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The Boggling Superpower of Bubble Wrap

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We’re long past the End of Owgust. The End of September is upon us, and my pool is still at 93° F. Why? It has nothing to do with global warming, and everything to do with a 20′ by 40′ sheet of blue bubble wrap. Back toward the end of spring, Carol and I bought a swimming pool cover. It came in a box, and it was just what I described: a 20′ X 40′ sheet of bubble wrap. I had to modify the corners a little to make it fit my idiosyncratically shaped in-ground pool, but that took less than an hour with a pair of ordinary scissors.

Now, in a riproaring Phoenix summer, you don’t need no steenking pool cover to keep your pool upwards of 90°. Just sitting there in the sun all day, my 44,000 gallon diving pool hit 95 degrees in early July all by its lonesome. But as we got into September and the days got shorter, the water temp soon fell to 85°. This feels great when the air temp is 110, but the air temp fell with the length of the day, and especially in our late-evening dips before bed, the air temp was in the high 80s and the water actually felt better warm. So two weeks ago, with the water temp at 85°, we dragged out the pool cover and wrestled it into place on the water.

Then, day by day, we boggled as the water temperature rose. By this afternoon, with a daily high a mere 100° (lukewarm by Phoenix standards) the water was at 93°. Carol’s sister Kathy is coming down for a visit in ten days, and she’s expecting warm days and warm pool water. The days will be in the 90s, which, if your’re accustomed to Chicago weather, is plenty warm. The challenge is to keep the water above 90° into the middle of October. I was a little worried about that.

Not anymore.

It’s been an interesting science experiment. At the end of a sunny day, the water immediately under the pool cover comes very close to 100°. That’s just for the top 2″ or so. When the pool pump kicks in at 8PM, it mixes that hot top layer with the cooler water beneath it. Come morning, the water is all mixed, and has gained half a degree or more throughout. The pool cover prevents most of the radiation by which pools lose their warmth at the end of summer. With the Sun to add new heat every day, and the cover to prevent it from radiating into the night sky, the pool accumulates heat. I think that 93° is the equilibrium temperature when the daily highs hover around 100°. We’re heading into a cooler week, so I don’t know precisley how that’s going to go, but as long as I can maintain 90° I’ll be more than happy.

The cover cost about $200. This may seem high for a sheet of bubble wrap, but in truth, it’s not the same kind of bubble wrap you get at the UPS Store to stuff in around the knicknacks you’re shipping to your godmother. The plastic is heavier and more rugged, and with some luck and careful handling could last 3-4 years.

Kathy’s visit will be a good test, but the primary experiment is to find out how long the cover can extend pool season, which by our definition is when the pool is at 82°or higher. We’re expecting to make it to Halloween, and–given reasonably warm weather and all sunny days–hoping to make it to Thanksgiving. There will be another experiment next March or April, to see when the cover brings the pool temp up to 82° for the first time in the season.

Sometime this winter, we’re going to have the pool “depth-modified,” which means that they’re going to jackhammer out the plaster, fill in the 9′ deep end, and replaster it to become a “play pool,” which will be 5′ in the center, and 3-4′ deep at both ends. I was never much of a diver, and I think we may score a discount on our homowner’s policy for getting rid of that 9′ depth. With only 30,000 gallons or so in the modified pool, who knows? We could be in the water 9 months out of the year. Maybe more.

Solar power rocks. It isn’t all photovoltaics.

This Business of Bourbon Barrel Aged Wines

I’m a contrarian. I defy convention. I question authority. I make fun of pretentiousness. I go my own way. This is especially true in my choice of wines, as I’ve written about here in the past. I’m notorious for praising wines that are (gasp!) not completely dry. I don’t actually drink sweet wine much anymore, since I’ve more or less sworn off sugar, but my reasons there have nothing to do with wine snobbery. I actually like sweet wine. But as I cruise through late middle age, I’m keeping an eye on my A1C.

My most recent discovery began as a fad but went mainstream: soft red blends. Their “softness” is really a consequence of leaving a little more residual sugar in the wine, generally bringing it up to 1% or a little higher, rather than asymptotically close to zero. This article is a little condescending in spots, but nails the reason soft red blends are popular: “…red blends tend to have a softer tannin profile than other popular red varietal categories, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.” Bingo. Not everybody likes tannins in wine, especially supertasters like me, for whom bitter flavors overwhelm any other flavors in food or drink. Most of what I drink are now Zinfandels and soft red blends, particularly Menage a Trois’ Silk and HiJinx Cellars’ HiJinx red blend, which I should have bought a case of while it was still available here. I don’t think anything has done more damage to wine snobbery than soft red blends in the forty-odd years since white zin came on the scene.

So. There’s a new fad in town: Red wines aged in used bourbon barrels. I’m not much for bourbon. It tastes bitter to me, like most whiskeys. So I didn’t try it when Apothic made a splash with their Inferno blend in 2016. Instead, I stumbled across 1000 Stories Zinfandel earlier this summer. It’s aged in bourbon barrels for sixty days. It’s a $19 wine you can often find for $16 or $17. The wine is softer than a lot of zins, though I doubt its residual sugar tops 0.8%. Even at $16 it’s not what I call a “daily driver” wine, but if I’ve sprung for good tenderloins to toss on the grill, I’m willing to pop for a wine that does them justice.

Even if I didn’t know ahead of the game that this was a bourbon-aged zin, I would know that there was something different about it. There’s a taste or a sensation somewhere between conventional wine spice and a sort of burn that I associate with whiskey. The burn is subtle, and doesn’t overwhelm the wine. It just barely gets your attention, and I’m good with that.

Having declared their Zinfandel good, I tried 1000 Stories Gold Rush Red, a blend (not billed as soft) that is also aged for sixty days in bourbon barrels. It’s a decent red, also $19. However, the burn is not as pronounced, and although it’s a perfectly good blend, I’m not sure I’d pay $19 for it. $14 or $15, sure.

Next up beside the Duntemann grill was Exitus Red, again bourbon-barrel aged. It’s a $20 California blend of Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level is high (15.9%) which competes with the characteristic fruit-forward Zinfandel flavor. However, it’s a very good blend, and if the bourbon burn isn’t strong in this one, it’s mostly because the alcohol is through the roof. I do rate it a little higher than Gold Rush Red on overall impression. However, if you want a solid red blend, you don’t have to pay $20 for it.

Having found three reasonable bourbon-aged reds, I hunted around and finally located a bottle of Apothic Inferno, which was a limited-edition wine and has evidently gotten scarce since 2016. Apothic is famous for soft red blends like Apothic Red and Apothic Crush, so I had high hopes for it. And in truth, it was a pretty fair wine, quite drinkable, and only $12. But I was left with the suspicion that Apothic had poured the wine into the bourbon barrels before completely emptying out the bourbon. Really; it tastes like a mix of bourbon and red wine. The burn is there, but the bourbon taste overwhelms even the burn, and it’s the dominant nose in the glass and flavor on the tongue. Whether this is a bug or a feature is a matter of taste, and I readily admit that I’ve never tasted anything even remotely like it. I find the bitter edge a little off-putting, but you may enjoy that sort of thing. Like Exitus, it’s a 15.9% wine, so go easy with it. As for pairings, I’m not sure. The whiskey flavor clashed a little with good steaks, but might be just fine with burgers or brats.

There are more. Mondavi has a bourbon-aged cab, which I won’t try because I don’t drink cabs. Jacob’s Creek has a Shiraz aged in Scotch whiskey barrels, and while I don’t know that Scotch whiskey tastes different enough from bourbon to make a difference, I like Shiraz enough to try it. Others will likely emerge, and if I turn up a good one, I’ll mention it here on Contra. Grilling season is kicking into high gear in Arizona now that our long, long summer is ramping down. So there will be plenty of opportunities to try new things on both the food and the wine side of the counter. Stay tuned.

The Stuff Conundrum

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Over the years I’ve developed a couple of strong heuristics relating to Stuff:

  1. Know what you have.
  2. Know where it is.
  3. Store it in an orderly fashion, to facilitate heuristics 1 and 2.

One of the ways I developed these heuristics was by moving every three or four years as I chased jobs around the country. Time and again, everything we owned went into boxes, much of which then sat around in the basement of our new place, sometimes for years, before we opened up the boxes and looked at it. In the meantime, we often forgot what we had (or couldn’t find it) which led us to buy duplicate Stuff.

Our most recent move was better than many, because we had a lot more time to plan the packing. Our first few moves were corporate moves, which meant that my employers hired a moving company, which came to our house and loaded our Stuff into boxes in one furious day. That was worst-case, because there was no attempt at organized packing. Whatever was in the living room went into boxes. Whatever was in the bedroom went into boxes. Etc. Every box was a mishmash of books, knicknacks, throw pillows, coasters, and whatever other oddments were lying around the morning the movers came.

Later on, when we paid for our own moves, we packed our Stuff by ourselves. There were boxes of books, clearly labeled. (Lots of them.) There were boxes of kitchen gadgets, and nothing but kitchen gadgets. There were boxes of CDs and DVDs (ok, we mixed those) that did not contain books or kitchen gadgets. This made unloading it all into cabinets and bookshelves and pantries a whole lot easier.

My workshop was a whole separate problem. Ordinary life has relatively few packable categories: Clothes, shoes, kitchen stuff, books, wall art, dog supplies, knicknacks, garden supplies, etc. Out in my workshop, I had shelves full of Odd Lots in a hundred different categories, and in few cases enough of any one category to fill a box. Variable capacitors, panel meters, milk jugs full of tube sockets, tubes, transistors, test gear, and cubic yards of indescribable (except by techie nerds of my generation) kipple. So mixing categories in boxes was unavoidable, with the commonest single box label reading ODD JUNK.

Downsizing from 4500 square feet with a huge workshop to 3000 square feet with one small single-car garage as a workshop complicated matters further. I got rid of a lot of stuff in Colorado, including all but the very best of my vintage radios. I planned my shop in detail to waste as little space as possible, drew it all out on Visio, and emptied as many of the boxes onto shelves and bins and new Elfa as I could.

The rest went into the tack shed. Life got busy, and all those boxes of ODD JUNK remained unmolested until their weight began to collapse the shed’s cheap plywood built-in shelves. Just last week, I piled it all onto the patio, bought heavy-duty steel shelves at Home Depot, tore out the crappy plywood shelves, assembled the new steel shelves, and then began piling the goods back onto the shelves in the shed. Roy Harvey wanted to see a picture of the pile, which I took but didn’t consider notable enough to post. See below:

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There was a similar pile (though of much lighter boxes) atop our big patio table. I didn’t take a picture of that. By now, egad, I know what piles of boxes look like.

Once the new shelves in the shed were ready, I spent days opening up boxes of ODD JUNK, making piles by category, and either throwing out or re-boxing the piles. In the process, I remembered a lot of Stuff that I had long forgotten, some of it packed up when we began preparations to move to Colorado in the fall of 2002. I found many things I’d been looking for, especially tools and telescope parts. I’m still tessellating in the shop, but overall, it was a useful endeavor.

Better still, the shed (which used to be packed to the rafters) is now only about half-full. It helped that we’re taking about half of the paint cans (full of paint going back to 2006) down to the hazardous waste drop-off. It also helps that the shelves I bought had more, well, shelves. I spaced the shelves to accomodate the most common moving boxes, including the many Waldenbooks book boxes I got for free when we moved to Colorado in 2003. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) So I’m getting a lot more bang per cubic foot out there.

Best of all, I reviewed what was in the boxes, and scribbled lists on the sides of the boxes with magic marker. I may have to hunt a little for the boxes in the future, but once I find the boxes, I’ll know instantly and in detail what’s inside them.

Retired people often downsize, and many of them in my circles have told that they don’t miss all the Stuff they got rid of when they did. Me, I can handle a little of that. I got rid of my snowmobile suit, after all. But if you can’t lay hands on a 6AG7 when you need one, what is life?

When Sheds A-Tack

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I have a shed; a right fine shed–

Designed, alas, for tack.

Its shelves collapsed beneath my stuff

As strength is what they lack.

There is an equestrian or two among my readers who will know what a “tack shed” is; for everybody else, some history is in order: When our neighborhood was platted out of ranchland in the mid-1960s, the lots were made deliberately large (1/2 acre to 1 acre) because having a horse behind your suburban ranch house was trendy in that era. Most of the horse setups are gone now (though the folks at the end of our block still have theirs, and in fact still have a horse) but what generally remain are the tack sheds, which are small, study buildings that house horse equipment like saddles, blankets, bridles, and (probably) shovels.

Our tack shed was gutted and rehabbed (probably) when the house itself was rebuilt in 2003. Or maybe the shelves were original. I have no way to tell. But when we moved in over the year starting mid-December 2015, I piled all the stuff onto those shelves that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. This included boxes full of gears and bearing blocks, stepper motors, box fans, variable capacitors, casters, Popular Electronics, heat sinks, great big electrolytic caps, chassis boxes, and odd lots of every species within the phylum that contains a lot of metal and/or coated paper.

All was well until earlier this year, when I noticed that the shelves were cracking and buckling under the load. I did some propping with scrap dimensional lumber, but it was obvious that tack shelves (if that’s what they were) will not hold that much metal and that many boxed vintage AM rigs. The propping did us through the summer, but with cooler mornings coming in I set out to put it all right. Mostly, that meant emptying the shelves, tearing out the shelves, and putting in Home Depot Husky steel shelf units.

So this morning I went out to the garage to get the handcart and kick off the festivities. Hmmm. The cart hadn’t been used for probably eighteen months, and both of its pneumatic tires were flat. So I loaded it into the Durango and ran up 64th Street to the Shell station and its $1.50 air machine. One tire filled without trouble. The other had pulled enough away from its rim so that it didn’t have a good seal (or any seal at all, actually) and as fast as I squirted air in, the air gleefully escaped. Worse, the tire had deformed slightly and was no longer completely round.

I am the son of an engineer, and drew it all out in my head: I had to apply pressure to the center periphery of the tire to get its sidewalls to expand against the rim. First I tried bungee cords, of which I keep many in one of the wells in the cago hold. Alas, the tire was pathologically the wrong size to wrap a bungee around it and hook the two ends together with the tire under pressure. So I drove home and did it again with rope. When I went back to Shell, the tire gripped the rim and pressurized without additional mayhem, though I had to feed the air machine another buck and a half in quarters.

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Some lessons here: Always store carts with pneumatic tires so that there is no pressure on the tires. None; not even the weight of the cart. Also, keep rope in your car and quarters in your pocket. Murphy’s out there somewhere, watching…

I managed to get all the junk out of the shed and stacked on the patio. Then I began tearing out the shelves, but by noon it had gotten hot enough that I bailed for the day, after a short bypass through the pool. I’ll get back to it tomorrow morning, and with any luck at all finish the demo portion of the project.

Once the Husky shelves are safely in place (I drew the shelves and the building in Visio to make sure it would all fit) I will begin asking myself how many cartons of chassis boxes will I likely consume over the remaining 20-30 years of my life. Maybe I should take some to a hamfest, though that will mean finding a hamfest. Do I really need a Sixer and a Twoer? Do any of the gears in the box actually mesh? What’s in the two or three boxes with no markings at all?

A retiree’s work is never done.

Revisiting The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything

24 years and some months ago, I published an article in PC Techniques, on the END. page, which was where I put humor, crazy ideas, and non-of-the-above. The article was “The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything!” and as I recall it generated a lot of mail. The idea was this: We should create a way to capture knowledge, even highly eccentric knowledge, in a browsable online encyclopedia. Remember that I had this idea in 1993, when the Web was not so much in its infancy as still in utero, and broadband outside of an office or university was practically unheard of. That’s why I imagined the Encyclopedia as a central index with pointers to encyclopedia articles hosted on machines owned by the authors of the articles, with caching for popular items. You browse the index, you click on an article link, and then retrieve the article text back to your machine as a file via FTP, where it would be rendered in a window in a standard layout. (The now-defuct DMOZ Web directory worked a little like this.) HTTP would work even better, but in 1993 I’d barely heard of it.

I chewed on the idea for several years, and then went on to other things. In 2001, Wikipedia happened, and I felt vindicated, and even though the vision had an utterly different shape, it was still an all-volunteer virtual encyclopedia.

Of absolutely everything, well, not so much.

As good as it is, Wikipedia is still trying to be a paper encyclopedia. You won’t find articles on pickled quail eggs in a paper encyclopedia, because paper costs money, and takes up space. These days, with terabyte disk drives going for fifty bucks new, there’s no reason for an online encyclopedia not to cover everything. Yet Wikipedia still cleaves to its “notability” fetish like superglue; in fact, in reading the discussion pages, I get the impression that they will give up almost anything else but that. My heuristic on the topic is simple and emphatic:

Everything is notable to somebody, and nobody can judge what will be notable to whom.

In other words, if I look for something on Wikipedia and it’s not there, that’s a flaw in Wikipedia. It’s a fixable flaw, too, but I don’t expect them to fix it.

Several people have suggested that my Virtual Encyclopedia concept is in fact the Web + Google. Fair point, but I had envisioned something maybe a little less…chaotic. Others have suggested that I had at least predicted the MediaWiki software, and if Wikipedia won’t cover everything, that’s their choice and not a shortcoming of the machinery behind it.

Bingo.

Some years back I had the notion that somebody should build a special-purpose wiki to hold all the articles that Wikipedia tosses out for lack of notability. I thought about some sort of browser script that would first search Wikipedia for a topic, and if Wikipedia didn’t have it, would then look it up in WikiDebrisdia. I never wrote this up, which is a shame, because something similar to that appeared last year, when Theodore Beale (AKA Vox Day) launched Infogalactic.

It’s a brilliant and audacious hack, fersure: When a user searches Infogalactic (which, like Wikipedia, is MediaWiki-based) for a topic, Infogalactic first searches its own articles, and if the topic isn’t found, then searches Wikipedia. If the topic is available on Wikipedia, Infogalatic brings the article back and serves it to the user, and retains it in a cache for future searches. This is legal and fully in keeping with Wikipedia’s rules, which explicitly allow re-use of its material, though I’m guessing they weren’t imagining it would be used in fleshing out the holes in a competing encyclopedia.

There’s considerably more to Infogalactic than this, but it’s still very new and under active development, and its other features will have to wait for a future entry. (Note that Infogalactic is not concerned with Wikipedia’s deleted articles; that was my concept.) One of the things I find distinctive about it is that it has no notability fetish. Infogalactic states that it is less concerned with a topic’s notability than it is about whether the article is true. That’s pretty much how I feel about the issue: Notability is a holdover from the Age of Paper. It has no value anymore. What matters is whether an article is true in all its assertions, not how important some anonymous busybody thinks it might be.

I’m wondering if the future of the All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything is in fact a network of wikis. There are a number of substantial vertical-market wikis, like WikiVoyage (a travel guide) and WikiSpecies, which is a collection of half a million articles on living things. I haven’t studied the MediaWiki software in depth, so I don’t know how difficult this would be, but…how about a module that sends queries to one or more other wikis, Infogalactic-style? I doubt that Wikipedia has articles on all half a million species of living creature in WikiSpecies, but if a user wanted to know about some obscure gnat that wasn’t notable enough for Wikipedia, Wikipedia could send for the article from WikiSpecies. Infogalactic already does this, but only to Wikipedia. How about a constantly updated list of wikis? You broadcast a query and post a list of all the search hits from all the wikis on the list that received the query.

This is the obvious way to go, and it’s how I envisioned the system working even back in 1993. Once again, as I’ve said throughout my career in technical publishing, the action is at the edges. It’s all about how things talk to one another, and how data moves around among them. There’s a distributed Twitter clone called Mastodon with a protocol for communication between servers. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Bottom line: I admit that “absolutely everything” is a lot. It may be more than any one single encyclopedia can contain. So let a thousand wiki encyclopedias bloom! Let Wikipedia be as much or as little of an encyclopedia as it wants to be. The rest of us can fill in the gaps.


Note well: Theodore Beale has controversial opinions, and those are off-topic and irrelevant to this entry. I mentioned one of his projects, but the man and his beliefs are a separate issue. Don’t bring them up. I will delete your comments if you do.

The End of Owgust

My father had a saying. (Actually, he had a lot of sayings, most of which you’ve long since heard.) This one I’m pretty sure he got from his mother, my grandmother, whom I heard use it a number of times: “The end of Owgust.” (If it came from Sade Prendergast Duntemann, it could well be an Irish thing; I don’t know.) It just means we’re coming to the end of something generally good, like summer vacation, which in truth used to last until the end of Owgust, but now often ends barely after Owgust even begins.

Here in Arizona, the end of Owgust is seen by many as a feature rather than a bug, since by a lot of Arizona people’s reckonings, Owgust begins in May and lasts until mid-September. By Labor day, most people would like to see nightly lows in the 70s again, so we can open our windows at night.

Carol and I tend to get a little tired of our four-month long Owgust as the end approaches, and we were planning to drive up to Colorado to spend some time with friends and see what air in the 60 degree range feels like again.

Not this year.

Our poor QBit was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of months ago, and we can see his steady decline. We don’t know how long we’ll have him, but it’s unlikely to be more than another month or two. We didn’t want to subject him to an 850-mile road trip, so we stayed home and spent more time in the pool. Lymphoma was what took out our very first bichon, the famous Mr. Byte, in 1995, and is evidently the commonest cancer in dogs. We gave Mr. Byte doggie chemo, but it only bought us a few additional months with him, and made him pretty sick at times. We’re not going to do that again.

So if I’ve been a little short on manic enthusiasm lately, that’s most of the problem.

Other things are going pretty well. Little by little I’ve been getting used to the nasal pillows mask for my APAP machine, which is reporting AHI values generally less than 1, and here and there actually 0. I’m using the great free program Sleepyhead, which displays graphs of your AHI, whatever events it had to handle, mask pressure and leaks, and much more. If you use a recording C/A/BiPAP machine with a compatible SD card format, check it out. It’s told me a number of interesting things, like the fact that events cluster at the end of the night for some reason, and that I record more events when I sleep on my left side than on my right. Highly recommended.

I had some time to play around with my dirt-cheap HP dc7900 Ultra-Slim PC, and liked it so much I ordered another one. The first one was cheap at $37 (I had to provide a hard drive and Win7) but when I went out and looked again on eBay, I found a complete system, including a 64-bit dc7900 with a hard drive and Windows 7, plus power supply, keyboard, mouse, monitor stand, and a 19″ HP flat-panel monitor. The price? $65. For the woiks. Ok, I had to pay another $25 shipping, but that means I got a complete system dropped on my porch for $90. (Stock photo above, but that’s exactly how it looks, granted that the cables aren’t shown.)

dc7900 speaker 300 wide.jpgThe HP monitor stand is nice, certainly nicer than Dell’s. The dc7900 did not come with an internal speaker, but given the size of the speaker (my first machine has one) I doubt it’s good for much more than beeps. And if I ever want one, I can get a NOS unit on eBay for $5. (The Dell speakers for their USFF lines had built-in audio amps and much better fidelity.)

The system will replace an older Dell machine that Carol has been using for some time, with a slower processor and a maddeningly intermittent front panel that prevents her from plugging thumb drives into the front of the box. The machines are roughly the same size, but the Dell electronics have been twitchy, and the combo monitor stand horrendous. The old machine has external speakers, so the HP’s near-microscopic squeakplate won’t be an issue. The HP is newer, and the Dell cost me three times as much when I bought it five years ago.

Overall, a huge win!

Finally, seeing listings on eBay for sales lots of literally hundreds of used “cube machines” like the dc7900, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s the end of Owgust for the ordinary, non-gamer desktop PC industry. You don’t need a lot of crunch power for word processing, spreadsheets, local databases, or (most of) the Web. Even with only 4GB installed, I streamed a whole movie on the first dc7900 without a glitch. So these machines are perfectly usable for ordinary people doing ordinary computer-y things. You can spend $500+ for a desktop box at Best Buy…or you can get the whole damned system from eBay for $90, delivered. They’re not new. But they’re clean, small, and rugged. Parts are available on eBay, from the crappy little microspeaker up to whole motherboards–though at these prices, I consider the machines disposable and won’t be replacing any misbehaving mobos.

A lot of desktops are being replaced by laptops, which is really where the action is these days, as well as the high prices manufacturers prefer to get. If you’re going to stick with a boring desktop PC, you might as well get one used for 75% (or more) off retail. I’ve got a big hulking custom Core I5-2400 quad, which I’ve used since 2012, and it’s still more than fast enough for my needs. Furthermore, it’s in a Thermaltake V9 Blacx case with SATA sockets on the top panel for backup drives. Damned useful. I could get a faster mobo for it, but…why?

This all reminds me of a Contra entry I posted back in 2009, about how with cars (and silverware) lasting a lot longer than in years past, we need to manufacture fewer cars and less silverware to avoid saturating the market. The same goes for PCs. As each wave of compact cubicle machines comes off depreciation and heads for eBay, the price of a perfectly usable desktop machine goes down. Even if the $65 deal I got last week was unusual, it won’t be for long. Keep your eyes open.

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

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Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

Cropped Front View dc7900 - 500 Wide.jpg

I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

Side View - 500 Wide.jpg

Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

Interior Closeup - 500 wide.jpg

The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.

Odd Lots

Blogging Vs. Social Media

Wow. I think I broke another record for not posting on Contra. My last entry was July 7, which brings us to five weeks now. People aren’t asking me if I’m dead (like they used to) because most of them see me on Facebook and Twitter. So yeah: I’m not dead. I’ve just been elsewhere.

And that’s an interesting issue, especially now, at 66, when I have a far more limited supply of personal energy than I did ten or even five years ago. This being summer doesn’t help: My office is the warmest room in the house, and I simply don’t function as well with an ambient temp in the 80s. Mornings are my best times largely because they’re the coolest. Mornings are also when I work on my commercial writing projects, like Dreamhealer and FreePascal From Square One. Fiction is hard. Dreamhealer in particular has been rough, and there are times when I regret having started it at all. But 55,000 words is too much to just toss in the trunk. It will be finished. I only wish I had finished it a year ago, which was my original if excessively ambitious plan.

The key question is this: To what extent is Contra a bad use of my time?

Or, more to the point, my (limited) energy?

I don’t look at my logs much anymore, because I know what they’ll show: Script kiddies endlessly trying to brute-force their way into my instance of WordPress, plus fifteen or twenty visitors a day, and a few odd bits that I’ve never entirely understood. I suspect posting less often than I once did cuts the numbers down, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a few hundred visitors a day, even when I was posting almost daily, unless I posted something that went viral, like my Sad Puppies summary or my analysis of EasyBits Go.

So why have I stopped posting here on Contra? This: I get more attention when I post on Facebook or Twitter. And attention is what it takes to sell indie books. Posting a promo tweet about one of my books almost always generates a sale or two. Posting something about one of my books on Contra rarely does. I’m guessing that Contra is a saturated market: My diehard fans have probably already bought everything I’m offering. It would help if I could crank out three novels a year, but if that were possible it would have happened a long time ago.

Blogs have lost a lot of the magic they had fifteen years ago. The magic went straight to Facebook, in large part because Facebook has machinery to help people find you if you want to be found. (Or even if you don’t want to be found.) If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer like me, being found is the hardest single part of the game. The blogs that continue to thrive fall into two categories: Political blogs, which satisfy our insatiable need for tribal reassurance, and single-topic blogs with fairly narrow and reasonably popular topics. The sort of general-interest blog that was my 20-year vision for Contra still exists, but is written largely by people who are already well-known for other reasons.

Another issue is that politics has infected virtually every topic you could name, including many that interest me, like nutrition, climate, genetics, education, and health insurance. It’s almost impossible to write about those topics without attracting comment harpies, or more general tribal hatred than I care to deal with. I was astonished at the anger I evoked by cautioning people to calm down after the 2016 election, lest their rampaging hatred ruin their health or literally kill them. This remains an issue: Once you’ve given yourself permission to hate, hatred is delicious, and few people can overcome that deepest of all primal hungers.

My overall goal is to write articles that won’t piss off potential readers of my fiction, and the range of appropriate topics for that kind of writing grows narrower over time as the filth that is politics seeps into damned near everything.

All that said, I’ll try and post here a little more often. I’m considering redesigning Contra (or paying someone to redesign it) so that it becomes a more general directory to everything I have online. I’ll post shorter blog entries more often, and long-form essays not as blog entries but as standalone articles listed in a sidebar. I may have to cross-post short entries on Facebook for those who don’t read Contra. Given its limitations, Twitter will remain a sort of Odd Lots repository, along with links to longer works. (I will collect my Twitter Odd Lots and post them on Contra from time to time.)

I’ve done tolerably well as an indie author since I posted the ebook edition of The Cunning Blood in July 2015. I intend to write indie fiction for the rest of my life, and solving the problem of discovery is a huge part of the challenge. I dislike Facebook and Twitter, for the sake of their ideological bias and privacy failures, but actual experiments have shown that they work. The experiments will continue. If I learn something useful, you’ll find it here–and other places too. A usable author platform requires more than one leg to be stable.

Contra Turns 20

Egad. Contra turned 20 when I wasn’t looking. Actually, I was looking. What I wasn’t doing was breathing. Enough. At night. I think I have a handle on that problerm now, and with any luck at all I’ll be writing more of everything going forward. I’m 50,000 words into my new novel Dreamhealer, and tinkering the last bits of my free ebook FreePascal From Square One. There’s much to be done, now that my energy is starting to come back.

The anniversary was this past June 5. On June 5, 1998, the very first entry in Jeff Duntemann’s VDM Diary went up on the Coriolis Web server. That first entry was nothing grandiose. I didn’t have permalinks on those early entries, so I’ll quote it here in its entirety:

Spent most of this past week in Chicago at Book Expo America, and saw two remarkable “book on demand” operations of interest to small software developers. Both IBM and Xerox have developed super hi-res, high-speed laser printers that print on continuous roll paper, almost like miniature offset printing presses. Both firms have set up subsidiaries to act as service bureaus, capable of producing high-quality perfect-bound books with glossy four-color covers, quantity one, at a unit price of between $2 and $4, depending on the size of the book. They’re targeting the service at small press, and to keep low-volume books from going out of print entirely. But you and I know the real application here is going to be software documentation for small developers, especially shareware developers whose volumes are smallish and unpredictable. Go take a look: IBM and Ingram’s partnership LightningPrint is at www.lightningprint.com.

Those early entries didn’t have titles, and were not the long-form essays that evolved over time, but instead short, newsy items much like I later came to publish as Odd Lots.

For those who didn’t know me back then, “VDM” was our (carefully chosen) acronym for Visual Developer Magazine, published by The Coriolis Group from 1990-2000. By 2000 most of our energy went into books. The magazine, in competition with increasingly sophisticated (and free) Web pages, ceased to be viable toward the end of 1999. The March/April 2000 issue was the last, and VDM Diary closed down with Visual Developer itself.

By that time, however, I was hooked. On July 25, 2000, I created Contrapositive Diary on my own Web hosting space, where it’s been ever since.

So let’s go back to Contra’s secret origins. Without realizing it (and years before that truly ugly word came to prominence) I had invented blogging. Now, others invented it as well. There is such a thing as independent invention, and in truth the idea seems kind of obvious to me. I’m not sure Slashdot is a blog (I’ve always considered it a news site) but it launched in the fall of 1997, though I don’t remember seeing it until a couple of years later. Justin Hall is almost certainly the first blogger in the sense that we use the word today, having invented the concept back in 1994. Still further back in time, I remember reading a periodic (weekly?) posting on Usenet from Moonwatcher, a chap who posted about the phases of the Moon, eclipses, meteor showers, visible planets, and other things relating to astronomy. This was in 1981 or thereabouts, when I worked at Xerox and had a login to ARPANet. So yeah, it’s an old idea, and an obvious one.

Still, I think of it as the best idea I never had.

Huh? It’s true: Contra was someone else’s idea. My ad sales rep for VDM was Lisa Marie Hafeli, and in the spring of 1998 she approached me with a request: Find a way to publish something short online every day, or close to it. What she wanted was more product mentions, which helped her sell ads to industry firms. I wasn’t entirely sure that such a thing would work as an ad sales tool, but the notion of a daily diary online intrigued me. It took until June to get to the top of my stack. At the time I wasn’t in direct control of our Web presence, so (almost) every day before I went home from work I emailed the text to my webmaster Dave, and he added it to the tail end of the HTML file stored on our Web server.

I didn’t post every day, and not every post was a product mention, but the vehicle proved popular with our readers. I wasn’t surprised over the next couple of years when others did the same thing. As I said, it’s a pretty obvious idea. What did surprise me was the scope of its adoption. By the time the company itself shut down in the spring of 2002, the word “blog” had been coined, and blogs were all over the place.

I edited the HTML files by hand as the sole format until 2005, when I created an account on LiveJournal and used it as a mirror of the manually edited month files. I never really liked LiveJournal as a platform, but it did the job until I installed WordPress on my own hosting space in late 2008, launching on 1/1/2009. I later backported the 2008 month files to WordPress, found it more trouble than it was worth, and stopped there. My LiveJournal account still exists, but I get almost no comments on it and assume the platform is no longer as well-used as it was ten years or so ago.

I don’t post on Contra as often as I used to. I get a lot more traffic and exposure on Twitter and Facebook, and I periodically gather short items originally published on Twitter into Odd Lots. (I invariably add a few bullets that never went to Twitter for various reasons, so you won’t see all my Odd Lots on Twitter.)

That’s the story. I enjoy social networking a lot less than I used to, because so much of what goes around online is flat-out political hatred. Still, it’s one of the few ways to get above the noise and be heard. I’m trying to earn a reputation for not being crazy, but alas, the crazy stuff seems to get the most mileage these days. There are insights in that fact somewhere (a lot of insights, for what it’s worth) but I’m not entirely sure I want to be the one to describe them. I’d prefer a peaceful retirement, whatever it takes. Mostly what it takes is not talking about politics.

That’s been my policy for a long time, with only very occasional lapses. It will be my policy going forward, for as long as I can write at all.