Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Daywander

Odd thoughts put down at once, in stream-of-consciousness fashion.

Daywander

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“Hey, Contra Boy! Are you dead or something?”

Me? No. C’mon, if I were dead I would have mentioned it. So I’m not dead, though I am something, and while I can tell you it isn’t ill-health (for either of us) I can’t say much more about the something beyond that.

It’s certainly gotten in the way of other pursuits.

Anyway. For the first time I am hands-up-to-the-elbows in Windows 8. Carol wanted a new ultrabook-class laptop for Christmas, and we shopped together. She chose the 11.5″ version of the Lenovo Yoga 2, which (like my Transformer Prime) attempts to be both a loptop and a tablet. Unlike my Transformer Prime, I think it actually succeeds. The pivoting display (see above) lets it work as a tablet, and while I’m still not used to grabbing keys on its virtual backside while gripping the little slab in tablet mode, the machine ignores the keypresses. If the keys themselves are robust, no harm will come of it. The 1366 X 768 display isn’t retina-class, but it’s gorgeous and good enough. It’s got a 1.5 GHz Core i3 and 500 GB hard drive, which is more than sufficient for how we intend to use it.

Like all retail machines, the Yoga 2 is loaded with crapware, some of which I’ve never heard of and haven’t looked up yet, like the Maxthon Cloud Browser. Some of the crapware is crapware by virtue of being preinstalled; Evernote is a worthy item but I do not want it on the machines I buy. Ditto Zinio. Doubtless a lot of the other dozens of thingies cluttering up the display are there for Lenovo’s benefit and not ours; remember that crapware slots on consumer machines generate lots of money for their vendors through sales conversions, and Lenovo gets a cut.

My biggest problem is that I will eventually have to replace the MacAfee crapware with something that works. We standardize on Avast at our house, but getting rid of security suite crapware is notoriously difficult. Most people eventually just give up and pay for it. Not me.

I’m spending considerable time on the project not only because Carol needs a machine that works well, but also because I need a new laptop myself. A 13″ Yoga might do the job, assuming I can learn to love Windows 8, or at least hold hands with it. A big tablet would be useful for reading PDF-format technical ebooks. Now, having been set up the way Carol likes, it goes back in its box, the box gets wrapped, and it joins the pile under the Christmas tree. Much better that way than trying to figure out what’s crapware and what isn’t on Christmas morning.

Quick summary of what I’ve been reading:

  • The Call of Distant Mammoths, by Peter T Ward (Copernicus Books, 1997.) Why did the ice age mammals vanish? It wasn’t simply human predation or climate change. It was a combination of things, especially human predation and climate change. (Wow! The brilliance!) Cost me a buck plus shipping, and the gruel was thick enough so that I won’t claim the time spent on it was totally wasted. Still, not recommended.
  • Neanderthal Man, by Svante Paabo (Basic Books, 2014.) It seems like carping, but the book is mis-titled. It’s not about the Neanderthals themselves but rather the sequencing of their genome, which the author spearheaded. Paabo’s writing style is solid and amiable, and he does a good job explaining how DNA can be found in very old bones (with tremendous difficulty and peculiar luck) and how it was teased out over a period of almost twenty years. I must emphasize that if you have no grounding at all in gene sequencing, it will be a bit of a slog. However, if you pay attention, you will learn a lot. Highly recommended.
  • 1848: The Year of Revolution, by Mike Rapport (Basic Books, 2008.) My Duntemann ancestors arrived in the US in 1849 or 1850. We haven’t found the crossing records yet, but we have a strong hunch why they left: the European upheavals of 1848. Like WWI, 1848 doesn’t summarize well. The people rose up against their elites, who were in many cases so afraid they were facing Jacobin 2.0 that kings resigned, constitutions were given, and (alas) the roots of commoner suffering remained misunderstood and mostly uncorrected. Again, this may be a slog even if you have some grounding in European history. History doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes you just have to describe the squirming details of what will always remain chaos. Cautiously recommended.

The odd lots are piling up too. Will try to get some posted tomorrow.

Daywander

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Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

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I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)

Daywander

This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a “hotch potch.” (I think it’s a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I’ve ever written. We’ve been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I’m not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It’s a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I’ve been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I’ve been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren’t obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I’ve developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we’re going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book’s been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you’re willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren’t easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it’s an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn’t.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I’ve never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I’m not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it’s given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn’t seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I’ve read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I’ve made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I’ve been dipping into Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I’ve been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people’s book’s ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I’ve gone back to calling it “global warming.” Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong–and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That’s it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it’s about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart’s CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It’s basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that’s all there was in 1976. And y’know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5…

Some things really are eternal.

Daywander

As the temperature slides back down below zero (F) here, the supper dishes are done, and I lean back to savor the memory of home-made stuffed peppers, and for dessert a good sharp Stilton cheese chased with Middle Sister Rebel Red wine. It was very close to a carb-free meal, consisting of some 85% ground beef with a little rice to thin it out, mixed with salsa and scooped generously into some very Christmas-y red and green pepper halves. Oh, I’ll maybe have a little egg nog later on, the season being what it is.

What the season actually is, is early. I’m not used to below-zero temps two weeks before winter begins. It certainly hasn’t happened in the ten years we’ve lived here. I get screamed at every time I suggest that we may be entering a cooling spell on the Third Rock, but from all I’ve seen in the stats it sure looks that way. At some point my strongly suspected Neanderthal genetics may come in handy.

Carol’s still scooting around the house on her knee walker. She’s improving day by day but there’s still some pain that her surgeon will have to consider when we go back next week. I hung a little canvas pack on the knee walker so she can carry things around. My father brought the pack home from WWII, and it sat in a box in my mother’s attic until we sold her house in 1996. It then sat in a box in my sister’s garage for another ten years, until we unpacked it and I took it home. I have no idea what sort of pack it is, and if you recognize it (see above) give a shout. Now, the other mystery: How could something that old and neglected not smell? It doesn’t. It’s clean and looks almost unused. Whatever my father did with it back in the day, it’s become useful again. He would be pleased if he knew. Someday I hope to tell him.

I turned in a ginormous chaper today for The Book I Still Can’t Tell You About. I’m well over half finished with the gig, and certainly hope the next chapter won’t cast off to 55 book pages all by its lonesome. It’s certainly something to do while waiting for a quick trip outdoors to cease being a near-death experience.

Michael Covington mentioned to me that Lowes is now selling Meccano parts in those marvelous little bins of odd bits in the hardware aisle. I got up there a few days ago to take a look, and it’s true: A company called The Hillman Group provides little bags of zinc-plated steel girders, plates, and brackets, all with the Meccano standard 1/2″ hole spacing, the holes sized to clear an 8-32 bolt. They’re expensive compared to haunting eBay for beat-to-hell and incomplete modern Erector sets, but the parts can be damned handy. Here’s an Arduino-powered cat teaser built from some servos and Hillman parts.

Tomorrow I dive into Chapter 5. Should be easier, as it’s about programming, not hardware. Now, can we ditch this absurd obsession with curly brackets? What part of BEGIN and END don’t you all understand?

Daywander

Does anybody have any experience with Glom? It’s an open-source GUI database builder created in the spirit of FileMaker. Someone suggested it in the comments of my entry for April 9, 2013. I’ve just downloaded it and have not yet installed it, but the (slightly sparse) product wiki makes it look pretty compelling, at least for the sorts of smallish databases that don’t have to support tens of thousands of records. It’s specific to the PostgreSQL database back end, about which I know less than I should. Working on that.

While I’m asking for user experiences, how about LyX? It’s been around forever but I don’t see much in the line of books on it. A 2007-era tutorial PDF for version 1.4.1 is available here without charge. I was using TeX by hand (and later LaTeX) in the late 80s and early 90s, and it was impressive on the 386/486 machines in broad use at the time. LyX is supposedly a WYSIWYG word processor based on LaTeX. The TeX universe generally is a science/math geek paradise. LaTeX will typeset equations like nothing else in the galaxy. My primary wonder here is whether LyX is now good enough to use for nonscientific word processing, or if the increasingly silly WYSIWYG vs WYSIWYM argument gets in the way. Our CPUs are more than gutsy enough these days to render TeX content in realtime, and my view is that WYS should always reflect WYM. (I understand the conflict, which is really about markup vs rendering; please don’t lecture me about it.)

The crescent moon and Jupiter are in conjunction tonight, and they will make a good pair in the west just after sunset.

That is, if winter ever decides to end in Colorado Springs. We’re apparently due for snow and perhaps even a blizzard midweek, with temps down to 12 above. Poor Carol is itching to get out and work in her garden, which is still cowering an inch below the surface and keeps yelling about ice giants. The water is welcome, obviously, but I don’t need it on (or as) ice.

We did get a little rain last night, which kept me from seeing if Colorado was getting any aurora activity in the literal wake of a CME that hit Earth yesterday at 2300 zulu. The forecasts focused on the East Coast as far south as DC, which doesn’t get a lot of aurora activity. The sunspot number is also approaching 150, a number I haven’t seen in quite a while. We may get a solar maximum after all…but don’t lay money on it.

Finally, I had an interesting (in the Chinese curse sense) education yesterday in printing your own business cards. I’ve had a card design in the tinkering stages for literally years. The intent was always to get it printed professionally, and heck, the owner of one of the biggest print shops in Pueblo lives next door. Next weekend I’ll be at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and will need some. So I bought a pack of Avery 5871 laser-perf cards and tried to print the design on them. Whoops–the right third of the card is a green bleed. If you’re doing business cards from a laser printer onto laser-perf stock, do not use bleeds. Arranging the art so that the left edge of the cards in the right column didn’t show a green streak took a great deal of kafeutherin’, as Aunt Kathleen would have said. Even after much wasted stock and torn virtual hair, I still had to trim a little bit of green edge off half the cards with a scissors. Lesson: White all the way around…or let the pros do it.

Daywander

As I circle the concluding chapters of Ten Gentle Opportunies like a ravening vulture (do vultures raven? If so, what do ravens do?) I discovered this morning while reading email with an iced coffee in hand that Phil Foglio posted a rave of my novel The Cunning Blood, both on the Girl Genius Facebook page and his LiveJournal. (Thanks abundant to Alice Bentley for the tipoff.) Nothing motivates this particular vulture to abandon patience and kill something like a review of what has been (and still is–barely) my only completed full-length novel.

Now I have to kill this thing before it kills me.

(Note that there are other reasons for my slowdown the last couple of weeks, reasons that kept me from attending MileHiCon this weekend. Carol had to take a flight to Chicago on very short notice; more as things become clearer.)

Need. More. Coffee. I’m trying something peculiar here: The new-ish International Delights iced-coffee-in-a-milk-carton product. It’s outside the envelope for me because it’s got sugar in it, so I really bought it as a dessert. The mocha flavor is disappointing. It tastes almost exactly like the chocolate milk I used to drink at the Lane Tech lunchroom. Good if you like that sort of thing, but I want a brew that reminds me less of the clueless nerd I was in high school.

I also need to research the named ingredient “corn syrup.” Is that a new euphemism for HFCS? I know the corn industry is squirming so hard the worms in the gully are worried, but from earlier research I know that corn syrup is mostly glucose/destrose, which while still sugar isn’t as malevolent as HFCS seems to be.

Flying back from Hawaii I attempted to watch a rip of an episode from the original Outer Limits series on my Transformer Prime, and discovered something interesting: The throughput from the MicroSD card slot is insufficient to render the video on the Transformer’s display. It’s not exactly pixellation, but more like the sort of herringbone interference my ham radio signal used to put on broadcast TV. Regardless, it made watching the video impossible. Then, when I simply copied the .avi file to internal storage, it played perfectly. I know from previous experience that mp3 files play fine from MicroSD, and ebooks are not an problem at all.

Separate but still important issue: The Transformer Prime did not have the audio signal to drown out jet engine noise on our long flight. So even once I copied the episode to internal storage, I couldn’t make out the dialog half the time. That was the only video I brought, so more research is necessary. Video rips are peculiar things, and I certainly need better headphones.

I’ve broken a lot of light bulbs in my sixty years, but this recent casualty from the lamp over the stove was remarkable:

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Secret? The touch of a rag wet with cold water. Yes, the bulb was off , but had been on all morning until five seconds previous. Duhhh. Light bulbs are not made of Pyrex.

Dispatch from Gormenghast-on-the-River

Worldcon, Day 2. I’ve been in this hotel before. I’ve wandered through its subterranean halls, furiously poking bits into my wetware geolocation memory register, without much useful success. I feel like a cat looking for his litterbox in Gormenghast…along with a thousand other cats. It’s the most chaotic Worldcon venue I’ve ever experienced. It’s about as orthagonal as the Intel x86 architecture. It’s as…

Ok, ok, I’ll stop bitching. Much looking at maps allowed me to get to a lot of places and get a fair bit done. 10 out of 13 students from my 2011 Taos Toolbox workshop are at the convention (as are instructors Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress) and we actually held a brief critique session at Carole Moleti’s kaffeeklatsch noonish. I sat in a couple of readings and spoke at length with a great many people I don’t see very often. Over lunch I tried to get the K9 email client for Android running on my Transformer Prime, without complete success. I would try again but I had free Wi-Fi at The Corner Bakery. Here in my room at the Sheraton, it would be another $13.95 for a day, on top of the $13.95 I’m already paying for my laptop’s connection.

The discussion topic of the house seems to be, “W(h)ither zombies?” Are they past their expiration date? Is there any more meat to be chewed on that bone? Is the corpse still twitching?

Consensus seems to be, Yes–but ya gotta have a twist. I had a moment to think about twists this afternoon, and if I wanted to do a zombie novel I think I have a good one. I won’t bore you with it right now, but I’ll offer a clue: It’s a straightforward extension of something I’ve written about before in an SF story.

David Brin asked me what time it was. I answered, “4:22.”

In loose moments I’m reading The Quantum Dot by Richard Turton. Nice item, a little dry, but the best summary I’ve seen so far.

A filk popped into my head this morning. I’ll quote the refrain. If you know music at all you’ll get the joke:

Seven ugly shelves, made out of wood;
Tall and thin they were.
Into the writer’s house they went;
His paperbacks to bear.

There’s more, but I need to work on the rhyme.

And I’m about out of time this evening. Supper looms. Not sure where it looms, but it’s making loom noises. Or maybe that’s my stomach. I’ll find out shortly.

Daywander: Halloween

It’s Halloween! Eggnog is in stock! Yes, today was the first day that Farm Crest’s almost unsurpassed eggnog goes on sale at the Farm Crest milk stores owned by (I kid you not) Pester Marketing. (Their eggnog is surpassed only, I think, by Oberweis in Chicago.) Stock up now; Christmas is only two months away!

Mmmph. Maybe next month. I bought a gallon of high-fat milk instead. I may not be the 5%, but I sure as hell drink it. On the way, I stopped near the old downtown Colorado Springs train station on Sierra Madre to see the Union Pacific #844 Niagara steam loco, which is on tour and in town for yesterday and today only. #844 was the last steam loco ordered by UP, and it’s been lovingly restored as a sort of rolling, steaming, hot-and-dripping museum. I don’t see 4-8-4’s very often, and never before a live one, so it was well worth the detour. Smaller cities are great in that I scored a parking place right across the street, and could get photos with almost nobody else in the way. I doubt I would have done that well in, say, Chicago.

It’s tough to get size perspective on machines like this. The eight drive wheels are eighty inches in diameter, and the engine as a whole is 114 feet long. Because of a historical quirk, “standard” railroad gauge is four feet eight inches, meaning that the wheels are considerably wider than the gap between the rails. I always wonder, facing a behemoth like this, how they managed to keep it on the tracks. (One answer is luck. Another, gravity. Most of all, skill. Alas, sometimes the answer is, They didn’t.)

There were a number of people swarming the loco, polishing the connecting rods and valve gear and wiping dirt off the painted parts. It was surreal how shiny the metal bits were–I would guess it wasn’t anything like this clean back when it was earning a living. In fact, while I was admiring the dazzlingly burnished iron, a young mother walked over with a three-year-old on one hip. As she turned around to pose for dad’s camera, the small boy reached his hand out to the connecting rod. His mom jerked him away: “Danny, don’t touch that! You’ll get it dirty!”

UP844-ConnectingRods-500Wide.jpg

Some time tomorrow morning, old #844 will head south on the BNSF main line to Pueblo. Given that we look down Cheyenne Mountain toward the tracks and hear the Diesel horns on the BNSF coal trains all the time from our back deck, there’s a nonzero chance that I may hear the 844’s transplanted Big Boy whistle as the consist roars by. I’m sure going to try: The weather will be decent and I may never get another chance to hear any steam locomotive–much less a Niagara!–roar past my house.

As for Halloween itself, well, the Kid Gods are delivering near-perfection this year in Colorado Springs: 68 windless degrees under a cloudless sky. The legendary Halloween of 1964 was something like this in Chicago, and better only because it was on a Saturday. I’m not expecting a lot of traffic this year, since small children are scarce in this neighborhood of retired lieutenant colonels. I did buy a bag of Smarties for the big bowl by the front door, intrigued by the presence of dextrose as the sole sugar. I’ve never seen dextrose explicitly called out in a list of incredients before, even on candy. It’s typically “sugar” (generally sucrose, which is half fructose) or “high-fructose corn syrup.” I wonder if the animus against fructose has become so great that manufacturers are leaving nothing to supposition. If so, it’s a quiet victory–and not a small one.

Finally, QBit and I watched Van Helsing last night on the Family Channel. (Carol is still in Chicago and the rest of the Pack at Jimi’s.) The film is a great, whacky over-the-top paean to Victorian monsterabilia. Lessee: Wolfman, Dracula, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, miscellaneous vampires, plus Dr. Frankenstein, Igor, and the Monster. (The Mummy was indisposed.) Oh, and what I consider the single most dazzling steampunk movie weapon of all time: An automatic-fire crossbow that spits bolts at flying vapiresses as long as you hold the trigger. Dip the front end in a holy water font and you are da bomb! (And if you miss, just flick a fingerful of gooey glycerin-48…)

Daywander

Why would anyone read two histories of Byzantium? Well, if the first one is mainly useful in putting you to sleep on a bad night, you might need a second to actually understand Byzantium. I finished John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium about six weeks ago, and I suspect it didn’t satisfy because it was, well, short. (It’s an abbreviation of a much longer 3-volume work by the same author.) Norwich tells us all the things that happened in the eleven hundred years that the Byzantine empire existed, but he doesn’t have room in a mere 400 pages to analyze why things evolved as they did. By the time I was done, the Byzantine empire seemed to cook down to pseudocode:

REPEAT
New(Emperor);
Rivals.SlitThroat(Emperor)
UNTIL MuslimsKnockOverConstantinople;

So unless you’re an insomniac like me, I recommend A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory (Blackwell, 2005) which trades some of the repetitive detail for more and better analysis. It’s a much more readable book overall, and seems targeted at laypeople who don’t already know the broad outlines of the story. (I’m guessing it’s a 300-level textbook.) Recommended.

In other recent reading, I went back to Colin Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology (Taplinger, 1972) to locate his definition of a “self-actualizer,” which may help me in designing a character for an upcoming story. The book is an explication of Abraham Maslow‘s views on psychology, which Wilson admires and mentions in many of his other books. I ended up reading a lot more than I intended, and realize that I may have to buy another copy of the book. The one I have was cheap, sure, but it was previously owned by a person who underlined probably 50% of the book without more than a handful of marginal notes. How is it useful to have all that underlining, if the purpose of underlining is to call attention to especially brilliant or pertinent passages when you want to find them later? And when she (her name is on the flyleaf) decides to make a note, it only proves that she is stone deaf to Colin Wilson’s ironic sense of humor.

I’ll come back to Wilson’s books in a future entry on designing characters, but in the meantime, New Pathways in Psychology is useful, as is A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury, 2005.) His 1956 breakout book, The Outsider, nails existentialism–right through the head. Not as engaging as his other work, but if you’re trying to design a disaffected young man (especially if you yourself are well-adjusted and generally happy) the blueprints are all right there.

Yesterday Amazon delivered the 32 GB MicroSD HC card I’d ordered for the Droid, and I had this insight: You know you’re old when the fact that a thing the size of your pinkie fingernail could swallow everything you’ve ever written without a burp (plus ebook editions of every book in the house, if they existed) still makes you boggle. I don’t know precisely how much stuff it could hold because I don’t have that much stuff. But I’ll do some math: At 3 MB per MP3, the card could hold 10,000 songs. At 3 minutes per song, that’s 30,000 minutes, or 500 hours of music. At 500 KB for an .epub novel, that’s 60,000 novels, which at a novel every single night is…165 years’ worth of novels.

I guess I’m old. My boggler is in excellent working order.

Daywander

It’s half-past April. Do you know where your seasons are?

One of ours is missing. My nephew Brian and I woke up this morning to find a blanket of snow on Alles Street, and while Carol out in Crystal Lake reported less, it seems like everybody in greater Chicago got whitened sometime during the night.

So it was a good day to stay inside and continue my ongoing struggle with malformed epubs. I created a number of them a few years back when the epub format was new and the tools barely past primordial, and I’ve been meaning to fix their innards for awhile now. The tools are better these days. One I upgraded just this morning was Sigil, a (mostly) WYSIWYG editor designed specifically for epub-formatted ebooks. Version 0.3.4 (released March 8, 2011) is a huge improvement on 0.2.1, which I’d been using for some time, and if you haven’t upgraded yet, go for it.

Sigil 0.3.4 provided my first look at FlightCrew, an epub format validator created by the Sigil team to do a better job of what the EPubCheck utility does: Test to see if an EPub file is intact, structurally complete, and internally consistent. FlightCrew is installed with Sigil and can be invoked by clicking a button in the Sigil UI. It detects more problems than EPubCheck does, and will tell you things like whether a graphics object shown in the manifest is unreferenced, and whether any essential element of the document is missing. (For some reason, my older epubs had no <language> element, which FlightCrew caught instantly–and then Sigil fixed automatically.) Passing FlightCrew does not mean your epub file is perfect, but it does mean that it will probably render correctly in any epub reader written with half a brain.

Sigil is a good first step toward pure WYSIWYG epub development, and it still has a code view for things not yet doable from the GUI, or imported from an old or incompetent editor. I’m still fooling with my epub edition of Willibald Beyschlag’s The Origin and Development of the Old Catholic Movement 1870-1897, but it now passes FlightCrew and I should post it sometime in the next few days. Better news is that I got my epub of “Whale Meat” clean enough to make available on the B&N Nook store, where you can find it for 99c. The first Copperwood Double went live there today as well, and I’ll have a lot more to say about the project once the book is available on Kindle and in print, which should be within a week or so.

This is my first foray onto the Nook store (with Kindle coming up next) and I will say that the B&N PubIt system was trivial to figure out and use. It does come with some small weirdnesses: The book description and author bio fields for the Nook store give you no way to italicize, so if you mention your other books, you either have to uppercase them or just live with un-italicized titles. There’s also a check box for specifying when an ebook is public domain material, but B&N doesn’t make any distinction between works in the public domain and works derived from public domain sources. Beyschlag’s original article is in the public domain, but I’ve done some edits to make it read more easily, and I would like to retain copyright on the edited text. (This is legal and there’s nothing dicey about it.) I guess it’s not an issue of huge importance, especially if I don’t charge for it.

One thing I looked at today that I don’t recommend is NookStudy. It’s an app for Windows and Mac that establishes a 180-day rental market for ebook textbooks. There is no iPad nor Android version. The app is basically a DRM wrapper for Adobe Digital Editions, and to even install it you have to have an Adobe account. NookStudy ties rented textbooks to specific computers (a maximum of two), not to a user ID, and if you need to change out a computer, you have to do all the legendary begging and pleading that you have to do to move Adobe’s Creative Suite to a new system. Worse, when the 180-day rental period expires, all your marginal notes vanish with the textbook itself. Sniffing around online shows that almost no one is happy with the system, which is a buggy and extremely limited way to use some very expensive ebooks. (The rentals are about the cost of a used copy of the printed book.) It’s not usable outside the US because of longstanding geographic rights issues that plague many areas of book publishing. Publishers are obviously terrified of what ebooks might do to the textbook industry, and in consequence, NookStudy is 40% barbed wire by weight–and made me glad I graduated 37 years ago, when textbooks were printed on rugged stuff and would last forever.