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December, 2008:

My 2009 Plan File

2008 was Not My Favorite Year. Too many deaths, too many illnesses, too many trips to the dentist, and too many financial collapses. I have high hopes for 2009, but that’s part & parcel of being a Pollyanic Old Catholic. Hey, when you’re down this far, every direction is up, right?

So in this, the last (I sincerely hope) Contra entry that I will ever edit by hand, I present my plan file for the coming year:

  • Get Contra settled in to its new home on under the WordPress platform. Easy one, though we’ll know more tomorrow.
  • Begin and complete the rewrite of Assembly Language Step By Step for the Third Edition, and hopefully see it into print by the spring of 2010. This is a big-un, and the top priority, as there is considerable money riding on it.
  • Finish and publish Cold Hands and Other Stories, my second SF collection. Richard Bartrop has already sent me sketches for the cover art, and they look great. As soon as I can get “Drumlin Wheel” completed and cleaned up, I have enough material for a book, and after that, finishing it the book is just a few days of focused work.
  • Finish Old Catholics, or at least get another 50,000 words into it. (I have about 27,000 words down now.) This has been fun, and it’s certainly the quirkiest thing I’ve ever attempted to write.
  • Build a couple of radios. I have the schematic for John Baumann KB7NRN’s 2-tube FM BCB receiver, and that’s tops on the list.
  • Get my 40M dipole out of my alarm system’s hair and do some hamming on the low bands.
  • Get a 6M vertical of some sort situated in the attic.
  • Get the last crown installed in my mouth. (This should happen in early February.) That’s the end of a miserably massive piece of oral rehab that begin in January 2008, and (mercifully) this last step involves no cutting.
  • Finish and launch a couple of model rockets with the local club.
  • Read Many Books.
  • Eat Less Sugar. Eat More Meat. Lose More Weight. (More on this shortly.)
  • Enjoy the immediate presence of my wife, my dogs, and this extravagantly beautiful world.

Other things will certainly happen along the way, and maybe half of the above list will not happen, though I have great faith in the second item and complete faith in the last.

As for tonight, well, Carol and I will remain at home, watch a movie, brush dogs, and maybe have a glass of wine. There’s a decent conjunction of the Moon and Venus just after sunset, and I intend to gawk at that a little. Come midnight, I may jump up and yell “Bang!” in honor of fireworks, if I’m still awake. (If I’m not still awake, the kids down on Villegreen will handle it for me, and I’ll be awake one way or another.)

Happy New Year from both of us; like, how hard could that be?

Running Out of 2008

ravenlogo.jpgCarol and I got back to Colorado Springs a few hours ago, and the suitcases haven’t been emptied yet–in fact, they’re in a pile in the corner of the bedroom and may not even be unlocked until tomorrow morning. But on the way home from the airport we picked up the puppies, who seem no worse for the wear, except for their tear-staining. We give them occasional doses of Tylan to treat the staining, but we don’t expect the kennel people to keep up with that. So they’re going to be redeyed for a couple of weeks yet.

The priority today and tomorrow is to get ready for the big switchover from hand-edited Contra entries (something I’ve been doing for over ten years!) to WordPress. I did some testing of a free blog editor called Zoundry Raven while I was in Chicago, and it worked well enough for me to want to give it a shot in “production mode.” This post is being edited in Raven, and if everything works correctly, it will post the same text and associated images to both LiveJournal and WordPress with one click and without a lot of screwing around. The images were an issue on my test post for December 23, and they may still be, but I’m running out of time to troubleshoot them this year, and I may have to fix’n’figger along the way if Glitch Happens. (And doesn’t it always?)

The new URL for the WordPress-based Contra will be, in case you haven’t seen that yet. Come Friday, there will be no new posts on, though links to all ten years’ worth of archives will still be there, at least until I get them moved to the new domain. How far back I move the hand-edited archives into WordPress depends heavily on how much work it ends up being, and that remains an open issue.

The Real Problem With Big 3 Bankruptcy

I’ve been very puzzled by Big Media’s consensus that we simply can’t allow the Big Three to file for bankruptcy. I guess too many people think that “bankruptcy” means sending everybody home, closing the doors forever, and selling off the machines for ten cents on the dollar. There are, of course, forms of bankruptcy that work that way, but that’s not what anybody’s talking about. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is about reorganization with an eye toward continued operation. The reorganized company is forgiven some of its debts and is given more flexibility to remake itself as a profitable operation. That’s what all three of our automakers should be doing, and should have been working in that direction for some time. But GM’s board says that bankruptcy is not an option.

In cruising online articles, I find it peculiar that no one is raising an interesting possibility: Bankruptcy for the Big Three means an end to the UAW as we know it—and the Big Three can no longer operate their plants without the UAW’s help. Chapter 11 would basically allow a judge to tear up an automaker’s union contracts, allowing the firm to cut salaries, lay off as many people as it wants to without union consultation, and nullify work rules. It basically turns a union shop into a union-less shop (not a non-union shop, but a shop in which the union exists without any power) and the unique problem with that is that without UAW cooperation, it’s unclear whether GM, Ford, or Chrysler management know enough about their own SOPs to make the plants work. The UAW, seeing its own inevitable death (or at least irrelevancy) would have no strong motivation to work with reorganized automakers. Whether or not the rank and file would want to keep working, the UAW could shut the American portion of the industry down, in a strike not so much against management as against American society. It would be a weird twist on the goofy Ayn Randian idea of creative people withdrawing from society to punish society for not “appreciating” their self-defined importance. “Give us billions of dollars annually forever or you won’t be able to buy Chevies anymore!” Uhhh, no. It won’t work for the Objectivists, and it won’t work for the UAW.

On the other hand, such a shutdown, as hard as it would be on the workers, could be the only way to force the changes that have to happen: The Big Three would close for perhaps as much as a year, and maybe more, while plants are shuttered, marques retired (do we still need Buick? Or Pontiac?) and the entire process of making autos rebuilt from the ground up, more along the lines of non-union plants operated in the South by overseas companies. There’s a good description of what such a process might be like over at The Deal, and although it goes deeper into the finance than most of us could follow, it’s worth a look. This would not be the end of the world. It needn’t be the end of the UAW, either, but the UAW will have to retool itself every bit as much as management will have to retool the plants.

The other and perhaps more serious problem with the UAW is that GM (as an example) has three times as many retiree members as working members, and retirees have voting rights. In effect, the UAW is no longer a worker’s union but a pension management organization, and this should make us a little uneasy. Keeping the plants running is no longer the overriding concern of UAW membership. The Feds absorbed the pension plans of dying railroads, and this may be one reason we cannot make passenger rail service work over here. (The article is ten years old but worth reading.) There is some danger that a special autoworkers’ retirement system could make it impossible to produce autos profitably here, but I haven’t been able to find enough on this to have a strong opinion.

I guess the whole situation is a lot more complex than anyone has understood prior to now. Taylorism and the century-long one-time labor shortage created by industrialization made trade unionism inevitable, but both of those forces are now history. The Big Three need to be remade along the lines of the Little Five, the foreign-owned “transplant” automakers that seem to be doing quite well in the US. They are not sweatshops, and their people seem to be happy. The UAW may refuse to do this, and management probably doesn’t know how. Without cooperation by both, the task may be impossible, and American automaking may go the way of the railroads, or become impossible except for foreign corporations. It’s a weird, sad business.

“God Bless All Of You…On The Good Earth”

apollo8sdtampForty years ago, we watched three human beings travel to the Moon. Well, they got there, and took a spin or two around it, and then came home. They didn’t land, but that’s ok. (Gravity wells are a bitch.) We didn’t appreciate at the time what a feat it was, and would not in fact understand the bittersweet truth for many years thereafter: We had a window; it opened, and it closed. It may not open again—but while it was open, we took it.

Nonetheless, that was a Christmas unlike any other. For years afterward I had a poster with the Earth rising over a gray Moon and the inscription: “In the Beginning, God…” It was part of the Christmas Eve reading by Borman, Lovell, and Anders as they circled the Moon, which brought tears to countless eyes (including my own) and continued the movement of my idea of God into the cosmic, far beyond the cartoonish oversimplifications that were taught in Catholic grade school, things that, sadly, still define Christianity in most of the world. God and the universe are far larger and more complex (and wonderful) than we can possibly imagine, but I gave it a good shot, and forty years on I am a different man for it. I require broader perspectives in myself than I otherwise might have been content with, and (more significantly) I challenge all conventional wisdom. That was my biggest Christmas present in 1968.

Carol and I will rejoin her family later today in Crystal Lake (along with Bill and Gretchen and the girls) to have Christmas yet again. (Why do something that good only once?) I leave you for the moment with the conclusion of Apollo 8’s Christmas message:

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

Sliding Into Christmas

I’m not even sure I’ve mentioned that Carol and I are in Chicago for Christmas, though it’s a shorter trip than most and (as always) nothing has happened quite as quickly nor as well as we had hoped. This is worse weather than I’ve seen on a trip here in years: bitter cold followed by three days of more or less continuous precipitation. (As I was saying while shopping the last few days to anyone who would listen: “So much for global warming.” Let’s see if we can make it a meme, or at least a contrarian tagline.)

Yesterday was unusually bad here in Des Plaines. Our condo is only a few minutes from Randhurst Mall, the oldest enclosed mall in the Chicago area and at one point in the mid-60s the second-largest enclosed retail space in the country. So I decided to head up there, hit Borders on the outskirts, and then prowl the mall for some last minute gift ideas in the smaller shops. It took me half an hour to get there in our rented Camry, slipping and sliding down Rand Road at ten to fifteen miles an hour, dodging whackos in their CJs who didn’t seem to grok important things like the reduced coefficient of friction. And when I got there, egad: They had closed the mall three months ago. (One downside to being an out-of-towner is being out of the loop. Hey, you coulda told me about that! This is my hometown! That was my mall! Most of my underwear came from Randhurst when I was a teenager!) When the snow melts (if it ever does) they’re going to tear the mall down and build a “lifestyle center,” which is code these days for “more damfool condos.”

Well, they’re certainly going to tear it down. Whether the condos actually happen or not, we’ll see. In any event, some of the outlying big-box stores were open, and I picked up some odds and ends at Borders and Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Spotted a book I had heard about and meant to grab for some time: Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, (reviewed briefly here) which is a polemical history of the battle over whether fat or carbs make you overweight. You’ve all heard my opinions on that, and with some luck Taubes will have organized the research into a form that I can digest and cite to the carbohydrate deniers when they dive down my throat for eating bacon and eggs regularly and yet having the temerity to weigh less now than I have in 20 years.

I barely got home intact after threading the ice ballet back along Rand Road, and (having nabbed a reasonable night’s sleep) will shortly be headed off to Crystal Lake (a 35-mile slither out Highway 14) to pick up Carol, visit her mom, and then mid-afternoon head back down to Des Plaines for our Polish Vigilia supper at Gretchen’s. Vigilia is Polish for “vigil,” and it’s a Polish custom we observed on Christmas Eve when Gretchen and I were kids. In short, the family gathers for simple foods from the old country (ok, augmented by some odd Americanisms like Hawaiian salad) sweet red wine (the first Gretchen and I had ever had) and a blessing ritual I didn’t appreciate until I was much older: Breaking oplatki (a thin white wafer like Roman Catholic communion hosts) with one another and offering a blessing and a wish for the coming year.

Do read what I wrote back in 2001 about Vigilia and oplatki. It’s as true now as then, especially with our nephews grown men with ladyloves of their own, and Gretchen’s girls becoming interesting individuals in their own right-and at top volume. After a run of years when it seemed like every Christmas there were fewer hands across the table to offer oplatki, life is reasserting itself, and reminding us that renewal happens. Bidden or unbidden, recognized or unrecognized, God is with us, and (as slippery as things get at times) life is good.

Testing Zoundry Raven

I just installed Zoundry’s Raven blogging client in portable mode–I don’t see any reason for it to be installed in any other way–and this is a test post. Bloggar was a little disappointing; for example, I still don’t see how to add tags to an entry locally. So the search for a client goes on, and this post will include an image to see how well image uploading works. A WYSIWYG editor is good, and should allow images to be flowed within text in various ways. I don’t know about borders–will have to try them, since Raven supports them. The issue of how well Raven posts to multiple blogs is yest untested, but if it passes the image-upload test, that’s the next thing to look at. So far it’s pretty impressive.

Test Post from W-Bloggar

This was posted from w.bloggar, a free Windows client-side utility that works something like Semagic, through the XML-RPC API. It may have the ability to post to both WordPress and LiveJournal from a single item edited offline, which would be just about ideal for my needs. We will see. The next step will be to see if it can post the same item to both WordPress and LJ.

This item will go away (or be radically rewritten) once I figure out how it works and how best to use it.

Odd Lots

  • Foxit Software (which sells a line of very good PDF-related software, including the Foxit Reader, which I use daily) has announced an e-ink based ebook reader, the eSlick. The device isn’t being shipped yet, but there have been some early reactions in Wired and other places. I’m interested because Foxit is unlikely to claim (as most ebook enthusiasts do) that PDF is the spawn of the devil. Worth watching.
  • The Loopy Idea of the Month comes from two Ohio academics who have recently patented the notion of collapsing hurricanes by flying around them in supersonic aircraft and (somehow) using the sonic boom shockwaves to scramble the storm. Apart from the fact that supersonic aircraft use fuel at a prodigous rate, I still don’t quite follow the physics of how this is supposed to collapse the storm. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Jim Strickland passed a long a detailed how-to for extracting metallic titanium from white pigment. The process is straightforward, if (as it must be) highly energetic. I think the stickier question is working the titanium after it’s been isolated. Titanium is difficult to melt and very difficult to machine. I have a piece in my curio cabinet, and I’m very glad I don’t have to make anything from it.
  • Many people sent me the latest version of the old joke that “If Programming Languages Were Religions…” most of them lamenting that my favorite language—and my favorite religion—were not included. So it goes. I’m guessing that Pascal, like Catholicism, is patient: There will be only one programming language in use in the hereafter, and it will not be C++. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that.
  • The Wall Street Journal tells me that the RIAA is abandoning its mass-lawsuit strategy of copyright enforcement. It hasn’t worked at reducing music piracy, and its sole effect was making the music industry bigshots look positively evil. One can only wonder why it took so long to figure this out, and whether the damage can ever really be undone.
  • Here’s a wry peek at what we may see come out of the Big 3 bailout. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link. Have you driven a Pelosi lately?
  • Also from Pete comes word that Werner Von Braun wrote SF. This actually looks pretty good—gotta love that cover!

Is Everybody Happy?

I just ordered two books: Gross National Happiness by Arthur Brooks, and The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. The books are part of my long-term research into why we think and act the way we do. I’ll report further next year when I summarize my thoughts so far, but sniffing around online for reactions to Brooks’ book has raised an interesting question: Can we in fact measure happiness?

I don’t always agree with Arthur Brooks, but I admire his willingness to bring up issues that seem calculated to infuriate liberal opinion-makers—and back his opinions up with reasonable research. One of his controversial positions in Gross National Happiness is that happiness appears to correlate with intensity of religious feelings. Cato research fellow Will Wilkinson challenges that thesis in his blog, and whereas it’s a reasonable counterpoint, one of the comments below Wilkinson’s essay hit the whole problem between the eyes: People belonging to deeply conservative religious organizations are pressured, sometimes intensely, to say that they’re happy. (The commenter claims to be a lapsed Evangelical.) This maps with my own experience dealing with the conservative Catholic fringe, and yet the truth is that a lot of these people seem to me to be not only deeply unhappy, but on the thin edge of panic.

Why this should be is a subject I hate to broach at all and can’t even attempt right now, but set it aside for the moment. The real flaw in Brooks’ research may be that asking a person if he or she is happy is not a useful way to measure happiness. I see research summarized online indicating that the people in Nigeria are the happiest people in the world, though more recent research tags the Danes. The summaries understate the obvious: Happiness does not mean the same thing to all people. Worse, there are cultural pressures in a lot of places to fit in and not make a fuss (Japan comes to mind) and heavy pressure in religious and other tribal organizations to claim that the tribe provides everything they need to be happy—leading their adherents to make the statements that are simply expected of them. It’s like the ritual answer to the seminal rhetorical question, “How ya doin’?” People who answer something other than “Great!” don’t really understand the ritual.

It might be more useful to measure happiness by way of things like public civility, rate and tenure of marriage, incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, and so on. If research must be based on questionnaires, it may be possible to approach the matter from the other side, by asking more oblique questions about feelings like satisfaction, pain, sadness, or enthusiasm, or at least things that are not obviously a part of cultural or religious scripts. The truth may be that the whole question is meaningless; after all, what is the objective experience of the color red, or the taste of dry wine? We all experience the world differently, and we interpret that experience for ourselves through the lens of our culture and the social structures that are the most important to us. If we badly want to be part of a sophisticated social culture, we may choke down a crappy bitter Cabernet and praise it to the ceiling even if (to us) it’s (red) swill, because that’s what the cultural leaders and our “initiated” peers expect. This is a very deep well of inquiry, and I will be writing more about it in months to come.

We’ll see what Brooks has to say when the book arrives, but I’m suspicious of the premise, even though I would be happy (as it were) to be proven wrong.

Red Swill and Warfarin

Today’s entry is about classic rat poison. Or maybe a Georgian folk band. (From our Georgia.) Or perhaps the mis-persistence of memory, mine specifically. And certainly about the power of true names.

Hokay. Calling all Baby Boomers formerly of Chicago: Do you recall seeing signs tacked to the wooden power poles in the alley, warning us that the City of Chicago had set out “Red Swill and Warfarin” to combat rats? The memory came to mind in an odd way: I had remembered my writer friend Chuck Ott casually remarking, some time back in the 70s, that “Red Swill and Warfarin” would be a great name for a fantasy thief and his barbarian sidekick. The signs were a commonplace when I was ten or twelve. And whereas it’s been my experience that absolutely everything has been mentioned somewhere on the Web at least once (and thus findable via Google) I found nothing about “red swill and warfarin.” I did find a decent folkie band in Macon called Red Swill. I found plenty about warfarin, which is a medical anticoagulant that was toxic in rats until the rats ate a little too much of it and started developing tolerance in the 1960s. But no mention of the signs, which all my Boomer friends knew as just part of the alley background in our home town.

Pete Albrecht mentioned on Skype last night that there is an herbal called red squill that is toxic in large doses, and (significantly) an emetic. That’s a big deal if you’re a rat, because rats can’t vomit, and emetics put them into convulsions. Aha! So we do find mention of the thief and his barbarian:

It was the spring of 1967 [in Lincoln Park, Chicago] when I came up with a plan. Spring was when they baited Pearl Court with Red Squill and Warfarin, and every few days you’d see a dead rat lying there. Many of them were decomposing and maggot-eaten but one day I found one in perfect condition. I picked up that rat by the tail and put it in a shoebox. I took it to my grandmother’s house, the back yard of which adjoined Pearl Court, wrapped the box with brightly colored paper and tied it with a shiny ribbon. I then took it over to Robin’s house a block away. He wasn’t home, but his older sister was outside with some of her friends. “Hi, Debbie,” I said in as casual a tone as I could muster, “I have a present for Robin. Please give it to him and make sure you tell him it’s from me.” The next day in school he approached me, grinning like a jackal, and spoke his first, but not last words to me. “Thanks for the present!”

Yet another example (in my long list) of the truth that if you don’t know what something is called, you can’t find it. The last time it was coupler nuts, but the nice man at Ace Hardware looked at the sample I had found in my junkbox and took me right to them. The time before that it was golabki. (I know a few Polish words, but can’t spell them.) This may be an unsolveable problem, or at least one with no general solution.

And while I’m at it, here is more than you probably wanted to know about all the various concoctions used to kill rats. Bad beer with a little food coloring might work too, but I’ll leave that experiment to others.