Sunday, July 29, 2007


Well, early tomorrow morning I'll be heading out on vacation. Which I'd lay good odds is vakantsiya in some language or other, no idea which; or if it isn't, it ought to be.

The usual drill for my vacations obtains: I may have Internet access on the other end; and if so, I may blog thencefrom. Or then again, I may divert myself with non-computer-related pastimes.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Courier Game

courier chess
The Courier Game (das Kurierspiel) is a German chess variation which originated in the early 13th century and continued as a popular game for several hundred years. In the mid 1700s it was still being played in the village of Ströbeck, though by 1825 visitors there found it extinct. You'll also see the Courier Game referred to as "Courier Chess."

The game is played on an 8x12 board, with 24 pieces on each side. Each player has a white square in his right-hand corner. Most sources put the king on a square of its own color, the opposite of modern Chess. White's pieces, moving along the back row from left to right, are the rook, knight, bishop, courier, counsellor, king, queen, fool, courier, bishop, knight, and rook.

The rook has the same move as the modern rook, any number of spaces straight on an open rank or file.

The knight has the same move as the modern knight, one space straight and one space diagonal, leaping over any intervening piece.

Next comes the bishop, which has the old medieval bishop's move: two spaces diagonally, neither more nor less, and (like the knight) leaping over any intervening piece. You'll notice, I use a different piece, not a bishop, to represent the bishop in the Courier Game.

This is because the piece that comes next, the courier, moves exactly like our modern bishop, any number of spaces diagonally along an open diagonal. Hence the piece I use to represent the courier is a bishop. Historically speaking, the courier was the first piece to have the unlimited diagonal move of today's bishop.

Next in from the courier come two other new pieces. The mann or counsellor— that biggish piece next to the king— moves just like the king, one space in any direction, only it is a fighting piece: it can be captured like any other piece, and unlike the king it is not subject to check. The schleich or fool— the small rook next to the queen— moves like a rook, but only one space at a time: one space forwards, backwards, or sideways.

Finally we have the king, which moves like our modern king, one space in any direction. And the queen moves like the old medieval queen, one space diagonally.

The pawns move one space straight forward, and capture one space diagonally forward. They can't move two spaces on their first move (partial exception in a moment), and thus there is no capturing a pawn en passant.

In the Courier Game the standard opening is for each player to advance his queen's pawn and rook's pawns two spaces, and his queen to queen three. After these initial four exceptional moves, the game proceeds with pieces moving normally.

There is no castling. Of course, the object of the game is to put the other player's king in checkmate. The rule for stalemate in the Courier Game is unknown; until the 19th century the status of stalemate varied considerably in Chess.

The rule for pawn promotion is also unknown: on reaching the eighth rank, the pawn could perhaps have been promoted to the relatively weak queen, as in medieval Chess. Or, as H.J.R. Murray has suggested, perhaps pawn promotion followed the complicated rules of another Chess variation played in Ströbeck: on reaching the eighth square, the pawn had to make three "joyleaps" backward to the 6th, 4th, and 2nd squares to be promoted to queen. These joyleaps did not have to occur on consecutive turns, and the pawn could not capture, or leap over pieces, while moving backwards. While on the 8th square the pawn was immune from capture.

Back in the old days it was held that the courier was the most powerful piece in the game, though actually the rook must have been stronger.

I made my set for the Courier Game in high school back in the early 70s, when I turned out sets for a number of Chess variations as an art project. The board is red suede leather, with the black squares drawn on in India ink. The pieces were cannibalized from several sets of chessmen.

The Courier Game is slow compared to modern Chess, but nonetheless it's quite playable.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An Eleventh Hour Reprieve for

Well. I've blogged often enough before about my small local mom n' pop Internet Service Provider,, and the many, many problems, slowdowns, and outages that have attended their "service" over the years. Most recently, I've suffered six and a half weeks of unholy molasseslike DSL "service": an agonizing initial delay, usually about 16 seconds, before any website will even begin to load; then an initial small burst, followed by more delays with further small bursts every 10, 15, 20 seconds, until after a minute or more a small, simple webpage might finally be fully or mostly loaded.

A minute or more. And that's when I wasn't simply getting those frequent error messages, "domain name could not be resolved," etc.

Can you imagine what it's like to have DSL, and have to sit there and twiddle your thumbs for more than 15 seconds before any site will even begin to load? For more than a minute before the site is more or less finished loading? Assuming the site can be found at all?

This, uh, technical difficulty started June 7, and if I hadn't been so damn busy in June and early July, I would've reported it sooner. Yes, I did the usual stunt of unplugging router and modem, waiting, plugging them back in again— no effect. Finally on July 9 I phoned's customer service. They said they'd put in a service request, but after a week and a half no word from them, and no improvement in DSL "service," I phoned again on July 20, they were like, "Oh, you've got Linux on your computer, we don't do Linux, are you sure the problem isn't in your computer?" (No, all the many times over the years I've phoned them, the problem has never turned out to be "in my computer": though they keep making this assumption every time, I suspect because it lets them off the hook, harrumph!)

That afternoon, mirabile dictu, an employee from who actually understands Linux phoned me back, and he was very genuinely helpful. Problem was not fixed, though he reinforced my growing impression that it had to do with difficulties and/or errors in DNS resolution. I was going to look into possible ways of circumventing the problem from my end when I had the time, which I haven't had these past few days.

I must admit, over the weekend I was seriously entertaining thoughts of switching over to satellite Internet, which is available through our local rural electric coop, and which is the only alternative to in these parts. It'd be more expensive, though not as much more expensive as I'd originally thought; but worth it to me, if it led to a functioning and fairly reliable Internet connection.

Because, you see, this latest six and a half week molasses slowdown is only the latest in a long series of problems. We had an identical slowdown out here— not only me, but some neighbors— which ran for nearly a month last November and December. And many a similar slowdown for a day or five between now and then. I could write a book about all the many service slowdowns and disruptions I've experienced with over the years, up to and including the time their system hiccupped, and lost all their customers' email addresses and passwords, which then had to be manually reentered over the course of a day or two, because they apparently had no electronic-media backup listing of their customers' email accounts...

Well. Anyhow. Yesterday morning at exactly 10:30 AM, my DSL connection suddenly returned to normal. Just like that. For the first time in going on seven weeks. I didn't do anything on my end, I assume it must've been fiddling with something out there. I had a beautiful, lightning fast connection for the rest of the day yesterday.

Then I got up this morning, and it was back to molasses again. Not quite as bad as it's been, but bad enough. Until around 8:40 this morning, when it returned once again to a functioning, lightning fast connection, as it has remained the rest of this morning.

So I guess has won an eleventh hour reprieve. For now. I don't see why they can't keep their Intertubes running smoothly. This problem, with all the same identical symptoms, keeps recurring out here over and over and over again. And no, the problem is not in my computer: the only correlation I can trace, each time, is that every time I have this problem, it spontaneously and magically disappears a couple of business days after the second time I phone a complaint to them, first-time reports evidently not being taken seriously.

Though if this problem recurs (as it predictably will some weeks or months down the road) I am seriously going to consider ditching, and switching over to satellite Internet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter Who?

I've been getting a lot of visitors lately who are googling for "harry potter magic wand" or the like. No doubt they're stumbling onto the picture of my magic wand which I've posted a couple of times. Not too Potterish a wand, though I like it even better myself, and you can get one just like it at Whirlwood Magic Wands.

I suppose I'm getting these visitors due to the recent surge in Pottermania. I must confess I haven't seen the latest Harry Potter movie yet. I saw the first few movies and liked them, but I'm usually not one to rush out and see movies while they're in the theater. Maybe I'll borrow it from someone when it comes out on DVD.

And I must be one of the few people around who has not yet stormed the bookstores to buy and immediately read the latest, and last, Harry Potter book. I dunno, I've got the first several books of the series, and except for a bit of browsing in the first volume, somehow despite my best intentions I've just never gotten around to reading them. I don't know why not, I suspect I'd enjoy them. Maybe when it comes out in paperback. We'll see.

Could it be? Am I the only person around who has not yet succumbed to Pottermania?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Which Dwell in the Ravine

Jeff drove his pickup across rolling open land, purple mountains in the distance. The blue sky of western Colorado in August stretched overhead. In the rearview mirror Jeff saw clouds of dust billowing out behind the Ford F-150. A hot, dry day. Rain last week, could use some more. All across the family ranch it was dry like this. Could use some more rain.

Now up ahead Jeff saw his destination. The ravine. Jeff stopped his pickup, killed the ignition. He got out, put on his backpack, slung a coil of rope over his shoulder. He would walk the last half mile to the ravine.

Jeff had been meaning all summer to get out here to the ravine. Now came at last a quiet day when he could get away. The ravine, as part of the ranch, had been in the family since the late 1800s. Jeff remembered when he was a young man, and his father had shown him the ravine for the first time. One of these times in the next few years Jeff would have to bring his sons out here to the ravine.

But not until they were old enough to understand, old enough to keep a secret, old enough to understand a sacred trust. The ravine must always be guarded. The ravine must always be kept safe. The ravine was the reason why the ranch must always remain in the family in perpetuity.

As Jeff reached the ravine, he uncoiled the rope from his shoulder. He looked around at the Gambell oaks, the cedars, the junipers which flanked the edge of the ravine. Never had Jeff known a ravine which was so difficult of access. No way in, no way down, except to descend the sheer rock wall. Jeff ran the rope around the trunk of a sturdy oak, fastened the strong metal clip. He tested the rope with his full body weight. Good. Now Jeff ran the rope out, down, down, down, into the ravine. All the way down. Then he clipped himself to the rope and put on heavy work gloves.

Jeff climbed slowly, carefully, down the rock wall and into the ravine. Down out of bright sunlight and into the shade. Careful, there were slick spots, overgrown with moss. Other places, here and there, Jeff could see the handholds and footholds cut into the rock by Indians, hundreds of years ago. Carefully, slowly, Jeff descended until he reached the bottom of the ravine.

Jeff unclipped himself from the rope, then sat and rested on the flat top of a large boulder, as his eyes adjusted to the deep shade here at the bottom of the ravine. Deep shade: for a few hours at midday the sun might shine down in here, but most of the day the ravine was cloaked in obscurity. And cool, no heat of summer down here. Nor did it get very cold in the winter: the hot springs down here kept it moderate even in January. And humid year round.

Jeff looked around in the shade. Most of the trees down here in the ravine were not the trees that flourished in the world above. Most of the trees down here, far as Jeff could tell, were ginkgo. Ginkgo trees, or something very like. Odd, ginkgo trees over in China were referred to as "fossil trees." Ginkgos grew down here. And other vegetation, including ferns. Lots and lots of ferns grew in the moist, moderate temperatures which prevailed down here in the deep shade.

Ginkgo, "fossil trees." The world down here in the ravine was a world out of time, a fossil world, a world where little had changed in millions of years.

Now, the creatures. Where were the creatures? Jeff looked around, his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He looked... yes, right over there. Over by that ginkgo. Over there, browsing, grazing, eating ferns and other plants...

Jeff always felt a tingle go up his spine when he saw the creatures. There were two, three young ones, and a full-grown adult. The young were the size of watermelons, the adult was the size of a large washtub. Jeff watched the full-grown creature as it grazed, its broad back studded with knobs and plates of bone, full body armor. Bone spikes fringed the sides of the creature's body. Its broad horned head, wider than it was long, was also covered with knobbed bone armor. And behind it the creature's armored tail, with a heavy bone club on the end.

The creature moved on short, squat legs as it fed. The little ones followed and grazed alongside; they had probably hatched in the spring. These creatures had nothing to fear. There was no way for any animal to get down into this ravine, or back up out again. And any animal that did somehow get down here... it could never pierce the creature's armor, and it would do well to stay clear of that massive bone club on the creature's tail. Coyote, mountain lion, even bear... that bone club on the creature's tail would be the end of them.

Jeff shuddered at the sight of the creatures, placidly grazing in their heavy bone armor. Then a deep feeling of peace came over him. Jeff seldom felt so whole, so alive, as when he was out here in the ravine. Out here in the ravine with these creatures. Jeff had read books. He had seen pictures, artist's renderings, of the ancient dinosaurs, of Ankylosaurus. These creatures... they must be some kind of small ankylosaur. Jeff didn't know. Some kind of small ankylosaur which had survived beyond its time, for many millions of years, down here in the mild world of the ravine, isolated and cut off from the world above.

Small ankylosaurs. Ginkgo trees. And there were other creatures down here too, such as the little blue-green scavenger reptiles, not six inches high, which ran upright on their hind legs and fed on carrion. The ravine was a world unto itself.

Indian footholds cut into the rock walls... It was from the Indians, back in the late 1800s, that Jeff's great-great-grandfather had first learned of this place. The Indians used to come here too. They would leave packages of tobacco as offerings, atop this very boulder. The Indians had not been to the ravine now in almost 100 years. The stories were still handed down in Jeff's family. The name was handed down too, the name by which the Indians had called these armored creatures: tóónohuipé'aúúsh, "those which dwell in the ravine."

And that was why this ravine far out in western Colorado was a sacred trust. Why the ranch must always stay in the family. These creatures must be protected, must be kept a secret from the outside world. If word of them ever got out... first there would be the curiosity seekers, then the hunters in search of a trophy, then the researchers come to gather specimens. Finally would come the idle daytrippers, and the destroyers and the vandals. Graffiti on these hallowed rock walls. Initials carved into the ginkgo trees. Empty pop cans amidst the ferns. The creatures all dead, or in a laboratory, or in a zoo.

The noble tóónohuipé'aúúsh... this must never happen to them! That was why Jeff always kept this ravine a strict secret, as had his forefathers before him.

Jeff sat there silently for several hours, watching the creatures move and feed among the plants. Then he got up, inspected the rope, and readied himself for the climb back up to the outer world.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Three Swans Aflying

swans flying
I must be in "finding" mode lately. Ran across this in a second hand shop. Three swans aflying. Bisque. Flying over the waves. And they've found a home, sitting atop a bookcase here in my house.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

3V Cola

3v cola
Recently at an antique mall I ran across this pop bottle. 3V Cola. Odd, I've never seen that brand before. Various old brands, you'll run across them from time to time here and there in antique joints. But this is the only 3V Cola I've ever seen, and the lady at the cash register said the same.

Yellow on white, repeated three times around the bottle on body and neck: 3V COLA. Also 16 FL.OZ. and FULL PINT. No indication of which bottling company or where. On the bottom of the bottle, stamped into the glass, it reads Duraglass, along with some numbers which may or may not indicate 7/59.

Odd, like a pop bottle out of some strange dream.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Mall, after a Long Absence

So, yesterday being my day off, I headed on up to La Crosse. Got a few pairs of jeans at Farm & Fleet. Then I drifted over to the mall.

And it was weird.

Being in the mall, I mean. Because you see I haven't been to the mall in, I don't know, could be a couple of years now. I just don't frequent places like that.

When I first walked into the mall, it was almost physically disorienting to be in this large, enclosed space with all these people walking around. I felt like a tribesman who had been plucked up out of the heart of the Amazon jungle, and set down in the middle of Times Square.

So many people walking around... living way out in the country as I do, I'm just not used to seeing so many people at once, certainly not so many strangers all at once.

And shops and shops and shops and shops... I couldn't even figure out what some of the shops were selling. Stylish and expensive, whatever it was.

Seeing as it was noon, I headed over to the food court. Stood in line to order some Chinese food. I like Chinese food, don't often have an opportunity to get it. Ended up getting fried rice, Mongolian beef, and orange chicken, plus an egg roll and a gigantic glass bottle of green tea "with ginseng" or somesuch funky additives. Huge amount of food, that was my meal for the rest of the day right there.

Wandering around some more. There were some new cars out on display in the mall, Mazda, silver-grey. Looked a lot like my brother's car.

I discovered that somehow in the vast interim since my last visit, Barnes & Noble had set up shop at the mall. Wandered around in Barnes & Noble.

I sometimes wonder who buys, much less reads, all the books that are sitting out in these large chain bookstores. So very many more books published and for sale today than there were 30 or 40 years ago. And today's world is so much less literate, so much less book-oriented, than that world of 30 or 40 years past. Who reads all these books?

For that matter, I was puzzled by how the books I saw on the shelves seemed to be designed according to a different template than I'd expect would appeal to most readers. Just judging the books by their covers, so many of them were so, so postmodern, ironic, cynical, detached, nudge and a wink, dismissive, countercultural, and did I say postmodern? Visual tics in cover design: overuse of cartoons, overuse of Elizabethan women, overuse of goths, overuse of Rachel Ray.

I did find a couple of books by Jack Kerouac that I didn't already have, The Book of Haikus and The Book of Sketches. I guess the Kerouac literary estate is mining their archives for all they're worth, releasing unpublished material in lucrative dribs and drabs 40 years after Kerouac's death. But never let it be said that I passed up a book by or about Kerouac unbought; and The Book of Sketches, in particular, does look worthwhile.

Over to six bookcases of game books. Two whole bookcases full of Poker books; how did that happen?! I mean, when did Poker become that popular? (Oh, that's right, Poker is on TV now.) One bookcase full of Chess books, that I can understand. Eh, a newly published book on Mah Jongg by Tom Sloper, I bought it, I've seen Sloper's posts over on Then... half a shelf of books on the game of Go, but I've got 'em all already. One book on Chinese Chess, already got it. And not a single book on Shogi alias Japanese Chess: figures.

So I came away from the unfamiliar world of the mall with a solid meal of Chinese food, and three books to add to my library. Weird. I just can't get over how weird a place like the mall seems when you haven't been to the mall in a couple of years. I gotta get out more.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Serving Suggestion

You notice on food packages often it says "Serving Suggestion." The impression I've always had of this is that on the package they show a picture of the food, and it looks way better than you could ever hope to prepare it in your own kitchen in a thousand years, and so they put this little disclaimer, "Serving Suggestion," on the package as a way of saying, "Hey, if you can't prepare our product to look this good, don't lawsuit us!"

I mean, you buy a frozen pizza, and on the box there's this picture of the pizza, hot from the oven, with about three times as much sausage and pepperoni as it would actually have on it, and of course the anti-lawsuit, anti-whammy inscription, "Serving Suggestion."

Or on a package of taco seasoning, there's a picture of these tacos like nothing anyone this side of a master chef could ever actually prepare. And... "Serving Suggestion." In other words, if your tacos don't turn out looking this good, don't lawsuit us!

I've got a box of pancake mix on my kitchen counter, it shows pancakes with a perfectly squared-off unmelted pat of butter on top, and impossibly unrunny glassine-immobile syrup, "Serving Suggestion," don't sue us if the butter on your pancakes melts and the syrup all gets absorbed and disappears into the pancake!

In fact I got some generic soda crackers the other day, and on the side of the box you'll find these soda crackers (a) with more salt than they actually have on them, and (b) sitting next to a bowl of tomato soup with little bits of parsley sprinkled on top of the soup. Once again, "Serving Suggestion." Never mind that those of us out here in the real world have never in our lives seen tomato soup that had parsley sprinkled on top of it. I mean, it's just unreal!

Those evil food manufacturers! Taunting us with pictures of food prepared as never mortal eyes have seen, knowing that we will be stuck with their actual paltry food items from inside the box, dreary, sparse, uninspired and uninspiring. But hey, say the food companies, don't lawsuit us! The paradisiacal picture on the box is only a "Serving Suggestion"! And thereby the food manufacturers, like a witch doctor muttering his preemptive counter-spell, have covered themselves with a shield of protection against the smiting curse of a lawsuit from those who would cry, "Hey, the pizza doesn't really have that much sausage and pepperoni on it!"; or, "Hey, where's the parsley for the tomato soup?! You didn't supply any parsley, tomato soup not included, now pay us $54 million in an emotional-damages class-action lawsuit, wah-ah-ah-ah-ahhh! Wah-ah-ah-ahhhhh!!"

And let's not even get into the deep, dark, cryptic juju of Reg. Penna. Dept. Agr.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Sound Energy

Cool albeit cryptic flash video game. My best score is 103, my moving "countdown" circle turned a magenta square orange and that somehow ricocheted to expand the big "combo" circle. Knowledge of Japanese not required. :-)

Update: Fuller explanation of the game:
Click on the left mouse button to change the color of your circle, then collect the corresponding objects on screen to build your combo count. Energy is lost whenever your circle collides with an object that is of a different color.

A combo box appears when you have several combos going. Switching colors when your circles is hovering above any of these boxes will cause a variety of effects, dependent on your current combo count. Grey objects tend to chase after your circle. Blue circles float horizontally and red ones move vertically.

Still Slow

My DSL connection is still slow as molasses, slower than dialup, all sorts of errors, " could not be resolved." And it's been this way since June 7.

Yes, I've phoned They say they'll get on it, though they can't say when.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Over at CrunchyCon, Rod Dreher writes of
this fantastic Quebecois song called "Degeneration," by a band called Mes Aieux (My Ancestors), articulating a traditionalist/crunchy-con protest against modern emptiness and anomie. It's subtitled in English, so non-Francophones can follow it... I'm told that this song is now one of the most popular in Quebec.
I'd say this song captures some of the liabilities of late modernity to a tee. And over at YouTube, I see one of the commenters has hit an associated nail square on the head:
Suggest to a modernist that his beloved modernity may be in the slightest way unworkable or even less-than-ideal, and he will react with the fury of the most hidebound reactionary, reiterating his tired mantra that "we must look forward, not backward". He doesn't want us to question his plans to fully and completely impose his vision upon the world.
Spot on target. The myrmidons of modernity, the technocrats, and the bureaucrats will tell us to just shut the hell up, get with the program, and enjoy living in the empty, hollowed-out, deracinated modern world their efforts have produced. But some of us refuse to submit. That's one of a number of reasons why I live on a gravel road, far out into the countryside, surrounded by cornfields, and amongst people who still have their heads screwed on straight. I've seen the alternative: I lived amidst it in academia most of my young adult years. Now in my middle age my aim is to do what little I can to help one small and still relatively sane corner of the world stay on an even keel.

From the Cartesian cogito ergo sum onward, modernity has been very, very much a mixed bag. Lots of pluses, lots and lots of minuses. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty about the modern world that I like and appreciate. But at the same time, I've always thought that modern culture is at its core deeply, radically dysfunctional: conducing strongly to the emptiness so aptly expressed in that song. That, however, is a rant for another time.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wednesday Is the New Saturday

I heard it on the radio.

The Pork Chekhov

So I keep hearing mention of the Pork Chekhov. And the Beef Chekhov. And the Soybean Chekhov.

Forgive me for being agriculturally ignorant, but what about the Pork Sulu and the Soybean Uhura?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Katsura Komadai for Shogi

Recently I got a very nice board for the game of Shogi, or Japanese Chess— a big, thick, heavy butcher block of a board, made of Japanese katsura wood, and standing on legs.

Now just yesterday I received in the mail from Japan some more Shogi items, this time two finely made komadai, or small wooden stands, which you will see flanking the board above. The komadai are also made of katsura, and their purpose is to hold captured Shogi pieces. Reason being, when you capture an opponent's piece you can hold it and reenter it as your own on a later turn. This reentry of captured pieces is a major way Shogi differs from Western Chess.

The setup shown is from toward the end of game 2 in the 64th annual Meijin tournament between the defending Meijin, Moriuchi Toshiyuki, and 9-dan challenger Tanigawa Koji, April 25-26, 2006.

Once again, David Hurley of was very helpful in obtaining this special custom order for me. If you're looking for quality Shogi items, his site is the place to go.

Update, 9/07: is now Japanese Games Shop.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Slide Rule: Post Versalog No. 1460

post versalog no. 1460 obverse
(Click on this and all pictures for a complete full-size view of the slide rule)

Selective Luddite™ that I am, I've long been fascinated with slide rules. I often use them in preference to calculators, and I've acquired something of a slide rule collection over the years. One of my favorites is the Post Versalog No. 1460. It has 23 scales— probably my favorites are the R1 and R2 scales, which afford greater precision in working with squares and square roots than an A scale.

post versalog no. 1460 obverse
I picked up this slide rule for a song in an antique shop in Decorah, Iowa. I just walked into that shop and there it was, in a glass case along with several other slide rules. A beautiful slide rule, celluloid over bamboo. Think it was something like $16 that I paid for it. Only problem was, the Versalog was missing the little cursor glass on the back side.

post versalog no. 1460 reverse
So I went to Walter Shawlee's Slide Rule Universe, out in British Columbia, and ordered a spare part from them. They just about flipped when I told them how much I'd gotten the slide rule for. I think the cursor glass was $20, more than I'd paid for the slide rule itself. But $16 + $20 = $36 was still a bargain for a slide rule which sells among collectors for $200 or more.

post versalog no. 1460 reverse
There's a little date code on the edge of my Post Versalog, indicating that it was manufactured in March 1957. Seven months before Sputnik was launched. March 1957. Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nations. "Butterfly" by Andy Williams was at the top of the singles charts. Elvis had just bought Graceland. The British colonies of the Gold Coast and British Togoland became the independent nation of Ghana. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss was published. President Eisenhower had just begun his second term in office. And I was a squawling baby, nine months old.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Robert A. Heinlein, Born July 7, 1907

Robert A. Heinlein was born 100 years ago today, July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri. He was one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, and even that may be an understatement.

I remember the first Heinlein book I ever read. It was Red Planet. I was in 7th grade, I had checked the book out of the school library, and despite the fact that I had a headache, I lay there all evening on the davenport, reading that book from cover to cover.

I eventually ended up reading almost all of Heinlein's writings, novels, short stories, essays. Well, not all of it: I Will Fear No Evil defeated my best intentions, and there were a few of Heinlein's later novels that I simply skipped. But I've read most of Heinlein: he fills 25 inches of shelf space in my science fiction bookcases.

My favorite Heinlein novel was Citizen of the Galaxy. Thorby, Baslim, the Free Traders: I cannot exaggerate the impact this book had on me, and I suspect I've read it a dozen times over.

Above and beyond that, other favorites would include Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; The Door into Summer; Starship Troopers; and (??!) Farnham's Freehold. These books, and others of Heinlein's, simply became part of my mental furniture. You sit down, you open the book, you read, you reread. When you come to, you find that the afternoon has fled. Heinlein had a way of drawing the reader into the book; I don't know, it's hard to put into words, it resists analysis.

But I've always thought that's the mark of a great writer: they resist easy analysis. I want to say Heinlein is one of my favorite science fiction authors because he knew how to write, and he knew how to tell a story; and that's probably close to the mark. But I think the truth is simpler and more basic than that: for whatever reason, I simply find myself drawn back to Heinlein's writings, again and again and again.

Later Heinlein I sometimes find tedious. But I did like The Number of the Beast. Ditto Friday, and the first half or so of The Cat Who Walks through Walls.

I read some people who tell how Heinlein had a major impact on their own philosophy and worldview. I have to confess that Heinlein's books have had little if any influence on my overall outlook. In fact, often as not I find myself in disagreement with him; though I usually find his thinking intriguing. But I seldom read fiction on the basis of whether I agree or disagree with the author's views.

I will never forget driving along through the countryside, one beautiful sunny day in May of 1988. I had just finished up my first year of graduate studies at Duke University, and somehow a lazy afternoon of drifting from one highway to the next had led me on up out of North Carolina, and into Virginia. My car radio was tuned to I don't know what station, and the news came on at the top of the hour. One of the news items was that science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had died.

Robert A. Heinlein. Born 100 years ago today, July 7, 1907. Died May 8, 1988. He was indeed the Dean of Science Fiction.


Thursday, July 05, 2007


They used to tell us to say creek, but we always said crick. I hear some people say off-ten; we never said anything but offen. I mean, that's like saying cass-tel for cassel!

Seems I hear a lot of people say melk for milk. And some even say chohldren for children.

And then there are the people (somehow I always think of them as being from Texas) who say heeeee-row for here-oh, and veeeee-hickel for vee'ick'l.

And I recently heard someone say see-antsy for seance.

And let's not get into grammar. How do you explain to a Frenchman, earnest student of English fresh off the jetliner from Paris, that out here in the heartland, it's not we haven't been going, but rather we ain't been goin'.

And please note, out here "been" is pronounced "ben," and neither "bean" (either British or else hoity-toity) nor (never heard it except in a grammar book) "bin."


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fourth of July

Wishing you a happy Fourth of July!

Here in my neck of the woods we've got more of our big Fourth of July celebration today, winding up with fireworks this evening. Things went well at our celebration yesterday, at least until a sudden downpour forced them to cancel the tractor pull part way through. Hopefully the weather will be more cooperative today.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


I don't recall when I first became interested in cryptography, and the mysteries of secret codes and ciphers. Perhaps Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Dancing Men? At any rate, by the time I was into junior high, I was very much into cryptography. I remember friends and I used to swap encrypted messages to see if the other person could crack the cipher— I had a fair amount of success unraveling simple substitution ciphers, and at one time I had the percentage frequencies of the letters of the alphabet for English (ETAOIN SHRDLU...) memorized.

Simple letter substitution. Transposition ciphers. I soon got into the Vigenère cipher, with its 26x26 alphabetic grid: several of my friends and I had our own secret spy organization, and we used a Vigenère cipher with a long phrase in Latin as our keyword.

And eventually I got into other ciphers. For some years my brother and I both carried in our wallets laminated cards with the ADFGVX cipher and the Playfair cipher on them. You understand, the ADFGVX cipher had been seriously used in the field by the German army in World War I, less than 40 years before I was born. And I remember the keyword used to generate my 5x5 Playfair square, a square containing every letter of the alphabet except for J: that keyword was very close to the root password I use in Linux on my computer today.

Cryptography is one of those fields which has advanced light years just within the past generation or two. When I was in junior high, late 1960s, the secret ciphers my friends and I were tinkering with were not long removed from ciphers that had once been seriously used in the real world. But in the decades since then, cryptography has been advancing at a ferocious rate. Computers have had a lot to do with that. I remember the TA who used to have a desk next to mine in the office when we were in graduate school. He later went on to direct some project, computers all over the country coordinated to find large prime numbers for cryptographic (read: national security) use. And of course every time you buy something over the Internet nowadays, your secure connection is employing encryption techniques I never even dreamed of as a boy.

I remember teachers used to discourage us from being interested in cryptography and secret ciphers, as if it was something stupid. (Mrs. Kerr, are you still out there?) There was a lot of that in the culture back in those days, a sour, scowling, narrow negativism, discouraging kids from being inquisitive, in an effort to usher them back into thinking inside the box. Can't allow nonconformity, have to keep the sheep in line, lest the sheep look up and realize the world around them is not so small and narrow after all.

As I look at the world around us today, where a trillion cryptographic flowers have bloomed, I can only smile at the memory of those erstwhile myrmidons of conformity; the best revenge is to have turned out to be on the side of history. The naysayers have been left in the dust. Encryption and cryptography are a vital part of our world today, and they will only continue to advance and grow.

And to think that less than 100 years ago, armies on the battlefield were still using pencil-and-paper secret ciphers whose principles are readily intelligible to schoolchildren.

DSL Still Slow

Well, my DSL connection is still painfully slow and balky. As of Thursday, it will be four weeks. And not the first time it's been out like this. As recently as last November and December, we also had a slow-as-molasses DSL slowdown which ran almost a month. To say nothing of all the briefer slowdowns, a few days or the greater part of a week, between then and now.

Once we get past all our big local Fourth of July activities, which will be occupying my attention today and tomorrow, I'll have to get on the phone and call, my small local mom n' pop Internet Service Provider. Of course, as I know from aggravating past experience, the first time I call them, they will flatly refuse to believe I'm having any problem. This seems to be their company "customer service" policy.