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June 30, 2006: Browsing Odd Theories on Obesity

I like potato chips. I really like potato chips. But something's been giving me migraines lately, so a little while back I quit potato chips. Shazam! No migraines! (Carol points out that my favorite brands all have MSG in them, so we will have to conduct further controlled experiments, perhaps with organic potato chips. Assuming there are organic potato chips.) Instead of snacking on potato chips, I've been snacking on cheese. Wham! I lost four pounds, in just a couple of weeks. A quick back-of-the-bag estimate indicated that I was eating roughly the same number of calories in chips as in cheese, so it isn't simply a calorie count issue. Clearly, my body does not treat carb calories the same way it treats protein and fat calories.

I hadn't thought much about weight loss/gain lately, but this brought back to mind the fact (which I've mentioned before) that the Atkins diet is not new, nor discovered by Dr. Atkins, but in fact was hit upon by an undertaker named William Banting in 1829 and explained at length in a popular book in 1958. (The whole book is online here.) This seems to work for me, but just as certainly doesn't work for everybody. Obesity is clearly not the effect of a single cause.

I took a look around the Web this morning for items on obesity, and today list some odd pointers to articles suggesting causes of the Great Plague, the one doing far more damage to us as a species than AIDS or even malaria.

  • Being fat keeps you fat. The extreme stigma our culture places on fatness causes a kind of depression that paralyzes the will and makes it very difficult to take positive steps to reduce weight.
  • Not sleeping enough makes you fat. (This is an abstract from a refereed journal. The article costs $30, but the abstract has sufficient detail for laypeople.) People get really angry at me when I say that shorting on sleep makes you fat. That's an interesting psychological issue all by itself: People are apparently willing to diet, but would rather die than be in bed by 10:00 PM every night. Go figger.
  • Stress makes you fat. Most people consider this obvious, but it's significant to me that if anything has gone through the roof since 1980 (when many say our current obesity epidemic began) it's stress. Sustained high blood levels of cortisol not only cause carb cravings, they increase the tendency to store excess calories as fat.
  • Not breastfeeding children makes them fat. (The effect is small, and not everyone agrees.)
  • Low birth weight children grow up fat. They are also hugely more prone to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Mothers overweight during gestation predispose children to fatness. (Perhaps because IANAD, this paper appears to contradict the last one.)
  • Air conditioning makes you fat. Spotting this article this morning triggered this entry, the point of which is my point here: That we teeter on a kind of metabolic balance bar, and all kinds of things are capable of knocking us off balance into obesity.
The item about air conditioning seemed a little tongue in cheek—though who knows? People still claim that sugar has nothing to do with obesity, so let's not insist that we know more than we do. (I sometimes think that the leading cause of obesity in the world is scientific arrogance.) It's also starting to look to me that a great many people are simply predestined to be fat, either by genes or by epigenetic effects. The point I'd like you to take away from all this is that obesity is not simple. There is no single cause. There is no silver bullet. What works for one will not work for another; human beings are not identical calorie processors. "Eat less, move more" is a damned good start, but it's not the whole story.

June 29, 2006: Age, Mortality, and Jim Baen

54 today, and feeling it. I spent all day yesterday on purely physical tasks: Finishing the wiring in my garage workshop that the *(&$!? builder didn't finish, and shoring up the sagging railings on the back decks with the little support pegs that the *(&$!? builder should have installed but didn't. Balancing on ladders (I had to install a duplex outlet box and conduit on an 11 foot ceiling) bending, twisting, reaching, sawing, and lots of schlepping back and forth between the garage and the decks—I didn't want to get out of bed this morning.

Alas, as Chris Gerrib and several others wrote to tell me, Jim Baen of Baen Books left us for other worlds yesterday. So maybe I feel ok after all. He was only 62—eight years older than me. That's pretty scary. I never met Jim, and never sold him anything (I had hoped to put that right at Worldcon in August) but I have observed his activity over the last few years. And this brings up an uncomfortable question: Is it better to check out at the peak of your game, or die in quiet retirement?

Those of you outside the SF world may not know it, but Jim Baen was in the process of remaking science fiction publishing. He had an intuitive sense for good SF, and for the genre's roots, and even when neck deep in boring Harry Potter fantasy, he knew that we're really in it for the spaceships and the ray guns. Better still, he stubbornly held the opinion that DRM makes books hard to read, and making books hard to read is a really stupid thing for a publisher to do. So his books and his new emagazine (which I've barely begun reading) are cleartext without DRM. And far from being put out of business by file sharers, his business is booming—and I think if any of his regular readers could find any file sharers sharing his books, the file sharers would be lynched.

My great hope is that Baen Books does so well in the ebook world that the lesser men in big New York publishing (not only in SF but in every category) will be forced to set DRM aside and stick to the core business of pleasing readers. Jim apparently knew his days were numbered, and apparently had a transition plan in place for Baen Books. Such things don't always work well, but sometimes they do. Let us pray.

Keith Laumer had a stroke in the 70s, and while he lived, he never fully recovered, and his later fiction was a shadow of his earlier work. Is that better? I don't know. Heinlein's later work didn't click for me either; it seemed like after The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress it was mostly downhill. So perhaps it's better to leave at the top of your game, and the trick is to make sure that the game is far enough along so that your successors can only win.

I think Jim Baen left us with a model for how to do SF in the digital world, and even if Baen Books doesn't continue on its current trajectory, the mechanism is no mystery anymore: Publish good stuff at good prices without DRM, and don't be a Right Man. Funny how the simplest path is sometimes the toughest to walk.

Thanks, Jim, and godspeed.

June 26, 2006: The Forgotten Holy Blood, Holy Grail Book

The utterly pointless whirlwind roaring around the Da Vinci Code keeps casting scraps up on my front porch. People have been asking me questions about it for a couple of years, including the appallingly common one: "If Jesus had children, would they be half God?" Or: "Will this revelation destroy the Catholic Church?"

Uhh, no. And no. Really. My bottom line on the whole business is this: We have no way ever to know if Jesus was married or had children. There is no conclusive evidence either way. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We will never know. Get used to it! Furthermore, it doesn't matter. There is no essential teaching in Christianity that requires that Jesus be unmarried, celibate, or childless. A married Jesus (to Mary Magdalene or anyone else) changes nothing. Children of such a marriage would be purely human. The Catholic Church should just ignore the whole thing, and for the most part, they (wisely) are.

Now, I've mentioned elsewhere the way that Dan Brown borrowed heavily from the original Holy Blood, Holy Grail canon, assembled by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in the 1970s. Ol' Dan wasn't the first, however. In 1999, British author Philip Boast published Sion, which drew on the same canon, but took it absolutely over the top. Boast pulls in every New Age weirdness I've ever heard of, and weaves it together with the story of Jude, son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I don't know how to describe it, actually, and don't want to spill too much in case such stories appeal to you. It was never published in the US, as best I know; I bought it in England in 2000 and read most of it on the plane on the way home. You can find it on Amazon UK; note the single review, which was mine. I won't repeat it here. (I don't recall why I didn't use my real name, but yup, that was me.) Although it had its silly spots, overall it was very engaging and a lot of fun, and I think never caught on because it was so completely off the wall—which for fiction of this type is a good thing. The deadpan realism of The Da Vinci Code made a lot of people take it far more seriously than it ever deserved to be taken.

Nutty as parts of the tale's framework may be, the Jesus of Sion is nonetheless true God and true Man, and Boast posits that, 2,000 years later, His blood flows in hundreds of millions of people. This doesn't make us all part-God. But the point Boast was making is that God is truly our Father, which is a perspective I can get behind. In far too much of the Christian world, the humanity of Jesus simply gets lost, and it was nice to see a fictional treatment of Jesus that emphasized His humanity without diminishing His divinity. Cautiously recommended. (Rated CR for shambling zombies, transmigration of souls, a black hole in a box, and demons with a little too much power—we'll skip past little things like angels with pubic hair.)

June 24, 2006: Louie and Bennie

At the closing of our 40th grade school reunion, reunion chair Terry Jerusis Dullmaier presented me with a slightly bizarre token of her appreciation: A bobble-head figure of Pope Benedict XVI. (This was due to my sometimes inexplicable interest in the Popes and all things Catholic.) Where she got it I shudder to think, but it's actually kind of cool in its way, and I gave Good Pope Benny a place of honor on my theology shelf.

He's not alone. Also resident on my theology shelf is Louie the Giggling Squirrel. This was a gift from my sister some years ago, and both an inside joke and a quiet bit of homage to our Uncle Louie, my mother's black-sheep brother who broke almost all the rules in his life. The one he kept was perhaps the one that matters most: Love and stand by your family. Although unmarried, Uncle Louie took care of my mom's house after my dad died, and he was very good to his nieces and nephews, sometimes (as with me, who received his gifts of broken TVs with astonished gratitude) without fully appreciating the impact of his kindness.

But then again, who ever really appreciates the impact of his or her kindness?

When he was twelve or so, Uncle Louie raised an orphaned baby squirrel to adulthood, and trained it to hide in his shirt pocket and jump out on command for a treat—thoroughly disquieting (but sometimes delighting) any unsuspecting onlookers. So when Gretchen gave me a stuffed squirrel that giggled when you squeezed his tummy, well, the name was a foregone conclusion.

Uncle Louie did not get on well with the Roman Catholic Church, and was generally assumed by his very devout family to be a lost soul. So when I placed the Pope on the shelf next to Louie, Carol remarked that Louie looked a little apprehensive. Perhaps. Or maybe Louie the Giggling Squirrel is looking for a shirt pocket to jump into, knowing that popes can be surprising people.

Or maybe it's a sign that Pope Benedict XVI already has a squirrel in his shirt pocket, and is waiting for just the right moment to surprise us all. The best popes always do that somehow. Cross your fingers.

June 23, 2006: Odd Lots

  • For some years now I've been reading books, scratching my head, and suppressing the urge to complain that string theory is Emperor's Clothing, 0% cotton, 0% polyester, 0% science. It sounds more like the Supreme Fudge Factor to me, and popular because it's the only way we can make the math in modern physics come out right, and it seems to be evolving rapidly into yet another piece of Science Religion, which is any theory that May Not Be Questioned. (At least not if you want your grant to come through.) Nobody can explain to me why it's so compelling, other than the fact that it makes the math come out right. Nobody can tell me how we can detect higher dimensions or why we're so sure they're there—except that they make the math come out right. Nobody can even tell me why they're so sure that if higher dimensions exist, they have to be rolled up to the Planck length—when I get the distinct impression from other physics literature that things of the Planck length or smaller cannot be said (in all honesty) to exist. (Hunch: So that we can use nonexistent higher dimensions to make the math come out right!) I haven't said much because I am not a physicist (nor do I play one on TV) but a technical writer. So this morning, I was delighted to find that somebody with real credentials is calling bullshit on string theory. About damned time. And nobody who objects to this opinion will get past my trash folder without explaining how we detect higher dimensions, and why we're so sure that they're rolled up to a sort of borderline non-existence. "Making the math come out right" is not an explanation. No, I'm not going to let it pass.
  • Hey, am I in a bad mood tonight or what?
  • Now here's an example of the sort of physics (and engineering) that I can get my head around: An honest-to-God jet-powered VM Beetle. So much easier to control than JATO bottles. Thanks to Henry Law for the pointer.
  • Pete Albrecht send me a pointer to the SkyShed POD (Personal Observatory Dome) designed to keep the elements off your Meade GoTo telescope. It's plastic (albeit good plastic) and if you want, you can pay a little extra and have yours manufactured to glow in the dark. Hey, having recently bruised my head multiple times on various excrescences of a too-small RV while trying to get up in the two ayem darkness to pee, I'm way more than fine with that!
  • I just learned from Chris Gerrib that on June 12, Jim Baen of Baen Books had a very serious stroke, and it's unclear whether or to what extent he will recover. (Prayers are called for; as best I know he is still in a coma.) Jim is one of the only guys in publishing who really seems to understand ebooks, and quite apart from any personal suffering he may undergo, we as an industry can ill afford to lose him.

June 21, 2006: Rolling Condos and Timeshare Camping Lots

It gets cold here at night! We saw on the Weather Channel that it got down to 39 degrees last night. I wasn't expecting that, and had to sleep with my socks on. Yes, we have cable TV here, along with city water and 30 amp electrical service. We would have used the propane furnace, perhaps, but the Pleasureway malfunctioned this morning: We tried to heat up some water, and the propane detector went off deafeningly. We aired the place out and tried it again. Same deal. I had to crank off the propane valve. So no furnace, and no hot water.

Not to sweat. (And we're not sweating, heh.) The Tiger Run Resort has hot showers, a huge heated swimming pool, two hot tubs, tennis courts, and lots of other things. It's camping, but barely. At least half of the RV sites have been converted into little log cabins, some on double lots with enormous half-million-dollar Prevost conversions (basically, Grayhound buses turned into rolling condos) cozied up to the cabins. This is not your typical RV camp. Every site is privately owned, and many owners allow the resort to rent the site or cabin when they're not using them—which is how we got a site for these three nights.

I don't know (and haven't dared ask) what sort of mileage some of these behemoths get, but gas is less an issue than you might think, for the following reason: Most owners move them just a few times per year, often only twice, following seasonable weather between the desert Southwest and more northern climes. An astonishing number of people live in them year-round as their only homes, and spend four or six months in one place, then moving to another for several more months. Some own RV sites at two places like Tiger Run and just oscillate between them as weather demands. Others stay for several months at each site, but never at the same site twice.

Again, this morning we went hiking along the Colorado Trail, which meanders for 500 miles between Denver and Durango and passes right by Tiger Run. There's a lot of dead wood on the ground, which concerns me—if this forest ever goes up, there will be a lot of bone-dry kindling to stoke the inferno. I found it interesting that a lot of the dead logs (all pines of one species or another) seem to have a spiral twist to them. (See photo at left.) Such a twist is not apparent in any of the living trees, and may be hidden by the bark. There are juniper bushes here and there, and hummingbirds zipping around in between trees.

We're coming back home tomorrow afternoon. Tiger Run has Wi-Fi, but the system is still under construction and we're in the far corner of the resort, flirting with a dead spot. I was able to get mail down and a couple of messages sent, but the connection doesn't hold long enough for my bigger images to get through. So I suspect I won't be able to upload this until we get home.

Are we ever going to buy our own RV? I'm still not sure. It's a lot of money and another huge, complicated mechanism to store and take care of. The Pleasureway is too small, and I can't see myself driving something the size of a bus. There are things in the middle, but they're rarely offered for rent, and I really don't want to buy this big a pig in that big a poke. We'll see.

June 20, 2006: An Invitation to Mindfulness

Boy, this is...different. My most brilliant spouse just called the Pleasureway Excel RV "an invitation to mindfulness." She nailed it: If you don't pay attention to everything you do (and try to live as you do at home) you will end up black and blue.

The problem is that the Pleasureway is small. It's a big van with some very clever appliances, but it's still just a big van. If you don't stoop and bow your head a little when you climb in the coach door, you clobber year head. If you get up too quickly from the bed/couch, you whack your head on the air conditioner. If you don't consciously pick up your foot before entering the bathroom, you will whack one or more toes and yell so loudly the neighbors will hear.

On the other hand, when lived in mindfully, the Pleasureway is comfortable and quite cozy. I think people who have overnighted on sailboats will know precisely what I mean. (The toilet is in fact identical to several I've seen below decks on cruise-boat excursion catamarans.) Every cubic inch of room inside the van body is put to use, but it's very much living in miniature. The bed is moderately comfortable, but it's a jackknife bed, built in three separate slabs that don't precisely line up to the same level, and there are cracks to drift into during the night.

That said, our first night here was fun in a young-marrieds sort of way. We used to tent camp a lot when we lived in Rochester and Baltimore, and this is a little like tent camping: You're always knee-deep in your stuff, with damp towels and swimsuits lying around draped over things, and coolers full of icemelt to dump regularly.

It's worth it. The photo above was taken from right behind the RV. Our site is on the bank of the Blue River maybe ten yards from a little waterfall, and we listened to the sounds of the water over the stones all night long. This morning we walked up an ancient jeep trail for a mile or so, huffing and puffing only a little. (Living for three years at 6,500 feet is excellent training for hiking at 9,100 feet.) The wildflowers were in exuberant bloom, including exquisite little wild roses, along with trail favorites like phlox, and many things we couldn't identify. A tiny snowmelt stream wandered along the old trail, burbling as it worked its way over logs and stones.

Even in mid-June, the surrounding peaks are all snow-covered, and I can only wonder what they look like in winter. We don't ski but we will probably come back to Breckenridge during ski season, just to see what it's about. I'm not sure I want to ski, but I always enjoyed sledding, and maybe somewhere they have a sledding hill that a 54-year-old kid could handle. We'll see.

June 19, 2006: RVing up to Breckenridge

Our recent Chicago trip wasn't the best (and trips to Chicago rarely qualify as "vacation") so Carol and I rented another RV, dropped QBit off at Camp Bow-Wow, and drove up past Denver and over the Loveland Pass to Breckenridge, Colorado. It's ski country and thus quieter in the summer (which is technically the "off season"!) but gorgeous year-round, and one of all too many places in this country where neither of us has ever been.

I'll bet you've never seen an RV like this: It's one of the uncommon "class B" motorhomes, which are (usually) full-size van conversions. (There is something called a "B+" motorhome, which is actually a smaller Class C, like the RV we rented last October.)

It's a Pleasureway Excel RD, and one of the smallest completely self-contained RVs out there. It has a sofa that electrically jackknifes down into a double bed, a stove, a furnace (they're made in Canada) a refrigerator, a hot water heater, a built-in 17" LCD TV with DVD player, and a bathroom that incorporates a toilet and a sink into a space half the size of a bathroom in a commercial airliner. There is actually a shower, but the shower is in fact...the entire bathroom. It's all waterproofed, and there's a curtain you pull around yourself while you sit on the potty. Then you can hand-spray yourself as much as you need to, and it all goes down the drain in the middle of the bathroom floor to the graywater holding tank.

Yes, it sounds dicey, but given the space they had to work in that might have been the only solution to the shower challenge. We just got in to the Tiger Run RV Resort between Frisco and Breckenridge, and will be staying here until Thursday morning. I'm anxious to look around a little, and very glad for the change in climate: It was to be in the 90s in the Springs today, but up here at 9,100 feet, it's a delicious 70 degrees. I don't know when I'll be able to post this, so expect possible delays until Thursday.

June 18, 2006: What the Pope Really Said

It's not often that I defend the Pope, but this time I must: It's becoming increasingly clear that the Stephen Hawking flap that emerged a few days ago was Hawking's bad: He had misrepresented what Pope John Paul II had said in a crucial way.

I recall scratching my head over the story, which landed in my inbox from all corners of the world. This sure didn't sound like the JPII I know, who had blessed the study of evolution and pardoned Galileo. Hawking paraphrased a comment from the Pope at a cosmology conference held at the Vatican this way: "It's OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not enquire into the beginning itelf because that was the moment of creation and the work of God."

Anyone who has read the late Pope's theology (I've tried) should recognize that JPII almost never said anything with such plain, Anglo-Saxon brevity. The Catholic League has tried to set the record straight by presenting the Pope's actual words at that conference: "Every scientific hypothesis about the origin of the world, such as the one that says that there is a basic atom from which the whole of the physical universe is derived, leaves unanswered the problem concerning the beginning of the universe. By itself science cannot resolve such a question…."

In other words, science needs to be careful about what it can and can't know. I'd like to know what set up the Big Bang, and if there were some conceivable way to study it I'd cheer and throw money—but to claim to know things without any evidence at all isn't really science, and making pronouncements without evidence is generally the way science and scientists get into trouble.

Note well that the Pope did not say that science should not attempt to answer the question of what things were like before the universe as we see it began, only that he didn't see how science could answer the question using the scientific method. No warnings, no Inquisition, and whatever scold lay in his words is a scold that should come from more people more often.

The Catholic League's short article contains a 1988 quote from the late Pope that I had not seen before: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes." I'd like that engraved on a plaque and put on my wall. It sure sounds like the Pope had tried to meet the scientific community halfway. Will scientists have the balls (and the humility) to go as far?

As an aside, the origin of the universe is one of the first questions I intend to ask of God once I get the chance. Perhaps the conversation will go this way:

Jeff: Hey, God, how did you set off the Big Bang, anyway?

God: I just lit the fuse...but I have big matches!

June 17, 2006: Odd Lots

  • A 10" chunk of rock hit the Moon at 80,000+ miles per hour, and left a crater 46 feet in diameter. Whew. Add atmosphere to the many things I'm explicitly grateful for.
  • Extract from a flower long used in traditional Chinese medicine may provide a treatment for Type 2 diabetes, currently the great curse on the health of the Western world. Eating less sugar would doubtless help, but this is scant comfort to those whose insulin machinery is already shot to hell. (Stress is the Big Unknown in diabetes, but I have an intuition its role may be as great as sugar's.)
  • A video this morning on the Weather Channel showed manhole covers in Minneapolis being blown off their manholes by air pressure from beneath, due to water flooding into sewers and storm drains during a furious downpour. Having tried to pry up and lift off a couple of manhole covers as a 15-year-old, that image deeply impressed me.
  • This is the guldurndest commercial I've ever seen, and from what I've heard, there is zero CGI or other photographic trickery involved. They just kept shooting until they got it right. Wow. (Thanks to Bishop Sam'l Bassett for the link.)
  • I now have my mailbase migrated from Poco Mail to Thunderbird, and it wasn't as difficult as I had feared. The one thing that still escapes me is how to re-associate messages moved over from Poco with their attachment files. Any suggestions? I'll do a short white paper on this topic once I figure I've done as much as can be done. So far so good.

June 16, 2006: Four Months of AdSense

As of today, I have fourth months of history with Google's AdSense Web advertising system, which I implemented on my site on February 16, 2006. Overall, I'm happy with the system: It's not especially intrusive, for me or for people who read my site, and it's basically free money.

I had hoped to realize a dollar a day with AdSense, and over four months, I came amazingly close: The average daily take across those four months is $0.99, for a total of $116.75. That more than pays my hosting costs, which are $17/month, and I told myself going in that if AdSense would pay for my hosting, I'd come away happy.

I haven't even recast all of my popular pages to support AdSense ads. I have several Wi-Fi pages that get a lot of traffic, and none of them have ads so far. That's work (and they're on my do-it list) but once the work's done, it's done. It's not a living wage short-term, but if the money is constant over a period of years, it makes the writing of the material pay off eventually, and that's what the experiment is all about.

June 15, 2006: Cars

Saw Cars earlier this afternoon. I had hoped to be blown away, as I was with Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, and A Bug's Life, but it didn't happen—and I'm not entirely sure why.

Certainly there's no faulting the animation, and the concept had a lot of promise: A world where everything is a motor vehicle, right down to the bugs that splat on your windshield. (The teeny little flying bugs are actually minuscule old-style VW Beetles with wings.) A very green bright-red NASCAR rookie racecar ends the Piston Cup race in a three-way tie, and the runoff race is in LA. So off to California goes Lightning McQueen. Along the way he is accidentally dumped off the freeway onto Route 66, and ends up in Radiator Springs, New Mexico, population 8 (vehicles) where he gets in trouble with the law and spends a few days making good some stupid mistakes and learning a little humility.

There are a lot of very nice touches (aircraft contrails in the sky look like tire tread prints, which sounds insane but it works here) and I suspect that if I followed NASCAR racing (which I don't) I'd have seen even more. Radiator Springs itself was absolutely true to Route 66 form. Carol and I drove home from Chicago to Phoenix after our 25th wedding anniversary party in 2001, down along some of old Route 66, though we took the parallel Interstates much of the time. We actually spent the night in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and saw a number of mostly extinct whistle-stop towns full of caving-in buildings and dusty, abandoned roadside tourist traps of many species. The designers and artists on the Cars project had it all nailed.

And there was humor, good humor, much of it centering on a rusty, buck-toothed tow truck named Mater (Tow Mater, get it?) brilliantly voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. Perhaps the best bit in the film is when Mater takes Lightning out into the fields at night to go...tractor tipping. George Carlin had promise voicing an aging hippie VW van named Fillmore selling organic gasoline out of a day-glo geodesic dome, but the script gave him almost nothing to do but lock horns in silly fashion with Sarge, a Jeep that owns the local military surplus junkshop.

At 116 minutes, the film is long for an animation (though The Incredibles was also that long and worked well) and seemed to drag in many places, especially in the first half. I don't think that the scriptwriters had quite enough plot to fill two hours, and here and there I felt like I was seeing filler. The courtroom scene was a good example: What took perhaps eight minutes could have been done in two, and done better, at that. The dialog did what it had to do, but lacked cleverness and in many places, warmth. The script they had should have been done in 90 minutes, and could have used a little more energy and wry banter.

As I've noted here several times, scripting is everything. A lame script can't be saved by dazzling animation, as Disney's little-known stinkers like The Black Cauldron attest. The script here isn't bad, but it's not in a league with Pixar's other tightly scripted masterpieces, especially Monsters, Inc. That doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. I think that Pixar has done so well so often that we have come to expect something like perfection from them, and while we don't have perfection here, we have an entertaining romp—and certainly more toy merchandising opportunity than we've seen since, well, Toy Story. Recommended.

June 14, 2006: Home. Finally.

It's been a lean couple of weeks here at Contra, mostly because I was in Chicago and moving basically every damned minute of every damned day. Most of that was cleaning up after the sewage flood in my mother in law's basement, with a little class reunion thrown in for R&R. We had to extend our stay, and United couldn't get us back this week unless we were willing to be on a plane by...6:30 AM. Then one of our suitcases didn't make the transfer in Denver and had to be trucked out here later in the day. Needles to say, we're both still walking-into-walls fatigued and probably will be for another day or two, until we excrete the stress toxins, or whatever the hell it is that one feels in the wake of a sewer crisis followed immediately by three hours of sleep and a bad plane ride...

Then, of course, Poco Mail had to act up: Earlier this evening, after I spent half an hour deleting hundreds of messages relating to our now-accomplished class reunion, Poco decided on its own initiative to compress the inbox, and when it was done, all Inbox mail since 5/20 was just...gone.

I've been unhappy with Poco for some time, but this is the last straw. I began moving mail from Poco to Thunderbird, following suggestions from a number of people including Bob Halloran. It's not rocket science, but it can't be done in one swoop. I have 43 mailboxes, and each resides in a separate .mbx file. I have to move all the .mbx files into the Thunderbird mail directory, remove the .mbx extensions, and then restart Thunderbird. It recognizes the .mbx files even without the .mbx extensions, indexes them, and then adds them to the folder list in the left-hand pane.

Thunderbird does not understand hierarchical mailbox relationships, so I've had to drag them around into the relationships they had under Poco. So far (I'm about halfway through the job, and stopped for the night) everything looks like it came across intact. The last three weeks of Inbox mail is still gone, and looks like it was purged from the file. I have some of that mail elsewhere, but not all of it. Anything that came in in the last couple of days is history.

Thunderbird's antispam features are a little thin compared to Poco's: There is a Bayesian filter plus a rule-style text filter, but what I have generally relied on are blacklists and whitelists. It will whitelist its address book, but getting Poco's address book into Thunderbird hasn't been accomplished yet and may be tricky. I'll let you know how it works. Right now I want to just go to bed.

June 10, 2006: Odd Lots

  • This sure sounds like a species of scam, but the product exists: A company is selling a keyboard without any labels on the keys. None. Zero. Every single key is utterly blank. The company insists it will actually improve your keystroke rate because you won't waste time looking at the keys. I guess you either learn to touch type for real, or you won't use it at all. Alas, for $80 I'm not going to give it a try.
  • Carol and I had ice cream yesterday at a delightfully different local shop: The Village Creamery. Started by a Filipino couple, the shop sells home-made ice cream incorporating a lot of fruits grown in the Philippines that most Americans have never heard of, like guyabano, jackfruit, and lychee. They have other flavors that are just a little odd, like paludeh, which consists of rose water, lime sherbet, pistachios and rice noodles. Or halo-halo fiesta, which contains vanilla ice cream, banana, pineaple gel, coconut gel, red beans, white beans, and rice krispies. Doesn't matter; all the familiar flavors are there too, and the ice cream is uniformly excellent. There are three shops in the nearby suburbs. Stop in if you're around. Highly recommended.
  • There is a junk hierarchy here in the Chicago burbs that's a little humbling to us tech geeks. We put out a defunct and rusty mid-50s Frigidaire refrigerator (minus its doors) and a guy grabbed it and tommylifted it onto his truck half an hour later. Two old steel bedframes took a whole day to vanish. And a perfectly good 15" Compaq CRT monitor has been out there for three days now and hasn't been touched.
  • I just heard about Jim Baen's Universe, an all-electronic SF magazine that will present 150,000 words in each issue—that's bigger than The Cunning Blood—and do it without any least trace of DRM. $30 for six issues. This is worth subscribing to just to keep the idea alive, and to demonstrate that not everybody steals any bits that aren't nailed down. I just subscribed, and I'll report back once I've had a chance to read at least some of the mag.

June 9, 2006: Slicing and Dicing a Stock Scam Spammer

Still working here, and will be for a few days yet. However, this morning I received a spammer trick that haven't seen before. Little by little, "pump and dump" penny stock scams are taking over my spambox. It used to be easy to filter them, because early on many spammers used boilerplate legalese at the bottom of the message that was unlikely to appear in any legitimate mail—at least my mail. Then they began to misspell the legalese in a consistent way, which was even better. However, a month or so ago, it all changed: I'm now getting pump and dump spams in which all the text is expressed in a bitmap, included as an attachment with a random name. There is no textual "payload" to filter on: No URL of a Web site to go to, no phone number. There's almost no text at all in the message proper, but only the attached graphic.

About a week ago I started getting the same spams, but with horizontal lines running through the text, presumably to make OCRing the text tougher. I had to wonder: What antispam utility performs OCR on bitmaps? If such a one exists, I haven't seen it yet.

Then today I received the coup de grace: A stock scam spam in which the payload bitmap was sliced up into eleven different pieces. Whew.

So. Is the guy really responding to an exsting filter threat? Or is he just really really determined to escape filters that haven't even been created yet? I'm guessing that he's assuming that filters are snagging his messages because the stock isn't moving, but in fact the stock isn't moving because the market is down and even stupid people haven't been gambling on stocks much in the last few days.

I'm also wondering if the penny stock spammers have bascally saturated the market for stupid day traders. Penny stock people (unlike many victims of the Nigerian money scams) are very well connected and tech savvy. They may be compulsive gamblers, but they are neither technically incompetent nor isolated, and word may be getting out on the penny stock network that the best thing to do when you get an email about a penny stock is to avoid it like the plague. The spammers may think they're being filtered, but they're wrong about where the filter is operating, and cutting the message into chunks isn't going to help.

Or so we may all hope.

June 8, 2006: My Last Brin

I'm exhausted, so I will be brief: I will shortly become an uncle for the last time. My sister Gretchen Roper announced on her blog that she and her husband Bill have contracted with a woman in Wisconsin to carry their firstborn to term. The genetic material is from both of them (and not from the gestational carrier) and was implanted in the form of an embryo that had been frozen, awaiting someone who could carry it. I have never quite understood how an embryo can survive freezing, but apparently it happens all the time. In late November, my parents' first grandchild will be born, if all goes well.

I have two nephews on Carol's side of the family that I have seen go from bulge to man (one currently 20 and the other 23) and now the process will begin again. I will soon have either three nephews, or three...whats?

There's a word in the English language for almost everything (including "to coat with wax": cerate) but there is no one word to indicate "nieces and nephews" in a gender-neutral way. (The same is true of "aunts and uncles.") I have thought about this in the past, but never very seriously. Now I may have real need for the word. In the past, I could always say, "I have no children of my own, so I spoil my nephews instead." What will I say now if the upcoming miracle is a girl child?

Maybe I'll have to make up a word. Two that come to mind are "brins" and "sobrins," both artificial cognates from the Spanish for nieces (sobrinas) and nephews (sobrinos.) I like "brins," and it has nothing to do with a certain SF writer, whose recent work has not impressed me. Alas, a "sobrin" sounds like a painkiller you take to knock out a bad hangover. So that's what I'll say: I have no children of my own, so I spoil my brins instead.

Anyway. Good luck, little brin, and accept an uncle's heartfelt blessing upon your nascent soul. Have great courage and take your time; becoming human is not for the fainthearted, nor is it something to be done over lunch hour. I believe in God and I believe in your parents, therefore I believe in you. Dare to amaze us!

June 5, 2006: Class of 1966 40th Reunion

Time has been short and connectivity erratic, hence the holes you see here. We're still cleaning up after the sewer backup, which I'll come back to in future entries. QBit just ate about half of my breakfast, after I had to run downstairs and supervise a couple of tradesmen who came in to rod out the basement toilet. Note to self: Don't leave QBit alone with a plate of scrambled eggs.

Anyway. Reunion. It all started back in 2001. I made an error of judgment while writing my April 7, 2001 entry: I used the full name of a little girl I had had a crush on in 8th grade, back at Immaculate Conception Catholic grade school, in the northwest corner of Chicago. Having done so, I immediately forgot all about it, for three whole years. Then, suddenly, I got an email in the summer of 2004 from Therese Jerusis Dullmaier, now living in Gernsheim, Germany. Surprise!

She didn't hold it against me; in fact, she was a little surprised that I remembered her at all, because we had had so little to do with one another in grade school. (I admired her from afar. Afar, I felt, would be safer.) In fact, after a couple of emails' worth of reminiscing, she suggested putting together a class reunion in 2006, to celebrate 40 years since we got out of grade school.

I said sure. How hard could it be? And that began a two-year adventure of finding people we hadn't seen in 40 years, as well as arranging a catered meal, an open bar, and "entertainment." I had reconnected with a guy from Boy Scouts in 2000 at a spectacular party he had thrown in Chicago, and recruited him to work on the 40th event with Terry and me. Terry recruited her childhood friend Cathy, who now lives in Detroit, and Rich recruited Pat Serb, who lives across from Immaculate Conception School and does various things for the parish. I recruited Jackie Ropski, the brilliant artist who had introduced me to Carol way back in 1969. We recruited a couple of other people as well, began having regular meetings, and put a plan in place.

The surprising thing wasn't that it was easy (it was actually a lot of work) but that it went so well. We found 101 of 144 kids in our graduating class, though, sadly, "finding" in seven cases meant discovering that they had died. The hardest work was providing entertainment. This meant that Terry, Rich, and I wrote and performed a stand-up comedy routine that simply defies description. The jokes were mostly the sort of in-jokes that would mean nothing to outsiders, and certainly nothing to those who had not lived eight years with nuns and the cultural trappings of 1950s and 1960s Triumphalist Catholicism. Latin Mass! Altar Boys! Fish on Friday! Mission boxes for pagan babies! 40 days indulgence! St. Maria Goretti, the young girl who was the informal patron saint of Young Girls Who Do Not Want to Get Felt Up by Rowdy Boys. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo. Baltimore Catechism: "A Sacrament is an Outward Sign, Instituted by Christ to Give Grace." And so on, and so on, and so on.

Well, the other night it finally happened, and with a single exception (we had a lot of trouble getting the antiquidated parish hall sound system to play MP3s from a laptop's headphone jack) everything came off without a hitch. Terry Jerusis Dullmaier and I dressed in ersatz Catholic school uniforms. (I wore a Visual Developer pocket protector full of odd tools to indicate my role as class nerd.) Carol and Rich's wife Susan sat at the welcome table, handing out the name badges that Jackie had designed, and a Miraculous Medal to go with each one. I got a great deal of satisfaction seeing old friends hugging each other after losing touch for literally four decades. I was surprised but pleased to find myself face-to-face, 40 years later, with Terry Hoffman, the very first real-live girl I had ever danced with who wasn't one of my cousins. She had not known but was delighted to discover that she had been my "first." (She is now an officer for the Chicago Police Department!) We had a cake with Sr. Marie Bernard's picture on it. I emceed a trivia contest and handed out bags of gummy worms and gummy eyeballs as prizes. It went on until after 1 ayem.

Amazingly, people are already asking to be on the committee for our 50th reunion, in June of 2016.

I need to stop now and get this posted, but there is more to be thought about, and more to be said: Why was this reunion so delightful, when my high school and college reunions were so flat? Why do we do this at all? I have an intuition that it's all about the nature of friendship, and once I catch my breath I'll speak further of this.

June 1, 2006: Got Roots?

I always say, "never live near water," but sometimes following that advice isn't quite enough. Carol and I are in Chicago for a week, in large part to attend my 40th grade school reunion this Saturday night. Well, Tuesday afternoon there was a horrendous rainstorm here, and for the first time in the 48 years that it has stood, the sewers in Carol's mom's house in Niles backed up.

Having an inch of water on the basement floor doesn't sound too bad, but consider where the water came from: The toilet in the basement fairly boiled, and became a fountain of dirty water full of brown sludge. As in most basements of old houses, there was a lot of stuff sitting on the floor, most of which is now reeking trash. Carol and I just finished bringing up everything of consequence that was not sitting on the floor, so that the cleanup company can go down there tomorrow and kick some serious bacterial ass. We may have to rent a dumpster. Not sure yet; we're making this up as we go along.

Carol called the city, which advised her to call a plumber and run a rooter down the line to the street sewer main. We did so, and the rooter claw came back out of the pipe with a huge wad of root fibers behind it. I'm not real sure of the physics here, but everybody thinks that the roots had something to do with the sewer reversal. And this was in turn linked to another problem: The soil in the parkway at the end of the driveway was settling, and after the storm we found a void under the street and the driveway apron, which suggests a breach in the line itself. The city came out with their sewer camera robot, and ran the little devil from the manhole at the end of the block down as far as the house's link to the city sewer main. Sure enough, they could see that the end of the house's feeder pipe was dislodged from the city main.

I mentioned to the guys from the city that I had built some robots myself, and they invited me up into the sewer robot truck to take a look at the equipment. The robot is controlled by a Windows app, and there is a joystick to steer the little video camera on the robot's nose, rheostats to control the light level, and lots of other cool things. The microphone on the right allows the operator to take audio notes and save them with the video file that the system writes to disk, giving a full record of what the robot sees, including observations from the engineer running the robot. Note the image on the monitor: The clay pipe has shifted about four inches to the left, and is no longer fully aligned with the hole in the sewer main pipe. Dirt and clay are being washed into the sewer main from the area to the right of the clay pipe, which accounts for the settling soil above the sewer main. ("Down" in the image is toward the lower left corner of the display.)

A little while later, they pulled the robot out of the sewer and ran it around on the grass for me. The machine is bigger than I expected: Over three feet long, and weighing almost a hundred pounds. In the photo above, the robot is shown with a standard manhole cover for scale. The little gadget is extremely maneuverable, and its motors have enormous torque. The camera is on a gimball at the right end; in the photo it is aimed directly ahead, but it can rotate almost completely in two axes on command from the truck.

We have the diagnosis; the surgery is still ahead. The sewer main is fifteen feet under the parkway, so there's some serious digging to be done. We're not sure when it will happen, or if we will even still be here when it does (I doubt it) but I'll report back what I know as I know it.