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Feb. 6th, 2015

Walk Like an Egyptian, Become an Australian

19 Crimes Red Blend.pngI've been trying red blends lately, and stumbled upon a very good one last week: 19 Crimes Red, 2013. Smooth, extremely dark, and highly drinkable, with enough residual sugar to banish the bitter pox of oak without making the wine taste perceptibly sweet. Falls somewhere between Middle Sister Rebel Red and Menage a Trois Red on my Chart of Wine Esteem. 19 Crimes is Australian, and a mix of shiraz, pinot noir, grenache, and cabernet sauvignon.

Somebody put a fair bit of money into their marketing campaign, which focuses on a peculiarity of late 18th Century British law: the list of 19 crimes that made you eligible for a one-way trip to Australia. They all seem like pretty minor matters and were mostly petty larceny: stealing cash or goods with a value of less than a shilling; stealing shrouds from graves; clandestine marriage; bigamy, and so on. Keep in mind that crimes like murder or treason were not on the list because those (and a great many other things) were hanging offenses, and as Colin Wilson vividly described in The Criminal History of Mankind, the British were not squeamish about executions circa 1800.

Then there's Crime #5: Impersonating an Egyptian.

Tut, tut. Can't have that. My WTF meter was pegged, and it took a little online research to figure this one out. First of all, it isn't on all online copies of the list of 19 Crimes, and several lists give #5 as Stealing Ore from Black Lead Mines. But there it is, right on the 19 Crimes wine site itself, and a number of other places. The gist of Crime #5 is actually this: Don't be a gypsy. The Romany in that period were thought to be wandering Egyptians (though they are in fact of East Indian stock) and were accused of all sorts of things, from idolatry to thievery to fortune telling. Like the Jews, they were convenient scapegoats, and subject to many of the same persecutions that Jews suffered down through history. Genetic testing didn't exist back then, so if you looked more or less like a Gypsy, wham! Off you went to Oz.

It's unclear from my reading how many of the Romany actually ended up in Australia, so maybe Crime #5 wasn't enforced as ruthlessly as the other 18. (If any of my Australian readers know more about this, please share in the comments.) In fact, the greatest Romany population of any country is right here in the US, at about a million.

The wine itself is excellent. About $10. Highly recommended.

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Jan. 29th, 2015

Odd Lots

Dec. 18th, 2014

Daywander

yoga 2-500 wide.jpg

"Hey, Contra Boy! Are you dead or something?"

Me? No. C'mon, if I were dead I would have mentioned it. So I'm not dead, though I am something, and while I can tell you it isn't ill-health (for either of us) I can't say much more about the something beyond that.

It's certainly gotten in the way of other pursuits.

Anyway. For the first time I am hands-up-to-the-elbows in Windows 8. Carol wanted a new ultrabook-class laptop for Christmas, and we shopped together. She chose the 11.5" version of the Lenovo Yoga 2, which (like my Transformer Prime) attempts to be both a loptop and a tablet. Unlike my Transformer Prime, I think it actually succeeds. The pivoting display (see above) lets it work as a tablet, and while I'm still not used to grabbing keys on its virtual backside while gripping the little slab in tablet mode, the machine ignores the keypresses. If the keys themselves are robust, no harm will come of it. The 1366 X 768 display isn't retina-class, but it's gorgeous and good enough. It's got a 1.5 GHz Core i3 and 500 GB hard drive, which is more than sufficient for how we intend to use it.

Like all retail machines, the Yoga 2 is loaded with crapware, some of which I've never heard of and haven't looked up yet, like the Maxthon Cloud Browser. Some of the crapware is crapware by virtue of being preinstalled; Evernote is a worthy item but I do not want it on the machines I buy. Ditto Zinio. Doubtless a lot of the other dozens of thingies cluttering up the display are there for Lenovo's benefit and not ours; remember that crapware slots on consumer machines generate lots of money for their vendors through sales conversions, and Lenovo gets a cut.

My biggest problem is that I will eventually have to replace the MacAfee crapware with something that works. We standardize on Avast at our house, but getting rid of security suite crapware is notoriously difficult. Most people eventually just give up and pay for it. Not me.

I'm spending considerable time on the project not only because Carol needs a machine that works well, but also because I need a new laptop myself. A 13" Yoga might do the job, assuming I can learn to love Windows 8, or at least hold hands with it. A big tablet would be useful for reading PDF-format technical ebooks. Now, having been set up the way Carol likes, it goes back in its box, the box gets wrapped, and it joins the pile under the Christmas tree. Much better that way than trying to figure out what's crapware and what isn't on Christmas morning.

Quick summary of what I've been reading:

  • The Call of Distant Mammoths, by Peter T Ward (Copernicus Books, 1997.) Why did the ice age mammals vanish? It wasn't simply human predation or climate change. It was a combination of things, especially human predation and climate change. (Wow! The brilliance!) Cost me a buck plus shipping, and the gruel was thick enough so that I won't claim the time spent on it was totally wasted. Still, not recommended.
  • Neanderthal Man, by Svante Paabo (Basic Books, 2014.) It seems like carping, but the book is mis-titled. It's not about the Neanderthals themselves but rather the sequencing of their genome, which the author spearheaded. Paabo's writing style is solid and amiable, and he does a good job explaining how DNA can be found in very old bones (with tremendous difficulty and peculiar luck) and how it was teased out over a period of almost twenty years. I must emphasize that if you have no grounding at all in gene sequencing, it will be a bit of a slog. However, if you pay attention, you will learn a lot. Highly recommended.
  • 1848: The Year of Revolution, by Mike Rapport (Basic Books, 2008.) My Duntemann ancestors arrived in the US in 1849 or 1850. We haven't found the crossing records yet, but we have a strong hunch why they left: the European upheavals of 1848. Like WWI, 1848 doesn't summarize well. The people rose up against their elites, who were in many cases so afraid they were facing Jacobin 2.0 that kings resigned, constitutions were given, and (alas) the roots of commoner suffering remained misunderstood and mostly uncorrected. Again, this may be a slog even if you have some grounding in European history. History doesn't always make sense. Sometimes you just have to describe the squirming details of what will always remain chaos. Cautiously recommended.

The odd lots are piling up too. Will try to get some posted tomorrow.

Oct. 4th, 2014

Odd Lots

Mar. 30th, 2014

Daywander

This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a "hotch potch." (I think it's a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I've ever written. We've been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I'm not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It's a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I've been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I've been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren't obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it's not. That doesn't mean it's not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I've developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we're going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book's been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn't pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you're willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren't easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it's an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn't.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I've never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I'm not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it's given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn't seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I've read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I've made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I've been dipping into Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson's A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I've been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people's book's ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I've gone back to calling it "global warming." Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong--and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That's it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it's about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart's CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It's basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that's all there was in 1976. And y'know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5...

Some things really are eternal.

Nov. 5th, 2013

Odd Lots

Sep. 2nd, 2013

Daywander

Feeling better. Some. Not lots.

Of course, "better" (as with other words like "warmer") are inherently comparative and need reference points, or they're meaningless. Better/warmer since when? Better since last week? Hell yes. Better since two weeks ago? Maybe a little. (It's hazy; like the Ball says, "Ask again later.") Better since three weeks ago? No way. I'll be back with the docs again tomorrow. We'll see what they say.

This is the first time I've done bedrest with a tablet. Read stuff, played Random Factor Mah Jong, checked in on email and Facebook. I have the Transformer Prime's matching keyboard dock, which made many things easier. That said, most of Facebook, being as it is a mighty global confluence of Loud And Aggressive Persons, is a vexation to the spirit. By a week or so ago my body had had all the vexation it was willing to put up with, so to avoid its actually becoming a spirit, I pondered pleasanter things, like tweezing my armpits.

I did read one reasonably good book: Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin. Great light reading, and full of interesting things. We've been a little too thoroughly romanced by Mark Twain and others: The Mississippi in the 1850s was just freaking nuts. The book is not a systematic history but a collection of vivid vignettes. A lot of it is well-covered elsewhere, like the siege of Vicksburg. Some of it was described with a hair too much vividness, especially the explosion of the Sultana. Much of it was new to me, like the phenomenon of Mississippi River moving panoramas. John Banvard's signature product was a painted scene twelve feet high and literally half a mile long. (It was by no means the longest moving panorama ever done. It wasn't even close.) It was displayed to an audience by slowly spooling it between one large roller and another. Banvard toured the country with his and made a great deal of money from an entertainment-starved populace, who had neither TV nor Facebook to kill time on. Sandlin's description of the pandemonium at riverside camp meetings is wonderful, and aligns with other descriptions I've seen of revivals in that era. The revival phenomenon is a scary thing, far scarier than anything you'll ever see on Facebook, or even TV. (It is also not exclusively religious in nature.) I was at a small one once. It was the best evidence of mental power at a distance I've ever experienced. It went well beyond hysteria or even mass hypnosis. It almost completely defies my ability to describe, which is why I probably won't, at least here. I'll write it up for my memoirs.

I did watch some TV. In doing so, I learned that "Mermaids" is the most-watched series that Animal Planet has ever run, egad. We were actually watching the "Too Cute" episode that included Bichon Frise puppies, but the channel was pushing its signature achievement with everything it had. Uggh. Can we please go back to Chariots of the Gods now?

Mostly, Carol and I watched episodes from the DVD gatherum of "Anything But Love." It was a half-hour TV sitcom that ran from 1989-1992. We would watch it now and then while Carol brushed dogs, and it featured a brand of gentle humor that TV simply doesn't understand anymore. 25 years is a long time, and I had completely forgotten Joseph Maher, who had a long run with the series. He's one of those guys that you've doubtless seen and heard but probably can't name, and his chemistry with stars Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis was damned near perfect. The series is about a magazine based in Chicago, so I paid attention to the details. Yes, magazine publishing really did sort of work like that back in the 80s, with a lot fewer people, a lot less screwing around, and a whole lot more work.

My most promising entertainment, however, was lying on my back and vividly imagining the Neanderthals who may star in a possible comic novel called The Gathering Ice. They're homely but clever guys who have been hiding in plain sight for 20,000 years by pretending to be ugly humans, telling jokes at our expense and harnessing homo sap's frenetic energy to make their lives easier. They wrote the Voynich Manuscript and gave it to Emperor Rudolf II just to torment him (along with a long line of homo sap cipher hobbyists.) When it looks like a new Ice Age begins setting in during the 2020s, the Plugs (as they call themselves) go looking for long-lost members of their tribe and the occasional throwback. Among other techniques, they break into the TSA's top-secret Cloud database of traveler X-rays and look for conical ribcages and occipital buns. (I have both, but my Neanderthal blood is far from pure.) They have a plan that might in fact reverse the relentless march of the glaciers and short-circuit the end of the Holocene. Should they do it? (Of course they should. And of course they do. Duhhh.) It's a sendup of steampunk, dieselpunk, reality TV, the Holy Roman Empire, global warming, Pythagoras, the Paleo Diet, and a great many other things. No dancing zombies. Cavemen throw good polka parties, though. And all those skinny-dipping ladies in Voynich? Neanderthal babes doing hands-on DNA research.

I will probably be a little quiet for a few more days. I'm still here. If I'm envisioning scenes from a novel, I'm probably going to be all right. Patience!

Aug. 29th, 2013

Odd Lots

Aug. 5th, 2013

Odd Lots

Apr. 24th, 2013

Odd Lots

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