Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


Odd Lots

  • German model train manufacturer Marklin has filed for bankruptcy, though there is still some hope that the 150-year-old firm will remain in business. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.
  • Scientific American has an interesting retrospective on the infamous nuclear-powered B-36 that actually flew back in the late 1950s, with a live, air-cooled fission reactor in its rear bomb bay. I’m less twitchy about nuclear than almost anyone I know, and that item still gives me pause. (I do think that the stock B-36 was the coolest military aircraft of the transition period between props and jets, and one of the coolest of all time, period.)
  • From Rich Rostrom comes an aerial photo of the Fovant Badges, which are a group of military insignia cut into the Wiltshire chalk downs in southern England. They date back to WWI, and have been laboriously maintained since then–a job and a half, considering that some are over 200 feet wide.
  • When I first heard Cher’s uber-irritating hit “Believe” years ago I wanted to know what sort of processing was going on with her audio. I didn’t want to know enough to search too deeply, but it recently turned up on Slashdot. The gadget is called Auto-Tune. And Cher can actually sing when she wants to; one wonders what it could do for no-voicers like Bob Dylan.
  • I’ve never paid much attention to KDE’s Kate editor, but discovered today to my delight that it has syntax highlighting for NASM. I’d basically given up trying to find a lightweight Linux assembly language IDE to describe in my book, but half an hour of lightweight fooling around with it makes me think that Kate might be the one. Now all I have to do is become an expert in the next couple of weeks. Are there any books on it, print or e? I looked around and have found nothing so far.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: interpunct, which is a small dot used originally in Latin to unambiguously mark the spaces between words. It’s still used today to show you where the invisible characters are on your screen, and I recognized the concept immediately, but never knew what it was called.
  • From ditto: A placket is a flap of cloth that hides a button on fancy clothes. I have a pair of pants with one, and again, never knew what it was called until very recently.
  • Pete Albrecht pointed out a source of very nice cast aluminum house numbers in the Craftsman style–though at prices like these, I’m glad I have only a 3-digit address.
  • From the Painting the Devil on the Wall Department: One of the nation’s leading promotors of monster truck shows was run over and killed by a monster truck at one of his own shows. (Again, thanks to Pete for the link.)
  • From Ed Keefe comes a pointer to a stunt kite fitted out with a microcontroller, an accelerometer, and LEDs so that it could be flown at night and turn different colors depending on how fast it’s going and which way it’s pointing. I flew a kite at night in 1965 and only knew what it was doing by the crackle noise it made and how hard it pulled on the string. Technology advances…

Odd Lots

  • Quick reminder: If I’m on your blogroll, or if you have a link to Contra on any of your pages, please check to see that the new URL is in place. Thanks!
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a fantastic technical animation that “assembles” the Space Station one module at a time, while displaying a timeline on the right indicating when each part was orbited and attached. I knew roughly how the thing went together, but this is almost like Cliff Notes. Takes just a couple of minutes to watch. Don’t miss it!
  • Again from Pete is a site with more information on steam turbine locomotives. I had heard of the Jawn Henry (That’s how the Norfolk & Western spelled it) but had not seen a photo until I followed the link in the article. The main problem with coal-fired turbine electrics appears to have been coal dust in the electric motors. Makes sense, but I would never have thought of it.
  • Henry Law weighed in from the UK on the merits of Marmite, the original beer yeast leftovers toast spread, as far superior to those of Vegemite. (See my entry for January 4, 2009.) I may have to let Henry duke it out with Eric the Fruit Bat over this, as I have not tasted either but will try some as soon as I don’t have to buy a whole jar. Sam’l Bassett suggests that its flavor is heavy on the umami, which makes me a little nervous. I don’t taste MSG at all–flavor enhancer is not a word I’d use for it–but it makes me feel almighty strange, even in very small amounts.
  • The Boston Globe, of all things, published a piece stating strongly that cities are really, really really bad places to live from the standpoint of health and clear thinking. I learned that twenty years ago; nice to see that the mainstream media is giving the idea some air. Alas, their answer–more parks–is treating the symptoms, not the disease. The disease is overcrowding, and the answer is to revitalize small towns. But that’s just me, and what do I know about quality of life?
  • I had long known there are “large” Lego blocks called Duplo, but it wasn’t until Katie Beth got a set for this past Christmas that I had ever seen Mega Bloks, a sort of “house-brand” Lego and widely despised as a cheap imitation. However, even though Mega has both a Lego and a Duplo clone, they also have Maxi Bloks, which are larger than Duplo and so large, in fact, that no adult human being is likely to be able to swallow them, much less a two-year-old. This was a good idea. I want Katie to be comfortable with the idea of building things, and Maxi Bloks make it unnecessary to wait any longer.
  • The February Sky & Telescope has a very defensive editorial from Robert Naeye, countering a tidal wave of accusations that S&T has gone the way of Scientific American and has been “dumbed down” in terms of scientific content. I don’t have a link to the editorial online, but its core point is so silly I groaned. Naeye basically said that “We’re not getting dumber–you’re getting smarter!” Um…no. You’re getting dumber. I had been a subscriber for 25 years or so with just a few gaps. I think I have a sense for where it was when I came to it, versus where it is now.
  • I’m editing this with Zoundry Raven, as I have since I stumbled on it a couple of weeks ago. I’ve used Raven enough now so that I can recommend it without significant hesitation. The Zoundry business model is interesting (albeit difficult to describe) but it’s also optional–you don’t need to participate to use the software.
  • Hey. I didn’t get this for Christmas. Neither did you. But boy, the 12-year-old in me ached a little when I saw it…
  • I’m amazed that I never knew this, but the Anglican term for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28) is “Childermas.” He doesn’t use the word, but arguably the best song James Taylor ever wrote is about the Three Kings, Herod, and the Holy Innocents. “Steer clear of royal welcomes / Avoid the big to-do. / A king who would slaughter the innocents / Will not cut a deal for you.” Indeed. Avoid all kings. Keep them in chains when you can–even the ones we believe that we elect.

Odd Lots

After giving it much thought, I’ve decided I rather like gathering links and other short items into lists rather than publishing each as a separate entry. Don’t know why, and I may change my mind. But for the time being, I’m continuing the ancient Contra custom.

  • While in Chicago over Christmas, we watched a movie I wholeheartedly condemn: Knocked Up. The film was completely unlikeable, and consisted almost entirely of out-of-control people screaming obscenities at one another. Sheesh.
  • That was depressing, but the other thing we did that same evening was play Rock Band, a Wii app with a string-less guitar and drum-less drum kit. That was way more fun. I’d hoped it would be a sort of Miracle Rock Music Teacher, but that’s not its mission. However, I did reasonably well at the drums and quite well on voice, even though there were only three songs on the whole list that I had even heard of, and none that I especially liked. You have to choose an animated avatar (there’s that word again) and after much searching for a bald-headed middle-aged white boy, I had to settle for the wonderfully named Duke of Gravity. The Duke was my choice because he had big bushy sideburns, which (apart from the color) resembled what I used to have in the 70s. Next time, can I be the Duke of Electromagnetism? (I didn’t know codpieces could have teeth.)
  • Spaceweather posted one of the spookiest sky photos I’ve ever seen, and I take some delight in the fact that atmospheric experts can’t explain it. If things like this happen every so often (even if only every 30 or 40 years) no wonder our ancestors believed in gods and angels.
  • The BBC has a very nice article on the mysterious Soviet Buran shuttle, which made precisely one flight comprised of two orbits plus an effortless return to Earth, all without a single human being in the cockpit. Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.
  • Pete Albrecht reminded me that, sandwiched between the end of the steam era and the beginning of the diesel-electric era, we had a very thin sliver of railroad locomotive evolution called the steam turbine-electric era. Behold the most formidable example, the C&O M1, a 4-8-4-8-4 (!!) in which a coal-fired steam turbine spun a generator, producing electricity that turned electric motors over the wheels. Man, they don’t make trains like that anymore. But they could. (After all, we have more coal than they have oil.)
  • The teeny, gummy Cruzer Micro Skin (so named because the whole thing is encased in a soft and slightly sensual plastic sleeve) is available in an 8GB version, and Amazon is now selling them for $12.99. (Marked down from $90!) I grabbed one; every MP3 I’ve ever ripped from my CDs will fit on that, with room to spare. The “big” 16 GB Cruzer Micro is already out there for $32.99–that’s a thousand times the capacity of my first thumb drive, which I bought back in 2001 for $50.
  • Here’s The Secret Origin of Clippy, a 15-slide retrospective based on Microsoft’s patent filings for animated screen assistants, of which Clippy was the least obnoxious. Tapping on the inside of the glass was clever and funny for the first twenty minutes, but now (with a plastic flat screen in front of me) it’s just, well, tired.

Rail Trails and the Narrowest Storefront

The weather today in Chicago promised to be as good as it gets this trip, so I decided to do a little exploring. I wanted to get some exercise and a little sun on my face, and run down to a neighborhood I hadn't set foot in for almost thirty years: Sauganash, an upscale part of the Northwest Side where my father's parents lived in the 1950s and 1960s. I went past the old house (at the corner of Kedvale and Glenlake), which had not changed at all, though the tree that my grandfather had planted in 1955 was now huge and breaking up the sidewalk. I had lunch at a hot dog place at Devon and Pulaski and parked the car on Pulaski near St. Odisho's Assyrian Catholic Church. I then did something interesting: I walked the old rail line that intersects Pulaski near Granville, southward as far as the Chicago River, roughly at Balmoral. The rails are still there, but by the depth of their rust I'd guess they hadn't seen wheels for a number of years. It was a little weird walking over Peterson on the rail bridge, but I wanted to see if there was any evidence of there having been a commuter rail platform at Peterson. I'm not sure why, but I always thought my grandfather boarded a train for downtown (he worked at First National Bank) on Peterson somewhere. This was clearly not the place. (Gretchen says he boarded at Edgebrook, and she's probably right.) Whatever that line was, it had clearly been freight-only.

Since I was on the right of way, I just kept going. The tracks continued, rusty and weed-choked, as far as I went. Just a block south of Bryn Mawr, a second line merged with it, and I found that the city was in the process of making a walking trail out of the old bed. So I cut north again on the walking trail, passing people and their dogs and a father flying a kite with his preschool son in a schoolyard. The trail is quite new, and in fact the walking bridge over Peterson was not complete yet and was fenced off. (The trail goes north as far as Devon.) So I skidded down the embankment and walked east back to Pulaski along Peterson to my car. It was a nice two-and-a-half mile stride, and when the sun was out it was quite warm.

That accomplished, I drove back west toward Des Plaines, and stopped in Park Ridge to do a little more walking. I wanted to visit Hill's Hobby Shop, and walked there only to find that they have moved to Buffalo Grove. I did, however, snap a shot or two of what is certainly the narrowest storefront in Park Ridge (and perhaps the whole Chicago metro area) at 147 1/2 Vine Avenue (60068) directly across the street from Park Ridge City Hall. I didn't have a tape measure in my pocket, but I'm guessing the whole thing was between four and five feet wide.

I'd seen it before, and remembered that it had been a knicknack shop a few years ago. Sure enough, googling the address showed it to have been (aptly) The Miniature Gallery, and there was a 2007 business registration sticker on the window. However, the counter and window displays had been ripped out, and it looks like it's being converted to something else, probably a hall to the rear. The art gallery in the rest of the building was also vacant, and the building as a whole was not in terrific shape.

No serious point to be made here, other than you miss some odd and occasionally wonderful things by driving everywhere. Spring's coming—so get out on shank's mare and see some of the weird stuff in your own neighborhood!