Mimsy Were the Borogoves

For the wisdom of the wise are the criterion of your madness.

New Orleans: Beckham’s Bookshop—Wednesday, January 15th, 2020
Beckham’s Bookshop storefront

I finally made it back to New Orleans! I had some great food, saw some great sights, and managed to buy far more books than I’d planned on.

I was last in New Orleans a year before Hurricane Katrina; and the one store I worried about was Beckham’s. I remember it being a ramshackle bookstore in the French Quarter, with well-spaced piles of book lining the floors as well as the shelves—something easily wiped out by water damage, even if the actual flooding of the French Quarter was mostly news hysteria.

Beckham’s may smell a little mustier now—or it may not, I get used to the smell of mustiness in bookstores and don’t pay attention to it—but it’s still a ramshackle bookstore in the French Quarter, with well-spaced piles of books lining the floors as well as the shelves. It’s a great place to browse both in-order books and out-of-order books. There’s also a decent record store on the top floor.

That last time I was in New Orleans, I bought more at Beckham’s than just the role-playing book listed here. But this was before I’d started my database of books; I remember buying the role-playing book there vividly because I found it haphazardly located in one of those piles lining the floors. It was a memorable find. I don’t play Call of Cthulhu, but the Dreamlands are a great resource for any game. And it’s a beautiful hardcover; the cover art inside and out is phenomenal.

Whatever other books I bought there, I found in the shelves, and unlike the floors the shelves are easy to navigate. So they were less memorable finds.

This time around, I picked up a great Victor Davis Hanson book, Who Killed Homer? as well as an old-school slow-cooker cookbook from Better Homes and Gardens. I recently picked up the Better Homes and Gardens Homemade Cookies Cook Book and it has been phenomenal. The series doesn’t look like it’s going to rival the Southern Living collection I reviewed last year, but it has potential. I won’t be collecting the series because the series includes Better Homes and Gardens topics I’m uninterested in, unrelated to food; but I will be looking at any books I see in the library from the era.

While you’re in the area, you might also check out Dauphine Street Books; it is, however, not nearly as easy to browse. The shelves are cramped and would be difficult even if the floors weren’t also filled. There are good books there, however.

The Year in Books: 2019—Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
The Bookstore at Library Square

If you find yourself in Little Rock, the Bookstore at Library Square is a great place to browse and relax.

It has been a very good year for books, and I even made a dent in my to-read pile. According to my database, I acquired 136 books this year, and according to Goodreads I read 145.

Since my to-read pile is a double-wide bookcase, I should be through it in about twenty years.

The Goodreads “year in books” is an interesting summary, but some of its categories are antiquated. In the era of ebooks, I don’t know that “shortest book read” makes a lot of sense. The shortest book I read this year was, of course, a short story. It was a very good short story, Lauren Pope’s1 fun Just Another Oppressor. Sadly, as far as I can tell it’s no longer available.

The longest book was IBM’s Early Computers, a fascinating look at the history of digital computers through the growth of a company that could have been destroyed by them. IBM was a mechanical device company. They made typewriters, and card readers, all mechanical devices for aiding in data collection and analysis. All of them destined for the junkyard. Had IBM not completely shifted their focus, they would have gone out of business.

The most popular book was a science fiction book, Dune. I read Dune ages ago, along with Dune Messiah, but never got around to finishing the trilogy. This year I vowed to read the full three books, and did so. It is not surprising that this science fiction book is incredibly popular and remains so. It touches on just about everything that it means to be human.

The least popular book I read varies, because I read several books that “0 people also read”. What that means, of course, is that zero people read them and then notified Goodreads. Currently in that slot is Instant BASIC. It’s filled with public domain art and era-specific jokes

I continued reading a lot of late seventies/early eighties computer books this year, which meant a lot of BASIC. The very first book I finished in 2019 was 24 Tested Ready-to-Run Game Programs in BASIC.

Have a Merry Scripting Christmas with Persistence of Vision—Wednesday, December 25th, 2019

Some of the best Christmas mornings I remember are mornings when I holed myself away and built things. On earlier Christmases, it could have been Legos, or off-brand erector sets, or a model train. Later, it might have been building characters or adventures using the new Dungeons and Dragons Basic or Expert boxed set I found under the tree.

When sitting at the computer, every day was Christmas, and in many ways it still is. As you can see from the majority of this blog, I’m still finding joy in the ASCII art script. So why not a touch more joy on Christmas morning? Consider this my erector set gift to you.

Except for this image, all of the ASCII art created using the asciiArt script in 42 Astounding Scripts came from photographs or drawings. That is, a human hand was involved in its creation.

This Christmas image, on the other hand, was nearly completely scripted. Obviously, the version with Linus’s Bible quote over the Christmas scene came from the asciiArt script, but the Christmas scene itself came from the Persistence of Vision raytracer. The only hand-placed part of the image was the phrase “Merry Christmas” in the upper left.

Persistence of Vision is a lot of fun to play with, Christmas morning or any morning. Or, as was often the case for me (and still often is) late into the night.

Remember to install brew and then “brew install povray” as described in the bubble cake example if you haven’t already. To create an image from this POV-Ray script file, run the povray program on it, as you would any other command-line script or program.

  • $ povray Christmas.pov

This will create, by default, an 800 by 600 PNG image with the same filename as the .pov file but with the extension .png. In this case, if you name the file “Christmas.pov” as I did, the file will come out “Christmas.png”.

You can adjust the width and/or height using the Width= and Height= command line options.

Epstein didn’t kill himself, and other tales of the swamp—Wednesday, December 4th, 2019
Epstein didn’t kill himself

You’ve probably heard all of the unbelievable coincidences surrounding Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide. Cameras not working, inexplicably quick removal from suicide watch1, guards sleeping on the job, fellow inmate removed.

It’s not surprising that people are creating a conspiracy theory around it. It’s incomprehensible that any organization could be that incompetent. In a sense, conspiracy theories like this are an example of how much trust we still have in government. We trust it to be basically competent, and therefore assume there must have been a deeper reason for the apparent screwup.

The problem, however, is that this was a government institution, and government institutions are that incompetent every day. It’s standard operating procedure for government programs. It’s what government bureaucrats do to all of us. There is nothing unbelievable about it. The same forces that make DMV offices into a shining example of government competency, and that encourage VA officials to falsify documents with no repercussions—except for the dead veterans—also work on prisons.2

The common rejoinder to the incompetence theory is that nobody’s been fired for incompetence. But that also is common practice among government organizations. It’s only in the private sector3 that employees are fired for gross incompetence. In government jobs, they’re promoted, or sidelined but continue to collect paychecks and benefits.4

One of many reasons that conspiracy theories are so compelling is that it’s always more comfortable to believe in a competent government than an incompetent one. But government bureaucracies are never competent over the long-term. At best, they don’t become blatantly corrupt. Given the necessity of government bureaucracy, we’d prefer that they be DMVs rather than VAs.

A free market in union representation—Wednesday, November 13th, 2019

I tend to disagree with most conservatives about unions. For one, they tend to lump all unions together; but there is a huge difference between real unions, who negotiate with owners on behalf of their employee members for more money and better conditions from the owners, and government unions, who negotiate with employees on behalf of other employees for more money from taxpayers. This is critical, because real unions have an incentive to make sure that the business their members work in stays competitive. There is no such incentive for government unions. Both ends of the table are negotiating with other people’s money.

Outside of government unions, however, the problem with unions is that they are set up as monopolies. Monopolies tend toward maintaining their monopoly rather than providing better service to the people forced to buy from them.

When people have a choice about what services they buy and who they buy it from, when services must compete, the people paying for those services are better off. They receive better service at a better price. When a service has a monopoly, when people are forced to buy that service and forced to buy it from one provider, the service always suffers, and badly. Worse, the people buying the service have no idea what they’re missing.

People had no idea what they were missing under AT&T's monopoly. Or under airline monopolies.1 Or electrical power monopolies. In every case so far, removal of government-sponsored monopolies in favor of choices has resulted in better products, better services, and better prices2. Even though in every case, many people complained that the change would be for the worse, that in this case a monopoly was necessary. They couldn’t see the benefits behind the forest of their fears.

There’s no reason to expect union monopolies to be any different. We have no idea what we’re missing because unions are monopolies. But history tells us that what we’re missing will be so amazing we won’t be able to remember how we lived without it once the monopoly ends.

Conservatives who oppose all unions instead of just government unions make the same mistake from the other end. They recognize how bad union monopolies are for workers, but have no idea what a healthy free market in union services would do for workers or the economy.

The way to be a programmer is to program—Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
Hello, World color bars

The traditional “Hello World” program, spiced up for the TRS-80 Color Computer 2.

In Tassajara Cooking, one of my favorite cookbooks, Edward Espe Brown says that “The way to be a cook is to cook.”

He’s right. And the way to be a programmer is to program.

My first computer program was:

  • 10 PRINT "HELLO THERE. I AM YOUR NEW TRS-80 MICROCOMPUTER!"

I know this because it’s the first program in the TRS-80 manual. I don’t know what my second program was, because I tend to go off-track quickly when reading through programming manuals. It is a lot more fun to learn by doing and making mistakes than copying rote lessons. I’d never used a computer before, never seen one in person, and bought it really as a glorified calculator: I’d been saving for a calculator, realized that it would only take a few more months to get a real computer, and bought a used TRS-80 Model 1. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But unlike modern computers, it didn’t come with any software other than BASIC. In those days, everyone who owned a computer was expected to be a programmer. It was how you got your computer to do anything. There were books filled with programs to type in. I stayed up late typing other people’s code, and learning from it. From code that did something useful, not just code designed for lessons. This is what I tried to emulate when I wrote 42 Astoundingly Useful Scripts and Automations for the Macintosh (Plug: also available in print.)

I also subscribed to magazines that printed computer programs for readers to type. Those programs came from their readers—readers who wrote programs that did something they found useful, and sold their programs to the magazines for others to use. My first sale, to Hobby Computer Handbook, emulated a Mattel handheld baseball game. My brother had one, and I wanted one. It was a problem that could be solved by programming, so I wrote a program. I used the money from the sale to buy an expansion unit with more memory for the Model 1.

The first serious program I wrote for the TRS-80 was a word processor, in BASIC. I had saved to buy a word processor, and I went to a local electronics fair—an amateur radio convention—to buy one. I thought I’d be able to get software cheaper there than through mail order, and I’d be able to see it in operation before buying it. I was right. What I hadn’t considered was that I’d also be able to see great games in operation, too.

Roast beef for National Sandwich Day—Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

Sunday is National Sandwich Day. So far I’ve been focusing on breads for National Sandwich Day, but what’s a sandwich without something to go between? A good sliceable roast beef is high sandwich cuisine, and I’ve recently discovered a great, simple recipe for it using what is (for now, anyway) a reasonably priced cut, sirloin tip.

This recipe is attributed to Mrs. M. H. Webber of Seabrook, Texas, in the Holiday volume of the Southern Living Cookbook Library. It is a very simple recipe and produces great results. The first time I made it, I overcooked the roast and it was still amazing.

After an hour and a half I check the temperature, and as long as it’s 160° in the center, it’s done.

Roast beef is a hearty flavor, and can handle a hearty bread. In this case, I’m using a seeded rye from the fourth volume of Donna Rathmell German’s Bread Machine cookbook series. If you don’t have it, any rye will do; the seeds are anise and fennel in addition to the caraway that is probably already in your rye recipe.

They say in the Mediterranean that the best accompaniment to a meal is the wine that was grown near to the ingredients. As you can see in the photo, the perfect accompaniment to this sandwich is cheap Texas beer. Happy eating!

Brandywine beef

The first time I made this, I overcooked it to about 190 degrees. It was still amazing. There’s a lot to be said for recipes that are difficult to screw up.

Roast Beef Sandwich

Mustard, tomato, jalapeño, red onion, roast beef, red bell pepper, cheddar cheese on seeded rye.

Why is it so difficult to hold schools accountable?—Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
Round Rock High School report card

This is part of what a Texas school accountability rating looks like.

Thinking about the backhanded Occupy Democrat campaign for school choice reminded me that back in January, I was at a presentation where Monty Exter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, expressed confusion about why it is so difficult to tell when a teacher is doing well compared to other industries. At the same time, he complained about relying on standardized tests to measure student outcome, in order to determine whether the teachers are teaching well.

Of course, the reason it’s harder to acknowledge merit in education compared to other industries is that parents cannot pull their dollars from a failing school and transfer them to a successful school.

There are a lot of teachers who complain, justifiably, about too much paperwork, especially standardized tests. They’re a one-size-fits-all mechanism that can’t be customized to the classroom or the student.

But failing the ability to do what they’d do for any other industry failing their children—switch to someone who isn’t failing—parents will demand some form of testing. Testing is a substitute for accountability. Accountability can only come when students and parents are free to take their money and go elsewhere. But because parents don’t have that choice, they ask for substitutes. Testing tries to simulate accountability in a monopoly. Unless you want to give parents the ability to fire public school teachers, standardized testing is the only substitute for choice.

The reason parents demand one-size-fits-all testing is that school administrators and union administrators demand one-size-fits-all schools. Parents can’t choose where to send their kids without paying twice, so they demand some other form of accountability. Sadly, simulating accountability in government schools will probably work about as well as simulating accountability in government health care. It is very difficult to ensure that a monopoly is accountable. Monopolies cater to the bureaucrats who control the checkbook, not the taxpayers who pay into it. As with doctors and hospitals, only choice makes schools accountable. Only pluralistic schools are accountable, and they are accountable because they are accountable directly to the parents. In a system of choice, it is the parents who control the money.

This is what accountability looks like: I hire the school to teach my children. If they don’t do a good job teaching my children I fire them and hire someone else.

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