over xmas

I’ve been spending most of the xmas vacation season reading and hanging out with family.

A couple of anecdotes:

We bought my parents a copy of Microsoft Word for their new iMac, but when they got around to installing it, they couldn’t.  They called a couple of times about it.  I told them about the all-important product key on the packaging (which they fortunately hadn’t thrown away), and was puzzled and a little worried by their claim that the key didn’t work.

Turns out that the installation procedure on the Mac asks for your administration password, and they had no clue about what that meant (entering the right password there gets you to the real installer, which has crystal clear instructions on what to enter).  Yet another case of end-users not understanding something that a computer-savvy person wouldn’t even think about.

[I am reminding of products which required many different keys: one of them needed a download code, an installation key, and an activation something-or-other, all of the keys time-locked in such a way that a reinstallation was impossible.  Needless to say, I don’t use that company’s products any more.]


We recently had our back yard landscaped; it looks really nice (where before, it was practically inaccessible).  Part of the final bit of the project was putting in smallish plants.

The other morning, a small conclave of the neighborhood’s crows was gathered.  They moved from plant to plant criticizing what we’d put in, extracting what they didn’t like.  Caw!  Pick, toss.  We had to reseat maybe a dozen of the plants that the crows objected to.  Tough crowd, though you could argue that it’s more their home than ours, since we’re gone to work half the day.


I got an OLPC just after xmas.  It’s nifty (though tough to type on).  One thing I found interesting from a project standpoint is that the software they shipped was not fully functional (for instance, the laptop doesn’t support a sleep mode yet, and there are buttons on the keyboard that are not currently implemented).

Christmas story (part 1)

Santa’s missile launchers made hash of the black helicoptors. The copters were perfect targets against the snow, wallowing into range over the flat ice pack; they lit up up like flares on the elves’ radar as they lumbered over the last pressure ridge and into view. The missiles slammed into them and fiery confettii fell hissing onto the ordered ranks of the snowman army below.

It was all according to plan. Marty Wheeler chuckled as the settlement’s perimeter defenses launched fifty thousand dollar missiles at what were little more than spray-painted styrofoam mock-ups of helicoptor gunships, powered by snowmobile engines and loaded with cans of napalm. The orbiting RPV transmitted the screams of the melting snowmen. It was all a diversion, but Marty loved every second of it.

And so, while the villagers were happily lining-up crosshairs and slapping buttons in their Nintendo-brand control rooms, the attack subs rammed their sails up through the ice and disgorged troops in the middle of the town square. Marines boiled out of the subs and into the candy-cane lined streets of Santa’s Village.

* * *

Wheeler had suggested simply planting bombs under the ice and blowing the elves into the stratosphere from below, but the hostages had made that tactic a hard sell.

The memos handed down from Staff fueled Wheeler’s disgust for the lengthy, CNN kind of action that the generals apparently wanted. The thought of catering to the same reporters who had savaged him personally for years in press briefings repelled him. Wheeler wanted revenge, but he wasn’t particular about whom.

He thought about the subs, there were possibilities there. “We’re using Old Fartface, right?” The ancient USSN Senator Charles Facer was famous for its leaky reactor plumbing and bogus safety records. “Say, some kind of accident thing right as it surfaces? I mean, how many times has that piece of shit nearly ka-fwoomed already?” Wheeler had in mind an “accident thing” that would light up half the horizon from twenty klicks away.

Staff objected. We don’t want hostages back if they glow in the dark, said one pointed memo. More memos went back and forth; they had agreed that there would be carnage, just not how much, or whom, and yes, CNN reporters were still off limits.

“How about some kind of computer virus? Get one of those Microsoft guys to whip something on the goddamned snowman servers. I mean, Christ, who knows what they’re doing to those hostages. Maybe scooping out their brains and replacing them with Sony controls hooked into Vista command lines or something that will make them –”

Just get the parents and kids back, alive and all smiles for the camera crews, thank you.

“– vote democrat or something.”

But, by all means, toast the elves if you want to, and any snowmen who get in the way.

Something inside Wheeler snapped. He liked the tiny sound it made.

* * *

“Okay, the Chunk pops up here, right next to, what’s that, the power station?”

“They make myrrh balls there, we think. Or maybe cluster bombs.”

“Whatever. It blocks their retreat. So, ah, put the King Tut *here* where it takes out the mess and gets a bunch of troops right into the barracks. Leaving the Putz. Where?”

“Not the main house?”

“If I order the USSN Pointsetta to come up from under and destroy the quote prime objective unquote of this mission, both you and I will be shot on national teevee, with Cathy Lee Gizzard asking us ”How do you *really* feel about color coordinated firing squad uniforms?””

“Not even a *little* too close?”

“Okay. This, then. What rooms are the hostages kept in? I want you to beat it out of that commie traitor reindeer with a cattle prod if you have to, but having half of that house gone from the get-go is going to save us buckets of trouble.”

* * *

“This is Delta One Nine Actual. Drop us three H-E about ten meters north of our GPS squawk.”

“Roger that, one-niner. Three packages on their way.”

From five miles up in the orbiting AWACS, the village looked like an anthill that was having the shit kicked out of it by invisible boots. Wheeler watched through a ground scope as three closely spaced explosions marked the mortal exit of another troup of over-confident elves.

On the ground, the barber-pole-striped pillbox that had been platoon leader Erickson’s most recent worry was replaced by a momentary geyser of ice chips and salt water. Now he had a clear way to advance into the compound, assuming he didn’t encounter any more of those goddamn candy-cane gattling guns, or run out of stuff to walk on.

He looked at the spreading water around the hole in the ice where the pillbox had been and got on the horn again.

“Tell Willy not to use too many more mortars, it’s getting pretty iffy down here.” There was a fine line between taking the enemy out with explosives and chewing up the ice so badly that they’d need kayaks.

Pretty soon, he was sure, they would be fixing bayonettes.

to be continued…

Editor papers

A nice collection of papers on editor implementation.  Link

(I’ve been using Emacs since 1979, and Epsilon, my favorite Emacs-like editor, since 1991.  It’s amusing to do something in a few seconds in Epsilon that makes a Visual Studio or vi user’s jaw drop . . . though I really, really like Intellisense…).


Books for tots

Books I would like to see written:

A Children’s Treasure of Treason

Terrorism for Toddlers (When Trantrums Aren’t Enough)

The Littlest Stormtrooper

Goodnight Moon – The True Story of the NASA Moon Landing Cover-Up

It’s Pat the Bunny

The Gas We Pass – The Story of Farts (link)

After that last one . . . well, I have to stop when an actual fact creeps into this blog…

Countdown to EoE

The clock here at the US government’s Digital Television conversion site . . . that clock, at 433 days plus some hours as of this writing, is the countdown to revolution.  Because when the daytime soaps go dark in households across the nation and when American Idol and Who Wants to Be a Moron are replaced with static, there will be marches and burnings.  I’d want the tar-and-feather concession stand on the Mall in DC. I’d hate to be living in Hollywood.  If I worked for Comcast, I’d not drive the company van home for a while.

Feb 17, 2009 is conveniently after the current administration has formatted all their hard drives, shredded all the papers and painted-over the crayon drawings on the walls of the White House.  I’m just sayin’.


Doc’s fault

Some history of Spacewar! (And some wistful stuff about E. E. “Doc” Smith). Link

Hey, a bunch of Doc’s books are on Gutenberg! Here’s the one that got me hooked, when I was about 10. (My dad’s comment when he pulled it off my bookshelf years later and read it: “Hey, I grew up in Idaho on a farm, and got a PhD too!”)

Turns out that some of John W Campbell’s books are on Gutenberg, too (link), though the most readable of his works (The Mightiest Machine) are not.  (I just found out that there’s a sequel to TMM, but it’s long out of print, very expensive, and reportedly nowhere near as good).


One of my recent finds in “low” (historical-like, zero-magic) fantasy is “The Engineer Trilogy” by K. J. Parker.  Set in a steel-and-arrows technological era, the first book, Devices and Desires, starts with the conviction of an engineer for a peculiar kind of blasphemy, his escape, and the start of his subsequent plans for a “device” to reunite him with his family.  The writing is fresh, often funny and light-hearted, and dead serious when it has to be.  It’s had me alternately chuckling, frightened, and (damn) it was hard to put down.  The second book is out already, and the third should be published later on this month, and thus the trilogy deserves an exemption to Farmer’s Lesson.

The author has two other trilogies already published in the UK.  These are slowly making their way across the sea.

“K. J. Parker” is a pseudonym, and my brief research hasn’t shown up anything other than other people also wondering who the heck she or he is (speculation: it’s Tom Holt, or his wife).

My guess is, since there is ample evidence that the author sticks to three and only three books, that it is NOT Piers Anthony, Philip Jose Farmer, the late Robert Jordon, or (and the presence of humor alone would clue us in here) Elron scribbling from the grave via phased plasmoidial astral projection.

Anyway, I recommend the author, and The Engineer in particular.