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New Revision of FreePascal from Square One Is Now Up

I just uploaded a new, corrected and expanded PDF ebook edition of FreePascal from Square One to my website. It’s free, and (remarkably) it’s closing in on completion. It’s laid out for the A4 paper size, largely because there’s so much Pascal activity outside the US. You can read it on a screen, or else print it to paper to put in a binder. It’s currently at 294 pages, and when complete I hope to keep it under 325 pages, since that’s a whole lot of paper to print, punch, and bind.

Still to be covered are the standard string functions, locality and scope, and simple file/printer I/O. That’s not a lot of material, and some of it has already been rewritten and edited.

For those who haven’t heard of it before, let me describe the project: I’ve taken my 1993 book Borland Pascal 7 from Square One and heavily rewritten parts of it for FreePascal. Borland Pascal 7 from Square One was the fourth and last edition of my very first technical book, Complete Turbo Pascal, published in May, 1985. That title, by the way, was forced on me by the (now extinct) publisher. Its original manuscript title was Turbo Pascal from Square One. The four editions taken together were in print for almost ten years and sold about 125,000 copies back in the 80s and early 90s.

The book’s mission is to be what Assembly Language Step By Step is to assembly language: An absolute beginner’s tutorial on programming in Pascal. This includes people who have not yet learned what programming is and have never written a line of code in their lives. I start by explaining the ideas of programming, and move from there to Pascal. FreePascal is my compiler of choice, largely because it’s free, but even more because it comes with the Lazarus IDE, which contains a superb GUI builder very similar to the one present in Delphi. FreePascal from Square One doesn’t cover Lazarus beyond installing it and using the code editor. Specifically, it doesn’t cover the GUI builder or Windows programming generally. The example programs all run in the console window.

More than half of the original book explains things that no longer apply: DOS programming, overlays, the Borland Graphics Interface, tinkering the interrupt vector table, and so on. All of that is gone. I’ve made a decision to stop just before OOP, and will begin a Lazarus book with a thorough explanation of OOP and software components. I’m also leaving out pointers, since the topic is heavily intertwingled (to use a wonderful Ted Nelsonism) with OOP.

I intend to keep writing books of new material about Lazarus as time allows, and will sell them as PDF ebooks and spiral-bound POD paperbacks. No timetable; I’m trying to write SFF novels mostly, and will work on Lazarus projects as time allows. We’ve spent the last couple of years working on our Scottsdale house, but that’s largely finished, and I expect a lot more free time in the next few years. So stay tuned. I may do one more “unfinished” upload, but after that I expect to put the wraps on it.

Odd Lots

  • Twitter has gone absolutely off its rocker since Parkland, and now it’s just haters hating anyone who disagrees with them. (No, that’s not new; it’s just never been this bad.) I stumbled across a site called Kialo, which is a kind of digital debate club, in which issues are proposed and then discussed in a sane and (hurray!) non-emotional manner. I myself certainly don’t need another time-sink, but I wanted to bring it to the attention of anyone who enjoys (increasingly rare) reasoned debate.
  • Another interesting approach to political social media is Ricochet, a center-right bloggish system with paid membership required to comment. (You can read it without joining.) No Russian bots, or in fact bots of any kind, and a startling courtesy prevails in the comments. Its Editor in Chief is Jon Gabriel, who used to work for us at Coriolis twenty years ago. Not expensive, and the quality of the posts is remarkable.
  • FreePascal actually has an exponentiation operator: ** That was what FORTRAN (my first language) used, and I’ve never understood why Pascal didn’t have an operator for exponentiation. Better late than never.
  • This article doesn’t quite gel in some respects, but it’s as good an attempt as I’ve seen to explain why Xerox never really made much money on the startling computer concepts it originated back in the crazy years of the ’70s. I worked there at the time, and top-down management was responsible for a lot of it, as well as top management that wasn’t computer literate and thought of everything simply as products to be sold.
  • Japanese scientists found that treating the hair follicles of bald mice with dimethylpolysiloxane grew new hair. Dimethylpolysiloxane is used to keep McDonalds’ deep fryers from boiling over, and given that Mickey D’s fries are one of my favorite guilty pleasures, I suspect I’ve ingested a fair bit of the unprounceable stuff. No hair yet, though I keep looking in the mirror.
  • German scientists, lacking a reliable supply of bald mice, have discovered a species of bacteria that not only enjoys living in solutions of heavy metal compounds, but actually poops gold nuggets. How about one that poops ytterbium? I still don’t have any ytterbium.
  • Eat more protein and lift more weights if you’re a guy over 40. Carbs are no food for old men.
  • Evidence continues to accumulate connecting sugar consumption to Alzheimer’s. Keep that blood sugar down, gang. I want to be able to BS with you all well into my 90s. Try cheese as snacks. It’s as addictive as crack(ers.)
  • If in fact you like cheese on crack(ers), definitely look around for St. Agur double-cream blue cheese. 60% butterfat. Yum cubed. A little goes a long way, which is good, because it keeps you from eating too many crack(ers.)
  • And don’t fret the fat. The Lancet has published a study following 135,000 people, and the findings indicate that there is no connection between dietary fat and heart disease. Ancel Keys was a fraud. Ancel Keys was the worst fraud in the history of medical science. How many times do we have to say it?
  • 37,132 words down on Dreamhealer. It’s now my longest unfinished novel since college. (It just passed Old Catholics, which may or may not ever be finished.) Target for completion is 70,000 words by May 1. We’ll see.
  • On March 17th, it will be 60 years since Vanguard 1 made Earth orbit as our 2nd artificial satellite. Probably because it’s so small (a 6″ sphere, not counting antennae) it is now the satellite that’s been in orbit the longest, including those the Russians launched. The early Sputniks & Explorers have all burned up in the atmosphere.
  • I never knew that the parish church of my youth was Mid-Century Modern, but squinting a little I would say, Well, ok. Here’s a nice short visual tour of the church where I was an altar boy and confirmed and learned to sing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” It hasn’t aged as well as some churches (note the rusty sign) but some of the art remains startling. I met Carol in the basement of that church in 1969, and will always recall it fondly for that reason alone.
  • Ever hear of Transnistria? Neither had I. It’s a strip of Moldova that would like to be its own country, (and has been trying since 1924) but just can’t get the rest of the world to agree. It has its own currency, standing army, and half a million citizens. (I’ll bet it has its own postage stamps, though why I didn’t notice them when I was 11 is unclear.)
  • A guy spent most of a year gluing together a highly flammable model of a musk melon (or a green Death Star, if you will) from wooden matches, and then lit it off. He even drew a computer model, which needed more memory to render than his system had. Despite the bankrupt politics, we live in a wonderful era!

LED Strips for Workshop Lighting

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We replaced nearly all of the incadescent bulbs in the house with LED bulbs shortly after we bought it in late summer 2015. That came to 27 60W bulbs and ten or twelve 75W floods for ceiling can lights. You can’t get incandescent bulbs in the commoner sizes anymore, and the power savings is considerable. LED bulbs have come a long way in the last few years, and the “softer” light quality levels (3000K and below, most of which were 2700K for us) approximate incandescent light close enough for what we do.

There are a couple of issues with LED bulbs. We bought Feit bulbs in bulk when we re-bulbed all the ceiling fan lights. Two years on, and the Feit bulbs are dropping like flies. I have nine dead but intact Feit 60-watters on my workbench, and two more that I dismantled to see what’s in them. What’s in them isn’t much: A voltage doubler/rectifier board that converts 117VAC to 236 VDC. There’s a disk holding nine LEDs, with two wires down to the power supply. The photo above shows what it looks like when you hacksaw the plastic globe off a Feit 60W equivalent LED bulb. It’s unclear to me whether the nine LEDs are single diodes or blocks of several fabricated together. It seems like a stretch to put 26 volts on a single LED and not see it emit plastic instead of light.

I’ve been taking bulbs apart to try and see why the Feit bulbs die so young. I’ve pulled two apart: One had a bad power supply. The other had a bad wafer. The wafer, however, was intermittent: Tap it with a screwdriver and it flickers, and sometimes comes up to full brightness. The dead power supply was just dead, without any indication of why. It stayed dead when tapped, unlike the intermittent wafer. Cheap crappy manufacturing, I’d guess. This is one Feit I will gladly walk away from.

LED lighting is problematic in ham radio work because of the broadband noise generated by the bulb power supplies. Fluorescent tubes have the same general problem. My notion is to create a separate lighting system in my workshop/ham station using LED lamps run straight-on at 12VDC. I had hoped that the wafers ran at 12VDC or 24VDC, so that I could harvest them from bulbs with failed power supplies. Not an option.

So I started sniffing around to see what sort of lamps are available for 12VDC. I bought a couple at a hamfest to play around with, and talked to the techs at a lighting store up in Kierland. They had an interesting display: Assemble-it-yourself LED strip lights. These consist of an anodized aluminum U-channel, with a self-adhesive strip of LEDs stuck to the bottom of the channel, with a linear plastic lens that snaps into the U-channel. The LED strips take 12VDC, and use 2.88W per foot.

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The LED tape strips come on a reel, with 16.4 feet on the reel and 3 LEDs per inch. The reel isn’t cheap; I paid $235 for it, and that’s about what they go for on Amazon. What I did was buy an 8′ section of channel/lens and put down just under 8′ of LED strip. The strips have clearly marked points every inch where you can cut them with an ordinary scissors, leaving solder pads on each side of the cut.

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The strip comes with a .215″ female barrel connector on the end of 6′ of 2-conductor cord. But again, there are solder pads every inch, so you can wire them to a power source any way you want to. What I did (at least for testing) is dig around in my Big Box o’ Wall Warts and found a Dell APAC-1 power supply, which came with a Dell matrix printer someone gave me ten or twelve years ago. It’s labeled for 12VDC @ 2A, and the strip draws 1.92A, so the supply is working pretty hard. (It squeals, way up there where Carol can hear it and I can’t.)

What I did with the strip is mount the four clips that came with the U-channel under the front edge of the first shelf above my workbench, and then clipped the U-channel to the shelf. The lower surface of the shelf is 11″ above the bench, so I’d have to do some bending and stooping to actually see the LEDs. And the intensity of the light is marvelous, shining down right where I do the sort of close work that electronics requires, which these days is real damned close.

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Because the light comes from a strip of 288 LEDs, there are basically no shadows anywhere under the strip, unless you completely block the light. This means that you can work in good light without worrying as much about your hands casting shadows on what you’re doing. It’s almost like the project photos in old QSTs, where all parts of a complicated hand-wired chassis are completely illuminated. The photo below is of a high-voltage power supply placed on the bench beneath the LED strip, and is literally what you’d see were you sitting at the bench poking at the supply.

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This was only a first step. The strip won’t be powered by the APAC-1 long-term. I have a 30A 12VDC supply that I built out of an old minicomputer power supply somebody gave me. That will be the power source for all the lighting in my workshop/shack once the whole system is complete. I’m looking into overhead lighting now, and may simply use the remaining 8′ of LED strip on the reel with a white diffuser lens, clipped to the drywall ceiling.

Ultimately I want to work up a solar panel system on the roof of the garage, charging a 12V battery of some sort to supply lights and radios. The landscapers are going to auger a hole next to the shack for an engineered ground system tomorrow morning, so I have other work to do before I get on the air. It was a fun project, and will make working on projects a great deal easier. Good light is not optional!

A Tall Tree in a Tight Spot

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We had the big sumac tree by the front door cut down this morning. “Big” is no exaggeration, either: It was forty feet high, and two feet thick at the ground. (Look carefully and see Carol standing behind it.) It was a bad place for a tree that size, for several reasons. It was messy, and dropped seeds and leaves almost continuously between April and August. That was annoying, but what worried me was triggered by what happened to the guy right next door to the east of us: He had a biggish (but not even that big) mesquite tree snap in half in a windstorm and destroy the pergola over his back patio. I looked at the sumac and calculated what would happen if it lost structural integrity in any direction. If it fell to the west (toward me in the photo) well, ok. Any other direction, and it would take out one or both of two gates, part of our block wall, some or most of the guest room, and some or most of the front entrance, including our stained-glass encrusted front door.

That was a thick tree, probably as old as the original house, which is now 52 years. Some parts of the two main trunks were well over a foot thick, up higher than our roof line. I agonized over the decision, because it was a healthy tree that looked solid as a rock. But it was too close to the house, and even closer to the front gate. So we had a landscape company we knew and trusted come out and take it down. We also had them take down a much smaller mulberry tree that was not healthy. “Not healthy” is putting it mildly. See the photo of the mulberry’s main trunk, below.

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Well, that had certainly been the right call.

The mulberry was quick; they had it down in twenty minutes. The sumac took the rest of the morning. The crew knew very well what was at stake, so it probably took more time than it might have, had it been growing in the middle of the back yard. It came down a chunk at a time, with each chunk tied on a stout rope and steered expertly down to terra firma. Some of the chunks were impressive.

Down, down, down. Then: Six or seven feet above the base of the trunk, the cross-section started to change. Take a look:

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Egad. The damned thing was hollower than the sickly mulberry. After I took this shot, I dug into the chocolate-colored stuff surrounding the void and tore huge chunks out with my fingernails. There were probably three inches of actual wood–sometimes less–forming a 15″ trunk. I wanted to yell into the hole: “Hey, any elves in there? The chipper’s at the curb. Last chance to come out, guys. Bring cookies.”

Any regrets we had taking down the tree vanished the instant we saw this. Sure, there was solid wood all the way around. But consider the lever-arm torque on the tree trunk if a really bad west wind hit the tree’s canopy. Crunch! We could have been out our front entranceway.

There’s a downside to losing that tree: It provided considerable shade to the house in the worst of the summer. My electric bills are probably going to go up.

The major lesson in all this is that we assume trees are immortal, but they’re not. Trees live for some period of time, and then they die. The typical lifespan of a sumac like ours is 30-50 years. We were already past that. The rot at its core was nothing worse than old age. I remember when I was a kid, and the cottonwood trees in the parkway on Clarence Avenue all started to die at once. The city had planted them, six to a block on both sides of the streets, when they platted the neighborhood in 1929. But once the market crashed, nobody wanted to build homes there until the last of the 1940s, when the trees were already twenty years old. By 1960, the cottonwoods were over thirty years old, which is pretty much end-of-life for that species of tree. Just about every one was hollow enough to hold a whole bakery’s worth of elves, including a few really fat ones. My sister remembers that one of them on another street fell on a house and did some serious damage, and since the parkways belonged to the city, wham! Hundreds of cottonwoods vanished in a couple of years.

A postscript: Our cottonwood was the last one on the street to go. When we saw the logs stacked up, we realized that it was solid to the core. So trees have bell curves too. Bummer.

Anyway. We have plenty of other trees, none of them (thankfully) quite that close to the house. We have a gorgeous Aleppo pine in the front yard, outside the wall, that may exceed fifty feet high. Google tells me Aleppo pines typically live for 150 years. If I ever feel the need to hug a tree, well, I’m going with that one.

Tuesday Night’s Super Blue Blood Lunar Eclipse

Very late Tuesday night (in fact, just before dawn on Wednesday morning) we’re going to have us a super blue blood lunar eclipse. If that sounds peculiar, it’s because it is–and rare. The last one, in fact, happened in 1866. The key facts about the eclipse are these:

  • It’s a “blue moon” eclipse. A blue moon isn’t about color; it’s about having more than one full moon within a single month. This happens…once in a blue moon. Most months are several days longer than the Moon’s 29.5-day run around the Earth, so if you get a full Moon in the first couple of days of a month (February being the usual exception) you’ll also get a full Moon in the last few days of the months. This second full Moon in one month is a blue Moon.
  • It’s (almost) a supermoon eclipse. A day before the eclipse, the Moon will be at perigee in its orbit; that is, at its closest approach to Earth. This is called a “supermoon.” Although the eclipse occurs a day after lunar perigee, most people say, wotthehell, and call it a supermoon eclipse.
  • There’s nothing particularly bloody about this lunar eclipse, compared to other lunar eclipses. (Because the Moon will be close to perigee, the eclipsed Moon will appear larger in the sky.) The Moon will be in Earth’s shadow, and the Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light that passes through the atmosphere, with blue wavelengths scattered more than red wavelengths. This is why most lunar eclipses leave the Moon looking brown or orange. Much depends on how clear and steady the Earth’s atmosphere is at the time of the eclipse. A very occasional eclipse occurs when the atmosphere is unusually calm and clean; such eclipses are very dark, and the Moon almost black. There’s really no reliable way to predict the color of the Earth’s shadow before the eclipse actually happens.
  • Alas for Americans, this eclipse will occur while the Moon is setting, just before dawn on 1/31. If you’re on the west coast, you’ll see almost all of it. If you’re on the east coast, you’ll see relatively little. The best view (and this is sheer chance) is over the central Pacific. Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, eastern China, and (most of) Australia are the places to be. Western Europe, most of Africa, and most of South America are pretty much out of luck.

So. When precisely will the eclipse occur? That depends completely on where you are. Your best bet is to look at the eclipse page, which has a feature that will display local times for the eclipse if you search on a particular city. Look for the search box, titled “Find Eclipses in Your City,” in the right-hand margin of the page. Most cities of reasonable size will be there. If your town is too small for the search box, search for the closest larger town until you find one.

Here’s an example, for Scottsdale AZ. You’ll get local time for the eclipse begin, end, and maximum. The summary below the umbra/penumbra animation will tell you if a particular phase of the eclipse is visible at your location. In Scottsdale, approximately the last 90 minutes occur after the Moon sets, and thus can’t be seen. In Colorado Springs, the last two hours of the eclipse occur after moonset. Make sure you run the animation, which will give you a very clear picture of how the Moon’s disk crosses the umbra and penumbra of the Earth’s shadow.

Carol and I generally wake up at six or a little after, so we’ll either get up half an hour earlier than usual (no big trick for us larks) or just miss the first few minutes of totality. Now, for the owls in my audience, the better path may be to wait until January 21, 2019. That won’t be a supermoon, nor a blue moon, but eclipse visibility will be almost centered over North and South America, which means that anybody in the US will be able to see it in its entirety.

In truth, total lunar eclipses are common (the Moon is small, and the Earth is big) and in my life I’ve seen dozens. I need to emphasize that Wednesday’s eclipse is remarkable not for how it will look but for its flukes of orbital dynamics that coincide only rarely.

Still, lunar eclipses, irrespective of their orbital dynamics, are celebrations of the beautiful and extravagant universe we live in. Take a look, especially if you’ve never seen one before. Compared to a total solar eclipse, it’s long, slow, and almost meditative. Seeing it in a photo or on TV just doesn’t do it justice. Go out there and use your own eyes. You won’t regret it!

Smuggling Willie Home from the War

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Yesterday would have been my father’s 96th birthday, except that he died forty years ago last Tuesday. I posted a brief item on Facebook about him yesterday, in which I promised an excerpt from my memoirs about how my father smuggled a half-grown mongrel puppy home from the radio/radar base in Mali where he served out the last eighteen months of WWII. The photo above was taken shortly after his return from the War in October, 1945.

As most of my readers here now know, my father was a 5′ 6″ bundle of cussedness and raw muscle. He took a lot of crazy chances and rarely got caught. When he did get caught (as he did when he ran away from home to join the Army when he was an underage 16) the consequences were minor, although he doubtless caught hell from his father. When his father ordered him to break it off with the south-side Polock girl he was dating, Frank W. Duntemann laid it out for my grandfather, who was a big wheel at the First National Bank of Chicago: “Pops, I’m going to marry Victoria, and I’m going to Georgia Tech on the GI bill and become an engineer. I will not become an accountant and spend the rest of my life counting other people’s money. If you want me to come back from Georgia–and if you want to see your grandchildren–you’d better get with the program.”

Harry Duntemann, perhaps sensing that he was reaping in his only son what he had sowed, blinked. And so Frank did come back an engineer, he did marry Victoria, and my sister and I happened. (Alas, Harry died just two months before my sister, his only granddaughter, was born.) I inherited my father’s skill at writing (we found his love letters to my mother after she passed away in 2000; the man was good) but I got little of his muscle and less of his cussedness. That’s ok; I feel that I got the best of what both my parents had to offer. I’m proud of his adventures. As they say, That’s my old man!

The text below is from my memoirs, Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss:

With the war over, my dad knew his days at the weather station in Africa were numbered. He had gotten pretty attached to Willie, and was determined to get him back to Chicago somehow. Come October 1, the date was announced: On 10-7-1945 he was going home.

Willie came along.

As the story was told at our house, my dad asked for some sleeping pills, which were given liberally when requested. The morning the planes arrived for his group, he took Willie around for one last chance to squirt his ancestral haunts. Then he gave the poor dog a couple of the pills. It wasn’t a shot in the dark on the dose; my father had a scientific turn of mind and he had already run the experiment. Willie had responded as expected. One pill made him wobbly. Two knocked him out pretty cold. Frank wrapped him in a towel and stuffed him in his barracks bag. He then queued up with his comrades to board the C-47s (the military version of the famous DC-3) for home.

It was a long flight. I have a note among the many sent me by Aunt Kathleen saying that the first leg of the flight was from Mauritania in Africa to South America. I imagine, knowing what I do about the C-47, that it wasn’t nonstop. The aircraft probably landed for refueling in the Cape Verde islands, though where it stopped in South America has been lost to history. (I asked Aunt Kathleen and she didn’t know.)

I got the impression that the trip back wasn’t as focused and orderly as the trip overseas in 1942, which my father made on a ship. The planes were packed with sweaty GIs and their barracks bags. Canned rations were handed out liberally. I have no idea what sort of sanitary facilities that kind of plane had. My guess is that between the GIs, the bathrooms, the rations, and the general racket of military planes, Willie was barely noticed, and may have been a welcome distraction. Dogs are good that way.

The C-47 cruised at about 200 MPH, and stopped frequently to refuel. I’m guessing that Willie got water and K-rations on the trip, and potty breaks when the GIs were allowed to deplane and stretch their legs. Supposedly, on the last segment of the flight, my dad ran out of sleeping pills, and Willie arrived on American soil grouchy and fully awake.

Whatever base acted as the entrance portal (we have nothing firm on this, though I vaguely recall South Carolina mentioned) when the C-47 landed, the GIs got out and queued up for processing from military to civilian transportation. My dad noticed that everyone’s barracks bags were being searched for contraband.


What to do, what to do… There was a chain-link fence at the edge of the airfield, and the bored GIs were talking to a number of local girls who had come out to watch the planes-and the returning troops. My dad struck up a conversation with one of the girls, and asked her to move down the fence a little where they were less likely to be seen or heard. He asked the girl for an important favor, and stuck a dollar through the fence. I’ll bet she told the story as often in her later life as my dad told it in his: He tossed the squirming dog over the top of the chain-link fence, and she caught him on the fly. (Willie was small, not yet full-grown, at least part Dachshund, and did the girl the favor of not sinking his teeth into her.) My dad then got back in line, and she met him when he got through the checkpoint. As with a number of other crazy things my father did as a young man, he got away with it.

You’d think he would have gotten the girl’s name and address or kept in touch with her, but no: She kept the dollar, and my dad, with Willie in his barracks bag again, hopped a train for Chicago. They got home on 10-10-1945. Willie lived to the ripe old age of 17, and I knew him as a young boy.

I can’t imagine that the authorities who were mustering the soldiers out hadn’t thought of GIs throwing contraband over the fence. Fortunately for all concerned, I suspect they were interested more in weapons (or perhaps drugs) than dogs. And considering the number of Boomer friends of mine whose fathers brought home all sorts of small arms (and even rifles in some cases) I suspect the inspection point was a matter of policy, tempered or even mooted by the now-incomprehensible feeling of national relief that the War was at last over. Perhaps my father should not have worried:

“A dog? Super! Welcome home, Corporal, and welcome to America, Fido!”

Odd Lots

  • I regret to report that Robert Bruce Thompson has left us, at age 64, of heart problems. He’s best-known for his books PC Hardware in a Nutshell and Building the Perfect PC, but he’s also written several books on astronomy and telescopes that I much admire, as well as several books on home-lab chemistry. He was one of the best technical writers of his generation, and has been blogging as long as I have, which later this year will have been 20 years.
  • Apple will be releasing the source code for the Lisa OS this year. The machine came out in 1983 and didn’t sell well due to its $10,000 price tag. (That would be almost $25,000 today.) I’m interested because Lisa OS was written in…Pascal! I’ve heard rumors from the FreePascal community that a port to the Raspberry Pi is likely and might not even be especially difficult. Imagine the OS from a $25,000 machine running on a computer costing $35. I’d do that just to say I did.
  • I didn’t know anything about ArcaOS until a few days ago, but it’s basically a continuation of OS/2 Warp, based on Warp 4, MCP2. Legal, not free, but also not hideously expensive, and supported to boot. If you ever used OS/2 and liked it, take a look.
  • Back before we truly understood the dangers of nuclear radiation, scientists experimented with nuclear fission by moving neutron reflectors around a softball-sized core of PU-239 by hand, and recording the nuclear reaction’s strength from Geiger counter readings. This was called “tickling the dragon’s tail,” and when done clumsily, led to the death of several researchers and shortened the lives of others. Here’s a good summary.
  • The last house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright before his death in 1959 is in Phoenix, and it’s for sale. Got $3.25M in your wallet? You’re set! (Thanks to my own Carol for the link.)
  • Here’s an excellent long-form piece on Amazon Go, the online retail behemoth’s experiment in checkout-free B&M retailing. Take if off the shelf, toss it in your bag, and when you’re done shopping, just leave. You need an Amazon account and ideally a smartphone, but with that you’re in business. No word on when the concept will move beyond Seattle.
  • The Dark Crystal is coming back to movie theaters in February. That was a butt-kickin’ movie, and I will probably hand over the $14 ticket price without a great deal of grumbling. A really big screen is worth something!
  • IO9 mentioned some teasers for Cloverfield III. III? Was there a Cloverfield II? You guys never tell me anything!
  • A Canadian sniper team in the Middle East nailed an ISIS terrorist at 3,871 yards. This is about 1,000 yards farther than the previous record for a sniper kill. I have a lot of respect for marksmen (my father was one) and a sense of awe before the skill of snipers at this level.
  • Every time I crank up Waterfox, it asks me if I’d like it to be my default browser. Every damned time. Something appears to be redefining my default browser without my permission. This support page hasn’t been especially helpful. Haven’t cracked this one yet, but I’ll report here when I do.
  • Something the AGW crowd should keep in mind: If you say that any hot summer’s day means global warming, don’t be surprised if people unroll the syllogism and assume that any cold winter’s day means global cooling. Climate isn’t simple, and we know a lot less about it than we claim.

Rant: Long Weeks and Short Ribs

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It’s good to keep on learning new things, no matter how old you are. I learned something new over the recent holidays: You can break a rib coughing. The good news is that although I did run the experiment, the results were inconclusive.


It may have been a near thing; my cousin Dolores told me she “popped a rib” years ago while fighting bronchitis, and it was nasty. Another online friend said basically the same thing. And my workout friend Joe told me that a dump truck T-boned his convertible back in 2001 and broke four ribs before driving several glass fragments into his skull. The glass was no big deal. The ribs…very big deal.

This, as they say, has been a bad season. Carol has had the sniffles or worse since Thanksgiving. I’ve done better, but I think both of us came down with the endlessly popular flu between mid-month and Christmas. We had our shots, even, for all the good they did us. I bounced back, for the most part. She had a terrible time climbing out of it. And then, just after New Year’s Day, we both ended up with some bacterial bronchitis. Cough isn’t my typical symptom for colds and flu. Chest congestion and especially sinus congestion, but cough? Rarely.

This time I coughed so hard I thought I’d broken a rib. My right side was horribly painful for most of a week. And that’s when nothing else was going on. When I coughed, it hurt hideously. When I sneezed–and I rarely sneeze only once–it may have been the worst pain I’ve felt since my kidney stone twenty years ago. It may, in fact, have been worse than my kidney stone. I do not ever recall coughing that hard, ever, nor hurting that bad while coughing. My sister was the one who generally had croup. Me, I threw up. She was the Phlegm Queen. I was the Barf King. 1959 was the Year of Body Fluid Eruptions. It’s been better since then.

Until New Year’s Day. Then, as Leeloo would say, Bada-boom!

Urgent care gave me antibiotics, a steroid nose spray, and advice to get a chest X-ray if things didn’t quiet down in a few days. Things didn’t. So I got the X-ray. And even after a 10-day course of Augmentin, my head was still draining and my ribs still hurt like hell. The only good news was that my ribs remained intact, despite two weeks of abuse.

So, why all the TMI? I’ve been away for several weeks, and that’s why. Even after I felt better, Stuff Was Piling Up. I gave us a Ring Video Doorbell for Christmas. I discovered after the fact that it was not compatible with the 1995-era NuTone intercom/door chime that came with the house. When I pulled the NuTone unit off the kitchen wall, I saw what you see in the photo above. Loads of wires, none marked, some just hanging loose out of a hole in the wallboard. It took three days to work up the intestinal fortitude to pull out my VOM and start the necessary detective work. I eventually identified the wires:

  • Two were 18VAC from the doorbell transformer. Good; need that.
  • Two were 18 VAC going…somewhere. They were intended to trigger the gate unlock solenoid, as I discovered when I pressed the gate unlock button with the meter on the wires. Alas, we do not have a gate unlock solenoid. I was sending 18VAC somewhere out into the Vasty Deep. I still don’t know where the other ends of those wires are, though I have some hunches.
  • There were two old-style four-conductor phone cables running out to the gate doorbell button and the front door doorbell button. Two conductors in each cable were hanging loose in the air. Call me fussy; I don’t like wires just hanging loose in the air. Electricity could start leaking all over the house. Thurber’s mother didn’t care for that. Neither do I.
  • We actually have two, count ’em, two front doorbell switches. I thought one was dead. It’s not. We have two doorbell chimes. God knows why, and I may ask Him one day.

Electricity leaking - 500 Wide.jpg

I was still not a well man, and it took me days to get this far. I found a list of Ring-compatible door chimes and picked one up at Home Depot. It was smaller than the NuTone, which meant that I had to drag in the paint from the shed and repaint the dead space around the wire hole. Before I could do that I had to scrape away the silicone caulk that ran all the way around the NuTone, and then spackle everything level again, given that the caulk had not gone gently into any night, good, bad, or indifferent. It took three coats of paint to get full coverage. By then I would ordinarily have begun throwing things, but I didn’t have the energy to throw things.

The door chime I bought can play a lot of tunes. It can play “Happy Birthday to You.” It can play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It can play “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” As I punched my way through the tune stash, I began to despair of it ever playing ding-dong! like any proper doorbell should. Ding-dong! was there. It was the very last tune in the chime’s repertoire. Guys, if I want jazz I’ll go to New Orleans. If I want classical I’ll turn on KBAQ. If I want shitty MIDI compositions of no special quality, well, I know where they live. You have one job: Play ding-dong! Just do it.

Ok, by then I was grumpy. If your ribs felt like my ribs did, you’d have been grumpy too.

I dissected the NuTone circuit board. It has a number of ICs on it:

  • A 4N33 optocoupler.
  • An MC14585BCP hex Schmitt trigger.
  • A 555 timer.
  • An SA800 doorbell chime generator.
  • A TC4066BP quad bilateral switch.
  • A ULN3718M audio amp.

I had several of all of these in my parts stash but the door chime generator and the audio amp, which (being a dedicated LM386 guy) I wouldn’t use anyway. So the damned thing could offer me no useful parts for my trouble. Worthless crap, you are. Feed the trash, you did.

With all that done and out of the way, let me say that the Ring doorbell works beautifully. When somebody pushes the button, the Ring app pops up on your smartphone, wherever you are, and shows you a video of who’s at the door. You can then talk to them through the speaker on the Ring device. They can’t tell if you’re home or not. The damned thing even has night vision. I had to practically pay a rib to get it installed, but trust me: It’s worth the trouble.

I mentioned here that our waterbed sprang a leak a week or so before Christmas. We bought the bed at a Going Out of Business sale, which means that the retailer had gone out of business, and the manufacturer didn’t seem especially healthy itself. So we ordered a new waterbed mattress from a place that makes them up custom. It showed up a little less than a week ago. I finally got it installed and filled this afternoon. With a little luck we’ll sleep on it tonight.

Through all this, I got half a chapter of Dreamhealer written, and no Contra entries. I am still tired, still blowing my nose twice as often as is my habit, and still coughing occasionally. You don’t need to feel sorry for me; it’s been in the 70s and 80s here while most of my friends are freezing their cans up north. The dogs are clean and I cooked us a helluva good steak this evening.

Oh, crap. I forgot: The pool backwash valve is leaking. The pool guy says the pool equipment is now 25-odd years old, and could fail badly at any time. I got one quote. I need another. And then I will have a much thinner checkbook.

Hey, Happy New Year!

More or less.

I guess.

[coughs fitfully]

Water vs. Electrons

I’ve been refining a heuristic for most of my adult life: Electrons scream in terror at my approach (I used to think this was just audio feedback) but water spits in my face.

It’s truly weird looking back across the 40 years that I’ve owned houses. Carol and I are now on our eighth house. At every turn, water was our adversary:

  • At our house in Chicago, we had ice dams in our gutters that caused significant interior leaks and paint damage, during that nasty winter of ’78-79. Also, I put a pipe wrench on a plugged fitting in the basement to replace it…and the fitting crushed into rust, forcing me to call a plumber to finish the job.
  • At our house in Rochester NY, we had water come up through cracks in the basement floor after every bad rain, and again when the snow melted in the spring. The upstairs shower drain leaked down onto the kitchen ceiling once, requiring some significant repair.
  • At our house in Baltimore, a weird combination hot water heater/furnace gave us relatively cool hot water, and not a lot of heat for the house. We only lived there for 23 months; sooner or later I suspect we’d have experienced much worse.
  • At our house in California, the World Series Earthquake in 1989 rocked our hot water heater against its pipes, breaking one of them and flooding the laundry room with hot water. The quake also opened the cabinets across from the hot water heater and dumped several cans of paint on the flooded floor. One can opened up, giving us a laundry room full of hot watery latex paint.
  • At our first house in Scottsdale, a chimney pipe installed upside down funnelled rain water into our bedroom ceiling, causing the wallboard to soften and collapse. Also, the water pressure there was so high that it broke the main water feed to the house, creating a sinkhole.
  • At our second house in Scottsdale, the water pipes under the slab were leaking, and our first monthly water bill was for 30,000 gallons that leaked into the dirt before we even moved into the house.
  • At our house in Colorado Springs, the drain run from the air conditioner plugged up, slowly leaking many gallons of condensate under the downstairs great room carpeting, forcing us to replace all the carpeting on that level. Earlier, after a bad rain the poorly compacted soil under our sidewalk settled, reducing the sidewalk to heaving slabs of rubble. The same thing happened (more slowly) to our driveway.
  • At our new house here in Phoenix, we have already had leaks from the water softener (which I simply bypassed) the reverse osmosis unit (which I replaced) and the continuous icemaker, which I junked. We have a kegerator that I’ve (mercifully) never tried. Mopping up water is bad enough. Mopping up beer–no thanks.

Which brings us to the current day. Yesterday morning Carol woke up to find that her side of the waterbed mattress cover was wet. QBit was sleeping at the corner of the bed, and since he’s about to turn 13, we thought he might have let go during the night. But no–this moisture smelled of plasticizers, not pee. After stripping the bed, we found a small puncture, a slit maybe 1/8″ long, oozing water. It may have been oozing water for a long time. Because it was a puncture, it wasn’t covered under the waterbed’s warranty. The bed is barely two years old. The puncture was on the side of the mattress, not the top, so it’s hard to blame on the dogs, or us, or in fact anything, beyond a sense that water really doesn’t like us.

We’ve had waterbeds for almost 35 years now. We’ve never had one fail. So I shrugged and attached a hose to siphon the remaining water out of the waveless mattress. The siphon got most of the water out. However, a waveless mattress has these fiber batts in it to damp water oscillation. The batts don’t let go of their water easily. A siphon won’t do it. What remains in the waterbed frame is a plastic bag full of saturated fiber batts, the whole California King-sized thing weighing so much that I can’t get it out of the frame to dump it.

Thanks to Amazon Prime, I will have a husky water pump tomorrow morning. Assuming that the pump does suck, I’ll be rid of the mattress by noon. Since the waterbed will soon be empty, we’re going to replace the cheap-ass carpeting in the master bedroom with super-duper pet-stain resistant berber. So there was a hint of silver lining inside that watery cloud.

And we will be ordering a 70s-style “full motion” waterbed mattress, without any damfool foam batting inside it. We had those for years before waveless mattresses were invented. They had their costs (rock’n’roll) and their benefits (guess!) but once the mattresses were empty, I could lift them with one hand.

Water remains my adversary, but I learn fast, and only make mistakes like that once.

Odd Lots