Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Truth is a glorious but hard mistress. She never consults, bargains or compromises. — Aiden Wilson Tozer (Of God and Men)

My Year in Books: 2021—Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

Man looks for patterns in everything, but I don’t think I could have chosen a better opening quote for the first review of the year:

…man is born to trouble, and it is best to meet it when it comes and not lose sleep until it does. — Louis L’Amour (The Daybreakers)

But then, Louis L’Amour is a great author to start any year with. I followed The Daybreakers up with Shalako and Conagher with a little detour through The Iron Marshall. I ended the year with Radigan.

L’Amour continually surprises me by coming up with very different takes on the Western hero. His heroes in each of those stories are very different. They run the gamut from wild men coming in from the desert, to big city gangsters on the run, to (almost) backwoods lawyers defending their ranch.

And then, in June in Nashville, I discovered his autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man. He lived a fascinating life, and it’s not hard to see where he got his ideas for such varied characters when you see what a varied life he’s led!

I also finally read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I’d read the first book long ago, but never the series. I picked up a boxed set of the trilogy at a yard sale back in 2017, but it looked like a dense read and it took a while to commit to reading all three.

It was a dense read; there is a lot of weird retro psychology going on. It’s fascinating both as a well-written story and as a glimpse into the mindset of one class of science fiction author in the golden age. Asimov took what most authors, and most people, would regard as a nightmare: a benevolent dictatorship rewriting history down to the contents of your brain, manipulating people into false insights, conspiracy, and even a deadly galactic war, all for their view about how the tide of history should flow.

It’s not at all surprising that Foundation became influential. There are many people who would like to believe that they can predict the future with such accuracy, and who do believe that they are smart enough to guide humanity and lift it out of chaos.

Optimistic pessimism, or utopian dystopias—Wednesday, January 5th, 2022
Meet George Jetson

It’s not surprising that a show like The Jetsons would have been overly-optimistic. It was meant to be.

Happy New Year! As we head into a new year, we are always inundated with predictions for the future. Among the most fascinating topics for me, however, is predictions for the future, from the past. And as we head further and further from both the books of my youth, each year brings a new milestone in either science fiction or science fact.

One of the most influential science fiction shows of my youth wasn’t Star Wars or reruns of Star Trek. It was reruns of The Jetsons on Saturday mornings,

The Jetsons debuted in 1962, a cartoon situation comedy meant to mirror the very successful Flintstones. The Jetsons was set in 2062. The main character, George Jetson, was 40 years old. In the fictional world of the futuristic Jetsons, George Jetson will be born this year.1

The Jetsons featured flying cars, cities in the sky, and domestic robots. It also featured home computers, video conferencing, and a vast interconnected knowledge store that could be queried at leisure. Not too bad for a cartoon that was based on a stone age family that itself was based on a fifties show about a Brooklyn bus driver and sewer worker and their families.

And who knows? They may still be right about the cars, cities, and robots. While we are, today, far closer to the year the Jetsons is set than we are to the year it debuted, we still have forty years to catch up to their technology.

That The Jetsons would be overly-optimistic about the world of the future isn’t surprising. While it wasn’t utopian, it was an optimistic show. What’s more amazing is how many pessimistic science fiction stories remain exceedingly optimistic about the rate of technological progress in the future.

Technology futurists such as Alvin Toffler were very pessimistic about their optimism. They recognized that technology would advance quickly and complained that all these newfangled ways of doing things would destroy us. Toffler even recommended government bureaucracies tasked with forbidding the advancement of technology unless a panel of experts approved it.

In the January 1979 Omni Magazine, there’s a fascinating review of Dr. J. Peter Vajk’s Doomsday Has Been Canceled which, from the description, is almost the anti-Omni book. His basic idea is that most of our problems are clearly going to be solved technologically; the world isn’t going to run out of power and we’re not going to deplete its resources.

Satire in the vineyard: The parable of Lolita and the sheep—Wednesday, December 29th, 2021
Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s The Wolf and the Lamb

This encounter does not end well for the lamb.

The morning gospel, as I write this, was the parable of the good landlord—the vineyard keeper who hired men in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, and again in the evening, and paid everyone a full day’s wages. This got me thinking about the New Testament’s “opposite parables” where Jesus tells stories that were obviously wrong to the people of the time in order to make a point about how different the kingdom of God is.

At the risk of calling ever more literary types satirical, Jesus uses a technique very similar to satire: taking an absurd situation and using it to tell a story about truth. The lessons of Jesus’s parables are a lot like the lessons of good satire: they progressed slowly into greater and greater absurdity to make a point about a truth that transcends the superficial story told.

On the surface, the parable of the workers is not clearly an opposite parable. Superficially there might be reasons why it was important to get the harvest in before nightfall. Maybe there was a storm coming, for example, and what didn’t get harvested tonight would be destroyed. But that doesn’t really make sense. Even with a storm coming, the harvest that a worker can bring in with one hour’s work needs to be worth far more than a full day’s wages for the parable to make sense in the real world that Jesus’s listeners inhabited. If it is, then the landlord is vastly underpaying his workers, and the next day they’re going to work for a different landlord who pays them up to twelve times as much.

But the most obvious way in which this is an opposite parable is that the landlord isn’t going to get any full-day workers next time. Who is going to work a full day when they can wait until evening, work one hour, and get paid the same amount? The people listening to the parable knew this. They knew how unappealing it was to do hard outdoor work throughout the day in the area around Israel. Which means that Jesus had something to say about the workers and/or the harvest that went opposite to the way the real world works. The harvest is worth more than money, or the workers are bringing in more than grapes. Or there is no day after.

Which is almost certainly the point of the parable. The harvest of Heaven is a vineyard that does not operate by the rules of this world. Not by any earthly wealth can the redemption of souls be measured, nor is the work of a single day comparable to the work of a lifetime.

Jesus’s “single day” was a metaphor not just for one man’s life, but for the life of the world. There is a storm coming, and the harvest is worth the extra effort it requires to bring in before the storm breaks.

Have yourself a musical command line…—Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021
Merry scriptmas

Merry Christmas! It’s time for another programming toy under your weekend scripter Christmas tree. And what could be more Christmasy than a script that doesn’t just play music but is music?

If you’ve read 42 Astounding Scripts (and if you haven’t, the ebook is on sale until the end of the year) you’re familiar with the “shebang line”, that pound-exclamation line at the top of every script. It usually looks like #!/usr/bin/something. It tells the computer what scripting language interpreter should run this script.1

A scripting language interpreter is nothing more than a command-line program that accepts files as input and interprets them as code to do something. When you put a shebang line at the top of a file and mark that file as executable, you’re telling the computer that whenever you run this script you want it to run the script file through the interpreter named in the shebang line.

If you put #!/usr/bin/python at the top of the script file, that means it should be interpreted as Python code, by running whatever program is at /usr/bin/python. If you put #!/usr/bin/perl, it should be interpreted as Perl code, by running whatever program is at /usr/bin/perl.

But that’s all the shebang line is doing: it’s telling the computer that this file must go through the interpreter at that path. The interpreter interprets the code in the file, nothing more than that. As long as the program specified in the shebang can handle getting the file as input, it will work. This is why most scripting languages, even those that use other characters for comments such as // or /* … */, also accept the pound symbol for comments: so that they won’t be confused by the shebang line if they’re called as a shell scripting language. Even AppleScript handles pound signs as comments, specifically for that reason.2

The piano script from 42 Astounding Scripts can accept files of notes as input. It can ignore lines beginning with hashes. The piano script can be used as a shebang line interpreter.

In memoriam: vaccinations killing pilots—Wednesday, December 15th, 2021
Pilot Deaths increased 1700% in 2021

It’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s not real nowadays. No one on any side of any aisle trusts the media to report news correctly, and with good reason. But it remains necessary to have some means of accurately gauging assertions from outside the news media.1

Sometimes, it’s easy to do. But the media’s constant death of x, film at 11 exaggerations have atrophied our ability to see complete hyperbole for the nonsense it is.

“Pilot deaths increased 1700%, and that’s only the first nine months of 2021 over 2020!”

I’m not sure the original memer wasn’t just making this up to see who would spread it around. All the information needed to recognize it as nonsense is in the meme. It quotes a 1700% increase and then says, “that’s just the first nine months!” In other words, according to this meme, pilot deaths likely increased by 2300 percent over 2020.

Think about that for a moment. What would the consequences be of pilots dying at more than 20 times the rate they did last year, and more than 140 times the rate they did in 2019? That’s a lot of deaths, and a lot of planes that can’t be flown. It’s a lot of people who can’t get where they’re going and a lot of packages that can’t be delivered.

You can choose to believe that the major media outlets would try to hush that up. Given how they’re trying to cover up inflation as (a) nonexistent and (b) a good thing, I can’t argue it. But the pilots who have to take over from the dead wouldn’t be able to keep silent. The unions losing members and the airlines losing employees wouldn’t be able to keep silent. You’d almost literally expect planes to be falling out of the sky.

This would be impossible to cover up. This is an industry that’s already suffering a well-publicized shortage of employees. The inflation and supply chain issues we’re seeing today is nothing compared to what we’d be seeing if those numbers represented what the meme says they represent.

The conclusion is that these either do not represent all deaths, or not all of them are pilots. And the answer is, both. This is a magazine for pilots, specifically members of the Air Line Pilots Association.2 Every month they publish an In Memoriam list of members who they’ve recently been informed have died; they provide the list by year. If they’ve received reports of deaths they’ve missed from the previous years, they include those. Which is why the deaths for previous years are so low: most of those years’ deaths have already been listed.

Hobby Computer Handbook: From 1979 to 1981—Wednesday, December 8th, 2021

To summarize the previous post, Hobby Computer Handbook was a yearly publication of Elementary Electronics. It lasted from 1979 to 1981, when Elementary Electronics ended publication. I recently found the first and final issues, and it’s a fascinating look at the changes in home computers over a very short time period.

1979

For less than the cost of a decent hi-fi system, or a console color TV with remote control, you can have a computer in your own home as powerful as some of the big IBM jobbies, and the whole computer won’t take up much more space than a couple of shoeboxes. If you don’t have room for two shoeboxes worth of electronic hardware you can rent computer time from regional and national companies… Call Data will charge you as low as $6 per hour (educational rate) for using their computer. If all you need is a couple of hours on their computer per month the bill could be less than your phone company charges you for the privilege of having a telephone.—Herb and Lawrence Friedman, Hobby Computer Handbook 1979 Edition, p. 25

One of the amazing things about how quickly the world of home computers was changing are the articles in the 1979 edition. Hobby Computer Handbook highlighted the SWTP 6800, the Heath H8, the Radio Shack TRS-80, the DATAC 1000T, and the Apple II—along with the Texas Instruments 58 Programmable Calculator.

The SWTP was a kit, for about $1,000 if you wanted a video terminal. Some people apparently didn’t: the Heathkit, also a kit, was $375, plus another $110 for a teletype, preferred over video “because it provides a ‘hard copy.’… Actually, the very minimum, consisting of the computer, 8K of memory, a serial I/O-cassette interface, and a used KSR teletype terminal, will cost around $950.”

Those were kits. You had to literally solder them together yourself. The fully-assembled TRS-80 computer, with 4K of memory, a 12-inch video display monitor, a cassette recorder for storage, and “including a 300 page instruction/programming manual, is $599.95.”

Hobby Computer Handbook—Wednesday, December 1st, 2021

In August I bought what I think is the final issue in an obscure early personal computer magazine that is probably of interest only to me. Hobby Computer Handbook was a publication of Elementary Electronics; it came out one or two times a year and may have collected computer-related content from its parent magazine.

The “Fall/Winter 1979 Edition” convinced me that a computer would be a better purchase than a programmable calculator. I found it in the magazine rack of one of our two local grocery stores and read it cover to cover several times. Its articles on BASIC allowed me to write BASIC programs, and so learn BASIC, before I had a computer to write on. None of them worked, of course, but it was a valuable experience. As much as I enjoy seat-of-the-pants scripting, some of my greatest successes come from planning out program logic far from a keyboard.

I also enjoyed the advertisements for computers and computer software. That was possibly the main purpose of the somewhat annual magazine: it was filled with not just advertisements but a “Software Directory”, a comprehensive list of software for various home computers along with thumbnail descriptions of each.

As a teenager who had never considered the possibility of owning a computer, I was amazed at what kinds of software were available. I never meant to write my own word processor. I looked at the prices in Hobby Computer Handbook, saved up what I needed, and brought cash to the annual Hamfest in a nearby city. I figured I’d be able to get a good deal there on software.

I was right, but, Jack-in-the-Beanstalk-style, I saw a Space Invaders game and bought that instead. I figured it would be easy to write a simple word processor, and much more difficult to write an Invaders clone. I was right; I wrote a perfectly passable word processor1, and never did get around to finishing an arcade game.

CoCoFest! 2021—Wednesday, November 24th, 2021
Color Computer 3 MIDI music station

I started using the TRS-80 Color Computer in about 1987, and started seriously using it in about 1988. I’m pretty sure I started using the Color Computer 2: I’d been using a TRS-80 Model 1, but a house fire melted it. The computer surprisingly still worked—or perhaps unsurprisingly, the Model 1 wasn’t just battleship grey, it was built like a battleship—but was unusable and probably untrustworthy due to the damage.

One of the reasons that I never saved programs from the Model 1 was that many of the disks were damaged by water and mold. The main reason was that the programs wouldn’t work on my next computer, so why bother? Nowadays, of course, I’d just copy everything over and forget about it, but I had no hard drive then. So any disks that were working went along with the Model 1 when I sold it to someone else for parts.

I had a used Color Computer 1 or 2 that I’d acquired at some point, possibly for the hard drive that came with it. Because it was stored in a box in the closet, it escaped damage from the fire. My memory of this is very hazy, because I didn’t buy that CoCo for use. But since it was the computer I had, I tried it out, and it did what I needed it to do. At some point thereafter I acquired a Color Computer 3, probably pretty quickly, and with that, Microware’s OS-9.

OS-9 was an impressive operating system for its time, certainly compared to Windows and even compared to the Macintosh. Remember, this was the late eighties. Windows 3 wouldn’t be released for a couple of years. I quickly found OS-9 and the CoCo 3 indispensable for both programming and writing, and so I searched out support tools for it, abandoning the Model 1 line.

The biggest and best of the support tools for the CoCo 3 was Rainbow Magazine. It was as filled with great software to type in as 80 Micro had ever been—and by 1987 80 Micro was an anemic shell of its former glory. I’m not sure I was even subscribing to it at that point, as it had mostly abandoned the Z-80 line in favor of Radio Shack’s IBM semi-compatibles.

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