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December 31, 2008: My 2009 Plan File

2008 was Not My Favorite Year. Too many deaths, too many illnesses, too many trips to the dentist, and too many financial collapses. I have high hopes for 2009, but that's part & parcel of being a Pollyanic Old Catholic. Hey, when you're down this far, every direction is up, right?

So in this, the last (I sincerely hope) Contra entry that I will ever edit by hand, I present my plan file for the coming year:

  • Get Contra settled in to its new home on under the WordPress platform. Easy one, though we'll know more tomorrow.
  • Begin and complete the rewrite of Assembly Language Step By Step for the Third Edition, and hopefully see it into print by the spring of 2010. This is a big-un, and the top priority, as there is considerable money riding on it.
  • Finish and publish Cold Hands and Other Stories, my second SF collection. Richard Bartrop has already sent me sketches for the cover art, and they look great. As soon as I can get "Drumlin Wheel" completed and cleaned up, I have enough material for a book, and after that, finishing it the book is just a few days of focused work.
  • Finish Old Catholics, or at least get another 50,000 words into it. (I have about 27,000 words down now.) This has been fun, and it's certainly the quirkiest thing I've ever attempted to write.
  • Build a couple of radios. I have the schematic for John Baumann KB7NRN's 2-tube FM BCB receiver, and that's tops on the list.
  • Get my 40M dipole out of my alarm system's hair and do some hamming on the low bands.
  • Get a 6M vertical of some sort situated in the attic.
  • Get the last crown installed in my mouth. (This should happen in early February.) That's the end of a miserably massive piece of oral rehab that begin in January 2008, and (mercifully) this last step involves no cutting.
  • Finish and launch a couple of model rockets with the local club.
  • Read Many Books.
  • Eat Less Sugar. Eat More Meat. Lose More Weight. (More on this shortly.)
  • Enjoy the immediate presence of my wife, my dogs, and this extravagantly beautiful world.

Other things will certainly happen along the way, and maybe half of the above list will not happen, though I have great faith in the second item and complete faith in the last.

(Don't forget that the next time you check for new Contra entries, they will not be here. Please click through to Jeff Duntemann's ContraPositive Diary and update your bookmarks.)

As for tonight, well, Carol and I will remain at home, watch a movie, brush dogs, and maybe have a glass of wine. There's a decent conjunction of the Moon and Venus just after sunset, and I intend to gawk at that a little. Come midnight, I may jump up and yell "Bang!" in honor of fireworks, if I'm still awake. (If I'm not still awake, the kids down on Villegreen will handle it for me, and I'll be awake one way or another.)

Happy New Year from both of us; like, how hard could that be?

December 30, 2008: Running Out of 2008

Carol and I got back to Colorado Springs a few hours ago, and the suitcases haven’t been emptied yet–in fact, they’re in a pile in the corner of the bedroom and may not even be unlocked until tomorrow morning. But on the way home from the airport we picked up the puppies, who seem no worse for the wear, except for their tear-staining. We give them occasional doses of Tylan to treat the staining, but we don’t expect the kennel people to keep up with that. So they’re going to be redeyed for a couple of weeks yet.

The priority today and tomorrow is to get ready for the big switchover from hand-edited Contra entries (something I’ve been doing for over ten years!) to WordPress. I did some testing of a free blog editor called Zoundry Raven while I was in Chicago, and it worked well enough for me to want to give it a shot in “production mode.” This post is being edited in Raven, and if everything works correctly, it will post the same text and associated images to both LiveJournal and WordPress with one click and without a lot of screwing around. The images were an issue on my test post for December 23, and they may still be, but I’m running out of time to troubleshoot them this year, and I may have to fix’n'figger along the way if Glitch Happens. (And doesn’t it always?)

The new URL for the WordPress-based Contra will be, in case you haven’t seen that yet. Come Friday, there will be no new posts on, though links to all ten years’ worth of archives will still be there, at least until I get them moved to the new domain. How far back I move the hand-edited archives into WordPress depends heavily on how much work it ends up being, and that remains an open issue.

December 28, 2008: The Real Problem With Big 3 Bankruptcy

I've been very puzzled by Big Media's consensus that we simply can't allow the Big Three to file for bankruptcy. I guess too many people think that "bankruptcy" means sending everybody home, closing the doors forever, and selling off the machines for ten cents on the dollar. There are, of course, forms of bankruptcy that work that way, but that's not what anybody's talking about. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is about reorganization with an eye toward continued operation. The reorganized company is forgiven some of its debts and is given more flexibility to remake itself as a profitable operation. That's what all three of our automakers should be doing, and should have been working in that direction for some time. But GM's board says that bankruptcy is not an option.

In cruising online articles, I find it peculiar that no one is raising an interesting possibility: Bankruptcy for the Big Three means an end to the UAW as we know it—and the Big Three can no longer operate their plants without the UAW's help. Chapter 11 would basically allow a judge to tear up an automaker's union contracts, allowing the firm to cut salaries, lay off as many people as it wants to without union consultation, and nullify work rules. It basically turns a union shop into a union-less shop (not a non-union shop, but a shop in which the union exists without any power) and the unique problem with that is that without UAW cooperation, it's unclear whether GM, Ford, or Chrysler management know enough about their own SOPs to make the plants work. The UAW, seeing its own inevitable death (or at least irrelevancy) would have no strong motivation to work with reorganized automakers. Whether or not the rank and file would want to keep working, the UAW could shut the American portion of the industry down, in a strike not so much against management as against American society. It would be a weird twist on the goofy Ayn Randian idea of creative people withdrawing from society to punish society for not "appreciating" their self-defined importance. "Give us billions of dollars annually forever or you won't be able to buy Chevies anymore!" Uhhh, no. It won't work for the Objectivists, and it won't work for the UAW.

On the other hand, such a shutdown, as hard as it would be on the workers, could be the only way to force the changes that have to happen: The Big Three would close for perhaps as much as a year, and maybe more, while plants are shuttered, marques retired (do we still need Buick? Or Pontiac?) and the entire process of making autos rebuilt from the ground up, more along the lines of non-union plants operated in the South by overseas companies. There's a good description of what such a process might be like over at The Deal, and although it goes deeper into the finance than most of us could follow, it's worth a look. This would not be the end of the world. It needn't be the end of the UAW, either, but the UAW will have to retool itself every bit as much as management will have to retool the plants.

The other and perhaps more serious problem with the UAW is that GM (as an example) has three times as many retiree members as working members, and retirees have voting rights. In effect, the UAW is no longer a worker's union but a pension management organization, and this should make us a little uneasy. Keeping the plants running is no longer the overriding concern of UAW membership. The Feds absorbed the pension plans of dying railroads, and this may be one reason we cannot make passenger rail service work over here. (The article is ten years old but worth reading.) There is some danger that a special autoworkers' retirement system could make it impossible to produce autos profitably here, but I haven't been able to find enough on this to have a strong opinion.

I guess the whole situation is a lot more complex than anyone has understood prior to now. Taylorism and the century-long one-time labor shortage created by industrialization made trade unionism inevitable, but both of those forces are now history. The Big Three need to be remade along the lines of the Little Five, the foreign-owned "transplant" automakers that seem to be doing quite well in the US. They are not sweatshops, and their people seem to be happy. The UAW may refuse to do this, and management probably doesn't know how. Without cooperation by both, the task may be impossible, and American automaking may go the way of the railroads, or become impossible except for foreign corporations. It's a weird, sad business.

December 25, 2008: "God Bless All of You...on the Good Earth"

Forty years ago, we watched three human beings travel to the Moon. Well, they got there, and took a spin or two around it, and then came home. They didn't land, but that's ok. (Gravity wells are a bitch.) We didn't appreciate at the time what a feat it was, and would not in fact understand the bittersweet truth for many years thereafter: We had a window; it opened, and it closed. It may not open again—but while it was open, we took it.

Nonetheless, that was a Christmas unlike any other. For years afterward I had a poster with the Earth rising over a gray Moon and the inscription: "In the Beginning, God..." It was part of the Christmas Eve reading by Borman, Lovell, and Anders as they circled the Moon, which brought tears to countless eyes (including my own) and continued the movement of my idea of God into the cosmic, far beyond the cartoonish oversimplifications that were taught in Catholic grade school, things that, sadly, still define Christianity in most of the world. God and the universe are far larger and more complex (and wonderful) than we can possibly imagine, but I gave it a good shot, and forty years on I am a different man for it. I require broader perspectives in myself than I otherwise might have been content with, and (more significantly) I challenge all conventional wisdom. That was my biggest Christmas present in 1968.

Carol and I will rejoin her family later today in Crystal Lake (along with Bill and Gretchen and the girls) to have Christmas yet again. (Why do something that good only once?) I leave you for the moment with the conclusion of Apollo 8's Christmas message:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

December 24, 2008: Sliding Into Christmas

I'm not even sure I've mentioned that Carol and I are in Chicago for Christmas, though it's a shorter trip than most and (as always) nothing has happened quite as quickly nor as well as we had hoped. This is worse weather than I've seen on a trip here in years: bitter cold followed by three days of more or less continuous precipitation. (As I was saying while shopping the last few days to anyone who would listen: "So much for global warming." Let's see if we can make it a meme, or at least a contrarian tagline.)

Yesterday was unusually bad here in Des Plaines. Our condo is only a few minutes from Randhurst Mall, the oldest enclosed mall in the Chicago area and at one point in the mid-60s the second-largest enclosed retail space in the country. So I decided to head up there, hit Borders on the outskirts, and then prowl the mall for some last minute gift ideas in the smaller shops. It took me half an hour to get there in our rented Camry, slipping and sliding down Rand Road at ten to fifteen miles an hour, dodging whackos in their CJs who didn't seem to grok important things like the reduced coefficient of friction. And when I got there, egad: They had closed the mall three months ago. (One downside to being an out-of-towner is being out of the loop. Hey, you coulda told me about that! This is my hometown! That was my mall! Most of my underwear came from Randhurst when I was a teenager!) When the snow melts (if it ever does) they're going to tear the mall down and build a "lifestyle center," which is code these days for "more damfool condos."

Well, they're certainly going to tear it down. Whether the condos actually happen or not, we'll see. In any event, some of the outlying big-box stores were open, and I picked up some odds and ends at Borders and Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Spotted a book I had heard about and meant to grab for some time: Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, (reviewed briefly here) which is a polemical history of the battle over whether fat or carbs make you overweight. You've all heard my opinions on that, and with some luck Taubes will have organized the research into a form that I can digest and cite to the carbohydrate deniers when they dive down my throat for eating bacon and eggs regularly and yet having the temerity to weigh less now than I have in 20 years.

I barely got home intact after threading the ice ballet back along Rand Road, and (having nabbed a reasonable night's sleep) will shortly be headed off to Crystal Lake (a 35-mile slither out Highway 14) to pick up Carol, visit her mom, and then mid-afternoon head back down to Des Plaines for our Polish Vigilia supper at Gretchen's. Vigilia is Polish for "vigil," and it's a Polish custom we observed on Christmas Eve when Gretchen and I were kids. In short, the family gathers for simple foods from the old country (ok, augmented by some odd Americanisms like Hawaiian salad) sweet red wine (the first Gretchen and I had ever had) and a blessing ritual I didn't appreciate until I was much older: Breaking oplatki (a thin white wafer like Roman Catholic communion hosts) with one another and offering a blessing and a wish for the coming year.

Do read what I wrote back in 2001 about Vigilia and oplatki. It's as true now as then, especially with our nephews grown men with ladyloves of their own, and Gretchen's girls becoming interesting individuals in their own right—and at top volume. After a run of years when it seemed like every Christmas there were fewer hands across the table to offer oplatki, life is reasserting itself, and reminding us that renewal happens. Bidden or unbidden, recognized or unrecognized, God is with us, and (as slippery as things get at times) life is good.

December 21, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Foxit Software (which sells a line of very good PDF-related software, including the Foxit Reader, which I use daily) has announced an e-ink based ebook reader, the eSlick. The device isn't being shipped yet, but there have been some early reactions in Wired and other places. I'm interested because Foxit is unlikely to claim (as most ebook enthusiasts do) that PDF is the spawn of the devil. Worth watching.
  • The Loopy Idea of the Month comes from two Ohio academics who have recently patented the notion of collapsing hurricanes by flying around them in supersonic aircraft and (somehow) using the sonic boom shockwaves to scramble the storm. Apart from the fact that supersonic aircraft use fuel at a prodigous rate, I still don't quite follow the physics of how this is supposed to collapse the storm. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Jim Strickland passed a long a detailed how-to for extracting metallic titanium from white pigment. The process is straightforward, if (as it must be) highly energetic. I think the stickier question is working the titanium after it's been isolated. Titanium is difficult to melt and very difficult to machine. I have a piece in my curio cabinet, and I'm very glad I don't have to make anything from it.
  • Many people sent me the latest version of the old joke that "If Programming Languages Were Religions..." most of them lamenting that my favorite language—and my favorite religion—were not included. So it goes. I'm guessing that Pascal, like Catholicism, is patient: There will be only one programming language in use in the hereafter, and it will not be C++. You'll have to go somewhere else for that.
  • The Wall Street Journal tells me that the RIAA is abandoning its mass-lawsuit strategy of copyright enforcement. It hasn't worked at reducing music piracy, and its sole effect was making the music industry bigshots look positively evil. One can only wonder why it took so long to figure this out, and whether the damage can ever really be undone.
  • Here's a wry peek at what we may see come out of the Big 3 bailout. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link. Have you driven a Pelosi lately?
  • Also from Pete comes word that Werner Von Braun wrote SF. This actually looks pretty good—gotta love that cover!

December 19, 2008: Is Everybody Happy?

I just ordered two books: Gross National Happiness by Arthur Brooks, and The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. The books are part of my long-term research into why we think and act the way we do. I'll report further next year when I summarize my thoughts so far, but sniffing around online for reactions to Brooks' book has raised an interesting question: Can we in fact measure happiness?

I don't always agree with Arthur Brooks, but I admire his willingness to bring up issues that seem calculated to infuriate liberal opinion-makers—and back his opinions up with reasonable research. One of his controversial positions in Gross National Happiness is that happiness appears to correlate with intensity of religious feelings. Cato research fellow Will Wilkinson challenges that thesis in his blog, and whereas it's a reasonable counterpoint, one of the comments below Wilkinson's essay hit the whole problem between the eyes: People belonging to deeply conservative religious organizations are pressured, sometimes intensely, to say that they're happy. (The commenter claims to be a lapsed Evangelical.) This maps with my own experience dealing with the conservative Catholic fringe, and yet the truth is that a lot of these people seem to me to be not only deeply unhappy, but on the thin edge of panic.

Why this should be is a subject I hate to broach at all and can't even attempt right now, but set it aside for the moment. The real flaw in Brooks' research may be that asking a person if he or she is happy is not a useful way to measure happiness. I see research summarized online indicating that the people in Nigeria are the happiest people in the world, though more recent research tags the Danes. The summaries understate the obvious: Happiness does not mean the same thing to all people. Worse, there are cultural pressures in a lot of places to fit in and not make a fuss (Japan comes to mind) and heavy pressure in religious and other tribal organizations to claim that the tribe provides everything they need to be happy—leading their adherents to make the statements that are simply expected of them. It's like the ritual answer to the seminal rhetorical question, "How ya doin'?" People who answer something other than "Great!" don't really understand the ritual.

It might be more useful to measure happiness by way of things like public civility, rate and tenure of marriage, incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, and so on. If research must be based on questionnaires, it may be possible to approach the matter from the other side, by asking more oblique questions about feelings like satisfaction, pain, sadness, or enthusiasm, or at least things that are not obviously a part of cultural or religious scripts. The truth may be that the whole question is meaningless; after all, what is the objective experience of the color red, or the taste of dry wine? We all experience the world differently, and we interpret that experience for ourselves through the lens of our culture and the social structures that are the most important to us. If we badly want to be part of a sophisticated social culture, we may choke down a crappy bitter Cabernet and praise it to the ceiling even if (to us) it's (red) swill, because that's what the cultural leaders and our "initiated" peers expect. This is a very deep well of inquiry, and I will be writing more about it in months to come.

We'll see what Brooks has to say when the book arrives, but I'm suspicious of the premise, even though I would be happy (as it were) to be proven wrong.

December 17, 2008: Red Swill and Warfarin

Today's entry is about classic rat poison. Or maybe a Georgian folk band. (From our Georgia.) Or perhaps the mis-persistence of memory, mine specifically. And certainly about the power of true names.

Hokay. Calling all Baby Boomers formerly of Chicago: Do you recall seeing signs tacked to the wooden power poles in the alley, warning us that the City of Chicago had set out "Red Swill and Warfarin" to combat rats? The memory came to mind in an odd way: I had remembered my writer friend Chuck Ott casually remarking, some time back in the 70s, that "Red Swill and Warfarin" would be a great name for a fantasy thief and his barbarian sidekick. The signs were a commonplace when I was ten or twelve. And whereas it's been my experience that absolutely everything has been mentioned somewhere on the Web at least once (and thus findable via Google) I found nothing about "red swill and warfarin." I did find a decent folkie band in Macon called Red Swill. I found plenty about warfarin, which is a medical anticoagulant that was toxic in rats until the rats ate a little too much of it and started developing tolerance in the 1960s. But no mention of the signs, which all my Boomer friends knew as just part of the alley background in our home town.

Pete Albrecht mentioned on Skype last night that there is an herbal called red squill that is toxic in large doses, and (significantly) an emetic. That's a big deal if you're a rat, because rats can't vomit, and emetics put them into convulsions. Aha! So we do find mention of the thief and his barbarian:

It was the spring of 1967 [in Lincoln Park, Chicago] when I came up with a plan. Spring was when they baited Pearl Court with Red Squill and Warfarin, and every few days you’d see a dead rat lying there. Many of them were decomposing and maggot-eaten but one day I found one in perfect condition. I picked up that rat by the tail and put it in a shoebox. I took it to my grandmother’s house, the back yard of which adjoined Pearl Court, wrapped the box with brightly colored paper and tied it with a shiny ribbon. I then took it over to Robin’s house a block away. He wasn’t home, but his older sister was outside with some of her friends. “Hi, Debbie,” I said in as casual a tone as I could muster, “I have a present for Robin. Please give it to him and make sure you tell him it’s from me.” The next day in school he approached me, grinning like a jackal, and spoke his first, but not last words to me. “Thanks for the present!”

Yet another example (in my long list) of the truth that if you don't know what something is called, you can't find it. The last time it was coupler nuts, but the nice man at Ace Hardware looked at the sample I had found in my junkbox and took me right to them. The time before that it was golabki. (I know a few Polish words, but can't spell them.) This may be an unsolveable problem, or at least one with no general solution.

And while I'm at it, here is more than you probably wanted to know about all the various concoctions used to kill rats. Bad beer with a little food coloring might work too, but I'll leave the experiment to someone else.

December 16, 2008: Mikogo Over Skype

Yesterday I discovered Mikogo, a Net meeting/remote desktop technology that would be a lot like VNC and the others I've played with, except that it can be configured to piggyback on Skype. There is a Mikogo Skype "extra" (what Skype calls its plug-ins) and I will be using it to give a remote lecture on Carl & Jerry to the Southwest Ohio Digital and Technical Symposium on January 10, with the help of Jay Slough K4ZLE.

Jay and I gave it a spin yesterday to make sure we could connect during the Symposium in January, and in addition to working well, Mikogo was mighty cool. You install the extra from the Skype Extras menu, and it comes down the same way that other Skype extras do. Once installed, you can create a 1-to-1 or 1-to-many connection with anybody else who has the Mikogo Skype extra running. Skype handles the audio, and where the connection is between two machines, the "presenter" (the machine that provides a screen echo to the other) can be switched back and forth at any time. Mikogo has a simple whiteboard feature that allows the presenter to draw lines in various thicknesses, colors, and shapes on the screen. It also has the option of remote control, so that the non-presenter can use the mouse and keyboard on the presenter's machine. Pete Albrecht and I plan to try using Mikogo over Skype to allow me to control Pete's big Meade telescope from here in Colorado, at least when it stops raining in Orange County.

I don't have a great deal of experience with the Mikogo system yet, but after an hour or so of solid connections with Jay and with Pete, I can say that it's well worth trying if you have any use for that sort of thing.

December 15, 2008: Rant: Record-Breaking Cold

It was five below zero when we got up this morning, and The Weather Channel indicated that this was a new record low for December 15 in Colorado Springs. It was so damned cold out on the back deck this morning that the dogs didn't want to do their business; they just stood there looking pitiful, picking up one foot and then another until we let them in. That was 6:30 AM. Mid-afternoon, it's up to a sweltering ten degrees Farenheit right now, and Aero was willing to lift his leg at least once without trying to lift all four feet simultaneously.

We've started to see a pattern here. When we first moved to Colorado Springs it was dry and relatively warm. Between 2002 and 2006 the area was in a deepish drought, with much fear that our reservoirs up in the Rockies were running dry. Snow was sparse and didn't amount to much. Water restrictions were austere, and we designed our house and yard such that little nor no watering would have to be done. Everything's on a dripper, with a sensor in the rain gutter ready to shut the system down for several days after any detectable rain. Oh, and I have zero grass to mow.

The last two winters here, however, have been much colder and snowier, and have begun significantly earlier. People used to joke about golfing on Christmas Day; well, not since 2006. We had plenty of rain last spring and summer, and the reservoirs are full enough so that nobody's worried. The city has complained, in fact, that citizens have been so good about conserving water that their water revenues are down "critically." It was a good excuse to try to raise taxes, but they have to ask us first in Colorado, and we whipped their greedy asses this recent election cycle. The city's response? Forget cutting expenses. Repeal the water restrictions, environment be damned. (Goes to show you how much governments really "care.")

So we're buckling down here for a long, cold, and expensive winter. I find it interesting that over the past few years, whenever there occurred any weather that somebody somewhere didn't like, it was immediately ascribed to Global Warming™—unless it was colder-than-average temps. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, what have you: Global Warming™! Cold arctic air over Nebraska? Umm, well, errrr...let's see what the weather's like in Costa Rica! And how 'bout them Blackhawks!

It was, of course, a horrible mistake to call anthropogenic climate change "global warming" to begin with. We know almost nothing about the forces that bear on climate. We know to some extent what climate was like in the past, but we have almost no idea why particular changes occurred when and where they did. Our computer climate models are garbage. The science is not so much bad as absent. And even though regional cooling is as likely an effect of elevated CO2 levels as regional warming, voters who are half-bankrupted by winter heating bills are going to going to cast a jaundiced eye on the alarmists who spun tales of melting icecaps and smothering heat. Like almost everything else, it's a lot more complex and subtle than that.

We need to work on reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This begins and mostly ends with wholesale adoption of nuclear energy. (If you don't think so, show me the math for your solution.) We also need to admit that we know almost nothing about what changes in atmospheric chemistry can actually do. We are not good at this. We are really not good at this. Reducing CO2 levels could cause regional warming—or another Ice Age. The science just isn't there. Let us not pretend that we are smarter than we are, shall we? (We were clearly not smart enough to avoid using an idiot's moniker like "global warming" to describe a difficult and subtle scientific challenge.)

December 13, 2008: WordPress Tags and Categories

Contra is moving to its own domain January 1, and will become a WordPress install as of that date. (Posts there now are all test posts and will be deleted before it goes live.) I've been studying Wordpress and configuring the install to do what I need it to do, and although it's taken some time and some fooling-with, long-term it will save me a huge amount of effort, compared to the hand-editing I have done now for over ten years.

One of the interesting features of WordPress is that it supports both tags and categories. A lot of people scratch their heads over that, but when I saw it I understood it immediately. Tags and categories both apply a text string to a post. The differences from a content management perspective are minor: Categories are predefined and applied via a drop-down list, but you create tags "on the fly" at post-time. You can use tags and categories interchangeably if you want, but using them together allows an interesting sort of two-axis classification of posts. One axis (best handled by tags) describes what a post is about: politics, religion, publishing, Linux, Wi-Fi, and so on. The other axis (best handled by categories) describes the shape of a post, in the sense of a literary form: idea pieces, reviews, rants, travelogs, memoir, and so on. The increase in precision is delicious: Not all posts about wine are reviews—I've done at least one wine rant and will probably do more, and wine travelogs are possible—but if you're more interested in reviews than in rants, selecting the "reviews" category and looking for the "wine" tag will get you exactly what you want.

Both categories and tags work best when used sparingly. Five hundred tags each used once or twice are not only not as useful as keyword search (which is available in WordPress) but less useful, because after awhile we forget what tags we've created and create new tags that are so similar as existing tags as to spawn serious search entropy. (I had this problem on LiveJournal more than once.)

Categories in particular should be few and distinct. I brainstormed with myself a few days ago, jotted down as many category identifiers as occurred to me, and then ruthlessly winnowed the list down to a predetermined limit of ten or fewer. The eight categories I settled on are these:

Daybook: Everyday activities; "Dear Diary:"
Ideas & Analysis: Commentary on news plus ideas and speculation
Memoir: My personal history
Odd Lots: Short items presented without much discussion
Rants: Complaints and other over-the-top material
Reviews: Evaluations of products or services
Travelogs: Where I went and what I saw/suffered/learned in going
Tutorials: How things work and how to do them

I also have a tags list that runs to a little over fifty right now, and includes all the expected keywords describing my many interests, like religion, publishing, ebooks, dogs, hardware, ham radio, psychology, and so on. I spent a sobering half an hour meditating on my accumulated tags list in LiveJournal and threw most of them out. I'm going to try to keep myself to fifty tags or fewer and don't expect a great deal of difficulty creating the list. (I'll post it once I consider it reliable.) This sort of thing is called a "controlled vocabulary" in information science circles, and the trick, of course, is to keep it controlled.

LiveJournal will continue to be a mirror. One unanswered question is whether I will attempt to import LiveJournal posts to WordPress. This apparently can be done, though I haven't tried it and understand that it could seriously mess up my newfound tag discipline—and require me to categorize several hundred posts. I may import but only selectively. Research continues.

December 10, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Carol and I just finished the bulk of our Christmas cards. The cards we bought this year had little sparkles glued (badly) to them, and as we processed the 70-odd cards going out, the cards began shedding, and sparkles are now showing up...everywhere. I'm looking down at my shirt cuffs right now, and they're blazing like a disco ball. Next year: No sparkles!
  • Illinois' illustrious governor will soon (we hope) be matriculating to the Governors' Wing at the Joliet Correctional Center, and I am displeased to announce that he went to my high school. In fact, he was a freshman when I was a senior, and his sneaky little face is in the Lane Tech 1970 yearbook. Pete Albrecht was also a freshman that year, and narrowly missed out on the cooties inherent in having a future felon governor in your homeroom. Pete tells the story at greater length (with scans from the yearbook) over at InfoBunker. (Scroll down to the December 9, 2008 entry.)
  • David Beers passed along a link to what might be the absolute worst idea of 2008: Google Code's research project aimed at allowing x86 native code to run in a browser. Hoo-boy. My question: If the Cloud is so great, why risk being pwned at native-code speeds? (And isn't this what Java is for?)
  • Google Books has very recently posted back issues for a number of venerable magazines, including Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, CIO, Ebony, Jet, New York, Vegetarian Times, American Cowboy, and who knows what else. (I don't see a master list of magazines.) The PM collection runs from 1905 to 2000, and isn't just a scattering of issues, but damned near all of them. So what was PM's cover story the month you were born? (Mine? "Mermaid Theater." Wow.)
  • Alas, you can look at the Google Books magazine back issues, but you can't save them to disk or print them out. Or can you? (I haven't tried this yet.)
  • The wonderfully named Nevada Lightning Laboratory has managed to transmit 800 watts of power across five meters' distance, besting the previous record of 60 watts across two meters, set by MIT. The technique is not new, and was patented by our boy Nikola Tesla 100 years ago. Very cool, but are my wire-frame glasses going to melt when I step into the field with my Tesla-powered laptop?
  • This Friday's full Moon happens only four hours from Lunar perigee, and is the biggest of the year, 14% greater in angular diameter (not especially noticeable) and 30% brighter (way noticeable!) than the apogee Moon we saw earlier this year. That's bright, it's high, and if you've got snow all over the place, midnight will be knee-deep in moonshine. (Not that kind.)
  • 200,000 inflatable breasts got lost on their way from China (where there is evidently an inflatable breast factory) to Australia (where they were to be polybagged with a men's magazine) and have only recently been found in Melbourne. Just thought you'd like to know.

December 8, 2008: The Algernon Conundrum

My previous entry on drug prohibition (December 5, 2008) triggered a great deal of discussion, and prompted someone to send me a link to a story on chemical cognitive enhancement. People are using a number of drugs and non-regulated chemicals to give themselves a performance edge at work or school, and the question of whether this is a good thing or not is complex. Caffeine tops the list of cognitive enhancers by popularity; I also have an intuition that certain "smart drinks" containing herbals like ginko biloba really work because they have more caffeine than Mountain Dew. Most cognitive enhancers are stimulants of some kind, and people who depend on them often lose sleep, which some research suggests is behind a great many health problems from obesity to hypertension. Other less obvious effects may exist. Caffeine is ancient but most other nootropic drugs are not, and we have no clue what they might do to the human system over an adult life of forty years or more.

However, someday we will know. The question then becomes: If we can improve brain function with chemicals that have no adverse effects, should we? And if those chemicals actually make human beings brighter, less angry, more social, or more effective in other ways, are there grounds for restricting their use? One could argue that life's game is now all about brains and personality—brawn went out of fashion as a career choice a generation ago—and letting people "cheat" with pills or patches is fundamentally unfair to those who can't afford the pills or patches or by some odd quirk of physiology do not respond to them. Beyond that, objections thin out pretty quickly. The benefits are immense, and if the costs were modest, we could make the enhancers available to anybody who wanted them.

The remaining objection is subtle: There are rarely any free lunches. Assuming that we can find cognitive enhancers without some sort of damaging side effects might be naive. Evolution made us as we are, and did so at the cost of billions of "bad throws" of the genetic dice. Making better humans may come at a cost, and the SF writer in me wants to ask questions like this: Suppose you could boost your intelligence radically using a chemical that cranked up brain chemistry at the cost of burning your brain out after forty years or so. I'm not talking about a little better detail recall or a little more personal energy to work through your do-it list. (That's what people who use Ritalin or Provigil today are achieving.) I'm talking about being able to grasp and integrate massive amounts of information into your daily experience of life; of being able to hold dazzlingly interesting discussions with other people that range across all human knowledge; of being able to understand the ways that widely separated facts interlock and shed light on things that you would never have thought were related at all. Burning through a do-it list a little faster is just a temptation to add more drudgery to your life. But being able to kick back and your chair and Put It All Together, wow! That would tempt me. I'm not naturally prone to envy, but I confess to being a little envious of the dazzlingly bright people I've met in my life. Looks, eh. Wealth, eh. Power, yukkh. Brains, yeah.

Now, suppose that being such a person would reduce the length of my life from eighty-five to sixty years. Would I still be tempted? That's a tough question, especially if the last twenty-five years of my life were assumed to be lived within a gradually deteriorating body. To have a dazzling mind while still having a body capable of making use of it—that's the temptation. If the cost is early death, well...what would you do?

I call this the Algernon Conundrum, from Daniel Keyes' seminal story and novel, Flowers for Algernon, which I read in high school and which affected me deeply. A mentally handicapped man becomes a genius through medical intervention, but the effect is short-lived, and discovered to greatly shorten the life of the lab mouse (Algernon of the title) that first underwent the procedure. Charlie soons reverts to his original self, with the implication that he will die far younger than his peers. The novel side-stepped the obvious question: Was it worth it? That was forty years ago, and I still haven't decided. I doubt I'll live long enough for it to be a choice I'll have to make, but I often wonder how our grandchildren will deal with the difficult tradeoffs that medical technology will inevitably offer them. Drugs? Getting high, well, that's going to be the least of it.

December 5, 2008: Rant: The Lesson We Haven't Learned

Prohibition of alcohol as a legal institution ended 75 years ago today. It was the second-worst thing that the United States has ever baked into its legal system. Slavery was far worse, of course, though slavery was not originally an American idea and came to us from far older cultures. Prohibition created the Mafia (see Colin Wilson's The Criminal History of Mankind) and legitimized the sort of neighbor-against-neighbor suspicion and all-your-privacy-are-belong-to-us government overreaching that psychopathic idealism (in the person of Woodrow Wilson, the most evil man ever to hold the Presidency in the US) tried and failed to institutionalize earlier in the century.

Understanding Prohibition is tricky these days, and it took a long time for me to figure it out. It was a perfect storm of sorts, fed by the Industrial Revolution, the abject nastiness of big city life, and especially immigration. At the base of it, Prohibition was a cry of fury against the flood of Irish and southern European Catholic immigrants entering the country (legally) after 1880 or so. The lives of these people were uniformly and almost unimaginably miserable. Catholic immigrants were considered subhuman by mainstream Protestant Americans, who exploited them whenever opportunity allowed, and blocked their path into higher social classes by every means available, legal and otherwise. (My mother, the daughter of penniless Polish immigrants, said little about this, but what she did say was chilling.) It's no surprise that immigrants took to drink. Cut off from their own birth cultures and living in a culture where Americans of (slightly) longer tenure actively and unapologetically hated them, they drank and drank wildly, sometimes drinking themselves to death. Immigrants were blamed for the coarsening of American life in every way, were condemned for not learning English, and for creating a criminal underclass. The weird stridency of Protestant anti-Catholicism (which still exists in some places, weirder than ever) pushed the movement over the top.

Prohibition gave us violence, police corruption, organized crime, and a justification for government intrusiveness that ultimately spawned the political division that gave us two Americas on the same soil: One feeling that government is the solution, the other that government is the problem. Only slavery damaged us more.

You would think that 13 years of Prohibition would have burned something into the collective American consciousness: This doesn't work. But no: The states had to be bribed into letting go of Prohibition by being granted powers over alcohol that would have been struck down as unconstitutional prior to 1933. The unsated prohibitionist psychology then turned to psychoactive substances, and while the prohibition we now have on the books is less broad than the one against alcohol, its effects run much deeper. People resist (as they resisted Prohibition eighty years ago) and when people resist, we tighten the screws even more, creating a global, multiethnic network of organized crime, destroying young lives for minor infractions, and denying painkillers to people dying of cancer. (This may not happen often, but having watched my own father die slowly of cancer, I insist without qualification that it must not happen ever.)

The answer isn't to eliminate all regulation of psychoactive substances. The answer (as always) is a little more complex than that. We have to honestly ask ourselves: Would things really be worse if we loosened up some? (Of course, there's no way to know without trying.) But more than that, we need to put some serious time and money into researching why people abuse drugs and alcohol to begin with. Most substance abusers that I've known well were clearly depressed. I didn't make the connection when I was younger; it wasn't until losing my publishing company dipped me (lightly) into the bad water of depression a few years back that I grasped that depression is a form of pain that simply can't be understood without experiencing it. It isn't just sadness; it's something far darker and stranger, a gray force that saps the will and dims the light of one's own humanity. Depression and substance abuse are strongly correlated, and while causes and effects are still not clear, I intuit that many seriously depressed people reach for primal stimulation (sex, drugs, booze, gambling, risk-taking) simply to remind themselves that they aren't dead. And when that doesn't work, the next step is as obvious as it is appalling.

We can do better. Alas, because so little research is being done, we don't know how much better we can do. Prozac is cheaper than prison (both financially and psychologically) but until we as a culture can get past the weird notion that depression is a mark of a weak personality (and treating depression a sop to childish intransigence) the drugs will flow, the violence will continue, and the flames of young lives will wink out under the pressure of an unnameable but unbearable pain.

December 4, 2008: FuzzyMemories of Classic Chicago TV

I have a lot of things on my mind (and plate) today, but I did want to pass along a pointer to a site that I received from Kevin Anetsberger: FuzzyMemories.TV, the Museum of Classic Chicago Television. What we have here is a large collection of short video clips from Chicago TV, the bulk of it from the 1977-1990 era. The clips are mostly short snippets of local TV shows, local TV station IDs and transitions, and especially commercials. I haven't had the time to go through much of it, but the Empire Carpet Man is in there, along with Boushelle Rugs ("Hudson 3-2700" sung in that boomy, basso profundo voice) and clumsy pitches for a lot of other local companies, including McDade (now long extinct), Zayre (ditto, though not exclusively of Chicago), Jewel, Venture (gone), Kiddieland (still there), Victory Auto Wreckers, and lots of TV ads for Chicago radio stations, like "FM 103 and a half." Plenty of kid stuff from Bozo, Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose, Svengoolie, Son of Svengoolie, and Gigglesnort Hotel. The clips that aren't commercials often include commercials, and the site provides abundant evidence that 70s hairdos and clothes really were as bad as we remember them, and not just in Chicago. (WFLD news anchor Kathy McFarland looks better than most, but oh, those guys on Fernwood 2 Night...)

Carol and I left Chicago when I got a transfer to Rochester, NY in early 1979, so nearly all of this stuff dates from after my era, but there are a handful of things from the early 70s, and some clips from an early educational cartoon called "The Funny Company" from 1962. Home videotaping first became a big thing in the late 70s, and that's probably why there isn't much there from the 60s, as much as I would have liked to see it.

Here's an interview with Rick Klein, FuzzyMemories.TV's creator. The site is on my short list of things to spend some time on when I have time to spend, but if you're in that space right now, go take a look.

December 1, 2008: The Future of Contra

Earlier this afternoon, I finally did something I'd been meaning to do for literally years: Configure a dedicated domain for ContraPositive Diary. It's done, and I've pointed to the WordPress instance I created back in September on Fused Network. I'm still learning it, testing it and interviewing widgets and plug-ins, so although the domain and the blog are now live, there's still not much to see.

That will change on January 1. On that day I will stop editing Contra entries by hand (as I've done since 1998) and begin using WordPress. Entries from 1998-2008 will remain pure HTML and be accessible as such. I'm going to copy them from over to, but the copies on will remain there until I kill the Sectorlink hosting account and move the domain over to Fused Network. I intend to keep my LiveJournal account, and use the LJXP crossposter plug-in to automatically cross-post anything I post on WordPress to LJ.

There's a lot of other stuff on that has to go somewhere. The domain is begging for a new index page anyway, and I'm working on how to organize it. I do know that my Maker material on electronics, telescopes, and kites will all be rewritten using CSS and placed under my index. I intend to install a new instance of the Gallery photo manager there, and move the Tech Projects portion of over to Beyond that, well, I won't know until next year.

Some conceptual issues remain undecided; e.g., should I continue to group short link citations into larger Odd Lots entries, or just post them as I find them as individual entries? The way I do it now is an artifact of how I create Contra entries generally: I keep a text file in a window and add short items to it until I decide it's time to format them and post them as a group. That becomes unnecessary with WordPress, and I can streamline the whole process by just popping up Semagic (or something like it) and posting them Right Now instead of storing them locally until I have time to format them for uploading.

WordPress itself is an amazing thing. I'm still trying to figure out what all it can do, either by itself or with the jungle of plug-ins you can find for it. What I know it can do is save me time, which seems to be in shorter supply every year, and that, ultimately, is what the whole exercise is about.