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Odd Lots

  • NASA’s first asteroid sample, from asteroid Bennu, safely landed and is now in a clean room awaiting analysis. That’ll take some time yet, but let’s just say that the journey was definitely the reward—the first of many rewards, I suspect.
  • FEMA and the FCC are planning a test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the Wirless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on Wednesday, October 4 of this year. The timing for the alert is 2:20 PM EST. The WEA portion of the test will be heard on cellphones.  The EAS portion of the test will go out to broadcast radio and TV stations. The test broadcasts will announce themselves as test broadcasts and no action need be taken. As I read the release, the EAS portion will last for one minute and the WEA portion for half an hour. (H/t to Don Doerres.)
  • Older adults who use the Internet regularly have only half the risk of dementia compared to those who use the net occasionally or not at all. I avoid social media fistfights and use the time I devote to the net to learning new things and promoting my books. Pace Woody Allen, my brain is my first favorite organ.
  • The Raspberry Pi 5 has been announced, and the 4 GB version should be available in quantity to end-users by midlate October. (The 8 GB version may not ship until November or December.) Tom’s Hardware has a good long-form overview. The CPU is an A76 quad core with all cores running by default at 2.4 GHz. It overclocks well. Oh, and it has a power button!
  • NOAA’s average temperature anomaly chart for the contiguous US shows no clear trend from 2005 to the present. The data come from USCRN, the United States Climate Reference Network, all sites of which are well away from any UHI.
  • UHIs bias temperatures quite a bit. Here’s a new study from the peer-reviewed journal Climate that credits UHIs for most of recent recorded warming. As much as 40% of the warming measured since 1850 might be due to measurements made in cities rather than out in the natural environment.
  • An NHS study shows that cannabis is a “hyperaccumulator” of heavy metals, especially lead and cadmium. Regular users show hazardous levels of those metals, and traces of several othes, in blood and urine.
  • Cannabis isn’t the only hyperaccumulator of heavy metals. Brazil nuts contain 1,000 times the amount of radium found in typical foods. Barium too. I gave up Brazil nuts in my teens because it was just too damned much work to get them out of their shells. Right choice, wrong reason. But emphatically the right choice.
  • Another NHS study shows that typical N95 masks emit hazardous levels of toxic organic compounds linked to seizures and cancer. So not only will N95 masks not protect you from COVID, over the long haul they could kill you.
  • The penny jars are still coughing up old uncirculated pennies in considerable numbers. Over the past week or so I got brilliant uncirculated (BU) 1976-D and 1969-S pennies. Peculiarly (or maybe not) the uncirculated pennies I find before 2000 tend to be older than pre-2000 pennies showing signs of daily handling. I think this proves my theory that they’ve spent a long time in a jar in somebody’s closet.
  • There is now reasonable evidence that night people are at greater risk for type II diabetes than morning people. The researchers seem puzzled by this, but I have a hypothesis based on a lecture I heard 25 years ago at the Mayo Clinic here in Scottsdale: Night people stay up late, but their work or school schedules begin at the same time as for morning people, so night people get less sleep overall. Mayo Climic researchers found that dogs deprived of sleep both gained weight and developed diabetes. There is a metabolic connection to sleep quantity and quality that we don’t fully understand yet, but the research is out there and we could use a lot more.
  • A new baby giraffe was born back in July with no spots. Actually, no reticulation; her coat is uniformly the color of giraffe spots. She may be the only such giraffe in the world, and although she’s enjoying the spotlight now, I don’t think she’ll be quite as happy once she gets into giraffe middle school.

RANT: Musks Just Wanna Have Fun

A lot of people seem puzzled by Elon Musk. Nobody paid a lot of attention to him while he was creating the quintessential electric car, boring tunnels through solid rock, or, most significantly, leaving NASA and all the private space-launch companies in his dust by landing boosters and using them multiple times.

I’m pretty sure he was once the world’s richest man. I’m also pretty sure he got tired of that honor in a couple of days. Then he bought Twitter for 44 billion (!?!??!?) and began cleaning house. Nobody said much when he tossed out all the accounts trading illegal child images. Then he began dismantling the censorship machinery that by sheer coincidence (/sarc off) had silenced only conservative voices.

OMG! Twitter is now a hellscape where people can actually disagree with me! DIsagreeing with me is physical assault! Disagreeing with me is genocide! Disagreeing with me violates one or more physical laws!

Oh, the screaming and yelling and running around in circles! Oh, the stampede to the Mastodon social network, which didn’t want them and blocked a lot of them by the serverful. Oh, the fail of all the other supposed Twitter-killers like Meta Threads, which everyone on Instagram tried (the site had basically pre-registered them) and then mostly abandoned.

Oh, the horror of our precious blue checkmarks going for $8 a month to grubby nonentities like Jeff Duntemann who don’t have an Ivy degree!

Then Elon challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a fistfight in Rome. After some taunting by Musk, Zuck agreed. When the fight will happen (assuming it happens at all, which I doubt) is unclear. What is clear is that Musk was poking Zuck with a social media stick. I don’t approve of such things, but if pressed I will admit that Zuck needed a takedown or three. After all, he either doesn’t know that people have two legs or he doesn’t know how to render them in VR goggles.

Ah—and not very long ago, our man Elon changed the name of Twitter to…X. Yeah, X. I thought it was a hoax too. But it’s not. Rumor has it that he now has a team of people rewriting X from the ground up. He may manage it, but…don’t wait up. (Think 2025.)

So…what in the living hell is Elon Musk up to?

C’mon, people! Talk about obvious: He’s having FUN!

Look at it from his perspective: He’s got (according to Forbes today) 233 billion dollars. He’s 52. He’s single. What should he do, just sit around and grow old being cussed out by half the country and much of the world? Hell, no! He’s gonna have a good time! Part of that good time is performing technological miracles like SpaceX and Starlink. I think he wants to make NASA look bad. Boy, is he acing that or what? (Yeah, yeah, ok, low bar, I know, put a sock in it.) I love to watch the videos of his boosters coming back down to Earth and landing on their tails, (like God, Robert Heinlein, and Destination Moon intended) ready to go through the big boosterwash and prepare for the next launch.

Creating brand-new wonderful things can be huge work, but it’s even huger fun. I didn’t have 233 billion dollars, so I started a publishing company. It was huge work, and wonderful fun. So I have at least a little bit of understanding of why he’s acting the way he is.

Just today I learned that he has been teergrubing (i.e., slowing down) links to major social media sites and the New York Times. All the usual screamers screamed, so a few hours later he turned the teergruber off. “Sorry, guys, just kidding!”

He is having one hell of a good time. He is also reminding his critics that he is a force and will continue to be a force, and that he can take all the the taunting and ridicule they can throw at him and giggle before giving back as good as he gets.

I don’t completely agree with him. (Or anyone else.) But having given it a great deal of thought, I’m now pretty sure that I understand him. And I have enjoyed the show beyond all expectations.

Pull up a chair. The best (and most entertaining) is yet to come.

Note well: This is a rant. (You do know what a rant is, right?) I do three or four rants a year. They are a species of entertainment. It’s kind of like doing standup sitting down. Take it in the spirit it was offered. Being offended just makes you look bad.

Odd Lots

Review: Poltergeist: Ask the Dust

AskTheDustCoverAs an indie author, I don’t pay much attention to genre anymore. I write the story I want to write, and let the genres fall where they may. I wrote “Drumlin Boiler” long before I knew what a “space western” was, but that’s what it turned out to be. Bending genres has become a thing, and I’m seeing the guldurndest categories. You may not have heard of the steampunk zombies weird western genre, and if you haven’t, I encourage you to read James R. Strickland’s Brass and Steel: Inferno. It’s a helluva good book, and you’ll never see zombies quite the same way after you’ve read it.

Well, Jim’s put his genre-bender in gear once again, and he’s given us a genre that I’ve not encountered before: the paranormal noir murder mystery. Chew on that for a moment while I caution that there is another James R. Strickland who writes children’s books like Does God have a Favorite Pet Dog? Emphatically not the same guy.

Enter Jim’s latest book: Poltergeist: Ask the Dust. 14-year-old Nina Cohen goes down with the Titanic in 1912. Her higher (mind) spirit, or ruach, flees for parts unknown. Her lower (body) spirit, the nephesh, wanders the seas, possessing sharks and other fish, eventually finds the land and arranges to be born into a feral kitten. The kitten is taken in by a young Romanian woman in Las Vegas, and becomes Viviana’s constant, affectionate companion. Viviana, however, is deeply depressed, and after a few more years puts a pistol in her mouth and commits suicide. Nina’s nephesh cannot abide the thought of losing her human, so she leaves her cat body and enters Viviana’s. Nina is a body spirit, and in a living human being the nephesh handles much of the task of healing injuries. Nina furiously works to repair Viviana’s damaged brainstem, which is complicated by still having a .22 slug in it. She does her best, but the struggle to keep the body’s heart beating and lungs breathing is ongoing. After considerable work, Nina inhabits a (mostly) functional body. Viviana is gone, leaving Nina  without a partnered mind spirit. Nina is thus a dybbuk; i.e., a poltergeist. Most dybbuks get bored, make noise, and throw things around. Nina has a body to maintain and lacks time for mischief. But she needs a job to keep body and nephesh together.

Enter Tom Fletcher, a former cop and current chain-smoking private investigator in the Raymond Chandler mode. Except…he is also a powerful occultist, and when he spots Nina at a bus station, he looks at her in the lumina (the realm of spirit and life force) and immediately knows what she is. Fletcher takes her in, moves her back to Minnesota with him, and begins teaching her how to be a private eye. Nina gets her license, and learns from Fletcher that there are some powerful advantages to being a poltergeist gumshoe who can see the lumina and the numa life force that glows within it.

That’s a lot of backstory, and peculiar backstory at that. Jim has a fairly rare talent: He can build a backstory and major universe details in bits and pieces dropped into the primary narrative, without an infodump anywhere. The story proper begins two months after Fletcher dies of throat cancer, leaving her the private investigator business and the building he owned plus all his goods inside it. A man calls her and asks her to find his son, who has been missing for ten years. Nina takes the cold case with an eagerness bordering on naivete. In searching for Mike Berg, she runs afoul of the local drug-running gang, hitmen, conniving relatives, various lowlifes in the bad part of Lakeport, and the limitations of her poltergeist talents. Poltergeist tricks like psychokinesis cost her in numa, which accumulates slowly but can be spent very quickly. She can leave her body and travel through walls to look around, but her body doesn’t breathe while she’s not in it and so the clock is ticking. Although a local Lakeport cop befriends her, Nina soon finds that there is more than mere friendship involved—and that the spirit world is a great deal more complex and treacherous than even she knew.

The background has a startling richness. Its internal consistency is one of those things you don’t always see in fantasy yarns. It isn’t abracadabra magic so much as spirit physics, with limitations implicit in its laws. The idea content is dazzling, granting that I’m an ideas guy and I love that sort of thing in fiction. Jim has a new take on physical invisibility based on the workings of the human eye and brain. Numa energy can be transferred between humans by a mechanism that sounds a lot like electrical circuitry. And a poltergeist inhabiting a body generates a lot of static electricity. Anything Nina touches that has transistors in it croaks as the junctions die. She thus uses antique dial phones and radios with tubes, and wears limeman gloves while working on her snotty AI-driven computer.

Nina’s POV has a wry if sometimes naive voice, with lots of low-key humor and affectionate flashbacks to the late Tom Fletcher’s kindness and his quirks. She is devoted to her cat Djinn as she in cat form was devoted to Viviana. In fact, there is a great deal here for cat lovers. We see the lumina universe through her inner eyes, whether the view is of great beauty or molten terror. The terror is real, and at the climax she must face and fight it at the possible cost of her very existence.

Jim has indicated that Poltergeist is a series, and he’s working hard on the second book. I’ll let you know when it appears.

It’s a wild ride. Take it. Poltergeist: Ask the Dust is the best new fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Still More Things That Are Slowly Vanishing (Or Gone)

Here’s another bunch, some from me, some from readers. Time passes. The world changes. More and more, the world that’s vanishing is the one we grew up in.

  1. Mechanical charge-card imprinters. You know, when charge cards used to have embossed numbers, and the store clerk would put your card down and a 3-carbon slip over it, and go snick-snick to transfer the embossed card number onto the charge slip. I haven’t had an embossed card for quite a few years, so these are well and truly gone.
  2. Pocket radios. I still have a couple of these, but I don’t remember when I last listened to any of them. Carol and I have had a “kitchen radio” (the solid state successor to the archetypal “All-American Five”) for over forty years. It’s in the kitchen. It doesn’t get much use.
  3. 4:3 computer monitors. Although you can get them used on EBay, the canonical 4:3 aspect ratio flat-screen monitor is long out of production. I have several, but if they ever flake out on me I suspect I’m going to buy a big-ass 9:16 and force myself to get used to it.
  4. Churchkeys. And by that I mean the kind with two ends: One to pop the tops from soda/beer bottles, and the other to poke triangular holes in soda and beer cans. Cans are all pull-tab now, and it’s only imported sodas (and some beers) that need a churchkey to open.
  5. Rolodexes. I still have one, and I still use it to keep significant business cards within easy reach. However, I’m pretty sure that my generation will be the last to use them on a daily basis.
  6. Green River soda. This was and would probably remain my all-time favorite soda—if I could still get it. We used to buy it at a quirky grocery store near our condo in Des Plaines IL. They had regular and diet, both in glass bottles and in 2-liter plastic bottles. I used to get the 2-liter diet sku, which I haven’t seen since we sold the condo in 2015. It still exists (and has its own web page) but can mostly be found in quirky little grocery stores in or near Chicago.
  7. In-house intercoms. The 1958 house Carol grew up in had one. Ours (1949) did not. The new house we bought here in AZ in 1990 had one, and that’s as recent as I’ve seen one. My folks had a Talk-a-Phone intercom put in when my sister was born, and for awhile it was a baby monitor. I took the two units apart circa 1969.
  8. Dehumidifiers. These generally sat in the basement, and a refrigerated coil of aluminum tubing would condense all that Chicago humidity into drips that gathered in a pull-out well in the bottom. These may still be in use in humid climates; needless to say, they aren’t necessary in Arizona.
  9. Superballs. Again, these may still exist, but I’ve never seen one recently like those we used in the mid-1960s: Their surfaces were under considerable tension, and even a tiny scratch would spread into a crack. Eventually they just split into chunks. But damn, those things bounced high.
  10. Pocket calculators. When every smartphone is a pocket calculator, there isn’t much call for standalone pocket calculators. I still have my late ‘70s red-LED TI Programmer, and my 1982-ish TI-30 SLR.
  11. Slot cars and retail slot car tracks. Bill Beggs reminded me of slot cars, which were never an interest of mine but in their heyday were a very big thing. There was a storefront slot-car track less than a mile from where I grew up, on Devon in Park Ridge. Long-gone. Still with us, however, is Dad’s Slot Cars in downtown Des Plaines, just outside Chicago. Fifteen years or so ago they added an ice-cream parlor at the back of the storefront. It’s only open on weekends now, but there must be slot car fans somewhere or it would not be open at all.
  12. Car CD players. My 1996 Jeep Cherokee was the first car I had that came with a CD player. The 2001 4Runner we bought not only had a CD player but a CD changer that could play six CDs without needing to reload. By the time we bought our 2014 Durango, the CD player had been superceded by the now-ubiquitous USB port and thumb drive player in the console.
  13. Rear-projection TVs. We bought one of these just before Christmas 2005, and used it until something inside it fizzled out and died in 2012. The picture, while big, was never exceptionally sharp, and once LED panels could be mass-produced in 56” (or more) diagonal sizes, rear projection died in a hurry. I had to pay $75 to a recycling company to get rid of it after it croaked.
  14. Pastel-colored toilets. These were huge in the late 1950s. Carol’s childhood home (1958) had three bathrooms, each with a toilet/sink of a different color. I believe we added a pink toilet and sink when my folks had a second bathroom put in in 1957. You can still get them, but they are now Midcentury Modern retro exotica.
  15. Pastel-colored Kleenex. This was common through the 1970s and then started getting scarce. Carol and I passed a light blue tissue between us as we knelt on the prie deux during our wedding mass in 1976, alternately mopping our eyes.
  16. Paper encyclopedias. My family bought the 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica. It was wonderful. Carol and I bought the 1974 edition shortly before we married in 1976. I read it a lot until the Internet happened, and then little by little Alta Vista searches (and later Google) made research a whole lot easier. We sold it to the people who bought our Colorado house when we moved back to Arizona in 2015. The leather bindings were drying out and cracking, and in truth we went years between sessions with it. I’ve heard they’re now “shelf candy,” and can be rented to stage houses.
  17. Dollar coins. Half-dollar coins died about 2001, though the US Mint struck collectables for a few years thereafter. Just to be perverse, I asked my bank for a few Sacajawea dollar coins circa 2012 and spent them. Older cashiers just grinned. Young people at the register looked hard at them. But really: When was the last time you handled or spent one?
  18. Horse racing. Like slot cars, I’ve never been interested in horse racing, but Rich Rostrom told me that the Chicago Bears bought Arlington Park racetrack, had the grandstands demolished, and may be planning a new football stadium there. Apparently horse racetracks are shutting down all over the country.
  19. Smoking pipes. (And I don’t mean crack pipes, or anything else in the line of drug paraphernalia.) This again came from Rich Rostrom, and he’s right. My father had a pipe but I never saw him smoke it. A friend and I tried to smoke marijuana in a cheap pipe in 1971, and mostly failed. I truly don’t remember the last time I was in the presence of a pipe smoker.
  20. Stove-top percolators. (This from Bill Beggs.) When I was a kid, my folks used a beat-up aluminum percolator to make their coffee. Mr. Coffee drove percolators off the edge of the world, and I think Mr. Coffee is now being shoved toward the same abyss by K-machines. I now mostly buy my coffee at McDonald’s.

Bring on the Twitter Killers!

The whole problem with social media (apart from being a hazard to some people’s sanity) is simple and ancient: Too much power in too few hands. And the threat to sanity could be managed if people cared to. There should not be five corporations controlling 90% of social media. There should be fifty. No, scratch that. Five hundred. My older readers might remember the BBS era. Those are the kinds of numbers I’d like to see.

Well, the solution may be in sight. Every time I turn around, someone is pushing a new, um, “Twitter-killer.” There are lots, most of them pretty new, some of them still requiring invites to join. Meta’s Instagram subsidiary has created something called Threads, which is still invite only and (obviously) I have not seen. (I don’t even think their server is publicly visible.)

Another one being pushed by the mainstream media is Spill, which is still invite-only, and targeted at Black folks. (I won’t say “African-Americans” because as best I know Spill’s reach will be global.) There’s Amino, for teens. I’m 71, but again, Yay!

Lifewire has a list. Have any of you every heard of Plurk? I haven’t. It has “an adorable interface.” Yay wow! (When’s the last time you saw the word “adorable” expressed without irony?) Aside from Mastodon and Tumblr, I’ve heard of none of them. But yeah, bring ‘em on.

The best list of Twitter alternatives I’ve seen here comes (predictably) from Vice. It’s a good article; at least skim it. New to me were Cohost, Post, Substack Notes, Spoutible, CounterSocial, and WT.Social. Other lists are out there, and many other social media sites are new (or new-ish) that I have heard of, like Bluesky, which is touted as a “decentralized Twitter.” Another that’s been around for some time is Discord. A lot of my friends are on LinkedIn, and although I’ve had a login for years, I don’t check it much.

There’s, which competes (as best I can tell) with Substack, though leaning toward shorter posts. Ello dates back to 2014 and was created by and still caters to artists and designers.

Of course, there are Gab and Minds, which offered less censorship of conservative users and positions. Parler was once in that space too, but I think they’re now defunct, though there is some talk about a relaunch.

My point? The more social networks there are, the less power a handful of social networks will have. Network effects are real, of course, and so is tribalism. I infer from the descriptions of some of these sites that they are silos for a particular ideology. That’s all to the good; I don’t like ideology. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter thinned out Twitter’s ideological machinery radically. That’s one reason I see no reason to leave Twitter. Musk is reinventing space technology. I like space technology. He’s ballsy, and seems to be deliberately annoying certain categories of users who liked Twitter’s traditional censorship via cowardly tricks like shadowbanning.

I see lots of people saying they’re leaving Twitter. I wonder how many actually are. I’m all for Twitter refugees finding a comfy home somewhere else. The sort of people who will flee a network because it doesn’t censor enough are people I’d just as soon not hang out with.

Of course, most of these networks will probably croak after a couple of years. But some may grow, and siphon off some of Twitter’s bellyachers. (I have some hopes for Bluesky and Threads.)

Will the new social networks really kill Twitter? Don’t be absurd. Most of us are happy with Musk’s changes. I’m even considering getting a verified account, just for the hell of it. I used to pay for Compuserve and LiveJournal, after all. I’m not averse to paying for what I use, if it’s useful enough.

Twitter, so far, has been more than useful enough.

Don Lancaster 1940-2023

The inimitable Don Lancaster has left us. He died on June 7 in Mesa, Arizona, of complications following hip surgery. He was 83.

Anybody who was there at the dawn of microcomputing knows who Don Lancaster was. His seminal TTL Cookbook sold over a million copies. He also did cookbooks for RTL and CMOS ICs. He was famous among early mirocomputer fanatics for his books on “cheap video,” back when video boards were just emerging and (can you believe it?) some folks rolled their own from loose parts. He wrote about the Apple II, including one or more books on Apple II assembly language. His book The Incredible Secret Money Machine was an eccentric guide to starting your own small-scale home business.

When I began using Don’s books in the midlate 1970s, I never gave any thought to actually meeting him. His CMOS Cookbook was critical to my ongoing COSMAC Elf project. I built the original Elf from Popular Electronics in 1976, and over the next several years expanded it in several ways, including a wire-wrapped memory system totaling 2,560 bytes of CMOS memory, as ten banks of paired 5101 CMOS 256X4 RAM chips. I doubt I could have managed that without the CMOS Cookbook.

I also used his TTL Cookbook to learn how the various TTL chips worked and could be hooked together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that without Don’s books on ICs, I would never have learned digital logic to any useful degree.

Don had a strong interest in local archaeology, especially the ways that indigenous  peoples used and stored water for irrigation. About that I know little or nothing, but looking for tinajas was one of his hobbies.

As I drifted toward technical writing in the early 1980s, I realized that I was imitating Don’s style without consciously doing so. This is an odd talent called “pastiche” in literary circles, which is the art of writing in another writer’s style. I discovered this talent in college, when after reading the whole (thick) book of e.e. cummings’ complete works, I began writing what were recognizably e.e. cummings poems. They weren’t great poems, but they were definitely in his style. When I began writing Pascal MT+ From Square One toward the end of 1983, there was a lot of Don Lancaster in it.  (That book eventually emerged as Complete Turbo Pascal in 1985.) I later found myself pastiching Isaac Asimov when I wrote the “Structured Programming” column in DDJ. Asimov almost always started an article with a funny story, and so did I. (See DDJ for September 1991 for my well-known intro about the Pizza Pride girl.)

Don Lancaster and Isaac Asimov taught me more about technical writing than anyone else, ever. Furthermore, neither had any idea that he was teaching me. I met Asimov at LACon in 1984 when Carol and some friends and I won breakfast with him at a charity auction. But unlike Asimov, Don eventually became a personal friend.

I don’t precisely recall how I was introduced to Don. I think my PC Techniques art director Barbara Nicholson’s brother somehow pulled me into Don’s network. Flukier still was the fact that Don lived within reasonable driving distance from Phoenix, in Thatcher, Arizona. Although Don never wrote for my magazines (and we published none of his books) we invited him to our monthly author parties. He attended quite a few, generally with his wife Bee and his dog.

And we went down to visit him a time or two. Don took us up the side of a nearby mountain in his VW microbus, which was scary at times but otherwise wonderfully scenic.

Once Carol and I left Arizona for Colorado in 2003, Don and I fell out of touch, but he was still working to the very end, and produced a boggling body of work including 44 books and over a thousand technical articles.

He was a little eccentric (though he had nothing whatsoever on Wayne Green) and I’ll freely accept the tag for myself as well. His skill with words and his rampaging curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I am honored to have known him, and to have learned from him. He really was a guru, and the world could use a few more (or maybe a lot more) like him.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

More Things That Are Slowly Vanishing (Or Gone)

Back in January I published a list of things that had once been common and are now fading into the mists of history. It got a lot of attention, so here comes another one. A few of these came from readers and posted in the comments.

  1. Typewriters. Ok, these may already be well and truly vanished, but there are times when I miss them. I kept my IBM Selectric until we left Arizona in 2003. Mostly I used it to type up adhesive labels and addresses on business envelopes. All of that stuff comes out of my laser printer now.
  2. Wing-tip dress shoes for men. I admit, I never had these myself, but I was still seeing them here and there until ten or fifteen years ago.
  3. Pantyhose. Apart from older women who may have been wearing compression stockings, I almost never see sheer hosiery anymore. Weirdly, the last place I saw it regularly was at dog shows, where male handlers wore business suits and female handlers wore skirts and pantyhose. This was true well into the teens, but we haven’t been to a dog show in some years now.
  4. Car keys. Our 2014 Durango was our first car with fobs instead of keys. All the rental cars I’ve driven since then were the same thing: Key fobs without keys. It took some getting used to, but now when I try to drive Carol’s 2001 4Runner, I almost always try punching the (nonexistant) button on the dashboard rather than twisting the (real) car key.
  5. Women wearing hats in (Catholic) church. Back when I was a kid this was a very serious business. I saw teen girls wearing a sheet of Kleenex atop their heads during mass when they forgot their hats. Girls at our Catholic grade school had beanies to wear during mass before school started.
  6. Paper routes. I delivered papers for a little while when I was 13 or so. It was a weird little paper that was ad-supported, but I was asked to ring doorbells and see if people would pay for it. Almost no one did, and it was enough of an embarrassment that I stopped after just a couple of months. (Thanks to Rick Kaumeier for this one.)
  7. Penny (or nickel) toddler rides in supermarkets. Usually by the front windows, usually a horse, though I’ve seen ones where the ride is a stubby little airplane or even a cowbow-style covered wagon. (Again, from Rick Kaumeier.)
  8. Card parties. (Yet again, from Rick Kaumeier.) My father had these now and then with his gang from work. They all smoked so much that the air was mostly unbreatheable on the first floor of our house. My mom slept upstairs with my sister and there were a lot of open windows for a couple of days.
  9. Ash trays. These used to be almost everywhere, because when I was a kid almost everyone smoked. There were even ash trays in my college classrooms, and a few students smoked. (Tthankfully, only a few.) (Thanks to Jim Tubman for this one, which should have been obvious to me.)
  10. Cigars. The last time I saw anyone smoking a cigar it was a couple of people in my writers group in Colorado Springs, circa 2014. Tobacco kills. (It killed my father.) I think maybe we’re finally catching on.
  11. Mercury blood-pressure cuffs. And, for that matter, needle -gauge blood pressure cuffs. It’s all electronic now.
  12. White-wall car tires. I had totally forgotten about these, which were in decline even in the 1950s. (Thanks to reader TRX for the reminder.) It makes me wonder what people who restore classic cars do for white-walls.
  13. Newspaper vending machines. (Thanks to Rich Rostrom.) Not only the machines, but the papers themselves are getting scarce. Now I only see them at the customer service counter in supermarkets.
  14. Neighborhood mailboxes. (Again, thanks to Rich Rostrom.) We had one at the corner of our street, near Edison grade school. Now you only see them in high-traffic areas like in front of supermarkets.
  15. Balsa-wood model airplanes. (Thanks to Spencer Arnold.) We used to get balsa gliders for a quarter at Bud’s Hardware Store in the Sixties, and you could get a balsa plane with a prop and a rubber-band “engine” for 50c. My father built a lot of balsa planes when he was kid, and built a few when I was in grade school. These may still exist, but see the next item:
  16. Hobby shops. There was always one within reasonable biking distance when I was a kid. There was still one in Colorado Springs circa 2012, but that was the last time I saw one. They varied in emphasis; some sold stamp albums and sometimes stamps, others did not. Most sold model airplanes, and the .049 engines that I couldn’t afford. Craft stores absorbed some of that business. The bigger Ace Hardware stores still have small brass & aluminum sheet and tubing. Beyond that, most of the business has moved online.
  17. Reel-type power mowers. These were just like hand-pushed lawnmowers, but they had engines. My grandfather Harry Duntemann had one. Once the rotaries came in around the early 60s, the reel models quickly slipped away. My uncle gave me a rattle-trappy old one about 1966 and my friends and I made a bizarre go kart out of it.
  18. AM radio. (Thanks to Tom Byers.) As a teen in Chicago I listened to AM a lot, especially WLS and WCFL, the rock stations in their time. As rock got harder, I listened more to WIND, which played a gentler kind of music that I preferred. Of course, once I had an FM radio (college) I dropped AM and never looked back.
  19. DJ chatter. DJs were celebrities when I was a kid. They’re now an endangered species, especially those who did a sort of fast standup comedy between songs and commercials. Radio is heavily automated these days, and most announcements are prerecorded. Weather and traffic reports are mostly gone as well.
  20. Cable TV. (Thanks to Bill Beggs.) We still have cable, but internet-only. People are moving their TV viewing to streaming sites in droves. Carol and I don’t watch a lot of TV, with a smidge off the air, and rest from streaming sites.

There are a couple of things that I thought had vanished that are coming back. Whether this is a good thing or not is an open question:

  1. Bell-bottom pants. Yes, they’re coming back. I’m of seventeen minds about this.
  2. Big glasses. And I mean big, mid-late ‘80s big. I had those, and used to joke that my cheeks had 20-20 vision.
  3. Vinyl records. (Thanks to Don Doerres & Rich Rostrom.) The reasons I dumped vinyl were pragmatic: CDs did not wear out and you didn’t have to turn them over. Now Wal-Mart and Target have racks of vinyl. Wow.

There may be more, but 20 is a good round number. Maybe we’ll come up with enough to do a third installment.

Odd Lots

J and C - 5-27-2023

  • Our longtime friend David Stafford stopped in for an evening on 5/27, and we took him to Tutti Santi restaurant at 64th & Greenway. It’s one of our favorite eateries here, high-end Italian, and we ate on the patio. David took some photos, which turned out pretty well, as you can see above.
  • Could the ancient Greeks see the color blue? This is evidently a massive, long-term fistfight in certain circles, as ridiculous as it sounds. Mostly, the best guess is that the Greeks didn’t have a word specifically for blue tints. Matt Iglesias posted the best discussion I’ve found. It’s apparently more about linguistics than color vision.
  • I’ve posted some of my weird experiences dealing with modern AI here. AI images often have the wrong number of fingers or toes, and sometimes bizarre body proportions. Now an AI has created an entirely fictional governor of South Dakota, whose term in office was 1949-1951…in its imagination, or whateverthehell creates AI weirdness like this.
  • Carol and I have three Intel NUC computers, which are both small and quiet and yet still manage to do pretty much anything we do in terms of computing. (We are not gamers.) I’m not entirely sure why, but you can now buy a lid for a NUC machine that is a Lego base plate. I gave what Lego I had to our nieces years ago, or I’d be sorely tempted.
  • I’m a sucker for robots, so an article stack-ranking the top 100 movie robots was a must-read, even though my all-time favorite film robot, Kronos, only made it to #57. (I do agree with the very high quality of #1, which may be my second favorite movie robot.) Some of the robots are very old and/or very obscure; I think there were fifteen or so that I’d never heard of and another four or five that I’d simply forgotten.
  • A study published in the Lancet shows that natural immunity to COVID19 is equal to and often greater than what the supposed vaccines offer. The paper is a real slog if you’re not a researcher, hence the link to City Journal‘s overview.
  • And another City Journal piece I enjoyed, about Rod Serling and some of his struggles during the rise of television as the premier form of American entertainment.
  • A cow got loose in Carol’s thoroughly suburban hometown of Niles, Illinois (just north of Chicago) and CBS News described the results as “Udder chaos.” Points for that one, guys.
  • Some lunatic stole two million dimes from the US Mint in Philadelphia. That’s not as much money as it sounds like (do the math) but the bigger problem is how to spend it. Unless you’re getting a burger and fries at McDonald’s, paying for things by the pound (of coins) will attract a great deal of unwanted attention.

STORMY Vs. the AI Doom Kvetchers

I follow the AI discussion to some extent (as time permits, which it hasn’t lately) and from initial amusement it’s pivoted to apprehension and doom-kvetching, as if we didn’t get a bellyful of doom-kvetching as COVID passed through. The AIs I’ve played with have had peculiar failure modes, among them expressing that 128-bit registers are larger than 512-bit registers. Numbers aren’t their forte, even down at level of counting on their fingers, since AI image generators don’t have any clear idea how many fingers a hand is supposed to have. (More on that topic here.)

I get the impression that our current generation of AIs have their own way of proposing solutions to problems. What seems obvious to them isn’t always obvious to us. The danger, if there is any, lies in giving them more responsibility than something that can’t count fingers or toes should rightfully have.

Which brings us to an SF flash story that I wrote in 1990 and published in my magazine PC Techniques about that time. Most of my regular readers are familiar with “STORMY Vs. the Tornadoes.” It was designed as a humor piece, and a satire on the concept of AI as it was imagined thirty years ago. A few days ago I realized that I had, in a sense, predicted the future: That AIs will do ridiculous things because those ridiculous things make sense to the AIs. STORMY, a National Weather Service AI, was asked how we might reduce American tornado fatalities.

And STORMY took the question very seriously.

Here’s the whole story, for those who haven’t seen it, or haven’t read it in a long time.

STORMY Vs. the Tornadoes

By Jeff Duntemann

“Mr. Petter, in the last six months, that computer program of yours cut Federal government purchase orders for 18,000 ‘uninhabitable manufactured housing units,’ to a total of 21 million dollars.” Senator Orenby Ruesome (R., Oklahoma) sent the traitor Xerox copies skittering over the Formica tabletop.

U.S. Weather Service Programmer Grade 12 Anthony Petter winced. “Umm…you gave us the money, Senator.”

“But not for rotted-out house trailers!”

Petter sucked in his breath. “You gave us 25 million dollars to create a system capable of cutting annual US tornado fatalities in half. We spent a year teaching STORMY everything we knew about tornadoes. Every statistic, every news item, every paper ever published on the subject we fed him, and we gave him the power to set up his own PERT charts and plan his own project. Umm…I preauthorized him to cut purchase orders for items under $2000.”

“Which he did. 18,000 times. For beat-up, rotted-out, abandoned house trailers. Which he then delivered to an abandoned military base in west Nebraska a zillion miles from nowhere. And why, pray tell?”

Petter keyed in the question on the wireless terminal he had brought from his office. STORMY’s answer was immediate:


Petter turned the portable terminal around so that the Senator could see it. A long pause ensued.

Ruesome puffed out his red cheeks. “Mr. Petter, be at my office at 8:00 sharp tomorrow. We’re going to Nebraska.”

The two men climbed out of the Jeep onto scrubby grass. It was July-muggy, and it smelled like rain. Petter gripped his palmheld cellular remote terminal in one hand, and that hand was shaking.

Before them on the plain lay an enormous squat pyramid nine layers high, built entirely of discolored white and pastel boxes made out of corrugated aluminum and stick pine, some with wheels, most without. The four-paned windows looked disturbingly like crossed-out cartoon eyes. Petter counted trailers around the rim of the pyramid, and a quick mental estimate indicated that they were all in there, all 18,000 of them.

A cold wind was blowing in from the southeast.

“Well, here’s the trailers. Ask your software expert what made him think stacking old trailers in the butt end of nowhere would save lives.”

Lightning flashed in the north. The sky was darkening; a storm was definitely coming in. Petter propped the wireless terminal on the Jeep’s fender and dutifully keyed in the question. The cellular link to STORMY in Washington was marginal, but it held:


Petter read the answer for the Senator. Ruesome groaned and kicked the Jeep hard with his pointed alligator boot. “Goldurn it, son, you call this ‘artificial intelligence?’ That silly damfool program bought up all the cheap trailers it could find and stacked them in Nebraska to get them away from tornadoes in the midwest. Makes sense, right? To a program, right? Save people who don’t live in empty trailers, right?”

The force of the wind abruptly doubled. Lightning flashed all around them, and huge thunderheads were rolling in from all points of the compass. Petter could hear the wind howling through cavities between the trailers.

“I’m sorry, Senator!” Petter shouted over the wind.

But Ruesome wasn’t listening. He was looking to the west, where a steel-grey tentacle had descended from the sky, twisting and twitching until it touched the ground. Petter looked south—and saw two more funnel clouds appear like twins to stab at the earth.

The programmer spun around. On every side, tornadoes were appearing amidst the roiling clouds, first five, then a dozen, and suddenly too many to count, all heading in defiance of the wind right toward them. The noise was deafening—and Petter could now feel through the soles of his feet that unmistakable freight-train rumble of the killer twisters.

Petter had felt all along that he had never quite asked STORMY the right question. Now, suddenly, the question was plain, and he hammered it into the terminal with shaking fingers:


The answer came back as a single word:


The winds were blowing him to the ground. Petter dropped the terminal and grabbed the Senator by the arm, pulling him toward a nearby culvert where the road crossed a dry creekbed. He shoved the obese man into one three-foot drainpipe, then threw himself into the other.

A moment later, the tornadoes converged on the trailers, all at once. The sound was terrifying. Petter fainted.

Both men lived. Local legend holds that it rained corrugated aluminum in Nebraska for several weeks.

And it was years before another tornado was seen anywhere in the USA.