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Odd Lots

  • I was wrong about Diesel engines being easy to make, as I suggested in my entry for March 5, 2012. Fuel injection, as it turns out, is a bitch. You’re trying to divide oil into a multitude of very small droplets of (reasonably) consistent size. Gasoline carburetion, by comparison, is a snap. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht, an automotive engineer, for the reminder.)
  • I suspect it’s easier to produce wood gas (AKA “producer gas”) at a small scale than gasoline. In a future where large-scale oil refiners are no more, a Dieselpunk society could power internal combustion engines with wood gas. This has been done a lot around the world, especially during WWII when oil supply channels were disrupted.
  • This has little or nothing to do with the Holy Roman Empire, but if you’re a map freak, boy–budget a day for it. Wow.
  • This looks like a good book, especially if you’re finding it hard to keep track of genre mutation within SFF. Will order and report after reading. (Thanks to Trudy Seabrook for pointing it out.)
  • We found one of these in a drawer in my late grandfather’s workbench after my grandmother died in 1965 and we had to sell their house. I never knew what it was until it made the A-head story on the front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal , in an article about…olympic sheep shearing. My grandfather lived a quiet life in a modest house on a tiny lot on Chicago’s north side. There wasn’t a sheep for miles. (I hope he didn’t use it to cut my father’s hair.)
  • I’ve noted some confusion about this: “Retina display” is not an Apple trademark, but a technical term: a display with such high resolution that the eye can’t make out individual pixels at typical reading distance. Here’s a good explanation of the whole retina display concept. The new iPad certainly qualifies, but it wasn’t the first. Asus’ Tranformer Prime was there some time ago. Retina-quality displays are made by several vendors, and will eventually appear in other high-end tablets.
  • The Lytro camera has been mentioned in a lot of places, but here’s the first in-depth description I’ve seen. A camera that allows you to fiddle with the focus after the shot is taken is FM, if you know what I mean. I ditch about a third of my digital photos (mostly taken in bad light) for focus problems. It’s an awkward form factor, but if it’s the first of it’s kind, I’ll assume the next one will fit the hand a little better.
  • The mad scientist in me cried out when I saw this. I need a castle. I need a kite. I need a monster.

Odd Lots

  • For the several people who asked: The odor-free carpet pad that we used in carpeting the lower level here is called Napa Carpet Cushion, from Leggett & Platt.
  • Apart from N&P’s Fallen Angels, Bob Tucker’s Ice and Iron, and possibly Mackelworth’s Tiltangle, what other SF novels involve an ice age on Earth in the near(ish) future? I have a concept that capitalizes on all my recent paleoclimate research, and I’d like to see if it’s already been done.
  • Whoops, found a list just before posting this. I clearly have some reading to do, assuming I can find any of these items. What are your personal favorites?
  • Today’s sunspot number is very close to zero. I haven’t seen sunspot activity this low in some time, and here we are supposedly barreling into the Cycle 24 maximum. The sunspot number is going in the wrong direction. 6M DX is evidently not in my immediate future.
  • Joe Flamini and Jack Smith are both pretty sure that the mysterious Comco gizmo I presented in my February 6, 2012 entry is an early remote control unit for commercial and public service radio systems, allowing control of a transmitter or repeater through leased phone lines. More on this in a future entry.
  • Having read briefly about hydraulic analog computing in a magazine decades ago, I built hydraulic calculators and computers into the technological background for my novel The Cunning Blood. Turns out the Russians did it on a pretty large scale back in the years running up to WWII. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.)
  • From the You-Probably-Couldn’t-Do-That-Today Department: The flipside of the Chad Mitchell Trio’s 1963 hit kid/Christmas 45 “The Marvelous Toy” was “The Bonny Streets of Fyve-I-O, about a colonel who shoots one of his own captains for insubordination.
  • Tucows (does anybody even remember Tucows?) is launching a contract-free mobile service using Sprint’s network. The rates are interesting, and favor people who want smartphones but just don’t use them much, and data little or not at all.
  • The Maker Shed has a $99 Geiger counter kit that allows logging of pulses through a serial port, and detects both beta and gamma radiation.
  • A little gruesome maybe, but it’s real: When we lived in California in the late ’80s, there were reports of sneakers washing up on Santa Cruz area beaches…with human feet still inside them. At the time we assumed drug violence, but there’s a less scurrilous if no less ghastly explanation for a phenomenon that’s still happening. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Mmmph. Military combat aircraft should be able to fly in more air than we’re used to, no? Sweden had this problem recently. (I’m guessing that Saab has it too, now.) Thanks to Aki Peltonen for the link.
  • The name of my company, Copperwood Media, LLC, was inspired by a set of traces on an old PCB that just happened to look (a little) like a tree. I had an artist draw me a better copper tree for the logo, way back in 2000. Now Rich Rostrom sends a link to the odd tradition in some parts of the UK of hammering coins into cracks in trees until the notion of “copperwood” takes on a whole new meaning.
  • Some very nice steampunk watches and jewelry. “Chronambulator” is a great word, whether or not you’ve got a steampunk gizmo to hang it on. Note also the level-reading absinthe hip-flask. (Thanks to Bill Cherepy for the link.)

Odd Lots

Tweeting the Big Whistle

Wow. I think I finally happened upon a use for Twitter. The Union Pacific railroad tweets status updates on the tour of its restored 4-8-4 steam loco, #844, as I described in my entry for October 31, 2011. I have line-of-sight from my house to the BNSF tracks on which #844 would be taken south to Pueblo yesterday, and I wanted to actually see it from my back deck. Now, it’s a long line of sight–a little over five miles, according to MapPoint–but since I’m on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, 600 feet higher than the tracks, I have no trouble making out BNSF’s coal trains, though it’s easier with binoculars. On quiet summer nights I can hear their horns (faintly) when they go through grade crossings. Uphill seems a favorable direction for sound. As I’ve mentioned here several times, we hear Fort Carson’s bugle calls on most quiet days.

#844 has a whistle, a real steam whistle, but not just any old steam whistle: It’s got a whistle transplanted from one of the now-extinct but inexpressibly awesome Big Boy 4-8-8-4 articulated locomotives, which seventy years ago began hauling freight up Rocky Mountain grades. None of the Big Boys are still operable, but a piece of one of them remains in service, and #844’s got it.

I wanted to see #844 from my deck, and I wanted to hear it too. The window was short, probably two minutes or less, so if I wasn’t out there at precisely the right time I would miss it. Enter Twitter: By following the UP’s status updates while I worked here on my quadcore, I was able to grab my jacket and binoculars as soon as #844 pulled out of downtown, and be there on the back deck (along with QBit; Carol was still in Chicago) when the loco went past.

QBit sat next to my chair and gnawed a Nylabone. I leaned back and did a little deep breathing and some ten-second-meditation exercises. A couple of minutes later, I felt annoyed at the sound of some damfool 18-wheeler engine-braking on Highway 115. (We hear those a lot too.) But…it wasn’t engine braking. It expanded to the deepest, thrummingest whistle I’d ever heard, and for four or five seconds it blasted, echoing among the hills and against Cheyenne Mountain itself. It wailed the way nothing on earth but a steam whistle wails, a wail that doubtless inspired ghost-train stories and infused the history of steam traction with something like mythic sadness. Steam trains sounded sad long before they were an endangered species. (The physics of that wail is simple but surprises many people when they first learn of it. You all understand it, right?)

I stood up, leaned on the railing, and looked hard. Sure enough, a comet’s tail of cylinder-vented steam crept out from behind a hill, and for two minutes and change #844 crossed my field of view. Five times the big whistle sounded, and then it passed behind another hill on Fort Carson and was gone. It’s far from certain that I will ever see it again.

Why didn’t I go down there closer to the tracks and get a better view? I’m not entirely sure myself. I can guess, though. This house was a first for us: We’re 600 feet higher than Colorado Springs itself, and we get a view from a height. The wide view off my decks is a personal metaphor for the world as a whole. I can see buildings and cars and traffic lights and water towers and the aviation beacon from Butts Field. Houses and offices and a little bit of everything are right there, and I can take it all in at one glance. Seeing #844 from my deck made it feel like steam was still part of the world I live in, and I felt it viscerally. Big steam whistles will do that.

And yeah, Twitter made it possible. As silly as I consider it sometimes, broadcast IM may well have its (occasional) uses. I wonder how many years it will be before I run across another one?

Odd Lots

  • Antique Electronic Supply in Tempe, Arizona, has created a new DBA for their tube audio amplifier business: Amplified Parts. The tube stuff still predominates but it’s hardly “antique” and has definitely gone upscale. They rate their power tubes like fine wine: “This Russian tube [6L6GC] has tight lows, straightforward body, and smooth highs. In overdrive, it offers a tight and frosted crunchy bite.”
  • My Taos Toolbox 2011 colleague Alan Smale just won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History at the 2011 Worldcon in Reno. We workshopped an expansion of the winning story, “A Clash of Eagles” and it was terrific. I’m guessing this will make it perhaps a little easier to sell the novel-length work. Bravo, Alan!
  • Even though HP announced yesterday that they were killing their cloud-centered TouchPad tablet, Carol and I saw an expensive commercial for the device on The Weather Channel this morning. Cloud? Did you guys say “cloud”? (No wonder they got the ad…)
  • If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely take a look at Stellarium, a free planetarium program available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s one of the best I’ve ever tried, more polished (if not as deep) as the venerable Cartes du Ciel, which is remarkable in part by being a Lazarus app.
  • David Stafford sends word that an elaborate steampunk loft apartment has gone up for sale in Manhattan. The price? A “mere” $1,750,000.
  • This is killer cool as binoculars go, but would they capture anything at night? (Somehow I doubt it.)
  • Bill Higgins writes to tell us that Catholic University has placed a scan of the 1964 Treasure Chest comics series “Pettigrew for President” online, for free download. I blogged about this years ago, but the comic was not available for download then.
  • Nick Kim does Cowboys and Heavy Metals. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Fellow carnivore Jim Tubman and I share an appreciation for The Periodic Table of Meat. Most of it, anyway. (No thanks on Meat 75. Oh, and 95.)
  • Back from meat to metals again: Given that it’s the cornerstone material required to build the Hilbert Drive as used in many of my SF yarns, I was a little surprised that ytterbium is so cheap.
  • Did you ever wonder about the physics of coffee rings? Wonder no more.
  • From the Please-Give-Those-Guys-Something-To-Do Department: New taxpayer-funded NASA research tells us that unless we take prompt and serious action against global warming, aliens may invade and wipe us out. UPDATE: This turns out not to be entirely true: The chap who co-wrote the paper works for NASA but he did it on his own time and there was no public funding involved. The Guardian has corrected the piece.

Odd Lots

Finished: Steampunk Computer Table


Well, as much as any project is ever really finished. And with the deadline for Taos Toolbox closing in (I’m leaving for Taos a week from tomorrow) I’ve had to make some serious progress on a number of things. The table is a biggie–if you don’t have a table to write on, not much else matters, especially if it’s a writers’ workshop.

I first mentioned the project here. In truth, it looks pretty much like it does in that photo, but there’s a big difference: The 20″ X 28″ tabletop is now connected (securely) to the legs. In the July 7 photo, the top is simply resting on the legs. In addition, there were labels on some of the fittings, and one galvanized pipe tee that I’ve since changed out for brass. I’ve also added four brass caps on the ends of the legs, to allow adjustment for wobble on uneven surfaces. (Like the tile floor here in my office.)

The photo above shows how the legs are lashed up with pipe fittings. (I hadn’t added the pipe caps to the ends of the legs yet.) Yes, there are two pipe tees that have unused openings. I’m considering using them to mount a pair of thin steampunkish speakers, once I find (or build) a pair of thin steampunkish speakers. In the meantime, I may put two more 6″ brass pipe sections on them and claim that they’re handles. The reason for using tees all the way around is simple: Not all pipe fittings are precisely the same length, even though in a proper tinkertoy system they should be. A simple pipe coupling, although available in brass, is not the same length as a tee. Because there are tees in two of the legs, there need to be tees in all of them, or the legs will not be of the same length. See the photo below, which is just a still life of pipe fittings. At the front edge are a tee and a coupling, and they are not the same length, even though both are threaded for 1/2″ pipe.

I didn’t use four brass unions just to look pretty. (Not at $15 a pop!) The unions allow the tabletop to be removed from the legs, which will make things tamp down a little harder in the back of the 4Runner next Sunday. The flanges are not conventional pipe floor flanges, but TracPipe AutoFlare natural gas flanges. And that wasn’t an accident or simple good looks either, but a consequence of their length. I needed the table surface at 26″ from the floor, and the TracPipe combos plus the union, the tee, and three 6″ brass pipe sections are just about precisely 26″ long. (The caps at the ends of the legs add about 3/8″, which I can deal with.)

The finished item is shown below, with the Aethernet Concentrator tossed in for atmosphere. Much remains to be done before the workshop, but almost all of that is reading and note-taking. My first 10,000 words of Ten Gentle Opportunies has already been submitted. The Concentrator will be along at the workshop, and my updates from Taos will almost certainly go through it.

The tabletop may seem off-center, and it is: I and my legs need to be centered in front of the keyboard, with some mouse-surface to the right. The table is designed to be about as compact as would still be useful, and asymmetry, well, it appeals to me.

Now, how about a fifth flange set into the top side of the table, holding a vertical pipe section to mount the Concentrator about three feet above the table? Hmmmmm…not this week, but the idea is calling to me.

Odd Lots

  • After being in the water for as many as four years, a broken camera turns up on a California beach with the SD card still in it…and still functional, complete with a hundred-odd photos taken before the camera was lost. I marvel first at the durability of these cards in a corrosive medium–and then at how little circuit board there actually is inside the SD card itself. Wow.
  • There is an ice cream truck that goes down Alles Street here in Des Plaines, playing a midi riff of a familiar old song–and, periodically, a slightly creepy woman’s voice calling, “Hello!” This is evidently pretty common, but judging by some quick online research, the songs are different for almost every ice cream truck out there. (The “Hello” voice appears to be the same.) The truck came by here late yesterday, shortly before the storm rolled in, and I suddenly recognized the song: a bouncy variation on the old Southern hymn “Holy Manna,” often known as “Brethren We Have Come to Worship.”
  • And pertinent to the above: I only recognized the melody because Lorie Line played it in a medley with “The Lord of the Dance” on her Heritage Collection Volume 1 CD. She plays it fast, much faster than I’ve ever heard the majestic old hymn itself played in church. (The song is not credited by name on the CD, but it’s there–and the CD is very much worth having.)
  • Damned if these don’t look like drumlins. On Mars. (The other kind of drumlins–and yes, I am very familiar with them. More on the naming of alien artifacts in an upcoming entry.)
  • I’ll come back to this issue once I’m home and decompressed a little, but Glenn Reynolds posted a case history of a man who had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (also called NASH in some circles, for Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis) eventually ascribed to eating/drinking fructose. Depending on your genetics and how much you consume, fructose can send you all the way to cirrhosis and death. This article (linked to by Reynolds) is a must-read. This one is worthwhile as well. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for alerting me to the post.)
  • And while we’re slogging through the Carb Wars, well, fake fat makes you fat. (More and more research indicates that real fat does not.) And let’s not forget that little issue of “anal leakage,” gurrkh. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Xoom, meet SD slot. SD slot, meet Xoom. You guys have been traveling together for over a year. It’s time to shake hands. In Europe . The problem in the US has to do with the “Google Experience.” Somebody at Google is holding back card slot support, and thus (I’m guessing) a great many sales, including one to me. I smell rentseeking somewhere.
  • On the other hand, if all you want is an Android ebook reader, this might be worth a look. $99? Who cares if it’s only Froyo? (Forgive me if I’m skeptical that it’ll ever see retailer shelves at that price.)
  • The creator of this device calls it “technofetishism,” and it is. That doesn’t keep it from being amazing, and killer cool. (Thanks to Bill WB4WTN for the link.)
  • Finally: How To Make a Mask With Photoshop. I always wondered if that would work.

A Compact Steampunk Computer Table


Here’s a recent project of mine that isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s a beautiful illustration of why I love pipe fittings. I’m attending Walter Jon Williams’ Taos Toolbox writers’ workshop in July, and I needed a compact computer and a small table to set it on. The computer is hiding behind the 20″ LCD: It’s a Dell Optiplex GX620 USFF (below), stuffed to the gills and tricked out right.

GX620USFF.jpgThe table is entirely my own design. I had the Unfinished Furniture Warehouse here in Colorado Springs make me an oak tabletop 20″ X 28″, stained to match the woodwork in my office. Back in 2006 they built my primary computer table, and did a wonderful job of it. Ditto this project. The legs are all standard pipe fittings and standard lengths of 1/2″ pipe, as many in brass as I could find. I’m short one brass tee (and some of the fittings still have label cruft on them) but that’s an hour’s work to fix.

Why bother? I’m very particular about the height of my keyboard relative to my chair. I like to be slightly above and look slightly down at my monitor. Having to look up even a little kinks my neck and gives me splitting headaches. Experimentation years ago showed 26″ to be an almost ideal surface height, at least when using one of my treasured Northgate keyboards, and that’s what I did here. The four brass unions in the legs add 2″ to the table height, which would otherwise be 24″ and a hair low. The unions also allow the legs to be easily removed from the tabletop for transport in the back of the 4Runner, as they will next month.

I couldn’t find copper or brass threaded pipe in sections longer than 6″, so there will be some galvanized iron in the final product. I may buy a buffing wheel and shine the hell out of the zinc, and in the end it’ll definitely be a striking piece. Best of all, it didn’t take a huge amount of time to do, compared to some of the boggling steampunk craft creations you see online. I’m trying to see if I can finish a novel a year for the next several years, and that will require not spending a huge amount of time on unnecessary refinement. Pipe fittings are steampunk Tinkertoys, and I was good at Tinkertoys. I’m also good at pipe fittings, and it was a fine thing to find myself elbow-deep in them again.

Odd Lots

  • Heads up here; this is important: Something called EasyBitsGo.exe appeared in a directory under Documents and Settings/Application Data/All Users this morning about half an hour ago. The executable was already installed and running and wanted permission to install Flash Player. (I do not allow Flash Player on Windows machines, as it’s exploit fertilizer.) The timestamp on the executable’s directory tree indicated that it had been installed no more than a minute before it popped up. There appears to be a Skype connection, and I was using Skype at the time. Be careful. If you see it, close Skype, kill the easybitsgo.exe process in Task Manager to close it, and then nuke that directory. Then go to Add/Remove Programs and uninstall it. Reboot. If Skype did in fact install this thing without asking, it may be the beginning of the end of my own use of Skype.
  • Per the above: Launch Skype. Select Tools | Options | Advanced, and un-check Automatically Start Extras. Then reboot again and make sure it’s not still running.
  • All RAMmed up and nowhere to go: KingMax has announced a 64GB MicroSDXC card…and there’s almost nothing on the market that will use that much storage in one chunk. If we’ve learned nothing else in the last thirty years, it’s that “barriers” are a mark of either hardware vendor cheapouts, or software vendor incompetence. Are address lines so dear that we can’t raise the barriers to a level at least five years out? (I suggest 256 TB. Ok, six or seven years out.)
  • What if Babbage had outsourced tech support to the Pacific Rim? (Thanks to Ernie Marek for the link.)
  • Yet another longstanding dietary fetish is now in jeopardy. The case against salt always looked weak to me, in that it was clearly hazardous to people who already had certain kinds of heart disease, but that the case that it caused heart disease was mighty thin and mostly anecdotal. All roads continue to lead back to carbs, and especially sugar. More in coming days as time allows. (Thanks to Carol for the link.)
  • If just rooting your Nook Color isn’t quite enough, here’s a description of how to turn it into a complete Android tablet. If it sounds scary to you, well, you may not have the computing experience to do it; but when I read the article I thought, Sheesh, that’s easy. You can even boot from the SD slot to get a sense for the mod before making changes to device memory. The process appears to be reversible, and the mod allows you to use Bluetooth-capable GPS receivers and other Bluetooth devices. Given how cheap the NC is, I’m tempted to try it while I wait for the high-end slates like Xoom to mature.
  • We could maybe use a few more of these.