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May, 2009:

Odd Lots

  • The Atlantic tells us that a growth industry in NYC and other crowded cities is training dogs to sniff out…bedbugs. Dogs who can tell live bedbugs from dead earn as much as $325 an hour, and work for kibble. I got some peculiar bites on one side of my right leg while we were down in Champaign-Urbana last week for Matt’s graduation, and while I can’t prove that bedbugs did it, that side of my right leg is the side that contacts the bed while I sleep (as I nearly always do) on my right side.
  • From Chris Gerrib comes word that The Espresso Book Machine has finally been installed in a bookstore, where it prints from a selection of half a million books on the attached server. No word on whether these are all out-of-copyright titles or what, but after what seems like decades of screwing around (I first reported on the Espresso Book Machine, originally called the PerfectBook 080, in 2001) we’re finally getting somewhere.
  • I’ve heard tell recently that Vista doesn’t play nice with the Xen hypervisor. Anybody had any crisp experience there?
  • William Banting’s Letter on Corpulence is now available from the Internet Archive, and it’s interesting as the very first detailed description of the effects of low-carb diets. Way back in 1864 Banting lost weight by eating protein and fat, and seemed surprised enough by his results to write up his experiences in detail. The more I research this, the more I’m convinced that carbs are what’s killing us, and this is not new news.
  • Lulu recently cut some kind of deal with Amazon to put all their books (I think; it certainly includes all of mine) in the Amazon database. However, they added five or six bucks to the cover price. Will people buy Carl & Jerry books for $21? Don’t know, but somehow I doubt it.
  • Machines can often see things that we can’t (which is one reason that we build machines) and they’re willing to share what they see with us. Sure don’t look like this in an 8″…
  • Ars Technica published a good article on how DRM actually makes the piracy problem worse–an insight I had years ago, and a painfully obvious one after thinking about it for a nanosecond or two.
  • No rest for the weary; several people wrote to ask what I would be writing next. Not sure. I still have to get our butts back to Colorado, but once I do, I want to finish my second SF story collection, and work on Old Catholics. You can bet that I’ll be posting more on Contra too, if that counts. Further than that I won’t venture, though I think I’ll be leaving computers alone for a little while.

INC Whew

Well. A few minutes ago I found myself staring at the last line of the last page of the last chapter of Assembly Language Step By Step, Third Edition. I’m sure it’s a feeling a little like that described by some of my friends who took their time getting through college, and one morning at the end of a term found themselves thinking, “Hey! I have enough credit hours now! I can graduate!”

It took so long that I wasn’t quite ready when I realized that it was finally over.

I celebrated by playing the MP3 of David Buskin‘s “Flying Child” and singing along. Loudly. That felt so good that I played Dean Friedman‘s “Ariel” and sang along louder still. Rather than make myself a little too nuts by singing Danny Hutton‘s manic cover of “Funny How Love Can Be” I poured myself a Diet Green River and ate too many Cape Cod Robust Russet potato chips before collapsing in my comfy chair.

Ten minutes later, Carol got back from Crystal Lake after a two-day sojourn wrapping up our trip and (not coincidentally) leaving me free to work here in Des Plaines. That was a piece of timing, but Carol’s good like that. We understand one another in a quantum-entanglement sort of way that is the very best part of loving a woman for forty years.

In truth, I’m not quite finished. Chapter 12 is still first draft and needs a polish pass. I have to write a new introduction and bibliography, and add two pages to the instruction reference. After that, of course, comes proofs and so on, but it’s starting to look like I’ll have real books sometime this fall, probably by November and perhaps as early as October. It ran a little long (187,000 words instead of 175,000) but not long enough to fuss about. It soaked up almost all of my creative time and energy since last December. I learned a lot doing it, and as often as I found myself feeling ragged and annoyed at the scale or the pace of the project, I’m still glad I did it. The book has been in print now for 21 years across three editions (the first from a now-defunct publisher under another title) and could well be in print for another ten or fifteen. It paid off my mortgage. In fact, it’s made me more money than all my other paid writing projects put together, in all of the 35 years that I’ve been writing for money. It’s gotten to be kind of an institution around here, and I’ll rewrite it again if I have to.

But not this week. Please.

The Sugar Bowl Is Back!

sugarbowl.jpgWhile going over to get my shirts back from the cleaners last week, I noticed with delight that the Sugar Bowl has reopened under new ownership, having been closed since early 2007. The Sugar Bowl is a venerable restaurant in downtown Des Plaines, a little to the east of the even more venerable Des Plaines Theater, which has been a Bollywood cheaps house for about ten years now. My cousin Maggie McGuire worked at the Sugar Bowl for 17 years until a very peculiar incident forced it to close. It was sold and reopened for a few years in the early oughties, then closed again and sat empty for more than two years.

Carol and I walked over there this morning about 7:30 for breakfast, and I was most pleased. The Sugar Bowl was purchased by two Greeks, who rehabbed it down to the bones and made it sparkle. Around here, nobody does breakfast places like the Greeks, who also operate Kappy’s in Niles about four blocks north of where Carol grew up (along with countless others). Their coffee is strong but not in the least bitter, and probably ideal for the breakfast-out crowd. I had two eggs scrambled with bacon, and Carol their cheese blintzes. The eggs were completely cooked (not always the case in restaurants, and important in this Era of Salmonella) and the bacon done to a perfect crisp. Carol would have liked her blintzes a little bit warmer. We think they’re trying to make an impression by being fast, and they were, but you have to finish the job.

They’re open every day from 6:00 AM until 3:00 PM. It’s great to have a Greek-run breakfast and lunch place within a quick trot of our condo, and while it’s not “fine dining,” it’s still dead-center in the grand Chicago tradition of locally owned one-off family restaurants. Highly recommended.

Marvell’s SheevaPlug

Two years ago, I discovered PowerLine networking and have used it ever since, first to cover a CAT5E “dead spot” in my Colorado house, and more recently to finesse Wi-Fi outages at Carol’s sister’s house. The Linksys PLE200 Ethernet bridges work fantastically well within our house, and have sufficient bandwidth to stream HD video. With one unit near my router downstairs, I can take the other unit and plug in to the Internet anywhere in the house where there’s a power outlet, and there are power outlets every six or eight feet on every wall in the place. So whereas it’s not quite Internet Anywhere, it’s pretty damned close.

I remember thinking with a smirk back when I first got the units that it wouldn’t be too long before somebody made Linux run on it. And suppose somebody did? What would be the use of that?

Well, a use occurred to me a few months later, though it wasn’t anything I felt like discussing at the time. But this morning I saw something on Slashdot that made me change my mind. It’s the Marvell SheevaPlug. It’s an 1.2 GHz ARM-based Linux box in a wall wart, and bears a striking resemblance to the various PowerLine brick bridges that I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s got a gigabit Ethernet port and a USB 2.0 connector, but no other interfaces. You talk to it through the Ethernet port, and can use the USB port for external mass storage or whatever. It takes its power from the wall outlet it’s plugged into. It’s only missing one (obvious) thing: PowerLine connectivity.

One of these plugged into a wall is cute, but not a major win. Equipping them with jelly-bean PowerLine logic changes everything: One plugged into a wall downstairs with a terabyte hard drive on the USB port, and three or four plugged into the wall upstairs acting as USB peripherals to computers, and you’ve got a media distribution system for cheap, with no dependence on CAT5 or even Wi-Fi. You can do that now via Wi-Fi, piecing together a system from components. Products based on the SheevaPlug (which is actually an OEM-able hardware platform) already allow this, with more or less kafeuthering, usually more. (See HipServ and PogoPlug.) My take is that if the idea is in fact to make a cheap and simple media distribution component for home use, PowerLine is a no-brainer.

The SheevaPlug does not have PowerLine connectivity, but someday it or something like it will. And a cheap (in my view, ~$80) implementation could turn an entire hotel into a LAN party–a LAN party where nobody knows precisely who or where anybody else is.

I’m not sure if that’s important to gamers or not. I’m not a gamer and have never been to a LAN party. I have read online, however, that there are LAN parties at which the games are almost a secondary attraction, behind the unusual ability to share files at high speeds with few (if some) concerns about Big Media’s enforcers. At public LAN parties, it’s always possible that the MPAA could plant a mole at the party. But if everybody’s sitting quietly in their hotel rooms either gaming or sharing files (or both) any moles tuning in with their own Sheevas would have a hard time knowing whom to call the cops on. Unlike Wi-Fi, it’s hard to get a directional fix on a PowerLine node, and without routable IP addresses, there’s no way to connect a node to a particular person.

This may or may not be technically feasible; it’s an SF concept for me, and I have a couple of story ideas that follow from it or at least make use of it. Much depends on how hotels are actually wired–and if something like this catches on, I’m guessing that they’ll begin soldering a low-pass filter on the 110v feed to every room.

But in the meantime, it’s cool to see my long-time prediction that computers will eventually become bulges between peripherals moving toward actualization. (I did not guess that computers would become their own wall-warts.) And there’s much more to say about what I call “backnets,” which are networks that happen in unexpected ways, often parasitically on other connections. Backnets may be the third coming of pirate radio, in which tweaking the Man is often more important than accomplishing anything useful. (Is there any fiction about pirate radio out there that you know of? Drop titles in the comments if you’ve got any. Thanks!)

Odd Lots

  • I like nuns (most nuns, if perhaps not all nuns) and I’ve said good things about the few that helped me get started on the road toward personal discipline and basic thinking skills. Over at the Make blog, they’ve got a few photos of an offering left at a monument dedicated to one Sister Nicodema: An elaborately painted wooden lightning bolt carefully delivered in an elaborately crafted custom case. No idea who she was or even where this is in the world, but somebody gets points for originality in implementing the tribute. She must have been one helluva teacher. (The great German term “geistesblitz” comes to mind.)
  • I thought of another couple of Irishisms associated with my grandmother Sade Prendergast Duntemann: Kafoothering (furiously fussing with, or frantic activity generally) and curniklee, which defies easy definition but might be described as gross dirt. Both spellings are phonetic, and I’m guessing the originals are from the Irish language. I haven’t myself used “curniklee” in decades, but “kafoothering” is a wonderful word that bears remembering.
  • Those who don’t read Contra comments on my WordPress main site may have missed Jim O’Brien’s insights on “oonchick,” which in Irish is spelled “oinseach,” and denotes a person of pathetic foolishness or stupidity. He also suggests that since in Irish the suffix “og” means “young,” a “gomog” may be a young gom, which in Irish is an idiot (or an “eejit” as Sade herself might have said.)
  • The “Axis of Evil” patterns that people see in maps of the cosmic background radiation may be caused by lensing at the boundary between the solar solar wind and the slower interstellar wind. Or you can have my completely speculative opinion (not peer reviewed) that the pattern is due to the cumulative effect on the cosmic background caused by everything massive in the universe acting as a very lumpy and unevenly distributed gravitational lens. The universe is not perfectly smooth and featureless. If the cosmic background is indeed leftovers from the Big Bang, it is the farthest source of radiation possible. We’re seeing it, in a sense, through slightly wrinkly glass. How could it be otherwise?
  • At least we’re not seeing the Blessed Mother in the cosmic background hiss… (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I’ve known about the Baby Name Voyager for some time, but I don’t think I’ve cited it here before. It’s a Java app charting the popularity of names given to infants since the 1880s. The name “Jeffrey” barely existed until the 1930s, peaked about when I showed up, and then was mostly gone again by 2000. I always thought it was a bad idea. I wanted to be James, and was almost Eric. For a truly fascinating graph, though, enter a single letter, to see the relative popularity of all the names beginning with that letter. Like Q.
  • I’m not a beer drinker, but down at Shop and Save, they have Russian beer in 2-liter plastic bottles. I’ve never before seen beer (nor anything else alcoholic) in what most people think of as soda bottles, and I always figured it was either illegal or simply a bad idea chemically. I guess not.

For Small Values of “Thumb”


The last time we had the nerd gang over, Eric Bowersox gave me a couple of the smallest USB thumb drives I have ever seen. The unit shown above right is 1 3/8″ long X 1/2″ wide and holds 512MB. It was a promo giveaway branded with AMD’s logo, containing tech spec PDFs for AMD’s CPUs and motherboards. I included a 4 GB Cruzer Micro Skin in the photo for comparison, but what doesn’t show well is the little gadget’s thickness, which is just about 1/16″, or a hair over 2 mm.

The unit Eric gave me is a Kingmax Super Stick, and in case that’s too big for ya, there is also a Kingmax Super Stick Mini that is another 4 mm shorter. I was not surprised to see that they have higher-capacity units, from 2GB up to 16GB. The 4GB unit sells on Amazon for $6.95, and the 16 GB for only $35.75. Kingmax knows its market, or at least understands careless geek laundry habits, since the product is advertised as “…washer and dryer SAFE!”

A drive that small is basically the size of the glass-epoxy connection tang inside a conventional USB flash drive, minus the metal guide that ordinarily surrounds it. The downside to a thumb drive without the metal guide is that it can plug into a USB port two ways, only one of which is useful. I made that mistake the first time I tried it, but I recognize that there’s no harm done plugging it in the wrong way, because in that event there’s no electrical connection between drive and port.

It’s a little small for my own personal thumbs, but may be a reasonable form factor for plugging into netbooks or smuggling across borders stuffed up one nostril. What I find more notable is the fact that 512MB flash drives are now so cheap that they can be produced as trade-show freebies. The size of our data isn’t increasing, and the capacity of cheap storage is expanding astonishingly fast. What’s the bandwidth of a $5, 64 GB nostril drive crammed full of 25,000 MP3s and passed from one hand to another? Media creators are wondering in their nightmares, and if they aren’t, they should be, because we’ll be there before you know it.

Cranky Insight

I haven’t posted for eight days, and people are starting to send me notes asking if I’m all right. I am, though I’m not sleeping well and don’t have my usual energy. Whatever time and oomph I haven’t had to devote to family issues here I’ve been pouring into the book. I’m now 161,000 words in, of about 180,000 total, so the end really is in sight–but seeing the end isn’t enough. I still have to grind through the material.

I will take an opportunity to gripe a little, this time about the Insight GUI shipped for and with the gdb debugger. Insight isn’t perfect, and parts of it are excellent–especially compared to the molasses marathon of using naked gdb in a console, God help us–but a good deal of it is simply awful. I chose Insight as the example debugging tool for my third edition, in part because it’s technically a component of gdb and not an add-on. However, it comes closer to the truth to say that after I interviewed Linux debuggers for use with C-free assembly code, Insight was the last man standing. Most debuggers assume that they’ll be dealing with clib and C source code, and don’t know how to load a C-free executable, even if contains valid STABS or DWARF debug info. At least Insight allows assembly language source debugging in a window.

As grateful as I am for it, certain things about Insight make me nuts. Good example: The Memory view. This is an ordinary hexdump-style memory display, with only two means of navigation. You can scroll the dump up or down for 16 bytes by clicking the arrows, or you can type in a new address in an entry field. And I mean type–the GUI does not recognize paste from the clipboard. If you want to fill the field with a new address, the keyboard is all you get. Worse, moving up- or down-memory by clicking the arrow buttons takes one to three seconds to refresh the window. (This is not an exaggeration. I timed it.) An operation like that, on a 2.8 GHz machine, should be instantaneous. How about buttons to take us to the address currently in ESP or EIP? Or sheesh, maybe implement paste from the clipboard to the address entry field!

I’m tempted to blame it on the fact that Insight is written in Tcl/Tk, but I’ve actually used Tcl/Tk and I don’t think it’s inherently that slow. The only guess I would hazard is that because working in naked gdb is horrendously ponderous but still nearly universal in the Linux world, the guys who wrote Insight didn’t know any better, and thought that their results were transcendently wonderful. Not true. One click is often (if not always) worth twenty or more frantic keystrokes. To me, that’s a win. You command-line people should get out more.

Odd Lots

  • The rest of Bichonicon was uneventful enough (and I was tired enough) that I decided it wasn’t worth a whole ‘nother entry. Aero won a ribbon on Saturday, but did not win points. Carol and I ate too much fast food. We came home. End of story.
  • I did briefly run into St. Louis native Nancy Frier, granddaughter of the man who founded Alox Manufacturing Company, maker of shoelances, kites, marbles, military radar corner reflectors, and lots of other odd bits. She had visited a marble factory in West Virginia and showed me a video of glass marbles being made on a machine very similar to the one Alox had used. It’s a great video, and when she uploads it to YouTube I’ll post a link here.
  • And I found two bottles of Diet Green River. The trick is to look in small local grocery stores or local chains, like Garden Fresh Markets or Shop and Save. Have not yet checked the local Butera, but it’s on my list.
  • A reader chided me that “All your damn dogs look alike. Post more pictures of Carol.” He’s right about the dogs, I guess, but I have posted quite a few pictures of Carol in my photo gallery. In fact, here’s an almost 40-year run of the two of us together.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know (or at least understand) Until Yesterday Department: “Kukla” is Russian for “doll.” The eponymous little guy on the seminal Kukla, Fran, and Ollie kids’ show had been built as a doll for a friend by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, who liked the doll so much that Tillstrom kept him, and made him the star of the show.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday (And Didn’t Think Were Necessary) Department: A merkin is a wig for women’s genitalia; basically, a pubic toupee. Sheesh. English has a word for everything.
  • Here is A Brief, Incomplete, and Mostly Wrong History of Programming Languages. I think it’s truer than people will admit, especially the Pascal entry. Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.
  • Blandishments: Salt-free mustard and ketchup.
  • A guy scraped Twitter data for the phrase “just landed in” and mapped the air travel data, hoping to create a new tool for epidemiology. Germs like jet aircraft for various reasons, and this is the first genuine use for the Twitter system that I’ve ever heard of.
  • I follow Icecap as part of my ongoing climate research, and it’s interesting for another reason: It consists of a navigation column and three narrow content columns. I’ve never seen another blog with a layout quite like this, and I like it. Narrow is better than wide, especially for small print. Scanability (given that I don’t read every entry) is high.
  • Finally, some images speak for themselves. This is one of them. (Thanks to Baron Waste for the link.)

Bichonicon, Day 3


Things kicked into high gear today at the Bichon Frise National Specialty here in St. Louis. The seminars are over and the judging began bright and early at 8:30 AM. There are quite a few different classes: Puppy dog (and here, “dog” means “male dog”) puppy bitch, junior handler, open dog, and open bitch, among others. Carol showed Aero in the Amateur Owner/Handler class, where he took first place. The class is for people like us, who buy a show-quality puppy and do the show circuit but do not breed dogs. We own Aero and Carol handles him (meaning that she takes him physically to shows and runs him around the ring) but we aren’t doing it for money, hence “amateur.” There are professional breeders and professional handlers, though how much money can be made there is a seriously open question. Just about all of us do it for love, and a few of us (very few) make a buck or two here and there. (Just like fiction writing, no?)

Carol almost got second place in the Winners Dog class; the judge had Carol take Aero around the ring a second time and was clearly considering him, but then someone else got the red ribbon.

Our friends have done well too: Mary Provost (who draws the show logo cartoons) took Reserve Winners Bitch with her new puppy Mona Lisa, and Laura Pfab’s daughter Kirsten won Junior Handlers with their new adult dog Ron Stoppable.

I’d say more, but it’s late and I’m getting cross-eyed here. Everybody had a good time, and although Aero’s blue ribbon did not come with any points, we’ve learned a lot about grooming and showing from the old pros here. Everybody says that Aero almost can’t avoid becoming a champion–he just needs to hit a few more shows and keep his tail up. I think we can do that. We will certainly try.

Tomorrow is our second shot in the ring, and then it’s back home to Chicago up I-55.

Bichonicon, Day 2


Last night was the awards banquet and rescue auction for the Bichon Frise National Specialty show here in St. Louis. All the bichon powers from the Denver/Springs axis were gathered at one table, plus a couple of old friends from as far away as Pittsburgh. As that sort of dinner goes, it was exceptional: We had roast tenderloin of beef, with new potatoes, carrots, and string beans. (I gave my string beans to Carol, but the rest of it was spectacular–even the carrots.) The weakest part of the meal was the cheesecake dessert, but that was certainly workmanlike, and we all enjoyed the meal immensely, at least on the merits of the food.

I admit, I was something of an outsider. All but one of our tablemates were women, and most of them had attended a seminar on dog reproductive health and whelping earlier that day. I like puppies a great deal, but I’m not passionately interested in seeing them happen in Technicolor and real time. And of course, the old pros at the table all had their own whelping hax, honed over many years of ushering new puppy life into the world. Much was said about the “stuck puppy” problem, which is about what you think and can be fatal. I was hoisting a nice, medium-rare chunk of tenderloin on my fork when one of the venerable whelpers at the table offered the wisdom that “you can insert your index finger into the bitch’s rectum and re-orient a stuck puppy…”

Some mental images take a minute or two to remove from one’s head. I seized that opportunity to set my fork down and head for the men’s room, hoping that we’d be on to something better by the time I got back.

And we were. The rest of the meal was uneventful, and we nibbled our cheesecake while the raffle prizes were awarded (generally hand-made bichon crafts) and the auction conducted, for the benefit of the national Bichon Frise Rescue group.

This morning was a quiet one for me; Carol wanted to watch the Obedience and Rally events, and I mostly kicked back and read a book, unless one of our friends was in the ring. Obedience is just that: tests to see how well a dog listens and obeys relatively complex commands. Rally is peculiar; it’s basically close-order drill for dogs, with dog and handler working through a course of various commands like 270-degree and 360-degree turns.

I fetched back lunch and snacks as needed, and held QBit down while Carol practiced shaping the hair over his rump. (QBit does not like having his butt fussed with. Maybe he’s heard too much about those whelping seminars.) By midlate afternoon all of our friends had had their turns in the ring, and we went back to our room and napped for an hour. We caught a quick supper outside at Panera (or St. Louis Bread Company, as they call it here) in gorgeous if slightly humid weather. Carol is now bathing Aero, and after she dries him, our more experienced friends will be over to the room here to offer advice on getting him brushed and scissored into championship form.

Aero hits the ring tomorrow eleven-ish, and whereas he’s in pretty good shape overall, he is competing not against two or three other bichons (as he often does at smaller dog shows) but well over a hundred. Carol’s putting her back into it and we’re hoping for the best, but much depends on how well Aero “baits”; that is, how focused he is on Carol with a piece of bacon between her lips. Aero doesn’t bait easily, and he tends toward rowdiness. The dog show thing for him is a glorious opportunity to wrestle with his own kind, even (or especially) when he should be daintily prancing around the ring. He’ll get his chance, and I’ll be on the sidelines, taking movies and praying that nobody nearby is in heat. Sex trumps even bacon–but you knew that.

I’ll let you know how it all goes.