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January 31, 2006: Are You a Bill, a Linus, or an Alien?

Every now and then somebody tries something that's just so cheeky that I have to stand up and cheer. It happened a few days ago when I first learned of Fon, a Spanish startup that will attempt to formalize and monetize the sharing of Internet bandwidth through residential Wi-Fi connections.

Here's basically how it works: You download a firmware update to your Linksys WRT54G wireless router. You flash the new firmware. (!!!) Then you have a decision to make:

  1. You can qualify as a "Linus" by sharing your bandwidth for free. You are then allowed to use all the other hotspots in the Fon network for free.
  2. You can qualify as a "Bill" by charging for access to your hotspot. You then must pay for access to other hotspots in the Fon network.

Anybody else can be an Alien, who does not provide bandwidth but pays to use the Fon network. Fon takes 50% of the proceeds paid by Aliens or Bills.

The idea of creating a network (or at least a directory) of people willing to share their home Wi-Fi connections with others is not new. I suggested that people place the two characters ")(" at the beginning of their SSID string to show that the hotspot is open, though I've yet to see anyone do that.

The big challenge, of course, is keeping malefactors from either cracking your home network or doing obnoxious things through your connection. Details on what all the Fon firmware update does are still a little thin, but one hopes that it draws on the experience of others in creating "captive portals" and heavily isolates the local network from passers-through. Solving IP impersonation (spammers and illegal file traders) is tougher, and I don't see anything on the Fon site that addresses the issue. Much worse (especially on the US side of the pond) is the fact that most residential ISPs forbid the sharing of their broadband connections with others. If Fon catches on to any extent at all, this will become an issue. We'll just have to watch.

It's a cool idea, and I love the three little icons on the Fon home page, for Bills, Linuses, and Aliens. I don't intend to join (I'm actually not live with Wi-Fi right now—CAT 5E in the walls here!—but if any of you do, I'd love to get some reports on how well the system works, and how many people use it.

January 30, 2006: Odd Lots

  • NASA is making a sort of ad-hoc satellite out of an old space suit. This is a fine piece of duct-tape engineering, and you can listen to its telemetry on 145.990 MHz FM, within the 2-meter amateur radio band. The word "telemetry" here is not quite how I mean it (old guy that I am) but that's OK: SuitSat will recite its internal condition in English (after a prerecorded greeting in five languages) through a speech synthesizer. SuitSat will be inflated and will look like a human being with arms and legs outstretched. Now, does anybody dare to hope for sufficient resolution to get a photo?
  • Many of you have already seen this (it was the EDS Superbowl ad in 2000) but if you haven't, go take a look. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV. I think it's even better than 2001's "Running of the Squirrels." Thanks to David Beers for the pointer.
  • Wines to Avoid Dept: Run screaming from Three Thieves Zinfandel, which counts as one of the five or six worst wines I've ever tried. Fortunately, it's in a weird jug and easy to spot. I ended up dumping half of it down the sink. It'll be awhile, however, before anything will challenge Sweet Walter from Bully Hill. (The name itself is ironic; having met the man once, "sweet" is not a word I would use to describe Walter Taylor.) Whatever bad karma sweet wine didn't get from Mogen David it got from Sweet Walter. Yukkh.
  • You might want to uninstall Winamp 5.12 until such time as AOL/Nullsoft comes up with a patch: There's a nasty security hole in it allowing an exploit that can be triggered by playing a sound file from an infected Web site. I've used Winamp since 1998 but I'm looking for another MP3 player at this time; what are your favorites?

January 28, 2006: Ebooks Partnering with Paper

My Lenovo/IBM Thinkpad X41 tablet PC should be here within two weeks, and I'm already buying ebooks for it. In fact, in chasing down a good tutorial on Ruby (and Rails, its application framework) I stumbled onto The Pragmatic Programmers, a small publisher who's quietly going after the ebook market precisely as I would: No DRM, but the customer's name is embedded in the PDF.

In the last couple of days (basically since Julian Bucknall gave me a quick thumbnail of why it was so good, last Thursday night) I've been furiously researching Rails, and yesterday I ordered Agile Web Development with Rails by Dave Thomas and David Heinemeier Hansson. I ordered it from the publisher as package that seemed like a reasonable deal: Buy the print book for $35, and get the ebook for $8 more. (The ebook alone costs $22.50.) The print book will be showing up some time this coming week, but I got the ebook five minutes later and I'm already well into it, even though I'm not fond of reading in front of my computer. (That's what big cushy leather chairs are for!)

My main problem with Ruby and Rails right now is that my Web hosting service doesn't support them. I've installed them on my server downstairs so I can learn the technology, but if I want to actually field an application I may have to find another hosting service, which I'd prefer not to do—Sectorlink has been very good, and moving domains and sites is a PITA first class. Still, at first blush I like it better than PHP, and I'll touch upon it as I learn it in coming months.

You might well ask, Why am I buying the print book at all? Or certainly, Why buy both? Like a lot of older people, I like print, and I have always kept a library of useful books. I read computer books on airplanes and other places of enforced idleness, and while I may try reading my X41 on airplanes, my intuition is that until we have good e-ink readers (and that time may be close upon us) paper will be the easier medium for long, uninterrupted periods of reading. And in this particular instance, I'm anxious to see how the two operate side by side. I intend to read the book on the X41 for awhile, and on paper for awhile. (That is, assuming I don't finish it before the X41 gets here—and if so, there are other titles on which I can do that test.) Comparing the two experiences of the same book will be interesting indeed. Watch this space.

January 27, 2006: Odd Lots

  • From Pete Albrecht comes a prescient 1976 Saturday Night Live transcript describing...the Blog Diet. (No, it's not quite what you think, but read it anyway.)
  • From Rick Widmer comes a definition of "politics" that I wholeheartedly endorse: "Poli" from the Greek for "many" and "tics," for "blood sucking insects." Amen, bro.
  • Saturn reaches opposition tonight, and is as close as it will be for another year. Look for a bright yellow star NE of Leo. It's brighter than anything else in that general part of the sky. It will be well up in the east at 9 PM or so. You can spot the rings with binoculars steadied against a fencepost, and with even a small telescope the view is very nice, if small.
  • I found a nice dornfelder red wine from the Rhine country in Germany that ranks as the best off-dry wine I've discovered in some time. (I look for them in the odd corners of large liquor stores, and occasionally I find one.) It's Valckenberg Dornfelder Rheinhessen 2004, and while it's perhaps a touch sweeter than most dornfelders I've tried, people who aren't used to dry red wines will enjoy it. Under $10.
  • Cringely wrote an excellent article last month about the decline of print media, and I just keep forgetting to link to it here. If you're interested in publishing at all, read this.

January 26, 2006: Politics Makes You Stupid

There's a superb article I ran across while researching ebooks (thanks to Bill Roper for the pointer) about the success of maverick SF publisher Jim Baen, who does not use DRM on his digital content and yet seems to be doing well at it. Read the article, but don't stop there. Go down to the comments, and read at least the first one. I'll quote it in full here:

Too bad Baen only publishes right-wing trash. David Weber is the Heinlein of the 21st century, which is to say he is miliaristic, imperialist, racist and fascist as Heinlein was. One can hear the goosestepping behind every page. It's trash like this which the Faux-watching Red Stater dittohead bloggers love, which is why our nation becomes more of a fascist cesspool every day. What "treasures" are coming out in January? A quick scan of Baen's freerepublican site shows it Timoth Zahn, Johnny Ringo and Steve White -- Redstaters to the core. All we need is Ayn Rand and we can have a little nazi party.

Whew! What an incisive little essay! What intellectual acuity! What brilliance! What emotional maturity! What...well, do I have to wave a flag over it? Alas, this is all too typical of people I know on the "progressive" side of things, where violently hating the Red States and everyone in them seems to be the only thing of importance in their lives. (Certainly there are blue-state haters as well, but I rarely see them rise to this level of slobbering incoherence. Then again, I tend to run with a liberal crowd.)

There's an interesting article over on LiveScience that seems to put some evidence behind a suspicion I have long had: Politics makes you stupid. In a research study, test subjects were asked to evaluate information that threatened the position of their chosen candidate in the 2004 Presidential election. Brain activity was monitored:

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," Westen said. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.

There are sound evolutionary reasons for this: Back when we were protohumans, unquestioning loyalty to the tribe and obedience to tribal leaders (as well as automatic hatred of the other tribes) was essential for survival. Sadly, this mechanism is still with us, even though we no longer drag our knuckles on the ground. Sports used to be the way we vented all that vestigial tribalism, but I guess sports just isn't sufficiently venomous anymore.

The important point to be made here is that what most people call "politics" today is nothing but tribalism, and an excuse to surface ancient, primal hatred. One can have intelligent discussions of governance (this used to be what we meant when we spoke of "politics") but such discussions work best when they are at their most coldly unemotional. Add tribal emotion to the discussion, and the participants again become killer apes. One useful technique is to imagine a dial on the wall (where all can see it) displaying your IQ. As soon as you feel those tribal emotions rising, imagine the pointer on the dial dropping from your normal intelligence down into the low 60s. That's what I do. It works.

January 25, 2006: LiveJournal Status Report

Some of you may not realize that Contra lives in two different places now: Since December 22 I've been posting entries to both and to So far it's a big win, and once I digest enoutgh S2 (the LiveJournal styling language) to be dangerous, I can make it look like anything I want. I don't like the LJ gray background, for example, and with some S2 smarts I can make it white. I also need to figure out how to put text blocks in the mostly-empty left column so I can index to the archives on LJ as I do on I'm not going to spend the time moving seven years of archives from my own domain to LJ, and I need to be able to tell people where the rest of it is stored.

I guess I have some work to do. The world could use an LJ book, heh.

I've been trying out client-side LJ editors in recent weeks, and as best I can tell (things like this are always a little tentative) the winner is Semagic, an open-source project hosted on SourceForge. It does everything I need it to do, it seems reasonably robust, and it's free, of both cost and spyware/adware. A rolling history of the project can be found here.

LiveJournal itself (the server software) is open-source as well, and there are supposedly sites out there based on the LiveJournal codebase. I haven't spotted any yet; can anybody point me to a list? I've seen a few sites that seem to have a seamless interface to LJ, even though they're not LJ-based themselves, and this intrigues me too. What I guess I'd like is a map of the LJ universe, if such a thing exists. Pointers welcome.

January 24, 2006: Movie Orgy

Back in 1972 or 1973, when I was an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago, the school allowed a local beer distributor to show a film called The Movie Orgy in the student union, and sell beer in the back. The damned thing was seven hours long, and ran from 5 PM to midnight. I went with my gang from the Fellowship of Science Fiction Freaks and Armchair Speculators, and it was great fun, though it doubtless helped to turn your IQ down forty points by tanking up on beer. Alas, I loathed beer then (and don't care much for it even today) and watched it sober.

Lest the title mislead you, I should emphasize that The Movie Orgy had nothing to do with sex. Although unrated, I would guess it would get a PG-13 rating today, for alien gore, encruciatingly bad music, and willful stupidity. It was indeed the goldurndest thing. Here's what it says in Joe Dante's filmography/bio:

Dante's first ambition was to become an animator and her enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art to further his aims. While there, he met Jon Davison, later a Hollywood producer, and they collaborated on the epic, 420 minute compilation piece, The Movie Orgy, a mammoth collection of clips, commercials and trailers that proved a huge hit on the US college campus circuit.

Envision a seven-hour, nonstop sequence of early 1950s soap, cereal, toothpaste, and deodorant commercials, chunks of WW2-era newsreels, loose seconds from old Army training films, coming attractions of bad movies, intros to old TV series like "The Texas Rangers" (brought to you by Kix Cereal) and an entire SF B-movie spliced into the thick of it all. One reason we went, in fact, was to make fun of Invasion of the Flying Saucers, but the best part of was seeing the damned thing dumped into a video blender with pieces of countless other things that made absolutely no sense together. There was no narration of any kind, just boom-boom-boom, from flying saucers to Texas Rangers to Ipana toothpaste to flying saucers again, repeat until midnight or you pass out, whichever came first.

I would love to see it again (or at least part of it; I'm not sure I could stand seven hours' worth) but I suspect that rights issues will keep it out of circulation forever. However, if I'm wrong and you ever spot it for sale somewhere, do let me know.

January 23, 2006: Personal Triage, Part 4: Ham Radio

Continuing the multipart discussion I left off on December 23, 2005: I came to ham radio through electronics, and in part through my father, who had been an Army Airways Communcations System (AACS) radio operator during WWII. He could copy Morse Code at 25 or 30 words per minute in his head, even twenty five years after the War was over. As a sixteen-year-old I had hoped that we would get our licenses together, but just about that time he was diagnosed with cancer, and everything changed. It took a few more years, but I got my license finally in May of 1973, and have had it ever since. My current call is K7JPD.

I've never been a contester, and my antennas have always been modest or even bizarre. I met George Ewing (WA8WTE) at the Clarion SF workshop when we realized we were both considering how to load up the copper downspout outside the basement level of Abbott Hall on 40 meters. I've met a lot of other worthy people in ham radio since then, even without devastatingly effective equipment. In fact, one of the reasons that I've gone soft on ham radio in the past decade is that it's gotten a little too easy. My Icom IC736 radio is basically spin-the-dial and push-the-mic-button. Everything else happens automagically inside its computer-controlled guts, and most of the sense of challenge is gone.

Furthermore, ham radio's ecological niche has changed radically. As the famous Jim Kyle pointed out long ago, as soon as he discovered the Internet, he realized that all of the techie socializing he used to do on ham radio was now being done on the Net. It worked the same way for me. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and what we now (somewhat unfortunately) call blogs are the natural inheritors of the Friday Night Nets that most local ham groups held until the 80s, and many still do today. Most of modern ham radio net activity (and by "net" I mean a gathering of radio signals on a single frequency at a given time) is focused on emergency preparedness and public service. Ham radio saved lives during our recent hurricane crises, and although I didn't take part, I'm proud of those who did.

I've maintained my interest in hamming in part by going retro. Since the early 1990s, most of my ham radio energy has gone into "classic" tube-based gear from the 50s and 60s, and building my own from loose parts, especially tubes. We used to have a "Junkbox Radio Net" using rattletrap AM transceivers every Sunday night in north Scottsdale, but over the years people moved, some lost interest, and over time it just went away. I still have the gear, but I don't hear the signals locally. If I ever do I'll join them, but I'm not optimistic on that score.

So in terms of personal triage, ham radio has mostly merged with electronics. As time allows I've been developing a single-tube AM-FM detector using the 6BN6 gated beam tube and the 6Z10 Compactron gated beam/power audio amp combo tube. I hope to build both a broadcast superhet receiver and a 6M ham FM receiver using the circuits I'm developing. The 6BN6 tube is amazing: By changing the cathode bias you can make it detect either AM or FM signals. On FM it does its own limiting, and it puts out enough audio voltage to feed directly to a pentode power amplifier. I'm using 4.5 MHz TV audio IF amp transformers and quad coils, which can still be had, and using mid-60s portable TV circuits as a starting point. It may take awhile, but I'd very much like to design and build my own all-tube 50 MHz FM transceiver. I spend a few hours on it every so often, like I did this past Saturday. I consider it a ham radio project, even if it won't involve getting on the air for some time yet. I may eventually have a lowband attic antenna, and will certainly have a VHF discone up in the eaves, but the core of the issue is this: I have to keep learning new things (where "new" means new to me) or I can't keep up with an activity. As long as I can build things for ham radio, I'll stick with it—but I suspect that my random ragchewing days are over.

January 22, 2006: The PlayAway Audio Book

In every emerging industry, it's a rule that every damnfool idea will be tried at some point by somebody. Such an idea surfaced today courtesy Jim Strickland, who saw a PlayAway audio book at Barnes & Noble up in Denver. What we have here is basically an audio player that plays one thing and one thing only: A spoken version of a single book. You can't upload, you can't download, and about all you can do apart from listen to the single track is change the battery. The device is about the size of an IPod Nano (and perhaps a little thicker) and has the book's cover art printed on it.

Anticipating some criticism for creating discardable technology, the company wisely makes suggestions as to what you can do with a PlayAway book once you've read it as often as you intend to.They'll even take it back (by sending you a prepaid envelope) promising to find it a good home.

As you might expect, considering the amount of memory it takes to store 23 hours of audio (for Chris Paolini's Eldest) the gadgets aren't cheap. The titles (32 listed so far) sell for $34.95 and up. That's quite a premium over a print book you can often get for $12 at retail. So far, the books are only available at Barnes & Noble.

I don't think this is an especially good idea, though I don't think it's evil or even particularly wasteful. (For wasteful technology, think Billy the Big-Mouth Bass and his spawn.) Public libraries would be a good outlet for these, and I suspect they may find their way into more than a few gadget-freak Christmas stockings. The problem is that they're backward-looking, retaining the physical presence of a non-physical work solely for the sake of piracy prevention. Now, if competition forced them to include multiple books in a single package, that becomes more compelling, but good quality voice audio takes space, and space (in Flash or other electronic memory) is expensive. It'll be hard to get out of niche territory with these things.

I'm watching for the inevitable writeup on Slashdot by the guy who breaks it open, figures out the works, and either turns it into a cheap IPod or installs Linux on it. Like I said, everything that's possible will be tried. I'll keep watching for more interesting attempts to report on here. Never hesitate to send me pointers to The Hopeful Next Big Thing.

January 21, 2006: The EBook Tipping Point

If you've never read Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, get off your butt and just do it. Gladwell was the one who convinced me that history is not cyclical (and certainly not incremental) but fractal: Weird things sometimes "just happen" without obvious cause. You have to watch for them, and although sometimes you can discern causes in retrospect, often they remain mysterious. The IPod phenom is one of these. You can argue all day about why it happened, but in truth I don't buy any of the arguments. It was just time for something like that, and Apple hit a sweet spot (perhaps several) by luck or by skill, who knows?

If ebooks are going to happen, they will probably happen abruptly, without a great deal of warning. Somebody will release the killer reader, Random House or some other monster NY publisher will (against its nature) mass-license tens of thousands of backlist and mid-list titles for cheap, without DRM (keeping the frontlist expensive and controlled) and everybody will suddenly be carrying a reader around. What odd little possibilities might propel us toward the EBook Tipping Point? Let me be an SF writer for a second and I'll do a little brainstorming:

  • Ebook readers, to be cheap, will be physically small. Why not make an ebook reader with a plastic tube on the side of the device, for holding those low-prefile reading glasses? We fiftyish boomers need the optics, and the ebook industry needs us. Pop the cap, shake out the readers, put 'em on, and start reading.
  • E-ink displays are not for general computing as we know it...but what are they for? Do we know their limits? No. An ebook reader that could run Linux would allow us to see just what else a device like that could do. Screw animated games...I want PDA functionality. (Ok, I might like Mah Jongg, but you can do that on an E-ink display.) I want a good note-taker. The manufacturer of an ebook reader is the last one to know what the device can really do. If we have an open system, the community will tell us.
  • Ebook readers generally don't have audio abilities...but people who read ebooks at home or at the office might like to listen to audio books while commuting. Sound support is cheap; the killer ebook reader will probably have it. And why not play MP3s while you're reading?
  • The "Tower of Babel" problem (multiple incompatible ebook formats) is serious. Ultimately, there will be a shakeout, but the fragmentation hugely handicaps any single device or format from hitting critical mass. Someday some hacker will get angry enough about it to create a desktop (perhaps based on Eclipse) for converting proprietary formats to PDF, OpenReader, or Plucker. The platform could have legitimate uses (like converting HTML to PDF, etc.) but cracks are currently available for every ebook DRM system I've seen; what would happen if some black hat actually recast all those cracks as Eclipse plug-ins? One tool could break all ebook DRM and convert any format to any other format. The format wars could collapse as under nuclear attack.
  • As you're reading along, you suddenly encounter a passage in an ebook that sets you back in your chair. You say, "Whoa." Then you highlight the passage (the size of which is limited to a paragraph or two) pull down a category to apply to the passage, perhaps tap in a few words for explanation or comment with your stylus, and queue it for a later "quotecast." This could be legally construed as fair use, and might be one hell of a way to promote an ebook. It could become fun enough to promote the whole idea of ebooks, just as podcasts promoted the whole idea of digital music.

Basically, we know that ebooks will require E-ink displays. (Sony and IRex are both preparing what look like good ones for 2006 relerase.) Reading a transmissive medium (rather than a truly reflective one) is too fatiguing. I suspect they will be smaller than 8 1/2" X 11"; the ideal size might be that of a trade paperback (5" X 8") or a hair smaller. If the type is crisp enough, the size is less important. Mass-market paperbacks have a 3 1/4" X 6" reading area and they sell plenty of those.

Beyond that, the fractal nature of history takes over. Somebody's gonna push us to the ebook tipping point—and even that somebody won't realize what happened until it happens, and may never quite understand how or why.

January 20, 2006: Got Snow?

We got another good snowfall yesterday, and this morning when I went out to shovel (I'll get a snowblower someday...but not yet) the clouds were breaking up along the summit of Cheyenne Mountain (NORAD is off to the left a little and behind that house you see) and it made me catch my breath. Above is the view from my front porch as I saw it this morning. 8 inches took a while to clear, but it was superb exercise, and by 3 PM, the sun had melted and dried whatever had been left on the sidewalks and driveway.

But the most fun today was introducing QBit to deep snow. This may seem odd (and it is, looking back) but each time we've had a significant snowfall here this winter, QBit was fresh out of the groomer's, and we know from our previous bichons that five minutes in the snow will utterly scrag $50 worth of washing and brushing. At best we've let him out on the back deck when we've had a dusting. (See photo at left.) So this morning, with his hairdo already two weeks old and pretty scruffy, we took him out to see what he would make of it.

It was hilarious. He literally dove into the deepest drift he could find (which was most of his height deep) bounding through it with gusto, stopping now and then to eat some snow. If he isn't leaping around in the thick of it, he's eating it. (Note the snow mustache he has above; eating snow isn't entirely new for him.) He refuses to walk on the cleared sidewalk if he can charge through snow. I have a clip (taken with my new Kodak V530 camera) showing him on a "walk" (if you could call it that) but the .mov file is 26 MB, and that's a little much for downloading.

Colorado Springs is by far the most beautiful place we've ever lived. I never thought I would love snow, especially after spending 18 years in places that virtually never get it. (We had measurable snow in Scottsdale once.) But with the right climate, the right mountain, and the right dog (along with a very short driveway) I realize that I'm completely fine with it. Go figger.

January 19, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Michael Abrash pointed me to Great Microprocessors of the Past and Present, which provides both technical and historical background of a great many small-system CPU designs, both conventional (8080, 6502) and weird (1802, Transputer). There's a tremendous amount of material here. I was amused by the writeup of the RCA 1802. It was the first CPU I ever studied, and therefore it didn't seem the least bit weird to me at the time.
  • While researching mini-ITX boards, I stumbled across a German chap who built an upright mobile robot called RoboFriend, with a TV face animated with Visual Basic 6. It's eerie how much his design echoes that of my own Cosmo Klein, a robot I tinkered with between 1976-1978, with a TV animated face. I'd like to have a robot around the house again, but right now it's a triage issue: Do I want to be an SF novelist or not?
  • One interesting issue with Mini-ITX PC mobos is that I have yet to see one with DVI video output, which is a little odd considering how they're being pushed as media PCs. I'm sketching out a media PC to put beside or behind our new HDTV, but it's gotta have DVI output, it's gotta run Win2K, and it's gotta be small. Beyond that, almost everything's negotiable.
  • Pete Albrecht found a 650 MHz Slot 1 Pentium II processor for $10 at a local junkshop, dropped it into his 1999-era HP PII-450, and it just worked. A 450 MHz box is borderline. 650 MHz is still useful. Not bad for $10. It's gotten me wondering how far you can stretch things. Will a mobo designed for a 100 MHz FSB and 450 MHz Slot 1 PII CPU take an 833 MHz Slot 1 PIII? I have a Dell Dimension APS here, running a PIII-550 Katmai Slot 1 processor, and it's been a fine machine since late 1998, quiet and almost completely reliable. Goosing it up a few hundred MHz would bring it into media PC territory. Now, Can It Be Done?
  • I've been gathering and scanning photos of my various technology projects down through the years (egads, decades) and have posted a new photo album on my Gallery site. There's more to come, lots more, but I have to get them out of those &$@%*!! sticky-page photo albums so I can scan them. Do take a look.

January 18, 2006: The 5 People I Hope Like Hell to Meet in Heaven

As I've written before, I don't pester celebrities. There aren't enough days in a life for everyone to be a friend to everyone else, and as much as I'd like to hang out with people like Niklaus Wirth or Garry Wills, it isn't gonna happen. On the other hand, if I had my druthers (and perhaps, if all that my Catholic School education taught me turns out to be true, I will have my druthers) who among the Genuinely Famous would I want to come over for a glass of wine and good conversation? It's a short list but a good one. Here's the countdown of Jeff's Heroes Short List:

#5: Hugo Gernsback. Nerds can smell their own, and boy, Hugo just has that whiff about him. Although I often think it would have been exciting to live in the 1920s, when so many absolutely fundamental things were happening in science and technology, Hugo would have responded that inventing radios had nothing on computers and interplanetary robotic probes. Maybe he's right, but the trading of stories would be like nothing else, ever. To The Man Who Saw the Future, I would be The Man Who Lived the Future. He published magazines. He wrote SF. He built radios with tubes. I think we'd get along.

#4: Edwin Armstrong. Radio has always been a little bit special to me, and although Marconi (and a few others) get the credit for having invented radio, Edwin Armstrong took radio and made it sing. He invented the regenerative, superregenerative, and superheterodyne receivers, and tossed off FM almost as an afterthought. He was definitely nerdy, a little bit goofy (see The Empire of the Air for the photo of him standing on top of the RCA broadcasting tower high above NYC) and tragically tormented to suicide by David Sarnoff, the nasty little man who ran RCA and (in my opinion) should spend eternity shining Armstrong's shoes. He was of that rare breed that can look at an infant technology and recognize its implications, and was also a genuinely kind and considerate man. I'd like to ask him what he thought might come of nanotechnology. Once he understood what it was, I suspect I'd get an earful.

#3: Benjamin Franklin. Happy 300th Birthday! (Ben was born January 17, 1706.) Kites, electricity, bifocals, gentle religion, and a wry sense of humor make him stand out among the Founders as the one (perhaps the only one) I could comfortably hang with. Ben was not a politician but a statesman, more radical than most understand, who was keenly aware of the dangers of offering his scruffy disaffected ex-British brethren "a Republic—if you can keep it." He was a writer and a publisher, and would understand the value of blogs instantly. When I get old enough someday to look the part (we only picture him as elderly for some reason) I will dress up as Ben and teach little kids to make and fly their own kites, as I had once (very long ago) daydreamed of making and flying kites alongside him.

#2: C. S. Lewis. Half of the reason I remain a Catholic can be found in the short shelf of books that I have by Clive Staples Lewis. He thought and wrote clearly and entertainingly, not only about God but about friendship as well. He spun yarns about good and evil, which spoke to me in different ways as I read them at different stages of my life. We did not always agree: I spotted the logic flaw in the Trilemma immediately, marveling that he could support it, and I am increasingly at odds with Lewis' Arminian view of God. (More on this eventually.) But sheesh and amen, he got me to read theology—and keep on reading it. For a boy born more to make sparks and metal shavings, that was quite a feat. Don't misunderstand: We agree more than we disagree, and I grant that he knew the material far better than I do. Nonetheless, I would enjoy sitting by the fire with him, sparring over the Trilemma. I expect I would lose the argument, but I also expect that I would learn much in return, and that's ultimately what heroes (and friends) are for.

#1: Lady Julian of Norwich. Hell is the showstopper for me in all views of religion; if Hell has the last word, then God is either malevolent or impotent. (Again, more on this eventually.) At a time when women were treated by men as little better than household slaves—and by the Church as close to devils incarnate—Lady Julian retained her perspective of God as infinitely loving and forgiving. On the Last Day, she saw in a vision, God would redeem everyone—even the devils in the depths of Hell—because anything else would be less than loving, and a defeat. She even protested that such a thing was impossible, but God replied (in her vision) "Impossible for you. Not impossible for me." (Or as I like to think of him saying: "Hey, I'm God. I can pull it off. Trust me.") Unlike the other people on this list, I'm not sure what I would say to her, except, perhaps, to ask her real name, which has been lost to history. I'd also like to speak with her of hope, not just little-h hope but Radical Hope, of which she is clearly the patron saint.Without her brand of Radical Hope, I would have given up religion years ago, and would not be nearly as happy a man as I am. What else could one even say to a hero of such power?

It's good to have heroes, even if (alas) they're all dead. Someday, when Lady Julian's vision is finally realized, the real party begins, and everybody—everybody——will be there.

January 17, 2006: My State of Spam Report

Spam, like entropy, isn't what it used to be. After suffering through 500-600 spams per day for several years, I'm down to 50-70 per day. How did I do it? First of all, I changed ISPs. My email server IP changed, and as several people suggested, it looks like a lot of spammers resolve DNS only the first time, and leave the IP on the list forever. Change your IP, and most of the spam goes to the bitbucket.

But I have also seen a gradual dropoff in the spam that does come through. Right after moving to Sectorlink, I was down to about 100 spams per day. In the time since then (18 months, roughly) I'm down another 30%-40%. Most of that decline is with spam clearly coming from botnets, and I'm guessing that port 25 blocking is a much bigger win than we thought it would be. I still get a fairly constant 25-40 messages per day from spammers who are trying to skate the law and be legit. They send spam from their own domains and have all the required unsubscribe links. I have been getting spam from pseudolegit places like for years. This doesn't bother me much because my filters get them as they arrive and I never see them.

Thankfully, I'm getting less sex spam all the time. Nor am I getting many email viruses or 419 scam notes. Most of what I get now falls into two categories: pills and pump'n'dump stock scams. Refi is down, probably due to rising interest rates and simple market saturation. Stocks are up, and so the pumpers are on the offensive. The stock scammer messages are coming from botnets, and make no attempt to be "from" anywhere identifiable. They don't have to be; they're not selling anything. All they need to do is persuade a handful of idiots to buy the stocks they're pushing and they can make a steady living. I've been watching a recent campaign to pump Pacific Rim firm Ever Glory International (code EGLY) up to the $5.00 range, from its early price of about 35 cents. I've gotten thirty or forty messages pumping poor EGLY in the last month. I'm sure the crooks have already made their big bucks (they bought it at 35c, I'll bet) and are now working the long tail. Especially if handled carefully, this could be the perfect crime—and even if not handled carefully, it doesn't look like anybody's interested in policing it, especially for stocks traded in other countries.

I've basically abandoned POPFile. It was never especially stable code, and whereas it was essential when I was getting 600+ spams per day (early 2003) I'm willing to hand-delete the 40-odd spams a day that escape my filters to avoid its annoying lockups and inexplicable runs of false positives. I may try it again if it ever implements a "learning magnet," but for the moment I'm back to manual. All that means is manually deleting 30 or 40 messages a day. No regrets.

Payload domain turnover seems just as rapid as ever, so I don't bother blocking on URLs inside botnet spam; it takes more time to block them than it does just to delete them. I spend enough time just watching spam trends out of curiosity. The good news is that I haven't seen any really new spammer tricks in a long time. Maybe we're finally seeing some light at the end of that very long tunnel.

January 16, 2006: A Good Off-Dry Wine

Although I travel the entire breadth of the wine world, I have a special fondness for contrarian wines, and the most contrarian of all wine categories is "off-dry." Sweet wines can sometimes get by as "dessert wines," but anything that falls between dessert wine territory and deepest, darkest cabernet sauvignon is considered trash by the wine snobs, and gets no respect and no press. (Still, despite all their efforts, white zinfandel remains the most popular wine in the US.)

I'm a sort of wine philistine, and while I have my likes and dislikes, none of them have anything to do with wine ideology. If I think it tastes good, that's all I ask, and I don't try to make universal principles out of my taste peccadilloes. For example, something about sourness in wine is a turnoff to me, which is why I don't like whites as much as reds. (Whites tend to have more acid and taste sour to me.) Nor do I favor taste/scent nuances like "earthy," "smoky," etc. Wine is made from fruit and should taste like fruit, not like iron nails, burning cork, or dark green leafy vegetables. (We won't even talk about cat urine.) That said, I truly hope that your mileage varies; there's no point in all of us liking all the same stuff all the time.

Few wines dare say "off-dry" on their labels, and I typically buy the bold exceptions. One reasonable wine in this category comes from Moldova, where they apparently don't care that much about American wine snobs. Garling Collection's Black Monk red wine comes in a distinctive three-sided bottle, and is a shade less sweet than white zin, but still much less dry than a conventional merlot, pinot noir, or red zin. My only discontent is that the wine has a sour edge, rather like those cherry-flavored sourballs that were popular fifteen or twenty years ago. Nonetheless, it's very fruit-forward, very smooth, and extremely drinkable. Much more body than white zin, and not quite as sweet. It's not very expensive ($10 class) and I've seen it in a number of places, so you should be able to find it around. If conventional red wines taste too dry to you, give it a shot.

January 15, 2006: Classifying Along the Other Axis

Although I still think the blogging community should work together and create an optional controlled vocabulary for tagging, the real problem goes well beyond blogging and comes back to indexing the Web: We're classifying along the wrong axis. When used with some skill, good search engines like Google can tells us what a Web item is about. What's much harder to determine is what I call the "literary form: Is the Web item a FAQ? An online store? A blog? A tutorial? A forum? A photo gallery? This might be considered the "shape" of the item being sought. One has to be very clever to filter on the literary form, simply because there's nothing in the document that unambiguously says what the item is, as opposed to what it is about.

The most pressing need is to exclude online stores. I sometimes try to find good technical info on a technology gadget, only to find that I have to filter out 15,000 or more online stores that tell me nothing except that they carry the item in question.

Metadata frameworks exist could can handle this. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) is the oldest and probably the best known, but it's little used outside of university circles, probably due to its complexity. In any event, it doesn't really have a spot for what I'm talking about. DCMI suggests a controlled vocabulary for "Type", but what they mean by "type" is type of data (still image, sound, text, etc.) rather than the intended purpose of some collection of data of various types. A blog, for example, can include text, still images, sound, and video. Each piece of the blog may be stored in a separate file and each file tagged with its DCMI Type, but nothing tells me that it's a blog.

I doubt we'd need more than twenty terms in a controlled vocabulary for "literary form." (We really need a distinct technical term for this; I'd like to use "genre" but that's considered a synonym for "type" in the DCMI definitions.) My suggested vocabulary follows, in alphabetical order:

  • Aggregator (e.g., Slashcode)
  • Bibliography
  • Blog
  • Curriculum
  • Dictionary
  • Directory
  • Encyclopedia
  • Essay
  • FAQ
  • Forum (like phpBB or VBulletin)
  • Game
  • Genealogy (family tree)
  • Index (of, say, a library archive)
  • Photo Gallery
  • Poem/Lyric
  • Presentation (e.g., PowerPoint slides)
  • Software Service (e.g., metric-English calculator, interactive map, online translator, etc.)
  • Store
  • Stream (i.e, audio or video)
  • Tutorial

There's some fuzziness here. Many blogs are in fact aggregators, but my definition limits "aggregator" to a Web page that provides an ongoing stream of pointers to other things, with short descriptions. Many larger aggregators include forums (Slashdot, Plastic). We have to do the best we can.

The list above is the "narrow interpretation" of literary form, in that these could be considered content templates. I had originally brainstormed a broader interpretation which included these vocabulary items:

  • History
  • Criticism (in the academic sense)
  • News
  • Review (in the consumer sense, of books, films, gadgets, etc.)
  • Opinion (as in "editorial" or "rant.")

Whether these are things of an entirely different nature is worth discussing. ("Tutorial" may belong to this second group as well. I'm still thinking.) Many blogs are virtually all opinion, and much history is in essay form.

Even with a controlled vocabulary agreed upon and in the can, there remains the problem of how to apply the category tags to a useful number of Web items. Nobody said it would be easy. I'm throwing all this out just to keep the subject in play. I have a couple of ideas of how to do this (drawing upon my ancient plan for world domination called Aardmarks) but I'm getting tired of the subject and want to spend some time on other things.

January 14, 2006: Coin Nudity

I will finish the discussion on tags and classification, but I need to tell this story first: I went to Home Depot yesterday evening to pick up a couple more Rubbermaid storage bins to hold the new Christmas decorations we bought this year. Three bins came to $22.45, so I pulled out the requisite bills, plus four dimes and a nickel. The high-school girl running the register handed the shiny new nickel back to me and asked me if I had one of the older types. The newer types, she said, were being "caught".

I assumed she meant that they got stuck in some sort of coin counter, and grinned as I pulled an older coin from my pocket. I asked her how often the new nickels got caught, and it was her turn to look puzzled. "No, I meant the government is catching them and pulling them out of circulation. You can see how the buffalo is male."

The nickel in question is new in 2005, and one a few people may not even have seen yet. It replaces Montecello with a buffalo, similar (if in lower relief) to the buffalo on the back of the nickel between 1913 and 1937. I think it's a hideous coin, looking as though it were a quarter (or some larger coin) stamped out on a nickel planchet. But my brief lookover had failed to disclose that the buffalo

The girl then told me that she had heard that the male buffalo nickels were worth $3 each, and clearly thought she was doing me a favor. (I do appreciate that impulse, and thanked her for it.) But it seemed preposterous to me, since pulling coins from circulation costs the government hugely.

On the other hand, we're talking government, where money is no object and dumbness is a sacred tradition. So I looked it up and found the expose on Snopes. Urban legend, spread via email, like most of them. The buffalo on the earlier nickel, after a model named Black Diamond from the Central Park Zoo, is even better hung than the poor thing on the 2005 nickel, and I don't recall anyone complaining about him.

The US Mint has had problems with coin nudity before. The best known case is the 1916-1917 Type I Standing Liberty Quarter, a gorgeous coin that was still in spotty circulation when I was a kid, though the ones I saw were so beat up and worn that you could barely tell what the design was supposed to represent. When it was new, the coin caused a furor because the sculptor had left one breast exposed, toga-style, in deference to the iconically bare-breasted French figure Liberty. Never mind that the sculptor had left off her nipple; he was forced to do some coverup work for the 1918 year, which he did by enclosing the offending organ in chain mail. Ouch.

Some people clearly need a life, or maybe a book of crossword puzzles. I'm glad the furor over our new buffalo nickel is phony; I'd hate to see the poor thing in chain-mail piddle-pants.

January 13, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Somebody's (finally) getting smart: Linspire has released Versora, a program to facilitate migration from Windows to Linux. It seems tightly bound to the Linspire UI (and I'm famously of two minds about Linspire) but it's certainly something that will help people get their stuff from Windows to Linux, a trick I've found non-trivial whenever I've tried it.
  • Speaking of Linspire, Michael Robertson cut a deal with AOpen to create the Linspire Mini, a Mac Mini lookalike running Linspire. This happened back in November, but I picked it up scanning news from the recent CES. Supposedly it's available, but I haven't comfirmed that and Web data is sparse. The Linspire Mini will be SRPed at $399, and $499 if you'd prefer the same box running Windows XP, presumably from someone other than Linspire. Now, where can you get the "barebone" (no OS) version? That could make a good media PC if I could get Win2K onto it.
  • We've seen tests of BPL (broadband over power lines, which generate an immense amount of radio hash) but these were large-scale things spanning entire metro areas. Now Telkonet has taken the concept a little more local with their iBridge technology, designed specifically for use in hotels. Basically it's a single-building BPL system, accessible through a plug-in adapter from any outlet on the premises. No idea what the adapters cost, but if it's cheap enough (and if the hash radiation problems can be minimized somehow) this could be a very useful thing. It sounds like a faster version of HomePlug plus encryption, but it's hard to tell precisely what it's based on at this point.
  • A consortium of technology vendors led by Intel, Atheros, and Broadcom have managed to pull something like unity together out of the brawl that had been the 802.11n high-speed Wi-Fi standards project. There's a lot of paper crunching to be done, and a finalization of 802.11n will not likely happen before the end of this year, but at least we're on our way. Airgo's True MIMO looks like it may survive "pre-n" status and remain compatible with the final spec, perhaps with a firmware upgrade. From the product standpoint, the Wi-Fi business has been somnolent for a couple of years now, since Wireless-G showed up. We're overdue for something interesting.
  • Further evidence that we should respect our evolutionary heritage comes from research linking excessive exposure to light with various forms of cancer. This comes to the fore in studies of people doing shift work. People who work nights sleep during the day, and it's notoriously hard to truly darken an American bedroom during daylight hours. (I noticed that houses in high-latitude regions of Europe had exterior roll-down metal shades that darken bedrooms well on early summer nights when it gets dark around midnight and starts lighting up again at 3 ayem.)
  • Amazon Germany thinks I am the author of something called Baby Farm Animals. Better that than The Story of O, I guess.

January 12, 2006: The Knowledge Explorer

I first played with the Web in late 1993, and by early 1995, I was getting annoyed at the difficulty of finding things. I knew that the 2.0 version of the HTML markup language had a META tag, and I had the notion that one could use META to apply a classification marker to a Web page. Adding the marker to the content was trivial: Allow the user to select a category from a GUI tool, force the generated META tag onto the clipboard, and then drop it into any text editor with Ctrl-V.

Big snag: No classification system. I had learned DDC in sixth grade, from a nun who was close to as old as the DDC system itself. I knew why it was what it was, but I also knew that we didn't need to use numbers anymore. So I started looking around to see what other people had done in the classification field. Remarkably little turned up. I knew the Library of Congress Classification system (LCC) from college research, but I hated it. As Kyle McAbee pointed out in a note yesterday, you can't get your head around it. There are hundreds of categories at the highest level, and nobody but librarians ever commit even most of it to memory. The Sears List of Subject Headings is smaller than LCC but conceptually similar, and no more accessible to ordinary mortals.

The OMB has a little-known hierarchical classification system for industries called NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) that I like a lot, and in fact intended to absorb it whole into my nascent classification system. I never got quite that far, but my intent was to adopt it into a top-level category called Business & Commerce. (See below.)

Few people know that Peter Roget created a classification system for his Thesaurus, to make it easier to find similar words. It's in the book, and quite clever, though with categories like "Pushing, Throwing" (#903) it's clear that it wasn't intended to be a classification system for articles or papers, just for synonyms. I learned earlier today (thanks again to Kyle) that Thomas Jefferson had a three-category top-level hierarchy: Memory (i.e., history), Reason (philosophy), and Imagination (the arts.) Alas, even he gave up, and began shelving his books by size. (Better that than by the color of the spine.)

So back in 1995, almost as a lark, I sat down and tried to think through what a hierarchical knowledge classification system would look like. I used the Windows folder hierarchy as a visual model, and eventually created a treeview-driven utility to browse a textual category hierarchy that I called the Knowledge Explorer. My goal was to create a system that would be accessible because it wouldn't have to be memorized: You could browse it like any tree-structured data, or use text search to look for individual category tags.

I dove in. And I got addicted. For most of a year I studied the shape of human knowledge and the relationships of things to other things. It was great fun. I gave myself a broad if shallow education in things like dog breeds, world religions, and systems of government. And I created a category hierarchy, which eventually reached 2800 lines long. As I thought it through, the top-level categories rose from six to seven and then ten. I split a few up until I had twenty, then brought it back to ten:

Business & Commerce

I stopped ambitious work on the hierarchy about 1998, and gave the whole project up circa 2000 for a couple of reasons:

  1. It very quickly became complex enough so that it was no better, from a graspability standpoint, than DDC—even though you could search it.
  2. I realized that it would take the rest of my life to finish it, heh.
  3. More to the point, somebody else was already doing it.

A project originally called GnuHoo was going systematically at the job that Yahoo had originally begun to do and that I had attempted. After some saber-rattling from Yahoo, GnuHoo became OpenDirectory, which applied open-source principles to Web-site classification. I dislike their category hierarchy tree but I stand in awe of its breadth and depth, which even then was over 100,000 lines long. (It now has 600,000 categories!) But the last word on the whole business is this: Who uses it? Who even talks about it anymore?

The Web has spoken, and I'm coming around to the view that they (we) are right. Not about any judgement on hierarchical classification, but on the axis across which we should be classifying. I'm out of time, and will have to continue tomorrow.

January 11, 2006: Dewey, Hooey, and GUI

In yesterday's comments section of the LiveJournal incarnation of Contra, Bill Higgins pointed out that there are fundamental problems with the Dewey Decimal Classification System that go well beyond Conan the Librarian. He's right, and I don't want to be misread as a Dewey fanatic. I stand with most librarians in feeling that Dewey has had his day, though it's been more than a day—it's been almost 130 years. That said, I need to reiterate that the problems with DDC are the problems of a particular classification hierarchy, and not with the idea of hierarchical classification itself.

The DDC has legacy problems like we can't even dream of in computing. I think it's fair to say that we didn't know very much in 1876—we had no clue, for example, how the Sun generated its energy—and viewed what we did know entirely differently than we view the body of human knowledge today. Melvil Dewey's classification assumed a fairly aristocratic Protestant Christian view of the world. Sensitivity to aboriginal peoples wasn't on the radar. Non-Christian faiths were considered subordinate and more cultural phenomena than genuine religions.

There were problems of the moment as well. In 1876, Spiritualism was in its heyday, and you couldn't spit and miss a medium. Dewey lumped paranormal phenomena in with philosophy and psychology, and there they remain, Dewey (the other Dewey, Philosopher John) and hooey, side by side.

This problem isn't unique to the DDC; the DDC has a bad case simply because it's so old. All classification schemes (not merely hierarchical ones) have to be able to adapt to changes in what we know and how we view it. And it's inevitable that people who assume an older version of the system will turn up some 404s. (But when's the last time you hit a 404, threw up your hands, and went home?)

The worst problem with the DDC is inherent in its design: the decimal-imposed "rule of ten" that allows no more than ten subcategories beneath every category. That's entirely artificial and often an extreme nuisance, but it was crucial to the DDC's original strategic mission: to allow marginally literate people to accurately reshelve books in public libraries. With a DDC callout number embossed on a book's spine, a shelver would not even have to be able to read the book's title—all he or she would need to know is how to tell when one number is greater or less than another. That's a lot easier to teach than reading. It was also useful in libraries where many books were in languages other than English.

Just about ten years ago, I got passionate about this subject (the Web was new, there was no Google, and finding anything was as much luck as skill) and without realizing the implied megalomania, I set out to recast the DDC for the Web and build some GUI tools for classifying Web sites with automatically generated META tags. I failed, but I had more fun failing than I ever had succeeding at most things. More tomorrow.

Early yesterday afternoon, Bill Roper put me on to the fact that Glenn Reynolds had posted a review of The Cunning Blood on his Instapundit, the #7 blog on Technorati. It was the shortest review I think I've ever had for a piece of SF, but his 50 words sent the novel skittering up to #2,535 on Amazon by late evening, and up as high as #76 on the Amazon F&SF stackrank, right ahead of Left Behind. (You can't imagine how good that makes me feel!) The review is doubly valuable because (having read Instapundit off and on for some time) I think his readers will share some of the perspectives in the novel, which is definitely not San Francisco liberal. (Neither is it precisely conservative or libertarian. As a friend of mine told me once, "Jeff, you're just hard to figger.")

January 10, 2006: Humpty Dumpty Metadata

The big problem with LiveJournal (and again, it's not so much a problem as an omission) is a problem shared by all the other blogging services/utilities I've tested: There's no standard vocabulary for tagging. Everybody makes up a personal tagging vocabulary (idiodically called a "folksonomy" even thought it takes more than one person to be a "folk") and just uses it. If everybody uses a different tag for nominally similar entries, who cares?

LiveJournal uses tagging correctly as far as it goes: You click on a tag at the end of a tagged entry, and the view changes to only those entries to which that same tag has been applied. If I tag a certain number of my entries with the word "filesharing," you can click on the tag in any of those entries and see all my entries tagged with the word "filesharing."

The problem comes up when I want to see what other people on LiveJournal have written about filesharing. Some people might also use the tag "filesharing." However, that would be simple good luck, as there's no master listed of suggested tags anywhere. Another person writing about filesharing may tag pertinent entries as "file sharing" or another "peer to peer" or "P2P" or even "downloading."

This is doubly peculiar because LiveJournal does have a standard vocabulary for tagging moods. You pull down the mood tag list, and declare that you're pleased or annoyed or thoughtful, and if you happen to be feeling phlegmatic or irenic or hysterical that particular day (these are not on the list, heh) you simply type them into the adjacent edit field.

So the machinery's there. If the standard tagging vocabulary isn't there, I suspect it's because a certain very small number of snot-nosed humanities types dislike standard (technically called controlled) vocabularies of any kind, especially those (like the venerable Dewey Decimal Classification system) arranged in hierarchies. Hierarchies are undemocratic, I guess, and asking people to look at a suggested list of standard tags smacks of fascism. (If you think I'm exaggerating, you clearly haven't moved in Humanities circles much in recent years.)

The objection can be made that swallowing the whole DDC hierarchy is impossible except by librarians, and that's true. (I have the entire 4-volume DDC Edition 21 on my shelf, which is six shelf-inches of small type. I read it sometimes when I'm trying to get sleepy. It works.) However, that's the magic of hierarchies: You don't have to use the whole thing. A classification hierarchy is a tool for expressing incremental specificity. There are ten fundamental classes in DDC, and each of those is divided into ten, and those into ten, and so on. The top-level ten classes represent very broad categories like religion, science, technology, and so on. Add a few decimal places, and the powers of ten allow you extremely terse expression of some pretty narrow categories. (Supercolliders may be found at DDC 539.736, and sport kayaking can be located at 797.1224.)

But the lesson I draw from studying DDC and similar systems is that a relatively small standard vocabulary can get you very close in a global search, especially if the system allows the use of secondary tags chosen by the tagger for a specific entry. "Sports" should be a standard tag. "Kayaking" need not be. ("Water sports" could be a good compromise, if the standard tag set hasn't gotten too huge.)

I'm going to sniff around a little more and see if anyone has suggested a standard vocabulary for tagging. Eighty or a hundred tags would probably be enough; hell, LiveJournal's pull-down menu for moods holds 132 standard tags for moods alone. If I can't find a standard vocabulary for tagging I'll just invent one and post it here for discussion. I've studied cataloging and classification systems in depth and spent a couple of years creating a "knowledge explorer" category schema for tagging Web sites. That's a separate story that I'll take up here at some point.

The problem with "folksonomies" is that they work against community understanding. There is a common view of the universe that we all share, at least in approximation. (And human life could be defined as a very large number of approximations.) In a folksonomy, a tag means precisely what I choose it to mean, (as Humpty would say if he were a blogger, which if he were real he certainly would be) and if nobody can do a global search on blog entries, well, what do I care? Blogging is all about me, after all.

As one who's been doing it since 1998, I'd like to suggest that blogging, if we must call it that, is not about individuals but about the global community of thought, within the context of our collective understanding of the universe. Searching that requires a controlled vocabulary for tagging. Sooner or later one is going to happen.

January 9, 2006: Contra on LiveJournal

Some of you knew this already, but for a few weeks now I have been posting Contra entries to my account on LiveJournal, perhaps the most sophisticated bloghosting service out there. I wasn't sure for awhile that I would stick with it, but the more I probe the details of LiveJournal, the more I like it.

So what I'm going to do for awhile is post both to this page and to LiveJournal. Unless something radically wrong happens with LiveJournal, I'll continue to post to it. However, I will also post here, at least until I figure out how to retain reliable archives of the material in the event that LiveJournal goes away.

LiveJournal provides RSS feeds, something I could do manually if I felt like spending the time on it—but time is a big problem for me right now. Syndication is one way to get a broader readership, which I would like to have. LiveJournal is also tied into blog-search and rating services like Technorati, and I'd like to get into that as well. There's a lot of question about how to get my archive uploaded (keep in mind that I have well over 2,000 entries now, going back to 1998) but going forward, the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.

I have two quibbles with LiveJournal so far, one minor and one major. The major one will require an entry to itself. The minor one is simply the absurd limitations on user names. A user name may not contain spaces, and must be entirely in lower case. Good God, why? Are we still in the grip of that juvenile C programmer's tantrum against capital letters? And lest some nit ask, "Why would you want to do that?" (which means, "There isn't any reason you can't do that other than my own ego, so I have to turn the blame around to you so that I don't lose face") I will simply insist that "Jeff Duntemann" is how my name is spelled. I don't hide behind screen names. "jeff_duntemann" is a misspelling. Spaces are characters. Uppercase letters are characters. I am not e.e. cummings. (Nor e_e_cummings.)

Guys, this is just plain dumb.

I'll deal with the major quibble more thoughtfully, with some luck tomorrow

January 8, 2006: Odd Lots

  • People who have read my novel The Cunning Blood have giggled a little about my future history, in which Canada rules the world (or what's left of the world) by the year 2150, with the United States reduced to a province ruled by the Canadian-dominated world government. Part of the sequel I have in the cooker right now (The Molten Flesh) sees American insurgents going up against their Canadian masters. What I didn't know is that the US had a plan in place for invading Canada at least as long ago as 1930. Put down those guns, eh?
  • Speaking of which, Amazon has been quoting delivery times of 4-6 weeks for the novel since its publication, but I discovered today that this has been reduced to 5-10 days. (Yeehah!) This means that Amazon has (finally!) aligned its database with reality. When a distributor has stock on hand, Amazon doesn't require 4-6 weeks to fulfill an order. It's also interesting that The Cunning Blood was into five digits on the Big Amazon Stack Rank yersterday, up from 400,000 or so a couple of days ago. This means that somebody is buying the damned thing!
  • I found another glitch associated with the Samsung portrait/landscape display switching driver: The DivX video player will not play videos in portrait mode. The same clips play fine in landscape mode. In portrait mode, DivX complains that DirectX is not installed. Go figger.
  • In 1992, I wrote up my concept of the "jiminy" lapel computer (and its optical P2P network) in PC Techniques, though I was working out the concept as early as 1983. Now a group is trying to create a pervasive mobile, peer-to-peer network that sounds a lot like what I envisioned in 1992, albeit more specifically for trading music automatically. The glitch here is that music tracks do not have a unique, standard identification number (as books do) but it'll be interesting to see if anybody really uses this, and what other uses (beyond trading music tracks) will evolve for it.
  • A week or two ago, Slashdot aggregated a wonderful article about things that science doesn't currently understand. (Alas, they call it "Things That Do Not Make Sense," which isn't quite the same thing and a really stupid title.) Hard SF is "the literature of the gaps," and here's a catalog of gaps for SF writers like me to play with. For some reason I particularly like the notion of tetraneutrons, which are basically alpha particles in which all four nucleons are neutrons. Gotta figure out how to work them in somewhere.

January 7, 2006: Meltdown

Yesterday's meltdown didn't go especially well. The Intel D865PERLK motherboard needs a slew of drivers for its chipset, but the drivers wouldn't install, the disk formatted weirdly, and I'm beginning to think that something, somewhere, messed up the 137 GB barrier fix that I applied last April when I put the system together.

Some of you may know that there's an ATA disk interface (both parallel and serial) limitation of 28 bits for addressing hard drive logical blocks, and while that may have seemed like a lot of logical blocks 10 years ago, we're way past that point now. What this means is that using hard disk drives with greater than 137 GB capacity takes some care and some screwing around. I used a 200 GB drive for the bootable drive in my system, and in looking back I think that was a mistake. I don't store data on my C: drive unless forced to, so even a partition as small as 40 GB will take a long time to fill.

There's a nice white paper on the topic from Seagate here. Ultimately I'm going to have to use Seagate's bootable formatter disc to reformat the whole 200 GB drive, but given that all but 25 GB or so were empty air, I've decided to duck the issue and install a 120 GB SATA drive instead. That will still give me three chunky boot partitions and (one would hope) fewer inexplicable failures. More as I learn it.

In the meantime, I moved my data back into the 1.7 GHz Dell Xeon box that I bought in 2002 and will be using that for my main system for awhile. It's a little noisy, but quite fast since I filled it with RAMBUS memory a few months back. I still have a few apps to install, but it's most of the way to where it should be.

There are times when I think I should have been a farmer instead.

January 6, 2006: Technical Difficulties

My main system here burped yesterday and then refused to boot. (I got it running again with a couple of files on a floppy disk; a trick I'll explain in a day or two.) It's been showing some odd signs of instability for several months, and what bothers me far more than that is that I have no idea why—and I'm typically more careful about these things than most people. So today I'm going to do a system meltdown and then rebuild it. I may not post tomorrow at all. We'll see.

In the meantime, Amazon seems to be shipping my novel ahead of its stated 4-6 week time delay, and there are new copies available through ABEBooks that can be shipped in a day or two. Maybe we're making progress.

Now, back to the battle...

January 4, 2006: Dangerous Ideas

There's a fascinating Web site maintained by the Edge Foundation, and every January 1 it asks a crew of scientists and other bright people a question. (This has been happening annually since 1998.) This year, the Edge questuion ran as follows:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

This year, 117 people answered the question, and if you have a few hours to read 72,000 words (and can stand staring at your screen that intently for that long) it's well worth reading, at least in part to get a sense for what smart people consider "dangerous."

Most of the essays are pretty cosmic—and some of the contributors are a little unlikely. A graying and distinguished-looking Michael Nesmith (yeah, the Monkee) suggests that "Existence is Non-Time, Non-Sequential, and Non-Objective." Uhhhh, ok. Now, how about one more spin at "The Last Train to Clarksville?" An awful lot of people are wrestling with spiritual questions, either trying to reconcile science and religion or trying to talk us into giving up religion entirely. Some are pushing the same old change-human-nature crap that gave us Communism and the 100+ million deaths it caused. Yeah, that's dangerous, but that's what at least one individual thinks we ought to attempt. Some of the ideas presented are seen as dangerous to liberal common knowledge (e.g., that lefty obsession that human beings are blank slates, and that intelligence and talent are evenly distributed) but are seen by ordinary people as just the way the world is.

Few are describing ideas down in the realm of physical gadgetry, though that's where my personal view of what's really dangerous resides. Some ideas are scary to me (like the notion of an afterlife without God) but hardly dangerous. For dangerous, consider an upload-only P2P file sharing node planted by a virus. It's dangerous because it provides something no other P2P system can provide: Plausible deniability. People would deliberately infect their own PCs with it, and it would be the Napster era all over again. If you're in the record or movie industry, that is your worst nightmare. Nothing else comes even close.

However, for real danger to collective humanity, I think it's hard to top bioengineered stealth sterilizer pathogens, especially those keyed to only infect individuals with certain genetic markers. A germ that blocked the fallopian tubes painlessly while causing the organism no pain and no other damage could quickly reduce humanity's numbers by 95%, wipe out whole racial and ethnic groups, and cause general pandemonium once people fully understood what was up.

Still, some of the cosmic dangers are real and intriguing, like the common theme that we are running up against the limits of human reason to understand the universe. Some thinkers, like nihilist/debunker Susan Blackmore, go further and simply state that all of existence is pointless. A few are optimistically iconoclastic, like the guy who states that global warming might make the world better as likely as worse. (Much depends on whose coast is getting flooded, heh.) Some are in garbled academic talk, but most of the entries are refreshingly well-written. Bookmark it and read a few every day.

January 3, 2006: Narnia

Carol is recovering from a bad case of bronchitis, so Pete and I went down to Tinseltown to see Narnia: TLTWATW last night. I've surprised a few people by not being wildly enthusiastic about the film, but that's simply because I consider Narnia the least compelling of all of Lewis' work. I've only read the entire saga once, back when I was 17, and didn't read any of it again until a month or so ago, to refresh my memory in anticipation of the film.

Much of the problem is just me being me: I never much liked King Arthur-style high fantasy as a boy or a younger man. I only read Tolkien after much arm-twisting from my friends in high school, and even then, the chivalric themes centering on Rohan and Minas Tirith bored me. Lewis was big on stories about anthropomorphic animals, and his childhood "animal land" fantasy universe of Boxen (for which he went so far as to draw up railway maps and timetables) morphed into Narnia. I went through my own talking animals stage in third grade and never really went back. The themes explored in Narnia are perhaps too mature and subtle for an audience that young and innocent. By 17, that sort of magic was lost on me.

But there were other issues, ones that I couldn't frame well as a teenager. If Aslan was in fact Narnia's God, he seemed a rather indifferent sort of God. Here there was a witch drugging and kidnapping preteen children and putting his realm in a deep freeze ("always winter but never Christmas") and Aslan was inexplicably elsewhere for a hundred years. So much for God being everywhere and caring about His people. And in The Last Battle, Aslan just sort of decides to shut the whole universe down for no reason I could understand as a teenager, and understand now only because I understand Lewis' theology. It got weirder than that: At the end of the world (sheesh!) Aslan shuns poor Susan for suddenly favoring "nylons and lipstick and invitations" as though that were as bad as being a murderer. Even at 17, that was a serious WTF moment for me, and it put me off the rest of Lewis' writings for over a decade. Queen Susan the Gentle grew up, and God tossed her out on her butt for it. I was in the process of growing up when I first read that, and I figured she deserved a far better God than Aslan. (I was in the first throes of my own struggle with personal faith at that point. Narnia didn't help much.)

It comes down to this: It's dangerous to put God in fantasy stories. Really dangerous, to both the story and to the whole idea of God. Lewis did better with his Space Trilogy, though Perelandra continues to gall me for its contrived and mostly baffling exploration of the notion of Original Sin.

I'll come back to all that at some point. I think that virtually everyone in the Christian world (with the possible exception of the Eastern Orthodox) completely misunderstands the notion of Original Sin.

The film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is sumptuously beautiful, and so faithful to the book that as a film it suffers a little. No surprise in that, since Lewis' adopted son Douglas Gresham had complete veto power over every detail of the production. That's a mixed blessing, just as it was in the first Harry Potter films, which in my view suffered greatly from too much author meddling.

The child actors are dazzlingly good, particularly the very young Georgie Henley as Lucy. I was less impressed with the White Witch, who was neither hot enough nor cold enough to inspire much fear and loathing. Mr. Tumnus was just about perfect, as played by James MacEvoy. Most of the other characters were CGI animals or fantasy creatures, and while they were all nicely done, I got a better sense for the animal characters in Babe.

I don't want to imply that I didn't like the film. It was far more moving than I expected, and the settings (again, most filmed in New Zealand) made me gasp. I guess I was hoping that a capable scriptwriter and director could evoke more passion from the story in the film medium than I could pry from it in textual form. The film narrative lacked tension (as it did in the book) and many of the questions that naturally arise were not answered. There is some backstory elsewhere in the Narnia saga, and it would have been helpful to include a little of that in the film. Film is an entirely different way of telling stories from text, and the great mistake (if there is one) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe lies in its trying to transcribe a written narrative literally to film.

By the way, the film is a little too intense (and parts of it too violent) for children younger than eight or nine. I think some kids may wonder why Edmund got such a bad rap; while brattier than his siblings, Edmund does little in the book and film that all of us haven't done as 11-year-olds. (Yes, I know: From the standpoint of the Christian allegory, that's the whole point.) The White Witch drugged him almost as soon as he met her, which always seemed unfair to me and will probably puzzle many children. The film actually makes it less clear than the book that Edmund did any significant betraying (he seems more like a victim of bad luck and a little too much trust to me) and in the absence of childhood familiarity with the Christian story, I think a lot of children will be scratching their heads over why Aslan dies.

It will be interesting to see how Disney makes the other books into films, which is now pretty much assured, given the millions that TLTWATW is raking in.

January 2, 2006: Portrait Mode Glitches

I have my new Samsung 213T upstairs on my main machine now, and I'm using it for all my daily tasks, in portrait mode. So far I've only had two problems:

  • Snood (a puzzle game) will not work in portrait mode with the "huge" display size selected. All the other sizes work, but with a monitor this big, having the huge display is just about essential. Selecting the huge display size throws a GPF and aborts the program.
  • Much worse is Google Earth. When the 213T is in portrait mode, Google Earth exhibits a split personality: The UI itself renders in portrait mode, but the window in which the satellite photos appear remains stubbornly landscape. It works, but the sense of the navigation controls is rotated 90 degrees. (I tried to take a screenshot of this, but Paint Shop Pro would not shoot it.) I had assumed that Google Earth uses IE as its display window, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
Everything else I've tried so far works fine, and it's as good a tombstone as a futurist could ask. (Oh, all right, sure, I want a 30 GHz Pentium IX with 256 GB of RAM and a 2 petabyte hard drive built into the back of it, but I guess I'll settle for what I have.)

January 1, 2006: My 2006 Plan File

Sheesh, does anybody even remember what "plan files" are? In ancient times, you could write up a text file and associate it with the finger protocol, so that when somebody fingered you, a text file would come down as part of the finger data. I doubt many people use finger anymore (few hosting services even run the finger daemon) so plan files have receded over the Internet horizon, along with uucp "bang" addressing and Gopher.

I'm not sure if "plan" meant lesson plan (probably) or personal plans, but on this first day of the new year it might be useful to think about what I hope to accomplish this year. I always plan more than I can execute, but that's just part of life. Here's the early list:

  • I hope to get ContraPositive moved somewhere that supports RSS feeds. I wrote enough PHP on Aardblog to realize that I didn't want to spend all my time for the next three years working on it, especially when far better programmers than I have chewing this bone for years. I've begun experimenting with LiveJournal and BlogJet, as I will explain in the near future. Nothing out there is quite the way I would have done it, but LiveJournal comes reasonably close, especially with a wizzywigger like BlogJet to handle client-side editing.
  • I have shelves to build in the basement. I probably would have begun building the shelves already, but there are about fifty heavy boxes to move away from the wall before I can start putting 2 X 4s together. It's definitely a winter project, though, and the first part of the lumber has already been bought.
  • I am going to write one or more short ebooks as part of a project to develop a "feel" for technical material in the 30-80 page range. This is part of a broader research project on ebooks that may spin off some paying writing gigs for me.
  • I intend to begin another SF novel. Not sure which one yet; it will be either The Molten Flesh or The Anything Machine—unless another concept just walks in and takes over. You never know in the SF business.
  • I intend to clean up and market an SF short story I finished this past fall.
  • I hope to create a system through which I can display digital photos and perhaps digitized home movies on our new big-screen HDTV, and work the Web from the livingroom couch.
  • I still hope to get to Germany.
This is a good start. We'll see where it goes. More later.