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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?

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Hats off to T. C. Chua, who figured out how to make Zoundry Raven work with IE9+. Raven uses IE’s WYSIWYG editor, and changes made to the editor with IE9 breaks the program completely. Zoundry is open-source and hasn’t been updated since 2008. Mr. Chua traced through the Python code, found the problem, fixed it, and built an .EXE out of the Python code. He’s made it available here. I’ve used Raven to edit and post Contra entries since 2008, and didn’t feel like chasing down some new blog editor now that I’ve moved to Win7. Bravo!
  • Vegetarian diets are not as healthy as we’ve been led to believe. Make sure you scroll down to Table 3 and get a look at the figures for cancer. Now, some thrive on vegetarian diets and many don’t. What the research doesn’t appear to take into account is “lifestyle panic,” which is severe anxiety that some (usually minor) aspect of your life will kill you. If worry about your diet turns your life into a cortisol thrill ride, your diet won’t help you, and it certainly won’t be what killed you.
  • Mars reaches opposition on April 8, and the best day for observing it is April 14. Actually, any time within a week or two of those dates will provide a pretty good show, especially if you have even a smallish telescope. Such opportunities happen roughly every two years, so catch it now or wait until 2016!
  • Wearable computing has never really set the world on fire, and here’s a reasonably honest assessment as to why. I already have one computer in my pocket, and that’s plenty.
  • A GoPro-packing RC flying wing. Makes kites look kind of lame, but lame is what I have on hand, and lame is how I’m going to fly my GoPro this spring. If we ever get a spring. (6″ of sloppy stuff this morning; would have been 15″ had it been ten degrees colder.)
  • Cores (the other kind of cores) like dust.
  • My instance of the Gallery photo server is pretty much dead, and I’ve begun migrating photos to Flickr. Here’s my photostream link, and my three sets so far. I’m not yet an ace at the system by any means, but with some practice I’ll get everything interesting up there.
  • Ok. Precision marshmallow toasting is cool. Just don’t get nuts and melt the mallow into the machinery.
  • I study climate, in general to support a fiction concept I’m working on, but I don’t talk about it here because I don’t like to trigger the sort of slobbering tribal hatred that any such discussion invariably involves. This is an interesting (if depressing) psychological phenomenon all by itself. (Thanks to Trevor Thompkins for the link.)
  • This turned up on April 1, but like all the best hoaxes, it is nowhere clear that it’s actually a hoax. So is it? (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
  • The world’s smallest volcano was maybe just a little easier to suss out…

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Pirates of the Caribbean, V2.0

I originally thought it was a hoax when I heard about it this past January. It sure sounded like one. But it’s for real: The World Trade Organization has given the otherwise unexceptional Caribbean nation of Antigua permission to sell US copyrighted content, without any payment to copyright owners.

WTF?

It’s revenge, people. Antigua was making a pretty good living in online casinos until 2001, when the US outlawed online gambling. What was a $2.4B annual business dropped by two thirds. (Apparently, two thirds of the world’s stupidity lies within US borders.) I’d be temped to say that nothing of value was lost, which may have been true unless you were Antigua. So Antigua went to the WTO asking for compensation for the loss. The WTO gave them all American copyrights, free of charge. There’s a $21M cap on the annual take, but as best I can tell, no time limit on the grant. Basically, Antigua can sell anything copyrighted in the US at all.

This is the plot of a comic novel. It reminds me of nothing more than The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1959 sendup of nuclear weapons politics. A US firm creates a clone of the signature wine of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which is a nanoscopic country somewhere in Europe, probably bordering San Marino on one side and Liechtenstein on the other. The Duchy goes for the throat and declares war on the US, expecting to lose and make up for lost wine revenues in foreign aid. Instead, the country accidently captures the horrible Q-Bomb from a secret lab (with a bumbling crew of Robin Hoodish bowmen) and the US surrenders.

Except that this time, it’s real. Buried in my notes on possible novels is something I called TC Pirates in Paradise that dates back to 2006. A disgruntled engineer slips something extra into his company’s “smart” wall-wart product: a powerline networking system that sets up a hidden filesharing node every time it’s plugged into the wall. Nobody notices at first. He leaves the company, and nothing happens until a billion file-sharing wall warts have been sold into the wild. Then he reveals the secret, and all hell breaks loose.

Ok, not my best idea, and people would get annoyed at me for making fun of piracy. But man, this could be a marvelous high-tech farce with a title like Pirates of the Retail Channel. The whole business was made possible by a loophole in WTO rules that allows intellectual property to be used in punitive trade settlements. The glass on your irony meter will shatter explosively when you realize that the treaties that allow this are the same treaties that US copyright interests pushed for years ago and occasionally use against other countries. If those guys didn’t know what a “petard” was before, they’re sure as hell reaching for the dictionary now.

Antigua didn’t create its own online casinos. It licensed other people to create them, and took a cut of the profits. One wonders if they’re going to license Pirate Bay clones and do the same thing. Certain issues are unclear, primarily whether they’ll be able to strip DRM. On the other hand, who would stop them? (They could just download pre-stripped copies from Usenet and sell them.) What sort of prices are we going to see? Would they dare to become the Five Below of online commerce? Windows 7 for $5? And how soon before DRM-stripped items would show up on the rest of the pirate ecosystem? Is it any wonder that Adobe is giving up on selling boxed software?

No, I don’t approve. But man, I giggled. Politics is its own punishment, as the US copyright lobby is figuring out about now. If Rockhound57 and HockWards need to flee the country, well, Antigua would be the logical place to go.

Popcorn anybody? Let’s watch.