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January 30, 2007: Tom Swift Behind the Curve

Quite a few people sent me notes yesterday telling me that Tom Swift absolutely did not invent the RV. There were a fair number of one-off custom jobs wobbling down the roads since the very early Twenties. In fact, a commercial RV was being sold to the public as early as 1928, which was a whole year before Tom Swift and His House on Wheels hit the bookstores.

There was a custom job called the Flordellen, built for a wealthy New Yorker named Leonard Whittier in 1927. It had a full bathroom, a stove, a refrigerator, and Pullman-style beds, and could have served as the model for Tom Swift's dream vehicle. For the hoi polloi there was the Road Yacht (left) mass produced for a while starting in 1928. It reminds me a little of Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion car, for the swoopy contours if nothing else. Supposedly Henry Ford had a sort of prototypical RV in which he would take junkets into the wilderness with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. No photos or real details on that one, but boy, would that have made for some fine campfire conversation!

Tom Swift, for once, was behind the curve. On the other hand, I think modern readers misunderstand the older Tom Swift books a little. Like all Stratemeyer Syndicate titles, they were extruded from a sort of juvenile fiction sauage grinder, and the non-negotiable aspect of each book was not a glipse of the future but adventure. The old Tom Swift books had more skullduggery and gunplay than anything in the Tom Swift Jr series, and the gimmick was sometimes a piece of slightly enhanced present-day technology (like a hotrodded motorcycle or an electric locomotive) set in the thick of sinister plots and endless running around. One I remember only vaguely (Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers) came off a lot more like Indiana Jones than anything else.

I haven't come upon a genuine history of the RV, but now that I know how far back things actually go, it's ascended a few notches on my to-be-located list. If I find it, you'll read about it here.

January 29, 2007: The Real Inventor of the RV...

...was Tom Swift, Sr. Not bad for 1929. And it had a V-12. No Repelatrons, though.

January 27, 2007: Beambots

One of the pleasures of chasing down 119 back issues of Popular Electronics in recent months was meeting a couple of issues that I had had as a kid and have since lost. The most important of these, by far, was the March 1962 issue, the cover story of which was "Emily, the Robot with the One-Track Mind." I built Emily in the winter of 1966, and won the Immaculate Conception Grade School 8th Grade Science Fair with her. Even forty years later, when I ran into my former classmates at our reunion this past June, people remembered me as "the robot guy." I still have Emily, and she sits in a place of honor on the high shelf in my workshop downstairs. One of the photocells snapped off and needs replacing, but that done, I suspect she would work as well as she did when I was 13.

Emily is what we today call a "beambot", because she follows a beam of light. She had two modes of operation: She would follow either a beam of light shone on its front photocell, or else a high-contrast line running beneath it. The line could be black on white or white on black, because what its electronics sensed was the change between a highly reflecting surface and a surface that absorbed light.

Emily worked very simply. She had two independent motors, each driving a wheel. A relay was wired so that only one motor would ever run at a time, and when the relay changed state, the running motor stopped and the "dead" motor started up. When you turned her on, one of the two motors would run, and Emily would pivot on her dead wheel until she found either a beam of light on her front face, or else a change in the reflectivity of the floor beneath her. At that point, the relay would change state, and the other motor would start up. By alternating between the two motors, Emily would in a slightly wobbly way follow the light beam or the line on the floor. The schematic is amazingly simple:

A self-focusing penlight bulb under the body (I1) cast a beam of light on the floor, and a selenium photocell (PC2) was mounted where the beam would go if reflected from a white surface. That's how it detects a change of reflectivity in the floor. (It would follow the border between white and black linoleum as well as a line.)

About ten years ago, I helped my nephew build a beambot very much like Emily, only with Meccano parts and a one-piece LED light source/phototransistor. The motors were much faster, and it scooted along a six-foot line of masking tape on the floor in a couple of seconds. Jim Strickland is building a beambot using a vacuum tube switch instead of a transistor, on a Lego foundation. There are a lot of ways to go about it. It's a great project to build with kids, if you know enough basic electricity to make use of what parts you can find today.

Emily was important to me for another reason: Although my dad paid for the parts, I insisted on building it in the basement without his help, and it turned out to be the first major electronics project I ever built myself that worked perfectly. Before Emily I had had a lot of trouble making things work. After Emily, well, I knocked 'em over one after the other. I'm not sure what changed: Maybe I paid more attention to assembly details. Maybe I just got lucky. (I think a big issue was getting a good VOM for 8th grade graduation and testing parts before I used them.) Still, she was a huge boost to my confidence, and in many respects the true boundary in my life between childhood and adolescence. The next passage of similar importance was not until I met Carol in 1969. Oh, how women change you!

January 26, 2007: Odd Lots

  • The other morning, a fox apparently urinated on my Wall Street Journal (oh, the irony!) which I did not discover until I went out to pick up the paper from the driveway and got fox pee all over my left hand. We see the little vandal dashing in and out of the 24" drain pipe that runs under Stanwell St. next to the house, and he has a very distinct odor, not anything like a cat but closer to skunk. Even though the paper was in a plastic bag, it smelled so badly that we had to pitch it. And my left hand still smells.
  • A "turtle shop" apparently is a turtle shop; i. e., a place where you buy live pet turtles. Bruce Schneier unsheathed his Occam's Razor and cut a good guess, and Michael Covington nailed it by posing the question to Jesse Sheidlower, one of the editors of the OED, who would know if anybody would. This was Jesse's response: "In the '30s-'50s or so, small turtles were popular pets, and one could buy them at souvenir stores in Times Square (where the Capote passage is set). Usually they had a name painted on the shell. The stores weren't generally called 'turtle shops,' i.e. this phrase is descriptive, not lexicalized." Thanks to all who contributed to the debate. This is one of the things that makes me glad I live in the era of ubiquitous networking!
  • While we're still talking turtles, Michael Covington forwarded this piece laying out some additional insights on the turtles-as-Salmonella-threats debate. I especially like the sentence giving the advice, "Do not kiss reptiles..." Roger. Wilco.
  • From Mark Moss comes a pointer to a slightly weird hack: A downloadable program that will modify your installation of Windows XP to make it look like Vista. I'm not entirely sure that I will try the Vista Transformation Pack, since I have no idea where it's been, but if I were Microsoft I would let this guy quietly do his thing, and reap the benefits of what we hope is the good kind of "viral" marketing. (Maybe in a virtual machine. I'll give it some thought.)
  • Another thought: It occurs to me that I should be able to write a small program in Delphi that intercepts the CapsLock key and makes it a Ctrl key. (When was the last time that I—or anybody—actually used the CapsLock key to lock caps? PEOPLE YELL AT YOU FOR USING ALL CAPS!!!!!!!) It's humbling to realize that I have long since forgotten what I knew about hooking the keyboard interrupt. Time to go digging.
  • This slipped past me a year ago: On January 26, 2006, Western Union quietly ceased its telegram service. Telegrams are history. I don't recall ever dealing much with telegrams (I think we sent one from Baltimore in 1985 to counter an offer on our house in Rochester, NY) but they are very much a part of our culture, like steam trains and dial telephones, that now exist in cultural memory rather than in the culture of daily life.

January 24, 2007: The Capacitor Plague

Ok. This is serious. If you've been reading my descriptions of the Dell Optiplex SX-270 machines here on Contra and have considered buying one on the used market, hold off. Something Funny Is Going On Here. I ordered two machines (a beat-up 2.8 GHz unit for $250 and a near-mint 2.6 GHz unit for $375) and they have worked flawlessly. Once I got the peeled-off inventory sticker goop off of them, they even look reasonably good. Pete Albrecht bought a cheaper machine for $150, and it worked for ten minutes and croaked.

When he opened it up (see photo above) he found that several of the electrolytic capacitors on the motherboard were bulging severely upward, and one of them had actually popped the pressure-release scores on its top. It didn't take a lot of research to find out what had happened. Start with the Wikipedia article on the problem. There are two basic unrelated failure modes: Some caps (especially from Nichicon) were overfilled with electrolyte, and popped because there was no room for expansion within the capacitor body. The other problem is that a Taiwanese manufacturer evidently stole a formula for electrolytic capacitor electrolyte, and the stolen formula did not list all the ingredients. The secret anti-corrosion compound was not included in the stolen formula, which caused the caps to be filled with an excessively corrosive electrolyte. This weakened the aluminum cap body and caused it to fail early. Here's another item on the espionage issue.

The caps have been used in a lot of things, including CF lamp bulbs (which I have tried and found to fail in only a month or two...hmmmmm...) but especially computers. The problem is so widespread that there is even on online forum about it, called Astonishingly, some manufacturers are allegedly continuing to use bad caps in new manufacturing. The only way to avoid the issue completely is to avoid the use of Taiwanese caps entirely; one site suggests the Rubycon brand from Japan. (Home constructors take note here: It's important to test every component before you solder it into a circuit. An electrolytic cap with measured capacitance more than 20% below the marked value should not be used. Pitch it.) Dell acknowledged the issue back in mid-2005, and has supposedly been good about replacing the bad mobos. They have a sort of supplemental warranty for capacitor failure in SX270, GX270 and GX280 models that is good until January 31, 2008, or five years after the date of original puchase (whichever is earlier) which is probably the manufacture date for used machines.

As best we can tell from combing the Web, not every SX270 is prone to the problem. The ones to avoid are older units with service tags that end in 21 and 31. These are generally machines with manufacture dates in 2003 or before. Pete's machine's service tag ends in 31; both of mine end in 41. So I have hopes that mine will stay alive, but I'm watching them closely. The service tag can be found on an adhesive label on the left-hand panel of machines mounted vertically, or on the bottoms of machines mounted horizontally. See the photo above. Thanks to Don Bullard, we found a Dell lookup page that accepts a service tag and tells you when the machine was built. This will help you take advantage of the Dell capacitor warranty if it fails.

January 23, 2007: The Avant Stellar Keyboard

I just received my new Avant Stellar keyboard from CVT, Inc. I've mentioned this before in Contra: It's a new build of the legendary Northgate OmniKey keyboards. The OmniKey 102 was standard gear back at The Coriolis Group in the early 1990s, when in addition to editing PC Techniques Magazine, I spec'ed, ordered, and assembled all company hardware on the corner of my desk. (The company was pretty small back then.) When the company grew and we retired the older systems, I spirited away five of the keyboards, three of which are still at least mostly functional. Considering how I pound a keyboard, and considering that they were built no later than 1993, I think this is pretty remarkable.

However, nothing lasts forever, and I figured I had better scout out a source of OmniKey keyboards or at least repair service. You can get them on eBay, and occasionally in other online stores, but the Avant Stellar intrigued me, because it was brand new: CVT bought the tooling for the old Northgate keyboards and has been quietly making new ones for a number of years.

Few people these days have ever even seen a Northgate keyboard, as they were relatively high-end and expensive when they were first-run. Their whole idea was to duplicate the feel of the very first IBM PC keyboards, which had been designed to duplicate the feel of the IBM Selectric typewriter by using a technology called "buckling spring." I had been using an IBM Selectric since 1973, when I was still in college, and so when the IBM PC came on the scene in 1981, its keyboard was like coming home again for me, after several years of using a decent but different keyboard for my CP/M system.

So it's basically a keyboard for old people who learned to type on a typewriter (especially an IBM Selectric) and came to like that crisp, spring-hysteresis feel. Modern keyboards may be acceptable to people who never knew anything else, but to me they feel like typing in mush, and my fingers can't really understand what they're doing, nor (especially) when a key has been definitively pressed.

It's like the ancient and mostly stupid argument about Pascal vs. C: I know what the deficiencies of C are, but C fanatics consider those features, not flaws, and there's not much to be gained in drawing lines in the sand. (One of the essential skills in learning C is the art of shouting down your critics.) This keyboard works fantastically well for me, and that's really all I care about.

There are a few differences between the Avant Stellar and the OmniKey 102:

  • There's nothing under the old DIP-switch hatch. The keyboard is now programmed through an optional Windows app. As a bonus, the app now allows you to create keyboard macros, something a little like what we used to with SuperKey back in the DOS era.
  • There's a Windows menu key. Press it, and the main Windows menu comes up.
  • There's a context menu key in the bottom row. Pressing it is like right-clicking on the selected object.
  • There's an LED under the top one of the four dedicated arrow keys, but nothing I have done so far illuminates it and I'm not entirely sure what it's for.
  • There's a duplicate row of function keys along the top. These are mostly useless, but they were present on one of the higher-end OmniKey keyboards, and are a sop to the long-retired (or now dead) mainframe fanatics who knew only the 3270 keyboard layout and howled inarticulately when their row of awkward function keys wasn't present. Having the function keys near the Ctrl, Shift, and Alt keys allowed WordPerfect to be the text machine gun it was without anything you could call a UI. You could press large numbers of shortcut keys with only your left hand; with the function keys along the top this was impossible. (And you wonder why mainframes became extinct! Unlike the dinosaurs, it wasn't because they were smoking.)
  • The keyboard ships with CapsLock next to the A key, and the Ctrl key in the bottom row. Once I get used to the layout (which may take some time) the Ctrl-A lunacy (accidently bridge Ctrl and A and your whole document will be selected, and with the next keystroke completely deleted) will be a thing of the past.
It's still expensive (about $200) but considering that I make my living at this machine and with this keyboard, I'm pleased as punch. I can buy alternate keycaps for my original OmniKeys and remap them to this key layout, which I will begin doing as soon as my fingers accomodate themselves TO WHAT THEY HAVE. aND THEN I"LL GET BUSY.

January 22, 2007: Turtles and Shops

As usual, I learned a lot in the wake of that silly question about "turtle shops" as mentioned by Truman Capote in his 1943 novel Summer Crossing. (See my entry for January 21, 2007.) About all I didn't learn was precisely what Capote meant by the phrase.

I did learn why selling small turtles (under four inches diameter) as pets is illegal, as it has been since 1976. I thought it was an animal cruelty thing, but not so: Children were contracting salmonella from baby turtles by putting the turtles in their mouths. A quarter million cases of reptile-contracted salmonellosis occured every year in the early 1970s. Here's a good writeup on the problem from the Humane Society. I wouldn't think turtles would make especially good pets, because part of the fun of having a pet is watching quirky animal behavior, and reptiles don't have much to be quirky with, compared to dogs, cats, or other mammals like hamsters (which I have had) and rats (which I have not, though Michael Covington has written favorably about them.)

Jim Strickland reported some online indications that a "turtle shop" is a colloquial term for an Asian goods shop (including carved turtles), and I did see in the Human Society writeup that illegal turtle sales have often been reported in big city Chinatowns. And of course, as Bruce Schneier and a couple of others suggested, a "turtle shop" may be one of those fluky, six-foot-wide NYC shops that happens to sell live turtles. It was legal in 1943 (when Capote wrote the passage in question) but I still find it boggling to imagine a whole store primarily devoted to turtles. On the other hand, I did see a photo of a NYC shop that apparently specialized in glass eyes. (I think it was in National Lampoon's "True Facts" column many years ago.)

Michael Covington hypothesized that a "turtle shop" may be one of those urban storefronts that has a roll-down steel shutter that completely encloses the front face of the store, door and all. I don't know, however, if these were common during or before WWII. If such shops do have a generic term applied to them, I'd be interested to know what it is.

And so the Capote mystery still stands. Sorry, Aki, this is the best that I can do. We might need to find a New Yorker who was around during WWI or soon afterward. In the meantime, I'm tracking down an issue with Pete Albrecht on Dell's Optiplex SX270 machines. Don't buy one yet. Google "dell sx270 capacitors" and you'll begin to see what's going on...

More on this later.

January 21, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Here's something I never knew about before. And it's probably just as well. (Thanks to Karen Cooper for the awareness.)
  • And something else I never knew about before. It looks to be an electronic autoharp, and I have thought autoharps were cool since I first saw a nun use one in grade school. There are some online WAV files of the instrument's output, but I would like to see someone (or a video of someone) playing one.
  • I'm looking for the September 1964 issue of Electronics Illustrated, or at least a copy of the construction article on p. 32. I'm gathering pointers to articles about Compactron tubes, in anticipation of writing a Web page about them at some point, as I did about 12V "space charge" tubes back in 2005.
  • One of my Finnish correspondents asked me what a "turtle shop" is, after seeing a mention of them near the Roxy in New York City. Here's the mention: "On a side street off Broadway and not far from the Roxy Theatre there was an open-air parking lot. A lonesome, wasted-looking area, it lay there the only substantial sight on a block of popcorn emporiums and turtle shops." It's from Truman Capote's Summer Crossing. NYC gives me hives and I no longer go there. Is a turtle shop where they sell live turtles? (I thought selling turtles as pets had been illegal for 20 years or more.) Or a shop that sells chocolate-covered peanut caramels? Or is there a cultural reference here I've not seen before? It happens. (See the first item in this entry.)

January 19, 2007: A Surprise Cancer Drug

From Bill Roper comes a pointer to a piece in New Scientist describing research that might (we should all sincerely hope) provide the "magic bullet" in the war on cancer. A researcher in Edmonton, Alberta took an existing drug that has been used to treat metabolic disorders for many years and studied its effect on cancer cells. Its effect was, well, instant death—but only to cancer cells.

The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), wakes up dormant mitochonidra, the organelles that handle metabolism in healthy cells. In cancer cells the mitochondria are dormant, and energy metabolism is handled by a jerry-rigged (and extremely inefficient) process in the protoplasm. We always thought that the mitochondria in cancer cells were irreversibly damaged and permanently inoperative, but that is apparently not so. The chemical DCA also triggers what they call apoptosis, which is a kind of cellular self-test managed by the mitochondria. Basically, under the influence of DCA, the mitochondria in cancer cells wake up, kick off the apoptosis subroutine, and then (presumably because of some cellular telltale indicating the abnormal nature of the cancer cell) tell the cell to shut down and die.

"Way cool" doesn't do this justice. "Earthshaking" may not do it justice. If no other piece of research proves fruitful in my lifetime, I'll be happy if this one does.

In today's research it looks like people are chewing their nails worried that no drug company will bother doing clinical trials, because the drug is long-since off-patent. Huh? No drug company will touch what may well prove to be a general-purpose cure for cancer? Are you serious? Would you want to be the CEO of a pharmaceutical firm who goes down in history for turning up his nose at the first true cure for cancer?

I'd worry less. The antidepressant Wellbutrin (Bupropion) was patented in 1974, and came off patent in 1992. Some flawed and ultimately worthless research on seizures and various other oddnesses in its history kept it off the market until 1989, and it wasn't until the drug was approved as a nicotine addiction treatment (as Zyban) in 1997 that it became well-known and widely-used. Even though it's been off patent for 15 years now, and we don't even know precisely how it works, it's manufactured by several firms and evidently makes money for them.

Of course, this could be another Pons-and-Fleischman scheme, but we'd best reserve judgment until more research is done. However, if the results are consistently reproducible, there will be a race to get this thing tested and on the market unlike anything history has ever seen. Let's watch.

January 18, 2007: Walking the Tracks

Back in the 50s and 60s, my Aunt Josephine and her kids lived in Calumet Park, Illinois, and we visited there frequently. It was a gritty, rough-and-tumble sort of working-class neighborhood, built on what used to be coalyards immediately after WWII. They were just north of 127th Street a few blocks west of Paulina, right next to an immense train yard and industrial area that included a heavy-metals smelter, which made the air borderline unbreathable on certain days. (If you want to look it up on Google Earth or MapPoint, the address was 12544 S. Lincoln St. 60827.) I vividly remember standing in the field looking toward the smelter, and seeing a little trolley dump red-hot ash (which was probably filthy with toxic metal salts) down the side of a little ash mountain.

Aunt Josephine didn't drive, and so when she needed something from the store, she sent my cousin Rose to get it from the Blue Island commercial strip along Western Avenue south of 127th Street. Rose walked, and she took the neighborhood shortcut that everybody else did: Walking the Illinois Central tracks southwest from 127th Street down to Vermont, and west on Vermont a block to Western. It wasn't a horribly long walk; I measure it as almost exactly a mile. One of my earliest memories is taking that walk with Rose in the summer of 1957, maybe a month after my fifth birthday.

We didn't walk to one side or the other of the tracks. We walked on the tracks, right between the rails. I know we did, because I remember touching the rails, picking up rusty nuts and bolts and other things and sticking them in my pockets, and occasionally being told to "put that down!" The track was active (and still is) and when you heard a train coming, you got off the tracks until it went by.

It's a picture to savor: A seventeen-year-old girl with grocery bags on her hip and a five-year-old boy in tow, walking between iron rails that carried passenger trains at fifty miles an hour. Neither Aunt Josephine nor my own mother thought it was the least bit remarkable. It was just how life was, and the only easy way to get to a decent grocery store.

I haven't been down to that neighborhood in thirty years, and it would be interesting to go back and see what's left. The smelter is gone (it's now apparently a shipping container yard) but from Google Earth the rest looks about like I remember it. I wonder if anybody still walks on the tracks, or if they've put up fences. There are probably closer grocery stores now, and besides, these days, everybody drives. But there was a time when people didn't worry as much about crime or being hit by trains. (We worried about commies under the bed instead. I guess we had to worry about something.) Was it innocence? Or heedlessness? Who knows? What it certainly is, is a mindset that we can barely imagine these days: You walked the tracks, you watched for trains, and you did what you had to do to survive. We were fortunate to have survived, as we did insane things back in the Fifties.

Or did we? (Or have we simply ratcheted down the definition of "insane"?)

January 17, 2007: QBit Walks Like an Egyptian

QBit is almost perfect. Oh, he has a slightly crooked tooth or two, but for the most part he's show quality, not that we have any desire to do the dog show thing except as spectators. However, he has a minor weirdness that we've never seen in a dog before: He walks like a camel. By that I mean that he moves his legs in unison on each side. Front and back legs go forward together on the left, and then on the right. In most quadripeds, diametric opposite legs move together: Front left and rear right, etc.

It gives him a cute little swagger, and we always figured it was a puppy thing that he'd grow out of. But he's now just a few weeks short of two years old, and he still walks like an Egyptian, at least until he goes fast enough to break into a trot, at which point opposite legs get into sync and he moves like quadripeds generally move. We had almost ceased to notice Qbit's peculiar gait until we got Aero, who moves with the perfect dog-show prance, no matter how fast or slow he's going.

Carol guesses that it's his unusual musculature: QBit, for a bichon, is strong. He may walk funny because's built like a tank; surely, he's strong enough to pull me in a little red wagon, and it's an experiment I hope to make this summer, even if I have to buy a Radio Flyer to do it. I'll post a short video when I do. I'm tempted to get a couple of 18" ball-bearing spoked wheels and some aluminum tubing and make a 2-wheel dog cart. Now that would get me into the Make Blog!

January 16, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Oh, those wily Canadians: Hollowing out and planting transmitters inside coins that no one uses anymore. I keep one of these in my pocket as a good-luck memento of Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Louie, and any time I fish it out and dig through the coin pile in my palm to make exact change somewhere, people oohh and ahh at it. Not exactly covert, eh?
  • NASA has a very cool 3-D zoommable, pannable orbit display for the recent Comet McNaught, which shows how the comet basically came straight down from above the ecliptic and straight out under it, which is the reason it became a southern-hemispherem object almost immediately after passing behind the Sun. My bad western horizon (I have a mountain in the way) and recent bad weather kept me from seeing it, but there's plenty more where that came from in the Oort cloud. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.)
  • Ars Technica has a thought-provoking piece on how Hollywood quietly admits that DRM isn't about piracy at all, but rather the ability to lay claim to rights that previously rested with the consumer, so that they can sell those rights back to us...again...and again...and again.
  • Everybody should read this superb essay by Bruce Schneier on how passwords are broken. On reflection, my own passwords aren't too bad, but the deeper point here is that guessing passwords is getting easier, and if a bad guy can guess your password, it doesn't matter how good the system's underlying encryption technology is.

January 15, 2007: Frosty Mugs

Earlier today, Carol I decided we wanted a could of root beer floats. We had some vanilla ice cream in the fridge from way back, and the edges were getting a little gummy, so it was time. And I had bought some Stewart's Root Beer to do it up right, as we don't do this often. Diet root beer just never tasted right to us, so root beer floats (I'm old enough to remember them being called "Black Cows") are a daring foray into High Fructose Corn Syrup Land.

Alas, I had forgotten to put the Stewart's in the fridge, so it wasn't cold. But then I realized that we had a small snow drift right outside the sliding glass door on the main deck. So I threw a glass of Stewart's and two of the peanut-butter jars that we've been using as soda glasses since before forever right into the snowdrift, and left them there for half an hour. The snow and the outside temperature (10.8 degrees on our digital readout) made quick work of cooling things off.

When I brought the Stewart's and the "mugs" back in, there was a quarter inch of ice around the parts of the glass that were in contact with the snow, and everything was very cold—so cold that when I dropped in the ice cream and poured in the root beer, it immediately began freezing down at the bottom. It was about as cold a root beer float as one is ever likely to have, and the additional refrigeration was entirely free. Skol! (Heh.)

January 13, 2007: Morse Code, RIP

This isn't exactly breaking news (I heard about it a month ago) but it is significant: The FCC has decided to drop the Morse Code requirement entirely from the Amateur Radio Service. I've actually been expecting this for a number of years, and while it may come too late to save ham radio from other forces (primarily the Internet and ubiquitous deed restrictions) it was entirely the right thing to do.

Morse code is useful and will continue to be useful, but to fewer and fewer people in fewer and fewer circumstances. The military hasn't used it for some time, nor have civilian emergency service organizations. It's basically gone from the world entirely except within ham radio, and hams now use it only to talk to one another, often using very simple home-built transmitters with few parts and extremely low power. I looked at my logbook a while back and found that I had last used Morse code (CW, as hams say) toward the end of 1999, when I built a transmitter I called the Tinderbox. I tested the Tinderbox and found it good, but using it was kind of a pain, so I set it aside, not knowing at the time that I would not return to CW and Morse code. (I have become much more interested in FM since then.)

As the usefulness of CW waned, it did a lot of damage to the amateur radio community as a whole. The older guys insisted (truthfully, and often with inarticulate fury) that it was neceesary as a kind of hazing ritual, and if they had had to undergo it, these young snots had to as well. The young snots shrugged and said OK, and stayed away in droves. The ugliness of the debate suggested that something very unhealthy was going on, and I think I was right about that. The ham radio demographic got hugely older very quickly, especially down on the lower-frequency bands where Morse Code had been an unshakable requirement for over ninety years.

I still monitor the low bands when I'm in my workshop, though I have yet to mount the autotuning attic antenna I've been promising myself since we moved here, and it will be interesting to see if the "low bands" explode with CB-style vulgarity and rudeness, as the old guys have been predicting since Morse first started going into eclipse in the 1970s. I think not. (The rudeness and vulgarity seem to have migrated to the Internet. Amateur radio is as civil as it always was, perhaps moreso.) What I fear the most is that no one will care, and that amateur radio will quietly vanish, its bands parted out to the highest bidders. That seems to be the direction it's taking, and it would be a national tragedy if that were to happen. It's true here and in any other endeavor you could name: Hazing rituals always do more harm than good.

Ham radio may be able to recover, but it won't be easy. At least we won't have a misapplied and increasingly irrelevant skill requirement dragging us down anymore.

January 12, 2007: RVs With Garages

Carol and I went up to Denver the other day, just to get out of here for a day or so before the next of our increasingly regular weekend snowstorms hits. We went to a big RV show up at the Colorado Convention Center (where the SF Worldcon will be in 2008) on a sunny day with temps in the mid-60s. We didn't even wear our coats walking to the convention center from the hotel.

The RV show was reasonably entertaining, though there was little there that I hadn't seen before in terms of small RVs. However, it was fun seeing some of the oddball big'uns, which can be as big as a Greyhound bus (some of them actually are Greyhound buses) with slide-out extensions that can make them (literally) more spacious than a New York City apartment.

One of the oddest thing we saw was a package deal on a special type of RV called a "toy hauler" which is often but not always a fifth-wheel trailer. A "toy hauler" is basically an RV with a built-in garage in back, where you can put a couple of ATCs or motorcycles. In this deal, you buy both the toy hauler and a toy to haul in it, and the toy is the Mercedes Benz Smart, the tiny little car I first saw in Europe in 2002 and reported on here.

We often see monster RVs towing biggish vehicles behind them, and the consist looks pretty ungainly. If you must bring your small wheels along with your big wheels, I'd guess this is a better way to do it. But me? I'd park the big thing somewhere and then rent from Enterprise for a few days.

January 11, 2007: Can a Planet's Surface Be in Orbit?

I've been revisiting a lot of old SF recently, primarily Larry Niven. He's well-known to be one of my personal heroes, but I'll admit that he's a mixed bag. Consider the Smoke Ring/Integral Trees novels. The problem here is that Niven had one of the most brilliant concepts in SF—an immense, air-filled toroidal region around a star that supports life in the absense of a planet, at zero-G—and the stories are about little more than petty politics. Against the titanic scale of the Smoke Ring, almost nothing happens.

Oh, well.

But reading The Integral Trees made me wonder if that's the only way you can have a naturally occurring Earthlike atmosphere at zero-G. I flashed on Mission of Gravity, which is a planet forced into an ellipsoidal shape by its rapid rotation around its axis. The gravity at the poles is 700G, dropping to only 3G at the equator due to centrifugal force. Now, suppose you had a smaller planet than Mesklin, but one rotating a lot more rapidly, so that gravity measured at the poles is 1G or somewhat less...but the equatorial bulge is moving so quickly that it—and its atmosphere—are in orbit.

On the surface, this seems plausible, if unlikely. Such a planet might not be quite "solid" in the same way that most rocky planets are. The equatorial bulge might be fragmented, and consist of Rhode Island-sized chunks of rock (and down from there) just drifting along, bouncing off one another due to local thermal turbulence in the atmosphere.

Toward the center of gravity a little you get a certain amount of downward force, enough to gather immense chunks of rock into a sort of air-permeated matrix, but not enough to force them into a solid crust. I suspect that this situation might not be stable over geological time—remember, you have a sort of "perpetual downhill" as you move away from the equator, and a certain number of those rock chunks would periodically fall toward the poles.

But's an interesting notion. What sort of life would such a place support? Where would the water be? What kind of fun could you have in a place where you could just jump off the side of a mountain—and let the wind carry you along toward another mountain?

Will I write about it? I'm just not sure. I have relatively high confidence in the concepts that I actually write stories around. I don't have quite such confidence in this one. Let me think about it for awhile. I'll get back to you.

January 10, 2007: The Puppy Has Told Us His Name

Carol went down to PetSmart the other day and bought a name tag for our new puppy, because he finally told us his name: Aero.

Not "Arrow." Aero. Because he practically flies into your lap any chance he gets. Because his ears sometimes stick out on each side of his head like the wings of a B-17. (See the photos—particularly the last one—that I presented in my December 10, 2006 entry.) And because—well, because he told us. It's a puppy thing, and anyone who has ever accepted a puppy into his or her home will know precisely what I mean.

There are allusions to Harry Nilsson's charming old Sixties doper fantasy, The Point in that I keep hearing the "Me and My Arrow" song in the back of my head, and seeing Oblio's pointy-nosed mutt tearing around in random patterns. QBit is a very linear dog, even though he was a very hyperactive puppy. Aero has a much more aggressive random number generator, and his hyperactivity is never expended in the same direction for more than a moment.

They both like eating snow, which is good, because there's a lot to go around this year. Qbit is doing a good job of bringing up his adoptive little brother (Aero is actually Dino's child) and is willing to share his rawhide with the little interloper, as shown in the photo above. We've had too much snow to take them out walking much, but for some reason Aero is housebreaking in record time, and for the most part, all is well.

January 9, 2007: Abusing Abductive Inference

My question posed in the previous entry (for January 6, 2007) garnered a lot more attention than I had expected, with many people weighing in on what to call the "It might be, therefore it must be" logical fallacy. Not all were serious; one wag suggested the fallacy was called "getting a degree from Princeton" (which I think is a dig at Carl Sagan) while another said "being a moron." Well, yeah, that too.

But I think the definitive answer comes from Michael Covington, who has studied logic in depth, and considers the fallacy to be a misuse of abductive reasoning; specifically, reasoning abductively while making your listeners feel that you are reasoning deductively.

Abduction is a little like deduction working in reverse: Rather than going from evidence to a consequence (as in deduction) abduction works back from a consequence to postulate explanations. This is a useful process unless you give the impression that you are thinking deductively while doing it. Abduction is really a way of generating hypotheses, but those hypotheses, once generated, must still be tested in the usual fashion. You can't just short circuit the process by tossing out an explanation and acting as though there's no other possibility.

Michael's example is pertinent to the deeper issue (interpreting UFOs and other non-reproducible phenomena) and I will quote it in full:

Consider the schema:

(1) All weather balloons are lights in the sky.

(2) This is a weather balloon.

(3) This is a light in the sky.

Deduction is when you reason from (1) and (2) to (3). Induction is when you reason from (multiple cases of) (2) and (3) to (1). Abduction is when you reason from (1) and (3) to (2).

I can't put it better than that.

When applied to UFOs or paranormal phenomena, this misuse of abductive reasoning is called the Appeal to Probability, as pointed out by Eric Brombaugh. The gist is that because most people will accept that a weather balloon is more likely to be in the sky than a UFO, then a light in the sky must be a weather balloon. Ditto ghosts and swamp gas, etc. etc. The flaw here is that we don't have enough hard information to know how likely ghosts or UFOs actually are, since we can't catch them and pin them to a dissection tray. Again, the best that science can say is, "Come back when you have a UFO on the back of your truck and I'll take another look."

While we're still speaking of Carl Sagan, Jim Tubman sent me a link to an item from The Onion entitled "Ghost of Carl Sagan Warns Against the Dangers of Superstition." Savor it.

January 6, 2007: It Might Be, Therefore It Must Be

There is a logic fallacy that I've seen a great deal in the last twenty years: "If X might be true, then X must be true." It sounds idiotic (it is; never allow yourself to stoop to it) but it's about the only draft animal that debunkers have in their mental stable. Most people have heard the fallacy without thinking much about it: "Oh, it must have been a weather balloon." Or: "It wasn't a ghost. It had to be swamp gas."

Even intellectual heavyweights as major as Carl Sagan have done this, and Sagan's attitude toward the Near-Death Experience (and a number of other things for which a true scientist could only say "we simply don't know") is one reason he sits a little sourly in my memory.

So. What is the name of this logical fallacy? Every so often someone lobs it my way, and I want to perfect my logical backswing.

January 6, 2007: Odd Lots

  • One of the silliest things I've ever seen is "A Christmas Story in 30 Seconds", acted by animated bunnies and implemented in Flash. If you've never seen A Christmas Story, try "Christmas Vacation in 30 Seconds," which isn't as funny but still catches the gist. (I may have seen that flick a few too many times.) Starz has a whole catalog of these things, and they're not all Christmas movies by any means, or even comedies. Animated bunnies do The Big Chill (complete with one sitting on the floor of the shower and crying) Highlander, and even Night of the Living Dead. It is to boggle.
  • I've been looking for a "query by humming" system for some years now, and I discovered that Nayio has attempted to do just that. However, reviews indicate that it still has a long, long way to go.
  • There are a number of ways to display a zoomable 3-D map of our stellar neighborhood, but the one most recommended by my readers is Celestia. I haven't had time to install it and try it yet, but it looks very promising.
  • Assuming I ever summon the time and energy to write it, the sequel to The Cunning Blood will be called The Molten Flesh. Recall (those who have read the story) that the Sangruse Device was named from a portmanteau of two French words: sang (blood) and ruse (cunning.) Just for fun I went to Google Translate and entered "molten flesh." Translated from English to French, "molten flesh" becomes "chair fondue." Somehow, "the Chairfondue Device" isn't something you can talk about with a straight face. It will remain the Protea Device.

January 4, 2007: Home Again. Whew.

Back home in Colorado. Tired, tired. We were gone for three weeks, and it was a lot of work, both physically and emotionally. Not that we didn't enjoy it—we met our new niece Katie Beth Roper, saw her baptised, and had a chance to spend time with family that we don't often have—but that doesn't mean we're not a little worn out. Travelling back with QBit was trickier than usual because he fussed a lot inside his Sherpa bag, which may be getting a little small for him. He's much bigger than we had hoped he'd grow up to be, and if we're going to travel with him in the future, we may be limited to flying out of Denver where we can get larger planes with more room under the seats.

And of course, we now have The Puppy Who Won't Tell Us His Name, and air travel with two bichons may well be more than we want to attempt. We'll probably end up making fewer trips to Chicago, but longer ones—and drive. (I don't believe I'm saying that!)

While we were sitting out an hour's delay at O'Hare, I opened up the X41 and did a WiFi field survey. O'Hare has a WiFi network, but it was a Boingo system and my Boingo account had expired. I was too tired to want to fool with email anyway. But there was something interesting in the field survey: A node whose SSID was "Free Public WiFi." Now, my crap detector went off instantly—Chicago's utterly corrupt machine government does not like competition—and worse yet, the node was peer-to-peer rather than infrastructure. I looked around me in the crowded terminal, and counted at least a dozen laptops in plain sight, and certainly as many more that I couldn't see in the laps of people with their backs to me and behind the counters and pillars. We were at the gate, and getting to the gates requires a ticket. If I had had my old laptop with me and the foresight to install some logging tools, it would have been interesting to connect to the node and see what the doofus would try to do to me. An amateur, I suspect—probably somebody who travels a lot and puts out the bait as a diversion to kill time waiting for flights.

So consider it a warning: The scammers are out there. Be careful.

And I have to get back to work now.

January 2, 2007: The Other Priest Problem

A very cogent post by Bishop Sam'l Bassett on one of the Old Catholic email lists I subscribe to forced me to think a little harder about the reasons for the Roman Catholic Church's devastating priest shortage. Everybody seems to think (and I confess to leaning in that direction) that celibacy is the key issue. I'm sure that requiring that priests be celibate thins out the pool of candidates considerably. On the other hand, I personally know a handful of people who are not married, nor even dating anyone. They are interesting people: extraordinarily self-contained, not hermits but quite social. They definitely need human friendship. What they do not seem to need is sex. There is even a term for it now (asexuality) and an organization: AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.

So such people exist, and are probably commoner than we think. Why, then, wouldn't they want to become priests? A very serious reason occurred to me while I attended Mass with Carol's family the other day at a local Roman church: Being a Roman Catholic priest is probably the most unpleasant and least rewarding job in the entire Roman Catholic Church.

Why? Think for a second: Various sources tell me that 75-85 percent of Catholic women who have sex use birth control of a proscribed sort. Divorce among Catholic Americans has risen to par with non-Catholic Americans. An overwhelming majority of Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry, and a clear majority support the ordination of women. All of these things are vehemently condemned by the pope and by RC bishops who want to stay on the Pope's good side. Well. Where does the laity meet the hierarchy? Right down the street in your neighborhood parish. And who's stuck in the middle between these two warring camps? Guess.

There was a time when Roman Catholics would "pray, pay, and obey" without argument. Those times are past. Back in the days of "The Terror" (which ended with Vatican II) priests were required to grill women in the confessional about their sex lives, and particularly as to whether they used contraception. No more. When the subject comes up at all these days, the laity push back, and it's the parish priest who has to listen to angry and increasingly educated parishioners who have read popular books on the controversial topics and frame questions that are difficult and painful to answer, especially when the answer is "Because the Pope says so."

Who'd want a job like that?

The real reason for the priest shortage may well be that the Roman Catholic Church has painted itself into a corner with paint that (as some wag said) takes forever to dry. Imagine being a parish priest trying to counsel a woman whose husband has turned vicious and begun beating her. "No, you can't have a divorce. If you get one, you are automatically excommunicated. I'm sorry."


January 1, 2007: The Feast of the Circumcision, RIP

Carol and I went to Mass today, and I was shocked to see that January 1 is no longer the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus Christ, but instead "The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God." I'm a little surprised that I hadn't run across this before, since the change happened a long time ago, but I was a lapsed Roman Catholic for decades before returning to the faith through the Old Catholic Church back in the 90s, and I'm sure I've missed other things as well.

I've spent a little time trying to scout out a reason for the change in the feast, or even the precise year when the change occurred, and have come up empty. The cynic in me wonders if the Church would rather not admit that Jesus had a foreskin, or any sex organs at all. (If they weren't reluctant to admit it before, they probably are now, in the wake of umpty zillion copies of The Da Vinci Code in Catholic hands.)

Interestingly, circumcision is not an inherently Catholic or Christian procedure. Christians were relieved of the Jewish obligation to be circumcised within a few years of Jesus' death, at what we now call the First Council of Jerusalem, which is described in Chapter 15 of The Acts of the Apostles. The Council released gentile Christians from the bulk of Jewish ritual and dietary protocols, including circumcision. What gentile Christians were required to observe are what we call the Noahide Laws, which pre-date Moses and go back to Noah. The Noahide Laws are the precursors of the Ten Commandments, and are supposedly those laws that God holds binding on all human beings, not simply the Jews. They include abstention from idolatry and blasphemy, dishonesty, murder, fornication, and the consumption of meat cut from a living animal or from an animal that had been strangled. (The text in Acts is pretty terse and there is some argument about the details—for example, dishonesty is not explicitly mentioned—but that's the gist of it.)

Jesus really was a Jew, and thus was required to be circumcised. The near-universality of circumcision among American Christians is something of an anomaly, and doesn't hold true in the rest of the world. I haven't found a good historical treatment of circumcision as an American medical and cultural obsession, but I suspect that the elimination of the Feast of the Circumcision simply reflects a lot of general Church squeamishness over matters sexual. Mary has all kinds of feast days, and I would think a feast that put the lie to the heresy of Docetism (which denies that Jesus was truly human as well as divine) would be a good thing to retain. Alas, it is not to be, and it's one of a number of things I do miss about Tridentine Catholicism.