Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


Rant: Do You Like Kippling?

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I’ve been busy here, fighting entropy. (Yes, you can fight entropy. You just can’t win.) The fight’s even harder when you move from a largish house to a house that can (at best) hold about two-thirds the entropy. I’ve never done that before. Now I know why.

I used to have a 12′ X 12′ book wall with a rolling ladder. Book freaks can do the math in their heads; there were a lot of books on that wall. We did a very aggressive book purge before we shoveled the survivors into boxes, and we may have given away books enough to fill about a quarter of that wall. We had some empty space on the numerous other movable bookshelves around the house up north. No more. Empty space is just about gone.

And then, a week or so ago, we had the last of the storage containers delivered. It wasn’t large; just one of those “pod” things you see advertised. I knew it contained the bulk of my electronics and ham radio books and magazines. What I’d forgotten is that it also contained six or seven boxes of “ordinary” books on history, psychology, religion, and weirdness. So after I took a few days to empty the electronics and radio collection onto the two big particle board shelves I’d built specifically for that purpose (including shelves spaced for both the old and the new ham radio magazine trim sizes) I realized that I still had eight or ten boxes to deal with. (More on this later.)

Dealing with the radio stuff was tricky enough. I had bought the full run of Ham Radio back in the early 90s from a friend of an SK in Mesa. The mags were all neatly placed in those spring-rod magazine binders. It quickly occurred to me that the binders rougly doubled the space that a year’s magazines occupied on a shelf. (See the photo above.) It took half an hour of sitting tailor-style and yanking spring rods, but I reclaimed most of an entire shelf by dumping the binders.

That was easy, compared to the next decision: What to do with Wayne Green. He’s dead, as is 73, his iconic ham mag. There’s nothing quite like 73. I took it for many years, and bought the issues that predated my license at hamfests. I enjoyed reading it. Green was certifiable, but he wrote entertainingly, and did gonzo if tasteless things like publishing a rear view of a (male) streaker holding an HT on the cover, as well as any number of scantily-clad women, generally holding ham gear as fig leaves. Some of his technical articles were useful. A lot of the construction articles were sloppy, and some of the designs (pace Bill Hoisington K1CLL) were just, well, nuts. I built a 1-tube converter from 73 back in the mid 1970s. It actually worked, more or less. Most of the others smelled like trouble. I tried a couple of K1CLL’s VHF projects, both of which immediately cooked themselves in their own parasitics. The late George M. Ewing WA8WTE wrote ham-radio oriented fiction (often with SF & fantasy elements) for 73. It was a ginormous, engaging, and practically indescribable mess.

So. Keep or recycle? Tough call. Having just saved several shelf-feet of space by dumping the HR binders, I punted and piled ’em all back onto the shelf. After all, I have a soft spot in my head for Wayne Green, because in 1973 he bought the first piece of writing I ever sold for money. (He then sat on it for more than a year before publishing it.) So I’m conflicted.

Philip K. Dick coined a term for the sorts of things that accumulate in odd corners during a life of anything other than abject asceticism: kipple. 73, in a way, is kipple. So are malfunctioning (but fixable) gadgets, functional (but obsolete) gadgets, parts that roll under your workbench or fall behind shelves, and the peculiar things that lurk at the bottoms of cardboard boxes at hamfests marked “Whole box – $5.” Every time I’ve moved my workshop, I end up with a couple of boxes of stuff I’ve picked up off the floor or out of coffee cans and ratty, ripped-up cardboard boxes piled where piling was possible. I’ve always called them “hell boxes,” but kipple is what they are. Kipple, like wire coathangers, is said to breed when nobody’s looking. Having had a workshop of one sort or another since I was 13, one would get that impression.

My already-tight workshop here still has three substantial boxes of kipple for me to sort through. I’ll do that another time. For now I’m faced with a slightly different problem: Passing judgment on books that are obviously not kipple. How does one make decisions like that? I’ve spoken of this before, but have not solved the problem.

The base issue is this: How do you know what you’re going to have to look up or quote in a year, two years, or five years? How do you even know what you’re going to be interested in? How can you tell where the rabbit hole leads before you dive in? One thing leads to way more than another.

I’ve long since gotten rid of all my DOS books, as well as my Windows 2000 books. I made a special effort to get rid of obsolete books that were thick. Other categories are tougher to figure. Are books on weirdness even necessary? Well, hey, I’m a writer, and fiction is made out of nonfiction, even if the nonfiction is nonsense. Besides, how can I make fun of things like zombies and vampires if I don’t know anything about zombies and vampires?

One solution is to buy a few more shelves for the Closet Factory buildouts in our three walk-in closets. I’ll probably do that. Another is to look critically at the usefulness and/or quality of the books I still have. That would also be a good strategy, if it wouldn’t take such a huge chunk out of however many years I have left.

So I suspect there will be boxes of books here and there around our house, hidden wherever hiding is possible. As I abandon certain tracks of thought (how can there be trains without tracks?) the boxes may shrink. They will do so slowly.

There was a joke once, long ago when I was an undergrad English major:

Q: Hey, do you like Kipling?
A: I dunno, I’ve never kippled.

Well, I have. I’ve been doing it for almost two years now. It hasn’t gotten any easier. And truth be told, I don’t like kippling at all.

Fighting the Time Bandits…

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…not to mention the energy bandits. I didn’t always have trouble with those.

So. I have not abandoned Contra, am not dead nor even injured. (I took some skin off one of my toes in Hawaii.) I don’t know that I can manage a detailed entry today, but I’m not sure I’ve ever gone a month without posting here. I’ve done a little better on Facebook, but that has mostly been posting interesting links and maybe a little commentary.

Like, f’rinstance, the Sun has gone to sleep, and has been asleep now for twelve days. For ten of those twelve days, even the solar plages went missing, and I generally don’t see that. Yesterday I started to see some plages again, so I’m guessing we’ll see some spots in the next few days. It’s remarkable for this to happen just two years after a solar maximum, poor limp excuse for a maximum that it was. We’re certainly seeing a much quieter Sun than we’re used to. What that means is impossible to know right now. I doubt we’re sliding into a new Ice Age, though it’s fascinating to speculate…and one of the reasons we may not be is that we have a little more CO2 in the atmo to keep things warm.

The cool part (as it were) is that I will probably live long enough to see if a weaker solar cycle has any measurable effect on climate. (I won’t be 90 until 2042, and I certainly intend to live at least that long.)

So. The reason I’ve been so strapped is this: When we packed the house last December so we could winter over in our new house in Phoenix, we packed what we needed, and left everything else in Colorado. Now we have to empty the house except for some furniture and knicknacks for staging.

What was startling was how much was left after we extracted what we needed.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere, and if I had time I’d dig for it. Instead, Carol and I are doing triage on an enormous amount of stuff, packing and labeling the keepers and hauling the discards to whoever will take them. I’m making a salvage run to the metal yard later this week with a couple of ’50s chrome kitchen chairs with the padded panels removed, a couple of ’70s folding chairs ditto, a ’50s charcoal grill, a ’50s stepstool, some odd steel scrap, and about ten pounds of copper wire and other odd copper/brass items. I’m selling furniture and our gas grill on Craigslist. We’re shredding twenty years of odd bills and recycling several boxes of old magazines that somehow escaped the heave-ho last year. Almost all back issues of the Atlantic are now online, so I don’t need to keep paper mags, even the ones tagged with significant articles. (The Atlantic used to have a lot more of those in the ’80s and ’90s than they do today.)

Solar Panel 300 Wide.jpgCarol’s packing glassware and kitchen and office stuff and much miscellany. I have to get rid of a solar panel that I cobbled up in 1977 from six 6-cell subpanels that doesn’t work anymore, and I would like to investigate the peculiar failure mode if I had time: When first placed in the Sun it generates 17 volts, but over a period of no more than five minutes the voltage drops down under 10 volts and eventually to 5. It hasn’t been in the Sun at all these past 40 years…so what died? I’m curious, but not curious enough to keep it and do exploratory surgery on it.

The kicker, though, is this: No sooner did we get back from our Hawaii vacation than I was sent the PDF proofs of my six chapters of Learn Computer Architecture with the Raspberry Pi. That’s 100,000 words and 90 hand-drawn technical figures. I have to read them closely, because I’ve already spotted typos that were not present in the edited manuscript ARs. Somebody, somewhere changed “Jack Kilby” to “Jack Kelby.” The inventor of the integrated circuit deserves better. I may be the last line of defense against stuff like that, so I have to read slowly and pay complete attention. Also, don’t get me started on example code. Whitespace is significant in Python…and for what, Lord? To torment typesetters and technical editors?


We’re still trying to schedule some essential work, like having an epoxy coating put down on the new garage floor, getting all the outside windows washed, and having the carpets and drapes cleaned. So, evidently, is everyone else in Colorado Springs. Want to make good money? Forget your Grievance Studies degree and go into carpet cleaning.

By now you may be getting the idea. I turned 64 on the 29th, and am feeling every day of it. I’m desperate to do some new SF (so desperate that I’ve started writing country-western songs in my head while schlepping boxes) and that’s not going to happen for awhile.

The bad news is that this isn’t going to be over any time real soon. End of July, I hope. But if the house keeps vomiting up weird stuff that we didn’t have to deal with last time, all bets are off. Your best bet is to watch Facebook, as I allow myself fifteen minutes of online time during the day.

I’ll be back. (Didn’t somebody else say that? Oh, yeah: I used to have some 75 ohm terminators, but they’re long gone.) I haven’t been doing this for 18 years only to stop now.

Tessellating the Big Move

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Packing continues apace. I consistently get 5-8 boxes packed every day, and over time it adds up. I have well over 100 piled around the house by now. A lot of the most difficult stuff has been done, including almost everything in my biggish workshop. Carol and I hoarded cardboard boxes for most of a year before the move, and in fact before we began looking for a place in Arizona. We knew we would have to pack the garage before we emptied it in preparation for replacing the concrete slab. The garage contains a lot of high-density items, most of them metal. Smaller boxes are good for that. Once we decided that the whole house had to be packed, small boxes became even more useful, for tools and Meccano parts and panel meters and much else from my twelve feet of head-high shelves.

We’ve done this before, but we’re doing it more carefully this time. I’ve mentioned the core reason: We’re going from 4400 square feet to 3000 square feet. During the process I’ve been passing judgment on things to be packed, asking myself if this item or that item really needs to follow us to Arizona. Such decision-making is difficult when you have to pile everything in the house into boxes over a single long weekend because a new job awaits you somewhere on the other side of the country. In the past, well, we just piled.

There’s another reason to be careful: Movers emptying a moving van have to put boxes somewhere. Empty bookshelves take up as much space as full bookshelves, and 2200 books take up a lot of space, period. If we intend to be able to move around in the new house once everything gets down there, we need to put as much stuff into as few boxes as possible.

In pursuing that goal, I realized I have a personal super-power: tessellation. I can look at a pile of things beside an empty box, and fairly quickly fill the box so that little dead space remains. (See the photo above.) Mass-market paperbacks are no big challenge, because they’re all nearly the same size and differ mostly in thickness. Hardcovers and trades are trickier. Reference books are all over the map, size-wise, and are the trickiest of all. Spools of wire are tricky too, because if you’re clever you can nest them. I got an amazing amount of wire into a single Borders book box. (I still have a fair number of those from our move 12 years ago.) Tessellating test equipment proved diabolical, but I got a lot more into fewer boxes than I ever have in the past. I got my entire GRC-109 Special Forces radio set into a single 12″ cube, though it’s so heavy I fear for the box’s life. (The radio units themselves are essentially armored and not especially vulnerable to weak forces like gravity.)

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I have a labeling system to tell the movers what room to put each box in: I defined a 3-character code for each room in the house (plus the two garages and the shed) and then printed several sheets of Avery 5263 10-up labels for each code. I also have Visio documents for each code that place the code on a single sheet of paper as large as will fit. (The tags above indicate that the boxes are to be stacked in my office.) On moving day we’ll tape those sheets to the entrances of each room in the house so that the movers know which code has been assigned to which room.

So box by box, we crawl ever-closer to moving day. Each time we do this, we tempt the Fates by saying we hope never to do it again. This time I’ll play reverse psychology on the Fates by saying, Yo! Fates! Tessellation Man is ready for whatever you can throw at him!

I wonder if they’re even listening.

Downsizing in the Age of Stuff

I’m culling the collection. It’s making me a little nuts. Carol and I are moving from a house with 4600 livable square feet (plus an oversized garage) to 3100 square feet plus a garage that will fit two biggish cars if you smear Vaseline all over them. (There will be another 350 square feet of livable space once our contractor installs an air conditioner in the small garage.) We’re in our sixties now. We’re trying to simplify and streamline, which sounds easier than it is, simply because a good deal of it is learning how to let go of Stuff.

The 21st Century may well be remembered as the beginning of the Age of Stuff. We’ve always had a certain amount of Stuff, and one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution is, of course, allowing poorer and poorer people to have more and more Stuff. When I was a young teen, I thought I was as rich as Croesus (quick, without googling him: Who was Croesus?) simply because I had a typewriter, a telescope, a pair of walkie talkies, and a VOM. Now I look around the house, and I ask myself how many standard Croesuses the collection represents.


China has a lot to do with the Age of Stuff, as does eBay. Stuff that used to go out on the curb can now be bought by people who really really want just that precise model of waffle iron. (What used to be considered trash I often think of as “parts units.”) I found a NOS hair curler on eBay precisely like one that Carol had owned and loved in the 80s. Better engineering means that the Stuff we have is often better Stuff, and careful people like Carol and myself have an instinct for being careful with things, making them last longer and longer. We still have the blender we got as a wedding present in 1976, and we still use it several times a week. 70s cars may have been crappy. 70s blenders rock.

So we’re keeping the blender. But what about all the rest of it? That is pretty much the current challenge. The Big Truck will be loading up some time late November or early December. We’ve already taken several carloads of Stuff to Goodwill, and given the best of it to our friend Diedre for her indoor flea market table. And damn if the house doesn’t look the least bit emptier.

The worst of it is about books. The last time I cataloged our library, we had about 2500 books. We did an initial purge last year and got it down to about 2200. I let go of Charles Platt’s Garbage World, and had the fleeting insight that it was symbolic. I gave away Lupoff’s Sacred Locomotive Flies even though it’s my favorite SF book to make fun of. I got rid of stuff that was badly written or simply a bummer, like Malzberg’s wretched Beyond Apollo. If I ever discover an aching desire for bad SF, well, there’s always eBay.

But really, it’s getting tough. The “why the hell do I still have this?”purge is over. Now I find myself on my rolling library ladder, staring at the spines of books that, if not excellent, actually have some value, or at least served me well at one time.

One time, sure. Often a very long time ago. I realize that I’ve kept a lot of them for sentimental reasons, like my father’s 1940 drafting textbook. My college career was a very mixed bag, haunted by a lot of third-shelf thinkers who didn’t know how to teach and didn’t like being challenged. Still, there were some gems in all that dirt: I’ve kept some books because they were given to my by Dr. Rachel Romano, who took a special interest in my talents as a writer at a time when most of my knucklehead profs were telling me deadpan that I should apply to law school. I look at some and ask myself, “Did I ever actually read this?” Dr. Romano died in 1985. I don’t think I will do her any disrespect by putting her books in someone else’s hands. She was a wonderful influence in my life, and the influence is what matters. The books are simply mementos. I don’t know who originally said this, but I’ve been saying it a lot to myself recently:

Not all of your past belongs in your future.

It’s true. Very true.

I’ve got about 75 books in the purge pile right now. A few were easy pitches, being slim and having somehow escaped my notice for 40+ years, like Philip Slater’s silly-ass tantrum The Pursuit of Loneliness. Many were good books on science and tech that are now simply obsolete, irrespective of their excellence, like Pickering’s 1001 Questions Answered about Astronomy, and the 1990 first edition of Microsoft Computer Dictionary. I had several books on film photography that clearly won’t be helpful anymore. Some are now sad, like Enterprise by Jerry Gray, which is all about how the Space Shuttle was going to make space travel easy and cheap and open up the road to the rest of the Solar System. A mere handful are books that I literally don’t remember either buying or reading, nor, in truth, how they came to me at all.

Some purges reflect my changing interests. I used to read a lot about ghosts and the paranormal, but I suspect I’ve long since read everything useful on the subject, and many of those books are now on the pile. (I made good use of some of that weirdness while writing Ten Gentle Opportunities.) I’m culling my theology shelves, which is harder. I got rid of my books on theodicy, and all but one of Peter Kreeft’s books, he being a crypto-Calvinist pretending to be Catholic and saying stupid and damaging things like “There are no good (that is, innocent) people.” Sorry, Peter. “Good” does not mean “innocent,” and you disqualify yourself as a thinker for saying so. I’ve finally come to a good place in my (often agonized) quest for sane religion, so many of the inspirational books I used as steppingstones are now unnecessary or redundant.

The toughest calls of all are those books that contain some but not always a lot of useful material. How much usefulness is enough? I have a lot of books about the brain and personality, many of them now pushing a quarter century old. Some of those books are timeless. Many aren’t. But in quite a few cases, the clarity of the writing in the intro portions makes me want to keep them as quick brushups, should I need one. Hard call. Intros matter. I’ve made my career writing them.

And so on. We’ve done this before, and in fact, we’ve done it every time we’ve moved. This is our seventh house. You’d think it would get to be second nature after awhile. However, this particular purge is especially difficult, since it’s the first time we’ve gone from a larger house to a smaller one. We designed this house to have a lot of storage, because we knew damned well how Stuff multiples over the years. The new house, well, it doesn’t have all the crannies and under-the-stairs places (no stairs!) and this means we’re going to have to be extra careful deciding what survives and what goes to Goodwill. The hardest part of packing the house has nothing to do with boxes, but in fact is all about how much of the past will still have a role in our future. And if you think that’s easy, just try it sometime.