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November 30, 2008: A Conjunction, If You Can See It

Carol rode a Canadair regional jet home yesterday, and I am mysteriously a much happier man. (We have not been apart for this long in one chunk since she was in grad school in Minnesota in 1976.) I have not in consequence been much inclined to write on Contra today, but I must mention something that will be worth looking for: A three-way conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and the crescent Moon that will be potentially visible today and especially tomorrow. See it if you can, in the west just after sunset. Spaceweather has some details. I would have looked tonight but it's sleeting here in Colorado Springs, and I got word from Gretchen that there is considerable sympathy sleet in Chicago this evening as well. But if it's clear where you are tonight or tomorrow (or the day after, for that matter) don't miss it.

November 28, 2008: Odd Lots

  • A couple of people wrote to ask for a photo of Jackie, the gawky, lovable 26-pound bichon I visited yesterday. See above, at the right end of the group. (Compare the size of Jackie's head to that of 10-pound Aero standing next to him.) Jackie is also the only bichon I have ever seen who routinely hangs his tongue out of his mouth.
  • I have wondered, at times, why today should be called "Black Friday." Now I know. Egad. (Remind me to stay the hell out of Nassau County.) Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.
  • This is an important article if you now have or expect to develop hypertension. Solid studies appear to indicate that nothing works quite as well as ancient, dirt-cheap diurectics.
  • I happen to believe that if we do not convert essentially all our coal-fired power plants to nuclear (with solar and wind to fill in the gaps) nothing else we do matters at all in preventing climate change. Small nuclear reactors are one solution to a lot of the rational objections to nuclear energy and here's the best intro I've seen to the topic.
  • I like this discussion of the possibility of re-creating the woolly mammoth from DNA scavenged from long-frozen mammoth hair. (I did not know that there was viable DNA in hair.) If Russia did the heavy lifting here and established a Pleistocene Park in Siberia, they could reap billions in ecotourism dollars. First mammoths, then mastodons, then glyptodonts, then...dare we hope...giant beaver?
  • And how would the ethics sort out if we tried reassembling the DNA of a Neanderthal and using a chimpanzee or bonobo as a host species rather than a human? Saletan's good and I read him religiously, but this is a subject he could have gone much deeper on.
  • While we're dithering about re-creating the woolly mammoth or Neanderthal humans, those crafty Brits have re-created a full-size and completely accurate replica of a long-extinct steam locomotive, of which no significant parts (not even hair) had survived. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the links.)
  • Pete Albrecht pointed out that NewEgg is now selling 1TB hard drives for under $100. Is there any common use of that much storage other than movie rips?
  • Also from Pete is a pointer to Palmer Bolt, a source he recently discovered for odd size nuts, bolts, and other small hardware.
  • I sorted my sock drawer today. I really did. I am not being funny or in any way metaphorical. It's just that it's almost Christmas (when New Socks Happen) and my habit of throwing away individual socks with holes in them had made matched pairs a little scarce.

November 27, 2008: For This Beautiful and Extravagant Creation

Thanksgiving Day. Giving thanks is a special case of living mindfully, which is always a good idea, whether or not there's an open manhole a few steps ahead. The older I get, the more mindfully (and thankfully) I try to live, not only because I've discovered so many fascinating things to be mindul of (and thankful for) but also because I don't have an unlimited number of years yet to be mindful.

It is a very good time to be mindful. When I was young I knew what a "water bear" was from crude little drawings in a library book, but now I can see them with electron-microscopic clarity, and understand that surviving from the Cambrian era, well, damn, that can't have been easy. (It's easier to grasp a billion years when you're fifty-six than when you're seven.) And I always thought that barred spiral galaxies were the coolest kinds, but it wasn't until the past few years that the Hubble Space Telescope could show them in a glory that still makes me gasp. There may be better times to live in the future (and I have strong faith that there will be) but there have never been better ones in the past.

This year's Thanksgiving Day is a little more poignant than most. Carol and I have been apart for a month now, and there's nothing to make you feel thankful for something like losing it, even for a little while. (She'll be coming home soon, soon enough that I've begun washing towels, rugs, and the big comforter on our bed. Living with multiple dogs is a grubby business.) And, as I've related privately to some of my online friends, this has been a weirdly grim six weeks in and around my inner circle. The number of deaths, major surgeries, and life-threatening diagnoses among people I care about spiked a couple of weeks ago, and it wasn't just deaths among the old, but among young people in their 30s and 40s with small children at home. Tragedy clusters sometimes. Be thankful in the calm between storms.

I am. For Carol, of course, more than anything else on Earth. For small things (like water bears, galvanized iron pipe fittings and Compactron tubes) and big things (barred spiral galaxies, comets, icebergs) and things distant in time more than space. (Origen, Lady Julian of Norwich, Roger Bacon, the Colossus of Rhodes, glyptodonts.) I am very thankful for my parents, who suffered too much and died too young but never failed me in any way even if they imperfectly understood me, and for people like Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Louie, who seemed to like me more than I sometimes deserved. I am very thankful for my sister Gretchen, she of wry humor and skilled hands, and my cousin Rose, who walked between the railroad tracks with me because that was just how life worked in 1957. I am thankful that my brother-in-law Bill happened to Gretchen when she most needed him, and for the girls they have brought into the world (better late than never!) who are growing up fast and may well live into the 22nd century. I'm thankful for Carol's sister, her mom (and her dad, whom we all miss keenly) and our nephews Matt and Brian, both now men in their own right. Close family ends there, but moving outward the lotus opens up quickly, with cousins and friends and mentors and other people who have changed my life without intending to nor fully grasping the impact of their kindness and counsel.

I have a private prayer that I say every night, in my last moments of mindfulness before turning out the light, telling Carol that I love her most of all, and stilling the racket in the back of my head:

Lord God, I thank you for letting me live in this time, in this place, in these circumstances, among these good people, and within this beautiful and extravagant creation!

For so it is, and so I do.

In case anyone is wondering, I won't be by myself all day. I'll be having dinner with some folks from the local Bichon Frise club, people who truly have bichons like some people have mice. I'll be able to wrestle with a huge bichon named Jackie Gleason (all 26 pounds of him!) and perhaps get a look at our host's Mog collection. I'm counting the days until Carol comes home, but in the meantime, I'm mindful of the fact that life could be a whole lot worse!

November 26, 2008: Odd Lots

November 24, 2008: Coming -Clean About Eclipse

I got the NASM plug-in installed into Eclipse yesterday, after a tip from Bishop Sam'l Bassett of the Old Catholic Church, who had spotted a forum comment that I hadn't. (The real skill in using the Internet is crafting your search terms.) Eclipse has a plug-in cache, and sometimes you have to empty the cache to get it to refresh its list of plug-ins. I intuit that this function is usually served by exiting and restarting Eclipse, but in my case that wasn't enough.

I got the cache cleared by rebooting the system, and suddenly, there was the plug-in. The forum comment in question also mentioned that you can start Eclipse with the -clean command-line parameter, and Eclipse will start "clean" with an empty plug-in cache. I didn't have to do this, but it's worth knowing.

Otherwise, I had done all the right things. Eclipse doesn't really "install" plug-ins in the sense that we install things in Windows. Unzipping a plug-in archive under the Eclipse plugins directory is all that installation requires, assuming that the archive contains all of a plug-in's necessary elements.

There's still work to be done in configuring Eclipse to develop with NASM (setting paths for the assembler and gcc, and a bunch of other things) but that's straightforward and should be done long since by tonight. I'm going up to SoftPro Books in Denver tomorrow with Jim Strickland, and we'll see what they might have that could be useful getting up to speed with Eclipse. A quick scan of pertinent titles on Amazon indicates that most books are about developing Java apps with Eclipse, but some discussion of the IDE in general terms would be very useful about now.

I have a gripe about Ubuntu that I might as well air at this point. The folders in which you unpack Eclipse plug-ins are owned by root, and unless you're running as root you can't unpack files into those folders. Fair enough. I had hoped that Ubuntu and Gnome would have evolved sufficiently since I last did this sort of thing to just pop up a sudo dialog when the user (and we're all users on this bus; Ubuntu does not really have a root account in the strict sense of the word) attempts to do something that violates permissions. But no; it throws up a fairly useless message and glares at you. To get the job done you have to bring up a terminal or the graphical command line dialog and run "gksudo nautilus" to run Nautilus as root. Installer systems like apt-get don't throw tantrums like that on you; when they need permission to install files in folders owned by root they just ask for your password. Nautilus needs to do that.

After all, I'm the Visual Developer Magazine guy, and I have a fetish: Command lines should never be compulsory. Never. It's 2008. We're supposedly all OS grown-ups now. Fundamental things like file management should be 100% point-and-click.

November 22, 2008: Going Into Eclipse

As I mentioned yesterday, my publisher wants me to revise Assembly Language Step By Step over the coming year, for release in early 2010. I had assumed for some time that they considered the book a dead issue, though judging by my royalty statements, it continues to sell. And that's a clue: When the market is bad, publishers get nervous about striking out in entirely new directions with new series and lots of new titles. A handful of books are what they call "evergreens," because they sell all year, every year, for years and years and years. I think that a lot of evergreen titles are going to be freshened up and reissued in the next few years. The publisher considers my book an evergreen (it was first published, after all, in 1989, and has sold steadily ever since) and the acquisitions editor had done her homework. She wanted DOS to go. She wanted to ditch the CD bound into the book. She wanted more Linux coverage. And if possible, she wanted me to use Ubuntu as the flavor of Linux cited in the book.

I'm cool with all that. I had decided years ago that DOS would be missing from any future editions. I had assumed that I would include coverage of 32-bit Windows console apps, but I'm not welded to that notion, nor to any particular Linux distro. The book is not about Windows, nor about Linux. It needs an OS over which to run the example programs, but which OS is mostly immaterial, so long as it supports the Intel 32-bit flat model. The book is a "front door" introduction to what computers actually are, and how Intel-based machines function under the hood. It's about that waydeepdown place where the software meets the hardware. It is not about how to make API calls nor how to coordinate all the folderol that happens inside large-scale apps.

A lot of people misunderstand the book, and I get gripes all the time about how it "doesn't go far enough" and "doesn't teach the principles of software development." That's not what it's for, and I don't have the page budget to write enough book to satisfy all my gripers. The format has worked across twenty years and three editions, and I'm sticking with it.

There's still a lot of work to do. Much of the coverage depends on DOS, DOS calls through INT21, and BIOS calls through INT13. All that has to go. I need to explain how the software interrupt mechanism itself works, and for that I'm going to defy the Unix Gods and explain how to use the Linux INT80 call gate. This is heresy, but the mantra that "INT80 calling conventions can change at any time" isn't sufficient reason to keep the secret. I've asked several people to show me an example—even a single example!—of when a Linux INT80 kernel call changed, but so far I've seen nothing. And even if some of the more arcane kernel calls are still evolving, I doubt that the very simple calls have changed at all in many years. Proper warning will be given, but I don't bow before that particular altar anymore.

Alas, if DOS goes, Rob Anderton's excellent NASMIDE programming environment has to go as well, and something else will need to be found to help people load, assemble, link, and run the examples. I've got John E. Davis' text-mode JED editor installed, and in a pinch it will do, but the holy grail for me would be running NASM under Eclipse. Eclipse is a sort of Erector set (ok, a Lego set) for creating platform-independent IDEs in Java. Almost everything beyond the very basics is a plug-in. You can get plug-ins for most modern languages and toolsets, and Eclipse can run anywhere that Java runs. (Of course, your tools must either be in Java or available on the host hardware.) Eclipse itself and nearly all available plug-ins are free and open-source. I've already got it running here on both XP and Ubuntu. All I need is a NASM-oriented assembly language plug-in.

The infuriating thing is that such a plug-in exists, but it comes with no installation documentation, and it does not install the way all other Eclipse plug-ins I've seen install. Eclipse has a clever system in which plug-ins are posted on the Web using a standard format, so that the Eclipse environment can fetch them down and install them automatically, given a URL. I've downloaded the plug-in file and have tried just about everything to get Eclipse to suck it in or even see it. So far, no luck. If you've ever gotten it to install and work, boy, I'd sure love to learn the secret.

I have to scope out some new example programs, write them, and then describe them, and make sure that DOS and segmented Real Mode retreat into a few pages of historical context. It's months of work, even if it becomes my major project (which it will) and knocks most of my lesser projects back into the closet (which it might.) I'm slurping at the firehose right now regarding Eclipse, and have a couple of books on order. It's going to be a long climb, but I've made such climbs before, and they're always good mental exercise. It'll give this book (which I considered a throwaway back in 1989!) another eight or ten years of life. The publisher has always treated me well, and the book paid off my mortgage. What's not to love?

November 21, 2008: Odd Lots

  • My editor at John Wiley called and indicated that they want me (finally!) to rewrite Assembly Language Step By Step for a new edition in the spring of 2010. This will be a big job, since DOS will be jettisoned completely (and real mode relegated to a hisorical footnote) and a huge chunk of the book will have to be rewritten almost from scratch. More on this in coming days.
  • OEM Parts in Colorado Springs (our local surplus house) is moving to a new and larger building about 2 miles north of their current location on Palmer Park. I was there with Mike Sargent the other day and discovered that everthing was half price. Got a bunch of Compactron tubes, some NOS Miller coils, a dozen or so high-ohmage 1-W carbon resistors, and a roll of emery cloth for $22. The new address is 3029 N. Hancock. They weren't entirely sure when they new location would open. Phone first: 719-635-0771.
  • PC Magazine is going "all digital." That means they're dropping the print edition. The last printed issue will January 2009. I remember when that damned thing was an inch and a half thick. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • A wine to avoid: Schmitt-Sohne Relax Cool Red, which is a dornfelder so bad I drank one glass and dumped the rest. No wine has gotten that treatment since Three Thieves Zinfandel, and before that, Bully Hill's Sweet Walter, which still holds the prize as the worst single wine I have ever tried.
  • Mars is evidently not as dry as we thought: Glacier-sized water-ice glaciers (and not snowdrift-sized glaciers) have been reliably detected by way of the SHARAD radar system on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter. Some of this stuff is half a mile thick, and you can do interesting things with such quantities of volatiles, water most of all. I recall an entry in my SF story ideas file from many years ago: Somebody has begun terraforming Mars—but nobody knows who.
  • While we're talking Mars, Pete Albrecht alerted me to the impending release of Christmas on Mars, a new film billed as "avant-garde SF," which in my experience generally means "filmed in somebody's basement." The major character is Major Syrtis. Nyuk-nyuk.
  • And while we're talking space, it's worth noting that the average American thinks that NASA gets 25% of the $2.7T federal budget. (!!!!) The truth is 0.58%.

November 17, 2008: Review: Hellboy II

Not much would make me want to be 12 again. Halloween 1964 was great good fun (and on a Saturday!) but soon afterward, life started to get mighty weird. Ordinary girls who lived in ordinary houses and had ordinary names (like Terry, Laura, and Kathy—not a Samantha in the bunch!) became mysterious, mythic creatures who in defiance of my own will drew my fascination away from the trappings of a comfortable grade-school life, like flying kites, raiding the neighbors' garbage on Wednesdays for broken radios and TVs, movies.

Monster movies were a big part of late grade-school culture in 1964. Cheesewad classics like The Crawling Eye and Curse of the Demon had scared the crap out of me when I was in third grade, but by the time I was 12 the experience was drifting in a new direction. The monsters were becoming less scary than ridiculous. And...we laughed. I think that boys discover bravery by laughing at the things that used to frighten them. (Some of us laughed at girls; most of us eventually called a truce and married them.)

Being home alone for the nonce (and it's getting to be a lot of nonce, sigh) I rented a monster movie a few nights back and sat down to find the 12-year-old in myself, if there's any of him left. The movie is Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and boy, if all monster movies were like that, I might be willing to go through puberty again. (Wait. No, strike that. Forget it. Never. Sheesh.)

I tepidly enjoyed my first viewing of the original 2004 Hellboy, and my admiration has grown after seeing it a few more times. In 2004 I didn't recognize it for what it was: A '60s monster movie with much better monsters—plus a monster we could identify with. Sympathetic monsters as a concept are not new. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) pitted the anthropoid against the sauropod, and expected us to root for our nearer cousin. (This did not stop some of us from identifying with Godzilla.) Hellboy II, however, perfects this approach by completely understanding its audience and giving them absolutely everything they could want.

Hellboy's high concept is that of a toddler demon accidentally dragged into our dimension by a group of occultist Nazis in 1944. Hellboy, known to his buds as "Red," is a poster child for the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. Although nominally a son of Satan, he is raised with high standards in a secret military base by kindly Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and keeps his horns ground down to stubs so they don't skewer anybody accidentally. Sixty years later, Hellboy has a job for a paranormal Men-In-Black-ish agency, hunting evil occult-ish thingies with a revolver as big around as my thigh. As the 2008 film opens, Hellboy has an annoying new boss—a pompous German ghost who lives in a deep-sea diving suit—and the same hot girlfriend, the incendiary Liz (Selma Blair) who becomes a Johnny Storm-ish human torch whenever she gets annoyed. Hellboy annoys her at times, but he's a hell boy, after all, and fire does nothing to him. The intellectual and C3PO-ish gill-man Abe Sapiens returns, carrying around Ghostbusters-ish paranormal thingie detectors and sounding befuddled.

The plot is conventional action-film fare: An evil albino kung-fu-ish elf named Prince Nuada wants all three parts of an ancient gold crown that would give him control over an army of 4,900 Tik-Tok-ish clockwork warriors, and mayhem ensues. I think most of us are a little tired of deranged albinos, I'm guessing real albinos most of all. It was purely gratuitous albinism, after all; Nuada could have been purple for all the difference it would have made. We 12-year-olds don't care what color the monsters are. We just want to see their asses kicked, and imagine ourselves doing the kicking.

And that's where Hellboy II excels: It knows what 12-year-old boys want, and ladles it on with a trowel. Guillermo Del Toro created the single most marvelous collection of monsters in film history, and has them all wandering around in the hollow portions of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Troll Market is nothing but monsters, and our good-guy freakos Hellboy and Abe don't get a second look there, as they search for Nuada, belch, have repartee, get in fights, and generally wreck things. The humor is gross but nonsexual, the violence comic book-ish and not especially bloody, and through it all is an un-subtle invitation to 12-year-old boys to take it all in and...laugh.

The real secret is that Hellboy himself is a boy—just like us. He wants attention (he gets in trouble by posing for photos and signing autographs) and resents the constant implication that he's freaky and unattractive. His life is a sort of prepubescent nirvana: He's snotty and rude but heroic, as boys always like to imagine themselves. He's got the biggest damned handgun I've ever seen. And he gets paid to make a mess.

The film has some weak spots where it goes too far toward the comic: Hellboy and Abe drink too much beer at one point and start singing "I Can't Smile Without You" with Barry Manilow on the CD player. That aside, it's a wonderfully effective montage of chases and fight scenes, with a weird Celtic steampunk-ish setting for the climactic battle against the Golden Army. It's certainly derivative; in fact, it borrows from everything in sight, and may in fact be the most ish-ish film I've ever seen. But that didn't keep it from being a great deal of fun. After it was done, I could only think: Well, I've taken of the monsters. Now I just have to figure out girls.

Wait! Mission accomplished. The nice part about being 12 is that you're not 13 yet. And the really great part about being 56 is that you've already been 13.

Highly recommended.

November 12, 2008: Odd Lots

  • The pseudobachelor life does not become me, but I'm working on it. So far, the heuristics seem to be: Stay in touch (our cell phones are being given a workout), stay busy, and socialize whenever possible. I've also found that I must get out of the house at least once a day or I get bitterly depressed. Today, at least, I had a mission: I FedXed Carol some papers and things that she needed, and grabbed lunch at the Black Bear while I was in the area. On the way past the Shell station (hardly the low-price leader hereabouts) I noticed that regular was down to $1.99.9. I do not remember the last time I saw gas break $2.00.
  • I didn't read Slate for at least a month prior to the election, because by a month prior to the election I had already heard quite enough about the election without going to Slate. Alas, Slate still isn't over the election, but here's a very good article on why we are always so angry. The author seems to see unchallengeable genetic predispositions, but I see spoilt brats: People who give rein to their anger are immature, undisciplined dorks. (Read the blogosphere for abundant examples.)
  • And the severely liberal Slate has finally copped to something I learned 25 years ago in Rochester, New York: In tony urban neighborhoods where then-stylish wood stoves burned through the winter, you couldn't hardly breathe. Wood is not clean heat. Wood is filthy, borderline toxic, dangerous-to-your-children heat that does not belong in urban settings, or anywhere with more than one house to five acres. (I cop to having had a wood stove on a third-acre lot in Rochester. I was part of the problem. I apologize, and I won't make that mistake again.)
  • This seems too good to be true—or at least permanently true—but it seems like a US court has thrown out most business-practice patents. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Well, Manischewitz Egg & Onion Matzos are back at the local King Soopers markets. I brought home two boxes yesterday evening, and could barely get in the door before ripping one box open, slobbering a whole cracker up with butter, and stuffing it back with hazardous haste. (Had Mike Sargent not tipped me off, I doubt I would even have looked.)
  • It's not just simple utilities like MozBackup. (See my entry for November 8, 2008.) AVG Antivirus triggered an alert on an essential Windows file, user32.dll, claiming it was infected with a trojan called Generic9.TBN, and recommended that users delete the file. Urrp. ClamWin is looking better all the time.
  • I rented The Golden Compass at Blockbuster the other night, and I will say this: It sports the coolest steampunk backgrounds and retromechanicomagical gadgetry of any film I have ever seen, and if you're a steampunk freak, don't miss it. However, having seen it, I know precisely why it was a fantastically expensive flop: It was utterly cold, and not because much of the action took place in the perpetual arctic dusk of Svalbard. I mean it in the sense that I detected little humanity in the characters, with the single exception of the broadly-drawn Texas aeronaut, Lee Scoresby. (The anti-Catholicism of the books was so muted that the Magisterium might as well have been a crew of Sith lords in baroque attire.) When the film was over, I was awed, but depressed. That's the job of an art movie, not a big-budget, kid-oriented, special-effects blockbuster. I doubt that the remaining two volumes in the trilogy will ever be filmed.

November 9, 2008: Crossover Linux

Crossover Linux has been on my list for a long time, and I might not yet have bought it except for a peculiarly ascerbic but brilliant promotion that the notoriously eccentric company did prior to the recent election. I downloaded the 25 MB shell script installer, got the serial number by registering at their site, and finally last night I brought up Intrepid Ibex and and gave it a shot.

I boggle. This is Unix? No, this is not Unix, and it's not Kansas either. I had the shell script on a thumb drive. I inserted the thumb drive, waited for Ubuntu to toss up a window with the script file visible, then right-clicked on the script and selected "Run in Terminal." It ran. It unpacked itself, installed, integrated itself with the menus, and then brought up the installation wizard to install Windows apps. That's when the real amazement began.

Crossover Linux is a commercial implemention of WINE, and both Crossover and WINE are Windows API emulation wrappers within which software written specifically for Windows will run unaltered as though it were native. It sounds like a virtual machine mechanism but it's not. It's a clean-room implementation of the Win32 API set as defined in ECMA-234, plus other odds and ends that Windows apps need to run. Codeweavers has written a lot of the emulation code itself, and it sells the package (for $40—hardly a fortune) but it also contributes heavily to the free WINE project, and the consensus among everybody but a few grouches is that we all win.

What Codeweavers does is important: They single out a selection of the most-wanted Windows apps, and they work specifically on their implementation to fully support those apps. They offer tech support to registered customers for those apps they list as "supported." (These include Microsoft Office and numerous other Microsoft apps, Adobe Photoshop, Acrobat 5, Indesign CS2, Lotus Notes, Quicken, Framemaker, and some odds and ends that I'm not familiar with.) Other Windows apps may be installed under Crossover (and WINE) but they are not guaranteed to work.

I didn't have a lot of time last night to spend on it, but I'll summarize what I did. I first wanted to see what Crossover could do at its best. So I began by installing Microsoft Office 2000, figuring that that was probably the most-requested and intensely debugged of all the supported Crossover apps. And it was a boggler: The installation Wizard spun the Office CD, then lurked in the background while the MS installer did its thing, popping up only occasionally to ask me for guidance, such as what bottle the software should go in. (More on that shortly.) Eventually it sticks an icon on the desktop and calls the job done.

It was uncanny. Office works perfectly under Crossover, and I spent half an hour loading various documents and trying various things, with nary a glitch or a hesitation. Wow. Just wow. I then went for a tougher supported install: Visio 2000. Visio does all kinds of weird stuff and reboots Windows twice during the install, but zoom! It cooked along, and twice I noticed a small Crossover window in the corner of the screen informing me that it was emulating a Windows reboot. Heh. But once all the kafeuthering was over, Visio had an icon on the Ubuntu desktop, and I was drawing a regenerative receiver with my jaw hanging open. Double wow.

Office and Visio going in without a glitch made a believer out of me. So I then went for the wild side, and selected an unsupported app: The SureThing CD Labeler 4 , which is a fine and venerable utility that I've been using under Windows for seven or eight years now. The app is listed as "untested" in the Codeweavers database, so it was the perfect choice. And it went it just fine, though I put it in its own bottle, as Crossover recommends. Alas, although it runs, when you create a new label file and click the Finish button in the create wizard, the entire app just goes poof and vanishes. So not everything works, even relatively simple apps that have been around for awhile. Emulating the Windows morass is not a simple nor easy thing to do.

Now, bottles. A "bottle" in WINE/Crossover talk is an independent set of configurable Windows parameters upon which one or more Windows apps draw when installed under Crossover. It allows an unruly app to have carnal knowledge of Windows internals without messing up other installed apps. You can install multiple apps in the same bottle, but when you install an unsupported and untested app, it's best to give it its own playground and put a high fence around it.

I'n not done testing Crossover by any means. Next up is Indesign 2, which is not a supported app but gets an "honorable mention," which probably means it shows up when called and after that, we'll see. Family Tree Maker is another Honorable Mention, and QuickView Plus (which I use to open ancient word processing files like Wordstar and WordPerfect) isn't even listed. I'll let you know how it goes.

However, I was poleaxed by how well Office and Visio worked, given that Microsoft isn't well-known for respecting its own APIs. You can give up Windows and not give up Office, and as time goes on and the Crossover and WINE gang sort the glitches out, you will have to give up less and less. Highly recommended.

November 8, 2008: Malware from SourceForge?

I've been chasing something very odd here recently. For about a year nowI have used a FOSS utility called MozBackup to both archive and move my 1.7 GB mailbase around. It has always worked beautifully, but when I used it to restore my mailbase onto my new quad-core machine last week, the mailbase did not come back intact. I was getting weird error messages about the inbox not truncating when messages were moved into the junk folder, etc. which made me wonder what was going on.

Ok. This is a quad-core machine running XP SP3. I deliberately set it up so that AVG 8 runs during the day and not at 2 ayem, because I want to observe what effect multiple tasks in multiple cores has on overall system response. So every day at 1 PM, AVG 8 runs a full scan. It ran a full scan on all drives yesterday, and came up with nothing except warnings about a couple of revenant tracking cookies.

Late yesterday afternoon, I copied the current MozBackup installer file from my installers archive on D: to my "installed installers" folder (where I put installers for software installed on the machine) on C:. Instantly, AVG 8 set up a howl that it had found a trojan in MozBackup-1.4.8-EN.exe, the installer for the instance of MozBackup that I have had installed on the quad-core since June. The trojan was called Generic12.HTC.

That's odd in itself: On all the bazillion-squared pages that Google indexes, there was not a single mention of "Generic12.HTC" yesterday . Nor is there any entry by that name in AVG's virus encyclopedia. This morning, however, I suddenly see five or six mentions indexed during the night. It looks like a false positive, but I'm still a little nervous.

As a test, I went back to SourceForge and downloaded another copy of the file. As soon as it was complete in a temp folder, wham! AVG's "resident shield" utility called it out as Generic12.HTC. Now, I'm not used to thinking that SourceForge downloads can be malware sources, though there's no reason that it's impossible. However, the MozBackup-1.4.8-EN.exe file has been on my hard drive since June, and has passed muster every afternoon that the machine has been powered up. The file's time stamp has not changed. I can only assume that during yesterday's daily update, AVG brought down a signature that matched something inside the file—and that would be a mighty freaky coincidence if true.

The other freaky thing is that after I deleted MozBackup 1.4.8 and installed the previous version 1.4.7 (which is in use on three of my other machines, including my X41 tablet) the mailbase restore worked perfectly. So are there two problems here or one?

The handul of reports surfacing this morning seem to indicate that it's a false positive, which would make sense, given that it's been on this system since June without AVG making noise. So maybe I don't need to warn you against the 1.4.8 version. However, it does look like 1.4.8 doesn't necessarily import an archive created with 1.4.7. Yes, a coincidence, and a weird one.

November 7, 2008: Odd Lots

  • I got drilled and post-ed yesterday and am mostly over it. The weirdest part of the whole procedure was listening to Dr. Salcetti cranking the implant post down into my jawbone with a small tool that sounded like—and in fact actually is—a miniature ratchet driver. (We will not speak of the earlier sound, of her drill going into bone, both sounding and feeling like a drill press working its way into something gummy.)
  • For the first time I managed a major-release upgrade of Ubuntu without any fussing. Going from 8.04 to 8.10 took about half an hour, but it went absolutely without incident. (In the past I've had to restart the upgrade after it froze, and once I just gave up and did a clean install after reformatting the partition.) I don't see a lot of differences in Intrepid Ibex beyond the wallpaper, which initially puzzled me. It looks like a soda glass ring on somebody's dirty leather couch arm, but after staring at it for a moment I saw the ibex. Sorry; I liked the heron better—and I tremble to think what the wallpaper will be for v9.04 Jaunty Jackalope next spring.
  • Well, alas, Kubuntu didn't fare as well—the upgrade crashed somewhere partway through, and the instance (which is still shown as v8.04 in grub) will not boot. At some point I will reformat the partition and reinstall from the ISO. KDE 4 is an acquired taste, but I've watched it evolve for many years and won't stop now.
  • November 2008 is the 25th anniversary of the release of Turbo Pascal 1.0. David I will be printing selected "How I discovered Turbo Pascal" stories in his blog, and although mine is well-nigh legendary (I practically had to be beaten over the head to try it) I will be writing it up and sending it to him shortly. Damn little in tech has ever affected me more than that!
  • Bob Ballantine W8SU sent me a scan of John T. Frye's 1985 obituary the other day, and it was severely disturbing: Frye died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Maybe it could have been an accident, but somehow I doubt it. Too many lonely writers (Piper, Disch, and others) have died by their own hands. He is buried with his parents at Mount Hope Cemetery in Logansport. Scroll down or search for Frye in the plot listings.
  • Finally, Pete Albrecht reports that the New York Daily News spoke of an election day get-out-the-vote promo in which Krispy Kreme handed out "donut-shaped stars." (See the figure caption.) I've seen these in SF (recall that long-forgotten turkey, Nova by Samuel Delaney) but never in a donut shop. Maybe Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker works there. Talk about fresh from a hot oven!

November 5, 2008: It's All for the Best

There's an odd human tendency to expect the worst in the absense of sufficient data. One of my readers wrote to me in a panic regarding my sadness of yesterday, saying: "Tell me you're not separating from Carol!"

People, get a grip. Carol's mom had a medical emergency and Carol is in Chicago looking after her. Our relationship has never been stronger. Carol's mom means a lot to me. I was still getting over the last vestiges of a very bad cold. I'm having my jawbone drilled for a dental implant tomorrow morning at 8 ayem sharp. My dinner exploded. You'd probably be a little down too.

As for dinner: I was being a bachelor, and I emptied a can of Bumble Bee canned salmon into a Corelle bowl to heat it up. I grill fresh salmon a lot, and I have reheated the leftovers in the microwave many times. Alas, canned salmon is packed in brine. Brine is a good conductor, and brine and microwaves have fun together. As best I can tell, a brine pocket somewhere inside that pinkish lump boiled and blew off the microwave lid and itself out of the bowl and all over the inside of the oven. I salvaged enough for dinner and for today's lunch, but that left me wiping out the oven for most of half an hour last night. I'm annoyed because it was a science experiment, and I'm supposed to understand a thing or two about microwaves physics.

And my dogs. Well. QBit and Aero were playing tag all over the upper level right before dinner. They chase one another around at flank speed, leaning into the turns, yapping and growling and evidently having a fine time. I had gone to the powder room down the hall to get rid of some well-used diet root beer, and while the process was underway, the two of them barrelled unexpectedly into the room. QBit ran behind me and dove under the toilet tank. Aero, in hot pursuit, hopped up on his hind legs and put his front legs on the rim of the bowl. I half expected him to attempt a leap over the bowl on top of QBit, and tried to dodge. The rest I leave to your imagination. And now, whether I'm home alone or not, I close the door.

As for the election, I don't have much to say. It turned out almost exactly as I had expected, and I don't see any serious damage. Hey, we survived Bill Clinton. We survived GW Bush. Hell, we survived Herbert Hoover and Woodrow Wilson, compared to whom even GW is Gabriel the Archangel. We will survive Obama, to whom I wish all the best, and to whom (if they existed) I would send a case of Tut-B-Gone mummy foggers to deal with the lobbyists now lining up outside his door. Our problem is not now and will not be Obama. The problem is the parasites that gather about high office.

As for my Outrageous Proposition (see my entry for October 30, 2008) I think it went pretty well. Thanks to all who followed the rules and shared their thoughts, and I apologize for not participating more vigorously myself. Headcolds don't schedule their appearances in advance, and this one really took it out of me. But I encourage everybody to go back and read the comments. Aren't those better than raging rants? Isn't life just, well, better without anger?

I will be drugged tomorrow and may not post. After that, the cone of silence once more descends over politics. Like canned salmon, a little goes a long way. (Especially when you heat it up too much!)

November 4, 2008: ...If You Can Keep It

Ben Franklin's grim congratulation is ringing in my head tonight, and even though the whole election thing will (with some luck) soon be over, I'm sad. A good part of the sadness is a consequence of all the hateful tribal rhetoric I've had to listen to for over a year now, but a lot of it is for personal reasons that I'm not talking about at the moment. (A couple of people on my LJ friends list know what's going on, and I'll ask them not to mention it.) Carol's in Chicago and I'm here by myself. The universe's contrariness has tended toward a maximum today: My dinner exploded in the microwave and (in a stunning reversal of the usual puppy scheme of things) I peed on my dog. I'll tell that story in the next Odd Lots; we have more important things to discuss tonight.

What's the key issue this election year? Lord knows it's not gay marriage; we've heard nary a peep about that. Nor is it abortion, nor any species of sexual shenanigans, nor the separation of Church and State. Health care is a live issue, but the War is winding down and people just don't seem especially exercised by it anymore. The economy, sure—but $2.35 gas relieves a lot of other pain, and we won't know much about the future until the next regime takes its seats in the new year.

What I'm seeing a lot about is a far darker and more dangerous issue: Vote fraud. The Wall Street Journal ran a huge article on it the other day, and explained what any reasonably aware person has already heard: The Democrats tend to commit vote fraud by giving the vote to people who are not qualified (the dead, noncitizens, imaginary individuals, family pets, people who have already voted) and Republicans by keeping the vote from people who are qualified, by imposing unreasonable conditions on the exercise of the franchise. No partisan squeals allowed here; nobody's hands are clean. It happens (I'm a Chicago boy; like, vote fraud doesn't happen? Puh-leez.) and it highlights a debate few people seem willing to take up: Should we work to minimize fraudulent voting? Or should we work to minimize voter disenfranchisement? It is not a simple question, and in an era when Presidental elections are swung by 400-vote margins, it is a gravely important one. The two positions are in tension: The harder you crack down on fraudulent voting, the more likely it is that marginal voters will be discouraged from voting at all, even if they're qualified. The harder you crack down on disenfranchisement, the more likely it is that unqualified voters will slip through the nets, via deliberate fraud or simple confusion.

The photo ID issue is an interesting one from a partisan perspective. We are essentially the last nation in the developed world that does not require presentation of a government-issued photo ID to vote. There is rich irony in Democrats screaming "disenfranchisement!" over a requirement long enforced by lefty paradises like France and Sweden. People say I lean right, but I have long supported a national ID card, especially since we already basically have one in our state drivers' licenses. The issue, as I have said before many times, is not the existence of the card itself but what we allow government to do with it. Enumerate the circumstances under which the card may be demanded, and make any noncompliant request a felony with a one-year minimum sentence. I'd support that in a heartbeat. I'm amazed, in fact, that vote fraud is so lacking in penalties. Did Acorn in fact register a goldfish to vote? If so, somebody needs to do time. Did Republicans purge registered voters from the roster in Ohio? Somebody needs to do time. Lots of somebodies. If we must spend more money—a lot more money—ensuring that Somebody Is Watching while the democratic process operates, I'm good with that. Even honest mistakes must be punished. When democracy itself is at stake, there are no honest mistakes.

Don't deny it: Democracy is at stake. Vote fraud is a frightening issue because it undermines faith in the democratic process. When too many people are convinced or have convinced themselves that [The Enemy] has stolen the election (plug in whichever Enemy you are tribally obliged to condemn here) they will be less likely to even attempt to vote, and much more willing to listen to clever tyrants who will "clean up the mess" and make those trains run on time.

I'm a purist on issues like this. Vote fraud aside, money is also a dangerous corruptor of the democratic process. Money is not speech. Money is force, and force has no place in the democratic process. Shouting down your opponents is not debate. (And my readings tell me that what the First Amendment was really intended by the Founders to guard against were government reprisals against political opponents.) It may sound perverse, but the contrarian in me feels that the (careful) regulation of political speech connected with the democratic process actually yields greater freedom to more people in deciding who should govern (and how) than simply allowing the richest contender to buy the podium. I think the hoary old stoplight metaphor applies here: Uniform and careful restriction of movement by stoplights allows greater overall freedom of movement on crowded roads than just letting everybody drive without any regulation whatsoever until we're all in a state of wreck-littered gridlock.

I'm running long tonight, but here's my whacko solution to the money issue, which I may have mentioned in this space before, though it's been awhile: Require that all campaign contributions go to a bank account created for the office (or the initiative proposition) rather than to a candidate. Then give contributed money in equal proportion to all candidates who qualified for a place on the ballot for that office. It's trickier for initiatives, but it could be done with some care. Supposedly campaign contributions are not to buy the office, but to educate the public. If that's the case, how better to inform the public without preference than to allow each candidate an equal budget with which to inform the public? Hands off the content of the message, obviously, but make sure that nobody's simply writing a check for the podium and walking away with the election in his pocket.

I know, I know, it's impossible. But trust me: It would work, and we would all be freer for it.

_ . . . _

And with that I bring this series on politics to a conclusion. It's been a long day. I'm tired, I'm sad, and the kitchen smells of incinerated salmon. I voted two weeks ago using the Colorado mail-in ballot, which is good, or I'd be even sadder. I never fail to vote, but voting always depresses me. I do the research. I sit in my comfy chair, and I think. I think of the consequences of supporting this candidate or that candidate, and each of the two sides of every initiative proposition I am faced with. I take notes. I read those notes. I look more things up. And I think some more. And I get sadder.

Consider what I'm facing: I'm deciding who goes bankrupt. I'm deciding who loses their businesses. I'm deciding who loses their homes. I'm deciding who gets their money taken away, and to whom that money is given. I'm deciding who goes to war to be maimed or killed. I'm deciding who gets thrown in jail and for what offenses. I try to see the consequences of each decision I make, but it's like trying to look ahead in a Go game: Very soon a combinatorial explosion of possibility singes the remains of my hair to remind me that no matter which way I decide, somebody wins, and sombody loses. Somebody gets rich, somebody goes broke. Lives are destroyed.

This is the naked face of politics: There is no moral high ground. There are no good solutions. In truth, there are no solutions at all, only endless compromises in which countless good people suffer. That is the human condition, and this is how it works in a democracy. All other mechanisms of governance are far, far worse. All of which is good to keep in mind tonight, and on all future nights when you have taken the vote (which is to say, the lives of others no less worthy than yourself) into your hands. Politics is not joyful. Politics is not fun. If politics does not break your heart, you have no idea at all what the hell you're doing.

November 3, 2008: What Is Government Actually For?

I'm finally climbing out of the worst headcold I've had in three years, and although I'm still not at my ever-best, it's time to continue the series here on politics without a) naming individual candidates, and b) anger. Point a) is a requirement I've placed on myself; you needn't feel thus constrained. Point b) is in force for both of us, and so far (reading the comments on LiveJournal) I think it's working extraordinarily well.

Today, I'd like to go back to fundamental principles and ask, What is government actually for? We don't teach anything about the ideas behind government in this country anymore, because any time one tries, his or her tribal opponents yell, indoctrination! This is largely due to the sad fact that there are two theories of wealth locked in eternal warfare: The position that wealth happens by luck or corruption and must be redistributed; and the position that wealth happens by work and must be retained by the worker as his or her property.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Minor wealth is usually obtained by work. Great wealth is almost always more luck than anything else, at least in developed nations where corruption does not completely dominate government. (I use "wealth" in the technical sense here, as owned assets of any kind, without any implication of scale. A man with a quarter has some wealth, even if he's starving to death.) It seems pretty clear from my reading of history that wealth tends to concentrate over time until wealth concentration makes societies unstable. This is one point (among many others) that Will and Ariel Durant make in their superb little book, The Lessons of History. The redistributionists have history on their side. can't redistribute what you ain't got. (Marxism tried to do this, and killed 100,000,000 people in the process.) So the fundamental purpose of government is this: To establish and maintain the conditions necessary to keep the rate of wealth creation ahead of population growth. Put another way: Government needs to create a framework within which people can work to support themselves. By "framework" I do not mean government jobs, which exist only by siphoning wealth out of the private sector. I mean things like maintaining civil order and a stable currency, respect for private property, allowing trade with other nations, and defense from attack. I could put a number of other things on the list, but those are the biggies.

It's a complicated and subtle business. Total freedom does not maximize the rate of wealth creation; I've read that in many places. There's a sweet spot where a certain amount of regulation, read here as limits on economic freedom, yields the highest rate of wealth creation. Alas, there's no tag on the graph to mark the spot—and the location of the spot changes unpredictably. There is, however, a huge hint: Maximizing economic opportunity for individuals (as opposed to public or private corporate bodies) probably leads more directly toward the sweet spot than anything else we could do. This includes access to markets, choice of education, career, and workplace, and freedom to create new businesses (and thus jobs) with minimal interference.

What troubles me about modern politics is that the forces controlling both sides are opposed to expanding the economic freedom of individuals. Both sides look to government to expand their power, and power is really what politics is about. On the left, the tendency is for the aggregation of power of governmental and semigovernmental bodies at the expense of individuals. On the right, the tendency is toward aggregation of power of large corporations against individuals and especially against entrepreneurs. The right/left mapping to political parties breaks down here: The most rabid Republicans I know are small business owners, who are willing to work for little or nothing when starting out or when conditions get bad. The big corporate people I know are much more nuanced in their politics, and many admit to being Democrats. This seems obvious in retrospect, but it took a fair bit of time for me to figure out: Big corporations fear startups far more than they fear government. (Like recognizes and begets like: The bigger a corporation is, the more it actually begins to look like a government.) Governments and corporations both strive toward monopolies; governments of force, and corporations of markets. Without limits, those monopolies work against the well-being of individuals, and they grow unless explicitly checked.

The depressing thing about this election cycle is that neither party seems especially interested in economic opportunity for individuals, and especially in job creation. The Democrats are basically owned by Big Labor and the tort bar. The Republicans (what's left of the party, at least) are beholden to certain large corporations who want protected markets, and a relative handful of conservative social organizations that are mostly religious in underpinnings. There's not a whiff of populist sentiment on either side. Many people who would otherwise lean Republican are disgusted and will vote Democratic just to kill the cancer of the last eight years.

There's opportunity there; the Republicans could win (long-term) by losing. It's interesting to look back and see that when the Democrats have taken control of all three elected branches of government, they don't hold it very long. If the Republican party is ever reborn with a genuinely populist message, they could well put the Democrats back into the broom closet for another twenty years. Much collateral damage happens as the pendulum swings, but I don't think anybody knows how to keep political parties from abandoning the center, which these days means respect for the primacy of the individual against moneyed interests at either extreme of the left/right axis. The party that takes the center and keeps it will rule until they forget why they came to rule.

I see from my notes that I could go on for another several thousand words, but that's all I want to deal with tonight. And tomorrow, mon dieu. I wish I could just jump directly to Wednesday.

November 1, 2008: A Nose Was Blown, But Not By Me

Uggh. Today has been misery punctuated by mere discomfort, and you won't get anything profound from me tonight. What time I didn't spend in bed with Aero's butt in my armpit and QBit lying across my ankles I spent reading in my big chair, pulling Kleenexes from the box as needed and tossing them atop my desk when I finished with them. A few minutes ago, I looked at the pile of snotty Kleenex and asked myself, "Did I do all that nose-blowing this afternoon?" I was so bleary I barely remember.

Yet objective evidence (the head-sized pile of snotty tissues) suggests that I did.

And on that note I will make a very strong recommendation for the book I am mostly through reading, though I will probably have to read it a second time once I'm no longer blissed out on antihistamines. Do not miss this one: Mistakes Were made, But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. (Thanks to Michael Abrash for recommending the book.) It is a masterful piece of pop psychology, beautifully written and well footnoted, that offers to explain why we justfy foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful behavior. It has been a painful read in that I have seen myself in every other paragraph, and you will too. It has been a hopeful read, however, in that I have been intuitively struggling against these damaging psychological mechanisms for much of my adult life; in fact, the book has allowed me to define what I mean by contrarianism: the act of swimming against the torrent of stupidity and falsehood that flows from the deeper mind.

If you are a person given to certainty, the book will enrage you, since it almost defines certainty as a species of mental illness. (This is also the thesis of another book that I have read but not yet reviewed here, On Being Certain, by Robert A. Burton.) No matter what you're certain about, you're wrong. So am I. All knowledge is tentative, and our memories are full of holes and scrambled pointers. I'll start talking about that once I feel better and this damned election is over.

At this point it's time for shower and bed, and my nose is running. Damn. I'm out of Kleenex. I was sure that the box was still half-full!