July 31, 2003:

I met Carol 34 years ago today, on a Thursday night in our parish church basement. I recount the event every year here, because it was easily the single most significant happening of my life. Among the hinges of my personal history, that night was definitely the Boss Hinge, upon which everything else that has happened since has swung.

We've never been happier. This is good, because as my sister tells me regularly, "You'd better stay together, because if you two ever get divorced, we're keeping her."
July 30, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
(164K image)
Carol on
(203K image)

Well, this morning we went back to the house, and by 9:15 all dirt had broken loose. A line of dump trucks was idling on Stanwell Street, waiting to back up onto the (already filled) garage foundation to dump dirt down to the lower level. Two different species of Bobcat (the dirt moving kind) were crawling around, shoving dirt where it had to go. They had finally found the utility taps (somewhere between where the city and the subdivision had each thought they were) and a huge Cat backhoe was dredging a 10' deep trench to bring water and sewer lines to the proper point at the front of the foundation. It was wonderful. Only the fact that I had good clothes on (Carol and I were on our way to run a number of errands that required a certain un-grubbiness) kept me from cavorting around the periphery of the foundation like an intoxicated 11-year-old.

Later on, we actually had our chance, after the day was done, the excavators had gone, and I'd gotten my grubby jeans on. Arms out, I cat-walked on the edges of the stem walls like a kid, and we poked around the periphery, trying to figure out how to neaten up the margins around the house. At the end of the day, the vast majority of the dirt work had been done—it was astonishing how quickly those little Bobcats crawled around, pushing dirt—and the lower foundations were filled to just below slab level, ready for the underslab plumbing work. (See the link to an end-of-day shot of Carol on the foundation, above left.)

We waited half-past forever for anything at all to happen, and now it's happening so quickly it's almost hard to figure how they get from one step to another, happening only hours apart. Carol suggested we camp out on the back part of the lot and just watch for the next few days—but I do have work to do, sigh. More pictures as interesting things happen, but today was probably the day when the most dirt was to fly, probably for the entire project.
July 29, 2003:
We were up at the house this morning, and if it looked much different from the last photo I'd post a new one—but it doesn't. Today they had a backhoe up there, digging up the front of my lot looking for the city-installed utility stubs. Can't find 'em. The city told the crew that they were one place, and the subdivision management another. Turns out (now that I have two monster holes right next to the street) that the stubs were in neither place. When Carol and I left, they were still digging around and looking. One young chap was probing around with a cool metal detector, and coming up with loads of rebar cutoffs and soda cans, but no pipes. This all reinforces my impression that construction is not only an inexact science, but a statistical exercise—most of the time it all works out, but every once in a while (and a time or two within almost any project) weird stuff happens. I'm kind of hoping this is as bad as it gets.
July 28, 2003:

Some Q&A concerning yesterday's entry on new spam-limiting email protocols:

  • What about open relays?
  • The new protocols would not support open relays. Each message from a licensed sender would be fully authenticated. Where it's from is where it's really from.
  • What would keep spammers from applying for ten thousand licenses and running all of them to the max every month?
  • This is actually the trickiest part of the business, but my model is the USPS second-class mail qualification system. You have to make a case for a second-class permit. It's not a "right" and applicants have to prove that they are legitimate magazine publishers. It's no big stretch to limit the number of licenses held by a single person or corporate entity, and to require justification for granting multiple licenses.
  • How about a mechanism to allow people outside the system to get messages through one at a time?
  • This can be done in various ways, by devising tasks (like identifying patterns in a confusion of colored lines or blotches) that only humans can perform, or by time-limiting such traffic from a single IP to perhaps five per day.
Doubtless there are thin spots in the concept, but such a system would make it difficult enough to spam at sufficient quantity to make it pay that I don't think anybody would try. And with that, I'm letting the spam thing rest for awhile.
July 27, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
(148K image)

Several people have challenged me on the issue of new email protocols (see my entry for July 19, 2003) saying they won't help—that we need strong laws regulating email, and we need them Right Now. I sympathize (my daily spam load is now up to 500-600) but I'm still nervous about any legislative efforts, not having nearly as much faith in the astuteness of legislators or courts as some of my correspondents.

But a good question has emerged: What should these new protocols do? Primarily, authentication. Ron Burk correctly points out that that alone wouldn't prevent people from spamming, but it would make it far harder to hide where spam is coming from, and much easier to build a national blacklist. I'm very anal about maintaining my client-side blacklist here, and any spammer with a domain gets to spam me exactly once. The ones that get past my blacklist are the (growing) number who use randomly generated one-shot accounts on MSN, Yahoo, Juno, and the other free email services. (These are the ones I call "chickenboners.") Making it a felony to spam from someone else's domain (as in msn.com) is a popular antispammer legislation fantasy, but that would make it far too easy to get other people in trouble by forging headers to make it look like your enemies are doing the spamming. (See my entry for July 22, 2003.) Again, authentication is crucial.

My functional vision of such a new protocol set runs like this: Create a mailbox protocol (i.e., "son of POP") that only accepts mail from licensed mail servers. The "license" is an entry in a database in a new species of mail gateway server that authenticates mail senders. You buy a license much the same way that you buy a domain. The license doesn't specify "Don't spam or you'll lose your license!" (What is spam, anyway? Nobody can define it precisely. So let's not go there.) What it does do is count messages sent through the gateway. Each licensed mail server account gets to send some number (maybe a thousand, maybe five thousand) messages per month without further hurdles to pass. All other messages must be from senders present on the whitelists of the accounts that they're addressed to.

Newsletters like Bruce Schneier's superb CryptoGram would use another part of the protocol suite to get themselves whitelisted, which would be part of the process of subscribing to an email newsletter or listserv. Subscribe, whitelist. Unsubscribe, off the whitelist. No more advertising broadsides pretending to be newsletters. Being able to send a few thousand un-whitelisted messages per month would allow companies to send "promo" newsletters to certain prospects—but because they get so few "promo" slots, they would have to choose their recipients carefully and not just machine-gun messages to every address they can lay hands on. Etailers would have to use the whitelisting protocol to get messages through: Buy something, and the vendor is whitelisted, but the whitelisting expires thirty days after the sale.

Ordinary people like me who send maybe 200 emails per month (and I do a lot of email) would never get even close to the limit on the license.

Keep in mind that this limit is by account, not by domain. Free email services could throttle spammers by using a version of the server license that limits users to 200 messages per month, and charge for licenses allowing more. They would also have to watch out for automated registrations of hordes of one-shot accounts, but that's not at all difficult.

People using the new protocols would not be able to get mail from servers operating outside the licensing protocol. Objectors will think this is a minus and would scare off people, but no—it's a huge plus, and would bring in users by the tens of millions. Once the majority of email users are within the system, the game is over, and the spammers are beating their fists against the walls in vain.

None of the technology involved is rocket science. All we lack is the will to implement it and give it a try.

More tomorrow.
July 26, 2003:

Every so often, I force myself to tackle a completely new skill or field of study, so the brain machine doesn't get stale on me. The next one on the agenda is digital video. I currently have a foundation, but pretty shortly (in a matter of only weeks, I fervently hope!) I will have something that looks a little like a house, and it will change quickly. I'm reasonable adept at digital still photography, but it's time to get back to video.

I bought a Sony 8mm camcorder in 1989, and Carol and I used it mostly to take movies of Byte, Chewy, and Max. While recording the construction of my big garage/workshop in Scottsdale in 1995, the camcorder died, and we never replaced it. The tapes were a pain, and having gone there I definitely want to go somewhere else this time around. I want to be able to download digital video data to my big Dell, edit it there, and then burn it to a DVD-R as the new media format of our home movies.

This is a big chunk of new technologies to swallow whole (and it's not like I don't have anything else going on right now) and I'm of two minds about it. Sometime in the next week or so I'm going to have to make a decision. Any advice? Do let me know what you think.
July 25, 2003:

Odd lots from recent days:

  • Saw this in this morning's Slashdot aggregation. Apart from the fact that I don't really believe this would work (wouldn't it capsize in even a modest wind?) I suspect that if most people saw one of these things bobbing in the water, they would immediately call 911 to rescue the folks inside.
  • Most space freaks know of JPL's Space Calendar, but if you care about space at all, you should have it bookmarked.
  • The RIAA is apparently processing subpeonas assembly-line style, and is targeting parents and guardians of underage file sharers as well as the file sharers themselves. They're going to be issuing what may be hundreds of such per week. Sooner or later enough people are going to get pissed about this so that Congress may call a halt to it. I predict that file sharing will next go local, in some peculiar ways, and if I get motivated enough I'll write an idea paper about that, since I don't have the "Breakpoint" page in VDM anymore.
  • In my (as yet unsold) SF novel that I wrote back in 1998, I created a gadget called a femtoscope, which directly sensed quantum pair creation and graphed events at femtometer scales. The other day, Frank Glover sent me a pointer to this. Like I've said before, I gotta get this thing published before it stops being fiction and starts being history!

July 24, 2003:

Gray Davis's recall election apparently passed muster and will go on the California ballot this fall. When I was tooling around Chicago in a rented car last week (and lacked any CDs to play) I was listening to NPR, where the high dudgeon was palpable: How dare those uppity voters resort to direct democracy?

They dare, basically, because Davis is an idiot and unfit to govern—and NPR didn't mention that a great many Democrats want to see him gone as well. Electric bills do not respect party lines.

But that's a separate issue, one that interests me much less than the tendency of liberals to see all initiatives as erosions of democracy—mostly because initiatives are generally reactions to activist government and place limits on what may be done and how much may be spent. The guest fool on NPR was frothing about how right-wing extremists were behind the Davis recall, and they were buying the election, and that all initiatives of any kind were right-wing plots to buy laws that could not be legislated through elected representatives. The interesting thing to observe is that NPR simply could not imagine that legislators can be bought as easily as initiatives—and much, much more cheaply, in most cases.

I like "All Things Considered" because of the quality and depth of the discussions compared to most talk radio, but every now and then, the organization's biases become a little too obvious. I would have liked a discussion of how initiative government and representative government provide a sort of balance of powers that helps keep things from going too far in any one direction—but no, it's all a right-wing plot.

Dumb, dumb. Next time, I'll bring some CDs.
July 22, 2003:

There are certain problems with making spam illegal, problems shared with making any difficult-to-observe-and-enforce thing illegal. When a law is difficult to enforce, government's only real option is to use what I call a "scorched-earth" response: make the penalty so horrible that people comply out of terror that their lives will be ruined by being caught. We do this now for illegal drugs and kiddie porn, among other things, and how well it works is difficult to tell.

As much as I believe in the rule of law, I'm very much of two minds about such an approach, for this reason: When one touch of the law can ruin a person, the law becomes a weapon in the hands of a person's enemies or competitors. I warned of this years ago, in one of my "Phil Sydney" idea pieces called "Medusa Mail." Phil hatched an elaborate plan to plant kiddie porn on the computers of his political enemies so that he could call the feds on them and ruin them. I've read of people planting small stashes of drugs on someone's property and then ratting them out. It's called a frameup, and it's been the stuff of detective potboilers since before time began.

In cyberspace, this is called a "joe job" for reasons unclear, and it's already being done. You can get somebody's Web site shut down by faking spam from the Web site's domain. If sending spam becomes illegal, the temptation will become even worse, since it's so hard to prove where spam actually comes from. Worst of all are proposals to make advertising via spam illegal. Sending out ten million ads for your competitors is cheap, if it means getting them indicted for spamming and probably run out of business. As I've mentioned in many other essays, proving that you didn't do something online is very difficult. Proving that you didn't send spam or buy a spam campaign is probably impossible.

This being the case, a scorched-earth approach to spam suppression will only cause chaos. We must have a technological solution, and the high road to that (as Michael Covington and others pointed out) is a new set of protocols that allow reliable authentication of a message's sender. Without that, there's no fixing the spam problem. With that, it's already over. To me, that's a no-brainer.
July 21, 2003:
Jeff's House
(163K image)
Back home in Colorado Springs. They poured our stem walls on Friday, so we didn't get to see it happen, but I went up there just now (early evening) and took some pictures and walked around our new foundation. The next step is actually pretty mundane but will take some doing: They need to bring in an immense amount of dirt to fill in around the foundation and re-create some of the hillside that had to be removed to get the foundation in. That process may take another week and change, after which there will be some plumbing and additional concrete work before they can even begin thinking about framing. Still, we now have something that almost looks like it may become a house someday. Damn, it was a long time coming. Finally, there's something to watch!
July 20, 2003:

As Pete Albrecht and a couple of other people reminded me (though I did remember on my own) we first landed on the Moon 34 years ago today. I was at the Walgreen's Grill at Harlem & Foster in Chicago that summer, working my first job, scrubbing pots and shoving trays of ketchup-stained plates through a creaky, steamy old dishwashing machine. They had a little B/W TV at the camera counter, and the store manager made an announcement over the store PA that the Eagle was about to land.

And so we gathered in front of Walgreen's camera counter: a few kids, a few moms, a few little old ladies, and me, still holding a pot in one hand, having bolted from the back room of the grill like my pants were on fire.

Yes, it was the Summer of Love—I would meet Carol ten days later—but it was also a summer of dreams, and firsts, and growing. I remember small things about that day and that summer most vividly. My goofy dog Smoker ran away that morning and came back late that night, covered with mud and stinking of river water, even though the Des Plaines River and the Chicago River were both several miles away. He did like to swim. I remember sitting on the floor of our family room in front of the TV that night, wanting to climb right into the little screen and be right there with them as they took that giant leap for mankind. I remember thinking how cool it would be to go traveling around the world (and someday, when I grew up, off the world entirely) and yet I was very attached to my parents' house and my room and my little bed and my basement workbench, where my big 10" telescope was rapidly reaching completion.

We went back a few times, and then we stopped—and today even scientists scream out their hatred against manned space travel, the fools. I saw nothing on the news about the anniversary, just more partisan politics and the perpetual media emphasis on downers. You know, for the cost of a small war we could go to Mars, but those who don't want wars don't want space travel either, and it gets lonely sometimes, here in the middle, where looking up and dreaming still matters.
July 19, 2003:

Jim Mischel has muttered about this to me (as well as on his Web diary) several times: What we really need to beat spam is a whole new set of email protocols, designed from the ground up to allow control over what gets passed through mail servers and into mailboxes—or at very least allow users to require authentication of senders. That would never work, right? Too many things would break, right? Well, I think that depends on how desperate people get. Over half of all Internet traffic is now spam, and I'm seeing lots of thinly veiled warnings in the press from telemarketing companies saying that once the national no-call list throws them out of the telephone network, they'll just move to spamming to stay in business. Things may get worse before they get better, and perhaps they'll get bad enough to get people off the mark on a brand new email system.

In truth, people have begun experimenting with what amounts to new protocols: The various challenge-response permission-based email systems are precisely that: new mail protocols layered over the old ones. Why not do it right? The trick is not to make any such protocols backward compatible with POP and SMTP, but instead to define some sort of gateway that would allow an interface between the old protocols and the new. Companies, colleges, and mega-ISPs could adopt the new protocols almost immediately for mail passing among their internal subscribers (and between entities using the new protocols) with the gateways handling traffic from dragbehinds who haven't yet gotten with the program.

In an industry where somebody invents a new programming language every other weekend, I can't imagine that a few bright guys couldn't sit down at a conference table and hash out a new set of mail RFCs that would give us some additional tools to fight spam. Eventually we'll have to—we can't go on like this forever. There's no better time than now.
July 18, 2003:

I now have well over 2000 spammer domains in my PocoMail junksender.txt file, and I noticed something the other day: Some spammer or another is getting poetic. I found the following domains in junksender.txt, which (along with their still-missing brethren) almost certainly make a poem, kind of like a DNS version of a Burma Shave sign sequence:

foursontherun.com fiveworkshard.com sixislazy.com
sevensgotspunk.com eightiscrazy.com tenwearsamuzzle.com elevenisbarelythere.com
I left spaces where the remaining domains need to go to complete the poem. Each domain, by the way, has a Web page with some puerile pseudopoetry on it (check out www.oneislonely.com) along with the mandatory "unsubscribe" link that actually subscribes you to all the other lists that spammer maintains. (No, I didn't try it, but trust me, that's how it works.) If you have the missing nine or any of the other domains in the list, please pass them along so I can collect them all and complete the poem. Hey, it's better than collecting Hummel figurines, right?
July 17, 2003:

Tomorrow is garbage day here in Niles, Illinois (where Carol and I are visiting relatives) and down in my mother-in-law's basement I now have several piles of junk where I used to have a stack of ancient Compaq computers. (Ancient = 1997. Whew.) Despairing of being able to do motherboard transplants on them, I just pulled them apart with my newphew Matt, whom I told to simply unscrew any screw he could find. Between the two of us, we reduced two of the machines to rubble in twenty minutes. We separated out the electronics into one pile, the drives into a second, and dead sheet metal and plastic into a third. The drives I'm shipping home, the electronics goes to a local reclaimer, and the empty hulks go out on the curb. It's a shame, really. Those machines were built like tanks.

The newest and best of the stack I'm shipping home tomorrow morning, to become a lab machine for tormenting the Linux desktop. It's a Dell Dimension T550 with 800MB of RAM (three 256 MB SIMMs) and 23 GB of hard disk space. 550 MHz is a little slow, but with that much RAM I suspect it'll work just fine, and it'll be an interesting test case against a second, yet-to-be-acquired machine with more modest RAM but a 2 GHz clock.

My Linux smarts are currently limited to text mode, and most of what I've done with it is write short assembly programs for the 2000 update of my book, Assembly Language Step By Step. It's well past time to learn something new.
July 16, 2003:

A new concept in music file sharing is doing the rounds, and I'll give them points for cleverness: Create a file server in your home and put a 120 GB drive full of songs in it, along with an 802.11g high-bandwidth access point. Such a thing is completely legal for squirting music around your own house—and if the drive-by hackers coincidentally connect to your network and become drive-by file sharers, so be it. It's nominally illegal to connect to a home network without permission, so if the RIAA comes sniffing around looking at your MP3 server, you have more grounds to sue them than they have to sue you. (At least that's the buzz. I'm not so naive as to assume any kind of legal immunity against anything these days.)

This wasn't technically practical in the era of 11 Mbps 802.11b Wi-Fi, but with wireless-g on the streets now for cheap, a 3 MB MP3 file can be transferred in just a couple of seconds. Also, I have a hunch that over the next few years, wireless-g will become ubiquitous in urban areas, to the extent that you'll be able to sense several nearby networks without leaving home. It may sound nutty, but something like the Brisbane Mesh may happen organically, without any planning or deliberate work: Kids will connect with other kids on the block simply because their Wi-Fi fields overlap, and when they do, their MP3 collections will equalize like water seeking its own level. Hard disk space is now under a dollar a gigabyte, and even bottom feeder Best Buy systems have 30-40 GB of disk. That's 10,000 songs! With 100 GB to fill with audio, I don't think the kids will pick and choose. Somebody will inevitably write a network utility that simply goes out to other systems, via Wi-Fi or cable, or grabs whatever MP3s aren't already present. Who needs Kazaa if virtually all the currently popular songs are already on your hard drive?

In another 5-8 years, kids will probably keep a Wi-Fi-equipped PDA in their pockets whenever they go to where kids gather, and their PDAs will gather MP3 files like lint, automatically. Once PDAs can hold 30-50 GB it's not only possible but inevitable. I predicted something like that in my SF with my "jiminy" device back in the early 1980s...but at least I assumed people would at least ask and even pay a fair price, and not just grab.

When the global Internet took us by surprise and swept the essentially local BBSes into the sea ten years ago, we were blinded to the powers of essentially local networks. The RIAA can shut down peer-peer networks because even though they're decentralized, they still support global connections. Copyright enforcers can sit in one place in LA and gather data for the thousands of lawsuits they're threatening without getting out of their chairs. Overlapping Wi-Fi gives us an entirely new networking concept: the deniable interface—and if it gets popular enough, it will organically create massive urban mesh networks without global connections. Content will "seep" from network to network, and enforcing copyright in an environment like that will be agonizingly difficult. Boy, do we need a new content payment model or what?
July 15, 2003:

Well, sure enough, there's almost zero possibility of plugging new motherboards into any of the old Compaq and Dell machines I have lying around. (Reader Roy Harvey warned me, and ten minutes' research on the Web nailed it.) Both Dell and Compaq have created radically nonstandard motherboards and power supplies, and re-using my old 350 MHz boxes would be more trouble than the financial advantage would be worth, especially with 2.4 GHz machines selling for $500 new at Best Buy. I have a Dell Dimension XPS T550 with almost a gigabyte of RAM in it, and I'm going to ship it home from Chicago and use that for my new project, at least for starters. If I need another machine beyond that (and I probably will) I'll go back to a pursuit I haven't indulged in since, well, 1992 or so: Building whole machines from loose parts.

I'll be travelling for a few days, and so my entries are likely to be short. I have more to say on the groundedness issue, but it'll have to wait until I get back home.
July 14, 2003:

Esther Schindler sent me a pointer to a new gadget: The Kensington Wi-Fi Detector. Push the button, and if you're within about 200 feet of a Wi-Fi hotspot, the lights will light up in proportion to field strength. It detects both 802.11b and 802.11g fields (both on the 2.4 GHz band) and will filter out RF fields from cordless phones, microwave ovens, and other Part 15 gadgetry working on 2.4 GHz.

This is not a bad idea, since it can save time if you want to find out if there's a hotspot nearby but don't want to have to boot your laptop. However, it has a fatal flaw: It can't tell you whether a hotspot is open or closed (i.e., whether WEP is engaged.) In some knucklehead neighborhoods this won't matter much because there are so many unprotected networks around (in Chicago, I went five miles down Harlem Avenue last year without spotting a single encrypted network!) but for those who want to stay on the right side of the law, booting the machine and running NetStumbler is way better. $30. Not available yet. I'm curious to see what the hardware hackers are going to do with this—the device is just itching to be built into something much cooler.
July 13, 2003:

For years I would hand off my slightly-used computers to my nephews, who would use them happily until Uncle Jeff sent them the next slightly-used computer. Well, Brian and Matt are mostly growups now...and the old computers are stacking up. Disposing of old computers is something of a growth industry, and on my next trip to Chicago I have to start figuring out where to send all those old 486s, P-166s and P-350s. Most will go to some sort of recycling center somewhere, but at least two of them are likely to come home for motherboard transplants. I need one and possibly two additional machines for a new project, and I can either buy one or possibly two new machines, or I can drop a new motherboard into an old box or possibly two old boxes.

Why don't more people do this? Out in Chicago I have a Compaq DeskPro P-350 gathering dust. It cost a lot in 1997, and it's built like a tank. All of it works just fine, though I'll have to upgrade the Zip drive to a Zip-250, and maybe add a second hard drive. The chassis is spectacularly good. I can't imagine just dumping it. Does somebody make a current mobo designed to fit into old Compaq boxes? That becomes my newest research project. If any of you have done this or know a Web site focused on that particular challenge, do let me know. I'll start with Tom's Hardware and work outward from there.
July 12, 2003:
Jeff's House
(204K image)

I owe this topic in some respects to Jim Mischel, who described what he considers his mid-life crisis in his Web diary entry for May 28, 2003. Although he's the only one to go public with it so far, several other of my friends have privately admitted similar things, and I've read a multitude of cases of men suffering and (sometimes) behaving badly at mid-life. Such crises almost always happen between the ages of 40 and 50. It happened to me too—and now I think I know why. Mid-life is when your long-term groundedness comes under attack. If you lose enough of it, you will suffer. If you lose too much of it, you can do bizarre things, sometimes ruining your life in the process.

My own crisis started in February of 2001, and dealing fully with it took over a year. I didn't do anything weird or damaging—I'm hopelessly sane for that sort of thing—but there was a certain amount of suffering involved, some depression, sleep disruption, weird and extremely disturbing dreams, and a few of those intermittent psychic (not psychotic!) events I mentioned back in my May 27, 2003 entry. I didn't say much about it here in ContraPositive, beyond the sleep problems, because at the time I wasn't sure what was going on, and I didn't want to sound like a loon.

Not everybody's mid-life crisis is the same, but there seem to be common elements. Mainly you're dealing with trauma in your past, and to some extent integrating the changes that come of undeniable aging. Stuff comes back to haunt you that you thought was buried forever. It can get ugly. It takes work to deal with. I'm glad it's over.

I'm convinced that three major forces conspire to kick off a mid-life crisis: First of all, in a huge number of cases, when you're 45 to 55 is when your parents and their siblings pass on. As the Rev. Mary Ramsden put it, you're left standing alone at the edge of the abyss. There's nobody between you and the end of things to reassure you of life's endless continuity. Aunt Kathleen's there and has always been there, but now...she's not there anymore. Ulp.

The second force meshes diabolically with the first: In that same period, things in your body begin to work less well. Stuff starts to hurt that never did before; if you're not careful you gain a lot of weight. Sleep doesn't come as easily. Cuts, bruises, and sprains heal more slowly. You look in the mirror and think, Eek! I'm getting old. And then another favorite uncle dies, and you're looking out over that abyss again.

The third force has to do with your dreams and expectations. By the time you're 50, you've established an identity, a set of skills, ways of thinking and working, and probably a career. You also realize that the universe of possibility that was yours on graduating from college is imploding. By the time you're 50, your dreams have to be more modest in scope. Statistically, you're just not going to go back to med school and become a neurosurgeon. You're not going to play pro baseball, or win the Olympics. You have to realize that you're at your peak, and a peak implies a slide, back down toward...that abyss again.

All of these things impact your groundedness. We take great comfort in the continuity of our health, our progress upward in skills, wealth, and other things, and the presence of our parents and mentors. For many years all of these things can be a source of groundedness. Then things start to change.

Consider my own timeline: In mid-1999 my beloved godmother, Kathleen Duntemann, died very suddenly. Unlike a lot of godparents, she looked after me, even when I was an adult, and I was in touch with her all the time. I saw her only weeks before her death, and she was her perpetual jolly, ascerbic Irish self. Then one day I got this call from Gretchen.... Early in 2000, I was forced by economics to fold Visual Developer Magazine, which (along with its predecessor, PC Techniques) had been the focus of my professional life for 10 years. I didn't lose my job, precisely, but there wasn't the same magic in what I did after that. In mid-2000, I gave myself a hernia. In late summer 2000, my mother died after a long illness. It wasn't unexpected, but it was difficult nonetheless. In early 2001, Max, our last dog, died, and I was the one who took him in to be put to sleep, as I had years before for Mr. Byte and Chewy. A house suddenly without dogs is a quiet, lonely house, especially after having had dogs for a full 20 years. About the same time, my SF novel was rejected for the second time, and the computer book business began its tailspin plunge from its glory dot-com days. The proximal triggering incident (as best I can identify it) seems almost trivial: I went part-time at Coriolis and gave up my big office to our VP of Sales and took a cube in the corner. That's when the crisis began.

In looking back, I can see now that a great many things that had been powerful anchors in my life just suddenly went away in a very short period of time. I felt at loose ends, adrift, weird. I felt like the world had lost its coherence and that lots of things that once seemed so obvious as to be taken for granted no longer made much sense. It became very easy to doubt my own competence and even my own goodness, especially given the strange insistence with which unpleasant memories of my distant past (my father's ugly death, being bullied in grade school, nerdish teenage difficulties with girls, things like that) haunted my mind. Those memories were always there, but while I was more fully grounded I could keep them in the jar and not deal with them. Once you lose your groundedness, the slipperier parts of your deeper mind start to give you trouble. How you deal with them, well, that's not the crisis, but if your actions are badly chosen they can make things worse. I guess I was lucky. I didn't buy a boat or a vette, and I didn't start taking up with young women. Hell, I even learned a few things. Primarily: Groundedness is the necessary underpinning of sanity. Keep this in mind as you approach 50. You're going to need it.

More later. (If you're getting sick of this topic, do let me know!)
July 11, 2003:
Jeff's House 
(250K image)

I don't have time this morning to do another extended essay, but I will pass along some of the comments I've received on my groundedness topic for the last two days. Response has been amazing; I've gotten more comments in less time on this series than anything else I've done since I've started this thing, which was all the way back in 1998, when I kicked off Contra's predecessor, VDM Diary.

Michael Covington offers the view that groundedness reflects a confidence that the world will still exist 5, 10, or 50 years from now, and that what we do today has an effect on that future. I agree that confidence in the future certainly has a lot to do with being grounded, and I think it's one of the reasons that reactionaries object to overrapid change in society: It weakens the groundedness that reactionaries (usually subconsciously) elevate to the highest virtue, generally at the expense of other necessary things, like personal freedom and economic activity.

David Stafford mentions the force pulling on the other end of this rope: Our modern elevation of personal freedom to the highest virtue has made groundedness much more difficult to achieve. I suspect that the great art of civilization lies in finding and maintaining the balance. Perhaps reminding our young people that freedom operating within a framework of responsibility and mutual obligation is much more powerful (and useful) than freedom operating without anchors at all. (Some of us call this chaos, and it's a pretty scary thing.)

One of my correspondents who prefers not to be named writes that centeredness (living more fully in the current moment) and groundedness are related: If you're constantly worrying about the future and the past (per Michael's comment, if you aren't confident in the future) you'll have a very hard time remaining fully in the present. She's right; centeredness is indeed hard; it's the point and primary result of Fr. Thomas Keating's method of centering prayer, which I practice intermittently. One challenge is that I tend to go for centering prayer just when my groundedness weakens, and wonder why I thrash...

Corey Vavrik asks why groundedness is different from sanity, and it's a good question. Sanity is usually viewed as a lack of mental instability, whereas groundedness is the (necessary) state from which sanity proceeds naturally. A lot of psychotic behavior stems from losing one's ground, as I'll be talking about in coming days.

More tomorrow. Thanks to you all for letting me know that I'm giving you something interesting, and I'm always happy to hear your views on that—or anything else!
July 10, 2003:
Jeff's House 
(250K image)

My parents gave me the gift of groundedness. (See yesterday's entry for the beginning of this discussion.) They didn't know that word, and not all of what they did was deliberate. Still, it worked spectacularly well. I was an odd kid, but I was a relatively happy kid, and I almost never got into trouble. (No, my dear sister, lighting a fire in the crawlspace under the family room doesn't count. That was a science experiment, and no harm came of it—not to the house nor to your butt, at least!) I lived in the same house from birth to age 23—my mother lived in that house for 47 years!—and my suite of friends changed only slowly over time. I had connections within the neighborhood. Bud, the owner of Talcott Hardware, knew me by sight as I advanced from buying kites to tools and pipe fittings, and I went to Louie's Barber Shop across the street from Talcott Hardware until I left home. (In college I went only rarely, heh.) My parents didn't necessarily see such continuity of life as a requisite of childrearing, but it was a good foundation, accidental though it might be.

Somehow the common depredations of adolescence and young adulthood passed me by. I've been pewking drunk exactly once in my life, and it was such an awful experience I don't think I drank anything again for eight or ten years. Being drunk made me feel out of control of my whole being, which is a massive failure of groundedness that terrified me at age 18. Smoking marijuana threw me into such a deep blue funk that I never did it again. (I will never understand its attraction. At least wine tastes good!) Sex was not an issue; I did not date "fast" girls, and I had a mental block on treating girls as playthings.

Most of this I owe to my father. He was close to fearless, and the only failure of nerve I ever witnessed in him was retreating from telling me anything about sex. That really didn't matter, because what he did teach me was a lot more valuable: He emphasized the sacredness of life, and the respect due to the integrity of the individual, myself and others as well. He taught me that cheating and lying and being a jerk were wrong, not because I would be caught and punished (though he mentioned that a time or two) but because such things were beneath me. His precise words were, "you owe yourself better than that!" To be a jerk was a violence committed against my own personal integrity. He lived the lesson, too: I never saw the least trace of dishonesty in him. He pursued his career as an engineer with gusto and enthusiasm. He grumbled at his treatment by an IRS tax auditor once, but when the audit was over, the auditor admitted that the IRS owed him money.

And although he chickened out over the old birds and bees thing, the parts he left out were parts I could look up in the Encyclopedia Britannica—or hear from the guys at school. What he did teach me was that girls were to be friends and partners, respected for the life that was in them no less than I respected the life that was in me. He lived that lesson as well: He loved my mother fiercely, and they were clearly best friends. As I've written in many places, no other lesson ever mattered more than that one.

Ironically, the grounding I took from my Roman Catholic upbringing was thin gruel: It was a strange, punitive expression of Catholicism, and I quietly rebelled against it when I was a teenager, as none of it gibed with the notion of a good and loving God. Of this I'll write more someday, but my mother's religious culture was a horror of devils, desperate apocalyptic Marian visions, divine vengeance, and the looming shadow of Hell, ready to devour the unwary for the slightest reason, or no reason at all. All I could do was tag it for later processing and set it aside—which I did, for almost 25 years. In a sense, this was fortunate: The stark contrast between the idea of God and my mother's understanding of God allowed me to separate the two, and keep what really mattered: a stubborn faith that the world has meaning and that evil would never, in fact, prevail. The groundedness to come of that simple notion has proven durable indeed.

I say all of this as background for later entries in this space. I arrived at adulthood very strongly grounded, anchored powerfully in a web of love, respect, and responsibility. Tomorrow I'll begin the discussion of what happens when groundedness weakens.
July 9, 2003:

I've been researching something recently after reflecting on the unsettled state of the world today: groundedness. It's one of those odd ideas that is so close to daily life that we don't necessary know that it exists until it's gone—and even then, we're hard-pressed to name what it is that we've lost. Most simply put, groundedness is the measure of how firmly you're anchored in your own metaphysical context.

I say "metaphysical" here because groundedness has roots in both the real world and the inner world of the deep mind. It's about where (and how) you live, what you love and respect, and (perhaps most important) who and what you are. Well-grounded people know what they're good at and have something engaging and useful to do. Being loved (as in a loving marriage or extended family) contributes powerfully to groundedness. Having solid relationships with friends and others in your community is essentual. Having something higher than oneself to respect and identify with (ethnic/cultural background, religion, country, political/philosophical movement) helps a great deal. Even living for a long time in one place and taking the time and effort to develop and maintain strong local ties is a species of groundedness, one less and less common in our increasingly mobile world.

Jay Kinney and Richard Smoley (whom I used to read regularly in my "weirdness" years when I subscribed to Gnosis) have this to say in their book Hidden Wisdom:

Groundedness comes in many forms: resolute common sense, daily prayer or meditation, a regular job that keeps us engaged with material realities, physical exercise, or something as simple as family life. One needs a sufficient engagement with the requirements of the so-called 'real world' so that one is less likely to fall prey to flights of fancy or become engulfed by archetypes, repressed complexes, or manias that will make one lose one's wits.

My thesis (which I'll be exploring over the next few days) is this: Much of the trouble in the world (crime, cruelty, depression, and many other less-nameable miseries) comes from a lack of groundedness in the affected inviduals. Lose your groundedness, and there will be trouble. It may be mild trouble, or it could be very serious trouble. (More on this later.) I don't think most people understand how crucial their own groundedness is.

Groundedness isn't a binary quantity. It's a cable woven from many threads, and you don't lose it all at once. The threads of groundedness can snap one at a time until you have so little left that a relatively minor stressor can make you incapable of functioning in the world. Groundedness can be temporarily lost for short periods, and make you act like an idiot. It's the functional machinery for maintaining sanity. I wish that we would be teach our young people about groundedness, and (given the sort of world that we've made for ourselves) that it must be maintained through life by deliberate effort—we once did that, and we do it less and less all the time, to our unwitting sorrow. More later; stand by...
July 8, 2003:

We're underway! This morning the foundation contractor brought a truckload of forms up to our lot, and their crew got most of the footing shot and blocked in. In the photo the work looks pretty complete, but there's a day or two's worth of touchup to be done before the footings are actually poured. Compare this with the photo of the original lot, which I posted here last year in my September 8, 2002 entry. The two photos are taken from roughly the same place and with the same perspective.

The lot had been graded and compacted earlier (even before the loan closed) because the bank required a soil test, which required a level place for the big derrick thing they use to pull a core from 30 feet down. So in a sense we've been underway for several weeks, but it just didn't feel real until this morning. I'll be talking about this project a lot for the next seven months or so, and you'll just have to humor me. I've never done anything like this before, and (considering the hoops I've had to jump through just to get started!) I'm unlikely ever to do it again.
July 7, 2003:

Some bug or another (and they are legion) has slowed me down the last couple of days and I haven't been good for much. On my sister Gretchen's instigation, I started poking around the Web, nostalgia-surfing for cartoons recalled from my childhood. It's kind of amazing the sorts of labors of love you find out there. Typical is Toonopedia, which has short entries (with scans where available) of cartoons from the newspaper, comic book, and animation worlds. Another, more detailed entry is Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site, which runs to longer articles with more facts and analysis.

So I spent a light afternoon and evening just refreshing my memory of such items as Crusader Rabbit, Tom Terrific, Screwy Squirrel, Little Annie Rooney, Moon Mullins, The Space Explorers, Buz Sawyer, Smokey Stover, and on for hundreds of entries. I learned that Aunt Fritzi seriously predates Nancy, and had her own strip called "Fritzi Ritz" for many years. I learned that Winnie Winkle began in 1920, and ran for 76 years. (Gasoline Alley has run longer, of course, but Gasoline Alley is sui generis.) I learned that my favorite newspaper strip of all time, Ric O'Shay (see my entry for June 13, 2003) might still be running if the syndicator hadn't gotten greedy with Stan Lynde.

Admittedly, my memory of it is now over 40 years old, but I was surprised to learn that "The Space Explorers" that ran serialized on Garfield Goose circa 1959 was a stitched-together hack consisting of pieces of an abandoned German SF space yarn, a short animated film from Scandinavia, and some educationl astronomy footage, which the authors massaged and made a movie of. (See this page for the full report; scroll to the last entry.) It was all done to capitalize on the space craze that was making the country nuts about that time. I remember that well: I got my first telescope in 1958 (a wretched little cardboard spyglass) by sending in a quarter that Aunt Kathleen had given me along with a couple of Cheerios boxtops. One look at the Moon and I was hooked for all time.

(Side note on "The Space Explorers": My second-grade friends and I argued passionately oer whether Professor Nordheim's space navigator Smitty was a boy or a girl—and in fact she was a girl. None of us had ever heard of a girl named "Smitty" but her ambisexuality was a little odd in America of the Fifties.)

Most of the entries from Toonopedia comment on how awful some of the animation was—a few items are described as being little more than "illustrated radio." Oddly, I remember them all pretty fondly, with animation that was more than adequite. (Could the animation in "Rocky and Bullwinkle" really have been that bad?) Of course, TV itself was relatively new back then, so animation in any form was something of a wonder. I also think that much of the value of early cartoons was in the scripting and the story; certainly that's the case for Bullwinkle. I guess we were just easily impressed.

Toonopedia lacks entries on Hubert, the Teeny Weenies, Closer Than We Think, and a handful of other things that I recall from that era, but it's amazing in its near-completeness. The next time you feel ukky, head over there and just wade for awhile. It's a wonderful thing.
July 5, 2003:

Mars is coming. Mars is coming closer, in fact, than it has in recorded history—we haven't seen it this close in 60,000 years. The magic day is August 27, 2003, but as a telescopic object, Mars will be glorious for weeks on either side of its closest approach, which we call opposition. In fact, it's getting pretty close even now, six weeks out, as my friend Pete Albrecht has demonstrated with his big Meade LX200GPS telescope and a $75 web cam. The photos in this entry were taken by Pete with his Meade and the Web cam, which Pete did not modify except to remove the lens and machine a plastic adapter to allow him to drop it into his eyepiece holder. Keep in mind (those of you who have seen little but NASA probe images of Mars) that Mars is very small in a telescopic view, and is considered one of the most difficult planets to photograph well. In late August it will look about as good as any of us here alive will ever see it look, and I direct you to this page for more details on the opposition.

Pete is new to CCD astrophotography, and I've never done it at all, but it's been fascinating watching over his shoulder as he learns this new skill. Once again, pervasive computing makes things easier than ever. You don't "watch" a CCD image the same way you look through a telescope. As with film photography, you must accumulate light—but with a twist: In CCD work, you capture a large number of short exposures, and then use an imaging utility specially created for astro work to "stack" all those images, combining their light and resolution into a single image better than any of the single, short-exposure images. A number of free utilities are available online; the one Pete uses is AstroStacker, though he has also begun using Registax and says the documentation is a whole lot better. Interestingly, the world leader in such utilities is France, and almost all of the really good image stacking software is French.

Anyway, if you have a telescope at all, or know someone who has one, don't let this one pass you by. Note that it's not something that happens in a few minutes or hours; Mars will be dazzling for days and days and days, and if you have a cloudy night, go back out as soon as it's clear. August 27 is just the peak, but it will be an amazing sight for a couple of weeks in either direction.
July 4, 2003:

Perhaps the last truly great member of the Democratic Party, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when asked if he was embarrassed to speak on behalf of a less-than-perfect democracy, replied without rancor, "Show me a better one." They don't have an illegal immigration problem in Cuba, no matter how much the extreme lefties rave about Fidel's little prison. Mexicans are (literally) dying to cross the bitter Arizona desert to get here. Politics is a morass, with more asses than any other field of endeavor, so for the most part I avoid political analysis entirely, and just take five steps back and say, Well, dammit, here we are. The American Idea cooks along, stumbling now, triumphing then, and somehow always engendering the envious hatred of half of humanity—who would all move here in a minute if they could. Perhaps we're onto something, heh.

Like everyone else, I have quibbles—but not today. Shortly Carol and I will pack our picnic supper and head out to Bancroft Park in the Old Colorado City district of the Springs, where we'll sit under a shady tree with four of our new-found friends, and we'll laugh and eat and drink while the band plays in the little bandshell, and be quietly, joyously American. It may not be the perfect way to celebrate that wonderful, mythical thing called the Fourth of July, but hey—show me a better one!
July 3, 2003:

Thomas Gold (see my entry for June 7, 2001) is at it again, and this time I think he stepped in it, major. An article aggregated by Slashdot has Gold going up against the cherished concept of solar sails: Immense sheets of infinitesimally thin reflective plastic tethered to a spacecraft and pulling it away from the Sun. I first encountered solar sails in a story that Arthur C. Clarke published in Boy's Life in 1964. (I believe it was called "The Wind from the Sun" but all my SF books are packed right now. I have it in some anthology or another.) Other scientist-authors as sharp as Robert Forward have used the concept, done the math, and completely convinced me and a lot of other people. Now Gold says it won't work.

I read the article before I read the Slashdot comments, wondering if I could spot any errors in Gold's logic, and boy, it didn't take long: Gold insists that a solar sail is equivalent to a Carnot heat engine, and this triggered my crap detector in a heartbeat. A solar sail is not a heat engine. Photons aren't heated gas molecules. They don't have mass but they do have momentum, and some of that momentum can be mechanically captured by a solar sail. The photons reflected by the sail lose energy to the sail and bounce off at a slightly lower energy/frequency. I admit I was intrigued by the question of whether a solar sail should be mirror-bright or black for top efficiency, but in pondering that question I start to climb beyond my own predictive grasp of physics. Slashdot's readers agreed with me, and took the analysis a lot further than I could. Here's the Slashdot commentary if you're interested.

Gold also seems not to understand why a glass-bulb radiometer works: The black side of the vanes heat up more than the white side, causing a (tiny) pressure increase in the air immediately above the black side of the vanes, which then causes rotation of the vane on its near-frictionless needle bearing. A radiometer is far too small to turn by capturing the momentum of photons, and if the vacuum inside the globe were total, the vanes wouldn't turn at all. (Some of the air is removed from the bulb to lessen the air friction, allowing the vanes to turn more easily.)

Although I think Gold's "deep hot biosphere" idea is worth exploring, publishing bloopers like this is unlikely to make the scientific community any more inclined to test his ideas. I let my sister Gretchen, Michael Abrash, and a few other trusted friends read my fiction before I publish it to make sure I don't expose a blind spot in my education or logic that engenders a howler. (The first draft of my Hugo-nominated story "Cold Hands" had a man with mechanical hands casually offering his thumbprint to close a contract. Gretchen spotted that one, which I ascribe to the simple careless lunacy of my youth.) It's a good habit to be in. Peer review is a wonderful thing, even (or especially) for contrarians.
July 2, 2003:

As best I know, our construction loan (upon which everything hung for building our new house here in Colorado Springs) finally came through this morning, and very shortly we'll be off and running in a big way. The lot has been surveyed and marked and bladed for the necessary soil test, but until the loan was approved we could not let the contractor just have at it, as he (and we!) would much have liked.

You should have seen the stack of papers we got in late last week for signing, notarizing, and returning. It was immense, and it's not like we've never closed a mortgage before. Up and down both sides of the stack (see photo at left) was this whisker-stubble of stickers, telling us to sign here, intial there, and notarize most of the whole ugly collection. I had to spend over an hour on the phone with the loan officer while he explained what all the papers were for and what they meant, given that most of them were in the most virulent legalese. We had to get signatures on various releases from our architect and contractor, and after a couple of days of phone calls, hair tearing and general tearing around, we sent them back, and shazam! We're on the hook for a whole lot of money, but at least now there's a tunnel to see the light at the end of!

More as it happens, which it will, and lots, and (according to our contractor) fast.
July 1, 2003:

Esther Schindler wrote to tell me that Michigan State University will no longer be funding the Clarion SF Writers Workshop, which has been a fixture there in East Lansing every summer for 35 years now. I attended the Clarion workshop exactly 30 years ago, in the summer of 1973, and it changed me forever as an SF writer. Part of it was hearing good people explain how fiction works, and part of it was actually placing (heart in throat) my own work upon the sacrificial altar of peer criticism. Some of that criticism was brutal, and some of it stained with the incoherent viciousness of envy (after one or two of the Big Names had praised my work) but a lot of it was bang-on, and because it cut so close to the heart I could not help but take it to heart, and became a better writer thereby.

I also wrote my first SF filk song, "Our Space Opera Goes Rolling Along," at Clarion.

In retrospect, I don't think my destiny is to be a "big sci-fi guy," as my mentor Nancy Kress used to put it, 20-odd years back when both of us were struggling and neither of us had really hit critical mass. Nancy has long been a big sci-fi guy, and me, well, my novel sits someplace or another, growing green hair like a chia pet. Every few years I sell a short that reviews well, but I can't generate enough of them to create a rep that will sell my novel. I'm still weighing the possibility of selling it myself, before it fades from fiction into history.

Clarion may continue somewhere, and I hope it does: If you want to melt metal, there's nothing like a crucible and a good hot fire, and so it was for me.