Friday, September 28, 2007

The Sengbusch Ideal Junior Stamp Moistener

sengbusch ideal junior stamp moistener
When I was a kid, my Dad had some items on his office desk which just fascinated me. One of them was a small black ceramic dealie, more or less cubical, with a black ceramic wheel which turned inside of it. The Sengbusch Ideal Junior stamp moistener. Idea was, you'd pour a little water down into the well inside the cube, and then when you turned the wheel, the surface of the wheel would come up wet with water from underneath. So then you could run the back side of a postage stamp across the top of the wheel, and voilà!

Sure beat having to lick the stamp, especially if you needed to put a bunch of stamps on a whole stack of envelopes. Even if it was only a single stamp, hey, mucilage, you don't know where that horse hoof has been. I always thought this stamp moistener was a really neat idea. Funky. Plus, it was ingenious but simple. Simple enough that the ancient Romans, or for that matter the ancient Sumerians, could've invented it, if only they'd had postage stamps.

My Dad's stamp moistener had a little chip out of it. When I was two years old, he lent the stamp moistener out to somebody, and they dropped it on the floor. Oops!

Well, one day not long before I moved over here to Iowa, I was out at a Goodwill store, and what should I see amidst the bric a brac on their shelves but a stamp moistener identical to my Dad's. Without a chip, even! Black ceramic. I turned it over, and between the four little feet on the unglazed underside it read SENGBUSCH IDEAL JUNIOR MILWAUKEE, WIS. MADE IN U.S.A. What's more, they were selling it for only 39¢, mere pocket change. I snatched it up, and when I moved here to Iowa, I put my Sengbusch stamp moistener on my office desk.

Only problem was, I quickly discovered that the US Postal Service had changed over completely to non-mucilage peel-and-stick sticker type postage stamps. Just when this happened, I don't know: I hadn't been sending many letters in the several years before I moved over here (long story). Something of a disappointment: no sooner did I find my own cool black ceramic Sengbusch Ideal Junior stamp moistener, than I learn it's now obsolete.

Nonetheless, it still sits on my desk. Some items are just too cool to discard. In defiance of so-called "progress." Call me a Selective Luddite™, but when we let go of horse-hoof mucilage stamps, and ceramic quasi-Sumerian stamp moisteners, we let go of a little piece of our souls.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Repairs, Automotively Speaking

Pardon me if I'm somewhat fragmented this morning, I've got to rush into town to have my Jeep looked into. Longtime problem is getting worse and worse. See, when I first start the engine cold, then drive only a few miles and shut it off, well, if I try to restart it again any time soon, it doesn't want to restart. Absolutely dead beneath the hood. Have to wait a few minutes before it will start again.

Only it's getting worse, now it's not just a few miles, and it's not just a few minutes. Tuesday evening I purner got stranded down in Lansing, which is not just any few miles from here, and it took half an hour to restart, which is not just any few minutes. Missed our Lions meeting, too, in the bargain.

So I gotta get this problem fixed. It just will not do, never to know when restart may mean sit and wait a while.

What Did I Tell You?

Heard on the radio this morning that Hillary wants to be known as the "health care President." Oh dear. Didn't she try to pull this on us once before?

Enjoy your bacon double cheeseburgers while you can.


Two by Two, Hurrah! Hurrah!

Whilst websurfing I stumbled across an interesting piece at A Mule in the Chapter House. An account of an early childhood encounter with the sterile, soul-stifling forces of mid 20th century Liberal Protestantism.

And then people wonder why the Presbyterian Church nationwide has suffered a net membership loss of more than 45% over the past 40 years. As a Presbyterian minister, I'm just damn glad I'm located in a remote and traditional corner of the country where I don't have to contend with such self-dissolute nonsense.

Dang Liberal Protestantism. Millstone around the neck, depths of the sea, etc...

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bluebottle Email

Like many of us, I've got a number of "extra" email addresses, more than I can really keep straight. I've got the official email address provided to me by my feckless Internet Service Provider, I've got the email address that came with my personal website, I've got Hotmail, I've got Yahoo Mail, I've got Google's Gmail, I've got Lycos mail. I've even still got the very first email address I ever signed up for almost ten years ago with Excite.

However, over the past three years I've been using an email service which has long since become my "regular" email address, my main email address, my daily workhorse email address. I'm talking about Bluebottle Email.

If you haven't gotten to know Bluebottle already, maybe you should.

You can use Bluebottle with Outlook Express or Mozilla Thunderbird, just like the email address you got from your ISP. And that's how I usually use Bluebottle— as POP mail. Or you can also use Bluebottle through a secure webmail interface, just like Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, which means you can access Bluebottle from anywhere. (Come to think of it, Bluebottle's POP mail connection can also be set up to be secured and encrypted.)

Bluebottle has all sorts of nifty features— among other things, it's spam-free. Honestly. A simple challenge-response system is transparent to my regular correspondents, accessible to a first-timer who wants to reach me, and I have full control over who I'll let through, and bye-bye spam.

Best of all, Bluebottle is free! Or rather, all these features and more are available in the Bluebottle Free service. If you wish, you can pay for Bluebottle Access or Bluebottle Premium, which come with even more cool features. I've been a Bluebottle Premium user now for almost two years. Hey, you can try it out for free, for as long as you want, and if you like it you can always upgrade to Access or Premium.

In the interest of full disclosure, Bluebottle did have some technical rough sledding (to put it mildly) when they first rolled out their pay services at the beginning of 2006. But they've long since worked that out, and I've seen nary a hiccup in their service in well over a year now. Unlike a lot of email services out there, they really do try and they really do care. Yes, this is a business, but for its developers Bluebottle is also a labor of love. Like I say, you can always try them out for free, and then upgrade if you wish. They sure beat the alleged email service provided to me by my small local one-horse ISP,

Plus, Bluebottle is just a funky name. Your name at bluebottle dot com, it has a nice ring to it. Funky. Bluebottle. Check them out.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

No Doughnuts for You!

Oh great. From Protein Wisdom comes the news story of some seniors in Putnam County, New York, who have been told that doughnuts may no longer be donated to their senior centers: "Officials were concerned that the county was setting a bad nutritional precedent by providing mounds of doughnuts and other sweets to seniors."

Oh yes, the nanny state groweth apace:
Stan Tuttle, coordinator of nutritional services for the county's Office for the Aging, said the program had gotten out of control. As many as 16 cases of breads, cakes and pastries were delivered, by various means, to the William Koehler Memorial Senior Center each day...

Caregivers there and elsewhere say the doughnut debate illustrates the difficulty of balancing nutrition and choice when providing meals to the elderly.

"Senior citizens can walk down to the store and buy doughnuts. Nobody's stopping them," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

But he notes that older people have high rates of heart disease and high blood pressure and says senior citizen centers, nursing homes and assisted-living centers should not be worsening the health problems of seniors.
More and more, it seems Food is shaping up as the new Tobacco. Like a thunderhead on the far horizon, the day is coming when they'll sue Mickey D's and Hardee's and Wendy's for gigabucks, and Big Brother will tell all of us to eat our veggies and don't you dare touch those eeeevil doughnuts.

The "second-hand smoke" of Food will arrive when they institute the coming "big fix" to the health care system. Once the federal government embroils itself in health insurance for all, it will become incumbent upon us to follow government suggestions orders regarding what you eat, how much you exercise, and whether you take your prescribed medications. Mustn't up your neighbor's tax burden by not living right, you know.

Perhaps your food purchases will be tracked and entered into a centralized database as they're scanned at the supermarket, and the cash register will beep when you try to go over your government-mandated allotment: "Oh, I'm sorry, we can't sell you any more doughnuts this month, you've used up your junk food ration for September." Perhaps it will become illegal to purchase any food that is not scanned and entered into the database. Visions of furtive purchases of black-market doughnuts in some back alley...

You think I'm kidding? Well, only slightly. You think I'm being paranoid? Well, not long ago I would've thought so too; though one has only to listen to Presidential hopeful John Edwards' recent health care recommendations to realize that nightmare scenarios like these can no longer be entirely written off as black-helicopter paranoia...

Like I say, Food is shaping up as the new Tobacco.

(h/t Naftali @ Dean's World)

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Or, well, not quite telemarketers, I guess both these calls yesterday fit through loopholes in the national Do Not Call list. But still...

One call yesterday afternoon, from the bank that issues the credit card I've had for over 20 years. Some damn recording, wanting to switch me over to a new card with a lower interest rate. Hello, I pay off my balance in full every month, so what do I care what the interest rate is? I hung up on the recording.

I repeat, I've had this credit card for over 20 years. A few times they've phoned me to make sure it was actually I who had made a purchase, when it was a big purchase and slightly outside my usual buying patterns. But this is the first time they've ever phoned me to try to push some new service on me. Hope they don't make a habit of it, or I may be looking for a new credit card elsewhere...

Second call into the evening hours, from (I think) the Newt Gingrich campaign, something about how Gingrich is down on the decline of America, and will I listen to his recorded message and then wait for them to come back on afterwards and get my reaction... Said I: "Sorry, no thanks." Then, without waiting for a reply, I hung up.

Really. Political calls. Calls from outfits you're doing business with. I realize that technically these slip through a loophole. But do these people really think I want to be disturbed at home with such needless digressions and unsolicited distractions?

Just Another Headache

I was laid out yesterday by another one of my wondrous migraines. Right side of the head feeling like it was about to lift off into the air. Nausea. Thank God it was my day off. In fact my headaches often seem to hit me on Mondays. Seems I've read somewhere that migraines will hit when you first start relaxing after being in a higher gear for a while.

On the positive side of the ledger, electricians showed up yesterday, and I have running water again after going without over the weekend— some kind of electrical problem with the well pump.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Yellow Indian Trading Beads

indian trading beads
Back in the 1990s, '93, '94, '95, I was living in a town down in north central Illinois, and there was a little antique shop there out on the highway. Sort of place that's a combination antique shop and gun shop, if my memory serves me correctly. Most of the stuff they had there was way out of my range, but they did have a quantity of Indian trading beads for cheap, cheap, cheap. So I sunk the price of a meal at McDonald's on these yellow trading beads. Because they were cool, you know, in a hippy-dippy way. Cool, and funky.

Yellow glass beads, with a rather rough and dull surface, not smooth. Yellow glass beads with streaks through them, streaks of blue or black or green. I have no idea whether these beads are genuine, whether they're old Indian trading beads, or newer, or something bought out of a Johnson Smith catalog. Whatever, they're just cool. And funky.

The beads were originally strung together on a dried corn shuck, but that didn't hold up, so I restrung them on several strands of thread, blue and orange. They usually sit on my nightstand, alongside my bed, with various other such curios. Yellow Indian trading beads. Funky.


Thursday, September 20, 2007


My bad ankle is acting up especially bad this morning. Think I'm going to leave the computer be, and go have my morning coffee whilst my ankle soaks in a pan of hot water.

Ah, the joys of being past 50...

Ave Imperator

In second year confirmation class last night, one of my students somehow managed to morph the Emperor Constantine into the Emperor Palpatine. Complete with Force lightning shooting out from his hands.

There's a point buried in there somewhere, I'm sure— or would be, if my student knew Constantine from Adam— but by that hour of the evening I was too tired to ferret it out. :-)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Cero, Nueve, Uno, Nueve, Cinco, Nueve, Cuarenta y Ocho..."

Happy birthday to my brother Steven, who turns 48 today!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The New Hudson's Bay Point Blanket Is Here!

hudson's bay point blanket
Well, recently I realized that I needed to get all new bedding for the impending colder weather. So I got online and ordered it. And as of yesterday, it's all here. Flannel sheets. A new goose-down pillow. And first and foremost, a new Hudson's Bay point blanket.

There's nothing to compare with a Hudson's Bay blanket. Pure 100% wool. Heavy. Thick. I got a 4-point blanket (you can see the points, or indigo bars, right on top), multi-stripe, blue, yellow, red, green. There is just nothing to compare. Talk about warm on a cold winter night!

This is in fact the second treasured Hudson's Bay blanket I've owned. The first one, identical, I bought back in 1993, when I had just emerged, in my mid 30s, for the very first time in my adult years, from the poverty of student life. From then till now, I have slept with that blanket on my bed, in the summertime even when I can get away with it; relaxed beneath that blanket on the sofa; used that blanket for everything but a pup tent; and in general worn that blanket out until all the nap is completely worn off and the edges are frayed and unraveling beyond hope of repair. Sort of like Linus and his blanket! Yes, I had a special blanket when I was a kid; though oddly enough, it was not made of wool.

hudson's bay point blanket
So the new Hudson's Bay point blanket takes its place on my bed. And the old blanket is retired to the cedar-chest genizah. I must confess, I have mixed feelings about this: that old blanket has served me well for years, and I've rather grown attached to it. But heft both blankets at once, and you can tell that the old blanket has lost half its weight or more to heavy wear. I'd guess the new blanket weighs at least six pounds.

By the way, these blankets have quite a history as an item sold and traded by the Hudson's Bay Company up in Canada, going back hundreds of years. Harold Tichenor's illustrated book on the history of Hudson's Bay point blankets is very much worth reading.

flannel sheets ticking stripes
As for the new pillow, it's filled with goose down. Very comfortable, a real step up from the foam rubber or polyester fill or whatever horrific stuff the old pillow was filled with. And the flannel sheets are a wonder. Note those dark red ticking stripes! "Ticking stripes": learned a new term there, I never knew before what they were called, though I'm familiar with the design. Quite retro, somehow it reminds me of bedding or awnings or whatever from back in the 1920s or somesuch bygone era. Which, Selective Luddite™ that I am, suits me just fine.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Battlezone, Beer, and FORTRAN

I've been thinking back to those days, 1979 or 1980, when my routine ran like this: I'd be out at the library of a weeknight, studying till ten or eleven in the evening, working on some proofs in Fourier analysis or algebraic topology or partial differential equations. Writing on pads of yellow legal paper, pushing the proof through on this front or that, hit a roadblock, puzzle over it sometimes for an hour or more and then suddenly the next step to take would dawn on me in a flash. Maybe work a while then, grading quizzes or homework for a calculus discussion section I was teaching.

Then, maybe 11 PM or so, I'd sling my backpack over my shoulder and head down State Street. Just off the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Head down to State Street Brats, duck in the door, pick up a copy of the Daily Cardinal or the Badger Herald if one was to be had. Get a beer, tap beer was a quarter back in those days. Retire to a booth in a semi-unlit corner.

Or I might also play a game of Battlezone, they had Battlezone at State Street Brats: two games for a quarter, this was one of the very first primitive video games, just then replacing the old mechanical pinball machines. Battlezone, crude 3D tanks appear in green wireframe outline on a monochrome monitor, sound of tank engines, crude 3D wireframe boulders here and there, crude 3D wireframe mountains in the distance. Maneuvering in a virtual world, I take aim and shoot at enemy tanks, blasting them before they can blast me.

Most of the tanks are broad and squat. Once in a while there's a thin, sleek 3D green wireframe tank, and those are quicker, deadlier. But deadliest of all are the guided missiles (3D green wireframe) that come buzzing toward you from over the mountains, buzzing with a noise like an old prop plane engine. You've got to shoot just right to hit those, or else the scene will be covered with crude green wireframe cracks running all over the screen, GAME OVER.

Or there was an Asteroids game, equally crude monochrome wireframe asteroids. I think this was back before PacMan or Centipede.

Afterwards it was back over a block or two to the fourth-floor apartment, up above the KK (Kollege Klub), which I shared with my brother. The little U-shaped efficiency apartment, over in one corner sat my old early 60's wood-cabinet stereo which played vinyl records which were, you know, all we had in those days, nobody had ever heard of CDs. It was a different world, a world of President Carter and "malaise" and the Ayatollah Khomeini, Newsweek written at a reading level several grade levels higher than it is today.

Next morning I'd teach that calculus discussion section, then over to the computer science building where I'd finish writing a program in FORTRAN, then type it up on punched cards at a keypunch machine. Or if I had a spare moment, I might read Athanasius or Justin Martyr, volumes checked out of the University library, which is how I eventually ended up where I am today; but that's another story.

I think back to that world of almost 30 years ago, and how different a world it was, and how different a person I was. Give me that long again, and I'll be 80, white-haired, and retired. It makes a person think.


Friday, September 14, 2007


Last night I had a dream that I was down in the ditch alongside the railroad tracks, down there in the ditch out in the country alongside the trainroad. And now a train was coming by, with smoke billowing out of its smokestack, and I saw this fellow run up out of the brush and jump on the train. So I thought I would do so too. And I ran up out of the ditch, and I jumped up in through the open door of a boxcar.

Only when I got to my feet and stood up, I found that this other fellow and I were really standing in an area at the back of the locomotive, and all the train people, engineer and brakeman and conductor and all, were sitting ahead of us inside the locomotive, facing away from us. And after a minute of uneasy silence, one of the "train people" up front began speaking to us without turning his head back to us, "We can see you, and we often get people jumping on this train, and now you have three choices," and basically the choices were (1) go to jail, or (2) pay a fine of several hundred dollars, or (3) be let off the train out here halfway to Dubuque, even though that would mean leaving us stranded in the countryside with no way to get home.

So I chose to be let off the train, and they stopped the train (still without any of them turning their heads back to look at us) and I got off the train in the brush out here in the middle of the countryside. And wondering how I was going to get home, from halfway to Dubuque. Only I walked a bit, and I came to a village, only this village seemed to be not in Iowa but somehow "amidst the mountains" up in Alaska.

(And it also came to me that the fellow who jumped on the train was a confederate of the railroad, used over and over again to jump on the train and lure other people like me to follow his example.)

And then I was in the sheriff's office, and it was evil Sheriff Buck off of American Gothic, and he was sitting there in his oak office chair at his oak desk. And I was standing there, and then this guy came sauntering in, looking like a gambler ne'er-do-well from old New Orleans, wearing a raincoat overcoat slicker, and it was made clear to me as if in a word of knowledge that this gambler man was coming to the village in evil, and to get back at me for jumping on the train. And I said hi to him as he walked by, and he said hi to me.

Then next time it was a scene in the village where I was being asked to leave, on pain of great disasters breaking forth. And somewhere down the valley amidst the mountains suddenly a house exploded roaring up in flames. And then after a little while another house exploded. And it was well but darkly understood that I'd better snap to it, or else. Only I wouldn't, because that would be giving in to evil, and to the evil New Orleans gambler dude.

And now the next scene, and I'm standing next to the dirt runway of the local airstrip, and suddenly in a flash without warning a small single-engine plane comes streaking in for a landing, kablammm!!!, and the plane goes tearing at high speed down the runway in flames balanced on its nose. And as it goes by, several houses in a row alongside the runway are all exploding in flames at high speed, kablamm, kablammm, kablammmm, KABLAMMMMM!!! And then a kid comes flying through the air screaming, right up against the side of a house, and suddenly a UPS truck flying through the air and its rear end smashes right into the kid and the side of the house.

And I realize, in horror, that this is an escalation of the efforts to get me out of this village and to surrender to the New Orleans gambler who is in with evil Sheriff Buck.

So then I decide to fight back. And I run everything in reverse like a movie film going backwards, the UPS truck flies away from the house, the kid is being carried off on a stretcher ("Only one little chip out of a bone in my toe"), the houses are de-exploding and returning to normal, the plane is streaking backwards down the runway and backwards up into the sky. And now I'm running a trace on this evil power, tracing it back to find where it's coming from.

And sure enough, it's that evil New Orleans gambler man in his rain slicker, and suddenly I'm right there, teleported to about ten yards away from him, and his back is turned to me, and between us is his evil hot-coal brazier tripod with smoke billowing up out of it, which he uses to cause disasters, and so I levitate the brazier tripod up in the air ("Use the Force, Luke!") and I overturn it and bring it right down on his shoulders and the back of his head, and he's screaming in agony and evil at the burning hot coals being brought down right on top of him, and I know this is only the beginning of our epic battle to the death, each of us wielding great powers beyond comprehension.

Only then I woke up.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

JUDY 451

Back in the 90s when I was living down in Illinois I noticed the bizarre proliferation of personalized license plates with meaningless numbers tacked on the end.

I remember one, though, which made strange sense: JUDY 451

Ah, yes: JUDY 451, "the temperature at which punch bowls catch fire, and burn"...


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Peace, Quiet, and Solitude

Over at The Missal, Jack G finds himself home alone for the first time in years, when the rest of the family is away for several days. And he has an interesting meditation on rediscovering peace and quiet:
It had been so long since I had really been by myself that I had almost entirely forgotten what it was like to be in solitude, how different it is than having others around you, and how utterly beneficial it is from time to time to be alone. Completely alone and without the company of other people.

It took me awhile to adjust, but once I began to remember what solitude was like, and how much I could do (or not do as the case might be) I took as much advantage out of the situation as I possibly could. I think the best thing about solitude, in my case anyway, is that since I live so far out in the country, and since so much open land surrounds my home and estate, that aside from the occasional dog-bark, I could by simply killing the power to any form of distraction make it entirely silent... could surround myself in silence. Could suppress the din until I could hear nothing but the wind, nothing but my own breathing and heartbeat, nothing but the crickets at night, or the thunder on the approaching storm. It is almost indescribable how good it is to be able to enforce silence whenever you wish.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love my family, more than mere words can express, and enjoy their company; again more than speaking will tell... however it has been so many years since I was completely separated from them, that is, when no member of my family has been around me, and so many years since I have been in total solitude that I had almost forgotten what it was to be entirely by myself. Alone. And I had forgotten how good it is to be alone, how refreshing... I have remembered over the past few days why so many monks and hermits have sought solitude like a treasure-hoard and have spoken of it as a rare and precious gift of God, which is to be pursued when possible. It makes one efficient, relaxed, calm, and peaceful. It makes one unhurried and appreciative of life, it allows one to recreate, to organize one's thoughts, to master the mind, attend the body, and to physic the soul. It reminds you that today is today, that hours can be long and fulfilling when not consumed with countless diversionary tasks and pointless distractions, that solitude helps to unmeasure the measure which compresses and shortens our lives by flooding them with minutiae.
Living alone in a big old house on a gravel road far out into the countryside, I know how Jack feels. There really is something to the peace and quiet that comes with solitude, a power that wells up out of the heart of silence.

Out here, at times, large trucks or farm machinery will go rumbling by, and then the house rattles and quakes. Apart from that, all is still. I can go most of the day without speaking a word. No radio on, no TV. Peace. Stillness. Relaxed, calm, and peaceful indeed.

Flannel Sheets and All

Yesterday it didn't get up out of the 50s. This morning I turned on the furnace in the house for the first time. Cooler weather is on the way. And that means I'd better get new winter bedding, pronto.

By the end of last winter, my flannel sheets were shot. I mean, worn out and ready for the rag bag. After many, many long years, my faithful old Hudson's Bay Company point blanket is also threadbare, unraveling. And my pillow, which I've had I don't know how long... well, best to keep it covered with a pillowcase, what's underneath is not exactly presentable. That pillow has got to go.

In short, I've got to replace purner everything on top of my bed. And sooner rather than later. Time to look around, and then order online.


Monday, September 10, 2007

The World, Like a Pop-Up Greeting Card

I never saw the world around me in three dimensions until I was seven years old. I was born with bilateral strabismus, which means I saw through only one eye at a time. Every few minutes, my brain would switch over to the other eye, which led to more than a few spilled glasses of milk when I was a kid. Clumsy? No, it was just my eyes, that glass of milk isn't where it was a moment ago. If this condition isn't fixed by surgery, eventually by age 13 or 14 the brain gets tired of playing hopscotch and shuts one eye off permanently.

So, age seven, in between semesters of second grade, I went in to Madison General Hospital for eye surgery. I was in the hospital five days, I still remember parts of it. It was right before Christmas, Santa came to visit the hospital, he gave me a set of dominoes which I still have.

I will never forget when they took the bandages off my eyes. I looked around me, and for the first time in my life I saw things in three dimensions. As I put it at the time, it was like the whole world around me becoming like one of those pop-up greeting cards. You know, the kind you open up and a little scene pops up from inside in 3D.

A new dimension opened up in the world around me, a dimension the likes of which I'd never dreamed of before in my life. A new dimension, a depth dimension opening up out into. I think that was one of the sources of my later interest in signs and symbols, and of how in more subtle ways new dimensions of depth can open up in a symbol. The whole world around me, opened up and transformed like nothing I ever would've imagined possible.

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Orange Sherbet

Last night I sat down and had a bowl of orange sherbet. (Which, by the way, is pronounced "sherbert.")

Orange sherbet may not be the perfect food, but it comes darn close.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Man or Machine?

McGehee is writing an interesting story called Inorganism over at his blog. As our technological devices becomes more and more sophisticated, and we grow more and more dependent on them, at what point do the boundaries between man and machine indistinguishably blur?

Regular readers of my blog (all five of them) will recognize that questions of this sort have exercised me in several of my works of fiction. Transhumanism, nanotechnology, AI, genetic engineering, the Singularity... I'm far from convinced that we're headed where some transhumanists and singularitarians say we're headed on these fronts. Though if we are, I tend to take a fairly grim and pessimistic view of it all. We just may luck out. Or more likely we will find out, as Bill Joy put it, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us.


I heard a radio announcer the other day pronounce "mature" as "matchurrr." This is one that's always puzzled me, I'm sure there's a history behind it somewhere, but I've always pronounced it as "matoor."

Arrrghhh! Gargle, gargle! Match'rrrrrrrrr! Oh, it's not very matchurrrrr of me to make fun of people for saying matchurrr!


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Fred! Fred! Fred! Fred!

Yes! Fred Thompson enters the race! Go, Fred, Go!

News story here. Video here (warning, 91-megabyte flash video!).

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Jack Kerouac and On the Road

Fifty years ago today Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road, was published. A tale of the frantic cross-continent travels of narrator Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty, seeking in search of they knew not what, only the rhythm and the pace of life accelerated until they were sprung clear out of any bourgeois frame of reference: "Yes! Yes! We know time!" The tale was autobiographical, an only thinly disguised telling of the journeys of Kerouac himself and his friend Neal Cassady.

They were part of what was known as the Beat Generation, along with other writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. But Kerouac was the greatest writer of all the Beats. He developed a writing style which was based in part on the pacing and the techniques of jazz music. He was trying to make language perform feats well beyond its rated capacity. And in a soaring, efflorescent, noneuclidean way, he did it.

To me, with my interest in signs and symbols, the what and the how and the why of Kerouac's success are of considerable import. But part of it is simply fascination with Kerouac's literary corpus— not only On the Road, but his other writings as well, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels and Big Sur and Tristessa and Old Angel Midnight and "October in the Railroad Earth" and so many more, oh, and the unfathomable brilliance of Visions of Cody.

I don't know why I didn't discover Jack Kerouac sooner. It wasn't until I was in my mid twenties that I ran across a paperback copy of On the Road, at Powell's Books in downtown Portland, Oregon. You know, that gigantic bookstore on West Burnside, across the street from what was then the Blitz-Weinhard brewery? This was 1983 or 1984.

I read the book, and I loved it. "Yes, yes, we know time!" Then it gathered dust on my shelf until I was in my mid 30s. This was when I began to collect and read everything I could find, by or about Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, and the entire Beat Generation.

I've never been able to figure quite what it is about the Beats that so grips me. Like I say, part of it is Kerouac's luminescent noneuclidean jazz-inspired prose. But I think part of it has to do with mixed feelings I've always had about the Sixties.

It was during the cultural plate-tectonic shift known as the Sixties— really, the late 1960s on into the early 70s— that I came of age as an individual. Hey, beard, blue jeans, Beatles music, it shows? Without the experience of growing up in the Sixties, I can't imagine who I would be today.

The culture got some of the starch knocked out of it, and that was a good thing. Conformity slipped on a banana peel, and that was a good thing too. There was a genuine sense of spiritual questing. And on some deep level, something happened to the cultural sensorium. Any style or motif current in 1920 or 1950 was still available, in some key, in 1968 or 1998. Art deco? Formica tabletops? Egyptian hieroglyphics? No problem! While much of what flashed across the screen, post-Sixties, would have been unintelligible half a century earlier. Five surreal images per second? Fifty years ago, many TV commercials from the late 1990's would not even have been not understood— they would simply have frozen the brain in sensory gridlock. On a cultural level, on the simple level of images that flit through the mind's eye, the 60s did indeed open wide the doors of perception.

But the Sixties also gave rise to a festering sense of anger, self-righteousness, carefully nursed grievance, which was far from healthy. Rancor in the name of peace, vindictive intolerance in the name of tolerance— a bumper sticker I once saw sums it up: "Support mental health, or I'll kill you!" The nonconformity of the Sixties often struck me as a "nonconformity for the millions," mass produced, everybody different exactly alike, and woe betide the true individualist who differed not only from the conformists, but also from the nonconformists.

I think this is part of what I like about the Beat Generation. They really were different— not just from the mass culture, but from one another as well. They really were blazing their own trail— not just buying into some prefabricated and prepackaged "nonconformity" which was the same in New York and LA, in Pittsburgh and in Denver and in Urbana-Champaign.

"...I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'" —Jack Kerouac, On the Road. Published September 5, 1957.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Rome, Constantinople, Hibernia?

Back when I was a kid I had this weird idea that there had been a Roman emperor who planned to take Ireland, and then build a third capital of the Roman Empire in Ireland, on the Atlantic coast.

Can't tell you where I got this idea from. I had a number of strange notions like this.

I've googled around on this question, no luck. Can anyone tell me, was I on target about this, or was it just some bizarre idea floating to me out of the ether?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Remind Me Not to Vote for John Edwards

Oh great. Get this:
Edwards backs mandatory preventive care

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards said on Sunday that his universal health care proposal would require that Americans go to the doctor for preventive care.

"It requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care," he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. "If you are going to be in the system, you can't choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK"...

Edwards said his mandatory health care plan would cover preventive, chronic and long-term health care. The plan would include mental health care as well as dental and vision coverage for all Americans.
Even if I were a Democrat (which I am not) I would be bound and determined, after hearing that one, never to vote for John Edwards.

I mean, every person in this country required to go to the doctor??? Talk about a nanny state! Talk about reducing every American to a ward of the state! Talk about turning every person in the country into a lucrative cash cow for the Health Care System Industry!

And you know what they do when they get a cash cow. They milk it for all it's worth. To say nothing of how doctors would be in that much better a position to push more procedures, more drugs, more surgeries on you, once they've got you as a captive audience. It reminds me of the old, pre-health-insurance-days joke:
First Surgeon: So what did you remove from your patient?
Second Surgeon: Oh, about a thousand dollars.
First Surgeon: What did your patient have?
Second Surgeon: A thousand dollars.
Requiring every American to go to the doctor. Under penalty of federal law, no doubt. Requiring every American to get on the conveyor belt of the Health Care System Industry. Has any plan quite so intrusive and quite so destructive of individual liberty ever been seriously proposed in these United States in living memory?


O Traffic, Where Art Thou?

Hunh. Several months ago, I was wondering why my blog traffic was growing exponentially— up, in just a few months, from something over a thousand visits per month to more than six thousand visits per month.

Well, wonder no more. That was May, this is September. And over the summer my blog traffic has declined as precipitously as it grew:
Jan: 1770
Feb: 1515
Mar: 3080
Apr: 4726
May: 6236
Jun: 3876
Jul: 3554
Aug: 1434
It all comes down to Google, and in particular, Google Images. My blog has all but dropped out of Google; not quite 100%, but say 99% of the way. A large part of that spike in traffic was due to tons of visits from Google Image searches.

Now I'm back down more to the level of "real" visits. Visits from regular and occasional visitors to my blogs. Visits by way of various links out there. And also visits from various other search engines.

Remaining question: Why did I experience that surge in Google hits there for several months?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Escape to Linux

It was four years ago this weekend— yes, Labor Day weekend 2003— that I went over to Linux. I had ordered and received a boxed set of Mandrake 9.1, and also a used and reconditioned IBM ThinkPad T20. Installing Linux on the ThinkPad was a breeze, though it took me two or three months to find my sea legs. You know, little things like getting the computer to work with floppy disks or a printer. But before the end of the year I found myself doing anything with Linux that I pleased. If I didn't know how, I could look it up. Wrote a little piece about my experience, Escape to Linux, which achieved some minor notoriety in certain limited quarters in cyberspace.

After Mandrake 9.1, I went over to Mandrake 10.1, then to Mandriva 2006, and most recently to Mandriva 2007. I dunno, I might feel tempted by Ubuntu, but I'm long since familiar with Mandrake/Mandriva, and there is that learning curve to consider. Basically Mandriva just works, or pretty close to; easy to use, and yet at the same time it's easy to get down and dirty with the technical side of things if you want to.

The most annoying thing about Mandriva is their carelessness with quality assurance: you can just bet each final release will come with an armful of obtrusive bugs, some of which they will never get around to fixing. Oh well. Mandriva 2007 is the best release in this regard, of those I've used, since Mandrake 9.1.

And recently I've come full circle: brought that second computer back from vacation with me, the one with Windows XP on it (mostly as a bargaining chip with my ISP, which "doesn't support Linux"). Though I still rely on my ThinkPad, and Linux, for my everyday work and leisure.