September 30, 2000:
One interesting thing I sometimes do is bring up ToadNode (a GnutellaNet client; see September 16) and watch the Monitor window as the incoming searches roll by. You can get a clear sense for what Gnutella is being used for this way, and the picture is pretty plain: They're looking for 1. Music; 2. Porn; and 3. Debris. Additionally, I can see new cultural trends before they hit the (somewhat stodgy) media I pay regular attention to. For example, there are two mysterious search terms that came up overwhelmingly often this morning: "Puppe 3000" and "erding onny ramer." I can only assume those are bands, and if they are, well, guys, your twenty minutes of cyber-fame is rolling. Don't waste it.
September 29, 2000:
When I was in high school, I did a science/math fair project on sections and projections of hypersolids. In my research paper I wrote of the possibility that our 3-dimensional universe may lie in the surface of a 4-dimensional hypersphere, thus being edgeless while still being bounded. (In other words, our universe may contain a very finite number of cubic light years of space, without there being any "wall" for us to bump into, beyond which lies the Fourth Dimension.) The business of our universe posessing higher dimensions has surfaced in recent years, but physicists claim that if these higher dimensions were much larger than the Planck length, they would be detectable. And I would agree that if they were larger than the Planck length, but still fairly small, they might be detectable. But what I would like to know is how, if in fact these higher dimensions were immense (billions or trillions of light years) in extent, we would ever detect them. No physicists has yet given me an answer to this question that I can grok.
September 28, 2000:

There is a strange technology subculture of slathering radical optimists called Extropians, who grate on me like fingernails on a blackboard, in part because I share a good many of their beliefs without sharing all of them by any means—and where we differ, we differ hard. They have this peculiar belief in a poorly-defined sort of technological eschaton (called the singularity) destined to occur in about the year 2020 when the accelerating progress curves in technology pass their knees and head off to infinity. They confuse a lot of things, like computer speed with computer power (which comes primarily from software, in the same sense that a steam engine's output depends on the quality of the fuel it burns) and computer power with computer thought—which does not yet exist and may never exist, depending on what we learn about the true nature of human thought in the next few decades. What they apparently haven't done is studied humanity and its peculiarities, and they often look at any curve plotted from three data points and assume that it precisely predicts the future to any arbitrary degree of precision.

But finally, somebody in the technology community with way more credentials than I has begun taking on their assumptions and sticking the reactor control rods back in a little. Read the following article; it says it all and I am desperate to go to sleep! ("Sleep! Sleep! Useless hours out of my life! I'm laying there doing nothing! Arrgh!" Hush, kid. Sleep is where your humanity comes from, leaking into your fevered brain from parts unknown when you turn your forebrain off and let the rest of the gray matter catch up.)

September 27, 2000:
For those who might bookmark ContraPositive directly and not see my home page much, let me point out that I've (finally) added the assembly language page I've been promising for months, focusing on my Assembly Language Step By Step, Second Edition, from John Wiley & Sons. It's on the main menu at Go take a look, if you love bits like I love bits.
September 26, 2000:
I've begun tinkering with Adobe InDesign, in order to teach myself how to lay out books. One thing I looked for and could not find was a graphics texture that resembles the sort of leather that one would see on a leather-bound book. If you know where one of those can be had, do let me know. Also, if you know of a source for pre-designed book templates created with InDesign, I'd like to know of those as well. Doesn't have to be "free stuff." I pay for what I use.
September 25, 2000:
In response to several people who have asked what an "Old Catholic" is (having seen it in my self-description on my home page, under the menu) let me give this quick definition: Old Catholicism is for the most part (religious groups have notoriously fuzzy edges) non-Papal Western Catholicism. A group of northern European Catholics broke with Rome in 1870 over the declaration of new dogma, something that had never been done prior to that time and was widely considered theologically unsupportable. Although that particular issue was lost, the fascinating thing to see in history is the development of an independent Catholic tradition not chained five ways to a ponderous celibate hierarchy on the other side of the world. Old Catholicism has solved most of the problems that are tearing Roman Catholicism apart: Old Catholic priests marry and have families; Old Catholic denominations consider contraception a matter of conscience between husband and wife, and will allow the divorced to remarry. (Under Rome, divorce and remarriage gets you excommunicated, while murder does not!) Some (though not all) Old Catholic denominations ordain women as priests and consecrate them as bishops. Obviously, this is a small religious movement, but it seems to be getting some legs. For the best example of an Old Catholic denomination I know, see the Web site of the American Old Catholic Church, which has communities in Denver, Las Vegas, and several other cities. I'll write more of this over time (there's one "dark" link left on my home page menu—guess what?) but for now, think of it as a Catholic tradition where the individual conscience is the final arbiter of personal virtue, in cooperation with the guidance of a non-celibate, non-centralized clergy. If you were Catholic and want to go back to church but can't abide some aspect of the Roman denomination, let me know. I may be able to find you an Old Catholic community within striking distance.
September 24, 2000:
The well-worn myth of the nerdy young boy who takes intuitively to computers (it was electronics when I was a kid), can't deal effectively with girls, and just "looks funny" is certainly true...for young boys. What few ever notice is that most of these nerds (of whom I was one; see the photo of me here in 1967 at age 14) grow out of the negative aspects of nerdhood, while retaining all of its best aspects. At the admittedly sad occasion of my mother's wake on August 25, I ran into several members of the Fox Patrol, the Boy Scout group that acted as our parish's nerd magnet in 1965 and met once a week (to my poor mother's occasional despair) in our family room. Back then we all looked funny, we all played with electronics and other gimcrackery, and we all had certain problems dealing with girls. 35 years later, it was astonishing to see how well we had all done. Most of us had pretty wives and loving marriages, as well as satisfying work in businesses that we owned ourselves. And yes, it's true that we still looked a little funny...but age makes everybody look funny, and by now we're used to it, and don't have to face the trauma that "beautiful people" often face when they can no longer just dazzle the world into submission with their looks. We weren't born to be beautiful. We were born to get results. And we did.
September 23, 2000:

We may have 128-bit machines someday...but will we ever have 256-bit machines? Here's some figures that may put the discussion in perspective. A 256-bit data word (which is only 32 bytes—practically nothing, right?) being 2 E256, is in more familiar terms 1.58 E77. Yes, you read right: ten to the seventy-seventh power. That's the size of your address space. And because cosmologists estimate that there are only 10 E70 atoms in the observaable universe, that means that there would be one million memory locations in that address space for every atom in the cosmos.

Sheesh, and you think RAM is expensive now...
September 22, 2000:
We got a piece of junk mail today from some small local shop selling vitamins, and the shop used a 4c commemorative stamp from 1958 to fill out an old 29c stamp to 33c. This isn't crazy; many stamps from that era were produced in far more quantities than needed, and today are worth face value alone, and can sometimes even be bought at discount. What I found notable was the artlessness in the 29c compared to its stodgy old partner. Stamps used to be art, and often good art. This one was nothing special, but even in its nothing-specialness it put the modern stamp to shame. Stamps are on the way out; you can already print postage on an envelope with a laser printer, and eventually the post offices will just have machines that spit out laser-printed stickons for those who don't care to do it at home. The stickon will be a bar code and almost nothing else. Stamps are one of those things that we will miss when they are gone, but we won't quite remember when they vanished. Look quick.
September 21, 2000:
Why do people hate polyester? While doing the laundry today I realized that I was hanging up a pair of shirts I bought in Rochester NY back in 1982 or so, and have been wearing ever since. I don't wear them twice a year, either—they're my "weekend" shirts, with two pockets for pencils and sunglasses and stuff, and I wear them almost weekly. Weekly. For eighteen years. And they're still here, intact—plus, wrinkles hang right out, and they don't need ironing. I defy any cotton shirt to produce a service record like that. My magic shirts are 65% polyester, 35% cotton. For that reason almost nobody I know would be caught dead in them, which is yet another reason I will love them until I die, or until they wear out, whichever comes first—and at this point I'd call it a dead heat.
September 20, 2000:

I've been as guilty as anybody of uncritically hyping the Open Source concept, and I had begun to wonder where all the new success stories were. Why does the Open Source dazzle seem to stop at Linux and Apache? Why were Open Source projects stagnating right and left? Was the Bazaar Model for software development less than we had hoped?

Some new critical analysis of Open Source methods are indicating that Open Source software development depends for its success on strong central management no less than Cathedral Model projects. For example, although many eyes can spot more bugs in parallel per unit time than fewer eyes, someone still has to decide how to fix those bugs, and whether a given fix (several for the same bug may come in from the field) is implemented or not. It's an extremely rare bug that has no ancillary consequences elsewhere in the system. (Such bugs are actually the easiest to find and usually get fixed very quickly.) All such consequences have to be taken into account to avoid breaking other things and spawning new bugs. Somewhere, a very bright guy must make a lot of decisions, and unless those decisions are made correctly, the project will spin off into chaos. Linux depends almost completely on the genius of Linus Torvalds. When Linus is distracted, the rate at which Linux evolves slows to a crawl.

Like that Siamese bald guy always says in the movies, It is a puzzlement. Or is it? Jim Mischel was kind enough to send me this article, at the Lotus site, and if you have any interest at all in Open Source development techniques you must read it!
September 19, 2000:

I had a slightly disturbing thought while pondering the sort of nano-utopia being touted by nanotechnology boosters and other Extropian types. If nanotechnology allows flawless duplicates of any inanimate physical object (clothes, food, gadgets, whatever) to be pulled from a tank, the great mass of humanity becomes extraneous to the functioning of a human society. In other words, the massively interlinked and intertwined global economy we now have, which depends on low-wage labor to refine materials and build mass-produced goods, will no longer require 90% of the human hands that now serve it. The only work remaining will be creative work (that is, creating originals of things that nanoassemblers would then replicate) and we will have real problems keeping those idled billions from killing themselves and one another. It won't be enough to hand the masses a living and all the gadgets they can use. People need a spiritual anchor by which to define themselves, and for most people this is work.

Some in the nanotech community have at least recognized the problem, and have danced around it with nonsense like "Perhaps we'll have to pay people to consume." Huh? If people already have enough time, food, and stuff to play with, what can we hand them as pay?

The real challenge in creating a human utopia is figuring out how to pursue a meaningful life with nothing especially important to do. Compared to that, creating nanoassemblers will have been a snap.
September 18, 2000:

I think the role of radio in developing markets for music is vastly underappreciated. I listen to the radio while blasting around in the Jeep, and I hear certain songs repeatedly over a period of days. The first time I hear a song play, I'm generally indifferent to it. But then after four or five hearings, certain songs begin to rise above the noise, and have a notable emotional affect on me. Some songs seemed "destined" for me to like them, but the appeal doesn't emerge until I've heard them several times. Just listening to a song once in a CD preview kiosk somewhere wouldn't work for me; it's extremely rare for me to hear a song once and immediately decide to buy the CD. (The last time this happened was with Wilson Phillips' "The Dream Is Still Alive," and who knows when that was.) A song seems to have to make some grooves in my brain first, and only repetition will do that.

So...if not radio, what? Internet radio—audio streaming over IP—does nothing for me. When I'm in the Jeep I like to have loud music to keep me awake...but when I'm in front of my system here at home doing something creative, I prefer silence so I don't get distracted from the task at hand. I drive the Jeep less and less over time, and it's unclear where I'll develop a taste for new songs. It certainly won't be here at home, which I increasingly treasure as a refuge of silence from the crackpottery of 21st century life.
September 17, 2000:

What most people outside book publishing don't understand (along with way too many people inside book publishing, sigh) is that publishing is really about getting attention. Almost nothing else matters; if no one knows about or sees your book, the entire effort comes to nothing. There was a day when the time and cost associated with writing, typesetting, and manufacturing a book were so daunting that they limited the number of books that appeared. No more. Laying out a book is now almost trivial, with software like Quark Express and Adobe InDesign, and thanks to the emerging print-on-demand book manufacturing and distribution services like Lightning Source, making a printed book available to the public with little capital investment requires nothing more than pushing a few papers and making a few phone calls.

The predictable result is that the world is drowning in new books, most of which never see a shelf in any major bookstore chain. What few sales most of these titles manage come through online services like Amazon. To get a book into reader hands, authors must do most of their own stumping. (And unless you publish with a major NY house, make that all the stumping!) Luck is the dominant factor in success (which here I define as "making more than fifty cents an hour on the project") since the only way to get mass sales is through coverage in the mass media. And with tens of thousands of hopeful authors competing for a couple of slots on Oprah, your chances as a third-shelf (or lord knows, self-published) author are slim to none.

I'm not sure what's to be done about this. Theoretically, the Internet allows buzz on a book to spread at the speed of light, but there's a worm in it: There's so much Internet that what buzz a book might generate in one corner of cyberspace becomes so dilute that it gets lost in the noise and never reaches other corners that might appreciate it. I'm surprised none of us cyber-gurus ever anticipated this problem years back when the Web was young and held so much promise.

This is the reason I haven't yeilded to the temptation (encouraged by all my friends) to self-publish The Cunning Blood, even though I've been in book publishing for years and know how it's done. I want to be a writer, not a PR flack! I could probably generate a few hundred sales through my own web of contacts (people who have bought my computer books or who recall Visual Developer Magazine) but the book would never see the inside of a Borders—and that's the only way a book can really succeed.
September 16, 2000:

I've tried a number of Gnutella clients, nearly all of which are pretty thin gruel. The only one that stood out even a little was ToadNode, and it's the one you should try if you want to see what the Gnutella phenomenon is all about. (Nullsoft's original Gnutella client itself, though I've made it work, is best considered a "proof-of-concept" demo.) It installs easily, connects easily, and is about as close to self-explanatory as any such program can possibly be.

One of the big hassles with "centerless networking" is that you need to find a place to hook into the Gnutella network, since there is no server sitting at a central point where everyone can find it. For the original Gnutella client, you had to "ask around" on chat rooms or Web sites to find a raw IP address of a machine that is reliably connected to the network. ToadNode automatically fetches an "entry point" to the Gnutella network from the Clip2 Web site. (See ContraPositive for September 14.) ToadNode will therefore always connect when you run it, assuming Clip2 survives. Now, the big question is (as always), what are we gonna use this idea for? Surely there's a better use for Gnutella than swapping purloined songs and porn.
September 15, 2000:

I wrote about IMesh (a server-indexed peer-to-peer file sharing system, architecturally similar to Napster) in ContraPositive for August 5. At that time I had barely installed and looked at it; the problem, then and now, is that the IMesh server (which is based in Israel) is severely overloaded virtually all of the time, except when it's 3AM in Europe. Apart from a three or four hour window in the early afternoon here, you might as well not bother with it.

I called it "unremarkable" when I first looked at it, but I take that back. Once I got wise to the usage window and started poking at it, IMesh pulled a very interesting trick: If you want a file that is located on more than one site, the IMesh server will initiate connections between your system and multiple sites, and download the file to your system in parallel from all those sites, to boost the overall transfer bit rate radically.

Basically, I downloaded a fairly popular song (and hey, I own the CD, so quit with the hairy eyeball!) and saw first one, then two, then three sites appear in the "downloading from..." window. The download bit rate peaked at about 25 Kbps, which is pretty brisk compared to what I've seen other programs like Napster achieve. The client has very little documentation (and much of that in somewhat broken English) so it's a little hard to tell just what's going on, but IMesh clearly incorporates some considerable cleverness in how it brings popular files down to your hard drive.

That said, I don't recommend it, at least until the server side expands enough to make it accessible more than once in a lucky while.
September 14, 2000:

As those who have read ContraPositive for some time are aware, peer-to-peer file sharing fascinates me, and you'll hear a lot more about it here in the future. Today's pointer is to a new site that provides technical and statistical information about Gnutella networks: Clip2. Uncluttered, to the point, worth monitoring. A good example of why they're good is an article indicating that the Gnutella protocol may be fatally flawed in terms of scalability. The tersest way I can summarize it is this: As the number of Gnutella nodes increases linearly, the network traffic generated by those nodes increases more than linearly. At some point, the network will choke on its own pings. Some think it's choking right now.

Read the article: There appears to be a sort of barrier to the number of nodes the network can support without choking, and that number is roughly correlated to the aggregate bandwidth of Gnutella node Net connections. In other words, the more broadband connections in use by Gnutellans, the higher the barrier will be. Right now, 56K connections predominate, which sets a rather modest value for this barrier. We're up against the wall, gang.

So…there may really be a reason why the Internet has, for the most part, evolved as a client-server architecture. The burden of passing queries to other nodes seems to swamp other peer-peer network functionality (like file transfers!) after a certain point. I have no clue how to fix this…hey, man, I'm an English major! But sooner or later somebody will figure it out.
September 13, 2000:
Hey, I like these guys' attitude: The HelixCode people (who are helping to develop a Linux-based desktop environment to compete with Windows) say on their Web site that "only four percent of the global population have chosen a desktop. That leaves a lot of room for GNOME." And GNOME, if they can finish it, will be mighty compelling to the other 96% of us. See for the details.
September 12, 2000:

The Australian Olympic Committee did a remarkable and mighty peculiar thing to certify its stuffed mascots and branded merchandise as authentic: It tagged them with an anonymous athlete's DNA. Egad! That in itself doesn't surprise me (DNA isolation has gotten pretty good in recent years) but what did were the hand-held field readers that can apparently detect and verify the DNA in the tagging ink in seconds, indicating whether a stuffed doll is "real" (meaning that the Committee gets a cut of the sale) or counterfeit. Truckloads of bogus mascots and ball caps and other Olympic crap are being seized and landfilled. Bravo! Now if they would just do the same with the official mascots and ball caps and other Olympic crap…

(Recall one of my prime personal directives: Never wear anyone's advertising but your own.)

Sorry—no sports fan here. But in truth, the issue of verifying physical goods is a serious one, and although there's a certain cachet in using an athlete's DNA to tag Olympic Games geegaws, I have to wonder if there isn't a simpler way. I also have to wonder how soon it'll be before a DNA "signature" can be cloned and copied undetectably. There will come a day, of course, when nanoreplication will be able to crank out atom-identical copies of things, including any possible physical signature. Will a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel be valuable if anybody could have one? What would the world be like without collectibles? (Dare I suggest: A better one?)
September 11, 2000:

If you could have one question answered, what would it be? What piques your curiosity above all else? Email me and let me know. Address below. (In bitmap form, to defeat the spam address harvesters.) If I get enough answers from the field to be interesting, ContraPositive will post my analysis here, along with my own question, which may surprise you—or maybe not. Now, I'd prefer questions that actually have answers (as opposed to, "Why is there air?" or "What is the meaning of life?" but if that's the best you can do, I'll log it and say thanks.

September 10, 2000:
Back from Chicago. Learned a lot, thought a lot, meditated on mortality, took some notes. Attended the World Science Fiction Convention downtown, and heard from numerous parties that selling a first SF novel is virtually impossible—but after you sell your first one, they'll take any damned thing you write. Still no takers on The Cunning Blood, but I guess ya gotta be patient. By the time it hits print we'll be doing this stuff, alas.