- Author Nick Cole has his finger on what’s wrong with print publishing. A big chunk of it is Barnes & Noble. He says what I’ve been saying for some time: The fate of the Big 5 print publishers is tied to B&N’s. When B&N goes under, there will be blood in the streets of Manhattan.
- Great article on that 1920s curiosity, spinning-disk television, with the first actual videos I’ve ever seen of the bottle-cap sized screens in action.
- And more cool hacks, if newer ones: A home-made full-auto crossbow. Dip it in holy water and the vampires will run screaming, like they did in Van Helsing. (Thanks to Bradford C. Walker for the link.)
- The cool hacks never quit! Here’s some basic information on using an SDR dongle with the Raspberry Pi. There’s actually a lot of activity on SDR for the RPi these days. Google it, but budget an hour or two for the browsing. One note up front: Consensus is that the original RPi doesn’t have the muscle to do SDR well. Use a version 2 or 3. (Thanks to Rick Hellewell for the link.)
- The science just keeps piling up: Eating fatty foods can make you healthier and slimmer. You can do the science yourself, as I explained in a series some time back.
- The Chicago Tribune has declared that Obamacare has failed. When you lose the mainstream media, methinks it’s well and truly over.
- The history of Radithor, the first nuclear energy drink. Not a good idea, to put it mildly. Me, when I need more energy I just suck a few more Penguin Peppermints, or run up to 64th & Greenway and get a 44 oz Diet Mountain Dew. Works. (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
- Yeah. Radium, the gift that keeps on giving: Madame Curie’s notebooks, furniture, clothes, and other personal effects are still radioactive, and will be for another 1,500 years or so. They’re considered national treasures by the French, and are stored in lead-lined boxes. You need to sign a waiver to unbox and view them. You go. I’ll watch the slide show.
- A nuclear energy company has applied to the NRC to build a small modular nuclear reactor. ‘Bout damned time. There is NO solution–and I mean NO with a capital NO–to global warming that is not based on nuclear. If you do not enthusiastically support nuclear energy, don’t talk to me about global warming.
- Several Spanish towns saw their first significant snowfalls in 90 years recently. One report like that means nothing. But I’m seeing more and more of them all the time. Also, teaching people that weather = climate cuts both ways; a couple of bad winters will have them thinking that the world is actually cooling.
There’s been an unexpected irruption of normalcy here, while we sail upon the whine-dark seas of modern American life. (I’ve been wanting to use the word “irruption” here, correctly, for some time.) What this means is that I’ve been able to do some of what I want to do, and not merely what my do-it list tells me I have to do. It won’t last, but while it does I’m going to make the most of it.
A number of people have suggested that I write a few short novels to get the size of my list up a little. I wrote Drumlin Circus (53,000 words) in only six weeks, after all. But as I recall, those were very full weeks. So a month or so ago I got an idea for a new short novel, and I’m glad to say I now have 6,300 words down on it; figure 12% or so. It’s whimsical, and whether or not it’s fantasy depends heavily on whether you believe that the collective unconscious is real or not. I’d like to bring it in at between 50,000 and 60,000 words, so don’t expect all-new built-from-scratch universes a la The Cunning Blood. However, I do promise a trademark Jeff Duntemann mayhem-filled action climax.
And a dream repairman. I mean that: A guy who drops into your nightmares and hands you your pants while he gives you directions to calculus class. People who have nightmares love him. The nightmares, well, not so much.
My old writer friend Jim Strickland and I are going to attempt something interesting to keep our productivity up: a chapter challenge. Starting February 1, we’re going to dare each other to get a certain amount of story down in a week, and then exchange that’s week’s worth of story for some quick critique. He’s working on the sequel to Brass & Steel: Inferno and needs a gentle noodge. I need one too, though sometimes what I really need is a two-boot noodge right in the glutes. Neither of us has ever done anything quite like this before. I’ll post reports here as things happen.
Even the do-it list has yielded some things that are actually fun, including a bit of metalwork to make an aluminum grating for my particle board shelves to rest on out in the pool shed (against the several times a year when a hard rain gets under the door and soaks the floor) and mounting some Elfa hardware on the opposite shed wall.
Drilling three 8′ pieces of U-channel for the grate took a little finesse in my slightly cramped workshop. The drill press is where it is (close to the center of the space) for a reason. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) The next major project (as time allows) is getting a solid ground for my station and antennas. I have an 8′ ground rod. I need some bentonite, and a post hole digger. After that, le RF deluge…
I haven’t done a lot of programming for the last couple of years, and I miss it. Interstate moves and oxygen starvation will do that to you. I’ve converted some of my old Delphi apps to Lazarus, which in truth wasn’t hard and probably can’t be called programming with a straight face. And I have a project that I need to get back to, even if it has to be written in Delphi 7, which is the most recent version that I have. (Turbo Delphi doesn’t count.) I no longer had a publishing company after Delphi 7 appeared, so post-2002 I dropped off their reviewers list. And $1,400 is a little steep for hobby programming–much less $4700 on the high end.
For some years I’ve been poking at the concept of a personal medical database. I’m old now (how did that happen??!?) and I take pills and get bloodwork and monitor various things to make sure none of my component parts are rusting out. I have Word documents full of notes, and scribbles on paper calendars, all of which really need to be pulled together into one searchable and reportable database. Some doctors won’t believe that my blood pressure does not respond to sodium. I have proof. I’ll bet, furthermore, that it will be a lot more convincing if it’s placed in their hands as a professional-looking report.
All of what I’ve done so far has been in Lazarus, and most of that has been small proof-of-concept lashups, none of them newer than 2012. However, a marvelous report generator product has crossed my desk, and I want to give it a shot with my medbase app. The product is List & Label 22, from Combit, a small firm in southern Germany. It has God’s own kitchen sink of features, many of them related to Web programming, which I simply don’t do. However, it has all conventional reporting options I’ve ever heard of well-covered, and it supports all versions of Delphi back to D6. (It supports Visual Studio and many other dev platforms as well.)
It doesn’t support Lazarus, alas. So I’ll be trying it out in D7.
The big win (for me at least) is that L&L 22 provides a report designer in VCL component format that drops on a form and becomes part of your application. This allows end users to design their own reports. Given that my end user is me, I don’t have to worry about end users doing gonzo things. I’ve always liked my software to exist as One Big Chunk (DLL hell, and all that) so this is right up my alley.
I don’t yet know precisely what reports I’ll want, and it may be the case that I won’t know until I actually need one for a specific purpose, like laying out my data indicating that salt is irrelevant to my blood pressure. Having a report designer right there in the app means that I can design the report that I need when I need it, and not try to anticipate every damn thing I’ll ever want while I’m building the program itself.
I should make it very clear here that I don’t dislike modern Delphi. I still love it, but it’s gotten enormously expensive, and the Starter Edition does not include database programming features. My other reason for using Lazarus is that I still intend to write intro-to-programming books using Pascal as the teaching language. Expecting students to pay even $250 for the Delphi Starter Edition is asking a lot, and worse, I intend to teach database work as well as conventional programming.
I’ll have more to say about List & Label as I learn it. Ditto the medical database itself, which is now a set of tables full of test data and a couple of conceptual UIs. Stay tuned.
Somebody I follow on Twitter (don’t recall who) posted a link to a video about a new product out of Japan called Gatebox. It’s a little round 3-D video display roughly the size and shape of a coffee machine. An anime character lives in the display and has what seem like reasonable conversations with the user. It’s like Siri or Cortana on video, and it stirred some very old memories.
I’ve been thinking about AI since I was in college forty-odd years ago, and many of my earliest SF stories were about strong AI and what might come of it. Given how many stories I’ve written about it, some of you may be surprised that I put strong, human-class AI in the same class as aliens: not impossible, but extremely unlikely. The problems I have with aliens cook down to the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation. Basically, there may well be a single intelligent species (us) or there may be hundreds of millions. There are unlikely to be four, nine, seventeen, or eight hundred fifty four. If there were hundreds of millions, we’d likely have met them by now.
With AI, the problem is insufficient humility to admit that we have no idea how human intelligence works at the neuronal level, and hence can’t model it. If we can’t model it we can’t emulate it. Lots of people are doing good work in the field, especially IBM (with Watson) and IPSoft, which has an impressive AI called Amelia. (Watch the videos, and look past her so-so animation. Animation isn’t the issue here.) Scratchbuilt AIs like Amelia can do some impressive things. What I don’t think they can do is be considered even remotely human.
Why not? Human intelligence is scary. AI as we know it today isn’t nearly scary enough. You want scary? Let me show you another chunkette of The Lotus Machine, from later in the novel of AI that I began in 1983 and abandoned a few years later. Corum finds the Lotus Machine, and learns pretty quickly that pissing off virtual redheads is not a good idea, especially redheads whose hive minds ran at four gigahertz inside a quarter billion jiminies.
From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)
Corum tapped the silver samovar on his window credenza into a demitasse, and stared at the wall beyond the empty tridiac stage. So here’s where the interesting stuff starts. The crystal had been in the slot for several minutes, and the creature within had full control of the stage. Pouting? Frightened?
“Go in there and take a look around, Rags.”
“Roger,” Ragpicker replied, and a long pulse of infrared tickled the stage’s transducer.
At once, the air over the stage pulsed white and cleared. Life-size, the image of a woman floated over the stage, feet slack and toes pointed downward like the ascending Virgin. She was wrapped in pale blue gauze that hung from her hips and elbows in folds that billowed in a nonexistent wind. Her hair hung waist-long, fiery red in loose curls. One hand rested on one full hip. The other hand gripped the neck of a pitiful manikin the size of a child’s doll. The manikin, dressed in rags, was squirming and beating on the very white hand that was obviously tightening about its neck.
“He bit me, Corum. I don’t care for that.” The woman-image brought up her other hand and wrung the manikin’s neck. “We don’t need a go-between.” That said, she flung the limp figure violently in Corum’s direction. The manikin-image vanished as soon as it passed over the edge of the stage, but Corum ducked nonetheless. Corum stood, marveling. He took a sip from his demitasse, then hurled it through the image above the stage. The little cup shattered against the wall and fell in shards to the carpeting. A brown stain trickled toward the floor. The woman smiled. Not a twitch. “No thanks, Corum my love. Coffee darkens the skin.”
“I never gave the Lotus Machine a persona.”
The woman shrugged. “So I had to invent one. Call me Cassandra. Shall I predict your future?”
“You will become one with me, and we will re-make the world in our image.”
Corum shivered. “No thanks.”
She laughed. “It wasn’t an invitation. It was a prophecy.”
Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It’s a jiminy!
1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you’d told me we’d have full color flat screens soon, I’d have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.
I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where “ghost” was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he’s pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.
The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it’s a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That’s gotta be worth something.
From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)
Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum’s younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car’s interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.
“Please stop tormenting yourself,” Ragpicker said.
“Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table.”
“Ok.” One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.
A slender man with waist-length black hair. “Dunphy. Dead ten years now.” Steel grey hair and broken nose. “Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?”
A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. “Feanor. Damn! Him too.”
The profile…little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. “I’m pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that’s Cinoq?”
“Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy…”
“Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us.” The car leaned into a curve. Corum’s fingers tightened on the armrest. “He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?”
“In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request.”
Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. “An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where’s Golda now? Any evidence?”
“Not a trace. No body. Just gone.” The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker’s conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. “She hated it all, all but the Deep Music.”
“It’s not music.” Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn’t work-couldn’t, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.
She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.
“She took drugs,” Ragpicker reminded. “You hated drugs.”
“Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?”
“It isn’t you!”
“It is. We’ve got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags.”
“We’re going to start looking.”
The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.
“I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it’s time to own up. I’ll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I’ll unhack you. Promise”
- Eating red meat will not hurt your heart. This is not news to people who’ve been paying attention. Alas, meat has been slandered as deadly for so many years that we’re going to be shooting this lie in the head for decades before it finally bleeds to death.
- There are at least two efforts underway to back-breed the aurochs, a very large and ill-tempered ruminant that went extinct in 1627. I made use of aurochs in The Cunning Blood; the Moomoos (basically, cowboys on Hell) had difficulty herding them until they domesticated the mastodon and rode mastodons instead of horses.
- Who will fact-check the fact-checkers? In truth, there is no answer to this question, which heads toward an infinite regress at a dead run. Nobody trusts anybody else in journalism today. To me, this means that journalism as an industry might as well be dead.
- Even the New York Times is willing to admit that cold weather is 17 times deadlier than warm weather. This is one reason we moved to Arizona: Winters have been nasty in Colorado for several years, and I have an intuition that flatlining solar activity may make things a lot colder before they get warmer.
- Russian scientists evidently agree with me. And y’know, the Russians might just know a few things about cold weather.
- The Army is accelerating development of a railgun compact enough to fire from something the size and shape of a howitzer. 10 rounds per minute, too. With one of those you could poke a lot of very big holes in very big things in a very big hurry. (Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link.)
- Can’t afford a howitzer railgun? How about a snowboard powered by ducted fans? The idea is cool. Watching the guy put it together in fast-motion is cooler.
- SF writer Paul Mauser suggests that publishing’s gatekeeper function has been crowdsourced on the indie side, and I agree. You can’t always tell if an indie book is good before you buy it. Guess what? You can’t always tell if a print book is good before you buy it. Manhattan’s imprints can barely pay the rent and want interns to work in editorial for free. Warning: It’s handy to have gatekeepers who know how gates work, and why.
- Gatekeepers? Where were the gatekeepers when Kaavya Viswanathan allegedly cribbed a whole novel together from other authors’ work and then sold it to Little, Brown for half a million bucks?
- Pertinent to the above: There’s a very nice site devoted to plagiarism, which is evidently a far bigger problem than I would have guessed.
- An obscure author (of three memoirs) claimed that indie publishing is “an insult to the written word.” Watch Larry Correia lay waste to her essay. Don’t be drinking Diet Mountain Dew while you read it, now. Green stuff pouring out of your nose is generally embarrassing.
- This item is probably not what you think it is. The manufacturer could probably have used a little gatekeeping on the product design side.