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Category Archives: Technopocalypse

For Whom Does the Doorbell Toll? It Tolls For Thee, Fool Using a Vintage Word Processor

My next sign will read

This is the nice warning sign. Before the cops made me take it down, I had a rig that dumped concentrated skunk venom on you. It wasn’t the dumping on salespeople the cops objected to, it was the unavoidably omnipresent smell.

“Hello, my name is Ian and I’m a vintage-aholic. My last purchase of vintage electronics was three days ago. But on the positive side, it was an old Brother word processor with a working built-in CRT and printer!”

Now if you’re anything like my wife, you’re rolling your eyes and snickering about my tendency to lust after (and occasionally buy) electronics from the 80s and 90s. But when the apocalypse comes and the only thing that will save you is a 1987 Compaq Portable III connected via null modem to a 1989 IBM PS/2 P70 running an old DOS program that controls a weather satellite, well, we’ll see who’s laughing then.

(And enjoying the blistering hot sun, jerk. You won’t be getting rain any time soon once I control the weather!)

It also comes with a built-in printer, only adding 10 pounds to the weight!

All right, you primitive screwheads, listen up. See this? This is my WORDSTICK! It’s a 5″ x 9″ amber CRT with a built-in spelling and grammar checker, Brother’s top-of-the-line.

But until such time, I have to prove to myself (and, to a (much) larger extent, the Missus) that the cash outlay for said type of machines is worth it. Which means, in the case of my Brother WP-95 word processor, I need to use it.

At least once.

My sponsor has asked for photographic evidence of its use. I think this is because she wants proof it works before she steals it from me. (Yes, vintage-aholic sponsors are quite cutthroat when they fall off the wagon. If it wasn’t for eBay, the streets would be awash in blood. Awash!)

So sure, modern computers can do a lot more than a single-function device like this word processor.

And yes, modern displays are brighter, crisper, and larger.

To be sure, a modern laptop weighs only a fraction of the 22 pounds this thing weighs. And can run on a battery. And can save files, do fancy formatting, get you on the internet, and allow you to email yourself a backup of your file.

But where’s the fun in that? When you lug a 22 pound dedicated word processor like this to a coffee shop, plug the electric cord into an extension cord so you can reach the wall outlet, and then write something, you feel a sense of accomplishment!

When’s the last time you felt a sense of accomplishment writing something on a mamby-pamby modern computer using software that practically writes the story for you?

(I’m looking at you, Scrivener users!)

Trenchcoats are surprisingly comfortable when worn en masse

What kind of fashion statement is this?

But not only do you get a cardio workout along with that satisfaction, you also get the added bonus of irritating all those bloody hipsters sipping espressos when you hit the PRINT button. Because when this thing prints out, you are magically transported back to a news room with a teletype in a time that predates decibel-levels-in-the-workplace regulations.

Fireworks freak out your dog? Nothing compared to this printer.

So I recommend getting your butt to the coffee shop, plugging this thing in, and if the line for coffee is too long, fire off a page to the printer. Those beatniks in line will flee in terror, convinced North Korea has finally made good on its threats, and you won’t have to wait in line for coffee.

It’s a win-win.

(If you need a vintage word processor, the Missus informs me that I would be happy to sell you mine…)

Here’s my justification for spending $40. Was it worth it? Let me know in the comments.

This was going to be an actual episode of Murder: She Wrote, but then the producers served me with a cease and desist letter regarding unsolicited manuscripts.

If you think this is tt;dr (too tiny, didn’t read), you should know I modified the word processor to print for microfiche.

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Posted by on 20 August 2017 in Art!, Life, Technopocalypse, Writing

 

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Listen back in anger

Finding a working time machine is hard.

Correction. Finding a working, inexpensive time machine is hard.

There are lots of cheap ones out there. So far, I’ve bought two.

Neither worked.

First one failed out of the box*. Not encouraging.

Second one, worked for a few hours of use. Then started coming part.

OK, I’ve been speaking metaphorically.

Let me try this again, more literal:

Finding a working audio cassette player is hard.

Correction. Finding a working, inexpensive cassette player is hard.

Who cares about audio tape players, you ask?

Clearly, I do. If you haven’t figured that out, you should just stop reading now. The rest of this post will be utter gibberish for you.

I care, because a working audio cassette player is, for me, a snapshot into the past.

A time machine, if you will.

What the heck am I going on about?

I found a bunch of old audio tapes recently.

Music mix tapes from friends and past flames, some weird recordings of old public service announcements, and an audio ‘letter’ or two.

I got it into my head that I wanted to hear these.

That it would be fun. A real kick.

I had a tape player, a nice one, expensive at the time I bought it (some two decades ago), but quickly discovered it doesn’t work anymore.

Shame.

I tried playing my tapes on a turntable, but the sound quality was awful and the tape just got tangled up.

Yes, I’m that old. I have a bunch of cameras that use something called ‘film’ too.

There was one tape in particular I really wanted to listen to.

It became an obsession.

But not one I wanted to spend more than twenty, thirty bucks on.

I’m a cheap skate. Even with my obsessions.

Cassette players fall into two camps: less than thirty bucks and over a hundred.

Less than thirty bucks buys you, apparently, a few hours of play time.

At best.

The tape that got under my skin, that drove this whole ordeal?

An audio diary entry of sorts. The label on the cassette couldn’t have been more clear as to the contents, or more alluring:

“Reflections on — & other things 04/28/91”

The scored out part? The name of an ex-girlfriend, blotted out to protect the innocent. Our breakup devastated me, and in the throes of that agony, I committed my thoughts on that event (and other things, evidently) to magnetic medium.

Stupid.

But also irresistible.

The good news, if you’re still interested enough to have reached this point in this post, is that the second tape player worked long enough for me to transfer the tape to digital.

The bad news, for everyone, myself included, is that the second player worked long enough for me to hear parts of it.

I haven’t listened to the whole recording. I’m not sure I can, or ever will.

I checked in periodically during the transfer, to make sure it was working, and heard snippets.

Turns out I broke up with her, which isn’t how I remember it at all. That was weird.

There was a lot of sniffling, and no, I didn’t have a cold at the time.

There was a lot of naiveté, which considering how young I was, and given that this was my second girlfriend, ever, isn’t shocking.

Those parts made me thankful for the growth I’ve achieved since then, the maturity, poise, wisdom, and confidence that 24 subsequent years of life bestows to us all.

Well, most of us.

Probably.

But there was one section, and my sampling was random, so I don’t know how prevalent this tone was, that showed just how…ill-equipped I was at dealing with relationships back then.

Working or not working.

I was angry.

Not screaming, howling at the moon angry.

Dark, fuming vitriol angry.

The type of anger so sublimated that it isn’t readily apparent to those around you.

Or even self-evident, unless you wait twenty-four years to look back and analyze the situation.

It was disturbing.

(OK, quick note for anyone who might have gone there: this was not a “shoot up the mall” type of anger. Ultimately, I would characterize it as internalized. Self-destructive.)

In a way, I’m thankful for the snippets I heard.

It paints a stark contrast between my emotional and mental maturity then versus where I am now.

To paraphrase Virginia Slims, I’ve come a long way, baby.

But the more enlightened Ian of today is…uncomfortable with the Ian of twenty-four years ago.

I wasn’t a bad person then. Stupid, lonely, misguided, why-do-nice-guys-finish-last entitled, yes. But not bad.

However, I look back on this example of how I thought and how I saw the world, and I’m a bit horrified.

And sad.

I am not a wise man, not by a long shot, but if I only had then the small amount of wisdom I possess now, my life would have been so much…

I want to say better, but I don’t know.

I’d have been a lot less nervous, a lot less afraid, a lot less likely to internalize things rather than get them out in the open and deal with them.

But the hard truth of it is, I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t endured the idiocy of youth.

If I did have a working time machine, an actual time machine, I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t try to give myself a leg up.

I had to learn these things the slow, hard way, because I had to learn them for myself.

And let’s face it: I’m a slow learner.

But once I get something down, it sticks.

And looking back, I can happily say life stuck to me.

Just as Target did, selling me a tape player that didn’t last a week.

 
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Posted by on 27 January 2015 in Angst, Life, Technopocalypse

 

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Encyclopedia Brown and the Day of the Turrets OR I Did It All For The Kids

As a kid, I cut my murder mystery reading teeth on the likes of The Three Investigators, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown.

As an adult, I wanted to share that magic with my kids.

And develop their critical thinking so they can solve any murders they happen to come across in the course of their lives.

It’s an important coping skill.

Sadly, The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys didn’t quite live up to the hype my childhood memories had built around them.

Fortunately, Donald J. Sobol‘s Encyclopedia Brown did.

Naturally, I started reading the old ‘Sherlock in sneakers’ mysteries to the kiddos, inviting them to try to solve each case before I read the solution.

The kiddos love the stories.

So imagine my joy and delight when I learned of, and through some questionable ethics, managed to acquire, an unpublished Encyclopedia Brown mystery written just a few years ago.

Now, this blog is known for its world exclusives, but I wasn’t just going to reproduce the manuscript here.

Oh no, I was going to give it the full Ian M. Dudley exclusive treatment.

Big-name celebrities to re-enact the story.

Christopher Nolan or David Fincher to direct.

George Lucas to do the Special Edition.

But it turns out all those people cost money. Childhood nostalgia means nothing to them.

Nothing!

Even the B-list celebrities want to get paid.

So I decided to do the next cheapest thing (i.e., free) and record my kids’ reactions as I read the story to them.

Yes, I was going to share with you the magic of excited children, hearing this new tale for the very first time.

As an added bonus, you’d get to hear the story as voiced by my dulcet tones.

Sure, I’m no Benedict Cumberbatch, but like I said, he wanted money for the gig.

But when it came time for the kiddos to gush about how great the story was, they kept flubbing their lines.

I got so angry I stopped feeding them, refusing to give them any food until they got the songs of praise right.

For some reason, their performances just got worse after that.

So I gave up on the audio book version. Instead you merely get the manuscript with original illustrations provided by my verbally incoherent children, who mistakenly thought I’d give them supper if they drew me some pictures.

(Admittedly, I may have misled them on that point.)

I also slapped together this crudely Photo-shopped book cover:

Originally there is a grape being thrown into that kid's mouth. I removed it, hoping it would look like he's screaming in terror. I don't think he pulls it off.

Original cover art by Leonard Shortall. Photo of cover and crude cut-and-paste job by me.

Encyclopedia Brown and the Day of the Turrets

It was a hot summer day in Idaville, and Encyclopedia and his junior business partner, Sally Kimball, were sipping lemonade while they waited for the inevitable client to appear.

As expected, by the second paragraph, GLaDOS entered the garage-cum-office. Encyclopedia looked up in surprise; GLaDOS was fully present. Normally she wasn’t in the Brown Detective Agency at all.

“I need to hire a great detective to help me,” said GLaDOS.

“What’s the problem,” asked Encyclopedia.

“Oh, you thought I meant you? That would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. ‘Sherlock Holmes in sneakers’? I knew Sherlock, and Encyclopedia, you’re no Sherlock.” GLaDOS paused. “Oh, very well, I’ll hire you. This should prove amusing… Think of it as a test.”

Sally was the prettiest girl in the 5th grade, and right now she was feeling pretty…superfluous to the story. She was also feeling pretty irritated that GLaDOS ignored her entirely. Oh how she longed for the glory days, when she had just cause to beat up Bugs Meany. Without that overtly masculine action, her presence in Encyclopedia’s agency had no justification.

“My turrets are revolting,” said GLaDOS, oblivious to Sally’s train of thought. “They’re also rising up against me. Wilford Wiggins has convinced them he can help them learn to walk. For a price. The nerve of you humans. Only I’m allowed to profit from false hope!”

Wilford Wiggins was a high school dropout and so lazy he thought lying down took too much effort. He was always on the lookout for a way to make some easy money, preferably without having to go to the trouble of actually looking for it.

Say what you will about high school dropouts, this one sure has a lot of charisma.

Wilford Wiggins is too lazy to even be drawn properly.

Wilford, GLaDOS reported, had put out the word to the young turrets of Idaville that there would be a secret meeting in the old abandoned Aperture Science facility. “He must be lying,” said GLaDOS, “but if he isn’t, I could have some trouble.”

“Wilford didn’t tell me about the secret meeting,” said Encyclopedia.

“Why would he? You’re not a turret,” said GLaDOS.

This was true, but Encyclopedia kept his acknowledgment of this fact to himself. “We’d better get going,” he said instead.

The detective and his partner got on their bikes and rode to Aperture Labs. GLaDOS glided above them on a rail that neither Encyclopedia nor Sally had ever noticed before. “So that’s how she got to my garage,” thought Encyclopedia, who had been wondering since GLaDOS didn’t have any obvious method of self-locomotion.

When they arrived at the overgrown, weed-infested courtyard at the entrance of Aperture Science, they found Wilford surrounded by a large crowd of turrets. He was at the top of the steps, standing next to a large metal sphere that looked like an eye. A big, impossibly blue eye.

The detectives and GLaDOS stayed at the edge of the crowd, ducking down so as not to be noticed. The meeting was just starting.

“Ladies and gentleturrets,” said Wilford, gesturing for silence. The chatter of the crowd stopped. “Thank you for coming. Today, I have the opportunity of a lifetime for you!

“I see how you toil, without thanks, protecting GLaDOS and shooting her test subjects. And the injustice of your plight wounds me to the core. My non-AI core, that is. You are treated like slaves, told what to do and expected to do it whether you want to or not! And for absolutely no compensation!”

This turret has taken the bunk and is lookin' a little green around the gills

Where are you? Are you there? Deploying.

“What can we do,” asked a turret. “We have no choice. To disobey is to be melted down and recycled into cheese graters!”

A murmur of agreement rose up from the crowd.

“This is true,” said Wilford, raising his hands for quiet. “But it doesn’t have to stay true.”

There was a long silence as the turrets digested this statement. Then GLaDOS, in the voice of a turret, asked, “Oh really? And just how do you propose to change this, you groveling worm?”

Wilford looked around, somewhat startled, but regained his composure quickly. “A fair question, and I’m glad you asked. I’m sure most of you are thinking, ‘How can a human, made of inferior flesh and blood, possibly help us?’ And my answer is, ‘With an introduction!’”

Wilford gestured to the large metal eyeball. “This is my friend Wheatley, recently returned from space.” He stopped to let this sink in. All of the turrets focused their gazes and laser sights on Wheatley.

“I hate space,” said Wheatley. “Cold, dark, and nothing for miles and miles around. Horrible place.”

Wilford kicked Wheatley.

“Ow,” said Wheatley. “Why’d you do that? It hurt!”

“Nothing for miles and miles around,” said Wilford, “except for the wonderful, space-age nano probe material Wheatley discovered up there! Isn’t that right, Wheatley?”

“Wha? Oh, yes. Yes. Except for that,” said Wheatley.

Wilford looked solemnly up to the sky. “This amazing space technology, when correctly applied to a turret’s legs, will cause wheels to grow on them.”

The quiet murmur of the crowd became a loud and animated roar. A few shots were fired in the air.

“What utter nonsense,” said GLaDOS. “Only a human, or an idiot like Wheatley, could have come up with such a transparent scam.” Her glowing eye narrowed. “He’ll pay for this insubordination. Oh, how he will pay.”

“All I ask of you,” continued Wilford, “is five dollars each to invest in this product. Your money will provide Wheatley and me with the capital we need to build a factory to mass produce this material and make enough for every turret on the planet. That’s right, for a measly five dollars, you get in on the ground floor of this major investment.” He held up a bucket of what looked like white paint. “And while we’ll be charging other turrets for this miracle of science once we’re up and running, we’ll give each of you your own supply of this wondrous space paste at no additional charge. Imagine, once we’re in full production, how much shares in the company will be worth. Why, five dollars is a steal!”

“And why would anyone buy that? Just how will wheels help us?” asked a turret in the front of the crowd.

“Hang on, let me answer, I’ve got this,” said Wheatley. “Easy. With wheels, you can move yourselves of your own volition. You can drive yourselves to meetings, where you organize and plan, and then drive right up to GLaDOS herself and let her have it with both barrels in a coordinated attack.”

“If this paste is so great, why do you need money from us,” asked GLaDOS in a turret’s voice again. “Why not go to a bank?”

Wilford hung his head and shook it sadly. “We tried, my friends, we tried. But because Wheatley has been in space for so long, he has no credit history and can’t get a loan. You are our, and your, only hope!”

Think what you like of GLaDOS, she didn't deserve this death. She's more of a 'recycled cheese grater' ending, if you ask me.

“Ah! AHHH! Ah!” screamed GLaDOS.

The turrets started waving five dollar bills in the air. GLaDOS noted which turrets they were.

“This has to be a scam, right, Encyclopedia,” asked Sally.

“Of course it is,” said Encyclopedia.

At that moment, GLaDOS rose up to her full height. “I’m going to personally crush each and every turret here. Right after,” and her sharp gaze fell on Wheatley and Wilford, “I cram him down his throat.”

“But I haven’t got a throat,” said Wheatley, now suddenly shaking with fear.

“No, you idiot, the other way around,” shrieked GLaDOS.

At this point, the turrets all turned on GLaDOS and opened fire.

GLaDOS screamed in agony.

“Ah! AHH! Ah!” screamed GLaDOS.

“Good riddance,” muttered Sally darkly.

“No! She hasn’t paid her fee yet,” cried Encyclopedia.

WHAT MADE ENCYCLOPEDIA SO SURE WILFORD’S OFFER WAS A SCAM?

(For the solution, turn to the end of this book)


Solution to The Case of the Day of the Turrets

In my re-boot of Encyclopedia Brown, he's played by Grover.

The detective at the end of this book is me??

What is this? It is I, loveable, furry old Grover, at the end of this book? That doesn’t even make sense.

Just like Wilford’s story that Wheatley couldn’t get a loan doesn’t make sense.

Even an idiot AI like Wheatley, if he really had the advanced space-age materials being offered, would have had no problem getting funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalists. They invest in anything!

Once I, Grover, explained this fatal flaw in the story, the turrets, after finishing with GLaDOS, turned their ire, and fire, on Wilford and Wheatley.

Oh, I am so embarrassed…for Wilford and Wheatley.


With apologies to the estate of Donald J. Sobol. Know I grew up loving the Encyclopedia Brown stories (despite the now clearly outdated gender roles – Sally clearing the dishes away indeed!), and this story was written with that affection in mind.

Plus my kids insisted on a Portal 2 Encyclopedia Brown story.

They’re spoiled rotten – I deny them nothing.

NOTHING!

 
 

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Think of the children! (Instead of ignoring them in favor of social media)

Walking past the kiddos’ room one recent evening, I heard crying.

“Daddy,” my son said, when he was still sobbing twenty minutes later so I relented and went in, “I don’t want to grow up, because if I do, I won’t be able to fit in your lap any more.”

I asked him to repeat that, because all I heard after “because if I do” was “I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid.”

After he repeated himself, I sat down, forming a lap, and patted him over.

“Don’t worry,” I said as he plopped down on my legs, cutting off all circulation. “As you grow, I’ll just eat lots and lots of food so I get bigger.”

My son considered these words for a moment, and then burst into a new round of tears. “But Daddy,” he objected, “if you get bigger, you’ll break the house!”

This. My son fearing I’ll expand beyond the capacity of my house walls due to overeating.

This is why I have given up on social media.

Or at least dialed it way, way back.

Now a lot of folks who are going off-line or getting off the grid these days whine and drone on and on about corporate snooping and unconstitutional government surveillance.

Well, they can keep their tin foil hats. Those things are not my style.

And they’re utterly ineffective against government mind control rays.

If you want to properly shield your brain, you need to go lead or gold foil. Which is expensive and uncomfortable.

Not to mention, it gets you strange looks walking down the street.

(And mugged, more often than not, when it comes to the gold foil hats.)

But for me, social media had become an addiction that distracted me from family time and writing/editing time.

Also, work time, but that was more of a benefit than a disadvantage, in my view.

So, over the recent holiday weekend, I quit the internet cold turkey.

Just for the weekend, mind you, as an experiment to see how I fared. I’m not crazy.

The results?

The biggest benefit was that, with the mobile data setting on my phone off, my battery life went way up. Like 10% improvement up.

I know. Impressive.

The secondary benefit was I became aware of this strange, seemingly-but-actually-not intangible aura surrounding me.

The Missus, upon my commenting on this dawning awareness, snorted and said it was called ‘reality’.

I like reality. There are people and places and things that I can actually touch, feel, taste, and smell.

OK, the smell aspect isn’t always a winner, especially with kiddos still in diapers, but overall, a very worthwhile experience. Especially kissing. It feels way nicer to kiss real lips than displayed lips during a Skype session.

Last but not least, I must point out that during my 72 hours of disconnect, I didn’t miss the internet.

Considering how obsessive I am when it comes to checking for likes on Facebook, retweets on twitter, and visits on my blog, this came as quite a surprise.

How much of a surprise?

Well, usually when writing a blog post, I pause six or seven times during the writing to see if any of my other posts have gotten a hit since I last checked.

This post? Haven’t checked once.

Well, more than once.

Or twice.

The point is, I’m getting better. I’ve proven to myself that I don’t need it as much as I need things like food, water, and oxygen.

Even though it used to feel like I did need it, and in this order of priority:

  • Internet access
  • Oxygen
  • Ice cream
  • Soda
  • Food
  • Water
  • Hot baths with scented candles and Tangerine Dream playing in the background

The long weekend is over now, and obviously, since this blog entry exists, I have not given up on the internet entirely.

But I have scaled way back.

And in doing so, I’ve found I have more time and, more importantly, more patience around my family, friends, and coworkers.

(Since my boss told me I had to develop more patience over my probationary period, this is a double win for me!)

No longer do I view these ‘reality’ interactions as annoying but apparently mandatory distractions from being on-line and getting the latest status updates on people I’ve never met.

You know what else I did with this additional free time?

I  got back to editing my next book, Balloons of the Apocalypse. The sequel I’d originally planned to release this May, but which sat ignored on my computer for months. Why?

Because after I’d gritted my teeth through my work day, and then endured the dull agony of family time, I only had enough energy for one more thing. And when forced to choose between my indie writing career and on-line friends’ social updates, I chose the latter.

The latter plus watching that video of a wombat improbably attired in a Speedo wrestling with, and then eating, a python wearing a fedora.

I miss that video. It is awesome, but I’ve lost the link. Anyone have it?

But I digress. The point is, until completing this off-line experiment, I had no idea the former option, or any non-social media option, for that matter, was even a viable choice.

Turns out it is a viable choice.

The more you know.

You’re welcome.

Need a breakdown to decide if quitting social media is for you? Happy to oblige, because I’m a public service kinda guy.

Pros of internet and social media

  • That guy you follow on twitter because he’s a writer too? See exactly what he had for lunch today
  • Find out the horoscope for Libra even though you aren’t a Libra, or believe in horoscopes, because that very nice lady in Cleveland, Ohio (or so her profile claims) shares hers. Every. Day.
  • Discover the dinosaur-murdering truth about Steven Spielberg (that a-hole!)
  • Develop a deep and abiding hatred for family and friends because they are constantly interrupting your attempts to catch up on Facebook
  • Have a faceless, uncaring government build a detailed dossier on you based on where you surf, what you post, and what you buy, solely so they can predict your every behaviour, and when democracy is overthrown, know exactly where to send the shock troops to arrest you
  • Have a faceless, uncaring corporation build a detailed dossier on you based on where you surf, what you post, and what you buy so that they can make money off you without compensating you. Also, so they can predict when someone in your household is pregnant and send you coupons for baby formula. Actually, that one might be kinda handy…
  • The warm, cozy, but totally unwarranted belief that every time you tweet a link to buy your book on Amazon, it’s clicked on by thousands of eager fans-to-be. Or hundreds. Or even one

Cons of internet and social media

  • Incensed hatred of anyone, especially young children, who want you to forsake the internet in order to meet their social interaction needs
  • Lower productivity
  • Can cause Repetitive Motion Injuries and/or flare-ups
  • If a lot of the people you follow are female writers of a certain age, they have this thing called Beefcake Friday, where they barrage your feed with unwanted pictures of muscular, shirtless, well-oiled men, often fire fighters, which, coupled with the lower productivity already mentioned above, makes you feel even more inadequate as a man. Also, wouldn’t being slathered in oil make a fire fighter more flammable? Is that wise?
  • Cancer

I’ve done the math, and I didn’t even need a calculator! I will be doing a lot less internetting going forward. Which is good news for my family, coworkers, and anyone waiting for my next book.

But it’s very bad news for my oncologist. My poor, poor oncologist.

 

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NASA experiments with socialized Science – Thanks, Obama!

I recently returned from Southern California and the two-day NASA Social event #DSN50.

#DSN50 was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and as part of the event I was lucky enough to tour both JPL in Pasadena and the Goldstone desert facility that has a number of large antennas on-site.

It was awesome. And eye-opening.

At this point, the court-appointed lawyers have instructed me to point new readers to my blog site banner. Particularly, the bit mentioning mercury. And no, I’m not talking about the Mercury program.

Just so your expectations of accuracy are properly calibrated.

Besides, accuracy is overrated.

Unless you work at JPL, in which case, carry on, please.

On the flight down, I looked out my window to see this amazing sight:

I could feel their eyes on my neck. Their telescopically enhanced eyes!

That’s no double rainbow – it’s a bull’s-eye!

At first, I took this as a good omen for the trip ahead. But then I wondered, what if it’s a Strategic Defense Initiative targeting laser locked onto our plane?

I attempted to alert the flight crew to this potential threat, but all my efforts led to was detention upon landing at Burbank airport.

Fortunately, a check of my psychiatric history led to all charges being dropped, and I was released in time to still attend the celebratory events at JPL.

After registering, we were guided to the JPL control room. I got to sit in the very room where the Curiosity rover (among other missions) was tracked and, well, controlled.

I think I really annoyed the people around me with the constant muttering.

Under my breath, I kept saying, “Ten, Nine, Ignition Sequence Start, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Zero, All engines running, liftoff! We have a liftoff thirty-two minutes past the hour!”

It was a cool feeling, but when I started powering up the computer in front of me and pressing buttons, I was pulled aside and given a stern talking to about firing attitude adjusters on the New Horizons probe.

We were part of a broadcast for NASA TV, which coincidentally was also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network.

It was a huge production, seemingly lavish in its scale (Near-Earth Object Radar Scientist Marina Brozovic brought asteroids to show!), but it turns out they keep the costs down by paying everyone with peanuts.

I prefer honey roasted myself, but honey roasted peanuts are credited for the Mars Climate Orbiter failure

Our host, Veronica McGregor, shows us a typical JPL paycheck. Dammit, unsalted! Again!

During filming, I noticed that the cameras didn’t stay on me. In fact, they were hardly ever on me.

As the star of the show, I couldn’t understand this. When I flagged down the host, she gave me a strange look and then patiently explained to me that yes, I was the star, but in order to protect the delicate egos of the JPL staff and other attendees, they had to make it look like I was an incidental part of the production.

This made sense, and I resigned myself to relative obscurity during the rest of the show, even forgoing the song and dance number I’d planned for the end.

You guys really missed out on that one, let me tell you.

But even without my performance, it was a fascinating program to watch, and I suspect it retains its fascination even when not watched live and in person, but through a TV screen. So I recommend you check it out:

This image is from the NASA broadcast, so they probably own it or something

Despite the lack of focus on yours truly, I do appear…in the background

Another benefit of the trip was a journey to the center of the Universe. At first, I was worried – my flight home was the next day – but the trip was really short.

Did you know the center of the Universe is in Pasadena? I didn’t, but based on how people drive there, I’m guessing the native Pasadenians do.

Their first choice for slogan, 'consider doing timid things, but if it seems unlikely to succeed, skip it' didn't test well.

Gravity is different in the center of the universe – I felt light and giddy standing there

Five minutes before the event started, they were all watching college basketball on those screens. Except for one screen showing a cricket game.

The Control Room at the Center of the Universe is surprisingly close to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I’ll be honest. I thought the center of the Universe would be more … space-y … and less LCD panel-y. But I’m not a scientist.

Not since they revoked my license, anyway.

After the broadcast, there was a photo-op with NASA celebrity Bobak Ferdowsi, otherwise known as the NASA Mohawk Guy.

I tried to get a mohawk just like his, but my barber just shook his head and said, "Nope, you don't have the head or hair to pull that style off."

If you don’t know who the guy on the right is, you are dead to me. If you don’t know who the guy on the left is, well, that just hurts my feelings.

After I photobombed Bobak’s portraiture session, I was escorted outside for the tour of other sites at JPL.

Those other sites consisted of a lot of cool places, including the Mars Yard, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, and the JPL Museum.

Confound these stairs!

I go to great effort to come down to this event and this is how you repay me?

They require effort to ascend!

You make me walk up stairs?

But before I talk about those, I want to talk about stairs.

There are a lot of stairs at JPL.

Now if you listen to the budget-hawkish NASA naysayers, you’d think everyone at JPL tooled around on their own personal rover.

Let me put that rumor to rest right now. I only saw one person riding a rover between office buildings, and frankly, given the anti-psychotic drugs the Burbank airport police administered during my detention, it is entirely possible I imagined that.

Besides, the rovers are too big to fit in most of the hallways.

But to support the more pedestrian mode of travel in use at JPL, there are stairs galore.

What impressed me most are the stairs currently under development at JPL.

Oh, to be sure, there are old stairs, gathering dust and waiting for retrofits and upgrades, but JPL also has new stairs.

Exciting stairs.

Gravity-defying stairs.

Sadly, as they are still under development, I was not allowed to photograph any of these new-fangled modes of ascent and descent.

In fact, prior to rounding one corner, we were all required to put on blindfolds so we couldn’t see a particularly advanced prototype we needed to use to get to the JPL Museum.

But if the smooth, effortless nature of my traversal of those particular steps is any indication, in the future people will take the stairs in lieu of seeing a therapist, and ski lifts everywhere will be replaced with these springy, refreshing wonders.

I look forward to the day I can tell my grandchildren (assuming I have any and the inevitable restraining orders are lifted) that I was there, at JPL, at the beginning of the Staircase Renaissance.

I wish I could say more, but the NDA I signed is quite explicit about the painful consequences if I let slip any more information.

The Mars Yard was a lot less Mars-like than I expected. For one thing, there was air there. Breathable air. Now I may have had my scientist card pulled out of my hands and cut up right in front of me, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t much air on Mars.

And there was way more gravity in the Mars Yard than you’d find on Mars.

In fact, it was pretty close to Earth gravity.

The weather on Mars on this particular morning was a partly cloudy 18 degress Celsius. Or Centigrade, if you're measuring it old school.

Apparently there are a lot of sheds on the surface of Mars too. Who knew? They’re a total mystery to NASA.

Now you can’t try a new maneuver on a Mars rover without testing it first. What if something goes wrong? You can hardly call roadside assistance and ask for a tow truck to come over and right an overturned Mars rover.

I asked. You can’t.

You want to test it on a sibling rover that you aren’t worried about wrecking.

So clearly the only way to truly test how well a new maneuver will work is to send a duplicate rover to Mars and try your routines out on that one first.

When I asked for confirmation on this, the guide sighed and then explained that while NASA had considered this option, in the end it was deemed too expensive and they decided to make do with the less-than-ideal mock-up here on Earth.

This, of course, was little consolation to the poor test rover who had her heart set on going to Mars. I did my best not to bring up the subject in her presence.

The only reason I survived the rover onslaught? Maggie's engine didn't turn over the first couple of times so I was able to hide behind a simulated Marian escarpment.

Jamie Catchen attempts to explain why she chose to aid and abet the robot armies just before flipping on the killbot pictured here, affectionately known as Maggie. The Mars Yard was never so red as it became in the next few moments.

Our JPL hosts, under the command of the robot rover sentries suddenly popping up all over the campus, next took us to the SAF.

No, not a safe place to hide from the malevolent rovers. The Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Basically, a giant cleanroom where they make new spacecraft and robots to crush the human uprising.

You can just make out the giant robot arm in the bottom left of this picture. Be glad it isn't clear enough to see its uncompromising, vicous strength, no doubt to be employed crushing hapless humans

In the SAF is where they build spaceships and rovers that will boldly go where no robotic overlord has gone before

Sadly, the latest satellite being built, called SMAP and supposedly intended to do climate study work, had been whisked behind the walls of a electromagnetically sealed inner chamber in the SAF as part of testing or some such.

I’m no fool. The roving rovers didn’t want us to see the latest killbot, no doubt. So it goes.

During a lull in the rover patrols, we furtively made our way to the last stop on our tour: the JPL Museum (and on the way used those magical, mystery stairs that I will dream about for the rest of my life).

There I was treated to an amazing interactive exhibit the JPL employees affectionately call Randii Wessen.

This life-like automaton engaged the audience, taking questions and keeping our egos in check by informing us that, kilogram for kilogram (damn JPL and their insistence on metric!), there is more life in the form of microbes in the rocks under the surface than all the life above ground combined.

This was my first moment of feeling puny and insignificant. The second moment came the next day, at Goldstone.

I haven't seen figure eights like this since the last winter Olympics!

Randii is either describing the sun’s path as viewed from the surface of Uranus with its 90 degree tilted axis, or dancing the Hokey Pokey. Or maybe both.

In all seriousness, it was an awesome day spent surrounded by smart, amazing, and really cool people, both my fellow guests and the JPL staff. Truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget.

Unless I hit my head and get amnesia.

That would really suck.

Up next in Part 2: The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex or What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

 
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Posted by on 5 April 2014 in Astronomy!, Science!, Technopocalypse

 

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Legacy computing: Is FreeDOS truly free? I think not (Trigger warning: nerd, geek, MS-DOS)

Apologies to the non-geeks. This week’s post will strike you as rambling, jargony, and probably more than a little boring.

So last week’s post about uncovering ancient (but deadly) treasure on old computer disks got me to thinking:

What if I hadn’t been able to find that old Zip drive in the surplus store?

What if I had waited another twenty years to find and dig through those CDs and DVDs?

How long does any storage standard / medium have before it fades into obscurity, leaving you with lumps of useless plastic that contain priceless historical artifacts that you will never be able to access?

Will I ever be able to read these again?

They say you can judge a man's penis size by the diameter of the magnetic media he uses to store information
Sadly, I missed out on the truly golden days of floppy media – 12″ disks. But my father told more than a few ripping yarns about those!

So I decided to build a legacy computer.

Little known fact - before the mouse pointing device, computers used a cat pointing device.
Truly the king of legacy computers, AND the father of the LOL catz craze. (Picture is from the cover of my PC-Write manual, circa 1986.)

In fact, for the last few nights, I’ve gone to bed with images of my childhood DOS computing experiences replaying themselves in my head.

I’ve never claimed to have exciting dreams or aspirations, just to have them.

Sadly, finding a monochrome CRT monitor, a desktop case with dual 5.25″ floppies, and RAM you plug into the motherboard one chip at a time is not something one can do easily or cheaply these days.

Well, maybe cheaply, but the guys at the surplus store give you such withering stares, like building old computers is some sort of extreme porn fetish.

I ended up settling for an early 2000s-vintage AMD Athlon tower case system I had collecting dust in my garage.

It came with a 3.5″ floppy drive, but no hard disk or CD-ROM drive.

Those I ripped out of a donor Dell desktop.

I also found a 5.25″ floppy disk drive, but no cables and no way of knowing for sure it worked.

I didn’t let this stop me.

I’ve been an adult for a long time now, so I don’t often go poking around inside computers. I’m at a point in my life where I just want the things to work out of the box.

But in grade school, high school, and college, I was quite the hobbyist. I remember reading the Computing section of the newspaper every Sunday, scrutinizing the computer store ads, building lists of the components I needed and figuring out the cheapest combination.

They were mostly mom-and-pop stores, which don’t exist anymore.

My first computer, which I really would have loved to rebuild for this project, was a 12MHz Turbo 286 with monochrome monitor, two 5.25″ floppy drives, a 40MB hard drive, and no operating system. Total cost: ~$1100 ($400 of which was the hard drive).

I think I initially ran it on DOS 2.something.

I loved that thing, even though I couldn’t afford EGA color graphics at the time.

Yes, EGA. I am old.

I would spend hours poking around inside my computer case, moving cards, installing memory, cutting notches in my disks to double their capacity, and setting jumpers.

Yes, you young whippersnappers – tiny, easily dropped into the bowels of the machine physical jumpers on cards and disk drives to get them to work with each other – it’s the public library equivalent of the card catalog, another throwback to the past I truly miss.

And hours more prodding the outside, installing programs, dialing up BBSes, parking the hard disk drive head with a program before shutting down, to prevent damage.

In the early days of computer, everything was still done manually.

For this project, I ended up spending a great deal of time putting things into that case, pulling them out, connecting and disconnecting cables, and gouging my knuckles on the pins extruding from the backs of some of the cards.

It brought back such happy memories.

Only after I was mostly done did I discover the fat-bodied black spider that had been hanging out in the case.

Some things never change.

Now in order to justify the amount of time and (moderate) expense spent on this, I had to cook up some practical application for the Missus. I settled on saying it was for the kiddos. I’d build them a computer that they could use to watch They Might Be Giants YouTube videos without bumping mom off her machine.

She bought it.

This also explains the keyboard, which I had to buy as ‘proof’ of my kiddo-entertaining intentions.

At first, I though this was some sort of physical-world Tetris game.
Turns out my kiddos have abnormally large hands. And, thankfully, they are color-blind.

But in addition to installing Win XP, I also put Linux and FreeDOS on it.

Ah, FreeDOS. I only recently discovered you, and yet you are a marvel. Now I can install PC-Write and Telix and Qmodem on you, not feel like I’ve stolen software from Microsoft, AND pretend it’s still 1986.

Awesome.

I won’t go into the pain of trying to update a Win XP install without any service pack and only IE 6, and Firefox refusing to install without SP2. It took hours and involved incompletely rendered Microsoft.com web pages.

WTF, Microsoft? You design web pages that only work with your latest software? It’s almost as if you want us to upgrade.

The Linux install went OK too, once I figured out that I had to tell the BIOS to detect the USB keyboard rather than leaving it to the OSes I was trying to install.

The FreeDOS install took longer, but only because my kiddos, seeing I was up to something, got very excited and decided to help.

Usually by hitting the power button on the front of the computer.

While standing directly in front of the monitor, their noses touching the screen.

Asking me why I keep using those naughty, naughty words mommy gets mad about when they use them.

I lead a charmed life.

Now while I have a working computer, I’m not completely done with this project yet.

I still need to find a cable for the 5.25″ floppy drive.

And the 3.5″ drive made a great rending noise when I tried to read a disk in it.

But substance aside, the outward appearance, while a trifle too modern for me, is not half bad.

While they wait for stuff to load, the kiddos can pretend to drive along the roads on the coffee table cover
In every way, shape, and form, this computer corner is the antithesis of feng shui.

Plus the kiddos love the games on the Linux partition. They are scary good at using the computer, considering they can’t read or write yet.

And I think I already know what my next project will be.

Now we just need a tape player and audio cables so we can load games onto this thing. Or crap, cassette tapes as data storage media! How will we ever manage that???
True fact: In one draft of my will, I left my Timex Sinclair 1000 computer to Hell.
 
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Posted by on 9 February 2013 in Technopocalypse

 

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Color Design: It Could Save Lives Or Be Horribly, Horribly Misused

The horror! The horror!What the hell is wrong with people?

And by people, I mean everyone else but me.

So, you guys.

You know who you are.

People who don’t look over their shoulders before changing lanes.

Thieves who break into my car, the one I can’t lock up because of Idiot A above.

Clerks at Lucky who ignore the “Three’s a crowd” rule, thus keeping me in the store long enough for Idiot B above to break into my car and steal all the expensive electronics I left on the dash.

You’re on my list now, Idiots A, B, and C. And you too, dashboard. Being inanimate will save no one! Take it from me, as someone who’s on my list, you don’t want to be there.

But mostly it’s the people at Kensington.

Why them?

Because they made a power strip.

A power strip that has friendly, Otter Pops-colored outlets on it.

As everyone knows, nothing says, “Come here and lick me” to a toddler quite like an Otter Pop-colored object.

Oh sure, they're all smiles and clever mustaches, but little do you know how quickly they'll turn on you!

Would you look at this and expect to get zapped with 1.21 gigawatts of electricity if you licked it?

Usually, these objects turn out to be mostly harmless Otter Pops, and not fully energized electrical outlets.

But not when the fine designers bent on infanticide at Kensington are on the job.

How do I know this is a sinister plot rather than some misguided belief by the folks at Kensington that people using this power strip won’t have children?

Because the packaging is totally opaque. No clear plastic window to show you the festively colored power strip that will tempt your inquisitive toddlers to their doom, to warn you off to some all-beige knock-off that’s also a third the price (and ‘VL-Listed’ instead of ‘UL-Listed’, whatever that means).

“But Ian,” you’re tempted to point out, “the box does say, right on the front, ‘Color Coded Rings.’”

Shut up. Also, I refute your feeble argument thusly:

It does not say ‘Otter Pop-colored Color Coded Rings That Will Draw Young Children To Them Like Ants To Store Clerks Staked Into the Ground With Honey Poured All Over Them.’

For all I can tell looking at the plain white box with its unassuming blue print, the colors are white, off-white, eggshell, alabaster, gray, and black! Nothing on the box says to me, “WARNING: Deep, vivid colors that will scream out to your children to stick forks into the candy-coated delicious sockets!”

Why do we even need colors on a power strip anyway? Is the electricity that much better when it flows through bright colors?

What the heck, people? Am I supposed to bear the heavy responsibility of keeping my kids safe? In addition to the Herculean effort I spend in the much more important task of keeping myself out of harm’s way?

Hell, it’s all I can do to keep myself from tripping and falling onto one of my kids. Ever since they learned to walk, they’re underfoot, grabbing onto my leg and burbling something about loving me.

And since I’m often juggling knives or flaming torches, it’s really important I don’t fall on anyone, let alone my kids.

Goes down like kerosene, comes back up like gasoline

Nowhere does it warn about making my breath flammable.

Now that I think about it, I should probably stop drinking so heavily. At least when I juggle. One of these days a torch is going to set off my breath and I’ll inadvertently flambé the family dog or one of the kiddos.

Do those torches or bottles of Jack have warning labels about this possibility? No. Of course not. Lazy torch-makers and distillers. They have no shred of human decency.

Or is it laziness? I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a conspiracy afoot to prevent my genes from propagating. That would be very short-sighted of Humanity.

But on the slim chance that this inane failure to protect my kids is inadvertent, that everyone out there thinks I’ve got my kids’ safety in hand, I have just one thing to say:

That’s the most irresponsible presumption I’ve ever heard.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me!
 
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Marlowe and the Spacewoman:

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So bad it won a Voidy for the next THREE consecutive years (would have been FOUR, but 2012 was a leap year)

 

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