In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…

 

New is Not Always Improved

Today I made a special trip to the big-box hardware store only to learn they no longer stock aluminum HVAC tape. In case you don’t know, this product is the jack-of-all-trades “duct tape” (more properly Duck Tape) pretends to for a wide range of tasks around the house, studio, and attic. It’s strong, easily to apply, light-proof, leakproof, and removable, almost always without a trace. And unlike Duck tape–which was designed for waterproofing ammunition crates in WWII, not for sealing ducts, aluminum HVAC tape sticks like hell, even to less than perfectly clean surfaces, is impervious to moisture and heat, and will not turn to dust in the attic.

I have used it to build studio lights, seal leaks in my HVAC system, build an attic door insulation cover out of scrap polystyrene, attach dryer vent hoses, and as a removable duct attachment to permit annual cleaning of the dryer exhaust duct through the attic. When I renovate, I also use it the seal the duct plenums to the ceiling drywall to reduce drafts and prevent windy weather from pushing attic dust down into the house.

Recently, I installed an air return from our master suite, which forms a peninsula at one end of the house and which has always been difficult to heat. Upgraded windows, attic insulation, and a duct booster fan have helped. The air return is to provide more space for air returning to the HVAC intake without having to squeeze around the bedroom door, building up a rind of dust over time.

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How to Survive Nuclear War

I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War. I’m a nerd, and I used to play “camping” under giant vinyl sheets my dad brought home from the Air Force which I later realized were maps of aerial bombardment exercise ranges in central California. My dad’s job was to fly off on a moment’s notice never to return and convert thousands of Russian children very much like me into radioactive corpses. We didn’t worry too much, as we understood the point was that no rational person would start such a war knowing how it must inevitably end.

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Speed Dating for Creatives

While prepping for a recent “Pay it Forward Day” presentation, I stumbled on a useful analogy: submitting creative work for sale is a bit like dating.

It’s tempting when a submission doesn’t work out, to think something like a teenager who just got ghosted by the hottest kid in the “in crowd”, to think “I wish I knew why they didn’t like me, then I could change.” You might even be tempted to respond to a purchasing editor asking exactly that. Don’t. Don’t, because you are selling yourself short. Don’t because you’ll look like a pestering kid asking “but why don’t you like me? Why? Why?”

The reality is, rejection of your story is like rejection after a date. It just means that story isn’t the right fit for that editor at that moment.

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It’s a Small World And We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore

You may have noticed, there’d a war on. Of course, that’s 6,000 miles away, so it doesn’t affect me, right? I can turn a blind eye the way most people do, most of the time when atrocities and injustices are happening a quarter of the circumference of the planet away, right?

Well no, not so much. If you are reading this on my blog, there’s a small but non-zero chance you’ve noticed my website was down for over 30 hours and has been running with all but the home page broken for several days. Indirectly, this is because of that war–my hosting provider no longer has contact with the region of the world from which, for many years, it’s been getting exceptional support labor. As I write this, Vladimir Putin is in the process of walling Russia off from the global Internet so his subjects can’t be told the truth. President Biden has barred all energy imports from Russia and many other nations are likely to follow suit, though this is mostly symbolic since shipping in the Black Sea essentially stopped the day Lloyd’s of London declared it a war zone. International sanctions mean that all Russian airlines are now required to return half their airplanes, all but 170 something of which are leased from Western companies for efficiency. And they’ll find a way to do it, too unless Putin puts a gun to their heads. They want this madness to end so they can go back to making money, and to compete in the global marketplace, they need more than permission to fly outside Russia, they need those leasing agents and access to tech support in the US and maintenance facilities in Germany.

Meanwhile, Ukraine isn’t just firing tank and aircraft killing missiles from the US and Western Europe–it’s firing its own, made with parts designed by a design company in Belarus–one brown shirt national thug nation supplying a goodly portion of Putin’s army of pointless conquest.

Putin claims he can’t abide NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders. This is absurd, in part because NATO was created to protect its members from a USSR hell bent of ideological colonization of the planet and in part because since the fall of that empire, the expansion of the alliance has been driven not by the US or other Western powers but by the well-founded fear of Russia’s neighbors. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO if it stops invading other countries, and those countries have no reason to join NATO unless they fear Russian beligerance.

Meanwhile, NATO or no NATO, economic ties binding Russia, the West, and all the former Soviet satellites had done more to ensure Russian security in the last 20 years than all the wars and “special military operations” fought by Putin or his predassesors all the way back to the iron age–until he pissed all that away in a week.

The best defense against attack is close economic partnership. Best, because it both fosters the communication and partnership needed to work out disputes without recourse to violence and greatly lessens the need for spending on defense.

The people of Russia, Ukrain, Belarus, and for that matter, Finland and Texas, have no interest in empires. They just want to raise their kids, see if Elon Musk really does die on Mars, and get prompt support for their website when they need it.

Wars of conquest are stupid. They serve nothing and no one but the egos of the men who start them. Thus, those should be the first to die when the shooting starts.

Open Libreoffice Writer to the Last Edited Document

More people should be using LibreOffice. Why? Because word processing is a mature technology, as mature as the doorknob, and there is no reason to keep paying tech companies like Microsoft increasingly exorbitant protection money as if we needed or wanted them to “improve” it–all the while making it easier for them to spy on us and sell us crap we don’t want. Capitalism is a powerful driver of progress, but sometimes that progress is, as C.S. Lewis put it, called “going bad.”

This isn’t 1988. Word processing doesn’t need anything but bug fixes and refinement between now and whenever the next revolution in AI or human biology renders the whole idea moot, and well-supported open-source software is safer than commercial software specifically because it’s open. More eyes are looking at the code with more detachment. It’s also a bit like a good Credit Union, driven by the needs of the community rather than the profits of a few oligarchs. So stop paying that monthly subscription and download LibreOffice for free. Go. We’ll wait.

But when you do, you’ll naturally find there’s a learning curve. That’s where I can help. I’m starting a series to share what I’ve learned as I’ve made the transition over the last decade or so.

In this post, the Libreoffice Macro facility and how to easily use it to do something super useful with no difficulty at all: Make Libreoffice Write open the last document you edited to the last spot you were at when you closed it.

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Tesla, and The Danger of Mythos

The idea that Telsa worked on some anti-gravity technology now lost is a myth. He also didn’t invent the three-phase electrical distribution he’s so often credited for. That was Mikhail Doliva Dobrovolsky, a Russian engineer working in Germany, who was the first to demonstrate polyphase power when he used it to transmit hydroelectric power many kilometers to power an 1891 exhibition in Frankfurt am Main, in Germany.

At around the same time, Tesla patented a polyphase motor, which he later agreed was identical to Dobrovolsky’s, who did not patent his discoveries out of a (perhaps misguided) sense of civil duty.

Tesla, though, was working for Westinghouse, who was keen to hold him up as the great genius behind the new electric age, while Dobrovolsky, a Russian working in Germany at a time of growing tensions between the two, was championed by no one. So the myth of Tesla grew in the American press, and today millions think of him as a cult-like figure, the great American misunderstood lone inventor when the reality is very different.

Tesla was a great inventor and engineer and contributed mightily to the early 20th-century explosion of electrical infrastructure, but he was one of many, many such contributors, and he was rather less successful in his pure scientific pursuits, where his focus on practical experiment and lack of theoretical grounding led him to waste energy on all sorts of unworkable nonsense like through-the-air power transmission and death rays that even at the time could have been shown to be impossible along the lines he envisioned.

Edison was not the lone wolf who invented the light bulb, nor Bell the telephone, nor Tesla polyphase power. And while Tesla never worked on anti-gravity as far as we know, he did apparently spend much of his adult life tinkering on his own “Dynamic Theory of Gravity,” which in a letter written at 81 years of age, he claimed would “put an end to idle speculations and false conceptions, as that of curved space” and he said it was “worked out in all details” and he would “soon give it to the world.”

He was claiming to have refuted Einstein, which would have been quite an achievement, but Einstein has been experimentally confirmed to precisions Tesla could not have dreamt of, and Tesla’s theory, if it ever truly existed, managed to vanish utterly from his papers.

I say all this not to denigrate Tesla or his contributions, but to point out that history tends to lionize the most visible faces behind significant events and gloss over the many others who invariably make the events possible, the societal influences and interchanges behind them, and indeed, the substance of the contributors.

Tesla also said,

man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct … The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.

If this statement were your only guide to the man’s character, you might well judge him with Hitler. But he also spoke out in favor of women’s equality, and during the second world war, sought to develop a death ray in support of the allies.

Tesla was not a God-like genius, stifled by a society unprepared to accept his magical inventions. He was a human being born of his times and situation, as are we all, and to buy too deeply into his myth betrays not only the memory of the lesser-knowns, but the very pursuit of truth to which he seems to have been genuinely committed.

Good Design and Bargains

As you consider those black Friday deals, consider this: Often as not, digital controls are just bad interface design foisted off on you to save design complexity– at added cost. Knobs are not obsolete just because we have microcontrollers that can be stuck into anything and configured in software–any more than doorknobs are obsolete because we have automatic doors, or wheels are extinct because we have robot dogs from Boston Robotics.
Sure, sometimes those little buttons buried under plastic are easier to clean, and sometimes (like on my dishwasher) they might be close to as simple to use. They are rarely however superior, and seldom worth paying extra for.
Very often, they are just annoying little beepy things you waste snippets of your life poking at when you could have just set the time (or temp, or both), hit “Start” and gotten on with living.

This is good design:

Emerald 3.2L Manual Air Fryer - Black

 This is poor design:

Emerald 1812 4L Digital Air Fryer

You might like the pretty LEDs — and that’s fine. Personal taste is a completely different matter, and you are entitled to your own. But from a design perspective, the correct way to set a temperature within a narrow range is with a knob (or slider). It’s quick, intuitive, and easy. The correct way to set an interval within a confined range is also a knob (or slider), and for the same reason. If you NEED to program your air fryer to turn itself on a week from Tuesday at two in the morning, that changes things. But you don’t. And if you need to keep splatter out of the controls, that’s different too, but unless you’re cooking chicken fingers inside a slaughterhouse, that’s probably not the case either. Requiring the user to repeatedly press hard-to-read, hard-to-press, buttons to set things by increments that could be set in an instant with a knob–indeed, with hardly a thought or glance–is poor design. And making the buttons beep annoyingly because they are so hard to press the user won’t otherwise know if they HAVE been pressed, is also poor design.
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If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

When it comes to computers, I’m not exactly a gear head. I built my own from an 8085 chip set as a kid, but these days I just want one that works. I like to get the job done, but I’m also thrifty and I don’t enjoy spending more than I really need to. Throughout the quarantine and for many years before, I’ve been using as my main home computer a cheap HP desktop I bought years ago for my wife when she needed it for a job she no longer has. It did what she needed and what I needed too until I started software development and video editing.

Earlier this summer, I decided if I was going to keep making videos, I needed to spend less time twiddling my thumbs and restarting after crashes. I bought an HP Envy with an Intel I7 processor that’s pretty good but certainly not the best to be had. I immediately doubled the memory, knowing I would need it for editing. This process was made slightly annoying by the machine, with a capacity of up to 32GB in two DIMM modules, coming with two 8GB modules so that in order to use it’s full capacity, you have to replace BOTH instead of just adding one. I don’t know if HP received the giant middle finger I mailed them,

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Benjamin Franklin Was Right

Years ago, when we first moved to Houston, I mentioned to a co-worker that we were taking the kids down to Kemah Boardwalk, a mini-amusement park run near the coast by a prominent restaurant chain, and he, being a resident of the area, spent 15 minutes telling me how hard it is to find parking and how to find the garage he usually uses. We got up early, hit the road at 9, pulled right in and up to the VIP parking rope 10 minutes before open, and parked practically underneath the Ferris wheel. People are lazy. The early bird gets the worm.
Recently, we’ve been looking for a new dog, partly to keep our little rescue terrier company when his dog sister passes away, as she’s getting a bit long in the tooth.
We’re fans of terrier mixes for obvious reasons and rescue dogs for several reasons, but anything that looks remotely Yorkieish gets snatched up by the local Yorkie rescue groups faster than you can say “Parson Russell,” and efforts to get a dog through them have proven consistently frustrating.
So I’ve been watching PetHarbor.com, waiting for a suitable dog to appear, checking the site a few times a day for months.
 
Last night before bed, the pickings were poor as usual. Nothing but labs and pit bulls and the odd “other kind of bull” or “other kind of hunting dog in a city that never hunts” the cross between a spaniel and a demon goat or the elder cripple wonky dog in genuine need of a loving foster hospice home, but not the family pet we are looking for, a young terrier mix of any of several varieties without two feet already the the grave and the others on banana peels.
This Saturday morning I went for a ride, mowed the grass, and came in to work on the computer,  coincidentally just as the county pound was opening for the day. As I sat down with my coffee, I checked PetHarbor, and low and behold, a new little dog appeared, days since intake:0. Someone had just logged on in the last half hour and listed a little terrier mix, female, looking just like Mr. Lucky–just what we’ve been looking for. I called to confirm they were open on Saturday and hopped in the car with Kristina, who’s a tad on the high strung side and reminded me approximately 14,000 times en route that we had to hurry, that someone would snatch that little dog before we could get there.
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Japanese Ginger Dressing

I LOVE Japanese ginger dressing. It’s always been my favorite part of visiting a Hibachi restaurant, and it’s healthy and light. But over the years, attempts to find a bottled substitute have universally failed. Most are like ginger-scented vinegar. They are without exception really, really awful.

So now that I’m the family chef, I decided to make my own, and it turns out it’s really simple:

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