Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


Daywander (Again)

I guess for symmetry’s sake I have to hand you two Daywanders in a row. Blame symmetry if you want; here you go:

It’s (almost) all good news. Carol is improving daily, though still using crutches for long hauls. Her foot hurts when she uses it too much. She’s about to begin physical therapy, which should help. And in three weeks she goes in to get the other one done. We knew this winter was going to be spent mostly at home, though neither of us fully appreciated just how at home we were going to be. Then again, dancing with that girl is as close to heaven as I’ll get on this old Earth. It’s not even three years until our 40th wedding anniversity celebration. Dancing you want? Dancing we’ll give you!

Our Lionel trains are up! It’s been several years, but with a little unexpected help from Jim Strickland, the Camel and the GG-1 are tearing around a longish loop that now surrounds both of our livingroom couches, powered by my formidable Lionel ZW. We put some liver treats in Carol’s 1959 hopper car, and of all the Pack, only Dash was willing to chase the train around and scoop the treats up out of the hopper. He was also the only one willing to grab Louie the Giggling Squirrel from the same hopper.

I find myself renewing an old friendship while writing a chapter on programming. (The book itself is largely about hardware.) Back in the early 1990s I spent a certain amount of time with Tcl/Tk and much enjoyed it. Visual Basic was brand new, and creating GUI apps was still mortal drudgery facilitated by the king of mortally drudgerous languages, C. In 1993, all you got with Tk was Motif. Funny to think of Motif as a bottom-feeder GUI now, when back then it was nothing short of breathtaking. Today Tk gives you native look-and-feel, and there are bindings for just about any language you’d ever want, and there are more computer languages these days than mosquitoes in Minnesota. I’m using a binding for Python called TKinter that basically gives you Tcl/Tk without Tcl. That’s good, since Tcl is a bit of a dud as languages go and the main reason I dropped Tcl/Tk like a hot rock when the Delphi beta wandered in the door at PC Techniques. Python isn’t Pascal but it’s way better than all the toothless C wannabees that represent the sum total of recent language research, especially JavaScript, the Woodrow Wilson of programming languages. If you just can’t bring yourself to use The Kiddie Language without falling into fits on the floor and drowning in the dog’s water bowl, well, Python and TKinter represent the easiest way to lash up a GUI that I’ve ever seen.

Then again, Delphi and Lazarus are just better.

Carol and I got the Christmas cards out today. It didn’t get done last year because Carol’s mom was failing and we knew we had only one more Christmas with her. Between Carol’s foot and my book project it almost didn’t get done this year either, but we’re trying to get back real life as life should be lived. Christmas cards are part of that. No complaints.

Bad news? Not much. I was pulling a pizza out of the oven a couple of nights ago, and fumbled the pan with my gloved right hand. Fearing that dinner was about to go jelly-side-down on the kitchen floor, my reflexes put my un-gloved left hand in the line of fire, and whereas I saved the pizza, it came at the cost of second-degree burns on two fingers and the thumb of my left hand. It’s not bothering me as much today as yesterday, and my typing speed is slowly getting back to my accustomed Thunderin’ Duntemann (Thanks, Fiona!) 100 WPM. But I promise you, the next pizza that gets wonky on me is gonna go jelly-side down, while I stand there and laugh. I may be 61, but I learn.

New featured pairing: Stilton cheese and Middle Sister Rebel Red wine. Very good news.

As most people have already discovered just sticking their noses out the back door, 2013 looks to become one of the ten coldest years in US history. It may not be global, but damn, it’s cooling.

And that, my friends, makes me look to my now-empty snifter of brandy and egg nog beside the monitor. Time for a refill. Long past time, in fact.

Tweeting the Big Whistle

Wow. I think I finally happened upon a use for Twitter. The Union Pacific railroad tweets status updates on the tour of its restored 4-8-4 steam loco, #844, as I described in my entry for October 31, 2011. I have line-of-sight from my house to the BNSF tracks on which #844 would be taken south to Pueblo yesterday, and I wanted to actually see it from my back deck. Now, it’s a long line of sight–a little over five miles, according to MapPoint–but since I’m on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, 600 feet higher than the tracks, I have no trouble making out BNSF’s coal trains, though it’s easier with binoculars. On quiet summer nights I can hear their horns (faintly) when they go through grade crossings. Uphill seems a favorable direction for sound. As I’ve mentioned here several times, we hear Fort Carson’s bugle calls on most quiet days.

#844 has a whistle, a real steam whistle, but not just any old steam whistle: It’s got a whistle transplanted from one of the now-extinct but inexpressibly awesome Big Boy 4-8-8-4 articulated locomotives, which seventy years ago began hauling freight up Rocky Mountain grades. None of the Big Boys are still operable, but a piece of one of them remains in service, and #844’s got it.

I wanted to see #844 from my deck, and I wanted to hear it too. The window was short, probably two minutes or less, so if I wasn’t out there at precisely the right time I would miss it. Enter Twitter: By following the UP’s status updates while I worked here on my quadcore, I was able to grab my jacket and binoculars as soon as #844 pulled out of downtown, and be there on the back deck (along with QBit; Carol was still in Chicago) when the loco went past.

QBit sat next to my chair and gnawed a Nylabone. I leaned back and did a little deep breathing and some ten-second-meditation exercises. A couple of minutes later, I felt annoyed at the sound of some damfool 18-wheeler engine-braking on Highway 115. (We hear those a lot too.) But…it wasn’t engine braking. It expanded to the deepest, thrummingest whistle I’d ever heard, and for four or five seconds it blasted, echoing among the hills and against Cheyenne Mountain itself. It wailed the way nothing on earth but a steam whistle wails, a wail that doubtless inspired ghost-train stories and infused the history of steam traction with something like mythic sadness. Steam trains sounded sad long before they were an endangered species. (The physics of that wail is simple but surprises many people when they first learn of it. You all understand it, right?)

I stood up, leaned on the railing, and looked hard. Sure enough, a comet’s tail of cylinder-vented steam crept out from behind a hill, and for two minutes and change #844 crossed my field of view. Five times the big whistle sounded, and then it passed behind another hill on Fort Carson and was gone. It’s far from certain that I will ever see it again.

Why didn’t I go down there closer to the tracks and get a better view? I’m not entirely sure myself. I can guess, though. This house was a first for us: We’re 600 feet higher than Colorado Springs itself, and we get a view from a height. The wide view off my decks is a personal metaphor for the world as a whole. I can see buildings and cars and traffic lights and water towers and the aviation beacon from Butts Field. Houses and offices and a little bit of everything are right there, and I can take it all in at one glance. Seeing #844 from my deck made it feel like steam was still part of the world I live in, and I felt it viscerally. Big steam whistles will do that.

And yeah, Twitter made it possible. As silly as I consider it sometimes, broadcast IM may well have its (occasional) uses. I wonder how many years it will be before I run across another one?

Daywander: Halloween

It’s Halloween! Eggnog is in stock! Yes, today was the first day that Farm Crest’s almost unsurpassed eggnog goes on sale at the Farm Crest milk stores owned by (I kid you not) Pester Marketing. (Their eggnog is surpassed only, I think, by Oberweis in Chicago.) Stock up now; Christmas is only two months away!

Mmmph. Maybe next month. I bought a gallon of high-fat milk instead. I may not be the 5%, but I sure as hell drink it. On the way, I stopped near the old downtown Colorado Springs train station on Sierra Madre to see the Union Pacific #844 Niagara steam loco, which is on tour and in town for yesterday and today only. #844 was the last steam loco ordered by UP, and it’s been lovingly restored as a sort of rolling, steaming, hot-and-dripping museum. I don’t see 4-8-4’s very often, and never before a live one, so it was well worth the detour. Smaller cities are great in that I scored a parking place right across the street, and could get photos with almost nobody else in the way. I doubt I would have done that well in, say, Chicago.

It’s tough to get size perspective on machines like this. The eight drive wheels are eighty inches in diameter, and the engine as a whole is 114 feet long. Because of a historical quirk, “standard” railroad gauge is four feet eight inches, meaning that the wheels are considerably wider than the gap between the rails. I always wonder, facing a behemoth like this, how they managed to keep it on the tracks. (One answer is luck. Another, gravity. Most of all, skill. Alas, sometimes the answer is, They didn’t.)

There were a number of people swarming the loco, polishing the connecting rods and valve gear and wiping dirt off the painted parts. It was surreal how shiny the metal bits were–I would guess it wasn’t anything like this clean back when it was earning a living. In fact, while I was admiring the dazzlingly burnished iron, a young mother walked over with a three-year-old on one hip. As she turned around to pose for dad’s camera, the small boy reached his hand out to the connecting rod. His mom jerked him away: “Danny, don’t touch that! You’ll get it dirty!”


Some time tomorrow morning, old #844 will head south on the BNSF main line to Pueblo. Given that we look down Cheyenne Mountain toward the tracks and hear the Diesel horns on the BNSF coal trains all the time from our back deck, there’s a nonzero chance that I may hear the 844’s transplanted Big Boy whistle as the consist roars by. I’m sure going to try: The weather will be decent and I may never get another chance to hear any steam locomotive–much less a Niagara!–roar past my house.

As for Halloween itself, well, the Kid Gods are delivering near-perfection this year in Colorado Springs: 68 windless degrees under a cloudless sky. The legendary Halloween of 1964 was something like this in Chicago, and better only because it was on a Saturday. I’m not expecting a lot of traffic this year, since small children are scarce in this neighborhood of retired lieutenant colonels. I did buy a bag of Smarties for the big bowl by the front door, intrigued by the presence of dextrose as the sole sugar. I’ve never seen dextrose explicitly called out in a list of incredients before, even on candy. It’s typically “sugar” (generally sucrose, which is half fructose) or “high-fructose corn syrup.” I wonder if the animus against fructose has become so great that manufacturers are leaving nothing to supposition. If so, it’s a quiet victory–and not a small one.

Finally, QBit and I watched Van Helsing last night on the Family Channel. (Carol is still in Chicago and the rest of the Pack at Jimi’s.) The film is a great, whacky over-the-top paean to Victorian monsterabilia. Lessee: Wolfman, Dracula, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, miscellaneous vampires, plus Dr. Frankenstein, Igor, and the Monster. (The Mummy was indisposed.) Oh, and what I consider the single most dazzling steampunk movie weapon of all time: An automatic-fire crossbow that spits bolts at flying vapiresses as long as you hold the trigger. Dip the front end in a holy water font and you are da bomb! (And if you miss, just flick a fingerful of gooey glycerin-48…)

Odd Lots

  • Freedom matters, and in honor of Independence Day here’s an eye-opening report on the “state of freedom” in the fifty American states. I knew a lot of this from my research nine years ago, when Carol and I decided to leave Arizona, but it’s nice to see it all in one free (in the other sense) document.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: draisine, a human-powered device for moving over railroad rails. This is evidently a European term; over here these are called handcars or inspection speeders or rail cycles or a number of other things. Definitely note the hot-pink draisine-built-for-two on the Wikipedia page. (Thanks to Aki Peltonen for dropping the word to me.)
  • Although I’m sure that everyone in the civilized galaxy has seen the cartoon, I wasn’t aware that “thagomizer” is now paleobiological jargon. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s a list of somebody’s picks as the ten best hard SF books of all time. I agree with about 50% of the picks, though Robinson’s Mars trilogy was so slow and padded-out that I could barely finish it. (I have not yet read the Egan book cited.) I sense as well that Somebody Doesn’t Like Heinlein’s Politics. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Despite a 500-fold increase in cell phone use in the last 20 years, malignant brain tumor diagnosis is down in that timeframe. This interests me, as three people I knew died of brain tumors (the largest cancer cluster in my circle of acquaintance) and it makes me wonder. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I had just a couple of comic books back in the early Sixties, and one of the most intriguing was an extra-long number from DC called Secret Origins that had the backstory for five or six of the most famous DC superheroes. Oddly, what I remember most clearly was the backstory for Green Lantern, especially the little blue guys on the Planet Without Consonants and (most intriguing of all) a power ring with a flaw that prevented it from working against anything yellow. Trouble is, if you remove the flaw, the ring loses its power completely. Now that’s cool–alas, in what may be the canonical Green Lantern for Dummies page, the yellow gotcha isn’t stated clearly and I wonder if it was just abandoned back in the 1960s.
  • Forgot to aggregate this back in January: One of the most bizarre articles I’ve ever read on any major site in recent years. This totally, completely, utterly certain guy is angry at other guys for being totally, completely, and utterly certain–and that about something totally, completely, and utterly trivial. My take: We “know” nothing at all with certainty, and the more certain you are that you’re right, the more certain the rest of us should be that you’re wrong. Nyah-nyah!
  • And another Odd Lot that has lain around for some time: Polish troops trained a young bear to carry ammo during the Battle of Monte Cassino. My father was at that battle, working a radio station on the back of a truck, but he never mentioned seeing the bear. The bear is said to never have dropped any munitions, which I’m sure was a good thing for the bear, and possibly my father as well.
  • Here’s a bogglingly weird Dickensian artifact that I’d never heard of before: A key gun. It’s a gun built into the key to a (large) prison cell lock. I’m sure if it had worked better I would have seen it before now.

Odd Lots

  • Here’s another take on the EasyBits GO debacle, from a guy who used to work at Easybits. Even if it’s not a trojan, it’s still crapware, and careless crapware at that. The Microsoft connection is intriguing: MS will soon be reviewing the entire Skype ecosystem, and may decide to do some decontamination. I don’t think it will go well for EasyBits.
  • Down in the trenches in the Carb Wars, people who yell, “A calorie is a calorie! It’s just the laws of thermodynamics!” don’t understand thermodynamics. I’ve known this for years. Here’s a good explanation. (Thanks to David Stafford for the link.)
  • Mike Reith saw a pure white squirrel awhile back, up near Denver. I had never heard of non-albino white squirrels before, but they exist, and appear to be spreading due to evolutionary selection–by humans.
  • Maybe it wasn’t us who extinctified the Pleistocene megafauna. (Or at least our paleolithic ancestors.) Maybe it was the Sun. Scary business. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.)
  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Last-Week Department: prosopagnosia, the inability to recognizes faces or familiar objects. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for calling it to my attention.)
  • From Pete Albrecht comes a link to a video of a train wreck caused by a tornado–with the wrinkle that the wreck is filmed from a security cam on one of the freight cars. Toward the end we see a derailed tanker striking sparks as it’s dragged against the rails. Made me wonder what would have happened had it been full of LP gas…
  • Forgive the vulgarity and the pervasive comics/movies influence, but this is a point that needs to be made, and textual fiction is no exception. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • I like sprouts. I haven’t eaten them for ten years. Here’s why. Alas, being organic doesn’t help. (Thanks once again to Pete.)
  • Here’s a cogent (and funny) illustration of a great deal of what’s wrong with science these days. Hint: It’s not science. Most of the problem is the butthead festival we call the media. (The rest is the grant system.)

The Longest Day

The longest day of any vacation is generally the last day, and that goes triple for Hawaii vacations. (More on this shortly.) We got packed up and checked out of the hotel by 11, and went down to Kihei for lunch and some browsing-of-shops. That done, we cruised up the west coast of Maui to Lahaina for more of the same, plus a ride on the Sugar Cane Train, also known as the Lahaina & Kaanapoli Railroad.

It’s a narrow-gauge live steamer that once hauled workers and tonnage between the now-defunct Maui sugar cane plants and downtown Lahaina. Investors bought the line when its longtime owners put it up for sale in 1969, and for 40 years it’s been hauling tourists at ten miles an hour along a six-mile run that cuts through an exclusive golf course where the grade crossings are for golf carts. We waved at a lot of Japanese golfers who didn’t seem particularly annoyed that we interrupted their game. This may be because the train is a huge attraction for Japanese tourists, to the point where all the signs in the station and on the train are in both English and Japanese.

The track is a little rough, and it’s a clattery, noisy run that I suspect beautifully captures the atmosphere of most short lines in the steam era. Alas, the locos are not original, since a well-heeled locomotive collector (specializing in 1:1 scale!) bought whatever the line had been using prior to the sale. What’s there now is a cute little oil-fired Porter 2-4-0 that (sans tender) could fit in my garage. (The Web site does not picture the Porter, which is not as glitzy-glam as the other loco, which was in the shed getting some work done.) There’s a Baldwin 0-6-0 on display on the grounds outside the station, but whether it ever ran on the line is unclear.

We spent the rest of the afternoon prowling the shops in downtown Lahaina and watching the crabs frolic on the rocks along the ocean. After a slightly late supper downing some estimable sliders at Cheeseburger Island Style in Wailea, we picked up our bags at the hotel for the long flight home.

People who don’t go to Hawaii much may not have heard that most flights from Hawaii to the mainland are redeyes: You take off circa 10:30 PM and fly for six or seven hours across three time zones, making for a landing at 7 or 8 AM. This is done for the sake of making connecting flights in Dallas or Phoenix or Denver; otherwise, the plane lands after most of the day’s connecting flights to smaller cities are gone.

I’m an insomniac even in my own bed; sleeping while sitting upright on an airliner is a wistful fantasy. Carol, by contrast, puts on one of those foam sleep-collars and is out like a light. So I sat and read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous Mysteries of the Middle Ages for two and a half hours until I realized that I was no longer taking notes in the margins, which for me generally means that my higher brain functions had shut down and I was now merely scanning words. For the rest of the flight I tried to put myself to sleep via several meditative methods, none of which worked at all. I was mighty glad at the five-hour mark, when the crew put the coffee pot on and I could wake myself up chemically to the point where I could think again.

We changed planes in Phoenix for the 90-minute hop to Denver, where we discovered that a huge blizzard had struck the previous afternoon. Over a foot had fallen (up to 21″ in some places) and the roads were a mess. By the time we got to Denver, I was staggering, and after lunch Carol took the 93-mile drive home in the slushy right lane, while we looked apprehensively at all the cars in the ditch, among them plenty of four-wheelers. Here in the Springs it was a mere matter of two or three inches, and today’s bright sun will melt most of that. More significantly, I slept for eleven hours last night, and thus life finally returned to normal after twenty-odd hours of continuous awakeness.

Much to do here. EntConnect in fact began today, but I will not be heading up to Denver until tomorrow afternoon for the 6 PM happy hour. I’ll try to post updates while I’m there, so stay tuned.

The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 2


Back in my Febrary 23, 2010 entry, I began a series about the pulp fiction mags of the first half of the 20th Century. Because most people would assume I’ll be talking about SF, I deliberately went elsewhere, to a category most of my readers have probably never even heard of: railroad fiction. I bought and have been reading some 1930s issues of Railroad Stories magazine, published by the Frank A. Munsey Company, which in 1882 basically invented pulp fiction mags as we know them.

I can give you a good flavor for the genre with a single 300-word excerpt, from a story called “Bakehead Hennessey,” by Ed Samples, in the August 1935 issue:

Barney softly coupled his two engines into the head car. An “air” man connected the hose. The compressors on the head engine cut in, racing, clicking, thumping, forcing the train line pressure up to ninety pounds. Barney glanced at his gage, then out toward the yard office, where Conduc­tor Gardner was running to the plat­form with two sheaves of green and white tissue in his hands. Behind him waddled stout Superintendent Moran. A second later Old Tom Ryan was climbing down upon the brick plat­form to meet Gardner.

Barney watched him, glanced once more at his air gage, then toward the rear. An inspector’s light was saying: “Set the air.” He opened the valve, watched the needle swing back, then closed it; and wiping his hand on a piece of cotton waste, went striding toward the men who were comparing watches and reading train orders.

The conductor handed him his set of flimsies in silence. There were only three: two slow orders and the running order. He glanced at the latter.

“Running us as Second Seven?” he asked, looking at Gardner.

Gardner nodded. Barney read the order through. He knew that never in the history of the road had such a task been laid out for an engineer: to clip sixty minutes off the time of No. 7, the fastest train through the Rockies on any line.

Air pumps were racing. The pop valve on the 3775 opened and white steam climbed skyward. A dozen lights darted hither and yonder about the steel mail cars. Superintendent Moran came panting up to the group.

“We want action on this run tonight,” he began.

“What the hell’s the use uh puttin’ out a fast schedule for that sizzlin’ bakehead?” snarled Old Tom. “He’s got you fellers all buffaloed into thinkin’ he’s a hoghead. Hoghead! Bakehead! Bakehead Hennessey!”

‘Nuff train talk for ya? I’m the son of a passionate railfan and have researched railroads more than most people, but I still had to look some of this stuff up. A “bakehead” is a locomotive fireman, who stokes the engine manually or maintains the stoking machinery. A “hoghead” is the engineer of a freight train. “Flimsies” are train orders, often printed on something just a hair better than tissue paper. Nonetheless, if you know the jargon, this scene will be utterly clear to you, and back in 1935, this was not nostalgia but the way the railroad industry actually worked.

Nor is this unusual within the genre. In the two issues I’ve read so far, all the writing is precisely like this, in that what matters are the trains. The people are types, which isn’t to say they didn’t exist in the real world or are somehow badly drawn in the tale itself. (Not everyone is an American Original.) But descriptions of their internal conflicts and personal growth were not what the reader was paying for. In a way very much like the Tom Swift books I read in the early 60s, the railroad pulp stories (and I’m guessing all pulp stories) were created to help people imagine themselves in certain roles and in certain situations. The people (thinly) depicted in the stories were like halloween costumes, in a way, to be put on by people who wanted to imagine themselves as railroad engineers and brakemen, or perhaps remember being railroad engineers and brakemen years ago.

This should be obvious, and it may be obvious to you, but I’m amazed at how some people just don’t understand why pulp fiction was ever popular. A lot of people would consider the railroad pulps bad fiction because they focus on technology (railroad tech, such that it was in 1935) rather than inner conflict and growth. Swap in “spaceflight” for “railroads” and you’ll have pulp SF of the same era. The railroad pulps had their share of adventure and fistfights and gunplay, but I was amazed at how close the action stayed to the tracks. And just as superb writers like Robert A. Heinlein stepped aside from the action to teach lessons on orbital dynamics, the railroad pulp authors sometimes taught lessons about their beloved technology. Read this excerpt from “When Destiny Calls” by E. S. Dellinger, the cover story in the August 1935 issue. It’s dense, but if you love trains you’ll understand the frightening energy contained in a boiler full of steam (enough to lift a 100-ton locomotive two and a half miles into the air) as well as how the devastating boiler explosions common during the steam era actually happened. I’ve ridden behind a couple of steam locos on tourist lines. That excerpt gave me chills.

Which, of course, was part of the package. The firms that published pulp fiction knew exactly what their customers wanted: a sense of being somewhere else, somewhere vivid and colorful, somewhere better and more exciting than a boarding house during the Great Depression, after a twelve-hour day at a mindless job in a sweltering factory that paid a quarter an hour.

The pulps were hugely successful for quite awhile. The writing wasn’t great, but it was nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be. Much of its “badness” was the focus on action, setting, ideas, and a certain sort of culture. The words could be carelessly arranged, but words can be fixed, and there is a particular skill in creating vivid settings and action scenes that few people understand until they realize that they don’t have it. The concept of pulp fiction deserves better than it’s gotten in recent decades. It didn’t even completely disappear, though the psychology is a little different these days. More in Part 3.

The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 1


How bad were the Golden Age pulps, really? Thirty-odd years ago I had a few SF pulps from the late 1930s, and while I’m not sure where they ended up, I remember the cognitive dissonance that arose from knowing that I should despise them–while in fact enjoying them a lot. Reading them was a little like watching old B-movies like The Crawling Eye: You know damned well they weren’t literature, but somehow they kept your attention and made the time pass..which is exactly what they were created to do.

Few people–especially those under 40–realize just how broad a phenomenon the pulps were, and how small a part of it SF actually was. Beyond SF and fantasy there were sports pulps, many subspecies of crime/detective pulps, adventure pulps, romance pulps, aviation pulps, western pulps, railroad pulps, and doubtless others that I’ve never heard of. The SF pulps were better than I’d been led to believe, and I started wondering recently whether the SF pulps were outliers, or whether the pulps as a phenomenon and even a literary form have been slandered out of proportion by the ultrasophisticated artsy elite.

I bought a couple of railroad pulps pretty much at random on eBay not long back, and have been reading them as time permits. The cover above is from the May 1933 issue of Railroad Stories. I also bought the August 1935 issue and found with a grin that the cover author and the cover artist were the same in both issues: E. S. Dellinger writing the cover stories (both novelettes of about 10,000 words) with Emmett Watson on watercolors. I chose railroad pulps because I like railroads; I’m not sure I could have bulled through a sports pulp or a true crime pulp.

Being a magazine guy myself, at my first flip through the issue I was startled: These books had almost no ads! The back cover and inside covers were full-pagers, and the single-page TOC was set within a 4-page block of fractional ads, generally 1/8 page items hawking hair tonic or remedies for hemmorhoids. And that was it. There were no ads whatsoever set in or between the stories themselves. It’s obvious that they didn’t pay much for the paper (and we know they paid almost nothing for the stories) but I boggle that the 15c for a single issue or $1.50 for a full year carried that much of the operation.

The inside front cover ad seemed odd for a railroad pulp: Dr. Frank B. Robinson pushing his artificial religion Psychiana. On the other hand, readers of Popular Mechanics were never too far from discovering the secrets of the Rosicrucians, and this was clearly their competition.

The TOC divides each issue into three sections: Fiction, nonfiction, and departments. Fiction was less of it than I had thought. A quick tally shows about a third of the editorial to be fiction, and probably half nonfiction. The departments include a joke page, a question-and-answer column about railroad history and tech, news items submitted by readers, short items from readers who worked at railroad jobs, and a scattering of railroad poems.

So…how bad was the writing? What were the stories about? Tune in next time, kids!

Odd Lots

A Videophone Christmas


A day late, perhaps, but no less sincerely, let me wish everyone who reads this a good and blessed Christmas, from here on the snowy side of Cheyenne Mountain. We had a day so cold, clear, and crisp that I was walking around the house carefully, lest it shatter. This was our year to stay in Colorado for the holiday season. (Next year, as is our custom, we’ll be in Chicago.) Two thirds of the country had a white Christmas, which is great unless you happen to be traveling while the whitening is going on. Ducked that bullet, whew.

We’ve had our tree for a week or so now, and it may rank as the best Christmas tree we’ve ever scored. Tall by our historical standards at about 7′, it’s also a balsam, a breed of tree I don’t think we’ve ever had in 33 years of marriage. I’ve been a little leery of them since I was five or six and broke out in a rash on my hands when my mother allowed me to place some ornaments on the tree. Somewhere we have a photo of me hanging ornaments with my winter mittens on, and although history is silent on the point, I have to wonder if some of my poor mother’s ornaments didn’t survive the adventure.

No rash this time–I guess one can grow out of such things–and the tree is not so full as to make finding places for ornaments a challenge, nor so sparse as to look like Charley Brown’s poor twig from the Peanuts TV special. It’s taking water and is not yet losing needles. Dash pulled a stuffed Saguaro cactus ornament off the tree and tried to remove its stuffing, but we caught him before he got too far. Jack has been spotted licking the colored light bulbs when they’re off, but apart from that there’s been no tree mischief.

ToUcam.jpgThere was some stress on Tuesday night when Carol’s mom fell at her home outside Chicago and was taken to the hospital. She didn’t break anything, fortunately, but had to spend Christmas in a hospital bed. To cheer her up I put an SX270 system on the coffee table by the Christmas tree and set up a Skype video call with my nephew Brian. The hospital has Wi-Fi in the rooms, and Brian set his new laptop up on Delores’s bed tray. So by virtue of my Phillips ToUCam and Brian’s built-in Webcam, she could see us, the dogs, and the Christmas tree. Delores was delighted, and it’s a technique to keep in mind if you find yourself in such a situation. Skype is very good with detecting and autoconfiguring Webcams, and there was no fussing involved. I plugged in the ToUCam, made the call, and video happened. It’s not exactly a flying car, but it’s definitely one of those odd Sixties dreams fulfilled, mostly when nobody was looking.

We also called my sister and Bill on Bill’s laptop, and sang the ABCs song with Katie. Katie looked puzzled, but Julie just beamed. In another couple of years this sort of thing will be second nature to them.


This was a very good year for Lionel trains: I finally bought a modern steam locomotive to run around the tree, and boggled a little to find myself searching underneath the brand-new 4-6-0 MTH Camelback loco (above) for its volume control. It has a built-in electronic sound effects system that plays real steam locomotive sounds, a bell, water-pump thumps, and other racket at deafening volume. Jack backed around the tree as I slowly ran it along the LionelZW.jpgtracks, yapping furiously at it until he got bored. Pete Albrecht unexpectedly sent me a rare artifact indeed: An original Lionel 275W ZW dual-control transformer (right) that was probably made in the midlate 1950s. It works great, and can control two independent track sections and two independent sets of accessories.

Christmas for us really isn’t about gifts (and I confess to being a little tired of Santa Claus supersaturation this year) but once again, my spouse knows me well, and bought me an electric blue summer robe to replace my old terrycloth robe that’s been falling to pieces for the last ten years. She also presented me with my recent books wantlist: The Long Summer and Fish On Friday, both histories by Brian Fagan, and two popular treatments of decision psychology: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Fagan is the author of The Little Ice Age, and The Long Summer is his followup about the warm period that followed the end of the last ice age.

I bought Carol her fondest wish: A universal TV system remote that allows you to program whatever sequence of steps is required to turn everything on and then pop the drawer for a DVD, all with a single button press. (She’s justifiably weary of having a fruit-bowl full of diverse, incompatible, button-riddled remotes on the coffee table.) It’s a Logitech Harmony One, and I guess now I have to figure out how to program it. Hey, I know assembly; how hard can it be?

Our friends Jim and Marcia came by for Christmas dinner at 2. We had a spiral ham, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, spinach salad, home-made apple-pecan bread from Jimi Henton, steamed asparagus, and Carol’s signature spiced squash soup with cranraisins floating in it. I opened a Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, and we had hot spiced cider as well as some Colorado honey mead that Jim brought. We stayed at the table for almost six hours, solving the world’s problems and designing the odd universe, and overall considered it an excellent Christmas Day indeed.

Nor is it over. Carol and I celebrate Christmas for at least a week, so for us it’s really only beginning. If this is your season (whatever you may call it) to celebrate all that is good in the world, hold that thought–there’s no reason at all to stay there for one day only and call it done!