Category: Technology

RedGreenEver heard of the Red Green Regatta? It’s held every year in Fairbanks as part of Alaska Days, scheduled this year for July 20. The idea is a short race on the Chena River (downstream) between “boats” made of whatever, incorporating the Red Green theme (you do watch the PBS show, don’t you?) and held together with duct tape. This year, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s been wet: 5.45″ in July through last midnight and raining right now. The Chena was so high the race was cancelled. Not that the judging of the boats was cancelled! Photos were posted by our local PBS affiliate, KUAC, and I couldn’t resist stealing one and linking it to their site. So just click on the picture for more!


CI may be of a pre-baby-boomer generation, but that does not mean I’m afraid of computers. I was hand coding in FORTRAN on punched cards for an IBM 360 forty-five years ago. My first home computer was a Kaypro running a CP/M operating system, with two 64 K floppy disks. (Really floppy; no hard drives or even the plastic-cased “floppy” disks then.) I learned HTML in the days when Netscape 1 was state-of-the-art, and the first page I made is still (with some editing but looking much the same) up on the web. I created an extensive website, still referenced, on Shetland Sheepdogs, Border Collies and canine coat color genetics back in the last decade of the 20th century.

At the time I retired, thus cutting off daily meeting with other geeks, there was no such thing as social media, aside from email.

Then I published my first book, Homecoming, with iUniverse.

Left to right: my MacBook Air, iMac, internet screen for iMac, motor for aod GE Mac (pre-USB.) Not shown: G4 MacBook I use if I need to transfer a file from the G3.

Left to right: my MacBook Air, iMac, internet screen for iMac, monitor for old G3 Mac (pre-USB.) Not shown: G4 MacBook I use if I need to transfer a file from the G3. Don’t you hate “upgrades” that leave your files  and programs useless?

I knew that my best bet for publicity, living where I do in Alaska, was the internet. I knew how to make web pages but not how to find a place to post them, and I’d never heard of social media. One of the few iUniverse publicity packages I’ve signed up for that was worth the cost was web publicity.

They set up pages for me on facebook, MySpace, Goodreads, Twitter, an email account (which I didn’t really need; I’ve had email for years), LibraryThing, Flikr, an author webpage and a WordPress blog. Yes, the one you’re reading now.

I have to admit that most of them have fallen by the wayside or get occasional auto-posts. (I discovered HootSuite on my own.) Twitter (@sueannbowling) and facebook get a daily quotation (with a challenge to identify the context.) The two still really active are my author website (the ongoing science fiction story and backdrop to my published science fiction, Jarn’s Journal, is regularly updated there) and this blog.

I’m not 100% happy with the mechanics of the blog, though at least I finally figured out how to get WordPress to send notifications (including follows on other WordPress blogs) to the email address I actually read. What infuriates me is that in order to change the type size (I’d like it larger) I have to get in and edit the cascading style sheet, which is something they invented after I learned HTML. And the latest problem: the option to open a new page/tab has disappeared from links from images. (Things are changing fast here; I did learn how to use an image in my sidebar to open a new window for a linked blog.)

Would anyone like to help me?


Who Needs a Nightcap?

scarfSometimes your subconscious can be remarkably wise, though it doesn’t always choose the best way of getting through to your conscious mind.

I’ve been cold at night the last few weeks, probably as a result of chemotherapy. For some reason the lines of “’Twas the Night before Christmas” also kept running through my head. Not the whole poem, and it’s really too early to start thinking of Christmas, though the stores will probably start carrying Christmas stuff before Halloween. But for some reason “Ma in her kerchief and me in my cap” kept bothering me.

NightcapLast weekend the penny finally dropped.

I knew perfectly well that nightcaps and other head coverings were common in the days before central heating, simply because the head was not covered by blankets. Add to that that heat lost through the head is close to the greatest of any part of the body, and it made sense to keep the head warm. Add to that our cooling temperatures and the fact that chemotherapy has made me practically bald ….

At 3 o’clock Saturday morning it occurred to my sleep-fogged (and cold) mind to try wrapping a bathrobe around my head. I went back to sleep and stayed warm. Saturday I  checked my head coverings, and found a fleece scarf – the kind you can cut and it doesn’t ravel. I didn’t want a bulky knot under my chin, so I cut a couple of slots where the ends crossed and had a modern version of Ma’s kerchief.

It works. Sunday night my feet stayed warm.

Camera Design

There are times I wonder if product designers ever use the products they design.

3 diginal cameras

My digital cameras. Top to bottom, they are 2.1 MP, 5 MP and 10 MP. The photo was taken with my iPhone.

This is not a new complaint for me. My second post was on smoke detectors, and a couple of months later I included cars and washing machines.

Now it’s digital cameras.

I’ve had three of the things, steadily increasing in resolution and decreasing in price and size. That part’s great. But my first digital camera, the clunker on top, had a viewfinder as well as a very small screen. I finally retired it when it started giving me double exposures, photos which were cut in half in the middle, and other peculiarities, but at least I never had a problem knowing what it was pointed at.

Camera number two was a Kodak with over twice the resolution of the first, and it took great pictures – except in bright light. I couldn’t see what I was photographing. No viewfinder, and while young eyes may be able to see those digital screens outdoors in bright light, I can’t. A good many of the photos on my blog before last fall were taken by guessing where the camera was pointed, as I certainly could not see the screen. It was large enough; I just couldn’t see anything but gray.

Last fall my brother-in-law showed me his camera, which had both a large screen and a viewfinder, like my first digital camera but with a large screen. Great! I wrote down the name and looked it up on the internet when I got home. I found it all right – a discontinued model. So I searched, not just Canon, but several on-line stores, for a digital camera that had both a screen and a viewfinder. After all, I’m surely not the only person who has trouble seeing those screens in bright light.

Turns out that the combination, or even a viewfinder, was available only in expensive, SLR cameras, not in the pocket point-and-shoot I wanted. I wound up getting a “used” camera of the type my brother-in-law had, and it’s been quite satisfactory, though I’m sure I’m not using a tenth of the features. But sooner or later, I suspect, it will refuse to work with a computer upgrade, as the Kodak did, and I’ll have to look for another camera.

Why on earth did the camera designers decide that a viewfinder was no longer necessary? Have they never tried to take a picture in bright ambient light? A cell phone I can understand – picture taking is strictly secondary. (Of course it’s rather difficult to dial a number if you can’t see the screen, but it’s usually possible to find some shade.) But why has the viewfinder become obsolete in cameras?


I don’t normally get childproof caps. For one thing, I almost never have children in my home. For another, I suspect the average 5-year old could open them far more easily than I can.

pliers opening bottleI think my worst experience with these caps was the time I broke my wrist, several thousand miles from home. A cousin took me to the emergency room, where the ER doctor applied a plaster splint from upper arm to fingertips. The cousin was kind enough to run into a drug store and fill the prescription the ER doctor had given me for pain – but I forgot to ask him to get non-childproof caps. And I was staying by myself.

Have you ever tried to open a childproof cap by yourself, one handed, half sick with pain, and somewhat disoriented? I finally managed, with the aid of my chin. And I was careful not to put the cap back on fully.

vacuum breaker

I’m not sure this gadget has a name, other than “vacuum breaker”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s worth its weight in gold.

Unfortunately, either the childproof idea has spread, or my ability to open things has declined with age. I won’t even mention blister packs, which require a heavy-duty knife or tin snips to open them, not to mention the waste they generate. But surely the caps on plastic bottles of water or soft drinks are supposed to screw off. Aren’t they? Not to mention the metal lids of peanut butter jars.

I’m happy to say I’ve found solutions to at least the plastic bottle and peanut butter problems.

The plastic bottles are hard to open because I simply can’t grip hard enough any more to break the molded seal between the screw part of the cap and the collar. (Exactly how they get those caps on the bottles is a mystery to me.) But the solution turned out to be simple – vice-grip pliers. They can be adjusted via the screw in one leg to fit exactly over the cap, and they provide plenty of leverage.

Peanut butter, pickles, sauerkraut and other things that come in glass jars are usually vacuum packed, and it is the vacuum that makes those lids hard to turn. But it is possible to break the vacuum before you try to turn the cap. I found a little plastic gadget in one of the junk catalogs that litter my kitchen table. It’s simple. It’s cheap. And it works! I just lever the lit up slightly before I try to open it, and it turns easily.

Now if someone would just come up with solutions to the dozens of other types of packaging I find myself struggling to open….

Could Jarn really have made glass?

Sure, if his ability to heat things up with his mind was sufficient to melt the crystals in sand or rock completely. Volcanoes and lightning strikes do it all the time, producing obsidian and fulgurites, both glasses. But he wouldn’t make modern window glass by accident!

Scientifically a glass is an amorphous (non-crystalline) solid. Most are made by melting or dissolving something which may be crystalline to start with and then cooling it so fast that crystals have no chance to form. This can be done, for instance, with sugar. In fact, sugar glass was widely used for breakaway windows in Hollywood special effects. It had to be made up on the spot, as it would absorb water from the air, but if you’ve seen a stuntman thrown through a window, the chances are that window was made of sugar.

When sand is the raw material, silicon dioxide (quartz) is usually the main ingredient. Pure or nearly pure silica sand would give silica glass, which is used when expansion or contraction with temperature would be a problem, or at high temperatures. But it is hard to make, so most modern glass has two “impurities”: soda (Na2O) and lime (CaO). Lots of other things may be added in smaller amounts as well. If Jarn found a sand with these minerals as impurities, he could indeed have produced a crude form of what we would recognize as glass, and given his mental abilities he could have formed it into transparent sheets.

Glass jewelry owned by the author

Modern fused, pressed and flameworked glass jewelry.

Why these particular impurities? Pure silica sand melts at a very high temperature. Mixing it with soda reduces that temperature—but the resulting glass, like sugar glass (though not quite to the same extent!) is water-soluble. Adding lime and a couple of other trace ingredients greatly reduces the solubility and produces greater chemical stability.

Transparency is a property of many large crystals, such as quartz, Most rocks made of silicon dioxide, such as flint or jasper, are not transparent simply because they are made up of many tiny crystals, and light reflects off the crystal boundaries. Glasses, having no crystal boundaries, are often transparent.

Lack of transparency in a glass may be due to bubbles or to the inclusion of elements which color the glass. Many sand grains, for instance, are yellow because of a coating of iron oxide. This would color glass made from yellowish sand, though the color is more green than yellow. Small amounts of various chemicals are in fact used to color glass deliberately.

So Jarn could have made glass by accident and then learned what he had done and how to refine the process from his computer. His fusing of dirt would have been more akin to firing ceramics. But these were not arts he could have taught to anyone else.

Typewriter (Morguefile)When I learned to type, it was on a typewriter. Not a sleek little electric portable, or even a mechanical portable, but a big, clunky machine with keys that had to be pushed hard enough to flip up the letters through a mechanical linkage, and a lever that had to be pushed over when a bell signaled you were approaching the end of a line. And what I hated worst was threading in a new ribbon.

It wasn’t a cartridge, it was a spool of ink-impregnated fabric that you had to thread through a finicky little gadget that held it where the lever with the letter on its end could strike the ribbon and leave a letter on the paper. It was impossible to thread the ribbon without getting ink all over your hands, so I generally used a ribbon as long as possible – until the letters it produced were getting too light to read.

Probably that’s why I try to do the same with cartridge ink and even toner.

No longer.

I’m not sure whether it’s bad design because of not thinking or bad design because the company wants to sell more ink cartridges/toner. In either case it’s bad design as far as customer usability is concerned.

My current inkjet printer is a 3-way HP Photosmart. It serves as a color copier and a scanner as well as a printer. I would have killed for a copier back in the days before Xerox when you layered paper with carbon paper to type, and woe betide you if you made a typo. Especially on the first page of a long document! Likewise a scanner – my first one was a standalone that cost far more than my printer. But having all three together is a great way to save space.

Unfortunately, there’s that design problem I mentioned.

All of my printers, laser or inkjet, now decide for themselves when the toner or ink cartridge is low, often before I even notice any reduction in quality, and simply quit working. Usually they send me a message that they need a new cartridge. Usually this is in the wee hours of the morning when all the stores are closed and when I cannot find the spare ink I’m sure I bought. When it’s a matter of printing something I usually just sigh and put a cartridge on my shopping list. But why on earth does the lack of a black inkjet cartridge keep the combo from scanning? Especially when I need to scan a signed contract and send it off by email, and I promised to do it right away?

It does not help at all that the exact name of the printer, and the size of ink cartridge needed, are hidden inside the machine, and it’s not obvious how to open it.

I finally went to the HP web site, looked for the machine that looked most like mine, and downloaded the instruction book – again. I still can’t find the one I’m sure I downloaded before, but I was able to find the instructions for opening the ink compartment, which (a) confirmed that I’d downloaded the right instruction book and (b) finally allowed me to figure out what kind of replacement cartridge to get.

I still think it’s bad design.

It’s Award Time Again

I received two awards last week: The Kreativ Blogger from Chris Kelworth at the Kelworth Files, and the Liebster from Cindy Brown at Everyday Underwear. I’m a bit conflicted about these awards. On the one hand, I appreciate receiving them, and I have no problem thanking the bloggers and linking back to them. On the other hand, both are the type that say “pass it on to x number of other bloggers”, and I know too much about exponential functions not to be aware that this is another version of chain letters, Ponzi schemes, population growth, or the failure to recognize limits in economic theory. (Yes, they all depend on exponentials, or rather on most people not understanding how exponentials work.)

I am not going to post another chart showing how many iterations of these awards it would take to reach the entire population of the world. I’ve already done that for awards passed on to five, seven, and eleven other blogs. And I’m going to follow my own advice on the Liebster: since this is the second time I received it, I’m not passing it on.

The Kreativ is also a “Pass it on to seven others” award. I will confine myself to passing it on to one which I really like, but I will follow the other conditions. The first, thank and link back to the awarding blog, as I’ve done above.

2. Answer the seven questions or alternatives. (I’ll provide some alternatives.)

3. Provide 10 random factoids about yourself.

4. Pass on to 7 others? Nope. See above on exponentials. I will, however, pass it on to one I like, and leave it to her to pass it on to seven if she wishes.

The Seven Questions:

1. What’s your favorite song? My alternative, Who are your favorite vocal artists? That one I can answer: Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocceli.

2. What’s your favorite dessert? Unfair to ask a diabetic, but now and then I have a chocolate cocoanut crème brulee from Wolf Run. My alternative, What’s your favorite comfort food?

3. What do you do when you’re upset? My alternative: what sort of thing upsets you? Actually I don’t get upset easily now that I’m retired—except about politics and the way the world is going, which when you really think about it ought to upset anyone.

4. What is your favorite pet? I’ll have to use past tense, because when my last Sheltie died of old age I reluctantly decided that at my age and with poor balance, I really shouldn’t try to replace him. But the one that really was my heart dog was my first, Derry. He was a singleton Sheltie who I really think never figured out that he was a dog, and there’s a post about him in his puppy days on my Sheltie site. He was my first tracking dog, had titles in three activities in two countries, and I really ought to write more about him. My alternative: what do you look for in a pet?

5. Which do you prefer, black or white? The alternative given was do you prefer white or wheat bread? I’ll go a step farther in my alternative, and say what kind of bread do you prefer? Not white or wheat bought in the store! When I eat bread, it’s what I bake myself in the bread machine – apricot-almond and ricotta cheese being my two top favorites. Or Brioche bread. Blue corn bread with sunflower seeds and ancient seed bread are pretty good, too. Maybe I should post some recipes?

6. What is your biggest fear? Blindness. At the time of my retirement, diabetic retinopathy had left me blind in one eye, and the treatments had left my other eye such that I see a straight line as wavy. It seems to be fixed now except for limited peripheral vision, but I’m still worried. The alternate given was name one of your strong points or special skills.

7. What is your attitude mostly? I’d have to say laid back, I guess. Definitely not outgoing or sociable, I’m quite happy to be left alone, and downright uncomfortable in a crowd—though that’s partly due to my vision. The alternative given was Do you think it is better to help people or leave them alone?

Finally, 10 random factoids:

1. I can’t find shoes that fit.

2. I am perfectly happy living by myself. I’ve lived by myself since my second year of college.

3. However, there are times a third hand would be useful.

4. I remember (vaguely) the election of Truman.

5. When I went to junior high, girls had to take a semester of sewing and one of cooking. Boys had to take shop. I envied the boys. In retrospect, shop would have been more useful. I didn’t learn anything in sewing or cooking I hadn’t already learned from my mother.

6. I’ve lived in Alaska for almost 50 years.

7. My first home computer was a KayPro running CP/M and relying on two (literally) floppy discs, one for system and program and one for files.

8. I learned to code FORTRAN on punched cards long before the KayPro. Dropping a deck of 1000 cards was a disaster!

9. I live on a dirt road, with my own well and septic system.

10. I wish I had a dog that would alert to low blood sugar. Which leads into the one blog I plan to pass the Kreativ award on to: Sarah at Animals Help Heal. I love her post about seeing eye horses.

My computer screen lit up with a message Tuesday morning. Your Bluetooth mouse could quit at any time — change the batteries. Fine – I’ve finally figured out how to change the mouse batteries with the computer on, though it does require attaching my old USB mouse to re-connect to the Bluetooth mouse with fresh batteries. (If there’s a keyboard command for find Bluetooth mouse I haven’t found it.) The problem is that I had changed the mouse batteries the day before.

I use rechargeables, and I try to keep some plugged in and charging all the time. Now rechargeable batteries eventually reach the point where they won’t hold a charge, and I think mine have reached that point. I checked them out on the battery tester. The two I took out of the mouse, which just came off the charger yesterday, tested as weak, and I added them to the sack of dead batteries. (I’m not sure dead batteries are actually recycled locally, but I do turn them in separately to try to keep them out of the landfill.) Guess I’d better put rechargeable batteries on my shopping list; I’m going to have problems the next time the keyboard needs batteries. (It takes three.)

Battery tester–good, fresh battery, but my insulin pump won’t accept it.

That was not my only battery problem recently. My insulin pump runs on one AAA battery. This powers not only the pump itself, but also the backlight, the warning beeps and the vibrator if I don’t respond to the beeps, which I generally don’t hear. The manufacturer recommends non-rechargeable alkaline Energizers, simply because the pump is programmed to respond to their power loss curve as they slowly wear out, in order to give me a timely warning. Because I go through so many and have to have them on hand, I purchased a couple of large packages recently. (I didn’t need a twenty-pack and a twenty-four-pack, but I put the twenty-four pack away and then couldn’t find it until after I bought the twenty-pack.) Both had manufacture dates of 2010. Both claimed a shelf life of seven years. Last time, when neither of the two I tried from the twenty-four-pack worked, I managed to find one that my health supplier shipped. Recently I was out of the extras, and tried two more from the twenty-four-pack. Then three from the twenty-pack. The third one worked, but I now have six AAA batteries that show up as good on the tester but won’t work in my insulin pump. (They are working just fine in my anti-mosquito clip-on.)

I know the pump is picky, but only one battery out of seven? Shall I call Medtronics, or Energiser?

Are we getting too dependent on batteries? I said last week, the Jarnian Confederation acts only to prevent Human-occupied planets from preying on each other or on other sentient species, or to provide emergency aid. But it needs some structure to do this. The interaction of my characters with this structure provides much of the plot of my fiction.

Originally (and still to a large extent in Homecoming and Tourist Trap) the Confederation as a whole was ruled by the R’il’nai. As their numbers dwindled, the Councils were developed to provide the remaining R’il’nai with information and a part-Human sounding board. Membership was originally determined by tests to determine the fraction of traits R’il’nian-Human hybrids showed that were clearly of R’il’nian origin. Those with over seven-eighths R’il’nian traits were considered part of the Inner Council.

The Outer Council was composed of High R’il’noids, those with more than three-fourths R’il’nian traits, and was primarily an advisory, fact-finding and enforcement body subject to the Inner Council. Those with more than half R’il’nian traits were considered R’il’noid. R’il’noids were essential to the running of the Confederation and were subject to Confederation law but not to planetary law. This was primarily because of problems that had arisen in the past because of planetary laws (such as a ban on travel at the new moon, punishable by death) which prevented R’il’noids from carrying out their professional duties. At that time virtually all adult R’il’noids had the R’il’nian empathy at least to the extent that they could be trusted not to take advantage of their immunity to planetary law.

R’il’nian-human hybrids were rare, is spite of official encouragement for R’il’nian males to father offspring from Human or R’il’noid women. Such matings were often sterile. A R’il’nian scientist, Çeren, developed an in vitro fertilization method that greatly increased the production of crossbreds, and also developed a more objective method of ranking R’il’noids by the fraction of active R’il’nian-derived genes. The unintended consequences of both these developments (which were desperately needed at the time) set up the problems in my science fiction.

By the time of Homecoming the Inner Council was actually making most of the decisions to run the Confederation, though the only surviving R’il’nian, Lai, had absolute veto power at least in theory, though he rarely if ever used it. Barring that veto power, the Inner Council was ruled by a majority vote providing at least 5/6 of the Inner Council members were present and voting. Reconsideration of a vote already taken required a 2/3 plus majority. By the time of the trilogy veto power no longer exists, and this is how the Confederation is ruled and the Horizon War was started.