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December, 2012:

Out, Out, Damned 2012!

I think we misunderstood the Mayans. (Like that’s hard?) They weren’t talking about the end of the world. They were telling us to hang in there: The end of 2012 was at hand. I’d drink to that, and tonight I probably will.

Boy. I’d like to wash this year right out of my hair–and I don’t have a whole lot of hair.

I had had high hopes of relaxing on the shores of Lake McConaughy with a kite string in my hand and one foot in the water on the day I turned 60, but no: Damfool Colorado had to catch fire. Jimi Henton fled to our house with all her dogs (and two of ours) when the smoke got too thick at her place, and while no one we knew well was injured or lost their homes, it was a near enough thing, especially having seen it on the news from 1100 miles away.

Deaths and serious illnesses continued to whittle away at my circle of friends. A lot of that simply happens as you climb into your sixties, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It was unnerving to check the Facebook page of a woman I knew in college, only to find that she had died over a year ago. Other good friends had open-heart surgery, cancer surgery, and lesser but nonetheless confounding failures in the meat-suit machinery. Indeed, I had a few of my own.

Then of course there was the tribal hatefest we call elections, when people I thought I knew gave themselves over completely to a species of slobbering, eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head rage against The Other that was terrifying to behold. This is the way that genocide begins, and I was under a pall until it was over. Even then, it took weeks to shake off the depression. And even now, there are a few people who simply will not let it go. It’s a psychological truth that I originally found in Colin Wilson’s writings: Once we grant ourselves permission to hate, it feels good and is devilishly hard to give up.

I know it makes me sound like a crank, but maybe it’s a cause worth cranking on: We must stop this national orgy of partisan hatred.

I guess there were some upsides to 2012. I finished my first full-sized novel since 1999, and only the second I’ve done since high school. My nephew Brian proposed to his beautiful girlfriend of many years, Ali, and we have a big-bash wedding to look forward to next September. I gave my accumulated hoard of Lego to our nieces Katie and Julie, and they’re loving it. I continued to be startled by the richness to be found in loving Carol, as I have now for 43 years. (I’m fond of saying that I fell in love with her half an hour before I even met her.) QBit still jumps into my lap whenever he can. I’ve made new friends (particularly in my Thursday night writing group) and rekindled my love of Pascal programming, now that Lazarus is ready for prime time. We threw a couple of nerd parties that people are still talking about.

2012, bleahhh. I’m going to go downstairs and watch a movie with my forever girlfriend, and toast to Lady Julian with a glass of Roscato wine and a slice of Lou Malnati pizza. Hope heals. Stomach lining regrows. Scar tissue means that you weren’t hiding behind the couch the whole time.

Cut to the chase: All manner of thing will fersure be well. But man, the bottle of Advil is empty.

SATA as the New Thumb Drive

I’m giving a webinar next month to a publishers’ group on the challenges of ebook piracy. So I’ve been taking notes and making sure that things haven’t changed much over the past year. One thing that surprised me a little came through on the backchannel (that is, email comments from people who for whatever reason don’t want to use Contra’s comment system) in June, concerning the resurgence of “sneakernet” piracy. I posted a link to a piece on TechDirt indicating that only 15% of music acquisition is done through all P2P technologies together. The bulk of piracy happens between friends, off the Net, where Big Media can’t see it.

What’s interesting came in through a backchannel correspondent whom I didn’t know and haven’t heard from since: Much or even most of the in-person file trading is done by treating entire high-capacity SATA hard drives as thumb drives. He saw my post on the Thermaltake BlacX case with a 2-drive SATA toaster dock built into the top panel. He has one too and wanted to see how common they were. He and his friends swap files by copying entire SATA drives onto blank drives via toaster docks, whether built into cases or standalone. I’ve had a 1-slot Ineo toaster dock since 2010, but it gathers dust now that I have the BlacX. I do my monthly off-site backups by copying everything onto a pair of 750 GB SATA drives using the docks on the top of the BlacX. I keep the backup drives in plastic flip-top cases made precisely for that purpose.

The correspondent (known only as “Don”) pointed out that there are now 2-slot standalone toaster docks that can clone drives from one to another without requiring any connection to a computer. Here’s one example (which even looks like a toaster!) and another. They’re evidently sector copiers and do not send files individually through a file system. Don and his friends get together and watch movies while popping SATA drives into and out of the docks.

I asked him if the drives ever fail by being plugged and unplugged so often. After all, internal SATA connectors are rated for only 50 matings. (ESATA connectors are rated for 5,000.) He hasn’t seen it happen so far, and if it happens, new drives are only $60-$80.

My experience with thumb drives goes the other way: I’ve had more USB ports fail on me than thumb drives. SATA drive connectors are really just etched PC board edge connectors, which can get scratched or dirty. (This is one reason I keep my SATA backup drives in plastic boxes.) I think with careful handling, drives should go a lot longer than 50 plug/unplug cycles.

Every time I think piracy can’t get any scarier, somebody comes along and says “Boo!” even louder. I keeping wondering what’s next. My hunch: Seedboxes, which still don’t entirely make sense to me. Once I figure them out, I’ll report back in this space.

Odd Lots

Pi, Oh My


My longtime friend and collaborator Jim Strickland has had a Raspberry Pi board almost since the beginning, and he startled me by handing me one as a Christmas present. I was aware of it but hadn’t researched it deeply. Here’s a good place to start if you’re new to the concept.

Basically, it’s an ARM-6 board with HDMI and composite video output, two USB ports, and a standard RJ45 Ethernet connector. For disk it uses an SDHC card. There’s an I/O header for connecting to physical gadgets like relays and lights and things. There’s more than one OS available for it, but most people use the adaptation of Debian Wheezy called Raspbian.

I don’t like having circuit boards flopping around in mid-air, so I drilled and tapped two 4-40 holes in a husky 3/16″ aluminum plate and mounted the Pi on a pair of 3/8″ nylon standoffs.

Putting it together was a snap. I downloaded the Raspbian image file, wrote it out to a spare 8 GB SDHC card I had in the drawer with Image Writer for Windows, plugged the card into the card slot on the board, hooked up the cables, and turned it on.

Bootup isn’t snappy, and the first time in you have to set a few things like time zone, but in a couple of minutes I had Linux on my big-screen LED TV. The small black item connected to the USB port block in the photo above is the Bluetooth dongle for a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse. This leaves me a port free for something else. Ethernet came to the device through a pair of Linksys Powerline bridges, which I’ve described here before.

I now have what Michael Abrash would call “Linux on my bedroom wall.”

This particular distro comes with Python and Scratch preinstalled, but Jim’s already gotten the ARM-6 port of FreePascal/Lazarus downloaded and running. That’s next on the list for me. I’ll wrestle with that another time, as it’s getting late here. I have a special purpose in mind for the gadget which I won’t spill just yet, since it may not be realistic. More as I learn it.

Odd Lots

  • Making you fat and diabetic is the least of it: Sugar (especially fructose) sabotages your brain. If it’s your first favorite organ (as it is for me) put your brain at the top of your personal food chain. Be a caveman: Eat more animal fat and less sugar.
  • Eat more fat and less sugar, but do it this way: Trade sugar for sleep. Lack of sleep makes you hungry, and I’m guessing that chronic lack of sleep makes you lots hungrier than you would be if you just admitted that you can’t get by on six hours or possibly even seven. Cavemen slept when it got dark. Dark is your friend. (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal for the link.)
  • While we’re talking Inconvenient Health Truths, consider: The downside of demonizing salt is that people have begun to show symptoms of iodine deficiency. (I myself am…unlikely…to ever have that problem.)
  • Instagram walked back from the cliff and withdrew its mind-boggling policies on commercial use of user photos without permission or complication. The Internet firestorm was one reason, I’m sure…but I’m also guessing that someone in their legal department got the message through that the firm would be sued into subatomic particles if it went ahead.
  • I wasn’t aware that a sack of potatoes stands in well for a human being in Wi-Fi tests on networking in crowded spaces like aircraft cabins. I do wonder what happened to the potatoes.
  • “Thorium” is my answer to the question of how to best reduce CO2 in our atmosphere. We need base load; wind and solar are necessary but not sufficient.
  • There are at least five planets orbiting SF favorite Tau Ceti, and one may be in the star’s habitable zone. What the article does not mention is that the habitable planet is considerable closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun, and at a distance closer than Venus is probably tidally locked on its star. That’s not a dealbreaker, but tidal locking certainly makes the journey from slime to sublime a lot less likely.
  • My ongoing (and slow-going) project of rewriting Borland Pascal from Square One for FreePascal continues, and there’s a new and expanded PDF up on my FTP site. 9 MB. 180 pages done out of about 350 or 400 planned. Not all 800 pages of the original book will be included, because some of it is now mostly useless, and some will be kicked upstream to a Lazarus book that I’m planning.
  • FreePascal contains a clean-room clone of Borland’s TurboVision, which I actually named way back in 1989. (Its original name was TOORTL: Turbo Object-Orietnted Runtime Library.) I’m going to recompile my Mortgage Vision application in FPC with FreeVision and see if it still works. That is, if I can find the source…
  • We’re getting our Mayans, Aztecs, and Oreos mixed up. Actually, I read the oreoglyphics on the cookie and it said that the world will end in 1947.
  • Furthermore, it’s a lot tougher to dunk a Mesoamerican stone calendar in your coffee.

Does Steampunk Really Humanize Our Gadgets?

Bill Cherepy (and a couple of others since) sent me an interesting link to a piece on Boing Boing arguing (I think) that steampunk makes our gadgets more human. It’s a headscratcher, since I don’t think the article text supports the author’s contention. However, it’s an idea worth some thought. I actually agree, if for different reasons:

  • Steampunk gadgets are comprehensible. Most of the tech in our modern phones and computers is black art, even to guys like me with considerable background in electronics. Electric, mechanical, and chemical tech circa 1900 was accessible to anyone with an ounce of brains and some willingness to study.
  • Steampunk gadgets are reproduceable. At home. In your basement. Sure, it would take a little research and pratice, but with nothing more exotic than a lathe and basic chemistry gear you could build most of what we connect with steampunking. Dare you to do that with an iPad.
  • Steampunk gadgets are personal. This is going to earn me some heat, but I think it’s true: Steampunk thingies are in-your-face, not on-your-friends-ist. One of the charms of the steampunk idea is that people interact face-to-face. This keeps trolling to a minimum and fosters at least superficial courtesy, which certainly beats the slobbering hatred that now dominates Facebook.

All that said, I admit that the majority of what I see under the heading “Steampunk” is a species of fantasy, be it of the supernatural (vampires and zombies) or just wildly off-the-edge assumptions of what 1900 technology could accomplish.

The big turn-off I found in cyberpunk was its coldness. Granted this was cultural and not really necessary, but when I played at the edges of cyberpunk years ago it stopped me in my tracks. Cyberpunk was cynicism writ large, and steampunk is optimism gone nuts. Given that cynicism is cowardice (it is, in fact, the fear and loathing of all things human) you can guess where I’m much more likely to tell my tales.

Odd Lots

Continuity Pass

I should never promise anything “tomorrow.” Most of the time, the universe conspires with itself to make a liar of me…as it did this time.

Anyway. I have just completed the second pass through Ten Gentle Opportunities. It’s what I call a “continuity pass.” The goal is to ensure that the story makes reasonable sense, taking particular care to repair “plot holes.” It’s not really a polish pass. In a very real sense it’s a tech edit, like those I used to do on magazine articles and still do on book-related material from time to time. Here are some of the things I watch for, and fix when found:

  • People, things, or ideas introduced early in the story but never mentioned again. We all know that stories grow in the telling–but they also contract, and in doing so early elements sometimes get squeezed out. This is especially important in stories (like this one) that took a long, long time to tell.
  • Things introduced later in the story that are not “foreshadowed” and thus may strike the reader as a complete surprise, or (worse) deus ex machina.
  • “Jumps” in a character’s emotional state. Growth and change are important in characterization, and have to be done out where the reader can watch them happen. If a character changes too abruptly, or off where the change can’t be seen, it sounds hokey.
  • General inconsistencies in the ways people and things are treated early on in the story vs. later in the story.
  • Finally, to make sure that all the made-up words are spelled the same way throughout. (This isn’t trivial when the story contains proper names like Ttrynngbrokklynnygyggug and Jrikkjroggmugg.) I originally coined a lot of proper names from Stypek’s universe that had no vowels in them at all, but in workshopping chapters I found that nobody thought this was amusing but me. (Maybe I was a little too impressed with the famous 90’s gag about Clinton air-dropping vowels on Bosnia.) I went back and added just enough vowels to suggest a pronunciation.

There is still polishing to be done, and here and there some stiff rewriting. I simply don’t like Chapter 57, for example. I intend to rewrite it from scratch once I get a little emotional distance from the story. As it’s only 1200 words, the rewriting won’t take long. The rest of the polishing to be done involves watching for “echoes” (words used more than once a little too close in the manuscript) and probably eliminating some adverbs, though I think the current campaign against adverbs is a deranged fetish perpetrated mostly by bad writers and people who teach writing without writing much of anything themselves. Polishing is a separate pass and my next challenge. Much of the first half of the book has already been polished (I’m a compulsive polisher) so the pass won’t take long.

I’ve sent the story to my beta testers, and now I’m waiting to get some reactions. In the meantime there’s a root canal in my future this Wednesday morning. It’s nothing I haven’t known about for some time, and I’ve been through enough of them to have a reasonable idea what I’m in for. One peculiarity of my biochemistry is that the nitrous oxide gas used as a calming agent by some oral surgeons simply doesn’t work for me. The surgeon doing the procedure has an office with an interesting gimmick: flat-panel TV sets in the ceiling, so that while he’s drilling out your molar you can lean back and watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. As for the inevitable anxiety in the runup to a root canal, I suspect that ativan steps in where nitrous fails. We’ll find out on Wednesday.

Odd Lots