Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


Animated monologues and other over-the-top essays

Rant: The Bumperstickerization of Facebook

Maybe I just hit a statistically inevitable bad stretch. I don’t know. But last night, it seemed like every other entry on my Facebook friends feed was a photo that was nothing more than an image of words. I won’t embarrass anyone by citing a particular example; I’m pretty sure that anybody who’s on Facebook knows what I mean.

I do not mean visual puns like Imperial Walker, which at times border on brilliant. Nor even the genre I guess we call “demotivational” posters, which bring a painful grin now and then. I’ll gen up an example of my own:


Why is this better than:

“They build too low, who build beneath the stars.” –Edward Young 1681-1765.

I have to grin: Here’s Jeff Duntemann, the Visual Developer guy, arguing for plain text against graphics. But hey, it’s text, and nothing more than text. If quotes had OK buttons (or, better yet, Cancel buttons) I might feel otherwise. They don’t. Text is sufficient.

There’s another problem: In no case was the text in the image the words of the person who posted it. They’re all well-worn platitudes or slogans or political nanorants, just as you’d see on a bumper sticker. That, in fact, is what they remind me of the most. Last night I realized that I was seeing the bumperstickerization of Facebook.

I did not sign up for Facebook to drown in a sea of virtual bumper stickers. They call it a “friends list” because, theoretically, the people there are friends. I like to hear what my friends are thinking, feeling, reading, writing, coding, making, or otherwise doing. I don’t mind pictures of your cats, your dogs, your kids, your vacations, or the stuff you’re building in the basement. That’s what Facebook is for.

Are your daily travails more important than quotes from Abraham Lincoln, FDR, or Oscar Wilde? Damitall, yes. I already have Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I used to read it like a novel. (I’m nutty that way.) If you must quote someone, quote yourself. And do it in text. Pixels Are For Pictures.

Now, weren’t you making cannoli last night? Or calling CQ on six meters? You’re my friend. If I didn’t hear about it, well, it’s not for lack of wanting.

Dancing with Diction

Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss, without whom I would care nothing for poetry. One of the great bonding behaviors I shared with my baby sister was running around the house reciting snatches (sneeches?) of kid-book poetry at the tops of our lungs. “This one has a little star! This one has a little car! Say, what a lot of fish there are!” The king of that castle is and will always be Theodor Geisel 1904-1991. Circa 1960 our parents had signed us up for what amounted to the Dr. Seuss book club, and every month we got one of his books or another book that was clearly written in his style. There were some outliers not written in verse, like Look Out for Pirates! but who remembers those anymore? (Go, Dog, Go! may be one exception.)

On the other hand, I only have to recall the title of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and my poetry-reciter is off at a trot. Gretchen’s even better at it than I. Don’t get us started if you’re one of those lit’ry types who feels that any poetry with rhyme and meter is worthy only of folding into the center of a Hallmark card.

Modern universities crank such out by the pallet load. Years ‘n years ago, at one damned cocktail party conversation or another (I think associated with the Book Expo America trade show) I made an energetic case that good poetry can have both rhyme and meter. A well-credentialed tribalist immediately jumped on me, steam jetting from every orifice. “So,” he jetted, “all poetry should be doggerel?”

Whoo-boy! Note the well-worn tribal tactic: I suggested that something the tribalist hated should be allowed. The tribalist immediately misrepresented me as saying that everything except what he hated should be forbidden. I called him on it. I basically humiliated him in front of several of his peers. How did I humiliate him? I dared him to begin reciting blank verse from some author who would be taught in college literature courses. He couldn’t do it. I turned the knife by immediately beginning to recite “The Hollow Men.” I stopped after eight or ten lines. I then asked him which poet had written the following:

mighty guest of merely me
–traveler from eternity;
in a single wish, receive
all I am and dream and have.

He shook his head. “You did.” Heh. Don’t I wish. It was e. e. cummings. I offered to recite the rest of the poem. The dork said “No thanks,” and slunk away.

Now, I may be a better memorizer than he was. But I had a secret advantage: Structured poetry is easier to remember. And a secret vulnerability: I had recited all of Eliot that I could recall, and I remember Eliot today largely because I used to make fun of him so much. (I wasn’t singling Eliot out–Dr. Seuss himself did not escape.) Give me Macavity any day, even if the sophisticates dismiss it as children’s poetry. (It’s a cat poem. Dare ‘ya to call it doggerel!) I can recite a great deal of that. It contains irony, subtlety, and much merriment.You can dance to it. I give it a 10.

Note that I don’t “hate” blank verse and freeform poetry, nor do I dismiss it simply because it lacks rhyme and meter. I studied it. I studied Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and all those guys of that era and that school of poetry, which has basically won the day. I still recall why my profs thought they were significant. The problem is that the poems themselves I have utterly forgotten. Lowell has a great line somewhere about ’59 Chevies rolling past like fish in a tank, in finned servility. But that’s all of him that I can remember, having read an entire book full of his stuff and discussed it at length in a 300-level class. I’m sure it was carefully crafted. I’ll grant that it was important. But in no way on this or any other world could it ever be fun.

For that you have to go back to poets like Vachel Lindsay, who opened “The Santa Fe Trail” in an eminently memorable way:

This is the order of the music of the morning-:
First from the far east comes but a crooning.
The crooning turns to a sunrise singing:
Hark to the calm-horn, balm-horn, psalm-horn.
Hark to the faint-horn, quaint-horn, saint-horn…

Damn, not only can I see that, I can feel it! It makes me want to run around the house with my baby sister (now 55) yelling “Ho for Kansas land that restores us! When houses choke us and great books bore us!” Eventually we collapse on the couch, breathless from laughing so hard and glowing from feeling so good. Kid stuff? Sure! At least for kids who haven’t yet sold their kidness for a pot of message.

Poetry is about laughter, especially laughter that comes of wishing we could be in Kansas so that we could get away from all those Great Books that are so ponderously self-important they they undergo lexical collapse and vanish into their own navels while everybody stands around scratching their heads trying to understand what the hell they were attempting to convey.

And about dancing, yes. Poetry is dancing with diction, doing the polka with participles, spinning an allemand with adverbs. It’s cutting loose from grim reality for awhile and letting language just take us. “He thought he saw an elephant / That practiced on a fife: / He looked again and found it was / A letter from his wife.” What does it mean? You’d be surprised. I’ll tell you in a minute, but…the music isn’t over yet.

If I’d had to jump straight into Lowell and Roethke I would have tossed it all overboard. But Dr. Seuss had gotten to me first. He taught me that you could dance to words, and from that dance it was a short step to Chaucer and Pope and Longfellow and Tennyson and Lindsay and Robert Frost and e. e. cummings. Having danced to the edges of rhyme and meter (cummings is a great transition) I could go the rest of the way, and watch the fins go by with Robert Lowell.

Did poetry classes leave a sour taste in your mouth? Grab a Dr. Seuss book, and find your sister if you have one. Run around the house spitting iambs and trochees until you collapse laughing on the couch. That’s how you reboot your poetry sense. Then, if you want, you can take it all the rest of the way to Walt Whitman and beyond.

But I personally wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right there.

Odd Lots

  • Here’s a great site on older toy and hobbyist robots; if you’re a collector or just a nostalgist, it’s a must-see. (Maybe some here have never seen my late 70s robot Cosmo Klein.) Alas, the link came from an old email sent by the late George M. Ewing WA8WTE, who suggested it as an Odd Lot. Better late than never.
  • We used to giggle at the name in the mid-60s, but the founder of Blonder-Tongue Labs is still alive, and maintains a site full of interesting tech information about crystal sets and old radios, as well as the firm’s patents and products from long ago. (Thanks to Michael Covington for the link; again, set aside more than a year ago and never used.)
  • No tablet here yet (waiting to see what if anything pops up at CES 2012) but I’m tempted to get a Nook Color so I can at least quit reading ebooks on my dinosaur of an X41. My friend Erbo has learned a lot about rooting it and running CyanogenMod, and has much good to say about the combo.
  • If you’re considering that step, consider the peculiar nature of the Android OS itself, which may not exist in precisely the same way that Windows exists. This is still good, but you need to understand it, as it’s a newish thing in the computing universe.
  • I’ll never buy one of these, but I admire the concept: An off-the-shelf smartphone-controlled video-equipped RC helicopter. And I admit: If it weren’t for OWS I wouldn’t have heard of them at all.
  • Henry Law called my attention to the fact that County Down in Northern Ireland is often called “Drumlin Country” because of its landforms. Odd then that “The Star of County Down” is one of my favorite Irish folk songs, and has been since I first heard it circa 2000–which is precisely when I wrote “Drumlin Boiler,” the first tale in the Drumlins Saga.
  • And of course, when the starship Origen is marooned in the Drumlins system, it is the mere handful of collectible print books on board that allow the castaways to gradually re-create a modern society on an alien world. The cheap consumer-grade tablet PCs in every passenger pocket were all dead inside of fifteen years (most far sooner than that) and nobody thought to create printing presses before they were gone. No wonder that the cult of the printed book rises as the age of the printed book fades. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Talk partisan political hatred all the time, and prepare to reap the wind.
  • Can we please add “Google is your friend,” “denier,” and “talking points” to this list? (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • And with that, the curtain falls on 2011. May the impact of the curtain give it multiple broken bones, concussions, contusions, internal bleeding, hemorrhoids, the heartbreak of psoriasis, and whatever else it might take to keep this year from darkening our doorsteps ever again.

Rant: Higgsism and the Moral Dimension of Health

As most of you know (or can guess) I’m not content to accept received opinions about things like health insurance reform. I’ve been researching it and working it out for myself for a couple of years now. Most of the discussion online has been tribalist bullshit and not particularly useful, but I’ve managed to define a few things that make the whole issue of health insurance a lot harder to deal with than otherwise might be. What surprises me the most is that these issues almost never come up.

The first of these, in fact, I had to coin a name for: Higgsism, from the clueless protagonst of Samuel Butler’s wicked little gem, Erewhon. If you recall, while Higgs is jailed in Erewhon, he befriends his keeper’s daughter, Yram. Higgs watches, astonished, as people who fall into bad health are convicted of a criminal offense, yet people who have been caught embezzling are treated as though they were suffering from a headcold. When Higgs himself gets a headcold, Yram scolds him severely, and only at that point does he put two and two together. As poor Higgs puts it: “I never remember to have lost a cold so rapidly.”

It’s a great book; a sort of steampunk Gulliver’s Travels, and bears close reading. In a nutshell, what I call Higgsism is this: the belief that we have complete (or almost complete) control over our health, and that when we get sick, it’s because we have done something wrong, making illness our own damned fault. Just as the lucky prefer to ascribe their success to hard work, the healthy generally ascribe their health to pure clean livin’.

Alas, the more we look, the more evidence we see that health is more luck than skill. Matt Ridley’s 2004 book The Agile Gene describes the emergent nature of the human body, and how we’re at the mercy of not only our genes but also poorly understood environmental stressors of gene expression that come into play starting at the moment of conception. Beyond avoiding a handful of obvious hazards like smoking, recreational drugs, and promiscuity, there’s not a whole lot we can do. Eat moderately, walk a little, and get your sleep–but hell, if body weight is almost 80% heritable, health may be a steep climb indeed.

I’ve lived long enough to see a fair number of people die for no known reason. A healthy, trim, athletic nonsmoking man like Harry Helms with no family history of colon cancer dies of it. What did he do wrong? Carol’s late Aunt Berenice lived a modest life and never held a lit cigarette, yet she died of lung cancer. What did she do wrong? The truth is that they did nothing wrong at all. Yet these days, when somebody gets cancer, everybody starts thinking back to try and identify what the poor slob’s sin was.

The truth is grim: We control little of our own health, and what little we do control is often misunderstood (like carbohydrate metabolism) and not always universally applicable across the human species. (Milk is great for you–if you can digest it.)

The health insurance industry can only get away with medical underwriting because of the implied moral culpability of the unhealthy: If you’d just lived a cleaner, healthier life you wouldn’t have cancer or diabetes or ALS or whatever, so you’re a poor risk and deserve to go bankrupt and die. This widespread belief is why high-deductable catastrophic health insurance is unpopular: People see it as money going out of their pockets directly into the pockets of heedless reprobates who can’t or won’t adopt a healthy lifestyle, whateverthehell that is, while those who practice clean livin’ still have to pay for their own broken ankles and flu shots.

As long as we continue to believe that, we’ll be unwilling to face the truth: Health insurance is a sort of luck tax. The lucky pay the money while getting little back in terms of benefits. The unlucky get their lives saved through expensive treatments that they could never afford out-of-pocket. The moral dimension of health is almost entirely an illusion.

What’s the solution? I didn’t say I knew of one; in fact, I’ve often wondered if universal health insurance as we understand it is even possible. Yet even if it is possible, as long as we embrace Higgsism, I guarantee you we’re not going to get anywhere with it. You might as well give antibiotics to embezzlers.

There’s another part to this, which I’ll try to get to in coming days.

Rant: Eat Food. Not Too Much. And Sometimes Plants.

ExtraRich Milk Cap.jpgOh me, oh my, oh me, oh my…I’m just such a bad boy. Last year, I violated the Laws of Thermodynamics by eating more calories…and losing weight. Now, since we all know that every calorie is exactly like every other calorie (settled science!) and since we know that if you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight, well, what other conclusion can I draw? The Laws of Thermodynamics are wrong! And by next week I’ll have this unbalanced wheel spinning away here! Somebody please wire NIST for me; my FAX machine is broken. They can send the Nobel Prize to my Stanwell St. address.

I’ve had to drill new holes in all my belts. I’m not kidding; you can still see the leather shreds on my 3/16″ bit.

Other weirdnesses are besetting me. My blood pressure is down. It wasn’t all that high to begin with (let’s call it high-normal; Carol doesn’t want me to post precise numbers) and now it’s normal-normal. My blood numbers are good, and haven’t changed a whole lot since I gave up habitual sugar in 1997, at which point they abruptly went from worrisomely high to…low-normal. So how did I do it? What’s the magic method?

Simple. Read this very carefully:

Eat food. Not too much. And sometimes plants.

Or, if you’d prefer the shorter, hipper, periods-for-emphasis version:

Eat. More. Animal. Fat.

I eat an egg fried in butter every morning, and I don’t skimp on the butter. I eat full-fat Greek-style yogurt with breakfast. I eat great mounds of several kinds of cheese. I have everybody-knows-are-hideous things like bratwurst for lunch and sometimes supper, especially in good weather when I can toss them on the grill. I eat steak, ground buffalo, pork roast, and chicken deep-fried in lard, when I can find it. (Alas, the poor lards have been hunted nearly to extinction by cruel activists bearing rapid-fire lawsuits and campaign dollars.)

And most recently, I’ve discovered extra-rich milk. It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth the search. Hereabouts, you can get it in half gallons or gallons at Farm Crest milk stores. Farm Crest milk comes from cows not treated with antibiotics or growth hormone, which is why I started drinking their lower-fat versions to begin with. And it is the whitest, creamiest, most delicious milk I’ve ever tasted. 4.5% milkfat, wow.

So why am I not dead? Am I some kind of alien fluke, or zombie? (If so, I’m coming for your brains, which are deliciously high in fat.) By all the objective measures that we have, I’m healthy and apparently getting healthier. (And most recently, I discovered during a routine eye exam that my vision is getting better. Not so much better as to obviate the need for glasses, but my prescription went down almost half a diopter. No clue why–even I won’t blame it on a low-carb regime–just tossing it on the table.)

That’s the more. Here’s the flipside: I eat a lot less pasta and rice than I used to, love it though I may. I have refined sugar only occasionally, and then only as dessert after a high-fat meal. And little by little, I’m trying to give up refined grains and starches, though that’s a much tougher climb. I do eat vegetables that don’t make me gag or bloat, admitting that it’s a short list. I eat fresh fruit only in moderation, since fruit is mostly sugar. I snack on peanuts or almonds, chased by a glass of extra-rich milk. Once it goes down, I’m not hungry anymore. (Bet I can stop eatin’ em!)

Like a lot of people, I went on the low-fat, high-carb diet recommended by our all-wise, benevolent Federal government in the 70s, and that’s when I started to put on weight. Middle age accelerated the process, and I’d probably be over 200 by now if I hadn’t figured it out.

So let me beat you shamelessly over the head with it, while reminding you that this is one of my clearly labeled and tightly self-rationed rants:

1. Government low-fat dietary guidelines are bullshit, all of them anchored in the bogus work of Right Man Dr. Ancel Keys, who may well be the most damaging fraud in the entire history of science. He had data for 22 countries. He picked the six countries that supported his hypothesis, that fat is bad for you. Then he attacked his critics until the government raised him to sainthood. Over the next thirty years, humanity gained the weight of a minor planet.

2. We know a great deal less about health and nutrition than we think we do, and as with all science, what we know gets old fast. For a quick catch-up, read Gary Taubes‘ book Good Calories, Bad Calories. Breaking news: Human biochemistry is complicated! Story at 11!

3. You may be the fluke, and thrive without effort on a low-fat diet. Maybe we’re all flukes–human beings are not identical. (I love the word “fluke”! I had it printed right on my VOM!) Makes no nevermind: You have the power to find out. You are the experiment. Do the science. I did.

Good luck. Butter is delicious.

Hurray for the Leaners!

Rated-S_scientific_300.jpgSay what you want about cold fusion; it’s been a great show and a huge amount of fun. If time allowed I would read more on it; right now, the only book I’ve been through is Fire from Ice by Eugene Mallove, the cold fusion culture’s first martyr. In 2004, Mallove was murdered, probably by muggers, but Certain People are sure that it was the government, or the oil companies, or Arabic shieks, or somebody else who would be on the losing end of the energy stick if cold fusion actually came true.

Mallove’s book is now 11 years old and is strongly pro, and I need to read Gary Taubes’ book Bad Science (1993) for balance. Beyond that, well, the literature, having lain low for many years, is exploding again in celebration of finding a whole new name. (More on this shortly.)

I know, I know. How can I take any of this seriously, you ask? Back off, man. I’m a scientist. I also like street theater, especially science and technology street theater. I suffer fools gladly if they entertain me, because I learn best when I’m entertained. (Fools spouting politics rarely entertain me; street theater has its limits.) I’ve stated my official position here many times, and I’ll say it again: It’s probably not fusion. But it’s almost certainly interesting, and if pursued may actually turn out to be something useful, if not a source of free energy. Desktop fusion is nothing new, after all: Philo Farnsworth, needing to do penance for having invented television, went on to create desktop fusion. The nut they couldn’t crack is releasing more energy than their gadget absorbed, but hey, neutrons are useful, and they don’t just come when you whistle.

I was pleased to learn quite recently that “cold fusion” as a term has been deprecated in favor of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) which has the authority of an acronym and no obvious links in the public mind to a name more properly associated with margarine. A recent presentation on YouTube from a cold fusion guru admits that it’s not about fusion, and that’s a big step forward. I’m not sure that there as many rabbits in the LENR hat as Krivit thinks, but even one rabbit would be delicious, especially with melted butter.

LENR is supposedly caught up with the electroweak force. One thing I do need to do is hunt down a good summary of what we know about the electroweak force; there are a few too many Greek letters in the Wikipedia article for my tastes, and probably my forebrain as well. Suggestions always welcome.

As an SF writer LENR fascinates me, especially the notion that it could be implemented in biological system. Nuclear-powered cockroaches, anyone? The bugs wouldn’t need to make breakeven; LENR could act as a storage mechanism: After gathering and processing fuel during times of energy abundance, they’d consume the fuel when their only sun sets for a decade or two and temps go down to double digits K.

The show goes on. LENR can and should replace all mention of “cold fusion.” The LENR acronym suggests to me a general term for people pursuing (or cheering on) research in that area: Leaners. I’m a Leaner. I’m cheering for these guys, and with more lifespan ahead of me, more time, more brains, and another small fortune in machine tools beyond what I already have, I would go downstairs and see what I could throw together. Damn, this stuff calls to me.

It’s April, the month to be mad as a hatter, and you know all about me and hats.

Rant: That Old Linux Package Format Blues

I described my FreePascal from Square One book project in detail a couple of weeks ago, and I work on it as time allows. There have been some hangups; in fact, I sometimes wonder if I’m not Cing evil spirits at work hereabouts, frustrating my efforts to popularize Pascal.

A lot of this has to do with Linux software package formats. I’m trying to write a chapter in a beginners’ book describing how to install the FreePascal/Lazarus compiler/IDE combo. For Windows it’s easy: Download the executable installer, run it, and answer the wizard’s questions. I ran into a stone will with Ubuntu: There is a deb package for Lazarus (which includes the FreePascal compiler binaries) but it’s ancient, and much worse, it does not install the compiler source code, which Lazarus needs. Now, why an IDE needs the source code for its compiler is obscure, but that’s how they wrote it, and when you run Lazarus in the absence of FreePascal’s source code, it complains, and warns that some (unspecified) subset of its features may not work.

The rpm package, on the other hand, is current and complete. In the installation chapter I’d like to describe installation in detail for Windows and the three most popular Linux distros: Ubuntu, Fedora Core, and OpenSuSE. Fedora and OpenSuSE use RPMs. No problem there. Installing Lazarus under Fedora may in fact be as simple as opening a console and typing “yum install lazarus.” (I haven’t tried that yet; more on why a little later.) YaST has OpenSuSE covered. But with the Linux market leader, I’m hosed.

Yes, I know, there are solutions: Get the tarballs from the Web site, build the whole damned thing from source, convert from rpm to deb with Alien, etc. etc. etc. I can do that stuff. But this isn’t about or for me. It’s for people who are just starting in on programming and may be just trying out Linux. I don’t want to explain how to frakking rebuild the whole damned 200 MB monstrosity from source code. (Wasn’t CP/M Turbo Pascal happy to take up 24 KB? Does anybody even remember that old letter “K”?) All that is beside the point. The real question is this: Why can’t the FreePascal/Lazarus guys keep a workable deb package together? I know enough about Debian package management to be sure that it’s possible. (I don’t knows enough, alas, to do it myself.) It isn’t being done. And nobody seems to want to talk about why.

Not having a complete install for Ubuntu made me uneasy about running tests in Lazarus under Ubuntu, so I realized I would have to get instances of Fedora Core and OpenSuSE together. How hard could that be? Well…

  • I created a new VM in Workstation 5 for Fedora Core 12. The install failed partway through, with the VM locked up. “He dies and gives no sign.”
  • Ditto a VM for OpenSuSE. Ditto. The YaST installer could not detect the virtual hard drive created for the VM, so we didn’t even get as far as installation.
  • I reformatted an old Kubuntu partition on a machine downstairs and attempted to install Fedora on it. Different fail, but fail nonetheless. The DVD vetted itself with a clear bill of health, but I may download it again anyway.

I managed to get OpenSuSE to install on that same partition, so I finally have a complete and trustworthy Linux installation of Lazarus. And I will say that I really like OpenSuSE. (This is the first time I’ve ever laid hands on it.) The OpenSuSE Build Service is a thing of beauty.

The double VM fail is a puzzler. And that led to me wonder if newer distros just don’t play well with 2004-era Workstation 5. So I finally took my still-sealed retail copy of Workstation 6 off the shelf, installed it, registered it…and VMware doesn’t seem to know how to license it. I’m sure they don’t do much business in boxed product, but that’s no excuse. Email tech support with their Indian support people has a 24-hour turnaround, and the last time I got a response, the guy sent me the serial number for my copy of Workstation 5 and told me to use that, as it was already licensed. Gakkh. So they have my $180, and I have a copy of Workstation 6 that won’t run. We’re three days into this adventure, and I’m sure nothing will get resolved until Monday. If then.

You wonder why I hate activation systems so violently.

And people wonder why tech books take so long to write.

Screw it. It’s the weekend. I’m going to find the nearest bag of potato chips and eat the whole damned thing.

Rant: Chicago’s Escape from Hell

I didn’t have time to say much the other day about my hometown’s narrow escape from Olympian Hell, and a few days’ wait has allowed me to spot some reasonable analysis by other people, especially Andrew Zimbalist, who I’m sure is often called a Sports Benefits Denier. I was a little surprised that our president would fly over there to lobby for his hometown–it seems a bad use of his time when health insurance reform is sinking out of sight–but that’s the sort of thing that presidents do, and I for one won’t hold it against him.

The nature of the ongoing spend-tax-money-on-sports argument is very nicely summarized over on Slate, in this piece by Brad Flora. It’s the same thing we hear again and again when billionaire sports team owners extort publicly financed stadiums from cities by threatening to move the team to a more gullible venue. The strategy virtually always works, though one wonders how or why.

Such deals never make financial sense for the cities and their taxpayers. It’s a strange ballet of spreadsheets vs. hypnotism: The policy wonks (I’m not sure they’re nerds as I define the term) come up with studies and hard numbers to debunk the Civic Pride and Benefits myths, while the jocks simply repeat statements of tribal emotion over and over until the electorate’s eyes glaze over and caves. It’s the same deal with the Olympics, and perhaps worse. Cities are expected to cough up billions of dollars to host an event lasting a few scant weeks, including the construction of substantial stadiums and athlete housing and lord knows what else, and then figure out how to make the facilities useful after the Games are over and everybody disperses to the four winds.

How can this ever make sense? It took Montreal thirty years to pay off the billions it cost to have the Games there in 1976. Few Olympic facilities get much use after the Games. Past Olympic facilities in some cities are crumbling wrecks behind barbed wire fences or already torn down in whole or in part and dumped in landfills. (That was actually Chicago’s plan from the outset.) The vast sums of money required are virtually always steered into politically friendly hands, and sheesh, guys, this is Chicago we’re talking about! (The sport they play best over there is racketball.) The crush of outsiders makes residents flee to the countryside, and in places where an ongoing tourist economy already exists, tourism falls to nothing before the Games and often remains depressed for years afterwards.

All for a mutated megatourney that has gone 180 from its original purpose: to transcend nationalism and glorify the efforts of individual athletes. Instead, we now have a global festival of flag-flavored tribalistic poo-flinging that takes huge advantage of the dazzling young athletes, who work basically for free while insiders and organizers pocket whatever money comes in.

I know, I know, I always come out against sports, heh. Guilty, and unrepentant. Still, not a single person I know in Chicago (and I know lots) came out for the Games, and if anybody was defending them before, I suspect they’re being very quiet now.

My view is pretty simple: The Olympics have long been too big an event to bounce around the world as though they were a spelling bee. They need to go back to Greece and stay there forever. What we used to spend on building whole cities every four years to host the Games, we should now parcel out as prize money to the athletes, so that they can at least get a college education against the (strong) possibility that there isn’t much money in professional biathalon once the last echoes of Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream” fade to silence.

Rant: The Case for Killing Newsweek

newsweek09212009.jpgI am aghast. Yesterday afternoon I was at Barnes & Noble, and at the checkout stand I saw what must be the most appalling magazine cover ever to appear on a mainstream US magazine. It wasn’t on Hustler or Soldier of Fortune. It was on the latest Newsweek.

I don’t dabble in politics much here, and I haven’t had much to say about the health care debate that others haven’t said many times, and probably better than I would. But I want to make my position clear: If health insurance reform collapses, it won’t be due to any vast, right-wing conspiracy, not with ol’ Newsweek leading the charge. Salon ran this piece back in August. Same gist. Similar stupid title.

There is a meme abroad, and while I don’t know if it has a name, I call it “Lammism.” The gist of the meme is that the elderly are an expensive extravagance, and money spent on them would be far better spent on younger people. This is not a new thing. I gave the meme its name in honor of former Democratic Colorado governor Richard Lamm, who famously said in 1984 that the ill elderly “have a duty to die…and let our kids build a reasonable life.” I guess it’s us or them, Dick, right?

It doesn’t matter that the Newsweek article is far more nuanced than its moronic title suggests. It doesn’t matter if “society needs to have this conversation with itself.” All that matters is that we are scaring the living crap out of our elderly, and if the elderly don’t sign on to health insurance reform, we don’t have a bill. Furthermore, if we dismiss their fears out of hand and pass a bill anyway, there could well be another party in control of Congress after the next election.

The elderly are not simply being paranoid. They know that Medicare is a very sweet deal, especially compared to the insurance situation of a great many younger people. They know that the government spends a huge amount of money on their care and sustenance. Given articles like those I mention above, they can be forgiven for fearing that when the government goes looking for health care cost savings and “waste,” that they will be first in line for close examination. They know that without fairly constant and often expensive medical intervention (paid for through Medicare) many of them would be disabled, dependent and suffering, and a great many more would simply be dead. Small wonder that they’re willing to believe the fearmongering lies of death panels that do not exist.

(The elderly might wave the magazine and reply: Yet.)

In Newsweek, we have a classic example of a print publication floundering to survive, and willing to risk it all on a misleading and alarmist cover line that bears little connection to the cover story. The plug on the cover of the latest issue isn’t connected to Granny. It’s connected to Newsweek.

Please join me while I pull it.

Cranky Insight

I haven’t posted for eight days, and people are starting to send me notes asking if I’m all right. I am, though I’m not sleeping well and don’t have my usual energy. Whatever time and oomph I haven’t had to devote to family issues here I’ve been pouring into the book. I’m now 161,000 words in, of about 180,000 total, so the end really is in sight–but seeing the end isn’t enough. I still have to grind through the material.

I will take an opportunity to gripe a little, this time about the Insight GUI shipped for and with the gdb debugger. Insight isn’t perfect, and parts of it are excellent–especially compared to the molasses marathon of using naked gdb in a console, God help us–but a good deal of it is simply awful. I chose Insight as the example debugging tool for my third edition, in part because it’s technically a component of gdb and not an add-on. However, it comes closer to the truth to say that after I interviewed Linux debuggers for use with C-free assembly code, Insight was the last man standing. Most debuggers assume that they’ll be dealing with clib and C source code, and don’t know how to load a C-free executable, even if contains valid STABS or DWARF debug info. At least Insight allows assembly language source debugging in a window.

As grateful as I am for it, certain things about Insight make me nuts. Good example: The Memory view. This is an ordinary hexdump-style memory display, with only two means of navigation. You can scroll the dump up or down for 16 bytes by clicking the arrows, or you can type in a new address in an entry field. And I mean type–the GUI does not recognize paste from the clipboard. If you want to fill the field with a new address, the keyboard is all you get. Worse, moving up- or down-memory by clicking the arrow buttons takes one to three seconds to refresh the window. (This is not an exaggeration. I timed it.) An operation like that, on a 2.8 GHz machine, should be instantaneous. How about buttons to take us to the address currently in ESP or EIP? Or sheesh, maybe implement paste from the clipboard to the address entry field!

I’m tempted to blame it on the fact that Insight is written in Tcl/Tk, but I’ve actually used Tcl/Tk and I don’t think it’s inherently that slow. The only guess I would hazard is that because working in naked gdb is horrendously ponderous but still nearly universal in the Linux world, the guys who wrote Insight didn’t know any better, and thought that their results were transcendently wonderful. Not true. One click is often (if not always) worth twenty or more frantic keystrokes. To me, that’s a win. You command-line people should get out more.