Entropic Memes http://www.slugsite.com Random musings on history, politics and more Mon, 24 Feb 2014 08:01:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 Desktop Gaming With Android and the MK808 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1567 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1567#comments Mon, 24 Feb 2014 08:01:44 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/?p=1567 I’m not a hardcore computer gamer. I never was, if we’re honest, but as I get older and busier I find myself with less and less time, energy, and interest to devote to gaming. Part of the problem is that I finish one or maybe two games a year, and another is that it seems like every time I turn around my Windows PC has become too obsolete to run any fairly recent releases. (My work computer runs Linux, and before anyone mentions WINE – it’s a little fanless dual-core Atom. Cheap, quiet, and quite power-efficient, yes… just not very good for cutting-edge Windows gaming.) And even if I want to play an older game, it seems like half the time I’ve got to sit around twiddling my thumbs for an hour or three first while Steam updates or Java updates, or something like that.

So, for the last year or two, most of my gaming has not been done on Windows at all, but on Android. I have an Android tablet, but I mostly use it as an e-reader, because I find it an ergonomic nightmare for gaming, and don’t like worrying about charging the dumb thing. (Also because I prefer to use a stylus with the tablet, and my cat has a compulsive desire to attack any fast-moving stylus he sees, alas.) That being said, though, I quite like a lot of things that the mobile gaming market has brought about: a steady supply of new games that don’t require bleeding-edge hardware, are well-suited to casual gaming of twenty minutes here or an hour there, and which don’t cost an arm and a leg. They also tend to be of modest size (in terms of megabytes), which is a blessing when you live in the ghetto and have snail-slow Internet access. (Bioshock Infinite would take close to a week to download from Steam, on my sloooooow ADSL line. I’m sure BI kicks butt, but I downloaded Kemco’s hilarious (and free) RPG Machine Knight – all 31MB of it – and was playing on Android in less than an hour. And Machine Knight hasn’t given me motion-sickness even once, whereas pretty much every 3D first-person game does, quite quickly, but that’s just me.)

Enter my $70 gaming rig – one of those oft-maligned Chinese “Android TV” sticks.

Specifically, I’ve settled on the MK808 (the basic MK808, not the MK808b) as my gaming computer. It’s a basic little pack-of-gum-sized computer with a dual-core 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor, quad-core GPU, some flash storage, HDMI video, a couple USB ports, wifi, and 1GB of RAM. I got it from Amazon last summer, hooked it up to the spare input on one of my desktop monitors, attached a wireless mouse, and have been gaming away happily ever since. It’s running Android 4.2.2, which isn’t exactly bleeding-edge but is new enough to be well-supported. It draws about 3W of power at peak, and has been completely trouble-free in the seven months I’ve had it.

What I wanted was a reasonably powerful Android box with at least 1GB of RAM, with Google Play support and an install of a reasonably recent Android that’s not horribly crippled. Now, the MK808 isn’t perfect, by any means, but it might come closest to fitting my needs of the various widely-available devices out there. The factory firmware is stable and works well, though it’s not without its annoyances. There’s no Bluetooth support compiled in, for example, and it comes with a handful of included apps that can’t be uninstalled. But that’s true of most of these little Android sticks, and so probably ignorable. (There are third-party ROMs which correct most if not all of these annoyances, but I’ve stuck with the original factory ROM. If it’s not actually broken, don’t fix it, y’know?)

What’s also true of most of these devices, and neither ignorable nor excusable, is the lack of heatsinking. To conserve size and weight and money, those Android TV sticks that even have heatsinks at all have woefully inadequate ones – a piece of 18ga aluminum the size of a postage stamp is not a sufficiently large heatsink to dissipate 3W or more of heat in a cramped little case with mediocre ventilation. (Power consumption, and by extension dissipation, of quite a few of the ARM-based Android sticks out there can exceed 5W under load, and there are several that approach 10W.) To be fair, the intended use of these devices seems to be as media players, and under most circumstances this usage won’t generate a large amount of heat-but what kind of idiot designs a computer system to only handle a sustained 20% load?

Some games, alas, tax the CPU rather more than playing most media files does, and stories abound on the web of these things overheating. The solution is very obvious and really very simple – attach a properly-sized heatsink. What’s “properly sized”, though? Well, I’m using a 55x40x70mm copper-based heatsink with heatpipe that used to cool the GPU of an Xbox 360, and is about four times as large as the whole MK808 itself…

You might think that looks like overkill, but I’d disagree, honestly. Running benchmarks for a while, or playing a particularly CPU-intensive game that uses both cores, this heatsink gets about 30 degrees above ambient room temperature-i.e. about 120F on a summer day when it’s 90F inside. For a passively-cooled device, I’d say that’s decent, and should ensure a respectably long lifespan. I’d definitely worry if it had just a little tiny “VGA RAM” heatsink on it, though.

Mercifully, I haven’t found a lot of Android games that eat CPU cycles so badly that this becomes an issue. (How many or few Android games can even make use of multiple CPU cores is something I can’t speculate on.) Android is very much the realm of mobile games, after all, and most publishers seem to take pains to not tax CPUs and GPUs (and by extension battery life) too badly. Square Enix games seem to be a consistent exception, though – their freemium RPG Guardian Cross is a particularly egregious eater of CPU cycles, perhaps the worst that I’ve stumbled across so far.

Being the realm of mobile games is not without its pitfalls, for the would-be “desktop” Android gamer, though. Two headaches that crop up time and again are the lack of a touchscreen (no pinch to zoom, for example) and tilt sensor, and games that stupidly require these to be playable. Another headache is games that require you to use two on-screen controls simultaneously (aim or move with a virtual d-pad on the left side, say, and shoot with a virtual button on the right, for example), which is impossible to do with a mouse or trackpad, and which don’t support a game controller. I like to imagine that as Android becomes even more ubiquitous and creeps beyond the cellphone and tablet boundaries, games which absolutely force phone/tablet-centric controls on the user will become fewer and far between, but I’m probably kidding myself. Even as it stands, though, there’s already a huge, huge number of games completely playable with nothing more than a mouse.

I do have an old wireless mini-keyboard I occasionally use with the MK808, but for the most part I use a two-button wireless mouse. Left-click to select stuff, right-click to go back, and 99% of the time you’re good.

There are of course newer ARM-based Android TV boxes out there, with more CPU cores or more features, but the MK808 is more than adequate for every controllable game I’ve thrown at it, and seems likely to remain so for quite some time. (My MK808′s AnTuTu benchmark with the factory firmware is 8963 total, 1817 CPU integer, 1315 CPU float, 1491 2D graphics, and 2283 3D graphics. This is comparable to a Galaxy S2, and quite a bit better than a Droid Razr. No, not high-end hardware, but my point is it’s not needed for the vast majority of mobile, Android, games.) It’s been around a bit and is quite popular, with a lot of support in the way of third-party ROMs and forums and things like that. It also benefits in that the vast majority of the user community is centered around Android use, whereas many other ARM boards of similar popularity have their userbases split between Android and anywhere up to a half-dozen competing Linux distributions with varying degrees of stability and maturity.

The MK808 is about $50, most places online. A GPU heatsink from a first-model (“fat”) Xbox 360 is about $5 on eBay. A good wireless USB mouse will set you back $15. If you need a separate sound output, a decent USB sound card is about $10. Add in $20 in Google Play credit, and you’re probably set for the most desktop gaming fun you can have for $100 – and all on a silent, fanless computer that draws just a watt or two of power.

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On Standardized Testing http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1564 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1564#comments Mon, 07 Oct 2013 16:01:31 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/?p=1564 Big portions of the Internet seem to be going all sturm und drang over this account of the horrific evils of standardized testing. A lot of the drama is from teachers bitching about them, which is… understandable. And there are a lot of rants from parents about various flaws with standardized, one-size-fits-all tests (or at least how they’re used).

And those are probably quite good and important conversations to have, I freely admit. I just kind of think a lot of people are really missing the point.

The Washington Post article re-posts a post that re-posts a middle-school teacher’s account of administering a reading-assessment test to eleven-year-old pupils. In that account, the teacher wrings his or her hands over the grievous cultural insensitivity of the test. Goodness, there are homonyms! Homonyms, I tell you! And questions predicated upon a patriarchal position of privilege and entitlement, and and and and…

What the teacher has, very ironically, somehow entirely failed to grasp is that this is an assessment test, and one (as far as I can tell) meant to be used at all grades. The students, especially those in fifth grade, aren’t supposed to be able to get every question right. Hell, if the test is accurate and honest, students in twelfth grade shouldn’t be able to get every question right. If they feel “stupid” because he or she’s failed to explain this clearly to them, that’s not their fault. It’s that of the teacher.

I took tests just like that, if not that exact same test, when I was in school two decades ago. Being an idiot, I probably didn’t do very well. But you know why I didn’t care? Why I wasn’t left a retrograde emotional wreck? Because the teachers I had made it clear up front that it was a test given to everyone up to and including high school seniors, and tested up to a post-graduate reading level. I was told up front I wasn’t expected to know much of that stuff. Do my best, don’t take it too seriously, and have fun. It wasn’t like “Aw crud, I only scored a 60 on that test? Kill me now”, but “Heck yeah, I got 60 questions right on that test! I bet that’s better than some of the mouth-breathing cretins on the varsity football team!”

What the teacher whining in this article is essentially advocating is dumbing down a fricking assessment test so that it becomes completely and utterly useless, in order to spare students’ feelings. Seriously. School shouldn’t be hard, or a challenge. To anyone! Making the students smart would be hard, so let’s just make the tests really fricking easy. “Teaching to the test” isn’t bad enough, apparently; this teacher thinks we should lower the bar some more and test to the lowest possible common denominator.

Which is so very much why the education system is completely broken in this country.

I mean, in fifth grade, you’ve probably got some small percentage of students reading at ninth or tenth grade levels, and a whole bunch reading at a third or fourth grade level, because schools just generally suck at actually educating people these days. And if you’ve got “special” pupils from differently-snowflake-y backgrounds, you’ve probably got a few who read at what should, honestly, be a second grade level.

But who cares how well, if at all, kids today can read! When the whole point of the “education” system is to teach people stuff that’s on tests that count, testing their cognitive and developmental levels is, possibly literally, counterproductive! Apparently, it’s unforgivable to this teacher to administer assessment tests that even one student anywhere isn’t going to confidently pass with flying colors, so in their world fifth graders should, if testing to discover what if anything they know is really an unavoidable burden, probably be tested at about what would have, a few years ago, been about a second grade level. Most if not all will pass, many will ace the test, it’ll be completely useless and won’t provide a single meaningful bit of information to the teacher or the school district or anyone, but… it’ll make many of the barely-literate students feel good about themselves, I guess. Which, it appears, is all schools now exist to do, sadly.

Standardized tests generally suck, don’t get me wrong. And the culture of utterly worthless “education” they have fostered over the last decade or two is reprehensible. However, if you’d like to know how moronic the broken system has left your students, an aptitude test that isn’t dumbed down and doesn’t pull any punches is the way to go, students’ precious egos be damned.

Swear to God, a decade from now, the final exam for twelfth-grade math is going to be the following question:

Name any combination of eight states, professional athletes, animals, colors, plants, and/or Pokemon.

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…and students lose two points out of one-hundred for filling in more or less than eight of the twelve lines.

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Daughter of the Coast Guard http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1560 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1560#comments Fri, 04 Oct 2013 13:26:59 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/?p=1560 I’m not normally one to write book reviews, but I’m also usually not in the strange position of having read a book that nobody on the Internet seems to have ever reviewed before. Even with my eclectic tastes in books, there’s almost always someone out there who’s read pretty much anything I’ve come across.

Not so with Daughter of the Coast Guard, a novel by Betty Baxter that was published by Goldsmith Publishing in 1938. Since it’s a fairly decent book that nobody’s ever heard of, I thought, eh, might as well review it, for posterity, or something.

Warnin’: Here be spoilers.

From around 1920 to the mid-1950s there were a huge number of novels published for teenage girls. Most are long-forgotten today, and the very few that are still remembered – Nancy Drew being perhaps the best example – were heavily rewritten and edited in later decades for… one reason or another. Most are pretty fun, because they were very very straightforward responses to the pulpy adventure novels of the day targeted at boys, featuring the same sorts of intrigues and adventures, just featuring young women as the protagonists. (Literally the same sort of novels; for every boy-oriented book, there was almost invariably a girl-oriented response. Young inventor? Check. Pilot? Check. Sailboat captain? Check. Amateur detective? Check check check check check…)

A word needs to be said here about how these books are viewed. Nowadays, a lot of these books are seen as extremely feminist, because of their self-reliant women who spare not a thought for love or romance, and who tend, more often than not, to engage in behavior and activities we like to think are or were more traditionally male. I think this interpretation is probably somewhat optimistic, personally. I don’t think most of these books were meant to be, you know, inspirational examples, or anything like that. They shouldn’t be seen as any sort of “feminist propaganda”, I don’t think. They were really just escapist literature, exactly like their boy-oriented counterparts, and and more often than not nothing more than that.

(During and after WWII, there was a fad for “occupational” novels for a while, which showed – supposedly – the joys of this-or-that occupation or career. Really they were just the same old pre-war adventure stories tarted up with somewhat socially-acceptable protagonists, or at least occupations. The most popular of these occupational series featured, wait for it… a nurse and an airline stewardess. Make of that what you will. Betty Baxter’s publication history actually documents this fairly well – between 1941 and 1947, she wrote and published seven “A Career Story” novels for young women whose careers grew increasingly tame with each successive year. Their occupations were reporter and copywriter in 1941 and 1942, occupations which Baxter had personal experience with. Another 1941 book featured an airline stewardess, which might have been trendy or might have just provided a convenient excuse to have a traveling protagonist. Then in 1942 she published a book about a nurse, in ’43 a book a book about a WAAC volunteer, in ’44 a book about, I believe, radio announcing, and in 1947, a book about… an interior designer.)

Anyway, that brings us, in a roundabout way, to Daughter of the Coast Guard. It’s set in a rural part of the southern peninsula of Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan, at an unspecified time right around the time it was published – 1938. The heroine is Cherry Hudson, youngest member and only daughter of the family that runs the local newspaper. She dreams of being a reporter, of writing feature articles and getting a “scoop” big enough to be sent to the wire services. Her best friend is Winnifred Lott, the almost comically tomboy daughter of the local Coast Guard station commander, who drives a convertible nicknamed the Gas Gull. Half the book “Win” spends driving Cherry around; the other half she’s pursuing the nautical half of the plot. The two girls’ families account for most of the rest of the named characters; add in a couple of classmates, and the cast is complete. Cherry’s brothers are kind of comically useless, with her eldest, Bill, being a particularly horrible example of a sibling, including relentless skirt-chasing. (He gets a sort of redeeming moment at the end, however.) I assume this – and a few other things, like her occasional complaints about her hair – are supposed to help teenage girls reading the book identify with her.

The plot is your typical not terribly inspired 1930s YA adventure thing, albeit done rather better than most. The girls become aware, through their families, of evidence of what seems to be a sinister smuggling ring operating in the area, and through various misadventures chance upon the culprits. Winifred gets to be a brave and dashing tomboy and save the day (she disables the engine of a speedboat, sabotages a machine gun, and swims in Lake Michigan at night in November with no ill effect), Cherry finally gets her big wire-service scoop, Bill turns out to be not quite the enormous jerkwad he seemed, and the horribly, clumsily obvious villains (the mysterious new family in town, surprise surprise, whose daughter and fellow classmate of Win and Cherry is just ludicrously annoying and mean) get caught red-handed. Everyone’s family is proud of their respective daughter, et cetera, et cetera.

All in all, it’s a pretty fun book that’s well-written, and very much worth reading if you should ever chance upon a copy (there are a fair few on the used market, for less than ten dollars), or someone for some reason reprints it. (According to a quick check, the copyright is expired and it’s now in the public domain.) There are a lot of fun details about nautical matters and the newspaper business of the era that are pretty exotic and interesting to the reader of today, including some lengthy bits about Coast Guard operations back in the day. There are, however, two very slightly awkward notes that need to be mentioned. One is the “colored” housekeeper/cook, who speaks (a mercifully brief few lines) in a probably fairly accurate patois that today would be considered deeply offensive. The other is that Denny, one of Cherry’s other brothers, at a family meal, drops a bit of just unbelievably painful casual racism into conversation on pages 89-90. It’s a bit of a reminder of the time the book is set, but, seriously… it’s still pretty bad, and nobody chides him about it or seems even the slightest bit bothered by it. (The line is “However, may I point out that the last one ready to take off in the family equipage for our Sunday worship is a niggah baby?”)

Compared to some books of the 1930s, this would have taken very, very little effort to make acceptable for the more sensitive audiences of the ’50s or early ’60s – or the audience of today, for that matter. Change a half-dozen lines of inconsequential dialogue, really, and you’d be good to go. So why was it never republished? Betty Baxter (as Betty Baxter Anderson) continued writing and publishing YA novels as late as 1962, and you’d think someone would have republished this somewhere along the way. But it wasn’t; it exists only as a pre-war hardcover, albeit in two printings with different binding colors and DJ illustrations. My guess is partially because the characters weren’t acceptable to the neo-Victorian prudes of the 1950s, and partially because the publisher’s history is… complicated. Daughter of the Coast Guard was one of the last books Goldsmith published. What exactly happened to them in 1938 isn’t clear; they were owned at one time by the M.A. Donohue company, a large publishing firm in Chicago, who themselves ceased to exist through some means or another around 1960. So it’s possible that prior to 1966 the book was stuck with the copyright (assigned to Goldsmith) in limbo. When the copyright finally expired in ’66 (1938 + 28 years, as was the case back then), not only was the market for pulpy YA novels, particularly for girls, pretty well dead, but the publisher was thoroughly kaput, and author Betty Baxter not only hadn’t published a book for six years, but had in fact passed away two years earlier, rendering the subject pretty much moot. With no postwar reprints, no cheap paperback editions, and a publisher who went out of business shortly after publication, it’s not too hard to see why nobody else on the Internet has ever reviewed this novel, despite its charms.

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Mountain Dew Pudding http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1555 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1555#comments Wed, 19 Jun 2013 10:44:41 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/?p=1555 It’s fun to occasionally browse through random old cookbooks looking for something new to make, and I admit the decision process is often a bit erratic. This sounds good, but I don’t have all the ingredients; I have everything for this, but it doesn’t look particularly good, or the instructions seem questionable, or the recipe looks incomplete, or the name is stupid… you know how it goes.

This week, I made Mountain Dew Pudding, pretty much just because of the name. (What, me, linkbait?)

It is, I dare say, not quite what you’re probably thinking of…

Mountain Dew Pudding is a 19c pudding (or perhaps custard, if you want to be particularly technical) that shows up in various cookbooks from about 1877 onwards. (There are references to puddings made with “mountain dew” or “mountain-dew” back to the 1840s, but it helps to realize that the name was a euphemism for whiskey, back then.) So, yeah, another Victorian recipe, here.

Despite the flashy name and modern-day associations, this is a pretty basic recipe. I followed the recipe as printed in a 1909 cookbook, because that was the first one I stumbled across, but it doesn’t differ materially from most of the earlier ones.

Here then is how you make Mountain Dew Pudding, should you be so inclined:

Take twelve soda crackers (“Saltines”, etc) and roll or otherwise crush them into a fine powder. In a mixing bowl, add to these the yolks of two eggs, a pint of milk, and about a quarter-cup of sugar. Mix well to dissolve the sugar and incorporate the egg, and you’ll wind up with a not-very-appetizing-looking gloop something like this:

Don’t worry, it gets better. Pour that mixture into a greased oven-safe dish:

…and bake at 350F for thirty minutes; the custard should be starting to set up and turning slightly brown on top.

Now, while that cools somewhat, beat the whites of the two eggs (you did save them, yes?) to vaguely stuff peaks. Because I’m a masochist and don’t own an electric mixer, I did it the period-correct way, but feel free to cheat, should you so desire.

To the beaten egg whites add a half-cup of sugar, a pinch of salt, and the juice of half a lemon. Beat that all together, and pour your, um, meringue, I suppose, over the top of the pudding.

Put the whole thing back in the over until the meringue takes on a delicate golden-brown color, which in my case took exactly as long as it took me to do the dishes, probably around 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and admire.

Let cool, place in the refrigerator to chill, serve, and enjoy.

The reality is that, despite the modern-day novelty of the name, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill 19C pudding recipe. The meringue bit tastes pleasingly of lemon, and the rest of it tastes of, well… pudding. Or custard, I suppose. Other variations definitely worth trying from different versions of the recipe include flavoring the custard with lemon juice or adding a half-cup of shredded dried coconut. (But probably not both, though you never know…)

There you have it, anyway; a cheap and easy dessert perfect for your next period dinner or party, and/or something whose name is great to troll folks with.

For reference, here’s the recipe I used, from the 1909 edition of “Snap Shots at Cookery”, published by the Church of the Ascension in Buffalo:

The discerning reader will note the recipe calls for three crackers, and I used twelve. The reason for this is that the little table crackers we all know and love used to come in a larger, two-by-two format, back in the day; 3×4=12.

Here, for those interested, is the oldest copy of the recipe I could find, from an 1877 Portland cookbook possibly titled “Fish, Flesh, and Fowl”:

(Obligatory note, for the youth of today: You could probably make instant pudding with actual Mountain Dew, substituted directly for milk in the package instructions; if you manage to find Mt. Dew in a 16-ounce glass bottle, you’ve even got the exact amount needed, no measuring required. (Coincidence? Probably.) It’ll probably taste somewhat vile, but, hey, don’t let that stop you…)

So, yeah. Mountain Dew Pudding. Now you know, et cetera.

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“Everybody knows. Nobody cares.” http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1547 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1547#comments Fri, 24 May 2013 09:44:31 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/?p=1547 Over a decade ago, I worked in a large bookstore. It was a mostly fun job, largely because of the people who worked there.

I’ve worked in several bookstores over the years, and one thing I’ve noticed – and one thing that a lot of people often overlook, or try to – is that, for whatever reason or reasons, LGBTQ folks tend to make up a disproportionately large majority of the staff. Possibly not true for Christian bookstores, I admit, and I’m not sure about those few dying second-hand stores, but chain bookstores aren’t exactly institutions of rigid heterosexuality, if you get what I’m saying. And the people who work there are, by and large, anything but judgmental. I mean, I spent something like three years working with a woman who was a beaver. That was just her thing. She insisted she wasn’t a furry – “Furries are people who have an animal form,” she used to say, “I’m an animal with a human form. See the difference?” – and everybody just shrugged and completely failed to care, because she was a nice person and good at her job.

Anyway, now that the stage has been set, as it were, an inspirational little story from my retail adventures in the 1990s.

One fine spring day, one year – about this time of year, in fact – a bunch of us from the store went off to a party together. There were a couple of supervisors, and a few of us regular peon types. There was also this one woman, whom we’ll call, for the purposes of this story, Cathy. She was a supervisor, for inexplicable reasons; she was a person for whom the term “space cadet” might well have been invented. Perky and cheerful, yes, but also forgetful, and absent-minded… and more than a bit of a gossip. If you wanted to know what was going on in the store, she was the woman to talk to, though if she didn’t know something, odds were good she’d invent it…

Well, all of us from the store were sitting around a table together, drinking and eating and conspicuously failing to socialize with people whose lives didn’t revolve around books, as tends to be the case, and suddenly Cathy had an announcement to make.

“I went out drinking with James last week,” she said, in a loud yet conspiratorial fashion, “and he told me a secret.”

Ah, James. Always James, never Jim or Jamie or Jimmy, or any other diminutive. Another of the supervisors at the store, he was fairly quiet and not super social, but had a truly wicked sense of humor, once you got to know him. We worked mornings together fairly often, despite neither of us being morning people. He was extremely smart, very competent, highly reliable. A good guy, basically. The exact opposite of Cathy, in almost every respect.

Well, fast-forward a couple of days, and James and I are scheduled together one morning. It’s mid-morning, and the store is slow as hell. “Hey, James?” I say to him. “Can we talk for a second?”

He gets this sort of confused, pensive look, but agrees, and we wind up in the assistant manager’s office. I shut the door.

“So, what’s up?” James asks.

“Well,” I told him, “I was at that party over the weekend.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, nodding. “How was it?”

“Nobody’s told you about it, I take it? It was pretty boring, mostly, but it had its moments. Cathy was there.”

“Yeah?” he says.

“All of us from the store were together, and she suddenly announced that you’d told her a big secret.”

Maybe that wasn’t the best way to approach the subject, because his eyes widened and his face completely drained of color, and he said, very nervously, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” I told him, “I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.”

“I should have known better than to confide in her,” James muttered, with a fair bit of anger.

“Yeah, well, anyway. Listen. So after a couple of moments, Cathy comes right out and announces that you’re gay.”

James nodded, but didn’t say anything, so I continued.

“Well,” I told him, “all of the rest of us more or less said, in unison, mind you, ‘and?’. And Cathy said ‘And what? That’s it. He’s gay.’ And we all said, again in unison, ‘Um, yeah. We know. Not news.’”

Well, James looked at me with a very confused, very complicated expression for a long, long moment, and finally said “…Really?”

“Really,” I told him, nodding. “I’m not trying to be an asshole or anything, but, well… Everyone knows. Nobody cares. That’s the way it is. I figured you should know… and that nobody else was going to tell you.” And it was true. Everybody knew, and had known, more-or-less forever.

Except Cathy, obviously. But she was a space cadet, remember?

In a lot of ways, it was one of the better things to happen to James. He’d been in a transparent closet for several years, trapped by both the belief that nobody could tell and the fear that everyone would hate him if they knew. He’d gone so far as to avoid dating anyone, lest they call him at work or come visit and “out” him. He wouldn’t even go to any of the nightclubs, lest he run into one of the other employees, and spoil his secret.

Fear is a terrible, and irrational, thing.

And it was all completely unnecessary, because everyone already knew, and nobody cared.

He never exactly came out, at work, per se. There was no announcement, nothing like that. There was no point; everyone knew, even Cathy, now. But he did lighten up quite a bit, with that burden lifted off of him. He stopped living in constant fear, I think. Stopped censoring himself, so as not to inadvertently let something slip in conversation. Stopped buying his LGBT books at a competing store, and started buying them at work, with his employee discount.

Started going to clubs and dating and having fun and getting on with his life, which he’d basically put on hold for several years out of entirely misplaced fear.

Anyway, I guess the point of this winding trip down memory lane is this: there will always be assholes in the world, and bigots, and people who are just generally mean and stupid. But people who like you aren’t going to stop liking you just because you tell them you’re gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or whatever. The smart ones probably already know. (The dumb ones you maybe don’t really want to be friends with, anyway.) And if they know, and they still like you, they probably don’t care in the slightest.

Just some food for thought…

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An Enigma, in Silver-Grey http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1535 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1535#comments Thu, 02 May 2013 10:25:44 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/?p=1535 So, online auctions.

The first rule of online auctions is “Caveat Emptor”, right? Buyer beware. Everyone knows that, I think. Well, I hope.

But what’s the second rule? Or the third? The fourth?

Personally, I like to say they are, in no particular order, “don’t buy something if the seller doesn’t know what it is, because it’s probably fake, or broken, or both”; “don’t buy anything if the seller is less-literate than a fourth-grader, you’ll just encourage them”; and “don’t buy something if you don’t know what it is, either”.

Sometimes, I’m not afraid to admit, I break those rules myself.

Case in point…

The seller didn’t know what this was. I’m not sure what it is, other than the obvious, i.e. a pin or brooch. It’s… probably not a military cap badge, as I suspected it might be from the blurry photo and vague description. That I know. What it is… is quite a bit trickier.

It’s silver. 800 thousands fineness, according to the mark on the back, and I have no reason to doubt that. It’s big, about 1-3/4 inch or 45mm across. There are a pin and catch on the back that would not be anachronistic right around WWI, maybe ca. 1905-1920, though they could be replacements, and the piece might actually be from the late 19th century. There are no hallmarks, no maker’s marks, no indication of the country of origin. It’s made – and very well made, by hand; the skill and craftsmanship that went into this piece are quite impressive – of a bunch of pieces, more than twenty in all, and there’s reason to suspect that the majority of the pin is actually fashioned from pieces of silver coins. (Making it literally “coin silver”, I suppose.) I strongly doubt it was made as a project for a school class somewhere, for a couple of reasons.

The thing in the middle I thought might be the coat-of-arms of Hamburg, Germany, but I’m pretty sure that’s not correct. Likewise Gibraltar.

If you recognize the design of this, I’d love to hear from you, as I suspect that’ll provide most of the answers I’m ever going to get about this odd not-so-little pin.

(Edited to add: One correspondent suggests it could be an older, pre-WWII emblem for the city of Cagliari, in Italy, which seems as plausible as any other guess.)

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Most Awkward Sentence Ever http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1533 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1533#comments Mon, 28 Jan 2013 10:11:38 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1533 When reading old books, a certain type of person likes to laugh or snicker when they come across some quaint old bit of vocabulary that happens to have changed slightly in meaning in the intervening decades.

You know the things I’m talking about. Describing someone who is merely strange as queer, or someone happy as gay. Mentioning throwing another faggot on the fire, perhaps.

Language changes. We all know this, and most of these instances really aren’t that noteworthy, let alone funny.

Sometimes, though…

Read, if you would, the following excerpt from a novel, and see if you can spot the bit that doesn’t mean what you probably first interpreted it as.

Did you spot it? Here, just to make clear what we’re talking about…

A man leaps out of bed… after grasping at “his vanishing manhood”. (!)

No, this isn’t some erotica title. He isn’t engaging in some early-morning self-abuse. The book is Out of the Air, a justifiably long-forgotten novel from 1920 by the late Inez Haynes Gillmore, who was exceedingly fond of her thesaurus. For “manhood”, in this case, you should read “courage”, not… “penis”.

Sorry. Some things are so horrible they have to be shared. Shared pain is lessened, y’know.

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FOIA Hell at the Department of State http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1532 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1532#comments Mon, 07 Jan 2013 15:50:45 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1532 In the summer of 2008, I – and others, it appears – made a FOIA request to the Department of State for a couple of pages from “Diplopedia”, the department’s internal wiki.

At the same time, I made a request for pages on the same handful of topics to the ODNI, regarding the better-known “Intellipedia” system of wikis.

The plan was to do a compare-and-contrast thing, see what the DOS wiki had to say on certain subjects compared to the wikis of the intelligence community – and Wikipedia.

Fast forward two requests, several phone calls, one administrative appeal, and more than four years, and…

…I finally got a response from the Department of State today. (Still nothing from the ODNI. I believe that my request to them is their oldest open FOIA case, but I may be wrong.)

Guess what the DOS sent me? Eight screenshots from, wait for it…

Intellipedia.

And those pages in Intellipedia are verbatim imports from Wikipedia; they even include a disclaimer to that effect.

Yay Wikipedia. I guess. But more to the point… three years to release (in full) eight screenshots? (The DOS denied my original 2008 request in full, because they are malingering imbeciles. After being lied to repeatedly, they created a new FOIA “case” in late 2009.)

Strangely, the screenshots are marked as having been reviewed for release in October 2011. They were sent to me in December, 2012. What on earth took the Department of State fourteen months, in the interim? I have no idea. I doubt they do, either.

The only upside to this laughable debacle is that no fees were assessed for their, ahem, timely and responsive service.

Oh, and a little note here, to the State Department, particularly the folks from the Office of Information Programs and Services, on the offhand chance you folks might stumble across this: I’m not posting copies of your released documents here, not just because blurry sixth-generation photocopies of screenshots of Wikipedia content are boring as hell, but because you neglected to redact several small things in the release that you really should have. Tsk, tsk…

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Value, in the Eye of the Beholder http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1531 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1531#comments Mon, 31 Dec 2012 17:56:27 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1531 It’s kind of sad, if you stop and think about it, how much history is getting destroyed these days. I’m not talking about the fad of “upcycling”, wherein all too often perfectly serviceable antiques, or at least things that are old, get – if we’re honest – ruined and turned into… uninspired objets d’art, and then listed for sale on Etsy in the hopes that there really is a sucker born every minute. (I kid. But only slightly.)

No, what really depresses me is how much history is being destroyed, these days, because of inflated precious-metal prices. Grandma’s gold wedding ring? Melt it down! Uncle Bobby’s Air Force wings, in sterling silver? Melt ‘em down! Those old salt cellars sitting in the cabinet? Melt ‘em down!

Artistic value? Historical value? Sentimental value? All subservient to the intrinsic value. Nobody cares about anything except the weight, anymore. Which is a bad thing, because as precious-metal prices have increased several-fold in the last decade or so, the market value of most old jewelry, silverware, and so on has not increased accordingly, so that a really huge number of artifacts from the last two-hundred years are worth, in many instances, the same or even less to collectors than to precious-metal refiners, which is not a terribly enviable situation, if you care about history.

This, somewhat obviously, is a ring, for the finger:

In the taxonomy of things, this is costume jewelry. Made – I’m guessing here – in the 1920s or 1930s, this was made of sterling silver, and featured one large foiled blue glass rhinestone, and two smaller foiled rhinestone accents, probably white. It was mass-produced by stamping or pressing, and there likely were thousands of them made.

There are just over three grams of sterling silver in this ring, meaning – as I type this – the intrinsic value is right about three dollars.

I paid about six – but I had to pay for shipping, y’know.

Realistically, it wasn’t worth much more than three bucks, even had it been in better condition. It’s not from any famous maker, which largely eliminates any significant collector interest. And, as it was, it wasn’t exactly wearable, or even particularly attractive; the accent stones – only glued in place, which says this was a really low-end piece of costume jewelry, incidentally – had long since fallen out, and the foiling on the main stone was in really horrible shape:

Fugly, am I right? Jewelry like this is getting melted en masse today – and most of those are the lucky survivors who somehow avoided the smelter during the metal boom of the early 1980s, or the metal boom of the 1970s… or the recycling efforts of WWII. (Though silver wasn’t a strategic resource during the war, in the United States – but that’s largely because the U.S. has silver mines.)

What’s a crotchety blogger to do? Well, I wondered, could I fix it? Could I make it good as new?

I could, actually.

But I could also make it better.

So, I busted out the tools, made some measurements, placed a couple of orders, girded my loins, figuratively speaking, and set out to “upcycle” this elderly silver ring into, um… a silver ring.

I popped the one remaining rhinestone out of the setting, and resized the ring to fit someone I knew who was interested in the finished product. Then, using a graver, a file, a burnisher, and a couple of other tools, I set some little white topazes (often used as imitation diamonds in jewelry, way back in the day) into the fake setting-shaped spots where the accent rhinestones had once been glued.

That was a phenomenal pain in the posterior, as I had to move a lot of metal, but worked out okay in the end.

I then set a blue topaz cabochon in the main setting (yay for standard calibrated sizes), and polished everything up.


(don’t mind the polishing detritus left on the stone, sigh…)

The end result is a, well, costume jewelry ring in sterling, still – but one that’s attractive and wearable. Even though the stones are replacements, it’s still, in a very real sense, a ring from the 1920s or 1930s, and one that will – hopefully – hang around for another eighty or ninety years, valued by someone, somewhere, for more than its intrinsic precious-metal content.

Admittedly, this isn’t really an economically viable way of preserving history. The wholesale cost of the stones I set in the ring are about $15-20, to say nothing of my time, and the end result is still a piece of costume jewelry whose intrinsic value, when all is said and done, is about three dollars. No, you do this because you care about history, or because you want to preserve something you enjoy on its own merits, which is, I feel, a perfectly respectable hobby.

To be fair, I did totally cheat, in that I didn’t just randomly pick this ring for refabbing on a whim. A lot of costume jewelry back in the day really isn’t fixable, because the stones are set in one of a couple of fashions that don’t lend themselves to practical replacement. (And replacement or at least removal is often necessary, if the foiling has failed, or the rhinestones, made of comparatively soft leaded glass, are scratched or chipped.) I picked this ring because the main stone was held in place with four good-sized prongs, rather than being bezel-set or channel-set or, worse yet, punch-mounted, as was very popular on costume (and even some “fine”) jewelry at one time. And I picked one without any marcasites (or fake marcasites…), which are freaking evil little SOBs to deal with. A lot of costume jewelry wasn’t made to last, unfortunately – which, in a way, could be an argument for doing what you can to preserve the stuff that was, I suppose…

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Thomas Jefferson’s Mac and Cheese http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1530 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1530#comments Mon, 10 Dec 2012 22:46:43 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1530 Macaroni and Cheese. The name, in much of the world, conjures up a familiar image of elbow macaroni in a yellow, cheddar-y sauce. According to Wikipedia, the English-speaking world’s love of the gooey stuff owes much to President Jefferson, who encountered the dish in France in the late 1700s, and became enamored of it.

The Wikipedia article points out a recipe for macaroni and cheese in an influential 1824 cookbook, and it’s quite a simple one, at that: Macaroni, cheese, and butter.

Guess what? That’s not the original recipe for mac and cheese, as we know it. It’s almost certainly not the recipe that Jefferson enjoyed at the White House.

While geeking out with vintage cookbooks recently, I happened to find myself perusing a copy of The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined, by John Mollard, published in 1802. That’s during Jefferson’s tenure as President, in case you’re not up on these things. And what did I happen to find? Why a recipe for…

Now, the recipe says “To stew maccaroni” (sic), not “macaroni and cheese” (or even “maccaroni and cheese”), but a quick look at the details should leave you in little doubt that this is nothing less than 210-year-old mac and cheese.

I have made this, and it is delicious. :) It’s also a lot quicker and easier than most homemade macaroni and cheese recipes, taking about half an hour, from start to completion.

Here’s what you need, and what you need to do, in modern cooking terms:


Ingredients
A quarter pound of flat pasta (I used farfalle)
Five ounces of cream (heavy whipping cream)
Two ounces (four tablespoons) of butter, cut into one-tablespoon chunks
Four ounces of Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
One-quarter teaspoon salt (or less, see notes below)
one-eighth teaspoon or less cayenne pepper
Four to eight cups of beef stock (I used concentrate; you could use bouillon cubes, or whatever) – enough to cover the pasta in a saucepan

Instructions

Make your beef stock, and bring it to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. While you’re waiting for that to happen, grate your Parmesan cheese. Add the macaroni to the pan, return to a boil, cook until the pasta is al dente, according to the instructions on the box, probably around eight to ten minutes. While it’s cooking, measure out the cream, and cut up the butter. Drain the cooked noodles in a colander, then return to the pan. Return the pan to the burner. Add all the butter, all the cream, and three-fourths of the grated cheese to the noodles. Stir to melt the butter and cheese, and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove from heat, and scoop into a small oven-safe baking dish. Spread it out evenly, sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top, and place under your broiler, on low, for five to eight minutes, or until the cheese on top is lightly browned. Remove from oven, let rest a couple of minutes, and serve in all its gooey, delicious goodness.


Now, it’s not the healthiest meal in the world, obviously. This is good old-fashioned stick-to-your ribs stuff, the kind of thing that makes a wonderful side dish on a snowy winter day. But, you know, it’s really pretty delicious, and there’s a certain satisfying degree of amusement that comes from cooking not only from a recipe that’s more than two centuries old, but what is one of the earliest forms of a modern-day staple.

A couple of notes:

The 1802 recipe calls for “riband maccaroni”. Riband means something flat and, well, ribbon-like. I went with farfalle, because it seemed well-suited for the recipe, but I doubt the exact pasta choice is particularly critical.

The 1802 recipe calls for “a little” of both salt and cayenne pepper. A quarter-teaspoon of coarse salt improves the recipe, in my opinion, but this may depend on how salty your beef stock is, whether you use salted or unsalted butter, and what, if anything, you use for “essence of ham”, about which more in a moment. As to the cayenne, a little goes a long way.

The original 1802 recipe calls for “a table spoonful of the essence of ham”. That is to say, essentially, pan juices from a cooked ham. Don’t have any of that in your refrigerator? Me either. I suspect it can be safely left out – as I chose to do – or you could perhaps substitute a tablespoon of the beef broth you cook the pasta in. I suspect that early nineteenth-century essence of ham would have been rather salty and slightly savory.

Wikipedia refers to a “macaroni pie” served at the White House in 1802. I can’t say for sure what that entailed, but it might be worth noting that doubling the recipe given produces an amount that will (with, again, farfalle) nicely fill a ten-inch pie pan – and after broiling for a few minutes, you’ll be left with quite a nice “crust” on the top.

There you have it, then. A simple and easy recipe from two-hundred ten years ago that’s not only delicious, but may have – in a very real sense – helped change the world, however slightly.

I encourage you to try it. I think you’ll be as impressed as I was, and I think you’ll see why Jefferson was so enamored of mac and cheese as he knew it.

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Untitled Bit of Link-Heavy Self-Serving Nonsense http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1529 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1529#comments Sat, 01 Dec 2012 19:26:53 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1529

No count has yet been made of the number of movie patrons who went to see The Seventh Veil in fond expectation that it would combine the most salient features of Salome and Minsky. It didn’t, of course: the veil that was lifted concealed only actress Ann Todd‘s innermost thoughts.
A more pertinent estimate made recently, however, indicates what producers have long suspected—that one-fourth of all movie-goers select their entertainment solely on the appeal of a film’s title. High-powered publicity, star casts, critics’ reviews and personal recommendations mean nothing to this phlegmatic 25 per cent. If the title “sounds pretty good”, they will pay their money without further ado.
Any businessman will tell you that 25 per cent is a figure to be treated with respect. In the move industry, it often means the difference between red ink and black. Small wonder that some of Hollywood’s highest-paid brains labor mightily over movie titles—occasionally bringing forth a mouse.
Twentieth Century-Fox had a sad experience when it first released Bob, Son of Battle, from the book of the same name. This was at a time when war stories were fast loving favor and movie-goers mistook it for a picture about the war. The thousands of dollars already spent to publicize the title had to be written off, and the opus—about a dog—relabeled Thunder in the Valley, a phrase which suggested intense conflict in a satisfactorily vague fashion.

Do not adjust your Internet. Yes, this gossip, though interesting, is slightly dated. It may still be somewhat relevant, however…

Many experts believe that the ideal titles are single words like Spellbound, Lifeboat, or Possessed. They do not clutter up the marquee, an important point in these days of double features; they can be read by prospects speeding by in a bus or auto; and they do not impose an unreasonable burden upon the average person’s memory.
Perhaps the outstanding exception was a 1939 comedy named Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President. The shortest title undoubtedly was M, the Peter Lorre melodrama imported from Germany.
A title should give some inkling of the film’s contents and if possible bring to mind the featured player. Spitfire, starring Lupe Velez, and Jezebel, with Bette Davis, were practically perfect.

These quotes are excerpted from a fascinating article in the April 1950 issue of Coronet, a long-defunct magazine. Much of the article has to do with the Hays Office, something that’s happily no longer relevant. I have no idea what voodoo movie companies use today to pick movie titles – the 1950 article hints that some movie executives may not have literally used voodoo, but certainly did use astrologers – but I know first-hand the agonizing many writers go through when faced with the unfortunate necessity of titling their latest work. People – like myself – who write short fiction may have it even worse, having to come up with a dozen or more titles in a year’s time.

I tend not to think too hard about the titles I give my books, which is probably why most of them are burdened with horrible, meaningless, and instantly-forgettable titles. (A recent urban fantasy short story isn’t even titled in English, but in Basque, just because I could.) That doesn’t mean that the books themselves are (necessarily…) horrible, meaningless, or instantly-forgettable, though – or so I hope.

Having been slightly busy (and ill…) lately and having largely neglected to post anything here for a good long while, I figured that now, with the holidays approaching, might be a good time to, ahem, pimp some of the more recent fruits of my unskilled labors.

There is, for example, Hamaika, that very urban fantasy story. Like nerdy stories about science-fiction conventions, fruitcake, and zombie jokes? You might like Hamaika, which is available at Amazon, and iTunes, and on the Nook, and pretty much everywhere else e-books are sold.

There is also An Accidental Fastball to the Heart, a heartwarming lesbian romance novel that I thought I’d never finish. Only available on the Kindle right now – but I hope to have a paperback edition available by Christmas.

Those of you who don’t care for e-books might be joyed to learn that I’ve recently published a paperback collection of my short fiction, which can be ordered from Amazon (including overseas Amazons!) and Barnes and Noble, and pretty much anywhere else. The collection, Unmarketable Dross – and how’s that for a great title, huh? It’s really hard to believe nobody’s ever used it for a book before, isn’t it? – brings together six novellas of mine from the last couple of years that were previously only available in electronic editions. Among other things, it’s the only place you can get Midnight’s Tale, my literary masterpiece about a goat, which has somehow won me fame and fortune and acclaim, however tiny and short-lived, in print. It makes a great Christmas present, if I do say so myself.

Well, that’s what’s new—and old—in my life, dear reader. How about you?

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On the Nomenclature And Design of Tie, Scarf, And, If You Insist, Stick Pins http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1528 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1528#comments Thu, 23 Aug 2012 12:47:39 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1528 This is a tie pin:

It’s probably late Georgian or early Victorian – 1830-1850 – and it’s not, alas, mine; it belongs to a friend. (Were it mine, I’d have polished it. Silver’s supposed to shine, y’know.)

Anyway, I enjoy vintage jewelry as much as the next fellow. Actually, I probably enjoy it more than the next fellow, because part of the enjoyment I derive is knowing and understanding how the pieces were made. It’s an invaluable skill, not only because it lets you spot modern reproductions more easily, but because it helps you appreciate the amount of labor and effort that went – goes – into making entirely handmade jewelry.

Anyway, tie pins – which are two to two-and-a-half inches long, pretty much always; anything much longer than that is almost certainly a hat pin – are fun little pieces of history because they’re obsolete, because they’re inexpensive, and because they’re unisex.

The first two go hand-in-hand, for the most part – nobody wears tie pins anymore, so there’s little demand, and thus prices are highly affordable. But… unisex? Really?

Really.

Tie pins started out as a man’s accessory in the early 1800s, but by the end of the century women were wearing them, purely as ornamentation. In the first third of the 20th century, they were in vogue not just as decoration, but in another functional capacity, as scarf pins.

Eighty years later, everyone seems to call them “stick pins”, because we’re unoriginal and don’t remember our own history.

Stick pin == scarf pin == tie pin.

Anyway, people who collect – or, God forbid, wear – old tie pins may notice that some specimens have shafts which aren’t completely smooth, as you see here:

Sometimes there are little indentations like on this example; sometimes the shaft has been twisted several times.

Most people seem to think this is ornamental, which is stupid; you don’t see that part of the pin when it’s worn. (See the first picture, above.) Others – many others – claim that this was done to make the pins grip fabric better. At first glance, this seems plausible enough – until you stop to wonder why only a small percentage of tie pins have this, and why you never see it on mass-produced 20th-century base-metal pins. If it was to keep pins from falling out, why wasn’t such a functional feature widespread? And, indeed, why – when it does occur – is it always just in a narrow area in the very middle of the pin shaft, where it makes the least contact with fabric?

Well, quite simply, because it’s there for an entirely different reason altogether: strength.

The patterning, the twisting, is a byproduct of what actually went on, which is that the pin shafts were work-hardened by hammering or twisting, to give the metal additional strength… right in the middle of the pin, where it’s most likely to bend. You only see it on pins with silver or gold shafts; work-hardening would damage plated metal, and is completely unnecessary on the brass or bronze pins of base-metal tie and scarf pins.

Now, to be fair, you do often find tie pins with precious-metal shafts that haven’t been work-hardened, for whatever reason. I don’t think this necessarily reflects anything about the skill or knowledge of the jewelers who made such pieces; work-hardening metal is a very basic piece of knowledge that pretty much every jeweler in the last two centuries has known about – and jewelry textbooks even as recent as the 1910s specifically discussed work-hardening pin shafts. Rather, I think they chose to leave shafts unhardened for a combination of two reasons – the aesthetics of a perfectly smooth and unmarred piece of metal, and the realization, from experience, that despite what the textbooks say, no matter how much you harden the damned things, people are still going to bend them, anyway. (Which is in itself usually a pretty good way of playing spot-the-precious-metal-tie-pin, on eBay or Etsy or at an antique store. If the pin shaft is all wavy, it’s probably gold or silver. If it’s straight as an arrow, it’s almost certainly brass or cupro-nickel.)

So, now you know. And the next time you see a “stick pin” – at an antique store or your grandmother’s jewelry box, or wherever – please stop and appreciate the fact that such dainty, delicate little baubles were, once upon a time, made by skilled artists employing, however crudely, an important bit of classical engineering knowledge.

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National Semicondictor NSN66 LED Displays http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1527 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1527#comments Fri, 06 Jul 2012 19:36:15 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1527 This is half a quick note for my own reference, half a note for anyone else who might happen across one of these, and half a note to let you know, dear reader, that I’m not dead…

The NSN66 (and, I suspect, very similar NSN66A) is a very old-school six-digit seven-segment LED display manufactured by National Semiconductor back in the early 1970s. I’m not sure what they originally found use in, probably radios. Obsolete for several decades, the global electronics marketplace is such that you can find them new, today, without a whole lot of difficulty, and without paying too much money.

There are several places online that sell ‘em, still, and with a bit of searching you can even find the datasheet, which will tell you it was introduced around 1973, is a 1/8th-inch common-cathode red GaAsP display, that each segment is 3.0V, and draws an average 5ma, with the max rating per segment being 60ma, a pulse width of 10ms, and a viewing angle of +/-60 degrees off-axis.

What nobody seems to tell you is the pin assignments.

Well, if you were looking for that, here you go…

The display module has a row of seventeen holes on 0.1″ centers. Holes 0, 10, and 16 are unconnected.

With the somewhat standard notation that the top is segment A, the top-right is segment B, the lower-right is segment C, the bottom is segment D, the lower-left is segment E, the top-left is segment F, and the centre is segment G, the pinout, viewed from the front, is:

NC | C | 1 | DOT | 2 | A | 3 | E | 4 | D | NC | G | 5 | B | 6 | F | NC

(As the datasheet points out, on the NSN66, there’s only a dot on the fourth digit on the NSN66. I’m not sure if the NSN66A has a dot on every digit or not.)

These are very neat, very small, extremely retro displays well-suited for all sorts of improbable projects. The weird single dot limits its functionality in many regards, but, well, there’s probably a reason they’re plentiful… and cheap…

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Did You Hear the One About the Goat? http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1526 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1526#comments Fri, 25 May 2012 19:54:21 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1526 Or, indeed, the other one about the goat?

I figured I’d mention here two recent electronic publications of mine that might be of interest to a couple readers:

At the beginning of April I published a romantic comedy novella called “All The Wrong Reasons”. It’s a tale of awkwardness, misunderstanding, humor, and a goat. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a dangerously genre-savvy young idiot and the woman he desperately wants not to fall in love with. Hijinks ensue, and all that kind of thing.

Just another typical story of mine, really. :)

You can get it at Amazon or Kobo or iTunes or Barnes and Noble or at Smashwords in all those formats and more.

Spurred on by a reader’s request (and egged on by my own Imp of the Perverse) I then wrote and published “Midnight’s Tale”, which tells the story of the goat in All The Wrong Reasons. My tenth published ebook, it’s a finely-crafted piece of belles lettres Serious Literature about life, love, and livestock.

It’s available at Amazon and at Smashwords in all the various ereader formats. The one person who’s bought a copy so far found it extremely compelling, apparently. You’d probably like it, too…

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Reviving Old Raleigh 3-Speed Pedals On the Cheap http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1525 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1525#comments Sun, 20 May 2012 15:10:12 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1525 One of my relatives recently decided to take up bicycling. While this is good, because exercise is a good thing, blah blah blah, I was tasked with both finding them a suitable bicycle, and ensuring its functionality.

Their criteria was fairly simple: It had to be a diamond frame (i.e. a “men’s bike”), it had to have upright handlebars, and it could have no more than five speeds. (I have no idea why, either. I just do what I’m told.)

My criteria was a bit more complicated: It had to actually fit them, it had to be in decent mechanical shape, it had to not use a buttload of proprietary-sized parts or need obscure proprietary tools to work on, and it had to not be a super attractive theft-magnet, because they are probably only going to use a cable lock, not a u-lock, and we’d both feel bad if it got stolen.

I almost wavered on the last one – there was a gorgeous 1950s BSA three-speed on Craigslist, fully restored, for $150 – but in the end I persevered, and we wound up with…

…a 3-speed Hercules from the mid-1960s. Built in Nottingham by Raleigh and imported and marketed by AMF, it’s a fairly common bike, essentially a re-badged Raleigh Sports. Fluted fenders with pinstripes, woo-hoo. We picked it up from the world’s most inept bike flipper, who’d taken the bike to a fairly inept bike shop somewhere. End result of their cluelessness was that the bike didn’t shift, and the chain skipped, which kept the price way, way down. :)

Anyway, with the wheel mounted correctly and the shifter adjusted properly, and a little light oil in the rear hub, the whole thing works quite well, and its new owner is apparently happy with it. Yay me.

(Yes, I did kind of compromise on the whole “no proprietary-sized parts” thing, with the Hercules and Raleigh’s penchant for doing things their way. But, eh, I wasn’t going to replace the bottom bracket, so who really cares? The seatpost and stem are standard and popular sizes (cough, Schwinn, cough) and it takes a reasonably standard tire size (cough, Schwinn, cough), and that’s really good enough for me.)

In my spare time, though, I’ve been going over the bike and making sure everything is working correctly. Re-greasing the front hub, lubricating the brakes, that kind of thing. Making a working bike work better.

Eventually I got to the pedals, which didn’t spin nearly as well as they should have. No problem, pop them off and overhaul them, right?

If only it were so easy.

These are the less-desirable Raleigh pedals made in Germany by Union, which aren’t designed to be serviced. Oh, you can take them apart – you just have to drill out the rivets, and replace them with long bolts, or something. That sounds a lot like work, though, so I got to wondering if there wasn’t some other option…

I cleaned the pedals pretty well, which helped reveal that the inner bearings are basically exposed, i.e. you can actually see the (loose) balls. Makes sense, I suppose; English bikes from back in the day were oil-lubed, by and large, and the manuals generally advised dripping a bit of oil on all the various moving parts once or twice a month. Alright, fair enough; I took a bottle of light oil, and dribbled a bit into the inner bearings on one of the pedals. Giving it a spin, it was a definite improvement… but it still wasn’t as great as it could have been. A little more oil, maybe? No, the problem was almost certainly the outer bearings, still as sticky and dry as the inner one had been a moment earlier.

Not a little oil, no. A lot.

Basically, hold the pedal with the threaded shaft upright, dribble oil into the bearings, spin the shaft a bit to let the oil work its way in, and repeat. After several minutes, a bunch of patience, and a fair amount of oil, some will work its way down the insides of the pedal to the outer bearings, and suddenly the whole thing will spin smoothly, just like new.

It’s perhaps a bit of a kludge, but it seems vaguely appropriate on a British 3-speed, which are generally infamous for leaking and dripping oil under the best of circumstances, and it’s a heck of a lot easier than drilling out rivets and so on. A couple drops of oil in there every several months, and it’ll probably last another fifty years or so, I’m guessing.

I haven’t ridden it much, but the Hercules is a surprisingly nice bike. They’re not collectible and only have nominal value, but they were built to last by Raleigh, back in the day. Lycra-wearing weight weenies might deride them as heavy and slow, but it’s actually quite a bit lighter than the somewhat comparable Schwinn Suburban I have. It might not go quite as fast as the ten-speed Schwinn, but there’s a lot to be said for the nice, quiet, Sturmey-Archer AW hub. And, now that I’ve got everything working well, I expect I won’t have to do much of anything to it anytime soon. Whenever I’m over at their house, and remember, I’ll add a little oil to the rear hub, and various other places, but that’ll probable be all it needs, and it’s hard not to like that degree of simplicity.

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Some Things Maybe Shouldn’t Be Recycled http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1524 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1524#comments Wed, 02 May 2012 13:49:31 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1524 China takes a lot of crap on environmental grounds, and rightly so, but you do have to admire their entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to recycling, especially of electronics. One country’s trash is another country’s treasure.

It doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, but there’s a thriving industry in China that salvages and recycles electronics – and a whole other thriving industry that sells or re-uses the recovered material. Semiconductors are a popular bit of booty. Need some long-obsolete chips? Someone in China probably has a drawer full of ‘em, desoldered from junked equipment.

All those cellphone LCDs that Arduino folks and other electronics enthusiasts like to play around with? They’re not spare parts being sold by service centers – a huge number of them are recovered from broken phones.

And that, in a way, brings me to the subject of today’s post: Solar chargers.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve picked up four little solar chargers – the kind designed to charge a cellphone or iPod or whatever. In an emergency, possibly, or just because you happen to like using renewable energy. Here in the ghetto, we tend to lose power a lot in the summer, and I thought it’d be nice to have a long-term solution to keep a cellphone or two and anything else that charges via USB working following a storm.

Four chargers from three vendors, two of them domestic. Only one of the four actually worked, though. The others would charge a phone for about sixty seconds, and then abruptly die.

I thought maybe it was me. I thought maybe it was the cables. I thought maybe it was the various devices I was trying to charge.

Nope. It was the chargers. Three duds.

Curious if I could troubleshoot the problem, I cracked one open to see what was inside and how it worked.

They’re all pretty similar. Solar panel -> crude constant-voltage charging circuit -> battery -> crude boost converter -> voltage regulator to produce 5V output.

Let’s see. Work our way in from the edges, as it were. Maybe the solar panel’s a dud, and it’s not charging? Nope, it tests fine.

Maybe the output boost circuit or regulator are toast. Nope, seem to work fine.

Well, maybe the charging circuit doesn’t work. No, it’s providing 4.2 volts to the lithium battery, which is about right for a crude circuit like this.

Well, I finally figured, maybe it’s the battery. It didn’t look like the usual unencapsulated pouch cell you’d expect to find in a product like this, but, eh, maybe the factory got a good deal on an overrun or something.

Well, I pulled the battery out and peeled off the tape, and, hey, look at that…

A set of little contacts, to which wires have been soldered. It’s a cellphone battery. Probably a really old Nokia, from the dimensions and alleged capacity. You can see tape/glue residue where a label was removed, which reveals that the actual cell was manufactured by LG. So, it was a fairly nice battery, once. Around a decade ago.

Well, taking a cue from a past project, I hunted through my little stash of spare lipo batteries, and came up with a battery for an iPod mini. Some quick work with a soldering iron later, and the elderly cellphone battery was replaced.

Guess what? The charger actually works now. Crazy, huh? I made similar replacements to the other two dud chargers – another iPod Mini battery in one, and a much larger one for a (guessing here, the package wasn’t labeled) first- or second-generation full-sized iPod in the other.

Chargers like this are far from the only place that recycled batteries get used, of course. There’s a particularly aggravating industry that turns the dead laptop batteries of yesterday into the useless replacement laptop batteries of today. It’s just kind of annoying to think that there are people who have these chargers sitting around, waiting for an emergency, and are then going to get shafted when they actually need ‘em.

Morals of the story: Be wary of Chinese solar USB chargers. Also, test your emergency equipment before you have to rely on it.

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Dear Amazon: What Do You Have Against Cleams, Anyway? http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1523 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1523#comments Thu, 15 Mar 2012 14:15:15 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1523 Earlier this week, I purchased some rechargeable batteries from Amazon. These batteries, in fact.

They arrived today.

Do you pay much attention to the packaging your merchandise comes in? I do.

It’s not because I’m anal-retentive or OCD or anything. Honest. I’m just… detail-oriented. Really. Ask my boss.

Anyway, here’s how the batteries come packaged:

A sturdy cardboard box, about the size of a mass-market paperback. Emblazoned with a seal promising “Certified Frustration Free Packaging”.

But wait…

Spot the problem. Go on.

It’s apparently a somewhat common typo, for some inexplicable reason. But – and this is kind of the important part – it’s still a typo.

Because I’m very cynical, I wanted to consider the possibility that I’d been sent counterfeit Amazon batteries. I mean, they did come from China, where counterfeiting is rampant, and strange typos on packaging are a hallmark of black-market Chinese products. But, alas, that would seem to be pretty much impossible; it’s not like someone would approach Amazon saying “Hey, we’ve got a shipping container full of a custom product that you have made-to-spec for you, and can give you a suspiciously good deal on ‘em, interested?” or anything. Alas.

Nope, Amazon just goofed. Hey, it happens, right? I just find it sadly amusing – though not as amusing as that nobody seems to have spotted this yet.

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Cats Are People, Too http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1522 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1522#comments Sun, 11 Mar 2012 18:34:00 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1522 Normally I try to avoid blogging about cats, in the interest of preserving what tiny amount of self-respect I have. Today, though, well… meh. Screw it.

We have a cat. He just showed up one day, a couple of years ago. At the time, we already had a cat, though she’s no longer with us.

Well, we’ve got two cats again, now. My partner had been complaining about missing having two cats around the place, and wanting a kitten. It turns out the universe gives you the cat you need, not necessarily the cat you want, y’know?

About four weeks ago, I was sitting at the computer, writing something or other. I looked up and saw a cat sitting in the backyard. This is pretty normal; there are several “outdoor cats” in the neighborhood that like to hang out in our yard and keep the squirrel populations at tolerable levels. As much as I’m not a huge fan of outdoor pets, eh, well, people do what they do.

This cat was one I hadn’t seen before, which caught my attention, and it looked absolutely miserable, which also got my attention. It was curled up in a little ball and looked cold, and its fur looked wet; its head and ears were drooped, and it really just looked about as unhappy as a cat can look.

Well, for some reason, I went outside and entered the backyard. I don’t know what I thought; maybe it’d let me pet it and look it over, or something. Anyway, I go in the backyard, and it stands up and starts walking – well, hobbling – away from me, albeit slowly. So I squat down in the snow, and pat my leg and kind of make, you know, cooing noises at it, and…

…it walks over.

It gets a foot or so from me, and doesn’t look any better up close. Pretty much skin and bones, wet and scruffy and miserable-looking. It lets me pet it for a minute or two, rubs up against my leg, then slips through the gate and starts wandering off.

I followed it, and once I was standing, it didn’t want to get close, and kind of stumbled off towards some bushes. Well, I went inside, got a handful of dry cat food, came back outside, and tried to call it over to me, while squatted down again.

The cat slowly came over, took one sniff at the food, and began scarfing down kibbles, right out of my hand. I petted it with the other, and it purred, loud enough to be heard over the wind. After about thirty seconds it had inhaled the whole handful of food, and was begging for more.

It let me pick it up and bring it inside without any complaint.

And that, really, is, in a nutshell, how we came to have two cats, again.

It’s a boy, maybe eighteen months old. Fully acclimatized to living with people; he knows all about food dishes and litter boxes and bags of treats and cuddling in bed with people when they have to get up for work, oh yes. Very friendly and affectionate. Gets along well with other cats. Has no bad habits; doesn’t even beg for “people food”, though he’ll eat just about anything. (Including bits of plain fresh white bread. Go figure.)

He was somebody’s cat, in other words. And they abandoned him, probably around the beginning of the year, the vet judges.

If you’re foreclosed and evicted, or whatever, people – don’t just abandon your goddamned pets, okay? Not in fricking Minnesota, anyway. It’s pretty much a death sentence, unless the animal gets really lucky. Shelters have minimal difficulty finding homes for affectionate, outgoing animals that are good with people. Don’t think you’re doing your ex-pet a favor by “sparing” them a couple of weeks in a cage, tended to by strangers.

The cat we adopted a couple of years ago had second-degree burns on its legs from climbing onto the hot engines of parked cars to stay alive in the winter. The cat I found in the back yard a few weeks ago had a piece of its leg missing, where it had been bit by… something. Possibly a fox, to judge from the size of the bite wound, the vet said. An uncertain future of death by exposure, death by starvation, or death by predatory carnivore isn’t a fate I’d wish on my worst enemy, and I’m not a very nice guy. Anyone who could inflict that on a loved one of theirs… well, I hope karma is everything it’s cracked up to be, let’s leave it at that.

Some surgery and painkillers and antibiotics later, the new guy’s leg is doing pretty good. The wound is finally closed and healing well, and it doesn’t seem to be paining him the way it did before. He’s going to have a hell of a scar, and he’s going to look a little funny until all the fur that had to be shaved grows back, but he’s going to be fine. We’re happy – grateful – to have him; he’s everything you could ask for in a cat.

It’s just a damned shame his previous folks were too big of assholes to realize it…

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Of Strangers, Relatives, and… Rice http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1521 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1521#comments Sun, 26 Feb 2012 13:44:49 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1521 Growing up as a kid, we didn’t eat rice very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure there were only three ways of using the stuff, for us: In a stuffed-pepper hotdish, and in two dubious concoctions one of my older siblings dreamed up: Chicken Noodle and Rice soup (made by adding a handful of instant rice to a can of soup) and Tomato Soup with Rice (made by adding as much instant rice as possible to a can of tomato soup).

Yes, yes. We were a very sad slice of middle America.

Well, in the last couple of decades, rice has become a major staple of my household’s diet. Gone is the bland and tasteless instant rice; here in its stead is the delicious and aromatic long-grain jasmine rice. Oh, sometimes there’s sushi rice, or an even shorter-grained glutinous rice, but we pretty much use jasmine rice for everything, these days.

Recently, I was over at the Hmong Village, which I’ve written about before here. It’s an enormous Hmong bazaar and produce market, complete with a very sizable food court. (It may actually be the largest food court in Saint Paul itself, physically, come to think of it.) I’m usually there one or two times a week, buying produce. I’ll stop for lunch once a month, maybe twice. This was one of those times.

I got one of the mysterious but delicious “Hmong sausages”, with chile-based dipping sauce, and around a pound of “sticky rice”. What the- you ask, but you can easily be forgiven for not having heard of it before. It’s a staple of Hmong cooking, and one that’s pretty much unique to them, as far as I can tell.

Basically, what you do is cook some black rice – a glutinous, short-grained rice that’s, yep, black – in more water than is necessary, until it’s soft and cooked. Then you discard the black rice (no, really) and cook up a batch of regular short-grained glutinous rice in the water, like you normally would. End result is a really sticky short-grained rice that’s been dyed a dark purple.

Well, I get my order, and I find an empty table, which is a but of luck, because I’m there right around noon, and the food court is packed. I sit down and start in on my rice – and we’ll get to that in a minute – and a polite young Hmong woman comes up and asks if she and her mother can sit across from me. Sure, I say, not a problem. It’s not; I’m actually kind of flattered, because in an environment where it seems like everybody knows everybody else, we few non-Hmong folk can sometimes feel a bit, y’know, isolated.

So, they come over and sit down; they’re waiting for their order from one of the restaurants to be ready. They’re talking to each other in, y’know, Hmong, and I’m politely ignoring them, when the younger of the two asks me “Where’d you get that from?” I name the restaurant, and she goes “Huh. I’ve never seen rice like that before.

I know what you’re thinking – what, Nemo knows more about Hmong cooking than some actual bona-fide Hmong woman? Um, no. Never going to happen. “Really?” I say to her. “That’s a relief. I thought it was a little unusual myself”, and then mention that I was pretty sure sticky rice was always made with short-grain, glutinous rice.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “I’ve never seen it made with jasmine rice before, either.”

We discussed food for a little while, and eventually agreed someone had probably screwed up when making the rice that morning, while still half-asleep or something, and since it was perfectly edible, there was no point wasting it. I can’t really recommend sticky rice made that way, to be honest – to my tastes, the black rice flavor doesn’t really complement that of jasmine rice, and jasmine rice is thinner and firmer than the usual glutinous rice, which made for a somewhat different eating experience.

Anyway, it was a fun little moment of cross-cultural bonding, brought on by the universal language of food, or something like that. It was also one of the few times I’ve been there that I’ve not felt at least a little bit like an outsider. (Nothing mean-spirited or racist intended. The Hmong Village is an extremely friendly and welcoming place, believe me. It’s just, not to sound too emo or anything, most of the time I can manage to feel like an outsider while alone at home, hanging out with friends, or at a family get-together…)

Rice, isn’t it wonderful? :)

(Incidentally, my siblings’ method of making Tomato Soup and Rice is crude but simple: Open can of tomato soup. Pour into small saucepan. Put on stove. Light stove. Start adding instant rice (urgh), a handful at a time, stirring as needed. Ideally you wind up with a surprisingly large, sticky mass of tomato-flavored rice. It was like they’d independently invented a midwestern America version of Omurice, or something.)

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ISBN Theft: A Crime Most Improbable http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1520 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1520#comments Thu, 26 Jan 2012 21:52:10 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1520 Can you steal a number?

Arguably, yes. A safe combination, a gift-card number… Those would, theoretically, get you access to something of value, and thus could be said to have worth of their own, in some senses.

But can a number have intrinsic value?

ISBNs can. $10 a pop, in the United States, in small quantities. More, possibly, in some other countries. (And, conversely, less or none in many others.)

As far as theft goes, it seems improbable, nearly pointless, at first glance. Why’d you want to steal an ISBN? Think about it for a few moments, and I suspect you’ll come up with a few reasons.

All of that ignores the big, obvious question – can you even steal an ISBN, in the first place?

Yep.

You may or may not have ever really given them much thought, but ISBNs aren’t random. They’re issued in blocks, sequential assignments, in (generally) some multiple of ten, all very predictable and non-random. They’re a unique identifier of a format of an edition of a title, but convey a little more information than that, if you dig around a little bit.

Most of this is pretty boring academic stuff only really interesting to statisticians and math nerds, so if you’re really that interested, go read the Wikipedia article.

Suffice it to say, though, that with a little bit of effort, you can work out every ISBN that’s been issued as part of any given block, and check, thanks to various online databases, whether those numbers have ever been assigned to a title, i.e. whether they’ve actually been used.

Because ISBNs are strictly unique, you can’t “re-use” one. So, if you’re a nefarious person trying to put an ISBN on a book/e-book, on the cheap, without having that number traceable to you (cough, e-book pirates, cough), there are no two ways around it, you need a number that hasn’t already been assigned.

There are two ways you could do this. Picking a number from a block that hasn’t even been issued yet – they’re issued sequentially – is fairly low-risk, right up until that block is issued, at which point the rightful new owners are probably going to be kind of pissed.

Finding a number that was issued long ago but never used, on the other hand, is about as close to zero-risk as any sort of theft is likely to ever get.

Here’s a low-risk (in terms of the potential for exploitation – there’s just a single ISBN is in play, here) example of what I’m concerned about: In 2005, Lachesis Publishing, a/k/a LBF Books, was issued a block of ten ISBNs: 0-9773082-X-N, where X is 0-9 inclusive, and N is the check digit. (I picked this block at random, FWIW.) With a little bit of Google time, we can see that X values of 0 through 8 inclusive have been assigned to books. The tenth ISBN from that block – 0-9773082-(the_number_nine)-4 – seems not to have ever been assigned. Maybe it was assigned internally to a title that got cancelled. Maybe it just “slipped through the cracks”. I dunno. What I do know is that that’s a valid ISBN number that has never been on the market, and should work just fine at CreateSpace, iTunes, Smashwords, or wherever else one might want to publish something. Six years later, I think one can pretty safely assume that Lachesis isn’t going to use that ISBN. If someone needs an ISBN for something, there’s, as far as I can tell, absolutely zero technical restriction to their using that one, or to some unscrupulous third party “selling” them that one, assuming nobody else steals it first. (Assuming there’s a market of ethically-challenged people, which seems a safe bet, how much do you figure an unissued ISBN assigned to a big-name publisher, Penguin, say, might be worth?)

It’s obviously quite unethical and immoral, but it’s very technically possible, as far as I can tell.

I’m not sure anyone has ever actually stolen an ISBN… yet. I’m also unclear whether any publishers have actually checked to make sure that every title under one of their ISBNs is actually “theirs”. Slightly worryingly, I’m not sure there are actually any existing technical means to prevent it from happening. The whole ISBN system is based, it seems, on this wonderfully outdated assumption that people are basically decent and honest. This wasn’t a big problem “back in the day”, but the last decade or two, with the rise of print-on-demand publishing and the “e-book revolution”, would seem to have created an environment ripe for exploitation.

I suspect it’s only a matter of time…

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Commissioning and Licensing Images on deviantART: A Guide. Of Sorts. http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1516 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1516#comments Thu, 12 Jan 2012 22:50:40 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1516 Over the last couple of years, I’ve licensed and commissioned art from a number of people on deviantART, for various purposes. (Most notably, arguably, the cover of my first novel was licensed there.) It can be a fairly painless and rewarding process for everyone involved, if you know what you’re doing. Because the average novelist knows slightly less about image licensing than they do about fluid dynamics (apologies to any physicist-writers, diatribes on postcards to the usual address…), I thought I’d try to cover the basics of what to know, what to do, and what to expect, so you can benefit from my experience.

What deviantART Is, And Isn’t

deviantART (that’s the way they capitalize it, don’t look at me) isn’t a marketplace, the way Elance or Fiverr are. It’s a social media site, first and foremost – one with a worldwide community of artists. Lots and lots and lots of artists. While there’s a staggering quantity of fanart, especially for anime and manga, there are folks on there who do pretty much everything that’s remotely creative. I’m pretty much only interested in still art, as my primary goal is to acquire or license images to illustrate books, and it’s a bit tricky to use a knitted hat as the cover of a book, no matter how nice the hat is.

Because it’s a social media site above all else, there’s no uniform method for conducting business on deviantART, unlike Fiverr or Elance. This is a blessing and a curse – mostly a curse. The biggest issue I’ve run into is that there’s no standard, default, or even suggested licensing term for art, and most artists have only the vaguest notion how licensing works in the real world. So, generally the burden is on you to simultaneously educate and negotiate, which can be tricky when you aren’t sure what you’re doing.

What Artists Want, Or Think They Want

You might think that most dA artists want money for their work, and that’s generally true. In a more fundamental sense, my experience is that many of them mostly want not to be exploited – to not have their art used without permission or credit, and not in ways which negatively affect their future business and artistic potential. There seems to be this belief that commercial licenses are draconian rights-grabs designed to screw artists over. Maybe there really are people going around offering extremely restrictive license terms – “ARTIST assigns to Global Megacorp Inc full and complete perpetual and exclusive rights to the IMAGE and all variations, derivations, alterations, adjustments, reinterpretations, or visually or thematically similar works…” – but I dare say that’s got to be very much the exception, not the rule.

Many artists on dA publish price lists for commissions, but you really need to read the fine print, which all too often isn’t easy to find; for many the published prices are for art “for personal use only”, with commercial use expressly prohibited. It’s very easy to get annoyed by this – if you pay someone to do a painting for you, you should get (at least) nonexclusive rights… right? – but you have to kind of understand this in the context of deviantART: A lot of the commissions on dA are fanart of copyrighted characters, which the artists generally can’t legally sell commercial rights to anyway. When you’re commissioning art of your own characters, this shouldn’t be an issue, of course – you have the rights to use your own characters’ likenesses. Presumably.

Many artists charge an, often negotiable, extra amount for commercial usage. It’s reasonable, in the context of dA, and usually isn’t too onerous. I doubt there’s any kind of standard, but I’ve had pretty good luck negotiating $10 for perpetual nonexclusive rights, with attribution, and some folks have quoted me lower fees, in the $4-8 range. Keep in mind, I always make clear that I want to use it in/on a self-published book of mine, which might well affect folks’ negotiations. I like to think that if I said I wanted their art for a $4M nationwide advertising campaign, they’d hold out for a little bit more…

Be warned: some artists will try to negotiate for commercial rights on a royalty basis. I try not to do this, ever, both because it’s an incredible headache, and because my books sell so few copies either the artist would get screwed on overall royalties, or I’d get screwed on the per-copy rate. (A typical novella of mine might sell 40-50 copies a year, at $0.99. I make around $0.35 per copy – so $14-18 per year. Even if I gave the cover artist a whopping 10% of my royalties, they’d be getting absolute peanuts. If I hoped I might sell a lot of books, I might be willing to negotiate a flat per-copy rate, but then things get complicated – does it apply to free copies given away, and so on? And either way, you need to work out payment schedules, and some kind of clause about what happens if the artist disappears and you’re unable to send them their royalties, somewhere down the road…) Basic rule of thumb: royalties are much more trouble than they’re worth.

What You, Presumably, Want, and Need

It’s easy to get all bogged down in twenty-page lawyer-approved contracts for commissioning or licensing art, but it’s not always necessary, it’s not always beneficial (to anyone), and for overseas artists who don’t necessarily have the best English skills, it can be somewhere between terrifying and completely off-putting – doubly so if they, like most artists, don’t have any idea how rights licensing normally works, anyway. Usually you’re a lot better off just coming to a simple agreement on what you can and cannot do.

At a minimum, as a writer (I assume), you want and need the right to use a piece of art on and/or in your book/e-book/e-zine/whatever. This is the part where the anal-retentive legal types want to start bandying around terms like “nonexclusive perpetual worldwide print and e-book cover rights”, but there are generally five ways you can go about this:

1. All rights. Also known as “work-for-hire”. You give the artist money, the artist gives you complete and exclusive ownership of the image and all rights thereto. (This is the standard license for work contracted on Fiverr, incidentally.) It’s simple and straightforward.

2. All nonexclusive rights. You get all rights to use the artwork, non-transferable, and can do whatever you want with it – but so can the artist. Arguably the next-best-thing to work-for-hire, since you can do anything you need to with the image, but the artist can still display it on their website, which is extremely important to many of them. (If the image contains your characters – i.e. your intellectual property – that’s about all they can do with it, but being able to show off their work is important. If you’re negotiating for rights to a piece they produced not specifically for you, this option is comparable to many typical royalty-free stock licenses.)

3. Specific named rights. You and the artist agree that you get, say, “exclusive worldwide print and e-book cover rights through January 2016″, and they retain all other rights. Pleases the lawyer types, but can lead to confusion down the road, and the need to re-license for supplemental uses, like on a website.

4. Implicit rights by context. You and the artist agree that you get to use the art in whatever way you like, within a specific context – “I want to use this image on the cover of, and to otherwise promote, my book”. Simple and easy to understand, and pretty much a win-win for everyone.

5. The Gentleman’s Agreement. What happens when you deal with dA artists who know little or nothing about copyright and licensing. You pay them, they permit you “commercial use”, they’re happy, you’re probably covered legally. Copyright lawyers may cringe, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Like I said before, artists on dA basically seem not to want to be taken advantage of, for whatever value of that which might apply. Many, in my experience, are happy to grant nonexclusive, implicit, or “commercial use” rights for $10 or so, for art you commission. If you’re trying to license work they’ve already done, their expectations can vary wildly, but you can almost always negotiate quite a bit. The easiest way is perhaps to relinquish, frankly, rights you’re never going to use or need. They want more than you’re comfortable with for perpetual worldwide cover rights? See what they’ll take for English-language cover rights for ten years. For most self-published books, they’re functionally identical, but the latter sounds much less broad, and thus (hopefully) much less expensive. Trying to negotiate all rights to a commissioned painting, non-exclusively? You might well be safe giving up broadcast media rights, stationery/poster/postcard rights, clothing and apparel rights, and anything else you can think of that sounds lucrative but is useless to you.

A Quick Note On Money

Some (very, very good) artists on deviantART do commissioned work for what seem like extremely low rates. Some of them are kids, yes, looking for a little extra money and an opportunity to flex their artistic muscles. Some are college students, or even working professionals, basically making a living from their art. It’s easy to look at some of these folks and be befuddled by their rates. There’s no way they can work that cheap!

Yes, there is a way. deviantART is a global community, and, well, the cost of living in some parts of the world is a lot lower than in the US, UK, or elsewhere. 15 USD a day is a pretty good wage in a lot of the world; if you pay someone $60 to do a full-color painting to your specs, and it takes them twenty or thirty hours, that’s not necessarily a bad deal for them, by any means. Yay for the internet, and PayPal.

And on that note, it’s probably wise to confirm early on how you’re going to pay any given artist. Believe it or not, not everyone in the world has, or even can have, PayPal, so some folks might want a transfer via Western Union, or something like that, which will incur extra fees for you.

Oh – most artists will want prepayment, at least in part, for commissions. That’s pretty normal; they’re just trying to protect themselves.

What Artists NEED From You

If you’re trying to commission an artist on dA, they’re (hopefully!) going to need a bunch of information from you, which you’ll probably need to provide in two parts.

The first is a technical description of what you want, and when you want it, to which they will agree, and quote a price. The exact details will vary by what you’re trying to commission and who you’re trying to commission it from, obviously, but it might go something like “I’d like to commission you to do a watercolor painting of one person, from the waist-up, in an art style similar to the piece in your gallery called ‘Untitled No. 219′, with a reasonably simple background, for commercial use on the cover of a self-published e-book, to be delivered as a .png file at least 1500 pixels wide by July 1st.”

They’ll quote you a price and tell you how to pay and so on, generally, and then they’ll want the full artistic details of what you want. Again, this will vary, but you’re going to want to cover everything they need to know. For instance, “A vertical image of a slightly stocky twenty-something woman with curly shoulder-length chestnut hair, hazel eyes, and smallpox scars on her nose and chin, wearing a plain sort of milkmaid’s dress, holding a wilting nosegay of white roses to her chest, staring off to one side, into the distance, with a slight smile on her face; a rough background of rolling grassy, rocky hills behind her. The top third of the image should be clear blue sky.” is probably a pretty good start.

They will probably hit you up with at least a couple of queries at that point – what’s the person’s hairstyle, what do you mean by milkmaid’s dress, is she wearing any jewelery or gloves or a belt, how severe of smallpox scarring did you have in mind, exactly – and then you probably won’t hear anything from them for a few days. This is pretty much normal; you’re paying them to make art to spec, not to blog for you. One day, eventually, you’ll hopefully receive a rough sketch of the composition in your inbox, which you should review and comment on. The sketch stage is the time to be making changes, so make sure you’re happy with what they’ve done at that point. They really do want your comments and questions and suggestions at this point, because it’s a thousand times easier to fix things you don’t like here than later on.

Depending on their art and work style, you might see a couple sketch revisions, and then probably a final, reasonably clean outline for your approval, which should pretty much be a formality. At that point, you’ll wait a while while they do the fiddly artistic bits, and eventually they’ll likely send you a lower-resolution proof of the final, finished image. Generally there’s not a lot of changes that can be made at this point, though digital artists can usually adjust colors – “Oh, I thought you meant grey eyes, oops” – without too much difficulty, and contrast adjustments and other Photoshop stuff is always a possibility. If you’ve paid them in full, they’ll send you whatever it is you agreed upon. Congratulations, you’ve successfully negotiated the chaotic and confusing realm of licensing images on deviantART. :)

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What A Long Strange Noun It’s Been http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1519 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1519#comments Mon, 02 Jan 2012 20:44:55 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1519 So, it’s twenty-twelve. Man, what an exciting twenty-eleven, eh? There was that stuff, and those things, and some people died, and a couple of whatever happened… Good times, good times. Mostly.

Among all that, winter sort of failed to show up on time. White Thanksgiving? Nope. White Christmas? Nope. White New Year’s Eve? Nope.

In fact, New Year’s Eve was really kind of nice. At least the weather…

I took the opportunity to go for a bike ride. Because I could, basically. I mean, I live in Minnesota; how many opportunities am I going to have to go bike riding on New Year’s Eve here? Carpe diem, and all that crap.

Okay, so it snowed on New Year’s Day, but it’s supposed to melt in the next day or two. And I’m fine with that. Once the streets are ice-free, I’ll probably go for another bike ride.

Because, hey, how many opportunities am I likely to have to go bike riding in January in Minnesota, right?

(That’s the almost-entirely-original 1980 Schwinn Suburban I wrote about extensively several months back. Despite the monochrome picture, it really was taken on December 31st, 2011.)

Happy New Year, everybody. May ‘twelve be as interesting as ‘eleven, neh?

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When The Empire Acquired Self-Propelled Artillery http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1518 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1518#comments Thu, 29 Dec 2011 22:10:24 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1518 Don’t mind me, just being weird during the holiday season.

My roommate has some Star Wars Lego figures. A while back, I stumbled across some cheap Lego-compatible block toy things from China that were exceedingly affordable, compared to “the real thing”, and bought a kit. It recently arrived, and was quite a surprise – very close to Lego quality, and fairly unique.

Because I’m weird, I immediately began to wonder what would happen in you combined the two. Thus…

…The Empire acquired a piece of self-propelled artillery:

So, um, yeah. There you go.

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Fifty Years Ago Today… http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1517 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1517#comments Mon, 26 Dec 2011 22:52:55 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1517 Fifty years ago (26 Dec 1961):

Moscow, Dec 26, UPI – Premier Khrushchev has urged lesser Soviet officials to tell him when he is wrong and not meekly to accept his directives.
His declaration–apparently a further effort to wipe out the paralyzing “cult of personality”–was made last week at a conference of agricultural officials in the Ukraine and published yesterday by Pravda.
Mr. Khrushchev’s remark was provoked by P.A. Vlasvuk, president of the Ukrainian Academy of Agriculture.
Mr. Vlasvuk had apparently claimed that in a criticized method of crop rotation, he had followed suggestions made by Mr. Khrushchev.
To this Mr. Khrushchev replied: “Is it I who must be the highest authority in questions of agricultural science? You are president of the Ukraine’s Academy of Agriculture and I am secretary of the central committee of the (Communist) party. In these questions it is you who should help me, and not I you.”
“I can make a mistake but you, if you are an honest scientist, you should tell me ‘Comrade Khrushchev you do not understand that question altogether correctly.’ If you explain to me how to correctly understand a question, then I would thank you for it.”

A day ago. Roughly. (25 Dec 2011):

MOSCOW, December 25 (RIA Novosti) Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin still enjoys the support of the majority of Russians, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with AFP news agency on Sunday after the biggest opposition protest in Moscow.
“Putin still has the support of a majority. And we should treat the opinion of a majority with respect,” Peskov was quoted by AFP as saying.

I just found the contrast amusing…

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#FML http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1514 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1514#comments Thu, 15 Dec 2011 18:10:36 +0000 http://www.slugsite.com/archives/1514 So, when I’m not battling respiratory infections, dealing with stupid telephone companies, fighting with computers, arguing with very large publishers about compensation for their use-without-permission of things I wrote, or otherwise being productive, I’ve been writing fiction.

It’s not very good, but it’s cheap.

Anyway, my latest novel is now available for the Kindle, if that’s your thing – you can grab a copy here, if you like sex, drugs, and environmental terrorism. There’s also a paperback edition, which makes a great gift for the people in your life who like sex, drugs, and environmental terrorism. It’s available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, et cetera. People outside the United States can get a copy right here for less than ten dollars, with free worldwide shipping.

On a related note, I’ve been publishing fiction as paperbacks and e-books since July 2010. In that time I’ve put out six titles, two of them novel-length. I’ve sold copies to people all over the world, gotten reviews from a handful of complete strangers, and made… well, next-to-nothing, by anyone’s standards.

Lest you think I’m kidding about my lack of success, I just received my first-ever royalty cheque for the books I’ve written. Yep, it took seventeen months for me to actually see a penny. Barely a thousand pennies, actually…

I’m seriously tempted to not even bother cashing it. I’d kind of like to tape it to the wall in my office, as a reminder of why I desperately need to quit this failed experiment in writing fiction.

Self-publishing only makes you money if you’re good at it. If you’re considering trying to wow the world with your fiction, remember Sturgeon’s Law, and the Occupy movement: 90% of everything is crap, and you are, almost certainly, among the 90%. I know I am.

I’m trying to finish up my next novel – a highly-derivative tale of life, love, and facial trauma – by early January, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go write some more cruft nobody is ever going to read, now.

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