January 31, 2002:
The Google search engine people have an apparent surplus of disk space. They are now scanning and posting literal images of hundreds of popular (paper) mail-order catalogs on their site. Yes, scanning every page, which you can browse at various magnifications. You'll find this delightful and peculiar feature here. They have done OCR on the catalogs, and have a beta version of a search feature that allows you to search for words and phrases inside the scanned catalogs. I tested it; it works. (Try searching for the string "MRF476" and see what you find. Very cool.)

I know it helps to have broadband to appreciate, but I was amazed and pleased at the number of electronic surplus catalogs they're posting, like Hosfelt Electronics, from which I have ordered far too many capacitors in my lifetime, and RF Parts, which carries every damned RF transistor that ever existed. Wow.

Of course, most of the catalogs are non-geek stuff, like Land's End, Chadwick's and their ilk, plus sports, toys, home & garden, automative, and almost everything else. Take a look; it's doubtless part of a new service under development that catalog vendors will eventually pay for, but in the meantime they're scanning anything they can lay hands on, and it's a marvelously screwy mix. As I've said before, I order eccentric stuff through the mail all the time, and this may be a new way to weld paper and HTML.
January 30, 2002:

Getting started on the actual alpha version of the Aardmarks client has taken awhile.(I have two mature prototypes, from which I've learned a lot.) I've been dogged by numerous technical glitches, including some reluctance on Delphi 6's part to coexist on the same system as Delphi 5. It got so bad the other day that in a fury I uninstalled both versions of Delphi and all installed components (which is a lot) and reinstalled everything, after first defragging the hard drive and nuking any unnecessary files that I could find.

Things work way better now, and perhaps I can make some progress, finally. And I have a theory as to what went wrong: Delphi (and several component libraries) have begun dropping numerous .BPL library files in the WINNT/System32 directory. Can different versions of the same product be sure they're not going to suffer namespace collisions when installed together?

Why do people feel compelled to do this? We've established that stuffing endless DLLs in System32 is the root cause of "DLL Hell" and now, God help us, we have what appears to be BPL Hell, making Delphi (which prides itself on generating one-piece executables without dependence on DLLs) responsible for the same kind of grief I use it to avoid.

In the past I could have two versions of Delphi installed together without mayhem, but with Version 6 that era of peaceful coexistence seems to have come to an end. Keep that in mind if you upgrade Delphi—and if components is your business, puh-LEEZ keep your BPLs in your own damned directory!
January 29, 2002:

I confess I'm more intrigued by the term than by what it means, but consider...Googlewhacking. It reminds me of the silly game of "Stump eBay" that my friend Pete Albrecht and I wasted an evening doing a year or so ago.We were sitting in front of my computer here thinking of unlikely things to sell on eBay, then searching for them—and it was scary how many were being sold on eBay. But no: Googlewhacking is a sort of game in which you type two unlikely words together on the Google search line, in hope of finding only one page on the entire Web that contains them both. Such a page is called a Googlewhack. It's the latest Internet rage. See this article. One guy thought it up, and he does deserve points for originality...

...but on second thought, something about Googlewhacking sounded oddly familiar, and an earlier search engine scam also deserves major points for originality and sheer unadulterated techno-gall. A year or so ago, I was searching on the Web for information on old-fashioned Catholic ceremonial regalia with odd names like cope, miter, crozier, dalmatic, vimpa, etc. I found no pages containing the several terms, but every search returned one result: That of a porn site advertising page.

This puzzled and intrigued me, so I disassembled the HTML and found a link to...a 150,000 word dictionary! So any time that particular porn page was spidered by a search engine, it would register a hit for any two words. Generally the hit would be so far down in the list that people didn't notice it, but if you got no other hits, you at least got the porn page, heh. The engines eventually figured out this hack and blocked it, but for sheer balls it has no equal in the history of search engine subversion.

It took me about 15 minutes to find my first Googlewhack, and having done that, I have set the game aside. And the Web being what it is, by the time you try this one, other pages may have been indexed that give you two or more hits. But it worked for me on January 29, 2002 at 7:33 PM MST:

bugia ostensorium

And if you don't know those words, well, get a dictionary. (I was always the Vocabulary King at Immaculate Conception Grade School in the Sixties!)
January 28, 2002:

We have always found nails in the dirt around our house and garage, ever since we bought the place in 1993. I've taken three in my tires now, and have therefore made a kind of minor obsession about bending down to see if any thin brownish things in the dirt are nails or twigs. Over the years I have found literally hundreds, and more are exposed every time we get a hard rain. Whoever built our house apparently put as many nails into the ground as they put into the house. (We have also found numerous rusted beer cans in the dirt around the foundation. This makes the nails perhaps a little more explicable.)

Anyway, I was digging in the dirt around the east side of the garage today, in the process of running power out to my concrete telescope pier. My spade turned up the goldurndest hugest nail I have ever seen anywhere. Note the size of the thing at left. What on Earth are nails like this used for? Anybody got any ideas? Forsooth, I've never seen anything like this in a hardware store. It's at least a quarter inch thick, made of iron, and has clearly been around for awhile. Theories? I'm fresh out.
January 27, 2002:

Carol and I have rediscovered a childhood pleasure that we never knew we had in common: Steel-cut oatmeal. I show the can here because it's a cool can, and I now store bolts in it out in the garage—but you can get it in most health food stores under several different brands. The difference with steel-cut oatmeal is that the oat groats are not rolled flat (as in Quaker Oats-style oatmeal) but are cut into several pieces, which leaves the cereal "chunky style" when cooked.

It takes almost an hour to cook, but there's a trick we use that hearkens back to our childhoods: You boil a pot of water the night before, toss in the steel-cut oats, then cover it and take the pot off the burner, letting it sit overnight. The next morning, you throw the oats in a microwavable bowl and heat them up—they "cooked" by sitting in the water all night. Steel-cut oatmeal has a distinctive chewy texture—I'd characterize it as al dente oats—and there's never any mistaking it for wallpaper paste, which is the main problem I have with conventional rolled oatmeal. Look for it and give it a try. It's like nothing else you can have for breakfast, really, especially if you forego the sugar and top it with a pat of butter and a little milk and salt.
January 26, 2002:

In its December 2001 issue, Wired ran an article called "Divided We Stand," which among other things advocated cutting up our urban centers into smaller areas buffered by greenswards so that it would be harder to destroy a city's core in one strike. What this means is basically something I've been saying for years: That we need more small towns and fewer megacities.

Wired couldn't put it quite that way—their readership would revolt. The hostility that the urban heart holds for the rural in our culture is only just now coming to light in a big way, largely due to the work of David Brooks, in his articles in The Atlantic and books like Bobos in Paradise. (See my entry for January 24, 2001.) Brooks' cover story in the December 2001 Atlantic is key: It's about the urban Blues vs. the rural Reds (from election-night TV color-coding of states) and the bottomless chasm by which America is almost evenly divided.

When I proposed the creation of new, heavily networked small towns in a VDM editorial called "Cableton" years ago, I was surprised at the venom some correspondents directed at the very idea of small towns. I was told that small towns are places where Koreans and homosexuals are routinely lynched, where people are sent to jail for refusing to profess a religion—sheesh! The scary part was that they seemed to believe all this. I assumed that these notes were an aberration of bicoastals who've never set foot in a town with fewer than a million people in it, but there's something more to it, and it troubles me deeply. I've heard some small-town grumbling about the snootiness of the urban left, but it's not hate in the same way that I sense hate in the attitudes of the urban for the rural.

I have a theory, which I admit is just speculation, but hear me out: In a megacity you can choose your friends precisely—that is, if you choose to you can associate only with people whose beliefs are precisely like yours. In a small town, there's less to choose from, so you have to learn to get along with the whole motley crew if you don't want to be a hermit. Anyone who travels mostly in blue circles (as I do) understands that there are "opinion police" at gatherings that you just don't cross. Saying anything that deviates from liberal cant is a seriously flameable offense. Red people, on the other hand, will take up political argument as a sort of sport, and no hard feelings if things stay cordial. But (for example) dare to be both a Republican and a woman (as poor Ann Richards found out in Texas years ago) and the lefties will turn out an angry crowd to howl "Female impersonator!" at you.

Diversity, it turns out, is a sacred icon—as long as it's not diversity of ideology. Skin color, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, hey, it's all great...as long as you belong to the Democratic party. It's attitudes like this (and there's some of it on the other side as well, though not as much) that makes me profess eternal political independence. Political parties are just another excuse for not thinking things through for yourself.
January 25, 2002:

Every so often I discover a Web site that I can lose myself in for hours, and the Kurzweil AI site is the most recent example. In places the site borders on the sort of Extropian mania I've commented on before (September 28, 2000 and August 8, 2001) but stops short of what I consider completely nuts. Ray Kurzweil is a very bright guy with some interesting ideas and (which makes all the difference) a fair amount of money to put into his Web site. He's clearly having a wonderful time fooling around with those ideas, and the fallout is a thought-provoking site that I highly recommend. It's Flash-heavy and requires a fast connection to be at its best (though it's good Flash) so if you're on a dialup, prepare to wait a little.

The site is divided into sections, devoted to things like The Singularity (Aaaargh!), Virtual Reality, Living Forever, Building a Brain (all of these are verbatim section titles) and (most intriguingly) Dangerous Futures. The content is presented as numerous articles in the several categories, and I was pleased by how well they were all written. (Of course, I thought some of them were claptrap, but it was all well-written claptrap. And some of it was bang-on.) I've only read a couple of them so far, and will be disgesting the site for awhile to come. I'll report some thoughts in coming days.

But the most interesting (and sometimes unintentionally funny) portion of the site is Ramona, Ray Kurzweil's VR female alter ago. In one of the videos the site offers, Ray reveals with a straight face that he's always wanted to be a female rock star, so (given that he's a plain-looking middle-aged multimillionare male nerd) he created one using some slick VR technology. You need to download and install a plug-in for the LifeX VR system, but after that you can display a window in which the somewhat homely Ramona fidgets, waiting for questions. She responds quite well, in a voice that is supposed to be what Ray's would be like, had he been born female. (I also find it interesting that Ramona is clearly a young woman. Why didn't Ray imagine being a woman in her fifties?)

Cool enough, from a tech standpoint. But what is it about gender benders? Why do guys always fantasize about being women? I've fantasized about being a lot of things I'm not (rich, handsome, living in the past, living in the future, living on exotic planets, things like that) but trying to imagine myself as female stops me cold. Anyway, if advanced technology and issues of the future fascinate you, plan to spend some time there.
January 24, 2002:

At left are three of the little plastic connectors at the heart of the old D-Stix toy, which I drug out of the deep places in my garage this morning, just to see if I could find them. D-Stix, if any of you recall, offered 1/8" diameter wooden (later plastic) rods of various lengths and colors, connected by the flexible plastic end-pieces shown here. The end-pieces came in five, six, and eight-ended versions; the 3-banger you see here is a six with half its ears cut off. (I was unable to find a single intact six-banger in my dusty collection.)

I'm trying to determine if you can still buy D-Stix, or like so many other things of the Sixties, have they simply gone away? I used them for two major applications: Models of hyperspace projections (which almost netted me an all-expense paid scholarship from the Navy in 1970) and tetrahedral kites. Most of what I had are now gone, and while I think I'm finished with the fourth dimension, I would definitely like to build another tetrahedral kite. (Carol and I flew a four-cell D-Stix tetrahedral on our second date in August 1969, when she was 16 and I 17.) I'm in the process of searching, but if you happen to know of a source for D-Stix, do drop me a note.
January 23, 2002:

Click to buy it on Amazon!I picked up a copy of Jon Shemitz's new book, KYLIX: The Professional Developer's Guide and Reference, and I'm pleased to report that it's dazzling. (I haven't gone over the Kylix canon exhaustively, but I'm very happy that there is a Kylix canon—it wasn't a forgone conclusion.) I'm also deClick to order it on Amazon!lighted with Kylix Power Solutions by Don Taylor, Jim Mischel, and Tim Gentry, but you have to factor in its origins at Coriolis and the fact that I had something to do with its acquisition. (I do not review Coriolis books on Amazon for this reason, and when I flog Coriolis books elsewhere online I've been spanked from several quarters.) A couple of the other Kylix books that I flipped through at Borders left me cold—don't buy them unless you spend some time checking them out. Some, I got the impression, were converted Delphi books, and having read much of Jon's book I'm sure that that's not quite what you want.

Jon's book is a general Kylix book, covering Object Pascal, the Kylix toolset, and the underlying Linux/Qt/X11 platform. He did it from scratch; there was no antecedent Delphi book, and in fact the book is littered with tip icons labeled, "Kylix is not Delphi." Amen. Jon's book is also not an intro tutorial; you had better know something about RAD programming, and ideally Object Pascal, or it'll be a rough climb. But if you've put some time in with Delphi you won't be lost, and the book will take you far. I learned more about thread programming under Kylix with this book than any other book taught me about thread programming under Windows, and that's due to the quality of Jon's writing and his relentlessly rational development of the ideas within Kylix. There's a section on Unix concepts that Unix vets can skip but that Delphi vets must read, and a couple of fun projects to dissect. All in all, it's beautifully done, and it bodes well for Kylix's survival as a product that strong third-party books have begun to appear.
January 22, 2002:

At left you'll see Carol and me standing before the Rev. Mary T. Ramsden, an Old Catholic priest, as we renewed our vows at our 25th wedding anniversary Mass this past October 6. Mary is as close as we have to a parish priest when we're in Chicago. She regularly celebrates Mass around my sister Gretchen's dining room table, and those small ceremonies, amidst a circle of close friends, have become the centerpiece of our spiritual lives.

Carol and I have met a number of women priests (and two women bishops) within the Old Catholic movement, and all of them have been delightful and very spiritual people. The Roman Catholic Church would be utterly different (and, I think, immeasurably better) were women admitted to the priesthood. Why, then, does Rome refuse to do so? This question intrigues me, and when I did the research I was aghast at what I discovered: The reasons given today are not the reasons that were given in centuries past, and Rome has done everything it can to obfuscate the true origins of that admittedly ancient policy.

Rome's modern theology of the priesthood is brand new. I have found no theological antecedents in the works of the Church Fathers. Inter Insignores (the encyclical explaining Rome's position on women in the priesthood) has no footnotes, no references, no links to the past, nothing at all but the strident voice of papal fiat saying, "We have spoken. Discussion is ended." So I went back and looked to see what the "old reasons" were. There are two: 1) Women, because they menstruate, are ritually unclean; and 2) women are defective men!

Reason 1 is a carry-forward of ancient Jewish law still held by the Orthodox Jewish; why it remains in Catholic tradition is unclear. Reason 2, yikes! I had a hard time believing it, too. But let me quote St. Thomas Aquinas, from his massive Summa Theologica, one of the cornerstone works of all Catholic theology:

In terms of nature's own operation, a woman is inferior and a mistake. The agent cause that is in the male seed tries to produce something complete in itself, a male in gender. But when a female is produced, this is because the agent is thwarted, either because of the unsuitability of the receiving matter [of the mother] itself, or because of some deforming interference, as of south winds, that are too wet, as we read in Aristotle's Animal Conception.

It was from arguments like this, mined from the pagan scientific writings of Aristotle, that led Aquinas to proclaim (again, in Summa Theologica, hardly a minor or eccentric work):

Since any supremacy of rank cannot be expressed in the female sex, which has the status of an inferior, that sex cannot receive ordination.

In a sense, you almost can't blame Aquinas. Consider this from his teacher, Albert the Great:

Woman is a misbegotten man, and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she herself cannot get she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.

(This is from Albert's Commentary on Aristotle's "Animals", and a fair description of the general opinion held of women in the fourteenth century.)

My main point here is that Rome has not confronted this nasty legacy head-on, but instead has tried to duck the issue and bury the spotted sources of its "constant tradition" of excluding women from the priesthood. To do so it has invented new theology to support it, theology without any identifiable links to Catholic tradition nor the ancient Church.

Not all communities within the Old Catholic movement ordain women, but more and more do, to the extent that (within Old Catholicism) it is now more the rule than the exception. Our experience with women priests has been marvelous, and I really hope that Rome relents within our lifetimes. Until then, well, I'm sticking with Old Catholicism.
January 21, 2002:

The whole idea of GPS fascinates me, and on Slashdot this morning I found a pointer to an interesting article on New Scientist, describing research that will eventually allow people to tag a geographical location with a message. Anyone arriving at that location with a GPS-enabled browser (like a WML-capable cellphone) would see the message. Walk down Main Street, and as you go past Joe's Cafe, your cellphone will begin displaying either Joe's menu, or reviews of the restaurant written by Joe's satisfied (or unsatisfied) customers.

That's the plan, at least. What the researchers seem not to be taking into account is how vulnerable a system like that would be to abuse. When any 30-foot cube of space can be tagged with an infinite number of messages, without cost or accountability, we basically create a system for virtual graffitti that would make today's email spam problem pale by comparison. The basic problems of information found on the Web (who wrote this? Can it be trusted?) still apply, and if anybody can tag anywhere with anything, I can't but imagine that the system would soon collapse under the weight of catty commentary and 3-D spam marketing.

I'm not sure such a system will ever be created, but it highlights the need for a culture change in global electronic communications. Verifiability and accountability may need to be built into the system for the system to be useful. Perhaps each 30-foot cube of space will have an owner or moderator, who must pass on each tag before the tag is made visible. (So much for those restaurant reviews...) And who will moderate the moderators? Food for thought, but at the moment I'm not optimistic that much will come of it.
January 20, 2002:

Something's going on in the spam arena. For the past several days, I have been getting as many as sixty copies a day of a single spam message. For me, this is unprecedented—and while the rudimentary spam filtering supported by Outlook Express takes care of them without hesitation, I pale to think how much bandwidth this creature is chewing up. It doesn't look like a virus, as it's not HTML and carries no attachment. It is, however, a pyramid scam of a fairly traditional variety. I'd be curious to know if anyone else is getting them. The nominal "from" field is 2731907VV, and the email address from the header is mail07211@mweb.com.cn. The subject field is:

7256 Recession-Proof QUICK CASH Money Maker!!! 3190727

None of my aggregators have mentioned this thing, but either some chickenboner's turnkey spam machine is stuck in a loop, or the Net is groaning under the burden this thing is causing. If anybody knows anything about it, I'd love to hear the story.
January 18, 2002:
In case you hadn't already noticed, there's a brand new link on my main Contrapositive Diary page, to a new page where I'm in the process of posting as much of my own material from PC Techniques and Visual Developer Magazine as I can find and format. VDM Diary was easy, even though a few months' worth have gotten themselves lost, and I'm starting in on my editorials. As time allows, I'll format and post my what I have. There is also a list of links to the home pages of popular PCT/VDM authors and columnists who have home pages. Michael Covington, Peter Aitken, Jim Mischel, Al Williams, Jon Shemitz, Brook Monroe, David Gerrold, and anybody else who used to write for the mags and has a page will be there. That done, I'm feeling a little under the weather and less than fully creative, so I may be quiet for a few days.
January 17, 2002:

Most modern email servers have the ability to check to see if a mail header has been sent with an unresolvable domain name. (The sad part is that so few sysadmins turn this feature on. The most recent releases of Sendmail have finally turned this on as a default.) It occurs to me that a mail client can check a domain name for resolvability just as easily as a server—and it can do the job in the background, and then nuke any email message that comes from an unresolvable domain. That won't kill all spam, obviously, but it will eliminate a fair amount of the scruffiest spam, especially messages offering porn or some species of fraud.

Looking into spam filters has shown me just how little has been done on the client side to fight spam. Microsoft's filtering mechanisms are limited (Outlook Express) or terribly difficult to use ("Big" Outlook.) Filtering in Microsoft's clients definitely has the look of being tacked on, and not built into the core architecture of the program. So how about somebody create an email client that is designed specifically to limit spam? I'd like to see an email client program that:

  • checks for unresolvable domain names in any name in the "from" field. (Oddly enough, an email can be "from" multiple addresses, and sometimes the first one or more are phony names, to fool people who would otherwise add them to a spammer list.)
  • checks for names from unqualified senders (that is, partial-and thus probably phony-names instead of full this@that email addresses.)
  • checks for spammers in the Realtime Black Hole and isolates any mail from a Black Hole denizen.
  • allows right-click addition (from the mailbase list) to the spammer list, either as a full email address or as a domain.

And while we're at it, I see no reason why an email client could not parse and analyze any script riding along in an HTML document or naked (like a VBS file), and block execution of any script that takes certain actions, like writing to disk, calling system functions or generating email on its own. There's a nontrivial time burden here, but there's no reason that a mail client couldn't store messages containing scripts in a cache of some sort, and process them in the background before actually allowing them to show up in the user's mailbase list from which they are likely to be executed.

In short, nobody has yet looked at the email client challenge from the standpoint of making spam-reduction and elimination of virus execution the top priorities. Today's clients are astoundingly stupid in that regard. Want to make a fortune? Here's your chance. Go for it.
January 16, 2002:

Because (militant centrist though I am) I move in mostly leftie circles, I hear perpetual griping about how the poor and middle class pay the bulk of America's taxes and how it's not fair and how the rich escape tax-free, blah blah blah. T'ain't so, folks. Figures recently released by the IRS for tax year 1999 indicate the following:

  • The top 1% of taxpayers ranked by adjusted gross income paid 36.2% of income taxes.
  • The top 5% of taxpayers paid 55.5% of income taxes.
  • The top 10% of taxpayers paid 66.5% of income taxes.
  • The top 50% of taxpayers paid 96% of income taxes.
No way are the rich escaping anything here. In fact, if you consider the top 10% of taxpayers "rich" (which isn't really fair, grading on the curve like that) then the "rich" pay two thirds of all income taxes, and the poor virtually none. If there is injustice in our tax system, it's in the loopholes, not in the aggregate distribution of tax burdens.
January 15, 2002:
The very uneven Jon Katz has posted a blistering attack on "cool" technology on Slashdot, focusing on the new IMac. (See my entry for January 11, 2002.) I'd take issue with a number of his points (I doubt most hackers love Linux because it's cool; they love Linux because it celebrates all of their strengths and makes them feel like part of a priesthood) but about Apple he's bang-on. True, he doesn't even begin to address the futility of trying to compete with Microsoft and still do your own hardware, which may well be the core of the matter. But read it anyway.
January 14, 2002:

Every so (infrequently) often, I'm confronted by a word in ordinary parlance that I just don't know. The other day I heard something about a scheduled gymkhana, and I was at a loss. I ever so dimly recall hearing the word in the past, but never bothered to chase it down. It sounds vaguely eastern somehow, perhaps an element of some obscure Indic religion. (Aerobic dharma?)

But no: It's a sports meet. Now I understand why I hadn't heard the word much (y'all know how much I like sports) though the one in question, oddly enough, was about kites, which I really and genuinely do like. So I guess a kite contest is a kite gymkhana, even though the citations I see on the Web are mostly about field sports like javelin or equestrian sports like rodeo roping.

So I added it to the words I know, and pondered how it might have been missed. I got the vocabulary I got in a slightly odd way: My father taught me how to look up words in the dictionary at a very young age, and added the advice that every time I looked up a word in the dictionary, I was to read the whole page. And so I did, quite faithfully, from the age of 10 until I got to college and time grew to be at a premium. This is how I came to know words like "prolate" and "colloquy" in seventh grade—but somehow, the word "gymkhana" was never on the same page that I was.
January 13, 2002:

I've used Visio since its very first release in 1993, and recognize it as one of the most brilliant first releases in software history. Some other products have grown great over the years (having begun as modest concepts or even utter bungleware) but Visio sprang from oblivion to brilliance in only one step.

So it's with some reluctance that I grumble at Microsoft (which now owns Visio, sigh) for not putting the ability to generate multiple views or perspective projections from a Visio drawing. In other words, I'm griping because it's not CAD—or at least I'm griping because it's not simple CAD. I have tried various CAD programs, up to and including the mighty AutoCAD, but I don't need to draw diesel engines (or, heh, firehose nozzles) and the complexity of modern CAD would require a learning period I'm not sure I can afford. Perhaps Visio is best left doing what it does, and does better than anybody: 2D diagramming and 2D drawing. I've used it to create both schematic diagrams and printed circuit layouts, room layouts, signs for the back door, and all kinds of other things. Demanding that it be 3-D CAD as well is probably asking too much.

I bring this up because I've begun a book project (which may be the first of a series of book projects; tell you about it later) that would really benefit from the ability to draw simple technical diagrams and present them in 3-D perspective. So I need to go looking for a CAD program that won't take a year of my life to learn. Any suggestions? Sheesh, I'm listening.
January 12, 2002:

A little over ten years ago, I opined in a couple of private forums that the 21st century was going to be the era of demographic warfare. I got my ass chewed thoroughly by both side of the spectrum for even suggesting it, so I let the matter drop, figuring there were more fertile (and less depressing) idea fields to plow. So I'm grimly satisfied to see the issue beginning to appear, though as you might expect, it's the idiots on the extremes who are bringing it up. (Centrists for most part see it as a "third rail" issue that you can't generate any reasonable discussion about, and they let it be. Smart.)

Fast forward to 2002. Everybody's favorite right-wing buffoon Pat Buchanan has a book on, sure enough, demographic warfare. The book (which I have not yet read) is founded on UN population statistics, from which Buchanan has deduced that first world demographic groups are undergoing a population implosion, while in the developing world population continues to rise radically. Russia, in particular, is losing ethnic Russian population so rapidly that it might as well abandon Russian Asia after 2050. He forsees China as attempting to seize the more temperate portions of Russian Asia (do such exist?) with possible nuclear consequences vis-a-vis Russia. (Buchanan is getting to be something of a celebrity in Russia right now, a situation which reeks of irony.)

I may or may not read the book; I'd prefer someone with less of an axe to grind discuss things like this. But the statistics are not of his devising, and as someone who hopes to live until 2035-2040 (when I'll be in my late eighties) this is not something that I can simply abandon to the future to worry about. Buchanan's history and thought are not entirely innocent of racism, as those who have entered the debate immediately remind us as a means of driving the whole topic back off the table. Race, however, is a red herring here, once you subtract Buchanan from the issue entirely. It's not about race so much as culture, and there is an open question as to whether Western culture can basically swallow the rest of the world at the same time it's rapidly shrinking in population.

And if Western culture (which includes Japan and Korea) basically vanishes, what culture will take its place? Look at the world around you, and choose the culture you'd like to see replace the one in which you live. Think hard—and then go have a drink. That's what I'm going to do.
January 11, 2002:

Yet again, with much fuss and nauseating self-congratulation, Apple announces an expensive hardware design (one can hardly call it a "box") that will be yet another step on their road to extinction. They managed an exclusive with Time Magazine that put the grapefruit-half IMac machine on its cover and infuriated most of the rest of the world of computer journalism. (Giving exclusives is not the way to make friends and influence tech pub editors. Trust me. Been there. Hated that.) Needless to say, the well's been poisoned, and armies of spurned editors are busily trashing the machine.

This is dumb, sad, and needless. The design is not horrible, though certainly overpriced. And the real problem isn't the design at all, but the simple fact that the world does not need Apple's hardware. It needs only Mac OS X. As Ron Pronk and I warned as long ago as 1994, in our book Inside the PowerPC Revolution (long out of print but usually available on the used book sites), creating fast custom hardware for a non-Intel CPU is a terrible R&D burden on Apple that always leaves it one half step (or more) behind Microsoft, which spends neither money nor manpower designing its own CPUs or desktop boxes. Apple seems not to understand their real miracle: They tamed Unix and made it fit the consumer desktop. Instead of porting it as quickly as possible to the highly standard and cheap Intel PC hardware platform, Apple pisses its cash away creating oddball computers that look like postmodern toasters or (in this case) desk lamps.

I'm spanking Apple here not because I want them to die, but because I want them to live. There is only one way that Apple can ever be more than an expensive footnote in the computer business: By scrapping the Power processors and making Intel-compatible Mac OS X boxware, and going head-to-head with Microsoft in the OS arena. They brag about having thirty million users (a number I'm suspicious of) which, even if true, is mere dust on the floor of the desktop market, which is now up in the high hundreds of millions and closing in on a billion. The choice is theirs: A spot in the design museums of oddball high-tech collectables, or a permanent place alongside Microsoft as genuine competitors. My theory? They're chicken. Stevie boy, dare to compete. Throw your silly-ass hardware in the river and get real.
January 10, 2002:

I don't respect wine (see my entry for July 13, 2001) but I do enjoy it, and knowing what wines to try is a problem, as wine is not like oatmeal, which tastes pretty much the same no matter who makes it. So it was useful to run across The Tom Hill Wine Tasting Notes Archives. It does some of the job of The Wine Spectator (a paper journal on wine with an associated Web site) except that it's free and a little more lighthearted and less impressed with its own importance. I've been exploring the Zinfandel space recently and Tom has been quite helpful here, as for some reason (perhaps because it's a uniquely American grape) red zins get little shelf space in stores and little coverage in the wine press.

The downside is that a lot of the wines he reviews are simply unavailable, but some of the things he's pointed me to (like the Coturri line of organic zinfandels) have been wonderful, if (as Tom puts it) "absolutely weird." But hey, a wine for a contrarian, no?
January 9, 2002:

There is something uniquely male (and young male, heh) about the results of a recent Slashdot poll, in which they asked their readership what the happiest day of their lives was. The top three items were as follows:

1. The day they got broadband (28%)
2. The day they lost their virginity (24%)
3. The day they got married. (10%)

I guess we should be glad marriage even made it into the top three. I would have expected #3 to be the day they finally learned how to rebuild the Linux kernel.
January 8, 2002:

I just learned that Google has somehow laid hands on ancient tapes of Usenet postings going back to May 1981, and you can search these postings through their site in pretty much the same way you search the Web. This intrigued me, as I was a reasonably heavy user of Usenet in 1994-1995, and used it sporadically during the end of my tenure at Xerox in 1982-1984, when what I was on was called ARPAnet and it was an enviable privilege that I didn't fully appreciate at the time. (I had no idea, in fact, what Usenet was, since I was accessing it through ARPANet. Somebody showed me how, and I did what they said. It reminded me of a CBBS, so I felt right at home, and didn't ponder the details.) I did an egoscan on Google's index, and it was amazing to see what it turned up.

It didn't return everything I ever posted on Usenet. In particular, it seems to have lost traffic from alt.books.cs-lewis, where I did a lot of posting back in the mid-90's. Still, enough was there to make me gasp…like seeing reviews I posted to alt.sf-lovers of movies like Tron back when it was first-run in 1982. Interesting in another way was seeing people using various of my sayings in their sig lines, including people I have never met and don't know.

Usenet has gotten seriously un-useful in recent years, since posting spammers have flooded the groups with really disgusting porn spam. Most of what used to happen on Usenet is probably now happening on email listserv groups, from which spam is easier to exclude. Certainly the sorts of Usenet chatter I used to engage in has now moved to groups like OldCatholicUnity and OLDCTH-L. But the Google index strengthens the cautionary truth that nothing you post on the Net will ever be completely forgotten. Keep that in mind as your finger fatefully hovers over the Enter key. (Or the left mouse button…)
January 7, 2002:

Reader Jorge Fabrégas sent me to the Lindows Web site, pertinent to my earlier comments here on Lindows and WINE. Lindows is an attempt to create a release of Linux that can run "well-behaved" Windows software through tight integration of the WINE Win32 emulation codebase. The goal is not to allow the running of all Windows software, which is probably impossible. But some software packages are more equal than others, heh.

We're not confronted with an Open Source project running on fumes this time. It's well-run and well-funded by MP3.com founder Michael Robertson, and the goal is to create a real product that can be sold and supported and perhaps even make a profit.

WINE has been under development since 1993, and is actually pretty far along. I have wondered here and there why Microsoft hasn't tried to stop them, but a little thought provides the answer: WINE is harmless (to Microsoft) all by itself. A Windows compatibility layer needs an underlying OS distribution that understands that it's there and knows how to seamlessly use it. Lindows is precisely that.

And now Microsoft is scared—scared enough, at least, to sic its lawyers on Lindows. I'm not sure if it's on trademark grounds or look-n-feel grounds, or some other vague accusation of IP mopery and dopery. Fortunately, Michael has enough money to fight back (he sold his last company for $370 million) and realizes that money spent fighting MS can pay off handsomely in publicity and attention. The uglier it gets, in fact, the more that Michael wins. So expect a long, colorful, and interesting battle. I think that eventually, Microsoft will give up—after unwittingly putting Lindows on the map. (Some people never learn.)

Lindows is supposed to become commercially available sometime before midyear. As others have indicated, if Lindows can run MS Office, it literally makes the Windows OS itself unnecessary for a huge number of people, who use almost nothing else in their day-to-day work. Keep your eye on it.
January 6, 2002:

I saw a squib on TV the other night indicating that an herbal sedative and anti-anxiety agent called kava-kava can cause liver damage. Reaction on the Web was predictable: The medical establishment says it can, and the health food cranks say the health establishment is trying to suppress anything that isn't supported by the health establishment.

Well, duhh. The health establishment is definitely trying to suppress medical myths that can cause damage when followed carelessly or under the guidance of self-declared experts, who often have a financial incentive to push the stuff in question. So it seems with kava-kava; many of the Web sites that defend it also sell it. A more honest summary follows:

Kava is mildly narcotic and produces mild euphoric changes characterized by elevated mood, fluent and lively speech and increased sense of sound. Higher doses can lead to muscle weakness, visual impairment, dizziness and drying of the skin. Long term use of the herb can contribute to hypertension, reduced protein levels, blood cell abnormalities, or liver damage. Alcohol consumption increases the toxicity of the pharmacological constituents. It is not recommended for those who intend on driving or where quick reaction time is required.

This from the Herbal Information Center, one of the best sources of data on herbals I've found. My suspicion is that kava-kava is relatively harmless when taken in modest doses and not on an ongoing basis; in that it's rather like wine. The problem is that people take it without any medical advice whatsoever, and assume that it has to be harmless irrespective of dose.

This assumption stems, I think, from the strong faith that Americans have in the FDA for drug approval. Naive folks (like a lot of New Agers) can't imagine that anything that would have damaging effects could possibly be legal. (Hah! Try cigarettes!) Products like herbals have the additional downside in that purity and strength are not regulated in any way, so you can never tell just what you're tossing down the hatch. (Drug addicts have this problem all the time.)

Another good site to check if you're considering herbals or other health fads is Quackwatch. Needless to say, this is from the "medical establishment" (Jiggers! The guy is a real doctor!) and he brooks very little nonsense. Typical is his short piece The Herbal Minefield. Highly recommended reading, along with his many other articles on the necessity of the scientific process and regulation in the health industry.

I've only tried a handful of herbals, and those only when I've seen indications in legitimate medical liturature (like a health newsletter we read from the Mayo Clinic) that they are not especially risky. My results have been spotty: Melatonin screwed up my biological clock (see my entry for April 19, 2001) because I took too much, and extract of Valerian left me feeling drugged and weird for a couple of days after a single dose. So the lesson is quite simply: Avoid herbals until you've researched them heavily, and even then, follow any guidance that seems reasonably and don't overdo it. You only get one liver.
January 5, 2002:

Loyal reader (and old friend) Brook Monroe points out that devices like the Tablet PC have been around for a bit, without much fanfare and even less success. He has the Vadem Clio, a handsome $1000 item running Windows CE that performed the same sort of flip-face transformation that the Tablet PCs are supposed to perform. (See my entry for January 2, 2002) I speak in the past tense because the Clio debuted in 1998 and is no longer made, but it worked reasonably well and was just maybe a little ahead of its time. (Here's a review from 1998.)

As you can see here, the display was on hinges, allowing it to either face the keyboard (laptop mode) or cover the keyboard (tablet mode.) It didn't run a Pentium and didn't have a hard drive, and thus didn't have much of a chance against laptops like the Sony Vaio that were encroaching on its size range. What I found most interesting and pertinent to today's discussion of the Tablet PC is that Brook found it paranoia-inducing: He was afraid to leave it unattended in the child seat of a grocery cart, or anywhere else. It was overkill for grocery list management and underkill for things you'd want a laptop to do, and thus it now sits in retirement on Brook's nightstand while his Cassiopeia does the heavy lifting and still fits in his pocket. (It also didn't work in portrait mode, which in my view may well be its killer flaw. Nobody but publishing people seem to understand the indispensible vertical orientation, which is deeply embedded in humanity's collective unconscious. Portrait—it's a book. Landscape—it's a TV.)

All that said, I still think the Tablet will be a winner, because it will have a hard drive and a fast Intel-compatible CPU, and will have the general feel of a thin book. E-book publishing is the Tablet's killer app—or so I fervently hope. We will see.
January 4, 2002:

Carol and I took her mom down to the old Pickwick theater in Park Ridge last week to see Monsters, Inc. again. (I reviewed the film in my November 19, 2001 entry.) In doing so we experienced a brilliant piece of marketing: Cartoon movie sequences added to the theatrical copy after a month or two of release. After the film, there were these wonderfully silly "outtake" scenes of the monsters and the little human girl Boo flubbing their lines and tripping over their own (numerous) feet. These outtakes were heavily advertised on children's TV shows and from the crowd were entirely successful in getting kids to drive second viewings of the film.

A few days later we rented the Shrek DVD to watch with our nephews, who had not yet seen the film. Sure enough, after the film proper there was a substantial (almost 7 minute) added musical number dubbed "Shrek's Kareoke Dance Party" which was hilarious: The Princess (in her ogre-form) writhing on the ground with a mike doing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and Prince Farhquad's executioner struggling through "Feelings." Nearly all of the film's multitude of characters appeared, with both new music and snips from "classics" (sigh) like the Baja Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out." I'm not sure these were present in the film's later months of theatrical release, but they certainly could fuel DVD sales.

Well, shucks. I love animation, and I am pleased beyond words to see high-quality animated films like Shrek and Monsters, Inc. not only succeeding but beating the ass off of the cynical Hollywood crap that fills our theaters. Cynicism, as I've said many times, is cowardice—and Hollywood seems to have gathered most of the nation's cowards to its breast.
January 3, 2002:

I, er, stumbled across yet another gonzo high-tech pastime this morning: war driving. This is bound to become more popular than geocaching (see my entry for March 7, 2001) because you never have to get out of your car to do it—though I suppose you could do it on your bike if you were gonzo enough.

Anyway. The idea with war driving is to plug an 802.11 wireless networking card into your laptop, run a free utility called Network Stumbler, and then drive around your neighborhood with your laptop on the passenger's seat where you can see it. (Cell phone distraction has nothing on war driving!) Network Stumbler reports 802.11 wireless networks that it has "stumbled" across, and whether or not they are encrypted. As a dork pastime, this is a little like driving around town tuning for cordless phone conversations on police scanners, which was very popular a few years ago, when cordless phones were all in plain FM on the 46-49 Mhz band.

There is an entire Slash site devoted to war driving and other 802.11 entertainments, which has reports from war drivers on things they did, like war driving the Rose Bowl parade route, and war driving around truck stops. It also has a lot of very good technical information on the 802.11 wireless "standard," which is still squirming around like a snake with a broken back while innovation vastly outraces product implementation.

It's called "war driving" as an analog of "war dialing," an ancient (that is, 1980s) pastime in which young people with too little to do would run demon dialers and dial local phones until they got a modem on the line. Remember the flick War Games? That's the origin of the meme.

Of course, if you netstumble across an "open" (unencrypted) 802.11 network, you can often surf the Web on somebody else's connection, or in cases of extreme openness, browse their shared directories. As with the cordless phone scam, this is temporary lapse in technological sanity, and as the 802.11 standard firms up a little, encryption will become the norm. Or maybe not. (Against stupidity, the Gods Themselves...)
January 2, 2002:

Hey, I've changed my mind. I will make a prediction for 2002, albeit a slightly conditional one: If Microsoft succeeds in coercing hardware companies to get Tablet PCs on the market this year, it will be a very, very big deal. I say this after going back to the MS site for the first time in a couple of months to review their coverage of Tablet PC issues, and found that there are some really interesting notions abroad in the hardware world. Chief of these is the animation I show to the left, which speaks volumes about what Microsoft wants to happen: To literally change the shape of desktop and mobile computing, all at one time.

How? The Tablet will (or some of them will; probably the top-of-the-line models) work in three modes: As a dockable desktop replacement, as a laptop with (small) keyboard, and as a stylus-driven tablet. This covers the three general plots of turf for personal computing these days: The desktop, the laptop, and the (Jeff coinage here) handtop. I am not the only one dissatisfied with palm computing, although I have a Handspring Visor. It's too small and too limited, and it ends up as little more than a compact bucket for my address book. If I could get something 3/4" of an inch thick (the thickness of one of those sexy Sony Vaio machines) that could be either a tablet or a full laptop at need, wow! I'd be a happy guy.

There's an additional reason I'm interested in the Tablet: I think it may well be the first reasonable platform for the hosting and display of e-books. As I indicated in yesterday's entry, I intend to experiment with e-book publishing in the coming year, and I think the Tablet has the potential to (finally) take e-books into the mainstream.

I also think that, if successful, the "handtop" tablet form factor will drive palm computing completely into cellphone-land, and palms that are not also phones will cease to be a force in the industry.

If you're interested in the Tablet PC, by all means take a look at Microsoft's terse but intriguing Tablet page. The photos of the hardware prototypes are intriguing as hell. More as I find it (like this nice writeup on SLCentral) and certainly as the new year wears on, there will be more Tablet PC rumors on the wind.
January 1, 2002:

Happy New Year! I hope—and pray. Not that it would be hard to beat 2001 in the Happy department, sheesh.

I had had some notion of putting together a list of predictions for the year, but after leaning back in my big chair and thinking about it for awhile, I demur. There are only two possibilities for the coming year: Either nothing especially interesting will happen, or 2002 will be completely unpredictable. Either way, there's not much to be said.

I do have some personal resolutions: To write more SF, to establish an associates relationship with Amazon, and (with some luck and work) to establish a small print-on-demand and e-book publishing venture, so that I can get my SF and selected computing titles back into print. I want to write some new books, but the publishing industry is in disarray, and publishing companies are "sharing the pain" with their authors in a big way, which typically means that the publishers get the shares, and the authors get the pain.

I already have a completed book, laid out and ready to go, containing all my previously published SF shorts, plus a 27,000-word über-novella that has never seen print before. I am well into another short book that explains how to build a reflecting telescope without machine tools. I'm planning additional short books on building radios and kites, two things I'm good at. They won't take years to write, and since I don't expect them to be bestsellers, I'll take whatever success they achieve as a baseline for future experience.

Beyond that? I'm not sure. I have big chunks of a book on Old Catholicism already written, and I want to see where to go with that. I may or may not decide to publish my SF novel myself, since I have all but abandoned hope of getting it into print conventionally. I have entertained thoughts of doing a book on the issue of women in the Catholic priesthood. Books like that have been done, but my approach will have a twist: As a fait accompli, set within the Old Catholic movement. I know at least seven Old Catholic woman priests, and know of another ten or twelve. They aren't common, but they're out there, quietly doing God's work without a lot of fanfare. A book telling their story would be a fine thing to have.

My final resolution for the year is to get my Aardmarks utility to the point where I can turn it loose and get some reactions from other people. I've decided my Prototype 2 is now as mature as I want to take it, since it has some fundamental flaws that I will have to rebuild it entirely to eliminate. But that's OK—it's been more a learning process for me than anything else, and it's kept me from getting too stale on Delphi.

As you might expect, I'll be posting my progress on all of these items here, so if you care at all, stay tuned. I will make only one prediction for the year: I will be busy. (Carol and I are also planning our first European vacation. If any of you are on the Continent, please let me know where, and perhaps we can grab a coffee somewhere!)