December 31, 2002:

How do we characterize a year? What will we remember about 2002? It's the last palindromic year until 2112, even though we just had one a few years ago, in 1991. (What's so special about us that we should merit two such rare creatures in only eleven years? Most people live and die without ever seeing one.) There was a wondrous Leonid meteor storm in November, albeit one marred by a full moon.

And me? It was the year I developed a taste for salt licorice. It was the year I wrote (most) of a brand new solo book, my first since 1989. (No, my novel doesn't count, sigh.) It was the year The Coriolis Group died, and Paraglyph Press rose from the bitter ash. It was the year we decided to sell this house and build a new, custom house in Colorado Springs, with category five network cable in every room. (I know too much about Wi-Fi to depend on it exclusively!) It was the year I first set foot in Germany, and found the name of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christof Duntemann 1687-1738. It was the year I turned 50, and discovered that 50 isn't so bad after all—especially with a spouse as grand as Carol standing by my side.

It was the first year in several in which no one in our family died. Deo gratias.

All-in-all, a pretty good, slightly dull (especially in technology) but reasonably upbeat year. One could dwell on the economy, or the looming pushover of Iraq, or whatever one might choose to focus on as the herald of the eschaton. But the world's still here, and I am pleased to report many small victories: Coriolis renegades getting jobs, the entry of brand new friends like Valerie Kane and David Beers, falling prices on computers and networking gear, baby quail drinking from the water bowl, and a quiet sense that perhaps things aren't as bad as we've become used to assuming.

Carol and I will be heading over to visit friends in a few minutes, to see out this good year and hope for a better one, palindromic or not. Good luck to all of you who read this, and thanks for stopping by and listening to this bald-headed middle-aged white boy wander on about the world at large. You mean more to me than I expect you'll ever understand.

So let's turn the page and continue the story. The book is good, and many chapters are left. No one knows the ending, but y'know, I just have this hunch that the best is yet to come.
December 29, 2002:

Esther Schindler sent me a link to a site that presents Star Wars Origami. It's one of those things that I suppose anybody could do, but to see it done this well (for example, Master Yoda at left) is properly astonishing. Elsewhere on the site are most of the major spacecraft of the five episodes so far, an Imperial Walker, R2D2, a destroyer droid, the Death Star, and a few other odds and ends.

Mercifully, there is no attempt at Senator Padme, Senator (!!) Jar Jar Binks, or Anakin Skywalker. Also surprisingly, nobody tried to do an origami lightsaber. C'mon, guys, get with it!
December 27, 2002:

Carol and I speak frequently of "comfort food," that is, food that we associate with the sense of comfort, security, and belonging of childhood. It's different things for different people; for her it was pork roast, for me it was beef barley soup (see my entry for January 26, 2001) and Jello instant chocolate pudding.

I was out in the garage today, and in looking at my 1960's-vintage Triplett multimeter, I realize that it's a sort of "comfort meter." I have a modern Fluke digital voltmeter (DVM) with far greater precision and the near-infinite input isolation of a vacuum-tube voltmeter (VTVM) but I just don't love it as much. About all I can figure is that the Triplett was the meter that all of us preteen electronics nerds lusted after in 1965 but could never afford. (I recall it costing well over 100 1965 dollars in the 1965 Allied Radio drool book.) I bought a Triplett on the used market five or six years ago, and I use it in prefererence to all the other odd DVMs I have lying around, including my far superior Fluke. It just feels right somehow; trustworthy, comprehensible, and—dare I admit it?—a badge of success. I couldn't own one in 1965, but I have one now. And while it's true that an analog meter (one with a needle that moves) can show you changes in voltage or current with far more clarity than unmoving digits on an LCD display, I don't think that's adequate to explain my affection for it. It reminds me of wanting to be an electronics ace instead of a lonely 12-year-old, and now that I am an electronics ace (and a successful 50-year-old with a loving wife and cool house and all the resistors I can ever use) it reminds me that I won that particular war. Yes, a comfort meter. Everybody should have one.
December 25, 2002:

The Christmas bubbler is still bubbling (see yesterday's entry) and Christmas day dawned bright, clear, and cold here. (Ok, cold for Arizona. 37°.) I'm taking a few days off writing on my book, which is almost done anyway, to enjoy the Christmas season with Carol and decompress. I've written almost 120,000 words in less than six months, and I'm a little tired. Carol and I wish you all the best this Christmas season, and a new year with a little more sizzle and a little less frazzle.(My #1 New Year's resolution, furthermore, is to start taking my own advice.)

So. What is Christmas? Let's get past all the ugly arguments about whether Jesus Christ ever lived, or even granting that, whether he was God. Faith seems to touch some and pass others by, and that's a mystery we may never crack in this life. Whatever else you may make of it, Christmas is the start of a very good story: of a God who entered a terribly flawed world in order to rekindle Hope. He did it by becoming one of us, and in the course of His life faced all the hassles that we have to face: growing up, temptation, hard work, suffering, frustration, betrayal, lonliness, and death. And on the end of it all he added the profound strangeness of resurrection, to remind us that even death isn't the end.

Some characterize Christian history as the tension between Faith and Love, Paul and James, Augustine and Pelagius, damnation and salvation. True enough, and it's an interesting history, if darker than I like to think. Still, that's history; i.e., 20-20 hindsight. I differ with most of my Christian fellows in that I think the ending of the story has never been in doubt: Nothing will be wasted, no one will be left behind, God never loses. Period. Perhaps that makes me the sole member of the Pollyannic Old Catholic Church, but if so, hey, I could do worse.

On this beautiful Christmas Day, I exhort you to Hope. Not only is the universe stranger than we can possibly imagine, it is also better than we can possibly understand. There are more than a few surprises left in store. Good luck and keep plugging. Don't sit there staring at the glass and wondering, Is it half full or half empty? Instead, try and figure out where you're going to put the overflow!
December 24, 2002

Everybody loves stories of Christmas miracles; well, here's ours. Some years ago someone gave us a Christmas night light: One of those Fifties-style bubbler lights with a ceramic Santa riding on it, mounted on a little base that you plug into an electric outlet. We plugged it in this Christmas about two weeks ago, and after bubbling for a day and a night, it stopped. Now, I thought I understood the physics of those things (it's a glass tube of ether heated by a light bulb) but it's kind of a head-scratcher why one of them would decide to stop bubbling if the glass tube were intact and the bulb still burning.

Cute as it is, we were going to pitch it—and then, yeserday afternoon, it started bubbling again, and this morning it's still going strong.

Miracle? Or physics? I think I know. I challenge you to figure it out as well. Think about it and send me a note!
December 21, 2002:

From the No Honor Among Thieves department: The last really successful song-swapping service, Kazaa, is being pursued around the world by the music industry, who are having a very hard time convincing several foreign governments that it should be stamped out. (The rulers of Tuvalu, whereverthehell that is, don't have the same priorities as Hollywood, and on the balance that's a good thing.) Interestingly, that's the way the creators of Kazaa intended to do it, having watched Napster and Audiogalaxy get pulverized by the RIAA.

Now, Kazaa faces an entirely different threat: An enterprising and more-or-less anonymous Russian chap has taken a copy of the ad-supported Kazaa peer-to-peer client program, stripped out the ad support, and is freely distributing the ad-free Kazaa as Kazaa Lite. I tested Kazaa well over a year ago, found it wanting (it turned up none of the sort of unobtanium I used to search for on the song sites) and the adware made me crazy. I downloaded Kazaa Lite to see the truth of the story, and yup, it's really Kazaa minus the ads. I can't imagine that over another few months, Kazaa Lite won't completely replace Kazaa itself, and without the ads the business model evaporates. What all the money and lawyers in Hollywood couldn't do, an anonymous hacker with some assembly smarts and a debugger may accomplish. What a crazy business. I think my assembly language book (which I considered almost a throwaway when I wrote it back in 1989) has a long and vigorous life ahead of it.
December 20, 2002:

Well, Joss Whedon's "SciFi-Western" Firefly has been officially cancelled by Fox, and barring an unforseen resurrection on some other network (fans mutter about UPN) tonight's episode will be the last. This is a shame, as it was the first truly compelling piece of TV I've seen in almost fifteen years, since Carol and I used to watch Thirtysomething and The Wonder Years while brushing dogs back in Scotts Valley.

I had a little fun with the show in my September 21, 2002 entry, but in truth that first episode was one of the weaker ones. Most of the shows had very little "western" in them, and the better ones, in fact, were the ones that had none at all. The writing was generally intelligent, though the show's creators dance lightly explaining how they flit from star to star so quickly. (There is no mention of hyperdrives of any flavor.) The show makes some odd assumptions, like an insistence that "real" fruits and vegetables will be rare and expensive, even on rural fringe planets that do little else but farming. (The luscious Jewel Staite ate a fat strawberry in tonight's episode with such skillful longing that it came close to being erotica.) That's just stupid, and in a craft the size of Serenity they could easily manage a hydroponics garden if they were that hungry for tomatoes.

On the other hand, the CGI starships and planetscapes were startlingly good, and the gritty reality of life in the 2600s was very convincing. Some have objected to the western motifs, like having people ride horses out to meet a starship. Well, duhh: Until two Hummers can get together and make a third without human intervention, people will continue to ride horses. I think Captain Malcolm Reynolds' long-barrelled revolver is perhaps an objectionable anachronism. On the other hand, all the other guns look acceptably modern and high-tech, especially the frightening monstrosity Adam Baldwin trots out with relish anytime he can.

I keep comparing Firefly to the Trek shows, with the hideous cardboard acting, aliens who look mostly like ugly humans, and worst of all, a mocking doubletalk attitude toward science that drove me away from the franchise early on: "Captain, I've just detected a previously unknown subspace endoelectrochronic stream of hyperquantum radiation that, if I can stretch this explanation out long enough, may get us out of this plot complication!" There's really no comparison. Trek was bold and innovative in 1966, when I saw it first-run. Having a bald captain in Trek's second coming was about as clever as it got, and even Jean Luc got boring soon after. The writing on Firefly was pretty good, the acting even better, and once I figured out the show's conventions, it all hung together remarkably well. I startle to watch myself write the following sentence: I'm going to miss watching TV every Friday night...

December 19, 2002:

While searching for a book on Amazon today, their ever-present referral machinery posted a list of other things I might like, under the heading, "Customers who wear clothes also shop for..." Yes, I've been known to wear clothes on occasion, as do most people I know—like, well, all of them. I flashed back to a dopey article I read somewhere back in the 1970s, predicting the imminent demise of underwear. The author breathlessly told me, "You'd be surprised how many people are completely naked under their clothes!"

Nope. Not surprised at all.
December 17, 2002:

Still plugging hard on the book—I wrote an entire 5300-word chapter yesterday, from beginning to end, and drew five Visio figures for it, all in one screaming 12 1/2 hour day. I hope to get the last of it done and turned in within a week, and although I might miss it, I won't miss it by much.

My ad-hoc problem seems to be one of hostname propagation. Although I can ping any IP from any other IP, one of my Win2K machines can't ping any hostname in the ad-hoc group but its own. Any ideas where I should look? Admittedly, I don't have time to poke deeply at it right now, but eventually I have to figure this one out.
December 15, 2002:

There's an odd little corner of Wi-Fi functionality that almost nobody writes anything about: "Ad-hoc" mode, in which multiple client adapters (like laptops with wireless cards installed) connect directly with one another without the intermediation of an access point. All of the Wi-Fi books I've bought (which by now is nearly all of them) mention it as something that Wi-Fi hardware can do, but none of them explains how to set it up.

I think I now know why: Windows isn't a real ace at dealing with an underlying ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection. I have four Windows machines here, and today I tried getting them all to cooperate in a single ad-hoc network. Three of them are Windows 2000 machines, and the fourth is my new, tiny XP machine, which I described here in my October 22, 2002 entry. Ordinarily they cooperate just fine when they're talking to my router over CAT5 cable. Disable the router and all the wired network adapters, and they just can't all get into an ad-hoc connection. Two of the Win2K machines establish a network perfectly with one another, and can be found via explorer in My Network Places. I can browse and move files between them as on the wired network. The other two show up in My Network Places by name, but when I try to browse their shares I get an error block reading "\\Nutmeg (or whatever) is not accessible. The network path was not found."

The wireless Ethernet connection itself (OSI levels 1 and 2) seems to be intact and fully functional. (It's a great deal like the old Thinnet architecture, with machines on a string of coax, in fact, in that everybody sees everybody's traffic and shares common bandwidth.) All machines have APIPA running and everybody is giving himself an IP in the same block/subnet. The third Win2K machine can ping and be pinged but I can't browse its shares from the other machines. (I can browse its shares from its own explorer windows, however.) And my damned XP machine seems to want to stand apart from everybody, won't ping, can't be pinged.

I'll be the last to call myself a networking expert, but I'm not all that dumb, and the four misfits talk very well among themselves when they're all on the router via cable. Any suggestions? I suspect I need to learn more about XP networking, but I'm pretty comfortable with Win2K. Where should I look? What should I try? Have any of you had any similar problems with Wi-Fi ad-hoc mode? Or I am only the seventeenth person in history ever to attempt to use it?
December 14, 2002:

The problem with legislating morality is that legislation is almost invariably flawed, and bad laws mandating moral behavior deprecate the whole idea of morality. Inside nearly all modern laws you'll see shadows of the back rooms in which laws are forged: Biases, agendas, vendettas, and compromises cut to break deadlocks between opposing factions. Morality, if it is to have any meaning at all, must transcend such things, because if it doesn't, it loses whatever authority it might have by appealing to our higher human impulses.

Basically, coat a golden idol in filth and no one will worship it. Politics as we know it today may be necessary filth, but it's still filth, and unless we can persuade people that there is objective value in acting morally (other than the negative value of not being thrown in the slammer) morality merges with politics and becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the filth. Moral education (which is really about personal integrity and not just sex; sex, in fact, is a relatively small part of it) has mostly gone away, and that is probably the greatest single threat to democracy that we have.
December 13, 2002:

Slashdot reports persistent rumors that Microsoft will try to buy Borland early next year. This is appalling for a lot of reasons, overwhelmingly because it will mean the end of Delphi and Kylix. Microsoft has done this sort of thing before: They bought FoxPro, a decent database manager, and then starved it to death while relentlessly promoting Access.

Not much competes with Visual Basic these days except Delphi. One would think this sort of thing would be at the heart of antitrust challenges, but still they fuss endlessly over whether or not you can get rid of Internet Explorer, as though that's the only thing Microsoft ever did that matters.
December 12, 2002:

I'm usually the guy who gets all the email viruses here (and that's "gets" as in "receives") but this morning Carol got one that I haven't seen before, and it's novel not for the sake of the virus (which was plain old garden-variety Klez) but for the social engineering it represented.

It was a fake bounced email, allegedly of a message Carol sent to someone whose email address is unknown to us. It was from "Postmaster" with all the usual verbiage you get from email server robots when mail bounces, yatta yatta yatta. Inside the body of the fake message it said, "The message body is in the attachment." In a holdover from our dialup days, Carol leaves message attachments on the server unless she feels they're worth downloading; this because one of our friends had the habit of sending out inspirational pictures etc. on a regular basis, some of which were immense. So the attachment never came down, but the name of the attachment (all.scr) set off some alarms in my head.

People who do a lot of email might be scratching their heads looking at the email from which the message had allegedly bounced, wondering, "Now who the hell was that?" The next step, of course, is to open the bounced email and look at it, at which point (at least for those without virus protection) all.scr executes, and the game is over—simply because Windows thinks "open" should mean "execute."

Brilliant scam. Now shall we go out, find, and exile to Iraq (or better yet, North Korea) the guy who decided that "Open" should mean "Execute?" In my view, "open" means "examine the data" as in "look at what this thing is made of." To open a binary should mean display a hexdump, not run the damned thing. A great deal of what is wrong with computing today (including most of what we call "adverse execution") comes from that simple "mistake." I guess it's too late to fix it, though somebody could probably make some money selling an Outlook Express clone that would "open" attachments without running them. Any takers out there?
December 9, 2002:

Doing a tough schedule on the Wi-Fi book still, so entries will remain a little sparse for a couple of weeks yet.

I did see in this morning's Wall Street Journal that New Line Cinema, having made over a billion dollars so far on Lord of the Rings, has optioned His Dark Materials and has begun work on a screenplay. The first film would appear in 2005. One must smile: Will they dare to depict God the Father as a doddering old man who falls out of his sedan chair and crumbles to dust?

Also, I didn't know until this morning that New Line Cinema had originally been formed 35 years ago to distribute the famous Depression-era propaganda short, Reefer Madness, to college campuses. I saw it back in 1971 or so and considered it less funny than sad. Truth has suffered the most in the drug wars, with the rule of law close behind.

Coming to a personal position on stuff like marijuana has been difficult here. Neither drugs nor booze have ever held much attraction for me, and I've often wondered why these primal pleasures get such a fatal grip on certain people and not others. The big question is really balancing the rights of a free people to do what they choose against the inevitable problem of people who can't help making bad decisions and thereby destroy themselves. I'm not willing to simply throw such people to the wolves, as the Ayn Rand crowd thinks we must. On the other hand, destroying young lives for posessing small amounts of what may have no worse effects than alchohol is no less cruel and makes the law look arbitrary and corrupt. What to do? I don't know. Like so much in this troubled age, there may be no answer at all.
December 5, 2002:

United Airlines is in very serious trouble, and if its mechanics union doesn't agree to significant pay cuts and other cost reductions, the airline will probably go into receivership. Most people haven't paid a lot of attention to United's plight, but there's something remarkable going on: a plebiscite of sorts on employee ownership of large corporations. 55% of United is owned by its employees, including its unionized employees, and its unions are in a really odd spot: Schooled in the ancient art of adversary relationships, they are meeting the enemy, and they are them—and they don't quite know how to deal with it.

Insiders tell us that United's unions have had second and third thoughts about owning the operation. Certainly, controlling the board of directors and having veto power over most major corporate decisions would seem to be hawg heaven for a union. On the other hand, once costs spiral completely out of sync with the market for what is really a commodity product (air travel) who can the unions blame? It's just not in their book of standard operating procedures.

Employees hold stock, but if the airline goes into bankruptcy proceedings, that stock becomes effectively worthless. So the mechanics could destroy the whole grand experiment, not only for themselves but for all the rest of United's staff as well. The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that that was actually what the mechanics were after: To call a halt to it, take their lumps, and be ready to come back when the airline is reorganized—as outsiders. You can't be an adversary to the guy in the mirror, heh.

I've heard it said in many places that you don't really own what you can't sell, and under that philosophy ESOP (employee stock ownership plans) aren't really ownership at all. That may also be what rankles the unions: They got what they thought were ownership and control, but in terms of the free market they actually got neither.

United will probably go under and return. There are still hubs, and planes, and plenty of demand. What there won't be next time is employee ownership. There are often reasons that things are the way they are, and that's one of the things that worthy experiments—like this one—should tell us.
December 3, 2002:

I've been reading the reactions of others to His Dark Materials, and I think I may have seriously misread its intent. It's really not fantasy at all, but science fiction, and much less metaphysical in nature than I originally thought. So let me think about it for a bit before commenting further.

In the meantime, I rented and have been walking to the extended version of Part 1 of The Lord of the Rings. It was interesting to see the scenes that were readmitted to the film after (presumably) being swept up off the cutting room floor. There's a little more footage of life in the Shire, and considerably more of Lorien, including an initial view that redeems it a little from the dour gloom that most of its scenes convey. I confess I don't much like the way they portrayed Galadriel, but apart from that it's about as perfect an adaptation to film from text that I've ever seen. There was more butchery of orcs at Amon Hen (which I'm sure I could have done without) and a couple of glimpses of Gollum that I don't recall from the original, though Carol reminds me that I unwisely guzzled a sizeable Diet Pepsi at lunch last December and had to run out and pee twice during the film, which has no intermissions.

I wonder if anyone noticed any footage cut from the original theatrical release? I noticed the absence of only one sliver of a scene: During the battle in Moria, after the first wave of orcs gets cut down, Boromir (with an odd tone and a slightly goofy look on his face) says, "They've got a cave troll!" That was cut from the extended version.

The Two Towers will be in theaters in about ten days or so, and I confess, I can't hardly wait. It's true, there's way more battle scenes in the second book than I'd like, but now we get to see the Ents—and they're one of my favorite parts of the whole trilogy.

Definitely rent the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring before seeing The Two Towers. Highly recommended.
December 2, 2002:

I finished Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy last night. I can describe it with two words: Audacious...and bungled.

Audacious, because it's a conflation of Paradise Lost, David Brin, and Gnostic dualism. Nominally, it's about a megalomaniac human being who attemps to mount an attack on God the Father Himself (actually, the subdivine Gnostic uberangel called the Demiurge) and two 12-year-old kids who have cool adventures in several different universes. The trilogy represents, in fact, two almost entirely distinct stories, one of which is brought to completion, while the other sort of fizzles on the sidewalk like a Fourth-of-July snake pellet after a few seconds of interestingly pyrotechnic twists and turns.

The first book, titled The Golden Compass in the United States (Northern Lights elsewhere) is pretty good. The second book, The Subtle Knife, is terrific. The third book, The Amber Spyglass, is a total botch. The problem is pretty obvious to me, since I've faced the very same challenge: How to pull together a few too many plot threads at the end of the epic, with all the loose ends neatly tied up. Here, some ends are tucked in a little, some are chopped off rudely in the middle, and a few are left completelty hanging.

Oh, and not delivering what you promise—that's another problem. I was expecting a totally cosmic battle of good versus evil, waged on both the physical and metaphysical planes. Instead I got zeppelins shooting at helicopters somewhere over Siberia. I was promised a reprise of the Temptation in the Garden of Eden, and got...nothing, as far as I can tell. Pullman forgot that thread completely. Toward the end of the epic, his metaphysics started to get inconsistent, and looked more and more like Harry Potter. Not good.

It's always hazardous to guess the metal state of the author, but I got the distinct impression that somewhere along the way, he lost his taste for the cosmic battle stuff, and really wanted to concentrate on the relationship between the two kids. I think his publisher may also have been pressuring him to wrap it up already. There was easily another entire book's worth of material he could have done, and I would have bought it, read it, and enjoyed it. Another book, if well-crafted, might, in fact, have saved the story's bacon in the end.

The other objection I have to the book is that it is extraordinarily dark, and full of pain and death. By the middle of The Amber Spyglass, I was thinking that if this were a Greek tragedy, the stage would be thigh-deep in corpses. There is no humor, no exhilaration, very little triumph, and no love that isn't ultimately tragic. Do we want our 12-year-olds reading that sort of thing?

More tomorrow.
December 1, 2002:

Back in Scottsdale. While we were in Chicago last week, my sister gave me the recipe for beef stew as she learned it from my mother, and today Carol and I set out to duplicate it, with pork instead of beef. We've done well with my mother's beef soup and my father's hamburger-macaroni-veggie stir fry thing he called "gumgash" and it was time to try something new.

We needed potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, and an apple. So Carol sent me off to Safeway, and then, in the far corner of the produce department, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what a parsnip looked like. I'd eaten them at home often enough (usually in stew) but by the time I got to them they were little cubes of stuff that looked like yellowish potato. In their native form, well, I was clueless.

Safeway didn't help. In what I called the "minority vegetable case" there were several little bins of odd-looking plant organisms, arranged in a cluster three deep. Above the cluster were several price tags arranged linearly: Artichokes, ginger root, rutabaga, parsnips, horseradish, turnips, kohlrabi, and something Mexican-looking whose name I have forgotten. now find the parsnips...

I knew artichokes, turnips, and horseradish by sight, and I tagged the ginger root with a quick sniff test. So it was down to rutabaga, kohlrabi, that Mexican thing, and parsnips. Clueless. I suppose I could have asked the produce manager and looked totally stupid, but just then a middle-aged woman rolled her cart up to the veggie case and grabbed a couple of artichokes. I said, "Excuse me, do you think the parsnips look fresh enough to use in stew?"

She grabbed this carroty looking thing, turned it in front of her face, and said, "Sure. I've seen better, but they're not bad."

I thanked her, threw two of what she'd grabbed into a plastic bag, and went home happy.