April 30, 2001:

My younger nephew Matt was confirmed yesterday, at his parish in Algonquin, Illinois. Carol and I were there, to watch and celebrate yet another milestone in our two nephews' headlong dash toward adulthood. His older brother Brian was confirmed last year, and I had the honor of being his confirmation sponsor. The boys are shown here with Matt on the left, beribboned with his chosen confirmation name, Peter.

As a sacrament, confirmation gets precious little respect in the Roman Catholic church. Last year, Brian's confirmation was a "millenium celebration," meaning that the local bishop gathered several thousand kids together for an evening of spectacle in a hockey rink in decaying downtown Rockford. Eighteen bishops, no waiting...NOT. The sacrament itself, which should be a profound awakening of Catholic spirit, was a machine-gun rapid, cursory gesture that could barely be witnessed by family, who were exiled to the nosebleed seats and had to watch through binoculars. (Carol said she found us down in the milling throng by looking for the familiar glint off the top of my head.) The focus was not on the kids, but on the bishops, who seemed a little too pleased with the cleverness of it all.

I thought Brian deserved better than that.

Were it up to me, confirmation would be conferred on our young people in groups of no more than twenty at a time, in their own parish church, and not in the shadow of a Zamboni machine dripping grease. The bishop would spend some time with each young person (at least five minutes—is that too much to ask?) and perhaps ask each to name his or her greatest fear. The Spirit of God is sent to us to vanquish Fear, and I remember being 16 well enough to know that fear was a big part of my life. I found it hard to believe that God really cared that I was afraid of being alone, afraid that my father was going to die (he was diagnosed with cancer that year) afraid that as a "weird kid" I would never find my place in adult life nor a woman who would consent to love me. Confirmation should come with explicit, down-to-Earth assurances that God is with us, not in days past nor in some dimly-anticipated future but right here, right now, as an inner Fire that consumes fear and turns it into the light of Faith.

I've often wondered what Roman Catholic bishops do with their time. In his excellent book Papal Sin, Garry Wills says wryly that it's easier to get an audience with your senator than with your bishop, and I can well believe it. Why aren't these guys out in the parishes, doing confirmations once a month and talking to the people they supposedly serve? The Old Catholics have it right in that regard: Carol and I visited Christ the King parish of the American Old Catholic Church last summer, and watched Bishop Dan Gincig confer the sacrament of Baptism and later sit with the parish's teenagers and listen to them. What a thought! Sacraments done close-up where you can see them, and a bishop who actually mixes with his people. This is what Catholicism ought to be. Can we get there without bloodshed and revolution? Stay tuned.
April 29, 2001:

I don't think I've ever mentioned in Contrapositive my all-time favorite audio CDs, a three-disc set from Gourd Music containing some dazzling acoustic instrumental arrangements of Shaker melodies from their heyday in the mid-19th century. William Coulter and Barry Phillips are the primary artists, assisted here and there by others.

The three disks are "Simple Gifts," "Tree of Life," and "Music on the Mountain." Most people are familiar with the epigrammatic Shaker melody "Simple Gifts," which was made famous by Copland in his ballet "Appalachian Spring," and has been used in many contexts, including an Oldsmobile commercial. The rest are basically unknown to the general public, and run the gamut from waltzes to spooky harp music to pure bluegrass. Nearly all have strong melodic lines and many have marvelous harmony, those being the two aspects that (for me at least) define excellence in music. Although almost all Shaker songs have lyrics, none of the cuts on these discs include vocals.

I discovered the three at Tower Records, but you're unlikely to find them in most record stores. I've ordered them as gifts directly from Gourd, and am pleased to report that they're relatively cheap as CD's go: Only $12 per disc, and you can buy each of the three separately. If you like acoustic music generally, or American instrumental folk music with a mildly Celtic flavor, definitely pick these up through Amazon or the Gourd Web site.
April 28, 2001:

I learned some time ago that the immigration records gathered by Ellis Island for the period 1892-1924 would be available free of charge on the Web, but the site has been so busy I have never been able to gain access until today. And even that wasn't perfect; I had to try several times to get a search to complete without a "servers busy" message, and I have yet to be able to register to gain access to detailed records. Nonetheless, I found my Polish grandfather (or at least I think I did; the detailed records should seal it when I can finally get at them) and hope to locate my Irish great-grandparents as well.

Still, the site is impressive, and if you're growing any family trees out there, it's a site you should try to access periodically. Sooner or later you'll get in: http://www.ellisislandrecords.org/
April 27, 2001:

What's left of Napster? Not much. I went up earlier today to look around, and see what the new court-ordered blocking software could do. It's pretty simple: If you type in a word or phrase and the system comes back almost immediately with the "No matching files found" message, that word or phrase has been blocked. Here's a good example: Search for "The Association" (my favorite band) and you'll get slapped instantly. Search for the word "association" and you'll find quite a few Association cuts, assuming the people who are sharing them don't use the "The" in the name of the band. Since that throws off alphabetization, most people don't bother with "The" in a band name.

Nearly all unique band names that aren't just ordinary words are inaccessible. The Monkees, Beatles, Def Leppard, the Searchers, and many others are blocked. Some are not; I found Harper's Bizarre, the Buckinghams, and the Hollies without difficulty. But it had no real sense to it: The Will-O-Bees, which must be about the third most obscure band in history, is blocked, and they haven't released a single since 1968. By contrast, The Capes of Good Hope (the second most obscure band in history) is not blocked. Go figure.

It works for song titles too, if a little oddly. I looked for the song title "Sweets For My Sweet" and got slapped in two seconds. Ditto "Ling Ting Tong." "Please Please Me" as a search key wasn't blocked, but the song is nowhere in evidence. The bottom line is that Napster is now a collection of really obscure stuff, plus some more mainstream stuff that its owners don't much seem to care about. (Assuming you think that Harper's Bizarre is mainstream. I do.) I will probably keep checking in, looking for a miracle on the handful of unobtainium songs I still need ("Winter's Children" by the Capes of Good Hope tops that list) but in truth the age of Napster is over. Where is the action at now? No clue—but if I find it I'll let you know.
April 26, 2001:
A friend of mine sent me a note containing a quote from somewhere, indicating that James Cameron (he of the Titanic film and ego) was "liaising" with the Russian space agency to allow him to go into space and make some films there. This is a good idea, of course...but "liaising"? This makes "mentoring" look positively normal. Must we always be "verbing" perfectly good nouns like "liaison"? Or is this a dastardly plot to eliminate a word that not one person in a thousand can spell (or for that matter define) correctly?
April 25, 2001:

Several people have asked me to post a recent picture of Carol and me together. I dug around, and to my astonishment discovered I have nothing in digital form newer than March 1998. The picture at left was taken on the Caribbean cruise Carol and I took (along with my sister Gretchen and her husband and some friends, and Jim and Debra Mischel) in March of 1998, to see a total solar eclipse.

This photo was taken on the ship on "formal night" when you're required to dress up for dinner. It's one of a handful of occasions on which I will consent to wear a tie—though the one shown here, with a Frank Lloyd Wright design, is as good a tie as anyone could ask. Remarkably enough, many people brought their own tuxedoes, including my brother-in-law Bill Roper.

Although I may look grave or even unhappy here, I'm not. (How could someone be unhappy standing next to a spouse as gracious and beautiful as Carol?) Smiling is difficult for me, because I have gappy front teeth. I'm considering getting my front teeth capped so as to close the gap, and then, I'll do whatever I have to do to become a better smiler, including practicing in front of a mirror.
April 24, 2001:

From the Hey, somebody could hurt himself with that! department comes Item #1136738763 on eBay: A Pratt and Whitney RL-10 rocket engine, complete. Bidding is now up to $5800, with five days left on the auction. This engine is still in production, and has been a workhorse of commercial satellite placement since the early 1960s. It has the classic "bell" style that just "looks" like a rocket engine. At six feet tall and 300 pounds, it's small and light enough to fit in your living room; in fact, it could double as a sort of high-tech Christmas tree if you set it down on its bell and trim it with lots of bubble lights and plastic angels. (In fact, you could almost put a smiling head on top along with some wings and dress it up as an angel.) It's far from clear where you would get (or store) the LOX it would burn—the kerosene would be way easier—but wouldn't a static firing in your backyard be the kewlest?

Go take a look. I love this place!
April 23, 2001:

It's a subject I've never had much interest in nor studied at all, but several people have now suggested that my insomnia may be an early indicator of clinical depression. This is slightly unnerving, because I don't feel depressed, just a little detached and out of it. I have lost a good deal of my customary exuberance, but I'm in no sense of the word sad or morose. I just can't sleep through the night most of the time, and that's what I ascribe my slightly dragging tail to. However, the pattern is classic: Fall asleep fairly easily, then wake up three hours later and be awake most of the rest of the night, perhaps falling asleep again an hour or so before my usual wake-up time.

But maybe there's more to it, and it's time to do a little research. Certainly, I would have shaken off my mild headcold days ago if I were sleeping nine hours per night as is my wont.
April 22, 2001:

I took what may turn out to be my last walk on the backroads here this season. Temp's going up past 85 tomorrow, and into the nineties after that, and my fondly Farenheit upper limit for free-range exercise is about 80. (Alreet!) After today it's treadmill time until the fall.

On the other hand, this is by far the prettiest time of the year in the Scottsdale desert, when the desert blooms most exuberantly, and I had my Digital Elph in my pocket to get some shots of the cactus flowers. Color is everywhere, for at least this couple of weeks, and being able to be out in the middle of it all was delightful. The Elph is showing a weird effect (and you may be able to detect it here) that the brilliant colors throw the focus off, possibly by simply being too bright in the scorching Scottsdale sun. Although correctly focused, most of the finer detail within the blossoms is lost.
April 21, 2001:

Say it isn't so! Bill Gates is no longer the world's richest man! How could this be? Well, Microsoft has done better than many in the tech sector, but it hasn't entirely kept its valuation intact, either. And there's this other guy who seems about as far from high-tech as you can get... Yup. Sam Walton is now the world's richest man.

Say what you will, I kind of like the sound of that.
April 20, 2001:

I am more than a little amused to recall all the frothing that Internet libertarians have done in the past few years about how information will be free and nobody can stop it, as though there were in fact nothing that can be done about widespread Internet piracy of things like music files and movies. The truth is that as time goes on, the Powers in Big Media are coming closer and closer to having things exactly their way. Even the "unstoppable" Gnutella is under attack by the RIAA, who are looking for people who share movie files. Tracing an IP back to a person is for the most part trivial, but almost unnecessary: The RIAA only has to threaten legal action against an ISP to get an ISP to pull the plug on some hapless movie sharer. (Cheaper than going to court, right? How hard would you fight on behalf of somebody paying you $19.95 a month for connectivity?) And if nobody shares any movie files, nobody gets any movies, and the RIAA wins.

There are other schemes that will make it a lot harder for the RIAA to pull that trick, but y'know, we've been waiting for Freenet for awhile now, and where is it? Still in progress. Some things are harder to pull off than they seem, and I think Freenet is one of them.

I checked into Napster this afternoon, after being away for quite some time. Well, it's a shadow of what it was, and a lot of the searches that used to turn up substantial numbers of hits for me now come up empty. Users and shared files are a fraction of what they were, so I disconnected and left. Consider that the power of Napster (and things like it) depend utterly on the number of people connected and sharing. The fewer people connect, the fewer people will want to connect, and at some critical point the whole thing collapses. The RIAA won this one too. Various big companies are suing people who criticise them online. Lots of things seem to be going against this strange conviction that the Net is somehow anonymous, invulnerable, or both. In truth, it's as much a prisoner of meatspace law as any physical object, and has only appeared to be invulnerable in years past because it was too minor to be on anybody's radar screen. Now it is—and the torpedoes are closing in.
April 19, 2001:

Hoo-boy, talk about an experiment that backfired... For the past several days I've been popping 3 mg of melatonin before bed, hoping it would help me get to sleep more easily. The first night it did, and the second night, more or less. By the third night it didn't seem to be helping, and by the night before last it seemed I was having more trouble than ever, so I canned it. And by last night, it became more or less clear what I had done: thrown my biological clock for a loop. I was sleepy all day, and then perked up at 7:30 PM last night. I was wide-awake and my usual morning-style manic self...until 3 ayem. This was most odd, but then again, that's what melatonin seems to do: set the hands on your biological clock. What we haven't determined with any precision is just how this happens, and what other governing parameters there may be. I've never been a strong sleeper, I've been fighting bronchitis and a headcold all week, and taking what seems like massive amounts of Nyquil. Somehow the signals got scrambled, and something in me now wants to sleep all day and hack all night. Some people can do that. I'm not one of them.

So I'm going to pick up caffeine again for the morning, and hope that that and some physical activity (which I set aside while I was fighting this cold) will get my clock back where it belongs. In the meantime, be careful with over-the-counter stuff like melatonin that hasn't been exhaustively researched. No matter what it says on the label (or in all that whacko "natural health" stuff you read on the Web) Your Mileage May Vary. Mine certainly did.
April 18, 2001:

Oh—Here's something I meant to say yesterday and forgot: Geneticists have this arrogant habit of claiming that some percentage (I've heard up to 95%) of the DNA in the human genome is "junk DNA," having no purpose. Yeah, right. As if we have any unassailable knowledge about what any of our DNA does. We're guessing, gang. It's as simple as that. So a claim that any of our DNA has no purpose is simply bogus. I'm starting to think of geneticists about what I think of economists, and it's not pretty. (See this article for corroboration of my position. And this one.)

The best scientists (and the only honest ones) are those who readily admit what they don't know—even if that's most of what they claim to be studying..
April 17, 2001:

Science's mortal sin is claiming to know more than it does, and here is an excellent article vindicating a position I have held for many years: That there is insufficient information stored in the human genome to fully specify a human being. This renders most of the current intellectual masturbation about human gene therapy and human genetic engineering ridiculous. That the genome is a straightforward roadmap of the organism can no longer be postulated. My guess (and it's simply a guess) is that the genome is a sort of an "original state" from which a roadmap is grown, just like an original scattering of pixels in a Game of Life grid can be strobed through generations until interesting patterns emerge. And unless we can follow the genome game through those generations as it creates its roadmap, we know just about zero about how the genome affects the immense number of "moving parts" in a living creature.

A further guess on my part: The roadmap and the creature are one. In other words, there is no "roadmap" per se: Once the fertilized egg divides, subtle protein cues direct the next generation of cells to take their places, generating cues for still the next set of cells to take their places, and so on. The genome is only a set of initial conditions. The real action happens all along the way as the organism matures, in a multiplying avalanche of billions and then trillions of protein interactions that we have little or no hope of ever actually documenting in detail.

There may be a handful of straightforward gene-to-trait relationships. But I'll futher predict (now that I'm on a roll) that there will never be any general mechanism for determining what genes affect what traits.
April 16, 2001:

With the absorption of Hi-Flier Kite Company into some faceless toyglomerate years ago, the two-stick "kite-shaped" kite is mostly history. The delta kite (which looks like a bat wing) and various exotic stickless kites are mostly what you see today, when you see kites at all. And with the decline of the dime-store two-stick paper kite, the kite tail has become an endangered species as well. Aging boomers who remember flying (or trying to fly) Hi-Flier kites as children may recall tying strips of dad's old shirts or torn bedsheets to the bottom of the long stick to keep the kite from spinning in the air. In strong winds they sometimes used a lot of bedsheet, under the mistaken notion that it's the weight of the tail that makes the tail effective. Not so.

A tail's sole necessary attribute is wind resistance. It should ideally be as close to weightless as possible, conventional kite wisdom notwithstanding. A kite's tail provides drag that makes it more difficult for the kite to turn nose-down and dive. The wind pushes back on the tail, and the tail hauls back a little on a kite, keeping its nose constantly up-wind. A weight stuck on the end of the kite will help a little, but only a little. I remember tying a string with some sticks knotted to it onto the end of a kite once, and was annoyed that it wouldn't get into the air. The weight of its tail was making it impossible to rise.

So if you'll look at the photo immediately below, you'll see that the tail of my Easter kite consists of little bow-ties of wrapping tissue scrunched in the center and Scotch-taped to a long strip of capacitor mylar. The mylar strip is in turn taped to the bottom of the long stick. ("Capacitor mylar" is metallized mylar strip in a long roll that is used to make custom capacitors. I just happened to have some in the garage. Not necessary. Any kind of ribbon will work, but mylar is extremely light.) A kite tail made this way allows the kite to rise much higher, especially if you use light line. (Wet cotton string was another anvil keeping our kites from getting too high back in the Sixties.) Note also that this sort of tail "looks like" all the depictions of two-stick kites in popular art, back when kites were drawn at all. We thought, back in Edison School's athletic field in the Sixties, that the bow-tie thing was an artistic affectation, and went digging for bedsheets in the basement. Not once, as a child, did I ever see a tail of this sort on a real kite. But it works! If you ever make a two-stick kite (and you should, especially if you have kids) give it a try.
April 15, 2001:

Easter Sunday. I must be a bad Catholic; I don't care for gory crucifixes, and Good Friday devotions mainly make me depressed. The Passionist Fathers who ran the parish where I grew up had St. Paul of the Cross's motto running across the ceiling of the small chapel on the east end of the church nave: "Glory in nothing but the Cross." Nothing? That's freezing Christ's mission at the ugliest possible spot, from which either triumph or failure was possible. No thanks.

The symbol that makes more sense to me is the Cross Triumphant, Easter Sunday's Risen Cross, which testifies to Christ's success by the simple fact that He isn't on it anymore. I realized, many years ago, when I was a kid flying a kite on Easter Sunday, that a kite in the air is in fact a "risen cross". So this Easter (with Carol being in Chicago and me here alone) I gathered some stuff on the dining room table and made a kite. First one in many years, though I used to make lots of them. I used a transparent yellow mylar so I could see the sticks through it, and that worked, though in fact the kite is almost invisible when it's more than a couple hundred feet out. I flew it off the roof here, in a bare puff of a breeze, and it worked beautifully. Lifted my spirits, and reminded me that to dispel loneliness, you must look outside yourself, and preferably upward. That, and so much more, lies behind the symbology of this most rich feast. Find what you can in it, even if you're not a theist. The myth of rebirth and new life at the end of Winter is a strong one, and it's no accident that kites are emblematic of Spring.
April 14, 2001:

Holy Saturday. Traditionally, after his death, Christ spends Holy Saturday in Hell, accomplishing something called the Harrowing of Hell. The orthodox view of this tradition is that Christ is releasing those souls who had lived just lives but had died before the Resurrection. ("Hell" here is used more in the sense of the Hebrew Sheol—a waiting place in separation from God—than the medieval Hell of torment.) I read a nice little book recently that put a slightly different spin on it: Good Goats suggests that Christ descended into Hell to show everyone there that there was a way out...all we have to do is choose it.

What a lot of Catholics (and probably Protestants, though I know less about their theology) don't understand is that while we're called upon to believe that Hell exists, we do not have to believe that a single soul is in it. Modern Catholic theology (which I admit is muddier than it should be in many ways) hints that whoever may be in Hell is there by choice, and Hell's fire is not so much sensate pain as loneliness. Supposedly, God will wait as long as it takes for those who have turned their back on Him to reconsider. The hard cases may take awhile, but for those (like my poor mother) who spend their lives in dread of landing in Hell on a technicality, there is an important message here: There are no technicalities. If you want God, you've got Him. Christianity may be no more complex than that.
April 13, 2001:
I sold "Drumlin Boiler"! Gardner Dozois of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine emailed me to tell me that he's going to buy it, even though it's a little on the long side according to their guidelines. This is the first SF story I've sold in ten years, and the first one that will appear in a magazine since "Borovsky's Hollow Woman" appeared in Omni in October 1983. I don't know when it's scheduled yet, but I'll be sure to let you know here as soon as it's been determined. In the meantime, I'm in a fever to write another Drumlins story. Nothing like a little success to get me off my butt and start producing again. Let's hope that this is the longest drought I will ever have suffered in the fiction arena.
April 12, 2001:

It's been several years since I was at a Software Development trade show (1997, I think) and the show has shrunk alarmingly. One problem, I think, is simply the consolidation of vendors in the programming field. There just aren't as many companies out there as there used to be, and probably the bulk of them are tiny software component vendors (see Torry's Delphi Pages and browse the VCL components listings to get a sense for what I mean) who can't afford the considerable booth rental costs.

But more significantly, I think the same thing is happening to Software Development that happened to my poor Visual Developer Magazine: Programming has become a specialist's industry, and Software Development is a generalist trade show. I hear that the several Java-specific trade shows are humming, and the Visual Basic shows are certainly a going concern. There's not enough Visual Basic (or Java, or C++) at the show to draw those who are interested solely in Visual Basic, or Java, or C++.

I might not have gone myself, except that Dr. Dobb's Journal editor Jon Erickson asked me to deliver a ten-minute appreciation of Anders Hejlsberg, the Danish author of Turbo Pascal and much of Delphi, who was presented with the DDJ Excellence in Programming award. I'm not sure anybody in the audience still knew who I was, but it was a good time, and I had a chance to see a lot of my old Borland friends again, including Anders, Zack Urlocker, Gary Whizin, Paul Gross, and Chuck Jazdzewski.

Anders is the second most brilliant programmer I've met, after Michael Abrash. He probably knows more about compiler code generation than anybody else alive. It bothers some people that he jumped from Borland to Microsoft, but that's a false problem, and not fair to an intellect of his class.. Anders took Object Pascal just about as far as it needed to go, and the people who remained at Borland are more than capable of giving it whatever tweaks remain. Once you've triumphed with Delphi, where else is there to go? One place, and one place only. I'm neutral on both Microsoft and the virtues of .NET, on which Anders is working, particularly in the C# language arena (.NET and C# are Microsoft's answer to Java) but I'm sure that however it turns out, the code generated by the MS .NET languages will be as good as it gets.
April 11, 2001:

In San Jose for Software Development 2001. Had breakfast alone at one of those little two-person tables at the Fairmount Hotel's coffee shop, and Bjarne Stroustrup was seated (also alone) at the next table, reading a book in Danish while downing a stack of pancakes crowned with strawberries. Bjarne is the creator of C++, and he fended off several clots of his adoring fans during the time I was there. Most of them wanted to take him out to dinner, and he was unfailingly polite about having a full schedule. (The next night I spotted him eating dinner alone at the Fairmount's main restaurant.)

Witnessing things like that reinforces my ironclad policy of never bothering celebrities whom I do not know reasonably well. This policy dates back to 1962 or 1963, when I was at the Walgreen's in Park Ridge with my mother, and she spotted Buddy Hackett at the pharmacy counter. The poor guy looked miserable, but Mother nonetheless insisted on getting his autograph and taking his picture. (I don't recall why she had a camera on a quick trip to a local drug store, but the photo exists.) Things like that are also the reason I don't want to become too famous myself. A guy came up to me four or five years ago when I was in the buffet line at Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Scottsdale, and said, "Linux never crashes, Jeff. Really." And then he turned around and went back to his table. I have no idea who he was, but he must have read one or another of my published rants on how much Windows was prone to crash. It was a profoundly weird experience, and makes me shudder to meditate on what it must be like to be Tom Clancy or (God help us) Tom Cruise.
April 10, 2001:
Our travel system is a peculiar thing sometimes. This morning I had to fly from Sacramento—the capital of California—to San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley. There was no direct flight. So I flew into San Francisco, and then "flew" to San Jose on a…bus. (The bus run had a United Airlines flight number!) Stranger still, I was the only one on the bus, and it was one of those monster Greyhound-style rigs. (Who's making or losing money on this connection?) Capital cities of states tend to have direct flights to every significant city in the state—politicians must travel to see their fiefdoms, right?—and stop me if San Jose isn't significant. Ahh, well. I got here, for the Software Development 2001 trade show, even if not by the most direct route. More on this tomorrow.
April 9, 2001:

I'm in Roseville, California for a couple of days, visiting my friend and print-on-demand publisher Jim Rankin, of Dry Bones Press. Roseville is an old railroad town north of Sacramento along I-80, and I walked around its old streets for an hour or so today after lunch. It convinced me yet again that zoning restrictions have done more to destroy American towns and neighborhoods than any other single factor. The very best places to live (older small towns and rehabbed city centers) were all created before zoning took its place in American law. "Planned" communities are dismal, hateful and hate-filled places where idiotic restrictions pit neighbor against neighbor (a local Del Webb gulag called Terravita took a man to court for flying the American flag, which is forbidden—and won) and eliminate all sense of quirkiness and spontaneity from architecture and city structure. The forced separation of business and residence made commuting necessary, creating monotonous bedroom communities of identical houses where there is nothing to do and nowhere for teenagers to go. Zoning has been used to blatantly discriminate against blacks, and is still used as much as possible to exclude the poor, usually by forcing new housing to be larger and more expensive than it needs to be.

The standard defense of zoning, that without it developers would build multitudes of new houses without restriction, is easily corrected: Allow a developer to build only one house at a time, and forbid any developer, no matter how large, from starting the next house before finishing—and selling—the first one. (As housing construction depends on the permit process, this would not be difficult to implement.) Housing would then be built by small, local companies to meet local demand, and not "on spec." Yes, this would destroy big developers like Del Webb—but in my view, that would be a truly excellent thing. The outskirts of Roseville are being devoured by subdivisions, as ugly as anything in Scottsdale, but at least the funky old houses—and the trains!—are still there.
April 8, 2001:

Had some dead time today and found myself pondering the nature of faith. I find in myself two kinds of faith. One is the unshakable, almost inborn conviction as to the truth of certain things: That God exists, that God is fundamentally benevolent, and that humanity is, for the most part, good. There are difficult questions arising from those tenets of faith (why there is evil and suffering in the world, for example) but that's a separate issue. I just can't shake certain convictions, even in those ugly moments when I'm lonely and depressed, and I can take some comfort in those convictions at those times. That's the first and probably the most important kind of faith.

The other sort of faith is "learned" faith. Every Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass, and as I go down the list of Catholic tenets I nod internally, even to those things that seem preposterous, like the Resurrection of the Dead. Note well that I want those things to be true, all of them (most especially the Resurrection of the Dead); the Creed is a marvelously upbeat statement that notably omits all the silly and contentious nonsense that tears at the heart of Roman Catholicism today. (Don't forget, I am an Old Catholic rather than a Roman Catholic.) The problem, if it is a problem, is that I do not find unshakable agreement within me for most of what the Creed puts forth.

Perhaps this is the "intellectual assent" sort of faith that Augustine of Hippo described, though there is more than just assent within me—there is definitely desire. And certainly I can list things in which I do not believe: Papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, Rome's absurd contention that women cannot be priests, and a long and dribbling list down from there. I find it hard to believe in Original Sin, but the concept has been defined so broadly by so many people that I'd be hard-put to tell you what part of Original Sin I don't believe in. Someone (I don't recall who) defined Original Sin as an inescapable consequence of the radical freedom that was granted to us by God and never withdrawn, and I can certainly believe in that. A lot depends on how you define it.

This concept must be the dreaded Doubts that have driven so many intellectually sharp young men from the priesthood. I cannot postulate, "What if there is no God?" but I can easily postulate "What if there is no Hell?" I've read of many good men (and a few women) driving themselves nuts this way. The solution is simple: Live as though it were all true, and don't agonize over "intellectual assent." Faith, to be valid, must be lived. Pelagius had it right at least that far: Love and charity trump everything else in God's eyes. Believe it.
April 7, 2001:

What is the purpose of puppy crushes? One of the peculiarities of sleep disruption is that old memories surface, of things I haven't thought about in years—often a lot of years. Last night, in a period of strange wakefulness, I thought about the first girl I ever had a crush on, in 1962, in fifth grade, when I was ten. Her name was Judy, and she was thin, blonde, and smart. So smart, in fact, that they double-promoted her from fifth grade right into seventh grade, and out of my life forever. (Smart girls always attracted me, and as it happened my Carol had been double-promoted past fourth grade.)

My attraction to Judy (and later to a dark-haired girl named Terry Jerusis, who was a writer and thus doubly compelling to me) wasn't sexual in nature. No sirree; I clearly remember when that tsunami rose up in my midbrain, and it was later on. The feeling I had for Terry in eighth grade was more a kind of fascination, a focus on her personality, the quality of her voice (which I can hear as clearly today as when I last heard her speak, in 1966) and the whole gestalt of how she did what she did in our classroom, which was the only contact I ever had with any of those early objects of my affection. Her otherness was a sudden wonder, a wonder I ached to understand and appreciate, even if I didn't have the maturity to think of it in those terms back in 1966.

My stumbling efforts to speak to her came to nothing, but the mere fact that I wanted to is heartening: Dare we hope that an impulse to agape is as hardwired within us as the impulse to eros? My father, when I asked him how to deal with girls, counseled me to be a friend first—that all things worthy in life are built on friendship. The details remained beyond my reach in 1966, but over subsequent years I figured it out. The great secret of my relationship with Carol is that we were friends—great friends—for years before we gave eros its reign. Our youth helped us—she was barely 16 when we met—but I think my early crushes pointed me in the right direction. Perhaps the "crush effect" teaches young people that friendship must come before sex, and to some extent civilize it, and certainly enrich it. I'd like to think so. It definitely worked that way for me.
April 6, 2001:

In San Diego for a dinner with several Coriolis authors (which occurred last night, at a saloon once owned by Wyatt Earp) and took some time today to poke around with my high school friend Pete Albrecht. We spent much of the day wandering through Balboa Park, where the Panama-California Exposition was held in 1915. (Don't confuse this, as I did, with the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco that same year. Two competing creatures, if targeted at more of less the same thing. That must have been the Golden Age of World's Fairs...) At the aerospace museum in the park they have one of the two remaining Sea Dart fighter prototypes. The Sea Dart was one of the many strange military aircraft attempted in the Fifties. It was a fighter jet on water skis, designed to be based in the water rather than on land or on carriers. Needless to say, this was an exercise in futility, even when the planes were based in harbor-protected calm water. High-tech metalwork and sea water just do not mix, so nothing came of the effort, but the delta-winged craft certainly looks cool, and the image of dozens of them ripping across a harbor, gathering speed before leaping into the air has a certain lost-continent-of-Atlantis SF feel to it.

We also visited the model railroad museum there, which is coordinated by several local model railroad clubs, and has some of the largest and most beautifully executed model railroad layouts I've ever seen. If you're in San Diego with some time to kill, you could do worse than take in Balboa Park. Highly recommended.
April 5, 2001:

Interesting development on the sleep front: I discovered, in reflecting back on the last couple of weeks, that the nights I slept best were those nights when I ate a little more than had been my habit. So for the last couple of nights I've been deliberately eating a little more protein (though not more carbs) and found that I sleep much better on a little more dinner. I'm not talking huge portions here, but more along the line of one whole chicken breast instead of half a chicken breast. There had been nights when I'd eat as little as two string cheese bars and call it supper. (Our largest meal of the day is typically lunch.) My weight got down as low as 152 last week, which is actually a touch below my ideal weight of 155. So maybe you can be too thin—at least if you want to sleep regularly. I'm back up to 154, and feeling much better.

What happened? Exercise. I walked over three miles last night, and I'm doing that on a fairly regular basis. Dinners that did me for a sedentary lifestyle (which I fell into after my hernia surgery in December) would not do me walking 12 miles a week. What the sleep connection is I'm not sure, but eating more helped.

On another note, I have a daunting amount of running around to do in the next several days (including a quick trip to San Diego, Sacramento, and San Jose) so things may be a little spotty here on Contrapositive Diary. I'll do my best, but if I get behind don't assume I'm giving up. Once things settle down I'll continue.
April 4, 2001:
I got a postcard in the mail from a local church, asking me to participate in their seminar, "How to Make Your Marriage Last a Lifetime." I'm declining, at least in part because I think Carol and I have it figured out, but perhaps in part because the font they used for the main title on the card is the same font used for the titling in Id Software's game Quake. Bad choice, guys.
April 3, 2001:

This isn't exactly new, but some may find it fascinating: Xerox's DataGlyph technology. My interest is leavened by the sweet sadness of knowing that as clever as it is, Xerox will never make a nickel on it. I worked at Xerox my first ten years out of school, and I was there watching them develop things like the graphical user interface, and saw a lot of research hardware (like the Dorado) that never saw the light of day outside company walls. This is also the reason I take a jaundiced view of Apple: They "borrowed" the PARC UIs whole and then claimed they did the work themselves. Yeah, right. Mostly they invented the trash can icon, which I will gleefully let them have if they'd just acknowledge that they stole the rest fair and square.

Anyway. DataGlyphs are a way of printing text and graphics on paper in what I might call a "meaningful halftone." Halftoning, if you're not familiar with the term, is a way of printing shades of gray by separating an image into a large number of small dots, the diameter of which is proportional to the gray scale value at that point in the image. It's been done with mechanical screens until recently, when electronic halftoning has become possible using modern computers and printers.

Xerox takes this idea the obvious next step forward: They embed data in the halftoning, by using rectangular dots tilted either to the left or to the right, with one orientation standing for a binary 0 and the other for a binary 1. This means you can have a picture of a car, for example, and embed information about the car in the image. It's not quite steganography, since the rectangular nature of the halftoning is obvious with only a little squinting, or certainly with even the crudest magnifying glass. But it certainly could be an interesting way of enriching printed content.

In truth, I don't have any ideas right now for how to make this wildly profitable, and that's the surest sign of any that Xerox came up with it. It's a shame; the company was good to me while I was there and I enjoyed the chance to learn computing on their dime. So I'm watching to see if anything ever comes of DataGlyphs. Watching—but not waiting up for it.
April 2, 2001:

There have been a fair number of recent announcements of major Web sites closing down for lack of revenues. People in the media are wringing their hands, wondering if the Web is dying, leaving nothing but pictures of people's cats. (And maybe Web diaries like this one.) CMP has shuttered several of its biggest sites, and Salon is having trouble. (Salon should try to be more interesting and less political and maybe they'd get somewhere. George—the print magazine—died too, after all, and cripes, they had a Kennedy running it. (And yes, it was in trouble before John-John dove his plane into history.) Politics sucks bigtime, no matter how you package it. A handful of people love it. Everybody else finds it as loathesome as week-old road kill. But Yahoo's trying to find a revenue model as well, and if they can't, well, maybe the Web is in serious trouble.

However, I come not to bury the Web, but to suggest how it might be made economically viable. And the answer is micropayments. I won't pay any significant amount of money to read Salon on a regular basis. But I would pay a dime to read its occasional article. Get enough dimes together, and you can generate real money. Theoretically this should be simple, and we could do it tomorrow if technology were the only barrier. The banks don't want to deal with micropayments; they don't see it as nearly a profitable business as charge cards. Yet without banks there's no foundation on which to build it. The Feds don't much like the idea of micropayments catching on, either. Money is much easier to track in big honking chunks. If people could squirt pennies around by the trillions, small time operators would have a much easier time hiding the take from the taxmen. The Feds will say they're worried about peopler laundering drug money, but that's a lie: They're worried about Joe Webmasters by the tens of millions raking in modest amounts of cash by way of offshore micropayment processors. They're also worried that micropayment technology, when perfected, would lead directly to doubly anonymous digital cash, squirted from smart card to smart card by infrared LEDs baked right into the substance of the cards, and this terrifies the IRS. (As it should.)

Micropayments could make the Web work, and allow people who create worthy content to actually be paid for it. I wrote a small mortgage calculator program for DOS years ago, and sold it through a "kiosk-ware" vendor, who put a $5.95 list price on it. I only got 43 cents per copy, but I banked over $30,000 from the program over a two-year period. Volume is key, and for volume potential, nothing beats delivering digital copies over the Web. So keep an eye on micropayments. It's the critical path technology for making the Web a viable content delivery mechanism. It could also shake up the world economy. I can't wait!
April 1, 2001:

Carol and I finally bit the bullet last night and drove down to the monthly contra dance held by the Phoenix Friends of Old-Time Music. It's near the Arizona State Capitol, meaning it's almost 40 miles from where we live, here in the nosebleed gallery of extreme north Scottsdale. Still, it was worth it, for the sake of live bluegrass music and a dance style that I can actually internalize.

Contra dancing is the art of performing a sort of structured line dance. It comes out of New England, and you'll sometimes hear it called "New England contra dancing" to differentiate it from less common and more exotic species of contra dancing.

It works like this: In a large hall, one or more double lines of dancers forms, in male/female partner pairs. As the music plays, a caller calls out a sequence of standard moves, and the lines attempt to implement them. It's a little like compiler code generation, just less precise. Some of the moves in the instruction set are borrowed from square dancing (allemands, do-si-do) and others are unique to contra. None of them are especially difficult, and any single dance rarely uses more than five or six. However, what I like most about it is that it utterly lacks the yayhoo cowboy culture that permeates square dancing. (Square dancing has other diseases, such as arrogant callers and an addiction to shapeless, wordless, tuneless recorded music—never live!—that provides virtually nothing beyond a beat. It has thus been reduced to a form of graceless calisthenics done with string ties. No thanks.)

We're in it for the companionship and the exercise. And exercise it is—do three hours of contras and you will have worked out, major. I do wish it weren't so damned far away, but it's well worth it, at least for once a month. When we lived in Rochester, NY back in the early 1980s, we attended a contra dance that met three miles up Monroe Avenue, once a week. Never appreciated it until we went looking for contra here!