August 31, 2001

As a sidenote to yesterday's entry, consider the magazines that I do subscribe to, and how long I've taken them:

The Atlantic (general interest; 3 years)
QST (ham radio; 27 years)
Sky and Telescope (astronomy; 22 years)
Nuts and Volts (electronics; 21 years)

And that's it. Nuts and Volts is a special case; I bought a lifetime subscription during its first year for $5 (!!!) and have received it monthly since the end of 1980 without further payment. In truth, I'm not sure I would have paid money for it all that time. I also subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, but that's a newspaper and not directly comparable to magazines. I've taken paid subs to a handful of other mags over the years: Commonweal, First Things, National Catholic Reporter, Analog, CQ, Circuit Cellar Ink, among others, but dropped them when the cost-benefit equations proved inadequite.

Note well that I subscribe to no computer magazines. I took a couple at the office in years past, but take none currently. Why? Most computer magazines are about products, and I buy computers too rarely to pay for new product copy on a monthly basis. Programming is my remaining passion in computing, but programming has become far too deep and complex to cover effectively in magazines. (I buy a lot of books on programming—and alas, I regret more than a few of those purchases.)

The magazines that I subscribe to, while they run product reviews (The Atlantic excepted, of course) are not dependent on product reviews, and product reviews are a small part of their total coverage. Reviewing products is a deadly trap. In the computer press you're damned if you do and extinct if you don't. Surely there could be a different approach. Or could there? I wish I knew.
August 30, 2001

An interesting, angry, and somewhat potty-mouthed article on high-tech journalism and its failings can be found here and is worth a few minutes of your time. I'm not familiar with the NetSlaves site but will take a closer look—at first glance it's unlike anything I've seen before.

The piece is a rant about how computer tech journalism is a contradiction in terms, because the journalists who cover the field began to think of themselves as part of the industry rather than disinterested observers and reporters. Look at the big bux tech/culture/money mags like Wired, Industry Standard, Red Herring, Fast Company etc. for what he means. Post dot-com, these mags are suffering, and the Industry Standard is going under.

It's an interesting perspective, and to some extent true, but mostly irrelevant. These mags are in trouble because they were floated on dot-com venture money, which is now gone. I buy Wired semiregularly (often at the airport when I fly) and flip through the others when I find them on the coffee table at friends' houses, but subscribe to none. And if I'm typical, then the only way to float such a magazine is on advertiser dollars, and any magazine floated on advertiser dollars will be hesitant to criticize the advertiser base, especially when there is a cadre of half a dozen mostly indistinguishable vehicles to spend ad dollars on. If Wired gets too cranky, Red Herring or one of the others will be happy to take the ads and keep its mouth shut.

It sounds really slimy and unethical not to run negative reviews, but take it from a guy who had to face this issue throughout my 15-year tenure as a magazine editor: It's often the difference between having a magazine and not having a magazine. Most mags, especially small ones, run very close to the edge, and losing a few major advertisers can be fatal. Yes, readers should pay for subscriptions, but most don't. Over the years the big mags trained readers to go for "Three free issues!" or one such pitch or another that gradually chewed down the size of the subsciber net until it almost didn't matter whether there were paid subscribers or not. (When that happens, a magazine becomes "controlled circ;" i.e., free to the readers and supported 100% on ad revenues. Such magazines are "controlled" in other ways as well.) Magazines get very little revenue from newsstand sales; in fact, small mags generally consider newsstand copies to be promo copies, set out where people who never saw the mag before can find them.

So yeah, it's sad. But it's not a new problem, and there's really no solution in sight. Many of my readers who miss Visual Developer ask me when I'm going to start another magazine, and the answer is simple: When I win a $300M Powerball jackpot. Then, people, you'll see a magazine with teeth that will run only negative reviews. But the chances of winning that jackpot are somewhat better than being struck by lightning twice in a lifetime—and surviving both strikes. As Carol likes to say: Better bring a good book to read while you're waiting.
August 29, 2001

Today is the birthday of my aunt and godmother, Kathleen Mae Duntemann. I realized this almost instinctively last week, because it was time to send her a birthday card, a duty my sister and I never neglected. I sent her a prayer instead, and to commemorate her here, I will post the eulogy I delivered at her funeral Mass at St. Paul of the Cross church in Park Ridge, Illinois, in early July 1999:



This past Saturday morning, Carol and I took the “Aunt Kathleen” file and began to go through it, piece by piece, as the first step in settling her affairs. You see, for the past 20 years or so, Aunt Kathleen has sent us notes periodically. They're just envelopes into which small scraps of paper have been tucked, each with a comment, a fact, or a short note. Some envelopes carried only one paper scrap; some paper scraps only a few words. Obviously, by the time we finished, we were both weeping, but what struck me was the degree to which Aunt Kathleen valued remembering.

It was she who kept reminding me of the ancestors we shared: How Heinrich Duntemann had had six children, one girl and five boys, and how one of those boys was my great-grandfather Frank W. Duntemann, after whom my father was named. The little scraps of paper held facts that my father would have known, if he still lived: That he came home from the War via South America, and that his best friend was John Malone. Other scraps contained off-hand facts about our ancestry: That (for example) Uncle George was crippled up with arthritis, or that Uncle Will had a greenhouse, or that Aunt Kate died in 1943. Still other scraps commented with wry humor on the day's events: There had been UFO sightings over downtown Phoenix; now, what did I have to do with that?

She never failed to thank my sister and me for our gifts and our cards, and in doing so reminded us that polite people always remembered such things as birthdays and Mother's Day and St. Patrick's Day. As the tally of her years grew longer, she began to tell us where things were kept, and how her affairs should be settled. Everything had a name, a location, a number, and a description. Such notes gave me chills, and I often dropped them in the file without reading them too closely. Unlike many people—myself included—she was willing to remember the warning of Ash Wednesday, that unto dust we must return—and oh yes, I wasn't to forget that the window screens were kept in storage closet 2C in the condo basement.

She loved her parents dearly, and my mother and father as well—not to mention all the scruffy mongrel dogs we had over the years, who learned quickly and never forgot that the sight of Aunt Kathleen coming up the front walk meant treats for “her little boy-boys.” Needless to say, she loved Gretchen and me deeply. She gave us books when all we could do was chew on them, and reminded us with that stern sort of loving that only godmothers really master, that we had duties to God, to our family, and to one another.

But she was, probably more than anything else, a dazzling rememberer. Her many years as an executive secretary certainly had something to do with this—she was the one who had to remember how the department worked and where everything was at all times—but Germanic precision was built into her very bones, tempered by a heavy dose of good Irish fun.

Or could it simply be that those who have no spouse and no children remember across a broader view? Those who are married with children have so much to juggle in the simple, immediate here and now that it's easy to forget that Uncle Will owned a greenhouse. We can even forget how important it is to recall such things, until we're reminded that family is scattered across time as surely as it is scattered across space. After all, implicit in the New Testament is the promise that I will meet Great Uncle Will someday. Suppose I were to ask him how his arthritis was—now, that wouldn't do at all. But thanks to Aunt Kathleen, it's a mistake I'll never have to make.

The Irish say that remembering is the small taste of eternity that we here on Earth are allowed. Until friends and family are united again in the light of the Beatific Vision, we owe it to ourselves to remember those who have gone before, not excluding Kathleen Duntemann—daughter, sister, godmother, and aunt—who taught us so well the solemn link between love and remembrance.
August 28, 2001
An interesting fistful o' facts about world languages from Jim Rankin, the retired Old Catholic bishop of San Francisco: There are 2,796 known languages, including those that have become extinct, but excluding dialects. (So Nortweside Chikahgaish, which I narrowly escaped speaking as a child, is not one of them.) Only 13 languages currently have more than 50 million speakers. In decreasing order of speakers, they are: Chinese, English, Hindustani, Russian, Spanish, German, Japanese, Indonesian, French, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, and Italian. I was surprised to see more Russian speakers than Spanish, forgetting that Brazil, a big honking chunk of South America, speaks Portuguese.
August 27, 2001
I rarely buy gadgetry just for gadgetry's sake (not in recent years, anyway...I have a garage full of weird toys I never play with) but I made an exception for Q, an interesting $50 gizmo that bills itself as "the world's smallest removable hard drive." Not quite accurate, since it isn't a hard drive at all, but a very clever encapsulated Flash RAM module with a built-in USB port and software to make your system think it's a disk drive. Plug the device in to your machine, install the driver from the included CD, and you have a fast 16MB mass storage device that's about the size of a pack of gum. It installed without any fuss, and it now contains the whole of my Aardmarks project plus all of my fiction. Furthermore, I bought the smallest one; the more expensive models store 32MB and 64MB, and larger units are in development. They have a hole at the end and can literally be hooked onto a keychain, and might possibly be rugged enough to store in your pocket, eternally wrestling with your car keys. (Mine is not, thank you very much.) As the capacity of devices like these approach a gigabyte, many intriguing things become possible, like backing up every single thing of consequence I have ever written, which at this point in my life is quite a list. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with it, but I'll think of something.
August 25, 2001
Whoa...didn't know this: Back in July we discovered the largest asteroid in the solar system—a monster larger than Ceres, which has held that title since 18 freaking 01. (See this more recent story as well.) The creature escaped notice because it wanders around for the most part outside the orbit of Pluto. As best we can tell it's 1200 kilometers in diameter (a little under 800 miles) but as its orbit is still a little unclear, this figure could wander in either direction. It's currently four billion miles from the sun and its color is slightly reddish, and that's about all we know so far. It's easily the size of Charon, Pluto's moon, and could in fact be larger. The object has been given a temporary moniker of 2001 KX76, but as a Kuiper Belt object (basically, anything smaller than a planet that haunts comet country outside the orbit of Pluto) it will eventually be given a name drawn from mythology, particularly the mythology of creation.
August 24, 2001

This morning's Wall Street Journal carried a short item about how eBay and other online auction houses are transforming the sleepy notion of the neighborhood garage sale. (I'd link to the online article here but it's available only to subscribers, which I am but you may not be.) Although antique sharpies have long haunted garage sales and flea markets looking for unrecognized valuables, eBay has extended the category of "valuables" to include a lot of things that used to be thought of as "junk." These days, ordinary people are making significant money buying things at garage sales for $5 and selling them on eBay for $50. The global Internet has fearsome power to gather demand in one place: If there are only seventeen people on Earth who feel they must own a particular model of Hello Kitty lunchbox, all seventeen will be on eBay, furiously trying to outbid the others.

As the Invisible Hand has gotten a clue about this, garage sales have changed somewhat, especially in more affluent and heavily networked suburbs. People are raising prices, having seen what Hello Kitty lunchboxes go for on eBay. And so the sharpies who would earlier prowl garage sales at the crack of dawn now learn to prowl them right before dusk, since people who overpriced their junk may now see the foolishness of it and may be willing to deal at the end of the day rather than haul all their crap back down into the basement.

What a rush. I have a small handful of things I'd like to unload, and I'm tempted to try unloading them on eBay, just to get a sense for the experience. Some of it is slightly creaky electronics (an original Snappy video frame capture gizmo and an original Diamond Rio MP3 player, for example) and some of it is truly "junque" in the sense that it's at least a little older than I am. It's time consuming, so I keep putting it off. Still, it would be an experience I'd like to have, and I'll report here when I do.
August 23, 2001
One of the most profoundly irritating things about modern phone service is that damfool prefix "1". After they split Phoenix into multiple area codes (needlessly—phone companies make it "necessary" by hoarding phone numbers or handing them out en masse to cellphone providers) we were forced to dial ten digits to get across Tatum Boulevard, but we couldn't use the "1" because the area codes were not technically long distance. However, if you forget and add the "1" prefix before the number, the system scolds you. My take is this: If the system knows that the "1" is unnecessary, why not just ignore it and put the call through? Of what conceivable use is playing a snotty recording complaining about something that literally doesn't matter?
August 22, 2001

My mother died a year ago today, and there's a story about it that I realized I haven't told here yet. Mother was, of course, a pre-Vatican II Catholic, and preferred the old ways to the new. She favored devotions that fell out of use in the Seventies and later, like Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. At our church, Benediction was quite the thing, and usually ended up with a rousing rendition of the old hymn "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." Mother loved that song, and one of the very finest memories I have of her beautiful voice is standing beside her in church as a child while we sang it, and I felt that the church shook with the final phrase: "...Everlasting is Thy Name!"

Like much else that she cherished, "Holy God..." and Benediction both passed away from the world. (Benediction seems to be coming back, though—and better that than bell-bottoms!) I don't mind all of the new church music—and not all of the old stuff was wonderful—but some of the Tridentine Catholic culture had a power that few now understand, as fewer and fewer of us can even recall it.

So we come to Mother's funeral last August, at her Roman Catholic church in Mt. Prospect, IL. The priest who said the Mass was an old Irishman, and by some weird chance he was a friend of the Rev. Mary Ramsden, a woman priest in the Old Catholic movement. Mary was there with us, and I had asked the parish's music director the day before whether the choir could sing "Holy God We Praise Thy Name" as the recessional. Sure, it's not a slow, dour hymn for God's mercy. Not at all—it's a triumphant anthem, a recognition of God's infinite power, which is a better thing than a dirge any day. But the music director shook her head and said that the choir didn't know it. This, one of the signature Catholic hymns of all time—and the Catholic church had already forgotten it. (Some of us think that the music director was playing politics with us, and that that hymn smacks too much of the Old Days...but let it pass.)

So we settled for lesser hymns. After Mass, Fr. Tom accompanied us to All Saints cemetery, where he said a final blessing over her casket in the chapel. (Graveside services are no longer done in most places.) Most of the people attending left the chapel, and finally, it was Carol and I, Gretchen and her husband Bill, Mary Ramsden, and Fr. Tom. A summer thunderstorm was brewing up outside, and one was brewing within me as well, as I realized that this was my final chance to say farewell to the woman who had given me life. So much that she had loved had been stained by the flaws in the Roman Catholic Church, and as a final indignity, even her favorite hymn had been forgotten.

By them, perhaps...but suddenly, my sister Gretchen turned to me and said: "Let's do the song. Right here. Right now." And so we all took hands, and we belted it out, a capella, in voices more fervent than perfect:

Holy God, we praise thy name!
Lord of All, we bow before thee.
All on Earth thy scepter claim.
All in heaven above adore thee.
Infinite thy vast domain;
Everlasting is thy name!
Infinite thy vast domain;
Everlasting is thy name!

As we finished, thunder sounded from outside the chapel, and I felt that maybe we had had a little help from higher places. I laid my hand on the casket one more time, and thanked her in the privacy of my own head for giving me a shot at this world. My anger subsided, and in its place rose a strange feeling that All Would Be Well. I left the chapel with Carol on my arm and a smile on my face, and things got better after that.
August 21, 2001

Wow. You guys are really sharp...I got an email from reader Robert Esguerra only a couple of hours after posting my August 19 entry, and he pointed out that the SiLinux hardware was in fact an OEM version of the Cappucino PC, which is the slightly beefier version of the Espresso PC, which got quite a bit of press in the hardware world some months back. See the reviews of Cappucino and Espresso on Ars Technica. (I should read Ars Technica more often than I do!) Both machines are Taiwanese imports designed and built by a company called Saintsong, whose Web site is in Chinese and thus not linked here.

You can actually buy the Cappucino PC in the US from, with your choice of operating systems and other options. The low-end version is about $1000, and things go up from there, but you can get a butt-kicking configuration for $1700, which is what I generally end up paying (that or a few hundred more) for each generation of desktop machine I buy. Ars reviewer Jon "Hannibal" Stokes indicates that it is not a great gaming machine (its video hardware is limited to 24-bit color) nor is its digital audio support stellar. Neither would be a killer for me, but then again, I'm not really looking for a new desktop box right now. Perhaps by the time I am, there will be a similar box with all of its shortcomings fixed. That seems to be the way this industry works. This could be one to watch.
August 20, 2001

I thought I had posted this scan before, but I realize now that I haven't, because the colors didn't look quite right and I was intending to tinker them as time allowed. As usual, time didn't allow, and I might as well get it up here so y'all can understand what Carol and I look like right now and not years ago. This photo was taken back in February, but in truth neither of us has changed much since then.

However, note the half-assed smile on yours truly. Well, look quick, because the characteristic Jeff closed-mouthed grin is almost history. My new mouth is currently in manufacturing and will be installed shortly, so I will no longer have cause to avoid smiling. And no, it's not dentures, but a full set of crowns that will correct my congenital soft enamel and heavily worn choppers—and in the process fill the gawky gap between my front teeth that makes me look a little too much like Alfred E. Newman when I open my mouth.

It took seven hours in the oral surgeon's chair (and there's still some chair-work to be done) but it'll have been worth it!
August 19, 2001
Pertinent to what I said yesterday: Why the hell are desktop machines still so big? It's pretty obvious from the size of today's subnotebooks that the pure electronics have shrunk damned near to vanishing; notebooks these days consist of an LCD display panel, a keyboard, a battery, and debris. Subtract the display, the keyboard, and the battery, and the debris can become very small. So why must I have something the size of a suitcase on my desk? A couple of years ago, I bought a nice, small Compaq DeskPro small footprint machine, ran Linux on it for a year or so while I rewrote my assembly language book to add Linux coverage, and then reformatted it it to Win2K and gave it to Carol, who has less desk space than I and loves its inconspicuous horizontal position beneath her 15" LCD. The kicker is, that "small footprint" machine is still mostly empty space. By the way, my four-year-old P-166 IBM laptop has become ever more of a drag on my work on the road, and I'm looking to replace it with IBM's new X21. More on that when I get it. In the meantime, small is good. Good should be smaller.
August 18, 2001

My old Lane Tech Astronomical Society colleague Pete Albrecht sent me a pointer to SiLinux, a small Australian company that sells an amazing gadget, shown at left. Creating a niche that is awesome for its narrowness, SiLinuc configured the RedboX R as a workstation for amateur radio astronomers doing their own computing of various sorts, and comes with Red Hat Linux 7.1 preinstalled along with the KDE GUI desktop and whatever else ships with Red Hat 7.1 (a lot of stuff, by the way) and several radio astronomy software packages, including MIRIAD, KARMA, and FTOOLS, none of which are familiar to me. (I'm an optical astronomer through and through. My radio work emphasizes communication with human beings, not dark matter and black holes.) The grill on the top is a fan outlet, not a speaker. Its physical size is 5.7" x 6.1" x 1.75" and it weighs 33 ounces. Price: $1600 US. Cool enough on its own...but when I saw the size and read the hardware specs, my jaw dropped. Here's what it has on the hardware side:

Intel PIII 933 MHz with 256kB cache
i810 Chipset1 including agp Video w. 4 MB shared RAM & AC'97 Audio
256 MB RAM
10/100BaseT Ethernet 2 USB ports
VGA Monitor Port, Serial Port, Parallel Port, PS/2 Keyboard Port, Mouse Port, S-Video & Composite (NTSC | PAL) video output
1.44 MB FDD
IrDa Port
Universal power supply (100-240 V AC)
Egad. This is about 30% more system than my Dell Dimensdion T550, and a hair bigger than an external ZIP drive. I've been hunting for something like this for years, to get that ugly (and 90% empty) mini-tower off my ever-more-crowded computer desk. Needless to say, I'd need a Windows version if one exists. My guess is that SiLinux did an OEM deal with a Pacific Rim hardware company making these things, and that if someone here in the US so chose, there could be a general desktop Windows version in very little time. Of course, the US computer retailing system discriminates against anything as innovative as this, so don't wait up for it. But I will look into it and report back.
August 17, 2001
The September 2001 issue of Scientific American has a focus on nanotechnology, and one article stands out: A contrarian objection to the Drexlerian dogma that we can make machines out of small numbers of indivually-positioned atoms just as we carve machines out of metal with a lathe. The author, George M. Whitesides, points out a number of sticky issues that occurred to me too when I read Drexler's seminal Nanosystems. The stickiest may be stickiness itself: Carbon atoms like to stick to things, including the nanopincers that Drexler's nanoassemblers are based on. And what if you want to grab a fluorine ion? Fluorine likes to do more than stick to things. It gloms, bigtime, and then you have nanopincer-fluoride. Other issues like Brownian motion have been discussed to some degree in the nanoenthusiast press, but I always thought that the enthusiasts were whistling a little bit past the nanograveyard. Michael Abrash suggests that there may be unanticipated quantum effects as well. (But aren't quantum effects always unanticipated, heh-heh? Hey, physics joke, sorry.) Good article. Definitely read it.
August 16, 2001

I keep hearing again and again that young people today have grown (courtesy our ubiquitous interrupting technology: pagers, cell phones, IM, email, and who knows what else) to be consummate multitaskers, capable of doing numerous things at the same time. These articles are typically written by the middle-aged; that is, people like me.

Au contraire. My curse is the curse of a perfect memory, and I remember being able to do that! I used to do several things at once with impunity when I was 13, and I was 13 in 19-freaking-66. The problem, of couse, is that back then, there were far fewer opportunities to multitask—usually limited to things like eating, talking to your parents, and following the latest episode of The Man From Uncle. We didn't have pagers, and most houses had but one phone, time on which was duly rationed. Lord knows we didn't have computers. Nonetheless, I could talk to my sister, listen to Neil Diamond on my 8" reel-to-reel tapes, and continue typing on my Underwood Standard, all at the same time. I regularly read a book while (intermittently) watching TV and not missing anything crucial. (Of course, you can watch TV with single-minded fanaticism and still not miss anything crucial.)

My point is, kids have always been good multitaskers. These days, they just have more chances to shine at it. I can't listen to music and write anymore; forget talking and typing at the same time. Not sure why—I think older people have more stuff in their heads to process, which takes whatever cycles used to be available for multitasking. I do feel, at least, that I am both a clearer thinker and a better writer than I was when I could multitask until the cows came home. (No, we didn't have cows, though my Uncle Joey did. Since I'm not sure they ever left home—they were basically machines that ate grass and produced milk—I'm not sure how or when they could ever get back.) I like silence and stillness more now. I've also grown unaccountably fond of muenster cheese. Things change—and for the better, who knows? It depends on what you're up for this evening.

August 15, 2001

This past Monday, NASA sent its 250-foot Helios solar-powered flying wing up above sunny Hawaii, going for a record altitude by winged aircraft. It hit 96,500 feet, just missing its mission target of 100,000 feet but still going where no winged craft has ever gone before. (The record for jet-powered aircraft is 85,068 feet, set in 1976 by an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.) The atmosphere at 100,000 feet is about as dense as the atmosphere at the surface of Mars, so if Helios can hang out at that level, we can explore Mars by way of robot aircraft working from solar energy.

But more intriguing yet, Helios may be a prototype for A New Kind of Thing: An unmanned telecomm platform circling endlessly above big cities, passing broadband data packets up and down as a geosynchronous satellite would, but way closer (which matters to radio signal intensity and even speed-of-light latency) and way cheaper. Some say it's dangerous to put a 300-foot robot wing high above a city, but in truth in would live too high to be a threat to any other aircraft, and would be above virtually all weather systems. I'm predicting that such systems will be implemented within four years and will be ubiquitous within ten—and that may be excessively pessimistic.
August 14, 2001

While rearranging a couple of my bookshelves yesterday I ran across a good book from last year, supporting my long-held position that the religious impulse is (when not subverted by lesser motives) a drive toward wholeness. The book is Catholic Means Universal, by David Richo, and it's a meditation on the Catholic religious idea by a thoughtful layman that was published outside the Vatican-controlled Roman Catholic presses. You will thus see an interesting take on subjects that would get Roman Catholic religious tossed out on their butts, including the ultimate purpose of sex (wholeness rather than procreation) and the authority of the human conscience.

I don't completely agree with everything in the book, but if you want a refreshing look at most of the fundamental ideas inside the Catholic tradition, it's well worth a read—and if you read nothing else in the book, read Chapter 6: "How Religion Is About Wholeness." Brilliant.
August 13, 2001

This morning the Wall Street Journal reported that Ogg Vorbis 1.0 has gone real, which means it probably has. (I've seen such reports in other places, but as they are enthusiast sites, I've been skeptical.) Unlike other computer concepts, like Delphi, my enthusiasm for the open source idea does know some bounds, because I've seen a lot of interesting open source projects flounder for awhile and then vanish for lack of (gasp!) strong central management, or (more likely) any management whatsoever.

Chris Montgomery's Ogg Vorbis is the atrociously named open source competitor to the patented MP3 audio storage format, which is owned by Great Big Honking Corporations, and for which serious royalties must be paid Without Fail Or Else. It creates smaller files than MP3, and as far as we know (such things are always open to dispute) infringes on no existing patents. (Here's a year-old but still good article about how Ogg Vorbis works.) The greater degree of compression is interesting to me, now that I've ripped my huge oldies collection to hard disk, but in truth I like the idea of standards that are not under the control of cash-hungry corporations. I'm hoping .ogg is adopted broadly and well by software vendors like WinAmp. If good utilities appear, I may even convert the M3s that I already have.
August 12, 2001

Planet Ebook posted an announcement of a new ebook deal by which readers will pay a very low price (the example was one thin dollar) and then get an ebook that will be readable for a total of ten hours spent opened in the Adobe Ebook Reader. After it's been opened for a cumulative ten hours in the reader, the ebook expires and won't open anymore.

I'm of two minds about this; it pushes us closer to the notion of pay-per-view in digital content, which makes me uneasy at a very deep level for reasons I have a hard time putting into words. I think the feeling is related to the fear Carol and I have that once we find something that we like (usually some new food or drink product) it almost immediately vanishes. (My best example is Taster's Choice Irish Cream flavored instant coffee, RIP.) Suppose I buy a ten-hour book, read it once, and then set it aside after it times out. Then suppose a year later I remember it in connection with a research project of some kind and want to quote it—only to find that the publisher has in the interim gone belly-up and the book is no longer available at any price, and my copy is heavily encrypted dead meat.

I'm an author and I'm all for authors getting paid, but vanishing content and guard-dog applications like the Adobe Ebook Reader (which in some unexplained magical way can laugh at the Win2K task manager's vain efforts to nuke it from memory) make me profoundly uneasy. One reason that human knowledge advances is that human knowledge is durable—once something is published, it generally stays published, in that you can at least find it in libraries. In our brave new world, knowledge can theoretically vanish entirely, and that is no way to push back the dark boundaries of ignorance.
August 11, 2001:
Talk about a weird feeling... My plastic temporary teeth have an inner framework of stiff metal wire. The teeth are in two sections, one for upper and one for lower, but each section is in one piece. They're glued to my real teeth, which have been whittled down in preparation for porcelain crowns. (See yesterday's entry if you haven't already.) When I drink something cold, the metal wire in the temporary teeth contracts, and I can feel the slow tug on my real teeth beneath them. The same thing happens in the opposite direction when I drink something hot, like a cup of coffee. What's weirdest of all is drinking a glass of icewater and then taking a long slug of hot coffee. (Did that this morning.) It's not pain, but it's one of the strangest feelings I can recall.
August 10, 2001:

Yesterday I finally underwent what in the dental trade they call a "double roundhouse." All of my teeth that hadn't already been fitted with crowns were whittled down, upper and lower, in one marathon seven-hour stretch in the dentist's chair. This wasn't quite as bad as it sounds, because I had ten crowns and a bridge already, so almost half of my teeth were already done before we began. The procedure would appear to be pretty gruesome (seven hours!) but it didn't seem so bad on the inside, because I was so heavily drugged I kept forgetting to keep my mouth open, and our most patient Dr. Greenburg had to remind me periodically: "Jeff, you're biting me again. Open wide."

Crowns take awhile to make, so while they're in process I have this weird set of temporary teeth that can best be described as hollow dentures. Once all my teeth had been whittled down to pegs, they filled these two hollow semicircles of plastic teeth full of some kind of goop and pressed them down over my real teeth. They're not entirely comfortable, but in appearance they're utterly perfect, and when I smile in the mirror it looks like some other guy completely. It'll be a couple more weeks before the crowns are done, and then I have another longish session in the chair to get them fitted and adjusted, but I'm told that the final product will look even better—and they won't be plastic. More as it happens.
August 8, 2001:

I have never quite understood all this talk about the Singularity: a concept much beloved of those hyperkinetic Extropians and originated (as best I know) by SF writer Vernor Vinge. Vinge holds that the advance of technology is increasing at an exponential rate, and at some point in the reasonably near future will in some indescribable way go critical, leaving humanity, human society, and perhaps even the physical universe in some unpredicted and inherently unpredictable state.


I have the highest respect for Vernor as a writer. His SF novels are among the only ones in recent times that I genuinely and without hesitation respect, and he's used the idea of the Singularity in them to good effect, particularly in the Bobble books like Marooned in Realtime. Trouble is, the guy thinks it's real, and that it's going to happen, probably within his lifetime, which means in my lifetime, because he's roughly my age.

My primary objections to the notion of the Singularity are these:

  • History tells me that the advance of technology is fractal, not exponential. Every so often something comes along that changes things radically, and then we adapt and continue in a period of relative boredom until the next big fractal break. So it was with cars, the telephone, TV, the Interstate Highway System, cheap air travel, personal computers, and then the Internet. We're currently being bored. I keep watching for the next fractal break. Don't see anything coming right now.
  • Recent advances in technology are more quantitative than qualitative. In other words, we have better and better refrigerators, but they're still just refrigerators. The gulf separating a time of no refrigerators from a time of ubiquitous refrigerators is a much more jolting change than the arrival of automatic ice makers. This sort of qualitative change seems to be happening more and more rarely. 1950 is much more like 2000 than 1900 was.
  • I reject all this crap about how computer technology is advancing ever more rapidly. C'mon already. Clock rates are getting faster...but the basic architecture is forty years old, maybe more, depending on your definitions. Computers have always been stupid. They are still stupid, they're just being stupid faster. (I draw a sharp definition between clock cycles and algorithms. Brute force mechanisms have no place in any definition of intelligence.) As I see it, computer technology is completely stagnant right now. We have made zero progress toward anything I would call "artificial intelligence" with a straight face. And this is because...
  • We have absolutely no idea how human intelligence works. None! Nada! Zip! So talking about "artificial intelligence" is complete and utter bullshit, always was, and unless something truly fractal happens, always will be. We can't even craft a bug-free word processor. How in the name of HAL do we expect to craft a functional mind?
It's way more fun to assume that we're making progress in technology than to assume that we're wedged, but all the advances I see recently are incremental improvements in existing or even hoary technologies, not breakthroughs. The breakthroughs we really need—cheap energy transmission not based on carbon storage is my first pick—are nowhere in sight. Let's not make idiots of ourselves by allowing ourselves to be distracted by the quest for "superintelligence." Near term I'd settle for a toaster that brings slices of bread to a consistent degree of toasting...and hey, I'm still waiting for my personal hovercar!
August 6, 2001:

Copy protection for audio CDs has long been considered impossible, because jiggering the established audio CD format would render a CD unplayable on hundreds of millions of CD players around the world. Recently, a number of schemes have been floated that attempt to protect the audio data on an audio CD by introducing deliberate errors into the audio stream, errors that are detected and corrected by the CD player hardware but which would become audible in files ripped from the CD and stored on computer disk.

Now, I can't imagine that any hardware-based error correction mechanism can't be replicated in software. So I'm pretty sure that the copy protection vendors will rely on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) to go after any software vendor who tries to emulate the chip-based forward error correction found in any consumer CD player in software, since a broad interpretation of DCMA forbids anybody to circumvent anything that any copyright holder claims is a copy protection scheme. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out, given the slobbering fury with which the entertainment industry has pursued anybody publishing or even discussing the various DVD protection schemes. It'll be cracked, count on it. What happens after that will be the Rilly Big Shew.
August 4, 2001:

Carol gave me a really good book for our 32nd anniversry (see my July 31, 2001 entry): Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. I'm just getting into it now (about a hundred pages worth so far) but Putnam's point is something I take a keen interest in: The decline of social and civic participation in American life. What I've been through in the book so far is an exhausting run of statistics showing that virtually every facet of American social and civic life has been declining drastically since about 1965. This includes voting, churchgoing, community service, local card clubs and sports leagues (hence the title) and even things like holding dinner parties and visiting friends. More and more of what we do is done alone, and more and more of what we do is focused

This is bad news, and while I'm afraid the author tipped his hand early by saying he himself had not decided what he thought the causes of this sea change might be, he's certainly given me a lot to think about. As I get further into the book, I'll discuss more of it here. Stay tuned.
August 3, 2001:

Finally! Sprint announced the other day that they were doing a deal that will support an add-in module for the Handspring Visor that will turn the visor into a 3G (third generation) cell phone. The first time I saw the Visor and its empty slot, I knew this would come to pass. Handspring did release the Visor Phone sometime back, but it's not 3G, and hey, I already have an analog 1G cell phone. (I use it as little as I can. Something about a certain lack of cost-benefit upside...) Some details from Reuters are here, but in summary, the gadget is called Digital Link, and will cost about $250 when it hits the market later this year.

3G will allow cell phones to sustain an always-on connection to the Internet, allowing email, Web, and even video access (though I'm highly suspicious of that one) without the annoying dropout problems that keep me from happily embracing wireless technologies—or buying Visor's current VisorPhone offering. Sprint's network is very good, from what I've heard, and my guess is that that $250 price will drop in response to competition from other carriers. VisorPhone has already dropped in price from $249 to $49, with service. Time will tell, but overall I like the direction in which this is all going. (See my July 6 entry, for a gadget coming to the same place from the other direction: A cell phone that runs PalmOS on its LCD display!)
August 2, 2001:

One of the challenges in writing an ambitious application in Delphi is the rapid proliferation of third-party components in the project. So it has unfolded with Aardmarks, in which I have been undertaking an informal experiment in using as many components as I can possibly find, while writing as little actual code as I can get away with.

I've been very successful...with the downside that I now have loads and loads of components installed into the Delphi environment, many of them singletons from single authors, but some of them single picks from immense packs of what may be hundreds of components. I use exactly two components from Objective Software's massive collection ABC for Delphi, but the other two-hundred-odd components are there in my component palette, taking up space to no good purpose. I can't fault ObSof for offering a really good deal on a huge sack of really good components; I just wish I had the option to pick and choose which to install and which to leave on the CD.

Ditto the RX Lib product, a collection of 75 or so components from some Russian guys—of which I have used exactly one, and it's not quite what I'm looking for. (Which is the db grid to end all db grids—what's the current feeling about that? Anything out there that I've missed? VCLs only—I don't believe in DLLs.) I'm beginning to suspect that my current difficulties with the Delphi environment (see my July 29 entry) are due to all the churn in my component palette. I try some components, find them lacking, and uninstall them, then uninstall some more. I posit that something somewhere within Delphi doesn't like this kind of treatment. Not sure what's to be done, but it's a problem that I wish both Borland the VCL vendors would look at more closely.
August 1, 2001:

Knowing my interest in the subject, people sometimes ask me: What is religion for? The conventional wisdom (as a child somewhere once put it) is that "religion is for going to heaven." Yes it is, in a roundabout sort of way. But that's not the right way to think about it. Rather, religion is a path to wholeness. It is a way of healing whatever's broken in your spirit, so that you're more fit to live not only in this world, but in whatever ineffable worlds may lie ahead.

The bleeding question here, of course, is how well all of our various religions fulfill this mission. Most fail miserably, because all religions are subject to the same brokenness that their adherents suffer. In the hands of broken human beings, religion can all too easily become a path to domination of others or to destruction of the self. I won't speak for other religions, but Roman Catholicism (which I have researched heavily over the past few years) has certainly been a force in driving away many of the people who most need it. This is why I have turned to Old Catholicism, which for the most part has given over the last remnants of Manichaeism (an ancient dualist heresy that denies the goodness in the world and humanity, especially in terms of sex) and totalitarian rule from the center. Old Catholicism has been a tremendous healing force in my life. It's basically what Catholicism should be, and if you're looking for a Catholic path I recommend it.

My conservative readers are probably asking, Where's God in all this? Isn't it about God more than about us? Yes, of course it's about God—but what does God want from His universe, if not wholeness? Why shouldn't He want for everyone and everything what He already has for Himself? Salvation in a very real sense is healing, and within that I include wholeness of body, mind, and soul. Religion at its best is nothing more than the way there.