January 31, 2004:

A few odd lots while the snow comes down, to the tune of perhaps 4" by tomorrow:

  • Jeannie the Cleaning Lady blew through our new house like a hurricane over the last few days, getting rid of construction grime and misplaced paint splotches, and now it's basically habitable. We're still doing the blue-tape-and-punch-list thing, but the end may well be in sight. She peeled all the blue plastic off our kitchen counters and appliances this afternoon, and we finally saw our kitchen as it was destined to be. I was awestruck. I'll post a photo once I can snap one in better light.
  • Jason Kaczor sent me a cool link about a long-running experiment devised in 1927 to measure the ability of pitch to flow like a liquid. Here's another article about several long-running experiments, including the pitch drop. Basically, a funnel full of pitch under a bell jar at room temperature releases a drop about every eight or nine years. Glass won't do that. Now, nobody's ever actually seen the pitch drop fall—but you can try your luck by connecting to a Webcam focused on the apparatus. A drop is apparently about ready to go, so tune in and see if you can spot it. (Finally, something worse than watching water boil!)
  • I've run across an interesting LCD display from Samsung, the 213t, which, like the now-extinct Radius Pivot, can spin from portrait to landscape mode with aplomb. I'll need a new large-format monitor when we move, and this one looks real good. It'll be my first experience with DVI, which is something I need to know more about than I do.
  • Carol and I met 34 1/2 years ago today. A love like ours can't be celebrated too often!

January 29, 2004:

As Brook Monroe most helpfully pointed out, I had forgotten that glass was a supercooled fluid (see yesterday's entry) because...it isn't. Glass being a supercooled fluid is a sort of geek urban legend. Glass is actually a simple amorphous solid, and nobody's really sure why it fractures the way it does. Another nice piece on the subject that Brook sent me is here.

My experience with optical glass-pushing involved something that really is a supercooled fluid: Pitch. When you sandwich a layer of pitch between two glass disks, the pitch flows under the weight of the upper disk until it contacts the upper disk (which has the optical surface) smoothly and completely. Rubbing the glass over the pitch allows you to polish an accurate spherical or parabolic surface, though it takes more time than modern folk like to spend on such things. (In looking back, my 10" F6.7 praabolic mirror took me about 600 hours to complete. However, at age 15, with neither job nor girlfriend, it was an expenditure I was more than willing to make.)

In working with pitch at Adler Planetarium's optical shop in Chicago, I did notice that hard pitch, if struck on an edge, tended to produce a conchoidal fracture that looked a lot like glass chipped on an edge, but that may be the best evidence I ever had for glass's fluidity. Alas, my big sin was not researching it on the Web a little more before writing an entry on it. Mea Culpa.
January 28, 2004:
Jeff's House Coming?
Jeff's workshop
(61K image)

Some odd lots at the end of a four-day (whew) lapse:

  • We're in the thick of the "punch list" game, in which we walk around the house and slap pieces of blue tape on dings and scrapes and badly done stuff, and the contractor calls in his subs to fix them. This is a lot of work and hair-tearing, hence my recent silence here. It should be ours in two more weeks, with any luck. The miracle is, that's barely ten days behind the schedule we set back in June!
  • On the other hand, the house is basically done. A professional cleaning service is working through it this week, blowing dust out of cracks and taking all the stickers off the windows and generally getting the place habitable. At left is a photo of the rear half of my lower level workshop, with my 16' bench and plugmold strip, served by a separate 20 amp line with its own breaker. Yum! The workshop is 11' wide and 47' long. If I ever give up electronics it will make a fine bowling alley.
  • Roy Harvey wrote to say that while he lived in England he lived in a house with a name, and his address was: Cobwebs, North Lane, West Hoathly, East Grinstead, West Sussex. A house named "Cobwebs" sounds very goth—or hey, Roy, was it simply truth in advertising? (Given that "Sussex" is short for "South Saxon" the name embraces all four points of the compass...even better than living on East Northwest Highway!)
  • Although we haven't seen them yet, neighbors tell us that our new neighborhood is sometimes overrun with wild turkeys. The place is already overrun with white-tailed deer, and we have seen abundant evidence of local bears that folks say are fat, well-fed, and easy to outrun. I almost ran over a red fox the other night. Should be an interesting place to live.
  • Many thanks to all the people who wrote to explain why some glass shatters into daggers and others into blunt little cubes. It all has to do with tempering, which is a way of managing stresses within the glass. I knew (but had forgotten) that glass is actually a supercooled fluid, whereas diamond is inescapable crystalline. Juan Castro De La Cruz wrote to suggest that because diamond has a rhombic crystalline structure, a pane of diamond "glass" would shatter into small rhomboidal fragments. I had begun to wonder if it were possible to create amorphous diamond, but then realized that amorphous diamond is that black stuff inside pencils.
  • As I'm sure you can tell by now, I'm too pooped to be profound. Give me a couple of days to relax a little, and I may have some more interesting things to say. In the meantime, I'm going to hit the sack and dream of having no more punch list items to deal with!

January 24, 2004:

There was something extremely satisfying about getting our house numbers put up on Friday. My sense of place, which has always been extremely important to me, was much stronger after that, standing in front of the house I'll be living in shortly.

We don't name houses here in the US like they do in England (where an address can be something like "Crustwyck House, Quibble-on-Wust, Wumbledorf, Middlesex") so the numbers take on the same mythic importance of names.

I'm also quite thankful of the smallness of Colorado Springs, where I can actually have an address with only three digits in it. Public safety law here requires that house digits be at least 6" high, and mounted under a light. Our neighbors in Scottsdale had an address like 33046 N. 69th Street—which would have been completely hopeless on our garage pillar!
January 23, 2004:

One of the hassles a Windows application developer has to deal with is laying hands on suitable icons. One issue, on which Brook Monroe has written, is the difficulty of expressing a subtle idea like "find next" or "filter on filename" in a 32 X 32 block of pixels. My take on that is not to sweat what the icon itself looks like so much as ensuring that people can connect an icon on a button to the feature that the button invokes. That's just engineering; balloon help is what I use. Icons are really shortcuts for people who already know the menus and have worked the application hard enough to know in detail what it does. I think it's a shortcut to madness to expect every icon to be completely self-explanatory to people who have never touched the application before. That's why we have both menus and icons; menus are really a built-in training course on using the app.

The more serious issue involves copyright and "needless differentiation." Icons, like any graphical art, are copyrightable, and you can't just scrape icons out of somebody else's app and pour them into your own. In fact, you can't necessarily draw an icon yourself in the pattern of someone else's icon; if it's too close (and how far can you go in a 32 X 32 grid?) you get sued. If it's too different, you're inventing yet another dialect in what should be a universal iconic language.

I hunted for and found the infamous EldoS Icons, a 100+ MB collection of 20,000 scraped icons, and boggled at the number of different ways people have devised to say the very same things. The reason that EldoS took it down is same the reason there are so many: To avoid copyright infringement, every major software vendor had to invent a completely independent icon language for its own apps. (The shareware thumbnail viewer that EldoS included with the now-disavowed icon collection is still available and I found it quite useful.)

The open source world is way ahead of us in this respect. There are a number of open source icon projects on SourceForge, though most of them are in .png format and must be converted invidually to .ico files for Windows work. The SVG icons are probably the best known, though the ones I saw were 16 X 16 rather than 32 X 32. The SVG collection was fielded as a "reference iconset" by its creators, and that's a really good concept. Perhaps over time Linux distros will converge on the UI side, with a set of common icons spanning all distros. We can hope, and in the meantime, I'll be mining SVG for internal icons for Aardmail.
January 22, 2004:
The landlord finally had the glass replaced in my office window here (see my entry for January 2, 2004) and I did a little more detailed cleaning behind the black couch. I was struck by the tendency of the glass shards to be dagger-shaped rather than irregular in outline. (Even more regrettable are the multitudes of quarter-inch fragments that are nearly invisible but have precisely the same shape!) Auto glass manages to fall into tiny little cubettes when shattered, though I don't know how that's accomplished. Some of the people who beta tested my novel objected to my contention in the first chapter that the diamond-coated corpses in the necropolis, when struck, would shatter into narrow, arm-length, fearsomely sharp fragments on which a man could impale himself. It seems to me that window glass always does fall into nasty shapes when broken, so why not diamond? What dictates the shape of the fragments when glass is broken? Given that we don't—yet—have sheets of diamond to experimentally shatter, should I have known better? And if so, how?
January 21, 2004:

As some of you know, I recently co-authored a book with the tireless Joli Ballew. Degunking Windows rolled off press on Monday, from Paraglyph Press, the imprint that I co-founded with Keith Weiskamp last year, and which is my current employer. It's the first new book that Paraglyph has released under our new sales/distribution relationship with O'Reilly. It's about cleaning out your PC and covers everything from temp files to adware to spam to registry keys. The point is to make older PCs run a little faster and a little better, so people won't be tempted to just put them out on the curb. Our slogan for the project is: "Don't junk it—Degunk it!"

The cover at left is an early one, before Joli took on the project, and her name isn't shown. (I'll swap in a current cover shot as soon as I get one.) The concept was actually Keith's, and I hope the campy cover works. I keep wondering if the stock photo is truly period, or if they dressed up some poor model born in 1982 in Fifties clothes, hair, and makeup for the shoot. Talk about becoming your mother...or your grandmother.

Keep in mind that it's not a geek tome; we were shooting for an audience of ordinary people who may not even know that degunking a computer is possible. If you're a geek and don't know this stuff already, well, turn in your geek badge!
January 20, 2004:

A few odd lots on this snowy Colorado morning:

  • My brother-in-law Bill Roper wasted no time in pointing out (in reference to Habeus; see yesterday's entry) that if you can't find 'em, you can't sue 'em—and thus the chickenboners and Sobiggers (those who spam through open proxies planted by the SoBig virus) have seized upon Habeus' haiku as the key to getting past a lot of server-side spam filtering. In fact, some people who don't get any email newsletters have seized upon the haiku as a spam-filtering term. Alas...but they still get major points for cleverness.
  • Pertinent to that, I was wondering if it's possible to probe for SoBig proxies, or if the only people who know how to find them are the people who planted them. As I read the technology, an open proxy like that is as close to a one-way trap door as anything you could concoct under TCP/IP, and if access to SoBig proxies became easy, we might even see file trading networks that depend upon them for anonymous uploads.
  • It may not become a meme, but the term (which I first saw in 2002) has finally risen above the level of an easy joke: Warsitting, for the process of turning on your laptop from your desk and seeing how many wireless networks you can find, without driving, flying, walking, skiing, sledding or in fact even moving. When Carol and I moved into this little rental house last April, we could pick up the network at the elementary school up the hill. Now, Netstumbler can see no fewer than four networks from here, and picks up a fifth if I plug a 6 dBi omni into my Orinoco. I took my laptop up to the new house and from the kitchen picked up five networks without an external antenna. In a lot of middle-class neighborhoods, we seem to be approaching Wi-Fi saturation, whew. Sooner or later something will appear based on this phenom, and I wonder a lot what it will be.
  • Howard Dean got clobbered in the Iowa caucuses last night, and while he may still snag the nomination, the lefty crowd should take it as a warning: You can't win the presidency on a platform that consists solely of hating the current president. There are a substantial number of people in the middle of the political spectrum who think of politics as neither tribal warfare nor beer-and-pretzels entertainment, but rather an obnoxious (if necessary) component of the serious business of democratic governance.
  • The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece this morning about how the Big Three automakers are trying to stop several new hospitals from expanding in the Detroit burbs. Why? If excess health care capacity is available in affluent areas, it will be used, and around Detroit, the automakers are paying for virtually all of it. Ford states publicly that $1200 of the cost of each of its new cars is health benefits for its employees. The health care providers state just as publicly that suburban hospitals subsidize inner city health care for the uninsured, and the automakers rightly see this as an unlegislated tax on them. I'm wondering more and more over time if we shouldn't divorce health care completely from employment. The more expensive health care gets, the more all that money distorts the job market. Something's gotta give.

January 19, 2004:

There's a common abbreviation in use in ham radio: "FB," meaning "fine business," which is another way of saying, "good!" or "kewl!" I've used it for thirty years, and only recently learned that among the younger, non-ham crowd, it has a related but somewhat more emphatic meaning: "F-ing brilliant!" Well, on Slashdot this morning, I learned of something that I would definitely characterize as FB, whichever way you want to take it.

A company named Habeas has cut a deal with all the major server-side spam-filtering companies to whitelist a short poem (a haiku, actually) so that any email containing this poem is automatically allowed through the filters. There's some subtlety involving mail headers, but that's the gist of it. The service is really targeted at legitimate newsletter publishers who are being blocked by server-side spam filters (see my entry for January 14, 2004) and need a way to get through. Habeas vets the newsletters for legitimacy (which involves a very stiff set of requirements!) and then licenses them the use of the poem.

The real value-add in Habeas' service is that they aggressively prosecute copyright violation on the poem. Copyright laws, not having been diluted by direct marketing firms, are much stronger than any antispam laws ever passed. So if a spammer starts using the haiku to get past filters, Habeus goes after them with lawyers blazing.

Like I said, FB. It's not the final answer, and it's only one small piece of the problem, but it's nice to see technologists thinking a little outside the box for a change. All we need now is authentication, or at least SPF.
January 18, 2004:
Jeff's House Coming?
Street view
(127K image)
Pouring the curb
(178K image)
Pouring the driveway
(194K image)

I've been quiet for a couple of days because the carpet is going in up at the house, and there was an immense amount of grit and dirt and trash of all species scattered around the entire structure. They told us that they would clean up before the carpet went down...but what they meant is that they would clean up the areas where there would be carpet. The unfinished bedroom, the mechanical room (that's what they now call the place with concrete floors where things like furnaces hang out) and the entire main level were pigstys. In addition to pounds (I'm not kidding!) of good old Colorado dirt, there were screws and wire snippets and cigarette packs and soda bottles and Burger King cups and broken floor tiles and scraps of cardboard and tape and nails and tacks and instruction sheets and pieces of locksets and bookshelf brackets and lord only knows what else—all of which would be tracked over and ground into our new carpeting by the tramping tradesmen, including the guys who were laying the carpet.

So I've been up there for a couple of days, sweeping and vacuuming and wet-mopping the whole place and the porch and the new front sidewalk to boot. I'm not quite done yet, but it's a vast improvement over what I was looking at Friday morning. It looks amazingly like a house now. There's no "construction" left to do at all. What remains is cleanup and touchup, leading to the inevitable game of "punch list" that we'll begin sometime this coming week.

In the left margin are some recent photos, of the sidewalk and driveway apron being poured, and the house itself as it now stands. There's lots of construction debris lying around outside, and some of that will be picked up (though not by me!) but in truth, the landscaping and detailed cleanup of the lot around the house will have to wait until the ground thaws. Still, we're almost there. It's been going on so long it'll seem funny actually living there—but that's what Carol and I want right now more than anything else on Earth.
January 15, 2004:

I suspect that there's a way to say "I am overwhelmed!" in Elvish, but all my Tolkien books are packed, so you'll just have to get it in the best words I know how to say.


Having just gotten back from seeing The Return of the King for the first time (with my new friend David Beers) I'm still bumping into walls. And I realize that I missed a great chance. 36 years ago, in 1967, three best friends who shared a lunch table at Lane Technical High School in Chicago discovered Tolkien's trilogy at the same time, and for most of the rest of our high school careers we talked about the story line, argued about the pronunciation, and speculated who should play what characters in the (what we considered inevitable) movie version. These same three guys, myself, Tom Barounis, and George Hodous, pledged a solemn vow to meet on the Moon to usher in the year 2000. Yes, we were serious—as we spoke the words it was still 33 years away; how hard could that be?

We missed the Moon at Millennium (2000 or 2001, however you count it), but I'm glad that I lived long enough to see the movie that we were sure would be released by 1969. And what I should have done was found those two guys, and gone somewhere to see it together, three seats in a row, like we'd spent so many lunches back at Lane Tech. Tom now lives in Niles, Illinois, less than a mile from where Carol grew up, and we see him regularly. George vanished on us some time back, but I suspect he'll turn up again when he's ready. And hey, there's always DVDs.

About the film itself I can't say very much. It rolled over me like a tidal wave, just as the book did the first time I read it. Everybody has their own quibbles (I have a few myself) but Peter Jackson did it as well as any filmmaker ever could, and it's entirely possible that no fantasy film will ever match it in sheer, glorious audacity. (No other fantasy film may ever match it in revenues, either.) And as the last ship to leave Middle Earth set sail from the Grey Havens, leaving three sad hobbits on the wharf, I realized that what The Lord of the Rings was about, under it all, was friendship, and how all good things in the world depend completely on the bonds that we forge with one another, and how against those bonds the gates of Hell cannot prevail. If you haven't seen it yet, go with your friends. And if you saw it alone, go again. I guess I missed the Moon—but one out of two ain't bad.
January 14, 2004:

Esther Schindler sent me a pointer to a detailed article by Fred Langa describing an email experiment he conducted, one that confirmed what many of us have long feared: That IP-based black holes like MAPS and hair-trigger server-side spam filters are preventing as much as 40% of legitimate email from reaching its destination. We can't even search our "Junk Mail" folder for it, because it never gets down as far as our own PCs. 40%.


Oddly, Fred favors Bayesian filters, which I found capricious and unpredictable in my own tests, though in truth, POPFile would be much more effective if it included a way to automatically build its whitelist from an address book. I currently get between 500 and 600 spams per day, and I only stay ahead of it by constantly fine-tuning Poco Mail's slightly lame and very opaque filtering mechanisms. What gets past Poco requires a surgical precision and rate of adaptation that we might not reasonably expect of an email client. I'm building Aardmail not so much because I think it will be miraculously effective so much as the fact that I will control it, and I'll be able to counter newly discovered spammer attacks the same day I first see them.

In fact, I'm considering using a Pascal script interpreter component in Aardmail, so that I can write filtering scripts in Pascal and add them to Aardmail without having to recompile the whole program in Delphi each time I have to tweak a filter.

What Fred Langa is really telling us is that, due to the spam onslaught, email as a communications medium is failing. That being the case, it boggles me that SPF and genuine address authentication simply aren't happening. Authentication should, in fact, be the single most important challenge the technology community faces—and instead, we're bickering over DRM and whether Microsoft has too much market share.
January 13, 2004:

Read yesterday's entry if you haven't already—we're talking about the ebook almost-industry, and how the lack of industry standards in virtually every facet of ebook publishing has stopped the almost-industry in its almost-tracks. Yesterday I promised to explain why strong ebook standards should worry Big Media.

However, I've changed my mind. What I was going to say is that strong standards for ebook naming, hashing, and indexing (yielding an online index of digital content something like Bowker's ISBN index of paper books) would make file trading easier, because it would make file trading so simple from the user's perspective as to be virtually automatic. In other words, a file trader would look up an ebook in the index, and submit a request for a particular title to the file trading system. At some point (depending on how popular the requested item was) the item would come back. (I'm being vague about mechanisms here because there are a lot of ways to share files, and this concern applies to any and all of them.)

I thought that would be pretty scary, but it's actually not all that different from what happens now. My problem is that I don't do any file sharing myself, so the file sharing process still strikes me as irritatingly difficult, much as the original 1983-vintage DOS-based Word Perfect struck non-users as almost impossible to grasp, even while daily users made it do backflips without half thinking. If you could simply yell at the sky, "I want a copy of Assembly Language Step By Step!" and it just falls into your hands, well, that scares me. Alas, the people who make a hobby of file sharing are very good at it, and particularly for popular titles (read here, titles fielded by Big Media) getting them isn't a whole lot more difficult than yelling at the sky.

So we're already there, and as they never stop telling us, Big Media is afraid of file sharing. However, what should scare Big Media even more is what I've said several times already: File sharing is going underground, into darknets and even personal, meatspace contact. You can hand a friend a DVD-ROM containing 1,000 MP3s (or probably 1500 ebooks) in about five seconds. And that's with today's clunky red-laser DVDs. Sooner than you know, we'll be burning blue-laser DVDs with 27 GB capacity. You want high-bandwidth file trading? Do the math.
January 12, 2004:

As both a publisher and a futurist I watch the ebooks industry—if you can call it that—reasonably closely. It's not going especially well, as a major story in the Technology section of today's Wall Street Journal clearly pointed out, if between the lines. Industry leader Rosetta Books, which four years ago created what even I consider a reasonable business plan, has achieved annual revenues of only $100,000, and furloughed all its full-time staff save CEO Arthur Klebanoff. If this is the industry leader, well—we may not have an industry.

Part of the problem is that today's reader hardware doesn't work well except for illustration-free works like novels and textual references. PDAs just don't have the display resolution, and Microsoft is still skimming cream on the Tablet PC OS, forcing prices on what is basically a laptop to $2500 or more. Oddly, I find that e-books read better for me on a CRT than an LCD, at least at the current font-aliasing state of the art. If there were still Radius Pivot CRT displays—a very clever pivoting display that was popular seven or eight years ago, primarily for Macs—I'd be tempted to get one. I had a Genius monochrome portrait display for many years and loved it, but the company foundered before it could field effective Windows drivers.

Pricing has been a further issue. I don't think people are going to pay full cover price or even 25% off cover price for a completely intangible book. Rosetta has brought prices down to the $10 level, but even that's too high. Consumers seem to think that $5 is about right, but nobody seems to want to play at that price point. Publishers moan about piracy, and authors moan about publishers. We still don't have an industry.

Chaos in the format and DRM world is another roadblock. There is huge consumer resistance to the sort of scorched-earth DRM that big media is demanding. Small media seems to have a better grip on this. I've found, in auditing the alt.binaries.ebook.technical newsgroup on Usenet, that O'Reilly's completely unprotected ebooks are the ones most frequently posted. And is O'Reilly in trouble financially? Not at all. In fact, it's probably the strongest small technical publisher out there. DRM may be less necessary than we think.

It doesn't help that there are four or five completely incompatible DRM systems in wide use (if "wide" means anything at all here) each of which requires its own proprietary reader. Some of those readers take liberties with Windows that I find unacceptable, like refusing to run if a debugger is in memory, and refusing to be knocked out of memory with Task Manager.

I actually have a few of O'Reilly's compiled HTML (.chm) ebooks, and they work surprisingly well. Adobe's PDF format works well too, and doubtless there are other formats that I would like if I could run them. This problem of multiple formats could be mitigated by the use of an XML-based metadata system like RDF that would allow an ebook to export its TOC and index to a centralized library manager. I would buy more technical ebooks if I could do cross-library searches on them, and I'd be more than happy to work with multiple readers by clicking on a line in a search-results list.

I guess what this means is that to have an ebooks industry, we first need an industry-standard ebook API. It hasn't hit the ebook publishing industry yet, because they're book people, not programmers. Nonetheless, it's true: Ebooks are databases, not books. Few people are going to read novels on their PDAs, but I would be happy to read technical books here in my computer chair, if I could centralize access to library functions. That would be a wonderful thing for consumers...

...but there is a very subtle danger in it for publishers, especially those paranoid big ones. (They may not be paranoid completely without reason.) I'll explain that danger tomorrow.
January 11, 2004:

I don't really think CAN SPAM is going to reduce my spam count one lick, but I've been watching my daily intake of spam closely since January 1 to see if the nature of incoming spam changes at all. So far, not much: I've gotten somewhat fewer new domains to block, and a few more messages are appearing with postal addresses in them somewhere.

This is good, at least for the moment. A postal address is a good filter value, one unlikely to generate any false positives in legitimate email that I might receive. Fewer new spammer addresses probably means that those spammers who want to stay "legitimate" by registering their own addresses (rather than forging headers or using chickenboners or open relays) are kicking back and trying to figure out how to wiggle out from under CAN SPAM's restrictions and still pump out spam in billion-piece quantities. This won't last. My prediction is that the shadowy spammer utilities that create spam will begin generating phony land addresses with random elements to give the appearance of legitimacy without creating a persistent filter value in each message. In other words, we'll begin seeing addresses like these in messages from the same spammer:

2007 Church St. Suite 24
1206 Church St. Suite 407
442 Church St. Suite 51

etc. It's only a matter of time. In the meantime, I figured I would again post links to my two big filtering files, for blocked domains and blocked subjects. These are the exact files used by Poco Mail. I keep meaning to create a text merge utility so people can merge mine with their own; hang in there; it's really an hour's work or less in Delphi. I just have to bestir myself to do it. In the meantime, it's interesting—and a little funny—to look at all the permutations on the spelling of "Viagra" that these guys come up with, perhaps not caring that each is a wonderful filter value. These have helped a lot. Message body filtering is much more difficult, because of the near-universal use of comment tags mixed into the middles of words—and more recently, the expression of the entire textual message in individual HTML character specifiers like "&#105", which encodes lowercase "i". Poco can't handle that, but Aardmail will.
January 10, 2004:
Jeff's House Coming?
Book wall & ladder
(95K image)
View south from deck
K image)
View east from deck
(191K image)
View from rear
(208K image)

Not much time to write this morning, so I'll do a quick update on the house. We're truly closing in on it:

  • The upper decks are both done, and the lower deck needs only its railing, which should go in on Monday or Tuesday. The view from the decks is incredible, especially at night. I can't capture the city lights in a photo, but the links at left may give you some idea.
  • My library wall is finished, rolling ladder and all. All we need are the clips (which they forgot to order) to support the shelves.
  • They're putting in the front sidewalk on Monday. Interestingly, they have to thaw the ground over which the sidewalk will be poured, and they do this with a machine that pumps hot water through a hose that is looped back and forth over the area in question.
  • All the exterior painting is done, and all the interior wall paint needs is some touchup work. They still have to paint the concrete floor in the garage and in my lower-level workshop.
  • Our cooktop is still backordered, but the rest of the kitchen is all in place, with the only work left to be done is to connect the water line to the icemaker in the fridge.
  • The carpeting still needs to be put down, but that's about the last thing to be done—that, and an awesome amount of cleanup.
The remarkable thing is that the whole project may be as much as 2 weeks behind schedule, which in the custom homes industry is so close to on time it might as well be ahead of schedule by two months. This doesn't mean it was easy, but compared to many horror stories we've heard from all quarters, ours was a well-behaved project. We're hoping to close by Valentine's Day or a little before, so that the Big Move can begin.
January 9, 2004:

Some Wi-Fi odd lots as I grind through the update leading to Jeff Duntemann's Wi-Fi Guide 2E:

  • I bought a Wireless-G USB adapter, and couldn't get it to deliver throughput past Wireless-B levels of about 4 Mbps. It drove me nuts—the other nodes on the G-only network were delivering throughput as high as 23 Mbps, which is astonishing. At last I found that the USB 2.0 port on my Dell Xeon was really a USB 1.1 port. USB 1.1 is roughly as fast as Wireless-B. I didn't think an adapter intended for use with USB 2.0 would work in a USB 1.1 port, but this one (the Linksys WUSB54G) will happily work in a USB 1.1 port, pumping packets as fast as the port will taken them, which is about 4-4.5 Mbps. There is nothing physical on the back of the machine to tell me what sort of USB port it is, and I haven't figured out yet how to check from software. Moral: RTFM, if you can understand the FM, or believe what it says.
  • A box scanown at CompUSA shows that all the market leaders (Linksys, D-Link, Belkin, and so on) are way slow to get Wi-Fi Wireless-G certification for their products, while latecomers like Buffalo have G certification on every box. This appears to be the price of designing products for "draft-G" and then having to re-engineer them to meet final 802.11g specs. None of the Linksys Wireless-G items I bought is Wi-Fi Alliance certified for Wireless-G. One of my imminent tests is to pick up a Buffalo Wireless-G PC card and see how well it talks to non-certified Wireless-G gear.
  • After describing Linksys' new WMA11B wireless media node in my January 3, 2004 entry, I recalled vaguely that somebody somewhere had an open source project for comparable media server software that could work wirelessly or otherwise, serving content over a network. As I'm not sure what such a thing should be called, I can't find it. I understand that the real value-added in the WMA11B is hardware that converts digital data to composite or S-Video or audio to feed to your consumer electronics, but a cheap PC with the right boards in it can do that too. Although the WAM11B's hardware seems to work well, reviewers on Amazon were very hard on the bundled software. This isn't rocket science. Somewhere should be instructions on how to lash something like this up yourself. Any clues?

January 8, 2004:

A few odd lots as the snow melts off the rooftops:

  • Pete Albrecht sent me what he calls his best Saturn photo yet, and I stand amazed. This is from a commercial 12" telescope (the Meade LX200) set up in his backyard in the thick of smoggy Orange County. To me it looks like the sort of shot we used to ooh and ahh over from Lick Observatory and Palomar. The secret seems to be taking many individual shots via a CCD Web cam (the Phillips ToUCam in this case) and combining them via a stacker program to average out the vagaries of a jittery atmosphere. However it's accomplished, it's revolutionizing amateur astrophotography. I have the CCD Web cam (and a scope adapter that Pete made for me) but the scope will have to wait for better weather here.
  • In their desperation to avoid spam filters, spammers are resorting to subject lines that consist solely of four or five completely unrelated words: "debug anemone hologram beckon." No clue as to what the message is about (and you'd think a dead giveaway for spam) but they're still going out, which must mean people still open them, read them, and respond to them.
  • Odder still are the very latest, in which spammer utilities insert unrelated words into the middle of the "real" words of the subject line: "Its much beaugusttter when its lotailwindnger." We're dipping toward Lewis Carroll here. I laugh out loud, and continue to build Aardmail, against which such things simply won't work.
  • I'm sure most of you already know this, but it is essential that you turn off "install on demand" if you use Internet Explorer. An idiotic feature if ever there were one, this little gem allows "drive-by installs" of hijackware like CoolSearch. Go to a Web site, and boom! It's on your system and very difficult to get rid of. Go to Tools|Internet Options|Tab:Advanced| and under Browsing (about seven items down) un-check Enable Install On Demand. Better still, use Mozilla or Opera.
  • The official measurement of last Friday's horrendous wind gusts (see my entry for January 2, 2004) has been announced as 110 Mph. As they used to say in the Sixties: What a rush!

January 7, 2004:

There was a riff on Plastic recently about the sad state of futurism, and for a change I generally agree with them: Futurism has fallen on bad times. The primary reason is that current futurists have a technology fetish, held over from the heady years mid-century when technology really was the prime mover among the many forces of history. Futurists have this bad habit of looking at increases in horsepower or computer power and extrapolating those curves in isolation. (A lot of us nerds fondly remember George O. Smith's goofy SF extrapolation of Fifties technology to gigantic vacuum tubes serving outer space radio relay stations.) Certain technologies may someday become what I call "hinge forces" (nanotechnology is tops on that short list) but at the moment we're in a sort of technological interregnum: Tweaking stuff that was invented thirty or more years ago. The last fundamental technological mechanism to be broadly deployed on Earth was the computer network. I wonder a lot what the next one will be, but the real work of a futurist these days lies elsewhere.

If you want to anticipate the future in some useful way, you have to look at things like culture, demographics, and—egad!—religion. Harold Bloom's confused but still engaging 1992 book The American Religion understands that much, at least, though Bloom's record on specifics is not good. Early in the book, he laments that there may never be another President elected from the Democratic party...just months before Bill Clinton's admittedly slim victory. In his view, culture defines the future, which I think is dead-on. (The last 75 years of technotopia may have been an anomaly in human history. We may not know for another thousand years how to look at the 20th Century. Maybe the Singularity is already over, and we missed it.) Bloom's most outrageous prediction is that the era of religious warfare has returned, and that the future (he figures by the year 2100) will be a clash between Mormon culture in the West, and Islamic culture in the East.

Huh? Mormon culture? He was ridiculed for this statement ten years ago, but I give him credit for looking at some real trends, and some undeniable, if often buried-under-a-box demographics:

  • The Mormon birth rate is the highest of any culturally identifiable cohort in the West.
  • The growth of the Mormon religion worldwide rivals that of any other religion.
  • The Arabic birthrate is the highest of any in the Middle East, certainly higher than that of Israel.
  • American culture is moving in a profoundly conservative direction—very much toward the cultural place where the Mormons already live.
  • The Mormon religion and Islam have some striking cultural parallels, especially in their view of the nature of the family and religious authority on Earth.

The LDS faith began as a patriarchal, polygamous culture that welds secular and religious authority into one system. Ditto Islam. The young Mormon Church was forced to abandon some things (like polygamy) by secular American authority, but that could change. Bloom feels that as Mormons out-breed other demographic cohorts in America, polygamy will eventually return, and if America survives at all, it will become a Mormon democracy—one that will eventually transform the West and vie in a nuclear contest with an Islamic East.

Whew. Now that's futurism to conjure with!

My point is mostly that we have to get beyond our obession with technological change to get any valid sense for the future. I sense that we futurists got in this bad place for a reason: Technology is far more values-neutral than culture (which is almost entirely about values) so we as a culture can speculate about technology much more freely than about culture, which would basically be passing judgment on our own cherished innards. Most of the big cultural questions these days (Why are the poor poor? Does race mean anything at all? Are any values absolute, or are all of them relative? Does genetics dictate destiny? Does religion have positive value?) are politically incorrect and off the table—so we bitch about not having flying cars. Until we can get over that squeamishness—and stop screaming epithets at those who make the attempt—futurism itself has no future.
January 6, 2004:
Jeff's House Coming?
View from rear
(214K image)

As you can probably tell from my recent posts, I'm hard at the Wi-Fi business again, while updating my Wi-Fi book to its second edition.

I had this notion not long ago, while thinking about what the amateur radio adaptation of Wi-Fi called HSMM (High Speed Multi-Media) radio will be good for. Hams hope to create a mesh network bouncing between rooftops, giving hams a sort of alternate Internet that they control.

I'm not sure this is possible anymore, for a couple of reasons: Hams are getting fewer and farther between compared to their glory days in the 1950s and 60s. The "father between" is critical here, because mesh network nodes have to be fairly close or else use high-gain antennas. Because hams are sparse, nodes will not be close, and because of the ubiquity of scorched-earth deed restrictions, visible antennas of any kind are mostly illegal these days. (There's an interesting exception that hams may exploit: make your HSMM antenna a worked-over small-format satellite dish, which are exempted from deed restrictions by FCC ruling. Most interestingly, FCC regs exempt the antenna, and not the service—so if it's less than a meter in diameter, it doesn't matter what it's used for.) I have high hopes for HSMM and will try it, but my guess is that there aren't enough hams around to make it really hit critical mass. The most important tool required for the creation of HSMM will be a detailed index of where hams are who wish to try it. Hopefully, the ARRL will create such an index.

Now, let's talk about another possibility: Mesh networks assembled by hobbyists using open-source software running on PCs, and depending on the increasingly common problem of overlapping networks. As more and more people in urban and suburban areas implement Wi-Fi, more and more networks touch one another at their edges without any need for gain antennas. Now imagine a background utility that monitors the presence of adjacent networks, and manages simple file transfer and message passing across adjacent network boundaries. We could create an alternate Internet in this way, and it would be interesting to see what could be done with it.

In fact, I'm far from sure that such a network couldn't be created automatically, by a virus or trojan. Get inside the network, sniff for WEP or WPA passwords, and pass them along to your virus buddy on the next network over...egad, what a notion. I'm not sure it's possible, but I'm far less sure that it's not. And with 60% of wireless networks still unprotected by any security at all, propagation of such a system could be rapid—and create a sort of "spam superhighway" or file-sharing darknet unsuspected by the very people whose machines are doing all the traffic passing. Oh brave new world, that has the potential for such subversion in it!
January 5, 2004:

We have an interesting and little-understood problem in the wireless networking industry: too much power (and hence range) from consumer-class Wi-Fi access points and wireless gateways. Most APs have fixed RF power outputs in the 30-40 mw range. With decent antennas, power like that makes a network reachable from 200 feet away or more. Quick: How many of you have houses that are 200 feet in any dimension?

This wasn't a problem when Wi-Fi first hit the streets, because so few homes had networks. But with APs going for $60 online and relentless price pressure at retail, we're seeing more and more cases where two, three, or even four networks overlap on middle class and (especially) upper middle class blocks. For the most part, 802.11-family technologies are extraordinarily resistant to interference. But the more we push the bandwidth envelope with technologies like Super G from Atheros (a Wi-Fi chipset manufacturer) the more adjacent networks are going to begin getting in one another's way. Super G "bonds" two Wi-Fi channels (5 and 6) to create a sort of superchannel smack in the middle of the band, and in doing so takes virtually the entire band, except (maybe) channel 11. Here's a detailed report on Super G that is considerably more charitable than most others I've read.

What we really need in consumer APs is the sort of "dial down" power control that Cisco offers in its high-end Aironet 350 gear: Choose from 100, 50, 30, 20, 5, or 1 milliwatt power levels as your installation requires. 5 milliwatts is probably all that you need in a Chicago bungalow, and 1 mw will serve you well in a two bedroom condo. Still, unless you shell out $400+ for an Aironet 350, your choice is...30 mw.

Most people don't understand that if someone can intercept your home network from a private place (like inside their house down the street from yours) they can crack your encryption system at their leisure, even if it takes six or eight weeks, and you'll never know it. New key rotation systems like that present in WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) will make this very difficult, but WPA is very new and not enabled by default. Even after three years of yelling about it, only about 40% of Wi-Fi users turn on encryption at all.

It's funny, in a way: Consumers are so used to thinking that "more is better" that vendors will not add a few cents to their UMC to give consumers the ability to choose less power. And yet in coming years, the ability to adjust wireless network power levels may be our #1 way to keep the band from descending into screaming chaos of overlapping networks shouting one another down, with nobody moving data faster than 1 or 2 Mbps. It's ugly and going to get uglier. Stay tuned.
January 4, 2004:

Back in my April 23, 2003 entry I proposed a spam filter called Aardmail, which was originally to be implemented as a POP proxy, meaning it would insert itself as a background process between your email client and your email server.

I'm less sure now that this is a good idea. I want my mail to come down quickly when I call it, and all the work that a POP proxy does is done while mail is being downloaded. Aardmail is going to do some fairly original and possibly compute-intensive things, so I'd prefer that it always execute in the background, polling my mail server once per minute or so to get mail. Besides, I had some weirdnesses while using POPFile, and I currently have NAV working as a POP proxy, looking for email viruses. Daisy chaining POP proxies sounds slow and dicey.

I'm going to try implementing Aardmail as an email robot, basically a one-way email client that only downloads mail and doesn't send it. It leaves anything that isn't spam on the server, and stores deleted spam in a rolling archive that rolls off the end of the earth in 30 days. (This is insurance against false positives.) This will be a good education in writing threads in Delphi, as well as a good brushup on POP3 and a great many other things I haven't touched in a few years—or maybe more than a few.

Why Aardmail? I've basically reached the limits of what Poco's spam filtering can do, and I need some additional precision. I get lots of email with subject lines and bodies containing text like this:


Some spammer utility somewhere sprinkles random punctuation between each character, and the mix is never the same twice. Poco is helpless against this, but it's a three-liner in Delphi. There are other checks that are either difficult or impossible with Poco's filters (I will only spend some much time figuring out which) that are straightforward text processing using any programming language. What I need is a platform that can bring headers (and if the headers pass muster, then bodies) down from my POP3 server and allow me to apply fairly simple filters. The real work in creating Aardmail is the platform, not the filters themselves.

The other thing that I want Aardmail to do is give me statistics. I want to know how long spammers use their domains, and how much mail concerns penis pills versus mortages vs prescription drugs. (Oddly, porn is a much smaller part of the mix now. Much more money in gray-market Vicodin, apparently.) I don't know if that's interesting, but statistics can be that way: You can't tell ahead of time whether they'll tell you anything, but sometimes you stare at a graph, and suddenly you slap the side of your head and say, Aha! I've got the bastards now! And since it will be database-driven anyway (I'm a database guy from way back) storing and reporting statastics is easy for me.

I've had a few false starts, but I've got another prototype underway, this time using as many of the (now free) TurboPower components as I can. I'll let you know how the project progresses.
January 3, 2004:

A few odd lots whilst I break for lunch on a very busy day:

  • Reader Jason Kaczor sent me this pointer to a site that explains how to speed up Adobe's Acrobat Reader by disabling the loading of a lot of unnecessary DLLs when it starts up. I don't know what they all do, but I found that after doing the mod, Reader still works and it comes up way faster.
  • Now that Yahoo Groups has decided that it's going to sell all our addresses to the spammers anyway, I'm looking for a new listserv hosting site, ideally one that doesn't charge. Any recommendations?
  • Some Howard Dean fans have tried to convince me that Dean is eminently electable (see my January 1, 2004 entry) but I'm unconvinced, and an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal lays out in detail Dean's promises to raise taxes early—and massively—in his administration.(That particular article isn't online, but this one covers similar ground.) He gets points for honesty and certainly for balls, but promising to raise the middle class's taxes is never a good way to get elected. What puzzles me more is why conservatives like the Club for Growth are trying so hard to defeat his bid for the Democratic nomination. Sheesh, they should be funding it! The only guy easier to beat would be Al Sharpton.
  • Linksys has released an interesting gadget that allows you to stream content to your home entertainment center (TV/stereo) using Wireless-B. The WMA11B comes with a remote control and software to allow you to flip through digital pictures on your TV (this would be very useful for me these days) and play MP3s or movies through your TV/stereo. At about $150, it's reasonably cheap, and would allow me to stash all my digital content on one dedicated machine and just distribute it throughout the house by Wi-Fi. (Of course, I have CAT5 running throughout the new house, but the WMA11B will work with a wired network too.)

January 2, 2004:

This was a New Year's Day to remember. The day itself passed unremarkably; Carol and I took it easy, and right after supper went to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for their Zoo Lites festival. Carol went to bed early, and I sat on the black couch in my office, reading Jay Ingram's PopSci book, The Barmaid's Brain. There was a windstorm brewing, but I ignored the gusts that made the gutters howl, and I finally packed it in about 11:00 PM.

That was just about when it got crazy. From 11:00 until about 5:00AM, we listened to the winds go absolutely berserk. The house creaked and shook, and we could hear unknown small objects rattle against the west windows. We felt the bed bump around, and Carol finally went downstairs to sleep on the couch about 2:00. Since we only have one sleep-able couch, I stayed upstairs, gamely trying to ignore the incredible racket and fall asleep. I almost got there, remarkably enough.

Then, about 2:30AM, just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. A sound like a rumbling train rose amidst the general rattle, shake, and howl. Weird noises underlay the roaring wind, and it wasn't until morning that I realized that the noises were of our back fence disintegrating, along with fences throughout the neighborhood. A slat blown free of the fence hit the west window of my home office here, blasting needles of glass the entire length of the 15-foot room. The small couch where I had been reading earlier in the evening was immediately in front of the broken window, and The Barmaid's Brain was covered in daggers of broken glass. (The photo shows only some of the glass—I didn't think to snap the shot until I had already gotten the big pieces into a bag and vacuumed the floor.)

That was quite enough. We retired to the basement, unboxed our sleeping bags, and spent the remainder of the night trying to sleep while fearing that the wind would shear the house off at the foundation. We caught only a couple hours, and I'm moving around in a fog.

It wasn't a tornado. The wind that hit the neighborhood was a hot wind, and that was a clue. It was 44 degrees out when we went to bed, but by 2:30, it had risen to 54. We had been hit by a violent chinook, a strange wind pattern that results when rapid winds move down in elevation very quickly. As the strong westerly wind moved over the east rim of the Front Range, it descended thousands of feet in a matter of seconds—in our case, 4,000 feet, down the near-vertical face of Cheyenne Mountain. The faster and farther it falls, the warmer it gets.

We actually did better that some others in the area. Chris next door lost two windows and his fence to boot, and up Broadmoor Bluffs a few blocks, a new house that had just been framed was leveled. We went past it this morning on the way to check on our own new house (we're renting here) and saw that the just-framed house was now a pile of twisted 2 X 4s and roof trusses. (Our new house was undamaged save for two disturbed roof tiles. Whew.) Fences everywhere are down, and there's a lot of sweeping up to do. I need to get back to cleaning up the glass in the office here, and hope that the management company can get my window boarded up before it starts snowing tonight.

What a mess.
January 1, 2004:

Happy New Year, gang! The weather's improved, I wasn't nuts enough to lose half a night's sleep staying up until midnight, and the trail's clear up ahead, as Filer Fitzgerald is fond of saying—and if I can manage to get my novel published this year, you'll find out who Filer Fitzgerald is.

Every January 1 since I started Contra I've been temped to publish a list of predictions, and each year I've resisted. So I'll be a contrarian in the face of my own habits (which itself is a good habit to get into) and hand you ten predictions for 2004, in no particular order:

  • Jeff and Carol will move into their new house sometime during the month of February. (I had to make sure I'd get at least one right!)
  • Assuming Howard Dean wins the Democratic nomination, George Bush will re-take the presidency handily this fall. Tougher call against Lieberman, especially with Nader sidelined.
  • The SCO lawsuit will collapse, and though no legal points on the GPL are likely to be decided, I think no other company will ever be so bold again as to try something this legally insane.
  • As we continue to hand power in Iraq back to the Iraqis, the place will quiet down and Bush will claim victory. Troops will remain, though casualties will plummet.
  • Darknets will become the issue in the online arena, as file trading basically vanishes into heavily encrypted and authenticated private networks.
  • Wireless-G will basically sweep Wireless-B and Wireless-A into the dustbin of history. Whether or not consumers truly understand what "megabits per second" are, they've been well-trained for decades that more is better.
  • Paid public hotspots will go into decline, and free public hotspots as promotional value-added for restaurants and bookstores will rise sharply. See Panera Bread as an early major example.
  • Pope John Paul II will still not die.
  • The Episcopal Church will not split.
  • Kite aerial photography will become The Next Big Thing. That, or maybe curling.
Furthermore, I predict that I will be correct on six points out of ten. No guesses from me on which six. Check me a year from today.