June 30, 2003:

Special-purpose Linux distributions on bootable CDs (which don't require space on or write anything to hard disk) have been with us for some time. My favorite is the Sputnik Community Gateway (now withdrawn from distribution, alas) a Linux-based captive portal for Wi-Fi hotspots. The other day I tried another: Knoppix, a bootable CD that apparently exists specifically as a demonstration for the KDE-based Linux Desktop. Plug a Knoppix CD into a bootable CD-ROM drive, boot the box, and it comes up into Linux/KDE. If you've wondered how good the Linux desktop has become in recent months (or years: see my May 15, 2003 entry) this is your chance to take a look without repartitioning your hard drive or installing anything at all.

To try Knoppix, you have to either send away for a CD, or download a 733 MB ISO CD image and burn your own. If you have broadband you can get the image in a couple of hours; my copy came down at 100 KBPS while lurking in the taskbar. During the boot process, it autodetects your major peripherals (graphics card, sound card, mouse, keyboard, and network adapter) and plunks you down in front of a drop-dead beautiful desktop, ready to explore.

Knoppix worked (almost) flawlessly for me. It failed to detect my printer, but it doesn't promise to and I would be astonished if it did, as it does not attempt to read configuration data from your Windows install. It creates a RAM disk as its "hard drive" and establishes an Internet connection if you have an always-on account. I was able to surf the net immediately using the Mozilla browser without any configuration. Konqueror worked too, but its font rendering is miserable by comparison. Knoppix can read data files from your Windows hard drive and load them into Linux apps. I played MP3s, displayed digital camera photos, and loaded text and spreadsheet files into Open Office. (Files are brought in from Windows disk as read-only and cannot be modified.) Although PowerPoint slide shows loaded, the corresponding KPresenter app couldn't bring in the graphics and didn't render certain characters, like apostrophes and quotes.

My only gripe with Knoppix specifically is the mouse pointer: When you move the mouse very slowly you get erratic movement of the pointer. This wasn't the case the last time I used KDE, so something somewhere along the way got itself broken, probably in autodetection of the device. I am still not entirely happy with Linux font support, though it's better, especially in Mozilla and the Acrobat Reader.

If you're curious about Linux, give it a try. Quibbles apart, I am impressed, and will be doing a real Linux install of Red Hat 9 shortly so I can try the Ximian Desktop 2. Stay tuned.
June 29, 2003:

Ok, back to this magic business. I'll concede to the several of you who wrote to say that it's unfair to judge Harry Potter by grown-up standards; it's a kid's book, after all. True enough; Tom Swift was my hero at age 11, and the books are by almost any standard ridiculous and badly written. That didn't keep them from touching a nerve in 1962. Keep in mind that I'm not condemning Harry; he just doesn't work for me, and I've spent a little thought over the past few days trying to understand why.

There are two ways to look at magic, just as there are two ways to look at physics. Some people think physics is boring because it's so predictable, and magic is wondrous because it's full of surprises. Other people (like me) think that physics is wondrous because it's predictable, and that unpredictable magic is indistiguishable from chaos, about which there isn't a great deal to say. If the universe stopped behaving in a predictable way, I would certainly be unhappy, but I also hold that even if told as a story, it would make for bad reading. Surprises must always proceed from comprehensible and consistent rules. There are many nonobvious (and wondrous) consequences to the physical laws: Rainbows, the aurora, the Doppler effect, superconductivity. They may be surprising, but they're hardly unpredictable.

As I said in my June 25, 2003 entry, my primary gripe about fantasy are those cases when I am not told and cannot discern the overall system of rules by which the story abides. I'm a lot more anal about this than most people, I'm sure, because I love physics, have studied it, and consider its systematic consistency mind-blowingly beautiful. One problem with my critique of Harry Potter's tales, which I admit to on thinking back, is that the magic is less the point of the story than the growth of Harry (and to a lesser extent his friends) as a well-developed character confronting a peculiar past and an unfamiliar talent—not to mention (in the latest book, which I have not yet read) the torments of adolescence. Brook Monroe points out that if the rules aren't explained in detail in the story, the magic moves out of the forefront and allows the characters to take center stage. My counter is that magic, as an idea, is extremely obtrusive, since it completely changes the underlying assumptions of what we the reader (not to mention the characters in the story) perceive as functional reality. In my view, any story that postulates magic is about magic, because the presence of magic changes everything. In the same way, any story that contains a time machine is de facto about time travel, because time travel changes everything we understand about the ways things can and cannot work.

Not being able to completely nail down the magical system underlying Harry Potter mostly ruined the story for me. I just couldn't read it, as Alana Foster suggests, as more a mystery than a magical fantasy. Magic is too big an elephant to hide under a blanket of any size.

Why am I so anal about this? Not sure. One possibility is that chaos terrifies me. (BTW, I'm not talking here about the "new chaos" a la Gleick; but rather the older concept of purely random unpredictability.) Monsters don't bother me; entering a reality (or a simulated reality) where nothing can be understood is probably my fundamental nightmare.
June 28, 2003:

Somebody oughta do a graduate thesis on images of God in popular cinema. (Too obvious...probably been done fifty times.) Carol and I saw Bruce Almighty yesterday, so throw another log on the fire.

It was great good fun. Jim Carrey is almost always fun, except when he tries not to be funny (as in The Majestic) in which case he mostly fails. Carol pointed out the correspondence between the plot of Bruce Almighty and Carrey's own career, and I simply have to wonder...

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a fortyish TV news reporter with a knack for making people laugh. He is therefore assigned all the "human interest" stories (like the little Polish bakery making the largest cookie ever baked in Buffalo) while his rival, a humorless and talentless tombstone of a guy, gets promoted to anchorman. Bruce throws a tantrum, gets fired, seriously upsets his girlfriend, gets beat up by hoods, and ends up yelling at God to do His job right and stop tormenting him. God, ably played by Morgan Freeman, pages Bruce and tells him that if he thinks he can do God's job better than God, well, hey—zap!—you're God!

The comic possibilities here are endless, and for some time the film just rolls along giggling, with Bruce performing magic tricks like dividing his tomato soup in a diner as though it were the Red Sea. At some point, Bruce has to get serious about the God-job, which involves answering prayers, which he does by saying Yes! (via a sort of supernatural email on Yahweh.com) to everyone who prays in Buffalo, with all the chaotic consequences you might imagine. After that it gets pretty predictable and a lot less fun. The problem is that Bruce, while a little bratty and mildly self-centered, really isn't all that bad a guy, and thus his inevitable redemption isn't much of a feat. (For redemption of a truly slimy character, you can't beat Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.) Bruce learns to be what he is (funny, not anchorman material) and he learns that whiners like him should stop whining to God and fix their own lives.

While the film gets you all misty eyed at the end (at least me, Mr. Sentimental) I confess (eek!) that I had hoped for a little more. There's nothing about how God gets away with not answering worthy prayers, nothing about that bad old bogeyman Theodicy. (See my entry for June 14, 2003.) Maybe that's too much to ask of a frothy comedy full of fart jokes and dog-peeing-on-the-stereo jokes. The movie's message tagline, "Be the miracle!" is good advice, of course—too many people wait for supernatural answers to thoroughly earthly problems. And that's pretty much as far as it goes.

Once again, this is just me; don't let my (mild) discontent turn you off to what is in fact a decent evening's entertainment. Jim Carrey is one of the funniest men in cinema, and I wish he would just do what he does best, else we may see him simply vanish, like Woody Allen, only to turn up years later trying to be funny after he's long since forgotten how.
June 27, 2003:

Meetup works! Last night, five members of the Colorado Springs Delphi contingent managed to coalesce in downtown Colorado Springs, thanks to the machinery at Delphi Meetup. It was the first time the Delphi meetup membership here locally got big enough for Meetup to declare critical mass and coordinate the meeting.

Meetup works like this: You establish your location (for me, Colorado Springs) and join a topic (which are legion) like Delphi, Wi-Fi, Paganism, or fans of Insane Clown Posse. Three weeks before the scheduled meetup for that topic, people who have joined a topic in a particular city vote on a meeting location. The location comes from a short list of restaurants or coffee shops (or other places of various kinds, including bars and bowling alleys) that have agreed to be Meetup hosts. Two weeks or so before the meetup, the voting closes, the location is chosen, and people are asked to confirm that they'll be there. (All of this is done via email.) If enough people both vote and confirm, Meetup confirms the meeting. If not enough people vote and confirm, Meetup cancels the meeting until the following month. The critical mass is five people, which seems high to me; I think three or certainly four would be plenty. The Wi-Fi topic for the Springs only has three people registered, so Meetup won't schedule a meeting. For several other topics of interest to me (Catholicism, for example) there's no one here in the Springs at all, so I didn't join. A few topics I might have been interested in (Bichons, for example) don't even exist yet. The system is relatively new, and it's one of those things that will probably grow over time as people spread the word—like I'm doing right now.

As for last night, we learned a few things. Most important: Coffee shops are better than popular restaurants like Jose Muldoon's, which was deafening inside and couldn't give us a table for over an hour, which was OK because most of us didn't want to eat anyway. We waited for half an hour for a table, wanting to cover our ears, until somebody suggested going down Tejon two blocks to Pike's Perk, which—despite an insane street party featuring a motorcycle jump over eight cars right there on Tejon, a biker gathering, a rock band and crowds of rowdy college kids—was completely empty. We we got us some iced decaf lattes, sat on some nice leather chairs, and BSed about Delphi, the future of programming languages, the fate of Borland, and lord knows what else for several hours.

With any luck at all, the five of us—Ben Oram, Mark Moss, Michael Reith, Ed Williams, and myself—will be back next month (Meetup meetups happen monthly) and I encourage you to give the system a run. I learned a great deal about C# (which seems to be where most Delphi guys are going, sigh) and made some much-needed (for a new guy in town!) new friends. Can't beat that with a stick. Try it!
June 26, 2003:

Today's newspapers and Web aggregators are abuzz over the RIAA's announcement that they have begun gathering evidence for an avalanche of lawsuits against individual end-users who share song files using peer-to-peer file sharing systems like Gnutella and Kazaa. Everybody's acting surprised, but it's really the only thing they have left to do, given the direction of recent legal cases. Shutting down the network itself is difficult or impossible (especially when the network has no center and its creators are working out of a shell corporation in a hut on the beach in Tuvalu in the South Pacific) so that leaves only its end-users to attack.

Whether this will work or not is unknown, and many are watching. If it doesn't work, the music industry as we know it is doomed, though as many have opined, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I myself don't think file sharing is the total cause of the slump in music retailing (there's a helluva slump right now in book retailing and probably everything else in the retail world, after all) and to make music lively again we're going to have to rethink who owns how many radio stations, how music is distributed and discounted, and how labels treat or mistreat their bands. A huge amount of music publishing now skips retail stores entirely, not by choice but because they just can't get in. My sister Gretchen and her husband Bill own a small record company that publishes several new music CDs a year, and she is only one of dozens in the same genre, which is itself only one musical genre (and a pretty narrow one) among hundreds. Her discs have never been in Tower Records. I myself loathe rock music, and the music I buy (obscure folk, Celtic, Anglican hymns, and a capella Christian are a couple of my favored categories) isn't at Best Buy. There's more going on here than just Kazaa. (One of the artists who publishes with Gretchen has a song called "I Want My Music on Napster," which is a hilarious but honest yearning for the exposure that online piracy brings to music that the stores won't stock.)

On the other hand, if the labels do succeed in suing thousands of teenagers, there will be a chilling effect in Kazaa, and just as music jumped from Napster to Kazaa after Napster got RIAAed, I predict that music will next jump to Freenet. Ian Clarke didn't have pirated Metallica songs in mind when he created Freenet, but rather government censorship in paranoid places like China and Burma. Still, more people are interested in pirated Metallica songs than in freedom of expression in China, so it doesn't take a genius to predict that an encrypted and anonymous content distribution system that was designed to be uncontrollable (even by its creators) will soon be wagged by its musical tail. How difficult it will be to track the end users of Freenet is unknown to me (and my curiousity isn't sufficient to prompt me to try and analyze its source code) but it won't be a cakewalk, and nothing will propel development of an open source project like a hundred million new users, heh. Oh, may we live in interesting times, especially if we're in the context biz!
June 25, 2003:

Let's talk about Harry Potter and The Matrix Reloaded. (How's that for a twofer, Alana!) I just got back from seeing the new Matrix film, and my reaction was about what I expected it to be: Technically dazzling, but...haven't we seen this before? Like most sequels, The Matrix Reloaded was short on surprises; you can't violate what came before. There was more, more, more...of precisely the same stuff. More Neo, more Trinity, more Morpheus, and more (lots more!) Agent Smith. The Oracle was back, as was the whole gritty feel of both the subterranean real world and the Matrix itself.

We got a look at Zion, which was beautiful in a loopy, rusty, Expressionist kind of way, evoking lots of things, from Metropolis to Mad Max to the Old Testament. We met the creator of the Matrix, who was a cross between Mr. Jordan and Colonel Saunders and therefore (to me at least) unintentionally funny. We had a whole passel of new bad guys, including a pair of cool albino ghost hit men and the Merovingian (does anybody else get the allusion there?), who likes French because cursing in French is like wiping your ass with silk—which was easily the cleverest line in the whole movie, and probably the only deliberately funny one.

Not that the movie contained no humor. Alas, unintentional humor may well be what The Matrix Reloaded is remembered for in years to come. This is a hazard of films that take themselves a little too seriously, especially action/adventure kinds of films, which can't be taken especially seriously to begin with. (Indiana Jones understood that better than any other action series of our time.) Many people had oohed and aahed over the much-described scene in which Neo faces first one Agent Smith, then five or six, and before you know it several dozen of them at once, in a scrupulously choreographed bloodless martial arts ballet in which no one was getting hurt and nothing was getting accomplished, except that more and more Agent Smiths kept running flatfootedly onto the scene from all sides. Halfway through, I caught myself giggling. It wasn't thrilling. It was funny—and the end of the scene, well, leads us to the problem I have with the whole damned business:

What are the rules?

In all fiction, there must be a set of rules or assumptions by which the story abides. In "real world" fiction, this is easy: Everybody knows how the world works, and characters struggle against the world that we know all too well. Branch off into SF, and you have to explain how those rules have been extended in the new setting, be it a technological future or another planet. Go further afield into fantasy, and you can postulate any damned set of rules you like—except that you have to make those rules clear and stick by them.

The Matrix saga has a problem with this, and so does Harry Potter. In the original Matrix, the setting and its rules were set down and (mostly) followed. You jack into the Matrix, mess around, and then to get out again you have to find a phone somewhere to take a call from your operator. If you die in the Matrix, you die in real life. (Why this is so was never made entirely clear to me, and it reduced the effect of the film somewhat.) OK..so far so good. At the end of the original Matrix, Neo becomes transformed into The One, and now he has new powers. So...what are they? What are his limitations? What can hurt him? How much energy can he summon, and how can he use it? None of this is ever made clear. In one scene, the Merovingian's goons pump a few hundred automatic rounds at Neo, who holds up one hand and stops them all in their bullet-time tracks. Wow. Then he spends another twenty silly minutes chasing the goons around the room with oriental swords, running up and down walls and flying through the air like those guys in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One goon actually appears to draw blood on Neo with nothing more than an iron blade. What am I missing? I'm missing the rules. Cripes, what are the rules?

Harry has the same problem, albeit in a much gentler way. Harry Potter's magic leaves me almost entirely cold, because it's not a system. It's just, Need a rabbit? Here's a hat! There's no sense that Harry's magic is anything like an alternate system of physics, which is what really good magic is. (Recall Larry Niven's seminal The Magic Goes Away stories.) You can never get too worried about Harry and his friends, because you know there's always some kink in the magic that will save them. They're not struggling with their limitations. No, they have magic wands, and a spell can do almost anything.

Sorry, but that's boring. The Matrix Reloaded violated a number of its original rules without laying down new ones, and simply forgot a few of the earlier rules, like the one about the phone call retrieval mechanism. Instead, we get endless car chases and guys running up and down walls and squidlies burrowing through hundreds of miles of solid rock to attack Zion instead of just following Zion's ships back through the tunnels to the front gates. I didn't want to laugh, but I repeatedly found myself laughing, and I don't think that was the idea.

The "spirituality" of the Matrix has also been written about a lot, but that's a separate topic. And yes, I enjoyed the film, and will probably see it again, so in a very real sense, it succeeded. It was fun. It might have been even more fun had it not been so self-consciously precious. And sheesh, it would have been absolutely unbeatable if it had only established rules and stuck by them. That's what good stories are about: Struggle against limitations, within a comprehensible context. Absent that, well, the best you get is Neo dancing with a hundred Agent Smiths in a graffitti'd ghetto somewhere that's way less real than it could have been.
June 24, 2003:

Earlier this morning, Carol and I were running errands, and after collaborating on the week's grocery shopping, were in the process of parting company at the Kings Sooper checkout counter. While our groceries were gleeping their way over the scanner, we quickly took note of the time, divided responsibilities for the rest of the morning, and promised (with a quick kiss and an "I love you!") to reconvene at home for lunch. The teenage girl who was bagging took it all in, and after Carol had turned around and left the store, said to me with a certain awe in her voice: "You two are just so polite to each other! Are you married?"

Yup. For almost 27 years now. And I wondered, a little sadly, why she thought this so remarkable, or why it shouldn't be obvious that two people of middle years who were buying groceries together and were clearly in love on a total lifestyle basis (a fine 80's phrase!) had to be married. Maybe we looked infatuated with one another, and as everyone knows, you can't be infatuated and married at the same time—and certainly not for 27 years! Maybe her parents scream at each other constantly. Maybe she has yet to partake in a loving relationship of any kind, with parents, boyfriend, relatives, or even her female peers.

Or maybe politeness itself is an endangered species. (My money's riding on that one.) However it falls, it's sad—and if Carol and I are really as rare as all that, well, the world is in fact in more trouble than it seems.
June 23, 2003:

After letting the project lie fallow for over a year (while I wrote my Wi-Fi book and got us moved to Colorado) I finally finished the index of The New Reformation earlier today. (See my entry for April 11, 2002.) The book is basically finished, and now needs only a cover to be published. I have a natural talent for indexing, and it was fun to go through the whole 226-page layout again, proofing and indexing simultaneously. Editing always teaches me something, but indexing teaches me more, and better. I learned a lot about the history of the Old Catholic movement that I thought I knew but didn't—keeping in mind that I not only read the book before, but scanned it to disk and laid it out in InDesign—and after finishing the job, I kicked back in my chair and thought hard about why this should be so.

It's a species of magic in terms of how well it works, but why it works is no mystery. When you index a book, you must a) identify what terms and phrases found on a page are significant enough as topics to call out, and b) identify the cross-connections among topics. The magic lies in both, but the connections among things are really what make it all stick. You need to read closely to know whether a given citation of "Dr. von Döllinger" is useful or not. For example, if the current part of the book describes the Old Catholic Conference of Bonn, which von Döllinger was chairing, you're confronted with sentences like "Dr. von Döllinger called the afternoon session to order." That's generally not a useful citation, compared to a later speech the good doctor had given on the origins of the Filioque. But you have to read them both, weigh their importance relative to the context in which they fall, and then decide. Shazam! You're reading closely, and reading critically. You have to—or the index won't be useful.

Better still is thinking about how a prospective reader might wish to look up topics. There's the topic "Filioque," which comes up three or four times during the course of the book. Then there are the citations for the Filioque as they relate to other major characters and issues: Bishop Reinkens comments on a proposed resolution on dropping the Filoque from the Symbolon, so that goes under Reinkens. Metropolitan Janyschew of the Russian Orthodox Church explains to the conference why the Filioque must go, and that's a citation under Janyschew. You have to think about who's talking about the Filioque, and why—and then you must characterize the useful citations in just a handful of words.

In a sense, to build a good and useful index you must extract the structure and the essence of a book by keyword and key phrase, and to do that you almost can't avoid learning the subject matter broadly and deeply. I'm sure that you can fake it, and create a tolerable index on instinct and intuition alone, without fully digesting the underlying subject matter. However, to create a great index, you must master the subject. So the next time you feel that you need to really digest and retain what a book is saying, index it—even if it already has an index. The index, in that case, isn't the point. The point is to master the book. If there's a better way to do that than indexing, I haven't found it yet.
June 22, 2003:

Carol and I have been attending St. Raphael's Episcopal Church about five miles east of us, in Security, Colorado, and as is my leaning, I've been studying Episcopalianism. Although nominally Protestant, the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA) is not radically nor emphatically Protestant, at least in the ECUSA churches that we have attended. Beneath it all, I have serious problems with some of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion (particularly #17, on Calvinism) but it's clear that the church as a whole rests on broader foundations than that.

The part of ECUSA that impresses me most mightily, however, is their scheme of church governance. As in Roman Catholicism, they have anointed bishops, who supervise dioceses, but no pope. When a bishop dies, retires, or moves to a different diocese, a new bishop is elected by both the clergy and the laity of the diocese. A new bishop was just elected for the local diocese here in Colorado, and we heard all about the election. Great stuff—and the way, as best we know, that the Christian Church was originally governed. Doctrinal issues are decided in a triennial conference, something like a Vatican Council that happens on a regular schedule. This is a good idea, and by happening regularly dissipates some of the pressures that had built up in the Catholic universe since the Council of Trent (400 years' worth!) and caused some chaos in the wake of Vatican II in 1962.

It's not perfect—weirdnesses happen in ECUSA as they happen in most church jurisdictions, and some crucial transitions have been handled clumsily and caused church splits. When ECUSA voted to ordain women in the mid-70s, the conservative wing broke away as Continuing Anglicanism, which still thrives in some places, including Cave Creek, Arizona, near where we used to live. Similarly, there have been huge fights over the language in the Book of Common Prayer, which is the Episcopalian missal. I'm not sure what's to be done about that. When you have factions in a church that cannot agree, the factions must compromise or the church splits. Considering how much there is to argue about in religion (Have I ever told you about transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation? No? Good.) I'm amazed that the splits happen as rarely as they do.

Though on the whole I think I'd rather attend an Old Catholic community, there's something so familiar about St. Raphael's Episcopal Church that I think Carol I will just squint past some of the details (like Article 17) and consider ourselves to have come home.
June 21, 2003:

Street fair! Carol and I went downtown to Springs Spree this morning, and were delighted to see (as I had suspected) that street fairs are the same just about everywhere. Clowns, face painting, funnel cakes, live country music, arts and crafts for sale, and...buffalo meat. All that was missing were the hippie girls from Santa Cruz offering to sew energy crystals into the seams of my jeans, and I didn't even have to take them off.

We don't do energy crystals in the Springs, and that's probably a good thing. What Carol and I did discover at Springs Spree is buffalo bratwurst—big, fat third-pound sausages grilled while we watched—which we then ate while we sat on the curb on Tejon Street and watched Pike's Peak in the distance, still with a little late-June snow cover. (Above is the telephoto view from the curb, with Pike's Peak in the background and the buffalo meat truck in the lot across Tejon.) The brat was terrific—tasty and spicy and not dripping with fat.

Buffalo meat is big in Colorado. The ranches that raise them do their own butchering, the old way, and let them graze on the vegetation that they evolved to eat: grass, not corn, and (emphatically) not chicken feathers. They freeze the meat, and their delivery trucks make scheduled stops at towns up and down the Front Range Just call and reserve at least $40 worth of meat, and the truck will bring it to your door the next trip through.

Beef spooks us a little these days (see my entry for June 9, 2003) so it's nice to see that there's an alternative. Since there's no factory farming of buffalo, and thus no feeding them animal scraps, we're unlikely to see the emergence of any "mad buffalo" prion diseases. Buffalo is virtually all protein, and while that makes for relatively dry steaks, it makes for great chili, stews, and spaghetti sauce. (We eat steaks maybe three times a year anyway, so it's no great loss.) It's price-competitive with the kosher beef we've been buying recently, and keeps fat to a minimum. If you can find it somewhere, give it a try.
June 20, 2003:

Pertinent to my entry for June 17, 2003, Michael Covington writes to remind me that amateur astronomers virtually never report UFOs. UFOs are almost always seen by people who have rarely if ever looked at the stars.

Michael and I share that experience: Both of us have been astronomy freaks since childhood (me since 1956!) and neither of us has ever seen anything in the sky that was inexplicable. Wondrous, yes. When I was 15 and looking at the gibbous Moon through my heating-duct 8" junkbox Newtonian reflector, I gasped to see a full sheet of newsprint blown by the wind across the face of the Moon, very high in the air. It waltzed slowly and weirdly before my eyes, turning with the slow, stately chaos of the night air, before vanishing again into the night, and remains certainly the strangest thing I've ever seen in the sky.

Strange, but hardly inexplicable. I've seen lots of weird clouds, comets, bolides, satellites, eight of nine planets (I might have seen Pluto, but couldn't identify it among the hundreds of other 10th magnitude starlike points in the field of view) galaxies and star clusters and jets and high-altitude helium baloons. I saw what must have been the lights of a glider at night, moving silently in strange wide loops, and it might have thrown me except for the fact that, through binoculars, I could see its wings illuminated by the lights of Chicago below. The mystery here was how you can glide at night, not what planet it came from.

The profound weirdness of what they call "UFO churches" (which have a separate category in Gordon Melton's superb Encyclopedia of American Religions) suggests another possibility, one that Carl Jung himself suggested back in the '50s: that UFOs are paranormal phenomena, irruptions of the collective unconscious upon which we have imposed the archetype of a fearfully advanced technology from parts unknown. They're Marian apparitions for atheists; basically angels for the modern mind, but my intuition is that the fundamental mechanism is the same. I have too much else to do to study UFOs any further, but I do think that we need to take the idea of the paranormal itself a lot more seriously. We don't have to sell our souls to it, but until people whose souls are not for sale agree in cool rationality to study the paranormal, only the whackos will be out there seeing angels, Mary, and starships from the planet Atrin. (Note well that most people who call themselves "skeptics" have already sold their souls to their own preconceived convictions. Where is the middle ground?)
June 19, 2003:

One of the delights of moving to a new place is discovering all the weird local products that you can get in the immediate surrounds but not anywhere else. This includes small chains of restaurants (like Conway's Red Top) local supermarket chains (like King's Soopers) and all kinds of retail products. So far, my favorite is Road Kill Red, a table wine produced by a local Colorado winery that is so small they don't even have a Web site. The label is a hoot (depicting a flattened—and befuddled—gopher on a mountain road) and I had rather hoped I could get a picture here. As labels no longer come off of wine bottles by soaking, as I've mentioned here before, I can't even scan it.

The wine takes me back to my youth in the 70s, when wine was for enjoying rather than making pretentious noises over. It's moderately sweet, though I'm sure the wine nazis would say it's sickeningly so. (Anything not sufficiently dry as to turn your mouth inside-out is "sickeningly sweet" to the wine nazis.) I have learned to like dry wine, but I have never lost my taste for off-dry or even sweet wines, and not just when they're oh-so-precious ports.

As for Road Kill Red, it goes down easy, doesn't care what you eat with it (Fish? Sure! Beef? No problem!) and didn't give me a hangover, unlike certain much-praised (by the wine nazis) cabernet sauvignons I've had the displeasure to meet in past years. (I'm sure they'd say that the hangover was part of the "experience.") Best of all, success will surely not ruin it, as I doubt it's sold anywhere but Front Range liquor stores—and without a Web site, probably won't ever be. Try some next time you're in Colorado.
June 18, 2003:

This one has spread like wildfire (I got at least ten notes on it since it broke a couple of days ago) so you have probably already heard: The senior senator from Utah wants to legalize what most people would call cyberterrorism; in this case, by allowing Hollywood (or any copyright owner) to wipe your hard drive clean on their own authority and by their own decision. No search warrant, no relying on police, nothing.

I have always considered Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) pretty marginal, and now he's clearly crossed over into crackpot territory. Last year he suggested permitting Hollywood to preemptively disrupt "suspicious" file transfers, which runs up against several current laws (and in my view, more than one constitutional protection) and now he's just saying, "Wipe 'em all—let God sort 'em out."

Interestingly, some reports have surfaced that the good senator himself hasn't been entirely clean in the copyrights department. A great deal seems to depend on whether it's your (or your corporate masters') ox being gored. You should be surprised? This is politics, heh. If I were the Democrats, I would make wonderful use of this little tantrum to embarrass the Republican Party, and win away some of the tech-savvy young, who are increasingly voting Republican these days. There's very little the Republicans can do to oust the idiot and are pretty much stuck with him. We can only hope they'll do whatever they can to quash this idea before it goes any further.

Stuff like this raises the technical question of how such an attack might be mounted, and what might be done to prevent it from working. "Destroying" in this case can't mean physical damage (the only time I've ever known software to be able to destroy hardware was due to a glitch in the monochrome display of the original IBM PC back 20 years ago) but rather disrupting an OS installation. My studies indicate that it's tough to do this to a Linux install unless you're running as root; on Windows, well, it's way easier. I've seen a process running under NT and 2000 that can't be terminated and won't let you do certain things (like run a debugger!) so technology does exist for preventing disk formats absent some explicit permission, perhaps from a USB dongle containing an encrypted "format permission" key. Of course, it would be easier for them to just recurse the directory and nuke every mp3 file they find. Storing mp3s on a separate drive with write permissions disabled would be a good idea—as is keeping an automated backup of your files on a remote server, perhaps the intriguing and reasonably affordable wireless Martian.

Being angry about this is kind of dumb, unless you require anger to stir you to action. Don't get angry. Take action. If you do, I'd be interested in hearing what sort of action you decide to take.
June 17, 2003:

I'm reading an excellent book, Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb, and it is by far the best analysis of the Fermi Paradox (or Fermi Question, as I prefer to call it—it's not really a paradox) that I've ever seen. The Fermi Question can be cooked down to: If the universe is crawling with aliens, why haven't we seen (or heard) them?

I've thought about this a lot, and have an article online that summarizes my thoughts, though it's getting kind of old and I should update it. Most of what I said there still stands, though I could add some refinements from meditations I have done since 1996. (I'll review the book in full here as soon as I finish it and time permits.)

One of those refinements is the reflection that we have only had high technology (of a sort that would enable space travel of any kind) since the Earth was already horribly overcrowded. Crowding probably engenders wanderlust; it may, in fact, be an evolutionary mechanism. When the village gets too big, we get crawly, so we move on and start a new village.

OK. So what would happen if in, say, another thousand years, we had developed almost godlike technology...and reduced our numbers to fifty million (or fewer) worldwide? If our "villages" were small and comfortable, and everybody had enough space, a reliable living, interesting things to do, and no material shortages, well, would we still be inclined to go to the (massive) effort of leaving the solar system?

Birthrates are plunging worldwide, and we're chewing relentlessly on the problem of nanotechnology, which may eventually give us the sort of "anything machine" I postulated in my recent SF novelette,"Drumlin Boiler." The current birthrate falloff is (mostly) voluntary, but as I've mentioned elsewhere, I still fear "sterility plagues" and other forms of demographic warfare that aim to reduce specific populations. Once the global elite no longer need peasants to do the world's heavy lifting, my guess is that the peasants will suddenly become incapable of reproducing. That could create a sort of earthly paradise for the global elite, who may be having so much fun painting and climbing mountains and having sex that space travel becomes a nonstarter.

Of course, the biggest objection to any such solution to the Fermi Question is the assumption that psychologies are similar across alien species. Our biology drives much of our psychology; postulate radically different biologies and you almost can't help but get radically different psychologies. My own view remains the one that the UFO crowd hates: That we are a cosmically unlikely fluke and are entirely alone as technological creatures. Is that depressing? Not to me. I would like diversity far more if my reading of history didn't paint "diversity" almost entirely in (blood) red ink. Given that any species with sufficiently advanced technology to come see us would be free to consider us hors d'oerves, and there'd be nothing we could do about it, well, I think I'd rather be alone.
June 16, 2003:

Nantero has successfully created a 10 gigabit (1.25 gigabyte) solid-state memory unit incorporating carbon nanotubes as the persistent memory element. The news release is here. The nanotubes are balanced on ridges etched onto a silicon substrate, and are physically moved from one position to another by the application of electric fields. The tubes are so small (each is composed of about 1000 atoms) that they move very quickly with little use of power.

Interesting to me (though details are thin in the news release) is the fact that there is a great deal of redundancy on the device, because the tubes are small enough to use several to redundantly encode a single bit while still providing a bit density far beyond conventional etched silicon memory.

The memory is nonvolatile, which means that with a small handful of devices, a manufacturer could create the equivalent of a midrange hard drive, only smaller and using much less power. As I've said elsewhere, compact, high-volume storage is a subversive technology. What will happen when a terabyte-class storage unit becomes available for $200? What happens when you can fit that unit in your pocket? What happens when our networking technologies accelerate to the point where terabyte storage meets terabit networking? For one thing, the border between your machine and the Web gets a lot fuzzier; your machine will just spend most of its days caching the Web sites you visit on a regular basis, and new Web sites that "smell like" the ones you use the most. For another, well, I'll leave speculation to the mp3 trading gang, but high-density storage is no friend of Hollywood. I'll report others as I think of them, but boy, this is worth meditating on.

I also need to scan and post my 1980 SF story, "Ariel," which depends on superhigh density storage on this scale.
June 15, 2003:
Michael Erskine pioneered the technique of using a simple, line-locus paraboloid made of hardware cloth to focus signal onto a Wi-Fi client adapter. I hadn't been over to Michael's site for some time, and he's a got a lot of cool new ideas, including giving each of the two antennas on a wireless access point its own reflector. Definitely take a look.
June 14, 2003:

You probably thought I was done with the God-thing, right? (See my entries for May 25-27, 2003.) Not quite. We have the Great Big Ugly to confront yet: The problem of evil and suffering. More than one person has put the challenge to me: How can you believe in a God who allows suffering, especially the suffering of children? Sometimes it's put a little more positively: If God is truly all-powerful, why didn't He simply create the world perfect, without evil and suffering? Still, it cooks down to the same thing, and it's driven far better men than I to distraction. The problem even has a name: theodicy.

I have an answer that works for me. I don't claim it'll work for everybody, especially since it's not completely rational, and for that reason, a lot of people will say that it's not really an answer. However, as I explained earlier, my reasons for believing in God are not entirely rational—and, if you recall, this is not about you anyway. It's about me.

My answer can be (imperfectly) cooked down to the following sentence: Something Big Is Going On Here. At the tips of my clumsily intuitive fingers, I can sense the operation of a process. "Big" doesn't do it justice. It is incomparably, indescribably immense, not only in physical size and complexity, but also in subtlety. The process began with creation out of chaos, and it will end with infinite wholeness. The process involves but is not limited by time, and I suspect that there are a few more dimensions involved than the three we live in. I sensed this process before I read Teilhard de Chardin, but I think it's what he was reaching for as well: Creation not as something accomplished in a couple of God-days and then set aside, but creation as an ongoing process that won't be complete until everything that participates in this creation has reached the pinnacle of its potential as an idea. Everything and everybody goes the Army route and becomes the best that it can be. You and I are part of this process, along with every stone, stool, and star.

This great creation process is not yet finished. So asking, Why didn't God just create the universe perfect to begin with? is silly. God is doing precisely that. He's just not done yet. (Time may exist as God's gift to us, to allow us to watch the show!)

Pain and suffering, as I've mused elsewhere, are consequences of freedom, and freedom is necessary if all the elements of creation are to find their final places in that total, ultimately perfected Creation. That God should allow the innocent to suffer in this process strikes us as abhorrent, but we don't have the big picture. It breaks my heart to ponder, having watched my own father die horribly of cancer, that the experience may have changed him for the better in a way that a longer and more comfortable life might not have. I think of it as abhorrent, but it's possible. Someday, as spiritual creatures in some indescribable future existence, we may all be able to look back on Earth life and say, "Yikes! That hurt. But on thinking it over, it didn't take all that long, and it was worth it." Worth it in what way? I don't know. I'm not there yet, and I sense that in terms of my growth as a thinking, learning creature, I've barely begun. You can't teach a kid calculus while he's still struggling to count to fifteen—and telling a kid that getting his shots is something he'll be glad for later doesn't make the needle hurt any less right now. Learning to cope with suffering may be a form of spiritual inoculation against a malady that we may not encounter in this existence.

How can I respond to an insight like that? I sense all this weird, teleological immensity, and simultaneously I sense that sensing it is about the best I can do. Some humility is called for, which is why I think the Orthodox (wisely) don't try to chase things like this back to some wholly rational schema. They call it a mystery, and go on painting their icons. (Mercifully, they gave us a word, theosis, with which to name it, so it least it won't be a nameless mystery!) It's a long road, this road to infinite wholeness, and pain is part of the process. We wouldn't get there without some suffering, though you might argue that some get more than their share and others less. Who's to say? We won't know until we get there. We're still too young and too dumb. Like our mothers always told us, "You'll understand when you're older." It bothered you, and it bothered me too, but y'know what? She was right.

I know I'm not explaining this especially well, but sheesh, I'm not a philosopher or a theologian. I write computer books for a living. This answer is the best I can do, and it works for me. I offer it freely, and no hard feelings if it still sounds like nonsense to you, or begging the question. And on that note, I think I'll set the God-thing aside for awhile.
June 13, 2003:

Carol and I have subscribed to the Wall Street Journal for quite a few years, primarily because its news articles have a lot more depth than those in your typical Sunday paper that doesn't happen to be the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times. The last time we actually bought a local paper regularly was in 1989, when we were subscribers to the San Jose Mercury News.

What this means is that we haven't really followed newspaper comics for 14 years.

Wow. Times change. People change. Comics change. The vast majority of the comics carried by the Colorado Springs Gazette are completely new to me. Some I've seen here and there down the years as I've picked up odd papers while travelling, and Michael Abrash introduced me to "Rose Is Rose," a charmingly contrarian strip that pays no least iota of homage to cynicism. But I've never seen "Get Fuzzy," about a weird cat who wants to eat the Anaheim Angels' Rally Monkey. Ditto "Jump Start," a likable strip about middle-class black folks, and probably 15 or 20 more that do nothing for me. (At Michael's suggestion I've been trying to follow "Get Fuzzy," and I do confess, it's growing on me, though I like the dog more than the cat.)

Even strips that I knew of have morphed radically. I used to read "Funky Winkerbean" back in California 15 years ago, when it was a simply and broadly drawn strip about a high-school marching band. Funky is still out there, but now it's a more carefully drawn drama, currently focusing on a love triangle between a sad-eyed comics shop owner and a returning POW, who both love the same one-armed girl. Whew!

I don't know if Funky Winkerbean's transformation is a good thing or not. I do recall another favorite strip of mine that followed a similar line of evolution: my all time favorite strip, "Ric O'Shay," drawn by Stan Lynde between 1958 and 1977, starring Old West sheriff Ric O'Shay and mustachioed lone-wolf cowboy Hipshot Percussion. Amazingly enough, Stan's still around, and why he dropped the strip remains unclear. In fact, he has a new strip called "Grass Roots" about a couple of modern-day cowboys who look a great deal like Ric and Hipshot in a pickup truck. Ric O'Shay was originally cartoonish and gag-oriented, with one gag per strip. Over the years, Stan perfected his style, and the strip became both more realistically drawn and more serious, with long-running story arcs and only the occasional grin.

As Michael and I have reflected numerous times over the years, being funny is probably the hardest single thing in the world to do on a regular basis—and not much beats a daily comic strip for being regular. My guess is that drama is easier to do than comedy, hence the progress of Ric and Funky away from Garfield and toward Mary Worth. I miss Ric, and I've taken up Funky Winkerbean again (though I'm wondering if Funky himself will ever again appear in the strip!) but genuine laughs seem scarce on the comics page these days.
June 12, 2003:

After a long time in deliberation (and at least eight months after products began showing up as "draft g" compliant) the IEEE has finally released the 802.11g task group spec. (Here's an article summing up the release.) 802.11g is a higher-speed version of Wi-Fi that still operates at 2.4 GHz. The existing 802.11a spec operates at a bit rate of up to 54 Mbps, but it operates at 5 GHz and is thus more subject to attenuation from walls and other intervening objects. 802.11g shares physics with 802.11b and thus should have similar range in similar environments, and more sophisticated encoding and modulation techniques will give it bit rates comparable to 802.11a.

Whew. Finally. The major questions to be pondered now are these:

  • Can all the "draft g" hardware out there really be brought into true 802.11g compliance by a firmware upgrade alone? (I'm skeptical.)
  • Can 802.11g hardware be fooled into dropping its bit rate when it "hears" an unrelated 802.11b signal? (802.11g devices are backwards compatible with 802.11b devices—at 802.11b speeds.) Include an 802.11b device in a g network and you lose much of the advantage of having g at all. How a g device decides to drop its rate for the sake of backward compatibility is still a little obscure to me.
  • What about 2.4 GHz interference generally? A great many different radio things hang out at 2.4 GHz, and if devices are too close, signal mayhem will result. This hasn't been an issue so far because in most places, 2.4 GHz devices are still separated enough to achieve peaceful coexistence. If 802.11g blows the lid off the wireless LAN business again, we'll begin to see many more networks coming up against cordless phones, microwave ovens, and Bluetooth gadgetry. Which reminds me...
  • How will the new IEEE 802.15.3 "personal area network" (PAN) standard affect Bluetooth? The IEEE snuck in a Bluetooth competitor by releasing the 802.15.3 spec alongside 802.11g, which has the same mission as Bluetooth and the same frequency range, but limited Bluetooth compatibility beyond that.
Apparently the 802.11f spec was also approved at the same announcement, which means we may (eventually) have a vendor-independent spec for inter-access point roaming. This matters more for big companies and college campuses than lone wolves like you and me, but it's good to see the damned thing finally see the light of day.
June 11, 2003:

Quick review: Finding Nemo. I may be the only human being in the galaxy who doesn't think it's the best animated movie ever made. Sorry, but I don't. It's not even close. It starts out grim: Suburban fish Marlin just moves into a cozy three-bedroom anemone with his wife and 300 almost-hatched eggs when a barracuda comes along and eats wife and eggs—all but one. Marlin is a clownfish who isn't funny, and that's the best laugh—nay, almost the only laugh—in the whole film. He's so protective of his only son that he drives little Nemo to defy him and as a result gets caught by a scuba diving dentist, who plops Nemo into a fish tank. Marlin goes in search of Nemo and has adventures that aren't very engaging, are often very intense and violent, and not funny at all.

The animation is, as you might imagine, gorgeous. But the story did not engage me, and I felt almost nothing (but perhaps some relief) when it was over. This may be a film that only parents can love. Brook Monroe, who has a young son, had to explain parts of Lilo and Stitch to me. I get that same sense here: There is a subtext that is just completely alien. I had no trouble with Monsters, Inc., which is one of the finest animated films of all time. So where did Nemo go wrong? I just can't figure it, but it's too late tonight to think to much more about it. I'll hear your theories if you have any.
June 10, 2003:

There are times when I feel like my parents must have felt in the 60's trying to cope with a teenager using mysterious jargon like "far out," "groovy," and "outasite." I read a lot of blogs and Web sites created by very young people, and they're developing a jargon among themselves that 50-year-olds aren't privy to. I've mentioned l33t-speak before (see my entry for May 22, 2003) but other terms creep in, and sometimes I can't always tell what something means from context.

"Hoopty," for example, was easy. Unless I miss my guess, it means a funky car. "Got into my hoopty and ran over to Randall's for a beer," I read, and there are only so many things such a sentence can mean. Then somebody posted a thread calling for a "hoopty contest" on the NetStumbler forums, and I knew I had it nailed, because it was about who had the funkiest wardriving car.

I was a little more puzzled by what some young guy wrote in his Trepia profile: "Why the sausage party?" As with l33t, I ended up searching the Web, and discovered that a "sausage party" is a gathering of young (straight) males who would actually prefer having some women around. Obvious, at least in hindsight.

Weirder still was a statement in a blog somewhere that "you should have seen the cameltoe this girl had on down at the park!" I assumed it was a hat, or a coat, or maybe some sort of jewelry. Then I looked on the Web and found this. (Warning: frat-boy style crudity, in quantity.)

It seems only yesterday that I was figuring out "diss" and "ho." I guess there's no end to it. My only consolation is that it will all seem so, well, quaint someday—and the kids driving hoopties today will have to figure out what their kids will be calling their funky cars in 2030.
June 9, 2003:

I have never been much worried by any sort of "nuclear threat," especially from controlled nuclear reactions—and non-nuclear war can be just as devastating as nuclear war. (Everybody knows about Hiroshima. Few remember Dresden.) But biology, now that worries me. At this point, almost everyone knows what Mad Cow disease is, but I'll bet few understand the diabolical agent that causes it, nor how that agent's relatives kill human beings. Maybe you don't want to know, but if you do, this is the book to get.

Philip Yam's The Pathological Protein is a new book on prion diseases, both in humans and in animals we eat and shoo away from our flower beds. The animal diseases include Mad Cow, scrapie (in sheep) and (in deer) Chronic Wasting Disease. The human diseases fall under the umbrella of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD), which takes on several forms (some of them truly hideous) and can be either contracted infectiously or inherited. In all cases, both human and animal, the responsible agent is called a prion. In all cases, the disease is untreatable and invariably fatal. Once you understand how it works, you'll understand: Prions eat your brain.

A prion is an unlikely killer. It's a badly-folded protein, distinguishable from essential proteins in our bodies only by the way it physically folds up. It's not "alive" in the same sense that a cell is alive, and it has no real genetic material like a virus. It's somewhere between a living pathogen and a complex chemical poison, in that it converts certain normal proteins in the body to misfolded proteins like itself. It can be boiled and frozen without losing its deadly properties, and while it can be attacked chemically, the chemicals that attack it will destroy most organic materials, including food and (certainly) ourselves.

Philip Yam engagingly describes the hunt for prions on several fronts, beginning with the strange disease kuru, which besets aborigines in New Guinea, and moving on to Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, one of a class of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. The term "spongiform" refers to the appearance of the brain of an infected individual: It's full of holes, where prions have destroyed nervous tissue by converting essential neuronal proteins to their own (useless) forms. TSEs like CJD can be contracted by contact with infected nervous tissue from another infected individual. Weirdly, it can also be inherited, and research has shown that the inherited form can in fact become infectious. CJD is not easy to contract; you would have to get infected nervous tissue into your body somehow. (That's how the abos in New Guinea got in trouble: Overbreeding had driven them to cannibalism.) That's the good news, but that's all the good news. The rest is all bad.

Whether we humans can get CJD from beef butchered from a mad cow hasn't been completely settled, but most researchers believe that it can. The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) prion isn't present in muscle tissue, but as the author chillingly demonstrates, modern meat-processing techniques sometimes splatter nervous tissue into muscle meat. The most unnerving aspect of the book is not the description of the progress of CJD in human beings (which was bad enough) but the indictment of our factory farming techniques. Many researchers feel that BSE came about because we started feeding slaughterhouse leftovers to cattle as cheap feed. One cow with the genetic mutation that causes BSE, if rendered and eaten as cattle feed, could infect hundreds of other cows, each of which could infect hundreds of others. Feeding corn to cattle may also contribute; cows didn't evolve eating corn (which is a relatively recent creation of human agriculture) and it causes infections in their first stomach which seem to make them more vulnerable to the BSE prion. (These infections are the reason we feed antibiotics to cows, greasing the skids for antibiotic-resistant bacteria of various sorts—but that's a separate issue.)

The book is beautifully written, and the only difficult part is the unavoidable presentation of medical jargon, much of which includes infuriatingly similar acronyms. (TSE, BSE, CJD, vCJD, PrPc, PrPsc, and so on.) The description of how prions actually infect and propagate was something I had been looking for for some time, and is worth the price of admission. As a writer Yam is damned good—I just wish that he had cause to be more optimistic at the end of it. We have (more or less) contained the Mad Cow outbreak of a few years ago, but unless we change the way we raise and butcher cattle, it could happen all over again, as that one-in-a-million prion mutation cow enters the food chain and begins the whole mess anew. A scary book, but a superb one. Highly recommended.
June 8, 2003:

Finding friends in a new location is difficult these days. We made a couple of friends here in Colorado Springs before we got here, but a couple have evaporated for reasons unclear...I think it's because we don't have children. I've heard that people with children don't mesh well with people who don't, especially when the kids are very young. Once they're teens it's no big deal, but I think that people with children sense that children are not nearly as important as a general concept to the childless. Carol and I don't dislike children, but they don't fascinate us the way children fascinate their own parents.

We finally found a church we can live with, and it was a bit of a surprise: A little Episcopalian community called St. Raphael's in Security, Colorado. (Their Web site is down or I'd give you the link—in the meantime, how many of the seven archangels can you name? Hint: Raphael is one...) Security is a small rural town on the southeastern edge of Colorado Springs, about five miles east of where we live. There are no Old Catholics in the Springs, but as we've heard from other lonely Old Catholics out there in cyberspace, the Episcopalians are the next best thing. Episcopalianism isn't uniform by any means. We went to another Episcopal church up near the Broadmoor, in major Rich Guy territory, and sheesh, now I know why the Episcopalians are sometimes called the Frozen Chosen. Better, in my view, to look for a church right across a barbed-wire fence from grazing cattle.

They greeted us warmly. I explained that we were Old Catholics, to puzzled stares, but it doesn't matter—they poured our coffee after Liturgy (which we call a Mass and they don't) and handed us a little bag of home-grown strawberries that someone had brought that morning to give away. We met the pastor and his wife, who have been married for 33 years and seem tremendously happy. They had bells at the Consecration. The hymns were singable, if unfamiliar. (Except for a thundering Old Hundredth!) But most of all, we sensed in them that we would find friends in the community, which we desperately need. And they're only five miles away! (We had to drive 26 miles to St. Francis of Assisi Old Catholic Church in Phoenix.)

On a guess (after hearing that it was a Wi-Fi utility of some kind) I installed a new chat client called Trepia. Theoretically, it figures out where you are and gives you a list of people in your vicinity. Well, theoretically...the list of 113 people that came up when I ran it were all over the place, and the only person I've had any serious conversations with is a Delphi programmer in South Africa. (Right next door, heh...) Online friends are cool, but I have quite a few already. Trepia remains a bit of a mystery, as it has no Wi-Fi features that I can identify.

Meetup has yet to coalesce a meetup here on any of the topics I've joined. (I think I've described Meetup in ContraPositive, though I don't remember quite when.) With any luck I'll finally have lunch with the TurboPower gang on Thursday. It'll be a little easier once our house is done (some news on that shortly) but boy, we didn't expect it would be this hard finding new friends in the area.
June 7, 2003:

It's not their fault for being successful, I guess, but over the past couple of months I've found that the primordial Web aggregator, Slashdot, has become less and less useful. The problem is that too many people read it, and when they post a link to a "must see" site, everybody who reads it stampedes over there, and the unfortunate server is "slashdotted" to immobility. It's yet another example of the "flash crowd" effect that SF author Larry Niven so brilliantly predicted thirty years ago: When something interesting happens and people can reach it quickly, a "flash crowd" occurs wherever that something is happening, often changing the nature of the event entirely. In Niven's case, it was caused by people using teleporter machines to get to crime scenes, riots, and other meatspace happenings; he never predicted the Internet. (I don't think anyone else did, either.) I reported something similar many years ago in PC Techniques (June/July 1995), in an editorial called "Corri, the Comet, and the Child-Proof Cap," about a flash crowd that ensued when a young woman famous on the Web for posing nude in the snow posted a link to several clothed pictures of herself. She brought the entire student Web server at Northern Arizona University to a screeching halt, and earned me a whiny scold from the college's president for calling attention to the event.

Again and again, I get to Slashdot to find that the servers cited in aggregated items are shut down, waiting for people to forget about them and go away. Just today Slashdot aggregated a site explaining how to make a Wi-Fi antenna from a diskette and a paperclip. Dammit, I wanna see that! (Even though it's claimed to be in Fremch, a language I've never heard of, heh.) I've been trying for several hours and can't get through. Maybe tomorrow. Too many nerds, so little bandwidth...
June 6, 2003:

Predictably, two people wrote to me in response to my entry for May 27, 2003 (about "weird stuff" that lends credence to acceptance of the supernatural) to tell me that (gakkh!) I must have been mistaken. Because such stuff happens entirely inside Jeff's head, there's no reason to grant it any creedence.

Again, it was because it happened inside Jeff's head that Jeff's head chose to take it seriously, a choice I will ask of no one else. But I might as well take some time here to describe a couple of things that didn't happen inside Jeff's head.

First of all, back in the midlate 90's I had a small growth of some kind on my neck. It was in a pathologically bad spot, in that when I put on a dress shirt, I frequently jabbed it with my thumbnail, making it bleed. Getting blood off a dress shirt is a pain in the ass, and I spent a lot of time staring at the damned thing in my mirror, furious. In one of the numerous New Age books I had read over the prior decade, there was an exercise for healing that consisted of imagining a healthy stretch of skin where a bad stretch was. So for a couple of weeks, before I put my shirt on in the morning, I put my thumb over the growth and imagined it gone.

Two weeks later, it was gone. My body sort of sucked it back in. I was thunderstruck.

"Power of suggestion!" you object. Sure. I'll buy that. Our bodies are powerfully suceptible to convictions of the mind. In Ian Wilson's book The Bleeding Mind (now out of print, alas) he cites studies of women who, under hypnosis, were told that they had large breasts. Shazam! Most of them grew a cup size or more. He points out something that conservative Catholics do not: That all the famous stigmatists developed wounds in the pattern displayed on their favorite crucifix, not all of which were alike. (On some, Christ's palms are pierced; in others, His wrists.) So although mysterious, my banishing of a mole or whatever it was is not supernatural.

Ah, but the story isn't over yet. As many of you know, I had a little bichon dog named Chewy for 16 years. Mr. Byte got all the press, but Chewy was the heart-stealer, less haughty and regal and just more down-to-earth and loving. Chewy had a fatty tumor on his back the size of a quarter. It was ugly as sin, and Carol and I always worried that it would lead to worse. Chewy was getting pretty old by that time, and spent a lot of time sitting between us on the livingroom couch while we watched movies. I would stroke his back and run into that tumor. I found myself getting annoyed. So for two weeks I took a few minutes each night, put my finger on Chewy's tumor, and told it to disappear.

Two weeks later, it was gone.

Ok, wise guys, explain away that one! It's not repeatable, of course, but I did have a witness in Carol, who was as astonished as I. It wasn't something that happened entirely inside my own head.

I tried this process again on a couple of small moles I had elsewhere, and could not make them go away. The difference is that they were not a problem (I didn't make them bleed) and I was hard pressed to be genuinely annoyed at them. Chewy had no similar tumors to work on, and Byte none at all. Clearly, state of mind matters in such things, but I have not fully discerned all the parameters.

If this isn't enough, I have another story that I'm willing to tell, as time here permits.
June 5, 2003:

So what's wrong with the book business? It's pretty easy to explain, if not to fix. What follows are some points to ponder. I'm focusing on technology books here (because that's what I know) but many of these points apply to other genres as well:

  • Gross overcapacity. During the 90s boom, publishing boomed along with everything else (and technology publishing even moreso) and so publishers added production capacity as quickly as they could afford it or borrow it. We're now seeing wholesale layoffs (even at the sanest and most expert publishers, like John Wiley & O'Reilly) and belly-ups. The sad part is that we still have plenty of overcapacity to shed. Lots more people will lose their jobs before we're back to where capacity is roughly compatible with demand. Even at the peak of the technology boom, there were more books chasing buyers than buyers were buying, and so immense numbers of printed books went almost direct from press to pulping machine.
  • Slumping demand. In boom times, companies would buy huge numbers of technology books, and allow their employees to buy and expense even more. When the technology bubble popped, this demand evaporated almost overnight. Overcapacity tripled.
  • Books becoming "product." At some point (I think it was about 1990) people who knew almost nothing about publishing started to be placed in charge of publishing programs at large publishing companies. To such executives, books were indistinguishable from one another, and were planned by laying out matrixes of "product niches" and filling each niche without any thought about whether the niche itself made sense, or whether the author chosen to fill it could produce an accurate and useful book.
  • "Publishing to plan." Publishing companies have to "meet their numbers" on the sales side, and you do that either by publishing good books and promoting them well, or else flooding the market with lousy books so that you can make your targets. Many or most of the larger publishers have no idea what a good book is versus an indifferent or bad book—and few had any stomach for the sort of laborious, careful promotion that has to happen to build demand for a book. Volume balloons and quality suffers. This is made worse by...
  • "First to market" advantage. The above-described executives soon learned that if you got a book—any book—to market first, it would take the lion's share of sales for that book's topic, whether or not it was a good book at all. And so crappy books are published at the first hint of a new technology product, which allow them to get to the shelves first, where they are purchased by buyers who can't wait for later, better books. Those later, better books often cannot get any shelf space, and it gets so bad sometimes that an entire topic category gets a bad name. A major publisher did this in the Wi-Fi realm, making it difficult for my book to get shelved because so many of those crappy, indistinguishable early books didn't sell and thus stained the category. (Yes, I have a grudge. You got a problem with that?)
  • "Pay to play." One of the most catastrophic practices to emerge from the boom times of the 90s is the explosion of "co-op" marketing programs with bookstores. This started with money paid for special positioning in windows or end-cap shelves, but over time it has come to mean that the more co-op you do, the more books reach store shelves. My sympathies here are with the bookstores, which have suffered much at the hands of deep-discount online booksellers. (In fairness, there is some overcapacity to be shed on the retail side as well, and we've begun to see a little of that.) Who among us has never played the SHABE game? (Shop Here And Buy Elsewhere. Guess where Elsewhere is?)
  • "Sell more of what sells." In other words, publish me-too products and take no risks. As books have become product and knuckleheads run publishing programs, this has become the rallying cry. Nobody wanted DOS for Dummies until a small company took the risk—and soon became a huge company. Nobody wanted Exam Cram until Coriolis took the risk—and got bigger than would have been possible otherwise. Large companies always try to clone good books from risk takers, with greater or lesser success. The sadder truth is that when small companies become larger companies, the temptation to SMOWS is strong, and the tendency to take risks diminishes.
That's my view, at least. I don't know precisely what to do. More blood has to flow, clearly, and book publishing must come to be seen as a high-risk endeavor by the larger companies rather than a mine for easy money. We seem to be headed in that direction, albeit slowly. Knowledge reduces risk, and small companies who know what good books are and how to produce them can step in and provide what readers need—and no more than that.
June 4, 2003:

It's eerie how history repeats itself sometimes. Back on May 29, Justin Frankel's Nullsoft (the originator of the excellent WinAmp MP3 player and the Shoutcast Internet radio system) posted something new: WASTE. (There is an acronym but I can't find it right now, for reasons that will soon become apparent.)WASTE is a free utility offering encrypted peer-to-peer messaging and file transfer for small, "trusted" networks of 50 nodes or fewer.

WASTE was out there for precisely one day, and then AOL Time-Warner (which bought Nullsoft several years ago) pulled it from the NullSoft Web site. Nullsoft supposedly released WASTE under the GPL, and it went out with full source. Now AOL insists that Nullsoft had no right to release the code at all, much less under the GPL. On the other hand, Nullsoft is a subsidiary operating company, not simply a department of AOL, and probably does have the power to release code that it created under the GPL. There will be a lot of legal opinions rendered on the Net in coming days, count on it.

This has happened before: Back in 2000, Nullsoft released Gnutella, the original serverless peer-to-peer file sharing utility. AOL immediately pulled it after scant days on the Nullsoft Web site. But software has legs, and the thousands of copies downloaded before AOL pulled Gnutella became tens of millions, especially once the thrill of owning something forbidden fanned the flames of enthusiasm. Gnutella is actually pretty crude—but it established the viability of peer-to-peer file sharing without a central server. Without Gnutella, most of us doubt that Kazaa and Freenet would ever have happened.

AOL has had to quash a number of Nullsoft's brainstorms in the last four years, for fear that there would be copyright problems. Justin has clearly had enough, and announced his resignation from Nullsoft on June 2. If I were AOL, I would be worried far less about WASTE than about an angry, vengeful Justin Frankel out and on his own, working on who knows what (but they can guess) where they can't keep an eye on him.

AOL is clearly being twitchy about this, since as I read it, WASTE is not capable of swapping files on a massive basis. It's really groupware, and small groupware at that. (I was actually going to suggest we try to use at at Paraglyph...but I may wait to see how it shakes out first.) Justin wrote it to smooth communications between the two Nullsoft offices. The file swapping machinery was almost an afterthought.

My guess is that there will be a lot of screaming and yelling and threats of lawsuits and such, but like I said above, software has legs. For the moment, you can download WASTE here. Tomorrow you may have to look somewhere else. You won't, however, have to look far.
June 3, 2003:

Odd lots this beautiful Tuesday evening...

  • There's a very simple, almost elegant free discussion board Web service called QuickTopic. Cory Doctorow's popular blog BoingBoing uses it for blog comments, and I'm tempted to try something like that myself. I'm still trying to get a blogging tool like Movable Type functioning on my Web host (many people bitch at me because Contra doesn't look like a "real blog," not knowing nor caring that Contra predates all blogging tools, as well as the term "blog" itself) but so far I'm not having much luck.
  • From the Truth in Government file: Colorado Springs tells us in a panicky voice that the city's reservoirs are only 40% full, but hikers who have gone looking at the reservoirs (which are up in the mountains and not easy to get to) say that they're at least 80% full. Many of Colorado's rivers are now at near-flood levels due to what may have been gerater than average winter snowpack, but the Springs feels that lying to us to get us to conserve is better than being honest and saying that conservation makes sense anyway. Carol and I shower together to save water, and it's just such a bitter sacrifice...
  • Why the hell is it that you can only buy bratwurst in packages of six...and buns in packages of 8?
  • People, please don't read silly things into what I write! I never said that the Exuberant Cross (see my entry for May 25, 2003) was a "miracle." It's a prismatic pattern of sunlight thrown on the wall by a cheap glass chain lamp. It's just physics—the point I was making in that whole entry is that we are hardwired to see significance in symbols. On the other hand, as a character in one of my (many) unfinished SF novels said, "All miracles are physics. And all physics is a miracle."

June 2, 2003:

Intel has a serious problem on its hands: Its terahyped Centrino Wi-Fi chipset locks up (or causes some other parts of the system to lock up, probably the drivers) when users try to connect through a VPN (virtual private network). This basically makes Centrino useless, since the ultimate solution to drive-by hackers monitoring your traffic is to use some kind of end-to-end encryption system like a VPN. Intel has been pushing Centrino to corporate users of laptops, and corporate users are the ones who generally have access to VPNs. Joe Wi-Fi on Main Street typically does not. Talk about slitting your own throat...

Now, the question that I cannot figure—and you networking types might provide some insight if you can—is how a VPN, which operates at OSI network layer 3 or 4, can run afoul of something down at the PHY or MAC layer, which is where I presume Centrino and its drivers live.

Everybody in the universe is aggregating this story. This could well be the technology screwup of the year, if not the decade.
June 1, 2003:
Back home. I'll have more to say about book publishing and bookselling once I winnow the backlog a little. In the meantime, I've updated my Poco Mail junk senders list. Get it here. Just under 1500 bad guys now. I get a few every day, and I'll update it periodically.