It’s Not Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas


It’s been a weird season. I like to laugh at the Black Friday shoppers, lining up the day after Thanksgiving for the deals. I liked my celebration of Christmas restrained.

But this year it doesn’t feel like a celebration at all.

Why not?

T thinks it’s her fault, since we haven’t decorated, but I’m not sure she is right. It’s been unseasonably warm for New England. Haven’t been to the mall once.

And I wonder if therein lies the problem. Cat Stevens told us we could get what we want “when we want it,” and now, thanks to the Internet, we can, indeed. No need to INTERACT.

My life over the past month has felt like a shuffle between home, work, and home. I have hardly spoken with anyone outside those two contexts.

Maybe it’s time.

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It’s OK to Have Different Perspectives

Not everyone has to see things from the same point of view:

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Almost a cyborg…?

Body parts made out of stainless steel and plastic?  Check.

Metabolism controlled through electronics?  Check.

Digital readout of critical system parameters?  Check.

I’m getting close.

The only thing standing between me and cyborghood is really the whole cyber- part of it.  Consider the meaning of the term “cybernetics,” from which we derive cyber-this, cyber-that, and cyber-the-other-thing.

Here is the perspective of the Concise Encyclopedia:

Science of regulation and control in animals (including humans), organizations, and machines when they are viewed as self-governing whole entities consisting of parts and their organization. It was conceived by Norbert Wiener, who coined the term in 1948. Cybernetics views communication and control in all self-contained complex systems as analogous. It differs from the empirical sciences (physics, biology, etc.) in not being interested in material form but in organization, pattern, and communication in entities. Because of the increasing sophistication of computers and the efforts to make them behave in humanlike ways, cybernetics today is closely allied with artificial intelligence and robotics, and it draws heavily on ideas developed in information theory.

A cyborg is, of course, a cybernetic organism.  Cool.

Your house is a cybernetic organism.  It has a furnace and a thermostat.  When the thermostat detects that the temperature is too low, it communicates with the furnace and commands it to turn on and raise the temperature.  When it’s warm enough, the thermostat turns off the furnace.  Communication and control.

But am I a cyborg?  My metal and plastic hip argues yes, and so do my continuous-reading glucose meter (CGM) and insulin pump.  But am I?

Well, yes.

If you consider the meter and pump as the only parts of the system, then there’s no communication and control mechanism to link them.  But add me into the system.  I read what the CGM tells me, and I command the pump to act (or to stop acting).  I am at the center of these systems.

They’re not a cyborg.  But together with the meter and the pump, I am.

Wetware of the world, unite!

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I Come to Bury Radio Shack…and to Praise It.

Last night I read a eulogy for Radio Shack, the electronics dealer that has been around since before I can remember (and that’s a long time).  The eulogy was mostly concerned with Radio Shack from an employee’s perspective, and mostly with the last fifteen years.

I have rarely been in a Radio Shack in the past 15 years; but there was a time when it was the go-to source for electronic parts.

Set the wayback machine.  It’s 1971, I’m 13 and in junior high school.  My best friend B and I had certainly discovered girls and the notion of sex, but we were too absolutely petrified (and would be for some years to come) to do anything about it.

So we became ham radio operators.

Well, it’s a little complicated.  I forget exactly how B and I met, but it was before we (I, at any rate) had any notion of ham radio.  I had always been a science fiction/rocket geek, as far back as I can remember (and as I said above, that’s a long time) and had met B and at some point realized that he was a fellow geek.  It may have been in a shop class.  Anyway.  I recruited him to the ranks of model rocketry.  We’d build and fly all sorts of birds.  Weirdly, B was more into building than into flying (which I should have known meant that he was destined, as he was, to grow up to be an engineer).

In return, B recruited me into the ranks of a ham radio club.  We learned electronics from Mr. S,  one of my favorite teachers of all time.  He taught us theory, and the band teacher, Mr. E, who held an FCC amateur license, helped us learn Morse code and administered the FCC Novice Class exam to us (the exam required an elementary knowledge of FCC regulations, electrical theory, and the ability to receive Morse at 25 characters per minute [5 “words” per minute–5 WPM]).  By the late summer of ’71, I had my license–I was radio station WN0IKW.  My first ham radio receiver was a Radio Shack DX-150A.

Over the next year and half or so, I earned a General Class and then Advanced Class license (more advanced theory and the ability to read code at 13 WPM), and my call sign lost the Novice “N” and became WB0IKW.

But during that phase, B and I headed down (whenever our parents would drive us) to the Allied Radio Shack store (a sort of Radio Shack Superstore) in St. Paul.  They had shortwave receivers, microphones, antennae, rotators, all kinds of cool stuff.  And they had blister packs that contained things like “50 Assorted Electrolytic Capacitors” or “100 Silicon and Germanium Diodes” for something like $1 each.

B and I would buy packages of this stuff and build simple circuits to teach ourselves about electronics and construction.  When we got fancier, Radio Shack sold us aluminum and plastic (usually Bakelite) boxes in which to build our projects.  One time I made my younger brother a black box that did nothing, but had three jeweled indicator lights on top (red, amber, and green) and three toggle switches.  Fun to play with.  I built my first digital clock from Radio Shack parts.

Later, B and I would graduate to other places–ACME Electronics (mainly surplus electronics) in Minneapolis, Electronic Center, Inc. (the retail purveyor of ham radio equipment in the area), just around the corner from ACME, and Ax Man Surplus (which had an iron lung in its front window and a WWII-era torpedo inside), Gopher Electronics near the University of Minnesota–but Radio Shack was always there.

I continued to build small electrical and electronic devices, and Radio Shack was there.  The bins of parts got smaller as the number of phones, cordless phones, and later, cell phones, increased.  But it was always there.

When I was in high school and college, having somewhat overcome my shyness and ditched ham radio for explorations of other sorts, I built electronics for sound.  Mixers, preamps, on-board guitar electronics.  Often, some of the parts (if no more than knobs) came from Radio Shack.  I had a phone in my room, Swedish, I think, that I bought surplus at Radio Shack and modified.

I went to graduate school in Chicago, and there was a Radio Shack in my neighborhood.  When I needed parts to build a power switching station for my new computer in 1984 (I was too cheap or too poor, I forget which, to invest $100 in such a beast, having drained my resources for the Kaypro) all of the parts came from my friendly neighborhood Radio Shack:  case, wiring, switches, indicator lights.  All of it.

There was a Radio Shack in Schenectady, New York when I lived there.  There was one in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The parts bins kepts getting smaller, but they were still there.  When I needed to get a potted bridge rectifier to build an LED bike light, I got it at Radio Shack.  When  we moved to Greater New Haven so I could go to law school (remember law school?  This blog’s about law school), Radio Shack was there.

Things had changed over time, of course.  The parts were almost all gone, and the cognoscenti enjoyed turning Radio Shack’s motto (“You have questions, we have answers”) on its head (“You have stupid questions, we have stupid answers”).  I was in a Radio Shack a couple of weeks ago to pick up some small parts, but the size of the bins had been cut in half yet again, and the only thing I could find I needed was some heat-shrinkable tubing.

Radio Shack was a wonderful place, and it has tried to adapt, but it lost its soul long ago.  It was a place for the do-it-yourselfer, and the DIY today is nearly as dead as a doornail–thanks in part, I think, to Radio Shack’s movement into retail consumer products.  It was the last holdout for geeks, but it didn’t want to sell to geeks, it wanted to sell to people who would spend too much for too little and, in that regard,  Radio Shack could never compete with cell phone carriers, or stereo stores. (Consider:  you have a choice between two receivers, one labeled ‘Sony’ and one house-branded ‘Realistic.’  Which would you choose?)

Radio Shack is done, has been done for some time, and IMO you can stick a fork in it.  It may stick around for a few years, or it may be gone within the month.  It’s done.

But it was great while it lasted.

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The Shocking Truth: Dynohub Progress

I recently purchased a used front wheel that was built with a Shimano DH-3N80 dynohub, the latest (or at least one of the most recent) iterations of the venerable Shimano design.

For around 10 years, I’ve been riding a DH-3N70, which has worked amazingly well, and which formed the basis of my review here.  I assumed that the changes over time were primarily cosmetic.  I was wrong.

First, weight.  I have held both my original fron wheel (DH-3N70 laced 32x with butted spokes to a Velo Orange PBP rim, and DH-3N80 laced 32x with unbutted spokes to an H Plus Son Archetype rim, both with Velox tape) and the latter wheel, even though the specs for the Archetype make it slightly heaver than the PBP (a nominal 470 grams v. a nominal 450 grams), the the newer wheel felt lighter, perhaps due to the 50+g weight drop in the DH-3N80.

Which is all very well, but does a net difference of an ounce make all that much difference?

More important is that the notchiness of the 3N80 is significantly reduced without any noticeable lessening of power output.  The hub simply turns more smoothly, both with and without the lighting system engaged.

Also notable is that the power connector (the plug is the same one used on all of the Shimano dynohubs) clicks on much more securely.  In fact, it takes a little work to get it off, which is not a bad thing.

And, finally, a confession.  I really like the Archetype rim.  It’s the best-feeling, most solid rim I’ve ridden in quite a few years.  This one happens to be black, which rather showy white lettering, but the combination of that rim and a blackwall tire actually looks pretty good with aluminum fenders.  I may be building a new rear wheel soon…

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We Continue to Live in Public

There has been a great deal of hoo-hah over Elizabeth Lauten in the past week.

There should be.

Whether you agree or disagree with what she said, it’s likely you’ll agree that she said it in the wrong place.

Let this serve as a reminder.

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The Beginning of the End of Enemies?

I have been wondering lately whether we are seeing the dawn of a new age.

Well, OK.  Not the dawn of a new age but the dawn of a new age with respect to certain things.

First thing you should know is that I am a Mormon.  Or, as the church prefers it, “I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  In other words, I’m a Mormon.  Yes, I tithe.  Yes, I wear the magic underwear.  Yes, I have attended services in a temple.  The whole smash.

Now, for a Mormon, I’m fairly liberal.  That’s made easier because I live in Blue state.  What’s more, my beliefs tend to be more than a little heterodox–made possible by growing up in an agnostic Jewish family, becoming a Lutheran in my teens, having seen the Charismatic Revival of the ’70s, having become increasingly agnostic myself (a return to my roots, yeah!) and, finally, having met my partner of 28 years (so far) when I was 26, having proposed marriage, and having learned that I would have to be a Mormon to marry her, having become a Mormon.

I like to think of myself as as “faithful agnostic.”  Maybe I’ll write about that more later.  Maybe I won’t.  Now, back on topic:

When I was young, a friend of mine loaned me a reel-to-reel tape that contained, inter alia, National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner, which featured, inter alia, the Deteriorata.

Now, to understand Deteriorata, you must first recognize this poem, Desiderata, which had become rather popular by the time I heard the former in 1976.

Where Desiderata included the following:

Take kindly the counsel of the years,gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Deteriorata substituted this:

Gracefully surrender the things youth:  birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan.

I think the Mormon (“LDS”) church is now, at long last, gracefully surrendering the things of youth, and that one of those things is the notion of enemy.

When I first joined the LDS church, I often heard mention of so-called “anti-Mormons,” people who sought to do the LDS harm through scurrilous publications, casting aspersions on church history and leaders, and so on and so forth.  In my youth, I had certainly heard plenty of aspersions cast on the church:  that it continually revised its scriptures, rewrote the bible, that Joseph Smith had been a fortune-seeker and had many youthful “wives,” that Mormonism was an unChristian cult, etc.  As it happens, many of these allegations–with the exception of the last–are to some extent true.  However, none–with the exception of the last–undercut Mormonism any more than the following snippet from Emo Phillips undercuts mainline Christian divisions (or, as Emo calls them, “franchises.”):

Frankly, most of, and the most scurrilous of, these attacks came from a book lent me by my youth pastor, R, Walter Ralston Martin‘s Kingdom of the Cults.  I was dating a girl whose family was a member of the RLDS church (an offshoot of the LDS) at the time, and this was R’s attempt to make sure that I didn’t absorb any false doctrine.  It certainly helped to end that relationship.

Anyway, anti-Mormons.  These were the bugaboos of the LDS church, and by that I mean bugaboo in its most traditional sense:  “a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults or older children to frighten bad children into good behavior.”  Or as the sociologist Émile Durkheim might have said, the bugaboo is an outgroup against which an ingroup can contrast itself in order to strengthen its solidarity.

Having come through Lutheran Christianity (which is an amazing diverse thing, portions of which I greatly admire) and the Charismatic movement (of which I became greatly suspicious), I found myself studying sociology, and Durkheim spoke to me.  I think it was then that I started to become skeptical of the “unseen enemy”–as if the politics of the 1970s and the internal skepticism of Stalinist and Nazi approaches to life in Animal Farm had not already taken deep root in my mind.

I came to see most enemies as bugaboos, and continue to do so.

So when I encountered talk of anti-Mormons, I saw these as bugaboos.  That’s not to say they don’t exist (they do, as I have outlined above–and for the same reasons as the bugaboos of the LDS franchise).  But it is to say that such bugaboos are the focus of youth.  They are the fictions used by minds that are not quite sure of themselves, or of their followers, to help keep things in line.  Remember, if you venture too close to the edge of the earth, you’re going to fall off!

Now, when you have such bugaboos, you tend to be overly cautious of things that might let them undercut you.  You sweep a lot of stuff under the rug, where they can’t see it, and you try not to (hence the Salamander controversy).  Don’t look too closely, just believe, you are told:  “My country, right or wrong.”

Recently, the LDS church has begun to make public a lot of its historical documents, including those that could–in theory–have been used by anti-Mormons to attack it (see, e.g., this essay on polygamy).    To me, this is morally on a level with Nixon saying “OK, here are the tapes,” or Clinton confessing that he did in fact, “have sex with that woman.”  It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen, especially, the sort of thing that doesn’t happen when you think you have enemies.

Have the anti-Mormons disappeared?  Probably not entirely.  And they probably won’t for a long time.  But I think that this new openness is testimony that the LDS church is growing.

When I was in college, there was a company called Argus that printed wide variety of motivational and “spiritual” posters (turns out it’s still around) which were sold by the Logos Christian Bookstorein Dinkytown, Minneapolis.  One of them included a partial quote from Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)–the last line from the verse which is reproduced in its entirety below:

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

I think that the LDS church is gracefully surrendering the things of youth, which include enemies.  I believe that the LDS church is growing, overcoming the problems with its theology that have dogged it through its blossoming in upstate New York through its transformation into a worldwide community.  It will never be the same as other churches, which is fine (else what’s a franchise for?) but it is growing, not dying.  It has a place for the orthodox, and it is starting–just, and not yet very much–to make a place for those who don’t quite fit.  Its response to the heterodox is still defensive, but it’s possible that the church will yet widen its embrace, and that gives me hope.

Would that we could all at least begin to surrender our enemies.

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