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April, 2010:

CBZ Files as Image Archives

Last fall, I gathered a stack of Alma-Tadema‘s paintings from my pre-1923 images folder, wrapped them up into a ZIP file, and sent them to a friend who was looking for a copyright-free color cover for a novel. Some weeks ago, I learned that the CBZ (Comic Book Zip) file format is nothing more than a ZIP file with a different extension. I downloaded and installed a free CBZ reader called Comical. After changing the extension on the Alma-Tadema archive to .cbz, I double-clicked on it, and boom! There it was, beautifully presented and trivially easy to click through. And if you change the extension back to .zip, you can de-archive the images in the usual fashion using any ZIP-capable archiver. It’s all in the extension; no changes to the binary archive need to be made.

Not being a comics guy, I’d never heard of the CBZ format, though it’s been around since 2004. It’s basically an ebook reader protocol (since it is, after all, simply an ordinary ZIP archive) that opens a .zip file and displays the files in alpha order by filename. If the files are displayable as images, the reader displays them. If the files are not displayable as images, a well-behaved reader will ignore them. (Comical, one of the simplest free readers, sometimes crashes when it encounters a non-image binary.) If you need an indicia page, some readers will display text if it’s in an .nfo file. The .nfo will appear in a separate text window on opening the file, rather than in the page display area.

I’ve tested four free CBZ readers: ComicRack and Comical under Windows, and QComicBook and Comix under Linux. All but ComicRack are open-source. ComicRack is overkill in a lot of ways, though it works very well. (It requires the .NET framework, if that’s significant to you.) Comical is much simpler, and my only gripes are that it doesn’t display .nfo files, and it crashes when it finds certain kinds of non-displayable files in a .cbz archive. QComicBook is a Qt4/KDE app, and the one I find myself using under Linux. Comix (a Python app) works well but is not as capable as QComicBook. (Feature-wise, it’s on a par with Comical.) Others exist. Okular will open CBZ files without complaint, but it simply scrolls vertically through the images without attempting to show one per click.

Most of the comic book readers also read CBR and CBT files, which are RAR and TAR archives, respectively, and work almost exactly the same way. (I haven’t tested those formats.)

The CBZ system works best when all the images in the archive are the same dimensions and aspect ratios. I’m putting together some photo albums for showing the folks back home that are collections of digital photographs in one (big) .cbz file. The bigness is mostly unavoidable, since JPG files don’t compress very well. Still, it makes file management simpler

Here are some sample CBZ archives that I put together for testing: Alma-Tadema (14 MB). Hi-Flier Kite Catalog 1977 (6 MB). The “Elf” Space-Charge Receiver (1.7 MB).

Odd Lots

Film’s Last (Hawaii) Hurrah


The camera gremlins were hard at work prior to our recent Hawaii vacation. Both of my working digital cameras were stolen at the Denver dog show in February. I do intend to get another Canon mid-size eventually, probably the G11, but in shopping for new pocket units I found that Best Buy had no Kodaks, and (worse) every damned pocket camera they sold requires that the battery be removed for recharging. The chap there had no idea why this was so, and I still don’t have a good explanation. But that’s idiotic, especially if (as I suspect) it was done to save a quarter’s worth of interior parts in a $500 camera.

My 2005-vintage Kodak V530 pocket camera had both a charger dock and a wall-wart, and the battery never needs to emerge from the camera until you carry it out in its coffin. Alas, the whole camera got carried out in its coffin last fall. My solution was to find a used or (hopefully) NOS Kodak V530 on eBay, and while I looked, I didn’t nail one until just last night, and that didn’t help us with Hawaii. Carol has a Kodak digital camera, but we’ve lost the portable charger, and the only way to recharge it is using her printer dock, which isn’t designed for lugging around.

So about all we could do was dig Carol’s 2001-era Kodak Advantix film camera out of the junk cabinet to see if it still lived. And mirabile dictu! The little CR2 3V battery wasn’t even dead, after not having been used for at least six years.


We put a new battery in it anyway, and it handled the bulk of the photography on our Hawaii adventure. (We bought an underwater film camera for our very corkybobby snorkel trip.) Walgreens no longer has Kodak machines, but Target does, and we got the pictures back a few days ago.

It was interesting to compare digital photos from our 2004 Hawaii trip and our 2005 Bermuda trip to the Advantix film photos. It’s obvious why film is barely twitching: The colors were brighter on the digital shots, and the resolution noticeably better. The photo above is typical; in bright light, Advantix does pretty well. (That’s me in the open car of the Sugar Cane Train, waiting to pull out of Lahaina.) In low light, Advantix got very grainy, and the colors lost most of their subtlety.

Carol paid for digital images on CD, which saved me having to scan prints into our photo archives, and that was quite welcome. One annoyance: The digital images were numbered 1-25, but in reverse order. In other words, photo 25 was the first photo taken on the roll, photo 24 the second taken, and so on. I don’t know if a tech at Target messed this up, or if it was an engineering brainfart associated with the machines.

No matter. My NOS Kodak V530 is on its way, and I’ll be getting a G11 one of these days. But Hawaii reminded us that film is mostly dead for a reason: Color, resolution, convenience, immediacy, and probably a few more. There are probably circumstances where film can still shine, but tourist photography is not one of them.

Boy. Keith and I talked about starting a magazine called Digital Camera Techniques in 1996. We didn’t. Talk about opportunities missed.

The Unenforceable Mandate

I hadn’t intended to write anything about health insurance reform, in large part because the debate has become so utterly poisonous, but also in part because I felt that the important issues have been adequately dealt with elsewhere. Well, there’s something that isn’t really being discussed and should be, because it cuts to the heart of how health insurance works, and may be the hinge upon which the PPACA (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) succeeds or fails. One would think that that would be discussed all over the place, but it’s not, neither in the liberal press (which I read) nor in the conservative press (which I also read.) In fact, so little has the issue been mentioned anywhere that I’ve begun to think I’m missing something crucial.

So let me begin by reiterating what most people know or should know: Health insurance is a really lousy business. Profit levels in health insurance run from 2.5% to 5%, depending on who you’re talking about and whose numbers you believe. Insurers are not making a lot of money, and what they do make they make only by doing everything in their power to exclude the people who need health insurance the most. Google “recission” and “purging” (sometimes called “reunderwriting”) in a health insurance context if you don’t believe me. Many people (including me) consider such practices tantamount to fraud, but that’s not the point I want to make. The point is that even while making full use of recission and reunderwriting, the health insurers are earning maybe 3% profits on average.

Like I said, a lousy business.

So. Enter health care reform. Insurance companies will be required to take (and keep) all comers, irrespective of pre-existing conditions. That’s called “guaranteed issue.” To make it work, all people will be required to buy health insurance, including people who choose not to buy it today, typically because they’re young and healthy. This requirement to buy insurance is the “individual mandate.” The individual mandate enlarges the pool of the insured and thus the amount of money available to pay claims. Without the individual mandate, people would buy insurance only when they needed it, which really isn’t “insurance” in any honest sense of the word. The pool of funds to pay claims would shrink, and claims would explode. The insurers would be gone like that.

Basically, the price of guaranteed issue is the individual mandate. You can’t have the first without the second. I think this is well-understood and not controversial at all. The devil, as usual, is in the fine print. In the bill as passed, people who choose not to buy health insurance will be required to pay a minimum fine of $695 in any given year, or 2.5% of their income, whichever is greater. Those fined would still be able to get insurance when they needed it under the provisions of guaranteed issue. This in itself is a problem, because the cost of insurance is likely to be much higher than 2.5% of income for a huge number of people. 2.5% of a $100,000 annual salary is $2500–dare ya to find a policy for that. A guy making $100K could just pay the $2500 and buy a guaranteed-issue $7000/year policy as soon as the bad lab tests came back, thus saving $4500/year without any downside for all the years that he stays healthy, and pushing that saved cost onto the insured.

I think this is dangerous. It’s not being talked about enough, but it’s being talked about a little, in a few relatively large publications. However, it’s not why I’m writing this entry.

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Timothy Noah in Slate about this very issue. Noah’s thrust was elsewhere, but my jaw dropped when I read Noah quoting from the health care reform bill itself. I clicked through to the monster PDF text of the final bill as passed, to verify what he had said. I blinked. I rubbed my eyes. I got up and went to the fridge for some diet ginger ale. I came back, and it was still there:

In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by this section, such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure.

This from page 336 of the bill as it was passed. On the same page, there is a provision that the government may not

(i) file notice of lien with respect to any property of a taxpayer by reason of any failure to pay the penalty imposed by this section, or (ii) levy on any such property with respect to such failure.

Read those quotes again. The bill outlaws its own enforcement. If you refuse to buy insurance and refuse to pay the fine for not buying insurance…nothing happens. The individual mandate is thus unenforceable, but you can lay odds that guaranteed issue will be mercilessly enforced against the insurance companies. I’m sure there’s some legal interpretation to be done here, but Noah’s point is that there is considerable temptation for mass civil disobedience on the individual mandate without any downside for those disobeying. What he doesn’t say is that such mass civil disobedience could lead to the collapse of the private health insurance industry.

Others in the blogosphere have begun to notice this in the last few days. But why hasn’t it shown up in the major media? You’d think the Wall Street Journal would be screaming about it in every other issue. Didn’t anybody actually read the bill?

Don’t answer that.

Hurray for the Leaners!

Rated-S_scientific_300.jpgSay what you want about cold fusion; it’s been a great show and a huge amount of fun. If time allowed I would read more on it; right now, the only book I’ve been through is Fire from Ice by Eugene Mallove, the cold fusion culture’s first martyr. In 2004, Mallove was murdered, probably by muggers, but Certain People are sure that it was the government, or the oil companies, or Arabic shieks, or somebody else who would be on the losing end of the energy stick if cold fusion actually came true.

Mallove’s book is now 11 years old and is strongly pro, and I need to read Gary Taubes’ book Bad Science (1993) for balance. Beyond that, well, the literature, having lain low for many years, is exploding again in celebration of finding a whole new name. (More on this shortly.)

I know, I know. How can I take any of this seriously, you ask? Back off, man. I’m a scientist. I also like street theater, especially science and technology street theater. I suffer fools gladly if they entertain me, because I learn best when I’m entertained. (Fools spouting politics rarely entertain me; street theater has its limits.) I’ve stated my official position here many times, and I’ll say it again: It’s probably not fusion. But it’s almost certainly interesting, and if pursued may actually turn out to be something useful, if not a source of free energy. Desktop fusion is nothing new, after all: Philo Farnsworth, needing to do penance for having invented television, went on to create desktop fusion. The nut they couldn’t crack is releasing more energy than their gadget absorbed, but hey, neutrons are useful, and they don’t just come when you whistle.

I was pleased to learn quite recently that “cold fusion” as a term has been deprecated in favor of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) which has the authority of an acronym and no obvious links in the public mind to a name more properly associated with margarine. A recent presentation on YouTube from a cold fusion guru admits that it’s not about fusion, and that’s a big step forward. I’m not sure that there as many rabbits in the LENR hat as Krivit thinks, but even one rabbit would be delicious, especially with melted butter.

LENR is supposedly caught up with the electroweak force. One thing I do need to do is hunt down a good summary of what we know about the electroweak force; there are a few too many Greek letters in the Wikipedia article for my tastes, and probably my forebrain as well. Suggestions always welcome.

As an SF writer LENR fascinates me, especially the notion that it could be implemented in biological system. Nuclear-powered cockroaches, anyone? The bugs wouldn’t need to make breakeven; LENR could act as a storage mechanism: After gathering and processing fuel during times of energy abundance, they’d consume the fuel when their only sun sets for a decade or two and temps go down to double digits K.

The show goes on. LENR can and should replace all mention of “cold fusion.” The LENR acronym suggests to me a general term for people pursuing (or cheering on) research in that area: Leaners. I’m a Leaner. I’m cheering for these guys, and with more lifespan ahead of me, more time, more brains, and another small fortune in machine tools beyond what I already have, I would go downstairs and see what I could throw together. Damn, this stuff calls to me.

It’s April, the month to be mad as a hatter, and you know all about me and hats.