October 31, 2000:

Boo! The scariest place to be this Halloween may well be in your local public school. UP just carried a story about an eleven-year-old girl thrown out of school for two weeks because she had a 10" Tweety Bird chain running from her purse to her house keys. Huh? Well, a chain can be used as a garotte, after all...and the school has a zero-tolerance policy for weapons. Now, apart from the fact that a 10" chain is insufficiently long to garotte anything bigger than a Barbie doll (do the math: circumference = pi times diameter, plus enough length to loop around your fists) the last time I looked, grade schoolers were not garroting one another on the playground, or anywhere else. I am reminded of an incident here in the Phoenix area a year or so ago, when a studious young boy was arrested and then expelled for bringing his science fair project to school: A model rocket.

On the whole I am not a vouchers supporter, but incidents like this are stacking up, and if something isn't done soon to restore sanity to our classrooms, the only path available to us will be to completely privatize the public school system. Our children are being brutalized, and taught that educators are cowards, fools, and martinets. If the only way to depoliticize our schools is to privatize them, so be it. The only voices not heard in this whole idiotic debate are those of the children who are not being educated. Don't talk to me about church and state. Talk to me about child abuse. Principals who toss kids out of school for the sake of their keychains deserve to be prosecuted for child abuse—and I'd give them twenty years at hard labor.
October 30, 2000:

That most peculiar American political tradition—the national third-party presidential candidate—is at it again. Ralph Nader is showing surprising strength in a lot of places, including some states that are so close old Ralphie could tip them to the Republicans by siphoning off Gore's left wing. Third parties never win (not here, at any rate) but they invariably end up torching the chances of the party they most resemble. Ross Perot did it to the Republicans in 1992, basically handing the presidency to a guy who didn't even win 50% of the vote. Turnabout must be fair play, because this time Nader could well hand the election to Bush by stealing Gore's margin in states, like Wisconsin, that hang on the razor's edge. Some Republicans understand this, and are contributing to Nader's campaign in those razor states.

There is at least one Internet weirdness connected with this: A site somewhere (and you can find it yourself, because I think it subverts democracy and won't promote such things) tries to arrange informal "vote swaps" with Nader voters, trading a Nader vote in a razor state for one in a state where Bush isn't so close to parity with Gore. So Gore gets a vote where it makes him more likely to win, and Nader gets a vote...somewhere else. I don't see what's in it for the Naderites, and such a system is wide open to skullduggery, by people who trade their Gore vote for a Nader vote and then turn around and vote for Bush instead. They get two gold stars for cleverness, at least, if not for political acumen. (They apparently didn't grok that Nader wants to punish the Democrats more than he wants to punish the Republicans. Heretics are treated more harshly than pagans, after all.)
October 29, 2000:
My good friend Jim Mischel sent me the following joke: "Two eggs, some bacon, and a glass of juice walked into a bar and sat down, but the bartender came over and told them, 'Sorry, we don't serve breakfast.'" I'm particularly vulnerable to this kind of silliness, and I laughed until it hurt. Howcum? What is so damned affecting about things like that? Jim wondered the same thing in his own Web diary, and neither of us has a good answer. I've heard the oft-repeated notion that all humor is about pain, but that theory fails here, as it fails in most places. What humor is really about is incongruity, but the question remains: Why does incongruity affect us as it does? What makes silly things silly, and what conceivable use could silliness have had in our evolutionary development as thinking creatures? (Or is it just a bizarre unintended consequence of something else in our mental machinery?) No answers here, sigh. As all true-blue Jungians know, we are far more complex creatures than the reductionists insist. Humor is just one more mystery in the very long list with humanity's name at the top.
October 28, 2000:
Most things have names, and when they don't, boy, it's trouble. (See my separate essay on the topic.) For example, you can usually dope out the title of an obscure piece of music by searching for likely phrases out of the lyrics. But there are a couple of old late 60's instrumentals I heard off the radio that I remember quite clearly but cannot identify. They're lost, and barring some truly remarkable luck, I suspect I will never find them. The same is true of an interesting kind of candy I bought when I lived in Rochester NY back in the early 80's. It was of that genus of candy that lives in little transparent plastic bags with card stock labels punched with a hole so it can hang on pegs in 7-Elevens and gas stations. They were small purple things about 3/8 of an inch square and maybe a quarter inch thick, mostly hard but not quite as hard as what we call "hard candy". They looked a little bit like small purple pillows, or giant purple Sen-Sen. They had the most marvelous taste and smell, something like lavendar, and they turned your tongue a wonderfully goofy color. If I knew what they were called I might be able to find them; once I know something's name, the search goes a lot easier. (It took me 25 years to corner a copy of David Buskin's song "Flying Child" because I never knew it was by David Buskin.) Anybody ever hear of something like this? I don't eat a lot of candy anymore, but I would make an exception for those little purple things.
October 27, 2000:
It occurs to me that it was almost exactly 20 years ago that I bought a lifetime subscription to Nuts & Volts Magazine...for five bucks. Back then it was a 16-page pulp gatherum of classified ads, with a few display ads from electronics parts dealers. I figured that five bucks wasn't much, even if the poor thing didn't last out the year. Now here we are, in the year 2000...and the Nuts & Volts are still coming. It's a glossy tabloid now (well, the cover is glossy, at least) with construction articles and loads of ads from electronics surplus places that don't advertise anywhere else. Funky, occasionally goofy, but often useful and always fun. I don't know how Jack Lemieux does it, but he kept his part of the deal, and the mags have marched into my mailbox like clockwork for 20 years. I don't think he's selling lifetime subs anymore, but if you're interested in electroncs (and especially robotics and Basic Stamp projects) it's worth a look: http://www.nutsvolts.com.
October 26, 2000:
While we're talking about clothes, I'll pass along one of my own unbreakabole commandments: Wear no one's advertising but your own. Why make Tommy Hilfiger richer than he already is (assuming that he actually exists, and is not just another damned brand-by-fiat) by wearing clothes with "Tommy Hilfiger" plastered all over them? I have a number of Coriolis Group shirts, and I wear them proudly. But I wear no other branded merchandise whatsoever. (OK, I wear my old 1983 Ghostbusters T-shirt while I'm turning iron on the lathe and it's spitting oil and metal chips at me, and I still have a few Turbo User Group shirts that fit and get worn on weekends.) Political statements aren't my style either, so all my new T-shirts are...blank. What a notion.
October 25, 2000:

Clothes remain an eternal perplexity to me. I was sitting in the dentist's office yesterday, flipping through dogeared People magazines, and happened on a feature called "The Best and Worst Dressed People of 2000." I swear, I couldn't tell the difference between the best and the worst. The women's outfits all looked equally grotesque to me. The men all looked hip, (the worst dressed more than the best dressed, who almost bordered on normal) which means that they were wearing things that I couldn't pull off because I am 48 and mostly bald and neither an actor nor a rock star. (I find it most amusing that young men today signal their defiance by shaving their heads instead of growing their hair long, as we did in the late Sixties. Maybe they, like me, grew tired of seeing all those oh-so-pretentious fiftysomethings with gray ponytails. And shucks, I'm in style again...sort of.)

Even back when I was a hippie I had this sense that all the other hippies knew what they were doing when they put their ratty clothes together. I couldn't even pull off looking ratty without signaling to all and sundry that it was...wannabe ratty. So I went back to wearing what was practical and comfortable, and once I started my own company, decided that there would be no dress codes and no fuss made over ties and pantyhose and other hierarchical silliness. We got the work done anyway, and I can't help wondering what all the fuss over clothes is actually for.
October 24, 2000:
I got my bloodwork results back today, and my suspicions were confirmed: My cholesterol number fell thirty points, with the "good" numbers rising radically over their counterparts gathered at my last physical a year ago. How did I do this? Simply be exercising moderately and cutting the carbs. My diet is mostly protein, raw vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, and some fat. I eat hamburgers now and then without suffering over it. Ditto eggs and even bacon, though not much more than twice a month. What I don't eat are doughnuts, sweet rolls, cakes and candy, nor drink any drinks with sugar in them. I cut white rice and refined grains radically, as much as I like them. (Rice especially, sigh.) Perhaps more important, I don't overeat anything, and my lunches in particular have gotten very light. My exercise consists of walking, either on the dirt roads or on the treadmill, at about 3.5 MPH, to the tune of eight-ten miles per week. Cut out sugar and you will lose weight. Cut out sugar and walk more, and you'll lose even more weight. Really!
October 23, 2000:
There are three kinds of loneliness, which I characterize as the three C's: Lack of companionship, lack of community, and lack of connection to the divine. The great task facing our civilization is repairing the damage wreaked by these three, in the name of individualism, efficiency, or (in terms of belief in any kind of divine power) spiritual denial. It's been going on so long that most of the time we no longer entirely grasp what's eating us, but the truth is that the human spirit withers without connections to others. Having spent 48 years trying to figure it out, might I suggest: 1. Belong to someone. 2. Belong to something. 3. Belong to Someone. It may not be any more complex than that.
October 22, 2000:
I don't weigh myself very often because I don't want to become obsessed with my weight, considering it as I do only one relatively minor component of good health. But I discovered last night that I lost another four pounds since Carol and I went to a sort of high-protein, low-volume lunch. Our lunches lately have mostly consisted of the following: Two or maybe three slices of lean cold meat (ham or turkey breast) a slice or two of low-fat Muenster cheese, some carrot or red pepper sticks, and a slice of rough bread toasted and buttered. ("Rough bread" is the term I've coined to describe a darker wheat bread with lots of wheat, nut, or millet kernels in it. The key is that the flour is not all highly refined.) We drink water or Diet Pepsi with it. Not healthy? I'm not so sure. I used to eat a beef rice bowl every day for lunch (it was that or Wendy's, egad) and felt logy for the first hour or so afterward, which means that my blood surgar was on a joyride. Keeping the carbos to a minimum makes me feel way better after lunch, and the scale doesn't lie. I'm about where a guy my age and build should be, for the first time in almost ten years. I had a physical three weeks ago, and I'm still waiting for my bloodwork to come back. We'll see what my cholesterol (which has always been borderline) has done, and I'll report here.
October 21, 2000:

There's been debate in many areas over the question of whether kids today are being given too much homework. (A recent article in US News and World Report brought it to mind this morning.) Having spent some time with my high-school age nephews I would definitely say it's true: Kids are spending too much time on homework. But what bothers me about the entire argument is that nobody is even asking whether the homework kids are being given is well-chosen, or is it simply makework without any educational benefit.

I won't judge other disciplines like math, but my degree is in English, and I have worked as an editor for a lot of years. I know something about the business, and I will say that a great deal of what my nephews have been forced to do is simply incompetent: Questions that make no sense, or multiple-choice questions for which all the choices are wrong. This may be why academic performance isn't going through the roof, given that American kids are spending several hours a night working on homework. Spending two hours doing things wrong (or trying to wrestle even the barest sense out of the questions) teaches kids nothing, except, perhaps, that school is simply a sort of ordeal that they have to finesse their way through somehow, divorced entirely from the realities of learning anything.

An hour of well-chosen homework every night is a good thing. The ugly question is why the bulk of our kids' homework borders on the idiotic. Until that issue enters the debate, nothing at all will be accomplished, other than feeding the anti-intellectual currents that are never far from the surface of American culture.
October 20, 2000:

I don't talk about "real" politics much—way too depressing, given the money-corruption eating away at our own system—but I ponder alternate political systems from time to time. (It's part of my charter as a futurist and SF writer.) One of my recent ideas that I found intriguing (recognizing that it could never happen) is simply this: Make the income tax optional, but with a twist: Let people choose the rate that they pay, but with yet another twist: Make that rate a matter of public record.

In such a system, a taxpayer would sign up for a non-revokable four-year stint at a particular tax rate, which can be anything at all from 0% on up. For the next four years that's the flat rate he pays—and that rate is listed in a public database. I know, the privacy freaks among us would go berserk, but somehow I didn't inherit the radical privacy gene. What it would mean is that peer pressure could be applied to federal tax rates. People could pay nothing, but their neighbors would know that they paid nothing. And loudmouth politicians and lobbyists could at least be measured against their willingness to support the federal government. I'll tell you up front that I would pay 15%, because that's what I think a federal government warrants, and I wouldn't mind people knowing that that's the rate I would be paying.

It would be even more fascinating to align the tax rate term with the term of the president, and see the tax rates as a sort of referendum on the guy in office. If the people trusted a president and his policies, they might be more inclined to let him have their money. (This would, of course, require a consitutional provision forbidding the federal government from ever running a deficit, which I think would be a very good thing. Only war against a sovereign foreign power justifies deficit spending. Anything else is vote buying.)

Needless to say, this will never happen, but we get hemmed into our conventional wisdom sometimes to the point where no deviation from the current system is even imaginable. There are an infinite number of ways to distribute power and run a government, and what we have is only one. Never forget that. If I find the time, I'll describe some of the other oddball political systems I've developed here.
October 19, 2000:
Researchers have found viable bacterial spores inside salt crystals dating back 250 million years. The spores, when released and hydrated, began to act like ordinary bacteria again. It's a cool story, most potently because a bacterium that can live as a spore inside a salt crystal for a quarter of a billion years could live inside a chunk of rock blasted off the surface of a planet in another star system as long as it took for that rock to wander our way and crash intact to the Earth's surface. It's no longer a sure thing that life originated on Earth—though in fairness, the chances of a meteorite reaching us from another star system, given the distances and sparsity of systems involved, are pretty slim. (And the energy required to launch any sizeable piece of rock clear out of the solar system by way of an impact event is so intense that it would probably fry any living material lurking in its cracks.) The origins are life remain mysterious, and are now even more so. The longer we study, the less, it seems, that we can be certain of anything!
October 18, 2000:

A recent study I saw summarized somewhere (Wired News? I can't find it right now) indicated that fewer and fewer people are using the Internet for the sake of surfing the Web, where "surfing" means moving around a lot and looking for the unexpected, or simply researching. Web habits are settling down to visiting a handful of sites, reading very specific items (news, stock reports, movie reviews) and then ducking out. There is definitely something to this; unless I have a specific research project underway (and I do a fair number of them) I read Slashdot and Wired News. I get a couple of email newsgatherers and they sometimes send me off to read something, but I rarely just wander the Web for entertainment. The novelty of that has definitely worn off.

There's a trend here. I read somewhere else that content is not king—at best, content is the court jester, a sideshow. Consider how very little online content people are willing to actually lay out money for. It's a diversion and little more. The "killer app" of the Internet is the other people who use it. More and more, as people become increasingly computer literate, the Net is a two-way connection, via chat, message boards, IM, file swappers, and especially email.

This may be an indication that the dominance of intellectuals on the Web has passed. Not many people read the history of obscure religious sects for fun, or make a game of seeing how many times forgotten words like "oriel" or "paraglyph" appear on the Web. (At least one person you know has done this, though I won't embarrass him by revealing his identity.) But gossip and grooming—virtual though it might be—are ancient and fundamental primate obsessions. (Compare the circulation numbers of The Economist to People Magazine.) The Web has found its niche, and he is us.
October 17, 2000:

In an arch high above the floor of the third-century Basilica of Sts. Prudentiana and Praxedis in Rome is a mosaic portrait of four women. Two are the saints honored by the basilica, one is the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the fourth...is a little different. Unlike the others, who have familiar circular halos, the fourth woman's halo is square. This looks odd to us, but is actually an artistic convention in the church art of the time, indicating that the person depicted was still alive at the time the portrait was made. Over this square halo is the inscription, Theodora Episcopa. Literally, "Bishop Theodora."

We know nothing else of Bishop Theodora. Her mosaic is high enough off the church floor so that an effacer would have had to mount a scaffold, which is generally frowned on in basilicas. Historical records, on the other hand, are much easier to redact. It's little known but historically unchallengable that in the very early Catholic Church, women held all of the anointed offices of the church: Deacon, Elder (they were not called "priests" in those first centuries) and Bishop.

How could this be? Simple: Until Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 313, the Church kept a low profile, and more often than not held services in the homes of its people. It was culturally permissible for a woman to hold a position of responsibility within the home and within private organizations—like the Catholic Church prior to 313. What a woman could not do was become involved in the polis; that is, in public life and discourse. When the Catholic Church became part of the polis, the leadership of women could no longer be tolerated, and male Church leaders went after them with a vengeance. Women were considered incomplete and/or damaged goods back then, and that disqualified them for Church office or any other expression of public authority. Believe it or not, this excuse was retained until 1976, when the Vatican finally realized that they couldn't say such things anymore without sounding like morons. So a whole new theology was assembled in a big hurry to explain why maleness was an essential element of the priesthood.

The problem with this new theology is not that it is bogus (although it probably is) but simply that it's new, a hurried excuse used to wallpaper over what had been nothing better than obvious prejudice.

What I have found most interesting about the Old Catholic Church is that some (though not all) Old Catholic denominations now ordain women as priests and deacons, and consecrate them as bishops. I've met a few of them, and it's a marvelous thing, and perhaps a foretaste of what Roman Catholicism might become if all those old guys in Rome would just stop making stupid excuses.
October 16, 2000:

I'm amazed that it took this long, but it wasn't until yesterday that I ever actually got a new Sacajawea dollar coin in change. (I got it out of a stamp machine at the Scottsdale post office, and I still wonder if they ever see them at Safeway.) For the first time since silver dollars went out of vogue, we have a dollar coin that's worth something better than contempt. Sacajawea's portrait is well done, but the reverse is even more striking, suggesting the St. Gaudens designs from the 1920's which were in fact the peak of American coin art.

Although I'm wondering how they will show their wear, I like them enough to think a $5 coin, larger but made from the same golden-colored metal, would make sense—and the vending machine people would go nuts. I don't know why people don't like coins. Maybe it's just one of my eccentricities, but maybe it's because I don't keep money in my wallet. What bills I have just sit at the bottom of my pocket until I spend them, and sometimes they come out as interesting things indeed. (See my essay on the phenomenon elsewhere on this site.) We had $5, $10, and $20 coins in the gold era, and there's no reason we couldn't have them again. Metal money is hard to damage in the washing machine, and you can't flip a dollar bill to decide who goes first. What's not to like?
October 15, 2000:

We seem to be approaching an interesting juncture in America: Almost everybody who wants a PC already has one. (And with new low-end PCs costing $500 or so, I'll have none of this nonsense about "digital have-nots." Anybody who wants to have can have.) This is a very good thing in a lot of ways, but it's not good for companies who have pegged their entire strategies to huge and unending growth in the new PC market.

The big loser here is Microsoft. Every time a new PC goes out the door, Microsoft pockets significant money for the OS. No PCs, no money. This is not rocket-science economics, and I think Microsoft's current brain-drain problem stems directly from insiders realizing that the options money pot isn't going to get lots bigger any time soon. So why not quit and enjoy life?

We're in for a couple of lean years in technology, could be—but I could live with that. We need some time to assimilate all that we have right now. PCs are about as fast as they need to be for most office-type applications (3-D graphics development not included!) and today's hard disks are so immense that ordinary people will probably never be able to fill them. Even after ripping large numbers of my audio CDs to MP3s, I still have over half of a 16GB hard drive empty. The machine is reliable and quiet. Why get a new one?

Also, the financial markets need some time to get over what's left of the inebriation of earlier this year, and after that, the hangover that follows. Then we need to do some hard thinking: What the hell do we really need in our desktop machines? Damn little more than what we already have. And that, folks, is economic dynamite.
October 14, 2000:

When I flew to England in 1996, I killed time watching the James Bond flick Goldeneye on one of the airline's little lap-held video players, with a color screen about the size of two business cards. I was impressed by the technology (which was pretty aggressive at the time) but in truth, watching things blow up in a space the size of my water bill was at best diverting, and at worst (on thinking back) ridiculous. So it was this evening, when I pulled out Return of the Jedi while I walked on the treadmill. It's better on a 14" screen...but only a little.

I don't see why the studios expect either rampant piracy of DVD movie files, or a monster market in streamed video. If I just want to be diverted by the small screen, there's always Frasier reruns. No, what I want in a video experience is to be able to go to the cinema and see Luke Skywalker kick ass on the great big honking fifty foot wide movie screen. Instead, most weekends we get a choice of six bad flicks on 200-odd screens in the Phoenix metro area. Six! (Oh, all right. Ten.)

This is why I see about four movies a year. That's all that comes out that interests me at all. But...if somebody would screen Star Wars, I'd pay five bucks an episode to see it again, even though I've seen it fifteen times. Ditto The Rocketeer, Galaxy Quest, Aladdin, Moscow on the Hudson, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and fifty or so others that I could name, and as many more that have slipped my mind, all the way back to Danny Kaye's Merry Andrew from 1958. The current system of having movies play for six weeks and then vanish forever into the video drawer is nuts. I like the big screen. I just don't like 90% of movies that monopolize it. I doubt that I'm unique, and if the studios would let the theaters play what they want to play (instead of forcing bad Tom Cruise movies down their throats) everybody would make a lot more money. As it says in the Monty Python phrase book, "These people are lepers."
October 13, 2000:

The last time my friend Pete Albrecht was out here, we killed some time playing, "Stump eBay," a game consisting of typing in silly things to eBay's search field to see if anybody was selling them. Most of the time, people were. I typed in a number of vacuum tube types (the 829B being my personal favorite, followedly closely by the 815 and the venerable 3V4) and they were all there. It was astonishing who all is selling 8" floppy drives, blessed beeswax candles, loose Erector set parts, bean bag chairs, and lord knows what else.

I tried it again with Napster this evening, attempting to stump it with obscure songs. I stumped it, of course--I know a lot of obscure music!--but I was dumbfounded at the number of truly obscure 45 records that have been ripped into immortality. How about John & Ann Ryder's "I Still Believe in Tomorrow" ? Haven't heard that since 1969. Or "Zip Code" by the Five Americans. Or "A Question of Temperature" by Balloon Farm. On the balance, this is a good thing. You can't buy these new anymore, and they would just vanish into landfills forever if people didn't rip them, clean them up, and post them. If there were a way to pay for them, I would. And if the studios were smart, they'd find a way.

It's more and more true all the time that if it exists, you can find it on the Internet. What a rush, as we used to say in the Sixties, even those of us who had no idea what a "rush" was.
October 12, 2000:

Back in sixth grade (which was 1963-64) Sister Marie Bernard used to have us sing this song. It wasn't in our To Go Through Music song books, but it wasn't hard to pick up (her awful voice notwithstanding) and it's stuck in my mind ever since:

Have you had a kindness shown?
Pass it on!
'Twas not meant for you alone.
Pass it on!
Let it travel down the years;
Let it wipe another's tears.
'Til in Heaven the deed appears...Pass it on!

I always wondered who wrote it, but I never thought to look on the Web until tonight. I even thought she might have made the damned thing up on her own, but no...several Web sites attribute it to the Rev. Henry Burton. No information forthcoming on the man himself, but a tip of the hat goes out to a guy who can make a corny 30-second piece of music (sung by a tone-deaf nun, God love her) survive inside my skull for 37 years. I'm glad he never wrote cigarette jingles, yikes!
October 11, 2000:

I finished my first short SF item in almost ten years last night. "Drumlin Boiler" is a novelette, 11,200 words long. Took about a month to finish and tinker into submittable shape—and the tinkering was the greater part of the effort, as usual. I'm going to give it one more lookover and send it over to Analog. We'll see.

The story is set in the same general universe as my novel The Cunning Blood, and it deals with some of the same mysteries, as well as uncovering some new ones. I hope to do a series of short stories in the same setting, and then get to work on a new novel.

The premise: A starship malfunctions, and maroons its 700 colonists bound for Earth's first extrasolar colony on an unknown planet in an unknown galaxy. (That's a problem with the Hilbert Drive: When it fails, it can take itself to any point in the universe instantaneously.) The colonists find themselves on an Earthlike planet on which a huge number of strange devices are scattered around. The colonists name them "thingmakers" because of what happens when you tap out a rhythm on the two stone pillars set before a two-meter-wide stone bowl full of dust: Something coalesces in the dust. Tap out a simple rhythm, and you get a simple artifact like a shovel or an axe. Tap out a more complex rhythm, and get a more complex artifact like a gear or a frictionless bearing. Tap randomly...and what you get is a strange clot of metal with no obvious use. The colonists take to "drumming up" artifacts, and use them to survive and establish a civilization. The artifacts, called "drumlins," are not univgersally popular. There is a party that wants to re-establish Earth technology so that the starship, left in orbit over the planet, can be repaired and the journey continued. But most of the colonists prefer to just hammer out a song and get their tools and building materials for free, weird as they are. And there's something about drumlins and high-pitched whistles, too, something profoundly odd...

A rhythm must be 256 beats long to generate a drumlin—which means that there are 1.58 X 10E77 different possible drumlins, or a million drumlins for every atom in the universe. What are they, and who designed them? If I can get these stories into print, you'll eventually find out.
October 10, 2000:

A new software category is quietly growing, and poised to explode: Anti-spyware is the awkward but best name so far, for utilities that install on your system and limit the ability of installed applications to "phone home" over your Net connection. People are adopting anti-spyware in the wake of publicity describing UCITA's provisions for remote disabling of software. (See October 9, 2000.) Basically, if a software vendor doesn't know where your copy of their app is installed, they can't disable it—and anti-spyware prevents the app from sending a hidden message to its home base, reporting its presence at your IP address. Anti-spyware also watches for incoming probes, and blocks whatever you don't allow. This is nothing new in itself; I have used Black Ice for some time and love it. With Black Ice installed, Steve Gibson's wonderful ShieldsUp security testing Web site (www.grc.com) reported that my machine was basically invisible, and that's how I like it.

Now, I said all that to say this: Steve has a new utility called OptOut that may be the best of the anti-spyware products. (ZoneAlarm 2.1 is another, and even Steve Gibson endorses it. I have not yet tried it.) More important for the moment than preventing spyware from "phoning home" from your system is just understanding the issues, and for that you can't beat Steve's site. I recommend that you go up there and read until you've read it all. I promise you, this will become a major issue in the next few years. More in future ContraPositive entries.
October 9, 2000:

Although it sounds astonishing to most people, the new UCITA framework for state commerce laws makes it perfectly legal for a software vendor to send a probe to your system—without your knowledge or consent—and disable or even delete an application that you have "paid" for. I predicted this years ago, and it's creepy to see it begin to happen. Big software companies want to ditch the "ownership" model of software and make it more like a rental: You pay annually or the software times out or is disabled from afar. This is bad; nay, this is evil, and if you're politically inclined, fight UCITA any way you can.

It may backfire. If Office 2001 (or whenever it appears) allows Microsoft to nuke the software through your Internet connection, people are going to stay with Office 2000 (or even Office 97, which is a perfectly usable package for about 90% of what people do today) in droves. Office 2000 didn't add much value over Office 97 in my view, (the best new feature I've seen so far is Mr. Paper Clip tapping on the inside of my monitor glass to get my attention) and I can't imagine what would make me upgrade anyway. Knowing that Microsoft was selling me a Trojan horse would be a very potent way to keep my wallet in my pocket.

But look at the bright side: UCITA may well be the best friend that open source software ever had. Once this sort of attitude becomes commonplace, people will have a fundamentally sound reason to use open source platforms and applications: It's safer. And the open source applications are getting better and better. By the time UCITA is adopted by most states (and that's not a slam dunk) the question may become moot: Linux/GNOME is free and won't bite you. I suspect it will become very popular.
October 8, 2000:

Today's readings at Sunday Mass had a lot to say about marriage, and afterward I had to ponder the odd fact that a huge number of Roman Catholic priests left the priesthood to marry, starting back in the very late Sixties, but especially in the 1970s and after. The conventional conservative answer is that all these sex-crazed priests caught the selfish fever of the age and ran from the rigors of the priesthood. That's a little too glib. I don't think they were running from the priesthood. I think they were running to marriage.

Something utterly crucial happened back in the 1960s: We caught on to the fact that spouses could be friends. Prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, a woman's place in marriage was a subservient one. She provided certain services, "gave him" children, took care of his sexual needs, washed his clothes, etc. In return she got a living. This sounds cynical but it was reality back then, in the vast majority of marriages at least. And truth is, you can't be a friend to a servant or an employee. Friends can only be equals. So until we rearranged the cultural notion of what marriage was (which entailed revamping the cultural notion of women's place in it) there was little possibility for husbands and wives to be friends. This isn't to say that they couldn't love one another, but there was a deep and satisfying element that was missing, that of deeply committed friendship.

Certain rare couples transcended this problem. My parents were one of them: My father always referred to my mother as his best friend, and told me on a number of occasions when I was a teenager that if I was lucky and smart, I would marry my best friend. (I did. Fathers are important!) But for the most part, the marriages of earlier generations were dismal and unsatisfying, and often cooked down to a woman trading sex for a roof over her head, with both partners feeling used by the other amidst an emptiness that could not be named.

Priests in earlier times had an interesting situation: They could not be married, and could not engage in a sexual relationship, so the better priests (who kept their vows) found it easier to be a friend to a woman than the men who had no such vows to consider and thought of women only as potential servants and sex partners. Many priests were very close to women in their parishes, and often to the nuns who taught in their schools. This sustained them in the absense of a sexual bond; friendship is way stronger than sex.

But when society changed its view of marriage to one of equality and friendship rather than the historical Phyrric bargain of sex for a roof, the priesthood lost that advantage. A priest could marry, and have both the friendship he had learned how to build on a celibate basis and a fulfilling sexual bond. That's my theory as to why so many priests left the priesthood to marry, often taking former nuns as their wives. When marriage became more fulfilling than the priesthood, they jumped—and married their friends. And until priests are allowed to have the fulfillment of a sexual bond deepened and enlivened by a committed spiritual friendship, there will be fewer and fewer priests in the Roman Catholic Church. (This is one reason of several why I jumped to the Old Catholic Church, which abandoned clerical celibacy in 1870. I depend too much on my friendship with Carol to see such fulfillment denied to the ministers of God.)
October 7, 2000:
Wow: Napster may have worked as it's supposed to work. A friend of mine told me I should check out an a capella group called Glad, who had recorded a favorite hymn of mine, "Be Thou My Vision." I get recommendations like that from time to time, and mostly brush them off. Sixteen bucks is a lot to spend on a wish and a guess. But instead, I went up to Napster, downloaded a couple of Glad songs, and was nailed to my chair. They're amazing, and if you like a capella (and especially hymns sung in that manner) you should give them a look. I immediately went up on Amazon and ordered four Glad CDs. If they're good enough, I may buy a couple more for Christmas presents. Without Napster, I might not have bothered. The problem, of course, is that not everybody goes out and buys the CDs. No, I have no answer. Perhaps we should teach our kids a little more about honesty. Perhaps we should make music cheaper. (We should certainly break up the current music monopoly.) There's something useful somewhere in Napster. We just have to figure out where it is and how to harness it.
October 6, 2000:

Sometimes you run across a phenomenon or entity that must have a word, but no word can be found. So here's my question: What do you call the stuff that you find tucked into old books? I've been flipping through a lot of old books this week, and have found lots of odd stuff: Business cards, holy cards, newspaper clippings, index cards with notes jotted, usually by me, sometimes by whoever was the last owner of the book. In one of Carol's old college textbooks was an ad for a furniture sale, and a picture of a small folding table that appealed to her in 1973. (She never bought the table, and didn't even remember clipping the ad from the paper.) In an old mid-Sixties Catholic catechism that I purchased used I found several magazine clippings about the Catholic position on birth control, with certain lines hopefully underlined: "The teaching on contraception is now under study and may change at some time in the future." Ha. Give up, guy. Rome has painted itself into a corner on that one, and their paint takes forever to dry.

Haven't found anything valuable. Mostly I've found odd snapshots of my bookish past, yellowing but recognizable—and sometimes, as above, an unintended communication from an unknown colleague struggling with the same things that have tormented me, and in fact drove me clear out of the Roman Catholic Church. Surely, something as poignant as that deserves its own word. Any thoughts, gang?
October 5, 2000:
Carol and I are doing a long-overdue book-purge. There's virtually no room left in this house for books or additional bookshelves. I'm kissing a number of things goodbye: My last book on BASICA, my last book on Turbo C. Lots of less useful things, too: books I'm surprised that I bought; hell, books that I can't imagine that I bought, like The Secret Knowledge of the Rosicrucians. I guess all those ads in the back of Popular Mechanics must have piqued my interest. Turns out that all that Secret Knowledge runs to things like "Buy cheap. Sell dear. Work hard. Practice." Hell, Sister Marie Bernard taught us all that in sixth grade. These days, though, that probably is secret knowledge.
October 4, 2000:

Forget Mary. There's something about staplers. I'm not sure quite what, but for a lot of years I have been unable to use a modern stapler without the staple crunching up or in some other way going awry and forcing me to pick it out with a staple remover and try again. Experimentation has indicated that unless you hit a modern stapler bang-on straight and somewhat slowly, the staple won't go through the paper correctly, and will splat out to one side and be useless.

Note that I said, "modern staplers." There is a type of stapler that works every time, whether you hit it hard or soft, or from an angle. I call it the "iron mushroom" design, and it was ubiquitous until about thirty years ago. I believe the primary model/manufacturer was Pilot, made by Ace Fasteners of my native Chicago, but I suspect it was a generic mechanism used all through the stapler industry in olden dayes. An iron mushroom stapler is first of all made of steel, and lots of it. No plastic. It has a wide, round metal head right over the business end, and the idea is that you can hit the damned thing with your fist and neither miss nor gouge your fist up on sharp edges. It's heavily built, with rubber feet so it won't slide around when you hit it. And most of all, it's heavy enough to use as a weapon in a brawl, with heavy steel construction that doesn't have a lot of slop in it and can take years of hard use.

I bought an interesting one in 1976, to create Mass booklets for our wedding. It has a "long reach" (I think the box said "deep throat" back then, but we can't say that anymore) for saddle-stapling booklets, but it's been my standard desk stapler ever since, and never misses. I keep watching for them at garage sales but haven't seen one lately. My suspicion is that those who have them will keep them forever, since that's how long they were built to last. And they work. The cheaply made modern staplers are designed to use as little steel as possible, and they don't work. I'll bet somebody could make some bucks bringing back the classic iron mushroom. I'd buy a couple, even if they were $40 each. We asked for the paperless office and got laser printers; staplers will be with us as long as the poor, or even longer. There will always be a place in the world for the iron mushroom.
October 3, 2000:
Pertinent to my October 1 entry is the fact that "diet" foods are almost invariably low-fat or fat-free, as though not eating fat were the key to losing weight. Recent research on metabolism seems to show that fat is not the monster we thought it was. What appears to make us fat are highly refined grains (including most pastas) and sugar—so replacing fat in a food with sugar to make it "diet" is the height of absurdity. Watch out for carbos in diet clothing!
October 2, 2000:
Today is our 24th wedding anniversary. Won't spend much time on it here—my devotion to Carol is legendary, and I can more or less leave it at that. (I'd rather spend today with her than beating on a keyboard, thank you very much.) The big party is next year, back in Chicago, where most of our friends and virtually all of our remaining relatives live. We're pondering a big Polish-style re-wedding, polkas and everything, just like we had on October 2, 1976.
October 1, 2000:

Four years ago, when Carol and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, we realized that we had put on weight over the previous couple of years, and that we were heavier than we had ever been. It's not like we were fat, but we didn't like the direction the curve was taking. So we did some research, and we put ourselves on a self-directed program that has worked very well. Since then I've lost 12 pounds, and Carol even more, and we're down to where we were almost ten years ago.

I call it the "Evolution Diet." It tracks some of the trends that shaped our distant ancestors' evolution. It's very simple:

  • Eat less of everything. Our ancestors did not have supermarkets, nor Old World Buffet restaurants.
  • Emphasize protein. De-emphasize refined grains. Really de-emphasize sugar.
  • Don't be paranoid about fat.
  • Exercise moderately but steadily.

That's it! Basically, when our 17,000-great grandparents lived on the African plains, they ate mostly animals, and (we're pretty sure) each other. They were technically omnivores, and also ate certain plants. But those plants were things that could be pulled off trees or ripped from the ground. Grains were not a big issue until much later, perhaps 7,000 BC, when we invented agriculture. And sugar was almost absent from our diets until the late Middle Ages, when our evolution had just about stopped.

We eat quite a bit of meat, which is a contrarian approach these days if anything is. We choose lean cuts, and remove what fat we can, but we're not dogmatic about it. We don't eat chicken skin, and for the most part we don't fry.

Something a lot of people forget is that game animals have almost no fat on them. It was only the domestication of meat animals (which sat around most of the time, eating) that made meat as fatty as it is today. And our ancestors didn't just take a steak out of the freezer. They had to chase it down. Exercise is crucial, but moderate exercise is the key. Jogging and other high-impact sports damage the body, and later in life make it more difficult to exercise. So we walk, or swim. I try to do 10 miles a week, and mostly I manage.

We eat vegetables a lot, Carol especially. I'm allergic to whole corn, and most dark green vegetables don't digest well for me. So it's carrots and onions and peppers. I'm trying to develop a tolerance for peas and beans, and I'm making progress.

The only grains we eat regularly are really rough breads, with whole or cracked grain predominating. These often taste rank, but some breads improve their flavor by the addition of whole millet. Look for them; we get ours at Wild Oats. We cut back on rice (though we eat it sometimes) and simply don't buy white bread. And sugar is something we avoid most of the time, and when we eat it, we eat it in the form of ice cream. (It's hard to eat a lot of ice cream!)

Finally, we don't eat out that often, and we try to split an entree, or else bring half our restaurant meals home. We found that eating less for awhile got us used to eating less, and moderate exercise, far from making us hungrier, tended to damp our appetites and make us want to eat less. It's amazing how well it works. We still splurge on occasion and don't feel sinful about it. The key is "on occasion." Don't make eating a hobby. But don't make it a sin or an ordeal either. Starvation is self-defeating.