Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

February, 2009:

Odd Lots

  • German model train manufacturer Marklin has filed for bankruptcy, though there is still some hope that the 150-year-old firm will remain in business. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.
  • Scientific American has an interesting retrospective on the infamous nuclear-powered B-36 that actually flew back in the late 1950s, with a live, air-cooled fission reactor in its rear bomb bay. I’m less twitchy about nuclear than almost anyone I know, and that item still gives me pause. (I do think that the stock B-36 was the coolest military aircraft of the transition period between props and jets, and one of the coolest of all time, period.)
  • From Rich Rostrom comes an aerial photo of the Fovant Badges, which are a group of military insignia cut into the Wiltshire chalk downs in southern England. They date back to WWI, and have been laboriously maintained since then–a job and a half, considering that some are over 200 feet wide.
  • When I first heard Cher’s uber-irritating hit “Believe” years ago I wanted to know what sort of processing was going on with her audio. I didn’t want to know enough to search too deeply, but it recently turned up on Slashdot. The gadget is called Auto-Tune. And Cher can actually sing when she wants to; one wonders what it could do for no-voicers like Bob Dylan.
  • I’ve never paid much attention to KDE’s Kate editor, but discovered today to my delight that it has syntax highlighting for NASM. I’d basically given up trying to find a lightweight Linux assembly language IDE to describe in my book, but half an hour of lightweight fooling around with it makes me think that Kate might be the one. Now all I have to do is become an expert in the next couple of weeks. Are there any books on it, print or e? I looked around and have found nothing so far.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: interpunct, which is a small dot used originally in Latin to unambiguously mark the spaces between words. It’s still used today to show you where the invisible characters are on your screen, and I recognized the concept immediately, but never knew what it was called.
  • From ditto: A placket is a flap of cloth that hides a button on fancy clothes. I have a pair of pants with one, and again, never knew what it was called until very recently.
  • Pete Albrecht pointed out a source of very nice cast aluminum house numbers in the Craftsman style–though at prices like these, I’m glad I have only a 3-digit address.
  • From the Painting the Devil on the Wall Department: One of the nation’s leading promotors of monster truck shows was run over and killed by a monster truck at one of his own shows. (Again, thanks to Pete for the link.)
  • From Ed Keefe comes a pointer to a stunt kite fitted out with a microcontroller, an accelerometer, and LEDs so that it could be flown at night and turn different colors depending on how fast it’s going and which way it’s pointing. I flew a kite at night in 1965 and only knew what it was doing by the crackle noise it made and how hard it pulled on the string. Technology advances…

The Yard’s All Out of 3 X 4s…

I’ve gotten far enough into the revision of Assembly language Step By Step that I need to have a Linux machine running up here in my office all the time. I often spend hours in Ubuntu on this dual-boot machine, but there are still some things I need to do in Windows, and booting in and out to bounce from one to the other is time wasted, and pointless when I have old PCs stacked like cordwood in the basement.


I have one of the very cool SX270 stainless-steel all-in-one brackets that combines a 10cm VESA monitor mount with a couple of tangs to hold an SX270 mini-PC behind the monitor. It makes for a very compact system, and in fact it was the integration of the SX270 and the monitor on the bracket that first brought the SX270 to my attention some years back, when I saw a couple of them at our optometrist’s office. So I took my spare SX270, parked it on the bracket, dug a Dell keyboard and a mouse out of the odd lots box, and realized that I did not have a VESA monitor to hang on it. So off we went to Best Buy, where I learned from the earnest young woman in the computer department that they had not sold 4:3 monitors for almost a year now. Every single one in the long line on display was 16:9.

I know why this is the case (home theater) and whereas it wouldn’t be my first choice, I’m willing to use that form factor, and really needed a monitor. I was apprehensive for a simple reason: The SX270 was made in 2003, and I don’t recall the machine supporting the 1600 X 900 resolution of the smaller 16:9 LCDs. I took a chance, figuring (or at least hoping) that I could rummage around online and come up with a newer driver for the Intel 82865G graphics chipset.

What I bought was a Samsung SyncMaster 2033SW. It’s VESA-compliant, and I bolted it to the stainless steel bracket without difficulty. It was on sale for $179. The machine itself cost me less than that; I think $150 on eBay some time last summer. 2.8 GHz, 1 GB RAM, with XP Pro–used and used hard, and ugly up close, but completely functional. I went up to Dell’s site to see if newer video drivers were available, but what they had was what I had. The closest that Windows could come to 1600 X 900 was 1280 X 768. The monitor centered the smaller raster in the middle of its screen, with the surrounding pixels dark. There was a “stretch” option that spread the raster out to the full extent of the screen, but it looked hideous.

Fortunately, Windows wasn’t the goal here. I booted the Ubuntu Intrepid installer CD in LiveCD mode to see what the OS would detect and how it would respond, considering that the machine dates back to 2003. Without a grunt of complaint, it detected the graphics hardware and loaded a 1600 X 900 driver. I tried a few things, pronounced it good, and told the OS to go install itself in earnest. Twenty minutes later, I was downloading NASM, Kdbg, the Bless Hex Editor, Nemiver, ddd, and a few other things through the Synaptic Package Manager. Not once did I have to face a command line. Everything Just Worked. The age of the machine (apparent from its collection of dents and inventory-tag stickum) didn’t seem to matter at all.

The display is gorgeous; it’s easily the brightest LCD I’ve ever seen. The whole gadget takes up about as little space as anything with a 20″ monitor possibly could. And after spending an afternoon with it, I realize that a long horizontal aspect can be handy: Editor on the right, Kdbg on the left, and just enough of a terminal peeking out under the editor to run make as needed.

I’ve been fooling with Linux intermittently for well over ten years, and the craziness of today’s events still boggles me: It installed much faster and way more easily than Windows generally does, and on old hardware to boot. This was not the case in 1999, let me tell you. If MS isn’t in trouble by now, it’s nobody’s fault but our own.

Odd Lots

  • The United States has overtaken Germany as the world’s lead producer of wind energy, measured in total kilowatts. Way to go–keeping in mind that Germany still beats us all hollow with kilowatts per capita. I’m a big believer in NWS, in that order, and part of the reason N comes before W is that over the past few years, when Carol and I have passed giant wind turbines along I-80 on our way to and from Chicago, they were only turning about a third of the time. Wind energy is great, but it does not stand alone.
  • Small children should be allowed to get dirty as a way of building their immune systems. I was digging in the back yard since before I can remember, and never had much trouble with allergies. There may be a downside to our dirt- and germ-averse culture that has nothing to do with the risk of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. (With Gretchen’s approval, I think I’m going to buy our nieces a couple of garden trowels next Christmas…)
  • Few people today remember that Apple Computer was once a Pascal shop, and had a promo poster in the late 70s incorporating a classic “railroad” diagram of Pascal language syntax. Yes, the 70s really did look like that. (At least it wasn’t all done in Harvest Gold.) Thanks to Paul Santa-Maria for the link. Paul created his own version of the poster in black and white, which I hope he makes available at some point. The Waite Group sold (or gave away; not sure if it was a boom promo) a similar card in the same era, but it’s long since vanished from my collection.
  • Has anyone here ever read any of the Very Short Introduction books from Oxford University Press? Are they useful? I just ordered several, and I’m curious as to the quality of the series. I’ll report here once the books show up and I’ve had a chance to read them. There are many subjects I’m interested in sufficiently to read 150 pages on, but not 600 pages.
  • A German publisher wrote an article claiming that cheaper ebooks will put them out of business. (The article is in German; take what you can from the English summary or if you know the language, click through to the original.) The gist is that there are special costs associated with e-publishing that more than balance the special costs associated with print publishing. My take: If true, it’s only until we get up to speed. (I also think it may be true that many publishers don’t really understand all the forces that bear on how they make their money. Many things lead up to the cash-register’s beep, not all of them obvious.
  • I’m a lot less sanguine about the OLPC than I used to be, but the recent unveiling of future designs intrigues me: The next-gen OLPC will have two displays, and can be held and read portrait-style, like a book. When a keyboard is needed, rotate the device 90, and one of the two displays becomes a keyboard. Very cool, and something like that should be sold worldwide by every electronics retailer. (Their peculiar distribution mechanism will eventually be the end of them.)

Cleaning Up 21-Year-Old Writing

Context changes are expensive, whether you’re a writer or an operating system. That’s why I like long, uninterrupted days to write. Writing in small chunks on large projects never worked well for me; I’d rather pull three ten-hour days than find thirty disjointed hours in the course of a week and waste half of each of them trying to recover my train of thought.

So it’s been with the fourth edition of Assembly Language Step By Step. I’ve spent most of the last four days blasting away at it, and if I haven’t returned to the Carb Wars here, that’s the reason. All in good time.

This is a big project, probably the biggest I’ve attempted since Drive-by Wi-Fi Guide, and it’s likely to be eating my life until June. There’s a great deal of new material to be written, and a lot of concepts to be covered that just weren’t issues under DOS. For example, when you work at the assembly level under Linux, endianness comes into play and needs to be explained, even though 85% of the world’s desktop hardware is little-endian.

That’s actually been fun; as I’ve said many times, the very best way to make sure you understand something is to explain it to somebody else. What’s been humbling is running into writing bad enough to make me wince. Every so often, I have to push back in my chair, heave a deep sigh, and ask myself the purely rhetorical question: “Geez. Did I write that?” (I did. 21 years ago. Practice helps…)

No problem; this is what editors do, though I am very glad that we’re not using typewriters anymore. And unlike certain other projects I’ve worked on, the author in this case takes criticism well.