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Bouncing from Book to Book

Whoa. I’m about to do something I’ve never done before–and yes, I have drunk both whisky and black coffee–that makes me a hair uncomfortable: I’m about to recommend a book I haven’t even finished yet. And therby hangs a tale.

Back in 1991 or 1992, I noticed that a new Niven/Pournelle book had come out. In casual conversation, a friend of mine (now deceased) told me it was a waste of time and money and not to bother. The book? Fallen Angels, by Niven, Pournelle, and Mike Flynn. Even though I trusted his judgment, I was curious. I was close to a Niven completist at that point, and he remains up in my top three favorite SF authors of all time. Alas, in 1991, I was doing long, long days trying to establish a profitable publishing company, and in truth I wasn’t reading a lot of anything that didn’t directly relate to PC Techniques Magazine. So I passed on Fallen Angels. I’ve since passed on some of the later Ringworld books, and most of the Man-Kzin War saga. Not a completist anymore, I guess. The older I get, the more I ration my time and attention to things that will prove worthwhile.

Then I remembered a couple of weeks ago that Glenn Reynolds always cites Fallen Angels when he aggregates an article suggesting that the world has begun to chill. The core problem in Fallen Angels is that the Earth has begun a new ice age in the near future. An ice age!

Cool!

I’ve always been interested in ice ages. Growing up in Chicago sometimes does that to people. I still lived in Chicago during the three blistering winters of 1977, 1978, and 1979. (And when I left, I went right to Rochester, NY, heh. No relief.) When I was a kid I had a plastic model skeleton of a mastodon. And I knew what a moraine was, having camped in Kettle Moraine State Park as a boy scout.

Six bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! (The cover image, by the way, is gorgeous.) I didn’t start reading it right away, and the hideous conversion to ebook format made me nuts enough to order a paper copy before continuing. Typos, OCR errors, ugly layout, uggh. Nonetheless, I finished it.

No, that’s not the book I’m recommending. I didn’t hate Fallen Angels, but I didn’t love it. Much of the book consists of one SF fan in-joke after another. That was the intent, but self-referential art has always turned me off. The only one missing was lime jello, and it’s entirely possible that by then I had tuned out the fangab enough that it slipped passed me. It’s readable enough to finish, and if you were a fan in the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll recognize some of the people, or maybe even yourself.

No, what happened while reading Fallen Angels is that the book references another book, this time one that I’d never heard of before: The Sixth Winter, by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin. Orgill was new to me. Gribbin is a British astrophysicist who has written a number of very good popular science books, my favorite of which being In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. The Sixth Winter was published in 1979, and was about the emergence of a new ice age. (Gosh! Where did they ever get that idea?!!?!?) Four bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! And just in case, I ordered a hardcover, because used hardcovers could be had for as little as $3.66.

As I write this, the hardcover is still on order. That was certainly a good bet, because the conversion to ebook format was every bit as bad as that of Fallen Angels. I started reading the crappy ebook edition…and couldn’t put it down. Wow. In Fallen Angels, the new Ice Age was backdrop at best. In The Sixth Winter, it’s the main attraction.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the book, since it’s full of clever little twists and turns, but I will say that it has something in common with the Carl & Jerry books: It tries to explain the science that it presents, more than you’d generally get away with in a typical SF adventure novel. I’ll present a hunch: Orgill wrote the fiction, and Gribbon wrote the science. I found it remarkable how such a book grabbed my attention. With the caution (again) that I have a keen interest in ice ages, I recommend it. It is not great fiction. But it is extremely vivid in its descriptions, and there are (fictional) ideas and (granted, dated) science that I’m much enjoying. So there! I did it! I recommended a book that I’m not quite halfway through. Make of it what you will. Sneaky tip: Buy a paper copy. You’ll grind your teeth less over OCR errors, which are legion. “Seat” becomes “scat.” Ouch.

Now hold on. The story isn’t over yet. Partway into The Sixth Winter, the book cites yet another book: Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. (1971.) This is a nonfiction book. There is no ebook edition. (I was slightly relieved to learn that.) Paperbacks from $8.93. Why not? Click. Sold! I don’t have it yet, but it includes some contemporary accounts of the Little Ice Age, which I consider to be part of the Ice Age concept and am much looking forward to reading.

Why this sudden interest in ice ages? It’s not sudden; it’s always been there. But I’ll tip my hand just a little bit: I’m heading into the downwind leg of my current work-in-progress, Dreamhealer. Next up (this time fersure, Amy!) is The Molten Flesh. I’ve struggled with the sequel to The Cunning Blood for a long time. I’ve got a nanotech intelligence, an interesting heavy, and plenty of ideas to toss in the pot. The backdrop is still what it was in The Cunning Blood: Canada rules a half-depopulated Earth with an iron hand. The US is still a province under direct Canadian control. The question that arises is this: After being in complete control of the planet for well over a hundred years, what could possibly get Canada’s attention?

Heh. Captain Obvious signing off for now…

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

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Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

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I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

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Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

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The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.

Review: Brass and Steel: Inferno

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It’s 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells…wrong.

It’s 1895, but it’s not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they’re called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They’re convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a cold-fusion boiler. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth’s best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth’s best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.

Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.

Mostly.


To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.

Ancient history. I’ve now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.

Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven’s Warlock stories from the ’70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I’ll get back to in a future entry.)

Jim’s system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke’s Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.

The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; “gritty” doesn’t quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore’s skin. And then there’s this…cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn’t solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I’ll stop now.

As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of “zombie,” and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.

Highly recommended.

All the Myriad Waze

Several weeks ago, Carol and I got stuck in traffic on I-25 on the south end of Denver. We were trying to get home to Colorado Springs, and traffic was at a standstill. We didn’t know where the problem was, nor how to get around it. So we took most of an hour to get a couple of miles. The next day I tracked down a fuzzy memory of a mobile app that maps traffic congestion using crowdsourced reports from app users. It only took a minute to find Waze. I installed it on my phone, and Carol and I have been playing with it ever since.

We don’t punch a clock anymore and have no commute, but whenever we have to go across town (which for Colorado Springs is about fifteen miles tops) we fire up Waze and look at the prospective route. It’s definitely saved us some stop-and-go time, especially on I-25, which is the only freeway we have here.

Waze is basically an interactive map on which reports from users are plotted in something very close to realtime. These include speed traps, wrecks, potholes, construction, and other miscellaneous hazards. The reports are generally accurate, right down to the potholes. When traffic is slow, Waze knows it, because GPS can calculate your speed. When two or more Waze users are going slow on a particular route, Waze paints the road in red and indicates what the speed currently is.

This is cleverness but not genius. Back in the wardriving era when GPS was first commonly available (back in 2000-2003 or so) I had this notion that a system could gather information about speed traps, if only there were a way to get reports to the central server from user cars. Then, wham! Smartphones happened. The rest is history.

No, the genius part of Waze is that its creators turned it into a sort of combination video game and social network. Waze users are plotted on Waze maps right along with the speed traps and potholes. It integrates with things like Foursquare. You get points by submitting reports and spotting errors on Waze maps. (You actually get points just by driving around with Waze running on your phone, which allows them to gauge speeds on the roads.) People with the most points get swords, shields, or crowns to wear on their little ghost-like Waze icons. Intriguingly, you can send messages to other Waze users, create teams of drivers, and other things that I haven’t quite figured out yet, including searches for cheap gas. Even doing as little driving as we do, in three weeks we managed to rack up over 900 points. There’s a stack rank of users for each state. (We’re down in the 100,000 range for Colorado.) Carol got some points for making roadkill out of a piece of hard candy that mysteriously appeared on the Waze map in front of us. If that sort of thing appealed to us, I suspect we would be addicts, like the people with over half a million points obviously are.

There are two fairly obvious downsides to the Waze system:

  • To be useful, Waze requires that a certain critical mass of users be prowling around your town, reporting things. Here in the Springs, this rarely happens outside rush hours. I’m guessing that in smaller towns, Waze never really gets out of first gear. Like so much these days, it’s a YUH (young urban hipster) phenomenon.
  • As if I even had to mention, it’s yet another driver distraction, probably in the same league with texting. That’s why we only use it when we’re both in the car, and Carol typically does the reporting and the sniffing ahead for congestion.

I’m starting to see articles about how cops hate it because of speed trap reporting, which suggests that, at least in large urban areas, it’s working as designed. I like it for the sake of the traffic reports, which I suspect will be even more useful the next time we’re in Denver, or lord knows Chicago. Problematic for one, useful (and sometimes fun) for two.

Cautiously recommended.

Review: Wreck-It Ralph

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A month or so ago, one of my TGO beta testers sent me an email: “Jeff, you must see this movie. And not because it’s fun. ‘Nuff said.” Personal issues kept me from renting it until the other night.

Now I understand.

The fantasy premise of Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant: In a video arcade full of coin-op console machines, the characters in the video games all live secret lives when the arcade closes and the lights go out. Each video game console is a separate universe, connected with all the others through a network that operates over the power lines. Game characters can visit other games via the network, and hang out with the characters there. Cross-game friendships are not only possible, but common. Picture going out for drinks with QBert and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Both make cameos in the film.)

Wreck-It Ralph is the Bad Guy in a game starring Fix-It Felix. Ralph wrecks a building from the top down by beating on things with his ginormous fists, and the game players try to stay ahead by steering Felix and his magic golden hammer, which fixes everything it touches. Felix rescues the inhabitants of his building, and when he gets ahead of Ralph’s mayhem, is rewarded with pies and, ultimately, golden medals. It’s a classic (and I assume fictional) game in the late 80s Donkey Kong style, with Ralph shaped and sized a great deal like Donkey Kong himself.

Ralph is bummed. Everybody loves Felix, who gets pies and medals and sleeps in a penthouse in his building. Ralph, by contrast, lives in the nearby garbage dump and gets no recognition for his hard work, beyond getting thrown off the top of the building when the player completes the level. Ralph attends a weekly support group for video game bad guys, including a zombie, Satan, and one of the Pac Man ghosts. (There are several others that may be real, though not being a gamer I didn’t recognize them.) He wants recognition, and goes off looking for other games that might conceivably grant him a medal for his contributions.

He soon finds one: Hero’s Duty, which is a sort of supercharged Doom or Quake. The other characters are shaped just like him, so he mugs a character for his armor and goes off to fight deadly cyberbugs that are in reality viruses that can infect any video game. The commander of the platoon is the sleek and improbably proportioned Calhoun, a butt-kicking cannon-packing woman warrior with a tragic backstory: Her fiancee was eaten by one of the bugs. Ralph earns a medal (he’s great at trashing bugs) but accidentally releases one of the bugs into another game universe, a kart race targeted at preteen girls where everything (including the karts) is made of candy.

Ralph goes hunting for the bug, and eventually redeems himself by helping snotty little kart driver girl Vanellope. Vanellope contains corrupt code, and “glitches” every so often, flashing into a silhouette of ones and zeroes. Ralph and Felix and Calhoun team up to fight the cyberbugs and repair Vanellope’s damaged code and memory. The plot is a good deal more complex and interesting than that, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. There’s a rogue game character in disguise, a short but intriguing visit “behind the graphics” to the game’s code (which looks like a vast 3-D structure chart) and so many gamer references that I’m sure I got maybe 25% at best. For ongoing tension you have a Diet Coke-filled volcano plugged with thousands upon thousands of…Mentos. Yikes.

I don’t consider Wreck-It Ralph brilliant in the sense that Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon are brilliant, but it’s lots of fun and well worth a night’s rental, especially if you have tweens. (Toddlers may find some parts of it a little too scary.) What my TGO beta-tester was talking about were the parallels to the virtual universe I created in TGO and populated with AI characters created to do various jobs, with homes and private lives outside their virtual workplaces. I even have a cannon-packing warrior woman who is an executive assistant by day, and later discovers a first-person shooter game built into her kernel in which she is one of the game skins.

In TGO, one of my AIs fails to do his job well enough to satisfy his creators, and is ordered to go place himself in archival storage. On his way to his own slot, he passes the doors to storage slots containing other failed AIs:

Other names on other doors didn’t ring a bell. Maria, Randall, Tanner, Judith, all archived before his time. Here and there was a name he did recognize: William, who had been training to work in tech support and had joined him several times for doughnuts and coffee. Bones, a Class Four animated skeleton who worked the crowds in a panel at a large amusement park, and off company time enjoyed reciting Victorian poetry. Robert had heard him perform Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in a Tooniverse coffee shop one evening and found it very moving. Alas, Bones frightened children so much that his product was pulled from the market.

Like Ralph, Robert redeems himself by defending his friends, and by simply going back to what he was created to be. (Robert’s ending isn’t as happy as Ralph’s–hey, this is a Disney movie–but the parallels were striking.)

None of this worries me. I didn’t invent the notion of AIs operating in a virtual world, and neither did Disney. (Granting that they were early in the field, with Tron.) If anything, I felt validated. I first raised the question in 1981: If we create an AI capable of introspection, can the AI suffer? And is the suffering real? I didn’t originate that issue either, but it’s haunted me for decades. I explore it within a humorous framework in TGO, just as Disney does in Wreck-It Ralph. That may be one reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did.

Recommended, for gonzo imagination, gorgeous animation, and attention to detail. Many wonderful small touches, and enough pee-your-pants laughs to carry you past the setpieces and the boring parts. (We spend a little too much time in the candy universe.) The voice acting was not stellar, with the exception of Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk channeling Ed Wynn’s evil twin. The score is almost nonexistent, though Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?” is catchy, and completely wasted running over the credits. But enough carping. Rent it, call in your gang to watch it with you, and have fun.

Just remember to hit the bathroom before the Oreo cookies show up. ‘Nuff said.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

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Having seen Despicable Me and Monsters vs. Aliens in the past couple of years, I was ready for another delightfully silly kid-flick adventure. And so, my being on the upswing out of the worst flu virus I’ve confronted in twenty-five years, we rented How to Train Your Dragon. Ready for silly! Ready for snotty! Ready for dumb!

Whoa. Not ready. Not. Not even close.

Wow!

Now, how was I fooled? Consider the premise: Spindly young teen Viking kid named Hiccup assists Gobber the Blacksmith on Berk Island, which has dragons like some Viking islands have mice. The whole tribe considers Hiccup a pointless nuisance–especially the chief, who, alas, just happens to be his father. The other and only slightly older kids have all won their horned helmets and are already in dragon-fighting school. Killing your first dragon is the only way in, and Hiccup tries, not by main force but by building goofy hornpunk weapons like a crossbow that flings bolos. Wham! He downs a dragon with his first shot, but then gets a bad case of empathy and can’t bring himself to finish it off as would earn him the tribe’s respect–and perhaps a second look from long, leggy Viking girl Astrid.

Instead, filled with remorse for having shredded an aerodynamically necessary section of the dragon’s tail with his bolo artillery, Hiccup befriends it, feeds it, and (in his offtime at Gobber’s forge) builds a tail prosthetic to allow the dragon to fly again, teaching it to carry him in the bargain.

That’s how I understood the plot going in, training the dragon and all that. There was plenty of silliness to go around, and the plot twist from you-kill-it-you-eat-it to you-hurt-it-you-heal-it was predictable in a good way. That’s where the surprises began. The first thing that jumped up out of nowhere was the dazzling panoply of landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes, rendered with a gorgeously detailed hyperclarity that bordered on surrealism. Backing up these distant descendents of matte paintings was an electrifying score from John Powell (solo, Henry Gregson-Williams was not involved this time) that draws heavily on Celtic themes and gives you a white-knuckle sense for the exhilaration of flying over open water and between the impossible stone spires of Berk’s archipelago.

I was a little surprised that Hiccup was not played more for laughs than he was. Maybe nerd fortune is turning around: Hiccup is a geek and a maker and a sort of Dark Ages citizen scientist, who observes closely and takes good notes in his leather parchment chapbook, quick to challenge the conventional dragon-fighting wisdom of his people and capitalize on his new knowledge. (There is dragon catnip, for example, and Hiccup makes good use of it.) Ultimately, what he discovers is that everything he and his people thought they knew about dragons was wrong, including an extra-large economy-sized surprise that I confess I did not anticipate at all.

The dragon (which Hiccup names “Toothless” before he notices that its teeth are retractable) is a beautifully realized character itself, with a very expressive face that suggests a lot more intelligence than you’d expect in a cartoon animal. All the adult Vikings speak with Scots accents while the kids talk like Chicago north-siders, which seems to be a trope in fantasy film these days. I wonder how many kids understood the sly reference to Hiccup’s horned helmet being made from half of his late mother’s bra. Beyond that, well, no quibbles–basically, no quibbles at all. It’s a fantasy tailored to the peculiar daydreams of geeky 14-year-old boys, and it reminded me how full of daydreams 14 had been.

Daydreams? What’s missing? Nothing: You jump into the saddle of your dragon, the girl whose heart you just won climbs in behind you and wraps her arms around your chest (!!!) and with a roar you’re off into the sky to rescue your knucklehead grownups from their own stubbornness, and prove to your father that he was wrong about you. The neighborhood kids who used to give you wedgies are now your friends and followers and they fall in behind you, each on a dragon too. But you’re not on just any old dragon: Your dragon is the Corvette of dragons, the ink-black, blue-lightning-spitting Night Fury that no one–no one–has ever tamed before you did.

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-hah!

I won’t spoil the rest, assuming there’s anybody in the Western Hemisphere who hasn’t seen it yet. The crude humor is kept to a minimum (compared especially to Shrek and Robots) but I think preschoolers will find the dragons frightening. And while I admit that I’m peculiarly vulnerable to films about boys who win their fathers’ respect, I still insist it’s the best cartoon fantasy in years.

Very highly recommended.

Replacing Bad Caps in a Good Monitor

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About a month ago, my three-year-old Samsung 214T 21″ LCD monitor started flickering so badly that it could induce a seizure in a lump of granite. It’s been my primary monitor for some time and I love it for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a 4:3 and has a built-in pivot on the VESA-compatible stand. So if I want portrait mode I can have it, and all of my machines including the older Dells support it at its 1600X1200 native resolution.

I set the ailing 214T aside and swapped in my downstairs monitor (the older and slower but otherwise similar Samsung 213T) followed by some research on repairs. I had a hunch it was bad electrolytic capacitors. Freaky hardware behavior these days has a high likelihood of being bad electrolytic capacitors, for reasons I explain here. And sure enough, a chap on eBay was selling a caps repair kit specifically for the 214T for $14 shipped. I ordered it, and when it arrived in today’s mail I wasted no time getting to work.

Samsung214TBadCaps1Cropped350Wide.jpgThe “kit” is just a Baggie with six caps and a short length of thin wire solder. If you don’t know soldering you’re going to have some trouble. However, the vendor has a very nice tutorial specific to the similar Samsung 204T/214T units here. It helps that we’re dealing with a power supply board and not a logic board, in that power supply board traces are usually big enough to see. Anybody with a spoonful of bench tech experience won’t have any trouble unsoldering and removing the old caps and getting the new ones soldered in. That took me maybe 10 minutes, granting that I’ve been soldering for almost 50 years and had top-shelf bench tech training at Xerox. No, your real problem will be getting the damned thing apart to where you can remove the PC board to work on it. And the first step is the worst: prying apart the two black plastic halves of the monitor’s case. LCDAlternatives suggests a putty knife in their tutorial, and that’s precisely what it took. And even though I’m very good with disassembly (bruising up a customer’s machine was a serious no-no at Xerox) I scratched up the 214T pretty thoroughly just getting into it. Alas, these units were not designed to be repaired.

Two of the six caps on the power supply board were obviously bad (above left) in that they were domed on top, and one had begun to leak. The others had no visible defects, but that doesn’t guarantee that they hadn’t failed, or wouldn’t fail soon. The kit had six, and I replaced all six.

Total time for the repair was about an hour, including disassembly/reassembly. When I got it plugged back in and powered up, it worked like new, including being a little brighter than it had been shortly before the flickering began. (This is in line with what I’ve read about the effects of bad caps on monitors.) All in all I consider it a big win: Absent the repair, the monitor would have been scrap. I might not have bothered on a smaller or older monitor, but this one I feel is exactly right for what I do, and an hour spent giving it a few more years of service was an hour well-spent indeed.

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.