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Nov. 8th, 2019

Flashback: Synchronicity and the Combinatorially Exploding Penny

Heads-up: I've never done a Contra flashback before, but given my post yesterday about pennies, this seemed to be a good time to republish a Contra entry I wrote back in 2005. I could have posted a link, I guess, but I wanted as many people to see it as I could manage, as it is just the...damndest...thing. Fifteen-ish years later, I've not encountered synchronicity anything like this boggling. I may do flashbacks again with older entries that I consider significant, especially if I'm in the middle of a dry period time/energy wise. Oh, to be 50 again...


penny1923.jpgSynchronicity (meaningful coincidences of preposterous unlikelihood) is something that doesn't interest people very much until such a coincidence happens to them. I can point to three instances of synchonicity in my life: One marginal, one peculiar, and one that just floored me. The marginal one was the Exuberant Cross, which is an excellent example of seeing symbolism in the ordinary, though there is some peculiarity in seeing it the first morning I was living in Colorado. The peculiar one we'll leave for another time. But then there's the big one...

Back in 1996 I went down the road aways from the office to get a sandwich. This was unusual to begin with; I usually ate lunch with Carol, but she wasn't at work that day. I was in a bad mood, a little depressed from thinking too much about my father. As I've said too often here, he died young and in a gruesome fashion, and there was unfinished business between us. I was only beginning to work through the issues in the mid-1990s. Now and then I rage at his memory; most of the time I just miss him. I turned on the car radio and the oldies station was playing something obnoxious, so I hit the country button. After the concluding seconds of some cowboy song and a few seconds of DJ chatter, another song started up.

I'd heard it before: It was Colin Raye's "Love, Me", an otherwise unremarkable country tearjerker thing about a boy whose grandma dies. Carol always turned the radio off when it came on. There are times when I can listen and times when I just punch another button. This time I listened, and boy, the song worked as designed. Read the lyrics; they're clever. (Ignore the sappy formatting.) The first line is significant:

"I read a note my grandma wrote, back in 1923..."

I had failed out of engineering school while my father was dying, and I felt for many years like I had let him down, just like I did when I had failed to love baseball as a ten-year-old. He could not imagine how a writer could make a living, and I could not imagine how an engineer could smoke himself to death. As a young man, I often wanted to say, Don't give up on me. And all my life it was a private point of honor for me not to let him down. (I didn't.) So there were some connections there, in that stupid song.

It wasn't that far to the sandwich place. When I parked I mopped my eyes and turned the radio off in exasperation, feeling like it had suckered me in to an unnecessary sentimental tate. Shaking my head, I went into the shop and ordered my usual ham and swiss. The soda-and-sandwich lunch special came out to $4.99. I handed the guy a fiver. He dug in the drawer and pulled out a penny, which he slid across the counter to me. It looked pretty beat up, and when I picked it up I flipped it over and took a closer look.

The date on the penny was 1923.

Hoo-boy.

So. What are the chances? I got one coin in change. I hadn't seen a penny that old in change in probably twenty years. I didn't listen to country music all that often. And it was maybe a five-minute ride to the sandwich place, during which that one song alone had begun and played to completion. How could all those things line up so perfectly, on a day when I was already depressed from ruminating about losing my father? A New Ager would say "It's a Sign. He's there. He knows you didn't let him down."

A part of me wanted to think of it as a Sign. (Another little part still does.) On the other hand, I'm not a New Ager, and the incident forced me to think a little bit about about outrageous coincidences. Here are the major points that come out of the exercise:

  • In 45 years of living, a human being experiences an enormous number of identifiable things, from country songs to birds on the lawn to oddly shaped clouds and everything else that we notice during the 16-odd hours we're awake every day.
  • Human beings are complex things, with a great many thoughts, memories, cravings, articles of faith, and emotional flashpoints.
  • Something in our mental machinery tries very hard to find meaning in everyday life.

In rolling those three points together I come up with an interesting conclusion: It would be remarkable for someone to live 45 years and not run into a coincidence like that at least once. (My other two experiences of synchronicity are pikers by comparison.) In each life there is a combinatorial explosion of possible alignments of thoughts, feelings, and objective experiences so large as to be beyond expressing. Little alignments happen now and then. ("Just as I pulled into the packed parking lot, somebody was pulling out right in front of me!") Every so often, an alignment happens that makes us shake our heads in wonder. (I'll tell you about the "I love you" stone someday.) But sooner or later, everybody is going to run into a whopper.

Keep your eyes open. You wouldn't want to miss it!

Nov. 7th, 2019

Two Penny Mysteries

Two Pennies-500 wide.jpg

I got another one today, just now when I ran up to McDonald's to clear my head and grab a large coffee. With tax that's $1.09. I gave the cashier lady a dollar and a dime. She gave me back a shiny new penny. Except...the penny was not new.

It was 18 years old.

I like pennies. Always have, and I'm not entirely sure why I should like pennies more than I like nickels or dimes. Color is part of it. Every other (common) coin is the same blah bare-metal not-steel, not silver color. A new penny is the color of bare copper wire, and copper wire and I go way back. Besides, I was born and raised in the land of Lincoln, whose face has now been on pennies for 110 years.

I like pennies so much that I still pick them up when I see them on the blacktop in parking lots. This is a habit vanishing into history, judging by the emergence of a phenomenon I've only begun to see in the last few years. I've coined the term "parking-lot penny" for the battered specimen above on the right. I picked it up a month or so ago in the Fry's parking lot. Making a penny look like that takes time and tires. That poor little thing has been ground into the Arizona dust for a long time, what might be years. Once it approached the color of the dusty blacktop it rested on, I doubt many people even noticed it, much less bent down to pick it up. Me, I'll rescue a penny anywhere, in any shape.

1977 penny-350 wide.kpg.jpgPennies don't represent value much anymore. They've become accounting tokens. I think people now consider them a necessary nuisance; hence parking-lot pennies, of which I now have a dozen or so, gathered over the past year and (as it were) change.

Let's go back to the mystery of the shiny 2001 D specimen at the top of this entry. Getting a penny like that now and then is unremarkable. The mystery lies in the fact that I am seeing a great many pennies in change that go back 50 years or more. Some of those oldies still have significant mint luster. A week or so ago I got a 1977 D at Fry's with a lot of mint luster for a penny that's been kicking around for 42 years. See for yourself. A week before that I got a 1969 penny that was in excellent shape, if lacking mint luster. Pennies in the 70s are a lot commoner than they were ten years ago, when the 70s were ten years closer.

I have a theory about this: Those anomalously old and good-looking pennies have not been kicking around. They've been in jars and milk bottles and other containers, some of them for a very long time. Alluva sudden, I'm seeing them several times a week. This takes me back a little to ordinary life in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle-class people often had a jar on the kitchen counter or, more commonly, on the dresser in the bedroom. People (men, mostly; men have pockets) would undress for the night, and if they had coins in their pants pockets, would toss them in a jar so they wouldn't fall out when said pants were hung up in the closet. My parents didn't do that, though I did, at least in high school. I had friends who did, and friends who had parents who did. It was not one of my (numerous) eccentricities. It was mainstream.

The penny-jar thing worked this way: Back when phone calls were a dime and quarters could buy gum or bus fare, people would dig in the jar while getting dressed in the morning and and fish out a few nickels, dimes and quarters for the day's minor expenses. For the most part, the pennies were left behind, and over time what began as a small-change jar became a penny jar, with maybe a few dimes buried in the middle somewhere.

This habit slowly dwindled as coins lost value to inflation, but the penny jars remained somewhere, on the high shelf or in a bedroom dresser drawer. As Greatest Generationals (and now Boomers too) die, their children, while emptying out their parents' houses to sell, lug the penny jar over to the bank or a grocery-store change machine and trade the pennies in for whatever they add up to, in somewhat more manageable form, like ten-dollar bills.

The banks wrap them in rolls and return them to circulation. And as people get change at McDonald's, they get pennies back that look brand-new and yet may be 50 or 60 years old. But who even looks at pennies these days?

I do.

When I got the shiny 2001 penny this morning, I wondered for a moment about whomever had saved it from getting dirty or scraped around by SUVs in a parking lot somewhere. Had they died? Or just decided that ten pounds of pennies was more than enough? Whoever and wherever you are, good luck and...penny for your thoughts?

Oct. 31st, 2019

Jim Kyle K5JKX 1931-2019

An old friend and a great talent has left us: Jim Kyle K5JKX, author of a fair number of books that go back a long way. I'm not certain how I know, but I'm pretty sure that he wrote his first book in 1952--the year I was born, and I'm not a young man. He started in the book trade early and worked it for most of his life. I never met him in the flesh, though we corresponded back into the 80s, if I recall correctly. He wrote books on radio and electronics (lots of them!) until there were personal computers, and then pivoted to personal computers. I have his Transistor Etched Circuit Projects from 1969, and until I had to shrink my library severely when we moved down from Colorado to a smaller house, I had others, including PC Interrupts (with Ralf Brown) which served me very well in the DOS era. I'm absolutely sure I have several more of his electronics and radio titles, though a lot of those are still in a box for lack of shelf space. I'm going to dig them out ASAP and take a good look through them.

His son Tony Kyle is also a good friend, and although I haven't yet met him in the real world either, he isn't far and I intend to do so while we're both still here.

73's Jim. You taught me a lot, long before you ever became my friend. Godspeed you on your journey to Eternal Light. --K7JPD.

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Oct. 29th, 2019

The Not-So-Fondly Farenheit Tuner

AH3 and AH4 tuners - 500 Wide.jpg

I've been slow to come up to speed on the radio front since we've moved here. Until March 2017 we were bouncing back and forth between Phoenix and Colorado Springs, furiously working on both houses, one to sell, and the other to live in. Given that I was trying to write a new novel during that time (and was now in my mid 60s) time was tight and personal energy scarce. But more to the point, I wanted to do it right. Most of the trouble I had with my station when we lived here in the 90s was a lousy ground system. A year or so ago I took the time and built a Bentonite ground with a water pipe down the full depth of the Bentonite to keep it wet, ideally with Epsom salts in solution. The ground rod is right next to the entry box through which all my cables go through the wall of the small garage where my station is.

With the ground in place, I strung 75' of #16 solid copper between one of my two big palm trees and the mast on the roof of the garage, where the TV antenna used to be. On the mast I mounted my venerable Icom AH-3 autotuner. I had to make an extension cable for the control line, which was only 16 feet long, but the cable path was close to 30. The antenna was finished and in place, in fact, a few weeks prior to getting the entry box mounted. Once I got the coax, ground, and control cables into the garage, I took a break (it was a hot job up there on the roof in the actinic Arizona sunlight) and came back after supper. Fired it up and everything worked like a champ. Worked a guy in Colorado, called it victory, read for an hour, and collapsed into bed. Didn't get back to the station until the next day.

So late morning I turned everything on, selected 20 meters, and pressed the Tuner button on the front panel of my IC-736.Tink! The rig's meter needle slammed against the high peg. Whoa. Didn't do that last night. I tightened all the cables, ran up the ladder to look at the mast setup, and tried again. NFG. I checked the cables for shorts, re-checked all the connections to the ground bus inside the garage, but no joy. I let it set and went back to my office to get some words in on Dreamhealer. That night after supper I went back out there and tried the tuner. Shazam! Everything worked! I didn't hear much traffic, sunspots being what they weren't, but the AH-3 tuned my longwire and the IC-736 was happy. I worked a couple of guys and heaved a sigh of relief.

The next day I bopped back into the shack after an hour or two writing, and scanned the bands to see what was live. Heard very little on 20m. Switched to 40. Hit the Tune button. Tink!

I was starting to see a pattern: Works at night. Craps out during the day. Hmm. I opened up the tuner and saw nothing obviously amiss. That said, I had bought the AH-3 in 1992, and it had spent the rest of the 1990s out in the sun, matching my 180' longwire, lousy ground notwithstanding. It got plenty hot during the day, and I worked plenty of stations all day, irrespective of temperature. Alas, electronics don't live forever.

I did try a few things. I modified a cardboard moving box into a sunshield and placed it over the tuner so that the bottom of the box faced south and the flaps taped open. The AH-3 was thus shaded entirely but still open to the air. On a whim I put the sensor unit for our wireless thermometer inside the box with the tuner. With the carboard box in place, it worked for a little while longer--maybe another hour--after full sun hit the box. I did a lot of testing and temp recording over the next day and a half. Results: It worked until the air temp hit ~90F. Then, Tink!

Hell, I've been a ham now for 46 years. I fix things. I used to fix things for a living, in fact. But at some point I realized that troubleshooting an intermittent 28-year-old tuner was becoming a bad use of my time. Icom had released a newer but compatible tuner ten or twelve years ago. I found a place online selling NOS AH-4s at a discount (Gigaparts in Las Vegas, if you're interested) and ordered one.

The AH-4 is a little over half the size of the AH-3. I still had to make a custom control cable, but with that done it works like a champ, even in the noonday sun. Granted, it's not summer here anymore. We'll see how it performs next June. But in the meantime, I have 75 feet of wire working against a good ground. A guy can do a lot with that alone.

I do intend to get a vertical for the higher bands. The longwire will remain for 40, 80, and 160. (The AH-4 tunes the wire easily on 160. The AH-3 had trouble sometimes, even during the night.) My (not yet purchased) vertical will be ground-mounted close to the ground rod. If I need a few radials I'll throw them in. At that point the antenna farm will be mostly complete. I have a VHF discone but I also want a 6-meter vertical somewhere, and there's more thinking to be done about what goes where.

My other ham radio project is still incomplete: An uninterruptible 12V power supply system to run my IC-729 mobile HF rig and shack lighting. With AC power, the panel will draw on a 30A 12V supply I built back in the 1990s. If mains power drops, power will automatically switch to a battery supply of some sort. Near-term, probably gel cells trickle-charged off mains power. Ultimately I want to put a couple of panels up on the roof and buy a husky lithium-ion pack like those sold by Goal Zero. More on that as it happens. It's the first time I've ever used Anderson PowerPole connectors, about which I have mixed feelings. But like everything else in electronics, the journey is the education, and the results are the reward. This time it's been slow coming together, but better slow than never.

More as it happens.

Sep. 25th, 2019

Deja Vu's Quantum Bit 2005-2019

QbitOnCouchCropped-500 Wide.jpg

QBit has left us. I've commented on his long battle with lymphoma here several times. Ever since his diagnosis in June of 2018, he had ups and downs. The vet said we'd have him for two more months. We had him for fifteen. He fought it and saw his fourteenth birthday, but little by little the ups got lower and the lows got lower still. We thought it was all over six weeks ago, but he sprang back for reasons we can't explain, galloping down the hall at dinnertime as though nothing were wrong. The last two weeks were a rollercoaster. He'd stop eating for a day, and then eat like a wolf for a few days, and then stop again. The various meds we gave him (Prednisone especially) gradually stopped working, and the lymph nodes in his neck swelled to the point where he was having trouble bending his head to drink water from the water bowl. Last night he started having a fever and chills, and now and then would stretch out his neck and make small sounds that certainly suggested pain. That's when we decided it was finally over.

Our mobile vet and her assistant came by at 2:30 this afternoon. QBit was curled up in Carol's lap while Dr. Peggy gave him a shot of sedative to relax him. That took maybe 30 seconds. While we waited for the sedative to take effect, I said my Prayer of Returning over him, with my hand atop his head:

From our Creator we took you;
To our Creator we return you;
That your life with us may glorify our Creator,
And in the hope that we may someday meet again.

Go with God, good and faithful companion!

I nodded to Dr. Peggy, and she gave him the final shot. With my hand under his chest, I felt his heartbeat grow fainter and slower, and finally stop. We had a few minutes alone with him, and allowed the rest of the Pack to sniff him. Then Dr. Peggy came back inside, bundled up his body in some towels, and he was gone.

I've written a lot about QBit here on Contra. How he would play catch with a tennis ball on the stairs in Colorado, catching it on the fly, carefully placing it on the edge of the top step, and then pushing it over gently with his nose so it would bounce down a few steps back into my hands. How he would play "dog soccer" with the rest of the Pack, bouncing a beach ball off his nose as many as four times before it hit the ground. (I'm going to try and post a video on Facebook or Twitter showing this happening.) He loved snow as a young dog, and bounded his exuberant way through the drifts as I walked down the block to the mailbox in Colorado.

As our first, he didn't always have a pack, but once he got one he looked after it. QBit was always on patrol, going around the house looking in all the rooms for Carol and me and the rest of the Pack. He accepted a certain amount of horseplay, but he had his limits, as Dash the Great Pretender learned on a number of occasions. Dash has always wanted to be the pack alpha. Now that we've lost our alpha, it'll be interesting to see how the pack order changes.

It will be a quieter, slightly emptier house.

So. Do dogs have an eternal destiny? Catholicism says little or nothing about the issue. The Book of Revelation (whatever else you may think of it) says a lot about God making all things new, a whole new Heaven and a whole new Earth. Does all that newness include dogs? And if it doesn't, how can it be either Earth or Heaven?

My hunch is this, though it gets me in trouble at times: God wastes nothing. Everything He created has a purpose, and everything He created will eventually find its way back to Him. We are all on the road to reunion with God, and (as I like to say) the road is on the road as well. We are making our stumbling way toward the Divine Presence with all creation bringing up the rear. I see no reason that as we walk that great road, dogs will not walk beside us. They are God's creations no less than we are, and humanity would not be what it is, if dogs were not what they are.

Go with God indeed, my good and faithful companion!

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Aug. 20th, 2019

I Wish I Could Pay for Software

Actually, I do pay for software, but not as often as I used to--and the reason is peculiar. This has been especially true since I started using Android on my Samsung Note 4 phone, and more recently, a Galaxy Tab S3.

Now, I still pay for commercial Windows software, like the brand new Affinity Publisher, which might be enough of a competitor to InDesign for me to dump InDesign and be rid of Adobe's regular copy-protection tantrums. Android apps are a whole 'nother universe, and in recent years, many of the apps I've tried are free--with ads. Used to be, you could choose between having ads displayed, or paying for the app. I'm seeing more and more apps that simply display ads, without any option for me paying to remove the ads. I found this puzzling. Why turn down user money?

I'm sure I'm not be the first to suggest this, but I have a theory: There's cash flow in ads. But before I unpack that, some history. Back in the '90s, software was evolving furiously, often to keep pace with Windows. So we eagerly forked over money every couple of years, sometimes considerable money, for new major releases of Office, WordPerfect, Lotus, and the other bit-behemoths of that era. I'm pretty sure upgrades were a huge part of those firms' revenues.

Today, not so much. I used Office 2000 from 1999 until 2012. That's when I bought Office 2007 so I could work on a collaborative book project for which Office 2007 was the minimum requirement. Why did I use Office 2000 for 13 years? It did what I needed it to do, and I was good at it. A friend of mine still uses Office 97, for the same reasons: It does whatever he needs to do (which is nothing exotic) and he knows it inside and out. So Microsoft got his money 22 years ago, and nothing since.

That's not unethical. Carol and I still use things we got as wedding gifts 43 years ago. The Realistic stereo I bought in 1976 is still our main stereo. On the other hand, firms that used to rely on two- or three-year upgrade cycles are finding that people are using software they've had for eight or ten years or more. The big companies' solution was Software as a Service; i.e., the subscription model. You pay for the software every year, and if you stop paying, they disable it the next time the software phones home to check if you're a deadbeat or not.

To be charitable: Screw that. My primary objection to SAAS is that the skills I've developed on Office (or other packages like InDesign) belong to me. Disable the software I've paid for, and you're basically stealing my skillset. So I'll have nothing to do with SAAS, and may well use Office 2007 for the rest of my life.

As I expected, pay-once packages like Affinity Publisher are popping up to compete with SAAS products like InDesign. I already have the Atlantis word processor, which actually has features that Word 2007 does not. If I need a more ramcharged spreadsheet, they're out there. But...why? I like what I have, and currently, what I have is plenty good.

So. Back to Android. Most Android apps are now ad-supported. A few years ago, I bought a few games and some oddments for five-ish bucks each. I'm sure a lot of other Android users did the same thing. But once the vendors get your five bucks, that's all they ever get. I have some sympathy: They provide updates, which are worth something. I've bought InDesign four different times, and Atlantis twice. But even with a user base as large as Android, five bucks doesn't go very far. Worse, it makes for very unreliable cash flow. The ad business model helps here. What happens is that the vendors of ad-supported software get an ongoing dribble of money from advertisers. The dribble from any single instance of a product is small. Put together fifty or a hundred thousand of those dribbles, though, and you're talking real money. Better still, pauses in that multitude of dribbles average out into a reasonably predictable cash flow stream.

I dislike ads, especially animated ads, double-especially force-you-to-watch ads, and triple-especially ads with audio. I've been suspicious of ads ever since Forbes served up malware through ads on its Web site--after demanding that readers disable their ad blockers. This is still a problem on Android to a great extent, though the mechanisms are complex and far from obvious.

There's not much to be done about ads on Android apps. The money from selling ads is too good, compared to getting five bucks once and nothing ever again. I avoid malware primarily by installing all updates to the OS and downloading only well-known brand-name apps, and only through the Play store. That's all anybody can do.

It's an odd thing to think, but I think it often: Sigh. I miss the days when software actually cost money.

Jul. 31st, 2019

Fifty Years of Love and Friendship

HA Cruise March 2018--500 Wide.jpg

What does it take to love a person for fifty years? Now that I've done it, maybe I can provide some insights.

Most of you who've been reading Contra for any length of time know the story: I met Carol at a Teen Club event in our church basement on July 31, 1969. I asked her out to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, but since it wasn't playing anywhere convenient anymore, we settled on Yellow Submarine. No matter. We clicked, and date followed upon date and months became years. I asked her to marry me in July 1975. We married in October 1976. And here we are, fifty years on from that fateful night, having lived in six states, every bit as much in love as ever, and then some. We've learned a few things about relationships along the way. Let me throw out some of the most important ones:

1. It helps to want the same things.

This is part luck and part persistence. I had three (and maybe four, depending on your definitions) failed relationships before I met Carol, and they all failed because the girls involved didn't want the same things I did. Fersure, a good part of that is just being young, and in truth (in my case, at least) dating worked as designed. I wasn't completely sure what I wanted when I was 17. My hunch was that I wanted a friend who would become a girlfriend and then a best friend. My father told me this when I was 15: "If you're lucky and smart, you'll marry your best friend." I wasn't thinking about marriage by any means, but I wanted the same sort of warm friendship my parents had. When I met Carol I hit the jackpot: She wanted a friend who would be good company and good conversation. We were both interested in science, although she leaned toward biology and I leaned toward astronomy and electronics. We had a lot to talk about, and our relationship was founded on fascinating conversation. When I remember our early years, that's what I most clearly recall.

2. Allow yourself to be changed.

This is easier at 17 than at 27 or 37, fersure. Over our early years, Carol gently pulled me away from my borderline manic eccentricity. I helped her get past her shyness. She taught me to dance. (More or less; lacking a strong sence of rhythm, I've never been good at it.) In countless ways we adapted to one another, on the one hand looking past each other's quirks, and on the other minimizing our quirks so that over time there was less to look past.

3. Give each other time and room to grow.

This is the other half of allowing yourself to be changed: giving your loved one time and space to integrate those changes. Not being posessive is part of this. We both dated other people here and there for the first few years we knew one another. We were smart enough to understand that love is not the same as infatuation. We allowed our physical relationship to grow at its own pace. Social relationships with other people illuminated what we already had, and helped us put the forces that bear on a relationship into perspective.

4. Learn apology and forgiveness.

We had arguments here and there, and it's telling that I now barely remember what most of them were about. We learned to ask forgiveness, and we learned to forgive. Our skills in conversation here helped a great deal: Being able to talk from the heart helps to heal hearts that are aching.

5. Want, offer, and appreciate committment.

Finally, commit to one another. Love powers committment; committment shapes love. It took a number of years for us to become absolutely certain that we both wanted a lifetime committment. It should take that long, because infatuation has to burn out, and the relationship has to have time to grow strong enough to last a lifetime. I grant that this is a hard thing to gauge without previous experience. Sometimes relationships fail, and those who value love at all will learn from their failed relationships. Although I know a lot of people in successful second marriages, I know very few in third or fourth marriages. Divorce is a hard lesson.

Ours didn't fail. In fact, it has succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings. We wanted warmth, and found it in one another. When we were old enough to harness the fire that emerges from the primal differences between boy and girl, that fire happened. When we understood what lifetime promises actually meant, we made those promises.

And here we are. Fifty years. Yes, we were lucky, but hard work is the best luck amplifier going. Friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit. We built a lifetime on that cornerstone.

And we are by no means done yet!

The first picture ever taken of Jeff & Carol together: Labor day 1969

Above: The first photo ever taken of us together, Labor Day 1969.

Jul. 24th, 2019

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker's Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then--words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book's Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I'm reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it's still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book's humor is that a lot of the things they're making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I'd wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I'm now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn't live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don't see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there's little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That's funny, though it's not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character's habit almost every time he appeared:

"We cannot stay here," said Arrowroot.

"No," agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader's right hand. "We have a long way to go."

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it's been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online--and if we don't find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I've actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And "sweets baked by elves." I'm sure we all know what that refers to. Don't we? Don't we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won't. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I'm certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

Jun. 22nd, 2019

A Year and Change on APAP

A year ago this past May, one of my doctors suggested that my lack of energy might be due to sleep apnea. Carol verified this; she has heard me stop breathing numerous times while lying beside me in bed. The doc prescribed an at-home "headband" sleep study, which at least verified his suspicion of apnea. The device (which was just that: a headband with electrodes) recorded an AHI of 33. Basically, I would stop breathing 33 times an hour. This seemed excessive and still does, for reasons I'll explain a little later. But the next step was obvious: He handed me a prescription for an APAP machine. "APAP" is an adjustable pressure CPAP. The machine senses your breathing, and sends enough air through the hose to keep you breathing, no more.

I shopped around online, and got an NOS (new, old stock) ResMed S10 Auto. It was half the price of a new machine, even though it was still sealed in its original packaging. I bought a couple of different masks, and gave them all a good shot.

At first it made me nuts. I have never been a strong sleeper, and having this thing strapped to my face all night kept me awake. The full-face mask that most people use was a non-starter. I used a few other types of mask, and finally found that I could actually sleep a little using a "nasal pillows" mask, which has these two little soft silicone pads on a single strap that goes behind your head. The two pads each has a tube protruding from the middle, and those tubes go into your nostrils, while the soft pads keeps a good seal. Ok, a reasonably good seal. I still have problems with leaks around the edges of the pads, but that doesn't negate the machine's effectiveness.

It still kept me awake. So the doc put me on a new sleeping pill called Belsomra (Suvorexant) which, rather than sedating you, helps neutralize stimuli that prevent you from sleeping--like an APAP mask. And damn, it worked! I slept better than I had in a long time, with no interruptions but my two canonical bathroom breaks.

With the machine in operation, I was throwing just a few "events" every night. There are several kinds, and I don't have the space to describe them all here. My personal favorite is hypopnea, which is shallow breathing, not airway obstruction. The doc said it doesn't interrupt sleep. Some of the others I'm still not sure I understand, like Cheyne-Stokes Respiration; but that's ok, as I think I've had it exactly once in thirteen months.

The S10 records everything it senses during the night on an SD card. You can pop the card out and read it any time. My correspondent TRX put me on to a free app called Sleepyhead, which takes the data from the card and throws up all kinds of graphs for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The damned thing literally graphs the shape of every single breath you take. You can see when you stop breathing, along with the following spike in pressure to open your airway again.

Ok. Now it gets a little odd, and a little disappointing. For the first six months I recorded AHIs of .5 to 7, which isn't bad, especially compared to where I was starting from. The problem is, I still felt the profound lack of energy that's been dogging me now for several years. I felt a little better, but I wonder if that was just the sleeping pill keeping me from reacting to dogs yipping in their sleep chasing archons in the akasha, or the drip system cranking up in the middle of the night. I stopped using the machine for a week. I didn't feel any worse, nor better.

I'm still using it. I've worked out the optimal sleeping position through a year of trial-and-error: On my right side, with my head on a firm pillow, leaning back just a little to keep the mask from smooshing off my face due to pressure from the pillow. The data the S10 gives me showed me a few significant things: My AHI goes through the roof when I sleep on my back; something like 7-10. Oddly (and so far inexplicably) my AHI also goes up sharply when I sleep on my left side. Nobody can tell me why. So I sleep on my right side. I have to prop my right knee on a second pillow, but it works.

And now it gets more interesting still: I had been slowly putting on some weight for a year or two. So in February I cut my carb intake to as close to zero as I could manage, without starving myself. (Starving yourself doesn't work. Really. What you might lose, you then gain back after the diet stops, and then some.) My weight went down from 163 to 148-150. It took a couple of months of this for me to notice, but eventually I saw it: As I lost weight, my AHI imploded. At the end of March I had my first perfect night: The S10 recorded no events at all, nothing. As spring continued, I saw my record improve even more: I started having perfect nights regularly, and then two or three (and once, four) in a row.

Carol mentioned something over breakfast one morning: I had lost weight in my face and my neck. I've never been seriously overweight, but I'll be 67 in a week or so, and I'm trying to keep my A1C down to avoid Type 2. I was actually trying to eliminate visceral fat around my waist as much as possible. I didn't even think I had fat in my face to lose.

I still haven't regained my energy (which is one reason you don't see as many Contra entries as you used to; I'm pouring most of what energy I have now into my fiction) and that problem remains unsolved. Maybe I'm just old. I don't know. Coffee helps some. Beyond that, I'm out of things to try.

My only remaining theory is this: That headband sleep study was bogus. I suspect it was interpreting me jerking around in my sleep as apnea events--I'm an "active" sleeper and always have been. So although I did have sleep apnea, it wasn't nearly as bad as the headband claimed. That said, I think the S10 has improved the quality of my sleep, which is beneficial in many ways beyond personal energy. This is why I continue to use it. My point here is that quality of sleep is not behind my energy deficit.

I'm still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you think you have apnea (spousal reports are good, and even a bad sleep study will give you some broad hints) I recommend two things:

1. Get yourself a recording APAP machine like the ResMed S10. Download Sleepyhead and watch your data, daily if possible. Development on the app has stopped, but it's still available and works fine. You will learn a lot about how your sleeping position (and weight) affect your breathing.

2. Lose weight. This is good for lots of reasons (Type 2 being most important) but I'm pretty sure at this point that facial and neck fat are huge amplifiers for a tendency to apnea.

I've gone on long enough here for this busy morning, but if what I've experienced this past year will help my readers, it's well worth it. Good luck. Cut carbs. Animal fat will not hurt you. (Certain vegetable oils will.) Sleep as much and as well as you can, even if it takes a machine to help you get there. Even (Gasp! The horror!) go to bed at 9 PM if that's what it takes to get eight hours in before you have to go back to work or school. And pills; Belsomra is something entirely new in the human pharma cabinet. It is utterly unlike the nenzos or Z-drugs. Look into it if you have trouble sleeping.

More as I learn it. Let me know how you do, if you happen to be on this path as well.

Jun. 16th, 2019

The Man (Always) Behind the Camera

Orchard Place Group Circa 1933-500 Wide.jpg

Father's Day. I find it a little startling, riffling through my photobase of scanned images going back to the 1880s, how few photos I have of my father. The reason is no mystery: Photography was one of his hobbies, so when family photos were taken, he was invariably the man behind the camera. My mother wouldn't touch that camera, as it was fancy and (for its era) expensive. (It was a Graflex medium-format twin-lens reflex.) So there are plenty of excellent pictures of my mother, my sister, and me. What we don't have are many photos of Frank W. Duntemann II. (II? Not Jr.? No. Stay tuned.)

The ones we have, alas, are so-so. The photo above is a good example. My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann (1892-1956) took it. I don't know what sort of camera he had. A lot of the photos are ever so slightly out of focus. Age has faded most of them. (I touched up the one shown above.) I'm guessing it was a Brownie or something similar. Harry golfed, and fished. Photography was not any passion of his.

As best I can tell, the undated photo was taken in 1931 or 1932, at Orchard Place, Illinois. From left to right: Kathleen Duntemann (1920-1999), my aunt and godmother. She's holding up the family dog, Sugar Boy. Sade G. Duntemann (1892-1965), my grandmother. My father, Frank W. Duntemann II (1922-1978), Martha Winkelmann Duntemann (1871-1967), my great-grandmother, and Frank W. Duntemann I (1867-1936) my great-grandfather. I use "I" and "II" in my genealogy research to differentiate between my father and his grandfather, after whom he had been named.

I've said this before and will say it again: If you have a stash of old photos, identify their subjects and write them on the back, or in some kind of database. Do it while those who know the people, places, and things in the photos are still alive. There is a photo of my father as a buck private about to go off to war in 1942, with his arm around a girl. By the time I found the photo in 2000, no one who knew the girl's name was still alive. There were many more photos of people in the same box, most of whom I cannot identify. Every picture of a locomotive or an aircraft, however, was minutely described on the back.

Evidently girls were not my father's passion in his youth. This changed in 1946, when one of his childhood friends introduced him to my mother, who was a friend of his girlfriend. I honor my father on this day, and on most days, when some of his mannerisms and turns of phrase cross my mind. His expression "Kick ass; just don't miss" is the working title of my memoirs. He died young, but he lived long enough to see me grow up. I have lots of excellent pictures of me growing up. Alas, I have more of his excellent photos of steam locomotives than I have of him.

Sheesh.

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