Jeff's Home Page
Jeff's Resume/Bio
Photo Gallery
Contra Home
About Contra
Contra on LiveJournal
Diary Topic Index
Diary Photo Index

Link to an Entry

Pete Albrecht
Sam'l Bassett
David Beers
M. Covington
Loren Heiny
Jim Mischel
Brook Monroe
Bill Roper
David Stafford
Scott Smith

Bob Thompson


November 2007 October 2007
September 2007 August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007

April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007




December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004



November 29, 2007: Odd Lots

  • No one has been left unmoved by the announcement of Amazon's Kindle. Definitely see Scoble's grumpy video rant about the little tombstone. The guy gets worked up, but I do wish I had his energy.
  • One possibility for an ebook reader that I had not thought about is the XO laptop, which most people know as the One Laptop Per Child device. It has a tablet mode, it's an open system, and it's cheaper than the Kindle. Of course, it won't read Kindle ebooks, but it should be able to render all the more open formats.
  • Mike Reith wrote with a link to a report from Larry O'Brien that he emailed a PDF file to his Kindle and it displayed just fine, given the physical limitations of the display itself.
  • Larry also wrote a short item in SD Times a few weeks ago about Erlang that's worth a read. The future is massively parallel, and neither Pascal nor C were originally designed to handle parallelism. What they have is something like a skin graft: It may work until you have to replace your entire skin...
  • Movie rights for the Tom Swift series have been acquired. There's a piece in Variety that doesn't give much useful information, but the acquirer is the studio Worldwide Biggies, run by Nickelodeon exec Albie Hecht. This could be very very good, or very very bad. I'll try to keep an open mind. (Thanks to Jeff Sekiya via Bill Roper.)
  • Is anyone here medical enough (or biochemical enough) to describe what happens when you dump large quantities of blood into even larger quantities of water? (See my entry on Chicago's Bubbly Creek in November 26, 2007.) Vampire lovers everywhere (and Jeff too) want to know.

November 28, 2007: Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders

As I quickly learned after building my first telescope, the real trick in backyard astronomy is simply finding what's out there. Galaxies and nebulae are generally faint, and there are a lot of stars scattered about in the view. Just getting there (that is, locating an object and knowing with certainty what you're looking at) may not be half the fun, but it's well over half the challenge.

So I was delighted to see that Bob and Barbara Thompson have a new book from O'Reilly in their very welcome DIY Science series: Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. It's a deep-sky observer's guide, written for an era when 12" and 14" instruments are in the hands of ordinary people, and deep-sky objects that were once thought the province of "big science" observatories only can be spotted on a good dark night outside major cities. An alphabetical listing of 50 constellations (the remaining 38 are too far south to be seen well in north temperate latitudes) provides overall maps of each individual constellation, as well as 10° finder charts for about 450 of the best objects to look for in the night sky. Many objects are accompanied by 60' field photographs, which are less to show you "how they look" (all are long-exposure shots and thus deceptively bright) than to give you a sense for their relative size in the sky: Most deep-sky objects are fairly small, but a few (like M31, M33 and the Veil Nebula) are larger than the full Moon, if orders of magnitude fainter. The photographs put those size differences into perspective.

Those (like myself) without computer-controlled scopes have to locate faint objects by spotting brighter nearby objects (generally bright stars) and then "star-hopping" to the object of interest. For me, the meat of the book lies in the 10° finder charts, one for each object, each chart including one or more overlapping 5° finder scope field circles for hopping to a 1° eyepiece field circle centered on the prize.

The first 65 pages ahead of the constellation listings present introductory material, explaining how the charts in the book work, how to choose and use modern observing equipment, and what all the jargon means. Newbies won't necessarily come in understanding what a "clean split" or a "dirty split" are, nor how the Trumpler Classification system works for open clusters, but it's all laid out in beautifully clear writing. I was particularly impressed by the coverage of eyepieces and nebula filters, most of which didn't exist even twenty years ago, and certainly not in the late 60s when I learned much of what I know.

The book is full of wonderful small touches, like a note on why there is no such thing as a truly green star, and how some amateur astronomers observe with binoculars by lying in a partially inflated (but empty!) kiddie pool, with the sides of the pool supporting their arms!

I don't have a lot of quibbles. The print seems awfully small to me, admitting that there is a huge amount of information in this book. I know enough about book publishing to recognize that larger type could have blown the page count out to a physically fragile and economically nonviable length.

To sum up: The stars haven't changed recently but our equipment has, and today's larger aperatures and vastly better eyepieces have brought many new objects into range for backyard astronomers. This is the book that will tell you how to find them and see them well with modern equipment. 520 pp. 8" X 9.75" (computer trim) Lay-flat binding. $29.99.

Highly recommended.

November 27, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Nuclear radiation may not be as deadly as conventional wisdom holds. I've read sanity-provoking articles like this now and then down the years, particularly with respect to the aftermath of nuclear war. (One was called "Don't Plan to Die" but I don't recall who wrote it or where it appeared.) Hiroshima does not glow in the dark, and Three Mile Island is not swarming with three-eyed mutant snake-squirrel hybrids. We're going to need nuclear to get out from under hydrocarbon fuels, and to do that we're going to have to get past the nutballs who don't understand that coal-burning plants emit more radiation and kill more people than nuclear plants by an order of magnitude or more.
  • Berghoff Root Beer is still available, from the same distributor that handles Green River. Note that there is also a Green River Orange. Brown River? (How about a new line called Bubbly Creek Soda? Urkkh...)
  • Dark Roasted Blend has a very nice compendium of "retro-future" art, Bonestell-style, from the Eastern Block.
  • A picture of the Turtle Wax Turtle can be found here. Carol and I both saw it as kids while traveling to the South Side to see relatives, so it was somewhere between the northwest corner of Chicago and there, but we don't know precisely where just yet. (That building it's on looks interesting as well, in a Frankensteinish way.)
  • Speaking of vampires (which yes, I admit, I loathe) they're doing a big-budget remake of I Am Legend that will appear in just a couple of weeks. I missed the first one. I'm likely to miss this one too.

November 26, 2007: A Missed Vampire Opportunity

Calling all vampire lovers! (At least vampire writers, however you wish to take it.) There's a dazzling missed vampire opportunity that someone should sieze: Chicago's little-known but readily smelled Bubbly Creek. (1911 photo of the creek here.) I hadn't thought of it as a tourist destination, but Yahoo Travel has a review item for it. No jokes about it being the other Green River, please.

Although its name sounds bucolic, Bubbly Creek is more rightly considered anoxic, and it bubbles because, for over a hundred years, Chicago's meat packing industry dumped endless tons of animal fat, blood, and offal into the two swales feeding its southern end. The occasional fish spotted in its waters doesn't last long, and mostly what live there are bloodworms. The creek doesn't move; what water it has comes to it from the south branch of the Chicago River. And bubbles of hydrogen sulfide are still rising to the surface almost forty years after Union Stock Yards closed in 1971. I first read about Bubbly Creek in high school while forcing myself through Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. I thought he was making it up. He wasn't:

"Bubbly Creek" is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the Union Stock Yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing-houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily.

Let's just hope it was "temporarily."

Apart from The Jungle, I know of no novel that deals with Bubbly Creek. Even Andrew Greeley, for all his South Side sympathies, has never treated it. (I can see it now: The Bishop and the Bloodworms.)

Nonetheless, Bubbly Creek is a golden, unexploited vampire opportunity, for this reason: Under a thin layer of recent silt on its bottom lies a substratum of clotted blood six feet thick. Who knows what bacteria and associated phages are furiously evolving down there? What sort of siren call does that much densely packed blood put out onto the Astral Plane? Does that unwary stranger vanish only temporarily because when he comes up, he's already dead but still ambulatory? Is this why Chicago's ward heelers (remember, Bridgport is less than a mile east) were called "bloodsuckers" in certain households? (Like mine, back when Bubbly Creek was still first-run.)

C'mon. Tell me you couldn't have some great greasy fun with that!

November 25, 2007: Ghost Signs and Ghost Sodas

I went shopping for a few groceries yesterday afternoon, and scored something I hadn't seen in a great many years: Green River soda. (Diet Green River, at that!) Green River was a commonplace when I was young, and after leaving Chicago in 1979 and realizing that Green River was a local brand, I more or less assumed I wouldn't be having it anymore. But hey and begorrah, there it was on the shelf at Shop and Save in downtown Des Plaines, right next to Dog-n-Suds Root Beer. (I bought a diet jug of that too, in a glass bottle!) I was Skyping with Pete Albrecht last night while slugging entirely too much of it, and reflecting on how, well, green it was. Pete then told me he couldn't stand it anymore and had to run out and get some, which he did. In Costa Mesa, California.

Who makes the soda now was a tough question to answer. Web research turned up a peculiar lawsuit, which implies that the Green River trademark was licensed in 1985 by Sethness-Greenleaf, a Chicago area manufacturer of food industry flavorings, to a couple of entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs eventually defaulted on their payments, and (since they did not have the "secret formula") created their own clone of the syrup. The judge in the case gave the rights back to the Sethness-Greenleaf. Somewhere along the way, Clover Club Bottling Company bought the rights, and now produces the soda. They also produce Dog-n-Suds Root Beer.

While mulling Green River, Pete and I managed to recall the name of Lasser's Beverage Company, a small bottler once located near De Paul University on the north side of Chicago. They made their own syrup, in some truly peculiar flavors like Maple Syrup and Pink Champagne, and could be found in smaller grocery stores like Certified until at least 1979, when we moved to Rochester, NY. Schweppes eventually bought them. Their bottles and caps are now collectibles, and can be seen at times on eBay.

Although I didn't mention it in yesterday's entry, Carol and I passed the Weather Bell downtown at Monroe and Clark on Friday. It's a sign that has outlasted its owner by at least fifteen years. Bell Federal Savings erected the sign in the early 1960s, and promoted the location as "the Weather Bell Corner." My aunt and godmother Kathleen Duntemann worked there for many years, and Carol worked there the summer after she graduated high school. ABN AMRO ate Bell Federal back in the 1990s, and a Walgreen's now occupies the ground floor space. But the Weather Bell is still there, with the Bell Federal name at the top blocked out, telling us the time and (via color codes) how bad the weather is: Green = Ok; yellow = lousy; red = Hey man, this is Chicago! Whaddaya expect!

Speaking of Chicago's ghost signs, there's a nice page from WTTW on ghost signs, which there means old painted advertisements on brick walls. There is no mention of the Turtle Wax Turtle, a turtle statue that sat high atop a building somewhere in Chicago. We used to see it while driving down to the south side to see my Aunt Anna and her family near 31st and Morgan, but I have no clear recall of where it was. (I even had a blurry photo of it once, but it's turned up missing.)

Pete gets Maurice Lenell Christmas Cookie Assortments at CVS Pharmacy in Costa Mesa. Bay's English Muffins, once a Chicago specialty, have gone national, and can be had even in Colorado Springs. I guess the world gets flatter all the time!

November 24, 2007: Thanksgiving and Black Friday Downtown

Whew. It's been nonstop the past few days, and the machine here has been off way more than it's been on. (You don't see that very often back home...) We've had a great deal of fun, but it's been very concentrated fun, and it hasn't been until this morning that I've been able to kick back and collect my thoughts, much less share them with you.

Thanksgiving dinner this year was at Carol's sister's house in Crystal Lake, and Kathy knows how to set a table like nobody else I've ever seen. The setting above may actually be a little spartan by her standards, because we had so many people to seat (along with one squirmy toddler in a high chair) that some of the fine touches had to be sacrified. The dinner itself was dazzling, with contributions from all corners of the family, including turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean salad, rolls, corn pudding, heavenly hash (a sweet pineapple-orange-coconut mashup in a yogurt matrix, with fruit-flavored mini-marshmallows), lemon cheesecake, pumpkin pie, and three different wines, all of which went. (One of the wines, 7 Deadly Zins 2005 old vines zinfandel, did not meet my expectations, but we finished it anyway.)

A few days earlier, on November 17, we had Katie Beth's first birthday party. Katie is now not only walking but tearing around the house at flank speed, climbing stairs and getting into everything that isn't at least four feet above the floor or anything climbable. One of the perks of reaching her first birthday was the addition of wheat to her diet (pediatricians are staging cut-in of various food groups these days as a hedge against allergies) and we celebrated by presenting her with her first chocolate cupcake. After a hesitant exploration (she first stuck her finger in the cupcake and then in her mouth, considering) she decided that cupcakes were acceptable, and then proceeded to demolish and devour it, taking care to paint her face symbolically before making a suitable offering to the floor gods. Gretchen's cooking, as always, was wonderful, and nobody went home hungry, even (or especially) the floor.

But that was all relatively sane and peaceful compared to yesterday, when we decided to undertake an adventure we haven't attempted in literally decades: Hopping the Metra train (which I will always consider the Northwestern) to downtown Chicago on the day after Thanksgiving, to partake of what has come to be called Black Friday.

I'd done this before. In fact, in 1975 I was on the job wandering around the Loop on Black Friday, waiting for Xerox copier service calls on my pager, calls that never came. Most of the law offices and other legal/financial firms in my chunk of the Loop had the day off, and their staff were probably all out there on State Street, elbowing each other and frantically spending money. I met Neuitha Payton (the tech rep in the adjoining territory) for lunch, and then (with no calls on the board for either of us) she and I wandered around in the massive Marshall Field's department store, where at one point we found ourselves on the escalator immediately behind Illinois' governor Dan Walker.

32 years later, Carol and I did it all again. It was just as nuts as we expected, if colder. State Street was a mob scene, packed with cars and taxis as we recalled it—the State Street pedestrian mall was a huge failure and reverted to ordinary traffic in 1997. There were amazing street drummers every few hundred feet, using 5-gallon plastic buckets instead of drums, and a surprising amount of construction. Beside the Picasso we took in the Christkindlmarket, a German ethnic Christmas festival about which people wandered with little shoe-shaped ceramic mugs of hot gluhwein, munching bratwurst, strudel, and potato pancakes. The crowds were dense, and it was intriguing to watch Chicago police officers weave expertly through the chaos on industrial-sized Segway scooters.

A lot of stores and restaurants we had known 30-odd years ago are now gone: The Berghoff vanished in 2005. Carson Pirie Scott on State Street closed earlier this year, and Marshall Field's, as quintessentially Chicago as anything else you could name, was engulfed and devoured by tasteless New Yawk junkhaus Macy's in 2006. There is little left of the classic Field's except for Frango Mints and the Walnut Room, which Macy's retains mostly to suppress threats of rioting.

So it was a little sadly that Carol and I went from floor to floor in Field's, realizing that the once legendary toy department was now a poor colony of F. A. O. Schwartz, crammed up against three acres of bras. We looked for but could not identify their nun's lounge, and thus cannot reliably prove that it ever existed. The selection of fine china didn't seem all that fine, and cookware was dominated by merchandise branded by ex-con Martha Stuart.

At least we lucked into a table at the Walnut Room about 4:30, and I will readily admit that the food was as good as we remembered, especially after an egg nog brandy alexander. Our older nephew Brian joined us beside the four-story-tall Christmas tree, and we had a wonderful time catching up on things. (Brian is now an investment banker over on Wacker Drive. Things change.) After dinner we discovered with delight that Garrett's Popcorn is still there at 4 East Madison, and worked through the considerable line to bring home a bag of each of their three varieties. Carol, Brian, and I then wandered west to the plug-ugly Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center which (wretch barf) replaced the elegant Northwestern Station that was razed in 1984. We took the Northwestern home again and spent an hour with our feet up in front of the TV, decompressing and munching popcorn.

Don't get the wrong impression. We had a lot of fun. I grumble a little because I'm an architectural conservative, and much of the Chicago of my youth and young adulthood is now gone. We do intend to make the trip more often (at least next spring once the weather breaks) and see some of the more recent improvements to the skyline, including the quirky but striking main public library. We also want to see a few of the monumental local churches, like St. Stanislaus Kostka and the little-known but incredible St. Mary of Perpetual Help, where my parents were married in 1949.

In the meantime, once I caught my breath a little, I realized that I was thankful for many things, friends and family foremost among them, but also for having lived in such an interesting and pivotal era, and having grown up in what was and remains the most dazzling big city in the world. You win a little and you lose a little, and history is nothing if not full of surprises. Chicago may eventually cure the downtown infection that is Macy's, and we hear rumors that Carson's may rise again. We didn't fully understand how great they were until we lost them, but when is that ever not the case?

November 20, 2007: Correlation and Causation Again

I think I was the last person in the Western world to see this. I'm hoping that there's some sort of award for being such.

November 19, 2007: Got Kindling?

The ebook world is in a strange state of quiet paralysis today, while it chews on the details of Amazon's announcement of the Kindle this morning. I'm still chewing and will be for some time, but I'll lay out some thoughts. Here are the Kindle's broad strokes:

  • It's an e-ink display device, of a size similar to the Sony Reader.
  • It connects to Amazon via Sprint EVDO, a cell wireless technology available mostly in the US, but pointedly not in Europe.
  • It allows Web access through EVDO.
  • It's a top-to-bottom system, and mostly a closed one; very much the conceptual cousin of Apple's iTunes. You can't shop anywhere but Amazon, and existing ebooks in non-Amazon formats (including MOBI, remarkable) will mostly not be loadable/readable.
  • It has a private (non-Internet) EVDO-based network called Whispernet, and Kindle users will be able to email other Kindle owners and send them files through Whispernet (Such messages are extra-cost items.)
  • It has a new "native" file format, AZW, which is very similar (how similar is still unclear) to MobiPocket, which Amazon owns.
  • It has a (crude) keyboard, which allows for reasonable shopping, bookmarking, and Web access.
  • There is an SD card slot and some sort of USB bridge to a PC, details unclear.
  • It costs $400, with no additional monthly wireless cost. All you pay for is the content, some of which (newspapers and magazines) is in monthly subscription format.

This is like nothing we've seen tried in the ebook world so far, and it deserves a serious shot. The wildest part is its use of EVDO, which means never having to ask, "Where's a hotspot?" Unless you're out in the serious boonies, you should be able to get connectivity. The cost of the connectivity is not billed separately but is baked into the cost of the content; when you pay $10 for a NYT bestseller, part of that goes to Sprint to pay for bandwidth used to shop for and buy the book.

That said, the cost of the content is less than a lot of what I've seen in the past. EBook versions of popular books have sometimes sold for as much as (sometimes more than!) a paper edition, which is insane. Amazon tells us that NYT bestsellers will never cost more than $9.99, which is a huge step in the right direction. The Atlantic sells for $1.99 a month, a price I would gladly pay, though I'd miss the color and the resolution in their artwork. Interestingly, Amazon will be selling blog access to big-name blogs like Slashdot, Instapundit, and BoingBoing for $0.99/month.

So what do I think? My early bullets:

  • Sure, it's expensive, but I think affluent people understand that you're not buying the slab; you're buying a system. If the system is smooth enough, a certain number of people will buy it and use it religiously. Whether there are enough of those people to keep it afloat won't be known for awhile.
  • Don't underestimate the draw of periodicals. Having Forbes, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times magically appear in your briefcase in time to read on the train to work will appeal hugely to a certain time-pressed demographic, one with plenty of money. This is the reason they can charge for blogs found free on the Web: EVDO brings blogs down when you can't or don't want to screw with a full computer and yet don't want to read something on a 1" diagonal cell phone screen.
  • Incompatibility with other ebook technologies has a lot of people screaming, but the ebook business is still so small that Amazon can grit its teeth and ignore the yells. There just aren't enough rabid ebook readers out there yet to make this a killer issue. They're trying to create a business the same way Apple created a music business. MP3s have been around for a long time, but it took Apple to create a top-to-bottom business around digital music. People bitch about the closed nature of the system, but they bought it in droves. Amazon is big enough to make it stick in very much the same way.
  • It's really all about big names, not obscure writers and outlets. This bothers me some, as it will focus more attention on fewer titles and worsen the "winner takes all" culture of book retailing that has been a problem for a decade now.

All that said, I think it could work, and nothing I've seen so far is enough of a problem to prevent its success. I may have to buy one, though the size of the screen and its lack of PDF support (a lack driven by the screen technology) makes me hesitate. I can read computer book PDFs and CHMs on my Tablet PC, and that's an ability we won't see on systems like Kindle for awhile yet. I'm skeptical that the considerable cost of EVDO won't force Amazon to raise prices or eventually charge a monthly bandwidth fee, but who knows? Maybe the EVDO cream-skimming era is over.

The biggest single thing to realize about Kindle is that Amazon is doing it. Damn few other firms could make it work. I still need to find out what hoops publishers have to jump through to get into the Kindle catalog, but as I said, Kindle isn't about small publishers. It's about a system, and so far, from the perspective of mainstream consumers, the system looks good.

I reserve the right to change my mind, but I'll report my insights here as they arise.

November 15, 2007: Odd Lots

  • I started using two nice little utilities this week, and both are worth a look. The first is MozBackup, a program that creates a single compressed backup file from your Firefox settings and bookmarks, or your Thunderbird settings and mail. It comes out of the Czech Republic, so some of the English is a little rough, but it works beautifully.
  • The other is MBoxView, a no-install app that does only one thing: It allows you to view an MBox file such as the mailbox folders used by Thunderbird. I occasionally set up a mailbox folder for a project, and then when the project is over I exile the folder to my archives so it isn't cluttering up my Thunderbird folder hierarchy in perpetuity. I don't refer to such archived folders very often, but when necessary, the utility makes looking at ancient mbox folders completely trivial.
  • Here's a great page on a plastic model I had almost fifty years ago: The Von Braun Ferry Rocket, a three-stage finned behemoth that nicely anticipated (in function if not in shape) our Space Shuttle. It was featured in Collier's in 1953 (note one of the other headlines on the cover: If they only knew...) and there are some very nice paintings of how the device would operate, including some scary-claustrophobic single-occupant re-entry capsules. Thanks to Pete Albrecht (who also had the model back in the day) for the pointer.
  • Also from Pete comes a pointer to the Fantastic Plastic site, with photos and brief writeups of a lot of other space and aviation plastic models from the 40s to the present day. Some breathtaking—as well as silly—stuff was out there capturing young imaginations. I had this. And this. And this.
  • From Ken Rutkowski's online newsletter come some interesting stats: Only 12.5% of Americans drink wine. And those who drink wine regularly fall into a fairly tight demographic:

    More than half of all frequent wine consumers are 50 years or older and that adults who earn $50,000 in household income who are 45 years or older with no children living at home are 85% more likely to frequently consume wine compared to the average adult. According to The Media Audit, adults who fit these criteria are termed “Affluent Empty-Nesters” and they are a prime target audience for wineries and distributors.

    "Frequently consume wine" here means have a glass of wine at least three times during a two-week period. Not surprisingly, San Francisco is the wine-drinking capital of America, with West Palm Beach and Fort Myers close behind. This is a pretty concentrated demographic. Maybe I should actually write Sweet Blindness—think how many more Americans might drink wine if they realized that not all of it tastes like cat-piddled oak floorboards!

November 13, 2007: Another Jeff Sleep Rant, with Research

I just stopped an oncoming cold in its tracks, after not having had one for well over a year. (I used to get two or three a year minimum, some of them doozies.) My technique is the same one I used to avoid colds this past year, and although it's simple you're not going to like it: I stopped "doing." And I slept. Lots.

The approaching cold was payback for a mistake I made. Having been in Chicago a great deal this spring and summer, I got back early in October and set about catching up. I started and finished a 200-page Carl and Jerry book in two weeks. I wrote several thousand words on a "practice novel" that—egad!—I may even finish. I built some catwalks up in the attic that allowed me to mount a three-band discone under the peak. All this in addition to my usual paying projects. The result? I stayed up too late, threw off an enormous amount of energy, and just ran myself down. So last night I went to bed at 9 PM. And I will do so again tonight. Tomorrow, the cold will be gone.

In addition to that, I took sleepless "naps" mid-afternoon today and yesterday—I don't expect to sleep, but I get horizontal and try to relax. But while trying not to think, I got this thought...could the runup in cancer rates these days track lost sleep? I remember reading somewhere that when people from traditional/rural societies enter modern Western life, their cancer rates rise and soon match our own. Everybody points at diet. But I wonder if simply sleeping less and doing too much is the real culprit.

Most of you have heard my longstanding suspicion that, after factoring out diet and genetics, weight gain tracks sleep deprivation. (Freshman fifteen? Dorm life? Connect the dots?) Sleep, in fact, is the uninvited guest at the health care debates. I find it telling and inwardly amusing that several people have gotten growlingly, almost screamingly angry at me for suggesting that they might be healthier (in several respects) if they just shut down all systems at 9 PM and got more sleep. I grumbled about sleep's necessity myself for many years, but eventually I realized that you can't escape it. I have since built my life around sleep. I budget time for sleep first, and everything else has to stand in line. When I sleep, I'm healthy. When I don't sleep, I get colds and infections. When I really don't sleep, I gain weight. The causes and effects seem pretty clear to me by now. Your mileage may vary, but our engines are for the most part the same design. (I'll freely admit that I'm a bit of a crank about this, but my father died of cancer and I'm trying to give myself every advantage that I can.)

There is, of course, a strong genetic component to most health issues, and obviously we need more research, but let me quote some existing research that I've stumbled on over time. Not all of it is brand new, but it adds up:

How many links do you want? Sleep is not optional. I'll bet we could cut billions from the national health care budget by persuading everyone to knock off whatever they're doing at nine, be in bed by ten, and sleep until six. (Or be in bed by eleven and sleep until seven, work permitting. Not everybody is a morning person.) Instead, we're blasting away until 1 ayem while outlawing fast food in south LA. Small wonder that we're a nation of staggering wrecks.

November 9, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Those with an interest in the Writers Guild of America strike should pick up a copy of this morning's Wall Street Journal. On page W13 (at the end of the Personal Journal section) is an essay by Rob Long, a veteran Guild scriptwriter, that says almost everything I said in yesterday's entry, but wasn't quite as charitable. (It's now on OpinionJournal, a paid WSJ site, for those who subscribe; thanks to Rich Rostrom for spotting it.)
  • Here's another item about scriptwriting that, while ancient (2005) speaks to the heart of the conflicts within the union itself: Between writers who look at the process as a moral challenge (to get what we deserve) versus an economic challenge (to get as much as we can get, however we can get it.) The idealistic at the throats of the pragmatic. Where have we seen that before?
  • And as an excellent example of the sort competition that conventional TV/film media face, Jim Strickland sent me a short clip of electric arcs modulated with music audio. Singing sparks? Fascinating thing—it reminds me very clearly of the flame speaker my friend Art Krumrey built for his science fair project in 1970. I know people who spend time they used to spend watching sitcoms searching YouTube for the odd and the novel. Yes, TV should be worried.
  • There's an interesting new Web site that processes raster images into vector images. VectorMagic was created at Stanford and is free to use. Basically, you upload a bitmap, do a little configuration, and download a vector equivalent in EPS or SVG format. The vectorized image can also be downloaded as a PNG in case you're after it for the artistic effect. I tried it on the Interstellar American Republic flag logo I'm designing, and it works reasonably well, although the logo is still not ready to show anybody. (I converted a photo of myself and guldurn if it doesn't look like a Seventies paint-by-numbers canvas.)
  • Although Linspire has all but explicitly abandoned their WYSIWYG Web editor NVu, another group has picked up maintenance, at least for bug fixes, and hopes to attract enough contributors to continue evolving the project. I tried NVu, and it has a lot of promise, and if Linspire isn't going to keep the project going, they should explicitly turn it loose, with blessings. Thanks to Terry Roe for the tip.
  • Those who are tired of wrestling with buffalo should try wrestling with "had." (Thanks to Tim Goss.) I saw that somewhere when I was in college, I think, but had completely forgotten about it.
  • On a tip from Dave Lloyd I ordered a promising partitioner/boot manager utility called Boot-It from Terabyte Unlimited, and will report here when I try it. If anyone else has had any experience with it, I'd appreciate a short reaction.

November 8, 2007: The Necessary Guild

Well, Hollywood's writers are on strike, and have been for several days now, though in truth I'm not sure who apart from other writers has actually noticed. I'll go on record as supporting them—writers should certainly be paid more, as writing is foundational: Performing cannot happen without writing, and any competent scriptwriter is worth ten competent actors. (It really isn't the singer. It's the song.) That said, I hope the Writers Guild of America isn't expecting any significant public sympathy. Scriptwriters who have anything like steady work make a great deal of money compared to the public in general and especially writers in other fields. The work isn't always steady, and the money distributes itself as it does in mainstream fiction and (to a somewhat lesser extent) nonfiction: 80% of the money goes to 20% of the writers, and everybody else fights over the scraps. (Though in scriptwriting, even the scraps dwarf what people get for short stories or, God help us, poems.) When writers making over $100,000 a year walk a picket line, people will roll their eyes. Get used to it.

That's another discussion, however. What I never hear talked about much is why the Writers Guild exists at all. There is no Novelists Guild, and certainly no Computer Book Authors Guild. The answer is relatively simple: There is a lot more money at stake per project, and screen media companies have no better idea what will click with the public than any other species of publisher. An established book publisher has to front perhaps $30,000 - $80,000 to field a mainstream midlist book. The failure of any single book (or even several of them) may be regrettable, but not fatal. A single episode in a TV series can cost several million dollars, and the series as a whole represents a lot more money than the sum of the episodes. And movies, heh. The Golden Compass will have cost almost $200M by the time it's done. The schedules are unforgiving, especially in TV. There's not a lot of time for making mistakes and doing things over. When there's that much money on the table, ya gotta be careful.

Screen media is careful. They can only steer future efforts by past results, and even though that's no guarantee, they are desperate to put the odds in their favor any way they can. What they want in their writers is a sort of cultural uniformity: Not only do they want people who understand the business (which is not unreasonable) they also want people who belong to a common culture and for the most part think the same ways about life and especially about entertainment. The Guild does that for them. It's a closed shop and a very tight one. You don't get in just by asking. In a sense, you don't get in unless and until they recognize you as one of their own, in terms of both ability and culture. I've met a few scriptwriters over the years, and they have been uncannily alike—far more alike than science fiction writers or technical writers. The Guild's goal is not so much to keep quality up—it's unclear how much that can be discerned before the public actually votes with their remotes—so much as to keep the product consistent.

So unlike heavy industry, where companies consider their unions a costly nuisance and would love to rid of them, in screen media the companies would feel naked and fiscally vulnerable without the Guild to keep the pool of writers predictable. The relationship isn't adversarial so much as symbiotic. If the Guild didn't exist, the industry would have had to create it.

This doesn't mean the screen media companies aren't doing some maneuvering. The ongoing move in TV from sitcoms toward reality shows isn't accidental, and isn't entirely a matter of public taste. Reality shows are far cheaper to produce than sitcoms, adventures, and dramas. Among other things, there's just less writing involved, and what writing there is tends to be a lot simpler and less dependent on constant inspired wit. (Being funny is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do, and I feel I've succeeded only infrequently. I powerfully respect those who succeed most of the time.)

What will happen is what always happens: The writers and the media companies will snarl, bitch, and moan at one another, and then meet somewhere not in the middle, but about two thirds of the way toward the companies. There will be no armageddon. The writers will get a little more money, and the companies will make it up by continuing to steer the industry in directions where there's less writing necessary. Both writers and companies know they're not in a strong position in the public mind—TV and film are losing audience slowly but steadily every year, to video games and nonunionable things like YouTube—but they want to keep the party going as long as they can.

November 7, 2007: Warranty Void...

In today's mail I received a pair of 1 GB DIMMs that I ordered a few days ago, and when I opened them this afternoon I found the notice at left on the ID sticker.

I was careful not to tear up the DIMMs while installing them, and they're now happily remembering away in my new SX270. Good things happen when you follow instructions!

November 5, 2007: Boot, Boot, Master Record!

I've done some boot loader work in my time, but it's a classic example of a skill most people don't use often enough to get good at, and that's certainly true in my case. I have used System Commander for several years now, and always did well with it, and even understood it reasonably well. Then a few days ago I discovered (after much virtual hair tearing) that System Commander does not play well with Ubuntu—in fact, does not play at all. This was odd, as System Commander recognized a bootable instance of Red Hat for me five or six years ago, and I assumed Linux in general was no problem for it. In fact, I'm very annoyed at V-Comm right now because on its own Web pages it says it supports "Linux (All)" and yet on its support forums you'll find this note.

So System Commander is out, and plug-ugly GRUB is in. I've played around with LILO and Linux-hostile NTLDR in the past, but had not met GRUB until Ubuntu/Kubuntu installed it. It works well enough, but boot loaders are a tricky business, and I discovered something a little surprising while researching it: There is no book (even from O'Reilly!) on GRUB or boot loaders generally. Wrox has an entire book on DotNetNuke Skinning (whateverthehell that is) but nothing on boot loaders. This is in part a slicing problem: Most general books on Linux include some verbiage on boot loaders (typically LILO) somewhere. I want to slice it the other way: I want a book on the PC boot process, including a lucid description of the master boot record and how the whole thing works, with detail chapters on NTLDR, LILO, GRUB and perhaps System Commander. (There are some minority players that might warrant mention as well.) Alas, that book does not exist, and I don't know enough myself to write it. I could see a book called Master Boot—with cover art depicting an old boot with useless little arms, a pack of onion rings, and a naked chicken wing with a dopey grin.

Maybe it's time to entertain some new ideas about the PC booting process. Just this morning I spotted this on Wired, though details are sparse and I'm not quite sure how it's supposed to work. And I keep thinking that virtualizers like Xen should themselves replace and become the bootloader, "booting" a clean snapshot of an OS in a VM while keeping a vigiliant hypervisor in an inaccessible memory space and a separate core. Xen does seem to be moving in that direction, but boy, with System Commander down in flames and the intricacies of GRUB looming in my face it can't happen fast enough for me.

November 2, 2007: Ring Ring—Who's There?

Those who saw my rant on phones in my October 27, 2007 entry will have to forgive me for compromising a little. I bought a brand-new Cortelco 2554 (PDF) on eBay that same day, and it arrived a few days ago. It's not made out of Cycolac, and the plastic case isn't quite as thick as the venerable Western Electric 2554 that it's modeled on, but after some testing I'm confident that it has a very tight hold on the mounting plate, and won't go flying without a great deal of persuasion. Even if it did, the thing is ruggedly built and I have some hope it would survive the adventure. Alas, Cortelco doesn't make them in green, so I had to take brown and like it. With shipping, it cost me just over $40.

But people, it has a bell. It doesn't beep. It rings.

That said (and as much as I disdain some of the fritzy new phone features that Radio Shack's phones are crusty with) Caller ID does have its uses, and I had a standalone Caller ID box on the shelf from forever ago. So I did a little sheet metal work, made a bracket, and managed to mount the Caller ID box to the phone without drilling any holes in the phone, or even removing the plastic case from the (metal! Gloriosky!) frame. What I did is slip the aluminum bracket between the phone's plastic case and its metal frame at the top edge. Simple friction holds it there, and because there's not a lot of finger work in using a Caller ID box, I don't think it'll get loose or start shifting around.

The rear view is below. It took me very little time to make the bracket. What tripped me up was the difficulty of connecting a short run of modular phone cord to the wall plate's internal junction posts through a small hole in the edge of the plate. The modular cord's wires aren't wires, strictly speaking: They're thin spirals of copper wound around a core of threadlike fiber. I had to solder the wires to a couple of very small solder lugs and get the lugs under the screws inside the wall plate, which was more like neurosurgery than I like in electronics projects. But it's done, it works, and I have a real phone in the shop again. Whew.

November 1, 2007: Why Not NaNoWriMo in March?

National Novel Writing Month begins today, and a lot of people are already furiously cranking out text in order to finish a 50,000-word (or more) novel by the end of the day November 30. I've been encouraged to participate, but I really can't—November is much too busy a month. Thanksgiving takes considerable time and doing, especially if you have to fly—or drive, God help us—to Chicago and back. And then the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving, when I traditionally write our Christmas newsletter, with decorations going up shortly after that.

Nonstarter. Perhaps this would be better: Move NaNoWriMo to March. March is the least fun and most worthless month of the year, full of long-naked trees, grim gray skies and dirty leftover snow, without a single national holiday to its name, and not much cheer of any flavor except for St. Patrick's Day, which is when the Irish officially drink enough to forget about...March. It's a good month to stay indoors and keep busy, and what better way to do that than grind out a quick novel?

At the encouragement of Jim Strickland, I took notes on a non-SF novel last summer for execution during NaNoWriMo, but couldn't free up the bandwidth during November to actually do it. Then March happened, and in the space of a week or so I got 13,000 words down on Old Catholics. It's a promising enough concept to finish, though I'm far from sure if it has any commercial potential. (It's basically an Andrew Greeley Chicago novel written about Old Catholics instead of Roman Catholics, and will be good fun if nothing else.)

Alas, my life got very busy in March and didn't let up until October. (Were she looking over my shoulder right now, Carol would doubtless make a face and object that it hasn't let up yet, and she's probably right.) Old Catholics remains unfinished, though very much a live project. So let me make this an official suggestion: Move NaNoWriMo to March. Nothing much else happens then but clinical depression, so why not get some creative work out of it?