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September 30, 2006: Is Microsoft Imaging the Springs?

Just yesterday afternoon, as I was heading down the hill to pick up some laundry and mail a couple of books, I spotted a dark blue SUV with some of the damdest equipment bolted to the roof: It had a double rack of what looked like cameras, pointing in all directions. It was driving slowly out of one local cul-de-sac, and at that point I did not get close enough to see what if any logo was on the side of the vehicle.

Twenty minutes later, I had my shirts, had shipped the books, and was climbing back toward home on Star Ranch Road, when I saw the same vehicle coming down toward me. It turned slowly into another cul de sac, but this time I saw the legend clearly on the side: Windows Live Local.

Windows Live Local is obviously Microsoft's competitor to Google Earth, and from a quick glance it works pretty well. Its aerial photos (of my area at least) are several years old, because the shot of my street still shows the boulder-strewn hillside that we bought in August 2002 and did not disturb until July 2003. I have not used Windows Live Local very much, but I have not seen any mention of a "walkaround view" (which is what I would call images captured by a car driving through neighborhoods) especially of red-state territory like Colorado outside the Denver-Boulder perimeter.

So Microsoft is clearly up to something, and it will be interesting to see what they do with it. If its observed route is any guide, the vehicle had already cruised Stanwell Street in front of our house, and when the feature goes live, I suspect that we'll be there along with everything else.

September 29, 2006: Odd Lots

  • I am actively looking for copies of the old "Carl and Jerry" fiction/tutorial stories by John T. Frye that ran in Popular Electronics from 1954 to 1964. I'm especially interested in the early ones (I have a fair number of the later ones) particularly from the year 1955. I don't need the whole magazines, but only OCR-able copies of the stories themselves. If you have stacks of them in your basement, contact me and see what we can work out.
  • While we're on the nostalgia topic, I've made contact with the firm that now owns both the IP and the old tooling for wood-and-paper Hi-Flier Kites. They're interested in spinning off the goods to someone who would like to manufacture kites for the nostalgia market; think, Restoration Hardware and places like it that sell nostalgia items amidst expensive new furniture. Contact me by email if that's something you think you might do, though be aware that there's a certain amount of capital involved.
  • There was a nervous giggle in realizing that the reaction of the Muslim world to the Pope's recent speech cooked down to, "Say we're peaceful or we'll kill you." Oh, the irony.
  • A book review in the UK-based Tablet emphasizes something I've been saying for years: Making celibacy mandatory in the Roman church cheapens the very idea of celibacy, which for some few people (my guess: one in one hundred thousand) can lead to a profoundly spiritual life. Making celibacy mandatory is basically a turning away from sex, instead of a turning (where possible) toward something good and profound.
  • Oh, that horrible G. W. Bush! He's somehow managed to stop the endless procession of hurricanes against our coasts, bring unemployment down, raise the DJIA within four points of its all-time high, raise consumer confidence, and moderate gas prices, all just before a midterm election! Is there nothing that dastardly scoundrel can't do! (Maybe spell l..u..c..k.)

September 28, 2006: Flame Speakers

When I was sixteen, my friend Art Krumrey built a remarkable gadget that went on to be his senior high science fair project: A flame speaker. I spent a fair amount of time with him in his basement, fooling around with it, and it was a pretty amazing thing. He built it based on a description in an article in Popular Electronics, which I've found online after casually looking for a number of years. (It was in the May, 1968 issue.)

It was as close to "real science" as I had ever been. The mechanism was poorly understood and extremely touchy. Basically, you take the output of a biggish audio amp (Art was using his electric guitar amp) and use it to modulate a high-current 500V power supply through a chunky output transformer. Then you feed the signal into a propane torch flame. We were playing a Beatles LP on a record player fed into the guitar amp's input.

The hight of the flame was critical, as was its conductivity. Unmodified flame doesn't conduct very well, so we had to feed ions into the flame to make it conduct. We tried a lot of things, from copper sulphate crystals in a saltshaker to saltpeter solution in an atomizer. Everything we tried worked....for a few seconds. But once the ions were carried out of the flame by the rising gas, the flame ceased to conduct and the music stopped. But while the flame was ionized, well, Beatles VI shook the house. It was astonishing how loud that thing was.

Were I to try this again today (and part of me wants to try it again, to convince myself that I wasn't imagining it) I would use one of those piezoelectric vaporizers to make a jet of cold fog from a dilute solution of some metallic salt, and direct the fog into the flame. Piezoelectric vaporizers don't make steam by heating water; rather they make extremely fine droplets by drizzling water on a vibrating crystal, and if the water has dissolved impurities, those impurities go with the droplets. A continuous jet of ion-laced fog droplets would keep the flame in ions as long as you'd want.

There are opportunities for some wonderful mad-scientist research here. Alas, all I need is another project...

September 27, 2006: Inching Toward E-Ink Readers

I heard two bits of news the other day indicating that we may be inching toward a viable ebook reader with an e-ink display:

  • Sony (finally) announced that their PRS-500 (Personal Reader System) would be shipping no later than October 31. (Boo!) List price: $350.
  • Sony's only genuine competition in this market, the IRex Iliad reader, (above) can now be purchased and shipped to the US. List price: €649, which as of today is $823.39. It was previously available only in Europe.

Neither product is the magic bean we need to plant ebooks in everybody's pocket (not at those prices!) but now, at least, two major, adequately capitalized vendors are putting feature sets out on the street, and evenually something will stick.

In some respects, comparison between the two devices is unfair. Sony is extrapolating up from the IPod model, whereas IRex is extrapolating down from the Tablet PC. The PRS-500 is basically an IPod for ebooks, with a music player thrown in. The platform is closed and proprietary (which is the only way Sony knows how to do business) so we're at Sony's mercy for software enhancements. This is the way the cell phone business works, and as most of us know, the US is in last place in cell phone innovation in the developed world.

The Iliad is a genuine tablet, based on the Linux 2.4 kernel, with a 400 MHz XScale CPU, 64 MB of RAM, and a touch layer over the 1024 X 768 16-level E-ink display measuring 6.3 X 4.8 inches. The display itself is cutting-edge for E-ink devices, and I'm guessing that that accounts for much of its high price. The unit has a stylus, and you can buy handwriting-recognition software from VisionObjects for another €60, or $76.

What takes the IRex out of IPod territory is its I/O set: A 100-Base T Ethernet port, Type II Compact Flash slot, a USB 2.0 port, audio output, an MMC/SD card slot, and integrated Wireless-G. That's basically the I/O set of a notebook PC, considering that you can plug a USB keyboard into it, once somebody writes the interface. Out-of-the-box format support includes PDF, plain text, XHTML, PNG and JPG images, and MP3 playback. There's 128 MB of available Flash memory space, but with the CF slot you can plug in basically however much more you want. (Sandisk is now selling 8 GB CF cards.)

Competition between the PRS-500 and the Iliad will show us the advantages of an open system vs. a proprietary system. With Linux under the hood and all that I/O, we could see a lot of clever apps, new format viewers (.lit will not come out-of-the-box, for example) and new hardware interfaces, allowing the little tombstone to do things its creators certainly never imagined. The long refresh time on the display will keep it out of the games and video market, but there are still plenty of bookish people in the world looking for an ebook reader tombstone that won't give them headaches. There's a nice video demonstration on YouTube that will give you a sense for the display refresh time, and how the software works. (There's no zoom on PDFs!)

There are still some gaping holes in what it can do. With an Ethernet port, there's no reason not to have a Web browser, but although the Iliad can display locally stored XHTML, it can't perform HTTP transactions to bring content off the Web. There's still no provision for an external USB keyboard or mouse, and several useful content formats aren't supported. Nonetheless, in an open system, that stuff will come out of the woodwork over time. I'll be watching the Iliad closely, and am trying to budget enough money to pick one up next year. Stay tuned.

September 26, 2006: Weird Stuff Indeed

Of all the retailers I've encountered in my life, the one that wins the prize for Abject Honesty in Advertising is Weird Stuff Warehouse in Sunnyvale, California. I used to go there a lot when I was living in California, and try to stop in whenever I'm in Silicon Valley. Although like most surplus houses it now offers mostly computer junk, there's a lot of really odd and in many cases indescribable stuff on their many shelves. I used to buy pillow block and flange roller bearing assemblies there cheap because they were in odd sizes—like 1 15/16", for telescopes.

Anyway, I haven't been there for a number of years now, but when Bishop Sam'l Bassett of the Old Catholic Church passed through town on his way to Kansas, he left me with a piece of truly weird stuff: A completely waterproof and very flexible PC keyboard, which he had picked up on a lark at Weird Stuff Warehouse. It's basically a thick rubber sheet with bubbles in it, and each bubble is a key. Press a bubble, and you get a keystroke. There are the usual three LEDs for Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock in a rectangular bulge at the right-hand end of the device, which I assume also contains the control electronics.

Touch or speed typing is not an option here, though I suspect if it were the only keyboard I had I would get better at it. For what it's worth, you can roll the damned thing up to something the size of your fist. I'm guessing that it was originally made for use in messy industrial environments, but who knows? That's why it's Weird Stuff. I don't know entirely what to do with it, but it's simply too odd not to keep around. (It's not like I don't own any other odd—or Weird—stuff!

September 24, 2006: The Warmth of Fellowship

Our little Episcopal parish has a camping club (mostly RVs, plus a couple of trailers and an occasional tent for the kids) and they do a club rally twice a year. We missed this spring's rally because we were in Chicago, but we were there last October (see October 1, 2005 plus the following few days) and had an absolutely wonderful time.

This trip wasn't supposed to be this cold (the October 2005 trip had us in shorts and sandals) but we have been having a fine time even though our rented RV is without heat, and being without heat, is without running water, shower, or a flushing toilet. The secret is the warmth of the group that we're with—generous warmth that has kept us from freezing the past couple of nights (we were offered a veritable mountain of extra blankets in addition to a very useful electric heater) and the higher sort of warmth that kept our spirits up as well. The group organizers lit a fierce pine wood fire in the fire ring early this morning, and we used it all day for various cooking tasks, from breakfast bacon and eggs on the iron grate to smores in late afternoon (see Carol and Janey Koskela above) then quiet fellowship over beers and glasses of wine as night fell over the park.

We've been spending a lot of time in other people's much cozier RVs, telling stories and listening to the incredible body of heuristics that club members have established about motorhome technology. For example: When you set out on one leg of a trip after spending a week or more in one place, dump a bag of ice cubes down the toilet. The ice will eventually melt, but for the first few hours it will slosh around in the blackwater tank, knocking solid matter off the walls of the tank and making sure everything is broken up and properly liquefied.

Man. I wouldn't have thought of that.

We had a potluck earlier this afternoon—Episcopal parishes are famous for their potlucks—to which Carol and I brought an interesting wild rice, portabella, and chicken casserole that we had never tried before. (We made it at home on Friday morning and heated it up in the RV microwave.) It turned out to be delicious, and everybody loved it. We had expected to eat on picnic tables at the centerpoint of the group campground, but the day was so cold that we moved into the heated building with the flush toilers, showers, and washer/dryers. It wasn't as rustic, but we made the most of a chilly situation, and allowed ourselves to get silly, share experiences, and be friends in a way that recognizes the role of God the Creator in establishing friendship as the foundation of all worthwhile human relationships.

Carol and I grew up in immense Roman Catholic parishes (mine had over 4,500 regular attendees!) and we never felt anything like that same warmth. In fact, we always got the impression that the Roman hierarchy was terrified of its own people, fearing that the community would question or even defy the increasingly reactionary, arcane (and yes, cruel) Church teachings if parishes ever came to understand the power of collective action. (This has actually happened, though not so often as to be a significant worry.)

So if the Roman Catholic Church has booted you out for being divorced or using birth control, look for a nearby Episcopal parish. Old Catholicism is a little closer to the Roman style of worship, but Old Catholicism is very sparsely distributed. The Episcopal church is almost everywhere, and is remarkably Catholic in outlook. (Our parish teaches the Real Presence and has a large crucifix in the sanctuary, with all the bells and smells that even Roman churches don't always have.) Furthermore, it understands that the community is the Church. Rome will someday learn this lesson if it is to have a future at all, but in the meantime, there are other Catholic paths in our (sometimes) cold and very uneven world.

September 23, 2006: Summer at 9700 Feet

Last night was definitely a three-dog night, but alas, only one dog was available. So we piled all the blankets we had on top of our sleeping bags, followed by coats and towels, and finally hauled poor QBit under the covers with us. We were cozy, but he started getting restless after awhile (he has his own very dense fur coat) and we had to let him finish the night outside the bag on top of the pile of coats, curled up in a ball by my feet.

It wasn't so bad. Between the cold and the altitude (9742 feet, according to my GPS puck) we slept like stones. According to one of the other people camping here with us, the temp got down to 17 last night. Of course, we didn't dare put any water into the RV's tanks, so we've been traipsing down through the snow to the heated building for washing up and potty breaks.

QBit has shown himself to be a cold-weather dog. We took him out on a walk in subfreezing weather last night, with light snow falling, and all he wanted to do was romp in circles and roll in it, eating snow when he wasn't moving at a full run. The cold doesn't seem to bother him at all, though after a longish walk we have to confine him to his kennel while he picks snowballs out from between his toes and dries out a little. (Nothing like inviting a wet dog into your sleeping bag with you.)

This morning dawned cold and clear, with dazzling light on the snow on the aspen trees, now a brilliant yellow. We had our coffee and Cheerios this morning, read the papers that we had brought with us, and just took it easy. Once the sun got high enough to shine on the RV, it got nice and warm inside, and although the clouds are starting to show up, the temp is now in the high thirties, and we should see 50 by midafternoon. I'm going to do a little walking, continue reading Chris Gerrib's excellent The Mars Run on my X41, and just decompress a little. It wasn't quite what I imagined (and it certainly wasn't the sort of camping trip I would have chosen) but it's been an interesting experience nonetheless.

September 22, 2006: Greetings from Ice Station Zebra

Months and months ago, our church's camping club reserved the group campground at Mueller State park near Divide, Colorado. It's only 35 miles from our front door, so no one would have to drive very far to get there. Last year's trip was in October and it was hot. This year...well. When we left Colorado Springs the temperature was 45 degrees. As we traveled up Ute Pass, the temp dropped like a stone, and by the time we reached Divide, what had been drippy rain had turned to snow flurries. The temperature was 28. As we were pulling into the campground, it had begun sleeting, and within an hour we had four inches of snow on the ground. Carol took the photo below soon after arriving. The snow is now well past ankle deep. (Our church Administrative Assistant Donna Young is to the right.)

No problem, right? We have a full tank of propane, right? Just plug in the electric cord and crank up the furnace, right? Well. We tried cranking up the furnace, but the furnace wouldn't crank. Nothing. Not a peep or a squeak, and certainly not a BTU. All the time it was blizzarding, and we may get down to 20 degrees tonight—with still another foot of snow by morning.

People, it's still summer. And here I am in a blinding snowstorm with an unheated RV.

Fortunately, we're with a group, and one of them produced a nice little electric heater that's going to keep us from freezing solid tonight. One of our club members is in fact a top mechanic at a major RV dealership locally, and after a good close look he pronounced the furnace really, quite sincerely dead. So we called the rental firm and left a message that was courteous without being especially warm.

No Wi-Fi here, so this won't be posted until Monday night sometime. This is K7JPD signing off from Ice Station Zebra. (I think we're going get this rental at a steep discount!)

September 21, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Go take a look at Pete Albrecht's blog, where he's posted some of the most dumbfounding amateur astrophotographs I've ever seen. Pete tries to put it in perspective by comparison to how he took astrophotos at Northwestern University 25 years ago, but he doesn't mention the most remarkable thing about his photo of M27 (and the others you can scroll down to): He took them from his back yard in the middle of frakking Orange County, California, under some of the worst supposedly "clear" skies I could imagine. Wow.
  • I recently ran across a species of flatware that I had never heard of before: The "food pusher." This is actually something children use: It looks a little like a rake with a solid slab instead of teeth, and it's used to push food onto a fork. I think the pusher was invented so that manners-conscious parents (do these exist anymore?) wouldn't have to yell at small children for picking up peas in their fingers. (Me, I'd be glad that they were eating peas at all.) I think it's significant from a table manners standpoint that I've only seen them in sterling silver patterns (old ones, at that) rather than Wal-Mart stainless steel. Our parents were sticklers for table manners, for which I'm glad, but I don't think we were fancy enough people to have food pushers in the drawer. And the engineer in me sees the food pusher as an elegant solution to a problem that vexes adults as well: Getting certain quantized food elements from the plate to the fork without misusing a knife or just trying to stab them. Could food pushers make a comeback? Why don't I think so?
  • In one of the cleverest anti-terrorism technologies I've seen yet, San Francisco is continuously piping city water from the pumping station through a tank full of bluegills. Bluegills are apparently very sensitive to chemicals in the water, and if they sense something they don't like, they start a motion that's a little like coughing through your gills. Officials hope that if anybody tries to dump something noxious into the city's water, the fish will spot it before it gets too far out of the pumping station.

September 20, 2006: Solving the Lulu Problem

A couple of days ago, I finally figured out what was preventing me from completing an order on—a site for publishing ebooks and print-on-demand books that I consider extremely promising. I mentioned this problem in my July 8, 2006 entry, and I was pretty much stymied until the same problem came up on another ecommerce site. This one, however, had good tech support people on staff, and according to them a fair number of people were having the problem.

The problem is simple to state but not easy to explain: The default packet size used by most Ethernet adapters is 1500 bytes, and this is too large for some secure servers configured in certain ways. The solution is to reduce the default Ethernet packet size (called the MTU) on your network adapter to 1400 bytes.

My friend and fellow SF workshopper Chris Gerrib (a sysadmin of long tenure, and Lulu author of The Mars Run) posted an excellent explanation of the problem, which I must warn you is mighty deep geek stuff. The short form is this: If you're working in a secure ecommerce site and the site keeps timing out on you, download a short utility called DRTCP.exe from here and run it. (There's no installaton involved. Just execute the .exe.) Select your Ethernet adapter from the drop-down list. Change the MTU value in the lower right corner to 1400. Save. Exit. Reboot. That worked for one ecommerce site, and when I tried Lulu again after changing the MTU value, Lulu worked again as well.

So I finally managed to buy Chris' novel, which I will review here as soon as I finish it. Now that I can reliably access Lulu, I can see about posting a book on it. The book is called The New Reformation. All I need is a cover. Working on it. Gakkh. All I need is another four or five hours in a day...

September 18, 2006: The Cruel Magisterium

Every time I criticize the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on sex, women, and the body, I get a few notes from people who indicate that these same teachings have strengthened their marriages and allowed them to be "free." Free from what is never clearly stated, and I'm not callous enough to demand that my correspondents explain themselves in detail over what is a very personal matter and none of my (or anyone else's) business.

But I will stick to my condemnations of what I call the "Cruel Magisterium," and from time to time I will explain why in this space.

Let's start with the story of a friend of mine, whom I'll call Mark. He was small, studious, and geeky like the rest of us, with a quick grin and a passion (like me) for electronics and astronomy. When we were 13, Mark was a few months into puberty and hit the corner of a chain link fence with his bike. He went down hard and got tangled up in the mechanism in a bizarre way that included a nasty groin injury that literally ripped the skin of his scrotum. He bounced back pretty well, but a year later, while several of us were camped out in a tent in my backyard, he told us the rest of the story.

Six weeks or so after the stitches were removed and he was pretty much healed, Mark had to go back to the local Catholic hospital for a lookover that included a sperm count. The attending physician performed a procedure on him called a "scrotal massage" to get a sperm sample. As Mark put it, "He squeezed my balls until the stuff came out." The procedure, which took a fair amount of time, was so hideously painful (think about it!) that Mark screamed, to which the doctor simply replied, "Be quiet."

Now, there is an absolutely painless way to get a sperm sample from a 13-year-old boy:

  1. You tell him what you want.
  2. You give him something to put it in.
  3. You close the door.

Alas, the Cruel Magisterium allows no exceptions whatsoever to its prohibition on masturbation, which is always a mortal sin. The Roman Catholic Church, however, considered it perfectly acceptable to cause intense pain to a scared little boy, even though that pain was completely unnecessary in a medical context.

That was 1967. I've often wondered what Catholic hospitals do today when they need a sperm sample from a boy or an unmarried man. (Married couples with fertility problems gather sperm samples using perforated condoms.) I doubt they could get away with such a barbarous procedure anymore, and were I Mark's father I would have sued the physician and the hospital for child abuse. I suspect they now send such cases to secular clinics and just look the other way.

There are only two possible responses to this incident:

  • You can condemn the teaching that required a Catholic hospital to needlessly hurt a small boy until he screamed. Or,
  • You can endorse the teaching and the cruelty that it demands.

Sorry, folks, but there really isn't any other way out. When a church demands that cruelty be done, especially to children, it surrenders its moral authority completely. If you doubt it, reflect periodically on what poor Mark went through, then imagine that it was your own child.

I chose the door.

September 17, 2006: Destroying a Church in Order to Save It

We learned recently that two nearby communities in the Colorado Diocese of the Episcopal Church are closing down, and at mass this morning a good many people from Holy Spirit parish attended, doubtless "interviewing" St. Raphael as a new church home.

Holy Spirit had been having trouble for several years, but the other came as quite a surprise, and when Carol and I drove past St. Francis of Assisi parish recently, there was a sign out in front indicating that the parish was changing its affiliation to one of the several national Continuing Anglican jurisdictions. (The buildings belong to the diocese and will probably be sold to one of the Jesus-rock contemporary churches.) No one seems to want to talk on the record about the problems, but from what we can learn, the fighting at St. Francis over the gay clergy issue made certain people in the reactionary faction so furious that they picked fights, yelled, screamed, and made everyone miserable until the parish crumbled.

Admittedly, that may be an exaggeration stemming from the liberal sympathies of most people at St. Raphael's, but then again, from what I'm reading on the Web, it may not be. And one has to wonder if this tactic is deliberate, or simply selfish people being themselves. I don't think it's beyond imagination to speculate that some people may want to do everything in their power to destroy the Episcopal Church, including depriving ordinary parishioners (who may not feel strongly about the core issue either way) of their longstanding parish homes.

At very least, such a tactic would be un-Christian. Objecting to a decision the Church made is natural and expected, but once the Church has followed the deliberative mechanisms in its own constitution and come to a final decision (as it did in this case) the people on the losing side can either accept the decision, abstain from acceptance but remain in attendance, or walk. Some of the losers are clearly walking, but are doing so in such a destructive way that they are leaving only wreckage behind.

The relationship of homosexuality to Christianity is a difficult one, but that's not what I'm depressed about. Is it moral to use rage as as a weapon in a dispute over moral principles? One would think that the Christian way would be to say, "Sorry, we can't continue with the Church given its recent decisions. Good bye and God bless." That's not what we're seeing here.

St. Raphael's role has long been to provide a refuge to people (like Carol and myself) who find ourselves on the losing side in Church conflicts, though generally in the Roman Catholic Church. Carol and I didn't make scenes. We just left, and we try not to let anger smoulder over the whole ridiculous birth control issue, on which the Romans seem to hang their entire theology.

Our little parish will try to remain true to its history, and we hope that some of the people from Holy Spirit and St. Francis will travel a few more miles on Sunday and join us. There's a general feeling around here that the conflicts in Colorado Springs are not about God at all, but about being Right Men (and Right Women) and having Our Way, no matter what collateral damage may be brought down on bystanders.

Damn. There's a reason that Anger and Pride are deadly sins. I just never thought I'd see so much of it in the Episcopal Church.

September 16, 2006: The Borland Museum(s)

Although I heard about it years ago, I never went to the Borland Museum in part because I had my own. I've never been able to part with any of my Borland software (of which I have owned most over the years) and it's all still there in a box somewhere, even bizarre things like the Sprint word processor, the Reflex database, and the Turbo Pascal Editor Toolbox. Alas, I haven't looked at a lot of it in ten years or more, and in fact I don't even have a 5 1/4" floppy drive mounted on a machine here in the house. (I have two of them on the shelf.) Furthermore, I have a suspicion that entropy has claimed a lot of the original Borland floppies, not that I'll need to use Reflex anytime soon.

But rejoice: Even if your floppies have rotted, you can now download the following Borland products for free from the Borland Museum:

  • Turbo Pascal 1.0
  • Turbo Pascal 3.02
  • Turbo Pascal 5.5 (Plus, my OOP Guide is downloadable here.)
  • Turbo C++ 1.01
  • Turbo C++ 2.01

(There are posted promises of more to come.) Although I have TP 3.02 on hard disk here, I downloaded it anyway just to see the system work. The file is only 167 KB in size, egad. I discovered that even the 1990-vintage 3 1/2" diskette on which I had all my old Complete Turbo Pascal code listings wouldn't read, and had to be content running the demos that came with the product. I grinned to see that the turtle graphics demo still put my enormous 21.4" portrait-mode LCD into CGA medium-res mode, albeit in landscape mode. Even at its slowest speed, the turtle moved almost too quickly to follow, and at its fastest speed wasn't even a blur.

It only took a minute or so to get my TP 3.0 IDE legs back, but once I did I was jotting out little programs in seconds, even with the requirement of having PROGRAM...BEGIN...END. as a necessary framework. So if Johnny wants to bash code and get feedback in a hurry, this could be the way to do it.

Now I have to go looking for a usable floppy with all my old book code examples in it. Complete Turbo Pascal is now 21 years old. (You can still get used copies on Amazon...for 48 cents.) How the hell could we have been at it that long?

September 15, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Travelpost has a very nice online list of airport Wi-Fi hotspots. There's an alphabetical list of all equipped airports, and a list of the top 20 airports in the country. Colorado Springs has a very nice system, totally free, and cleverly limited to the area by the gates, to keep drive-by spammers out of the system. (On the other hand, I wouldn't try sitting in a car in front of an airport with a laptop in front of me these days...)
  • Alana Joli Abbot posted a link to a subdivision in Bend, Oregon that seems to imply hobbits, but the design of which suggests a set from Götterdammerung. Put that spear down now or we'll call the homeowner's association!
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a piece on a new way to figure a telescope mirror to an accuracy of 1/100 of a wavelength of light. (That is almost unbelievably good; I made a spectacular mirror when I was a teenager that was 1/20 wave accurate, except for a central depression under the shadow of the secondary mirror.) The new method sculpts the surface by shooting ions at the glass and removing silica molecules under computer control. I guess it beats walking around a 55-gallon drum all summer polishing a mirror by hand, not that I had much else to do when I was 15.
  • Several people pointed me to a nice $16 harness assembly that allows you to hook up a hard drive for testing without wedging it into a case. Basically, they cut it to the essentals: A parallel ATA socket with a built-in USB converter, plus a cord-wart power supply. Neat. I think I'll order one.
  • Instead of BASIC (see my entry for September 14, 2006) I would love to see something like Turbo Pascal 3.0 running in a DOS box for kids to hammer on. It's not OOP, but sheesh, it's better than BASIC. (Didn't Borland turn a lot of their ancient stuff loose as free downloads at one point?) The file is so small that DevCo could actually build it into their Turbo Delphi products and invoke it from a menu item.
  • The Australians claim to have discovered a class of peculiar things called "nanobes" that might be a little more alive than viruses but not quite as alive as bacteria—which again fuzzifies the larger question of what life actually is. The immediate idea that occurred to me is that these things could be naturally occurring nanoassemblers, and if we could figure out how they work, we might be able to get them to make stuff to our own design.

September 14, 2006: Does Johnny Need BASIC?

I just popped over to Salon to read an article by SF writer David Brin entitled "Why Johnny Can't Code." It's interesting enough to skim, but it can be summarized very easily: Brin thinks the lack of line-oriented BASIC interpreters (like we used to have in IBM PC BASICA and cheap machines like the Commodore 64) is keeping bright kids from getting into technical computing. I've met a fair number of Johnnies who have mastered C++ at age 13, just by getting books out of the library or reading online articles, without intervention by parents, teachers, or even peers. That may not be the issue; such kids will always exist, and nothing will keep them out of the belly of the machine. What David is actually worried about is that kids who lack this kind of passion might be distracted into other fields without an easy way to experiment with FOR loops at a command line, and never spend much time on programming at all.

I admit, that is not an optimal outcome. Anybody who aspires to any kind of career in tech (even sales or PR) should have some exposure to programming, and with more PCs than people now in educated urban America, there's no reason why this shouldn't happen. No reason except that we've hidden The Front Door.

I've mentioned the problem of The Front Door a time or two here. When you come to programming absolutely green, how do you take your first step? Where is Square One? With command-line languages, The Front Door is right there in the command prompt. The lights are on and it's waving you inside. As your first step you can use a PRINT or Writeln statement to echo a piece of text like "Hello World." Step Two is to display it a second time with a second PRINT statement. Step Three is to take the leap to a FOR loop and display it five times. At that point things start to accelerate, until the fundamental concept explodes in your head and the next thing you know, it's two ayem and you can't rip yourself away from the machine. By the time a week goes by, you've written a text formatter or a simple video game. (This was certainly my story, albeit with APL and not BASIC, and I've heard it from a lot of other people as well.)

All early operating systems were text-oriented, and at some point everything was done from a command line. Once Windows took over, it got a lot more complex: To even open a window entitled "Hello, World" took an understanding of events and handles and (early on) a huge ugly honking case statement. The first generation of true visual environments (Delphi, Visual Basic) helped a lot, but there was still the problem that instead of a single command prompt there were a screenful of things to look at and decide how to cope with. You could no longer type a couple of characters in an obvious place and get onto a useful feedback treadmill.

The Front Door is a problem, but there are big questions of how much of a problem—and whether the solution that Brin and others suggest is worth the cost. BASIC is one of the worst ways there is to learn how to program. (The only worse ones I could suggest are flailing away in APL—as I did—or FORTH—ditto.) The message you get from such languages is that stringing statements together until something works is programming. Learning the subtleties of program structure and OOP after an intro like that requires significant un-learning, which isn't automatic and requires a remarkable amount of personal energy.

You get no prize for predicting that I think Delphi is a better way to begin (especially now that there's a free version) even if it might require ten minutes' worth of reading to take your first step. If a command line is important, I think Tcl/Tk is worth a look. It's free, there's a Windows version, and there are several good books written about it. The Tk toolkit allows you to create windowed apps without a lot of fuss, and the whole thing is completely text-based.

But no matter how I look at it, the kicker insight (which Brin mostly ignores) is that there is now an irreduceable amount of study that you have to do before you can write even the tiniest sane program. That's the approach I took in Assembly Language Step By Step. The book is half over before you write a single line of code, but the conceptual foundation embodied in the book's first half keeps you from coming to a faulty understanding of the ideas behind assembly work. With assembly the key idea (often badly taught) is memory addressing; in OOP languages (all structured languages, really) it's scope. Compared to those two ideas, machine instructions and iterative loops are trivial. I'm trying to figure out the best way to teach Delphi programming that begins with sound design principles, but if my method requires reading 200 pages before setting fingers to keyboard, will anybody bother?

Or is the real problem that Johnny isn't interested enough in programming to accept being told how to do it right?

September 13, 2006: The Usefulness of a USB Drive Box

I bought a CompUSA USB 2.0 external hard drive case earlier this year when a friend's motherboard fried, and he wanted to know if the mobo had taken his hard drive with it. (It hadn't.) For $30, you get a way to see what's on a detached 3 1/2" IDE hard drive without opening up a machine and mounting the stray drive in an empty drive bay. This helped me earlier today when I happened upon a 3 1/2" drive in a box and had no memory of where it had come from. I popped it in the case, plugged in the short IDE cable and power connector, snapped it shut, plugged in the wall wart power supply, connected the USB cable to an open port on one of my lab PCs, and bam! There it was, drive G, with all the stuff from an old machine I replaced at our church two years ago. Mystery solved, amen.

Of course, if you want an external USB hard drive, get this case and a drive and you're there in ten minutes. The bulk of the time will be spent partitioning and formatting a new (blank) drive, especially if it's a big one. (If you install a drive that has already been formatted, it shows up in Explorer as soon as you plug it in, for Win2K or later.) An external USB 2.0 hard drive is a useful backup tool, especially if you have a couple of machines in the house and no network. You can schlep the drive from one machine to the next and suck each one onto a directory, or (if you're ambitious) to a separate partition, using a partition snapshot utility. (I haven't done this but may try it someday.)

My point is that just having the empty case on the shelf is useful, if stray hard drives turn up and you want to take a peek. One caution: Make sure your PC is set so that it will not boot from a USB drive, otherwise you may give control of your system to an untrusted bootable drive that may be virus-ridden. Also make sure your PC has USB 2.0 ports. USB 1.1 ports are so slow that the drive will make you crazy doing anything useful. All that said, I think it's more than useful enough to warrant $30 to have it on hand.

September 11, 2006: Five Years, and Hoping

Everybody else is weighing in on the fifth anniversary of our Great Wakeup Call, and in truth I can't think of anything stirring or even especially insightful to say. The whole business depresses me so badly that I'm sure I won't sleep much tonight. Nonetheless, some thoughts:

  • The September 2006 Atlantic has an intriguing article by James Fallows arguing that we are doing better in the War on Terror than we may think we are, and although I have quibbles with some of his points, he says things that aren't being said elsewhere: That America is assimilating its Muslim immigrants—and even welcoming them—in ways that ever-so-(supposedly)-tolerant Europe is not.
  • As I've said many times before, The United States is catching—people like it here, in spite of the supposed imperatives of their native culture. This includes Muslims, who were awakened by 9-11 to the fact that if America falls into terrorism-induced chaos, they and their families will suffer as much as or more than everybody else. Even as all eyes in America are on Muslims, American Muslim eyes are on their own lunatic fringes, having finally recognized the dangers of those fringes for what they are.
  • All that being the case, we need to be contrarian about America's Muslim community, and make it clear to them that we are all in this together. Our anti-terrorism investigators need to be given knowledge of Islamic culture, and coached in respect for Islam as a religion. American Muslims need to know whom to contact when they get wind of a plot from their own fringes, without fear that investigators will jump to conclusions and mistake the messengers for the message. This kind of quiet, below-the-radar police work is really the only way to protect our society against terrorism.
  • Islam is not monolithic—in fact, it broke into two frequently warring factions within a few years of the Prophet's death—and it is about as internally coherent as American Christianity, which is astonishingly diverse. A relatively small number of Islamist groups make most of the noise, and just as the "Left Behind" crackpots gleefully give the appearance of being mainstream Christians (when in fact they're borderline heretics, and in the minority) most Muslims are more interested in making a living within their marginal economies than bringing back the Caliphate.
  • The sort of Christianity practiced by the Founders bears little resemblance to the sort of Christianity now insisting that we are a "Christian nation." Darbyism and Christian Reconstructionism are new things—and dangerous in the extreme because they're already here. I bristle at the sort of militant atheism that has become the national religion of the Left, but the point they often make, that fanaticism can and does arise within almost any religious framework, is something we should not forget. The Dominion would be no better than the Caliphate. (And no better than the religion-free Marxist workers' paradise so many of our lefty fringe still dream of. Been there. Done that. Buried 100 million people.)
  • Ending the Iraq War will have little or no effect on the stridency of the Islamists or their efforts to attack us. I'm amazed at how many people harbor this little illusion.
  • Whatever party is nominally in power will be blamed for any future terrorist attacks, irrespective of any identifiable sequence of cause and effect. I hope my progressive friends who are howling for a "regime change" understand this. The only thing worse than not running the country may be...running it.
So we hung our flag, we blessed our dead, and we tried to put today in perspective in the light of history. There has never been a better time to be alive, especially in the West, and most particularly in the United States. Terrorism is not a solvable problem, but it is a manageable problem—if we can think clearly and strangle our anger before it makes us do stupid things.

September 10, 2006: Teflon Computing

Pete Albrecht sent me a link to an article that means well but doesn't quite hit the bullseye. No one seems to be asking, Is Vista really necessary? What does all that complexity actually buy us? Why is Vista better than XP? Or how about that now mostly abandoned but still pertinent question, Why is XP better than 2000? I'll allow myself a little cynicism to state that much of what Microsoft is doing these days seems focused on making the world safer...for Microsoft. There doesn't seem to be much in Windows evolution for the rest of us, and my suspicion is that Vista will reach new heights of un-trusted computing—meaning that we will not be able to trust it not to turn on us under the suspicion that we're pirates.

We need to completely re-invent the idea of an operating system. I myself envision something eight or ten years from now taking full advantage of hardware-assisted virtualization along with eight-core CPUs. I see every app as running in its own virtual machine, over a custom kernel based on Linux or BSD that exposes the API that the app was written to use. Wine isn't that bad, and with a few more years to mature, most non-MS Windows software will run on it.

Let's call a compact kernel plus an API emulator like Wine a KUP (Kernel with User Presentation) and when we install an app, the hypervisor prepares a KUP for it, and the software is installed in the KUP. Each KUP has its own network stack and IPv6 address. The software in the KUP assumes that the KUP is the OS, and it writes its data files locally to the virtual machine.

Outside the virtual machine is a hyperfilesystem, which periodically peeks into the KUP to see if new files have been written. If so, the hyperfiler reaches in and copies out the most recent copy of any changed files. The hyperfiler keeps a second virtual machine running for each KUP, in which backup copies of the KUP's data—and the KUP's execution image—are stored. The KUP's shadow VM stores a compressed snapshot (or series of snapshots, depending on the configuration) of the KUP, as well as software to test the files saved by the app in the KUP. The hyperfiler attempts to open the KUP's files in the shadow VM, and it watches for execution activity. Unless the app is known to be something that generates executables (i.e., a developer suite) the presence of attempted execution tells the hyperfiler that malware has infected the KUP. The KUP's last known clean VM snapshot is then written over the infected KUP. Beat that, Mr. Rootkit!

Even if no malware is detected, a clean execution snapshot of the KUP is swapped in every 24 hours, and its data updated from the shadow VM. The desktop interface manager is just another (slightly) privileged app in a KUP, and the hypervisor peeks into the desktop KUP every few milliseconds to see if any of the app KUPs need repositioning, clipboard data management, or shaking-by-the-neck.

The really important part of an OS, the only part that carries any enduring value, is the API libraries. Everything else is just gears and clutches, and can be replaced by a sharp little kernel running over a hypervisor. If computing stagnates in the coming decade, it will be because we can't bring ourselves to rethink what really matters. The hypervisor's job is not to integrate separate pieces of software (as we sometimes think OSes are supposed to do) but in fact to keep applications from seeing one another at all. This may make certain "cool hacks" impossible, but it may compensate by making computing a lot more stable. The hypervisor can see into every KUP, but nothing in any KUP can see the hypervisor, or anything beyond the boundaries of the KUP. The hypervisor itself will run its essential components in electrically protected memory, and will be designed to defeat subversion.

It's a tall order, but that's the end point toward which I see a lot of modern virtualization technology converging. We'll need more memory and more cycles, but we get more of those every year. Sooner or later cores will be cheap, RAM almost free, and Microsoft mostly a seller of APIs—even if they don't want to be. Let's see: Install Vista, delete everything but the API files, and then pour what's left into a KUP.

I'll drink to that!

September 9, 2006: My "Square One" Page for Turbo Delphi

I've been getting plenty of gripes about the undocumented installation process for the new Turbo Delphi products, and those from people I consider reasonably experienced. I can only wonder what total newcomers (to whom the product is in part targeted) are doing. So in response I've posted a summary of the installation process as I've doped it out in a whole new page, called Turbo Delphi Explorer from Square One.

I've discovered that the Indy components are in fact installed by the Turbo Delphi Explorer installer, but they're not added to the Tool Palette. You can treat Indy as a library and still use the components; you just can't drag them off the Tool Palette and drop them on a form. Given that most of the Indy components are not visual, that's less of a handicap than it would be with visible, sizeable, positionablecomponents. I'm going to clean up and simplify my little domain name resolver program as a demo of how to do this. Give me a few days; lots going on here.

In general, once you get past the install, Turbo Delphi Explorer is a lot of fun, and a killer product considering that it's a free download. I do think the $500 price for the paid version is a little high, and hope they will rethink that. $99 would be killer, but I'd accept $199 without any complaints.

Let me know how you're faring with Turbo Delphi Explorer, or any of the other Turbo Explorers. If you've learned anything interesting, let me know so I can pass it along to my 12,000+ monthly readers!

September 8, 2006: Learning New IDEs Is a...Bear

Turbo Delphi Explorer landed in my lap in the thick of a very busy week, so I don't have a great deal to say about it this morning, and I have a pretty full day ahead of me. I've spent a little time with it, building short programs and trying to see it without my Delphi 6 goggles on. That's tougher than it sounds, considering that Delphi 6 looks remarkably like Delphi 2 (and 1, for that matter) and thus I've been using what amounts to a single IDE for eleven years now.

I noticed with some sadness that double-clicking on an event doesn't create an event handler skeleton for you, unless it's an option that I have to explicitly enable. Again, I haven't had enough time this week to really examine it closely.

One interesting side-issue came up the other day during my morning walk. I was on Jarmin St. heading for home when up ahead I spotted a black bear about to have his way with one of the big garbage cans they use around here. It was a young bear, certainly of this spring's birthing, not even full grown—and not too clear on the whole nocturnal animal concept. Every bear I've seen here was either deep in the woods on the mountainside, or else wandering the neighborhood in the middle of the night. Seeing one at 10:15 in the morning was a little startling.

The photo above is misleading. I took it from about 500 feet away, using a 5 MP hi-res digital camera at full telephoto. The full frame shown at left will put it in slightly better perspective. Just about the time I was pulling out my camera, a pickup truck with some yahoos in it rolled by, stopped by the bear and started yelling at him. He was in the process of heading into the bushes when I snapped the photo.

Further down the street I found an upended can with trash all over the place, so evidently he was doing his rounds. Subdivision rules require you to keep your trash cans under cover until after 7 AM, and the trucks generally finish their rounds before 9. Pickup was late this week, and the bears took advantage.

More on Turbo Delphi Explorer as soon as I have something useful to say.

September 7, 2006: Early Reactions to Turbo Delphi Explorer

It wasn't until yesterday afternoon that I could carve out a big enough block of time to really go after Turbo Delphi Explorer, having downloaded the product Tuesday. As with all products this complex, it went up for testing in its own Win2K VM.

I imagine (and taking a quick look just now at borland.public.delphi.non-technical confirms) that some people are going to be annoyed that Turbo Delphi is a .NET app. This didn't surprise me, but it may surprise people who last bought a copy of Delphi in 2000. Those caught up a little too much in "us vs. them" psychology (where "them," as usual, is Microsoft) are bitching about the .NET connections. I say it with a little regret born of a yearning for lost simplicity, but Win32 is not enough if you're going to write a world-class developer tool suite. .NET is becoming more and more to integral to Windows functioning with every release, and Borland can't ignore it just because MS are The Other Guys.

Some of the bitching may simply be due to the .NET elements of installation. The really big issue with Turbo Delphi for Win32 is a complicated and virtually undocumented installation procedure. This is especially true for people who have no experience with .NET, of whom there are still many. Before the BDS (Borland Developer Studio; Turbo's IDE) is installed, there is a fat file full of prerequisite installations that must be done, all of them associated with .NET. Alas, there was no "readme.txt" file in the archive, and no instructions for the prerequisite installs. This is not easy to dope out from first principles; I knew from earlier work that dotnetfx.exe was the installer for the .NET runtime, but a person used to looking for a setup.exe file might be puzzled, especially since there are three .exe files in that directory and nothing to indicate which installed what. The .NET runtime must be installed first, and nothing tells the user that anywhere that I could see. The J# runtime has to go in next; both runtimes must be installed before the .NET SDK will install without yelling.

Another potential puzzler comes up when you run ie6setup.exe after having installed the .NET SDK, .NET redistributables, and J# redistributables. Evidently IE6 is installed in the process of installing .NET (that was something I didn't know) and something very like an error message tells you that IE6 is already installed and you had better exit the installer now. Again, a good readme.txt file or good installer script would have prevented this. Minor issue: The MSXML installer is an .MSI file. A fair number of people probably don't know that you can install a .MSI file by double-clicking it.

The first time I ran Turbo Delphi, I was asked for the Turbo License Activation File. I had received this file via email after requesting it from the downloads page, but had put it in the wrong directory. Once I moved the file where it needed to be (in Documents and Settings\Jeff Duntemann rather than Documents and Settings) the product came up. This was my mistake, but it was a very easy one to make, and a little install doc would have prevented it.

The Turbo Delphi installer does not ask if you would like a desktop icon, but it should.

Peculiarly, although the installer asked whether I would like Indy 9 or Indy 10 to be installed, as best I can tell it installed neither. I got the impression talking to David I. a month or so ago that the Indy Components would be part of the Turbo Delphi Explorer, and while I will understand if a decision was made later on not to include them, their mention in one of the installer dialogs will make a lot of people wonder if something went wrong during install.

For the benefit of readers who are trying to install Turbo Delphi Explorer, do the prereqs this way:

  1. Install the .NET redistributables by executing dotnetfx.exe.
  2. Install the J# redistributables by executing vjredist.exe.
  3. Install the .NET SDK by executing setup.exe in the dotNETSDK directory.
  4. Reboot the system.
  5. Skip the installation of IE6. If you try to install it, you'll get a box telling you it's already installed.
  6. Install MSXML V4 by double clicking msxml.msi. in the MSXML directory.

At this point, you can execute the TurboDelphi.exe installer and follow the dialogs. Make sure that the license file is in the account name directory. You can't put it under All Users or Default User. If you run as Administrator, put it under Administrator. If you run under a different account name, put the file there. Turbo Delphi will look for the file, which contains serial number information, and if it can't find the file it will ask you to enter the data manually. Since this data is embedded in an unstructured, unlabeled block in a text file, you won't know what it is.

The IDE is radically different from Delphi 7 and before, and if that's as far as you got with Delphi, I powerfully recommend running Nick Hodges' Camtasia videos. There's a lot of unlearning and relearning to do, and as I've always said, Delphi shows better than it tells.

That's about all I have room to cover today. I'll continue tomorrow.

September 6, 2006: Mesh Networking at the State Fair

Carol and I went down to the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo on Labor Day, looking forward to the animals and the quirky fairgrounds food, and found a little more than we had bargained for: The first commercial implementation of citywide mesh networking that I think has a chance in hell.

We were threading our way through the "none of the above" huckster hall (beef jerky, gimmick mops, folding ladders, stain removers) on our way out of the fair at about 3:30 when we found a very professional-looking booth belonging to Airinet, headquartered in Pueblo. On the surface, Airinet looks like a conventional small-town ISP, which is why I almost walked past their booth. Of course, something in my synapses watches for the word "wireless," and when my Wi-Fi sense twitched I ambled over to read their literature while Carol tried out the Intelligel beds a few booths down. By the time she rejoined me a few minutes later, my jaw was on the floor. What these guys were doing was impossible.

Mesh networking has been with us for some time, though it's generally been a community thing: People put a wireless node up on the chimney and run routing software like Locustworld or MIT Roofnet on a dedicated (often junker) PC to bounce packets across nodes close enough to communicate. It's all very spit'n'baling wire, but with the right routing algorithms, people in the mesh can share files and connections to the Internet pretty seamlessly.

This kind of community networking is, of course, the sneakpath around the "last mile" problem that has bedeviled small-town people hoping for broadband ever since there was broadband. The problem with community networks (the Brisbane Mesh is a good example) is that they grow organically; i.e., as interested people bestir themselves to mount and configure a node. This gives you a network, but it's strangely shaped and full of holes and very difficult to route efficiently. What Airinet has done is created an "engineered" mesh network in which they choose where the distribution nodes are placed. The design is such that no node in the network is more than eight hops from the Airinet backhaul link, which is handled via point-to-point radios on a non-Wi-Fi frequency.

This sort of thing has been done before, usually for parks and college campuses and the occasional municipal Wi-Fi cloud. Existing mesh equipment, however, is hugely expensive, and such networks are almost by definition tax-supported cost centers. To build a mesh network that actually makes money, Airinet has designed a custom Wireless-B mesh node that can be manufactured for well under $100, and created a router system (similar to Locustworld) to work efficiently with the networks that they design. The node box is tiny (about the size of a small wireless router) and they deploy it inobtrusively by negotiating with property owners to mount it under eaves and in other out-of-the-way places in keeping with the overall network design. The node can then serve customers in homes anywhere within about about 800 feet, depending on terrain and intervening obstructions.

The nodes run a captive portal not completely unlike those you see at hotel Wi-Fi hotspots. If you're within range of an Airinet node, you connect to the captive portal, read the terms and conditions, and then sign up for 30 days' service at $25 flat. You don't need any hardware apart from a conventional Wireless-B client adapter. The $25 includes 1.5 MB downlink, 1.0 MB uplink, plus a 100 MB email account and a 100MB Web hosting account. Authentication is done via MAC and a password, and the connection is encrypted with a 2,048-bit key, which makes WEP or even WPA a grease spot by comparison.

Although the project has been in development for some time, the State Fair was their rollout and first real public appearance. They currently cover huge swaths of Pueblo and are adding nodes as fast as they can. They plan to target other smaller Colorado towns like Salida or Cañon City once their Pueblo buildout is complete.

All of this comes from a hurried conversation with Airinet's chief techie, David Bueno, and without any white papers or other hard technical information to draw on, I may have misunderstood some of the details. However, I'm going to stay in touch with them and will report here from time to time on their progress. David claims that networks like his will make WiMax obsolete before it even appears. If Airinet works as well as he claims it does (and of course, I can't test it from here) he may well be right.

September 5, 2006: Turbo's Out! Go Get It!

Well, the countdown timer expired this morning, but the Turbo Delphi download link was not yet live, and I didn't check it again until later this afternoon. Just a few minutes ago I went over to the Turbo Explorer site and worked through the download process. I got an HTTP file transfer connection immediately, and the files came down at an impressive 480 KBps. I was expecting the servers to be choked, but evidently I got in at a good time.

I didn't sleep well last night (I'm in the thick of one of my periodic bouts with insomnia) and so I'm running behind today, but I'm about to load it up and see what happens. A useful report may take a few days. Bear with me—or better still, go get it and see for yourself!

September 3, 2006: Cash Comeback

During the five weeks I recently spent in the Chicago area, I saw something that I hadn't seen before: Retailers with a cash-only policy—and a small ATM by the front door. Although I have been slouching toward credit card use over the years, I have also run a small business, and I know that in low-margin retail niches, the cut that the credit card companies take from every sale (typically 3% plus ten cents per transaction) can make the difference between getting by and going under.

The other issue is chargebacks—basically, customers who contest a charge and get it reversed, even though they got the goods. I don't have good statistics, but I've heard that certain people play that game to get free stuff, and small retailers too strapped to spend the time doing the paperwork to contest chargebacks end up taking it on the chin. This happened to us a couple of times at Coriolis while we were selling books direct, but that part of our business was small enough so that it wasn't much of a threat.

I wonder if we're heading toward an era of ubiquitous ATMs. This would change the money business in a number of interesting ways. The costs of moving the money (which includes all the paperwork and other assorted BS associated with dealing with credit card companies) go back to the buyer instead of the seller, and because there are many more buyers than sellers, these costs are spread out more across the economy and are therefore less "painful". An individual might pay $5 in ATM fees in the course of a month, whereas a single retailer might end up handing the bank $500 or more in fees in the same period, plus absorbing any chargebacks.

The burden of authentication moves from the retailer (often a small business with limited resources) to a bank network, which has the chops to do it correctly and take advantage of its economies of scale. Authentication of the cash itself has always been a small concern for retailers due to counterfeiting, but the new bills we're seeing are much easier to authenticate technologically, and I think that in a few years counterfeiting will be so difficult as to not be worthwhile.

We thought for awhile in the 90s that we were moving toward a cashless society, but it may in fact be moving the other way again. I read somewhere that governments had had some wistful hopes of ending the drug trade by eliminating cash by mid-century, but with an ATM not only on every corner but virtually anywhere goods are sold, cash will be with us basically forever. We may see even big-ticket sales done with cash, without the various risks of carrying $1,000 in your wallet. If the cash is right there in the corner of the electronics store, those risks go away. Banks would have to raise ATM withdrawal limits, but mine have gone up over the years, and if customers demanded the ability to pull $1,000 from the box at a shot, the banks will do it.

Crazy how the world works at times. Technology was supposed to eliminate cash. Now technology (small, inexpensive, self-contained ATMs) is bringing it back. Ya gotta love the fractal nature of history!

September 2, 2006: Odd Lots

  • Here's one of those weird things that always made me buy Popular Science and Popular Mechanics when I was younger: A neoblimp cruise ship that isn't quite lighter than air. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.) The fourteen million cubic feet of helium gets its weight almost to zero, and lift generated conventionally by small wings gets it aloft, using a very short runway and lightweight engines of modest size. Although supposedly in prototype by 2010, this is most likely one of those loony daydreams that keep young nerds dreaming—and two magazines publishing.
  • I heard John Cougar Mellekamp's first single, "I Need a Lover (Who Won't Drive Me Crazy)" again the other day, and had forgotten how much I liked it—the first 2:30 at least, before John starts singing. It's the same thing with Bob Dylan and Laura Nyro. Some songwriters, however brilliant, are just not intended by God or anybody else to sing.
  • Halloween candy is in the stores now (two months and counting!) so how long could it possibly be until...Christmas? So to put a little contrarian Christmas cheer into the mix, I point you to a collection of so-so, bad, and really deranged nativity scenes. The comments are pretty good; read them. The bean bag game is my favorite.
  • Here's an interesting comparison of print-on-demand publishers. The creator of the site notes that there is a difference (albeit on a sliding scale) between a true publisher and what I guess I might call a publishing framework; that is, a mechanism for manufacturing, distribution, and sale that can be used remotely by spare-room publishers. Lulu falls on the framework side, but it's still the best one I've seen with respect to its structure and terms. (I am still having some very weird problems dealing with their servers.)
  • I am looking for copies of the old Carl and Jerry stories that appeared in Popular Electronics between 1954 and 1964. If you have a stash of PE from that period and would be willing to copy out some of the stories for me, do drop a note and check with me to see which ones I don't already have.