31, 2006: The Cunning Blood Reviewed in Analog!
I heard last night from George Ott, who subscribes to Analog,
certainly the touchstone of hard SF in the world today. He told
me that he had just received his June issue, and Tom Easton (Analog's
reviewer of books for 20-odd years) has written a review of The
Cunning Blood. I have no details, other than George's sly suggestion
that my publisher will burn through the rest of the press run in
about two weeks.
Maybe he thought he was exaggerating, but it's actually happened
to me before: When Parade ran a tiny little review of Degunking
Windows on July 4, 2004, we sold out the rest of the press run
(literally thousands of books) in six days.
The Cunning Blood and a packet of printed copies of its reviews
is now over at Baen Books, waiting for Jim Baen (or somebody there)
to notice it and consider buying paperback rights. Here's hoping that
the Analog review helps me get into paperback and thus into
mass-market retail stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble.
29, 2006: The Burger That Dares Not Speak Its Name
a restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue north of Oakton in Niles, Illinois,
just outside of Chicago. It's well-known around here, and some of
my Chicagoland readers may have eaten there. It began as a late
50s maltshop, and now offers superfine BBQ ribs, good deep fried
shrimp, and burgers that I haven't tried yet. (I'm suspicious of
mass-market beef.) Hilary Rodham, who grew up on the right side
of the tracks (or at least the right side of Canfield Road) about
a mile and half from where I grew up, used to hang out there with
her friends after high school. The place was founded around 1960
by a chubby little guy whose nickname was Booby. So yesterday we
took a break from cleaning Carol's mom's basement here in Niles.
Carol's sister Kathy was with us, and at some point after we put
our feet up, Kathy decided it was time for some chow. It went like
Kathy: We should order out for lunch. What should we get?
Carol's mom: Booby's is close.
Jeff: I like Booby's.
Carol (giggling): Well, that's for sure!
(They actually have an oversized burger on the menu called "The
Big Boob," but let's not go there.) Still, the food is good,
and Booby's is strictly a one-off establishment, with no hint of franchisable
dullness about it. If you ever find yourself in Niles, stop giggling
long enough to order some ribs or some shrimp.
28, 2006: Methuselah's May Wine
We had dinner over at my sister Gretchen Roper's house the other
night, and when it came time to choose the wine from the collection
in the cabinet (which leans toward whites) Gretchen pointed out
that she had an open bottle in the fridge. It was Glunz's May Wine,
from the Glunz Family Winery
in (of all places) Grayslake, Illinois.
I hadn't had May Wine for a number of years, so we decided to try
it. May Wine is an early harvest white wine that (like Beaujolais
Nouveau) is a little thin and not as rich in flavor as wines
from later grapes, or wines that have been given more time to develop
some character. To give May Wine something for us to remember it
by, vintners add an aromatic herb called woodruff. I'm not sure
how to describe the aroma of woodruff. We who sat around Gretchen's
massive dining room table couldn't agree. Gretchen thought it smelled
of new (unburned) tobacco. I thought it smelled a little bit medicinal,
in a foxfire, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman kind of way. Carol hadn't
yet identified what it reminded her of, but it reminded her of something.
May Wine is off-dry, though certainly not anywhere near a dessert
wine, and when served cold is bracing and completely different in
effect from other white wines. It's been called a gulping wine (I've
heard of people drinking it over ice with a straw!) but the aroma
is remarkable and worth savoring.
The aroma isn't the only thing remarkable about Glunz' May Wine. When
I asked how long it had been open, Gretchen kicked back in her chair,
made an embarrassed face, and said, "about a year and a half." Eek.
Now, white wine keeps better than red wine, and if it sits in a cold
fridge can keep for far longer than the wine snobs are willing to
admit. However, eighteen months in an opened bottle is something of
a record for wine that I have been willing to drink and then found
good. I can only figure that the woodruff has a certain preservative
effect. We drank half the bottle and nobody felt funny, and the unique
flavor of May Wine was undimmed. It's worth a try if you're up for
something different in the wine world.
27, 2006: Living Mindfully For Lent
People here are probably familiar with my rant on asceticism, which
is mostly an occasion of spiritual pride and an opportunity to look
down your nose on people without your ever-so-precious will power.
Quick summary: Give up whatever you want for Lent, but for God's
sake shut up about it. We just don't want to hear itand talking
about it pretty much nullifies any spiritual benefit that any Lenten
sacrifice might convey.
Our pastor gave a sermon on the first Sunday of Lent suggesting
that we not give things up for Lent (especially physical things,
all of which have been made by God and are in essence sacred) but
rather take up new challenges. One such challenge might be to stop
the political hatefest that so many of us seem to relish. Keep the
gumdrops; quit the venomous screeds on GWB, Republicans, or liberals,
or whoever it is that you disapprove of.
That may be too much to ask. So it goes. The other challenge (one
that might actually be more valuable in the long run) is simply
to live mindfully. Most of us live life almost entirely on automatic,
popping the gumdrops, yakking on the cell phone, firing off the
political screeds, and channel surfing on cable without giving any
of it much thought. Habit hides many sins; it also numbs us to legitimate
pleasures. Worse, it keeps us from remembering mileposts we've passed
on the path that we're on, rendering much of life simply meaningless.
So for what remains of Lent, strive to pay attention. Be here and
be present to whatever you're doing. You don't necessarily have
to think hard about the things you do (much that we do isn't worth
a great deal of thought) but notice them in their fullness.
Gumdrops have color, smell, taste, and texture. Take the next one
from the bag and just be aware of it for the moment before it's
gone. You'll probably end up eating fewer gumdrops, but you'll enjoy
the ones you do eat a lot more.
Consider not only what you say to the people around you, but their
reactions too. Listening well requires listening mindfully. Be aware
of your present position in the world. Are you in somebody's way?
Mindfulness helps you live with the flow, rather than impede it.
The more you look, the more you'll see. There's a lot out there in
the world, most of it fundamentally good, and some of it absolutely
delightful. Roar by on automatic and you'll miss it. Slow down, pay
attention, and be amazed at what Lent can teach you!
23, 2006: Flat-Panel Addiction
I used to keep an entirely separate PC here at Carol's family home
in Niles, Illinois, until a year or two ago. At that point I dumped
the old PC (a cranky 300 MHz P-II) but kept the keyboard, CRT, and
mouse. Belkin provided a nice little gizmo that routes both keyboard
and mouse information from conventional keyboards and mice into
a single USB-2 port. My ThinkPad (the X21 before, and the X41 now)
sits in its dock on the computer desk next to the CRT, and I use
the same full-size peripherals that I have used since, mmmm, 1997
or so. There is virtue in continuity, especially when I need to
type a lot of text in a hurry.
But there's one snag: I have become seriously un-used to CRT displays
over the past three months. I use flat panels at home both upstairs
and downstairs (and in Carol's office as well) and even a decent
CRT (like this old Compaq MV700) now looks hopelessly dim, fuzzy,
and nonlinear. I'm hesitant to buy an LCD for down here because
the X41's primary display has only one resolution (1024 X 768) and
LCDs look lousy except when they're displaying at their native resolutions.
There may be some display trickery I can perform to go to 1280 X
1024 on an external monitor, but I haven't figured it out yet. (I'll
research it here as possible, but without 24X7 broadband, I have
It's a little odd, but when I first saw an LCD display fr PCs, it
looked too sharp to me, but now, having gotten used to what
was originally an oddity, I don't think I can ever go back.
22, 2006: Off to Chicago
I'm in Chicago on on of our periodic visits, and won't have broadband
except when I duck out to Panera or some other similarly equipped
place and Wi-Fi in. So if I don't respond quickly to email or LiveJournal
comments, that's why.
One bit of advice based on today's adventures: Don't fly American
into O'Hare for awhile. They've torn out the escalators between
the gates level and the baggage claim level, and it was far from
clear how to get downstairs to fetch our luggage. That whole part
of the O'Hare complex now looks like something out of the Third
World. American Airlines itself got seriously on my bad side for
delaying our flight out of Colorado Springs for five hours, and
then making us wait for a full hour at O'Hare before our one little
suitcase came straggling out onto the carousel, long after every
other bag was grabbed and gone. We caught the 8 AM flight (requiring
us to rise at a little after 4) to arrive in Chicago ahead of rush
hour traffic, but as it happened we had to cross the northern burbs
at 4:55 PM anyway. Poor QBit had gotten a puppy downer at 6 AM to
keep him sleepy in his Sherpa Bag, but the pill had worn off completely
before we ever got on the plane. Carol had to give him a second
one, and now we don't have one to give him for the trip home.
On the plus side, I watched Wallace and Gromit cartoons (ripped
from the DVD) on my laptop much of the way there, and it worked
very well. The X41 does not have an optical drive in the slab itself
(there's one in the compatible X4 dock) so I have to rip my DVDs
onto hard disk to watch them on trips. It's a nuisance, but it works
beautifully, and the trip is short enough (about two hours) so that
two movies on disk will keep me entertained coming and going. I
now just have to figure out how to split the audio into a second
headset so that Carol can watch too.
I'm tired. More (with any luck) tomorrow.
21, 2006: Quicktime Alternative
I hate nagware, and until very recently I had neither need nor
desire to install RealPlayer or QuickTime. Both are huge, bloated,
needlessly aggressive programs that insist on launching themselves
at boot time and then peppering you with reminders to "upgrade"
to a professional version that is mostly identical to the free version
except that it doesn't nag. Screw that.
I received a problem for Christmas, in that my new Kodak digital
camera takes short movie clips in QuickTime .mov format. Remarkably,
Windows Media player won't play them, nor will Winamp or Divx. I
finally installed QuickTime on one of my machines so that I could
view the clips, but it drives me nuts begging me to send Apple protection
money to stop the nags. So I began hunting around for an alternative.
I found one. So that no one misunderstands what it is, the software
is named QuickTime Alternative.
It's free, and I've been playing with it for awhile. I have not
seen any adware or spyware, and it plays the short clips as well
as QuickTime itself does. It's smaller, doesn't launch itself at
bootup, and both comes when it's called and vanishes when you put
it away. QuickTime Alternative is really a set of codecs that can
operate in a separate player. It comes with a simple media player,
but a plug-in is included for Firefox, allowing you to view movies
right in your browser.
The same group (I'm not sure it's a company) offers Real Alternative
and Windows Media Lite, to make RealPlayer and Windows Media Player
unnecessary. I haven't tried them and may not, but they're out there.
I'm a little leery of all media software (and in truth don't use it
much) but so far Quicktime Alternative has done nothing to annoy me.
20, 2006: Taste Inbreeding and Barenaked Chardonnay
I drink Cabernet Sauvingnon now and then, especially if someone
else is buying, though it's sometimes difficult to get it down without
having to tell my host, "You been took, dude." On the
other hand, I almost never willingly accept a glass of Chardonnay,
and certainly never buy it. The reason is pretty simple: Cabernet
at least has the virtue of being a red wine. Chardonnay lacks that
advantage, and often tastes so much of oak that you wonder if you've
gotten something vinted in a barrel made of ripped-up floorboardsfloorboards
from a house full of incontinent cats, at that. (I was at a wine
tasting in the basement of St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 2000,
and one of the white wines presented had been described by Australian
wine freak Oz Clarke as whiffing of "cat's pee on a gooseberry
bush." Later on that's what they named it. And they weren't
Cabernet and Chardonnay are the collies and Dalmatians of the wine
world: so inbred and self-referential that they all taste alikeand
they all taste awful. That's what happens when too much wine of
a single variety is made. Both wines are generally bottled with
virtually zero residual sugar, and so much oak that they go bitter
and begin to taste like Nyquil. White wines in particular should
never be that utterly dry, as then the oak and the acid take over,
and you're drinking...yup, cat-soiled floorboards. This is where
but Chardonnay" movement got most of its impetus, and I'd
join except that "anything" includes Cabernet. I'll pass.
So it was with wry satisfaction that I learned that "unoaked"
Chardonnay was becoming increasingly popular. Instead of soaking
it in floorboards (with or without cat urine) they ferment it in
stainless-steel tanks. This allows a little more of the fruit to
come out, and while the wine is still very dry, it's not bitter.
Chardonnay is generally made with a second fermentation that adds
all sorts of odd whiffs to the wine, which have been described as
toast, vanilla, butterscotch, and coconut. (Gosh, why not grapes?)
Too much of that and it almost begins to smell burnt. People argue
with me but I also think that the second fermentation makes the
acidic taste that most white wines exhibit go over the top and become,
well, sour. Unoaked wines are supposedly more acid than oaked wines,
but I don't see it. It may simply be that the presence of the oak
corrupts the acid somehow. I'm not sure, and over the years I've
begun to suspect that wine doesn't taste precisely the same to me
as it does to others. Your mileage may vary, but they're definitely
worth a try, especially if brutally dry, bitter wines bother you.
Look for Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay, an Australian wine I had
in Chicago a year or so ago and enjoyed. About $10. (Alas, I can't
find it locally here in Colorado, but I see online that it still
Unoaked wines are sometimes called "unwooded," "naked,"
or even "barenaked." You have to read labels carefully or
ask for them, and expect the wine snobs to look at you funny. I've
had a couple, and they are an immense improvement on conventional
Chardonnay, to the point where they no longer taste like Chardonnay
at all and more strongly resemble a dry German Riesling. I still think
almost any German white is better than almost any Chardonnay, but
if you're feeling adventurous, stick with Chardonnay and go barenaked.
18, 2006: Odd Lots
- I didn't have to glue my glasses back together (see yesterday's
entry) because the frames are a major brand and only three years
old. I simply called around until I found an identical pair locally,
and did a lens transplant. Problem solvedbut I'm ordering
a spare set with lenses so this won't ever be an issue again.
- Kevin Anetsberger pointed me to The
Homebrew CPU Page, which highlights a homebrew computer called
Magic-1. The trick is that Bill (I don't see his last name anywhere)
wire-wrapped the whole thing, including the CPU. Yup. The
CPU is not VLSI, or even LSI, but strictly SSI: Just hundreds
of individual TTL chips on rows of plug-in boards inside a husky
19" rack cabinet about the size of a standard microwave oven.
It runs at 4 MHz, has a C compiler, and looks mighty cool. It's
also freaking amazing, especially if you were around when circuits
for simple CPUs could be found in Byte Magazine. Read the
techie stuff, and marvel.
- Kevin also sent me a link to RetroThing's page of Ten
Retrocomputers You Can Still Buy, which includes a picture
of a $100 COSMAC ELF kit. Woohoo! The list also includes a PDP-8
replica, the ZX-81, The Cambridge Z-88, and the IMSAI!
- A team at MIT injected some synthetic peptides into some blind
hamsters, and the chemicals faciliated regrowth of damaged optic
nerve tissue. Over time, most of the hamsters regained their sight.
Now, this is real damned significant, but read the article, and
ask yourself if we're not stretching the "nanotechnology"
term a little here. "Synthetic peptides" may be clever
chemistry, but are they nanotech? I think of nanotech as the deliberate
positioning of individual atoms within a larger structure, and
I don't think that's what's going on here.
- A bunch of neat IP-related lookups and diagnostics are gathered
at DNSStuff, which is worth
a look, and bookmarking.
- What we were all speculating about when GMail first appeared
has apparently occurred: A judge has ordered Google to
turn over the entire message corpus of a GMail account, including
deleted messages. I was dubious about "Web 2.0" then,
and I'm dubious about it now. The most important issue here is
that "deleted" no longer means what most people think
it means. Once data leaves your machine, you can no longer control
it, and it will never reliably go away.
17, 2006: Optimal Bad Timing
Last night I broke my damned glasses. My expensive, good-looking,
Ralph Lauren Polo titanium-frame glasses, with antireflective coated
lenses and smooth springy temples. These were absolutely the nicest-looking
glasses I have ever had, and the first ones (since a couple of equally
fragile wire-rims 20-odd years ago) to make me look less like a
geek and more like the polished intellectual I sometimes I wish
How did I break them? I was manhandling a PC onto my server shelf,
and when I reached around to plug in some cables, whacked the side
of my head on the shelf, and off they flew, hitting the concrete
floor at just the precise angle to snap an exotic-metal weld that
I doubt will respond well to a soldering iron.
All right. I guess you can take the glasses off the geek, but you
can't take the geek...
Crap. The timing is optimal bad for this reason: This Saturday
we have an appointment with a professional photographer for studio-quality
photos. I need a new publicity photo, and Carol wants something
a little more formal than the cruise-boat shot we've been using
as our canonical "us" photo since 2004.
I have spares, of course, but they are "big glasses" that
were all the rage in 1987, and now make me look "owlish,"
as one of my admirers once said. Not sure what's to be done. Later
today I may learn just how good I am with superglue, and hope the
damned things will hold together for the half-hour the shoot may take.
16, 2006: AOL Is Returning Mail Again
I've about had it with AOL. I send about fifteen or maybe twenty
emails out per day. I sent out several this morning, three of them
to AOL email addresses. As has happened with increasingly frequency
in recent months, all three came back a few hours later with this
Reason: Remote host said:
421 SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE
I see this regularly. A whole long list of things can trigger this
error message, but none of them are pertinent to my circumstances.
People who send out email newsletters often get this message, as do
people whose SMTP servers don't implement Reverse DNS. The problem
isn't consistent, and I just don't get the logic in it. (I suspect
the core falure is an antispam system written by meerkats.) Most of
the time my messages to AOL people get through. However, more and
more often they don't get through, and I'm sick of re-sending those
messages. So if you use AOL for email, don't count on getting any
mail from meor from any number of other people. AOL email
is broken somehow. You are not getting messages that you should be
getting. For God's sake run screaming from the CD Coaster Network
and get your butts into a system that works.
15, 2006: Cow Magnets and the Wine Clip
I got a polite note from a chap named Tony, who sells the
Wine Clip on his site,
and which I (somewhat rudely) made fun of in my March
8, 2006 entry. Supposedly, the Wine Clip breaks down large wine
tannin molecules into smaller ones, a process that happens naturally
as wines (especially dry reds) age. Smaller tannin molecules do
not taste as astringent as larger ones, so if there were a way to
break down large tannin molecules into smaller ones, you could get
wines that taste as though they had been aged for years even if
they were right out of the vat.
This, to me, would be a good thing, as I have hyper-sensitive buds
for bitter tastes, which is the main reason I cannot abide beer,
dark chocolate, and a lot of dark green vegetables. However, I remember
back when I was in college, during the Arab Oil Embargo, when people
were buying up cow
magnets by the case and duct-taping them around their fuel lines,
to enhance mileage. What the precise chemistry of the magnetic effect
was, no one could explain to me, and so I never bothered; I just
stayed home a lot and wrote SF stories.
Passing fluids past magnets for some benefit has thus left a bitter
taste in my mouth, heh.
The tannins issue has been covered a lot in the wine press, and
there are reasonably
skeptical reviews of the Wine Clip, along with a number of other
even more unlikely (and seriously more New Age) wine enhancers,
like this one. Tannins
are covalent compound, and thus unlikely to be affected by magnetic
or electric fields. Beyond that, I just don't know, so what I'm
going to do is open it up to the rest of you, some of whom have
degress in chemistry, whereas I'm just a science fiction writer.
Is there any possible way that strong magnets could break down large
tannin molecules into smaller ones?
Tony didn't flame me, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and
recognize my limitations as a scientist. Can this thing possibly
work? I encourage people with real scientific backgrounds to enter
comments on my Live
Journal mirror so that everyone can read them verbatim.
14, 2006: How About a P2P Meetup Clone?
Against all logic, Meetup is still out there and working, even
though every single Meetup I had signed up for disbanded
after Meetup began charging $220/year for coordinating a single
meeting in a single city. I guess Colorado Springs has the Insane
Clown Posse fans and the ever-social Wiccans, but not a great deal
This is just nuts. It was relatively simple technology and the
service was useful, even if not economical for small meetings like
ours. So why don't we build our own? I've been rolling the idea
around in my head since Meetup shut down the Delphi meeting here,
which I greatly enjoyed. Rather than cloning Meetup's server-based
system, I have another idea: Implement it as a peer-to-peer mechanism
instead of client-server. Howcum? By its very nature, a meatspace
meeting coordinator does most of its work in the service of small
groups of PCs. P2P networks don't scale wellespecially when
high-bandwidth file transfers are involvedbut this one doesn't
have to. Also, if it's not dependent on a central server, nothing
can "shut it off." Besides, we need a few examples of
P2P systems that have nothing to do with file sharing, so that Big
Media has more difficulty outlawing P2P mechanisms entirely.
Here are some thoughts on the how such a system would work:
This isn't rocket surgery, and while I don't have the loose cycles
to try to write it myself, I throw it out as a suggestion for an interesting
and useful open-source project. For all I know somebody is doing it
somewhere, but if not, well, what are you waiting for?
- There would be no servers, only clients. Each client would maintain
a small client-server database of groups and members.
- The client would give the user the option of entering either
Earth coordinates (latitude and longitude) or a postal code. A
file containing the coordinates of each US Zip code center would
be shipped with the client, and upodated periodically as the USPS
adds or merges Zip codes. There is a
"geocoder" service (probably more than one) where
you can enter a street address and download its Earth coordinates,
either manually or through an API.
- The client would ship with a database of obvious groups: Beagle
lovers, Delphi programmers, Young Progressives, Wiccans, and so
on. The client would also allow users to start their own groups
under new topics. Once a new group topic had attracted a minimum
number of members (say, three) within a radius of thirty miles,
the new group topic would be broadcast to other P2P clients. (This
would reduce the chances of morons flooding the system with "topic
- A user would look for meetings by entering a group topic and
a radius across which they're willing to travel. The client would
then do a conventional P2P search for people who registered interest
in that topic within that radius.
- The client would allow users to coordinate a meeting at a location
of their choice, at a frequency of their choice, and would pop
up reminders when a meeting time approached.
- The client should allow "guest" members, and the software
should be written to run on a U3-capable thumb drive. If I'm in
Chicago for a couple of weeks, for example, and want to drop in
on the local Delphi meeting, I should be able to enter a coordinate
and find the meeting, even if I'm not and will not be a long-term
13, 2006: Review: Binge by Barrett Seaman
preparing to write his 2005 book Binge,
author Barrett Seaman spent two years on the campuses of America's
best universities, interviewing faculty, students, and administrators,
hanging out with them (especially the students) and trying to discern
what is going on at the Ivies. Like a number of authors, he's excellent
at drawing dots but hopeless at connecting them, and I came away
with precious little in terms of insight, and whatever dots were
connected I had to connect myself.
Overall, the picture emerging from Seaman's scattering of dots
is appalling: The Ivy League universities have basically ceased
teaching anything of consequence in their liberal arts programs,
and are obsessed with keeping student self-esteem up and the required
number of nonwhite, nonasian faces in the student body. Students
are constantly badgered into a sort of gentle racial and ethnic
segregation (euphemistically called "siloing") that adds
to the velvet fist of political correctness the imperative to mix
mostly with others of their own heritage. Awash with money from
skyrocketing tuition, the schools are spending hugely on things
that have very little to do with educating young people. None of
this is really news; I have been reading for some years now how
it's possible (with a little animal cleverness) to walk through
the top universities and get a degree without learning anything
at all, especially if you're an athlete.
Seaman seems incapable of taking anyone to task for anything (especially
the schools) and so that part of the book is mostly a transcription
of his experiences. The truly interesting part, and the only place
I felt any stirring of passion, reflects the title: his description
of the emergence of ubiquitous (and increasingly fatal) binge drinking
by underage students. He reports a sort of flight-from-the-middle:
Students are increasingly not drinking at all, or else drinking
themselves to death. The discussion of whether it makes sense to
split the age of majority along the liquor axis is good and should
be taken up by society as a whole. (I may take this up in detail
in a future entry.)
Unfortunately, the good stuff stops there. Seaman seems puzzled
as to why students have begun drinking so heavily, and engaging
in so much zipless sex. I wanted to whack him up aside the head;
it's screamingly obvious if you think about it for ten seconds:
These kids have been pushed devilishly hard by their parents to
excel in school, but those parents have made every significant
decision for them. Their whole lives have been mapped out as
a path to get into Harvard, but having left the parental nest, they're
deer in the headlights whenever significant decisions are put in
front of them. Redical feminist profs tell them that boys are sex
toys to be used by girls, as girls have always been used by boys,
and the students don't have any experience in deciding when the
bullshit starts coming, or from where. Their peers tell them they
should drink, so they drink, without any sense for what they might
be doing to their bodies. Worse, their parents have pounded into
their heads the absurdity that without an Ivy degree they will be
homeless or at best be stuffing pantyhose into racks at Wal-Mart
for the rest of their lives, and so their anxiety and depression
push them into three-day weekends full of booze and drugs.
So while the writing is engaging and the book relatively short, there's
not a lot to be had here, in either heat or light. The question of
what things are like at state schools and smaller, noncoastal colleges
is left unanswered. The last thing Seaman tries to do is prescribe
any sort of reform. I'm a sort of education radical, and sometimes
I think that what we should do is send all the Ivy League students
home, and turn the campuses into subsidized housing for the poor.
The poor would benefit and the students wouldn't be any worse off,
but, alas, I don't think anyone would notice.
11, 2006: Repairing a Worthless Printer
Just ten minutes ago, I finished a paper feed repair on an old
HP LaserJet 5L printer that I've had since the summer of 1996. I
used a kit from laserprinterkits.com,
just as I did for my ailing LJ 2100, as I described in my
entry for March 2. I have to be careful what I say here: I
do not recommend attempting this repair. My recommendation,
however, has nothing to do with the quality of the kit or the instructional
videos, which are excellent. It's all about the printer itself,
and how much you value two hours of your life and a certain amount
of torn hair and stomach lining.
The LaserJet 5L is a very small, very light printer. Its parts
are tiny and fragile, and far more than the LJ 2100, the device
was not intended to be repaired, especially by non-technical people.
As with the LJ 2100, you have to reduce it to a pile of subassemblies
before you can get the paper feed roller and pads out. This includes
pulling out six tiny multiconductor Molex connectors and un-weaving
their wires from little channels on the paper feed chassis, fiddling
with spring clips, and dismantling a paper feed roller with two
cams and an asymmetrical rubber roller that must be reassembled
in three-way matching orientation with roll pins and spring clips
in just the right places. As I struggled to get the roller back
together the right way, I kept thinking, How do people do this
if they were never Xerox repairmen like me?
That's a good question, heh.
The real problem is that it was a cheap, crappy printer to begin
with, slow and low-res and very prone to misfeeds. It ran out a
12-page Word document without a hitch once I got it back together,
so the paper feed repair was a success. However, the cost-benefit
equation was not good: Two hours of time, a $24 repair kit, and
lot of very fussy work yields...a so-so printer.
If for some reason you love your misfeeding 5L and you're very
good with your hands, well, the kit was superb. Still, I would recommend
hunting down a better printer (like the LJ 2100) instead. Printers
should not be consumables, but that's the road we started down several
years ago, and if the old 5L burps again, it's going to the recycler,
10, 2006: First Thoughts on the Thinkpad X41 Convertible
I've had my new Thinkpad
X41 Convertible laptop/tablet PC for about five weeks now, and
I guess it's about time I started talking about it. I don't like
reviews (and you've seen many) where the reviewer has obviously
had about twenty minutes of face time with the device. Furthermore,
good technology takes time and practice to master. I disliked DOS
WordPerfect at first, back in 1985, but after a couple of weeks
I found it dazzling.
First of all, I chose the X41 for some Jeff-specific reasons:
- I have had Thinkpad laptops and only Thinkpad laptops since
early 1997. I have never regretted that choice. These skinny little
slabs are light, tough, and reliable.
- I'm very good with the
TrackPoint "keyboard nipple" and prefer it to "scratch
pads" for cursor control.
- I've done a couple of automated system restores the ThinkPad
way, and have been very impressed.
- It's the same size as my retiring X21 (using the small battery)
and fits in the X21's nice leather case.
There are a lot of similarities between the X21 and the X41, and
therefore a little less new stuff to be learned. I bought the
X4 dock for the unit (I never had a dock for the X21) with a
CD-RW/DVD-ROM optical drive. I have two batteries, one the larger,
heavier 8-cell unit that can drive it for about five hours continuous,
and the smaller 4-cell one about three hours. Those times are deceptive
unless you're in front of the machine hammering on it all that time.
Leave it alone for more than five minutes and it goes into a deep
sleep, and more than once I've used it intermittently for an entire
If you've followed the Tablet PC sub-industry at all, you know
that the word "convertible" in the name means that the
display twists 180 degrees and folds back over the keyboard, converting
it from a conventional laptop to a slate. The display responds to
a special stylus that pops into a slot in the side of the unit.
It's not simply "touch sensitive" in that you can't steer
the cursor with your fingernail or a retracted ball-point pen. It
has a slot for SD flash memory cards, plus a conventional Cardbus
PC card slot. The rest of the I/O is generous for something so small:
Serial and parallel ports, headset jacks, dialup modem, Gigabit
Ethernet port, VGA video output, and four USB 2.0 ports.
So far I'm very happy with it. Over the past month I've spent at
least 20 hours sitting in my comfy chair in the evening, reading
ebooks on its ClearType 1024 X 768 display. I'm astonished at how
easy it is to read its display for long periods of time. (That was
perhaps my biggest surprise.) Learning to use the stylus was surprisingly
I'll return to several points in future entries here, but I want
to list some of my discontents:
- It seems no faster at all than my 750 MHz X21, even the though
CPU now runs at 1.5 GHz and has 512 MB of RAM rather than 128
MB. Of course, my X21 runs Win2K, and the X41 runs Windows XP
- It came with a horrendous piece of "trial" leechware,
Franklin Covey's PlanPlus, that absolutely defied uninstallation
until I did some Web research. Uggh. Talk about The Bad Habits
of Highly Defective Software!
- It goes to sleep quickly, but wakes up quite slowly. This was
also a problem with the X21.
- The Intel Centrino Wi-Fi subsystem is not compatible with NetStumbler.
- The handwriting recognition software is quite good with common
words. Write something unusual and it will guess wrong, as often
as not. Worst of all, it seems incapable of recognizing my own
name. (I haven't discovered yet how to "train" the handwriting
module, but it's on my list.) For the moment, it still seems to
think I'm Jeff Dustman. Oh, well.
Keep in mind that I haven't yet taken it on a trip, and that's
where a laptop flies or fails. We're going to Chicago in a few weeks,
and I'll be working it a lot harder while I'm on the road. I've
ripped a couple of DVDs to the hard drive, and will try to watch
some movies on the plane. I'm buying ebooks here and there and will
continue to test its abilities as a reader. (I just finished Colin
Wilson's 702-page A Criminal History of Mankind, which is
a story in itself. Stay tuned.)
Overall, a big win. The X21 served me well for five years. Let's see
if the X41 can hack the stress until 2012which is when the New
Agers say the world is supposed to end anyway. Maybe I'll never need
8, 2006: Looking for Mr. Form Factor
The history of personal computing might be tersely summarized as
"Looking for Mr. Form Factor." We've been at it since
1974, and the process continues as technology improves (smaller,
faster, denser) and makes new form factors possible. The industry
has tried lots of different things (computer in the keyboard, computer
in the monitor, pizza box under the display, etc.) and for desktops
at least, we seem to have reached a sort of sweet spot: The infinitely
changeable and upgradeable mini-tower with independent keyboard
and display. What drove this form factor were standard parts, and
while the technology may still hand us some surprises (what will
programers do with eight cores on a die?) the form factor probably
won't change much. Mac Minis are very cool but they're almost entirely
indivisible lumps; if the mini form factor gets traction it will
be due to open system innovations like the
nano-ITX motherboards. (I intend to build one of those later
this year, once parts become more easily available.) On the desktop
we know how to split the pie, and the challenges still before us
are to make the pie smaller, cooler, and quieter.
Not so in the portable world. For the machines we carry with us
we're still looking for Mr. Form Factor, with a vengeance. I've
been testing the X41 Convertible tablet for about a month, and am
about to start talking about my experiences. It's really a laptop
with a gimmick, albeit a great one. The bigger question is this:
What kind of form factor will finally force all partable devices
to converge into one box? How small can the box be, and still be
usable? How big a box will people be willing to carry around with
them? Most important of all: How will we communicate with the box?
current roar in the blogosphere puzzles me a little: Microsoft has
(finally) released information and a few grainy videos about their
"Origami" slate (left) which is an Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC)
running Windows Vista. Engadget's
writeup is the best I've seen so far, though their photos don't
give a sense of scale, especially for the detachable keyboard. Origami
is hardly original; rich guys have been buying the
OQO (at right) for some time now. Intel, not to be outdone,
has a similar hardware reference platform, and supposedly we'll
learn more about it later this week at Intel's
cases, the focus is on the system unit, but where the real
engineering still has to be done is with the I/O, especially keyboards.
Having owned and used a
fold-away keyboard for my now-defunct Handspring Visor, I think
there are a great many things that a crackshot mechanical engineering
team could do to make a keyboard that folds out of the back of the
box and sits well on a airline tray table. Keyboarding for hours
at a time isn't the idea here, but we need something to get text
into the box, and my early experience with MS Ink hasn't been overwhelmingly
good. (More on that in coming days.) Bluetooth headsets are great;
their only problem is that they use Bluetooth. (Cripes, why not
infrared?) Gesture cursor control has much promise. Keyboards will
continue to be the big headache.
that said, I think that Origami, OQO, and other entries in the UMPC
field are coming close. Small displays are less of an issue if they
have a lot of resolution, and there's no reason that we can't make
a 5" diagonal 1024 X 768 display. If we keep choke chains around
the necks of our ego-driven programmers and jerk them frequently,
we can probably write software that runs lickety split on CPUs as
slow as 1 GHz.
What we need to do is something that Xerox PARC used to do: Get usability
experts involved, and make cardboard mockups of what the ideal form
factor should be, and then dare Intel, MS, and everybody else to work
up technology to fit into the form factor. The photo above and left
is from the seminal 1976 PARC publication Personal Dynamic Media,
and it shows what PARC would like to have had in 1976. It took 30
years, but we mostly have that now. We could do it again if we chose
with UMPCs. Intel's slide-out keyboard (I can't find a photo now)
sounds right to me, but we won't know until we allow people to carry
them around and use them.
7, 2006: A Hungarian Semi-Sweet Red Wine
drinkers in Europe do not throw the childish "dry good, not-dry
bad" tantrums I've repeatedly observed over here in the US.
At one of my parties I once watched a guy dump a glass of $35 late-harvest
Zinfandel down the sink, muttering about "crappy soda pop wine".
Clearly, he had no idea how to judge whether a wine is good or bad.
His only criterion was that if it wasn't dry, it was bad.
Europeans know better. It's easy to get bad American off-dry wine,
but almost impossible to find good American off-dry wineso
the search often ends up on another continent. A few weeks back
I found another good one, albeit sweeter than what I generally call
"off-dry:" the Eszesvin Kunsági Kekfrankos Ausbruch
2003. "Ausbruch" indicates that it's a late harvesting
of the Kekfrankos grape, meaning it will contain more sugar than
grapes harvested earlier.
The Kekfrankos grape is one you don't see often, especially in
the US. "Kekfrankos" is its Hungarian name; elsewhere
in Europe it's called the Blaufrankisch
grape, and over here, when you see it at all, it's Lemberger. The
grape tends toward spiciness, and low tanninsa good thing,
since tannins make wines bitter, and I am very sensitive to bitter
tastes and consider tannins a type of wine spoilage. (Alas, this
hokey new-age gadget won't fix tannins. You have to make the
wine correctly to begin with.)
The Eszesvin Kekfrankos Ausbruch gave the impression of a less
tannic, semi-sweet version of Tyrannosaurus
Red, a dry (but not beastly dry) Colorado Lemberger that I enjoy
periodically. Tannins almost not detectable (yay!), medium bodied,
with less spice than I'd like. It leans tart, which can make a sweet
wine come across as a little less sweet. As for how sweet it is,
well, it borders on what I consider a dessert wine. However, its
tartness allows it to go well with spicy foods, and while I don't
think I'd drink it with steak, I think it would work with Mexican,
spaghetti, or barbecue. (Or, as some wine sites suggest, with a
good spicy goulash!)
Again, I would perhaps prefer a little more spice and a little less
sweetness, but it's an interesting and different wine, and if you
can find it, try it. I ordered it from Debra Heinze's Drink
Better Wine outside Chicago. About $25. Recommended.
6, 2006: Odd Lots
- The biggest list of links to homebrew radio sites I've ever
seen (many, but not all, specific to ham radio) is here.
- Another good one is here.
- And while we're talking tubes, here's a
link to TubePad, a very nice clipart collection of schematic
symbols and parts images, for drawing schematics and parts layouts
for tube-era projects using drawing tools like Microsoft Paint
and (more recently) Macromedia Freehand.
- Mac people think the Mac is a superior platform to Windows,
and it might even be truebut many of them have dangerous
delusion that the Mac is somehow immune to the sorts of security
holes that plague Microsoft. Not so. Macs have fewer security
problems than Windows simply because there are fewer Macs in a
sparser network, and thus it is more work for less gain to compromise
are lots of holes, but it's just not worth the Black Hats'
time to create exploits for them. This may not always be the case.
- From Pete Albrecht comes a Pun
Recognition Test that made me blush. Heh. With fronds like
these, who needs anemones? (Back in 1984 I watched while Barry
Gehm hit Isaac Asimov with that one.)
- Ever wanted a rotary cell phone? (Have you young'uns ever even
seen a rotary landline phone?) If so, you
can roll your own. I have too much else to do to attack such
a project, but it would be wonderful to lug one of these onto
a commuter train and talk to your office all
the way downtown. Thanks to Kevin Anetsberger for the pointer.
- Google's AdSense ads rotate periodically, and some pretty odd
stuff comes up in my little ad towers. Because I don't spend a
lot of time reading my own site I miss most of them, but Roy Harvey
scraped a shot of one (at left) that makes me wonder what the
context-searching AdSense spider was smoking when it blew through
- A fascinating blog entry and ensuing discussion of DRM and ebooks
in an SF context, from John Scalzi, is here.
Worth reading, and one of the few hopeful things I've seen on
book publishing in a good long while.
4, 2006: Spam Descends to Gibberish
My spam count has picked up a little in the last week (to 75-85
per day) but most of that has come from spammers sending from their
own servers (rather than botnets) using disposable domains. That
the spammers are getting desperate is pretty clear. This morning
I got a message that I reproduce in its entirety below:
mSvaqvpes voxvyenrp p5d0c%k
I thought at first that it was something sent in a non-Western
character set, but wait: Eliminate the lower-case letters in the
three lines under the payload domain, and what do you get? Valium,
Cialis, and Viagra, the Three Stooges of the Spampharma Network.
I suspect that the line of gibberish at the top is supposed to convey
"Save 50%" but it took some staring-at to get there.
So spam has now become a sort of "find the letters" puzzle,
and I can't imagine that anyone would consider this anything but
a scam to be avoided. I have a suspicion that the spammer has become
obsessed with getting past the spam filters at any costincluding
the cost of making the message almost entirely unintelligible. This
is a typical Right Man reaction, and I can just imagine the fiery-eyed
doofus pounding his fists on his desk when the antispam forces get
wise to his latest trick. Happy cortisol and have a nice death,
dudethat's exactly where you're headed.
On the other hand, spam may be declining less because we've made it
more difficult than that there is now easier money to be made elsewhere.
I think that the people who used to spam are slowly moving on to other
scams, many of them connected with online advertising. I'm seeing
ever more "scraper" sites that steal content from other
sites to attract search hits, and then display nothing but blocks
of ads from various ad services. I need to do an entry on this; the
Wall Street Journal recently ran a
Lee Gomes column on the demand for "original content"
from scrapers: Ad site operators paying deperate writers $2 for borderline
nonsense text that exists solely to contain keywords calculated to
attract search hits. People waved bye-bye to human-moderated site
lists like Open Directory when Google appeared, but the scrapers may
send us back there if search engine noise gets much worse than it
3, 2006: Odd Lots
- There is a foundation
dedicated to the study of and public education about kites.
- Stumbled across Army
Radio Sales while looking for working military radio batteries.
Didn't have the batteries I needed (which may not in fact exist
anymore) but it's a fascinating site and evidently a prime source
for military surplus radios (as well as a number of other fascinating
things, like Geiger counters) from the US and other countries.
- Don Doerres pointed me to what might be called The
Incredible Shrinking Embedded Platform Development System
from TI. Everything's on a thumb drive, including a dock for a
detachable F20xx target board. Unless my bifocals deceive me,
the whole schmear, including software, sells for $20. Damn. If
there were only another 20 hours in the day...
- Chuck Waggoner pointed out that the Foxit
Reader (see my entry for February 23, 2006) has a "typerwriter"
mode that allows you to fill in forms distributed as PDF files.
You open the PDF, select Tools|Typewriter, and type. You can save
the PDF out with the added text, or simply print it. Very
handy for tax forms!
- Here's a nice piece by ZD's George Ou on why
rich client software is better than "thin client" software.
This has always been my position, but he makes a number of good
points I hadn't thought about. Software doesn't have to have an
installer or barf all over the Registry. (Look at the Foxit Reader,
or anything you build with Delphi.) And having had plenty of experience
with networking, I sure don't savor the thought of having my computing
experience be absolutely dependent on it.
- Pete Albrecht sent me this
article on Robert A. Heinlein's house in Colorado Springs,
which is about three miles linear distance from where we live
now, near Old Broadmoor. Oddly, Carol and I lived only a few miles
from the Heinleins' house in Bonny Doon, near Santa Cruz, when
I worked for Borland in the late 1980s. Of course RAH was gone
by then, but Carol's boss's wife was the realtor who listed the
house for Mrs. Heinlein, and I actually thought hard about putting
in an offer.
2, 2006: Repairing Paper Feed on an HP LJ2100
My favorite laser printers of all time are the HP LaserJet 2100
series, of which I have two. I've had them since the late 1990s
and use them a lot. They print at very high resolution for a laser
(1200 X 1200 dpi) and don't take up a great deal of room. The toner
cartridges are expensive, but I've never seen their kind of quality
on any other desktop printer.
Alas, about a year ago paper feed started to get flaky, especially
from the front tray. Stack duplexing became impossible, and I had
to feed the front tray one sheet at a time. This worked, but I had
to be careful not to let the printer think the front tray was empty,
lest it start feeding from the main tray instead. I got aggravated
enough to go looking for some sort of fix, and found just the thing:
A repair kit from laserprinterkits.com
that included replacement paper feed parts (two pads and two rollers)
plus a CD full of short videos explaining how to do the repair.
The package cost me about $35 with shipping, and I just finished
testing the repaired printer.
The good news is that it feeds paper perfectly again, just like
it did when it came out of the box in 1998. The bad news is that
the repair process itself was pretty gnarly. The LJ2100 was not
designed for easy paper-feed repair. To get to the roller and pad
behind the front tray, you have to practically strip the printer
to the bare frames. The bulk of the video clips that come with the
kit (all in .wmv format) explain how to dismantle the printer and
then put it back together again. Changing the pads and rollers takes
maybe 2 minutes the first time, being extra careful. The rest of
the time (for me, about two hours) is spent getting to that point,
and back out again with a working printer.
The videos were critical to accomplishing the repair. They were
quite well-done, and I set up a workstation using a folding table
next to the PC where I played the videos. I could swing my chair
around from the video (on the smaller LCD toward the left, above)
to the printer (that naked black thing on the right) without moving
very far. I put all the removed screws in little bins in groups,
by repair steps, to keep them from getting confused. I had no difficulties.
However, remember that I worked as a repair tech on Xerox
copiers for two and a half years (admittedly over thirty years ago,
but paper is still paper) and have always been good with tools and
mechanical gimcrackery. If you don't know which end of a screwdriver
to grab, this repair is not for you. Here and there are little
plastic hold-down clips that have to be pried aside to remove a
panel or an assembly, and if you don't have a gut-sense for what
the plastic can take, you can easily crack them off and ruin the
printer. Lining up the motor drive assembly (below) back onto the
frame took some jiggling and some sense for how gears mesh and (worse)
how to know that they're meshed when you can't see them. Then, of
course, there is the simple danger of stripping out a plastic hole
by torquing a screw too tight.
I'd say that if you've changed out a PC power supply or several different
types of disk drives, you probably have the screwdriver skills to
handle the repair. Add to that some caution, patience, and a willingness
to follow directions precisely, and you can do it. The company
The LJ2100 kit was $32 plus shipping. They have similar kits for most
other popular HP lasers. I have a misfeeding LJ5L in a box downstairs
that I intend to bring back to life, and I'm going to have another
LJ2100 kit on the shelf for when my other LJ2100 printer (currently
on bivouac in Chicago) starts to misbehave. I love these little boxes,
and I will keep them pumping as long as I can. If you have the skills,
the kits are highly recommended.
1, 2006: The Last Kite from Bud's Hardware Store
Tuesday gave us some truly outrageous weather for the last day of
February: 73 degrees where we live, with scattered clouds and light
and variable winds. That being the case, Carol and I packed up the
puppy and went down the hill to the little park across Highway 115
from Fort Carson, to run QBit around a little and also (finally!)
to fly the last kite from Bud
Maday's Talcott Hardware Store, in the little Chicago neighborhood
where I grew up.
It wasn't a Hi-Flier kite, of course, but it was an interesting
design and had apparently been in the store basement on a shelf
for almost fifteen years. It's five feet of plastic sheet with a
pair of plastic sticks like a diamond kite, except that the plastic
continues down past the end of the stick at about the barbarian's
navel. The rest of the kite is a built-in tail. For a more panoramic
view of me and the barbarian (with QBit tagging along) see this
photo. (105K file.) Apart from the fact that his legs flap around
like they have no bones, the barbarian is an impressive kite, and
it zipped around over the park while Pinon Elementary School across
the street released its eager mobs. The kids found it interesting,
and it made me wonder how many of them had never flown a kite, or
(even more incredibly) ever seen one.
I also flew the sailcloth toucan kite that we've had for a good
many years, and once it got high enough (150 feet or so) it caught
a much stronger wind and ripped back and forth, looping now and
then (no harm if it's high enough) and making that wonderful wind-whipping
crackle that good kites make in a good wind. The breeze was strong
but not consistent, and after it turned more toward the east (making
the kite fly close to the sun) I decided to reel it in and and call
it a day. The kids were organizing a soccer game on the field, and
I didn't want me or the kite to get underfoot.
There was a great deal of satisfaction (and a certain amount of closure)
in getting Bud's last kite into the air. Most of the really good things
about childhood are in fact things that we can take with us to adulthood,
or even middle age. What we leave behind are things best discarded
anyway: Fear, anxiety, confusion, clumsiness. I don't have to worry
about what I'm going to do when I grow up, or whether I would ever
find a girl who would love me. I've got all that, and things I couldn't
even imagine the last time I laid down my dime on Bud's counter for
a fresh American Beauty. My hands remembered what to do with the string,
and God's great sky hasn't changed much. There's a sweet spot triangulated
somewhere between growing up, growing old, and growing stale. I think
I'm there, and it's a fine, fine place to be!