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March, 2013:

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Egad. No, egad squared: A major literary agency has asked to see the full manuscript of Ten Gentle Opportunities. The novel is done, but I still have to format it for submission and write the synopsis and logline. I’m going to be busy for a few days, that is fersure.
  • IBM is taking a new slant on fluidic computers, one that operates via charged fluids. The hope is that this will allow better modeling of human brain operation. I’m skeptical, but hey, it’s a species of nanocomputer, and I’m certainly bullish on those. (Thanks to Mike Reith for the link.)
  • If anybody reading this has a 3D printer, I’d like to ask: Does the extruded plastic stick to clean copper-clad PCB stock? The obvious idea is to lay down a single-slice pattern in the form of PC pads and then etch the board with the plastic as resist. I don’t see much about this online.
  • From Chris Gerrib: How American radio stations got their call signs. One minor refinement: US callsigns beginning with AAA-ALZ and NAA to NZZ are not exclusively military. Amateur radio callsigns have used those prefixes for at least 35 years. (An OTA friend of mine outside Chicago got his Extra and selected AA9J as his call in, I think, 1976.)
  • People always seem to be recording meteors on dash cameras. I now have a dash camera. If I put it on my dash, will I see a meteor? Or will I get my money back? (Whoops. Found it in the bushes. All finds final. No refunds.)
  • Speaking of dash cameras: The manufacturer of the little sports camera I found in my bushes issued a DMCA takedown notice to a reviewer, on trademark grounds. (The DMCA has nothing to do with trademark abuse.) Hey, GoPro, Barbra is singing. Backtracking about the blunder will not help you. (Thanks to Tom Roderick for alerting me to this.)
  • Salads are way more dangerous than hamburgers. Alas, you can’t grill salad until it’s done to the center.
  • From Michael Covington comes a link to a story about how a Medieval copyist’s cat peed on his manuscript. The scribe drew a peeing cat on the damaged section, with an appropriate curse in Latin.
  • And we think we have a junk DNA problem: Amoeba proteus has 290 billion (yes, billion) base pairs in its genome, as compared to homo sap’s piddling 2.9 billion.
  • The reason all of us baby boomers didn’t die as grade schoolers may be that none of us lived in rich-guy gonzo-modern homes like these. (Why did I think that these houses were designed to ernhance estate tax revenues?)

The Lost Hobby of Microscopy

Carol found some very small insects crawling around on Dash’s neck yesterday while she was brushing him. She dropped several of them into a pill bottle followed by some alcohol. These were tiny bugs; I’m guessing the biggest one wasn’t quite two millimeters long, and most were at best a millimeter. We squinted and used the magnifying glass that I keep in my desk drawer, and the best we could say is, Yeah, that’s a bug.

I knew what I had to do next, and it took me way back. For Christmas when I was eight (the end of 1960), my father bought me a microscope. It was small and lacked a fine focus knob, but it had an iron frame and decent optics. For the next two years until I discovered electronics, looking at very small things was one of my main hobbies.

My father helped me get the hang of it. He had had a simple microscope himself in the early 1930s, and I still have it somewhere: A black crinkle-finish tube about five inches high, with an eyepiece at the top, a slot for inserting slides, and a tilting mirror in a large milled cutout toward the bottom. He bought me a book called Hunting with the Microscope, by Gaylord Johnson and Maurice Bleifield (1956) and I spent a couple of years hunting for all the microscopic things the authors had painstakingly drawn on its pages.

Many of the drawn microorganisms were said to be found in rivers and ponds, and my friends and I haunted the banks of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers in the summer with mayonnaise jars in hand, scooping up slimy water and the even slimier mud on the riverbottom beneath it. Holding up the jars against bright light showed them to be absolutely crawling with minuscule thingies in constant motion. I had a well slide and managed to corral some of the little monsters in it, but they didn’t slow down long enough for me to identify them. None followed the corkscrew path that paramecia were said to exhibit. We saw no volvoxes nor stentors, cool as that would have been. Water bears too were AWOL. Most heartbreakingly, we never cornered an amoeba, which we longed to see eat something by engulfing it, which would be akin to watching The Blob in miniature–always a draw for ten-year-olds.

No, most of the critters that moved slowly enough to identify were microscopic worms. When my mother heard us talking about worms from the corner of the family room when my friends and I were gazing into my microscope, she made us dump the mayonnaise jars into the toilet and wash our hands. My mother was an RN, and although we didn’t learn it first-hand until we were 13 (another story entirely, though a good one) both rivers were flood relief for Chicago’s and suburban sewers. After even a modest rain, runoff would cascade from overflowing sewer mains right into the rivers, carrying raw sewage with it. So these weren’t exactly earthworms we were watching.

I’m honestly not sure what became of my little microscope. The good news is that Carol received a much better one she when was fourteen (a Tasco 951 with a fine focus knob) and earlier today, I pulled her microscope down off the high shelf and set it up on the kitchen island where the light was good. I looked at a few of the pickled-in-alcohol bugs, but they had been picked off Dash with a tweezers and were not in good shape. We cornered Dash and hunted until we spotted a live one. I carefully snipped the little tuft of hair to which the bug was clinging, and with some prodding managed to tack the bug to the sticky strip on a white Post-It. (Gaylord Johnson would have been proud.) Under the microscope, it was unmistakable: Linognathus setosus, the dog louse. The tacky Post-It strip kept it from walking around, and we were able to see how it clung to a strand of dog hair with its hooked legs.

Dash got a prompt treatment with the usual doggie bug meds, and in a day or two whatever lice remain will be gone. In the meantime, I have to wonder what happened to the microscopy hobby. Astronomy and electronics are both big business, but beyond some Web sites (like this one) I don’t see much to indicate that anybody is digging through river mud looking for water fleas anymore. The instruments are cheap compared to good test equipment or telescopes. You can get used stereo microscopes on eBay for $250 or less, and used student microscopes like Carol’s for under $50. Rivers are a whole lot cleaner than they were fifty years ago, and I’m thinking that if I sampled the Chicago River today I might score a stentor or two, and maybe even an amoeba. Granting that Google is a much better way to identify the stuff you’re looking at, I might order a copy of Hunting with the Microscope, just for fun. No, I don’t really need another hobby, but I want to be ready the next time something really small comes calling, and I need to know what it is.

Odd Lots

Eating Irish

ShamrockCrisps.jpgAs I passed the photo of my godmother, Kathleen Duntemann, on the bookcase earlier today, I quietly wished her a happy St. Patrick’s Day. (It might be customary to say, “Wherever she is” except that I know exactly where she is.) She and my grandmother Sade Prendergast Duntemann were excellent cooks, and on St. Patrick’s Day there would almost always be corned beef and cabbage, duck, or goose, all cooked using ancient Irish recipes. I’m not sure if it was a purely family eccentricity, but back when I was still living at home, a well-picked winter goose or duck carcass would be tied with some twine to a branch of the big sycamore tree by the back door. The birds feasted, and according to my mother, the fatty leftovers allowed the now-lean birds to survive the remainder of those nasty Chicago winters.

Of course, by May 1 there were half a dozen bird skeletons swinging in the breeze, which must have made the neighbors wonder.

As much as shamrocks entered into the spirit of Old St. Pattie’s Day at our house, I never once heard my aunt or grandmother suggest that the famous Trinitarian clover was itself food. Finally, at age 60, I realize that they were–and apparently still are. Dermot Dobson posted a photo on Facebook, of a bag of shamrock-flavored potato chips. (Or crisps, in UK/Irish parlance.) Although I initially suspected that the crisp makers were being metaphorical and perhaps having chives stand in for shamrocks, when Dermot posted a shot of the ingredients list, begorrah! Those little green things are actually pieces of genuine Irish shamrock.


Of course, this is not an ancient recipe; Keogh’s introduced the product only last year. A little research showed that the Irish evidently ate shamrock, though the implication was that they ate it in lean times when there wasn’t much else on the menu. Shamrock is, after all, a species of clover. (We’re still not entirely sure which species, of eight or nine contenders, St. Patrick used to convert all those pagan chieftans.) I barely eat vegetables at all; I can’t imagine eating what might as well be grass.

Whoops. Not only can I imagine it, I remember it: When we were eight or nine, the kids in my neighborhood would chew on what we called “sour clover,” which was a local weed that could be found under most bushes. Many years later, while doing some yardwork for my mother, I found a sprig, chomped one of the three-lobed leaves, and felt that sharp sour tang. This time I looked it up, and found that our sour clover was oxalis montana (wood sorrel) which looks precisely like the quintessential Irish shamrock. It’s sour because it contains oxalic acid. Eat enough of that, and you will not only be eating a metaphor of the Trinity, you may in fact get to meet the Trinity face-to-face.

Ok, that would be a lot of oxalis, and as best I know we all survived the adventure, Irish kids, Polish kids, Italian kids, and mongrel kids like me whom God stuck together from a box of odd ethnic parts. To us St. Patrick’s day meant that winter was almost over, that Bud’s Hardware Store had just gotten in its first shipment of Hi-Flier kites, and that the color green would soon return to the Chicago spectrum.

When Aunt Kathleen died in 1999, an Old Catholic woman priest sang the Irish Blessing before her casket at the cemetery chapel, and I smiled to think of all those goose carcasses, and how Aunt Kathleen would as likely as not be hanging with The Big Guy himself, driving snakes out of the neighborhood in her Pontiac, hoisting a glass of good Irish whisky, and keeping the kitchen warm for anyone who might stop by.

Live life in the active voice, this day and always. It’s the Irish way.

Rant: The Real Problem With Clerical Celibacy

Black smoke. I guess we try again tomorrow.

I had intended to post a couple of pertinent entries during Pope Week, as some are calling this, but got involved in a new book proposal I’m working on. I genuinely expected that we’d have a new pope by now. Not so.

Anyway. I haven’t done a rant for years. Here ya go:

I’m reading a lot about clerical sexual abuse being rooted in clerical celibacy, as though it were obvious. This is not a new argument, nor does it have much grounding in reality. Abusers abuse not because they’re celibate but because they’re abusers, and I don’t think the Roman Church has any more of them than any other large organization. We pay the scandals more attention because the Church and its people ought to know better. We’re right to demand higher standards of conduct from church people than we do from politicians or TV reality show stars. Marrying off every priest and bishop in the Roman Catholic Church would not stop sexual abuse. I’m honestly not sure what would, though we need to continue the search with everything we’ve got. No, we need to eliminate mandatory clerical celibacy for a deeper reason: It selects for dualists.

The more I read of Church history and theology, the more I distrust ascetic theology and its real-world implementation, monasticism. Monastics make much about being “in the world, but not of it.” Excuse me? If you’re in the world, you’re damned well of it, because God gave you a meat suit and put you here. You will be of the world until you’re no longer in it, and what happens then is a whole separate discussion. Deal with it.

The deeper meaning of the mantra “in the world but not of it” lies in a theological system that arose in Persia in ancient times. Spiritual reality to the Persians was an unending war between Good and Evil, with the two being a pretty even match–hence the term “dualism.” There was a high, all-good God who had little to do with physical reality, and a grouchy creator God who had brought physical reality into being and trapped immaterial souls in material bodies that suffered and committed evil. Cooked down to essentials, this meant Spirit Good, Matter Bad.

Dualist thought of this sort crossed over from Persian mysticism into Christian theology several times in Christianity’s early centuries. Some of these threads were eventually declared heresies and suppressed, while others (especially the Great Dualist, Augustine of Hippo) became mainstream, to everyone’s sorrow.

I see dualism very clearly in the emergence of monasticism. Monasticism is more than just living off by yourselves somewhere. Nor does it describe a community simply working toward self-discipline in a systematic fashion. (In our dreams!) Early monastics were powerfully driven by the dualist assumption of Spirit Good, Matter Bad. The human body was a bundle of yukkh that not only had to be controlled but also humiliated, starved, and as often as not beaten and tormented through physical pain. Until Vatican II every Jesuit was given a little whip called the disciplina, and part of the Jesuit Rule specified that a Jesuit must beat himself with the disciplina every night. (Former Jesuit seminarian Garry Wills recalls this vividly in Why I Am a Catholic.) Because Spirit is the only godly part of a human being, torture of the body in the service of God was no big deal. Diocesan clergy certainly had a role in the torturing and execution of heretics, but it was monastics (particularly the Dominicans) who systematized it and made it a science. And over the centuries monastic thought seeped into diocesan thought, until clerical marriage was formally forbidden throughout the Western Church in the eleventh century. (It had been forbidden locally in some areas since the time of Leo the Great, circa 450.)

Monasticism isn’t about torture anymore, but its dualist view of the cosmos remains: Matter is of no great consequence, and the human body is simply a temporary vehicle for a fully spiritual soul. All physical desires are at least suspect. The world is a vexing source of temptation that cannot be redeemed and is best ignored. Sex, in particular, is fallen and unnecessary for anyone with a spiritual inclination. This attitude goes back to Paul, who thought the world was about to end and saw marriage as nothing better than a means of avoiding sexual sin until it did.

Some modern writers (including Garry Wills, whom I otherwise admire) think that clerical celibacy is a good thing because it focuses clergy on matters spiritual. My experience with married priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion (most but not all of them American Episcopalians) and many in the Old Catholic Church points in an entirely different direction: Finding peace and balance with the physical world is not surrender or even accomodation. It is part of our task as Christians. If God created the Universe, the Universe is sacred and cannot be dismissed as unimportant or (worse) evil. Married clergy have a sense of groundedness about them that is not impossible for the celibate, but harder work to achieve and tougher to maintain. (Those who succeed are spectacular clergy indeed, however rare.) This may not be due to marriage itself, but perhaps to an attitude that the married, to succeed in marriage, must maintain: The Other matters as much as the Self. Life is not just me and God hanging out in a private garden. It’s me and God and everyone else sharing a God-given world that must be consciously shepherded for the use of all.

Obviously, not all celibates are dualists, nor are all dualists celibate. That said, celibacy, especially when pre-emptively imposed on all clergy, tilts the graph toward dualism because dualism considers sex unnecessary and the physical world as less important than the spiritual. Those who are willing and able to embrace celibacy are more likely to lean in a dualist direction, with a preverbal if not fully perceived impression that the physical is sundered from the spiritual and the two parts set against one another.

No. Give me a priest who dances with his (or her) spouse, who will raise a glass to the health and success of all present, and who understands the rocky road on which Carol and I walk because he (or she) has walked that road too, with a loved one close at hand. Give me a priest who faces the east at dawn and shouts, like Patrick, “I arise today by the power of Heaven!

I want a priest who celebrates the unity of all creation because all creation is of God, and all men and women are of this, His singular, glorious and undivided creation.

Review: Wreck-It Ralph


A month or so ago, one of my TGO beta testers sent me an email: “Jeff, you must see this movie. And not because it’s fun. ‘Nuff said.” Personal issues kept me from renting it until the other night.

Now I understand.

The fantasy premise of Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant: In a video arcade full of coin-op console machines, the characters in the video games all live secret lives when the arcade closes and the lights go out. Each video game console is a separate universe, connected with all the others through a network that operates over the power lines. Game characters can visit other games via the network, and hang out with the characters there. Cross-game friendships are not only possible, but common. Picture going out for drinks with QBert and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Both make cameos in the film.)

Wreck-It Ralph is the Bad Guy in a game starring Fix-It Felix. Ralph wrecks a building from the top down by beating on things with his ginormous fists, and the game players try to stay ahead by steering Felix and his magic golden hammer, which fixes everything it touches. Felix rescues the inhabitants of his building, and when he gets ahead of Ralph’s mayhem, is rewarded with pies and, ultimately, golden medals. It’s a classic (and I assume fictional) game in the late 80s Donkey Kong style, with Ralph shaped and sized a great deal like Donkey Kong himself.

Ralph is bummed. Everybody loves Felix, who gets pies and medals and sleeps in a penthouse in his building. Ralph, by contrast, lives in the nearby garbage dump and gets no recognition for his hard work, beyond getting thrown off the top of the building when the player completes the level. Ralph attends a weekly support group for video game bad guys, including a zombie, Satan, and one of the Pac Man ghosts. (There are several others that may be real, though not being a gamer I didn’t recognize them.) He wants recognition, and goes off looking for other games that might conceivably grant him a medal for his contributions.

He soon finds one: Hero’s Duty, which is a sort of supercharged Doom or Quake. The other characters are shaped just like him, so he mugs a character for his armor and goes off to fight deadly cyberbugs that are in reality viruses that can infect any video game. The commander of the platoon is the sleek and improbably proportioned Calhoun, a butt-kicking cannon-packing woman warrior with a tragic backstory: Her fiancee was eaten by one of the bugs. Ralph earns a medal (he’s great at trashing bugs) but accidentally releases one of the bugs into another game universe, a kart race targeted at preteen girls where everything (including the karts) is made of candy.

Ralph goes hunting for the bug, and eventually redeems himself by helping snotty little kart driver girl Vanellope. Vanellope contains corrupt code, and “glitches” every so often, flashing into a silhouette of ones and zeroes. Ralph and Felix and Calhoun team up to fight the cyberbugs and repair Vanellope’s damaged code and memory. The plot is a good deal more complex and interesting than that, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. There’s a rogue game character in disguise, a short but intriguing visit “behind the graphics” to the game’s code (which looks like a vast 3-D structure chart) and so many gamer references that I’m sure I got maybe 25% at best. For ongoing tension you have a Diet Coke-filled volcano plugged with thousands upon thousands of…Mentos. Yikes.

I don’t consider Wreck-It Ralph brilliant in the sense that Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon are brilliant, but it’s lots of fun and well worth a night’s rental, especially if you have tweens. (Toddlers may find some parts of it a little too scary.) What my TGO beta-tester was talking about were the parallels to the virtual universe I created in TGO and populated with AI characters created to do various jobs, with homes and private lives outside their virtual workplaces. I even have a cannon-packing warrior woman who is an executive assistant by day, and later discovers a first-person shooter game built into her kernel in which she is one of the game skins.

In TGO, one of my AIs fails to do his job well enough to satisfy his creators, and is ordered to go place himself in archival storage. On his way to his own slot, he passes the doors to storage slots containing other failed AIs:

Other names on other doors didn’t ring a bell. Maria, Randall, Tanner, Judith, all archived before his time. Here and there was a name he did recognize: William, who had been training to work in tech support and had joined him several times for doughnuts and coffee. Bones, a Class Four animated skeleton who worked the crowds in a panel at a large amusement park, and off company time enjoyed reciting Victorian poetry. Robert had heard him perform Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in a Tooniverse coffee shop one evening and found it very moving. Alas, Bones frightened children so much that his product was pulled from the market.

Like Ralph, Robert redeems himself by defending his friends, and by simply going back to what he was created to be. (Robert’s ending isn’t as happy as Ralph’s–hey, this is a Disney movie–but the parallels were striking.)

None of this worries me. I didn’t invent the notion of AIs operating in a virtual world, and neither did Disney. (Granting that they were early in the field, with Tron.) If anything, I felt validated. I first raised the question in 1981: If we create an AI capable of introspection, can the AI suffer? And is the suffering real? I didn’t originate that issue either, but it’s haunted me for decades. I explore it within a humorous framework in TGO, just as Disney does in Wreck-It Ralph. That may be one reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did.

Recommended, for gonzo imagination, gorgeous animation, and attention to detail. Many wonderful small touches, and enough pee-your-pants laughs to carry you past the setpieces and the boring parts. (We spend a little too much time in the candy universe.) The voice acting was not stellar, with the exception of Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk channeling Ed Wynn’s evil twin. The score is almost nonexistent, though Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?” is catchy, and completely wasted running over the credits. But enough carping. Rent it, call in your gang to watch it with you, and have fun.

Just remember to hit the bathroom before the Oreo cookies show up. ‘Nuff said.

Odd Lots

The War on “Moist”

I have heard the angry voices (particularly God’s and Stephen King’s–or maybe it was just Stephen King’s) raised against the spreading curse of words that end in -ly, with particular emphasis on dastardly constructs like “only” and “early.” Today, for the first time, I’ve seen lexical blood spilled on a new front, against the horror of the word people are said to revile above all others…


Well. I’m a cultured individual, long steeped in the ways of the world, and no stranger to the pleasures of the mind and the senses. I have tasted anchovies. I have drunk sweet wine. I have read Barry Malzberg. I have danced the Invisible Horse Dance with my nieces and nephews. I have cocked an ear to what was either interstellar noise or leaky capacitors. I have gazed upon the jade sculpture on my tall bookcase until I became…well, you know what I became. I signed up once to pet a naked mole rat, but the line was too long and we had to go home. Genuine WTF moments have gotten thin in this, the seventh decade of my life. But the war on “moist” caught me up short.

I thought it was the primary virtue of cakes. If not, well, what do you call a cake that isn’t dry? Wet? Damp? Sodden? Moldy? (HuffPo takes on this crucial question with elan.)

I see that this is nothing new. The war on “moist” began a long time ago, at least as long ago as 2009. I missed it somehow. The Colorado Springs Gazette did not run the story under a 500-point rendering of “WAR!” Nobody mentioned it on Slashdot, nor Ars Technica, which posts on lots of things it knows nothing about. The war on hated words was highlighted in the New Yorker in 2012, and while there was a long line leading to the word gallows (with “phlegm” and “fecund” fidgeting while waiting their turn) the word eye-to-eye with the Lord High Executioner was “moist.” Men who use the word “moist” are undateable. There is even a Facebook group called “I HATE the word MOIST!” (Well, that certainly nails it.)

So what’s the deal?

The question came up recently on the Facebook wall of a writer friend of mine. A woman whom I don’t know explained: “Just imagine your 65-year-old mother reading it aloud as she reaches a pivotal sex scene in a romance novel. Enough said.”

Enough indeed, especially if you knew my mother, who would be 88 this year if she were still with us. She spent a considerable chunk of her life keeping parts of her house from becoming a little too moist with spilled milk, dog vomit, and thrown cream-of-mushroom mushrooms, which are moist squared. I’m guessing she didn’t have to read sex scenes aloud to be moist-averse. Small children and dogs were plenty.

My view? This has already gone too far. The word “moist” has not been seen in actual use in several months, though many have spoken passionately about it. Alas, its parents “most” and “mist” have unearthed a suicide note. We bludgeoned it, we drew and quartered it, we broke it on Little Orphan Annie’s code wheel, and we mopped up the gore with a towelette. We will not have “moist” to push around anymore. Who will be next? Who? Who?

The New Yorker says: “Slacks.”

I’m in.

Odd Lots