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May, 2014:

Print and Ebook from the Same PDF

I’ve been tinkering with a recast of my 1993 book Borland Pascal 7 From Square One since 2008, for the excellent FreePascal compiler. One reason I set the project aside after a year or so is that I wanted to see if the Lazarus IDE would mature a little. I had originally planned to use the text-mode IDE bundled with the compiler, but it had what I considered dealbreaker bugs. Besides, if Lazarus became usable, I could create a tutorial for it as well. Lazarus is now at V1.2.2 and (at least to the limits of my tests so far) works beautifully. I’ve gone back to the FreePascal From Square One project, yanking out all mention of the text-mode IDE, and deliberately tilting it toward a prequel tutorial for a future book on OOP and creating GUI apps in Lazarus, Delphi-style.

One of my goals with the project has been to create a single PDF that can be used as both an ebook and a print image. I’ve experimented with implementing it as an epub, with disastrous results. Layouts containing lots of art just don’t work as reflowable text. On the other hand, PDF images are painful to read and navigate unless the reader device can render a full page legibly. Back in 2008, we didn’t even have iPads yet, and the target display for my PDF ebooks was my 2005-era IBM X41 Tablet PC. You could read the PDF…barely. I spun a couple of page layouts that used smaller pages and larger fonts. They were readable, but looked bizarre (almost like children’s books) when printed to paper.

I left it there for some years. Come 2010 we met the iPad, with the multitude of Android slabs hot on its heels. Displays improved radically. I got an Asus Transformer Prime in 2012, and found the 1280 X 800 display startling. I took the page design that I had originally created for my X41 and tweaked it a little. The page size is A4 rather than letter or standard computer trim, for three reasons:

  • Whereas some POD houses can give you computer trim, sheets aren’t readily available at retail and thus can’t be printed at home.
  • A4 paper is the default paper size in Europe, where I suspect that most of my readers will be. It can be had in the US from the larger office stores, and modern laser printers will take it. Lacking A4 paper, the book can be printed to letter sheets with only a little bit of reduction.
  • A4 paper is taller and narrower than letter, and maps a little better to the wide-format displays that dominate the non-iPad tablet segment.

The layout still looks odd to me. Half a century of reading has made me used to fine print, so the larger type jars a little. However, the layout has plenty of room for technical art and screenshots, and full pages read very well on the Transformer Prime. (This is not true on the much smaller Nook Color.)

With print publishers struggling terribly, I’m guessing that this is one possible future for technical publishing: new layouts that allow the same PDFs to be either printed or rendered as ebooks. More and more specialty books that I buy are POD (I know how to spot them) and the customary high prices on computer books leave plenty of margin to make POD copies profitable.

You can help me out a little. The ebook is far from finished, but I’ve posted the PDF here. I’d be curious to know how legibly it renders on other tablets, particularly those smaller than 10″ but with 1280 X 800 or better resolution. Again, it’s not a complete book and there are plenty of typos and layout glitches in it. What I want to know is whether or not technical readers will find it usable on modern tablets. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can provide.

Doubt and the Scientific Method

This took me by surprise: Over in that global laboratory of abnormal psychology that most of us call Facebook, a man I’ve know for almost 35 years grew furious at me. My crime? A longstanding contention of mine that doubt lies at the heart of the scientific method. Note well that we were not talking about Issues. Not evolution, not climate, not even the Paleo Diet. None of that had even come up. No: We were talking about the scientific method itself.

I’ve seen this weird “doubt undermines science” business come up before, though never directed at me personally. Nonsense, of course. Doubt really does lie at the heart of the scientific method. This is not some opinion of mine that I pulled out of thin air. Hey, if somebody wants to start a new game show called “Are You Smarter Than Karl Popper?” I can recommend the first season’s contestants.

Here’s my understanding: The scientific method requires a trigger, and that trigger is doubt. Some smart guy or gal looks at something we think we know, often but not always after examining a pile of new data, and says, “This smells fishy. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn.” That initial insight leads to hypothesis, experiment, repeatable results, and eventually (one would hope) new or corrected knowledge. Absent doubt, nobody thinks anything smells fishy, no closer look happens, and whatever booboo might be in there somewhere never comes to light. Without doubt, there is no science.

It’s pretty much that simple.

So how do we explain my excoriation for stating the obvious? I have a theory, heh. It involves those idiotic Facebook memes that set religion against science. Some are worse than others; my personal antifavorite is the one that reads, “Religion flies aircraft into buildings. Science flies spacecraft to the Moon.” Gosh, was it the Episcopalians? And did engineering maybe have a role? Let it pass; there are plenty more. What they represent is tribal chest-thumping by people who want to replace religion with science. That sounds fishy to me. I probed a little and began to get a suspicion that what the chest-thumpers really want is the certainty of religion under a new name.

What tipped me off is the fact that the chest-thumpers were always talking about scientific knowledge, but never the scientific method. The reason is pretty simple: The scientific method is the single most subversive system of thought that humanity has ever created. Nothing that we know (or think we know) is safe from the scientific method. Not even physical laws. Back in the 1950s there was a physical law called the Law of Parity, holding that nature does not differentiate left from right at the subtomic level. Some physicists thought the Law of Parity smelled fishy. They put their heads together, came up with some truly brilliant experiments, and snick! They nailed the Law of Parity through an eye socket. They nailed it because they doubted it. And we’re not talking the Paleo Diet here. We’re talking a law of physics.

That scares people with a strong craving for certainty. At this point we need to talk a little bit about the religious impulse. Note well that I am not talking about religion itself here. I’m talking about the primal hunger for certain things that religion provides. The two biggies are meaning and certainty. (Belonging is a third biggie, but I feel that religion inherits the hunger for belonging from its primal sibling, the tribal impulse. I’ll have to take that up another time.) As anyone who’s read Viktor Frankl has learned, “meaning” is an important but slippery business. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it looks to me like the meaning we see in our lives grows out of order. There is huge comfort in living lives that follow a predictable template. We all imagine lives lived reliably in a certain way. We do not imagine chaotic lives, and generally avoid chaos when we can. (We may grumble about the template we’re currently living, but what we want is a better template, not chaos.) When chaos strikes, our lives can quickly move from meaningful to meaningless. A need for certainty follows from the need for order. We want to be certain that we’ve chosen a path that leads toward meaning. As often as not, this means choosing templates that work for us and embracing them without doubt. Some people take this too far, and become reactionaries or fanatics who insist that the templates they’ve discovered are the only ones that anyone should embrace. Alas, this is where the religious impulse gets tangled up in the tribal impulse, which, unimpeded by laws or cultural norms, gallops straight toward genocide.

Religion satisfies the religious impulse by providing us with wisdom narratives that suggest life templates, calendars of rituals and festivals that repeat down the years and reinforce a sense of the orderly passing of time, and saints as heroes whose very meaningful lives may be emulated. (I hope my religious friends will relax a little here and look closely at what I’m saying: I am not denying that God is behind religion. I’m suggesting the mechanisms by which God gets our attention and calls us home.)

What’s happening in our secular era is that religion is becoming less prevalent and (in our own culture, at least) less strident. People who feel the religious impulse strongly need to get their meaning (via order) and certainty somewhere else. Science is handy. Science makes for bad religion, however, because it creates its own heretics and subverts its own wisdom narratives. It creates disorder via doubt, in the cause of creating new order that more accurately reflects physical reality. Certainty in science is always tentative: What the scientific method gives, the scientific method can take away.

This makes people of certain psychologies batshit nuts.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m something of an anomaly, in that my need for order doesn’t march in lockstep with any need for certainty. I’m an empiricist. I’ve created an orderly and meaningful life that works for me, but when circumstances require change, I grit my teeth and embrace the change. Incremental change is one way to avoid chaos, after all: Deal with it a little at a time, and you won’t have to deal with an earthquake later on.

In a sense, I live my life by the scientific method. Sometimes I doubt that that what I’m doing is the right thing for me. I stop, think about it, and often discover a better way. Doubt keeps pointing me in the right direction, as it does for science. Certainty, well…that points in the opposite direction, toward brittleness and chaos. Science doesn’t go there. None of us should either.

Odd Lots

  • Our new concrete gets its sealer coat tomorrow, and once it dries it’ll be (finally!) done. I’ll post a photo. So far we think it’s gorgeous.
  • This article has been shared again and again and again on Facebook, and it caught my attention because it echoes something I wrote about in 2009: That because our stuff is lasting longer, we need less stuff, be it forks or cars. And the cars are piling up…or are they? Alas, the article is nonsense (it did smell a little funny to me) and here’s the point-by-point takedown.
  • Here’s the best detailed article on bacteriophage therapy I’ve seen in quite awhile. It’s a hard read, but a good one. Sooner or later, as antibiotics fail us one by one, we’re going to have to go this way. (Phages look very cool, as well.)
  • The scientific method wins again: We thought we knew the physics behind same-material static electricity. We were wrong. Doubt really does lie at the very heart of science, in that if we don’t doubt what we think we know, we have no chance of finding our mistakes.
  • Now that eggs aren’t evil anymore, it’s worth exploring all the various ways to prepare them. If you like hard-boiled eggs, here’s the best explanation I’ve seen of how to boil them so that they’ll peel easily and without divots.
  • Adobe’s Creative Cloud was down for some time. The issue’s been resolved, but it just confirms my ancient suspicion that putting everything on the cloud is a really bad idea. If I can’t access my software, I can’t work. Pretty much end of story.
  • Blue light keeps you awake. Staying awake shortens your life. So as the day winds down, Turn the Damned Thing Off. Then read a book until you’re sleepy. I recommend any substantial history book, with a special nod to histories of the Byzantine Empire. (Thanks to Dermot Dobson for the link.)
  • This is the company that makes the machines that play the songs on ice cream trucks. Or at least the ones in the UK.

Comment Harpies

Every so often I moderate a comment, and the commenter objects: “You’re censoring me!” (Most of the time I just nuke it, and that’s the last I hear.) Granted, it isn’t often, though it’s happening more and more over time. I’m discussing it today because of an interesting phenomenon that other bloggers may have seen, one I call comment harpies. It works like this: Some whackjob swoops in and tries to post a nasty comment on Contra, generally to an entry that happened months or even years ago. I’ve never seen the poster before. The comment is invariably angry, often insulting, and sometimes obscene. The general impression I get, however, is one of out-of-control desperation.

I picture a person awash in cortisol sitting at a machine, googling topics that the harpy’s tribe disagrees with, plowing through long lists of blog hits with shaking hands and attempting to post condemnations anywhere the blogs will let them. This is the terminal state of the “someone, somewhere on the Internet is wrong” psychology. Disagreement used to be a learning opportunity. Then it became insult. Now it appears to be declaration of total war.

Sad, sad.

I moderate all comments from newcomers, and I pay attention to everything said by everyone. I began moderation to throttle comment spam, which tries to come in five or six times a day, sometimes more. You’ve probably seen these slightly surreal cookie-cutter posts on unmoderated blogs, invariably accompanied by one or more links:

“It is of nothing enjoyed to be better apart than reading insights of distinction sourced with your sight. Links are of to be permitted, yes? I make a mind out to return of oftener.”

Links are of to be permitted, no. Lost, get apart now forever and my sight out of.

The harpies are different. The English is good, and the posts generally pertain to whatever topic the target entry discusses. There’s rarely any link. Though usually short, there’s an occasional multi-hundred-word rant. As a general policy I delete them immediately. Now and then the indignant harpy emails me and demands an explanation. When asked, I answer: “I don’t allow angry/abusive/obscene comments.” End of story, usually. Sometimes the cortisol-tripper reponds again, claiming that I’m engaging in censorship. At that point, their having crossed the bright line into delusional, I delete and forget them.

Some comments fall into a gray area. A year or two ago, when I began talking about my research into ice ages for my caveman novel, I got a one-liner:

“Don’t be an idiot. There will never be another ice age.”

This is less angry than most, and I’ve certainly been called worse. With faint hope that he/she might have something interesting to say, I wrote back and suggested a politer comment with factual content, links permitted. The email address (which was qwertygargle and suspicious to begin with) turned out to be fake.

So what can we make of this? Some of my friends have suggested that posts like these are paid compaigns intended to discredit the blogger or the topic the blogger is discussing. That seems unlikely to me. Anger and insult won’t change anybody’s mind except perhaps in the direction opposite the harpy’s intent. And when someone calls you a “Foux News watcher,” what else can you do but giggle? I wonder if these people have any least idea how utterly pathetic they make themselves and their ideologies look.

Are they bored? Unemployed? Crazy? Are they crawling with toxoplasma gondii? As with all manifestations of tribal fury, the comment harpy phenomenon probably has deep roots in our primate past, where the addled tribal footsoldiers throw poop at each other while their alphas live the good life at their expense. If you have any better explanations, I’ll certainly hear them.

Here Comes the Putzmeister!

Putzmeister Machine - 500 Wide.jpg

This is the machine that yesterday pumped liquid concrete into a hose, allowing it to be precisely (and rapidly) distributed into the voids that the crew had leveled, filled, compacted, and rebar-ed late last week. Ok, Michael Covington correctly tells us that “Putzmeister” translates from the German as “cleaning master.” That other definition you’re thinking of is actually Yiddish.

Quick aside: Seeing the machine reminded me of a very silly song my mother used to sing to us, called “Cement Mixer.” The key line (and what stuck in my memory) is “Cement mixer, putzy-putzy.” I think we may have had it on 78, possibly by piano maniac Slim Gaillard, who is the only man I’ve ever heard of who could play the piano with his hands held upside-down.

Before Pour 500 Wide.jpg

No matter. The machine and the concreters did a helluva job. We have a driveway, a front walk, and a front porch again, in a nice sandy color and fairly subtle texture. It’s now cured enough to walk on (carefully) though we can’t drive on it for several more days. The texture-mold releaser dust has to be power-washed off of it before I can actually show you a picture of how it’s going to look. That’ll happen on Friday.

Pouring Walk - 500 Wide.jpg

Texture Pattern Molds - 500 Wide.jpg

The photo above is of the plastic sheets that apply the texture to the still-soft concrete. The bucket is the releaser dust that keeps the pattern sheets from sticking to the concrete. In use, the sheets are laid on the concrete and manually rammed with a pole-mounted thumper about a foot square.

Smoothing Porch - 500 Wide.jpg

So far, wonderful. I definitely recommend the firm that did the work, Stivers Concrete. Rick Stivers got his big break by appearing with Ty Pennington on Extreme Home Makeover, back while he was still based in Escondido. Since then he’s fled California’s taxes and red tape to Colorado, and likes it much better here. We’re very glad he did, and we’re already looking ahead to summer 2015 for the garage slab and retaining wall projects. That’s about as soon as we think we can handle it, given that I have to put my lathe, drill press, and extensive scrap metal collection in storage, which in turn means that we still have a great deal of clean-up-and-put-away to do out there.

Whatever. My driveway is no longer an eyesore and a safety hazard. That’s victory enough for this year.

Odd Lots

  • The forms are in place. The new roadbase fill has been leveled and compacted, and the rebar laid. Concrete should be here in less than an hour. Damn, we’re ready.
  • Here’s a concise (and hilarious) summary of everything wrong with science journalism, which is (alas) pretty much everything.
  • If the human mind can’t be modeled, it can’t be emulated. Which makes me wonder what sort of non-human intelligence we may be able to create computationlly, and whether we’d recognize it as intelligence if we did.
  • One of my very favorite scientists, the Vatican Observatory’s Dr. Guy Consolmagno, said four years ago that if aliens come to Earth and ask to be baptised, the Church would be happy to do it–but only if they asked. There are theological questions here: Would all aliens be subject to original sin? Would each world have its own Incarnation? James Blish explored this a little (if in a rather 50s way) in A Case of Conscience . Now Pope Francis has apparently reiterated it on the Vatican news site.
  • Students remember lectures better when they take notes in longhand. I’ve noticed this effect myself, and it’s real. The article suggests that writing notes longhand requires you to process information before writing it down, but that’s true of keyboarding as well. I admit I don’t take a lot of longhand notes anymore, but it’s also true that keyboarding and presenting aloud seem to use entirely separate parts of my mind. (I tried to write a story once by dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking…and it just didn’t work.)
  • In crafting parody, I’ve run afoul of Poe’s Law more than once. Far too many people are so dumb they can’t detect hit-you-with-a-shovel sarcasm when they see it. (Thanks to Jim Mischel for the link.)
  • I just ordered this. Will review when I’ve had a chance to devour and digest it. Fat has certainly been good for me, judging by my weight and blood numbers since I stopped fearing it.
  • Coffee is good for eye health. Isn’t it?
  • Wine is a lot more complicated than you probably thought, and a whole lot less romantic. Nay, it’s industrial, almost…urban.
  • And still more reasons to view so-called studies with extreme caution. If you want to pass off an agenda or some sort of ideological/political/hate campaign, the best way to do it these days is hang a sign on it that says, “Trust me! I’m Science!” (Thanks to Damon Smithwick for the link.)
  • And if you’ve ever used a graph to try to prove something, this may give you pause. (Thanks to Roberta Crownover for the link.)

Creative Destruction (We Hope)

Bobcat Jackhammer 1 Cropped - 500 Wide.jpg

I had hoped to write more about the Cayman Islands today, but we learned soon after rising that the Big Duntemann Concrete Project would begin elevenses. And so it did.

Those outside my inner circle know that we’ve been having concrete issues since four months after we moved in. Actually, as soon as the first big rain happened circa May 2004, our front walk caved in. The developer replaced it. We were good for a few months, but toward the end of 2004 the driveway started cracking. By early 2005 it was looking serious, and not long after it started looking serious, the developer vanished. (Coincidence!) So we had the driveway mudjacked at our own expense in the summer of 2005.

Peace reigned for a few years. By 2008 the driveway had begun to crack again, and by 2010 was rapidly descending into rubble. Carol was taking care of her mom in that era, so we didn’t have the bandwidth to confront the problem–and we were in Chicago as much as we were here. Just after the Taos Toolbox workshop in July 2011, the gas riser pipe on the street side of our gas meter cracked after being pulled down into the settling soil for seven years. Toward the end of 2011 we had to have the lower level slab mudjacked, which destroyed the carpeting and made a mess of our lower level generally. I pulled my left supinator badly trying to move boxes filled (carelessly) full of books. I like what we have on the lower level now, but man, getting here sucked.

After Jackhammering 1 - 500 Wide.jpg

So at last we’re having the topside concrete bashed out and replaced. It was funny to watch the Bobcat jackhammer work on the concrete slab. In many spots, the bam-bam-bam was not sharp but hollow-sounding. After a few hits, the jackhammer tip broke through and went down five or six inches instantly, which suggests–nay, shouts–that there were six inches of dead air under the slab.

My driveway now looks like a bombing range, and will for what might be a couple of days yet. At some point (soon?) the dump trucks will come, schlep out the rubble, and then bring back roadbase fill to bring the area up to compaction code. After that, the rebar and the pouring can begin.

We’re having the front porch slab cut out and manually removed as well, which means that getting in and out of the house is going to be problematic for a few days, especially given Carol’s ongoing recuperation from three foot surgeries. The cars are parked on the street, and the freezer is reasonably full, as is the dog food bin. Concrete cocooning? Hey, I’ve got steaks, wine, red peppers, and a grill on the back deck.

We’re ready.

Odd Lots

  • This is where we stayed on Grand Cayman last week. Unless I misrecall, it was about $150 a night. Don’t forget that it was not air conditioned.
  • For deep reading, print may be the way to go, for reasons we don’t yet understand. In looking back a year or so, I realize that I generally read fiction on my Transformer Prime, and nonfiction on paper. It wasn’t a conscious decision–and may simply be due to a reluctance of nonfiction publishers to issue ebooks–but it was probably the correct one.
  • Here’s yet another reason why I’ve decided to let the Sun actually reach my skin.
  • It’s starting to look like diet has little or no effect on cancer risk. This has been my suspicion for a long time. Obesity, yes. Diet itself, no. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Ohh, Ancel Key’s beautiful wickedness is all starting to unravel. Saturated fat has nothing to do with heart disease. This has also been a suspicion of mine for some time, along with the suspicion that eating fat will make you lose weight more quickly than simply going low-carb. It certainly worked that way for me. I now weigh only eight pounds more than I did when I was 24, and a good deal of that is probably muscle I put on via ten years of weight training. (Thanks to Trevor Tompkins for the link.)
  • Interesting paper on why the Neanderthals died out. They didn’t necessarily die out becausethey were inferior. (Maybe they didn’t die out at all but are still here, pretending to be ugly Saps.) If I had to guess, I’d say their skulls got so big as to make childbirth problematic. But what were they doing with all that gray matter? (Thanks to Erik Hanson for the link.)
  • I stumbled on a year-old article that pretty much captures my reaction to I will add, however, that beats the living hell out of The Weather Channel.
  • I’m still waiting for reports of cataclysmic pwnage on XP machines. The number “2000” comes to mind.
  • Speaking of which, I still need XP because my HP S20 slide scanner has no driver that will run on Windows 7. Haven’t tried the VM trick yet, but ultimately that’s the way I’ll have to go.
  • I knew there was a reason I only lived in Baltimore for 23 months.

Second Honeymoon, Part 1

Carol Flying Kite 500 Wide.jpg

Yesterday evening, while on layover at George Bush International Airport in Houston, I was in the men’s room wondering whythehell they always put mirrors over urinals, when it hit me: I am now a person of melanin.

Really. I haven’t had a tan like this in I don’t know how long. We’ve been to Hawaii several times in recent years, but I always hid under a metric tonne of sunblock and came back as pasty as I left. Not this time. Carol and I just returned from a long-delayed expedition to the same resort (or what remains of it) where we stayed on our honeymoon in early October 1976. 38 years had not been kind to the resort, much of which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The surviving beachfront cottages were sold for condos, and we rented one for the week.

We used sunblock sparingly. I actually sat out in the sun on our back deck in Colorado the week prior to the trip to get a little color. It was an experiment in mood management. This ugly frigid long winter had me in a bit of a funk, and I wanted to know if some vitamin D would improve my mood. I’m guessing that I got a serious load of vitamin D. Did it help my mood?

Well, my mood certainly improved. But between frolicking on a deserted beach with my transcendentally gorgeous forever girlfriend, flying kites together, drinking pina coladas at Rum Point, almost running into Baron Barracuda, and not doing much else of serious consequence for almost nine days (including not checking Facebook at all), well, I’m sure I don’t know.

Carol Flying Kite Caymans - 10-1976 - 500 Wide.jpg

The two photos above of Carol flying kites are at almost precisely the same physical location, just 38 years apart. Did 38 years matter? Sure. We know and love each other immeasurably better than we did on our honeymoon. I’ve traded some hair for muscles I didn’t have when I was 24, but Carol, well, she hasn’t had to trade in anything at all.

Tomorrow: more stories and photos of The Week Without Either Air Conditioning or Facebook.