September 29, 1998:
Much rage is being expressed at the DIVX video "standard", which is an interesting example of a technology designed by lawyers and Big Money, with the "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine" attitude you often encounter with such groups. A DIVX player is basically a DVD player with a modem, and when you want to play a movie, the DIVX player phones home and asks permission to run the movie. DIVX Central makes no promises at all, and can deny access to films even after they've been fully paid for, if the film maker chooses (for example) to re-release a film in cinemas. The consumer pays his bucks and gets nothing, zip, nada in return except (maybe) the right to play the film, if all goes well and the DIVX lines aren't busy. What few people realize yet is that this is a titanic invasion of privacy. Over time, DIVX will accumulate a very detailed record of what people do with their evenings, and if a habitual DIVX viewer stops asking permission for a couple of nights, well, it probably means nobody's home for awhile—and who knows what sort of people will have access to the databases? DIVX is, in short, a monumentally bad idea. Don't buy it.
September 27, 1998:
Yesterday we had Media One install cable modem service at Carol's mother's house in Niles, Illinois, and I got a taste of the future. (I'm on the road for a little while and currently camping out in Chicagoland.) Egad! I connected to the server back at the Coriolis home office, and my IS director informs me that I was slinging packets his way at 10 MBPS. Megabits per second. This is the fastest Net connection I have ever seen. Web pages (assuming no choke points along the path) pop into existence with almost no delay, and big files come down the pipe at about the same speed as they come off my Zip drive. So many things become possible with bandwidths like this…I am still boggling at what this kind of a connection implies. And, of course, I fly back to Scottsdale next week where there is no cable TV in my neighborhood, no ADSL, no…nothing. Just my hoary old 28.8 KBPS dialup, which is the most that US West can provide me with, assuming I don't care to wait six months for a problem-ridden ISDN install that costs me $100 a month. No thanks.
September 24, 1998:
The award for Best Looking But Least Useful Major Website must go to Hewlett Packard, who are supposed to be pretty bright guys, but don't have the brains (or, more cynically to suppose, the guts) to post what platforms their scanners support. I was told their HP4100C scanner was very nice and very compact and supports the Universal Serial Bus (which my new Compaq has) but nobody knew if the accompanying software installs and runs under Windows NT. I bought an otherwise very nice PaperPort scanner not long back, only to find its software (for no identifiable reason) refuses to install under NT. It's now my laptop take-on-trips scanner, but I still need one for my home office, and without ironclad assurance that all software installs under NT, there's no sale. Is HP so dumb they forgot that you have to tell the potential purchaser what sorts of machines a product works with? Or are they trying to hide the fact that they only support Win 95/98? (Or, worse, 95 only?)
September 22, 1998:
Those who have followed my Virtual Encyclopedia speculations (or those who are interested in knowledge classification) might be interested in a federal publication called the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). It can be ordered from the Superintendent of Documents, PO Box 371954, Pittsburgh PA 15250-7954. FAX orders: 202-512-2250. The hardcopy quarto-sized volume (1244 pages) is a steal at $32.50. What we have here is a sort of Dewey Decimal System for industry, dividing the multitude of business types into extremely precise niches and coding them by number. For example, Residential Electric Light Fixture Manufacturing is 335121, and Radish Farming, Field, and Seed Production is 111219—and a quick scan of the index proves that everything else has a spot here too. The publication will soon be available electronically on CD-ROM, and since it's in the public domain I may build it into a TreeView control or make it part of the general Knowledge Explorer that I presented in the magazine last year. It's certainly an interesting example of how to divide up an extremely complex field hierarchically. Other such schemes may be knocking around the government, and I'm actively looking for them. If you know of any, please clue me in.
September 16, 1998:
Does anybody do assembly anymore? I'm considering revising my long-running book, Assembly Language Step By Step, and have uncovered a marvelous piece of software: An open source freeware assembler! It's NASM, the Net-Wide Assembler. Far from being a "tiny" or otherwise defeatured product, NASM seems to be able to create any sort of file that MASM or TASM can create. This is not a fossil from the dawn of computer time. It's completely recent and includes C++ source and documentation in HTML format. (You can browse the documentation online at ) Their home page is Some of us still enjoy this stuff. If you're one of them, definitely go take a look.
September 14, 1998:
The offices of El Dorado County, California, have sent me a letter demanding a great deal of proof that Visual Developer Magazine has taken steps to prevent a Year 2000 meltdown. In an urgent, imperative tone they demand a copy of my Year 2000 Compliance Plan, the name and telephone number of my Year 2000 Project Manager, and the same thing for all of my subcontractors. Finally, they threaten to sever our business relationship (which consists of precisely one magazine subscription) if I don't fully comply by November 11, 1998. If any of you folks reading this live in El Dorado County, be aware of what your county gnomes are up to these days, to make it look like they're actually doing something in return for all those property tax dollars you hand them to keep from losing your houses. Please call Mr. Russ Waltrip at 530-621-5540 and register your extreme displeasure. All I can do is laugh at him behind his pathetic little back.
September 11, 1998:
All you physicists out there, please don't roll your eyes at me, but I just got a good laugh out of discovering that the really and truly official prefix for ten to the twenty fourth power is…yotta. How soon will we see our first yottabyte hard drive? Soon—but perhaps not as soon as our first zettabyte drive, where a zettabyte is a trifling ten to the eighteenth power bytes. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the zepto prefix, for tiny things ten to the negative eighteenth power down there, and yocto, for ten to the negative twenty fourth power. What's that small? Maybe the Quarks Brothers, Femto, Atto, Zepto, and Yocto. Or maybe not. (A nice summary of all this can be had at
September 10, 1998:
Tried to read some really old diskettes I had and found that they were just no good anymore. (I'm talking dawn-of-the-PC age stuff here.) I knew that magnetic media degrades over time, but it's quite a slap-up-the-side-of-the-head to actually bump into the problem. PCs are getting to be senior citizens in the systems world, I guess. So the question becomes this: Suppose we want to save a workable copy of software for the ages, say, as an example of a history maker in its category. (Turbo Pascal, Visicalc, things like that.) What do we store it on? Do we have to make double sure that somebody refreshes the mag copies every five years? What is truly permanent storage? Even CDs aren't supposedly good for more than forty years or so. Can we keep old PCs running in museums if the software on their hard drives evaporates in twenty years or so? I don't know of any good answers. Are the museum/library people working on this question? If you are, please drop a line and give me the rundown.
September 8, 1998:
I tried an ActiveX component product over the weekend. I installed it in Visual Basic and it worked great. Then I installed it in Delphi and it didn't work at all. I won't name the product in fairness to the vendor, who nowhere claims the product works with Delphi—and that's not my point here anyway. When something doesn't work, how do we determine what's wrong? Does Delphi implement ActiveX support incompletely, or did the vendor take liberties with the ActiveX spec in implementing the product? My guess is that the component vendor took shortcuts around the stricter dictates of the ActiveX spec, but there's no way the developer community can ever know for sure. Every other ActiveX component I've installed under Delphi has worked just fine. Read the box, guys. I guess that's the lesson—and when you're in the driver's seat, do your best not to favor one vendor over another.
September 4, 1998:
Only a few people know that Mr. Byte (the Bichon Frise dog I wrote about in so many of my books in columns between 1980 and his death in 1995) had a little brother, Chewy. Chewy came to us in August of 1982, followed us through four states of wandering, and predated my entire career as a computer book writer and editor. He was the quiet one, never the fusser or the yapper, always the tireless walker and happy wagger, content to let Mr. Byte take the lead. His kidneys had begun to fail a month or so ago, and by last night we knew it was time. Mr. Byte lived the glorious life. Chewy lived the long one. It was just the way he was, and Carol and I miss him terribly.
September 2, 1998:
It occurred to me that much of the money lost by panicking investors who sold at the bottom of the crash went right into the pockets of those who bought at the bottom, waited a day or two, and then sold again. Cash (that is, realized wealth) doesn't just vanish, though "paper wealth" can and does. Nor is the American economy going to disappear any time soon. The only sensible thing to do when the market corrects is ride it out (if you're not a money hobbyist) or buy solid stocks (if you are a money hobbyist.) I sat it out. Buy and hold, and over the long haul you will win.