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January 29, 2008: Odd Lots

  • From Rich Rostrom comes a pointer to an amazing gallery of 50s-70s transistor radios and transistor radio ephemera. Almost every radio I had in that period or remember is here (including a nice one belonging to my grandmother) plus some true oddities, like phony transistor radio cases concealing liquor bottles, and a transparent pen with a single transistor floating loose in a little compartment full of oil, like a spider in formaldehyde. The photography is gorgeous, but the images are large and may take some time to come down. Nonetheless, don't miss it.
  • Jim Strickland pointed out that CFLs are now available in high wattages in the Mogul base, but alas, the bulb shown will not fit in Aunt Kathleen's floor lamp, as it's too long and would hit the shade frame.
  • From Pete Albrecht I got a link to a model rocket for people who aren't rocket scientists.
  • I haven't been to Snopes in a while, but a recent post aggregated on Slashdot suggested that it has been pushing the infamous Zango adware package for several months. The firestorm seems to have changed their minds, according to a report issued only today. There is a difference between serving ads and pushing adware, and if you're going to be considered one of the world's Good Guys, you have to stay on the right side of that line.
  • The video snippets taken by my late Kodak digital camera are all in QuickTime .mov format, which is a pain in the ass to edit unless you're a Mac guy. Pete and I recently found AVIDemux, a free open-source utility on SourceForge that converts .mov clips to .avi files, and in the limited testing I've been able to do, it seems to defy the codec chaos that reigns today and works beautifully.
  • Lego was fifty years old yesterday, and I will have to admit here that I never owned Lego as a kid. Never. I had a significant Meccano set from the time I was eight, which was my favorite toy until I got into electronics in a big way several years later. (I built a differential when I was nine, and hence I know how these slightly mysterious mechanisms actually work.) I boggle at stats like the fact that there are 62 lego parts for every person on Earth, which must mean that a certain number of people have a lot of them. People have built Lego logic gates, Lego cathedrals, and (more recently) a Lego Stargate. Wow. I have a few more years to build my missing Lego skillset before Katie (and her as-yet unborn sibling) will be ready to build her own Stargate with some uncle-ish help, but time flies. I'd better be at it.

January 26, 2008: US Copyright's "Weird Window"

US copyright terms are more complex than they should be—everybody seems to agree on that but Big Media. Here's a nice short summary that I have presented before. What's interesting is what happens in a sort of weird window between 1923 and 1963. Books published in that window bearing a legal copyright notice may or may not still be within copyright. The key is whether the copyright was explicitly renewed by the rightsholder. No renewal, and the book passed into the public domain after its initial 28 years of copyright, which would be no later than 1991.

Most books from that period that we even moderately successful financially have been renewed, but I've found a fair number of reasonably interesting books that were not. Most of the books I used in my researches into the fourth dimension in high school were either pre-1923 or never renewed: Coxeter's Regular Polytopes, Manning's Geometry of the Fourth Dimension and The Fourth Dimension Simply Explained, Somerville's An Introduction to the Geometry of N Dimensions. All are now in the public domain, and all are available from (surprise!) Dover Books in print editions, but I would certainly like to see them become nicely reset PDFs and not simply holographs. (My copy of Coxeter fell apart back in 1970.)

A lot of old electronics and amateur radio books were never renewed. All the Frank C. Jones amateur radio books that I have (great tube-era construction stuff!) have expired, and they were beautifully done. The late Don Stoner's New Sideband Handbook from 1958 is now out of copyright, as is Radio for the Millions. A lot of these old titles are now available from Lindsay Books.

As I've mentioned in other places, a lot of classic SF has expired, including most of E. E. Doc Smith's work, and much of H. Beam Piper. All of the Skylark books except for Skylark Duquesne (published shortly before the author's death in 1965 and thus outside the window) have expired, as have all of the Lensman books except for Gray Lensman and Children of the Lens. None of the Ace Double short novels I've checked have shown up for renewal, including Chandler's The Rim Gods and Lin Carter's Destination Saturn. Both of those could stand republishing; most of the other Ace Double entries I have are best forgotten. (It may be that the components of Ace Doubles were treated differently from a copyright standpoint; this would be useful to know. I'm looking into it.)

Nothing written solely by the Jesuit Herbert Thurston has been renewed, and his book Ghosts and Poltergeists is actually good sleepytime reading. (I'm still trying to obtain The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, which of all his books has the best rep. The bookstores I order it from keep selling it to somebody else before I get there.) The New Dictionary of Thoughts is a decent book of quotations, well-organized by subject, and now expired. Max Freedom Long's pre-1964 books on Hawaiian religion and magic were not renewed, nor were Carl & Jerry author John T. Frye's two books on radio repair. Ditto Glenn's Theodicy and Broderick's Concise Catholic Dictionary, along with Jessie Pegis' A Practical Catholic Dictionary. The slightly peculiar Benziger Brothers' My Everyday Missal from 1948 (with print I can't imagine anyone could read in a badly lit church) does not appear in the renewal records. Ditto My Sunday Missal from Fr. Joseph Stedman (1942) and St. Joseph Sunday Missal from Catholic Book Publishing (1962). In fact, most of the odd little prayer books I've gathered over the years either have no copyright notice or were never renewed.

And that's just the stuff from my own library. When I come across a book published in the Weird Window, I often check the renewal records to see if it's expired. Stanford University has a nice lookup page here, though the lawyers always caution that it's possible for there to be errors. I suppose. Nonetheless, there's a lot of room for the release of these titles as ebooks, or their reissue in print via POD. The public domain does not begin in 1922 and go back from there.

January 25, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Here's a nice article from NPR on sleep. Worth noting is the author's comment that in 20 years, the stylishness of getting only five hours of sleep a night may be seen the same way that the "stylishness" of smoking is seen today: As something that kills you before your time.
  • Pertinent to the above: I have notes on an SF novel postulating a drug that lets people sleep as much as 23 hours a day, with a side effect that lucid dreaming is not only normative but shared: People using the drug encounter one another in their dreams, and struggle for control of the weird collaborative colony they've created within the human collective unconscious. As years of use roll by, research shows that drug-induced sleep occupying over 75% of each day leads to reversal of aging and what might actually be physical immortality. Sleep forever and live in your dreams! Take that, you short-sleepers!
  • I stumbled upon gOS earlier today, and it's an interesting concept: A Linux distro focused on Web apps that might be ideal for ultra-mobile PCs, tablets, and ebook readers. (Alas, it's not mature and may not be as "small footprint" as people would like.) Many of the Web apps it installs by default are Google apps, which led me to wonder if the product's creators intended from the start to sell the company to Google someday.
  • Pete Albrecht put together a long and detailed resources page for model rocketry. Perhaps only peripherally related to model rocketry but interesting nonetheless is the linked-to story of Miss Bomarc. (I had a model Bomarc when I was a kid, and Pete is building a flying model.)
  • From George Ewing comes a pointer to an intriguing article about 13 Things That Do Not Make Sense. Actually, they do make sense—the problem is that we don't understand them yet. (Humanity's most grievous sin is refusing to admit its own ignorance.) I'm glad they included cold fusion, and the one I would add is poltergeist activity.
  • Jim Strickland sent me a pointer to an item about a pair of prosthetic legs that communicate via Bluetooth in order to help a double amputee walk more effectively. The story I currently have doing the rounds (though all the majors have bounced it) posits a prosthetic leg with a 128-core Intel processor, a snarky AI personality, a thigh speaker, and WiMax, with all that that implies. If I don't sell it soon, you'll see it in Souls in Silicon later this year.
  • This June, ContraPositive Diary will be ten years old. (How many blogs can make that claim!) What would you all suggest I do to celebrate? Should I publish a print book "best of" on Lulu? (Might make good bathroom reading...)

January 24, 2008: My 2008 Publishing Plan File

This oral surgery business has set me back on a number of projects (no, scratch that; all of them!) but things get a little better every day and I'm hard at work again on several fronts. The fifth and final volume of Carl and Jerry is getting close to finished. I'm now doing the topic index, which is an interesting concept. I regularly get messages from guys who ask me, "Hey, Jeff, what was the Carl and Jerry story where they set up a talking skull for a haunted house?" That's all they remember: The talking skull. So there will be an index entry like the following:

November 1959: V11 #5 Book 3 p.81 "The Ghost Talks"
On Halloween, Selsyn motors and a glowing skull haunt a house for Norma's sorority.

The topic index will have entries like Iceboat, Dogs, Kidnapers, Bootleggers, Capacity-operated relays, RC models, Telemetry, Tesla coil, Norma, Mr. Gruber, Theremin, Ultrasonics, and so on. I already have a complete chronological index on the Web here, but I wanted to make the search possible by topic, and if all you remember is that the boys were fooling with a police speed radar unit, you can look up Radar and see both stories (there were two) in which police speed radar figures significantly. After the index is done, I have two "new" Carl and Jerry stories to typeset and then it should be finished. I'm hoping to have it available by February 10.

With Carl and Jerry in the can, my next major push will be to get two anthologies of my own SF out there on Lulu and as ebooks. The two volumes will be:

  • Souls in Silicon, including all my SF featuring any sort of artificial intelligence, plus a significant excerpt from The Cunning Blood; and
  • Firejammer!, which will contain all the rest of my published SF plus the title novella, which has never seen print and, given its 27,000-word length, is unlikely to in traditional markets.

Unlike my earlier Lulu publications, these two will get ISBNs and be available on Amazon. I also intend to make them available on the Kindle. Most of the material has already been typeset, and a lot of the remaining effort will go into things like finding art for the covers. I'm hoping to get these both out by midyear; Souls in Silicon may happen sooner.

In loose moments I've been recasting the 1993 print edition of Borland Pascal from Square One for FreePascal, and will release an initial volume as a free ebook sometime in late summer. As FreePascal was designed to be compatible with Borland Pascal 7, this should work. The ebook will be free, but I will offer an inexpensive printed edition with a color cover on Lulu. The first volume will cover the basic concepts of programming, installation of FreePascal on several platforms, the use of the console window IDE, and the core Pascal language. Much of the book is now obsolete, and it doesn't really cover OOP beyond the basic idea, so if additional volumes happen they'll take a fair bit of work and won't be out until 2009. I'm also considering adapting my portions of The Delphi 2 Programming Explorer for Lazarus, but that won't likely be this year either.

Toward the end of the year I may release a third Old Catholic history title, which will be a compendium of several shorter items from journals published between 1875 and 1900.

Note well that this is a publishing plan file; I still intend to do a fair bit of writing and will continue to shop my material to traditional markets. I hope to finish Old Catholics and make some headway on The Molten Flesh—and if I can't get traction there, I will go back to Ten Gentle Opportunities. Shorter items may pop up at any time; writing is a messy business. But you knew that. I hope.

January 22, 2008: Fuse Fuse Revolution

Yee-hah! The drugs are gone and I got my monsters back! Ok, last night's monster was nothing special, but at least I'm no longer dreaming of repairing Xerox machines for Hilary Clinton. And the monster is probably the least interesting aspect of last night's major dream.

But it was still a monster, and that counts for something. I dreamed that Carol and I were vacationing somewhere in England. In a small hillside village we were browsing in shops and in a sort of street market, and that's where we first saw the monster: It was a big, totally hairy 9-foot tall Sasquatch-ish thingie. It wasn't doing anything special; in fact, it was browsing the market stalls and stepping into shops just like we were. (In the morning it occurred to me that the poor thing was probably vacationing from western Oregon, where so many tinfoil-hat types are searching for it that it must lead a pretty stressful life.) We later saw it again while touring some old castle.

Now, I have a protocol for dealing with dream monsters that has worked well for me these past 55 years:

  • Don't get too close;
  • Don't make eye contact;
  • Don't engage them in conversation.

(I use this same protocol in the real world for beggars, religious fanatics, and women leaning against buildings.) Every time I saw the monster, I quietly started herding Carol in the opposite direction, and once again, it worked.

But toward the end of the dream, I saw something remarkable: A video game vaguely similar to Dance Dance Revolution. It consisted of a typical game console, plus a low square platform with nine cells that you step on. When the game begins, the platform lights up in dull red, and the nine cells display callouts for common nuclei. The object of the game is to put one foot on each of two nuclei that can fuse. For example, if one cell says 7Li and the another 1H (Physics types will know what I'm talking about) you step on both and the game console totes up the energy you've generated, with a display on the console in MeV. Each time you successfully fuse two nuclei, the pressure value goes up and the platform's backlight slides up the spectrum a little from red toward violet. As the pressure goes up, more exotic fusion reactions become possible, and if you know your nuclear physics you can rack up quite a score. The machine we saw was in a pub, and a young business-suited British gentleman was playing with a pint in his hand.

Damn, I remember thinking, he must know his carbon-nitrogen cycle cold.

Anyway, I have no idea whether this makes sense as a game, since I don't play games other than some Snood and an occasional round of Mah Jongg. But it was the coolest thing I've seen in a dream in quite some time, certainly since before I had my gums worked on a week ago Monday. Nor am I sure there are enough possible fusion reactions to make such a game interesting, though in the heart of a supernova (once you goose the platform into the purple zone) who knows what's possible and what isn't?

Some part of me is obviously ready to write some SF again. I gotta get busy.

January 21, 2008: Artificial Stupidity

Unambiguously better now. I'm no longer taking narcotic painkillers, and mirabile dictu! I can think again. The big battle now is not against pain so much as the swelling, and anti-inflammatories don't disrupt your higher brain functions. (They can mess bigtime with your stomach lining if you're not careful, though.) My mouth is still a little uncomfortable, especially after I eat something—even innocuous stuff like oatmeal and cottage cheese, which is most of what I've been eating for seven days now—but it's not like it was even two days ago. I've lost five pounds in seven days while getting no exercise at all. Try the Gingivectomy Diet—no, scratch that. Not worth it.

The swelling can and does cause some nagging discomfort, and while I'm not quite my usual ebullient self, I'm in the ballpark again. My experience this past week reminded me of the mystery that has tied our nation up in knots from time to time: Why "drugs" are an issue at all. We as a society spend an immense amount of money chasing people who make an immense amount of money selling chemicals for an immense amount of money to people who seem to think ingesting them is worth an immense amount of money—not to mention the risk of jail time . I've never been able to figure the payoff, however, and I'm gradually coming around to the realization that the mystery is really about me:

I don't get high. I've never gotten high. In truth, I'm not even sure what "high" means.

I smoked marijuana a couple of times in 1973, in part because everybody I knew was doing it, and in part because I was interested in whether drugs could enhance creativity. The answer to that was a resounding no; pot made me depressed and paranoid for days afterward. By that time I had already given up alcohol because there was no payoff apart from confusion and a tendency to talk too much—and when I drank more while looking for that elusive payoff I just threw up and felt wretched for the next several days. (It was ten years before I went back to good wine in small quantities.)

Here and there in the subsequent 35 years I've been given narcotics for pain. I vividly remember my first hernia surgery in 1978: I had eagerly packed a small bag of electronics theory books to study during what I was told would be four days of enforced bed rest. (They did not tell me who or what would enforce the bed rest, heh.) The memory of picking up an RF design text ten minutes after a shot of morphine is peculiar: Damn, I used to know what this stuff meant! After a few minutes of futile riffling, I grabbed the TV remote and happily watched "Green Acres" reruns until I fell asleep. A few years later I had my wisdom teeth pulled, and under the influence of some damned pill or another I felt stupid and took peculiar delight in watching "The Dukes of Hazzard."

And that's been my pattern ever since, when medical issues arise and I get handed drugs: Instead of euphoria, I get artificial stupidity, memory lapses, and depression. The memory lapses I don't mind much; who wants vivid recall of a root canal or colonoscopy? (My last root canal I remember well because they tried to sedate me with nitrous oxide, and it didn't work. At all. Nada. I had to content myself with watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on a TV embedded in the ceiling while praying that the whole thing would be over soon.) But I dislike the feeling of my intelligence falling away from me as the drug takes hold; to me it's a metaphor of losing my soul and thus all that matters to me. (I drew on this feeling in describing the motivation of the Guardian in my 1980 story of the same name.)

I'm a naturally upbeat person, and perhaps that's the key: I may be immune to euphoria because I'm already there. A woman I knew in college said something once that startled me at the time: "The trouble with you, Jeff, is that you're too damned happy!" Looking back, however, she just may have been right. Having a naturally euphoric state could be like living at the South Pole: No matter which way you go from there it's toward gummy-headed depression.

It may be impossible for me to understand why people risk their lives for narcotics, just as it may be impossible to understand how people can enjoy nasty bitter wine like Chardonnay. Life's experience is not the same for all people. I taste bitter things with outrageous intensity, and for the most part I live my life in a state of nonmanic happiness. My brief spates of depression following the loss of Coriolis and several close relatives makes me wonder what life is like for people who are unhappy basically all the time. Perhaps Huxley's soma—or something similar but gentler—really is necessary for some people. (Perhaps we already have it, in the mind-changing antidepressants. See Listening to Prozac.) Mood seems to be inherited, not earned, and if it's inherited, do people have a right to tweak it? (See Stephen Braun's The Science of Happiness.) I don't claim to have the answers, but there's no better time to be haunted by unanswerable questions than when you're sitting still in a comfy chair, dosed to the eyebrows with something that doesn't permit your brain to do anything more than chase its own shadows.

January 19, 2008: Putting My Dreams on Hold

Dare I hope that I've turned the corner? We'll see in the morning. At least the black-and-blue hasn't gotten any worse, and I'm taking the pain pills less often.

And I've been thinking about dreams. A lot of people thought that yesterday's entry described a dream made up for the sake of a funny story, but it wasn't—the dream was real and unfolded precisely as described. I had another dream last night with the same odd characteristic in common: No outlandish elements. I dreamed that I was at my godfather's dairy farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, standing in the open doorway of the farmhouse watching the cows champ grass in the pasture, like I did when I was there in the 50s and 60s. They were ordinary cows eating ordinary grass, and the house was precisely as I remember it, even though the farm was sold and the house razed over thirty years ago.

I think that's the key: My dreams for the last few nights have been composed entirely out of things remembered, not things made up from whole cloth, as they so often are. I've never met Hilary Clinton, but lord knows I see her enough on TV, and she did grow up a scant couple of miles from where I did. And the outlines of the situation were familiar: I used to visit a lot of offices when I was a Xerox tech rep back in 1974-76, and for the most part I was treated well by the office managers and secretaries who were in charge of keeping their cranky copiers running. I was generally offered coffee or sodas, often with doughnuts or chips, occasionally sandwiches, and sometimes odd things like taffy apples. (I went home once with a zucchini in my coat pocket, though I dislike them and eventually had to throw it out.) More surprisingly, these people (almost always women) generally liked me and had the wisdom not to blame me for their malfunctioning machines, many of which were ancient limping electromechanical clunkers that desperately needed scrapping. I tried to be helpful in return: I was sometimes asked to "look at this damned telephone" or see if I could make a balky radio work. My record there was spotty, but I did what I could and they appreciated it.

I think that Hilary Clinton was standing in here for the archetype of the Good Customer, the ones who knew that I did my best to help them. I enjoyed being a tech rep, even though I knew I wouldn't be doing it for long, just as I enjoyed my visits to Uncle Joey's farm in the early 60s. The Xerox job was peculiarly rewarding—I'm still not quite sure why—and I'm guessing that my dream-maker mechanism was reaching for "comfort memories" and gluing them together with the same abandon that it often glues together weird creatures and impossible architecture and machinery.

So where did the weird creatures go? I have a theory that I tested today: I think that the pain pills anaesthetize the machinery in my subconscious mind that creates brand new things. I tried working on two of my numerous "hanging fire" SF projects, and it was startling how completely incapable I was of making progress. I did a little better on Old Catholics, which is a contemporary mainstream novel about people in Chicago, not an adventure set far in the future on peculiar worlds. Still, I had a great deal of trouble being truly creative today, in any way at all—and I think I'm doing as well as I am on this entry right now simply because I'm due for another pill in an hour or so, and my gums are starting to hurt. I think it's telling that I have taken a pain pill (two of them, actually, of two different kinds) right before bed every night since Monday, so that the chemicals have had their greatest effect while I sleep. (Which is the idea—otherwise I wouldn't sleep.)

I'm starting to miss the weirdly creative theater of the mind that I have always experienced, even though it sometimes disturbs me. I have fair confidence that it will return once the pill bottle is empty. I'll let you know.

January 18, 2008: Dreams of a Gum Surgery Fiend

This is getting old. No, scratch that—it was old before it started. It is now real old. This morning, while I was still blearily sipping coffee and waiting for the microwave to cook my oatmeal, Carol looked at me across the table and said, "You're turning black and blue." And it was true: The damage I had previously been able to conceal by just keeping my mouth shut is now leaking through my cheeks somehow, and I have blotches. Not many, not big, but sheesh, this was gum surgery. I didn't have a limb stitched back on. I didn't have my gallbladder removed. I wasn't in a brawl.

Carol, at least, tells me that the swelling isn't any worse than it was yesterday. Yay wow halluluia. It is, however, increasingly asymmetrical, as the left side appears to be going down a little faster than the right—or maybe the right side is still swelling and the left side finally stopped. The pain drugs keep me a safe distance from suicidal, but there are...side effects.

My dreams are changing. They are moving from otherworldly to thisworldly, and I'm not sure that's entirely a good thing. I've had my very personally specific brand of dreams for 55 years, and a guy should go with what works. Magnetic monsters that rise from my tool cabinet and look like walking globs of stuck-together screwdrivers and ratchet sets, well, fine. I can deal with tools. Rotating horned skyscrapers, sure. I used to live in Chicago and I like innovative architecture. Freeze-dried dinosaurs stacked up like cordwood out on the parkway, no sweat. I have a fireplace. Talking doughnuts—hey, I knew guys in college who not only talked to their doughnuts but argued with them. If that sounds weird to you, well, you don't remember the 70s.

I wish I was artist enough to do CGI. I would show you some things, man...

But no. Last night I woke up at 5 ayem from a new kind of dream. I am not making this up; you can ask Carol yourself. There was nothing freaky in the dream at all. There was nothing in the dream that does not already exist in this world, and that's a first for me. It was disturbing in the extreme: I was wandering around Hilary Clinton's red-brick condo in Park Ridge (outside of Chicago, where she grew up and near where I grew up) looking at her record collection while Hilary was talking strategy with two of the senior guys from her campaign team. She had a lot of Steely Dan. Ms. Clinton was charming, pleasant, and every so often came over to me to see if I wanted more nachos or another soda. I looked at my watch and remembered that I had volunteered to give them all a lift downtown in a few minutes, and decided I didn't want any more Diet Mountain Dew.

She was good with that. So I took my toolbag and went out to look for my car. It was gone. I had parked it in a no-parking zone, and the old guy on the second floor leaned out the window and told me he had reported me and they towed it. Dayam.

The nachos had nothing to say. There were no talking doughnuts. Where were the weird creatures? The space habitats? The mutant Frank Lloyd Wright bungalows floating on antigravity cushions? The fiendish intelligences breaking through from the eleventh dimension to steal our souls? No. Nothing at all. I dug for my car keys and pulled a spool of corotron wire out of my pocket, and woke up in a cold sweat.

Last night I dreamed I was Hilary Clinton's copier repairman. You couldn't beat that for weirdness by tossing in a Maidenform bra. I want off these drugs. Dear Lord, please let it be soon. Please.

January 17, 2008: And On the Third Day, He...Ached

Figgered I'd surface for a few words; I'm between pain pills and can think a little bit. However, my face is badly swollen and I've lost three pounds in as many days, largely because eating requires the detailed use of your mouth.

Before the surgery, the medical office handed me pages of fine print about the procedure and its aftermath, which I skimmed, as it was depressing. However, it was true in an interesting respect: The worst doesn't come until three days after the procedure itself. In truth, I was so sedated that I no longer remember much about being in the chair and getting worked on. And the first and second days weren't too bad. But this morning, mon dieu...

And there it was, in the fine print: Swelling peaks on the third or fourth day post-surgery. Now, I'm no Hugh Grant and don't care that much how I look, short-term. But swelling hurts.

So I'm reading, daydreaming, and lying on my back in bed being bored. I'll report more when I can think clearly enough to report on something.

January 13, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Bob Halloran wrote to remind me that dual-booting Windows and Linux on a single hard drive is easy—but you have to install Windows first. When you install Linux it will see the Windows partition and configure grub so that grub will allow you to choose either OS when the hard drive's MBR gets control. If you install Linux and then Windows, Windows will overwrite the MBR with its own stuff, and grub will be gone. I'm going to try this with a couple of Linux installs alongside Windows (I want both Ubuntu and Kubuntu on that drive, at minimum) and will report back here in detail as to how it goes.
  • From Engadget comes a report of a prototype ebook reader (including handwriting recognition) shown without any explanation at the recent CES. This looks damned good to me, and is worth watching, at least in part because it's not tiny. I do not want a tiny ebook reader. I want something that shows an 8 1/2" X 11" page full-size. The dimensions on this gizmo are unclear, but it's sure as hell bigger than a cell phone. I'll trade a keyboard for a stylus, but I want the display to be at least letter-sized. (And I want a photovoltaic panel on the back to charge it when I'm not using it!)
  • There's nothing whatsoever preventing a piece of software from rendering a PDF ebook as reflowable text, and we're starting to get hints that Adobe may provide that ability, at least for the Sony Reader. This will allow people with big displays to read an ebook as pages, and people going crosseyed on small displays to read an ebook five words at a time. It should be the reader's choice, and I'm annoyed that that ability was not there from the beginning of PDF time.
  • Finally, I'm going in for serious gum surgery tomorrow morning, and I do not plan to be fully present intellectually for a couple of days. Do not look for a Contra entry before Thursday, but if you see one, it means I'm in better shape than I expected to be.

January 11, 2008: Booting Kubuntu from a Removable Drive

Pete and I discovered something interesting recently, almost by accident. Ok, it was almost entirely by accident. But it's useful nonetheless: We figured out how to install and boot Kubuntu on a removable hard drive after Kubuntu's installer failed to see the removable drive.

I've written about Dell's SX260/270 small form factor desktop here a number of times. It's a tiny little micro-tower made from laptop parts, especially Dell's Inspiron line. Its single most useful feature is its "media bay," a front-panel slot that accepts several different kind of removable drives, including floppies, Zip 100s and 250s, CD and DVD drives of all stripes, and hard drives in appropriate cartridges. These cartridges are available empty, and Pete and I each bought such a cartridge plus an 80 GB notebook drive to install in it. The idea was to install Kubuntu on the cartridge drive, and then figure out how to dual-boot between Windows on the main hard drive and Kubuntu in the cartridge drive.

Except that I couldn't get Kubuntu's installer to see the cartridge drive, and thus couldn't do the install. Oh, well. We were interested enough in configuring Kubuntu and experimenting with some OSS titles accessible by KDE package manager Adept to pull the main Windows hard drive out of my SX270 lab machine and drop the new, empty hard drive into the main internal drive slot in its place. From there it was a typical and easy Kubuntu install, and we spent an afternoon trying things out. (Adept is a marvelous thing!) The next day I wanted to use my scanner downstairs, but the scanner software was installed under Windows, and HP infamously does not provide Linux drivers for its products. So I pulled the Kubuntu drive out of the SX270 and put the Windows drive back in. On a whim I installed the Kubuntu drive in my empty media bay cartridge and plugged the cartridge in to the machine's media bay to see what the boot process would do. I restarted the SX270, and wham! Kubuntu booted.

It's obvious in hindsight: The BIOS lists the CD drive ahead of the internal hard drive in boot order, and the CD drive lives in the media bay. In fact, anything with a master boot record plugged into the media bay will boot (or try to boot) before the internal hard drive.

There is a downside to using Kubuntu from the SX260/270 media bay: There's only one media bay, so with the Kubuntu hard drive cartridge plugged in, there's nowhere to put my media bay optical drives. (I could buy a USB optical drive, but that's yet another piece of hardware to keep track of.) The real solution is to figure out how to make grub dual-boot Windows and Kubuntu from separate partitions on the 120 GB internal hard drive. Remarkably, O'Reilly does not have a book on grub, even though they have whole books on numerous deep-geek software packages with user bases (barely) in double digits. (There are millions of grub installs. Maybe tens of millions.) So I've been reading the scraps posted here and there online and will figure it out eventually.

I guess I should have known that anything in the media bay would boot before the main hard drive. I freely admit that I didn't. Sometimes, well, you just get lucky.

January 9, 2008: Iowa Caucuses Footnote

Now that the New Hampshire primary is history, we have another data point and might be able to get a little perspective on how bizarre Iowa's dominance of the primary phenomenon is. (See my entry for January 3, 2008.) This is due to the way the Iowa caucuses are conducted, at least on the Democratic side. (The Republicans caucus a whole different way.)

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa are a little like the platypus, in that people hearing how they work for the first time don't always believe it. Let me give you the short summary: At 7 PM on caucus night, Iowa's 1,784 precincts open their doors and the most motivated citizens stream in. There are no ballot boxes as we understand them. Instead, people literally go to the corner of the room under a sign with the name of the candidate they support. If you support Obama, you go stand in the Obama corner. If you support Hilary, you go to Hilary's corner. You can switch corners at any time, keeping in mind that after about 45 minutes, candidates without sufficient numbers of people under their signs are declared nonviable and tossed out, releasing their corner-standers to go stand somewhere else. (How this "viability factor" is calculated is complex and I'm not entirely sure I understand it myself, but it runs from 15% to 25%.)

Electioneering is allowed in the room, meaning that people can cajole others to move into their corner. Eventually, the party bosses declare that the caucus is over, and count heads in each of the viable corners. That isn't quite the end of it: What the numbers in each corner actually select are delegates to a state (not the national) Democratic nominating convention, but it's possible to know with some certainty on caucus night which candidates get how many delegates at the national convention.

There are multiple flaws in a system like this, including the fact that people who are not free at 7 PM on caucus night get no vote, nor do people like military personnel who are required by law to be elsewhere and cannot attend. (There is no absentee participation.) However, the worst of it is that everybody in your precinct gets to see whom you support—and that, in my view, is pure evil. I have tangled with party tribalists on occasion, and they are nasty, vituperative Right Men and Right Women who nourish grudges and hold them basically forever. If your neighborhood tribalists support one candidate and you support another, you'd better hope that they have nothing on you. (Zoning board members? Homeowners' association weasels? Such people are everywhere, and they have the power to make your life very difficult if they choose.) Even if there are no such tribalists in your precinct (and there are almost always a couple) people may feel pressured to vote with the rest of their families, or at least pressured against supporting an oddball dark horse candidate who appeals to them. Whatever cloud may hang over your personal decision as an Iowa Democrat, it is not a free election.

I'm amazed that this gets as little attention as it does. My readings and conversations indicate that the most committed Democrats supported Obama, and Big Media has all but handed him the nomination already. I can well imagine Obama's tribalists giving the "just you wait!" eyeball to people they know standing under Hilary's sign last Thursday night. (Yes, I'm sure there are Hilary tribalists as well, but Democratic tribalists tend to lean left.) It's impossible to know how different the results would have been had Iowa's Democrats allowed their people a true secret ballot. But would it have been different? Count on it.

January 4, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a collection of free fonts with a German flavor.
  • Pertinent to the above, Pete sent a link to a nice free font viewer from AMPSoft.
  • Alas, font rendering is one of the areas where Ubuntu (and Linux generally) is way behind Windows.
  • An almost unbelievable piece of spyware is being installed by Sears, Roebuck on the machines of people who join "My SHC Community." Good God: The software installs a proxy that causes all of your Web activity—whether associated with My SHC or not—to be intercepted. Disclosure of the spyware is buried in the small print way down in the thick of a 54-page "privacy policy."
  • Here's yet another reason not to use Vista: It's all about protecting Microsoft and the Big Media outfits that Microsoft is trying to impress. What they did to this guy is criminal, but predictable. DRM technologies like this are the reason I do not buy downloads of music or video.
  • I inadvertently validated a lot of people's objections to ebooks recently: I lost the wall-wart charger for my Sony Reader. I simply don't know where it is, and the Reader is dead as a doornail for lack of juice. I'm sure it's here in the house somewhere, but until I find it, well, paper is looking mighty good.
  • Pertinent to the above: I recently purchased a 109-year-old copy of a theology journal containing an article on the Old Catholic movement. The journal is as readable as it was in 1898—and the several ebooks stored on my Sony Reader might as well be on Mars. We have to work on this. DRM and deprecated media formats aren't our only problems. Could an ebook reader be made with solar panels on the back side so you could charge it by flipping it over and laying it on a sunny windowsill for an hour?
  • Also in the ebook field is a report from Crave pointing to Igor Skochinsky's blog entries reverse-engineering the Kindle. There's some interesting stuff in there that hasn't been turned on yet, further cementing my conviction (now having actually seen Jim Strickland's unit) that as ugly as it is, the Kindle is the most innovative thing the ebook world has yet seen. That doesn't make it perfect, but I'm less dismissive than I was.
  • Every now and I then I spot something that makes me say, "Damn, that's clever." The Make Blog highlighted earrings that can become earplugs when ambient noise gets too high. Carol and I don't go to many live concerts for precisely that reason: Everything's too loud and gives her headaches. Yes, the plug portion should be designed so that it looks less like a shuttlecock, but the inventor gets credit for thinking outside the box.
  • My Kodak EasyShare V530 digital camera (which died at warranty expiration plus three weeks) may be replaced by this model. 12 megapixels! Are we getting to the point of diminishing returns on camera resolution? (I actually like it for other features, like taking the picture when you press the button and not three seconds later.)

January 3, 2008: Why Is Iowa Special?

And so the whole wretched business begins again, as the anointed tribal elite in Iowa gather tonight to caucus (which comes from an obscure Kickapoo Indian word meaning "to put tribal defectives in a dark room and order them to run around in circles acting like idiots") six months early or possibly four years late, depending on your perspective.

It's well known that I hate politics, and so don't talk much about it. I don't talk much about dark green leafy vegetables either, but that doesn't keep some knuckleheads from holding that they are the keys to eternal life. But I bring up questions now and then that no one else seems to be asking, like this one: Why does Iowa get to be first, and winnow the slate of candidates before anybody else gets a shot at them?

Here and there you may possibly see the question posed, just before the anointed elite and Big Media tut-tut and say that that's the way it's always been. (Which, by the way, was a major argument in favor of retaining racial segregation.) They then change the subject. More rarely, someone with more guts than sense dares to answer the question, generally by declaring that Iowa is somehow special in a demographic sense. Special? Hey, we're all special today, right? (Ask any third-grade teacher.) You hear the term "microcosm" a lot, generally from people who don't know what it means. As the Wall Street Journal reminded us this morning, the only Iowa Democratic caucus winner in recent memory who went all the way to the White House was Jimmy Carter.

In truth, there's nothing special about Iowa that isn't special about Nebraska, Wyoming, or South Carolina. The current primary system gives people in early states power over the choices of people in later states, and that is not a good thing. This leaves us two other alternatives: 1) Have a single national primary in all states on the same day to select November's candidates, or 2) try something else.

Alternative #1 would be better than what we have now (which is simply idiotic) but there's a strong argument against it: Without that early "momentum" obtainable in small states like New Hampshire and Iowa, the big states would select the candidates. This is a reasonable objection, and basically the same one that sustains the Electoral College, which is neither as good nor as bad a mechanism as many people think. (It could use improvement, but let's forego that discussion until November.)

What else can we try? Well, one mechanism seems obvious to me: Assign each of the 50 states a random number from 1 to 50, and then run primaries on 25 consecutive weeks, in which the states that pulled 1 and 2 hold primaries the first week, those that pulled 3 and 4 the second week, and so on, with the states that pulled 49 and 50 primarying (is that a verb? Hey, everything else is!) last. If by some fluke larger states pull small numbers in 2008, it's likely that smaller states will get the same fluke in 2012. But for the most part, it'll be a good mix, and most important of all, not a predictable one. No candidate would be able to snatch momentum by spending months studying the idiosyncratic specialness of Iowans or New Hampshirians and then pandering to that specialness. They'd have to be able to pander to the specialness of any state at all, or (better yet) give up pandering completely and stand on their records.

Such a Randomly Ordered Sequential Primary (ROSP) could make the Giant Pander an endangered species. Now that would be special!

January 1, 2008: The Power of Dust

In the past week or so, I've gotten unpredictable overheating warnings from my Intel motherboard monitoring utility. The CPU zone was getting up to 165 degrees while I was typing continuously into Dreamweaver. That Dreamweaver should be the culprit was not a total surprise; when I type continuously into the Dreamweaver editor, Task Manager shows CPU usage pegged at 50% until I stop. I don't know how they handle their data internally, but I intuit that every time I press a key while the editor has the focus, Dreamweaver does some kind of tree traversal of the entire document. (This comes from watching Task Manager's graphs while editing a short and fairly simple HTML document and then a large a complex one.) The mystery was why my CPU zone temperatures were gradually increasing from about 130 under load to 165.

Crack the case (which I admit I haven't done in almost a year) and there's no mystery: My CPU heatsink was caked with dust, and across much of the heatsink the dust had completely closed over the voids between the heatsink fins. My digital camera's lens jammed just after Christmas or I would have taken a picture, but it was impressive, and what was even more impressive was the cloud that rose from the opened case out in the garage when I switched the shopvac hose to "blowing" and directed a stream of cold air into the works. Whoa—back up and don't inhale!

I ordinarily do periodic degunking of my system, but we were gone so much during 2007 that I just stopped. The lesson here is that "degunking" is not just a software metaphor. Dust matters, sometimes as much as disk fragmentation and register clutter. The easiest and safest way to remove dust from a PC case is to blow it out. Don't vacuum—the snout of a vacuum hose accumulates significant static charge over a few seconds and can damage the electronics if the snout touches the mobo (or other hardware) in the wrong spots. Take the box out onto the driveway or the deck and blow air into it without touching the case. Pay particular attention to the CPU area, especially if you have a CPU fan pulling air through a heatsink. Blow air into the power supply through any vents it has, and make sure any vents in the case are clear.

Dust is a little like fiberglass fuzz in that it traps air and acts as insulating material once it gets thick enough. If you don't get the dust off your CPU, it will heat up, and if your CPU usage gets aggressive, it may heat up enough to damage the die. My CPU zone now drops to as low as 108 when the machine is idle, and hasn't gone up past 135 even during furious Dreamweaver input sessions. 30 degrees saved at the cost of two minutes with a shopvac hose—that's the power of dust.

My Antec case custom box is fairly quiet, but Antec has an even quieter case now, with larger, slower fans and a little more room inside. I've been having trouble with the audio connectors on the front case panel, and it occurs to me that if I'm going to do a case transplant, I might as well buy a new dual-core mobo—or perhaps a quad—and play around with multiprocessing. Changing out the case is pretty much the same as building a new machine, so perhaps it's time to do the research and get a hatful of new cores in the bargain. I'll let you know what I decide.