Tom Pittman's WebLog

Earlier this year

2017 May 23 -- MoonSeed

I can't really recommend it -- despite what the promo blurbs on the back cover say, his science is more Darwinist religion ("believing what you know ain't so")  than testable science. There are several things he could have gotten right -- but didn't. One that sticks in my mind is when the Lunar lander is descending to the surface of the moon in computer-controlled bursts of rocket firing, and during the long gaps between the short bursts of power, our hero can "feel" the switch over to lunar gravity. Hogwash. If the rockets are not firing (and there's no air to offer support and braking), he's in free-fall and cannot feel a thing. You only "feel" earth's gravity because there is something (the ground, or air if you are sky-diving) holding you up. In outer space you can "feel" gravity only when your rocket is firing to oppose (or assist, it doesn't matter) the gravity. It's the rocket power you feel, not the gravity. It's not like I've been to space and can tell you from experience -- but then neither did this author, he admits to getting it second-hand from visiting the NASA space center and reading books.

Besides the Darwinistic "millions of years" which he keeps repeating over and over like it's an important part of his story, there's the dust on the moon. Before the Apollo landing, scientists were worried that the accumulation of "millions of years" of dust would be "dozens of feet thick" -- Baxter even mentions geologist Thomas Gold by name (p.440) in that connection -- into which the lander would likely sink without a trace. When they got there, it was only one inch thick (I saw the photographs of the astronauts' footprints. The accumulation of micro-meteorites over the eons, and the battering of the rock surface by larger arrivals has got to build up a lot of dust. Unless the moon (like the earth) really is only a few thousand years old. Baxter has the typical atheist's snide view of (theistic) religion, so he's stuck with the "millions of years" mantra, and the dust is a problem he fictionalizes into existence in other parts of the moon. It may be good (atheistic) religion, but it's bad science, and it makes the story harder to read.

I mention this book because he's the third author to correctly observe the difference between men and women in their take on "relationship." I didn't see him use that word, and he eschewed the "L-word" until very late in the story. Most novelists are either writing feminazi political correctness (like this guy, mostly) where there is no difference between men and women except that the women are smart and the men are stupid, or else ignoring women like traditional fiction. But occasionally an author comes along who has actually observed the differences. I first noticed it in Vince Flinn novels (see "Relationshipism Gone Bad" three years ago), and then in guy flicks like Transformers the following year (see "Love in Fiction"). Although Baxter puts a disproportionate number of women in positions of power and authority, he still offers that same insight where the woman wants to cling to the hero and hold him back, when he has a world to save. Three times.

It's almost a register difference in the language, a difference between how men and women speak. Baxter understands dialect differences -- and mentions a few differences between American and British English -- but he's sloppy: most of his action is set in England and Scotland, but he has the Americans thinking in British English -- wearing "Air Jordan trainers" (not tennis shoes), riding the lift (not elevator) and carrying a torch (not flashlight) to see in the dark. It's like his science, he just didn't do his homework. Maybe people don't care and buy it anyway. Asimov ("asimov" is a verb in this story, but I have no idea what he meant by it, perhaps something like "MacGyver") never made blunders like that.

There are several Baxter books on the sci-fi shelf at the library, but it will be a while before I bring home another. I read novels when I'm too tired to work, but reading this nonsense is too much like work.

2017 May 12 -- Flash Point

For a novel with the copyright date the year before 9/11, James Huston's scenario looks astoundingly prescient. The author has spent time in the military as a Navy pilot, and he writes what he knows. This is the third in his series, but the first two the Bad Guys were only nominally Muslim but mostly stupid (is there a difference? ;-) I'm only halfway through this story, and several major characters make a point of criticizing "the Crusaders" (Americans) as if the Crusades were all our fault. It's a bogus blame, but I don't know yet if Huston sees it or not.

You see, the Crusades were not the start of the conflict, they were a defensive reaction to Islamic hegemony that began more than three centuries earlier, when the bloody Muslim conquerers ran over not only Israel and North Africa but also (previously Christianized) Turkey and eastern Europe and pretty much all of what is now Spain and southern France. Check it out. The Crusades were a reaction, good military strategy (taking the battle to the enemy's home turf). They basically put an end to Islamic expansionism for almost a thousand years. The Muslim militarism seems to have awakened again, not so much because of what the West has done to them, but rather because they happened to be sitting on a cash cow (oil) to pay for their evil adventures. I personally think the "carbon" hokum is just that -- a political strategy to attack a Republican President who was mostly to the left of the Dems on most issues, an issue essentially unrelated to real science -- but if it helps get this country off our addiction to Arab oil, that would help to end the terrorism paid for by that oil.

2017 May 6 -- Thinking about the Future

After the university decided I was too honest for them -- or more likely, they had a misbegotten fear that I would invoke state law against them -- I spent a lot of time working on my heart's project, a program to translate the Bible into languages that don't have it yet. I had a little bit of outside funding around the turn of the millenium, but God did not give me skills in that arena (which is why I went to work for the university), so it's mostly "pro bono" (for the benefit of humanity, rather than for pay). The software works and you can download a copy that runs on your own PC, but it needs a huge exegetical effort (I estimated ten man-years) by qualified people, and assembling and motivating a team like that (let alone paying them) is another thing God did not make me good at. Besides, I was starting to run out of money.

So three years ago, BibleTrans was stabilized and waiting for God to make the next move, and I was about halfway through reading the Bible in the original Hebrew, spending a lot of time wondering about the word meanings, and it occurred to me that an interlinear Hebrew Bible with popup definitions would be a handy tablet program, maybe even marketable. So I started learning Android. It wasn't that hard, I was already programming everything in (my own dialect of) Java, but I got bogged down on making the dictionary machine-readable. I still want to do that, but it seems to have morphed into another pro bono project, with still no revenue after three years.

About a year ago, another family member started falling down and was hospitalized, and it occurred to me that I was getting up in years and needed to be near somebody who cared enough to speak to my future emergencies. About the same time I was preparing to move to Oregon (there's family here) a friend from a long time back called and I got myself volunteered to mentor his computer summer camp, also in Oregon. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I've never done this kind of thing, so I spent a lot of time working out the technology, then preparing training materials so the kids can work on a fun project that they are likely to succeed at. Silly me! I wanted some nice graphics to illustrate the technology, but I don't have image creation software to do what I wanted, so I wrote it. More time down the drain, but the pictures came out nice (you can see them here). Now I'm waiting for other people to do their part of the preparation on that project -- I'm not even in charge, so I wait.

Before I left California 15 years ago, I did all my work on a speedy Mac IIci. The CPU itself was only 30MHz, it was the MacOS/6 that made it so fast: I measure computer speed not by how fast its clock, but how fast I can get my work done, which most of the time is limited by my typing speed. MacOS/6 had working script capability that got lost in S/7 and never recovered. True Unix has shell scripts, but OSX is neither Mac nor true unix, and there is far too much of what I normally do on a computer that is not scriptable in OSX. Besides other serious problems. Anyway, when I went back to working on my own computer hardware, I was doing things that were too big for the IIci memory and were compute bound for hours, so I did it on this PPC tower I got in 1999 (but used only for long compute-bound jobs, like recompiling my compiler). OS/9 is substantially slower than OS/6, but the next couple years I spent recompiling the compiler a lot, so I never got the IIci out of its box.

I redid the compiler to run in background (and compile itself), so now I can do other things while the compiler runs -- like right now -- and while there are still bugs, it's pretty stable. As part of this preparation for the summer camp, my host gave me a couple "faster" OSX computers that still run the MacOS in "compatibility mode" but not very well: drag-n-drop fails, and that's how I run the compiler. So this last two weeks I've been working on a Finder rewrite to run on those computers. There's a lot to do, but most of it is very similar to what I was already doing in BibleTrans. A couple days ago I got to the place where I need to make drag-n-drop work, and I suddenly realized that I need to use AppleEvents, which the current compiler does not support. In fact, that's probably why drag-n-drop fails in OSX. This is all dead (pre-OSX) technology, so there's no need to implement more than the bare minimum. But doing so is way faster than trying to come up to speed on a proprietary system like OSX, which Apple can (and does!) change on a whim, requiring a vast expenditure of time tracking it. At least Android is built on standard Java.

When I started work on my compiler, and later on MOS ("Mac-like Operating System"), I was thinking about making it available to the public. That takes far more effort than making it "good enough" to use myself, and I don't have enough useful years of life left. Fixing the compiler to run on the newer computers, which clock four times faster (for compute-bound jobs) than this tower, which clocks 12 times faster than the IIci did, is probably worth the effort of a few days. Then I need to "fish or cut bait" on my Android project, or else get serious about getting some positive cash flow.

2017 May 1 -- Sunday Drive

It was another sunny Sunday afternoon, so I decided to explore some more (see "A (Rare) Sunny Sunday" last year). California is some 50 miles to the southwest on US-199 (and maybe 55 miles southeast on I-5). I'm still looking for alternative routes to Portland that don't involve I-5, and besides, I hadn't seen the ocean in a couple decades. Some of the scenery on US-101 is spectacular.

The drivers on 101 aren't much better than on I-5, but at least there are opportunities for escape: What do you do when you find yourself in the same room with a sociopath? You leave the room. This one truck driver must have been sampling the local produce -- the most visible commercial product in the first town north of the border is some form of "weed" -- because there's no way a sane and well-trained driver can believe that following six inches behind the small car in front at highway speed is safe for the other driver. As is my custom, I look for a wide spot in the road, then gradually reduce my speed veeerrry slowly until it's safe to pull off. Only this guy also pulled over and stopped in front of me. I've experienced road rage before, so I calculated when he would be least able to pursue his attack, and floored it after he set foot on the pavement. I have a sporty little car, which accelerates quickly, but this guy started across the highway as if to intercept me. Fortunately, there was no traffic in the opposite lane, so I swung wide. He yelled something as I went by, it sounded a little like "You OK?" Of course I'm not OK, you just tried to kill me! But I wasn't about to stop and say so.

When he caught up with me again, I got off the highway, and he went on by. His truck did not have a "How's my driving?" phone number on it, but I was reminded of one of the exhibits in a computer show I went to, back when I was doing that sort of thing: The booth was completely empty except for a large photograph pinned to the back wall, a North American Van Lines truck parked on its side in a highway median, with a handwritten caption: "Our exhibit." If you want your stuff to arrive safely, you might consider finding some other carrier than North American -- at least other than North American Container Something based in Eureka.

Anyway, my preferred route back over the hill was blocked with snowdrifts across the road deeper than my car's clearance. Maybe if I had a 4-wheeler with a high clearance, I might consider it (there was one set of tire tracks through the snow, probably workers); the sign where that road turned off from the local county road said something like it was not maintained for winter driving. OK, so it's almost summer. Farther in, another sign said "Not recommended for (something or other vehicles) between November (something) and May 31. Oh. There were a lot of fallen trees across the road, but they had all been cut to leave a one-car-wide gap. There were fallen rocks on the pavement, but not so many I couldn't steer around them. It was actually fun negotiating the hazards, maybe even evidence that I haven't lost my marbles yet. Wrong interpretation. The only thing it proved was that God is more gracious than I am stupid. Mostly: He let me bungle a couple or three hazards, so I wouldn't forget Who is God.

Next on my map was the BLM road I tried last year. It was a lot more twisty and narrower, but a mile or so in I came to a landslide, big car-sized rocks piled up across the road, leaving only three or four feet of pavement unblocked between the rocks and the ravine off to the side. My car is small, but not that small.

The only remaining route across the hills (other than back-tracking through California) went rather north and came back south on I-5. It was getting late, so I decided to let this hand-me-down Garmin GPS thing my friend gave me a couple months ago tell me the best route (if it knows). The map gives better directions. The Garmin said there were a couple more miles before the next turn when I saw the road I'd seen on the map whizz by. I turned around and took it, iand the Garmin figured out where I was, then adjusted the estimated arrival time downward ten minutes. So now I'm driving on I-5 but the weekend crazies are still out, and I happened to see a sign that looked like it was saying there's a stretch of US-99 paralleling I-5 starting at Myrtle Creek, so I took the exit, and for the next hour or so, Garmin kept trying to tell me to turn around and go back. A couple of times it tried to tell me to get back on I-5 going NORTH. At that point I quit looking at it. I could hear it muttering from time to time, but the volume is so low I couldn't make out any words, and I never could find where to turn the volume up.

The Garmin got so confused, it no longer showed where I was going. Fortunately, it was a clear night, and the crescent moon offers an excellent compass: after sunset, the cup points east, so as long as it looks like a "D" I'm headed south; if the cup points up, I'm going west -- I did that for a while, on a county road that wound around and shaved another ten miles off I-5. If the moon is behind me, then I'm going the wrong direction. It was a winding road, and there were a few times when it headed north or east, but on the average it went south. After I crossed over I-5 and didn't get back on (especially not going north as directed by Garmin), it revised my expected arrival time another ten minutes sooner. Most Oregon roads have brightly painted lines along the edges, but all the paint on this old county road was worn off, and it was hard to see where it turned in the dark -- I even missed one bend -- so I slowed down. That was when the arrival time started back up. Whatever.

Oregon is a lot more stingy with highway signs that (frex) California, so I may be on the right road according to plan, but it's hard to know. It's also easy to take a wrong turn. Last night after driving what seemed like hours on this winding county road, I knew I needed to be heading easterly back to I-5, but the Garmin was telling me to turn right (west?) onto Cow Creek road. It had been nagging me to turn right onto Cow Creek road for the last half hour -- including where there was no road there to turn onto, so I didn't trust it very much any more. But there was a hand-painted wooden sign nailed to a fence post, and it seemed to have an arrow pointing to the right for Glendale, and Glendale was the southernmost I-5 access before it went over the pass, so I took it. Garmin kept telling me to get off and go back north. Even when I pulled into my driveway, it said I needed to get back on I-5 northbound, and that I had an hour before arriving. I have no idea where it thought it was taking me, I successfully reprogrammed "Home" to be Grants Pass when I first got it home, and it couldn't be trying to take me all the way back to Portland (it's previous "Home" because that's three or four hours, not one. Maybe it thought I needed to go back to where I went off the directions before it could finish the trip. Whatever. I tried to review where it thought it was taking me, but I no longer can figure out how to access that part of its storage. Oh well, I'm no worse off than before I had it ;-)

Earlier this year / Later this year
Complete Blog Index
Itty Bitty Computers home page