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November 30, 2005: The Genius of Wikipedia

It's become fashionable to dump on Wikipedia. I've read several pieces in the last couple of months complaining about one thing or another, and the temper of the writing suggests severe envy—though why someone would envy an online encyclopedia escapes me. This list of complaints is present in Wikipedia itself, and has been abstracted from a great many sources.

What can we make of this? Let me answer a few of the most common complaints:

Complaint: It's impossible to enforce a neutral point of view (NPOV) on all entries.
My Answer: There is no such thing as a neutral point of view. Once you get past the atomic weight of Ytterbium, everybody has an opinion. All encyclopedias have a point of view, generally the consensus view of its body of writers. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917 certainly has a point of view (the Vatican's) and that doesn't diminish its usefulness. Actually, because each entry in Wikipedia can be written and edited by multiple people (as opposed to print encyclopedia entries, which are generally the work of one or two people at most) the potential for a neutral point of view is greater in Wikipedia than in a print encyclopedia. Perhaps the single most important skill of an educated person is to discern multiple points of view and evaluate them. This is why we read hundreds of books in the course of our lives, and not five or six.

Complaint: There's too much unimportant material in Wikipedia.
My Answer: Much that is in Wikipedia is obscure, but if even one person goes looking for a block of information, that information is not unimportant. People roll their eyes at the fact that Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Ed the Sock have their own detailed entries, but to a student of comedy (or a student of sock puppets) these things can be important. The incremental cost of adding an entry to Wikipedia is basically zero—so why is obscurity even an issue?

Complaint: Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies.
My Answer: Are these really inaccuracies? Or are they simply things that you disagree with? I have yet to see an inaccuracy in some verifiable, objective fact. (Again, things like the atomic weight of Ytterbium.) Some things that might some day be considered facts are still in dispute (did Pope Pius XII really collaborate with the Nazis?) and a great deal of what we call knowledge is in fact interpretation. (How important was the Wilson Presidency in laying the groundwork for the formation of the United Nations?) People have tested Wilipedia by inserting verifiable factual errors via edits, and these errors have been caught very quickly. The rest of what we call knowledge comes down to a kind of consensus of opinions, and disagreeing with the consensus does not necessarily mean that the consensus is inaccurate.

Complaint: The material on Wikipedia is too geek-centric.
My Answer: Geeks are the ones writing the material, and nobody's paying them. Geeks, furthermore, are probably the bulk of the people using Wikipedia, at least for the time being. The solution to this problem (if it's a problem at all) is to rope in non-geeks to write more entries in areas that have been neglected.

Complaint: People commenting on entries and editing entries don't seem to accord any special respect to academic experts on a topic.
My Answer: People on Wikipedia share the general Internet cultural bias toward reputation over credentials. You can bet that if Don Knuth wrote an article on some algorithm, people would respect his work. But when J. Johnson Hokum III, Ph.D. pops up out of nowhere and starts making pronouncements, people (rightfully) look at him with suspicion. "Why should we trust you?" is the unstated question. "What have you actually done?" The sad state of college education today (grade inflation, rampant political bias, arrogant celebrity faculty, and the granting of degrees in marginal fields like "gender studies") has reduced the perceived value of education and degrees alone. What matters now is less where or how long you've studied than what you've actually contributed to the field. A degree does not make an expert. Wikipedians understand this very well.

I could go on and on, but that's the most important part of it. Wikipedia could perhaps devise a better system of moderation, based on votes for "experience points" or something similar, in which Don Knuth would have a score of 100, and Jeff Duntemann might have a score of 6. I think that while that this sort of collective wisdom isn't perfect, it may be the best that we can do. I believe in the genius of motivated crowds, and that's where the genius of Wikipedia comes from. It's precisely what I had in mind when I wrote "The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything" in 1994. Wikipedia covers everything—and it allows input from everyone. That's an experiment that's never been done before. Maybe we shouldn't even call it an encyclopedia. Maybe we should just keep on keeping on for a couple more decades and then step back and see what we have. It may become an incoherent mess. It may become The World Brain, as H. G. Welles envisioned in 1937. Patience, patience. We won't know until we get there.

November 28, 2005: Weeping Statues

Several people sent me pointers to a weird phenomenon currently underway in Sacramento: A concrete statue of the Blessed Mother is weeping tears of blood. (If you have the bandwidth, play the video clip, which aired on local TV news.) A couple of weeks ago, the janitor of a small Roman Catholic church catering to locals of Vietnamese origins noticed streams of what looked like blood rolling down its statue, starting at the eyes. He wiped the statue clean, assuming it was the work of local pranksters, but the tears reappeared, and since then the crowds of believers have been growing in numbers and enthusiasm. The local Roman Catholic diocese is "looking into it," but I suspect the poor Bishop starts his prayers every night with, "Why me, Lord?"

Weeping statues and icons are not new, and far from being a rarity, are perhaps the single most common miraculous event occurring outside someone's head. Browse this list and boggle. Some of you know that I have a special interest in religious weirdness, and I have two shelves of books on the subject, which embraces apparitions of Jesus and Mary, vials of clotted blood that liquefy on a saint's feast day, and (among many other things) statues that jump around, swing on cables, and weep tears of water, oil, or blood.

Confronted with reports of such things, most people take one of two general positions: That the events are miracles sent by God, or else clever hoaxes. Certainly there have been a lot of hoaxes down the years, and the Roman Catholic Church has (quite sensibly) granted its imprimatur to a vanishingly small handful of "miraculous events." My own position falls somewhere between the two, and posits that moving, bleeding, and weeping statues (and other physical prodigies associated with religious devotion) are a species of poltergeist phenomena.

That won't help if you don't believe in poltergeists either, but there's enough documentation to poltergeist phenomena to make me think there might be something to it. A friend of mine, known to be an educated, sane, secular person, sent me emails for several years describing poltergeistish weirdnesses happening in his home. He refuses to go public with them, and I see no reason why he would make it all up to the tune of tens of thousands of words, just to tell his three or four closest friends. Poltergeists are best known for bodiless voices, knocking sounds, and other noises of no physical cause, but the category also includes apports: physical objects that move of their own volition, or vanish in one place and then reappear simultaneously in another. My friend's poltergeist had a fondness for teleporting coins and paper money, Post-It notes, and Toosie Rolls, and also had a habit of "vanishing" the beer from bottles without opening them.

Quantum reality allows for certain well-documented weirdnesses at nanoscale, and perhaps those weirdnesses can happen at meter scale as well. I'm not prepared to say that it's impossible. It's interesting that a lot of poltergeist phenomena occur in households where there's a great deal of sexual frustration—and sexual frustration is a very Catholic thing, especially within the reactionary wing of the Roman Church. Connection? Who knows? The universe is more marvelous (read here: weirder) than we can possibly imagine. If you can swallow superstring theory, heh, weeping statues are a piece of cake!

November 27, 2005: Commercial Grammar

I'm still recovering, and am surpremely irritated at how long this thing has had its hooks in me. There's a great deal to do around here, and my energy ran out today about 4:00 PM, leaving me feeling like a zombie. I don't watch a lot of TV except when I'm sick, and so I spent a fair part of the late afternoon and early evening channel surfing while curled up on the couch.

In doing so, I noticed something that made me a little nuts: When advertising agencies want to portray a doofus in a TV commercial, they use a guy with a receding hairline, especially if he's a little chubby. By contrast, The guy who puts the doofus on to the advertiser's product always has perfect Hollywood hair and godlike features: slim, sharp face, muscular. So "bald guy" is now commercial cinema grammar for "clumsy idiot." Women are treated less obviously in commercials, but when a female doofus is called for, the agencies invariably cast a less attractive woman than the star, who always knows where it's at or at least where to buy it. This may not be news to some of you, but it was certainly news to me.

I didn't think I could dislike TV any more than I already did. Silly boy. Hollywood will always find a way.

November 26, 2005: Odd Lots

  • I just got home from Chicago, whew. I was flat on my butt most of the time I was there with the most horrendous cold virus I've picked up in twenty years. (I had a really ugly one in 1986.) That would account for the gaps here, and the fact that I pulled several "spare" entries out of the notefile to obviate the need to be fully conscious, much less creative. I'm still coughing a little and am not my usual peppy self, but every day's a little better, deo gratias.
  • Pete Albrecht made an interesting suggestion/prediction: That businesses would begin painting their names on their roofs so that people using Google Earth and other satellite mapping services would see them. I recall an office building or some small retailer near the intersection of Peterson and Kedvale in Chicago doing something like that in the mid-1960s, but I also remember reading somewhere that most city zoning codes no longer allow it.
  • This astrophoto was taken by an amateur astronomer with a 12" telescope. It is to boggle. That's the sort of image we used to expect only from Palomar. (Again, thanks to Pete for the link.)
  • This is a German board game, translated rather unfortunately into English.
  • I'd like to know what reviewers of novel-length SF and fantasy you read regularly and agree with, whether it be online or in print. I'm going to send a few more review copies of The Cunning Blood out this week and am wide open for suggestions. Instapundit and Nanogirl News are already on the list, even though they're not technically reviewers. Who else do you think would help me build some word-of-mouth?

November 23, 2005: The Real Enemy Is Literalism

Finishing off a thought I didn't quite finish yesterday: One problem we have in getting a grip on the whole Creationism mess is that the media have made such a hash of it. The only thing journalists understand less well than science is religion. More than once I've been explaining the Old Catholic Church to some bright young reporter, only to have her respond, "But how can you be Catholic if you're not under the Pope?"

Journalists are not good listeners, alas—and that's most of the problem with modern journalism.

Contrary to what you see in the knucklehead media, in dealing with Creationsm we are not dealing with a religion, or a sect, or a tradition. We are dealing with what amounts to an epistemological method. This method is literalism, which is a means of extracting truth from a body of data. In this particular case, we are talking about Biblical literalism, which is a means of extracting truth from a particular translation (the King James Version) of a particular body of ancient writings. With a sort of willful ignorance, the media often assume that Christian fundamentalists == Evangelicals == Biblical literalists, end of story.

Whichever side you're on, that only makes things worse. I'm not going to explain fundamentalism or Evangelicalism here, as that would take a huge amount of space and isn't key to the point I'm making. And although I have deep theological issues with both, I do want to say that it's not fair to Christian fundamentalism or the many Evangelical sects to assume that they're all setting themselves up against science or Darwin's theory of Evolution. Biblical literalism isn't necessarily a Protestant thing; there are Jewish Biblical literalists (who limit themselves to the Hebrew Old Testament, obviously) and there's nothing to prevent reactionary Catholics from being Biblical literalists, though I haven't heard of any who are. (Biblical literalism goes strongly against Catholic tradition.) I'm sure there are Koranic literalists, and probably literalists in every major religious tradition with a body of written revelation.

My point is that it's not science vs. religion at all. We are looking at two competing epistemological methods of understanding reality. Supporters of evolution (and the scientific method generally) understand reality by recording and measuring what's out there and building a model that explains what goes on in the universe. Biblical literalists have a model, too: The King James Version. They understand reality by looking at reality through statements made in the KJV. Basically, in the literalist view, if something we see in reality doesn't square with something in the KJV, there's something wrong with our vision, and we have to keep looking until we perceive how reality aligns with the KJV. One way of perceiving reality is open-ended and messy; the other is closed, tidy, and not subject to doubt or questioning. This appeals to many people of a certain fearful and generally un-confident mindset.

Note well that in neither case am I speaking about religion, which is a way to impose meaning and a moral framework on human lives lived here on Earth. Religious sects can embrace Biblical literalism if they choose, but literalism is not a theology—it's a way of understanding what we see around us. That's why Catholics, Lutherans, Southern Baptists, agnostics, atheists, or anyone else adhering to a religious tradition can stand together to support the Theory of Evolution.

That's also why some people who should know better (including not a few scientists) fall into the trap of defending portions of our scientific model of reality as beyond all questioning. It's possible to turn a physics textbook into an unassailable Sacred Writ or even a kind of god, and that just moves the game into the other guys' stadium. As Michael Covington put it in an email today, scientists have to remember and acknowledge that science is science, just as religionists must learn to look at what our Creator actually created, and not fence Him in by the limitations of literal human language.

November 22, 2005: "It's Only a Theory..."

Perhaps the thing that irritates me most about the Creationists is their constant mantra that evolution is "only a theory," as though all other scientific knowledge were a done deal and unchallengeable. Not so. Everything in science is a theory. Everything. Even those things we call "natural laws" are not necessarily proven forever: In 1956, the Law of Parity was detonated by brilliant experimental evidence gathered by the NIST. (Since then we've been a lot more careful about promoting theories to physical laws.)

It's pretty clear that the Creationists either know nothing about science itself, or know damned well what a theory is and are using the mass media to snooker people who are genuinely ignorant about science, and think "theory" means "a dubious guess pulled out of a hat." (This includes, alas, most media people, who while pursuing their journalism degrees generally dodged anything that had the word "science" in it.)

The problem here runs deep. The people who are pushing Creationism (especially the young-Earth variety) doubt nothing. Scientists, on the other hand, are trained and paid to doubt everything. We only advance the state of our knowledge when somebody says, "I smell a rat in this theory," and presents the pertinent evidence that led to their conclusion. Then we revise the theory and keep looking for rats.

A complex theory like evolution will always remain "just a theory." The fact that this has become a point of objection (and the fact that the doofuses who are supposedly leading the battle against Creationism haven't called them on it) says something very sad: We no longer understand or teach the scientific method in this country—and this plays right into the hands of what some have begun to call Toxic Christianity.

November 21, 2005: Ave Maria Town

It's gotten a lot of press, so most of you have probably heard of Ave Maria town, near Naples, Florida. Tom Monaghan, the multibillionare founder of Domino's Pizza, is doing something many fabulously rich people are drawn to: dabbling in utopian communities. He's building Ave Maria Town, a planned community where the plan and the lifestyle represent Roman Catholic orthodoxy, and some papal pronouncements have the force of law. By implication if not by declaration it's a reactionary Roman Catholic stronghold, where it will be illegal to sell certain magazines (all of them mentioned so far deal with sex; no mention of Soldier of Fortune) and birth control devices and pharmaceuticals. I'll state at the outset that I'm dubious, but I'll wait and see how it turns out. (The project will be under development for another ten years at least.)

Most of the press has dealt with Ave Maria University, the town's centerpiece, which will be (assuming it happens) the first new Roman Catholic university built in the US in over 40 years. Monaghan is appalled at way Roman Catholic universities here tolerate (and sometimes encourage) lax adherence to Catholic principles. Ave Maria University will teach Catholicism as the Pope defines it; how that applies to, say, history or sociology will be interesting to see. Science should not be an issue. Once you get away from reproductive medicine, the Roman Catholic view of science does not differ significantly from the secular view. (All this flap over evolution comes from the Protestant crackpot fringe.) Most of the controversy, in fact, stems from the Ave Maria law school, and the very subtle issue of the extent to which Catholic principles should govern the practice of secular law. I also wonder if open discussion of Catholic issues and history will be suppressed within the university. Freedom of anything doesn't seem to be on their short list of priorities.

The town's physical layout will supposedly be modeled on Medieval university towns in Europe, where a gigantic church lies at the center of not only the town but virtually everything that happens in the town. The layout will be friendly to bicycles and walkers. Small shops will be encouraged. For the most part this sounds very cool to me; I like university towns and I go to church every Sunday without fail. Alas, "planned communities" often obsess on completely unimportant or even obnoxious things, like what color your curtains can be and how many people can live in one house. I haven't found any indication of how severe Ave Maria intends to be in this regard, but my personal experience indicates that this sort of "planning" often sets neighbor against neighbor over trivia and completely destroys whatever feeling of community might otherwise have emerged from the town's architectural plan.

All that being said, I remain troubled by the choice of things that for the Ave Marians define "faithful Catholicism." Is it only about condoms and girlie mags? What of the Scriptural admonishment to welcome the stranger? Will they allow residents to take in penniless refugees from disasters like Katrina? Will they have a soup kitchen to help the homeless? Will some housing be required to be rentals so that people of modest means can always live there? The Catholic moral sphere embraces lots more than just sex. In general, the Catholic tradition has not walled itself away from the rest of the world, but has embraced and converted the world, primarily by helping to create and sustain a culture of religious observance that provides meaning to the lives of its adherents and sacramental connection to an ineffable God. My great fear is that Ave Maria will end up as a coercive gulag on the model of Disney's dreadful Celebration, full of the paranoid wealthy and absolutely empty of spontaneity and joy.

Perhaps the most serious problem with Ave Maria town as it has been described is one I've seen no one else mention: That it is in its very design it is an admittance of failure. Traditional Roman Catholicism will have none of girlie mags or birth control. Fair enough. But if you have to literally outlaw those things you find morally repugnant, your moral system clearly does not have enough traction with the faithful. If Ave Maria town were full of authentic conservative Roman Catholics, Playboy and Penthouse would not be sold because there would be no takers. An emphasis on forbidding the sale of birth control materials to married couples makes Ave Maria sound paranoid and on the defensive from the outset. This is not a reflection of a faith tradition on the march, but one already deep in eclipse.

Still, I'll give him a chance, and at some point I'll lay out here what I think a genuine Catholic town would be like.

November 20, 2005: Microsphere Logic

This is an odd one: I was digging through six-year-old notes files for The Cunning Blood, and found a short brainstorm item I wrote about a possible near-future computing technology I called "microsphere logic." Picture spherical logic elements one or perhaps two millimeters in diameter, made of silicon or coated with silicon. On the silicon surfaces of these microspheres you etch circuitry. At the six antipodes of the spheres are contact points, which take the form of either dimples or mating bumps. (I call this the "dimples & pimples" method of interconnection. It's been used in connecting stacked etched silicon dies, but I don't know how widespread that use is. Alas, I had pointer to it and lost it.) Each one of the contact points is split into four separate electrical paths, providing 24 different routes to move data onto and off of the spheres.

The spheres exist in a library of standard units, in the fashion of our beloved 74xxx chips, only at VLSI complexity and trace scale. By stacking the spheres in a three-dimensional matrix enclosed by etched rectangular surfaces providing data buses and power feeds, you could create a custom processor with hundreds of billions of transistors in something the size of a fat ice cube.

Why go to all this trouble? Easy: You can blow air through it. The really really big bottleneck in fast processors today is heat dissipation. The new custom 3 GHz PCs that Pete Albrecht and I assembled this past March went together in an hour or less. The rest of the assembly time we spent on them was spent fooling with fans and airflow to keep the processor logic from frying itself. We had a terrible time getting the CPU heat sinks to make good thermal contact with the CPUs themselves. With processor logic distributed on the surfaces of small spherical elements touching at six places, there is a coolant path right through the entire matrix that touches every sphere across nearly all of its surface. A relatively simple fan-driven manifold should be able to cool the processor easily without Cray-style exotica like electrically inert liquids and heat exchangers.

What I don't remember is how much of this I made up, and how much (if any) I read somewhere. (These notes go back to 1999.) I have some very vague recall of seeing a mention of an engineer who proposed LSI logic on spherical foundations, but I don't remember any details, and I haven't yet found anything on the Web. The kicker is that I don't remember if I saw this article before or after I had the idea. This is a bone I've been chewing for a very long time: I first speculated about large-scale 3-D solid-state logic in a story (never published) that I wrote at the Clarion workshop in 1973, and I've tinkered with the concept here and there for thirty years. Having to compute strictly in two dimensions is like living in Flatland; surely we can do better than that.

I'm not saying that it's practical, and in truth I'm not at all sure how you would etch VLSI-scale logic on a spherical foundation. For me, it was just an exercise in SF speculation. I'll keep looking, but if any of you recall anything like this in the engineering literature, do let me know.

November 19, 2005: Urgent Care—If You Can Find It

I started coming down with some sort of chest cold this past Monday, and for the last couple of days it's gotten so bad that I've spent most of my waking hours lying on my back in bed. To make matters worse, yesterday afternoon I developed a bacterial infection in my right eye that started to look really ugly after only a couple of hours.

It was interesting how difficult it was to locate an "urgent care" place here in Niles, Illinois. These are stand-alone medical clinics that take walk-ins without appointments and deal with minor things that need to be handled promptly. I went to one when I fell into a patch of poison ivy this summer (see my entry for July 31, 2005) and back in 1992 when a local lawyer's chow-chow dog attacked me without warning in the middle of the street and tore up my left forearm. (Why didn't I sue the S.O.B? Talk about an open-and-shut case!) They were everywhere you looked in the Phoenix metro area, and a fair number are in and around Colorado Springs, but I found nothing in the local Yellow Pages under "emergency care," "urgent care," or "immediate care." I didn't have Internet access from here in the house, and felt enough like death warmed over not to want to schlep over to Panera's to start searching the Web. I ended up just paging through the phone book until I found a small print ad under "doctors."

The clinic people were wonderful, and gave me some antibiotic cream for my eye and listened to my lungs to make sure it was nothing worse than a chestcold. I'm wondering if such places are illegal or over-regulated out of existence here in Illinois. What's a traveler to do if something happens that needs attention but isn't life-threatening? I hate to crowd the local hospital emergency rooms, especially after reading how much hospitals resent that. I may have to chalk it up as yet another reason not to live in northern Illinois, after stratospheric property taxes and inept, totally corrupt local governments.

November 17, 2005: Human Factors and Depth of Experience

I've had run-ins with human factors experts in the last twenty years or so, in some cases due to simple arrogance. ("I got a degree in this and I know it completely.") In the majority of cases the people in question are ordinary, experienced professionals with egos well under control; however, a disagreement on which of two competing UI mechanisms is superior often cooks down to blank astonishment and empty air, followed by (after a few uncomfortable seconds) " way is easier."

In virtually every case, a little probing shows that what a human factors expert supports is what he or she has been using for awhile. This is especially true of human factors people who live on the Mac platform and only visit Windows to study it, like a fly glued to a slide under a microscope. I've cornered any number of Mac experts on the issue of one- versus two-button mice. I originally learned UIs on the Xerox Alto, which had a three-button mouse and used it in a bewildering number of combinations. Windows is a good compromise in my view: Left button to select, right button for context. Almost invariably, a Mac expert will respond, "Well, Mac OS supports two-button mice now." I'm sure that's true, but it's really a dodge and actually doesn't matter. The Mac is delivered with a one-button mouse, and it's taught with a one-button mouse. People learn it with a one-button mouse, and Mac culture assumes a one-button mouse. For Mac people, it's difficult to imagine what Mac work would be like with a two-button mouse. And this is my point: It may be impossible to separate ease of use from depth of experience.

One of the most user-hostile interfaces in the history of personal computing was the text-mode interface for the early DOS versions of WordPerfect. For a newcomer it was horrible: There were no menus, no hints, nothing but a bewildering list of permutations of alt/shift/ctrl function keys. Nonetheless, after a month or so at an office where I was required to use it and used it all day (Ziff-Davis' PC Tech Journal) I could work that thing like Pete Albrecht in a Porsche. For the remainder of my tenure there, and for several years thereafter, WordPerfect just lived in my synapses, and text flowed out of my fingertips like fire at 80+ WPM. For me, it was easy—but by then I was an expert.

I've wondered many times since then: Is the best UI from a human factors standpoint simply the one that's used the most and taught the best? One problem with modern software is that people expect to be able to sit down and just "figure it out." We can't require (as we did with older software) that the user actually read the manual or take some kind of course. That makes discoverability probably the single most important element in software human factors. I think discoverability is what people who are not human factors professionals think of as "ease of use." The other major issue in human factors is harder to define, but it's what I call "expert friction." Once someone becomes an expert at a piece of software, the software should not get in the way. This means well-chosen hot keys, arrangment of menus for rememberability, and a generally consistent and orthagonal design. (Think WordPerfect, which was all hot keys.)

This makes the whole Mac vs. Windows thing pretty silly, kind if like arguing whether a rotary lawnmower is better than a reel lawnmower. Both cut the lawn—most of the difference lies in learning how to handle them, and where the clippings go. I suspect that human factors for software is no more complex than this: Software should be discoverable by the newcomer, and once the newcomer becomes an expert it should recede into the expert's synapses and cease to lie between the expert and the work that he or she is doing.

The real challenge, if there is one, is turning newcomers into experts, but that's a separate issue, which I will try to take up as time allows.

November 16, 2005: Why Not a Really Big Fan?

The effectiveness of a fan-based CPU cooling system depends on how much air the fan can move past the CPU per unit time. A small fan has to turn very quickly to move a lot of air, but a big fan doesn't have to move that quickly at all. And since (all else being equal) the faster a fan moves, the more noise it makes, maybe the solution to quiet computing using fast (and hot) modern CPUs is to use a really big fan.

My Antec Sonata case works as quietly as it does because it uses a 5" fan. Still, I don't consider a 5" fan "big." In this case, I'm talking about the biggest fan that can be mounted on the broad side of a tower case. The full-size towers I have in my lab could easily mount a 12" fan on the side panel, or even a 14" fan designed specifically for the purpose. It would be interesting to see if a 12" box fan could keep a 3.4 GHz CPU cool while running at 150-250 RPM, at which speed they could run without much noise at all.

I'm pretty sure that such fans exist, and if I were ever to get into casemodding, that would be the first thing I would try. It also occurs to me that in dry climates (like Arizona and Colorado) a small swamp cooler (I envision a 6" cube) mounted on the side or back of a case could bring down the temperature of the air passing through it by twenty or thirty degrees. Cooler air can pick up more heat as it passes through the machine, so that would be something else to experiment with.

I have an empty Compaq full-sized tower case on the floor here in Niles. I'm termpted to ship it home, sharpen up my tinships, and try something a little "outside the box," heh.

November 15, 2005: Second Time Is the Charm

In hanging out with the SF crowd at Windycon this past weekend, I had an interesting insight: I know a lot of people in second marriages, but (at this time) none at all in third, fourth, or subsequent marriages. (I limit this statement to my own age and social cohort, that is, educated Boomers ages 40-60.) Some related observations:

  • Most of the single people that I know have never been married. Very few who have divorced have remained single for more than a few years.
  • Most of the single people that I know are men. (This goes against national trends and may be a fluke. Beware of small sample sizes.)
  • The most successful first marriages in my acquaintance were not early marriages. Those who are still in functional first marriages married when the partners were in their very late twenties or older.
  • In every successful early marriage I know about (which is not many at all) the partners knew one another for a long time, sometimes back as far as grade school.

Carol and I married when I was 24 and she 23, and have been very happily married for 29 years, but we met as juniors in high school and knew one another for seven years before marrying.

The conclusion I draw is this: The great tragedy in contemporary marriage is not that we divorce too much, but that we marry too easily to begin with. When you're young it's easy to marry for the wrong reasons, because you just haven't lived enough to judge when you're ready for a committment of that magnitude. When you haven't known another person that long (and especially if you're young as well) it's easy to mistake sexual infatuation for eternal love. It's also easier to hide fundamental personality flaws if you only have to be on your best behavior for three or four months. Once you know a person for a couple of years, you're probably going to have a pretty good idea of what they're really like.

I wish I knew what to suggest that young people be taught to improve their chances of marrying happily and for life. "Know yourself—and know him/her even better," would be my first guess. "Wait until infatuation burns out," would be my second. None of this is new, and I've discussed it here many times before. But things may look worse than they actually are. The single statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce does not imply that half of our people cannot sustain a marriage. I look around at my friends in happy second marriages and figure that for some people, the only way to learn about marriage is to try it, and for those who choose partners unwisely, one pass through the divorce grinder is enough to make the lessons stick.

A more revealing statistic might lie in what percentage of marriages end in the death of one partner—but I've never seen that one published. If you spot it somewhere, do let me know.

November 14, 2005: Failures to Communicate

Back in Niles, Illinois. Today has not been an especially good day. I tried to upload several Contra entries from the Crystal Lake Panera Bread, but I had some hardware problems with my Thinkpad X21 laptop, and ran out of time to mess with it before I had to return to Niles. The poor thing is four years old now and has seen a great deal of schlepping and bumping around, and I'm actually astonished that nothing has ever gone wrong with it before.

There's another interesting thing about the Crystal Lake Panera: They've plugged up all the outlets anywhere near any of the tables. The Wi-Fi is free, but now you're limited to whatever time your battery will allow, as there's no more refilling the electron tank while you're inside the restaurant. For me, that's not very much. My battery's getting old, and on a full charge may give me as much as seventy minutes of uptime. The Wi-Fi card sucks quite a bit of juice, but without that there's hardly any point in being there.

It will be interesting to see if the Niles Panera has done the same thing. I know why the restaurants do that, and have a certain amount of sympathy. I always buy something (at very least a cinnamon crunch bagel and coffee, but lunch as often as not) while I'm there, and try to limit myself to two hours or less. Other people do not have that sort of scruples, and I read somewhere that people taking up tables for five or six hours at a time while buying little or nothing at all is a problem in some restaurants. Other places near here (like Kappy's Restaurant at Harlem and Dempster) are now installing free Wi-Fi, but because they block Port 25, getting email out the door is problematic.

One thing this trip has made abundantly clear is that my laptop is rapidly approaching end-of-life. A new battery would help, but it's not very fast by my standards (700 MHz) and memory upgrades are expensive. As soon as I get home I'm going to get the Lenovo/IBM Thinkpad X41 Convertible. Carol will inherit this X21 as a compact Web machine for the laundry room, which is her workshop and where she does her soapmaking and other odd-moments pursuits. I'm looking forward to learning Tablet PC Windows, and will report here as that project progresses.

ISFiC Press now has lots of signed copies of The Cunning Blood, and whereas their Web shopping cart is still under construction, you can call Steven Silver and place charge card orders over the phone. The number is 847-607-0776.

November 13, 2005: Windycon Wrapup

I just got back up to Crystal Lake (where Carol's sister lives) after Windycon 32, and I'll wrap up with some odd notes about the convention:

  • Steven Silver (CEO of ISFiC Press) told me that one reviewer to whom he had sent The Cunning Blood replied that she did not review "libertarian science fiction." Apparently the waving flag underlying the other graphics on the cover is a kind of code to some people, which is ironic, since the Interstellar American Republic (whose flag it is) hardly fits the mold of the libertarian stories a la David Drake and others.
  • ISFiC did several thousand dollars' worth of business at the convention, between Harry Turtledove's book and mine. I signed cartons full of books, most of which were sold before the convention's closing. I'm a happy guy.
  • A panel we held on the future of computing raised a question that had not occurred to me before: Are modern user interfaces badly designed? Or just badly taught? Again, we ran out of time before we could chase that thread very far, but it's a question worth returning to here at some point.
  • I learned a lot about the current state of electric bicycles from British GTer Dermot Dobson, and will try to post a summary here in coming days.
  • I am already being asked: Will there be a sequel to The Cunning Blood? Scary notion, as I'm of two minds about sequels, popular though some may be. I have a sequel concept on ice called The Molten Flesh, but in truth I'd rather write something without the constraints of a "Volume 1." If I can get some traction on The Anything Machine, you'll probably see that first.
More later. I'm days behind here and need to get this stuff uploaded and posted from Panera ASAP. Damn, I hate having to drive to my broadband connection!

November 12, 2005: Critter Crunch at Windycon

Science Fiction conventions are an odd mix: Goths, comics freaks, SF gamers, and nerds of every stripe. Many or even most of us are graying Boomers, but I was encouraged to see a fair number of younger people, teens and 20-somethings, taking part and not just following their Boomer parents around in a glazed-over state.

At noon I sat on a panel discussing whether religion and science could co-exist, and even cooperate. There were too many people on the panel (And I the least of them; I will not be so bold as to interrupt Gene Wolfe) and we had a hard time keeping a coherent dialog underway. By the end of our allotted hour we had only begun. I had hoped to introduce the alternative idea of a "Generous Designer" who does His work with science, and not shazam-style Divine magic, so that we can follow along and thus become partners with God in divine creation. Alas, we ran out of time before I could get a word in. (See my entry for June 7, 2005 for my original essay on the subject.) Fortunately, in the final three minutes a young woman in the audience raised her hand to suggest that God created science too and must have had a reason for doing so, but there was no more time to explore the issue. It was heartening that the attendees, most of whom were self-confessed atheists, did not find the notion of religion itself disturbing, but only religion that deliberately sets up science as its enemy. It was also interesting that the group consisted mostly of two groups: Atheists/agnostics and...Catholics. In fact, Brother Guy Consolmagno from the Vatican Observatory was on the panel with us, and that fact alone spoke volumes. I only wish that we could have kept at it for the rest of the afternoon.

But there were other things worth seeing. One was called Critter Crunch, which is the local expression of the trademarked Robot Wars idea: On an 8-foot square plywood platform, remote-controlled vehicles weighing two pounds or less strove to either flip others over or push them off the edge of the platform.

Many of the robots entered were hacked Fisher Price toys, mostly plastic bulldozers, and they did pretty well, especially given that the #1 priority of a Critter Crunch robot is traction. However, the top battlers were hand-designed one-offs, and the #1 champ robot (see below) was in fact a creature constructed from a Vex Robotics construction set, built and run by a 16-year-old boy who was so shy I didn't even get his name. Tullio Proni's pyramidal POP 3 bot did very well, as did 17-year-old Anders Wilson's hand-made entry. Young people were prominent in the contest: A ten year old girl was the operator of one Fisher-Price item with sandpaper treads that did quite well. (She did not build the bot and had never run one before, and with some practice will be absolutely deadly.)

I've seen Critter Crunch contests before, and if the time were available I would tinker one together out of Meccano/Erector parts, of which I have many. I may do it anyway, as building things has proven to be very therapeutic for me, though I'll probably buy the remote control systems ready-made. Besides, the magic is all in the drive train, someone said, and they're probably right. I built a differential out of Meccano set gears when I was 11 but had no idea what to do with it. Now I do.

November 11, 2005: Launching The Cunning Blood

ISFiC Press, the publisher of my SF novel, rented a suite at the Wyndham here in Rosemont last night, and at 9 PM the launch party began. The party celebrated not only the launch of two new books, but also the broadening of ISFiC's own charter, from a publisher of convention guest-of-honor collections to a publisher of books that will stand on their own and sell through mainstream retail channels. This required a certain nontrivial amount of work on their part, including the obtaining of a book of ISBN numbers, and the establishment of relationships with firms like Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Baker & Taylor.

The interesting thing is that I know a little bit about book publishing, heh—and I am pleased to say that (without any coaching from me) they did almost everything exactly right.

This is fortunate, because book publishing is not in a good place right now. We are still shedding excess capacity in publishing that came on-line during the go-go days of the late 1990s. Computer publishing went to extremes in that era, but all categories saw huge growth in sales prior to 9-11. Things have improved in the past four years, but there are still too many books chasing too few readers, in SF/fantasy as in everything else. Nonetheless, as my own Paraglyph Press has shown, a small firm that aggressively reduces costs and tries hard to stay in touch with its readership can not only survive, but prevail. Big NY-style publishing has many more mouths to feed, a far more rigid business culture (often run, as Rob Rosenwald has often said, by people who don't read books) and lots, lots more to lose.

Given the way that the NY houses tend to treat their authors, I'm happy going with a competent startup.

The launch party was a lot of fun. The two books being launched were Harry Turtledove's new fantasy, Every Inch a King, and my hard SF, rivet-studded yarn The Cunning Blood. Steven Silver and John Donat stood behind the bar, not mixing drinks but selling books. Harry and I sat at chairs, munching hors d'oerves and signing books as needed while chatting with the gang who showed up and eventually jammed the place, standing and sitting shoulder to shoulder so tightly that it was difficult to move. We signed a lot of books between 9 and midnight, and as best I could tell everybody went home happy—especially the ISFiC crew, who probably did over $1000 in business in those three hours.

I had feared that the crowd would be entirely focused on Harry Turtledove, who has published dozens of books and won lots of awards, but not so: People I had never met before were buying my book with enthusiasm, and telling me that they want rivets—lots and lots of rivets—plus a storyline that moves quickly and presents interesting new ideas. One guy who bought the book went into a corner and began reading it, and returned some time later to grill me about the details of my wholly imaginary chaos-driven Hilbert stardrive. Of course, most of my old friends from the SF techie community (a loose group called General Technics that I helped found back in 1975) bought the book, and it was a happy mini-reunion for us. I've been away from the SF scene for a long time, and had gotten somewhat bitter during the five years I had tried to interest one of the major SF publishers in the manuscript. Most of them wouldn't even return my emails. Now, if the book's early reception is any indication, I can start writing another one. When it's done, there will be readers ready for it. Time to get to work.

November 10, 2005: Off to Chicago

Carol and I just got in to Chicago (with QBit under the seat) to spend Thanksgiving with family (Christmas will be in Colorado this year) and attend Windycon 32. My novel will be unveiled tomorrow night, and I'm not entirely sure what to expect or how to think about it. It's reviewed well so far (see my entry for November 8, 2005) but one always wonders how to interpret a single data point.

In between weekends we'll be doing some Christmas shopping and seeing some hometown friends we haven't seen for awhile. My Net connection will be spotty (think: Panera Bread) but I will be reading mail at least once every day—just not once every ten minutes. So if you don't hear from me as quickly as you usually do, don't panic.

November 9, 2005: Tombstones

20-odd years ago, I was thinking about the future of computing, and decided that eventually, personal computers would cook down to thin, flat, rectangular things containing a screen, NV memory, and voice recognition, with an external keyboard for the backward-looking. Having seen the Xerox Alto experimental workstation while I worked for them, I was also convinced that computers would eventually stop trying to be TVs and would switch around to portrait mode, in which virtually all printed material is used. I coined the term "tombstone" for this PC of the future, because it was a tall, flat vertical slab with words on it. I've used that term in several stories, most recently in my novel, The Cunning Blood.

In 1985 I bought an MDS Genius monochrome display. It's on the desk above, in a photo of my office in California in 1988, while I was editor of Turbo Technix. It looked a lot like an Alto, and I used it for years and years under DOS with Word Perfect 4. Alas, although I used both WordPerfect and Turbo Pascal in text mode on the full 82-line screen, MDS never managed workable Windows drivers for it, and they went out of business in the early 1990s. I retired it with reluctance, and assumed that eventually I would find something similar that would display a full-page portrait mode screen under Windows.

It took awhile, but the other day I got a smoking deal on a Samsung 213T LCD display. Samsung is retiring the model in favor of something even bigger and wider, but I'd been watching the 213T for some time, and I feel that getting a Best Buy display unit with a 3-year cart-it-in warranty for $800 was as good as I was going to do. The unit looks brand new, and it Just Worked.

The resolution is 1600 X 1200, and the display pivots 180°. There's a driver that allows you to hot-key from landscape to portrait mode and back at any time. Its display is almost unbelievably crisp, and although I had to pull it toward me about six inches from where the old CRT monitor was, I find it remarkably easy to read the inevitably small type.

I don't recommend it for games of any type, not even puzzle games. When connected to a Pentium 550, the Snood game runs so slowly I couldn't deal with it. (I'm not even going to try running Doom 3.) There's a little bit of jitter in the video, but that's in analog mode. Once I bestir myself to buy a DVI cable (the 213T has both VGA and DVI input jacks) I suspect the quality will be much better.

Working in portrait mode is inherently contrarian, but being a writer it makes sense for me, and I remain convinced that human knowledge works best in narrow columns. Note that I said knowledge—my observation is that only entertainment (movies, TV, video games) insists on landscape mode. Here and there you might find an application where horizontal spread is important (spreadsheets, some database browsers) but for the most part, when we compute we're modeling paper, and since paper went from scrolls to individual sheets, it's been long side up. (Ancient scrolls were oriented horizontally, so that the reader could keep one spool in each hand.)

November 8, 2005: First Review of The Cunning Blood

Not long after I uploaded yesterday's entry I discovered that The Cunning Blood had been reviewed for the first time, and on The SciFi Channel's Web site, no less! The book is only just barely off press and not yet in the retail channel; reviewer Paul Di Filippo received an uncorrected proof about six weeks ago when ISFiC Press kicked into high gear on the project.

I confess his review made me blush a little, but hell, I wrote the book to be a crowd pleaser, and I'm hoping that it will fulfill its mandate.

Not much new information concerning when the book will be available, and where. As of ten minutes ago Amazon had not listed it, but that's OK—pallet quantities have not yet been delivered to the distributor. (These things take time!) The publisher will be taking orders for signed copies, but those won't be available until some time after Windycon 32 this coming weekend. Hang in there; publishing is neither as easy nor as fast as we would like it to be.

November 7, 2005: Odd Lots

  • I apparently have several readers who are both over 30 and have IPods—and if I have any readers of any age who subscribe to XM or Sirius they haven't spoken up yet. Having sampled Sirius (in a rental car I had for a week) I'm now confident in saying that Satellite radio is like the Saturn 5 in 1969: Just the thing for the time being, but we won't need it forever. The IPod or someting very like it will be around forever, though we may someday wear it as a piece of jewelry.
  • Allan Heim pointed out something I actually saw on a peg in Walgreens last week and then forgot clean about: The smallest USB thumb drive yet. Jasco/GE is offering the Intelligent Stick, which is a misnomer, since nothing that small should be called a "stick." It weighs three grams and is an inch and a half long. As Allan pointed out, losing these things is beginning to be a serious hazard. Still, does anybody else think that the PC pattern on the USB plug is extremely cool?
  • Whatever you do, don't buy Teach Yourself PHP, MySQL, and Apache, by Julie C. Meloni. (Sams, 2004.) I've seen worse computer books (and I see a lot of computer books!) but it's been awhile. Do any of you out there have a favorite LAMP/WAMP book? Or am I gonna haveta write one?
  • The Cunning Blood is off press, bound, and in the publisher's warehouse. It will be unveiled this Friday night at a big party at Windycon 32 in Chicago. Amazon hasn't listed it yet because ISFiC Press is a startup, and the listing can't happen until Amazon gets a physical copy. Should be soon. More details on how to get it as I learn them.

November 6, 2005: The Ebook Killing Fields

I spent some time today cruising Planet Ebook, which is an ebook portal, trying to get a sense for how the ebook hardware reader market was going. What I discovered is that the field is a boneyard. Most of the dedicated (i.e., keyboardless) ebook reader companies are now simply gone, their hardware (if it ever even existed) orphaned, their domains bought up by clicksquatters. See QBe Original, QBe Vivo, MyFriend, GoReader, DataMyte, CyBook, and others. I went to Franklin's site, and they've abandoned their ebook reader hardware, though they still sell a few ebooks for it. That's a shame; I played with the EBookMan a little a few years ago and it was a nice compromise in size, price, and readability.

A lot of this hardware was damned sexy, and some pretty expensive. One item that still seems to be alive is the Estari 2-Vu, which is a sharp dual-screen tablet that opens like a book, with a display both left and right. You can have one too for only $5000....

It's not just the hardware. Adobe has already abandoned its obnoxious Glassbook reader software as well as its Adobe Content Server, and it's unclear what will happen to the server-side DRM support once tech support is cut off at the end of 2006. This is one of the best arguments against active DRM: If the company that owns the DRM sinks, it may take your content with it.

The message is pretty simple: There is less money in ebooks than people once thought, and in particular, people who are interested in ebooks are not willing to pay big for dedicated hardware ebook readers. Ebooks are not a killer app that will drive hardware sales. Ebooks will have to find a way to live on conventional mobile devices, be they phones, PDAs, tablets, or laptops. The only publishers who would have bought something expensive like Adobe Content Manager are the big New York guys who can't abide the thought of selling ebooks for fear that someone, somewhere might rip them off.

That leaves the field wide open for small publishers who get a $20/month hosting contract and install a gumball machine to accept money and dispense ebooks. Gumball machine? Indeed. Let's talk more about that in a day or so.

November 5, 2005: The Velocity of Books

Way back in the September 29 Wall Street Journal there was a slightly surreal article (not available online, though here is something similar) about the efforts of certain parties (mostly big-name authors and agents) to regulate and take a slice of used book sales. The article itself is fairly lightweight and presents no hard numbers, but the gist is this: It has become so easy to sell used books that many people are now buying a book, reading it once, and then selling it on Amazon Marketplace for a steep discount, even though the book may be in "like new" condition.

There has always been a market for used books, but in the past, readers had to depend on local sources (basically, used bookstores and garage sales) for used books, and finding any but the hugest sellers was sheer luck. Trust me on that, I used to spend a huge amount of time haunting used bookstores, wantlist in hand. Now, with used bookselling database-driven and global in scope, I just surf to and place my order.

Most large publishers take as axiomatic that used book sales hurt new book sales, but the truth is probably a little more complex. I don't borrow books very often, but in about half the cases, I enjoy the book enough to later buy a copy of my own. Smaller media companies understand that just getting your name out there is the real challenge, and I know from personal experience related to me in fan mail that used copy sales have often caused readers to go looking for my newer books.

The first-sale doctrine is ancient enough in the world of tangible goods to make efforts to extort a commission on used book sales from places like Amazon futile. What I see behind author and agent complaints is the gradual shift in media industry consciousness from the traditional sales model to the pay-per-view model that music and film interests are trying hard to impose on the public. And while the market for used print books is beyond regulation, there is a real possibility that ebooks may become non-transferrable, as much player-based music is now.

This has been true for some time in a few textbook markets, where ebook versions of expensive college and medical school textbooks are keyed to an individual buyer or computer and cannot be resold as used to others. I think this works for textbooks because textbooks are not marketed to students; they're marketed to professors and students have no choice in the matter.

Such plans are defended as being necessary for the compensation of authors (especially for big, difficult projects like fact-checked textbooks) but in truth the larger publishers have themselves been squeezing author payments rather than protecting them. Author royalities as a percentage of cover price have been sliding for years due to growing retail discounts, which are in effect passed on to authors because authors are paid on percentage of net receipts, not cover price. On top of that, the author share of book net sales has been shrinking as well; the 15% of net that I enjoyed 20 years ago is history, with 8-11% prevailing now. We're getting a smaller slice of a smaller pie.

The WSJ article didn't even mention the globalization of the remainders market. When books stop selling briskly enough to merit shelf space in retail stores, publishers sell whatever stock is left to remainder houses, which then sell them any way and at any price they can, and literally recycle to pulp what they can't sell as books. In the old days selling remainders was difficult, because it was all done through local discount bookstores or "book fairs" and such. Now, remainders are everywhere on the online book sites. Such books are not required to be listed as "remaindered" and are not stamped "Remaindered", but if you ever get a book with a black felt marker stroke across one of the edges, you've got a remaindered book. Remainders of books I wrote ten or twelve years ago are still listed on Amazon; just now I saw The New Netscape & HTML Explorer (1996) for sale at seventy six cents. I'm not sure how they do it. Amazon sets the shipping rates for Marketplace sales, so sellers can't give away the books and just mark up the shipping to make a profit, as is done elsewhere.

Anyway. One way to sum all this up is to say that the velocity of books is increasing. "Friction" in the book market is vanishing as the Internet allows effortless search by title, author, or even text. In this new world of book publishing, books don't die predictably like they used to, marching into a pulping mill by the numbers. Books may hang around and pass from hand to hand for years, suppressing sales of new editions.

As an author I don't like it either, but I recognize what many of my fellow authors don't: We're now seeing a genuine free market in books. What we can get these days is what we always would have gotten if the difficulties of finding and selling books globally had never existed. We need to find a better way to create and sell books that allows authors to make a living, and I don't see it yet, but you can bet that I'm still looking.

November 4, 2005: Are IPods the Next Radios?

Sometimes I just feel old, and one of those times is when I try and grasp the IPod phenomenon. These days, I play CDs in the car, or MP3s when I'm down in the shop soldering resistors. I do my creative work in silence. On the other hand, I remember having a transistor radio (we're talking mid-60s here) and listening to it a lot. My chunky little Japanese radio gave way to the Walkman, and later on to various kinds of music players. Little by little, radio fell by the wayside. (If it weren't for the iconic big-city two-hour commute, I think broadcast radio would be dead by now.)

Back in my October 24, 2005 entry, I suggested that WiMax could become the next radio, by reliably distributing CD-quality music and talk to mobile devices. (I wasn't even thinking about video at that point, but video will be a part of the mix.) The big question is: What device will be the receiver? Car/desk radio? Cellphone? PDA? Or IPod and its clones?

  • Car radios, probably. Size, power draw, and antennas are not an issue.
  • Desk receivers, well, what about the PC that you already have? A WiMax plug-in board and some software and you're there.
  • PDAs, possibly, especially since they're dead silicon in our pockets about 94% of the time. Why not put them to work as WiMax digital receivers when they're not otherwise engaged?
  • Cellphones, I don't think so. As I said before, all the wrong people control the cell industry. Broadcasting is a business model they don't grok and aren't likely to any time soon.
  • you're talking. They're already considered entertainment platforms, rather than communications platforms. The people who sell them understand things like music and video in ways the cellmongers never will. There's plenty of room for additional electronics inside those little boxes. Batteries, well, that's a tougher call, but we'll find out eventually.

There are three additional reasons that IPods could be the ideal platform on which to build a new, advertising-supported broadcast medium:

  • The listener demographic is hugely focused, and (better yet) countable. IPod owners are young people, for the most part, and young people who share a common culture. This is precisely what advertisers want. Also, a station can count connections, unlike conventional radio broadcasters, so advertisers don't have to take a sales rep's or an auditor's word for the numbers—they can demand to see the connection logs.
  • Podcasts are already a familiar and popular mechanism among the IPod crowd, and a commercial podcast is just a podcast put on by grown-ups, with legal music and advertising to pay for it.
  • Young people are very much into "free." This is why I don't know anybody with a satellite receiver (Sirius, XM, etc.) who's under 30. (I also don't know any IPod owners who are over 30.) Subscription models are only grudgingly accepted by the IPod crowd. A "free" business model (i.e., ad-supported) would drive subscription-based streamed music into the margins, especially if DRM gets worse than it already is. In truth, legal downloadable track-based music and broadcast music can coexist and even coevolve, and I think they will. There's never been a better way to promote a band than broadcast radio, and the music industry knows this.

We may be a couple of years away from cheap mobile WiMax. That's OK, since the IPod market has to grow and the technology has to mature a little. But my money's on the IPod as the killer app for mobile WiMax—and the return of broadcast radio from a very deep eclipse.

On the other hand, I'm 53. If WiMax shows up, the kids will decide. Let's watch.

November 3, 2005: Moving MySQL Databases

Some months back, I manually entered a dozen or so Contra entries into a MySQL database up on my hosting service, so that I'd have something to display as I experiment with PHP. I have now installed XAMPP on a machine here locally, and wanted the same data. I exported the remote database from PHPMyAdmin, downloaded it, and loaded it effortlessly into my local install of MySQL. I hadn't done this before, and I took a close look at the .sql file exported from the remote server.

Who needs binary compatibility? The export file was a list of purely textual SQL commands which, when executed, replicate my original database on any database server that understands SQL. The exercise answered my question about getting blog data from client to server and back. SQL is a very strong standard, and for relatively simple databases like a blog, I can't imagine a SQL-compatible database that couldn't handle it.

I'm spending most of my odd moments studying the PHP/MySQL interface. The tricky stuff, as always, lies neither in PHP (which is a very conventional programming language) nor in SQL itself. The tricky stuff is always at the edges where big things come together. Getting data out of a SQL query and into PHP variables seems gnarlier than it should be, and the books I have on the subject say remarkably little on it, and what they say they say badly.

Other odd notes on the same subject: My hosting service had turned off PHP error messages, which is why my clumsy programs were bumping their elbows in silence. When XAMPP installs PHP it leaves error reportiong on, and things have been a whole lot better since then.

PHP Designer is very good, at least for simple work, and I recommend it for people just beginning to write PHP code.

Damn, but this is fun!

November 2, 2005: WAMPin' with PHP Designer

I think I have the PHP coding environment covered, at least while I'm climbing the learning curve. I installed XAMPP on an old Pentium 450 downstairs, and it Just Worked. I deliberately installed it in what I call Dumbass Mode, meaning I didn't read any of the instructions at all, but just ran the installer. No problem. If you're not already a server wizard and are interested in learning LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) or WAMP (Windows/Apache/MySQL/PHP) which I call (for all platforms) PASQL, XAMPP is a superb way to go. I mapped my learning directory onto a network drive, and work happily from upstairs even though the machinery is all downstairs. I firewalled the old machine to prevent outsiders (not to mention my cable company) from attempting to access the servers from the Internet. This one's just for me.

As for a PHP IDE, I stumbled across one yesterday that I hadn't seen before: PHP Designer 2005. It's the best of the freeware editors I've yet seen, and while I'm intrigued by Zend, I want to explore PHP's farther corners a little more before getting into anything that ambitious. PHP Designer has a built-in FTP client, boilerplate generators for PHP control structures and the more complex HTML elements, a snippets library for storing your own custom boilerplate, a debugger that I haven't needed much yet, autocomplete on common tags, and a lot of other things, all wrapped up in a very polished package. My only gripe so far is that the built-in preview pane requires IE and can't be set to any arbitrary browser, but I know why the author did it that way, and hope that he will eventually make the preview pane a plug-in of some sort.

I did realize when I began writing PHP integrated with HTML just how rusty I was on HTML. I'm actually spending more time brushing up on HTML and (especially) CSS than I am writing PHP code. If I do end up writing machinery like Aardblog that generates Web pages on the fly, I want the generated HTML to be up to date and not full of deprecated tags.

This highlights an underappreciated danger of using WYSIWYG Web editors: You don't have to look at the underlying HTML markup, and thus you don't learn it. In my case, it's been so long since I've looked at HTML code in quantity that the HTML spec itself has evolved considerably right under my nose. Toto, we're not in 1998 anymore, heh.

November 1, 2005: Odd Lots

  • In response to yesterday's entry about PHP development, several people suggsted installing and using XAMPP on a lab machine on my local network. XAMPP is basically an installer that sets up Apache, PHP, MySQL, and a number of other things (including the Mercury mail server) in one swoop, configuring everything to reasonable defaults. I installed it last night and will be poking at it today. With everything on one local machine, I can program in PHP almost as though it were Delphi, and when I have something worth putting up on my hosting site, that's easy too. I'll report back after I've had some time to fool with it.
  • That consummate loser Sony is doing a really really dumb thing: They're installing Windows rootkits as part of their latest music DRM system. Read this. Having succeeded at suing 13-year-old girls for sharing files, the record companies are now silently installing rootkits on our PCs. Great way to make young people respect your property rights, eh?
  • Pete Albrecht called my attention to, which is an encyclopedia of symbols and ideograms emerging from Western culture. Here's an example; the old alchemists' symbol for vitriol. Fascinating stuff.
  • A remarkable thing happened last night: I gave the last couple of pieces of candy in the bowl to the last group of kids who came to the door at about 8:30. Halloween over, bowl empty. For the first time in living memory I won't be forced to finish half a bag of malted milk balls, sigh.