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My Great-Grandmother’s 150th Birthday

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I was adding a couple of new names to my Family Tree Maker 2019 database last week when I realized that Martha Winkelman Duntemann’s 150th birthday was coming up. Today’s the day, and for me it’s worth some modest celebration. Martha (who died in 1967) is now 150 years old–and I knew her. That seems odd, bordering on the impossible somehow.

But it’s true. Martha was born on a Bensenville, Illinois farm on April 10, 1871. I have a scan of an old plat map somewhere with the names of the farmers on their acreage. I believe the Winkelman farm was on land now part of O’Hare Field. The Duntemann farm certainly was. In fact, I discovered with a little mapwork that the Duntemann farmhouse was almost directly where the airport’s boiler plant is. You see it from the freeway coming out of the main terminal on your right. Interestingly, my father was the gas company liaison engineer to the city when they built the gas-fired boiler plant in the early 1960s. He never knew (as best I recall) that his great-grandfather’s farm was right there.

Martha married Frank W. Duntemann on January 31, 1892. She was 19; he 24. They had two sons: Harry George Duntemann, born on October 20 of that year, and Elvin Frederick Duntemann, born July 16, 1895. Harry was my grandfather, and Uncle El was a jolly, goodhearted man whom I saw less often than I should have. Martha’s husband Frank died in 1936. My father was named after him. The family photo shown below is undated, but by the ages of the boys I’m guessing 1900.

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Frank did not go into farming as most of his four brothers did. Instead he established a general store in the little railroad town of Orchard Place, Illinois, roughly where Higgins Road crosses the Soo Line railroad. Soon after the store opened, Frank got the job of Orchard Place postmaster, which he held until a year or two before he died.

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The family lived over the general store. Martha shut the store down after Frank died and Des Plaines took over the mail processing. By 1936 she was 65, and did not want to tend the store on her own. Her son Elvin took some of the inventory and created a coal and building materials dealership in a new, larger building up the road a ways, which was in business well into the 1950s. The store was converted to a separate first-floor apartment. Martha lived the rest of her life on the second story, alone, for another 30 years.

Orchard Place met its end in the mid-1950s. The Feds literally dropped an Interstate on it. The NW Tollway was built over what little “main street” the town had. Before the toll road was built, many of the old houses, including the General Store building, were moved a few blocks north into what by then was a Des Plaines residential neighborhood. The old store building is still there on Curtis Street, and is now owned by one of my cousins, a grandchild of Uncle El.

Martha was less alone than you might think. There were several Duntemann families on the same block, including Elvin and his three children and their families. When we went out to visit when I was a kid, I played with my cousins, but always went upstairs to say hi and get a hug from my great-grandma. I have a grainy b/w photo from 1954 or 1955 (below) including four Duntemann generations: Martha, her son Harry and his wife, Harry’s son Frank (my father), my mother, my Aunt Kathleen, and…me. Oh, and two dogs, Willie and Rebel, who didn’t particularly get along. Rebel is cut off at the bottom of the photo, held firmly in place by my mother. Willie, on my dad’s lap, apparently wanted to be anywhere else but there.


Martha was rail-thin, energetic, and spry to the end of her life. She had 19 great-grandchildren and often had a pile of my younger cousins on her lap:

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She went up and down the stairs to her apartment unaided until three weeks before she died at age 96, and never missed church on Sundays. She is buried beside her husband Frank at Town of Maine Cemetery, Park Ridge.

Obviously, I wish I had known her better. But she lived out in the burbs, and died when I was 14. Remarkably, she outlived all four of my grandparents (including her son Harry) who died when I was 2, 4, 12, and 13. I wished I’d known them better too–granting that my mother’s parents were Polish immigrants who didn’t speak English.

So here’s to you, Great-Grandma! Happy 150th Birthday! You carried the flame of life down to me (and by now, hordes of others including my sister’s girls and my cousins who now have kids who have kids, yikes!) and it was an honor to know you even as little as I did. You are my link to a time when trains ran on coal and Chicago’s suburbs were mostly cornfields. Until we meet again…go with God, and rest assured that the gift of life you gave us has not been wasted.


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Carol and I went grocery shopping this morning, and came home with the biggest damn apple either of us had ever seen. It’s a honeycrisp, which we’ve had before, many times. However, none of them were ever like this honeycrisp. They weren’t labeled “giant honeycrisp” or anything. And while this was the largest one in the display, the others were just about as big. If you don’t eat apples very often, you’ll find a comparison photo between The Giant Apple and an ordinary Gala below:

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Wow. Just wow.

Yesterday, Arizona’s governor made masking optional, and allowed bars, restaurants, and gyms to open at full capacity. O dear Lord, the dudgeon; the moaning and the groaning and the predictions that everyone in Arizona is gonna die. Well, the graph of COVID-19 deaths here is down to single digits per day, and over three million people in Arizona have received at least one shot. The state is running some of its vaccine centers 24/7, and now anyone over the age of 17 can make an appointment to be vaccinated. No one knows how many people had a brush with the virus but never even noticed. It might be a lot, mostly younger, and now mostly resistant to infection. We’re far closer to herd immunity than anyone in the media or government is willing to admit.

I check that ADHS graph every morning. No one knows why we had the fall/winter surge with mask compliance at 90% here. This tells me masks really don’t help much. Some of that may be because masks don’t protect your eyes. More may be that the virus does indeed travel as an aerosol, which might be slightly attenuated by a typical mask–but only slightly. No one knows, including our supposed “experts,” who say whatever they’re told by the people who own them, and lie on demand, all “for the greater good.”

The media (and most of our elites) really doesn’t want the pandemic to end. It was a titanic ego trip for them, to pump out endless panic porn and watch people obey them slavishly and persecute others who were skeptical. There’s backlash brewing: CNN’s ratings are in freefall, and the sooner they collapse and go under, the better. Some in the medical community are now calling foul on harassing the general public. Cord-cutting may finish the job that the backlash began: Carol and I dumped cable TV and now keep cable service solely for Internet access. I’ve been investigating Internet Radio to fill the gaps. The units are basically low-end computers with network connections, and can be had for less than $200. Music is big, but there is plenty of news and weather if you know their IPs. Internet radio is basically the stake hovering over the heart of cable TV/audio, and the hammer is coming down.

Reception of our local classical radio station KBAQ can be spotty. It gets disrupted when a jet flies over the house, heading for the Scottsdale airport. (This happens a lot.) They stream over the Internet, and with an Internet radio, I won’t have to worry about multipath or other species of radio interference.

Since we’ve moved to Phoenix, I’ve noticed that an entire genre of computer retailers is missing: the box shop. By that I mean a place that would put together a custom PC for you. I had a machine built at Fry’s back in 2018, but Fry’s is now gone. I had a great box shop up in Colorado Springs. That’s where my current (aging) desktop came from. I need a new one, but if box shops still exist here, they hide well. Yes, yes, I could do it myself, and if I must I will. But having done it many times before, I consider it a bad use of my time.

Alas, the Thermaltake case I used back in 2012, their BlacX, no longer exists. That’s the one with two SATA drive slots in the top panel, so you can plug barenaked SATA drives into the top for quick backups. I suspect the BlacX was popular in the LAN party era, but like box shops, LAN parties are receding into the misty past at 40% C. Thermaltake does make a 2-slot external SATA dock, which I’m guessing I’ll end up using.

The pool water is now at 61°. We bought a new solar cover a few weeks ago. As soon as the water hits 70°, we’ll spread it out, and in another week or so the water should be at 80°, which for me is the lower limit of swimming temperatures. Winter here was nice, but it’s gone. The pool makes the summers worthwhile.

I tried rereading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, but the 1968 Dover paperback I have is laid out with such small type that even with reading glasses, it gives me headaches. Ebooks arrived just in time for my old eyes. I also bought the NESFA Press hardcover of Believing, which is a collection of all the non-People stories of Zenna Henderson. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s a handsome book, and will replace several crumbling MMPBs from the ’60s. Oddly, it’s not on Amazon. I had to order it direct from NESFA.

And with that, I declare today over. Time to hit the sack. Much to do tomorrow.

Review: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

41oxPnAPxHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI have a lot of books. In general, when I buy (or somehow acquire) a book I read it right away. I realized a few weeks ago that although my sister gave me a copy of Ingathering by Zenna Henderson some years back, it got shelved without being read. My bad. My review is in my entry for 2/9/2021.

So I went hunting for other books in this situation. The Principle of Mediocrity applies here: If there was one unread book on my shelves, there will probably be others. It didn’t take long to find one: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2002, and sent to me for review in 2003 by an editor at Copernicus Books, Paul Farrell. 2002 was not a good year for me, for reasons you know already. In a way, it remains the annus horribilis of my life. In 2003 we moved away from Arizona to get away from constant reminders of the horribilis. (For newcomers: 2002 was the year my publishing company here in Arizona crashed and burned, through no fault of my own. Long story.) So I guess it’s unsurprising that the book went onto the shelves unread. In fact, it probably went straight into a box. I (finally) finished it an hour or so ago.

As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1944: If there is life elsewhere in the universe, why haven’t we encountered evidence of it yet?

Good question. A lot of really smart people have grappled with it, but the (obvious) spoiler is that we don’t know. (Yet.) Where Is Everybody? is a systematic presentation of fifty proposed explanations for why we’ve not encountered the Galactic Confederation. The author gives each a number and takes us through them in order, explaining why none of them really answers Fermi’s question. For example, Solution 20 is “We Have Not Listened Long Enough.” There’s a lot of Universe, and we’ve only been listening to “waterhole” frequencies for an insignificant amount of time, compared to the lifetime of our galaxy. Solution 44 is “The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition Is Rare.” That was a new one for me (biology is not my field) and involves the jump between primordial single-celled life and the more complex form of single-celled life that eventually evolved into multicellular organisms. We can’t explain how it happened, but somehow it did. Was it a fluke? Don’t know.

Stephen Webb separates the 50 proposed explanations of the Fermi Question into three broad groups: 1. They Are Already Here. 2. They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated. And 3. They Do Not Exist. A lot of the issues are things I had read about elsewhere. A surprising number were new to me. Along the way, he talks about the Drake Equation and how it relates to the probability of finding intelligent life beyond Earth. In a sense, most of the issues discussed in the book either represent existing terms of the Drake Equation, or could be considered new ones.

All the usual explanations are taken up: berserkers, species suicide here on Earth, the Rare Earth hypothesis (which is actually taken up in several parts, each with its own number and section in the book) gamma ray bursters, asteroid bombardment, giant planets in the wrong places, lack of a Moon, lack of plate tectonics in most rocky planets, and so on.

A few of the proposed solutions may strike some as outre. Solution 7 is “The Planetarium Hypothesis,” which proposes that we are living in a simulated universe, with the superhuman aliens behind the scenes, pulling the levers and observing us. That’s an interesting one because it can be disproven, using what we know about the data and energy requirements of a simulation as good as our reality suggests. Solution 8 is “God Exists,” and He set things up just right for the universe to evolve us–and perhaps created an infinitude of other universes either sterile or fine-tuned to benefit other intelligent life. I’m reminded of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 pseudo-novel Star Maker, in which an unthinkably powerful being creates a series of universes, each more “mature” than the last. (I found the book largely impenetrable when I read it at 17. It may be worth another look 51 years later. If nothing else, I’ve developed patience in the interim.)

Webb’s writing is refreshingly clear and easygoing. He’s a natural explainer, in the same way that Isaac Asimov was. He cites a lot of researchers and their research as he explains each topic, and there is a fat section of references and pointers to further readings at the back of the book. I came away from it feeling satisfied with the time I spent, and better still, that I learned something–a lot of somethings, in fact–along the way.

Webb does not intend to prove (or disprove) the existemce of Extrarrestial Civilizations (ETCs). The point of the book (or the joker in the deck, if you’re a fervent believer in ETCs) is that we do not have anything close to enough data to form a conclusion. He does confirm the feeling I had as he explained one possible solution after another: There are a lot of very difficult hurdles between a sterile planet and a starfaring civilization. By the end, I felt that he had added a good fifteen or twenty new terms to the Drake Equation. If those new terms are as difficult as our research suggests, yes, we are indeed an exceedingly unlikely Cosmic Fluke, and probably alone in the universe.

This doesn’t bother me, even as a science fiction writer. When I was a teen and for a few years afterward, I wrote stories about aliens. However, I’ve judged only two of them good enough to put before the public: Firejammer and “Born Again, With Water.” My conclusion is mostly this: If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and we come upon them, we may not have much to talk about. We may not be able to talk to them at all. Shared experience, even the shared experience of being born into an orderly and comprehensible universe, may be impossible across the gulf to an alien mind.

That is, unless you count my Metaspace Saga, in which aliens create our universe as a way of obtaining a better random-number generator. Except–they’re not really aliens. No more spoilers. I’m working on it. There are some hints in The Cunning Blood. The rest will come out eventually.

In the meantime, I powerfully recommend Stephen Webb’s book. What I didn’t notice until I went up to schnarf the book’s cover image for this entry is that he published a second edition in 2015–and now he’s got seventy-five proposed solutions to tackle. I’ll pick that one up eventually. In the meantime, I’m scanning my shelves for other gems that may have been hiding from me. They’re in there somewhere. Like I said, I have a lot of books.

The Trouble with Wikis

A week or so ago I bestirred myself and installed MediaWiki on my Web host. I’d been intending to do that for some time, but (as my friend Don put it) my life was ODTAA for a bit. Installing it was a snap. My provider has something called Installatron that did the job, no issues. The software, of course, is free and open-source.

I installed it in part to become more familiar with the MediaWiki system. As usual, when installing something new, I went up to Amazon and checked for books on MediaWiki.

Unless I missed something, there are five.

Plus a few more in French, German, and Japanese. Furthermore, those five books did not all get favorable reviews. The title I was most interested in is now 11 years old and way behind the current release of MediaWiki. (I ordered it anyway, along with O’Reilly’s MediaWiki: Wikipedia and Beyond, which is even older.)

My first question was: Why so few books about software this famous?

The answer came to me slowly: Almost nobody wants to create/maintain/populate their own wiki. MediaWiki is famous for one reason: Wikipedia. I’ve seen a number of other public wikis, including, Conservapedia, Everipedia, WikiHow, Wikispecies, and WikiTree. There is a list on Wikipedia that eyeballs at about 80. Let’s be generous and triple that to account for wikis that Wikipedia didn’t list, and for private wikis. So, say, 250. That’s not much of a market for books. Even 500 installs would not float a print book.

MediaWiki’s online presence has a feature for creating a downloadable PDF version of the MediaWiki documentation, but it’s currently disabled. Sheesh.

Having gone crosseyed reading about it online, my conclusion is that MediaWiki is a bit of a hot mess. That said, I should tell you all why I even bothered: I want to create a wiki for my fiction, and especially about the Gaeans Saga, which includes the Metaspace books and the Drumlins books. I’ve done a little wiki editing, and have a couple of decent books on my shelf about creating content on Wikipedia. The trick to creating content on wikis is having a group of content templates and knowing how to use them. If you look at the page source for any Wikipedia article, the problem becomes obvious: The stuff is crawling with templates, and for the most part they’re templates that don’t come with the generic MediaWiki install.

I discovered this by opening an edit window for Wikipedia’s article on the star mu Arae, which in my Metaspace books is the location of Earth’s first colony. I loaded the whole wad onto the clipboard and dropped it into a new page on my MediaWiki instance. A few of the templates were present on MediaWiki. Most were not, and the article incorporated dozens. I went back and lifted the source for 47 Tucanae. Same deal.

Now, Wikipedia content is available under Creative Commons. Grabbing the articles is easy and legal. I soon found after googling around for awhile that grabbing the templates, while legal, is not easy. Some templates are actually contained in libraries written in…Lua. I have some sympathies for Lua, which strongly resembles Pascal. It made me wonder, however, why a formatting template needs to make calls into a code library. As best I know, this is something specific to Wikipedia, and is not present in the generic MediaWiki.

I like the overall look of Wikipedia. People are used to it. I’d like to incorporate that design into my own instance of MediaWiki. I wouldn’t need all the templates, though some would be damned useful. That said, I see no reason why some sharp MediaWiki hacker couldn’t gin up an installer for all of Wikipedia’s templates, no matter how many there are. Maybe such a thing already exists, though I think that if it did, I would have found it by now.

There are other projects needing my attention, so I’m going to set this one aside for awhile. Obviously, if anybody reading this knows where to find an installable collection of Wikipedia’s templates, give a yell.

Review: Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

ingathering.jpgSome years ago, my sister gave me a copy of the NESFA Press hardcover edition of Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, including a story timeline tying them together into a loose history. It came to me during a turbulent period of my life, and for some reason (Losing my publishing company? Moving to Colorado? Retirement? Moving back?) I never just sat down and read it. For that I apologize to her. I just finished it this afternoon. It was well worth the time and effort.

The stories are old; some were published the year I was born. (Zenna was born in 1917 and died in 1983.) I read many but not all of them before. I still have the MMPBs I bought in high school and college, and I’m glad I don’t have to read them again. My new reading glasses won’t be in for a week or two, and these old eyes just can’t process such small print by themselves anymore, quite apart from the fact that simply turning the now-yellowed pages would probably destroy the books.

If you’ve never heard of Henderson’s People, here’s the quick summary: In 1890, six starships full of the inhabitants of a planet they simply call The Home flee the planet, which is inexplicably disintegrating from no stated cause. One of these starships attempts a landing on Earth and miscalculates re-entry. An unstated number of People leave the big ship in lifeboats, and (some) land successfully in various places on Earth. The big ship crashes in (I think) the American West, still in 1890. The People Saga (my coinage) is about how the People struggle within a culture that treats them with suspicion and burns some as witches. For the People have what they call Signs and Persuasions, basically (to use that fine old ’50s term) psi powers. No complete catalog is given, but there are Sorters (intuitive psychiatrists), Motivers (telekinetics), Seers (prophets), Lifters (self-telekinetics), and a fair number of others, including one, called The Francher Kid, who can make musical instruments play themselves. All are telepathic. Over the years (the timeline runs from 1890 to 1970) the lifeboat refugees who survived the landing gradually find one another, and with greater or lesser success melt into human society.

The People are physically indistinguishable from us Earthlings, close enough to interbreed. Although not Christian, they worship a trinitarian God whom they call The Name, The Power, and The Presence. They are generous, kind, enthusiastic, helpful, and for the most part what Earthlings should be but aren’t. Friendship matters to them, and as you’ve heard me say many times, friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit.

The People stories have been criticized as mawkish, corny, sentimental, maudlin, and repetitive. Many are tear-jerkers. Nearly all are surprisingly moving, especially if you’ve purged the cowardice some call cynicism from your life. (I have.) I put the box of Kleenex that lives on my desk on the table next to my reading chair. Yes, I needed it. A few of them made me want to stand up and cheer. That’s one reason I read them all again, after almost fifty years. There are no downer endings. Every single one is upbeat and affirming. And boy, considering the shitshow we’re all still in the middle of, I needed that.

Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of one-room schoolhouse teachers in what is almost certainly Arizona, where Zenna Henderson was born, lived, wrote, and died. That’s what she was. Having been a teacher, she wrote from the heart about the very, very human business of learning. And not just numbers or words, but what’s right and what’s wrong, coming to know and growing into your own “magic powers,” how we are all very much in this together, and how together we can make it all work.

I’m still a little surprised that the only TV/cinema treatment of the People is a now mostly forgotten 1972 made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner and Kim Darby. (You can watch it on YouTube, if you can stand resolution that low.) I saw it in 1972 and enjoyed it. If anything deserves a 2021 reboot, The People Saga does.

I have a few reservations about the People Saga:

  • The People are just too damned perfect. Ok, there are a couple of stories showing members of the People acting selfishly, but for the most part, damn, if you need a hand they’ll fly half their settlement over to get you through a crisis.
  • Hard SF guy that I am, I wanted to know how they were so genetically identical to us that we could interbreed. Henderson shows no lack of imagination. It could be that some ancient godlike race scattered humans across the galaxy and let them grow into their powers. We chose machinery. The People chose…themselves. She could have given us a quick paragraph clarifying the matter.
  • Similarly, planets don’t just alluvasudden fall apart. There’s a whole well-known catalog of possible cosmic catastrophes. I wanted to know which one prompted the People’s star-crossed star crossing to Earth. Granted, that’s just me. Henderson provides some surreal hints that The People had forgotten too much about science and technology, and that The Power had to force them to remember what they’d lost, even if it meant scragging their planet and sending them across the galaxy to live among primitives who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • Is FTL one of their psi powers? Damn, if I could only have one, that’d be the one. But there’s no indication of how their starships trumped Einstein.
  • The stories get a little repetitive at times. This is what worries me about my own Drumlins Saga. I don’t want the stories to plow the same field over and over. On the flipside, even when she tells the same story for the seventh time, it’s still affirming and still makes me reach for the Kleenex. She knew what she was doing, and was damned good at it.

I grinned to see this in Zenna’s Wikipedia bio: She was buried in Benson, Arizona.

Anything else I might say would include spoilers. I loved the book, and will read it again if life ever gets a little too depressing. If you need a mood-lift and don’t mind reaching for the Kleenex when necessary, well, here it is. Highly recommended.

The Raspberry Pi Pico…and a Tiny Plug-In Pi

Yesterday the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the Raspberry Pi Pico, at the boggling temporary low price of…$4US. It’s definitely a microcontroller on the order of an Arduino rather than the high-end 8GB RPi that might stand in for a complete desktop mobo. And that’s ok by me. The chip at its heart is new: the RP2040, a single-chip microcontroller designed to interface with mainstream Raspberry Pi boards, and lots of other things.


Now, what caught my attention in the page linked above was the list of partner products made by other firms using the same RP2040 chip. Scroll down to the description of the SparkFun MicroMod RP2040 proccesor board. It’s still on preorder, but look close and see what’s there: an edge connector…on a board the size of a quarter! That’s not precisely what I was wishing for in my previous entry, but it’s certainly the right idea.


As I understand it, SparkFun is turning the RPi-wearing-a-hat on its ear, into a hat-wearing-an-RPi. The M.2 interface used in the product is actually a standard developed some years back for use in connecting SSDs to tiny slots on mobos. I knew about M.2, but wouldn’t have assumed you could mount a CPU-add-in board using it. Well, shazam! Done deal.

The RP2040 chip is a little sparse for my tastes. I want something I can run FreePascal/Lazarus on, over a real OS. I don’t see anything in the M.2 spec that would prevent a much more powerful processor board talking to a device (like a keyboard, TV or monitor) across M.2. The big problem with building a high-end RPi into things is keeeping it cool. The Foundation is aware of this, and did a very good job in the $100US Raspberry Pi 400 Pi-in-a-keyboard. (This teardown and review is worth a look if you’re interested in the platform at all. The author of the teardown goosed the board to 2.147 GHz and it didn’t cook itself.)

I fully intend to get an RPi 400, though I’ve been waiting awhile to see if there will soon be an RPi 800 keyboard combo with an 8GB board instead of 4GB. Given the price, well hell, I might as well get the 4GB unit until an 8GB unit appears.

So consider my previous post overruled. It’s already been done. And I for one am going to watch this part of the RPi aftermarket very carefully!

Proposal: A New Standard for Encloseable Small Computers

Monitors are getting big. Computers are getting small. I think I’ve mentioned this idea before: a cavity in a monitor big enough to hold a Raspberry Pi, with the monitor providing power, video display, and a couple of USB ports for connecting peripherals like mice, keyboards, and thumb drives. Several of my Dell monitors have a coaxial power jack intended for speaker bars, and a USB hub as well. I’ve opened up a couple of those monitors to replace bad electrolytics, and as with most computer hardware, a lot of that internal volume is dead space.

The idea of a display with an internal computer has long been realized in TVs, many of which come with Android computers inside. That said, I’ve found them more a nuisance than useful, especially since I can’t inspect and don’t control the software. These days I outsource TV computing to a Windows 10 Intel NUC sitting on the TV cabinet behind the TV.

The top model of the Raspberry Pi 4, with 8 GB RAM, is basically as powerful as a lot of intermediate desktops, with more than enough crunch for typical office work; Web, word processing, spreadsheets, etc. With the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) and its suite of open-source applications, you’ve got a desktop PC. More recently, the company has released the Raspberry Pi 400, which is a custom 4GB RPi 4 built into a keyboard, with I/O brought out the back edge. (In truth, I’d rather have it built into a display, as I am extremely fussy about my keyboards.) Computers within keyboards have a long history, going back to (I think) the now-forgotten Sol-20 or perhaps the Exidy Sorcerer. (Both appeared in 1978.)

What I want is breadth, which means the ability to install any of the modern small single-board computers, like the Beaglebone and its many peers. Breadth requires standardization, both in the monitor and in the computer. And if a standard existed, it could be implemented in monitors, keyboards, printers, standalone cases, robot chassis, and anything else that might be useful with a tiny computer in its tummy.

A standard would require both physical and electrical elements. Electrical design would be necessary to bring video, networking, and USB outside the enclosure, whatever the enclosure is. (I reject the bottom-feeder option of just leaving a hole in the back of the enclosure to bring out conventional cables.) This means the boards themselves would have to be designed to mate with the enclosure. What I’m envisioning is something with a card slot in it, and a slot spec for video, network, i2s, and USB connections. (GPIO might not be available through the slot.) The boards themselves would have slot connectors along one edge, designed to the standard. The redesigned boards could be smaller and thinner (and cheaper) without the need for conventional video, network, audio, and USB jacks. (Network connectors are increasingly unnecessary now that many boards have on-board WiFi and Bluetooth antennas.) Picture something like the Raspberry Pi Zero with edge connectors for I/O.

Defining such a standard would be a minor exercise in electrical engineering. The big challenge would be getting a standards body like ANSI interested in adopting it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has the engineering chops, obviously, and once a standard has been created and proven out, groups like IEEE or ANSI might be more inclined to adopt it and make it “official.”

I understand that this might “fork” the small-board computing market between GPIO boards and non-GPIO boards. Leaving the GPIO pads on the opposite edge of the board is of course possible, and would allow the board to be enclosed or out in the open, or inside some other sort of enclosure that leaves room for GPIO connections. A big part of the draw of the small boards is the ability to add hardware functionality in a “hat” that plugs into the GPIO bus, and I don’t want to minimize that. I think that there’s a market for non-GPIO boards that vanish inside some larger device or enclosure that provides jacks for connections to the outside world. The Raspberry Pi 400 is an excellent example of this, with GPIO header access as well. What I’m proposing is a standard that would allow a single enclosure device to be available to any board designed to the standard.

Ok, it would be hard–for small values of hard. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be well worth doing.

The Question That Nobody’s Asking

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, and I need to stop before I wear through my scalp. (My natural armor has been mostly gone for thirty-five years.) It’s a natural, nay obvious question, which I’m putting in bold and giving its own paragraph:

If masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, where did the current explosion of cases and deaths come from?

Take a look at the screenshot below. This is from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ COVID-19 dashboard. The graph is deaths by date of death for the entire state of Arizona. The curve starts heading toward the sky during the last week in October.

AZCovidDeathsGraph-500 wide.png

Maricopa County, where we live, issued a mask mandate on June 19, 2020. That was right about when the first near-vertical slope in the graph began. It took a few weeks for the mandate to catch on, but by August 1, it was pretty much universal. That’s about when the curve started to fall. There was a certain amount of crowing that the mask mandate had brought the pandemic under control in the state.

Then the end of October happened.

Now, I’ve been watching not only whether people are wearing masks in retail outlets and offices (they are) but also what kinds of masks and how they’re being worn. Over time, the masks are getting better. I’m actually seeing KN95 masks with some frequency, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen a useless “train robber” bandana mask anywhere. Mask adherence in the state is at 90%, which aligns with what I’ve seen, if perhaps on the low side. That’s a mighty high rate.

So again, my question: With mask adherence at 90%, why is the curve still so high? Note that the graph is of the days deaths happen, not when they are reported. Death reports are not all received by the state on the days deaths happen, and reports from rural areas can take a week or more to get to AzDHS. What looks like a falling curve at the right edge of the graph may simply be due to lag time in reporting.

There is certainly some inflation of death counts due to the problem of “with COVID but not of COVID.” Some. I don’t think that kind of confusion can cause the numbers we’re seeing here. And it’s inevitable that a certain amount of fraud happens; I’ve seen the news stories describing gunshot suicides, car accidents, and victims of alcohol poisoning described as COVID-19 deaths–some without a positive test for the virus. However, if there had been enough fraud to cause this explosion in deaths, somebody somewhere would have said something.

Wouldn’t they?

Ok. Although I’m open to other theories, I think it’s significant that something happened in the last week of October: Arizona temperatures crashed hard. We had a long, lingering summer here. Mid-October was still giving us 90+ degree days. That went down into the 60s and 70s in a big hurry.

It’s long been known that viral respiratory diseases become much more prevalent in cold weather. Why this should happen isn’t known with certainty. One theory is that influenza and corona viruses have a coating that becomes more rugged in colder temps, giving the virus a longer survival time in air and even in sun. Dry weather favors viruses for reasons that, again, are far from clear.

Well, in Arizona we have dry weather in spades, year-round. Cold, not so much. In fact, a typical winter’s day here is probably about the same temp as a typical summer’s day in North Dakota. Given the uncertainty about what causes viruses to infect more readily in winter, could it be a conjunction of cooler (than usual) temps and extreme dryness? Or (and I like this one better) is there something about the effect of a fall in temperatures (the delta, not the absolute temps) on the human body that gives the virus free rein?

That’s the only theory I have that I haven’t already shot down. It wasn’t Thanksgiving gatherings; the curve took off close to a month before Thanksgiving. And for all that, I consider it pretty thin gruel. It’s dry here probably 340 days a year. It’s even drier in summer than winter.

The theory that people spend more time indoors than outdoors in winter doesn’t apply in Arizona. The reverse is largely the case: When it’s 110 degrees outside, most people stay indoors, or maybe stand up to their necks in the pool. Winter is when people jog, bike, hike, and work outdoors, getting lots of fresh air and plenty of sun (and thus crucial Vitamin D) on their faces, arms, and legs.

Again, where the hell did that near-vertical runup in deaths come from?

I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from: People ditching their masks. The fact that mask compliance is at 90+% during an explosion in COVID-19 deaths screams out something a lot of people don’t want to hear: Masks don’t prevent infection. If they did, the increase would have been a lot more gradual, and probably a lot lower in magnitude.

Let me put it in short, simple words: Masks have been sold as a means of stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They’ve been sold hard. Mask skeptics get called a whole lot of dirty words, even though we wear masks as a courtesy to the rule of law. Faced with a graph like the one the State of Arizona itself puts out, what are we supposed to think?

The graph says something else, perhaps a little more quietly: There are no COVID-19 experts. We still have very little understanding of how this thing spreads and (especially) why it hits some people so devastatingly hard, and others barely at all. When our (often self-appointed) experts told us to put on masks, we put on masks. And then the graph went through the roof.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. Why two peaks instead of one? What had been going on between the end of July and the end of September? Were we doing something right? If so, what? And what did we start doing wrong in late October?

Nobody knows. Read that again: Nobody knows.

If I figure it out, you’ll read about it here.

Just-So Stories

Here come the just-so stories. I ran into one some weeks ago that reminded me of the category. Most people think of Just-So stories as fables about animals, as Kipling wrote, especially fables about animal origins; e.g., how the leopard got his spots.

But that’s mostly because of Kipling. Wiktionary’s definition of a just-so story is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.” In most cases that’s true. In broader and more modern terms, a just-so story is an urban legend with a moral admonishing people to obey some stated principle or face the (scary) consequences. You’ve all probably seen your share, though you probably didn’t think of them as “just-so stories.” Still, that’s what they are.

Here’s the story I heard: A woman described having some unstated number of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was held outside, in Arizona. Some (unstated number) wore masks. The 13 others did not. The people who wore masks did not catch SARS-CoV-2. All the rest did.

I assume she thought she was doing a public service by frightening people into wearing masks all the time, everywhere. I don’t think she was ready for the response she got: People called her a fake, a yarn-spinner…a liar. The reason is fairly simple: The story is too pat. All the people who refused to wear masks got sick. None of the people who did wear masks got sick. And this was during a dinner held outdoors.

Is this possible? Of course. Is it likely? No, if you know anything at all about COVID-19. Was the dinner indoors? No. Were the dinner guests all older people? No. (The older people wore masks.) Young people may test positive for the virus, but they rarely show symptoms and almost never become seriously ill. And with even the slightest breeze, exhaled viruses are dispersed in seconds.

Yet, it was…just so. Medical privacy laws make such stories conveniently unverifiable.

I don’t want to pile on her too hard here, and thus won’t post a link. (I also don’t want to give her any more exposure than she’s already gotten.) The point I’m making is that urban legends are still very much with us, and unverifiable stories should be treated as such: useless at best and misleading at worst. The best way to fight urban legends is not to spread them. The second-best way is to (politely) state in the comments (if there is a comments section) that the story is an urban legend and not be trusted. The story may well have been “just so” in the teller’s imagination. In the real world, well…probably not.

Odd Lots