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September, 2009:

Carson Cuts the Cannon

We’ve lived in this house since March, 2004, and one night in July 2004 we were startled to hear someone playing Taps at 10:00 PM. The next morning, Mr. Insomnia here heard First Call at 5:55, and then Reveille at 6:00 AM sharp. During the playing of Reveille, a cannon sounded.

This was almost unbelievably cool, and whether our hearing it is an accident of geography is hard to tell. Our house is about one and a half linear miles from the main gate to Fort Carson, one of the largest Army bases in the country, home to about 10,000 military personnel, two handsome maroon-and-yellow Diesel locomotives, a highly regarded golf course, and probably a lot of other things that aren’t talked about in the daily paper. We are up the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain from Fort Carson, and it may be that sound just travels well from the main complex near Gate 1 to our location. (We can look down on the Fort from our back decks, and watch their impressive fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.) There are people living a whole lot closer to Gate 1 than we are, and I’ve often wondered how loud the bugle calls are right across Highway 115 from the Fort. It would be an easy experiment to make–just run down the hill to Danceglen Drive a little before 5–but I confess I’ve never had the presence of mind to try it.

We’ve been hearing the amplified bugle calls and the accompanying cannon ever since then. About a year ago, First Call was pushed up to 6:25, and the cannon sounded with Reveille at 6:30. Alas, some time last week, the cannon ceased to sound, both at 6:30 and at 5:00 PM, after Retreat and during To the Colors. There’s a bugle call at noon, but it isn’t Mess Call and I don’t recognize it from my Boy Scout days. Futhermore, it has never been accompanied by a cannon, so I tend to hear it less often, especially if I’m in the middle of something intense at noon.

I miss the cannon. Carol and I generally get up at 6:30, and the cannon was a convenient goad to stop cuddling and get on with the day’s imperatives. I still listen for Taps at 10 PM, often going out on the back deck to lean on the railing in the dark, and it’s a very spooky thing sometimes, especially when the just-past-full Moon is rising above the Colorado plains to the east. Doubtless someone with an exaggerated sense of personal importance complained, forgetting or not caring that Fort Carson was here decades before anybody lived anywhere near it. I hope they bring it back someday. It’s a useful reminder that somebody’s keeping an eye on things in our difficult world, and that matters a great deal to me.

Covington on Time Management

I’m short on time today (and will be for probably the next week or two) so it’s appropriate to point you to Dr. Michael Covington’s post on how he teaches time management to graduate students. Much gold to be dug here, and most of what he says applies to writing a book as well as writing a doctorial thesis. Never let a day go by without progress is one of the toughest goals to meet, but also one of the most important. Life intrudes, especially for freelance writers who have houses, spouses, kids, dogs, and day jobs. Still, you should try. Take too many “days off” and you will waste time recovering context when you return to the task. This happened to me several times while I was writing Assembly Language Step By Step, Third Edition, and the deeper the subject, the more subtle the context, and therefore the easier it is to lose. (We had several family crises in Chicago while the writing was underway, and such things are impossible to avoid. I got better at context recovery through practice, but it’s still time lost that you’ll never have again.)

Another thing that Michael alludes to is that you can’t split up a difficult writing task into widely-scattered one-hour bursts. One hour is not like every other hour, except for well-defined rotework. More to the point, there is something I call “flow,” which means that I’ve goosed my subconscious into a state of high activity, and it’s spitting words up from the depths almost exactly as quickly as I can write them down. This is more common in fiction than nonfiction, but I did find that there were moments when I was blasting away at 100 wpm+ on things like passing parameters to libc functions, because I knew the material well and had had a good night’s sleep. But once you’re in flow, it’s best to keep going until it stops, or until you run out of evening, energy, or both. If you think recovering context is hard, just try to get back into flow after any interruption more involving than a bathroom break.

And finally, the Big One, which Michael does not place in bold but which in fact should be in dayglow colors: Productive people know what not to spend time on. In other words, half the trick of time management is interruption management. When I know that a flow attack is imminent and I have a free afternoon, I turn off Skype and my cell phone, clear all the toys out of my taskbar (including email) and do absolutely nothing but make tracks on the project. Without that discipline, I would not have finished ALSBS3E; in fact, without that discipline, I’m not sure I would ever finish anything.You don’t see me post as often on Contra these days as I used to because I’m feeling better and getting more done in other areas. But that’s also the reason I gather short items into Odd Lots entries: It’s less disruptive to bookmark something and gather bookmarks into a list later on than to be constantly formatting and posting one-liners.

Assuming that you have at least basic literacy in the topic at hand, success consists of focus plus debris. Really. And so on that note, back to work.

Odd Lots

  • What the Hell: Some researchers at the University of Michigan have created an 8-bit processor incorporating pneumatic gates, pointing toward a computer that doesn’t require electricity at all. Make sure you watch the videos. It’s not going to beat your local Beowulf cluster on the speed side, but if you find yourself on a planet where nanomachines eat electrical conductors (as they did in my novel The Cunning Blood) such a machine might well come in handy.
  • The Make Blog aggregated probably the best writeup of a homebrew railgun that I’ve ever seen. Make sure you prowl around the site, and make double sure you see the pictures and watch the videos!
  • Bill Cherepy sent me a link to a short writeup on the still-hypothetical Asus 2-screen ebook reader. You can use it as a netbook, with one screen doubling as a touch keyboard, or you can use it as a facing-pages ebook reader display. Now, displays are probably the most expensive part of devices like this, so I doubt a 2-screen model will be the low cost leader. Still, it’s an idea that’s well worth a try. (And please, guys, make the card slot XDHC compatible, ok?)
  • If you ever loved whole milk and wish you could go back to it, read this. And then go back to it. No guilt. No apologies. And yes, no heart attacks.
  • Back in the ’50s there was a product called Siz that was (I kid you not) foaming Napalm in a spray can. It was for starting charcoal. Lileks does a wonderful riff on it. (They had such indescribably cool toys in the ’50s.)
  • On the other hand (with Lileks always there to remind us) they did some ungodly weird stuff in the ’50s too.)
  • When I was a kid, Verne/Wells films were all the rage, and by far my favoriate was Journey to the Center of the Earth . Small boys aren’t equipped to appreciate Arlene Dahl, but I was quite the fan of James “Nemo” Mason, and was willing to tolerate Pat Boone even though my older cousin Diane thought he was “dreamy.” The film was dazzling in 1959, especially the “cave of crystals,” which flooded out when dreamy Pat Boone got too agressive with a geologists’ pick. Well, some years ago Mexican miners discovered a real cave of crystals 1200 feet beneath Naica, Mexico that makes those old 1959 movie sets look sick. National Geographic has more textual coverage, and it’s worth noting that the cavern is unliveable without life support suits, being at a constant 122 degrees and 90% humidity, which is worse than Houston, if that were possible.

Letting Bigfoot Go

We’ve thought about it for some months now: Our 24′ Bigfoot motorhome has been out with us exactly seven times since we bought it, all of those being quick weekend getaways that we could squeeze in between frantic trips to Chicago. We might have driven it to Chicago at least once, but neither my sister nor Carol’s sister has any place to park something that big, and we’d have to rent a car anyway for local travel.

The Chicago situation isn’t going to change radically in the near future. So, as much as we’ve enjoyed it, we’re going to have to let it go. I’ve posted a For Sale ad on the Bigfoot owners’ organization site. (Photos and floorplan there.) It was a little small for our needs (although on short trips space wasn’t a horrible problem) and when life settles down enough to consider RVing again, we’re going to look for a unit with slideouts and something approximating a real bed.

It’s a 2006, model 30MH24DB. We are the original owners, and it’s been garaged indoors at a storage place ever since we bought it, figuring that if we decided it wasn’t for us, it wouldn’t have been out in the sun in the interim. (The sun can get pretty intense at 6600 feet.) It’s only got 3,300 miles on it, and there are no scrapes or dents. There is a downloadable PDF from the manufacturer with full specs and lots of pictures, which you can get to from this page. (Find and click the button “PDF Download.”)

Again, we’ve enjoyed it a lot, but we’re paying for the loan and for indoor storage, and if we can’t take it out a full week at a time to see some of the West (instead of short weekend trips within a hundred miles of home) we’re better off putting it in other hands.

A Fine Fritter

Last night I did something I hadn’t expected to do: I signed up for Facebook. As Terry Dullmaier almost immediate wrote on my Wall: “Apparently we all end up on Facebook eventually!”

Indeed. And I guess I signed up for Facebook for the same reason I bought an XP machine: Sooner or later, I’m going to need to know something about it, so why not now? I was a little boggled at how many people I know are on there, including both of my nephews and most of my friends, some of whom go wayyyy back. (Terry and I went to Catholic grade school together. Dominus vobiscum and all that.)

So I’ve been doing a fair bit of frittering this afternoon, trying to make sense of it all as both a technology and a phenomenon. There are games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that I have no intention of playing, but which are interesting to watch. And refreshingly little politics, though I’ve already been warned that it’s out there. I’m just not looking hard enough. Thanks; I’m looking as hard as I want to.

I’m not sure what all it’s good for yet. I already have a blog in two places and plenty of Web pages, and the amount of email that shoots through here gets scary sometimes. Do I need any more social machinery? I’m not looking for a job (there’s plenty of contractor work for me if I want it) or a girlfriend (I’m very happy with the one I’ve had for forty years now) and whatever else I might need I generally find on Amazon, ABEBooks, eBay, Craigslist, or NewEgg.

It’s always good to be findable, but I think I was pretty findable before. I need to post covers of my books in an album, especially now that a new one’s in the chute. Beyond that, I stand a little puzzled before the whole thing. If you’ve got some insights as to how Facebook is best used (beyond the obvious: “sparingly”) definitely drop them in the comments.

Odd Lots

  • On Monday I returned the last third-pass page proofs (of a very gnarly part of the book, the partial instruction reference) and if the publisher’s schedule is to be believed, Assembly Language Step By Step, Third Edition goes on press tomorrow. Real books should be out of the bindery and in the warehouse by September 22.
  • We came within a few hours of having a sunspot-free calendar month in August, but then very late Monday night, a barely visible sunspeck showed up, ruined the run, and then immediately started to vanish. The sunspot minimum appears to be heading for a double bottom, and there are people at NASA suggesting that deeper mechanisms are changing within the sun, and we may be a long time before seeing anything like a proper sunspot peak. So much for DXCC on 10M.
  • Cory Doctorow speaks up on cloud computing, the goal of which, he says, is to allow companies to make money in a mature computing market by charging you month by month for computional facilities that you already have at home. So tell me: How many people actually collaborate in the Cloud, as a percentage of people who actually compute? I think it’s in low single digits–which suggests that the Cloud as an idea is something like 95% scam.
  • If you’re following Michael Arrington’s CrunchPad project, the CrunchPadFans blog is worth a visit every week or so. It’s a little sparse, but there hasn’t been much news generally on the long-awaited gadget in recent weeks. I intuit that it would make a jack-fine ebook reader, if software to handle the major formats is included or installable.
  • And speaking of ebook formats, Sony has announced that it will be supporting the EPUB format in its new reader products, days after Google’s announcement that it will be doing the same within its Google Books system. EPUB is a reflowable open standard not controlled by any particular firm, and if I had to finger a winner in the ebook standards wars (at least for primarily textual works) this would be it.
  • Further relevant to ebooks is a reader app I’ve been fooling with on Ubuntu: Okular, which is nominally a PDF viewer but can open and display lots of other formats, including DjVu, CHM help files, Epub, Plucker, MobiPocket, and a few others. Although it’s a KDE 4 app, I’ve had no difficulty making Okular run under GNOME. Okular on a suitable handheld Linux-enabled device could make a helluvan ebook reader.
  • And Okular led me to the KDE on Windows project, which aims to create native-code ports of KDE apps to Windows, with an installer to make it easy for non-techies. It’s early and the product doesn’t look as easy as it should be, but then again…it’s early.
  • I’ve discovered a much higher-resolution photo of the old Turtle Wax building at the Ashland/Ogden/Madison intersection in Chicago here. We would pass that building on the way to my grandfather’s house Back of the Yards back in the late 1950s, and my mother would always point out the 25-foot tall turtle on the top of it. Cool building, too, turtle or not. Gone now, alas–the turtle and the building both.

Scans of Odd Things, Part 4


In the bottom of a box that came out of our mother’s attic (and which mostly contained old photos, about half of which were of people and places we did not recognize) Gretchen and I found a very odd thing indeed: a stamp album for “verified reception stamps.” The album was dated 1925, and had our grandfather Harry G. Duntemann’s ornate signature on the flyleaf. In the album were little rectangles just like you’d see in a postage stamp album, except that there was a rectangle for every commercial radio station that existed in the United States in 1925.

The album was part of a kit that included little folding cards that had a punchout for an American dime, and space for a handwritten signal report. The system worked like this: You heard a station on your Atwater Kent and wrote down the time, the frequency, signal strength, and a description of what was being broadcast. You fastened a dime into the punchout with provided gum-adhesive stickers that resemble unprinted stamps. You folded the card over, tucked it into an envelope, and mailed it to the radio station that you heard. Assuming that the station was participating in the program, they would send you their stamp to paste into your album.

How popular this system was is hard to tell, though there are some speculations on the Web. The process eventually became corrupt, as people bought the stamps from other collectors or direct from Ekko just to fill their albums. Counterfeits eventually appeared on the market and were used by unscrupulous stations; dimes were real money in those days. More on Ekko stamps here.

My grandfather evidently lost interest quickly, as he had a grand total of seven stamps scattered throughout the album, which has spaces for about 300. The one shown above is the one I like the most, as it came from Pittsburgh station KDKA, the very first commercially licensed broadcast station in the US, at 1020 on your AM dial since 1920. The stamps are beautifully engraved by the American Bank Note Company, but apart from the overprinted call letters and five or six color variations, the stamps are all exactly alike. The letters EKKO in the four corners of the stamp indicate the Ekko Company, which invented the system, provided the stamps to the radio stations, and sold the albums to the public. Radio was quite the red-hot hobby in the roaring 20s, but when the Great Depression closed in after 1929, paying a dime for a collectible stamp (when first-class postage stamps were still 2c) became a lot less compelling, and the Ekko Company swiftly and silently vanished away.

A system for confirming radio transmissions has long existed for shortwave listeners and (especially) ham radio ops, though it involves custom postcards instead of stamps. I did a lot of that when I was a kid, and probably got on somebody’s list of dangerous subversives by writing to Radio Havana Cuba for a QSL card in 1966. “QSL” is radio shorthand for “I confirm receipt of your transmission…” I’ve had several QSL cards, and you can see one of them here. There’s a whole book devoted (mostly) to ham radio QSL cards, and I recommend it if such things interest you.

And that’s it for this series. I have a few more odd things awaiting scanning in the file folder, but they’re thin gruel compared to what I’ve just shared here. Surely you’ve all seen a sheet of S&H Green Stamps! (Or maybe you haven’t. I may be older than I think.) And things like funeral holy cards and scapulars are an acquired taste. If I do find anything more generally notable I’ll post it in this space; stay tuned.

Scans of Odd Things, Part 3


I took aviation shop in my sophomore year of high school (1967-1968) and it was a bitter disappointment. (We took two shop classes per year. You could choose one shop, and one shop was just given to you. That one was given to me.) The shop might have been interesting in the heady days right after WWII, but the war surplus aircraft engines and other parts we were supposed to study were increasingly broken down and useless, and the teacher was clearly counting the days until retirement. He didn’t ask much of us, and we didn’t ask much of him. Mostly we sat and chatted.

We were arranged alphabetically (roughly) by last name. The guy to the left of me was Dave Ebenstein, and the guy to the right of me was Ray Fitze. They were both interesting individuals in many ways, but the really odd thing was that they were both excellent artist/cartoonists. They could dash off a sketch in seconds that I assumed would take half an hour of careful handwork.

FitzeEbensteinWarSheetSnippet.jpgWe sat in left-to-right rows of one-armed-charlies, and being in the middle, my writing surface was ground-zero for anarchic drawing competitions between the two of them. Fitze would dash something out, and then Ebenstein would add a monster in a corner, or a quick sketch of the Gray Mouser drawing his sword, or caricatures of the other kids in the class. Fitze would then add more monsters, guns, bombs, or bizarre superheroes, with captions like “Suction Man Sings Songs from the Twenties.” There was no particular sense to it, but the drawings were incisive and sometimes hilarious. For no reason I could name, I still have a folder full of papers from high school, running from Spanish quizzes to trigonometry exercises, plus a couple dozen sheets saved from aviation shop, full to the edges of vintage Fitze & Ebenstein.

I was starting work on my big 10″ Newtonian telescope at the time, and had sketches with me most days, and when things got too snoozy in class I tinkered with them, to Fitze’s great amusement. When he asked how much the damned thing would weigh, I shot off a quick estimate of 600 pounds. Well, that was the last straw. In what seemed like a minute or less, I was Duntemadmann!


In odd corners of the sketch were a box labeled “Books for Madmen” (with a strange creature hiding behind it) and a single book entitled “Advanced Everything.”

The drawings are a living testament to the chaotic energy that veritably boils out of 15-year-old boys, energy that I sure wish I still had. And the guys? Ebenstein is now a biologist at a university in Vermont. Fitze I haven’t seen since high school. I don’t think either of them had ever studied art, and the two of them were the first time I realized that there is such a thing as born talent. (They wouldn’t be the last.) Certain skills could be learned–I got pretty good at machine tool work with practice and the excellent tutelage of Carol’s father, a master machinist–but certain skills just Are. The music and art genes were two that I didn’t get, though (oddly) my mother had more than a touch of both.

Tomorrow: QSL stamps.