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May 31, 2007: Carl and Jerry Volume 3 Is Out!

Whew. I said it would be out in May, and it's out in May, if by the skin of my teeth. You can get it at I am not nearly as experienced in image processing as in text layout (we always had lots of graphics types on staff at Coriolis) so dealing with very fine halftone-screened art took some study and practice on my part—and Pete Albrecht, God love 'im, helped me make my May deadline by processing most of 1960 illustrations for the book.

I'm targeting September for Volume 4, which at least won't require me to learn any new skills—the artwork is basically the same general style throughout the 1961-1962 period that Volume 4 covers. I have all the magazines here, and in stark contrast to the mold-encrusted pile from 1959, they're all in pretty good shape.

So although I'm taking a few days off, the scanning will begin again soon, and by mid-September we should have Volume 4. (I have another Old Catholic reprint book to clean up and index before I get started.) Volume 5 presents a slight problem, in that it will contain the last 20 Carl and Jerry stories (rather than 24) and thus will be a little short. I've asked some people who have written me about Carl and Jerry's influence on their young lives to send me their impressions of how the stories (and Popular Electronics generally) pushed them into careers or at least satisfying hobbies involving science and technology. If you'd like to add your thoughts, send them to me and I'll work them in. Keep it to 500 words or less if you could.

As I've told a few people, I'm looking into locating original Carl and Jerry stories written by people other than John Frye, and may try to write a couple myself. I would love to do a sixth volume that is entirely Carl and Jerry fanfic, if I could find enough of it. We're a ways off on that project, but with enough material it could be a lot of fun.

May 30, 2007: Jeff's Electronics Shop Tips

I'm struggling to get Carl & Jerry Volume 3 ready to upload, but I took some time off (I've been ready to scream at times) to get another page uploaded. I've had it sitting around mostly finished for some time and finally spent the last hour and got it presentable. It's all about what works in an effective, organized shop for electronics tinkering, and I figured some of you guys might enjoy it:

Tips for Setting Up Your Shop

Carl and Jerry V3 may still go live tomorrow, if I fix a weird problem with some of the images. I'll let you know when it's ready.

May 29, 2007: The History of Hobby Electronics and Computing

One of the things that jumped up and bit me during the months I've been working on bring Carl and Jerry back into print is that we have no history of the hobby electronics press, nor of the even bigger category it spawned, hobby computing. Hobby electronics goes back a long way, to the dawn of "wireless" in the early 20th century. And the magazines were there too, with flagship amateur radio journal QST leading the way. In the 20s through the early 50s hobby electronics was really about radio (and perhaps a little about phonograph audio) but in the wake of the technology tsunami spawned by WWII, hobby electronics went in a dozen different directions at once. The magazines followed, beginning with Popular Electronics and its later competitors like Electronics Illustrated and Elementary Electronics. As we got into the late 1960s and early 1970s, digital technologies appeared in the hobby mags, and by the end of 1974 the Altair Bomb blew the whole thing up and rearranged the entire hobbyist world.

We know the titles and the dates, but as I've discovered, there are common threads (usually people, and often very eccentric ones) running through the hobby press. Wayne Green (who bought the first nonfiction piece I ever sold, and many thereafter) began as an editor at CQ magazine in the late 1950s, and left in the late 1950s to found 73. Green was one of the co-founders of Byte (something hotly contested by some people, like Carl Helmers but supported by others, like Don Lancaster) and later left to form Kilobyte (heh!) which became Kilobaud. Then there was the complicated heritage of PC and PC World, which I'm not sure I still understand. And I don't understand it because the facts are scattered all over the place and not pulled together into a coherent narrative. Some of those facts are doubtless nowhere else but in the heads of increasingly older people who could be lost to us at any time. We have a window of maybe fifteen years to catch the gist of it before the bulk of our sources for the history of hobby electronics in the 1950s will be lost. I think there's a popular culture Ph.D. in it somewhere, if that's on your career path.

So who's gonna do it?

May 25, 2007: Things to Do During Latin Mass

I'm old enough to remember when the Catholic Mass was in Latin. I'm old enough, in fact, to have been an altar boy and memorized all the Latin responses. The priests in our parish were pretty fierce about the Mass and brooked no mistakes, so when serving at Mass it all went like lightning, as we were always paying absolute attention to what was going on. The consequences of not doing so were unthinkable.

However, most of the time we were out there in the congregation, fidgeting with our peers. (At our school we began every single school day with Mass. Fidgeting was an art form.) The Mass itself was mostly incomprehensible, even if you were an altar boy. The translations in our St. Joseph Daily Missals didn't track the Latin with great precision, and in any event we were not taught Latin systematically.

So there was this 45 minute daily challenge (a full hour on Sundays) of what to do while God was at work up there at the altar, in a foreign language. Nuns (on schooldays) and parents (on Sundays) kept a tight lid on moving around and/or talking to our peers. About all we were left with was our imaginations...and our missals. The missal was a fat book full of prayers, but it had other things as well, including short bio clips of the saints who were singificant enough to get their own feast days. We read them out of boredom, and some of my friends paid close attention to the juicy details of how some of the martys were offed, which came up now and then in playground conversation. The Romans, for example, cut poor St. Agatha's breasts off in the process of killing her. One of the other saints had her teeth yanked out, again by those ever-creative Romans. I skipped past such stuff; I got nightmares enough watching bad monster movies like The Crawling Eye on Channel 7 Thursday afternoons. Interestingly, the newer missals given to school kids in sixth grade (1962-ish) omitted such details, but the mid-1950s missals that our class had, well, it was all there.

I've picked up a number of other Tridentine-era missals at bookstores over the years, and some of them are packed full of things to browse through, not all of it prayers. The 1949 printing of Benziger Bros' Saint Mary Every Day Missal is an amazing thing. It had everything our St. Joseph missals had, plus a history of the Catholic Church, a history of the United States, and (for that matter) a history of the world. Most oddly, sprinkled in amidst the saints and the prayers like "easter eggs" in modern software were short histories of the Catholic Church as it evolved in each American state. Delaware, for example, was tucked right between St. Boniface and St. Norbert. My copy has no index (though the pages at the end are loose and it may have fallen out); if you wanted Illinois, I guess you simply had to hunt for it. (I haven't found it yet.) The type on this additional material was astonishingly small, smaller than anything I think I've ever seen on the pages of a book intended for the general public. The pages were 3 1/2" wide and 6" high—and there were 1,335 of them! To get an example of just how small the type was, keep that page size in mind and download this scan of a typical page spread. (2.8 MB jpg.)

I suspect that the Powers within the Church knew all about this problem (they had, after all, been kids once) and when the Second Vatican Council redid the Mass and translated it into English, the emphasis was on following along and participating. Not long after that, fat-book missals left the Catholic experience entirely for several reasons. Most importantly, the post-VCII propers (Scripture readings and associated prayers) were three times as long and difficult to fit into a single book, but I think the notion of missal-as-distraction was right up there somehow, heh.

Nonetheless, I think a lot of us learned about the saints out of sheer boredom, and I certainly picked up more Latin than some just by trying to correlate the mysterious Latin prayers with their (loose) English equivalents. Maybe those of us who still go to church could increase religious literacy among kids by bringing back missals and not requiring that they follow along with the grown-ups. It worked in 1961. I don't see why it wouldn't work today.

May 24, 2007: Concurrency and the Core Explosion

An offhand comment in my May 18, 2007 entry gave rise to several interesting emails, all about whether or not concurrency in programming is important. I'll weigh in here with an interesting and perhaps inflammatory opinion:

1. Concurrency is extremely important.

2. It's also conceptually difficult, and we don't have a consensus on the best ways to implement it.

3. C and C++ are not likely to evolve toward concurrency. Pascal could, and should. (Maybe it already has...)

First of all, the backstory: We're running into various inconvenient laws of physics in our quest to make CPUs faster. So instead we're adding entirely separate processor cores, each of which can sustain a completely independent thread of execution. Dual-core CPUs are now commonplace, quad-cores, while exotic, are here, and we'll have eight or sixteen cores within four years or so. Neato-cool! Now, how do we translate eight cores into faster app response?

Alas, we have almost no idea. Hence point 2: We are linear thinkers in most respects, and the simple concept of carving up what we have always considered a totally linear idea into multiple parallel ideas ties our heads in knots. Note well that there is a subtle but important difference between spawning separate processes to do different things at the same time and recasting a single algorithm so that its work is done in parallel on multiple processors. Both are challenges, but the second challenge is way trickier than the first.

Even the first is gnarly, as anyone who has fooled with threads will attest. Locks and mutexes and semaphores, oh my! I've been poking around online, refreshing my memory with respect to concurrency in programming languages, and there's a lot to see. I learned only yesterday that Ericsson evolved Erlang from an earlier language called Eri-Pascal that was Pascal extended for concurrency. (And Eri-Pascal came out of something even older, called CHILL.) Pascal has a long history of attempts at concurrency, with some of them going back to the early 1970s. (See Concurrent Pascal and Pascal-FC.)

There's a cautionary revelation in seeing Erlang as a child of Pascal: The child doesn't look a great deal like the father. We may not be able to implement safe concurrency by strapping a bunch of new stuff onto existing languages. We may have to go back and re-think a great deal of what we take for granted in programming, which on my early glance appears to be what Ericsson did with Pascal to produce Erlang. Languages with massive installed bases like C, C++, and Java may not have enough wiggle room to evolve toward concurrency. We'll see—and again, a really good concurrent C may look so little like C that C fanatics won't use it. Furthermore, C may be too close to the hardware to gracefully accept the radical semantic changes necessary to support concurrency in a safe and intuitive manner.

I'm still thinking. But if you're a Delphi or Pascal guy, I strongly advise you to study up on the challenges of concurrency, including the Actor Model. Download Erlang and play with it. A new Erlang book from The Pragmatic Programmers will be out in July. Part of Erlang's White Book is available online. The Core Explosion (fortunately not the one that Larry Niven wrote about) will change the way programming is done. Be ready for the change—or better still, be one of the forces that guide it. The language wars are not over, and C may not win the next one.

May 22, 2007: Kiddie Records and The Great Foodini

Kevin Anetsberger almost casually mentioned a side project of his that I consider beautifully done and worth some attention. is trying to preserve a niche medium that few seem to remember: 78 RPM song and story records targeted at kids. These had a short heyday from 1946 or so until the early 1950s. I had a couple of them when I was very young, though I may have inherited them from my older cousins. Unfortunately, the ones I had vanished somewhere between 1960 or so (the last time I probably played them) and the current day. The people working on the site have touched up the album covers and even a couple of record labels, and cleaned all the clicks, scratches, and pops from the ancient audio tracks. The results are stunningly good.

I did recognize a couple items in the list on Kiddierecords. "The Little Tune that Ran Away" is actually a hoot: An exasperated melody ("Rockabye Baby" of all things!) gets disgusted with the incompetent orchestra that plays it badly, until it runs out the door and tries to flee, with the bumptious musicians in hot pursuit, playing the melody in one inappropriate style after another. There are classicial music snatches along the way (notably a piece from "Dance of the Hours") and a lot of musical silliness. "Rockabye Baby" played as a cowboy song is wonderful.

Most marvelously, the 78 RPM kiddie record I remember best is available on Kiddierecords: "Foodini's Trip to the Moon." Foodini was a puppet created by Maury Bunin for a 1950 TV show that I don't think I ever saw because it folded a year before I was born. (The record, again, came from one of my older cousins.) The consummate megalomaniac, Foodini's big gag is that he claims to be the world's greatest magician, scientist, inventor, genius and everything else, and his far more sensible assistant Pinhead is the source of most of his ideas. Foodini brags that he can do anything, and the interchange that made me cringe as a Sputnik-era six-year-old is actually pretty funny today:

Foodini: "I'll do something no man has ever done!"

Pinhead: "Maybe fly to Mars, Boss?"

Foodini: "I'll do better, Pinhead! I'll fly to the Moon!"

Pinhead (astonished): "The Moon! Gosh, Boss! Gee-Whiz!"

I was in first grade, but even then I knew that Mars was a lot farther away than the Moon. Grown-ups!

Most kiddie records had TV show tie-ins. My folks gave me a small "suitcase" record player the Christmas I was four, and I think gadgets like that became popular because kids wanted to at least hear their TV favorites when the shows themselves were not on the air. (PVRs were still half a century off.) I loved that record player, and when it croaked eight or ten years later I dismantled it and found that it consisted of a ceramic phono cartridge working directly into a single 117L7GT tube, which was designed (I found out much later) specifically for kiddie record players.

Anyway. I digress. If you're in your mid-fifties or older you may recall some of these, and although my first reaction was, Way dumb! I have to ask: Was Foodini any dumber than the Smurfs? The Snorks? Or (for that matter) "Code Name: Kids Next Door"?

I think not!

May 19, 2007: "Carl Said Lugubriously..."

Odd words pop up in odd places. While I was building the Carl & Jerry story index, I read all 119 of the stories in the space of a couple of weeks. The text was not fantastic, and I decided not to soften its quirky nature except to eliminate genuine typos or gross grammatical errors. The stories are told in the ordinary language spoken in central Indiana, complete with what I assume are genuine colloquialisms of the 1950s:

Jerry ignored this nasty remark. “Don’t you think it would be real George if every time our swords touched fire would fly?”

"Real George" is a phrase I've never heard before; perhaps it was common among teenagers in 1956. Today they'd probably say, "Wouldn't it be da bomb if every time our swords touched fire would fly?" (Alas, the techie trick in question—connecting a neon-sign transformer to their swords for a sword fight in a school play—would now get them thrown out of school.)

Carl & Jerry's late creator John T. Frye really took me by surprise in only one respect: He loved the words "lugubrious" and "lugubriously." The word (in its various forms) is used six or seven times in the Carl & Jerry canon. Here are some examples:

Carl slumped against the doorjamb and said lugubriously, "I've been afraid of this. The mad genius has finally flipped his lid. That's what comes of reading physics texts and tube manuals instead of comic books like any other red-blooded American boy. I'm a little disappointed, though, in the lack of originality. Old Diogenes used that carrying-a-light-in-the-daytime routine several centuries ago."

"Guess I'm the one guy in ten for whom it won't work," Jerry said with a lugubrious sigh as he shut off the equipment and removed the earphones.

Jerry flipped off the switch on the recorder control, and the voice slowly coasted to a stop. "There goes the sku-n--n----n-----nk!" it said lugubriously.

I'm not sure I've seen the word since I was in college 35 years ago, and I know I've never heard it spoken aloud. The oddness is amplified by the fact that Frye did not have the polished articulation that his contemporary John Daly of "What's My Line?" had. Fifty-dollar words like "lugubriously" don't often travel alone. I would have expected to see "tergiversation" or "contumaciousness" on its arm now and then, but no. All the rest of the text is strikingly ordinary.

No conclusions can be drawn here, except for the obvious: Personalities are reflected in their writing. If I've learned anything in 25 years as an editor I've learned that. I would like to have known John T. Frye, or at least spent an hour or two with him to get his short-form bio. He may have known a lot of cool words, and kept them all out of his fiction except for "lugubrious." Maybe he thought it was ordinary. (Perhaps they used it a lot in central Indiana.) Maybe it was an inside joke with one of his editors, as the word "cerate" was between me and the man who edited Turbo Pascal Solutions. (It was an easy typo for "create," and he asked me once, "You really did want to tell the reader to coat that linked list with wax, didn't you?") Or maybe, like a lot of techies, he was simply an eccentric who liked certain words more than others. Alas, (Jeff thought lugubriously) I suspect that we will never know.

May 18, 2007: A Failure of Sarcasm

As people who have known me a long time will understand, I was clearly not born to dance, appreciate opera, or play competitive sports. I may also be incapable of sarcasm, perhaps because I don't use it much and nobody expects it.

Ok. A couple of people have written to me in shock with respect to my May 12, 2007 entry, in which I said this:

In that never-to-be-sufficiently-despised language Pascal, you can take a string buffer and strip out any character not falling into a predefined set of characters using one (short) line of code.

They took me literally and wondered why a famous Pascal guy would say that. Egad. Full-bore sarcasm here, people! I carry few grudges, but there is one that is probably eternal: My grudge against the dorks and flamers who waged war on my "kiddie language" way back when Pascal and C were considered peers. They slandered it in the press. They slandered it in the streets and on the rooftops. They slandered it in my face. The war is over, and my side lost a long time ago. I won't argue the merits anymore, though I have long had powerful suspicions (unconfirmable as long as source code is not revealed) that the vast majority of buffer overflow exploits tormenting us these days can be traced to the unbounded string functions in the standard C library. Perhaps the technology industry gets the kind of programming language that it deserves.

Anyway. My point was to state that Pascal can handle a particular programming challenge with virtually no effort. My real target was lazy programmers, or perhaps insufficiently powerful runtime libraries of server-side languages that I'm not good at. In this particular case, I wasn't criticizing C, but was simply making the point that my often-slandered kiddie language could easily solve an issue that online programmers are either unwilling or unable to solve.

I have fooled with a great many programming languages. I'm good at a few, and I hold a few in high regard. (The two sets don't completely overlap.) But when pressed, I will say two things:

1. I am an assembly language programmer, and
2. I am a Pascal programmer.

If CodeGear ever releases a Turbo Erlang I will give it a go. (Parallel processing is in many respects the Last Frontier in coding.) But in the realm of high-level languages, I have only one love, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

May 17, 2007: Our New Doggie Gate

Carol has been practicing bichon grooming by borrowing some dogs from our local bichon breeder, who has a few that she's trying to place. Because they're not show dogs, it's less critical that their hairdos be perfect, and Carol's been spiffing them while they're waiting for adoption.

One problem has been keeping them in the laundry room, which is also Carol's hobby room and is a lot easier to mop up than the rest of the house. (Bichons are notorious for marking in the house—even the girls.) After looking for some time, we found a good gate the other day at Target.

It's from Summer Infant, and it's the #07050 Sure and Secure™ Deluxe Wood Walk-Thru Gate. I can show you a better photo of our own than they have on their Web site:

It's actually a baby gate, and it installs by pressure from four adjustable pads rather than screws set into the wall. The pads have to push pretty hard to keep it in one place, so I do not recommend installing the gate where the pads have to bear against drywall or anything else that might dent—even soft pine. It matches our hardwood trim as well as any $69 mass-market gate is ever likely to, and is way less ugly than the others we've seen in black or white.

The walk-through gate swings both ways and works very well. You release its latch by lifting up slightly on the black latch handle. I doubt that dogs (especially bichons) will ever figure this out, but for people puppies, well, don't count on it, at least once they can walk on their hind legs.

May 15, 2007: Carl & Jerry's Mold Spots

I'm behind on the third volume of Carl and Jerry: Their Complete Adventures, though there's some sparse chance I may still get it mounted on Lulu before the end of May. The 24 stories in the volume (the years 1959 and 1960) have all been scanned and OCRed. The text has been cleaned up and laid out. The last step, though, is a lulu: Scanning all the illustrations and adding them to the layout.

It's more difficult with Volume 3 than the first two volumes for this reason: With the May 1959 issue, Popular Electronics went to a coated paper and a finer halftone screen for all the artwork. Prior to that issue, PE had used a pulpy paper and relatively course screens that actually remind me more of woodcuts. The early screens are coarse enough so that the artwork does not generate Moire patterns when printed on Lulu's 600 DPI print-on-demand machines.

The Carl and Jerry illos post-April 1959 are smaller and slightly softer compared to the earlier ones. (They remind me of watercolors, even though they are all reproduced in b/w.) Even scanning them at 1200 DPI and enlarging them on the page leaves horrendous Moire interference. There's no choice but to eliminate the halftone screens. This is what I have to begin with, enlarged to show the screen:

Note that it's only a small part of a much larger drawing. Below is what I need to have when I'm done. It's a little fuzzy because it's significantly enlarged; it does look fairly decent when printed at its intended size:

This is a skill I've never needed and had to develop. I've had a copy of Photoshop 5.5 in a box since 1999 and never needed it—anything I needed to do with bitmapped images I did in Paint Shop Pro. Simple in concept: Blur out the image to submerge the halftones into continuous tones, then sharpen it to get your lines and edges back. What I found is that there were complications:

  1. You have to adjust the b/w levels before you do anything else. This is a surprisingly touchy business with fine screens and, worse, it has to be custom-adjusted for each image. Just getting this knack under my hat took a couple of days of loose moments playing around with the scans.
  2. A surprising number of my magazines are literally moldy, especially the 1959 year. I bought most of them as a lot on eBay, and the stack had evidently been sitting on somebody's basement floor since Buddy Holly was first-run. There is water damage on some of the pages, most of which are a little wavy.The mold isn't everywhere, but it ended up on a couple of the illos, making it look like Carl has acne. Alas, his sweater looks like it has acne too. Touching all that up would take forever, so although I did my best, Volume 3 will have some mold spots. I won't tell you where they are, since it's my fervent desire that you consider them artistic flourishes.

If it weren't for that, I might be done by now—that, and the fact that I have misplaced the December 1959 issue and am currently tearing up the house looking for it. It's here somewhere, and in the meantime I'm full speed ahead scanning the rest of the illos—as many as five per story. It's turning out to be a much bigger job than I anticipated when I decided to do it last summer, but the people who have bought the books have been delighted.

I guess if it had been easy, well, someone else would have done it long ago.

May 12, 2007: Separator Psychosis

I went to yet another online commerce site the other day to buy something, and its cutting-edge software (like virtually all of its fellows for the past several years) will not allow entry of a charge card number in four groups of four digits separated by spaces. You have to enter an unseparated block of sixteen digits. I meekly comply (what choice do I have?) but I want to lay the Curse of the Cat Poople on programmers who create such systems. If you don't want to wake up some morning and find that everything tastes like cat poop, riddle me this:

Why is this necessary?

In that never-to-be-sufficiently-despised language Pascal, you can take a string buffer and strip out any character not falling into a predefined set of characters using one (short) line of code. I'm pretty sure you can do the same thing in C. I'm not especially good at PHP, but I'm guessing (based on its array handling) that this would not be not a Ph.D.-level challenge.

What pushed me over the top and forced me into rant mode was having to enter a phone number the other day. You guessed it: They wanted ten digits, no separators. I couldn't enter 719-000-0000. Nossir. I had to enter 7190000000.

I'll tell you what isn't an excuse: "We have to limit entry to digits for security reasons." Uh-uh. This is the latest weasel-speak equivalent of "Do it for the children!" A space is an ASCII character. So is a 7. If you can allow ten digits but nothing else, you can allow ten digits plus the space character and nothing else. Or ten digits plus the space character and the dash character. In no system I'm familiar with are the space or dash characters used as escapes. If yours does, egad, you need a better system.

I'm listening.

May 11, 2007: Obesity and Genetics

Yesterday I ran across a nice article in the New York Times, which is an excerpt from Gina Kolata's new book, Rethinking Thin. I'd heard the odd reference to fifty-year-old research from Jules Hirsch, a physician at Rockefeller University, that strongly correlated (70 percent—strong!) obesity with genetic heritage. The article goes into some detail about that research (and much else) and is worth reading, and I may buy the book.

As I've said many times in this space, we know far less about the workings of the human body than we claim to, and the stronger the conventional wisdom about one health condition or another, the less the scientific process seems to hold any authority. Perhaps the strongest conventional wisdom about obesity is that it's all your fault, and if you would just stop being such a glutton or maybe walked around the block once in a while, you'd lose weight.

Like almost everything else in biology, it is hugely more complex than that. Let me recap what I've learned in my 54 years. (My long-time readers have read some of this before.)

Age matters—in some people more than others. The woman who picked up my responsibilities when I left Xerox in 1985 told me that when she was 41 or 42, she "blew up like a balloon." (Her own words.) She didn't change her diet at all, but in the space of a couple of years, she put on over fifty pounds. Nothing bad happened in that time; she didn't get divorced, or lose her job, or a parent, or any other loved one. She was a sweet person who lived simply and sanely, but as she entered middle age she just gained weight quickly and irreversibly. I had lunch with her many times in our last year as co-workers, and she ate almost nothing compared to what I ate.

Diet matters—in some people more than others. I gained twelve pounds very quickly after I got married, simply because I started eating regular meals. As a bachelor I lived on Golden Grahams cereal and not much else; eating alone was boring and I walked all day at work with a toolbag in one hand and a vacuum cleaner in the other. Once I began eating sane meals as Carol's spouse, I gained weight but felt better. I gained a little more weight (about fifteen pounds) in my mid-forties, but I'm pretty sure now that it had less to do with age than with my body's reaction to sugar, particularly the high-fructose corn syrup in all the iced tea and Mountain Dew that I was downing daily in the land of single-digit humidity. (I know, it was all the wrong stuff to drink. I don't make that mistake now.) Once I mostly eliminated sugar from my diet, I lost fifteen pounds in almost no time at all. I think the body handles sugar better when you're young, and a good deal of that may be a matter of insulin resistance. The first thing anyone should do in an attempt to lose weight is knock out sugar. It's not as hard as it sounds and I know numerous people whose reactions were like my own. On the other hand, I have friends who claim that sugar has no effect on their weight, and that what makes them gain weight is fat. I'm suspicious, but I'm also an empiricist. What works, works, and it's our job to do the science and figure out how and why.

Exercise matters, though in subtle ways and maybe less than we think. I didn't gain any weight at all when I went from a vigorous walking job to a desk job in 1977. I began walking regularly in my late thirties, not so much to lose weight but to dissipate job stress and feel better. I didn't lose weight when I began walking. When I get sick and stop walking, I don't gain weight. On the other hand, once I began a weekly weight-training regimen, I put on significant muscle mass. Muscle burns calories 24/7, and since I gained muscle, my weight has drifted downward. Most of the lost weight came out of my gut, which from a health standpoint is the worst place for men to have it.

So. Do genetics matter? Over the years, I've become increasingly convinced that they do, based on observations in my own family and circle of friends, and in articles I've read. I'm convinced that there is a "fat gene" and (more to the point) an inherited weight value that the body likes to maintain if it can. (For me, that value is about 155.) Fat people can get thin if they reduce themselves to a starvation diet (see the Times article referenced earlier) but as soon as they begin eating normally, the weight comes right back on. Further research I've recently found (courtesy Frank Glover) indicates that there is definitely a "fat gene" in mice, and chemicals have been discovered that seem to override the fat gene's regulation of mouse metabolism, which then burns calories more quickly.

Sugar—of which there are several different kinds—is a wild card. I don't think we completely understand how sugar affects human metabolism, and we desperately need more research. Sleep may also be a wild card; a Mayo Clinic seminar we attended once presented some research suggesting that sleep deprivation both raises your blood pressure and increases your weight. I intuit that the "freshman fifteen" effect may happen because college kids studdenly stop getting a full night's sleep. Ditto women with newborns who complain of not losing their pregnancy weight—getting only three good hours of sleep a night may be an issue. We certainly need more good science here.

The conclusion I come to is that weight is, at the bottom of it all, about metabolism. If we turn metabolism up, we lose weight. Genes appear to regulate the body's metabolism within certain bounds, and although we can tweak metabolism by tweaking diet, exercise, and muscle/fat ratios, metabolism dictates whether we are thin or fat, given enough food to not feel ravenous all the time.

But what we really need to do is stop assuming that we know more than we do—and we really really need to stop assuming that fat people are all lazy gluttons.

May 10, 2007: Seeing Red Ink

An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (page D1) shines a spotlight (again) on the perverse economics of the desktop computer printer business. HP and Kodak have both dropped the prices on their most popular ink cartridges, but WSJ points out that there is less ink in the cheaper cartridges, in some cases so much less ink that the per-page cost when using the "cheaper" cartridges is higher than the per-page cost using the more expensive cartridges.

"So what?" you might say. Buying smaller quantities in a single package almost always costs more, per unit, than buying more in a larger package. Unfortunately, the "package" here is the same physical size, and how much ink is in a cartridge is generally difficult for the consumer to discern.

Inkjet printers are peculiar economically. They are sold at below manufacturer cost, with the expectation that the manufacturer will make money only on sale of the ink. The ink, furthermore, is pretty damned expensive for what it is. I had a color inkjet printer and simply stopped using it after I found that local shops would print my Christmas letters in color cheaper than I could print them myself.

A thriving third-party market in new and refilled cartridges forced the change. HP, Kodak, and Canon are hoping that consumers will see one of their almost-empty $15 cartridges beside a competitor's $20 cartridge and think it's a better deal. Comparison shopping is easier when standard quantity labeling is there, which it isn't—and putting just a squirt of ink in the same physical package that can contain five times more is a needless waste of the cartridge materials themselves.

We need to start thinking about print costs in per-page terms, including both printer and ink. Laser printers are much better in this respect, especially if you get them used. (Deals like this are uncommon but they're out there—and the 2100 is in my view the best printer HP has ever made.) I've used the same LaserJet printers (a pair of 2100Ms) for eight or nine years now, and even using HP's own cartridges, my per-page cost is way cheaper than most of the inkjets I've priced out. Color is much less useful than I thought it would be, especially now that you can get cheap digital camera prints from Walgreens or Wal-Mart.

The best way to win the ink wars game is clearly not to play.

May 8, 2007: Odd Lots

  • The two puppies I showed in yesterday's entry are doing fine, and we're going to see them Thursday to see if their eyes have opened yet. (That'll happen Any Day Now; typically ten days after birth for bichons.) In the meantime, I posted the little video I took of them on YouTube. The strange raspy noise in the background (which drowns out Carol at times) is the damned digital camera constantly autoadjusting its focus.
  • Pete Albrecht shows how to do a sort of home-brew Vac-U-Form hack on a pfeffernüsse tub to make a Hartmann mask, which is a very slick optical trick for focusing touchy things like telescopes. And if you're too young to remember Mattel's 1965-ish Vac-U-Form, study up.
  • Jason Kaczor sent me a pointer to the Canadian Mint's new gold coin. Take some B-12 and get some weight-training, kids. This coin weighs 100 kg. Yes, that's kilo, and if that doesn't register, get yerself a metric converter. Hint: I don't weight that much myself. As for its face value, well, that's always dicey with modern gold strikings, but I don't recommend paying for an Egg McMuffin with it and expecting to get change.
  • Proof that language and culture can be at odds sometimes lies here. One wonders what the Dr. Brain people paid the Doody family for their endorsement (and one wonders what the Doody kids will pay—or perhaps have already paid—in school) of an offal meatball with an awful name.
  • Garth Books seems to be getting his way: In Florida (and soon in Rhode Island and Wisconsin) it's now illegal to sell used music CDs. Ok, it's not out-and-out illegality—which would conflict with the venerable Doctrine of First Sale—but it makes selling used CDs so onerous that nobody will bother. Oh, and a note to the music industry that doubtless bought this new law: People who can't easily buy music will steal it. People who know they can't resell the CDs they buy will buy fewer and steal more. Oh, wait, I forgot: It's not about making money. It's about being right.

May 7, 2007: Dog Show Recap

I haven't posted here in several days, mostly because driving back from Chicago and almost immediately heading up to Denver for a three-day dog show pretty much wore us out. Recall that the Chicago trip was mostly unexpected; we sold Carol's mom's house in ten days after expecting it to sit on the market until summer or longer. The dog show was on our calendar for over a year, and we had signed up to do various things there in conjunction with the local bichon frise club. We couldn't just not go, but working a dog show is a lot like working an SF con: intermittently intense, with unpredictable runs of exhausting labor. (Dog hair dryers are inexplicably heavy.) We spent most of this past weekend at home just trying to catch our breath.

This was Carol's first time presenting a dog in the show ring, and Aero's first time being shown. But for all his youth and squirminess, Aero got a fourth-place silver ribbon in the "Best Puppy Dog 6mo-12mo" category, and we're all very happy with his potential as a bichon champion. (The judge told Carol that "Aero is very cute, and just needs to grow up a little." I think that's what my mom used to say about me.)

We also did some volunteering with the national bichon frise rescue group, and placed three bichons with new owners after their original owner became too unwell to care for them. Carol washed, dried, brushed, and trimmed them, and I'm happy to say that they bonded well with their new owners and are off to the far points of the compass, or at least as far as Connecticut.

As tiring as the show was, there were some interesting moments. The people next to the table where Carol was grooming Aero were from Brazil, and I heard a lot of spoken Brazilian Portuguese. It's a cool language, enough like Spanish to sound vaguely familiar, but different enough in intonation to sound weirdly alien. Observing the constant freight traffic adjoining the RV lot showed me that the locos put out hugely more smoke when in reverse than when moving forward. I actually watched a pair of UP Diesel locos pull five or six cars forward a block or so, and then back them up onto a different spur in the freight yard after the yard guy threw a switch. It was the same load. Why more smoke in reverse? Pete? (Pete Albrecht is an expert in Diesel technology.)

We also saw and held two litters of literally 36-hour-old bichon puppies. I've never seen puppies of any breed that young before. They looked like white hamsters, and whereas their eyes were still closed, they had sharp little claws and were able to crawl around in our hands and gum the ends of our little fingers. I have a nice video of one litter that I will upload to YouTube and link to as soon as time and energy allow.

We hope not to be traveling anywhere for a little while. I have a lot to do here; being in Chicago for five weeks put me seriously behind on every single project in my Current Projects rack. Yes indeedy, much to do, and some interesting things to talk about in this space. Let me catch my breath, and I'll get on it.

May 2, 2007: Carol's First Dog Show

We're in Denver for a couple of days at 2007's Bichon Frise National Specialty Show, a competitive dog show where it's all bichons, all the time. We went to the National Specialty in Indianapolis two years ago to pick up QBit, skipped it for various reasons last year, and went this years because it was an hour's drive north—and because we now have a show dog.

QBit is gorgeous, but he has some subtle flaws that would make him show badly: He's too stocky and muscular, he "paces" when he walks, and his coat is (oddly enough) thicker and more luxurious than the breed standard setters generally like. (If you've ever tried to run a comb or a brush through a coat like that—ask Carol about it—you'll get an inkling of why the breed standard setters feel the way they do.) Aero, by contrast, is wispy and graceful, with the perfect bichon prance, and a maintainable coat. He's now nine months old and thus old enough to begin competing for championship points in AKC dog shows. Carol has been doing some appenticing with Colorado Springs bichon veteran Jimi Henton, and decided that if Aero was old enough to show, she would show him. Aero is, after all, a great-great grandson of the famous JR, the bichon who won Best In Show at the 2001 Westminster Dog Show. (Dog people will point out rightly that JR now probably has thousands of direct descendants—but it's fun linking Aero to bichon royalty, however distantly.)

We've been helping Jimi get her mobile grooming salon set up out in the parking lot, and Carol's been observing while Jimi washes and grooms other people's bichons. I've been walking QBit and Aero now and then but mostly kicking back, doing some reading, and gathering my thoughts on prospective SF stories. The show ring competition isn't until tomorrow, and today is the day when all the competitors get their hair done.

The hotel is problematic, but it's just like the hotel in Indianapolis where the show was held in 2005: Late Seventies and seriously in need of rehab. Not every hotel wants dog shows, but I guess the owners figure that there's not much that a bunch of 12-pound furballs can do to the place that wasn't already done. One interesting quirk is that the overflow parking lot, where the hotel has put all the RVs (dog show people often travel show-to-show in RVs) is about 35 feet from a small Union Pacific freight yard. Small, but active: This morning I was seeing locos in UP livery pulling small consists of six or eight cars about every fifteen minutes, honking their horns and ringing their bells as they crossed Quebec Street. One had to wonder if anybody other than the dogs got any sleep over there.

I hung out with the RVers for awhile just to do a little trainwatching, and while QBit was stalking around a patch of scrubby grass looking for Just The Right Spot, I watched a guy couple empty freight cars...using a teeny Bobcat front-loader! He ran the little thing up to the rear of an empty hopper car, raised the scoop about chest high, and shoved against the underframe of the hopper. The Bobcat had enough power to get the hopper rolling, and after rolling for fifty or sxty feet met couplers with another hopper with a boom that shook the ground. He got two or three more empty hoppers into the consist using the Bobcat, and the consist was hauled out of the yard earlier this afternoon. So switcher engines, like cabeese, are probably an endangered species.

Not much else to report. Carl is down with Jimi washing and trimming Aero for the show ring. I'm trying to decide whether I can afford to enter NaNoWriMo this November. I have the perfect concept, which has been tucked in the corner of my mind for several years. It's in the cyberbilly subsubgenre (which I invented as counterpoise to cyberpunk) and called Volare, which is Italian for "to fly." Have nothing but the concept so far, and the big question is whether I can limit a novel to 50,000 words. (The Cunning Blood was 140,000 words.) The concept is suitable for a juvenile (no sex and little significant violence) and that's how I'd like it to play out if possible. Think Tom Swift in the 4H Club. I write fast when I'm on fire—the big question, as always, is how to light the fire. Check with me this November and we'll see what happens.