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Odd Lots

  • Maxwell’s Demon as Web comic. (Thanks to GMcDavid for the pointer.)
  • Here’s a tutorial on adding a MicroSDHC card to the Nook ebook reader. Looks like a mechanically touchy business (be careful!) and nothing substantive is said about sideloading content on the inserted card. Sideloading of content is something I’m less and less willing to compromise on, as I do not want a censor between my slate and material that I want to read.
  • I’m due-ing diligence on the very impressive, Android-powered Nook Color, but the frontrunner in the Great Jeff Slate Project continues to be the Galaxy Tab, especially since Samsung is offering this keyboard dock. That said, Nook Color is the right idea for ebook freaks: Approach a general-purpose slate from the ebook side, starting with a killer ebook store and working toward everything else. (Supposedly, V2.2 and access to the Android app store is coming soon.) My view: Dedicated e-readers like Sony’s and even Kindle will eventually give way to more general-purpose slates of similar size, though slates may “lean” toward one enthusiasm (like ebooks) or another.
  • Back in 1983 and 1984, I did about 10,000 words on a since-abandoned novel that included a species of road surface that charged your car’s batteries as the car moves over the road. A pickup called the “board” (after surfboard) was suspended beneath a vehicle and hovered over the road surface via maglev to generate current like a linear alternator. I was pleased to see that Wired posted a news item on some guys in New Zealand who are developing almost precisely that. Not sure how well the math works out (especially with respect to infrastructure costs) but it’s a cool idea. I added another small touch: Ohmic losses in the “voltway” surface kept it snow-free in winter.
  • Pope John Paul II was an idealist. Pope Benedict XVI is a pragmatist. My SF prediction: As he grows older and sees the problems besetting the Church getting no better and possibly worse, he will begin considering other reforms that his uncompromising predecessor would have considered impossible. Hey, Bennie! How ’bout Vatican 3!
  • People who have lots of moles have longer telomeres. Or at least look younger than they are. Carol and I are both so blessed, mole-wise, but I think it worked better on her than on me.
  • If you spend a lot of time in the car but off the Interstates, take a spin through RoadsideAmerica, a bemused compendium of eccentric stuff you can see on road trips. I liked the entry on smiley-faced water towers, since we pass one in Adair, Iowa every time we blast back and forth to Chicago. And Adair is far from the only one.
  • From the above site: When we left Arizona seven years ago, some people nodded and said, Cool! Colorado isn’t as crazy as Arizona. Well…I’m not sure that’s true.

Prayers and Squares


St. Raphael’s parish surprised Carol this past Sunday with a prayer quilt. It’s an interesting church ministry called Prayers and Squares that I’d never seen before coming to St. Raphael’s, but it’s evidently quite common and his its own Web site. It works this way: A parish’s quilters (we have several) make small quilts about 30″ by 40″. At each corner of the quilt squares is a knot with two threads about 3″ long left free. Before the quilt is presented to its recipient (often while they’re still in the hospital) it is placed at the rear of the church or in the parish hall, and people tie a knot in one of the pairs of threads while saying a prayer for the recipient. There’s enough thread so multiple knots can be tied at any given corner, and thus the quilt is never “full.”

It’s a sign to people who are in the hospital that the parish is thinking of them and that they are not alone. Carol was not in the hospital all that long, but she was touched by the gesture, and later that afternoon while she rested on our bed, she put the quilt over her. The Pack stood guard, and vowed to shred any squirrel that dared attack her. (Aero is actually in the photo, but he went undercover to Carol’s right, so as to surprise any squirrel who managed to get past the others.)

QuiltEmblem.jpgIn the corner of the quilt is an insignia with Carol’s name and the date the quilt was presented.

Religion as a concept is taking a lot of flak these days for various reasons, but few recognize the force for healing and comfort that religion can be when it remains true to its purpose. Small as it is, our parish does all sorts of things that might be listed under “aid and comfort,” including a food pantry that was recognized last year as the best in the Colorado Diocese. Nobody talks it up, nobody brags. They just do it.

Carol puts the quilt over herself every night, and I suspect she will long after her illness is just a memory. Whether or not you believe in God, I think it’s always possible to believe that helping others is the highest good that we can aspire to, and an awful lot of that happens where nobody but those involved ever notice.

Odd Lots

  • I’m still pretty sore from lingering shingles pain on my back, and a little grouchy in consequence, though I’m trying manfully not to show it. On the good news end, Carol is much better, and we both had cheese ravioli last night. I think it was the first meal worthy of the name that she’s had in almost two weeks.
  • Anger really does make you lose: Sony has condemned “No Pressure” and completely disassociated itself from 10:10.
  • From the Terms-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: milk float, a small delivery vehicle (often electric) used to deliver milk in urban England. Some photos here.
  • And another from that department: steamdevil, a small vortex of condensed water vapor rising into cold air from a warm body of water like a lake or a river. This is the time of year you tend to see them, and Spaceweather posted a nice example from Wisconsin.
  • I’ve always suspected that grains aren’t good for me, but here’s some analysis as to why. Your Body May Vary, but a lot of this sure sounds familiar. Note well the caution on soybeans, which give both Carol and me a lot of trouble.
  • Napa’s cool summer has winemakers biting their nails: They may lose much (and perhaps all) of their harvest if a freeze comes before the grapes mature, but if they can walk the tightrope to harvest without falling, this year’s late-harvest wines (my favorite kind) could be spectacular. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • The Colorado Springs marijuana industry has made the New York Times , and has injected new life into local newspapers. I like The Independent, our quirky little free paper (its offices are in an old church with interesting architecture) and every issue I flip through down at the Black Bear Coffeehouse has another page of MMD ads. The latest issue had a 48-page pull-out supplement, devoted entirely to You Know What. The world is clearly crazier than we can imagine.
  • Mars may have had not only oceans, but (c’mon, this is obvious!) also icebergs. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Australia is about to get its first native-born Roman Catholic saint: Sister Mary Helen MacKillop, who in 1870 got a child-abuser priest removed from his position. In retaliation, friends of the priest orchestrated her excommunication, but she was exonerated in 1872. She will be canonized later this month, and I’d say she now stands fair to become the patron saint of whistleblowers.

Odd Lots

  • The rate of toxoplasmosis infection in a given nation appears correlated to the level of neuroticism in that nation. I’ve mentioned toxo before, but it appears that we have better numbers now, and that the UK is nowhere near 50% infected, as the source I quoted in 2003 implied. France, well, now…
  • Here’s a nice piece that explains why the atmospheric CO2 measurements taken atop Mauna Loa are accurate. And here is NOAA’s explanation of how they do it.
  • Bruce Baker sent a link to an article describing how a few scraps of odd film allowed some dogged engineers to re-create the long-lost pallophotophone technology (later known as RCA Photophone), and by doing so give voice to 1920’s recordings of Thomas Edison speaking affectionately about his friend Henry Ford.
  • This weekend is ARRL Field Day, in which ham radio ops head out to the hinterlands to see how well they can get up to radio speed from a dead stop, using portable (not mains) power, from a place not previously set up for radio gear. I’ll be trekking out to my back deck and working the world on an inverted vee, draining 829Bs (Diet Mountain Dew over ice in peanut butter jars) Saturday afternoon, and showing all my geek friends how it works that evening during one of our semiregular geek parties.
  • We can look forward to the Roman Missal on iBooks soon. But will the priest process down the center aisle holding an iPad over his head?
  • I’ve been testing Windows-based EPub-capable reader apps for the last week or so, and guess what: They all suck. Bigtime. Why is it so hard to render reflowable documents that are basically HTML-in-a-sack?
  • If you’ve seen The Music Man as often as I have, you’ll remember how there’s trouble in River City, because the kids are memorizing jokes out of Captain Billy’s Whizbang. Well, I’d long thought that Meredith Willson had made it up, but not so: I found a scan of a 1921 issue of Captain Billy’s Whizbang (which is now in the public domain) and put it up in my pub directory so you can see it too. (Note: It’s a 15 MB .cbr.) My reaction? It’s not very funny, but in a world without Lileks, I guess people laughed at whatever they had on hand.
  • Ok, there’s a little profanity in it (like that’s unusual in Slashdot comments?) but damn, I like this one.

The Persecution Gambit

I learned a great deal about tribalism in the past few years, watching a Colorado Springs drama unfold. The former rector of Grace & St. Stephen’s cathedral downtown fomented a split in the congregation, one of the largest in Colorado. His faction quit the Episcopal Church entirely and hooked up with a crew of African Anglican bishops who collect disaffected American Episcopalians like I used to collect bus transfers. Their choice and no great loss, but the group tried to take the property (including a marvelous Gothic church building, school and offices) with them. After a two-year court battle, they were thrown off the property in April of last year, and occupancy returned to the parish group that remained loyal to the Episcopal Church. During the investigation, it came to light that the rector had allegedly been siphoning off church funds to pay for his children’s college educations, and he is now facing 20 counts of felony theft that could land him in prison for most of his remaining years.

What I found fascinating is that throughout the entire period, the man claimed to be the victim of deliberate persecution, that he was merely defending all things bright, beautiful, and virtuous, and that the Episcopal Church was trying to squash him like a bug. I boggled and boggled until my boggler was sore: Beyond the surreal notion that the Episcopal Church persecutes its opponents, anyone who read more than the shallowest accounts understood that the property had always been owned by the Diocese of Colorado and not the church community itself. (This is a matter of public record.) The more the rector yelled “persecution!” the weaker and sillier he looked—and the more scrutiny he called down on himself.

I’ve touched on this a time or two here before. Sad as it is, this sort of thing isn’t unique. Leaders caught in fibs or with their hands in the cookie jar scream “persecution” more often than you might think. I had an insight recently that explains what had seemed pretty counterintuitive to me: This technique isn’t about persuading outsiders that they’re innocent or deflecting suspicion. It’s all about rallying the base, according to primal tribal instincts that we inherited from our killer-ape ancestors. Every tribe has honest members, and when tribal leaders’ misdeeds come to light, there’s a very real risk that the honest ones will bolt the tribe. The cry of “persecution!” stirs deep feelings, implying that it’s not entirely about the leaders. The tribe itself is under attack, and the defensive poo-flinging had better begin right now, or the tribe could be crushed by its evil and hugely powerful attackers. (Even if they’re just a few noisy bloggers.)

The tactic is a gamble. It works well on the tribal foot soldiers who are basically owned by the tribe, but those loosely bound to the tribe can easily see through it. Much depends on how much flingable poo those owned by the tribe can summon. Run short of FPUs (Flingable Poo Units) and the tribe can shrink, lose power, and suffer humiliation from which recovery is not assured.

If your tribal leaders are accused of wrongdoing and respond with howls about “persecution,” odds are overwhelming that they’re guilty as charged. They’re not trying to defend themselves. They’re trying to keep the tribe’s honest members from drifting away. Don’t fall for it. You gain a lot more by tearing them down, humiliating them via brutal public honesty, and throwing them to the wolves. Never allow a dishonest leader to remain in power. The Anglican tribe in Colorado Springs is now fading away. Yours could be next.

Odd Lots


(“Daywander” is a new category I’m trying out. The idea is something less crisp than Odd Lots but still a collection of different things I thought about or did during the day. It may not work out, and if it doesn’t I won’t miss it overmuch.)

So. We have an iPad. It’s not like it was a surprise, and in broad strokes it was pretty much what everybody thought it would be. I’m very glad that Apple anointed the ePub format for ebooks…the last thing anybody needs is a new proprietary text container. Now we need to know if the Jobs Gang can face down Big Books over prices and DRM. News items I’ve seen recently indicate that books from the iPad store will be allowed to cost more than books on the Kindle, and I’m good with that. I routinely pass on supposed “bestsellers” because they don’t smell like they’re worth $25 to me. The market can decide…and the publishers need to learn that lesson. The bigger question is how much access small publishers will have to the Apple store. One of my goals for 2010 is to get some of my titles onto the Kindle to see how they do. Anybody can be on the Kindle, and the price of goods can be $0.00. I haven’t seen an indication…yet…whether free books will be available in the Apple store, or whether other stores will be accessible, or how difficult it will be for one-person publishers to get in on the action.

And for that matter, is there an SD card socket, so I can drop in the ebooks I already have?

As an ebook reader it looks socko; finally, color and enough resolution to display technical books with figures and detailed art. How well you’ll be able to read the screen outside is another big question that ebook freaks will obsess about. Not me…when I’m outside I’m enjoying the outside for being the outside.(Books to me are an inside thing.) The iPad display isn’t e-ink…but it could be. Why not two displays? Frontside for inside, backside for outside. Apple could do that blindfolded. The thing already costs $500 minimum. Another $75 for a second display wouldn’t kill it.

Hardware, mon dieu. I tried and failed to tweak the Intel driver for the SX280 this afternoon, as suggested by my sister’s friend Chris Meredith on my LiveJournal mirror, and described in this eye-crossing article. Bits don’t scare me, and I follow directions well, but the machine failed to present the tweaked 1600X900 resolution as an option. Hardware can be stubborn sometimes.

Getting away from hardware for the nonce, it’s been revealed that the late Pope John Paul II beat himself with a belt and slept naked on the floor to move himself toward spiritual perfection. The Jesuits were big on this, and did this well into the 1950s: Each Jebbie had a little whip called “the discipline,” and was to use it on himself every night, presumably for the same reason. (Garry Wills wrote about this in his excellent book, Why I Am a Catholic.) What has never been clear to me is why hurting yourself has anything to do with spiritual perfection. (This is especially puzzling given JPII’s ecstatic writings about the holiness of the human body…so holy that we apparently must beat it up, mortify it, make it bleed. I guess.) Sorry. Don’t buy it. What “mortification of the flesh” really is is a powerful temptation to pride: People who hurt themselves and deny themselves can never quite hide the smugness that seems to come with the territory. My take? Real saints help others. Hurting yourself does not help others. Get real.

And in other news from the God side of things, this past Sunday’s Old Testament reading contained orders from the Hebrew Scribe Ezra, in the Book of Nehemiah, Chapter 8: “Eat fat, and drink sweet wine…” Hey, Ez! Got it covered!

Synthesizing a Functional Cardinal

I haven’t done any new fiction in over a year, largely because I took ten months out of my life to update Assembly Language Step By Step, and another three months to catch up on all the stuff that didn’t happen while I was doing the update. Today was the first day in ages that I had both a reasonably clear schedule and a solid night’s sleep behind me, so I sat down this morning after a bacon & cheese omelette to see what would happen.

Much good did. I got 2,000 words down on Old Catholics, which is about as much fiction as I generally crank out in an uninterrupted day. So far I’ve got 6 1/2 chapters completed, out of 18 planned, for a total of 32,000 words. The target is 90,000 words, with a hard ceiling of 100,000. I mean to impose whatever discipline is necessary to stay under that ceiling; I set myself the same ceiling for The Cunning Blood and ended up with 145,000 words of novel, which I don’t think helped me at the big presses during the five years that I shopped it.

The current chapter represents a difficult point in the telling of the story. I’m about to introduce the last of the major characters: Cardinal Peter Paul Luchetti of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The problem is that while I’ve met a fair number of Roman Catholic seminarians and priests, as an adult I’ve never been within striking distance of a Roman Catholic bishop, much less a cardinal. (It is true that Cardinal Albert Meyer came within striking distance of me when I was 12, as some of my Roman friends of a similar age may understand.) I generally design characters by drawing on people I’ve met and talked to, but in this case I came up completely empty.

The entire novel is an attempt to design and portray better characters than I have in my SF so far, in a setting where I’m unlikely to get distracted by gunfights, hyperdrives, or berserk nanomachines. Creating a convincing Roman Catholic cardinal is probably the toughest characterization issue I’ve ever faced, simply because cardinals exist. People can call me on the details. I can’t just make things up on a whim. It’s the issue SF people call “offending the known,” and, as I’ve discovered, offending the known is much easier in non-fantastic fiction set in the current day.

I did my best, and used a technique I learned from my SF mentor, Nancy Kress: I wrote a 1,500-word fictional dossier on the man. Only a little of that will actually make it into the story, but filling in the details of Peter Luchetti’s life forced me to consider his strengths and weaknesses and special talents and record them in a coherent way. I’m drawing on the few books I’ve found that speak honestly and in detail about cardinals without mythologizing them: Peter Hebblethwaite’s The Next Pope (1995) and I Am Your Brother Joseph (1997) by Tim Unsworth, a short biography of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was by far the finest cardinal Chicago has had or probably ever will have.

Perhaps I should worry less. The book is a sort of fantasy, in that what I describe is whimsical, outrageous, and almost certainly impossible. That said, I’ve managed to work in almost everything I’ve ever learned about Catholic life, worship, and history, from Benediction, Tenebrae and Holy Hour to apostolic succession, Arminianism, and the Council of Constance (1414-18). Both liberals and conservatives within Catholicism will likely be annoyed at me, and if they are, I’ll call the book a resounding success.

As for the feeling of sitting down to write fiction again: Damn, it’s good to be back!

Odd Lots

  • Hard drives are cheap, and I still have one free SATA port on my desktop system, so I ordered another drive as a Linux playground to solve the problem described in my entry for December 19, 2009. This time I’m going with a Seagate, since for reasons still obscure, the Linux kernel seems to like Seagate drives better than Western Digital drives.
  • And while we’re talking drives, Seagate has just announced the 2.5″ Momentus Thin, which at 7mm is about as thick as a vanilla wafer (you can tell I’m off my diet for the holidays) and will definitely bring down the BMI of netbooks and other portable gadgetry.
  • I think most people may have seen this by now (I forgot to Odd Lot it back when it appeared a couple of weeks ago) but wow: video footage of an underwater volcanic eruption under three klicks of water. Man, this is what robotics is for. (Thanks to Aki Peltonen and several others for the link.)
  • I just received my brand-new Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook here, and all I know so far is that it powers up and boots reasonably quickly into Windows XP Home. The unit as configured to order has both a built-in TV tuner and a GPS receiver. It’s going to be my travel computer and replace my knuckleheaded Lenovo 2005 Thinkpad X41 Convertible Tablet PC. I’m going to mess with it for a little while and will post something here as soon as I have a feel for it.
  • We’ve been hearing about Apophis for years: the 900-foot asteroid that will swing by in 2029 and say hello. And for an unnerving change of perspective, check out the close encounter from the asteroid’s point of view, in a JPL animation that counts as the scariest thrill ride I’ve taken in awhile. (Have not seen Avatar yet.)
  • Speaking of asteroid collisions, if you’re an SF writer spinning a plot involving big rocks and the sudden release of kinetic energy, look for Hazards Due to Asteroids and Comets, Tom Gehrels, ed. (University of Arizona Press, 1994.) It’s a 1300-page compendium of academic papers on big things hitting even bigger things, with lots of formulas, charts, and analysis. Dense and not an easy read (and also not cheap–it was a steal years ago for $40) but I’ve learned a great deal from it.
  • It’s interesting to read the reasons why good and intelligent men do not believe in God, and here’s Gregory Benford’s testimony, which is a lot more cogent than most I’ve seen. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Finally, if there’s some source code in your past that you regret (I’m thinking of a few lines right now that I’d like to wipe from this space-time continuum if I could) maybe the answer is Bad Code Offsets. Debug-and-Trade, anyone? (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)

Bring Your Priest and Your Prayerbook. That’s It.

Just the other day, Good Pope Bennie opened a door for conservative Anglicans to become Roman Catholics without completely abandoning their Anglican traditions. (Links to more discussion here.) The Roman Catholic Church will be willing to create Personal Ordinariates for converting Anglicans, which is jargon for establishing non-territorial dioceses in which members retain a distinctive liturgical style different from that of the RCC as a whole. This has been done before on a very small scale, though it’s a complex business and not everybody within the RCC agrees that it’s a good thing.

Basically, conservative Anglicans will be received into custom-built dioceses with their own priests and prayerbooks (what Anglicans call missals) and report directly to the Pope, rather than to an RC archbishop in a particular city. They’ll be able to continue using their liturgies and occasional ceremonies pretty much as they have before. The big win for them is that they will no longer have to cope with women priests or demands for gay marriage. However, there’s a downside, and I wonder if it’s dawned on potential crossover Anglicans what they’ll have to leave behind:

  • Birth control. Even conservative Anglicans in my experience have no particular issue with contraception. (Abortion is another matter entirely.) In the Roman Catholic Church, procreation is the primary reason for marriage and the only permissible reason for sexual activity or even sexual thoughts. Contraception remains a mortal sin. There’s no indication that Personal Ordinariates trump Papal teachings at this level.
  • Divorce. This was, after all, the whole reason for Anglicanism to begin with. While divorce is treated less casually among conservative Anglicans than among liberal Anglicans and Episcopalians, it is nonetheless embraced reluctantly when necessary. Crossover Anglicans will have to agree with Rome that divorce is impossible.
  • Their bishops. Male Anglican/Episcopalian priests have been accepted into the RCC in the past, but married bishops are considered off the table. The problem here is that every prominent Anglican bishop I’ve ever heard of has been married, primarily because nearly all Anglican/Episcopalian priests are married. So crossover Anglicans will have to accept episcopal oversight from Roman Catholic appointee bishops, or bishops newly consecrated out of the ranks of (the very uncommon) unmarried priests.

I don’t think this will work, and here’s why: In my view, a religious culture is more than a set of prayers and ceremonies. It’s a way of seeing Earth as well as a way of seeing Heaven, and in my own research the Roman Catholic and Anglican Catholic undertstandings of the physical world, the human person, sex, and marriage stand out as radically different. There’s some serious question in my mind as to how many Anglicans will embrace Rome once they completely understand what Rome will demand of them–and whether those who accede will continue to be Anglicans in any honest sense of the word.