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
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.
The item about air conditioning seemed a little tongue in cheekthough
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
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.
sleeping enough makes you fat. (This is an abstract from a
refereed journal. The article costs $30, but the abstract has
sufficient detail for laypeople.) People get really angry
at me when I say that shorting on sleep makes you fat. That's
an interesting psychological issue all by itself: People are apparently
willing to diet, but would rather die than be in bed by 10:00
PM every night. Go figger.
makes you fat. Most people consider this obvious, but it's
significant to me that if anything has gone through the roof since
1980 (when many say our current obesity epidemic began) it's stress.
Sustained high blood levels of cortisol not only cause carb cravings,
they increase the tendency to store excess calories as fat.
breastfeeding children makes them fat. (The effect is small,
birth weight children grow up fat. They are also hugely more
prone to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
overweight during gestation predispose children to fatness.
(Perhaps because IANAD, this paper appears to contradict the last
conditioning makes you fat. Spotting this article this morning
triggered this entry, the point of which is my point here: That
we teeter on a kind of metabolic balance bar, and all kinds of
things are capable of knocking us off balance into obesity.
29, 2006: Age, Mortality, and Jim Baen
54 today, and feeling it. I spent all day yesterday on purely physical
tasks: Finishing the wiring in my garage workshop that the *(&$!?
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 decksI 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 62eight 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 boomingand
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.
26, 2006: The Forgotten Holy Blood, Holy Grail Book
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 wallwhich 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 powerwe'll
skip past little things like angels with pubic hair.)
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
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 treatthoroughly 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.
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 thereexcept
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 lengthwhen 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
- 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
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 themwhich 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.
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 meif 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 moneybut
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!
17, 2006: Odd Lots
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.
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
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.
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
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.
15, 2006: Cars
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 happenand I'm not entirely
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
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 rompand
certainly more toy merchandising opportunity than we've seen since,
well, Toy Story. Recommended.
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
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.
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
- 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,
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
- 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 issuethat's bigger
than The Cunning Bloodand 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.
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 mailat
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
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
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.
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,
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!
5, 2006: Class of 1966 40th Reunion
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.
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.
1, 2006: Got Roots?
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
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.