28, 2006: The Future Existence of Blondes
Pete Albrecht messaged me last night in a state of high agitation.
"Blondes will be extinct by 2202!" he said. "Start
hoarding them now!" He then began mumbling about a plan to
start a "blondes ranch" and the necessity of adding them
to the Endangered Species list.
Once the links started coming across Skype's IM system, I started
to understand. Supposedly, the World Health Organization did some
sort of study on the prevalence of the gene that specifies blonde
hair. Blondes were originally a rare mutation that appeared just
after the end of the last ice age, during a time of famine when
many men died of exhaustion during difficult hunting expeditions
and women began to outnumber them by a considerable fraction. Prior
to that mutation, we were all brown-skinned and brown-haired. (Is
your crap detector twitching yet?) The cavemen were attracted to
the rare blonde-headed cavewomen and bred the gene true. However,
too few people are now carrying the gene and mixing of ethnic types
have doomed blondes to extinction. WHO predicts that the last blonde
on Earth will be born in Finland in the year 2202. (Probably at
2:43 AM on October 17.)
This story was printed in a good many places; the
most detailed version I've seen was actually published in the
London Times. Alas, some or most of it is a hoax. No such
study was done. WHO issued a
brief and deadpan disavowal: "We have no opinion on the
future existence of blondes." My own opinion is that as long
as there is an Iceland there will be blondes, but nobody asked me.
Snopes doesn't mention it, probably because it's just the sort of
thing that a UN NGO would say, and even the Times didn't
consider it out-of-character enough to do any fact-checking. They
did, however, feel compelled to include a quote from blonde
romance author Jilly Cooper who complained that (after a trip
to Mallorca some years ago) "my bum was sore from getting pinched."
Hey, thanks for sharing.
And you wonder why the print media are in trouble.
27, 2006: An Unexpected Gift
of my readers sent me a gift the other day. He had found it tucked
up on top of a heating duct in the basement of a house he had bought.
It was still rolled up and apparently never assembled. He did some
Googling and found my
page on Hi-Flier Kites, and enjoyed the read so much he decided
to send me the kite.
The kite isn't especially rare, but I'm delighted because I used
to buy precisely this item 40-odd years ago, for 10 cents at Talcott
Hardware. The Playmates of the Clouds were Hi-Flier's smallest and
least expensive kites. (The sticks were 29 1/4" and 23 3/4".)
They came in a number of color combinations. The paper might be
brick red, baby blue, muddy green, or pale yellow, and the ink could
be black, blue, red, magenta, or orange. The number under the aircraft
varied too; I recall seeing numbers from 6 to 94 when I was buying
them. Older Playmates had no number, or the words "Little Boy,"
and those are actually much more valuable.
I don't intend to fly it. The paper has discolored a little from age
and heat (after all, it was sitting on top of a heating duct for 40
years or so) and it's become too fragile to commit to the wind, even
if I were on a treeless field with rock-steady breeze. It will take
its place beside my other Hi-Flier kite (an American Beauty, by far
my favorite of all Hi-Flier designs) on the high wall of my workshop
downstairs. There's room for four or five kites on that wall. I think
I may do a little hunting and buy them some friends.
26, 2006: A Spam Sea-Change
I've watched something interesting happen on the spam scene in
the past few weeks. First of all, the quantity of spam coming to
me from botnets dropped radically. I was getting 89-90 spams per
day for some time, but very abruptly that dropped to 50-60, and
virtually all of the missing spam was botnet spam. Then over the
following months, my spam count rose modestly again, but there was
a difference: This time the "new" spam was coming from
spammers who apparently were buying their own domains and hosting
them somewhere "spam-friendly." The payload domain and
the "from" domain were the same. You can't do that from
This suits me fine. I can block a "from" domain right
in the client and never see it again. I've begun to get a surprising
number of new spammer "from" domains every dayI
think the number yesterday was 14. Turnover of payload domains was
always pretty high, but now the same turnover applies to "from"
domains as well. We can only guess as to why. The authorities may
be putting the heat on botnets to the point that spammers do not
want to become entangled in the investigations and increasingly
common indictments. (Note that, as best we know, spammers do not
own or run the botnets. They simply rent them from the black hats
who assembled and control them.) Port 25 blocking is becoming more
common, kneecapping more and more zombie PCs and making botnets
less effective for spam.
Domains are cheap, but they're not free, and I would guess that there's
not nearly the money in spam that there was a couple of years ago,
and as botnets show up in the news as sources of DDOS attacks and
other nastiness, law enforcement has shown more interest in taking
them down. It's just tougher to make a living in spam today. Damn.
I'm gonna cry real tears.
24, 2006: The MS EBook Reader and WordRMR
I installed and tested MSReader,
Microsoft's EBook reader utility, when it first came out a few years
ago. I never used it much, because I don't like sitting in front
of a PC reading text off the screen. The other reason I didn't use
it, of course, is that there wasn't much content available for it
back then. All changed now. I've had my Thinkpad X41 Convertible
for about two weeks, and I've been doing what was once unthinkable:
Sitting on my big comfy leather chair with the X41 and reading ebooks
for hours at a time.
Wow. Whoda thunkit?
Part of the new comfort of ebook reading is certainly due to the
fact that you can position a tablet any way you like, and microadjust
both its angle and distance from your eyes. (This is tough to do
with a 20" CRT, or even one of the new 21" Samsung LCD
displays.) But I think the greater part of the improvement lies
in the rendering of the text on the X41's LCD display. Microsoft
developed a font
technology called ClearType with precisely that in mind: Rendering
fonts legibly on low-resolution display media like CRTs and LCDs.
Adobe's PDF files, by contrast, were designed to be print images,
rendered at print resolutions, which hover between 1000 and 1500
DPI. Cleartype works as advertised, and MSReader's text rendering
is about as comfortable as any I've ever seen on a non-print display.
MSReader's other trick is that it works a little like a Web browser:
You can specify font size, and it will reflow the text in the selected
font size. The text glyphs are therefore not inescapably too small.
If they're smaller than you find comfortable, just crank up the
type size. This reflowing makes merging text and images or diagrams
problematic (and page number references useless) but for books consisting
of text alone it works very well.
In watching Usenet and the file-sharing networks for pirated copies
of Paraglyph books, I began to notice something in the past six
months: The number of obviously pirated works in MSReader's .lit
format exploded. Clearly something had gotten out there that made
creating .lit files trivial, and last week I went looking for it.
What I found was WordRMR,
a free utility offered by...Microsoft. WordRMR is a plug-in for
MS Word, versions 2000 and later. It adds a button to your toolbar,
and clicking the button brings up a dialog for specifying a .lit
ebook from the current Word document. Click OK on the dialog, and
WordRMR creates the ebook in seconds. Very little time, less effort,
and zero cost.
So anything you can get into a Word document can quickly become
an ebook. The FineReader Sprint OCR utility that I've used for five
years now can scan pages directly to Word files. Back in 2000 I
scanned and laboriously re-laid out a rare 19th century history
of the Old Catholic movement. It was a huge amount of work,
involving InDesign templates, headers, footers, fonts, and all sorts
of related stuff. I got a handsome PDF for my trouble (and learning
how to lay out nice-looking books was part of the exercise) but
these days, almost none of that is necessary if you just want an
ebook version of some all-text print volume.
This is what's making the Right Men in the big NY publishing houses
half-nuts: Print books are getting easier to "rip" all the
time. If you're not too fussy about the inevitable OCR "typos",
you can rip a print book on a scanner and have a .lit file in a day.
If you have a sheet-feeding scanner, even less. And unlike DVDs or
even music CDs, there's very little you can do to a paper book to
make it resistant to ripping. This is going to make the next five
years in ebooks interesting: Small presses willing to take risks will
step out in front of the paralyzed big boys and create a new book
publishing business modelwe don't know what quite yetand
the balance of power in print book publishing will be forever changed.
23, 2006: Odd Lots
- A third-shelf university in Canada has banned
Wi-Fi on campus because "the long-term safety of the
product is 'unproven.'" As if the safety of the long-term
mashing of cellphones against young human ears has been
proven. Sorry, guys. You're worried about porn and P2P, and using
the time-honored excuse of "it's for the children."
Come clean about your real concerns and stop looking like nanny-state
- I've discovered a small, fast, free reader for PDF files: Foxit
Reader. It doesn't even need to be installed; you just drop
a single .exe somewhere on your hard drive and point an icon to
it. No dlls. My kind of software!
- Visicalc creator Dan Bricklin has struck again with WikiCalc,
a system for hosting collaborative spreadsheets on the Webbasically,
a Wiki with cells and formulas. This would have been very useful
to me on more than one occasion, and it's one of those things
that someone should have come up with years ago.
- Another useful piece of software I've recently discovered is
an RSS reader with a lot of interesting features for organizing
feeds. Sooner or later I'm going to have to buy Feed
Demon, but of the free RSS readers I've tried so far, BlogBridge
is the best.
22, 2006: Can Writers Make Money on the Ad Model?
It's miserable to make money as a writer these days. The print
outlets that once represented such a good market for technical copy
are falling right and left. There are too many publishers fielding
too many books for too few purchasers. The reasons for all this
are complex, and while the Internet gets blamed for showering free
info on people who used to be willing to pay for it, the truth is
that personal computing is now a mature market. Although we didn't
realize it at the time, we crossed a sort of threshold in 1999 or
2000: Computers and software become Good Enough. People stopped
trading up their machines and applications every 18 months. A 2000-era
PC is fast enough and expandable enough (USB ports were in every
PC by then) so that it can still be used in 2006with the software
of its own era, like Windows 2000 and Office 2000. What this means
is that people have had plenty of time to learn the box and the
stuff that's in it, and all the books they might need have long
been bought. Furthermore, non-technical people have a well-known
reluctance to change a system or configuration once they've gotten
comfortable with it. The furious ramp-up of personal computer power
that we saw in the 1990s is over.
This leaves writers in a pinch. As publishers compete for a shrinking
market, royalty rates have dropped, sales totals have dropped, and
money in hand is much less than it once was. So what are the options?
One thing that has fascinated me in the past year or so is Google
AdSense. The AdSense system is simple, and brilliant: You drop
a frame in an appropriate place on a Web page, and the Google search
engine fills it with ads that relate to the text in the page. When
somebody clicks through to the advertiser site, you make a quarter.
It doesn't sound like much, but Web content is persistent: Unlike
a magazine article that rises into view and then and sinks out of
sight in a few weeks, or a book that spends a few short months on
bookstore shelves, Web content can be around for years and years.
My pages on Tom Swift and Hi-Flier Kites have both been up for five
or six years now. Short pop-culture articles like those might have
fetched $150 in print magazines. To make $150 in five years, an
article need bring in only $2.50 per month, which is ten ad clicks.
My hosting logs tell me that my
Tom Swift page gets a pretty consistent 550-600 views per month.
That's a 2% click-through rate on page views. Is this doable? I
won't know for awhile, but it doesn't seem impossible.
One thing that helps is that the ads placed by the AdSense server
have been eerily pertinent. See for yourself: The ads on my Tom
Swift page have been things that kids' book readers and collectors
would be interested in, including Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and other
kid-nerd lit like Peter's
There are some understandable glitches, given that advertisers
buy keywords and don't always do so with sufficient care. On my
space-charge tubes page, I initially got an ad for Oreck vacuum
cleaners. However, by this morning, all four ads were from companies
selling vacuum tubes. My
assembly language page gets 1500-1700 visits per month, and
astonishingly, Google has been able to place at least three ads
from people selling assembly language books, tools, and tutoring.
(The fourth says "Assembly Operators Wanted: $10/hr."
I guess EQU need not apply.)
I'm sure that much depends on the nature of the writing. Some topics
just don't have a lot of potential for ads. I'm going to test this,
by posting articles on topics like the biographies of eccentric
popes. We'll see. On the other hand, I didn't think "assembly
language" would be a phrase an advertiser would want, either.
I'm still placing ad frames on pages on my site here, and I have no
data as yet. (My membership in AdSense is 36 hours old as I write
this.) I'm not desperate for the money, but I'm very interested in
whether the ad model can work for individual writers. I'll report
back here from time to time and let you know how things go.
21, 2006: Richard Phillips' XML Parser for Delphi
I have come into a consulting project that I can't talk about yet,
but it requires that I do some software design and prototyping for
an information system based on RSS. I've discovered (as I do on
a regular basis) that knowing how something works and building something
with that something (such that it works) are two very different
things. Nothing nails knowledge like swinging the hammer yourself.
So I'm hip-deep in XML, a technology that I've really only waved at
in the past. And I've been having some fun poking at XML from Delphi,
using a remarkable free tool from Richard Phillips. I used his HTML
parser when I built my Aardmarks bookmark manager five years ago,
and I remembered that the component set includes an XML parser as
well. It's beautifully done, with a nice demo program and some reasonable
documentation. If you're working in Delphi and need to pick apart
either HTML or XML files, I don't think there's anything on Earth
that can touch it. It's not new, but Richard does not promote it and
it hides well. Get the latest version from the author's site here.
20, 2006: Steamboy
borrowed the anime epic Steamboy from writer Genna Hammerle-Clark,
and we watched it last night. Hoo-boy, what a ride! I wasn't quite
prepared for a two-hour cartoon movie, and while I would have cut
a few minutes here or there, it's shaped like an epic and it works
like an epic. Quick summary: In 1866, a boy named Ray from Manchester
gets involved in a power struggle between his father and his grandfather,
two scientists who discover a near-infinite power source that could
be contained in a sphere the size of a big softball. The grandfather
is an idealist, who wants to place science at the service of makind.
(He's a scrawny, bearded man with huge, forward-leaning white hair
who reminds me of some historical figure, though I can't place who
right now.) The father has sold out to American corporate interests
and seeks to weaponize the "steamball." The boy finds
himself in custody of the device, and caught between the ambition
of his father and the scruples of his grandfather.
Within that framework we have an excuse to render more levers and
handwheels per square inch than anything else in visual literature.
Half the film (or more) are shots of men turning handwheels, pulling
levers, and running from bulging steampipes that are always on the
edge of blowing up. Ray's father has built the Steam Castle as an
immense pavilion for the London Exhibition of 1866 (in the Crystal
Palace) but within the very elegant shell of an exhibition pavilion
is a steam-powered war machine that only requires the three existing
steamballs to be unstoppable. Two are there already. Ray has the
third. Adventure ensues.
It's a visual feast; the very essence of Victorian steampunk, and
whether or not you can follow the plot you can simply lean back
and soak in the elegance of the front rooms, and the soot-coated
grimy immensity of the caverns in back, filled with walking beams
and hissing slide-valves, and permeated by the constant low-level
dread of seeing tremendous power held only barely under control.
Victorian locomotive pioneer Robert Stephenson makes an appearance,
even though he died ten years before the story takes place. An annoying
American girl named Miss Scarlett wanders pointlessly through the
film, flirting with Ray to no avail. (Their ages are uncertain but
they may both be prepubescent. Ray certainly loves valves and wrenches
more than he is ever likely to love women.) Lots of locomotives
tipping over, chains and cables snapping, things blowing up. I hate
to spoil much more than I already have, but don't worry: There's
tons of surprises and breathtaking panorama. No brief description
can really capture it.
Only one additional observation: It looks like all the machinery
and the backgrounds are CGI, with only the human beings hand-drawn.
This may be an anime convention but I found the "graphical
dissonance" distracting. I like steam things, and the elegance
of Victorian design, and the comic-book faces just didn't fit that
well against such a subtly rendered background.
However, overall it's a great two hours, and I highly recommend it.
17, 2006: QBit's First Birthday
QBit celebrated his first birthday on February 9th, but he was
so matted up and filthy that I couldn't bear to post a photo. It
took more than a week for us to find time to tidy him up make him
presentable. His favorite place in the house is right here where
I show him, on the back edge of the big livingroom couch, where
he can see whatever's going on almost anywhere on the first floor.
He can watch TV, or he can turn around (as here) and watch us working
at the kitchen island.
We think he's almost out of his terrible teens, and Carol's actually
had some luck with elementary obedience training. Nonetheless, he's
willful and stubborn and extremely smart, smart enough to know what
sort of treat we're holding and willful enough to decide whether
the treat is good enough to warrant doing what we want him to do.
There are days when a salmon treat or a molasses treat is enough,
and other days (many, it seems) when nothing but a liver treat will
He's playful in the extreme, and has (like all dogs) some slightly
weird habits. He enjoys taking his (many) toys and dropping them
down the stairs to the lower level. We've never taught him to go
down stairs, and he has never learned on his own, so he sits there
at the top and waits for us to go down and fetch up his ball or
his stuffed camel.
Several people have asked us if he's show quality, and the answer
is, not quite. His color, coat, and stance are perfect, but some of
his front teeth are crooked, and while he might win some points at
local shows, he's not really champion material. Still, he thinks
he is, and acts like it. We're not going to try and teach him any
16, 2006: Will Sony Botch Their EBook Reader?
The Wall Street Journal published a (print) article today
suggesting that if Sony chose to, they could own the ebook reader
market. This may be true, but it's kind of like saying that if Jeff
chose to, he could become an ace at C++. The real question is this:
Will Sony's longstanding corporate culture allow it to do what it
must to field the kingmaker ebook reader?
My early hunch is, Who you kiddin'?
This isn't Sony's forte. Sony's forte, in fact, is hanging itself
from the noose inherent in Japanese business culture that places
the desires of corporations far ahead of the desires of consumers.
Sony owned the portable music player market with the Walkman, but
they were so desperately afraid of piracy doing damage to music
companies (of which they themselves are one) that they left the
portable digital music player market lying on the sidewalk for Apple
to pick up. Apple now owns that market because they did everything
in their power to make consumers happy with the products.
Sony fielded the
Librie ebook reader in Japan last year, and it died the death
because it could only display ebooks purchased and downloaded from
Sony's content siteand these were only "rented"
for sixty days, after which they would poof and need to be purchased
again. The hardware itself is brilliantespecially its crisp
digital paper display. But consumers were not allowed to load their
own content on it at all. The article in the WSJ indicated
new reader to be launched in the American market this spring
will display several different content formats, including Word and
PDF. (No indication on the MS Reader LIT format.) That's essential,
but it's not enough. The key to success in the ebook reader market,
quite simply, is this: The killer reader must allow the display
of every significant ebook content format out there.
Anything less will mean failure. People may say that this is impossible,
but hell, we're not talking three guys in a garage here. Sony has
the money and muscle to license technology for Mobipocket, MS Reader,
and any other DRM-based format, and they have the smarts to build
a slab that will manage them all, and non-DRM formats too. I know
they're all rubbing their hands with anticipation, thinking that
the right reader will force the industry to standardize on Sony's
own proprietary ebook format. I hope they know that that won't happen
unless their reader and format together represent (like IPod) a
package deal that the consumer won't refuse. If Sony's reader displays
all significant formats (including non-DRM ones) people will buy
it. However, unless they make access to a huge catalog of
ebooks (not just a few hundred but hundreds of thousands) easy and
cheap ($10/book or less) their own standard will not win.
In fairness to Sony, the biggest single stumbling block lies in the
NY publishing houses themselves, who must realize that they can't
just pocket unit manufacturing costs and retailer margins and sell
a bag 'o bits for $24.95. Sony is big enough to persuade them, but
that would mean that Sony would be putting the squeeze on large corporations
to put the desires of consumers ahead of theirs. Sony finds that distasteful,
and I'm guessing that it won't happen. Still, I'm going to buy and
test the reader this spring, and you'll read my reactions and analysis
15, 2006: Subscribing to RSS by Tag?
I had an interesting if kind of obvious idea the other day for a feature
that blogging services should have but (as best I know) do not: RSS
feeds filtered by tag. This would be especially useful for blogs like
mine that cover a lot of ground. The blog server would generate an
RSS feed containing only entries tagged with a string specified by
the subscriber. For example, if you wanted to read Contra but only
wanted to see my entries on ebook technology, you would subscribe
to an RSS feed filtered on "ebooks," the tag I use for that
purpose. A number of people have expressed interest in this sort of
thing, and if LiveJournal added the feature I would certainly use
it. I can't imagine that it would be that hard to do. (A reminder
for newcomers: Contra is simultaneously published here and
on LiveJournal, identical in content if not in format.)
14, 2006: Battling CoolWebSearch
Someone at our church asked me to take a look at his machine, which
seemed to be getting slower all the time, and unstable. Sounds like
gunk, and being the Degunking Guy, yesterday night I loaded up a
thumb drive with my usual degunking bag of tricks, and went to have
a look, starting with Spybot Search and Destroy.
That would explain a lot. I've heard much about it, and have made
suggestions to other people fighting it, but I had never seen a
copy in the wild. And "wild" is a pretty good word for
it. CoolWeb Search is probably the single most evil piece of adware/spyware
on the planet. It's a browser hijacker. It was designed to survive
removal attempts, and whoever wrote it basically created a whole
new category of "regenerating software." Nuke any part
of it, and the rest will notice and re-create the missing part.
Getting all of it is a real trick, because there are a lot
I ran Spybot first. It took almost two hours to do the scan. Spybot
discovered 5,864 separate files and registry keys associated
with CWS. Now, I knew that Trend Micro had a dedicated CWS remover
which I downloaded and brought back to the infected PC this morning
without allowing Spybot to do a cleanup. I figured something written
specifically to attack a single spyware genus (there are many CWS
species) would do a better job than a generalist utility like Spybot.
Wrong-o. CWShredder ran for about ninety seconds and then crashed,
rebooting the machine in the process. Nothing was removed. So I
let Spybot do its thing again, and this time (after the two-hour
scan) I told it to Go Fix. After running for another hour and a
half, it told me there were nine files it couldn't remove because
they were in use. It configured itself to run on boot (presumably
to keep CWS services and files from being loaded) and after rebooting
it ran again, for almost another two hours. After this, we were
down to four files. I ran CWShredder, and while it didn't crash,
it didn't remove anything additional, either.
By now it was 3:00, and I manually deleted those files Spybot said
it couldn't. (I'm not sure why I could if it couldn't.) One more
scan with Spybot (this one taking only twenty minutes) and the machine
came up clean. I was pretty brain-scorched by that time, so I packed
it in. I'm going back for another look and some registry degunking,
and we'll see if CWS has returned. The PC has a firewall now, but
the lesson is well-learned: The ungodly thing came in through a
dial-up connection, apparently by way of yet another damned clib-caused
security hole in IE. The PC's owner is now using Firefox.
What I find incredible is that nobody really knows who's behind it,
or who wrote it. Everything is concealed under layers and layers of
misdirection, and what clues we have point (as they usually do) to
Eastern Europe. Living-material metaphors for malware are failing
us. This thing isn't a virus. It's not even a bacterium. It's the
13, 2006: Forgeron Cellars Zinfandel
write a fair bit about off-dry wines because nobody else does, but
I like dry wines as well. I'm picky about my dry wines, however,
and my standards are fairly high. I rarely run into a cabernet that
I like, for example, and the main reason is that these wines go
so far dry that they don't taste like much anymore, least of all
the grapes that they were made from.
That's Jeff's First Law of Wine: Wine is made from fruit and
should taste like fruit. (My long-time readers have heard me
saying that for years.) If a wine doesn't taste like fruit, it doesn't
matter to me what else it tastes like.
The other night Carol and I had David Beers and Terry Blair over
for dinner, and we broke out a wine for which I had high hopes,
and it did not disappoint: Forgeron
Cellars Columbia Valley Zinfandel 2003. It's by far the most
fruit-forward dry Zinfandel I've tasted in years, and ranks right
up there with Coturri's Freiburg organic zinfandel. There's good
zinfandel spice here, and a richness of body that you just don't
see in every bottle of dry red that you crack. This would be a superfine
red-meat wine. (I'm not afraid to admit that I drank it with chicken,
but I'm just a contrarian.)
Take note that Forgeron comes from an odd place for wine: eastern
Washington State, near Walla Walla. I have never had a Washington
State wine before Larry Nelson turned me on to them, but I always
welcome odd wines and wines from odd places. (Why always drink the
same damned things?) There are some wonderful wines from Colorado's
Western Slope (near Grand Junction and Palisade) that nobody sees
outside of Colorado. I've mentioned the off-dry and slightly fluky
Red a couple of times, which is probably the best spaghetti wine
I've ever had. (It's a little too sweet to have with good steak, though
that might just be me.) Another Colorado gem is Tyrannosaurus
Red from Carlson Vineyards, a middling dry but fruit-forward $13
lemberger. Not everthing good comes from Napa! I guess this means
that you may have to hunt for Forgeron wines, or have a cooperative
wine shop order them for you, but in the case of their zinfandel,
this is worth the wait. It's not a cheap wine ($27) but again, for
special occasions with good foodhowzabout dinner with your honey
tomorrow?I'd find it pretty hard to beat.
12, 2006: Cat Craziness and LSD, Mon Dieu
is in the news again. I've
spoken of this a couple of times before: There's a microorganism
that lives in a complex coevolutionary ballet between cats and rats,
and once it gets into the rats' brains, it unplugs an ancient adaptive
caution against being anywhere you can smell cat urine. In fact,
T. gondii actually makes rats seek out cat urine,
suggesting that here is a single-celled creature working under contract
to genus Felis to keep the protein coming. T. gondii
infects humans as well as cats and rats (and many other mammals)
and there's some indication that infected people live less-controlled
lives, are prone to rages and psychopathic jealousy, get in fights
and accidents more often, and do other things we would generally
categorize as stupid.
There's a new weirdness connected with toxoplasmosis that I didn't
know before today: People who test positive for the disease are
very likely to test positive for low levels of LSD. This is
intriguing, since LSD is a well-known changer of brain chemistry,
and it can remain in the body for many years after being ingested.
(Some of my ex-hippie contemporaries have gone on unexpected trips
decades after their last deliberate encounters with LSD.) I don't
see anything crisp on what's cause and what's effect and what's
merely coincidence, but it provides some rich avenues for further
research. LSD is the by-product of ergot,
a mold that grows naturally on grains, so I see no reason why it
could not be an accidental by-product of a parasite. And whereas
we've studied what happens when an individual ingests a significant
dose of LSD at one time, I don't know that we've ever studied what
might happen if something in the body were to release miniscule
quantities of LSD over a longer period of time, like months or years.
There's not enough hard data to say any more, so I won't.
I've been puzzled by the explosion of various kinds of public rage
in the last 20-odd years, culminating in the sort of frothing pathology
I see constantly from self-described progressives. There's an intriguing
difference between the sorts of extremism that comes from the left
and those that come from the right. The recent passing of Betty
Friedan on February 4 recalls the debate she had with Phyllis Schlafly
over the Equal Rights Admendment, back in 1973. Friedan shouted,
"I'd like to burn you at the stake!" at Schlafly, who
then cooly replied, "I'm glad you said that, because it just shows
the intemperate nature of proponents of the ERA." Friedan was no
fool, and not nearly the extremist that her demonizers paint her
to be, but she lost her cool in a truly stupid way, a way that gave
her opponents yet another weapon with which to bludgeon the ERA
to death. Extremists on the left often seem much brighter to me
in an intellectual sense than extremists on the right, but they
can't control their anger, and sabotage their causes by ceaselessly
flaming their opponents when they ought to be quietly working to
persuade the unconvinced of their positions. (The Left will live
to regret Ted Rall's unspeakable cartoon labelling our Secretary
of State a "house niggah.") Extremists on the right are
often dimmer (Schlafly was no equal to Friedan intellectually) but
they understand what the game is, and they plug away at their agendas
with a lot less noise. (This is one reason I worry about right-wing
whackos more than left-wing whackos: You can always hear the lefties
So let me put forth a Jeff Duntemann Crazy-Ass Hypothesis: The
characteristic (and often self-defeating) fury of the left may be
due to higher rates of cat-carried toxoplasmosis infection among
left-leaning intellectuals. Virtually all my far-left friends have
cats; the handful of far-right folks I know are either petless or
have dogs. Cats, of course, are present throughout the political
spectrum, but statistically they seem to lean left.
Note well before you froth at me that this is not a criticism of cats,
which I actually learned to like late in my life. (My sister's cats
sit in my lap regularly when I visit, and seem to have forgiven me
for my cat skepticism as a young man.) It's really part of my ongoing
criticism of inarticulate rage, and an SF writer's hope that we may
eventually be able to make the world a more civil place just by getting
11, 2006: Odd Lots
- February 9 was QBit's first birthday, and once we get him cleaned
up a little (he's a mess right now from rolling in dirty snow)
I'll post some photos. In the meantime, the February 9 2006 strip
from Mother Goose &
Grimm (alas, I can't link to the precise strip) is of interest.
- My Thinkpad X41 tablet arrived a couple of days ago, and I'm
about to begin a series on my reactions and discoveries. What
- If you like cartoons, there's a
clever search engine that allows you to search for cartoons
using keywords, like "sleep" or "books."
- I was delighted to discover that there's a set of Ruby bindings
for tk. Ruby would be a superb teaching vehicle for OOP principles
(it reminds me a lot of Smalltalk, which I learned while at Xerox
in the early 1980s) but you need a widget set to teach with it.
I'm just now trying to make Ruby/tk work (I studied tcl/tk five
or six years ago) but I'll report after I get comfortable with
- If I had to choose the first new product I'd like the upcoming
Borland compiler spinoff to attack, it would be an IDE capable
of developing model-view-controller apps (which can be done in
several languages, including Ruby and Java) with each of the three
subsystems on its own tab, and drag/drop UI components for the
- Yet another contributor to the explosion of obesity in children
could be an
adenovirus. I'm skeptical too, but we've proven that peptic
ulcers are caused by heliobacter pylori, and when I was growing
up few doubted that stress was the major or even sole factor.
- Some time back, meetup.com started charging over $200/year for
a server that coordinates monthly meetings. All the meetups in
Colorado Springs that I belonged to or had interest in simply
vanished, yet these guys continue to stay in business. I confess
gross puzzlement. Even more peculiar is that no one has yet cloned
what always seemed a very simple piece of software.
- I was at a outdoor recreation show the other night, and saw
a guy promoting these.
(The site is very sparse, and the units are not yet in production.)
Yup, you read it right: it's an electric-powered beer cooler that
can move at 20 MPH and pull 300 pounds. (Probably not at the same
10, 2006: Giant Beavers and The Duck From Hell
It's getting off to a slow start, but I've begun a new SF novel.
I may have mentioned the name here before; it's called The Anything
Machine, and it's set in the world of my novelette "Drumlin
Boiler," which was in Asimov's SF in April 2002. One
of the central gimmicks in stories of my Gaian Saga is that any
Sunlike star has at least one Earthlike planet, most of them stuck
in the long tail of the Pleiostocene era. Only Earth has humans;
the other Gaian worlds have all the familiar Pleistocene megafauna.
Ummm...you mean, you've never heard of the giant
beaver? Or the glyptodont, an
armadillo the size of a minivan? Come, come. The dinos ruled
Earth for 100 million years, and if Man hadn't intervened, well,
the giant beavers would have taken the throne for another 100 mil.
Them, and the woolly mammoths, the mastodons (which featured prominently
in The Cunning
Blood) and the dire wolves and the smilodons and the giant
sloths. Oh, and the
carnivorous Duck from Hell...
I'll admit that I have a writer's affection for very large warm-blooded
animals. Dinosaurs bore me; I'm far from sure that you can get interestingly
complex behavior from something with a brain the size of a walnut.
Mastodons, well, now you're talking. I have a particular fondness
for glyptodonts, simply because they're bizarre. (I also like modern
armadillos, even though they
are one of the few animals that carry leprosy.) I'm pretty sure,
at this point, that glyptodonts will play a key role in the story.
They inherited the gravitas of ankylosaurus,
and might even have some modest smarts. What's not to love?
However, giant beavers are right out. As impressive as a beaver
the size of a black bear might be, beavers are just funny animals,
and the rules of funny animals state that the bigger a funny animal
is, the funnier it is. A giant beaver is something they'd do a skit
about on Saturday Night Live. It's a cultural thing, and
I won't buck the culture quite that much by including giant beavers
in a serious SF story.
I'm still thinking about the Duck from Hell.
9, 2006: Delphi Dumps Borland
Mail is pouring in about yesterday's announcement that Borland
is going to sell off its IDE development products, the most important
of which are Delphi and JBuilder. Read
the story carefully; I think many may have it wrong: Borland
isn't dumping Delphi; Delphi is dumping Borland. David Intersimone,
who's been with Borland for over 20 years, is going with the IDE
products to some new and as-yet undertermined spinoff. I have a
sense that wherever David I. goes, the true spirit of Borland goes,
whether under that name or not.
What will nominally remain under the Borland name is "application
lifecycle management," or the sort of thing that most of us
old-school developers call "a subscription for the beating
of dead horses." IBM is good at this, and it's tough to think
that Borland can just walk in and take a bite out of IBM's lunch.
Besides, whothehell cares? If a handful of managers walk off into
the sunset babbling about application lifecycles, we'd be well rid
of them. A brand without the products that created the brand is
about as useful as an empty cereal box, as Borland's management
will eventually discover.
Everything depends on what sort of organization picks up
Delphi and its lesser brothers. A small, savvy group of developer/investors
could strip out some of the crud from Delphi 2005, cut the price
by about 75%, and own the Win32 code generation market again. (I'm
less sure how viable JBuilder is, since I don't use it.) There's
a lot of room for new, highly integrated IDE products. Something
as visual as Delphi and capable of creating strict model-view-controller
Web apps using both Delphi's frameworks and other technologies like
Ruby and Rails, or Java and Struts, would be killer, and I don't
think anything like that exists yet. I'm currently creating very
simple Ruby/Rails apps, and as good as the technologies are, using
them means manually managing a horrible mess of disconnected text
files, which is precisely what an IDE is supposed to do.
I'm less sure of how much impact AJAX will have on the development
market, but AJAX definitely needs an IDE to pull together the various
disconnected technologies that now have to be knit together by hand.
Delphiware Corp. (or something else meaning Delphi emptied of Borland's
missteps) could own the AJAX market with the right product.
So let's look at it from the correct perspective: Borland was killing
Delphi. Getting rid of Borland is probably the best thing to happen
to Delphi since Win32. Life is not about screwing around with application
lifecycles. Life is about making code happen. Let's hope that
Delphi's new masters (whoever they turn out to be) have that motto
carved on the doorframe.
8, 2006: Cause and Defect
It was a headline story both in the local paper here today and
in the Wall Street Journal as well, and people this morning
are sending me scads of pointers to the story: Low-fat
diets don't lead to improved health. A huge study went looking
for incontrovertible evidence that fat in the diet leads to elevated
risk for colon cancer, stroke, and other fatal conditions, and found...nothing.
This is not news to me, and we've been seeing hints for years,
but memes and bad science die hard. I've been convinced for some
time that fat by itself doesn't make you fat, and it apparently
doesn't kill you, either. The best way I can summarize the biology
as I understand it is this: A pile of bricks doesn't automatically
become a house, even if the house is eventually made of bricks.
A house has to be built. Of course, with no bricks there will be
no house, but the house doesn't happen solely because the bricks
Same deal with arterial plaque. If the fat isn't available in the
bloodstream, you won't get arterial plaque. But on the other hand,
without certain other conditions (primarily arterial inflammation)
the fat doesn't plate out on arterial walls. So we have some defective
causality equations here: The fundamental cause of artheriosclerosis
is inflammation, and arterial plaque is a side effect. Reduce the
fat content of the blood to near zero (which is extremely difficult,
and has health consequences of its own) and the inflammation can't
generate plaque. But if you reduce the inflammation, you won't get
as much plaque even if the fat is there.
Many things can inflame the arteries, the most famous being tobacco
smoke. But cortisol and adrenaline do too and are probably the most
difficult demons to fight, because we generate them ourselves, in
response to stress. And whereas there has always been stress is
our lives, people have traditionally mitigated it with strong ties
to family, church, and community. Without the solace of at least
some of those ties, our very modern disconnected self-involved hard-driving
Type-A citizens are awash in cortisol most of their lives, with
fairly predictable results. One of the most hard-driving guys I
ever met was a lawyer; muscular, athletic, trimand collapsed
of a fatal heart attack while jogging, at age 26. For years I would
think of him and say WTF? Now I think we're beginning to understand.
What cortisol doesn't do to us, sugar does. High blood sugar also
causes arterial inflammation, which is why uncontrolled diabetes
leads to heart problems at a full gallop.
The constant fear-mongering that the media uses to attract eyeballs
hurts us, and we badger our young people with threats that if they
don't get straight A's, play varsity football and two musical instruments,
they won't get into Harvard and will spend the rest of their lives
working at Wal Mart or living under a bridge. I look at the pitiful
doofus who wrote the diatribe I quoted in my
January 26, 2006 entry and wonder what levels of cortisol he
has running in his veins, having gone (like so many others on the
left) into constant, inarticulate rage over tribal defeats.
Even with less fat (much less fat) in our diets, living these
sorts of lives under these sorts of shadows cannot fail to hurt us.
The key to good health may be as simple as refusing to be caught up
in phony panic-mongering and tribal rage, and to seek out stable networks
of mututal support in family, church, and community. (That, and cutting
back on sugar and getting your sleep.) A low-fat diet alone will not
help you. In short, it's not the bricksit's the bricklayers.
When will we begin to recognize the truth in that?
7, 2006: Baiting the Phish Hook with Anger
I got a new species of phish in the mail this morning. It was a
faked message sent through eBay's servers, and some guy was furious
at me for not sending him the fur coat that I had auctioned and
he had won. My first reaction was a wry grin: I don't have time
to auction stuff on eBay and if I did have a fur coat, I'd
probably keep it. (This is Colorado, after all, not Scottsdale.)
I'll admit to only a little embarrassment that I have not yet sold
a single thing on eBay. I've bought a number of things, but selling
is more complex, and Carol and I typically give our unwanted household
goods to charities anyway.
Given that this was a spam sent indiscriminately to millions of
people, few of whom have ever sold anything on eBay, what was this
guy thinking? It's pretty simple: He was trying to make me mad.
The message was combative and threatened legal action, all in a
very rude way. An awful lot of people would become furious at being
accused of ripping somebody off on an auction, and when anger checks
in, brains check out. (If the Internet has taught us anything, it's
taught us that.)
The links through which I was to respond (nominally through eBay's
system) were all connected to a naked IP address. I haven't followed
the links (I need to create a new VM to do that and there's too
much else going on today) but I'm pretty sure that the pages would
all look precisely like eBay's pages, and the first thing they would
demand would be login information. At that point it wouldn't matter
what else I might see; the hook would have been set and the phisherman
would be winding in the line.
No massive interest group is being pinched here, so nobody's sending
cops after the owners of the IP. (It's probably in Eastern Europe
anyway; when time allows I will check.) Don't click on links in
emails. We're still a few years away from making that message
6, 2006: Gym vs. Sports
Some people misunderstood aspects of my Semi-Regular Education
Rant (see my entry for February 1, 2006)
with respect to music and sports. Music is a special challenge for
schools and I need to devote an entire entry to it soon. Sports,
however, we can dispose of very quickly: They do students more harm
And by sports I do not mean "gym" or "physical education."
I mean competitive games where there are winners and losers and
spectators and massive amounts of prestige, power, and money on
the table. Sports is a tremendously corrupting influence in education,
at every level. This should not come as news; parents of little
leaguers are assaulting one another over disputed umpire calls,
and when that happens, something is fundamentally wrong with the
whole business. As Barrett Seaman reports in his recent book Binge,
big universities pretend to educate students who are in effect paid
a meaningless diploma to play what is pro sports in all but name.
This is fraud, cruel to the students (who are often poor, clueless,
and unaware of how the schools are using them) and it cheapens the
entire idea of education.
Secondary school sports basically sort students into hierarchies
by size, strength, and agility. They turn the genetically gifted
5% into heroes, the genetically less-gifted participants into also-ran
bench-warmers, and the fraction who are uninterested in sports into
harrassed pariahs. Kids as young as junior high get trucked upwards
of a hundred miles to play evening games against other schools,
and don't get home until the wee hours of the morning. (I've watched
this happen. It happens a lot, and everywhere.) Schoolwork is given
whatever time and energy is left over after practice and the games
themselves are done.
"Reform it," says sports proponents, who then change
the subject and do nothing. (Anything we could do to reform school
sports would destroy any appeal sports might have to those who insist
on them.) Alas, sports are nothing more than artificial tribalism,
and we have trouble enough with tribalism in this world without
drumming it into our kids when they should be cracking a book and
learning something useful.
I hope I've made my position clear, heh.
Now. That's competitive sports. What I think schools should do
to keep kids healthy is a three-point program:
- Weight training, adjusted to a student's age and physical size,
and measured only against the student's own personal best and
not that of other students. We know a lot more about muscle development
now than we did when I was a kid. Exercise of any kind is good,
but it takes certain kinds of measured exertion to build muscle
mass, and muscle mass is only now being recognized as a potent
hedge against obesity and diabetes.
- Aerobic exercise. This can be laps around the track, bike machines,
calisthenics, or anything else that keeps the heart pumping for
45 minutes. My only caveat is that the exercises chosen should
not depend on physical agility or balance. Some kids have that.
- Ban sugar from school meal programs and vending machines. I
have a strong intuition that today's epidemic of juvenile obesity
is due primarily to sugar and lack
of sleep. Google around; I see articles regularly reporting
on studies that point in this direction. Fat contributes, but
sugar is the killer.
Sidenote: I'm still puzzled a little by the fact that my geek friends
and I got almost not exercise at all when we were kids in the 50's
and 60's, and yet we were all skinny as rails. We drank whole milk,
ate greasy burgers, and put butter on everything from toast to crackers
to rice to pasta. My mother fried leftovers of many species in bacon
grease. So why didn't I grow up fat? And why am I not already dead
from heart disease? Portion size may be one factor, but I remember
eating like a horse when I was a teen.
There's more going on here than we understand.
If we as a nation can't come to a single consensus on what education
is and what its outcomes should be, we should have the guts to make
schools truly independent of political pressure and academic faddism.
Let the schools choose how to educate, and let parents choose which
schools their kids should attend. Let there be schools for jocks,
and schools for geeks. I'm more than willing to keep such schools
completely secular, but if we have to tolerate sports in our society,
it's only fair to give those who see through the viciousness of competitive
sports something like a choice.
5, 2006: Odd Lots
- I just heard that my Lenovo/IBM
Thinkpad X41 Convertible has shipped, and I'm expecting it
in the next 3-5 business days. Finally! That damned thing took
forever to get underway. Expect abundant reports when I get it,
especially on the ebook side of things.
- Amazon apparently now has some stock on The
Cunning Blood, because it's being listed as "Usually
ships within 24 hours."
- I figured somebody, somewhere had to try this: overclocking
a Pentium to 5 GHz (and this in 2003!) by simply dunking
it in liquid nitrogen. It's a kind of a stunt; the computer
is spread out across a kitchen table and looks like a model of
a nuclear power plant, but the dudes pulled it off. One only wonders
what they're working on now. (Thatnks to Pete Albrecht for the
- Also from Pete comes a pointer to a
fascinating sort of community blog in which people post interesting
things you can see from orbit on Google Earth. This was inevitable,
given that I can see the enclosed porch I built on my house in
1983 in Rochester, NY. The world is getting a lot like that famous
Carly Simon album.
- Michael Covington continues to get some of the
most astonishing astrophotos from an 8" Meade telescope.
(And he apologizes for a little grain!!!)
- I've been recently astonished at the number of relavtively good
and useful ebooks released under the Creative Commons, at no cost.
One that I'm currently working through on-screen here (hurry X41!)
is Four Days on Rails.
It's short, but that's really one of the big upsides of the ebook
format: You don't have to have a maximum or minimum length. By
the way, the book has nothing to do with trains, but is a quick,
four-part jump-start for programmers who know what coding is but
have never confronted Ruby or Rails.
- If any of you get tired of watching grown men knocking each
other down today in pursuit of a misshapen ball, spin the dial
down to Animal Planet and watch Puppy
Bowl II. They've set up a little dog run to look like
a miniature football stadium and just let the cameras watch a
half-dozen ten to fifteen week old puppies romp around, tackle
each other, pull on chew toys, and slop around in the water bowl.
Great wallpaper for your AntiSuperBowl Party. One of the little
black mongrels looked heartbreakingly like my poor dog Smoker
(1965-1980) and Carol and I got a few chuckles watching them over
lunch. QBit sat on the ottoman and watched too, especially when
the white poodle puppy was on-screen.
3, 2006: Giving My 1998 Dell a Few More Years
I did an interesting thing last night: I powered down my mid-1998
Dell Dimension XPS T550, popped off the side panel, popped out the
550 MHz Slot 1 Pentium III CPU, and slid a 1 GHz Pentium III CPU
into its place. The whole exercise took three minutes. I powered
it up, and it just ran. Intel's CPU ID and speed check utility verified
that it was indeed running at 1 GHz. Performance of graphics-oriented
apps is definitely snappier. (Maxing out memory a few years ago
helped there too, I'm sure.)
always loved that Dell, and it was my main machine longer than anything
else in the Windows era. Back at that time (and even now, for all
I know) Dell "engineered" their machines in a very nonstandard
way, so I couldn't just do a motherboard transplant. However, Intel's
Slot 1 system allows very easy CPU upgrades. A Slot 1 CPU is on
a small PC board, enclosed in a plastic case. Many have attached
heat sinks, and some of the later-era fast units (like the one I
installed) have their own fans. There's always some question as
to whether a given Slot 1 processor will fit mechanically into a
given machine, but if you have the clearance, it's an easy thing
I paid $130 for the 1 GHz P-III processor. The only other cost
is some noise from the Slot 1 module's small fan. I don't like noise,
but the machine is a spare, and when it runs at all it runs downstairs.
You might wonder why I still keep a 1998-era PC, and why I spent
any money at all on it. The main reason is that it didn't cost me
any time. I could probably scare up a used machine at that speed
or even faster for $250, but then I'd have to wipe its hard drive,
and reinstall the OS and all the other stuff I keep on it. That
invariably requires a day's worth of sitting in front of the machine,
tapping my foot.
This page was
certainly the deciding factor: It always helps when you have documentation
that somebody else has already pulled off what you want to do, and
in this case I even got a
step-by-step spoon-feeding photo essay. Once I found that, I
went shopping, bought the CPU, and it was over. I still need to
buy a set of Universal
Retention Mechanism rails to hold the module in place; right
now it's in the slot by friction only. Since the machine is rarely
moved from its spot on my little server shelf, I'm in no hurry.
Albrecht and I have done a little Slot 1 processor-swapping before,
albeit less daring than a near-doubling of the clock rate. Everything
we've tried actually worked. I'm going to put the old P-III 550
(right) into an old hulk I have here in place of its original P-II
450 (above) and see if that flies as well. The Slot 1 architecture
has so far proven extremely versatile.
There are caveats. I have a P-II 300 on the shelf that came out of
a 1996 Compaq DeskPro, and its heat sink prevents it from plugging
into any but its original proprietary Compaq motherboard. Although
Pete and I have done well, there are a lot of gotchas and warnings
on the Web. It pays to know what processor you already have (Katmai?
Coppermine?) and how fast your front-side bus (FSB) is. But twenty
minutes of Googling will probably allow you to figure it out, and
hundreds of processors are available on eBay. Pete found a P-II 600
at a local junk shop for $10, and gave his old 450 MHz P-II something
to feel better about. In another five years my poor Dell Dimension
will probably be (irreversibly) a doorstop, but by that time, let's
say that I will have gotten my money's worth.
2, 2006: A Million Little Litigants
What may well be the strangest single episode in American publishing
history (stranger than even Naked
Came the Stranger) is playing out right now, as people who
were upset by the fact that James Frey's raunchy bestseller A
Million Little Pieces
was fiction and not memoir are filing
lawsuits demanding their money back.
Apparently Frey did not live nearly the debauched outlaw life he
had claimed to live. He inserted himself into a fatal rail accident,
and invented a relationship with one of the teen girl victims. He
claimed to be in jail when he wasn't. He claimed to be out of control
when he wasn't. He claimed to be a Really Bad Boy when he was actually
a total washout as an outlaw. He might have even been a reasonably
nice guy, though from Big Media's standpoint there's no future in
Alas, he had the temerity to get rich doing it, so somebody cried
"Envy!" and let slip the Dogs of Tort.
Y'know, where I come from, what this guy did would be called "fiction."
I flipped through it a little in Border's, and I swear, any NY editor
with more than ten milliseconds' experience would recognize this
as a hoax and not genuine memoir. It's hard to live that
uniformly and unrelentingly disgusting a life. It takes skill, energy,
and a class of specialized bad luck that few ever encounter. It
would be a head-scratcher first class except for the insight I got
from writer Terry Blair, who works in literary fiction. (I'm way
out in the genre exurbs and don't mingle in the same publishing
circles she does.) Terry said that memoir is currently a very hot
thing with the NY houses, and everybody wants to publish more of
it. She knows authors who have brought nicely-wrought novels to
one or another big publisher, and been told to go home and turn
it into memoir. So all this hand-wringing from Random House that
"we can't fact check every line of everything we publish"
rings pretty hollow. I suspect that they knew it was bogus, but
never imagined that anyone would mind. After all, it's entertainment,
Shoving aside the cynicism that always arrives in the wake of a passing
lawsuit storm, my guess is that people want to read tales of redemption,
thinking, "If this guy can fall so low and still come back to
a decent life, then my own problems amount to nothing." Or maybe
Hell hath no fury like a voyeur conned. (I suspect that conning Oprah
is in fact a really bad idea, as much as I give him points for it.)
Every industry is worth a laugh once in a while, mine more than most.
1, 2006: The Secret of My Catholic Education
I'm the Official Computer Guy for my 40th grade school reunion,
and as June bears down on us and things kick into high gear, I've
been thinking about things that I haven't thought about since, well,
1966. One of the great mysteries is how the school even functioned
with 48 or sometimes even 50 kids in a single classroom, with a
single teacher. Yet it did function, and functioned very well. The
secret, I think, cooks down to this: The school did not attempt
to teach us a lot of different thingsbut those things that
it did teach, it expected us to learn.
I don't remember grade school at Immaculate Conception being a
great deal of fun, though it had its moments. We were constrained
to be silent in class unless called upon, and we were expected to
follow a lesson closely without daydreaming. What I do remember
is that school was engaging. It got my attention, and (mostly) held
it, at least in part because a great deal of class time was spent
performing exercises in workbooks. We weren't listening to somebody
talk. We were doing. We practiced phonics. We practiced multiplication
problems. We outlined sentences. We worked on our handscript via
Method. We did the same relatively limited range of things over
and over. There were clear challenges and clear goals. There was
a good deal of emphasis on focus and recitation. In a sense the
teachers weren't "teaching to the test" because the teaching
was the test.
There wasn't a great deal of "interaction" and there
wasn't a lot of "enrichment." The only music was singing
songs. There was no gym, though there were attempts to create an
anarchic softball league on the playground in seventh grade. Poor
Mrs. Toffenetti tried to teach us fourth graders French, one hour
a week, but later on she was hired full-time and had to give up
teaching us French. Art was scribbling on pulpy sheets of paper
with crayons, and not too often, at that. (I remember drawing helicopters
a lot, probably from watching old Whirlybirds reruns.)
The secret of Catholic education as I experienced it was pretty
simple, and entirely secular: Mastery through practice. The
school had no illusions that learning was either rapid or easy.
It therefore drew a line around language skills and mathematical
literacy and hammered on that, and what time was left could be spent
on lesser things like geography, history, music, and (yes!) religion.
(We went to Mass every morning before school in our cavernous, ugly
church, and that was a good part of our training in Catholicism.)
The focus, literacy, and disciplined study habits served me well,
and allowed me to rocket through Chicago's toughest public high
school with almost straight A's.
About the only thing I would do differently if I could magically
realign our public elementary schools today would be to teach a
foreign language right up front, from first grade. Young kids pick
up languages more quickly than older kids. No sports. No music.
No history. (I'm convinced that history is utterly lost on anyone
under thirty. Time cannot be understood by those who haven't lived
a significant amount of it.) Lots of workbooks. No sugar. Focus.
Focus. Focus. Practice. Practice. Practice. In eight
years I could hand you a generation of kids who would academically
plow the rest of the world's students into the soilespecially
today, when "self-esteem" appears to be the primary emphasis
Yes, yes, yes, I'm just a damned old fascist. On the other hand, when
I want to learn something new, be it PHP or the history behind World
War I, I buy a couple of books, budget some time, sit down, and learn
it. That's what I picked up in Catholic school: Education is work.
You do the work, you get the education. It's pretty much that simple.