- So here, on the eve of the end of a year I’d just as soon forget, the last Odd Lots of 2009. Carol’s in Chicago and I’m staying home tonight with a lapful of dogs and a good book, which on this occasion will be Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer, his history of the Holocene Warm Period. Carol will be back on Saturday. Getting tired of meat. May have some mashed potatoes tonight.
- The Christmas tree is no longer taking water, and I perceive that’s it’s begun to dry out. We brought it home on December 10, so it has been standing guard in our living room for three weeks. This may be a new record for us. We’ve had trees stand (a little) longer, but their final two weeks were a rain of needles.
- The day after Carol and I showed Carol’s mom our Christmas tree via Skype video call, this Zits strip was published. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for letting me know–I read Zits but generally in the newspaper, and not every day.)
- 2009 is ending with 260 sunspotless days. 2008 had 266, and December was the most active month of the year, so we’re guessing that the Long Solar Minimum is mostly over. Can 15M skip be far behind?
- Ray Kurzweil has announced a new ebook software reader package called Blio. Not a lot of detail and no software to download yet, but it’s going to be a free product, with versions for both mobile devices and the desktop. Introduction will be at CES next week.
- The ebook technology to watch in 2010 is Qualcomm’s Mirasol, which promises color without sacrificing battery life or readability. Looks good, but what we need much worse are larger displays and higher resolution.
- Once again, Bruce Schneier nails it: The bulk of our antiterrorist strategies rely on magical thinking. This is not the way to win; alas, magical thinking appears to be a pervasive part of modern culture, and I’m not talking about Harry Potter.
- Recent discussions of digital media piracy reminded me of the 2005 article in Wired describing the media piracy “scene” ecosystem (topsites, couriers, races, etc.) and how it works. Big Media may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean that no one is out to get them.
- Pete Albrecht photographed two UFOs flying in formation (big animated GIF) while taking a long-exposure shot of M42, the Orion Nebula, through his big Meade telescope. Nothing spooky or alien about it, but before you click on the explanation (in his December 28 entry) think for a second and see if you can figure it out on your own.
- From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: murse, more often called a “man bag,” which is basically a purse carried by a guy.
- Ditto above: prepper , a person who prepares for the end of the world by stockpiling peanut butter etc. They called themselves survivalists until survivalism became equated in the public mind with psychos packing machine guns; watch for the word to vanish when 2012 ends but the Earth is still here. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
It happened again this morning. I got an email from LinkedIn with the headline, “Mary Mankiewicz wants to keep in touch on LinkedIn!” I scratched my head. No recall of Mary Mankiewicz. I went to her LinkedIn profile page. Interesting, ambitious woman, eight or nine years younger than I, lots of experience in publishing. But no least clue that I have ever even met her.
I get machine-generated notes from LinkedIn and Facebook all the time asking to connect to my network, and generally I friend those who ask. I turn off Mafia Wars and Farmville and all that other stuff (no offense; I’m not interested in who you stabbed last night or where that new piglet came from) and enjoy the short posts, even though the scroll rate has gotten mighty fast lately. But I think it would be very courteous to include a note saying something like, “Hi Jeff! I was down the hall from Randy Osgood at Ziff-Davis at One Park Ave and we all had lunch once while you were up from Baltimore for a meeting. Oh, forgot–my maiden name was Chisholm.”
Ahhh. Sure. Mary Chisholm. Worked for PC Mag when I was at PC Tech Journal mid-80s, and (I think) was dating Randy, who was one of our sales reps at the time. (Note well: All these names are utterly fictitious. The situation is utterly real.) That’s all it would take, and would obviate the awkward need for me to ask her straight-out when she wants to network: How do I know you again?
This problem is not unique to me, though I imagine even moderately famous people have it far worse than I do. Here’s my solution: Every friend request sent by any social network must require a fill-out form that at least has a list of checkboxes under “I know you from…” for high school, college, job, church, volunteer work, or whatever. And under that a simple text box with a noodge over it saying something like, “As a courtesy, please jot a short note here indicating how you knew this person in the past.”
That’s all it would take. Ladies, please include your maiden name if that’s how I knew you back in the day and you don’t use it anymore. Thanks!
Ebook-related items have been gathering in my notefile lately, and this is a good time to begin spilling them out where we can all see them. The triggering incident was a note from the Jolly Pirate, telling me that one of my SF stories was present in a zipfile pirate ebook anthology that he had downloaded via BitTorrent. That people are passing around pirated versions of my stories is old news. “Drumlin Boiler” was posted on the P2P networks a few months after it was published in Asimov’s in 2002, and my better-known shorts have popped up regularly since then. No, what induced a double-take was the name of the pirate anthology: “10,000 SciFi and Fantasy Ebooks.”
10,000? You gotta be kidding!
But I’m not. Jolly sent me the 550K TOC text file, which is 9,700 lines long, with one title per line. Not all are book length, and many, in fact, are short stories. Still, the majority of all book-length SF titles I’ve read in the last thirty years are in there, and so was “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” albeit not under my byline. (I wrote the story with Nancy Kress, who is listed as sole author.) The only significant authors I looked for but did not find were George O. Smith and Charles Platt. (One howler: Bored of the Rings is said to be by J. R. R. Tolkien. Urrrrp.)
The collection is 4 GB in size. The Jolly Pirate said that he had downloaded it in just under three hours. He attached the file for “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” which was a plain but accurate 57K PDF. Intriguingly, the date given under the title is January 28, 2002. The damned thing has evidently been kicking around for at least seven years, if perhaps not in its full 4 GB glory. This suggests that the anthology is not entirely ebook piracy but mostly print book piracy. (“Borovsky” was never released in ebook form.)
Some short comments:
- I verified the existence of the anthology from the Pirate Bay search engine. It really does exist. (So, evidently, does the Pirate Bay, which surprised me a little, considering recent efforts to take them down.)
- 10,000 ebooks do not take a great deal of space by today’s standards. (Admittedly, better files with cover scans would be larger.) No one will think twice about a 4 GB download for size reasons, when 750 GB drives are going for $69.95.
- The PDF is ugly. The lines are far too wide for easy readability and (since this is not a tagged PDF) not reflowable. That said, I did not find a single OCR error.
- The Windows pathname of the text file from which the PDF was generated is shown at the top of every page. The pathname includes the full name of some clueless Dutch guy, from whose Mijn Documenten folder the file came. Ebook piracy clearly belongs to the common people, not some elite cabal skilfully dodging the **AA.
- I’ve used a scanner to rip a couple of print books (plus ten years of Carl & Jerry print stories) and it is horrible hard work. However, the anthology demonstrates that if print is a form of inadvertent DRM (which I have long thought) it is not a particularly strong one. After all, as Bruce Schneier has said about DRM systems generally, they only have to be broken once.
This last item is key. A printed book is a worst-case challenge for an ebook pirate. Compared to cutting off the binding and making sure the paper pages all feed straight through the scanner ADF and then fixing the inevitable OCR errors, stripping out an ebook’s DRM is trivial. If ebook piracy is not yet a big deal, it isn’t because it’s difficult. It’s still because reading ebooks is borderline painful. I may not be typical, but if I can buy a used copy of a recent hardcover of interest for $10 or less, I’ll choose the hardcover rather than an ebook at any price. Sooner or later the readers will catch up to paper, and by then, well, we may see a 4 TB file called “10,000,000 EBooks About Everything” on the file-sharing networks, and it won’t even take an objectionable chunk of our 80 TB hard drives.
You think I’m kidding? Let’s compare notes in five or six years.
A day late, perhaps, but no less sincerely, let me wish everyone who reads this a good and blessed Christmas, from here on the snowy side of Cheyenne Mountain. We had a day so cold, clear, and crisp that I was walking around the house carefully, lest it shatter. This was our year to stay in Colorado for the holiday season. (Next year, as is our custom, we’ll be in Chicago.) Two thirds of the country had a white Christmas, which is great unless you happen to be traveling while the whitening is going on. Ducked that bullet, whew.
We’ve had our tree for a week or so now, and it may rank as the best Christmas tree we’ve ever scored. Tall by our historical standards at about 7′, it’s also a balsam, a breed of tree I don’t think we’ve ever had in 33 years of marriage. I’ve been a little leery of them since I was five or six and broke out in a rash on my hands when my mother allowed me to place some ornaments on the tree. Somewhere we have a photo of me hanging ornaments with my winter mittens on, and although history is silent on the point, I have to wonder if some of my poor mother’s ornaments didn’t survive the adventure.
No rash this time–I guess one can grow out of such things–and the tree is not so full as to make finding places for ornaments a challenge, nor so sparse as to look like Charley Brown’s poor twig from the Peanuts TV special. It’s taking water and is not yet losing needles. Dash pulled a stuffed Saguaro cactus ornament off the tree and tried to remove its stuffing, but we caught him before he got too far. Jack has been spotted licking the colored light bulbs when they’re off, but apart from that there’s been no tree mischief.
There was some stress on Tuesday night when Carol’s mom fell at her home outside Chicago and was taken to the hospital. She didn’t break anything, fortunately, but had to spend Christmas in a hospital bed. To cheer her up I put an SX270 system on the coffee table by the Christmas tree and set up a Skype video call with my nephew Brian. The hospital has Wi-Fi in the rooms, and Brian set his new laptop up on Delores’s bed tray. So by virtue of my Phillips ToUCam and Brian’s built-in Webcam, she could see us, the dogs, and the Christmas tree. Delores was delighted, and it’s a technique to keep in mind if you find yourself in such a situation. Skype is very good with detecting and autoconfiguring Webcams, and there was no fussing involved. I plugged in the ToUCam, made the call, and video happened. It’s not exactly a flying car, but it’s definitely one of those odd Sixties dreams fulfilled, mostly when nobody was looking.
We also called my sister and Bill on Bill’s laptop, and sang the ABCs song with Katie. Katie looked puzzled, but Julie just beamed. In another couple of years this sort of thing will be second nature to them.
This was a very good year for Lionel trains: I finally bought a modern steam locomotive to run around the tree, and boggled a little to find myself searching underneath the brand-new 4-6-0 MTH Camelback loco (above) for its volume control. It has a built-in electronic sound effects system that plays real steam locomotive sounds, a bell, water-pump thumps, and other racket at deafening volume. Jack backed around the tree as I slowly ran it along the tracks, yapping furiously at it until he got bored. Pete Albrecht unexpectedly sent me a rare artifact indeed: An original Lionel 275W ZW dual-control transformer (right) that was probably made in the midlate 1950s. It works great, and can control two independent track sections and two independent sets of accessories.
Christmas for us really isn’t about gifts (and I confess to being a little tired of Santa Claus supersaturation this year) but once again, my spouse knows me well, and bought me an electric blue summer robe to replace my old terrycloth robe that’s been falling to pieces for the last ten years. She also presented me with my recent books wantlist: The Long Summer and Fish On Friday, both histories by Brian Fagan, and two popular treatments of decision psychology: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Fagan is the author of The Little Ice Age, and The Long Summer is his followup about the warm period that followed the end of the last ice age.
I bought Carol her fondest wish: A universal TV system remote that allows you to program whatever sequence of steps is required to turn everything on and then pop the drawer for a DVD, all with a single button press. (She’s justifiably weary of having a fruit-bowl full of diverse, incompatible, button-riddled remotes on the coffee table.) It’s a Logitech Harmony One, and I guess now I have to figure out how to program it. Hey, I know assembly; how hard can it be?
Our friends Jim and Marcia came by for Christmas dinner at 2. We had a spiral ham, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, spinach salad, home-made apple-pecan bread from Jimi Henton, steamed asparagus, and Carol’s signature spiced squash soup with cranraisins floating in it. I opened a Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, and we had hot spiced cider as well as some Colorado honey mead that Jim brought. We stayed at the table for almost six hours, solving the world’s problems and designing the odd universe, and overall considered it an excellent Christmas Day indeed.
Nor is it over. Carol and I celebrate Christmas for at least a week, so for us it’s really only beginning. If this is your season (whatever you may call it) to celebrate all that is good in the world, hold that thought–there’s no reason at all to stay there for one day only and call it done!
We’ve just gotten back Midnight Mass…for small values of “Midnight.” Very small values. Ok, ok, I know…I’m not a night person. For me and for today, midnight comes at 4:00 PM. I like to be awake when I worship; inflicting my dreams on God would be cruelty to deity: A few nights ago I dreamed of three life-size crowns of thorns, each of which had three little legs, and the whole group was chasing some poor guy up a steep hill. God’s been there and done that; no need to put Him through it again.
And on the CD player is Golden Bough doing a very English sort of Christmas Carol that also mentions Midnight Mass: “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” (The link is to the Clancy Brothers cover, but it has the lyrics.) The song describes the sort of feasting I can barely imagine, especially the line describing “Whiskey handed round in tumblers…”
Maybe “tumbler” means something different these days, or to us Yanks. When I was a kid a “tumbler” was what I also called a “jelly glass”: a tall, fairly narrow glass that we had because we bought jelly in it at Certified, and after we cleaned out the jelly (which was a week or so’s worth of PBJ school lunches) we had a glass. These probably held a pint or maybe a little less; perhaps 12 ounces at very least. They were our everyday drinking glasses, and we used them until we got a little jittery and broke them, one by one.
Jelly no longer comes in useful glasses, but there was a time about twenty-five years ago when peanut butter did. I don’t remember the brand, but we bought our peanut butter in glass jars that held about 14 fluid ounces, and after we finished the peanut butter, we washed out the jars and kept them for everyday drinking glasses. We went through a lot of peanut butter in those days, and before we decided that enough was enough, we had twelve glasses in the cabinet.
Then either the peanut butter went away, or we did. (That may have been when we moved to Arizona.) And over the years, I have downed an enormous amount of Diet Mountain Dew in those glasses. One by one, I’ve gotten jittery and dropped them, and there are now only six. (The half-life of a dozen peanut butter jars used as Mountain Dew glasses is evidently twenty-five years.)
Regardless of what was originally in the glass, 12 or 14 ounces seems like an astonishing amount of whiskey to put away at one meal. I have a bottle of Evan Williams Bourbon Whiskey Egg Nog in the fridge, and typically drink about 50 ml in an evening, which is plenty. Given that it’s a 15% cordial, my limit (for 86-proof whiskey, at least) is about .15 X 2.3 X 50, or 17 ml. A hard drinker I am evidently not. (And clearly, not English.)
Or maybe “handed ’round in tumblers” means what my friends used to do with a joint back in the 70s: Pass it from person to person, with each person taking a draw and then passing it on. Or maybe people really do drink 14 ounces of whiskey at one sitting. Again, I boggle.
Doesn’t matter. We’re about to sit down to a feast of smoked turkey slices, cranberry sauce, and a loaf of home-made apple-pecan bread that Jimi Henton gave us for Christmas. I opened a bottle of Whitewater Hill Sweetheart Red, and poured each of us a glass that might be a full 100 ml. We may go a little nuts later on and have some of the Evan Williams, handed around in (one) peanut-butter jar. I may eat my two allotted slices of Jimi’s bread and then cut a third. Hey, Christmas comes but once a year!
I don’t feel particularly good today, for no easily identifiable reason, but I did want to call attention to a blog I happened by while browsing around for gifts for my godchildren. The author (unnamed except as “Scribbler”) has reviewed an old children’s picture book most weekdays since mid-2007. The books are generally pre-1990, and many are a great deal older than that. I spent most of an hour skimming the site, and happened upon a lot of kid books I don’t think I’ve thought about since I got my first library card at age 6 and quickly exhausted the Edison Park branch of the Chicago Public Library.
The reviews are affectionate and honest, and reflect my own reactions, what little I recall of them. Among the books it brought to mind are the highly understated Georgie’s Halloween, about a little boy ghost who makes Casper look manic; Dinny and Danny, about a dinosaur and his caveboy; Little Galoshes, about a farm boy who is known to the farm’s animals by the sounds his boots make; Ola, in which a Norwegian boy goes down the mountain to cavort with girls, trolls and other strange creatures; Sam and the Firefly, about a firefly who learns how to write persistence-of-vision messages in the night sky, several tales of Babar the Elephant, and a canonical host of others.
She can’t and doesn’t list everything. I didn’t see any of the Otto books, nor Space Cat, but that’s OK. I already know that stuff, and was looking for things I might have forgotten.
I have to act fast, I think. Your Wonderful Beneficial Federal Government has all but banned children’s books printed prior to 1985, under the assumption that they might have been printed with ink containing traces of lead. So countless copies have already been burned as hazardous waste, and it’s more or less illegal to sell them. Never mind than an almost unthinkable portion of world culture will pretty much vanish over the next few years due to CPSIA. The most popular books will be reprinted with modern inks; most will not, and will eventually be forgotten.
The law will not be enforced until early next year, but after that, you will be risking a $100,000 fine and jail time for selling Dinny and Danny to an adult at a yard sale. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat: Your party is at fault. The only member of the House who voted against this thing was Ron Paul.
On second thought, I know why I feel lousy.
- Hard drives are cheap, and I still have one free SATA port on my desktop system, so I ordered another drive as a Linux playground to solve the problem described in my entry for December 19, 2009. This time I’m going with a Seagate, since for reasons still obscure, the Linux kernel seems to like Seagate drives better than Western Digital drives.
- And while we’re talking drives, Seagate has just announced the 2.5″ Momentus Thin, which at 7mm is about as thick as a vanilla wafer (you can tell I’m off my diet for the holidays) and will definitely bring down the BMI of netbooks and other portable gadgetry.
- I think most people may have seen this by now (I forgot to Odd Lot it back when it appeared a couple of weeks ago) but wow: video footage of an underwater volcanic eruption under three klicks of water. Man, this is what robotics is for. (Thanks to Aki Peltonen and several others for the link.)
- I just received my brand-new Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook here, and all I know so far is that it powers up and boots reasonably quickly into Windows XP Home. The unit as configured to order has both a built-in TV tuner and a GPS receiver. It’s going to be my travel computer and replace my knuckleheaded Lenovo 2005 Thinkpad X41 Convertible Tablet PC. I’m going to mess with it for a little while and will post something here as soon as I have a feel for it.
- We’ve been hearing about Apophis for years: the 900-foot asteroid that will swing by in 2029 and say hello. And for an unnerving change of perspective, check out the close encounter from the asteroid’s point of view, in a JPL animation that counts as the scariest thrill ride I’ve taken in awhile. (Have not seen Avatar yet.)
- Speaking of asteroid collisions, if you’re an SF writer spinning a plot involving big rocks and the sudden release of kinetic energy, look for Hazards Due to Asteroids and Comets, Tom Gehrels, ed. (University of Arizona Press, 1994.) It’s a 1300-page compendium of academic papers on big things hitting even bigger things, with lots of formulas, charts, and analysis. Dense and not an easy read (and also not cheap–it was a steal years ago for $40) but I’ve learned a great deal from it.
- It’s interesting to read the reasons why good and intelligent men do not believe in God, and here’s Gregory Benford’s testimony, which is a lot more cogent than most I’ve seen. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
- Finally, if there’s some source code in your past that you regret (I’m thinking of a few lines right now that I’d like to wipe from this space-time continuum if I could) maybe the answer is Bad Code Offsets. Debug-and-Trade, anyone? (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
I never thought I’d say anything like this, but…I may have run afoul of Linux bug #257790, “Kernel does not recognize Western Digital Caviar SE WD3200AAJS 320GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0 GB/s Hard Drive (2nd Generation)”. I recently bought a new 7200 RPM hard drive (guess which model!) for my main desktop system, which had come with an older Seagate 5400 RPM unit as the primary bootable drive. I migrated my Windows XP install over to the new WD drive without any trouble. But when I go to do a clean Linux 9.10 install, the installer does not see the WD drive. It does see the secondary drive in the system, which is a 5400 RPM Seagate 750 GB unit. But the WD? Installer no see.
Interestingly, gparted has no trouble seeing the WD, and even resized the Windows partition there to make room for two additional Linux partitions. However, when I go to install Karmic in the new partition on sda2, the installer doesn’t see the sda device at all…except when I check the button telling the installer partitioner to erase the whole drive and install Linux on the entire thing. Then sda magically appears. At that point, when I re-check the option to install Windows and Linux side by side, the sda device vanishes from the device selection pane at the top of the installer partitioner window.
While sniffing around the Web looking for insights, I ran across Linux Bug #257790, simply because it names the precise model of drive that I just bought. Supposedly, that bug was fixed for the 9.10 Karmic release at the end of October, but evidently the installer still has some reservations about certain WD drives…like the one I now have. I’m tempted to download and install Fedora to see if I get better service, but if any of you Linux gurus have any suggestions I’ll certainly hear them. I do not want to go back to my older (slower) drive, nor do I want to wait for Lucid Lynx (V10.04) due in April. I can’t imagine that this is not a fixable problem. Thoughts?
- I know, I know, I’ve been quiet for a week, but there’s been a lot to do away from the keyboard, much of which borders on sock-drawer sorting. Focusing on only one project for most of a year almost guarantees that things will get messy away from the target of your focus. So I’ve been picking up downstairs in my workshop and sorting my office closet. No socks, but lots of loose fileables sitting in a pile, one with a yellowed corner that did not come with age. (So much for cacheing data on the floor.)
- We have a rattlin’ good sunspot creeping across old Sol’s face, and whaddaya know: I spun the dial across 15 meters this afternoon and heard voices. ‘Course, my fire alarm still does not like the Icom 736, so all I could do was listen, but it was nice to think of this overlong solar minimum as something other than eternal.
- If you haven’t already, upgrade to Firefox 3.5.6. There are a number of newly discovered exploits in earlier releases, including a remote code execution item that looks pretty ugly.
- I also upgraded to Thunderbird 3.0 earlier today, and so far am most pleased. They’ve added a profile-wide message search feature that (considering the appalling number of emails I’ve accumulated and carried forward since 1995) will be extremely useful here.
- Speaking of ugly, when a film with the budget and ambitions of The Avatar can only do aliens who look like ugly humans, you have to wonder what CGI is for. This is the problem I’ve always had with Trek: A splurch of latex on some extra’s forhead does not an alien make. I’ll see it anyway, but I call failure-of-imagination based on the trailers.
- InfoWorld posted a very nice review of the major virtualization products, including VMWare Workstation 7, Parallels Desktop 4, and Sun’s VirtualBox 3.1. VirtualBox is free and installed by default in Ubuntu 9.10, but you have to jump through some inexplicable hoops to get it to recognize USB devices. I haven’t upgraded to VMWare Workstation 7 yet, but Workstation 6 is cheap and does everything I need it to do.
- People argue a little about how useful certain time-honored degunking techniques are (especially disk defragmentation, and double especially defragmentation for SSDs) but the biggest single win in my own experience is degunking the Windows Registry. There are a number of apps to do this, but the best on the free side is doubtless CCleaner. (Its original name was Crap Cleaner, which gets points for truth-in-advertising.) Freeware, and if you’re ever faced with a Registry that’s been gathering crap for eight or ten years, you’ll appreciate what it can do.
- Two people wrote to me (a little breathlessly) to tell me that Neal Adams is drawing the next several PvP strips, and I had to admit that I had no idea whatsoever who he was. I flashed on Nick Adams, whom I saw on a few episodes of The Rebel back in 1961…but a comics guy I’m just not, even if I do follow PvP. (In case you’re as clueless as I, here’s a bio on Neal Adams.)
It got down to -13 F last night, breaking a longstanding record for the date here. By 10:00 AM it had finally broached zero, and I went out to get the morning paper. And while doing so I noticed an interesting thing: The leftover snow that my old and cranky snowblower always leaves on the sidewalks was vanishing. There was no wetness on the walks or the driveway, and I wouldn’t expect any at 0 degrees F. But the little splats and scattered dusting were all going away, and a quick check just now (2 PM) shows mostly clear walks and driveway, except where people have walked or the car passed.
How sublime! I guess at 6600 feet, snow and ice don’t have to melt to go away.
The photo above was taken yesterday by our neighbor and friend Lena Olson, who is a spectacularly talented sculptor and photographer. She made it look like our house was lost in the middle of a wintry nowhere, when in fact there are neighbors on all sides of us, in houses generally bigger than ours. That’s just a telltale of her talent: She knows exactly how to frame a shot. Wow.