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February 24, 2008: Open That Bottle Night

Last night was Open That Bottle Night, the annual event that Wall Street Journal wine columnists John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter created almost by accident a few years ago. The idea is for people who have been saving a bottle of wine with emotional or historical connections to their lives to stop hoarding it, just open it, and enjoy it. It was a golden opportunity for us to pull out the dusty bottle of the Schlossadler Gau-Odernheimer Petersberg Dornfelder Rotwein 1994 that we had originally intended to open on our 25th wedding anniversary in 2001. The bottle has a peculiarly effective sort of self-preservation instinct: We forgot and left it behind in Phoenix when we drove to Chicago to celebrate our 25th in 2001. (9-11 was only a week before we left, and other things than wine were on our minds.) We then figured we'd open it on the 35th anniversary of our meeting one another in July 2004, but again we were in Chicago. The following year we figured we'd open it on July 31, for the 36th anniversary of our meeting, but were famously foiled by my flop into a patch of poison ivy. We then figured we'd open it for our 30th wedding anniversary in 2006, but by that time the bottle had gotten so far back in our memories that we clean fergot.

That bottle was a survivor, heh.

So a couple of weeks ago, while reading John and Dorothy's column in the WSJ, Carol looked up from the paper and said, "We have to open That Bottle on February 23." This time for sure, Rocky!

And so we did. David and Terry Beers were here for dinner, and we cobbled together a Polish feast, with some kielbasa, honey millet bread, and cheese peirogi. Although I was concerned that the wine might not have survived (like all dornfelders it's fairly light, with only 9.5% alcohol) 14 years isn't all that long a time, and just as several people reassured us, the wine was unbowed.

What I did find remarkable was how indistinctly I recalled it. (We had bought half a case in October 1996, for our 20th, and I would think it would have remained clearer in my mind.) Dornfelders are almost invariably off-dry to semi-sweet, and this one is about as sweet as any dornfelder I've ever had. I remember it being a little drier, perhaps because I've had numerous drier dornfelders since then. The fruit was explosive, with some of the most intense black-currant flavor I ever recall in a wine of any stripe. It went well with the kielbasa, and the four of us had a wonderful evening talking about life, relationships, dogs, writing, ebooks, and ultra-mobile PCs. (It's that kind of crowd.) I don't recommend dornfelders to everyone—sweet reds bother a lot of people—but this one was a keeper, and if you have an open mind, sniff around the odd corners of your larger wine shops and try one.

Alas, we have no bottles of anything even remotely that old, and certainly nothing with that memorable a run of brushes with consumption. So next February we may just go eenie-meenie-mynie-moe and pull something from the rack. The wine is the thing, sure, but more than that, it's about friendship and having history together. This July, Carol and I will have known one another for 39 years, and we're pondering a whomper party somewhere in summer 2009. I guess it's time to shop for That Special Bottle so we'll have something to pass around in celebration of friendship, ours and those of all the many people we value in this beautiful and extravagant world.

February 23, 2008: Tabor Hill's Classic Demi-Red

We brought a wine home from Chicago last summer that sat quietly in one of the top slots in our kitchen island rack, mostly out of sight and until a few days ago, completely forgotten. The wine is Tabor Hill's Classic Demi-Red. It's a $9 wine from Michigan, and I broke it out looking for something that would go well with a spicy (for us at least; read here: has some spices in it) chicken goulash that Carol threw together just for fun.

Yes, it's fairly sweet by wine snob standards, but it's less sweet than St. Julian's excellent Red Heron, and on a sweetness par with most white zins. It has the virtue of not being sour, as semi-sweet wines too often are, probably by imitating white zin. It's fruity and does not have the sour white zin ragged edge. The label calls it "soft" and I agree. No perceptible bitterness, and not grapey, though "grapey" is not a show-killer for me. (It usually means having a whiff of concord in it, which is not always a bad thing.)

It's a 12% wine and went down very easily, making a good complement to the goulash. I don't know where all you can get it. We saw it in several of the Meijer's markets outside Chicago, and I can only assume it's common in Michigan. I have yet to see it in Colorado, and we probably won't have it again until our next trip in.

Nonetheless, if you like sweetish wines, I call it highly recommended.

By the way, tonight is The Wall Street Journal's Open the Bottle night, and we will (finally!) be opening the bottle of 1994 Schlossadler Dornfelder that we failed to open for our 30th wedding anniversary back in '06. Maybe's it's vinegar. I don't know how well dornfelders age. But we'll let you know.

February 22, 2008: Odd Lots

  • From Jim Strickland comes this report of a new coinage. How many seconds did it take for you to get the joke? Did you get it at all?
  • Alas, neither the Death Star Grill nor the Darth Vader gumball machine made it past the first cut. Dayum. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • This, on the other hand, is a real product. (Again from Pete. Don't miss the video.) On the other other hand, if you have to ask, well...
  • Here's an interesting discussion on the economics of rooftop PV solar power systems. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the pointer.) As with a lot of posts like this, the real action is in the comments. Had we stayed in Arizona—and possibly built a new custom house there, which we were considering—I would have installed a system like that. Note that batteries are not necessary unless you're completely off-grid. (A lot of people still don't understand this.) The power companies are basically paying you for adding peak power capacity to their grid by reducing your monthly bill. Doesn't work well everywhere, but where it does work well (basically the Southwest) it will become a great deal cheaper over the next fifteen or twenty years.
  • Sometimes I can spot a hoax. Sometimes I can't. And sometimes I just can't decide. (I know enough artistes to understand that anything's possible.) So you tell me.
  • It's hardly new news, but I don't generally walk in those precincts: Romances represent 21% of the $6.31B print book industry. SF/fantasy comes in at $495M and mysteries are at a surprisingly low $422M. (Those are print book sales only. Ebooks not included.)
  • Chris Gerrib called my attention to a great rant by John Scalzi on what's still wrong with SFWA, which I still haven't re-joined, and may not until I know that Andrew Burt has removed himself from their environs to, say, Uranus. And even with Burt out of the way, I'd like to know what the organization thinks that it is, because I myself have never been quite able to figure it out.
  • The generally clear skies in Colorado Springs failed us on Wednesday night for the eclipse, and while we could tell there was a moon up there (and could tell that it was partially occluded) details were utterly lacking.

February 20, 2008: Review: Making Things Talk

Triage is a harsh mistress. I started out in computing with the CDP1802, a microprocessor designed for embedded systems work (it was used on the Viking Landers!) and for all the software I've used and the code I've written since then, I miss poking wires in breadboard holes and hitting the trigger of a wire-wrap gun. There's only so many hours in a life, and embedded work has not made the cut.

That may change. Embedded systems tinkering is easier now. Much easier, and for a couple of reasons: 1) The processors themselves can be had on small boards with appropriate I/O connectors; you don't have to fool with loose chips anymore. 2) Development software is better, mostly because now there is development software. In 1976 I literally had to write binary code by hand. (F8 FF A2... Yes, yes, I know, barefoot and uphill both ways. But if you think I'm exaggerating, you simply weren't there.) And, the point of the current discussion, 3) there are books like Making Things Talk, by Tom Igoe. Wow.

The first time I saw the cover I was confused: It shows a stuffed monkey and the completely inane blurb, "Projects and ideas to create talking objects from anything." I literally thought it was about fooling with speech synthesizers. But no: It's about networking embedded systems modules with technologies including Ethernet, USB, Bluetooth, and Zigbee. The microprocessor modules under discussion are the Atmel AVR-based Arduinos, augmented by a host of sensor modules and connectivity modules that can be breadboarded on the same 0.1" spacing blocks we used to use in 1976. In a sense, we now have modules the way other people have chips. (And in saying so I am indeed just boasting.) We can raise our consciousness to the level of connecting functional blocks rather than individual inverters and logic gates. That is a very big win.

The book is patient (as good tutorials must be) and begins with probably the finest introduction to low-level networking that I have ever seen. If you are a software developer you will understand it; if you have no experience whatsoever in networking or programming, you may have some trouble. A good prerequisite text would be Tom Igoe's 2004 Physical Computing (written with Dan O'Sullivan) which focuses on the older Basic Stamp modules and their close relatives. Physical Computing introduces both electronics and programming to a degree that Making Things Talk cannot. That said, Making Things Talk presents examples using a Java-derivative programming environment called Processing, which is free and open source and much gentler conceptually than programming in raw Java or, merciful God help us, C. (Pascal would be gentler still, but as we all know, Pascal is a kiddie language that cannot accomplish anything useful. You must believe this. A C programmer said it. QED.)

Once the essential groundwork is done, the book teaches through projects, good projects that are mostly fun and in many cases even useful. The book explains how RFID tags work and how to read them, and how to read 2-D barcodes with a Web cam. The most fascinating projects are those that involve physical location sensing, using modules that perform infrared ranging, ultrasonic ranging, GPS, and "digital compass" modules, all of which made the robot guy within me itch like hell. We didn't have stuff like that thirty years ago.

Although it doesn't get a huge amount of coverage in the book, the XBee module (which implements a Zigbee data radio system) fascinates me: It's basically jelly-bean logic implementing a short-range mesh network, and I intuit that hobby robots of the future may well consist of swarms of semi-independent functional blocks knit together coherently through the Zigbee network protocols, under the control of a multicore master processor. And damn, I would love to build something like that.

Anyway. Here are a few additional observations on the book:

  • It has at least process color on most pages, with beautifully shot full-color photos on many of them.
  • The technical figures are abundant and very well done.
  • The type is very small, the margins narrow. This 425-page book would have been a 600-page book back in the 90s. My guess is that O'Reilly wanted to the keep page count down because of all the costly interior color. Note to my age cohort: Prepare to squint, or go get yer readers.
  • There is far less discussion on debugging than I'd like. Coding is easy—as is plugging jumper wires into breadboard blocks. But when something doesn't work the way it should, where do you start? The book is mostly silent on that crucial point.
  • In general, the book probably covers a little too much ground, and doesn't go for quite enough depth. Zigbee is subtle, and its subtler features are not explored here. This may not be a completely fair criticism, but it supports my conviction that you must be a journeyman embedded systems type to really get the most from this book, as a lot of the blanks you must fill in yourself.

Don't let any of that stop you: If you have some clue about embedded systems modules and want to learn embedded systems-level data communications, there is nothing like this book anywhere. And if I do decide to go back to embedded systems tinkering, this will be the book that pushes me over the edge. Not yet—I have a rocket or two to finish and a few other things to do—but soon, soon.

Highly recommended.

February 19, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Sorry for the silence here; I rarely go a week without posting but a lot of things ganged up on me. Many have noticed that I'm gradually moving toward posting less often but doing longer posts. I've discovered that it doesn't take me a great deal more time to write more detailed posts than shorter ones, but not posting at all on some days allows me to concentrate more fully on other projects.
  • There is a major total lunar eclipse tomorrow night, 2/20-2/21, which will be almost perfectly positioned for viewing in the US. See the NASA page for details. And if you're not up on lunar eclipses generally, ask Mr. Eclipse.
  • Flash memory is getting bigger; a 16GB SDHC card would hold a lot of ebooks.
  • Pertinent to the above: I'm not bullish on solid-state drives based on Flash, especially if they're positioned to replace ordinary spinning-disk hard drives. Flash storage cells can change state only so many times until they cease holding a state reliably, and extra hardware is needed to "spread the wealth around" so that frequent write activity in a particular location doesn't kill cells. Flash is thus best used for things like storage of music and ebook files, where you write data rarely but read it a lot.
  • Also, Flash may evenually be superceded by nonvolatile phase-change memory. We're still a few years off, but phase-change is faster than Flash and may even replace volatile RAM. No information yet that I've found on whether the cells degrade or die after a certain number of write cycles.
  • One other ebook note: Although most early reviewers claimed that the Kindle's SD slot was limited to 2 GB cards, the truth is that the card is SDHC and many owners have reported success with larger cards up to 8 GB. I don't have 8 GB of ebooks yet and may not for several more years. I just don't read that fast. For people who are actively converting their print library to ebooks, however, larger cards are a very important issue.
  • This nice link to NPR came over from Don Doerres, concerning the growing hobby of watching satellites. We used to go out and freeze butt looking for Echo in the early 1960s, but these guys are calculating orbits, photographing flares (momentary bright sunlight glints off polished satellite parts) and profoundly irritating the spooks. Watch the videos. Really watch the videos.

February 12, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Robert Jastrow, the well-known NASA space popularizer, has left us, at age 82. My copy of Red Giants and White Dwarfs is in pieces from overuse, but as with Jastrow himself, I can only say: Mission accomplished.
  • I stumbled upon an interesting piece of art today (while following an unrelated link sent by Pete Albrecht) by the late French Impressionist Albert Besnard. Rather too casually entitled "Decoration for a Ceiling," to me it suggests something altogether more cosmic: The reunion of all things and all people with God at the end of time. As Pete suggested for a caption: "Honey, I picked up your wings from the cleaners." (And how about using it as a book cover? Right there in the middle is space for a title!)
  • D-Stix are amazingly rare on eBay (considering all the rest of the bizarre and obscure crap that I see there regularly) but today I finally scored the 464-piece set from the mid-1960s, and for only $10 at that. I've mentioned D-Stix here on Contra in the past, and on our second date, Carol and I flew a tetrahedral kite that I had made out of D-Stix. Making a replica of that kite has been on my do-it list for some years now. All I have to do is find some purple madras tissue paper...
  • Jim Strickland sent me a link to a nice page from a German chap (it's in English) who has done considerable work with spark speakers. This isn't quite a flame speaker as I saw one in 1969 (which used an ionized propane torch flame) but is more like a modulated Tesla coil.
  • Also from Jim (in honor of the Westminster Dog Show, which ran last night) is an entry from what might as well be LOLDogs. Alas, the bichon didn't win his group last night. (There are too many poodles in the world, and not enough melted butter...)
  • Still again from Jim is a fascinating short history of the Teletype.
  • While we're talking ancient communication technologies, I finally remembered to link to a summary of Western Union's "92 code," which is a list of 19th century telegrapher's numeric abbreviations that includes the ''--73--" that has been my email signature since my MCI Mail days in the early 80s. This is as good a summary as I've found, but it's missing a few codes that I've heard, like --86-- which is short for "We are out of..."
  • And further in that same direction, here's as good a list as I've seen of the 10-codes used by CBers, police, and, of course, Broderick Crawford.

February 11, 2008: Standard Wall Warts

I lost the wall wart charger for my Sony Reader a couple of months ago, and a new one should be here in a few days. I don't love the Reader, as its USB transfer software unapologetically refuses to run on Windows 2000, but a guy in my business should have one, just as he should have a Kindle. In the meantime, I've been thinking a lot about wall warts, chargers, and one area of electronics that could really use a standard or two. The high road is something like the WildCharger featured recently on Crave, which is basically a pad that induces a trickle of electricity into whatever you place on it. Wotthell, that technology should be available built into computer desks, but it's not up to me.

I am very sick of wall warts. I have a bin of them downstairs, probably thirty in all, and I doubt that any two source the same voltage. The barrel connectors are of wildly different diameters, and some of them put the positive conductor on the outside. A few, furthermore, are not even barrels but weird connectors of no conceivable justification.

Damn, I want a standard.

Consider this as a possibility: A code for wall warts that could be printed on both the wart and the electrical device it's shipped with. The code would be human-readable and contain the essential parameters:


The code begins with AC or DC. (There are AC wall warts, lord knows why.) The next number is the whole number voltage, separated from the fractional voltage by a dash. A second dash sets off the current sourcing capacity in milliamps. The code ends with the diameter of the barrel connector in millimeters, followed by either an N or a P, depending on the polarity of the inner conductor. For example, the code shown above would be for a DC wart sourcing 5.2V at 100 ma, with an 6mm barrel connector having positive on the inside.

There's no reason these things can't be like jelly-bean logic, and there's no reason why anyone should have to dig too hard or pay too big for a replacement wart. The IEEE should be doing something like this, but isn't.

My new Sony Reader charger will show up the day after tomorrow via DHL. And the day after that, I'm sure I'll find the original. At least then I'll have a spare.

February 9, 2008: The Revenge of the Classics

I've lived such an overstuffed life for so many years that I'd almost forgotten a psychology that was a very big part of my youth: Sniffing around for "just something to read." I'm a very deliberate reader these days because I don't have a lot of completely uncommitted time. I have a reading buffer of 50-100 books on hand here, all of which were chosen because they touch on one of my interests or another. (My library as a whole contains somewhere around 2500 books, down from 3000 before we left Arizona.) I never have to cast about at random for just something to read.

For many people, reading is an even bigger part of their lives, believe it or not. (Maybe fewer than we'd like, but they're out there.) These people are driving the ebook industry right now, and I've noticed a phenomenon few others have commented on: the explosion of interest in out-of-copyright books by people who might not have been slobbering Dickens or Jane Austen fans in the past. At numerous sites online, people are uploading ebook versions of many classic texts. I follow Mobileread, which now has about 3,800 free ebooks online for download, the bulk of them pre-1923 works, some well-known (they have Dickens' complete works now) and some pretty obscure, like the Scottish Psalter of 1650. Mobileread is interesting because people are creating versions in the popular small-screen ebook reader formats like Ebookwise, MobiPocket and BBeB rather than raw text—nor formats used primarily on PCs, like PDF and MS Reader.

I continue to boggle at people reading Thackeray on their cellphones, but boggle or no boggle, it's being done. The classics are coming back. I can't entirely explain it, but I have some hunches:

  • Many of these ebook editions are beautifully done. The Dickens canon is the work of one man named Harry in the UK, and they include some of the nice old 19th Century woodcut illustrations plus color covers where those were available. (Oliver Twist, yes. Martin Chuzzlewit, no.) They are not shot full of OCR errors and gaps like some of the stuff I've downloaded from other places, including the venerable Project Gutenberg.
  • They are free and they are easy to get. There are no hurdles to jump, nothing to sign up for, no money to lay out, and no DRM to drop sand in the gears of the experience.
  • There are no ethical issues involved in obtaining them or passing them on. I still think people are basically honest, and they do consider the rights of copyright holders.
  • They're classics because they have withstood the test of time. They're good.

The classics have always been available in bookstores, of course, at prices comparable to those of newly published books. But if you're shopping for something to read on the train going in to work because it's a dead hour coming and going, it's hard to beat free, especially if free is easy and involves no pokes from the conscience.

What we're seeing here might as well be called open-source literature. It's being done by volunteer labor, including people who are drawing new artwork and contributing it without copyright claims. It's significant because people writing new ebooks have to take into account that the total available number of reader-hours in the audience is finite, and the friction involved in obtaining and reading the classics is now approaching zero. Like Linux, it will take a while yet for the well-formatted library of classic ebooks to mature, but like Linux, they will eventually become a competitive force to reckon with.

And wow, dare we hope that the premodern will put a fat boot up the ass of the postmodern? A lot of those "dead white males" must be grinning about now.

February 7, 2008: Carl and Jerry Volume 5 Is Out!

This one took a lot longer than I had hoped—and certainly longer than the seething two weeks I spent on Volume 4—but the fifth and final volume of Carl & Jerry: Their Complete Adventures is now complete, uploaded, and available on This has been my major spare-time project for well over a year, and I scratched my head now and then as to why it was taking so much time and energy. Well, here's why: It required 989 pages in five separate books to print the 263,232 words and 311 illustrations in the 119 stories. That's a lot of stuff. I mean, a lot.

But it's done. I'm extremely happy with the way it all turned out, and the fan mail has been very encouraging. The only complaint I've seen is one chap moaning that, "You mean, there's only 119 stories?" Yup. I wish there were more too; Carl & Jerry are sui generis. The only thing even remotely similar is Bertrand Brimley's Mad Scientists Club, all books of which (fortunately) are still in print, in nice new editions with all the original Charles Geer pencil sketches and watercolors. Somewhere further on the fringes are Tom Swift, Jr and the Danny Dunn books, but the fact remains that Carl & Jerry were talking about real technology, not Repelatrons and antigravity paint. Read the stories and you will learn a few things, albeit things that were first-run between 1954 and 1964.

I added a few things to Volume 5. One is a schematic published a few months after the story of Carl & Jerry's primordial beambot, "The Lightning Bug," from a Popular Electronics reader who built his own Lightning Bug. That's one of my top 5 all-time favorite Carl & Jerry yarns, and I've posted a free PDF containing it. It's unusual in that if you want to build your own, the circuit is right there and ready to go.

One thing that added some time to the task was a topic index that ran to 19 pages. People have written me to ask, "What was the Carl & Jerry story where the crook was getting away in an iceboat?" All they remembered was the iceboat. That's just the way human memory works; quirky is too kind a word for it. So I went through all 119 stories and built an alphabetical topic index, including any memory tag I could think of for each story. If you want to look up all the stories about Carl's dog Bosco, it's there. If you want to know which story saw the boys build a proton precession magnetometer, it's there. Skunks figured significantly in two stories, so flip to "Skunk" and there they are. Ditto Norma, Mr. Gruber, radio-controlled models, sonar, fishing, smoke signals, Morse code, car thieves, and on and on. Dare you not to find a story you remember there.

Finally, I added two new stories, written today in 2008 and not forty-five years ago. One is by George Ewing WA8WTE, who actually built the gadget in the story he wrote, way long ago at Michigan Tech, about the same time that Carl & Jerry were at fictional Parvoo University. It's basically about building a seismometer from a broken pinball machine, and it's beautifully done. The other story is my own, and I borrowed a gimmick from Arthur C. Clarke as way to explain how reflecting telescopes work. Both are tall tales, but that's what John T. Frye was offering back in the 60s, and both stories are authentically tall, done very much in Frye's own style.

And so it's done. Here's the link to my Lulu storefront where all five books may be purchased. Many thanks to Michael Covington, for putting the bug in my ear back in August 2006, and to Pete Albrecht, who taught me how to un-halftone the illos. (He also did quite a few of them for me.) Also, thanks to Doug Faunt N6TQS who sent me the last few issues that I didn't have and somehow just couldn't nail on eBay.

And now it's on to other things. Writing, of course, and putting together the two collections of my short SF that I've been promising for years. And FreePascal from Square One. Plenty to do here; all I need now is the time to do it.

February 6, 2008: Recent Reading

I haven't reviewed many books lately, but that isn't because I haven't been reading. I read quite a bit, if not as much as I often wish I had time for. If I don't review a book here, it's generally for one of these reasons:

  1. Reviewing books is difficult to do well, and my time/energy is committed to other things;
  2. The books I read are sometimes so vanishingly narrow in interest that I doubt anyone would care what I thought of them;
  3. The books are so-so and I can't bring myself to spend time describing them.

This third point is the most interesting of the three. A really bad book I might mention to save you time and money. But what about a so-so book? Is it worth any effort at all?

This applies to wine as well as books. I try a lot of wine and like only some of it. The things I like I mention here, especially if they're unconventional. (Generally this means not dry.) I've mentioned a few wines that I loathe, like the unfathomably awful Sweet Walter from the incomprehensible Bully Hill Vineyards in upstate New York. But something like Taylor Sauterne is difficult to describe, as it has so little character I'm not sure what to say. It's not quite tasteless—just mostly tasteless. (It's certainly nothing like the other sauternes I've had in the past. But then again, it's an $8 twist-cap wine.)

So today I'm going to mention a few of the books I've read recently, including the odd things that I expect no one among my readership to be interested in. I won't spend a lot of space on any of them.

  • The Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. (2006) Probably the best of the current batch, it is nonetheless extremely uneven. Gut-splitting hilarious in places, it also has long runs of very boring stuff, and occasional departures that suggest anger that the author can't quite express. Misses more than it hits. Borrow it maybe, and when things get boring, skip to the next chapter.
  • Ghosts and Poltergeists by Herbert Thurston, S. J. (1954, and now out of copyright) A deadpan description of, well, ghosts and poltergeists from around the world and across centuries of time. Competently written but dry; if you want a diverting read in similar turf, try Colin Wilson's Poltergeist.
  • The Polish National Catholic Church by Paul Fox (undated, probably 1957ish) A self-description of the PNCC for prospective converts. Nice little book, with some interior color. Includes church history, its constitution, liturgy, and directory of parishes. Best concise description of the church at its peak that I've seen.
  • Who Really Cares? by Arthur C. Brooks (2007) Reviewing this book will only get me beaten up, but it reads well and provides loads of research that I'm not entirely sure I understand the same way that the author does. His conclusion: Political conservatives are less selfish than liberals, who are in turn less selfish than independents. My conclusion: It's down in the noise. Try again, dood.
  • The Fall of the Dynasties by Edmond Taylor. (1963; may be out of copyright) 300-level European history text that I read to try and understand WWI. Eye-crossingly dense, but he covers all the bases and I think I now have a grip on what destroyed Europe in 1914: Itself. What Europe is best at. Surprise!
  • Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz. (2004) Almost worth a review, and not a total waste of time, but the author describes more than he explains, and I put the book down having gained a great deal of information but not a lot of insight.
  • Every Knee Shall Bow: The Case for Christian Universalism by Thomas Allin and Mark T. Chamberlain. (2005) Covers ground well-covered in other books on this topic, and doesn't add much that I haven't seen. Confines itself to scriptural argument, and doesn't go after more gnarly philosophical questions like, How can eternal punishment for finite transgression be just?
  • Original Blessing by Matthew Fox. (1983) A muddy-headed challenge to the Augustinian heresy that changed original sin to original guilt. Fox makes me nuts sometimes, but here and there he goes places nobody else wants to go. He's willing to condemn Augustine of Hippo, something no one else (except me) is willing to do. I honestly don't know what to think about this book, which will be incomprehensible to anyone without a fair grounding in Christian theology.
  • Complexification by John L. Casti. (1994) Awful, but not so awful I wanted to waste the energy required to throw it at the wall. Maybe a smarter guy could grasp what's there. Or maybe there's nothing there to grasp. Pass.

Note also that I cruise a lot of computer books, but I haven't sat down to read one cover-to-cover in years. I haven't mentioned any of those here, good or bad. I also occasionally pull out books I've already read and reread a few chapters to clarify some question that's been haunting my mind. I haven't mentioned those here either, but that's actually a growing slice of my reading time, and an interesting phenomenon all by itself that I should take up again at some point.

That will have to do for now. I know I've read a few other things in the last couple of months, but they made such a light impression I don't recall what they were, which says something right there.

February 3, 2008: Puppies, Not Pigskins

I dislike sports generally, though I watch baseball on occasion in honor of my Cubs fan father. Football always seemed ridiculous to me somehow and hockey—well, it's the spawn of the devil. So we're not watching the Super Bowl today. (We have gone to Super Bowl parties on occasion for the sake of the company, and we stop to watch only when the commercials come on.) We have the Puppy Bowl on right now, and George Ewing tells me that WE has a Cutest Puppy Pageant scheduled as well, but as we don't get WE here it's hard to tell.

This is the fourth year that Animal Planet has done the Puppy Bowl, and acccording to Wikipedia it consistently has the highest ratings of anything programmed opposite the Super Bowl. I consider it a work of utter brilliance: For several hours, a rotation of five or six puppies (out of a total "slate" of about twenty) just mix it up in a little set painted to look like a football stadium. They wrestle, haul toys around, and slop in their water bowl. Every so often one of them takes a crap, after which a human extra in a referee's outfit steps in to clean it up.

We left the Puppy Bowl on for QBit while Carol and I took Aero and went over to visit Jimi Henton—on roads that were basically empty. Jimi is the bichon groomer and breeder from whom we purchased Aero. Aero enjoys some Puppy Bowl action with Jimi's several bichons, most of them his close relatives. (QBit is unrelated and doesn't enjoy them as much.) We enjoy them too; I could never have that many dogs, but every now and then it's fun having a pile of four or five bichons on your lap.

Jimi has only one puppy at the moment, who arrived as a litter of one the day after Christmas. We snapped some shots this afternoon, and that's him up above. He's five and a half weeks old, and completely beautiful. His nose is darkening up nicely (bichon noses are pink at birth but become totally black after a few months) and he's not as manic as a lot of puppies his age are. He's destined to be a good size for a bichon, simply because he got all the nutrition while gestating, but he also looks to be show quality and a real heart-stealer. Jimi will be selling him once he's eight weeks old, so if you're looking for a great bichon puppy—and especially if you want to show him—contact Jimi at her Web site.

Right now I'm going back to the kitchen to put some supper together while watching the Puppy Bowl. Football? What's that again? Oh, right. Pass.

February 2, 2008: Banging Our Shins

Groundhog Day. Snowing like hell here, and not only didn't our groundhog see his shadow, he couldn't even get out of his burrow. Nor did we get out of ours: Carol and I slept in and spent part of the afternoon watching...Groundhog Day.

I was going to write a longish essay on what may be the finest film of the past fifty years, but I realized that someone else had already written it. Basically, What He Said.

To be human is to learn better, no matter how much it hurts. Some catch on faster than others, and while it's clear that a lot of people die before they learn much of anything at all, I'm not going to be so arrogant as to claim confident knowledge that death is the end of all learning. Maybe we're only beginning. Of course it's better to learn sooner than later—but if the alternative is to keep banging our shins on things without end, I'm guessing that even the worst of us will eventually figure it out.

That's the message of Groundhog Day: You repeat Sixth Grade until you learn the lessons. Then it's on to Seventh Grade. (I'm good with that. You can have Eternal Rest. Give me Eternal Challenge!)