August 30, 2003:

I spot-check what I call "spam internals" by saving the odd occasional message to disk and then looking at its HTML source. Months and months ago I gave up on PopFile after it seemed incapable of learning past the 90% mark, which is not good enough for me—and it also couldn't handle the frequent spams consisting of a single big image and no words. Well, I think Bayesian filters may now be doomed, and we should have anticipated this: A recent spam I received contained two image tags and about 300 words all concealed by font color=3D "#ffffff" tags, apparently chosen at random from a dictionary that must have been purged of all "spam-like" words. I saved it, so that I can test it against some Bayesian filters should I choose to try them again, but if the utility that generated the spam is clever enough and chooses different words for each mailing, well, a filter that doesn't delete HTML tags and (now) all text in illegible colors will simply fail.

Also, more and more spam I get uses forged headers. Authentication (or some entirely new protocol that checks headers somehow) is a must-have. Oh, and spammers are abandoning their domains more and more quickly. Since August first I have checked and banned over 750 spammer domains. Most seem to be used for a week or so and then abandoned. Some seem to be used only once.

We're losing this war. Not sure what's to be done next.
August 29, 2003:

Sardines used to be packed in cans like...sardines, but I guess somebody filed a grievance with the Sardines' Union, because the last couple of cans Carol opened had these four little pieces of fish rattling around inside a can bigger than some New York apartments.

At left is a photo, after we had dumped the fluid but before we pulled out any of the sardines. They are not exactly standing on each other's shoulders. So, people, what does this do to one of the most beloved colloqualisms in the entire freaking English language? What are we gonna be packed in like if we can't be packed in like sardines anymore?
August 27, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Standard side view
(168K image)

It's beginning to look a lot like Worldcon, and Bill McIninch KA1MOM asked me the other day if I knew of any published SF writers who were also ham radio operators. On reflection, I realize the list begins and ends with me and George Ewing WA8WTE. Wasn't George O. Smith a ham? (He seemed to know something about high-power transmitting tubes, heh.) If anybody can add any names to the list, let me know. Bill is trying to coordinate a ham radio room at Worldcon 2004 and is encountering some skepticism from the concom.

I'll probably add some house image links to the left margin later today. Check back eveningish if you're following the house project. Now I haveta get back to work...
August 26, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Standard side view
(179K image)
View from street
(139K image)

Some (few) odd lots while I'm catching my breath here:

  • Mars comes closer to Earth tomorrow night than it has for 60,000 years, and the weather here in the Springs has been so lousy I may not see the sky at all until the weekend. It's been overcast past midnight for several days now, and it's eerie how this parallels the (lousy) weather in Scottsdale two years ago when the last opposition of Mars occurred. (Mars comes close to Earth every two years when the two planets "pass" one another, but Mars' orbit is slightly eccentric, so there are significant variations in distance at these oppositions.) I suppose I may have to get up in the middle of the night, and if that's what I have to do, so be it—however, my evening view from the driveway is much better than my late night view from the back porch.
  • They got almost all of the main level walls (including the interior walls) framed yesterday, and will finish today. The roof trusses will start going up tomorrow. It was a little eerie yesterday evening walking around inside our house, finally getting a sense for my new office, our pantry, our kitchen, our dining room. I never imagined it would be framed this quickly, but I guess when you're shooting nails out of an air gun, it takes a lot less muscle and time.
  • Now that framing is underway, we're generating a lot more trash up at the house, and they delivered a dumpster a couple of days ago. We've noticed that a lot of items with no clear connection to construction (like a broken tricycle and a couple of defunct tiki torches) are showing up in the dumpster. I guess I also never imagined that my new neighbors would be so generous with their worldly goods. Let's hope they leave some room for our construction debris.

August 25, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Main level framing
(179K image)

They began framing the main level this morning, and we stopped by briefly after lunch to take a few pictures. Most of the main level will be framed by tonight, and tomorrow or possibly Wednesday they will begin setting the roof trusses. And at that point it should really start looking like a house.

The most striking thing about visiting the house today was that we could look out from our front windows and see the view we'll have of Cheyenne Mountain. Wow—it's really going to be real, and there's only five or six months of work to go.
August 22, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Main floor joists
(226K image)
East rear face
(206K image)

For the first couple of days after the Big Blackout on the East Coast, my daily spam count fell by at least a third. As the region gradually restored power and came back to normal, so did my spam count, and we're now rolling along as briskly as ever, with my usual count of about 600 spams in any given 24-hour period. I'm not sure what this tells us, except that the origin of spam may be more concentrated than we're being led to believe, and it's not all coming from Russia or China.

I've also not yet seen a single copy of the SoBig virus, and I'm wondering what that means, since I seem to receive (and intercept) all the others. Crazy world, crazier business, this Internet stuff.
August 21, 2003:

Today's entry will be a long one, but it may be the last time I can write at length until September 5. So crack a cold root beer and follow with me here.

We seem to be zeroing in on the real problem underlying American health care: A solid majority of Americans pay little or nothing out of pocket for their insurance (getting it as they do through their employers) and consider it a sort of divine right to receive health care for "free." The consequence of this is that there's no inherent brake on health care spending, and there's a strong trend at both the state and federal level to mandate that certain things must be covered. Unlike other "needs" that might be funded by government (like the fantasy of bringing broadband to all American homes) there is no point at which we could finally say, "We're done." As long as there is money in the system, there will be medical research leading to new treatments and drugs leading to new demand for health care spending.

It's hard to argue that this isn't a good thing. The kicker is that the health care money tide isn't lifting all boats, and few people understand that it's only because 40 million are without insurance (including many of those most in need of intensive treatment) that the rest of us can get our insurance as cheaply as we do. If everyone shared the cost of health insurance, everyone would pay more. This is not an easy sell politically.

Most of my readers who have made suggestions at all (and the most popular answer is, unsurprisingly, "I have no answer") propose some variation on a nationally funded catastrophic care plan. Most such plans require at least government-managed centralization of records, if not payment. Bill Roper described a very simple plan under which a "circuit breaker" value is set at a percentage of income for each individual or family, and all medical expenses beyond that value are somehow covered by the government, probably through a payroll tax. I recall such a system being proposed before, and the idea abandoned because it would encourage employers (especially employers of low-wage workers) to cancel their own health care benefits and push workers out into the government system. I would consider that a (first) step toward a fair solution (which gets employers out of the health care business entirely) but it's a very tough sell politically, quite apart from the need for new taxes to make it work.

The most detailed proposal comes from Larry Nelson, who has worked in the health care business and knows more about it that most of us would ever want to, I suspect. I'll summarize Larry's excellent letter here by its main points:

  • Fund national health care with an 8% flat tax on all income, earned and unearned.
  • Prioritize all covered procedures and treatments in terms of how necessary and useful they are to the greatest number of people. Assume 1000 prioritized items (there would actually be many more) where #1 might be appendectomy for appendicitis (which, if not treated, is often fatal) to #1000, which might be fixing a mildly deviated septum. (Egad, I wouldn't want to be on the committe that has to stack rank everything!)
  • Everyone would get a voucher for insurance that all participating companies would have to accept without question, irrespective of medical history or pre-existing conditions. The government's "base plan" would cover, say, procedure #1 through #619.
  • Supplemental coverage might be purchased from a rates table to cover #620 through #838, or (for more money) the whole program out to #1000. Supplemental coverage would be subject to pre-existing condition restrictions, so people could not simply wait until they needed Procedure #911 before buying the supplemental coverage.
  • Part of the cost of the supplemental coverage would be a tax that would help fund the system as a whole, so that if the rich buy better coverage than ordinary people, they also help keep the system solvent for ordinary people.

As Larry points out, the system would work, operationally, and might be the best that we can do. However, it would still require that somebody, somewhere, make some really ugly decisions, like denying a dying 8-year-old an exotic but promising treatment listed at position #942. Decisions like this are made all the time in Canada and Europe, where heroic intervention is much rarer than it is here. The Europeans don't advertise it, but their national health systems often tell people, "Here's a scrip for as many pain pills as you want. Go home and get settle your affairs and get ready to die." I feel that such a limitation would make a system like this almost impossible to sell in a democracy, but without such limitations, we really haven't created a sustainable program.

My own proposal is purely speculativeand a little gonzo, but I've never seen anything like it mentioned before. Here it is in brief:

  • Every American gets an FDIC-insured medical savings account, created at birth or at the establishment of the program. Every worker pays a minimum of 5% of gross pay into the account, with the option to deposit more. Additional funds deposited into the program are pre-tax, and accrue interest tax free.
  • The account may only be used for medical payments, and a balance left at death goes to a special fund, to be described later. This prevents parents from forgoing treatment in order to leave the account to their children.
  • Heathy people have the option to transfer a limited portion of their account balance to others who need it more. How much they give in dollars would be plugged into a calculation with a multiplier with values for stranger/friend/relative (stranger being the highest multiplier, and relative the lowest) and a "generosity index" would be stored for donor accounts.
  • People who exhaust their balances on approved treatments would post a plea for donations from others on a national searchable board, ranked by a "need index" consisting of the generosity index combined with the patient's age. (The older you are, the less the age multiplier would be.) Prospective donors would examine these pleas and donate accordingly. The generosity index would be highlighted: If you've given generously to others who have needed help in the past, you're more likely to be helped in later years when your own health takes a nasty turn. Older people who have never given to others would be at the bottom of the stack of donor pleas. The young and the generous would float toward the top.
  • A special fund fed by balances left by those who have died would be doled out to those whose pleas for donations are not met, again, according to the pleader's position on the need index scale. I would perhaps add funding from the estate tax; in fact, I think the current estate tax might be modified a bit and devoted entirely to funding health care, with a special provision reducing the estate tax rate somewhat if you've been generous to other people's health needs while you're alive.

Again, this is a YAWAJI (Yet Another Wild-Ass Jeff Idea) and it's not perfect. Some people are born with bad health and yet live long (expensive) lives. If they're never healthy enough to be generous, who pays for their treatment when they find themselves at the bottom of the stack? Doubtless there are other problems, and sheesh, I wouldn't want the job of selling this system to the American public, especially the elderly, who would probably demand a separate system.

One final caution: The American health care system is the engine of worldwide medical progress, and if we take steps to choke back the money flood, medical progress will slow radically. If no system in the world is willing to pay for $80/pill wonder drugs, such drugs will not be created. The Europeans and Canadians give us very little credit for creating the pills that they demand at prices far less than Americans must pay. It'll be interesting to see what they say once the march of American medical wonders stops.

'Nuff of that. I begin a demanding freelance two-week writing project tomorrow, and until September 5 my entries here may be short and sparse. Don't stop writing, but don't despair if I don't answer, or answer very tersely.
August 20, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Lower level framing
(145K image)

I'm hearing a lot of interesting things about health insurance in the wake of the last few days' entries. One worth noting here (and one most people don't understand) is that individual health insurance policies are basically extinct. Insurers don't want to fool with one policy at a time; they all want to insure everybody at Microsoft or Xerox. You can get an individual policy if you want one, but all individual policies are subject to a pious fraud called "reunderwriting." What this means is that if you're healthy you can get a policy at a stated rate that doesn't sound too bad. But as soon as something happens and you make even one significant claim, they jack up your premium until you can't afford it anymore and cancel the policy. Basically, they're happy to take your money until you need the policy; then they toss you out on the street, uninsured and (given the long list of things that disqualify policy applicants these days) uninsurable. This is currently legal, but it is a type of fraud, and should not be.

However, it raises perhaps the root issue of this whole discussion: Is health insurance really insurance? The idea of insurance is to spread risk around so that catastrophic events won't ruin any one individual, and rates are set according to the risk that a policyholder represents. The (usually) unstated assumption is that all or nearly all of the risk is under the policyholder's control. If you drive safely, you will only rarely get into an accident, and never when it's your own fault. There are two things about medical insurance that imply that it's something distinctly other than insurance: 1) Only a portion of the risk is under the policyholder's control, and 2) policyholders have no choice but to be in the risk pool. If you don't want the risk of being a rock climber or owning a trampoline, don't climb rocks and don't buy a trampoline. However, we're here, we're alive, and we have bodies. We're in the health risk pool whether we like it or not.

More and more current research indicates that "driving safely" in terms of your body only helps so much. I've known two trim, althletic, non-smoking individuals who died of massive heart attacks at young ages, one (astonishingly) at 26. One of Carol's aunts, a gentle soul and lifetime nonsmoker, died of lung cancer. Should such people be driven to bankruptcy by uncapped health insurance premiums that can run as much as $1500-$2000 per month?

No, I think we're dealing with something completely different here, and it would be better if we stopped thinking of it as insurance in the same sense as auto insurance or personal liability insurance. I think of it as leaning toward a sort of public utility like phones, power, and natural gas. There are similarities, especially the fact that no one should be denied utility access if they pay the bills. There are differences, and major ones, including the truth that some people need much more health care than others, and it usually isn't their "fault." The one great big huge difference is that there's no natural "lid" on health care costs in our system. Technology gets more complex, more subtle, and more expensive. Rates go up, and at this point in time, if you don't have a job or belong to a group that can insure you, you can't afford health insurance. Without any way to cap costs, I don't see the way out.

And capping costs means that somebody somewhere in the system has to say, No, you can't have that nose job. Easy, huh? Then how about, No, you can't have cataract surgery. You're too old and won't live a whole lot longer. You're not totally blind. Don't read books. Listen to the radio.

Yup. It's ugly. Too bad it's real.
August 19, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Lumber pile
(207K image)

Had a long talk on the phone (how archaic!) with Michael Abrash the other night, and we reflected at length on the pathological nature of the health insurance problem. Here are some points that came, directly or indirectly, out of that conversation:

  • If you institute a catastrophic care policy and make people pay for their own physicals and routine care, many or most people will not bother with physicals and routine care at all, and so problems that might have been easily and cheaply treatable early on become costly, painful, or fatal later. Can we force people to take care of themselves? No. How, then, do we deal with the consequences?
  • We don't know what we're paying for, and we don't know how well we're doing. We don't understand what causes many conditions—the Wall Street Journal this very morning ran a story indiciating that cholesterol has far less correlation to cardiac health than we thought, and perhaps none. Furthermore, we don't know how to measure outcomes except in broad and possibly misleading ways. Infant mortality is a no-brainer, but is a longer life always a better life? Is suffering for ten years from cancer (and its futile treatment) before dying a better outcome than suffering for a year and then dying? I saw this happen to my father, and I have tormented myself about it all the 25 years since he died.
  • The economics can be confounding. If we magically got everyone off tobacco, would health care costs drop? No. Everyone dies of something, and people who live longer because they're non-smokers will eventually cost the system more in care than smokers who (statistically) die when younger—doubly so if they die quickly from heart disease in their early 60s rather than wither away from Alzheimer's in their 90s.
  • Trying different approaches to health insurance at the state level is often—maybe always—self-defeating. Washington State attempted to force insurers to cover existing conditions, with the outcome that everyone in the country who had AIDS (and other things on a long list of things that make a person "uninsurable") and could move to Washington State did, which soon forced all but three insurers to stop writing individual policies there altogether. The law has since been tinkered with, but only a little, and things are still a mess. A national solution may not work well, but separate state solutions will probably not work at all.
  • It has always appalled me that people in single-payer countries often say that the best thing about their health plans is that the rich get no better care than the poor. (If that's the best you can say about a plan, that in itself says something, and not something good.) I figured it was standard-issue liberal rich-guy baiting, or perhaps a way to make the poor figure that if they're getting screwed, at least everybody was getting screwed equally. But it occurred to me this morning that when rich (and therefore powerful) people can opt out of a problem simply by applying money or influence, the problem is much less likely to be solved well, if at all. Congressmen and senators have cushy lifetime federal health insurance, so the health care issue doesn't really "touch" them personally except indirectly, through their constituents' anger. Dumping all federal employees into the same boat as the rest of us could begin propelling us—rapidly—toward a solution.
One of my readers offered an interesting concept for a national health plan, and with any luck I'll summarize it tomorrow. In the meantime, many thanks to Bill Roper, Gary Frerking, Robert Esguerra, and Roy Harvey, who all clarified the fact that S-video does not include sound, which must be taken out of the camcorder through a separate cable. The idiocy of that is exceeded only by the idiocy of the manual in not mentioning this. S'what I get for not watching TV on a regular basis, I suppose.
August 18, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Pouring mud
(145K image)
Wading the mud
Halfway smooth
(189K image)
Hand troweling
(126K image)

They poured the lower-level foundation slab this morning, and I took lots of still and video shots. (See the links in the left margin.) They were done by 10:00 AM, and the contractor said framing would begin tomorrow morning. Things happen quickly now, we've been told. We'll keep you posted.

Other odd lots from all over, about everything:

  • Brook Monroe wrote to say that Canada's health system is $30 billion in debt—and this was accomplished caring for roughly one eighth the population we have here in the US. Does this scare you? It should.
  • Yet another wireless "standard" has been turned loose upon the world. Technical details are still a little sparse, but the magic here seems to be in the antennas. I'll believe it when I test it (or when Tom's Hardware tests it) but hey, 108 Mbps and three times the range of 802.11 would on the surface of it appear to be useful. The firm's home page is here. (My guess is that spaghetti sauce cans won't help this one...)
  • The Canon Elura 50 camcorder works beautifully, but I still can't figure out how to get audio out through the S-video cable to our big TV. (Video comes along handily.) The camera itself has a speaker, but it's the size of a dime, and I'd really rather listen to our recordings on the TV's audio system. The big TV is the only one in the house with an S-video input, so I'm not sure how to tell if the problem lies in the TV or in the camcorder. This video stuff is trickier than I had thought.
  • Back the last time NYC had a major power outage, in 1977, pandemonium reigned, with the city convulsed by looting, arson, and random violence. This time, people bent over backwards to help one another, and there was practically no looting at all. Wassup? Was it the near memory of 9-11, or have we perhaps grown as a people since those awful Seventies?
  • There's been a lot of traffic on health insurance since yesterday's entry, and I'll do my best to pull it together tomorrow or the next day. I really do (I hope) begin the Evans Data project this Friday, and once that gets underway entries here will be thin for a week or so.

August 17, 2003:

They say a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged—and I'd also say that a liberal is a conservative whose COBRA benefits have run out. It's been going on for a year or so now: People who lost their jobs in the Big Crash have gone through their 18 months of COBRA-mandated continuation of health benefits, and are now without health coverage of any kind. People who have held jobs for years have no idea what health insurance costs to individuals. (Hint: Coverage that might have cost $300 or $400 a month through COBRA costs from $1200-$1700 per month on the open market.) Once they find out, they basically go without and pray that nothing serious happens to them before they land another job. For the most part, the jobless who are burning through their savings trying to keep their houses are unable to spend what may be as much as or more than their monthly mortgage to keep health insurance. This is triply hard on the middle-aged unemployed, who are rampantly discriminated against by both insurance companies and employers, for much the same reason: The middle-aged and elderly cost more to treat and keep healthy than the young. The more middle-aged people an employer has, the more a health coverage plan costs the company as a whole. It pays—and pays big—to discriminate against fiftysomethings.

This may be about to change, as the Boomers march into their fifties in indignant throngs. I've said it before, and I'll reiterate: Health care will be the issue to conjure with in 2004. It's also basically the only issue the Democrats have left with any kind of broad appeal, given how much of their agenda is set by increasingly narrow interest groups.

The most interesting question, of course, is what sort of system we could create here to extricate health insurance from its problematic reliance on employers. It's not as simple as creating a "single payer" system run by the government. The Europeans and Canadians taunt us about how much more we here in the US spend on health care than they do—and won't admit the obvious: That their centralized health care is lousy health care, rationed ruthlessly and carefully designed so that there is no escape except to hop a jet for the US with plenty of cash in your pocket. (A routine appendectomy costs the uninsured $15,000 here—complications extra.) Good health care is in fact expensive, and you can only "prevent" certain obvious classes of illness. A lot of the most expensive medical conditions are weird stuff that just comes out of nowhere.

The notion of "choice" in health care is mostly ludicrous: You get the plan your employer has, which is almost always an HMO. So divorcing health care from employment, however painful it might be, wouldn't reduce choice, and might even increase it, by forcing people to contract individually with group plans, who might compete (to some extent) on rates. The very touchy issue of "community rating" (that is, charging one monthly rate to all comers, irrespective of age or medical history) will have to be faced again, and the young and the healthy may have to have their noses rubbed in the fact that they must contribute to the health care of the ill and the old, because there but for chance (and the passage of a few more years) go they.

Can this be done without nationalizing health care a la Canada? Of course. Will it be done? Probably not. Too many people (lawyers, doctors, and insurance companies most of all) stand to lose way too much in the bargain. Blood will flow in hospital halls when America chooses to face the problem, and how we eventually solve it will tell a great deal about who we are as a people.
August 16, 2003:

Back to the topic of groundedness. (See my entries for July 9, 2003 and following.) The screwiness of actors is legendary, and the news is full of their incessant marriages and affairs and divorces, drug habits and booze binges and other out-of-control behavior. Some of this is doubtless because actors (being more visible than certified public accountants) get more press and see their flaws exposed to far more public scrutiny. On the other hand, I'd lay odds that people in theater/movies are significantly unhappier and more lost than the bulk of humanity. (I know a couple of obscure people in theater, and their unhappy lives map to those of their famous cohorts with peculiar precision.)

I'll venture a SWAG here: Actors (including both men and women; the word "actress" now being obsolete) pretend to be other people for a living, and thereby weaken their sense of their own identity, and thus part of their groundedness. I witnessed a very mild demonstration of this back in 1998, when I took a minor part in a local children's theater production. I was actually not an actor but a puppeteer. I built an animated robot head out of Meccano and worked its levers while sitting under a card table, watching the stage action on a small TV set by my knees, to which a video feed of the stage was beamed wirelessly. A voice actor provided the robot head's voice, so I myself wasn't actually pretending to be anybody else. My main job was keeping the goofy thing working (moving parts! Arrgh!) and doing a sort of crude lip-synch with its mechanical jaw to the creature's lines, read from offstage.

It was great fun and I'll post some pictures someday, though maybe not of when they dressed me up as a rosy-cheeked pirate to fill an empty position in a dance ensemble. What's pertinent here was the way the cast, who were ordinary people from many walks of life and not really actors at all, began flirting with one another wholesale at rehearsals, raising the level of sexual tension in the group to a degree that floored me. None of them would say a lot of those things in "real life"—but while backstage they were pretending to be other people, and a lot of inhibitions loosened up in a very major way. "Backstage romances" and affairs are legendary, and my one experience backstage showed me very clearly how quickly it all can work. And this was a show targeted at fourth graders—I hate to think how it might have gone had it been A Streetcar Named Desire or Pippin.

A far more serious example of the effect of theater on grounding came up in John Cornwell's excellent book The Hiding Places of God, now out of print but originally published in the UK as Forces of Darkness, Forces of Light. (Used copies appear on Bibliofind now and then—it's beautifully written and I encourage you to find it if you can.) In one of the final chapters, Cornwell describes the horrifying experience of a confused young man who was literally seduced into partaking of an "experimental theater" troupe that included a systematic destruction of the young man's groundedness that led to something bordering on schizophrenia. He was coerced to give over his identity to an alternate identity that was completely without moral moorings, reveling in obscenity and blasphemy.

Yes, I know, that's not really theater. Calling it "theater" was a ruse, but in Cornwell's description the mechanism was much the same: The young man was made to act obscenely until he couldn't tell which him was the real him. (He was only marginally stable to begin with, which I'm sure was why he was chosen by the troupe.) Still, it's worth recalling that theater was held in very low regard in centuries past, and you have to wonder if the off-stage behavior of marginal personalities who took up acting was behind theater's black reputation.

I'll also point up perhaps Heinlein's subtlest novel, if not necessarily his greatest: Double Star, in which an actor plays a deceased ruler so well that he becomes that ruler. What, then, is "self"? I've wondered sometimes if our groundedness is all that stands between being ourselves and being someone completely other. It would be worth safeguarding that groundedness, then, if we value what we've worked so hard to make of ourselves.

More later.
August 15, 2003:

They've been running utility mains to the house and finishing up the periphery drains, so there's been no obvious changes that I could photograph in the last week or so. This should change by midweek next week, when the lower level slabs will be poured and framing will begin. In the meantime, I've decided to design a small generator into the exterior plan, given that most of the eastern part of the country was without power for most of yesterday, for reasons that still seem obscure. Honda makes good auxiliary generators for residential use, and with a couple of gallons of gas can keep a modest home running for a few days, as long as you don't use the electric range too much. (We have a gas grill, so that angle is covered.)

The fragility of our heavily interconnected national power grid system is something few have said much about, and I confess I know so little about how it all works that I won't say much more than what I already have: That we should strive for "loose connections" in civic infrastructure far more than we do. Whether crackpots of some stripe were behind yesterday's East Coast debacle or not, you can bet that the crackpots were paying attention.
August 14, 2003:

After much perusing of reviews and mulling of our own needs, I decided on Canon's Elura 50 MiniDV camcorder. There are more capable camcorders out there, but I chose a Canon product at least in part due to my continual astonishment at how well the Canon Digital Elph still camera (see my entry for December 26, 2000) has performed for two and a half years now, generally carried around in my jeans pocket without any additional protection, snapping away almost perfect pictures every time. I've had my gripes about the accompanying software (particularly the Windows drivers) but the camera itself is stunning. The Elura is very small, good for vacationing, and gets reasonable life from its tiny battery. I just bought it yesterday and haven't had the chance to do much with it, but I took some footage of the Bobcat mini-dozer shoving dirt around at the house, and the quality of the video was awesome. It uses tiny MiniDV tapes, and while it has a USB connection, I haven't yet attempted to download video to my big Dell and process it. We just plug an S-Video cable into the Elura and run it straight into the big TV in the living room.

I guess it's too soon to tell you if I recommend it or not, but early reactions are highly positive. With extra tapes and batteries, it cost about $1000 at Best Buy, which is only 2/3 of what I paid for a so-so Sony camcorder in 1988, and far less in real dollars. Once I figure out how to move digital video around, I'll post a short clip to give you a sample of what it can do. So far, so good.
August 13, 2003:

Finally saw The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen earlier today, and it was solid good fun, mostly because this sort of "steampunk" SF cinema has been rare for many years, and last had its heyday in the early-mid 1960s, when Jules Verne and H. G. Wells film adaptations were all the rage. The premise is audacious: In 1899, a mysterious operative under Queen Victoria gathers a strike force of "extraordinary" individuals, all of whom are themselves characters in Victorian fiction. We meet Alan Quatermain ("King Solomon's Mines"), Tom Sawyer (as an adult, now working for the US Secret Service), the Invisible Man, Dr. Jeckyll, Dorian Gray, Captain Nemo, and a woman who might fairly be called the Bride of Dracula. The mood/cinematography is dark and slightly creepy, and the action unrelenting, which is an odd combination that works far less well than its creators probably hoped. Something is exploding in every other scene, and the gunfire and wildly improbable fights are almost continuous.

With that said, however, the film has marvelous touches. Captain Nemo is portrayed as Verne intended him: As the disaffected Indian Prince Dakkar, super scientist and morally ambiguous seafarer, who lives and travels in the Nautilus, which here is sleek, fast, and studded with statues of Hindu deities. (Lapses did occur: Watching the massive Nautilus nonchalantly cruise the canals of Venice was an unintentional—or perhaps intentional—howler.) The treatment of Rodney Skinner as the Invisible Man is very slick: Skinner can't change back and become visible, so he merely slobbers his face with white greasepaint and wears stylishly modern sunglasses. Less impressive is Mr. Hyde, who comes off as part Incredible Hulk (without the green pigment) and part Hunchback of Notre Dame, especially in the early scenes where he's bounding around the rooftops of old Paris.

Of course, the centerpiece is Sean Connery as Quartermain, and he carries an indifferent script and several indifferent actors to what I consider a reasonable success, for an adventure flick. I didn't anticipate any of the plot twists, and I found the Tom Sawyer character unaccountably likeable. The film lacked any kind of tension leading to a climactic scene; it was just one explosion after another until it was all over. Many small excellent touches (including minuscule details like Masonic symbols that you'll miss if you're not attentive) but as a whole it didn't gel well, and I think that the promised hook to a sequel in the last scene will not be needed, as I don't think LXG is making the money a sequel would require. That's OK; I'm not a big fan of sequels, which almost always fail to live up to the promise of their predecessors. The first one was more than enough value for my $5. Cautiously recommended: See it if you love that sort of thing; skip it if you're just looking for a way to fill out an empty evening.
August 12, 2003:

Some odd lots in many categories:

  • There was a billing error earlier today with my hosting company, so both my Web site and email were turned off for about 12 hours until I got it straightened out. Man, I'd really prefer to host my own server. Supposedly, if I get DSL up at the new house, the ISP will let me. We'll see.
  • I was surprised and pleased to hear from several readers who (like me) enjoy semi-sweet and sweet wines and would welcome a good guidebook on the subject. This would be a fun project. Don't expect it for awhile, but at this point it's a strong maybe. Most interestingly, they are not the bumpkin yayhoos that the dry wine nazis would claim, but educated and reasonably cultured people. Is this a trend? Cripes, I hope so.
  • I finally declared Trepia useless and uninstalled it. It was constantly sending and receiving data (which always makes me uneasy) and after seeing a bare handful of middle-aged folk on the roster for awhile, it eventually cooked down to marginally socialized 20-somethings, who would send me messages like, "You are too old for this. You are REALLY too old for this." A teenaged girl asked me if I was a judge or a librarian, because I looked like one. I had a few intelligent conversations with Delphi programmers in Europe and South Africa, but that was it. So it goes.
  • From the just-what-we-needed department comes a new wireless technology called WirelessUSB. This is to USB what Wi-Fi is to Ethernet: A fair attempt to get the wires out of the way between peripherals and PCs—but wasn't that what Bluetooth was supposed to do? And don't get me started about Zigbee...
  • Apparently the well-regarded LEAP nextwork security technology from Cisco has been cracked, using a relatively simple and very fast dictionary attack. This is a concern, since LEAP is the keystone technology of 802.1X , which most people see as the salvation of security-challenged 802.11 wireless networking.
  • Reader Robert Smallwood sent me a link to a video of a guy who let his kite get away from him—except that he went with the kite anyway. Wild stuff. Sorry, I look too much like a judge or a librarian to do things like that.

August 11, 2003:

I've been reluctantly following the latest SCO vs. Linux thing and scratching my head, wondering what those guys were smoking. SCO is suing Linux because they claim Linux contains some source code for which SCO holds the copyright. Now, they refuse to say what source code is in Linux, claiming that if they reveal what was infringed, the Linux community would just fix it.

Huh? I thought that was the idea. Removal of infringing material is what such suits are for...unless something else is going on entirely.

This morning's Wall Street Journal suggests that something is. (See "Portals" by Lee Gomes on page B1.) Since SCO began its FUD attack on Linux, demanding payment from anyone using Linux under threat of lawsuits, SCO's stock has risen sevenfold—and Computerworld reports that SCO's backers are cashing out of SCO stock as fast as they can. Microsoft bought licenses, probably seeing this as an opportunity to keep SCO's attack on Linux alive a little longer. IBM, however, is fighting back with a strong legal defense and a countersuit, and sooner or later, some judge or another will force SCO to reveal what's inside Linux that shouldn't be, so that the Linux community can remove the infringing material and replace about half an hour.

The whole business sounds fishy as hell to me. I've never been particularly worried about Linux's prospects for the future, and my next book, in fact, is likely to focus on it. What worries me is the fact our legal system allows this kind of nonsense. The rule of law is suffering terribly here, and nobody seems to care.
August 10, 2003:

Another interesting item Pete Albrecht (see yesterday's entry) brought to my attention is Shadows, a program that calculates sundial traces for a particular location, and then prints out the pertinent lines so that you can draw them or engrave them on a more permanent platform for your very own (and completely unique) sundial. The program can generate several different kinds of sundials, including horizontal sundials, vertical sundials, polar sundials, and a few others I don't quite understand.

Shadows is free and easy to use, although it's from France and uses metric measurements. You select a city from a list, or (if your city isn't listed) enter your latitude and longitude, and the program takes it from there. It would make a great school project, as you can paste the printed sheet on a piece of cardboard, cut the gnomon (the pointer that generates the shadow) out of another piece of cardboard, glue it to the dotted line, and you're there. Fine stuff.
August 9, 2003:

At the urging of my fellow Lane Tech Astronomical Society alumni Pete Albrecht, I picked up a Phillips ToUCam, which has become the instrument of choice for do-it-yourself CCD astronomy these days. Pete has taken some completely awesome Mars photos with it in the last few weeks, as shown in the examples above, which he sent me a few days ago. These were taken with a Meade 12" "goto" telescope, which admittedly is a nice piece of gear compared to my own junkbox creations—but the resolution of the photos may well depend on the camera and the image processing software far more than the telescope itself.

The magic may lie in "stacking" multiple images taken movie-camera style by the CCD, and using sophisticated software to extract the latent resolution in the many images, no single one of which exhibits high resolution at all points.

People out there are doing amazing things with this $80 Web cam, even with relatively small telescopes, and I'm going to give it a shot later this month, as Mars approaches its most favorable opposition in 60,000 years. With only an 8" scope working on a pipe-threads mount, I won't expect results like Pete's, but I'm actually very interested in seeing just how well some high technology on the imaging side can make a decidedly low-tech scope perform.
August 8, 2003:

About a week ago I began an experiment: I started with a fresh junksender.txt file, and banned (as I always do) those spammers with domains that are not identifiably free email sites or knucklehead companies with open relays. The idea was to see how quickly my spam capture rate would return to "normal," as I've experienced it now for some time. My junksender.txt file had almost 2500 domains in it, but my suspicion was that most of them were long abandoned, and I could tell that Poco Mail was taking longer to bring down the mail, especially in the morning, when it amounts to almost 200 messages at once.

Astonishingly enough, it's taken only about a week. In that week's time I have accumulated 279 banned domains, which appear to generate virtually all the spam I get that isn't from the free email sites like yahoo, msn, eudoramail, etc. (I got 12 messages from in a single afternoon!) Mail comes down a lot more quickly now, and I suppose I need to do this every six months or so. I'm still picking up six or seven new banned domains per day, but a check against the "old" (and huge) junksender.txt shows that they are in fact new domains that I had not banned before. I expect a few of the old ones to show up here and there in the future, but in the aggregate, it seems like domains are used for a short while and then abandoned, presumably after enough ISPs ban them that response rates go down.

And if you've ever wondered whether anyone actually buys all those penis enlargement pills that seem to drive the bulk of all spam, the answer is clearly yes, as a recent Wired online article demonstrates. Pretty scary, huh?
August 7, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
(213K image)

My Evans Data project was delayed for a week, so I changed this entry from what I posted earlier this morning. I won't be going into hiding until August 15. In the meantime, some odd lots:

  • Years ago I was predicting that VoIP handsets would become ubiquitous, especially after I saw an early model that plugged into your sound card, circa 1997 or so. Oddly, they never caught on, and now SIPphone, Inc. is trying again. The handsets are $65 each (you have to buy a pair for $130) and plug into an ordinary Ethernet port. The gnarly business here is finding other users' numbers, but as I reported in my August 1, 2003 entry, the KaZaa guy is working on a peer-to-peer directory, and if the two technologies can work together, this could be very big.
  • Our foundation backfill has been completed, and the photo linked at left may be the last one for a few days. They're going to pour the lower-level slabs midweek next week, and I'll try and get something in on that. They're still connecting to the utility taps under the street, and we probably won't see framing start until August 20 or so.
  • I had never heard of "doughnut peaches" before, but we bought a few at Safeway and I must say, they were beyond a doubt the sweetest and juiciest peaches I've ever tasted. Doughnut peaches, as the term suggests, are toroidal, with the pit in the central hole. Makes me wonder what other great foods are hiding out there in their obscurity.
  • They are test-marketing a coffee-milk syrup out here, and it was good, albeit full of sugar and we don't do sugar that much. (See my November 9, 2001 entry.) It's a long way from Rhode Island, but it finally got here. It's called Nescafe Ice Java, and it's worth a try if you like that sort of thing.
  • The closest liquor store to me stocks Bully Hill wines. This is peculiar, at least as peculiar as the wines themselves, but probably not quite as peculiar as the eccentric and sometimes abrasive Walter Taylor, who founded Bully Hill after leaving the "big" Taylor Wine establishment (he's family) and became an Upstate New York institution. Walter milked his high-volume, low-importance conflict with the rest of his family over the use of his name for all the publicity he could, and it put him on the map. The wines are reasonably good, though some of them are oddly labeled (like Love My Goat red table wine) and some of them are simply...odd. The labels themselves are a hoot, and the Web site is interesting because it shows a graph of how sweet or dry the wines are. What a notion! We bought a bottle of Sweet Walter (now there's an oddity!) and I'll report on it when we get around to drinking it.
  • Pertinent to the previous item, I'm thinking of writing a short book on sweet and semi-sweet wines. Would this be of interest to any of you? Have you ever seen such a book? I would called it Sweet Blindness, and it would be a little snotty but lots of fun. Right, yes, just what I need: Another project!

August 6, 2003:

Much has been made over the past ten or fifteen years over the collapse of liberal religion. I honestly don't like the terms "liberal" and "conservative" when applied to religion, because they hide a more useful axis: that between the cultic and the communitarian. Cultic religions are those based on secrecy and obedience, usually accompanied by a detailed plan for living secular life (including what you eat, when, how, and how often you have sex with your spouse, and so on) enforced by the threat of (literally hellacious) divine punishment. Communitarian religions emphasize openness, tolerance, service to others, and life within human society rather than apart from it. Those religious jursidictions that are growing are the cultic; the communitarian groups are suffering badly.

There are cultic and communitarian elements in all religious groups; as with politics, the axis is imprecise at best. The Mormons are far more cultic than they will admit; you need an ID to get into church! There are many cultic elements in the Eastern Orthodox culture, from the iconostasis to an appalling equation of eating and spousal sex—including identical restrictions on both that basically make six months out of the year off-limits to sex. The cultic elements of Islam and Orthodox Judaism get a fair amount of press. I'll be upfront: I'm a communitarian, but I'm not a crackpot—a distinction upon which much hangs. More on that shortly.

Liberal religion is best typefied by the Episcopalian church, but there are liberal Lutherans (primarily ELCA), Methodists, and Presbyterians as well. The Unitarians may or may not even be a religion, as they themselves gleefully point out; it's part of the mystique. All of them are losing membership in droves, and I've often wondered why. One reason may be a strange parallel to the decline of the Democratic Party: A collapse of the middle, due to the unrestrained insanity of the left wing. Only part of the decline of the Roman Catholic laity is due to the birth control thing. A fair bit, perhaps more than half, is due to the excesses of the church's left wing and how it transformed music, church architecture, and the Mass after Vatican II circa 1960. Faced with ugly churches, mostly unsingable hymns, and the vanishing of any sense of reverence from worship, otherwise receptive Catholics simply lost interest and drifted away. Most never resumed church attendance; the rest went to more cultic groups to regain at least some of what was lost.

There is a middle ground, but (as in politics) most of the energy is expended pulling on the two ends of the rope. It is possible to retain beauty, reverence, and a numinous worldview without howling for the infidels (mostly those who disagree with "us") to roast in Hell—and without reducing Jesus Christ to "a great teacher among other great teachers" and elevating the (liberal, of course) self to the highest authority.

As with politics, I have little sympathy for the extremes. The middle is where it's at—but the middle is thinning out pretty seriously these days. The middle should boot the extremes, but the middle is also the place where the laity's passions are directed elsewhere, to making a living and raising children. I don't know where it will all end, but the topic has connections to the issue of groundedness (never thought I'd get back to that, huh?) and I'll pursue it further as time allows.
August 5, 2003:

Michael Davis sent me a CNet news item describing a "hackerbot" constructed by the Schmoo Group as a sort of robo-wardriver, capable of rolling around on two small bicycle wheels, sniffing for networks that (presumably) human operators cannot get close enough to, or roaming large industrial campuses looking for rogue access points.

Wow. Here are two of my passions, robotics and Wi-Fi, welded together at the hip and doing interesting things. My first reaction on seeing the device was, I wanna build one of those! It's not like I don't have plenty of other things to do, but boy, that would be cool. I used to build robots 20-odd years ago, and have been away from it for way too long. Once I get into the new workshop next March, I'll be itching to make some metal shavings. This would be high on my list of things to try!
August 4, 2003:

It was my old Clarion friend George M. Ewing, WA8WTE, who introduced me to the concept of weaselrats, those strange invisible creatures who haunt the collective unconscious, stealing writers' ideas and giving them to other writers, usually before the first writers can do anything with them. Well, the weaselrats are at it again. George sent me a note a few days ago suggesting that UFOs are actually time machines from our own future.

Wow. In my Diary notes file from back when I was reading Where Is Everybody? on the Fermi Question, I wrote, "suggest that UFOs are time machines full of future Earthmen and we really are still alone." (See my June 17, 2003 entry for more on the book and the Fermi Question.) It's one of physics' profound weirdnesses that time travel is far more possible than FTL (faster than light) space travel. Admittedly, it's not easy—you need vast quantities of highly condensed matter to do it—but there's nothing to suggest that it's impossible.

George went on to ask why there weren't already dozens of novels with this theme, as it's pretty obvious once you think of it. I dunno. In Poul Anderson's flawed but still interesting The Avatar, a race of super-advanced creatures builds these Tipler machines (I hope I remember that right) which are furiously rotating cylinders of neutronium. Skim past them at just the right angle and you go somewhere else in space and time. This was fifteen or twenty years ago, and I don't know whether Poul's math was dead-on, but he was using the idea for space travel and only incidentally was the time-warp element involved.

But what George and I both mean are ordinary, garden-variety flying-saucer UFOs as vehicles from our own future. Maybe there's something really bad scheduled to happen in 2012 (when all sorts of really bad things are supposed to happen, according to the Mayas, the Egyptians, and most New Agers) and the saucers are our distant descendents, sent back here to try and figure out how to fend off the catastrophe. Maybe they're trying to prevent us from doing the sort of genetic engineering that allowed some mega-villain to craft a race of big-eyed Grays from abducted Oklahoma hog farmers. So who's going to write this and get rich? (Or has it been written already?) I have a new rule of not writing additional novels until I sell my previous ones, so it won't be me.
August 3, 2003:

The canonical ideological spectrum running from left to right, liberal to conservative, is actually pretty useless. Apart from a handful of cartoon archetypes among my friends and correspondents, nobody is purely one side or another. Most, in fact, are a lot like me: An unpredictable mix, and one that changes regularly, too. I'm left-leaning in certain areas (I'm an antitrust hawk, for example, and ever more so as I get older) but I'm also a "wise-use" environmentalist, which is enough to get you branded as a right-wing monster in lefty circles. It is to laugh at the silliness of it all—and a major reason I don't talk much politics on this forum. Left and right merge at their extremes to the same obnoxious absolutism. Only the issues are different—and less different than most of us think. (Both lefty feminists and right-wing fundies want to prosecute pornographers, while those of us in the middle would rather law enforcement go after muggers and crooked pols.)

Far more useful, I think, is a spectrum running from grim absolute certainty on one extreme to cheerful nihilism on the other. Certainty is the Original Sin behind all ideology, right or left. Once someone has clearly sold themselves to certainty, they become deadly dull, and mostly unpleasant. All axes are vulnerable to this, even libertarians, among whom are some of the most unpleasant ideologues I've ever met.

As usual, I'm somewhere in the middle, though I lean toward uncertainty in that all of my positions are carefully hedged by the right to change my mind when I get better data. I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful elucidation of this position in a fine little book called The Anglican Vision, by James E. Griffiss. It's a short description of Episcopalian theology and history, but the passage below really has a much broader application:

I have found (and I believe I am not alone in this discovery) that one of the gifts of growing up from brash adolescence to, we hope, more mature adulthood is that we sometimes learn the grace to live with questions that cannot be answered with certainty. We come to realize the tentativeness of many of the decisions we have to make, and we are somewhat less inclined to assert the absolute difference between true and false, good and bad. I have certainly learned, in my history with God, the church, other people, and myself, that my decisions are not always right and my judgments are not always true. I have known myself to be wrong on too many occasions to believe that I am always right.

This doesn't mean that we plunge into heedless activity without reflection, as the certain all too often accuse. It means that we think everything through, with the full foreknowledge that "thinking it through" can very well turn up empty. Or, to put it another way, knowing is a statistical exercise, especially when nuanced issues are under the microscope.

Interestingly, I've come to lean more in this direction as I've gotten older. When I was a younger man I was much quicker to seize a position and defend it without further reflection. After having had my nose rubbed in certain obvious stupidities back then, I got a lot more careful where I planted my flags. And now, at age 51, I generally don't plant them at all, but wave them carefully, certain that the flags will inevitably change as I grow in experience and wisdom.
August 2, 2003:
Yahoo posted a news item indicating that a group of French researchers had turned up an interesting flaw in the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard: If a marginal user connects to a Wi-Fi hub at one of the low bit rates (1 or 2 Mbps) the entire hub drops to that speed, forcing close-in users to communicate at the lowest bit rate common to all users. The study indicts the CSMA/CA (Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Avoidance Collision) technology that governs who connects to a node as the culprit, but my readings of the standard don't show that as an inevitable consequence. I'm going to have to set up some tests here to see if that is in fact the case. I can see how it might be, especially on cheaper hardware on which the vendors took some shortcuts—but the interesting thing is how we could go this long without such a limitation becoming common knowledge.
August 1, 2003:

Niklas Zennstrom, the creator of the beleaguered file sharing network KaZaa, has a new idea, and it's killer: He's going to use peer-to-peer mechanisms to create a global VoIP (Voice over IP) telephone network. The idea is to cut the traditional telephone networks out of the loop entirely, and make calls directly from sound card to sound card, governed by a P2P app using some of the distributed search machinery developed for KaZaa.

The problem with such PC-to-PC VoIP phone calls is knowing the IP address of the other end of the line, especially for dialup users, whose IP addresses change each time they log in. Zennstrom's idea is to create what amounts to a distributed VoIP phone book the same way he created a distributed index of sharable files among KaZaa users. Zennstrom (the "Z" in "KaZaa") hasn't said a great deal about how it will work, but telecomm experts seem to think that it can be done. If he pulls it off, it will be a very big deal. Most of the people in the tech industry these days have broadband connections, so this would cut my long distance costs pretty close to zero.

I'm watching this one carefully. You should too. Monitor Boardwatch for updates.