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December 31, 2005: Another Wrap

Two hours left in the year, and as I say each December 31 as the clock winds down, Rest in peace, but yeah, bring it on! We are creatures who live in time, so trying to hang onto a day, a year, or a decade is like trying not to eat—and there's no future in that.

Any year you learn something is a good year, and this has been a good year. Let me list a few of the things that I learned (or re-learned) in 2005:

  • PHP. Heh. Pascal it ain't, but (praise God!) it's not C++.
  • Snowmelt water is the best.
  • Sleep is not optional.
  • Portrait mode rocks.
  • Life without a dog is two drills short of an index.
  • Corollary to the above: There's always another P in "puppy."
  • Never give up. I sold my damned novel. Better late than never.
  • Stay the hell out of the weeds.
  • Life is pointless without friends. Thanks, all of you, for the gift of your friendship—and extra special thanks to those who have contributed to ContraPositive. You know who you are.
  • Marry your best friend if you can. (I learn this again every day I wake up beside my Carol.)
  • Find the sweet spot. There is always a sweep spot. If you can't find it, dammit, you're not looking hard enough.
  • Certainty is the deadliest sin. No one ever knows enough about anything to be certain. Virtually all evil that has ever beset humankind has come out of certainty.
  • Corollary to the above: The other guy always has a point.
  • Bidden or unbidden, God is present.
  • Corrollary to the above: All manner of thing will be well.
Believe it. And I'll see you on the flipside.

December 30, 2005: OEM Parts

Earlier today, Pete and I went up to OEM Parts, the Colorado Springs electronics and industrial surplus junkhouse. Most large cities have one; in Phoenix it was Apache Reclamation and Electronics, and in Chicago there were several, most of them now long gone. (Anybody remember Gemco on West Madison just east of the River?) My EE friend George Ott had been patiently cajoling me to go over there, even drawing maps so I wouldn't miss it, but with a fellow nerd like Pete in town it was the most natural tourist destination you could name.

OEM Parts is a supermarket of electronic junk. It really is (or was) a grocery supermarket years ago, and the original shelves and aisles are still there. However, instead of being stocked with Cheerios and canned beans, they're stocked with resistors, capacitors, coils, and transformers; decrepit, defunct or obsolete computers and midlate 1990s software (Borland Quattro!); every species of wire and connector you've ever seen, as well as a multitude of semiconductor devices and used vacuum tubes. On the mechanical side it's harder to characterize: Paint cans full of 7/8" ball bearing balls, casters and wheels and aluminum tubing, scrap PC board, rolls of thin foam plastic, chunks of Bakelite, some gears and bearing assemblies, and a great deal of stuff of unkown origin that simply defies description.

Larger items are marked, and they don't seem priced to move. I was especially disappointed by the high prices on panel meters. Not all of the pricing made sense: They were selling gorgeous NOS Hammarlund 300 pf log-scale variable caps for $7.95, but beat-to-hell removed-from-equipment military power transformers were marked $30-$40 each. I ended up buying a number of NOS J.W. Miller 4.5 MHz TV sound system coils for $1.50 each, and that was jack-fine, given that AES charges $10 each for the same coils.

So like most everything else in the world, OEM is a mixed bag, but there's nothing like it in the Springs, and if you need that sort of stuff (and are willing to dig a little for it) I recommend it highly.

December 29, 2005: The Dog Ate My Mortgage!

Perhaps there are no truly original ideas. On reading of my concept for poultry-flavored spiral notebooks, George Ewing sent me a reference to a little-known short essay by Edgar Allen Poe, entitled "Diddling," which is about scams favored by small-time con-men. ("Diddling" meant "scamming" in the 1850s.) I'll quote the pertinent paragraph in full:

A neat diddle is this: A friend holds one of the diddler's promises to pay, filled up and signed in due form, upon the ordinary blanks printed in red ink. The diddler purchases one or two dozen of these blanks, and every day dips one of them in his soup, makes his dog jump for it, and finally gives it to him as a bonne bouche. [treat] The note arriving at maturity, the diddler, with the diddler's dog, calls upon the friend, and the promise to pay is made the topic of discussion. The friend produces it from his escritoire, [briefcase] and is in the act of reaching it to the diddler, when up jumps the diddler's dog and devours it forthwith. The diddler is not only surprised but vexed and incensed at the absurd behavior of his dog, and expresses his entire readiness to cancel the obligation at any moment when the evidence of the obligation shall be forthcoming.

Basically, "The dog ate my mortgage!" Which he will, if you train him to expect mortgages to taste like chicken soup. QBit would be good at this; he's delighted to shred paper without any flavor at all. My old dog Smoker would have too: He once shredded a small home-made pillow that my poor mother had stuffed with defunct nylon stockings, one of which went down the hatch. A day or so later, Mother had to pull the stocking out of the back end of the dog, an exercise that neither enjoyed, but was fortunately not repeated.

Oh, well. Back to the drawing board. Maybe I'll come up with a better idea next Christmas.

December 28, 2005: The Linux Hosting Edge

I'm helping a couple of my friends set up single-domain Web hosting accounts, and while researching options I looked closely at the details of hosting plans offered at several hosting services. The one I generally recommend to nontechnical people is Go Daddy, which was founded by a former PC Techniques advertiser and actually took over about half of the Coriolis office space when Coriolis closed its doors in 2002.

Like most hosting services, Go Daddy offers both Windows and Linux hosting. In a bare bones hosting plan there's not a great deal of difference between the two. But GoDaddy's plans show the significant edge that Linux hosting can offer in terms of the preinstalled free software. Take a look at the free software list for Linux hosting compared to the list for Windows hosting.

If you choose Linux hosting you can have significant server-side apps like Mambo, Nucleus, Sitebar, and the Coppermine Photo Gallery, but the list also includes some slightly off-the-wall stuff like AZDGDatingLite, which was written in Azerbaijan and allows you to mount your own online dating service. (And don't forget Magnetik Poetry, which allows your users to treat your site as a sort of virtual refrigerator door...)

This isn't just about Go Daddy, either. Most of the other major hosting services offer a similar list—but only for Linux. The list of free Windows server-side apps is pretty thin, and seems to depend utterly on ASP.NET. I mention this to remind you to read the fine print in any hosting plan, especially the odds and ends that you might never attempt to install on your own. I struggled to get install and get Mambo working on my hosting service (and then removed it because I didn't like it) and I suspect that nontechnical people shouldn't even try. With the right hosting plan, it's already there. You just have to turn it on and configure it.

The really ironic thing about the easy-to-use hosting services like Go Daddy is that their Linux hosting is in many respects easier to use than their Windows hosting—and comes with a lot more interesting gadgets to play with. Keep that in mind as your own Web hosting plans approach expiration. I certainly am.

December 27, 2005: The Himachi VPN

I stumbled across the Hamachi project earlier today, while looking at Steve Gibson's very useful Web site. Hamachi is a free, secure peer-to-peer VPN (Virtual Private Network) system that (at least as I read it) allows you to connect your PCs or laptops to others over the Internet without worrying about eavesdroppers. This is significant because of the "coffeehouse problem": connecting to the Internet securely at public hotspots. I know enough about Wi-Fi to worry a little about packet-grabbing eavesdroppers at places like Panera Bread. I don't make online purchases while connected to public hotspots as a matter of policy, but even bringing down email makes me fret just a little.

Hamachi might well allow me to connect to the Net through my home system, even if I'm on the road. The link between my laptop and my home system would be secure courtesy Hamachi, and from my home system I can connect to other sites on the Net without fearing nearby wireless packet-grabbers. If I buy a media PC and install it behind my new big-screen TV, Hamachi could make the Wi-Fi link between my content server and the media PC secure. (One mistake I made in designing this house is not putting a CAT5E outlet in the TV niche. Damn.)

I need to do some more research, but once I get my new X41 Convertible, I will try Hamachi out as a VPN solution, and I'll report back in this space.

December 26, 2005: Poultry-Flavored Spiral Notebooks

The great thing about sitting around on the livingroom floor after Christmas dinner, running trains around the track and throwing wadded-up balls of wrapping paper at the dog (who catches them on the fly and proceeds to shred them) is the profoundly silly conversation that sitting on the floor brings to the surface. People who are exceedingly grown up (even those past 50 or close to it) allow themselves to be kids again, in the presence of Lionel trains, wrapping paper, and (if those don't quite do it) a good bottle of Zinfandel wine.

I can't reconstruct much of it—that's how it goes with silly conversation—but one item bears mentioning, having come up in answer to "What does the world really need?" My answer was, "Poultry-flavored spiral notebooks—for those times when your dog absolutely must eat your homework."

This has been a spectacularly good Christmas for us, not because of presents or dinner or any adventures out in the snow (which is mostly gone now) but simply because Bill and Gretchen and Pete have been here, and willing to sit on the floor with us and release the kids that have been aching to get out all year.

December 25, 2005: The Birth of Radical Hope

Christmas is the day that calls on us to look beyond ourselves, to get past the selfishness that seems to be the trademark of humanity, and understand that it's not about me. It's about us, and not just the obvious us, within our family or within our tribe (whatever that tribe may be) but a much more radical us: Everybody who has ever lived, and (more to the point) everybody who will ever live.

Part of getting beyond ourselves requires an interesting and very contrarian insight: That each of us makes a difference to the state of the future, whether we realize it (or admit it) or not. A small kindness to a troubled person at just the right moment can change that person's life, and echo down the decades and the centuries in ways that no one can predict. More than once I've gotten short notes from people who bought my books, saying things like, "I was failing CS101. I just didn't get it. Then somebody loaned me your assembly book and I read the first couple of chapters and it just clicked. Damn, you saved my life." I don't think he meant that I literally saved his life. But I'll bet that I changed it some.

You don't have to be an author to make a difference to someone. I've told the story about how a ten-year-old girl that I didn't even know recognized my sadness and gave me a quick hug over the back of a pew in church. I doubt she even remembers the incident today, but that doesn't matter. She reinforced my hope for the future, and every time I think about it, I still glow a little.

Held back by centuries of confusion and heresy, our theologians dance around the truth without being able to seize upon it. Sometimes they come close: As the author of Five Great Catholic Ideas wrote, "We are saved in community." Close, close, but the truth is even more radical: We are saved as community, from the deadly selfishness that only destroys the individuality it claims to serve. This is the central message of Jesus Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself, and make that the starting point for the far greater project of creating a human community within which each person strives with one eye on all the other strivers, so that no one is crushed, no one is abandoned, and no one is lost.

The birth of Christ is in fact the birth of Radical Hope: That ultimately all brokenness will be repaired, and in ways that we cannot yet understand, all will be put right. To predict a loss when the game has only begun is just cowardice. Screw that. None of us can see the end, and all of us can make a difference in the way the future unfolds. Radical Hope tells us that we can do it—so let's stop dithering and arguing and just do it.

Carol and I wish all of you a happy and blessed Christmas. Thanks for reading what I post here, and don't lose touch.

December 24, 2005: Our Joyfully Frenetic Big-Screen Christmas

My sister Gretchen Duntemann Roper and her husband Bill Roper have been here for a few days, along with my high-school friend Pete Albrecht, of the Lane Tech Astronomical Society. We've only had this many people staying over Christmas one other time, and that was years ago in Arizona. We've had to relearn what it takes to stock the house for one long, low-key Christmas party, but it's all coming back to us now: Prodigious quantities of coffee and diet soda, flavored coffee creamers (including egg nog!), potato chips and crackers, plus buckets of Chicago's own Maurice Lenell Christmas cookies, which, miraculously, can be had here in Colorado at the Sav-On Pharmacies within Albertson's supermarkets. We remembered that having a Honey Baked ham in the fridge at all times makes asynchronous meals a lot easier. We have the Lionel trains around the tree for the first time in almost eight years. Pete brought out his radio-controlled, smoking, sound-effects equipped Lionel Hudson, and we've managed to tease Carol's 1952-vintage Lionel operating cars back into operation, dumping milk cans and barrels on command and with gusto. QBit has already chewed up two of the wooden barrels, and has been carrying the milk cans around in his mouth, generally dropping them down the stairs once he realizes that his teeth aren't getting any purchase. He seems indifferent to Pete's Hudson and to my own GG-1, but he goes half-nuts if we put my father's ancient, doddering 1928 American Flyer electric loco (above) on the track. It crawls slowly along with a sort of stuttering motion, its dying carbon brushes generating prodigious amounts of ozone. He must think it's a rat or something; he goes similarly nuts when I take out my radio-controlled rat and run it around the floor. (You all knew I had a radio-controlled rat, didn't you?)

It's been delightful pandemonium here. Carol and I haven't had this much fun in a very long time.

The Big Event this Christmas, however, was going shopping for big-screen TVs with Bill, who has had one for four years and is something of a guru on the topic. We've been talking about the acquisition for years now, ever since we built a niche in the wall of the great room beside the fireplace to accept one. Much online research and occasional wandering through Best Buy and Ultimate Electronics in previous months focused our attention on the 61" Samsung HL-R6178W. We already knew it was the best choice, and so what we did, pretty much, was walk into Ultimate Electronics (the only store in town with one in stock) and told the nice people there to wrap one up. The salesman seemed shellshocked at not having to actually sell us on the unit, so he tried to sell me on $200, nitrogen-injected video cables instead. Bill shook his head. "Get the cheapest ones. The nitrogen thing is bogus." I took my own turn at being shellshocked when the shipping scheduler told me the TV would be delivered the very next day.

And it was. Wow.

The thing is amazing. It's HD-ready, and Adelphia's two baitware free HD channels came in with astonishing clarity—if clarity was what we really wanted when confronted with Orange County Choppers. I can actually read the chopper dude's tattoos! (I'm not sure that's really a plus, but we're talking resolution here, and I'll confess that I'd rather watch brain-dead bikers than the football game on the other HD channel.) The TV has an interpolator that increases resolution to near-HD levels on DVD movies, and while making supper we watched Men in Black looking better, perhaps, than it did in the movies. After supper, we hooked up my laptop to the VGA input connector on the back, and ran slideshows of digital camera photos, which showed up with a clarity that made me gasp. The 1024 X 768 Windows dekstop was completely readable and absolutely usable, all the way back on the living room couch. Carol commented that I'll be trying to figure out how to rotate the screen into portrait mode pretty soon. Michael Abrash commented once that a 21" monitor was like having Windows on your bedroom wall. No. This is having Windows on your bedroom wall—or livingroom wall, as the case may be.

We're hanging out until this afternoon, when we'll all start working on our Polish vigilia, or vigil supper, replete with smoked Polish sausage, hand-made pierogis (not made by our hands, but by the hands of an expert Polish lady from Chicago, who sells them in Manitou Springs) and organic Albarello wine from Coturri. Later tonight we'll be over at St. Raphael's for Midnight Mass, and I suspect we won't be up before 10:00 AM tomorrow.

Merry Christmas to everyone—by which I only mean, accept our wishes for all the best in your lives, and my admonition to Radical Hope. On Christmas Eve, it's easy to imagine that All Manner of Thing Will Be Well. The rest of the year it's a problem—but we'll deal with the rest of the year as it happens.

December 23, 2005: Personal Triage, Part 3: Electronics

First of all, I need to be clear what the problem is here: I'm spread too thin on too many spare-time passions, and I'm not getting much accomplished on any of them. Keep in mind that I have a day job, though I don't talk about it much (simply because that's what I do all day, and there's a sameness about it that doesn't make for dazzling copy) and by choice I spend a lot of time with Carol, being inexpressibly in love with her. (QBit, of course, is the consummate distraction.) With all the information available on the Internet, and with all the tools and materials I have at my disposal (as Jim Strickland exclaimed when he first saw my workshop, "My God! He has tube sockets by the bucketful!") there's a severe temptation to wander around in an undisciplined fashion and start much more than I finish. In fact, it's gotten to the point where I don't finish much at all.

This current avenue of discussion was originally triggered by the completion of my 2-tube stereo amplifier. The amp is now down on my server rack, playing MP3s while I work down there. I'm actually surprised by how delighted I am with it. It reminded me that working on projects is fun, but finishing them (and finishing them well) puts a different sort of glow on them entirely. I haven't seen that glow very much in recent years, and in truth had almost forgotten it.

Electronics is an even more ancient passion of mine. When I was 11 I brought home an All American Five radio chassis I had found in an empty lot, and although the tubes were gone, there were lots of resistors and capacitors and other things left to snip out and recombine with Fahenstock clips on a slab of 1 X 6 pine. With the encouragement of my father and my legendary Uncle Louie (who upped the ante by handing me entire TV chassis, tubes included) I started building radios, and never stopped.

Workbench electronics has an advantage over building telescopes: The individual projects are much more limited in scope. You can build a good simple radio in a weekend, and in fact the stereo amp took me less than thirty hours to assemble, even taking my time. The parts are cheap, and the work doesn't involve tremendous physical exertion. (My 10" telescope weighs over 400 pounds.) More to the point, electronics is both broad and deep, and even though I've been at it for over 40 years, I'm still learning from everything I attempt. (I do learn from projects that I don't finish, so not finishing them is not an irredeemable loss.)

Finally, electronics serves other technologies. There's almost nothing these days that doesn't have some electronics in it or supporting it. Telescopes are vanishingly narrow in application by comparison. I built a regulated 12-15VDC power supply that can source as much as 30 amps, and I've used it to power stepper motors running my 10" scope and to electroplate small parts. My stereo amp is playing MP3s even as we speak.

So electronics is a keeper. There's still leaning to be done, the projects are manageable in scope, and when well-chosen, they support other projects in other fields. I have to choose projects carefully, but that's all part of the discipline I'm chasing here.

To be continued after Christmas.

December 22, 2005: Personal Triage, Part 2: Telescopes

I've spoken of my home-built telescopes many time in this space. As I mentioned in my September 28, 2003 entry (with some photos) my 10" scope is such a pain in the ass to lug around, assemble, adjust, and steer, that I almost never bother anymore. (I took a considerable amount of skin off my right index finger a few years back when I stumbled while trying to place the tube in its saddle.) This is sad, because I spent a huge amount of spare time in my youth tinkering it, and yet in looking back, and I haven't really improved it in probably 25 years.

In the meantime, I use the exhaust vent and pipe fitting 8" scope that I built when I was 13. (At left is another experiment, a plywood tube a la Jean Texereau, that I made the following year.) The light gathering power isn't as great as the 10", but it handles so easily that its other defects (no clock drive!) are bearable.

So here's the question on the table: Should I continue to build telescopes (which means, I guess, working on my clumsy 10" Newtonian) or should I bag building scopes as a hobby and just buy one of the new "go-to" scopes from Meade or Celestron? As Michael Covington very sagely pointed out to me, with his go-to scope he spends a lot less time looking for things and a lot more time looking at them—which, after all, is what telescopes are for.

Here's another factor: I think that I've learned just about everything that building telescopes can teach me, assuming I don't try to create a computer drive system from scratch. (No way!) Doing something difficult that doesn't teach me anything is perilously close to drudgery, and whereas I learned a lot about machine-tool techniques while I was working on the 10", there's not much left to learn that further work on the scope project can teach me.

It's pretty clear that this is the least compelling of all my peculiar pursuits, and I should just set it aside for good and devote the time to other things. I hesitate, I think, because telescope-making was my first major triumph as a young nerd. The 8" was a huge project for a 13-year-old, but I pulled it off, and the measure of my success lies in the fact that I've been using the telescope now for almost forty years. That's not just success—that's a triumph. I need to convince myself that the job is done, put the 8" scope in the corner as a spare, and move my astronomy habit to a go-to scope. Funny how circling around that decision just hurts. Nonetheless, the decision's pretty much been made.

Alas, I haven't spent much time working on telescopes in recent years, so putting telescope making aside won't buy much time. More (with some luck; Christmas looms) tomorrow.

December 21, 2005: Personal Triage, Part 1.

Pete Albrecht drove out from Costa Mesa for Christmas, and in the course of BSing about everything and anything, he indirectly reminded me of what my #1 problem as a human being is: I'm interested in far too many things. Print publishing, SF, astronomy, building telescopes, history, ham radio, workbench electronics, kites, and Catholic theology represent the short list of non-computer interests I have. Add to this a seasonal interest in Lionel trains, and a minor interest in real-world railstuff. (QBit probably counts as an interest, and one with special privileges and responsibilities.) Then, of course, there are all the things I'm trying to stay abreast of in computing: Intel hardware, Delphi, CSS, blogging (gag), ebooks, PHP, LAMP/WAMP, Ruby on Rails, Wi-Fi, malware, etc.

I didn't have this broad a range of interests 25 years ago, because a fair number of things on the list didn't exist yet, or barely existed. Plus, I was young and poor and couldn't afford some of the necessary hardware. (My big dream category before the advent of computing was test equipment.) Say what you like about the state of the world, the society in which we live offers almost unimaginable riches of the mind to anyone who wants them—most mighty cheap, or even free. I can follow my nose down through a topic as long as I choose, and surface with a better understanding of more things per unit time than was ever possible in the past.

That I can't do it all is obvious. I can do more things if I do them badly, or (worse) if I do them so quickly as not to enjoy them. (My sister Gretchen has a great term for this sort of time-whipped experience: The Bataan Fun March.) And this leads to a really painful issue: What can I keep and what must I jettison? I'm at a kind of a juncture here. My novel is doing well, considering my non-position in the SF world, and I'd really like to do more SF. My last computer book (Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses) was an utter bomb, but I like writing about computing. If ever there were a time to rearrange the mental furniture a little, this would be it.

I guess the place to start in a quandary like this is reminding yourself what you're really good for. I'm a writer. That's pretty clear. I'm a better writer than I am anything else, and not writing is a non-option. Of course, writers need something to write about, so that doesn't really let me off the hook for anything. I have to keep learning, and the best learning is always by doing.

It cooks down to this: I need a better fit between my peculiar enthusiasms and the limitations of a 53-year-old guy who loves his wife deeply, enjoys hanging out with friends, likes to walk and lift weights, and needs 8 hours of sleep a night. As time allows, I'll be taking up the question in this space, thinking out loud a little, and looking at the cost-benefit equations for a few of my passions. (It may not be until after Christmas. Gretchen and Bill are arriving tonight, and things are about to become very lively here.)

December 20, 2005: Corn Power

With the cost of natural gas exploding, the papers are running articles on alternative fuels again. Back when I tried this, your alternative fuels were wood, wood, and...lemme see here...oh yeah, wood. It was obnoxious, especially when we had a cold snap (this was in Rochester, NY) and everybody else on the block started throwing logs on the fire. You didn't want to go outside for a breath of fresh air. There wasn't any. For fresh air you had to go in.

So much for what those stupid New Age books called good clean wood heat.

Computing isn't the only technology that's improved since 1980. We now have generalized pellet stoves, which are tunable to cleanly burn almost any combustible material that exists as relatively dry, nonclumping little pieces. The newspaper story I read mentioned pea coal, pelletized wood, cheap dog kibble, and rabbit crap, for pete's sake. (Pity the people who live down the street from rabbit fanciers.) The best pellet fuel, however, is simple shelled corn. Here's another article on the growing popularity of corn heat. People are heating their whole houses for a single bushel of corn per day, which runs from $1.60 - $2.00 in the heartland, purchased in quantity from farmers. Lessee...two bucks a day X 31 days is $62, and that heats the house for a month. Who's spending less than that these days?

Corn, in fact, is an almost ideal pellet fuel. Corn is already a pellet, only loosely attached to its infrastructure. Wood pellets have to be cut from logs, which consumes energy and relatively sophisticated machines. Corn is easy to grow, grows in a broad range of climates, and machines for shelling corn (which means removing it from the cob) are available anywhere corn is grown. Shelled corn is processed in immense quantities as cattle feed, so you don't generally need a shelling machine, and prices are low. Prices do fluctuate a little, but the supplies are relatively predictable. (The Greens won't sue you for growing corn. But just try to find a new gas field...) A nice and more technical article on burning corn as fuel is here.

Corn is a little cranky to burn by just dumping it in a pile on a grate, but a properly designed stove augers it into a combustion chamber with just enough airflow to burn at optimal efficiency. You won't choke the neighborhood with smoke, but you may get their mouths watering—exhaust from corn stoves smells just like popcorn. After being almost a cult product for a decade, corn stoves are suddenly trendy, and all across the corn belt they're being built in small factories and sold as quickly as they're completed.

Interestingly, there are now corn-burning barbecue grills costing about $900 that are "condo-approved" and can be used out on your terrace. I've seen mention of corn-burning space heaters that can keep a monster garage toasty for a quarter a day. No word on corn-burning hot water heaters, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Corn stoves do emit carbon exhaust, but it's carbon that's already in the ecosphere and thus doesn't make the carbon situation any worse. Could we run cars on corn? (Skip the middleman and screw the ethanol. Pellets don't explode when your Pinto gets rear-ended.) How about steam locomotives? I'll have to add this to the notefile for The Anything Machine. The possibilities are endless, though in truth I already have a tendency to write corny stories.

December 19, 2005: Fox Cross

We got a couple of inches of puffy snow yesterday afternoon and evening, and this morning there was a set of tracks from the drain pipe under Stanwell St. to the rock where we have seen our fox hang out a number of times. We've long suspected that he lives under the street in the corrugated steel pipe (24" diameter) that bridges the drain gullies above and below the street. I took a closer look at the tracks in the snow and yup, those are fox tracks. (I was in the Fox Patrol in Boy Scouts. It's all coming back to me now.)

We photographed the fox this past July while we were tending the plants on our terrace that overlooks the drainage gully. Handsome creature, and relatively unafraid of humans, which (as with most wild animals) is a mixed blessing. Someone might be feeding him, or maybe there's just a lot of local wildlife. I've seen plenty of things here that a fox could bring down, from wild turkeys to rabbits to (alas) house cats. We saw the fox sit on the stones below our kitchen window once and gaze longingly at QBit, who was looking down and yapping. (That's only one reason we're very careful not to let him off leash here. The traffic on Stanwell is the other.)

By sheer chance I caught the fox in the middle of a yawn (see the photo at right) and it's an interesting way to see the inside of a fox's mouth without having to pry the poor thing's mouth open, losing a couple of fingers in the process. It's a very pointed, narrow mouth with a lot of teeth.

Apart from a fleeting glimpse of a fox on a highway embankment in Surrey, UK, this is the first live fox I ever saw outside of a zoo. Back in 1963, when my farm-cousin John Price learned that I had joined the Fox Patrol, he did the unexpected: Went out with his brothers and shot a fox, cut the tail off, and mailed it to me wrapped up in shirt cardboard, with dried blood all over it. (Farmers consider fox harmful predators, and there's no love lost between them.) We tied a string to the last vertebra and hung it from our patrol flag, with a lot of the blood still on it. (My fellow Fox Patrollers thought it was a little cool, though blood never sits well with me.) We haven't seen our fox in winter yet, but if I can I'll catch another photo against the snow, which should show up much better than against a dark background of scrub oak, as here.

December 18, 2005: Odd Lots

  • A useless, fascinating, and completely insane add-in to Google Earth can be found in an un-named site at Click on a point on a map of the Earth, click the "Dig here" link, and the site will calculate where you would come out if you dug straight down through the Earth's center to the other side of the world. Lots of fun. I knew (though I'm not sure how) that most of the US maps to the Indian Ocean, but five minutes of playing around showed something fascinating: The vast majority of points on the land surface on Earth maps (through the planet's center) to water. I know, there's more water on Earth than land, but there seems to be a greater-than-probable chance that a point on land maps to a point on water. Take a look and see if you don't agree.
  • Does anybody remember a 70s SF story in which people in a small town eventually discover that they're action figures on somebody's enormous model train layout? Name? Author?
  • This article (syndicated from The LA Times) describes something I didn't know, but which makes sense in retrospect: Criminals and undersocialized young idlers do not like classical music and especially opera. Play such music in your store or in some public space, and most 0-34s vanish, while the 35-60 crowd start humming along. (Once again, I'm in the middle: Caruso would drive me away, but Gustav Holst—bring it on!)
  • I hadn't checked in on The Asimo Project for awhile, but Honda's hobbit-sized bipedal robot has come a long way since we first saw a filmclip. He now runs, walks up and down stairs, takes corners at a pretty good clip, and even bows in the Japanese fashion after handing the pretty girl a tray of coffee cups. Isaac Asimov (from whom Honda derived the name Asimo) would have loved this, had he lived to see it. And if he had, I suspect Honda would have built one and given it to him. Don't miss those videos! Thanks to Jorge Fábregas for the noodge.

December 16, 2005: Odd Lots

  • I guess the topic is in the air. The bartender's reaction is typical of the many comments I've received on the issues raised in my December 11 and December 15 entries. I'm going to shut up about it now.
  • Here's everything you probably wanted to know about the GG-1, perhaps the most famous (and certainly the most beautiful) electric locomotive in history. As I mentioned a few days back, I recently bought a Lionel O-gauge GG-1 loco in Berkshire green livery to run around our Christmas tree.
  • I am still scanning/OCRing my old editorials and essays from PC Techniques and VDM (the older of which were archived on 5 1/4" diskettes that have died the death) and will keep at it when time allows. Everything can be browsed from the PC Techniques and Visual Developer Magazine Archive page. I just posted "Linearville" by request.
  • Digg is one of the newest "social bookmarking" sites, and I'm trying to decide what I think of it. It's a little like an anarchic Slashdot, in that everybody votes on stories to see what actually gets posted. It also resembles It also seems a little (little? Ha!) geeky, but that's an interesting consequence of the way it's created. Take a look. Comments?
  • Here is a page describing a robotified Etch-A-Sketch, built with stepper motors and Meccano (Erector) parts. Great hardware hack. Weird secondary issue: Ohio Arts seems to think that you need their permission to post a photo of an Etch-A-Sketch, even if you bought the Etch-A-Sketch and you took the picture. Is this true? Somehow I don't think so.
  • Little Orby (See my entry for December 4, 2005) has a successor, but the successor looks like a Hummer. As best I can tell, it's a sort of reverse ground-effect machine, with a fan that pulls air from under the device and allows it to drive up walls. Alas, it can't do ceilings—suction cups are still worth something, and may in fact be an elegant solution to this completely silly problem. Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.
  • Empty-state fanatics will be amused by this Nixie-tube watch, which looks clunkier than it actually is. To conserve battery power, the watch only fires up its Nixie tubes when your arm is at the correct viewing angle. Very cool—and the firmware is open source!
  • From Pete Albrecht comes a list of "impossible objects." Indeed.

December 15, 2005: Season's Gratings

Whew. I definitely got in some trouble for my December 11 rant on twisting retailer arms to call Christmas "Christmas." Long-time reader Ron Allard put it most sharply when he wrote: "Just what we need: Another reason for customers to be hostile to store clerks making minimum wage." Ouch. The gist of most complaints is that decisions on how to present a retailer's holiday message are made nowhere near the checkout counter, and making trouble on the retailer's floor won't change minds in the executive offices, and just makes an already frantic period less pleasant for everybody.

True, true. It's actually subtler than that, especially when you move down from Target to small business. One gentleman who asked to remain nameless owns a used bookstore in the Midwest. His reponse is worth quoting at some length:

There may be a war on Christmas somewhere (it sounds like you read the book) but it's not my war and I refuse to be drawn into it. People are a lot touchier than they used to be, and I don't know why. But I provide a service even to touchy people, and I need their business to stay alive. Margins are pretty thin in the used-book business, and I'm competing with online robots like Amazon. It's not fair to encourage my customers to demand that I take a position in a fight that has nothing to do with used books. You've done a pretty good job handling politics in a noncommittal way (which is one reason I like your blog) and it's as if I demanded that you declare yourself a Democrat or a Republican. You would reply that you are neither, and that politics is not what your blog is for. I have to reply that I'm not religious and have no strong feelings about what we call the end of December, and that getting involved would help nothing and would probably hurt my business and give me ulcers. There's no point in that.

The book he refers to is The War on Christmas by John Gibson, which I have not read, and probably won't. As a rule, books like that generate more heat than light, and I have lots better books in my to-be-read pile, like Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.

But by all measure the most intriguing comment comes from DDJ's Mike Swaine, who suggested that Christians have been protesting the commercialization of Christmas for decades, and if that battle has in fact been lost, maybe it's better to disassociate the commercial holiday from Christian Christmas observance by ceasing to use the word "Christmas" as a part of the annual December shopping orgy. He's got a point. The commercialization of Christmas galls me, but as I've written before, Christmas moves products (even stupid products like computer-controlled audioanimatronic fish) and moving products creates jobs. So since decommmercializing Christmas would put people out of jobs, maybe we should just declare victory and move Christmas somewhen else.

Interestingly, the birth of Christ was probably in the spring (when shepherds were watching their flocks closely to protect newborn lambs) but in the fourth century was moved to its current calendar position to Christianize the pagan winter solstice holiday called Saturnalia. I'd support moving Christmas back toward its original calendar position by a month or so, perhaps to the period just before Lent (thereby re-Christianizing Mardi Gras), and let Target have "the holidays"—which have been looking more and more like Saturnalia all the time. Lord knows we could use something to cheer ourselves up in the grim last part of February.

I'll leave my December 11 entry alive for a little while so you who might have skipped it can see what the discussion is about, but as one of my least popular entries I think I'll cut it in a week or so, once the Christmas merchandise goes on sale and the Valentine's Day merchandise starts coming in.

December 13, 2005: A USB Vinyl-Ripping Turntable

I have about 150 pounds of vinyl in boxes in the basement, mostly LPs from the 60s and 70s. Our 25-year-old turntable is getting pretty erratic, and whereas I want to rip some of those albums, I hate to spend a fortune on a turntable when I don't really want to play LPs, just record them.

Pete Albrecht just sent me a pointer to the solution: The Ion iTTUSB USB Turntable. You install its software, plug it into your PC, and when you play an LP or 45, it records the sound to an editable audio file. It was designed to be easy to use, and at $150-$200, it isn't even that expensive. It's belt-driven, so your wild-eyed DJs aren't going to be able to put their thumbs on the turntable and make stupid effects—but I'm not sure they still do that anyway. When Carol and I hired Connie Szerszen to DJ for our 25th wedding anniversary party back in 2001, she used only CDs. For all I know, by now in 2005 DJs have abandoned removable media and are now jockeying hard disk platters.

Certainly if you're just going to be playing one song after another at a party, it now makes more sense to just load 'em onto your laptop and play them randomly with WinAmp. However, if you want something off those old LPs and 45s, you're first going to need something like the Ion.

December 12, 2005: In Search of the Digital Gumball Machine

Having installed and configured a number of middling PHP/MySQL server-side applications this past year, I've begun to wonder if we'll ever see an implementation of the Digital Gumball Machine. I've seen bits of it here and there, but so far I've seen nothing that pulls together everything I want in a single integrated app.

A "gumball machine" in my jargon is a very focused server app that takes money from a user and dispenses a file. The file can be anything: Software, music, image, ebook, whatever. The gumball machine app must be able to do the following:

  • Allow the creation (by the owner) of a catalog, with pre-designed themes that can be easily modified, or simply used as-is.
  • Create a secure connection with a purchaser's browser.
  • Allow a purchaser to browse a customizable catalog of digital products.
  • Maintain and allow editing of a shopping cart.
  • Accept and validate charge-card information.
  • Charge purchases to the entered and validated charge number.
  • Bundle multiple files (if the purchaser buys more than one) into a single Zip file.
  • (Optionally) call a module that performs an EFT to the owner's bank.
  • (Optionally) call a module that customizes a copy of a file before dispensing the file to the purchaser.
  • Download the purchased file to the purchaser's browser.
  • Do everything as easily as possible for both the owner of the system and the purchasers.

Needless to say, people do this stuff online all the time, but the mechanism is almost always a sloppy, ad-hoc lashup of several different parts that require a great deal of fooling-with, coding, and configuration. No, what I want is a gumball machine: Something that stands alone and contains both product and all machinery inside one single, completely integrated mechanism. I want it to be as easy to install and configure as phpBB or Gallery.

Only one bullet point might need a little explication. I want to be able to embed a serial number or other identifying information in a file. This could be as simple as writing text into a set-aside area of a binary file, or as complex as encoding purchaser identity into microscopic tweaks of a document's kerning, distributed across the entire document to make the identity harder to hack. This is something that depends on the nature of the medium being dispensed, so one version shouldn't have to handle everything (ebooks, music, images, etc.)

A gumball machine like this is really the last serious issue standing between ebooks and their general acceptance by the public. (That doesn't mean the other issues have been solved. Far from it. It's simply the last issue that I've identified and discussed in this space.) The gumball machine may well exist, since it isn't always obvious to me what machinery is running on the other side of a browser. If you're aware of some candidates, please send me pointers.

December 11, 2005: If You Want My Money...

Carol and I just watched TV for almost two hours (remarkable enough as it is) without seeing a single "holiday shopping" commercial use the C-word. The bigots in the advertising departments (or, more likely, the agencies who do the—wretch barf—"creative") are whispering in advertiser ears that "someone might be offended" if they use the word "Christmas" in a commercial. It doesn't matter that I find the omission offensive (especially since I know why it's happening) nor that I've never met a person who claimed to find Christmas offensive who didn't have a hidden agenda. So let's call the cowards on it. Below is a tagline. Let's see if we can make it a meme. Put it on your blogs. Make it into bumper stickers. Wear it on a button when you go shopping. Most important of all, make it clear to retailers and manufactures that next year, they should tell their bigot-driven ad agencies that

December 10, 2005: Scopitone and the Trolley

Tim Goss sent me a pointer to a remarkable Web site: Bedazzled, which presents a (huge) number of 60s and 70s music videos in QuickTime .mov format, many of which originally appeared on Scopitone machines. (Another Scopitone writeup is here.) The Scopitone is one of those forgotten electromechanical technologies that makes you shake your head in wonder that the damned thing worked at all. Scopitone machines were much more popular in Europe than here (especially in France and Germany) and few Americans even know they existed. They were basically coin-op 16mm film strip jukeboxes, and the direct ancestor of MTV-style music videos. Egad. I can understand how a 45 or CD jukebox might work, but the notion of selecting and threading 16mm film strips without human intervention ("Shark nerds always ran the projectors") sounds like a nightmare for somebody's repair techs. The clips are grainy and a little screechy, but wow, they take me back.

Anyway. Tim's interest was piqued by a clip of The Peppermint Trolley Company, which has long been my iconic no-hit-wonder 60s rock band. There are others; the Will-O-Bees and the Capes of Good Hope first among them, but nobody ever quite captured the sense of 60s soft-rock culture like the Trolley. I believe I now have everything they ever released, though some of it is in crappy shape, and none of it to my knowledge has ever appeared on CD. Their video (partial, alas) "Trust" is worth watching, especially if you were born years or decades after this style of music and performance was crushed under the weight of 70s leisure suits and disco balls.

December 9, 2005: Engine Winter

Nothing lasts forever, but Lionel train sets sure try. Carol and I have the set from her childhood, purchased in the early 1950s. My sister inherited the 1956 American Flyer set we had as kids, whereas I took the ancient and thoroughly beat-upon Lionel set that came down from my father's childhood in the late 1920s.

Carol and I put the trains around our Christmas tree for many years, though once we knew we were going to move from Arizona, things got crazy and they've stayed in the box since 2002. The other reason we hesitated to unpack them is that things were wearing out and starting to break. (But hey, fifty years for a toy! I'm not complaining!) Well, this year we took the bull by the horns and set up a tentative layout in the great room, a little earlier than usual so we could see what remained functional. I was quickly reminded of what we knew in 2002:

  • The three 75-year-old locomotives my father had are in pretty bad shape. All need new brushes, and the steam loco's left side rod broke away from the wheel and is held up with a piece of paper clip. (This actually happened in the 1930s, though the motor still runs.) One of my dad's oldies is even reasonably rare (electric loco model 250) but it's in such terrible shape I suspect it wouldn't even qualify as a parts unit.
  • The locomotive from Carol's set (the Pennsy S-2 turbine, Lionel model 671) began jamming back around 2000. I opened it up and found that the axle of the driven wheel is a little out of true, and the worm wheel on the axle has worn unevenly to the point where it skips teeth on the motor worm and jams.
  • In a fit of pique, Mr. Byte chewed up the little wooden barrels from the operating dump car in 1986.
  • About half the little magnetic milk barrels from the operating milk car have been lost.
  • A lot of the track is getting loose and carries current badly.
  • Most disturbingly, the Lionel transformer unit has become intermittent. This is a problem, because if power to the tracks drops even momentarily, the locomotives pause and reverse direction.

So here we are in 2005, with four malfunctioning locomotives and an intermittent transformer. I went down to the local train shop and bought a refurbed mid-1980's Lionel GG-1, in Pennsy Berkshire Green. Wonderful item! The quality of a model locomotive lies not in how fast it can go, but how slowly. The GG-1 moves at a magnificent crawl, at least until the transformer burps.

I tried and failed to repair the transformer, so for the last couple of evenings I've been setting up these mad-scientist lashups from junk in the basement to see what I could do. I have an old 36VDC 4A switching power supply from a long-extinct Convergent Technologies workstation. I found a circuit board I had built years ago with an LM350K variable regulator, and jury-rigged the regulator to the Convergent power supply. In doing so, I remembered something I learned ages ago: Switching power supplies do not like inductive loads, and they don't come any more inductive than low-voltage series-wound DC motors. The supply screamed like a wounded animal until I pulled the plug—and the test loco, my father's ancient and small American Flyer 1096, didn't budge.

So I guess I have to pop for a new transformer as well. (Do I remember having a small Variac somewhere in the basement? Am I brave enough to go looking?) I'm going to try to find a replacement driven axle for Carol's 671 loco (perhaps at the Great American Train Show, which comes to the Springs in mid-January) and by next Christmas may figure out how to get the old one out and the new one in. Somebody, somewhere can doubtless sell me some barrels and milk cans for the operating cars. (I haven't even started looking yet.) There's clearly some work to be done, but we will have moving trains this year, and by next Christmas, my goal is to have everything properly repaired, lubed, and in all ways resurrected. I'm fascinated by the notion of designing and building a power pack from scratch, but I told Carol to slap me if I ever start talking about it. Lord knows I have projects enough as it is.

December 8, 2005: The Price Of Lowering Global Friction

A downer opinion piece in ECommerce Times confirms what I've been guessing: That the huge recent improvements in US productivity have gone to equity holders and investors, while wages have stagnated or dropped. One way to put this is that the reduction in "global friction" (improved global broadband communications, "gold collar" outsourcing, reductions in trade barriers and tariffs, and relatively inexpensive travel and shipping) is pulling US wages down toward something like a global average, to which developing countries like India and China are rising. The American labor market is no longer insulated from the rest of the world's, nor is any significant labor market fully insulated from any other.

As the piece I cited suggests, the current housing bubble is giving Americans the continuing illusion of prosperity, but once it bursts, the real truth will become obvious: American prosperity is falling to fewer and fewer people in larger and larger organizations.

I'm amazed that more isn't being written about this. The media is obsessing on Iraq, and licking its chops anticipating that the War will hand the country back to the Democratic Party. I'm less sure; I think that people who lean center-right dislike the War less than they dislike the cesspool that the Democratic Party has become. (The Republicans, of course, have their own cesspool, and on election day we in the middle are forced to hold our noses and jump into one cesspool or the other.) Opposition to the War is fairly broad but only inches deep. Unless you have a loved one over there or are a bloodline liberal without enough to do, you're probably a lot more concerned with just making a living and paying the bills.

Economic issues trump war every time. It happened in 1992, and it may well happen again in 2008, whether we make a graceful exit from Iraq or not. The labor surplus I mentioned yesterday is not going away, and adding back friction to the global marketplace is much tougher than pulling it out. Nations may raise tariffs, but there are limits due to the hugely complex web that global commerce has become. People who make their living trucking or selling goods made in China (which is a lot of goods) will not favor higher tariffs on China, etc. So slowly by slowly, wages will continue to erode, and at some point the country will swing sharply left. Corporatism hasn't even tried to conceal its excesses since the Republicans took control of national government. They're making themselves an easy target. When the shift happens, we will see huge increases in wealth-related taxes, stiffening of labor laws, and a general increase in business regulation as "punishment" of corporatism.

This won't necessarily be a good thing, and I don't mean to imply that I support it. (This sort of revenge-by-government generally goes after all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.) I simply want to call your attention to the danger in having such a closely-divided electorate in a dicey economic climate. When blue balances red so perfectly, it doesn't take a lot of shift to make a huge difference in how things work in government, and sometimes punishing the rich can utterly remake the economic system. The personal income tax was instituted in 1913 to punish the gilded robber barons of the Northeast, who had gathered most of the national wealth to themselves. The nation after 1913 was radically different from the nation before 1913, something few people know because so few people read history anymore. Globalization and corporatism may trigger another shift, and how it may end up changing America will not be known until it happens.

December 7, 2005: Moving Back to a Labor Surplus

I often meditate on history (which is way more interesting than my navel!) and earlier today I had an interesting insight: We may be coming to the end of a century-long one-time labor shortage caused by industrialization. For the last 120 years or so, industrialization in the First World has grown more quickly than the labor pool, causing labor shortages. The peak of the labor shortage happened somewhere between 1945 and 1970 (I'm guessing 1968) and since then the labor pool has roughly kept pace with industry demand for labor. This is why real wages haven't grown much since the early 1970s. The Internet Bubble in the late 1990s got a lot of press, but the labor shortages there were very narrowly distributed. CCIEs saw their wages explode, but unskilled wages changed only a little—and come 2005, IT professionals are a glut on the market.

Labor shortages don't happen often. The only other massive labor shortage I can think of came to Europe in the wake of the Black Death. The labor supply dropped hugely behind traditional demand. Without a surplus of serfs, feudalism imploded, and the whole shape of European society and governance changed. Similarly, when industrialization moved labor demand hugely ahead of supply after WWII, unskilled workers could suddenly afford summer homes and a new car every three years.

Labor shortages are to some extent self-correcting. The Baby Boom was the proximate cause of the end of the postwar American labor shortage, as huge numbers of Boomers began entering the labor market in the late 1960s. And to some extent, labor surpluses are self-correcting as well: The "baby bust" effect that prosperity has on populations has reduced the birth rate in the West below replacement levels, and one would think that that would keep the labor supply mostly in sync with improvements in industrial productivity. Yes, but there's a problem: The rest of the world is suddenly in the game. This changes everything.

More tomorrow.

December 6, 2005: Cheap Photo Prints from Walgreens

The Christmas cards are out, and Carol and I were extremely impressed with the photo cards that Walgreens made up for us. (See yesterday's entry.) We didn't order enough to send to everyone; it was an experiment, but next year I think Walgreens will get the whole Christmas card franchise from this household, at least.

We created the card using an in-store kiosk, but Walgreens also has an upload service for digital camera pics. We tried it the other day. It was amazingly easy: You create an account at the Walgreens site, and then create an album on their server. This album receives the uploaded photos, and then you can review them online and print whichever ones you want. (We printed them all; I think the album mechanism is for people who do not pass their digital camera pics through their PCs.)

By the time we managed to get over to the local Walgreens later that day, the photos had already been printed for several hours. The printed photos were magnificent, with sharper resolution and much richer color than that produced by either my old Epson Photo Stylus 980 or the photo printer/dock that Carol got with her Kodak digital camera. The cost? 19 cents per print. It costs me 32 cents per print on the Epson (figuring both ink and special photo paper) and a little more on the Kodak printer/dock.

Not every Walgreens retail store has the photo print machine, but you can go to the Walgreens Web site and see if your local store does. If you have access to a Walgreens with the photo printer, I'd say give it a try. These are the best digital camera photo prints I have seen in years—and also the cheapest. That's a deal I can live with.

December 5, 2005: The Damnable Economics of Photo Printing

I just finished printing out 71 Christmas letters, each of which was a double-sided 8 1/2" X 11" sheet. There were two photos on each side, plus a lot of text. 71 letters (or 142 impressions, as we used to say at Xerox) essentially drained a pair of brand-new Epson ink cartridges dry. I paid $55 for the pair of cartridges (one black, the other color) and if you throw in a couple of cents for the bright-white inkjet paper, it means my Christmas letters cost me 40 cents each.

I have yet to figure why inkjet ink is so impossibly expensive. I suspect that they lose money on the printers and expect to make all their money on the ink. Modern inkjet printers are cheap fragile crap anyway; the problems I have had with the Epson Photo Stylus will turn up in a future entry. Epson will not allow their cartridges to be refilled, and Japanese firms are notorious for this sort of screw-the-consumer attitude. Along with NEC and Sony the Rootkitmeister, Epson is now on my list of Companies I Will Never Deal With Again. (Most of you have heard the story of the Keystone Kops adventure I had trying to buy a spare keyboard from NEC in 1986. I'm not sure NEC still exists, but if they do, it's no mystery why they are not a force in the personal computer business.)

Epson may simply be following general tech industry culture, though I'm pretty sure they were one of the first to gouge us on color ink. The problem is everywhere, and it's unclear what's to be done. That the problem is real is undeniable: This year Carol and I bought photo Christmas cards from Walgreens, of all places. They were printed in brilliant color on a decent-sized chunk of very nice photographic paper. We designed them in a kiosk in the local store, and the cards were finished less than an hour later. (It would have been sooner, the nice young man told us, but there were orders stacked up ahead of ours...) The cost? 19 cents each. On photographic paper. In 45 minutes. It took me a couple of hours and $55 worth of ink to print 71 Christmas letters in my basement on that $@%$* Epson Photo Stylus.

Next year I think our Christmas letter will be printed out on my faithful (and cheap) HP LaserJet 2100. Walgreens will do the photos. I'd like to say that Epson knows where they can stick it, but the sad thing is that (like NEC and Sony) they don't.

December 4, 2005: Thingamajigger Found

The logic was so clear I am mortified to admit that it didn't occur to me: The thingamajigger I described yesterday (with a drawing, no less) walked up walls. So Bishop Sam'l Bassett searched for "wall walker toy" and up popped Li'l Orby on a toy nostalgia site. I don't remember the molded eyes and nose (I remember them as painted on) but this is definitely the item.

The suction cup is missing from the bump on top of his head, as is the ring that allowed you to wind him up by pulling on a string. The string came out of the body through the little hole at bottom center, and when you pulled the ring tied to the end of the string, it wound up the internal spring. The string would then slowly withdraw into the mechanism as Orby climbed the wall.

Evidently the toy is in considerable demand, as there are "wanted" notices posted on eBay. My guess is that they are rare because a) they walked up walls and b) were made of breakable plastic. Klaus Bruhn sent me a pointer to a picture of the "Yogi Wall Walker" bird, which looks smaller but probably used the same general mechanism.

I doubt these would be popular today for a less-than-obvious reason: Smooth semi-gloss walls and ceilings are much less common than they used to be. All of my walls for many years have had a roughed-up texture, to which a suction cup will not adhere. My ceilings, furthermore, have either been textured or flat white, neither of which would afford much traction to poor Orby. He was a 50's thing adapted to a 50's environment. Oh, the grim, grim hand of evolution!

December 3, 2005: How to Search for a Thingamajigger

While I was shoveling snow this evening (we got about nine inches here on the mountainside) I was just letting my brain freewheel, and I turned up a stray memory. When I was six or seven I had a toy that was the guldurndest thing: It was a hollow red plastic ball about the size of a baseball, with a goofy painted-on face and a short forked tail. It had a little wheel inside the ball that had ten or twelve suction cups on it. (There was also a single suction cup on the top of its "head.") If you wound it up (and sometimes put some spit on the suction cups) it would climb right up the kitchen wall, assuming the kitchen wall was painted with the semi-gloss paint that ruled kitchen decor in 1959. If the kitchen ceiling was also painted semi-gloss and allowed the suction cups to get a grip, the damned thing would do its jerky little walk right across the ceiling.

I did a quick Visio sketch of a top and side view at left, though I omitted the internal wheel with the suction cups. It was a clever mechanism, if you could get past the obvious downside: If it ran out of spring tension while it was halfway across the kitchen ceiling, your mom had to go get the stepstool and grab it off the ceiling before its suction cups let go, allowing it to fall to the floor and shatter into a thousand pieces.

Ok. It's a pretty clear memory...except that I have no idea what it was called. It was a toy. It was supposed to represent an alien. It was spring-driven. It walked across the ceiling. It had suction cups. It was red. I get nothing off Google, but there are a lot of alien toys, a lot of toys with suction cups, and a lot of Web pages listing toys for collectors. Although I'd like to learn what it was called (and perhaps find a photo) the more interesting question is this: How do you search for something when you can picture it very clearly but can't discern enough distinguishing search terms?

The obvious solution is to post a note like this on some sort of toy collectors' forum. Sure—and eventually, I will. But hey, it's 2005. Are we not geeks? Should there not be some way to find this thing without having to ask a real person? What are computers for if not to find things for us? (Our technology may not be as advanced as we think...)

December 2, 2005: Visualizing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Several people asked, and Pete Albrecht identified the rousing orchestral number to which a chap in Ohio synchronized his yard full of Christmas lights. The piece is "Wizards in Winter" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (from their CD The Lost Christmas Eve) and the story of the video clip can be found here. I had a hunch it was TSO when I first heard the piece, so it came as no surprise; it's just their style, which is a mixture of classical and rock technique not horribly unlike Emerson, Lake, & Palmer did 25+ years ago (anybody remember "Nutrocker"?) only loads better.

I was surprised to learn that it didn't take man-years of engineering to pull this off. Displaymaster Carson Williams wrote up a description of how he did it, which involved sequencing a large number of lights through a commercial product called Light-O-Rama. Rather than put speakers in the windows and shake the ground up and down the street, he put the music out through a very low-power FM transmitter gadget, so that if you were cruising by in your car, you could tune to a spot on the FM band and listen while the lights did their thing. FB.

Another one of Carson's creations is here. Is it just me, or during the display does Carson's house look like a startled frog licking his chops?

December 1, 2005: Odd Lots

  • I just put up our Christmas lights, earlier this season than ever, probably because it's been years since we've had any outside Christmas lights at all. And if I feel extravagant, I can always summon up this short video from Google Videos, referred to me by George Ott. Puts my own little display right into perspective.
  • And that said, spend some time poking around Google Videos. I'm not entirely sure what to say about it, but it has a certain entertainment value. For example, I've never wondered what would happen if you put a whole roll of Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, but if I ever did, well, now I'd know. And if you're a sucker for puppies (like guess who) don't miss this one.
  • A company is using Wi-Fi to coordinate lines of pheromonic mosquito attractor/killers into a kind of Invisible Fence for the little bloodsuckers. Whether it works or not, it certainly counts as the wildest technology idea of 2005.
  • The Pope is apparently about to decommission limbo. I was going to use that as an intro to my rant on Augustine of Hippo, but I chickened out. Now if we can only get rid of mandatory celibacy, Opus Dei, ugly churches, and hymns that sound like dirges...
  • For the smallest convertible Tablet PC yet, check out the Flybook. Looks like a fine ebook reader, if you can get past the $2500 price tag—and the fact that it's going to be sold in upscale clothing shops.
  • 320 GB hard disks are now commodity items, stacked like cordwood at OfficeMax.
  • And if you need some content to fill your rack full of 320 GB hard drives, well, consider this. Having scanned a couple of books the hard way, I'd say that they're going to find a ready market...but if you have to ask, you can't afford it. (Thanks to Paul Santa-Maria for putting me on to it.)