Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Memoir

Remembrances of things past, in my own life and those near to me

The Man (Always) Behind the Camera

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Father’s Day. I find it a little startling, riffling through my photobase of scanned images going back to the 1880s, how few photos I have of my father. The reason is no mystery: Photography was one of his hobbies, so when family photos were taken, he was invariably the man behind the camera. My mother wouldn’t touch that camera, as it was fancy and (for its era) expensive. (It was a Graflex medium-format twin-lens reflex.) So there are plenty of excellent pictures of my mother, my sister, and me. What we don’t have are many photos of Frank W. Duntemann II. (II? Not Jr.? No. Stay tuned.)

The ones we have, alas, are so-so. The photo above is a good example. My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann (1892-1956) took it. I don’t know what sort of camera he had. A lot of the photos are ever so slightly out of focus. Age has faded most of them. (I touched up the one shown above.) I’m guessing it was a Brownie or something similar. Harry golfed, and fished. Photography was not any passion of his.

As best I can tell, the undated photo was taken in 1931 or 1932, at Orchard Place, Illinois. From left to right: Kathleen Duntemann (1920-1999), my aunt and godmother. She’s holding up the family dog, Sugar Boy. Sade G. Duntemann (1892-1965), my grandmother. My father, Frank W. Duntemann II (1922-1978), Martha Winkelmann Duntemann (1871-1967), my great-grandmother, and Frank W. Duntemann I (1867-1936) my great-grandfather. I use “I” and “II” in my genealogy research to differentiate between my father and his grandfather, after whom he had been named.

I’ve said this before and will say it again: If you have a stash of old photos, identify their subjects and write them on the back, or in some kind of database. Do it while those who know the people, places, and things in the photos are still alive. There is a photo of my father as a buck private about to go off to war in 1942, with his arm around a girl. By the time I found the photo in 2000, no one who knew the girl’s name was still alive. There were many more photos of people in the same box, most of whom I cannot identify. Every picture of a locomotive or an aircraft, however, was minutely described on the back.

Evidently girls were not my father’s passion in his youth. This changed in 1946, when one of his childhood friends introduced him to my mother, who was a friend of his girlfriend. I honor my father on this day, and on most days, when some of his mannerisms and turns of phrase cross my mind. His expression “Kick ass; just don’t miss” is the working title of my memoirs. He died young, but he lived long enough to see me grow up. I have lots of excellent pictures of me growing up. Alas, I have more of his excellent photos of steam locomotives than I have of him.

Sheesh.

Firejammer: Go Get It!

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I’m not the fastest writer in the world. If I were even modestly faster than I am, I would be a lot better-known. So as a side project while I hammer on my new fantasy novel Dreamhealer, I went back to a short novel that sat in a box for forty years. After rather more work than I expected, I uploaded it to Kindle yesterday, and Amazon approved the ebook edition last night. (The print edition is still awaiting approval, since I had to fix an issue with bleeds and the cover image.)

Behold Firejammer. I hate to call it my “new” novel, but I’m sure it’s new to all but a vanishingly small number of my readers. $2.99 from the Kindle Store, no DRM. It’s a humorous romp very much in the style of Keith Laumer, the author I imitated heavily while just getting out of first gear as a writer, back in high school. I dedicated it to him, since no other writer (with the possible later exception of Larry Niven) influenced my fiction as much as he did. Firejammer‘s mission is pretty much the same as the mission of most of Laumer’s writing, especially his Retief stories: Give the reader a wild ride, with some laughter thrown in for good measure. No sermons. No literary pretensions. Just good crazy fun.

As with most of the things I write, the story has a backstory. In 1977, I began selling stories to the late George Scithers, editor at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM). Some time in 1978, he told me that he and his publisher were about to launch a new SF magazine, one slanted to a slightly younger audience, and intended to capture the atmosphere of some of the better SF pulps, like Planet Stories. It would be called Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine. He asked me if I had any suitable concepts. Inside my head something was screaming hell yes!!! but I politely answered that I did, and would get to work on it immediately.

I did. I had gotten an idea in high school while turning into the parking lot at a Target-like store called Turn-Style (now long extinct) at Harlem & Foster Avenues in Chicago. (Yes, I remember the moment that clearly.) I was 16 at the time, and took some notes on it, but never actually started writing.

Now that I had a nibble on it, I started writing. I wrote. I wrote. And I wrote some more. I was still writing when the first issue of the new magazine appeared. I was still writing when the second issue appeared. I finished it in early 1979. I sent it to George Scithers, who informed me that, alas, the magazine had been canceled. I did due diligence and sent it to all the other existing SF magazines, all of which rejected it. The reason (where stated; I got a form slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction) was that it was just too long, by about, well twice. Maybe more. And yes, at 27,000 words, it was sitting square in the middle of what I would come to call “that hideous length.” It was too long for the magazines and too short to call a book. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. However, in 1979 I had other things on my mind: Xerox had offered me a promotion and relocation to Rochester, NY. So it went into a box of manuscripts and didn’t see daylight again for a long time.

It came out of the box in 2000, when POD services like Lulu.com began to appear. I trimmed it down to about 25,000 words and did some heavy edits. I even started talking to artists about a cover, figuring that I could throw in enough of my previously published short works to bring it up to a book of about 70,000 words or so. I played with that idea for a year or two. Then Coriolis collapsed, and once more, I had other things on my mind, like moving to Colorado. So back in the box it went, where it stayed until several years ago. I did some more rewriting, then had to set it aside (back into the box it went) because we had decided to move back to Arizona. That was a multi-year endeavor, and so totally involving that I had completely forgotten I rewrote the story in Colorado in 2015. I expected to take a piece of what (by now) I considered juvenalia, and rewrite it for the modern market. When it came out of the box earlier this year, I realized that I had already rewritten it.

So what was I waiting for? As time permitted, I created a print book design, tinkered with the layout, made some more edits, laid it out as an ebook, and finally found a cover image on WikiMedia. The image is an eruption of Stromboli, in Italy. Stromboli is my all-time favorite volcano. (Can anyone guess why?) I resisted my temptation to keep tinkering with it, but resisting temptation slows me down even when successful. So more tinkering happened.

Which brings us to yesterday’s uploads. Amazon approved of the ebook cover and body. I’m still waiting for approval on the paperback. The ebook is up there on Kindle and ready to (molten) rock.

Now it’s back to work on Dreamhealer, which is well on and should be finished this summer. So in the meantime, have fun–and don’t forget to leave a you-know-what.

Thanks!

The Cunning Blood Is 20 Years Old

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Hard to believe: I finished the first draft of The Cunning Blood twenty years ago today, on March 27, 1999. I created a progress spreadsheet and used it to store a word count for every day that I added to the manuscript.The spreadsheet does not cover the whole novel. I created it when I was about 50,000 words in. There is a date on every entry, which allows me to gauge how often I wrote, and how much I wrote on any given day. My maximum word count was 5,162. My minimum was 33. The median was about 1,800. The total finished word count for the first draft was 135,680, which grew to about 143,000 after some edit passes and a couple of added scenes for continuity’s sake. I don’t remember when I started writing it, but I’m pretty sure (based on some emails I shared with friends about the project) that it was sometime in October 1997.

That book was hard work.

What boggles me today is how much of it was concocted without my conscious knowledge. Through most of the story I was not just flying by the seat of my pants; I was flying without any pants at all. I frequently had no idea what a chapter would contain until I started writing it. It got worse than that: I did not know that Geyl Shreve would detonate a long line of LPG gas tank railroad cars with a pocket missile until three paragraphs before she did it. There was a little planning here and there, but not much. As best I can figure, the novel self-assembled somehow in my subconscious, and came out pretty clean with almost no outlining or planning ahead of the current position of the cursor. I had to exert some force-of-will toward the end, when I was way past my target length of 100,000 words and part of me still wanted to toss in new story arcs and new characters. (That’s a problem I have to this day.)

I learned a lot about how to write a novel, that’s fersure.

I mention all this history here because a lot of people think that because the novel was first published in hardcover in the fall of 2005, that I wrote it in 2004. Uh-uh. I sent it to several publishers between 1999 and 2005 without much luck. Betsy Mitchell of Aspect (an imprint of Time Warner now belonging to Hachette Group) was polite and encouraging, but ultimately turned it down. Tor responded to a query and requested the manuscript–and then ghosted me. Really: After I sent the manuscript to them in March 2001, I never heard from them again. Ever. I sent email queries, which were never answered. I finally sent a written letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration in July 2002. I didn’t get a response. They did not return the manuscript. Just silence. Dead silence. My long, gradual entry into the SF indie camp began that summer, and I’ve never looked back. These days, Manhattan needs writers way more than writers need Manhattan.

I eventually sold the novel to a small press in the Chicago suburbs, and they did a pretty good job with it, especially in terms of getting reviews. I got a rave in Analog, and a strong endorsement from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, along with other very good press. However, I’m not entirely sure that the hardcover ever saw the inside of a bookstore. (The Colorado Springs public library did buy two copies, which astounded me.)

Some of the problems selling the novel may have been due to what little politics I put in it, which had a libertarian slant with a huge footnote: I’m willing to admit that there is no such thing as utopia, and did not portray either Earth nor its prison planet Hell as fiat utopias. Nor were they dystopias. All societies have problems of one sort or another. As the Sangruse Device put it in the story: There are different kinds of freedom, and different kinds of imprisonment. I’m not sure I could state the novel’s theme more concisely than that.

It doesn’t matter. I was exploring ideas. I was not preaching any sermons. I had a big potful of ideas and was having fun with them. I had set out to write the ultimate action/adventure hard SF story. Judging by reader reactions since 2005 and (especially) since the ebook’s release in 2015, I think I succeeded.

Publishing a trade paperback edition through CreateSpace at the end of 2018 finally brought the project to a close. It’s sold well: up in the thousands, all editions taken together, and probably made me more money as an indie title than it would have under a big Manhattan imprint.

The big question, of course, is what to do next. I’m 77,000 words into Dreamhealer, and starting to pull all the plot threads together. I hope to finish it before the end of May. After that, well, it’s either something about the drumlins or The Molten Flesh. People have been pestering me for a sequel to The Cunning Blood since it first hit print in 2005. (My alpha readers have been pestering me even longer.) I have a couple of characters and a concept, plus a growing pot of ideas. I don’t have a plot. I tried to outline it. My subconscious basically said, No deal. (Right brains can be funny that way.) I may not know how any of the story goes until three paragraphs before I write it. That strategy has worked before. It’s worked (with greater or lesser success) all through Dreamhealer, though I’ve had to take a whip to my right brain here and there to keep it on task. Do I trust my subconscious enough to try it again?

Do I have a choice? Heh. We’ll damned well see.

How Shark Nerds Learned to Run the Projector

8mm Movie Projector.jpg(CLASSICAL REFERENCE IN TITLE, as Glenn Reynolds says.)

Carol’s sister Kathy and her husband Bob came out to visit this past week. Their mission (among others) was to get out of Chicagoland’s frigid temps and snow. So what did we have here during their visit? Frigid (if not Chicago-frigid) temps…and snow. Not exactly where we live, but my friend Debbie said snow stuck to the ground in Fountain Hills, a Phoenix suburb a few miles east of us. And yes, the temps dipped below freezing in our neighborhood on more than one occasion. Plus, we scored an inch and a half of rain in a couple of days. The photo below shows the view from Bell and Hayden looking north, toward Skull Mesa and Continental Mountain. In all the years we’ve lived here (going on twenty, in two stretches) I’ve never seen that range go white from top to bottom. A little snow on the tops, now and then, sure, but not snow covered.

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Timing, timing. Kathy says they’ll be back when it’s in the 100s. I can’t make many promises on behalf of Phoenix weather, but I’ll confidently promise that there will not be frost in the yard here in June.

So we stayed inside a lot. One of our other missions was to evaluate Carol’s family’s home movies. There’s a place here in Scottsdale that will convert 8mm movies to digital movie files. What we wanted to figure out is what reels are worth converting (the process is not cheap) and what can be left in the box. Carol and I have had her father’s movie projector in various closets for a lot of years. We took it out and set it on the coffee table, after dropping a spare white sheet over our big-screen TV. Bob and I stared at it. And it soon dawned on us: Shark nerds we were not.

The device is a Bell & Howell Filmo Regent 122, Model L. I can’t nail down a vintage tighter than “1940s” from online searches. That’s about right: Carol’s dad had a movie camera in the late 1940s, and it stands to reason he’d buy a projector at the same time. Bob’s family had had one long ago as well, but (as with Carol’s) the dads ran the projectors, and the kids watched the movies. As for me, we got into the 8mm movie scene late, and started with the 1965-vintage Super 8. We still have that projector, but it’s self-feeding and requires almost no fussing-with. (That is, when it worked, which it doesn’t.) Reviewing Super 8 movies from my childhood will require a functional projector. I’m working on that.

No matter. What we had were 8mm movies. And we were determined to watch them.

We had a rough idea how they worked. Bob recalled that you had to form two film loops above and below the lens. There were loads of little levers, which we dutifully stared at, rubbing our chins. Then Carol spoke the obvious: “Go find a tutorial on YouTube.” Shazam! Not one but several…actually, they were legion. And once we figured out from the tutorials what all the levers did, getting the film threaded was no more than a severe nuisance. At my house back in the ’60s, we just fed the end of the film leader into a slot, and the projector did the rest. This took a lot more careful work. Some of the films were well over sixty years old, and fragile.

With practice, we got better and faster at it. And we had a lot of practice. It took two nights to go through them all, what with manual threading and manual rewind. Carol’s dad had spliced a lot of the little reels together into several larger, 25 minute reels, but the bulk of the reels were the 50′, five minute size just as they came out of the camera.

Most of the footage was of Carol and Kathy from birth to 15 or 16, at weddings, family vacations, dance recitals, and just running around in the yard. One of the first things we noticed is that once she was three or four, any time Carol was on camera, she was dancing. Carol, of course, is a spectacular dancer, as I’ve learned at various events down through the almost fifty years that we’ve been together. She started early, and went at it with manic enthusiasm and supernatural grace.

There were people in the movies whom Carol and Kathy had rarely seen, especially their grandparents, who (like mine) mostly died when we were small children. Overall, the films were well worth preserving as digital files, with only a few exceptions.

It was also yet another rubbing-of-the-nose in how far we’ve come since our childhoods. My Canon G16 camera takes brilliant, hi-res video. Heck, my phone takes perfectly fine video, if not as good as the G16’s. I have a Nikon film SLR, and my father’s medium-format Graflex. I doubt I will use either again. I suspect most young people have never experienced taking a roll of used film to Walgreen’s (or somewhere else like that) for processing, and then waiting a week for the pictures to come back. Bad shots cost the same 30c each as the good ones, so learning by trial and error was costly.

All gone, gone and mostly forgotten, except by those of us who thought we were shark nerds…but were wrong.

Rant: The War That Nobody Dares Explain

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Armistice Day. I call it that in this entry because 100 years ago today, The Great War (now called World War I) ended. We’ve broadened the holiday to all those who have served in war on our behalf, but until 1954, the day was named after the armistice that ended WWI.

My grandfather Harry Duntemann served in The Great War. (See the photo above, from 1917, location unknown. He was 25.) I never got to talk to him about it because he died when I was four, or I would have asked him what caused the War. I’m not entirely sure he could have told me. Degreed historians have been unable to tell me. I’ve read a pile of books about it, but as close as I’ve come to an answer is simply that Europe’s leaders were about ready for a war, and when the assassination of a second-shelf political figure provided them with an excuse, they went for it. Four years and sixteen million deaths later, the armistice was signed, Europe was rearranged, Germany thoroughly humiliated, and all the pieces put in place for an even greater war a generation later.

Bad idea, top to bottom.

Here’s my theory, which I offer as speculation based on a view from a height: WWI was a pissy argument among Europe’s ruling elite, made deadly by industrialization and technologies that hadn’t been dreamed of during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Certain members of this insufferable boys’ club took offense at other members’ reaction to crackpot Princip’s terrorist attack, leading to others taking offense at their offense, leading to a wholesale loss of face among the elites, who threw the inevitable tantrum and leveled half of Europe in the process. They’re still digging up live ordnance in places a century later. Lots of it. Sometimes it explodes. In terms of casualties, WWI has never really ended.

The common element here? Inbred ruling classes who cannot conceive of being wrong about anything. In 1914, they were elite by virtue of aristocratic birth, or sometimes having risen through the local equivalent of civil service. That era was the transition from “the King can do no wrong” to “the government can do no wrong,” which was perhaps a step in the right direction, but…

…we still have ruling classes, and they are dangerous. Graduate from an Ivy and you’re set for life. Along with the diploma you’re given the impression that you’re just…better…than people who go to state schools, or who eschew college altogether. This leads to a pathological inability to doubt your own view of the universe, and in most cases, your own expertise. Given too much power, such people can, have, and will continue to destroy entire nations.

Self-doubt is an essential personality trait. I consider it the single most reliable indicator of people who are high in both rational and emotional intelligence. A modest amount of self-doubt among Europe’s elites could have stopped WWI. Stopping WWI, furthermore, might well have stopped WWII.

I don’t honestly know what one can do about ruling classes. Not supporting political parties would be a good first step, because political parties are mechanisms that make the elites rich and keep them in power. But you know how likely that is. Redistribuing power (not wealth) would be another good step. Again, this would mean broadening access to the Ivies (ideally by some sort of entrance lottery) and limiting the powers of government far beyond the degree to which government would allow itself to be limited. (I have a good political novel on the subject in my notes that I won’t write, because political novels are depressing.)

And even that might not work. Once again, we run up against the primal emotion of tribalism, from which most of our current troubles emerge. That’s a separate topic, but not an unrelated one.

My advice? 1. Shun the ruling classes. You’ll never be one of them (no matter how much you think you deserve to be) and fostering ordinary people’s desire to be among the elites is how the elites keep ordinary people under their control. 2. Limit government power at every opportunity. The less power our elites have, the less damage they can do. 3. Read history. Granted, I read a lot of history about WWI and still doubt whatever understanding I thought I gleaned from those books…

…but let me tell you, I understand the Jacobin mindset completely.

/rant

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?

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.

65 and Then Some

66 today. By Bismarck’s reckoning, I was supposed to die last year, so any days lived going forward are gravy. My guess? I’d better get used to gravy. I foresee a lot of it. (Gravy, after all, is penance offered for cooking the turkey a little too much.)

I blew past the traditional boundary of old-guy-hood pretty satisfied with the general state of the old guy:

• I’m healthy. This is a matter of good luck more than clean livin’, though I do what I can.
• I know who I am and what I’m good at.
• I am a free man, in an era when an appalling number of my friends have sold themselves into tribal slavery for, well, nothing.
• I am not alone. I walk upwind in life with my soulmate beside me.
• I understand my limitations and have come to terms with them.
• I have arranged my daily life so as to be no at one’s mercy but my own.

This is a pretty good place to be. I could write several books about how I got here, but probably won’t. Such things are highly domain-specific, and your mileage will vary. I’ll postulate a few explanations:

• Luck is real. I recognized good luck and capitalized on it. I recognized bad luck and minimized its consequences.
• Anger is a trap. It killed my grandfather. I will not allow it to kill me.
• I was careful. Whether this interferes with good luck is an interesting question. I’m pretty sure it interferes with bad luck, which is most of what being careful is about. And being careful in turn requires knowledge of things like gravity, kinetic energy, integrity of materials, coefficient of friction, the hiding places of banana peels, and consequences of decisions.
• I learned fast, especially from my mistakes, and doubly especially mistakes due to not being careful.
• I tempered rational thought with emotional thought, and calibrated emotional thought with rational thought. Overall, this amounts to rendering unto the left brain the things that are the left brain’s, and to the right brain the things that are the right brain’s.
• With all my strength I resisted the siren call of tribal slavery and the transparent bullshit of political ideology.
• I can get along with anybody until they go on the attack. When people attack me, I giggle a little and write them off. I don’t tell them I’ve written them off. I just don’t take them seriously anymore.
• I learned fairly early (if not quite early enough) that nothing is simple, and nothing is certain.

My great-grandmother, Martha Winkelmann Duntemann, lived to be 96. That’s my target, and barring some peculiar and unlikely advance in anti-aging technology, it’s a reasonable expectation in the 21st Century. It means I have thirty years to go. That’s a long time and a short time; thirty years ago I was editing Turbo Technix, which seems like yesterday. My plan file for those thirty years is fairly simple:

• I will love my wife;
• I will tell my tales;
• I will exercise my mind;
• I will enjoy the company of my friends;
• And I will revel in a life lived at what I consider the best time in human history to be alive, in our beautiful and extravagant creation.

I invite all of you to join me, chill out a little, and (as my grade school friend Rich Maas says) enjoy the ride!

Smuggling Willie Home from the War

Frank and Willie Back from WWII - Cropped - 500 Wide.jpg

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.

Ulp.

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!”

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.