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August 31, 2006: Turbo Delphi Looms Large

As I write this the countdown clock for Turbo Delphi broke four days, and it's now 4 days, 23 hours and some minutes until we will know if the new (and as yet unnamed ) Borland "DevCo" is good to their word. There's not a lot of hard information on the Turbo Delphi page, but there are a number of interesting videos, including one of an Australian fifth grader building an app in Delphi using Enterprise Core Objects. (I used to admire girls in fifth grade because they were good at fractions, sheesh.)

However, if you want videos, go straight for the jugular and run Turbo Delphi Product Manager Nick Hodges' series called "Thirty Camtasia Demos in Thirty Days." To get a good feel for what the new IDE is like, start with the very first one and run through them all. The videos are between eight and twenty minutes long, and are video screen shots taken (using the superb Camtasia) of the Delphi IDE, with Nick narrating in the audio channel. The first one is key: If you decided to stop your Delphi path with V5 or V6, you'll see immediately that we're not in Kansas anymore. We're not even in Idaho.

I had to grin a little when I saw Nick's Camtasia video series. One of the things I had been planning to do (and may still do) is create a Turbo Delphi Explorer tutorial ebook with short Camtasia screen videos to illustrate the text. Delphi is just one of many things that shows better than it tells.

Anyway, I'm a little short on time today, but I wanted to make sure you knew that you can now see Turbo Delphi in action, live and in real time—and we're less than a week away from being able to download the real thing. Stay tuned. I'll report my own adventures in this space.

August 30, 2006: The Patron Saints of Currency Scribblers

I got another one. Years ago, I got a dollar bill in change on which somebody had scribbled a note in the margin to the effect that if I wrote this message on ten more bills, St. Lauren would look favorably upon me. (I thought I wrote it up in Contra at the time, but I don't see it anywhere in the archives.) I considered it a mildly amusing fluke, and eventually spent the dollar. Well, the other day I got another one, this time from someone who invoked St. Jude instead of St. Lauren and was a little more explicit about the benefits of the enterprise:

"St. Jude - Anyone who gets this bill will be blessed with a lot of money - Write this on ten bills."

Considering that I pay for things with a credit card far oftener than I use cash, I don't see a lot of paper money anymore. Is this a genuine craze that I just haven't seen reported in the media? Have any of you ever gotten a bill like this? I need to ask my sister (who worked for many years at a bank and probably saw a lot of grimy currency) if she ever saw one.

Playing with money is not limited to followers of St. Jude and St. Lauren. I wrote up Where's George in my October 21, 2002 entry, and there's a similar Web site for Canadians called Where's Willy? I have better things to do with my time than track the travels of money that is now someone else's, but it may be better than watching TV.

August 29, 2006: Aunt Kathleen's Mogul Lamp

My godmother, Kathleen Duntemann, was born on this date in 1920, and died in June of 1999. I've written of her before. Ever since then we've been waiting to bring home—in a car—some of the heirlooms she left me that we didn't feel comfortable shipping. With our recent trip we finally got everything back to Colorado, and one of those heirlooms is worth a serious mention here.

I read a lot, and I like bright light when I read. Aunt Kathleen had a lamp that was unlike any other lamp I've ever used. It's a floor lamp, done in bronze-colored pot metal. There's a three way switch just beneath the bulb (left) and a second push-button foot switch on the base. (There's a conventional lamp shade that I removed for the photo, since it got crunched a little in the car and will need to be replaced.) I don't know when the lamp was made. I think it was postwar, but it could have been earlier, though the lamp is not deco enough to be 1930s nor baroque enough to be 1920s.

The most remarkable thing about the lamp, however, is how much light it puts down. And I mean "down;" the lamp has a interesting globe with white tinted glass on the side and a sort of molded Fresnel lens in clear glass on the bottom. The lens focuses light from the bulb so most of it goes downward rather than outward, and between the white tinted globe and the shade, the side brightness is much reduced—about what you would expect from a floor lamp.

The brightness comes from the mogul-base bulb. The term "Mogul" describes a larger base standard than your ubiquitous light bulb. The base is larger because the bulb puts out a lot of light and thus heat, and there is more metal in the base to keep the solder bonds from melting. The model I have uses a Mogul-base three-way bulb with 100, 200, and (wow!) 300 watt filaments. The Mogul base was created by GE in the 1920s for stage and studio lighting, and you can still buy industrial bulbs rated at 400 or even 500 watts. However, 300 watts is quite enough, thank you, and in the summer, the additional heat from the bulb will make you sweat.

Both the bulbs and the heat-resistant ceramic sockets are still available. (My Home Depot has the bulbs.) In fact, if you wanted to build a lamp something like this, your main challenge would be finding a similar globe.

I spent a precious hour and a half reading the new Atlantic Monthly by the lamp last night, and it was delightful. I wonder sometimes (and worry, at others) if Aunt Kathleen still keeps an eye on me as she always did when I was young; if so, I think she'll be pleased. Furniture is just furniture and I'm not by nature a violent guy—but dude, do not mess with my wife, my dog, or my lamp!

August 28, 2006: Home. Whew.

We got home last night about 7 PM local time here in Colorado, after leaving Kearney, Nebraska about 12:30. Mileage from Kearney was 410, and the total run from Carol's mom's front door in Niles was 1118, though about 15 of that was bopping around Iowa City and Kearney. We didn't take the most direct route for a number of reasons, and so we overshot the 1040 mile distance thart I had predicted by drawing lines in MapPoint.

We didn't leave Kearney until lunchtime. Tractor Supply Company was great good fun, though it was nowhere near as big nor diverse as Fleet Farm. (They didn't sell the nice little 8" X 16" lathes that Fleet Farm did.) I bought a pair of jeans and ogled trailer axle assemblies in a bin, for Pete's sake. (Maybe somebody might need three or four on one trip off the ranch.) I was a little surprised that they didn't sell more in the line of hand tools—I've been looking for a husky tap wrench capable of taking a 5/8" tap, and assumed they would have one there. No luck. We told the people there that we hunted down the store because of the "action figure" commercials they were running on The Weather Channel, and they all roared. Front-line employees always grimace a little at the campaigns that the company's PR and advertising agencies put together; lord knows we did when I worked at Xerox 25 years ago.

Walking hand-in-hand down the frontage road to TSC from the Best Western, we passed by a farm equipment dealer, and out in front of the building was a line of the guldurndest machinery. It's hard to get a sense for a monster wheat combine until you actually go up to it and lay hands on it. (Carol reminded me that, wheat being genetically engineered grass, what it was was a titanic lawn mower.)

We couldn't walk to Cabela's, but we found it a few miles down Highway 30, and spent an hour poking around. I neither hunt nor fish, so most of it was of little genuine interest, but I did enjoy the plaque reading "Vegetables are what food eats." Right on, bro. Broccoli is for cows. We bought some very fresh cinnamon bears, tried on some shoes, looked at GPS receivers, called it a morning and hit the road.

I surprised myself at how easily I drove a vehicle packed to the rafters with floor lamps, lathes, lashup telescopes, crystal glassware, vintage china, wire recorders, 8mm movie projectors, books, Carol's home movies, Lego bricks, scrap steel, wire nuts, hand drills, pipe fittings, dog food and dog toys, dirty laundry, and God knows what else. We hit a little rain west of Kearny, but after that it was almost ideal driving weather, and we had made such good progress by 3 PM we decided to just go the rest of the way, which for us was a major decision.

Once we left Nebraska we took a slightly unusual route back to the Springs, in that instead of taking I-76 to Denver and then I-25 south, we left I-76 at Brush, Colorado and headed south on Colorado 71, through some mighty empty ranch country. (The sign in Brush at the beginning of Colorado 71 ominously read "No gas for 75 miles.") We stopped at a not-quite-a-town named Last Chance, which had a few houses and a soft-serve ice cream stand as its only recognizable place of business. We might have had a cone but it was Sunday afternoon and it was closed.

People cruised at 80 on Colorado 71. It must be a law of nature.

Anyway. This is by far the longest that either of us have been away from home since before we were married. Carol was gone for six weeks—I for five—and the house had lain sealed and empty long enough for its "new-house smell" to return with force. We spent most of today just unpacking and trying to figure out what to do with all the rescued family heirlooms. I finally have Aunt Kathleen's mogul floor lamp in its long-intended place of honor beside my reading chair, though the fragile 60-year-old shade took some hits in the back of the car and may have to be replaced. I have Great Uncle John's Wade Lathe model CAV on my workbench, and in October Pete Albrecht and I are going to try and figure out if it can be saved. And I must become proficient at Lego before my upcoming brin is old enough to know not to chew on them. (Oh, the sacrifice!)

Cleaning out the old house was an immense amount of work that simply had to be done. I'm glad we did it, but I'm glad it's over, and even gladder to be back at 6500 feet on the side of Cheyenne Mountain.

August 27, 2006: Kearney, Nebraska

Unremarkable, burn-miles-as-fast-as-you-can kind of day yesterday, which took us 430 miles from Iowa City, Iowa to Kearney, Nebraska. (Carol and I don't burn miles as quickly as a lot of you. Don't razz us for being pokey, middle-aged fogies.) My main realization today is that everybody cruises at 80, whether the speed limit is 60, 65, 70 (uncommonly) or 75. We are now two-thirds of the way home.

I tried to connect to the Net using the ISpot hotspots installed at every Iowa rest area, but was unable to connect to them except at the last one, which wanted a lot of rigmarole to create an account. Excuse me? Create an account? When I'm trying to get my ass out of your state as fast as I can? I think not.

We got to Kearney by 6:30 PM. This is the flat part of Nebraska (the more easterly portions are surprisingly rolly, as is Iowa) and they sell hay rakes and tractors right on the main drag into town. Nonetheless, there is a significant university here, and Carol and I felt instantly at home, for reasons we don't fully understand. I guess there's a bit of the country boy in me (read "Drumlin Boiler" if you don't believe it) and if we had ever been here prior to our move from Arizona in 2003, Kearney may have been a contender.

What we do tomorrow depends heavily on the weather. There are two stores in Kearney that I have always wanted to visit: Cabela's (high-end camping stuff) and (don't giggle) Tractor Supply Company. TSC has always fascinated me because they're a chain with a very limited range (a few states in the Great Plains) that advertises incessantly on The Weather Channel. Twenty years ago, I visited a remarkable retailer named Fleet Farm in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Horse hypos, small lathes, a million different kinds of fences, and lots of other great stuff that city boys almost never see. TSC's commercials suggest that it's the same thing: Technology for farmers. That's a store I gotta see, and it's within walking distance of the hotel. Hot jets!

We'll see. In any event, if the Russians ever nuke NORAD and we don't happen to be in town at the time (we're less than a mile from NORAD's Big Steel Door) I think we'll collect our insurance settlement and move to Kearney.

August 26, 2006: College Town

We got away from the house a little late, and only made 236 miles our first day. We're not trying to do this all in one sitting, for the sake of safety as well as sanity. We phoned ahead for a reservation at the Sheraton in downtown Iowa City. Most Sheratons have good beds, and for $10 they'll be happy to have QBit as well.

Even though Carol had applied to and interviewed for grad school here in 1974, we didn't grok the fulness of the fact that Iowa City is a college town, and the kids had just come back for the fall session. The Sheraton is right on the downtown pedestrian mall, which was jammed on this warm Friday night with students waiting for a salsa concert. There were some pretty unique food carts on the mall (design your own crepes, anyone?) and a lot of interesting people. The clothes were different (more bras and fewer tie-dyes than you would have seen in 1973) but somehow it all looked familiar to both of us.

No, the big difference between college then and now is that every third student had a cell phone glued to his or her ear. I tried to imagine what life would have been like if I could have called any of my friends at any time at all. No clue. I remember long stretches of time in the library, researching, jotting notes, and just thinking, completely without interruption.

Student life is a lot more real-time these days, heh.

We're aiming for Grand Island, Nebraska tomorrow, but we're not going to make ourselves nuts about it. There's a lot of unstable weather on the Great Plains this weekend, and we're not going to try to punch a hole in a thunderstorm. We'll see.

August 25, 2006: Headin' for Home, Finally!

Carol and I just got back to Niles with our one-way rental vehicle, which we will begin stuffing with the guldurndest collection of things, toss in our suitcases and QBit, and then hit the road for the 1,040 (est.) mile blast back to Colorado Springs. I've been here almost five weeks (and Carol almost six) and we're missing our house, our friends, and (egad) our climate.

It's been nonstop here, and while there were some people I would have liked to see (especially Chris Gerrib and Mary Ramsden) we were just too flat out to work everything in. Still, we got Carol's mom's house (where Carol grew up) cleaned up and mostly presentable for putting on the market later this fall, ran a huge garage sale, and still managed to enjoy ourselves from time to time.

I don't know precisely where we're staying on the way home, and so it's far from clear whether I'll be able to post reports along the way. Stay tuned. We should be home in a couple of days, and with any luck at all, Normal Life will again assert itself.

Me, I want to sleep for a week—but I'll settle for ten hours in one chunk.

August 24, 2006: Why Cell Phones Distract

Brook Monroe sent me a thoughtful note asking why talking on a cell phone is worse than singing with the radio, talking to someone in the passenger seat—or screaming insults at talk-show doofus Michael Savage. I'm not sure that singing along with the radio is a problem; after all, how much concentration does it take to sing something operating at the intellectual heights of "Louie, Louie" or "Santa Baby"? It might take a little concentration to sing the choral pieces in Beethoven's Ninth, but most Americans can't sing in German. Now, playing the air guitar while driving is a problem, but I haven't seen that lately. (I suspect most air guitarists were scared off by John Candy's air piano performance at the wheel in Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.)

How about yelling back at Michael Savage? does listening (or responding) to Michael Savage involve any more concentration than singing "Louie, Louie?"

The better question involves talking to a person in the passenger seat. My answer to that is that the person in the passenger seat is sharing the trip experience with the driver, and in most cases, when things get hairy on the road, the passenger knows that to stay off the bad side of the actuarial tables, it would be better to shut up for a second and let the driver drive.

Note well that I didn't insist that cell phones be banned in moving cars. My point was that they are a measurable problem and we need to be thinking about solutions. Hands-free phones are a very good idea. I think they're still pretty rare, as I don't recall the last time I saw one in use. One reason I never operated amateur radio mobile much is that I was driving a stick most of the time until 1995 and didn't have a spare hand. I shopped for a headset to put on the rig, but the radio was so old that I would have had to do some hardware hacking, and that project never percolated to the top of the list.

In all seriousness, I have a hunch that cell phones are dangerous in cars because when we whip out a cell phone at the wheel, we fall into ancient habits formed while we were not at the wheel. Most of the time, when we're on a phone call (cell or landline) we're devoting most of our attention to the call. We can devote our total attention to the call because we're not doing anything as all-consuming as steering two tons of steel in the midst of hordes of other maniacs steering two (or more) tons of steel. In shopping malls and restaurants I've watched people holding a cell handset in one hand and gesticulating furiously with the other hand; clearly, some folks are deeply involved in their calls. Transfer this kind of stationary phone habit into a moving vehicle, and there could be trouble.

I still hope that using a cell phone while driving a car comes to be seen as discourteous (nay, boorish) behavior, but I hope for a lot of unlikely things. If ya gotta do it, get a headset. (And many thanks to Brook Monroe for being a discussion trigger.)

August 23, 2006: Odd Lots

  • A study I hadn't seen before gives us strong evidence that people using cell phones while driving drive more dangerously than .08% drunks. This certainly maps to my recent experience. As a courtesy to others, I never make calls while in motion, and always hand the phone to Carol if it rings while I'm driving. The only calls I answer while driving are calls received from Carol when I'm alone in the car, and the calls themselves are always deliberately brief.
  • Try as I might, I simply cannot explain this one. Perhaps one of my Jewish readers can enlighten me.
  • A recent spam campaign has targeted me with messages directing me to "Break out your two-piece bikini!" Sorry, I'm from Mu Arae. My bikini has five pieces.
  • It would be a useful feature in email clients to put up a warning icon when the links in the message don't match the domain from which the message came. Nearly all phishes have return addresses forged from a bank or EBay or other large concern, but links in the message pointing to domains in Outer Slobovia. Sure, there are legitimate reasons to do this, but a simple orange icon (meaning "possible danger; be careful") could be helpful for non-technical people.
  • In researching yesterday's entry, I found a fascinating encyclopedic list of IBM commercial products (some with links to detailed pages) here.
  • In the same vein, Bitsavers has preserved an immense archive of technical documentation for obsolete computers of the 1980s and earlier, including a number of the legendary Xerox research workstations that never became commercial products, including the Alto, the Dolphin and the Dorado. Alas, Bitsavers doesn't have any photos of the hardware. For that, go to DigiBarn. Egad, talk about nostalgia...

August 22, 2006: Happy 50th to the Hard Drive!

Today's Wall Street Journal had a short piece (not online) by their junior tech guy Lee Gomes on the 50th birthday of the humble hard drive. Like most computing advances of that era, the hard drive came out of IBM research, a larger-scale extension of the fixed-head magnetic disks that served as main memory before the development of cost-effective solid-state RAM. In 1956, the first commercial hard drive, RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) weighed about a ton and stored a total of five megabytes of data at a storage density of about 2,000 bits per square inch on a 24-inch magnetic platter. The technology actually allowed more storage than that, but as Gomes' source at IBM indicates, IBM's marketing people didn't feel comfortable selling a storage unit with greater capacity. (Echoes of Esther Dyson's idiotic mantra in 1985 that "ordinary people don't need the power of a 286. It may find some use in servers." Truly, the Hedda Hopper of technology—or perhaps the Paris Hilton.)

I personally watched hard disk storage evolve starting about 1974, when as a Xerox repairman I served a number of glass-walled data centers around Chicago's financial district. I remember cleaning out a model 3100 copier when an IBM 3333 drive cranked up two or three inches from my butt, and boy, did I jump or what? The unit was bigger than an old clothes dryer, and had 200 MB removeable platter packs (left) that were dropped in from the top. (There's a nice writeup of early IBM disk storage technology here.)

Later on, I got a job as a programmer at Xerox HQ in upstate New York. We had a Xerox Alto in our department, and I actually conned my boss into ordering a removable drive pack for me so that I could play with it as time allowed. The first-gen pack stored a staggering 1 MB of data, which seemed like the entire universe at the time. (There were larger packs available for the unit, but my boss balked at their higher price.)

I think it was 1981 or 1982 when I first saw a 5 MB Shugart 5" hard drive at a Xerox technology show. This boggled me even more than the Alto, because the engineers there had rigged an interface to a generic CP/M machine, implying that I could have one too—if only the price would come down.

Eventually it did. I waited until 1986, when the first affordable 20 MB drives appeared, and installed one in my IBM PC. From there it was the familiar progression of buying a new drive every couple of years with twice the capacity of the older one. In the early 1990s the jumps began to get radically bigger: I went from a 1988-vintage 40 MB drive to a 100 MB drive in 1991, and from there right to a 1 GB drive around 1994.

I now have 600 GB in my main machine, and have begun to long for the sorts of vast, solid state computer storage that SF writers have been predicting for a long time. An 8 GB Flash unit with a mechanical write protect switch on the back would be a fine thing to boot our kernels from, and if rootkits become more of a threat, somebody will have to do that. As early as 1973 I was writing stories (unpublished) about data storage in huge semiconductor blocks that were basically grown in a tank like crystals. My 1973 concept was purely chemical, but with nanotech assemblers (even relatively simple ones) we could do it in high style. What would we do with 256 yottabyte storage systems?

I don't know. But you can bet I'd think of something.

August 21, 2006: The Students' Union

I had an interesting idea this morning while I ran down Harlem Avenue to White Hen for coffee: What if high-achieving high school seniors formed a sort of cooperative (I hate to call it a union) to force colleges to moderate their behavior in certain important ways? Colleges compete for the best students, so if the best students got together and agreed to act in concert, interesting things might happen.

For example, let's call such a hypothetical organization SAT1500, and its membership is limited to college-bound seniors with SAT numbers over 750 on both sides. With enough of our best seniors in its ranks, SAT1500 could tell offending colleges, "Kill campus speech codes, or we'll go to schools that do." Would this work?

I think it might work, for all except maybe the top four or five schools in the Ivy League. Everybody wants to go to Harvard, even though its liberal arts schools don't teach much of anything anymore, so Harvard and Yale might not even notice.

But maybe they will. And when you get down to the low-end Ivies and everybody else, well, the impact could be enormous. A mature SAT1500 organization could end the chaos and rank discrimination of the scholarship dance and ask the colleges: What do you bid for our top 1,000 students? What do you bid for our next 10,000 students? If SAT1500 grew powerful enough, it might be able to force schools to admit students without knowing their sex, race, or ethnicity, information virtually always illegally abused.

Anyway, just a thought. As the Boomer Echo works its way through our universities and moves on, schools will suddenly realize that the gravy train has left the station, and competition for students will become intense, not only at the top but at almost all levels. SAT1500 could find itself with the power to reshape our higher education system in ways we might call impossible today.

August 20, 2006: A Month with the Thinkpad X41 Tablet PC

Carol and I are still in the Chicago area, and I've been here just about a month now, with no computing but my IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad X41 Tablet PC. (I also have the associated dock, which contains the optical drive.) I've had abundant opportunity to use the machine on a daily basis and got good at it, and I think at this point I am in a position to provide a reasonable critique.

First of all, as a Tablet PC I have no particular complaints. It makes a superfine e-book reader, and I've been astonished at how easily I've been able to curl up with longish ebooks and not surface an hour later feeling like somebody kicked sand in my eyes. That was a complete surprise, and probably the best single thing about the unit, especially with its implementation of the MS Reader.

I haven't used Ink all that much, and given that I don't use cursive handwriting in my daily life, I don't feel like learning it again just to use it on a single computer. I had a lot of trouble getting the recognizer to get unusual words right, especially my own name. (As far as the X41 is concerned, it's owned by Jeff Dustman.) I would have pursued that issue further, but again, I don't expect to use the feature a lot and didn't break a sweat fooling with it.

Most of my complaints are not obviously related to the Tablet hardware and support software, though I have a suspicion that XP Tablet Edition may be behind some of them. Here's a list:

  • Sometimes the task bar just vanishes and won't come back. I haven't been able to identify a consistent trigger for its vanishing. I have to reboot to restore it.
  • It's rarely good for more than two days before it needs a reboot. It gets very slow after awhile, and eventually becomes too slow to use. I've gotten in the habit of turning it off each night, but Windows 2000 can go lots longer without a reboot.
  • The X41 runs at 1.5 GHz, and has 512MB of RAM, However, it's no faster, and often slower, than my 2001-vintage 750 MHz 128 MB Thinkpad X21 running Win2K.
  • Something in the system software blocks mouse events every so often, making mouse cursor movement jerky and intermittent.
  • The keyboard misses keystrokes much more often than the apparently identical keyboard on my X21.
  • Sometimes when it goes into hibernation it takes a long time coming back, much longer than my X21.

So basically, what I have is a Thinkpad X21 with a swiveling touchscreen and a touchier keyboard. I know that the additional software features inevitably eat some cycles, but the X41 is fully twice as fast and has twice as much memory as the X21, and I would expect it to feel a lot snappier than it does. (I use the identical versions of all applications on both laptops.)

So overall, it's a cautious "recommended." As more software becomes available using the Tablet features, I will probably come to appreciate it more. I might not be as critical had I not used and loved the X21 for so long. (I still have it, and I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon.) My main problems on this trip have stemmed not from limited compute power but from limited (or nonexistent) connectivity. Given the time I've been here, I'd say it's done more than well enough for something so small and so light.

August 19, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Finalization of the IEEE 802.11n standard 100-Base T equivalent Wi-Fi will not happen until 2008. It's not an easy technology to make mass-produceable, and the vendors (predictably) are arguing over whose pet technologies will become most or all of the standard. These fights happened with Wireless-G, and that technology was a cakewalk by comparison. There are "pre-n" products out there now, but the longer the standards process takes, the more likely these products are to be orphans once the real thing happens. For an in-house network that may be an acceptable compromise; for hotspots and large-scale networks that's a showstopper.
  • My entry on the death of SF anthologies generated a fair bit of commentary (you can see some of it on my LiveJournal mirror) and it occurred to me that most of what died were what we called "themed anthologies;" that is, Great Science Fiction About Giant Lobsters. The best-of anthologies changed shape radically in the 1960s, in response to something called the New Wave, which consisted of a handful of very talented writers doing interesting things surrounded by a reeking cloud of talentless poseurs barfing into their typewriters and calling it "experimental." The whole field lost its bearings for awhile, but by the late 1980s we were back in the groove, and the best-of anthologies, at least, are doing well. Cause and effect are hard to pin down in this case, but I think that the sea-change of reader preference toward novels during the 1970s permanently shrank the market for short SF. (Thanks to John Hall for reminding me of this.) This all worth thinking about, and I should be able to mount a whole entry on it shortly.
  • Jim Strickland suggested that the JonBenet Creepies may simply be another manifestation of the Uncanny Valley, in that her folks made JonBenet look almost like a woman. That sounds pretty reasonable to me.
  • Years and years ago, I registered the domain I never mounted it, but lately I've been thinking about what might be useful on a site with that name. What I want all you hard SF freaks in my audience to do is jot down a wish list for and send it to me. I'm going to start with a forum, and would like to mount some sort of store for downloadable documents, but it's a long-horizon project and I'm open to any and all suggestions.

August 18, 2006: JonBenet and the Other Taboo

The Jon Benet Ramsey case has always given me the creeps, and I'm already switching the channel as soon as yet another talking head decides to talk about a case about which nothing can really be said at this point. Crackpots are always confessing to crimes they did not commit, and John Karr does not give the impression of foundational sanity. So to me it still looks wide open.

The TV stations are again playing the same short videos of poor Jon Benet that weirded me out ten years ago. A 6-year-old dressed up and made up like a Las Vegas showgirl is a creepy thing to see (some who are less charitable than I have called it "sick") and I'm pretty sure that all those who assumed at the outset that the girl's parents killed her are responding to that same creepy feeling.

So why is it creepy?

I had an insight last night while the damned videos were played yet again on CNN: The feeling is related to the incest taboo. I think that there is a primal aversion in most human beings to seeing very young girls as sexually attractive. The evolutionary mechanism is pretty obvious: There's no possibility of gene transmission through pre-pubescent girls, and real danger of damage to their undeveloped genitals.

I am by no means a prude, but the sexualization of very young girls bothers me a great deal. Jon Benet is not the only little girl who has been turned into a sexual icon by knucklehead parents, but she's certainly the only one who ever got this much publicity. I still don't believe that her parents actually committed the murder, but I think the cultural gestalt holds that they were in a sense accomplices.

Let's let the justice system takes it course, and could we puh-leez stop showing those stupid videos?

August 16, 2006: Where the Anthologies Went

My first experience with adult SF was not through the magazines (which cost money) but through multiauthor hardcover anthologies, which were abundant at the Carl Roden branch of the Chicago Public Library in the 1960s. There I found anthologies like Kingsley Amis' Spectrum series (of which there were at least five) and several from Groff Conklin, including the superb Elsewhere and Elsewhen and Great Science Fiction By Scientists. Much of the SF I read in the Sixties was in original and reprint anthologies. By 1977 or so, that market was just about extinct. I had a story in the original anthology Alien Encounters in 1982, and as best I know the book sold about 150 copies. Dead, Jim.

So what happened? Some explain it as a sort of tulip mania engineered by an anthologist named Roger Elwood. I was completely outside the SF world (I didn't even know that there was an SF world) until I attended the Clarion SF Writers' Workshop in July 1973. One of (many) running jokes there was selling a story to Roger Elwood. Elwood had come out of the wrestling magazines in the Sixties, and as the Sixties wound down he began aggressively selling original SF anthologies to any publisher who would listen. By 1973, Elwood had come to represent (by some measures) a quarter or more of the market for short SF and fantasy. He had edited at least fifty such books (and probably more) in the space of three or four years.

Some of his books were circulating at Clarion, and they truly were awful. He typically found one story by a name author, and padded it out with fifteen stories from people whom no one had ever seen before. (I think he might have learned that trick from rock music albums.) The publishers took a bath on his books, and the anthology market has never come back to where it was in the early Seventies.

You can read about it in Wikipedia. I think it's fair to ask, though, if Elwood were a cause or an effect. Without buyers, there are no sellers. The publishers, first of all, should have known better than to buy so many books by one man. The fact that they hadn't heard on the SF grapevine that Elwood was carpet bombing the field with original anthologies suggests that the publishers at that time had no hooks whatsoever into the SF grapevine, which may mean that many of the publishers had frontline editors who were new to SF and had no idea who was who. Not knowing the field you're targeting is quick and unpleasant death in publishing.

I also think that publishers were no longer in touch with their readership. Elwood's awful anthologies were not the first. Judith Merrill published a long-running anthology series that she immodestly called The Year's Best SF, which at least when I was reading them (late 1960s and early 70s) had virtually nothing in them I would call SF with a straight face. Many of the items she published were not even stories as I define them, and yet by every account I've seen they sold well. (I don't know who bought them. I got them from the library, and none of my friends would touch them.) Merrill was the early archetype of the aggressive, combative lefty feminist academic—she was one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met—and her later anthologies were probably aimed at an audience utterly different from the one most of us geeky boys belonged to in that era.

I think that when SF began to appeal to people outside that geeky SF culture, the publishers got deeply confused about what was SF (and what was good SF) and what was not. Basically, in the early 1970s, SF left the ghetto but forgot its compass, and the anthologies, at least, never found their way home. Elwood simply exploited publisher confusion, and if it hadn't been him, it would have been someone else.

I have occasional hopes that print-on-demand manufacturing and integrated book fulfillment services like Lulu will bring some life back to the anthology market. But beyond paper, there's the possibility of creating what amount to self-assembling anthologies from individual file-based stories and commentaries, gathered by tag or keyword (SELECT ALL Jeff Duntemann's SHORT STORIES TAGGED AS "AI") and paid for by algorithm, probably through a descendent of the simple gumball machine ebook server I described earlier this year. (Read my week-long series beginning May 7, 2006.) People could create anthologies by selecting the fifteen highest-rated stories offered by a gumball newsstand, or the twenty shortest (for a quick plane ride) or all stories containing robots named "Joe." The newsstand would bind the selected items into a single reader file of the purchaser's chosen format, and shazam! There's an anthology the world has never seen.

Could happen. The tech is there. Who's gonna try it?

August 15, 2006: Uncle Jeff Beats the House

Yesterday was my younger nephew Matt's 21st birthday, and one of his birthday wishes was to go down to the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin and try some gambling now that he was really and truly an adult. I'm not a gambler in any sense of the word, but I enjoy visiting interesting places and seeing interesting technologies. I used to attend the big Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas every year, starting in 1985 until it began to peter out in the mid-90s as the computer industry broke down into countless tech specialties, each with its own "big" trade show. I dropped a few quarters in the slot machines and a few hard-to-describe mechanical coin games like Flip-It, and actually won $40 once, in (I think) 1991. At that point I stopped, so I could say that I walked away from Vegas with more in my pocket than when I arrived.

So the whole family drove down to Elgin, and we older folks spent a couple of hours playing the machines in the no-smoking areas on the lower level while the boys (both now fully of age) tried their hand at roulette on the smoky main floor. It was a peculiar experience in a lot of ways. First of all, they're not "slot machines" anymore, because they don't use coins and there's no slot. Secondly, only a few machines remain "one-armed bandits" because the arm is gone as well, replaced by a simple button. Only a handful of older machines have any moving mechanical parts at all. What remain are video games that are nominally slot machines because they play like slot machines: Several vertical rows of symbols on a screen are scrambled and come to rest in (maybe) random positions. If certain predefined sequences of symbols come up, you win a few credits, where the credits are typically worth 5 cents.

I vividly recall the distinctive racket made by quarters and larger coins spilling out of Las Vegas slots into stainless steel trays that seemed designed to resonate so that you could hear them a block away. In crowded casinos the sound was ever-present, hammering home the point that somewhere, somebody was winning every second of every day. All gone now: The machines at Grand Victoria are fully digital. Each machine can suck in currency notes from $1 to $100. (I was a little surprised that the track gambler's favorite, the $2 bill, is not accepted by the machines.) You buy credits with cash and gamble with them, and when you decide to cash out, the machine spits out a bar-coded voucher that you exchange for cash at the cage. The machines do make some noise when you score a win, but the overall impression was muted and not especially festive. One of the machines I tried very briefly was called Cleopatra, and a supremely irritating woman's voice said "I'm so proud of you!" every time I won as little as thirty cents. As if I had anything to do with it.

Like Titus Moody, I don't hold with furniture that talks, so I left Cleopatra as soon as my $5 worth of credits was gone. Carol and I wandered down the row to a similar machine named Louie's Gold. Louie was a bug-eyed cartoon coyote with a Mexican bandito mustache, and the symbols included money bags, a chihuhua, and an adobe building labeled "El Banco." Cleo had eaten my sole fiver, so I fed Louie a ten and started pushing buttons. I played for about five minutes, trying to figure out what the hell had happened each time the machine told me I had won. I was down to about eighty credits when pandemonium erupted, animated coins flying all over the display while Louie appeared in several places, riding his horse and blasting his twin six-guns. I had clearly won, though I never quite discerned what the winning symbol combo was. Carol and I watched slackjawed as the music played and the credit counter went up...and up...and up.

5,000 credits. $250.00. Yikes.

I'm no gambler. The temptations I'm vulnerable to lie elsewhere. It took as much as several microseconds for me to yell, "I'm out!" and punch the voucher button. I walked out of Grand Victoria $225 dollars ahead of the house.

Interestingly, I had Uncle Louie's Lucky Dollar in my pocket at the time, as I almost always do. It's a 1972 copper-nickel Eisenhower dollar that Uncle Louie gave my Aunt Kathleen as a good-luck piece somewhere along the way. Both were unmarried, and as children Gretchen and I often hoped they would become a couple. It wasn't until we were adults that we fully understood how completely peculiar a coupling that would have been...

After Aunt Kathleen died in 1999, the coin came to me. (I keep it in my pocket as an experiment to see how long it takes for the design on a copper-nickel coin to wear away in daily service. After seven years of jingling the eagle's face is gone, as is most of Ike's hair, but it's still a handsome coin.) I don't believe in luck, but the coin is a memento of two people I loved very much, and if there's any luck involved it lay in my being the target of their affection for so many years.

So with Uncle Louie's Lucky Dollar in my pocket, the Louie's Gold slotless slot machine paid off. As we walked out of the casino, Carol laughed and said, "I guess he's still out there somewhere."

Of course he is. As Uncle Louie himself would have said, "Hey, I'm around! Whatcha need?"

August 13, 2006: Harnessing the Long Tail in Comics

I rarely bought 45s when I was a kid, simply because the math was all wrong. If you waited awhile, your favorite band would issue a Greatest Hits album (sometimes after as many as...two hits) and you'd have 'em all for about half of what you'd pay for the best songs on 45. You'd also get a lot of album cuts, at least a few of which would turn out to be serviceable songs. (This may have been truer then than now.)

Far from ignoring the idea of the Long Tail, a lot of music and print publishers are re-issuing anthologies of material that last saw the light of day in the 60s or before. Virtually all of The Association's vinyl is now out on CD, and I've grabbed albums from numerous other obscure bands of that era, like the New Colony Six and the Cryan Shames.

As best I can tell, the comics publishers have been doing this longer than almost any other segment of Big Media. DC in particular is putting out hardcover anthologies not only of their big winners, but also their experiments and perhaps some of their failures. My brother-in-law Bill Roper's library is heavy with DC hardcovers, some of which I've flipped through. The repro is at least as good as the original comics, and the paper way better. It's a little like getting The Association on CD—your dull phonograph needle will never carve out your high frequencies as fuzz, and your comics will not crumble to pulpy dust after a year or two in that pile under your bed. Another advantage is that you don't have to see all those stupid ads for Palisades Park (where the hell was that? we Chicago boys used to wonder) and packages of hundreds of uniformly green plastic soldiers.

I was never a big comics consumer, but Bill lent me the recent Metal Men anthology, and it was wild to see the only comics I ever really bought live again. I followed the series briefly in the early-mid-60s (it went on long after that) and it was sort of an adventure/sitcom/soap opera starring an ensemble of six robots and their scientist creator, who today looks disconcertingly like SubGenius icon J. R. "Bob" Dobbs. The robots were named for and showcased the physical characteristics of their component metals. Alas, the stories were juvenile (talk about understanding your audience!) and full of chemistry bloopers; for example, a frame in which Tin is grasped by a magnet, or in which Lead patiently explains (while he knits some broken high-voltage wiring) that he is a non-conductor. (Clearly, DC's story people had never built a Heathkit.)

But hey, they're comics, right? The important thing is that we can now treat older content as entertainment and not fragile relics fought over by collectors. It's not cheap—the DC anthologies cost about $35 each—but as with vinyl reissued on CD, the goods are actually better than they were the first time through.

I think the Long Tail works for comics in this fashion because books like this are sold primarily in comics shops, which are a highly focused retail channel compared to conventional bookstores. I doubt they'd do as well if they were sold only online. Discovery is still the problem confronting long-tail content. I would not have thought to look for a Metal Men anthology, but I knew somebody who did. If we can solve this problem, we've got the whole business licked, but the problem may not be solvable, at least not to the degree we'd like. We'll see.

August 12, 2006: Neanderthal Uncanniness

It would be interesting to see some research on whether women experience the "uncanny reaction" (see my entry for July 11, 2006) more than men do. If so, it would affirm a hunch I had the other day while pulling weeds. (I pull weeds because I get ideas when I pull weeds.)

The book The Red Queen makes the point very strongly that while men evolved to want a lot of offspring, women evolved to want better offspring. A woman can only carry a few children to term in her lifetime (especially before modern medicine and sanitation) whereas men can impregnant thousands of women in the same span of time. Women are thus much choosier about whom they couple with.

Now consider this: Back 40,000 or so years ago, there were several close hominid species wandering around the Earth at the same time. (We wiped all the others out by about 15,00 years ago.) We've seen how it's possible to have interspecies crosses (the mule/hinny for example) but the offspring of those crosses, even where the individuals are viable and long-lived, are almost always sterile.

A hominid female who mated with a homind male of a close but distinct species might become pregnant, but would be carrying a child that would almost certainly grow up sterile. Such a child is a genetic dead-end, and such dead-ends are something that is evolution's job to eliminate as much as possible.

So...what if evolution developed a sense in early humans that gave them mild creepies when dealing with individuals of a species close to but not identical to their own? The idea is to highlight the distinctness of related species, by triggering a special reaction when an individual encounters a face that is real close but not...quite...right. This would make it less likely that a female would mate with a male of another species and risk carrying and raising a sterile child.

Just a thought while weeding; I have no research to cite. I've now pulled just about all the weeds in Carol's mom's lawn, so there may be no more good ideas until I get back home and attack this past month's thistle crop. However, since I haven't gone after it for almost a month now, you should expect some really good ideas once I fill the weed can back in the Springs.

August 11, 2006: A Successful Attack

I think everybody should swallow hard and accept the fact that yesterday's supposedly aborted attack on our air transport system was actually a complete success. The fact that nothing and no one were blown up is irrelevant. The terrorists aren't trying to blow up aircraft—what they're doing is forcing authorities to make air travel so completely unpleasant that traffic drops below a level that will sustain the airlines. Without ubiquitous air travel, our economy would suffer in ways both obvious and nonobvious.

There's really no way we can reliably win this one, short of forbidding all carryons and strip- and cavity searching every passenger. It wouldn't take much of a modern explosive to cause dozens of deaths in an airliner cabin, even if the craft itself maintained function and structural integrity and landed intact. (Does anybody remember the Aloha Airlines plane that lost a good part of its upper fuselage somewhere over the Pacific? A flight attendant was sucked out of the cabin and killed, but the craft landed safely with only a few passengers suffering major injury and no additional deaths. Airliners are tough.) There's plenty of room inside things as small as IPods for lethal quantities of explosive. A laptop battery could be hacked to become half battery and half explosive, and the battery could still source enough current to start the device for skeptical security inspectors. An air trip could eventually become a hundred people in airline-supplied Kevlar gowns tied into their seats. A few folks might be willing to do that. I wouldn't.

And truthfully, even that might not be enough. I read an article once about things that ER surgeons have had to remove from the rectums of sexually peculiar people. There's plenty of room in there for a sausage casing full of plastique, which would most likely show up on X-rays as indistinguishable from nature waiting to take its course. A suicide bomber wouldn't even necessarily have to, um, excrete the device before detonating it.

What to do? I'd like to see us bring back large-scale rail travel, even if we have to figure out a system of subsidies to keep the lightly used routes running—but I admit that I'm dreaming here; such a plan would take a decade or more to become effective, and we have the problem right now. Besides, rails won't help with travel from overseas, where most of the danger probably lies.

Carol and I were going to fly back to Colorado Springs some time next week, but at this point we suspect we're going to rent a car one-way—a minivan, if I can find one—and drive home with QBit and some family heirlooms in the back seat. The era of cheap fares and easy air travel may be over. We were going to fly to the Cayman Islands for our 30th wedding anniversary in October. We may end up driving to Florida instead. So it goes.

August 10, 2006: Odd Lots

  • In releasing free editions of the upcoming Turbo language products, Borland may be hoping to noodge people with six or seven year old copies of Delphi to upgrade. Many people stopped upgrading when Delphi 7 appeared, because the version got such bad press. I know a fair number of people still using Delphi 5 and 6, and even one guy with Delphi 4. If the new versions are really good, they may drive at least a few upgrades, and that's all to the good if we want Borland (and by that I mean the new fork of the company that we'll see this fall) to stay alive.
  • Andrew Stuart sent me a pointer to BookMooch, a site that coordinates the passing around (rather than the selling) of used books. I haven't tried it yet, but it's an obvious thing to do. It's a point-driven system with an elaborate set of rules for how you earn points, and it will take some time and experience to see if this will actually work. (The idea is to give people incentives to send out books rather than only receive them.) I'm going to give it a shot when I get home (where all my stacks of used books are) and will report back in this space.
  • My spam count has very abruptly soared to about 200 per day, from a previous average of 80-100. I get the impression that some spammer somewhere has passed a list of pre-resolved email addresses (that is, resolved to IPs) through DNS to "freshen" it. My spam count dropped by almost 80% when I changed hosting services a couple of years ago, probably due to spammers using preresolved lists of addresses in which my address pointed to the old hosting service.
  • Another note on spam: The majority of messages I get from spam zombies (rather than spammers like GossipFlash that own their own domains) now carry their payload messages as images. The change came fairly quickly, and this suggests that most of our spam comes from a relatively small number of botnets. Teergrubing (slowing down the rate at which SMTP servers accept connections) might help us, but I don't hear much about anyone doing it.

August 9, 2006: Odd Lots

  • I had not yet learned when I wrote yesterday's entry on the new Borland Turbo products, that only one single-language package will be installable on a single PC—the assumption being that anybody who needs more than one language should buy the "big" package with all the languages built-in. This doesn't bother me much, but I wonder if they've taken into account that a lot of programmers (me included) write code only in VMs—and VM snapshots are cheap.
  • I'm still in Chicago, and have been struggling to get DSL working here in the basement of Carol's mom's house. I finally figured it out this morning, having been on the phone with SBC's poor support techs for far too long: The &#*!?! browser-based installation script is IE-specific!! (I was Firefoxing my way through it and getting nowhere.) Worse, only the third tech knew this. Executed under Firefox, the screwball script was invisibly and silently skipping key parts of the process, and landed me more than once at a screen breathlessly but falsely announcing, "You are now connected to the Internet!" I'm glad I lost my hair early. Male-pattern baldness is way less painful than ripping it out in chunks.
  • Here's one of those bits of "What the hell is going on here?" trivia: Austria has the highest suicide rate of any Western country, at 35.5 per 100,000 people. The US rate is a little more than half that, at 18.9. More grim stats here.
  • A guy has built a very reasonable facsimile of the Segway balancing scooter. The main difference is that it has no safety features: If something fails in the system, you go forward on your nose with the control box in your crotch. I find the idea of a balancing system fascinating, and if time ever allows I'd like to build something like this, less as a scooter than as a robot. My old Cosmo Klein robot was a wonderful crowd pleaser, and it would be very cool to have a 2-wheel balancing robot to run around. Such balancing robots have gotten pretty popular. A nice seminar slide show on the topic is here, and a typical robot (with software written in Delphi!) is here. Oh, for a forty-hour day...

August 8, 2006: Turbo Delphi!

Yeehah! Turbo returns! I got a call from Borland's David Intersimone late last week, and we spoke for quite awhile, certainly at more length than we have in ten or twelve years. The big news is that Borland is introducing a line of new, single-language, single-platform IDE/compiler packages under the Turbo brand:

  • Turbo Delphi for Win32
  • Turbo Delphi for .NET
  • Turbo C++
  • Turbo C#

Each package will list for under $500, with student pricing under $100.

This would be very cool all by itself, but the wilder part of the announcement is that each of the four products will also be available as a free download, under the Turbo Explorer moniker. The Explorer editions are the full product with one limitation: The component palette is fixed, and additional components cannot be installed.

Nonetheless, the palette supplied with the Turbo Explorer editions contains over 200 components, including WebSnap, the Indy Internet components, and virtually all the others that Delphi developers are used to seeing. That's a helluva deal, heh—especially for people who program for fun, or who write relatively simple utilities to massage data or support their work in other ways.

Borland has set up a Web site specifically for the Explorer editions, at Both the Professional Editions and the Explorer Editions will be available before the end of Q3 of this year. They're working with schools to get the Turbo languages onto the curriculum (especially Turbo C#) and will be encouraging publishers to bring out new books focusing on the Turbo products. (Am I working on one? Can't tell you yet...but wouldn't it be wild to have The Turbo Delphi Explorer Explorer?)

I also asked David about the spinoff of the developer tools products into a new company distinct from Borland. The process is moving along, and we should know more by early fall. Everybody involved is chomping at the bit, since it's by now pretty clear that Delphi, C++, and C# are only the first Turbo languages, and will not be the last. David didn't get real specific, but he asked me what languages I would want to see added to the Turbo lineup. My first choice would be PHP, and my second...assembly, both Win32 and .NET. We'll see what they do.

If you asked me what this was going to do to Borland, or programming generally, my first reaction would simply be: It's gonna make programming fun again, in a way it hasn't been in what seems like a very long time. Back in the mid-1980s, anybody who had $50 could have Turbo Pascal, and we all had a marvelous time, even without the Internet. People who wouldn't have taken a shot at programming if the cost of entry were $400 were tinkering up interesting little things, having fun, and learning a lot. Twenty years later, dare we hope that we can do it again?

I do. Put Delphi in the hands of tends of thousands of bright kids (even middle aged ones) and magic will happen. This time, the wand is free. (I may finally learn C#!)

August 6, 2006: VM Images as OS Distribution Media

I test operating systems by installing them as VMs under VMWare Workstation 5. It occurs to me that it would be mighty handy if distro managers would issue preinstalled VM images for download, so that I don't have to fool with installing the OS in a VM from CDs or ISOs. Moving VM images among machines is trivial, and I keep an archive of images on ice on my monster hard drive, and even if I never need them again, they're small enough so that there's no hesitation about keeping them around, JIC.

It's not always obvious how to install an arbitrary OS in a VM, so this would push the research back to the originator of the distro, who knows the OS better than anybody who might want to try it. Beyond VMWare's own directory, I suspect this is being done here and there, and I'll report on sources of prebuilt VM OS images as I find them. In the meantime, if you know of any odd ones (where "odd" means "non-Unix") do point me to them.

August 5, 2006: The Pareidolian Cowboy

Carol has a small backpack that she uses as a purse when we're out on a trip and she carries additional stuff with her (AAA Guide, small binoculars, and so on) and it was lying on a Tupperware bin this morning when I came in from walking QBit. I tossed my hart down on top of the backpack, just to put it somewhere. Later on, when I went back to get my hat, I realized that I was looking at a grumpy old cowboy with a broken nose and skin so exposed to the desert sun that it had turned to...leather.

We are really, really good at seeing patterns in things, and faces are what we're best at seeing. This follows what I have been reading in several books I've dipped into recently on the evolution of the human creature: We are optimized to recognizes faces and to gossip, especially about relationships, changes in status, and who's having sex with whom. In fact, the author of The Red Queen argues that our brains exploded in size all those tens of thousands of years ago specifically because gossiping carried an evolutionary advantage, and gossip needs language as an efficient communications medium. So while other authors (Pinker, especially) have speculated that language was the cause of our brain explosion, I haven't seen any other explanations as to why language suddenly appeared with such force on the human scene. It was so that we could gossip.

Alas, I have been meaning to review The Red Queen for some time, but I left the book in Colorado. Remind me to treat it fully once I get home; it's the best book I've read since The War on the Weak.

August 4, 2006: The Windows Doomsday Switch

ZDNet's Ed Bott posted a scary article indicating that Microsoft may well implement a "doomsday switch" on Windows this fall. The details are unclear, but the gist of it is that WGA will be made mandatory, and if people refuse to install it (you can opt out of WGA now if you want) MS can flip the Doomsday Switch, and after 30 more days, your copy of Windows will croak.

An MS support rep is reported to have said this:

"In the fall, having the latest WGA will become mandatory and if it's not installed, Windows will give a 30 day warning and when the 30 days is up and WGA isn't installed, Windows will stop working, so you might as well install WGA now."

The funny part about this (and even Bott doesn't mention it) is that this implies that the switch is in there already. If this is true, it will be interesting to see what module the switch is in, and when it was implemented. I'd guess the very first update for WGA.

The whole thing leaves me a little aghast, and while it's always possible that reports like this are hoaxes spread to discredit Microsoft, I was similarly skeptical that they could implement WPA and make it stick. They did.

Bott provides examples of WGA not working correctly and shutting down legitimate Windows instances, and I've seen incidents like that mentioned elsewhere. This implies that we're getting to the point where the risk of not installing Microsoft's security updates is being outweighed by the risks of trusting a piece of Microsoft code that can shut down your computer.

The Triple Entente of having a software firewall, being behind a router, and not using IE are actually pretty strong protection against Windows security exploits, along with good Internet habits like not surfing porn sites or installing warez. If you're running Windows in a VM snapshot, you have the further defense that if the bad guys get to you somehow, you simply shut down the compromised snapshot and launch another. Skipping Windows updates is not the end of the world, especially now that the updates themselves are gradually becoming indistinguishable from the malware they're supposedly defending us against.

I'm not sure what's going to happen this fall, but with Steve Ballmer basically running things up there, nothing is beyond imagining. I had dinner with him once, back in 1986, along with the rest of the staff at PC Tech Journal. He's the quintessential Right Man. Annoying customers is much less important here than getting his way, and nothing annoys Right Men more than the suspicion that somewhere, somebody might be ripping them off.

I sure wish they'd hurry up with ReactOS.

August 3, 2006: Certified Uninstallable "Without a Trace"

Every so often I come up with a business opportunity that I have no interest of pursuing on my own, and today's actually has some promise: An independent software testing service that issues a logo certification for an application that performs, by default, a complete uninstallation. For the base certification ("Without a Trace Bronze") an application's uninstaller would have to do the following:

  • Remove all installed program files, DLLs, and other installed files of any kind
  • Reverse all registry and other system changes
  • Delete all desktop icons and menu items
  • Move all user data to a separate directory of the user's choice
  • Delete the app's directory tree

For the intermediate level certification ("Without a Trace Silver") the application would have to satisfy all the Bronze-level requirements, along with additional requirements we might characterize as "good behavior" from the time of install:

  • It cannot install DLLs in windows\system or anywhere else but in its own directory tree
  • It cannot write registry entries for file history, block lists (e.g., Outlook Express) or other trivial things.
  • It cannot update Windows runtimes or libraries; if it needs runtimes of a specified version level or other Windows libraries, it can only issue a recommendation to the user to go get the libraries and install them separately.

The rationale for the Silver level is this: Certain actions are hard to reverse once done, so the only way to make sure that they can be completely reversed is to guarantee that they are never done to begin with. Writing DLLs to windows\system is the core cause of "DLL hell" and should never, but never be done. Namespace collisions are forever. One of the leading causes of Windows Registry gunk is moronic applications that keep their "most recently saved" file lists and other stuff in the Registry. All that belongs in files in the app's own directory tree. Putting them in the Registry is borderline criminal user abuse.

I'd actually like to see the Silver level specify that an app cannot change the Registry at all. I don't think there's ever a genuine reason for this; my opinion is that the Registry belongs to Windows alone and should not be writeable by applications and utilities. On the other hand, I may not fully understand all possible needs so for now I'll give apps the benefit of the doubt.

The "Without a Trace Gold" level would require that the application not send information about itself anywhere outside the PC:

  • It cannot "phone home" to its vendor for any reason unless explicitly told by the user to do so, and cannot pop up a nag window to demand permission to phone home.
  • It cannot make such "phoning home" a requirement for use of the application or for any feature within the application.
  • Any online update technology must not be able to uniquely identify the PC being updated.
  • It must either store its user data (documents, drawings, etc.) in a nonproprietary format, or else export its data to a nonproprietary format during uninstallation without any loss of precision or formatting.

Obviously, products requiring activation are by definition ineligible for Gold. The requirements have to be stated carefully for communications apps that have to log into a server to do their jobs (Skype and Gizmo are good examples) but I think we could figure that out.

The final bullet requirement will prevent the ghost of a vanished app from haunting user data. Users create their data, and in my view that data belongs to them. When an app is uninstalled, any data created with it must be available in a publicly documented format so that it may be imported into another app. Otherwise, the original app never really "goes away."

Testing apps is straightforward, and would make good use of bit-compare utilities or even virtual machines. I'm not sure how true this is (it depends on the underlying implementation of the VM) but if you take a VM snapshot pre-install, post-install, and then post-uninstall, the pre-install and post-uninstall snapshots should ideally be identical, or mighty close. Even without VMs, it's not rocket science to determine if the registry's been changed, or if there are files or directories in a directory tree that weren't there before the app went in. Determining if an app phones home can be done with packet capture utilities like Ethereal, and while it takes some patience and some gruntwork analyzing packets, again, it's not bleeding-edge IT.

Logo certification programs make money by charging for the service, and issuing the right to display the logo for products that pass all tests. Of course, a good part of such a startup would be flogging the PR trail and making a case that much Windows misfeasance is due to bad design, sloppy programming, and incomplete or incompetent uninstallers. The emphasis should always be on keeping the end user's PCs from accumulating damage from incompetent or aggressive code, including the sort of borderline adware I see from time to time in what claim to be legitimate apps. Gold level certification is mostly about code committing privacy violation, and should be pitched that way. Personal data sent outside the local network is a trace that you can never be certain is deleted, so you simply can't allow an app to send personal data to begin with.

Prior to launch, the startup should work closely with vendors known to be sympathetic (which would probably include most open source projects) so that it hits the ground running with a long list of already-certified apps.

I don't know if such a startup could make a lot of money, but implemented well, it could make at least some money, and if it takes off in a big way could be a serious force in the gunk wars. I don't think things like this fall within my core competence, so I myself won't do it—but if it ever happens, you can bet I will push it hard.

August 2, 2006: The Uncanniness of Racism

Whoa. In a tossed-off short comment on LiveJournal, LJ user madfilkentist (Gary McGath) offered up a riveting speculation: That the "uncanny valley" effect could explain racism. Something in me immediately responded, "Of course!" Brilliant insight.

In a sense, it's obvious: We consider "uncanny" something that generates cognitive dissonance in us where that cognitive dissonance involves deep mental mechanisms. Animated faces that begin to look human to us while remaining clearly nonhuman generate the "uncanny" response. I think that's why wax museums are mostly creepshows: The weird content reinforces our uncanny response to the almost-human wax figures and makes the exhibit as a whole weirdly and preverbally memorable.

So do the thought experiment with me: You're an Englishman in the early 1500s, standing on the docks looking at a captive Black African brought back on a sailing ship from the mysterious, faraway continent. From a height, the being looks human: He has arms, legs, eyes, ears, and so on, in all the right places. But his skin is a startling deep purple-brown that borders on black, and his facial features are distinct from English facial features in several subtle but significant ways. Nothing like this has ever been seen in your part of England. What would your reaction be?

"Absolutely uncanny!"

As best we know, the uncanny reaction is a side effect of the very ancient mechanism that allows us to recognize faces instantly. A face that registers on the extremes of non-recognition might begin to generate a feeling that this face is not quite human, and therefore potentially dangerous in unforseeable ways. (Think of it as a computer program throwing an exception for a value that is not only outside the bounds of a well-defined test, but in various ways untestable; e.g, un-normal or imaginary numeric values.) Uncanniness is not a positive reaction, and it would be easy for an untraveled, superstitious person to translate that uncanny reaction to fear and perhaps further to aggression and hatred.

I suspect that Blacks may confront the same uncanny reaction when in the presence of whites. It may explain, at least partially, why our races mix so poorly and suspicion among races remains so prevalent, even when socioeconomic status is held constant. Middle-class Blacks don't socialize that much with middle-class whites, and so on. We may be able to learn to recognize the uncanny reaction and choose not to act on it, but can we ever somehow banish the reaction entirely? Deep feelings are very difficult to defuse; think sexual jealousy.

Racism may be a tougher challenge than any of us are willing to admit.

August 1, 2006: Sequestering Carbon in Odd Places

We've released a great deal of CO2 into the atmosphere in the last 100-odd years, and although it may not account for all of the bizarre weather we've seen in recent years—livestock methane and small changes in the Sun's luminosity almost certainly have some effect—CO2 is the biggie. We've actually begun to talk about deliberately sequestering carbon somewhere other than the atmosphere.

Some of these plans strike me as ridiculous, like a recent Japanese proposal to pump CO2 and store it under pressure underground. Besides being a health risk far worse than a nuclear meltdown (a sudden eruption of massive amounts of CO2 turned loose by an earthquake could quickly asphyxiate tens or hundreds of thousands of people) pumping the stuff underground takes energy, and with only a few exceptions, industrial quantities of energy come from oxidizing carbon. Duhh!

Others strike me as extremely promising, like salting the southern Pacific Ocean with trace amounts (50 parts per trillion) of iron. That part of the ocean is deficient in iron compared to much of the rest of our ocean area, and certain types of diatoms with calciferous bodies breed only slowly there. With only a little more iron in the water, the diatoms reproduce furiously, die, and sink to the ocean bottom, carrying a certain amount of calcium carbonate with them. The chemical leverage is apparently enormous: A few gallons of iron salts can trigger the sequestration—using purely solar power and no altered living organisms—of hundreds of tons of carbon. This has been tested, and I think the opposition from environmentalists stems from the fact that it seems to have no downside and would allow our carbon orgy to continue. (If the ecophonies would quit opposing nuclear and hydro, we might actually make some progress without any help from the poor diatoms.)

Without thinking of it as such, we've actually been sequestering major amounts of carbon for a long time, in a number of odd places. The vast majority of materials buried in landfills contain carbon, and even backing out the plastics (which do not pull CO2 from the air) the amount of paper, grass clippings, and food scraps is immense, and apparently does not decompose very quickly when buried properly. Another place is in housing. Virtually all new detached housing these days uses wood frame construction. (Chicago-style fired clay bricks are energy-intensive and expensive, and are actually an artifact of cheap natural gas energy in the middle decades of the 20th century.) Houses stand for a long time, and when they are razed, the debris is generally buried.

We now have almost as many forested acres in the United States as we did when the Europeans arrived, especially in the eastern states, where marginal farmland has returned to hardwood forest with a vengeance. Oak trees pack a lot of carbon, and even though it's a long-horizon project, we should be planting more of them everywhere we can. (Whatever happened to Arbor Day?) Simply using less gas, coal, and oil is a good thing, but it's not enough to save our bacon at this point. We need to be pulling carbon out of the air anyway we can, in tremendous quantities.

By the way, I've been keeping my eyes open for good figures on how much carbon (in terms of gallons of gasoline, tons of coal, or cubic feet of natural gas) is present in a single average frame house or cubic yard of grass clippings or old newspapers and magazines, but haven't found anything yet. Do send me pointers to data like that if you find it.