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April 30, 2005: "Hello, May I Practice My English on You?"

Slashdot aggregated a nice entry from John Barlow's blog yesterday, concerning people who call him on Skype from overseas to practice speaking English with him. I laughed out loud; I thought that I was the only one with that experience.

It must be a more general phenom. (Has it happened to you?) I installed Skype almost immediately on its release two years ago, and I use it regularly to talk to friends. I also get calls from complete strangers, usually ham radio ops who are used to calling people they don't know. As I list my callsign in my Skype profile, I figured it was natural, and in fact unless I'm on deadline I enjoy it.

Then there are the calls from faraway places, from people who are not hams at all. At least twelve or fifteen times, people have called me and freely admitted that their mission was practicing English with an American. (Do guys in England get these calls?) A 14-year-old boy named Mads called me from Denmark early on, and explained that he was taking an important English exam in a couple of days and wanted to brush up a little. I was floored; his enunciation and grasp of grammar exceeded that of most Americans. I'm very chary about striking up friendships with kids anywhere, especially online. Conventional wisdom today seems to be that all middle-aged men spontaneously talking to young people are sexual predators. Still, his parents approved, and I consider him a friend, tho I haven't seen him log in recently. (Perhaps he graduated.) Mads, if you're out there, give a yell. Maybe you can teach me some Danish.

Like John Barlow, I've gotten calls from several young Asian women, including one from Singapore now living in Seattle and trying to improve her English to help get a better job. (Her boyfriend is there on an H1B.) After the first few, I started asking callers why they chose me. One said that Colorado was in the center of America, and seemed to think (it was a difficult conversation, as her English was, well, fragmentary) that the closer you got to the center of a country, the more quintessential were the people who lived there. (Having been to Boulder, I rather hope not.) Another thought that a guy who liked kites would have an affinity for Japanese culture. Good guess, though no truer with me than for many other cultures. One said I had a "noble face." The rest were puzzled by the question, and apparently just went eenie meenie mynie moe and there I was.

I don't consider these calls a nuisance. I like helping people out, and freely admit that I'd like to see English become a universal language. I also see this as a refutation of the common lament that "everybody hates Americans." Many among the intellectual elite overseas with access to the media seem to hate Americans, from what I read in the news. It must be a gene of some kind—one that we have here as well. By contrast, the common people seem to assume that we're trusting, basically honest, and generous with our time. Shucks, I think so too. (Invading Iraq was a horrible mistake. Invading Harvard and leveling it would have been easier and done far more good.)

Skype is an amazing thing, not only for what it is functionally, but for what it seems to bring out in people who are not already soul-dead with hate: A sense that human beings are basically good, and generally willing to help others in small ways. Eat death, PC cynicism!

April 29, 2005: Pigeon Forge, Toe Rings, and Collage Girls

I seem to be winning the spam wars, and I don't quite know why. As I've mentioned here before, changing hosting services from Interland to Sectorlink not only cut my monthly hosting costs by 40%, but also cut my daily spam count by 80-90%. I used to get 500-600 spams per day. I now get from 55-70. That's especially astonishing since Sectorlink says they're not doing any server-side filtering. Sorry. They must be. There's no other explanation. The drop happened virtually overnight, and since then has demonstrated a fascinating "collapse of the middle."

About half the spam that remains is of the illiterate variety: short, badly written, no graphics, obviously coming to me from spam zombies. This includes far less porn spam than I used to get, and what I'm being offered these days are not MILFs (see my entry for December 15, 2004) but "collage girls." (I can only picture young women with magazine cutouts, elbow macaroni, and photo-booth snapshots pasted over their naughty bits.) The rest are the usual mix of scammy stuff: gray-market prescription drugs, OEM software, dicey investments, and weird miscellany.

At the other end are slick, professional-looking HTML ads that come to me in massive, repeating campaigns. One day I had never heard of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and by the next day I had received 15 ads begging me to partake of some hootenanny holiday there. ("Hooters Spring Truckin' Nationals!") The next day it was fifteen pitches for "hip sandals" (do people really call things "hip" anymore, or is that a new style?) and the day after that, toe rings, presumably after you've ordered your hip sandals. More recently it's been acne cream. The name "Jeff" must have crossed the gender gap at some point, as I'm also receiving occasional ads with the headline "Jeff, the right fit in a bra is important!"

You get the idea. What's fascinating is that the spam is either near-illiterate or ad-agency slick. There's nothing in the middle. And the slick stuff is coming from a small group of large marketing firms, including Zinester, Aptimus and Intermix Networks. Poking around a little revealed the scam here: The big shops are hosting dozens of idiotic "directory" or "newsletter" sites like FreebieFix, QuickInspirations, SoYaWanna, and GossipFlash. (See this screenshot for a typical morning's spam harvest. Note the concentration of senders.) The links are old, the gossip thin and the jokes stupid, but I'll bet that they have the funds to threaten legal action against spam filtering services that blackhole them. The emailed newsletters are pure spam, and in the fine print of their "privacy policies" they reserve the right to "transfer your information" to "other organizations." The modest-scale spammers in the middle must have either hit the wall of pervasive blackholing, or outsourced their crap to the spam zombie gangs who clearly didn't do well in sixth grade.

My guess is this: SectorLink's server-side filters can't include the high end spammers (because they're barely-legal "newsletters" with big legal budgets) and can't keep ahead of the spam zombie swarms on the low end. More universal port 25 blocking might help with the zombies, but I'm not entirely sure what to do with GossipFlash and SmilePop, except dream vainly of packing them all up (with their damned hip sandals and toe rings) and shipping them to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in a fleet of monster trucks driven by Hooters girls, who understand better than any of us that getting the right fit in a bra is important.

Heh. With email like this, who needs recreational drugs?

April 28, 2005: The Cruise-Boat Photo Phenom

I'd forgotten to post the full photo from which my column-header picture was cropped, but here it is, taken with Carol at our dinner table on our Hawaii cruise last November. This may qualify as one of the best pictures ever taken of me as an adult. Carol, of course, never takes a bad picture.

Which reminds me of an interesting phenomenon that never fails to startle cruise newbies: Cruise lines are constantly taking your picture. The photos are posted on a wall in a special area, and you can buy the ones you like. The rest of them are dumped. Sometimes, as in this photo, they do a really good job and I'm more than willing to pay for it. Most of the rest of the time, they're snapping you on deck, before dinner, at dinner, after dinner, and all over the ship, and even at the end of the gankplank while you're on your way to one shore excursion or another, with costumed pirates ready to jump in, grimacing, to add a "festive touch" (yukkh!) to the photo. (I have to wonder if the "mature demographic"—i.e., old people—who dominate the cruise market really like photos of themselves with grimacing pirates or guys in dolphin suits.)

The cruise lines are clearly hoping you'll just go nuts with the pictures, and maybe some people do, but Carol and I rarely bring home more than two or three. Judging by the enthusiasm with which they do all that snapping, it must be hugely profitable for them, even if 80% of the prints get dumped. So if you're ever heading off on your first cruise, be warned: The cruisarazzi will be waiting for you, pirates optional. Think of them as cutpurses where you do the cutting.

April 27, 2005: A Cat May Look at an Apple

They're at it again. Sheesh, some people never learn. The other day, Apple Computer ordered all books published by John Wiley & Sons out of Apple's retail stores. They were annoyed because Wiley published iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon. I haven't seen the book, so I can't tell you precisely what they object to, but my sense is that they object to anything that isn't fawning, uncritical praise. Jobs has always been a bit of a mixed bag, but he's learned a lot in the last 25 years. Could the book be worse on Apple's reputation than The Journey is the Reward? I can't imagine how.

I have a button in my button collection reading, "Keep your Lawyers off My Computer," dating back to the second half of the 1980s. I picked it up at Comdex or some other show and no longer remember precisely what it was protesting, but Apple has a long, long history of suing first and thinking it through later. Note that I'm excluding their recent legal efforts against several guys who leaked details about unreleased Apple products, since what was done violated various laws, including the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. I'm more talking about hubris like borrowing heavily from UI research at Xerox (where I was working at the time it happened, and using Xerox workstations long before the release of Lisa or Mac) and then later on claiming extreme exclusivity on those UI concepts in numerous lawsuits against many companies. (One of those suits finally sank Digital Research.) It seems like every time I put an ear to the Apple ground, I hear about legal action against critics and imitators. Small wonder that many people carry grudges against them, which doesn't help when your market share is in single digits and shrinking.

Pulling all of a publisher's books out of your stores in a snit over a single title is stupid, not the least because Wiley is one of the largest publishers of Mac books around (Mac for Dummies is in their catalog since their acquisition of Hungry Minds a couple of years ago) and pulling them all means your customers have even fewer reasons to wander into your stores. Apple stores are not, after all, an enormous retail channel, and losing them won't put a dent in billion-dollar Wiley's business. No, the single stupidest reason not to engage in this sort of tantrum-throwing is that it will almost certainly make a best-seller out of iCon, and therefore make bushels of money for Wiley and the book's authors. Keith and I were actually pondering what huge company we could insult to get some free megaPR like this. Degunking Daimler-Chrysler? Boy, that would be fun. We'd be zillionaires in no time.

It's not anybody's law that I know of, but it should be: The bigger you are, the more criticism and imitation you have to tolerate. Swatting flies hurts you more than it hurts the flies, and there are always more flies where those came from.

April 26, 2005: The Ultraviolet StinkFinder

It's still P-10 and counting, but Carol and I are buying new-puppy paraphernalia like we were expectant parents. We have treats and toys and housebreaking pads and a collar and leash (in purple—Mr. Byte's color was green, Chewy's blue, and Max's black), food and water bowl set, and earlier today, while poking around in PetSmart, Carol ran across...the StinkFinder.

We had a problem with Mr. Byte and Chewy at times: They were "stealth pee-ers" and would lay down small puddles in out-of-the-way spots in the house and not say anything about it. We found a big splotch of dried pee under the TV cabinet when we moved out of our Arizona house a couple of years ago, even though Mr. Max left us in 2001—and Mr. Byte in 1995.

Enter StinkFinder. It's a combo spot-beam and fluorescent flashlight, with the fluorescent bulb replaced by a blacklight bulb. Turn off the lights, shine the blacklight on the floor, and urine shows up in bright yellow. I had known that certain minerals and even certain species of desert scorpion fluroesce, but pee? God must have a sense of humor. StinkFinder really works, too. How I tested it may be too embarrassing to describe (recall that old commercial that began, "Do you have men or boys in your house?") but trust me, there will be no more stealth pee-ers around here.

April 25, 2005: Should I Review Bad Books?

I don't review but a fraction of the books that I read here , for two reasons:

  • Many are too narrow to be of general interest, such as commentaries on Anglican theology or microwave radio handbooks.
  • No small number are simply bad books, and I've never been inclined to give bad books any space, whether here in Contra or earlier in the print magazines that I've edited. I've seen it said that a bad review is the next best thing to a good review, and I don't want to encourage sloppy work.

Nonetheless, Michael Abrash suggested that reviews (or at least lists) of bad books might be helpful. If I do such reviews, they will be very short, and will not include cover shots.

One difficult part about doing negative reviews is separating an objectively bad book from one that simply irritates me due to its slant or ideology. A perfect example is Morris West's novel The Clowns of God, which I savaged on Amazon some years back for being mean-spirited, polemical, anti-American, Manichaean, and just plain nasty. Nonetheless, I took another look at it just now and I'm forced to admit that he told the tale well, well enough so that it infuriated me. (Most bad novels I just sigh over and drop in the giveaway box without much emotion.) And I'm sure that people who subscribe to the three-days-of-darkness Jesus-is-coming-back-soon-and-boy-is-he-pissed school of Catholic reactionism will probably love it, for the same reasons I hated it. However, as a novel it's vivid and at least competently written. So is it a good book or a bad book? I will readily admit that because the book pushed virtually all of my buttons, I may not be qualified to judge.

Some books may be important enough to read even if they're badly written. (We don't buy K&R for its inspiring prose, and most of my theology books are, from a craft standpoint, hideous.) Some books are beautifully written but lack useful content or simply wander around without making much of a point, like Patricia Hampl's Virgin Time. Some books may well be cult classics—in somebody else's cult. I couldn't make head nor tail of Quinn & Whalen's Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife, but the writing is dopey enough so that I can call it a bad book in good conscience. Michael Shermer's Science Friction claims to be a book on skepticism, but it wanders between polemic and personal story and in the end is just a disjointed collection of indifferent essays. Louis A. Berman's The Puzzle promises us a theory as to why homosexuality is not bred out of the gene pool, but whereas he writes well and presents an enormous amount of interesting information, his theory is unconvincing, and I can recommend the book only as a compendium of other people's research on the subject.

The biggest problem with publishing reviews or lists of bad books here is that people generally don't go looking for books not to buy. The chances that you will be cruising to buy a book that I've read and found wanting are slim, especially since a good many books that I read are years or even decades old. So perhaps I'll present an occasional mention of a book that I don't recommend, along with twenty words or less as to why. I doubt such items will be useful very often, but on that outside chance, well, if I can save you the money or (more importantly) the time spent on a bad book, it's probably worth a couple of lines of Web-stuff.

April 24, 2005: Interdictionphobia

Some of my religious liberal friends and correspondents (all from the far-left wing of the Old Catholic Church, which has as many wings as it has bishops, but rarely flies) are now in a lather, fearing that the new Pope Benedict XVI will begin using an ancient tool: Interdiction. I had thought that there might be some slight chance that a pope might try this, and it still may be true, but that pope is not Benedict XVI.

Interdiction, if you know your history, was the Pope's nuclear option against secular governments: basically, an order to shut down all sacramental life within the interdicted country. Back when Christianity was basically the only significant religion in the known world (which then consisted mostly of Europe and North Africa) kings and emperors trembled at the threat. During interdiction, there are no baptisms, no church-sanctioned weddings, no funeral masses or internments on church grounds, no confessions, no confirmations, and no Masses. The machinery of the Church grinds to a halt, until the panicking populace threatens to overturn the secular government that triggered the interdiction. People who should damned well know better have even suggested that Benedict might insist, on pain of interdiction, that the U. S. government withdraw from Iraq or cease capital punishment.

This sort of thing actually worked at one time, when Christianity was universal, Hell was a Really Big Deal, and faith contained a strong (and sometimes dominant) element of superstition. All of that is gone today. A pope could still use interdiction to put pressure on secular governments, but it would only harm the Church and the people who support the Church's policies. (All the others have left long ago.) One can barely imagine the media circus that would ensue.

Benedict, being a European German, is not that dumb. (I'm not sure all cardinals in the world meet that criterion, especially some from the Third World with a grudge against the West.) Barely anybody in Europe goes to Mass today anyway, and an interdiction against the U.S. would simply send what are now faithful and reasonably faithful Roman Catholics down the street to some other church, from which they would likely never come back.

Interdiction is really a relic of a different set of historical circumstances. It's no longer an option.

As I've said earlier, the new Pope has plenty to deal with in his own sphere. Benedict will likely first tighten the screws on the clergy and especially the religious orders, who are now the main powers behind Roman Catholic liberalism. He may direct priests to begin preaching that the Church's moral theology is something that can't simply be ducked or ignored. Less likely though possible would be a directive to priests to begin quizzing Roman Catholics in the confessional on whether they're using birth control, as was done with a peculiar intensity until the 1970s. (It's less likely because so few people go to confession anymore, and in the wake of such a move most of the rest would stop.) One way or another, it's likely that the Pope will begin to require explicit acceptance of the Church's teachings from both clergy and laypeople, and while this would make for a stronger and more unified Church, it would be a much smaller Church. (It would also largely become a Third World Church.) It should be an interesting couple of years on the Roman Catholic front.

April 23, 2005: Understanding "Lyke Wake Dirge"

While redesigning Contra earlier this month I ran across an abandoned HTML file I had begun some time ago (egad, 2001?) and never finished. There's a fascinating folk song from the north of England (Yorkshire, actually) called "Lyke Wake Dirge" that a British folk group called Pentangle recorded in 1972. It was a creepy little thing about the hazard-laden path of a newly-departed soul from this world to Purgatory. I recall sitting in De Paul University's student union my senior year and talking about the lyrics with some friends who also had the record, trying to work out what the lyrics were. The fact that they were in a Yorkshire dialect of Middle English certainly didn't help, and we all went home none the wiser.

The Catholic tradition of Purgatory has become a minor interest of mine in the intervening 30 years, and finding odd things is easier today. I did some Web research and pulled together enough information on the song to do a modern translation and add some notes about the odd words used in the song. It's too large for a Contra entry, so I created it as a standalone page: Understanding "Lyke Wake Dirge". A fascinating hiker's subculture has arisen around the song and the Lyke Wake Walk, a 42-mile deathmarch across the thorny Yorkshire moors, which must be done in 24 hours or less. Whew. I'll have to work into that one, heh.

April 22, 2005: Nature's Building Blocks

Science fiction writers are a little bit like theologians looking for "God in the gaps": They're always trying to find odd little corners of our scientific knowledge that can fill another chink in the wall of a tall tale. I read somewhere years back that ytterbium was one of numerous metals being researched for odd compounds exhibiting room-temperature superconductivity. That, and the fact that "ytterbium" is a very cool word, led me to incorporate it in my totally fictional Hilbert stardrive.

It pays (though not in money, at least—or especially—if you're an SF writer) to be on the lookout for chemistry and physics trivia, and today I present a book that is all that and nothing but: Nature's Building Blocks, by John Emsley. It's an encyclopedia of the elements, arranged alphabetically, comprising 540 pages of relatively fine print. In addition to most of the elementary facts you'd find in the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (atomic weight, melting point, boiling point, density, isotopes, common compounds etc.) Emsley provides individual essays up to 2,000 words long, summarizing the history of each element and the details of its creation in nature and its abundance in the universe, its presence in the environment and the human body, and its major uses in industry. In addition to that, in his section "Element of Surprise" he lays out trivia like the fact that bismuth is used to give nail polish a pearlescent finish (in the form of bismuth oxychloride) and that sodium azide is the explosive that deploys and inflates airbags in cars. He explains how bad breath is produced by bacteria in the mouth, and cites the three sulfur compounds that produce the odor.

Useful to fiction writers are his descriptions of compounds that are modestly toxic, like arsenic oxide, to extremely toxic, like nickel carbonyl gas. Odd facts abound: Selenium deficiency lowers sperm count, though too much (only five milligrams taken at one time) slides into toxicity. Lithium metal is so light that storing it apart from air and moisture (which corrode it rapidly) is difficult, because it floats on almost all liquids that don't absorb water. Best results are had by smearing lumps of it with Vaseline.

I think you get the idea. The writing is clear and engaging, and I found it remarkably easy to find facts due to the division of each element's text into sections, and the similar treatment among elements within each section. A long and detailed explanation of the Periodic Table is included, with an illustration of an uncommon layout of the Table as a circle, with hydrogen in the middle. Google may make books like this less useful than they once were, but Google doesn't give you nearly as good bathroom reading as this book does—and if you claim to be an SF writer of the 'hard' variety, you'd better have Nature's Building Blocks (or the CRC Handbook, or both) on your reference shelf. Highly recommended.

April 21, 2005: Odd Lots

  • From the so-obvious-why-didn't-we-all-think-of-it department: A chap in Florida spent a little time with a list of the popes shortly after the late John Paul II passed on, and registered six domains corresponding to six of the most likely "next up" names the new pope might pick. He registered,,,, ( and had already gone to other people, as had the propheteers' perennial favorite,
  • From the it-happens-all-the-time-and-especially-to-me department: The 1 GB DIMMs that Pete and I spent $235 on a month ago are now down to $176. Postscript: I bought a second 1 GB DIMM for my PC just ten days ago...for $235. Arrgh.
  • From the it-wasn't-a-pope-it-was-a-bomber-but-then-again-it-wasn't-quite-a-bomber-either department: There is in fact a B-16 bomber on the list of official US bomber designations (XB-16, actually; the "X" prefix means "conceptual" or "prototype") but it never got out of the design stages and wasn't even prototyped. The Martin XB-16 was very large for its era, and loosely resembled the Boeing XB-15, which itself was a damned big aircraft for 1935. The XB-16 had six engines, including two turning pusher props. More here. Click the drawing labeled "Model 145A" for a larger view. Damned if it doesn't look like something peeled out of the film Things to Come. Now, if we ever get a Pope Benedict XVII, we can have B17. (Please, Cardinal, please/Don't pick B17...)
  • From the everything-old-is-new-again-especially-everything-really-old department comes this article from the man who would be (and now is) Pope. I'll save you the trouble of reading what is a very technical paper intended for theologians by simply saying that we may well be on the verge of spinning the Roman Catholic altars again.
  • From the does-it-belong-in-your-pc-or-in-your-porsche department: Look at this thing. Just look at it. Are we becoming an industry of fetishists or what?

April 20, 2005: Betting on the New Pope

Heh. He who went into the conclave a pope came out...a pope. I guess that happens now and then. (Supposedly, it was the case for Pius XII.) So it wasn't exactly a surprise that the world's bookies took a bath on the betting. Papal conclaves are generally not as predictable, so they stack the odds in favor of the house. In this case, Cardinal Ratzinger was always in the top three (along with Cardinals Arinze and Lustiger) and in many places was a heavy favorite. Had some dark horse taken the Throne, the bookies would have walked away with virtually all the money. The Irish bookies are willing to talk about it (I assume such bets are legal in Ireland) and I wonder if during the next conclave (which will not be in 25 years, trust me) they'll be as enthusiastic.

One thing that puzzled me early on was why the bookies placed the shortest odds on the name "Benedict." Cardinals are known quantities prior to conclaves, but a Pope's chosen name isn't known to anyone until the Pope himself announces it. In fact, the favor shown to the name wasn't connected with Ratzinger at all, but rather with Cardinal Lustiger. Centuries ago, St. Benedict predicted that one day a converted Jew would be elected Pope, and Cardinal Lustiger was born a Jew. The prophecy freaks (whom Bishop Samuel Bassett of the Old Catholic Church sagely calls "propheteers") assumed that Lustiger, if elected Pope, would naturally choose the name Benedict. Most people who foresaw Ratzinger as Pope assumed he would take the name Pius XIII. I've begun to wonder what the emergent abbreviation for the fairly long papal name "Benedict XVI" will be. BXVI? B16? (Naw. Sounds like a vitamin...or a bomber.)

Ironically, Cardinal Ratzinger was one of only three cardinals in the conclave who was not appointed by the late Pope John Paul II. He was, however, the Dean of Cardinals, an extremely close associate of the late Pope, and had the reluctant support of many in the mostly-Italian Curia. Sure, they wanted an Italian Pope—but they wanted a Pope who would preserve the ban on married and women priests even more. Everyone felt that Ratzinger was a known quantity on all the key gender issues, whereas a more obscure cardinal whose theological leanings were not as well known might have surprised everyone by rocking the clerical celibacy boat. Me, I'm less sure. JPII was an idealist, and idealists have this bad habit of trying to crowbar human nature into a tidy, abstract, and often absurd structure of ideal behavior. Ratzinger is no idealist, but a rugged, iron-fisted pragmatist. He knows as well as anyone that clerical celibacy is at best a quaint custom and has very little real theology beneath it. If our new Pope decides that clerical celibacy has outlived its usefulness, it will be gone in sixty seconds, and the bitter old guys who want the youngsters to suffer as they suffered will not be a part of the equation.

The only thing worse than not getting your man in as Pope may be...getting him.

April 19, 2005: Contrarian Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI

The first email showed up not five minutes after the bells of the Vatican began to ring. "Didn't take them long, did it?" the message asked. No indeed—four ballots is pretty quick as these things go. We got the Abrash's rarely-used TV running, and then listened to newpeople say mostly redundant and often silly things for over half an hour. Nonetheless, when former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came to the balcony, I was genuinely moved, and when he at last gave his first papal blessing, I made the Sign of the Cross here in Seattle and wiped a small tear from my eye, not in frustration or in anger, but in quiet joy. So he's a conservative. So what? The church, and the laity, have survived much worse.

People, listen to me: It's not about us. It's about the working through of a project that reaches 2,000 years into the past and will yet be in process for tens of thousands, and maybe millions of years into the future. The Catholic Church (Roman and otherwise) is not, as its reactionary adherents insist, a fixed, unchanging institution. It is a work in progress, but what all of us forget (some of us more than others) is that it is a work of millennia, not the work of a few decades. People on planets in the 47 Tucanae system will be arguing with the Pope in the year 10992. Seen from that perspective, our current struggles will seem so small as to hardly matter.

I'm annoyed with my fellow liberals for all the mean-spirited (and often hateful) kvetching about women priests, divorce, and even birth control, which I admit is a hot button of mine. Principled dissent is possible, and there are places in the greater Catholic Church where dissenters can thrive while they work out the lifelong tension between authority and conscience. The Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Anglican traditions exist, I am convinced, so that the Catholic Faith can survive the disagreements that are inevitable within a Church composed entirely of fallen human beings.

Sure, I would have liked a Pope John XXIV who would wave his Magic Pope Wand and heal all the wounds that the Roman Church is suffering. On the other hand, I knew it wouldn't happen. We'll have our Pope John XXIV someday. It may not be within our lifetimes, and we have to let go and let God do His work on His schedule. God's schedule can surprise us. A Benedict XVI can become a John XXIV when we least expect it, heh.

Pope Benedict XVI has far worse problems to confront than quibbles over birth control and divorce. Brutally put, his job is to keep the Church from disintegrating. It's way easier to keep the church together (by being a hardass or however) than to pull it back together after it's been blown to the four winds. His #1 problem is the shortage of priests. We can reserve our opinions about contraception and still go to Mass. But if there's no priest at the altar, there is no Mass. The numbers are bad, very bad. If the Roman Catholic Church doesn't do something about the priest shortage within the next 50 years, the institution could find its own sacramental foundations disintegrating. Without priests, we can pray and read the Bible, but we can do that as Protestants, or as simple unchurched Christians. If we want sacramental continuity, we need priests, and we need them by the tens of thousands.

This is one reason I'm glad that we have a European for Pope, and not an African or a Latin American. We have taught the Third World to look at the West with a significant touch of subconscious contempt. A Third World pope would be tempted to let the West fend for itself (or hand out blanket excommunications) while focusing on the Church in those lands where it's booming. That would be a mistake. The Roman Church has to continue to engage the West, even if it doesn't embrace the West. A German Pope can't ignore the fact that Europeans are deserting the Roman Church. The reasons are subtle, and while our new Pope may not be able to find common ground, I suspect that he recognizes the need. He could reinvigorate the Roman Church in the West without sacrificing all his principles. He could easily allow married priests. He could reconsider the irrational contention of our last Pope that preventive contraception is part of the Culture of Death. He could restore the laity to something like respect without giving them everything they want.

He could, as it were, surprise the hell out of us. Let us hope that he does—but if he doesn't, let us not make the mistake of insisting that the status quo is necessarily an insult to those of us alive in this very brief instant amidst the millennia of Catholic time past and yet to come.

April 17, 2005: Why Some Comic Books Work, and Some Don't

Still in Seattle, with Michael Abrash. My parents never let me have comic books, and so the only way I could read them was at friends' houses, or down at my cousin Ron's in Blue Island. (Ron could have anything he wanted, and comic books were the least of it.) So I read them mostly as a stranger in a strange land, and never generated much passion for them. I remember intermittently following Elfquest 25 years ago while hanging out with Mike and Alice Bentley, but what most people were reading then (and a lot are reading now) were mean-spirited, boring, cynical and violent offerings like American Flagg, which was mostly about people getting holes blown in them. (No, the talking cat didn't help much.)

Michael has a pretty eclectic collection here, but his feelings about cynical violence map pretty well to mine, and I was intrigued by what he had in his stacks. Although I have read Scott McCloud's brilliant Understanding Comics, I had never seen any of his "real" comics work until now. Over the past few days I've read most of his series Zot, which ran for 36 issues in the 1980s. It was intriguing to see Scott play around with the ideas he later explained in his book and its sequel, Reinventing Comics, which explores the future of comics technology, especially online art and micropayments. Zot started out well, with some extremely clever classic-style comics villains like the freefloating evil computer program 9-Jack-9 and Dekko, who looks like a robot wearing the Chrysler Building. Alas, by the end of its 3-year run it had devolved into teen-angst soap opera, focusing on a love triangle among a troubled young girl, a sweet-tempered guy with glasses, and teen superhero Zot from a parallel Earth. Toward the end, the sweet guy gracefully bows out, and with him out of the way and walking into the sunset, the first thing Zot says to Jenny is, "Wanna have sex?" Cripes, I'm glad I'm not a teenager anymore.

But by all measure the best thing I discovered in Michael's stacks is PVP, which (in severe contrast to Zot) is simply a comics sitcom set in the office of a gamer magazine called Player Vs. Player. There is an ensemble cast consisting of The Boss, the Babe, the Nerd, the Sophisticate, and a peculiar trollish creature called Skull whom not everyone can see. In PVP, the art is well-drawn but simple, with each character a brilliantly succinct expression of its underlying archetype. "Simple" is an understatement. In fact, strip creator Scott Kurtz is clearly using templates of his characters, in maybe two or three versions having different facial expressions, tilting their heads now and then while very occasionally adding a simple background and sometimes a secondary character or two, like the deliciously sleazy Max Powers, who owns a competing magazine.

Understanding that simple art is not necessarily weak or bad art, let me emphasize that PVP as a whole is brilliant, better than any single comic strip I have seen in the daily papers in years, and certainly not since the retirement of Calvin and Hobbes. Why? Kurtz knows how to create situations and write gags. It is truly and consistently funny, and the strips hit home with a regularity I can't cite for any other strip in living memory. (Part of it may be that I used to run a magazine myself, and bear more than a passing resemblance to bossman Cole.) I laugh at syndicated strip Zits probably one strip out of three, but with PVP it was more like four out of five. One strip sequence that Kurtz published in flats (i.e., the classic thin comic book format) was a parody of The Matrix that was one of the most fiendishly funny things I've seen in years. Admittedly, it's full of comics insider stuff: Scott McCloud's distinctive self portrait (see the cover of his book shown above) plays the Oracle. McCloud/Oracle says to Neo: "Have a seat. Let's talk about micropayments." Yes, there's some self-indulgence here, but it's bang-on. You can read most of the strips online, but middle-aged bald-headed fossil that I am, I much more enjoyed the ones Michael had in flats.

Scott Kurtz has very recently been nominated for the Will Eisner Award for creative achievement in the comics industry, and if the other stuff I saw in Michael's stacks and in corners of other people's houses is any guide, he should walk away with it unchallenged.

It's true of film (especially animated film) and clearly true of comics as well: Good writing can float bad or minimalist art way better than dazzling art can float bad or indifferent writing. Maybe I find that true because I'm a writer, but I suspect it's a kind of universal stemming from the way words transcended imagery once humanity invented language. The story can emerge from the art to some extent (the late Will Eisner pioneered many of the techniques here) but if there are words at all, the words will dominate the storytelling.

April 15, 2005: Selling Serendipity

I'm up in Seattle hanging out with my old friend Michael Abrash, who wrote easily the thickest book I have ever edited, in this life or any other. We both love books, we've both written books, we both have piles upon piles upon piles of books, and when we're together, we generally end up haunting one bookstore or another. But earlier today, while riding the Seattle Monorail, we were reflecting that bookstores are now selling one thing more than anything else: Serendipity. If you know the name of a book that you want (even if you know it indistinctly) you can go right to it online, and in three clicks it's on its way to your house. In a bookstore, the whole experience has changed. Rather than charging down the aisle to the section where you know your targeted volume lies, you stroll up one aisle and down another, waiting for something to jump out at you. Some people are less patient than I, and don't have the same skill at scouting out books reviews online. But I've noticed that these days, I only go to bookstores when I really don't know what I want.

I was wandering around a used bookstore in Manitou Springs a couple of weeks ago, gathering odd volumes like gum on the bottoms of my shoes. Cognitive dissonance really stands out for me, and when I saw Geddes MacGregor's somewhat loopy 1989 book Reincarnation in Christianity I couldn't resist. I read only the first hundred pages or so, but as it cost me just four bucks, I felt that I came away ahead. The key is that I never would have deliberately hunted that book down, and if I hadn't seen it atop the jumble in the "near four dollars" dump bin, I might never have understood why Origen had been (falsely) accused of teaching reincarnation. I have high hopes that another $4 book on Kaiser Wilhelm will shed some light on the mystery of World War I. Close by was a sort of manual on how to be an officer in the U.S. Army, which may turn out to be useful background material for writing fiction. Again, it was a book I didn't know existed, and while I've long been modestly interested in the topic, I was never interested in it enough to go looking for it. Instead the book came looking for me.

Meatspace bookstores are having a tough time competing with online discounters who don't have bricks and mortar to protect, clean, staff, and keep warm or cool as appropriate. Although one can browse an online catalog, not being able to pick up and flip through a promising book makes it much less likely that the sale will be made. You see, sometimes it's the less-obvious characteristics that tip the balance in the book's favor: Illustrations, endnotes, the picture on the cover, or even the scribblings in the margins from the book's previous owner. Pure chance can also come into play: More than once I've gone looking for a specific book, only to find and buy a completely unrelated book from elsewhere on the same shelf or stack. Sometimes a fully ordered bookstore works against serendipity, and sometimes a measure of chaos can make this sort of intuitive search a lot more fruitful.

I can only think that the bookstores that best survive will be the ones who figure out how to make serendipity happen more easily. Most are trying, but my intuition is that there may be radically new and undiscovered ways to make books walk off shelves. Dump bins are rare, but they have a sort of grip on my imagination: Dig around a little and who knows what you'll find! I'd love to be able to more easily see the covers of more books in a store, and the store that figures out how to allow this will sell more books.

Serendipity should be a marketable commodity. Sydney J. Harris's newspaper column often contained a section entitled "Things I stumbled across while looking for something else." That's the ticket: A little chaos, a little imagination, and bricks'n'mortar bookstores may thrive again.

April 13, 2005: Odd Lots

  • has decided to become a pay site, and will soon begin charging meetup organizers (not the general meetup user base) $19/month for the privilege. Meetups without organizers willing to pay the bill will not be serviced. Meetups are supposed to pass the hat so that the organizer doesn't have to pay the $228 annual charge out of pocket, but meetups down on the fringes of a sustainable user base (like our local Delphi meetup, and most meetups in smaller towns) probably won't be able to swing that, and will fold. Meetup's system is by no means rocket science. Will a competitor pop up? Will somebody do an open-source version in PHP? We'll see.
  • Harry Helms W5HLH has a very nice, um, blog on the future of radio. Rather than being backward looking (as a lot of ham and classic radio sites are) this one definitely looks ahead to what we may see on the wireless front in five to ten years. I've begun to check it daily, especially the sections of special interest to me, like WiMax and software radio. Highly recommended.
  • Our good friend and Old Catholic priest Mary Ramsden (who presided at our 25th wedding anniversary Mass back in 2001) has published a wonderful little book called God's Listening: Prayers for Dog Owners. The book is a fundraiser for Illinois Vest-a-Dog, which provides bullet and stab-resistant vests for dogs in law enforcement service. Any donation $10 or over will get you a book, and if you have ever had a dog (and are not a militant atheist) it will bring tears to your eyes.
  • Speaking of dogs, Carol and I are about to begin a new dog cycle. It's been almost 25 years since the birth of the famous Mr. Byte (and 10 years since his death) and now that we're settled in Colorado Springs we're ready. Way out in Idaho is a 7-week-old white furball who will be old enough to join us early in May. Names are still in the brainstorming stage. (Already eliminated are Geist and Turbo.) More details as they happen. Expect a photo here May 6 or 7.

April 12, 2005: Monopsony and Oligopsony

Blinded as we in technology are by Microsoft as OS monopolist, we don't think much about market constraints that work in the other direction. In fact, I'll wager that you've never heard the word "oligopsony," though "monopsony" is a little commoner. Neither is exactly a household word, and that in itself may be a problem. When you can't name something, it's much harder to get a grip on it and its effects.

It's simple, actually: Monopsony is the power of a single buyer to drive down prices when buying from many sellers. It's monopoly aimed away from consumers, toward producers. The highway construction business is almost entire monopsonistic; who buys highways except for governments? The government of Canada has a monopsony on health care services, which is why being a doctor in Canada is not the road to wealth that it is here. Oligopsony is similar, and is the power of a small cadre of buyers (not necessarily in collusion) to drive down prices paid to a much larger community of sellers. The classic example is the fast food industry, in which a small number of enormous fast-food chains control the majority of the U.S. market for beef and to a lesser extent chicken. In general retail, Wal-Mart is coming very close to being a monopsony. If you won't take the price Sam is offering for bath towels, well, suddenly you're a boutique towel manufacturer, and they'd better be really good bath towels.

I worry way less about monopoly than monopsony and oligopsony these days. This is in part because my own rice bowl is tied to the book business, where the oligopsony of Borders and B&N drives down what publishers (especially small publishers) realize from book sales by demanding ever larger retail margins. It's happening across the board, and I don't think most people understand the dynamics of monopsonistic dominance of the retail channel. The conventional wisdom is that downward pressure on goods prices comes from competing manufacturers, and that outsourcing of manufacturing to low-cost nations is simply a matter of corporate greed. That's not the whole story. If the Wal-Mart and Target price is too low to cover the cost of goods produced here, manufacturers (especially small ones that no one would point at and call "corporate") have to start looking at offshoring simply to stay in business.

I'm not offering any answers here. I simply wanted to point out that there are other mechanisms than manufacturer greed at work in what some call the "hollowing out of America." Retailers have as much to do with it as anyone else, and as time goes on (and as our retail channels come to be dominated by fewer and fewer giant retail firms) manufacturers will have less and less choice where to make their goods. There are no laws against monopsony (who's against lower prices?) but I thought it would be good for people to learn the word for what may be the largest single force behind the offshoring of American manufacturing.

April 11, 2005: A Whole New Look for Contra

I threw together the current design for ContraPositive Diary in early 2000, and I remember thinking, "Well, this will do for the time being. I have to get something done and out there. I'll come back and make it pretty later on." Well, I never came back, and that was five years ago. Earlier this year, I started sketching out what I wanted. Here were my objectives:

  • Readability: A narrower text column
  • Above the fold: Make sure the latest entry is visible when anyone navigates to Contra.
  • Pertinent to the above: Navigation and archive in the left column.
  • Lose the color: Whether or not it's my favorite color, I got tired of everything in shades of blue. I'm a books guy, and books are (the good ones, at least) in black and white unless they can't possibly avoid it. Back to my monochrome roots. (Photos will remain in color.)
  • A new header font: Every damned fern bar in the Western Hemisphere uses Copperplate Gothic Bold in their menus. I was there first, but there's no fighting a fern bar. I bought the full set of Albertina fonts years ago for book layout. Time start using 'em.
  • Two-month lookback, not three: Narrower text columns mean longer text columns, and so I decided to have only the two most recent months in the Contra home page, rather than three.
  • Entry titles: Everybody else does this, and I've had numerous requests from people who are scanning Contra files for a particular entry. Fair enough, though titling all my old entries isn't going to happen anytime soon.
  • A recent picture. I'm amazed how many readers want to know what Carol and I look like. Carol, sure. Me, well, there's no accounting for taste. The new photo was taken last November while we were on our Hawaii cruise. It's actually cropped from a photo of both of us, and one of these entries, I'll post the full photo here.
  • A new tagline: A big part of positioning myself via tagline is distancing myself from the abhorrent and overwhelmingly political blogosphere, where people tend to be owned by one of the two parties, or by the idea of politics itself. I owe my allegiance to God, Carol, America, and the common good. It's that simple. I think everything through and establish my own positions on everything. That's tough to capture in five or six words, but I've got to try.

The results are what you have in front of you. I'm not a designer in the art sense, but I've been in the book and magazine business for a lot of years, and I think I know what works. A professional designer might have made it prettier, but it's functional and not an eyesore. That was the main objective. I'm just a little ashamed that it took me five years to achieve it.

Later in the day: Well, almost nobody liked "In No One's Shadow" (part of my first crack at a tagline) and the rest didn't understand what it meant. One piece of advice stood out: If you have to explain a tagline, it's not much of a tagline. Touché. So take another look if you haven't already. This isn't as original, but it's a lot more self-explanatory.

April 10, 2005: Old McHacker Had a Pharm

The article I promised for today got too big this morning to publish as one entry, so give me a day or two to break it down. Time's a little tight; I'm working hard on a complete redesign of Contra, and want to get it uploaded before my next trip out of town.

Even though it was first described (as best I know) in 1993, DNS poisoning is only just now become a buzzword, especially in the form of its applied criminal technique, unfortunately dubbed pharming. (Too many people assume that "pharming" is related to "pharma," which is industry jargon for "pharmaceuticals".) Pharming is by far the worst form of cybercrime I've yet seen described, because you as an end user (especially a nontechnical end user) currently have absolutely no way to know when you're being pharmed.

Briefly: The entire Internet depends on a relatively simple translation protocol called DNS (Domain Name Service). DNS does one thing and one thing only: It translates a domain name (like into that domain name's raw numeric IP address (like which is how all Internet traffic is routed around the world. DNS keeps you from having to memorize strings of numbers instead of "". There are many DNS servers on the Internet, and when a domain owner changes hosting IP addresses, they upload a change record to their nearest DNS server. This local DNS server then begins to pass DNS record changes to nearby DNS servers, and so the changes go, passed from hand to hand, propagating around the world automatically. In pharming, a crook subverts that process of propagating changes, and injects a bogus change record into the DNS system. Shazam! Suddenly, the domain translates to the address of a cybercrook somewhere in the Caucasus. There's no easy way you can tell that this has happened. You can carefully type into your Web browser's URL field, and you'll still be connected to the phony site, where you might enter your online banking data and allow the crooks to clean out your bank account. The crime does not occur on your PC. It occurs at the level of your Internet Service Provider or even higher up in the DNS server hierarchy.

There's a clear but very technical description of the problem in PDF form here. It's a nasty business, and Internet protocol experts are trying to figure out how to plug this gaping hole, which has the potential to make the Internet unusable for e-commerce and online banking. To completely eliminate pharming, every single DNS server on the Internet would have to be upgraded to something "hardened" against the exploit. BIND 9.x has some protections, but more are probably needed.

At the end user level, nothing can currently be done. I can imagine a future browser feature that caches domain names and their resolved IPs locally, and if the resolved IP ever changes, a warning would be shown to the user. Emailing to an address on the domain to confirm the change wouldn't help, because all domain traffic (email, Web, FTP, everything) would be rerouted to the crook's site. Banks and large e-commerce sites might be reduced to publishing "IP change notices" in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Certainly, SSL will become much more popular. And Carol and I are not yet banking over the Internet. Never have. Maybe never will.

April 9, 2005: A Rant from A Freak in the Freakshow

People have been sending me a great many pointers to articles about our late Pope, after seeing my entries for April 2-4. It's been interesting seeing him through many eyes, on all sides of the political spectrum. And although the knucklehead Democrats have been pushing me further and further to the right over time, I rediscovered in reading one of these articles why I am less and less willing to think of myself as a conservative. It's a column by John Derbyshire in the National Review Online. What he says about the late Pope is far less interesting than what he says about life in our society. Apparently we are heading for a "posthuman" era. Oh, please. Not that again.

This seems to be part of a sort of script that conservatives of Derbyshire's stripe follow. (Is he really a conservative? A neocon? The political bestiary is getting away from me.) I've heard it a few too many times before: that all people who choose not to have children are soul-numb hedonists. It's simply not true. Many or most of our friends are childless, because most of our friends who have children are too exhausted to socialize. And it's nearly universal that our married childless friends work hard and live relatively modest lives, loving one another deeply and maintaining a vigorous life of the mind. I see nothing there I could point to and call "hedonism." Except...I have a strong suspicion that our childless friends have a lot more sex—and better sex—than our "childed" friends. Of course, to guys like John Derbyshire, that's hedonism. Sex to them is a guilty pleasure, justified only when children are the major object.

In his own words:

...the real culprit is the irresistible appeal of secular hedonism to healthy, busy, well-educated populations. We live, as never before in human history, in a garden of delights, with something new to distract and delight us every day. None of that is enough to turn the heads of those who are truly, constitutionally devout; but not many human beings are, nor ever have been, that committed to their faith. And so the flock wanders away to the rides, the prize booths, and the freak shows.

WTF? The truly devout can only work, and go to church, and make babies. Everything else is rides, prize booths, and freak shows.

The other major part of the script is this weird obsession with "toughing it out," "being a soldier," and embracing all pain and discomfort as a badge of courage and nobility of spirit. Again:

The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins.

Look, dude, that's the idea. Let's see how well you "tough it out" with cancer eating you alive, like it did my father. You'll be screaming for Demerol just like everybody else. And: seems to me highly probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia — a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit.

This condition is what he calls "posthuman" without really explaining how a world without misery necessarily spawns a world without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility. Carol and I and most of our childless friends have the first three; whether we have nobility of spirit is for others to judge. If our lifestyle is "posthuman," then this sort of humanness (i.e., self-congratulatory asceticism and the exaltation of pain and privation) was well worth transcending. On the other hand, the wind is bringing me a certain scent. Are there horses around somewhere?

As you can see, stuff like this makes me a little nuts. There are threads here that I intend to pursue here in the future. Patience, patience. The freak here is gathering his thoughts, and when he strikes, he will strike hard.

April 8, 2005: Jared Diamond's Collapse

I finished Jared Diamond's Collapse some weeks back, and I've been thinking since then about how to position it. I admit some disappointment, but that was mostly because the author's earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, was so startling and original (to me, at least) in its insights. Collapse is an excellent book, even though I've read a lot of similar material before, especially on Easter and Pitcairn Islands and the Maya and Anasasi collapses. What I had not read before, however, was the story of the Norse colony in Greenland, and how it failed. For me, that was by far the best part of the book, and well worth the price of admission. The writing is superb, the research thorough. I only wish that his conclusions were more upbeat—though if I were forced to accept the research at face value, my conclusions might be just as grim.

The overall message of the book is threefold: To avoid societal collapse, 1) be flexible, 2) strive to cooperate with your neighbors, and 3) don't exceed the carrying capacity of your territory. Diamond adds a few grace notes but those are the big ones. He thinks that religion acts against survival, without digging deeper into the nature of religion and its effects on society. (I would argue the reverse, but it's a subtle topic.) Certainly religion helped the Easter Islanders become extinct, but taking religion out of the picture might only have delayed the inevitable.

But back to the Norse, who (in my view) present the lessons most applicable to modern humanity. First of all, some perspective: Calling the Norse colony in Greenland a failure is a bit of hubris: The colony lasted 450 years, which is longer than the English have been in North America, counting from the establishment of the Roanoake colony in 1585. This may be a testament to the toughness of the Norse, but one has to wonder if they might still be there if they had colonized Greenland as a clean slate with a whole new set of challenges, without assuming that it was a carbon copy of Norway. The onset of the Little Ice Age finished them off by 1450, but the curtain was closing on its own by that time, due to the Norse having violated all three of Diamond's major survival tenets.

They were not flexible people. They came to Greenland and attempted to live as they had in Norway. They refused to eat fish for reasons that we do not understand. (Perhaps one of their chiefs had gotten sick on some bad fish at some point.) They persisted in using boats unsuited for Greenland's ice-choked waters. They grew European crops and animals that needed longer growing seasons and gentler climates. They refused to learn from the Inuit peoples who also lived in Greenland, but were far more adapted to local conditions.

They were a violent people, and rather than befriend, learn from, and trade with the aboriginal North Americans in Labrador and Newfoundland, they simply attacked the first natives they saw, and lost many men and trade opportunities in the subsequent skirmishes with the "skraelings" there and in Greenland itself. Records that have survived show that they fought fiercely among themselves as well, so going so diametrically against their temperaments and culture might have been too much to ask.

Most significantly, they exceeded the carrying capacity of Greenland's fragile ecosystem. Most houses in Greenland were made from cut turf (about ten acres per house!) and once the turf was cut, the land became useless for farming or animal husbandry. The Norse were dairy farmers, and they brought their cows and their buckets and cheesemaking equipment with them. Milk being what it is, used vessels have to be washed in very hot water, which requires biggish wood fires every day. Greenland is big, and it had forests (especially before the Little Age Age) but those forests grow very slowly. The relatively few Greenland colonists managed to deplete the easily accessible forests in the first 250 years or so, after which the colony began its decline. Without abundant firewood, it was impossible to smelt bog iron, and so without constant imports of metal from Europe or Iceland, they gradually wore down their tools until the metal was simply gone. The settlements were in steep decline after 1300, but once trade with Europe stopped about 1400, the colony went extinct within fifty years.

Jared Diamond's conclusions about modern humanity are mixed. Clearly, we're more flexible than ancient peoples, and we have the advantage of literacy to allow us to learn from the past. Far from being a world of warring fortress nations, globalization is now seen as the result of enlightened social thinking. (At least until your own job goes to Bangalore.) The third of Diamond's issues now basically becomes all three: Population, population, and population. We're being far more clever about use of resources, but because there are so many of us, we're basically treading water. He says he has hope, but between the lines one clearly reads his conviction that Earth is well past its carrying capacity, and our troubles are only beginning.

So how would I characterize Collapse? Well-written, fascinating, and ultimately depressing. I enjoyed it less than Guns, Germs, and Steel in part because his earlier book was about the past, which I could read safely in the here and now. Collapse's lessons teach us about our own future, and that always makes us look over our shoulders. Highly recommended.

April 7, 2005: Jeff, Belt the Fat Controller Machine!

I was doing one of my periodic looks through my Web site activity logs yesterday, and I got to wondering how my activity compares to that of other other non-commercial sites. Traffic is between two and three times what it was the first month I was hosted on SectorLink (July 2004) which isn't bad for less than a year's work. (8,400 different readers! Wow!) Note that I do no promotion on this thing, though I sometimes wonder if I should ask more people to link to me. Anyway, here are the numbers for March 2005, and if anyone has a sense for how good this is, I'd be interested to see how I'm doing:

Unique visitors: 8395
Number of visits: 13489
Page serves: 19918
Page hits: 223212
Bandwidth: 3.05 GB

I always ask people who email me about Contra how they heard about it. About half are people who have read my other published material (books and ancient magazine articles) and half are people who find Contra while searching for other things.

Some of these "other things" are, um, peculiar. Because I pack a lot of words into each HTML file (Diary.htm covers three months) I get a lot of screwy search queries that point at my pages. (If you don't yet understand how Google etc. work, remember that if you don't enclose a query in quotes, you get any page that contains all the words in your query, however scattered through the text they are.) I've selected a few below, with my own commentary. The only thing scarier than some of these queries is the fact that the querier thought my site was a likely enough target to click through to and read.

  • birds of pray in southern colorado.....Is that anything like "people of color"? Or cardinals?
  • women getting their hare dan naked...Sorry, my hare is named "George".
  • literal description of heaven...............Infinite bandwidth and all the smoked brats you can eat.
  • how to put rhinestones on a palm pilot...Dude, you need something to do!
  • patent cat door thermonuclear...........If the cat can't get out, it goes off.
  • how to eat without things getting stuck under expander........Carefully.
  • diabolical dingbats.............................Look in the Capitol building—or any major university.
  • men wearing pantyhose tell wives all..I'll just bet.
  • cobol programming murder...............Yup. It used to make me nuts too.
  • women having sex with llamas...........I guess I shouldn't use the word "sex" anymore.
  • photos of vatican s basement.............Watch out for those piles of old National Geographic!
  • weird views of david hume................Stand on top of his tongue and look down.
  • why aren t we knee-deep in bacteria throughout the world?.....One word: Listerine.
  • jeff belt the fat controller machine......I will do no such thing!
  • why contrapositive is sound.............. Because I write it, natch!

April 6, 2005: One Case, Two Motherboards?

Pete and I have been tuning and fussing with our new PCs for some time (with various minor difficulties and one major one) and every so often we lift our heads and wonder: How long can we manage with Win2K? I have an XP lab machine here, but I don't like the way it's constantly going out on the Net, doing things it isn't talking about. I also have fundamental problems with hardware-signature based product activation, which means that every time I change a middling component on a PC, I have to ask Microsoft's permission to use it again. I don't need all the supposed XP security features, though I admit that non-technical people may be better off with them. XP wireless support is full of bugs (see my entry for February 11, 2005) and mostly worthless. (How can I trust an OS that can't even agree with itself as to whether it's connected to an AP or not?)

Basically, the more I learn about XP, the better I like Win2K. There may be a point down the road where it becomes problematic, but scratch my head as I might, I can't hazard a guess as to why. By that time, we're hoping Linux will have enough software support (either native or through emulation, as with Wine) to make Windows unnecessary for the kind of work we do.

Which led to another idea: A transitional PC, with literally two independent motherboards in it, one running Win2K, and another running Linux, with a SATA link between them for passing files. Motherboards are getting smaller, as are other PC components. I was amazed at how much dead space was left inside the Sonata cases once we had put everything in.

I already have the ability to put two PCs side by side and easily switch I/O between them with a couple of key taps. (See my entry for November 6, 2004.) But that's two boxes and a lot of cables. Why not reduce some of the cable clutter by loading both functional PCs in one box? I admit, that would be a bigger and (more significantly) a hotter box, but it would be simpler to set up physically and move around. A quick scan around the Web showed nothing, but it may exist somewhere. I imagine a chunky case with two removable side panels, and the motherboards mounted in the center, back to back. From what I know about SATA, it would be no big deal to give each mobo its own boot hard drive, and then share a third monster SATA drive for data. As a bonus, the box would have its own router with a NAT firewall, to share a single network connection between the two motherboards. (If every PC sold had its own built-in NAT firewall, there'd be a lot less worm damage in the world.)

Just a thought, and it's a few years off yet. Right now there's nothing I need to do that can't be done (and in some cases, as in Wi-Fi, done better) in Win2K.

April 5, 2005: Odd Pope Lots

How about a few odd pope lots? Ok, all right, after this I'll give the pope thing a rest for a few days, or probably until the conclave begins later this month. So here goes:

  • Cardinal Francis Arinze, if elected pope, would not necessarily be the first Black pope. Many historians now feel that Pope Gelasius I (493-496) was Black, though as you might imagine, we don't have a lot of hard information from that era, and although a fair number of Gelasius' writings have survived, he wrote little about himself. He was certainly African, though most older histories suggest that he was a Carthaginian, or of some other non-Black stock from North Africa.
  • Here's an article with a slightly less than worshipful analysis of Pope John Paul II's reign, and I cite it here mostly because it was written by Peter Hebblethwaite, who wrote the excellent if now obsolete book The Next Pope in 1994. It is also not new (Hebblethwaite died in 1994) but has been updated by his wife and an associate.
  • One little-known reason why Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 400 years (since Adrian VI, a Dutchman, in 1523) is that the number of cardinals was fixed at 70 during the reign of Sixtus V (1590-1595) and most of those were Italians. It was Pope John XXIII who began expanding the College of Cardinals, especially by naming cardinals to dioceses outside the West. By 1978, there were enough non-Italian cardinals so that a non-Italian pope was not unthinkable.
  • Many people still believe that Pope John Paul I was murdered by conservatives, masons, muslims, anarchists, or aliens, but after a significant investigation, author John Cornwell (who has done a great deal of research on the popes and Catholicism generally) wrote a book that concluded that, yes, he really did have a heart attack. The "Smiling Pope" was even showing symptoms in his last few days alive, and everyone was too elated by his upbeat, outgoing personality to notice. The book is A Thief in the Night, and is very well-written, assuming you're interested enough in the topic to read a whole book on it. (Sometimes a heart attack really is a heart attack. No aliens required.)
  • And speaking of aliens, the various seers and prophets around the Web are placing their bets that the next pope will be Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Why? The famous prophetic mottoes of St. Malachy tell us that the next pope may be understood as "The Glory of the Olive." In much mystical and occult writings, the olive is a symbol for the Jews, and Cardinal Lustiger was born a Jew, and later converted to Catholicism. On the other hand, I could as well point to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan as fulfilling the motto. After all, where is an olive most in its glory? I'll take mine (as with my humor) dry, please.

April 4, 2005: A Few Good Pope Books

After 26 years of speaking of The Pope, it's finally become fashionable to talk about popes and the papacy as concepts and major elements of Western history. People who have heard that I've done some research on the papacy (I looked just now and find that I have almost two shelf-feet of books on the popes, the papacy, and the Vatican) are starting to ask me questions like, How do we get a new pope, anyway? It's sobering to ponder that a lot of these people were not even alive when we last elected a pope.

So today let me point you to a few good books. Perhaps the best single description of how the papal conclave works is found in Fr. Andrew Greeley's imaginal White Smoke, which is a detailed description of the papal election process set into the framework of a novel. It's a fun read, although Fr. Greeley's inescapable Irishness can get real old after awhile. (It may not bother you if this is your first Greeley novel. Read a few more, and certain themes—all of them colored bright green—will begin to loom large.)

Another good book, though much denser and not as much fun to read, is Inside the Vatican, by Thomas J. Reese. Subtitled "The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church," the book is precisely that, and never have I seen a clearer description of how and why the Vatican is a prisoner of its own traditions. It's less about the pope than about the organization headed by the pope, though there is a nice description of the conclave process. Dry reading, but I haven't seen all the information it presents gathered in any other single book.

I get yelled at for saying this, but The Pope Encyclopedia by Matthew Bunson makes great bathroom reading. Short, accessibly written independent entries on every pope and much papal minutiae can each be read in a few minutes, and Bunson presents the information with neither a pro nor anti-Vatican slant. However, he does skip over some of the uglier details of the lives of some of the "bad popes," like John XII and the first John XXIII. (We had two Pope John XXIIIs! It's an interesting story, which I'll try to tell here in coming days.) This book is where I first learned of Vatican City's "sede vacante" postage stamps and coins, which are only issued during the few weeks between popes, when the Chair of Peter (Latin, sede, chair) is vacant.

Speaking of bad popes, if you want to explore a little pope lore that the Vatican would prefer to bury, you have no shortage of options. The best single book here is E. R. Chamberlin's 1969 work The Bad Popes, which is a solid and very readable layman's history of the worst popes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Because the paperback print is so small, I suggest you look for the 1986 hardcover edition, which is common on the used book sites and in public libraries. The book covers the years between 900 and 1534, which is when the worst papal shenanigans occurred. It was here that I first read how Pope John XII got the back of his head bashed in by the husband of the woman he was bedding—while the pope was still in bed with, and on top of, his unfortunate mistress. (History is silent on what the enraged husband did to her.)

The Bad Popes is good, objective history. If you want slant, you can have it (peculiarly enough) from the two opposite points of the spectrum, in books with the exact same title: Vicars of Christ. Best known is Michael P. Riccards' 1998 work, which tells the stories of all the popes since 1846, through John Paul II. Riccards tells no fibs, but he is clearly being gentle on a few of the popes of our modern era, especially Pius IX, the longest reigning pope in history for whom we have reliable dates. "Pio Nono" started out well, but by the end of his 32-year reign had become a raging, paranoid, borderline psychotic parody of the man he had been when elected. (The Italians hated him, and threw mud clods at his casket during his funeral procession in 1878—a detail Riccards does not relate.)

Fascinating, polemical, peculiar, and almost impossible to find in libraries is Peter De Rosa's 1988 book with the same title. An angry outsider, De Rosa takes on the entire 2000-year run of popes, but spends most of his time (almost half the book) on popes of the 20th century. The book is pastiche of history (factually accurate, for all the points I spot-checked against other references) and protest against papal absolutism. It's beautifully written and wincingly fun to read, even when De Rosa goes totally over the top fuming against clerical celibacy or some other disputed Roman Catholic doctrine. Wars, treason, adultery, papal bastards, financial skulduggery—it's all here. He covers more ground than Chamberlin, especially involving popes between 1530 and today. De Rosa issued a revised edition of the book in Europe in 2000, but you have to order it new from, as the American Amazon does not list it except used from third parties. Used copies of the 1988 edition are more abundant (and cheaper) than they were a few years ago. I've never seen it in libraries.

That's it for today. Other books are out there (including a third papal history called Vicars of Christ!) and I certainly haven't read them all. It's been 26 years since we've seen this brand of history being made, so indulge yourself. Read! Who knows when we'll see sede vacante again!

April 3, 2005: A Roman Catholic Oath of Fealty

A lot of my fellow ultrajectine (non-Roman) Catholics used to gripe about Pope John Paul II because he was unyeilding, conservative, or (as we Americans put it) a "hardass." I suspect that during his life, PJPII heard that common critique more than once—probably from Americans. My perception of our late pope's position lies on that same axis, but in the other direction: He was nowhere near hardass enough.

Crisply put, my first of two major criticisms of Pope John Paul II is this: Over his 26 years on the Throne of Peter, he elaborately systematized the Roman Catholic Church's moral teaching, and then did not enforce it. He preached, and he chided, and I'm sure he prayed as much as any single human being could, but in the end he stepped back from the brink, and did not require that those who call themselves Roman Catholic explicitly declare their adherence to their own church's teachings.

Nearly everybody loved Pope John Paul II, but nearly everbody ignored him. The 1995 National Survey of Family Growth (alas, not online, though its "home page" is here) found that 96% of American Catholic women who have had sex have used contraception at some point in their lives, and 75% of Catholic women who are currently sexually active use some form of contraception forbidden by the Church. These aren't scofflaws at the fringes. This is almost the entire population of Catholic women in the United States. And it isn't just us: Roman Catholics are still required to attend Mass every Sunday, and as much as the Italians loved their Pope, Italian churches are now as empty or emptier on Sunday than any Roman Catholic churches anywhere in Europe. Divorce is now as common among Roman Catholics as it is among the general public. Support for abortion is not as high among Roman Catholic women as it is among women in general, but according to the Vatican it should be zero.

Karol Wojtyla was a philosopher-theologian, and probably the most articulate and best educated of any pope in a century or more. His encyclicals and other works are not breezy reading, but they're readily available in English (and most other languages) and a determined layperson can bull through them. I am impressed with the thoroughness of his moral reasoning, even as I question how applicable it can ever be to the human condition. (I'll return to this issue here as soon as I can.) However, there is no question that popes generally, and certainly JPII, have the right and the resources to formulate a moral code for Roman Catholics. Heck, that's their job. But the formulations are only part of it. A moral code that is almost universally ignored is a mockery of the very idea of moral codes and moral conduct.

You might rightly ask what a pope can do. Tell people that doing or believing certain things are a sin? Popes do that all the time. No, my suggestion is much stronger stuff: Take the list of Roman Catholic hot-button faith/moral issues and build it into a one-pager, to be handed out to every Roman Catholic at every parish anywhere in the Roman Catholic world. Start it out something like this:

"I, the undersigned, claim to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and in making that claim, I agree that I oppose without exception and will not engage in, argue in favor of, nor support financially or in any other way the following:

(List: Contraception, in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual activity/marriage, stem cell research, women in Holy Orders, etc.)

"I accept without hesitation the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium in all matters of faith and morals and will obey directives issuing directly from the Vatican or from delegated diocesan church authority.

"By refusing or breaking this pledge, I understand that I cease to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and stand in excommunication from the Church's sacraments and its communities."

Signed, _____________________ Date: _____________

Extreme? Only in the enforcement. The requirements that I lay out in this pledge are the requirements supposedly binding on all current Roman Catholics, according to current Canon Law and papal teaching.

I hear the objection: But that would destroy the Church! Hardly. It would shrink the Church, perhaps radically, but the Church that would remain would be a far stronger and more internally coherent organization. A Church whose moral code is accepted and obeyed by its members would be an inspiration to the world, not an object of ridicule and stand-up comedy.

Any pope has the power and the authority to require such an explicit, signed pledge of Roman Catholics. I firmly believe that Pope John Paul II failed to require such a pledge not out of weakness (nor, cynically, because the Church needs the money and membership) but out of charity. His whole life was the Church, and I think that to him, excommunication of what could well be hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics would have been too painful. Like I said, he was a hardass, but mostly in building and explaining his moral system. That so much of the Church ignored him must have broken his heart, but the man who flew so far and met so many people in so many nations was not the kind of man who, from a lonely tower in the Vatican, would expel entire nations from the Roman Catholic family.

There are cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church today who might not be so hesitant. Keep that in mind, as the Sistine Chapel is prepared for the first papal conclave since 1978.

April 2, 2005: Pope John Paul II 1920 - 2005. Requiescat in Pace.

Non habemus papam. We no longer have a Pope. It's interesting to reflect that Pope John Paul II has reigned for literally half my life: He was elected in 1978, when I was 26, and I'm now 52. In the first 26 years of my life, we had four popes: Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul I. That's the historical norm; popes rarely last for 26 years after their election. But Karol Wojtyla was a fighter who fought to the bitter end, and it's no secret that he suffered terribly in his last couple of years. My father was like that, and in his last horrible years I often wondered why he didn't simply allow himself to slip back into the hands of his Creator. It may be as simple as temperament: Some people can lose the will to live, and some people can't.

One of my more cynical friends holds that John Paul II held out as long as he did to ensure that he had appointed as many of the cardinals as possible, so as to reduce the odds of a liberal being elected to the Throne of Peter, who might undo much of what JPII has fought so hard to do. I'm sure that was part of it, but the kicker is that popes are wildcards. They are governments of one, with very few limitations on what they can impose on the Church—or release. Pope Paul VI said once that with "a stroke of his pen" he could end mandatory clerical celibacy. He didn't, but any pope could. A pope could withdraw Humanae Vitae by writing a new encyclical to supercede it. But both of those unlikely events pale in the face of a pope's Nuclear Option: Convene the Third Vatican Council. Interestingly, Pope John XXIII had a reputation for being a crusty conservative while a bishop and later a cardinal. He was elected to be a "safe" pope: an older man who would do little and die soon while Vatican insiders could settle the issue of what was next in store for the Roman Catholic Church. Well, John XXIII surprised us all, and it might be no different next time. Even a very conservative pope might fall to the temptation of making his mark on history rather than simply echoing what his predecessor popes had decreed. And sometimes, of course, it's difficult to discern the consequences of any single papal action.

It's ironic that government-by-pope is actually more subject to radical change than government-by-council, as the church was governed for its first 1300 years or so. In a Church Council, the voice of any single bishop or cardinal is diluted by the voices of hundreds of others. With a pope, well, it's one guy who can (like John XXIII) surprise us all, with just a few strokes of that papal pen. No one in the Roman Church seems to understand that, and so we continue to be surprised. This may be how the Holy Spirit works, and if so, it's actually a good thing. We may get the kind of pope that we need at any point in human history. If we don't always get the pope we want, well, we need to remember that it's not really about us anyway.

If I am relieved at Karol Wojtyla's death, it's only because he was suffering. He was an amazing, gutsy man who had a knack for taking history by the short hairs. He faced down the Soviet Union. He faced down the wild-eyed reductionists who had been turned loose by Vatican II and were trying to turn Catholicism into nothing more than myth and metaphor. He stridently maintained a theology that I do not agree with—but just as his theology was principled, so are my objections, and I'll try and get them written down here in the coming days. He had one very serious weakness, which I will write about tomorrow. It's important because the next pope might not have that weakness—and that could truly change everything.

In the meantime, a fond farewell from a man who respects him, even in the face of disagreement: You done Good, dude. Godspeed on your continuing journey (which all of us will eventually follow) toward the Center of All Things.

April 1, 2005: The Peculiar Matter of Terri Schiavo

Terri Schiavo died yesterday, and my Old Catholic connections are buzzing about the "Culture of Death." I'm going to have to do a series on that eventually, as it's an ugly business that has already had consequences, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

I'll have to do some significant thinking first, so in the meantime, let me lay out some of the things that have come up in the past few days, based on my own research or links/letters sent to me by others. First, about Michael Schiavo:

  • There are some damning reports on Michael Schiavo from nursing people that he worked with in the years since Terri collapsed. See this MSNBC article, and read it to the end. One wonders why these people haven't gotten more attention in rcent months.
  • There is a peculiar intensity to Michael's campaign to end his wife's life that troubles many people. He has shown an astonishing persistence in the face of rabid push-back from all quarters, and little support except from the radical left and predictably left-leaning newspapers. He has spent a huge percentage of the funds he received from a malpractice judgment on his legal campaign, money that he might otherwise have retired on. One could be excused for thinking that something more may going on there, and the gossip sites are proliferating. I won't post any links here, but a lot of them are suggesting that Michael strangled Terri for some reason, and although I seriously doubt this is true (it's not easy to fool physicians about such things) it's a suspicion Michael will be dodging for the rest of his life. One would think that if he simply wanted to get on with his life, he would have given responsibility for Terri back to her parents, asked the courts for a civil divorce, and not brought all the hate and death threats down on his head.
  • A marriage to Jodi Centonze (with whom Michael lives and has had two children) within the church may be impossible. There is a Roman Catholic canon law issue called crimen (see this 2004 article) which forbids a person who ends a spouse's life from remarrying in the church—this over and beyond the fact that in the Church's view, he has been comitting adultery since moving in with Jodi.
  • Michael forbade Terri from receiving the Last Rites. (The courts backed him up.) This says something about him. What, precisely, I leave to you to decide.
  • And on the flipside, here's something every spouse should ask him or herself: What would I have done in Michael's shoes? (Be honest—it's a sobering thought.)

Next, on the aftermath:

  • The Atlantic ran an article a few months back (not online except to paid subscribers) on how liberals really ought to let go of the Roe vs. Wade decision. Roe galvanized conservative opposition to the liberal agenda, and caused the formerly fractious Evangelicals to bury the hatchet and become a major political force, ultimately forcing the Democrats out of power. The Schiavo case will have a similar effect, and bring more people into the pro-life camp. People I know who have been "nuanced" (as they say) on abortion feel much more strongly when a completely helpless woman has died of thirst at her husband's (and the courts') demands.
  • If the Democrats lose their judicial appointments filibuster (either by the "nuclear option" or by losing more Senate seats) expect some payback in the form of seriously pro-life judges. Judicial activism cuts both ways, as the Dems will likely find out, to their dismay.
  • Expect hospitals soon to demand a living will before they admit a patient. Even if no one sues the facility where Terri died, hospitals know lawsuit bait when they see it.

Finally, on what we have learned from all this:

  • We've learned how venomously nasty our partisan politics have become. Go out and scan the blogosphere. I sense that many liberals were howling for Terri's death primarily because conservatives were trying to save her. (Otherwise the issue would not have interested them.) It is to pewk.
  • We've learned how little we know about what a "persistent vegetative state" really is. Was Terri really responsive or wasn't she? Why couldn't we tell? Why was there any real question at all? Where's the science?
  • We've learned that some people consider food and water "extreme medical intervention." Huh?
  • We've learned that there are some truly ugly and unanswered questions about how life and governance intersect. Is starving/dehydrating a helpless person to death as legally supportable as removing something like a respirator or terminating dialysis? How little of a person can be left and still be considered a person in a legal sense? What if someday we are able to transplant a brain into a brain-dead body? What person will the new entity be? (We're a ways off from this—but never say never.) Theology, of course, has answers here, but I'm talking about secular government. The better our medical technology becomes, the worse the next case will be.

Many thanks to David Beers, Bishop Elijah, and Brook Monroe for sending me long, thoughtful notes on this issue, and to many others who sent me links and shorter comments.

By the way, I just learned that Pope John Paul II has been given the Last Rites. He is having great difficulty swallowing, and has had a feeding/hydration tube inserted. Perhaps those of us who couldn't take the time to think about the consequences of medical intervention in Terri's case will begin to think about it now.