31, 2006: Are You a Bill, a Linus, or an Alien?
Every now and then somebody tries something that's just so cheeky
that I have to stand up and cheer. It happened a few days ago when
I first learned of Fon, a Spanish
startup that will attempt to formalize and monetize the sharing
of Internet bandwidth through residential Wi-Fi connections.
Here's basically how it works: You download a firmware update to
your Linksys WRT54G wireless router. You flash the new firmware.
(!!!) Then you have a decision to make:
- You can qualify as a "Linus" by sharing your bandwidth
for free. You are then allowed to use all the other hotspots in
the Fon network for free.
- You can qualify as a "Bill" by charging for access
to your hotspot. You then must pay for access to other hotspots
in the Fon network.
Anybody else can be an Alien, who does not provide bandwidth but
pays to use the Fon network. Fon takes 50% of the proceeds paid
by Aliens or Bills.
The idea of creating a network (or at least a directory) of people
willing to share their home Wi-Fi connections with others is not
new. I suggested that people place the two characters ")("
at the beginning of their SSID string to show that the hotspot is
open, though I've yet to see anyone do that.
The big challenge, of course, is keeping malefactors from either
cracking your home network or doing obnoxious things through your
connection. Details on what all the Fon firmware update does are
still a little thin, but one hopes that it draws on the experience
of others in creating "captive portals" and heavily isolates
the local network from passers-through. Solving IP impersonation
(spammers and illegal file traders) is tougher, and I don't see
anything on the Fon site that addresses the issue. Much worse (especially
on the US side of the pond) is the fact that most residential ISPs
forbid the sharing of their broadband connections with others. If
Fon catches on to any extent at all, this will become an
issue. We'll just have to watch.
It's a cool idea, and I love the three little icons on the Fon home
page, for Bills, Linuses, and Aliens. I don't intend to join (I'm
actually not live with Wi-Fi right nowCAT 5E in the walls here!but
if any of you do, I'd love to get some reports on how well the system
works, and how many people use it.
30, 2006: Odd Lots
- NASA is making a sort of ad-hoc
satellite out of an old space suit. This is a fine piece of
duct-tape engineering, and you can listen to its telemetry on
145.990 MHz FM, within the 2-meter amateur radio band. The word
"telemetry" here is not quite how I mean it (old guy
that I am) but that's OK: SuitSat will recite its internal condition
in English (after a prerecorded greeting in five languages) through
a speech synthesizer. SuitSat will be inflated and will look like
a human being with arms and legs outstretched. Now, does anybody
dare to hope for sufficient resolution to get a photo?
- Many of you have already seen this
(it was the EDS Superbowl ad in 2000) but if you haven't, go take
a look. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV.
I think it's even better than 2001's "Running of the Squirrels."
Thanks to David Beers for the pointer.
- Wines to Avoid Dept: Run screaming from Three
Thieves Zinfandel, which counts as one of the five or six
worst wines I've ever tried. Fortunately, it's in a weird jug
and easy to spot. I ended up dumping half of it down the sink.
It'll be awhile, however, before anything will challenge Sweet
Walter from Bully Hill. (The name itself is ironic; having
met the man once, "sweet" is not a word I would use
to describe Walter Taylor.) Whatever bad karma sweet wine didn't
get from Mogen David it got from Sweet Walter. Yukkh.
- You might want to uninstall Winamp 5.12 until such time as AOL/Nullsoft
comes up with a patch: There's
a nasty security hole in it allowing an exploit that can be
triggered by playing a sound file from an infected Web site. I've
used Winamp since 1998 but I'm looking for another MP3 player
at this time; what are your favorites?
28, 2006: Ebooks Partnering with Paper
Lenovo/IBM Thinkpad X41 tablet PC should be here within two weeks,
and I'm already buying ebooks for it. In fact, in chasing down a
good tutorial on Ruby (and Rails, its application framework) I stumbled
Pragmatic Programmers, a small publisher who's quietly going
after the ebook market precisely as I would: No DRM, but the customer's
name is embedded in the PDF.
In the last couple of days (basically since Julian Bucknall gave
me a quick thumbnail of why it was so good, last Thursday night)
I've been furiously researching Rails, and yesterday I ordered Agile
Web Development with Rails by Dave Thomas and David Heinemeier
Hansson. I ordered it from the publisher as package that seemed
like a reasonable deal: Buy the print book for $35, and get the
ebook for $8 more. (The ebook alone costs $22.50.) The print book
will be showing up some time this coming week, but I got the ebook
five minutes later and I'm already well into it, even though I'm
not fond of reading in front of my computer. (That's what big cushy
leather chairs are for!)
My main problem with Ruby and Rails right now is that my Web hosting
service doesn't support them. I've installed them on my server downstairs
so I can learn the technology, but if I want to actually field an
application I may have to find another hosting service, which I'd
prefer not to doSectorlink has been very good, and moving
domains and sites is a PITA first class. Still, at first blush I
like it better than PHP, and I'll touch upon it as I learn it in
You might well ask, Why am I buying the print book at all? Or certainly,
Why buy both? Like a lot of older people, I like print, and
I have always kept a library of useful books. I read computer books
on airplanes and other places of enforced idleness, and while I may
try reading my X41 on airplanes, my intuition is that until we have
good e-ink readers (and that time may be close upon us) paper will
be the easier medium for long, uninterrupted periods of reading. And
in this particular instance, I'm anxious to see how the two operate
side by side. I intend to read the book on the X41 for awhile, and
on paper for awhile. (That is, assuming I don't finish it before the
X41 gets hereand if so, there are other titles on which I can
do that test.) Comparing the two experiences of the same book will
be interesting indeed. Watch this space.
27, 2006: Odd Lots
- From Pete Albrecht comes a prescient 1976 Saturday Night Live
Blog Diet. (No, it's not quite what you think, but read it
- From Rick Widmer comes a definition of "politics"
that I wholeheartedly endorse: "Poli" from the Greek
for "many" and "tics," for "blood sucking
insects." Amen, bro.
- Saturn reaches
opposition tonight, and is as close as it will be for another
year. Look for a bright yellow star NE of Leo. It's brighter than
anything else in that general part of the sky. It will be well
up in the east at 9 PM or so. You can spot the rings with binoculars
steadied against a fencepost, and with even a small telescope
the view is very nice, if small.
- I found a nice dornfelder red wine from the Rhine country in
Germany that ranks as the best off-dry wine I've discovered in
some time. (I look for them in the odd corners of large liquor
stores, and occasionally I find one.) It's Valckenberg
Dornfelder Rheinhessen 2004, and while it's perhaps a touch
sweeter than most dornfelders I've tried, people who aren't used
to dry red wines will enjoy it. Under $10.
- Cringely wrote an excellent article last month about the decline
of print media, and I just keep forgetting to link to it here.
If you're interested in publishing at all, read
26, 2006: Politics Makes You Stupid
There's a superb article I ran across while researching ebooks
(thanks to Bill Roper for the pointer) about the success of maverick
SF publisher Jim Baen, who does not use DRM on his digital content
and yet seems to be doing well at it. Read
the article, but don't stop there. Go down to the comments,
and read at least the first one. I'll quote it in full here:
Too bad Baen only publishes
right-wing trash. David Weber is the Heinlein of the 21st century,
which is to say he is miliaristic, imperialist, racist and fascist
as Heinlein was. One can hear the goosestepping behind every page.
It's trash like this which the Faux-watching Red Stater dittohead
bloggers love, which is why our nation becomes more of a fascist
cesspool every day. What "treasures" are coming out in January?
A quick scan of Baen's freerepublican site shows it Timoth Zahn,
Johnny Ringo and Steve White -- Redstaters to the core. All we
need is Ayn Rand and we can have a little nazi party.
Whew! What an incisive little essay! What intellectual acuity!
What brilliance! What emotional maturity! What...well, do I have
to wave a flag over it? Alas, this is all too typical of people
I know on the "progressive" side of things, where violently
hating the Red States and everyone in them seems to be the only
thing of importance in their lives. (Certainly there are blue-state
haters as well, but I rarely see them rise to this level of slobbering
incoherence. Then again, I tend to run with a liberal crowd.)
interesting article over on LiveScience that seems to put some
evidence behind a suspicion I have long had: Politics makes you
stupid. In a research study, test subjects were asked to evaluate
information that threatened the position of their chosen candidate
in the 2004 Presidential election. Brain activity was monitored:
The test subjects on
both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions
by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted,
Westen and his colleagues say.
Then, with their minds
made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative
emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits
involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience
when they get a fix, Westen explained.
The study points to
a total lack of reason in political decision-making.
"None of the circuits
involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," Westen
said. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive
kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then
they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of
negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."
Notably absent were
any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,
the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.
There are sound evolutionary reasons for this: Back when we were
protohumans, unquestioning loyalty to the tribe and obedience to
tribal leaders (as well as automatic hatred of the other tribes)
was essential for survival. Sadly, this mechanism is still with
us, even though we no longer drag our knuckles on the ground. Sports
used to be the way we vented all that vestigial tribalism, but I
guess sports just isn't sufficiently venomous anymore.
The important point to be made here is that what most people call
"politics" today is nothing but tribalism, and an excuse
to surface ancient, primal hatred. One can have intelligent discussions
of governance (this used to be what we meant when we spoke of "politics")
but such discussions work best when they are at their most coldly
unemotional. Add tribal emotion to the discussion, and the participants
again become killer apes. One useful technique is to imagine a dial
on the wall (where all can see it) displaying your IQ. As soon as
you feel those tribal emotions rising, imagine the pointer on the
dial dropping from your normal intelligence down into the low 60s.
That's what I do. It works.
25, 2006: LiveJournal Status Report
Some of you may not realize that Contra lives in two different
places now: Since December 22 I've been posting entries to both
and to http://jeff-duntemann.livejournal.com.
So far it's a big win, and once I digest enoutgh S2 (the LiveJournal
styling language) to be dangerous, I can make it look like anything
I want. I don't like the LJ gray background, for example, and with
some S2 smarts I can make it white. I also need to figure out how
to put text blocks in the mostly-empty left column so I can index
to the archives on LJ as I do on duntemann.com. I'm not going to
spend the time moving seven years of archives from my own domain
to LJ, and I need to be able to tell people where the rest of it
I guess I have some work to do. The world could use an LJ book,
I've been trying out client-side LJ editors in recent weeks, and
as best I can tell (things like this are always a little tentative)
the winner is Semagic,
an open-source project hosted on SourceForge. It does everything
I need it to do, it seems reasonably robust, and it's free, of both
cost and spyware/adware. A rolling history of the project can be
LiveJournal itself (the server software) is open-source as well, and
there are supposedly sites out there based on the LiveJournal codebase.
I haven't spotted any yet; can anybody point me to a list? I've seen
a few sites that seem to have a seamless interface to LJ, even though
they're not LJ-based themselves, and this intrigues me too. What I
guess I'd like is a map of the LJ universe, if such a thing exists.
24, 2006: Movie Orgy
Back in 1972 or 1973, when I was an undergrad at DePaul University
in Chicago, the school allowed a local beer distributor to show
a film called The Movie Orgy in the student union, and sell
beer in the back. The damned thing was seven hours long, and ran
from 5 PM to midnight. I went with my gang from the Fellowship of
Science Fiction Freaks and Armchair Speculators, and it was great
fun, though it doubtless helped to turn your IQ down forty points
by tanking up on beer. Alas, I loathed beer then (and don't care
much for it even today) and watched it sober.
Lest the title mislead you, I should emphasize that The Movie
Orgy had nothing to do with sex. Although unrated, I would guess
it would get a PG-13 rating today, for alien gore, encruciatingly
bad music, and willful stupidity. It was indeed the goldurndest
thing. Here's what it says in Joe
Dante's first ambition
was to become an animator and her enrolled at the Philadelphia
College of Art to further his aims. While there, he met Jon Davison,
later a Hollywood producer, and they collaborated on the epic,
420 minute compilation piece, The Movie Orgy, a mammoth
collection of clips, commercials and trailers that proved a huge
hit on the US college campus circuit.
Envision a seven-hour, nonstop sequence of early 1950s soap, cereal,
toothpaste, and deodorant commercials, chunks of WW2-era newsreels,
loose seconds from old Army training films, coming attractions of
bad movies, intros to old TV series like "The Texas Rangers"
(brought to you by Kix Cereal) and an entire SF B-movie spliced
into the thick of it all. One reason we went, in fact, was to make
fun of Invasion
of the Flying Saucers, but the best part of was seeing the
damned thing dumped into a video blender with pieces of countless
other things that made absolutely no sense together. There was no
narration of any kind, just boom-boom-boom, from flying saucers
to Texas Rangers to Ipana toothpaste to flying saucers again, repeat
until midnight or you pass out, whichever came first.
I would love to see it again (or at least part of it; I'm not sure
I could stand seven hours' worth) but I suspect that rights issues
will keep it out of circulation forever. However, if I'm wrong and
you ever spot it for sale somewhere, do let me know.
23, 2006: Personal Triage, Part 4: Ham Radio
Continuing the multipart discussion I left off on December
23, 2005: I came to ham radio through electronics, and in
part through my father, who had been an Army
Airways Communcations System (AACS) radio operator during WWII.
He could copy Morse Code at 25 or 30 words per minute in his head,
even twenty five years after the War was over. As a sixteen-year-old
I had hoped that we would get our licenses together, but just about
that time he was diagnosed with cancer, and everything changed.
It took a few more years, but I got my license finally in May of
1973, and have had it ever since. My current call is K7JPD.
I've never been a contester, and my antennas have always been modest
or even bizarre. I met George Ewing (WA8WTE) at the Clarion SF workshop
when we realized we were both considering how to load up the copper
downspout outside the basement level of Abbott Hall on 40 meters.
I've met a lot of other worthy people in ham radio since then, even
without devastatingly effective equipment. In fact, one of the reasons
that I've gone soft on ham radio in the past decade is that it's
gotten a little too easy. My Icom IC736 radio is basically spin-the-dial
and push-the-mic-button. Everything else happens automagically inside
its computer-controlled guts, and most of the sense of challenge
Furthermore, ham radio's ecological niche has changed radically.
As the famous Jim Kyle pointed
out long ago, as soon as he discovered the Internet, he realized
that all of the techie socializing he used to do on ham radio was
now being done on the Net. It worked the same way for me. IRC (Internet
Relay Chat) and what we now (somewhat unfortunately) call blogs
are the natural inheritors of the Friday Night Nets that most local
ham groups held until the 80s, and many still do today. Most of
modern ham radio net activity (and by "net" I mean a gathering
of radio signals on a single frequency at a given time) is focused
on emergency preparedness and public service. Ham radio saved lives
during our recent hurricane crises, and although I didn't take part,
I'm proud of those who did.
I've maintained my interest in hamming in part by going retro.
Since the early 1990s, most of my ham radio energy has gone into
"classic" tube-based gear from the 50s and 60s, and building
my own from loose parts, especially tubes. We used to have a "Junkbox
Radio Net" using rattletrap AM transceivers every Sunday night
in north Scottsdale, but over the years people moved, some lost
interest, and over time it just went away. I still have the gear,
but I don't hear the signals locally. If I ever do I'll join them,
but I'm not optimistic on that score.
So in terms of personal triage, ham radio has mostly merged with electronics.
As time allows I've been developing a single-tube AM-FM detector using
the 6BN6 gated beam tube and the 6Z10
Compactron gated beam/power audio amp combo tube. I hope to build
both a broadcast superhet receiver and a 6M ham FM receiver using
the circuits I'm developing. The 6BN6
tube is amazing: By changing the cathode bias you can make it detect
either AM or FM signals. On FM it does its own limiting, and it puts
out enough audio voltage to feed directly to a pentode power amplifier.
I'm using 4.5 MHz TV audio IF amp transformers and quad coils, which
can still be had, and using mid-60s portable TV circuits as a starting
point. It may take awhile, but I'd very much like to design and build
my own all-tube 50 MHz FM transceiver. I spend a few hours on it every
so often, like I did this past Saturday. I consider it a ham radio
project, even if it won't involve getting on the air for some time
yet. I may eventually have a lowband attic antenna, and will certainly
have a VHF discone up in the eaves, but the core of the issue is this:
I have to keep learning new things (where "new" means new
to me) or I can't keep up with an activity. As long as I can
build things for ham radio, I'll stick with itbut I suspect
that my random ragchewing days are over.
22, 2006: The PlayAway Audio Book
every emerging industry, it's a rule that every damnfool idea will
be tried at some point by somebody. Such an idea surfaced today
courtesy Jim Strickland, who saw a PlayAway
audio book at Barnes & Noble up in Denver. What we have
here is basically an audio player that plays one thing and one thing
only: A spoken version of a single book. You can't upload, you can't
download, and about all you can do apart from listen to the single
track is change the battery. The device is about the size of an
IPod Nano (and perhaps a little thicker) and has the book's cover
art printed on it.
Anticipating some criticism for creating discardable technology,
the company wisely makes suggestions as to what you can do with
a PlayAway book once you've read it as often as you intend to.They'll
even take it back (by sending you a prepaid envelope) promising
to find it a good home.
As you might expect, considering the amount of memory it takes
to store 23 hours of audio (for Chris Paolini's Eldest) the
gadgets aren't cheap. The titles (32 listed so far) sell for $34.95
and up. That's quite a premium over a print book you can often get
for $12 at retail. So far, the books are only available at Barnes
I don't think this is an especially good idea, though I don't think
it's evil or even particularly wasteful. (For wasteful technology,
think Billy the Big-Mouth
Bass and his spawn.) Public libraries would be a good outlet
for these, and I suspect they may find their way into more than
a few gadget-freak Christmas stockings. The problem is that they're
backward-looking, retaining the physical presence of a non-physical
work solely for the sake of piracy prevention. Now, if competition
forced them to include multiple books in a single package, that
becomes more compelling, but good quality voice audio takes space,
and space (in Flash or other electronic memory) is expensive. It'll
be hard to get out of niche territory with these things.
I'm watching for the inevitable writeup on Slashdot by the guy who
breaks it open, figures out the works, and either turns it into a
cheap IPod or installs Linux on it. Like I said, everything that's
possible will be tried. I'll keep watching for more interesting attempts
to report on here. Never hesitate to send me pointers to The Hopeful
Next Big Thing.
21, 2006: The EBook Tipping Point
If you've never read Malcolm Gladwell's book The
Tipping Point, get off your butt and just do it.
Gladwell was the one who convinced me that history is not cyclical
(and certainly not incremental) but fractal: Weird things
sometimes "just happen" without obvious cause. You have
to watch for them, and although sometimes you can discern causes
in retrospect, often they remain mysterious. The IPod phenom is
one of these. You can argue all day about why it happened, but in
truth I don't buy any of the arguments. It was just time for something
like that, and Apple hit a sweet spot (perhaps several) by luck
or by skill, who knows?
If ebooks are going to happen, they will probably happen abruptly,
without a great deal of warning. Somebody will release the killer
reader, Random House or some other monster NY publisher will (against
its nature) mass-license tens of thousands of backlist and mid-list
titles for cheap, without DRM (keeping the frontlist expensive and
controlled) and everybody will suddenly be carrying a reader around.
What odd little possibilities might propel us toward the EBook Tipping
Point? Let me be an SF writer for a second and I'll do a little
- Ebook readers, to be cheap, will be physically small. Why not
make an ebook reader with a plastic tube on the side of the device,
for holding those low-prefile reading glasses? We fiftyish boomers
need the optics, and the ebook industry needs us. Pop the
cap, shake out the readers, put 'em on, and start reading.
- E-ink displays are not for general computing as we know it...but
what are they for? Do we know their limits? No. An ebook
reader that could run Linux would allow us to see just what else
a device like that could do. Screw animated games...I want PDA
functionality. (Ok, I might like Mah Jongg, but you can do that
on an E-ink display.) I want a good note-taker. The manufacturer
of an ebook reader is the last one to know what the device
can really do. If we have an open system, the community will tell
- Ebook readers generally don't have audio abilities...but people
who read ebooks at home or at the office might like to listen
to audio books while commuting. Sound support is cheap; the killer
ebook reader will probably have it. And why not play MP3s while
- The "Tower of Babel" problem (multiple incompatible
ebook formats) is serious. Ultimately, there will be a shakeout,
but the fragmentation hugely handicaps any single device or format
from hitting critical mass. Someday some hacker will get angry
enough about it to create a desktop (perhaps based on Eclipse)
for converting proprietary formats to PDF, OpenReader, or Plucker.
The platform could have legitimate uses (like converting HTML
to PDF, etc.) but cracks are currently available for every ebook
DRM system I've seen; what would happen if some black hat actually
recast all those cracks as Eclipse plug-ins? One tool could break
all ebook DRM and convert any format to any other format. The
format wars could collapse as under nuclear attack.
- As you're reading along, you suddenly encounter a passage in
an ebook that sets you back in your chair. You say, "Whoa."
Then you highlight the passage (the size of which is limited to
a paragraph or two) pull down a category to apply to the passage,
perhaps tap in a few words for explanation or comment with your
stylus, and queue it for a later "quotecast." This could
be legally construed as fair use, and might be one hell of a way
to promote an ebook. It could become fun enough to promote the
whole idea of ebooks, just as podcasts promoted the whole idea
of digital music.
Basically, we know that ebooks will require E-ink
are both preparing what look like good ones for 2006 relerase.)
Reading a transmissive medium (rather than a truly reflective one)
is too fatiguing. I suspect they will be smaller than 8 1/2"
X 11"; the ideal size might be that of a trade paperback (5"
X 8") or a hair smaller. If the type is crisp enough, the size
is less important. Mass-market paperbacks have a 3 1/4" X 6"
reading area and they sell plenty of those.
Beyond that, the fractal nature of history takes over. Somebody's
gonna push us to the ebook tipping pointand even that somebody
won't realize what happened until it happens, and may never quite
understand how or why.
20, 2006: Got Snow?
We got another good snowfall yesterday, and this morning when I
went out to shovel (I'll get a snowblower someday...but not yet)
the clouds were breaking up along the summit of Cheyenne Mountain
is off to the left a little and behind that house you see) and it
made me catch my breath. Above is the view from my front porch as
I saw it this morning. 8 inches took a while to clear, but it was
superb exercise, and by 3 PM, the sun had melted and dried whatever
had been left on the sidewalks and driveway.
the most fun today was introducing QBit to deep snow. This may seem
odd (and it is, looking back) but each time we've had a significant
snowfall here this winter, QBit was fresh out of the groomer's,
and we know from our previous bichons that five minutes in the snow
will utterly scrag $50 worth of washing and brushing. At best we've
let him out on the back deck when we've had a dusting. (See photo
at left.) So this morning, with his hairdo already two weeks old
and pretty scruffy, we took him out to see what he would make of
It was hilarious. He literally dove into the deepest drift he could
find (which was most of his height deep) bounding through it with
gusto, stopping now and then to eat some snow. If he isn't leaping
around in the thick of it, he's eating it. (Note the snow mustache
he has above; eating snow isn't entirely new for him.) He refuses
to walk on the cleared sidewalk if he can charge through snow. I
have a clip (taken with my new Kodak V530 camera) showing him on
a "walk" (if you could call it that) but the .mov file
is 26 MB, and that's a little much for downloading.
Colorado Springs is by far the most beautiful place we've ever lived.
I never thought I would love snow, especially after spending 18 years
in places that virtually never get it. (We had measurable snow in
Scottsdale once.) But with the right climate, the right mountain,
and the right dog (along with a very short driveway) I realize that
I'm completely fine with it. Go figger.
19, 2006: Odd Lots
- Michael Abrash pointed me to Great
Microprocessors of the Past and Present, which provides both
technical and historical background of a great many small-system
CPU designs, both conventional (8080, 6502) and weird (1802, Transputer).
There's a tremendous amount of material here. I was amused by
writeup of the RCA 1802. It was the first CPU I ever studied,
and therefore it didn't seem the least bit weird to me at the
- While researching mini-ITX boards, I stumbled across a German
chap who built an upright mobile robot called RoboFriend,
with a TV face animated with Visual Basic 6. It's eerie how much
his design echoes that of my own Cosmo
Klein, a robot I tinkered with between 1976-1978, with a TV
animated face. I'd like to have a robot around the house again,
but right now it's a triage issue: Do I want to be an SF novelist
- One interesting issue with Mini-ITX PC mobos is that I have
yet to see one with DVI video output, which is a little odd considering
how they're being pushed as media PCs. I'm sketching out a media
PC to put beside or behind our new HDTV, but it's gotta have DVI
output, it's gotta run Win2K, and it's gotta be small. Beyond
that, almost everything's negotiable.
- Pete Albrecht found a 650 MHz Slot 1 Pentium II processor for
$10 at a local junkshop, dropped it into his 1999-era HP PII-450,
and it just worked. A 450 MHz box is borderline. 650 MHz is still
useful. Not bad for $10. It's gotten me wondering how far you
can stretch things. Will a mobo designed for a 100 MHz FSB and
450 MHz Slot 1 PII CPU take an 833 MHz Slot 1 PIII? I have a Dell
Dimension APS here, running a PIII-550 Katmai Slot 1 processor,
and it's been a fine machine since late 1998, quiet and almost
completely reliable. Goosing it up a few hundred MHz would bring
it into media PC territory. Now, Can It Be Done?
- I've been gathering and scanning photos of my various technology
projects down through the years (egads, decades) and have
new photo album on my Gallery site. There's more to come,
lots more, but I have to get them out of those &$@%*!!
sticky-page photo albums so I can scan them. Do take a look.
18, 2006: The 5 People I Hope Like Hell to Meet in Heaven
As I've written before, I
don't pester celebrities. There aren't enough days in a life
for everyone to be a friend to everyone else, and as much as I'd
like to hang out with people like Niklaus Wirth or Garry Wills,
it isn't gonna happen. On the other hand, if I had my druthers (and
perhaps, if all that my Catholic School education taught me turns
out to be true, I will have my druthers) who among the Genuinely
Famous would I want to come over for a glass of wine and good conversation?
It's a short list but a good one. Here's the countdown of Jeff's
Heroes Short List:
It's good to have heroes, even if (alas) they're all dead. Someday,
when Lady Julian's vision is finally realized, the real party
begins, and everybodyeverybodywill be there.
Hugo Gernsback. Nerds can smell their own, and boy, Hugo
just has that whiff about him. Although I often think it would
have been exciting to live in the 1920s, when so many absolutely
fundamental things were happening in science and technology, Hugo
would have responded that inventing radios had nothing on computers
and interplanetary robotic probes. Maybe he's right, but the trading
of stories would be like nothing else, ever. To The Man Who Saw
the Future, I would be The Man Who Lived the Future. He published
magazines. He wrote SF. He built radios with tubes. I think we'd
Edwin Armstrong. Radio has always been a little bit special
to me, and although Marconi (and a few others) get the credit
for having invented radio, Edwin Armstrong took radio and made
it sing. He invented the regenerative, superregenerative,
and superheterodyne receivers, and tossed off FM almost as an
afterthought. He was definitely nerdy, a little bit goofy (see
The Empire of the Air for the photo of him standing on
top of the RCA broadcasting tower high above NYC) and tragically
tormented to suicide by David Sarnoff, the nasty little man who
ran RCA and (in my opinion) should spend eternity shining Armstrong's
shoes. He was of that rare breed that can look at an infant technology
and recognize its implications, and was also a genuinely kind
and considerate man. I'd like to ask him what he thought might
come of nanotechnology. Once he understood what it was, I suspect
I'd get an earful.
Benjamin Franklin. Happy 300th Birthday! (Ben was born
January 17, 1706.) Kites, electricity, bifocals, gentle religion,
and a wry sense of humor make him stand out among the Founders
as the one (perhaps the only one) I could comfortably hang with.
Ben was not a politician but a statesman, more radical than most
understand, who was keenly aware of the dangers of offering his
scruffy disaffected ex-British brethren "a Republicif
you can keep it." He was a writer and a publisher, and would
understand the value of blogs instantly. When I get old enough
someday to look the part (we only picture him as elderly for some
reason) I will dress up as Ben and teach little kids to make and
fly their own kites, as I had once (very long ago) daydreamed
of making and flying kites alongside him.
C. S. Lewis. Half of the reason I remain a Catholic can
be found in the short shelf of books that I have by Clive Staples
Lewis. He thought and wrote clearly and entertainingly, not only
about God but
about friendship as well. He spun yarns about good and evil,
which spoke to me in different ways as I read them at different
stages of my life. We did not always agree: I spotted the logic
flaw in the Trilemma
immediately, marveling that he could support it, and I am increasingly
at odds with Lewis' Arminian
view of God. (More on this eventually.) But sheesh and amen,
he got me to read theologyand keep on reading it.
For a boy born more to make sparks and metal shavings, that was
quite a feat. Don't misunderstand: We agree more than we disagree,
and I grant that he knew the material far better than I do. Nonetheless,
I would enjoy sitting by the fire with him, sparring over the
Trilemma. I expect I would lose the argument, but I also expect
that I would learn much in return, and that's ultimately what
heroes (and friends) are for.
Lady Julian of Norwich. Hell is the showstopper for me
in all views of religion; if Hell has the last word, then God
is either malevolent or impotent. (Again, more on this eventually.)
At a time when women were treated by men as little better than
household slavesand by the Church as close to devils incarnateLady
Julian retained her perspective of God as infinitely loving and
forgiving. On the Last Day, she saw in a vision, God would redeem
everyoneeven the devils in the depths of Hellbecause
anything else would be less than loving, and a defeat. She even
protested that such a thing was impossible, but God replied (in
her vision) "Impossible for you. Not impossible for me."
(Or as I like to think of him saying: "Hey, I'm God. I can
pull it off. Trust me.") Unlike the other people on this
list, I'm not sure what I would say to her, except, perhaps, to
ask her real name, which has been lost to history. I'd also like
to speak with her of hope, not just little-h hope but Radical
Hope, of which she is clearly the patron saint.Without her brand
of Radical Hope, I would have given up religion years ago, and
would not be nearly as happy a man as I am. What else could one
even say to a hero of such power?
17, 2006: My State of Spam Report
Spam, like entropy, isn't what it used to be. After suffering through
500-600 spams per day for several years, I'm down to 50-70 per day.
How did I do it? First of all, I changed ISPs. My email server IP
changed, and as several people suggested, it looks like a lot of
spammers resolve DNS only the first time, and leave the IP on the
list forever. Change your IP, and most of the spam goes to the bitbucket.
But I have also seen a gradual dropoff in the spam that does
come through. Right after moving to Sectorlink, I was down to about
100 spams per day. In the time since then (18 months, roughly) I'm
down another 30%-40%. Most of that decline is with spam clearly
coming from botnets, and I'm guessing that port 25 blocking is a
much bigger win than we thought it would be. I still get a fairly
constant 25-40 messages per day from spammers who are trying to
skate the law and be legit. They send spam from their own domains
and have all the required unsubscribe links. I have been getting
spam from pseudolegit places like smilepopmail.com for years.
This doesn't bother me much because my filters get them as they
arrive and I never see them.
Thankfully, I'm getting less sex spam all the time. Nor am I getting
many email viruses or 419 scam notes. Most of what I get now falls
into two categories: pills and pump'n'dump
stock scams. Refi is down, probably due to rising interest rates
and simple market saturation. Stocks are up, and so the pumpers
are on the offensive. The stock scammer messages are coming from
botnets, and make no attempt to be "from" anywhere identifiable.
They don't have to be; they're not selling anything. All they need
to do is persuade a handful of idiots to buy the stocks they're
pushing and they can make a steady living. I've been watching a
recent campaign to pump Pacific Rim firm Ever
Glory International (code EGLY) up to the $5.00 range, from
its early price of about 35 cents. I've gotten thirty or forty messages
pumping poor EGLY in the last month. I'm sure the crooks have already
made their big bucks (they bought it at 35c, I'll bet) and are now
working the long tail. Especially if handled carefully, this could
be the perfect crimeand even if not handled carefully, it
doesn't look like anybody's interested in policing it, especially
for stocks traded in other countries.
I've basically abandoned POPFile. It was never especially stable
code, and whereas it was essential when I was getting 600+ spams
per day (early 2003) I'm willing to hand-delete the 40-odd spams
a day that escape my filters to avoid its annoying lockups and inexplicable
runs of false positives. I may try it again if it ever implements
a "learning magnet," but for the moment I'm back to manual.
All that means is manually deleting 30 or 40 messages a day. No
Payload domain turnover seems just as rapid as ever, so I don't bother
blocking on URLs inside botnet spam; it takes more time to block them
than it does just to delete them. I spend enough time just watching
spam trends out of curiosity. The good news is that I haven't seen
any really new spammer tricks in a long time. Maybe we're finally
seeing some light at the end of that very long tunnel.
16, 2006: A Good Off-Dry Wine
I travel the entire breadth of the wine world, I have a special
fondness for contrarian wines, and the most contrarian of all wine
categories is "off-dry." Sweet wines can sometimes get
by as "dessert wines," but anything that falls between
dessert wine territory and deepest, darkest cabernet sauvignon is
considered trash by the wine snobs, and gets no respect and no press.
(Still, despite all their efforts, white zinfandel remains the most
popular wine in the US.)
I'm a sort of wine philistine, and while I have my likes and dislikes,
none of them have anything to do with wine ideology. If I think
it tastes good, that's all I ask, and I don't try to make universal
principles out of my taste peccadilloes. For example, something
about sourness in wine is a turnoff to me, which is why I don't
like whites as much as reds. (Whites tend to have more acid and
taste sour to me.) Nor do I favor taste/scent nuances like "earthy,"
"smoky," etc. Wine is made from fruit and should taste
like fruit, not like iron nails, burning cork, or dark green leafy
vegetables. (We won't even talk about cat urine.) That said, I truly
hope that your mileage varies; there's no point in all of us liking
all the same stuff all the time.
Few wines dare say "off-dry" on their labels, and I typically
buy the bold exceptions. One reasonable wine in this category comes
from Moldova, where they apparently don't care that much about American
wine snobs. Garling Collection's Black Monk red wine comes in a distinctive
three-sided bottle, and is a shade less sweet than white zin, but
still much less dry than a conventional merlot, pinot noir, or red
zin. My only discontent is that the wine has a sour edge, rather like
those cherry-flavored sourballs that were popular fifteen or twenty
years ago. Nonetheless, it's very fruit-forward, very smooth, and
extremely drinkable. Much more body than white zin, and not quite
as sweet. It's not very expensive ($10 class) and I've seen it in
a number of places, so you should be able to find it around. If conventional
red wines taste too dry to you, give it a shot.
15, 2006: Classifying Along the Other Axis
Although I still think the blogging community should work together
and create an optional controlled vocabulary for tagging, the real
problem goes well beyond blogging and comes back to indexing the
Web: We're classifying along the wrong axis. When used with some
skill, good search engines like Google can tells us what a Web item
is about. What's much harder to determine is what I call the "literary
form: Is the Web item a FAQ? An online store? A blog? A tutorial?
A forum? A photo gallery? This might be considered the "shape"
of the item being sought. One has to be very clever to filter
on the literary form, simply because there's nothing in the document
that unambiguously says what the item is, as opposed to what
it is about.
The most pressing need is to exclude online stores. I sometimes
try to find good technical info on a technology gadget, only to
find that I have to filter out 15,000 or more online stores that
tell me nothing except that they carry the item in question.
Metadata frameworks exist could can handle this. The
Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) is the oldest and probably
the best known, but it's little used outside of university circles,
probably due to its complexity. In any event, it doesn't really
have a spot for what I'm talking about. DCMI suggests a
controlled vocabulary for "Type", but what they mean
by "type" is type of data (still image, sound, text, etc.)
rather than the intended purpose of some collection of data of various
types. A blog, for example, can include text, still images, sound,
and video. Each piece of the blog may be stored in a separate file
and each file tagged with its DCMI Type, but nothing tells me that
it's a blog.
I doubt we'd need more than twenty terms in a controlled vocabulary
for "literary form." (We really need a distinct technical
term for this; I'd like to use "genre" but that's considered
a synonym for "type" in the DCMI definitions.) My suggested
vocabulary follows, in alphabetical order:
- Aggregator (e.g., Slashcode)
- Forum (like phpBB or VBulletin)
- Genealogy (family tree)
- Index (of, say, a library archive)
- Photo Gallery
- Presentation (e.g., PowerPoint slides)
- Software Service (e.g., metric-English calculator, interactive
map, online translator, etc.)
- Stream (i.e, audio or video)
There's some fuzziness here. Many blogs are in fact aggregators,
but my definition limits "aggregator" to a Web page that
provides an ongoing stream of pointers to other things, with short
descriptions. Many larger aggregators include forums (Slashdot,
Plastic). We have to do the
best we can.
The list above is the "narrow interpretation" of literary
form, in that these could be considered content templates. I had
originally brainstormed a broader interpretation which included
these vocabulary items:
- Criticism (in the academic sense)
- Review (in the consumer sense, of books, films, gadgets, etc.)
- Opinion (as in "editorial" or "rant.")
Whether these are things of an entirely different nature is worth
discussing. ("Tutorial" may belong to this second group
as well. I'm still thinking.) Many blogs are virtually all opinion,
and much history is in essay form.
Even with a controlled vocabulary agreed upon and in the can, there
remains the problem of how to apply the category tags to a useful
number of Web items. Nobody said it would be easy. I'm throwing all
this out just to keep the subject in play. I have a couple of ideas
of how to do this (drawing upon my ancient plan for world domination
called Aardmarks) but I'm getting tired of the subject and want to
spend some time on other things.
14, 2006: Coin Nudity
I will finish the discussion on tags and classification, but I
need to tell this story first: I went to Home Depot yesterday evening
to pick up a couple more Rubbermaid storage bins to hold the new
Christmas decorations we bought this year. Three bins came to $22.45,
so I pulled out the requisite bills, plus four dimes and a nickel.
The high-school girl running the register handed the shiny new nickel
back to me and asked me if I had one of the older types. The newer
types, she said, were being "caught".
I assumed she meant that they got stuck in some sort of coin counter,
and grinned as I pulled an older coin from my pocket. I asked her
how often the new nickels got caught, and it was her turn to look
puzzled. "No, I meant the government is catching them and pulling
them out of circulation. You can see how the buffalo is male."
nickel in question is new in 2005, and one a few people may not
even have seen yet. It replaces Montecello with a buffalo, similar
(if in lower relief) to the buffalo on the back of the nickel between
1913 and 1937. I think it's a hideous coin, looking as though it
were a quarter (or some larger coin) stamped out on a nickel planchet.
But my brief lookover had failed to disclose that the buffalo was...er...male.
The girl then told me that she had heard that the male buffalo
nickels were worth $3 each, and clearly thought she was doing me
a favor. (I do appreciate that impulse, and thanked her for it.)
But it seemed preposterous to me, since pulling coins from circulation
costs the government hugely.
On the other hand, we're talking government, where money
is no object and dumbness is a sacred tradition. So I looked it
up and found
the expose on Snopes. Urban legend, spread via email, like most
of them. The buffalo on the earlier nickel, after a model named
Black Diamond from the Central Park Zoo, is even better hung than
the poor thing on the 2005 nickel, and I don't recall anyone complaining
The US Mint has had problems with coin nudity before. The best
known case is the 1916-1917 Type I Standing Liberty Quarter, a gorgeous
coin that was still in spotty circulation when I was a kid, though
the ones I saw were so beat up and worn that you could barely tell
what the design was supposed to represent. When it was new, the
coin caused a furor because the sculptor had left one breast exposed,
toga-style, in deference to the iconically bare-breasted French
figure Liberty. Never mind that the sculptor had left off her nipple;
he was forced to do some coverup work for the 1918 year, which he
did by enclosing the offending organ in chain mail. Ouch.
Some people clearly need a life, or maybe a book of crossword puzzles.
I'm glad the furor over our new buffalo nickel is phony; I'd hate
to see the poor thing in chain-mail piddle-pants.
13, 2006: Odd Lots
- Somebody's (finally) getting smart: Linspire has released Versora,
a program to facilitate migration from Windows to Linux. It seems
tightly bound to the Linspire UI (and I'm famously of two minds
about Linspire) but it's certainly something that will help people
get their stuff from Windows to Linux, a trick I've found non-trivial
whenever I've tried it.
- Speaking of Linspire, Michael
Robertson cut a deal with AOpen to create the Linspire Mini,
a Mac Mini lookalike running Linspire. This happened back in November,
but I picked it up scanning news from the recent CES. Supposedly
it's available, but I haven't comfirmed that and Web data is sparse.
The Linspire Mini will be SRPed at $399, and $499 if you'd prefer
the same box running Windows XP, presumably from someone other
than Linspire. Now, where can you get the "barebone"
(no OS) version? That could make a good media PC if I could get
Win2K onto it.
- We've seen tests of BPL (broadband over power lines, which generate
an immense amount of radio hash) but these were large-scale
things spanning entire metro areas. Now Telkonet
has taken the concept a little more local with their iBridge technology,
designed specifically for use in hotels. Basically it's a single-building
BPL system, accessible through a plug-in adapter from any outlet
on the premises. No idea what the adapters cost, but if it's cheap
enough (and if the hash radiation problems can be minimized somehow)
this could be a very useful thing. It sounds like a faster version
plus encryption, but it's hard to tell precisely what it's based
on at this point.
- A consortium of technology vendors led by Intel, Atheros, and
managed to pull something like unity together out of the brawl
that had been the 802.11n high-speed Wi-Fi standards project.
There's a lot of paper crunching to be done, and a finalization
of 802.11n will not likely happen before the end of this year,
but at least we're on our way. Airgo's True MIMO looks like it
may survive "pre-n" status and remain compatible with
the final spec, perhaps with a firmware upgrade. From the product
standpoint, the Wi-Fi business has been somnolent for a couple
of years now, since Wireless-G showed up. We're overdue for something
- Further evidence that we should respect our evolutionary heritage
comes from research
linking excessive exposure to light with various forms of cancer.
This comes to the fore in studies of people doing shift work.
People who work nights sleep during the day, and it's notoriously
hard to truly darken an American bedroom during daylight hours.
(I noticed that houses in high-latitude regions of Europe had
exterior roll-down metal shades that darken bedrooms well on early
summer nights when it gets dark around midnight and starts lighting
up again at 3 ayem.)
Germany thinks I am the author of something called Baby Farm
Animals. Better that than The Story of O, I guess.
12, 2006: The Knowledge Explorer
I first played with the Web in late 1993, and by early 1995, I
was getting annoyed at the difficulty of finding things. I knew
that the 2.0 version of the HTML markup language had a META tag,
and I had the notion that one could use META to apply a classification
marker to a Web page. Adding the marker to the content was trivial:
Allow the user to select a category from a GUI tool, force the generated
META tag onto the clipboard, and then drop it into any text editor
Big snag: No classification system. I had learned DDC in sixth
grade, from a nun who was close to as old as the DDC system itself.
I knew why it was what it was, but I also knew that we didn't need
to use numbers anymore. So I started looking around to see what
other people had done in the classification field. Remarkably little
turned up. I knew the Library of Congress Classification system
(LCC) from college research, but I hated it. As Kyle McAbee pointed
out in a note yesterday, you can't get your head around it. There
are hundreds of categories at the highest level, and nobody but
librarians ever commit even most of it to memory. The Sears
List of Subject Headings is smaller than LCC but conceptually
similar, and no more accessible to ordinary mortals.
The OMB has a little-known hierarchical classification system for
industries called NAICS
(North American Industry Classification System) that I like a lot,
and in fact intended to absorb it whole into my nascent classification
system. I never got quite that far, but my intent was to adopt it
into a top-level category called Business & Commerce. (See below.)
Few people know that Peter Roget created a classification system
for his Thesaurus, to make it easier to find similar words.
It's in the book, and quite clever, though with categories like
"Pushing, Throwing" (#903) it's clear that it wasn't intended
to be a classification system for articles or papers, just for synonyms.
I learned earlier today (thanks again to Kyle) that Thomas Jefferson
had a three-category top-level hierarchy: Memory (i.e., history),
Reason (philosophy), and Imagination (the arts.) Alas, even he gave
up, and began shelving his books by size. (Better that than by the
color of the spine.)
So back in 1995, almost as a lark, I sat down and tried to think
through what a hierarchical knowledge classification system would
look like. I used the Windows folder hierarchy as a visual model,
and eventually created a treeview-driven utility to browse a textual
category hierarchy that I called the Knowledge Explorer. My goal
was to create a system that would be accessible because it wouldn't
have to be memorized: You could browse it like any tree-structured
data, or use text search to look for individual category tags.
I dove in. And I got addicted. For most of a year I studied the
shape of human knowledge and the relationships of things to other
things. It was great fun. I gave myself a broad if shallow education
in things like dog breeds, world religions, and systems of government.
And I created a category hierarchy, which eventually reached 2800
lines long. As I thought it through, the top-level categories rose
from six to seven and then ten. I split a few up until I had twenty,
then brought it back to ten:
Business & Commerce
I stopped ambitious work on the hierarchy about 1998, and gave
the whole project up circa 2000 for a couple of reasons:
- It very quickly became complex enough so that it was no better,
from a graspability standpoint, than DDCeven though you
could search it.
- I realized that it would take the rest of my life to finish
- More to the point, somebody else was already doing it.
A project originally called GnuHoo was going systematically at
the job that Yahoo had originally begun to do and that I had attempted.
After some saber-rattling from Yahoo, GnuHoo became OpenDirectory,
which applied open-source principles to Web-site classification.
I dislike their category hierarchy tree but I stand in awe of its
breadth and depth, which even then was over 100,000 lines long.
(It now has 600,000 categories!) But the last word on the whole
business is this: Who uses it? Who even talks about it anymore?
The Web has spoken, and I'm coming around to the view that they (we)
are right. Not about any judgement on hierarchical classification,
but on the axis across which we should be classifying. I'm out of
time, and will have to continue tomorrow.
11, 2006: Dewey, Hooey, and GUI
In yesterday's comments section of the LiveJournal incarnation
of Contra, Bill
Higgins pointed out that there are fundamental problems with
the Dewey Decimal Classification System that go well beyond Conan
the Librarian. He's right, and I don't want to be misread as a Dewey
fanatic. I stand with most librarians in feeling that Dewey has
had his day, though it's been more than a dayit's been almost
130 years. That said, I need to reiterate that the problems with
DDC are the problems of a particular classification hierarchy, and
not with the idea of hierarchical classification itself.
The DDC has legacy problems like we can't even dream of in computing.
I think it's fair to say that we didn't know very much in 1876we
had no clue, for example, how the Sun generated its energyand
viewed what we did know entirely differently than we view the body
of human knowledge today. Melvil Dewey's classification assumed
a fairly aristocratic Protestant Christian view of the world. Sensitivity
to aboriginal peoples wasn't on the radar. Non-Christian faiths
were considered subordinate and more cultural phenomena than genuine
There were problems of the moment as well. In 1876, Spiritualism
was in its heyday, and you couldn't spit and miss a medium. Dewey
lumped paranormal phenomena in with philosophy and psychology, and
there they remain, Dewey (the other Dewey, Philosopher John) and
hooey, side by side.
This problem isn't unique to the DDC; the DDC has a bad case simply
because it's so old. All classification schemes (not merely hierarchical
ones) have to be able to adapt to changes in what we know and how
we view it. And it's inevitable that people who assume an older
version of the system will turn up some 404s. (But when's the last
time you hit a 404, threw up your hands, and went home?)
The worst problem with the DDC is inherent in its design: the decimal-imposed
"rule of ten" that allows no more than ten subcategories
beneath every category. That's entirely artificial and often an
extreme nuisance, but it was crucial to the DDC's original strategic
mission: to allow marginally literate people to accurately reshelve
books in public libraries. With a DDC callout number embossed on
a book's spine, a shelver would not even have to be able to read
the book's titleall he or she would need to know is how to
tell when one number is greater or less than another. That's a lot
easier to teach than reading. It was also useful in libraries where
many books were in languages other than English.
Just about ten years ago, I got passionate about this subject (the
Web was new, there was no Google, and finding anything was as much
luck as skill) and without realizing the implied megalomania, I
set out to recast the DDC for the Web and build some GUI tools for
classifying Web sites with automatically generated META tags. I
failed, but I had more fun failing than I ever had succeeding at
most things. More tomorrow.
Early yesterday afternoon, Bill Roper put me on to the fact that
Glenn Reynolds had posted a review of The
on his Instapundit
the #7 blog on Technorati
It was the shortest review I think I've ever had for a piece of
SF, but his 50 words sent the novel skittering up to #2,535 on Amazon
by late evening, and up as high as #76 on the Amazon F&SF stackrank,
right ahead of Left Behind
. (You can't imagine
good that makes me feel!) The review is doubly valuable because
(having read Instapundit
off and on for some time) I think
his readers will share some of the perspectives in the novel, which
is definitely not
San Francisco liberal. (Neither is it precisely
conservative or libertarian. As a friend of mine told me once, "Jeff,
you're just hard to figger.")
10, 2006: Humpty Dumpty Metadata
The big problem with LiveJournal
(and again, it's not so much a problem as an omission) is a problem
shared by all the other blogging services/utilities I've tested:
There's no standard vocabulary for tagging. Everybody makes
up a personal tagging vocabulary (idiodically called a "folksonomy"
even thought it takes more than one person to be a "folk")
and just uses it. If everybody uses a different tag for nominally
similar entries, who cares?
LiveJournal uses tagging correctly as far as it goes: You click
on a tag at the end of a tagged entry, and the view changes to only
those entries to which that same tag has been applied. If I tag
a certain number of my entries with the word "filesharing,"
you can click on the tag in any of those entries and see all my
entries tagged with the word "filesharing."
The problem comes up when I want to see what other people on LiveJournal
have written about filesharing. Some people might also use the tag
"filesharing." However, that would be simple good luck,
as there's no master listed of suggested tags anywhere. Another
person writing about filesharing may tag pertinent entries as "file
sharing" or another "peer to peer" or "P2P"
or even "downloading."
This is doubly peculiar because LiveJournal does have a
standard vocabulary for tagging moods. You pull down the mood tag
list, and declare that you're pleased or annoyed or thoughtful,
and if you happen to be feeling phlegmatic or irenic or hysterical
that particular day (these are not on the list, heh) you simply
type them into the adjacent edit field.
So the machinery's there. If the standard tagging vocabulary isn't
there, I suspect it's because a certain very small number of snot-nosed
humanities types dislike standard (technically called controlled)
vocabularies of any kind, especially those (like the venerable Dewey
Decimal Classification system) arranged in hierarchies. Hierarchies
are undemocratic, I guess, and asking people to look at a suggested
list of standard tags smacks of fascism. (If you think I'm exaggerating,
you clearly haven't moved in Humanities circles much in recent years.)
The objection can be made that swallowing the whole DDC hierarchy
is impossible except by librarians, and that's true. (I have the
entire 4-volume DDC Edition 21 on my shelf, which is six shelf-inches
of small type. I read it sometimes when I'm trying to get sleepy.
It works.) However, that's the magic of hierarchies: You don't have
to use the whole thing. A classification hierarchy is a tool for
expressing incremental specificity. There are ten fundamental classes
in DDC, and each of those is divided into ten, and those into ten,
and so on. The top-level ten classes represent very broad categories
like religion, science, technology, and so on. Add a few decimal
places, and the powers of ten allow you extremely terse expression
of some pretty narrow categories. (Supercolliders may be found at
DDC 539.736, and sport kayaking can be located at 797.1224.)
But the lesson I draw from studying DDC and similar systems is
that a relatively small standard vocabulary can get you very close
in a global search, especially if the system allows the use of secondary
tags chosen by the tagger for a specific entry. "Sports"
should be a standard tag. "Kayaking" need not be. ("Water
sports" could be a good compromise, if the standard tag set
hasn't gotten too huge.)
I'm going to sniff around a little more and see if anyone has suggested
a standard vocabulary for tagging. Eighty or a hundred tags would
probably be enough; hell, LiveJournal's pull-down menu for moods
holds 132 standard tags for moods alone. If I can't find a standard
vocabulary for tagging I'll just invent one and post it here for
discussion. I've studied cataloging and classification systems in
depth and spent a couple of years creating a "knowledge explorer"
category schema for tagging Web sites. That's a separate story that
I'll take up here at some point.
The problem with "folksonomies" is that they work against
community understanding. There is a common view of the universe
that we all share, at least in approximation. (And human life could
be defined as a very large number of approximations.) In a folksonomy,
a tag means precisely what I choose it to mean, (as Humpty
would say if he were a blogger, which if he were real he certainly
would be) and if nobody can do a global search on blog entries,
well, what do I care? Blogging is all about me, after all.
As one who's been doing it since 1998, I'd like to suggest that blogging,
if we must call it that, is not about individuals but about the global
community of thought, within the context of our collective understanding
of the universe. Searching that requires a controlled vocabulary for
tagging. Sooner or later one is going to happen.
9, 2006: Contra on LiveJournal
Some of you knew this already, but for a few weeks now I have been
posting Contra entries to my
account on LiveJournal, perhaps the most sophisticated bloghosting
service out there. I wasn't sure for awhile that I would stick with
it, but the more I probe the details of LiveJournal,
the more I like it.
So what I'm going to do for awhile is post both to this
page and to LiveJournal. Unless something radically wrong happens
with LiveJournal, I'll continue to post to it. However, I will also
post here, at least until I figure out how to retain reliable archives
of the material in the event that LiveJournal goes away.
LiveJournal provides RSS feeds, something I could do manually if
I felt like spending the time on itbut time is a big problem
for me right now. Syndication is one way to get a broader readership,
which I would like to have. LiveJournal is also tied into blog-search
and rating services like Technorati, and I'd like to get into that
as well. There's a lot of question about how to get my archive uploaded
(keep in mind that I have well over 2,000 entries now, going back
to 1998) but going forward, the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.
I have two quibbles with LiveJournal so far, one minor and one
major. The major one will require an entry to itself. The minor
one is simply the absurd limitations on user names. A user name
may not contain spaces, and must be entirely in lower case.
Good God, why? Are we still in the grip of that juvenile
C programmer's tantrum against capital letters? And lest some nit
ask, "Why would you want to do that?" (which means,
"There isn't any reason you can't do that other than my own
ego, so I have to turn the blame around to you so that I don't lose
face") I will simply insist that "Jeff Duntemann"
is how my name is spelled. I don't hide behind screen names. "jeff_duntemann"
is a misspelling. Spaces are characters. Uppercase letters are characters.
I am not e.e. cummings. (Nor e_e_cummings.)
Guys, this is just plain dumb.
I'll deal with the major quibble more thoughtfully, with some luck
8, 2006: Odd Lots
- People who have read my novel The
Cunning Blood have giggled a little about my future history,
in which Canada rules the world (or what's left of the world)
by the year 2150, with the United States reduced to a province
ruled by the Canadian-dominated world government. Part of the
sequel I have in the cooker right now (The Molten Flesh)
sees American insurgents going up against their Canadian masters.
What I didn't know is that the
US had a plan in place for invading Canada at least as long
ago as 1930. Put down those guns, eh?
- Speaking of which, Amazon has been quoting delivery times of
4-6 weeks for the novel since its publication, but I discovered
today that this has been reduced to 5-10 days. (Yeehah!)
This means that Amazon has (finally!) aligned its database with
reality. When a distributor has stock on hand, Amazon doesn't
require 4-6 weeks to fulfill an order. It's also interesting that
The Cunning Blood was into five digits on the Big Amazon
Stack Rank yersterday, up from 400,000 or so a couple of days
ago. This means that somebody is buying the damned thing!
- I found another glitch associated with
the Samsung portrait/landscape display switching driver: The
DivX video player will not
play videos in portrait mode. The same clips play fine in landscape
mode. In portrait mode, DivX complains that DirectX is not installed.
- In 1992, I wrote
up my concept of the "jiminy" lapel computer (and
its optical P2P network) in PC Techniques, though I was
working out the concept as early as 1983. Now a group is trying
to create a
pervasive mobile, peer-to-peer network that sounds a lot like
what I envisioned in 1992, albeit more specifically for trading
music automatically. The glitch here is that music tracks do not
have a unique, standard identification number (as books do) but
it'll be interesting to see if anybody really uses this, and what
other uses (beyond trading music tracks) will evolve for it.
- A week or two ago, Slashdot aggregated a
wonderful article about things that science doesn't currently
understand. (Alas, they call it "Things That Do Not Make
Sense," which isn't quite the same thing and a really
stupid title.) Hard SF is "the literature of the gaps,"
and here's a catalog of gaps for SF writers like me to play with.
For some reason I particularly like the notion of tetraneutrons,
which are basically alpha particles in which all four nucleons
are neutrons. Gotta figure out how to work them in somewhere.
7, 2006: Meltdown
Yesterday's meltdown didn't go especially well. The Intel D865PERLK
motherboard needs a slew of drivers for its chipset, but the drivers
wouldn't install, the disk formatted weirdly, and I'm beginning
to think that something, somewhere, messed up the 137 GB barrier
fix that I applied last April when I put the system together.
Some of you may know that there's an ATA disk interface (both parallel
and serial) limitation of 28 bits for addressing hard drive logical
blocks, and while that may have seemed like a lot of logical
blocks 10 years ago, we're way past that point now. What this means
is that using hard disk drives with greater than 137 GB capacity
takes some care and some screwing around. I used a 200 GB drive
for the bootable drive in my system, and in looking back I think
that was a mistake. I don't store data on my C: drive unless forced
to, so even a partition as small as 40 GB will take a long time
There's a nice white paper on the topic from Seagate here.
Ultimately I'm going to have to use Seagate's bootable formatter
disc to reformat the whole 200 GB drive, but given that all but
25 GB or so were empty air, I've decided to duck the issue and install
a 120 GB SATA drive instead. That will still give me three chunky
boot partitions and (one would hope) fewer inexplicable failures.
More as I learn it.
In the meantime, I moved my data back into the 1.7 GHz Dell Xeon
box that I bought in 2002 and will be using that for my main system
for awhile. It's a little noisy, but quite fast since I filled it
with RAMBUS memory a few months back. I still have a few apps to
install, but it's most of the way to where it should be.
There are times when I think I should have been a farmer instead.
6, 2006: Technical Difficulties
My main system here burped yesterday and then refused to boot.
(I got it running again with a couple of files on a floppy disk;
a trick I'll explain in a day or two.) It's been showing some odd
signs of instability for several months, and what bothers me far
more than that is that I have no idea whyand I'm typically
more careful about these things than most people. So today I'm going
to do a system meltdown and then rebuild it. I may not post tomorrow
at all. We'll see.
In the meantime, Amazon seems to be shipping my novel ahead of
its stated 4-6 week time delay, and there
are new copies available through ABEBooks that can be shipped
in a day or two. Maybe we're making progress.
Now, back to the battle...
4, 2006: Dangerous Ideas
There's a fascinating Web site maintained
by the Edge Foundation, and every January 1 it asks a crew of
scientists and other bright people a question. (This has been happening
annually since 1998.) This year, the Edge questuion ran as follows:
The history of science
is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally,
or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian
revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea?
An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that
is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because
it might be true?
This year, 117
people answered the question, and if you have a few hours to
read 72,000 words (and can stand staring at your screen that intently
for that long) it's well worth reading, at least in part to get
a sense for what smart people consider "dangerous."
Most of the essays are pretty cosmicand some of the contributors
are a little unlikely. A graying and distinguished-looking Michael
Nesmith (yeah, the Monkee) suggests that "Existence is Non-Time,
Non-Sequential, and Non-Objective." Uhhhh, ok. Now, how about
one more spin at "The Last Train to Clarksville?" An awful
lot of people are wrestling with spiritual questions, either trying
to reconcile science and religion or trying to talk us into giving
up religion entirely. Some are pushing the same old change-human-nature
crap that gave us Communism and the 100+ million deaths it caused.
Yeah, that's dangerous, but that's what at
least one individual thinks we ought to attempt. Some of the
ideas presented are seen as dangerous to liberal common knowledge
(e.g., that lefty obsession that human beings are blank slates,
and that intelligence and talent are evenly distributed) but are
seen by ordinary people as just the way the world is.
Few are describing ideas down in the realm of physical gadgetry,
though that's where my personal view of what's really dangerous
resides. Some ideas are scary to me (like the notion of an afterlife
without God) but hardly dangerous. For dangerous, consider an upload-only
P2P file sharing node planted by a virus. It's dangerous because
it provides something no other P2P system can provide: Plausible
deniability. People would deliberately infect their own PCs with
it, and it would be the Napster era all over again. If you're in
the record or movie industry, that is your worst nightmare.
Nothing else comes even close.
However, for real danger to collective humanity, I think it's hard
to top bioengineered stealth sterilizer pathogens, especially those
keyed to only infect individuals with certain genetic markers. A
germ that blocked the fallopian tubes painlessly while causing the
organism no pain and no other damage could quickly reduce humanity's
numbers by 95%, wipe out whole racial and ethnic groups, and cause
general pandemonium once people fully understood what was up.
Still, some of the cosmic dangers are real and intriguing, like the
common theme that we are running up against the limits of human reason
to understand the universe. Some thinkers, like nihilist/debunker
Susan Blackmore, go further and simply state that all of existence
is pointless. A few are optimistically iconoclastic, like the guy
who states that global warming might make the world better as likely
as worse. (Much depends on whose coast is getting flooded, heh.) Some
are in garbled academic talk, but most of the entries are refreshingly
well-written. Bookmark it and read a few every day.
3, 2006: Narnia
Carol is recovering from a bad case of bronchitis, so Pete and
I went down to Tinseltown to see Narnia: TLTWATW last night.
I've surprised a few people by not being wildly enthusiastic about
the film, but that's simply because I consider Narnia the least
compelling of all of Lewis' work. I've only read the entire saga
once, back when I was 17, and didn't read any of it again until
a month or so ago, to refresh my memory in anticipation of the film.
Much of the problem is just me being me: I never much liked King
Arthur-style high fantasy as a boy or a younger man. I only read
Tolkien after much arm-twisting from my friends in high school,
and even then, the chivalric themes centering on Rohan and Minas
Tirith bored me. Lewis was big on stories about anthropomorphic
animals, and his
childhood "animal land" fantasy universe of Boxen
(for which he went so far as to draw up railway maps and timetables)
morphed into Narnia. I went through my own talking animals stage
in third grade and never really went back. The themes explored in
Narnia are perhaps too mature and subtle for an audience that young
and innocent. By 17, that sort of magic was lost on me.
But there were other issues, ones that I couldn't frame well as
a teenager. If Aslan was in fact Narnia's God, he seemed a rather
indifferent sort of God. Here there was a witch drugging and kidnapping
preteen children and putting his realm in a deep freeze ("always
winter but never Christmas") and Aslan was inexplicably elsewhere
for a hundred years. So much for God being everywhere and caring
about His people. And in The Last Battle, Aslan just sort
of decides to shut the whole universe down for no reason I could
understand as a teenager, and understand now only because I understand
Lewis' theology. It got weirder than that: At the end of the world
(sheesh!) Aslan shuns poor Susan for suddenly favoring "nylons
and lipstick and invitations" as though that were as bad as
being a murderer. Even at 17, that was a serious WTF moment for
me, and it put me off the rest of Lewis' writings for over a decade.
Queen Susan the Gentle grew up, and God tossed her out on her butt
for it. I was in the process of growing up when I first read that,
and I figured she deserved a far better God than Aslan. (I was in
the first throes of my own struggle with personal faith at that
point. Narnia didn't help much.)
It comes down to this: It's dangerous to put God in fantasy stories.
Really dangerous, to both the story and to the whole idea
of God. Lewis did better with his Space Trilogy, though Perelandra
continues to gall me for its contrived and mostly baffling exploration
of the notion of Original Sin.
I'll come back to all that at some point. I think that virtually
everyone in the Christian world (with the possible exception of
the Eastern Orthodox) completely misunderstands the notion
of Original Sin.
The film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
is sumptuously beautiful, and so faithful to the book that as a
film it suffers a little. No surprise in that, since Lewis' adopted
son Douglas Gresham had complete veto power over every detail of
the production. That's a mixed blessing, just as it was in the first
Harry Potter films, which in my view suffered greatly from too much
The child actors are dazzlingly good, particularly the very young
Georgie Henley as Lucy. I was less impressed with the White Witch,
who was neither hot enough nor cold enough to inspire much fear
and loathing. Mr. Tumnus was just about perfect, as played by James
MacEvoy. Most of the other characters were CGI animals or fantasy
creatures, and while they were all nicely done, I got a better sense
for the animal characters in Babe.
I don't want to imply that I didn't like the film. It was far more
moving than I expected, and the settings (again, most filmed in
New Zealand) made me gasp. I guess I was hoping that a capable scriptwriter
and director could evoke more passion from the story in the film
medium than I could pry from it in textual form. The film narrative
lacked tension (as it did in the book) and many of the questions
that naturally arise were not answered. There is some backstory
elsewhere in the Narnia saga, and it would have been helpful to
include a little of that in the film. Film is an entirely different
way of telling stories from text, and the great mistake (if there
is one) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe lies in
its trying to transcribe a written narrative literally to film.
By the way, the film is a little too intense (and parts of it too
violent) for children younger than eight or nine. I think some kids
may wonder why Edmund got such a bad rap; while brattier than his
siblings, Edmund does little in the book and film that all of us
haven't done as 11-year-olds. (Yes, I know: From the standpoint
of the Christian allegory, that's the whole point.) The White Witch
drugged him almost as soon as he met her, which always seemed unfair
to me and will probably puzzle many children. The film actually
makes it less clear than the book that Edmund did any significant
betraying (he seems more like a victim of bad luck and a little
too much trust to me) and in the absence of childhood familiarity
with the Christian story, I think a lot of children will be scratching
their heads over why Aslan dies.
It will be interesting to see how Disney makes the other books into
films, which is now pretty much assured, given the millions that TLTWATW
is raking in.
2, 2006: Portrait Mode Glitches
I have my new Samsung 213T upstairs on my main machine now, and
I'm using it for all my daily tasks, in portrait mode. So far I've
only had two problems:
Everything else I've tried so far works fine, and it's as good a tombstone
as a futurist could ask. (Oh, all right, sure, I want a 30 GHz Pentium
IX with 256 GB of RAM and a 2 petabyte hard drive built into the back
of it, but I guess I'll settle for what I have.)
- Snood (a puzzle game) will not work in portrait mode with the
"huge" display size selected. All the other sizes work,
but with a monitor this big, having the huge display is just about
essential. Selecting the huge display size throws a GPF and aborts
- Much worse is Google Earth. When the 213T is in portrait mode,
Google Earth exhibits a split personality: The UI itself renders
in portrait mode, but the window in which the satellite photos
appear remains stubbornly landscape. It works, but the sense of
the navigation controls is rotated 90 degrees. (I tried to take
a screenshot of this, but Paint Shop Pro would not shoot it.)
I had assumed that Google Earth uses IE as its display window,
but that doesn't appear to be the case.
1, 2006: My 2006 Plan File
Sheesh, does anybody even remember what "plan
files" are? In ancient times, you could write up a text
file and associate it with the finger protocol, so that when somebody
fingered you, a text file would come down as part of the finger
data. I doubt many people use finger anymore (few hosting services
even run the finger daemon) so plan files have receded over the
Internet horizon, along with uucp "bang" addressing and
I'm not sure if "plan" meant lesson plan (probably) or
personal plans, but on this first day of the new year it might be
useful to think about what I hope to accomplish this year. I always
plan more than I can execute, but that's just part of life. Here's
the early list:
This is a good start. We'll see where it goes. More later.
- I hope to get ContraPositive moved somewhere that supports RSS
feeds. I wrote enough PHP on Aardblog to realize that I didn't
want to spend all my time for the next three years working on
it, especially when far better programmers than I have chewing
this bone for years. I've begun experimenting with LiveJournal
and BlogJet, as I will explain in the near future. Nothing out
there is quite the way I would have done it, but LiveJournal comes
reasonably close, especially with a wizzywigger like BlogJet
to handle client-side editing.
- I have shelves to build in the basement. I probably would have
begun building the shelves already, but there are about fifty
heavy boxes to move away from the wall before I can start putting
2 X 4s together. It's definitely a winter project, though, and
the first part of the lumber has already been bought.
- I am going to write one or more short ebooks as part of a project
to develop a "feel" for technical material in the 30-80
page range. This is part of a broader research project on ebooks
that may spin off some paying writing gigs for me.
- I intend to begin another SF novel. Not sure which one yet;
it will be either The Molten Flesh or The Anything Machineunless
another concept just walks in and takes over. You never know in
the SF business.
- I intend to clean up and market an SF short story I finished
this past fall.
- I hope to create a system through which I can display digital
photos and perhaps digitized home movies on our new big-screen
HDTV, and work the Web from the livingroom couch.
- I still hope to get to Germany.