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Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Intel’s announced the Compute Stick, a complete $150 Win8.1 machine in the format of a fat thumb drive. Looks like the plug is HDMI, though, and the device gets power from an uncommitted USB port. I could see this melting seamlessly into a big-screen TV (or any monitor with an HDMI input) and giving you something that indeed approaches (as Michael Abrash said probably 20 years ago about 21″ CRT monitors) Windows on your bedroom wall. (Thanks to Eric Bowersox for the link.)
  • It’ll be awhile before this becomes available, but a brand-new antibiotic has been isolated from bacteria that live in dirt. I’m doubly enthuisastic because this may encourage researchers to look harder at bacteriophages, which live in dirt and worse.
  • If you haven’t heard of Smart Pascal, it’s an interesting concept and worth a look: A commercial Object Pascal compiler that generates HTML5 apps. It’s basically a way of writing sophisticated Javascript apps without having to wash your mental hands and rinse your brain out every twenty minutes. To me that would be worth $42/year.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: A selfie stick (also known as a narcissistick) is a camera holder that allows you to take pictures of yourself or groups by parking your camera on it and holding it up in the air so that the camera is facing you. It’s usually just a rod with a handle, sometimes telescoping. Many support bluetooth to trigger the camera, though the details remain obscure to me.
  • Beware the Facebook Logic Fallacy: One member of Group X is evil, therefore all members of Group X are evil. Much of my objection to Facebook memes is that this is a very common template. Attack memes must die. Not sure how to get there from here.
  • The percentage of ice cover on the Great Lakes is now 18.7%. Keep an eye on this graphic, as I think our current winter stands to be an…interesting…season from a Great Lakes ice perspective.
  • In general I’m no fan of government regulation, but here’s an excellent argument that both broadband providers and airlines could use a little consumer-oriented regulation.
  • Related to the above: Air travel is a lousy business (rather like health insurance, in fact) and merciless price competition has led to creative fee-hiding and generally charging extra for a travel experience that hasn’t been made deliberately miserable.
  • From the Department of the Painfully Obvious: There are many benefits in finding a spouse who is also your best friend. I guess it’s nice to have some research behind it, but damn, is this really news to anyone? (Maybe New Yorkers.)

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

The Weather Channel as Weak King

Back in mid-January, the Weather Channel went dark on DirecTV. There’s been a great deal of drama since then. Losing 20M viewers is one helluva kick in the crotch when you have, at best, 100M viewers and are struggling to keep the ones you have. If online comments can be believed, they’re bleeding eyeballs bigtime.

Carol and I are two of them.

I’m not a big fan of TV, which eventually turns everything it touches to crap. Carol and I never even had cable until we moved to Colorado ten years ago. The Weather Channel was a pleasant surprise. It was founded by John Coleman (of “thunderboomers” fame in Chicago) and Frank Batten in 1981. We appreciated having a detailed forecast with radar every ten minutes, and some of their people were inexplicably likeable, especially Mark Mancuso, Mike Bettes and Stephanie Abrams. We’d put it on during breakfast or anytime it looked like things were getting ugly outside.

In 2008, NBC bought TWC. That was the beginning of the end. They fired about 10% of their on-air staff, started airing content-free MSNBC news, began pushing weather/climate hysteria of every species every chance they got, and then…the coup de gras…went to the Reality TV Model. They weren’t the first; Discovery Channel and others had pounded that unmistakable path in the grass long before TWC ever found it. One lame series after another began airing anytime there wasn’t a storm that they could get breathless about. I almost understand “Storm Stories,” which at least had photos of things you’d just as soon not see every day, or maybe ever. After that, each season got weirder and weirder. “Turbine Cowboys” croaked early, because there are only so many shots you can get of daredevils repairing 100-foot-tall wind turbines. But…”Prospectors”? It’s “Duck Dynasty” with pickaxes. Now their big deal is “Highways Through Hell,” which is about roughneck Canadian tow-truck operators pulling semis out of ditches in the Canadian Rockies and getting in arguments. There’s no Local on the 8’s during any of these increasingly irrelevant reality shows. Nor, I’ll tell you with fair confidence, is there a great deal of reality.

That’s my big gripe. There are others. People online seem peculiarly agitated by TWC’s recent gimmick of naming winter storms. After Creon and Dion I was expecting Eon, Freon, Leon, Neon and Peon, and perhaps Xenon before this long, cold, ugly winter peters out. No luck so far. (After all the high-end mythological characters, the “W” storm is named “Wiley.” The hell?) Naming winter storms may be dumb. Getting upset about it is dumber.

The business model puzzles me a little. Is it cheaper to buy episodes about trash-talking Canadian truck drivers than just present the weather? Perhaps it is, once you lay out major cash for irritating New York celebrities like Al Roker. However, the people are on staff, the studios are paid for…where’s the win in reality TV? TWC seems to think that people turn on their TVs and sit down to watch The Weather Channel as a species of entertainment. For the most part, they don’t.

Anyway. DirecTV replaced TWC with WeatherNation, which resembles what TWC was when they first started out. The formula is simple: all weather, all the time. The cameras are on tripods rather than dollies, the studio is small, and there are no expensive celebrities. The computer graphics are good, and if I could get it on cable I’d wave bye-bye to TWC. I’ve begun to experiment with streaming video, now that our local Blockbuster has closed down. Said experiments have shown that I can stream WeatherNation, and once the new technology is all in place (more on which in an upcoming entry) I will.

Most of this wouldn’t even be worth mentioning at length if The Weather Channel had not begun to throw increasingly desperate tantrums, slandering DirecTV by name in house ads and claiming to be some sort of essential disaster management information service; i.e., if we don’t have a monopoly on weathercasting, people will die.


This is typical behavior of the Coastal Elite: We know what’s good for you, and if you don’t like it you’re an evil something-or-other funded by the infinitely rich Koch Brothers, or maybe the Illuminati. NBC has long had that sort of internal culture. I smell the presence of one or more Right Men–and maybe a few Right Women, though women are generally too smart for that sort of BS. Leaders earn our respect by acting with calm confidence. Calm confidence is what wins. Leaders who throw tantrums are the archetype of The Weak King. Once the tantrums start, those wooden-wheeled gallows carts can’t be far away.

What broke it all open for me was this video, which shows some guy acting like a Jack Nicholson-class psycho, tearing his DirecTV dish out by the roots and beating it with a baseball bat, until the neighbor kids run screaming and local mothers start to cover their toddlers’ eyes. C’mon. I’m supposed to flee back to The Weather Channel after seeing a revenge fantasy like this? Not fracking likely.

Being a strong king means taking your lumps, learning from your mistakes, and turning the situation around by setting ego aside and just making things work–all with calm confidence. In TWC’s case, this means dumping the unreality shows, firing Al Roker and Sam Champion, and just presenting the damned weather.

Sheesh. How hard could that be?

Odd Lots

  • Anger makes you stupid. Politics makes you angry. Do the math. (Thanks to Bob Trembley for the link.)
  • Running across George O. Smith’s books while redistributing titles on one of my shelves led me to look for the most powerful vacuum tube ever produced commercially. This was the understated Eimac 8974, which contains its own vacuum pump and could hurl out two million watts in Class C. QROOOOOOOOO! You can’t drive a truck into it, but you’ll need a truck to move it. And once you get it home, your first problem will be finding 600 amps to heat the filament.
  • Winter’s coming early to the West: We hit a record low here for this date yesterday night: 26 degrees. Two feet of snow fell in parts of the Dakotas, with some unofficial reports (like this one, in the appropriately named Deadwood, SD) of as much as four feet.
  • The Farmer’s Almanic is predicting a truly bitchy winter this year. (Note that this is not The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is less sanguine.) We’ve noticed that the squirrels here are busting their nuts eating acorns, which is at least as good a predictor.
  • Speaking of brrrrrr: Recent research fingers the Llopango volcano in Ecuador as the triggering event of the severe global cooling of 535-536, which finished off the Western Empire via crop failures and the Plague of Justinian. It was a truly titanic eruption, hitting 6.9 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index and thus a peer of the gigapuissant Tambora. After that, well, there was nothing much to do except have the Dark Ages.
  • More scary robots. Four legs seems optimal for this sort of creature, which seems to be designed to carry cargo over bad terrain. It’s pretty clear to me that drones with machine guns make better manshunyoggers.
  • Most people don’t have a gut sense for what “ephemera” means, but if you want a sampling of the weirdest examples ever seen (as well as many cool and sometimes beautiful ones) prepare to spend some time on it. Don’t miss Part 2.
  • Which led me to Found in Mom’s Basement, a compendium of vintage ads. Some weird, some peculiar, some creepy, much Seventies. “Guess Whose Mother Used Downy?” Mort Drucker’s tampon ads. Read the archives!
  • How to deal with the highest of all high-class problems, albeit the one you’re least likely to face. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • One of the siller analyses I’ve seen recently. Then again, it may be the case that geeks are about culture and nerds are about ideas. I actually thought that nerds were what they called us in the Seventies and geeks are what they call us now.
  • From the Brutal Truth In Labeling Department. I’m in.

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.

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

The 50-State Distributed Mosh Pit

Black Friday is almost over. I haven’t been out of the house at all today, as crisp and gorgeous a day as it’s been. Given how much I dislike crowds, I’m surprised I didn’t spend all day in the upstairs closet.

Multitudes obviously feel otherwise. News at 11.

Today’s Wall Street Journal ran a short piece that pretty much nailed it for me: Black Friday “Doorbusters” Don’t Always Hold Up. The money quote:

An analysis by pricing research firm Decide Inc. and The Wall Street Journal of this year’s most-touted Black Friday deals found that many of the bargains advertised as “doorbusters” were available at lower prices at other times of the year-sometimes even at the same retailer.

So people were camping out on the sidewalk since the last turkey-gasp yesterday–and sometimes earlier–for nothing.

Nothing? Maybe not. Carol and I have a theory: Black Friday has become a species of entertainment. It’s not about getting a deal. It’s about the crowds, the rush, the experience. As my business partner Keith Weiskamp said way back in 1994: “The critical app of the Internet is other people.”

Bingo. The whole point of Black Friday is to do the Shop Dance in public, even if you don’t bring anything home at all. It’s like a rock concert with a 50-state distributed mosh pit and so many people screaming that you can’t hear the music. Music? You mean there’s music? Hey man, feel the energy!

Yes, retailers are feeling the energy. They’ve fired up their spreadsheets and they’re hard at work trying to see if anybody’s actually paying attention to the price tags. Increasingly, they’re not. Hard stats indicate that the best prices for jewelry and watches happen in October, and for big-screen TVs at the beginning of the year. The point is to perpetuate the meme, raise prices a little each year, and keep people dancing.

Now, commerce is what makes jobs happen, and jobs are good. Money seems to work best when it moves quickly. So far be it from me to object. (Black Friday is the best day of the year for plumbers, by the way, but not for the reason that first crosses your mind.) If national flash crowds are hip and you’re a hipster, go for it. If you’re of my general temperament, a better strategy is to read a book–or maybe write one. (NaNoWriMo is still at its fevered peak.) I start my Christmas shopping this Monday, from right here in my chair, with an egg nog at my elbow and a quad core at my command. Some goods have to be handled to facilitate reasonable decision-making, and I’m budgeting time for that too, ideally when everybody else is at home reading a book. When?

I’d tell you. But I’d be lying.