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June 29, 2007: Shades of Gray

55 today—and glad of it. Why regret getting older? I remember being young, heh. There are lessons to be taken from living fifty-five years. Let me run down a few here:

  • The cost of youth is ignorance; you know less than you think you do.
  • The cost of wisdom is pain; there comes a point where you know more than you want to.
  • Nothing is ever as simple as it first appears to be.
  • Certainty is the greatest sin.

I could add a few, but what I might add (for example, things like God exists and Cynicism is cowardice) are not so much lessons learned as personal convictions founded in faith.

I've spoken of most of these here on Contra these past nine years, but one of them is worth an anecdote: In 1967, a neighborhood girl took a liking to me, which both astounded and delighted me, as it had come completely out of left field. I had been rejected or ignored by all the girls I had thought warmly of prior to that time, and now, yikes! I tasted the first clumsy promise of love. Her phone time was rationed, so we wrote each other letters, even though she lived perhaps 2,000 feet to the south-southeast of me. This trained me to think about relationships, rather than just live by my emotions. In writing her letters I thought a lot about why she liked me, and never came up with a reasonable answer. (It was easier two years later when I met Carol and embarked on my first mature relationship.) I remember thinking that things don't always make sense—a pretty powerful conclusion to reach for someone raised to be rational. This was certainly true of the lyrics of popular songs that I liked, most of which in that era were idiotic.

Then there was this song. I don't precisely recall when, but I was sitting in the livingroom with Judy and playing records on what my father called the "low-fi," our low-cost hi-fi. The album was the Monkees' Headquarters, from which my favorite song was the Mann/Weil composition "Shades of Gray." Like most young teens, I thought in terms of black and white, and here was a song telling me that there was nothing to be had in the world but murk. I liked the melody and so I figured, well, it makes no less sense than anything else in the Top 40. On a whim, I asked her to slow dance with me. No other girls had ever danced with me except my cousins (lotsa Polish weddings were happening in my family thenabouts) and so, be it ever so clumsy, she took my hand and we danced. I was transported—how was this possible!—and the song was forever imprinted in my memory, as living evidence that life could be wonderful, whether it made sense or not.

Thirty years passed. I joined and left various tribes as I finished high school and then college. I tried to be a liberal and it failed for me; thinking that liberalism was bogus I tried to be a conservative and that didn't work either. The older I got, the more I realized that there were no simple answers to any difficult question, and sometimes no answers at all. My Headquarters album perished somewhere along the way, and I don't think I heard "Shades of Gray" much at all until the MP3 era began in 1998. (I don't think it was ever a single and thus got no radio play.) The first time I heard it after those many years I was poleaxed: It was perhaps the most brilliant lyric 60s pop music had ever produced. When the world (and I) were young, things were simple. Now there are only shades of gray.

Was I depressed? Hardly. I finally understood (now that I was in my late 40s) that easy answers are for the most part murderous things—as is the certainty that they inspire. The song had made sense back when I was 14, but I had needed to grow into the sense that it offered. The good news was that I had done that growing, and although I have felt the occasional tugs of certainty (and its deadly bastard child, idealism) I knew what it was and didn't embrace it.

Complexity is the great pleasure of life, and its salvation: When things are complex, we all have "wiggle room" to figure things out, make the small mistakes that we must, and move the human condition forward. When things are seen as too simple, we get stuck in glowing fantasy places that can never be made real, and into which people must be pushed by force, even if it kills them. (The seductively simple fantasy of Marxism killed a hundred million people in the twentieth century alone.)

Nothing is simple, and nothing is certain. If you can't accept this, maybe you're still too young. Give it time. It worked for me.

June 28, 2007: Alien Graffiti

On my morning walk today I took the bike trail south along Main St. in Crystal Lake past the rail spur where the Union Pacific usually stashes a few freight cars. While passing by I noticed a bit of graffiti on a hopper car and snapped a photo. The image is clearly Boba Fett, but the alphabet in which the inscription is set remains a mystery. It looks like something partway between Klingon and Hebrew. Below is a wider view, showing where the art was on the hopper car. What little text is in the other drawings is in typical slum English.

I know I have a few Jewish readers (few Klingons read Contra, though it's their loss) and if any of that script looks familiar, do clue me in.

June 27, 2007: Semi-Sweet vs. Off-Dry

One of the questions I'm asked very regularly by people who cannot abide dry wine is this: How do I tell how dry (or sweet) a bottle of wine is from the label? Answer: Mostly, you can't. The level of residual sugar in wine (which determines its place on the dry-sweet spectrum) is very precisely measurable, but there is no legal requirement to put the residual sugar level on a wine label, and so most wineries do not. The broad categories into which wine sweetness can be placed run like this:

  • Dry: Less than 1% residual sugar (RS).
  • Off-Dry: 1%-2.5%.
  • Semi-Sweet: 2.5%-4%
  • Sweet: 4%-8%
  • Dessert: 8% and up

Wine snobs often complain about as little as 0.5% RS, which may be part of why wineries don't put precise figures on their labels. When I speak of "off-dry" vs. "semi-sweet" in Contra, I mostly have to go by taste, as I don't have numbers, much as I would like them. Furthermore, some wine types are all over the map, the best example being White Zinfandel, which I've tasted as anywhere from off-dry to sweet. (Most white zins hover on the border between off-dry and semi-sweet.)

German wines have their own terms, and because a lot of very good non-dry wines come from Germany (where people don't engage in wine snobbery to the extent that Americans do) I'll summarize here:

  • Extra Trocken (very dry) less than 0.4%
  • Trocken (dry) 0.4% - 0.9% (Kabinett)
  • Halbtrocken (literally, half-dry; what I consider off-dry) 0.9% - 1.2% (Spatlese)
  • Lieblich (semi-sweet) 1.2% - 4.5% (Auslese)
  • Suss (sweet, generally dessert) 4.5% and up. (Eiswein, Beerenauslese, etc.)

Sometimes the figure is given online, often in slightly obfuscated form, in terms of grams/liter. A wine with 2 grams of residual sugar per liter of wine is considered a 0.2% wine and pretty dry. A wine with 30 grams of sugar per liter is a 3% wine and semi-sweet. CK Mondavi quotes their wines this way, while Robert Mondavi quotes them as conventional percentages, at least in their PDF brochures. Asking people at the wine shop is dicey, since wine shop people generally have an ideological aversion to anything that isn't either bone dry or else a European dessert wine.

Other clues you can use to spot non-dry wine:

  • "Late harvest" generally means "sweeter than dry" and also less tannic, at least among reds. That said, this term covers a lot of territory, from off-dry to very sweet dessert wines.
  • "Serve chilled" or "summer wine" imply non-dryness. Most dry white wines (like Chardonnay) are assumed to do their best at something below room temperature, though duels have been fought over just how much below. Having to explicitly say "best serve chilled" is code for "not dry."
  • "Very drinkable" also tends to mean non-dry, though I think it's a snob euphemism for "wine you can gulp down without grimacing." Not all "gulpable" wine is bad wine, and I did plenty of grimacing as I learned to like dry wine. (I still grimace at the bitter oaky swill that passes for Chardonnay these days.)

I should point out here that I review only non-dry wines in Contra, not because I like nothing else, but because reviews of dry wine are everywhere and people who cannot abide dry wine are poorly served (nay, generally insulted as unworthy yahoos) in the conventional wine press. I'm guesstimating that more than half the wine I drink is dry to very dry (0.5% RS and down) and I drink it happily and often with delight. It's the snobbery I object to. There is no necessary connection between wine sweetness and wine quality. None. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

June 26, 2007: Odd Lots

  • George Ewing discovered that the much-abused Silvercup Rocket that we saw in 1980 has been acquired by the AirZoo aviation museum in Kalamazoo (was acquired and moved, in fact, back in 2004), which has begun what may be a long but worthwhile restoration project on the artifact. There's another 2004 picture from the AirZoo here, in a PDF.
  • In the past week I have been inundated with copies of an emailed malware-planter that pretends to be an online greeting card. The domains it points to vary, but all so far end in .hk (Hong Kong) and use the subject line "You've received a postcard from a family member!" Years ago when I first saw online greeting cards I cringed; they were an exploit waiting to happen, and I have long told people not to open them. Besides, if it's the thought that counts, it takes more thought (and thus might mean more to your card-ee) if you choose a paper card, write something in it, peel a stamp, and take it down to the mailbox.
  • One reason (there are actually quite a few) that I like Colorado Springs in the summer is that we don't have much standing water and thus not much in the line of mosquitoes. Here in Chicago, there's a puddle in every gully and the bloodsuckers pretty much rule the gloaming. Larry Nelson sent a link to a nice product concept: Stand by a box fan with a handy clip-on net, and when the little bastards come by for a taste, whoosh! They're in the net. Be the bait!
  • I got chewed out a little for talking about "shit wine" in yesterday's rant, but (once again) George Ewing was on top of things and sent me a link to a wine that pretty much fills the bill.
  • Seagate has announced a one terabyte hard drive, enabled by the use of perpendicular recording rather than stacking more platters on the spindle. I don't think that they're the first 1 TB drive, but Seagate's announcement definitely means we're out of stunt territory. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.
  • Similarly, this past March Samsung announced a 64GB solid state (Flash) drive designed to directly replace 1.8" laptop hard drives. My X41 Tablet has a 60GB hard drive; hardware gets old fast. No price announced, but it won't be cheap—at least for the first month or so, heh.

June 25, 2007: Red Heron and Another Jeff Wine Rant

(Important note: This is a rant. If you don't know what a rant is, please look it up. I've discovered that I've had to warn some people, as it's a bit of a departure for me. Thank you.)

The mostly insipid Slate has (finally) knocked one out of the park: Mike Steinberger's recent four-part series on wine language and individual differences in how we taste things, including wine. Mike has confirmed for all time what I have long suspected: That bitter wine (including most Cabernets and nearly all Chardonnays) is shit wine. No, he didn't say that. What he confirmed is that the human experience of taste is not uniform—we don't all taste the same things the same ways.


Wine snobs generally assume that if they say a wine is spectacular and sublime, it is. If said wine makes Jeff gag for its bottomless bitterness, well, that's because Jeff is a yahoo red-stater with insufficient education and breeding to appreciate the spectacularly sublime whiff of cat piss and moldy oak floorboards. The possibility that bitter tastes overwhelm all other tastes in my mouth doesn't occur to them, because it doesn't happen to them, and of course their experience is normative. But now—OMG—one of the wine snobs has had the courage to admit it.

The series is informative and funny; read it all if you have any least interest in wine. Mike explains the current state of the art in flavor science, and how research seems to divide humanity into supertasters, tasters, and nontasters, who differ primarily in the intensity of their reaction to bitter flavors. (Here's another piece on the topic.) Then he lays waste to the whole concept by getting his sense of taste quantitatively tested, only to discover that the science as it applies to him points in all different directions: His genes, his tongue anatomy, and his sensitivity to bitter flavors do not agree. As is true in so many different areas, we find that in the subjective experience of flavor, we need more science, and better.

Wow. A wine critic has been forced to admit what most of us intuitively grasp: Each of us tastes what we eat and drink in entirely different ways. The standard language and uniform culture of wine enthusiasm are learned, and although they are weakly based on identifiable nuances in taste, the operative word is "weak." This language and culture are passed along as received wisdom and mercilessly enforced, though every so often a cultural power like Roald Dahl has the courage to call the whole pretentious business the nonsense that it is.

Here's the only thing you really need to know about wine, and it's as true of wine as it is true (as Professor Schickele says) of music: If it tastes good, it is good. Do not apologize for what you like, ever.

Let me throw yet another handful of mud into the faces of the wine snobs. Michigander Steve Salaba brought a bottle of St. Julian's Red Heron wine ($7 at Meijer's) to Chicago on his last trip here, and we tried it during dinner at Gretchen and Bill's last week. It's a semi-sweet, non-vintage blend of American red grapes and Concord grapes, and quite unlike anything we've ever had before. It's a wonderful summer grilling wine that goes beautifully with the hot dogs and hamburgers that Bill expertly flung about on the coals. Serve it chilled.

Red Heron is about 75% Concord, which is a taste you don't get much in wine because wine snobs hate Concord and have declared it bad in all its possible uses. According to them, Concord tastes "foxy." Umm...what does that mean? And is it really bad? The truth is that we're in circular reference territory here: Technically, "foxy" refers to the flavor of the Concord grape, an American native that was originally called the "fox grape." So the wine snobs dislike Concord grapes because they taste like...themselves. I suspect that it really means "reminds of us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are unworthy fare for self-anointed cultural sophisticates." (One particularly pugnacious wine critic called the Concord grape a "mutant blueberry," though it really is a grape and tastes nothing like blueberries—or oak floorboards either, which we consider a big plus.)

Red Heron is not easy to find outside of Michigan, and I'm unlikely to get it once we return to Colorado. So it is with relish that I will recall sipping Red Heron from my grandmother Sade Duntemann's 1919 crystal goblets, between bites of Bill's most excellent hamburgers. Life is good, wine does not have to be dry, and your experience of wine—as with all of life—is unique. Let the wine snobs chew their floorboards with ecstatic praises. It works for them. You and I can see it otherwise without explanation or apology.

June 23, 2007: The Espresso Book Machine Gets Real

Reports are pouring in from many places (including Tony Potts and the Make Blog) that the first publicly available Espresso Book Machine has been installed at the New York Public Library. I've been watching this thing since 2001, and I confess I've been a little puzzled why it's taken six years to get the damned thing to the starting gate. No matter; it's there, and it's now happily spitting out nicely formatted paper copies of public-domain books for library patrons.

Print-on-demand book manufacturing has been around for some time. The Xerox DocuTech machine first saw use in the early-mid 1990s, and it now has numerous competitors. The Espresso Book Machine is notable because it's a book manufacturing robot, and requires no human fussing to make a book. (Keeping it running long-term may require a little skilled labor, heh.) You basically select a book from its catalog and push a button, and a few minutes later you get a single copy of the book. This requires some cleverness, especially on the binding side, but it looks like they made it work. My experience in repairing copiers and duplicators suggests that it was reliability that held it back. If that problem's been solved, Espresso has its job cut out for it.

A fleet of these in the basement of a big bookstore could enable what I call "replenish-on-demand" bookselling, which could turn the book retailing business (and thus book publishing, which shapes itself in response to book retailing) inside out. I can only assume that Barnes & Noble and Borders are watching. When they decide to take the plunge, well, that will be the show to watch.

June 20, 2007: Fireflies Rising

One quick note about the trip out here: When we spent the night in Des Moines last Saturday, we stayed at a Best Western that bordered a high school with a large grassy field between us and the school buildings. While walking the dogs behind the hotel around 9 PM, Carol and I watched the fireflies out across the field in the deepening dusk. I haven't lived near fireflies for a long time, and I saw something that I don't think I ever noticed before: The male fireflies (that is, the ones that actually fly) seem to flash mostly while moving upward. I saw a handful flashing while hovering, but after several minutes I failed to see a single one flash on a downward trajectory.

It was startling: They gave the impression of sparks rising over a pinewood fire. I don't think I would have noticed at all except that it was a big field and there were hundreds of fireflies active at once, rather than the three or four we would see in the front yard back in Chicago when I was a kid. They weren't synchronized at all (and some tropical species of fireflies do synchronize flashes, which must be awesome to behold in a big field) which made them look even more like sparks over a fire.

Nothing more than that. I don't know why this preference for upward flashing would be of evolutionary advantage to the fireflies, and it may not be. It is, however, a lesson: Pay attention! The world is full of wonders. Blink (or play videogames all the time) and you'll miss them.

June 18, 2007: Guess Where?

I haven't said anything here for a few days because...we drove to Chicago. I won't go into why at the moment, but the decision was a quick one and a little unexpected. We decided to take it slower and do it in three days rather than two (as last time) given that the weather forecast looked good and I didn't expect to be dancing in the rain with 18-wheelers.

It was, in fact, sunny and beautiful the whole way there, so on our first day out we jogged a little north off I-80 at Ogallala, in western Nebraska, and took a look at Lake McConaghy, which was formed by damming the Platte River. I wasn't prepared for what I saw: (Off-) white sand beaches in Nebraska! Better still, they allow you to drive your car right onto the beach, and don't fuss about dogs running on the beach or going into the water. The beaches are evidently natural, from extremely fine river sand worn away from the limestone strata we could see exposed on the hillsides. The lake is huge and the beaches seemed to go on forever. I brought my digital thermometer and dropped its probe into the lake. The water was 72°—cold, but I've been in colder. We decided not to attempt it on the way out, but we're hoping that the water will warm significantly while we're in Chicago, and intend to take a day off on the trip back to dunk on the Lake McConaghy beach.

The rest of the trip was uneventful—though we passed a couple of cattle feedlots near Kearney, Nebraska that closed up our sinuses bigtime. QBit and Aero behaved very well, and traffic moved pretty monolithically at 5 MPH over the stated limit. We took notes on places we might visit on the backswing: the Amana Colonies, Wallace Winery in Iowa, and a few state parks with swimming lakes or ponds.

Late Sunday morning we again left I-80 briefly, to lunch in Grinnell, Iowa and see the 1914 "jewel box" Merchants Bank building, designed by Louis Sullivan. It's very identifiably Sullivan; however, the brickwork on the front face looks very recent compared to everything else.

So we're here, and will be here for a couple of weeks. I have broadband and will be in contact. More later.

June 14, 2007: Don Herbert 1917-2007

Mr. Wizard is dead. On the other hand, he got the job done. Hundreds of thousands of graying 40-to-60s have a better handle on how the world works because they watched Don Herbert do magic on his seminal live TV show, Watch Mr. Wizard, which ran from 1951 to 1965.

Except it wasn't magic—and that was the whole point. Watching Mr. Wizard on Chicago TV in the late 1950s is as far back as I can trace my passion for understanding how things work. As Carol will attest, to this very day when I run across some phenomenon that I don't understand, I mutter, "What's the physics here?" That's my Mr. Wizard training at work.

When I was in third grade my dad bought me Herbert's 1952 book, Mr. Wizard's Science Secrets, and it still sits on my science shelf, full of dirty fingerprints and water stains and the occasional rip. (I was generally careful with valuable things like books, but hey! I was eight! And I was doing the experiments! C'mon!) You can get used hardcover copies on Amazon for three bucks. Unlike a lot of tech books, this one still works for kids 55 years later, because the materials used are stuff you can mostly find lying around the house (or at Home Depot) and physics hasn't changed for awhile. And some of it is startling, especially when you're eight years old: Take a strip of paper an inch wide and maybe eight inches long and hold it beneath your lower lip. Blow hard out into the air. The strip will rise. Why? Mr. Wizard told me, which is good, because in my delight at the experiment I was bordering on hyperventilation.

I remember less of the show itself, simply because it's been 42 years since it folded. But I do remember the fact that Mr. Wizard didn't look like a TV scientist, and there weren't a lot of test tubes on racks. He worked on what might as well have been his kitchen table, which meant that it wasn't mysterious and elsewhere. I could do it too. He was enthusiastic without being manic, but more important than that, the show wasn't all about him. That's the problem I have with more recent expressions of that same idea, especially Bill Nye the Science Guy, where we have a little too much Science Guy and not quite enough science. (It may simply be my age, but I find Nye's approach annoying after just a couple of minutes.) Don Herbert was content to let the sense of wonder rise around the experiments themselves. He was a guide, a teacher, and a facilitator, not a stand-up comic.

I know, I use humor too when I explain things, and I'm aware that it's a tough rope to walk, especially in this Age of ADD. I'd rather have Bill Nye than nothing at all, and although the experiments are not something you can do in the basement, I like Mythbusters even more. We badly need to get the message across to young people that the world works in consistent and predictable ways, and that the ways things work can be discerned by study and observation. We need to make it clear that you don't have to be a scientist to embrace the scientific method. Don Herbert didn't look like a scientist, and thus he didn't make me want to be a scientist. He made me want to go downstairs, take the world by the tail, and figure it out.

Well done, old friend. Well done.

June 13, 2007: Fixing a WinAmp WAV Problem

A friend of mine sent me a WAV file that he got somewhere of the Horst Jankowski cover of the old standard "Nola," which was the B-side of Jankowski's wildly successful 1965 single, "A Walk in the Black Forest." It's the slightly goofy one with the spoken track in the background, in which a husky European male voice occasionally whispers, "Maria," to which a European female voice replies, "Uh-uh-uh, Nola." (At the end of the song she gives up and says, "Ok, Maria" in a voice dripping with resignation.)

I was a little surprised that Winamp wouldn't play it. After some poking around online, I discovered that there is more than one way to make a WAV file. Much depends on how you encode the audio information. In this case, it was MPEG 3 audio in a WAV wrapper, and Winamp didn't know how to deal with it. The solution is to add WAV to the file associations that Winamp will attempt to play using its MPEG 3 codec. Here's how:

  1. Run Winamp.
  2. From the main menu, select Options | Preferences.
  3. In the left pane of the window that appears, click on the "Input" subitem under "Plug-ins".
  4. In the pane that appears on the right side of the window, click on the line that begins "Nullsoft MPEG Audio Decoderů"
  5. Click the Configure button.
  6. In the text field under File Associations (that's where the cursor will be) add a semicolon followed by the three capital letters WAV. (Don't separate the semicolon and the letters with a space.)
  7. Click OK.
  8. Click Close.
  9. Exit Winamp and re-start.

That's it.

June 12, 2007: Space Ship Mars AKA The Silvercup Rocket

I didn't look very hard for Space Ship Mars online, so predictably, George Ewing found it and send me a link to a page that has at least part of the story and several contemporary photos that show the unit that we saw in Sault Ste. Marie in 1980 in its glory days of supermarket parking lot promos.

Here's the difficulty: It wasn't called Space Ship Mars in the 1950s. I suspect that whoever intended to use it in a roadside attraction (which is where we saw it in 1980, albeit abandoned) scrubbed off Rocky's face and name and was working on the Wonderbread image to break the product connection and probably avoid trademark litigation. It was actually referred to in its day as the "Silvercup Rocket." There's a nice writeup and additional photos here. That whole site is lots of fun, and I encourage you to take some time and poke through it. What I don't see there is any indication of where it was built and what it was made from, which would be interesting in the extreme.

It looks like the rocket we saw in 1980 did in fact end up here, much worse for the wear. Look closely at the nose: The name "Space Ship Mars" is partially gone, and you can see a portion of the name "Silvercup Rocket" underneath it. (Incidentally and alas, Douglas C. Souter, the gentleman who took those photos, has apparently died recently. He was born in 1952. Like me, urrkh.)

Evidently there were other traveling rockets in that period, including the Ralston Rocket and one from Kraft, which was apparently offered as a prize in a contest. Imagine yourself as a kid (or a parent) confronting the reality of Kraft Foods delivering an RV-sized tin rocket right to your driveway. Probably the only thing worse than not winning that contest might be winning it.

June 11, 2007: Rocky Jones and Space Ship Mars

There's been some discussion recently on other lists about Space Ship Mars, an interesting cultural artifact that I saw in 1980, up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, right near the famous locks. I found the photos and figured they're worth a look.

George Ewing WA8WTE threw a party in the summer of 1980, up at his house near Sault Ste. Marie. He had just (or not quite) finished construction, actually, and recruited about 20 of his friends to come up and dismantle the plywood geodesic dome he had been living in for several years while building his own A-frame chalet. He made an enormous inflatable tent out of clear plastic, kept full with an ordinary window exhaust fan, and I think about 15 of us slept in the tent. It was a great time, the weather was perfect, and I swam in Lake Superior, which most people never do, even those who live right on Lake Superior. (Ok, it was Whitefish Bay—but it still must have been a very warm summer up there.)

In the old downtown section, right near the abandoned railroad station, someone had put this tin spaceship thingie up on railroad ties. It had been built to hook on the back end of a fifth-wheel tractor and be hauled around on a pair of wheels built into the structure under the tail. None of us really knew what it had been built for, other than an assumption that it was a tie-in for some 1950s TV show.

And so it was. What we now know is that Space Ship Mars was part of a national promo for the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger show that ran for only one season in 1954. I was only two that year, but the show was filmed (rather than simply broadcast live, as so many shows of that era were) and thus I watched the reruns into the very early 1960s. The shows were released directly into syndication and were sponsored locally, almost always by bread companies. You can see a loaf of bread indistinctly on the left end of the lightning bolt on the ship on the first photo; as best we can tell it's Silvercup Bread. (Rocky's face has been removed from the side of ship, but he's on the other end of the lightning bolt.) Apparently three or four of the ships had been built out of surplus military aircraft carcasses, and were exhibited at carnivals, county fairs, and other public gatherings.

The ship had been sealed with sheet metal and pop rivets, but someone else found one of the other units and took some photos of what's left of the interiors. It's a mess, apparently because people unknown were using it as a sort of stationary RV. I don't think the one we saw is still up there in Sault Ste. Marie, and it would be interesting to know what became of them and what they looked like when new. There was a lot of work put into them, and they could not have been cheap.

Higher res scans of the photos are here and here. I'm the third guy from the left on the top photo, and although I can identify about half of the people lined up under the ship, I won't try to pin them down in order. (Amazingly, many of them read Contra.) The group included Tom Snoblen, Todd Johnson, Al Duester, Alice and Angel Insley, Mike Bentley, Barry Gehm, Bill Higgins, Nikki Ballard, Lee Hart, Jim Furstenberg, Bill Leininger, and George Ewing, who took the photos and is not shown. Others were there but I don't recall their names. It was a great trip, and only in part because I was young. (I can't sleep on the ground anymore, sigh.)

June 10, 2007: Clues on the Used Book Bots

Short on time tonight, but Paul Santa-Maria sent me a note that may shed some light on the mysteriously high prices for used books from some online vendors working through sites like Amazon, Alibris, and ABEBooks. (See my entry for June 7, 2007.) I'll quote Paul's short message in full here:

I looked for Franz's Actor book and found two, $8 and $22. I checked a couple of days later and found both at $22. Then they kept leapfrogging lower, and eventually I I got it for under $5 plus shipping. I keep checking and the remaining copy price keeps fluctuating. Could there be some buggy bookstore software that is supposed to monitor competitor prices and adjusts to keep their price below the others?

I had a strong intuition that we were looking at bot behavior, and this lends credence to that intuition. The intent may not be to have the lowest price on any given book, but rather to be high enough above the lowest price to make arbitrage possible given a few dozen orders per month. The bot owner probably stocks no books at all, but waits for an order for a book that can be had elsewhere cheaply enough to make it worthwhile to buy the book and resell it almost immediately. There's probably a nice piece of algorithmic database work in there. It doesn't matter if the algorithm shoots unrealistically high half or two thirds of the time, or occasionally goes into literal absurdity (like that quarter million dollar computer book spotted by Bruce Baker and mentioned in my June 8, 2007 Odd Lots) as long as it brings enough sales to be worth the trouble.

Of course, when bots start setting their prices based on other bots setting their prices based on other bots, weird things happen. Definitely let me know if you learn any more on this. It's a fascinating business, and if it's a crew of price-setting bots watching the competition there's nothing illegal about it—but it may at best be an experiment, and I doubt there's a lot of money in it.

On the other hand, penny sellers are everywhere, so who knows?

June 9, 2007: Supercore

In stories circulating widely around the Web, Apple's new all-animation, all the time user interface is just the hottest thing. How hot? Well, it introduces a brand new UI element: smoke. In the item I link to above, launching a window to burn a CD or DVD also launches a plume of smoke curling away from the top of the window. Wait, there's more: If you blow into your headset mic, the smoke billows away off the edges of the screen.

Spare us. I object to this for a couple of reasons. First of all, it perpetuates the myth that smoke is interesting and glamorous, or, God help us, an art medium. I remember watching one of my friends back in college smoking in his parents' basement and then sculpting the stream of smoke he exhaled with quick motions of his fingers. He did other dumb things too; I hope he's still alive. Maybe I'm being priggish, but I also watched my father die horribly of a smoking habit. Smoke is our enemy, like malaria and Marxism, and should be buried with those and a lot of other fiendish and deadly things.

Don't get the wrong idea. I have a lot of sympathy for Apple Computer, even if they have an obsession with pointless buttsquirt like animated smoke. (I'm expecting that the trash can icon will soon begin crossing animated legs when it needs to be emptied.) Clearly, we're getting to the point where we have more cycles than we know what to do with, especially with those imminent eight-core CPUs. So let me make a suggestion here: We need to take one of those increasingly wasted cores and turn it into something useful: a master core with special powers and its own entirely independent memory system. It should be able to inspect and change memory belonging to other cores, and among its other tasks it should load OS files into the memory belonging to the other cores from a storage device inaccessible to subsidiary cores and main memory any other way. The idea is to create a boss process in a privileged core that simply can't be subverted by programs running in the main portion of the machine.

Yes, it's a two-edged sword: Such a supercore would doubtless be seized for their purposes by a media industry desperate to have absolute control over what what files are loaded or run on a computer. On the other hand, Apple stared down Big Music over DRM, and because it controls its own hardware, could work with Intel to create such a system and tell Big Media to just back off. Dare we hope that they have the courage to try something like that? Or are they going to make their rep and stay in the game by creating visual emulations of catastrophic hardware failure? Will the Blue Screen of Death be replaced by a billowing blue mushroom cloud? I can just see a debugger window dripping liquid when it spots a memory leak...

Substance first, style later. And optional. (I've seen enough real smoke come out of computer hardware for one lifetime, thanks.) UI gimmicks at some point become distractions from the things that the underlying machine is trying to do, like get my work done and protect itself against the bad guys. Apple has a marvelous opportunity here. Let's hope (as with smoke) that they don't end up blowing it.

June 8, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Odd Lots have been piling up here recently, so let's burn a few, starting with a dog-powered scooter that the Make Blog called to my attention. Two small bike wheels and a ride-em lawnmower seat plus some aluminum tubing—damn, I could do that! (QBit just went and hid under the bed...)
  • Robert Bruce Thompson of Building the Perfect PC fame, sent me an excellent 32-page minibook on Wi-Fi security, which you can download free from from O'Reilly's Web site. It's a PDF in a 7 MB ZIP, and the link takes you to the directory so you can get it any way you prefer. I used Bob's book to build my main machine here, and the second edition is a must-have if you intend to build your first custom PC out of separate components.
  • Forbes has a short piece on the way ebooks are keeping the romance genre afloat. Garish covers can be embarrassing if someone sees one in your hands on the train going in to work, but if you're reading it on your cellphone, well, nobody will know. I met these people at BEA a few years ago, and whatever you may think of their subject matter, they really know what they're doing.
  • One of my readers wrote to tell me that Lulu had sent him a pretty strange book: A Carl & Jerry Volume 3 cover wrapped around the body of Getting Real by 37 Signals. That's fairly benign; what Lulu does not want to do is wrap a cover from The Cuddly Puppy of Wiggle Farm around Goth Moon Over Femdom Castle.
  • My taste in games is legendarily bad, but Blueprint from Teagames (requires Flash) may be worth a look.
  • Jim Strickland sent me this, and while some people may think it's funny, an awful lot of guys simply have no clue. I don't know if dressing well attracts girls, or if it simply doesn't drive them away like dressing badly does. Being confident, dancing well, and having a sense of humor work better, but it's hard to teach such things on a Web site. (It may not be possible to teach confidence at all.)
  • I have not found a duplicate of the 1990 parts tower I bought from Turnkey, but several people sent me notes saying that MSC Direct has something similar from Akro-Mils. Way bigger, and not as suitable for very small parts. $500 without the bins. Yikes.
  • But that may be dirt cheap next to a truly special computer book that Bruce Baker found on ABEBooks. Something's seriously wrong here. Those prices are beginning to look like purely random numbers.
  • On the other hand, did you wonder (like me) how people selling books on Amazon for a penny can make money? (See my entry for June 6, 2007.) Here's how.
  • If you want to really really really really erase that hard disk for some reason (remember that recovering old data from used hard drives purchased on eBay is something of a geek sport) read this.
  • Something I learned recently: Frederic Nausea was the bishop of Vienna in the early 1500s. As Wikipedia puts it, "When the Council was reopened at Trent in 1551, Nausea was present." He attended the Diet of Nuremberg in 1524, but, rather remarkably, was not at the Diet of Worms.

June 7, 2007: ...Except When They're Not.

Bruce Baker reminded me this morning of something I'd noticed from time to time and never bothered to pursue: the other end of the online used book price spectrum. If you look up Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses on ABEbooks, you'll find lots of copies for a dollar each (ABEBooks' minimum price) which is unsurprising, as we remaindered 80% of a 6,000 copy run. Now, if you click the "Sort Results By" drop-down field to "Highest Price" you'll find that you can also buy a copy for $64.24.

Ok. I've seen stuff like that and always assumed it was a mistake. The brand-new full-cover price printed on that book was only $24.99, after all. But having spent half an hour browsing titles on the other side of the price graph, one begins to wonder. Look up almost any book you could want on ABEBooks, and sort by highest instead of lowest price, and you will find listings like this one. An ex-lib used copy of a book that mostly flopped in the market (even though it's intriguing and well-written) with any number of other copies for a dollar, listed for $300—WTF?

Again, I figured some data entry clerk earning minimum wage in the basement of a ratty used bookstore somewhere was either making mistakes (skipping the decimal point and typing $300 instead of $3) or else just fooling around to taunt the bookstore owner, but not so: It's a trend, and there seem to be online bookstores that specialize in this sort of thing. There are dozens; poke around on the high end and you'll start to see common threads in the storefront names.

Bruce asked me what this means (expecting that there's some wrinkle in the publishing business model that would reward such listings) but I truthfully don't know. The weird price values, like $142.05, suggest that a program is setting the prices somehow—a human would pick $140, or perhaps $139.99. But given that the default display order is lowest price first, 99.99% of store visitors probably never see the high-end listings. And of those who do, well, who would pay three hundreds times the price of the cheapest copy listed?

As it used to say on the cover of Cracked Magazine: Something Funny Is Going On Here. Human greed propels money into the heart of darkest Nigeria, but I don't see where the payoff is in this case. Almost nobody sees the listings, and I can't imagine that there enough stupid people in the bookbuying world to make it worth these guys' time and effort. (I could be wrong there; after all, the gods themselves contend in vain.)

So. They're not actually trying to sell the books in the usual fashion. That seems clear. Tax shelter? Money laundering? Somewhat oddly, I don't currently know anybody in the used book business, so I'm not sure whom to ask. If you have any insights, please pass them along. I remain mystified.

June 6, 2007: Books Are Practically Free...

I ordered a book about a month ago from ABEBooks, and finished it a couple of nights ago. It was the 2000 edition of The Shaker Spiritual by Daniel W. Patterson, and as detailed a history of Shaker music as you'll find. The book is 8 1/2" X 11", and 562 pages—with lots of photos along with musical scores and lyrics of hundreds of Shaker hymns. It was in what a book collector would consider fine condition, with no serious damage or wear.

It cost me $3.17. Plus $3 shipping.

Wow. $3.17 is an odd number, but odder yet is that the bookseller sold it for that price, when it cost $27.95 new. I'm not sure why he bothered at all. But the truth is that used books (recent ones, at least, and sometimes old ones) are astonishingly cheap. Go to Amazon and look up any reasonably recent hardcover book selling for $25.95 or whatever. I paid cover for Arthur C. Brooks' Who Really Cares? in hardcover and there are now 84 "new and used" copies available starting at $3.80.

For an extreme example, go look up the hardcover edition of Telling the Truth, by Lynn V. Cheney. It listed new for $23. Now you can browse 105 new and used copies cent. (Plus $3.95 shipping.) Right; I forgot. That's a lousy book. How about the hardcover of The 2% Solution by Matthew Miller? Much better book; more copies out there than you can imagine, starting at forty-four cents. Strange Matters by Tom Siegfried goes for $0.75, and that was a real good book. Even what I consider truly great books, like The Great Influenza, can be had in hardcover for $5.99. War Against the Weak for $7.34? Grab it, sheesh. Alas, John Cornwell's The Hiding Places of God, which is a riveting read, can be had for one cent. In hardcover. Ditto Conjuror's Journal by Frances Shine, which was so good it brought tears to my eyes. Got a penny?

Some books hold up better: The Wiki Way, with a $54.99 price tag, can be had for $27.43. Bruce Schneier's $60 Applied Cryptography is a steal at $19.59. But...then there's Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses by a guy I know, for $0.01. I guess it helps to be Bruce Schneier.

Part of this is explicable: Paraglyph went deep on Degunking Email, Spam, and Viruses, and the book bombed. Books that bomb are remaindered and sold basically by the pound, so selling what are essentially brand-new books with a black Magic Marker swipe on one edge for a penny can be a money maker, if you can charge $5 for shipping and then ship the book for $2.50. I'd think you could make more money working at Wal-Mart, but who knows? Some people just like books.

I'm sure it means that there are too many books chasing too few readers, but that's a problem only if you're a publisher. Books are practically free. (And without commercials or ads!) There's never been a better time to be a habitual reader.

June 4, 2007: Linksys Powerline Networking Wrapup

My series on Linksys PowerLine networking generated a fair amount of mail, and the two questions that come up are two that came up for me long before I ever clicked the "Add to cart" button:

  • How good is the security?
  • Will the technology interfere with my amateur radio receivers?

As for security, I'm not sure it's uncrackable, but I don't think crackling it would be easy. 128-bit AES is not a pushover, and I don't think the local neighborhood slackers care enough about cracking other people's networks to mount a constant stealth side-channel attack that might take over a year—or a decade. (Or forever—side-channel attacks are implementation-dependent. A well-engineered implementation would not necessarily be crackable by a single gamer-class PC.) Cracking Wi-Fi was easy and fast enough to make it something of a geek adventure; not the case this time. Nor are drive-bys an issue, since you'd have to plug something into one of my exterior electric outlets, and I would notice that. (There are only three at ground level.)

Stealth attacks would be limited to other homes sharing a distribution transformer ("power pig") with mine, and in an area of large homes on large lots, there may be only three or four homes on one transformer. I can't tell, since power distribution here is underground; but if you know what a "pig on a pole" looks like and can trace wires visually from your back yard, you might get a sense for it in neighborhoods with overhead wires. Distance is also an issue, and even if people two doors down share a distribution transformer with me, the distance to their lines would be several hundred feet wire distance, and that's pushing the envelope for the technology even under ideal conditions.

And there's a wild card: Power meters work by spinning an aluminum disk via eddy currents, and to induce the eddy currents you need biggish, low resistance coils. Coils of the sort present in power meters present very low impedence to radio-frequency signals like those used in HomePlug systems. A power meter is thus an unintentional low-pass filter. How effective it is I would need better instruments to test (and probably more time) than I can afford, but I can make a simple empirical yes/no test by getting the permission of the guy next door to plug my laptop into his patio outlet and see if the HomePlug AV configuration utility can see my network. If he can't see it, I'm in the clear, since his house is the closest of any on this street.

On the other hand, I figured out how to change the data stream password, so I really doubt security is an issue here anymore. If the technology becomes really popular, monitoring neighbor networks encrypted by the default password may become an issue, but we're not there yet. And I can't help but think that a $3 low-pass filter installed at the power service entry would take care of that completely if the coils in the power meter itself do not.

The more interesting question is radio interference. There isn't much hard technical information out there about HomePlug AV. I've seen a writeup indicating that it uses frequencies from 2-28 MHz, with firmware that "skips" the amateur bands, with the sole exception of 60 meters (5.3 MHz.) Also, the units are supposedly silent at RF unless they're actually passing packets, so when the network is idle, there should be no interference at all, anywhere.

That's been my experience so far. I have one of the nodes installed a few feet from my amateur station, and I have a 45-foot tuned HF dipole and a VHF discone in the shop. I have spun the dials and so far heard nothing I haven't heard before, and when I do hear an interfering signal, I turn up the volume and walk a few feet down to the plug and pull the unit from the wall. So far, pulling the unit out of the wall has not changed any of the odd noise signals I've detected, at least one of which is clearly my home security system. (I had a severe HF interference problem with neighbors' electric fences back in dirt road North Scottsdale. Reception here, by comparison, is wonderfully clean.)

So at this point it looks good. I haven't installed a media PC by the big TV yet, and there are other issues to research (like a good wireless lap keyboard) but getting data to and from the TV is no longer an issue. The Linksys HomePlug AV units are still a little expensive ($85 singly; $160 for a kit of two) but they're also brand new. I paid $1200 for an Aironet Wi-Fi system in early 2001 and never regretted it. The PLE200 units and their competitors will be $35-$40 in a year or so. With Wi-Fi saturation a common problem in urban areas now, HomePlug AV will be one way out.

If I learn anything else interesting, I'll report here.

June 3, 2007: More on Linksys PowerLine Networking

Testing of the Linksys PLE200 PowerLine networking technology continues. (See yesterday's entry.) I took my laptop in one hand and a PLE200 plug unit in the other and went around the house, plugging the PLE200 into random power outlets. At every single outlet I very quickly got a connection, including a DHCP transaction for an IP. I've read some complaints online that the technology doesn't necessarily work on all outlets, but it appears to work on all of mine. You can't work it through a surge suppressor, and it works best when the unit is plugged into a wall socket, rather than an extension cord or a power bar. (If the power bar has a surge suppressor, forget it.) It does, however, work fine through a GFI outlet, which surprised me a little.

So the system gets high marks for effectiveness: Once you have it configured, you can plug a PLE200 unit into any outlet in the house, including your GFIs, and it's like plugging into an Ethernet jack fronting a CAT5E wired network. I didn't do a quantitative throughput test, but pulling several large files through the link to my laptop seemed just as fast as going through the CAT5E wired network in the walls. A video player on my laptop can pull videos from my file server and play them without any jitter or hesitation. Ditto MP3s.

What the system doesn't get high marks for is documentation. Admittedly, I'm hard on doc, but I'm hard on it because it isn't that difficult to do well, and for simple devices doesn't have to be as big as the phone book. You can follow the doc (such that it is; the paper copy is a little trifold printed on both sides) as far as getting a link established between two units. After that (and the main issue is establishing a secure connection) the doc brochure hands you off to the configuration utility. The configuration utility doesn't provide much help, but much, much worse than that is that it doesn't tell you when it succeeds.

Yes, you read me right: You click a button to establish a secure connection, and nothing visible happens. No info box of any kind pops up to say "You're all set!" or anything else.

The security system is better than the one provided with Wi-Fi, not that that would be too difficult. 128-bit AES end-to-end encryption is turned on by default; in fact, I don't see any way to turn it off. However, the system ships with a default network password printed in the documentation, and all manufactured units use the same default password, just as in Wi-Fi's HTML-based configuration screens. For a secure connection you have to change the password, and when you do that, the system swallows the new password and gives no sign.

Wait, there's more. Adding additional PLE200 nodes to the network requires that you copy a 16-character alphabetic "device password" printed on the back of the physical device onto a piece of paper before plugging the new node into the wall. You must take this device password to the configuration utility and add it to the configuration utility's list of valid devices on your network. So you have at least two passwords: One for the AES system that encrypts network traffic, and a second "device password" for each additional unit that authenticates a specific physical unit to the network. This isn't a bad scheme, but I'm guessing it's very confusing to nontechnical people who may not understand why the system needs multiple passwords, nor why the password is printed on the back of the device, and who get those passwords confused. The documentation is less than useless, and whoever wrote the configuration utility should be hung up by his heels.

I knew the system had succeeded only because when I changed the password at the configuration utility, I could no longer access anything from my laptop, connected to the second node up in the livingroom. Only after I entered the second node's device password into the configuration utility downstairs and went back upstairs to the livingroom could I verify that the password change had succeeded. PITA PITA, Little Caesar optional.

Now that I have all that figured out, it works very well. Setting up security is tricky, but there is some reason to think that security isn't that big a deal with this technology (HomePlug AV) and for that you can thank your electric meter. More tomorrow.

June 2, 2007: Linksys PowerLine Networking

I made only a few mistakes in designing this house, and one of them was not having CAT5E run from my router station downstairs in my shop to the wall behind our big-screen TV. I'm not a media freak, and I wasn't up on big-screen technology in 2002, particularly the fact that an HDTV-capable set would also display computer video nicely at 1024 X 768.

So we now have this huge display, and no easy network access. I could put it on Wi-Fi, of course, but cracking Wi-Fi has gotten easy enough that I'd prefer not to, if there were an alternative, especially for just one link. (The rest of the house is well-served by CAT5E.) I finally got around to investigating power carrier networking, by buying a kit of two Linksys PLE200 PowerLine AV Ethernet adapters. The units are basically backbone taps, with the 120V power system in the building acting as the backbone. Once the configuration app is installed somewhere and run, you can pop any (reasonable) number of the units into the wall, and connect one computer (or presumably, an Ethernet switch) at each unit.

The raw bandwidth provided by the technology is impressive: Up to 100 Mbps, about twice as fast as Wireless-G, and hugely faster than any broadband connection I've ever heard of. But Linksys is wisely positioning this as a way of throwing large media files around your house, from a computer somewhere to a media center or vise versa. I'm interested in putting a Dell Optiplex SX260 under the TV, and allow the SX260 to send digital photos and home videos elsewhere in the house. To do that, I have to have a fairly fast connection to the SX260 under the TV. From my early testing, the PLE200 units can certainly do that. I'm not done with tests yet, but from here it looks pretty good.

Basic setup is easy enough, though not well-explained in the little brochure that comes with it:

  1. You install the configuration app on a PC somewhere. It doesn't matter which one. The PC doesn't even have to be networked itself. All it has to have is an open Ethernet port.
  2. You run an Ethernet patch cord (provided with the unit) from the PLE200 to the Ethernet port on the computer where you installed the configuration app.
  3. You plug the PLE200 into a nearby outlet, and tell the configuration app that it's there by clicking a button. The configuration app queries the unit for its MAC address and probably does some other things as well.
  4. You can now disconnect the PLE200 from the computer and put it somewhere else. I added it to a vacant port on my router/switch, and in a sense it's now acting as a powerline access point.
  5. Go somewhere else in the house and plug in the second unit to an outlet somewhere. No explicit configuration step required; the second unit looks for the other and you're in.

My only complaint with the install is that the installer insisted on installing .NET 1.1 on the machine, even though as best I knew it was already there. You'd think .NET could see that it was already present. One test I forgot to make is to see if the second unit would install without the configuration app available on some machine on the network. I think it should, but the app was running and available when I plugged in the second unit.

That done, I had a nice, fast—and unsecured—connection to the rest of my machines and the Internet. Alas, security, while not easily crackable, was not easy to set up, and I wonder if nontechnical people will bother. That part looks like Wi-Fi all over again. More next time.

June 1, 2007: Bacteriophage Therapy

Four years ago, Wired posted a fascinating article by Richard Martin that I had utterly missed, but it's worth a read if you've never seen it. (We were in the worst phase of getting our new house built, so I will forgive myself if I missed a few drips at the firehose.) The gist of it is that Soviet Russian and Georgian researchers pioneered the use of bacteriophages in therapy against bacterial infections, and did so back as far back as the 1930s. Wikipedia has a slightly more detail-oriented writeup here. A much more detailed history of the field from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington is here.

Even though biology is my weak subject, I knew what bacteriophages are: highly-specific viruses that infect only bacteria, and (for that matter) only very specific bacteria. (They're very cool-looking, too.) A phage that eats staph aureus will eat nothing else—and boy, does that sound like an opportunity or what? The Russians still use bacteriophages for treating bacterial infections, though how well they work depends heavily on how well the concentrated phage media are characterized, which is not an easy business.

The phages are not genetically engineered but are harvested from nature, and except for a couple of bacteria species like mycobacterium (which is a bit of an outlier in a number of ways) every species of bacteria has its own species of phage. How well a phage attacks a species of bacteria is unrelated to whether or what degree that species of bacteria is resistant to antiobiotics. If you can get a reasonable dose of the right phage to the infection site, the phages generally win, especially since they are self-replicating. (That means the patient can't foster phage-resistance by ceasing to take the medicine.) After the bacteria are gone, the phages cease reproducing and are gradually eliminated by the body. There's some possibility that bacteria will evolve away from their phages, but since nearly all known bacteria are attacked by very effective bacteriophages, one can only assume that the phages evolve as quickly as the bacteria.

Given the alarm that's been sounding about new strains of bacteria that resist all or nearly all known antibiotics, I'm a little surprised that we don't hear more about this. Yes, I know, there's not as much money in saline packets full of bacteriophages as there is in new drugs, but still—one would think that a system for rapidly separating species of bacteriophages by the bacteria they attack would be worth a few bucks. This one's worth watching, and I think it will become a lot more important in coming years.