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Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

Life in the Time of Quarantine

“Social distancing,” heh. It’s basicallly what Carol and I consider ordinary life. We’re retired, we’re home a lot, and don’t have the energy to cope with huge events like concerts, parades, political rallies, and so on. We don’t go to bars. Ok, my writers’ group used to meet in a sports bar, but then they repurposed their party room and we had to move to a sandwich shop across the street. (Yelp now reports that the sports bar has closed.) But that weekly writers’ group–with at most ten or eleven other people, usually fewer–is most of the social anything that I do these days.

So we’re doing our part by basically keeping on keeping on. I’m working on different techniques to avoid using my hands as much in public places. If I’m going through a door that simply pushes open, I push with my shoulder. When I take a drink from a water fountain, I press the bar with my elbow. (This is easier than it might seem, if you’ve never tried it.) After I wash my hands in a men’s room, I dry my hands on a paper towel and then grip the door handle through the towel. If my nose itches, I scratch it against my upper arm. I’m going to use Michael Covington’s technique to keep rubbing alcohol with me while I’m out in public: Fill one of those little eyeglass-cleaner solution push-spray bottles with ordinary drugstore isopropyl alcohol. Squirt a little on your palm, rub it around for a few seconds, and it dries without stickyness. You can buy little belt-holsters for pepper-spray cans, and I suspect an alcohol spray bottle might behave a little better if it’s alone in a holster than in my pocket wrestling with my car keys and pocket change.

Although the locusts are still out there, the stores are starting to get wise by placing limits on purchases of certain popular items, like toilet paper, paper towels, eggs, bread, milk, etc. Fry’s set this up over the weekend. We went to Safeway yesterday and whereas there are still a lot of empty shelves, there weren’t as many locusts and their carts weren’t especially full. (We haven’t braved Costco yet.) My guess is that everybody who intended to fill their chest freezers has already filled them. We bought two packages of boneless pork chops, some dental floss and a tube of Pepsodent. The supply chain is still out there, and once people realize that civil order isn’t going to collapse, they may return to their accustomed shopping habits.

Then again, there’s another possible explanation for hoarding, which occurred to me once I began hearing about municipalities shutting down restaurants, bars, libraries, concert halls, movie theaters, and so on. People may be afraid of government-enforced quarantine. This is happening in other countries, especially Italy. How far the feds could take it here is an interesting question. I don’t see federal involvement as a likely option, especially now that the decisions are being made at the local level. Rumors have it that Phoenix will shut down restaurants here in a day or two. If it happens, it happens. We go out to eat on average once a month anyway.

Nobody’s suggesting that we shut down grocery stores, nor prevent people from shopping for groceries and prescriptions.

The real issue with shutting down “non-essential” businesses, of course, is that businesses without customers will go under. I don’t know what the solution to that is. Restaurants that do drive-through and carry-out will get a lot better at it, and restaurants that don’t do it will learn how in a big hurry. Government isn’t always behind such things; just yesterday McDonald’s announced that it would close seating areas in all company-owned restaurants. What bars are going to do is far less clear. I’m all for flattening the pandemic curve. What I don’t think is a good idea is flattening the economy.

Another question occurred to me last night: To what extent can a CPAP machine sub for a medical ventilator? The adaptive kind (like mine) may be less useful than the ones where you dial in the inches of pressure you want, and that’s how much the machine pumps. (There may be a setting on APAP machines for fixed pressure, and I’ll investigate that later today.)

So we’re kicking the beachball around in the backyard for the dogs to chase, reading, writing, working on the garden, pulling weeds, and so on. Life continues. I’m less worried about the virus itself than about government screwups that make things worse. Government is incompetent because there are no penalties for incompetence. If the penalty for screwing things up were a jail term or a $100,000 fine, I’ll bet that government would work a lot better.

It is to dream, alas.

No More Penny Reports…

…and the reason is simple: The supply of old pennies appears to have dried up in my usual haunts. I got a 1967 penny at Fry’s on the 18th, and that was it. Nothing I’ve gotten since then has been older than 2003.

So maybe it’s a local rather than a global phenomenon: Somebody cashed out a big penny jar, and it’s taken until now to work through all those 50-60-year-old pennies. I’m going to keep watching, of course, but unless the trend appears again I’ll assume it was a one-time thing.

Flashback: Synchronicity and the Combinatorially Exploding Penny

Heads-up: I’ve never done a Contra flashback before, but given my post yesterday about pennies, this seemed to be a good time to republish a Contra entry I wrote back in 2005. I could have posted a link, I guess, but I wanted as many people to see it as I could manage, as it is just the…damndest…thing. Fifteen-ish years later, I’ve not encountered synchronicity anything like this boggling. I may do flashbacks again with older entries that I consider significant, especially if I’m in the middle of a dry period time/energy wise. Oh, to be 50 again…

penny1923.jpgSynchronicity (meaningful coincidences of preposterous unlikelihood) is something that doesn’t interest people very much until such a coincidence happens to them. I can point to three instances of synchonicity in my life: One marginal, one peculiar, and one that just floored me. The marginal one was the Exuberant Cross, which is an excellent example of seeing symbolism in the ordinary, though there is some peculiarity in seeing it the first morning I was living in Colorado. The peculiar one we’ll leave for another time. But then there’s the big one…

Back in 1996 I went down the road aways from the office to get a sandwich. This was unusual to begin with; I usually ate lunch with Carol, but she wasn’t at work that day. I was in a bad mood, a little depressed from thinking too much about my father. As I’ve said too often here, he died young and in a gruesome fashion, and there was unfinished business between us. I was only beginning to work through the issues in the mid-1990s. Now and then I rage at his memory; most of the time I just miss him. I turned on the car radio and the oldies station was playing something obnoxious, so I hit the country button. After the concluding seconds of some cowboy song and a few seconds of DJ chatter, another song started up.

I’d heard it before: It was Colin Raye’s “Love, Me”, an otherwise unremarkable country tearjerker thing about a boy whose grandma dies. Carol always turned the radio off when it came on. There are times when I can listen and times when I just punch another button. This time I listened, and boy, the song worked as designed. Read the lyrics; they’re clever. (Ignore the sappy formatting.) The first line is significant:

“I read a note my grandma wrote, back in 1923…”

I had failed out of engineering school while my father was dying, and I felt for many years like I had let him down, just like I did when I had failed to love baseball as a ten-year-old. He could not imagine how a writer could make a living, and I could not imagine how an engineer could smoke himself to death. As a young man, I often wanted to say, Don’t give up on me. And all my life it was a private point of honor for me not to let him down. (I didn’t.) So there were some connections there, in that stupid song.

It wasn’t that far to the sandwich place. When I parked I mopped my eyes and turned the radio off in exasperation, feeling like it had suckered me in to an unnecessary sentimental tate. Shaking my head, I went into the shop and ordered my usual ham and swiss. The soda-and-sandwich lunch special came out to $4.99. I handed the guy a fiver. He dug in the drawer and pulled out a penny, which he slid across the counter to me. It looked pretty beat up, and when I picked it up I flipped it over and took a closer look.

The date on the penny was 1923.


So. What are the chances? I got one coin in change. I hadn’t seen a penny that old in change in probably twenty years. I didn’t listen to country music all that often. And it was maybe a five-minute ride to the sandwich place, during which that one song alone had begun and played to completion. How could all those things line up so perfectly, on a day when I was already depressed from ruminating about losing my father? A New Ager would say “It’s a Sign. He’s there. He knows you didn’t let him down.”

A part of me wanted to think of it as a Sign. (Another little part still does.) On the other hand, I’m not a New Ager, and the incident forced me to think a little bit about about outrageous coincidences. Here are the major points that come out of the exercise:

  • In 45 years of living, a human being experiences an enormous number of identifiable things, from country songs to birds on the lawn to oddly shaped clouds and everything else that we notice during the 16-odd hours we’re awake every day.
  • Human beings are complex things, with a great many thoughts, memories, cravings, articles of faith, and emotional flashpoints.
  • Something in our mental machinery tries very hard to find meaning in everyday life.

In rolling those three points together I come up with an interesting conclusion: It would be remarkable for someone to live 45 years and not run into a coincidence like that at least once. (My other two experiences of synchronicity are pikers by comparison.) In each life there is a combinatorial explosion of possible alignments of thoughts, feelings, and objective experiences so large as to be beyond expressing. Little alignments happen now and then. (“Just as I pulled into the packed parking lot, somebody was pulling out right in front of me!”) Every so often, an alignment happens that makes us shake our heads in wonder. (I’ll tell you about the “I love you” stone someday.) But sooner or later, everybody is going to run into a whopper.

Keep your eyes open. You wouldn’t want to miss it!

Two Penny Mysteries

Two Pennies-500 wide.jpg

I got another one today, just now when I ran up to McDonald’s to clear my head and grab a large coffee. With tax that’s $1.09. I gave the cashier lady a dollar and a dime. She gave me back a shiny new penny. Except…the penny was not new.

It was 18 years old.

I like pennies. Always have, and I’m not entirely sure why I should like pennies more than I like nickels or dimes. Color is part of it. Every other (common) coin is the same blah bare-metal not-steel, not silver color. A new penny is the color of bare copper wire, and copper wire and I go way back. Besides, I was born and raised in the land of Lincoln, whose face has now been on pennies for 110 years.

I like pennies so much that I still pick them up when I see them on the blacktop in parking lots. This is a habit vanishing into history, judging by the emergence of a phenomenon I’ve only begun to see in the last few years. I’ve coined the term “parking-lot penny” for the battered specimen above on the right. I picked it up a month or so ago in the Fry’s parking lot. Making a penny look like that takes time and tires. That poor little thing has been ground into the Arizona dust for a long time, what might be years. Once it approached the color of the dusty blacktop it rested on, I doubt many people even noticed it, much less bent down to pick it up. Me, I’ll rescue a penny anywhere, in any shape.

1977 penny-350 wide.kpg.jpgPennies don’t represent value much anymore. They’ve become accounting tokens. I think people now consider them a necessary nuisance; hence parking-lot pennies, of which I now have a dozen or so, gathered over the past year and (as it were) change.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the shiny 2001 D specimen at the top of this entry. Getting a penny like that now and then is unremarkable. The mystery lies in the fact that I am seeing a great many pennies in change that go back 50 years or more. Some of those oldies still have significant mint luster. A week or so ago I got a 1977 D at Fry’s with a lot of mint luster for a penny that’s been kicking around for 42 years. See for yourself. A week before that I got a 1969 penny that was in excellent shape, if lacking mint luster. Pennies in the 70s are a lot commoner than they were ten years ago, when the 70s were ten years closer.

I have a theory about this: Those anomalously old and good-looking pennies have not been kicking around. They’ve been in jars and milk bottles and other containers, some of them for a very long time. Alluva sudden, I’m seeing them several times a week. This takes me back a little to ordinary life in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle-class people often had a jar on the kitchen counter or, more commonly, on the dresser in the bedroom. People (men, mostly; men have pockets) would undress for the night, and if they had coins in their pants pockets, would toss them in a jar so they wouldn’t fall out when said pants were hung up in the closet. My parents didn’t do that, though I did, at least in high school. I had friends who did, and friends who had parents who did. It was not one of my (numerous) eccentricities. It was mainstream.

The penny-jar thing worked this way: Back when phone calls were a dime and quarters could buy gum or bus fare, people would dig in the jar while getting dressed in the morning and and fish out a few nickels, dimes and quarters for the day’s minor expenses. For the most part, the pennies were left behind, and over time what began as a small-change jar became a penny jar, with maybe a few dimes buried in the middle somewhere.

This habit slowly dwindled as coins lost value to inflation, but the penny jars remained somewhere, on the high shelf or in a bedroom dresser drawer. As Greatest Generationals (and now Boomers too) die, their children, while emptying out their parents’ houses to sell, lug the penny jar over to the bank or a grocery-store change machine and trade the pennies in for whatever they add up to, in somewhat more manageable form, like ten-dollar bills.

The banks wrap them in rolls and return them to circulation. And as people get change at McDonald’s, they get pennies back that look brand-new and yet may be 50 or 60 years old. But who even looks at pennies these days?

I do.

When I got the shiny 2001 penny this morning, I wondered for a moment about whomever had saved it from getting dirty or scraped around by SUVs in a parking lot somewhere. Had they died? Or just decided that ten pounds of pennies was more than enough? Whoever and wherever you are, good luck and…penny for your thoughts?

I Wish I Could Pay for Software

Actually, I do pay for software, but not as often as I used to–and the reason is peculiar. This has been especially true since I started using Android on my Samsung Note 4 phone, and more recently, a Galaxy Tab S3.

Now, I still pay for commercial Windows software, like the brand new Affinity Publisher, which might be enough of a competitor to InDesign for me to dump InDesign and be rid of Adobe’s regular copy-protection tantrums. Android apps are a whole ‘nother universe, and in recent years, many of the apps I’ve tried are free–with ads. Used to be, you could choose between having ads displayed, or paying for the app. I’m seeing more and more apps that simply display ads, without any option for me paying to remove the ads. I found this puzzling. Why turn down user money?

I’m sure I’m not be the first to suggest this, but I have a theory: There’s cash flow in ads. But before I unpack that, some history. Back in the ’90s, software was evolving furiously, often to keep pace with Windows. So we eagerly forked over money every couple of years, sometimes considerable money, for new major releases of Office, WordPerfect, Lotus, and the other bit-behemoths of that era. I’m pretty sure upgrades were a huge part of those firms’ revenues.

Today, not so much. I used Office 2000 from 1999 until 2012. That’s when I bought Office 2007 so I could work on a collaborative book project for which Office 2007 was the minimum requirement. Why did I use Office 2000 for 13 years? It did what I needed it to do, and I was good at it. A friend of mine still uses Office 97, for the same reasons: It does whatever he needs to do (which is nothing exotic) and he knows it inside and out. So Microsoft got his money 22 years ago, and nothing since.

That’s not unethical. Carol and I still use things we got as wedding gifts 43 years ago. The Realistic stereo I bought in 1976 is still our main stereo. On the other hand, firms that used to rely on two- or three-year upgrade cycles are finding that people are using software they’ve had for eight or ten years or more. The big companies’ solution was Software as a Service; i.e., the subscription model. You pay for the software every year, and if you stop paying, they disable it the next time the software phones home to check if you’re a deadbeat or not.

To be charitable: Screw that. My primary objection to SAAS is that the skills I’ve developed on Office (or other packages like InDesign) belong to me. Disable the software I’ve paid for, and you’re basically stealing my skillset. So I’ll have nothing to do with SAAS, and may well use Office 2007 for the rest of my life.

As I expected, pay-once packages like Affinity Publisher are popping up to compete with SAAS products like InDesign. I already have the Atlantis word processor, which actually has features that Word 2007 does not. If I need a more ramcharged spreadsheet, they’re out there. But…why? I like what I have, and currently, what I have is plenty good.

So. Back to Android. Most Android apps are now ad-supported. A few years ago, I bought a few games and some oddments for five-ish bucks each. I’m sure a lot of other Android users did the same thing. But once the vendors get your five bucks, that’s all they ever get. I have some sympathy: They provide updates, which are worth something. I’ve bought InDesign four different times, and Atlantis twice. But even with a user base as large as Android, five bucks doesn’t go very far. Worse, it makes for very unreliable cash flow. The ad business model helps here. What happens is that the vendors of ad-supported software get an ongoing dribble of money from advertisers. The dribble from any single instance of a product is small. Put together fifty or a hundred thousand of those dribbles, though, and you’re talking real money. Better still, pauses in that multitude of dribbles average out into a reasonably predictable cash flow stream.

I dislike ads, especially animated ads, double-especially force-you-to-watch ads, and triple-especially ads with audio. I’ve been suspicious of ads ever since Forbes served up malware through ads on its Web site–after demanding that readers disable their ad blockers. This is still a problem on Android to a great extent, though the mechanisms are complex and far from obvious.

There’s not much to be done about ads on Android apps. The money from selling ads is too good, compared to getting five bucks once and nothing ever again. I avoid malware primarily by installing all updates to the OS and downloading only well-known brand-name apps, and only through the Play store. That’s all anybody can do.

It’s an odd thing to think, but I think it often: Sigh. I miss the days when software actually cost money.

How Shark Nerds Learned to Run the Projector

8mm Movie Projector.jpg(CLASSICAL REFERENCE IN TITLE, as Glenn Reynolds says.)

Carol’s sister Kathy and her husband Bob came out to visit this past week. Their mission (among others) was to get out of Chicagoland’s frigid temps and snow. So what did we have here during their visit? Frigid (if not Chicago-frigid) temps…and snow. Not exactly where we live, but my friend Debbie said snow stuck to the ground in Fountain Hills, a Phoenix suburb a few miles east of us. And yes, the temps dipped below freezing in our neighborhood on more than one occasion. Plus, we scored an inch and a half of rain in a couple of days. The photo below shows the view from Bell and Hayden looking north, toward Skull Mesa and Continental Mountain. In all the years we’ve lived here (going on twenty, in two stretches) I’ve never seen that range go white from top to bottom. A little snow on the tops, now and then, sure, but not snow covered.

Snow Covered Mountains-500 Wide.jpg

Timing, timing. Kathy says they’ll be back when it’s in the 100s. I can’t make many promises on behalf of Phoenix weather, but I’ll confidently promise that there will not be frost in the yard here in June.

So we stayed inside a lot. One of our other missions was to evaluate Carol’s family’s home movies. There’s a place here in Scottsdale that will convert 8mm movies to digital movie files. What we wanted to figure out is what reels are worth converting (the process is not cheap) and what can be left in the box. Carol and I have had her father’s movie projector in various closets for a lot of years. We took it out and set it on the coffee table, after dropping a spare white sheet over our big-screen TV. Bob and I stared at it. And it soon dawned on us: Shark nerds we were not.

The device is a Bell & Howell Filmo Regent 122, Model L. I can’t nail down a vintage tighter than “1940s” from online searches. That’s about right: Carol’s dad had a movie camera in the late 1940s, and it stands to reason he’d buy a projector at the same time. Bob’s family had had one long ago as well, but (as with Carol’s) the dads ran the projectors, and the kids watched the movies. As for me, we got into the 8mm movie scene late, and started with the 1965-vintage Super 8. We still have that projector, but it’s self-feeding and requires almost no fussing-with. (That is, when it worked, which it doesn’t.) Reviewing Super 8 movies from my childhood will require a functional projector. I’m working on that.

No matter. What we had were 8mm movies. And we were determined to watch them.

We had a rough idea how they worked. Bob recalled that you had to form two film loops above and below the lens. There were loads of little levers, which we dutifully stared at, rubbing our chins. Then Carol spoke the obvious: “Go find a tutorial on YouTube.” Shazam! Not one but several…actually, they were legion. And once we figured out from the tutorials what all the levers did, getting the film threaded was no more than a severe nuisance. At my house back in the ’60s, we just fed the end of the film leader into a slot, and the projector did the rest. This took a lot more careful work. Some of the films were well over sixty years old, and fragile.

With practice, we got better and faster at it. And we had a lot of practice. It took two nights to go through them all, what with manual threading and manual rewind. Carol’s dad had spliced a lot of the little reels together into several larger, 25 minute reels, but the bulk of the reels were the 50′, five minute size just as they came out of the camera.

Most of the footage was of Carol and Kathy from birth to 15 or 16, at weddings, family vacations, dance recitals, and just running around in the yard. One of the first things we noticed is that once she was three or four, any time Carol was on camera, she was dancing. Carol, of course, is a spectacular dancer, as I’ve learned at various events down through the almost fifty years that we’ve been together. She started early, and went at it with manic enthusiasm and supernatural grace.

There were people in the movies whom Carol and Kathy had rarely seen, especially their grandparents, who (like mine) mostly died when we were small children. Overall, the films were well worth preserving as digital files, with only a few exceptions.

It was also yet another rubbing-of-the-nose in how far we’ve come since our childhoods. My Canon G16 camera takes brilliant, hi-res video. Heck, my phone takes perfectly fine video, if not as good as the G16’s. I have a Nikon film SLR, and my father’s medium-format Graflex. I doubt I will use either again. I suspect most young people have never experienced taking a roll of used film to Walgreen’s (or somewhere else like that) for processing, and then waiting a week for the pictures to come back. Bad shots cost the same 30c each as the good ones, so learning by trial and error was costly.

All gone, gone and mostly forgotten, except by those of us who thought we were shark nerds…but were wrong.

Slow-Mo Espresso

I first heard about the Espresso Book Machine in 2001, back when it was called PerfectBook 080. That machine is now old enough to vote, yet…where are they? I was talking about that question in the mid-oughts, and described what I called just-in-time bookstores (which were in fact gumball machines for printed books) in 2006. A recent piece in the New York Post suggests that the machines are indeed out there, and are in fact being installed in bookstores for on-demand printing of books.

Well, it’s 2019 and ebooks have raced past the print-on-demand (POD) tortoise at about .25 C. You don’t hear a great deal about POD books anymore. I used to sell quite a few in the early-mid oughts, when I mounted several titles on Lulu and Amazon’s now-shuttered CreateSpace. As ebooks have become cheap and easy, POD books are a much harder sell. I wish Shakespeare & Co. (see the NYP link above) all the best, but whereas the concept sounds great on paper it may well be impossible to implement as more than an isolated and little-used oddity.

Why so? The bulk of it is simple copyright: Beyond public domain titles, the stores would have to have some sort of contractual agreement with publishers to print books, along with a usable print image. (These are generally but not always PDF files.) Publishers are reluctant for a number of reasons:

1. They don’t really know how to negotiate such a contract. How much should the publisher get? How much should the store get? How much would the authors get? Under what circumstances can the contract be terminated? With book publishing in the parlous state that it is, figuring this out would not be easy. Why? Once precedents of this sort are set, they become expectations and are hard to break. Publishers have no history here, and would basically have to guess. Bad guesses could be fatal over the long run.

2. Publishers want to protect conventional bookstores and chains. Publishers and big store chains have a fragile but necessary symbiotic relationship. Small booksellers with Espresso machines would nibble away at that relationship by making big-box bookstores even less necessary than they are today. If Barnes & Noble were to shut down, there would be publisher blood in the streets of Manhattan. Espresso machines in espresso shops would just hurry that apocalypse along.

3. This is probably the big one: If a book’s source file(s) escape a bookstore’s control, they’ll be all over the Internet, and anybody with a laser printer or access to a POD machine can create bootleg copies. This actually happened to me: The publisher print image file for my book Assembly Language Step By Step escaped its publisher’s control and was everywhere, just six weeks after the book was published in 2009. Bookstores are notoriously fluky operations, with lots of turnover and quirky people. One part-timer with a thumb drive in his pocket would be all it took. I’ve studied file piracy in detail over the past twenty years. This is a real fear.

4. Espresso machines are not cheap. They cost about $80,000 and up depending on speed and sophistication. Most firms rent them, with periodic maintenance included in the rental. I have no good numbers for that, but Espresso uses xerographic printers and I was a Xerox repair tech forty-odd years ago. Those machines are messy and touchy. Something gets a little out of line and the machine ceases to work. So it may not be an option for tiny storefront shops, especially if publishers aren’t on board.

5. Here’s the insight I bring to the issue: Near-term, espresso bookstores are likely to be opportunities for small, very small, and indie publishers. It would cost a bookstore very little to host a print image that might be ordered twice a year. PDF files for mostly textual works like SF novels are very compact. (Heavily illustrated books, of course, require larger files, but not that much larger.) Small/indie press would be far more likely to cut deals with the bookstores than Macmillan or Wiley. They have a lot less to lose, and a whole lot more to gain.

So where does all this leave us? Alas, I’m nowhere near as bullish on POD as I was even six or seven years ago. I attribute this to the promotion of smartphones to mini-tablets. I myself have a “phablet” (a Samsung Note 4) and I love it. I also do exponents more reading on it than I ever thought I would back when I bought it toward the end of 2015. (And this is true evenn though I have other readers with much larger screens.) Basically, almost everybody who partakes of modern life today has an ebook reader in their pocket, and some of them are actually called “ebook readers.” People have become used to reading genre fiction on small screens. It’s a tougher call for technical nonfiction containing figures, photos, or code. I have read technical books on my Lenovo Yoga convertible, and it’s…so-so.

Back in their heyday, the pulps were considered disposable books. You read them once, maybe kept them for a little while (the bathroom was possibly their final redoubt) and then threw them away. Fiction ebooks work like that: People read a novel once…and then, having done its job, it vanishes into the archives. It may never emerge from the archives again, but with terabyte drives in increasingly small devices, who cares? You’d have to read a lot of SFF to fill one of those.

POD will continue to make a certain amount of sense for science, tech, and history books, or any other genre that depends on fixed page-layout specifics. Reflowable tech books are just hideous. The big question is whether that sort of nonfiction is enough of a market to float a maintenance-hungry beast like an Espresso Book Machine in the basement of a bookstore. Given how long that question’s been hanging in the air, my guess is that the decision’s already been made.

Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.


People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.

Taming Twitter

I knew Twitter was mostly useless before I ever got an account there. I got the account because the service seemed insanely popular, which I simply could not understand. My account is now four years old, and having mostly lurked in that time I think I finally understand what Twitter is for, and why it’s a problem.

This past week saw another instance of what many call a Twitter lynch mob: Hordes of tribalists, intoxicated with their own outrage, descended upon a group of Catholic high school boys who were waiting for a bus in DC when various kinds of hell broke loose around them. I won’t go over the details here; you can google as much as you like. The incident itself isn’t my point, and I will delete any arguments in the comments over whether they “deserved” the ill-treatment they got. (They did not. If you disagree, disagree in your own space, not mine.)

The point I’m actually making here is that this incident (and countless others like it) would not have happened without Twitter. I’ve been on LiveJournal since 2005, and on Facebook since 2009. I’ve never seen an online lynch mob on either service. I’ve seen plenty of arguments, some of them quite heated, a few of them absolutely insane. None of them “went viral” the way that Twitter lynch mobs go viral.

Part of the underlying problem is a lack of discipline among many journalists. Most of the money has gone out of mainstream news journalism over the past twenty years, and with it went the sort of disciplined, methodical reporting I took for granted before 2005 or so. When you have to get clicks to keep your job and pay your bills, “methodical reporting” means all the other starving journalists will get those clicks before you do.

But bad journalism is mostly an enabling factor. The real mechanism is Twitter’s ability to act as an amplifier of emotion. Until very recently, tweets were limited to 140 characters. That’s room enough to post a link to an Odd Lot (which is most of what I do) and not much else beyond quips, brief questions, quotations, short descriptions of photos and videos, and so on. This means that rational discussion doesn’t take place very often on Twitter. There just isn’t room. Sure, some people make their case using a number of independently posted tweets intended to be read in sequence. Megan McArdle of the Washington Post is very good at this. Alas, the process of creating such a thread sounds mighty tedious to me.

What’s left? Emotion. And what’s the emotion of the day, year, and decade hereabouts? Outrage. And while Twitter can amplify things like humor, cuteness, and gratitude (and occasionally real beauty) what it does best is outrage.

From a height, Twitter is an outrage amplifier. It starts with somebody posting something calculated to outrage a certain demographic. (Innocent posts sometimes trigger Twitter mobs, but they are uncommon.) Then begins a sort of emotional feedback loop: The outraged immediately retweet the reactions they’ve seen, so that their followers (who would not otherwise have seen the outrage tweet) get to see it. They retweet it to their followers, and so on, until millions of gasping outrage addicts are piling on without knowing anything at all about the original issue that caused the outrage.

The word “amplifier” may not be quite the right metaphor here. Most of us in the nerdiverse have seen videos of a common science demo consisting of a room full of set mousetraps, each with two ping-pong balls carefully placed on the bar. Toss a single ping-pong ball into the room, and it sets off whatever mousetrap it lands on. That moustrap launches two more balls, which set off two more mousetraps, and a few seconds later there is this chaotic cloud of ping-pong balls flying around the room, until the last mousetrap has been spring. This metaphor is a nuclear fission chain reaction, and I think it describes a Twitter mob very well.

So what do we do about Twitter mobs? We could encourage the victims to lawyer up and start suing the news organizations that tossed the original ping-pong ball, and perhaps Twitter itself. That process is evidently underway with the Covington Kids. But preventing Twitter mobs is simple, if difficult: All it would require is a single change to the Twitter software:

Eliminate retweets.

That’s all it would take. Really. The retweet function is like a neutron emitted by an unstable nucleus. (There are a lot of unstable nuclei in the Twitter system.) Chain reactions are easy to kick off, and difficult to suppress. But without the ability to instantly retweet some expression of outrage, the issue never goes critical. Sure, you can manually copy and paste somebody else’s tweet and tweet it to your own followers. But the sort of people who participate in Twitter mobs are impatient, and lazy. If copy/paste/tweet is work, well, their ADHD sends them on to something else.

Basically, eliminating retweets would turn Twitter from U-235 to U-238. U-238 is non-fissionable. Without retweets, Twitter would be non-fissionable too. Problem solved.

Of course, Twitter won’t voluntarily disable retweets. Without retweets, Twitter becomes just another microblogging social network. People would abandon it in droves. However, if a class action against Twitter mounted by victims of Twitter mobs ever got any traction, part of the settlement might include requiring Twitter to disable retweets. If I were the victim of a Twitter mob, that’s what I’d demand. Money wouldn’t hurt. But to fix the problem, retweets would have to go. If that in fact became the end of Twitter, I for one wouldn’t cry too hard.

Twitter is not a common carrier. It attempts to police its own content, though that policing is sparse and rather selectively applied. If it isn’t a common carrier, it can be held responsible for the actions of its members. If its members set out to deliberately destroy private citizens by retweeting slander and doxxing, Twitter should face the consequences. If it were forced to confront the possible consequences, who knows? Twitter might eliminate the Retweet button all by themselves.

Don’t wait up for it. But don’t count it out, either.

Lazy LED Bulbs

Some months after moving into this house at the end of 2015, we went on a sweep and replaced nearly all of the incandescent bulbs with 2700K LED units. The drop in power usage was obvious from our monthly bills. However, I’ve had a whole lot of bulb failures within those three years. Some bulbs, in fact, didn’t even last out their first year. So much for 25,000 hours of service.

I’ve done teardowns on four or five dead bulbs, and found both dead power supplies and dead LED wafers. One of the power supplies was intermittent: Tap on it with the plastic handle of a screwdriver, and it will suddenly light its wafer again. Tap on it some more, and eventually the light will go out. The solder joints looked fine under my digital microscope. I even reflowed a few of them, but the unit’s behavior did not change.

However, the oddest failure mode we’ve experienced is this: bulbs that take longer and longer to illuminate after you flip the switch.

We have four ceiling can fixtures in our kitchen. During our LED sweep, we replaced the 75W incandescent floods with 75WEQ LED floods. A few months ago, I noticed that one of the bulbs took five or ten minutes to come on after flipping the wall switch. Once lit, the tardy bulb shone at identical light levels as the immediate bulbs did. Before it lit, it remained completely dark. (I.e., it spent no time at partial brightness.)

Well, as the months rolled on, the tardy bulb grew tardier and tardier. When it was up to about half an hour delay, a second bulb in the group of four started coming on late. A month or two after that, a third bulb in the group began delayed illumination. By that time, the first bulb would take almost two hours to light up. However, in every single case, all four bulbs eventually came up to full illumination from full dark.

I admit that once the second bulb started acting up, I put off replacing them to see what would happen. Yesterday I got tired of it, and replaced all four (even the one that still lit up immediately) with identical EcoSmart 75WEQ floods from Home Depot. The new floods produce five more lumens than the old ones but only draw 11.5 watts. (The originals drew 15 watts.)

I’m trying to figure out what sort of electrical failure would cause this. When time allows, I’m going to remove the plastic envelope from the original malefactor and take a close look. All of the bulbs I’ve cut open have used switching power supplies built into their bases. There is another kind of LED power supply: a capacitive voltage drop/rectifier system. (Wiki article here. More discussion here.) If the bulb uses a capacitive dropper, the capacitor is probably electrolytic. Electrolytics dry out over time (though it generally takes more than three years) and I’m wondering if poor-quality capacitors are at the heart of the problem. (Bad caps have caused trouble before. And again.) It’s not a time-constant thing, and in truth I don’t know what it might be, but doing a little probing will be fun.

And if any of my EE regulars know or have other (less wild-ass) guesses, I’d sure love to hear them.