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Evaluations of products and services

Review: Brass and Steel: Inferno

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It’s 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells…wrong.

It’s 1895, but it’s not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they’re called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They’re convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a cold-fusion boiler. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth’s best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth’s best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.

Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.


To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.

Ancient history. I’ve now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.

Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven’s Warlock stories from the ’70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I’ll get back to in a future entry.)

Jim’s system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke’s Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.

The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; “gritty” doesn’t quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore’s skin. And then there’s this…cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn’t solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I’ll stop now.

As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of “zombie,” and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.

Highly recommended.

Review: Junk Box Arduino

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Junk Box Arduino appeared earlier this summer from Jim Strickland, and I’ve been dipping into it gradually as time allows. In case you’re TL’DRing on me, I’ll give you the money quote: This is in fact the Assembly Language Step-By-Step of Arduino-based electronic tinkering. I’m a good test case: I’m passionate about electronics (some of you have seen my junkbox, which now fills one smallish garage and our repurposed tack house) and I have an Arduino board on my Heathkit ET-3200 logic breadboard box. Decades ago I did some modest embedded work with the RCA COSMAC CPU line, the most important of which was my robot, Cosmo Klein. Before that I did a lot of things with CMOS and TTL, using Don Lancaster’s books as guides.

Jim’s book is how you begin with Arduino if you have some grasp of computing (as most people do these days) but not electronics. And the book is the polar opposite of academic electronics texts with lots of equations but few photos and nothing at all in terms of bench smarts. The grit and grime of practical electronics is everywhere here: This is the first electonics book I’ve ever seen with warnings like jumper cables wear out. They do, and trying to troubleshoot a visually intact but electrically open jumper is a circle of Hell that I’ve visited more than once, in both digital and RF electronics.

Junk Box Arduino goes all the way down to the (literal) metal, and explains how to build an Arduino-compatible circuit right on a broadboard block. You don’t buy a Cestino board; Cestino (which is Italian for “recycle bin”) isn’t a board, but rather an original design from Jim that you wire up yourself out of loose parts, including an ATmega 1284P CPU chip and a 20 MHz can oscillator. Building the Cestino is in fact the first electronics lesson in the book, with Ohm’s Law looming large. The second lesson is building your own in-system programmer (ISP) so you can program the ATmega chip’s bootloader yourself. No, this isn’t a waste of time. Once you build your own ISP you will know how an ISP works, and teaching you how things work is Jim’s mission throughout the book.

The projects run from the simple and obvious (but still necessary) things like flashing an LED all the way up to highly sophisticated circuits like an ATA disk device reader, a Flash programmer, and even a Z80 CPU lashup that teaches how CPUs and memory work by letting the Cestino control the Z80 and allowing us to look at registers and memory while the Z80 executes slowly or pauses in its tracks. Along the way Jim explains assembly and machine language, object-oriented programming, transistor operation, serial communication, and much else.

Which leads to my only real complaint about the book, which has nothing to do with the writing and may be an old-guy thing: The type is fairly small and there is a great deal of material on the pages. This is really a 600-page book laid out in 400 pages, and I understand why with the sanguine clarity that comes of bloodying your own fingers (which I have) trying to get unit costs on books down.

Don’t let that stop you. The book is a helluva deal for $35 ($22 on Amazon.) It’s one of a bare handful of technical books that I wish I had published back when I was still a publisher. If you have any hopes of making an Arduino control anything electronic, this is a must-have. Highly recommended.

The Raspberry Pi 3 Leaps Into Our Laps

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On February 29, Eben Upton announced that the Raspberry Pi was four years old, and to celebrate, the Raspberry Pi Foundation had released the Raspberry Pi 3. I grinned a little: The RPi is a Leap Year baby, and so it might conceivably be considered one year old, since we haven't had another February 29 since its initial release in 2012.

The new board (still out of stock, just checked) is almost identical in physical size and shape to the Raspberry Pi 2, and should be able to bolt into any sort of case or mount designed for the 2. That said, the new board packs a lot more horsepower:

  • A new SoC: the Broadcom BCM2837
  • A 1.2 GHz 64-bit quadcore RM Cortex A53 CPU.
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 right on the board.
  • A VideoCore IV graphics system running at 400 MHz, with the 3D core running at 300 MHz.

Most of the other specs match the RPi 2: 1 GB RAM, HDMI video capable of 1080p at 30 fps, four USB ports, a 1000BASE-T Ethernet port,composite video, and the same GPIO bus.

And still $35.

Many years ago, I think back in the VDM era, I predicted that computers would eventually become swellings along the wire between the keyboard and the screen. We're well along toward that day, but with Bluetooth on the board, there won't be a wire between the keyboard and the screen at all. In fact, there's no reason not to just bolt the computer to the back of a TV or monitor using the VESA mount holes. That's what I did with my RPi 2, and I'll use the same mount for the RPi 3, whenever it shows up. It'll basically become part of the TV, and it'll talk right to my Logitech Bluetooth keyboard/mouse.

I had another thought about mounts for the Pi: Most Dell monitors from the last ten or twelve years have a tab-mount system for amplified stereo speakers built into a bar beneath the lower edge of the screen. The bars are cheap on eBay (look for Dell part #AS501, though there may be other SKUs that snap into those same tabs) and I'm tempted to cut one open and see if I could "persuade" the bar to accept an RPi 3 board, or at least mount a board on the back of one. If I had a 3-D printer I would sketch up a snap-in Dell monitor RPi mount designed for those tabs.

One thing that many have said about the RPi 3 is that it finally has the chops to be a general purpose desktop computer. Granted, you can run a fair number of GUI productivity apps under Raspbian–and MagPi Magazine lays the mag out on an RPi (using Scribus) and has done so since inception. I managed to get the Lazarus IDE installed and running on the original Model B, though it was very sluggish and had to be installed from binary packages. Having 1 GB of memory makes many things possible, especially recompiling open-source apps for the ARM Cortex CPU. Libre Office already runs on the RPi, as do GIMP and Scribus, if slowly. (I tried both, and while they were usable, I'm kind of spoiled by 5+ years of using a quadcore Intel box.)

So what will I do with the board when I finally get one? First of all, it will replace the Pi 2 I have bolted to the back of a 23" Toshiba widescreen TV. As I did with the Pi 2, I'll install Libre Office and several other productivity and graphics apps, just to see how much faster they run.

But most eagerly, I'll be installing Lazarus 1.6. I haven't done a lot of programming over the past year because, well, I've been moving us to Phoenix. I miss it. As I've said here perhaps too often, Lazarus has made programming fun again. Sorry, C/C++ is drudgery, and Python makes whitespace significant, sheesh. (I do like TkInter.) Lazarus on the RPi 2 is nowhere near as sprightly as Lazarus on my Intel quadcore. The Pi 3 can't help but be better.

I'm strongly tempted to continue the (suspended) adaptation of my book Borland Pascal 7 From Square One for Lazarus/FreePascal, because students should be aware that C and Python are not the only damned programming languages in the world. I don't know of anything in Lazarus' class for C/C++ nor in truth any other reasonable language. There are supposedly 8 million RPi boards in the world now. 8 million. That's one helluva potential audience.

On the other hand, if I don't get some traction on a new novel pretty soon, Certain People are going to skin me.

I thought I was retired. I thought retired people were bored. I recall being bored for half an hour once, in (I think) 1967. Whatever the opposite of bored is, I am. The Raspberry Pi 3 isn't going to help with that.

Odd Notes on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4

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Way back in my entry for November 24, 2015, I explained how we lucked into a pair of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphones. The Note 5 was out by then, but I didn’t want it. Why? It has a non-replaceable battery and no internal card slot. That was a deal-killer for me, and something I’ll go into more detail on a little later. We stayed with Verizon, because several people said Verizon has the best local network in Phoenix. (I’ll state from experience that they did not have the best local network in Colorado Springs.)

Why did we want a Note phone at all? I have a lot of Samsung gear, and for the most part it’s been reliable and delivers what was promised of it. The Note 4 is bigger than my 2011-era Droid X2 (a feature I wanted, irrespective of the ghastly coinage “phablet”) but still small enough to fit in my shirt pocket. (I made scale cardboard cutouts of all the major phones I was considering and did the test on several shirts.) More compute power was basically assumed, since my Droid was almost five years old. I wanted a larger, brighter, higher-res display. I wanted S-Health, a piece of Samsung software that does several useful things, like tracking steps and measuring blood oxygen. Carol wanted a stylus. Her fingers have a somewhat strained relationship with touchscreens, and unlike me, she texts a lot. The stylus works perfectly for her.

I didn’t really intend for this to be a review, because by this time I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to find anybody selling Note 4s. Several people have asked me what I think of it, and what I’m doing here is gathering my thoughts on its first ten or twelve weeks in my pocket.

I like the phone a lot, and most of that cooks down to one thing: It consolidates several functions into a single slab. Prior to getting the Note 4, I did most of my ebook reading on my Kindle Paperwhite, which is still a marvelous item. However, it’s another slab, and if I’m running around it has to be carried somewhere. I was poleaxed at how good the Note 4 display is for text, assuming you’re not out in the sun. It runs the Kindle app, and it’s in my pocket any time I’m awake. So if I need an e-reader to kill some time in an unexpectedly bad line at the Post Office, it’s always there. In the photo above we have, L-R, the Kindle Paperwhite, the Galaxy Note 4, and the Droid X2, all running the Kindle app. I still lean toward the Paperwhite when I’m sitting in my comfy chair at home, but the Note 4 comes very close to the same experience.

It has a surprisingly capable digital camera, which (given sufficient light) takes very good HD video. The pedometer/blood oxygen/heart rate monitor serve specific needs of mine right now. I’ve tested the phone performing those functions against other instruments I have at home, and it agrees with all of them. I actually measured out a two-mile walk on MapPoint and walked it with the Note 4 in my pocket and its pedometer feature active. It agreed with MapPoint on the distance to within a couple hundred feet. I’m guessing that GPS helps out a little, as S-Health makes no attempt to physically measure my stride.

On the downside, battery life is nowhere near as good as on the Droid X2. I suppose that’s reasonable, given the device’s greater compute power, but it is annoying. When I’m at home, I find myself plugging it into the charger no later than 3PM and sometimes sooner. I’m not entirely sure how well it would handle a full 14 hour day. When the battery falls below 40%, I simply stop using it. If I had to be away from a charger for over a day (unlikely but possible) I would carry an extra charged battery.

Which brings me to the second point of this entry: The mysterious disappearance of replaceable batteries and SD card slots in modern smartphones. I specifically wanted the Note 4 because the Note 5 has no SD slot, and a non-replaceable battery that limits the useful life of the phone to the life of a single battery. Some say it’s a cost issue, which is nonsense, especially on a $500 high-end phone. Some say it’s a security issue, which puzzles me, since the phone can be set not to deal with apps installed on an SD card. No, these are excuses. I am pretty damned certain that the carriers are putting enormous pressure on the manufacturers (who sell most of their phones through carrier upgrades) to get rid of the card slots. The reason is simple: The carriers want to charge you bigtime for network data, and if you can sideload all your music and movies onto a 128 GB SD card, they won’t get paid when you don’t have to pull them down from the cloud. The battery is collateral damage, because the best excuse for a missing SD slot is to give the phone a back that can’t be removed.

Planned obsolescence is a particular loathing of mine. When I like a piece of gear, I want to be able to use it as long as I choose. (We drove our 1995 Plymouth Voyager for almost 20 years. We’ve had our 4Runner for 15 years now, and intend to go for 20 there as well.) Microsoft’s enormously pesty Windows 10 upgrade offer falls into that category. I like Win7, and feel that it’s by far the best version of Windows yet. I see no reason to stop using it. Sooner or later, MS is going to make the upgrade mandatory, or at least slip it in under the door in the middle of night, rather like Congress did with Obamacare. What happens then I don’t know and probably won’t talk about, except to say that I will keep on using Win7. Or perhaps switch to a Linux distro that’s been tweaked to look just like Win7. I have Zorin (if not the latest version) and may consider something like RoboLinux that runs Win7 in a VM. We’ll see.

Carol and I have now had enough experience with our phones to decide that we’re just not going to have a landline put in down here in Phoenix. We haven’t had one here for two months now, and haven’t missed it a bit. That’s a first for us: Neither of us has ever lived for more than a few days without a landline. (We also bought an indoor TV antenna and so far have not missed cable, either.)

The note 4 runs all the apps I’m used to running: Voice Search, Google Maps, Weather Underground, Sky Map, Waze, GPS Test, SoundHound, a couple of dumb puzzle games, and whatever else comes with the phone. Response is more than perky enough for my needs, which are nowhere near as smartphone-centric as a lot of people’s.

Bottom line: It’s a good phone. It can be loaded to the gills with Flash memory, and you can keep a spare battery in your pack. If you have one, take care of it, because given the carriers’ data-based business model, we may not see its like again.

All the Myriad Waze

Several weeks ago, Carol and I got stuck in traffic on I-25 on the south end of Denver. We were trying to get home to Colorado Springs, and traffic was at a standstill. We didn’t know where the problem was, nor how to get around it. So we took most of an hour to get a couple of miles. The next day I tracked down a fuzzy memory of a mobile app that maps traffic congestion using crowdsourced reports from app users. It only took a minute to find Waze. I installed it on my phone, and Carol and I have been playing with it ever since.

We don’t punch a clock anymore and have no commute, but whenever we have to go across town (which for Colorado Springs is about fifteen miles tops) we fire up Waze and look at the prospective route. It’s definitely saved us some stop-and-go time, especially on I-25, which is the only freeway we have here.

Waze is basically an interactive map on which reports from users are plotted in something very close to realtime. These include speed traps, wrecks, potholes, construction, and other miscellaneous hazards. The reports are generally accurate, right down to the potholes. When traffic is slow, Waze knows it, because GPS can calculate your speed. When two or more Waze users are going slow on a particular route, Waze paints the road in red and indicates what the speed currently is.

This is cleverness but not genius. Back in the wardriving era when GPS was first commonly available (back in 2000-2003 or so) I had this notion that a system could gather information about speed traps, if only there were a way to get reports to the central server from user cars. Then, wham! Smartphones happened. The rest is history.

No, the genius part of Waze is that its creators turned it into a sort of combination video game and social network. Waze users are plotted on Waze maps right along with the speed traps and potholes. It integrates with things like Foursquare. You get points by submitting reports and spotting errors on Waze maps. (You actually get points just by driving around with Waze running on your phone, which allows them to gauge speeds on the roads.) People with the most points get swords, shields, or crowns to wear on their little ghost-like Waze icons. Intriguingly, you can send messages to other Waze users, create teams of drivers, and other things that I haven’t quite figured out yet, including searches for cheap gas. Even doing as little driving as we do, in three weeks we managed to rack up over 900 points. There’s a stack rank of users for each state. (We’re down in the 100,000 range for Colorado.) Carol got some points for making roadkill out of a piece of hard candy that mysteriously appeared on the Waze map in front of us. If that sort of thing appealed to us, I suspect we would be addicts, like the people with over half a million points obviously are.

There are two fairly obvious downsides to the Waze system:

  • To be useful, Waze requires that a certain critical mass of users be prowling around your town, reporting things. Here in the Springs, this rarely happens outside rush hours. I’m guessing that in smaller towns, Waze never really gets out of first gear. Like so much these days, it’s a YUH (young urban hipster) phenomenon.
  • As if I even had to mention, it’s yet another driver distraction, probably in the same league with texting. That’s why we only use it when we’re both in the car, and Carol typically does the reporting and the sniffing ahead for congestion.

I’m starting to see articles about how cops hate it because of speed trap reporting, which suggests that, at least in large urban areas, it’s working as designed. I like it for the sake of the traffic reports, which I suspect will be even more useful the next time we’re in Denver, or lord knows Chicago. Problematic for one, useful (and sometimes fun) for two.

Cautiously recommended.

Review: The Impossible Baofeng HTs

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I bought my first ham radio handheld (“handied-talkie” or HT) back in 1977. The Standard Radio SR-C146 had five crystal-controlled channels and weighed two pounds. (No wonder they called it a “brick.”) No TT pad, no CTCSS. I don’t recall what I paid for it new, but I’m thinking $350–and that didn’t even include a charger. (I built a charger for it from scratch!) That would be about $1400 today. It was a really big deal, and I used it for almost ten years, until I bought an Icom HT at Dayton in 1986.

In truth, I never used HTs all that much except at hamfests. I’ve had 2M mobiles in various cars, and for the past 18 years or so have used an Alinco mobile rig as a base. I still have the Icom in a box somewhere, but the case is cracked and it’s been in the corner of my mind to get a new HT for almost ten years.

Then Bob Fegert mentioned the Baofeng dual-band UV-82 HT, which now sells on Amazon for $37 brand new. (I actually paid $35.) In 1977 dollars, that would have been…ten bucks. So I ordered one. While cruising the Web looking at reviews and commentary on the unit, I happened upon the Baofeng BF-888S. Amazon had those for $15. $3.85 in 1977 funds. So I bought one of those as well, just to see what a $15 HT could do.

Both radios put out 1W or 4W selectable. The UV-82 covers the 2M and 70cm bands. The BF-888S covers only the 70cm band. Well, actually not only the ham bands, which is an issue worth a little discussion here. Many commenters on the ham boards loathe these radios, for a simple reason: They claim the ham radio positioning is only a ruse, to get around FCC type acceptance.

The problem is that for use on the several business bands, the Family Radio Service (FRS), the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS), a transceiver must meet certain FCC requirements and pass tests to ensure that it meets those requirements. This is called type acceptance. A type-accepted radio will transmit only where its type acceptance allows. There are other requirements that aren’t about frequency. FRS radios, for example, may not have removable antennas. Ham radio gear, on the other hand, does not require FCC type acceptance at all.

These are software-defined radios. Within a broad band of frequencies dictated by the output power amp, they can receive or transmit anywhere you want them to. A free program called CHIRP allows you to create a special-purpose database of frequencies and other settings, save it as a file, and then squirt it into the radio through a USB cable. It’s nominally illegal to use a radio like the BF-888S on FRS or GMRS, but a quick Web scan shows that it’s evidently done quite a bit. The type acceptance process takes time and money, so a radio pitched for amateur use can cost less.

The flexibility of using CHIRP to set frequencies and settings allows these radios to also act as scanners and receive public safety and weather channels. It’s possible to disable transmit on any frequency, which I did for the weather channels. (One of the downsides of the display-less BF-888S is that it’s not always obvious what frequency you’re tuned to. Mistakes are possible, and in this case may be rule violations that may cause interference.)

As 2M and 70cm radios, they’re pretty good. I can hit all the repeaters I usually reach from here, just using the “rubber duckie” antennas. Audio is clean and strong. The UV-82 has a better receiver: Weak local signals will break squelch on the UV-82 when they won’t budge the BF-888S.

There are some downsides:

  • Neither radio has a squelch knob. Squelch levels are parameters that you set from the keypad (for the UV-82) or in CHIRP. This can be annoying if your noise level rises and falls for some reason, or if a weak signal is right on the edge of squelch. (The BF-888S has a button that turns squelch off while pressed, which is better than nothing.)
  • The chargers are flimsy and almost weightless. I’m not sanguine about how long they’ll last, and they certainly aren’t physically stable. Nor are the chargers or charge voltages the same for the two radios.
  • The antenna connectors are SMAs. I had to order some SMT-UHF adapters so that I could use my discone antenna up in the attic.
  • Both radios “speak” a channel number when you move up or down the channel set. With the BF-888S this is the only reliable way to know where you’re sitting, as the numbers on the channel select knob are almost invisible.
  • The UV-82 has a broadcast FM radio feature, which works fairly well but is not easy to use, especially if you switch stations a lot. (It is a little weird hearing classical music coming out of a ham radio HT.)
  • Although it would be very useful, I don’t think it’s possible to control (rather than simply program) either radio through the USB cable.

Both radios have white LED flashlights built-in, for what it’s worth.

So. I’m sure a Yaesu or an Icom HT would be better in a great many ways. However, Icom HTs don’t cost $35. Given how little I use HTs, the price was irresistable. How well they will serve over time is an open question. They seem rugged enough to withstand a certain amount of outdoor rough-and-tumble. If they break (or if anything weird happens) I’ll certainly tell you here.

So far, recommended.

Walk Like an Egyptian, Become an Australian

19 Crimes Red Blend.pngI’ve been trying red blends lately, and stumbled upon a very good one last week: 19 Crimes Red, 2013. Smooth, extremely dark, and highly drinkable, with enough residual sugar to banish the bitter pox of oak without making the wine taste perceptibly sweet. Falls somewhere between Middle Sister Rebel Red and Menage a Trois Red on my Chart of Wine Esteem. 19 Crimes is Australian, and a mix of shiraz, pinot noir, grenache, and cabernet sauvignon.

Somebody put a fair bit of money into their marketing campaign, which focuses on a peculiarity of late 18th Century British law: the list of 19 crimes that made you eligible for a one-way trip to Australia. They all seem like pretty minor matters and were mostly petty larceny: stealing cash or goods with a value of less than a shilling; stealing shrouds from graves; clandestine marriage; bigamy, and so on. Keep in mind that crimes like murder or treason were not on the list because those (and a great many other things) were hanging offenses, and as Colin Wilson vividly described in The Criminal History of Mankind, the British were not squeamish about executions circa 1800.

Then there’s Crime #5: Impersonating an Egyptian.

Tut, tut. Can’t have that. My WTF meter was pegged, and it took a little online research to figure this one out. First of all, it isn’t on all online copies of the list of 19 Crimes, and several lists give #5 as Stealing Ore from Black Lead Mines. But there it is, right on the 19 Crimes wine site itself, and a number of other places. The gist of Crime #5 is actually this: Don’t be a gypsy. The Romany in that period were thought to be wandering Egyptians (though they are in fact of East Indian stock) and were accused of all sorts of things, from idolatry to thievery to fortune telling. Like the Jews, they were convenient scapegoats, and subject to many of the same persecutions that Jews suffered down through history. Genetic testing didn’t exist back then, so if you looked more or less like a Gypsy, wham! Off you went to Oz.

It’s unclear from my reading how many of the Romany actually ended up in Australia, so maybe Crime #5 wasn’t enforced as ruthlessly as the other 18. (If any of my Australian readers know more about this, please share in the comments.) In fact, the greatest Romany population of any country is right here in the US, at about a million.

The wine itself is excellent. About $10. Highly recommended.

Review: T-Bob’s Barbecue

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Carol and I are planning another of our canonical nerd parties for later this month, which requires a fair pile of food. We’re tolerable cooks but we’re not foodies, and the skill of putting together enough chow for thirty-odd highly educated and culturally sophisticated eccentrics was not a gene we received. So once again, we’re looking at catering.

Which means we’re thinking about T-Bob’s Barbecue. I’d have Ted (the “T;” Bob has been gone for some time) cater the party like a shot. Only snag: He’s at Algonquin and Elmhurst Roads, which is…1,100 miles away. So it goes.

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When Carol and I are in Chicago, we have an emerging ritual of piling over to T-Bob’s with my sister and Bill after they drop the girls off at school, for a late (or for us, often second) breakfast. Wonderful place, the sort of one-off eatery we don’t have many of here in the Springs. It’s got deli-style blackboards and daily specials and…egad…Diet Mountain Dew. Better still, the guy who owns the place is, as often as not, the guy you see behind the counter.

Much good stuff here. Obviously, the barbecue, which comes highly recommended from afionados whom I trust, like Bill. (For still-unknown reasons, nearly all barbecue sauce from all sources disagrees with me, as much as I enjoy it.) I’ll personally vouch for the pulled pork, which you can get as a conventional sandwich or a wrap. Ditto the fried catfish, which is about as good as catfish gets, and swims rings around any other fast-food fish I’ve ever tried. Excellent fries and cornbread.

Given that we’re there mostly in the morning, I generally have scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash-browns, and although it’s easy to say you can’t do those badly, trust me, you can. Not here. The eggs are done and the bacon is crisp, the hash browns just brown enough. Coffee’s very good, though in truth, I generally cave to temptation and have Diet Mountain Dew, even with breakfast. (I don’t drink it at home anymore, so having it at all is a bit of an event, given that Carol and I eat out maybe three times a month.) Bob’s got a number of other things you won’t see in fast food contexts very often, like pulled chicken, cane-sugar sodas from Mexico and baked sweet potato.

Open 8:30 AM to 8PM, 9PM on weekends. Caters (sigh.) Highly recommended.

The Strangest Computer I’ve Ever Built

COSMAC Face Card.jpg

Lee Hart sent me the guldurndest thing for Christmas: One of his RCA COSMAC CDP1802 Face Card kits. I needed a distraction from a number of things, starting but not ending with publisher disputes. Lee’s Face Card was just the ticket. I haven’t done much PCB soldering in the last few years. Most of what I have done in the electronics sphere was point-to-point, generally on tube circuits. I hadn’t soldered a 40-pin DIP in, well, um…decades?

There’s a knack to it, and I had to dig around a little to find my roll of Ersin .022 Sn63 solder, but after a few minutes’ careful practice it all came back. The kit doesn’t include a 40-pin socket, but I always socket CPUs. The CPU chip I used (see above) has a distinguished history: It was the very same chip I ordered for my original COSMAC Elf project in the fall of 1976. Later it migrated to my second, heavily hacked Elf design (here’s the board mounted on what really was a scrap Xerox 3100 platen cover) with ten banks of CMOS memory (2,560 bytes!) a breadboard block, and a hex keypad. That second Elf board, in turn, became one of two CDP 1802 machines in my well-known robot Cosmo Klein:

Cosmo Klein Color 500 Wide.jpg

Cosmo and I did the SF con circuit from 1978 to the early 80s, and we were actually featured in Look Magazine, as well as an early cable TV program that no one saw.

So I have a certain history with RCA’s peculiar COSMAC architecture, and have built a number of peculiar computers with it. I’m pretty sure none of them were ever quite as peculiar as Lee’s Face Card. Why? The Face Card has no memory, volatile or nonvolatile. It does not run software. Actually, it’s strapped specifically so that it doesn’t run software. (More on this in a moment.) What it does is light up groups of LEDs to make an animated face. How it does this is, well, peculiar: The LEDs are driven from the 1802 chip’s address lines. The data bus is left floating. The 1802, when reset, begins executing code starting at address 0000 in memory. If there’s no memory and the data bus is floating, the chip just executes empty air. The patterns that appear on the address lines aren’t quite random, but close enough so that the LED eyebrows, face, and mouth move in almost random variations. Oh, and the clock speed? One cycle per second.

Peculiar enough for you?

One of the data bus lines has to be pulled high to prevent the binary instruction 00 from executing. This is the HALT opcode, and if empty air delivers 00 to the data bus, the Face Card will freeze and the face pattern will no longer change.

I have special affection for the Face Card because one of the two COSMAC machines in Cosmo displayed an animated face on a portable TV atop his body. Cosmo could look around, smile, frown, and (on a touchtone signal from my 2M HT) lick his chops.

I built the Face Card in about an hour and a half. I’m careful, I work slowly, and I test most components before soldering them into a circuit board. It worked as designed when I turned it on. Theoretically, the system can run on any power source from 4-6VDC. I found that a 5V supply didn’t quite cut it. Some of the LEDs didn’t light fully, and the patterns seemed to get “stuck” now and then. The board has been running at 6V for two days now, and things are brighter and livelier. They’ll be even livelier when I cut the clock generator resistor in half and double the clock speed to two cycles per second.

$19.95 + $5 shipping. CPU socket not included, but I think using one is a good idea.

Highly recommended.

Carmax and the No-Haggle Revolution

Durango First Day 500 Wide.jpg

The last Sunday of April, 2001, Carol and I stopped at a Toyota dealership on the way home from church. We’d been thinking about a new car for some time. Our 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee was not all that old, but it was a lemon and had become increasingly unreliable. We’d been considering the 4Runner and wanted to test-drive one. So we pulled into the dealer lot, and swung back the big glass door leading into a uniqely American vision of Purgatory. Six hours later, we emerged with a new 4Runner, and a solemn promise to one another that we would never do that again.

We’ve kept that promise.

It wasn’t easy. Carol and I did our homework. We scoured the Web for reviews, asked our mechanic and our nephew Matt, who’s a car hobbyist, and generally kept our ears open. We knew what we needed: A full-size SUV to replace our almost 20-year-old Plymouth Voyager minivan. The Voyager was 2WD, and the winters here in Colorado have been getting colder, grayer, and snowier. Our local government is throwing that classic extortion tantrum of selectively witholding public services until we raise taxes on ourselves, in this case refusing to plow streets in well-off neighborhoods like ours. Voters here do not bully easily, and have given them the finger three times in a row now, which still leaves us the problem of winter driving in a 2WD minivan. Winter this year basically began on November 1, which we took to be a Sign. We needed to trade in the van for something with a tranfer case. We were not going to do it by enduring another six hours of franchise dealership kabuki.

Our first thought was to use the Costco car-buying program. This is a no-haggle arrangement whereby the dealers and Costco agree on a price for each model and option. You ask for the price, and if you want the car, you pay it. That sounded fine to us. We used their Web site and contacted the Costco liaison at the big local Dodge dealer. We told him we wanted a 2014 Dodge Durango with our list of must-have and nice-to-have features. The guy did his best (I think) but didn’t come up with much.

Part of that was the odd list of features we wanted. Some, like a lack of second-row captain’s chairs, clustered in the two lower trim styles. Others, like a power liftgate, clustered in the higher trim styles. The color we wanted (a golden beige they call Pearl) seemed not to exist. The whites and reds did exist, but swam in a sea of black. You can get second-degree burns off a black car in Scottsdale, where we may soon be spending winters. Black was thus a deal-killer. We found a couple of contenders ourselves in the central Dodge inventory listings. The cars were on the far side of Denver. I emailed the listings to the Costco rep at the local Dodge dealer, who then had trouble getting the remote dealership to cooperate.

In the meantime, our nephew Matt suggested that we look at used cars. He’d bought a used Jeep through TrueCar and was delighted with it. I’d heard about CarMax, and had driven past their local retail location a number of times. So Carol and I looked at their inventory online, found a couple of cars that weren’t too far from what we wanted, and figured we’d give their system a try.

CarMax is a car-lot no-haggle system for buying used cars. We emailed a request for a test drive, and one of their reps contacted us and set up an appointment. We went out there and we drove ourselves a Durango. The car was a 2013, and whereas it drove very well, it had 27,000 miles on it and a V8 hemi under the hood. Carol and I wanted a V6 with under 15,000 miles on it. The CarMax rep, Derek Scott, scanned around other CarMax locations and found a couple of possibilities, again, up in the Denver area. He offered to have the best of them brought down to Colorado Springs at no charge so we could try it here.

He did. It took only two days. We drove it, we liked it, he stated a price, appraised the Voyager for a trade-in, and gave us a final number. We arranged financing, then went back the next day to push papers, and finally drove it home. No kabuki. No pressure. Sure, I might have gotten it for a thousand bucks less somewhere else (maybe) after another week or two of enduring the franchise dealership hell-hole. We felt disinclined to put ourselves through that wringer again.

So now we have a 2014 Durango Limited with 12,000 miles on it. We like the tan interior for the same reason we wanted a tan exterior–less heat absorption. The vehicle didn’t have a tow package, but it met all of our other requirements. I can get a real Mopar tow package installed for about $750, which I will when things settle down a little. (Our next assignment: Get new phones and a new carrier. Uggh.)

About CarMax I have nothing but the best to say. Their people were terrific (especially Derek Scott) and showed no impatience with us whatsoever. They brought out a car from another store without charging us for it, and gave us about what I expected for a 19-year-old minivan trade-in. Highly recommended.

I wonder, at this point, how long the traditional franchise dealership model would last if it were not protected by state law. I settled for a used car instead of a new car in part because I wanted nothing to do with a dealership. Even when I tried to work with a dealership (via Costco) the other dealerships didn’t seem to want the business. We would have replaced the Voyager years ago if we could have stomached the thought of going new car shopping as the law requires us to do it. I don’t think that the dealers, the manufacturers, nor the government itself have any idea how much that dealership kabuki has lost the industry in new car sales. It’s another example of a brittle business model that will fail badly when it fails, because its proponents can’t get their heads around the way their world is going.

I can’t say much about the car just yet. I’m still trying to program its multitude of options. (The Durango’s 626-page owner’s manual has to be special-ordered in print form and is not shipped with the vehicle.) It’s big, shiny, and so far works perfectly. I guess that’s more than enough for the time being.