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March 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.

March 29, 2006: The Burger That Dares Not Speak Its Name

There's 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 this:

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.

March 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. Licorice Snaps?

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.

March 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 it—and 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!

March 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 to prioritize.)

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.

March 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.

March 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. Recommended.

March 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 floorboards—floorboards 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 kidding.)

Cabernet and Chardonnay are the collies and Dalmatians of the wine world: so inbred and self-referential that they all taste alike—and 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 the "Anything 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 exists.)

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.

March 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 solved—but 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.

March 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 I were.

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.

March 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 error:

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 me—or 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.

March 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.

March 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 else.

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 well—especially when high-bandwidth file transfers are involved—but 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:

  • 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 spam.")
  • 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 member.
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?

March 13, 2006: Review: Binge by Barrett Seaman

In 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.

March 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, 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, no regrets.

March 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 working day.

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 easy.

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 Tablet Edition.
  • 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 2012—which is when the New Agers say the world is supposed to end anyway. Maybe I'll never need another laptop!

March 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?

The 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 IDF conference.

In both 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.

All 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.

March 7, 2006: A Hungarian Semi-Sweet Red Wine

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 wine—so 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 tannins—a 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.

March 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 true—but 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 them. There 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. Be ready.
  • 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 Contra.
  • 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.

March 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 wwkistsh


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 cost—including 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, dude—that'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 already is.

March 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.

March 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 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 is 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.

March 1, 2006: The Last Kite from Bud's Hardware Store

Fat 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!