31, 2005: Another Wrap
Two hours left in the year, and as I say each December 31 as the
clock winds down, Rest in peace, but yeah, bring it on! We are creatures
who live in time, so trying to hang onto a day, a year, or a decade
is like trying not to eatand there's no future in that.
Any year you learn something is a good year, and this has been
a good year. Let me list a few of the things that I learned (or
re-learned) in 2005:
Believe it. And I'll see you on the flipside.
- PHP. Heh. Pascal it ain't, but (praise God!) it's not C++.
- Snowmelt water is the best.
- Sleep is not optional.
- Portrait mode rocks.
- Life without a dog is two drills short of an index.
- Corollary to the above: There's always another P in "puppy."
- Never give up. I sold my damned novel. Better late than never.
- Stay the hell out of the weeds.
- Life is pointless without friends. Thanks, all of you, for the
gift of your friendshipand extra special thanks to those
who have contributed to ContraPositive. You know who you are.
- Marry your best friend if you can. (I learn this again every
day I wake up beside my Carol.)
- Find the sweet spot. There is always a sweep spot. If you can't
find it, dammit, you're not looking hard enough.
- Certainty is the deadliest sin. No one ever knows enough about
anything to be certain. Virtually all evil that has ever beset
humankind has come out of certainty.
- Corollary to the above: The other guy always has a point.
- Bidden or unbidden, God is present.
- Corrollary to the above: All manner of thing will be well.
30, 2005: OEM Parts
Earlier today, Pete and I went up to OEM
Parts, the Colorado Springs electronics and industrial surplus
junkhouse. Most large cities have one; in Phoenix it was Apache
Reclamation and Electronics, and in Chicago there were several,
most of them now long gone. (Anybody remember Gemco on West Madison
just east of the River?) My EE friend George Ott had been patiently
cajoling me to go over there, even drawing maps so I wouldn't miss
it, but with a fellow nerd like Pete in town it was the most natural
tourist destination you could name.
OEM Parts is a supermarket of electronic junk. It really is (or
was) a grocery supermarket years ago, and the original shelves and
aisles are still there. However, instead of being stocked with Cheerios
and canned beans, they're stocked with resistors, capacitors, coils,
and transformers; decrepit, defunct or obsolete computers and midlate
1990s software (Borland Quattro!); every species of wire and connector
you've ever seen, as well as a multitude of semiconductor devices
and used vacuum tubes. On the mechanical side it's harder to characterize:
Paint cans full of 7/8" ball bearing balls, casters and wheels
and aluminum tubing, scrap PC board, rolls of thin foam plastic,
chunks of Bakelite, some gears and bearing assemblies, and a great
deal of stuff of unkown origin that simply defies description.
Larger items are marked, and they don't seem priced to move. I
was especially disappointed by the high prices on panel meters.
Not all of the pricing made sense: They were selling gorgeous NOS
Hammarlund 300 pf log-scale variable caps for $7.95, but beat-to-hell
removed-from-equipment military power transformers were marked $30-$40
each. I ended up buying a number of NOS J.W. Miller 4.5 MHz TV sound
system coils for $1.50 each, and that was jack-fine, given that
AES charges $10 each for the same coils.
So like most everything else in the world, OEM is a mixed bag, but
there's nothing like it in the Springs, and if you need that sort
of stuff (and are willing to dig a little for it) I recommend it highly.
29, 2005: The Dog Ate My Mortgage!
Perhaps there are no truly original ideas. On reading of my concept
for poultry-flavored spiral notebooks,
George Ewing sent me a reference to a
little-known short essay by Edgar Allen Poe, entitled "Diddling,"
which is about scams favored by small-time con-men. ("Diddling"
meant "scamming" in the 1850s.) I'll quote the pertinent
paragraph in full:
A neat diddle is this:
A friend holds one of the diddler's promises to pay, filled up
and signed in due form, upon the ordinary blanks printed in red
ink. The diddler purchases one or two dozen of these blanks, and
every day dips one of them in his soup, makes his dog jump for
it, and finally gives it to him as a bonne bouche. [treat]
The note arriving at maturity, the diddler, with the diddler's
dog, calls upon the friend, and the promise to pay is made the
topic of discussion. The friend produces it from his escritoire,
[briefcase] and is in the act of reaching it to the diddler, when
up jumps the diddler's dog and devours it forthwith. The diddler
is not only surprised but vexed and incensed at the absurd behavior
of his dog, and expresses his entire readiness to cancel the obligation
at any moment when the evidence of the obligation shall be forthcoming.
Basically, "The dog ate my mortgage!" Which he will,
if you train him to expect mortgages to taste like chicken soup.
QBit would be good at this; he's delighted to shred paper without
any flavor at all. My old dog Smoker would have too: He once shredded
a small home-made pillow that my poor mother had stuffed with defunct
nylon stockings, one of which went down the hatch. A day or so later,
Mother had to pull the stocking out of the back end of the dog,
an exercise that neither enjoyed, but was fortunately not repeated.
Oh, well. Back to the drawing board. Maybe I'll come up with a better
idea next Christmas.
28, 2005: The Linux Hosting Edge
I'm helping a couple of my friends set up single-domain Web hosting
accounts, and while researching options I looked closely at the
details of hosting plans offered at several hosting services. The
one I generally recommend to nontechnical people is Go
Daddy, which was founded by a former PC Techniques advertiser
and actually took over about half of the Coriolis office space when
Coriolis closed its doors in 2002.
Like most hosting services, Go Daddy offers both Windows and Linux
hosting. In a bare bones hosting plan there's not a great deal of
difference between the two. But GoDaddy's plans show the significant
edge that Linux hosting can offer in terms of the preinstalled free
software. Take a look at the free
software list for Linux hosting compared to the
list for Windows hosting.
If you choose Linux hosting you can have significant server-side
apps like Mambo, Nucleus, Sitebar, and the Coppermine Photo Gallery,
but the list also includes some slightly off-the-wall stuff like
AZDGDatingLite, which was written in Azerbaijan and allows you to
mount your own online dating service. (And don't forget Magnetik
Poetry, which allows your users to treat your site as a sort of
virtual refrigerator door...)
This isn't just about Go Daddy, either. Most of the other major
hosting services offer a similar listbut only for Linux. The
list of free Windows server-side apps is pretty thin, and seems
to depend utterly on ASP.NET. I mention this to remind you to read
the fine print in any hosting plan, especially the odds and ends
that you might never attempt to install on your own. I struggled
to get install and get Mambo working on my hosting service (and
then removed it because I didn't like it) and I suspect that nontechnical
people shouldn't even try. With the right hosting plan, it's already
there. You just have to turn it on and configure it.
The really ironic thing about the easy-to-use hosting services like
Go Daddy is that their Linux hosting is in many respects easier to
use than their Windows hostingand comes with a lot more interesting
gadgets to play with. Keep that in mind as your own Web hosting plans
approach expiration. I certainly am.
27, 2005: The Himachi VPN
I stumbled across the Hamachi
project earlier today, while looking at Steve
Gibson's very useful Web site. Hamachi is a free, secure peer-to-peer
VPN (Virtual Private Network) system that (at least as I read it)
allows you to connect your PCs or laptops to others over the Internet
without worrying about eavesdroppers. This is significant because
of the "coffeehouse problem": connecting to the Internet
securely at public hotspots. I know enough about Wi-Fi to worry
a little about packet-grabbing eavesdroppers at places like Panera
Bread. I don't make online purchases while connected to public hotspots
as a matter of policy, but even bringing down email makes me fret
just a little.
Hamachi might well allow me to connect to the Net through my home
system, even if I'm on the road. The link between my laptop and
my home system would be secure courtesy Hamachi, and from my home
system I can connect to other sites on the Net without fearing nearby
wireless packet-grabbers. If I buy a media PC and install it behind
my new big-screen TV, Hamachi could make the Wi-Fi link between
my content server and the media PC secure. (One mistake I made in
designing this house is not putting a CAT5E outlet in the TV niche.
I need to do some more research, but once I get my new X41 Convertible,
I will try Hamachi out as a VPN solution, and I'll report back in
26, 2005: Poultry-Flavored Spiral Notebooks
The great thing about sitting around on the livingroom floor after
Christmas dinner, running trains around the track and throwing wadded-up
balls of wrapping paper at the dog (who catches them on the fly
and proceeds to shred them) is the profoundly silly conversation
that sitting on the floor brings to the surface. People who are
exceedingly grown up (even those past 50 or close to it) allow themselves
to be kids again, in the presence of Lionel trains, wrapping paper,
and (if those don't quite do it) a good bottle of Zinfandel wine.
I can't reconstruct much of itthat's how it goes with silly
conversationbut one item bears mentioning, having come up
in answer to "What does the world really need?"
My answer was, "Poultry-flavored spiral notebooksfor
those times when your dog absolutely must eat your homework."
This has been a spectacularly good Christmas for us, not because of
presents or dinner or any adventures out in the snow (which is mostly
gone now) but simply because Bill and Gretchen and Pete have been
here, and willing to sit on the floor with us and release the kids
that have been aching to get out all year.
25, 2005: The Birth of Radical Hope
Christmas is the day that calls on us to look beyond ourselves,
to get past the selfishness that seems to be the trademark of humanity,
and understand that it's not about me. It's about us, and
not just the obvious us, within our family or within our tribe (whatever
that tribe may be) but a much more radical us: Everybody who has
ever lived, and (more to the point) everybody who will ever
Part of getting beyond ourselves requires an interesting and very
contrarian insight: That each of us makes a difference to the state
of the future, whether we realize it (or admit it) or not. A small
kindness to a troubled person at just the right moment can change
that person's life, and echo down the decades and the centuries
in ways that no one can predict. More than once I've gotten short
notes from people who bought my books, saying things like, "I
was failing CS101. I just didn't get it. Then somebody loaned me
your assembly book and I read the first couple of chapters and it
just clicked. Damn, you saved my life." I don't think he meant
that I literally saved his life. But I'll bet that I changed it
You don't have to be an author to make a difference to someone.
told the story about how a ten-year-old girl that I didn't even
know recognized my sadness and gave me a quick hug over the back
of a pew in church. I doubt she even remembers the incident today,
but that doesn't matter. She reinforced my hope for the future,
and every time I think about it, I still glow a little.
Held back by centuries of confusion and heresy, our theologians
dance around the truth without being able to seize upon it. Sometimes
they come close: As the author of Five Great Catholic Ideas
wrote, "We are saved in community." Close, close, but
the truth is even more radical: We are saved as community,
from the deadly selfishness that only destroys the individuality
it claims to serve. This is the central message of Jesus Christ:
Love your neighbor as yourself, and make that the starting point
for the far greater project of creating a human community within
which each person strives with one eye on all the other strivers,
so that no one is crushed, no one is abandoned, and no one is lost.
The birth of Christ is in fact the birth of Radical Hope: That
ultimately all brokenness will be repaired, and in ways that we
cannot yet understand, all will be put right. To predict a loss
when the game has only begun is just cowardice. Screw that. None
of us can see the end, and all of us can make a difference in the
way the future unfolds. Radical Hope tells us that we can do itso
let's stop dithering and arguing and just do it.
Carol and I wish all of you a happy and blessed Christmas. Thanks
for reading what I post here, and don't lose touch.
24, 2005: Our Joyfully Frenetic Big-Screen Christmas
My sister Gretchen Duntemann Roper and her husband
Bill Roper have been here for a few days, along with my high-school
friend Pete Albrecht, of the Lane Tech Astronomical Society. We've
only had this many people staying over Christmas one other time,
and that was years ago in Arizona. We've had to relearn what it
takes to stock the house for one long, low-key Christmas party,
but it's all coming back to us now: Prodigious quantities of coffee
and diet soda, flavored coffee creamers (including egg nog!), potato
chips and crackers, plus buckets of Chicago's own Maurice
Lenell Christmas cookies, which, miraculously, can be had here
in Colorado at the Sav-On Pharmacies within Albertson's supermarkets.
We remembered that having a Honey Baked ham in the fridge at all
times makes asynchronous
meals a lot easier. We have the Lionel trains around the tree for
the first time in almost eight years. Pete brought out his radio-controlled,
smoking, sound-effects equipped Lionel Hudson, and we've managed
to tease Carol's 1952-vintage Lionel operating cars back into operation,
dumping milk cans and barrels on command and with gusto. QBit has
already chewed up two of the wooden barrels, and has been carrying
the milk cans around in his mouth, generally dropping them down
the stairs once he realizes that his teeth aren't getting any purchase.
He seems indifferent to Pete's Hudson and to my own GG-1, but he
goes half-nuts if we put my father's ancient, doddering 1928 American
Flyer electric loco (above) on the track. It crawls slowly along
with a sort of stuttering motion, its dying carbon brushes generating
prodigious amounts of ozone. He must think it's a rat or something;
he goes similarly nuts when I take out my radio-controlled rat and
run it around the floor. (You all knew I had a radio-controlled
rat, didn't you?)
been delightful pandemonium here. Carol and I haven't had this much
fun in a very long time.
The Big Event this Christmas, however, was going shopping for big-screen
TVs with Bill, who has had one for four years and is something of
a guru on the topic. We've been talking about the acquisition for
years now, ever since we built a niche in the wall of the great
room beside the fireplace to accept one. Much online research and
occasional wandering through Best Buy and Ultimate Electronics in
previous months focused our attention on the 61"
Samsung HL-R6178W. We already knew it was the best choice, and
so what we did, pretty much, was walk into Ultimate Electronics
(the only store in town with one in stock) and told the nice people
there to wrap one up. The salesman seemed shellshocked at not having
to actually sell us on the unit, so he tried to sell me on $200,
nitrogen-injected video cables instead. Bill shook his head. "Get
the cheapest ones. The nitrogen thing is bogus." I took my
own turn at being shellshocked when the shipping scheduler told
me the TV would be delivered the very next day.
And it was. Wow.
The thing is amazing. It's HD-ready, and Adelphia's two baitware
free HD channels came in with astonishing clarityif clarity
was what we really wanted when confronted with Orange County
Choppers. I can actually read the chopper dude's tattoos! (I'm
not sure that's really a plus, but we're talking resolution here,
and I'll confess that I'd rather watch brain-dead bikers than the
football game on the other HD channel.) The TV has an interpolator
that increases resolution to near-HD levels on DVD movies, and while
making supper we watched Men in Black looking better, perhaps,
than it did in the movies. After supper, we hooked up my laptop
to the VGA input connector on the back, and ran slideshows of digital
camera photos, which showed up with a clarity that made me gasp.
The 1024 X 768 Windows dekstop was completely readable and absolutely
usable, all the way back on the living room couch. Carol commented
that I'll be trying to figure out how to rotate the screen into
portrait mode pretty soon. Michael Abrash commented once that a
21" monitor was like having Windows on your bedroom wall. No.
This is having Windows on your bedroom wallor livingroom
wall, as the case may be.
We're hanging out until this afternoon, when we'll all start working
Polish vigilia, or vigil supper, replete with smoked
Polish sausage, hand-made pierogis (not made by our hands, but by
the hands of an expert Polish lady from Chicago, who sells them
in Manitou Springs) and organic Albarello wine from Coturri. Later
tonight we'll be over at St. Raphael's for Midnight Mass, and I
suspect we won't be up before 10:00 AM tomorrow.
Merry Christmas to everyoneby which I only mean, accept our
wishes for all the best in your lives, and my admonition to Radical
Hope. On Christmas Eve, it's easy to imagine that All Manner of Thing
Will Be Well. The rest of the year it's a problembut we'll deal
with the rest of the year as it happens.
23, 2005: Personal Triage, Part 3: Electronics
First of all, I need to be clear what the problem is here: I'm
spread too thin on too many spare-time passions, and I'm not getting
much accomplished on any of them. Keep in mind that I have a day
job, though I don't talk about it much (simply because that's what
I do all day, and there's a sameness about it that doesn't make
for dazzling copy) and by choice I spend a lot of time with Carol,
being inexpressibly in love with her. (QBit, of course, is the consummate
distraction.) With all the information available on the Internet,
and with all the tools and materials I have at my disposal (as Jim
Strickland exclaimed when he first saw my workshop, "My God!
He has tube sockets by the bucketful!") there's a severe temptation
to wander around in an undisciplined fashion and start much more
than I finish. In fact, it's gotten to the point where I don't finish
much at all.
This current avenue of discussion was originally triggered by the
completion of my 2-tube stereo amplifier. The amp is now down
on my server rack, playing MP3s while I work down there. I'm actually
surprised by how delighted I am with it. It reminded me that working
on projects is fun, but finishing them (and finishing them well)
puts a different sort of glow on them entirely. I haven't seen that
glow very much in recent years, and in truth had almost forgotten
Electronics is an even more ancient passion of mine. When I was
11 I brought home an All American Five radio chassis I had found
in an empty lot, and although the tubes were gone, there were lots
of resistors and capacitors and other things left to snip out and
recombine with Fahenstock clips on a slab of 1 X 6 pine. With the
encouragement of my father and my legendary Uncle Louie (who upped
the ante by handing me entire TV chassis, tubes included) I started
building radios, and never stopped.
Workbench electronics has an advantage over building telescopes:
The individual projects are much more limited in scope. You
can build a good simple radio in a weekend, and in fact the stereo
amp took me less than thirty hours to assemble, even taking my time.
The parts are cheap, and the work doesn't involve tremendous physical
exertion. (My 10" telescope weighs over 400 pounds.) More to
the point, electronics is both broad and deep, and even though I've
been at it for over 40 years, I'm still learning from everything
I attempt. (I do learn from projects that I don't finish, so not
finishing them is not an irredeemable loss.)
Finally, electronics serves other technologies. There's almost
nothing these days that doesn't have some electronics in it or supporting
it. Telescopes are vanishingly narrow in application by comparison.
I built a regulated 12-15VDC power supply that can source as much
as 30 amps, and I've used it to power stepper motors running my
10" scope and to electroplate small parts. My stereo amp is
playing MP3s even as we speak.
So electronics is a keeper. There's still leaning to be done, the
projects are manageable in scope, and when well-chosen, they support
other projects in other fields. I have to choose projects carefully,
but that's all part of the discipline I'm chasing here.
To be continued after Christmas.
22, 2005: Personal Triage, Part 2: Telescopes
spoken of my home-built telescopes many time in this space. As I
mentioned in my September
28, 2003 entry (with some photos) my 10" scope is such
a pain in the ass to lug around, assemble, adjust, and steer, that
I almost never bother anymore. (I took a considerable amount of
skin off my right index finger a few years back when I stumbled
while trying to place the tube in its saddle.) This is sad, because
I spent a huge amount of spare time in my youth tinkering it, and
yet in looking back, and I haven't really improved it in probably
In the meantime, I use the exhaust vent and pipe fitting 8"
scope that I built when I was 13. (At left is another experiment,
a plywood tube a la Jean Texereau, that I made the following
year.) The light gathering power isn't as great as the 10",
but it handles so easily that its other defects (no clock drive!)
So here's the question on the table: Should I continue to build
telescopes (which means, I guess, working on my clumsy 10"
Newtonian) or should I bag building scopes as a hobby and just buy
one of the new "go-to"
scopes from Meade or Celestron? As Michael Covington very sagely
pointed out to me, with his go-to scope he spends a lot less time
looking for things and a lot more time looking at
themwhich, after all, is what telescopes are for.
Here's another factor: I think that I've learned just about everything
that building telescopes can teach me, assuming I don't try to create
a computer drive system from scratch. (No way!) Doing something
difficult that doesn't teach me anything is perilously close to
drudgery, and whereas I learned a lot about machine-tool techniques
while I was working on the 10", there's not much left to learn
that further work on the scope project can teach me.
It's pretty clear that this is the least compelling of all my peculiar
pursuits, and I should just set it aside for good and devote the
time to other things. I hesitate, I think, because telescope-making
was my first major triumph as a young nerd. The 8" was a huge
project for a 13-year-old, but I pulled it off, and the measure
of my success lies in the fact that I've been using the telescope
now for almost forty years. That's not just successthat's
a triumph. I need to convince myself that the job is done, put the
8" scope in the corner as a spare, and move my astronomy habit
to a go-to scope. Funny how circling around that decision just hurts.
Nonetheless, the decision's pretty much been made.
Alas, I haven't spent much time working on telescopes in recent years,
so putting telescope making aside won't buy much time. More (with
some luck; Christmas looms) tomorrow.
21, 2005: Personal Triage, Part 1.
Pete Albrecht drove out from Costa Mesa for Christmas, and in the
course of BSing about everything and anything, he indirectly reminded
me of what my #1 problem as a human being is: I'm interested in
far too many things. Print publishing, SF, astronomy, building telescopes,
history, ham radio, workbench electronics, kites, and Catholic theology
represent the short list of non-computer interests I have. Add to
this a seasonal interest in Lionel trains, and a minor interest
in real-world railstuff. (QBit probably counts as an interest, and
one with special privileges and responsibilities.) Then, of course,
there are all the things I'm trying to stay abreast of in computing:
Intel hardware, Delphi, CSS, blogging (gag), ebooks, PHP, LAMP/WAMP,
Ruby on Rails, Wi-Fi, malware, etc.
I didn't have this broad a range of interests 25 years ago, because
a fair number of things on the list didn't exist yet, or barely
existed. Plus, I was young and poor and couldn't afford some of
the necessary hardware. (My big dream category before the advent
of computing was test equipment.) Say what you like about the state
of the world, the society in which we live offers almost unimaginable
riches of the mind to anyone who wants themmost mighty cheap,
or even free. I can follow my nose down through a topic as long
as I choose, and surface with a better understanding of more things
per unit time than was ever possible in the past.
That I can't do it all is obvious. I can do more things if I do
them badly, or (worse) if I do them so quickly as not to enjoy them.
(My sister Gretchen has a great term for this sort of time-whipped
experience: The Bataan Fun March.) And this leads to a really painful
issue: What can I keep and what must I jettison? I'm at a kind of
a juncture here. My novel is doing well, considering my non-position
in the SF world, and I'd really like to do more SF. My last computer
book (Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses) was an utter
bomb, but I like writing about computing. If ever there were
a time to rearrange the mental furniture a little, this would be
I guess the place to start in a quandary like this is reminding
yourself what you're really good for. I'm a writer. That's pretty
clear. I'm a better writer than I am anything else, and not writing
is a non-option. Of course, writers need something to write about,
so that doesn't really let me off the hook for anything. I have
to keep learning, and the best learning is always by doing.
It cooks down to this: I need a better fit between my peculiar enthusiasms
and the limitations of a 53-year-old guy who loves his wife deeply,
enjoys hanging out with friends, likes to walk and lift weights, and
needs 8 hours of sleep a night. As time allows, I'll be taking up
the question in this space, thinking out loud a little, and looking
at the cost-benefit equations for a few of my passions. (It may not
be until after Christmas. Gretchen and Bill are arriving tonight,
and things are about to become very lively here.)
20, 2005: Corn Power
With the cost of natural gas exploding, the papers are running
articles on alternative fuels again. Back when I tried this, your
alternative fuels were wood, wood, and...lemme see here...oh yeah,
wood. It was obnoxious, especially when we had a cold snap (this
was in Rochester, NY) and everybody else on the block started throwing
logs on the fire. You didn't want to go outside for a breath of
fresh air. There wasn't any. For fresh air you had to go in.
So much for what those stupid New Age books called good clean
Computing isn't the only technology that's improved since 1980.
We now have generalized pellet stoves, which are tunable to cleanly
burn almost any combustible material that exists as relatively dry,
nonclumping little pieces. The newspaper story I read mentioned
pea coal, pelletized wood, cheap dog kibble, and rabbit crap,
for pete's sake. (Pity the people who live down the street from
rabbit fanciers.) The best pellet fuel, however, is simple shelled
corn. Here's another
article on the growing popularity of corn heat. People are heating
their whole houses for a single bushel of corn per day, which runs
from $1.60 - $2.00 in the heartland, purchased in quantity from
farmers. Lessee...two bucks a day X 31 days is $62, and that heats
the house for a month. Who's spending less than that these
Corn, in fact, is an almost ideal pellet fuel. Corn is already
a pellet, only loosely attached to its infrastructure. Wood pellets
have to be cut from logs, which consumes energy and relatively sophisticated
machines. Corn is easy to grow, grows in a broad range of climates,
and machines for shelling corn (which means removing it from the
cob) are available anywhere corn is grown. Shelled corn is processed
in immense quantities as cattle feed, so you don't generally
need a shelling machine, and prices are low. Prices do fluctuate
a little, but the supplies are relatively predictable. (The Greens
won't sue you for growing corn. But just try to find a new
gas field...) A nice and more technical article on burning corn
as fuel is here.
Corn is a little cranky to burn by just dumping it in a pile on
a grate, but a properly designed stove augers it into a combustion
chamber with just enough airflow to burn at optimal efficiency.
You won't choke the neighborhood with smoke, but you may get their
mouths wateringexhaust from corn stoves smells just like popcorn.
After being almost a cult product for a decade, corn stoves are
suddenly trendy, and all across the corn belt they're being built
in small factories and sold as quickly as they're completed.
Interestingly, there are now corn-burning
barbecue grills costing about $900 that are "condo-approved"
and can be used out on your terrace. I've seen mention of corn-burning
space heaters that can keep a monster garage toasty for a quarter
a day. No word on corn-burning hot water heaters, but I'm sure it's
only a matter of time.
Corn stoves do emit carbon exhaust, but it's carbon that's already
in the ecosphere and thus doesn't make the carbon situation any worse.
Could we run cars on corn? (Skip the middleman and screw the ethanol.
Pellets don't explode when your Pinto gets rear-ended.) How about
steam locomotives? I'll have to add this to the notefile for The
Anything Machine. The possibilities are endless, though in truth
I already have a tendency to write corny stories.
19, 2005: Fox Cross
a couple of inches of puffy snow yesterday afternoon and evening,
and this morning there was a set of tracks from the drain pipe under
Stanwell St. to the rock where we have seen our fox hang out a number
of times. We've long suspected that he lives under the street in
the corrugated steel pipe (24" diameter) that bridges the drain
gullies above and below the street. I took a closer look at the
tracks in the snow and yup, those are fox tracks. (I was in the
Fox Patrol in Boy Scouts. It's all coming back to me now.)
We photographed the fox this past July while we were tending the
plants on our terrace that overlooks the drainage gully. Handsome
creature, and relatively unafraid of humans, which (as with most
wild animals) is a mixed blessing. Someone might be feeding him,
or maybe there's just a lot of local wildlife. I've seen plenty
of things here that a fox could bring down, from wild turkeys to
rabbits to (alas) house cats. We saw the fox sit on the stones below
our kitchen window once and gaze longingly at QBit, who was looking
down and yapping. (That's only one reason we're very careful not
to let him off leash here. The traffic on Stanwell is the other.)
chance I caught the fox in the middle of a yawn (see the photo at
right) and it's an interesting way to see the inside of a fox's
mouth without having to pry the poor thing's mouth open, losing
a couple of fingers in the process. It's a very pointed, narrow
mouth with a lot of teeth.
Apart from a fleeting glimpse of a fox on a highway embankment in
Surrey, UK, this is the first live fox I ever saw outside of a zoo.
Back in 1963, when my farm-cousin John Price learned that I had joined
the Fox Patrol, he did the unexpected: Went out with his brothers
and shot a fox, cut the tail off, and mailed it to me wrapped up in
shirt cardboard, with dried blood all over it. (Farmers consider fox
harmful predators, and there's no love lost between them.) We tied
a string to the last vertebra and hung it from our patrol flag, with
a lot of the blood still on it. (My fellow Fox Patrollers thought
it was a little cool, though blood never sits well with me.) We haven't
seen our fox in winter yet, but if I can I'll catch another photo
against the snow, which should show up much better than against a
dark background of scrub oak, as here.
18, 2005: Odd Lots
- A useless, fascinating, and completely insane add-in to Google
Earth can be found in an un-named site at digtootherside.cjb.net.
Click on a point on a map of the Earth, click the "Dig here"
link, and the site will calculate where you would come out if
you dug straight down through the Earth's center to the other
side of the world. Lots of fun. I knew (though I'm not sure how)
that most of the US maps to the Indian Ocean, but five minutes
of playing around showed something fascinating: The vast majority
of points on the land surface on Earth maps (through the planet's
center) to water. I know, there's more water on Earth than land,
but there seems to be a greater-than-probable chance that a point
on land maps to a point on water. Take a look and see if you don't
- Does anybody remember a 70s SF story in which people in a small
town eventually discover that they're action figures on somebody's
enormous model train layout? Name? Author?
article (syndicated from The LA Times) describes something
I didn't know, but which makes sense in retrospect: Criminals
and undersocialized young idlers do not like classical music and
especially opera. Play such music in your store or in some public
space, and most 0-34s vanish, while the 35-60 crowd start humming
along. (Once again, I'm in the middle: Caruso would drive me away,
but Gustav Holstbring it on!)
- I hadn't checked in on The
Asimo Project for awhile, but Honda's hobbit-sized bipedal
robot has come a long way since we
first saw a filmclip. He now runs, walks up and down stairs,
takes corners at a pretty good clip, and even bows in the Japanese
fashion after handing the pretty girl a tray of coffee cups. Isaac
Asimov (from whom Honda derived the name Asimo) would have loved
this, had he lived to see it. And if he had, I suspect Honda would
have built one and given it to him. Don't miss those videos! Thanks
to Jorge Fábregas for the noodge.
16, 2005: Odd Lots
- I guess the
topic is in the air. The bartender's reaction is typical of
the many comments I've received on the issues raised in my December
11 and December 15 entries. I'm going to shut up about it now.
- Here's everything
you probably wanted to know about the GG-1, perhaps the most
famous (and certainly the most beautiful) electric locomotive
in history. As I mentioned a few days back, I recently bought
a Lionel O-gauge GG-1 loco in Berkshire green livery to run around
our Christmas tree.
- I am still scanning/OCRing my old editorials and essays from
PC Techniques and VDM (the older of which were archived
on 5 1/4" diskettes that have died the death) and will keep
at it when time allows. Everything can be browsed from the PC
and Visual Developer Magazine Archive page. I just
- Digg is one of the newest
"social bookmarking" sites, and I'm trying to decide
what I think of it. It's a little like an anarchic Slashdot, in
that everybody votes on stories to see what actually gets posted.
It also resembles del-icio.us. It also seems a little (little?
Ha!) geeky, but that's an interesting consequence of the way it's
created. Take a look. Comments?
- Here is
a page describing a robotified Etch-A-Sketch, built with stepper
motors and Meccano (Erector) parts. Great hardware hack. Weird
secondary issue: Ohio Arts seems to think that you need their
permission to post a photo of an Etch-A-Sketch, even if you bought
the Etch-A-Sketch and you took the picture. Is this true? Somehow
I don't think so.
- Little Orby (See my entry for December
4, 2005) has a successor, but the
successor looks like a Hummer. As best I can tell, it's a
sort of reverse ground-effect machine, with a fan that pulls air
from under the device and allows it to drive up walls. Alas, it
can't do ceilingssuction cups are still worth something,
and may in fact be an elegant solution to this completely silly
problem. Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.
- Empty-state fanatics will be amused by this Nixie-tube
watch, which looks clunkier than it actually is. To conserve
battery power, the watch only fires up its Nixie tubes when your
arm is at the correct viewing angle. Very cooland the firmware
is open source!
- From Pete Albrecht comes a
list of "impossible objects." Indeed.
15, 2005: Season's Gratings
Whew. I definitely got in some trouble for my December 11 rant
on twisting retailer arms to call Christmas "Christmas."
Long-time reader Ron Allard put it most sharply when he wrote: "Just
what we need: Another reason for customers to be hostile to store
clerks making minimum wage." Ouch. The gist of most complaints
is that decisions on how to present a retailer's holiday message
are made nowhere near the checkout counter, and making trouble on
the retailer's floor won't change minds in the executive offices,
and just makes an already frantic period less pleasant for everybody.
True, true. It's actually subtler than that, especially when you
move down from Target to small business. One gentleman who asked
to remain nameless owns a used bookstore in the Midwest. His reponse
is worth quoting at some length:
There may be a war
on Christmas somewhere (it sounds like you read the book) but
it's not my war and I refuse to be drawn into it. People are a
lot touchier than they used to be, and I don't know why. But I
provide a service even to touchy people, and I need their business
to stay alive. Margins are pretty thin in the used-book business,
and I'm competing with online robots like Amazon. It's not fair
to encourage my customers to demand that I take a position in
a fight that has nothing to do with used books. You've done a
pretty good job handling politics in a noncommittal way (which
is one reason I like your blog) and it's as if I demanded that
you declare yourself a Democrat or a Republican. You would reply
that you are neither, and that politics is not what your blog
is for. I have to reply that I'm not religious and have no strong
feelings about what we call the end of December, and that getting
involved would help nothing and would probably hurt my business
and give me ulcers. There's no point in that.
The book he refers to is The
War on Christmas by John Gibson, which I have not read,
and probably won't. As a rule, books like that generate more heat
than light, and I have lots better books in my to-be-read pile,
like Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.
But by all measure the most intriguing comment comes from DDJ's
Mike Swaine, who suggested that Christians have been protesting
the commercialization of Christmas for decades, and if that battle
has in fact been lost, maybe it's better to disassociate the commercial
holiday from Christian Christmas observance by ceasing to use the
word "Christmas" as a part of the annual December shopping
orgy. He's got a point. The commercialization of Christmas galls
me, but as
I've written before, Christmas moves products (even stupid products
audioanimatronic fish) and moving products creates jobs. So
since decommmercializing Christmas would put people out of jobs,
maybe we should just declare victory and move Christmas somewhen
Interestingly, the birth of Christ was probably in the spring (when
shepherds were watching their flocks closely to protect newborn
lambs) but in the fourth century was moved to its current calendar
position to Christianize the pagan winter solstice holiday called
I'd support moving Christmas back toward its original calendar position
by a month or so, perhaps to the period just before Lent (thereby
re-Christianizing Mardi Gras), and let Target have "the holidays"which
have been looking more and more like Saturnalia all the time. Lord
knows we could use something to cheer ourselves up in the grim last
part of February.
I'll leave my December 11 entry alive for a little while so you who
might have skipped it can see what the discussion is about, but as
one of my least popular entries I think I'll cut it in a week or so,
once the Christmas merchandise goes on sale and the Valentine's Day
merchandise starts coming in.
13, 2005: A USB Vinyl-Ripping Turntable
have about 150 pounds of vinyl in boxes in the basement, mostly
LPs from the 60s and 70s. Our 25-year-old turntable is getting pretty
erratic, and whereas I want to rip some of those albums, I hate
to spend a fortune on a turntable when I don't really want to play
LPs, just record them.
Pete Albrecht just sent me a pointer to the solution: The
Ion iTTUSB USB Turntable. You install its software, plug it
into your PC, and when you play an LP or 45, it records the sound
to an editable audio file. It was designed to be easy to use, and
at $150-$200, it isn't even that expensive. It's belt-driven, so
your wild-eyed DJs aren't going to be able to put their thumbs on
the turntable and make stupid effectsbut I'm not sure they
still do that anyway. When Carol and I hired Connie
Szerszen to DJ for our 25th wedding anniversary party back in
2001, she used only CDs. For all I know, by now in 2005 DJs have
abandoned removable media and are now jockeying hard disk platters.
Certainly if you're just going to be playing one song after another
at a party, it now makes more sense to just load 'em onto your laptop
and play them randomly with WinAmp. However, if you want something
off those old LPs and 45s, you're first going to need something like
12, 2005: In Search of the Digital Gumball Machine
Having installed and configured a number of middling PHP/MySQL
server-side applications this past year, I've begun to wonder if
we'll ever see an implementation of the Digital Gumball Machine.
I've seen bits of it here and there, but so far I've seen nothing
that pulls together everything I want in a single integrated app.
A "gumball machine" in my jargon is a very focused server
app that takes money from a user and dispenses a file. The file
can be anything: Software, music, image, ebook, whatever. The gumball
machine app must be able to do the following:
- Allow the creation (by the owner) of a catalog, with pre-designed
themes that can be easily modified, or simply used as-is.
- Create a secure connection with a purchaser's browser.
- Allow a purchaser to browse a customizable catalog of digital
- Maintain and allow editing of a shopping cart.
- Accept and validate charge-card information.
- Charge purchases to the entered and validated charge number.
- Bundle multiple files (if the purchaser buys more than one)
into a single Zip file.
- (Optionally) call a module that performs an EFT to the owner's
- (Optionally) call a module that customizes a copy of a file
before dispensing the file to the purchaser.
- Download the purchased file to the purchaser's browser.
- Do everything as easily as possible for both the owner of the
system and the purchasers.
Needless to say, people do this stuff online all the time, but
the mechanism is almost always a sloppy, ad-hoc lashup of several
different parts that require a great deal of fooling-with, coding,
and configuration. No, what I want is a gumball machine: Something
that stands alone and contains both product and all machinery inside
one single, completely integrated mechanism. I want it to be as
easy to install and configure as phpBB
Only one bullet point might need a little explication. I want to
be able to embed a serial number or other identifying information
in a file. This could be as simple as writing text into a set-aside
area of a binary file, or as complex as encoding purchaser identity
into microscopic tweaks of a document's kerning, distributed across
the entire document to make the identity harder to hack. This is
something that depends on the nature of the medium being dispensed,
so one version shouldn't have to handle everything (ebooks, music,
A gumball machine like this is really the last serious issue standing
between ebooks and their general acceptance by the public. (That doesn't
mean the other issues have been solved. Far from it. It's simply the
last issue that I've identified and discussed in this space.) The
gumball machine may well exist, since it isn't always obvious to me
what machinery is running on the other side of a browser. If you're
aware of some candidates, please send me pointers.
11, 2005: If You Want My Money...
Carol and I just watched TV for almost two hours (remarkable enough
as it is) without seeing a single "holiday shopping" commercial
use the C-word. The bigots in the advertising departments (or, more
likely, the agencies who do thewretch barf"creative")
are whispering in advertiser ears that "someone might be offended"
if they use the word "Christmas" in a commercial. It doesn't
matter that I find the omission offensive (especially since I know
why it's happening) nor that I've never met a person who claimed
to find Christmas offensive who didn't have a hidden agenda. So
let's call the cowards on it. Below is a tagline. Let's see if we
can make it a meme. Put it on your blogs. Make it into bumper stickers.
Wear it on a button when you go shopping. Most important of all,
make it clear to retailers and manufactures that next year, they
should tell their bigot-driven ad agencies that
10, 2005: Scopitone and the Trolley
Goss sent me a pointer to a remarkable Web site: Bedazzled,
which presents a (huge) number of 60s and 70s music videos in QuickTime
.mov format, many of which originally appeared on Scopitone
machines. (Another Scopitone writeup is here.)
The Scopitone is one of those forgotten electromechanical technologies
that makes you shake your head in wonder that the damned thing worked
at all. Scopitone machines were much more popular in Europe than
here (especially in France and Germany) and few Americans even know
they existed. They were basically coin-op 16mm film strip jukeboxes,
and the direct ancestor of MTV-style music videos. Egad. I can understand
how a 45 or CD jukebox might work, but the notion of selecting and
threading 16mm film strips without human intervention ("Shark
nerds always ran the projectors") sounds like a nightmare for
somebody's repair techs. The clips are grainy and a little screechy,
but wow, they take me back.
Anyway. Tim's interest was piqued by a clip of The
Peppermint Trolley Company, which has long been my iconic no-hit-wonder
60s rock band. There are others; the Will-O-Bees and the Capes of
Good Hope first among them, but nobody ever quite captured the sense
of 60s soft-rock culture like the Trolley. I believe I now have everything
they ever released, though some of it is in crappy shape, and none
of it to my knowledge has ever appeared on CD. Their video (partial,
is worth watching, especially if you were born years or decades after
this style of music and performance was crushed under the weight of
70s leisure suits and disco balls.
9, 2005: Engine Winter
Nothing lasts forever, but Lionel train sets sure try. Carol and
I have the set from her childhood, purchased in the early 1950s.
My sister inherited the 1956 American Flyer set we had as kids,
whereas I took the ancient and thoroughly beat-upon Lionel set that
came down from my father's childhood in the late 1920s.
Carol and I put the trains around our Christmas tree for many years,
though once we knew we were going to move from Arizona, things got
crazy and they've stayed in the box since 2002. The other reason
we hesitated to unpack them is that things were wearing out and
starting to break. (But hey, fifty years for a toy! I'm not
complaining!) Well, this year we took the bull by the horns and
set up a tentative layout in the great room, a little earlier than
usual so we could see what remained functional. I was quickly reminded
of what we knew in 2002:
- The three 75-year-old locomotives my father had are in pretty
bad shape. All need new brushes, and the steam loco's left side
rod broke away from the wheel and is held up with a piece of paper
clip. (This actually happened in the 1930s, though the motor still
runs.) One of my dad's oldies is even reasonably rare (electric
loco model 250) but it's in such terrible shape I suspect it wouldn't
even qualify as a parts unit.
- The locomotive from Carol's set (the Pennsy S-2 turbine, Lionel
model 671) began jamming back around 2000. I opened it up and
found that the axle of the driven wheel is a little out of true,
and the worm wheel on the axle has worn unevenly to the point
where it skips teeth on the motor worm and jams.
- In a fit of pique, Mr. Byte chewed up the little wooden barrels
from the operating dump car in 1986.
- About half the little magnetic milk barrels from the operating
milk car have been lost.
- A lot of the track is getting loose and carries current badly.
- Most disturbingly, the Lionel transformer unit has become intermittent.
This is a problem, because if power to the tracks drops even momentarily,
the locomotives pause and reverse direction.
So here we are in 2005, with four malfunctioning locomotives and
an intermittent transformer. I went down to the local train shop
and bought a refurbed mid-1980's Lionel GG-1, in Pennsy Berkshire
Green. Wonderful item! The quality of a model locomotive lies not
in how fast it can go, but how slowly. The GG-1 moves at a magnificent
crawl, at least until the transformer burps.
I tried and failed to repair the transformer, so for the last couple
of evenings I've been setting up these mad-scientist lashups from
junk in the basement to see what I could do. I have an old 36VDC
4A switching power supply from a long-extinct Convergent Technologies
workstation. I found a circuit board I had built years ago with
an LM350K variable regulator, and jury-rigged the regulator to the
Convergent power supply. In doing so, I remembered something I learned
ages ago: Switching power supplies do not like inductive
loads, and they don't come any more inductive than low-voltage series-wound
DC motors. The supply screamed like a wounded animal until I pulled
the plugand the test loco, my father's ancient and small American
Flyer 1096, didn't budge.
So I guess I have to pop for a new transformer as well. (Do I remember
having a small Variac somewhere in the basement? Am I brave enough
to go looking?) I'm going to try to find a replacement driven axle
for Carol's 671 loco (perhaps at the Great American Train Show, which
comes to the Springs in mid-January) and by next Christmas may figure
out how to get the old one out and the new one in. Somebody, somewhere
can doubtless sell me some barrels and milk cans for the operating
cars. (I haven't even started looking yet.) There's clearly some work
to be done, but we will have moving trains this year, and by next
Christmas, my goal is to have everything properly repaired, lubed,
and in all ways resurrected. I'm fascinated by the notion of designing
and building a power pack from scratch, but I told Carol to slap me
if I ever start talking about it. Lord knows I have projects enough
as it is.
8, 2005: The Price Of Lowering Global Friction
downer opinion piece in ECommerce Times confirms what I've been
guessing: That the huge recent improvements in US productivity
have gone to equity holders and investors, while wages have stagnated
or dropped. One way to put this is that the reduction in "global
friction" (improved global broadband communications, "gold
collar" outsourcing, reductions in trade barriers and tariffs,
and relatively inexpensive travel and shipping) is pulling US wages
down toward something like a global average, to which developing
countries like India and China are rising. The American labor market
is no longer insulated from the rest of the world's, nor is any
significant labor market fully insulated from any other.
As the piece I cited suggests, the current housing bubble is giving
Americans the continuing illusion of prosperity, but once it bursts,
the real truth will become obvious: American prosperity is falling
to fewer and fewer people in larger and larger organizations.
I'm amazed that more isn't being written about this. The media
is obsessing on Iraq, and licking its chops anticipating that the
War will hand the country back to the Democratic Party. I'm less
sure; I think that people who lean center-right dislike the War
less than they dislike the cesspool that the Democratic Party has
become. (The Republicans, of course, have their own cesspool, and
on election day we in the middle are forced to hold our noses and
jump into one cesspool or the other.) Opposition to the War is fairly
broad but only inches deep. Unless you have a loved one over there
or are a bloodline liberal without enough to do, you're probably
a lot more concerned with just making a living and paying the bills.
Economic issues trump war every time. It happened in 1992,
and it may well happen again in 2008, whether we make a graceful
exit from Iraq or not. The labor surplus I mentioned yesterday is
not going away, and adding back friction to the global marketplace
is much tougher than pulling it out. Nations may raise tariffs,
but there are limits due to the hugely complex web that global commerce
has become. People who make their living trucking or selling goods
made in China (which is a lot of goods) will not favor higher
tariffs on China, etc. So slowly by slowly, wages will continue
to erode, and at some point the country will swing sharply left.
Corporatism hasn't even tried to conceal its excesses since the
Republicans took control of national government. They're making
themselves an easy target. When the shift happens, we will see huge
increases in wealth-related taxes, stiffening of labor laws, and
a general increase in business regulation as "punishment"
This won't necessarily be a good thing, and I don't mean to imply
that I support it. (This sort of revenge-by-government generally goes
after all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.) I simply want
to call your attention to the danger in having such a closely-divided
electorate in a dicey economic climate. When blue balances red so
perfectly, it doesn't take a lot of shift to make a huge difference
in how things work in government, and sometimes punishing the rich
can utterly remake the economic system. The personal income tax was
instituted in 1913 to punish the gilded robber barons of the Northeast,
who had gathered most of the national wealth to themselves. The nation
after 1913 was radically different from the nation before 1913, something
few people know because so few people read history anymore. Globalization
and corporatism may trigger another shift, and how it may end up changing
America will not be known until it happens.
7, 2005: Moving Back to a Labor Surplus
I often meditate on history (which is way more interesting
than my navel!) and earlier today I had an interesting insight:
We may be coming to the end of a century-long one-time labor shortage
caused by industrialization. For the last 120 years or so, industrialization
in the First World has grown more quickly than the labor pool, causing
labor shortages. The peak of the labor shortage happened somewhere
between 1945 and 1970 (I'm guessing 1968) and since then the labor
pool has roughly kept pace with industry demand for labor. This
is why real wages haven't grown much since the early 1970s. The
Internet Bubble in the late 1990s got a lot of press, but the labor
shortages there were very narrowly distributed. CCIEs
saw their wages explode, but unskilled wages changed only a littleand
come 2005, IT professionals are a glut on the market.
Labor shortages don't happen often. The only other massive labor
shortage I can think of came to Europe in the wake of the Black
Death. The labor supply dropped hugely behind traditional demand.
Without a surplus of serfs, feudalism imploded, and the whole shape
of European society and governance changed. Similarly, when industrialization
moved labor demand hugely ahead of supply after WWII, unskilled
workers could suddenly afford summer homes and a new car every three
Labor shortages are to some extent self-correcting. The Baby Boom
was the proximate cause of the end of the postwar American labor
shortage, as huge numbers of Boomers began entering the labor market
in the late 1960s. And to some extent, labor surpluses are self-correcting
as well: The "baby bust" effect that prosperity has on
populations has reduced the birth rate in the West below replacement
levels, and one would think that that would keep the labor supply
mostly in sync with improvements in industrial productivity. Yes,
but there's a problem: The rest of the world is suddenly in the
game. This changes everything.
6, 2005: Cheap Photo Prints from Walgreens
The Christmas cards are out, and Carol and I were extremely impressed
with the photo cards that Walgreens made up for us. (See yesterday's
entry.) We didn't order enough to send to everyone; it was an experiment,
but next year I think Walgreens will get the whole Christmas card
franchise from this household, at least.
We created the card using an in-store kiosk, but Walgreens also
has an upload service for digital camera pics. We tried it the other
day. It was amazingly easy: You create an account at the Walgreens
site, and then create an album on their server. This album receives
the uploaded photos, and then you can review them online and print
whichever ones you want. (We printed them all; I think the album
mechanism is for people who do not pass their digital camera pics
through their PCs.)
By the time we managed to get over to the local Walgreens later
that day, the photos had already been printed for several hours.
The printed photos were magnificent, with sharper resolution and
much richer color than that produced by either my old Epson Photo
Stylus 980 or the photo printer/dock that Carol got with her Kodak
digital camera. The cost? 19 cents per print. It costs me 32 cents
per print on the Epson (figuring both ink and special photo paper)
and a little more on the Kodak printer/dock.
Not every Walgreens retail store has the photo print machine, but
you can go to the Walgreens
Web site and see if your local store does. If you have access
to a Walgreens with the photo printer, I'd say give it a try. These
are the best digital camera photo prints I have seen in yearsand
also the cheapest. That's a deal I can live with.
5, 2005: The Damnable Economics of Photo Printing
I just finished printing out 71 Christmas letters, each of which
was a double-sided 8 1/2" X 11" sheet. There were two
photos on each side, plus a lot of text. 71 letters (or 142 impressions,
as we used to say at Xerox) essentially drained a pair of brand-new
Epson ink cartridges dry. I paid $55 for the pair of cartridges
(one black, the other color) and if you throw in a couple of cents
for the bright-white inkjet paper, it means my Christmas letters
cost me 40 cents each.
I have yet to figure why inkjet ink is so impossibly expensive.
I suspect that they lose money on the printers and expect to make
all their money on the ink. Modern inkjet printers are cheap fragile
crap anyway; the problems I have had with the Epson Photo Stylus
will turn up in a future entry. Epson will not allow their cartridges
to be refilled, and Japanese firms are notorious for this sort of
screw-the-consumer attitude. Along with NEC and Sony the Rootkitmeister,
Epson is now on my list of Companies I Will Never Deal With Again.
(Most of you have heard the story of the Keystone Kops adventure
I had trying to buy a spare keyboard from NEC in 1986. I'm not sure
NEC still exists, but if they do, it's no mystery why they are not
a force in the personal computer business.)
Epson may simply be following general tech industry culture, though
I'm pretty sure they were one of the first to gouge us on color
ink. The problem is everywhere, and it's unclear what's to be done.
That the problem is real is undeniable: This year Carol and I bought
photo Christmas cards from Walgreens, of all places. They were printed
in brilliant color on a decent-sized chunk of very nice photographic
paper. We designed them in a kiosk in the local store, and the cards
were finished less than an hour later. (It would have been sooner,
the nice young man told us, but there were orders stacked up ahead
of ours...) The cost? 19 cents each. On photographic paper. In 45
minutes. It took me a couple of hours and $55 worth of ink to print
71 Christmas letters in my basement on that $@%$* Epson Photo Stylus.
Next year I think our Christmas letter will be printed out on my faithful
(and cheap) HP LaserJet 2100. Walgreens will do the photos. I'd like
to say that Epson knows where they can stick it, but the sad thing
is that (like NEC and Sony) they don't.
4, 2005: Thingamajigger Found
logic was so clear I am mortified to admit that it didn't occur
to me: The thingamajigger I described yesterday (with a drawing,
no less) walked up walls. So Bishop Sam'l Bassett searched for "wall
walker toy" and up popped Li'l Orby on a toy nostalgia site.
I don't remember the molded eyes and nose (I remember them as painted
on) but this is definitely the item.
The suction cup is missing from the bump on top of his head, as
is the ring that allowed you to wind him up by pulling on a string.
The string came out of the body through the little hole at bottom
center, and when you pulled the ring tied to the end of the string,
it wound up the internal spring. The string would then slowly withdraw
into the mechanism as Orby climbed the wall.
Evidently the toy is in considerable demand, as there are "wanted"
notices posted on eBay. My guess is that they are rare because
a) they walked up walls and b) were made of breakable plastic. Klaus
Bruhn sent me a pointer to a picture of the "Yogi
Wall Walker" bird, which looks smaller but probably used
the same general mechanism.
I doubt these would be popular today for a less-than-obvious reason:
Smooth semi-gloss walls and ceilings are much less common than they
used to be. All of my walls for many years have had a roughed-up texture,
to which a suction cup will not adhere. My ceilings, furthermore,
have either been textured or flat white, neither of which would afford
much traction to poor Orby. He was a 50's thing adapted to a 50's
environment. Oh, the grim, grim hand of evolution!
3, 2005: How to Search for a Thingamajigger
I was shoveling snow this evening (we got about nine inches here
on the mountainside) I was just letting my brain freewheel, and
I turned up a stray memory. When I was six or seven I had a toy
that was the guldurndest thing: It was a hollow red plastic ball
about the size of a baseball, with a goofy painted-on face and a
short forked tail. It had a little wheel inside the ball that had
ten or twelve suction cups on it. (There was also a single suction
cup on the top of its "head.") If you wound it up (and
sometimes put some spit on the suction cups) it would climb right
up the kitchen wall, assuming the kitchen wall was painted with
the semi-gloss paint that ruled kitchen decor in 1959. If the kitchen
ceiling was also painted semi-gloss and allowed the suction cups
to get a grip, the damned thing would do its jerky little walk right
across the ceiling.
I did a quick Visio sketch of a top and side view at left, though
I omitted the internal wheel with the suction cups. It was a clever
mechanism, if you could get past the obvious downside: If it ran
out of spring tension while it was halfway across the kitchen ceiling,
your mom had to go get the stepstool and grab it off the ceiling
before its suction cups let go, allowing it to fall to the floor
and shatter into a thousand pieces.
Ok. It's a pretty clear memory...except that I have no idea what
it was called. It was a toy. It was supposed to represent an alien.
It was spring-driven. It walked across the ceiling. It had suction
cups. It was red. I get nothing off Google, but there are a lot
of alien toys, a lot of toys with suction cups, and a lot of Web
pages listing toys for collectors. Although I'd like to learn what
it was called (and perhaps find a photo) the more interesting question
is this: How do you search for something when you can picture it
very clearly but can't discern enough distinguishing search terms?
The obvious solution is to post a note like this on some sort of toy
collectors' forum. Sureand eventually, I will. But hey, it's
2005. Are we not geeks? Should there not be some way to find this
thing without having to ask a real person? What are computers
for if not to find things for us? (Our technology may not be
as advanced as we think...)
2, 2005: Visualizing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Several people asked, and Pete Albrecht identified the rousing
orchestral number to which a chap in Ohio synchronized his yard
full of Christmas lights. The piece is "Wizards in Winter"
by the Trans-Siberian
Orchestra (from their CD The
Lost Christmas Eve) and the story of the video clip can
be found here.
I had a hunch it was TSO when I first heard the piece, so it came
as no surprise; it's just their style, which is a mixture of classical
and rock technique not horribly unlike Emerson, Lake, & Palmer
did 25+ years ago (anybody remember "Nutrocker"?) only
I was surprised to learn that it didn't take man-years of engineering
to pull this off. Displaymaster Carson Williams wrote up a
description of how he did it, which involved sequencing a large
number of lights through a commercial product called Light-O-Rama.
Rather than put speakers in the windows and shake the ground up
and down the street, he put the music out through a very low-power
FM transmitter gadget, so that if you were cruising by in your car,
you could tune to a spot on the FM band and listen while the lights
did their thing. FB.
Another one of Carson's creations is here.
Is it just me, or during the display does Carson's house look like
a startled frog licking his chops?
1, 2005: Odd Lots
- I just put up our Christmas lights, earlier this season than
ever, probably because it's been years since we've had
any outside Christmas lights at all. And if I feel extravagant,
I can always summon up this
short video from Google
Videos, referred to me by George Ott. Puts my own little display
right into perspective.
- And that said, spend some time poking around Google Videos.
I'm not entirely sure what to say about it, but it has a certain
entertainment value. For example, I've never wondered what would
happen if you put a whole roll of Mentos into a bottle of Diet
Coke, but if I ever did, well, now I'd
know. And if you're a sucker for puppies (like guess who)
don't miss this
- A company is using Wi-Fi
to coordinate lines of pheromonic mosquito attractor/killers
into a kind of Invisible Fence for the little bloodsuckers. Whether
it works or not, it certainly counts as the wildest technology
idea of 2005.
- The Pope is apparently about to decommission
limbo. I was going to use that as an intro to my rant on Augustine
of Hippo, but I chickened out. Now if we can only get rid of mandatory
celibacy, Opus Dei, ugly churches, and hymns that sound like dirges...
- For the smallest convertible Tablet PC yet, check out the Flybook.
Looks like a fine ebook reader, if you can get past the $2500
the fact that it's going to be sold in upscale clothing shops.
- 320 GB hard disks are now commodity items, stacked like cordwood
- And if you need some content to fill your rack full of 320 GB
hard drives, well, consider this.
Having scanned a couple of books the hard way, I'd say that they're
going to find a ready market...but if you have to ask, you can't
afford it. (Thanks to Paul Santa-Maria for putting me on to it.)