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December, 2010:

New Years Eve 1958

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(I wanted to post this item on New Year’s Eve 2008, but could not find the file. It was my entry in a holiday story contest conducted by the Santa Cruz free paper in December, 1988, just three months after I had been laid off from Borland. The story earned second prize, which was a nice dinner at a local restaurant. I was 36 in 1988, just as my father was in 1958. The photo above is from that year.)


I heard my old man come down the stairs from the upstairs bedroom. I was awake, and was shining clown-faces on my bedroom ceiling with a ridiculous gimmick toy flashlight that I had received for Christmas and unaccountably loved.

He cranked the doorknob and peered in. I expected quiet orders to “hit the rack, dammit!” but, remarkably, he grinned his slightly crooked grin and said, “Come on out and toast the New Year with me!”

So I slid out of bed and skittered into the kitchen on bare six-year-old feet. I took my usual place on the broom-closet side of the kitchen table. The old man pulled down two crystal glasses with long stems from the high cabinet, and placed one on the careworn Formica in front of me.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. He had tucked us into bed hours earlier, dressed in his at-home T-shirt and drab baggy pants. Now he was in his best blue suit, high starched collar, and dark red tie with the tiny working slide-rule tie-clip. My mother would be working all night at the hospital, and my little sister was still fast asleep in her crib.

The kitchen was mostly dark, lit only by the bright colored lights circling the Christmas tree in the livingroom. It was dark enough to see the orange glow from the tubes inside the radio on the kitchen counter. Somebody was talking on the radio, not quite loud enough to understand over the Frigidaire’s wheezy clatter.

My old man yanked the refrigerator handle, and for a moment the single bulb within was blinding. He pulled a tall bottle from the rack on the door, turned, paused with the door half-closed, then yanked it back open and pulled a can of Nehi Grape from the top shelf. I watched him fiddle the foil and the wires from the tall bottle, and we laughed when the resounding pop! shot the cork across the room.

He pulled a church-key from the junk drawer and opened the grape soda for me. It was hard enough to score a Nehi during the day (and never during supper!) and here he was pouring fizzy grape soda into that strange tall glass in the middle of the night.

That done, he filled his own glass from the tall bottle. For a long moment, we waited in silence. He had not touched his glass, and I left mine longingly alone, assuming that this was One Of Those Grownup Occasions, to be honored if not completely understood. Yankee was sleeping with his mongrel rump plastered up against his favorite heat register, and everything seemed very warm and safe if only a little bit strange.

“Howcum you’re all dressed up?” I asked. That was the mystery at the center of it, I was sure.

“You ever felt afraid of the future?” he asked.

I shook my head. The future, to me, was full of rocketships and space stations, and the Good Guys always blasted the aliens in the end, right? What was a little scary was my old man the engineer answering one question with another.

“Always look the future straight in the eye,” he said, with a sudden distance that frightened even more than his answering question, “and wear your Sunday best, so it’ll know you mean business.”

In the silence that followed, I heard voices counting down on the radio. All at once, the wordless cheers told me it was New Years. Down the block the big kids were setting off firecrackers. Yankee twitched a half-terrier ear and went back to sleep. In the basement our tired old furnace ground into roaring life.

And the old man was back from his distance, holding the glittering glass high in the air. “Happy New Year, Duntemann,” he said with that paradoxical loving drill-sergeant’s voice that I will miss all the rest of my days. His old-style rimless crystal glasses flashed in the Christmas lights, his ice-blue engineer’s eyes again smiling that omnipotent smile. I cannot forget his face at that moment because it is my face, I who am now exactly as old as he was at the end of recession-year 1958.

“Happy New Year!” I said too loudly in reply, holding my glass in his direction in imitation of his gesture.

He raised his glass to drink, and I was already draining mine before I noticed that his never quite reached his lips.

Instead he had turned toward the empty corner of the kitchen and held his glass in a toast in a direction that was not toward Mother at the hospital, nor toward my sister in her crib, nor anywhere else, but instead in a direction that I never understood.

Until now.

Mal De Caribou

I spent a week in Chicago and gained four pounds. This wasn’t unexpected: A great deal of what Christmas is about these days is sugar, and Christmas is one of the very few times of the year when I let my sugar guard down. Cookies, candy, and egg nog were all over the place, and I indulged. Fortunately, I know how to lose that weight again: Eat animal fat. So it’s back to my accustomed diet, which depends heavily on meat, eggs, and full-fat dairy, plus whatever vegetables I can choke down against my gag reflex. I also eat one slice of Orowheat Master’s Best Winter Wheat Bread per day for fiber, and a few Wheat Thins here and there for carb balance. Desserts are off the table for awhile.

If I can resist the temptation to indulge in potato chips (we don’t keep sweet stuff in the house, as a rule) I’ll be back in range (150-155) in about ten days. Better still, I’ll stay there, probably until next Christmas.

Our visceral fear of eating fat would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Researchers have begun to admit that low-carb diets are best for keeping weight off, but are still terrified of admitting that animal fat is not only harmless but medically necessary. Best illustration: the wonderfully named mal de caribou, also known as “rabbit starvation.”

Mal de caribou (literally, “caribou sickness”) typically afflicts explorers and other cold-weather adventurers who attempt to live on hunted animals but only eat the muscle tissue. Rabbits (and most wild animals, actually) have very little body fat. (I have to brown the local ground buffalo meat in butter or it would burn. There’s basically not a shred of fat in it.) If all you can score out in the wild are rabbits, plus the occasional deer, you run the danger of severe vitamin deficiencies, plus liver dysfunction caused by an overload of protein. Eating carbs helps short-term, but as studies of aboriginal peoples deprived of their natural diets have shown (see Taubes for all the citations you could ever digest) replacing fat with carbs over the long haul leads to obesity, diabetes, and various other degenerative conditions. Farley Mowat has much to say about this in his book People of the Deer; a good summary can be found here. The original diet of most northern aboriginal peoples consisted of meat and fat. Grains and sugar were basically absent.

I’ll have to come back to the issue of whether or not total caloric input matters, and how much–the research there is divided and contentious–but I will freely admit that I eat less than most people do. The key is that eating fat keeps me from getting hungry, so I’m less tempted to binge on starches. Maybe it won’t work that way for you, but granting that we’re all different biochemically (to the extent that I wonder sometimes if we’re all one species!) there seems to be a trend in this direction. Dump the Honey Bunches of Oats and fry an egg in butter for a month instead and see what happens. You may be surprised.

Odd Lots

  • I was pleased to see this writeup on the XB-70 Valkyrie, which I consider the coolest and most intimidating aircraft ever created by any nation, anywhere, even though the article is lightweight and the author is unsure what a “ballistic missile” is. Click to it for the photos and videos.
  • Runner-up, of course, is the A-10 Warthog, which is a lot more intimidating if you happen to be in its gunsights, in which case your ace (our ace, actually) kisses you goodbye.
  • There are iceberg cowboys, and every now and then they rope a really odd one. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Pertinent to yesterday’s post, Pete also sends a link to a toy Triceratops that apparently comes pre-shredded.
  • This list of the most-pirated ebooks of 2009 is now 18 months old, but it may still say something about your average ebook pirate: sex trumps almost eveything else, except possibly Photoshop.
  • On a whim, I went up to the Pirate Bay just now, and discovered that, 18 months later, sex and Photoshop still trump everything else, at least in terms of pirated ebooks. (And Photoshop is, by a factor of 2.5, the most popular Windows app on Pirate Bay.)
  • The magazine guy in me mourns, but the magazine guy in me whispered that this was going to happen before it even started: Magazines sold in iPad versions started out strong but went into steep decline after a few months. Read the comments: The electronic Wired is 5X more expensive than the paper one, which just maybe possibly might (d’ya think?) have a little tiny bit of something to do with it.
  • As a book lover of long standing (read ‘em, write ‘em, publish ‘em) I declare this little invention freaking brilliant.

Tripwander: The Ghost of Christmas Presents

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Christmas in Chicago is always aerobic, and this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and gather impressions, now that we’re packed and ready to hop a plane. In seven short days I chauffered, shopped, entertained small girls, repaired a planter that needed deck screws and Plastic Wood, fixed computer problems, wrapped innumerable presents, unwrapped (different) innumerable presents, and ate far, far too much sugar.

KongSnowman300Wide.jpgFirst bit of advice? Don’t mess with small white dogs. The Pack has been with Jimi this trip, but Carol’s sister Kathy has a ten-pound Maltese, and Wrigley received two dog toys for Christmas. One was a stuffed squeaky dinosaur that was all but guaranteed by its maker to be unshreddable by dogs. The other was a Christmas Kong snowman toy made of the same stuff that luggage straps are made of, and certainly looked like nothing short of a machete would take it down.

Ha! I use the word “was” deliberately and with emphasis. It took Wrigley less than 24 hours to chew the squeaker out of the unshreddable dino, leaving a hole that suggested an alien bursting its way out from the vicinity of the poor thing’s kidneys. The Kong snowman lasted a little longer, but 36 hours post-Christmas, its squeaky plastic core lay exposed, and Carol had to remove its innards to keep Wrigley from swallowing them.

We did a lot of visiting and probably more eating than we should have. On the way to see our nephew Matt’s flashy new apartment, I drove past my high school (Lane Tech) for the first time in over twenty years. The building itself hasn’t changed since I graduated in 1970, but the neighborhood is now almost unrecognizable. The “tech supply” stores where we bought drafting paper and bow compasses are gone, perhaps because Lane is less technical than it used to be, or perhaps because French curves are now draggable splines in a CAD document. The legendary Riverview amusement park (behind Lane Tech and still in operation until my sophomore year) is now a drab retail center.

Sic transit, and all that.

Transit? Uggh. The weather was hideous (clearly due to anthropogenic global whining, or perhaps unsustainable xenon dioxide emissions) and I had a rental car peculiarly unsuited to snow and ice: a lumbering Nissan Altima with rear wheel drive, grabby brakes, and a keyless key fob with an un-guarded panic button that will go off if left in your pocket with anything stiffer than a glob of rice pudding.

My nieces gave me a Pillow Pet shaped like a penguin, which I suspect will be useful for leaning on while I mark up manuscripts, or simply as a laptop cushion for a lap that doesn’t have much inherent cushioning. I can see it parked on the back of my big reading chair, staring down at QBit, but therein lies some danger: QBit, like Mr. Byte before him, doesn’t like artifacts with eyes, and we’re going to have to be careful that he doesn’t drag the plush creature off to his lair to shred at leisure. (At least the penguin doesn’t have a squeaker.) Like I said, don’t mess with small white dogs.

It was abundantly good to see family again, and partake of vigilia on Christmas Eve with my sister, Bill, and her girls, complete with piles of pierogi and Manischewitz sweet wine, just like we did it in the Sixties. Christmas Day at Kathy’s brought us cookies, key lime pie, ham, Hawaiian salad, potato bake, bean salad (which I heard was very good) apple and pecan pie, and much more.

It’s a little late, but better late than never, and no less sincere for that: Merry Christmas to you and yours from Carol and me and the Pack. There’s much to be said and done in the coming year, if we can get past this bruiser of a winter and remember what really matters: freedom, family, and friendship. I’ll give it my best shot if you’ll give it yours!

Daywander: The Night Before the Night Before Christmas

I spent an hour and a half this afternoon walking around the business district of a small town. Which small town doesn’t matter, but it was a decent size for a small town, with about sixty retail establishments running along four intersecting streets. I was pleased to see only five or six vacant storefronts, and I had to park on the far edge of things to get a spot at all.

But I don’t mind. I like small towns, ever moreso as flyover country is left behind by gigalopolises swelling toward some looming urban Chandrasekhar limit. There was bustle but not asphyxiation, and nobody seemed afraid of actually saying the word “Christmas.” As in most small town centers, national franchises are exiled to the margins. Down in the middle it was all small, locally owned businesses, so as gray as the day was, it felt good to be walking around, sniffing out the culture and picking up a few late items for the season before it got dark.

The owner of the local used bookshop was beaming: There was a line at the checkout, and everybody seemed to have six or eight books in hand to slap on the counter. I waited for things to quiet down again before asking her if she had any of Debbie Macomber’s Christmas angels books, starring angels Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, who follow hapless heroines all the days of their lives, or at least until the happy ending. It’s a wonderfully droll piece of punwork, though I wonder if you have to be over fifty to get the joke.

“I have three of them!” she announced triumphantly, and sprinted for the Great Wall of Romance Novels, from which she instantly pulled two. The third seemed to have gone missing, until she remembered that it was part of the Christmas window display. She took a three-foot-long thing-grabber from behind the counter and plucked the book out from amidst a gathering of plastic angels, elves and Santa Clauses, knocking over a small pile of Sue Grafton (U is for Ubiquitous) and bringing along an inadvertent divot of white fuzz. Bang! Four thousand-odd books in the store, and the owner zeroed in on three of them in less than sixty seconds. What we lose when we lose small bookshops is people who know what books are in stock and precisely where to find them, people who not only love books but still read them.

There were two barbershops in town. Both were open, and both had guys sitting along the wall waiting for haircuts, not reading Playboy but hanging out, laughing and BSing and having a good time, so much so that I ached to have hair again, just to be in there with them enjoying the moment. I find it interesting that all barbershops are basically identical, no matter where they are, and that they’ve barely changed at all since my father first dropped me into one of those enormous chairs (on an upholstered elevator seat that was basically a piece of 2X8 covered with dark green leather and stuffed with something lumpy) when I was four or five, and let Louie the Barber have at my unruly mop.

I didn’t expect to find a Catholic store in such a small place, but there it was, complete with a life-size cardboard figure of Good Pope Bennie with his hand raised in blessing. Christmas cards were on sale and I bought some after a quick scan through the books and holy cards. Catholic stores are invariably conservative, often reactionary, full of short books with bland covers that might be paraphrased as “Sex is good…as long as you don’t think too much about it.” It occurred to me briefly that I was behind enemy lines, but only when I was close enough to the shelves of books to read the titles. As my research of these past fifteen years has shown, there is far more to Catholicism than just words. Rome may no longer be my church but Catholicism remains my tradition, and advent candles (also on sale) have dimensions of meaning that cannot be fully captured in text.

And so it went. I plunked out a tune on a thumb-harp in a music store, checked out the flavors in the ice cream parlor (all home-made!) lest something with malt in it slip past unseen (alas, no luck) and grinned at the dusty display of Seventies shoes in the window of a tiny shoe repair shop that had been there long before those shoes had been abandoned by their owners in the Decade of Ugly. Lamps, lounge chairs, lingerie–American life summarized in store windows, writ large enough to feel prosperous but small enough to be graspable at strolling speed. Woodfield Mall is downright intimidating, but this…well, I can live with life at small-town scale. A police car rolled by as I waited to cross the street, and the cop inside waved. To me. A stranger, an out-of-towner, nobody special but still someone important enough to treat with courtesy and welcome.

It’s been a bum year in a lot of ways, some I’ve written about here, and some I’m keeping to myself. Time has seemed out of joint. (Has it been Halloween already?) But now–yeah, now things are back in focus, with time running at its comfortable one-second-per-second pace. I think I’m (finally) ready for Christmas!

Odd Lots

  • I’ve been maxed out for the last week or ten days on numerous things, not excluding Christmas, which is why you haven’t heard from me here. So even if the Odd Lots file is a little short this time (who’s had time to wander online in search of Interesting Things?) it’s the best I can do for the moment.
  • There is a very-close-to-optimal total lunar eclipse tonight, with totality beginning at 11:40 Pacific Standard Time, 12:40 Mountain, 1:40 Central, and 2:40 Eastern. Totality lasts for 72 minutes. Because we’re at the Winter Solstice, the eclipsed Moon will be as high in the sky for North Americans as it ever gets; you will be looking very close to straight up, especially if you’re on the West Coast. Here’s the NASA page on the eclipse. I don’t boggle at this kind of trivia anymore, but we haven’t seen a total lunar eclipse on the WInter Solstice since 1638. (I believe there will be another, however, in 2094.)
  • In other astronomy news, the Sun is dead quiet again, and we are in our second day without sunspots at all on its visible face, at a point in the sunspot cycle when the sunspot number should be at least 30 or 40 at minimum. With the solar magnetic field continuing to drop, suggestions that we are in for another Dalton-scale solar minimum seem less outlandish than they did a year or so ago. So much for 10M DX.
  • I’m still trying to determine if this is a hoax or not. If not, I might order some to calibrate my still-incomplete (if haltingly functional) Geiger counter. Don’t skim past without reading the first comment: 4,182 of 4,252 people thought it was useful!
  • Apple is keeping certain iBooks layout features to itself, sharing them (under NDA and perhaps at a high price) with large publishers only. WTF? How can this possibly help them?
  • Perhaps (finally!) realizing that annoying your honest customers is a dazzlingly stupid thing to do, Microsoft has quietly retired its Office Genuine Advantage program, which required users to verify the propriety of their copies of Office before allowing them to download templates and so on. This does not mean that Office activation has been abandoned, only that MS will no longer give you the third degree for existing Office installations, especially 2000 and 2003.
  • The term “non-Newtonian fluids” makes them sound a lot more exotic than they really are, but as materials go, they’re pretty cool. I borrowed the concept (which I read about years ago) for a bullet-proof cloak in my in-progress short novel Drumlin Circus, but it looks like that idea may become real-life at some point. (Hey, doesn’t “Bullet-Proof Custard” make a great imaginary band name?)
  • Not sure what to think about an assertion that C. S. Lewis is the Elvis Presley of Christian publishing.
  • Don’t have a Chester A. Arthur bobble-head? Want one? Grab some old photos online and send them to Sculpteo, and get a hand-painted bobbler of the guy and his muttonchops. Not cheap–$80 to $100–but we’re seeing the first wave of commercial 3-D printing apps here. Why not be an early adopter?

Odd Lots

Akismet

I didn’t get much comment spam the first year or so that the main Contra instance was on WordPress. (The LiveJournal instance is a mirror.) I moderate all comments from new commenters, and now that the daily comment spam rate has crept from three or four up past thirty or forty, I figured it was time to do something.

So yesterday morning I installed Akismet, a server-side comment-spam detection plug-in for WordPress that applies a Bayesian signature scheme to incoming comments, and bins the ones it considers spam. Installing it was effortless, and for personal blogs like mine it’s free. (For commercial entities the Akismet service is $60/year.) So far, in about thirty hours it’s identified 80 spammy comments, which remain in the bin so you can scan for false positives if you want. Everything Akismet has fingered so far has proven to be spam. However, I’ve gotten no genuine comments on my WordPress instance since installing it. If you posted (or tried and failed to post) a comment on my WordPress instance today or yesterday, let me know. If nothing is in fact interfering with legitimate comments, this thing is a godsend, and if I sound a little nervous, it’s only that it feels maybe a little too good to be true!

[UPDATE 12/10:] Well, four comments successfully posted, and nothing spammed that shouldn’t be (or not spammed that should have been) suggests that Akismet is a win and I should stop worrying.

Odd Lots

  • Needles to say, at 70 cents a minute I wasn’t going to be doing much Internet research while we were on our recent cruise. So most of today’s Odd Lots are from my tireless friends, whose efforts are very much appreciated. (Hey, next year let’s all get together on a cruise, and experience Internet withdrawal around the stern pool with mojitos in our hands!)
  • During mealtime cruise ship chitchat, we learned that an enormous new cruise ship was so big it had a hard time getting under a bridge that blocked its maiden voyage from the shipyard in Finland to the sea. Aki Peltonen sent a nice news item on Allure of the Seas, which holds 8,500 people. The 200+ foot high boat cleared the bridge by one foot. Clearly, Allure might be considered a…brinkmanship.
  • My cell contract comes up next year, and just in time, Consumer Reports has published its January 2011 cover story on cell phones and (more significantly) cell providers and plans. Well worth buying the print magazine for. Right on the cover is the money quote: “Sorry, AT&T.” (And guess which provider I have now? Changes are acumen in…)
  • Don Lancaster has released his TV Typewriter Cookbook as a free PDF. And speaking as I was of memoir the other day, here’s a bio sketch Don sent me, Yes, he’s a few years older than I am, but it’s uncanny how much his story aligns with mine, right down to the planetarium, the acorn tube radios, Carl & Jerry, and much else.
  • Pertinent to my entry of November 30, 2010, there is apparently a term for memoirs written without the intent to publish generally: legacy writing, which is writing one’s life story for recreational, family, or therapeutic purposes. The definition comes from this article, sent to me by Pete Albrecht.
  • Also pertinent to that same entry: A longish but very good article from Smithsonian about how memories form in the brain, and why they sometimes don’t reflect precisely how reality happened. (Thanks to Dave Lloyd for the link.)
  • From the FB In The Original Sense File: Popular Mechanics mailed a box containing a thermometer and a three-axis accelerometer, both feeding a data logger, to see how much trauma a package would undergo from each of the major courier services. Summary here. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • I’ve heard rumors of this, but now it’s official: Borders is going to try to acquire Barnes & Noble. So we’ll soon be down to one major national book retailer. Dare we hope that the doors will re-open to the knowledgeable one-off shop or local chain? Owned and run by people who actually read books? (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Neat short article on other approaches to manned moon landings considered in the 1960s, some of which would have been cheaper and perhaps more sustainable than our historical use of the Saturn V stack. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • From the With Delegates Like These, Who Needs Skeptics? Department: A group of college students attending the UN’s COP 16 climate change conference in Cancun this week circulated a hoax petition calling for the banning of dihydrogen monoxide, a widely used industrial solvent that, while harmless in liquid form, contributes strongly to greenhouse heating as a vapor. Video of delegates cheerfully signing the petition here. (Don’t those people watch Penn & Teller?)

Tripwander: Cruise Wrapup

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Prior to our cruise, I hadn’t had a drink in a couple of months, mostly because alcohol and Tylenol don’t mix, and I was scarfing those to keep myself sane until the shingles rash on my back went away. So this trip I rediscovered the delights of a good pina colada, which really depends on two things: 1) ice crushed fine enough in the blender, and 2) enough but not too much booze. Holland America does a lot of things well, and one of them is the festive and yet humble pina colada. First rate.

The food, as on most cruise lines, was excellent, and I noticed something else: The portions were smaller. I’m more than fine with that, since I’d rather have a smaller quantity of really good food and not bring it home on my waistline.

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Way back in the summer, when we still thought we were going to Hawaii in October for our anniversary, I bought a clever thingie on eBay called a Dicapac WP-110. It sounds like an over-the-counter nausea remedy (nausea remedies were much on my mind last week) but it is in fact a heavy duty resealable plastic bag sized for various digital cameras. Sounds dicey, but for something so much cheaper than an underwater hard case ($25 vs. $175) it worked pretty well. There are many models, all the way up to the big ‘un for SLRs. Make sure you check which model fits which cameras.

dicapac-test-pool-350W.jpgTesting it was a challenge. We had hoped to bring home pictures of fish and coral and such, but as I’d mentioned earlier, both of our snorkel trips were canceled due to rough water and high winds. Our last day at sea, I put my beat-to-hell spare Kodak V530 in the bag and dunked it in the midships pool. Fish were scarce, but I did get a good shot of Carol’s ankles, and, more to the point, no water got into the bag with the camera.

Framing the shot was hard because of reflective effects; you have to be looking square at the LCD display or optical weirdness will occur. Pushing the camera buttons is a challenge, and early practice (both above water and in something easy like a pool) will be a great help. I guess the really big issue is to make sure the seal is sealed. It’s a ziplock plastic bag, after all, and if you “cross-thread” the meshing plastic tracks, you’ll flood the bag and probably lose the camera.

collarextender.jpgPerhaps because of its older demographic, Holland America is not as informal as other lines like Carnival. On 7-day cruises there are still two nights where dinner is formal, and to avoid packing a suit I rented a tux from the ship. The cost was not outrageous, and apart from a little tightness in the shirt collar (fixed with a cheap plastic collar extender, of which I always keep a few in my travel bag) the tux fit perfectly.

In summary, we had a great time not doing much (well, ok, I read three books) and escaping a winter that is descending far too quickly. We hadn’t gotten out on the open seas like this since 2004, and (seasickness notwithstanding) it was long past time.