Friday, March 31, 2017


     Friday!  I'm looking forward to it.  Major SNAFUs at work yesterday but my involvement was tangential at most, so if I can manage to avoid the fray, I should be able to accomplish some actual geekery of a useful sort. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pein, Peen, Pane, Pain

     There's no sorting it out.  I referred to a ball-pein hammer the other day, a tool sometimes used to peen over the end of a rivet, and got corrected to the latter spelling.  As it happens, both are acceptable and I learned the "ei" spelling as a child.

     Cross-pein hammers are seen in metalwork -- a blacksmith might use cross-pein, straight-pein and diagonal-pein hammers -- and "pinhead" hammers are not unknown, with the pein side tapering down to small cylindrical end.  "Pin" and "pein" (or "peen") seem to share a root word, with a meaning something like "peg."  But wait!  A woodworker might use a Warrington-pattern hammer, a sort of modified cross-pein hammer with a longer pein end, but among them you're about as likely to hear it described as a cross-pane hammer, with the explanation that the long, truncated-wedge pein is there to drive the nails that hold the pieces of wood that comprise the muntins (aka glazing bars) and, I suppose, the mullions of a multipane window without risking striking the glass.

     What's the real story?  I don't know.  "Pane" sounds suspiciously like folk etymology, and may suffer from the same sort of cross-Atlantic phonetic shifts that have an American cabinetmaker carefully making a rabbet along a board while his British cousin forms a rebate, and yet they're doing the exact same thing.

     Whichever term you use, let the weight of the hammer head work for you and don't "choke up" on the handle -- use the whole thing and if you need less force, go get a smaller hammer.  And by "smaller hammer," I include one of my favorites, the tack-hammer edition of the Warrington-pattern known as a "telephone hammer."  Why?  Well, you see, in the day of wooden wall-mounted telephones, it was easier to carry them around in knocked-down form, and tap in a few brads to hold the body of the thing together as part of the installation process....

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Insert General Complaint About Life Here

     Yeah, mostly over the whatever -- maybe! -- on stronger blood pressure medicine, off the antibiotic -- and doing communications-type construction work as part of a big project at work.

     Yesterday, I spent over an hour with a 20-ounce ball-pein  hammer and a big center punch, unscrewing a lock ring on a compression fitting on a three-inch conduit so I could remove a 90-degree sweep elbow -- except the conduit was stood off from an I-beam column on one side and right up against a wall in a corner on the other, and the bottom of the elbow was on the floor.  There was no way to get big channel-locks on the conduit and even with the hammer and punch, the ring could only be moved through about 45 degrees before having to tap another divot into it and use that to  s l o w l y  hammer it through another 45 degrees of rotation.  Eventually, you end up with a nice circle of "apply force here" dimples...and then they start to wear out.  All this on my knees, in a tight space, leaning forward.  As you unscrew the ring, it tends to force the elbow down instead of moving itself up, and that takes another stupid trick, tapping the ring up with a little square drift, but not so much as to cant it or stress the threads.... Odd, I came home with very sore arms and back.  Who'd'a thunk?

     And, since this is taking place in the middle of the very busy bare-walls construction site, with at least five trades all working at once (HVAC, electricians, framers, suspended-ceiling hangers, plasterers and painters,* I have to wear the whole outfit -- gloves (which I do anyway), boots (rarely), hardhat (not more than once in a blue moon, though of course I own one), kneepads (by choice, I'm old) and dust mask (I've had a sufficiency of respiratory problems already, thank you).  My own eyeglasses are safety-rated and I'm getting by without side shields.

     This week was supposedly our "window" to string wires across the slab, to be covered by a difficult-to-access (thanks to the carpet choice) raised floor.  Wires, cables, mind you, that will not survive being trod upon by a man on drywaller's stilts, being rolled over by 600 pounds of concrete-filled raised-floor tiles, being stabbed by the sharp edge of a piece of ductwork, and which should not be interlaced with the electrician's metallic armored cable.  Frustrating?  ...Kinda....  Like Niagara Falls is some water falling over a cliff.

     Of course, my boss has my back -- holding on to it so his boss can hold my feet to the fire, because we're on a DEADLINE and never you mind that the construction subcontractors are days behind schedule, Engineering's job list was written down in ink and must not be changed.  I asked about making holes through the cement-center fancy raised floor tiles, since you don't go buzzing through that stuff with a sawzall, and was told that was "negotiable."  Somehow it was the wrong reply to point out that needing techy things wired up at desk level without visible wires was mandatory, let alone asking how we were supposed to run them from underfloor to desktop without openings.  This is why I'm not management: I live in a world without any magic pixie dust and I won't pretend paradoxes don't exist.
* "Plasterers and painters" generally counts as one trade, possibly so they can't blame one another for lumpy walls and visible drywall joints.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Learn Engineering From An Artist!

     The man who invented the Marble Machine -- and wrote and performed the music it plays -- has built other fascinating instruments, too.

     You don't do that kind of thing unless you have a firm grasp of the basic principles; and you don't finish it unless you understand when it's good enough.  These are two of the most difficult lessons to take to heart but they are the very core of successful geekery: how to begin and when to stop.

     Here's a master at work:
     Form has followed function -- mostly.  Notice the exceptions; notice the places where function has driven form remorselessly.  There's the lesson.

     And the other lesson to be learned?  This is all to make music.  The thing itself is wonderful -- but so is what it creates.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Politics Continues To Make Headlines

     I continue to be a libertarian.  "I do not ignore headlines, Mandrake -- but I do deny they are of essence."  Fights over the fiddlin' details of entitlement programs seem to be the best the "two" parties can muster.  Color me unimpressed.  Color Adam Smith unimpressed.

     536 years for the Roman Republic.  449 years for the Roman Empire, or 1426 depending on how you score it.  Hell, we're hardly even started.  For "bread," read "popcorn."  The circus is built right in.

     If we grab some better gun laws and a mulish Supreme Court, that'll be a good thing.  Holding on to them when the next act takes center stage?  Even better.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I Won't Kid You

     I probably should not be eating roast beef hash with eggs, Swiss cheese, onion, chives and a kiss of horseradish -- but, given that such a thing does exist, how could I not?  Besides, I had a can of the stuff to use up.  Not nearly as good as scratch-made, they've cheaped out on the meat just as they have with canned corned beef hash, but the additions go a long way in making up for that.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Speaking Of Modern Medicine...

     There's a little bit of medical folderol in store for me today: I'll be getting an echocardiogram later today.  Screamin' early today, so perhaps I won't miss too much work -- I'd better not, since my out-of-pocket for this procedure will be a bit north of $1000, or about a replaced left-rear side light and really serious tuneup on the old RX300 Urban Assault Personnel Carrier.  Guess what's not happening?  Yeah.

     Minimal information from my doctor, so I don't know if this will be basic imaging, or if I'll get to walk on a treadmill or whatever to push my pulse up to 167 or whatever heathen level they want for a stress test.

     Worried?  Me?  --Darned right.

     On the good-news front, the hospital got my Mom stabilized, happy and feeling good, and sent her back home yesterday afternoon.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

My Mom's Back In The Hospital

     Looks like it was a bobble in her ongoing health issues and the most recent information I have is that she is responding well to treatment: supplemental oxygen and drugs to deal with fluid balance.  Anything readers could do along the lines of prayers and/or positive thoughts would be appreciated.

     My own health has been such that I haven't yet visited: she doesn't need to be exposed to my intractable sinus bug (the floodgates if which seem to have been unlocked as of yesterday, a thoroughly unpleasant yet positive development) and unpredictable digestion is not conducive to long walks through unfamiliar corridors where the public washrooms are few and far between.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Night Manager

     Last night, I finished the BBC miniseries of John le CarrĂ©'s The Night Manager. It is everything you'd like to see in a modern spy thriller, just to the realistic side of James Bond: exotic scenery, good-looking people, a genuine villain pitted against plucky, honest heroes, plus some insider treachery and -- lo! -- a genuinely satisfying ending.

     The main hero is Tom Hiddelston's night manager himself, who becomes an operative very much in the style of Keith Laumer's Jame Retief more than 007, though there is nothing of parody about him and quite a lot of quiet British competence.  While there are plenty of moments for anyone with much of an inkling about modern intelligence work to mutter, "No, that's not how it works," it's a cracking good story and will carry you along with just a little suspension of disbelief.  Hugh Laurie is chillingly effective as wicked arms dealer Richard Roper, who the script makes clear isn't just pushing guns and shoulder-fired rockets but poison gas and worse.

     My favorite little bit of nuanced business is a quick scene between a pair of UK and U.S.intelligence types, desk-jockeys pushed by expedience into field wok.  The Brit is about to go do something dangerous and her CIA counterpart makes to hand her his Beretta, to which she replies, "Don't be silly, I'm British; I'll call you if I get into any trouble."  Like Chekov's gun, this one does have a role to play a little later.

     Six episodes is about right for a novel; the story gets told with a consistent, worrying tension, punctuated by exciting action.  It's worth watching.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Walk Right In, Sit Right Down, Baby Try Some...Bathtub Gin?

     White lightnin', more likely--

     See, I don't suffer earworms, I hunt 'em down.  With chains and elephant guns.*

     So when the early-Sixties folk-pop Walk Right In, Sit Right Down popped up on my mental playlist, I figured on a short hunt: gotta be some of that beatnikesque forgettable-folk stuff that was duking it out on the charts with early rock'n'roll, right?  Very much of the time, pre-hippie lyrics and all....

     ...Not exactly.  Oh, the song absolutely was a hit for the Rooftop Singers, two weeks at #1 in 1963, and they even get a little songwriting credit for their sparkling-clean version--

     But the original was old even then: in 1929, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers recorded Walk Right In with considerably more complexity -- and a kazoo solo!

     Wikipedia tells me by the time the Rooftop Singers hit the chart, Gus Cannon had already pawned his banjo to pay the heating bill.  His share of the songwriting royalties -- and a new recording contract -- was a welcome and well-deserved surprise.

     Seriously, I almost missed out on a world-class kazoo solo?  Gotta hunt those earworms! 
* Oh, the gun is the easy part, just a wearable rig with sideways-periscope sights, though you would not believe the size of a trunk-adapted trigger guard.  It's the earplugs that are difficult, and they refuse to shoot without them.

Monday, March 20, 2017

It's Pilot Season

     It's pilot season at Amazon, anyway -- be vewy, vewy quiet!  I'm hunting piwuts!

     Two of them appealed to me and I'll describe them here so you can take a look, if you like.

     Oasis is an interesting SF thriller, in which the leader of Earth's first -- and barely-established -- colony on a planet orbiting a distant star abruptly and unexpectedly calls for a clergyman, a job their resources can scarcely support.  Why?  Only the leader knows -- and he's missing when the "ecumenical priest" arrives.  The setting is akin to Zelazny's A Rose For Ecclesiastes (only without the ancient Martians) and the general mystery is reminiscent of Stanslaw Lem's Solaris, with more than a hint of James Blish's more-philosophical work.  I think it's promising.

     The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is far from outer space and one of the best comedies I have seen on TV in years.  Set in 1950s New York, the title character, a young woman four years into her storybook marriage to a salesman and would-be comedian, suddenly finds herself in very different circumstances.  A lot of the fun comes from just how all of that works out, with an interesting cast of characters, so I won't spoil it.  The writers don't seem to have any axes to grind, they just want to tell a good story.

     A websearch on "Amazon pilot season" will take you to their page of possible new shows.  The watching is free, at least for Amazon Prime members, and you can stream them to your TV, too.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wow, I Had Something To Say...

     Alas, then I did a web-search on the differences between ACA and AHCA -- so-called "ObamaCare" and "TrumpCare," despite both sets of legislation largely having been drafted by insurance-company lobbyists and Congressional staffers -- and it turns out that so much as dipping a toe in that pool is like erasing your brain, even if you don't look at the comments.

     They're different to one another.  You will be unsurprised to learn that they both stink on ice.  Oh, slightly different aromas, give them that much, but both have more stick than carrot; both punish people for not having insurance. 

     And here's some secret knowledge: all systems of paying for and providing healthcare suck; all of them suck worse if you're poor and none of them are especially bad if you're rich.  There is no happy, Disney-movie solution and on many levels, the more lawmakers mess with it, the worse it gets.

     Before all this started, if you were poor and didn't have insurance, you were perfectly free to die in a ditch; if you chose not to, showing up at a hospital emergency room would get you treatment (hospitals are generally not allowed to turn away anyone who is genuinely ill or injured) and a whopping huge bill.  Under ACA, you could also die in a ditch or walk into a hospital uninsured, but you were going to be fined in addition to the big bill;* under ACHA, the uninsured get the same two choices and skip the fine, but if they choose the hospital and survive to buy insurance they will pay a 30% surcharge on their premiums -- and so will you, if you go more than two months without insurance.  This is all very interesting, but if the initial aim was to reduce the number of uninsured citizens who die in ditches, exactly how does either plan accomplish that goal?  They don't, no more than a low-flow showerhead in Seattle or Indianapolis helps droughts in California or a shrinking fossil aquifer in Arizona.

     The line I keep hearing is that "everyone has to be insured so the risk pool is large enough," which will come as a surprise to the statisticians and actuaries who work for insurance companies.  It does not take a huge pool to make the risk usefully predictable and there's a lower limit to the rule that adding more people makes the risk more predictable and therefore allows reducing the amount of "just in case" money the insurer needs to keep for off-the-prediction surprises: you do have to pay all those mathematicians, adjusters, attorneys, salesmen, managers, top brass and support staff -- and the investors are hoping for a little profit on the money they have put up to get the whole thing rolling, too.  The thing people seem to think they are saying boils down to "if everyone pitched in a dollar, we'd all be able to afford healthcare when we needed it," a charming sentiment that skips blissfully over what right the rest of us have to demand a dollar from every random stranger.

     I don't have any answers or magic plans; look around the world and all healthcare systems have downsides, some obvious and others very subtle.  "Regulatory capture" is a huge pitfall for any plan and some of the single-payer systems are Klein-bottle examples of it.  On the other hand, any system -- private insurance, single-payer or mixed -- is demonstrably better than none at all.

     Just don't look for any fairy-tale fixes.  There are none.  The basic plan is and will always be, "don't get sick."  It never works out quite that way but the closer you get to it, the better off you will be.

     Some sources, by no means unbiased: The LA Times and The Telegraph.
* The fine is (if I remember correctly) under $2500, which is just about big enough to be insulting and for the the person without two dimes to rub together, might as wlll be $25,000 or $250,000.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


     My recent and ongoing health issues -- I'm still on the antibiotic, unfortunate digestive-tract effects and all (and it comes with a long list of things you should not consume within two hours before and two hours after taking the drug, including dairy, antacids, zinc, and so on) -- find me still feeling pretty lousy, especially of an evening.  Recent dinner-time blood pressure readings have been rather higher than my usual and I'm scheduled to see my doctor Monday.

     Here's hoping my white-coat syndrome doesn't flare up!  I don't much trust doctors and often find myself unable to recall symptoms and generally just trying to get out of the place with minimum interaction; this is not the best way to ensure proper treatment, so I'll make notes in advance.

     And it appears that for now, some of my favorite foods like bacon and corn chips are going to have to become rarely-if-ever treats.  It's a good thing I like oatmeal, brown rice, beans and brassicas in general (broccoli, cauliflower, kolrabi, etc.).

     Comments for this post are off, as the general tendency to become hedge-doctor for Miss Bobbi has very bad effects on my blood pressure.  I pay professionals to make those sorts of suggestions; they have some education, considerable experience and are remarkably risk-averse -- and I still have trust issues with them.  Extrapolate from that what my attitude towards lay opinions must be.*

     Perhaps I shall join Ms. Tam on her morning walks.  Even doctors think that's a good idea.
* I happen to work at a fairly abstruse trade, and encounter uninformed opinions from time to time -- usually miles off-target and demonstrating a profound lack of the necessary basics.  I can only imagine what the corresponding experience is like for medical practitioners, but it can't be good.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mental Whiplash

     If you occasionally read the blogs of both Eric S. Raymond and Charles Stross, you will indeed find some very abrupt curves between them.  Readers of my blog are most likely to see red at Stross's blog -- neither Brexit nor the U. S. Presidential election results sat very well with him -- but I caution you that he is a UK subject, the product of a very different culture (and doesn't vote in our elections).  We may share a largely-common language (or, as Twain put it, be divided by it) but cultural divergence started well before 1776 and hasn't stopped. 

     One thing is for sure, if you read widely enough, it'll knock big old holes in your mental echo chamber.  I think that's a good thing.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Still Not How That Works

     While I have been trying to avoid politics, politics is like an obtuse, friendly salesman with halitosis: it keeps showing up, all smiles and awfulness.

     The latest?  This morning, Tam observed that certain corners of the Internet are running rife with anti-Hawaiian sentiment after a 9th Circuit judge in that state put a temporary block on President Trump's travel restrictions until the courts could have a look at it.  Calls for boycotts (of pineapple, mahi-mahi and leis?) were not long in showing up, along with various flavors of negative commentary -- directed at the state, its history and its people.

     The problem with that, of course, is while Federal judges may indeed be soaking in the culture of wherever it is they're serving, the people, history, etc. of that region don't get a vote in the judge's decisions: those are based on his reading of the applicable law and judicial precedent (and, occasionally, whim).  --Which will be tested, probably most severely, as this case makes its way through the Federal court system.  That testing will be by people who do that sort of thing for a living, not by Japanese tourists, a consortium from Dole or even that nice young taxicab driver you remember from the time you vacationed there.  The White House is suggesting this Executive order may be fought all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court if necessary, a process which will quite rapidly stop having anything to do with a U. S. state on a remote Pacific island -- an island, by the way, which not only suffered the sneak attack of 7 December 1941, but which knows a little about informal immigrants and unvettable visitors making trouble, from at least the 18th Century through the 20th.

     It's a big, complicated world and very little of it actually runs on the politics of identity and grievance.  Nor on whining and ranting on the Internets.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Modern Medicine

     Modern antibiotics have gone -- have had to go -- so far down the "arms race" road against mutating bugs that the side effects have become genuinely hellacious.  I'm starting Day 4 of the renewed antibiotic regimen and it's been miserable. 

     Sure hope this helps with the sinus/lungs issues.   And the joint pain.  Kind of thinking it has but it's too early to be sure.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New Sandals, Hooray!

     A year and a half ago, or maybe it was two years, I bought a replacement set of what I wear instead of house slippers: Teva sandals, which are more or less a walking/running shoe sole with a minimal arrangement of straps to hold it to your foot.  They were a little different from the previous set, but they were on sale.

     Unfortunately, I bought the wrong style; worse yet, the seller didn't have half-sizes and I bought the next size down, counting on the remarkable adjustability of the brand's designs to let me center them on my feet.  --Except the style I bought didn't have an adjustable back-of-ankle strap.  I spent the next year-plus occasionally stubbing my toes, but hey, thirty-dollar footwear.  Gotta get your money's worth.  A couple of weeks ago, I managed to opened the front door into my right foot, and my little toe caught the brunt of it.  It was time for new sandals.

     They had about given out anyway (Velcro and even a little cat hair is a high-maintenance combination, especially once the cats figure out they can smooth on it if you leave the instep strap open ).  This time, I was careful to order the right Tevas, in the right size.  They arrived yesterday and I wasted no time in trying them on.  What a difference!  Adjustable toe, instep and back-of-ankle straps let me set them to fit my feet, the sole and insole are much better then the old pair, and my toes don't hang over at all. Shopped for price once I'd found the right style, which has put me in a pair with white soles and red straps: I have ambulance feet!  But they fit and are comfortable and that's all that counts.

     These sandals are the best compromise between barefoot and shod I know of: lightweight, grippy, thick enough to provide protection.  I rarely wore shoes and socks at all around the house until I was well-grown (40s) and these are just enough footgear to suit me.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Notes Towards Better Corned Beef Hash

    Still tinned, but not the all-in-one-can stuff that -- in my opinion -- barely passes muster anymore.  Nope, you start with one of the distinctive trapezoidal cans of South American (usually Argentine*) corned beef and a can of cubed, cooked potatoes.

     Drain and rinse the potatoes (there's plenty of salt in this, don't pass up a chance to remove some.  Is there a No Salt Added version of canned tatties?  Try it!), and set them cooking at medium heat in a skillet with a very small amount of your favorite kitchen lubricant -- butter, oil, whatever.  I used a kiss of Bertolli Extra Light Olive Oil, because it was what I had ready to hand.  You want just one layer of potatoes for best results. A little pepper or what-have-you won't hurt.  At this point, you're just cooking moisture out of 'em.  Shake or stir occasionally.  Eventually the pan will be dry; mind they don't stick.  Cook until they suit you; if they start to brown even a little, you'd better have the beef ready.

     Untin the beef onto a (non-wooden) cutting board.  You may have to pry, so mind the sharp edges!  Cut it into cubes, 3/8" or so, push the potato to the edges of the skillet, and put the meat into the center.  Mix it all up, spread evenly, and let it cook.  It is ready to eat as soon as it it warmed through, though Tam and I prefer to let it get a little crunchy on the bottom.   Top to taste -- I like scrambled egg on mine, but chopped fresh chives or green onion would be a nice addition, as would shredded cheese.

     Shelf life of the canned ingredients is excellent -- I used the oldest can of corned beef in our pantry, good well into 2020.  Stock a little and rotate through as a supplement to your emergency food supplies.  In a pinch, you could eat this stuff cold: both ingredients are already cooked.
* One of the minor ironies of the Falklands War was that it pitted the Brits against a leading producer of bully beef. Eat up, Tommy, it's tinned mutton tomorrow!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Oh, fertheluva--

     I'm sick.  Not "again," still.

     So, the doctor's office mistakenly double-prescribed antibiotics, I foolishly took 'em both -- for one day! -- and it messed up my digestion, badly.  Cost me a day's work and has cost many many hurried trips down the hall since, but it's been steadily improving.  (Well, except for last Thursday, but I'm blaming a supermarket vegetable tray for that.)

     Meanwhile, I'm still short of breath, mildly congested of sinuses, far more headachy than usual, and my knees and elbows started to ache.  A lot.  This is a very worrisome thing for me, because when I had rheumatic fever in childhood and again in my late 20s,* extremely painful joints were the most obvious symptom, knees and (to a lesser extent) elbows.  I spent yesterday in bed, having not slept well the night before, and after all day in bed and a steady intake of OTC painkillers, I slept pretty well last night.

     Restarted the strong antibiotic last night, too, perhaps just in time: I have been coughing and coughing all morning, and evidence is my lungs are clearing.  Hoping I can manage to keep my digestion balanced and get through the whole bottle of pills as prescribed.  No dairy within two hours before or after taking them (once a day), so I suppose it will be yogurt for lunch.  Yeech.
* It is not impossible that I'm due for another round, or overdue.  I would just as soon avoid it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Dawns Are Quiet Here

     It was a Soviet WW II movie, good enough to get international attention.  Before that, it was a war novel.*  And in 2015, a Russian media company made a four-episode mini-series.

     I just finished watching the 2015 version.  It's a sobering and emotionally engaging look at the Russian WW II experience; it is set in the northwest and the main character is a sergeant who had served in that area during the Winter War with Finland, been badly wounded, and ended up back in the middle of nowhere, at a minor rail junction with a couple of AA guns and a small group of soldiers.

     Various complications follow -- and then a group of German army saboteurs are parachuted into the woods, presumably to damage the railroad or a more important canal not terribly far away. By chance, their presence is discovered.  Communications are poor, manpower is scarce, and the sergeant and six of his soldiers have to stop what they think are two enemy soldiers.  --But it's never that simple, is it?

     The Dawns Are Quiet Here is a bit of a tear-jerker, and hardcore tactical types will likely find plenty of points to criticize in the actual battles; but it's an engrossing, well-told story.  There's a little gratuitous female nudity, and the kind of violence you'd expect from a war movie: I don't think this one is for the kids.  Adults may find it interesting.  I did.  In Russian, with subtitles -- and a good enough cast you won't notice you're reading.
* But not one you can easily find in English.  It appears the only translation was published during Soviet rule; it's scarce, long out of print, and expensive when you find a copy.

Friday, March 10, 2017

And Back To Winter

     At least for the next week.  After that, who knows.  We're looking at several days with lows in the teens and highs in the thirties -- just in time for the weekend!

     Tam just headed towards the back door at a high rate of speed -- sprinkling rain put her off running the trash can out to the curb last night and now the clock is ticking: 6:55 as I write this and the trash truck swings by as early as 7:00.  --It can be late as 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. some weeks, but there's no predicting it.  33°F out there, too, which is not pajama weather.

     I'm thinking this weekend might just be a "don't bother to get out of bed" weekend for me.  Pile on the quilts, set a much of cocoa on the nightstand and read until I doze off, repeating as often as necessary.   Probably not, but the thought is comforting.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Fiction? Fiction, Right?

     It's difficult to write about the Hidden Frontier because, face it, our history is your history; ours just includes the parts you can't be allowed to know.  This makes it duller on the one hand, and flips it right over into the realm of your next-door neighbor who's seen a UFO on the other.

     Thing is, your neighbor may actually have seen  a UFO, only it was probably an IFO -- or an SFO.  We know which ones are ours, and the occasional semi-official Edger vehicle that lands at Groom Lake Naval Air Station -- sure, keep on asking the USAF about "Area 51," and they'll keep on telling you under oath that it's not theirs -- covertly identifies itself six ways from Sunday and lands as no more than a streak of light in some onlooker's cheap Chinese binoculars.  SFOs?  That's another story.  The Far Edge doesn't exactly have a government as most people understand the term, and their independent ship owners regard smuggling as a basic right.  It's under better control than back during the War, but there's no way to stop it.  If you see a UFO, ask yourself what products are grown, mined or made nearby.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Might As Well Be Burma-Shave Signs: The CIA Reads Everyone's Mail

     NSA was already reading everyone's mail -- and, perv-like, saving copies to reread later -- but they weren't sharing it with anyone (this, too, follows the behavior of a laundry-stealing perv; but I digress).  CIA was, it appears, miffed by this, and resolved to create their own cyberwar unit, only better, with dope and hookers.

     You will not be shocked to learn they succeeded.  If you've been following the news at all, you will also not be shocked to hear WikiLeaks* got a big old chunk of data about it, and is trickling it out, "redacted," they say, "to prevent the proliferation of cyber-warfare tools."  Or their source only supplied redacted material -- but that's just me being skeptical.  It doesn't matter: tell the global pool of hackers, crackers, white- gray- and black-hatted programmer-cowboys, that a vulnerability exists, and like really clever chimps at really powerful typewriters aping Shakespeare, they will find it -- and use it less than three minutes later.

     Let me tell you a little story about something I know (to his embarrassment) as "Stockman's Law:" years ago, decades back, when a computer on your desk talking to a howling acoustic-coupler modem and thence to powerful mainframes half a world away was a pretty new and shiny thing for most people, a talented young programmer and geek-of-all-work was assigned the job of coming up with a "bulletproof" way for his employer, a software company, to offer what we now know as "online support:" a way for you, the end user, to dial into a collection of user-experience reports, updates, and advice directly from the people who wrote the software.  It would be wonderful -- if it was unhackable.

     The young programmer -- and he was no slouch; he'd recently created a custom version of the computer language "C" for his employer, finishing only a little behind the release of "C+" -- took on this task with hope; after all, he'd got his start back when the clever students enjoying finding new ways to crash the nearby university's big IBM mainframe, doing so in the dead of night, and showing the console operators how they'd done it so the vulnerability could be remedied!† 

     He thought and he thought and everything he came up with -- had a hole in it.  Allow unrestricted public access to a computer, and people you don't want in it will get in.  Passwords are a trivial problem, given time  Even air-gapping didn't work, especially if media traveled both directions across the air-gap.  Nope, the only way to be mostly safe was to run the support system on an isolated computer from which nothing ever, ever came back to his employer's network -- and that still left the users vulnerable, especially if the support machine was used to distribute software.

     The general rule he evolved was this: "If you want to keep a computer safe, you cannot allow any form of unrestricted access.  If it is accessible, people you don't want in will inevitably get in."  That's Stockman's Law: if your computer has to be secure, it can have no network connection, no removable media, no unvetted users, no nothing but a display and HIDs -- and even that can be defeated by a malicious authorized user. And then what good is it?‡

     So, put it together: CIA can read your mail (and apparently can't keep their methods secret.  Tsk, what would Wild Bill Donovan have thought?)  NSA can read your mail.  Wanna bet our dear pals at GCHQ etc., not to mention Eurasian Russian and Eastasian Red Chinese intelligence agencies can't?

     Okay, now here's the payoff: tell me what's the big deal about Mike Pence or Hilary Clinton using unsecured servers or public e-mail providers?  They might as well paint two sides of the Capitol building with blackboard paint and scrawl messages on it with chalk!  Hell, it might even be more secure, if their handwriting is lousy enough and their messages sufficiently in-group cryptic.§

     It was true forty years ago and it is even more true now: If you want to keep something secret, don't put it where people can get at it.  Don't put it on a computer.  Two people can keep a secret -- if one of them is dead.
* Depending on who you talk to and when, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are brave heroes or tools of the Russians.  Me, I think a little of both, plus a lot of self-inflated bravado propped up by wanna-be idealists who feed 'em leads and data-dumps.  Does Uncle Vlad really run 'em?  I don't know -- but I'll bet they make him laugh. And somehow they never take a leak in his pool.

† Yes, that was what we did back then, and the better schools allowed it in order to get cooperation from the crashers in creating a fix.  The less-good ones simply had to endure it.  I say "we" but it was only barely me; I was a high-school student at the time, winning science fairs, getting free trips to good colleges, and indulging my insomnia.  You can pick up quite a lot that way, especially from antisocial boys eager to impress.

‡ This depends on what you need it to do.  At work, I run a number of critical systems on nearly-isolated or fully-isolated networks: the computers on them talk to one another and to several [REDACTED] devices, but not to the outside world.  Alas, one of the more critical has a dual-NICed machine for grabbing data it must regularly poll from elsewhere; this is firewalled six ways from Sunday but it's still a hole.

    --Central Intelligence

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Lurching From Crisis To Crisis

     A little less than two hours from the end of my shift -- and ten minutes before it was needed -- we had a critical widget fail.  No, that's not exactly true: the darned thing was found twenty minutes before it was needed and the users spent ten minutes spinning their wheels and making oblique comments on the intercom instead of yelling for help.

     It was ten minutes we really could have used.

     There were several possible causes; the device moves around and uses fiber-optic connections to the controller, via a kind of connector that it easy to unplug but shouldn't be -- and yet occasionally is, by helpful users trying to untangle the traveling cable from four more just like it.  So we cleaned 'em, a procedure that takes two and a half minutes per connector, five minutes for each end of the cable or ten minutes overall.  That didn't work, and by then it was too late.

     We kept checking, staying out of the way of the users as best we could, and after two hours, it was pretty obvious that the fiber "modem" on the device itself had failed.  When I departed, the next shift was just finishing swapping the entire device for a near-substitute, and won't this be expensive fun to get get fixed!

Monday, March 06, 2017


     And I am not looking forward to this.  Saturday, I visited the North Campus to check out a problem my employer has been unwilling to spare me time to troubleshoot, and while there, found signs that vandals had gotten into one of the more dangerous fenced enclosures.  Possibly either children or idiots, given what was damaged and how.  The way things run now (and have for over a decade), site security is the Security Department's lookout, but I'm sure I'll get quizzed on it as if it were still the old days and I was still in sole and responsible charge of that site.

     Some of the damage will slow ongoing projects, too, and the damaged item is something I will have to ride herd on yet a third department to get repaired.

     So there will be a lot of explaining and hand-holding and me working very, very hard to not say anything like "I told you so," or gripe about the official policy towards that location.  Since that's the place I was originally hired to look after, it is difficult to let go -- but let go I must; it simply no longer matters much to my employer nor do they consider messing with it a good use of the time they pay me for.

     At least I got a few small things done around the house this weekend, and had a nice visit from my pal the Data Viking!

Sunday, March 05, 2017

"Can I Try That?"

     That's not what cats ask if they find your food interesting.  Nope, some of them will wait until you look away from your plate and make a grab.

     Huck will do this, if he thinks he can get away with it.  Since he's tall enough to counter-surf, the typewriter tray of my desk is no problem for him, though he rarely goes after it unless he's feeling particularly ornery.  This morning, I had my breakfast there (a stack of Swedish pancakes and a strip of bacon, worked down to a couple of forkfuls and a single bite, respectively) and I'd been saving a little coffee to wash down the last of it.  Turned to the keyboard, typed a couple of words and-- Thud!  Splatter!  Huck had decided to try his luck and pulled the coffee cup over.

     There was about one swallow of coffee left, most of which hit the floor.  A little on the cat, a little on the typewriter shelf.  The mug was unharmed.

     ...I had not anticipated that a cat might be after my coffee.  He certainly doesn't need the extra energy!  At least my food didn't get nabbed.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Winter, Winter, Chicken Dinner...?

     Yeah, only without the dinner.  Or the chickens.  Plenty cold the last couple of days, with a dusting of snow yesterday morning and this morning.  Yes, it's March.  --But it should warm up today and tomorrow, so I can't complain too much.

Friday, March 03, 2017

The Expanse

     It's a science-fiction TV series based on a book series that I have never read.  It's great fun, though I still fault the science.  Sets are great, props are great, cast is great, characters are strong and the story is good -- but basic fiddlin' details, like which way is "down" on (and docked to) a spinning space station, how long radio waves take to get from, say, Earth to the Outer Planets (hours!), transit times even with a constant-boost drive (which they don't really have) and the goofiness of  "acceleration drugs" make it more of a graphic novel come alive than a book-turned-TV-drama.

     That said, Firefly had as many physics and technology howlers as The Expanse, if not more;* this doesn't make either one unwatchable or less fun, just check your skepticism at the door and bring popcorn!  It's about halfway through the second season and available via Amazon and probably other on-demand services, so there are big blocks of story to enjoy if you haven't already.
* Each one has Big SF Exceptions, things essential to the plot that make no sense at all -- Firefly's possibly-FTL drive system, The Expanse's Big Spoiler I Won't Mention.  You have to allow those for most SF.  And little-to-obscure things can be wrong if well-sold (I loved The Martian but the math doesn't work at several points in the film.  Sorry, he didn't make it).  But don't cheat high-school physics!

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Today's Homily

     Ready?  Here we go: "When you wake up with a severe headache and don't take OTC pain meds right away, you may find that eating your tasty breakfast sammich or even simply typing makes your head hurt so badly that you can't do much of either one."

     That is all for now.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Supper And Breakfast: Better Living Through Leftovers

    Last night: deli-counter pork roast, slow-roasted all day and served up with sweet chili sauce, plus fresh asparagus (quick-microwaved with garlic and some red bell pepper) and a small baked potato: mighty fine, and almost no effort!

     This morning: "Breakfast hash" with diced leftover pork (and a strip of bacon), fried diced potato and scrambled egg, with a dusting of "Italian" seasoning, salt and pepper to taste: yum!

     Between the two meals, storms rumbled through all night.  There was a break from about 11:30 pm 'til 4:00 am, or enough of one that nothing woke me.  The rest of the night, I drifted in and out, half-listening for the wail of the storm sirens.  It was that kind of stormy, and Spring's still over the horizon.  An all-night storm takes a lot of juice to keep running -- and reminds me that this year, I'm going to have to get serious about taking down the remaining trees.