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July 27, 2008: Alox Kites and Toys

I've had a little time to look at and photograph the material I received from Nancy Frier a few days ago. (See yesterday's entry.) I've begun work on a new Web article on Alox products and especially Alox kites, but I can post some early photos.

At left is the "Rocket Ship" kite design, but it's not printed from the plate I showed you yesterday. The text and the spaceship are in different colors, indicating that they had separate plates at some point for two-color printing. The kite is 30" high and 24" wide, the same as Hi-Flier's Playmates of the Clouds. The Rocket Ship kites were printed on four different colors of paper, in either a single color or a two-color design. The catalog number of this size of kite was #324. As best I can tell (and I will ask Nancy about this) there was no specific SKU number for a given design in a given size. Kites in this size were printed two-up on sheets of paper 30" X 50" and then cut and trimmed to the final diamond shape. The kite shown here is post-1964 because the Alox patent #3,330,511 is printed on it. Alox did a big business in promotional kites in this size. I have a few, and will photograph them when we get back to Colorado.

Later on Alox sold a larger kite in a form factor I don't think Hi-Flier or any other contemporary firm used: 40" X 40". The one I have is in plastic, with a more modern Rocket Ship design. This is size #420, and was sold in this design and an American Eagle design, in several colors of plastic and ink. Most diamond kites are a little taller than they are wide for stability (useful given that most kids have no idea how to fly kites and learn by painful experience) but bow kites in this proportion or even wider than they are tall can be flown with only a little more skill. These are called Malay kites, presumably because their design originated in Malaya.

Alox also sold barn door kites and box kites. I have a couple of the box kites and will post photos once I get back home and can (carefully) assemble them for display. (One will need some careful repair to the paper sail.) As best I know, Alox was unique in selling a plastic box kite, which was dimensionally similar to the Hi-Flier paper box kite—and probably a lot more durable.

Alox sold kite string pre-wound on hardwood dowels rather than on cardboard tubes, as Hi-Flier did. Lengths included 200 feet, 250 feet and 700 feet. Early kite cord was the familiar cotton twine, but in later years Alox sold a polyester fiber cord called "American Eagle twine" that was much stronger than cotton, and similar to Hi-Flier's Megalon. Other toys in the Alox line included yo-yos of various designs (called "Flying Disks" to avoid the Duncan trademark on "yo-yo"), whistles, sound-effects whips, "carnival canes," jacks sets, Chinese checkers boards, and many kinds of marbles. Their sales sheets are fascinating, and once I scan them I will incorporate them in my upcoming article on Alox.

Alox closed in good part because a lot of their bread-and-butter items, especially toys, began coming in from China in huge quantities in the 1980s. Anybody who gets the Oriental Trading Company catalogs will know just what I mean here. You can get plastic kites from China (I have a few, and they're in the Oriental Trading catalog every spring) but they are lousy kites, and diabolically difficult to fly. I still think that nothing has ever beaten the 36" paper diamond kite in stability and "getting up to speed" in young, inexperienced hands. Even with a sail badly glued from newspaper, such kites went up enthusiastically and practically flew themselves. It's a bit of a tragedy that diamond kites have become rare (the ubiquitous deltas are cranky and in my opinion hugely overrated) and a serious tragedy that paper kites as a whole have become extinct.

They don't have to be. The sticks can be had at Hobby Lobby or Michael's. The newspaper is in the recycle bin. Cotton twine is at Home Depot, and Elmer's Glue will stand in for mucilege. What are you waiting for?

July 25, 2008: John Frier: American Inventor

I have a very popular Web page devoted to Hi-Flier kites, and it generates more mail than anything else on my site except Contra. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Nancy Frier, introducing herself as the granddaughter of John Frier, founder of Alox Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis. Alox was one of three companies that mass-produced paper kites for the toy market in the 20th century, the others being Crunden-Martin (TopFlite) and Hi-Flier. I flew a few Alox kites when I was a kid, but they were not available at Bud's Hardware, so I could only get them when I was somehow at farther stores like Walgreen's or Kresge's. Nancy had seen my Hi-Flier page (which mentions Alox kites briefly) and offered to provide more information on Alox and the remarkable man behind it. Earlier this week, I took advantage of a fluky chance to meet her while she was traveling from Wisconsin to St. Louis, and we lunched outside of Rockford.

Whoa. I've been at some interesting lunch meetings in my time (and I've had breakfast with Isaac Asimov and dinner with Steve Ballmer) but this one was amazing. Almost all my information about Hi-Flier is second or third hand. Nancy was there. She had worked at Alox since she was a teenager. She actually made the kites, and by "made" I mean that literally: She fed sheets of paper and plastic into the special printing presses, and pushed the buttons. She worked the jig that stretched out a diamond of waxed string over the cut kite sails, and then folded and glued the edge tabs of the sails over the string. (This last machine was Frier's own invention, and he held patent #3,330,511 on it.) She worked for Alox until the company folded in 1989. She still has the copper letterpress plates from which Alox kites were printed, and she had one in the back seat to show me. (Below; photographed on her car window sun-screen.) And before she continued on to St. Louis, she handed me an armful of Alox kites, some of which dated back to the early 1950s. The kites were much appreciated—and I'm working on an article about Alox kites—but what really made the meeting was hearing about John Frier himself.

Born in 1895, Frier had a restless mind, of the sort that demands to know how things work and constantly tries to figure out better ways to go about them. He was fascinated by things that flew, and in 1911, when he was 17, he built an airframe with a wingspan of about 20 feet in his parents' shed outside of St. Louis. He called it a glider, but it was clearly built to accept an engine (she showed me photos) and it was certainly large enough to carry a pilot. Way cool—but then she pulled something else out of her briefcase: A letter to John from the chief counsel of the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which threatened poor teenaged John with a patent lawsuit unless he ceased making flying machines that infringed on several unspecified Curtiss patents. Frier ignored the letter, but the following year the shed caught fire under mysterious circumstances and took the plane with it, all before John and one of his friends could complete and launch it.

John Frier served in WWI, and when he got home he returned to his main business of having ideas. One of them was a way to keep shoelaces from unraveling at the ends. Although other things had been tried, Frier's method looks a great deal like the stiff plastic ends you see to this day. (His were made of thin metal.) He obtained patent #1,318,745 in 1919, and created a company to manufacture and sell shoelaces. He named the company Alox because it was different from all other local manufacturing concerns in St. Louis—and would be right at the front of the phone book, which at that time was more of a phone pamphlet. Alox cranked out shoelaces for decades, and at least until WWII it was their core product line.

Soon after founding Alox, Frier began manufacturing and selling paper and later plastic kites for children. Nancy gave me a great deal of information and photos concerning Alox kites, but I don't have a scanner here with me and can't show you anything right now. I'll be doing a detailed article on Alox kites once I get back to Colorado, so stay tuned.

Alox is actually better known among marble collectors than kite collectors. Frier liked making toys, and in addition to kites Alox manufactured yoyos, jacks sets, jump ropes (which, after all, are basically large shoelaces with wooden ends) and Chinese checkers sets. At first he bought the marbles for Chinese checkers on an OEM basis from other companies whose sole business was marble manufacturing, but the common practice of bringing a box of marbles "up to weight" by throwing in pieces of broken glass enraged him. He bought several marble-making machines from one of his former suppliers and began making the marbles himself, at first for his Chinese checkers and Tit Tat Toe games, and later as a separate product line. The marble machines were crude (and incorporated mechanical oddities like transmissions from 1920s Hupmobiles) but John and his staffers slowly improved them, and he soon pretty much owned the US marble market. He bought cullet glass from glass manufacturers to melt into marbles, but also bought empty glass bottles in various colors on the scrap market and melted those as well. (Alox's blue marbles had mostly been Milk of Magnesia bottles.) The machines ran 24/7 because it took several days and a lot of fuel oil to bring a batch of glass to full melt, and when John Frier shut down marble production in the late 1940s, it was mostly because keeping a marble factory running all the time was a nuisance. He was the CEO, but he was also the only guy who could troubleshoot the cranky marble machines, and he liked to sleep at night undisturbed by frantic calls from his foremen.

Nancy's final revelation about the Alox product line was the most fun of all: John Frier and Alox made UFOs. Shortly after WWII, Alox got the contract to construct balloon-borne radar targets for the Army Signal Corps. Alox had built thousands of ML307C/AP target devices, starting in early 1947. One of the most famous late-40's "UFO debris" photos clearly shows an ML307, as vehemently as the UFO gang has tried to deny it. Nancy had an Alox-built ML307 target in the back seat, and it was a difficult thing to photograph well, especially in a parking lot. It has a lot in common with a box kite, in that it's a corner reflector designed to fold flat.

I'm running on longer than I generally allow myself in this space, but it was great fun and a wonderful look at a period in American history when almost anything was possible. Nancy handed me a lot of material, and once I get home and get an article put together, I'll link to it here. The kites are much too old to fly (obviously) but they will take a place of honor on my workshop wall, along with the Hi-Fliers already hanging there. Nancy is considering printing and making reproduction Alox kites from the original copper plates, if she can find suitable paper and a press that can do the job. (I know very little about letterpress printing and can't help much there; if you have suggestions I think we'd both like to hear them.) I've been hoping for years that someone would begin making paper kites for the nostalgia market, and with any luck we may still get there. More as I learn it.

July 21, 2008: LOLMonsters

We were just BSing a couple of nights ago over wine and beers at Julie's christening, and LOLCats came up. I'm not a regular reader of LOLCats, but I've seen it enough to get a sense for the genre, and the addition of a little zinfandel reminded me that this is not a new thing.

Nossir. I remember Monster Cards.

Back in 1961 or 1962, a fad was raging in my corner of the Immaculate Conception grade school playground: Monster cards. These were a little like baseball cards (and about the same size) but instead of sports heroes, they had stills from old monster movies, with a silly caption at the bottom. This was in plain English and not LOLCats-speak (which itself is a parody of IM shorthand) else the card at left would be captioned PUT ME ON UR FRENZ LIST? On the flipside was a drawing of a ghost over a joke calculated to make fourth-graders laugh. (As you might imagine, the bar was not very high.) The whole thing was wrapped up in plastic with a card-sized rectangle of some tepid and invariably stale bubble gum. My friends were all collecting them, and even though I spent my money on Hi-Flier kites and Tom Swift books rather than monster cards or comics, I flipped through my friends' stacks, grinning at some and rolling my eyes at others.

There were two types that I remember, both available from Perlen Drugs at the corner of Canfield and Talcott. The larger cards had "Spook Stories" printed on the back and were copyrighted by Universal Films. These had the most famous and recognizable monsters: Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Wolfman. The jokes on the back were sometimes even clever. The smaller cards had "Monster Laffs" printed on the back over the jokes (which were invariably stupid and rarely funny) and were printed in sheets of three with bad perfs between them. My duller friends who didn't catch on to folding at the perfs before separating them often had to Scotch tape their cards back together after inadvertently ripping them in half. These smaller cards (which collectors have dubbed "Monster Midgees") were copyrighted by cheapo fright house American International Films, and apart from the several incarnations of the She Creature and the memorable Colossal Beast, showed monsters that few of us had ever seen, even with Chicago Channel 7's perpetual scraping of the bottom of the monster movie barrel. Mostly they were hokey-looking paper mache alien things or brains with eyes, over even hokier (and generally un-funny) captions.

I'm surprised at how little there is online today about monster cards, at least the ones that I recall. The genre continued long after I left grade school, mutating as it went, but I ignored them because they dropped the humor. The legendary Mars Attacks! cards were in no way funny; in fact, they were a gruesome comic book presented one frame at a time. (I wonder sometimes if they were a poke in the eye of the Comics Code Authority.) Cards from mid-60s TV series like The Outer Limits and Star Trek had stills from the shows but no funny captions and no jokes—and sheesh, guys, I had already seen the TV shows. I half-expected full indices of the cards and their captions online, but apart from a few fan pages and pictures of cards for sale on eBay, they've mostly been forgotten. "Caption humor" seemed to go into eclipse for forty years, not to emerge until the Internet Age and LOLCats. I guess everything comes back eventually. I used to wear purple bell-bottoms and worse in the late 60s and early 70s. Are they next?

July 20, 2008: Juliana's Christening

After much planning and preparation, our new niece Juliana Leigh Roper officially joined the Catholic community last night, as all of the immediate family we have left gathered around Bill and Gretchen's huge dining room table for the Mass and baptism. Rev. Mary of the Old Catholic Church presided, as she did back in December 2006 for Julie's older sister Katie Beth. Once again, Gretchen hand-made a christening dress for Julie, and Carol gave Julie the little christening shoes that she herself had worn back at her own baptism in 1953. Again as for Katie Beth, Carol and I promised to keep her on the path as best we can. Godparents don't have to be theologians; what they have to be are good examples and good cheering sections. Carol and I had excellent godparents, and the example was not wasted on us. And yes, words are my thing and I am going to attempt a simple catechism for small children, but we're a couple of years off on that yet. (Which doesn't absolve me from starting to take notes right away. Kids grow up fast.) Theology for ten-year-olds can start very simply, and I will begin with what I learned from Juliana's namesake: Lady Julian of Norwich, who taught that God is infinitely loving and forgiving, and that all manner of thing would ultimately be made well in God's own time. Sooner or later, children must also learn that that there is death and suffering and injustice, but those lessons must be learned from a platform of solid belief in the goodness of creation and God's ultimate victory over all evil and suffering.

The goodness of that creation and God's affection for his creatures was the subject of Mary's short homily from the head of the dining room table. Partway through, Julie began to fuss a little, in the time-honored tradition of infants making a ruckus in church. Without missing a beat, Mary scooped little Julie up in her arms and calmed her down as only a mother (and grandmother) can, continuing to preach her sermon with a baby on her shoulder. (This is something you don't generally see in Catholic churches.) Julie soon returned to sleep, and barely stirred when Mary took the seashell and poured the (warm) blessed water over her forehead, baptising her in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Afterward there was time for good talk, good wine (we had a Frey organic zinfandel and a Bartenura moscato) and Bill's superb grilling skills, with fresh Polish sausage and hamburgers, Hawaiian salad, baked beans, and various small sides. QBit and Aero ran around in circles in the back yard while Katie watched, laughing with delight, and even though the evening was muggy and drippy, Carol and I called it a complete and unvarnished success. Come 9:30 we packed up the puppies and headed for the door, but Katie cried and kept reaching for Carol, who had read her One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish several times. Earlier, she had been brushing what's left of my hair with her new hairbrush. She is beginning to learn about godparents and their uses, heh.

After a pretty grim ten years or so on the family front, family is happy and growing again. For many years Gretchen and I thought that our part of the Duntemann line ended with us, but God sometimes answers prayers, and midevening, when our two little prayers sat together in the big chair for pictures, somehow we knew that All Manner of Thing will be well—in fact, as far as we're concerned, we're most of the way there right now.

July 18, 2008: Odd Lots

  • I'm not quite as ga-ga as the reporter, but make no mistake: This is one of the most startling deep-space videos ever taken, of the Moon making a transit across the Earth, seen from a distance of fifty million kilometers. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.
  • My nephew Brian just bought a Blackberry cellphone and is trying to find a software package that will allow him to sync his Google Calendar data with the phone. This is something I've never had to do (I do not currently have a PDA nor a smartphone) and so I'm looking for suggestions.
  • Eat kohlrabi, Dean Ornish: A long-term study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that low-carb diets are significantly better at helping people lose weight and lower cholesterol than low-fat diets. As complex as the obesity issue is, I speak to people again and again and again who have found what we've found in their own lives: Lowering fat does not help much. Lowering carbs, and especially lowering sugar, helps a lot.
  • Carol and I were down in Lincoln Park the other day, and saw saturation advertising for a wind-powered condo complex that intrigued me enough to write the Web address down across Heath Ledger's late face on the Red Eye. Take a look and read the fine print. Those well-hidden wind turbines on the roof generate up to 2% of the building's electricity. And so wind power takes its place as a techno-fetish among the terminally hip and the gorgeously clueless. Larger turbines could generate significantly more of the building's power, but the neighbors might complain—and that's not hip at all, is it?

July 16, 2008: Odd Lots

  • A reader wrote to tell me that I am "MSG blind," (see my entry for July 14, 2008) which means that MSG does not affect my taste chemistry—and that people who are MSG blind are generally the people who react badly to the chemical. Alas, I can't find anything about this online, but it's an interesting idea.
  • Screw the polar bears. The big downside to Global Warming™ is now kidney stones. Ouch.
  • I hadn't heard much about the Casimir Effect recently, but courtesy Frank Glover, here's a good article on modifying nanoscale structures to minimize "stiction" due to Casimir forces. More speculative but lots more fun are some links at the end describing projects attempting to harness Casimir forces in various ways, many or most of which still seem a little whiffy. (I made enthusiastic use of vacuum energy in my novel, The Cunning Blood.)
  • The Washington Post suggests that we strap engines on the ISS and send it to the Moon, to act as an orbital station to help stage travel to a lunar base. Maybe a little far fetched, but only a little—and we're not doing much with the damned thing where it's sitting right now.
  • And as if NASA didn't have enough to worry about, now, well, scientists are telling them that they had better establish an officially sanctioned 200-mile-high club.
  • The acronym is unfortunate, but Sandisk's write-once read-many (WORM) SD card has an application that isn't even mentioned in the press release: A unit for mounting a hack-proof operating system instance. No mention what the access time is (I'm guessing slowwwww) but it's an approach that many people have been calling for for some years.
  • Finally, as a proud godfather of two nieces who are big for their ages but still very small, this video made me cringe a little. (Don't parents have enough to worry about?) Quick, how long would it take you mechanical engineer types to devise a sheet-metal flap valve to fix this problem?

July 15, 2008: Crackergate, Mon Dieu

I elbowed a bit of a wasp's nest yesterday, in briefly recounting the story of Paul Z. "PZ" Myers, the biology professor who put out a call for Catholics to mail him consecrated hosts for public desecration. There's backstory that fairness requires me to relate: Webster Cook, a student at the University of Florida, went to Mass at a Catholic Ministries liturgy held on campus, took Communion, and went back to his pew without consuming the host. Why he did this is unclear—I had a great deal of trouble sifting facts from hearsay in this case, which exists mostly in the blogosphere—but he took the host out of the building even though some of the people from Campus Ministries noisily demanded that he either swallow it or give it back. He refused, and the host went home with him in his pocket. Thus began...Crackergate.

I may catch some flack here from my Catholic readers for saying this: The church should have left it at that. But no, the well-known William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, got into the act, and suddenly it's a category 5 barroom brawl. Donohue has made a career of jumping on anybody and everybody who says something that puts Catholicism in a bad light. How effective he's been is open to debate. He was certainly instrumental in getting ABC's warm-hearted but liberal-slanted Catholic sitcom Nothing Sacred canceled back in 1997; beyond that it's hard to tell. He's gone after solid milk-chocolate statues of Jesus and tried to organize a boycott of the film version of The Golden Compass. I'd suggest that there are other, better places where that sort of energy might be spent, but let it pass. Most moderate Catholics would love to find another village that would take him.

Webster Cook returned the undamaged host to the church about a week later, but not before the Catholic lunatic fringe had begun sending him death threats. And then Prof. Myers jumped into the game, eager to play the dozens and keep the pot at a full boil. Here are his exact words, posted on his blog:

I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

Here's the full post on Pharyngula.

Ok. Does any of this sound to you like a pack of seventh graders mixing it up on the playground? It sure does to me. The detailed facts seem to change depending on whom you read, but Cook is claiming that he was "restrained" by a woman who turns out to be about half his physical size. He is now filing charges against the Campus Ministries for violating university hazing rules that prohibit forced eating. And Bill Donohue is trying to get PZ Myers fired. So far, as best we can tell, no desecrations have taken place.

My primary comments on all this:

  • Genuine death threats are illegal and actionable. If you get one, don't just bitch. Go to the cops. That's what laws are for.
  • If your opponents are insulting you, meeting them insult-for-insult is precisely the wrong thing to do if you want the moral high ground, or to simply avoid looking stupid.
  • Respect is an inner virtue; less something you show than something you are. Desecration happens in the man (or woman) and not to the host, flag, book, shrine, or image.
  • Allowing people to make you angry gives them power over you.

Atheists who are cheering on Myers seem blind to the fact that Myers is making atheism look bad. Which leads me to ask: What is atheism actually for? If its goal is to win people away from religion, making sane arguments in a respectful manner would seem more effective than insults and ridicule. If (as seems to me at times) it's a sort of tribal venting society, then go for it, keeping in mind that few people recognize therapeutic venting for what it is, and you won't get a lot of converts from ordinary folks who are not axe-grinders by temperament. You'll just look churlish.

I'm sure I've already given this more attention than it really deserves. I've begun wondering if Webster Cook was challenged over a drink to come up with the college prank to end all college pranks (judged by the ratio of effort required to publicity generated) and he may have succeeded. I've also heard that PZ Myers is considering desecrating a copy of the Qur'an as well. I'll believe that when I see it.

July 14, 2008: Odd Lots

  • For a little over a year, I've been buying dry-roasted peanuts from Safeway that do not contain MSG. Recently we noticed that the packaging had changed, and checked the ingredients. MSG returns, gakkh. Dry-roasted peanuts are a much better snack than their rep would have it, but MSG makes me feel weird in the head, so the search for MSG-free dry-roasted peanuts resumes. Interestingly, I had a couple of Planter's dry-roasted peanuts the other day (knowing full-well that they have MSG in them; I had a few, not handfuls) and they do not taste any different. Not better. Not worse. Not a little bit. Not at all. So the companies that print "monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer)" on their peanut labels are being ripped off. MSG does not enhance flavor. What it does do is mess some people over (like me, and countless others) and cost the vendors money. MSG is cheap, but not free. When will food packagers realize that they could save money and increase their market by just dumping it?
  • Pertinent to the above, Jay's Barbecue Potato Chips also lack MSG, and are the only barbeque potato chips I've ever seen that don't have it. They are a Chicago brand, and so far we haven't seen them in Colorado Springs. But when I'm here, I gorge.
  • I'm a big fan of lashup railcars, but I startled a little when Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a model of a pink Galloping Goose. The paint schemes are described as "authentic." So was there ever a Rio Grande Goose in pink and white livery? I've not been able to determine that—but whoa, somehow I doubt it. That's a spit-and-baling-wire, real-man's tin-roof rough-and-tumble item that reminds me of Mad Max as much as it does of the Old West. Pink? Sheesh!
  • A tenured professor at the University of Minnesota has put out a call for Catholics to send him consecrated Eucharistic that he can desecrate them. I had hoped this was an urban legend, but the Washington Times generally knows better. I wonder if he (and his clueless university) understand that this doesn't hurt the Church at all, but makes higher education in general and university professors in particular look mean-spirited and ridiculous.
  • From Michael Covington comes a link to a Modern Mechanix item from 1933 that may be the original "watt dog" cooker, which spawned a famous Carl & Jerry story cautioning young tinkerers about the hazards of messing with line current. A board with nails pounded through it, facing up...with 110V on the nails. Wow. (And while you're there, click on the cover image to get a closer look at what was prompting young geeks to buy magazines in 1933. Maybe the Flynn Effect really does exist.)
  • On second thought, probably not.
  • Thanks to Baron_Waste, I discovered that the United States' net carbon emissions declined by 3% between 2000 and 2006. Of the top 17 carbon emitters, only France reduced emissions more—and I'd wager that that's because France has had the good sense to stuff their antinuclear crackpots in the Bastille and forget about them.
  • Nertz. Wrong. France closed the Bastille in 1789. Well, hey: Today is the 158th birthday of the ice maker.

July 11, 2008: Rant: Idealism and "Settling"

I catch a certain amount of shit for my longstanding conviction that idealism is a Bad Thing. (I just got another nasty email on the subject, hence my very bad mood this evening.) The reason is simple: Idealism consists of demanding the impossible—and the human response when the impossible predictably fails to appear is to throw various kinds of temper tantrums, from looking like an idiot to making other people miserable up to and including imprisoning and killing those who fail to conform to your personal idealisms. I've read of this happening back into history as far as the eye can see, and it boggles me that in the 21st century we still idealize idealism.

An issue or two ago, The Atlantic ran a wonderful article that sheds some light on the issue. In "Go Ahead, Marry Him!" NYC overachiever Lori Gottlieb finally endorses what some women dismissively call "settling;" that is, marrying a man who is something less than precisely what they demand, which is usually rich, brilliant, gentle, pliant, egalitarian, and unerringly able to incite sexual passion every weekend for the rest of their lives. As Lori tellingly puts it:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

Well, duhh. The downside to perpetually holding out for someone better is the possibility of spending your entire life alone, cursing all men because they refuse to conform to your fantasies. This sort of mental illness is not limited to women. I knew a guy in college (of average looks, smarts, and ambition) who flatly refused to date any woman who did not "look like a Playboy centerfold." (Those were his precise words.) He finally and recently married, in his early 50s, and his spouse is bright, funny, and warm. However, I doubt she was ever Playboy material, even in her 20s. Figuring it out late is better than figuring it out never. But had he figured it out early, he might have had a lot more fun and been a lot less lonely for a lot more years.

Life is about settling. All of life, all the time. Life's circumstances are graphed on a complicated set of curves, and we can either calculate the minima and make the best of it, or we can rage against the shape of reality, and make things even worse while blaming those who do not share our idealisms. Churches and political tribes are aces at this. Conservative religions (Christianity being only one, but the one we know best in the West) have a peculiar obession with sexual idealism. Roman Catholicism condemns both abortion and preventive birth control, because these do not conform to a complicated and ancient sort of moral idealism that in essence demands that people be sexless beings except when they're married and willing to conceive a child. Endorsing birth control would reduce the number of abortions, but that would be settling for less than the ideal. And so hundreds of millions of people defy Church teachings or even leave the Church entirely, and the abortion rate remains appalling. In refusing to settle for the achievable, the RCC has held out for the impossible and reaped catastrophe.

Idealism's prints are all over the political realm. We could end gun violence by eliminating guns, so the ideal goes. But by only eliminating some guns, we make gun violence worse. Crisp gun laws that define legal use and training people in their legal use would not end gun violence, but it would probably minimize gun violence. I'll settle for that. Idealists will not. Idealists tell us that if we would all just take public transportation, live in the nasty little coffins that some call New York studio apartments, and give up air conditioning, we would have neither global warming nor an energy crisis. Whether or not the math actually makes sense, you have to say, Well, good luck with that.

Marxist idealism, of course, has been the greatest murder-generator in all of human history. To pragmatists this is common knowledge; to idealists it's a heresy that they can never accept. There's not a lot of benefit in belaboring the point. The two sides are not even talking.

My objection to idealism cooks down to this: Idealism refuses to consider embracing lesser evils and thereby generates greater evils. We can argue about the identity of the lesser evils. We can argue about whether the lesser evils are in fact evils at all. (Many are not.) We can argue about whether embracing a lesser evil will in fact minimize a greater evil. (This is not always the case.) But idealism refuses to engage in the debate. That would be settling. And there's no point in settling for less than the ideal, right?

July 9, 2008: The Conundrum of AVG LinkScanner

Just before we left Colorado, and after several weeks of furious nagging by the software, I upgraded version 7.5 of AVG Free Anti-Virus for the new V8. I did it on Carol's machine only, as the upgrade required some damned thing or another that was missing on Win2K SP4, and I didn't have time to research it. (Carol uses XP.) With version 8 came something I had not heard about and did not expect: AVG LinkScanner.

It's an interesting idea, and at first glance sounds like something truly useful: LinkScanner works with Google and Yahoo to prescan search results for evidence of malware injection. At a rate of 2-20 results per second, LinkScanner visits each displayed search result link, looks at what's on the other side, and displays one of three icons to the right of the search link: Good, questionable, or bad. I didn't even know the feature was present until later that day, when Carol was doing some Google work and asked me what the icons were. All were a reassuring green, but when I Googled on "warez" almost all of the search results came back with icons of alarming red.

This seemed reasonable to me, and I was too frantic getting ready for our trip to think too deeply on it. But a few days later, I started to run across Web articles howling about an avalanche of Web hits spawned by LinkScanner. The Register provides one of the saner descriptions of the issue. Traffic on some smaller Web sites has spiked by 80%, and Slashdot says that as much as 6% of its massive clickthrough comes from LinkScanner's user agents.

LinkScanner, it seems, tries its best to look like an ordinary user. Well, duhh: If LinkScanner's probe announced its presence, malware artists would serve up an innocuous version of their sites, keeping the malware for ordinary Web surfers who could be discerned as such. I can understand the logic, but given that AVG has as many as seventy million users worldwide (few of whom have yet upgraded) widespread adoption of the technology could make ordinary Web traffic analysis meaningless. Traffic on started rising about April 1, but I couldn't quite figure what was going on. May was a record month for me, even though my traffic has been fairly steady since I launched my LiveJournal mirror of Contra in early 2006. Things leveled out in June, but given the proportion of my traffic that now reads Contra on LiveJournal, I would expect aggregate traffic on to be falling slowly.

Having had a little time to think about this, I can raise a couple of points:

  • AVG has not made it entirely clear what its probe looks for when it prefetches search results. A site tagged as "safe" might not actually be safe—especially once the bad guys reverse-engineer the probe and figure out how to dodge it. People might trust the utility a little too much, and assume that there is no possible downside to visiting a green-tagged site.
  • Obviously, AVG actually visits all sites in a search results list, even those most users would shun as obviously dicey. If the bad guys discover an exploit in AVG's probe, AVG could unwittingly become the world's largest malware installer.
  • The probe does not mask or alter the user IP in any way. As far as remote site logs are concerned, the local user clicks on every link in a search results list. Meditate on that for a moment, and then read this article from Slashdot. If you're not at least a little freaked out yet, read it again.

I'm going to uninstall the feature on Carol's machine when we get home, and may try one of the alternative lightweight AV products like Avast, especially since AVG Free V8.0 barfed on my main Win2K machine.

I've begun to see indications that AVG is patching V8.0 so that LinkScanner is not enabled by default, but haven't gotten anything crisp enough to link to. Supposedly, the patched version becomes available today. We'll see. In the meantime, spidering sites with some sort of malware-detection probe may not be as good an idea as it seems on the surface. Better, perhaps to completely sandbox or virtualize the browser, which would be better protection at a bandwidth cost

July 8, 2008: Almost Done with Souls in Silicon

We got back from Wisconsin yesterday, having had a very good time getting soaking wet and eating perhaps a little too much. I had forgotten how pretty that part of the country was, even though my family went there often in the early 1960s. It was where my mother grew up, between the little whistle-stop of Shennington and the larger town of Necedah. (That's her at left, as Necedah High School's drum majorette in 1942, posing with her band teacher.) Carol and I explored the area a little bit while we still lived in Chicago, but that's been thirty years now, and it would be worthwhile to go back and hit Baraboo, Mauston, Mill Bluff State Park, and a number of other places we remember less well than we'd like. We want to return to Perot State Park along the Mississippi, where I proposed to Carol in 1975, as well as nearby Wyalusing. Next summer, fersure.

We're still in the Chicago area (currently in Crystal Lake) but this trip isn't entirely vacation, and I'm pushing hard to get some work done. Today was productive: I finished laying out and proofing the body of Souls in Silicon, the first of two collections I am preparing of my own SF. Souls in Silicon contains all of my published stories pertaining to strong AI, including "Guardian," which was on the final Hugo ballot in 1981, and "Borovsky's Hollow Woman," my 1983 collaboration with Nancy Kress, which originally appeared in Omni. Other stories in the 9-story lineup include "The Steel Sonnets," "Silicon Psalm," "Bathtub Mary," "Marlowe," "STORMY vs. the Tornadoes," and "Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs." The collection will conclude with an excerpt from my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood.

With the body done and the page count frozen, I can get to work on a cover. I commissioned custom cover art from Richard Bartrop, and just approved his final color concept sketch. By the time Richard is done, I should have a cover to drop the art into, and we'll have us a book. Richard is very well-known in Furry circles, but he's actually a formidable hard SF artist, and the concept, from my story "Guardian," is terrific. Bodies are easy. Covers are hard. My mother was an artist, but I think she left her talents in Wisconsin; neither Gretchen nor I inherited them. I hope to have copies to show around at Worldcon in Denver this August, but that means I had better get to work.

July 5, 2008: Sploosh!

We're at the Chula Vista Resort in the Wisconsin Dells for a short family vacation, and I think I've identified the first significant cultural contribution of the 21st century: the large-scale water park. I'm not talking about a pool with a single slide, or even two slides. I'm talking about a fifteen-acre indoor/outdoor complex with twelve separate water slides, some easily fifty feet high, with coils of people pipes that go outside the building and then come in again, some in several different loops. One slide even has a Men In Black 2 style "flusher" at the end. There is a sort of aquatic roller-coaster-in-a-garden-hose, and a short, simple flume that pretty much drops you vertically for about thirty feet. I looked around, and I boggled—but then I started having fun.

It's a species of fun that simply didn't exist when I was a kid. We were delirious to have a simple swimming pool or even a muddy lake to paddle around in. I think I frst saw a water slide when I was thirty-five. And I have never seen anything even remotely like this. There is constant motion (much of it from incalculable numbers of eight-year-olds) and water pouring, squirting, and spraying everywhere, in every direction at once. Buckets of many sizes, from a gallon or two up to a multihundred something the size of a hot tub, slowly fill while on pivots, and when the buckets fill, they tip over and dump their loads on anyone who happens to be below. There's a zero-depth baby pool, a one-foot deep toddler pool, a four-foot-deep activity pool for preteens, a hot tub for exhausted old guys, and a very interesting thing called a "lazy river," which is a linear pool about two feet deep and eight wide, propelled into slow motion by angled jets in the walls. You grab an inner tube as one drifts by, and just lie on your back and follow the flow around the periphery of the complex. Carol very bravely tried every single water slide in the place, spurred on by our strapping twentysomething nephews and their svelte, althletic girlfriends. I did the bunny slides and the "croc walk," which is a pool across which you go by hanging from a suspended net while stepping on floating faux alligator body sections. I myself was never one for thrill rides, and I deeply admire my beautiful wife for being wiling to shoot through pipes at thirty miles an hour.

One fascinating thing about our Fourth of July day at the water park was how international it all was. We had chairs next to a group of people speaking a Slavic language (Russian? I can't tell) and Carol's mom heard more than one group speaking Polish. A pair of guys were speaking French on the elevator with us, and I know enough German to identify it when I hear it. Lots of Spanish, and possibly Portuguese. Many Asian families were there, including one whom I suspect were Phillipinos speaking Tagalog. A group of young Black folks were in the hot tub with us for awhile, speaking a language that was like nothing I had ever heard. Clearly, the Wisconsin Dells is a global draw, which I found interesting, since when last I looked the Dells were kind of like Las Vegas without hookers. On the other hand, the last time I looked was in 1961, and the really big thrill was riding an Army-surplus amphibious truck on now-defunct Lake Delton. (The Delton vista was a little surreal: acres of mud, sand, and century-old tree stumps where Tommy Bartlett's skiers used to roam.) But it makes sense: The States is a cheap date these days, and all those good people from overseas were throwing cubic meters of money into the local economy.

We spent the evening at a local park, tossing a frisbee around while waiting for a pretty spectacular fireworks display. We saluted the birth of the American idea, which has seen better and worse over the years. We survived the Civil War. We survived the Depression. We will survive $5 gasoline.

The American idea is not over. It has not failed. It has not even fully matured. I'm not, in fact, sure that anyone entirely understands it—but I will celebrate it, for what has been and for what is yet to be, now and forever, amen.

July 3, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Text messaging has always struck me as more than faintly ridiculous: Spend a quarter to cramp your thumbs sending a handful of characters to another cell phone, when you could call that same cell phone and talk for a full minute for less. And even though texting costs phone carriers almost nothing, the cost of texting to consumers has more than doubled in the last three years.
  • I was at Barnes & Noble a little earlier today, prowling the history section as I often do. (The history section is now about the same size as the computer book section. This was not always the case...) I remembered something I had noticed many times in the past: B&N stocks an absolutely amazing number of books on the Knights Templars and Freemasonry. (By contrast, I counted three—three!—books on Ubuntu Linux.) The history section at Borders stocks almost nothing on these two topics. Do people actually buy this stuff? Or is there a Templars/Masonry fan club at the highest levels of B&N?
  • Xandros has purchased Linspire. Linspire tried their hardest to create an OEM market for desktop Linux, but annoyed FOSS purists by including commercial software in their CNR installation service, which was actually the only part of Lindows/Linspire that I really liked. Ubuntu has mostly swept the desktop Linux field, but I admit, they haven't gone after OEM installs as vigorously as Linspire did, nor as vigorously as they'd have to to get some traction against Windows. Ubuntu's parent Canonical is developing a mobile version that will be sold preinstalled on subnotebooks, but we're not quite there yet.
  • Mike Reith sent me an interesting little utility called IsDelphi, which will scan a directory, inspect any executables it finds, and report which ones were written in Delphi. The most interesting revelation: Skype is a Delphi app. I hadn't heard that.
  • In case you weren't already worried about whether you should take that trip down the hill to get a latte, I suggest a spin through Dark Roasted Blend's collection of weird car accidents. You Could Be There.
  • And in case you're not steamed out or punked out yet, head down to the closest Greek restaurant, order some calimari, and curl up with an anthology of squidpunk. Damitall, when are we gonna see glyptodontpunk? I'll show you escapist and whimsical...

July 2, 2008: Mainstreaming Sit-Down

I find much or most of the debate on the obesity explosion puzzling. Many major American cities are trying to pass laws severely limiting fast food outlets or banning them entirely, blaming them for our increasingly fat population. The sheer violence of the debate (cruise pertinent online discussions and you'll see what I mean) suggests that more is going on here than a discussion of nutrition, but I'll be damned if I can figure out just what, though I will speculate below.

As I've said here more than once, obesity, like most health issues, is more complex than most of us would like to admit. It's about calories but not only calories, and contrary to conventional wisdom, one calorie is like any other calorie...if you're a calorimeter. Sugar calories do different things in the body than fat calories, yet you wouldn't know this trying to get a grip on the problem online. The speed with which I dropped belly fat when I basically gave up sugar was startling. Sleep loss is also a factor, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Alas, the Mayo Clinic still believes in the BMI, which does not distinguish at all between fat and muscle. Ummm...and you guys are doctors?)

I've read a lot of speculation as to what kicked off the obesity epidemic in the midlate 80s. That's when high-fructose corn syrup went mainstream and drove cane sugar out of soft drinks. It was when our high-speed, high-stress always-on culture kicked into high gear and 60-hour weeks became a commonplace. It's when the overall inflation-adjusted price of food fell to historic lows. And it was also the time when something else happened: an explosion of low-end "sit-down" restaurants fielded by national franchises. You see them everywhere: Red Robin, Applebees, Black-Eyed Pea, TGI Friday's, and so on. They are legion. And if you're a true calorie believer, the caloric content of their dishes will take your breath away: One order of Outback's Aussie Cheese Fries appetizer contains 2,900 calories. Even expressed by weight, it is to boggle: A large Maggiano's pasta dish gets you over two pounds of noodles on a 15-inch plate.


The tirade against fast-food restaurants is peculiar in that it does not recognize that fast-food portions are generally smaller than those at sit-down restaurants, and more to the point, fast-food items are what old-time IT guys would call "unbundled": You can get menu items separately if you want them. You can get a single small burger—or a Triple. You can get fries or no fries, and fries in sizes. On the much simpler sit-down restaurant menus, you must get the potatoes with the steak, and the portion size is always...lots. And anyone who says with a straight face that there's more fat in fast food than at casual dining sit-downs is either lying or doesn't get out much.

We didn't go to restaurants much when I was a kid, in part because back then, sit-down restaurants were higher-end, and expensive. We had to dress up on special occasions to go to Llandl's or the Kenilworth Inn in Lincolnwood. The notion of "casual dining" was still pretty uncommon, and probably considered a contradiction in terms by dining purists. (What there was fell into the separately interesting category of "greasy spoons.") Since 1985 or so, sit-downs went mainstream on a huge scale, as corporate restaurant franchises gobbled up key slots at the corners of megamalls and major intersections. Your average American went from dining out a few times a year to a couple of times a week, with portion sizes that I still find boggling.

My point here is that crucifying fast food as though it were the sole cause of obesity (or even the major contributor) is magical thinking, and has more than a whiff of politics in it. (When reading things like Fast Food Nation I see union opportunism and attacks from the Vega System.) Nothing is ever that simple, and if we keep insisting that it is, no progress will ever be made. It's not about McDonald's. It's about genetics, metabolism, portion control, exercise, sugar, stress, and sleep—and probably fifteen other things, most of which we still haven't defined. Let us not pull the trigger with the wrong guy in our sites, just to be shooting something.