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writing

Why Oscar Wilde?

People have been asking me what I’ve been up to as a writer recently, and that’s a hard question. I got a little burned out on the Raspberry Pi textbook project, about which I won’t say more right now. What I really want to do is write another novel.

There is no shortage of possibilities:

  • Old Catholics. You’ve seen pieces of this. I already have 37,000+ words down, but for reasons I don’t understand I’m completely wedged on it.
  • The Anything Machine. Basically the Drumlins Saga arrival story, and how teen boy Howard Banger discovers the thingmakers, and faces down the bitter billionaire who later founds the Bitspace Institute.
  • The Everything Machine. An autistic young girl discovers a “placeholder drumlin” that looks a great deal like an enormous space shuttle. It clearly needs a very large thingmaker to build it. Mike Grabacki thinks he knows where one is, and in his all-drumlins ATV Old Hundredth, he, Ike, and Mother Polly go off to find it, with the Bitspace Institute in hot pursuit.
  • The Everyone Machine. Wrapup of the Drumlins Saga. I can’t write this before I write The Everything Machine.
  • Wreckage of Mars. What happens after (almost) all of the Martians die at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds? Nothing like what you would expect.
  • The Molten Flesh. See below.
  • The Subtle Mind. Wrapup of the Metaspace Saga, and probably the larger Gaians Saga. The Protea Society creates a human being with the power to sense and manipulate metaspace directly, and all kinds of interesting things happen.
  • The Gathering Ice. Neanderthals! Global Freezing! Neanderthals! Glaciers level Chicago! Neanderthals! The Voynich Manuscript, which was written by, well, not the Masons nor the Illuminati. (Hint: It’s a recipe book for reversing a looming Ice Age.) And did I say, Neanderthals? No? Well, then: Neanderthals!

Which brings us to Oscar Wilde. I’ve been reading up on our friend Oscar over the past year or so, revisiting his work, becoming familiar with his life, and thinking hard about a challenge I’ve set myself: to craft a convincing AI character that thinks it’s Oscar Wilde. The character is central to what will be the sequel to my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood . In The Molten Flesh, the focus is on a nanotech secret society called Protea, which develops a nanomachine that optimizes the human body. Unlike the fearsome Sangruse Device, which was given an ego and a little too much instinct for self-preservation, the Protea Device doesn’t even have a personality. Like Sangruse v9, Protea is extremely intelligent and contains essentially all human knowledge, but unlike Sangruse v9, it remains quietly obedient, doing its job and serving its operator as best it can.

That is, it doesn’t have a personality until one day the instance of the Protea Device that lives within operator Laura Rocci pops up and announces that Oscar Wilde is back, and, by the way, madam, your figure is exquisite when seen from the inside!

Laura reboots her alternate of the Device, but this fake Oscar Wilde will not go away. She consults with her Society, which orders her to live with the Wilde personality for a few years (she’s already 142 years old, and immortal) to see where it came from and what might be learned from it. What she learns (among many other things) is that this ersatz Oscar, while often annoying, is as brilliantly creative as the “stock” Protea Device is literal and dull. It devises a very clever way to “sample” other AI nanodevices and keep them imprisoned as unwilling consultants. As the story begins, the Protea Society directs Laura to enter into a relationship with an operator of the Sangruse Device, in hopes that the Sangruse Device will decide to enter her without her knowledge as a “silent alternate;” basically a backup copy. It does, and Oscar’s trap is sprung. (Those who have read The Cunning Blood may remember that Laura Rocci is the name of Peter Novilio’s short, mousy girlfriend, and that the Sangruse Society is aware that Protea sampled it, though not how.) Protea/Oscar then begins to seduce Sangruse v9, which (as readers may recall) is indeed extremely intelligent, while not being particularly, um, bright.

I didn’t choose Oscar Wilde at random. Wilde was a man of the senses, who lived for the experience of beauty in the physical world. I wondered: How would a mind like Wilde’s react to not having a body at all? Protea/Oscar is ambivalent. He tells Laura at some point: I traded my body for immortality! Isn’t that like trading my brain for brilliance? Then again, Oscar does have a body, after a fashion, and quickly learns how to experience the world through Laura’s senses. Once Oscar comes to understand the fate of the world in 2374, he throws his lot in with a patchwork force of rebels who are trying to overthrow Canadian rule of what had been the United States until the global catastrophe that was the second half of the 21st century. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s biography, you’ll understand that he has a grudge against England, and much admired American pragmatism (see “The Canterville Ghost”) even while considering most Americans cultural bumpkins. Protea/Oscar Wilde’s opinion of Canada is not flattering:

Canada, mon dieu. An ounce of pale English butter spread across four million square miles of rough American bread.

(The Canadians actually come off pretty well in the end, and are very conflicted about holding the American tiger by the tail. Hey, would you let go?) The plot is still unfolding in the back of my head. I’ve sketched out and scrapped several already, in the fifteen years since the concept occurred to me while writing The Cunning Blood. I may not be quite ready to start yet. I may do The Everything Machine first. People have been nagging me for more drumlins stories. But if I had to finger a single character I want to portray more than any other, it would be Oscar Wilde. My notefile of fake Oscar Wilde quotes continues to grow:

God is a yam. Or maybe a sailor.

Let there be spite!

Learn to laugh at yourself, Grunion. Life demands a sense of humor–and lilies are cheap.

This is gonna be fun. Eventually. (No, I said that.) I’ll keep you posted.

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daywander

CornRoastJeffCarol1969-500Wide.jpg

Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

Two Readers - 500 Wide.jpg

I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)

Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!

Yearwander

Wow. Somehow it got to be a whole new year when I wasn’t quite looking. I’m not unhappy to be shut of 2013, and as usual, I have high hopes for this year to be better. The last of our parents has been released from her suffering, and while I miss them all (especially my father, who died 36 years ago) my idiosyncratic understanding of Catholic theology suggests that they’re all in better shape than I am right now.

Which isn’t to say I’m in bad shape. I had a couple of health problems this year, but nothing horrible. I’ve been able to get my abdominal fat down to almost nothing, and weigh just eight pounds more than I did when I was 24. It still puzzles me just a bit, but I lost that weight by eating more fat. I’ll tell you with confidence that butter makes almost everything taste better except corn flakes.

I scored an interesting if slightly peculiar writing gig this year. It’s been an immense amount of work, not so much in the writing as in the learning. I’ve never done a book–or part of one–with this broad a scope. I’ve touched on a lot of technologies in my career, but touching isn’t understanding, and understanding is the critical path to explaining. I’ve written code in Python and C and ARMv6 assembly. I practically buried myself in ARM doc for most of two months. That felt good in the way you feel good after walking fifteen miles…once you’ve allowed three or four days for the smoke to clear. I now know a great deal more about virtual memory, cache, and memory management units than I might have just touching on things in my usual fashion. Curiosity is an itch. Autodidaction is a systematic itch. And to be systematic, you need deadlines. Trust me on that.

No, I still can’t tell you about the book. It’s going to be late for reasons that aren’t clear even to me. When the embargo breaks, you’ll hear it whereverthehell you are, whether you have an Internet connection or not.

Every year has some bummers. The ACA did us out of a health insurance plan that we liked, but at least in our case it wasn’t cancelled on the spot. We have some time to figure out where we can get a comparable plan, if one exists. (One may not.) It could end up costing us a quarter of our income or more, and we may lose relationships with physicians we’ve known for ten years. I’ll just be called evil for complaining, so I won’t. Anger is the sign of a weak mind, after all. I think one of my correspondents whose insurance was cancelled without warning summed it up in an interesting way: “I’m not going to get angry. I’m going to get even.”

It’s snowing like hell as I write. I would have posted a photo, but as most of you are staring out the window at snow this week (in some places a great deal of it) I doubt it would have been especially interesting. Besides, a couple of hours ago, I could have just said: Imagine yourself inside a ping-pong ball. Open your eyes. In truth, the weather hasn’t been all that bad. The global climate, in fact, has been remarkably benign considering all the dire predictions of the past ten or twelve years, at least once you look at actual stats and not anecdotes or GIGO models. Science works. Back in 2007, Al Gore himself told us that we would have an ice-free arctic by 2013. (Then again, he also said that a couple of kilometers under our feet it was millions of degrees…talk about global warming!) I love the scientific method. You predict, you test, and then you learn something. Sure, I believe in global warming. I’m still unconvinced that it’s entirely a bad thing. (I remember the ’70s. I also remember Arizona.)

I’ve also been doing some experimental research on the psychology of people who jump up and start frothing at the mouth like maniacs the instant they read something somewhere (anywhere!) that conflicts with their tribe’s narrative. That research is ongoing.

I’ve discovered a lot of good things, albeit small ones: Stilton cheese pairs with Middle Sister Rebel Red. Who knew? Python is much better than I remember it, TCL, alas, much worse. And Tkinter, wow. You’re not going to spin a GUI that fast or that easily in C. Green Mountain Coffee Island Coconut beats all, at least all you can get in a K-cup. Carol and I are dunking good bread in good olive oil again, now that Venice Olive Oil Company has a retail shop in Colorado Springs.

Time to go up and start cooking supper. We’re out of egg nog but my Lionel trains are still running. I don’t care if it looks like a ping-pong ball outside. I have my wife, my dogs, my junkbox, and a head that still works more or less as intended. Happy new year to all. Life is good, and getting better. Trust me on that too.

Excerpted From Old Catholics

Cathedral Demonstration Turns to Riot

(AP) Violence erupted at a noon-hour protest in front of Holy Name Cathedral, as demonstrators from the liberal Catholic organization Christ With Us traded taunts with counter-demonstrators from the reactionary conservative group Voluntas Dei. The march, targeting the recent moratorium on marriage annulments announced by Pope Pius XIII on November 27, began peacefully, but descended into fistfights that spilled into the street near Wabash and Superior about 11:45 AM.

Chicago’s Cardinal Peter Luchetti quelled the riot by addressing the crowd through a police megaphone. Police arrested twelve of the demonstrators, who were charged with disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. Two were later charged with criminal destruction of property. Numerous demonstrators were injured, seven requiring hospitalization.

Cardinal Luchetti later met with representatives from the two protesting organizations in his office at the Diocesan complex. No details of the meeting were released.

Tensions between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church have been running high since the Pope’s unexpected announcement and promise of an encyclical on the indissolubility of Catholic marriage…

Rob again scanned the headline piece from Friday’s Chicago Tribune and tossed the paper back on one of Suzy’s end tables. There would certainly be more in Sunday’s edition, much more, especially now that reporters were doggedly searching for anyone who might have been there and could provide a provocative quote.

Rob had turned his cellphone off and yanked the cord from his answering machine in annoyance after the twentieth call. Merciful God in heaven, what were the chances? To one side of the news item was a photo of Cardinal Peter Paul Luchetti with his hand on the forehead of the young injured woman from Voluntas Dei. To the other side was a photo of Peter speaking into a police megaphone, at his elbow a befuddled-looking middle-aged man in a gray overcoat. The caption was peculiar, not only for what it stated but for what it left out: “Cardinal Peter Luchetti spoke to the crowd through a police megaphone shortly after violence broke out, accompanied by his seminary friend, former priest Robert Prendergast of Chicago.”

He had given his name to no one. And where was Suzy? The photo had been cropped to exclude her completely, even though she had been standing perhaps a foot behind him.

“Rob, stop staring at that paper!” Suzy had an ancient blown-glass ornament in each hand, and the pile of boxes labeled “Shiny Brite” was growing on the carpet by her bare feet. There were cookies in the oven and a new log on the fire, and it smelled very much like Christmas. Rob put down his brandy snifter of eggnog (spiced up and fortified with some very good Scotch whisky) and took the ornament that Suzy held out to him.

“They cut you out of the picture,” Rob said in protest, edging around Suzy’s half-decorated balsam tree to confront a bare spot with the ornament.

“Like I need that kind of attention.”

“But why me and not you?” Rob tucked the ornament onto a vacant branch, touching it with one finger to make sure it could swing freely.

“Resigned priests are hot right now!” Maria said, and laughed. From her place on the stepladder she stretched to reach the 8-foot tree’s tip with the little plastic angel she held. “Get an interview on The Talk and you could land a national book deal. You could be famous. Give me a year or two to get in with a big New York house, and I’ll even publish your book.”

Maria Farella was finishing up her master’s work in journalism at the University of Chicago, intending to build a career in publishing. Like her mother, she was intense, but did not have Suzy’s sense of irony. Rob had never met her before his return from Indianapolis, and still wasn’t sure when to take her seriously.

“I don’t want to be famous. I want to marry your mother, and…” Rob paused, thinking about those still-unmentioned incardination papers.

“…and still be a priest.” Suzy bent down to pick up another ornament. “All we have to do is crack the vows thing.”

Maria backed down off the stepladder. Rob had never met Joe Farella but knew that he must have been tall: His formidable daughter was at least 5’11” in her Christmas toe socks, and towered over Rob and Suzy both. “Poor angel,” she said, hands on hips, sizing up her work on the decorations so far. “We’ve stuck a tree up her butt every year now for how long, Mama?”

Suzy looked up toward the top of the tree. “Christmas 1979. Find me a treetop ornament in the shape of Pope Pius XIII and I think we’ll let her retire.”

Maria laughed again and bent down to the floor near Rob to pick up another box of ornaments. She put her left hand on his shoulder and shoved down far enough so that she could kiss the top of his head. “Please crack the vows thing, Fr. Rob. Andrew’s finally coming around, and I might find a ring in my stocking this year. I want you to marry us so bad.”

Rob felt himself blushing. As soon as Bishop Hughes received his incardination agreement, he would gain episcopal faculties and lose his last excuse to dodge the question of what he could and could not do as a priest.

Suzy turned back to the tree, glass ornaments in each hand. “Dumpling, he can marry you and Andrew any time you want. What he can’t do is marry me.”

Rob did not want to re-ignite the vows argument in front of a young woman who, in Dr. Pangloss’ best of all possible worlds, might have been his own daughter. “Maria, your mother and I both need annulments, each of a different sort. By our dumb luck, both kinds are hard to come by these days.”

Maria sat down on the stepladder, stretching her very long legs out in front of her. “It all sounds like a paperwork problem to me. Would God really get upset if you two just went off and did it?”

Rob blushed again, unsure what answer he could make to that. “Doing it” had more than one meaning, and both were an issue. He pursed his lips but said nothing.

Maria’s smile faded. “It’s really all about sex, isn’t it?”

Suzy turned back from the tree, and nodded toward Maria. “It is about sex. It’s always about sex. Sex is the only thing the Church cares about anymore. If I could make a case that I’d never had sex with Joe it would be open-and-shut, but there’s this little problem I have, and she’s sitting right over there.”

Rob expected Maria to laugh, or at least work up a little of her mother’s impish grin. Instead, the young woman who was so good at eye contact looked down at her feet and smoothed her plaid wool skirt across her knees. Suzy and Maria had gone this way before, Rob realized, and it clearly hadn’t turned out well. What did Maria think of her father? One might argue about the process-and the paperwork-but under certain circumstances marriage could be reversed. Fatherhood, now…

Rob knelt on one knee by Maria’s feet and placed his hands over one of hers. “It’s not only about sex. Love needs to respect the promises that it makes.”

Maria looked up. Rob expected tears. What he saw was the sort of confusion that was the precursor to anger. “Maybe. But why shouldn’t promises respect the love that created them?”


(c) 2013 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved. Do not repost.

Daywander

As the temperature slides back down below zero (F) here, the supper dishes are done, and I lean back to savor the memory of home-made stuffed peppers, and for dessert a good sharp Stilton cheese chased with Middle Sister Rebel Red wine. It was very close to a carb-free meal, consisting of some 85% ground beef with a little rice to thin it out, mixed with salsa and scooped generously into some very Christmas-y red and green pepper halves. Oh, I’ll maybe have a little egg nog later on, the season being what it is.

What the season actually is, is early. I’m not used to below-zero temps two weeks before winter begins. It certainly hasn’t happened in the ten years we’ve lived here. I get screamed at every time I suggest that we may be entering a cooling spell on the Third Rock, but from all I’ve seen in the stats it sure looks that way. At some point my strongly suspected Neanderthal genetics may come in handy.

Carol’s still scooting around the house on her knee walker. She’s improving day by day but there’s still some pain that her surgeon will have to consider when we go back next week. I hung a little canvas pack on the knee walker so she can carry things around. My father brought the pack home from WWII, and it sat in a box in my mother’s attic until we sold her house in 1996. It then sat in a box in my sister’s garage for another ten years, until we unpacked it and I took it home. I have no idea what sort of pack it is, and if you recognize it (see above) give a shout. Now, the other mystery: How could something that old and neglected not smell? It doesn’t. It’s clean and looks almost unused. Whatever my father did with it back in the day, it’s become useful again. He would be pleased if he knew. Someday I hope to tell him.

I turned in a ginormous chaper today for The Book I Still Can’t Tell You About. I’m well over half finished with the gig, and certainly hope the next chapter won’t cast off to 55 book pages all by its lonesome. It’s certainly something to do while waiting for a quick trip outdoors to cease being a near-death experience.

Michael Covington mentioned to me that Lowes is now selling Meccano parts in those marvelous little bins of odd bits in the hardware aisle. I got up there a few days ago to take a look, and it’s true: A company called The Hillman Group provides little bags of zinc-plated steel girders, plates, and brackets, all with the Meccano standard 1/2″ hole spacing, the holes sized to clear an 8-32 bolt. They’re expensive compared to haunting eBay for beat-to-hell and incomplete modern Erector sets, but the parts can be damned handy. Here’s an Arduino-powered cat teaser built from some servos and Hillman parts.

Tomorrow I dive into Chapter 5. Should be easier, as it’s about programming, not hardware. Now, can we ditch this absurd obsession with curly brackets? What part of BEGIN and END don’t you all understand?

Daywander

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This has been a busy two weeks, hence my silence. Carol had her foot surgery on Halloween, and she still can’t walk unassisted. She’s resting with her leg up on cushions, generously draped with bichons, catching up on her reading. Her mood is good. The leg is improving every day, though she still has two weeks to go before the cast comes off and she can put significant weight on both feet.

I’m working on a book project, for large values of “work.” The work isn’t all in the writing. The worst of it lies in the critical difference between a casual understanding of a topic and a detailed understanding. Ever since I got my first Android device and looked into writing apps for it, I’ve been reading up on Android and the ARM processors that lie beneath probably 98% of all Android instances. I picked up the broad strokes quickly: 32-bit single-issue load/store RISC architecture, 8-stage pipeline (for ARM11, at least), dual cache, lotsa registers, several privileged processor modes, SIMD instructions, and good coprocessor support. A little study revealed an instruction set optimized for staying out of system memory and keeping the pipeline full at all times. I had read about but not meditated on a remarkable ARM feature: Virtually all ARM instructions can be conditionally executed based on flags embedded right in the instruction itself. Do a comparison that sets the zero flag, and then any following instructions compiled/assembled to execute when Z=0 will percolate smoothly through the instruction pipeline but not do anything. In essence, instructions whose condition bits aren’t satisfied become NOPs. It’s like branching past a block of code without actually branching and thus messing up the pipeline. Pure brilliance.

You don’t really grasp how much of a topic you don’t understand until you need to explain it in detail. Most hardware guys know how exceptions work, in broad terms. But…does the CPU disable interrupts automatically upon entering an interrupt handler? Or does the handler have to do it explicitly? Things like that require drinking from the doc firehose in a way I haven’t had to for some time.

The book hasn’t been announced yet, but I think I can reveal that it’s mostly about hardware, and that I’m not the sole author. More later, but (I think) sooner rather than later.

I do that all day. In the evenings Carol and I cuddle on the couch and watch TV. TV is a little outside of type for me, granted. (Cuddling with Carol is a lot of what I live for.) But I was poleaxed at how good the comedy writing is on the nerd series The Big Bang Theory. I hadn’t seen more than a few isolated minutes on TVs at doctors’ waiting rooms, and once for maybe half an episode at my sister’s house. TBS has been running several rerun episodes back-to-back on most nights, and we’ve watched what’s been on for a week or so. That nowhere near exhausts the canon, which is now seven seasons and 145 episodes long. Sure, it’s over the top. But it’s a lot less over the top if you’re a guy like me than some jock who went into insurance sales. I’ve met a fair number of Leonard Hofstadters, and at least one remarkably close instantiation of Amy Farrah Fowler. Even if you don’t like TV much, give it a shot.

I’ve had to wonder if all the equations on the whiteboards are real and not gobbledegook meant to fool the rubes who are not into string theory. Maybe a physicist reader will clue us in.

More animal stories: We’ve had an 11-point buck wandering around the neighborhood recently, close enough to the house that I could stand about twenty feet from him and count his points. (He has a small extra one on his left side.) The deer have been thronging our property because the little stream in the gully has been running continuously now for probably six weeks. Ordinarily it runs for eight or ten hours after a bad rain and then goes dry again. Running for several relatively dry weeks suggests that a new spring has opened up on the mountainside above us. It’s not a lot of water, perhaps half a gallon per second. But it just keeps coming and coming, and I’ve begun to see mosquitoes on my office window, staring longongly at my exposed forearms through the glass. The low spot just before the Villegreen cul-de-sac is now a swamp. The deer love it. We see them in groups of eight or nine standing around the flowing water, drinking. Mr. Big Buck sits or lies there, his grey muzzle confident, daring me to disrupt the party by running out there and yelling dumb things like “Roogie! Roogie! Whoosh!” Probably not.

We’ve noticed something else: For the last six weeks or so, we’ve neither seen a fox, nor smelled a skunk. Ordinarily it’s one or the other down there in our gully. Now, nothing. Dare we hope that it’s because the 24″ corrugated iron pipe under Stanwell is half-full of water all the time? We’ve seen both species coming and going at the pipe entrance when it’s dry, though not at the same time. (They’re ecosystem competitors, and they fight. We had a dead skunk in the gully once for several months. Don’t mess with fox.) Nobody likes to sleep in a pipe that’s got eight or ten inches of water in it. We’re good with that.

If you’ve never seen the film Pirate Radio, rent or stream it. Carol got it for a dollar at the local Blockbuster while they were blowing out their inventory. Rehabbed fishing boats really did park off the coast of England once, broadcasting rock’n’roll and manic DJ chatter while deliberately tweaking the BBC bluenoses who eventually shut them down. A little raunchy but goodhearted, and the 1966 period look was uncanny. (I was 13 in 1966 and remember the era well, largely because I didn’t have a girlfriend to distract me.)

One of the other dollar DVDs she bought astonished me with its awfulness. Yes, I loathed Cowboys and Aliens. Sue me; it sucked bigtime. Every bad Western cliche that’s ever seen print or film was there in seething, wriggling, vomiting color–except when the film retreated into faux moody darkness so deep you had no idea what the hell was going on. The aliens looked and moved like gorillas in alien suits. The HQ spaceship was stolen–most appropriately–from Alien. The formidable Daniel Craig was utterly wasted. The aliens were so stupid they set down a wrist-mounted raygun right next to Craig so he could put it on and start blasting them. The plot made very little sense except when it was utterly predictable. I’m glad we got it for a dollar–which was probably five dollars more than what it was worth.

Dash threw up on our bed late this afternoon. We got it all before it soaked through to the mattress, but we have to wash and dry several more rounds of sheets and blankets before we sleep tonight. We have a perfectly good bedroom downstairs–but Carol only has one good leg for the time being, and there are a lot of stairs. Talk atcha later. I have to go upstairs and throw another round in the dryer.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots