August 31, 2004:

Burning hot into the home stretch of writing Degunking Email, Spam, and Viruses, and about all I can summon the energy to do tonight before bed is present a few odd lots to close out August:

  • Just a few minutes ago, we watched "Father of the Pride," a new animated funny animals weekly half-hour TV series for adults (not kids!) by the same team that did the Shrek movies. It was a step away from the Nickelodeon-style limited animation kids have come to see as standard, and while it didn't have the precision that Shrek had (how could it?) the animation was very nice. The problem was that the writing was completely appalling and gratuitously crude, with only a couple of smiles the entire time, and no good laughs. ("For adults" appears to mean that sex jokes substitute for wit and cleverness.) Skip it.
  • Frank Glover sent me a link to a nice article on the progress of NASA's X43A unmanned scramjet. Guinness will book its Mach 6.83 flight on March 27 of this year as a new world's record for air-breathing aircraft. Remarkably, this is faster than the venerable X15 did in the mid-1960s with pure rockets. The X43A will fly again in October, and possibly break Mach 10. My main question: Without a human being at the controls, can the public really care enough to take this promising technology from experimental to production?
  • Frank O'Grady sent me a pointer to a new article by David Brooks in the NY Times, offering some clues on how the Republican Party might reinvent itself, basically by following the example of (egad) Ahnold in California. In the past couple of months I've heard more and more about the "radical middle" or "muscular middle," and how the party that steps in to claim it (basically by bitch-slapping its screaming fringes senseless) will rule America. The true divide in American politics is not about liberal versus conservative but center versus edges. This seems obvious to me, but Brooks doesn't seem quite convinced. Worth reading. (You have to register at the NYT to read it, but I've not seen any downside to that.)
All for now. More in a coupla days. I'm trying to average 2,000 words a day, and that's harder than it sounds.
August 28, 2004:

I had an interesting "aha! Insight!" last night, while reading yet another breathless description of the how the Singularity is not only a clever fictional device (the brainchild of the formidable Vernor Vinge) but a real thing, and it will happen by 2030. I leaned back in my chair, and it hit me:

The Singularity is the apocalypse of the Cult of Progress!

An "apocalypse" is a literary type, very common in religion writings. It's a revenge fantasy concocted by the losers in any serious conflict. The most famous, of course, is the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine, better known to most of us as Revelation. After the Roman Empire utterly stomped the Hebrew nation in the Jewish Wars of AD 66-70, the Jews gathered their grumbles together into a magnificent mythic account of how, with God's help, they would have the last word and pave the Romans over. (Actually, it worked. We now have the State of Israel, and haven't seen the Roman Empire for almost 1500 years...)

The "Left Behind" apocalyptic literature you buy at Wal-Mart today is another revenge fantasy: That of the 19th century Millerites, whose current descendents, the Dispensational Premillennialists, are losing the Culture Wars in a big way, and can't wait for God to whisk them all up to heaven, from which they can look down and eat barbecued ribs while watching the rest of us sinners get torn to shreds by, well, all those monsters from Revelation.

This Singularity thing is a defiant "We're right and just you wait and see!" tantrum, thrown by the last holdouts of the Cult of Progress. This isn't an explicit movement so much as a historical trend: From about 1850 to 1970, the Zeitgeist in the West was faith in continuous upward progress in both the social and scientific realms. Science, technology, and an enlightened social outlook would allow us to eliminate poverty, hate, war, and anything else that nipped at our heels, and in doing so we would become a kinder, gentler, more educated and open-minded species.

We did make a great deal of progress in those 120 years. The problem is that many among us elevated progress to a sort of deity whose rule was obvious, inevitable, and unending. There were no limits to what we could imagine, and hence to what we could accomplish. The various convulsions that began in the mid-1960s shook the Cult of Progress to its core. And although we're still making progress in some areas, it's nothing like what we managed from 1850 to 1950.

This bothers the progress partisans, and the Singularity is their revenge fantasy: "By 2030, accelerating technological progress will change the world so completely that no one from before that time will recognize the world after that time." In other words, Progress remains on the throne of heaven, and the Singularity will be the proof of its reign, just as the Rapture will be the proof of God's favor granted to the Dispensational Premillennialists.

I won't recap my detailed objections to the Singularity here. (I need to write my white paper entitled "The Singularity Considered Stupid.") One of my simpler tests: Imagine yourself in 1950. Which year would be more familiar to you from that standpoint: 1900, or 2000? In 1950 we had television, telephones, many kinds of radio, electronic record players, consumer-class automobiles, jet aircraft, computers, nuclear weapons, and antibiotics. In 1900 we had none of these things. Our lives are richer and busier now than in 1950, but the shapes of our lives are pretty much the same, especially compared to the shapes of American lives prior to 1900. We invented much more between 1900 and 1950 than between 1950 and 2000. Most of what we've done since 1950 has been refinement, not genuine innovation in the concepts that shape our lives. A cordless telephone is still a telephone, and while a 2004 Corvette goes faster than a Model A, it's still a horseless carriage.

One can certainly argue this point at length, and as I said, I intend to write that argument someday. In the meantime, well, the Millerites have been waiting for the Rapture since the mid-1840s, and I think the Singularity gang will be waiting for some of their touchstone advances for a very long time. Uploading, in particular, is an almost inexplicable Extropian wet dream that I feel has a close analogy to the Rapture—and is just as likely to occur. Just as the Millerites can't wait to be shed of this sinful flesh, so the Singularity partisans can't wait to be shed of these slow, headache-prone brains.

I'll still be here in 2030, with any luck at all. (I'll only be 78.) I expect America of 2030 to look a great deal like America of 2004. My prediction as to when the Singularity will arrive: Always precisely 25 years in the future, whether the present be now or 2030. That's when the Cult of Progress will triumph and get its revenge on us scurvy realists. Just wait and see!
August 27, 2004:

Our friends Harry Gante and his staff at MITP Germany in Bonn have gotten the first of (we hope) several Degunking series translations into print. "Windows entrümpeln" translates to "Windows Clean-Out", and that's probably as good as you'll get in another language.

I found it interesting that they don't capitalize all major words in a book title, as we do here. But apart from cultural differences like that, the book is amazingly like the English-language edition, in its fonts, page design, graphics, and overall appearance. How good the German is, well, that's not something I can tell you, but I like the tagline to the left of the model's head on the cover: "Zeit, Geld, und Nerven sparen..." (Save time, money, and sanity...)

Our success with the first Degunking book has had its effects on the subsequent titles: Just yesterday we received an order from one of the two major retail chains for 3,000 copies of Degunking Email, Spam, and Viruses. Ulp. I guess that means I better hit the keys here and finish the damned thing. I finished a chapter just before lunch, and that leaves four chapters to go. Should be done by September 21. Other projects are piling up. This one had better be done soon.
August 26, 2004:

Wrote almost 4,000 words on Degunking Email today, and I'm pretty drained, so let me put a few odd lots in front of you instead of any extended essays:

  • The Roman Catholic Church continues to put their foot in it, this time in a particularly cruel way. A young girl made her First Holy Communion with a consecrated rice wafer, because she has a severe case of Celiac's Disease, and even a small amount of wheat could kill her. A sympathetic local priest bent the rules for her, but when the bishop of her diocese found out, he didn't just scold the priest, but also invalidated the little girl's reception of the sacrament. The bishop has apparently forgotten Mark 9:42, not to mention Mark 10:13-16. He might as well get himself fitted for his millstone now and save God some trouble later on.
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a pointer to SpoofStick, a free plug-in for Firefox or IE that displays the Web domain where you are. This is a (small) measure to take against phishers, who display the text "" but then take you to or a raw IP address. Works well, but the sort of people who get hooked by phishers are unlikely to be smart enough to double check their browser location.
  • In researching firewalls for my book, I stumbled across Tiny Personal Firewall, which has worked well so far, and has the advantage of being free. If you don't already have a personal firewall, you need one, or the worms'll getcha.
  • Those bums at Symantec are not renewing Norton AntiVirus 2001 update subscriptions after the end of 2004, and NAV 2004 is a hideous mess. (See the reviews on Amazon, and wear your asbestos bunny suit.) Looks like, after using Norton continuously since 1992, I'm going to have to move to something else.
  • I have gotten as far as March 2002 in adding named anchors to my archives, and indexing photos. Slow work, but I'll get there.

August 24, 2004:

As you can see, I've been tinkering my format a little. After a number of requests and suggestions, I decided to merge the old VDM Diary archives with the Contra archives, since it was the same me writing it, and mostly for the same reasons. It also serves to remind me that I've been doing this for a long time, which helps sometimes when I get discouraged and consider stopping.

In the meantime, some odd lots gathered over the last few days:

  • For the very first time, I got an item on I Love Bacon. It's the (S)crapmasters dumpster, which I photographed last year and posted in my September 13, 2003 entry. That's not as good as getting Slashdotted, but it comes close.
  • Kyle McAbee's German co-workers took some time to explain that Wehrkirchen (see my entry for August 21, 2004) were places of safety for villagers and farmers during the unsettled times in Europe, especially during the 30 Years' War and the incursions of the Turks into Eastern Europe. They are by no means exclusively a German phenom and can be found in many places from France to Bulgaria. The aristocracy had their castles; the poor had their churches, which were often built from thick stone on a hilltop and were thus easy to defend in the days before cannon. It occurs to me that somebody could do a very nice coffee-table book like The Wehrkirchen of Germany and write off the cost of a month's tour of Europe. I'm busy right now but will somebody else please get on it?
  • Wired has a nice online piece about Ah-nold's surprising success as governor of California, and why he may be a foretaste of the death of political parties as we know them. As one who hates the whole idea of political parties (and I like the term "radical center"!) I say, bring it on!

August 23, 2004:

I guess it was inevitable: While glancing down the list of search terms that led people to my Web site, (see my entries for July 25 and August 11, 2004) I came across this one:

jeff duntemann may quote this search on his weblog

Yes, I may, and I did. Point taken. Now stop it, already!
August 22, 2004:
I'm heading into death march mode on Degunking Email, Spam, and Viruses, and thus I need to marshall my time and energy a little and not post such monster items here for a bit. Bear with me; I have a list of topics as long as my arm but I gotta get some real work done. Web diaries are good, but eating is even better.
August 21, 2004:

I came to book publishing through magazines, and I still have a magazine heart. I've always known that there's a magazine for every conceivable obsession, but I confess I was jolted a little bit when Pete Albrecht sent me a link to...New Age Fortifications Magazine. (That's an English translation; the mag is in Czech and published in the Czech Republic.) Everything for the bunker freak. Bunker, as in reinforced concrete structures used to defend towns and so on in wartime. See below.

Now, bunkers are cool and an interesting piece of history, but I didn't expect a whole culture to have risen around them. You can find bunker tours of Europe, and if you're not in a position to go to Europe, you can take a bunker tour online.

In the Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) region of Germany, there's even something called a Wehrkirche, or "fortified church," which is a church built so that it can take a lot of punishment and beat back attackers. We saw a couple while we were in Germany in 2002, including the little church in my ancestral village of Schlarpe, which is a conventional church added to a 13th century tower that clearly had more war than love on its mind. Other similar churches are close by, in Schoningen and Gierswalde. Although there are a lot of mentions of Wehrkirchen on the Web, I have yet to find a citation (at least in English) that explains why they came about. All I can figure is that, during the religious upheaval of the 30 Years' War, having a fortified church was probably the only way you could continue to have a church at all.
August 20, 2004:

I have a hard time generating much enthusiasm for the Olympics, and only some of that is my general indifference to sports. The USOC, having trademarked the word "Olympics," will harass anyone attempting to use "Olympics" or "Olympic" in a name, including restaurants and odd businesses with no implied or explicit reference to the Games. The only thing they've (wisely) left alone is the Special Olympics, since going after an event that benefits the mentally handicapped would probably get their collective asses in a serious PR sling. (Remarkably, Congress gave the USOC sweeping powers to seize basically all use of the terms "Olympics," "Olympic," and "Olympiad" in 1987. And you guys wonder why I hate politics!)

I might even reluctantly grant them the trademark thing, but a new policy at the 2004 games forbids athletes and support personnel from blogging about their experiences at the games, or publishing (ever!) photos they themselves have taken at the games, even of themselves. It is to boggle.

As you might expect, it's all about money. Since the Games are paid for by licensing fees paid by broadcasters, anything that dilutes that information monopoly is off the table. This is doubly ironic to me, since the athletes themselves are nailed to a tree if they ever took a nickel in promos for any sports-related work prior to competing in the Games. Jim Thorpe, a stunning track star, was stripped of his medals at the 1912 Olympics because he once made $25 a week playing minor league baseball while a college student. (The IOC relented and reluctantly gave the medals back in 1982, thirty years after poor Jim died, because of all the bad publicity stirred up by Thorpe's daughter Grace.)

At least the athletes seem to have a good time, heh.

It's politically incorrect these days not to like sports, so I won't say I don't like the Games themselves, or the poor athletes who work for zip to make the sportscasters rich. I simply loathe the moneygrubbing, the hypocrisy, and the out-of-control control freaks in the USOC and IOC who are ruining what was intended to be (and still could be) a magnificent non-profit celebration of human athletic prowess.
August 19, 2004:

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court ruling in favor of Grokster and Morpheus, two file-sharing utility vendors that Big Media has been trying to snuff. The surprisingly strong opinion basically reasserts a longstanding legal principle: Persons who have no control over the use of their products for copyright infringement cannot be held legally liable for that infringement. Just as Xerox can't be sued when its copiers are used to infringe a print copyright, so file sharing utilities like Grokster (and its host of brethren) cannot be held liable for online infringement, since they have no way to monitor or control the connections created between instances of their software.

My view of this parallels that of the Ninth Circuit's: The technology is too new to squash, especially since most of us in Small Media feel that there really is a pony in there somewhere, and over the next few years we may well find it. Small bands and small ebook publishers intuit that the P2P mechanism can be used as a conduit for paid distribution of content. The problem isn't with P2P networks themselves, but with the machinery for accepting that payment. Small media definitely wants to get paid; the difference between small media and big media, ironically enough, is that small media is willing to accept some fraction of the aggregate cover price of media actually distributed, and write the rest off to PR/marketing, whereas Big Media refuses to let a penny of the amount due go without a fight.

I met a number of ebook publishers at the recent Book Expo America show who are selling completely DRM-free ebooks and making money (if not big money) doing it. Making potential buyers aware of the product is the big challenge, and P2P may have a role there. Of course, it may not; we just don't know. It's far too soon to kill the technology, however, and the lesson of videotapes (which were fiercely opposed by Big Media 25 years ago) suggests that in time, Big Media may find a use for the technology as well.

The story isn't over. Big Media may appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but in this case they may not, since a likely Supreme Court loss could set a precedent that would last basically forever. Some say that the record companies would prefer to wait a few more years, figuring that if the Republicans continue to hold the White House and the Senate, the Supreme Court will become more conservative (and thus more amenable to corporate concerns) than the Court is now. We won't know until we get there, but in the meantime, most of us are breathing a great sigh of relief.
August 18, 2004:

I left Princeton Mountain Hot Springs somewhat reluctantly, with a conviction that I have got to find a few more of the many hot springs here in Colorado. There are two that are reasonably close to Colorado Springs, but both are nudist clubs, and I have my doubts as to whether anybody would want to gaze on my undraped form. (Gotta work on those abs, sigh.)

Anyway, today we headed east from Salida on Highway 50, following the bed of the young Arkansas River, and taking note of a possible swimming hole at Spikebuck, one of the now-abandoned rail sidings where the National Forest people have put restrooms and a boat ramp for river rafters. Spikebuck was the sight of a 10-day shooting war between the Santa Fe Railroad and the Denver and Rio Grande, way back in 1880, when the two railroads had conflicting claims on who could build the line up to the new mines at Leadville. The D&RG won the court case, but not before there were numerous armed confrontations and stone forts built to defend the construction beside the river. Nobody got killed, but plenty of testosterone got sloshed around, and the railroad was very busy for many years.

Today, that run of track only serves the tourist train that runs excursions along the bottom of the Royal Gorge, a short but breathtakingly narrow canyon cut by the Arkansas through the red granite strata here. We intend to take that trip someday, but today we chose to sneak up the little-used south entrance to the almost indescribable Royal Gorge Bridge Park.

There is a suspension bridge over the Royal Gorge, built 75 years ago to allow cattle and rancher traffic across the gorge that would otherwise cut Teller County mostly in two. It's the highest suspension bridge in the world, fully 1083 feet above the Arkansas River. The bridge is the centerpiece of a local amusement park owned and run by Cañon City. It has everything: kiddie rides, restaurants, souvenir shops, a petting zoo, historical re-enactments, a cable tram over the gorge, and a gonzo extreme ride in which they strap you face-down into a stretcher hung from a cable and then pull you back and launch you out over the nothingness of the gorge, 1100 feet above the river. We heard people screaming as they were swinging over the gorge, and for a moment I'm glad I'm 52 and wiser than that. 30 years ago I might have been tempted.

We see TV commercials for the Royal Gorge Park all the time and it's been on our list for awhile. I was a little surprised, however, at how tacky the bridge itself is. It's a plank bridge, for crying out loud, and there are occasional 2" gaps between the planks that allow you to look straight down for over a thousand feet. The bridge itself looks like it's made of chicken wire and Erector Set parts, and there is a noticeable swing even in a modest breeze. Carol and I walked over it, a little apprehensively, to have lunch and ride the carousel on the other side. After we walked back, we did the crossing again, this time in the 4Runner. That was nerve-wracking enough, but halfway across we had to swing hard right to miss an F-450 pickup thundering toward us from the opposite side. The bridge is ostensibly 2 lanes wide, but they're lanes designed when people drove Model T's, not monster pickup trucks. It was a squeaker, but we escaped without damage, and took the rest of the drive home in relative ease. There's nothing like a ticky-tacky bridge a thousand feet over river rapids to make four-lane blacktop look good!
August 17, 2004:

Hot damn! I have a new passion: Hot springs. We did the short run (30 miles) south from Buena Vista today to Salida, and along the way we took a five-mile jog out of the way to the Princeton Mountain Hot Springs, a resort built around the springs on the edge of Chalk Creek.

We didn't stay at the resort, which is small-town funky but quite cheap ($70-$90 a night) for the facilities, which include a 300-foot water slide fed with warm springs water. For $8 you get a day pass to the hot springs, and at right you can see me soaking my driving-sore butt in Chalk Creek. What they've done is carefully arranged the boulders on the edge of the creek, so that the 140° springs water mixes with the 59° creek water in various proportions, providing very natural-looking 2-person pools with water from the high 80s to the low 100s. The pool shown here was at about 96°, which I consider about perfect for extended soaking.

I'm not sure about the precise geology, but the water is bubbling up from below, and when I dug the probe of my digital thermometer maybe 4" down into the sand bottom of the pool, the temp reading shot up past the instrument's upper limit of 120°. The water is crystal-clear and not sulphurous at all, as I had feared. In fact, it has no odor at all, and the treated drinking water tastes pretty good, with only a slight mineral tang.

For people who don't want to sit in the creek, they have three pools, one for laps, one for soaking in chlorinated spring water, and a third higher up the hill for kid shenanigans, including a pretty awesome water slide. As night fell this evening, Carol went up to the lap pool to do some swimming, while I stayed in my boulder pool, lying on my back listening to the creek, watching the bats come out and begin eating the airborne insects, which (mercifully) did not appear to include mosquitoes. As it got darker, a skinny preteen girl picked her way past my pool, looked down at me and said, "Colorado rocks, doesn't it?"

Damn right.
August 16, 2004:

We got as far as Buena Vista today as planned, in about two hours of driving west on Highway 24, and caught a room at the Best Western. The rest of the day we spent searching for Cottonwood Lake, a creek-dam lake in the San Isabel National Forest.

We found the lake maybe half an hour before a thunderstorm rolled in, hence the bad light in the photo at left. It's intended as a fishing lake and a place of peace and quiet; only human-powered boats are allowed. The water was 63°, which is on the low side of the envelope for swimming, though I've been in much colder. We might even have tried it, as all necessary gear was in the back of the 4Runner, but the lightning pouring out of the sky gave us pause.

We're in the thick of the Rockies here, and there are probably more "fourteeners" (mountains higher than 14,000 feet) visible from one place than anywhere else in the continental US.

Which bring me to a question that occurred to me while gaping at the mountains: Why does there appear to be a sort of 15,000 foot cutoff on mountains here? Mt. Whitney (California) tops the list at 14,494 feet, and there are no fewer than 73 fourteeners in the lower 48—nearly all of them in Colorado. (Not one in Montana!) One would think there'd be a maverick sixteener and maybe two or three fifteeners, but no: We have 73 mountains crowded up against a sort of rock ceiling. The height distribution seems unlikely. Are there geological principles at work here that I've never heard of?

Cripes, I have to slap myself soon or I'm going to be wanting a canoe.
August 15, 2004:

Carol and I are heading out for a quick 3-day trip around central Colorado later today. Although I'm taking my X21 for the sake of good notes, I don't intend to stress looking for Net access in the middle of nowhere, and that means you'll probably real about the whole thing ex post facto.

We're heading west from the Springs as far as Buena Vista, then heading south to Salida, and from there over the Royal Gorge and past Cañon City until we get back to the Springs. It's about a 240 mile loop, roughly rectangular, and passing through some beautiful country. We've lived in Colorado now since April 2003, and we've seen very little of the state. Time to start fixing that. More as we go.
August 14, 2004:

Michael Covington promised to send me a detailed response to my closing statement on faith and evidence, put forth in my entry for August 2, 2004. As usual, he replied so brilliantly that I'll quote (with his permission) the whole thing right here:

"Faith does not require evidence, and evidence does not affect faith" strikes me as the kind of thing people say when they are convinced their religion is false but they want to cling to it anyway.  It's the same logic as, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" (i.e., there really isn't, but we want to keep telling the story).

And of course this was a major strand in mid-20th-century liberal Christianity, when people did believe that their faith had been disproved, but (for a while) wanted to cling to it anyway.  Then a clearer-headed generation came along and stopped going to church.  That's why liberal Protestantism is dying out.

In the Bible, "faith" means "trust" or "loyalty."  It does not mean "gullibility."  When Thomas asks Jesus for evidence, he gets it.  Jesus also remarks, "Blessed are those who have not seen, but have believed," which means, "Blessed are those who never got this particular piece of evidence, but trusted me on the weight of other evidence anyhow."

If faith isn't based on evidence, what is it based on?  I trust my wife. Is it because I don't have any evidence to warrant the trust?  On the contrary, it's because I have lots of evidence.  I trust Jesus for similar reasons.

Admittedly, the claims of Christ can't be "proven" true by logic alone. Neither can the claims of anyone else.  A basic point of logic is that no evidence ever compels a specific belief.  You can always adopt auxiliary assumptions instead, though they may have to be complex and bizarre.  If you don't want to believe in New York City, you can believe that the world is full of fake maps and conspiracies.  Your logic would be impeccable but your belief would nonetheless be false.

But truth does not conflict with truth.  If Jesus is who the Church claims He is, then we need not be afraid of any purported evidence to the contrary. Follow the evidence bravely where it leads.  Follow the weight of the evidence rather than getting sidetracked by incidental difficulties.  (This is just the way science works, too.  You can find incidental difficulties in everything.)

What Jesus asks for is not mere assent to propositions, but a relationship of personal trust.  It's like the difference between believing that an airplane will fly, and actually getting into it.  Or like the difference between believing that Melody loves me, and actually marrying her.

As best I can determine, "fideism" (the notion that faith is contrary to reason, and that it is meritorious to adopt a belief irrationally) is a 19th-20th-century quirk (though the Catholic Encyclopedia tells me it has popped up in earlier eras too).  Sometimes it is derived from the Calvinistic notion that our minds are so corrupted by sin that we cannot see the truth; more often, nowadays, it's a cop-out for people who don't want to integrate their faith with their non-religious knowledge and assumptions.

The historic Christian position is that faith is rational; it consists of having the gumption to follow the weight of the evidence where it leads, and not waver due to personal difficulties or temptations.  In the words of C. S. Lewis, "I am an empirical theist."

Beautifully said, of course, but I don't think that what I hold is fideism as you define it. As a Catholic, I put great store in sacramental systems (of symbols, actions, words, and even rising smoke) that point to things that are literally beyond evidence or human reason, even though they carry the ring of truth for me. I don't feel that my faith is contrary to reason, but that many of the things that I believe in transcend reason. The Trinity is an excellent example—you can go nuts trying to work it out rationally, but that doesn't mean it's absurd; in fact, it resonates powerfully with me in ways I can't describe, which is a classic example of the Catholic experience of faith. The evidence that supports Christianity I certainly accept, but I don't want Christianity to hang solely on evidence or reason.

What I really fear, and what the gist of that entry involves, is getting in pissing contests with radical materialists over physical evidence or lack thereof, which is a lot of what fuels the passion people hold for things the The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but those guys never took Epistemology 101, and there's really no point in taking up the argument with them. My faith begins with reason but doesn't end there, which is precisely how I think faith should be, and the only way I know how to experience it.

I just finished reading a book, The Inescapable Love of God by philospher/theologian Thomas Talbott, that treats the whole subject of salvation from the standpoint of reason, and does so without destroying the concept's sacramental impact. I'll review it here when time allows; it was fantastic.
August 13, 2004:

Two upstream standards have been making news in the last day or so: 802.11n and Blu-Ray Disc (BD). 802.11n is the next general Wi-Fi connection standard, aiming to meet or exceed the throughput (not bitrate) of 100-Base T wired networks. Blu-Ray Disc is a DVD recording standard that will fit 27 GB of data (!!) on a single disc no larger than our current DVDs. Products based on both standards are likely to hit stores by early 2006.

The story we watched as 802.11g unfolded is set to begin again. Anxious to grab market share, network hardware vendors are preparing "pre-N" designs that, especially at this early stage in the 802.11n standards definition process, may or may not even remotely resemble the final standard. (Note that they don't call it "draft-n"!) Belkin is the first, but I'm sure engineers all over the world are bent over their drafting tables, preparing the deluge.

This would seem madness, but only when you consider the balance between what the gear will cost (under $200 street, and that's on Day 1) and what it will do, well, people who need the speed will be able to justify the money much more easily than in 1999 or 2000, when the newborn 802.11b gear came in at $1000 or more. And when the final standard happens, the early pre-N gear will be most of the way off the end of the depreciation schedule, and the IT people will shove it down the food chain or give it to their kids. Belkin will not lose money on this, nor will anyone else who comes out with a pre-N design, no matter how much we bitch at them for jumping the gun. We know so much about 802.11 microwave techniques now that the designs can be created very cheaply. The basic modulation method (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or ODFM) is used in both 802.11a and 802.11g and is no longer exotic.

It's kind of silly to ask if anybody really needs that kind of throughput. One reason Esther Dyson always came off as a technoditz to me is that she persisted in saying dopey things like, "Ordinary users will not need the power of the 80286. We'll only see it in servers." A month or two later, IBM came out with the 286-based PC AT. If throughput is cheap, people will buy it, and we'll figure out what to do with it after the fact. 802.11n is fast enough to stream HDTV, so there's one idea, and as I've mentioned a time or two before, add massive throughput to massive storage, and you get massive heartburn for Big Media. My popcorn bowl is standing by; it's gonna be a helluva good show.
August 12, 2004:

Today's Wall Street Journal posted an interesting short piece on the long-known but poorly internalized fact that nothing posted on the Internet ever reliably goes away forever. People are now googling prospective dates, new members in their churches, and anyone else who comes into their lives. For most adults, who encountered the Internet after (or like me, long after) coming to emotional maturity, there's not a lot of concern. For young people these days who have the tech savvy to field Web sites at age 13 while they're still cracking booger jokes, there's a very real question of posting things that come back to haunt them later on, as they apply to colleges or search for jobs. I've stumbled across a couple of Web articles that were basically lip-smacking over sexual conquests, and an awful lot of what passes for blog entries these days are incoherent one-liners that don't say much about the writers' intelligence, or else the sort of ranting, slobbering hatred that we tolerate (and even encourage, in our modern culture) in the name of partisan politics.

I've probably posted more material on the Web (in terms of simple word count, at least) than all but a handful of bloggers, and each time I write an entry, I ask myself a couple of questions before I post it:

  • Would I be embarrassed to let my parents read this? (Yes, they're both deceased, but the test remains useful.) I do believe in good taste, and things like writing standards. Being gross is funny when you're 14, but ask yourself, how will it play 20 years later? It'll all still be out there, somewhere.
  • Will this make me enemies? Enemies, after all, are a cost center; friends are a revenue center. Broadband and Web hosting are costs enough, as far as I'm concerned. I have occasional uncharitable thoughts. I keep them to myself. After all, such thoughts are the least valuable thoughts I (or you) will probably ever have.
  • Will I ever change my mind about this? I have notions and views that I'm not confident in, which usually means that I'll change my mind about them in the future. Changing my mind isn't a bad thing in itself, but when I do, there's the problem of whether somebody's cache somewhere has me preaching a position I no longer support. (This is one reason I don't talk politics much, because my views have changed radically over the years and continue to do so.)
  • Does a particular posting impute a position to me that I don't in fact hold? There's always some risk in this due to people's differing response to different topics. Some people think I'm a slobbering fundamentalist because I talk about religion on a semiregular basis, but in fact I'm a very liberal Catholic. (It's sad that quoting the Bible every couple of months gets you branded as a religious fanatic by some.) Others think I'm pro-piracy because I've talked about file sharing so much, but in fact I'm pro-smalltime-artist, and see file sharing as a possible end-run around monopolist Big Media. It's a subtle distinction, and much depends on presentation: How you say something strongly influences how people receive it. Read it twice, and ask what people will take away from it. It may not always be what you think.
Since the invention of the printing press, publishing has been a mostly permanent thing: No matter what you publish, a copy will probably continue to exist somewhere. The difference today is that "somewhere" is morphing to "everywhere," and recall of ancient data is becoming increasingly effortless. The public "you" is no longer even mostly under your control, and if you don't think about that from time to time, you should—and teach your children to as well. The booger jokes I've told vanished into the playground air in 1965. The Web, on the other hand, is forever.
August 11, 2004:

I continue to be fascinated by the logs I get from my Web server, particularly the lists of search terms that people were looking up when they clicked to my site. (See my entry for July 25, 2004.) So far August isn't quite as interesting as July was, but I got a few gems of what we might call found search engine poetry:

aboriginal and their spatial dimensions of fire stick farming
mogen david cholesterol
naked charters from fairly odd parents
etched flattened wine bottles in colorado
teen boys that dont flush urinals

One can almost feel the pain of some anonymous high school janitor somewhere, trying to figure out how to get teen boys to flush their damned urinals. And I for one would love to know how you flatten an etched wine bottle, in Colorado or anywhere else. Maybe this is an early clue as to the hot gift idea this Christmas—but hey, it's better than Billy the Big Mouth Bass, no?
August 9, 2004:
Back in Colorado Springs—though I'm way too pooped to provide a properly interesting entry for today. I should be back in the saddle by tomorrow, though there is a huge amount of catching up to be done.
August 8, 2004:

One of the problems with things like the notorious "Rennes-le-Chateau" mystery is that some people are positively ravenous for mystery, and tend to see mystery in anything that they simply don't understand. The best example is the fuss that the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (and others writing elsewhere on the topic) make over an inscription over the door of the church at Rennes. (See my entries for August 2 & 3, 2004.) The Latin inscription is Terribilis Est Locus Iste, which the authors translate far too literally as "This Place Is Terrible." This is supposedly a very mysterious thing to find on the wall of a Catholic church, but anybody who thinks so hasn't done anything like due diligence on the issue.

First of all, "terribilis" doesn't mean "lousy" or "bad," for example (as moderns would say) "The liverwurst is terrible!" and the inscription does not mean (as certain young moderns might say) "This place sucks." The word "terribilis" here is much more subtle, and means "inspiring awe bordering on terror." The phrase as a whole is from the Latin Vulgate version of Genesis 28:17, in which Jacob wakes up from his very famous dream, realizing that he is lying on sacred ground, and cries out, "How dreadful is this place! This is the very house of God, the gateway of Heaven!" Anyone who knew the Latin Vulgate at all would pick up on the reference, as would anyone with a passing knowledge of the tradition of Catholic church buildings. After a church is built it must be consecrated to God's use, and the Latin Mass of church consecration begins with Genesis 28:17. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to say about a church (especially in the 19th century) and sheesh, those guys should have asked somebody who knew a little bit about the Catholic sacramental tradition before seeing weirdness in the wall carvings.

The church at Rennes seems perfectly reasonable to me, and not the least bit mysterious, though I'm sure that modern atheists could think it grotesque. There are plenty of real mysteries in the world. Let's not go making up new ones from the whole cloth of our own ignorance.
August 6, 2004:

Still in Chicago, with minimal computer resources. I'm definitely starting to miss broadband.

Anyway. I drove out to Lake Zurich, Illinois, this morning to see my grade school friend Rich Maas, whom I have known since 1962 and with whom I led the Fox Patrol in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Rich and his brother Paul are partners in Screenflex, which manufactures wheeled, roll-out partitions heavily used by churches for quick-change reconfiguration of their common areas, say, for Sunday School virtual classrooms that go back into a closet on Sunday afternoon. (The Southern Baptists are their biggest customers.) They are a terrific example of a small firm that had a good idea and are swimming against the tide of outsourcing everything to China. Instead, they outsource their TIG welding to a small firm in...Wisconsin. Everything else is done (with American workers) right there in northern Illinois. First rate.

But what I wanted to comment on here is a strange shift in perception. I grew up in Chicago, and back then, even after I had my own car, the drive out to Lake Zurich (and Phil's Beach!) seemed forbidding, at 22 miles. When I jumped into the car at 10:00 this morning, I kept thinking I should pack a lunch and a change of clothes. It's not that there weren't roads or Interstates when I used to live here (I'm not that old!) but simply that in the 60s and 70s, my sense of scale was completely different. I lived virtually my entire life within seven or eight miles of my little house on Clarence Avenue in the city. Carol's house was 3.2 miles up Harlem Avenue, and even that seemed a bit of a schlep. Going down to DePaul University (about eight miles) was a major haul. Going anywhere farther required some meditation and detailed logistical planning, with maybe a box of Triscuits beside me on the seat of the Chevelle.

All different now. Phoenix is more or less LA without an ocean, and we traversed its vastness without much thought, mostly because we had to. My "easy" commute was 14 miles one way. Our Old Catholic parish was 26 miles off, down in the center of Phoenix. For awhile, the closest grocery store was nine miles south of us, and when they put in a new Safeway a mere six miles south, it was nirvana. (Shortly before we moved, a new retail complex plopped yet another Safeway only 1.8 miles away, and it felt weird somehow, like the milk and bananas weren't real if we didn't have to drive for at least ten minutes to get them.) This morning, it seemed like I took a couple of turns, listened to a few country western songs on 99.5 FM, and shazam! I was there.

Maybe this isn't a good thing. Lord knows I do more driving now than I ever did as a Chicagoan. On the other hand, I was looking around as I drove, and realizing that I had never seen much of Chicago's outer metro fringes, even though I lived here 27 years. I had left my city long before I ever really got to know it. Sure, it's a tradeoff. What isn't?
August 4, 2004:

Pete Albrecht sent me a pointer to what I guess you might call a Swiss Army Flash Drive. It's by Swissbit, and, yes, is actually made in Switzerland. I don't know whether or not the 128 MB pocketknife is a good idea, but as a geek tool it has almost mythical presence. Perhaps more practical, if not so mythic, is their standalone USB drive that folds into its plastic sheath like a pocketknife blade into its handle. This would be useful: The problem I'm having with my current SanDisk Cruzer Minis is that the snap-off protected caps are easy to lose. (I had originally wondered why each drive came with three. Now I know.)

What I think would really fly off the shelves into every geek's pocket would be a spring-loaded 1 GB USB flash drive that would flip out of its sheath when you press a button. Yup. A switchdrive. If you spot one, please let me know.
August 3, 2004:

Relevant to yesterday's entry is Paul Smith's site debunking (sheesh, I almost wrote "degunking") the Priory of Sion, which is the shadowy organization supposedly guarding the descendents of Jesus Christ and hoping to create a sort of unified Kingdom of Europe with one of Jesus' descendents as king. Having read all the Holy Blood and Holy Grail materials I could find back in the late 1980s, I was interested in the flipside. Unfortunately, the flipside was as confusing as the original number, and faced with contentions and counter contentions from strange greasy eminences and shadowy secret societies, I realized that what you think about the whole Da Vinci Code business is as much a matter of faith as Christianity itself. Most of the original documents are lost, or stolen, or forged, or never existed to begin with, depending on whom you talk to. The mountain of detail stacked both for and against is so immense that it would take a lifetime to read the (available) source documents and try to divine your own position somewhere within the mess. (Yeah. "Divine." There's that word again.)

So my problem with faith and evidence continues, and Michael Covington has promised to weigh in with his considerable wisdom, which I will summarize here. I just re-read The Messianic Legacy, which is in a sense the notes and back-story to both The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. It's actually the best of that whole canon, however loopy you perceive it to be, and has some interesting things to say about human psychology. I'll review it in detail once I get back home.
August 2, 2004:

I'm surprised that so few people know that The Da Vinci Code is basically a dumbed-down fictional cover of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a very popular 1982 book by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. HBHG focused on the Rennes de Chateau mystery, which involved ancient parchments sealed in the altar of an old French church, the Knights Templar, and all sorts of skullduggery going back to the time of the Crusades and before.

It all involved some sort of secret that could potentially change the world, a secret that was handed down by the Merovingian kings of France, those fingers-in-every-pie Templars, and a shadowy organization called the Priory of Sion. The "secret" might have been explosive in earlier centuries, but in these jaded times it's just more Weekly World News stuff: Jesus Christ supposedly married Mary Magdalen and had kids, and their descendents are still among us, waiting (apparently) for us to hand the world over to their governance.

HBHG was engaging reading, especially for some of the historical sidenotes, and it precipitated a whole industry of books, TV specials, maps, tours, and who knows what else, nearly all of which has already been forgotten. I read most of the stuff I could lay hands on, but the more I read, the thinner the historical detail got and the more the material vaulted into the absurd. For example, The Tomb of God by Richard Andrews and Paul Shellenberger insisted that the Templars discovered the mummified body of Christ under their namesake Temple in Jerusalem, and brought it back to France, where they buried it in a crypt beneath Mt. Cardou. (Makes sense, no? "The body of God." "Corps de dieux." "Cardou.")

If The Da Vinci Code has any value at all, it lies in provoking discussion about whether and how information about the Jesus of history impacts the Jesus of the Christian tradition, as laid out in the Bible, the Christian creeds, and the writings of the Church fathers. We have admittedly learned a lot in recent years about the Holy Land in the early centuries of the Christian era, especially about the fringe sects within Judaism like the Essenes and the Nazareans. What we don't have much of are verifiable sources outside the Christian sphere, especially from Greek and Roman historians. For all the fuss that Jesus caused, there is almost nothing in recorded Roman history about him. Supposedly Jesus incited a riot in the Jewish Temple that took a significant detachment of Roman soldiers to quell, an event that was the proximal cause of his execution—but the Roman records say nothing at all about it.

Many therefore say that if contemporary secular records don't support Jesus' high-profile life and death or even his existence, we have no reason to believe in Christianity at all. Such people misunderstand the purpose of religious faith: to give meaning (and healing) to human life and provide a way, however tenuous, to get our hands around and give shape to our intuitions about immortality and the nature of the human soul. We will probably never have any good objective (that is, non-scriptural) data about Jesus' life, but that's not germane to the Christian story, because at the core of the Christian story are purely spiritual and fundamentally non-evidential realities: Christ's divinity, the redemption of collective humanity from its failings, and the eternal destiny of individual human souls, nothing of which is touched on by objective, physical history. Christianity as we have received it is not a consequence of verifiable historical events, but of God's ineffable actions within this world and elsewhere, and you either believe in that or you don't. To search for a historical Jesus is to put blinders on and miss a very big picture that goes well beyond the Earth. Why people bother is a mystery to me. Faith does not require evidence, and evidence does not affect faith.

Time for supper. More on this general topic later.
August 1, 2004:

I'm in Chicago, and I don't have broadband—so I haven't been able to spend my accustomed hour or so a day, poking around the Web, looking for interesting things. That may make Contra a little duller for the next few days, though it may also make me try a little harder. I have some odd notes on various things on disk, and I'm reading an interesting book. Maybe I can present something interesting without a lot of Web involvement.

One piece of good news is that my experiment with using Flash drives instead of Zip drives for removable storage has so far been a smashing success. (See my entry for May 11, 2004.) My two most-used Zip cartridges (for my Web presence and my current book project) have been demoted to backup storage for a pair of 256 MB SanDisk Cruser Mini Flash drives. They're about as fast as Zip cartridges, which is more than fast enough for storing documents and modest-sized graphics. Best of all, every Windows XP and 2000 machine made in the last six or seven years is instantly Flash-drive ready, without any need for installing drivers and doing any fiddling of the OS. You plug 'em in, and Windows recognizes them as "disk" drives instantly.

The 256 MB units I favor cost about $60 in stores, and you can find them for as little as $52 or so if you shop hard online. That's a lot more than a Zip 250 cartridge, but I don't mind. They work in all my machines, and I don't have to fret the dreaded Click of Death that has devoured six or seven of my 250 MB cartridges over the past two years. I won't have to pay for any more Zip drives in any future machines, so as the price on Flash drives comes down, the true cost won't be a great deal more than a Zip 250 cartridge. One great unknown is whether these things have a lifespan. Do they fail, and how often, and why? I suspect they're too new for good data on that score, but we'll see. I back them up religiously, and if they fail, well, I won't lose much—except faith in what has so far been a marvelous removable medium.