February 28, 2003:

We've rented a house, in a tidy subdivision about a mile from where we're building, further down the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain. It's nothing spectacular, but it comes with all appliances and doesn't smell of smoke, rancid oil, or cats. (This is nothing against cats per se, only certain people's lack of attention to proper kitty hygiene. My sister has lots of cats, and her house always smells good.) There's a nice park down the street where I will be returning to my ancient hobby of kite flying, and it's less than a mile to the excellent Black Bear coffee and sandwich shop. (I will be doing that walk a lot, trust me.) There is Adelphia Power Link broadband cable service at the curb (you can see the box at the lower right corner of the photo) and the house has cable outlets in most rooms. There's a nice view of the mountains from the back of the house. It's big enough to hold everything we're moving to Colorado, and we won't have to place anything in storage. (This is good, because the mass mobiliation from nearby Fort Carson to the Middle East has all but depleted the local self-storage locker supply.)

Our mission here is thus complete, and we'll be flying home tomorrow to kick the Big Move into high gear. Lots to do. I'll keep you informed.
February 27, 2003:

By sheer dumb luck, we came to Colorado Springs during the coldest and snowiest week of the year so far. It got down to zero the other night, and walking around outside was pretty cold. I'm no stranger to zero-range temps (I'm a Chicagoan under the broad-brimmed desert hat, after all) and somehow it just didn't seem as, well, raw as Chicago's zero temps seem to be. (It's not simply a species of reverse nostalgia, either. Chicago is one of the few places I have willingly gone during the winter in recent years, and I experience cold and snow there on an annual basis.) Could it be, as the locals say, that it's because Colorado Springs' cold is a dry cold? (In truth, that hasn't been the case this snowy week.) I groan every time I hear that about the heat in Scottsdale, but there may be something to it. Water's specific heat is way higher than that of air.

Or maybe it's just folklore. The significant datum is that it didn't scare us off, or even bother us too much. I have come to tolerate cold better than heat. What a notion.
February 26, 2003:
Wanna be our next door neighbor in Colorado Springs? The house next to our lot is for sale, and for what it is (huge, exotic—maybe even weird) it's a steal. See the listing and if you're broadband, take the "virtual tour." It makes our proposed house look tiny and plain. (It's the home in the immediate background in the photo below.)
February 25, 2003:

They "shot the foundation" for our new house today, even with a couple of inches of snow on the ground and temps in the teens. It's not exactly breaking ground, but it's the first step, and there was something cool about watching the arctic-clad surveyors knock stakes into the frozen soil.

Construction proper won't begin in earnest for another month, but we're on our way, and we've been furiously busy making decisions on stucco colors, stone facing styles, windows, and many other things. The windows we selected have argon gas in between the sealed double-panes. The gas is under pressure, and thus the windows are not rated for altitudes higher than 7400 feet. Our house is at 6200 and change, so we got in just under the wire. Those same windows cut UV throughput by 78%, and the salesman didn't know how—but I wondered if argon is largely opaque to UV. I tried to do some Web research on the topic, but I've been getting only 16.8 Kbps on my V.90 dialup lately, and the Web has been agony. It may just have to wait until I get back home to my broadbad Net connection and my Chemical Rubber Company handbook.
February 24, 2003:

Are you a Delphi hacker looking for a project to fool with? Allow me to recommend Phoenix Roundabout, an open-source Windows mail client that I've begun testing. I mentioned it briefly back in January when I first discovered it (see my entry for January 28, 2003) but the longer I look at it, the better I like it. The project site is on SourceForge, and so far I've found it more than complete and stable enough to generate enthusiasm.

Much of what is still missing from Roundabout lies in spam management and import/export of mail data. The UI is very nice and mostly complete, and beneath the skin is a multithreaded architecture that I am examining closely to learn more about how threads are done in Delphi. (I've never programmed with threads and need to do so on the Aardmarks beta, once I get back to that project post-move.) Definitely take a look. Being able to import mailbases from other clients is completely crucial (especially from Outlook and Outlook Express) but with that feature in place it would be complete enough to hand to non-technical people.
February 23, 2003:
Reader Michael Covington wrote to ask if it might be possible to spot spam by checking a message's headers for meddling, or inconsistencies, say, in country codes. One of these days I'm going to have to read up on email protocols a little and see what one might be able to infer from close textual inspection of message headers. I think it's fair to say that if an email message has been massaged to obscure its origin, I don't want to read it, so if we can detect such massaging somehow it would give us yet another weapon against spam.
February 22, 2003:

One of the local weirdnesses of Colorado is that grocery stores are not allowed to sell wine or other liquor. This means that there are a great many liquor stores, and because this is a local restriction, the stores tend to be small and locally owned rather than parts of giant national chains.

In consequence, good wine, and often really obscure wine, is a commonplace here. I've spot-checked three or four liquor stores, and all of them have wine selections far beyond that of the Ernest-and-Julio-Gallo monotony monopoly back home at Safeway. One even stocks Coturri Winery's organic, no-sulphite wines, which I have to drive 30 miles to buy in Scottsdale.

Completely free markets do not always favor the consumer, except perhaps on price. Price is not the sole virtue in a market. Selection counts for at least as much. I don't drink box wine, but without volume sales, specialty retailers have a hard time staying alive, and without specialty retailers the wine I favor is a great deal harder to come by. For many years I was a rabid free-markets advocate, but now in middle age I've begun to see that there are no "pure" positions. In every economic issue there is a sweet spot falliung somewhere between total freedom and total restriction. Balance, balance. It's what makes life good.
February 21, 2003:

As I've mentioned here a time or two in recent months, Carol and I are building a custom home in Colorado Springs, and ground will be broken once ground is warm enough to break without shattering—figure April 1 or thereabouts. While the house is being built, we're going to rent a place close by in order to be close enough to keep an eye on things, and the purpose of our trip here to the Springs has been to find a rental.

An intriguing possibility has arisen: Using cell phones instead of landline phones, at least for the time that we're living in the rental. Our little Star TAC phones have been with us for several years, and have begun to get crotchety. It's a good time to upgrade the technology, and we've begun hearing of people who have cut loose from landlines and just keep their primary phones in their pockets all the time.

This will be weird, but it's become the mode of choice in places around the world where landlines have never been implemented, and I'm curious to see how well it works. We did the math, and for our pattern of phone usage, it may actually be cheaper than a landline plan—certainly cheaper than a landline plus two mobiles. Has anybody out there tried this for any extended period of time? (We'll be in the rental for at least eight months and possibly more.) I'm wondering how you keep the phones powered up all the time. Are there charger cradles you can just drop them into? I'm looking at a couple of those Palm-powered phone/PDA combos. They used to call this "convergence." Maybe it's real. We'll find out.
February 20, 2003:

POPFile has now had a month to work. In that time I've received 7,173 messages, of which 6300 were spam. That's 88.05% I knew the percentage was high, but I confess, that number shook me back in my chair a little bit. Of the 7,173 messages received, I had to reclassify 124. That's an accuracy rate of 98.27%, which all things considered isn't bad.

Even so, I'm not sure I'm going to keep it. POPFile handed me way too many false positives, many of them for completely inexplicable reasons. In fact, there were about equal numbers of false positives and false negatives. It has trouble with short text messages, probably because it has less text to compare against its statistical model. It has a lot of trouble with spams that are essentially nothing but images.

One relatively easy-to-add feature would make POPFile much more useful: A user-configurable parameter specifying a "likelihood threshold" for the spam/legit decision. For each message that it examines and evaluates, POPFile assigns a statistical likelihood that the message really belongs in the bucket to which POPFile assigned it. Virtually all of its bad decisions (the ones I had to reverse) were cases where POPFile was more or less on the fence. This was especially true of the false positives, where in many cases it was almost a coin toss in POPFile's eyes. If it thinks that there's a 65% chance of a message being spam, then it's spam. What I'd like is to be able to set a number—say, 99%—as the threshold of spam-ness. If POPFile isn't absolutely certain that a message is spam, I'd like to make the decision myself.

Other things would help. All mail proxies need both a whitelist and a blacklist, and the whitelist can be as simple as checking incoming mail against your address book. Anybody in the address book gets in, no further questions asked. Similarly, I'd like to have a list of spammer domains which are automatically dumped—let's just say I don't expect any legitimate mail from hotyoungsluts.com.

The whole idea of mail proxies intrigues me, and I'm looking into how they might be constructed using the internet components you can get for Delphi. Creating a proxy would be much easier than trying to create Aardmail, something I've spent some time thinking about. If any of you know of a mail proxy in Delphi that comes with source—even a framework empty of actually filtering machinery—do let me know.
February 19, 2003:
In Colorado Springs looking for a place to rent while they build The House. I just have my laptop to hammer on (we flew here) and its keyboard is not the best. My entries may be on the shortish side for a few days.
February 18, 2003:

The Wall Street Journal this morning had an A-head story about slide rule collectors, which was another odd piece of synchronicity, since I packed my father's slide rule yesterday, along with numerous other memoirs of my past that once sat on a narrow bookshelf as a sort of museum. Other things on display there included a cow's molar I'd found on my uncle's farm in Wisconsin, a sample of large-scale model railroad track, and one of the many crowns that I used to have on my teeth, before my dentist did a crown consolidation on me, plus lots of other weird crap.

I'm not fatally prone to nostalgia, and I don't use a slide rule anymore. I don't even have the one that didn't quite get me through engineering school—that's a set of memories I don't choose to be reminded of. There is, however, something about slide rules that nobody ever seems to comment on: The exercise they give you in calculating (or estimating) orders of magnitude.

Slide rules will give you the mantissa. They don't give you the exponent. That's a separate skill, and one that was never well taught. Had I learned how to set the decimals in slide rule work in 1970 I might be an engineer today, but the knucklehead TA who took me through it at IIT could barely speak English, and the process was so obvious to him that he had no clue how to explain it to clueless frosh. (Weirdly, my college-prep technical high school did not teach the slide rule in its math or science courses, and by the time I hit college my father had contracted cancer and was out of the picture of my education.)

Setting decimals yourself requires an interesting right-brain grasp of the problem at hand that doing the math on a calculator does not. You have to get a grip on the relative sizes of things to use a slide rule correctly, whereas a calculator only needs the inputs and it will give you an output. There is no guarantee that you will understand where that output value came from nor why it's as big or as small as it is. It takes the engineer yet another step away from the real world where the problems are, in an era where engineering is mostly done on paper, with lab techs getting their hands dirty—and gaining the intuitive grasp of the field that the engineers themselves were once so proud of.

In thinking it over just now, it's not quite true that I don't use a slide rule anymore. Years back, I bought a plastic metric conversion slide rule for a buck at a hamfest, and it's been wonderful. It says "Sterling" on one end, but apart from that I have no idea where or when it was made. Like a lot of analog things we no longer use, the converter allows you to look up or down the scale a little, and in time get a gut-sense for how gallons relate to liters and so on. They're not just numbers. They're relationships. That's something we risk forgetting in our increasingly digital society: The real world is about how things relate to one another. Our guts don't do decimals.
February 17, 2003:

More kitchen trash Wi-Fi antennas. At left is the Boozooka Mark I. I've been accumulating tin cans of appropriate size for some time, and making antennas out of them as time permits. This was one that escaped notice until we were seriously into cleaning out the house; the can was something we brought back from a Caribbean cruise in 2000, with a bottle of fancy rum in it. The rum is gone (it made some really sublime pina coladas) but the can was too grotesque to pitch, and it just sat forgotten and empty in the dining room cabinet for the last two years. It certainly gets points for color, though I admit mounting it on a base made of scrap metal chunks and a black-iron floor flange clashes a little.

I haven't had the time or focus to test it exhaustively, especially since my right eye has been giving me hell for most of a week. It certainly works, but it's much touchier to aim than either the coffee can or the spaghetti sauce can antennas I've done so far. The gain is somewhat greater, though not so much greater that the ungainly size is worth it. Until I get a chance to do a carefully arranged antenna shootout (which is on the list for this summer, once I hook up with the local Wi-Fi enthusiast crowd in Colorado Springs) I just won't know. I have two more cans to do: One a 46 ounce tomato juice can, the other a steel tennis ball can. Both are slightly outside the diameter bounds for a proper waveguide antenna for 2.4 GHz (one on the high side, the other on the low side) but I'm curious to know whether being a little outside the bounds is as damaging as some people think. We'll find out (with any luck) this summer.
February 16, 2003:
Fighting an eye infection, and it's slowed me down a lot. Bear with me a couple more days.
February 13, 2003:

I suppose I could have just counted them and given you a number, but I didn't truly understand how many books I had until I started to pack them. Nor am I talking about the stoop labor it required, and the number of boxes graciously given to me by local bookstores. Nope—as I soon discovered and told myself: It's the topics, stupid.

See, this move is different from all the others in a significant way: I expect to live for eight or perhaps as long as ten months in a rented house, while our new custom home in Colorado Springs is built. I can't just toss books willy-nilly in boxes under the assumption that they'll all come out and be on display again in a few weeks, as has always been the case in the past. I won't have room to display them all in our rental, but I need to have books around or I will wither. I also won't get much done. So what I've been doing is both packing and filtering. As I pack, I decide for each and every book whether it re-emerges into the sunlight as soon as we arrive in Colorado in April, or if it hibernates until the beginning of 2004.

This required some novel soul-searching on my part. I had to ask myself: What am I going to be doing for the rest of this year? What am I going to be thinking about? What am I going to be writing? Meditating on these questions (which is a good thing to do while taping flattened boxes back together and stuffing books into them) has brought me a peculiar focus on my own interests. I wrote a sort of .plan file in my head (does anybody even remember .plan files?) for my anticipated projects while we wait for the new house:

  • Aardmarks. Time to stop fooling around and finish it. Need Delphi books, mostly.
  • Web site redesign. Need books on HTML, CGI, JavaScript, and Web design.
  • Catholic Woman, Catholic Priest. A book I'm considering writing on woman priests in the Old Catholic tradition. Need books on many topics, from the nature of the priesthood to Original Sin.
  • Networking From Square One. A book explaining Ethernet/Internet networking from a dead stop, as I did with assembly language back in 1989. Need books on—well, yeah—networking.
  • Ongoing Wi-Fi research. To be a lecturer or magazine writer on wireless topics, I need my wireless technology books.
That's about as much as I could conceivably focus on in a single ten-month period, but it was interesting as much for what I left out as for what I included. It worked out from a sheer volume standpoint, too: I am packing up about 75% of our books for storage, and about 25% will be shelved in the rental house. Just getting the distractions in a box and out of sight may allow me to focus on one or two achievable projects in the time I'm waiting for the new house, and that would be worth the price of admission: an aching back and an immense number of boxes.
February 12, 2003:

Always On reports that the formerly magical relationship between T-Mobile and Starbucks is getting a little strained. This doesn't surprise me: T-Mobile has the highest rates of any commercial Wi-Fi hotspot provider—higher by a factor of four or five. In San Francisco (and probably in a lot of other coastal urban cores) competing hotspots—some of them "community" and free—can often be reached from inside Starbucks, siphoning business away from T-Mobile and revenue away from both T-Mobile and Starbucks. (Starbucks gets a cut from T-Mobile's revenue stemming from Starbucks locations.) Schlotzky's Deli and many independent coffee shops are competing with Starbucks by offering their own free hotspots, and upstart fee-based hotspot providers and aggregators like Joltage and Surf&Sip are dropping their rates as they broaden their markets. This is inevitable, in some respects, especially given the amount of "dark" fiber lying around looking for work. In dense business districts, the "last mile" problem doesn't exist—bandwidth is oozing out the very bricks in the walls.

It will eventually become a conundrum for business owners: How can they tell if their customers are using their own hotspots or the hotspot hanging from a nearby light pole? Does it matter?

I'm still a little leery of coffee shop hotspots, because in the absence of a VPN, the guy at the next table may be sniffing your packets, and there's not much you can do about it. For reasons I don't understand and need to research, VPN software is expensive and uncommon—we had it at Coriolis but we had to ration it, and ordinary people who don't have well-connected IT departments (like me!) can't use VPNs even if they were willing to pay the price. This is one area in which ISPs are way behind the curve, and if ubiquitous public access to the Internet via Wi-Fi (or something like it) is to be accepted, VPNs must be welded to wireless standards and available to all.
February 11, 2003:

Here it is, and the book goes off to press just about as I write this. We'll have real books on February 26, though they won't work their way onto store shelves for a couple of weeks after that. It took way longer (and at 464 pages, turned out way longer) than I thought it would, but boy, it felt good to fill out the gaps in my knowledge, and there was something sweetly satisfying in making high-performance microwave antennas out of (as my sister Gretchen puts it) kitchen trash.

The cover artist was Kris Sotelo, who did the graphics and layout on Visual Developer from early 1997 to the bitter end. The cover is the second example of the Paraglyph "line look," and most of our non-Black Book titles will follow the same general template.

The book covers a lot of things the other Wi-Fi books don't touch, like wardriving, network bridging, and creating weatherproof enclosures for Wi-Fi access points. (I used a 30 caliber ammo can, and it worked fabulously well.) It's full of photos and diagrams and reads like, well, like you'd expect a Jeff Duntemann book to read. It should be available from Amazon by March 15, and in bookstores shortly after. I'd be curious to hear when it hits stores around the country, so if you're at a bookstore and see it in the next month or so, drop me a note and let me know. The ISBN is 1-93211-1743. $29.99. 464 pages. Unlike anything you've ever seen. Check it out.
February 10, 2003:
Like so many debates in our modern era, the debate over identity theft continues to puzzle me. Why is this so hard to solve? It really has little or nothing to do with data security or throwing out old bills with your social security number on them or anything else on the consumer side. It's all about carelessness by bankers and lenders and other firms who create or manipulate financial accounts without being sure who they're dealing with. Years ago you had to go down to the bank in person and present all kinds of ID to open a bank account or get a loan. It's way easier today, and that's the root of the problem. If banks (or whoever) were held responsible for criminal abuse of their systems, bank accounts would be harder to open and loans harder to get—just like they were years ago. Identity theft would also plummet. Other measures might help a little, but that's the big one, and I see nobody pushing for holding the financial industry responsible for their own mistakes.
February 9, 2003:

Seven or eight years ago, I was deeply immersed in electronics in my loose moments, and I was indiscriminately buying up parts at hamfests, often in big greasy boxes marked "Ur choice, 25¢ — whole box $5." This netted me some useful parts and a great deal of grimy crap, some of which was strange indeed. At left is a photo of a pair of devices found at the bottom of one of these boxes. They have HP's name on them, and they're very similar in size and shape to one of those early 60's TO-36 power transistors much used as the audio finals in car radios. However, they have five pins on the bottom, and each has a serial number. The bottom is gold plated, including the 10-32 stud.

I have absolutely no idea what they are. Any clues?

There is, of course, the ancient (decades-old, now) urban legend of a teenage kid who buys a ragged box of nuclear weapon triggers at a hamfest without knowing what they are, and then uses them as hood ornaments on his hot rod or some other equally ludicrous application. I'm sure these are nothing quite that glamorous (I'm guessing some sort of high-precision op-amp for lab test gear) but my curiosity is definitely up. Let me know if they look familiar to you. In the meantime, the garage continues to go into boxes, with some small proportion feeding the trash can. Useless as they probably are, these are just too cool-looking to dump, but I'd love to be able to make an informed decision, or at least sell them on eBay. (And if in fact they're Air Force flying saucer guidance system kremulators, I'll hand them over to the Men in Black without an argument. Just give me a ride, and you can hit me with the neuralizer afterwards.)
February 8, 2003:

The calculus of moving so vast an oddments collection as mine can get subtle sometimes. Out in the garage I had 65 one-gallon plastic jugs with electronics parts in them, all neatly labeled and tucked 12-to-a-shelf. Many were only partly full, and they're not a good size to pile whole into boxes and not waste a lot of space. Besides, we're going to store everything we own in the house we rent up in Colorado Springs during construction. So compactness is a major virtue this trip.

I was depressed for awhile, but then it occurred to me that gallon jugs, like that other stuff, happen on a regular basis, especially for people who still drink milk and put windshield washer fluid in the car themselves. So the jugs are staying here, and the parts are all going into neatly-knotted grocery bags and packed like brisling sardines in book boxes that I've been cadging from the local Barnes & Noble since last fall.

Little by little, the garage is vanishing into book boxes. We completely fill the (huge) robotrash can every week. And still the pile is there. Nothing like having to move your stuff to remind you just how much of it there actually is.
February 7, 2003:

Odd lots for this (cloudy, drippy) morning:

  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a marvelously useless site that tells you what your phone number spells. PhoneSpell tells me I don't have much in my own number, but a good friend's number came up with dozens of possibilities, including the wonderfully evocative "tar-pony."
  • I don't watch CNN much—I find "news" a depressing and fundamentally skewed reflection of the state of the world—but several people have told me that watching for CNN video typos is an emerging found-humor niche. (See the CNN screenshot for my February 4, 2003 entry.)
  • CNN isn't alone in the talking-empty-head derby. Bill Roper threw the radio at the wall when the local CBS affiliate warned of liquid oxygen contamination on Columbia's shards.
  • Alana Foster sent me a link to a great article by book publishing industry side-thorn-on-call Michael Wolff, who illustrates all that is wrong with what book publishing thinks about book publishing: Namely, that book publishing begins and ends in Manhattan, and with literary fiction. Perhaps he burned through all the money he made selling his publishing company (as so wonderfully, whiningly described in Burn Rate) and now has to kiss NYC butt to put food on the table—or maybe he really is just a gossiping fool. Me? I think there's nothing wrong with book publishing that the quiet vanishing of the big New York houses (or, dare we hope? New York itself!) wouldn't fix. John Wiley & Sons (the Last Good Big House) has already moved to Joisey.
  • Does anybody else think that the only good part of Journey's classic song "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" is the last third where all they do is go "Na na na, na na na..." especially the final four seconds where they do it a capella?

February 6, 2003:

Sometime in the coming months, I plan to do a complete overhaul of my personal Web presence, including this site. I registered a domain for my Wi-Fi book, and will be building a whole new informational site to help promote the book. So today's entry is a query to those who might have suggestions on Web hosting. What's good? What's cheap? Interland (where this site is hosted) has been...ok. They're not cheap, and they don't support a couple of things I could use. I was getting ready to set up an account at Alxhost, but they got bought and then de-featured. Here's what I would like to have:

  • CGI
  • an FTP directory for data downloads
  • at least 5 POP3 mailboxes
  • subdomains (mapping multiple domain names to host subdirectories)
  • the ability to run a blogging utility like Movable Type
  • (optional, but nice) MySQL or some other online database
I don't need megamegabytes of storage space, and my data transfer needs are modest. I need to automate this Web diary, and I have some ideas for online databases that I haven't been able to do at Interland for lack of a database engine. What's out there? Any suggestions? Just drop me a note.
February 5, 2003:

Back when my sister Gretchen and I still lived at home back in Chicago, we had this great book called What Not to Name the Baby, by Roger Price and Leonard Stern, first published in 1960. Maybe you had to be there, and maybe if you were there it had to be the Seventies, but we thought (and still do) that it's one of the funniest things between two covers. It's been out of print for a lot of years, but it's worth grabbing if you can find it somewhere. The book consists of a dictionary of names (at least names common in 1960) with some terse and ascerbic commentary on each one. Such as:

  • "Gretchen's boyfriends are always leaving her to go back to their wives."
  • "Jeffrey is clean-cut and attractive, but he doesn't have a chance. Some girl marries him quick, usually Rosalind."
  • "When girls want to redecorate, they always get Frank to come over and help them paint or put up wallpaper. He's good at it, and doesn't get fresh afterwards. He drinks up all the beer, but he never gets fresh. Frank is always agreeable and polite, but don't get tough with him. He'll kill you."
  • "No one is ever really named Elmer."

It's a great book, but if you think that stuff is funny, do not wait another second before going to Baby's Named a Bad, Bad Thing. It's a long (very long!) commentary on the utterly whacko things that Yuppie parents are now naming their little darlings. The author downloaded some postings from a baby-naming BBS somewhere, and added her own commentary. It's not as easy to capture as snippets from What Not to Name the Baby, but it's even funnier. The author claims that she didn't make any of it up, which means that somewhere on this benighted planet (probably in San Francisco or LA) people are naming their kids Rodana, Tenlee, Jayken, Joeaziel, Onarada, and (I kid you not) Baby Jesus.

It's a riot. I used to think "Jeffrey" was an exotic name, and as a pre-teen often wished I had been named Jim instead. Boy, am I over that now or what?
February 4, 2003:

Much is being written about the grief and suffering spawned by the Columbia disaster, but little has been said about the suffering of scientific truth. The image at left, captured from a CNN broadcast, has been bouncing around the Internet for a day or two now, doubtless the product of some bright young journalism type who failed Physics for Poets at journalism school but still considers him or herself a highly educated professional. Talking heads are far too often empty heads, sigh.

Far worse, to me, are the continuing shrill warnings from NASA that the debris from Columbia must not be touched or even approached, because of deadly toxic propellants that may be present and ready to jump out and sieze the unwary by the throat and kill them within 48 hours. For certain components this may have been (somewhat) true for the first day or part of a day, as those volatiles that may have somehow miraculously survived the heat of re-entry evaporated. For little chunks that had nothing to do with propulsion, no. And by now, it's time to stop all the panic-talk...because it's working. Small towns in east Texas have gone into full panic mode, closing all schools for days because a hinge or a bracket fell on a school's front lawn. People who smell some old truck's diesel exhaust have raced for their lives to emergency rooms for decontamination.

A short article in this morning's Wall Street Journal quotes experts at both the Center for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency as saying that there is little if any danger from people handling Columbia debris, and none at all from being in the near vicinity. It's time to stop the fearmongering, or space travel as an idea will pay a terrible price in the future.

I know why NASA is doing this, and to some extent I sympathize. Trophy hunters can't be allowed to keep Columbia's sad tiles under a bell jar on the mantelpiece. There are, however, federal laws in force on the issue, and NASA should have simply said, "It is a federal offense to take or move debris from Columbia. Leave it where it is and call local police or fire agencies." Instead, we now have Americans convinced that NASA is routinely orbiting something with the toxic destructive power of a chemical weapon of mass destruction. Will this help us keep space travel running? Don't be an idiot—advice that NASA should be taking, but rarely does.
February 3, 2003:
It is with considerable reluctance that I weigh in here against the proposed war against Iraq, but I do so to make a point I consider important: That pacifism is a morally perilous position. This came out of a message posted last night on one of the religion listservs that I monitor: Someone noisily claimed the moral high ground by stating that the only risk-free moral position in today's world is pacifism.


Choosing not to act is indistinguishable from choosing to act. All decisions have consequences. All of them! The naive pacifist assumes that by choosing not to hurt an aggressor, moral due diligence has been done, and the matter ends there. It does not. If we choose not to hurt an aggressor, and the aggressor goes on to hurt others, we share responsibility for those whom the aggressor hurts. Those who refused to go up against Hitler early in WWII have the blood of six million Jews, ten million Russians, and countless others around Europe on their hands. Just as certainly, those who kept us in the absurd war in Vietnam have the blood of 50,000 American soldiers and countless Asians on their hands. Those who support the war against Iraq will bear the responsibility for those who die fighting the war, on both sides, and those Iraqi civilians who suffer in the process. Those who oppose the war against Iraq will bear the responsibility for the lives lost the next time Saddam goes on the march, if he does, and he may.

So does that mean we're in a double-bind? Yes. Virtually all of life is one great big honking double-bind. Get used to it. All decisions are difficult. All decisions are painful. There is no moral high ground. There are no safe positions. All you can do is think things through and decide where you stand—and accept the moral consequences for that decision. After a great deal of thought, I have chosen to be against the war against Iraq, and I will accept my share of the moral responsibility for the consequences of that decision, as the future unfolds.

Will you?
February 2, 2003:

The debate begins again, as to whether we should be sending people into space at all. Space travel's most rabid opponents, shamefully enough, are scientists, who have this screwball conviction that if we scrapped manned space travel entirely, all that money would become available to send robots all over the place, sending back terabytes of delicious data to crunch. Think again. Without manned space travel, the public at large would mostly write off space science as boring, and the money would be spent on other things.

Pondering this made me flash back to my days as an underclassman at Lane Technical High School in Chicago, when I was becoming a power at the Lane Tech Astronomical Society. There were two distinct warring camps in LTAS: The observers and the scientists. The scientists wanted to calculate orbits, and the observers wanted to look at stars. By the end of sophomore year I was the leader of the observers cadre, and I had actually finished building the 8" Newtonian scope that the scientists had fooled with for three years without making much headway. The two camps never reached any kind of rapproachment, but by the middle of my junior year the scientists pretty much caved and stopped carping, and the observers (who far outnumbered the scientists) elected me President, an office I held until I graduated.

It was the classic conflict between knowledge and experience. I like to know things, but I don't like knowing them by watching TV. I know what rattlesnakes and tarantulas look like because I hiked out into the desert, got down on my hands and knees and looked them in the eye. Sure, there was some danger involved, but the risk was worth it. And yes, calculating orbits is essential. But I always had this intuition of mortal danger lying in the confusing of image and reality. When the stars become nothing more than numbers, the soul goes out of science. There is no substitute for just being there, out there, out in the midst of the wonders that you're studying.

There is a mythic dimension to all human activities, whether we want one there or not. Science needs experience to keep it grounded. It was not until a human being looked back at the Earth from Apollo 8 that the lonely image of our planet in space became burned forever into the collective unconscious. You don't get that from a string of bits.

If someone offered me the chance to ride the Space Shuttle here and now, would I take it? In a heartbeat. Nonetheless, as I said yesterday, it's time to get us a new space truck. The designs are out there. Let's get to work.
February 1, 2003:

For as long as there's been credible science fiction about space travel, the great danger has always been burning up on re-entry. At 7:30 this morning, alerted by an extremely short e-mail from Frank Glover (subject header: "Not good") I stumbled downstairs and turned on the little TV in the kitchen just in time to see SF's worst nightmare coming true.

I spent the rest of the day mutely piling stuff into boxes, and when there was a decision to be made as to whether some artifact should be kept or pitched, it was a whole lot easier for me to say pitch than keep. I got a lot of goofy email today, from people telling me that Columbia streaked incandescently over Palestine, Texas, and others remarked on how it passed right over Roswell, and that Art Bell's show might be something to tune in to, just to witness the paranoiafest that is certainly only beginning.

Screw that. It's time for a new way to get to space. Our whole space program is founded on Seventies technology, as I've joked a time or two. It's not funny anymore.