Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

June, 2008:

A Fine Wander

I generally don't go a whole week without posting here, but Carol and I began our summer trek out to Chicago this past Friday, and like a loon I left my Web presence thumb drive in my keyboard groove in Colorado. I have my backups with me, but they do not include the longish entry I prepared on the 26th, which you now won't see until I get back home.

Anyway. We're here again, in the land of Green River soda and two-section concrete basement washtubs. White Hen Pantry has been engulfed and devoured by Southland's 7-Eleven, but miraculously, the legendary White Hen coffee bar is still there in the converted stores and still good. The weather was fantastic on our leisurely three-days-and-two-nights journey; in fact, we did not encounter any rain until we were through Marengo, Illinois and only twenty minutes from Crystal Lake.

We drove from Colorado Springs to Kearney, Nebraska our first day out, and took a couple of hours to sneak up to Lake McConaughy and see how it's faring. The lake has been greatly diminished by a near seven-year drought, but this spring the rains started returning to western Nebraska, and the lake now has six feet of depth it didn't have last year. The water was still coldish: 69° on the white-sand north shore, and 74° on the brown-sand south shore (above), where northerly winds have apparently been blowing the warmer surface layer for some weeks. It was still as clear and clean as we remember, and we're planning on stopping for the night in Ogalallah on the way back for a little quality beach time. QBit and Aero both wanted to jump in, but since we still had 150 miles to go on Friday and didn't want to spend all of it in a car full of wet-dog smell, Carol kept them on a short leash and dried their feet before we loaded up and went on.

We spent our second night in Newton, Iowa, best known for being the home of the Maytag Corporation and its bored repairmen, at least until Whirlpool acquired them and shut the company down last year. Newton is one of those “pretty-how” towns that e.e. cummings used to write about, with a real Midwestern town square surrounding the 1911 stone courthouse and Jasper County offices. With dirt-cheap housing, near-zero crime, and lots of office and manufacturing space opening up, you'd think some forward-looking high-tech entrepreneur would begin building routers or laptops or something in the old Maytag space. I can't figure it—oh wait, forgot, there's no Thai restaurants there. Damn. (But there are 100 women for every 87 men. C'mon, guys. You can always truck in the khao pad.)

Sunday was my 56th birthday, and we took a little time out to visit the Amana Colonies, and had lunch at Henry's Village Market in Homestead. Andrew, the owner, made us up some ham sandwiches on bread baked right there, and partway through had to run out to the garden to pick some more lettuce. We watched for flood damage in eastern Iowa, but apart from a submerged park along the Cedar River near Iowa City, we saw nothing we could unambiguously ascribe to the recent torrential rains.

So we're here, and will visit with friends and family and see our new niece Juliana Roper baptized. I hope to get some writing done here at the condo, and will try to keep up with Contra as time allows.

Odd Lots

  • Good grief! Salvia is a hallucinogen! How in hell did I get to be 55 and not know that? (We used to grow it as a ground cover years ago.)
  • Nick Hodges wrote to say that the Easy Duplicate Finder utility I mentioned in my June 20, 2008 entry was written in Delphi. A lot of no-install apps are written in Delphi. They're fast, compact, and don't crap DLLs into your WindowsSystem32 directory. Too bad they're written in a Kiddie Language™.
  • Speaking of no-install apps, I've tried a few more. One good one (if of limited use) is TreeSize Free, which scans a drive or a directory tree and shows you which parts of the hierarchy are the ones that use the most drive space. Another that I've just discovered is the FastStone image viewer, which isn't quite a digital photo manager but comes pretty damned close. So far, I can recommend both.
  • Jason Kaczor sent me a pointer to Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope, and it's worth a look, especially if you've got a big-screen TV that can display at least 1024 X 768 graphics. Needs XP SP2 and some middling computer horsepower, but man, what a show!
  • Any time anybody anywhere experiences any weather that they don't like, environmentalists jump up and do the Global warming! Global warming! cheer—but when environmentalists block brush clearing in a fire-prone area and the whole place subsequently goes up, as Santa Cruz recently did, do we hear but a peep? Heh. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)

Productivity Theater

Slashdot recently aggregated an article from The New Atlantis suggesting that multitasking makes us stupid. This is old news to a lot of people, myself included, but it's interesting how today's pervasive multitasking culture is finally engendering a healthy dose of backlash. Last November, there was an even blunter piece in The Atlantic Monthly that I had hoped to comment on here, but…I was interrupted. Turn your cellphone off and read both.

In human cognition as in computer systems, context changes are costly. Rational thought (as opposed to pure subconscious ideamaking) is strictly linear, and depends utterly on bringing a network of pertinent facts and relationships among facts to the forefront of the mind for easy reference. Lose that network and you will lose your train of thought; in fact, that's what “losing your train of thought” actually is. Some people may be better than others at picking up the train and slapping it down on another section of track without spilling the coal cars, but nobody delivers the load faster than the one who just brings it to the destination in uninterrupted linear fashion. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling himself.

That's the gist of both articles. The deeper question is this: Why do we believe that multitaking is better than focus? In part I think it's because our culture demands productivity, and multitasking is a sort of productivity theater: It makes our managers think we're productive because it gives the impression of furious constant activity. Alas, it makes us think we're productive as well, when in fact most of that furious constant activity is just us dodging what we really ought to be doing.

I've seen this effect in myself: When I'm working on something and hit a difficult spot, the less disciplined parts of me start looking for a context change. Hey, I haven't read email for awhile…hey, wasn't I supposed to call Keith? Hey, there's that corner of the basement that I keep meaning to tidy up…and so I drop my current task precisely when it would benefit the most from renewed and intensified focus.

This is hardly a modern phenomenon; what's different is that in the past it was considered a temptation to scatterbrained-ness and a failing inherent in weak minds. Today it's considered the hallmark of a truly modern intellect. Modern, sure, but hardly efficient: Allowing yourself this sort of unwarranted context change trains the mind to bounce from the easiest parts of one project to the easiest parts of another, making little genuine progress and getting very little to the finish line.

Much of the blame falls to a modern educational system that doesn't reward focus, followed by overworked managers who lack the time, the tools, and the gut instincts to understand “how things are going” in their organizations. HR doesn't help; people who insist on the time and the solitude to focus are often disparaged as “not team players” even when the work in question is not essentially collaborative. In my experience, most real productivity is achieved during “heads down” time, and most “teamwork” cooks down to kibitzing. In fact, the most productive meetings I recall were the ones where that obnoxious guy kept yelling “focus!” (Most of the time, that obnoxious guy was me.)

Flow follows focus. Systematically breaking focus leads to a state of mind that, irrespective of what it happens to be doing, is constantly wondering whether it should be doing something else. This way lies madness; nay; this is already madness. Resist it with everything you can muster.

Review: Easy Duplicate Finder

I've used a number of utilities to search for duplicate files under Windows in the past few years, but in doing research for Degunking Essentials I've run across the king of the category: Easy Duplicate Finder. I like it for these reasons:

  • It's a “portable” or “no-install” app, meaning a single .exe file that can run from anywhere. It does not shotgun itself into fifteen different places on your hard drive, including the Windows Registry. You “uninstall” it by…deleting the file. Damn, what a brilliant notion! Why haven't more programmers thought of that?
  • In a sense, the UI contains its own documentation. You proceed through the single screen from top to bottom, filling things out in an order that makes sense. It actually says “Step 1:”, “Step 2:”, and “Step 3:”
  • It is astonishingly fast, at least in the mode that checks for duplicates using file size and a CRC32 checksum. When I captured the screenshot above (full size image here) it had just scanned 6,300 files in…seven seconds. (I suspect that the alternate algorithm, which performs a byte-by-byte test, would take a little longer.)
  • It's free. Really and truly free, without ads or spyware or any other gotchas of any species.

In the two hours of testing I put it through, I managed to find two old copies of my mailbase that I had forgotten I had, plus almost two hundred duplicate digital photos. I realized that I had an extra copy of the Hardy Heron .iso (700+ MB right there) a dozen or so duplicate MP3s, plus a substantial number of other things scattered allthehell over the place, which taken together lightened my hard drive by a little over two GB.

It reminded me of a lesson I learned a couple years ago, too: Empty your digital camera when you move pictures over to your PC. Most of the duplicate photos happened this way: I moved photos from the camera to my folder hierarchy without deleting them from the camera, then gave the numeric filenames more descriptive replacements. Alas, the next time I synced the camera, the same files came over again in their original numeric filenames, leaving me with identical file pairs with names like 100_0519.JPG and QbitChewsTennisBall1.jpg.

After the utility locates the dupes, you can select specific files for deletion, renaming, or moving to a catchall folder. You can limit the search to particular file types and file sizes, and define masks for ambiguous filespecs, like QBit*.jpg. Overall, a spectacularly useful utility that has no defects that I can see.

Highly recommended.

Review: Mi Paste

I've been busy for the past few days, and not at my best. I had a “crown lengthening” two weeks ago, which basically means lengthening the amount of tooth above the gum line by cutting away gum tissue and (in my case, at least) shaving away some bone. The surgical site was protected for two weeks by dental packing material (a goopy plastic that hardens into a sort of armor around the affected gum tissue) and the packing material was removed on Monday. What I soon found is that without the packing in place, the exposed sides of the tooth were extremely sensitive to temperatures even a few degrees from 98.6. One slug of Diet Mountain Dew for lunch on Monday and I damned near went through the roof.

Hot coffee twinged me a little bit as well, though the temperature delta was nowhere near as great. But this put me in a bad mood, and I returned the next day to pick up a tube of something called Mi Paste. I freely confess I don't understand the biology here, but after applying it to the exposed tooth for two days, I can now slug ice-cold sodas and barely feel it at all.

The product was created to counteract the sort of mild tooth sensitivity that often appears after teeth are whitened. I didn't think it would have much effect on a case as severe as mine, but shazam! It worked. The stuff isn't cheap ($18 for a smallish tube) but it didn't take a lot to do the job, and it's available without prescription online. It's based on casein, so if you have milk allergies it may be problematic. Otherwise, damn. Like magic. Highly recommended.

Father’s Day

To the eternal memory of Frank W. Duntemann (1922-1978), engineer, who said, “When you build 'em right, they fly.”

You did. And I do.

Odd Lots

  • After posting my June 13, 2008 entry, I did locate an unofficial list of apps to be included in the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distro: Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Rhythmbox, FBReader (for ebooks), Liferea (RSS feed reader), F-Spot (photo viewer) and OpenOffice. No serious surprises here, though I wonder how well a mobile CPU like Atom will run OpenOffice. I guess we'll find out later this year.
  • Ken Taaffe spotted my lament that my rotatable parts tower was no longer available, and pointed out that it can be had from a different vendor. It's more expensive than it was in 1990 (though what isn't?) but it looks like precisely the same item. $439. I paid about $350 for it in 1990. See a photo in my shop tips article.
  • Years ago, I half-seriously suggested that somebody should create a Bottom 60 radio format, and only play songs that charted but never made it into the Top 40. Well, Shawn Nagy's SuperOldies is pretty much the item, though it uses the Cash Box charts rather than Billboard. It's Internet Radio and you can listen with Winamp and other Internet Radio players. I've had it on for most of an hour and have yet to hear a song that I recognize. Is that good? Well, how bored with Clear Channel are you?
  • I'm intrigued by a recent run of articles about tweaking certain simple algae and bacteria to produce Diesel fuel as a metabolic waste product. Here's one. And another, both from the London Times. Assuming that this works reliably and doesn't have a downside, we may all eventually have a refrigerator-sized thingie in the basement or garage into which we dump trash, lawn clippings, or other organic waste and from which we extract vehicle fuel, drip by drip. It doesn't matter if it only produces a gallon a day; for a smallish car with a good Diesel engine, that's plenty. The other (and in my view, far greater) advantage is that it's completely decentralized: If our vehicle fuel comes from a hundred million little boxes (rather than five or six monster refineries) terrorists and hurricanes will have a bitch of a time messing up the transportation industry.
  • Aki Peltonen sent me a link to a large forum post by Java expert and author Bruce Eckel, about why he can't abide Vista and won't use it. Read the comments, too. Lots of interesting ideas and suggestions here.
  • Michael Covington posted a note abut the Ebox 2300, a very small, fanless $200 PC-compatible computer suitable for dedicated/embedded applications running Linux or Windows CE. One little but brilliant touch is making the machine's mounting holes the same as a VESA-compatible monitor stand, meaning that you can mount the computer on the back of the monitor using the same holes. I envision a desktop weather station or something like that. Oh, for time to tinker…
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a pointer to Virtual Moon Atlas, an extremely rich resource for Lunar geography that belongs in every SF writer's toolkit. 422 MB download, but hey, dare ya to find all this stuff on one Web site, or anywhere else.
  • Finally, here's the reason that “woe is me” is actually correct English, and always has been, right back to the days of Chaucer or even Beowulf. I had heard that, but never had the presence of mind to chase down the grammar. It's about the dative case, and all these years we thought we were just repeating an old error. Woe is we.

Ubuntu and the 20/80 Application Rule

As time has allowed, I've been downstairs getting a sense for the new Ubuntu 8.04 release (Hardy Heron) in both its Ubuntu and Kubuntu (KDE 4 UI) distributions. My experience with Kubuntu was cut short when the new and rather bleeding-edge KDE 4 system malfunctioned in a weird way just a few days after I installed it. I will reinstall it when they get a bug-fix release of KDE 4 out there; in the meantime, it's been worthwhile playing with Gnome-based Ubuntu.

As I said in my May 28 entry, desktop Linux has arrived. People still quibble about whether or not Grandma can install Linux, but think for a second: Does Grandma have to install Windows? Hardly. If we can persuade hardware vendors to offer Linux preinstalls, Grandma will have no more trouble with Linux than she would with Windows, especially if this is Grandma's first PC and she isn't constrained by old Windows habits.

I've been testing four free software packages in some depth: Abiword, OpenOffice, Gnumeric, and Kompozer. I tested Abiword and OpenOffice some years back and again last year when I installed Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon. Both worked fine. OpenOffice seemed slow to me last year, but then it was running on a 2002-era 1.7 GHz machine, not the loaded P4 3.2 GHz box I'm using downstairs these days. OpenOffice now seems more than responsive enough. Abiword, by contrast, has always seemed pretty brisk, and it has evolved to the point where it can do just about anything I need a word processor to do. It loads and saves Word 2000 files—with a couple of minor gotchas—and had no trouble with the documents I edited. The Gnumeric spreadsheet works extremely well for me and handled every Excel 2000 spreadsheet I threw it at, keeping in mind that I'm not much of a spreadsheet guy and none of my spreadsheets ever gave Excel stretchmarks to begin with.

Kompozer was a bit of a surprise: It's a fork of Linspire's now-abandoned NVu WYSIWYG Web editor, and as close to Dreamweaver 3 as anything I've tried. It's available for Windows, and if it doesn't fail me in any significant way, I'm moving all my HTML development over to it, because it outputs cleaner HTML than the 1999-era Dreamweaver 3.

I've done less testing of OpenOffice, but will continue testing and report more here. If I have to move to a non-Microsoft office suite in the future, this will probably be it, and what testing I've done so far tells me that file compatibility is probably the only serious problem I'll have.

What my recent testing of Ubuntu and these several apps suggests to me is that only a lack of big box store preinstalls keeps desktop Ubuntu from becoming a very big hit—and the biggest challenge to Microsoft since OS X. What has always been true but rarely mentioned in the computer press is that 20% of app features satisfy the needs of 80% of app users. That 20/80 rule goes further: Email, Web, word processing, and spreadsheets together represent probably 80% or more of what home users do with computers. (I suspect that the rest is a combination of media players, IM, photo managers, and games.) And within those apps, 20% of the features do 80%—or more—of the work. I know a lot of people who still use Office 97 every day, and have no intention of upgrading. It works like lightning on modern PCs—and it's paid for, heh. It's harder for me to tell with Gnumeric, but I'm quite sure at this point that Abiword is on par with Word 97 and very close to par with Word 2000, certainly close enough to satisfy the 80% rule.

The recent (and completely unexpected) explosion of interest in cheap “netbook” subnotebook PCs comes into play here. The Atom-based netbooks I've researched will not run Vista and probably never will. Caught again with its pants around its ankles, MS is trying to popularize a streamlined version of XP for netbooks, but Linux was there first and seems to be making headway. A netbook does not have to be a completely general-purpose PC. If it can execute that 20% of app features supporting 80% of user work, it will sell—especially at the $500 price point. A distro that preinstalls Firefox, Thunderbird/Lightning, Abiword, and Gnumeric would be one hell of a road warrior machine, especially if the hardware has a fast SSD and comes in under two pounds. Canonical is working on what sure looks like such a distro, its recently announced Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Ars has a nice preview. No crisp word yet on what apps it preinstalls, but we'll find out before OEMs begin preinstalling Ubuntu Remix on their hardware later this year. In the meantime, I'm very encouraged on all fronts. Finally, there is a non-Microsoft, command-line free path to 80% of what PCs do. As far as I'm concerned, that's plenty.

Odd Lots

  • Aero won his first “major” (a win against at least three other males of his breed) at the Colorado Springs Kennel Club dog show this past weekend. That gives him a total of five points toward the fifteen he needs (and the first of two majors) to win his championship.
  • Shopping a little harder for gas these days? This site may help, keeping in mind that driving miles to save pennies isn't always a win—and the price could change before you get there. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.)
  • Neal Rest sent me a pointer to “Ten Things I Hate About Commandments,” which is a parody trailer made as a remix of scenes from a very famous movie that you may recognize. It's less a parody of the film than of film trailers in general, and very funny.
  • From Roy Harvey comes a link to a paper containing a great deal of data on historical climate change. I don't agree with all the points made by the author, but the paper is so thick with graphs that I'm not sure his conclusions are the real value-add here. Do take a look.
  • One of the scariest videos I've seen in a while shows a good-sized house literally sliding into the rampaging Wisconsin River and floating away downstream. Lake Delton, near Wisconsin Dells and home of the (in)famous Tommy Bartlett Water Ski and Jumping Boat Thrill Show, basically created a new channel for itself and drained completely into the Wisconsin River, driven by massive rains. The Dells themselves weren't directly affected, but a great deal of aquatic activity on Lake Delton (duck boats, jet skis, and poor Tommy) are now gone for the rest of the 2008 season. (And we're going to the Dells this July!)
  • Missed including this one a couple of months ago, but it's worth some consideration: Blogging has become the new work-at-home piecework, with “professional” (read here: sometimes paid) bloggers working themselves literally to death for as little as $10 per post. Damn, I wish my blog earned me that little! (Here's a counterpoint that misses the point a little, but worth reading for balance.)
  • Finally, I stumbled on Curious Expeditions while trying to find aerial photos of the Roman Catholic church I grew up in on the Web. No dice on the church (it's so ugly the parish Web site contains no photos of it!) but if you want to see a picture of a petrified bat, Galileo's mummified middle finger (now, who did he give it to?) or hundreds of other peculiar things, this is the place. It's not all creepshow stuff, either: The entry on New York City's pneumatic message system (similar to the legendary pneu of France) is the best treatment I've seen on the American side of the subject.

Fire Drill! (Update)

The fire has been controlled, and is mostly out. Carol is home. Tomorrow, alas, is going to be very hot here, and very windy, which is always bad news on the fire front. The fire department is soaking down whatever hot spots they can find at the fire site, to keep them from rekindling tomorrow if the winds get bad.

The fire was not large (5-6 acres) but it was in a small pocket of undeveloped land surrounded on three sides by subdivisions and on the fourth by NORAD and the NORAD access road. It was right across Highway 115 from Fort Carson, so both the Army and the Air Force had an interest and contributed resources.

I'm still taking some Tylenol for the sake of my stitches, else I would be pouring myself a drink about now. Nothing like a fire down the hill to mess over what would otherwise have been a very productive day.