Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Odd Lots

  • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
  • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
  • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
  • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
  • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
  • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
  • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
  • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
  • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
  • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.


  1. Grotius says:

    Many good books are not on Amazon, particularly small press and selbstbauverlag nonfiction technical works. I love small press technical books on arcane subjects. It should be added of course that many are indeed on Amazon.

    One excellent example is “Surviving Technology”, by Bruce Vaughan, NR5Q, SK. Amazon does have a listing for the used book but at the ridiculous price of $79.99. It is available from the Electric Radio website for $35, at which price it’s a little expensive, but entertaining and if you want to build tube regen receivers, pretty useful.

    They also have “Make Your Own Tube Tester…” but in my opinion the book is not as good as Alan Douglas’ “Tube Testers and Classic Electronic Test Gear”. This latter is now sadly out of print, but fortunately I have two copies.

    I highly regard the rather more mainstream Morgan Jones’ “Building Valve Amplifiers” and “Valve Amplifiers” if that’s you’re thing, and if you are into guitar amps “The How and Why of Guitar Tube Amps as “Gar” Sees It”, by Gar Gillies. This is a good example of a book Amazon has never even heard of, and is esoteric indeed, but a fount of useful info for those really into this.

    Back when I did film photography, I bought a lot of books from the late Ed Romney, my favorite being a repair manual for Russian cameras that actually is also great for screw mount Leicas as well since the Russians blindly copied screw mount Leicas for decades. As an aside, 99 percent of real Cold War spy photography on both sides was done with screw mount Leicas, not the exotic cameras seen on “Mission Impossible” and spy movies of the period.

    I budget $150 a year for buying these kind of books, I feel they give me that in satisfaction. If the title is somewhat well offered on Amazon, though, I try to get the public library to buy one, because if they don’t spend on stuff like this it will go for those stupid romance novels they like to buy. This does society some good.

    And of course as always, many out of print and out of copyright books are available as free .pdf’s from Pete Millett’s website and from

    1. I’ve bought a lot of really arcane books on Amazon, and downloaded some older titles from Archive and before that, Usenet. I got the service manual for the Nazi V-1 cruise missile on Usenet, and although it was in German, I know enough German to dope out what was going on. I don’t expect to be building cruise missiles, so grasping the fine points was unnecessary. That said, there was a time when damned near any computer topic, or any piece of software popular enough to be generally recognized, had a book or two about it. I was poleaxed that WikiMedia did not. I miss those days.

      If self-published technical books aren’t on Amazon, it’s hard to know how one might discover them. I haven’t seen anything about WikiMedia books online, so I can only assume that such books don’t exist. This is a shame; if I were still a publisher, I’d be looking for an author to write one.

  2. Wamgo says:

    Anyone wanting the late Bruce Vaughan’s book probably reads antique radio or ham radio sites or publications. Finding out about these books is often best done by looking at web sites or periodicals. But I do feel that we should not get too dependent on Amazon.

    I’ve learned that if you want a esoteric title, buy it and ask questions later. I own a Corvair and am still looking for a copy of Richard Finch’s book on air conditioning Corvairs. His How To Keep Your Corvair Alive-the Red Book- is still readily available but he A/C book -the Blue Book-is unobtanium.

    Finch passed a couple of years back and it is unlikely it will be reprinted. Probably it should be combined with the other one as one book, but that is unlikely.

    ( has a lot of German hobby electronics books which are much better than the English language literature, if one has some command of German. (Rainer zur Linde-sorry, no umlauts on this keyboard-is the name for tube audio stuff.) I don’t think self-publishing is as big a deal over there as over here but being as I have very little command of German and have not been there since childhood, I could not say with any authority.)

    Alan Douglas was an engineer for a diving equipment manufacturer and had written some authoritative books on antique radio, as well as an exceedingly influential article for Ed Dell’s old Audio Amateur magazine called Tubes In Japan. Just as I write this I used a search engine and found that sure enough, Mr. Douglas passed away in November 2019. He was a superb writer and great guy.

    Dell, of course, was himself quite the torch-bearer for the DIY audio hobby, as well as having published a now forgotten magazine called ComputerSmyth dedicated to DIY development of microcomputer systems and peripherals. The problem with this was at the time that if you designed new hardware, there was no software to run on it. I think the magazine was published between 1989 and 1992 or so. It was about a year later that Linus Torvalds released his kernel that made it possible to take the huge body of GNU Free Software Foundation Unix-like programs and build them out into a free OS with source you could compile for your esoteric platform. He missed the boat by maybe a year or two.

    In a sense, great authors live forever in their books. Consider Robert Pease and Jim Williams, the story of whose intertwined passings I am sure you are familiar with. These guys were fortunate enough to have their excellent books published by established houses and well distributed. Another electronics example is the late Joe Carr, K4IPV, SK. He was a fine writer and I learned a great deal from his books. Unfortunately, he was published by the shoddy and generally crummy G/L-TAB imprint of McGraw Hill , the average quality of whose offerings is dismal, and when they did have a useful title dropped in their laps (they did no useful editing and provided little guidance to authors) tended to let it run out of print due to dismal marketing. (Aside from Carr, Eric Lowdon’s Practical Transformer Design Handbook quickly comes to mind. G. Randy Slone’s offerings also somewhat come to mind, though his books would have severely benefitted from aggressive use of the blue pencil as he throws in irrelevant and inflammatory opinions throughout the text: he was of the belief that all other designs other than his pet circuit were no good, and that those who thought otherwise were deluded. That said, his pet circuit did work well a far as what it was intended to do and one can build a usable unit at modest cost with his information.)

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