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December, 2009:

Some Good Juju and Some Bad Juju

Bad juju first: When I woke up this morning it was 0, and we had six inches of new snow on the ground. Carol had a physical scheduled for 10:00, so we were out the door extra early, slithering (even in 4WD) in a winter wonderland. We got there and back intact, but it was snowing again when we pulled into the driveway, and the Weather Channel radar indicates that it may be snowing for some time. Given that six inches is close to the limit my little snow blower can handle at one gulp, I decided to get rid of what was there to make way for what was clearly coming. Not too difficult, and I was mostly done when I slipped on a patch of black ice on the driveway and went down hard on my right arm. Here’s hoping an Aleve will minimize the swelling, but I’m expecting some exquisite bruises on that arm, albeit bruises no one will see except Carol given that long-sleeved shirts are the order of the season. Winter began here in early October, and may we be so bold as to demand that it be gone by February?

Probably not; that promising sunspot that popped up for a few days on the far side of the Sun is now gone, and our hundred-year solar minimum continues with no end in sight.

The good juju comes to us mostly from the Engadget blog. A very perceptive post from Niley Patel on Saturday exposes Michael Arrington’s wrath over the Crunchpad coup that supposedly killed the tablet stone dead a week ago. And today several people wrote to tell me that what had been the Crunchpad is now the Joo Joo Tablet, and Arrington’s erstwhile hardware partners Fusion Garage intend to go it on their own. More details over on Gizmodo.

Saturday’s post suggests that Arrington was careless about defining contractual relationships between his firm and Fusion Garage, which is peculiar, considering that Michael Arrington was a lawyer long before he was a blogger or a tech enterpreneur. He registered the trademark for “Crunchpad” only at the end of November, after calling it by that name for well over a year. And now, wowzers, Fusion Garage claims that he never had much to do with the technical development of the device to begin with.

Arrington is threatening wholesale litigation, and the whole thing is starting to smell like greasepaint to me. But think: What better way to launch an unlikely dark horse in the tech world than to foment a media circus? Everybody loves a fight. I see a possible business plan that puts the Underpants Gnomes to shame:

  • Phase 1: Talk for a year or two about a fantastical device and see if anybody notices.
  • Phase 2: If nobody notices by the time the device is ready to sell, pretend to have a riproaring legal fight over who has rights to what.
  • Phase 3: Harvest endless millions of dollars’ worth of free PR while taking pre-orders.
  • Phase 4: Have a group-hug videocast to settle conflicts that never really existed.
  • Phase 5: Profit!

The problems could be real, too, obviously. But there’s something funny going on somewhere, and whereas I won’t order one until I see that it can be configured as an ebook reader (and ideally let somebody else try it first) I still have high hopes. Let’s watch.

Update 12/8/2009: Engadget has a little more detail, and a hands-on video.

Odd Lots

  • We broke a new cold record for December 3 last night, when it went down to -3 here. (The previous record was +3, so that’s a significant margin.) Cheyenne Mountain is covered with snow, and it’s a wonderful wintry-Christmasy scene out my office windows, though I have to get out there and clear the walks when the temps eventually get up into double digits.
  • My prediction: We will not quite break 2008’s record for sunspotless days this year. Why so sure? Well, we’re already at 255 days (and just passed 1912’s count of 253) but a sunspot appears to be forming on the back of the Sun, and it will rotate around the far side and come into view in about a week. If it’s a big enough spot, it may be visible for the rest of December. So add 7 to our current 255 and you get 262, which is in cigar territory for 2008’s 266 sunspotless days, but not quite lit. Of course, if the spot lives and dies over the next week or so (which I’ve seen happen for smallish spots) we may still beat 2008. Either way, we’re in the thick of the deepest solar minimum in 150 years.
  • I just ordered a Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook, after spending some quality time with Julian Bucknall‘s slightly older and smaller Dell netbook at the Meetup-less Delphi Meetup last night. The keyboard is surprisingly usable, and I don’t expect to be writing any 180,000-word computer books on it. I was looking for compactness, not cheapness (there’s a larger toy budget this year, much thanks to Assembly Language Step By Step and other things) and so I loaded up with a GPS receiver, higher-res display, faster CPU, and (obviously) a bigger battery. All that, and it still runs XP. Windows 7 was an option, but why burden a pocket machine any more than it’s already burdened by just being a pocket machine?
  • Intel has unveiled a novel 48-core x86 processor, arranged as 24 dual-core CPUs communicating through a mesh network with up to 256GB/s bandwidth. Cores no longer need hardware cache coherence machinery, which cuts the complexity and power consumption of the (huge: 567 mm2!) part. I’m still wondering howinhell we’re gonna program these things.
  • Does anybody my age or older remember the TV series Men Into Space? It ran for one season in 1959-1960, and was created by Ziv TV, the firm that also did Science Fiction Theater, Sea Hunt, and Highway Patrol. Remarkably, I don’t remember it at all, even though Broderick Crawford’s iconic “10-4!” is crystal clear in my head. There was supposedly some Bonestell backdrop art in the show, and a solid attempt at factual accuracy, within the limits of weekly TV production of the time. Thanks to Roy Harvey for the link.
  • People who are familiar with my novel The Cunning Blood should take a look at these 3-D renderings of the Mandelbulb. This is almost precisely what I had in mind when imagining Magic Mikey’s views of chaos signatures using the Femtoscope. (Chapter 12, p.196ff.)
  • In a dance-around-it sort of way, Slate admits that there’s no compelling reason to use Office 2010…or 2007…or any version past the one that meets all your needs. Duhh.
  • From Neil Rest comes a pointer to a puppet show dramatizing the Bohr-Einstein debates over spooky-action-at-a-distance. Einstein is played by a stuffed bichon. (What else? You’d cast a Chihuahua?) BTW, this is for real; it’s not a parody but an actual physics lesson.
  • Borders is closing about 200 of its Waldenbooks mall stores in January. Here’s a PDF list of stores to be closed. I’ll admit that I haven’t bought anything at a Waldenbooks store for many years, simply because they don’t have the selection of the “big” Borders stores. (I also don’t go to shopping malls that often.) This may be good news, if it means that fewer of the big stores will have to go down too.

Review: Planet 51

Planet51.jpgThere’s concept, and there’s execution. You need both to make a truly terrific work of fiction, whether on film or in text. I had high expectations for Planet 51, and the concept did not disappoint me: A loopy twist on the classic alien monster movies of the 1950s…except that this time, we’re the aliens, landing on a planet full of…1950s aliens.

Or, let’s say, 1950s aliens living in an alien analog of 1950s small-town America. As with the 2005 animated film Robots, there’s an alien analog to just about everything Earthish: Malt shops, bowling alleys, poodle skirts, backyard barbecues, and hovering alien ’59 Caddies. There are 50’s alien monster movies, and 50s paranoia, here directed against…aliens. Somewhere off in the desert is a mythic alien Secret Base a la Men In Black, where dozens of captured robotic space probes from Earth are kept under glass domes. Into the thick of all this lands a souped-up Lunar Excursion Module containing an oafish, self-involved square-jawed astronaut, who is surprised that Planet 51 is inhabited, and is as terrified of its innocuous green noseless inhabitants as they are of him. His arrival triggers the awakening of a 6-wheeled robotic rover named Rover, which handily dismantles the dome under which he’s been stored, and then goes looking for his master, NASA Capt. Chuck Baker.

Is that a great concept or what? Alas, for all the great ideas and great artwork, somehow it doesn’t completely gel. Much could be done with an astronaut who realizes (as Chuck Baker eventually does) that he’s simply baggage strapped into a completely automated spacecraft, and that it’s not about him. Too bad that nothing is; Baker is drawn as an idiot, but somehow isn’t even true to that time-honored Hollywood template. Is he an astronaut, a lounge lizard, or a motivational speaker? (I got the impression that the scriptwriters couldn’t quite agree on who or what he was.) The alien characters are fun because they’re just barefoot green 50s suburbanites (the women all have built-in high heels) doing 50s things, and even listening to 50s music. It’s a stretch, but this is a cartoon movie, and for the most part the alien side of things works. Teen alien Lem debates with his comic-store geek friend Skiff about the existence of, well, aliens. (I.e., humans.) Skiff is sure that we’re out here; Lem can’t take any of it seriously, at least until he has to hide Capt. Baker in his bedroom. Lem pines over alien girl Neera, whose growing sensitivity to social issues prompts her to hang out with a group of protesters led by a long-haired, guitar toting alien hippie jerk named Glar. (Bzzzzzt! Hippies had not yet evolved in 1959, and the friction between the two cultures suggest something more like 1965 than 1959.) Once knowledge of Baker’s landing escapes the boundaries of sleepy alien town Glipforg, the alien army converges on the town, under cool, sunglassed Patton-archetyped General Grawl, and acts pretty much like the US Army acts in all those 50s alien monster movies.

rover1.jpgThe film is carried largely by the brilliant little robot Rover, who acts like a very bright dog with a power screwdriver, and gets most of the good sight gags and physical humor, including a surreal riff on “Singin’ in the Rain,” as it rains…rocks. (Rover’s job is to pick up rocks, like any good interplanetary probe. Alien rain is thus a species of nirvana for him.)

There are some good laughs here, though not as many as I wanted. The mandatory cultural references come thick and fast, some of them so subtle that if you blink you’ll miss them. The big negative is that Baker’s character is almost entirely wasted, even as a comedic figure. I also think some of the potty humor was over the line, or at least it would have been when I was a 12-year-old.

But hey, it was good (if not completely clean) fun. I have a special fondness for Rover, because he was pretty much how I imagined a character in one of my published stories: a clever and lonely Mars probe also named Rover. (See “Bathtub Mary” in my collection Souls in Silicon.) Burger King actually has a Planet 51 tie-in going on right now, and if I could force myself to eat at Burger King I could get a Rover toy for my bookshelf. (I’ve done worse for less, so we’ll see…)

Cautiously recommended.


(Playing around with blogging styles here.) We got back from our Thanksgiving trip to Chicago yesterday afternoon, just before the deep freeze closed in again. Low tonight 10; high tomorrow 15; low tomorrow night 4. This is the coldest damned autumn we’ve had since we moved here, as well as the snowiest. Still, I’ll take this climate over Chicago’s three-month gloomfest any day.

I stuck my nose in the attic earlier this afternoon, scoping out what it might take to finish the job of shielding the leads from my garage smoke detector from my new-and-never-used wire dipole. What it will take is gloves and a winter coat, and wistful regret over not doing this in the fall. Wait a sec–this is the fall. And it’s not like I have any sunspots to coerce my signals into a path long enough to be useful.

My venerable 2005-era Kodak EasyShare V530 pocket camera is malfunctioning consistently and is probably scrap. I’ve said this before and it unexpectedly and inexplicably came back to life, but it’s been sitting dead in its little cradle for a month now, and I’m trying to decide what may take its place. I have the superb Canon G10 for technical photography, at which I’ve gotten tolerably good, but I still need an unfussy camera that will fit in a pocket, not need a case, and take a certain amount of rattling around with keys and small change (or big change) without damage.

In truth, what I’m really looking around for in a pocket camera is the champ at minimizing shutter lag. When I press the button I want the picture now–or as close to now as the technology permits. (I know DSLRs are good at this, but I want something small.) All of my previous digital cameras have required an ungodly amount of time to calculate what they’re going to do with the pixels that they’re about to capture, and this has meant a lot of missed shots of cute nieces and rowdy bichons playing dog soccer with Katie Beth’s beach ball. Sony seems to lead in most of the stack ranks on the shutter lag front, so I’m thinking about the Sony DSC-WX1.

Elsewhere in the Dying Hardware Department is my poor HP Laserjet 2100M printer, which I’ve had since, well, damn, I don’t remember, but probably 1998. I have pumped an immense amount of paper through that little cube, and replaced its worn-slick feed rolls in March of 2006, expecting them to work for another six or seven years. No luck. Paper feed has gotten erratic once more, and I’m not sure I want to go through the gnarly process of changing the feed rolls yet again. (That said, I have another repair kit on the shelf, so I probably will. I was the Lord High Feed Roll Executioner thirty-five years ago when I worked the LaSalle St. copier territory for Xerox, and such hard-won skills are a shame to waste.) So this might in fact be a good time to pop for my first color laser printer. I’m still shopping, but the HP CP1518 is the current front-runner. I know that the color laser cartridge market is a racket, but there have been times this year when I would really have liked color output for proofing book pages and covers. I guess if I do change out the rolls on the 2100 yet again I could park it downstairs for volume runs and keep the color unit up here. We’ll see, and soon–I need the tax deduction this year, courtesy my assembly language book.

Dash is sliding into puppy puberty: I caught him marking the baseboards in the front hall where QBit often sleeps. I rolled him on his back and tried my best to sound furious. He wagged his tail. A disciplinarian I’m not. I sense (nay, smell) interesting times ahead.