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Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

A Year and Change on APAP

A year ago this past May, one of my doctors suggested that my lack of energy might be due to sleep apnea. Carol verified this; she has heard me stop breathing numerous times while lying beside me in bed. The doc prescribed an at-home “headband” sleep study, which at least verified his suspicion of apnea. The device (which was just that: a headband with electrodes) recorded an AHI of 33. Basically, I would stop breathing 33 times an hour. This seemed excessive and still does, for reasons I’ll explain a little later. But the next step was obvious: He handed me a prescription for an APAP machine. “APAP” is an adjustable pressure CPAP. The machine senses your breathing, and sends enough air through the hose to keep you breathing, no more.

I shopped around online, and got an NOS (new, old stock) ResMed S10 Auto. It was half the price of a new machine, even though it was still sealed in its original packaging. I bought a couple of different masks, and gave them all a good shot.

At first it made me nuts. I have never been a strong sleeper, and having this thing strapped to my face all night kept me awake. The full-face mask that most people use was a non-starter. I used a few other types of mask, and finally found that I could actually sleep a little using a “nasal pillows” mask, which has these two little soft silicone pads on a single strap that goes behind your head. The two pads each has a tube protruding from the middle, and those tubes go into your nostrils, while the soft pads keeps a good seal. Ok, a reasonably good seal. I still have problems with leaks around the edges of the pads, but that doesn’t negate the machine’s effectiveness.

It still kept me awake. So the doc put me on a new sleeping pill called Belsomra (Suvorexant) which, rather than sedating you, helps neutralize stimuli that prevent you from sleeping–like an APAP mask. And damn, it worked! I slept better than I had in a long time, with no interruptions but my two canonical bathroom breaks.

With the machine in operation, I was throwing just a few “events” every night. There are several kinds, and I don’t have the space to describe them all here. My personal favorite is hypopnea, which is shallow breathing, not airway obstruction. The doc said it doesn’t interrupt sleep. Some of the others I’m still not sure I understand, like Cheyne-Stokes Respiration; but that’s ok, as I think I’ve had it exactly once in thirteen months.

The S10 records everything it senses during the night on an SD card. You can pop the card out and read it any time. My correspondent TRX put me on to a free app called Sleepyhead, which takes the data from the card and throws up all kinds of graphs for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The damned thing literally graphs the shape of every single breath you take. You can see when you stop breathing, along with the following spike in pressure to open your airway again.

Ok. Now it gets a little odd, and a little disappointing. For the first six months I recorded AHIs of .5 to 7, which isn’t bad, especially compared to where I was starting from. The problem is, I still felt the profound lack of energy that’s been dogging me now for several years. I felt a little better, but I wonder if that was just the sleeping pill keeping me from reacting to dogs yipping in their sleep chasing archons in the akasha, or the drip system cranking up in the middle of the night. I stopped using the machine for a week. I didn’t feel any worse, nor better.

I’m still using it. I’ve worked out the optimal sleeping position through a year of trial-and-error: On my right side, with my head on a firm pillow, leaning back just a little to keep the mask from smooshing off my face due to pressure from the pillow. The data the S10 gives me showed me a few significant things: My AHI goes through the roof when I sleep on my back; something like 7-10. Oddly (and so far inexplicably) my AHI also goes up sharply when I sleep on my left side. Nobody can tell me why. So I sleep on my right side. I have to prop my right knee on a second pillow, but it works.

And now it gets more interesting still: I had been slowly putting on some weight for a year or two. So in February I cut my carb intake to as close to zero as I could manage, without starving myself. (Starving yourself doesn’t work. Really. What you might lose, you then gain back after the diet stops, and then some.) My weight went down from 163 to 148-150. It took a couple of months of this for me to notice, but eventually I saw it: As I lost weight, my AHI imploded. At the end of March I had my first perfect night: The S10 recorded no events at all, nothing. As spring continued, I saw my record improve even more: I started having perfect nights regularly, and then two or three (and once, four) in a row.

Carol mentioned something over breakfast one morning: I had lost weight in my face and my neck. I’ve never been seriously overweight, but I’ll be 67 in a week or so, and I’m trying to keep my A1C down to avoid Type 2. I was actually trying to eliminate visceral fat around my waist as much as possible. I didn’t even think I had fat in my face to lose.

I still haven’t regained my energy (which is one reason you don’t see as many Contra entries as you used to; I’m pouring most of what energy I have now into my fiction) and that problem remains unsolved. Maybe I’m just old. I don’t know. Coffee helps some. Beyond that, I’m out of things to try.

My only remaining theory is this: That headband sleep study was bogus. I suspect it was interpreting me jerking around in my sleep as apnea events–I’m an “active” sleeper and always have been. So although I did have sleep apnea, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the headband claimed. That said, I think the S10 has improved the quality of my sleep, which is beneficial in many ways beyond personal energy. This is why I continue to use it. My point here is that quality of sleep is not behind my energy deficit.

I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you think you have apnea (spousal reports are good, and even a bad sleep study will give you some broad hints) I recommend two things:

1. Get yourself a recording APAP machine like the ResMed S10. Download Sleepyhead and watch your data, daily if possible. Development on the app has stopped, but it’s still available and works fine. You will learn a lot about how your sleeping position (and weight) affect your breathing.

2. Lose weight. This is good for lots of reasons (Type 2 being most important) but I’m pretty sure at this point that facial and neck fat are huge amplifiers for a tendency to apnea.

I’ve gone on long enough here for this busy morning, but if what I’ve experienced this past year will help my readers, it’s well worth it. Good luck. Cut carbs. Animal fat will not hurt you. (Certain vegetable oils will.) Sleep as much and as well as you can, even if it takes a machine to help you get there. Even (Gasp! The horror!) go to bed at 9 PM if that’s what it takes to get eight hours in before you have to go back to work or school. And pills; Belsomra is something entirely new in the human pharma cabinet. It is utterly unlike the nenzos or Z-drugs. Look into it if you have trouble sleeping.

More as I learn it. Let me know how you do, if you happen to be on this path as well.

Bouncing from Book to Book

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

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

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

Cool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heh. Captain Obvious signing off for now…

The Boggling Superpower of Bubble Wrap

20180926_113808-500 Wide.jpg

We’re long past the End of Owgust. The End of September is upon us, and my pool is still at 93° F. Why? It has nothing to do with global warming, and everything to do with a 20′ by 40′ sheet of blue bubble wrap. Back toward the end of spring, Carol and I bought a swimming pool cover. It came in a box, and it was just what I described: a 20′ X 40′ sheet of bubble wrap. I had to modify the corners a little to make it fit my idiosyncratically shaped in-ground pool, but that took less than an hour with a pair of ordinary scissors.

Now, in a riproaring Phoenix summer, you don’t need no steenking pool cover to keep your pool upwards of 90°. Just sitting there in the sun all day, my 44,000 gallon diving pool hit 95 degrees in early July all by its lonesome. But as we got into September and the days got shorter, the water temp soon fell to 85°. This feels great when the air temp is 110, but the air temp fell with the length of the day, and especially in our late-evening dips before bed, the air temp was in the high 80s and the water actually felt better warm. So two weeks ago, with the water temp at 85°, we dragged out the pool cover and wrestled it into place on the water.

Then, day by day, we boggled as the water temperature rose. By this afternoon, with a daily high a mere 100° (lukewarm by Phoenix standards) the water was at 93°. Carol’s sister Kathy is coming down for a visit in ten days, and she’s expecting warm days and warm pool water. The days will be in the 90s, which, if your’re accustomed to Chicago weather, is plenty warm. The challenge is to keep the water above 90° into the middle of October. I was a little worried about that.

Not anymore.

It’s been an interesting science experiment. At the end of a sunny day, the water immediately under the pool cover comes very close to 100°. That’s just for the top 2″ or so. When the pool pump kicks in at 8PM, it mixes that hot top layer with the cooler water beneath it. Come morning, the water is all mixed, and has gained half a degree or more throughout. The pool cover prevents most of the radiation by which pools lose their warmth at the end of summer. With the Sun to add new heat every day, and the cover to prevent it from radiating into the night sky, the pool accumulates heat. I think that 93° is the equilibrium temperature when the daily highs hover around 100°. We’re heading into a cooler week, so I don’t know precisley how that’s going to go, but as long as I can maintain 90° I’ll be more than happy.

The cover cost about $200. This may seem high for a sheet of bubble wrap, but in truth, it’s not the same kind of bubble wrap you get at the UPS Store to stuff in around the knicknacks you’re shipping to your godmother. The plastic is heavier and more rugged, and with some luck and careful handling could last 3-4 years.

Kathy’s visit will be a good test, but the primary experiment is to find out how long the cover can extend pool season, which by our definition is when the pool is at 82°or higher. We’re expecting to make it to Halloween, and–given reasonably warm weather and all sunny days–hoping to make it to Thanksgiving. There will be another experiment next March or April, to see when the cover brings the pool temp up to 82° for the first time in the season.

Sometime this winter, we’re going to have the pool “depth-modified,” which means that they’re going to jackhammer out the plaster, fill in the 9′ deep end, and replaster it to become a “play pool,” which will be 5′ in the center, and 3-4′ deep at both ends. I was never much of a diver, and I think we may score a discount on our homowner’s policy for getting rid of that 9′ depth. With only 30,000 gallons or so in the modified pool, who knows? We could be in the water 9 months out of the year. Maybe more.

Solar power rocks. It isn’t all photovoltaics.

This Business of Bourbon Barrel Aged Wines

I’m a contrarian. I defy convention. I question authority. I make fun of pretentiousness. I go my own way. This is especially true in my choice of wines, as I’ve written about here in the past. I’m notorious for praising wines that are (gasp!) not completely dry. I don’t actually drink sweet wine much anymore, since I’ve more or less sworn off sugar, but my reasons there have nothing to do with wine snobbery. I actually like sweet wine. But as I cruise through late middle age, I’m keeping an eye on my A1C.

My most recent discovery began as a fad but went mainstream: soft red blends. Their “softness” is really a consequence of leaving a little more residual sugar in the wine, generally bringing it up to 1% or a little higher, rather than asymptotically close to zero. This article is a little condescending in spots, but nails the reason soft red blends are popular: “…red blends tend to have a softer tannin profile than other popular red varietal categories, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.” Bingo. Not everybody likes tannins in wine, especially supertasters like me, for whom bitter flavors overwhelm any other flavors in food or drink. Most of what I drink are now Zinfandels and soft red blends, particularly Menage a Trois’ Silk and HiJinx Cellars’ HiJinx red blend, which I should have bought a case of while it was still available here. I don’t think anything has done more damage to wine snobbery than soft red blends in the forty-odd years since white zin came on the scene.

So. There’s a new fad in town: Red wines aged in used bourbon barrels. I’m not much for bourbon. It tastes bitter to me, like most whiskeys. So I didn’t try it when Apothic made a splash with their Inferno blend in 2016. Instead, I stumbled across 1000 Stories Zinfandel earlier this summer. It’s aged in bourbon barrels for sixty days. It’s a $19 wine you can often find for $16 or $17. The wine is softer than a lot of zins, though I doubt its residual sugar tops 0.8%. Even at $16 it’s not what I call a “daily driver” wine, but if I’ve sprung for good tenderloins to toss on the grill, I’m willing to pop for a wine that does them justice.

Even if I didn’t know ahead of the game that this was a bourbon-aged zin, I would know that there was something different about it. There’s a taste or a sensation somewhere between conventional wine spice and a sort of burn that I associate with whiskey. The burn is subtle, and doesn’t overwhelm the wine. It just barely gets your attention, and I’m good with that.

Having declared their Zinfandel good, I tried 1000 Stories Gold Rush Red, a blend (not billed as soft) that is also aged for sixty days in bourbon barrels. It’s a decent red, also $19. However, the burn is not as pronounced, and although it’s a perfectly good blend, I’m not sure I’d pay $19 for it. $14 or $15, sure.

Next up beside the Duntemann grill was Exitus Red, again bourbon-barrel aged. It’s a $20 California blend of Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol level is high (15.9%) which competes with the characteristic fruit-forward Zinfandel flavor. However, it’s a very good blend, and if the bourbon burn isn’t strong in this one, it’s mostly because the alcohol is through the roof. I do rate it a little higher than Gold Rush Red on overall impression. However, if you want a solid red blend, you don’t have to pay $20 for it.

Having found three reasonable bourbon-aged reds, I hunted around and finally located a bottle of Apothic Inferno, which was a limited-edition wine and has evidently gotten scarce since 2016. Apothic is famous for soft red blends like Apothic Red and Apothic Crush, so I had high hopes for it. And in truth, it was a pretty fair wine, quite drinkable, and only $12. But I was left with the suspicion that Apothic had poured the wine into the bourbon barrels before completely emptying out the bourbon. Really; it tastes like a mix of bourbon and red wine. The burn is there, but the bourbon taste overwhelms even the burn, and it’s the dominant nose in the glass and flavor on the tongue. Whether this is a bug or a feature is a matter of taste, and I readily admit that I’ve never tasted anything even remotely like it. I find the bitter edge a little off-putting, but you may enjoy that sort of thing. Like Exitus, it’s a 15.9% wine, so go easy with it. As for pairings, I’m not sure. The whiskey flavor clashed a little with good steaks, but might be just fine with burgers or brats.

There are more. Mondavi has a bourbon-aged cab, which I won’t try because I don’t drink cabs. Jacob’s Creek has a Shiraz aged in Scotch whiskey barrels, and while I don’t know that Scotch whiskey tastes different enough from bourbon to make a difference, I like Shiraz enough to try it. Others will likely emerge, and if I turn up a good one, I’ll mention it here on Contra. Grilling season is kicking into high gear in Arizona now that our long, long summer is ramping down. So there will be plenty of opportunities to try new things on both the food and the wine side of the counter. Stay tuned.

The End of Owgust

My father had a saying. (Actually, he had a lot of sayings, most of which you’ve long since heard.) This one I’m pretty sure he got from his mother, my grandmother, whom I heard use it a number of times: “The end of Owgust.” (If it came from Sade Prendergast Duntemann, it could well be an Irish thing; I don’t know.) It just means we’re coming to the end of something generally good, like summer vacation, which in truth used to last until the end of Owgust, but now often ends barely after Owgust even begins.

Here in Arizona, the end of Owgust is seen by many as a feature rather than a bug, since by a lot of Arizona people’s reckonings, Owgust begins in May and lasts until mid-September. By Labor day, most people would like to see nightly lows in the 70s again, so we can open our windows at night.

Carol and I tend to get a little tired of our four-month long Owgust as the end approaches, and we were planning to drive up to Colorado to spend some time with friends and see what air in the 60 degree range feels like again.

Not this year.

Our poor QBit was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of months ago, and we can see his steady decline. We don’t know how long we’ll have him, but it’s unlikely to be more than another month or two. We didn’t want to subject him to an 850-mile road trip, so we stayed home and spent more time in the pool. Lymphoma was what took out our very first bichon, the famous Mr. Byte, in 1995, and is evidently the commonest cancer in dogs. We gave Mr. Byte doggie chemo, but it only bought us a few additional months with him, and made him pretty sick at times. We’re not going to do that again.

So if I’ve been a little short on manic enthusiasm lately, that’s most of the problem.

Other things are going pretty well. Little by little I’ve been getting used to the nasal pillows mask for my APAP machine, which is reporting AHI values generally less than 1, and here and there actually 0. I’m using the great free program Sleepyhead, which displays graphs of your AHI, whatever events it had to handle, mask pressure and leaks, and much more. If you use a recording C/A/BiPAP machine with a compatible SD card format, check it out. It’s told me a number of interesting things, like the fact that events cluster at the end of the night for some reason, and that I record more events when I sleep on my left side than on my right. Highly recommended.

I had some time to play around with my dirt-cheap HP dc7900 Ultra-Slim PC, and liked it so much I ordered another one. The first one was cheap at $37 (I had to provide a hard drive and Win7) but when I went out and looked again on eBay, I found a complete system, including a 64-bit dc7900 with a hard drive and Windows 7, plus power supply, keyboard, mouse, monitor stand, and a 19″ HP flat-panel monitor. The price? $65. For the woiks. Ok, I had to pay another $25 shipping, but that means I got a complete system dropped on my porch for $90. (Stock photo above, but that’s exactly how it looks, granted that the cables aren’t shown.)

dc7900 speaker 300 wide.jpgThe HP monitor stand is nice, certainly nicer than Dell’s. The dc7900 did not come with an internal speaker, but given the size of the speaker (my first machine has one) I doubt it’s good for much more than beeps. And if I ever want one, I can get a NOS unit on eBay for $5. (The Dell speakers for their USFF lines had built-in audio amps and much better fidelity.)

The system will replace an older Dell machine that Carol has been using for some time, with a slower processor and a maddeningly intermittent front panel that prevents her from plugging thumb drives into the front of the box. The machines are roughly the same size, but the Dell electronics have been twitchy, and the combo monitor stand horrendous. The old machine has external speakers, so the HP’s near-microscopic squeakplate won’t be an issue. The HP is newer, and the Dell cost me three times as much when I bought it five years ago.

Overall, a huge win!

Finally, seeing listings on eBay for sales lots of literally hundreds of used “cube machines” like the dc7900, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s the end of Owgust for the ordinary, non-gamer desktop PC industry. You don’t need a lot of crunch power for word processing, spreadsheets, local databases, or (most of) the Web. Even with only 4GB installed, I streamed a whole movie on the first dc7900 without a glitch. So these machines are perfectly usable for ordinary people doing ordinary computer-y things. You can spend $500+ for a desktop box at Best Buy…or you can get the whole damned system from eBay for $90, delivered. They’re not new. But they’re clean, small, and rugged. Parts are available on eBay, from the crappy little microspeaker up to whole motherboards–though at these prices, I consider the machines disposable and won’t be replacing any misbehaving mobos.

A lot of desktops are being replaced by laptops, which is really where the action is these days, as well as the high prices manufacturers prefer to get. If you’re going to stick with a boring desktop PC, you might as well get one used for 75% (or more) off retail. I’ve got a big hulking custom Core I5-2400 quad, which I’ve used since 2012, and it’s still more than fast enough for my needs. Furthermore, it’s in a Thermaltake V9 Blacx case with SATA sockets on the top panel for backup drives. Damned useful. I could get a faster mobo for it, but…why?

This all reminds me of a Contra entry I posted back in 2009, about how with cars (and silverware) lasting a lot longer than in years past, we need to manufacture fewer cars and less silverware to avoid saturating the market. The same goes for PCs. As each wave of compact cubicle machines comes off depreciation and heads for eBay, the price of a perfectly usable desktop machine goes down. Even if the $65 deal I got last week was unusual, it won’t be for long. Keep your eyes open.

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

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

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

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

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

Cropped Front View dc7900 - 500 Wide.jpg

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

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

Side View - 500 Wide.jpg

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

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

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

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

Hose Wars, Part 1: Overview

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About a year or so ago, the bottom began to fall out of my supply of personal energy. At the time I assumed it was due to my age, or to all the effort I was pouring into our move down here from Colorado Springs, selling the Springs house, fixing up our Scottsdale house, and so on.

Now, virtually all of that stuff is done with…and my energy hasn’t come back.

I started a decent new novel at the end of 2016, and while I got off to a pretty brisk start, I’m now 42,000 words in and making little progress. I have other projects that I’ve done some work on, however, writing is the most difficult thing I do. It’s also the most important to me personally. If something starts getting in the way of my writing, I have to get to the bottom of it.

So it was that in February of this year I did a sleep study. I’d had one done at a Colorado Springs sleep clinic in 2010, but the wires and electrodes and everything kept me awake so much of the night that the pulmonologist declared the study inconclusive. To have a sleep study, well, it helps to be able to sleep.

Sleep study tech has gotten way better in the last eight years. I went down to the sleep lab and picked up a gadget that was something like a stiff but adjustable plastic headband. The part that contacted my forehead had a tacky, silicone-y feel to it, and embedded in the silicone were several electrodes and an LED oximeter. There were no wires and no separate electrodes to get tangled up in, like I had in 2010. The electrodes provided some EEG functionality, and the oximeter continuously monitored my blood oxygen, which is an issue I’ve had for some years. (It was one reason we no longer live at 6700 feet.)

The headband gadget was remarkably comfortable, at least compared to the ratsnest they trussed me up in back in 2010. I was able to sleep on my side, which I’ve done now for probably forty years. (When I sleep on my back I tend to compress the ulnar nerves in my arms, which makes them go numb and then prickly when I wake up.) I took a new-model sleeping pill (I’ll come back to that) and managed to sleep for almost the entire night while the headband gathered data.

The good news ended there. I returned the headband device to the sleep lab, where they downloaded the data and sent the reports to my pulmonologist. I had an AHI of 36, which means I stopped breathing an average of 36 times an hour across the seven hours that I slept with the thing on my head. Basically, I stopped breathing every…two…minutes.

No wonder my blood oxygen was excursing down into the low 80s.

Breathing is good, and tech steps in where nature fails. I was given a prescription for a ResMed AirSense 10 Autoset APAP device (above) and was fitted with a couple of face masks. Laying hands on the actual machine involved a surreal struggle with insurance paperwork, but I finally got it, and about ten days ago I started using it. For the first week, my average AHI was…3.67. That’s literally an order of magnitude better than what the headband reported. Last night was my best night yet, with an AHI of only 2.44.

The AirSense 10 records data on a standard SD card. There’s a clever open-source reporting utility called Sleepyhead that you can install under Windows, Mac, or Linux. There’s a Linux binary for Ubuntu 14.04, or you can rebuild from source. Here’s the wiki for the software, with a link to the user guide. (The software is written in C++, alas, or I’d be tempted to tinker it.)

Sleepyhead aggregates your data by day, week, or month (or just “always”) and presents a number of graphs for the stats gathered by the machine. There’s also a feature to report oximetry data, but I don’t have a recording oximeter yet and haven’t tried that feature, which is described as “cranky.”

I’ve read a number of people report that starting in on CPAP made them feel like ten-year-olds again. This has never been a longing I’ve had (what, go through puberty twice? I think not!) and in truth the improvement I’ve felt so far has been, speaking charitably, incremental. The road has been rocky, and I’m going to have to divide the full story into several entries. Stay tuned.

Egg++ and My USB Microscope

Something a little peculiar happened this morning. I cracked an egg into a (white) bowl for scrambling, and the albumen looked a little pink rather than clear. Blood, fersure, though I already knew (I don’t know why) that blood in an egg doesn’t necessarily mean that the egg was fertilized. However…next to the yolk was a little brown thing about 3/8″ long. It was about the right shape for an embryo, but it was too small to pick out any details. So…

…I cranked up my new USB microscope, which I got from Carol for my 65th birthday this summer. Worked like a champ:

minisee0002-500 Wide.jpg

I’m no expert in chicken embryology, so this is still a guess, but I’ve never seen anything like it in an egg before. The pink in the albumen suggests blood, after all.

Here’s the setup I used to take the photo, which will show you the microscope and its focusing stage:

microscope-500 wide.jpg

Like any reasonable optical microscope (we have one from Carol’s college years in biology) it has a coarse focus (the knurled column attached to the metal base) and a fine focus on the end of the camera tube itself. It plugs into any USB port and draws whatever power it needs from the port.

The device shown above costs $77.95 from Amazon.

If you don’t think squicky blobby things do the instrument justice, here’s something on the hardware side. This is a surface-mount LM386 audio amp, measuring just a hair over 3/16″ long:

LM386SM0002.jpg

The imaging software I’m using (free) is called MiniSee, and it works tolerably well. Other packages exist, and as time allows I’m going to try them.

The real challenge with the microscope is lighting. Lighting makes a huge difference in the quality of the image coming in from the sensor. There are eight white LEDs in a circle around the sensor, with a brightness control built into the USB cable. These work well for looking into dark places (like the back of my mouth) but don’t do well with objects lying on the metal stage. A flat black background is useful, especially for metallic objects. I intuit that some sort of small gooseneck desk lamp would do the trick, and I’m looking.

The instrument comes with a number of plastic probe tips for looking at your ear canal, up your nose, and, well, where the sun don’t shine. The mini-CD wouldn’t spin up on my quadcore, and as it turns out I didn’t need it, given MiniSee. (One of the reviewers on Amazon claims it’s all in Chinese, anyway.)

Overall, I’m more than pleased, especially for something in the $75 price class. There may be better ones. I see quite a few on Amazon. But this one will do.

Oh…I scrambled the egg and ate it, once I picked out the embryo. What’s a little chicken blood when dinner generally hits the table medium-rare and still dripping?

I’ve Been to Chattanooga at a Con with No Politics

Well, that won’t be the title of a Top 10 song, fersure. However, it’s true: I went to my first SF convention in five years. It’s called LibertyCon. It was in Chattanooga, Tennesee, thereby taking my list of un-visited states down to 11. I had a truly marvelous time. I’m going next year, 1,500-mile air distance be damned.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Libertycon reminded me of the 1970s, minus the hormones, the frizzy hairdos, and the leisure suits. Back in the 70s, when we went to cons it was for the writing, the art, the authors, the huckster room, the parties, and all the other people who were there. We didn’t go to cons to talk about politics. In fact, we avoided the handful of losers who insisted on talking about politics, and if they got too much in our faces, we chewed them out. This element of con culture began to disintegrate in the mid-1980s, which, not coincidentally, is about the time I stopped going to cons, beyond the occasional Worldcon that was within easy driving distance.

Just imagine! There were no panels on how Gambians are under-represented in fantastic fiction, nor panels explaining why setting stories in Gambia is cultural appropriation. The insufferable John Scalzi was not present, and was not yelling that everyone could kiss his ass. (He does this so much I wonder if he’s mispelling “kick.”) There was no code of conduct granting the concom the power to throw you out of the con if you said something that somebody at the con didn’t like.

No. We listened to panels and solo presentations about designing alien species, collaborating on writing projects, overcoming writer’s block, satellites vs. space junk, future plagues, junk science, the New Madrid fault system, the future of military flight, space law and space treaties, writing paranormal romance (with the marvelous subtitle “Lovers and Stranger Others”), inventions and the patent system, the future of cyberwarfare, cryptozoology, and much else. See what’s not on that list? Well, I won’t drop any hints if you don’t.

Note well that this is about con programming and con management. Here and there politics crept into private conversations of which I partook, but I heard neither Trump bashing nor this “God-Emperor” crap. There was occasional talk of governance, which some of us called “politics” in ancient times before partisan tribalism polluted the field. There was much talk of guns, and nobody had to look over their shoulders before speaking. There was also much talk of swords and knives and how such things are made.There was a great deal of talk about whiskey, but then again, this was Tennessee. (And nobody held the fact that I don’t like whiskey against me.) There was, in fact, talk about damned near everything under and well beyond the Sun. What was missing was shaming, whining, and tribal loyalty signaling. (There is no virtue in “virtue signaling.”) It was nothing short of delicious.

The list of authors present was impressive: my friends Dan and Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, David Weber, Tom Kratman, Peter Grant, David Drake, Jason Cordova, Stephanie Osborn, Karl Gallagher, Lou Antonelli, John Van Stry, David Burkhead, Michael Z. Williamson, Richard Alan Chandler, Jon del Arroz, Declan Finn, Dawn Witzke, and many others. Baen’s Publisher Toni Weisskopf was the con MC, but she always attracted such crowds that I never managed to get within several feet of her. Space law expert Laura Montgomery was there, and I lucked into breakfast with her and her friend Cheri Partain. I also had some quality time with master costumer Jonna Hayden.

In truth, I had quality time with quite a number of online friends, most of whom I met at the con for the first time. I made a special effort to talk to indie writers. Most said they were selling books (generally ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle store) and making tolerable money if not a steady living. The question that has been hanging over the indie crowd for years is still there, flashing like a neon sign: How to rise above the noise level and get the attention of the staggeringly large audience for $3-$5 genre fiction ebooks. I talked to a number of people about that, and there are still no good answers.

But the conversation continued, untroubled by identity politics, or indeed politics of any stripe. The food was good. But then, I don’t go to cons for the food. I didn’t get a room at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, which is in fact a weird accretion of a train station, some old train cars, and a conventional hotel building. I stayed at the Chattanoogan a few blocks away, just to be sure I had a dark, quiet room to escape to when the revels were ended each night. About all I can complain about are aching feet, but then again, that’s why God created Advil.

As best I know, there is nothing like LibertyCon anywhere in the country, and certainly nothing in the West. I will be there next year, with sellable hardcopies of The Cunning Blood, Ten Gentle Opportunities, the Drumlins Double, Firejammer, and (with some luck) Dreamhealer. Many thanks to all who spent time with me, especially Ron Zukowski, Jonna Hayden, and the Hoyts, all of whom went to great lengths to make me feel welcome and part of the club.

It’s amazing how much fun you can have when you agree with all present to leave the filth that is politics outside the door, and ideally across the county line. That’s why LibertyCon is what it is, and why they limit membership to 750. My guess is that there is room for other events like LibertyCon elsewhere in our country. If you ever run across one, please let me know!