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March 29, 2007: Drawing the Curtain on Online Nakedness

I'm in Phoenix for a couple of days, meeting with my Paraglyph confreres and giving a short presentation on POD publishing to the Arizona Book Publishing Association. After dinner last night I was catching up on my aggregators, and found a short article that nails precisely why young people should not assume that nobody cares now—or will ever care—what sort of image they present online.

Employers care. They care a lot. They've been forced to, by litigation that holds them responsible for staff misconduct. When a staffer turns violent or becomes abusive in some other way, the legal system asks, Well, didn't you check them out before you hired them?

So prospective employers are doing ever-deeper background checks of applicants, and modern search-engine technology is casting a much wider net without a great deal of additional cost or effort. With the downside (bankrupting lawsuits) so serious, an employer will go to a fair amount of effort to see "what's out there." Apart from the obvious (arrest record, verification of vita credentials like degrees) employers have an interest in a lot of other things:

  • Smoking. Few young people seem to have any idea that a lot of employers, especially in small business, simply will not hire smokers. (Other staffers will likely complain that "Chuck stinks," but firing Chuck because he stinks will just invite a lawsuit.) Managers may not be able to ask straight-out, "Are you a smoker?" but suppose they read on your blog: "After dinner last night I was desperate for a smoke, but Marty was out and I had to settle for whatever crap they had at 7-11..." Pass.
  • Drinking. Staffers who drink heavily lose a lot of work days, and if they do some damage while DUI on a business trip, the company may be held responsible. Again, what does it say on your blog? "Goddam, that was a party! I beat my old record for passing out..." Pass. (heh.)
  • Sexual braggadoccio. I'm not sure anybody understands how completely twitchy the workplace has gotten about sex. Sexual harrassment lawsuits have gone over the horizon into absurdity, and even when the courts toss out the suit, the time and money lost in the process are never recovered. Guys who post explicit comments on unidentifiable women (Geez! What a rack Laurie's got!) sound like risks. Guys who talk about deep flirting or sleeping with coworkers light up in brilliant red. It's not just the guys, either: Women who talk about dressing provocatively or brag about eliciting a response in the guys at the office will be seen as disruptive influences.
  • Drugs. Admitting that you smoke dope or do meth or worse—sheesh, this is going to inspire confidence in an employer?
  • Combativeness. Rudeness, insults, and other miscellaneous flaming online suggest that the poster may be difficult to work with. A lot of people seem to think (somewhat oddly) that they have a pass when flaming about politics (as opposed to making personal attacks on their online peers) but what you're being combative about really doesn't matter. Most managers see anger as a serious personality flaw. And besides, a small business owner struggling with tax issues or government red tape may see your lefty rants and think, "Oh yeah. His kind are the reason I'm having this problem." Pass.
  • Lawsuits. Having filed a lawsuit against a former employer (or even talking about your willingness to do so) tags you as a serious risk, especially to small businesses, for whom a lawsuit could be fatal.

You can argue that some of this may not be fair, but it's real—we are in the midst of what may be a permanent labor surplus, and there's likely to be a big pile of other resumes on the hiring manager's desk, some of them from people better than you are. Why ruin your chances? Especially when stuff posted on the Net is forever, and the tools for searching will only become better over time. We may someday have software that can match faces online, so that anonymously posted photo of yourself dancing drunk on a table may not always be as anonymous as you think. The fact that the photo is fifteen years old may not matter. Nor does the possibility that some of these things may be construed in some places as illegal discrimination. You will never know why your resume got round-filed. They just won't call you back.

So I'll draw the curtain on this online nakedness thread by suggesting that you never post anything online that you wouldn't want your current boss (and all prospective bosses) to read. The future belongs to those who craft their online presence carefully. The future may belong, in fact, to those who simply know how to keep their online mouths shut.

March 28, 2007: The End of Discounting?

Without a lot of discussion in the media, a century-old Supreme Court decision may be going down in flames. The Dr. Miles decision is under review, and may fall under the Roberts court. Is this good or bad? As always, it depends heavily on whose ox you're standing in front of, but the truth is that nobody really knows.

Dr. Miles is basically about the power of manufacturers to set retail prices on their goods, and make them stick. Since 1911, retailers have had the legal right to charge whatever they like for goods that they sell. Manufacturers have been allowed to publish "suggested retail prices," but attempting to force retailers to hold to those prices is automatically a violation of antitrust laws. As a result, we have sales, discount shops and (especially) Internet discounting. Manufacturers, especially of goods with strong brands, have been agitating to change this for...well, almost a century. Retailers and almost everybody else have resisted.

Alas, it's not as simple as it appears.

Book retailing represents an interesting example, now that retail considation has put control of most retail sales into only a few hands. "Bricks and mortar" bookselling now basically consists of Borders, Barnes & Noble, plus debris. Against the B&M stores we have Amazon plus online debris. Discounting at B&M bookstores has always existed, but it was always light (I recall 10% or so from my younger days) and usually seasonal. Amazon changed all that. Without as much staff or physical presence to maintain, Amazon's economies of scale dwarfed those of the B&Ms, who have steadily lost ground to Amazon's aggressive, "every day" discounting. Publishers have seen their net proceeds drop, as retailers demand greater margins (now often 55%) to stay in business. Authors have seen their publishers reduce royalties across the board, and often go out of business entirely. This has been characterized as a "race to the bottom" by publishing insiders, and although publishing is the only industry I know well, I suspect that in many other industries the story is the same: Online discounting is driving B&M stores to the edge. So in the Dr. Miles war, retailers who aren't defined as discounters are quietly lining up with manufacturers.

What happens if Dr. Miles dies? Think for a moment how things work today: Consumers choose a brand for some reason (advertisements, recommendations, personal experience) and then shop for price. If the price becomes the same wherever they shop, will they just say, "Aw, shucks!" and pay it? Maybe not. Consumers will learn to compare different brands by quality rather than shop for the same brand by price. They will try new things more often. New brands will appear. Startup manufacturers engineered for cost control will field new high-end brands that are perhaps 20% cheaper than top brands, rather than house brands and shoddy knockoffs sold at 50%. Prices will rise to some extent, but a market remains a market, and dominant brands will see their market dominance reduced. Retailers will still need loss leaders, and may begin buying new brands from new manufacturers. Brand loyalty could change radically. The sorts of monopsonies enjoyed by megaretailers like Wal-Mart could implode.

Much depends on what (if anything) replaces Dr. Miles. The Supreme Court could preserve Dr. Miles with limitations, or just set it aside completely. We won't know until it happens. My view is that Dr. Miles has been a major factor in retail consolidation these past 20 years, and a reversal of Dr. Miles could lead to a dispersal of power in the retail sector. Prices would rise, but not catastrophically—and interesting things could happen that we just can't predict. Remember that that pesky Christian Right did not exist in an effective form until Roe vs. Wade. As I say regularly, the only thing worse than not getting what you want could be getting it—which is especially true of Supreme Court decisions.

Let's watch.

March 27, 2007: The Irremovable Figleaf

Reader Dan O'Connell sent me a note suggesting that the sorts of things that Wired described corporations revealing online (see yesterday's entry) are minor or self-serving at best, and that there are things that today's corporations would rather die than reveal online. The most intriguing of these is the degree to which they engage in outsourcing.

I agree, but I counter-suggest that the reason is not what we might expect: Outsourcing is almost impossible to quantify or even define, especially in an era of virtually free digital communication with near-global reach. It's not just call centers. The bulk of four-color web printing for books is now done in the Pacific Rim, mostly China. You send your print images to their servers, and your books come across the ocean on container ships a few months later. If you're not in a hurry, you can get four-color print services for half (sometimes less) of what you can get them for in the US. Sometimes only the covers are printed overseas. Often the inks are made overseas. Bits and pieces of many things are made in places all over the world. (I have had boxer shorts with little tags reading, "Assembled in the Dominican Republic." Assembled. With a set of Boxer Shorts Wrenches, I assume.) If a manufacturer buys resistors or ICs made in China to build into a laser printer made in the US, is that outsourcing? If so, how do you quantify it? How do you enforce honesty? How do you even know with certainty where the resistors came from? Book publishers send raw manuscript files all over the place for copy edits and indexing. Production files go up on an FTP site. They get downloaded. They get uploaded. They get downloaded. They get uploaded. Sometimes they are sent to production houses elsewhere in the US, which in turn may send parts to other places for specialty work. How can you track the path of a stack of 100-odd files that eventually come together into a print image? How can you ensure that none of them leave the US?

That way lies madness.

Corporations may assume (with some justification) that definitions of outsourcing and other legal but controvesial processes will be nebulous and interpreted variously, even by people not intending to use them as clubs in political rumbles. Better just to say nothing and hope that the burden of gathering data will keep all but their most determined enemies from posting something that the public (which has not been trained in critical thinking) will accept uncritically, and to which there is no response that the public (which has been trained to see reality as a loose collection of sound bites) will bother to read in full.

March 26, 2007: When Corporations Go Naked

Wired just posted an online version of a recent print article about how corporations and other organizations are "going naked" online rather than hoarding information or trying to "manage" what is said about them. It's a decent article (though not as coherent as I'd like) and worth reading, and relevant to my entry for March 15, 2007, which dealt with the more personal sort of online nakedness—by which people mean being brutally frank about things online that used to be "nobody's business but my own."

It's a fascinating concept, and one that few people have thought about and even fewer understand. One way to look at it (stealing a phrase from Bruce Schneier) is that there is a difference between secrets and lies. Secrets are facts that you don't reveal, and lies are facts that you misrepresent. Time was a skillful liar could make a statement and expect that it wouldn't be challenged, simply because finding out the facts behind the lies took a lot of time and work. Online searches make lying a lot more difficult, so in a heavily googled world, being straightforward about facts that have any public exposure at all may be the better course, especially when your organization makes a mistake or is in trouble.

And if something (like a hot product development project) really has to remain a secret, create a skunkworks and make secret-keeping part of the mystique.

If this seems obvious to you, well, it seems obvious to me too. What's different today is that there is an enforcer: The link-ranked search engine. Your reputation is basically the average of all of what is said about you, so it pays to have friends and generate good buzz any way you can. Wired, in fact, describes a process that sounds a lot like shilling to me: Posting furiously to any venue where you're talked about to make sure that search engine links to your posts swamp or at least balance those of others. Be honest, but be everywhere.

My caution here: It helps to have the moral high ground; or failing that, it helps to at least have a crisp position on a well-understood spectrum. The case of Redfin versus a bunch of annoyed real estate agents worked as Wired described because the public hates real estate agents. So given a chance to take sides, the public jumped to Redfin's defense with fists flying. This won't necessarily hold true when the issues are nuanced, or so far from the public's attention that the blogosphere doesn't really care.

The real issue I have with Wired's article is fundamental: The blogosphere (which increasingly drives search engine rankings) is careless—and lazy. People repeat things without verifying them, or repeat them without even reading the source piece, in a process that looks a lot like the old "whisper" game in which a complex statement is sent via whispers from person to person until what comes out bears little resemblance to what went in. A mistake in transcription of the issue—whether innocent or perhaps cleverly deliberate—can be replicated endlessly, in what cooks down to lying with plausible deniability.

So being nakedly honest may be necessary but may not be sufficient. Bad luck or sufficiently clever dissemblers (especially those who are skilled enough to game the blogosphere as the chaotic system it is) may still feed you to the sharks. Truth is not an average—and averages blur out many truths. This is why, even after almost ten years as a blogger, I don't get my view of the world from other bloggers.

March 24, 2007: Odd Trip Lots

  • It's funny how it worked out—we were two blocks from Carol's sister's house here in Crystal Lake, Illinois, when the trip meter went to 1111.1 miles, from our front door in Colorado Springs. So we actually drove 1,111.5 miles to get here. And that's not entirely fair, because we made a wrong turn that cost us 8 miles at one point while navigating the fog in western Illinois, and spent about five unwarranted miles hunting for fast food in Des Moines yesterday about lunchtime.
  • Fast food is scarce in Des Moines. I mean, really scarce. In the space where you'd see three or four Wendy's alone in Colorado Springs there was...nothing. And the first place we ran across was a Burger King, the one fast food outlet where I simply can't bring myself to eat. So we ended up having McDonald's twice in one day, which is a little over the line even for me, who holds no especial animus against fast food. I stuffed back my share of pretzels, peanuts, and Rice Chex on the trip, but as you all know I'm part Neanderthal and need meat at least once a day.
  • Oh, and Sausage McMuffins with Egg are one of my guilty pleasures. I had one across the street for breakfast (in Lincoln, Nebraska) to chase the stale Raisin Bran that they had out on the breakfast bar at the Day's Inn.
  • Entering Iowa from Nebraska yesterday morning brought a plague of windshield smears from hordes of unidentified black beetles about a quarter inch long, who may have been early hatchlings. In a hundred miles it got bad enough that I couldn't take it, and had to stop and wipe the glass with a couple of Huggies that we brought along to clean bichon feet. (We knew that Iowa had seen a lot of recent rain and was mostly mud, and came prepared.)
  • At one point in Iowa, we saw a newly plowed field off to the left of I-80. "Must have burned recently," I observed. "No," Carol said. "That's black dirt. Remember black dirt?"
  • Pete Albrecht called me on my cell at one point, simply to say, "Hang up and drive!" Alas, Carol spoiled his plot by answering the phone.
  • For about 300 miles we were following (and sometimes falling behind, and then catching up with) the biggest damned heat exchanger I have ever seen. And I was always right behind him when we went under an overpass that we were sure would hit the heat exchanger, crack up the 18-wheeler, and kill us all.
  • One has to wonder why Illinois built the I-88 Tollway. There was nobody on it. Nobody.
  • As you can tell, long-distance car travel is inherently boring. I had forgotten how boring. I won't forget again soon.

March 22, 2007: Odd Lots

  • Well, we got out out of the driveway this morning BAE—and several people didn't know that that meant Bright And Early. I didn't make it up—but I don't remember where I first heard it. It may have been a CompuServeIsm. Ok then—Oh-Dark-Thirty.
  • Kevin Anetsberger tried to find an online definition for BAE and failed, but he did send me a pointer to a great acronym looker-upper.
  • Those who have read my SF novel The Cunning Blood may recall Rho Alpha Delta, AKA the Ralpha Dogs, the order on prison planet Hell that specializes in R&D. Back in 1997 when I conceptualized the novel, I actually looked online to see if there was a Greek society by that name, and found nothing. A reader pointed out yesterday that a new Rho Alpha Delta sorority was founded in 2006, catering to African-American lesbian women.
  • The Solar Minimum has officially arrived. No DX on Six Meters...but keep those 829Bs on the shelf somewhere. The Next One May Be A Lulu.
  • After a day of pretty aggressive mileburning (aggressive for us, at least) we are putting our feet up in Lincoln, Nebraska tonight, and will take our final 500-mile dash to Chicago tomorrow.

March 21, 2007: Autometeoroids

Carol and I are driving to Chicago tomorrow BAE, and I began getting the car in shape this morning. Part of that is hauling out the Windex and some old newspapers and removing the accumlated plasticizers from the inside of the windshield. We garage the 4Runner and don't even drive it that much (I work at home and have no daily commute) but at these altitudes solar UV in the Safeway parking lot makes the dashboard plate itself out on my windshield with impressive speed.

While scrubbing away I noticed a huge number of small specks that I first assumed were sneeze spots or something until I realized that they were on the outside of the windshield. A scrub on the outside failed to eliminate them. A look with my loupe confirmed my fears: They are pits in the glass, pits so small that they looked like dust. There are a few bigger ones, but most of them are so tiny as to fail even the fabled fingernail test. (Your fingernail can tell if a spot on a windshield is convex—dirt—or concave—a pit.)

I've never seen this before, even in Scottsdale dirt-road country, where we lived for almost nine years. The culprit is clear: Colorado Springs doesn't use much salt on their roads. Granite dust is cheap here, and that's what they dump on the roads to keep us all from killing each other during the winter. Most of it is under two or three millimeters in diameter, but there's an occasionally larger piece, and I've heard them tick off my windshield from time to time.

The 4Runner celebrates its sixth birthday next month, and we've been in the Springs now for four. I guess that's time enough for the autometeoroids to impart a permanent haze to my viewplates.

Crap, it seems like all I ever do is drive down to Safeway! How in hell did Beowulf Shaeffer deal with this?

March 18, 2007: Microsoft's Paralyzing Flaw

We're leaving for Chicago in a couple of days, and things have gotten pretty busy here, so I must be brief. I will call your attention to an excellent short essay that Pete Albrecht sent me, which is an analysis of the sorts of thing that Steve Ballmer constantly rants about, most recently with respect to Google. The essayist nails it completely. He points out two problems with Microsoft:

  • They can't bring themselves to give away any service that might be truly useful; and
  • They don't trust their customers.

These two points are really one and the same: It makes Microsoft nuts to even imagine that somebody, somewhere might be using their stuff without paying for it. Trusting the ad model or swallowing a certain amount of piracy as unavoidable and not ultimately damaging is just not within their power. And I mean that literally: The gang that runs Microsoft are for the most part of a single psychiatric template: the Right Man. Right Men have a primal inability to yield control, and a lesser but near-primal inability to admit their own weaknesses and mistakes unless they do not lose face by so admitting.

Here's an excerpt from Colin Wilson's excellent book The Criminal History of Mankind that lays out the Right Man template extremely well. Steve Ballmer is so true to the Right Man type as to border on self-parody. Bill Gates makes less noise, but I think the template is just as true. The point I want to make here is that they can't help it. They really can't. Not being able to help it is a crucial part of the Right Man template.

So let's not expect Microsoft to suddenly see the light and try business models that require them to yield control or extend trust that cannot be verified. Can't work, not as long as Right Men are running the place and defining their corporate culture. Google is safe—at least from competition from Microsoft.

March 16, 2007: My Big Experiment in Free Content

I just posted a 2 MB PDF containing one of the Carl & Jerry stories; in this case, the February 1957 entry, "Electronic Cops and Robbers." It's a free download, and the copyright page explicitly gives people permission to redistribute it however they want. No DRM, no nags, nothing. (Ok, there's an ad for the print books on the last page.) It's part of an experiment I'm going to be performing over the coming year. I've been talking to Phillip Torrone, editor of the Make Blog, who's a very big Carl & Jerry fan. He told me that if I'm willing to post individual stories as free downloads, he'll point to them on the Blog. So that's what I'm going to do, time permitting: I'm going to upload a story every week or two, until they're all up there. All of them. Free.

There's two things at play here:

  • The intention was never to make a lot of money republishing Carl & Jerry. I'm gathering items from moldy magazines that are scattered all over other people's basements and garages and putting them together so that they won't be lost. I'd like to get something back for the (considerable) time I'm putting into the project, but this isn't something I need to live on.
  • I have an intuition that I will sell more print books by giving away the stories than if I simply made the print editions available. This has been the counterintuitive result obtained by a number of relatively famous SF writers, most notobly Cory Doctorow, as he explained in Forbes.

In short, I've been hearing that this is the business model of the future, and I want to see if it works. If it does, I may bend some other anticipated projects in that direction.

The uploaded files will be on the order of 2MB because the illos are present at print resolution. But that's smaller than most MP3s, and although I expect some complaints about the file sizes, I like the way the illos look, and the stories can be printed without the illos spreading out into pixelated crap.

By the way, I just finished scanning the text in for the stories present in Volume 3, and will begin laying them out this weekend. There's some travel in my schedule this spring, but I'm still on track to get the third collection out sometime in May. I'll keep you posted here, and you can always run up and check my Carl & Jerry page from time to time.

March 15, 2007: When All Are Naked, None Are Naked

Organized nudism was invented in Germany in the 1930s; when responding to the inevitable criticism, the stoic nudists replied, "When all are naked, none are naked." Those primordial nudists came to mind this morning when I read a New York Times feature aggregated by Bruce Schneier in his monthly Crypto-Gram newsletter. Although long, it's worth reading in full. The gist of it is that our young people (I won't call them kids; it makes me sound old and grumpy) are willingly giving over the very idea of privacy, in ways that their Boomer and GenX parents find appalling and in many respects dangerous. The story begins with a statement from a (gorgeous) 26-year-old female bartender, stating, "I am naked on the Internet." This (I think deliberately) elicits a strong reaction from those over 30. But wait: Yes, she's naked on the Internet. But so is everybody else.

It's not always physical nakedness. Young people are posting brutally frank descriptions of their everyday lives, including their complex relationships to the other heavily connected beings in their peer clouds. There may have been a time when they didn't realize that such postings would be there forever, and in one archive or another possibly outlive them (I was naive enough to warn about this a couple of years ago) but no more. They understand it, perhaps more clearly than even we do, and they revel in it.

There's plenty of room to argue whether or not this is a safety hazard, though such argument is ironic among Boomers, given some of the crackpot things we did when young and yet somehow survived. For me it was often electric shock; in my teens I would sometimes begin soldering or unsoldering something in a tube project without hitting the power switch. I've taken more than a few 400V (or higher) shocks through a roll of solder—and yet I'm still here. I've fallen out of a couple of trees. I've eaten M&Ms that were on the floor a lot longer than five seconds. Maybe we should worry less. (I'm trying.)

The real issue here may be more subtle: How do you want to be remembered? Or, more to the point, are you done yet? I spent the first thirty-odd years of my life trying to decide on a career, and I know an amazing number of people whose lives at 50 have little or no resemblance to their lives at 20. If I had had a blog when I was 17, I would have been posting photos like the one at left. There was a short period in college when I wrote poetry. Then I went back and read the poetry—and stopped. I thought that the SF I wrote while in high school was pretty cool, when I was in high school. My standards are much higher now, and as much as I yearned to be published when I was 17, I'm now glad that I wasn't. Some of the young people in the NYT article speak about having a crisp near-total record of their teen years. I have a few snapshots like the one at left. That's about as crisp a record as I think I could stand.

There's a certain nudist's armor in the simple fact that millions of bright teens are baring their souls online, and as much as each considers him or herself a startlingly original phenomenon, they're so numerous and all so similar that they vanish into a kind of pointilist reflection of their culture. We did too, in the 60s and 70s, except that there was no Internet on which to display the reflection. I'm good with that.

It can be argued that all of our lives are processes, and we'll be remembered by what we did at the end, and not what we did in the beginning. Possibly, though there's a worm in it: Unless you're John F. Kennedy or Hilary Clinton, people are not going to plow through a crisp record of your young years and reflect that you've turned out way better now that you're 60. (Or dead.) Mostly they're going to google out your naked photos or your stupid poetry and consider you cheap entertainment.

Oh, and who will bet that once all of these carefree soul-baring teens snag their degrees, get married, and begin working 70-hour weeks, the ongoing record will continue? The result is that a lot of them will be remembered (in search archives, at least) by what they did when they were 20, because that's where the story stopped. That's a scary thought—or at least it should be.

March 12, 2007: Odd Lots

March 11, 2007: DaySaver Solves the YDST "Crisis"

There is much scratching-of-heads today in the US and Canada about the Daylight Savings Time "crisis." Congress fiddled the dates this year to save energy (a good thing) but Windows by default assumes the 1996 start/end dates for DST in those parts of the country that use it. Microsoft posted a diabolically scary support page for changing the DST dates, but that's unnecessary now. A chap has written a simple but completely sufficient utility to update the DST dates not only on the host machine, but also any machine on your network—assuming you have a domain applied to your network. (As best I can tell, you can't run it remotely if you're still using a workgroup to hold your network together.)

The utility is Johnny5's DaySaver 1.5, and it's free and open source. (I found it through SourceForge.) It's a small, standalone .exe that needs no installation. I tested it on a virtual machine, and then ran it on all the other machines here. You run it, reboot, and you're there.

Here's what it does: Windows keeps the DST start/end dates in Registry keys, with one key per time zone. This allows states like Arizona to opt out of DST. DaySaver applies a change to all the Registry keys defining all affected time zones, and although the default list contains all the time zones in the US and Canada (where the 2007 changes apply) you can select any time zone on Earth if you want. For this change, keep all the defaults, for both time zones and start-end dates.

DaySaver is a network app. It works through IPs, even if you only want to change the machine you run it on. For the local machine, it uses the loopback IP ( and for remote machines requires that you log in to each remote machine using hostname or IP, domain, and password. (This can be done using a list of remote machines stored as a text file.) Your firewall may pop up and ask permission to let it run, even on the local machine.

DaySaver hasn't been tested under Win9x or ME, and Pete Albrecht couldn't get it to run on his Win98 laptop. Consider it a Win2K/XP utility. Vista already has the fix built-in.

Note well: DaySaver makes Registry changes. It does not change the system time. (You have to reboot or run your NIST timesetter utility to do that.) Back up your Registry or set a restore point before running it. The good news is that once you run it, you don't need to run it again until such time as the Powers change the DST start/end dates. I also think you don't need to run it in Arizona, or in other places where DST doesn't apply and you have the DST box un-checked in the Time Zone tab of your Day/Time properties dialog.

Works great. Mostly targeted at Windows sysadmins (and thus not for beginners) but it's way better than making manual Registry changes. Highly recommended.

March 9, 2007: Neanderthal Resurgence

I became fascinated with Neanderthal humans ten or twelve years ago, and was trying to concoct an SF story concept around them when I got the idea for The Cunning Blood—and that was the end of that. Recently, cavemen have returned to our cultural consciousness in a big way, thanks to a series of brilliant and sometimes hilarious commercials for insurance company Geico. Several of them are on YouTube, and if you simply don't watch TV and have never seen them (and cripes, I almost never watch TV and yet see them constantly) this is the commercial that put them on the map, and here's the best one. The commercials have become so popular that ABC recently ordered a pilot of a sitcom starring the three Geico cavemen as roomies in modern-day Atlanta. There's no promise that the pilot will graduate to an actual series, but I'm rooting for them. (I haven't watched a TV series regularly since Firefly.)

A catchphrase from the second commercial I cited is already being used as an online scold for people showing a little too much whiny indignation: "Oooh. Sounds like somebody woke up on the wrong side of the rock."

Most people probably still think of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging brutes, but recent science seems to be pointing in the other direction. Although they were a little shorter than we are, their arms were in the same proportions as ours, and their brain cases were actually significantly larger. Facial reconstruction of a female child from a skull found in Gibraltar shows a girl better looking than some of those I went to grade school with. Evidently the Cro-Magnons thought so too, as we have found evidence of Neanderthal genes in a several Northern European ethnic groups. The bump on the back of my head (called an "occipital bun," as I mentioned a couple of months ago) could be a Neanderthal holdover. More remarkably, we've been able to extract Neanderthal DNA from a particularly well-preserved bone, and at some point we will probably sequence their genome as completely as we have sequenced our own. And most remarkably (and ironically) of all, we may have come upon our supersized brains by borrowing some brain genes from our cave cousins.

If re-creating an extinct species from DNA ever becomes possible (and the barriers still appear to be purely technical) one has to assume that Neanderthals will be high on the list. The question thus arises: Could a Neanderthal human function in modern human society? Much depends on whether or not they had the power of language, something still being debated with the fury of a soccer match. Certainly they had enough gray matter to do it, but we may never have any proof that they did—until we have a Neanderthal child to observe. Matt Ridley, in The Red Queen, argues that we developed our large brains in order to gossip—that is, to categorize large numbers of human relationships (especially sexual relationships) and keep them in a constantly refreshed database. Big brains suggest gossip, and gossip requires language.

Language, however, implies culture, and the problem is that we cannot reconstruct Neanderthal culture from their DNA. A Neanderthal child raised on Sesame Street, and educated at Colorado State University with an IPod in her pocket, would be a bit of a nonesuch. There's a lot of New Age crapola speculating that Neanderthals were telepathic in dangerous ways, which is why we exterminated them. (This is the theme of John Darnton's rather silly novel, Neanderthal.) Telepathy aside, my expectation (and if it ever happens, my hope) is that Neanderthals think in remarkable ways, and might be able to teach us something about how to solve really difficult problems. Colin Wilson suggested in one of his books that ancient humans had a different grasp of mathematics than we have, in that they could envision number lines and planes and even higher dimensions, and perceive values like points on a map rather than logical abstractions. A person with that sort of mind could "see" a number and all its factors, and spot prime numbers without calculation. This suggests a kind of whole-brain consciousness that we lack, rather like Julian Jaynes' "bicameral mind" evolution in reverse. What sort of creature would that be?

I'd want them among my friends. I would certainly want them as my advisors—assuming I could communicate meaningfully with them. I would not want them as my enemies, particularly if they developed an intuitive, whole-brain grip on modern technology. There's a story (or fifty) in there somewhere.

March 6, 2007: God, the Springs, and Cooking Oil

This past December 31, the Colorado Springs Gazette published an article that so infuriated local Evangelicals that the paper eventually pulled the article from its archive. You can still find the article in Google's cache, but that will go away eventually, so read it now if you're interested. It's a history of how Ted Haggard had a vision on the side of Pike's Peak that Colorado Springs would become a sort of City of God, and how, for a long time, everything went his way. Haggard's fall made national news, but that's not what irritates a lot of the local Evangelicals. The part that bothers them is this, quoted from the article:


In 1984, a nobody pastor named Ted Haggard had what he described as a vision after three days of fasting and praying on the side of Pikes Peak.

Colorado Springs was already a conservative town. But its political coloration was dictated by its large contingent of active and retired military, not its churches.

Haggard saw a city transformed: There was “a huge, lifegiving church” on a hill. Christian organizations poured into the city like crazy, creating “a fountain with young people coming in, having positive spiritual experiences, and going to the darkest places in the world.”

Part of his teachings focused on Colorado Springs being a chosen place that needed to be claimed for the Lord. The New Lifers walked the sidewalks, praying and blessing, block by block, business by business, all over the city.

One evening in the mid-1980s, Haggard found a handful of congregants praying over a 5-gallon bucket of cooking oil. They said God had told them to anoint the city, and so they did, block by block — using a garden sprayer.

“It’s a little unusual,” Haggard wrote of the oil in his book Primary Purpose, “but so is Colorado Springs.”

The Evangelicals complained that the paper was trying to make them look silly. Assuming that this actually happened (and it's taken from Haggard's book, so I suspect it did) the paper wasn't doing any "making." I doubt that "Saturday Night Live" could have come up with a better parody of Evangelical Christianity. Holy canola oil, Batman!

It's actually kind of sad. This is not how sacramental anointing works, any more than you can baptize downtown crowds by hooking a firehose to a tanker of holy water and dousing anybody within reach. It's not about the water, and it's not about the oil. To think otherwise is to descend to a kind of ceremonial magick, and that's what the incident suggests to me—and, ironically, what Evangelicals sometimes accuse Catholics of doing. I've sometimes wondered why the rest of Evangelical America doesn't disown them.

Ah, well. At least those guys are all on the north side of town.

March 5, 2007: The Generation Gap and the True Friend Test

The generation gap lives on, especially in the online world. I first found this out when I installed the Trepia chat client back in 2003, having read that it makes novel use of Wi-Fi to cluster clients geographically. It did no such thing. It did cluster users by age, in that I almost never saw anybody on it over thirty. The young evidently do not value diversity along the age axis; one marginally socialized little snot of 19 told me: "You are too old for this. You are really too old for this." (I think it was P. J. O'Rourke who said years ago that young people like to live where there is lots of sex, and old people like to live where there are no young people. After spending some time on Trepia, I understood.)

It hit me again when I created a mirror of Contra on LiveJournal so that I wouldn't have to generate my own RSS feeds on LiveJournal has probably the most mature demographic of all the social networking sites (with MySpace on the other end of the curve) and yet I see almost no grayhairs there. Many of my regular readers of Contra on are over 55, and quite a few over 60. The culture of my demographic might be characterized by a comment I received last year from a gentleman who is now in his mid-60s and has been in IT since IBM's salad days of 1966: "We invented computing. These kids all got it in their Christmas stockings."

C'mon, people. Play nice. As my mother used to say, Nobody likes a grouch.

LiveJournal is a fascinating thing, though it doesn't always work correctly. (My text used to wrap photos; it doesn't anymore, though my HTML coding hasn't changed.) One of the most fascinating things about it are called memes, which are typically little quizzes titled something like "What flavor of ice cream are you?" The quiz asks you a number of questions, and then tells you what flavor of ice cream you are, and why, though the "why" doesn't always make as much sense as I'd like. The memes are created using Web sites like

The other day I spotted one on my sister's blog that may actually be making its creators significant money. It's the True Friend Test. It's a personal trivia quiz: You create fifteen or twenty questions about yourself, then your friends sign on and try to answer them. The site generates HTML for a little scoreboard that you can drop into your own page on LiveJournal, MySpace, Blogger, or even a homebrew blog like Contra on The scoreboard lists the nicks of your top scorers, who (because they know so much about you, or perhaps because they've taken so many multiple-choice exams) are therefore your true friends.

This shows better than it tells. The one I made up last night is below:

Create your own Friend Test here

What I find interesting is how simple this is from a technology standpoint. No need for Web 2.0. Most of the codeslingers I know could probably whack it together in a weekend. And while the testees are answering questions, there are Google ads in the left column. Viral marketing gets your memes (and thus links to the ads) placed without any effort on your part. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

There are doubtless more opportunities (and much cleverer ones) to leverage the vast popularity of social networking sites. One of my history teachers once told us that the best way to get rich is to persuade a great many people to each give you a nickel. (In inflation-adjusted nickels, that would now be about a buck and a half.) Cut-and-paste memes with ad hooks designed for social networking sites are perhaps the purest modern example. I'm looking for other clever examples, and will cite them here as I find them.

March 4, 2007: Swapping and Dropping Keys in Windows

Back in my January 26, 2007 entry, I speculated about hooking the keyboard interrupt under Windows so I can turn off the damfool CapsLock key that is now (on my new Avant Stellar keyboard) where left Ctrl used to be on my ancient Northgate OmniKeys. Hordes of people wrote to tell me that that isn't necessary under Windows, and sent me numerous pointers to useful information.

The bottom line: Windows maintains a key-mapping table somewhere in its guts, and it allows you to override it with a custom table that you add to the Registry as a binary key. You can disable any key, or map any key to any other key. The horse's mouth is a good place to start. More info here. What they describe apparently applies to WinNT, Win2K and XP; no clue about Vista. It does not apply to Win9X. If you're good with a Registry editor and have a head for binary tables, you can work it out from there.

On the other hand, people have created registry mod files (with a .reg extension) to do the most commonly requested key scan code mods. Few people want to turn Q into J, but a lot of people (like me) would like to turn the CapsLock key to something else, or simply disable it. A gentleman named John Haller created several such files and instructions on how to use them. I tested all his mods in Win2K virtual machines and they all work. (I have not yet tested them under XP but intend to do so at some point. I don't use XP very much.) Installing them is easy: You double-click one of the .reg files and Windows adds the key contained in the file to your Registry. You then reboot, and it's done. If you change your mind he has one that removes all scan code remappings so that you can start again.

If you use XP, by all means set a restore point before you try it. If you don't know what a restore point is, go find out Right Now. Especially if you're thinking of fooling with the Registry.

I'm still trying to decide whether it's better to change CapsLock to left Ctrl (which is what it was on my Northgate OmniKeys) or just disable it so that pressing it does nothing. Making it a Ctrl key brings back the Ctrl-A problem that beset many old keyboards (bridge the two keys and you select the whole document, which the next keystroke replaces) but disabling it gives me a key that presses and clicks and does nothing, which will take some getting used to. For the moment it's disabled; if I change my mind I can remove the mapping and try it the other way.

Many thanks to about fifteen people who wrote to me about this, and especially the eight or ten who pointed me to John Haller's solution. I learned a lot, and my new keyboard is no longer making me nuts.

March 1, 2007: Carl & Jerry Volume 2 Is Available

I made my target (beat it by a day, though I didn't say anything) to get Carl & Jerry: Their Complete Adventures from Popular Electronics, Volume 2, posted on Lulu and ready to order.

In case you just tuned in, my announcement of Volume 1 (plus a little history of the project) can be found in my February 1, 2007 entry. Volume 2 came out quickly (as these things go) after Volume 1 mostly because Volume 1 was late, and I spent six weeks or so just tweaking it until I was happy with the design, furiously scanning the stories for Volume 2 at the same time. Volume 3 will probably take me another two months and change, especially since Popular Electronics moved from uncoated to coated paper with the May 1959 issue, allowing the use of much finer halftone screens on their artwork.

The artwork is in many respects the tough part of the project. If you scan a halftoned image and then print it on a rasterizing printer like those used in print-on-demand publishing, you'll get all kinds of weird Moire interference patterns. Laser printers are really dot-matrix printers with very small dots, and when you print an image made of dots (like a halftone) on paper with dots, the two rasters interfere in peculiar ways, rather like a visual heterodyne. The problem gets worse with finer halftone screens, and after May, 1959, the halftones used by the artists in Popular Electronics got very fine.

There are ways to deal with this problem: You have to blur out an image to run the halftone screen into a continuous tone, and then sharpen it to get your edges back. It's a straightforward process, but it takes more time than simply optimizing the contrast on a coarser image. So have patience; I'm still hoping to get Volume 3 into print by mid-May or sooner.