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January, 2009:

Gretchen’s Patent Pasta Ponchos


I got a couple of really nice things for Christmas. Carol gave me a Canon G10 camera, a device that probably contains more intelligence than NASA had at its disposal in 1965. In fact, I’m still getting used to some of that intelligence, but…more on that later.

The other thing worth noting is a hand-made item from my sister Gretchen, before whom all things in the textile kingdom bow. Months back, when Gretchen asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told her, Make me a pasta poncho. I told her what I meant. And she did.

You see the results above. She took an ordinary 48″ X 26″ bath towel in appropriate tomato red, and somehow (this is a black art to me) inserted a turtleneck dead center. So whenever we have pasta now, I just pull it over my head, and I’m set. Nothing to tuck, tie, or button. And when I invariably dump some of the sauce on myself, well, it’s machine-washable. (I always seem to wear white shirts the nights I make our trademark Front Range buffalo spaghetti sauce.)

The photo was taken yesterday evening, just before I lit into a pile of whole wheat spaghetti. I had a minor problem; I’m alone in the house. So I took the new Canon G10, put it on my tripod, and placed it across the kitchen table where Carol’s chair usually is. While digging through the manual looking for how to use the self-timer, I discovered that the G10 has something new (to me): a face-recognition self-timer. It works like this: You set up the shot, select the face timer, and then trip the shutter. The camera waits until it sees a new face in the field of view, and then kicks off the self-timer. So all I had to do was amble (not run) over to my chair, grab my utensils, and look the camera in the, er, eye. Bang! Timer starts running. Five seconds later, photo happens.

It doesn’t have to be a solo portrait. Get the family together in one frame, trip the shutter, and the G10 will wait until it sees you (or at least one more face) in the frame before it starts the timer. Sheesh. For a guy who began in photography with 120 Tri-X Pan film and a motheaten folding bellows camera (patched at a bellows crack with a small piece of Curad Battle Ribbon) this treads on the thin edge of spooky. I can see myself the day after Christmas 2019, arguing with my brand-new Canon G256:

ME: “Hey, lensface, this time take the glint off my skull, ok?”

G256: “Sure thing, boss. I can render CGI hair if you want.”

ME: “Don’t be a wiseass. You know what I mean.”

G256: “That would be an image closer to your genetic reality.”

ME: “A genetic reality that hasn’t been fully expressed since 1982 or so.”

G256: “But that’s the Canon slogan for 2019: Reality never looked this good!”

ME: “Take the best picture you can. Don’t screw with reality. Just. Take. The. Picture.”

And I’d get the CGI hair. Just what the world needs: A WYGIWITRSB camera. (“What You Get Is What I Think Reality Should Be.” )

Not that I’m complaining; the G10 is a pretty spectacular camera, and it doesn’t talk yet. It can take macro shots that are almost like what you’d see through an inspection microscope. The thumbnail at left is a 1N23 microwave diode, slightly larger than life size. (The real thing is 5/8″ long.) Click on it. Dare ya. Count the dust grains. Wow.

Anyway. Gretchen made a pair of ponchos and gave one to each of us. We hung them on hangers in the laundry room just off the kitchen so they’re handy, and as soon as Carol comes home again I’m going to throw her a spaghetti feast like she’s never seen before–and if I miss, well, she’ll be wearing the poncho.

Remote Lecturing with Skype and Mikogo

First on my do-it list this morning was to deliver a lecture at Miami University at Middletown, Ohio. I’m still here in Colorado (though, alas, Carol is in Chicago again and I’m batching it until the 26th) but it worked out well, and the lecture was my first “production” use of Skype and the Mikogo plug-in for Skype for remote presentation.

Jay Slough K4ZLE of the Southwest Ohio Digital and Technical Symposium asked me to do an hour-long presentation on Carl & Jerry well over a year ago, but our schedules didn’t mesh in January 2008, and we had to wait a year for another chance. In a way that was good, because in my view, Mikogo plows NetMeeting (which we had intended to use last year) right into the soil.

Mikogo adds presentation capability to any participant in a Skype conference call running the plug-in. Whatever is displayed on the screen of the chat participant deemed the presenter is echoed on all other participant screens. The presenter can change at any point, so people can take turns presenting to the group. Mikogo defaults to screen echo only, but it has an option for remote control, a la VNC. Mikogo also allows the presenter to draw nondestructively on the echoed screen, whiteboard-style, though I didn’t need this feature for today’s session.

I’m a seasoned lecturer and have done presentations to groups as large as a thousand people, but there was a critical difference this time: I couldn’t see the audience, and could hear them only faintly. The other end of the Skype/Mikogo connection was Jay’s laptop driving a big-screen VGA projector in a university classroom, with Jay at the controls wearing a headset. I sat here in my chair in front of the screen in my office, talking into my headset between Powerpoint slide changes and trying to remember not to wave my hands. I missed not being able to play off the audience, and couldn’t tell if they were laughing at my jokes. During the Q&A in the last five minutes, Jay had to relay all questions to me, which was awkward even if necessary.

Technologically it went well, though it took a couple of minutes longer than we planned to get the two systems talking to each other. During the presentation, Thunderbird popped up an email notifier box in the lower right corner of the screen, and until I could shoot the box it became part of the screen echo. The symposium gang out in Ohio apparently loved it, and it was a great opportunity to popularize Carl & Jerry to people I would probably never have connected with otherwise.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but I’d like to add some refinements, which I think Skype could support:

  • I want a cam aimed at the audience, with a mic that will pick up general sound from the same direction. Video from the cam would have to go on a second display, but displays are cheap. Audience feedback is important, whether you’re a stand-up geek comedian like me or not.
  • Less necessary, but it might help the general tenor of the presentation: Somehow display a borderless video window in the lower left corner of the presentation screen, so that the audience can see me. (I’d leave a hole in my slides sized to match the video window.) How well this would work is obscure but readily testable. My webcam is four years old and I probably should get a new one. Logitech sells high-res units that automatically integrate with Skype.

Other applications of this system suggest themselves: Real-time manuscript workshopping, with workshop participants taking turns echoing their screens while displaying their manuscripts. Tech support. And (as Pete Albrecht and I intend to try in the next few days) remote control of his big Meade telescope and imager.

Skype is a fine thing. Pete is in a Skype window right now, telling me about the new Skype competitor, Oovoo, which adds session recording to videoconferencing. Skype lacks that feature, and it would be handy for people (like me!) who couldn’t make it all the way to Ohio for the Symposium. More when (or if) I try it.

Ncurses! Firehosed Again!

I’ve mentioned here that I’ve got a contract and have begun work on the third edition of my book Assembly Language Step By Step. The second edition was written almost exactly ten years ago, and I had mostly given up on the book as obsolete and out of print forever. My publisher most sensibly wants me to get rid of all the DOS material and rewrite the book entirely for Linux in general, and Ubuntu Linux for the sake of the screen shots. The second edition did address Linux assembly with NASM, but almost as an afterthought, having first taught the concepts of assembly using DOS as a tutorial platform.

So I got to work. And as I soon discovered, whew! A lot of things have changed in the last ten years. Ubuntu didn’t exist, and the notion of not having root at all would have been thought absurd in most Linux geek circles. But so it is, and I’ve had to become intimately familiar with sudo in all its forms and wrappers. Ten years ago, I just worked in root and was careful–if you were going to work in assembly, there was really no other way.

KDE was brand-new in 1999, and GNOME wasn’t even in general release. I worked in the console and mostly hated it, and when the book was done, I mostly forgot it. That’s easy enough to do across ten very busy years, and the console does not help you remember anything. One way to look at a GUI is as graphical short-term memory reminding you what options exist and what their parameters are, just in case you don’t use a command often enough for it to rise above the brain sludge in your head. Essentially all of the work I’ve done in Linux in the ensuing ten years has been in the GUI desktops, and it’s all been user stuff, largely to get a sense for how readily Linux (Ubuntu especially) might replace Windows. On the programming side I’ve played mostly with Gambas and Lazarus, which correspond (roughly) to VB and Delphi.

Faced with a console again, I remembered about four commands: ls, cd, pwd, and cat. I remembered that ./ specifies the working directory. I knew that there was a way to add the working directory to the search path, but I had to look it up. Fainter still were memories of console control codes: ESC [2J…or was it ESC [1J…or ESC [1H? More looking up. More printing of Web pages, more sitting in my big chair, drinking from an increasingly familiar firehose. Eight years or so ago, I got ncurses installed on the Xeon under Red Hat and figured out how to call it from NASM. Alas, I cannot find any least traces of my playing-around code, and so I have to learn it all over again, and re-create the nascent example programs I had written against the possibility that I might revise the book someday. Someday didn’t come until I was certain that it never would. Then…wham!

Someday is here.

I’m not adding material to the end of the book, except a chapter section on how to call ncurses. The first three chapters won’t change much either. (Foobidity!) Mostly I’m rewriting the initial steps in actual coding, and the distressing thing is that my elaborate memory-mapped text output library, which taught so much of basic assembly so well, simply won’t work in protected mode. So I need to look at what will demonstrate the same principles and not talk to video memory. A CPUID utility suggests itself, so I’ve connected the CPUID instruction to the firehose.

And I’m writing C code again. God help us, I feel like I want to wash my hands every fifteen lines–but that’s just the nature of the job. Like I’ve said many times, when you work outside your preferences you broaden your horizons. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring soap. (At least I’ve got the firehose…)

DDJ Ascending Into Heaven–Or At Least the Cloud

Back in the spring of 1976, my friend Gus Flassig showed me an issue of a new magazine called Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia, a thin but sprightly fanzine-ish item full of articles on programming the Altair, the Kim-1, and other primordial micros. The opcodes were thick as flies, but it was very cool in a slightly goofy bit-hippie way that none of us would appreciate yet for a number of years. I subscribed off and on for a long time, though I gave away a lot of the mags when I left Rochester NY in early 1985. In early 1989, I became a DDJ columnist myself, and wrote “Structured Programming” for over four years, focusing on Pascal but occasionally Modula 2 and related issues like database techniques. I had to give it up after I started my own publishing company and that quickly became several full-time jobs, but I will always be proud to have had that slot when I did, and will always cite Jon Erickson as one of the best technical media editors who has ever lived.

This is starting to sound like a euology, right? And that’s my point for this entry: DDJ is going all-Web with the January 2009 issue. The news was broken on the blog of Herb Sutter, a C++ force and long-time DDJ columnist. The entry is notable because Herb speaks of many other “ascent into the Cloud” events within the physical media world. It’s happening a lot. The big question remains: Is this a death sentence? It certainly was for Byte, and I can’t imagine that it won’t be for PC, though I could and would like to be wrong.

I’ve always liked magazines, as both a reader and a publisher, and if the magazine business model were still viable I would still be running one. Herb Sutter doesn’t say much about why magazines are fading away. Most people probably think it’s because of the cost of the paper, the cost of mailing, and so on. That’s certainly part of it, but we shouldn’t forget the following things:

  • Computer technology has gotten fearsomely complex in the last ten or fifteen years. It’s very difficult to treat a programming topic usefully at magazine length. I was confronting this issue as early as 1995.
  • As a corollary to the previous point, people are increasingly becoming specialists, of increasingly narrow specialties. This used to break down by languages (“I’m a C/C++ guy”) but ballooning complexity is cutting out niches much finer than that. (“I’m a client-side .NET IL guy.”) There simply isn’t enough time nor mental bandwidth to learn everything, and a magazine’s reader base can only be so small and remain economically viable.
  • The community elements of magazines (letter columns, Q/A columns, columnists treating reader requests, etc.) are now handled very capably by online forums, blogs, and other social networking mechanisms.

Money of course, remains an issue. Paper and postage cost money, which print ads traditionally provided. (Subscriber revenues are useful but not sufficient to float a decent mag, and this was true even in 1998.) It’s an issue for Web content as well. Authors and editors need to be paid, and server space is cheap (compared to paper channels of comparable bandwidth) but it is not free. I almost hate to say this, but the transition from commercial software to free software makes an ad-based model very difficult. My magazines lived on smallish ads from smallish tool companies, and the sorts of things they used to sell are now free downloads. This is in part a consequence of the fact that personal computing is now mature, and software tools that used to become obsolete in six months can now be used for years and perhaps indefinitely without regular, radical rewrites.

We forget sometimes what made magazines so compelling: The element of surprise. Magazines exposed us to ideas and technologies and products that we might not have discovered on our own. (This is precisely why broadcast radio is important to the music industry.) The Web world is a search-engine world, and we generally ascend into the Cloud looking for something very specific, and it is in the nature of clouds to make things difficult to see unless they’re right in your face. Search engines encourage us to become better and better at what we already know, further accelerating the natural trend toward specialization in the face of increasing complexity. Magazines tended to broaden our horizons, and they were useful bathroom reading too. Pervasive home Wi-Fi is eroding even this ancient bastion of print publishing, and once a decent convertible (tablet-like) netbook matures, well, the bathroom magazine rack may vanish, and be replaced by an EEEEEEE PC in a wall-mounted charging dock.

So I would like to see DDJ continue as a viable entity, and it may, but it has to be done very carefully. It also has to be done well. One way for them to proceed is to look around the Cloud and see what’s already there and works. Make, Lockergnome, and Slashdot may already be “magazines,” and Cloud portal platforms like Mambo and Joomla can work well when intelligently configured. We still need to figure out where the money will come from, and we must remind ourselves that reading outside our core preferences is a powerful intellectual advantage. There’s a pony up there somewhere. Let’s all of us, readers and editors alike, keep looking.

Odd Lots

  • Quick reminder: If I’m on your blogroll, or if you have a link to Contra on any of your pages, please check to see that the new URL is in place. Thanks!
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a fantastic technical animation that “assembles” the Space Station one module at a time, while displaying a timeline on the right indicating when each part was orbited and attached. I knew roughly how the thing went together, but this is almost like Cliff Notes. Takes just a couple of minutes to watch. Don’t miss it!
  • Again from Pete is a site with more information on steam turbine locomotives. I had heard of the Jawn Henry (That’s how the Norfolk & Western spelled it) but had not seen a photo until I followed the link in the article. The main problem with coal-fired turbine electrics appears to have been coal dust in the electric motors. Makes sense, but I would never have thought of it.
  • Henry Law weighed in from the UK on the merits of Marmite, the original beer yeast leftovers toast spread, as far superior to those of Vegemite. (See my entry for January 4, 2009.) I may have to let Henry duke it out with Eric the Fruit Bat over this, as I have not tasted either but will try some as soon as I don’t have to buy a whole jar. Sam’l Bassett suggests that its flavor is heavy on the umami, which makes me a little nervous. I don’t taste MSG at all–flavor enhancer is not a word I’d use for it–but it makes me feel almighty strange, even in very small amounts.
  • The Boston Globe, of all things, published a piece stating strongly that cities are really, really really bad places to live from the standpoint of health and clear thinking. I learned that twenty years ago; nice to see that the mainstream media is giving the idea some air. Alas, their answer–more parks–is treating the symptoms, not the disease. The disease is overcrowding, and the answer is to revitalize small towns. But that’s just me, and what do I know about quality of life?
  • I had long known there are “large” Lego blocks called Duplo, but it wasn’t until Katie Beth got a set for this past Christmas that I had ever seen Mega Bloks, a sort of “house-brand” Lego and widely despised as a cheap imitation. However, even though Mega has both a Lego and a Duplo clone, they also have Maxi Bloks, which are larger than Duplo and so large, in fact, that no adult human being is likely to be able to swallow them, much less a two-year-old. This was a good idea. I want Katie to be comfortable with the idea of building things, and Maxi Bloks make it unnecessary to wait any longer.
  • The February Sky & Telescope has a very defensive editorial from Robert Naeye, countering a tidal wave of accusations that S&T has gone the way of Scientific American and has been “dumbed down” in terms of scientific content. I don’t have a link to the editorial online, but its core point is so silly I groaned. Naeye basically said that “We’re not getting dumber–you’re getting smarter!” Um…no. You’re getting dumber. I had been a subscriber for 25 years or so with just a few gaps. I think I have a sense for where it was when I came to it, versus where it is now.
  • I’m editing this with Zoundry Raven, as I have since I stumbled on it a couple of weeks ago. I’ve used Raven enough now so that I can recommend it without significant hesitation. The Zoundry business model is interesting (albeit difficult to describe) but it’s also optional–you don’t need to participate to use the software.
  • Hey. I didn’t get this for Christmas. Neither did you. But boy, the 12-year-old in me ached a little when I saw it…
  • I’m amazed that I never knew this, but the Anglican term for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28) is “Childermas.” He doesn’t use the word, but arguably the best song James Taylor ever wrote is about the Three Kings, Herod, and the Holy Innocents. “Steer clear of royal welcomes / Avoid the big to-do. / A king who would slaughter the innocents / Will not cut a deal for you.” Indeed. Avoid all kings. Keep them in chains when you can–even the ones we believe that we elect.

Missed Opportunities

Carol and I had lunch today at the Black Bear Cafe, and while working on my canonical half Carson Club (a ham-and-swiss with bacon; I tell ’em to hold the tomatoes) the muzak played “Down Under” by Men At Work. I recalled that, back in (presumably) 1982, when the song hit #1 here, I missed an opportunity to actually try Vegemite, famously mentioned in the song. We lived in Rochester, NY at the time, where I was writing data validation software for Xerox. At one of the Rochester Science Fact and Fiction Association potlucks, somebody had brought a jar of vegemite and put it out in a bowl for us to try. I looked at it with some interest, but Alice Insley (now Bentley) leaned over and said “Don’t. It’s awful.” (At least I think it was Alice, but sheesh, that was 27 years ago!)

So I passed on Vegemite, and it and I have not crossed paths at all in the ensuing years. Reading about the famous brown beer-yeast goop on Wikipedia made me ponder what other opportunities I have missed in my life. One was Microsoft stock: I told my broker to buy some when MS went public in 1986, and she didn’t, telling me later that she “couldn’t find any.” Bummer. (I’d be worth about $20M now if she had.) I passed on a very good job right out of college, working as a tech editor for an orthopedic surgery magazine associated with the Northwestern University medical school. It involved scrubbing up and observing surgeries right there in the operating room, and then documenting the procedures that they were developing at the time. The job paid $12.5K/year, which was a fortune for a liberal arts grad during the 1974 recession. I took a job performing surgeries on Xerox machines instead, for about 35% less money. Hey, I have a touchy stomach. Nothing like explosive vomiting in the operating room, eh? But I could have gotten into publishing eleven years sooner than I eventually did.

That’s about it. Keith and I talked vaguely about starting a magazine called Digital Camera Techniques back when digital cameras were still mighty exotic (I think 1995 or 1996) and decided not to. Shame. That might have been fun, but whether I could have masterminded two magazines simultaneously was a serious question. A digital camera mag was not a sure thing, either–one can be too far ahead of the curve as easily as too far behind it.

Life did not offer me a great many interesting opportunities, and those that it did offer I mostly took: Carol, Clarion, Ziff-Davis, Borland, and Keith’s famous interjection, “Hey, we could publish our own damned magazine!” I had a chance to resurrect Carl & Jerry, and I did. Mostly I was careful, and kept a low profile compared to some of my gonzo friends.

It’s a family tradition. In late 1951, when my father was about to graduate from engineering school, he was offered a job with an oil company in downtown Caracas, Venezuela. He wanted to go, but my mother was sure that Venezuela was nothing but steaming jungle. (She was a nurse; I suspect she was worried about malaria, etc.) I was born less than a year later. What would life have been like had I spent my first ten years in South America? I’d speak fluent Spanish now. I’d have seen the Magellanic Clouds. Beyond that, who knows? There are linear lives, and fractal lives. I have instinctively chosen a linear life. I’m good with that–but sometimes it makes ya wonder…

Odd Lots

After giving it much thought, I’ve decided I rather like gathering links and other short items into lists rather than publishing each as a separate entry. Don’t know why, and I may change my mind. But for the time being, I’m continuing the ancient Contra custom.

  • While in Chicago over Christmas, we watched a movie I wholeheartedly condemn: Knocked Up. The film was completely unlikeable, and consisted almost entirely of out-of-control people screaming obscenities at one another. Sheesh.
  • That was depressing, but the other thing we did that same evening was play Rock Band, a Wii app with a string-less guitar and drum-less drum kit. That was way more fun. I’d hoped it would be a sort of Miracle Rock Music Teacher, but that’s not its mission. However, I did reasonably well at the drums and quite well on voice, even though there were only three songs on the whole list that I had even heard of, and none that I especially liked. You have to choose an animated avatar (there’s that word again) and after much searching for a bald-headed middle-aged white boy, I had to settle for the wonderfully named Duke of Gravity. The Duke was my choice because he had big bushy sideburns, which (apart from the color) resembled what I used to have in the 70s. Next time, can I be the Duke of Electromagnetism? (I didn’t know codpieces could have teeth.)
  • Spaceweather posted one of the spookiest sky photos I’ve ever seen, and I take some delight in the fact that atmospheric experts can’t explain it. If things like this happen every so often (even if only every 30 or 40 years) no wonder our ancestors believed in gods and angels.
  • The BBC has a very nice article on the mysterious Soviet Buran shuttle, which made precisely one flight comprised of two orbits plus an effortless return to Earth, all without a single human being in the cockpit. Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.
  • Pete Albrecht reminded me that, sandwiched between the end of the steam era and the beginning of the diesel-electric era, we had a very thin sliver of railroad locomotive evolution called the steam turbine-electric era. Behold the most formidable example, the C&O M1, a 4-8-4-8-4 (!!) in which a coal-fired steam turbine spun a generator, producing electricity that turned electric motors over the wheels. Man, they don’t make trains like that anymore. But they could. (After all, we have more coal than they have oil.)
  • The teeny, gummy Cruzer Micro Skin (so named because the whole thing is encased in a soft and slightly sensual plastic sleeve) is available in an 8GB version, and Amazon is now selling them for $12.99. (Marked down from $90!) I grabbed one; every MP3 I’ve ever ripped from my CDs will fit on that, with room to spare. The “big” 16 GB Cruzer Micro is already out there for $32.99–that’s a thousand times the capacity of my first thumb drive, which I bought back in 2001 for $50.
  • Here’s The Secret Origin of Clippy, a 15-slide retrospective based on Microsoft’s patent filings for animated screen assistants, of which Clippy was the least obnoxious. Tapping on the inside of the glass was clever and funny for the first twenty minutes, but now (with a plastic flat screen in front of me) it’s just, well, tired.

Mission of Gravatar

One thing I didn’t quite figure out with WordPress before New Year’s Day was how to upload a userpic for myself. It’s not a critical issue, and I kept bumping it to the back of the “look into this” list–until this morning, when I realized that a commenter had a userpic. This is not LiveJournal, where thousands of people have their accounts all on one server and userpics are stored centrally. This is my own private instance of WordPress, installed on my own hosting service, with no blogs on it but mine. So wherethehell did that userpic come from? Shortly thereafter, Julian Bucknall showed up in a comment, with his own userpic. At this point, I quit gnashing my teeth at Ubuntu for being atavistic (why isn’t there a dialog in the admin menu tree somewhere for setting a search path? Huh? Huh? Why?) and did some digging.

Of course, something interesting is going on here. There’s a Web service called Gravatar, which maintains small images (either photos or drawn art) intended to be used as personal avatars on blog comments and discussion forums. Each image is keyed by an MD5 hash of the image owner’s email address. Blog or forum software (anything, actually) simply makes a request to with the hash, and it gets back an 80X80 image.

This works great–when it works, which is most but not all of the time.

I’m still scratching my head here. I can see my gravatar image on Contra from every browser in the house except the instance of Firefox 2 here on my main machine. IE6 on this box shows it. FF2 and all IEs V6 and after show it. But FF2 on this box won’t–except in the “Recent Comments” pane of the dashboard. Then, sure. Gotta make it complicated.

This does not compute. It’s the same damned version of FF I have running everywhere in the house. ( I’m not big on plug-ins, and there’s nothing peculiar about this install of XP. I do not see why viewing WordPress on this instance of FireFox would be any different from viewing WordPress with any other instance of Firefox–and it does see other people’s gravatars over their comments. Just not mine.

Still stumped, and I’m posting this to see if any of you do not see my picture in the avatar block of any of my comments here on WordPress. Suggestions, of course, are welcome. I won’t croak if I can’t see my own gravatar as long as everybody else can, but things like this give cloud computing a bad name.

One final note, which boggles this old mind: Gravatar has a rating system. You can have G, PG, R, and X-rated gravatars. You heard me: X-rated gravatars. In an 80-pixel by 80-pixel block. Damn. I can’t have a GUI dialog to set the Linux search path, and you can have an X-rated gravatar. Somebody’s getting ripped here. Deciding who I leave as an exercise for the reader.

So What’s a “Contrarian”?

Ever since I declared myself a Contrarian Optimist and renamed my VDM Diary to ContraPositive Diary in 2000, people have been asking me what a “contrarian” is. Everybody seems to connect it with buying stock right after a market crash (not always a bad thing) or buying gold because, after all, the end of the world is coming Real Soon. Nor does it mean stubborn, although it may mean “stubborn about refusing to agree with you.” It’s a fair question, and warrants some explanation.

First of all and most fundamentally, a contrarian is a sharp stick in the eye of conventional wisdom. There are certain things that “everybody knows” even though this “everybody” is often the intersection of the sets of the captious, the lazy, and a tribe of opinion-makers with an agenda. The troubling part is that conventional wisdom is sometimes true, and sometimes in opposition to other tenets of conventional wisdom. The world is never as simple as we think, and conventional wisdom is often an oversimplification of a difficult truth, offered up to the ignorant to keep them from having to work too hard, and sometimes serving to sugarcoat an agenda in the process. Contrarians understand that conventional wisdom is the cross-product of lazy thinking and hidden agendas, and go digging for the truth. Where to dig is important, and generally not obvious.Contrarians pay attention to those who doth protest too much, and look for clues in the sound and the fury. Much can be learned by listening to fools and discerning their agendas; fools are less adept at concealing agendas than the people who originated the agendas.

Agendas are key. Contrarians do not swear fealty to tribes or tribal ideologies. (Tribalism is a special danger to civilization, and I’ll expand on this issue here on Contra as time allows.) Tribes are groups who define their own specific conventional wisdom–a collection of ideologies that I call “received opinions”–and then enforce it within the tribe as mercilessly as they must. Deep psychologies are at work here. There seems to be a peculiar and powerful desire in some personality types to offer fealty to a tribe, in a very deep and preverbal way that precludes any meaningful opposition to the tribe’s ideologies. We are looking at things we inherited from our primate ancestors, things we’ve had since before we had language. Such people are pretty much owned by the tribe, and serve the needs of tribal leaders while feeling that the fate of the world depends on their loyalty to the tribe and their vilification of The Enemy–basically, competing tribes.

Contrarians may hold positions that they develop over time, but they do not swear fealty to anything, and reserve the right to change their minds, and recognize their occasional responsibility to do so.

Changing one’s mind is good exercise (way better than leg lifts) and Contrarians do it as often as necessary. Key here is that contrarians are not certain. Contrarians doubt everything, in the older and higher sense of “doubt,” meaning to recognize the incompleteness of a particular understanding of something. Doubts do not preclude faith. Doubts, in fact, are how faith happens. Certainty is how faith dies. Faith may well be defined as “conditional acceptance of something for which we have incomplete corroboration.” I have personal doubts about whether God exists, but I also have faith that He does. This is not schizophrenic; this is how it works. When you become certain of something, the game is over, the doors are locked, and the lights inside go out. Further insight is impossible, and further movement toward wisdom does not happen. (Worse, people prone to certainty are easy pickins’ for tribal leaders who need foot soldiers.) Certainty, after all, is the conviction that there is nothing more to be learned. After that, what’s left but watching hockey?

Issues of God and religion may be bad examples; I’m just odd that way. I believe in the laws of physics, but I also know that somebody with Major Doubts got the “law” of parity conservation repealed in the 1950s. That’s how science works, and in these days of belligerent certainty, a true scientific mindset is a contrarian attribute. I will not be surprised when String Theory gets shot in the head by some doubter somewhere (who may not even be born yet) and I won’t get annoyed when it happens. Less cosmic and closer to home, I am pretty sure that eating carbs makes you fat and eating fat makes you thin. I won’t say that I know for certain, but the more I look, the more evidence I’ve found to balance my doubts. My doubts remain. This doesn’t bother me. Nor would being proven wrong. I enjoy changing my mind when the evidence suggests that it’s necessary. The process is painful, but so is a twenty-mile hike. The pain will pass.

Doubts are a manifestation of humility. We always know less than we think we do, and the best way to learn more is to assume that you know less going in. No matter what you think you know, you are wrong. And so am I. A contrarian, however, is willing to admit it, and keep on diggin’.

It’s not all drudgework, this contrarian business. A contrarian enjoys the perversity inherent in being a contrarian. A touch of perversity keeps your crap detector sharp, and prevents you from falling into predictable ruts that all too often lead directly to tribal enslavement.

The more I read wine snobs dumping on sweet wine, the more I enjoy sweet wine. The more some people froth about Global Warming, the more intrigued I am by the possibility of Global Cooling–and the research that I’ve pursued there has been a lot of fun. I enjoy tweaking cultural snobs of all types, and my practice in being a contrarian has allowed me to work both sides of most of these streets: I’ll waltz but damn, I’ll polka! I read Chaucer in Middle English, but I like country music and I have a cowboy hat made by Ronald Reagan’s hatmaker. I like a good souffle, and I like Egg McMuffins. I write my reserved words in uppercase. (My language allows that. Sorry about yours.) My mix CDs jump between the Chicago Symphony and The Peppermint Trolley Company. Bach, sure. Barry Manilow, no problem.

Ruts, after all, are horizons pulled in too close. Shove ’em back whenever you can. I know dopers and scientists and crackpots and 4-star generals, and I have enjoyed the company of all of them. Life is full of irony and little weirdnesses, and as Art Linkletter hugely profited in learning, people are funny. Contrarians strive not to take anything too seriously. (We fail sometimes, but we try.) Even, or especially, ourselves.

Finally, a contrarian is free. This shouldn’t be necessary to say, but so much of modern life consists of surrendering your intellectual freedom to tribes of various kinds for dubious rewards. Tell the weasels to –ck off. (Tsk. Really, now. The hidden word is “back.”)

So I begin 2009 and a rebooted Contra, with a promise to revisit some of the points here in more detail as time permits. Happy New Year. Keep an open mind. And stay tuned.