punk and death metal and all those other excuses for racket'n'rhythm without melody. I listened here and there, but increasingly I relied on mix tapes (and later CDs) to keep the commutes bearable. So it was with great pleasure that I discoverd the Oldiesloon site, and especially its page on Chicago Top 40 surveys. WLS rival WCFL had survey sheets too, beginning in 1966, but somehow they just didn't have the cachet of the original Silver Dollar Survey.

Another great site I discovered on Oldiesloon was The Reel Top 40 Radio Repository, a collection of airchecks (short audio clips of DJs doing their thing) including many from Chicago. Check it out.

August 28, 2005: Beating the Python Robot, Etc.

Maybe it's too early to celebrate, but we're closing in on the end of August, and I have not had a visit from The Python Robot (whatever it actually is) since August 20. All I did was add an entry to robots.txt. It seems to work, and if you see The Python Robot in your Web stats, read my August 21 entry and do what I did.

While we're talking Web stats, I've been watching another interesting phenomenon. Back in May, I was getting telemarketing calls from something called The Dove Foundation, a phony charity that is actually the fundaraising arm of a semipolitical effort to create "family safe" versions of movies. I smell a rat there; my guess is that not all of the money goes for film editing—but let it pass. What's interesting is that The Dove Foundation's phone number has been climbing in my Web stats list of search keyphrases ever since I cited it in May. It's now #4. This can only mean that they've been pestering more and more people, who then turn to the Web to try and figure out what they're dealing with. This reinforces my belief that there should absolutely no exceptions to the Do Not Call list; not churches, not political organizations, not charities, nothing. Their right to free speech does not include the right to insert their words pre-emptively into my ears through my own telephone. Let 'em buy a megaphone and hang out at the park.

The list of search keyphrases is an interesting gauge of what people are looking for when they come to my site through search engines. Here's the Top 10 as of this evening:

tom swift
jeff duntemann
excuse me while i kiss this guy
radio jingle
tom swift jr
paper kites
kite winder

For the puzzled, let me add a few notes:

  • Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy is a little book of mondegreens, which are misheard song lyrics. The book is hilarious. I reviewed it years ago, and it's been a top search phrase ever since. Don't know why.
  • The mc3362 is a Motorola cordless phone chip that has been used in a lot of interesting ham radio circuits. I built a little FM transceiver with it about ten years ago, and it's apparently still hugely popular, even though they haven't made 49 MHz cordless phones in five or six years, maybe longer.
  • My article on Hi-Flier kites is also very popular, and includes a picture of the inexplicably coveted Spinwinder kite string winder. People read the article and ask me if I want to sell mine, and I don't even have one.

August 27, 2005: Shooting Widows and Orphans

Whew. For several days I've been plowing through my SF novel, The Cunning Blood, preparing it for publication. I had several pages of notes from myself and several of my beta testers, indicating what might be improved without wholesale rewriting. The story is 144,000 words long, so it took some doing. Fixing typos and even catching continuity flubs here and there wasn't all that hard.

The tough part was shooting all those widows and orphans.

The Cunning Blood was a deliberate learning experience for me, as first novels invariably are. Still, I was attempting to learn more than most novelists do. While the manuscript was off sitting on the shelves of one New York publisher or another, I was laying it out in Adobe Indesign, to get a sense for how the manuscript translated into a "real" book. I've done this any number of times with computer books, and it really helps to be able to relate the raw text that comes in from an author (whether the author be me or anyone else) to the final pages that go to press.

ISFiC Press will be working from my layouts, mainly to save the time and expense of laying it out again. That means, of course, that the layout has to be mighty clean. Beyond typos, "clean" in a layout context means not allowing single lines at the bottoms of pages (widows) or at the tops of pages (orphans.)

This is not as simple as it sounds, especially in a novel, where there are fair number of three and four-line paragraphs. Pulling up or pushing down a line can often be done by increasing or decreasing "kerning," which is the distributed space in between a paragraph's characters. If a paragraph has only one word on its last line, reducing the kerning even a little will often compress the paragraph to the point that the lonely last word will pull up into the previous line, which also pulls up all the paragraphs that follow by one line. Similarly, if a paragraph almost completely fills its last line, you can increase the kerning slightly and one or more words at the paragraph's end will push down into a new line, which also pushes down everything that follows by one line. If you're skillful, you can use kerning to pull and push widows and orphans into oblivion. The goal is to split no paragraph across a page boundary such that one line is all by itself.

Kerning works best when you've got fairly large paragraphs on the page, because kerning changes are cumulative across all characters in the paragraph. Large paragraphs give you something to work with. Short two and three line paragraphs (as you often get in a run of dialog) do not have the internal room to change much by small changes in kerning, so sometimes you actually have to delete, change or add words. Worse, changes in line position on one page can affect line positions on one or more (generally more) subsequent pages. Shoot a widow here, and she can pop up again three pages down. Ditto orphans. Sometimes it's like Whack-a-Mole where the moles are lines of text. Changing something here can wreak havoc there. Across 356 pages, it can make you nuts.

That's why it's been a couple of days since you've heard from me. I finished my notes pass a few hours ago, and will make one more pass for typos and font errors. At that point, the layouts will be ready to print, needing only the indicia (typogeekspeak for the legal page) and the addition of a cover, which I will gladly leave to ISFiC.

The book could appear as early as Thanksgiving. More as I learn it.

August 24, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Wired reports that a team at Cornell is using X-ray fluorescence techniques to reconstruct images of inscriptions carved in stone that have weathered past reading. Definitely click to the images. I flashed on the very first Tom Swift, Jr book I ever read: Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope (1959) which was about that very same idea. Tom invented a machine that bounced some sort of radiation off stone walls in a Mexican tomb, revealing UFO-inspired carvings that had worn away long before. Now, will somebody please invent Tom's Repelatron!
  • Pete Albrecht turned me on to this, which is not only the world's biggest Earth-chewing machine ever built, but damned well ought to appear in a monster movie. Godzilla vs. Der Baggerfuerer? Damn, I'd pay to see that. It's been done before on a smaller scale. Did anybody but me ever see Dinosaurus in 1960? The best scene was a T-Rex duking it out with a steam shovel.
  • Also from Pete comes a pointer to a sort of virtual Dymo labelmaker. When I was 12 I won a low-end Dymo unit at a neighborhood picnic, and spent the rest of the summer sticking labels on everything and anything. I used that damned thing until it fell apart several years later, and never found anything nearly as good until the current generation of white-tape labelers showed up about ten years ago. Note the links at the bottom to a tombstone generator and a church sign generator. Oh, the possibilities...
  • I didn't want to say anything before for fear of jinxing the project, but now it appears pretty certain that my novel The Cunning Blood will appear from ISFIC Press in late November. This is a startup SF/fantasy publisher without much of a Web site yet, but I'll have more to say about it (and my novel) in the next week or so.

August 23, 2005: Why DRMed Music Is Selling

I'm amazed: People are happily paying for music of which they have no ownership and little control. Legal music downloads are booming, even though the songs are heavily encumbered by DRM systems and sometimes can't be moved out of player devices or burned to CDs. In some systems, when you stop paying the subscription fees, the music that you already have goes away.

Why do people tolerate this? Earlier today I think I figured it out: Downloadable music consumers do not bond strongly with either bands or songs. I asked one of my nephews this summer if he was still listening to a band that he was crazy about a few years ago. He said no; he was on to something else, a new genre of music with a whole different feel.

Contrast that to the Baby Boomers, whose musical tastes for the most part remain what they were thirty years ago. I still have most of the CD's I bought when I bought my first CD player in 1985. Hell, I have 200 pounds of vinyl in boxes in the basement, some going back to 1964, when I first had pocket money to spend on it. I still like all the bands and songs I liked when I was 14. My music follows me across technologies: I had vinyl, I had CDs, and now I have MP3s. If the dominant music storage technology changes in the future, my songs will follow. No way am I going to surrender the right to keep the music I like with me, store it as I choose, and play it when I want, where I want.

The way I sense that things have gone, people who are into modern music primarily want something that belongs to their current favorite musical genre running in the background all the time. The specifics are less important than the general tenor of the music. They're constantly looking for new material, and as they leapfrog from one hot band to another, the old material falls by the wayside. There is no shortage of new material. In fact, there's so much new music available that no one person could ever listen to all of it, or even to a significant chunk of it.

That hasn't always been so. It was tough and expensive to cut a record back in the 1960s, so there were a lot fewer records issued, and fewer still played on the radio, which was the only place you could hear and thus develop a taste for them. Today, making professional-quality CDs is something you can do in your spare room and sell over the Web. In a sense, the massive choice made available by the Net has spread loyalties out across so many bands and songs that no single band or group of songs has a strong hold on anyone anymore. Today's kids have such a wealth of choice that they fill up their players, hook them to their belts and simply let the music flow. It's the difference between scarcity and abundance, or between ordering beer by the glass and just piping it in.

Maybe I'm wrong, but that's how it looks from here, and that's the only way I can understand how people can "rent" music that stays with them for awhile and then goes away. Will people be listening to 311 or Catatonia in thirty five years? (Sheesh, do people listen to them today?) We'll see. Me, you can pry the Peppermint Trolley Company and the New Colony Six out of my cold dead hands. Ditto The Association and The Grass Roots, for now and always. Scarcity leaves its mark on you, and I always read the label on the wine bottle.

August 22, 2005: Gallery as Free, Server-Side Photo Manager

As I've mentioned here before, I've been interviewing server-side photo manager programs, and yesterday I finally found a keeper. The program is Gallery, and of the four programs I tried, it was by far the easiest to install, and looks the best. To show you how it looks, see my new photo page, which currently contains a gallery of QBit photos. As time allows I'm going to post additional albums, at very least one summarizing the construction of our new house.

Gallery is written in PHP and is cross-platform, skinnable, and configurable for either personal or group use. You can set it up to allow voting and comments on photos. (I decided against that for various reasons, comment spam being the most important. You can always drop me an email.) If your hosting service supports PHP 4.x and provides either NetPBM or ImageMagick (these are image manipulation libraries) you should be able to install it. You don't need MySQL, and Gallery can be installed on either Unix/Linux or Windows servers.

Like many similar programs, you unpack the downloaded product archive onto local disk, allowing the archiver to create the directory structure specified in the archive. Then you FTP the product's whole directory tree up to the appropriate place on your hosting site. Once it's up there, you point a Web browser at its index page, and the configuration wizard pops up automatically. You run through the wizard, save the config file, and you're done.

There were some oddities in the install process:

  • You have to manually create empty .htaccess and config.php files using a plain ASCII text editor and store them in a specific directory before uploading the tree to the server. I simply don't understand why this has to happen as a separate, manual step.
  • The configuration wizard guessed a couple of crucial things wrong, for reasons that defy analysis. Even though I had created an albums folder where the doc specified, it guessed that the folder was somewhere else on the site, where no folder named albums had ever existed. Go figger.
  • Relevant to the previous, you may need to know the full physical path (on the server box) to your photo album folder, and not just the relative path from your domain folder. Gallery guessed this wrong, and as I had never needed the full physical path to anything on my site before, I had to do a little investigating.

Basically, you have to be a little technical to install it (this includes understanding how to use chmod) but you don't have to be a server-side wizard. You do have to have some patience and be willing to closely read what doc there is.

I'm sniffing around for a skin that looks a little less lollypoppish (as do all of the included skins) but for the most part I'm extremely happy with it. Highly recommended.

August 21, 2005: What the Hell Is the Python Robot?

For the last several days I've been watching something on the Web stats that I really don't understand: Something called The Python Robot is visiting and apparently spidering my site every few days—and sucking seven times the bandwidth that the Googlebot requires to do the same thing. Just yesterday, The Python Robot visited and used 341 MB of bandwidth. This is odd, because my entire site only represents about 50 MB of files. Googlebot uses 50 MB of bandwidth on its visits. This makes sense, as they index images as well as text, so the whole site is fair game. But I don't have anywhere near 341 MB of data mounted up there.

What is that damned thing doing?

A quick Google scan indicates that others out there are having the same problem, and have been since 2004 at least. At the advice of this page, I created a robots.txt file containing the following:

User-agent: The Python Robot
Disallow: /
This will (theoretically) forbid the bot from reading any files anywhere on the site. According to this short writeup, The Python Robot is supposed to respect robots.txt, but only time will tell. I'll keep you informed. In the meantime, if any of you have had experience with The Python Robot or know anything crisp about it, please drop a note.

August 20, 2005: Cursives! The Palmer Method Strikes Again!

While passing through the Denver airport on my way home from Sacramento this past Thursday, I saw yet another IBM/Lenovo kiosk demoing the spectacular Thinkpad X41 Convertible. Wanting to stand still for a few minutes and settle my stomach after a white-knuckle descent through a front-range rainstorm, I stopped by and messed with it a little more.

I'm intrigued by handwriting recognition, though I don't expect to use it much, as my handwriting looks like the path of a drunken earwig on a dusty table. So I took the stylus in hand, and wrote a line of inconsequential text twice. The first pass was in my usual fast printing, which I've done with great success since my college blue-book era. The other line was the same text, but in the best cursive handwriting I could muster, which was almost illegible even to me, and I knew what it said:

IN 1948, MY GRANDFATHER GOT AUDITED. (This an old Morse Code practice phrase.)

Click the button. Wham! The X41 processed what I had written, and recast it in TrueType Arial. Alas, it got the printing version of the line completely scrambled. It considered the initial word "in" to be a graphic, and turned it into a vector drawing. Of the rest it got about half the letters wrong. On the other hand, it got every single cursive character correct, even though the handscript was small, very slanted, and (to my eye at least) pretty damned miserable.

Whoa. The X41 could read my writing better than my printing. I hadn't expected that. I heard some distant laughing around an invisible corner, and knew that Sr. Marie Bernard was having a good one on me. Back in sixth grade in 1963, this elderly, sardonic nun had drilled us mercilessly in something called The Palmer Method of Business Handwriting, expressed in a bright red landscape-format workbook that looked like it had come out of the 1930s. (Naw. It was actually 1912.) The Palmer Method was not just instruction in the shapes of cursive letters. It was practically a spiritual discipline. (Catholic schools loved those, heh.) There was breathing and relaxation and endless practice of loops and strokes. The gist of the Method was that you rested your writing arm on the pad of muscle halfway between your wrist and your elbow, and used motions of your arm and shoulder to form the characters, without moving your hand at all. Of course, some of us were so skinny that there was no "fleshy pad" to rest our arms on, so we just rubbed our elbows raw and did our best.

For the next three years (until I graduated from eighth grade) I had really beautiful handwriting. But once I stopped practicing with that red workbook, and (more to the point) once I had to write very very quickly to finish exams on time, my handwriting deteriorated badly. By the time I got to DePaul University, I had switched to an even faster method of printing that I devised on my own. It wasn't fantastic, but at least it could be read, and I could produce it very quickly.

So now I'm planning to buy a computer that knows the Palmer Method better than it knows plain block printing. Oh, the humanity! Or, as Sister would have said: "The very idea! To think that printing is better than Palmer Method! Jeffrey, do you think you're still in second grade?"

August 19, 2005: A Gizmo Challenges Skype

Some people have a knack for getting on my bad side even while earning some grudging admiration. Michael Robertson is one of those people, and a lot of the things he does are like fingernails on the blackboard. I still grin, however, at the way he suckered Microsoft into giving him a billion dollars' worth of free PR by suing him over the Lindows trademark. ("Right men" like Gates & Ballmer always fall for this trick. They're genetically unable to allow themselves to lose the little ones.) Linspire is now very well-known and often considered the easiest-to-use Linux distro, especially by people who've never used Linux, if you get my drift.

He also created NVu, a Web layout tool with which I am increasingly impressed.

Well, Mikey is hard at work again, this time on something that looks genuinely useful to me: The Gizmo Project, and its back-end enabler, SIPPhone. Gizmo and SIPPhone work pretty much the way that Skype and SkypeOut work: They provide free, high-quality VOIP calls between clients, and low-cost bridging to the telco network.

Gizmo looks slick, and I'll report on how well it works after I use it for a bit. I like it because, unlike Skype, it uses SIP, a well-understood industry-standard non-proprietary routing protocol. Admittedly, SIP has a problem that Skype solved by going peer-to-peer: Skype can get get around NAT routers much more easily than SIP, which is an RTP-based point-to-point protocol. This will resolve over time. Newer routers are being designed to understand SIP as a special case with respect to NAT, and there are some admittedly haywire workarounds like STUN, which is a form of UDP proxy.

Broadband IP has the ability to transmit any kind of data within the framework of a "call," and by building a system on open, well-understand industry standards, whatever system we build will be able to evolve quickly as the technology turns up newer and better ways to move certain kinds of data. Sooner or later, Gizmo will carry IM, audio, video, and file transfers. (Things like Gizmo will grow popular as file-sharing venues over time, and will become yet another headache in the collective empty heads of Big Media.)

Basically, Michael Robertson is doing this the right way. If you passed on Skype, give this one a try. As I said, I'll pass along my reactions after I've had some time to fool with it.

August 18, 2005: Mambo the Whatsis

Back in the Springs. Several people have been whispering to me recently (in the wake of my discussions of Aardblog): "Go look at Mambo. Go look at Mambo..." So once I got back to a broadband connection that actually works, I went looking for Mambo. I found it easily enough, and clearly, it's quite the thing.

So. Ok. What the hell is it?

My gripe is simple: It's very difficult to tell precisely what Mambo does nor how it's generally used. I know that it's a template-driven content management system (CMS), and there is an extremely sparse little article on the Mambo main site explaining that Mambo is...a template-driven content management system. It looks like the sort of thing you create all-purpose portals in—precisely what I would use if I were to mount and promote my domain

But can it do good blogs? Class reunion sites? Web stores? Who knows? Its fans consider it completely obvious, and that's a geek trait that's driven me batty for thirty-five years. I'll continue to poke around, but there really isn't any excuse for this sort of thing. The front door should be right there, with at least five thousand words and pointers to about thirty representative sites, with screenshots. Millions of man-hours have been sunk into Mambo already. Can't they use a few of those man-hours to tell the world what they've worked so hard on?

Programmers. Sheesh.

August 16, 2005: Jim Rankin, Requiescat in Pace

I'm in Sacramento for a couple of days on a sad mission: Saying farewell to a close friend, and fulfilling a promise I made to him with no least understanding that the debt would be called in this soon.

Jimmie Ray Rankin died last week, on the 9th of August, at only 63 years of age. He died in his sleep, without trauma, and his sister (who found his body) told me in tears of the radiant smile that remained on his face in spite of death. That didn't surprise me too much. Jim beat the Bad Guy in high style; whupped his ugly ass, in fact, and found the God that he had sought all his life. Like me, he believed less in eternal rest than in eternal challenge—he was a writer and a preacher and a mind always in furious motion. I hope God has something for him to do, because he suffers boredom badly.

Just as Catholics choose a new name on their confirmations, Old Catholic bishops often choose a new name on their consecrations, to reflect their new identity as the caretakers of the Catholic faith. Jim chose the name Elijah, and that is how most people on the Internet (where he was most visible) knew him, as Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church.

It was an odd thing, but almost simultaneously back in 1998, I met two of the most formidable men of the Old Catholic Church: Bishop Elijah of San Francisco and Fr. Sam Bassett (since made a bishop as well) of Santa Clara. The two of them roped me back into Catholicism after a lonely 20-year wander through agnosticism and various odd corners of the New Age. Privately, I sometimes think of them as the Hounds of Heaven, who (separately and without much apparent effort) made it clear to me that I was God's own and could not be taken from Him by any power in Heaven or Earth.

Fr. Sam taught me that faith requires rigor; and Bishop Elijah taught me that faith requires discernment. Not every damfool notion one might have about God has value. Jim chewed me out here and there for surrendering to odd ideas without adequate reflection. Faith is often a struggle, but it is never passive acquiescence to the first solution one finds to difficult and cosmic questions. There is such a thing as Sacred Tradition, and it must be respected, and if we challenge it, we had better be ready for a lifetime of wrestling with the wisdom of those who have gone before us.

On the other hand, when the ashes of Coriolis were piled up around my ankles in 2002, and 12 years of hard work seemed to have vanished without a trace, he sent me a little vial of holy oil that he had blessed (via FedX!) and told me to anoint myself, start healing, and get back on track. God allows us sadness, but He does not allow us self-pity.

He used to tease me on occasion about my enthusiasm for the very eccentric Old Catholic movement (which he also embraced) and referred to me once with a grin as The Only Known Old Catholic Layman, a silly title I will wear with honor in his memory.

Jim was also a publisher, and his Dry Bones Press used the emerging short-run print-on-demand technologies of the late 1990s to publish books that would never have reached print in the days when a 3,000 copy run was considered a minimum viable effort. I hope to republish some of his Old Catholic Studies series once I get my Copperwood Press up and running. He willed me the copyrights to all his books and asked me to shut Dry Bones Press down gracefully in the event of his death. He was not the healthiest of men, but we had been exchanging long and lively emails until two days before his unexpected passsing. So it was with considerable shock that I learned of his death this past Sunday, and I caught the first flight I could to Sacramento, to honor his life and fulfill the promise I made him two years ago.

Unlike many Protestants (who fret endlessly about whether God will toss them in the fire) Jim and Sam and I were and are confident about our role in the world and our ultimate (and, I feel, inevitable) reunion with God. To us, salvation is not an event but a process, begun and enabled by God but facilitated by the power of human friendship and a willingness to reach out to the lost and confused. Jim helped me get my head around the notion of God—and Sam is still out there urging me on. In each life, I think, someone eventually stands face to face with us and demands that we pay attention and get on the path. So it happened with me. Jim Rankin, Bishop Elijah, who got in my face and hauled my ass back into the Faith, is now face to face with the Ground of All Being. If someday some confused person comes to me and asks me which way is the Way, I hope to God (truly!) that I can give as well as I got.

August 15, 2005: A Letter from Ma to the #1 Bum on V-J Day

The day after Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted, along with all of his friends and cousins who were of age. This gang of fifteen-odd random Chicago kids scattered to the far corners of the world during the War, but one thing held them together: My grandmother's Underwood typewriter. Throughout WWII, Sade "Ma" Duntemann called them The Bums, and (almost) monthly published The Bum's Rush, a one-sheet newsletter carefully typed in two columns and run off after hours on a mimeo machine at the First National Bank downtown, where my grandfather Harry "Pops" Duntemann was a bank officer. She drew (or borrowed) little cartoons, and once enclosed a copy of a photo of the pool table in their basement, where my father and his buddies had hung out before enlisting. The newsletter held all the neighborhood gossip, and when possible descriptions of where the Bums were and what they were doing. The January 1945 issue described how my dad's younger cousin John Phil Duntemann (still living in Des Plaines, Illinois) lost a toe when a greenhorn trainee backed T-5 John's own bulldozer over his foot.

Five or six years ago, my sister and I unearthed something else: A private letter to the #1 Bum (our father) written by Sade on that same typewriter. It began on August 14, running on to the 15th, and it was a first-hand account of the gathering expectation and then the pandemonium in Chicago when news came that the War was finally over. It's as close to a time machine as I'll ever find. I cannot read it without hearing her voice, and the shouts in the street, and the church bells, the car horns, and the laughter and the joyous relief beginning a block off North Clark Street in Chicago, and spreading throughout a tired and grateful world. I knew a lot of these people, though most are now gone. I also know and appreciate what they did, so if they went a little nuts, and got a little drunk and silly, well, they earned every second of it.

Don't try too hard to sort out the names. Sis was my Aunt Kathleen. The Marks ("Marxes") were cousins. John Malone was my dad's best friend and (later) his best man, and the families were very close. Most other people mentioned were neighbors. Willie is the mongrel dog my father later smuggled home from Africa, which is a wonderful story I will tell on the anniversary of my father's return from the War.

Sade Prendergast Duntemann was very Catholic and very Irish. She tried to infuse her letters with some of that Irishness, and if you're not used to reading Irish dialect, it may be confusing. So what I've done is prepared three copies, and you should attempt them in this order: Look at the scanned images of the letter (it's faded and hard to read, but at least scan it) then read the literal transcription. If you can't figure something out, then read the third version, which I edited a little for comprehensibility. "Demoni" means "tomorrow" in Italian. And I have absolutely no idea where Kernenyok is!

Image, Side 1 (521K) Image, Side 2. (567K)

Literal transcription.

Edited transcription.

I can add nothing to that. I'll only say that when I was ten and my grandmother's health was failing, she gave me that old Underwood typewriter, and I furiously pounded out stories on it for almost ten years until the keys started to fall off. I didn't appreciate it at the time (How could I? and what 10-year-old ever does?) but no other gift apart from Carol's gift of herself would ever change me more.

August 14, 2005: The Greatest Bluff in History

My August 7, 2005 entry on Nagasaki triggered a fair bit of mail, most of it in general agreement with me. Nothing, however, came even close to what I received from my old Clarion SF workshop buddy George Ewing. I'll quote it here almost verbatim, on this the eve of the 60th anniversary of V-J Day:

Nagasaki was one of the greatest bluffs in history, and Truman got away with it.

We had three bombs....period.

Little Boy, the gun-type U-235 bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was so simple it didn't need to be tested. However, the Y-12 and K-24 buildings in Oak Ridge, running flat out 24-7 for two years, using 10-15% of the total electric power in the entire US and Canada, produced enough WGM (weapons-grade material) for one bomb, plus a few grams for lab work. There was a good chance there might be enough for another by Christmas—Christmas, 1946, that is.

Hanford could theoretically produced enough PU-239 for 2-3 bombs a year, and maybe could be scaled up to a half dozen or so eventually, if the war lasted long enough. However, the design was so bizarre and demanding, it had to be tested, Hence the gadget tested at Trinity, Almogordo, NM in July '45. It worked, and Truman got the word at Potsdam.

Now we had 2 bombs left, and hope of a couple more in a year or so.

There was no doubt that Little Boy was going to be used. Atrocity stories about mistreatment of POWs and civilians in the Phillippines and China were coming out, and the German death camps were still fresh news. Besides, the sucker cost 2 billion bucks, in the days when a destroyer cost 8-10 million.

Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, and worked about as expected; yield was 15-18 kilotons—less than Trinity, but still a helluva bang. The fallout and radiation casulties would turn out worse than people had expected, but news of that was slow coming out.

The Japanese physicists weren't stupid—they had fallout samples to analyze in a couple days. "Wow, enough uranium for a bomb! Damn thing must've been as big as a truck...probably cost more to build than the Yamato. Even the Americans can't have more than a couple of these. Anyway, the napalm raids on the Tokyo suburbs killed ten times as many people....tell the Emperor...."

We were down to one bomb, now. So Truman says, either you guys agree to the Potsdam declaration, unconditional surrender,  no bullshit about amnesty for war crimes or protecting the Emperor, or we will rain these things on you until there's destruction like the world has never seen, and we will keep on doing it until you are annihilated!

Fat Man fell on Nagasaki a couple of days later, and was a good deal more powerful than Little Boy at Hiroshima. When  they got the fallout samples, the Japanese scientists shit bricks. "An entirely different design, using a different fissionable material that doesn't even exist in nature in trace amounts!" They figured that these were just prototypes, and the damn Americans were just getting cranked up for mass production! What would be next? Fusion? Carbon cycle bombs? Truman's speech had said in English, "The energy that powers the Sun itself."

Japan surrendered, and we had no more bombs. About 3 were scheduled to be ready for Pacific testing about a year and a half later. They say Truman was a heck of a poker player, too...

Fersure, and it served him—and us—well. It took another fifty years for it to dawn on the world that nuclear fission is God's way of saying, "Don't make me come down there!"

August 13, 2005: Odd Lots

  • I'm a sucker for weird airplanes, and Pete Albrecht sent me a pointer to a doozy: The Bel Geddes Air Liner #4. Created by the quintessential interwar Art Deco luxury stuff designer, Norman Bel Geddes, the #4 was basically a flying cruise ship, imagined in 1929 as a monstrous flying wing 528 feet across. Unlike modern jetliners where you get four square feet if you're lucky, the #4 had staterooms, restaurants, bars, and an orchestra. It was a seaplane, as were many large conceptual craft back then—where else do you land them? Reading the specs, I have to wonder if the damned thing could even get out of the water, irrespective of its 20 piston engines generating 38,000 horsepower. But imagine cruising from Chicago to London at 100 mph and taking 42 hours to do it! (Waiter! Another martini, dry! And hand me my binoculars! I think I see the Azores!)
  • I spent a week in Japan in 1981, and I've been saying for 25 years that Japan is the weirdest place on Earth. Nobody who hasn't been there believes me, because the media has painted a picture of the Japanese people and their culture that just doesn't correspond with Japanese reality. If you want to get a flavor for that weirdness read these essays. It's about a Black American teaching English in Japan. Some of it is funny, but most is just...weird.
  • Yesterday's puzzle is simple: 2.48 miles is four kilometers. Somebody translated a story (I think from the French) and the gunner was talking about a hovercraft 4 klicks off the shore from the gun battery. You can't just wiggle a slide rule and swap out numbers with false precision. You have to think in Metric, or think in English, and tell the story accordingly. I told my entire novel in Metric, figuring that by 2348 we'd have abandoned inches, feet, miles, and furlongs. I hope I'm right.
  • There is a tiny little town in Austria named...well, I can't you what it's named. All I can tell you is that the sign coming into the town is very popular with American tourists.

August 12, 2005: Jeff & Carol's Vague Buffalo Spaghetti Sauce

Carol and I have a fair number of cookbooks, and when preparing supper I'm always amused at the precision with which ingredients are often specified. Five cloves. Not six. Not four. Not "a few." Five. Chopped onion is metered out in fractional ounces. As anyone who's done any serious cooking knows, all but a vanishing few recipes are very rubbery. I can only assume the cookbooks cater to people who engage in a sort of magical thinking, in which what is going on matters less than the ritual required to do it, until what is actually happening becomes a hushed mystery. Cooking is taken very seriously in some quarters and I often have to strangle a giggle at how reverent people can get about their food, and how compulsive about their recipes. Five cloves, you heathen! It says five cloves! How can you even think of using six!??!?! (For a guy who invents hyperdrives every other month whether he needs one or not, well, it's easy. And I like cloves.) In voicing this objection among friends who cook, one sage (sorry) comment was that you have to say something about quantities. Food scales are calibrated in ounces, so you measure chopped onion in ounces.

I guess. But four and a half ounces of chopped onion? This reminds me of a bad SF story I read decades ago (I think in a fanzine) in which the gunner objects, "but they're at least 2.48 miles offshore—we don't have that kind of range!" (Can you guess how this came about? Think.) Recipes, like wine, are goofy things that should not be respected, lest they generate more pretension in a world that already has more than its share. One should make fun of them (and wine) as often as possible. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy both.

As I write this, another batch of Jeff & Carol's Vague Buffalo Spaghetti Sauce is out on the back deck, cooling. I am going to present a perfectly useful (and actually marvelous) recipe that contains only a single number: One. It's the recipe that I just completed and that we will feast on tomorrow, with multi-colored pasta (one of the colors is black, from squid ink) some fruit and maybe a couple of carrots. It's not written down anywhere, so I'll write it here.

Take one pound of ground buffalo meat. (It comes in one-pound packages at Kings Soopers.) Brown it in the bottom of a good-sized covered pan. You may need a little walnut oil to prime it; buffalo meat contains almost no fat. Throw in a biggish can of tomato sauce. If you have stuff like this handy, throw in a smallish can of crushed tomatoes. (Open both cans first.) If you like crushed tomatoes, throw in more. Older guys should eat lots of tomatoes. (Look it up.) If you don't have any canned tomato products, you can use a can of Hunt's—or anybody else's—prepared spaghetti sauce, which is virtually all tomatoes anyway. Lower the heat some. Dump in some wine, enough to smell good but not so much as to make the sauce soupy, though if you can simmer it all afternoon, the extra fluid will eventually boil off. What kind of wine doesn't matter much; however, that species of wine that smells like cat piss is not high on my list.

Chop up a sweet pepper into bite-sized chunks. Green, yellow, red, who cares? They're all good. Chop up an onion (whatever size is on sale at Safeway) into smallish bits. More onion if you're really into onions, but eat some bread with it, especially if you're going to be eating in company. Chop up some mushrooms any way that looks pretty, and shovel all the veggies into the pan. Throw in a few shakes of Italian seasoning, some ground rosemary, a little salt (sea salt tastes soft and mellow, kind of like tube audio sounds, but ordinary salt is ok) and if you like cloves, throw in some cloves too. Actually, what kind of spices do you like? Go a little nuts.

Cook it on a heat level that keeps it slowly bubbling like those bubbling paint pot mudholes you see at Yellowstone National Park. (If you've never been there, rent a documentary. They're something to see.) Let it go for quite awhile; all afternoon if you have all afternoon. The longer you can let it go, the lower you can put the heat, and the more time the flavors will have to glom.

Feeds Jeff & Carol for several days. Your mileage may vary.

What we usually do is prepare it after supper and cook it all evening, put it out on the deck for an hour to cool, and then throw it in the fridge until we remember that it's there and eat it. The longer it sits, the better it tastes. Just don't forget about it until it gets moldy.

On the other hand, you'll be forgiven if you eat it immediately, right out of the pan, with a spoon. It's that good. No fractions necessary—nor any numbers but One.

August 11, 2005: PHP Smells Familiar

I've been studying PHP, and to my surprise I find that I like it. So what if it looks like C? (What doesn't, these days?) I've mellowed out about the language wars in recent years. I know I was right, but nothing rides on the question anymore. (A note to my non-geek readers: PHP is a programming language. The acronym originally stood for "Personal Home Page," but that name is a historical accident and no longer meaningful, so the acronym has been recast recursively as PHP the Hypertext Preprocessor.)

I had to scratch my head a little (and recently, my head has been about the only part of my skin that doesn't itch) until I figured it out: PHP smells familiar. It smells a lot, in fact, like Turbo Pascal 5.0. Back before Windows and object-oriented programming, we wrote a lot of text-mode programs that listened to you on standard input, and talked to you on standard output. There was a single stream of characters filing back and forth in a straight line between code block and user. There were no events or messages or contexts or frantic under-the-covers communication with the OS. "Getting fancy" back then was creating a full-screen display resembling a 3270 or VT-100 terminal, and to be really exotic you

Here we are again. PHP code runs not on your PC but up on your Web server. You run a PHP program by pointing a browser at a program file with a .php extension. The PHP program generates custom HTML for display in the browser window, the same way our old text-mode programs generated text and VT-100 control sequences, via a single stream of characters marching through an HTTP connection. It's all done in graphics mode, of course, but for the most part PHP deals in text. The browser is the one throwing graphics around.

Without OOP, the code model is pretty simple: You write statements and call functions. PHP has a delicious smorgasboard of many hundreds of functions that can do both things we've always done, and things we could not have imagined, and in truth didn't need, in 1990. (Cookies? Those are what I eat while I'm programming, right?) I was attracted to PHP by its built-in server-side database support, which astonished me by its simplicity: Connect. Submit SQL command. If not error, deal with results. Damn. Why wasn't ODBC that easy?

Anyway. It's like coming home again. And yes, I know that Delphi can be persuaded to do a lot of these things, but somehow even Delphi seems to have made server-side programming more complex than it needs to be. I also know that PHP version 5 has added objects to the language, but if I don't need the damned things, I do not intend to use them. I've shot at flies with howitzers. It usually hurt me more than it hurt the flies.

Somehow, PHP is just, well, fun the way Perl or Java never were. Even with Delphi, there is a dreary side to Win32 programming that wears me out. PHP fires me up. Gotta love it!

August 10, 2005: QBit at Six Months

QBit was officially six months old yesterday. I was actually hoping to spring a Web-based photo album on you yesterday or today, but I've had considerable difficulty finding a PHP-based album that would work on my hosting service. I got yappa-ng working on my own Windows server downstairs, but it's well, ugly. Still looking. In the meantime, I'll fake an album right here.

Here's the little monster about six weeks ago, with his very favorite toy. He's really tough to get good photos of, though the one at right is a favorite of ours, showing him the same day as above (late June) caught in mid-gallop as he barrelled right at me after fetching the ball. He weighed nine pounds three ounces at that time, and was losing the last of his puppy teeth. There was a period when we were finding them all over the house. I stepped on one in the bathroom and it drew blood—truthfully the only time he ever "bit" me!

He was very much the puppy back then, and in the interim weeks has startled to hurtle into adolescence. He has all his adult teeth now, and isn't afraid to use them on Carol's slippers. He's developed a certain obsession with toilet paper, perhaps because he's now tall enough to reach the roll standing on his hind legs. More than once we've come upstairs or out of the kitchen to see what he's up to, only to discover a long trail of unrolled tissue running out of the bathroom, down the hall, and into the great room.

Like all young dogs, he has tremendous energy, but he seems a great deal more manic than Mr. Byte or Chewy ever were. (Or are we just older?) He's also a little willful, and not content to sleep at the foot of the bed. After failing to convince him that behind my pillow is not his proper place, he started spending his nights in his kennel.

He has a thing for Carol's hair, and any chance he gets he will jump up on her and grab the little elastic band (a "scrunchy?") holding her ponytail, then pulls it free of her hair and runs off with it. He digs dirty underwear out of the hamper and carries it around the house. Outside, he never met a wood chip he didn't like.

We have not taught him how to go down stairs, and remarkably, he hasn't tried it on his own. Downstairs here is all carpet and until he's past the "age of accidents" we'd prefer he stay upstairs on the tile.

At right is how he looked earlier this afternoon. For his birthday we took him down to Best Friends Grooming for a wash and blow-dry combing. (He's still too young for his first haircut.) He weighed eleven pounds ten ounces this morning, and is looking more like an adult bichon all the tme. He's unlikely to get a great deal bigger, and that's fine by us, because we want to be able to take him under the seat of an airplace when we go to Chicago.

He's been a handful, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We were expecting another Mr. Byte, or another Chewy—or maybe something that was a little bit of both. Instead, we got...QBit. There has never been anything quite like him, nor will there ever be again. And why would we want it any other way?

August 9, 2005: Smoke Test

After twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there for months untold, I realized today, as I finished wiring in the dual volume controls on my tube stero amp, that the power stages were both complete. That's when I started feeling utterly reckless. I pulled a couple of 8 ohm speakers off the shelf and plugged the wires into the back of the amp. I hadn't so much as plugged the line cord into the wall since briefly testing the power supply so long ago I don't remember when—and that was before I had even begun wiring the amp itself. I turned on my audio generator, flipped on the scope to watch the input waveform, fed the waveform via clips into the top of the volume controls, and then hit the power switch.

No smoke, no sizzle, and the lights didn't dim. There was a moment of hesitant silence, and then rising out of the silence came a pure, clean 2 KHz note. I ran the volume control to the top of its range, and felt like I wanted to plug my ears.

Heh. That'll do, pig.

There's actually a fair amount of fussy wiring still to be done. I have to wire in the tone control (another dual pot) and then piece together the input network and the balance control. Nonetheless, the end is in sight, and I'm fighting the temptation to set Labor Day as a completion target. I swore I wouldn't do that. Slow food is hard for me. (I like to eat it while it's hot.) Slow electronics, well, now that I can do.

August 8, 2005: Report Generator Deja Vu

The insight I had when I first started thinking about Aardblog was the one that made me decide to try it: Aardblog is a report generator, and not an especially sophisticated one at that. I used to write report generators for a living, though that was before a fair number of my readers were alive, using tools whose names I've willfully forgotten. Reporting on a database wasn't rocket science then, and it isn't rocket science now:

  1. You run the query against the database into private temp tables.
  2. You calculate the summary data into variables or more temp tables.
  3. You render the header.
  4. You render the columns.
  5. You render the footer.

That's it. "Rendering" used to mean queueing it up on the big line printer; it now means constructing HTML to send down to the requesting Web browser. (This is usually done using PHP, though there are many other ways.)

ContraPositive today is set up like an output report: It has a header, containing the title and my picture. It has two columns, one for navigation and archive links, the other for the actual entries. It doesn't have a footer, though I've thought about adding a nav bar at the bottom—and decided against it. Not everybody ducks down there on every visit. Most do not, I suspect, read more than the current two or three entries at any one time, and I display three months at a shot.

Anyway. It'll be just like coming home again, except that I don't have to use COBOL this time. I haven't written much HTML in the last five years, since I discovered Dreamweaver, but before then I wrote a lot. The queries necessary for something like this are SQL 101. I'm tinkering with PHP and like it. All I need are the time and the energy.

Oh, to be 40 again!

August 7, 2005: Getting Past Nagasaki

We're now approaching the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. I have something odd and upbeat to post on VJ-Day, assuming I can find the files. If not, I have some scanning and OCRing to do again, sigh.

Sigh, indeed. Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of our dropping a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. Many or even most people who are not completely ignorant of the history of WWII or totally wigged out by nuclear weapons understand the necessity of Hiroshima. The world stood stunned as the smoke cleared, and against a threat like that, Imperial Japan would have caved in days. Then there was August 9. Why did we have to do it again?

First of all, avoid the temptation to second guess and judge the people who lived the era and bore the responsibility. People were dying across the world, not by hundreds or thousands, but by millions. Whole nations and peoples were virtually wiped off the planet. How well would you have handled it?

I've been boning up on my 20th century history lately, through several books like The Great Influenza, The Fall of the Dynasties, and The War Against the Weak, along with a quick flip through the marvelous 1966 American Heritage Picture History of WWII, though I wept when I read my father's notes in the margins. Good God, he was there, in the thick of all that hell, dust, and death. He, at least, got back alive, as a man named Robert Williams, who might otherwise have been my father, did not.

I think I understand Nagasaki. I don't like the understanding I have, but I understand: WWI ended scarcely twenty years before WWII began. The death-stink of Verdun remained vivid in the memories of those who survived it. (They are still digging unexploded ordnance from those now-peaceful fields!) The world seemed to be recognizing a pattern: Every generation, a strange psychosis reached some sort of critical mass, and erupted in increasingly deadly conflicts between nation-states that (by 1945) should long have known better. Even as Nazi Germany collapsed, I think that forward-looking people were charting the line between 1870, 1914, and 1939, and did not like the shadow they saw ahead. The points were growing closer, and the death toll higher, each time that the world went to war. Patton knew what Stalin was, and although he was forbidden his plan to take Moscow, I think his superiors came to understand Patton's insight. I'm almost certain that the next European war would have come by 1955, and a nuclear-powered Soviet Union would have reduced much of Europe to sizzling ash.

Instead, we took Nagasaki. One might have been a fluke, or good luck. Two in four days was a statement that could not be ignored. In a sense, the American leadership was telling the rest of the world, Stalin and every other emerging nationalist psychopath who might be watching:

I mourn for Nagasaki, as I mourn for the Jews, and the Russians, and the Ukraine, and my mother's high-school sweetheart. It's been quiet now for sixty years. There has never been another nuclear attack. In my view, there has never actually been another war. (Those who consider Iraq I or II or even Vietnam a "war" need to read more history.) The world turned a corner in 1945. We stopped connecting the dots, and there is some hope that the horrible line between 1870, 1914, and 1939 will not be drawn again. 75,000 people died at Nagasaki, but had they not died, 100,000,000 would almost certainly have perished the next time the world erupted.

Remember: There is no such thing as pacifism. Doing nothing is doing something. There is no escaping responsibility. There are no good choices. All we can do is bless our dead for what their lives have purchased, and move on.

August 6, 2005: Fixed-Width Web Pages

As part of the Aardblog design process I've been thinking a lot about how Web content should look, how people like to read it, and what consitutes easy rather than problematic reading. One of the core questions here is fixed-width vs. the traditional HTML reflow-to-the-window-size Web content.

The idea with content that reflows itself to the size of the window it appears in is powerful, but I feel that it has severe limits. Content that looks good at 800 wide might look OK at 700 wide, but (to me, at least) looks like crap any narrower than that. Designing content that looks good at any stated width is impossible, unless you don't mind "raisin cookie" design, in which the graphical and iconic raisins just sort of ride around as text reflows and there is no real "design" in the strictest sense of the word.

This is one of those topics that always spawns fistfights, and I'm not under the illusion that my insights are objectively correct. And at the risk of sounding like some granola nutcase, I lean toward the opinion that an artist should be able to have some control over the way his or her art appears to the consumer. I thought very hard for a long time about the current design of Contra (which I am migrating in the background, bit by bit, to the rest of my site) and I think it looks good and works. No gonzo fonts, color only when color is needed, no backgrounds, no animations except (as with Pete Albrecht's superb animations of Jupiter's moons or its moons' shadows ) when the animations are the point. There are limits to "dynamic" text, and in my view those limits are quite modest.

Or maybe I'm just a books guy through and through.

I designed Contra (and ultimately the rest of my site) to fit without scroll bars in an 800 pixel-wide Windows browser window. (Some pages got a little wider somehow, and I'm in the process of fixing them. Patience.) On wider screen resolutions, the layout just stops at the right margin. I don't think this is a bad thing—past a certain point, the wider a column gets, the harder it becomes to read. Many of my younger readers are now using displays with 1280 horizontal pixels. I've seen Contra brought up on those screens. Good God. They argue that they can always ratchet down the width of the browser window, and they can (though few do) but I have never much liked being able to see eight or ten open windows, all at the same time. (The way I use PCs, whatever I'm currently working on has the whole screen. Being able to spot open windows is what taskbars are for.)

I have had honest inquiries concerning my site from people who say that fixed-width Web content can't be viewed effectively on PDA or smartphone screens. Well, uh, yeah, and we didn't put a Great Dane-sized collar around QBit's neck, either. PDA/smartphone screen design is an entirely separate discipline from conventional screen design, right down to the level of the underlying assumptions and patterns of use. I don't think one design can serve both—unless you settle for no design at all.

That in fact may be the solution. Think RSS. If you take an RSS feed, you can control the format to look good on your own display (through your client-side RSS reader) no matter how big or small it is. That way, the artist gets to do a design, people who like that design can read it, and so can those who don't care about design at all and are happy just having the text and links, and any pictures that you can see on a smartphone's little bitty screen. That's as close as we're going to get to consensus on this one, and I think as consensi go, it's a good one.

Aardblog will have RSS feeds. More later.

August 5, 2005: Odd lots

  • Somebody spent a fair amount of time doing this up, I'm sure, and my only objection is that the curve is mighty flat. (Statistically, the English language consists of "the," "of," "and," "to," and "a," plus debris.) Scary insight: of the 86,800 words in the list, "colitis" is #7,033.
  • On my poison ivy adventure: I got a shot of steroids this past Sunday, as well as some additional steroid pills and Zyrtec for the itch. The steroids make me queasy, though things are starting to look better, and I'm not one huge oozing sore anymore. (How can athletes both eat and take steroids at the same time?)
  • Do any of you have a favorite utility for spotting bad links in a Web site? All I want is a program that spiders a given domain (like and logs anything other than a successful request for a page.
  • Read the yellow sidebar in this article in SDTimes. Borland isn't doing well, and a major shareholder is strongly suggesting that they spin off Delphi. I knew it would get this bad someday. I just didn't think it would get this bad this soon.
  • I've (finally!) gotten the photo index for Contra completed and up to date, at least to the end of July. Dates cited in the photo index without URLs are still in Diary.htm and haven't been placed in separate month files yet. I have to split out the past 2 months into separate files as soon as I finish them, I guess, even if I leave them in Diary.htm for awhile.

August 4, 2005: Midnight Scammers on the Kidney Stone Circuit

Still not eating, mostly due to a weird and improbable mistake: I tried to eat some generic Rice Chex dug out of the back on the pantry and failed to notice (in my mental haze) that they were many many months old and starting to go bad. So just as I was starting to recover from the painkillers, I ate a bowl of bad food (I didn't know that Rice Chex could spoil!) and hit bottom on the nausea scale again. Haven't eaten very well in the last week, and haven't eaten or kept anything eaten since supper on the 2nd.

Anyway. While I was in the ER waiting room at 2:35 AM, holding Carol's hand while doubled over in stone agony, I tried to distract myself by listening to an "infomercial" on one of the several ER TVs. It was as a brilliant as it was sleazy, and just "smelled wrong" after about ten seconds. A guy is selling kits to explain how to do "Internet marketing." "Become a millionaire on your kitchen table!" he says, and interviews people who have supposedly been making $200,000 per month using his system. Never once does he explain what the business mechanism is, just how much money people have earned on it. He shows people buying new cars and big new houses, and much more like that. He hints that if you really want to make it big, you can join his exclusive "Millionaire's Club." About that he says even less. The copy was brilliant, the presentation damned near perfect. Only the snake oil was different. You can have your own bottle for $39.95. Call now!

About then they threw me on a gurnee and trucked me off to get a gown and an IV, so the pitch stopped there. I hope my Canadian readers won't weep when I admit that I was being fed into a whirling CAT scanner fifteen minutes later. (My appendix, apparently, is in fine shape.) Got painkillers, spent the rest of the night passing the stone, didn't sleep, went home queasy, am still not right, thanks to that devil's brew of painkillers, steroids for the poison ivy, and eight-month-old Rice Chex.

But I remembered the TV pitchman's name, and did a little research earlier this morning. There are whole sites devoted to infomercial scams, and they were fascinating to read. (Try this and this, and for stories from the victims of the particular guy I saw talking on the ER TVs, read this.) People often wonder how this can be legal, but the key to keeping the scam legal is to make sure that it's actually (if barely) possible to make money with the system. The people who do have the skills and the determined personality to pull it off are the ones who don't need the system to succeed in life—and the system can cost many thousands of dollars, once you realize that the $39.95 package is a vague, useless overview and you go for the upgrade pitch.

The saddest part is that TV scammers betray trust and honesty, and make otherwise decent people cynical for losing money believing something "as seen on TV." (I've long wondered why that would be any kind of endorsement at all!) The fact that the informercials run at 2:30 AM tells you something: Lonely, isolated no-hopers are the target audience. Such people are often thinly connected to society, and buying things by phone is both an entertainment and a means of achieving some sort of connection, however meager.

Apart from insomnia (which I mostly have licked) thinking back to times when I've been awake at 2:30 AM, it's virtually always when I've been in pain. The scary thing to ponder is that for a lot of people, that's not an isolated moment on the kidney stone circuit, but a way of life.

August 3, 2005: People Who Fall Into Poison Ivy...

...shouldn't throw stones. Nonetheless, I threw a kidney stone late yesterday evening, spent half the night in the hospital, got zero sleep, and am viciously nauseated by the painkillers they pumped into me. I'm afraid nothing of consequence is going to get done today. Even reading about PHP makes me want to throw up—not that that's any fault of PHP.

Check back tomorrow.

August 2, 2005: Bear Repellant from Mars

Much going on today so I must be brief. The local paper reported that a bear broke into a house less than a mile from us some days back, and tore up the kitchen looking for food. No one was hurt but the place got messed over pretty bad, and there were small children in the house at the time of the bear's visit. (They had left their lower-level windows open for cool air during the night.) We ourselves have seen bears twice here in the past year, once rifling a neighbor's trash can, and another right at the back of the house just a month ago: Pete Albrecht was here, and the two of us looked over the edge of the deck railing, and there he was, looking right back up at us. We found bear tracks once in the mud in front of the house during construction. They're just a part of the landscape, and dangerous encounters are rare.

We heard from people across the street that the Colorado Springs police deal with bear reports near houses by cruising over in a squad car and nailing the bears with pepper spray. This happens fairly regularly in late summer when the vegetation dries up and the pickins get slimmer on the mountain slopes. It has happened so often, in fact, that the local bears have come to associate police cars and their flashing lights with pepper spray. Mostly, they will lumber off as soon as they see the squad car lights approaching.

So...I'm going to find a cheap battery-operated Mars lamp and put it on the end of a pole. If we hear something banging around near the house, we grab the pole, turn on the lamp, and take a look. If the bear runs, we're cool. (I don't see hitting the poor things with pepper spray without cause.) On the other hand, if it's a new (or a dumb) bear, we'll call 911 and wish that bears had an oral tradition.

August 1, 2005: Found And Almost Found Art

I'm generally suspicious of "found art" and have made fun of it in the past. However, last month, while I was helping Carol clean up her mom's basement a little, I came upon her mom's old button tin, which is a fruitcake tin with about half an inch of 50's and 60's buttons in the bottom of it. It hadn't been touched for a long time, and being careful not to shake it, I took some pictures.

I just found the colors and the variety striking and worth recording. Assuming this collection is typical of its era, today's buttons are mighty dull by comparison.

My business partner Keith Weiskamp, with whom I founded The Coriolis Group and Paraglyph Press, did some found artwork of his own this summer. He rehabbed a beach house on the ocean near Portland, Maine, and when the work was done had gathered a bucket full of sheet metal scraps the tradesmen had left behind, mostly from flashing the roof. He put together a largish sculture that spans one entire sky-blue exterior wall of the house, by stringing out little bits of flashing on a piece of leftover electrical wire. (The kite itself is a larger piece of leftover flashing.) I like kites and Keith's kite is beautifully done, and playful in the precise way that a beach house should be, especially where one gets good winds on a regular basis.

Somewhere I think I have a photo of a house owned by a chap near here in Manitou Springs who covered the front lawn with welded iron spiders made of old car transmissions, with rebar for legs. It sounds grotesque but they're beautifully done, and very much "in character" for this area's most eccentric town. I'll post it when I find it.