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June, 2012:

Antistatic SATA Drive Boxes


Well, one out of two ain’t bad: I didn’t get a headcold on our trip back from Chicago, but I did pick up an eye infection. (Carol got it too; such things are highly communicable. As the old Brel/Shuman song goes, “We will kiss with our eyes…”) I’m not going to be doing much reading or computing today (nor perhaps tomorrow) but the antibiotics we got at urgent care are on the job and I hope to return to ordinary life on Monday. One quick entry in the meantime and I’m going to go put a cold rag on my face again.

In the huge bin of held mail we picked up today was a box containing something I ordered before we left: A trio of antistatic plastic boxes sized precisely to hold a 3.5″ SATA hard drive. The idea is to use the SATA slots on the top of my new tower case quad core to handle backup. Take a drive out of its box, drop it in the slot on top of the case, do backups, then yank it and put it back in its box. SATA is faster than USB, and the SATA electrical interface is hot-swappable. It’s a natural.

The fit is just snug enough so that the drive will not spill out of the box accidentally while I’m handling it. There is a little block of conductive foam on the lid to keep the drive from rattling around when the lid is closed. The latch is firm but doesn’t take a pliers to open. (Ok, I do have strong thumbs.) I bought three boxes in three colors for $9.24, from Amazon. It’s interesting to me that although the three boxes appear to be physically identical, the three colors are sold at different prices–even when they come from the same dealer. The boxes looked like they might have held a MM paperback, but not quite. I’m sure I’ll find other uses for them as time goes on; I’m good that way.

Highly recommended.

To Be a Free Man

I wrote this about a week ago, long before the Waldo Canyon Fire appeared out of nowhere, and kicked it up to the cloud with a scheduled post date of June 29. I’ll modify what I say here to this extent: The really and truly best birthday present of all this year was simply to come home and find my house still standing. I didn’t get to loll in a chair under a tree at Lake McConaughy as planned. Life’s just like that sometimes. We’re not out of the woods quite yet, but at least the woods aren’t burning where I live. More on this as it unfolds.

Sixty today. In answer to the quintessential American question, What do you want for your birthday? I have a fairly simple answer: to be a free man.

That bears some explanation. I’m not looking for freedom from responsibility. I’m a man who keeps promises. Neither am I looking for someplace to swing my arms around irrespective of local noses. That’s an ego thing, made difficult by the fact that most people don’t always know where their noses are.  No, what I want is a higher and much tougher thing: to be sure that the view of the world that I hold is mine, and not handed down from someone else.

That kind of freedom, like keeping in shape, requires regular exercise and attention to detail. Five years ago I described some of the great lessons of middle age, which mostly cook down to Life is messy–and messy is good. Since then, a great deal of my research has been devoted to the problem of freedom of thought, and freedom’s great enemy, tribalism. I’ve watched in dismay as people I’ve known sometimes for decades have sold their souls for a nickel to various tribes, becoming tribal footsoldiers who reflexively hurl hatred and abuse at anyone and anything that dares disagree with their tribal owners.

The thing that really makes me shudder is that it appears to be primal behavior, bubbling up from our deeper and more apelike minds with little conscious intent. Much research suggests that we evolved within a sort of Big Man social model in which a few alpha men at the top (yes, almost always men) and their cronies enjoy power, resources, and sexual opportunity handed up from those beneath them in the hierarchy. At the bottom are the expendable footsoldiers who fling pointless insults at the other tribes while never realizing that the poo-flinging is a distraction designed to hide the fact that the game is played at their expense.

This might be the subject of a couple of very interesting entries, if I could work up the courage to write them. If I did, I’m sure I’d get plenty of abuse myself. Pressure to conform to received opinion is intense, and the social networking revolution appears to have been designed specifically to facilitate the enforcement of tribal dogma. Most of the bumper-sticker entries I see on Facebook are precisely this: Like and share–or you’re not really a loyal party member, eh?

No thanks. I’m a contrarian, which means that I question all wisdom that somebody attempts to shove in my face, and the harder they shove, the harder I question. I do have opinions, which I refine constantly and change when it’s clear that they need changing. I talk about some of them here, when I can make an interesting point. But I am training myself to offer the courtesy of not attempting to convert others to my views, in the hope that the courtesy will be returned. For example, I have a religion. If you want to know more about Old Catholicism (and the insanely optimistic little corner of it that I inhabit) I’ll be happy to tell you. I will not attempt to convert you, and I promise to respect whatever religion (or none) that you hold. As for the rest, I’m digging around just like everyone else. Sometimes I turn up a useful insight. When I do, you’re likely to see it here. Most of the time I’m just digging, because digging is where insights come from. Alas, there’s always more dirt than insight, and this is not a new problem, nor one unique to me. Don’t fling the dirt when you should be offering others the insights.

As for turning 60, well, heh. It’s a good round number, and easy to remember. As I’ve said over and over again, I already have damned near everything a man might want: a spouse who is intelligent, interesting, loyal, and drop-dead gorgeous to boot; a house and a chair and a good bright reading lamp; friends who challenge and surprise; dogs and tools and tube sockets in abundance, and a front-row seat at the greatest show human history has ever put on offer. The challenge now is to keep what I already have, including the discipline of being my own man without minimizing the right of others to be theirs.

I have it. I intend to keep it. This is a happy birthday indeed.

Safe Home…For Now

Quick update while I’m still conscious: We rolled back into Colorado Springs at about 4 PM. We took the back roads home: I-76 down from I-80 in Nebraska as far as Brush, and then Colorado 71 south to Limon, where we caught US 24 west to the city. I didn’t want to encounter traffic or possible closures coming down from Denver along I-25. It worked well, though we didn’t come at the mountains from the north and thus did not see most of where the fire’s still a very serious problem. Our firefighters have done a heroic job keeping the blaze away from densely populated areas, especially in the ancient and almost entirely wooden town of Manitou Springs.

In taking Colorado 71 south we drove through the range of the now-but-just-barely extinguished Last Chance Fire, and were boggled by blackened grassland that stretched out as far as the eye could see, 45,000 acres in all. We had thought to stop at the legendary ice cream shop at the crossroads (as we had hoped to our last time through Last Chance) but as best we can tell it perished, along with ten other structures nearby.

We got Jimi Henton back to her own house now that the danger appears to have passed in her area and turned (mostly) north. We can see some smoke from here but no flames. Again, we’re now fourteen miles or so from the front lines, and for the time being in no danger. The weather broke shortly before we got here: Temps fell to the more seasonal mid-80s, it clouded up, and in some places even rained a little. Please, Sir, can we have some more?

Anyway. To bed, glad the fire isn’t breathing down out necks but still fretting for others and hoping this sore throat isn’t a harbinger of worse tomorrow. I may be coming down with an eye infection, too. Sorrows come not as single spies, but in battalions, yup. Or, to put a more modern spin on it, when was the last time you heard the singular form of  “droves”?

Something’s Burning…

Like, Colorado Springs.

Ok. First of all, Carol and I are fine. We’re fine in part because we’re not yet back in Colorado Springs. We’ve been in Chicago for three weeks and might have stayed a little longer, but then friends started to call and email asking, “Are you near the fire?”

Egad. I don’t talk much about being away until we’re back, so apart from locals few people knew we were not in Colorado. Once it became clear that the fire was no quick or small matter, we got things in order as best we could and started the long trip west. We’ll be home some time tomorrow.

Our house is about 11 miles SSE of the Waldo Canyon fire and does not appear to be in immediate danger. Jimi Henton is there with Aero and Jack, and we’re in regular touch with her. Over the last two days, the fire’s perimeters have moved mostly north and east. 30,000 people have been evacuated already (including several of our friends and even Michelle Malkin) and things are a stupendous mess.

More than this I can’t tell you until we get there. Stand by.

Odd Lots

  • The mysterious X-37B has returned to Earth after 468 days in space, evidently without a scratch. One of the comenters on the many space hobby sites I read suggested something interesting: The spacecraft might be considered a “retrievable satellite” that can stay in orbit for years at a time, then shimmy down the gravity well for a refurb when necessary before being launched to orbit again. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • The secret to an successful programming language may be a good…beard.
  • Here’s a nice, short, practical piece on password security. In case you haven’t heard yet, a long password of concatenated plain English words (“correct horse battery staple“) is better than a shorter password of unmemorizable gibberish.
  • Why 419 scam emails claim to be from Nigeria and are written idiotically, as they’ve been for years’n’years: It’s a stupidity filter. Only the spectacularly gullible would now reply to one, which maximizes the chances that the respondents will actually fall for the scam. Damned clever, these Nigerians.
  • Here’s yet another assault on wine snobbery.
  • I’m closing in on 60, and in my life have known a fair number of redheads. Not one of them would I describe as “fiery.” Not one. The cliche has become widespread enough that we recently discussed it as such in our writing group. (Most of my heroines have black hair, which seems more exotic to me.) Now that Pixar has anointed the cliche in a new film (rough language alert) might we hope that redheads will now be given some slack? (At least it’s a film in which the folks with Scots accents are actually Scottish.)
  • Speaking of redheads…there is some science now suggesting that the Neanderthals may have been gingers.
  • Speaking of Neanderthals…in my note-taking for a possible novel called The Gathering Ice, I suggested that Neanderthals (who hide in plain sight, and have done so for 50,000 years) refer to themselves as “the Uglies” and to the rest of us as “the Saps.” Now I learn that Graham Hancock uses “the Uglies” to describe the Neanderthals in his 2010 novel, Entangled. Bummer.
  • Double bummer: There is a YA teen series called The Uglies. Not about Neanderthals, though. Still, having twice been outgunned on the term, I’m considering renaming my Neanderthals “the Plugs.” Could work.
  • The anomalous cold snap called the Younger Dryas 12,000 years ago figures into the backstory of my Neanderthal yarn. It’s still unexplained, as this article maintains, but it sure looks like a phase-transition stutter to me, as Earth’s climate was changing from its cold state to its warm state. I’ve often wondered if we are now in the thick of a phase transition from the climate’s warm state to its cold state. (Such a stutter is the main gimmick in The Gathering Ice.)
  • This was utterly news to me: Parts of New York City have a vacuum-driven garbage-collection system that literally sucks trash through pipes under the streets to a central disposal location–and has had it for 35 years.
  • The email subject read “Your parcel is expecting of receiving.” Its parcel was expecting of delivering trojan. My delete was delivering of action. Alreet!

Juggling Three Trillion Eggs

June is likely to be a pretty thin month on Contra here for a number of reasons, most of them cooking down to the degree that my time and energy are committed to other things. I appreciate your emails, though. The boy is alright, if winded and maybe a little grouchy.

I knew that Obamacare was in trouble when its supporters stopped calling it “Obamacare.”

One of the law’s politer fans among my readership sent me a note earlier today, certain that the Supreme Court was going to hand down its ruling on the Affordable Care Act this afternoon. She knows I’m interested in the topic and that I have skin in the game. (I’m a freelancer and thus have to buy a policy on the individual market. It’s the largest single expense that Carol and I have.) We’ve discussed it before. She and I always used to call it “Obamacare,” without any suggestion that the term was some sort of epithet. No more. Well, there won’t be a decision today, but whatever you want to call the law itself, the issue’s been much on my mind.

I’m a skeptic of the ACA, mostly because of the risk of an adverse selection death spiral in the private insurance business. The bill enacts penalties that are trivial compared to the cost of either buying or providing coverage, which means that some people and small businesses are likely to pay the fines rather than comply, particularly since the bill forbids any kind of criminal sanctions for noncompliance. (Most of my earlier points may be found in this post.) The nature of the Supreme Court’s decision is critical. If the Court throws out the individual mandate while leaving the rest of it in force, the death spiral is almost inevitable. If the court throws out the entire bill, we’re back where we started. If the bill continues as passed, nobody knows what state the health insurance business will be come 2015.

“Affordable care”, alas, is a false promise, even if the entire bill survives intact. Revealingly, the bill’s key architect now says that the ACA will raise insurance premiums, especially for young people. My own premiums will likely rise by 19%. Given that Carol and I are square in the demographic that the insurance industry loves to hate, I guess I should be glad that we have coverage at all.

Even that isn’t a sure thing. I’m going to make a point here that I haven’t seen anyone else make in the years-long discussion: No matter what you intend to do, reforming a sector of the economy as large as health care guarantees that there will be a certain amount of blood in the streets. Health care expenditures now consume about 17% of GDP–three trillion dollars–a number that makes most American industries look like rounding errors. Any change that embraces that much turf and that much money will be disruptive down here in the waiting rooms. Any change. Insurance companies will reduce their presence in some areas. People will game the system. Prices of drugs and medical equipment will rise, triggering layoffs and outsourcing and trimming of insurance benefits. Doctors who are approaching retirement age may leave the field early rather than endure the paperwork and the fee limitations, leaving us with an even greater shortage of skilled practitioners. There will be mistakes and confusion on a truly epic scale, and a substantial number of people will slip through the cracks. Tumors will grow, conditions will fail to be diagnosed, and many will suffer.

This, furthermore, is best-case. If something goes wrong, well, the consequences are impossible to predict, beyond their being bad.

Do I have any better ideas? No. There are too many pathological conditions in play here: Nobody knows what their current health insurance costs. Everybody wants somebody else to pay for it. Human variability among individuals is broader than we’re willing to admit. We know far less about the workings of the human body than we claim to. Health care costs are hugely concentrated among relatively few individuals (I’ve heard 90/10 most often, but have not seen good numbers) so even policies with spectacularly high deductables will cost a great deal. Healthy people are too willing to ascribe their health to moral superiority, and bad health to bad behavior. (This is a phenomenon I’ve dubbed “Higgsism,” from the hero of Butler’s Erewhon.) Almost everyone is still repeating Ancel Keys’ scientific fraud, that carbs are good and fats are bad. The “death panels” meme cannot be un-coined.

Etc. The end result is that I consider universal health care an unsolvable problem, as most people understand the term “solvable.” (My definition of “solvable” does not include “imposing a solution by force on the public that the public does not want.”)

Whatever happens next week when the Supreme Court hands down its decision, we are in for a wild ride. You can’t juggle three trillion eggs without breaking some. Before you say that’s ok, imagine that one of those splats on the national carpet is you.

Pause before clicking that comments link, and recall that my tolerance for tribal hatred is close to zero. Note well that I did not use the words “liberal,” “conservative,” “Democrat,” or “Republican” in this post, nor any of various possible synonyms. If you intend to comment, I dare you to do the same.

Sic Transit Gloria Veneris…

Sun With Venus 1.jpg

…for another 105 years. By 2117, I’ll be heavily involved in other pursuits and may not be able to watch–but man, did we get a show this time!

Catching any short-lived astronomical phenomenon always involves a strong measure of luck. In 1972, seven friends and I drove 1200 miles to Cap Chat, Quebec, to see a total solar eclipse. We brought out the big guns–my 10″ telescope looks superficially like a big gun, and took a little explaining at customs both coming and going–but alas, two hours before totality the clouds rolled in. We had the novel experience of watching the umbra hurtling toward us by the darkening of the undersides of the high clouds, but of totality we saw nothing.

Luck, yeah. While planning for the event I noticed that my sister Gretchen’s back yard has a near-optimum line-of-sight to the place on the NW horizon where the Sun would set on June 5, 2012. Her lot fronts on a large open space running roughly E-W, with high-tension lines and their towers the only significant obstruction. Given that my western horizon is a 9,800 foot mountain and I see granite up to about 35 degrees, Gretchen’s back yard seemed flukily ideal.

Transit Setup-500 Wide.jpg

So there we chose our ground. (Without hawks but with hounds–sort of–and elves be damned.) The instrument was my Bausch & Lomb Criterion 4000 suitcase scope, which has gone on a number of expeditions with us, including two total solar eclipses and Halley’s Comet in 1986. The technique was what I generally do for solar observing: project an image on a piece of foamcore supported by a separate tripod. The image at the top of this entry was a shot of the foamcore, taken with an ordinary and slightly ancient Kodak V530 pocket camera.

I logged first contact at 5:05 PM. Second contact (when the trailing edge of the disk of Venus enters the disk of the Sun) came at 5:22 PM. After that it was the long slow crawl of Venus downward (on the foamcore) as the Sun slowly set in the northwest. Gretchen’s girls thought it was interesting, and before the transit I showed them how the telescope brings in a magnified but inverted image of things far away, like a 55-gallon trashcan across the open space. I’m sure they didn’t completely understand what was going on, but as with all Uncle Jeff tricks they did consider it a lot of fun.

The weather was nothing short of astonishing: high 60s F, light breeze, crystal blue skies down to the horizon. So it had been the whole day, and so it stayed every minute until the Sun vanished behind some trees at 8:03 PM. I got a lot of good photos, considering that the photos were of an image projected on cardboard. Toward the end of visibility, the scope was directed square across the approach to O’Hare Field, and five, count ’em, five jet aircraft crossed the disk of the Sun while we watched. The exhaust from the engines, though invisible directly, distorted the solar image in an interesting way.

Fifteen minutes before the Sun vanished, it passed behind one of the high-tension towers across the open space, allowing me to fiddle the focus a little and get some remarkable shots, like the one below:

Sun Behind Tower.jpg

Gretchen made one of her trademark pot roast feasts, with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes almost the color of the solar disk. (A dollop of real butter yellowed ’em up gorgeously.) Dash and QBit ran around in circles, chased balls, and slept like rocks last night. As did we all.

Success just don’t get any more successful than that.