May 31, 2004:

Memorial Day. The World War II Memorial in Washington DC was dedicated today, and I'd like to remember three soldiers of that conflict who meant a lot to me: Frank Duntemann (my father) and Steve Ostruska (Carol's father) who fought in WWII, and Robert Williams of Nacedah, Wisconsin, who fought and died in the Pacific before he could return home to marry my mother.

Much has been written about "the Greatest Generation," and this weekend the papers tossed out some statistics indicating that no other generation ever had the strength of civic committment as those born between 1915 and 1930. One has to ask why they were different. The New Agers say that they were all highly advanced souls reincarnated here at that time to counter the Nazi madness, and until recently that was as good an explanation as any I'd seen, heh. However, it's also possible that a high percentage of children born in that time were born of women who didn't touch a drink at all during their pregnancies. Most of the Greatest Generation were born during Prohibition (see my entry for May 25, 2004) and it's possible that alcohol inhibits the development of whatever part of the brain is the seat of unselfishness and responsibility. Whatever the reason (and I'm banking on that one) it's fitting that they lived out their lives in relative peace and prosperity. Now that we understand the dangers of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, perhaps we have a chance to create another Greatest Generation, who can get us past the scary future many people see lying ahead.
May 30, 2004:

A few odd lots as we start to pull the curtains on another lusty month of May:

  • My average spam count since May 27 is down to 340 per day, from a high weekly average a couple months ago of about 550, peaking at 658. Has anyone else seen such a dramatic decrease in spam recently? I can't imagine why I'm being singled out.
  • Michael Covington sent me a link to an online copy of Arthur Conan Doyle's rather Lovecraftian story "The Horror of the Heights" from 1913, which has as its main gimmick a floating ecosystem of gas-filled creatures living at 50,000 feet, including enormous tentacled gas jellyfish. One could reasonably ask why such creatures don't exist; my guess would be the lack of water that high (storms rarely extend higher than 40,000 feet) but you would think that a hydrogen-filled bubble animal of some sort could have evolved much closer to the ground. There were hydrogen bubble animals of some kind in stories set in Harlan Ellison's shared world Medea, but the story contributors couldn't agree on much about them (some were intelligent, some were just animals, and a few could inexplicably fly against the wind) but that's as far as I remember.
  • Jim Mischel and I have been puzzling over a persistent peppering we've both gotten with blank email messages, which have only a "To:" field but no "From:" field or anything else. They can't be dictionary attacks because they can't bounce if undeliverable. We suspect a malfunctioning spammer utility, but it's difficult to prove, and if anyone else has had this experience it would be interesting to hear about.

May 29, 2004:

Inspired by my mention of JP Aerospace's "blimps to space" idea in yesterday's entry, Roy Harvey sent me a pointer to a short writeup on Buckminster Fuller's "Cloud Nine" idea. Bucky's Cloud Nines were geodesic spheres (not merely domes) large enough (in excess of half a mile in diameter) so that they would float if the air inside them were heated only slightly. Make them large enough, and they could contain entire cities, floating in the atmosphere like soap bubbles, using nothing more than the waste heat generated by the processes of ordinary life. Floating cities have appeared in SF before (Cloud City in Star Wars II is the best known, though what kept it floating was never clearly stated) and they're actually a decent idea for studying or even colonizing a world with an atmosphere but an unsuitable surface.

I have an unfinished novella somewhere about living creatures who are hot-air balloons, and if they were large enough, they might become platforms on which humans could build whole cities. Has anyone seen this in SF before? (Very large, living hot-air balloon creatures used as platforms by humans.) The idea fascinates me, and I could use a noodge to get some more SF written.
May 28, 2004:

Bob Weaver and I were tossing ideas around at lunch the other day, and we were wondering if it would be practical (soon if not precisely today) to build a memory chip and controller into the spine of a reference book so that you could search the book via computer without having to keep track of a separate searchable copy. In other words, place the book on a "reader pad," and the reader pad would induce enough current into the device embedded in the book to power the memory chip and the wireless link bringing data back into the computer. (This makes it unnecessary to have batteries inside the physical book.)

This would solve a dual problem: Paper books are good and useful, but putting a readable version of the book on CD (or other readable medium) in a pocket in the back cover invites theft. I have a number of large and expensive reference texts that I would like to have in both paper and searchable form. One of the best of them is Gorden Melton's massive Encyclopedia of American Religions, which cost me over $200. That's easily a high enough cover price to float the embedded electronics—and the book is more than physically large enough to contain a memory chip in its spine. Medical books, law books, all that high-priced professional stuff would be fair game. Will it ever happen? I doubt it. The idea represents too much old mixed with too much new, and as we well know, the partisans of oldness and the partisans of newness are always at one another's throats, even though sometimes, the very best of either is actually a clever mixture of both.
May 26, 2004:

Some quick odd lots on a very busy day:

  • In its first month back on the job, POPFile classified my mail correctly 99.58% of the time. I reset the statistics today, to see how it does in its second month, without including its necessary initial learning period in the stats. POPFile still needs a whitelist feature, but overall it performs spectacularly well. I'm quite impressed at the abject failure of spammers to fool it by including either random word collections or irrelevant passages of "normal" text in their messages. Powerfully recommended!
  • Slashdot aggregated the plans of JP Aerospace to take an utterly unorthodox path to low Earth orbit: Spacegoing blimps. I still have some reservations about how well this will work, but it involves a huge (two-mile long) helium-filled star-shaped ballon floating at 140,000 feet, to act as an almost-to-space station. A V-shaped blimp is used to get from the surface to the station. From the station, a specially designed blimp uses an electrically powered ion drive to slowly accelerate to orbital speeds over a period of several days. It's all very slow (compared to fifty years of rocket-imprinted conventional wisdom) but it's also very cheap compared to rocket power, and probably a lot safer. Will it work? I wish I knew. JP Aerospace says they're about seven years off. We'll be watching, guys! (Don't miss the PDF article describing the system!)
  • Several aggregators mentioned Comcast's plans to thwart virus-spawned "spam zombies" by downloading a cable-modem configuration "bullet" that blocks outgoing connections on port 25, which is used by SMTP. Alas, my understanding of what all a cable modem can do isn't the best, but I wasn't aware that you could block outbound connections at the modem. How much firewall functionality is there in a cable modem, anyway? Will have to look into this; if any of you have any insights I'd like to hear them.

May 25, 2004:

Unless you're a hopeless medieval history freak, Barbara Tuchman's detailed descriptions of the constant wars in the 14th century in her book A Distant Mirror will confuse and ultimately bore you. (See my entries for May 14 and 15, 2004.) I actually like that sort of stuff, but what really fascinates me about the book is her description of ordinary life in the Middle Ages, right down to things like what happened to excrement in big crowded cities when there were no sewers. (In case you were wondering—or even if you weren't—the answer is that it was left in piles to one side of front doors, in the hope that the city's intermittent poop patrols would shovel it into carts and dump it in the nearest river. Oh, and wipe your feet before you come inside...)

I cite this smelly example for a reason; follow along with me here. Although people weren't quite sure why, it was well-known in the 1300s that drinking water from city wells or nearby rivers and streams was a short path to dysentery, which back then meant death as often as not. For this reason, water was not something you drank routinely. The nobility drank wine; commoners drank beer or ale. These were known to be safer than well or river water, though it wasn't always a sure thing.

It struck me that if beer and wine were almost literally all that most people drank throughout their lives, we have yet another possible explanation for the violence and rapaciousness of that era: Everybody had a touch of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), the psychological consequences of which are only now beginning to be understood. Back then, drinking alchohol wasn't something you did only on Saturday night. Alcohol was mostly what there was that wouldn't kill you. Tea was an oriental oddity, and quite expensive. Coffee was still several centuries from being a commonplace.

Most of the Web discussions of FES I've seen focus on serious cases, born to women who are alcoholics. I don't see much research on the consequences of modest alcohol consumption during pregnancy, especially when alcohol blood levels are low but fairly constant. (We know pretty clearly what serious benders can do to a fetus.) It's entirely possible that long before the well-known physiological damage occurs, brain development is affected in ways that would make the mild—even undiagnosed—FES victim more selfish and less concerned for the feelings or the lives of others.

One final intriguing historical tidbit to throw out at you: American crime rates (all crime, not simply violent crime) plunged in the late 1930s and early 1940s, for no reason that we've ever understood, before beginning to rise again in the late 1950s. (Remember all that furor over juvenile delinquency that brought us West Side Story?) Dial back the clock a little, and reflect that between 1920 and 1934, alcohol was technically illegal everywhere in the US, and for a couple of decades prior to that, state and local regulation of booze made drinking less common than it had been at the turn of the century. Is there a connection? I'd sure love to see some serious research, but you have to wonder.
May 24, 2004:

Funny thing happened yesterday morning: Carol and I went to church in separate cars for reasons that don't matter here, and she was running a little late. As she was steaming down Academy, her cell phone went off, and caller ID said it was me. However, instead of hearing my voice on the other end of the line, she heard the St. Raphael's organ and choir (and me, God help us) singing the processional hymn, "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus." She thought I might have been teasing her for being late, but in truth, I had tossed my cellphone in my pants pocket without locking the keyboard, and in the thick of the ensuing wrestling match with my car keys, something pressed the phone's instant call #1 button, which is set to Carol's cell. I had no idea the call was underway, and in fact it went on for several minutes until she figured out what was going on and hung up.

Jesus (or somebody up there) must have heard the hymn, because there are nine other instant call buttons that could have gotten pressed, including my high school friend Pete Albrecht, Carol's mom, my sister Gretchen, Jim Mischel, my business partner Keith, my cousin Rose...and 911. Whew. Got off easy on that one, I did.
May 21, 2004:
I hurt my right arm last night, hoisting my drill press up to my workbench, and lots of typing is not in the cards for a few days. Bear with me; I should be posting again by Monday.
May 20, 2004:

Gloating is bad for the soul, and after a few hours poking around the Web last night, well, I'm just going to have to go to confession. Every day, it seems, we're faced with a new network exploit allowing one damned worm or another to take control of people's PCs. I've been trying to figure out why this happens, and the answer is pretty simple: It's C and C++. Really. I've read article after article, and it always cooks down to the same explanation: By design, the standard C library can't tell how much string data is in a buffer until the buffer gets loaded, and by then it's too late. Note that C# doesn't have this problem; C# isn't really related to C at all. It's Pascal all grown up, wearing a C costume to fool C bigots into thinking it's really a variety of C. Note also that I don't claim that Object Pascal is entirely immune to this problem, though it's generally safer in this regard than C—not that any significant number of commercial programs are coded in Object Pascal. Still, people who have been reading me for a lot of years will know that I've always loathed C and C++, for this and other reasons. Damn, I guess I was right!

What puzzles me is why this problem, which is really very simple in concept, hasn't been fixed yet. It seems to me that it wouldn't exactly be rocket science to create a new version of clib that would avoid most string buffer overflows without changing the existing interfaces. (We might have to add a couple.) We could do a better job if we did change the existing interfaces a little, and you would think that by this time, the magnitude of the problem would have all the C powers huddling together to agree on a new standard interface spec for secure string management (some proposals exist already, like this one) and then jawboning the C world to use it. My hunch: To admit the problem would be to invite ridicule, and gloats precisely like this one. (We won't even begin talking about product liability.) Too bad. I'm gloating. I'll go to confession later.
May 19, 2004:

Ben Sawyer sent me a tip that Cometa Networks is shutting down. This doesn't surprise me too much, but the reasons given in the article (and elsewhere, as the discussion of why fee-based hotspots are not taking off) are missing a few nuances:

  • Wi-Fi is now in its adolescence, which means that it's gotten cheap, and that a lot of ordinary people have caught on and use it regularly—and understand it well enough to game the system. I am amazed at how many of them privately confide in me that when they travel, they just sniff around for an unprotected access point and quickly download their mail. They (usually) understand that this is illegal, but feel (probably with considerable justification) that they won't be prosecuted, or even detected. Some even spread their communications among several nearby unprotected APs to avoid notice. A thin handful are using encrypted email to hide their identities.
  • Business travellers have read increasingly frequent articles describing how easy it is to sniff packets at hotspots of all kinds. APs are hubs, and even when WEP is used (which at public hotspots is almost never) all clients connected to the AP can intercept and read one another's packets, because there's only one key for the entire hub. To use a public hotspot safely, you really need to work through your own VPN, which few business travellers have access to. I am surprised at how many nontechnical business travellers understand that wired connections are more secure than hotspots, and they look for wired connections at hotels when travelling.
  • Having accounts at multiple hotspot networks is a nonstarter for most business travellers because of the paperwork involved, but with the hotspot business as fragmented as it is, multiple accounts are necessary to be sure of having a connection at any arbitrary location.

Competition from free hotspots will become an issue in a year or so, but free hotspots are still scarce enough so that it's not yet the core problem, as people are saying. It's the security, stupid!

What the paid hotspot networks need to do, and do quickly, is establish a service providing a VPN of some kind that encrypts the several PCs connected to the hotspot AP from one another. Boingo has begun to do this; most of the other networks do not—and this will become a serious issue before the end of 2004. When connectivity is cheap or free (legally or otherwise) you'd better start selling security, or your customers will just crank up NetStumbler and (literally) go down the street.
May 18, 2004:

A few odd lots before I yawn off here:

  • My spam count continues to creep downward, and over the past 20 days the daily average has fallen below 400 for the first time in I don't know how long. I am now getting as few as 375 spams per day, and it appears to be the spam proxies that are falling off. Spammers with their own domains are in there as strong as ever.
  • George Ewing mentioned a friend who did some research some years back on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and the research pointed to FES as a potent creator of completely selfish individuals who have little or no concern for the feelings, well-being, or even the lives of others. This suggests broader studies of cultures where alcohol is unknown against cultures where alcohol abuse is common. Violence may not simply be the result of bad drunks acting out—it may be the force that created the bad drunks who engage in violence to begin with.
  • George and several others have pointed out that our modern notion of an indulged childhood was really invented early in the Victorian era, starting in the 1850s or 1860s. Literature targeted specifically at children is quite rare prior to Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, for example. I'm looking for additional published evidence supporting this, which is an extremely interesting notion.
  • A local guy here in Colorado Springs is organizing a compaign to persuade local Roman Catholics to withold all donations to the Church until Bishop Michael Sheridan (see yesterday's entry) withdraws his letter compelling his parishioners to vote against candidates according to RC guidelines. The diocese evidently lost a $100,000 donation toward a new parish this way, and one wonders how long this will continue before the Powers take notice. Many have said, both today and in centuries past, that church reform will not come to pass until the money stops coming in the door.

May 17, 2004:

Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Colorado Springs Diocese sent a letter out to all the parishes under his jurisdiction, instructing pastors to tell parishioners that if they support politicians who hold certain views opposed by the Roman Church, they should voluntarily abstain from receiving Holy Communion. This has been much in the papers locally; I don't know if it was picked up by the national news media, and I don't know if other RC bishops around the country have done something similar.

The connection between one's civil and religious obligations is a difficult one. Only the secret ballot prevents the Church from making it official, so you're basically on your honor to excommunicate yourself if you vote for a guy who supports any of the following list of taboo positions:

  • Abortion
  • Stem cell research
  • Euthanasia
  • Same-sex marriage

(This list doesn't include the other current RC hot-button items, divorce, contraception, and women's ordination to the priesthood, because none of these are issues hinging on current secular politics. The Church stopped trying to get laws passed against divorce and contraception decades ago, and women's orders is strictly an internal issue.)

I grant the RCC the right to set its own policies, and if they want to toss people for what the Church defines as moral transgressions, that's their call. The real problem as I see it is not the obvious one, that church bodies should not twist their adherents' arms about their political positions. The real problem is that the Church is declaring that its issues are the top priority for all Roman Catholics, and nothing else matters. Given that we basically only have two parties, and a lot of Republicans are on the wrong side of some of the hinge issues (particularly stem cell research) this means that to stay on the right side of the Church, many Roman Catholics will have to recuse themselves from the democratic process entirely.

To my view, that is a very serious problem. Roman Catholics are being asked to choose between Church and State, not only on church issues, but on state issues as well. What if you're in line with the RCC on all the hot button issues, but dislike the Republican policy on Iraq? I could think of dozens of other similar gotchas. The Church is making its members responsible for the decisions of their (very limited) selection of politicians. It is basically asking them to stop being Americans. That, I'm afraid, is over the line.

In a sense, this is the cowardly way to go about it. The Roman Catholic Church should simply hand a sheet of paper to all of its members, containing something to the effect that "I, the undersigned, support the defined positions of the Roman Catholic Church in all things, especially the issues listed below..." Anybody who refuses to sign would be out the door. That would be the honest way to handle this, but I think Bishop Sheridan and even the Pope understand that doing so would empty the Church, leaving only the (mostly elderly) reactionary wing.

I'd be curious to hear from any of you if your local RCC diocese makes similar demands of its people. Bishop Michael Sheridan has some guts—but only some. I'd like to suggest that he really put his parishes where his mouth is, and see what happens.
May 16, 2004:

Continuing the thread begun on May 14 on why we are violent: It may be less complex or lofty than a parenting style, or how much attention a child is given. It may be as simple as the amount of time that a child is held and cuddled in those crucial early years. Consider another book that I don't really recommend: The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.) In his howling mishmash of a book, Bloom makes a lot of statements that I just can't figure, and when I finished it I felt I knew less about the topic than I did when I began it. Nonetheless, there is one crucial chapter in the book, "The Importance of Hugging." Here's the key excerpt:

Another explanation [for why some revel in violence] may be found in a survey of forty-nine primitive cultures conducted by James W. Prescott, founder of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Developmental Biology Program. Some of the cultures Prescott studied took great pleasure in killing, torturing or mutilating the enemy. Others did not. What was the difference? Says Prescott, "Physical affection—touching, holding, and carrying." The societies that hugged their kids were relatively peaceful. The cultures that treated their children coldly produced brutal adults. Or, to put it more technically, a low score on the Infant Physical Affection scale correlated with a high rate of "adult physical violence."

After this introduction, Bloom describes how children are raised in Bedouin Arab cultures. It's too much to quote in detail here, but the gist is simple: Children are raised harshly, with very little cuddling or physical contact of any kind. The fact that Bedouin fathers are distant and intellectual is probably a lot more important than the fact that those fathers punish their children.

The Lucifer Principle gets howled down by liberals because it is an extremely harsh indictment of Islam, and I don't intend to get into that here, though I lean in Bloom's direction. (The book would have benefited greatly from the gentle hand of a good editor. It tries to do too much, and goes off in way too many directions.) Islam is the expression of a pre-existing culture. Violent personalities may well be caused by physical isolation during infancy and youth, and cultures that emphasize a style of child-rearing that promotes physical isolation of its children will be a violent culture. Christianity was an expression of such a culture through much of its history, especially prior to the Renaissance. Bedouin Arab culture, out which Islam originated, is still such a culture. Religion per se may be a fairly small part of it.

We need more research here, but even in the absence of hard data, what data we have is extremely suggestive: Hug your kids. Cuddle them, hold them on your lap, ride them on your shoulders, swing them around and roll on the grass with them. It may seem silly (it is! You got a problem with that?) but it's certainly fun...and it may well be the last, best hope of humanity.
May 15, 2004:

Continuing a thread begun yesterday, focused on Barbara Tuchman's brilliant history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror. No matter how bad we think our own era might be in terms of respect for human life, we've got nothing on the late Middle Ages. Casual, unthinking murder was so common as not to seem the least unusual, and this was true from the top of the social ladder to the very bottom. Why?

Barbara Tuchman has a theory. She points out early in the book, while describing the details of daily life in the 1300s, that descriptions of interactions between parents and very young children are virtually absent from the writing and illustration of the day:

Medieval illustrations show people in every other human activity—making love and dying, sleeping and eating, in bed and in the bath, praying, hunting, dancing, plowing, in games and in combat, trading, traveling, reading and writing—yet so rarely with children as to raise the question: Why not?

Although printing remained in the future, there were bound manuscripts copied among the aristocracy, containing advice on keeping house, treating illness, travelling in foreign lands, table manners, making ink, rat poison, and other household necessities...but nothing at all on raising young children.

…she would find few books for mothers with advice on breast-feeding, swaddling, bathing, weaning, solid-feeding, and other complexities of infant care, although these might seem to have been of more moment for survival of the race than breeding birds in cages or even keeping husbands comfortable. When breast-feeding was mentioned, it was generally advocated…for its emotional value [to the mother.]

At about age 7 or 8, children began to be mentioned, but only in connection with making them into adults as quickly as possible, to meet the constant needs of the military or the work in the fields.

If children survived to age seven, their recognized life began, more or less as miniature adults. Childhood was already over.

Key here is the phrase, if children survived to age seven. Tuchman continues:

On the whole, babies and young children appear to have been left to survive or die without great concern in the first five or six years. What psychological effect this may have had on character, and possibly on history, can only be conjectured. Possibly the relative emotional blankness of a medieval infancy may account for the casual attitude toward life and suffering of the medieval man.

One can readily imagine toddlers grubbing around in the dirt behind a peasants' hovel, mostly ignored by parents who were desperately trying to generate enough food to stay alive. On the other hand, this state of affairs held true among the aristocracy as well. Kids were ignored until they were old enough to be educable in adult matters. Why this should be so remains a mystery, though Tuchman speculates:

Maternal love, like sex, is generally considered too innate to be eradicable, but perhaps under certain unfavorable conditions it may atrophy. Owing to the high infant mortality of the times, estimated at one or two in three, the investment of love in a young child may have been so unrewarding that by some ruse of nature, as when overcrowded rodents in captivity will not breed, it was suppressed. Perhaps also the frequent childbearing put less value on the product. A child was born and died and another took its place.

In other words, if two out of three of your infants die, bonding with them may have been more than a young mother could bear. Those infants who proved their mettle by getting past the hazards of childhood disease might then be loved, but at that point the damage had already been done. Kittens and puppies who are born under porches and never have close contact with humans go feral. Something of the sort might have been woven into the fabric of medieval culture: All of humanity was basically abandoned at birth and allowed to go a little bit feral. Beneath a thin veneer of rational humanity instilled (often brutally) after age 7 was a heart of animal darkness.

Fast-forward to the 21st century: I think if we looked hard at the childhoods of those disturbing "soul-less" teenagers who kill without any remorse, we'd see something of a similar pattern: Born but then given almost no cuddling, affection, or chance to bond with other human beings, and left to wander the floors of ghetto homes and later ghetto neighborhoods, following only animal desires because they were never grounded in human feeling. I'd lay odds that that was the problem besetting the 14th century, and in places where children aren't cuddled and hugged, it besets us today. The more a child is shown that his or her life matters, the more that child will grow up to value the lives of others. That seems so obvious to me; why did we not hit on it until the middle of the 20th century?

More tomorrow.
May 14, 2004:

Anyone who thinks that the human race has not progressed radically in terms of morals and general deportment should read the late Barbara Tuchman's classic work: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. I read it ten or twelve years ago, and picked it up again a few days back, just to have something to slow me down at the end of a long day and make it easier to sleep. (History, even when good reading, always makes me drowsy.) Wow.

The 14th Century was a wild ride. It encompassed the beginning of the Little Ice Age (see my entry for October 1, 2002), the Black Death, the start of the Hundred Years' War, the collapse of civil order in France (which signaled the end of France's tenure as European superpower) and the end of chivalry. It was not a good time to be alive: After the Black Death carried off between a third and a half of Europe's population, France imploded in a paroxysm of intrigues, murders, the capture of its king by the English, and the devastation of its peasant population by roving bands of brigands (mostly unemployed soldiers) called "the companies." Tuchman paints a vivid picture of life as lived by all the social classes at that time, and while there's much to bemoan about the state of the Church (utterly corrupt) and sexual probity (mostly nonexistent) what leaps off the page is the absolute disregard for human life displayed by noble and peasant alike. The sheer viciousness of the era is breathtaking.

I'm not just talk about cruelty to animals, which Tuchman documents here and there. This included an unthinkably cruel sport that involved nailing a live cat to a tree in such a way as to leave its legs free to move, and then attempting to kill the cat by butting it with your head while somehow avoiding getting your eyes scratched out by the desperate, dying cat.

Something was missing in the human soul in that era. The Church itself used torture liberally, and both peasant and noble would kill on the slightest provocation, for revenge, or often for no reason at all. The Christian spirit was dead; the Church was the dissolute inheritor of the Roman Empire, interested only in maintaining its own perquisites and (especially) its revenues. The sale of indulgences was formalized and officially sanctioned in that period, with famous results two centuries later. The nobility drained the resources of the peasantry in taxes for the sake of endless wars, which then as often as not laid waste to the peasants' lands and triggered the starvation of those not killed outright by the violence.

I guess I'll stop there. You get the idea, I'm sure. So what happened? Why was there so little value placed on human life at the end of the Middle Ages? Barbara Tuchman has a theory, one that blew past me the last time I read the book, but one that makes a lot of sense, and may shed some light on where criminality comes from, even in our own age. No more time tonight; I'll get back to it tomorrow, with any luck at all.
May 13, 2004:

Well, it's snowing again, and my allergies are better...maybe I should move to Canada. In the meantime, some recent odd lots:

  • Adam Clements wrote to tell me that Yahoo Maps has begun including Wi-Fi hotspot locations in their maps. Intel is involved somehow, as the hotspots are identified with the little flywing Centrino logo. The list is not inclusive; they show the paid hotspot at Borders Southgate (look up Zip 80906) but not the free hotspot at Panera Bread, right across the parking lot. (Oddly, the other Panera hotspot in town, up north at Briargate, is listed.) Hotspot prices and vendors are given where known.
  • Kyle McAbee provided an interesting footnote to my footnote of May 9, 2004: Charles "Lewis Carroll" Dodgson wanted to be a priest in the Church of England, but he refused to assent to the reality of eternal punishment, and thus declined major orders. As befits the Church of England, he was granted minor orders (the diaconate) for assenting to a less rigorous set of theological propositions. This is one discussion of the larger issue of Dodgson's "doubts" about dogmatic religion, though it doesn't touch on Dodgson's difficulties with Hell.
  • One of the unsolved problems with Web search engines is being able to exclude e-commerce sites from a search. When looking for objective reactions to products it's near-impossible to find non-commercial citations of a product amidst tens of thousands of catalog pages and assorted hype. Sometimes you can spot the unofficial "amateur" page for a product, but most often you can't. Kelly's St. John's Wort page is a good example of the sort of site I'm talking about, and it would be great to be able to zero in on things like this without a lot of fuss, but absent the force of the editorial hand (i.e., real live breathing human involvement in indexing) I'm not sure how it might be done.
  • On a related note, it would be nice to find a browsable topic index of message board forums. I've run across a fair number of them, and they can be extremely useful, but just finding them is as much luck as anything else. One trick I tried was googling on "Powered by phpBB," the tagline at the bottom of every instance of the phpBB open-source message board product. 2,860,000 citations! Could there be that many message boards in the world? Still, searching for "Powered by phpBB" along with the topic keyword in question usually gets results, though there's generally some serious digging still to be done. (Try "Powered by phpBB" "Episcopalian" in Google to get a sense for the problem.)

May 12, 2004:

In the course of working on Degunking Email, I've bought or downloaded all the major email clients, and have been poking at them for six or seven weeks now. It's interesting that the mail client I would most like to recommend to my readers—Pegasus Mail—is the one that makes me the craziest. Of all the mail clients I've ever used, only Big Outlook has ever infuriated me more.

Pegasus has a problem I call "the Unix disease," which is the general assumption that with respect to software, power is its own justification, and if the user can't figure out the program, it's the user's fault for not digging deeply enough, or not beating his head bloody enough in the digging.

Here's a fairly typical example. The Pegasus hierarchical folder system has three types of entities: Mailboxes, trays, and folders. Mailboxes can contain trays, folders, and messages. Trays can contain folders and messages. Folders can only contain messages. This is obvious to anyone who ever took Lisp, but I looked in vain in the online help for a simple explanation. Online help tells me that to create a new tray, I have to select a mailbox and click the New button. Trouble is, there is no New button. The button to click to create new things is labeled "Add." A Unix person would try that instantly; Unix is learned by beating on things and getting errors and taking delight in gratuitous inconsistency. Someone who isn't a geek would search in vain for the New button and then try to call tech support—which in this case doesn't exist. (Pegasus is a free program. Tech support consists of buying a stack of paper manuals.)

In trying to create a new mailbox (which is created by selecting Folders | Add mailbox to list, not by clicking Add, of course) I was presented with the dialog at right. Radio buttons allow me to select between a directory path and a username. WTF? Better question: WTHB? (Where's The Help Button?) After cancelling the operation and bringing up help again (the dialog is modal) I discovered that there is no keyword "mailbox" in the help index. Looking up "Username" told me that this option is for specifying a location for the mailbox file on a Netware file system. (That's obvious, right?) Then if you fail to enter something for one option or the other and click OK, the dialog beeps and vanishes without any indication at all of what you did wrong. Error messages are made of bits and don't weigh much; is it too much to ask for a few more?

I could keep beating on it, but I think you get the idea. One of the core problems in Pegasus Mail, and in a lot of Unix programs, is unwillingness to hide advanced options behind a cloak of reasonable defaults, which is pierced by the initiated if they so choose, by clicking on an "Advanced Options" button. The problem is not a lack of power—Pegasus may be the single most powerful mail client out there, and certainly the most powerful among the free ones. The problem is that it doesn't seem at all interested in ease of use. If you have no time to waste (and if you don't need a locally hosted Usenet-style message board, among other things) Mozilla Thunderbird is definitely the free client to get.
May 11, 2004:

Ugh. My allergies are driving me nuts, so forgive me if I can't be profound today. Instead I'll describe a test I've been conducting for a month or so (since shortly after I began writing Degunking Email, Spam, and Viruses) on the possibility of replacing Zip 250 removable drives with 256 MB USB Flash drives.

I've used removable media in my writing since 1985, when I bought a dual 10 MB "cateferia tray" Bernoulli Box system for way too much money, and used it daily until 1991, even though it ticked like a bomb all the time it was powered up. Over the years I've used Bournoullis, SyQuests, and most recently Zip disks. The 100 MB Zips were wonderful—I think one went bad in all the time I used them. The Zip 250s, by contrast, are about one for two, if you can believe that: Half of the ones I've used have eventually gone bad.


I need the room. Part of the work of doing my books is proofing layouts, which come down to me as very large PDFs. A Zip 100 won't hold a full book, including its layouts, so I needed to go to something bigger. 250 MB is big enough (barely) but I need better reliability than I've been getting. I'm pretty anal about backups of things I work hard on, so I've never lost anything crucial when a Zip 250 went bad. Still, that's not a record I'm willing to live with if there's anything better out there.

I bought a couple of SanDisk Cruzer Minis back in March, one of which is shown above, with a Zip 250 and an older Q Flash drive for comparison. You don't have to install drivers to use them under Windows 2000 and XP. You plug 'em in to a USB port, and they show up in Explorer, already formatted and ready to rock. (The $50 256 MB model is shown at right, plugged into the front of my Dell Xeon.) You can get them now as big as 1 GB ($200) and I'm sure that capacity will increase over time.

The end of the Cruzer Mini lights up when it's inserted and working, and flickers when you're reading or writing it. I wish there were a recessed USB port so it didn't stick out quite so far. I keep fearing that I'll hook it on something going past and scrag both it and the port it lives in. Still, the first month has gone without a hitch. Its access time isn't anything close to a fast hard drive, but it's about as fast as a Zip disk, which for writing and drawing with Visio is more than fast enough.

After each session, I back it up to a folder on my server downstairs using FolderMatch, a $30 file-sync utility. I like FolderMatch so far, though it does a lot more than sync folders and I freely admit I haven't explored it fully. The system's worked smooth as sink since mid-April, and if anything changes I'll let you know. What pleases me most is that we seem to be approaching a watershed event here: The end of moving parts in removable media. I've been predicting that in my near-future SF for thirty years now. Nice to see that it's finally coming true.
May 10, 2004:

My new book will have a section on viruses, and I've been studying the current virus scene to get a sense for it. One thing I've reflected on is how pointless most viruses are. They propagate, but don't do much of anything else, at least nothing else but a little showing off, and maybe baiting somebody else in the shadowy virus community. Only one class of virus has ever come forward with a clear mission, and it achieved that mission in high style: The virus-planted spam proxy. That's old news by this time, and I've thought by now that viruses would have emerged with other agendas as well. So far, nothing.

I thought it likely, for example, that a virus might appear that would simply plant an upload-only peer-to-peer node for file sharing, perhaps connecting to the FastTrack or Gnutella P2P networks, and not doing anything else to damage the host system. In a sense it would be the oppositie of a file-sharing leech: It would upload anything requested from the infected system and download nothing. It would do its best, in fact, to avoid detection by the user of the infected system.

This would not be rocket science. There are plenty of open-source P2P projects out there from which to crib code, and without a UI, the code would be relatively compact, as much of what it would have to do is actually done in various Windows libraries. I don't think the virus community has hit on the truth that such a virus, if ever implemented, would be the fastest-spreading virus in history, and its penetration would dwarf all other viruses in history put together. Why? People would spread it enthuisatically and infect their own machines willingly.

Think about it: The RIAA and other IP organizations around the world are successfully suing file-sharers, because you can't file-share by accident. However, if a virus apperared that planted covert upload-only P2P nodes, file sharers could argue in court that they didn't even know that they were uploading files. For some it would be the genuine truth. For most it would be a lie, but it would be an excellent defense in court, and the RIAA would have a bitch of a time (and spend an outrageous amount of money) sorting out one from the other.

It's the sort of thing that Phil Sydney, my fictional cyber-provocateur that I wrote about from time to time in Visual Developer Magazine, would do. Phil always has an agenda. The fact that modern virus writers do not is a bit of a puzzle—and probably the only good news on the entire virus issue.
May 9, 2004:

A footnote to yesterday's entry: I've gotten in some horrendous arguments with my fellow religionists in the Old Catholic movement about whether we should keep the idea of Hell. I personally feel that an eternal Hell of torment or even loneliness is theologically untenable for several reasons, primarily because even one lost soul is a defeat for God, who almost by definition cannot lose. (My religionist's sense is that after death we all face a certain amount of rehab, and even if our wills remain free, who has a will so strong as to resist the Divine Will for all eternity? Nobody.)

But set theology aside for now. The real problem with the idea of Hell is that it's useless. It might have been a useful bogeyman at some points in human history, perhaps keeping the slimeballs from giving in completely to their selfish whims, but that's no longer the case. The bad guys no longer believe in anything religious, so Hell holds no terror for them, and good people who are in no danger of Hell (assuming it exists) are the only ones who still believe in it.

Some time back I learned from my cousin Rose that my godfather (whom she visited at his deathbed) was terrified of Hell. Our Uncle Joey was as good a man who ever lived, a dairy farmer who raised six kids, loved his wife with indomitable devotion, went to church every Sunday and believed the whole Catholic thing. He spent his last months dying of cancer terrified of being sent to Hell, much as my mother (his sister) did. What's the point? The Manichaean duet of Sex and Hell (welded at the hip in the fevered imaginations of lonely, celibate clerics) have driven more people out of the Catholic Church than all of its other problems combined. Whether or not the theology of Hell is supportable (or even comprehensible; its varied interpretations are legion) we shouldn't preach it anymore. It only stands in the way of the healing that religion might otherwise offer, especially to the dying, and has long since ceased to scare anyone into acceptable behavior.
May 8, 2004:

The calculus of health care costs is sometimes—maybe often—pathological. Every so often I read a jeremiad in the papers claiming that the Baby Boomers will bankrupt our Social Security system because of their health care costs, and that may be true. But the recommendation is usually to make us all healthier, supposedly reducing our total draws on the system.

It sounds good and noble, but is it really true? My intuition is that the longer people live, the more they will spend in terms of health care. Heavy smokers used to die young and (often, if not always) die quickly. In terms of absolute dollars, my guess is that they cost us a lot less in total dollars than a guy who lives a moderately healthy life until he's 90 and dies (slowly) of the many degenerative conditions inherent in advanced age. Eliminating smoking is a desperately good thing; smoking-induced cancer got my father when my sister and I were still teenagers. (My sister, in fact, was only 11.) What eliminating smoking will not do is reduce the absolute dollars spent on health care. Articles such as these are presenting the wrong arguments. Keeping us healthy and productive longer into life is a good thing, but it's gonna cost us. The only real argument is about how we're going to pay for it.

I have a suggestion that everybody hates, so as a contrarian I'm sure I must be on to something. I read somewhere that the vast majority of dollars spent on health care are spent in the last year of life. So why don't we make the final year of health insurance payouts a loan, and make the health insurer (whether it be a private insurance company or Social Security) the "first-in-line" beneficiary of the deceased's estate? The poor have no estates and thus would pay nothing. Those with money would give back only what they used in their last year of life, to help reduce the burden on those who need medical help for now but have strong hope of recovery and return to normal life.

Maybe we should spend a little more of that last year's health care outlays on teaching people how to come to terms with death, keep them comfortable (which may mean allowing them to become addicted to pain killers—is that so bad for a couple of months?) calm their fears (of pain, of God, of Hell, of meaninglessness, of extinction) and make them feel like somebody loves them to the end.
May 7, 2004:

Some odd lots on this unseasonably warm day:

  • CNN ran a story on "CD rot," which has apparently begun afflicting CDs manufactured at the dawn of CD time, in the mid-1980s. I went and looked at the oldest of my CDs (which I began buying in December 1986) and found nothing amiss, and I wonder if some of this is a failure of early manufacturing technologies and materials. Perhaps we didn't know how to create a long-lived CD in 1985. I hope we've learned. In reading the article I learned that the top of the CD—the label side—was the fragile face, which seems kind of dumb.
  • Slashdot aggregated a news release indicating that New York State's attorney general discovered that the big record companies had failed to pay artists over $50M because they hadn't kept their contact database current. Sure, and the dog ate my homework after peeing on it. My solution to this problem is simple: Require the creation of royalty bank accounts for each contract, and require payors to make payments into that account according to the contract whether or not the payees stay in touch or even pick up the money. Trust companies do that sort of thing all the time, and it probably should be a requirement of copyright law.
  • I had forgotten, but this article reminded me that the 17-year locusts (ok, cicadas) are about to emerge in the midwest. The last time I witnessed a cicada invasion I was still in high school in Chicago, where the little buzzers are mighty thick when the time comes. Dogs literally party till they pewk, picking the defenseless insects from the sides of tree trucks and gulping them down whole. They make a tremendous racket for a while, make buggy love, lay their eggs, and die—and then we won't see them again in significant quantities until 2021. I'll be in Chicago early in June, but they may well be gone by then. We'll see.
  • Apparently the International Star Registry (those irrepressible "name a star for mom" guys; see my entry for May 2, 2004) has been around for a long time. Way back in 1990, Fermilab scientist and old friend Bill Higgins skewered them even better than Pete Albrecht did. Why name a rock that someone can steal when you can name a brand new neutrino that never existed before, and (once created and released) will fly at the speed of light until the end of time, passing through anything in its path? (But Bill, what if it hits an alien neutrino detector somewhere and gets detected? Detection is fatal for neutrinos!)
  • I'm still looking for a utility that can tell if a virus-planted spam proxy is running on your machine. Anybody got one? (I'm not worried about my own network here, but I want to cite such a utility in my new book if one in fact exists.)

May 6, 2004:

In yesterday morning's Wall Street Journal I became aware of The Copenhagen Consensus, an international think tank devoted to sorting out how to prioritize our efforts to better the world situation. They have a list of the top 10 problems facing humanity that's worth meditating on, as it's remarkably free of Euroleftist cant. In fact, there's nothing in the list that I would exclude. (One lesser problem they have not yet confronted is that their Web site doesn't render correctly from Mozilla.)

I sat back for a moment and pondered which of the ten was actually the worst problem, and realized that by far the most perilous problem facing humanity isn't on the list at all. The problem? Certainty.

Last week, a front-page article in the Colorado Springs Gazette opened with a young dietician veritably shouting that there is nothing to this low-carb stuff! It's a fad! One calorie is exactly like every other calorie! You can't lose weight by eating protein and fat! She was quite certain of her position, and her vehemence disturbed me. We've had some evidence that low-carb diets can allow the obese to lose weight hugely for 140 years now. Dr. Atkins was anticipated by a man named William Banting, who hit upon low-carb dieting in the 1860s. It's certainly true that we don't entirely understand human metabolism, and we don't know everything there is to know about dieting. Why, then, would a young woman dietician make a fool of herself in the local paper by claiming knowledge that doesn't exist?

It's very much the intellectual style right now. Doubt is out. Ideology is in. Her peers clearly agree with her, and she seems not to care if she looks like an idiot to the rest of us, especially those of us who cut carbs and lost weight like magic and kept it off. (My fifteen pounds haven't come back yet, and it's been almost 8 years.)

Look around you, and see the many realms of knowledge where inquiry is in retreat. It's especially bad in the soft sciences like medicine, but even in physics, you have guys who will make fools of themselves by screaming that room temperature fusion is physically impossible. Can't be done! Ever! (See my March 5, 2004 entry.) Wise man say, never say never. Wiser man say, shut up and let's do some additional research!

During my brief foray into researching the paranormal, I was struck by the vehemence of the mean-spirited debunkers who dared to call themselves "skeptics." Their minds were not only made up, but closed and welded shut. (Some even got caught falsifying evidence in their own favor.) They beat constantly on the fact that telepathy and such can't be detected by our instruments, as though that were the last word. Do we doubt that electrons exist because we can't see them with a magnifying glass? Maybe we need better instruments, or completely new types of instruments. Certainly, we need better "skeptics."

We get into much dicier territory when we cross out of scientific knowledge into religion, and that's probably a subject I'll have to put off for another time, though it's one of those questions that torments me more than it should. I'm quite sure, however, that if you're certain enough about your religious beliefs to harrass or kill other people over them, something is seriously wrong. Certainty is a failure of humility, which is one of the primary religious virtues. Religion should have doubts. Doubts about what, and how deep those doubts should run, is a question I haven't answered for myself yet.

My point? Be careful not only of what you believe in, but how strongly you believe it. We've muddied the line between scientific discipline and ideology to the point where it's easy—and fashionable—to cross from one to the other. Doubt doesn't have to be a conviction that we can know nothing. Rather, it's the willingness to be receptive to the possibility that we don't have the whole story, and may not have it for a long time yet. The only thing I'm absolutely sure of is that I may be wrong, about everything or anything at all. I actually enjoy being shown that I'm wrong, because that means I've learned something new, and learning is the second greatest pleasure in human experience. (Are you sure you know what the greatest pleasure is? You may be wrong!)
May 5, 2004:

I guess I'm still a little touchy about the well-orchestrated hate campaign that the Greens have long mounted against SUVs. Let me raise the flag on something they don't want to hear: Their much-beloved hybrid autos are dangerous in a way we're not used to seeing in cars: They can electrocute you. The battery portion of hybrids like the Toyota Prius develop as much as 500 volts, at more than lethal currents. (Quick note here: Current is what kills, not voltage. Voltage is significant in electrocution only to the extent that it dictates how much current will pass through an intervening human body.)

One of my aggregators posted a story pointing out that hybrids represent a lethal hazard to rescue workers trying to get occupants out of wrecked hybrids after an accident. Cut into one of those battery cables without being insulated from the tool, and you could fry yourself. Potential energy in whatever form is dangerous if released suddenly; thus we have exploding gas tanks and the hazards of flywheel or even megaspring-powered vehicles. If it isn't one it'll be another. There's no free lunch, and no safe lunch either.

My guess is that as hybrids become more popular (as they inevitably will, given the inevitability of $2/gallon gas around the country) people will die in wrecks because fire departments will have to go slow and carefully to get them out. This is not a reason to back off on hybrids, which I think are brilliant, especially in dense urban areas. It is, however, a very good reason to back off on the hate campaign against SUVs.
May 4, 2004:

All his long life, J. R. R. Tolkien insisted that there was no allegory in any of his works. Just as adamantly, critics insist that much of LOTR is an allegory of WWII.

They may both be right. It's hard to look at when LOTR was written and shrug off resemblances to The Big One, as they called it. I like to think that the Rohirrim stand in for the Americans; I'm sure that a lot of Brits thought of us then (and perhaps still) as half-civilized cowboys who may or may not come running when the center of civilization (Gondor/Europe) is threatened. And I think there's more than a little Neville Chamberlain in the character of Denethor.

The key issue is that writers don't always consciously craft their larger themes. Plots, sure. Themes, well, they come from somewhere else, somewhere deeper. I noticed this a few weeks back while I was looking through the InDesign file for my SF anthology Firejammer and Other Stories, which I hope to publish in short-run book form late this summer. Everywhere I went, I was stubbing my toes on a common theme: Fathers contending with sons. I looked back on a lot of the rest of my fiction, published and unpublished, and it was there as well. Mostly, it's fathers contending with sons because the sons refuse to take up the roles their fathers have prepared for them.

Whew. Filer Fitzgerald vs Crispus McGaughey in The Cunning Blood; Turkey vs. The Commander in Firejammer. Sometimes it's a proxy for a deceased father, as in Toby Cavage contending with hypercomputer Yorick in Alas, Yorick. In "Marlowe," a battered and raped teenage girl is brought back to wholeness by a disembodied intelligence who "puts on" her memories of her long-dead father and teaches her how to fight back with terrifying effectiveness...and then refuses to defend himself when his own crisis comes.

Like Tolkien, I have to insist that none of this is in any way an allegory of my relationship with my father. The most I can say is that he wanted me to be a couple of things I didn't have it in myself to be: Engineer, soldier, baseball fan. We didn't contend much, especially compared to other fathers and their teenage sons. He never knew what to make of my writing talent, but he was certain that there was no money in writing and said so many times. Worst of all, he had the bad karma to die before I could rub his nose in how wrong he was.

Ok. I guess we were contending a little, heh. What shocks me is that I never saw it surfacing in my own fiction until 26 years after his death. Still, it's not allegory; allegory is too literal to be the result of any deep struggle within the human spirit. I'm still angry about my father's death (and certain other related issues) and that anger continues to stir the pot from which my fictional themes emerge. I look ahead to the new novel I'm plotting (The Anything Machine) and there it is again: A father murdered by a shadowy secret society, and a son who spars with the society all his long life. The father believed in the power of iron; the son believes in the power of the mysterious alien artifacts the interstellar castaways call drumlins. (Those who have read my novelette "Drumlin Boiler" in Asimov's of April 2002 will recognize the theme and the characters.) The fact that it's still roiling the deeper waters makes me wonder: Do we ever get over things like this? And if not, is the trying still worthwhile?

I think it is. I lost my father, but I have the stories. If he were still here, he'd read them all, laugh at himself for dissing my dream of being a writer, and buy me a beer. And even though I hate beer, well, I'd drink it anyway. Compromise swings both ways. He who bends (and forgives) wins—but that's another theme entirely.
May 3, 2004:

Ben Sawyer sent me a link to The ESP Game, which may or may not be one of the most diabolically clever incents that either of us has ever seen. The game, which was created by Carnegie-Mellon University, is an attemptn to get people to compile metadata on images culled from the Web.

It works like this: You and an anonymous partner somewhere else on the net are simultaneously shown an image. You have to try to agree on a term (in fewer than 13 characters) that describes the image. There is no "right" answer except to agree with one another, and no wrong answers except for a list of "taboo" terms aren't elegible. So you guess, and guess again, and guess again, and when you and your partner both guess the same word or phrase, you get points. The game is time-limited, so thinking (and typing) quickly is a plus.

I played the game for a solid hour to get a sense for it, and I'm pretty impressed with the concept. One image came up for me twice, and it was interesting to see how "taboo" terms are selected: They are terms that have already come up for agreement in a previous run of the game on that same image. I know this because the same image came up twice for me: It was a surreal montage that included Einstein's face. We both guessed "Einstein" the first time, and when the image came up the second time, "Einstein" was on the taboo list. This is how the game goads you into thinking of multiple descriptive terms for the same image.

The university is clearly experimenting with an image search engine, and I'd love to see it happen because I think it might work, and work well. The problem I have with the game is that a large proportion of the images that come up are icons, logos or little buttons that shouldn't be "game pieces" because nobody would ever search for them. (The school could fix this easily by only choosing Web images larger than a certain minimum size.)

Also, my partners seemed extraodinarily slow, dense, or both, and hence I never racked up a whole lot of points. (My best game was something like 1020.) Give it a try; it's different, and an extremely original way to get people to describe things tersely.
May 2, 2004:

A few odd lots on a fine Sunday evening:

  • Mysteriously and without any explanation in sight, my daily spam count has dropped from about 650 to about 400. I thought it was a fluke the first day, but now that I'm seeing the count hold steady three days running, I'm thinking something has happened. Interestingly, this began a few days after I saw announcements that there had been some initial convictions under CAN-SPAM. I'm afraid to draw conclusions, but...dare we hope?
  • There's a nice story about one of my favorite technology columnists, Walter Mossberg, in the latest Wired News. Walt has a problem I used to have: Companies sending unsolicited products out for review in huge quantities. I thought it was bad on my side, with a peak circulation of about 50,000...Walt publishes in the Wall Street Journal...I can only imagine. At least software companies rarely wanted software to be returned, and after a certain point we just dumped it. Back at PC Tech Journal in the mid-1980s, keeping track of expensive hardware, shipping it back to its owners on schedule, and just finding places for it to live in the meantime was a major PITA. These days, I buys stuff and I keeps it, and because I'm not nearly as visible anymore, review products don't pile up. (Still, I sometimes do miss the "Christmas Morning" effect, of never knowing what UPS will bring today...)
  • Mother's Day is coming, and I'm being peppered with spam telling me to "name a star for Mom!" There's some scam operator somewhere selling pieces of paper applying your provided moniker to an 8th or 9th magnitude star somewhere in the sky. This has been around for some time, though the Mother's Day connection is new. Pete Albrecht suggests creating a "Name a rock for Mom!" site by running around out in the desert with a digital camera and taking pictures of a few dozen rocks, and then making up nice certificates to go with the pictures. You can sell the same rock to any number of people; you just have to be careful not to sell the same rock to the same rube twice.
  • POPFile is up to 99.14% accurate this evening, and virtually all of its errors have been false negatives; that is, spams classified as genuine mail. These stand out like sore thumbs in your inbox, and are much better than worrying about genuine mail being misclassified as spam and buried in your trash folder. POPFile is fine stuff and getting better all the time. If spam is getting under your skin, try it.
  • The second edition of my Wi-Fi book is now in stock on Amazon, and should be in most of the B&M bookstores within a week or so. The title is new: Jeff Duntemann's Wi-Fi Guide. No more "Drive-By." I miss that a little too, but the title was too long and something had to go.

May 1, 2004:

I love new words, and I stumbled across another one today, while continuing to research the spam wars for my new book. The word is teergrubing, and a FAQ on it is here. (Michael Covington tells me that teergrube means "tar pit" in German. Most appropriate.) Basically, teergrubing is a kind of tar baby for SMTP connections, set up on a POP server such that when a known spammer connects via SMTP, the POP server sort of draws...the...transaction...out...almost...endlessly. Spammers send out lots of mail, but they have to send it out quickly. They can't spend five minutes on a single message. If you can somehow grab and hold an SMTP connection for five minutes, you've prevented hundreds or (more likely) thousands of spams from being released upon the world. In his FAQ, Mark indicates that one teergruber held a spammer's SMTP connection for two days.

I haven't thought very hard about this yet, but the problem here, as always, is determining where spam is really coming from and who the bad guys are. Holding a legitimate SMTP session trying to deliver real mail for hours or (egad) days is a bad idea...but what if it became common for POP servers to hold all SMTP connections for five minutes? I don't think the very successful spam business model holds when it takes five minutes—or one minute, for that matter—to send each message. There is probably a sweet spot somewhere for which normal mail gets through onesy-twosy without noticeable delay, but spammers can no longer deliver enough mail in a day's time to make money. My guess as to the sweet spot? 45 seconds.

Yes, it's true that if teergrubing became common, spammer utilities would evolve to be able to abandon a connection if things didn't happen quickly enough. Still, even a few seconds delay spent deciding whether to abandon a connection would put a major crimp in spammer economics.

Whatever the sweet spot might be, it's pretty clear to me: If a significant fraction of all MTAs held every SMTP connection for a minute or so, spam would cease to exist, but the rest of us might never even notice the change—except that we wouldn't be getting any spam. The very largest spammers might be able to afford a server farm full of servers to field tens of thousands of simultaneous SMTP connections, but the largest spammers have the most to lose from CAN-SPAM violations, and thus they're fairly easy to block. It's the chickenboners and sobiggers who can't operate profitably in a heavily teergrubed world. (I love the way language evolves to embrace emerging concepts.)

What a notion: To defeat spam,