July 31, 2002:

All of my life that I've been a writer (which now, at 50, is virtually all of my life) I've wanted to write a love story. Even when I was too young to know in any real sense what love was, I wanted to write of two people who made their lives one, in triumph. I've tried a few times here and there, mostly in unfinished novels like Ten Gentle Opportunities and Alas, Yorick, neither of which (I suspect) will ever be finished. In my novelette "Drumlin Boiler" I hinted at a love story that might be told in a sequel or novelization, but I can't quite decide how to tell it. Why do I fail? Why can't I get it right?

I think, today, I finally figured it out.

Most love stories are really falling-in-love stories, for the most part tales of infatuation and what we now call (a little sadly) "romance." They start in lonliness, and end in dizziness, and everybody thinks that's as far as it goes. Well, there's more to it than that. The love story that's worth telling is the asymptotic path of two human beings toward the Divine Center of All Things, where all of us (I firmly believe) will eventually arrive. It involves working together against all the challenges of this world, and (I also firmly believe) all the unknowable challenges that may face us in all the ineffable worlds yet to come.

I can't write that story yet because I'm still living it, and y'know what they always say about writing what you know...

Thirty-three years ago today, our love story began, Carol and I, and this morning I took her in my arms and thanked her for thirty-three wonderful years along that path. And someday I may tell a romance (if that's the word, though I think it really isn't) but by the time I'm far enough along in our own love story to tell it, well, by then the stars will be going out.

The journey is the story, and the journey never ends. Thank you, my spouse and my best friend, for telling it with me along the way.
July 29, 2002:

Before heading back south into the heat, Carol and I went east on I40 to the Deer Park, a goofy little place falling into the category of "roadside animal attractions." We'd been there once before and it was good fun, about eight miles east of Williams. On about ten acres there is a herd of fallow deer who live an interesting life: Their job is following tourists around and trying to get at their little plastic cups of deer food.

These are small deer, no more than half (at best) the size of the more familiar white-tailed deer, and considerably less twitchy. They are also very well fed, and in fact a lot of them were so well fed they just sat in the shade and looked at us.

But that was fine; there were a lot of deer there, and I'd prefer not to be mobbed by any animal weighing close to as much as I do, especially considering that if they couldn't get into your feed cup, they'd happily pull your shirttails out of your pants and start munching your shirt, or else slurp down your shoelaces as though they were linguini.

Other animals present included an American bison, a couple of very funny llamas, some reindeer (which are the only domesticated deer) numerous pygmy goats, and a family of coatimundis which were among the most hilarious animals I've ever watched for any period of time.

Animal attractions get a bad rap from crackpots like PETA, but all the animals we saw were clean, sleek, and clearly not in any danger of anything other than (perhaps) boredom. And while wild animals are rarely bored, they are also generally on the edge of starvation, or perpetually on the lookout for predators. I like animals, and while yes, I do eat them, I also like to remind myself of what marvelous creations they are, something that usually doesn't come across until such time as they start to munch your shoelaces. Highly recommended—at least if you're a cornball animal lover like me.
July 28, 2002:

Ham radio, like science fiction, appears to be imploding. We went back to the hamfest this morning (Sunday) at 9:30, to find that almost no one was there. Most of the flea marketeers were gone, as were a lot of the commercial exhibits. So we didn't even unpack the car. We just went back to Little America and hit the pool, which counts as the best hotel pool that either of us has ever seen.

It was notable that virtually all of the people whom we saw walking the rows in the fleamarket were our age or older—often much older. Young people were vanishingly rare, and when they were there, they were typically teens tagging along after a Boomer father, looking mostly bored and perhaps hoping to catch a deal in computer software. I myself didn't buy much, other than four riffler files, some clamps, and a couple of books on microwave antennas. I certainly have all the radios I need and then some, and I don't do a lot of bench electronics in the summer, when the bench is hot enough to fry eggs.

The gear I was trying to sell may not have been pristine enough for the collectors, and it was too old to be of interest to people who actually use them as radios. Used gear has never been cheaper—synthesized FM mobile rigs for under $100, recent all-the-best-n-whistles HF rigs for $300—so who's gonna lay out even $40 for a Heath Seneca? AM has less and less of a following all the time, mostly because its most enthusiastic partisans are dying of old age in droves. Once the operating population for AM drops below critical mass, there's basically no one to talk to and the AM rigs become pretty pointless.

Not sure what else to say. There's another hamfest next March down in Scottsdale, and I'll be there—I think. There's a lot of stuff in the garage that should go. I only wish I had more confidence that anybody will even take it off my hands for free.
July 27, 2002:

Sigh. Hamfests appear to be a dying tradition. We had hoped for the same crowds today that I've seen at numerous other Fort Tuthill hamfests on Saturdays, but oddly—and sadly—there were only about as many people here as yesterday. The fanatics come on Friday, and stay on Saturday...and there doesn't seem to be anybody here but the fanatics, and there are only so many of those.

So once we got to lunchtime and I hadn't sold anything, I started dropping my prices. Over the course of the day I did manage to get rid of the cream-colored 6M Communicator III, as well as the 22er, the homebrew 2M rig, the Lampkin deviation meter, the Heath cap checker, and the Ameco 6M converter. Everything else remained rooted to the table. I offered a couple of people the old GE lowband rig for free, and all I got were grins. Ditto the CB radio. The Seneca didn't move at $40, which really surprised me, as it's an uncommon radio to begin with, and the one I have is in pretty good shape. I basically gave away the Communicator III for $15. Nobody wanted the two VTVMs at any price.

We're coming back tomorrow morning, but Sundays are usually pretty dead days at hamfests and I'm not expecting much.
July 26, 2002:

Carol and I spent today baking out in the parking lot of the Coconino County Fairgrounds south of Flagstaff today, attending the Fort Tuthill Hamfest. I drug up a 4Runner load of classic ham gear and some junque (sometimes it's a little tricky to tell which is which) and we put the best of it up on our little folding table, and the rest of it down on the ground.

As you can see from the photo here, I put the Heath Seneca in a featured position, along with the FM-converted Clegg 22er. The yellow radios behind them are the Civil Defense models of the Gonset Communicator III and its matching linear. By the time I took this photo we'd been there almost an hour, and several things were already gone. The Harvey Wells Bandmaster, for example, was sold before I had even unloaded anything from the back of the car. Some old guy sort of hovered around, peeking in the car windows, and when he asked what I wanted for the Harvey Wells, he dug in his pocket and gave me my asking price. The little Heath dip meter went scant minutes later, as did the Heath Comanche and the Ameco TX-86. Then things got quiet—in fact, I sold almost nothing for the rest of the day.

We had a fine time nonetheless, eating greasy Italian sausage with onions and green peppers, fairgrounds kettle corn, and a fair amount of orange Arizona dust. The hamfest runs for three days, and more people generally come on Saturday, so I have high hopes of unloading the rest of this stuff. We'll see.
July 25, 2002:

What scares most ordinary people out of the stock market is the constant gnawing suspicion that the game is rigged, and that big money interests and corporate insiders have set things up so that all the good stuff goes to them first. The sad truth is that they're right, and the sadder truth is that none of the supposed reforms boiling up in this election year Congress will do anything to set things right.

Insider trading is a difficult matter to fix. I have three suggestions. My cautious and reasonable suggestion: Forbid trading by corporate insiders for thirty days prior to any release of company numbers. My much more radical suggestion: Require that corporate insiders declare their intent to sell stock, and then freeze the intended number of shares for six months. After six months, the shares sell whether the insider wishes to or not, at whatever price the stock happens to warrant that day.

My even more completely gonzo radical suggestion: Apply the above restriction to all stock trades (insider or otherwise) with a value (at request time) of greater than $5,000. In other words, if we limit all traders to $5,000 of immediate trades per day, we might be able to slow the velocity of money through the market, and prevent some of the idiotic swings that do little but enrich insiders and scare off ordinary investors. Let's try and change the culture of stock ownership to long-haul thinking, not clubby insider day trading. My intuition (as with a lot of my gonzo legal/political theories) is that the more people hate this idea, the more value it probably has.

Without small investors, the market simply doesn't work. We have to do whatever we can to bring them back and keep them.
July 24, 2002:

On a lark, I threw the laptop in the front seat of the 4Runner this morning when I went out to pick up a case of pool acid, and I went wardriving. I've mentioned wardriving a time or two in this space (see January 3, 2002 and June 28, 2002) but hadn't actually tried it myself until now. Wardriving is what you do when you run a program on your laptop or PDA that listens for the ID broadcast from wireless access points (APs) and logs them when it encounters them.

There are a handful of programs now that do this, and the best-known is called Netstumbler. It's free and fairly simple to use, though it understands only a limited number of wireless LAN cards. Fortunately, mine (the Orinoco Gold) is on its list.

Netstumbler listens for the SSID broadcast of an AP, and then records any information the AP includes in its broadcast, including the MAC address of the AP, the channel it's working on, whether it's using encryption, and the signal and noise values determined by your own WLAN card. This sounds like network hacking, but in fact Netstumbler doesn't record anything that the AP doesn't send out of its own accord. (The SSID broadcast is part of the protocol that allows the AP's own partners to connect to it in ad hoc mode.) Nor does Netstumbler make any attempt to connect to any found APs. For that you need other things, like the Boingo utility.

On a seven-mile run, Netstumbler detected twelve APs. The interesting thing I learned from its log is that of those twelve APs, just two were using any kind of encryption. The rest were literally wide-open. Encryption is off by default (otherwise, configuring a home network would be a serious challenge for people who refuse to read manuals) and most people who buy wireless network hardware just hook it up and run with it, using whatever defaults the manufacturer sets.

This situation allows Trudeau to publish some cutting-edge Doonesbury strips like this one. This is really too true to be funny; something almost precisely like this happened to an old friend of mine a month or so after he installed a wireless LAN in his house. The teenagers next door discovered it, and were hauling down MP3s over his DSL connection. He only knew because he wandered back to his home office after his own children were in bed, and happened to see the lights on his AP blinking furiously, indicating near-continous packet transfer activity, even though no one in the house was using their machines at that post-midnight hour.

802.11b security is not especially strong, but it's probably strong enough to keep the neighbor kids out of your network. Still, it won't help if you don't use it, so if you're contemplating an 802.11b wireless LAN, at least read the manuals and turn on WEP.
July 23, 2002:

Today's Wall Street Journal ran an article on an interesting piece of research, which indicates that fat people who exercise are much healthier and live longer than thin people who don't—breaking the ironclad assumption that thin is automatically and always better than fat. Of course, thin people who exercise are probably healthier still, but the main point is that we as a society place far too much emphasis on how people look, and too little on how well their bodies actually function. Our medical industry meekly follows along, assuming (as always) that they know far more than they do about metabolism, body structure, heritable health factors, and virtually everything else.

Some people are clearly born to be fat, particularly indigenous, non-Western European people. But what seems to matter is how metabolism happens in the individual, not simply how much fat is on the frame. Certain people can exercise vigorously and not lose much weight, but they achieve excellent cardiovascular health in the bargain, and avoid most of the deadly side effects of obesity, like diabetes. My guess is that modest exercise (walking briskly for half an hour per day) plus limiting carbs in your diet will make you lose at least some weight, and more importantly make your body function better and thus make you feel better. It certainly seems to be that way with me. Granted, I don't need to lose weight...but when I started exercising after some years of couch potatohood, I dropped ten pounds in very little time.

The message of the WSJ article was simple: Don't rely on diet to be healthy. Exercise, eat moderately, and be happy with what you see in the mirror—you'll be seeing it longer than if you didn't exercise at all.
July 22, 2002:

Was in Berkeley for a couple days on business. Whew, that was weird...and 'nuff said.

But the big Flagstaff Hamfest starts later this week, so today I went out in the garage and began cataloging the things I want to schlep up there and sell. Most of it is tube-era ham equipment that I had a thing for in the early 1990s, and gathered to me like fleas to a dog for several years. I cleaned up and repaired some of it (like the Heath Comanche that exploded noisily the first time I plugged it in—shorted filter cap) but a lot of it just sat on the shelf, awaiting repair. (Some was so scary—like the Heath Seneca VHF-1 transmitter—that I never even tried to power it up.) The garage is getting so full it's unlivable, and in truth I haven't had any of the old AM stuff on the air in six or seven years. Back in '95 we had the Junkbox Radio Net every Sunday night here in Scottsdale on 50.4 Mhz AM, and it was a riot. I had the Clegg 99er on a lot, alternated with the Ameco TX-62, using the 99er as a receiver.

But that was then, sigh. Collectors have scarfed up so much of the old gear that there aren't enough people willing to actually use it to support a Sunday night net anymore. It's gone the way of CW, which was ruined by telegraph key collectors who gathered all the fine old military CW keys to themselves, by the boxloads, to sell to other collectors for $40 each...leaving nothing for young hams who were at best lukewarm on CW to begin with. (When I started in hamming in 1973, those keys were everywhere for $3 each. I still have mine) Those selfish old jerks then had the balls to complain that nobody wanted to use CW anymore...while sitting on their hoard of keys that they were unwilling to share with young hams at a decent price. And when they die, most of it will be tossed in the trash by their relieved widows and never seen again.

But oh lord, it was a trip to pull that stuff off the shelf and wipe the dust off it. Here are the highlights:

  • Ameco TX-86. Great little copper-colored cubical minimalist CW rig. Chirpy but powerful.
  • Heath Seneca. Immense box, for 6 & 2, with frightening voltages inside and a design so bizarre I can't imagine that it ever worked. Bought one cheap and couldn't bear to try it.
  • Heath Comanche. Fine little receiver, designed to go under the dash of Sixties cars.
  • RCA Volt-Ohmist. Classical VTVM. Range switch needs cleaning.
  • RCA signal generator. Almost mint, gorgeous, needs calibrating but otherwise works.
  • Knight Kit VTVM. Works, could use some cleaning.
  • Harvey-Wells Bandmaster. Early 50s transmitter, filthy but actually works, at least on 80m.
  • Clegg 22er. Sharp mid-60s 2m AM transceiver. Receive calibration way off, but works.
  • Two dead Poly-Comm 62 units. One is repairable—I think—the other a parts unit.
  • Two dead Heath 75m Single-Banders. Neither works, but both are intact and fixable.
  • Gonset Communicator III for 6m. Cream-colored. Filthy, heavily hacked, but works.
  • Gonset Communicator III for 2m. CD-yellow. Intact, never tried it.
  • Gonset 2m Linear. CD-yellow. No knobs, filthy, but intact. Never tried it.
  • Johnson "Whiteface" CB rig. I had one of these in 1972. Handsome box, and powerful, though its vibrator was irritating. Bought it as a nostalgia trip, never touched it.
  • Heathkit solid-state dip meter. I have an original Millen GDO with all coils. Why do I need this?
  • Heathkit IT-28 cap checker. Digital is better. No need for it now.
All that, plus boxes of old ham magazines and military field manuals, and assorted junque that defies description. I did keep some of the old gear, like my Clegg 99er, and 2m Gonset Communicator IV, that I've used and enjoyed. But it was the best of the best, and it's still unclear whether it'll ever actually go on the air again. I guess that makes me a collector, sigh. But the field has lost critical mass, and without somebody to talk to, the gear isn't of much use. I will be selling it cheap, and with any luck to people who may actually put it on the air. We'll see. And now I have some room on my shelves again.
July 19, 2002:

Much fuss was made about the so-so cover article in the July/August Atlantic that speaks of how the Ground Zero wreckage is being cleared, so much so that a far more important article in that same issue has probably gone unnoticed. In "Designer Bugs," (not yet available online) author Jon Cohen describes some experimental work in Australia that created a deadly new version of a rodent virus called mousepox. Cohen makes much of the dangers of creating new versions of pathogens that can infect even the vaccinated (which is what the Australians accidentally accomplished) and breezes by what the researchers actually intended to accomplish: to create a disease that doesn't kill but sterilizes instead.

They were trying to solve the legendary problem of rabbits as pests in Australia, and the whole idea was to create a disease that sterilizes rabbits. It worked—and having mentioned that as background, Cohen goes on to other, more ominous research about creating more deadly viruses.

As I've mentioned here before (in my entry for May 5, 2002) there isn't anything deadlier than sterility. (Duh!) And from what little I can see in the article, there's nothing about the Australians' mechanism—using an otherwise harmless virus to engender an autoimmune reaction by the body to a fertilized egg—that limits it to rabbits. So I have yet something more to worry about. It's so obvious to me; how could Cohen have missed the implications of his own article?
July 18, 2002:

In the course of researching 802.11b networking, I discovered that Sony offers a $150 802.11b option card for its Aibo robot dog. With the card in place, you can write robot control programs using their R-Script language and control poor Aibo from your PC via wireless networking. Interestingly, the card is inserted where, on a real dog, you might say the sun don't shine.

And even more interestingly, as I discovered while browsing sites to satisfy my curiosity about R-Script, Sony aggressively goes after sites that publish information on opening up Aibo and fooling with him. The Japanese just don't seem to learn that you can't expect your stuff to catch on if you harrass your fans. One wonders if they'll ever get it through their thick heads that messing with the insides is what robotics is all about!!

So it goes. I never much cared for the robot dog thing anyway. Creating mobile robots with ad-hoc 802.11b networking built-in might be a fascinating thing to do, especially if we could create software to allow the robots to interact with one another. Not that I need another project, but I used to do robotics a lot back when I lived in Chicago, and I have a lot more computing power to build into a robot now than I did in 1977!
July 17, 2002:

I've been kind of busy lately, and I realized that I never posted a link to this, even though we made it public more than a month ago. Five Coriolis renegades have put a new press together, and we are doing some interesting things, including rescuing the Black Book and Little Black Book series that we created years ago at Coriolis. How that came about is complicated, but it's now a fait accompli and thousands of Black Books (and Little Black Books) are heading back into the bookstores, with a Paraglyph sticker over the Coriolis logo. Several books that were completed at Coriolis but never published will also be released in the next five or six weeks.

I will continue with my Copperwood Press project, but with the publishing industry in the weak state it is, I think it's best to hedge my bets a little bit—and it's great to work with at least a few of the terrific people who used to work at Coriolis. My hope is that Paraglyph will someday pull in a few more renegade Coriolians (not my coinage, heh) and resemble what the company was when I loved it best, before it got way big. I'll keep you posted. There are interesting times ahead.
July 16, 2002:

Twenty-odd years ago, when I was doing most of my science fiction writing, I had a notion for networking that was inspired by the connection to the ARPANet that I had through Xerox, where I worked in that era. I called it Plasmanet, and by just diabolical bad luck I never sold any of the stories I used it in, though it was true it figured most prominently in two of my (numerous) unfinished novels, The Lotus Machine and Ten Gentle Opportunities. Plasmanet's idea was pretty simple: Use any kind of wireless connection that could get through, with a broadband solid-state system that could generate any kind of electronmagnetic energy from VLF to ultraviolet light. A plasmanet-equipped computer probed around at need to see what was in connecting distance, asked permission (what a thought!) and if granted, it connected.

In my opinion, the most peculiar use of plasmanet turned up with my 1980-vintage vision of wearable computing, called the jiminy. (After Disney's cricket, which sat on Pinocchio's shoulder and whispered to him.) Your jiminy was pinned to your lapel (or some other place; some were epaulets, others largish earrings) and it talked to you via earbuds. It also had a plasmanet transceiver, and as you walked down a busy street, it would engage in what we might call drive-by networking, in that it talked to other people's jiminies and traded queries placed there by their owners. Much of it was job-hunting, or else selling and buying various things, but I also thought it might be useful for locating distant relatives or people who had just disappeared.

So here we are, and I think I may have called it again, though of course I can't really prove it. (See my 1990 PC Techniques END. item, Swap Meet, 2047 A.D., which was an excerpt from The Lotus Machne, circa 1985 .) There is an interesting wrinkle in the IEEE 802.11b specification for wireless networking called ad hoc mode, and it does pretty much what my jiminies were supposed to do: When two 802.11b wireless devices in ad hoc mode come within range of one another, they connect. What happens next depends on who's at the keyboard (and with only one 802.11b hand to clap here I haven't been able to try anything) but there's no reason to suppose that all the stuff I envisioned jiminies doing couldn't be done. It's awkward on laptops, obviously, but there are 802.11b boards for the expansion slot in both Palm and PocketPC PDAs, and with one of the newer, slimmer Palms in your pocket, enabling wireless would be a great deal like having a jiminy.

There's a lot of stuff on 802.11b out there, including whole Web sites like 802.11b Planet, but ad hoc mode seems to be the black sheep in the family. I haven't found any real insights into what people are doing with it, nor any software that seems to take advantage of it. I'm still pretty clueless about how to access specific features of 802.11b connectivity, but I'd love to tinker in Delphi, so if anybody reading this can point me toward anything on 802.11b ad hoc mode programming I'd sure appreciate it.
July 15, 2002:

After my mother died two years ago, my sister and I split up her collection of VHS videotapes, which included virtually every Disney cartoon feature ever made. My portion of the collection sat in box for a year and a half before I dug down that far in the Mother Pile, but for months now I've been walking on the treadmill (inescapable when it's 110° outside) to my mother's Disney cartoons, including some that I had literally never seen before, including (astonishingly enough) The Lion King.

There are some interesting observations to be made here. First of all, a significant number of Disney cartoon movies are simply forgettable. The Aristocats is a pale attempt to do 101 Dalmations for cats. Didn't work, though the musical number "Everybody Wants to be a Cat" has a certain delightful verve and gusto. The Great Mouse Detective attempts to do Sherlock Homes at mouse-scale. Didn't work. Oliver & Company was perhaps the lamest of all, and as a concept it had potential: Do a takeoff on Oliver Twist, in which Fagan is a down-on-his-luck New Yorker whose gang of talking dogs steals things that he then fences. It was perhaps the most boring cartoon movie I'd ever seen. I found The Lion King both boring and slightly depressing. Trying to make a kiddie movie featuring the brutal African food chain was balls, in spades, and I think it succeeded as much as it did because a lot of the subtler (and more depressing) touches, like goose-stepping hyenas and allusions to the Grail Legend, completely blew past the four-year-olds, who have no concept of death and just have a thing for cuddly animals. As the movie constantly reminds us, the lions eat the gazelles, but when the lions die, they go back into the Earth and nourish new grass, which the gazelles then eat. Doesn't anybody think that the lions have the better part of the deal? (My sympathies are not vegan.)

Still to come: Some of the made-for-videotape cartoons, like the Christmas spinoff from Beauty and the Beast and the two sequels to Aladdin. I'm not expecting much, so I may be pleasantly surprised. We'll see.

Anyway, here's my conclusion: Disney does best when it either taps completely new material (like Monsters Inc. or Lady & The Tramp) or returns to the ancient fairy tales that were its original stock in trade. The finest Disney cartoon of all time (and likely to remain so) is Beauty and the Beast, half for the inspired writing, and half for its utter lack of political correctness, which has ruined most of Disney's cartoons since then.(Let us not even speak of Pocahontas.) Runner up is The Little Mermaid, for similar reasons. Third place goes to Aladdin, and here I can only ascribe the success to allowing Robin Williams to do his famous thing; the writing itself is (apart from Williams' character) only so-so.

Not all the fairy tale movies are great; some are so bad (like The Black Cauldron) that Disney has never had the guts to release them on tape or DVD. Robin Hood is almost as bad. But for the most part, fairy tales pit plucky characters against clear villains amidst an engaging musical score and some basic comic relief, and don't try to absorb or (God help us) respect contemporary culture. Look at Sleeping Beauty (which had the additional benefit of a public-domain classical score courtesy of Tschaikovsky) or Cinderella. Practically perfect, and they're not in my top three perhaps because I've seen them too many times. That, however, may say something all by itself.
July 14, 2002:

We had what they call a "five-year storm" last night, and in one crazy four-hour period quadrupled the amount of rain Phoenix has seen since January 1. The rain itself was actually not the worst part of it. Two significant storms converged here on the Valley, one from the southeast and one from the northeast, and they collided over downtown Phoenix and Sky Harbor Airport, triggering inch-per-hour rainbursts, continuous lightning, and 70 MPH winds. Jetliners were damaged by winds just sitting on the ground, the airport and much of downtown lost power.

Up here in the extreme northeast corner of the Valley of the Sun, I watched the damn thing coming in out of the northeast, driving chaotic cloud patterns ahead of it and causing some of the weirdest light/color effects in the sky that I've seen in a long time. It was courteous enough to wait until after we had grilled our salmon steaks out on the patio, but about 8 PM it hit us hard. Our crotchety house here has some leaks, and whenever rain comes on a hard east wind water bubbles up through the cracks in the east end of the floor of our Arizona room (what they call a mudroom in a place that rarely has any mud) and flows toward the main part of the house. So Carol and I got back into a rhythm we haven't needed since 1997 or so: She used the big pole squeegee to shove the water toward the cast-wide back door, and I furiously broomed it out the door before it could get anywhere it would cause any serious trouble.

No damage really, apart from getting some wet carpeting here and there, and we didn't even lose power. The rain was worth it, too: We have cactus that are dying from the four-year drought, and I'm hoping that our three big but desiccated agaves will come back to life. The big question of course, is whether this is a fluke or a trend. We won't know until fall, right? Still, we have some catching-up to do in the wetness department, so hey, bring it on!
July 13, 2002:
Quick question for those of you who have read more recent SF than I have: Has anybody done any significant talespinning in recent years about terraforming the Moon? (Mars, sure. I tried to read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, and rapidly learned how to beat insomnia...) While staring off into space this afternoon I got another SF geistesblitz and came up with an interesting notion about making an Earthlike world out of poor Luna. It could easily support a novel, but I'd hate to do something that people will say I "stole" from Greg Benford.
July 12, 2002:

My friend and old Lane Tech Astronomical Society associate Pete Albrecht once mentioned casually that he'd like to get a pi tape, and I drew a blank. Once he explained it, I boggled at the coolness of the concept: A tape measure with two paroallel scales, one in inches, and one in inches divided by pi. Wrap the tape around a round object, and one scale reads the object's circumference, the other its diameter.

Why is this useful? Well, supposed you need to determine the diameter of something, like a pipe or a hose in a functioning mechanism, with both ends terminated somehow and the diametral section inaccessible. You can't just hacksaw out a section and measure the diameter. The pi tape, however, will give you the diameter directly, and if you pull it tight the reading can be read to a few thousands of an inch.

Some pi tape manufacturers (like this one) don't even bother with the "straight" scale, and the tape is calibrated solely for diameter. These are typically the expensive stainless steel ones good to .001" with a vernier calibration that replaces the straight scale. Lufkin makes a cheaper one (the high end ones go for $150 and up) but I have yet to see it in Home Depot, heh.
July 11, 2002:

\Went to see Men In Black II this afternoon. Howling good time, just like the first film. In fact, save for the better computer graphics, there's precious little difference between the two episodes. Lots of completely goofy aliens, including a monstrous subway-car-eating galactic worm named (really!) Jeff. The plot is silly and almost nonexistent: J uncovers a galatic plot that could end up destroying the Earth. Stymied, J finds he must de-neuralize K (who has been living on Cape Cod as a mailman since having his memories erased at the end of the first episode) who has left clues for himself all over New York to solve the puzzle and beat the alien heavy, a sort of full-body Medusa that shape-changes itself to the first human image it encounters after it lands on Earth: A model in a Victoria's Secret ad.

I hate to say more than that. The worm-guys return, as does Frank, the alien who looks like a pug. J's street-wise Black patter is again the perfect reflection in K's deadpan down-home southern unflappability. Good spaceships, strictly cartoon violence, mostly things blowing up. No body parts; you can take the kids, if you can handle the snot-jokes and alien-slime gross-outs. Definitely a film for the twelve-year-old boy in everyone. (I'm glad mine is still down there somewhere.) Now, the larger question, given the film's huge first-weekend take and thus the assurance of MIB III: How long can they keep this up and still make it work?
July 10, 2002:

Jim Mischel pointed me to an interesting game I hadn't heard of before: Bejeweled. It's interesting for a couple of reasons. One is its marketing: There is an applet-based version of the game that can be played for free on the Web, though if you want to record your high scores for ego's sake you have to register with MSN Gaming. This allows you to get an idea of its playability and general concept without waiting for a download and then installing yet something new on your PC. Then if you like it, you can download a trial version with certain limitations, and then buy an unlimited version for $19.95.

The game itself is interesting for the sake of its simplicity: It's a pattern matching game, pure and simple, in which an 8 X 8 grid of icons (jewels, in this case) appears, and then to score you swap adjacent icons until you get a row of three or more. Once you create a row of three or more, the row vanishes, and the icons above the empty space "fall" and take up the space, with new icons descending randomly from the top edge until the grid is full again. No animation of consequence, and the sound effects are just OK. You can trade points for hints if you want to, and there are extra points for "chain reactions" caused by new arrangements of icons after you make a row vanish.

What is the most startling about the game (startling to me, anyway) is how you lose: Eventually you end up with a grid for which there are no swappable icon pairs. (There are rules governing the circumstances under which icons may be swapped that I won't summarize here.) End of game. Finis. (It's a little like how you lose in Mah Jongg.) If you pull the right random batches of icons as you play, the game can theoretically go on forever. As far as I can tell, the various levels (I've been through at least twelve so far) are identical in terms of difficulty, and on my third run on the downloaded trial version, I racked up 37,000 points in I don't remember how many levels, over a period of time that ran over an hour. The next run through I lost in five minutes with only 1500 points. It's ultimately the luck of the draw, unlike something like Snood (see my entry for 10/27/2001) where you know you'll either win or lose in a couple of minutes. I'm not sure if this is a bug or a feature—it's too early to tell, even though I'm finding myself irritated by a game in which skill seems to count for so little and the time spent becomes so unpredictable. My guess is that I'll tire of it soon. We'll see.
July 9, 2002:

Alluva sudden, the dam appears to be breaking. Everybody's talking about how poor, ridiculed (but admittedly rich) Dr. Atkins, who thirty years ago told us that eating more carbs and less fat would make us more fat and less healthy, is almost certainly right. This morning's Wall Street Journal had a short piece by anthropologist Dr. Lionel Tiger (c'mon now, is that a real name?) endorsing what I've been saying for over a year: That we evolved eating meat, veggies, nuts, and some fruit. No sugar, no grain, no rice, wheat, corn, pasta, and probably no potatoes—at least those of us who hail from Europe, where potatoes were unknown until 1500. This morning Slashdot (Slashdot?) aggregated a link to the New York Times (registration required, but hey, do it) saying basically the same thing, a couple of days after Plastic aggregated the same item.

Some of my observations here:

  • The "official" Atkins diet was created to help the morbidly obese bring their weight down from life-threatening levels. It wasn't for guys like me whose pants start getting a little tight.
  • It works. I know two seriously obese people who shed over a hundred pounds on the Atkins regime, and (heresy!) their total and "bad" cholesterol plummeted in the process, even though they were living on ground beef, eggs, bacon, and all that deliciously evil stuff. Nor did they enjoy it after a while; one guy confessed that he had begun to dream longingly of English muffins.
  • There is a middle ground. I gave up sugar soda, pasta, white rice and white bread, and potatoes as daily fare, and went from 167 to 155 in a couple of months. I didn't give up fruit, and I even ate ice cream once or twice a week. I eat a "rough" dark bread and brown rice in moderation.
  • One can eat low-carb without eating loads of fat. I eat lean meats like skinless chicken breasts, fish, and lean ham—I've basically given up beef except on special occasions—and my cholesterol and triglycerides have improved radically.
  • I eat less of everything. This is easier in my regime because carbs never make you feel satisfied—you tend to eat them until they're gone. Dare you to do that with a big bowl of scrambled eggs!
  • Exercise is key. I walk at least 10 miles a week, more if time and energy allow.
  • Admittedly, losing weight is easier if you're male. Muscle tissue metabolizes all the time, even when you're not exercizing. Maintain significant muscle mass, and you burn calories even standing still. Women, who are made of less muscle than men, don't have this advantage.
  • Heritage matters. If you're descended from Western European stock, you have a thousand year head start on aboriginal peoples (American, Polynesian, and African) coping with abundance.
The nasty part in this is the total unwillingness of our medical establishment to even do the studies it would take to finally settle the issue using the scientific method. A pox on them (and no vaccines!) for betraying their training and defending fuzzy orthodoxy when the evidence starts leaning in the other direction.
July 8, 2002:

Most of us agree that the Arab Oil Embargo ended the Sixties—but what was the borderline where the Seventies became the Eighties? I think I know: It was Buckaroo Bonzai, the cult-favorite proto-punk film recasting of the Depression-era Doc Savage action-adventure pulpers. My sister gave me her VHS copy of the film some time back (they've moved to DVD and can't abide tape anymore) and I watched it last night. This is it, guys. This is where we moved from wide ties and frilly lapels to narrow ties and narrow lapels, and from painful earnestness to wry self-parody and the first glimmers of the dawn of the punk era. The movie itself is profoundly silly ("Wherever you go...there you are!") and lots of fun if you don't expect Star Wars-class visuals. Lithgow in particular throws himself into the goofiness with enormous energy and is clearly having a fine time. 1982 didn't look that good at the time, but what did we know? We were still trying to yank our feet out of the mire of the Seventies.

I'm not sure what happened to Peter Weller, but the movie included Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, and Christopher Lloyd, three of my favorite actors. I won't bother to summarize the plot. I'm not even sure it has a plot. But if you can get it on cheap rental, open a box of chips, pour yourself some White Zin (this was the dawn of the Wine Era as well) and enjoy yourself.
July 7, 2002:

I've been studying the 802.11b WLAN (Wireless LAN) standard, and it's a fascinating business. Particularly what they call "ad hoc" mode, in which your 802.11-equipped laptop communicates as a peer with other similarly equipped devices, in wide-open, N-way fashion. Imagine five guys around a conference table, all seeing the same slide show presentation being broadcast from the guy giving the presentation. Or imagine ten kids sitting on the floor with their laptops, playing Quake or whatever the leading realtime multiplaying game is today.

My question for all of you out there who read this: What software is available to take advantage of 802.11b wireless networking? Are there any games? File sync utilities? (Or dare I hope...) Delphi components? I've found a couple of odd items like NetStumbler, but I'm less interested in sniffing other people's networks than exploring what can be done with close-in peer-to-peer networking. What thoughts?
July 6, 2002:

Carol and I went to see the new Star Wars movie this afternoon. I'm probably the last one in this galaxy (which contains mostly SF lovers) to have seen it, so I won't be as careful with spoilers as I would be if it were the day after opening day.

But besides, what can I spoil? You guys already know the story: The whole saga is about the descent of Anakin Skywalker into the Dark Side, and his redemption by his son. The story's being told in a weird order, but that's the story, and everybody knows it by heart by now. In this episode, we get even fewer surprises than in the last one. There's not much room for surprises anymore. In fact, the creation of Attack of the Clones must have been almost completely an exercise of fitting in all the details that have to be fitted in to serve the (earlier) last three episodes. The creativity lay more in how to glue it all together rather than what shape the pieces could be. That was (mostly) decided almost twenty years ago, with the release of The Return of the Jedi.

For reasons known best to themselves, Lucas & Co. chose non-actors for their two main characters. Natalie Portman could have had a great career playing poker in Las Vegas; she has as little expression as anyone I've ever seen on the Big Screen. Hayden Christiansen gives great tantrum, but when he's not playing a defiant little snot he projects an IQ of about 75. Carol pointed out that they didn't have much in terms of lines to deliver—but in truth, we don't see movies like this for the lines or thematic subtlety. We discover the real reason that Anakin is going psycho, but even last episode we could tell that he was a lousy candidate for Jedi-hood, mitochondrions or whateverthehell it was notwithstanding.

No...we go for the spaceships! We go for the gadgets, the scenic backdrops, the monsters, the light saber fights. About that I won't say more, but boy, this time it was a doozy, and of a nature utterly unexpected but magnificently satisfying. The computer graphics were (as expected, of course) dazzling. We were subjected to relatively little Jar Jar, which for me was a big plus. I could have done without Amigdala and Anakin rolling around in the grass—did the producers really think that that would be a draw for teens? And it was intriguing to see Lucas begin to close the loop, with scenes on Tatooine containing elements from the first film: Jawas and their cool transports, banthas, the dopey Tuscan warriors, blue milk in a pitcher, even a young Aunt Beru.

All that having been said, my bottom line is this: I'm beginning to get a little tired of it all. Nothing much new can be revealed in the story in next year's Episode 3, and nothing much was revealed this time either. We can look forward to even better graphics, flashier spaceships, and maybe some creatively awesome new planets. However, we will know going in that it's going to be a downer episode, something like The Empire Strikes Back and worse. When Episode 3 appears and the saga is complete, I will pony up my six bucks and (probably) feel good about it...but I will be abundantly glad that it's finally over.
July 5, 2002:

Here's a very cool idea that I (who love railroads a lot) never thought of, obvious though it is: Use diesel locomotives as portable power generators, able to be driven to an area with brownouts or infrastructure damage and hooked up to the power grid from a siding. Many people don't understand that diesel locomotives are not the same as diesel cars or trucks: What they do is use a (very large) diesel engine to generate electricity, which is then used to power the electric motors that actually turn the wheels and make things move. A single modern locomotive is capable of developing over two megawatts of power if it isn't pulling anything...so get a few of them together and you can run a small city.

The Big Snag is that diesel locomotives generate DC power for their own motors, so you need a butt-kicking alternator to transform the DC into 60 hertz AC for the power grid. But such things exist, and the startup mentioned in the article has created alternator cars in old Long Island Railroad commuter coaches. So what you have are portable power generation stations that can go anywhere the rails go, towing their alternators behind them, to battle power shortages wherever idiot politicians create them.
July 4, 2002:

The Fourth of July—time to meditate a little on what freedom is and why we have it. Not a simple issue, of course, but a big part of freedom is simply knowing what's going on, and for that we depend on what we now call, collectively, The Media. Now, the Media can do its best to present an objective view of the world, or it can put a spin on things. There was a time when objectivity was a vital part of journalism. Those days are gone.

CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg did a gutsy thing back in 1996: After complaining about bias in the news media within CBS and being utterly ignored, he "came out" in the Wall Street Journal and basically said what everybody knew: That American news media is heavily biased in a leftward direction. He was harrassed and almost fired for this, and his 2001 book Bias not only tells that story, but also documents some of the more obvious incidence of bias in the news media, particularly in television, where he worked.

I won't take space here describing the bias itself—nothing much new there, and I've been reading about it in various places, from the WSJ to the Atlantic Monthly, for many years. Rather, I find interesting Goldberg's theories as to why the bias exists. It's not some grand left-wing conspiracy. It's almost certainly a consequence of...freedom. In today's society, communication and transportation make it possible to associate with whomever you like, so it should come as no surprise that people are choosing to hang with people almost completely like themselves. This is true of just about everybody—how diverse is your inner circle?—and not simply news people.

Newspeople are naturally liberal, and there's not a great deal to be done about that. Idealism gravitates to journalism; pragmatism gravitates to business. What causes most kinds of bias is a failure to be exposed to opinions that contradict your own, not just distantly (in books and newspapers or on the Web) but in other people whom you value and associate with on a daily basis. So it is here: News people associate only with people who share their liberal views and reinforce their (arrogant) contention that liberal views are mainstream, and all reasonable people subscribe to them. There was a time when news organizations guarded against any kind of bias, and succeeded, to a greater or lesser extent. However, as Goldberg cogently notes, when news ceased to be seen as a solemn responsibility and instead became ratings bait (making it just another species of light entertainment) objectivity went out the window.

The book is excellent. Yes, it's short and fairly light reading, but he's making a pretty simple case and I credit him for not going on longer than he should. (I read it cover to cover in under three hours.) Goldberg is a centrist, as I am, and I resonate powerfully with the whole ugly situation. The solution is simple: Turn the damned thing off. Don't watch TV news. Sooner or later, if enough people stop watching Dan Rather, "the Dan" will be out of a job, and that will be one small step on the crucial journey back to what used to be the great engine of American freedom.
July 3, 2002:
Michael Covington wrote to tell me that the musical instrument I show in my June 24 entry (actually, a table full of wine glasses partly filled with water) is called a glass harmonica, and it has a history, if not necessarily a prominent one, that goes back to Victorian times in England. Michael and his wife Melody heard a glass harmonica concert in Quebec some time back, given by Jim Stander and The Furry Eggs, and they thought it was pretty remarkable. Stander is evidently a Canadian physicist who does this for fun, and supposedly he's written about the physics of the glass harmonica, but I've been unable to find much on the Net. Let me know if you spot anything.
July 1, 2002:

We fly back to Scottsdale tomorrow morning, but before I leave, Gretchen asked me to go down with her to Old St. John's cemetery and show her where all the Duntemann graves are. St. John's is a very interesting case: If you look on a detailed map of Chicago O'Hare Field, you'll see that there is a little appendix protruding into the airport from the south, close to the western edge of the airport land. This appendix is St. John's, a Lutheran cemetery that has been there since 1845 or so. When O'Hare Field expanded on its way to national pre-eminence in the 1950s, the city tried to force the St. John's church community to move the cemetery. St. John's refused, and because of a quirk in the eminent domain laws, the church building itself had to be moved, but not the nearby cemetery. The cemetery, as it turns out, was built on land for which the church was the original deedholder—and while I'm not sure why that's insurance against eminent domain, it stopped the city cold, and they simply built around Old St. John's.

This would hardly be worth mentioning, except that the cemetery is right off the end of one of the main runways, and 9-11 paranoia is intense around airports these days. So although we were able to get down the road and into the cemetery, we were told we could be arrested if we took any photographs past the security checkpoint. This was true whether or not the photos were of gravestones, which had been my intent. (I do not yet have a photo of one of the Duntemann monuments and had hoped to catch one.) They are apparently concerned that terrorists would use the cemetery as a vantage point from which to observe aircraft activity or even shoot at planes taking off or landing.

The church is under pressure again to move the cemetery, because the city want to enlarge O'Hare and add two new runways. This time they're offering money, and this time, the cemetery may move. Certainly, if it becomes misery to get in to see the graves (which may be a species of pressure all by itself) there's something to be said for getting it out of there. But how does one move a really ancient cemetery? This is not a collection of massive concrete vaults. These are 150 year old farmers' graves, doubtless in pine boxes, of which there may not be much left, and certainly whatever is there is in very delicate shape. My great-great-great-grandfather Johann Carl Christian Duntemann was buried there in 1863 (see his very nice red granite stone above) and I'd hate to think he'd get chewed up by a clumsy backhoe operator paid by the city and on a schedule. The surrounding towns like Bensenville and Itasca are fighting the airport expansion with everything they've got, but as all native Chicagoans know, Chicago tends to get its way. And whether or not the airport expands, I'm left wondering if visiting St. John's will ever again be treated without suspicion.