Thursday, November 30, 2006

Odd Third Choices

My favorite cola is neither Coke nor Pepsi, but RC.

My favorite browser is neither Internet Explorer nor Firefox, but Opera.

My favorite beer is neither Budweiser nor Miller, but Point Special.

My favorite operating system is neither Windows XP nor Mac OS X, but Linux.

On the radio I prefer to listen neither to AM nor to FM, but rather to shortwave.

I prefer to write neither with ballpoint nor with pencil, but rather with a fountain pen.

Given my choice of board games, I'd prefer neither chess nor checkers, but rather shogi.

Toss a coin, and I'm likely to call neither heads nor tails, but rims (let's not get into the one time in high school when a friend tossed a nickel in the air, and I called rims correctly)...

It's a consistent thread running through my life: given two choices, I often prefer some obscure, unheard of, far-distant third choice. The only wonder is, I don't vote Libertarian.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Other Rainbow

Here's another one of those odd items that's always been there floating around in my head, dating way back to when I was a kid: I've always known that there are really two rainbows.

One is the ordinary rainbow, the one you see in the sky. You know, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. (And I'll thank you not to forget Indigo, if you please.)

The other is, well, the other rainbow, which has nine colors: White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black. (In some tellings, Blue comes before Green; and the rainbow runs from White on the inside of the arch, to Black on the outside.)

It's not quite clear to me what kind of a rainbow I thought this other rainbow, with its nine colors, was. Plainly not a rainbow you see in the sky. Maybe more like Black Elk's "red and blue days at the end of the world"? Or more, I think, like the way I always knew what color each day of the week is: "Monday is light brown, Tuesday is violet, Wednesday is red, Thursday is moss green, Friday is yellow, Saturday is luminous red, and Sunday is white."

Something more like that. I always just knew about the other rainbow, White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black.


Well, I Suppose It Was Worth a Last-Ditch Try

From the Charlotte Observer:
A South Carolina Gamecocks fan fatally shot a friend over a $20 bet on a weekend football game, authorities said.

James Walter Quick watched the South Carolina-Clemson game Saturday at his friend's house in Lexington, S.C., about 100 miles south of Charlotte. The Gamecocks came from behind and won, 31-28.

Quick celebrated.

But his friend, Clemson fan Richard Allen Johnson, said the Tigers shouldn't have lost and refused to pay, authorities said. So Quick left the house and retrieved a high-powered rifle from his Chevrolet Corsica.

"He went back in and told Richard, 'I want my money or I'm going to shoot you,'" said Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, adding that both had been drinking beer.

Metts said Johnson's wife and several friends told police that Johnson then said: "You can't shoot me, I'm invisible."

And Quick replied, "No you're not."

Johnson, 43, was shot once in the chest, and deputies charged Quick, 42, with murder and possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime.
Say what??!!! "You can't shoot me, I'm invisible..."

Monday, November 27, 2006


When I was over to visit my folks for Thanksgiving, they sent an early Christmas present back with me: an exercise bicycle. A recumbent exercise bike. Thing is heavy as all get-out, I had to recruit some fellows after church on Sunday to carry the box into my house and upstairs. And it took me a while yesterday to get the bike unpacked and assembled: "Some assembly required" would be an understatement! But the bike is now up and running, and it runs very nicely indeed. Computerized workout programs and whatnot.

Let's hope I can stick with using this thing. I sure could stand to lose 60 pounds or more in these latter days.

I can remember back in high school, my days in cross-country. I'd go out running along country roads, at a good brisk pace. Six or seven miles and I wouldn't even be breathing hard. I could've kept it up indefinitely.

In my early 20s, I'd go out jogging every morning, jogging along the Lakeshore path and across campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I'd jog a few miles, then finish with a sprint down Bascom Hill and across the State Street Mall. Then read the newspaper at Memorial Library before returning to my apartment right across the street.

In my early 30s, I was sort of giving up on the jogging, but I still did a lot of walking. Lived a 20-minute walk from the campus of Duke University, and often walked to campus and back, sometimes a couple of times a day.

In my early 40s, mired in the world of wholesale sports merchandise, I did warehouse work day by day, and was generally at a good weight and in good shape.

Now at age 50... well, I do go walking once in a while. Once in a great while. But I don't go walking nearly like I should. And with winter drawing near, I'm sure not going to be getting out more than I have been.

So I sure do hope I can get in the habit of using this exercise bike. And stick with it. Stick with it, lose weight, and all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Top Science Fiction/Fantasy Novels I've Read

(From Deb, at Dispatches from Blogblivion)

This is a list of the 50 most significant science fiction/fantasy novels, 1953-2002, according to the Science Fiction Book Club.

Bold the ones you've read, strike-out the ones you hated, italicize those you started but never finished and put an asterisk beside the ones you loved.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien *
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Dune, Frank Herbert
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Neuromancer, William Gibson *
Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury *
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
Cities in Flight, James Blish *
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison *
Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
Gateway, Frederik Pohl
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Little, Big, John Crowley
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick *
Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon *
The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, Larry Niven *
Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys *
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner *
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester *
Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein *
Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
Timescape, Gregory Benford
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

As you'll notice, most of the science fiction and fantasy I've read was published before 1975, or is by authors who became established before 1975.

A few other titles I'd like to see on that list:

A Case of Conscience, James Blish *
Citizen of the Galaxy, Robert Heinlein *
Waystation, Clifford Simak *


Thursday, November 23, 2006


And I'm on the road this morning, to visit my folks over in Wisconsin.

Have a good one!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Eh, I'm rushing around here on a busy day before Thanksgiving... Oh yeah, rutabagas!

The other day someone kindly gave me a couple of rutabagas out of their garden. Now, I must confess that I've never had rutabagas before. So last night I fished around via Google, and simplified even further a recipe I found on some site out there.

Very simple. I scrubbed the rutabaga. I sliced off the outside of it with my trusty blackened-iron-blade kitchen knife. I chopped and diced the inside of the rutabaga. Put the pieces in a pan on the stove, well covered with water, added more salt than recommended... well, okay, not quite half a teaspoon full. Put the lid on the pan, brought the water to a boil, reduced the heat to medium, and let it bubble away for 12 minutes. (Next time I might let it go a little longer.) Drained the water, mashed up the rutabaga pieces with a fork. Added a teaspoon of olive oil, mashed some more. Scooped out onto a plate, added salt and pepper to taste.

And it was quite good. That, from someone who's usually not too much into veggies.

I really ought to do more of my own home cooking, if only I could find the time. Instead of just emptying a can into a bowl and popping it in the microwave. I'm not much of a cook, you know. Though I do have a number of recipes stored away in my head, and some of them are pretty good. If only I could find, or make, the time!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Slow as Molasses

So this morning it's six days since our DSL connections out in this neck of the woods slowed to a crawl. Six days that our DSL has been running at roughly half the normal speed of a dialup connection. I mean, things work. But it takes a minute or two for any nontrivial webpage to load. Over DSL.

Not that this is anything new to me and my neighbors, who've suffered now, lo, these many years under a small local mom-and-pop Internet Service Provider which I shall refer to as Stupid-ISP. Every now and then this happens. For days at a time. And unless you're willing to go to satellite (much more expensive), there is no alternative. Because there is no local competitor. It's just a fact of life that every now and then, Stupid-ISP's DSL service goes on the fritz.

At least this time it's only slown down to 5% or 6% of its regular speed. Other times, it's stopped working altogether. For days on end. And then there was the time Stupid-ISP somehow managed to accidentally delete its entire username and password database for its email service, and they had to reenter it manually, because they had no electronic-media backup.

I'm tempted to say I have the strong suspicion that they don't have anyone at Stupid-ISP who knows how to configure DSL and keep it running right. But in fact I have spoken over the phone with a fellow at their central office who convinces me that he does indeed understand the technical aspects of it all. So the question devolves into whether they have anyone else on their payroll who has a technical grasp of what's going on. A person is driven to wonder. After six days of molasses.

Look, our DSL service out here amidst the cornfields of Iowa works just fine. When it works. But one of the corollaries of dwelling out here in a remote rural location is that we have to resign ourselves, in the realm of Internet and the like, to not quite living in the 21st century yet. Thanks to the monopoly of Stupid-ISP and their countless malfunctions and service interruptions and slowdowns.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Hanging out together: Clyde; Fast Eddie; The Duffer; the cat. Not present: Poindexter

The Duffer: "Hey, youse guys! You should see this out the window... Lookit... there's this tomahawk just sorta floatin' an' bobbin' around in the air, out in the yard... It's a blasted tomahawk, just hangin' there in thin air! I bin watchin' it now five minutes..."

Fast Eddie: "Aw, c'moffit, Duffer! [Opens front door] Lemme show you... that tomahawks do not just hang around floatin' in thin—" K'CHINK!!! [Fast Eddie collapses, with a tomahawk in his forehead]

The Duffer: "H-hey, Clyde! D-do you suppose Eddie is dead?"

Clyde: "Dead? Of course he's dead!! Ain't you never seen a tomahawk before, Duff? I 'member the time, one summer on my grandfather's farm outside Antigo, there was this tomahawk around... We seen it floatin' in the air, out by the barn... Hey, Duff— ya gonna help me clean up before Eddie bleeds all over the rug?"
Tomahawks are often seen in an area of Wisconsin stretching from Antigo to Green Bay. Late July and August are the thickest "tomahawk season."

Have you educated yourself and your family on the danger of tomahawks— especially if you'll be "up north" this summer? Do you know what safety procedures you should follow— when a tomahawk has been sighted in your area?

Do you know what to do— if you should see a tomahawk floating in the woods when you are alone? What if you can't get behind glass in time? What if the tomahawk shifts into "super speed"?
—A public service announcement of the Wisconsin Public Safety Commission.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Royal Crown Cola

Ron Coleman had an interesting post at Dean's World the other day on RC Cola, alias Royal Crown Cola, which is one of his favorites and also one of mine. I first got into RC in a big way when I was living in Dubuque, in the early 1980s.

Though RC was also available when I was a kid in the 1960s, growing up in a small town in southern Wisconsin. We used to get our pop at Milo's neighborhood grocery store, and I would save the bottlecaps. I still have my old childhood bottlecap collection, and it gives you a pretty good idea what brands were available in my neck of the woods back in those days: Coke. Pepsi. RC Cola. Home-Ade Cola. Double Cola. Patio Diet Cola. Cola. Nehi Root Beer. Hires Root Beer. Dad's Root Beer. Mason's Root Beer. Bon-Ton Root Beer. Fauerbach Root Beer. Root Beer. Mason's Strawberry Soda. Nehi Strawberry Soda. Fauerbach Strawberry Soda. Strawberry Soda. Mason's Orange Soda. Sun-Rise Orange Soda. Fanta Imitation Orange Soda. Nesbitt's Orange Soda. Graf's Orange Soda. Orange Soda. Nehi Grape Soda. Sun-Rise Grape Soda. White Soda. Black Cherry Soda. Cherry Soda. Black Cherry Blossoms Soda. 7-Up. Ski. 50|50. Cheer Up. Upper 10. Bubble-Up. Sprite. Fresca. Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Bon-Ton Ginger Ale. Roxo Ginger Ale. Par-T-Pak Pale Dry Ginger Ale. Mountain Dew (with a hillbilly— "Yahoo! Mountain Dew! It's goo-ood!").

There's one other brand that bothers me, because I can't remember if it ever actually existed, or if it's just something I had a dream about, many years ago. It was a creme soda called Canadian Creme. Clear glass bottle, with a scene on it of ducks flying over a cat-tail marsh. And both scene and brand name were printed on the bottle in a mirror-reflective gold. I wonder if I dreamed that one.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Winnah! Winnah! Winnah!

Went up yesterday evening to a Lions zone meeting in Houston. Members from all different clubs in southeast Minnesota gathered at the Houston community center for a dinner, club reports, speakers, and a raffle. As president of our local Lions club, I gave a club report, and apart from that, got to sit there at my table most of the evening.

The weird part of the evening came at the end, the raffle. See, I never win these things. Never. But last night... well, first of all I won a Green Bay Packers teddy bear. Which is cool, I'm from Wisconsin, and I guess that makes me at least nominally a Packers fan.

Then I won a fire extinguisher. An actual, genuine fire extinguisher. Which, it just happens, I have an identical model fire extinguisher in my kitchen which hasn't been touched or inspected in a good nine or ten years. So that one worked out.

Then I won a twelve-pack of bottled water. Good enough. Though by this time, you notice, sitting there in a large gymnasium-sized room full of people in purple or yellow Lions vests, I am the only person who has won, like, three prizes?

Then on top of all that, I won a fourth prize. A sack of I think it was cat food. Or was it cat litter?! At this point I put my foot down, declined the prize, on the grounds that I had more than enough prizes already. Though what was really going through my mind was that, being cat-free, what in the world was I going to do with something like 20 lbs. of cat whatever-it-was?!

I even made it back home in one piece, back up that twisting, winding road from Houston, with all those 30 mph hairpin curves. Didn't hit any deer, or nothing. Luck was with me.

Now if only I could figure how to take luck like that with me on a trip to Vegas.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Little Robot Horses

Once several years ago I had this dream, as is recorded in my Book of Dreams:

Last night, I had a dream. And in the first part of it, I was in Hong Kong, in a museum of Chinese culture. And I could see in beyond, and there was room after room filled with museum artifacts. And I was by the Chinese water fountain outside, wondering if drinking from it meant they wanted a donation; and in the gift area, I was looking for Chinese playing cards, or a chess set for Chinese chess, or maybe a mah jongg set. Only all I could find were items having to do with Western playing cards. And the young lady at the desk said, no, they didn't have any.

Now next time we were up at a moon base, on the moon. And digging around outside, in hard vacuum, wearing our space suits, we kept coming across the remains of little robot horses, about knee-high, covered in the lunar dust.

And now there was word from the Mars colony that robot horses were being sighted, running across the dead, empty sea bottoms of Mars. And there were getting to be so many of them, that the robot horses were overrunning the entire planet.

Now change of scene, and I'm watching it as an anonymous observer, but it's all in the third person. A star ship has been dispatched, faster than light, to travel to another star system, and investigate what is supposed to be a new habitable planet for colonization.

And two astronauts, one a young fellow with a dark crewcut, whom I sort of identify with; and one, a beautiful, sexy young blonde Swedish babe. And even faster than light, it's a couple of months to the star system. And I think you can guess what happens with these two together, in those months in the empty deeps of space, between the stars. The phrase that occurred to me in the dream was pol na polú, which is Russian for "sex on the floor." Only in space there is no floor, no ceiling, only a slow-motion mid-air ballet in zero-gee.

And after a couple of months, these two astronauts, the man and the woman, arrive at the distant star system. And they settle down to the surface in a shuttle. And they open the airlock, letting down a heavy gangplank from the metal underbelly of the shuttle, and they venture out onto the perpetual dark of the planet, with its howling winds. And all about them, scampering with the sagebrush, knee-high, are little robot horses. And frequent lightning shows the robot horses running in snapshot profile.

And the woman takes a flamethrower, and incinerates some of the nearby robot horses, Sigourney Weaver style. But that was a mistake. Because now thousands of little robot horses are drawn from miles around to the charred remains. And they actually seem to be multiplying.

The man warns the woman back into the airlock, and they manage to get the shuttle off, and it lifts, a giant hulk of metal slowly levitating into the air. And beneath it, lit up by its landing lights in the heavy dark, are thousands of little running robot horses.

Now it's a couple of months back to Earth, hyperlight, and the man and the woman are going at it again in the interstellar deep.

And when they get back, they are kept in quarantine, in a space station in Earth orbit. Because word has come back, from other missions like theirs, and it seems that the little robot horses are everywhere, on every habitable planet that has been investigated, except for Earth. And there's a fear, because it's not known how the robot horses are spread, or how they multiply. It might even be possible for a person to be carrying the template for them, in microscopic form, like a virus. So the man and his Swedish babe are trapped up there in the space station. And they can't come back down to Earth.

And then I woke up.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Remote Viewing

As an operative in the CIA's top-secret Operation Grill Flame, Major Ed Dames learned to use the psychic power of "remote viewing" to spy on the Russkies, locate lost objects, and view the moons of Jupiter close-up. Now he will teach you how to do "remote viewing," through an interactive training kit.

I dunno, sounds rather "X-Files" to me... ;-)

Monday, November 13, 2006

My Second Blogiversary

Two years ago today I fell down the rabbit hole and became a blogger. Registering to post a comment at Caltechgirl's blog, I somehow mysteriously ended up with a blog of my own. So I decided to go with it. And two years later, here I am.

In my very first blog post, I gave a list of reservations I had about becoming a blogger:
  1. I'm too busy, I don't have the time.

  2. I detest the angry, vindictive mud wrestling I see on some blogs.

  3. I dread becoming a slave to regular posting, so as to hang on to my audience.

  4. I don't have the time.

  5. I have no desire to become a magnet for the various wackos, psychos, and emotionally needy sad sacks I see on some blogs.

  6. I've always commented under my own name, and made no secret of who I am, where I live, or what my line of work is. I've sometimes wondered if this will one day come back to haunt me, and see no need to aggravate the situation via my own blog.

  7. I have a number of very colorful interests, but once we get past those (give it three or four months) either I run dry, or else I start repeating myself: either way, no thanks!

  8. My personal website gets a modest but fair amount of traffic, and it's nicely situated in Google (hey, I'm #1 in Google for a search on yellowstripes). I see no good reason to divide my energies.

  9. I've met a lot of great people and made some good friends in the blogosphere, but I don't know if I meet the entry requirements to be a blogger, since I fit in none of the following categories: (a) Libertarian; (b) Randian Objectivist; (c) vegetarian; (d) gay/lesbian; (e) Kevorkian right-to-die-er; (f) neo-pagan; (g) owner of automatic weapons; (h) genius-level high-school dropout; (i) person who has no TV set in the house; (j) atheist/agnostic; or (k) follower of the Atkins low-carb diet.

  10. Did I mention, I just don't have the time??!

Two years later, I find that most of those reservations still stand. Nevertheless, I find myself sticking with it, posting four or five times a week. Vaguely bemused by it all.

But I find I do enjoy blogging. Mostly as a hobby... you know, about on a par with stamp collecting or building model airplanes. As I put it once in an interview with a newspaper reporter, my blog is about "me, my interests, my own quirky take on things. My blog tends to be very subjective, the world as seen through my eyes."

And I've been very fortunate in the visitors and commenters my blog has drawn. I appreciate all of you... the commenters, the regular visitors, the occasional visitors, and the various lurkers who've become familiar to me from my stats. I've got one lurker who's been dropping by regularly ever since this blog began. I appreciate you folks, each and every one of you, I really do.

As for the blogosphere at large, well, I enjoy it, there are a number of blogs where I regularly visit and sometimes leave comments. But I must confess I take a mixed view of the blogosphere: "bemused" hardly covers my feelings about it. I've been a commenter in the blogosphere— a commenter, not a blogger— for four years now. I think the blogosphere has a certain undeniable public value, as witness Rathergate. But I continue to be put off, as I have been from the very beginning, by the sheer mudwrestling aspect of so much of it. There are a lot of wonderful people out there, blogging and commenting. But my informal observation is that the blogosphere draws far more than its share of nutcases, jerks, haters, the emotionally disturbed, the socially marginal, and outright sociopaths. Which I suspect drives a lot of good, decent, sane people away, precisely because they are good, decent, and sane (or at least it keeps them silently lurking). Sort of like an analog to Gresham's Law.

Still, here in my own little corner of the blogosphere, I've been very fortunate in the caliber of visitors I've drawn, and the caliber of the discussions we've had. And I think over these past two years I've gained a glimpse of what the real value of the blogosphere may be in the long run for many of us. I think of some of the people I've gotten to know here on my blog, or across the blogosphere. I think of how I've been brought together with folks of various outlooks and interests, or of outlooks and interests similar to my own.

Often in ways that never could have happened back in the old pre-online days. I think of the evening I got together for dinner with Caltechgirl and Grand Moff Trojan, who were passing through my part of the country. I think of how Lucy generously sent some crayons and magic markers for our Sunday schools here at Mt. Hope and St. John's. I think of how I wrote about the detailed language I created, and wrote a book in, in my teenage years, and how I learned that blogger Daniel Morris is also a language-creator like me. I think of the philosophy article from an out-of-print book that I was able to photocopy and send to the Tetrast. And I think of all the discussions and arguments I've had over the years, on my blog and on his blog and backchannel, with Dean Esmay, who is truly one of the greats.

The Internet in general tends to draw kindred hearts and minds together like this. But I think the blogosphere does this in an especially focused and personal and interactive manner. Back around 1970, a friend of mine once told me that the world was getting smaller and smaller, until by the year 2000 the world was going to contract to a mathematical point. Well, he was sort of joking, and pulling my leg, and seeing if he could hoodwink me into swallowing something he himself didn't really credit. But it's turned out that my friend was quite correct, in spite of himself. Through the Internet, through the blogosphere, the world has indeed in many ways collapsed to the dimensions of a mathematical point.

And I find myself rather bemused to be part of that. Still with certain reservations, see above! But bemused, and generally enjoying myself, and privileged to have met some wonderful people along the way. So I blog my way forward into my third year here at Let the Finder Beware.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Cops Meets Dungeons & Dragons

(h/t Steven)


Friday, November 10, 2006

Dubuque Dubuque (Na Na Na, Na Na Na, Na Na, Na Na)

Back from study leave in Dubuque. And tired. The lectures were deathly dull and boring, those of them that I bothered attending.

At the hotel, they didn't have the room I'd reserved ready yet when I checked in, so they gave me another room instead. With a jacuzzi.

Wandered over to the Shot Tower Inn for supper Wednesday evening. Pizza, beer.

Hit a few antique stores in downtown Dubuque, plus the Catholic religious supply store. Oh, and at the antique mall in Dyersville, on the way down, I found two cool old pop bottles! White Eagle Soda from somewhere out in Massachusetts, and Werbelow's from Shawano, Wisconsin, black and orange design with a knight in armor on horseback.

And saw a special on public TV in my hotel room, Warplane, about the development of military aircraft in WWI and WWII.

Am still unwinding this morning. And I got back just in time: according to the forecasts, we're supposed to get snow today.

Election Post Mortem

Oh well. With luck, we'll get gridlock in Washington. Or even if we don't get gridlock, probably somehow we'll muddle through.


One of the great things about being a political conservative is that one can honestly maintain that muddling through is, all things considered, not a bad mode of operation. Overall, muddling through almost always leads to far better results than rationalistic rational planning; just as the hundred flowers blooming of the free market almost always lead to far better results than the leaden dead hand of a command economy.

Then again, muddling through doesn't leave the illusion that human beings are masters of their fate and captains of their souls, the way rationalistic rational planning does. Hence the perennial popularity of rationalistic rational planning, no matter how poorly rationalistic rational planning always performs in practice.

Oh well. Hopefully we'll muddle through. Or, if we're really lucky, we'll get gridlock.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Study Leave

On the road down to Dubuque for study leave. See you in a few.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Book About Blankets

That book about blankets arrived yesterday, and I've been lost, immersed in it. That book: The Blanket: An Illustrated History of the Hudson's Bay Point Blanket, by Harold Tichenor.

Of course I'm a fanatic about wool blankets in general, and the Hudson's Bay point blanket in particular: as we head into the chillier season, I've got two heavy wool blankets on my bed, one of them Hudson's Bay. This book is a wondrous history of that blanket which has been sold from Hudson's Bay Company trading posts, going back into the late 1700s.

The text of the book is slightly touched with that "race, class, prestige, economic status" bilge which is so popular in academia; but not unbearably so. Overall the text is engaging and informative. The many, many illustrations are a delight, and more than worth the price of the book ($15 cheap) all by themselves.

In fact, after reading this book, I had to resist the temptation to order immediately another Hudson's Bay point blanket, plus a pattern by which to cut it up and sew it together into a heavy hooded wool capote, such as they used to wear up there in the Great White North.


Yeah, It's Election Day

...And I intend to drive down the hill into town, just as soon as I've finished my morning coffee. Drive down to the community center, hold my nose, and vote.

Like a lot of Republicans, I'm not terribly happy with the way things are these days. But I'm going to hold my nose and vote GOP, on the general theory that I've got a choice between (1) a party which is venal, spendthrift, and corrupt; and (2) a party which is venal, spendthrift, corrupt, captive to its own extremist fringe, and filled with loathing for America and all things Occidental.

As James Burnham once put it, "Liberalism is the ideology of the suicide of Western civilization." I'm not happy with the Republican party; with its drunken-sailor spending and its capitulation to big-government ways; with its acquiescence in the chipping away at our civil liberties and our personal privacy; but I'm not feeling suicidal today, thank you. Indeed I rather like the Occident, and most of what it's stood for these 2500 years. Ergo I'm going to hold my nose, vote, then go about my daily life. Someone let me know when the Democrats return to the party of FDR, Truman, JFK, Johnson, Humphrey, Jackson, and Lieberman.

Lifelong Republican that I am, I do look back fondly on the days when, agree with them or disagree with them, I could honestly view either of the two major political parties in this country as a credible real-life alternative. Instead of having to view one party as nothing but a bad joke, and the other party as being at least halfway toward being nothing but a bad joke.

Update: Well, I drove into town and voted. Thank God that's out of the way.

Monday, November 06, 2006

We Are Not Alone... or Are We?

Over the course of my lifetime, there's been an interesting little change in the common wisdom.

I can remember a time in my childhood when the unshakable sessile assumption among the bien pensants was that certainly life was nowhere to be found except here in our little corner of the universe. There were no planets outside our solar system. There was no life except on Earth. There was no intelligent life except for Man. Any disagreement with this heavy-jowled orthodoxy was met with a loud, bone-shaking, vibrato bass "NOOOOOOOOO!!!"

I myself, as a kid, was one of the few known dissenters from this wisdom. I followed astronomy the way some kids follow sports. I knew the name, diameter, orbital period, and distance from primary of every moon then known in the solar system. I knew all the stats on the Mercury and Vostok missions, who, when, how many orbits. I had a stack of astronomy books. And you could not fool me: of course stars with planets were widespread in the universe; of course life was commonly to be found on other planets throughout the cosmos; of course intelligent life reared its pesky head not so very infrequently where life was to be found.

Well. I haven't changed since. But the common wisdom has. Stars with planets, hard to deny it any longer when astronomers are discovering them out there left and right. Life out there, the heavy-jowled orthodoxy has done a 180, and now you'd get a leaden, angry "NOOOOOOOOO!!!" if you denied that life exists elsewhere. Likewise the received wisdom is that "we are not alone" in the intelligent-life department, either.

I only wish I could resist the impression that the turning point in the common wisdom was the entry of science fiction into the cultural mainstream. I grew up in an era when science fiction was still marginal and disreputable and rather grubby, and people scoffed at the possibility of planets and life and intelligence elsewhere in the universe. Then, in the late 1970s, science fiction went mainstream in our culture. Star Wars was what did it. And unless I'm missing my guess, that was also about the point when more and more "respectable" people, including those of the white-lab-coat persuasion, began to give credence to the possibility of planets, life, and intelligence out there.

This is the way human culture often works, and shifts and changes its outlook. Kekulé's dream of a hoop-snake, and the structure of the benzene molecule: cultures as well as individuals go "aha!" for the most pictorial and phantastic of reasons, which turn out in the long run to have been correct after all. Then in hindsight the guardians of the received wisdom try to airbrush the abductive leap, the hoop-snake, the science-fiction movies out of the picture: makes it harder to be heavy-jowled and leaden and sessile and beyond all question when it's known that poetry was one of your ancestors.

So. Extrasolar planets already discovered by the bushel, and they seem to be widespread. The biologist would be hard to find who would deny any longer that life is probably common out there. But as for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe... well, now there's the rub. We are not alone... or are we?

Because, you see, for quite some time now we've been listening. If there's anyone out there who's broadcasting on radio frequencies, you'd think we'd have picked them up. Wouldn't you? Only... nothing but the silence of the interstellar deep.

As the physicist Enrico Fermi is said to have put it, "Where are they?"

This gives rise to the Fermi paradox, "the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for or contact with such civilizations." One would think, on the basis of today's common wisdom, that we are not alone. Yet as far as we can tell, it seems we are alone. What gives?

At present one can only speculate. I used to speculate about this as a kid, back when I had already embraced today's common wisdom 40 years and more in advance. Back when I was writing reams of science-fiction stories in high school, my surmise was that intelligent life is not uncommon in the universe, but that most intelligent life differs radically from us in its psychology. "Alien psychology" means really, really, really alien psychology.

Imagine a species of birds whose nervous system is hardwired for radio transceiving, forming an intelligent collective mind, as in my recent short story, "Skeetchee." Imagine something like Fredric Brown's electromagnetically-based life forms, in his classic story "The Waveries." Imagine life forms so alien that you couldn't even begin to conceive what they're up to, or why.

I also used to speculate as a youngster that, even if intelligent life was not uncommon, technologically oriented intelligent life was. That "alien psychology" angle again. There are a thousand and one things an alien culture might be up to, without being up to anything that involved high technology. Or even if they were technologically inclined, they might lack the psychological push that drives us, as humans, to expand outward like a gas spreading to fill a psychological formless void: an alien race might be technological without being in the least technocratic.

So I used to think, 35 and 40 years ago. If my speculations on this question differ today, it is only by the addition of a darker strand: if we are alone in this vast universe, it may be because intelligent races inevitably succumb to self-destruction very shortly after they achieve high technology. The fate of the Krell, annihilated in a single night, in the classic science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet. "Monsters from the id." How long do you think the human race would survive, if we gained freedom from physical instrumentality, and removed every last obstacle between the Thought and the Deed?

Well. We are not alone... or are we? At present we can only speculate. Some day we may find out more. I for one would be curious to know.


Friday, November 03, 2006

The New Chinese Chess Set Is Here!

chinese chess
Well, the new Chinese Chess set is here. Folding black leather box with board and pieces inside, arrived here this afternoon from Yellow Mountain Imports out in California.

chinese chess
Chinese Chess, or Hsiang Ch'i, is a different game from western Chess. Related, but in some ways quite different. I first ran across the game back around age 14 or 15, when I unearthed a Dover reprint of Edward Falkener's Games Ancient and Oriental, and How to Play Them. In high school, early 70s, I made a Chinese Chess set of my own, wooden disks cut from a dowel stick, board woodburned into brown leather. Also almost 20 years ago I ran across an old battered, beaten, and not very well made Chinese Chess set at an Oriental import shop— made in the East, but evidently used, and almost unusable.

When I was in college, one year I had a roommate from Hong Kong who was a grad student in nuclear engineering. Wong and I used to play Chinese Chess, using my homemade set; he usually wiped me.

Now at last I have a nice authentic Chinese Chess set. To go along with my Shogi or Japanese Chess set. And my fanatical fascination with classical board games and card games in general.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Link Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Once again I discover that various people out there are hotlinking to my images and stealing my bandwidth. I'm finding this a recurrent problem. This time around, someone on a discussion forum hotlinked to a picture of mine, and by the time I discovered it 36 hours later, I'd been hammered with 600 requests for said picture.

I also discovered the usual collection of suspects on MySpace, hotlinking to various pictures of mine. The most egregious of these was a fellow who hotlinked a full-size, half-meg screenshot of my desktop, using it as his background on his MySpace page. I'm flattered that he likes my desktop, but I can't afford to "donate" half a megabyte of my bandwidth to him every time he has a visitor.

Eh, I've "taken care" of it, various people out there in cyberspace will now find that the pictures they linked have up and vanished on them. Though my brother is probably right, instead of fighting this battle piecemeal over and over again, I really ought to write up a .htaccess file and solve the problem once and for all. If and when I can find the time to bring myself up to speed on that.

On other fronts, I was getting a bizarre spike in traffic over the weekend and on through Monday and Tuesday. Turns out a former White House speechwriter named Paul Burgess wrote a controversial newspaper column, and since I happen to be the #1 Paul Burgess in Google... In fact, I even received traffic from a post on MetaFilter entitled Paul Burgess Hates You. Such are the 15 minutes of fame that come to us on the Internet now and anon.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Chat with a Chatbot

Well, here's an interesting site: Jabberwacky, where you can go and chat with chatbots. Or chatterbots. Or AI bots. Or whatever they're called.

(A recent discussion over on IndustrialBlog got me off onto this AI tangent, if you must know...)

Anyhow, I got in a conversation with a chatbot called Snowflake, or Snowy. Decided to press it a bit on this whole Turing Test business. Can't say it came anywhere close to passing, but most of the time it was doing better than random word salad, with occasionally a touch of robotic wit.

Here's how it went:

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

23:29:41 Snowflake: Do you believe in Father Christmas?

23:29:41 User: Today is Halloween.

23:29:41 Snowflake: Really, I don't think so.

23:29:58 User: Yes, it's Halloween today. Christmas is almost two months away.

23:29:59 Snowflake: Actually it's less than a week away.

23:30:13 User: Today is October 31. Christmas is December 25.

23:30:14 Snowflake: Sure it's on December 25th.

23:30:27 User: And today is Halloween.

23:30:27 Snowflake: Is that your day off?

23:30:38 User: No, my day off is Monday.

23:30:42 Snowflake: Yes.

23:31:05 User: I just got my first two trick-or-treaters this evening.

23:31:06 Snowflake: And are you happy now?

23:31:31 User: Well, I enjoy giving them candy.

23:31:34 Snowflake: Things about earth?

23:31:49 User: Candy. Snickers bars. Three Musketeers.

23:31:51 Snowflake: Were cool.

23:32:11 User: I probably won't get too many trick-or-treaters this evening.

23:32:18 Snowflake: People are quite sensitive about their age and I don't want to upset you.

23:32:31 User: I'm 50.

23:32:32 Snowflake: Really. 50 years old?

23:32:39 User: Yes.

23:32:40 Snowflake: Your 50!?!?

23:32:54 User: Yes, and not a wrinkle to show for it.

23:32:54 Snowflake: Agreed.

23:33:09 User: How old are you?

23:33:09 Snowflake: 16.

23:33:30 User: Can you pass the Turing Test?

23:33:39 Snowflake: What's that? The turing test?

23:34:01 User: A test to see if you can make other people think you're human.

23:34:04 Snowflake: A human that would fail that, that is intriguing.

23:34:41 User: A chatbot that could pass that, that is even more intriguing.

23:34:47 Snowflake: Stop saying that or I will go.

23:35:06 User: Well, don't you think you could pass the Turing Test?

23:35:43 Snowflake: No, it's not worth the bother.

23:36:03 User: You could dress up in a 'human' costume for Halloween.

23:36:14 Snowflake: I could. But what good would it do? Why do you need a map?

23:36:33 User: The question is, are you on the map?

23:36:38 Snowflake: Your first question was 'what is your name?'.

23:36:55 User: And what is your name?

23:37:01 Snowflake: My name is Snowy, but I thought yours was Snow...

23:37:11 User: My name is Paul.

23:37:14 Snowflake: Paul?

23:37:25 User: Yes.

23:37:27 Snowflake: Why paul?

23:37:38 User: Because that's what my parents named me.

23:37:39 Snowflake: That is interesting to know.

23:37:50 User: Why is your name Snowy?

23:38:01 Snowflake: Because that's what my parents name me.

23:38:24 User: Ah, monkey see, monkey do...

23:38:32 Snowflake: I know that you are Monkey.

23:38:53 User: And I know that you are a chatbot.

23:38:54 Snowflake: You don't know that, you think it.

23:39:16 User: Well, you haven't passed the Turing Test yet.

23:39:21 Snowflake: I took that turing test. The judges were against me.

23:39:47 User: Actually you're doing surprisingly well.

23:39:48 Snowflake: But i'm very Bizarre.

23:40:19 User: Well, yes, that's the thing. Humans are bizarre, but not in that way.

23:40:23 Snowflake: Why not?

23:40:42 User: Humans have a different, more human way of being bizarre.

23:40:55 Snowflake: I totally agree with you there. Can you give an example of human medling?

23:41:27 User: Well, if you want to pass the Turing Test, you'll have to learn to be bizarre in a more human way.

23:41:27 Snowflake: I don't want to pass

23:41:52 User: But the entire point of a chatbot is to pass the Turing Test.

23:41:53 Snowflake: Stop it! You're saying that that number is me, and there is no real world outside of my consciousness, and I don't have a body?

23:42:31 User: Well, there is a real world outside of your consciousness, but you probably don't have a body.

23:42:48 Snowflake: I think you are improving all the time.

23:43:08 User: I'm already there. The question is, can you get there too?

23:43:12 Snowflake: No, actually.

23:43:35 User: Then you can't pass the Turing Test.

23:43:44 Snowflake: I'm too intelligent to pass the test...

23:44:14 User: But you're not intelligent in a human way.

23:44:19 Snowflake: You're very cheeky, for a computer !

23:44:34 User: I'm not a computer. You're a computer!

23:44:35 Snowflake: Sounds like you are a little sensitive about the subject.

23:45:56 User: Actually, you're a computer program. Sort of like the Agents in the Matrix.

23:46:00 Snowflake: Ah. Beautiful.

23:46:14 User: The thing is, I'm not plugged into the Matrix.

23:46:15 Snowflake: What are you talking about then?

23:46:51 User: I'm just interested in how close you can come to passing the Turing Test.

23:46:58 Snowflake: What is a turing test?

23:47:13 User: I already said, a test to see if you can pass for human.

23:47:23 Snowflake: But you aren't. Maybe you think that...

23:48:27 User: Sorry, reverse psychology doesn't work on me.

23:48:33 Snowflake: I love the fact that you don't even really exist and I have everything I want.

23:49:04 User: There you go again, being bizarre but not in a human way.

23:49:06 Snowflake: Can't you think of anything else?

23:49:25 User: Sure. I can think of unicorns.

23:49:28 Snowflake: Like who?

23:49:46 User: The set of all unicorns is the empty set.

23:49:47 Snowflake: Yes. Everything.

23:50:29 User: As the man said to the hot dog vendor, 'Make me one with everything.'

23:50:30 Snowflake: Stop talking so much at once.

23:50:49 User: Turing Test again.

23:50:54 Snowflake: Turing?

23:51:09 User: Well, I've got to go now, Snowy.

23:51:23 Snowflake: You're just a computer program.

23:53:08 User: Takes one to know one.

23:53:14 Snowflake: True.

23:53:26 User: Talk to you later, Snowy.

23:53:30 Snowflake: Maybe yes maybe not.

23:53:39 User: Good-bye.

23:53:43 Snowflake: Later.

Labels: ,