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February 28, 2006: The Future Existence of Blondes

Pete Albrecht messaged me last night in a state of high agitation. "Blondes will be extinct by 2202!" he said. "Start hoarding them now!" He then began mumbling about a plan to start a "blondes ranch" and the necessity of adding them to the Endangered Species list.

Once the links started coming across Skype's IM system, I started to understand. Supposedly, the World Health Organization did some sort of study on the prevalence of the gene that specifies blonde hair. Blondes were originally a rare mutation that appeared just after the end of the last ice age, during a time of famine when many men died of exhaustion during difficult hunting expeditions and women began to outnumber them by a considerable fraction. Prior to that mutation, we were all brown-skinned and brown-haired. (Is your crap detector twitching yet?) The cavemen were attracted to the rare blonde-headed cavewomen and bred the gene true. However, too few people are now carrying the gene and mixing of ethnic types have doomed blondes to extinction. WHO predicts that the last blonde on Earth will be born in Finland in the year 2202. (Probably at 2:43 AM on October 17.)

This story was printed in a good many places; the most detailed version I've seen was actually published in the London Times. Alas, some or most of it is a hoax. No such study was done. WHO issued a brief and deadpan disavowal: "We have no opinion on the future existence of blondes." My own opinion is that as long as there is an Iceland there will be blondes, but nobody asked me. Snopes doesn't mention it, probably because it's just the sort of thing that a UN NGO would say, and even the Times didn't consider it out-of-character enough to do any fact-checking. They did, however, feel compelled to include a quote from blonde romance author Jilly Cooper who complained that (after a trip to Mallorca some years ago) "my bum was sore from getting pinched." Hey, thanks for sharing.

And you wonder why the print media are in trouble.

February 27, 2006: An Unexpected Gift

One of my readers sent me a gift the other day. He had found it tucked up on top of a heating duct in the basement of a house he had bought. It was still rolled up and apparently never assembled. He did some Googling and found my page on Hi-Flier Kites, and enjoyed the read so much he decided to send me the kite.

The kite isn't especially rare, but I'm delighted because I used to buy precisely this item 40-odd years ago, for 10 cents at Talcott Hardware. The Playmates of the Clouds were Hi-Flier's smallest and least expensive kites. (The sticks were 29 1/4" and 23 3/4".) They came in a number of color combinations. The paper might be brick red, baby blue, muddy green, or pale yellow, and the ink could be black, blue, red, magenta, or orange. The number under the aircraft varied too; I recall seeing numbers from 6 to 94 when I was buying them. Older Playmates had no number, or the words "Little Boy," and those are actually much more valuable.

I don't intend to fly it. The paper has discolored a little from age and heat (after all, it was sitting on top of a heating duct for 40 years or so) and it's become too fragile to commit to the wind, even if I were on a treeless field with rock-steady breeze. It will take its place beside my other Hi-Flier kite (an American Beauty, by far my favorite of all Hi-Flier designs) on the high wall of my workshop downstairs. There's room for four or five kites on that wall. I think I may do a little hunting and buy them some friends.

February 26, 2006: A Spam Sea-Change

I've watched something interesting happen on the spam scene in the past few weeks. First of all, the quantity of spam coming to me from botnets dropped radically. I was getting 89-90 spams per day for some time, but very abruptly that dropped to 50-60, and virtually all of the missing spam was botnet spam. Then over the following months, my spam count rose modestly again, but there was a difference: This time the "new" spam was coming from spammers who apparently were buying their own domains and hosting them somewhere "spam-friendly." The payload domain and the "from" domain were the same. You can't do that from a botnet.

This suits me fine. I can block a "from" domain right in the client and never see it again. I've begun to get a surprising number of new spammer "from" domains every day—I think the number yesterday was 14. Turnover of payload domains was always pretty high, but now the same turnover applies to "from" domains as well. We can only guess as to why. The authorities may be putting the heat on botnets to the point that spammers do not want to become entangled in the investigations and increasingly common indictments. (Note that, as best we know, spammers do not own or run the botnets. They simply rent them from the black hats who assembled and control them.) Port 25 blocking is becoming more common, kneecapping more and more zombie PCs and making botnets less effective for spam.

Domains are cheap, but they're not free, and I would guess that there's not nearly the money in spam that there was a couple of years ago, and as botnets show up in the news as sources of DDOS attacks and other nastiness, law enforcement has shown more interest in taking them down. It's just tougher to make a living in spam today. Damn. I'm gonna cry real tears.

February 24, 2006: The MS EBook Reader and WordRMR

I installed and tested MSReader, Microsoft's EBook reader utility, when it first came out a few years ago. I never used it much, because I don't like sitting in front of a PC reading text off the screen. The other reason I didn't use it, of course, is that there wasn't much content available for it back then. All changed now. I've had my Thinkpad X41 Convertible for about two weeks, and I've been doing what was once unthinkable: Sitting on my big comfy leather chair with the X41 and reading ebooks for hours at a time.

Wow. Whoda thunkit?

Part of the new comfort of ebook reading is certainly due to the fact that you can position a tablet any way you like, and microadjust both its angle and distance from your eyes. (This is tough to do with a 20" CRT, or even one of the new 21" Samsung LCD displays.) But I think the greater part of the improvement lies in the rendering of the text on the X41's LCD display. Microsoft developed a font technology called ClearType with precisely that in mind: Rendering fonts legibly on low-resolution display media like CRTs and LCDs. Adobe's PDF files, by contrast, were designed to be print images, rendered at print resolutions, which hover between 1000 and 1500 DPI. Cleartype works as advertised, and MSReader's text rendering is about as comfortable as any I've ever seen on a non-print display. MSReader's other trick is that it works a little like a Web browser: You can specify font size, and it will reflow the text in the selected font size. The text glyphs are therefore not inescapably too small. If they're smaller than you find comfortable, just crank up the type size. This reflowing makes merging text and images or diagrams problematic (and page number references useless) but for books consisting of text alone it works very well.

In watching Usenet and the file-sharing networks for pirated copies of Paraglyph books, I began to notice something in the past six months: The number of obviously pirated works in MSReader's .lit format exploded. Clearly something had gotten out there that made creating .lit files trivial, and last week I went looking for it. What I found was WordRMR, a free utility offered by...Microsoft. WordRMR is a plug-in for MS Word, versions 2000 and later. It adds a button to your toolbar, and clicking the button brings up a dialog for specifying a .lit ebook from the current Word document. Click OK on the dialog, and WordRMR creates the ebook in seconds. Very little time, less effort, and zero cost.

So anything you can get into a Word document can quickly become an ebook. The FineReader Sprint OCR utility that I've used for five years now can scan pages directly to Word files. Back in 2000 I scanned and laboriously re-laid out a rare 19th century history of the Old Catholic movement. It was a huge amount of work, involving InDesign templates, headers, footers, fonts, and all sorts of related stuff. I got a handsome PDF for my trouble (and learning how to lay out nice-looking books was part of the exercise) but these days, almost none of that is necessary if you just want an ebook version of some all-text print volume.

This is what's making the Right Men in the big NY publishing houses half-nuts: Print books are getting easier to "rip" all the time. If you're not too fussy about the inevitable OCR "typos", you can rip a print book on a scanner and have a .lit file in a day. If you have a sheet-feeding scanner, even less. And unlike DVDs or even music CDs, there's very little you can do to a paper book to make it resistant to ripping. This is going to make the next five years in ebooks interesting: Small presses willing to take risks will step out in front of the paralyzed big boys and create a new book publishing business model—we don't know what quite yet—and the balance of power in print book publishing will be forever changed.

February 23, 2006: Odd Lots

  • From the "Thanks, guys, I'll pass" department comes this email from Amazon:

  • A third-shelf university in Canada has banned Wi-Fi on campus because "the long-term safety of the product is 'unproven.'" As if the safety of the long-term mashing of cellphones against young human ears has been proven. Sorry, guys. You're worried about porn and P2P, and using the time-honored excuse of "it's for the children." Come clean about your real concerns and stop looking like nanny-state idiots.
  • I've discovered a small, fast, free reader for PDF files: Foxit Reader. It doesn't even need to be installed; you just drop a single .exe somewhere on your hard drive and point an icon to it. No dlls. My kind of software!
  • Visicalc creator Dan Bricklin has struck again with WikiCalc, a system for hosting collaborative spreadsheets on the Web—basically, a Wiki with cells and formulas. This would have been very useful to me on more than one occasion, and it's one of those things that someone should have come up with years ago.
  • Another useful piece of software I've recently discovered is BlogBridge, an RSS reader with a lot of interesting features for organizing feeds. Sooner or later I'm going to have to buy Feed Demon, but of the free RSS readers I've tried so far, BlogBridge is the best.

February 22, 2006: Can Writers Make Money on the Ad Model?

It's miserable to make money as a writer these days. The print outlets that once represented such a good market for technical copy are falling right and left. There are too many publishers fielding too many books for too few purchasers. The reasons for all this are complex, and while the Internet gets blamed for showering free info on people who used to be willing to pay for it, the truth is that personal computing is now a mature market. Although we didn't realize it at the time, we crossed a sort of threshold in 1999 or 2000: Computers and software become Good Enough. People stopped trading up their machines and applications every 18 months. A 2000-era PC is fast enough and expandable enough (USB ports were in every PC by then) so that it can still be used in 2006—with the software of its own era, like Windows 2000 and Office 2000. What this means is that people have had plenty of time to learn the box and the stuff that's in it, and all the books they might need have long been bought. Furthermore, non-technical people have a well-known reluctance to change a system or configuration once they've gotten comfortable with it. The furious ramp-up of personal computer power that we saw in the 1990s is over.

This leaves writers in a pinch. As publishers compete for a shrinking market, royalty rates have dropped, sales totals have dropped, and money in hand is much less than it once was. So what are the options? One thing that has fascinated me in the past year or so is Google AdSense. The AdSense system is simple, and brilliant: You drop a frame in an appropriate place on a Web page, and the Google search engine fills it with ads that relate to the text in the page. When somebody clicks through to the advertiser site, you make a quarter.

It doesn't sound like much, but Web content is persistent: Unlike a magazine article that rises into view and then and sinks out of sight in a few weeks, or a book that spends a few short months on bookstore shelves, Web content can be around for years and years. My pages on Tom Swift and Hi-Flier Kites have both been up for five or six years now. Short pop-culture articles like those might have fetched $150 in print magazines. To make $150 in five years, an article need bring in only $2.50 per month, which is ten ad clicks. My hosting logs tell me that my Tom Swift page gets a pretty consistent 550-600 views per month. That's a 2% click-through rate on page views. Is this doable? I won't know for awhile, but it doesn't seem impossible.

One thing that helps is that the ads placed by the AdSense server have been eerily pertinent. See for yourself: The ads on my Tom Swift page have been things that kids' book readers and collectors would be interested in, including Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and other kid-nerd lit like Peter's Packets.

There are some understandable glitches, given that advertisers buy keywords and don't always do so with sufficient care. On my space-charge tubes page, I initially got an ad for Oreck vacuum cleaners. However, by this morning, all four ads were from companies selling vacuum tubes. My assembly language page gets 1500-1700 visits per month, and astonishingly, Google has been able to place at least three ads from people selling assembly language books, tools, and tutoring. (The fourth says "Assembly Operators Wanted: $10/hr." I guess EQU need not apply.)

I'm sure that much depends on the nature of the writing. Some topics just don't have a lot of potential for ads. I'm going to test this, by posting articles on topics like the biographies of eccentric popes. We'll see. On the other hand, I didn't think "assembly language" would be a phrase an advertiser would want, either.

I'm still placing ad frames on pages on my site here, and I have no data as yet. (My membership in AdSense is 36 hours old as I write this.) I'm not desperate for the money, but I'm very interested in whether the ad model can work for individual writers. I'll report back here from time to time and let you know how things go.

February 21, 2006: Richard Phillips' XML Parser for Delphi

I have come into a consulting project that I can't talk about yet, but it requires that I do some software design and prototyping for an information system based on RSS. I've discovered (as I do on a regular basis) that knowing how something works and building something with that something (such that it works) are two very different things. Nothing nails knowledge like swinging the hammer yourself.

So I'm hip-deep in XML, a technology that I've really only waved at in the past. And I've been having some fun poking at XML from Delphi, using a remarkable free tool from Richard Phillips. I used his HTML parser when I built my Aardmarks bookmark manager five years ago, and I remembered that the component set includes an XML parser as well. It's beautifully done, with a nice demo program and some reasonable documentation. If you're working in Delphi and need to pick apart either HTML or XML files, I don't think there's anything on Earth that can touch it. It's not new, but Richard does not promote it and it hides well. Get the latest version from the author's site here.

February 20, 2006: Steamboy

I borrowed the anime epic Steamboy from writer Genna Hammerle-Clark, and we watched it last night. Hoo-boy, what a ride! I wasn't quite prepared for a two-hour cartoon movie, and while I would have cut a few minutes here or there, it's shaped like an epic and it works like an epic. Quick summary: In 1866, a boy named Ray from Manchester gets involved in a power struggle between his father and his grandfather, two scientists who discover a near-infinite power source that could be contained in a sphere the size of a big softball. The grandfather is an idealist, who wants to place science at the service of makind. (He's a scrawny, bearded man with huge, forward-leaning white hair who reminds me of some historical figure, though I can't place who right now.) The father has sold out to American corporate interests and seeks to weaponize the "steamball." The boy finds himself in custody of the device, and caught between the ambition of his father and the scruples of his grandfather.

Within that framework we have an excuse to render more levers and handwheels per square inch than anything else in visual literature. Half the film (or more) are shots of men turning handwheels, pulling levers, and running from bulging steampipes that are always on the edge of blowing up. Ray's father has built the Steam Castle as an immense pavilion for the London Exhibition of 1866 (in the Crystal Palace) but within the very elegant shell of an exhibition pavilion is a steam-powered war machine that only requires the three existing steamballs to be unstoppable. Two are there already. Ray has the third. Adventure ensues.

It's a visual feast; the very essence of Victorian steampunk, and whether or not you can follow the plot you can simply lean back and soak in the elegance of the front rooms, and the soot-coated grimy immensity of the caverns in back, filled with walking beams and hissing slide-valves, and permeated by the constant low-level dread of seeing tremendous power held only barely under control.

Historical Victorian locomotive pioneer Robert Stephenson makes an appearance, even though he died ten years before the story takes place. An annoying American girl named Miss Scarlett wanders pointlessly through the film, flirting with Ray to no avail. (Their ages are uncertain but they may both be prepubescent. Ray certainly loves valves and wrenches more than he is ever likely to love women.) Lots of locomotives tipping over, chains and cables snapping, things blowing up. I hate to spoil much more than I already have, but don't worry: There's tons of surprises and breathtaking panorama. No brief description can really capture it.

Only one additional observation: It looks like all the machinery and the backgrounds are CGI, with only the human beings hand-drawn. This may be an anime convention but I found the "graphical dissonance" distracting. I like steam things, and the elegance of Victorian design, and the comic-book faces just didn't fit that well against such a subtly rendered background.

However, overall it's a great two hours, and I highly recommend it.

February 17, 2006: QBit's First Birthday

QBit celebrated his first birthday on February 9th, but he was so matted up and filthy that I couldn't bear to post a photo. It took more than a week for us to find time to tidy him up make him presentable. His favorite place in the house is right here where I show him, on the back edge of the big livingroom couch, where he can see whatever's going on almost anywhere on the first floor. He can watch TV, or he can turn around (as here) and watch us working at the kitchen island.

We think he's almost out of his terrible teens, and Carol's actually had some luck with elementary obedience training. Nonetheless, he's willful and stubborn and extremely smart, smart enough to know what sort of treat we're holding and willful enough to decide whether the treat is good enough to warrant doing what we want him to do. There are days when a salmon treat or a molasses treat is enough, and other days (many, it seems) when nothing but a liver treat will do.

He's playful in the extreme, and has (like all dogs) some slightly weird habits. He enjoys taking his (many) toys and dropping them down the stairs to the lower level. We've never taught him to go down stairs, and he has never learned on his own, so he sits there at the top and waits for us to go down and fetch up his ball or his stuffed camel.

Several people have asked us if he's show quality, and the answer is, not quite. His color, coat, and stance are perfect, but some of his front teeth are crooked, and while he might win some points at local shows, he's not really champion material. Still, he thinks he is, and acts like it. We're not going to try and teach him any different!

February 16, 2006: Will Sony Botch Their EBook Reader?

The Wall Street Journal published a (print) article today suggesting that if Sony chose to, they could own the ebook reader market. This may be true, but it's kind of like saying that if Jeff chose to, he could become an ace at C++. The real question is this: Will Sony's longstanding corporate culture allow it to do what it must to field the kingmaker ebook reader?

My early hunch is, Who you kiddin'?

This isn't Sony's forte. Sony's forte, in fact, is hanging itself from the noose inherent in Japanese business culture that places the desires of corporations far ahead of the desires of consumers. Sony owned the portable music player market with the Walkman, but they were so desperately afraid of piracy doing damage to music companies (of which they themselves are one) that they left the portable digital music player market lying on the sidewalk for Apple to pick up. Apple now owns that market because they did everything in their power to make consumers happy with the products.

Sony fielded the Librie ebook reader in Japan last year, and it died the death because it could only display ebooks purchased and downloaded from Sony's content site—and these were only "rented" for sixty days, after which they would poof and need to be purchased again. The hardware itself is brilliant—especially its crisp digital paper display. But consumers were not allowed to load their own content on it at all. The article in the WSJ indicated that the new reader to be launched in the American market this spring will display several different content formats, including Word and PDF. (No indication on the MS Reader LIT format.) That's essential, but it's not enough. The key to success in the ebook reader market, quite simply, is this: The killer reader must allow the display of every significant ebook content format out there.

Anything less will mean failure. People may say that this is impossible, but hell, we're not talking three guys in a garage here. Sony has the money and muscle to license technology for Mobipocket, MS Reader, and any other DRM-based format, and they have the smarts to build a slab that will manage them all, and non-DRM formats too. I know they're all rubbing their hands with anticipation, thinking that the right reader will force the industry to standardize on Sony's own proprietary ebook format. I hope they know that that won't happen unless their reader and format together represent (like IPod) a package deal that the consumer won't refuse. If Sony's reader displays all significant formats (including non-DRM ones) people will buy it. However, unless they make access to a huge catalog of ebooks (not just a few hundred but hundreds of thousands) easy and cheap ($10/book or less) their own standard will not win.

In fairness to Sony, the biggest single stumbling block lies in the NY publishing houses themselves, who must realize that they can't just pocket unit manufacturing costs and retailer margins and sell a bag 'o bits for $24.95. Sony is big enough to persuade them, but that would mean that Sony would be putting the squeeze on large corporations to put the desires of consumers ahead of theirs. Sony finds that distasteful, and I'm guessing that it won't happen. Still, I'm going to buy and test the reader this spring, and you'll read my reactions and analysis here.

February 15, 2006: Subscribing to RSS by Tag?

I had an interesting if kind of obvious idea the other day for a feature that blogging services should have but (as best I know) do not: RSS feeds filtered by tag. This would be especially useful for blogs like mine that cover a lot of ground. The blog server would generate an RSS feed containing only entries tagged with a string specified by the subscriber. For example, if you wanted to read Contra but only wanted to see my entries on ebook technology, you would subscribe to an RSS feed filtered on "ebooks," the tag I use for that purpose. A number of people have expressed interest in this sort of thing, and if LiveJournal added the feature I would certainly use it. I can't imagine that it would be that hard to do. (A reminder for newcomers: Contra is simultaneously published here and on LiveJournal, identical in content if not in format.)

February 14, 2006: Battling CoolWebSearch

Someone at our church asked me to take a look at his machine, which seemed to be getting slower all the time, and unstable. Sounds like gunk, and being the Degunking Guy, yesterday night I loaded up a thumb drive with my usual degunking bag of tricks, and went to have a look, starting with Spybot Search and Destroy.

Uh-oh. CoolWebSearch. That would explain a lot. I've heard much about it, and have made suggestions to other people fighting it, but I had never seen a copy in the wild. And "wild" is a pretty good word for it. CoolWeb Search is probably the single most evil piece of adware/spyware on the planet. It's a browser hijacker. It was designed to survive removal attempts, and whoever wrote it basically created a whole new category of "regenerating software." Nuke any part of it, and the rest will notice and re-create the missing part. Getting all of it is a real trick, because there are a lot of parts.

I ran Spybot first. It took almost two hours to do the scan. Spybot discovered 5,864 separate files and registry keys associated with CWS. Now, I knew that Trend Micro had a dedicated CWS remover called CWShredder, which I downloaded and brought back to the infected PC this morning without allowing Spybot to do a cleanup. I figured something written specifically to attack a single spyware genus (there are many CWS species) would do a better job than a generalist utility like Spybot.

Wrong-o. CWShredder ran for about ninety seconds and then crashed, rebooting the machine in the process. Nothing was removed. So I let Spybot do its thing again, and this time (after the two-hour scan) I told it to Go Fix. After running for another hour and a half, it told me there were nine files it couldn't remove because they were in use. It configured itself to run on boot (presumably to keep CWS services and files from being loaded) and after rebooting it ran again, for almost another two hours. After this, we were down to four files. I ran CWShredder, and while it didn't crash, it didn't remove anything additional, either.

By now it was 3:00, and I manually deleted those files Spybot said it couldn't. (I'm not sure why I could if it couldn't.) One more scan with Spybot (this one taking only twenty minutes) and the machine came up clean. I was pretty brain-scorched by that time, so I packed it in. I'm going back for another look and some registry degunking, and we'll see if CWS has returned. The PC has a firewall now, but the lesson is well-learned: The ungodly thing came in through a dial-up connection, apparently by way of yet another damned clib-caused security hole in IE. The PC's owner is now using Firefox.

What I find incredible is that nobody really knows who's behind it, or who wrote it. Everything is concealed under layers and layers of misdirection, and what clues we have point (as they usually do) to Eastern Europe. Living-material metaphors for malware are failing us. This thing isn't a virus. It's not even a bacterium. It's the sorcerer's broom.

February 13, 2006: Forgeron Cellars Zinfandel

I write a fair bit about off-dry wines because nobody else does, but I like dry wines as well. I'm picky about my dry wines, however, and my standards are fairly high. I rarely run into a cabernet that I like, for example, and the main reason is that these wines go so far dry that they don't taste like much anymore, least of all the grapes that they were made from.

That's Jeff's First Law of Wine: Wine is made from fruit and should taste like fruit. (My long-time readers have heard me saying that for years.) If a wine doesn't taste like fruit, it doesn't matter to me what else it tastes like.

The other night Carol and I had David Beers and Terry Blair over for dinner, and we broke out a wine for which I had high hopes, and it did not disappoint: Forgeron Cellars Columbia Valley Zinfandel 2003. It's by far the most fruit-forward dry Zinfandel I've tasted in years, and ranks right up there with Coturri's Freiburg organic zinfandel. There's good zinfandel spice here, and a richness of body that you just don't see in every bottle of dry red that you crack. This would be a superfine red-meat wine. (I'm not afraid to admit that I drank it with chicken, but I'm just a contrarian.)

Take note that Forgeron comes from an odd place for wine: eastern Washington State, near Walla Walla. I have never had a Washington State wine before Larry Nelson turned me on to them, but I always welcome odd wines and wines from odd places. (Why always drink the same damned things?) There are some wonderful wines from Colorado's Western Slope (near Grand Junction and Palisade) that nobody sees outside of Colorado. I've mentioned the off-dry and slightly fluky Roadkill Red a couple of times, which is probably the best spaghetti wine I've ever had. (It's a little too sweet to have with good steak, though that might just be me.) Another Colorado gem is Tyrannosaurus Red from Carlson Vineyards, a middling dry but fruit-forward $13 lemberger. Not everthing good comes from Napa! I guess this means that you may have to hunt for Forgeron wines, or have a cooperative wine shop order them for you, but in the case of their zinfandel, this is worth the wait. It's not a cheap wine ($27) but again, for special occasions with good food—howzabout dinner with your honey tomorrow?—I'd find it pretty hard to beat.

February 12, 2006: Cat Craziness and LSD, Mon Dieu

Toxoplasma gondii is in the news again. I've spoken of this a couple of times before: There's a microorganism that lives in a complex coevolutionary ballet between cats and rats, and once it gets into the rats' brains, it unplugs an ancient adaptive caution against being anywhere you can smell cat urine. In fact, T. gondii actually makes rats seek out cat urine, suggesting that here is a single-celled creature working under contract to genus Felis to keep the protein coming. T. gondii infects humans as well as cats and rats (and many other mammals) and there's some indication that infected people live less-controlled lives, are prone to rages and psychopathic jealousy, get in fights and accidents more often, and do other things we would generally categorize as stupid.

There's a new weirdness connected with toxoplasmosis that I didn't know before today: People who test positive for the disease are very likely to test positive for low levels of LSD. This is intriguing, since LSD is a well-known changer of brain chemistry, and it can remain in the body for many years after being ingested. (Some of my ex-hippie contemporaries have gone on unexpected trips decades after their last deliberate encounters with LSD.) I don't see anything crisp on what's cause and what's effect and what's merely coincidence, but it provides some rich avenues for further research. LSD is the by-product of ergot, a mold that grows naturally on grains, so I see no reason why it could not be an accidental by-product of a parasite. And whereas we've studied what happens when an individual ingests a significant dose of LSD at one time, I don't know that we've ever studied what might happen if something in the body were to release miniscule quantities of LSD over a longer period of time, like months or years. There's not enough hard data to say any more, so I won't.

I've been puzzled by the explosion of various kinds of public rage in the last 20-odd years, culminating in the sort of frothing pathology I see constantly from self-described progressives. There's an intriguing difference between the sorts of extremism that comes from the left and those that come from the right. The recent passing of Betty Friedan on February 4 recalls the debate she had with Phyllis Schlafly over the Equal Rights Admendment, back in 1973. Friedan shouted, "I'd like to burn you at the stake!" at Schlafly, who then cooly replied, "I'm glad you said that, because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of the ERA." Friedan was no fool, and not nearly the extremist that her demonizers paint her to be, but she lost her cool in a truly stupid way, a way that gave her opponents yet another weapon with which to bludgeon the ERA to death. Extremists on the left often seem much brighter to me in an intellectual sense than extremists on the right, but they can't control their anger, and sabotage their causes by ceaselessly flaming their opponents when they ought to be quietly working to persuade the unconvinced of their positions. (The Left will live to regret Ted Rall's unspeakable cartoon labelling our Secretary of State a "house niggah.") Extremists on the right are often dimmer (Schlafly was no equal to Friedan intellectually) but they understand what the game is, and they plug away at their agendas with a lot less noise. (This is one reason I worry about right-wing whackos more than left-wing whackos: You can always hear the lefties coming.)

So let me put forth a Jeff Duntemann Crazy-Ass Hypothesis: The characteristic (and often self-defeating) fury of the left may be due to higher rates of cat-carried toxoplasmosis infection among left-leaning intellectuals. Virtually all my far-left friends have cats; the handful of far-right folks I know are either petless or have dogs. Cats, of course, are present throughout the political spectrum, but statistically they seem to lean left.

Note well before you froth at me that this is not a criticism of cats, which I actually learned to like late in my life. (My sister's cats sit in my lap regularly when I visit, and seem to have forgiven me for my cat skepticism as a young man.) It's really part of my ongoing criticism of inarticulate rage, and an SF writer's hope that we may eventually be able to make the world a more civil place just by getting our shots.

February 11, 2006: Odd Lots

  • February 9 was QBit's first birthday, and once we get him cleaned up a little (he's a mess right now from rolling in dirty snow) I'll post some photos. In the meantime, the February 9 2006 strip from Mother Goose & Grimm (alas, I can't link to the precise strip) is of interest. Whoa, scary.
  • My Thinkpad X41 tablet arrived a couple of days ago, and I'm about to begin a series on my reactions and discoveries. What a machine!
  • If you like cartoons, there's a clever search engine that allows you to search for cartoons using keywords, like "sleep" or "books."
  • I was delighted to discover that there's a set of Ruby bindings for tk. Ruby would be a superb teaching vehicle for OOP principles (it reminds me a lot of Smalltalk, which I learned while at Xerox in the early 1980s) but you need a widget set to teach with it. I'm just now trying to make Ruby/tk work (I studied tcl/tk five or six years ago) but I'll report after I get comfortable with it.
  • If I had to choose the first new product I'd like the upcoming Borland compiler spinoff to attack, it would be an IDE capable of developing model-view-controller apps (which can be done in several languages, including Ruby and Java) with each of the three subsystems on its own tab, and drag/drop UI components for the view pane.
  • Yet another contributor to the explosion of obesity in children could be an adenovirus. I'm skeptical too, but we've proven that peptic ulcers are caused by heliobacter pylori, and when I was growing up few doubted that stress was the major or even sole factor.
  • Some time back, started charging over $200/year for a server that coordinates monthly meetings. All the meetups in Colorado Springs that I belonged to or had interest in simply vanished, yet these guys continue to stay in business. I confess gross puzzlement. Even more peculiar is that no one has yet cloned what always seemed a very simple piece of software.
  • I was at a outdoor recreation show the other night, and saw a guy promoting these. (The site is very sparse, and the units are not yet in production.) Yup, you read it right: it's an electric-powered beer cooler that can move at 20 MPH and pull 300 pounds. (Probably not at the same time.)

February 10, 2006: Giant Beavers and The Duck From Hell

It's getting off to a slow start, but I've begun a new SF novel. I may have mentioned the name here before; it's called The Anything Machine, and it's set in the world of my novelette "Drumlin Boiler," which was in Asimov's SF in April 2002. One of the central gimmicks in stories of my Gaian Saga is that any Sunlike star has at least one Earthlike planet, most of them stuck in the long tail of the Pleiostocene era. Only Earth has humans; the other Gaian worlds have all the familiar Pleistocene megafauna. mean, you've never heard of the giant beaver? Or the glyptodont, an armadillo the size of a minivan? Come, come. The dinos ruled Earth for 100 million years, and if Man hadn't intervened, well, the giant beavers would have taken the throne for another 100 mil. Them, and the woolly mammoths, the mastodons (which featured prominently in The Cunning Blood) and the dire wolves and the smilodons and the giant sloths. Oh, and the carnivorous Duck from Hell...

I'll admit that I have a writer's affection for very large warm-blooded animals. Dinosaurs bore me; I'm far from sure that you can get interestingly complex behavior from something with a brain the size of a walnut. Mastodons, well, now you're talking. I have a particular fondness for glyptodonts, simply because they're bizarre. (I also like modern armadillos, even though they are one of the few animals that carry leprosy.) I'm pretty sure, at this point, that glyptodonts will play a key role in the story. They inherited the gravitas of ankylosaurus, and might even have some modest smarts. What's not to love?

However, giant beavers are right out. As impressive as a beaver the size of a black bear might be, beavers are just funny animals, and the rules of funny animals state that the bigger a funny animal is, the funnier it is. A giant beaver is something they'd do a skit about on Saturday Night Live. It's a cultural thing, and I won't buck the culture quite that much by including giant beavers in a serious SF story.

I'm still thinking about the Duck from Hell.

February 9, 2006: Delphi Dumps Borland

Mail is pouring in about yesterday's announcement that Borland is going to sell off its IDE development products, the most important of which are Delphi and JBuilder. Read the story carefully; I think many may have it wrong: Borland isn't dumping Delphi; Delphi is dumping Borland. David Intersimone, who's been with Borland for over 20 years, is going with the IDE products to some new and as-yet undertermined spinoff. I have a sense that wherever David I. goes, the true spirit of Borland goes, whether under that name or not.

What will nominally remain under the Borland name is "application lifecycle management," or the sort of thing that most of us old-school developers call "a subscription for the beating of dead horses." IBM is good at this, and it's tough to think that Borland can just walk in and take a bite out of IBM's lunch. Besides, whothehell cares? If a handful of managers walk off into the sunset babbling about application lifecycles, we'd be well rid of them. A brand without the products that created the brand is about as useful as an empty cereal box, as Borland's management will eventually discover.

Everything depends on what sort of organization picks up Delphi and its lesser brothers. A small, savvy group of developer/investors could strip out some of the crud from Delphi 2005, cut the price by about 75%, and own the Win32 code generation market again. (I'm less sure how viable JBuilder is, since I don't use it.) There's a lot of room for new, highly integrated IDE products. Something as visual as Delphi and capable of creating strict model-view-controller Web apps using both Delphi's frameworks and other technologies like Ruby and Rails, or Java and Struts, would be killer, and I don't think anything like that exists yet. I'm currently creating very simple Ruby/Rails apps, and as good as the technologies are, using them means manually managing a horrible mess of disconnected text files, which is precisely what an IDE is supposed to do.

I'm less sure of how much impact AJAX will have on the development market, but AJAX definitely needs an IDE to pull together the various disconnected technologies that now have to be knit together by hand. Delphiware Corp. (or something else meaning Delphi emptied of Borland's missteps) could own the AJAX market with the right product.

So let's look at it from the correct perspective: Borland was killing Delphi. Getting rid of Borland is probably the best thing to happen to Delphi since Win32. Life is not about screwing around with application lifecycles. Life is about making code happen. Let's hope that Delphi's new masters (whoever they turn out to be) have that motto carved on the doorframe.

February 8, 2006: Cause and Defect

It was a headline story both in the local paper here today and in the Wall Street Journal as well, and people this morning are sending me scads of pointers to the story: Low-fat diets don't lead to improved health. A huge study went looking for incontrovertible evidence that fat in the diet leads to elevated risk for colon cancer, stroke, and other fatal conditions, and found...nothing.

This is not news to me, and we've been seeing hints for years, but memes and bad science die hard. I've been convinced for some time that fat by itself doesn't make you fat, and it apparently doesn't kill you, either. The best way I can summarize the biology as I understand it is this: A pile of bricks doesn't automatically become a house, even if the house is eventually made of bricks. A house has to be built. Of course, with no bricks there will be no house, but the house doesn't happen solely because the bricks are available.

Same deal with arterial plaque. If the fat isn't available in the bloodstream, you won't get arterial plaque. But on the other hand, without certain other conditions (primarily arterial inflammation) the fat doesn't plate out on arterial walls. So we have some defective causality equations here: The fundamental cause of artheriosclerosis is inflammation, and arterial plaque is a side effect. Reduce the fat content of the blood to near zero (which is extremely difficult, and has health consequences of its own) and the inflammation can't generate plaque. But if you reduce the inflammation, you won't get as much plaque even if the fat is there.

Many things can inflame the arteries, the most famous being tobacco smoke. But cortisol and adrenaline do too and are probably the most difficult demons to fight, because we generate them ourselves, in response to stress. And whereas there has always been stress is our lives, people have traditionally mitigated it with strong ties to family, church, and community. Without the solace of at least some of those ties, our very modern disconnected self-involved hard-driving Type-A citizens are awash in cortisol most of their lives, with fairly predictable results. One of the most hard-driving guys I ever met was a lawyer; muscular, athletic, trim—and collapsed of a fatal heart attack while jogging, at age 26. For years I would think of him and say WTF? Now I think we're beginning to understand.

What cortisol doesn't do to us, sugar does. High blood sugar also causes arterial inflammation, which is why uncontrolled diabetes leads to heart problems at a full gallop.

The constant fear-mongering that the media uses to attract eyeballs hurts us, and we badger our young people with threats that if they don't get straight A's, play varsity football and two musical instruments, they won't get into Harvard and will spend the rest of their lives working at Wal Mart or living under a bridge. I look at the pitiful doofus who wrote the diatribe I quoted in my January 26, 2006 entry and wonder what levels of cortisol he has running in his veins, having gone (like so many others on the left) into constant, inarticulate rage over tribal defeats.

Even with less fat (much less fat) in our diets, living these sorts of lives under these sorts of shadows cannot fail to hurt us. The key to good health may be as simple as refusing to be caught up in phony panic-mongering and tribal rage, and to seek out stable networks of mututal support in family, church, and community. (That, and cutting back on sugar and getting your sleep.) A low-fat diet alone will not help you. In short, it's not the bricks—it's the bricklayers. When will we begin to recognize the truth in that?

February 7, 2006: Baiting the Phish Hook with Anger

I got a new species of phish in the mail this morning. It was a faked message sent through eBay's servers, and some guy was furious at me for not sending him the fur coat that I had auctioned and he had won. My first reaction was a wry grin: I don't have time to auction stuff on eBay and if I did have a fur coat, I'd probably keep it. (This is Colorado, after all, not Scottsdale.) I'll admit to only a little embarrassment that I have not yet sold a single thing on eBay. I've bought a number of things, but selling is more complex, and Carol and I typically give our unwanted household goods to charities anyway.

Given that this was a spam sent indiscriminately to millions of people, few of whom have ever sold anything on eBay, what was this guy thinking? It's pretty simple: He was trying to make me mad. The message was combative and threatened legal action, all in a very rude way. An awful lot of people would become furious at being accused of ripping somebody off on an auction, and when anger checks in, brains check out. (If the Internet has taught us anything, it's taught us that.)

The links through which I was to respond (nominally through eBay's system) were all connected to a naked IP address. I haven't followed the links (I need to create a new VM to do that and there's too much else going on today) but I'm pretty sure that the pages would all look precisely like eBay's pages, and the first thing they would demand would be login information. At that point it wouldn't matter what else I might see; the hook would have been set and the phisherman would be winding in the line.

No massive interest group is being pinched here, so nobody's sending cops after the owners of the IP. (It's probably in Eastern Europe anyway; when time allows I will check.) Don't click on links in emails. We're still a few years away from making that message stick.

February 6, 2006: Gym vs. Sports

Some people misunderstood aspects of my Semi-Regular Education Rant™ (see my entry for February 1, 2006) with respect to music and sports. Music is a special challenge for schools and I need to devote an entire entry to it soon. Sports, however, we can dispose of very quickly: They do students more harm than good.

And by sports I do not mean "gym" or "physical education." I mean competitive games where there are winners and losers and spectators and massive amounts of prestige, power, and money on the table. Sports is a tremendously corrupting influence in education, at every level. This should not come as news; parents of little leaguers are assaulting one another over disputed umpire calls, and when that happens, something is fundamentally wrong with the whole business. As Barrett Seaman reports in his recent book Binge, big universities pretend to educate students who are in effect paid a meaningless diploma to play what is pro sports in all but name. This is fraud, cruel to the students (who are often poor, clueless, and unaware of how the schools are using them) and it cheapens the entire idea of education.

Secondary school sports basically sort students into hierarchies by size, strength, and agility. They turn the genetically gifted 5% into heroes, the genetically less-gifted participants into also-ran bench-warmers, and the fraction who are uninterested in sports into harrassed pariahs. Kids as young as junior high get trucked upwards of a hundred miles to play evening games against other schools, and don't get home until the wee hours of the morning. (I've watched this happen. It happens a lot, and everywhere.) Schoolwork is given whatever time and energy is left over after practice and the games themselves are done.

"Reform it," says sports proponents, who then change the subject and do nothing. (Anything we could do to reform school sports would destroy any appeal sports might have to those who insist on them.) Alas, sports are nothing more than artificial tribalism, and we have trouble enough with tribalism in this world without drumming it into our kids when they should be cracking a book and learning something useful.

I hope I've made my position clear, heh.

Now. That's competitive sports. What I think schools should do to keep kids healthy is a three-point program:

  1. Weight training, adjusted to a student's age and physical size, and measured only against the student's own personal best and not that of other students. We know a lot more about muscle development now than we did when I was a kid. Exercise of any kind is good, but it takes certain kinds of measured exertion to build muscle mass, and muscle mass is only now being recognized as a potent hedge against obesity and diabetes.
  2. Aerobic exercise. This can be laps around the track, bike machines, calisthenics, or anything else that keeps the heart pumping for 45 minutes. My only caveat is that the exercises chosen should not depend on physical agility or balance. Some kids have that. Many don't.
  3. Ban sugar from school meal programs and vending machines. I have a strong intuition that today's epidemic of juvenile obesity is due primarily to sugar and lack of sleep. Google around; I see articles regularly reporting on studies that point in this direction. Fat contributes, but sugar is the killer.

Sidenote: I'm still puzzled a little by the fact that my geek friends and I got almost not exercise at all when we were kids in the 50's and 60's, and yet we were all skinny as rails. We drank whole milk, ate greasy burgers, and put butter on everything from toast to crackers to rice to pasta. My mother fried leftovers of many species in bacon grease. So why didn't I grow up fat? And why am I not already dead from heart disease? Portion size may be one factor, but I remember eating like a horse when I was a teen.

There's more going on here than we understand.

If we as a nation can't come to a single consensus on what education is and what its outcomes should be, we should have the guts to make schools truly independent of political pressure and academic faddism. Let the schools choose how to educate, and let parents choose which schools their kids should attend. Let there be schools for jocks, and schools for geeks. I'm more than willing to keep such schools completely secular, but if we have to tolerate sports in our society, it's only fair to give those who see through the viciousness of competitive sports something like a choice.

February 5, 2006: Odd Lots

  • I just heard that my Lenovo/IBM Thinkpad X41 Convertible has shipped, and I'm expecting it in the next 3-5 business days. Finally! That damned thing took forever to get underway. Expect abundant reports when I get it, especially on the ebook side of things.
  • Amazon apparently now has some stock on The Cunning Blood, because it's being listed as "Usually ships within 24 hours."
  • I figured somebody, somewhere had to try this: overclocking a Pentium to 5 GHz (and this in 2003!) by simply dunking it in liquid nitrogen. It's a kind of a stunt; the computer is spread out across a kitchen table and looks like a model of a nuclear power plant, but the dudes pulled it off. One only wonders what they're working on now. (Thatnks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.)
  • Also from Pete comes a pointer to a fascinating sort of community blog in which people post interesting things you can see from orbit on Google Earth. This was inevitable, given that I can see the enclosed porch I built on my house in 1983 in Rochester, NY. The world is getting a lot like that famous Carly Simon album.
  • Michael Covington continues to get some of the most astonishing astrophotos from an 8" Meade telescope. (And he apologizes for a little grain!!!)
  • I've been recently astonished at the number of relavtively good and useful ebooks released under the Creative Commons, at no cost. One that I'm currently working through on-screen here (hurry X41!) is Four Days on Rails. It's short, but that's really one of the big upsides of the ebook format: You don't have to have a maximum or minimum length. By the way, the book has nothing to do with trains, but is a quick, four-part jump-start for programmers who know what coding is but have never confronted Ruby or Rails.
  • If any of you get tired of watching grown men knocking each other down today in pursuit of a misshapen ball, spin the dial down to Animal Planet and watch Puppy Bowl II. They've set up a little dog run to look like a miniature football stadium and just let the cameras watch a half-dozen ten to fifteen week old puppies romp around, tackle each other, pull on chew toys, and slop around in the water bowl. Great wallpaper for your AntiSuperBowl Party. One of the little black mongrels looked heartbreakingly like my poor dog Smoker (1965-1980) and Carol and I got a few chuckles watching them over lunch. QBit sat on the ottoman and watched too, especially when the white poodle puppy was on-screen.

February 3, 2006: Giving My 1998 Dell a Few More Years

I did an interesting thing last night: I powered down my mid-1998 Dell Dimension XPS T550, popped off the side panel, popped out the 550 MHz Slot 1 Pentium III CPU, and slid a 1 GHz Pentium III CPU into its place. The whole exercise took three minutes. I powered it up, and it just ran. Intel's CPU ID and speed check utility verified that it was indeed running at 1 GHz. Performance of graphics-oriented apps is definitely snappier. (Maxing out memory a few years ago helped there too, I'm sure.)

I always loved that Dell, and it was my main machine longer than anything else in the Windows era. Back at that time (and even now, for all I know) Dell "engineered" their machines in a very nonstandard way, so I couldn't just do a motherboard transplant. However, Intel's Slot 1 system allows very easy CPU upgrades. A Slot 1 CPU is on a small PC board, enclosed in a plastic case. Many have attached heat sinks, and some of the later-era fast units (like the one I installed) have their own fans. There's always some question as to whether a given Slot 1 processor will fit mechanically into a given machine, but if you have the clearance, it's an easy thing to do.

I paid $130 for the 1 GHz P-III processor. The only other cost is some noise from the Slot 1 module's small fan. I don't like noise, but the machine is a spare, and when it runs at all it runs downstairs.

You might wonder why I still keep a 1998-era PC, and why I spent any money at all on it. The main reason is that it didn't cost me any time. I could probably scare up a used machine at that speed or even faster for $250, but then I'd have to wipe its hard drive, and reinstall the OS and all the other stuff I keep on it. That invariably requires a day's worth of sitting in front of the machine, tapping my foot.

This page was certainly the deciding factor: It always helps when you have documentation that somebody else has already pulled off what you want to do, and in this case I even got a step-by-step spoon-feeding photo essay. Once I found that, I went shopping, bought the CPU, and it was over. I still need to buy a set of Universal Retention Mechanism rails to hold the module in place; right now it's in the slot by friction only. Since the machine is rarely moved from its spot on my little server shelf, I'm in no hurry.

Pete Albrecht and I have done a little Slot 1 processor-swapping before, albeit less daring than a near-doubling of the clock rate. Everything we've tried actually worked. I'm going to put the old P-III 550 (right) into an old hulk I have here in place of its original P-II 450 (above) and see if that flies as well. The Slot 1 architecture has so far proven extremely versatile.

There are caveats. I have a P-II 300 on the shelf that came out of a 1996 Compaq DeskPro, and its heat sink prevents it from plugging into any but its original proprietary Compaq motherboard. Although Pete and I have done well, there are a lot of gotchas and warnings on the Web. It pays to know what processor you already have (Katmai? Coppermine?) and how fast your front-side bus (FSB) is. But twenty minutes of Googling will probably allow you to figure it out, and hundreds of processors are available on eBay. Pete found a P-II 600 at a local junk shop for $10, and gave his old 450 MHz P-II something to feel better about. In another five years my poor Dell Dimension will probably be (irreversibly) a doorstop, but by that time, let's say that I will have gotten my money's worth.

February 2, 2006: A Million Little Litigants

What may well be the strangest single episode in American publishing history (stranger than even Naked Came the Stranger) is playing out right now, as people who were upset by the fact that James Frey's raunchy bestseller A Million Little Pieces was fiction and not memoir are filing lawsuits demanding their money back.

Apparently Frey did not live nearly the debauched outlaw life he had claimed to live. He inserted himself into a fatal rail accident, and invented a relationship with one of the teen girl victims. He claimed to be in jail when he wasn't. He claimed to be out of control when he wasn't. He claimed to be a Really Bad Boy when he was actually a total washout as an outlaw. He might have even been a reasonably nice guy, though from Big Media's standpoint there's no future in that.

Alas, he had the temerity to get rich doing it, so somebody cried "Envy!" and let slip the Dogs of Tort.

Y'know, where I come from, what this guy did would be called "fiction." I flipped through it a little in Border's, and I swear, any NY editor with more than ten milliseconds' experience would recognize this as a hoax and not genuine memoir. It's hard to live that uniformly and unrelentingly disgusting a life. It takes skill, energy, and a class of specialized bad luck that few ever encounter. It would be a head-scratcher first class except for the insight I got from writer Terry Blair, who works in literary fiction. (I'm way out in the genre exurbs and don't mingle in the same publishing circles she does.) Terry said that memoir is currently a very hot thing with the NY houses, and everybody wants to publish more of it. She knows authors who have brought nicely-wrought novels to one or another big publisher, and been told to go home and turn it into memoir. So all this hand-wringing from Random House that "we can't fact check every line of everything we publish" rings pretty hollow. I suspect that they knew it was bogus, but never imagined that anyone would mind. After all, it's entertainment, right?

Shoving aside the cynicism that always arrives in the wake of a passing lawsuit storm, my guess is that people want to read tales of redemption, thinking, "If this guy can fall so low and still come back to a decent life, then my own problems amount to nothing." Or maybe Hell hath no fury like a voyeur conned. (I suspect that conning Oprah is in fact a really bad idea, as much as I give him points for it.) Every industry is worth a laugh once in a while, mine more than most.

February 1, 2006: The Secret of My Catholic Education

I'm the Official Computer Guy for my 40th grade school reunion, and as June bears down on us and things kick into high gear, I've been thinking about things that I haven't thought about since, well, 1966. One of the great mysteries is how the school even functioned with 48 or sometimes even 50 kids in a single classroom, with a single teacher. Yet it did function, and functioned very well. The secret, I think, cooks down to this: The school did not attempt to teach us a lot of different things—but those things that it did teach, it expected us to learn.

I don't remember grade school at Immaculate Conception being a great deal of fun, though it had its moments. We were constrained to be silent in class unless called upon, and we were expected to follow a lesson closely without daydreaming. What I do remember is that school was engaging. It got my attention, and (mostly) held it, at least in part because a great deal of class time was spent performing exercises in workbooks. We weren't listening to somebody talk. We were doing. We practiced phonics. We practiced multiplication problems. We outlined sentences. We worked on our handscript via Palmer Method. We did the same relatively limited range of things over and over. There were clear challenges and clear goals. There was a good deal of emphasis on focus and recitation. In a sense the teachers weren't "teaching to the test" because the teaching was the test.

There wasn't a great deal of "interaction" and there wasn't a lot of "enrichment." The only music was singing songs. There was no gym, though there were attempts to create an anarchic softball league on the playground in seventh grade. Poor Mrs. Toffenetti tried to teach us fourth graders French, one hour a week, but later on she was hired full-time and had to give up teaching us French. Art was scribbling on pulpy sheets of paper with crayons, and not too often, at that. (I remember drawing helicopters a lot, probably from watching old Whirlybirds reruns.)

The secret of Catholic education as I experienced it was pretty simple, and entirely secular: Mastery through practice. The school had no illusions that learning was either rapid or easy. It therefore drew a line around language skills and mathematical literacy and hammered on that, and what time was left could be spent on lesser things like geography, history, music, and (yes!) religion. (We went to Mass every morning before school in our cavernous, ugly church, and that was a good part of our training in Catholicism.) The focus, literacy, and disciplined study habits served me well, and allowed me to rocket through Chicago's toughest public high school with almost straight A's.

About the only thing I would do differently if I could magically realign our public elementary schools today would be to teach a foreign language right up front, from first grade. Young kids pick up languages more quickly than older kids. No sports. No music. No history. (I'm convinced that history is utterly lost on anyone under thirty. Time cannot be understood by those who haven't lived a significant amount of it.) Lots of workbooks. No sugar. Focus. Focus. Focus. Practice. Practice. Practice. In eight years I could hand you a generation of kids who would academically plow the rest of the world's students into the soil—especially today, when "self-esteem" appears to be the primary emphasis in education.

Yes, yes, yes, I'm just a damned old fascist. On the other hand, when I want to learn something new, be it PHP or the history behind World War I, I buy a couple of books, budget some time, sit down, and learn it. That's what I picked up in Catholic school: Education is work. You do the work, you get the education. It's pretty much that simple.