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Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Practical and Impractical Swag

Borland Thermos and Mug - 500 Wide.jpg

Carol and I were digging out the far dark corners of our walk-in pantry, and an interesting artifact came to hand: A plastic thermos bottle with the following inscription:

It keeps hot food hot, and cold food cold. How does it know? Is it the most “artificially intelligent” object in the galaxy?

At the bottom of the front face was Borland International’s logo. The jug was a teaser for Turbo Prolog, and I think I received it while I was still at PC Tech Journal in the fall of 1986. I had to quote the text here, because as you can see from the photo, a good part of the inscription has been worn away. Why? Because I used it. I used it a lot.

That is not generally the case for swag.

Once I became a computer journalist in 1985, I was offered a lot of swag, and took more of it than I had any need for, mostly to be polite. These were, after all, advertisers and potential advertisers. Carol and I have gotten (and still get) swag from various persons and organizations, and it’s interesting to look around the house and see what we still have, fifteen years after I ceased to have advertisers:

  • In the summer of 1976, Carol attended an open house at a local real estate office in Rochester Minnesota, where she was at grad school. They gave her a yellow plastic noodle strainer reading “Joe Maas Gallery of Homes” and a phone number. Almost 39 years later, we still use it to strain noodles and dumplings and anything else that needs to stay in the pot while dumping the water. Joe Maas’s name is long gone to friction and detergent, but I still remember it. For swag, I’d say mission accomplished.
  • Seven or eight years ago, we received a plastic flyswatter in the shape of a house from the realtor in Chicago who helped us buy our condo. It’s a little smaller than most flyswatters, meaning that it has less mass and is more maneauverable, as a good many flies have found to their sorrow. I’m not sure I’d want my company name slobbered up with bug guts, but I use it most days in the summer and will never forget Rohn Realty.
  • In 1985, Quadram gave me a nice leather reporter’s notebook with their logo on the front. I used to use it a lot for pen-and-ink jotting, until technology made pen-and-ink mostly obsolete. Technology did the same number on Quadram, so I guess it doesn’t matter that I misplaced it some years ago. (I think I know where it is, but I don’t want to dig that deep in a pile that big.)
  • Premia gave me a nice little pen knife / nail file / micro-scissors in 1992 or so with the CodeWright logo on one side. It’s still in my desk drawer and I still use it.
  • Screwdrivers. I still have and use a pocket screwdriver from PK Ware, as well as the one that came in the box with Windows for Workgroups.
  • Thumb drives. These didn’t exist back when still I went to trade shows, but Eric Bowersox gave me a couple of teensy little items that came loaded with just about every piece of documentation AMD was giving away about its processors and motherboards. Double brilliant.
  • Canvas bags. Too numerous to mention. All that came to hand just now long outlived their vendors. A particularly good specimen from the 1991 OOPSLA is still my designated hamfest trick-or-treat bag.

Not everything makes good swag. Here are some cautionary pointers:

  • Pens. Live fast and die quick; that’s the pen motto. All are long gone, although a spring-loaded Levitra gimmick pen given to me by a doctor friend remains in my Personal Museum of Very Odd Things.
  • Coffee mugs. Part of the problem is that everybody gives out coffee mugs, and your swag mug gets lost among all the others, and is eventually given to the local thrift store. The other part of the problem is that coffee mugs aren’t always microwaveable, and if you can’t nuke the brew, that mug is on the short path to oblivion. I gave away the nice OS/2 Warp mug I once had because it was plastic. And early on, swag cups often had foil trim, which catches fire in the microwave. The Borland mug shown above is a very nice item, but man, you should have seen the fireworks when I turned the microwaves loose on it in the early 90s.
  • Clothes. Ok, folks, look at me: Am I an XXL? Then why are all these trade-show T-shirts size XXL? Because you can’t stock six sizes at your booth? Well, look at whose canvas bag I’m toting. It isn’t yours, hint hint.

Not all those XXL T-shirts are gone. We still have a couple, and Carol uses them for nightgowns and swimsuit coverups. A famous example has those cute little whatevertheyares from the cover of O’Reilly’s book Sed and Awk. When we were in St. John’s in 1998, a vacationing geek chatted up Carol, hoping that she was that rarest of beings: a beautiful woman who uses sed and awk. (Carol referred him to me. His disappointment was palpable.)

I’m sure there are others in drawers and cabinets around the house. The wonder isn’t that we still have them (we’re legendary packrats) but that such cheap and usually plastic geegaws can actually serve real needs for longer than ten minutes. Borland’s AI thermos will doubtless see ice-water service again this summer, now that it’s no longer in the bottom of a box. Houses have flies, and thus realtors will give away flyswatters. And a swag strainer that sees near-daily use for 38 years with no end in sight? That should be in a glass case in the Vatican, because God in heaven, it’s a miracle.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Yes, I changed my mind and signed up for Twitter, after pondering somebody else using my name and creating a Fake Jeff Duntemann. (Thanks to Bob Fergert for prompting me to imagine the unimaginable–and I’m a good imaginer.) More on this a little later. I have yet to post anything due to lots of top-priority projects here, but I’ll get to it within the week.
  • Dietary saturated fat is not related to plasma fatty acids. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much saturated fat you eat; your blood levels of fatty acids are controlled by other factors. What other factors? Care to guess? Are you reading this on Contrapositive Diary? Is the Pope from Argentina? Is the atomic weight of ytterbium 173.04? It’s the carbs. Wow. Whodathunkit? (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal, who was the first of several to put me on the scent.)
  • There is actually a prize for the worst sex scene in literary fiction. It is not a coveted award, and I guess is seen as a sort of booby prize among literary writers. The WSJ recently posted a brief guide on how to avoid writing such scenes. (I avoid writing really bad sex scenes by not writing sex scenes at all. Works amazingly well.)
  • Two people in my circles who don’t know one another have independently recommended Ting as a cell carrier. First impression: Sounds too good to be true, and sheesh, they were created by Tucows. (That said, Tucows is no longer what most of us grayhairs remember it being.) Any other opinions? Getting new phones and a new carrier is my next big tech research project.
  • I’d also like to hear some early impressions of Lollipop, if anybody’s got it or is about to get it.
  • Here’s something you don’t see every day; in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it even once, ever: A square flat-panel monitor, with a 1920 X 1920 resolution. Assuming these survive their launch (not a sure thing by any means) I’d be sorely tempted. As the story says, “Enough of the ultra wideness already.”
  • I wasn’t sure whether good technical books could be created as reflowable ebooks, but Yury Magda is doing it. He has five self-published Arduino-related titles now, and what I can see in the samples looks damned good. I’m going to buy a couple, less for the Arduino content as for how he does the layout. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for putting me on to this.)
  • Gizmodo/Sploid has a very nice short item on the XB-70 Valkyrie, certainly the most beautiful and possibly the second-scariest military aircraft ever built. Do watch the video of how the second prototype crashed–and if you’re ever within striking distance of Dayton, don’t miss the other Valkyrie at the Air Force museum there. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Barðarbunga is emitting over twice as much sufur dioxide every day as all of Europe’s smokestacks put together, and the volcano is still hard at it. SO2 is well-known to be a powerful cooling factor in the atmosphere. Combine that with a quiet Sun, and nobody really knows what might happen.
  • Best video illustration of how tumbler locks work that I’ve ever seen.
  • For that special, short, hairy, ironic someone in your life: You can get a genuine Flying Nun-inspired Weta-made Bofur winter hat, shipped all the way from New Zealand. Not cheap and not sure if it’ll arrive before Christmas, but if this winter keeps going like it’s going, you’ll be all set to face dragons, ice ages, or both.

Odd Lots

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?