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The End of Owgust

My father had a saying. (Actually, he had a lot of sayings, most of which you’ve long since heard.) This one I’m pretty sure he got from his mother, my grandmother, whom I heard use it a number of times: “The end of Owgust.” (If it came from Sade Prendergast Duntemann, it could well be an Irish thing; I don’t know.) It just means we’re coming to the end of something generally good, like summer vacation, which in truth used to last until the end of Owgust, but now often ends barely after Owgust even begins.

Here in Arizona, the end of Owgust is seen by many as a feature rather than a bug, since by a lot of Arizona people’s reckonings, Owgust begins in May and lasts until mid-September. By Labor day, most people would like to see nightly lows in the 70s again, so we can open our windows at night.

Carol and I tend to get a little tired of our four-month long Owgust as the end approaches, and we were planning to drive up to Colorado to spend some time with friends and see what air in the 60 degree range feels like again.

Not this year.

Our poor QBit was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of months ago, and we can see his steady decline. We don’t know how long we’ll have him, but it’s unlikely to be more than another month or two. We didn’t want to subject him to an 850-mile road trip, so we stayed home and spent more time in the pool. Lymphoma was what took out our very first bichon, the famous Mr. Byte, in 1995, and is evidently the commonest cancer in dogs. We gave Mr. Byte doggie chemo, but it only bought us a few additional months with him, and made him pretty sick at times. We’re not going to do that again.

So if I’ve been a little short on manic enthusiasm lately, that’s most of the problem.

Other things are going pretty well. Little by little I’ve been getting used to the nasal pillows mask for my APAP machine, which is reporting AHI values generally less than 1, and here and there actually 0. I’m using the great free program Sleepyhead, which displays graphs of your AHI, whatever events it had to handle, mask pressure and leaks, and much more. If you use a recording C/A/BiPAP machine with a compatible SD card format, check it out. It’s told me a number of interesting things, like the fact that events cluster at the end of the night for some reason, and that I record more events when I sleep on my left side than on my right. Highly recommended.

I had some time to play around with my dirt-cheap HP dc7900 Ultra-Slim PC, and liked it so much I ordered another one. The first one was cheap at $37 (I had to provide a hard drive and Win7) but when I went out and looked again on eBay, I found a complete system, including a 64-bit dc7900 with a hard drive and Windows 7, plus power supply, keyboard, mouse, monitor stand, and a 19″ HP flat-panel monitor. The price? $65. For the woiks. Ok, I had to pay another $25 shipping, but that means I got a complete system dropped on my porch for $90. (Stock photo above, but that’s exactly how it looks, granted that the cables aren’t shown.)

dc7900 speaker 300 wide.jpgThe HP monitor stand is nice, certainly nicer than Dell’s. The dc7900 did not come with an internal speaker, but given the size of the speaker (my first machine has one) I doubt it’s good for much more than beeps. And if I ever want one, I can get a NOS unit on eBay for $5. (The Dell speakers for their USFF lines had built-in audio amps and much better fidelity.)

The system will replace an older Dell machine that Carol has been using for some time, with a slower processor and a maddeningly intermittent front panel that prevents her from plugging thumb drives into the front of the box. The machines are roughly the same size, but the Dell electronics have been twitchy, and the combo monitor stand horrendous. The old machine has external speakers, so the HP’s near-microscopic squeakplate won’t be an issue. The HP is newer, and the Dell cost me three times as much when I bought it five years ago.

Overall, a huge win!

Finally, seeing listings on eBay for sales lots of literally hundreds of used “cube machines” like the dc7900, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s the end of Owgust for the ordinary, non-gamer desktop PC industry. You don’t need a lot of crunch power for word processing, spreadsheets, local databases, or (most of) the Web. Even with only 4GB installed, I streamed a whole movie on the first dc7900 without a glitch. So these machines are perfectly usable for ordinary people doing ordinary computer-y things. You can spend $500+ for a desktop box at Best Buy…or you can get the whole damned system from eBay for $90, delivered. They’re not new. But they’re clean, small, and rugged. Parts are available on eBay, from the crappy little microspeaker up to whole motherboards–though at these prices, I consider the machines disposable and won’t be replacing any misbehaving mobos.

A lot of desktops are being replaced by laptops, which is really where the action is these days, as well as the high prices manufacturers prefer to get. If you’re going to stick with a boring desktop PC, you might as well get one used for 75% (or more) off retail. I’ve got a big hulking custom Core I5-2400 quad, which I’ve used since 2012, and it’s still more than fast enough for my needs. Furthermore, it’s in a Thermaltake V9 Blacx case with SATA sockets on the top panel for backup drives. Damned useful. I could get a faster mobo for it, but…why?

This all reminds me of a Contra entry I posted back in 2009, about how with cars (and silverware) lasting a lot longer than in years past, we need to manufacture fewer cars and less silverware to avoid saturating the market. The same goes for PCs. As each wave of compact cubicle machines comes off depreciation and heads for eBay, the price of a perfectly usable desktop machine goes down. Even if the $65 deal I got last week was unusual, it won’t be for long. Keep your eyes open.

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

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Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

Cropped Front View dc7900 - 500 Wide.jpg

I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

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Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

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The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.

Hose Wars, Part 1: Overview

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About a year or so ago, the bottom began to fall out of my supply of personal energy. At the time I assumed it was due to my age, or to all the effort I was pouring into our move down here from Colorado Springs, selling the Springs house, fixing up our Scottsdale house, and so on.

Now, virtually all of that stuff is done with…and my energy hasn’t come back.

I started a decent new novel at the end of 2016, and while I got off to a pretty brisk start, I’m now 42,000 words in and making little progress. I have other projects that I’ve done some work on, however, writing is the most difficult thing I do. It’s also the most important to me personally. If something starts getting in the way of my writing, I have to get to the bottom of it.

So it was that in February of this year I did a sleep study. I’d had one done at a Colorado Springs sleep clinic in 2010, but the wires and electrodes and everything kept me awake so much of the night that the pulmonologist declared the study inconclusive. To have a sleep study, well, it helps to be able to sleep.

Sleep study tech has gotten way better in the last eight years. I went down to the sleep lab and picked up a gadget that was something like a stiff but adjustable plastic headband. The part that contacted my forehead had a tacky, silicone-y feel to it, and embedded in the silicone were several electrodes and an LED oximeter. There were no wires and no separate electrodes to get tangled up in, like I had in 2010. The electrodes provided some EEG functionality, and the oximeter continuously monitored my blood oxygen, which is an issue I’ve had for some years. (It was one reason we no longer live at 6700 feet.)

The headband gadget was remarkably comfortable, at least compared to the ratsnest they trussed me up in back in 2010. I was able to sleep on my side, which I’ve done now for probably forty years. (When I sleep on my back I tend to compress the ulnar nerves in my arms, which makes them go numb and then prickly when I wake up.) I took a new-model sleeping pill (I’ll come back to that) and managed to sleep for almost the entire night while the headband gathered data.

The good news ended there. I returned the headband device to the sleep lab, where they downloaded the data and sent the reports to my pulmonologist. I had an AHI of 36, which means I stopped breathing an average of 36 times an hour across the seven hours that I slept with the thing on my head. Basically, I stopped breathing every…two…minutes.

No wonder my blood oxygen was excursing down into the low 80s.

Breathing is good, and tech steps in where nature fails. I was given a prescription for a ResMed AirSense 10 Autoset APAP device (above) and was fitted with a couple of face masks. Laying hands on the actual machine involved a surreal struggle with insurance paperwork, but I finally got it, and about ten days ago I started using it. For the first week, my average AHI was…3.67. That’s literally an order of magnitude better than what the headband reported. Last night was my best night yet, with an AHI of only 2.44.

The AirSense 10 records data on a standard SD card. There’s a clever open-source reporting utility called Sleepyhead that you can install under Windows, Mac, or Linux. There’s a Linux binary for Ubuntu 14.04, or you can rebuild from source. Here’s the wiki for the software, with a link to the user guide. (The software is written in C++, alas, or I’d be tempted to tinker it.)

Sleepyhead aggregates your data by day, week, or month (or just “always”) and presents a number of graphs for the stats gathered by the machine. There’s also a feature to report oximetry data, but I don’t have a recording oximeter yet and haven’t tried that feature, which is described as “cranky.”

I’ve read a number of people report that starting in on CPAP made them feel like ten-year-olds again. This has never been a longing I’ve had (what, go through puberty twice? I think not!) and in truth the improvement I’ve felt so far has been, speaking charitably, incremental. The road has been rocky, and I’m going to have to divide the full story into several entries. Stay tuned.

Egg++ and My USB Microscope

Something a little peculiar happened this morning. I cracked an egg into a (white) bowl for scrambling, and the albumen looked a little pink rather than clear. Blood, fersure, though I already knew (I don’t know why) that blood in an egg doesn’t necessarily mean that the egg was fertilized. However…next to the yolk was a little brown thing about 3/8″ long. It was about the right shape for an embryo, but it was too small to pick out any details. So…

…I cranked up my new USB microscope, which I got from Carol for my 65th birthday this summer. Worked like a champ:

minisee0002-500 Wide.jpg

I’m no expert in chicken embryology, so this is still a guess, but I’ve never seen anything like it in an egg before. The pink in the albumen suggests blood, after all.

Here’s the setup I used to take the photo, which will show you the microscope and its focusing stage:

microscope-500 wide.jpg

Like any reasonable optical microscope (we have one from Carol’s college years in biology) it has a coarse focus (the knurled column attached to the metal base) and a fine focus on the end of the camera tube itself. It plugs into any USB port and draws whatever power it needs from the port.

The device shown above costs $77.95 from Amazon.

If you don’t think squicky blobby things do the instrument justice, here’s something on the hardware side. This is a surface-mount LM386 audio amp, measuring just a hair over 3/16″ long:

LM386SM0002.jpg

The imaging software I’m using (free) is called MiniSee, and it works tolerably well. Other packages exist, and as time allows I’m going to try them.

The real challenge with the microscope is lighting. Lighting makes a huge difference in the quality of the image coming in from the sensor. There are eight white LEDs in a circle around the sensor, with a brightness control built into the USB cable. These work well for looking into dark places (like the back of my mouth) but don’t do well with objects lying on the metal stage. A flat black background is useful, especially for metallic objects. I intuit that some sort of small gooseneck desk lamp would do the trick, and I’m looking.

The instrument comes with a number of plastic probe tips for looking at your ear canal, up your nose, and, well, where the sun don’t shine. The mini-CD wouldn’t spin up on my quadcore, and as it turns out I didn’t need it, given MiniSee. (One of the reviewers on Amazon claims it’s all in Chinese, anyway.)

Overall, I’m more than pleased, especially for something in the $75 price class. There may be better ones. I see quite a few on Amazon. But this one will do.

Oh…I scrambled the egg and ate it, once I picked out the embryo. What’s a little chicken blood when dinner generally hits the table medium-rare and still dripping?

I’ve Been to Chattanooga at a Con with No Politics

Well, that won’t be the title of a Top 10 song, fersure. However, it’s true: I went to my first SF convention in five years. It’s called LibertyCon. It was in Chattanooga, Tennesee, thereby taking my list of un-visited states down to 11. I had a truly marvelous time. I’m going next year, 1,500-mile air distance be damned.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Libertycon reminded me of the 1970s, minus the hormones, the frizzy hairdos, and the leisure suits. Back in the 70s, when we went to cons it was for the writing, the art, the authors, the huckster room, the parties, and all the other people who were there. We didn’t go to cons to talk about politics. In fact, we avoided the handful of losers who insisted on talking about politics, and if they got too much in our faces, we chewed them out. This element of con culture began to disintegrate in the mid-1980s, which, not coincidentally, is about the time I stopped going to cons, beyond the occasional Worldcon that was within easy driving distance.

Just imagine! There were no panels on how Gambians are under-represented in fantastic fiction, nor panels explaining why setting stories in Gambia is cultural appropriation. The insufferable John Scalzi was not present, and was not yelling that everyone could kiss his ass. (He does this so much I wonder if he’s mispelling “kick.”) There was no code of conduct granting the concom the power to throw you out of the con if you said something that somebody at the con didn’t like.

No. We listened to panels and solo presentations about designing alien species, collaborating on writing projects, overcoming writer’s block, satellites vs. space junk, future plagues, junk science, the New Madrid fault system, the future of military flight, space law and space treaties, writing paranormal romance (with the marvelous subtitle “Lovers and Stranger Others”), inventions and the patent system, the future of cyberwarfare, cryptozoology, and much else. See what’s not on that list? Well, I won’t drop any hints if you don’t.

Note well that this is about con programming and con management. Here and there politics crept into private conversations of which I partook, but I heard neither Trump bashing nor this “God-Emperor” crap. There was occasional talk of governance, which some of us called “politics” in ancient times before partisan tribalism polluted the field. There was much talk of guns, and nobody had to look over their shoulders before speaking. There was also much talk of swords and knives and how such things are made.There was a great deal of talk about whiskey, but then again, this was Tennessee. (And nobody held the fact that I don’t like whiskey against me.) There was, in fact, talk about damned near everything under and well beyond the Sun. What was missing was shaming, whining, and tribal loyalty signaling. (There is no virtue in “virtue signaling.”) It was nothing short of delicious.

The list of authors present was impressive: my friends Dan and Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, David Weber, Tom Kratman, Peter Grant, David Drake, Jason Cordova, Stephanie Osborn, Karl Gallagher, Lou Antonelli, John Van Stry, David Burkhead, Michael Z. Williamson, Richard Alan Chandler, Jon del Arroz, Declan Finn, Dawn Witzke, and many others. Baen’s Publisher Toni Weisskopf was the con MC, but she always attracted such crowds that I never managed to get within several feet of her. Space law expert Laura Montgomery was there, and I lucked into breakfast with her and her friend Cheri Partain. I also had some quality time with master costumer Jonna Hayden.

In truth, I had quality time with quite a number of online friends, most of whom I met at the con for the first time. I made a special effort to talk to indie writers. Most said they were selling books (generally ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle store) and making tolerable money if not a steady living. The question that has been hanging over the indie crowd for years is still there, flashing like a neon sign: How to rise above the noise level and get the attention of the staggeringly large audience for $3-$5 genre fiction ebooks. I talked to a number of people about that, and there are still no good answers.

But the conversation continued, untroubled by identity politics, or indeed politics of any stripe. The food was good. But then, I don’t go to cons for the food. I didn’t get a room at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which is in fact a weird accretion of a train station, some old train cars, and a conventional hotel building. I stayed at the Chattanoogan a few blocks away, just to be sure I had a dark, quiet room to escape to when the revels were ended each night. About all I can complain about are aching feet, but then again, that’s why God created Advil.

As best I know, there is nothing like LibertyCon anywhere in the country, and certainly nothing in the West. I will be there next year, with sellable hardcopies of The Cunning Blood, Ten Gentle Opportunities, the Drumlins Double, Firejammer, and (with some luck) Dreamhealer. Many thanks to all who spent time with me, especially Ron Zukowski, Jonna Hayden, and the Hoyts, all of whom went to great lengths to make me feel welcome and part of the club.

It’s amazing how much fun you can have when you agree with all present to leave the filth that is politics outside the door, and ideally across the county line. That’s why LibertyCon is what it is, and why they limit membership to 750. My guess is that there is room for other events like LibertyCon elsewhere in our country. If you ever run across one, please let me know!

Odd (Musical) Lots

  • Today we have a first: an all-music Odd Lots. The idea is to make a few worthy songs (worthy in my view; YMMV) more visible. Where they can be purchased online, I’ll provide a link. Some are only on CDs. And a few may well be unobtainium. Not sure what to suggest about that. I’ve mentioned a few of these before and even linked to some. Where relevant, I’ll mention why I think they’re worthy.
  • Rayburn Wright’s “Shaker Suite” (here, by the Canadian Brass) is a short compendium of three Shaker melodies: The well known “Simple Gifts” plus two very obscure tunes: the somber “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn” and the marvelously energetic “I’ve Set My Face for Zion’s Kingdom,” which (assuming Carol isn’t in the car with me) I blast whenever it comes up on the mix SD.
  • It was never a single, but the Monkees’ cover of “Shades of Gray” is in my view the best song they ever did. I’ve mentioned the song here before, and yes, I’m biased for personal reasons (read the entry) but still: When did 60s pop ever have a lyric that sane and subtle?
  • I have always had a fraught relationship with religion, but one thing I discovered when I returned to Catholicism in the ’90s was that there were actually hymns that weren’t 350 years old. Marty Haugen has written quite a few, but none serves my energetic spirit so well as “Send Down the Fire.”
  • Energetic? Punch in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Running Set,” dial it up to eleven, and you’ll know what “manic” means.
  • Is it a sendup of Fifties political paranoia? Or is it just a silly beer-hall march? Jim Lowe’s “Close the Door” defies analysis…which doesn’t mean it isn’t great fun.
  • A lot of people have covered “Sweets for My Sweet,” but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than a local Chicago band called The Riddles. I heard it live at a church Teen Club dance in 1968, and eventually found a slightly crufty 45 rip on the peer-to-peer networks ten years ago. It’s now on YouTube, though you have to either listen to or FF past the flipside.
  • One of the best (and perhaps weirdest) soundtrack cuts I’ve heard in the last 20 years is “Building the Crate” from Chicken Run. It’s not available as an MP3 single, but you can buy the full soundtrack CD, or listen to the song on YouTube. Klezmer, kazoos, and a full orchestra with a strong tuba line–what more could you ask for?
  • Although rougher than I generally like my music, there’s just something inexplicably likeable about “You Don’t Want Me Anymore” by Steel Breeze, which hit #16 on Billboard in 1982. Energetic, well, yeah.
  • This is probably my favorite TV series theme song ever, from what is almost certainly the first steampunk western. Lee Anne down the street had it bad for Artemis Gordon, and I’m betting a lot of other girl geeks did too. Yeah, the giant steam-powered tarantula in the movie was cool, but nothing will ever beat the original series.
  • My high school turned down Styx’s bid to play for the 1972 senior prom because they were…too obscure. Heh. Bad call. And this is what I consider their best song, a terrific waltz that is almost a hymn: “Show Me the Way.”
  • Another soundtrack cut that I don’t think ever got the recognition it deserved: “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from Prince of Egypt.
  • From the same soundtrack, the item that gave me the idea for the scene in The Cunning Blood where Sahan Grusa destroys Sophia Gorganis’s pirate colony by simulating the biblical plagues using nanotech.
  • Well. This was fun. I have to remember to do another one at some point. Let me know what you think.

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.

Mostly.


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.