June 30, 2001:

I don't use Office XP 2002 and probably never will—ditto Windows XP, due out in October. Why? Microsoft persists in building in an "activation" system that will disable your copy of the software when it detects that the hardware profile has changed—something as simple as a new hard drive will do it, and Microsoft has said nothing at all about what triggers a reaction from the software. If you change your hardware, you have to call Microsoft to get a new activation code, or you're personally screwed by Bill Gates & Crew. (And how long do you expect you'll have to sit helplessly on hold while MS attempts to field tens of millions of reactivation requests from hapless XP users?) A recent report by ZDNet's Dave Coursey showed that this code is buggy enough to be triggered for no reason, on a laptop on whch nothing had been changed, and that worries me. Products containing "guard dog" code like this are fragile, and my time is too valuable to have to absorb the hit while waiting for Microsoft to put right something that they screwed over to begin with. Can I bill them my usual rate ($150/hour) for time spent on hold trying to get my software working again? Obviously not.

So the answer is quite simple: Boycott XP. Period. Don't buy it, and don't buy hardware on which it has been installed. If enough people get screwed this way (and if enough people of means file lawsuits over it, which for a change I hope they do) perhaps we can bury this sort of thing, like we buried key diskettes so many years ago.
June 29, 2001:

The feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, and given that I arrived in the world on this date (a month late, and pretty large considering the size of my diminutive mother) the reason my middle name is Peter. I'm glad they chose him, as St. Paul crosses the line for me theologically in a number of places. Peter was a better choice. After all, he was bald (I'm not sure how we know, but all early depictions of him—some of them very early—show him with as little hair as I have) and sometimes more than a little confused about what was asked of him.

But it's always puzzled me why they put these two very famous saints together on one day, when Scripture clearly shows that they loathed each other. All the other apostles and major saints have their own feast days, shared (if at all) by minor saints that no one these days has ever heard of. Perhaps it was God's way of telling them, "Go to your room and don't come out until you can get along. And don't make me come down there!"

There's a fascinating book about how we recovered what are almost certainly the bones of St. Peter, which involved the excavation of what is probably the first Christian church in Rome, erected in a graveyard in the late years of the first century AD. This little church was buried beneath two different basilicas called St. Peters, and was found directly beneath the main altar of the current megachurch. The book is The Bones of St. Peter, by John Evangelist Walsh. It's now out of print, but although it's the least common of Walsh's many books, you can generally find copies on Bibliofind or Alibris. Highly recommended.
June 28, 2001:

Acme Rent-A-Car of New Haven CT has an interesting scam going: They've installed GPS receivers on all their newer higher-end cars, and the cars use GPS to monitor how fast they're going. Go over the speed limit, and it's recorded—and when you turn the car in, Acme adds hefty fines to your bill for each and every instance where you exceeded the limit. Supposedly, Acme wants to protect their cars, but I powerfully suspect the motivation is the same as that impelling local governments to use photo radar: It's "free money" and requires no human intervention to collect it.

Now, I suspect that this little piece of technology grift will be challenged in court, and I also suspect that once word gets around, Acme rentals are going to amsymptotically approach zero. Do what I'm doing and put Acme Rent-A-Car on your Never Do Business Ever list. I consider this sort of arrogance a mortal sin, and unlike the Church, I don't provide any means of confession or redemption.
June 27, 2001:

This is as good a time as any to voice discontent with a growing curse of home computing: The proliferation of wall-wart power supplies. In the old days, things that needed power plugged into the 120V mains and converted things down to 12VDC or whatever they needed internally. Now, it seems, every damfool peripheral you buy comes with this big bulky lump with prongs that plugs into an outlet--and blocks the two outlets on either side of it.

I have a pretty sophisticated setup here, with two scanners, two printers, amplified speakers, a USB hub, a router and some other stuff, all of which demand their own elbows-out place at the electrical trough. In times past, you could even plug your monitor into the pack of your PC, but no more. So the ratsnest of wires behind my computer table here is frightening, when you add in the cable to the roof antenna through which I access the Internet, the phone cord, and umpty-ump USB cables.

But I did find some help: A very clever extension cord with a triangular head designed specifically to accept wall warts and keep them out of one another's way. It's by Fellowes, and it contains a surge protector, eight outlets, plus in/out jacks to divert surges from your telephone line. The odd shape is ideal; see the photo at left. I bought it at OfficeMax and my guess is it's available at any large computer or office supplies retailer.

Another solution that should be used more is to make the transformer cases slender and longer, with the pins on the narrow face, so that the transformer part doesn't block outlets to either side. I have one of these, and it came with my Cisco Aironet access point. There's no reason this shape could not be a standard. Let us pray for sense here—and do whatever is necessary to keep our electronics fed.
June 26, 2001:
I finally got a clear night from which to view Mars, but I had forgotten how unsettled the air is over Phoenix at dusk after a hot summer's day. I got the big scope put together, and it worked as well as it always has--but of course, the poor thing can only do the best it can with the air that it happens to be looking through. And that air was the air rising over the blistering hot clot of concrete and asphalt we call the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, which had been soaking up solar heat all day. I am located to the north of nearly all of that metro area, and Mars was low in the southern sky, just to the east of Scorpius. So I was looking through miles of heat-tormented air, and the image of Mars was nowhere near as clear as it was back in 1988, when we last got this close to the Red Planet. I glimpsed some of the dark areas, and what may have been one of its polar dry ice caps. But overall it was a bitter disappointment. I did learn a few things that could be better done with the refurbed scope, and have a list of improvements to be made. I think, however, that I'm going to wait for slightly cooler weather to implement them.
June 25, 2001:

From the ASPCA comes the following stack-rank popularity list of pet names. How many creatures have borne these names in your house?

1. Max

2. Sam

3. Lady

4. Bear

5. Smokey

6. Shadow

7. Kitty

8. Molly

9. Buddy
10. Brandy
We had Max until just a couple of months ago, and when I was a kid I had a mutt named Smokey. We've known a fair number of other Maxes, a couple of Sams, and more than one Lady. So I guess it's all for real. But cripes, who would name a cat Kitty? (Or, worse, a dog?)
June 24, 2001:

I just bought an HP ScanJet 5370C, and it's been wonderful so far. I haven't had a flatbed scanner since my old one broke the middle of last year, and I've been wedged waiting for something to appear that might conceivably enable me to scan the old 120-format slides my father took in huge numbers with his Graflex between 1954 and 1968. The 5370 comes with something very useful: A backlight attachment that can be placed on the glass over a positioning template when you need to scan anything transparent.

Installation was trivial and well-documented: I installed the software that came on CD, plugged it in via the included USB cable, and the system (running Windows 2000 professional) recognized the scanner instantly and went to work. I tested it on a number of things, both conventional photos and also some ancient negatives as well as those 120-format slides. It handled everything beautifully. One of the slides is shown at left, uncropped and un-fooled-with in any other way. (I'm in that picture somewhere, along with most of my Chicago-based cousins, one of whom was and remains a nun.) The brown spot at the bottom is a scorch on the emulsion; not sure from what. The resolution is tremendous, and the color reproduction seems near perfect. There was some trouble getting the slide arranged square on the glass, but I could solve that by cutting a template out of cardboard or thin plastic. One such template is provided to align 35mm slides and another for 35mm negatives. Both work very well.

I was most pleased with its ability to turn a b/w negative into a nice print. I have a box full of old negatives that as best I know have not been printed, and some of them are very nice. The one shown here is of the house my parents bought immediately after their wedding in 1949, and in which I lived until I left home at age 23. It was a view camera negative, 3" X 5", and I don't know who took it, but it's a very rare photo of both my parents as young marrieds. Many other such odd-sized negatives remain in the box, including a lot of photos of old steam locomotives. (My father was a major steam fan, though I never knew he had a view camera.) The conversion from negative scan to positive image is nearly instantaneous and needed no tweaking in any way. Overall I'm extremely impressed with the included software, and have not yet explored it fully. There's a FAX package and an image organizer, neither of which I've tried, though the organizer is something I need very badly, even more so once all those slides start becoming files on disk.

If you don't have a USB-capable machine, not to sweat: It also has a parallel interface and comes with a parallel cable. It's nice to see hardware that "just works." This one does. So far, highly recommended.
June 23, 2001:

Dreams fascinate me, and as a general follower of Jung I feel that they represent the irruption into our minds of archetypes from the collective unconscious that are somehow related to our daily experience. Problem is, the archetypes I experience are strange indeed, and aren't listed in the multitude of dream books you can find in the new Age Section down at Borders. I wonder sometimes, whether these books are pious frauds with no connection to what people experience in dreams, or whether my dreams are just peculiarly freaky. A typical dream book, for example, suggests that dreaming about snakes suggests something—not that any two books agree on just what. My problem is that my dreams are nowhere near that simple. I sometimes wish that I could just dream about snakes. Or just about horses. Or just about water. No luck.

An example from last night, and this is fairly typical, at least in terms of its bizarreness: I dreamed that a woman named Gail whom I worked with sixteen years ago brought me her shoe and told me it was broken. It was a bizarre shoe to begin with; kind of like a black Sixties spike-heel pump only with about ten spike heels rather than one. I thought it looked a little like a meat tenderizer. (My dream book has no listing for dreaming about meat tenderizers nor things that resemble them.) And although she didn't explain in what way it was broken, I seemed to know, because I unscrewed the bottom and looked inside. (Don't ask me to explain what that means. My dreams present an extraordinarily rubbery reality.) And inside I found the problem: clots of dried-out pasta stuck to the bottom. (My dream book has no listing for dreaming about pasta, either dried or cooked.) I tried to explain this to her, but was stopped cold by my inability to remember the names for the types of pasta I had found. I thought that the twisty-looking pasta might be gnocchi—or was it rotini? I drove myself nuts in the dream trying to figure out what types of pasta were stuck inside the shoe, to absolutely no avail. And I was raging against this peculiar inner ignorance when I woke up, furious.

Needless to say, my dream book has no listing for dreaming about being unable to remember what different types of pasta are called, whether they are stuck inside bizarre shoes or not. So what the hell good are all those dream books? I should write something called The Real Dream Book, which explains the meaning hidden in the things that people really dream about...this being a good example. (Surely you've had this same dream, no?) I'd be rich in an instant.
June 22, 2001:
This is nuts. Here we have the best opposition of Mars since 1988, and here I am in Arizona, where it's clear almost all the time, and the last several nights have been...cloudy. Or lousy with monsoon lightning storms. Mars is very close to the winter solstice, meaning it's very low in the south, and has been down in the clouds every night since we got home from our last trip. I spent a great deal of time and effort getting the big scope refurbed and functional for this opposition, (see my entry for December 30, 2000) and if the weather pattern doesn't break soon, I won't see it at all. This is not a normal pattern for Phoenix in June. We generally get monsoons in mid-July through the end of August or mid-September, and at those times there are generally storm clouds zipping around, especially in early evening when the sun is gone and the air begins to cool off and precipitate. This year the monsoons came just in time to scrag the opposition of Mars. It is to chew scrap iron.
June 21, 2001:

Not having children, Carol and I have ducked the great paradox of teaching kids about sex: How to make it sound positive and good without them immediately wanting to go off and do it. Most of the Boomers grew up with seriously mixed messages about sex. Some of us were taught it was good, some of us were taught it was extremely problematic, and most of us (me included) were taught nothing at all—with only parental example to guide us. (And that was a tremendously mixed bag.)

Preaching about sex isn't quite the same thing as preaching about alchohol and tobacco. When handled correctly, sex is a compulsion toward wholeness, and wholeness is something we need terribly in today's world. And although I always get in trouble when I say so, I'm not sure we can insist that people be virgins until they've already made a lifetime committment to one another. A counselor I spoke to not long ago indicated that the vast majority of marital problems she has seen in her career involve sex at the bottom of it—usually a woman who loses interest early in her marriage, or who couldn't get interested after the delicious buzz of infatuation fades away. People plainly shouldn't get married immediately after meeting—with Carol and me it was seven years!—but can we expect people to court for years without testing the waters of sexual compatibility along with everything else?

Obviously, most do. And many of those are very young. They are not attempting sex because they were told to or told not to. They are attempting sex because they can, and because the dark cloud of sin has been removed from the subject. This being the case, what can we tell them to allow them to keep the value in the experience while coming to know whether a potential partner sees sex in a compatible way? Until we solve this problem, counselors will have lots of business, and the misery index of modern life will remain pegged at the high end.
June 20, 2001:

Free Web culture has suffered numerous setbacks in recent weeks. Suck, which has been with us for at least six years, is now into what may well be permanent reruns. (Currently posted stories originally appeared in 1997.) Similarly venerable Feed is "on ice" and frozen at June 1, 2001. And Salon is in terrible fiscal shape, according to a recent newspaper article in (I think) USA Today. (I read it in an airport. Should have taken it with me.) Salon may have brought trouble on itself; the left-of-center e-mag reportedly pays its staffers in the "high five or low six figures." Maybe that's what you need to do when you're based in San Francisco, where everybody with more style than sense seems to want to live. But if you're pushing an e-magazine, why be in San Francisco? Surely there are other places with good writers—Rochester, New York comes to mind, where you can still find decent houses for under $100,000. I lived there for six years, and the place was crawling with writers! For that matter, why do writers have to live anywhere in particular at all? This is an e-mag, people! Virtual community! Place doesn't matter!

Unless, of course, you're running a hip e-magazine. Then it's apparently San Francsico or nothing. Salon is rapidly opting for nothing, and I confess that when it goes I will miss it.
June 19, 2001:
Another very minor note on the flight back from Denver yesterday. Next to us was sitting a young woman (college age or close to it) and when she kicked off her sandals and crossed her legs, I noticed that her toenails were decorated in elaborate patterns with…rhinestones! Must be hell on pantyhose..but more to the point, isn't that a lot of trouble to go through for something that almost can't be seen (and certainly not appreciated) until you're wedged into an airline seat and practically sitting in the lap of total strangers? Or is this simply one more proof that I'm getting old and stodgy?
June 18, 2001:
Flew home today from Denver (that's why nothing's been posted here for about ten days), and I confess I'm not radically pleased with United Airlines. I bought the tickets five weeks ago, and when Carol and I get to the airport almost 90 minutes prior to flight time, they tell us they can't give us seats together. Five weeks! What, then, does it take? After I ranted a little they moved us so that we could be together, but it still rankles. Could that many people have gotten to the airport ahead of us? Or is something going on here that I just don't understand?
June 15, 2001:

We were sitting around this evening having supper with some Old Catholic priests and bishops, and some question came up that could only be answered by looking up chapter and verse in the New Testament. So one of the priests hauls out his Palm Pilot and begins frantically tip-tapping in a search query. While he was tapping away with his stylus, an older clergyman dipped into his pocket and pulled out a very small printed edition of the New Testament, and in bare seconds zeroed in on the passage in question. Admittedly, it helps to know the material, but in truth there's something kind of lame about the stylus interface to PalmOS. One would think something the size of a cellphone could be raised to the lips and told, “Locate the passage discussing 'the peace that surpasseth all understanding.'” It seems we've been on the edge of victory in voice recognition for some time. We're still not there—nor even close.

It was, however, wild to see something like a Palm Pilot stuffed with three (three!) translations of the full Bible, plus the proceedings of the Concordat of Worms (don't even ask!) and scads of additional historical documents of a religious nature. It serves to remind us that text is compact. It's pictures and music that take up space.
June 13, 2001:
We're in Denver for a few days to attend Catholic Convergence 2001, a gathering of Old Catholic clergy and lay enthusiasts like me to share war stories and plan global domination. I rented a mid-size car, but Hertz ran out of them and told me I would have to take a Jeep Grand Cherokee instead. Now, I just traded in my 1996 Jeep after it couldn't stay out of the shop for more than a couple of weeks at a time, and it was interesting to drive the 2001 version of what was almost precisely the same model. The increased cheapness of the device was obvious. There is only one keyhole, on the driver's side. Rental car companies don't use crickets (those wireless key thingies so common these days) and I have been in the habit of opening the car door for Carol before I get in myself. Not having a cricket or a passenger door keyhole means I have to open my door first, hit the unlock button, and then run around and open the door for Carol. We bent the knee to practicality and she just gets in on her own—landing one more blow against what may still remain of chivalry. Yet another loss is the CD player. It was standard on the Grand Cherokee in 1996. Optional now. Same with powered seats. “Yank and pull” is now the rule. About all I liked about the Jeep I rented was its color: A deep and sparkly electric blue. Not real practical in the Phoenix area, but it was gorgeous in the perfect Denver weather we had. Best of all: After four days I could give it back to Hertz!
June 12, 2001:
Before the theater began rolling Evolution yesterday, an extremely peculiar item played, mixed in with the movie trailers and the increasingly present commercials. Without any real indication of what was up, we're treated to scenes of a thirty-ish woman stepping out about town with...a female manikin. She and her manikin girlfriend do lots of girl things together, even though the manikin (whose name, I believe, is Joyce) gets hit by a cab in one scene, losing an arm and a leg, and then gets its foot set on fire while the gleeful twosome is sitting by a bonfire at the beach. In the background a song is playing: “My Best Friend Is a Manikin.” The (real) woman's boyfriend or husband (not made clear) attempts to convince her that her girlfriend is a manikin, and the woman freaks out. It's all very strange and darkly disturbing, and it goes on for a couple of agonizing minutes before we realize that this is a commercial for a magazine. The magazine is called Lucky. It's about...shopping. It is apparently targeted at women so stupid they can't understand that they've been hauling a one-legged manikin around town as though it were her best girlfriend. Maybe it's supposed to be funny, and I'm just too old to appreciate the humor. But if I were a woman, I would be most insulted. I'm not sure if I have any women readers, but if I do and if any of you have seen this work of idiocy, please let me know what you think.
June 11, 2001:

Saw Evolution. Well, answer me this: Is it a parody of a shlocky Fifties monster movie, or is it actually a schlocky Fifties monster movie? I still can't decide. It's funny in parts, though not as funny as it ought to be. It has all the gross-outs and scatological humor that you'd want to toss in to attract hordes of 12-year-old boys, but what was missing was simple cleverness in scripting. It has a handful of good jokes, but loads of sites for potential jokes, none of which were seized upon.

What Evolution does have is very nice special effects; what we (as 12-year-old boys in 1964) would have described as "good monsters." There is the obligatory schlock science (10 base pairs in their DNA rather than our 4—but does that guarantee faster evolution? I don't think so…) and the obligatory scientific epiphany toward the end that leads to the aliens' demise. Selenium! Of course! Selenium kills them! What happens next is one of the few really truly hilarious things in the whole shebang, and it's far from clear that what is delivered was worth the $8.50 a head Carol and I paid to see it. Good monsters. Bad writing. No breasts. Joe-Bob says: Your call.
June 9, 2001:
Here's a brilliant challenge to the biogenic theory of "fossil fuels" generation posed by Thomas Gold in his book The Deep Hot Biosphere: We know that methane is seeping out of the ground above untapped natural gas fields. We can measure it—methane can be detected with great accuracy, at concentrations of only a few parts per million. So we can calculate that a given natural gas field loses a certain number of cubic feet of gas per year. We also understand very thoroughly the decay processes that yield methane gas from decaying vegetation. We know, in other words, how many tons of vegetation it takes to make how many cubic feet of methane. We know through various means how long ago the vegetation now decaying into methane gas was laid down—and it wasn't yesterday. If the rate of seepage is fairly constant (and it seems to be) we can extrapolate backwards through time to when the ancient swamps were finally buried, and y'know what? All the gas should be long gone by now, unless that layer of decaying weeds was miles thick—and it wasn't. The ancient Earth was fecund, but not that fecund. So where's the gas coming from? Read the book—it's a marvelous concept, and very hard to argue with.
June 8, 2001:
I dislike big cities for a number of reasons, and my current visit to Chicago has made yet another one clear. In most city neighborhoods you now need resident stickers to park on the streets—and there are no other places to park. I had a spare hour today and I wanted to walk around in the neighborhood where my father was born and grew up—on a little street called Olive Avenue on the north side, near Clark Street—but there was nowhere I could legally park. The streets were for the most part empty, a car here and car there, but all the space was reserved for residents. I said screw it and left, with a feeling of abundant disgust. What if I lived there and wanted friends to come visit? What ever happened to the concept of "public spaces?" Big cities suck. Let me out of here!
June 7, 2001:

Have just finished Thomas Gold's book The Deep Hot Biosphere. Whoa! This was a surprise, and one of the most skull-rearranging books I've poured into my head in a good long while. Definitely get it and read it if you care about energy, or if you're a contrarian…or both. Gold is not a nut—he's a Princeton physicist and well respected in nearly all scientific circles. In his book, however, he makes a case against something that has long been considered unchallengeable scientific dogma: That fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) are without exception the products of decaying animal and vegetable material.

Gold has another theory: That with only a few exceptions, hydrocarbon fuels are the result of primordial carbon, present since the formation of the Earth, migrating from the deep crust and mantle to the Earth's surface. The material starts its journey as methane, and gradually loses hydrogen as it approaches the surface, so that the ultimate mix just underground is coal (little or no hydrogen) petroleum (more hydrogen) and methane (even more hydrogen.) Where does the hydrogen go? Primitive bacteria "eat" it as their way of metabolizing food. Eat methane, shit propane; eat propane, shit heptane, until eventually what is left is nearly all carbon, and you have coal.

That's where the book's title comes from, and Gold presents a good deal of evidence to support his theory, as well as the pretty astonishing fact that he and a team of Swedish researchers drilled 5 klicks down into granite in Sweden and pumped up 84 barrels of crude oil. There is no way for such quantities of biologically generated hydrocarbons to be present in granite 5 klicks underground. He considers the theory proven, and is battling the understandable resistance from scientists generally over his position—but you should read the book and decide for yourself. If Gold is right (as I think he is) we're really not going to run out of fossil fuels anytime soon. We still have the problem of CO2 emissions, but that's a separate issue. I may have more to say about this book in upcoming days as I meditate on its implications. Also, I have another book on the stack that discusses at length the sorts of bacteria that can live at 150 degrees C five klicks down and eat methane as though it were ambrosia. The book is called Rare Earth. Looks like another winner. Stay tuned.
June 6, 2001:

The real problem with standardized testing in schools, and one that gets little or no press, is that some kids just don't test well. Both Carol and I were acquainted with people in college who knew the material well but always panicked at test-time and did much worse in terms of grades than their actual skills should have merited. Some people perform well under pressure than others, and we have to ask ourselves what the tests are supposed to be testing for: Cognitive skills, or competition under pressure?

Carol's sister Kathy is a kindergarten teacher, and she spends a great deal of time evaluating where her kids are on their development path, one-on-one, with a sort of patience and tenderness that sets competition and pressure aside and tries to see inside the child. I'm not sure how well this would work with high schoolers, but I keep thinking that the sort of high-stakes test ordeals we put our adolescents through don't do justice to either the schools or the kids.

Which isn't to let the school systems off the hook. I'm still in favor of privatizing our public schools (through a system that charters schools under private ownership and funds them completely, while forbidding them to charge additional tuition) simply to get the destructive politics and government waste out of education. The current system is completely corrupt and unworkable, and persists only because the teachers' unions have thrown so much money into lobbying in their own defense. Schools must stand and fall on their own merits. The question remains: How to measure those merits?

We may simply have to choose to put more time and effort into one-on-one evaluations of educational achievement. Perhaps standardized testing shouldn't take eight hours, but two weeks—and if we have to run our schools through the summer, well, there are worse things than that.
June 5, 2001:

Carol and her mom and I trucked down to the Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge last night to see Bridget Jones' Diary. The Pickwick is a fallen giant of cinema, a Roaring Twenties deco masterpiece that was once and for many years the largest single movie theater in Chicago's suburbs. We didn't appreciate its beauty as kids, for all the multitude of times we were there, to see such kid classics as the Three Stooges in Have Rocket, Will Travel, and cornball monster movies like The Alligator People. There was a deco plaster nude standing guard in front of the door to the men's room in the basement that engendered much giggling and was the first sight of naked breasts that most of us Catholic kids ever had. The balcony was virtually always marked "Closed" and that says something about the state of the movie business, even in 1964.

Sometime in the 80's the Pickwick was carved up into four different theaters: Two tiny ones in the rear of the building, one large one that had once been the main floor auditorium, and another one above the main floor that was created by placing a new floor at about where the balcony had once ended, incorporating the balcony and a new group of seats forward from the end of the balcony. The breathtaking height of the ceiling, which once vaulted to near-invisibility in the art deco appointments, is gone. I suppose that's better than having the Pickwick converted to an indoor boutique mall, but I miss its grandeur nonetheless.

As for Bridget Jones, well, about the best I can say is that it's a light entertainment that might well be considered a sophisticate's version of There's Something About Mary. Knuckleheaded British humor plays well here in the Colonies, and of course when such a film appears you can almost bet that Hugh Grant is there somewhere, and he is, playing the sleazy editor-in-chief of a small press that publishes books with titles like Kafka's Motorcycle. Bridget herself is a slightly overweight 32-year-old who "smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and dresses like her mother" and wonders why she doesn't have a boyfriend. The reason, of course, is that she prefers to sleep with idiots like the Hugh Grant character while rebuffing a handsome if dull barrister who takes a shine to her. The whole thing is less than it appears to be, and way too much of the humor centers around the incongruity of hearing the F-word bandied about with an upper-class British accent. There is no nudity whatsoever, and the sex is only discussed in retrospect. It all ends well, and there's just enough silliness to make me feel that I wasn't ripped off. And, of course, it was nice to be at the Pickwick again, for old time's sake if nothing else.
June 4, 2001:

The overall mood at BEA was down. People aren't buying books like they were last year, but then again, I don't think people are buying anything like they were buying it last year. I was particularly discouraged by how little SF was showcased. Tor had a table in the Holtzbrinck booth, but they were literally the only SF imprint I saw there. Most publishers said sales were down and returns were up.

I spoke with the owner of Gourd Music (see my entry for April 29, 2001) and he indicated that his business was dangerously down, shut out of widespread retail distribution by the nature of the record store business, which is mostly under the thumb of the major labels who push mass-market rock to the exclusion of all else. Gourd is a treasure, and I encourage you to buy their stuff, or we may lose them. William Coulter has a number of new CDs in their Celtic line, and I will order them as soon as I'm back home. His Shaker trilogy is now available as a 3-CD gift set called the Simple Gifts Collection, and for $29.95 is a steal, containing as it does some of the most brilliant acoustic arrangements I have ever heard. I've ordered their CDs direct many times and had no trouble.

On the upside, I met some people from Jossey-Bass, a publisher of business, ethics, and religion titles, and they showed some interest in my book on Old Catholicism. I'll be in touch with them after I get back to Scottsdale, and will report my progress here.
June 3, 2001:

Here for BEA I'm staying at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, on East Water Street, overlooking the pristine (NOT!) Chicago River. I don't recommend this hotel for a peculiar reason, one that seems thoroughly out of sync with its $205/night cost: The heat/air conditioning only works when the room deadbolt is thrown—that is, when you're in the room.

This is not good. When I got here, the room was stifling. The window opens slightly, but there are no screens, and given the recent wet weather here I don't want to be swatting those famous Chicago mosquitos all night long. So I had to wait until I got back from a dinner event to start cooling the room off. The heat pump isn't especially potent, and it took until 3 ayem to get it acceptably cool in here. And sheesh, it's not even summer yet.

I can understand the hotel's logic: For reasons unclear (everybody here blames everybody else) energy prices are quite high in Chicago. They even tack a $2.50 per day "energy assessment" onto your room charge—and then make it impossible to use the energy to make the room comfortable except when you're in the room, sweltering.

This is a tactic I would accept in a Motel 6. At the Sheraton, no. There is a little microswitch in the deadbolt striker plate that the deadbolt depresses to enable the heat pump. I could make a little block in the garage in an hour to hold the switch closed while the room cools down and I'm elsewhere. If I ever have to stay here again (the company chose the hotel; I didn't) I will make such a block, and use it. For $205 a night, I deserve to sleep cool.
June 2, 2001:

One thing I've been monitoring at BEA/ABA shows for some years is the evolution of digital publishing and e-books. There was an explosion of new technology in this area in the last couple of years. Consolidation is beginning. The pugnacious Glassbook Reader (see my entry for March 10) is now an Adobe product (the cleverly named Adobe Reader), and some minor players are gone. The emphasis is now on software rather than dedicated e-book readers like Rocket e-Book and Softbook. Microsoft's Reader product was pretty lame when it was introduced, but they're relentlessly working on it, and are now integrating it with their e-commerce products. I was impressed—it's come much farther than Glassbook in less time.

But one interesting new hardware device turned up this year: Franklin's eBookman, which uses a proprietary OS rather than the ubiquitous PalmOS or Windows CE.. It's a very slick PDA with a much larger display than Palm-based devices, as well as 16-level graphics. (Palm devices use 2-level displays, in that a pixel is either on or off.) Best of all, Franklin has recognized that no one will buy a dedicated e-book reader that does nothing but read e-books. So eBookman performs all expected PDA functions as well—and will play MP3s through an earphone as a bonus. (It has a Flash memory slot into which you can plug up to 128 MB, which gives you some room for music files if you want them.)

I was most impressed. The larger display and grayscale graphics made it much easier on the eyes than my poor Visor, on which I am typing this entry. It has some unique touches, like a little thumb knob on the right edge that acts as a sort of jogger shuttle control to page up and down an e-book or address book page. It has a unique means of software installation, too: You connect it to a serial or USB port and log into a Web site with your PC browser. The Web site squirts software into the device—including the operating system. Thereafter, you can log in periodically, and Franklin will pipe software updates right down into your eBookman, including updates to the OS itself. (PalmOS is stored in ROM and cannot be updated. Franklin's OS is stored in Flash memory.) All in all, a very impresssive gadget, given an SRP of only $229.
June 1, 2001:

At Book Expo America for the next few days. This is the big US trade show for the book publishing industry. In years past it was called the American Booksellers Association show (ABA) until the ABA (an organization of mostly small, independent bookstores) sold the show to a trade show promoter and ceased its longstanding sponsorship.

I've been attending the show pretty regularly since 1989, and it's been intriguing to watch its gradual decline, which tracks the decline of the independent bookstore pretty closely. The ABA show used to be the place where small bookstores would establish relationships with publishers. Publishers now establish relationships with the relatively few large book retail chains as a precondition of doing business, and deal with independent booksellers mostly through distributors like Ingram Book Company. The need for shows like BEA is less and less urgent.

I've always been of two minds about this. The much-maligned big chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble have brought a richness to book retailing that never existed before. How could it? Small shops don't have the kind of capital to stock 50,000 titles under one roof. On the other hand, small shops know and love books in ways that the big chains can't equal, and I miss that a lot. I don't have any solutions, and BEA is a shadow of what the ABA show used to be. Publishers like Coriolis now go largely to cut foreign rights deals with overseas publishers—and to keep an eye on competitors. Publishing people use it as a way to network for jobs. Everybody uses it as an opportunity to schmooze and buy overpriced ice cream on their expense accounts. I often wonder where it's all going, but the direction doesn't look like up to me.