August 30, 2002:

I guess, as with many things, that you just had to be there. In my entry for August 28, 2002, I mentioned Carol and I howling in the Toyota on our way home from Colorado, over signs pointing to the little New Mexico towns of Acoma and Acomita. Carol hazarded that "acoma" means "turkey roast" in Spanish, and "acomita" meant "little turkey roast." I had hoped that somebody would get the joke, but so far no one has.

Where I guess you had to be was in Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Back there and then there was a certain rubbery, processed, ersatz turkey meat product substitute called a "boneless turkey roast." As Carol puts it (she hates it far more than me) it was "meat that squeaked." (Against your teeth, not of its own volition, though I wouldn't be half surprised.) Kind of like poultry-based Spam. It was cheap protein, however, and lower-middle-class kids like Carol and me ingested an awful lot of it while we were kids. The company that made it was called Acoma. Their TV ads were ever-present on Chicago local TV. As best I recall, the ad (there was only one) showed a still photo of the product, and played a 15-second jingle that will forever infest my brain:

ACOma BONEless..Turkey Roast!
ACOma BONEless..Turkey Roast!
ACOma BONEless..Turkey Roast!

and so on, until their 15 seconds were up. Carol still can't force herself to eat turkey meat that's been too thoroughly squashed and hydrated, though I kind of like it, strictly as a nostalgia thing. (The childhood food substitute that I refuse to touch is macaroni and cheese...)

The town of Acoma has an unusual pueblo atop a white rock mesa, which the Acoma Indians claim is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the US. (A "pueblo" is both a building and a tribal group.) Acomita was settled by Indians from Acoma, and in the usual Spanish way means "little Acoma." Acomita, New Mexico, is now a ghost town, or at least it's listed in an index of ghost towns. Thanks to Jim Mischel for the links, and please pass the turkey roast...
August 29, 2002:

Driving back to Scottsdale from Colorado Springs, we saw three different wildfires: One in New Mexico and two in northern Arizona. This has been a horrible year for fires, and I am extremely annoyed at the Greens for condemning the Bush plan for forest management even before the plan has been fully explained. It's abundantly clear to me and to a lot of people that wildfires are a part of forest ecology, and it's almost as clear that we are having as many big fires as we're having because we've prevented small fires from clearing the underbrush and smaller, weaker trees.

A little logging would help a lot. Note I said a little—and I will be just as annoyed at Bush if all he presents is permission for the big logging firms to go on clear-cutting. What needs to be done may be something that no one really wants to do: taking out every fifth tree per acre instead of every tree, and taking smaller trees instead of larger. The Greens can't bring themselves to cut anything down (and in my view therefore bear some responsibility for the terrible damage today's fires are causing) and the lumber companies claim they can't make money cutting down smaller trees plus only an occasional larger one.

What we may need is something a little bit offbeat: A Citizens' Coppicing Corps. (Improve your word power by following this link and seeing what "coppicing" means.) Just as various groups from Boy Scout troops to used car dealerships adopt miles of highways to clean on Sunday afternoons, we could allow groups to adopt plots of national forest and periodically thin them, clear out underbrush, and thereby make them much less fire-prone.

This might only help a little—there is likely a lot more forest than groups willing to coppice them—and it will take some time to have an effect. But we need to look at the example of Great Britain, where coppicing has been a steady practice for over a thousand years. Forest fires aren't a big problem there, and the forests I walked through while Carol and I visited there in 1997 seemed very clean, open, and healthy. Could we do it here? Not sure. It would, however, be worth a try. If I knew who to suggest it to, I would.
August 28, 2002:

Back home in Scottsdale again. Sorry for the delay in getting things posted here; the last week of our trip was pretty intense (yes, we were in fact on a mission—more on which in coming days) and although I took some notes I didn't have a chance to get it all down and formatted until today.

I'm glad to be home; we are not strong drivers and were both getting clucky after awhile. Whistling west on I-40 through the desolation of New Mexico, Carol and I saw signs for a pair of towns named Acoma and Acomita and wondered what they stood for. Carol guessed that "acoma" was Spanish for "turkey roast" and "acomita" was Spanish for "little turkey roast" or maybe "turkey sausage," and I damned near lost control of the Toyota. Does anybody out there reading this know why? And if you do, can you still sing their jingle?
August 27, 2002:

On our way back; spending the night in Albuquerque before the home stretch tomorrow. I think it was my friend Esther Schindler who commented last month that she and her husband Bill have seen a great deal of tire tread lying on the roads recently; far more than she ever recalls in the past. Sure enough, Carol and I were astonished at the sheer quantity of tire chunks lying on the road and on the shoulders of I-25, all the way down from Colorado Springs. I am at a loss for explanations. It's not just that Esther brought it to my attention. When you have to swerve on the Interstate to dodge most of an entire truck tire lying in the middle of your lane, you notice.

It had to be twenty-five years ago that George Ewing told me of a concept for an after-the-blowup SF story he had (remember after-the-blowup stories?) that included a steam-powered Ford station wagon that burned chunks of lost tire, which its passengers acquired using a steam-fired harpoon gun that literally skewered the rubber bits while at flank speed and reeled them back in!

My only attempt to venture a guess may be that people are cruising a lot faster these days—we were doing between 80 and 85 in the right lane, and these nutcases were constantly whizzing past us at speeds that had be well past 95. (Some of the nutcases, by the way, were 18-wheelers.) Speeds like that probably tear tires up a whole lot quicker than in those bad old days of "drive 55." That's my theory, anyway. If you have another one, I'd love to hear it.
August 25, 2002:

"Whiskey is fer drinkin'—water is fer fightin' over!" I kept hearing that old cowboy witticism in my head today while reading news items about the inevitable struggles over water conservation in drought-ravaged Colorado Springs. It came out the other day that while lawns are dying all over town, the Broadmoor (a $400/night-and-up foo-foo hotel and golf resort) had persuaded the city to give it half a million gallons of potable (drinkable) water at the non-potable rate, for the sole purpose of keeping its greens green. No matter that golfers can golf on dead grass, nor that the city's reservoirs were only about a quarter full. No sir, the Broadmoor's greens are the greenest things in town.

The Broadmoor came up with the usual defense, that it brings money into the city and provides a good many jobs to people who'd be hard pressed to earn as much in other ways, blah-blah. (I heard the same arguments when Phoenix officials overrode a citizen initiative some years back and bought the Major Leagues a new baseball park at public expense. It was bullshit then, and it's bullshit now.)

My solution: Give the Broadmoor the water, but at the cost of five dollars a gallon, structured as a loan payable over the next five years. Then perhaps a little more of that money the Broadmoor brings in could actually go to somebody other than the Broadmoor.
August 23, 2002:

There was a letter to the editor in the local paper pointing out that a lot of Bible Christians were not exactly comfortable with the currently fashionable idea of an Intelligent Designer as author of the universe (see my entry for August 17, 2002) pointing out some arguments of David Hume, the 18th century philosopher, postulating that there is nothing in the evidence we see in the universe to point exclusively toward an infinitely powerful Designer, just one way bigger and more powerful than we are. Hume also postulated that there could be more than one Designer: If we assume that the Designer is God simply from the evidence of the universe's existence, we would have to accept the possibility of polytheism.

I shorted philosophy in college, alas, and did not study Hume, but he gets major points for scooping the underlying premise of a whole series of novels I thought to write someday, and doing it more than 200 years before the invention of science fiction. Basically, how powerful does something have to be before it could rightfully claim to be God? Does being able to create universes count? The Gnostics struggled with this question and it caused no end of grief. I thought of a twist on the problem for my novels which I won't reveal here on the outside chance I may eventually write them, but it's an interesting problem to ponder: How will we know it's really God when we see Him?

And when was the last time you saw a letter to the editor in the daily paper citing David Hume?
August 22, 2002:

The hotel satellite TV system has over 100 channels, most of which Carol and I have never seen before, though we've heard of some of them. We've spent no little time in the evenings watching Animal Planet ("All Animals, All the Time") which seems to show only two programs: One an animal-only version of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (which, admittedly, had its moments) and the other a sort of travelog featuring some Australian guy who says "crikey!" a lot and pokes sticks at the world's most venomous snakes.

That's what they've played all week. I guess it's all the same animals, all the time. As for the rest, well, I caught part of an episode of "Charmed," watched some woman on the Home and Garden Channel take a perfectly boring little kitchen and make it hideous by painting the floors fire-engine red and nailing junk to the walls, and spent more time than we should have wondering why The Weather Channel had both the local temperatures and weather radar completely and utterly wrong. (Colorado Springs looked clear on the radar, but outside it was raining steadily.)

This is why we don't watch TV. All Irrelevant, All the Time.
August 21, 2002:

I don't particularly want to believe in ghosts, but I do. Many of my readers have read my account of going down to Indiana to see the famous Moody's Ghost in 1971, when I was a college sophomore. Some have tried to convince me that I "must have been mistaken" (I wasn't) or that it was somebody running around in the cornfield with a flashlight. (Not unless that somebody could run about as fast as the speed of sound.) The oddest thing about Moody's Ghost is that it's been there doing its ghosty thing for at least 31 years. I got a note this morning from a young woman who went down there with her boyfriend and saw basically what I saw, just a few weeks ago. I have received dozens of such emails since I first posted the article about four years ago. (I wrote it originally for publication in my Chevelle Club newsletter in 1993.)

Moody, whatever it is, has been very consistent down through the years. The question for today is this: How do we approach the question of testing it? What do we have to do to convince the genuine skeptics (the debunkers can take a flying you-know-what; as far as I'm concerned they're scheming liars who seek only to discredit any report of anything that challenges today's view of reality) that there's something going on worthy of study?

I have to get back there. I've actually been in touch with Murphy and Harris in recent years. It's about time for a Moody's Ghost Reunion. Anybody else wanna go down there with us and see a real (live?) ghost?
August 20, 2002:

People regularly razz the memory of the crackpots who put together Web sites to sell weird stuff like dog food in order to get rich, and we sometimes forget that what they're razzing is not that they sold weird stuff, but that they tried to get rich doing it. In a very real sense, selling weird stuff is what the Web is for. Goods with too little audience to support a retail outlet can be sold profitably on the Web, and the niches can get as narrow as they need to without losing the potential for profitability.

We ran into another one today: Licorice International, which exists solely to sell black licorice from overseas. (OK, they sell some American licorice too—we can't forget that to people in Europe, the US is overseas and thus "international"—and the Web transcends all oceans.) They sell Katjes German licorice in all its various flavors, including the Katzen Pfotchen (Cat's Paws) that Carol and I discovered in Germany this summer and fell in love with.

The challenge is letting the world know, since there are now a multitude of sites selling a mind-boggling variety of weird stuff. We read of Licorice International in the Colorado Springs daily paper. Had we not picked up the paper this morning, it's hard to tell how soon we would have discovered it. I still think that my Aardmarks idea has some merit, but I've kind of lost momentum on the software (though I use Prototype 2 daily) and I'm not sure that I want to go back to the server side of the project, which is really where it gets interesting. (What I have so far is a nice but fairly simple bookmark manager.)

Our Katzen Pfotchen is on the way. This is indeed a wonderful time to be alive.
August 19, 2002:

There's an alternative to radio waves for carrying Internet data over that ever-so-insurmountable Last Mile to the consumer. (In my case, out in the wilds of the North Scottsdale desert, it's the last 25 miles, but let that pass.) A technology called Free Space Optical (FSO) uses modulated lasers to do the same thing as radio, only at much higher data rates. The technologies exist, and although they're still fairly expensive, they're relatively easy to implement. The question, especially in places like Phoenix or Colorado Springs, where there are convenient mountains or other high places to mount the point-to-point lasers, is: Why aren't we doing this? Some people cite the disadvantage of rain or fog disrupting the data beam, but hey, that happens now with low-power microwave-based systems like Sprint Broadband. (Water soaks up microwave energy like, well, like a cup of water in a microwave oven.) When there's a bad rain between my house and South Mountain, it's a rare packet that gets through unscathed, so in those cases I pull the plug and go read a book downstairs. (Of course, in Arizona this happens, on average, about twice a year.)

I'm not exceptionally paranoid, but in this case I can say with some confidence that many people in business and government don't want the public to have high-bandwidth connections to anything. Bandwidth is clearly subversive—Napster proved that for all time, and that and the ability to publish on a peer basis with Big Media has Big Media on the warpath against connectivity. We have a glut of backbone capacity, capacity that could be sold, but broadband deployment is down to a crawl, and broadband providers seem determined to parcel out bandwidth with an eyedropper, and allow themselves to be astonished that people won't pay top dollar for the service.

The "last mile problem" may just be an excuse. Many tools are there, and the backbones are waiting, with most of their fiber perpetually dark. Somebody Doesn't Want Broadband, heh. The real trick is pinning down who.
August 18, 2002:

We managed to catch Disney's Lilo & Stitch here at the Tinseltown before it vanished. I had high hopes, but once again, as with many of Disney's recent animated entries, my reaction is extremely mixed. They get points for originality: An "illegal alien" (in the Star Trek sense) escapes from Galactic Jail and crash lands in Hawaii, where he impersonates an extremely ugly dog and is adopted by a lonely Hawaiian orphan girl named Lilo. Lilo is being raised by her older sister, who needs to prove herself worthy or the authorities will take Lilo away from her.

Good premise and a promising start, but somehow it all comes to pieces and never reassembles again. Some things are clearly supposed to be funny and just aren't: A thuglike Black social worker named Cobra Bubbles (I'm not making this up!) violates every tenet of social work I ever understood; he looks and acts like a drug syndicate enforcer. Two goofy aliens sent to Earth to recapture Stitch should be hilarious, but are given lousy lines and somehow just don't add up to anything. The realistically drawn Hawaii isn't fazed by aliens and spaceships in its midst. There isn't a great deal of action, and the animation is fairly simple and (especially for the various alien characters) reminds me of Saturday morning TV. The subtheme of Elvis Presley's music didn't really fit in, but then again, I like exactly one Presley tune ("His Latest Flame") and none of the King's rather silly movies.

More than ever, the problem lies not in the drawings, but in the words. The theme is among the most potent of all mythic themes: The redemption of evil (rather than its destruction) by good. We saw it work movingly in The Return of the Jedi. It could work here, but Disney is afraid to offend anyone or put any of its characters in any serious jeopardy. (How Mr. Bubbles snuck in is anybody's guess.) The humor is silly and very shallow slaptick—in fact, the funniest parts of the movie lie in the photo-montage at the end. Overall, it just doesn't work.

Disney can do this stuff, even today—I offer Monsters, Inc. as a superb example of how a good script can make a "gentle fantasy" work—but I sometimes wonder if they know how and why they succeed when they in fact do. We're going to get another Disney cartoon—Treasure Planet—this fall, though it has the style of Japanese anime and is probably an import. We'll see how they do in that more conventional territory when it appears.
August 17, 2002:

I've never seen this suggested elsewhere, but the Fermi Paradox (in other words, if Earth produced intelligent life, where are all the other intelligent races produced by other planets?) provides weak support for the "intelligent designer" theory of evolution. In case you've been living under a refrigerator box, much sturm und drang is being tossed about over daring to suggest to school children that Something Very Big and Very Powerful was responsible for moving life from organic slime to New York City. (Some might imagine that a bigger move than others...)

Now, the only honest answer to the question of what influences evolution is We Don't Know, and that's truthfully what I want our school children to be taught, along with all the other multitudinous We Don't Knows that science prefers to tiptoe around.(Science's one unforgivable sin is claiming to know more than it does.) My point here, however, is that for all the discussion in books like Rare Earth, I still don't buy the possibility that we are completely alone in the universe. What we know of chemistry seems to imply that what happens here also happens there, there, and everwhere else that similar conditions prevail. If intelligent life happened on Earth, it happened on a lot of other places as well, including places with millions of years' worth of head start on us. They oughta be here by now. If they aren't, well, what went wrong?

Maybe life really is hard to produce. If we are in fact alone, it was either a tremendously, almost unthinkably unlikely chance...or it was A Setup.

Now, I said our being alone in the universe was weak evidence. Strong evidence would be two intelligent races—the universe might produce one fluke by vanishingly unlikely chance, but not two flukes. On the other hand, if alien intelligence is ubiquitous (and we somehow just haven't run into it yet) the life-is-pure-random-chance party has very strong evidence in their favor. For me, at least, a George Lucas style Galactic Confederation full of rubberfaced aliens would be strong evidence that even if God is out there, He isn't pulling any strings.

Stuff like this haunts me, and has haunted me for many years. I'm actually putting together an interesting concept for an SF novel based on the Fermi Paradox, but unless and until I sell my first novel, don't expect me to write it!
August 16, 2002:

One of the big downsides of being away from home for any significant period of time (for me, about four days) is that I miss my broadband Net connection. While on the road I work the Net through a dialup connection, except when staying (as I've reported here in the past) at hotels with broadband conenctions available to guests. And although my laptop is capable of all the speed that V.90 can muster (usually about 53 Kbps) I've found that here in COSprings I get in at 21.6...unless I log in at 19.2. At those speeds the Web is purely painful, especially since a lot of what I end up waiting for are ads. (Maybe it's time to install an ad-killer.) So I've not had the opportunity to just follow my nose on the Web for almost a week, and I'm starting to miss it.

WiFi could help a lot here, and one of my realizations is that public WiFi hotspots are still mostly a coastal phenomenon. I have yet to visit a Starbucks with its WiFi system installed—nope, those are mostly in Seattle and environs, and down the coast of California. There is an Internet cafe here, but it's not WiFi, and you have to use their machines, which nullifies any gain I would achieve, since I could neither check mail nor capture bookmarks. (I know why they do it, though: Getting random customer laptops and Palms and PocketPCs configured to use WiFi is not trivial, and would eat whatever meager profits such a cafe could muster.)

So there are tremendous possibilities here for clever hardware/software guys. The biggest problem isn't the WiFi hardware itself—in fact, that's barely a problem at all. The biggest problem in hotspots is charging for them, and not having the cost of the transaction and subsequent service (read here, customer hand-holding) consume whatever the customer is paying. I expect eventually that the biggest chains (like Starbucks) will simply give up and factor the bandwidth into the cost of attracting customers. That is...unless some sharp software types put a management system together that somehow minimizes what the retailer/hotelier must do to charge for the service. This is a really big deal. Give it a thought, you guys. I need the service out here in the wilds of Colorado!
August 14, 2002:

I'm fighting a headcold (travel and prodigious expenditures of energy often do that to me) and not feeling especially energetic today, so I'll simply pass along a link sent to me by reader Roy Harvey, focusing on several Great Big Honking Tesla Coils (my title.) Although I know how Tesla coils work and am impressed by the discharge displays the big'uns can produce, I've never had much ambition to build one of my own. (Actually, I love building odd things of all sorts—but there are only so many hours in any one life, and I've had to prioritize a lot. Radios and telescopes outrank Tesla, sorry...and kites, while not a consuming passion for me, are at least easy.)

And with that I'm going to curl up in bed with a good WiFi book. Give me a day or two to feel better before panicking.
August 13, 2002:

Much fighting here in Colorado Springs about water, and government, as usual, is making everything worse by trying to help. Like most parts of the West (and pointedly unlike the Midwest) Colorado is in the midst of a pretty serious drought. So the city of Colorado Springs has put in place a watering-restriction plan that allows people to water their lawns only two days out of the week. Worse, it's not always the same two days, so it's impossible for all but the most surpremely programmable watering timers to automatically adhere to the restrictions. Facing dying lawns and vegetable gardens, people are secretly watering in between their days, and neighbors are ratting out neighbors who cheat, with whole neighborhoods gradually falling into a state of war with themselves.

In the meantime, farmers and ranchers have faced no restrictions on their own use of water, some of which is brute-force and supremely wasteful. The local paper admits that residential lawn watering may amount to a whopping 5% of county water use, so killing people's lawns and destroying neighborhood goodwill are saving only a tiny bit of water, taking the big picture into account.

Yes, it's dumb to have grass in places like Arizona and Colorado. (Less dumb to have vegetable gardens, which are far fewer, not inherently wasteful, and should not be restricted.) Still, what's happening here is an echo of what happened in 1973 when fanatics in Congress forced the states to restrict speeds on the Interstates to 55, a measure that saved relatively little gasoline, but destroyed what little respect people had by that time for government and the rule of law. So now nobody pays any attention to speed limits except when cops are around, and madmen were roaring by me on I 25 the other day doing over 100 MPH. Rationing would have been better then, and rationing would be better here...if everybody got their ration cut by the same amount. Cut the farmers' share by 15% and we wouldn't have anything like the same problem—but no, that would make way too much sense.
August 12, 2002:

Sigh. It's hot even here in Colorado Springs, at 6200 feet altitude. The granola gang are very quick to condemn SUVs (it's gotten to be a mantra with them—sheep gut methane isn't even on the radar) but reader Brook Monroe reminded me that we're seeing a slight elevation in solar radiation these days, and there is ample evidence in climatic history that fairly tiny fluctations in solar radiation can have a huge influence on Earth's climate. Almost no one remembers the Maunder Minimum, when sunspots were scarce and the Thames froze over almost every winter. Sunspots are legion these days, and as Brook reminds me, even Titan (Saturn's large atmosphere-bearing moon) is experiencing some global warming of its own. (Brook suggests that the Titanites have begun driving SUVs.)

I'm most of the way through an excellent book, The Little Ice Age, by Brian M. Fagan, and will write up a full report when I return to Scottsdale. We have had global warming before, most recently around the year 1000, when the Vikings colonized Greenland, and last I knew, the Vikings didn't drive Jeeps.
August 11, 2002:

It hit 111 in Phoenix yesterday, so Carol and I are on our way back to Colorado Springs, to get out of the heat and do some serious thinking about how to deal with it in the future. We're in Albuquerque tonight and will be in COSprings tomorrow afternoon. Traffic on I 40 was completely insane—gigantic big rigs passing us at 90 MPH—and I'm a wreck. We're in the thick of August vacation season, which apparently and for reasons unclear is when all Americans with children travel. Children are supposed to be something of a rarity these days, but not in the AmeriSuites Midtown, which is neck deep in rugrats and teenagers. They're well-behaved and not causing trouble, but one would think we were in the midst of another baby boom. When was the last time I saw a family with five children?

I may be quiet here for a few days, but rest assured I'll be back. Stay tuned.
August 10, 2002:

What WiFi gear do I recommend? If your situation is like most people's (broadband connection, plus a spouse's or child's machine to network in and share that connection) the box shown here is terrific. It's the Linksys BEFW11S4 router, switch, and wireless access point combo. This is the unit I use currently. Until recently I had an (old) Aironet access point from Cisco that hooked into my Linksys "blue box" router/switch, but I had various adventures with the Cisco gear and don't really recommend it. Cisco's stuff is intended more for a corporate market, and its documentation is written for seasoned IT network experts. What's more, the Cisco puts out more RF power—and that's a mixed blessing. You don't want an access point that puts out more RF than you need to reach all the machines in your house that need reaching. Once the field bleeds outside the house you lose a certain amount of security, so the less that bleeds out the better.

The Linksys combo box installed quickly and easily and gave me no fits. Configuration was much easier than with the Cisco access point, in part due to better doc and in part just better human engineering. The one box is all you need: The CAT5 patch cable from your broadband modem plugs into it, as do any machines within cabling reach. In my case, this is my main machine upstairs where the broadband modem is. The wireless link brings in Carol's Compaq downstairs as well as my laptop when it's on. This has been useful in projects where I have papers spread out all over the dining room table and need the Internet for research or fact checking. The laptop can be right at my elbow, and the WiFi link connects it to the world.

Prices on the WiFi stuff have come way down in the last six months. The Linksys BEFW11S4 goes for $130 on Amazon, or $115 if you factor in the manufacturer's rebate. (I hate to admit what I paid for the Cisco access point alone...) The PCMCIA cards for your laptop are down to $60 or so, and the PCI cards for desktop PCs run $65-$75.

I was an early WiFi adopter simply because I didn't want to knock holes in the walls to run CAT5 down to Carol's machine. That reason alone made it all worthwhile, but the laptop link was gravy, and has been useful in ways I hadn't really thought about. Even though the early Cisco gear was expensive, it was well worth it—and now, sheesh, it's all dirt cheap.
August 9, 2002:

Much is being said on the Web about the fact that few people bother to turn on encryption on their WiFi wireless access points—and my own adventures in wardriving confirm that 60-70% of APs detected by NetStumbler are wide-open, without any encryption enabled at all. Less is being said about the kinds of hacker attacks being visited on unprotected wireless LANs, but there's an interesting twist: It's not about reformatting your hard drives, though some of the script kiddies are looking for MP3 troves. Mostly it's about something I call "IP impersonation."

Consider this: Most residential wireless LANs are owned by people who have broadband connections to the Net. So what draws hackers isn't files but bandwidth—but more than that, bandwidth under someone else's name. The kicker is that wireless access points are connected behind your home router, so that the outside world sees anyone connected to your AP under the IP address assigned to the router. So if a hacker connects to your AP and does something scurvy or even illegal, people tracing the activity back will find your router—under your IP—and stop there because the router uses unroutable IPs for your local network and can't take the trail any further.

It's being done all the time. A hacker/spammer, having netstumbled your neighborhood looking for open APs, will park in the 7/11 lot or schoolyard down the street from your house, and point a gain antenna in your direction. Once he connects to your AP, he will begin pumping messages by the thousand onto the NET, using your IP. This is generally done at 2 ayem, when residential shared-bandwidth broadband connections are least-used and at their quickest, and also when you the homeowner are most likely in bed and not watching your router LEDs burning furiously with packet traffic. I haven't seen reports of worse than that, but sooner or later kiddie porn people will hit on the notion of transmitting their stuff this way, as will people who traffic in purloined DVD rips.

If the authorities trace such things back to your IP, how do you prove that you didn't do it? I'm not sure there's any good way, especially if the hacker in question uses your AP only once and then moves on. It's not like there's any shortage of wide-open wireless access points right now... turn on encryption, dammit!
August 8, 2002:

Although I've gotten a lot of what I know about 802.11b WiFi networking from bits & snatches on the Web, the real fill-in-the-gaps tech trove is the book shown here, 802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide by Matthew S. Gast. Although the book has a thinnish chapter on network deployment, its real value lies in its description of the inner workings of the 802.11 protocols: How the frames come together and what's in them, how the conversations within the different protocols happens, how contentions are resolved, what association means, how WEP works and why it's flawed, things like that. The writing is terse and a little dry, but the details are all there, with abundant technical figures (especially of frames and protocols) to pull them together. It goes deep, which is why I bought it—you can only take understanding so far with overview.

One caution: If you're not already familiar with TCP/IP and general networking, this book will be a tough go. I learned networking from the Coriolis book MCSE Networking Essentials Exam Prep, but the Coriolis certification titles are still in the process of being sold and may not be available from Amazon. (Check your local bookstore for existing stock; many stores still have a trove of the "red books.") As for TCP/IP, I used the Coriolis TCP/IP Exam Prep, but it was not a very good book, sigh, and is now mercifully out of print. There are lots of others out there, though I have none to recommend. But once you understand networking, 802.11 Wireless Networks will take you right down to the physical layer, where the radio waves happen—and that's a fascinating story indeed. Highly recommended.
August 7, 2002:

My friend Bill Leininger writes to point out that deer in the midwest and west have in recent years been found to harbor a prion-based disorder distantly related to mad-cow disease, and in poking around the Web I learned that some correlation has been found between people who eat venison regularly (hunters, primarily) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. So no fair serving roadkill to the poor, sigh. (See my entry for August 1, 2002.)

Prions themselves are interesting things; basically infectious proteins that are not even as sophisticated as the crudest viruses. Cooking doesn't "kill" them first off because they're not alive, but in truth cooking doesn't damage them because they're not complex enough—they're basically the same sort of stuff as the meat that they infect.

In my wanderings I happened across The Official Mad-Cow Disease Home Page, and if you want to learn more that's not a bad place to start. My only remaining curiosity is this: How does a Web page become the "official" page for mad-cow disease?
August 6, 2002:

Ok, it's time to admit it: I'm writing a brand new book, my first all-new, all-me computer book since 1989. As I've hinted here recently, it's about 802.11b wireless networking, and it will be published by Paraglyph Press some time next year. The title is uncertain, but the current favorite is Jeff Duntemann's Drive-By WiFi Guide. (Keith thinks it's important to have my name in the title, though there are complications in that, especially for people with long names, like me. This is worth another diary entry at some point, if I remember to write it.)

My assembly language book is still doing extremely well, after being in print continuously since 1989, but I want to be able to lecture on a topic with a book for credentials, and there isn't a lot of demand for presentations on assembly coding. I had hoped to continue writing books on Delphi, but there's basically no demand, and I want a book that will make me at least a little money. WiFi is fun, and a lot of people use it without knowing anything about it. The need for a book for ordinary people who are nonetheless not dummies is obvious to me.

The book itself is an experiment for me, involving an original presentation format that I've been tinkering with, allowing impatient people to find what they want to know quickly. As usual, I'll be telling funny stories, using homey metaphors, and not shrinking from all the little weirdnesses abroad in the WiFi world. Should be good fun, and we'll all learn something in the process.

Especially me.
August 5, 2002:

Trekked down to the big Fry's Electronics store at Thunderbird & I17 this afternoon, shopping for GPS receivers and, well, just rubbernecking. I hadn't been to a Fry's in (I hate to admit) almost seven years. The Fry's stores here are all a long way away from me, and I had mostly forgotten the faux Aztec decor and the incredible selection of stuff, everything from resistors to refrigerators, with every electro-optico-mechanical artifact you could imagine in between.

I don't do as much electronics as I used to, but it was nice to see that there was still a retailer somewhere where I could buy precision capacitors—and they carry a nice line of weatherproof boxes that will serve an experiment I want to conduct involving putting a weatherproofed WiFi access point in the air on a pole, using Power over Ethernet (PoE.) What struck me the oddest, though, was the lively corner of the store devoted to a pursuit that I had thought extinct: Assembling your own PC from loose components. I used to do that all the time in the early 1990s, when you could save hundreds of dollars that way. But since 1996 or so, the cost of Dells and Compaqs and such came down so hard that rolling your own box didn't seem worth the bother—and you got a warranty as well. (Carol used to answer the phones at the PC Techniques office sometimes circa 1991, and tell people I was unavailable because "Jeff is fighting with hardware today.")

It was slightly surreal to see a young guy dropping disk drives, a case, a motherboard, and a power supply into a shopping cart as though they boxes of cereal and rolls of paper towels. Nor are all the cases the same boring putty-colored Pacific rim cans we used to pour computing into. There was a very cool contoured case enameled a brilliant lime green (other colors by special order) and smaller cases for building "small footprint" desktops. Made me long for those old days for a minute or two...

...but just for a minute or two. I've done my share of plugging and praying, alas. If I ever want a lime-green PC, I'll pay some young guy to run down to Fry's and put one together for me. It's the modern-day equivalent of building a Heathkit, and every kid should do that at least once before the blush of youth is gone.
August 4, 2002:

Another article in the August Atlantic Monthly touches on a topic as divisive as it is important: The issue of the common good and what it involves. There is a nasty strain of stupidity abroad in the world, especially prevalent among Ayn Rand types and the granola people, that vaccination of children against the common diseases of childhood is bad and should not be done. The bigger phonies in this crowd claim (without any scientific justification that I can see) that vaccination damages the immune system. In small groups and among friends, the truth comes out: They just don't want to take the (extremely slight) risk that vaccination will impart a disease on their own children.

This philosophy has been around for years, leading parents to claim a sort of conscientious objector (hah!) status and opt out of state laws mandating immunization. Nothing much has come of it, because these people are relatively few and scattered. When everybody else around you has been immunized, your kids are (generally) safe too, due to "herd immunity." (Basically, when the rest of the herd is immune, the occasional vulnerable one is "immune" because he doesn't often come in contact with an infectious individual.)

No more. In the radically granola town of Boulder, Colorado, there is a new scourge: pertussis, AKA whooping cough. It's easy to opt out of Colorado's immunization laws, and in the past few years (probably due to word-of-Internet) most of the state's granola community have done so, and most of the granola community lives in Boulder. In the past few years, pertussis in Boulder has grown from a medical curiosity to a commonplace, and now commonplace has been upgraded to endemic. If it were just a species of childhood hazing (as some cruel nostalgists seem to think) one might argue legalities—but children, and especially infacts, are dying from pertussis, which is encountered in Boulder at a rate unknown anywhere else in the state. The granolans are in denial, but the truth is plain, at least to me: Opting out of vaccinations is at best freeloading on the common good, and at worst, a species of manslaughter. One wonders how long it will taske for people to see the danger to the nation as a whole if this sort of thing gets too common. Kids are dying. Seems pretty simple to me.
August 3, 2002:

The new Atlantic Monthly arrived today, and they had an interesting article on security that spotlights the work of my old friend Bruce Schneier. (I helped him find a publisher for his seminal book, Applied Cryptography, back in the very early 90's. Had Coriolis been publishing books back then, we would have been its publisher, sigh.) In a sidebar, the author related an account of an experiment in which a mathematics professor created forged fingerprints out of melted gummi bears—faux fingerprints that fooled the majority of fingerprint biometric security sensors that he tested. Basically, he took a fast-set plaster cast of his thumb, and then melted gummi bears into the depression. When the candy goop cooled, it retained a perfect impression of his thumbprint. Bruce makes the point, quoted in the article, that if somebody steals your Visa card, you can cancel it and get a new Visa card. But what if somebody steals your thumbprint? You can't exactly cut it off and grow a new thumb.

Heh. Biometrics may not be quite the panacea that the tech press is making it out to be. Watch out for those unintended consequences!
August 2, 2002:

I'm researching wireless networking furiously right now, and may eventually write a book on WiFi. I'm struck by some of the "soft" issues that bear on the wireless world, things that hardwired network geeks have never had to deal with, and are now confronting in a long, slow climb up the Hill of Wireless Understanding. Oddly, they're a snap for me, because in 31 years at ham radio I've been exposed to all those issues, albeit at much lower frequencies and in a different context.

The whole "wireless security" thing has been a source of considerable amusement. All of the flaws in things like WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy; the 802.11b encryption standard) stem from having wired network guys design a wireless system. Sniffing network packets is very difficult in the wired world. When sniffing is in fact done it means physical security has already been breached—and that's a failure in someone else's department. Sniffing packets can be done in the wireless world without any breach in physical security—without, in fact, physical proximity to the network at all. Using a 16" parabolic dish antenna that I originally bought to hit the 2.4 GHz amateur television repeater input on Shaw Butte, I was able to sense the presence of a WiFi network almost a mile away—and that a transmitter inside a building putting out maybe 35 milliwatts. WEP is pretty useless, in fact, if you have anything significant to protect, and the military just issued internal guidelines forbidding the use of wireless networks except in very circumscribed situations. For real security you need to use something like a VPN or SSH, and I'm quite surprised that more people aren't doing that.

Another amusement is the enthusiasm for network types to move from 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz using 802.11a. Well, we're beginning to find out that simple things like plasterboard walls are much more difficult to penetrate at 5 GHz than at 2.4 GHz. Except for open-plan cube farms, 802.11a WLANs are problematic from a performance standpoint and much more prone to dead spots. Also, water and water vapor absorb much more of the RF energy at 5 GHz, to the extent that light fog will completely block a wireless bridge between buildings. These are issues completely apart from the arcana of TCP/IP, proxy servers, routers, and the rest of network folderol—and I think that the decline of hobbies like ham radio have done the engineering community enormous damage. It's no coincidence, I think, that the majority of casual WiFi enthusiasts I've met are hams, not teenage Linux gurus. Now, if we can just get those guys in IT to brush up on their Morse code...

Whoops! Forgot! You don't need Morse anymore to be licensed for microwaves! So whaddaya waiting for?
August 1, 2002:

Speaking of deer... (See my July 29, 2002 entry.) This morning's Wall Street Journal had a front-page article on...roadkill. Apparently the family car is now at the top of the American food pyramid, with the complication that cars don't eat what they kill. This becomes a problem when you consider that the American white-tailed deer population is now almost 33 million—and cars dispatch 1.8 million deer every year. Deer are not small animals, and disposing of dead deer is an expensive business that is increasingly burdensome on state and county budgets. More and more, dead animals are being hauled off the roads into the bushes (where there are bushes) and left for natural processes to take their course.

(The Journal also notes that 211 people died in car-deer collisions last year, meaning that deer killed more people than all commercial airline, train, and bus crashes combined.)

The root of the problem really lies in our success in protecting the environment. At the turn of the century, many wild animals and birds like fox, deer, bear, raccoon, wild turkey, and opossum had been hunted nearly to extinction by commercial hunters, who sold the meat, pelts, feathers, and horns to grocers and craftsmen for processing and sale to the general population. Most of that is gone now—who even wears furs these days, or eats venison?—but the animals remain, and are doing quite well, thank you, even in the face of exurban sprawl. Sprawl, in fact, is most wild animals' and birds' best friend: People plant things that animals eat and trees for birds to live in, and where people live, hunting is strictly forbidden. (Yes, it's true that there are fragile species that don't take well to human development, but these are fewer than the Greens would have us believe.) In fact, the only time I've ever seen a fox in the wild was in a suburban subdivision outside of Colorado Springs.

Deer meat isn't bad, especially if you like stew or chili. When I was seven, two of my young adult cousins rang our doorbell with a huge package in hand, wrapped in white paper. "Auntie, we shot a deer!" they announced proudly to my poor mother as they handed her the package, which was half of a side of a very big deer. We ate deer a lot that fall, and ended up quietly dumping a good part of it once we couldn't force any more down. But I can't help but think that just leaving 1.8 million deer to rot in the weeds or in landfills is a hellacious waste of good meat. Can't we do something about this? Here's an innovative charity ministry for you ambitious idealists: Buy a reefer van and cut a deal with the state police to pick up fresh deer kill (most deer kills are found fresh; you don't generally hit a deer head-on and keep going; police are generally called) dress it, and deliver it to homeless shelters and other outreach programs.