Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

May, 2008:

Odd Lots

  • Sorry for the recent quietude here; the weekend was a whirlwind, and it took all of yesterday just to catch my breath.
  • Scott Kurtz' PvP webcomic celebrated its first ten years by showing us that Brent Sienna actually has eyes. Wow.
  • Allan Heim sent me a pointer to a nice article on the Fermi Paradox that expresses a position I have been drifting toward for most of my life: That we are probably alone in the universe, perhaps not only as intelligent, tool-building beings but also as living things, period. The author makes a case that being alone in the universe would be very good news, but not for the reason you might think. Read it.
  • Borland is apparently selling their CodeGear division (which develops and supports Delphi) to Embarcadero Technologies, a database tools company. This was not unexpected, and to be honest with you, I can't tell if it's a good idea or not. One of Delphi's most serious problems is that it got so good after five or six years that most people stopped upgrading; I'm amazed at how many people are still using Delphi 6. The cost of the product was also an issue—there is no ~$100 starter edition—and the Turbo Delphi Explorer experiment demonstrated how important the ability to install components was. An amazing number of people wrote to me to say that they downloaded the free product, installed it, fooled with it for a week or so, and then went back to Delphi 6.
  • From Mike Sergent comes a pointer to a NYT piece indicating that most people do not have the training to discern the level of subtlety in wine flavor that they claim to, and that a lot of it may exist mostly in our heads anyway. This is not news (to me, at least) but it's nice to see it going mainstream.
  • Michael Covington posted a fascinating graph of changes in home prices from Q4 2006 to Q4 2007, suggesting that the “housing bubble” has not been evenly distributed. The coasts have suffered, as have most major cities and trendy places like Colorado's Front Range, but flyover places like Nebraska and Wyoming have posted solid increases in that time. In addition to that, sharp differences by state suggest that state-level housing and banking policies have more to do with housing cost changes than most people are willing to admit.
  • Also from Michael is a graph demonstrating that the US economy is not as much of a disaster as Big Media has been hammering on. (I won't invite all the usual hate mail by explaining in detail why this is, as it's pretty obvious if you think about it.)
  • The other day I found myself thinking something remarkable (for me): I would rather buy a Mac and run my essential Windows apps in a Parallels window (or in a compatibility box like Crossover) than move to Vista.

Meeting Juliana Leigh Roper

Bill & Gretchen returned home from Madison yesterday with their new baby, Juliana Leigh. They were a little ragged from the stress of the adventure and spending almost a week in a hotel room, but the payoff was difficult to calculate: the little girl sleeping on Gretchen's shoulder. Mission accomplished: Julie is home.

Gretchen dropped her in my lap and I held her for a little while, Gretchen having made sure that her diaper was correctly applied and (as best she could tell) tight. Julie looked around for awhile and squirmed a little, but mostly she wanted to fall asleep. Like her sister Katie before her, she is a very placid and un-fussy baby. I heard her cry some when Gretchen changed her diaper a little later, but apart from that she took it easy on Gretchen's shoulder. She lay quietly in her magic stroller (magic in the way it folds down to nothing and slides behind the seats in their van) while we had supper at Sweet Baby Ray's, even with all the fuss that the waitresses were making over her. Being six days old, she still has the ruddiness of complexion that one expects of newborns, and the pale blue eyes that most infants have before their pigment develops. Bill has blue eyes. Gretchen's, like mine, are very brown. Julie's could still go either way.

Nothing more to offer this morning than that. I'm working on Degunking Essentials as I have for the last few days, and will rejoin Carol later today. Tomorrow we launch south to Champaign to witness our younger nephew Matt graduate from the U of I, and with no crisp idea of my free time or connectivity, it's hard to know when I'll post again, but don't despair if you don't see anything before Monday.

Odd Lots

  • Here at the condo this morning, I can't bring up squat on the Web because everybody's out there trying to figure out who won the Democratic primaries last night. So I did an absolutely unheard of thing: I went down to the White Hen, got some of their great coffee, and picked up a newspaper. What a notion.
  • I'm hearing more and more people say that Wi-Fi doesn't work as well as it used to, which is weird because microwave physics hasn't changed recently. But…look at how many APs Windows can see from wherever you are. From my kitchen table here, NetStumbler sensed twelve APs…and walking around inside our dinky little condo picked up four more. Three of the strongest signals were on default Channel 6—and five out of sixteen were cleverly named “linksys.” I don't think it's the physics, folks.
  • After went all-paid (and highly paid) I investigated an alternative called Gatheroo, which later (in response to another damfool lawsuit from somebody) became Zanby. The site's been redesigned and is worth a look if you want to start a meatspace social network where you live. There are both free and paid levels of participation, and it's certainly not as expensive as Meetup.
  • Matthew Reed (and lots of others after him) sent me pointers to articles about the recent implementation of memristors, which are a species of passive electronic component postulated in 1971 but not actually implemented until HP researchers made some earlier this year. Whether this interests you varies directly by the strength of your passion for electronics, and whereas I understand the concept now, my head is still spinning trying to figure out what it implies. Everybody's talking about better computer memory, sure…but what could this do in simple analog circuits?
  • Jim Strickland sent me a pointer to a YouTube video about a flame triode amplifier/oscillator lashup, and guys, you gotta see this. It's basically a vacuum tube without either vacuum or tube: When the electrodes get hot, it starts amplifying. I don't fully understand the physics yet, but this would be one fantastic high school science fair project. The question arose in our local group as to whether this could be considered steampunkish, and I'm not sure. People in the steampunk era had no problems generating reasonably hard vacuum and blowing glass envelopes. What they had problems with was understanding electrons. Nonetheless, with a big enough flame and some honkin' batteries, you could have done some impressive things back in 1888.
  • Global Cooling adherents have been sending me pointers to Watts Up With That, and Fascinating reading, including numerous facets of the climate change discussion that you won't see in Big Media. F'rinstance: Weather monitoring installations that were built sixty or seventy years ago out in the leafy countryside have recently become surrounded by new development, buildings, pavement, etc., and as a result are now in the middle of heat islands. What might that do to long-term temperature data? Hmmmm….

Josef Fritzl, Evil, and Dumb Luck

Most of you have probably heard by now of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian psychopath who created a custom dungeon under his home, kept his daughter a prisoner there for 24 years, and sired seven children by her. I haven't been this disturbed by a crime since the boggling case of John Wayne Gacy, right here in NW metro Chicago, who tortured, murdered and then buried 33 young men under his house back in the 1970s.

Like it or not, crimes like this prompt one to ask an ugly question: If evil like this is possible, why are we still here? Why are we not already extinct? (Those who have studied the history of the 20th Century might say it was a very near thing.) I have a theory, though I admit it's a little thin to hang the future of humanity on: It's difficult to be brilliant and evil at the same time. Evil as we define it generally comes with limitations, primarily the limitation of not being able to see yourself and your own situation very clearly.

Right Men (as described by A. E. Van Vogt and Colin Wilson) are the best example: They just cannot conceive of the possibility that they are wrong. A huge number of Right Men thus never get very far in life. We see through them easily, recognize them as egomaniacal psychopaths, and do our best to avoid them. They have a bad habit of getting injured or killed in conflicts with others. Even when they somehow succeed in society to a degree, they are almost invariably humbled at some point, which is unbearable to them and often causes them to die young.

This is a good thing for us, as truly brilliant evil is extremely dangerous. What most “ordinary” evil people (like Fritzl) have that isn't often remarked upon is simple, dumb, statistical luck. Most criminals get caught eventually, and the worse their crimes are, the more likely they are to get caught. Some vanishingly rare few end up skating past justice for years and years (like Fritzl), and we only see a couple per century who are so lucky that they end up in command of armies. (Think Hitler, Mao, and Stalin.)

There are a lot of Fritzls out there. Most try evil things and get caught very quickly; you see them on the news all the time with their coats over their heads. Some get by for awhile, through a combination of luck and unusual intelligence. Only a handful are lucky enough to get away with the sort of depravity that John Wayne Gacy or Josef Fritzl got away with. Choosing an easily concealable form of evil is part of that luck, and sometimes there is a lot of cunning hard work involved. (Like creating a custom dungeon with flush toilets in the basement, or burying 33 bodies under your house without stinking up the neighborhood. I still don't entirely understand how Gacy managed that.)

As for where individual evil itself comes from, I think (against all political correctness) that it's primarily genetic. We're born along a bell curve, with Mother Teresa on one end and Stalin on the other. The optimist in me would like to think that the curve is biased toward the good. But whether or not we're evenly distributed across that bell curve, good and evil as success strategies are not symmetrical. Good is outward-looking, cooperates with others, and is generally supported by society as a whole. Evil handicaps itself in various ways. (Read Colin Wilson's A Criminal History of Mankind for hundreds of pages of examples.) Evil overestimates its chances, isolates itself, picks fights, and operates within a seriously distorted view of reality. This is fortunate, otherwise we'd long be extinct. But every now and then an evil individual gets catastrophically lucky, and we witness crimes that make us gasp. Given the huge number of moving parts in our seriously overstuffed world, this is inevitable, and the real astonishment, perhaps, lies in the fact that evil remains as rare as it is.

In the Port 2525…

Finally got out to Chicago and spent a mad few days visiting family and running errands, after presenting two sessions at the annual conference of the American Society for Indexing in Denver last Friday. I gave the keynote talk and it was well-received—my position that pages are essential and reflowability is a fetish that carries a lot of subtle dangers—but the other talk, which was basically a how-to on getting Windows to work tolerably well, was SRO. People are still struggling with Windows, and when I asked, their reaction to Vista was basically unprintable. I got the impression from their questions after the session that something like Degunking Windows needs to be done again, but covering both hardware and software in the same volume. We did a separate book a couple of years ago called Degunking Your PC, and if I do something again, it will draw on both books. I'm taking notes. We'll see if and where it wanders.

Computer crankiness always seems to erupt as soon as I kick my shoes off and get to work at my Chicago-area satellite office. When I tried to answer some email here, I found to my supreme annoyance that ATT/Yahoo had changed the game again: Simply blocking port 25 and requiring that all outbound mail pass through their SMTP servers was not enough. Now they require that every From: address has to be explicitly registered on their Web site or the SMTP connection to their servers will be blocked.

Screw that. I did a little research based on a fleeting memory that some hosting services listen on ports other than 25 for outbound email, and voila! My hoster listens on port 2525, and after 90 seconds' worth of tweaking Thunderbird's settings, I was able to answer mail again.

Ructions didn't end there. About ten minutes after booting up, my video signal started going crazy. I took the SX270 apart, determined that the insides were squeaky clean and not especially hot, and was scratching my head after seeing the problem persist after a couple of reboots. In frustration I gave the Samsung 204B a hard whack on one side, and the video signal fell immediately back into line. Because the cables were quite tight, I can only assume that the damned thing has a loose connection somewhere internally.

Anger sometimes works, heh.

My Last Brin. Really.

Not ten minutes ago, my brother-in-law called to let us know that they had gotten The Call, and he and my sister Gretchen () were on their way to Madison, as their second and last child had just been born there.

Those who haven't been following Contra for very long may not know precisely what's going on here, and I still boggle a little myself, SF guy though I claim to be. Recapping: For medical reasons, my sister cannot carry children to term herself. After conceiving in vitro years ago and storing the embryos under liquid nitrogen, Gretchen and Bill went off to find a gestational carrier to bring their children to term. It wasn't exactly easy, but mission accomplished: Katie Beth Roper now has a sister, born at 8:10 AM this morning, central daylight time. Nine pounds nine ounces, no problems reported.

Deo gratias.

My immediate family is complete. We'll be on a plane Saturday to head out there and celebrate.