31, 2008: My 2009 Plan File
2008 was Not My Favorite Year. Too many deaths, too many illnesses,
too many trips to the dentist, and too many financial collapses.
I have high hopes for 2009, but that's part & parcel of being
a Pollyanic Old Catholic. Hey, when you're down this far, every
direction is up, right?
So in this, the last (I sincerely hope) Contra entry that I will
ever edit by hand, I present my plan file for the coming year:
- Get Contra settled in to its new home on contrapositivediary.com
under the WordPress platform. Easy one, though we'll know more
- Begin and complete the rewrite of Assembly Language Step
By Step for the Third Edition, and hopefully see it into print
by the spring of 2010. This is a big-un, and the top priority,
as there is considerable money riding on it.
- Finish and publish Cold Hands and Other Stories, my second
SF collection. Richard Bartrop has already sent me sketches for
the cover art, and they look great. As soon as I can get "Drumlin
Wheel" completed and cleaned up, I have enough material for
a book, and after that, finishing it the book is just a few days
of focused work.
- Finish Old Catholics, or at least get another 50,000
words into it. (I have about 27,000 words down now.) This has
been fun, and it's certainly the quirkiest thing I've ever attempted
- Build a couple of radios. I have the schematic for John Baumann
KB7NRN's 2-tube FM BCB receiver, and that's tops on the list.
- Get my 40M dipole out of my alarm system's hair and do some
hamming on the low bands.
- Get a 6M vertical of some sort situated in the attic.
- Get the last crown installed in my mouth. (This should happen
in early February.) That's the end of a miserably massive piece
of oral rehab that begin in January 2008, and (mercifully) this
last step involves no cutting.
- Finish and launch a couple of model rockets with the local club.
- Read Many Books.
- Eat Less Sugar. Eat More Meat. Lose More Weight. (More on this
- Enjoy the immediate presence of my wife, my dogs, and this extravagantly
Other things will certainly happen along the way, and maybe half
of the above list will not happen, though I have great faith in
the second item and complete faith in the last.
(Don't forget that the next time you check for new Contra entries,
they will not be here. Please click through to Jeff
Duntemann's ContraPositive Diary and update your bookmarks.)
As for tonight, well, Carol and I will remain at home, watch a
movie, brush dogs, and maybe have a glass of wine. There's a decent
conjunction of the Moon and Venus just after sunset, and I intend
to gawk at that a little. Come midnight, I may jump up and yell
"Bang!" in honor of fireworks, if I'm still awake. (If
I'm not still awake, the kids down on Villegreen will handle it
for me, and I'll be awake one way or another.)
Happy New Year from both of us; like, how hard could that
30, 2008: Running Out of 2008
and I got back to Colorado Springs a few hours ago, and the suitcases
haven’t been emptied yet–in fact, they’re in a pile in the corner
of the bedroom and may not even be unlocked until tomorrow morning.
But on the way home from the airport we picked up the puppies, who
seem no worse for the wear, except for their tear-staining. We give
them occasional doses of Tylan
to treat the staining, but we don’t expect the kennel people to
keep up with that. So they’re going to be redeyed for a couple of
The priority today and tomorrow is to get ready for the big switchover
from hand-edited Contra entries (something I’ve been doing for over
ten years!) to WordPress. I did some testing of a free blog editor
called Zoundry Raven
while I was in Chicago, and it worked well enough for me to want
to give it a shot in “production mode.” This post is being edited
in Raven, and if everything works correctly, it will post the same
text and associated images to both LiveJournal and WordPress with
one click and without a lot of screwing around. The images were
an issue on my test post for December 23, and they may still be,
but I’m running out of time to troubleshoot them this year, and
I may have to fix’n'figger along the way if Glitch Happens. (And
doesn’t it always?)
The new URL for the WordPress-based Contra will be www.contrapositivediary.com,
in case you haven’t seen that yet. Come Friday, there will be no
new posts on www.duntemann.com/Diary.htm,
though links to all ten years’ worth of archives will still be there,
at least until I get them moved to the new domain. How far back
I move the hand-edited archives into WordPress depends heavily on
how much work it ends up being, and that remains an open issue.
28, 2008: The Real Problem With Big 3 Bankruptcy
I've been very puzzled by Big Media's consensus that we simply
can't allow the Big Three to file for bankruptcy. I guess too many
people think that "bankruptcy" means sending everybody
home, closing the doors forever, and selling off the machines for
ten cents on the dollar. There are, of course, forms of bankruptcy
that work that way, but that's not what anybody's talking about.
Chapter 11 bankruptcy is about reorganization with an eye toward
continued operation. The reorganized company is forgiven some of
its debts and is given more flexibility to remake itself as a profitable
operation. That's what all three of our automakers should be doing,
and should have been working in that direction for some time. But
GM's board says that bankruptcy
is not an option.
In cruising online articles, I find it peculiar that no one is
raising an interesting possibility: Bankruptcy for the Big Three
means an end to the UAW as we know itand the Big Three can
no longer operate their plants without the UAW's help. Chapter 11
would basically allow a judge to tear up an automaker's union contracts,
allowing the firm to cut salaries, lay off as many people as it
wants to without union consultation, and nullify work rules. It
basically turns a union shop into a union-less shop (not a non-union
shop, but a shop in which the union exists without any power) and
the unique problem with that is that without UAW cooperation, it's
unclear whether GM, Ford, or Chrysler management know enough about
their own SOPs to make the plants work. The UAW, seeing its own
inevitable death (or at least irrelevancy) would have no strong
motivation to work with reorganized automakers. Whether or not the
rank and file would want to keep working, the UAW could shut the
American portion of the industry down, in a strike not so much against
management as against American society. It would be a weird twist
on the goofy Ayn Randian idea of creative people withdrawing from
society to punish society for not "appreciating" their
self-defined importance. "Give us billions of dollars annually
forever or you won't be able to buy Chevies anymore!" Uhhh,
no. It won't work for the Objectivists, and it won't work for the
On the other hand, such a shutdown, as hard as it would be on the
workers, could be the only way to force the changes that have to
happen: The Big Three would close for perhaps as much as a year,
and maybe more, while plants are shuttered, marques retired (do
we still need Buick? Or Pontiac?) and the entire process of making
autos rebuilt from the ground up, more along the lines of non-union
plants operated in the South by overseas companies. There's a good
description of what such
a process might be like over at The Deal, and although it goes
deeper into the finance than most of us could follow, it's worth
a look. This would not be the end of the world. It needn't
be the end of the UAW, either, but the UAW will have to retool itself
every bit as much as management will have to retool the plants.
The other and perhaps more serious problem with the UAW is that
an example) has three times as many retiree members as working members,
and retirees have voting rights. In effect, the UAW is no longer
a worker's union but a pension management organization, and this
should make us a little uneasy. Keeping the plants running is no
longer the overriding concern of UAW membership. The
Feds absorbed the pension plans of dying railroads, and this
may be one reason we cannot make passenger rail service work over
here. (The article is ten years old but worth reading.) There is
some danger that a special autoworkers' retirement system could
make it impossible to produce autos profitably here, but I haven't
been able to find enough on this to have a strong opinion.
I guess the whole situation is a lot more complex than anyone has
understood prior to now. Taylorism
and the century-long one-time labor shortage created by industrialization
made trade unionism inevitable, but both of those forces are now
history. The Big Three need to be remade along the lines of the
Little Five, the foreign-owned "transplant" automakers
that seem to be doing quite well in the US. They are not sweatshops,
and their people seem to be happy. The UAW may refuse to do this,
and management probably doesn't know how. Without cooperation by
both, the task may be impossible, and American automaking may go
the way of the railroads, or become impossible except for foreign
corporations. It's a weird, sad business.
25, 2008: "God Bless All of You...on the Good Earth"
years ago, we watched three human beings travel to the Moon. Well,
they got there, and took a spin or two around it, and then came
home. They didn't land, but that's ok. (Gravity wells are a bitch.)
We didn't appreciate at the time what a feat it was, and would not
in fact understand the bittersweet truth for many years thereafter:
We had a window; it opened, and it closed. It may not open againbut
while it was open, we took it.
Nonetheless, that was a Christmas unlike any other. For years afterward
I had a poster with the Earth rising over a gray Moon and the inscription:
"In the Beginning, God..." It was part of the
Christmas Eve reading by Borman, Lovell, and Anders as they
circled the Moon, which brought tears to countless eyes (including
my own) and continued the movement of my idea of God into the cosmic,
far beyond the cartoonish oversimplifications that were taught in
Catholic grade school, things that, sadly, still define Christianity
in most of the world. God and the universe are far larger and more
complex (and wonderful) than we can possibly imagine, but I gave
it a good shot, and forty years on I am a different man for it.
I require broader perspectives in myself than I otherwise might
have been content with, and (more significantly) I challenge all
conventional wisdom. That was my biggest Christmas present in 1968.
Carol and I will rejoin her family later today in Crystal Lake
(along with Bill and Gretchen and the girls) to have Christmas yet
again. (Why do something that good only once?) I leave you for the
moment with the conclusion of Apollo 8's Christmas message:
"And from the
crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry
Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."
24, 2008: Sliding Into Christmas
I'm not even sure I've mentioned that Carol and I are in Chicago
for Christmas, though it's a shorter trip than most and (as always)
nothing has happened quite as quickly nor as well as we had hoped.
This is worse weather than I've seen on a trip here in years: bitter
cold followed by three days of more or less continuous precipitation.
(As I was saying while shopping the last few days to anyone who
would listen: "So much for global warming." Let's see
if we can make it a meme, or at least a contrarian tagline.)
Yesterday was unusually bad here in Des Plaines. Our condo is only
a few minutes from Randhurst
Mall, the oldest enclosed mall in the Chicago area and at one
point in the mid-60s the second-largest enclosed retail space in
the country. So I decided to head up there, hit Borders on the outskirts,
and then prowl the mall for some last minute gift ideas in the smaller
shops. It took me half an hour to get there in our rented Camry,
slipping and sliding down Rand Road at ten to fifteen miles an hour,
dodging whackos in their CJs who didn't seem to grok important things
like the reduced coefficient of friction. And when I got there,
egad: They had closed the mall three months ago. (One downside
to being an out-of-towner is being out of the loop. Hey, you coulda
told me about that! This is my hometown! That was my mall! Most
of my underwear came from Randhurst when I was a teenager!) When
the snow melts (if it ever does) they're going to tear the mall
down and build a "lifestyle center," which is code these
days for "more damfool condos."
Well, they're certainly going to tear it down. Whether the condos
actually happen or not, we'll see. In any event, some of the outlying
big-box stores were open, and I picked up some odds and ends at
Borders and Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Spotted a book I had heard
about and meant to grab for some time: Good Calories, Bad Calories
by Gary Taubes, (reviewed
briefly here) which is a polemical history of the battle over
whether fat or carbs make you overweight. You've all heard my opinions
on that, and with some luck Taubes will have organized the research
into a form that I can digest and cite to the carbohydrate deniers
when they dive down my throat for eating bacon and eggs regularly
and yet having the temerity to weigh less now than I have in 20
I barely got home intact after threading the ice ballet back along
Rand Road, and (having nabbed a reasonable night's sleep) will shortly
be headed off to Crystal Lake (a 35-mile slither out Highway 14)
to pick up Carol, visit her mom, and then mid-afternoon head back
down to Des Plaines for our Polish Vigilia supper at Gretchen's.
Vigilia is Polish for "vigil," and it's a Polish custom
we observed on Christmas Eve when Gretchen and I were kids. In short,
the family gathers for simple foods from the old country (ok, augmented
by some odd Americanisms like Hawaiian salad) sweet red wine (the
first Gretchen and I had ever had) and a blessing ritual I didn't
appreciate until I was much older: Breaking oplatki (a thin
white wafer like Roman Catholic communion hosts) with one another
and offering a blessing and a wish for the coming year.
Do read what
I wrote back in 2001 about Vigilia and oplatki. It's as true
now as then, especially with our nephews grown men with ladyloves
of their own, and Gretchen's girls becoming interesting individuals
in their own rightand at top volume. After a run of years
when it seemed like every Christmas there were fewer hands across
the table to offer oplatki, life is reasserting itself, and reminding
us that renewal happens. Bidden or unbidden, recognized or
unrecognized, God is with us, and (as slippery as things get at
times) life is good.
21, 2008: Odd Lots
- Foxit Software (which
sells a line of very good PDF-related software, including the
Foxit Reader, which I use daily) has announced an e-ink based
ebook reader, the eSlick.
The device isn't being shipped yet, but there have been some early
reactions in Wired and other places. I'm interested because
Foxit is unlikely to claim (as most ebook enthusiasts do) that
PDF is the spawn of the devil. Worth watching.
- The Loopy Idea of the Month comes from two Ohio academics who
have recently patented the notion of collapsing
hurricanes by flying around them in supersonic aircraft and
(somehow) using the sonic boom shockwaves to scramble the storm.
Apart from the fact that supersonic aircraft use fuel at a prodigous
rate, I still don't quite follow the physics of how this is supposed
to collapse the storm. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- Jim Strickland passed a long a
detailed how-to for extracting metallic titanium from white pigment.
The process is straightforward, if (as it must be) highly
energetic. I think the stickier question is working the titanium
after it's been isolated. Titanium is difficult to melt and very
difficult to machine. I have a piece in my curio cabinet, and
I'm very glad I don't have to make anything from it.
- Many people sent me the latest version of the old joke that
Programming Languages Were Religions..." most of them
lamenting that my favorite languageand my favorite religionwere
not included. So it goes. I'm guessing that Pascal, like Catholicism,
is patient: There will be only one programming language
in use in the hereafter, and it will not be C++. You'll
have to go somewhere else for that.
- The Wall Street Journal tells me that the
RIAA is abandoning its mass-lawsuit strategy of copyright enforcement.
It hasn't worked at reducing music piracy, and its sole effect
was making the music industry bigshots look positively evil.
One can only wonder why it took so long to figure this out, and
whether the damage can ever really be undone.
- Here's a
wry peek at what we may see come out of the Big 3 bailout.
Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link. Have you driven a Pelosi
- Also from Pete comes word that Werner
Von Braun wrote SF. This actually looks pretty goodgotta
love that cover!
19, 2008: Is Everybody Happy?
I just ordered two books: Gross
National Happiness by Arthur Brooks, and The
Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. The books are part of my long-term
research into why we think and act the way we do. I'll report further
next year when I summarize my thoughts so far, but sniffing around
online for reactions to Brooks' book has raised an interesting question:
Can we in fact measure happiness?
I don't always agree with Arthur Brooks, but I admire his willingness
to bring up issues that seem calculated to infuriate liberal opinion-makersand
back his opinions up with reasonable research. One of his controversial
positions in Gross National Happiness is that happiness appears
to correlate with intensity of religious feelings. Cato research
Wilkinson challenges that thesis in his blog, and whereas it's
a reasonable counterpoint, one of the comments below Wilkinson's
essay hit the whole problem between the eyes: People belonging to
deeply conservative religious organizations are pressured, sometimes
intensely, to say that they're happy. (The commenter claims
to be a lapsed Evangelical.) This maps with my own experience dealing
with the conservative Catholic fringe, and yet the truth is that
a lot of these people seem to me to be not only deeply unhappy,
but on the thin edge of panic.
Why this should be is a subject I hate to broach at all and can't
even attempt right now, but set it aside for the moment. The real
flaw in Brooks' research may be that asking a person if he or she
is happy is not a useful way to measure happiness. I see research
summarized online indicating that the
people in Nigeria are the happiest people in the world, though
recent research tags the Danes. The summaries understate the
obvious: Happiness does not mean the same thing to all people. Worse,
there are cultural pressures in a lot of places to fit in and not
make a fuss (Japan comes to mind) and heavy pressure in religious
and other tribal organizations to claim that the tribe provides
everything they need to be happyleading their adherents to
make the statements that are simply expected of them. It's like
the ritual answer to the seminal rhetorical question, "How
ya doin'?" People who answer something other than "Great!"
don't really understand the ritual.
It might be more useful to measure happiness by way of things like
public civility, rate and tenure of marriage, incidence of alcohol
and drug abuse, and so on. If research must be based on questionnaires,
it may be possible to approach the matter from the other side, by
asking more oblique questions about feelings like satisfaction,
pain, sadness, or enthusiasm, or at least things that are not obviously
a part of cultural or religious scripts. The truth may be that the
whole question is meaningless; after all, what is the objective
experience of the color red, or the taste of dry wine? We all experience
the world differently, and we interpret that experience for ourselves
through the lens of our culture and the social structures that are
the most important to us. If we badly want to be part of a sophisticated
social culture, we may choke down a crappy bitter Cabernet and praise
it to the ceiling even if (to us) it's (red) swill, because that's
what the cultural leaders and our "initiated" peers expect.
This is a very deep well of inquiry, and I will be writing more
about it in months to come.
We'll see what Brooks has to say when the book arrives, but I'm
suspicious of the premise, even though I would be happy (as it were)
to be proven wrong.
17, 2008: Red Swill and Warfarin
Today's entry is about classic rat poison. Or maybe a Georgian
folk band. (From our Georgia.) Or perhaps the mis-persistence
of memory, mine specifically. And certainly about the power of true
Hokay. Calling all Baby Boomers formerly of Chicago: Do you recall
seeing signs tacked to the wooden power poles in the alley, warning
us that the City of Chicago had set out "Red Swill and Warfarin"
to combat rats? The memory came to mind in an odd way: I had remembered
my writer friend Chuck Ott casually remarking, some time back in
the 70s, that "Red Swill and Warfarin" would be a great
name for a fantasy thief and his barbarian sidekick. The signs were
a commonplace when I was ten or twelve. And whereas it's been my
experience that absolutely everything has been mentioned
somewhere on the Web at least once (and thus findable via Google)
I found nothing about "red swill and warfarin."
I did find a decent folkie band in Macon called Red
Swill. I found plenty about warfarin,
which is a medical anticoagulant that was toxic in rats until
the rats ate a little too much of it and started developing tolerance
in the 1960s. But no mention of the signs, which all my Boomer friends
knew as just part of the alley background in our home town.
Pete Albrecht mentioned on Skype last night that there is an herbal
called red squill
that is toxic in large doses, and (significantly) an emetic. That's
a big deal if you're a rat, because rats can't vomit, and emetics
put them into convulsions. Aha! So we do find mention
of the thief and his barbarian:
It was the spring of
1967 [in Lincoln Park, Chicago] when I came up with a plan. Spring
was when they baited Pearl Court with Red Squill and Warfarin,
and every few days you’d see a dead rat lying there. Many of them
were decomposing and maggot-eaten but one day I found one in perfect
condition. I picked up that rat by the tail and put it in a shoebox.
I took it to my grandmother’s house, the back yard of which adjoined
Pearl Court, wrapped the box with brightly colored paper and tied
it with a shiny ribbon. I then took it over to Robin’s house a
block away. He wasn’t home, but his older sister was outside with
some of her friends. “Hi, Debbie,” I said in as casual a tone
as I could muster, “I have a present for Robin. Please give it
to him and make sure you tell him it’s from me.” The next day
in school he approached me, grinning like a jackal, and spoke
his first, but not last words to me. “Thanks for the present!”
Yet another example (in my long list) of the truth that if you
don't know what something is called, you can't find it. The
last time it was coupler
nuts, but the nice man at Ace Hardware looked at the sample
I had found in my junkbox and took me right to them. The time before
that it was golabki.
(I know a few Polish words, but can't spell them.) This may
be an unsolveable problem, or at least one with no general solution.
And while I'm at it, here is more
than you probably wanted to know about all the various concoctions
used to kill rats. Bad beer with a little food coloring might work
too, but I'll leave the experiment to someone else.
16, 2008: Mikogo Over Skype
Yesterday I discovered Mikogo,
a Net meeting/remote desktop technology that would be a lot like
VNC and the others I've played with, except that it can be configured
to piggyback on Skype. There is a
Mikogo Skype "extra" (what Skype calls its plug-ins)
and I will be using it to give a remote lecture on Carl & Jerry
to the Southwest Ohio Digital and Technical Symposium on January
10, with the help of Jay Slough K4ZLE.
Jay and I gave it a spin yesterday to make sure we could connect
during the Symposium in January, and in addition to working well,
Mikogo was mighty cool. You install the extra from the Skype Extras
menu, and it comes down the same way that other Skype extras do.
Once installed, you can create a 1-to-1 or 1-to-many connection
with anybody else who has the Mikogo Skype extra running. Skype
handles the audio, and where the connection is between two machines,
the "presenter" (the machine that provides a screen echo
to the other) can be switched back and forth at any time. Mikogo
has a simple whiteboard feature that allows the presenter to draw
lines in various thicknesses, colors, and shapes on the screen.
It also has the option of remote control, so that the non-presenter
can use the mouse and keyboard on the presenter's machine. Pete
Albrecht and I plan to try using Mikogo over Skype to allow me to
control Pete's big Meade telescope from here in Colorado, at least
when it stops raining in Orange County.
I don't have a great deal of experience with the Mikogo system
yet, but after an hour or so of solid connections with Jay and with
Pete, I can say that it's well worth trying if you have any use
for that sort of thing.
15, 2008: Rant: Record-Breaking Cold
It was five below zero when we got up this morning, and The Weather
Channel indicated that this was a new record low for December 15
in Colorado Springs. It was so damned cold out on the back deck
this morning that the dogs didn't want to do their business; they
just stood there looking pitiful, picking up one foot and then another
until we let them in. That was 6:30 AM. Mid-afternoon, it's up to
a sweltering ten degrees Farenheit right now, and Aero was willing
to lift his leg at least once without trying to lift all four feet
We've started to see a pattern here. When we first moved to Colorado
Springs it was dry and relatively warm. Between 2002 and 2006 the
area was in a deepish drought, with much fear that our reservoirs
up in the Rockies were running dry. Snow was sparse and didn't amount
to much. Water restrictions were austere, and we designed our house
and yard such that little nor no watering would have to be done.
Everything's on a dripper, with a sensor in the rain gutter ready
to shut the system down for several days after any detectable rain.
Oh, and I have zero grass to mow.
The last two winters here, however, have been much colder and snowier,
and have begun significantly earlier. People used to joke about
golfing on Christmas Day; well, not since 2006. We had plenty of
rain last spring and summer, and the reservoirs are full enough
so that nobody's worried. The city has complained, in fact, that
citizens have been so good about conserving water that their water
revenues are down "critically." It was a good excuse to
try to raise taxes, but they have to ask us first in Colorado, and
we whipped their greedy asses this recent election cycle. The city's
response? Forget cutting expenses. Repeal the water restrictions,
environment be damned. (Goes to show you how much governments really
So we're buckling down here for a long, cold, and expensive winter.
I find it interesting that over the past few years, whenever there
occurred any weather that somebody somewhere didn't like, it was
immediately ascribed to Global Warmingunless
it was colder-than-average temps. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts,
what have you: Global Warming! Cold arctic air over Nebraska?
Umm, well, errrr...let's see what the weather's like in Costa Rica!
And how 'bout them Blackhawks!
It was, of course, a horrible mistake to call anthropogenic climate
change "global warming" to begin with. We know almost
nothing about the forces that bear on climate. We know to some extent
what climate was like in the past, but we have almost no idea
why particular changes occurred when and where they did. Our
computer climate models are garbage. The science is not so much
bad as absent. And even though regional cooling is as likely an
effect of elevated CO2 levels as regional warming, voters who are
half-bankrupted by winter heating bills are going to going to cast
a jaundiced eye on the alarmists who spun tales of melting icecaps
and smothering heat. Like almost everything else, it's a lot more
complex and subtle than that.
We need to work on reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
This begins and mostly ends with wholesale adoption of nuclear energy.
(If you don't think so, show me the math for your solution.)
We also need to admit that we know almost nothing about what changes
in atmospheric chemistry can actually do. We are not good at this.
We are really not good at this. Reducing CO2 levels could
cause regional warmingor another Ice Age. The science just
isn't there. Let us not pretend that we are smarter than we are,
shall we? (We were clearly not smart enough to avoid using an idiot's
moniker like "global warming" to describe a difficult
and subtle scientific challenge.)
13, 2008: WordPress Tags and Categories
Contra is moving to its
own domain January 1, and will become a WordPress
install as of that date. (Posts there now are all test posts and
will be deleted before it goes live.) I've been studying Wordpress
and configuring the install to do what I need it to do, and although
it's taken some time and some fooling-with, long-term it will save
me a huge amount of effort, compared to the hand-editing
I have done now for over ten years.
One of the interesting features of WordPress is that it supports
both tags and categories. A lot of people scratch their heads over
that, but when I saw it I understood it immediately. Tags and categories
both apply a text string to a post. The differences from a content
management perspective are minor: Categories are predefined and
applied via a drop-down list, but you create tags "on the fly"
at post-time. You can use tags and categories interchangeably if
you want, but using them together allows an interesting sort of
two-axis classification of posts. One axis (best handled by tags)
describes what a post is about: politics, religion, publishing,
Linux, Wi-Fi, and so on. The other axis (best handled by categories)
describes the shape of a post, in the sense of a literary
form: idea pieces, reviews, rants, travelogs, memoir, and so on.
The increase in precision is delicious: Not all posts about wine
are reviewsI've done at least one wine rant and will probably
do more, and wine travelogs are possiblebut if you're more
interested in reviews than in rants, selecting the "reviews"
category and looking for the "wine" tag will get you exactly
what you want.
Both categories and tags work best when used sparingly. Five hundred
tags each used once or twice are not only not as useful as keyword
search (which is available in WordPress) but less useful,
because after awhile we forget what tags we've created and create
new tags that are so similar as existing tags as to spawn serious
search entropy. (I had this problem on LiveJournal more than once.)
Categories in particular should be few and distinct. I brainstormed
with myself a few days ago, jotted down as many category identifiers
as occurred to me, and then ruthlessly winnowed the list down to
a predetermined limit of ten or fewer. The eight categories I settled
on are these:
activities; "Dear Diary:"
Ideas & Analysis: Commentary on news plus ideas and
Memoir: My personal history
Odd Lots: Short items presented without much discussion
Rants: Complaints and other over-the-top material
Reviews: Evaluations of products or services
Travelogs: Where I went and what I saw/suffered/learned
Tutorials: How things work and how to do them
I also have a tags list that runs to a little over fifty right
now, and includes all the expected keywords describing my many interests,
like religion, publishing, ebooks, dogs, hardware, ham radio, psychology,
and so on. I spent a sobering half an hour meditating on my accumulated
tags list in LiveJournal and threw most of them out. I'm going to
try to keep myself to fifty tags or fewer and don't expect a great
deal of difficulty creating the list. (I'll post it once I consider
it reliable.) This sort of thing is called a "controlled vocabulary"
in information science circles, and the trick, of course, is to
keep it controlled.
LiveJournal will continue to be a mirror. One unanswered question
is whether I will attempt to import LiveJournal posts to WordPress.
This apparently can be done, though I haven't tried it and understand
that it could seriously mess up my newfound tag disciplineand
require me to categorize several hundred posts. I may import but
only selectively. Research continues.
10, 2008: Odd Lots
- Carol and I just finished the bulk of our Christmas cards. The
cards we bought this year had little sparkles glued (badly) to
them, and as we processed the 70-odd cards going out, the cards
began shedding, and sparkles are now showing up...everywhere.
I'm looking down at my shirt cuffs right now, and they're blazing
like a disco ball. Next year: No sparkles!
- Illinois' illustrious governor will soon (we hope) be matriculating
to the Governors' Wing at the Joliet Correctional Center, and
I am displeased to announce that he went to my high school.
In fact, he was a freshman when I was a senior, and his sneaky
little face is in the Lane Tech 1970 yearbook. Pete Albrecht was
also a freshman that year, and narrowly missed out on the cooties
inherent in having a future felon governor in your homeroom. Pete
tells the story at greater length (with scans from the yearbook)
over at InfoBunker. (Scroll down to the December 9, 2008 entry.)
- David Beers passed along a link to what might be the absolute
worst idea of 2008: Google Code's research project aimed at allowing
x86 native code to run in a browser. Hoo-boy. My question:
If the Cloud is so great, why risk being pwned at native-code
speeds? (And isn't this what Java is for?)
- Google Books has very recently posted back issues for a number
of venerable magazines, including Popular Mechanics, Popular
Science, CIO, Ebony, Jet, New York,
Vegetarian Times, American Cowboy, and who knows what else.
(I don't see a master list of magazines.) The
PM collection runs from 1905 to 2000, and isn't just a scattering
of issues, but damned near all of them. So what was PM's cover
story the month you were born? (Mine? "Mermaid
- Alas, you can look at the Google Books magazine back issues,
but you can't save them to disk or print them out. Or
can you? (I haven't tried this yet.)
- The wonderfully named Nevada
Lightning Laboratory has managed to transmit
800 watts of power across five meters' distance, besting the
previous record of 60 watts across two meters, set by MIT. The
technique is not new, and was patented by our boy Nikola Tesla
100 years ago. Very cool, but are my wire-frame glasses going
to melt when I step into the field with my Tesla-powered laptop?
- This Friday's full Moon happens only four hours from Lunar perigee,
is the biggest of the year, 14% greater in angular diameter
(not especially noticeable) and 30% brighter (way noticeable!)
than the apogee Moon we saw earlier this year. That's bright,
it's high, and if you've got snow all over the place, midnight
will be knee-deep in moonshine. (Not that kind.)
inflatable breasts got lost on their way from China (where
there is evidently an inflatable breast factory) to Australia
(where they were to be polybagged with a men's magazine) and have
only recently been found in Melbourne. Just thought you'd like
8, 2008: The Algernon Conundrum
My previous entry on drug prohibition (December
5, 2008) triggered a great deal of discussion, and prompted
someone to send me a link to a
story on chemical cognitive enhancement. People are using a
number of drugs and non-regulated chemicals to give themselves a
performance edge at work or school, and the question of whether
this is a good thing or not is complex. Caffeine tops the list of
cognitive enhancers by popularity; I also have an intuition that
certain "smart drinks" containing herbals like ginko biloba
really work because they have more caffeine than Mountain Dew. Most
cognitive enhancers are stimulants of some kind, and people who
depend on them often lose sleep, which some research suggests is
behind a great many health problems from obesity to hypertension.
Other less obvious effects may exist. Caffeine is ancient but most
drugs are not, and we have no clue what they might do to the
human system over an adult life of forty years or more.
However, someday we will know. The question then becomes: If we
can improve brain function with chemicals that have no adverse effects,
should we? And if those chemicals actually make human beings brighter,
less angry, more social, or more effective in other ways, are there
grounds for restricting their use? One could argue that life's game
is now all about brains and personalitybrawn went out of fashion
as a career choice a generation agoand letting people "cheat"
with pills or patches is fundamentally unfair to those who can't
afford the pills or patches or by some odd quirk of physiology do
not respond to them. Beyond that, objections thin out pretty quickly.
The benefits are immense, and if the costs were modest, we could
make the enhancers available to anybody who wanted them.
The remaining objection is subtle: There are rarely any free
lunches. Assuming that we can find cognitive enhancers without
some sort of damaging side effects might be naive. Evolution made
us as we are, and did so at the cost of billions of "bad throws"
of the genetic dice. Making better humans may come at a cost, and
the SF writer in me wants to ask questions like this: Suppose you
could boost your intelligence radically using a chemical that cranked
up brain chemistry at the cost of burning your brain out after forty
years or so. I'm not talking about a little better detail recall
or a little more personal energy to work through your do-it list.
(That's what people who use Ritalin or Provigil today are achieving.)
I'm talking about being able to grasp and integrate massive amounts
of information into your daily experience of life; of being able
to hold dazzlingly interesting discussions with other people that
range across all human knowledge; of being able to understand the
ways that widely separated facts interlock and shed light on things
that you would never have thought were related at all. Burning through
a do-it list a little faster is just a temptation to add more drudgery
to your life. But being able to kick back and your chair and Put
It All Together, wow! That would tempt me. I'm not naturally
prone to envy, but I confess to being a little envious of the dazzlingly
bright people I've met in my life. Looks, eh. Wealth, eh. Power,
yukkh. Brains, yeah.
Now, suppose that being such a person would reduce the length of
my life from eighty-five to sixty years. Would I still be tempted?
That's a tough question, especially if the last twenty-five years
of my life were assumed to be lived within a gradually deteriorating
body. To have a dazzling mind while still having a body capable
of making use of itthat's the temptation. If the cost is early
death, well...what would you do?
I call this the Algernon Conundrum, from Daniel Keyes' seminal
story and novel, Flowers for Algernon, which I read in high
school and which affected me deeply. A mentally handicapped man
becomes a genius through medical intervention, but the effect is
short-lived, and discovered to greatly shorten the life of the lab
mouse (Algernon of the title) that first underwent the procedure.
Charlie soons reverts to his original self, with the implication
that he will die far younger than his peers. The novel side-stepped
the obvious question: Was it worth it? That was forty years
ago, and I still haven't decided. I doubt I'll live long enough
for it to be a choice I'll have to make, but I often wonder how
our grandchildren will deal with the difficult tradeoffs that medical
technology will inevitably offer them. Drugs? Getting high, well,
that's going to be the least of it.
5, 2008: Rant: The Lesson We Haven't Learned
Prohibition of alcohol as a legal institution ended 75 years ago
today. It was the second-worst thing that the United States has
ever baked into its legal system. Slavery was far worse, of course,
though slavery was not originally an American idea and came to us
from far older cultures. Prohibition created the Mafia (see Colin
Wilson's The Criminal History of Mankind) and legitimized
the sort of neighbor-against-neighbor suspicion and all-your-privacy-are-belong-to-us
government overreaching that psychopathic idealism (in the person
of Woodrow Wilson, the most evil man ever to hold the Presidency
in the US) tried and failed to institutionalize earlier in the century.
Understanding Prohibition is tricky these days, and it took a long
time for me to figure it out. It was a perfect storm of sorts, fed
by the Industrial Revolution, the abject nastiness of big city life,
and especially immigration. At the base of it, Prohibition was a
cry of fury against the flood of Irish and southern European Catholic
immigrants entering the country (legally) after 1880 or so. The
lives of these people were uniformly and almost unimaginably miserable.
Catholic immigrants were considered subhuman by mainstream Protestant
Americans, who exploited them whenever opportunity allowed, and
blocked their path into higher social classes by every means available,
legal and otherwise. (My mother, the daughter of penniless Polish
immigrants, said little about this, but what she did say was chilling.)
It's no surprise that immigrants took to drink. Cut off from their
own birth cultures and living in a culture where Americans of (slightly)
longer tenure actively and unapologetically hated them, they drank
and drank wildly, sometimes drinking themselves to death. Immigrants
were blamed for the coarsening of American life in every way, were
condemned for not learning English, and for creating a criminal
underclass. The weird stridency of Protestant anti-Catholicism (which
still exists in some places, weirder than ever) pushed the movement
over the top.
Prohibition gave us violence, police corruption, organized crime,
and a justification for government intrusiveness that ultimately
spawned the political division that gave us two Americas on the
same soil: One feeling that government is the solution, the other
that government is the problem. Only slavery damaged us more.
You would think that 13 years of Prohibition would have burned
something into the collective American consciousness: This doesn't
work. But no: The states had to be bribed into letting go of
Prohibition by being granted powers over alcohol that would have
been struck down as unconstitutional prior to 1933. The unsated
prohibitionist psychology then turned to psychoactive substances,
and while the prohibition we now have on the books is less broad
than the one against alcohol, its effects run much deeper. People
resist (as they resisted Prohibition eighty years ago) and when
people resist, we tighten the screws even more, creating a global,
multiethnic network of organized crime, destroying young lives for
minor infractions, and denying painkillers to people dying of cancer.
(This may not happen often, but having watched my own father die
slowly of cancer, I insist without qualification that it must not
The answer isn't to eliminate all regulation of psychoactive substances.
The answer (as always) is a little more complex than that. We have
to honestly ask ourselves: Would things really be worse if
we loosened up some? (Of course, there's no way to know without
trying.) But more than that, we need to put some serious time and
money into researching why people abuse drugs and alcohol to begin
with. Most substance abusers that I've known well were clearly depressed.
I didn't make the connection when I was younger; it wasn't until
losing my publishing company dipped me (lightly) into the bad water
of depression a few years back that I grasped that depression is
a form of pain that simply can't be understood without experiencing
it. It isn't just sadness; it's something far darker and stranger,
a gray force that saps the will and dims the light of one's own
humanity. Depression and substance abuse are strongly correlated,
and while causes and effects are still not clear, I intuit that
many seriously depressed people reach for primal stimulation (sex,
drugs, booze, gambling, risk-taking) simply to remind themselves
that they aren't dead. And when that doesn't work, the next step
is as obvious as it is appalling.
We can do better. Alas, because so little research is being done,
we don't know how much better we can do. Prozac is cheaper than
prison (both financially and psychologically) but until we as a
culture can get past the weird notion that depression is a mark
of a weak personality (and treating depression a sop to childish
intransigence) the drugs will flow, the violence will continue,
and the flames of young lives will wink out under the pressure of
an unnameable but unbearable pain.
4, 2008: FuzzyMemories of Classic Chicago TV
I have a lot of things on my mind (and plate) today, but I did
want to pass along a pointer to a site that I received from Kevin
the Museum of Classic Chicago Television. What we have here is a
large collection of short video clips from Chicago TV, the bulk
of it from the 1977-1990 era. The clips are mostly short snippets
of local TV shows, local TV station IDs and transitions, and especially
commercials. I haven't had the time to go through much of it, but
the Empire Carpet Man is in there, along with Boushelle Rugs ("Hudson
3-2700" sung in that boomy, basso profundo voice) and
clumsy pitches for a lot of other local companies, including McDade
(now long extinct), Zayre (ditto, though not exclusively of Chicago),
Jewel, Venture (gone), Kiddieland (still there), Victory Auto Wreckers,
and lots of TV ads for Chicago radio stations, like "FM 103
and a half." Plenty of kid stuff from Bozo, Ray Rayner, Garfield
Goose, Svengoolie, Son of Svengoolie, and Gigglesnort Hotel. The
clips that aren't commercials often include commercials, and the
site provides abundant evidence that 70s hairdos and clothes really
were as bad as we remember them, and not just in Chicago. (WFLD
news anchor Kathy McFarland looks better than most, but oh, those
guys on Fernwood 2 Night...)
Carol and I left Chicago when I got a transfer to Rochester, NY
in early 1979, so nearly all of this stuff dates from after my era,
but there are a handful of things from the early 70s, and some clips
from an early educational cartoon called "The Funny Company"
from 1962. Home videotaping first became a big thing in the late
70s, and that's probably why there isn't much there from the 60s,
as much as I would have liked to see it.
interview with Rick Klein, FuzzyMemories.TV's creator. The site
is on my short list of things to spend some time on when I have
time to spend, but if you're in that space right now, go take a
1, 2008: The Future of Contra
Earlier this afternoon, I finally did something I'd been meaning
to do for literally years: Configure a dedicated domain for
ContraPositive Diary. It's done, and I've pointed contrapositivediary.com
to the WordPress instance
I created back in September on Fused
Network. I'm still learning it, testing it and interviewing
widgets and plug-ins, so although the domain and the blog are now
live, there's still not much to see.
That will change on January 1. On that day I will stop editing
Contra entries by hand (as I've done since 1998) and begin using
WordPress. Entries from 1998-2008 will remain pure HTML and be accessible
as such. I'm going to copy them from duntemann.com over to contrapositivediary.com,
but the copies on duntemann.com will remain there until I kill the
Sectorlink hosting account and move the domain over to Fused Network.
I intend to keep my
LiveJournal account, and use the
LJXP crossposter plug-in to automatically cross-post anything
I post on WordPress to LJ.
There's a lot of other stuff on duntemann.com that has to go somewhere.
The duntemann.com domain is begging for a new index page anyway,
and I'm working on how to organize it. I do know that my Maker material
on electronics, telescopes, and kites will all be rewritten using
CSS and placed under my junkbox.com
index. I intend to install a new instance of the Gallery photo
manager there, and move the Tech Projects portion of gallery.duntemann.com
over to gallery.junkbox.com. Beyond that, well, I won't know until
Some conceptual issues remain undecided; e.g., should I continue
to group short link citations into larger Odd Lots entries, or just
post them as I find them as individual entries? The way I do it
now is an artifact of how I create Contra entries generally: I keep
a text file in a window and add short items to it until I decide
it's time to format them and post them as a group. That becomes
unnecessary with WordPress, and I can streamline the whole process
by just popping up Semagic (or something like it) and posting them
Right Now instead of storing them locally until I have time to format
them for uploading.
WordPress itself is an amazing
thing. I'm still trying to figure out what all it can do, either
by itself or with the jungle of plug-ins you can find for it. What
I know it can do is save me time, which seems to be in shorter
supply every year, and that, ultimately, is what the whole exercise