Thursday, March 22, 2018

Is Big Brother now in the dentist's office?

I was astonished - and angry - to see this letter posted on Gab.  Click the image for a larger view.

I was absolutely dumbfounded at the thought that any medical practitioner would use the law to threaten its customers.  If it's authentic, this letter appears to represent nothing more or less than legalized extortion.  "Pay us money for services you may not even need, or else!"  However, I don't know if the letter is real or not.  It isn't signed, and there's no return address on the letterhead - both of which I'd expect on that sort of communication.

I looked up Smiles4Keeps online.  It appears to be a dental practice in Pennsylvania, with three offices, and its Web site uses the same logo as that shown above.  There's no indication of which of its three offices may have sent that letter.  Can any readers in or near Bartonsville, Scranton or Wilkes-Barre confirm whether or not this letter is the real thing?  If it is, then the practice needs to hear from a lot of very angry customers - and so do Pennsylvania lawmakers!  If it isn't, then the practice needs to know that someone's spreading disinformation about them.

If you can help clarify the situation, please post in Comments below.  Thanks.


EDITED TO ADD:  OK, it's authentic.  Courtesy of commenter Brigid, we find that the practice posted an explanation - but NOT an apology - on its Facebook page.  Personally, I find their arguments unconvincing and self-serving.  Others may differ.  Suffice it to say, if I'm ever in that vicinity, I'll seek children's dental care from anyone EXCEPT Smiles4Keeps!

Doofus Of The Day #1,002

A tip o' the hat to Wirecutter for spotting this first.  Today's award for Doofidity goes to the gardener responsible.

The fire department's going to spank him (or her) so hard . . .


Apple progress - and a nifty computer gadget

As I mentioned some weeks ago, I've been considering buying an Apple computer system for use with Vellum, a desktop publishing program.  After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (including the use of an old Apple computer donated for testing purposes by friend and fellow author Cedar Sanderson, for which I'm very grateful to her), I decided to go with a Mac Mini, the cheapest entry level system.  Following reader advice in that first post, I bought a lower-cost Apple-refurbished and -guaranteed computer.  I've been setting it up this week, and I'm enjoying the learning curve.  After so many years (over 4 decades!) using IBM mainframes, DEC minicomputers and PC-architecture personal computers, this is a new departure for me (of which more later).

The Mac Mini comes without keyboard, mouse or monitor, which is why it's relatively low-priced compared to the rest of the Apple range.  Fortunately, I had all those components already.  However, I'm also still using an HP laptop computer, and have other PC-architecture systems in the house.  I don't expect to become an Apple-only or PC-only household anytime soon.  That means there's the potential clutter of multiple keyboards, mice, etc. on an already crowded desktop - not ideal, particularly when I have reference books open, and other things that need space of their own.

I was therefore very pleased to come across this USB switch selector on

It allows you to connect up to 4 USB-interface peripherals to one side of the box.  I've plugged in a corded keyboard and mouse, a laser printer and a scanner.  On the other side of the box are two more USB connector sockets, which you can connect to two different computers.  By pushing the button on top of the selector, you can use all the peripherals with either computer (but not both at the same time).

Using this little box, I now have all four peripherals working happily with both my Mac Mini and my PC-architecture laptop.  All I had to do was make sure that the appropriate device drivers were loaded on each computer for the printer and scanner.  It's very nice to have one of everything, instead of two - not to mention taking up a lot less desktop real estate!  I simply power up the computer I want to use (or both of them), and use the selector button to direct the peripherals to the one that needs them.  I can even swap back and forth between them in mid-use, just by pushing the button.  Very useful indeed.  For mobile computing, I unplug the laptop from the switch selector and go on my way, using its own keyboard and touchpad while on the road.  (I can also use them while it's plugged into the switch selector, of course, which has come in handy a couple of times.)

I'm enjoying learning how to use Apple's operating system and software.  They're reasonably intuitive, so I haven't had any major problems, and there are plenty of articles, tutorials and videos online to provide any help I need.  I'm starting to understand why Apple fans so strongly prefer their systems.  I've heard more than one say that they want to do things with their computer rather than to it, and that's why Apple is "better".  I'm beginning to agree with them.  The Apple OS requires considerably less tinkering to get it where I want it, and it takes care of a lot of stuff behind the scenes that I'm used to doing "manually" under Windows.  I'm impressed.  Also, much of the software I use (LibreOffice, Private Internet Access, Dropbox, Dashlane, etc.) is available in MacOS versions, making the transition easy.  The only one I miss so far is Irfanview, which doesn't have a Mac version.  I'll have to find something similar to replace it on the Apple system.  (GIMP isn't really a suitable replacement - it's a lot more complex and difficult to navigate.  I want something powerful, but simple, without a major learning curve.  I'm a writer, not a graphic artist!)

It's too early to say yet, but I might be tempted in due course to transition entirely to Apple hardware and software, and move away from the PC altogether.  Being my own boss as a writer and not having to run an employer's PC-specific software, I have that flexibility.  I never thought I'd say that (yes, I've joked about Apples and their fanbois for many years, along with the rest of the computer world), but now that I'm actually using an Apple computer, I'm enjoying it very much.  We'll see what the next year or two brings. (I can hear the catcalls now . . . "Come over to the dark side!  We have Apples!")


A four-room, 800-sq-ft house for under $4,000, built in one day?

If this can be successfully "industrialized" and manufactured on a large scale, it'll be one of the greatest advances in the fight against poverty ever achieved.

Incredible houses printed from cement could help to end the global housing crisis, according to the company behind their creation.

The properties, which are currently at the concept stage, will soon be used to provide safe shelter for people in El Salvador and could one day be expanded worldwide to house billions.

The homes currently cost £7,200 ($10,000) to construct and take up to 24 hours to build, but for the production version this cost should be reduced to around £2,900 ($4,000).

They could also offer a viable option for the construction of off-world colonies on planets like Mars in the near future, the firm says.

. . .

The company's Vulcan printer is used to create the properties, which can be built as large as 800 sq ft (75 sq ft) - around twice as large as the average 'tiny house' and comparable to one-bedroom apartment sizes in cities like New York and London. 

There's more at the link, including lots of photographs.

Here's a brief video showing how the house is constructed of "printed" cement layers.

They're larger than many shacks in most shanty towns;  and, for a large family, it would be no problem to build two of them side-by-side.  As for utilities and services, that's a much larger job, and probably more expensive than the houses themselves;  but given affordable housing costs, that's not an insoluble problem.  Best of all, being built of cement, these are likely to be relatively safe against wind and weather, even hurricanes or nearby tornadoes.  The roof may go, of course, but that can be mounted with stronger bracing to keep it attached except in the worst conditions.

All round, this is an excellent start.  Anyone who's traveled and lived in the Third World will instantly recognize how important this is;  and, for that matter, it could revolutionize "starter" homes here in the USA for lower-income households.  Full marks to everyone involved for a really good idea, and making it work so well, so far.  Onward!


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A very carefully chosen acronym?

It is to laugh . . .

The US Army is testing something called MEHEL, standing for "Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser".  Here's a video explaining it.

I suspect the word "Expeditionary" was hurriedly added to the title . . . after someone realized that without it, the obvious acronym would be MOHEL.


The hidden soul of Japan - the 47 Ronin

I've known the story of the 47 Ronin since my teens.  It's one of the most profound Japanese "factual myths", and has shaped and formed the nation.  However, many Westerners don't understand why that is, or why it should be.

Video blogger and former astronaut Chris Hadfield has a very interesting YouTube channel, Rare Earth.  In a series about Japan, he began by examining the legend of the 47 Ronin and trying to explain it to a Western audience.  I think he did a pretty good job.  Here it is.

I think that's one of the best explanations I've ever seen or heard of the myth that grew up around the 47 Ronin.  The rest of the series about Japan is worth watching, too, and I return to Mr. Hadfield's YouTube channel regularly to see what new videos he's produced.  Good stuff.


The electricity conundrum, present and future

Predicting electricity supply and demand is proving to be problematic.  Vox reports:

Demand for electricity is stagnant.

Thanks to a combination of greater energy efficiency, outsourcing of heavy industry, and customers generating their own power on site, demand for utility power has been flat for 10 years, and most forecasts expect it to stay that way ... This historic shift has wreaked havoc in the utility industry in ways large and small, visible and obscure.

. . .

Utilities have been frantically adjusting to this new normal. The generation utilities that sell into wholesale electricity markets (also under pressure from falling power prices; thanks to natural gas and renewables, wholesale power prices are down 70 percent from 2007) have reacted by cutting costs and merging. The regulated utilities that administer local distribution grids have responded by increasing investments in those grids.

But these are temporary, limited responses, not enough to stay in business in the face of long-term decline in demand. Ultimately, deeper reforms will be necessary.

. . .

Only when the utility model fundamentally changes — when utilities begin to see themselves primarily as architects and managers of high-efficiency, low-emissions, multidirectional electricity systems rather than just investors in infrastructure growth — can utilities turn in earnest to the kind [of] planning they need to be doing.

There's more at the link.

In one sense, this is good, I suppose.  We're using more electrically powered things than ever, from smartphones to computers to TV's to electric cars.  However, most of them have gotten much "smarter" at how much electricity they need and how economically they use it, so the explosion in devices has not increased the demand for power.  Kudos to the engineers involved.  (Frankly, I'm surprised.  I'd have thought the increasing number of electric devices, particularly electric cars and their charging stations, would have had the opposite effect.)

However, it's also a real problem for all of us for the future.  Basically, new electricity generating plants are paid for by the profits made by electricity suppliers.  (Sure, they'll usually take out loans or sell bonds to pay the construction costs, but they pay those off using future profits, so it amounts to the same thing.)  If they can't be assured of ongoing profit (let alone profit increases), sufficient to both pay off old debts and incur (and pay off) new ones, how are they going to afford to replace older, less efficient plants - and those that are simply wearing out - with new ones?  The new technology of electricity generation is supposed to be more efficient and ecologically friendly, but it's also expensive.

To make matters worse, "green" energy sources such as wind turbines, solar energy, etc. are subject to wind and weather.  If they can't provide power because there's no wind or too much cloud, there have to be "traditional" (and expensive) generating plants available to take up the slack.  Alternatively some form of storage (for example, Tesla's Powerwall) to retain (and later use) power generated during windy and/or sunny periods will be needed.  Such storage has to be paid for by home and business owners, putting the cost burden on their shoulders rather than the generating utility's.  That's not going to be popular.

There's also the issue of what happens when distributed generating systems are affected by disasters.  A hurricane will take down wind turbines, solar panels, etc. in the blink of an eye, and also disrupt power lines bringing in power from elsewhere.  A solar flare might affect such generating facilities, whether domestic, commercial or industrial, over an entire continent, particularly things like solar panels.  What happens if we get used to generating at least some of our power needs locally, only to find those facilities suddenly damaged or destroyed?  Will a distant utility have the reserve capacity to supply our needs, and even if it does, will the power distribution network still exist to get it to where it's needed?  At present, that's largely the case.  In future, with the disruption that stagnant or decreasing power demand is likely to cause in the industry, it can't be guaranteed.

This issue has opened a very large can of worms.  Definitely food for thought.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Heh - doggy edition

Found on Gab (clickit to biggit):

I think I've met that dog, more than once!


A new science fiction series from Jon del Arroz

Fellow author and blogger Jon del Arroz has just released 'The Stars Entwined', the first book in a new military science fiction series.

The blurb reads, in part:

After several recent attacks along the border of Aryshan space, internal affairs agent Sean Barrows is brought to Palmer Station to ensure the Interplanetary Navy’s on the right track in their terrorism investigations. What he discovers could lead to the biggest war the galaxy has ever seen. Sean’s work leads him to his most dangerous assignment yet—into the heart of Aryshan territory as a spy.

Meanwhile, Aryshan Commander Tamar is being groomed by the Ruling Committee to one day assume leadership of her people. First, she needs to prove herself in warship command. As tensions increase with Earth, Tamar finds herself increasingly isolated as one of the few in opposition to the war. Her troubles deepen when she comes face to face with a new member of her crew, the most intriguing man she’s ever encountered.

Jon and I have corresponded for some time, and we met at LibertyCon last year.  I had the pleasure of recommending him to Vox Day to write the novelizations of some forthcoming comics.  I'm looking forward to reading his latest book.

By the way, Jon:  your surname, in Spanish, means 'rice'.  Does that mean that with your new series, you've proved you can 'rice' to the occasion?  Or does that go against the grain?


Learning a lot about my body, and about pain

As many readers will know, I suffered a work-related back injury in 2004.  After two surgeries, I was left with a fused spine and permanent damage to my sciatic nerve.  I've been in constant pain, 24/7/365, since the date of injury, with just one glorious, all-too-brief break in 2005, when I was given an epidural injection of steroids to see if it would reduce inflammation in my spine.  (It didn't.)  A spinal anesthetic was part of the treatment, which numbed everything below my waist, including the damaged nerve.  That was the last time I remember being pain-free.  It's been my constant companion since then.

I've tried many things to control the pain, and live my life despite it.  They've ranged from cocktails of various prescription narcotics, through physiotherapy, to actually seriously considering cutting the damaged nerve and (if necessary) amputating the affected limb.  (That didn't go anywhere.)  The medical advice I was given was, in so many words, to "suck it up" and accept it.  Unfortunately, that led to other complications, including a severe drug interaction between some of the medications I was prescribed, leading to massive weight gain and major metabolic problems.  It hasn't been fun.

Eventually, I got fed up with doing what the doctors were telling me.  It was killing me slowly.  I had to find a better way.  For the past nine months I've basically thrown my doctors' recommendations out of the window and followed my own path.  It's led to increased pain, but also increased mastery of my own body, and for the first time in a long time I'm feeling relatively human again.

The core of my new approach has been strength training at Mark Rippetoe's gymnasium, following the Starting Strength program.  It hasn't been easy, and my progress has been much slower than "normal" beginners, but from the perspective of one who's been half-crippled for a long time, it's been nothing short of remarkable.  I owe Mark and his coaches, particularly Carmen, a huge debt of gratitude for taking me on, with all my challenges and difficulties, and helping me to overcome them.

Despite my early progress, I began to find, a couple of months ago, that I was hitting a wall.  My damaged sciatic nerve and its associated problems were causing me more and more pain as I pushed them further and further.  I couldn't see a way past this, until I asked for the help of a chiropractor who also attends Mark's gym.  He understands the mechanics of our exercises from personal experience, and can therefore use his training and education to analyze, diagnose and help solve the issues that have been holding me back.

What's emerged is that pain such as mine - centered around damaged nerves and skeletal structure - has far more wide-reaching effects than I'd ever considered.  The sciatic nerve, when irritated and inflamed, affects muscles all around it, up and down the leg.  (See, for example, piriformis syndrome, one of my difficulties.)  Those muscles, in turn, when irritated, exert an unhealthy influence on other muscles to which they're attached.  I'd never considered that my diaphragm might be overstressed by a thigh muscle, but that's apparently one of the problems I've been having;  and because the diaphragm was overstressed, it was pulling ribs out of alignment, which was affecting my spine above the fusion site, which was . . . you get the idea.

I've got a long way to go yet, but I'm already seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  If the strained, overstressed muscles affected by my nerve damage can be relaxed, they'll stop pulling other muscles and skeletal components out of alignment, and I'll hopefully be able to break through the "plateau" I seem to have hit in strengthening my body, and move on to the next level.  This isn't reducing my nerve pain - in fact, it's greatly increasing it during treatment! - but it's helping me to understand just how various elements in my body interact (or fail to do so) under the impact of nerve pain.  I'll still have to rely on painkillers, but better posture, greater ease of movement, and a more smoothly functioning body should help me stay mobile and healthy for much longer than would otherwise have been the case.

If I hadn't embarked on this journey, I think I'd have been in a wheelchair before long, and perhaps bedbound a year or two after that . . . and it's very hard to come back once one accepts those restrictions.  I'd much rather live with greater pain, and push myself, and remain as healthy as possible.  I'd therefore like to encourage any of my readers who are also in constant pain, to consider pushing their limits as far as they're able to go.  It may be difficult physically, but it may also help you bear your burdens and regain some of your humanity.  IMHO, that's worth the cost.  I also think it's a heck of a lot healthier to do that than to simply increase one's medication level, and let the medical system consign you to early oblivion!  That's the easy way out, but you end up a physical and mental vegetable.  I can't - I won't - accept that.

This is also helping me to write more, and hopefully better as well.  I'm almost finished a military science fiction trilogy that I began on the spur of the moment last December, and I'm looking forward to bringing it out soon.  If my increased productivity continues, I'll be able to produce more work, and earn a better living for myself and Miss D. (who brings her own part as well, of course).  I hate the "soggy brain syndrome" that excessive pain produces in me.  If I can become healthier in body, then perhaps, in spite of the ongoing pain, I can have a healthier and more creative mind as well, as Juvenal put it.

Food for thought.  I hope it helps some of you who may suffer from similar issues.  In particular, if you're struggling with health issues that the medical profession doesn't seem able to solve, consider the Starting Strength program.  There are gyms offering training in many states, and online coaching is available if there's no gym in your area.  Miss D. and I can testify from our own experience that the program really is worth all the time, effort and money it will cost you.


Monday, March 19, 2018


Courtesy of Chief Nose Wetter:

Yes, indeed.


Oh, the mud!

The Moorslede Rally/Sprint was held in Belgium earlier this month - and boy, was it muddy!  I've driven in some pretty wet conditions during my own rallying days, but I'm pretty sure they were never this bad.

That's when a high-performance car can get you into trouble a lot faster than the driver can get out of it!


You don't say!

Seen on Gab:

No s***, Sherlock!


If they can't change the laws, they'll force society to ignore them

That's the behavior postulated by John Robb of Global Guerrillas in his latest column, which examines how social pressure groups might seek to deal with law-abiding gun owners.  Here's an excerpt.

... how will the moral network personalize attacks against people who own guns legally?
  • They won't do it by discussing it on the TV talk show circuit or pushing new legislation.  The members of this network have already lost faith in that process.
  • They will do it by establishing strict moral limits on the capacity of an individual to commit acts of violence.  You can already see this new 'consensus' emerging.  A growing sense that anyone who owns a gun is immoral, unsafe, and a threat to society. 
  • With that goal mind, the network can get working on the next step: shunning gun owners en masse and disconnecting them from society until they recant.
At this point, this doesn't seem possible, without legislation to back it up.  However, that can change quickly.  This effort gets teeth, and the capacity to impact millions of people simultaneously, through a list.  A list of gun owners.  A list built in part using leaked/stolen government data and through the reporting of friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and more.  A list that is potentially stored in a blockchain for durability and enhanced with rumors (statements or pictures of people on the list that makes them look dangerous).  With this list in hand, network members would then turn up the pressure on individuals:
  • Employers would refuse employment or fire individuals who own guns, in the name of workplace safety, at the urging of other employees.
  • Parents would put pressure on schools to ban the parents who own guns from attending school functions or put in place extra security at schools targeting children living in gun owning households.
  • With pictures and and a little open source facial recognition software, anyone on the list could be IDed by anyone with a smart phone.
Get the picture?  In short, everything from getting access to a building to renting an apartment to getting a date could get very hard for reputed gun owners to do nearly overnight.

All without legislation or government regulations.

Scare you a bit?  It should.

There's more at the link.

That's a worrying scenario, but it's entirely plausible within the context of a left-wing, progressive city where social interactions are facilitated and dominated by social media.  Marshall McLuhan postulated several decades ago that "the medium is the message".

McLuhan understood "medium" in a broad sense. He identified the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of "the medium is the message". A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence."

Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less about the individual news story itself — the content — and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are in effect being brought into the home to watch over dinner.

Again, more at the link.

If one examines social policy-making as the exertion of pressure in and by the medium (social media networks) on the society that uses it/them, this makes Mr. Robb's position entirely plausible.  Of course, outside societies dominated by such media (e.g. in "flyover country" rather than big cities), such pressure is much less likely to be successful;  but there are fewer people in such areas than there are in major metroplexes.  Social policies in the latter might end up becoming de facto law, and in due course de jure in such settings, simply because those with different views are out-shouted, outcast and outvoted.  In effect, the Second Amendment - perhaps even the constitution as a whole - would be overridden simply by shunning it, and refusing to give it any recognition or importance in the formation of laws and policies.

That's a very scary thought, particularly because those of us who take the rule of law seriously appear to be growing fewer, as we get older, and replaced in society by those who've been "educated" without reference to fact and an emphasis on feeling.  Lenin had a name for them, of course.  This meme from Gab sums it up nicely, I think.



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday morning music

As a variation on our usual Sunday morning practice, I thought I'd illustrate how a very old song can be updated and "revamped" into something rather different.  I'll illustrate with an old English folk song, "John Barleycorn".  It tells the story of how barley is planted, harvested and converted into beer by personifying the plant, and discussing how it's treated (very poorly) by, and eventually triumphs over, those using it.

Here's Steeleye Span with a live "folk rock" rendition very similar in tune to the eighteenth-century folk version.  They recorded a studio version on their (recently remastered) album "Below the Salt".

Next, Traffic with a 1969 acoustic version from their album of the same name (also remastered).

Finally, Jethro Tull with a rockin' version of the song from their live concert compilation "A Little Light Music" (one of my favorites among their albums).

Fun stuff!