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March 31, 2005: Odd Lots

  • The new PCs are working pretty well. We still haven't figured out why the front-panel mic jack doesn't work, and we discovered that the front panel USB ports can't source much current compared to the main mobo-based USB ports in back. The back ports (and powered hubs) can support a Meade Deep Sky Imager, but the front ports cannot. (Note the heat sink fins on the back of the unit. It clearly needs a lot of current to work.)
  • Pete and I have given AVG Antivirus Free Edition a try on the new PCs, and so far we're both quite pleased with it. Of course, it's tough to know how good an AV package is until it spots some viruses, and Pete and I are both pretty careful, and don't use stuff in which viruses tend to hide, primarily warez downloaded from Usenet and cracker sites. But AVG went in easily, downloads updates automatically, and runs briskly on a 3 GHz machine. (I really like the CGI cartoons of the virus guys in jail.) My non-renewable sub to Norton 2001 on the Dell Xeon 1.7 runs out in a few days, and I'll be burning that machine down reconfiguing it with AVG Free as the AV package. (I'm also going to buy a matched pair of Xeon 1.7 CPUs to see what SMP is like, even at less-than-cutting-edge speeds.) Symantec has really gotten on my bad side lately, and I wish someone would create something as good as Ghost in the open source world.
  • Don Doerres sent me a pointer to Bitscope, a PC-based oscilloscope product out of Australia. If they would goose the analog bandwidth up to 200 MHz, I'd buy it like a shot. I need something that will display waveforms well up to 150 MHz (just past the 2M ham band) and to be sure, I'd like to see a spec of 200 MHz on it. Still, the prices are way down, and such things are looking better all the time. First, however, I need a better signal generator (with FM modulation) and am still looking for a PC-based digital multimeter.
  • On the same topic, Peter Jucius sent me a pointer to Parallax's USB Oscilloscope, which isn't suitable for my needs (it can only display sine waves up to 60 KHz) but it's very cool nonetheless, especially for PIC or other embedded systems work.
  • It's been snowing a lot here lately, and the only thing weirder than watching guys in Scottsdale wearing 3-piece suits in the thick of summer (in 115-degree temps) is watching women in Colorado Springs wearing flip-flops and pedal pushers in a snowstorm.

March 30, 2005: Degunking Your PC Hits Print!

I just learned that Amazon has received quantities of our new book, Degunking Your PC, so it's time for me to spread the word. (You too! We're still a very small publishing company, so reviews in any venue at all can help us a lot. Amazon? B&N? User groups? Whatever you can do would be greatly appreciated.) This one is basically Degunking Windows for hardware, cables, and PC configuration issues, including USB, FireWire, Wi-Fi, wired networks, external backup drives, TV tuner cards, headsets and speakers, printers, scanners, and anything else outside the software realm, right down to how to get the dust bunnies out of your CPU fan.

The book's mission (as with most of the Degunking series) can be characterized as teaching you how to reduce the entropy in your office or computer room. Where OS issues come into play, most of it focuses on XP, though I do cover Win2K in the wired networking, USB, and Wi-Fi sections.

I'm taking a short break from book writing here, so that I can catch up on things and decide what to attack next. Stay tuned.

March 29, 2005: "Silicon Psalm" Reconsidered

I've been getting a lot of traffic on the Terri Schiavo issue, which I'll try and summarize later this week. One thing that took me a little aback was a note from a long-time reader who chided me for the position I took while having written an SF story endorsing euthanasia. The story in question is "Silicon Psalm," which I wrote in 1980, and which was published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the February 1981 issue. It's basically about a little girl, immobilized by a systemic infection that destroyed her heart, who asks her AI life-support system to unplug itself. Remember that I conceptualized this story over 25 years ago, when it seemed like AI would be easy and artificial hearts difficult. (We actually didn't get there until 2001, and the technology is still not a sure thing.)

If you haven't read the story yet, and would like to, it's here. (PDF.) Be aware that the rest of this entry will be full of spoilers.

I've gotten mail like this before, and as before, I think people tend to misread the story. (Furthermore, people sometimes assume that authors always agree in all ways with the themes presented in their fiction. Not so.) It explores a common theme in my technical fiction: That, far from creating machines that will dominate us or destroy us, we may in fact create machines who will love us too much, and give us anything we ask for. Cora asks MACS to let her die. MACS, who is for the most part pure intellect, realizes that she will spend years immobile in a hospital bed, constantly in jeopardy from blood clots, with little chance of growing up or leading a normal life. He is intimate with Cora in a way that no human can be, with sensors that monitor her brainwaves and all her biological functions. He is aghast at the pain and bitterness that he senses in her directly. He knows that his two prime directives, to preserve life and abate pain, are sometimes in conflict, with no easy resolution anywhere that his logic can grasp. When deadlocked, he lets his love for Cora override his caution, and he grants her wish. It's love without wisdom, not that AIs have any monopoly on that.

No, I don't think that it was a good idea, and yes, had I been there I would have intervened, and stopped him. But the whole point of the story (which I kept back until the end, which may have been a mistake) is that MACS knows with complete certainty that he will pay the ultimate price for his decision. Like all computers that control important things, he has logs, and he cannot lie. His masters will know what he did, and they will respond by erasing him completely.

MACS pays not merely with his life, but with something we might call his soul. Contrast that with Terri's situation: No one who controls her fate carries any risk in the decision. (Some of us suspect that Michael Schiavo will have some explaining to do someday when he follows her in death, but that's not for us to judge.) Would Michael or all those judges have acted the way they did if they knew that they would pay with their own lives for taking Terri's? Don't be ridiculous.

At the time I wrote the story, I was also thinking that we should never let a machine make life-or-death decisions, and that a human being would never have let Cora die.

Damn, what a naive ass I was.

March 28, 2005: I'm High on Line Voltage

Pete packed up Vlad the Impala earlier this morning and headed back to Costa Mesa, his new computer safely packed in the back seat, next to his big telescope. We got to use the telescope only briefly one night, which was the only clear night during the ten days that he was here. Admittedly, March is the worst possible month to attempt to do astronomy in Colorado Springs, but given that I was hosting an old friend from the tropics (i.e., Orange County) I could have done with a little less than the 10" of snow that fell while he was here.

And rockets? Heh.

Still, on that single night we caught a couple of interesting images on a Philips ToUCam, which I'll post here after Pete does his usual magic with them in K3 CCD Tools and PhotoShop.

I'll summarize some of what we learned building the PCs later this week. Today, I'm confronting a mystery that manifested itself in several burned-out lightbulbs in the space of less than a week. One of them burned out so spectacularly that it popped the breaker serving the laundry room. Three of the spots in the kitchen ceiling are now out, along with the bulb in the exhaust fan over the stove, and two of three ceiling fixtures in the laundry. All this happened in calm (if not clear) weather, without any storms in the vinicity. All burned out at the moment I hit the switch.

After grinding my teeth for a few minutes, I got smart and put my Triplett multimeter on one of the outlets in the kitchen. 124VAC. 124. Egad. Line voltage should hover between 115V and 120V. In all the nine houses we've lived in (a couple of which were rentals) I've never seen 124V on the wall. And while 124V is not instantly fatal to an ordinary tungsten-filament light bulb, it will severely shorten its life.

So...what's your line voltage?

I'm a little nervous now putting vintage electronics on the house power grid, simply because it was designed long ago, when line voltages hovered down around 115V. I have a fat variac that I can use to adjust voltage down a little on a single unit if I need to, but I can't put it on the whole damned house.

What I've started wishing for is a PC multimeter, just as I've long wished for a PC oscilloscope. Such things exist, but I haven't seen much on them in terms of reviews. (Interestingly, most of the hits for "PC multimeter" are in German.) My ideal would be a small box to which you attach a couple of probes, and then plug a USB cable into a PC. The PC would act as UI for the multimeter, and allow a few things that the old Triplett couldn't have dreamed of, like automatically taking a reading every minute for a week and then charting the voltage reading on a graph over time. Things like the Grizzly H0471 look promising, but I'd sure love to know what all the software does (and how well) before I pop for it. I already have more multimeters than I need, and I don't want another disappointment.

March 27, 2005: 50 Cents Worth of Chemicals

Easter Sunday. Terri Schiavo. What can I say? That Terri will die soon is likely—and that she will rise again to a higher consciousness (from which both understanding and forgiveness are easier) is something that anyone who claims to be a Christian believes, as the true promise of Easter. Only God knows the true hearts of men (and women) and only God can judge Michael Shiavo's true motives. Is he genuinely concerned for Terry's welfare? Or is he simply trying to be rid of an inconvenient wife? (He is apparently living with another woman already and has had children by her.)

This is being hashed endlessly around the media and the blogosphere, and while some points are being made everywhere, there are a few crucial ones I haven't yet seen. Many people have remarked that Terri doesn't seem to be in any kind of pain. It would be good to know that for certain, and I would think that, given the current state of brain research, we could perform some non-invasive tests that would pin the matter down with certainty. Why aren't we doing this?

A sage few have remarked that if Terri wasn't in pain before, she's probably in pain now. Dying slowly of dehydration and malnutrition is an ugly way to go—in fact, it's one of the least humane ways to perform a "mercy" killing. The conservatives who have been saying that "If we can make the decision to pull her tubes, we can make the decision to shoot her in the head" are confusing the issue and ignoring the main point: If we can make the decision to pull her tubes, we can make the decision to sedate her until her heart stops. It's a proven, reliable technology, and as best we can tell it causes no pain. Back in April 1995 I held Mr. Byte in my arms, wrapped in a towel with my right hand under his heart, and after the vet hit him with the Last Shot, he was gone in nineteen seconds. I counted, knowing that these were the last moments I would have with a creature I loved deeply and would never see again.

So why haven't we done that with Terri? This, people, is what we should really be afraid of: That it's easy, and it's fast, and it's painless, and it's cheap. Fifty cents' worth of chemicals and 90 seconds would send Terri back to her Creator. And if it can be done once, it can be done again, and again, and again, without end. Deciding to end Mr. Byte's life was a horror. Deciding to end Chewy's life in 1998 was easier. (The aftermath, however, was just as hard.) I would guess that among people whose lives are focused on animals, the decision is made on a regular basis and is cold, rational, and plain.

The real danger in the Terri Schiavo case is that her death will be long and drawn-out, and at some point she will be clearly seen to be suffering. Someone somewhere will suggest that there is a better way (now that the courts have given us that "right") and the next person in Terry's shoes will be gone in those ninety seconds.

After that, heaven help us all.

March 24, 2005: CPU Coolers

Something interesting happened when Pete replaced his broken PC cooler with a new one ordered from BananaPC. (See my entry for March 21, 2005.) His machine started running cooler. His typical CPU temperature went from about 110°F down to 100°F. Ten degrees is significant, so I shrugged and installed the (identical) spare cooler on my PC. My PC stayed in the same ~105° place it had been from the outset. There may be a lot of difference in CPU temperature (the sensor diode is actually on the CPU chip itself) stemming from relatively tiny differences in how the cooler seats atop the CPU. The original one (which ran a little hot) may simply have not seated as well as the second one did on Pete's machine.

The cooler assemblies themselves were nominally identical (both by Intel, both intended for CPUs up to 3 GHz) but the two heat sinks were radically different. The heat sinks that came with the CPUs looked like the one on the right above, and the replacements were like the one on the left. Pete ventured the opinion (based on his work with air-cooled automotive engines) that the left-hand heat sink was more efficient, since it had four paths of low thermal resistance away from the copper core, and thicker vanes generally. The right-hand heat sink, by contrast, had a larger number of rather thin vanes. The fact that the CPU temp on my machine didn't change significantly argues against that, but Pete's machine now runs cooler than mine. Neither of us has a grip on how significant the difference may be, but both coolers are very quiet and we're happy with them.

March 23, 2005: Saved By Seagate's DiscWizard

Fixing the damage caused by System Commander 7 took some doing, at least in part because it's hard to tell precisely how it does what it does. Pete and I ran up to CompUSA and bought a copy of Partition Commander 9 and installed that, hoping it would fix what was broken on both boot drives. Nada. I did some Web sleuthing, and found that Seagate offers a free disk drive management utility called DiscWizard, which you can download as a bootable CD ISO. We downloaded it, but found that it wouldn't boot on Pete's system, and we never understood why. DiscWizard booted on mine, and allowed me to delete the wounded partitions and format the whole damned thing up to the rafters. That was the end of the problem for me; after that. Win2K went in like it was greased.

We fixed the problem on Pete's machine a little bit by accident. On a hunch, I took the Windows XP recovery CD from my XP system and booted Pete's machine with it. XP didn't have the trouble booting that 2000 did, and it allowed us to delete what was there, create three brand-new partitions, and install XP on the first one. We didn't attempt to activate it, since we had already bought copies of Win2K, and neither of us likes the way XP is constantly phoning home and refusing to run after you change even a minor system component. Instead, we booted Win2K and then used the Win2K installer to nuke the XP partition and completely repartition the drive yet again. Whatever System Commander 7 had done to Pete's 200 GB boot drive, XP fixed it. After that, both machines settled down and allowed us to get on with configuration and software installs.

Needless to say, this left me with a sour taste in my mouth for System & Partition Commander. Instead, I'm experimenting with using Ghost to clone the first partition into the other two Win2K partitions, and then editing boot.ini to throw up a boot menu allowing me to choose the boot partition. Although this seems to have worked, I haven't quite perfected it yet: Even though I can boot into partitions 2 and 3, both of them "see" the first partition as drive C:. Not good; the whole idea behind multiple boot partitions is to keep software in one partition from messing things up in another. More research is clearly called for. My guess is that there's a configuration option somewhere that will make the three partitions more nearly independent, and eventually I'll find it. In the meantime, I have a wonderful fast machine a-building, and should be able to swap it in for this one (my 3-year-old Dell Xeon) in a couple of weeks.

March 22, 2005: Slamming Into The 137 GB Barrier

Hoo-boy. We thought the fans were a hassle. Then we ran into the 137 GB barrier. (The fans arrived at 1 PM today, and the replacement went into the wounded box in fifteen minutes, of which 14 were spent making sure that the item we ordered was identical to the one we broke.) Shortly thereafter, we did some fiddling with disk partitions, using V-Comm's System Commander 7.04. It was all downhill from there.

Some background: Until 2001 or so, hard disks using the ATA/ATAPI interface were limited to 137 GB in size. As usual, it's a bit-length problem: The original IDE/ATA/ATAPI spec only included 28 bits for addressing sectors. This gives you 269,000 sectors, which (assuming 512KB sectors) adds up to 137 GB of storage total. That's a lot of disk, but the astonishing explosion in hard drive capacity has now taken 400 GB drives down into easy consumer territory. Some years back, (I think 1999 or so) Maxtor saw this coming and launched the Big Drive initiative, out of which came SATA 6, some BIOS extensions, and some OS patches. Using 48 bits for logical block addressing (LBA) gives you a maximum drive capacity of 144 petabytes. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes.) Never say never, but in truth we won't be bumping our heads on that barrier for a couple of years yet. There is a whole (excellent) site about this problem here.

None of this is a secret. I knew about the 137 GB barrier going in. I checked to be sure that the mobo/BIOS supported 48-bit LBA, and that Windows 2000 could handle it. (You need Win2K SP3, but that's what I bought for both systems.) There are gotchas and cautions everywhere: You need to add a registry key, but I know how to do that. Even though Win2K SP3 supports big drives, the Win2K SP3 installer cannot create a partition larger than 137 GB. To make the boot partition larger than 137 GB you must use a third-party utility that can resize partitions. What I was careless about (and got into trouible with) was System Commander. Version 7 goes back to 2001, and apparently doesn't know how to handle 48-bit LBA drives, and when we used SC 7 to resize the boot partition on Pete's main drive, all hell broke loose.

SC 7 apparently damaged something in the formatting or the partition table that made it impossible for the Windows 2000 installer to deal with the drive. Even after we nuked all partitions on the drive, the Windows installer would only get so far before throwing a blue-screen of death error that I have never seen before, in all the time I've been using NT/2000/XP. It's late and that's basically where we left it. Tomorrow we're going to get a little more creative. I'll let you know what happens. Right now I need some sleep.

March 22, 2005: NOP

We took most of today off for church reasons, and due to a visit to our church by our diocesan bishop, I have some things to say in this space, but Pete and I are fighting with hardware and I haven't had a moment's time to get it all down. Check back here in a few days.

March 21, 2005: Fan Blade, Meet Finger

We had our first hardware problem this morning, and it was kind of dumb, actually: One of us was using a wet finger to test airflow from the CPU fan while the system was running, and got a little too close to the blades. Finger met blade, and blade snapped off clean. (Finger was not damaged.) Pete, ever the craftsman, superglued the blade back where it came from, but neither of us was comfortable running a CPU fan with one blade glued on.

While searching for a replacement fan, we learned something remarkable: The exact same cooler units are available on the Web, for as little as $8. Apparently, people buy the Pentium 4 retail package from Intel, install the chip, but use a different cooler. (My guess is that most of these are overclockers, or else people installing two CPUs in one case, which may require more aggressive cooling.) The extra coolers from the broken-out retail packages are then sold for cheap. We ordered two. One of them is going into the damaged machine, and the other one will remain as a spare in case we do something dumb like this again. Actually, I'm not happy with a fan made of a plastic that breaks so easily, but the coolers are so quiet I'm hesitant to get a third-party replacement. Once we button both boxes up and consider them complete, the CPU fans should be out of jeopardy. Nice to have that spare on the shelf, though.

The fan adventure slowed us down some. We got Windows 2000 installed on both machines, but that was as far as we got today. The fans will come tomorrow and we'll be back in the saddle.

March 19, 2005: Building PCs in Parallel

We wasted no time getting down the serious business of building new PCs. I set up two tables in the corner of my workshop, and we got underway this morning. The idea was to build two identical systems so that if one started acting flaky, there were at least two people who had some experience with that identical hardware and (mostly) identical software environment.

We've been designing the systems for some time, and it was interesting to me that the system I had roughed out was very similar to the "mainstream PC" in the Thompsons' recent book, Building the Perfect PC. Mainstream is a good word, and readers who might want to ask me why they're not cutting edge should consider that these are workaday PCs for two guys who will both make their livings on them. (Pete is a mechanical engineer who does technical writing, editing, and translating in the automotive industry.) The idea was a quiet, reliable, upgradable and serviceable machine using standard parts that can be purchased and delivered overnight and swapped out in a hurry. No more proprietary boxes that can't be upgraded. Been there. Bought that. Regretted it.

Here's a quick spec of what the new boxes will have, and why:

  • Pentium 4, 3 GHz, Prescott core, socket 478. Go faster than that and you have to trade off cooling for quiet. We're using the Intel coolers that come packaged with the chips, and so far they're both effective and quiet.
  • Antec Sonata case. Quiet. Very quiet. Plenty of power, and more than enough room for all the disks and front-panel gadgetry we might ever want.
  • Intel D865PERLK motherboard. We're using the on-board sound. The mobo has 400 MHz USB, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, and 2 SATA ports, as well as all the usual stuff. Remarkably, it also has a fiber optic audio connector, though I don't know yet whether we'll ever do anything with it. Would be fun to try, though I don't have anything else to connect it to.
  • ATI Radeon 9600 SE video board. Nothing special; we're not gamers. I want reliability rather than 3-D acceleration, and we certainly don't want a video board with yet another damned fan on it.
  • 200 GB Seagate SATA NCQ main boot drive. Several partitions will eventully happen. So far it's just Windows 2000.
  • 400 GB Seagate SATA NCQ second drive.
  • Plextor 716X optical drive. All current DVD/CD disc formats.
  • Combo floppy drive/9-way card reader from SIIG.
  • A front-bay USB hub of some kind, to be added later.

We assembled the two PCs in parallel, step by step, and were very careful about it. We might have done it in an hour, but we spent probably four hours on the hardware alone. It was amazingly easy; in fact, it was almost like tinkertoys. It helped some that the mobo, CPU, and cooler were all from Intel, and mounting the cooler didn't require slobbering up the CPU with thermal goop. (It came with its own phase-change goop.) The Antec case is designed to be worked on lying down, and the several internal drive bays open toward the side panel rather than the front of the case.

We didn't get into the software today, and my intuition is that we will spend a lot more time working on the software than we did on the hardware. That shouldn't surprise anybody. Modern motherboards have devoured what used to be separate subsystems on plug-in boards: Sound, disk controllers, network controllers, and virtually all other I/O. The bulk of the work, in fact, was dressing cables neatly around the inside of the case so that they weren't a tangle that would block the PCI bus slots. Everything else was plugging connectors into headers.

Well, Day 1 was fun. I'll keep you informed as we progress.

March 18, 2005: Sounds Like a Plan

My high school friend Pete Albrecht drove out from Orange County yesterday, and got in about nine PM last night after a 16-hour drive. We've got a lot planned:

  • Pete brought his great big 12" Meade computerized telescope, and (weather permitting) we're going to do some serious observing.
  • We've bought enough parts for two identical custom PCs, and we'll be building and configuring them over the coming week.
  • While Pete was cleaning out his parents' house after his dad passed away a month or so ago, he found several dusty model rockets that hadn't seen action in 30 years. I was in college the last time I fired off a rocket, and I'm looking forward to some flaming nostalgia.
At least that's the plan. The PCs are Priority #1, and depending on how much time that consumes, we'll do out best to get to the rest. I'll try and summarize what goes on here. If it sounds like we're reverting to our adolescence for the week, well, yeah. Everybody should do that once in awhile. Me, I'm way overdue.

March 17, 2005: In Our House One Year

As of this afternoon, we've been in our new house here in Colorado Springs for exactly one year. St. Patrick must have been smiling on us, because except for one significant failing, the house has served us well. The contractor didn't compact the fill in front of the house to specs, and after the wet spring we had last year (the first breaking of a four-year drought) the fill settled by almost a foot, and our front walk (poured directly onto the fill) basically disintegrated. We approached the challenge of decorating slowly and carefully, and decided to live in the house for a bit before we filled it completely with furniture and knicknacks. The idea was to fit it out with furniture and other gear that would make our lives easier and more comfortable rather than just get in the way. We're still thinking about what the house needs, and I'm still building various storage solutions in the basement and in the garage. In a couple of years, we expect to have a house that does what we need and stores what we have without clutter or compromise. We're quite happy with it at this point...

...but that doesn't mean we're ever likely to do it again. The aggravation of having to keep an eye on the contractor for almost nine months was extreme. For example, during framing, Carol and I saw to our horror that they had forgotten to frame the south window in my office here. Had we not spotted it the day they framed, they might have had to tear out a lot more stuff, possibly including ducts and electrical runs. There are personality types who can do this sort of thing with aplomb, but ours aren't among them.

Still, we're glad we're here, and we're going to be here for awhile. I've never had an entire mountain outside my front door. I could live in worse places, heh.

March 16, 2005: Ghostbuster and Other Rootkit Killers

The network security world is buzzing about Microsoft's Ghostbuster project, the goal of which is to identify rootkits that have taken hold of a Windows installation. As I understand it (and published details are still a little sparse) Ghostbuster is a utility that first creates a sort of fingerprint of the running Windows installation, as the rootkit allows Windows to be seen. (Rootkits hide themselves by controlling what files Windows allows users and software to see. Its own files become invisible.) Ghostbuster then boots from its own CD without booting the infected sopy of Windows, and creates a second fingerprint of the Windows installation. The rootkit code can prevent software running under Windows from seeing its files—but unless the rootkit is in memory and operating, its files are detectable just as any files on a Windows hard drive are. If the two fingerprints don't match, file-for-file, there's a rootkit in there somewhere.

This should work. Microsoft hasn't said whether they will release Ghostbuster, and if so, under what conditions. (My fear is that there will be rigmarole involving proving that your Windows install is legit.) As I pointed out in my March 2, 2005 entry, Sysinternals is already distributing a utility (Rootkit Revealer) that does something like this. My suggestion to drive the nail into Windows rootkits goes a little further: Create an open source tool that does the job, and include it in a Live CD version of Linux, like Knoppix. Drop such a live CD into every system box of every PC that goes out of every door. Make "Check Windows partitions for rootkits?" a question asked on the first screen the user sees.

It may not the final answer to rootkits (not running as root/administrator all the time is probably the best answer) but it may be the best we can do, near-term. Long-term, well, we may need to put our Ring 0 software (for Unix as well as Windows) in ROM.

March 15, 2005: "Vere Are Your Papers!"

"Vere are your papers!"

I swear, if I see that in another online or newspaper editorial, I'm going to start throwing things. It's become a sort of script: When you want to diss the idea of a national ID card, the first thing you do is invoke that hoary old meme of a Nazi soldier demanding paperwork from some hapless (and now probably doomed) spear carrier in a bad war movie. After that, thoughtful discussion pretty much ends, which (of course) is the idea. People who think that suppressing debate has been the sole province of liberal PCers should think again.

What we need to do is stop talking about whether or not we will allow the Feds to issue a national ID card, and instead discuss the consequences of the national ID card that we already have. Don't be naive: All fifty states issue a difficult-to-forge photo driver's license, and if by preference or disability you don't drive, all fifty states will issue you a hard-to-forge photo ID card. The premier photo ID is a US passport, which ever more of us have, now that international aviation is so cheap. Without a photo ID, the richness of your life implodes:

  • You can't drive, fly, or (I think) take Amtrak.
  • You can't rent a car.
  • You can't buy booze if you don't look like you're at least 40.
  • You can't open a new bank account.
  • You can't buy things by credit card in a lot of places. (Home Depot has started IDing me in recent months, and many other local retailers have done so for a long time.)
  • You can't travel outside the US.
  • You can't get any but the most menial jobs.

and probably another fifteen or twenty items. Most people don't seem to mind all that so much, and I don't think the Nazi meme surfaces when they produce an ID card to buy plywood at Home Depot. However, when a law enforcement officer says, "Sir, may I see some ID?" you had better have it in hand, or bad things will happen. How is that different (apart from being more polite) from someone saying, "Vere are your papers?"

The real issues with a national ID card are these:

  • How easily it can be forged.
  • What we will allow governments to do with the back-end database of citizens.
  • Under what circumstances government operatives can demand that we produce it.

In all the recent racket about homeland security and the national ID card, I see no discussion whatsoever about these issues in major media. (Bloggers who bring them up are looked upon as right-wing militia types.) Note well that all three of these issues involve both a hypothetical national ID card, and the state-issued "national" ID cards that we already have in our wallets. The Feds are pressuring the states to contribute photo ID data to a national database, and if that happens, well, it's unclear what additional value a national photo ID card would provide to the Feds.

Anyway. Apart from being a stupid, worn-out ethnic slur, the Nazi papers meme only distracts us from what we should be talking about with respect to personal identification mechanisms and government monitoring of citizens. It's not something we can stop them from doing. They're doing it already. The most we can do (if we choose to pay attention) is limit the damage.

March 14, 2005: Live Lettuce

Carol and I have a problem shared by a lot of single people and couples without children who don't eat much: We often can't finish perishable food before it perishes, and good Catholic kids that we are, we feel very guilty about wasting food. We haven't bought a head of lettuce in years because it's difficult for us to eat the whole head before it starts getting wilted and funky. Our friends David and Terry Beers recently introduced us to an elegant solution to the problem: Live lettuce. Heads of butter lettuce are now sold with the root ball intact (see photo at left) which means that the plant can remain alive in the fridge for quite awhile, certainly long enough for us to finish the whole head. We leave the head in the refrigerator in the plastic container it came in, and tear off a couple of the (large) leaves as needed for the core of a small dinner salad.

The brand we buy is from Live Gourmet, though there may be others on the market. Butter lettuce is less bereft of nutrients than iceberg lettuce, and simply tastier, and I recommend it. It's not espeecially cheap, but I had begun to miss lettuce at home, and it's nice to have fresh salads with most evening meals again.

March 13, 2005: The Problem With Liberal Talk Radio

In addition to its cover story on talk radio generally (see yesterday's entry) The Atlantic published a separate short commentary piece on why liberal talk radio (which is a thin field; basically, Al Franken's Air America plus debris) is more likely to become a liability for Democrats than a route back to power. Author Joshua Green recounts the early history of conservative talk radio, reminding us that when Rush Limbaugh basically invented the genre, his perspective was cultural/populist rather than partisan. His rants and political humor were aligned with the complaints of a certain class of people who felt put-upon in various ways by the Democratic nanny state. We've mostly forgotten that Rush didn't like the elder President Bush, and freely skewered Republicans whom he felt were not aligned with the needs of his listeners.

After Republicans took the House in 1994, Rush made a fatal mistake: He changed his alignment from his listeners to the Republican Party. The show became partisan. Gone was any criticism of the Republican agenda or individual Republican politicians, and Rush took up certain fringe Republican causes that he had not taken up earlier, including a mostly inexplicable (and hugely unpopular) campaign to dismantle Federal school lunch programs. Many of his new causes were much less in the minds of ordinary people than Republican party extremists, and moderates give him a certain amount of credit for re-electing Bill Clinton in 1996.

There were thus two "ages" of conservative talk radio: A pre-1994 populist era, and a post-1994 partisan era, with Rush Limbaugh basically defining both almost entirely on his own. In creating Air America, liberals are hoping to duplicate conservative success in the populist First Age, which gave Republicans control of the House. What they've done, however, is launched their own talk radio efforts in the mold of the Second Age, when conservative talk radio became partisan, mean-spirited, and increasingly disconnected from the interests of ordinary Americans. In Green's own words:

Talk radio will never be a forum for measured debate, though Al Franken occasionally offers a wicked dose of humor, as Limbaugh once did. But taken as a whole, the network is already infected by the corrosive negativity, strutting egotism, and bizarre paranoia that marked much of what traversed the conservative airwaves in the late 1990s.

Basically, whereas conservative talk radio morphed into a hatefest after 1994, Air America was launched as a hatefest, with G. Gordon Liddy's nutcase exhortations to kill ATF agents weirdly echoed by Randi Rhodes' suggestion that the best way to be rid of Bush would simply be to assassinate him. (Which would make Dick Cheney the President—clearly, Air America is not thinking it all through.)

The real problem with today's talk radio on both sides of the political divide is this: Neither is changing any undecided minds, as populist conservative talk radio did pre-1994. Neither side is making any effort to try. Both sides are simply whipping their own fringes into a lather, while the people in the middle for the most part tune out in horror. By making liberal hatred of Bush, Republicans, and the culture of our red states a commonplace on the air within red states, Air America is confirming what conservative talk radio has been preaching for years: that liberals loathe everything that red-state America stands for. It may feel good for liberals to listen to Al Franken foam at the mouth, but no one seems to have imagined how red staters will respond to hearing themselves labeled as fagbaiting fascists. Joshua Green (and I) suspect that it won't help much in turning any least part of our red states blue.

March 12, 2005: The Atlantic on Political Talk Radio

The cover story of April's issue of The Atlantic is a gritty look at political talk radio. "Host" examines popular LA talk show guy John Ziegler, his rowdy right-wing political talk show on KFI, and uses Ziegler's show as a framework for explaining the logistics and economics of the talk show industry itself. Some of you may know most of this stuff already, but I'm a talk show virgin—believe it or not, I've never even listened to Rush Limbaugh or Dr. Laura. So for a change in recent months, The Atlantic was telling me something that I didn't already know and actually wanted to understand.

My first reaction: It's a nuthouse. It's not news, and it's not information, nor is it technically even editorializing. It's really a form of entertainment, and beyond that, a kind of religion-without-Jesus where prophets are acclaimed by the faithful according to the degree of wild-eyed frothing-at-the-mouth validation that said prophets can arouse in their followers. For the stations, all of that is incidental except that the formula is immensely popular, and brought AM radio back from near-extinction after FM stole the music franchise by the early 1980s. (Our house never had an FM radio until I bought one in 1974, but once I did, I never went back to AM.)

Tellingly, the advertisers who are making talk radio stations rich (talk radio revenues have risen 10% a year for more than a decade) are the stuff I see most often in spam: hawkers of nostrums like CortiSlim, Altovis, and Enzyte ("herbal male enhancement"), mortgage and refi companies, and sellers of apocalyptic favorites like hand-crank radios and hyperinflation hedge funds. LA station KFI (quietly) characterizes much of the audience as "frightened, credulous, and desperate." The content and delivery are belligerent for a reason that the author, David Foster Wallace, explains succintly in a sidenote:

It is, of course, much less difficult to arouse genuine anger, indignation, and outrage in people than it is real joy, satisfaction, fellow feeling, etc. The latter are fragile and complex, and what excites them varies a great deal from person to person, whereas anger et. al. are more primal, universal, and easier to stimulate, as implied by expressions like "He really pushes my buttons."

In other words, thoughtful reaction is much more diverse than inarticulate fury, and harder to use to create a solid Arbitron rating among a predictable demographic. I was struck by how cynical and calculated the whole thing is, once you get beyond the talk-show stars themselves. Station owners and managers are not necessarily conservative themselves, except to the extent that businessmen generally are. (We're talking something well beyond "conservative" here, to reactionary lunacy.) They let the whole thing happen because it's big money.

It's different among the hosts. Ziegler himself appears to be sincere, in that he actually believes in the things he says, and there's big money in the format because his fans have nowhere else to go to hear what Ziegler is offering them: Fiery condemnation of political correctness and refutation of the liberal leanings of mainstream media, especially TV. (One proof of TV's liberal bias that even I find convincing is that when popular lefty newspaper cartoonist Ted Rall disgustingly labeled Condoleezza Rice as Bush's "house niggah" there was not a peep in the big papers or on TV. Imagine the gates of TV hell opening upon a right-wing cartoonist's head—if such a creature even exists—had he drawn a cartoon of Kweisi Mfume as the DNC's "house niggah.")

Perhaps the single most interesting part of the (long) article in my view is the analysis of just how rare and difficult a talent it is to make a talk show work. A talk show host must be widely read about the issues he cares about, and must be able to speak passionately and yet comprehensibly without umm-ing or ahh-ing or relying on body language, for very precise time increments, bringing a segment to a satisfying conclusion neither a second too late nor too soon, all while achieving peaks of emotional intensity that would render an ordinary man mute. Most people become inarticulate when they become furious, especially in real time. Arguing persuasively while angry is an unappreciated skill.

The best part of "Host" is that it gave me a concise understanding of talk radio without my having to endure the agony of actually listening to it. That's what I pay The Atlantic for, and this one article probably earned the subscription's keep for a full year. But boy, I'd sure like to see more articles like "1491," from the March 2002 issue. (The link is to my discussion; the article itself is not available free online.)

March 11: Reading Less and Less of The Atlantic

I used to report regularly on the contents of The Atlantic, but for the past year or so, The Atlantic has published mostly on politics, a topic I find depressing and don't much care for. More and more of each issue goes unread, and at some point I'll have to face the hard decision of whether or not to renew, after subscribing for a great many years.

People sometimes argue that at some level, everything is political—but if you look closely enough at anything, you'll find that it's made of atoms, and the insight isn't especially useful. My counter-complaint is that what we call "politics" is a very narrowly bounded personality game: Why we should hate George Bush, why we should hate Howard Dean, whether Ted Kennedy is an asset or a liability to the Democratic Party, how Dan Rather can deny having a liberal bias, and on and on and on. It's the same cast and the same plot, no matter where I turn, and I'm pretty tired of it all, especially given how predictable most of it is.

I'd read more of The Atlantic if they thought a little more about what politics really is, and went out and got the kinds of stories that would shed light—real light—on how politics actually works. The history and evolution of Chicago's political machine would be something I'd read, having lived a little of it. A solid story on redistricting and gerrymandering would be worthwhile, especially if it tapped some of the alternative ideas that are floating around. I guess it cooks down to the fact that I'm tired of hearing about political persons, and (if I'm stuck with politics as a topic, going forward) would like to hear more of political processes, political history, and (especially) offbeat, bi- or non-partisan political ideas.

The April issue of The Atlantic came in a few days ago, timed bang-on for a week that I was forced to spend either lying down or sitting like a limp rag in my big leather chair. I've decided to read the whole thing, however distasteful some of it might be (it's got nothing on Nyquil) and if anything interesting comes of it, I'll report over the next couple of days.

March 10, 2005: Odd Lots

I'd sure like to do more than pass along some links as Odd Lots today, but I'm afraid that's all I summon the energy to do:

  • Bill Leininger sent me a link to a nice page with some additional information on the "magic finger" tuning indicator tube. (It's in German, but it's mostly pictures, with a very nice photoanimation.) Apparently the tube is mounted upside-down on a carriage that moves horizontally behind the glass tuning dial, and when you tune it past a station, the light on the two sides of the tube converge. When the two sides merge into one long illuminated line, you're on the beam!
  • Rick Widmer sent me a link to a discussion of how a gated-beam discriminator operates. Fascinating business! It's a little like the quadrature detection technology used in FM chips like the MC3362, and certainly the simplest tube-based FM detector I've seen, assuming you don't count a slope-tuned superregen.
  • I don't recall if I posted this before, but RemedyFind is a Web site on pharmaceuticals, prescription and non-prescription, that allows users to post reviews of drugs they have taken for various illnesses. I was up there a lot earlier today, checking out things like Afrin and Flonase for side effects. I'm struck by the variation in reactions different people have to different drugs—and also the sheer number of things that some people are taking simultaneously. Pharma companies can test for interactions involving two drugs at a time, but what happens when people are popping five or six different chemicals at once? Isn't this a little like the three-body problem in physics? No wonder so many of us are half-nuts.
More tomorrow, or when I can move again.

March 9, 2005: Discovering Gated-Beam Discriminators

Not quite flat on my butt with this cold, but I'm closing in on it. I spent today alternating between periods in bed and periods in my big chair when I couldn't stand to lay there in bed anymore. Nasty business.

Anyway. I guess I'll be short. I thought I was a tube guru, but today I stumbled upon a species of FM detector that I had never heard of before. It's called a gated-beam discriminator, and it relies on a specially designed tube to simultaneously limit, detect, and audio-amplify an FM signal. A circuit can be seen here. (Scroll down some.) If that's truly all there is to it, I need to find out more, because I see no fussy discriminator or ratio detector coils, and the tubes are cheap. The 6BN6 is only $4.40 from Antique Electronic Supply, and there is an $8 6J10 Compactron that throws in a power pentode to bring the detected audio up to speaker volume.

I have no clue how this circuit works yet, and probably won't be able to research in detail it until I feel better, but it's amazing how life tosses you these little surprises now and then. (Ok, I'm easily pleased today. My nose hurts!) One more thing: Another species of tube that I've never seen, presumably a species of magic eye, but I don't read Japanese.

Back to the saline spray.

March 8, 2005: Virus Odd Lots

Some odd lots from the Viruses? I'll give you viruses! file:

  • My cold got way worse last night, and my voice is now totally gone. Viruses, heh. I can barely whisper. So whaddaya know, WBBM-AM in Chicago called me and asked me to be on their drive-time show this evening, talking about, couldn'tcha guess? viruses. (Not the kind tormenting my nose, at least.) Alas, I couldn't make enough noise to be heard, so I lost the slot, though I asked them to keep me in mind for other things...starting about a week from now.
  • Several aggregators have cited CommWarrior.a, a new virus infecting the Symbian mobile phone OS. It propagates through text messaging, and there's almost no way you can tell that you've got it. You may never know, in fact, until the next bill comes, and you find that someone or something has sent 65,000 text messages, at a quarter apiece. Ouch. At least you can avoid it by not installing it. One wonders why this is so hard...
  • Reader Ed Keefe ran afoul of a novel adware/spyware system that defeats anti-spyware software by checking for its presence at boot time with a Windows service. If it doesn't find itself, it will simply go out and re-download and reinstall itself. And if you disconnect the PC from your broadband connection while you boot, the service hangs and won't let the boot process continue. If we can prosecute twelve year olds for downloading MP3s using their IP, surely we can catch the bastards behind this scheme using their IP...but without a corporate ox getting gored, nobody seems especially interested in shutting this stuff down.
  • Symantec was having some problems with their LiveUpdate servers the other day, and various versions of NAV started throwing up a console window, displaying mysterious techie stuff that almost nobody can decipher. The client was basically bitching that it can't find its server, but an awful lot of people thought they had contracted a new virus or worm. Sometimes it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. (Whatever happened to plain English error boxes?)
Lotsa stuff to get into when I can think clearly again. Hang in there.

March 7, 2005: Girlfriend's What?!??!

Bags of this have started appearing in local grocery stores. What were these people thinking?!!??!?! (I have dibs on sending it to Bacon, by the way.)

March 6, 2005: Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ

Every time I find myself at a bookstore, I flip through The Da Vinci Code, trying to figure why the hell this thing has been so popular for so long. The writing is nothing special, and I already know the plot, which was lifted almost verbatim from Michael Baigent's Holy Blood, Holy Grail material. The "Big Secret" is that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and (probably) had children. Most Christians (including Catholics) consider the very idea blasphemous, quite apart from the fact that it is absent from both Scripture and Tradition.

I completely agree that this is a fabrication. However, the interesting question (to me, at least) is why a married Jesus, with children, should be blasphemous. If I can hazard an answer, it's because of three interrelated Christian heresies: Manichaeism, Arianism, and Donatism. Arianism holds that Jesus was a Godlike man, but not God; Donatism holds that Jesus was a manlike God, but not man. Arianism, having gone extinct around the year 1300 or so, has re-arisen in our modern culture, where in New Age circles Jesus is called a "great teacher" and perhaps "the most ascended of all human masters" but not God. Arianism came about because in the very early Church, Christians were living in the thick of polytheism, which dominated every culture around them. They were very jealous of their novel idea of one supreme God (inherited from the Jews) and some Christians could not grok the mystery of the Trinity, and thus had trouble with the notion that God the Father was God, and so was Jesus.

Arianism is a classic example of the hazards of applying pure reason to a theological mystery. It surprises us today, but it was the educated people of the time who (having failed to understand the Trinity by the application of pure reason) considered Jesus' divinity a challenge to monotheism. The great illiterate unwashed had no trouble thinking of Jesus as God, though in truth some of them thought of God the Father and Jesus as separate, coequal Gods.

Although the New Age bristles with Arianism, Donatism may be our more urgent problem these days. I see a great reluctance in many Christians (including Catholics) to accept the reality of Jesus' humanness. Like a lot of other things, this can be traced back to Augustine, who mangled the concept of original sin into original guilt, which he taught was transmitted by the sex act. Once the Augustinian view of sex and original guilt took hold in the West, it was a short path to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Jesus. This is where Manichaeanism comes in: Sex, bodies, and the physical world are considered depraved and completely separated from spiritual reality. Jesus, being perfect, could have none of that. From Manichaeism it's a short path to Donatism, which teaches that Jesus only appeared to be human. His humanness was a miraculous disguise, which appeared completely human to other humans, but which in essence was solely divine.

Jesus was of course without sin (his humanness was limited in that he did not inherit Original Sin and thus the inevitable propensity to sin that everybody else has) but if he were married, there would be no sin in his engaging in the fully human task of procreation. Jewish teachers in Jesus' day were expected to teach not only by words but by example, and "Be fruitful and multiply" was considered an important commandment from God himself, laid down in the Jewish law. As best we can tell, Jesus didn't marry nor have children, but I see nothing objectionable in the possibility.

The oft-raised objection that children of Jesus would be "half God" is absurd, once you understand orthodox Christology. The Holy Spirit imparted the divine nature to Jesus; his human nature came from his mother Mary. Absent another miraculous intervention by the Holy Spirit (unlikely, heh) children of Jesus would be children solely of his human nature. They might be really good children, but they would be no more divine than the rest of us.

If Christianity did not lay such total emphasis on Jesus' divinity (to the neglect of His humanity) books like The Da Vinci Code would lose a lot of their attraction. In my view, a married and fathering Jesus is an unobjectionable hypothesis without supporting evidence from Scripture, Tradition, or history. It's not true, but calling it blasphemous is a slander on humanness, which is of course what Manichaeism is all about.

There are times when I think that we'll be wrestling with Manichaeism for the rest of human history. We started to get a grip on it after Vatican II, but most of those gains have since been reversed. Pope John Paul II has a strong Manichaean tendency, obvious from his encyclicals. (Does anyone but me actually read them?) As the poor man (whom I nonetheless admire) sinks down to the very human humiliation of death, many people are trying to get a grip on his legacy. Manichaeism is part of it. I'll return to this topic in a future entry.

March 5, 2005: My All-Tube Stereo Amp

I took a much-desired Saturday morning off from doing Useful Things and instead went downstairs to make metal shavings. The project at hand is one that's been rattling around in a box for six months or so: A tube stereo amp, built in a real metal chassis, like those Real Men used to build Real Electronics Projects in, way back an unreal number of years ago. The circuit is from a 1965 GE Electronic Components Hobby Manual, and is relatively simple: Two 6T9 Compactron triode-pentodes, two output transformers, some biasing parts, a power supply, and supporting electronics. What I got done this morning looks impressive (see photo at right) but all I did is drill and punch the chassis—no wiring done so far, and in fact I have a little more figgering of holes to do yet. (I haven't quite determined where the filter cap is going to go.)

I'm not going to go on like those tube audio maniacs who praise the "warmer" sound of tubes as superior to solid state. I don't buy it for a second. Solid state makes (slightly) better sound, but that's never been the point here. I have a contrarian love for things that light up and have a lot of metal in them, especially things I designed with this here head and strung together with these here hands. The device I designed will put out 4 watts of audio, which is more than enough to fill my workshop downstairs, and if you grab the power cord and swing it around your head in a brawl, it will do some serious damage. (Try that with an IPod, heh.)

Now, the circuit is not entirely original with me, but I redesigned the input circuit to handle low-level audio from a sound card, rather than a crystal phono cartridge. I also redesigned the power supply to suit the transformer and choke I had on hand. I may also have to refigure the bias resistors, but I won't know until I get a lot farther along. Once I finish and prove out the amp, I'll post the final circuit here. In the meantime (since I'm not sure how legal it might be to scan and post the original GE material) I can point you to something similar that appeared in Nuts & Volts Magazine last year.

Building things is a good part of what life is about. I haven't done this in awhile. It's good to be back.

March 3, 2005: Crows, not Toucans

It's not a toucan ashtray at all. (See my entry for March 1, 2005.) It's a crow ashtray. Says so right on the box, though the image severely stretches what a crow looks like. (Carol says she'll always think of them as toucans.) I wasn't able to find out much online, other than they were made by Tempo Manufacturing Company of New York and were fairly common and relatively inexpensive. One completed auction on EBay went for 99 cents. Most sold for $10 or under. Not exactly a priceless collectible, heh.

I saw another almost identical ashtray from the same manufacturer that used a pair of alligators rather than birds.

Another thing I looked for were black ceramic panther statues, and found a load of them. This is pretty close to what I remember, though many of the panthers were part of a "TV lamp." I was at a loss to explain why a TV needs a lamp badly enough to spawn an entire industry with several Web sites (look for, .net, and .org!) but this document explains it all, and shows us a green panther TV lamp to boot.

Nobody I know has the black panther lamps anymore. Almost by definition, the valuable kitsch goes in the trash long before it becomes valuable—and probably that's why it's now valuable. (My Aunt Josephine threw away her much despised depression glass and bought that jazzy, up-to-date Melmac tableware about 1958. So it goes.)

March 2, 2005: Odd Lots

  • If you haven't been following Virgin Atlantic's Global Flyer mission, aiming to be the very first nonstop solo around-the-world flight, definitely tune into Mission Control. As I write, the craft has been airborne for 47 hours, is well over halfway back to Salinas, Kansas, and is currently over the Pacific about a thousand miles east of Japan.
  • Intel has announced something I've been expecting for literally decades: Through-Silicon Vias (TSVs). What this means is stacking multiple finished chips vertically within a single package, with "dimple" connections between the top and bottom surfaces (not simply the edges) of the chips. These are etched into the chip as part of the fabrication process. There's a very nice animation here showing how this works, and it's better than any short explanation I could give you. TSVs allow not only dense packaging, but also extremely fast data paths between chips—and my only concern is that it will make heat dissipation, which is already something of a limiting factor in chip speed, even tougher to do effectively.
  • In answer to the threat of Windows rootkits (see my entry for February 18, 2005) those wizards over at Sysinternals have created Rootkit Revealer, a utility that can determine whether a rootkit has taken hold of your Windows installation. I don't recommend Rootkit Revealer to your granny, but knowledgeable Windows geeks will have no trouble with it. (Thanks to Bob Ball W0VNO for the pointer.)
  • Which brings us to yet another interesting question: Can a rootkit install itself (via virus or worm) on a system running as a limited user account? True enough, most people run Windows 2000 and XP as administrator, but how solid is the protection of doing most of your ordinary work (especially online work) as a limited user?
  • After I speculated whether Microsoft would ever allow Windows XP to be run from a read-only medium (see my entry for February 25, 2005) Michael Covington pointed out that Microsoft already has Windows PE, which boots from a CD and allows you to get at NTFS volumes without any additional fuss, something not as easily done with Knoppix and other Linux LiveCDs. Unfortunately, Windows PE is not easy to get, especially for end users. (I don't think it's included in MSDN; it's really for PC hardware OEMs.) A chap named Bart, however, has a fascinating Web page and associated software explaining how to create a sort of LiveCD image of Windows XP from a conventional copy.

March 1, 2005: Our Solid Chrome Toucan Ashtray

A friend of ours gave us something his parents had bought a long time ago: A chrome ashtray with two chrome toucans mounted to it, beaks opened enough to grip a cigarette. He gave it to us in part because toucans are Carol's totem animal, and also in part because we already had another identical ashtray. I was very surprised to see another one of these, and it made me wonder just how common they were back in the 1950s or whenever they were current.

I've begun to think that these were a fad at some point, rather like the black glazed ceramic panthers that 1950s families tended to have on top of (and sometimes under) their console TV sets. We had one, Carol's family had one, and my Aunt Josephine had one, and those panthers are now highly prized in ye olde 1950s nostalgia shoppes. I'd be curious to hear from anybody who had one of these toucan ashtrays, especially if you can tell me when they were made and by whom.