Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Eurovan is Ill

Notice the bent antenna.

...Yup, it's a van-aerial disease.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Decades, Centuries, and Names (an extended rant)

They're at it again. Time has a story about the search for a name for the decade of 2000-2009, and with 2010 bearing down upon us, we're going to be hearing from all the crazies. People who don't know the difference between cardinal and ordinal numbers, between decades and centuries, between names and nicknames.

Let's go over it again, slowly. And please remember that Don has a B.A. in Math.

Cardinal numbers are used to indicate quantity; they are the normal integers that we're used to: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on infinitely.

Ordinal numbers are used to indicate order or sequence: First, second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on infinitely. Ordinal numbers are position: there is no "zeroth" or "negative-seventeenth."

All right then. Here's the rub. In the modern U.S. we generally refer to centuries (100-year periods) by ordinal numbers (i.e. "the 21st century"), and to decades (10-year periods) by cardinal numbers (i.e. "the 1990s").

You probably remember the heated arguments about the turn of the century. Some people thought the 21st century should start with the year 2000, others thought it should start with the year 2001. The 2001 folks were technically correct (all together now: "...which is the best kind of correct") because "the First century" started with the year 1 (there was no year 0) and finished at the end of 100, the "second century" started with 101 and continued thru 200, and (stay with me here) "the twenty-first century" started with the year 2001 and will continue thru 2100.

Note that the 2000 fanciers, while technically incorrect, were still off by only 1%. That's an astonishingly low error rate.

This, incidentally, is why we have the confusing pattern of calling years that start with 19xx "the twentieth century" and years that start with "20xx" "the twenty-first century."

(Here at Meerkat Meade we adopted an inclusive strategy: we decided to phase in the 21st century during the whole year 2000. We figure that turning a century is a lot harder than turning an oil tanker, and they take miles and miles to turn. For us, the century started turning on Jan 1 2000 and was finished by January 1, 2001.)

Of course, 1999/2000/2001 was also a change of millennium. We don't have a standard way of referring to millennia. Sometimes we call this current one "the third millennium" (ordinal) and sometimes we call it "the 2000s" (cardinal.) To be technically correct, "the third millennium" started on 2001 and runs thru 3000. while "the 2000s" started in 2000 and run through 2099.

(Actually, at Meerkat Meade we prefer to use the Holocene calendar, which sets the year 0 at the start of the Holocene period in the year 10,000 BCE. This year is 12,009 H.E. [Holocene Epoch], and we are in the 13th millennium or the 121st century, both of which started on January 1, 12,000.)

Now let's talk about decades.

As I said above, we generally name decades cardinally: the 1950s, the '70s, etc. Only in flowery, stilted, or overly legal language do we say something like "the third decade of the twentieth century" (ordinal) rather than "the 1920s" (cardinal). Thus, the 1970s started with 1970 and ran thru 1979, the 1980s ran 1980-1989, etc.

Problem is, people who don't think about what they're saying (and they are legion) remember the technically correct argument that "centuries start with the 01 year because there was no year 0" and apply it (incorrectly) to decades and millennia.

For example, the following letter from a very stupid child appeared in the December 21, 2009 issue of Time:

Even 5-year-olds know that when counting anything -- toes, fingers, or years -- we begin with one, not zero. The first decade of this millennium began with the year 2001, and the last year of the first decade of this millennium will be next year, 2010. The millennium began with the year 2001. Why is this so difficult for adults to grasp? -Anna Link, Falls Church, VA

Because, Anna, adults do not generally refer to decades in the same stilted, pretentious way that you do. Nor, to be technically correct, did the article you're commenting upon: The '00s: Goodbye (at Last) to the Decade from Hell. Even 5-year-olds (to borrow a phrase) know that "the '00s" began in '00 (duh) and end in '09.

And to point out your technically incorrectness (the worst kind of incorrectness), since "this millennium" started (cardinally) in 2000, the "first decade of this millennium" ran from 2000 thru 2009 -- not 2001-2010 as you say. Too bad, Anna. If you'd only been pedantic enough to say "the first decade of the third millennium," you'd at least have been partially correct...instead of revealing yourself to the nation as a dunderhead who cannot tell the difference between 10 years, 100 years, and 1,000 years.

Oh, well, you were educated in Virginia, so perhaps expecting you to have knowledge of numbers greater than 4 is asking too much. Go back to your nonevolutionary world created in 4004 BCE (wouldn't that make today part of "the eighth millennium" which runs from 1998 thru 2097? The "second decade" of that millennium, in fact, which started in 2007 and runs though 2018?)

Ahem. The point is, in general civic society we count decades cardinally. The current decade is 2000-2009, and it doesn't have a name.

That's because there isn't a common accepted name for the span of numbers 0-9. 10-10 are "the teens," 20-29 are "the twenties," and so forth -- and that's how we commonly name decades: either "the 1910s," "the 1920s," etc. or "the Teens," "the Twenties," etc.

If we try to call 2000-2009 "the 2000s," there is going to be confusion. Does that mean the decade, or the century? (We frequently do refer to centuries in ordinal fashion, as in "the 1600s" or "the 1800s.")

But there's no name like "teens, twenties, etc." for '00-'09.

Last time we faced this problem was with the 1900s. At the time, there was a generally accepted name for '01-'09: aughts. This came from the standard way of speaking numbers aloud at the time: 1807 was pronounced "eighteen-aught-seven." As people in the 1910s and 1920s started to talk about years in the period 1900-1909, it was natural that they said things like "Back in aught-four..." or "The bad storm of aught-eight." From there it was a simple generalization to call the decade "the aughts."

Nowadays, this is not the fashion. We say "eighteen-oh-seven" and "Back in oh-six..." So by analogy, we should be calling this decade "the oh's." But that's not going to stick, because there is too much potential for confusion. (In Baltimore, for example, "the O's" means "the Orioles.")

I say we should go with "aughts." And we should go back to the old way: "Back in twenty-aught-four..."

Just to make things more complicated (cue Grover: "More complicated?!"), we also talk about "naming decades" when we really mean giving a decade a nickname. These are cute sobriquets like "the Roaring Twenties" or "the Me Decade." Not every decade gets a nickname (what nickname did we give the 1910s?), and moreover, nicknames are often applied well after the fact. If the decade 2000-2009 is going to have a nickname, it's too early for us to decide on it now.

And one more thing, while I've got you here. The time is long past to drop the "two thousand" thing. Next year is not "two thousand ten" (or even worse, "two thousand and ten") -- it's "twenty-ten." 1910 wasn't "one thousand nine hundred ten," it is and always was "nineteen-ten."

We put up with this nonsense the first few years of the century (it certainly made sense to say "the year two thousand" rather than "the year twenty-oh-oh"), but we realized the problem back when everyone was calling that movie "Two Thousand and One: A Space Odyssey," and even pushed for calling the sequel "Twenty-Ten." We totally stopped being patient around 2003 (twenty-oh-three).

If nothing else, imagine the time savings from 7 billion people saying "twenty-fifteen" instead of "two thousand fifteen."

Thank you. Now go forth and celebrate the ending of the '00s, and best wishes for a safe and happy 2010 and the rest of the Teens..

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Blizzard of 2009

It's blizzard time here at Meerkat Meade. We are snowed in, but there was plenty of warning and we laid in lots of supplies. In fact, we're more prepared for a five-day blizzard, rather than the weekend that this one will probably take up.

On the other hand, it's 6:30 pm, there are 14 inches of snow outside the back door, and it's still falling.

In any case, our tea cabinet is well-stocked, so we're happy.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Supernova Amanda

(by Don Sakers)

Our dear friend Amanda Allen (29 June 1958 - 23 May 2008) died a year and a half ago. Here is something that I wrote for her memorial service.

Supernova Amanda

Richard Bach said, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” Amanda loved that quote, and she knew that we here today were her true family. Amanda had a mundane family and a mundane life, and I mean no disrespect for those -- but like most of us, Amanda’s real life was here, among fans and fandom.

I was privileged to know Amanda more closely than many. For 23 years we shared that “respect and joy in each other’s life.” In a special way, Amanda gave me her life, when she allowed me to turn her into Miranda Maris in Dance for the Ivory Madonna.

The mundane world doesn’t have the words to articulate what Amanda was to me. “Friend,” “Companion,” “Colleague,” Mate,” “Partner,” “Counselor” -- all inadequate, inaccurate, misleading. . The language of sf and fantasy, at least, offers more possibilities: Amanda and I were bredin, droogs, imzadi, water brothers. About the best I can do in Mundane language is to say I’ve lost a sister.

Let me tell you about my sister Amanda.

Amanda was an artist. She lived and breathed creativity, in so many different formats. We all know her costumes, her superb sense of visual composition and decoration; she also wrote, drew, and sang. In Amanda’s hands, the cooking of a meal became a major artistic endeavor. She was an accomplished storyteller.

Amanda had a deep, abiding joy in life. Even when things weren’t going as well as she wanted, she found ways to celebrate and enjoy. When I look back on two decades with Amanda, what I recall most is laughter…the kind of laughter that comes from deep in the soul and rejuvenates the spirit.

Above all, Amanda loved to share her gifts and her joy with others. With her friends, with the generations of kids she cared for…but also, in true fannish fashion, with newcomers and novices. For Amanda, there truly were no strangers – only friends she hadn’t met. If you want an archetypal image of Amanda, imagine her sweeping through the halls in one of her stunning Tudor ensembles, taking the time to stop and sincerely praise the costuming effort of a teenager with a badly-cut tunic and a bedsheet thrown across her shoulders as a cape.

Astronomers tell us that stars come in different types. The ordinary stars burn days after day for billions of years, giving heat & light to the universe. Then there are novas, stars that shine hotter and more brightly. And every so often there is a supernova: a single star that, for a time, outshines the entire galaxy. Amanda was a supernova. She shed her warmth and light across our part of the universe, and though her period was too brief, it was a stunning and beautiful time for all of us who beheld her.

In supernovas, ordinary hydrogen and helium fuse into heavier, exotic elements; then in passing, the supernova spreads these elements across the skies to enrich the universe. All that we know – our Earth, our air, our bodies themselves – are gifts from long-ago supernovas. Similarly, Amanda spread her gifts far and wide, and we will be seeing their effects as long as we live.

One last thing about supernovas: when they are gone, the nebulas they leave behind are among the most stunningly beautiful objects in the sky. And this is true of Supernova Amanda: what she leaves in her place, most of all, is incredible, ineffable beauty.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Doctor Who: Who's Your Favorite Doctor?

Being highly intelligent, imaginative people, we of course love Doctor Who. And we've been fans of The Doctor since childhood, not like all those Johnny-come-latelies who discovered Doctor Who in 2005. We have just about every existing Doctor Who episode on DVD, having recorded them over long years watching the show on Maryland Public Television (and later, BBC America and the Sci-Fi Channel).

Since the show began in 1963, ten actors have played The Doctor. (One of the things that makes the show true genius is how they figured out a plausible way to replace the main character with a different actor when William Hartnell left in 1966.) Among Doctor Who fans, the favorite question is "Who's your favorite Doctor?"

Over the years, we've observed that for most people, their favorite Doctor is the one they were first exposed to.

For instance, Thomas's first exposure to Doctor Who was during the John Pertwee years, and Pertwee (left) is his favorite Doctor.

With Don, things are a little different. His first Doctor was Tom Baker, and he will always have an attachment to that Doctor. But he realized a long time ago that he's a very fickle fan. For Don, the answer to "Who's your favorite Doctor?" is: Whichever one I've seen most recently.

Given all this, perhaps the most useful question is "Who's your second-favorite Doctor? "Right now, Thomas is leaning toward William Hartnell, while Don says Sylvester McCoy. But those answers might change.

So how about it? Who's your second-favorite Doctor?

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Energy, Global Warming, and Science Fiction

In present-day science fiction, you don't read much about energy, global warming, and associated problems. Why?

Because science fiction writers, readers, and fans thrashed everything out three decades ago, figured out the most workable solutions, and moved on.

Around 1973 the big buzzword in science fiction was "the hydrogen economy." The idea was that we should move beyond a petroleum-based economy to one based on hydrogen. Hydrogen burns cleanly; the only waste product is water.

In order to obtain hydrogen, we would need electricity. Ultimately, that electricity would come from controlled fusion. But fusion wasn't (and still isn't) practical. We would need something to tide us over until we perfected fusion.

The perfect medium-term solution was (and still is) space-based solar power stations, which would beam power to Earth via microwaves. In the mid-1970s Gerard K. O'Neill and his team laid out a workable roadmap to building these power stations.

Until solar power stations were widely available, we would have to get our electricity from a variety of sources: renewables such as wind, ground-based solar, tidal, geothermal, and ocean temperature differential...but mainly nuclear fission, because the energy available from all the others was only a fraction of the total we'd need. As quickly as possible we would eliminate the burning of fossil fuels -- first, because of the emission of greenhouse gases and other nasty stuff, second because they were limited, and third because petroleum and other fossil fuel components are too essential chemicals to many of our industrial processes to go around burning up the limited supply we have.

Now, science fiction circa 1979 was willing to admit that all of this didn't solve the global warming problem for all time. Sure, it took care of greenhouse gases, but all energy use results in waste heat, and sooner or later an expanding energy-intensive civilization would be generating enough waste heat to make Earth uncomfortable. Sure, it would take thousands of years to reach that point, but science fiction thinks in terms of millennia.

So in addition to all the other solutions, sf proposed that we work on long-term ways to mitigate warming...the longest-term of all being methods to move Earth further out from the sun as necessary. (Eventually it would be necessary to move Earth anyway, if not in the next million years because of increased energy use, then in several billion when the sun moves into its red giant phase).

There you have it. Now suppose the world had listened to science fiction back in the 1970s. Today we would have a global hydrogen economy fueled by limitless space-based solar power and we'd be starting to decommission no-longer-necessary fission plants.

Now here's the real meat of the matter: What is science fiction saying today, that people 30 years from now will wish they had listened to?

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Monday, November 02, 2009

GCFCG Haunted House 2009

(This is basically a copy of what I posted on the AACPL Programming Blog. That's a closed blog, so I figured I would post here in the open as well. -Don)

[ADDED LATER: I apologize for not giving credit to the photographers. I fixed it.]

(photo by Meg Miller)
If you thought you heard screams coming from the north on Halloween afternoon, you're not mistaken. Between 1pm and 5 pm, a total of 202 people (138 kids and 63 adults) started through our Haunted House (presented in conjunction with the Greater Columbia Fantasy Costumers Guild, pictured above). Staffers Meg Miller and Leslie Shepley kept the crowd under control and the groups moving through, while Guild members (including staffer Don Sakers) provided the scares.

(photo by Don Sakers)

At the entrance, groups were met by one of the two maids, Holly and June (left). The maid explained that the Count and Countess from Transylvania were considering moving their family to the United States. The Brooklyn Park Library was allowing the family to live in the basement for a while, and today we were giving tours so that the family could meet Americans. "So be on your best behavior...remember, we are going into someone's house. Keep your hands to yourselves, be polite, and don't break anything. And oh, by the way, they're vampires."

(At this point, some kids lost their nerve and bailed out.)

(photo posted on Yahoo by Don Sakers)
Groups first greeted the Dowager Countess (right), who was quite mad. It was at this point that a latecomer joined the group, a teenage girl who had missed her turn earlier. Everyone said hello to the Dowager, then moved along down the hall. (Sharp-eyed visitors got a glimpse of a ghostly figure wafting down the hall, which added to their unease.)

(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
Down the hall, Uncle Pesci (left) stepped out from the bathroom wearing a shower cap and clutching a shower brush. He grumbled at the maid because no one had told him it was tour day. We'd intended this to be a minor and slightly humorous startle-scare, but some kids screamed, others started crying, and at least one little boy let loose his bladder and had to be escorted out by Mom.

After this encounter with Uncle Pesci, the group continued on toward the kitchen.

(photo taken by Greg Sears on camera owned by Gwyn Fireman)
The kitchen staff (above) were glad to welcome each group and show off some of the delicacies they were preparing for the family: kitty eyeballs, ear & eyeball stew, assorted sweetmeats sauteed in puppy drool, and fresh intestines ("It's an acquired taste").

The kitchen staff then asked some questions ("Are you healthy?" "Can I smell your hands?") and then nodded approvingly over one member of the group. Without warning, they grabbed her away and pulled her (kicking and screaming) through the door. After the door slammed, the poor victim's cries were abruptly cut off by a very solid "thunk." (The victim, of course, was the teenager who joined the group at the last minute -- in reality she was a shill who belonged to the Costumers Guild.)

(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
At this point the group was joined by the family butler, Mr. Renfield (right), who announced that "The Family is ready to receive guests now." Mr. Renfield led them through a curtain to the family room, while behind them the maid tried to reassure those who were concerned about the missing teenager: "No, no, there's nothing we can do for her. Did anyone know her? Oh, good, she won't be missed."

With Mr. Renfield in the lead (with a deadpan delivery remisicent of Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show), groups moved on to meet various members of the family.

(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
Sisters Malice and Alice (above) were the first to greet the guests. Mr. Renfield explained that Malice has been lost in a horror novel for the last two hundred years, while Alice enjoys playing with her dolls. Every time Alice stuck her doll with a pin, Malice would jump and say "Ouch." Mr. Renfield cautioned visitors not to give Alice anything personal, such as a key, some hair, or a finger.
(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
Great-Aunt Elspeth (right), a spinster, was spinning cobwebs...but she always found at least one person in the group with lovely hair, and she asked them if she could have their head ("to keep the hair fresh.") When Mr. Renfield said, "Now Elspeth, you know that you never give the heads back," Elspeth countered with, "They never ask!" Unanswerable logic.

(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
Cousin Charlotte (above) was next on the tour. First Charlotte used her Tarot cards to peel back the mists of time and tell the fortune of someone in the group: "Death." Mr. Renfield deadpanned, "Very perceptive, Charlotte. Everyone's fortune is death...eventually. Why don't you show them something more...mystical?"

Charlotte then conjured up the spirit of someone from a previous tour; the ghostly apparition arose and silently swayed in the breeze.

(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
Now it was time to meet the Count and Countess (above). Both welcomed their visitors enthusiastically. The Count asked one of the children his/her name. Let's follow one little boy, clinging to Mom, who answered, "Daniel." The Count patted the maid on her shoulder and said, "You have served us well. Tell Cook that the first course on tonight's dinner will be...Daniel." He looked around the group. "And the rest of them can go in the soup pot; we'll feast on them all weekend."

At this point, young Daniel started to lose it. Mom patted him comfortingly and said, "Honey, it's just make-believe. They're not really going to take you and eat you." With fear-filled eyes, Daniel protested, "They took that other girl!"

Mom had no ready reply.

Fortunatley for the group, Mr. Renfield stepped forward and said to the Count, "Wait a minute, that's not the deal! You said you'd only take one from each group." The maid answered, "We're renegotiating the deal. We're taking them all, and I get my immortality." The Count pointed at Mr. Renfield and cackled, "Yes, and you get nothing...except the soup pot with the rest of them."

Mr. Renfield stood firm. "You forget, there are three things that vampires have no power over. One: your own reflection in a mirror."

The Countess sneered, "There are no mirrors here."

Mr. Renfield said, "Two: the burning touch of sunlight!"

The Count cackled, "We are in the basement. There's no sulight here, you fool!"

Mr. Renfield continued, "Three: the Vampire Hunter Blake!"

(photo by Gwyn Fireman)
In burst Vampire Hunter Blake (right), who instantly drove a stake through the heart of the traitorous maid. As he struggled with the vampire family, Mr. Renfield ushered the group through a doorway to the graveyard. Blake stepped through, then threw a shining rope across the threshhold. "We're safe, they can't cross this magical barrier."

As Blake and Renfield organized the group, the Countess burst through the barrier. "I am the oldest and strongest of this family, no barrier can stop me. First I will have you, Blake, and then I will take the rest!" She and Blake fought to the death (Blake's) while Renfield sheparded the group into the exit antechamber. There, with the safety of sunlight on the other side of the door, he paused to make sure everyone was accounted for ("Wait, we're missing one...oh, never mind.")

The Countess burst through the door, and the group ran screaming into the safety of the light.


This fifth annual Haunted House was our most successful. We had two pants-wetters, one hysterical crier who had to leave halfway through (and then was forced back in by Mother, perhaps not the best example of quality parenting), one puppy pile (in which most of the group fell to the floor and tried to crawl to safety, kicking the last one in line back toward the vampires), at least half a dozen older siblings offering younger brothers or sisters as sacrificial victims, and a good number of screamers, criers, and general scared-to-deathers. One group froze completely when Blake entered, and were only convinced to move to safety when Uncle Pesci stood up behind them and roared.

In short, a grand time was had by all.

Setup took about six hours on Friday afternoon/evening (about 4-10 pm) and teardown was accomplished in less time on Sunday (1-4 pm). And the Guild is already thrashing out ideas for next year.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

VHS-to-DVD Project Update

As you may recall, in June 2004 we started converting our collection of over 1,500 VHS tapes to DVD. It's long past time for an update.

Despite a lapse of a couple years due to illness, we are back on track and into the home stretch. Just moments ago Don put DVD number 1924 into the recorder to transfer tape G:088. Out of the original tapes, we are down to about 150 (which means we're just about 90% done, which is an encouraging thought.) We're currently transferring stuff that was recorded in mid-1995, 14 years ago.

The most recent tape we transferred contained the following:
    Space Precinct: Two Against the Rock
    The Tic: Tick vs. Dinosaur Neil
    Twilight Zone (classic): Ring-a-Ding Girl
    Saturday Night Live: Best Commercial Parodies
    Whatever Happened to Devo?
    Rugrats: Chuckie's Red Hair/Spike Runs Away
    Babylon 5: Long Dark
    Twilight Zone (classic): Black Leather Jackets
    Masters of Fantasy: Dennis Muren
    The Tomorrow People: Rameses Connection Part 2

Our video catalog has undergone another transformation: it is now in HanDBase format, on the Macs and on Don's iPhone. Having the video database on iPhone is a leap forward in covnenience.

So what comes next? If we keep up our current rate, the conversion project should be completed by June 2010 -- six years after we began. We estimate that by that time we'll be beyond DVD 2200.

Once we're done, we look forward to the next step: ripping all these DVDs into something like iTunes. We're going to have to be patient: storing the equivalent of 2200 DVDs would take something in excess of 10 TB. But eventually we'll see iPods with a capacity of 16 TB; by that time we will be able to carry our entire video collection in our pockets. It's a nifty prospect.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Welcome Orion

We have a name for the new hamster: Orion.

You see, he has these three spots on his back: two small ones close together, and a larger one a little ways away, all along the same line. So we were thinking of calling him "Umlaut" (for the two spots) or "Ellipsis" (for all three). Then on the way home from work yesterday, I came up with "Orion" from the constellation, and that did it.

So our new guy is officially Orion, a stellar hamster who is destined to be a mighty hunter.

If he holds still long enough, I will try to post a picture of his three spots.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

It's New Hamster Time

If all goes well, tomorrow evening we will be getting a new hamster.

The Great Hall and Basement are cleaned and prepared with fresh nesting material. We have a good supply of hamster food. And our poison ivy, which dissuaded us from getting a hamster last week, is faded to almost nothing -- certainly no risk to a little baby hamster.

Will post here and on Twitter with the news.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday's Child R.I.P.

Should have posted this a while ago, in remembrance.

    Monday's child is Farrah Fawcett,
    Tuesday's child is Fuller Brush Man,
    Wednesday's child is Martin Balsam,
    Thursday's child is Tommy Newsome,
    Friday's child is Euell Gibbons,
    Saturday's child is Richard Simmons,
    But the child that's born on the sabbath day
    Is John and Paul and George and Jay.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Act Well Your Part Now Available for Kindle

Don's first novel, Act Well Your Part, is now available in Amazon Kindle format for $3.50.

Act Well Your Part is the story of Keith Graff, who dislikes his new school, Oak Grove High. He misses his old friends, and despairs of ever fitting in. Then he joins the school's drama club, where he meets the boyishly cute Bran Davenport. From there on it's a rollicking good boy-meets-boy story.

Since its original publication in 1986, Act Well Your Part has become a classic, an unabashed love story set not in the world that was, but in the world as, perhaps, it should be. It is a world in which sexual orientation matters about as much as eye color of left-handedness.

Amazon Kindle format is an electronic text format that can be viewed on Amazon's Kindle device and Apple's iPhone.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Help Spread the Word

Folks, please help me spread the word that a thinly-disguised Michael Jackson was a character in Dance for the Ivory Madonna. I think lots of people would be interested to see Michael Jackson in a science fiction novel.

The link is tinyurl.com/mjsfnovel


-Don Sakers

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reviewing the Star Trek Movies

Everyone is asking what we thought of the new Star Trek movie. Before answering that, you should know what we thought of the others.

First, a few words on how we review movies:

To begin with, we rate movies along two axes. One is good/bad; the other is fun/not-fun. A movie can be good and fun (The Princess Bride), good and not fun (Das Boot), bad but fun (Independence Day), or bad and not fun (Ernest Goes to Camp). In addition, we sometimes rate movies on a scale of 1 to 101 Dalmatians (the animated one, of course).

That being said, here are our opinions of the various Star Trek movies.


#1: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Very good, pretty fun

A good science fiction movie, although not necessarily good Star Trek. Maybe 85 dalmatians.


#2: The Wrath of Khan

Pretty good, very fun.

Although we still want to know where they got enough mass to form a planet in the middle of that nebula. Maybe 80-85 dalmatians.


#3: The Search for Spock

Pretty good, very fun.

Very hard to separate from Wrath of Khan - they're really 2 parts of the same movie, aren't they? Maybe 70-75 dalmatians.


#4: The Voyage Home

Bad, somewhat fun.

Time travel is not Star Trek's forte. And why did the whale tank have to be transparent? Maybe 50-55 dalmatians.


#5: The Final Frontier

Bad, not much fun.

Maybe 50-55 dalmatians.


#6: The Undscovered Country

Very bad, not much fun.

Okay, guys, which ship was doing the gas surveys? Maybe 30-35 dalmatians.


#7: Generations

Not too bad, somewhat fun.

Crashing the saucer section was fun. But time travel again...oh my. Maybe 50-60 dalmatians.


#8: First Contact

Not too good, somewhat fun.

Impossible to reconcile this version of Zefram Cochrane with the one seen in the series. And...oh dear...time travel and the Borg? Really? Maybe 60-65 dalmatians.


#9: Insurrection

Quite good, quite fun.

Good sf, good Trek, a cool planet and a plot that makes sense. Maybe as many as 80-85 dalmatians.


#10: Nemesis

Very bad, not much fun.

Proof that Star Trek can be awful without time travel or the Borg. Maybe 30-35 dalmatians, maybe fewer.


#11 Star Trek.

Not that good but really fun.

Lots of nods to fans, some really good actors. But necessary to give up trying to piece together the sloppy narrative. Head off to save Vulcan with only two real officers and a bunch of third-year cadets on the Federation Flagship? Really? Make a third-year cadet who is on probation the First Officer? Did I mention it's the Flagship? Promote that cadet to Flagship Captain, over the heads of all the existing officers? Sure, why not?

Maybe 75-80 dalmatians?

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Soured on Apple

I am well and truly pissed at Apple.

It all started on June 7 with Security Update 2009-02. I installed it on our venerable seven-year-old iMac G4 (running OSX 10.4.11). Afterwards, the iMac wouldn't start up. It froze on the blue startup screen. What's worse, it would not boot into so-called "safe mode."

I looked online and found that I was not the only person bitten by this bug. There were many suggestions, so I started trying them. Start up in single-user mode (which it did) and repair the startup disc, repair permissions, change the name of various preferences files, delete this-that-and-another file from various Libraries. No dice.

I finally learned the trick of opening the DVD drive, so was able to boot from the install disc. Fromt there, I was able to boot into OS9. But that did me no good.

One source said to boot from an external Firewire drive. So I used the install DVD to install OSX 10.4.6 on the external drive, and tried to boot from that.

No luck. Under OS9 it mounted the external drive without trouble; but it would not boot from that drive no matter what I did.

Eventually, I had no other choice but to reinstall the OS. I was reluctant to do this, because I had to do it back in February (after another botched Security Update) and the update destroyed a bunch of settings, as well as wiping out all our iTunes playlists. But there was no other choice.

So I installed OSX 10.4.6 on the iMac. And it rebooted successfully, hooray!


The wireless card is messed up. System Profiler sees the card, but the iMac insists that it is not installed. The ethernet port is messed up -- the system doesn't even admit that it has an Ethernet port, and it certainly won't go online. (Both the wireless network and the ethernet connection work fine on the laptop.)

Worse, the iMac won't mount the external drive. Nor will with external drive mount on the laptop. That drive holds all our iTunes, all our iPhotos, and a bunch of other stuff that I really don't want to lose.

Without being able to go online, I can't install any system updates. I am afraid to run anything because I don't want to have OS conflicts.

Thanks a lot, Apple. You've turned a perfectly-good computer into a wreck.

I'd been planning to buy a brand-new iMac with tax refund money...but now I am very reluctant. I've recommended Apple to many friends over the last few years...but I can't do that in any good conscience any longer. I am definitely soured on Apple.


Update 9:08 PM: Well, I can still boot into OS 9.2...and then the iMac recognizes its wireless connection. So we can get online using a ten-year-old version of Internet Explorer. Bah.

Apple still sucks big-time.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

CostumeCon 27 Pictures

Our CostumeCon 27 presentation was "CostumeCon 1889: Steampunk Style." In it, we did a masquerade-within-the-masquerade, in Steampunk style, which spoofed all the standard cliches of costuming: Star Trek, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and five different Snow Queens. Not only did we get a group award for workmanship and the "Best Concept" masquerade award...but the New York/New Jersey Costumer's Guild awarded us the coveted Spazzy Award, given for the most sick and twisted presentation.

Here's the group picture:

And here's Thomas as Darth Vader. His helmet is made of folded and glued cardboard.

And here is the last costume we presented, Don as the ultimate Snow Queen: a steampunk drag queen cocaine dealer (Snow Queen, get it?)

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Earth Day

I can see a time, in the not-too-distant future, when Earth Day will replace Easter as the default Spring holiday. I'm in favor: with the exception of Christmas, all of our other national holidays are secular ones. And we need a Spring holiday.

I can also see a time, in the more-distant future, when people on the Moon, Mars, and various space settlements will insist that the name "Earth Day" be changed because it's too Earth-centric. And there, too, I'm in favor.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How We Designate Planets Nowadays

(GEEK ALERT! Only interesting if you are a science or science-fiction geek. Mundanes may skip without penalty.)

How do we designate planets? The old way, the venerable science fiction way, was to give planets roman numerals in order of their distance from their sun. In this system, Earth was "Sol III," Khan was exiled on "Ceti Alpha V," and in the Dune universe, the planet Ix derived its name from the fact that it was the ninth planet from its sun.

That's not how it works in the real world. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia:
The most common way of naming extrasolar planets is almost the same as binary stars, except that a lowercase letter is used for the planet instead of the uppercase letter for stars. A lowercase letter is placed after the star name, starting with "b" for the first planet found in the system (51 Pegasi b). The next planet found in the system could be labeled the next letter in the alphabet. For instance, any more planets found around 51 Pegasi would be catalogued as "51 Pegasi c" and then "51 Pegasi d", and so on. If two planets are discovered around the same time, the closest one to the star gets the next letter, while the last planet would get the last letter. For example, in the Gliese 876 system, the most recently discovered planet is referred to as Gliese 876 d, despite the fact that it is closer to the star than Gliese 876 b and Gliese 876 c. The suffix "a" was intended to refer specifically to the primary, as opposed to the system as a whole, but this did not catch on. At present, the planet 55 Cancri f (being the fifth planet found in the 55 Cancri system) is the only planet to have "f" in its name, the highest letter currently in use.

In practical terms, this basically means that we're assigning letters in decreasing order of mass, since we detect extrasolar planets by their mass.

I assume that the old "roman numerals" system would still apply, once we get close enough to another planetary system to be sure that we've detected all the planets in the correct order.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I haven't seen the new way applied to the Solar System. So here it is:

    Sol b - Jupiter
    Sol c - Saturn
    Sol d - Neptune
    Sol e - Uranus
    Sol f - Earth
    Sol g - Venus
    Sol h - Mars
    Sol i - Mercury

I'm going to let the dwarf planets fight it out among themselves.

I suppose there's an analogous system for satellites, under which Ganymede = Jupiter b, Callisto = Jupiter c, Io = Jupiter d, Europa = Jupiter e; Titan = Saturn b; Triton = Neptune b; and even Charon = Pluto b. Saturn is going to cause problems, since it had more than 25 satellites.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Analog Reference Library June 2009

Starting with the June 2009 issue, Don Sakers is the new book reviewer for Analog, the longest-running science fiction magazine in the known universe.

Don's June column is available here. Ignore the stray paragraph about utopias; it came from somewhere else.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can iPhone Replace a Palm?

Don has been using Palm organizers for about ten years. First it was his Palm III, followed by a Handspring Visor, and then a Palm Zire 71. Recently, when his Zire died, Don got a used replacement from eBay But recently, the handwriting has been on the wall (graffiti, of course). Even if Palm survives, the company is moving away from the venerable Palm OS.

Meanwhile, Don has been very happy with his iPhone. As iPhone's capabilities increased, it made less and less sense to carry two devices. Even before his Zire died, Don was exploring the possibility of transitioning to iPhone as his only PDA.

It's all about the apps. Over the last decade, Don has built up a stable of Palm programs that fill his needs: some built-in, others add-ons. Finding iPhone replacements has been a challenge, but at last Don has put together a suite of iPhone apps that allow him to move beyond Palm. As a public service, he presents here his list.

Of course, your mileage may vary, everyone's needs are different, blah blah blah.

Palm: Contacts iPhone app: Contacts (native): Syncs with Address Book via MobileMe

Palm: Calendar iPhone app: Calendar (native): Syncs with iCalc via MobileMe

Palm: Tasks iPhone app: Todo (Appigo): iPhone doesn't have a native to-do app, but Appigo's Todo fills the bill nicely. It syncs with the free online service Toodledo, which has a web component

Palm: Memos iPhone: Notebook (Appigo): iPhone has a native Notes app, but it pales in comparison with Palm memos. Appigo's Notebook not only allows categories, but it syncs with Toodledo.

Palm: Calc iPhone: Calculator (native) Good basic calculator; turn it sideways and get a scientific calculator with a fair array of features

Palm: VersaMail iPhone: Mail (native): Mail has VersaMail beat hands down

Palm: WebPro or Blazer iPhone: Safari (native): In its time, Blazer was a wonder. Wow, a web browser on a Palm! But Safari on iPhone is lightyears ahead

Palm: Camera iPhone: Camera (native): Again, the Palm camera app was a wonder in its time. But compared to the iPhone camera, Palm's is slow almost to the point of unusability. One thing, though: the Palm camera allows one to take video; iPhone's does not

Palm: Media and RealOne iPhone: Photos and iPod (both native): Media let you view photos and videos (but only Palm videos); RealOne let you listen to mp3 files. The Photo and iPod apps are so far superior that there's almost no comparison. Sync to desktop via iTunes

Palm: Voice Memo iPhone: coming in iPhone 3.0: Advantage to the Palm. There are non-native iPhone apps for voice memos, and that capability will apparently be native in 3.0. I don't use voice memos, so it's not a lack I've felt in iPhone

Palm: Expenses iPhone: PocketMoney (Catamount): iPhone does not come with a native expense app. For more on PocketMoney, see PocketQuicken below

Palm: Prefs iPhone: Settings (native): Settings has a cooler icon

Palm: HotSync iPhone: Sync Settings (not a separate app): There's no global sync app for iPhone; sync is very much an app-by-app thing. It's worth noting that native apps like Contacts, Calendar, and Mail sync over-the-air via MobileMe, which is too cool for school. Other apps require iTunes, or have their own sync/backup solutions

Palm: DateBk6 iPhone: Calendar (native) and Todo (Appigo): I confess, iPhone doesn't have anything as cool and useful as DateBk6. Calendar needs a lot of work (at least search is coming in 3.0), while Todo does a pretty good job -- but after years of having my schedule and to-dos displayed on the same screen, it took a paradigm shift to accept using two different apps

Palm: HanDBase iPhone: HanDBase: Without a good database app, switching to iPhone was unthinkable. Once the people at HanDBase announced that they had an iPhone version, then I started to contemplate switching. HanDBase syncs to the desktop, and easily reads Palm HanDBase databases

Palm: GlucoTools iPhone: Diabetes Pilot: I have diabetes and need an app to record and manage carbs and insulin injections. GlucoTools is a very simple insulin dose calculator; Diabetes Pilot is a full-featured recording, calculating, and reporting app. As the name implies, it's a port of the Palm program with the same name

Palm: Palm Reader iPhone: Stanza and Kindle: Stanza can read pretty much anything I throw at it, and can load files from the desktop. Reading books on iPhone is a much better experience than reading them on the Palm

Palm: YAPS iPhone: 1Password: YAPS stands for Yet Another Password Saver. 1Password is a perfectly acceptable replacement. I had to manually move all my account names and passwords, but that was a one-time-only inconvenience. 1Password backs up to the desktop but doesn't sync -- but YAPS was the same way

Palm: AIM iPhone: AIM and Twitterific: I never Twittered on the Palm. A while ago we went searching for a dedicated Twitter app for Thomas's Treo, but couldn't find one that was satisfactory. He just goes to the Twitter website with his browser. Meanwhile, Twitterific on iPhone is a joy. AIM on iPhone works pretty much the same way as AIM everywhere

Palm: PocketQuicken iPhone: PocketMoney: Neither Landware or Intuit seem inclined to do a version for iPhone. PocketMoney is a perfectly acceptable replacement, and it imports Quicken files. Caveat: I always used PocketQuicken exclusively, not messing with the desktop program. If syncing with desktop Quicken is important to you, that could be a problem

Palm: BigClock iPhone: Clock (native): Every Palm user I know has BigClock. I use it primarily as an alarm clock while traveling, but it also has world time, stopwatch, etc. The iPhone Clock app has the same capabilities built in

Palm: HandyShopper iPhone: GroceryIQ (you'd think they'd have the company name somewhere in the app): HandyShopper is the premiere shopping list program for the Palm. It has legions of devoted fans. And the folks who produce it have made it clear that they're not going to do an iPhone port (more the fools they: thousands of people would pay through the nose for an iPhone version of HandyShopper). GroceryIQ is not a total replacement for HandyShopper, but it does allow you to sort by aisles (as well as making your own custom aisles; put the two together and you can approximate HandyShopper's aisle sort). At the moment GroceryIQ is set up for only one store -- but they say they're working on it. (Oddly, one big concern of iPhone shopping list apps is to have a huge database of pre-entered items, in order to reduce typing. Maybe so; I can type the complete name of a product far faster than GroceryIQ can find the same product in its database.) With effort, one can massage GroceryIQ into about 80% of a HandyShopper replacement -- until some enterprising programmer decides to clone HandyShopper, that's the best we're going to get

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Time Magazine Catches Up to Dance for the Ivory Madonna

The cover story in the current issue of Time magazine is "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now." One of those ideas is "Africa: Business Destination." Suddenly, Time has discovered Africa's vast potential for becoming a world economic player.

Don Sakers totally called this in his 2002 novel Dance for the Ivory Madonna. In that book, set in the year 2042, Africa was mostly unified under a government called Umoja (the Kiswahili word for "Community"), and Umoja was the economic and technological powerhouse of the world.

Here's a brief snippet talking about the fictional history of Umoja, and you can read more about Dance for the Ivory Madonna here.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

iPhone Apps I Use Daily

There's a new report that says only 1 percent of users who download an app from the iPhone App Store become long-term users of that app.

Well, Don must be one of those one percent. Here are some of the apps he uses every day, in no particular order.

Todo by Appigo. This is a fine "to-do" app that synchronizes with the free online service Toodledo. The iPhone came without a to-do app; I've been wanting to transition away from my dying Palm Zire to iPhone, and Todo is big step along that path.

Iconic Notes by Hoofien. A notes app that allows the user to put notes into folders and subfolders, as well as allowing color-coding and replaceable icons for notes.

HanDBase by DDH Software. Database software. Both Thomas and I are long-time users of HanDBase for the Palm: Thomas keeps the Star Toys Museum catalog of 10,000+ items with it. On iPhone, I have databases for comics, filk tapes & CDs, and books I'm reviewing. HanDBase is indispensable.

Diabetes Pilot by Digital Altitudes. Another port of a longterm Palm program. Written by diabetics for diabetics, Diabetes Pilot helps keep track of blood glucose readings, medications, meals, and exercise. It calculates insulin doses, and has a built-in food database for counting carbs. Definitely worthwhile.

Twitterific by the Iconfactory. Twitter on the go. What more could one ask? (BTW, if you want to follow us on Twitter, Don is meerkatdon and Thomas is darthmarmalade.

Stanza by Lexcycle. Read books and other documents on iPhone. The best ebook reader I've ever used.mAnd BTW, allof Don's books are available for Stanza from Fictionwise.com.

1Password by Agile Web Solutions. One place to store all usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information, all protected by a master password.

ComiXology by comixology.com. Browse new releases, make pull lists, and a whole bunch of other features tied in with the website comixology.com.

So there you have it, plenty of iPhone apps that get used all the time.

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