February 28, 2001:

Ash Wednesday. In honor of the day (and to put the wraps on February) allow me to present a filk dredged up somewhere by my good friend and Old Catholic Sibyl Smirl:


( Sung to the tune of "My Favorite Things" )

Sackcloth and ashes, and days without eating;
Mortification and wailing and weeping;
A hair shirt that scratches, a nettle that stings;
These are a few of my favorite things.

Penitence, flagellants, memento mori;
Spending nights sleeping on rocks in a quarry;
The sound of a cloak'd solemn cantor who sings;
These are still more of my favorite things.

Tossing and turning and yearning I'm spurning,
Passions aflame like an ember day burning,
Corpus and carnis and wild drunken flings,
Forsaken are they for my favorite things!

When it's Christmas,
When the tree's lit,
When the cards are sent;
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I can't wa-a-a-a-it till Lent!

February 27, 2001:
Just got back from an extended wander (with an interruption for a Coriolis sales meeting) and that's why I haven't posted here recently, even though I've been taking notes as I've found myself in front of one keyboard or another. Today is Mardi Gras, and I took little notice. These days (at least in the United States) Carnival has mostly devolved to a horde of drunken louts yelling "Show us your tits!" even when there isn't a woman in sight, then throwing up in the gutter and somehow calling it a good time. No thanks. George Bush has just pre-empted That Seventies Show, and it's raining. Here. In Scottsdale. Time is out of joint. I'm going to bed.
February 26, 2001:
As many of my correspondents have pointed out, the Secret Service is part of the Treasury Department, and has been sniffing out funny money since 1865, long before they were assigned the thankless task of keeping whackos from wasting the President. (See my February 19 entry.) This odd coupling was a historical accident, and happened much later: It wasn't until 1902, in the wake of the assasination of William McKinley, that the Secret Service became the presidential bodyguard. There's an excellent history and timeline on the agency's Web page. Jim Mischel tells me that the FBI was formed out of the Secret Service, but the history doesn't mention that, nor why protecting the President didn't go along with the new agency.
February 25, 2001:

My sister Gretchen and I attended Mass this morning at the Polish National Catholic Church's midwest cathedral, on Higgins Road just east of O'Hare Field near Chicago. The PNCC is perhaps the oldest single American denomination in the Old Catholic movement, dating back to 1895. It was at one point the largest as well, with many hundreds of parishes and perhaps a quarter million adherents in its heyday, during the 1920's and 1930s. The PNCC has a bit of an identity crisis these days, since the reasons for its creation—the systematic mistreatment of Polish immigrants by the Irish clergy who ruled the Roman Catholic Church in America—have long since vanished. We now have a Polish pope, and he won't make that mistake again.

So the PNCC has shrunk a lot, and is no longer overwhelmingly Polish. In fact, in those areas that do not have a large ethnic Polish presence, the PNCC calls itself the National Catholic Church (NCC) and it is the NCC parish in Phoenix that Carol and I ordinarily attend.

But the All Saints Cathedral Parish of the PNCC was interesting, because it was the first English language Tridentine sung high Mass I have ever seen. The Tridentine liturgy is the Mass as it was celebrated prior to the Second Vatican Council. The Roman Catholic Church celebrated the Mass in Latin then, but translations of the Tridentine liturgy have long been used by Old Catholic groups, in many languages including Dutch, German, French, Polish, Lithuanian, and English.

The All Saints altar is in the old style, against the back wall, and the priest faces the altar during the Mass, as was done until the Novus Ordo (New Order) Mass was promulgated in 1965. And a High Mass, of course, is one in which most of the prayers are sung. This time they were sung in English, and it was a strange rush to see the altar boys follow rubrics that I followed as an altar boy in 1963.

Masses at All Saints are held Sundays at 8:30 and 11:00. The cathedral is at 9201 W. Higgins Road, Chicago IL 60631-2706. 773-380-0528. Their theology is humane and sensible (with the single exception that they do not ordain women to the priesthood) especially surrounding issues like divorce and birth control.

As I visit additional Old Catholic communities around the country, I'll describe them here.
February 24, 2001:

A bichon frise won "best in show" this week in the Westminster dog show, probably the most prestigious in the country, and the dog show skewered in the recent screwball comedy Best in Show. (See my February 4 entry.) Certainly bichons are not as obscure as they were twenty years ago, but I still don't think they're quite a household word. That said, a bichon puppy appeared as early as 1966 in, of all things, the Playboy centerfold for June of that year. The poor thing (named, I kid you not, "Toy Tiger") was held high above Kelly Burke's unobstructed suntan, in the only space on the centerfold where you could be absolutely sure that nobody was looking.

As most of my long-time readers know, Carol and I had bichons in the house for almost nineteen years. The famous Mr. Byte (and the not-so-famous Chewy) were incredible dogs; gentle, funny, affectionate, and long-lived. (Chewy made it to 16 years, 4 months.) People still write and ask me how Mr. Byte is, having read of him in one of my books, even though the Byter left us in April 1995. The photo at left shows Mr. Byte mugging for the camera from his accustomed place in my lap, back in November 1990. He'd just gotten groomed (professionally—do not try this at home!) and looks about as good as he ever did.

Chewy was more the ragamuffin. We had him groomed too, but somehow his hair tended to go its own way the same afternoon, and he was definitely the scruff in the family. The photo below shows Chewy at one of our parties, hanging out on the couch, waiting for somebody to take pity on him and give him an onion ring. The legs in green, by the way, are those of Kathy Lancaster, daughter of TTL Cookbook author Don Lancaster, who used to come to our parties back when we had parties, sigh.

After we lost our last little dog Max a few weeks ago (Max was not a bichon, but he was still a great dog) people have been asking if we're going to get into the bichon circus again. Probably—but not this year. Maybe not next year. But sooner or later, another furball will arrive here, and I have this funny suspicion that that inevitable little furball will be white.
February 23, 2001:

Certain words have mythic connotations that interfere with our ability to think rationally about them: Nuclear, genetically modified, cloned. I've been fascinated by the degree of nonsense expressed in people's comments posted in various places (like Slashdot and Plastic, another Slash site) concerning cloning, things that get so ridiculous as to whether clones will have two souls or only one.

Sheesh, let's get a grip. I have known several clones in my 48 years. They're called identical twins, which are true clones of one another, as they are genetically identical. (Identical twins happen when a blastula splits within the first few hours after fertilization. The key is that both individuals originated with one sperm and one egg cell.) We've watched the identical twin sons of our friends Pat and Sue Thurman grow up over the past 11 years, since they were small boys of ten. They are now adults in college, and what is significant about them is how very different they are, not only in terms of personality, but even in their appearance. They looked much more alike when they were little. Apparently, twins begin to diverage at birth, when the environment takes hold of them and their circumstances begin shaping them. So this business of armies of identical cloned humans (who are usually and inexplicably portrayed in fiction as empty-headed near-zombies) is ridiculous.

Higher animals (including humans) appear to be emergent phenomena. You start with a particular genetic signature, but how a given organism develops increasingly depends on external factors as time goes on. Identical twins appear to have common tendencies (perhaps a drift toward plumpness, or facility with language or a musical instrument) but their major differences result from choices consciously made. Some amazing flukes have appeared in identical twins studies (and these have gotten all the press) but a closer reading shows the similarities to be pretty mundane by middle age.

And so it would be with clones. The real problem with cloning isn't the people we would clone, but how we would see them: I have little tolerance for those who say we should create clones of ourselves and then freeze them as a spare parts trove, as though there were no distinct humanity in a cloned individual. (Hence the nonsense about clones having one soul or two.) I read somewhere (forgot where; I can only keep so much trivia straight in my head) of a guy who wanted to clone himself, but modify his XY chromosomes so that his clone would be a female version of himself, just to see what he would be like had he been born a girl. (This would be a long, expensive project...some people seem to think you can grow a clone to adulthood in a hydroponic tank in a couple of weeks.)

Stuff like this is the true cost of ignorance. I would write it off as blather except that we will eventually be able to clone large animals (including humans) without a great deal of trouble. I think that small children will eventually be produced by people who won't consider them fully human—and that, my friends, will be a very big problem.
February 22, 2001:
I may have an agent to represent my SF novel. One catch: He's Japanese, and he doesn't generally attempt to represent books in the American publishing market, though he has cut some deals in the UK. So I may be in the peculiar position of having The Cunning Blood appear first in Japanese. This won't be the first time I've been translated into foreign languages. My Pascal, Delphi, and assembly language books have appeared in most major languages, and even some minor ones like Croatian. But this will be the first time that one of my books will have appeared first in a language other than English. My main hope is that having the novel published successfully in Japanese will prompt one of the American publishers to pick it up. Let us pray.
February 21, 2001:

There are more problems in the music industry than those caused by the continually vilified (and mostly guilty) record labels. In more and more places, "big box" stories like Wal Mart are driving small retailers out of business—including those wonderfully scruffy, enthusiast-owned record stores that are willing to stock alternative and peculiar discs from unknown bands. More and more, what the public can buy (especially in small towns) is only what Wal Mart chooses to offer, and especially in categories like books and CDs, that's a very bad thing. One crank who takes exception to some CD his teenager brought home can write a letter of complaint and get that band pulled from Wal Mart stores across the country, which might represent 50% of that band's retail presence.

I'm not fond of rap and death metal and things like that, but I also think that art should have a freer market than commodities like bath towels and cotton socks. As retailing consolidates into monster national chains, more and more goods-stocking decisions rest in fewer and fewer hands, resulting in quirky distribution, especially for books and music that aren't perceived as "mainstream", whatever that is.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I've always favored free markets, and people sometimes question how I can hold that position and still be an antitrust hawk. It's pretty simple: Free markets are defined by the degree of freedom the consumer has to choose the goods to be purchased. They are not defined as the freedom of retailers to do business any way they choose. These two freedoms used to correlate pretty closely, but as the number of retailers falls, the two freedoms begin to diverge. They are now diverging rapidly.
February 20, 2001:
Fonts have been a problem here lately, mostly because (like a total idiot) I didn't back out all the .TTF files in my WINNT/FONTS folder before I nuked the hard drive and installed Win2K over NT4. One peculiarity of NT4 (I haven't yet tested Win2K for this) is that when you install an app that installs fonts, and later uninstall that app, the fonts remain in the FONTS folder. So over time (and I had used NT4 since it was first released) you build up quite a collection of fonts on your system. This morning I went to print my business cards (which I had laid out in Visio 2000) and discovered that the main font I used (Felix Titling) was no longer on my system, gone with the Win2K upgrade. Arrgh! I have no idea what app originally installed Felix Titling—that information isn't stored with the fonts as best I know, even in the registry. (Of course, in my case the registry was nuked with the rest of NT4 when I reformatted prior to the Win2K upgrade.) I sniffed around on the file sharing networks but didn't find it, and I'll probably have to adjust the layout when I locate something similar. The lesson here: Archive your FONTS folder before doing a "fresh" (i.e., "nuke it all and reinstall") operating system install.
February 19, 2001:

Years ago, in an election year, (I want to say 1980) we attended a science fiction convention that by chance took place immediately before the Republican National Convention, at the same hotel. Carol and I were leaving on an early flight, and at 5:15AM we boarded an elevator to the lobby. Already on the elevator was a tall stern man in a black suit, with ominous bulges in various places. He looked us over carefully but seemed to find no cause for alarm. (I have long wondered what emotion the dudes in the Klingon costumes—or those dressed in Rocky Horror drag—elicited in him.) As we descended, I met his calculated gaze and said, "Secret service?" He grinned a calculated grin and made what is probably the perfect response: "Well, if I told you, it wouldn't be a secret, now, would it?"

Long on my list of secondary topics to research is why the Secret Service has as its twofold mission the challenge of protecting the President and tracking down counterfeiters. You would think that looking for funny money would be a job for the FBI, or perhaps a security force aligned with the Treasury and thus connected with the guys who make real money. X Files notwithstanding, it's the CIA that looks out for aliens. (As UFO partisans know too well, the CIA's fingerprints are all over government documents connected wth UFO sightings, a truth I have always found hilarious.)

This is a weird division of labor, and I imagine the heads of all the various agencies gathering in a windowless room to pull job descriptions out of a hat. "CIA gets the UFOs," someone says as a guy in dark glasses swallows his slip of paper. "All that leaves is protecting the President. Who hasn't pulled a second job yet?" And over in the corner, the guy who pulled counterfeiting on the first round is trying to look invisible...
February 18, 2001:

My brother-in-law Bill Roper pointed out to me that the TrueType font Goudy Old Style is extremely close to the MVOldStyle font I've been using in my book layout experiments. (See my entry for January 2, 2001.) He's right—take a look:

These were both set at 34 points, using Fireworks, and then converted to a bitmap. Note that the MV font is very slightly larger, and very slightly bolder. The glyphs are almost identical, except for the lower-case "f". But it's close enough, and licensing Goudy fonts is well-defined. (It's still unclear where the MVOldStyle font originated, so I have no idea where to go to license an embeddable version of that font.) Now I can get on with the next part of the experiment: Creating e-books as PDF files, with all the fonts embedded in the PDF. More as I learn it.
February 17, 2001:
Carol is taking a self-study course in Spanish, and this morning I heard her howling with laughter from the livingroom couch. She had learned, in checking a word in her Berlitz Spanish dictionary, that the singular noun "esposa" means wife, and the plural form of the same noun—"esposas"— means...handcuffs!
February 16, 2001:

I grew up in a Catholic religious culture generally (and a household culture particularly) steeped in devotion to the Blessed Mother. We did the whole schtick, from glow-in-the-dark rosaries to May crownings to endless discussions of Marian apparitions, most specifically Fatima and its darkly looming secrets. It sat badly on me even then, and looking back across thirty-five years of time, I now think the whole thing was unhealthy in a lot of ways. (For a secular view of 20th century Marian hysteria, see the somewhat cynical but mostly accurate piece recently posted on Suck. Good intro for non-Catholics who can't figure it—or even Catholics who can't figure it.) Mary is showing up all over the world right now, even here in Scottsdale. (Here's a good list of Marian apparitions. The lady gets around...)

So who or what's behind it? God? Satan? Overactive human imaginations? These are the three common explanations (with the God/Satan choice depending on precisely whose apparition you're examining) but I have a fourth: The Marian phenomenon is an irruption of the human collective unconscious (HCU). I certainly believe in psychic phenomena, having experienced my share (and no, I do not choose to write about this, having been told once too often that "you must have been mistaken") but I consider them a consequence of the quantum nature of the universe. Marian apparitions have many striking similarities with "channeling," UFOs, and other New Age weirdnesses, something I've noticed from studying both in some detail. (Very few fanatics in either party will consent to study the other, hence the similarities go mostly unremarked.) All of these things consist of several basic types of psychic phenomena that have been given shape and meaning by archetypes from the collective unconscious.

So what is the HCU? Basically, I believe that it is a kind of bubbling stewpot of chaotic humanness that underlies reality, to which we all contribute, and into which certain of us have the power to tap through some sort of weak telepathy. (Because it operates beneath the level of the rational mind, this telepathy—and the HCU in general—are very difficult to test and examine scientifically.) Though the HCU is chaotic overall, certain widely-experienced images and ideas can coalesce within it as Jung's archetypes, and we experience them in dreams, religious experience, drug trips, and other altered states.

The HCU frequently reflects those things we fear and desire the most: the Enemy (whoever that might be at any given time) and transcendence. The UFOs (and a lot of channelling) reflect a desire for transcendence, and Marian apparitions are blatantly right-wing paranoia. The apparition in my mother's home town of Necedah, Wisconsin went so far as to warn against global conspiracies of the "Yids" (Jewish bankers, mostly) and even Russian submarines in the St. Lawrence Seaway!

Really, kids. The Blessed Mother would not stoop so low as to get involved in secular politics or racial slurs. Even Fatima is suspect to me, though it's certainly the sanest of the bunch. When hundreds of millions of believers experience capital-F Fear, that fear can break through from the HCU in the form of visions and even psychokinetic (PK) "miracles." It may be as simple as that—admitting that we're still speaking of machinery that science has not made sense of or even seen fit to study objectively. And in the meantime, religion comes off as a collection of folk superstitions and nutcase "visionaries" having some real sour trips. No thanks.
February 15, 2001:

I should be more religious about posting hyperlinks to pertinent data supporting my scribblings here. Below are some useful articles about peer-to-peer systems and why they might or might not ever amount to much:

Why Gnutella Can't Scale by Jordan Ritter. A fairly detailed analysis of scaling problems with the Gnutella protocol, leading to the conclusion that the bigger it gets, the more it tends to bring network connectivity to its knees.

Free Riding on Gnutella by Eytan Adar and Bernardo A. Huberman. This report, growing out of some research at Xerox PARC, talks about the "tragedy of the digital commons" and explains why people who take files but don't share them contribute to the downfall of the network. I'm less sure I agree here, but apparently the phenomenon has been observed in much older systems, back to the ancient days of computer bulletin board systems (CBBS) that offered files for download.

Bandwidth Barriers to Gnutella Network Scalability by Clip2. This piece argues (somewhat obviously, I think) that there is a "bandwidth barrier" in a P-P network that depends linearly on the predominant connection speed within that network. In other words, the more people get DSL and cable connections, the better Gnutella will scale. Clip2, by the way, is a worthy reference site for P-P technologies, though it tends toward boosterism more than skepticism, which P-P needs badly about now. Scan it now and then if you care about P-P.
February 14, 2001:

Valentine's Day. If you have someone you love a lot, tell them. Often. Time moves quickly, life is complex, and among the decades of our lives it's the forties in which you learn that there are no guarantees. This is the decade when parents and favorite aunts and uncles leave us. Tell them what they mean to you.

It can be scarier than that. A couple of years ago, we learned that the sister of a close friend of ours woke up one morning to find her husband dead beside her in bed, of a massive heart attack—and they were only 41. Every night these days, before I start quieting down the constant racket roaring inside my skull to try and get some sleep, I turn to Carol and say, "I love you most of all." I'm reasonably fit, my blood pressure is low, and there's nothing obviously wrong with me. But if something fluky happens during the night, of all the words I might conceivably speak, I choose those words to be my last.
February 13, 2001:

The courts have thrown the injunction against Napster back to the judge who originated it, with instructions to clean it up and narrow it down. Doubless, Judge Patel will do that, and if the new injunction passes muster Napster will probably croak, even though there seemed to be some wiggle room in the decision: Napster is supposed to police its users and toss out anybody trading songs for which the copyright owner has logged an objection.

Think about this for a second: Napster is somehow supposed to monitor its sharing database in realtime to be sure that no copies of any of what will certainly be tens of thousands of different cuts are floating about. Napster users will then try to subvert the rules, by changing the titles on the cuts just enough to allow them to be recognized but to render machine monitoring impossible. Keep in mind that the record companies don't want their songs off Napster's database half so much as they want Napster itself dead. (This is stupid, actually—whatever rises to replace Napster will be much more difficult to control.) There's lots of ego on the table. There will never be a "subscription" version of Napster—not one that distributes cuts from the majors. Maybe oldies. Certainly garage bands and other wannabees. Not Metallica.

Even if Napster could somehow miraculously sweep all copies of that list of thousands of prohibited titles off its share database, that would probably leave only wannabee bands and "unobtanium" (oldies so obscure nobody gives a damn who owns them anymore) in the database. This isn't what users want; users want free Metallica songs. So the Napster user base implodes and almost nobody bothers logging in anymore.

What few people have remarked upon is that systems almost identical to Napster exist and have existed for awhile. IMesh is probably the most polished, and I'm sure I haven't tested even a fraction of them. But Napster invented the category and had the user base, so it was "one stop shopping" for Metallica, wannabees, and unobtanium. If that ceases to be the case, Napster will be no more popular than IMesh.

Maybe less. With Napster in chains, offshore Napster clones will try to pick up the slack, and the "centerless" or "pure" peer-to-peer networks will keep trying to improve their reliability and speed. (Both of which are now miserable.) What happens then is anybody's guess—though certainly not mine. We'll just have to watch and see.
February 12, 2001:

Whoops! I dropped my Handspring Visor on the driveway while I was getting out of the car today, and she be broke, mon. It was even in the little plastic padded sheath that comes with the device, to no avail. The case didn't crack, and a close inspection (after pulling the back off) revealed nothing obviously out of place. The buttons still make the sounds they should when pressed, but the display does not come up correctly. (It comes up with a couple of thin lines near the edges, and nothing I can do alters that in any way.)

So I guess I'm out $250. These things really ought to be a little ruggeder, sigh.
February 11, 2001:

There was a short article in the Wall Street Journal about this maybe a year ago, and I blew it off as too weird to believe. But evidently it's true: Perfectly ordinary Japanese people have taken to wearing T-shirts and other clothing with English inscriptions that mean nothing at all to them...except that the inscriptions are not necessarily things you'd prefer to have emblazoned across your chest.

The Engish site reports a whole raft of these, including one worn by a beautiful young woman: "I trusted the government, now my dick glows in the dark." The person who saw it (a bilingual American) asked her if she read or spoke any English, and she said no. He didn't have the heart to tell her what she was wearing. Not quite so bad, but you have to wonder: A little kid wearing a jumpsuit reading "Snot House." A middle aged woman wore a sweatshirt that said, "Big hussy." Many of them I'd be afraid to put here, as my nephews read this site—yes, they're that bad. (This doesn't make whole thing fail to be extremely funny, in a grim sort of way.)

You have to wonder if the creators of the shirts are making fun of the legendarily stodgy Japanese. Do they put the Japanese translation on the package? The Engrish site implies that the people selling obscene T-shirts (in English, at least) on the street corners have no idea what they say. One old man assumed that an (unprintable) shirt was humorous, because Americans always laughed like hyenas when they saw his table in the marketplace.

I have a coffee mug with one single Japanese character on it. I have no idea what it means. I think I'm going to go find out. After all, two can conceivably play this game...
February 10, 2001:

I remain a staunch supporter of nuclear energy (and thus am cast out of even centrist circles, for the most part) but I'm definitely of two minds about genetic engineering. As befits my contrarian nature, my reasons differ from most. You hear a lot of racket about human genetic engineering, which I consider unlikely for a number of reasons, mostly centering on the simple matter that human children take a long time to come to term, and even longer to bring to maturity. Engineering thrives on a much shorter feedback cycle. You have to figure out what works and what doesn't a whole lot sooner than that.

Another common but rarely expressed objection (in public, at least) is worth a word or two: People fear that somebody else (outside their national, racial, or religious cohort) will genetically engineer their offspring into "supermen." I've heard this enough to give it some thought, and it's worth a few words.

What exactly is a "superman?" By this the worriers usually mean individuals who are smarter, stronger (usually by being larger) or simply meaner than the norm. The Nazis were obviously looking for something like this, and they cast a long shadow. But is this what we should be afraid of? I think there's another sort of superman that could be way more deadly: One smarter, meaner, and smaller than today's homo sapiens. The smaller, in fact, the deadlier.

I played with a concept for a novel many years ago that postulated a genertically engineered variant of humanity that was at most about eighteen inches high, and proportioned with the square-cube law in mind. Such creatures would look more like small monkeys, with larger heads in proportion to body size than we have. (No tail, though.) Imagine monkeys who weighed about five pounds, could jump six feet straight up, program computers, build automatic weapons that fired four millimeter slugs or poisoned needles, give birth easily, and bring a child to term in three months. Scared yet? You should be. Such creatures could replace us on this planet inside of two hundred years, and that was what my novel was to be about. Then Niven and Pournelle published A Mote in God's Eye, and made kind of a hash of the basic concept, but scooped me nonetheless.

The square-cube law delivers significant benefits to a smaller but technologically adept species: Less food, shorter gestation, easier maneauvering in three dimensions, stealth, less raw material required for housing, manufacturing, transportation, etc. Sheer physical size only matters if you're powering civilization by human muscle. Once you have technology, smaller is stronger. That's the kind of superman I would worry about—with the reminder that "supermen" are the least of our problems with genetic engineering.
February 9, 2001:

I'm interested in modelling human population growth, and I'm looking for the governing equations. The issue came up in a novel I'm conceptualizing, which involves a starship that carries 750 people to an Earthlike planet and gets stuck there. How many years would it take for that original population of 750 to reach 100,000? 500,000? A million? That's what I need to know, and I'd really like to get a spreadsheet together to allow me to futz different values for the different variables and see how they work out. (Genetic diversity is not a problem...they have over a million ampoules of frozen sperm and eggs, and are capable of keeping it frozen indefinitely.)

If you can provide a pointer to a good discussion of issues like this, with the governing equations, please let me know.
February 8, 2001:

One of the least remarked-upon species of Web content may be one of the most important: The aggregator. An aggregator is the distant descendent of the original "list of links." People who run across things on the Web send a pointer and a description to some central server, where it is posted as part of a Web page, often with some facility for discussion via a discussion board. Scanning an aggregator site is roughly equivalent to flipping through magazines at a newsstand, looking for something intriguing to read.

The best-known aggregator (at least in tech circles) is Slashdot. I read that one almost daily, or as close to daily as I read any aggregator. Billed as "News for Nerds; Things That Matter," it covers computing, science, tech, and "cyber issues" like censorship, encryption, bullying by big companies, and so on. Very true to its mission. Slashdot leans heavily toward the Unix and open source crowd, and it's how I keep tabs on those regions of the tech world. Note also that the Slashdot software has been open sourced as Slashcode, and if you want you can set up your own aggregator for free. Much such exist, though they're too narrow or pointless to keep up with.

For non-tech topics I scan Plastic, which points to interesting articles elsewhere on the Web, often in its sister site Suck (you'll recognize the incidental art style) or on sites like Slate and Salon. Rather cynical but sometimes funny, though they claim more hipness than they actually deliver, thank God. Much of Plastic involves culture (which in my worldview includes politics, snore) but they've aggregated some decent items on publishing, which I also follow, for obvious reasons.

For pure adolescent silliness I occasionally scan I Love Bacon, which can best be described as the online equivalent of the old National Lampoon "True Facts" department. Silly signs and other human folly are photographed and sent to the editors, who post them, sometimes with wry comments. (Yes, there is a town named Dildo somewhere on Canada's eastern seaboard, and signs from Dildo are posted perhaps a little too frequently, just as they were back at NatLamp in the 70's.) It's a little crude at times (and has a "nudity department" which, so far as I've seen, is limited to breasts) but that's their bag, and I get in these moods when that's just the thing.

I also get two email aggregators: ZD Anchor Desk and Ken Rutkowski's Daily Tech Clicks. The latter is basically promo for a Web audio anthology called KenRadio, but since I rarely listen to any kind of radio except when I'm in the car I don't know much about it. I never asked for either of these two, and don't know why I began receiving them, but as they're both modestly useful (especially if you scan quickly enough to dispose of an issue in 90 seconds or less) I haven't cancelled them. Anchor Desk was better when Jesse Berst ran it, and if it doesn't improve soon I'm going to kill it.

There are lots more aggregators out there, but my time is limited, and I haven't yet seen an aggregator aggregator, though as with everything else on the Web it's probably inevitable. What's your favorite? Maybe I'm missing something.
February 7, 2001:

The new high ground in the Gnutella client world is BearShare, which I downloaded and tested yesterday. It's free, fairly compact (only 800K) and goes way beyond even the second-gen clients like ToadNode and LimeWire. It's easy to install, and while the screens are extremely busy, it's fairly easy to understand and use. Unlike a lot of Gnutella clients, it will repeatedly attempt to connect to a system serving a file until the system goes off-line or until you manually abort the attempt. (I keep thinking this bearish persistence may be one reason the connections are so clogged. People give up after awhile. Machines just keep on pushing...) It will also resume a download after an abort without starting from scratch.

My testing showed that BearShare is far more effective than ToadNode. The search feature is still very limited, but that may be a defect of the protocol. Download speed was (with only a couple of spectacular exceptions) slower than that of Napster. Most of the test music files I downloaded took half an hour or more to come in completely, and a fair number aborted. And when I tried to download really big files, the system failed almost completely. I attempted to bring down a number of movie trailer files in the 20 MB size range. Of ten attempted downloads, only two succeeded, and one was a fake. Not great odds, and for this reason I think the film industry, at least, has little to fear from the Gnutella network. I will point out to the film guys that the one trailer I did successfully download, for the Final Fantasy film, made me want to see the movie very badly. But it took about four hours to download, and had to restart a couple of times.

I was surprised to see how many ebooks are listed. Quite a few of them are from Macmillan's "Teach Yourself..." series, but there's a fair amount of SF as well, including Gibson's Burning Chrome and a lot of others. Publishers are nervous about ebook piracy, and I think that they have every right to be. The files are fairly small (most of them smaller than a single popular song in MP3 format) and come down quickly.

There's gotta be an economic model in here somewhere. Sooner or later somebody will find it, and that's when the world changes—again.
February 6, 2001:
I heard an interesting explanation of why the Gnutella protocol seems to bog down so easily: Too many people are searching for files, and not enough are sharing them. This imbalance of demand and supply leads to an explosion of queries that must travel farther to find a hit. (I'm not as sure myself, since the Gnutella clients I've tested just keep searching, even after you've found what you're looking for.) Certainly, the imbalance means that those systems that are sharing files are overloaded with connections, causing transfer speeds to slow to a crawl. The conventional wisdom is that people are afraid of being sued by music companies—but I think the truth is that people are afraid of getting their Net accounts shut down by their ISPs. (Music is only part of the issue, and not even the greater part. Inspect the search key monitor on a Gnutella client and you'll see that most queries are for porn, not music.) On most Net accounts, posting servers is verboten, and posting MP3s is double verboten. Most ISPs do track traffic on their systems, and if they sense an ongoing flood of packets out of a system on one of their routers, they're going to think something is up. A peer-to-peer "client" is actually both client and server, in that anything that serves up files from a disk is technically a server. One music industry can't realistically sue millions of users—nor would they care for the adverse publicity if they tried. However, turning off an Internet account is the flick of a virtual switch. Let's get the psychology right on this one.
February 5, 2001:

One of several books I read on our cruise was Spineless Wonders, by Richard Conniff. Conniff spends one chapter on each of several classes of invertebrates: Flies, beetles, tarantulas, moths, leeches, mosquitoes, fire ants, dragonflies, earthworms, fleas, and my beloved giant squid. He profiles both the creatures and the people who chase and study them. We humans are an obsessive species, and Conniff gleefully describes the world's leading giant squid guru, who once climbed down the throat of a beached (and safely dead) sperm whale to see if there were pieces of giant squid in its third stomach. (There were.) He explains how earthworms reproduce hermaphroditically, and describes the mechanics of a mosquito bite.

The mosquito chapter is the best in the book, and pretty unsettling. We think of them as mere nuisances, but Coniff considers them the most dangerous (to humans) living things on Earth. Although he explains why mosquitoes are not likely to spread AIDS (which is something I have in fact wondered about) he points out that many other deadly diseases are tailor-made for the mosquito vector. He calls mosquitoes "...disease artillery, now empty; but eventually Mother Nature will start passing out the ammunition." Ulp.

Very easy reading, good prose style, entertaining, wry, great fun. My only gripe is that it's quite short, and I think he could easily have doubled the size of the book by throwing in more facts about the spineless wonders he describes. (Also, the cover appears to show a snake, which, far from being an invertebrate is actually mostly spine.) Still, I call it highly recommended.
February 4, 2001:

We left the Big Boat this morning and caught an 11:00 AM flight back home. I guess I was ready—though Carol tells me her inner ears are still compensating for the ship's rocking. Haven't weighed myself yet, either. Give me a day or two to walk my two miles and eat a more normal diet.

One thing I did want to mention briefly was the movie we saw on the ship a few days ago. Best of Show is an "over the top" comedy (meaning, don't expect it to make complete sense) centering on a big national dog show. Carol and I, being dog people from way back, may be a little more in tune with it than some. Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy star in but do not dominate a likeable cast, which centers around five canine finalists for "best in show" and their eccentric handlers and owners. Levy is a homely, 40-ish dog nerd whose wife has apparently been "had" by half the men in America; their Norwich Terrier's official kennel name is "Champion Thank You Neil Sedaka." (They call him "Winky" for short.) Unless you have had some experience with kennel names this may seem merely peculiar, but for insiders it's hilarious. (We nearly bought a puppy once whose kennel name was Arctic Crystal Kitten, but the poor thing died at eight weeks, probably of acute embarrassment.) Guest is a redneck with a champion bloodhound who also does bad ventriloquism shows at small-town VFW halls; other contenders are fielded by a pair of neurotic bobo lawyers with braces, and both a gay and a lesbian couple. The humor is loopy but fairly gentle; even the gays are treated with some respect. The sharpest barbs are reserved for the news media, in fact, which is a bit of switch and (for me at least) bang on.

Our only regret is that very little is done with the dogs themselves, especially the little terrier, who had a lot of potential. Then again, at dog shows, the dogs are almost incidental—which is one reason Carol and I will never attempt to show a dog. We love them (and respect them!) way too much for that! Still, it's well worth seeing, especially if you can catch it at the cheaps or rent it on tape.
February 3, 2001:

As the last stop on our four-island tour, we go to a small island without permanent inhabitants, one purchased outright three years ago by Holland America lines for the exclusive use of its cruise customers. Formerly called Little San Salvador, the 2500-acre island is now known as Half Moon Cay. It has one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen, clean white sand, and good snorkeling not far from shore. As you can see from the photo, the ships anchor a ways out, and everybody comes to shore in a couple of 100-seat motorboats that double as lifeboats. They serve a good burger lunch near the beach, and there are showers and "misting stations" where you can stand and get sprayed with cool fresh water after you're through cooking in the sun.

What more can I say? Carol and I walked hand-in-hand down the beach like teenagers, toes in the sand, her head on my shoulder, and we remembered why we chose each other so long ago. Sometimes, I guess, on the other end of a fantasy you can find reality of a sort. Sure, you have to go home again and face making a living and picking up dirty underwear, but for a day or three you can just be lovers and not worry about who's on the phone nor what to pull out of the freezer for supper. And just as certainly, I couldn't do this all the time. So tomorrow we'll be back, and my head will be clear and full of ideas. It was a great week, refined and comfortable and not so hectic as to take the polish off the good parts. Holland America is famous for food and service, and less concerned than some cruise lines with "fun," whatever that is. I spent a week with my wife and my friends (including Gretchen, who has become a very good friend in recent years) and saw some beautiful places. If you can manage it, try a week's cruise sometime. More than that I'm not sure I could handle, but a week—yes, it was just right.
February 2, 2001:

At sea all day today, steaming east again on the last leg of our voyage. Tomorrow we hit one more island, and then home again to the workaday world. We hit the "inside" swimming pool for a bit (there's another pool outside right at the stern, but it's not heated and the water is damned cold) and then hung out, read books, walked around the quarter-mile ship's periphery, took in a movie (Best in Show—really quite good; more on that once I get home again) ambled down to the bar for a glass of Sandeman port (that's us at left) and did nothing particularly intense. Carol, Gretchen, and Bonnie spent some time in the beauty shop having girl-things done to them, and this evening's dinner was, again, formal. Bill and Jerry brought tuxedoes with them, but a severe business suit is acceptable, and that's what Sam and I wore. (I need a slightly better excuse than just dinner to rent a tux.)

This is the Cruise Ship Life: hectic on the islands, slow and mildly decadent between islands. I can do it every so often, but I'll admit that I'm starting to miss my books and my ongoing projects. And this little palmheld/keyboard combo is good for keycapture, but that's about it.

The big story today is just past: The late-night Dessert Extravaganza, and I'll admit, I was flabbergasted. Once during a cruise, the kitchen staff goes a little bit nuts and puts on a dessert show. At 10:15 PM this evening they opened the Lido Restaurant, allowing us to gape at and photograph the most amazing collection of dessert art that I've ever seen. Then, at 10:45, they started cutting it up and serving it.

Take a look:

This picture doesn't quite do it justice, but it was fairly dark and I'm not the Zen master at digital photography that I should have been. But there was this buffet line that was the full length of the buffet bar, which had to be fifty or sixty feet, with cakes and pies and watermelon sculptures and petit fors and fruit tortes and cookies and cream puffs and everything else in the world you can make with sugar and some ingenuity. Sweets that late at night tend to keep me awake, so I was pretty cautious, but the slivers I tried of this and that were delicious. Supposedly what isn't eaten tonight will be available tomorrow and after until we get back to Ft. Lauderdale. I'll hope, then, to get my second chance at it, keeping in mind that somber warning Carol discovered early on: two pounds per day.
February 1, 2001:

We stopped in Jamaica today, and booked a tour boat trip from the Ocho Rios port to Dunn's River Falls, a major tourist attraction where a small river flows down a limestone bed for about a thousand linear feet, through a vertical dimension of a hundred fifty feet or so. The bed is not a bed of loose stones, but of the underlying limestone rock, and by some sorcery does not accumulate slime on the stones, as happens in most rivers I've seen in the United States. So it's possible to climb the falls up the riverbed, right in the middle of the flowing water.

I might even have tried it—my sense of balance is superb, and the footing was far better than I would have thought. However, the immense megacruiseer Carnival Triumph had docked just before we did, and most of its three thousand passengers seemed to have made a beeline for the falls. There was a huge line down the beach just to begin climbing the falls, and I shook my head and figured I would try it another day. Carol and I went up the stairway to the east of the river and snapped some shots of the thronging humanity on the riverbed, including several burly young men with mustaches who insisted on climbing a ten-foot rock face completely covered with flowing water. We had seen them swigging beers on the beach earlier, and it was a miracle that they made it up the Falls without breaking anything. On the way home, the little tour boat played randy reggae tunes like "Big Bamboo" while a young Jamaican man danced, juggled, and lifted a young woman crewperson by her belt...with his teeth. Oi veh.

However, as a place, Jamaica did not sit well with us. Seeing a private beach surrounded by rolls of concertina wire does not inspire confidence in local stability or safety. Pinched-looking people besieged us at every turn, wanting to sell us drugs or braid our hair (well, Carol's hair, at least), and on the way back to the boat from the shopping plaza, a young woman propositioned me, all at 2:00 on a sunny afternoon. We were told not to walk the roads except in groups, and not at all after dark.

Nothing of this sort had happened on Cozumel nor Grand Cayman. Why? What makes otherwise interchangeable tropical islands so different in their human outlook? Jamaica has natural resources (mostly bauxite and sugar) and 2.5 million pairs of hands to fuel an economy. Why are things so bad? I don't pretend to have an answer. But if I wanted to spend a week in the Caribbean, it would definitely be in Grand Cayman.