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April 30, 2007: Where Have All the Funny Search Terms Gone?

Time was, I could read my Web stats at the end of every month and get a good laugh out of them. But for some reason, it's been a dry season on the search term front. See earlier entries here and here. I don't have much to hold up to that. Why? Why? I publish more and more words every month and get more and more visitors; you'd think the whackiness would increase. But alas, this is the best I can do for April:

powered by gallery downblouse -- Gallery Downblouse; wasn't he in Oliver Twist?
hydroponic diary layout -- Please document how you plant your radishes.
mom nuds in bathroom -- Mom quick call Terminex!
illinois ham radio feasts 2007 -- Chicken in cream sauce over a bed of resistors. Yum!

And April's were the best in several months. I guess as the world gets crazier, the world searches saner. Or something.

April 27, 2007: Get Constipated! Save the Planet!

In case you don't follow links in my Odd Lots entries (or if you've been living under a box for the last few days) you may not have heard that Sheryl Crow has proposed limiting the number of sheets of toilet paper you use on in order to combat global warming. (Thanks to Brook Monroe for the above stone-cold sober BBC link, though most other papers have carried the story.) I almost immediately received several notes telling me that it was indeed a hoax, or at least a joke. (One gentleman said, "Jeff, can you spell i..r..o..n..y??" Yes I can, at least when I detect any in the vicinity.) Rick Widmer sent me the link to the People article in which Laurie David (producer of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth) said that it was a joke. And if Laurie David said it, and People published it, how could we possibly doubt it?

Heh. Can you spell d..a..m..a..g..e......c..o..n..t..r..o..l?

I can almost hear it: Psssst! Sheryl, you nitwit! You're playing right into the hands of the enemy! Say it's a joke RIGHT NOW or I'll tie you to a chair and make you watch the movie again!

I guess the Global Warming Movement needs better spokespersons, or at least spokespersons who tell better jokes. I began thinking of a few involving constipation (hey, that would really reduce the amount of toilet paper we'd use!) but that way lies madness. As for the irony, it lies here: Much or most of the paper fiber in toilet paper does not return to the atmosphere. The fiber is finely distributed in the sludge produced as the final product in sewage treatment plants, and unless the sludge is burned or used as fertilizer (which is less and less common these days for obvious reasons) the fibers are buried with the sludge in landfills, effectively sequestering their carbon. So the more you use, the better! Pass the Ex-Lax!

In the meantime, the Global Warming Issue looks sillier and sillier and sillier. I have to wonder: Was Ms. Crow's university tour funded by the oil industry?

April 27, 2007: Odd Lots

  • I just posted another free Carl & Jerry story as a PDF. It's one of my personal favorites, as the boys are working at microwave frequencies this time—just about where Wi-Fi is now. And the old farmer, well, he knows more than we might think. Enjoy.
  • Jason Kaczor sent me a pointer to a list of new layouts of pre-1923 Tom Swift, Sr. novels, done in TeX by Fourmilab's John Walker. The layouts are very nicely done and the material is much easier to read than a naked OCR or (worse) a holograph stat.
  • My old Xerox co-worker Jim Dunn reminds us that on May 6, we will (for one brief second) see the clock read: 02:03:04 05/06/07. And if you miss that one, well, next year we'll see 03:04:05 06/07/08.
  • The sad thing about this is that it's not a hoax.
  • My mother's parish priest Fr. Tom Conley, who at her funeral stayed with my sister and her husband, Carol and myself, and Rev. Mary until the cemetery chapel was otherwise empty (wherein we then sang "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" before her casket) has died. Note well: When a good man dies at 85—and Fr. Tom was among the best—it's not necessarily a sad occasion. Don't think of what Earth has lost. Think instead of what Heaven has gained.

April 26, 2007: Last Leg

Home again. We had feared the weather would keep us on the road for four days and three nights, but I grit my teeth and managed it in three days and two. It was, however, the most painful driving trip I think I've ever taken, so painful that here and there I caught myself offering it up for the Poor Souls In Purgatory, a reference perhaps only my sister Gretchen and Bishop Sam'l Bassett will understand. (I was taught a peculiar religious tradition that sufferings on this Earth could be sent to God as a sort of atonement-by-proxy and thus spring somebody from Purgatory early—I always tagged them for Uncle Louie—which is a medieval misunderstanding that didn't quite die after the Council of Trent.) The first 200 miles of yesterday's drive were in the rain, as were another 50 or so between south Denver and Monument. The day total was 354 miles, for a grand total of 1,092 miles between Carol's sister's front door in Crystal Lake, Illinois and ours here in Colorado Springs.

Over half of this trip was driving in the rain, through one of the biggest and wettest weather systems seen over Nebraska and Iowa in a couple of years. Much of Nebraska looked like it was under water—that is, when I could see Nebraska at all for the splatter on my windshields off the passing 18-wheelers.

The trailer was a nuisance in a number of respects (especially when trying to park at a McDonald's somewhere) but it did the job, and we dropped it off last night at the U-Haul site on Academy Boulevard near Platte. Now we have this nose-high pile of boxes in the laundry room that need opening, sorting, and putting away. Carol is coming down with something and I'm going to put her to bed shortly. The dogs are filthy and restless. My neck hurts. Oi. I think I'm going to hide at home this weekend and recover.

April 25, 2007: Dancing With Excavators

Made another 358 miles yesterday to stop at a Quality Inn at North Platte, Nebraska, conveniently trisecting our trip so that we can get all the way home tonight, and not even exhaust ourselves doing it—unless the weather gets really bad.

It was bad enough yesterday. Of the 358 miles we burned, about 300 of them were in the rain, sometimes the sort of blinding downpour that prevents you from seeing who the hell is behind you, especially when it's knuckleheads who don't know enough to turn their freaking headlights on while blasting around Omaha's outer loop at 75 MPH.

I'm pulling a trailer, right? In the rain, right? So it's safer to go slow, right? Now I'm not so sure. The slower I went, the faster went the procession of 18-wheelers and crackpots in Lexi roaring around me on the left, spitting so much water at my windshield that I was blind until they got past. And because they were (apparently) lined up for a mile to pass me, I was blind most of the time. And that gets old very quickly.

So I stayed in the right lane but sped up, and actually managed reasonable vision for minutes at a time until somebody got impatient with my 65 MPH. With some practice I could grit my teeth and manage it, until some over-the-horizons-of-human-sanity whacko driving an immense flatbed pulling a bright yellow excavator half the size of a small Chicago bungalow pulled in front of me. He was weaving in the 40 MPH wind and throwing back so much water that I dropped back, but he slowed down as well, OVERSIZE LOAD sign flashing. I thought he was going to pull over and wait out the rain on the shoulder so I merged left and let him drop back behind me, then sped up a little and got in front of him. Well, he almost immediately merged left and thundered past me at about 70 MPH, the excavator's caterpillar treads what seemed like inches from my side mirror, only to go half a mile, merge right, and then slow down again. This sounded to me like he was either deranged or in some sort of mechanical trouble, so I went left again, hit the pedal, and just pulled ahead until he receded into the gray mess in my mirrors. We did not see him go by when we stopped at a rest area twenty minutes later, and I wonder if he and the excavator are in a ditch somewhere.

Not that that wouldn't be a certain sort of rough justice.

So we collapsed into bed exhausted last night at 9:15 PM, and as soon as I get this posted we're packing up and heading out for the last 320 miles to Colorado Springs. Whew. A trucker I'm not.

April 23, 2007: Adair, Iowa

Made it 380 miles today, having gotten a relatively late start, and drove from Crystal Lake, Illinois, to Adair, Iowa, population 839, home of a locally famous smiley water tower (see photo toward the end of this entry) and Jesse James' first (known) train robbery. I have a soft spot for places like this, at least in part because people in small towns are less likely to hit me over the head and take my wallet. Adair is so small it has no fast food outside of a Subway attached to the town's single gas station, which survives by virtue of being right off I-80. We're staying at the Adair Budget Inn, which doesn't have hair dryers but does have free wireless Internet.

My big challenge today was pulling a trailer for the first time in my life, a little 8' X 5' U-Haul into which we loosely packed Carol's portion of things salvaged from the house where she grew up. I got some good lessons in backing up a trailer from Kathy's husband Bob, who's been a Teamster most of his adult life and knows something about trailers. It's not a slam dunk; the hotel here wanted me to back into a long parking spot, and it took ten minutes and numerous passes to get it in straight. I have new respect for people who maneauver 18-wheelers.

Not a lot to report beyond this. We stopped briefly at The World's Largest Truck Stop (on I-80 near Walcott, Iowa) just to see what The World's Largest Truck Stop would look like. It's kind of an indoor mall for long-haul travelers, and was crawling with three Greyhound busloads of sunburned teenagers, fresh from some sort of weekend adventure. We bought some licorice and a book summarizing what you can find along the Interstates, sorted by exit number.

QBit and Aero have been very good travelers, waking from sound sleep in their kennels only to bark at the toll booth lady on I-88. Carol and I have been talking about odds and ends, ranging from evo devo to why "Ugly Betty" is so unlike the sitcoms we grew up with. The rolling Iowa countryside has been hell on my cruise control; every time we started going uphill, the 4Runner downshifted two gears to keep its speed. Oh, and the boxy U-Haul has cut my gas mileage by a third.

Boy. I'm glad I'm only doing this once.

April 22, 2007: QBit Pulls Jeff in a Little Red Wagon

We've been here in Chicago now for almost a month, and with any luck at all we're heading home tomorrow morning. I have the trailer rented and hitched to the back of the 4Runner, and it's mostly packed.

Cleaning up Carol's mom's house for sale was a little sad—about which I'll say more when time and energy allow. But yesterday we found Carol's little red wagon in the far corners of the garage, and decided to take a break and have a little fun. I've mentioned before here just how strong QBit is for a bichon frise—even one that weighs 16 pounds and change. He's all muscle, and I've reflected from time to time that he could probably pull me in a well-designed dog cart. Well, we've done the experiment, and we didn't even have a well-designed dog cart. We had a rusty 45-year-old kid wagon that had been heavily used in its time (the early 1960s) and not in very good shape. But QBit was up to the task: With Carol standing at the end of the driveway with a pretzel treat, he dug his toes in and got me up to speed in relatively little time, and hauled me most of the length of the driveway without seeming to break a sweat.

The video is 4.7 MB, but if you're interested in seeing me in a little red wagon designed for seven-year-olds being pulled by a white puffball, it's on YouTube.

I may be sparse here for awhile; we can't cruise as fast with a trailer as we can without, and may spend three nights on the road. Hard to tell; if we stop somewhere with a broadband connection I may dash off some status reports and observations. So bear with me. This has been a long and difficult trip, but it had to be done, and it only has to be done this once. (Gretchen and I and several of her friends emptied the house that we grew up in back in late summer 1996.)

We will soon be on the road again. And I may design that dog cart after all.

April 20, 2007: Primal Issues

What few in the media (but a great many down on the street) are saying about the Virginia Tech massacre is that law enforcement botched the whole thing. Between the time Ho began firing in the dorm and when he started exterminating people in Norris Hall was a gap of two hours, during which time very little was done. The criticism is not exactly fair, but that doesn't matter—it's the perception that the public is taking away from the incident: The police are unable to protect me. This is a political issue with some interesting wrinkles.

Any hoped-for momentum toward additional restrictions on firearms will be more than balanced by the crawling fear that self-protection is the only viable option if the police can't be trusted. (Chicago's recent scandal of a police officer videotaped beating a female bartender toppled the city's police chief and—again, unfairly—cemented the conviction in many people's minds that the Chicago police are thugs.) This is worsened by the fact that the victims were college students—people's children, albeit legally adult children—whose parents had entrusted them to the university and, by implication, to the local police. People are notoriously irrational when it comes to the safety of their children.

Gun control is one of a class of political issues I call primal, because the passion they evoke in many people is older than and runs deeper than reason. It's about fear, specifically fear of death, which is about as primal a fear as they come. Primal issues easily become political "third rails" that politicians fear to deal with, because primal interest long outlives casual interest. (CNN has an interesting short article on this topic.) The nation as a whole is already losing interest in the Virginia Tech massacre, but gun rights advocates are taking notes on who's saying what in the political realm, and those notes will be organized, retained, and remembered next fall, and for years and years after that. Bill Clinton himself admitted that Democratic anti-gun activism cost the party control of Congress for twelve years. Even Obama touches that rail at his peril.

There's another primal third rail out there: abortion. Abortion rights advocates are just as primal in their support of abortion rights as gun advocates are in support of gun ownership rights. Abortion advocacy isn't based on anything as simple as fear, but on the complex strategies for human sexual reproduction that evolution has handed us. I could never figure out why abortion was so primal an issue until I read The Red Queen by Matt Ridley. That's worth an entry or three all by itself, but if you're interested, do read the book. The point I want to make in this entry is simply that if you want to understand politics, you must understand the primal nature of certain issues, including gun control, abortion, and Social Security, which is another third rail based on the primal fear (sometimes even the rational fear) of being put out on the street and starving to death.

The tribalism that infects our whole political process is energized by primal fears, most specifically the confoundingly deep fear that if the other tribe gets control, they will destroy my tribe and all that my tribe stands for. Pressure groups use such primal fears to make people cough up money and get them to vote for their tribe. Saving democracy in this country is mostly the process of identifying our primal fears and defusing them before they make us slaves of one tribe or another, both of which exist solely to make the world safer for their leaders and largest donors.

Primal emotions (fear, anger, jealousy, and all the others) trump reason, and can be easily manipulated to bring us into bondage. Basically, every night before you go to bed, look in the mirror and ask, "Who owns me?"

Answering that question honestly is the most important single thing that you will ever do.

April 15, 2007: Muh-Nah Muh-Nah

A new earworm has arisen in my head like a June cicada in Chicago, singing its butt off while remaining infuriatingly out of reach. It all started with a new TV commercial for the Saturn Vue, accompanied by a ridiculous nonsense melody that I (very fortunately) hadn't heard in 30 years. It has no words, really, just a gruff voice saying "muh-nah muh-nah" alternating with a female duo singing similar nonsense syllables. It had been a top 40 song when I was in high school, and I vaguely recalled a Muppet Show clip with two pink cows and a caveman performing it. The song definitely suggests silly fooling around, which may be why (according to Pete Albrecht) it was background music for a series of comedy skits about Moon men that ran on the Red Skelton show 1970-ish.

Well. The Internet changes things. Searching for "muh-nah muh-nah" led me in a few hops to the song's own page on Wikipedia. I quickly learned that the song was written in 1968 by Piero Umiliani, and (once I found the clip itself on YouTube) that the muppet creatures I thought were pink cows were actually Snowths, which may be Muppetese for "pink cows." I learned that Frank Oz did both Snowths at once, one on each arm. I learned that the song had originally been written for a 1969 "mondo" film called Sweden: Heaven or Hell? about which the less we know the better, since it was apparently so raunchy that they banned Sweden. I learned that somebody actually tried to transcribe the lyrics, which is interesting because there really aren't any.

And if you really really want to hear the original version of the song itself, you can find it here.

Just don't say I didn't warn you.

April 14, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Supposedly, a PC or latop uses more power when it displays white raster lines than black, so if you can use a predominantly white-on-black display (just like old times, heh) you can Help Save the Planet™. I don't know how true this is (from what I know about display technology, it might be slightly true for CRTs while not true at all for LCDs) but it's an interesting hypothesis, and there's a search site to show you how such a user interface might look. Even though I got my start in the green-screen era, this would take some getting used to.
  • The Union Pacific's elusive but very cool EC-4 track geometry railcar was in downtown Crystal Lake yesterday, and of course I didn't have a camera in my pocket so the best I can do is point you to somebody else's photo. I watched them shunt it through a switch at their little yard at Main St. & Crystal Lake Rd. and realized that it was just like the wild turkeys back home—I never had a camera when I saw them.
  • Johnny Hart is dead at 76. I enjoyed his B.C. strips until they started getting religiously combative, though I think they began losing their comic edge fifteen or twenty years ago. I'm coming to think that his public statements like "Jews and Muslims who don't accept Jesus will burn in Hell," are also a form of venting; they certainly convince no one to become a Christian today and make the whole idea of religion look foolish.
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a Snopes item about birds literally crawling into a car wash's coin-op box and helping themselves to quarters. Great photos, and a good lesson for engineers designing outdoor technology—does anybody remember Rob Chilson's 1970 story "Ecological Niche" from Analog?
  • Yet another knucklehead school district has decided to block Wikipedia because it might contain flawed information or misinformation. And, like, the rest of the Web isn't the same way? Trust me, we have serious ego problems here: Insecure academics often loathe Wikipedia because it doesn't require their species of credentials to contribute to. I confess to a little anger here because some of my books have been turned down for course adoption simply because I don't teach at a university. I clearly have no clue whatsoever how to explain things, right? (Yes, I'm venting. But I'm not just venting, heh.)

April 13, 2007: Don Imus, Every[person]

People ask me what I think about a lot of things, and (predictably) several have asked me what I think of the Don Imus meltdown. In truth, I barely knew who he was until a few days ago, as I don't listen to talk radio and really dislike that kind of insult-for-pay. But the matter is pertinent to my last two entries, so I'll toss out an insight I haven't seen elsewhere: Don Imus (and others of his ilk) are paid to say the hateful things that many of us would like to, but don't dare.

In a sense, just as Al Gore is paying other people to conserve carbon so that he doesn't have to, we're paying Don Imus to express the anger that we can't. In a sense, we use Imus to outsource anonymity in the non-networked world. We can agree with him in the privacy of our own heads and not have to risk societal censure for violating political correctness.

The old meme of the "angry white male" is still very much with us. I hear from them regularly, not online but in person—and a few, furthermore, are angry white women. A couple of years ago, at BEA, a fellow fiftyish publishing professional vented to me that " [kid] had to work his ass off to get into Princeton. The black kids just had to show up." This surprised me; as best I know he's a New York liberal, but it was in the corner of a cocktail party and we both had glasses of wine in our hands. I'm sure he would never have said it online. (This supports my view that family trumps ideology almost every time.) The same thing happened when the gay marriage issue gave the Presidency to George W. Bush in 2004—numerous people, including liberal women, expressed outrage to me in person that they wouldn't dare utter in public: "We've given them everything else. Why do we have to give them marriage?" I've lost count of the number of times I've heard the expression "f---ing Muslims" in the past six years.

Shock jocks are anger proxies. They give words to deep, sometimes primal fears and anger that we don't know how to or don't dare express. CBS fired Imus (and good riddance) but there's plenty more out there where he came from, and as long as a certain number of advertisers are willing to risk public displeasure to sell us things, his niche will never be empty.

April 11, 2007: Just Venting, Thanks

(I'm snowed in here north of Chicago while a blizzard rages—what month is this again?—and have some time to continue a thread begun yesterday.) I avoid blogs (and especially blog comments) where incivility prevails. It's a bad use of my time trying to dig out useful insights from the invariably high noise level that prevails in such places. (Usenet is another.) Sociopaths gravitate to open forums that provide both anonymity and an audience, as suggested by the Penny Arcade guys a couple of years ago. (Thanks to JetFX for the pointer; I don't follow Penny Arcade.)

There have always been sociopaths and we simply have to deal with them. Good moderation and killfiles can be very effective. The real puzzle appears when otherwise intelligent and generally personable people say hateful things. I see this a lot and not just online; last summer I had a surreal in-person conversation with a woman I have known for 30+ years, who has a master's degree and has always seemed remarkably sane. Yet without provocation she initiated a diatribe against George Bush that would have done a ninth grader proud. Note that I am no fan of George Bush, but the lack of coherence and level of negative emotion in her statements were as breathtaking as they were uncharacteristic.

The clue finally came when I gently queried an extremely intelligent man whose posts on matters political were angry and repetitive to the point of banality. His other posts are interesting, informative, and often fun (which is why I continue to read him) but when he turns to politics the quality simply evaporates. I told him that this level of anger wasn't going to convince me or anybody of his cause, and he replied that convincing people wasn't the point. He didn't say what the point was (the interchange ended there) but I didn't press because it suddenly hit me: He really wasn't trying to argue a political point. He was venting.

Talk about an epiphany!

Maybe I'm the last person in the blogosphere to realize this, but the more I look around, the more it fits. The blogosphere has become a group-therapy mechanism for releasing anger. I've written before of the process of putting words to your anger as a way to let it go. It's a well-known psychiatric technique called journaling, and I do it regularly to release the anger that I feel, to keep it from turning inward and causing depression. There's a whole book on it, Opening Up by James W. Pennebaker. The big difference, of course, is that I delete my journaling rants after I'm done with them instead of posting them online. Simply putting anger into words does the job; there's no need to share the words themselves with anyone else.

This is important. Unreleased anger kills. My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann (1892-1956) lived at a time when men of his culture (he was an upper-middle-class German-American banker) were required to suck it up and conceal any negative emotions that they might feel. He had a tendency toward anger, and one day in the summer of 1956 a couple of local brats tossed a milk bottle at his garage. He was so silently enraged that he walked into his house, sat down in his favorite chair, and died. He was 64.

People today are no angrier than they ever were, nor were people less angry back in those olden-golden days when outward civility reigned and a tossed milk bottle could trigger a heart attack. The difference is simply that releasing anger in public has become acceptable now to a degree that we haven't seen since the mid-1800s. My oft-repeated conviction that anger makes you stupid still stands—and looking angry online may well color your reputation permanently. Griping in person with peers is therapeutic (this is how the military deals with their high-stress circumstances) but it isn't recorded for all time in a Web archive.

Anger doesn't belong in politics, which should be as coldly analytical as any sort of engineering. However, politics draws out the anger in us for many reasons, most of them related to our murderous tribal origins. I suspect that some people are angrier than others simply because they are more tribal in temperament than others. I don't have any studies to cite (and it would be an interesting PhD. thesis) but anecdotal impressions across my 54 years suggest that the most tribal people I've known are also the least happy. Journaling might help them, and that's precisely what blogging has become for many people. So as unpleasant as all the online hatred is, it may have its uses, and I wonder if the public expression of anger has contributed to the extending of our lifespans over the past fifty years.

The expression of anger, like urination, is a necessary process that should ideally be done in private. But hey, letting that stuff back up can be fatal. (A burst bladder is said to have killed Tycho Brahe.) Anger still makes you look stupid—always imagine how you look to others, no matter what you say or do—but get rid of it any way you can.

April 10, 2007: Stifling Anonymous Sociopaths

Mike Reith sent me a link to a nice article in the New York Times about the radical bad manners that prevail in the blogosphere. It's gotten bad enough so that Jimmy Wales and Tim O'Reilly are trying to bring about the return of blogger civility by devising a Blogger's Code that draws on community guidelines posted sometime back on BlogHer. Of course, guidelines by themselves won't work; people who say that they will misunderstand what's really going on here.

Back to that in a minute, or tomorrow if I run out of space and time. The immediate puzzle, to me at least, is why this is controversial at all. Incivility is not a free-speech issue; it's an immature-nitwits-throwing-tantrums issue. I deal with it on Contra in a number of ways, and have since I first started doing this in 1998. My one rule is simple: Be civil, or you'll be dumped into the shitcan where you belong. I do not allow unscreened anonymous comments on my LiveJournal mirror. I do not respond to angry emails, even to say something like "temper, temper!" because I know it won't do any good, and (as my mother sometimes said) it only encourages them.

I have not had to delete any signed (non-anonymous) comments on LiveJournal because (so far) I haven't gotten any really rude ones. This shouldn't surprise anybody too much. Anonymity is most of the problem. Not the whole problem, but most of it—and if we eliminated anonymous blog comments, the worst of the problem would just go away. I think that it would virtually eliminate the sorts of sociopathic comment attacks that totally freaked tech writer/blogger Kathy Sierra not long ago. (Kathy's situation is all the more remarkable because she blogs about programming languages, not George Bush. Some Guys Are Feeling Threatened, heh.)

I understand that screen names are not necessarily traceable, though if presented with proper warrants, the hosting organization can often be forced to cough up a sociopath's identity to law enforcement. I would go further and place the poster's IP address right there in the post (see my LiveJournal mirror for examples of this) along with the precise time and date of the posting. A fair number of online forum systems do this, and those are the forums with the least nastiness. There's no need to pass laws, except perhaps to more crisply define what qualifies as actionable threats. If one blogging service allows users to configure anonymity options and another doesn't, the market will decide who's right.

That's a potential solution that's worth trying. The larger question is more difficult: Why is the blogosphere so filled with hate? I think I finally figured it out. I'll explain tomorrow.

April 9, 2007: Not Too Clear on the Concept

I'm away from broadband most of the day here in Chicago—away from my laptop, for that matter—and thus I don't have time to write elaborate entries. But last night before hitting the sack I was reading up on the Free Companies, which were the wandering groups of mercenaries of the 14th century that decimated the peasant population of France (and elsewhere in Europe) and caused the King of France to re-invent the standing army. The first Pope John XXIII (Baldasarre Cossa, whom many call an antipope, even though he had as good a claim to the title as the other two contenders in the year 1410) was a renegade of the Free Companies, a bloodthirsty condottiere who was probably the worst pope in history.

But the point of this entry is to call your attention to a fairly common failure in Web commerce: marking a Web article as available only to subscribers, and then allowing search engines to spider it and stuff the whole thing in a publicly available cache. This article on the Free Companies by Peter Warren Singer is an excellent example. Go right to the link and you'll be stopped cold. However, Google on "the free companies" and slide down to the article's search hit, then click on the cache link. There it is, the full text of the supposedly subscription-only piece. I'm not a server-side guru and I'm not entirely sure how this works. While far from universal, I see the problem a lot, to the extent that when a Web search leads me to a subscribers-only page, the first thing I do is back up and see if Google presents a cache link.

There's certainly a tension between allowing Google to index your stuff and keeping it behind subscriber walls, but some sites manage it well and some do not. I even wonder sometimes if it's a deliberate search for a sort of DRM sweet spot: Demand payment from researchers when they come in through the obvious front door, but assume that of those who sneak past the (farly low) walls, a few will be impressed enough with the full piece to subscribe. Sneaking in requires that you find the piece on Google first, so starting from the direct link means you have to reverse-engineer a Google search by trial and error. This may be enough fussing to discourage casual piracy.

If it's deliberate, it's damned clever...but I'll go with my first intuition an assume that it's a bug rather than a feature.

April 8, 2007: Indeed.

Easter Sunday. The ancient affirmation "The Lord is risen indeed!" (given in response to the primary Resurrection declaration, "The Lord is risen!") used to puzzle me a little, but in looking back, I suspect that I was just thinking too small. Anyone who has ever looked at the center of our galaxy through even a junkbox telescope knows that God does nothing by halves. To me, "indeed" here means to me that God's redemptive mission is complete, absolute, and unconditional: If Jesus didn't save everybody He saved nobody. We live in an extravagant universe, which to me at least points to an extravagant God, who settles for nothing other than the restoration of all things to Himself, what we call apokatastasis.

Many fans of Hell argue tortuous circles around the embarrassing Bible statement that Jesus descended into Hell to preach to those imprisoned there, but I take it at face value, and I suspect that what Jesus told them began something like this: "Guys, listen up: There's a way out of here. Take notes."

April 5, 2007: PODS

Still in Chicago, cleaning out Carol's mom's house for sale. We've been packing and sifting and shredding and taking stuff out to the curb since we got here, but now it's clobberin' time: We took delivery of a PODS unit this morning, for boxes and furniture to be retained for redelivery to a condo that may be acquired in the future. In the meantime, everything will be safely in a warehouse. There were some advantages to a conventional storage unit somewhere, but PODS' big plus is that we don't need a truck to haul furniture.

The PODS system is very clever: A truck delivers a storage container on an electrically motorized gantry that sits on the back of a flatbed truck. The gantry has four motorized steel corner posts with retractable wheels. To get the pod off the truck, you bring down the wheels and then raise the four corners. The pod is suspended by chains from two side-beams. With the wheels down and the side beams up, the truck can pull forward, out from under the pod and the gantry.

The gantry moves independently of the truck and has its own power source, a small gas generator feeding a bank of lead-acid batteries. The operator steers it around using four levers controlling wheel direction plus a single throttle. In our case, the driver made a three-point turn with the pod and then ran it up the driveway until he had to stop to avoid hitting the gutters. The gantry, alas, is tall.

Worse, it's wide. Although the container cross-section is 7' X 8', the gantry wheelbase is another five feet wider than the container. The driver had to put plywood boards down for the wheels to avoid gashing the lawn. He managed to get it far enough forward to be almost off the sidewalk, but the narrowness of the driveway (combined with the height of the gantry vis-a-vis the gutters) prevented us from getting it further in than that.

We had had fantasies of getting it all the way up the driveway to the garage, but no dice. The PODS system is clearly not meant for Chicago-style 50' wide lots (or worse, the 30' wide lots on Clarence Avenue where I grew up, in the city itself) and I advise you to measure your clearances before laying your charge card down for one.

Note Carol's posture in the photo above. Though clear and dry, we're having the coldest run of days in April that Chicago has seen in 35 years: 34 degrees, with a continuous bitter 25-mile-per-hour wind out of the northwest. We brought our spring jackets (mine doesn't have a hood!) and it has been nasty taking the dogs for a walk in this stuff, as it will likely be on the weekend when we move the furniture. (The house will provide some windbreak there, thankfully.)

In the meantime, there's more stuff to take to the curb. Some has vanished in advance of tomorrow's trash pickup, but the local scroungers are getting picky: I put out a perfectly serviceable (if dusty) two-bulb flourescent shop light, and whoever grabbed it off the curb popped out the bulbs and left them on the grass, even though they had never been used and were just a little dirty.

No pleasing some people!

April 3, 2007: "Oh My God - Ponies!"

I don't know how I missed this—I must have been traveling at the time—but Fred Bulback reminded me that last year's April Fool's stunt on Slashdot was a heart-studded, bubblegum pink "redesign" of the site with their signature slogan "News for Nerds—Stuff That Matters" replaced with "OMG! Ponies!" (See my puzzled question in yesterday's entry, and thanks to the hordes of people who sent guesses and pointers.) Slashdot did not retain the design after April 1, but you can get a sense for what they did by looking here. The quick summary of the joke is this: With an overwhelmingly male audience, Slashdot decided to broaden its appeal to young girls, who as a group really like ponies. There may be more to it than that, but I'm unwilling to follow all the culture tendrils out to their fringes.

And so yet another meme was born. OMG! Ponies!

Next year, to broaden their appeal to fifty and sixtysomethings, it could be OMG! 6SN7s!

April 2, 2007: Odd Lots