June 30, 2004:

As part of my birthday celebration yesterday (I'm 52—oh, the humanity!) Carol and I went to Tinseltown to see Shrek 2. It was certainly worth the time and money, as I'm a very big fan of the original Shrek film, and for the most part it didn't disappoint.

This time, the big send-up is not fairytales so much as Hollywood, skewered here as the kingdom of Far, Far Away, where there's a Starbucks on every corner and a mansion for every fairytale leading lady. Shrek and Princess Fiona go back to Fiona's home in Far Far Away, where her royal parents (brilliantly voiced by John Cleese and Julie Andrews) want to throw the ultimate wedding celebration ball.

One catch: The whole Fiona-in-the-tower thing was a setup, and she was supposed to wait until the gag-me-with-a-spoon Prince Charming made his way to the tower to set her free. Shrek having gotten there first, Prince Charming finds the tower otherwise occupied (by a gender-challenged wolf, heh) and realizes he has lost the venerable fairytale find-a-wife-and-win-a-kingdom game. Prince Charming's mother, the fiendishly LA Fairy Godmother, wants a rematch, and pulls strings in a diabolical game of mistaken identity that almost has Fiona believing that Prince Charming is Shrek. (This makes reasonable sense once you see it—I don't want to be putting too many spoilers here.)

The final resolution, hilariously played to the pounding rhythms of Fairy Godmother belting out "Holding Out for a Hero" (from Footloose) is absolutely brilliant, as Shrek, Donkey, and their fairytale friends (including a new ally, a Hispanic Puss in Boots) ride to Fiona's rescue, kicking ass and battling castle guards pouring hot lattes over the castle walls. In the final musical number, Donkey and Puss lead the gang in "Living La Vida Loca" and just tear the place up. Oh...don't dash out of the theater until most of the credits go by. You'll miss one of the best gags in the whole film.

Now. Those who have seen the movie will understand that what I've described all occurs in the final half hour or so. The first hour is mostly wasted with a tedious family-conflict-because-the-new-son-in-law-is-an-ogre schtick, in which the gags are thin and the going very slow. It isn't until Fairy Godmother shows up that things finally get interesting—and funny. As part of a sequence where Fairy Godmother flits around Fiona's room, summoning up material goods that Fiona neither wants nor needs, she sings:

A sporty carriage to ride in style.
A sexy man-boy chauffer Kyle.
Vanish your blemishes, tooth decay.. celulite thighs will fade away!
A hoo and a hey! Have a Bichon Frise!

...and hands Fiona a little white dog. Carol and I about went nuts; we had bichons for 18 years (from 1980-1998) and will soon have another. Donkey arrives just about then, and exclaims: "You got a puppy! There was nothing in my room but shampoo!" That's when the film finally starts getting good.

Anyway, it was well worth seeing, and don't despair if you're not rolling on the floor in the first ten minutes. There are brief tributes to a great many films to be watched for, from Spiderman to Mission Impossible (not to mention a bush that looks like Shirley Bassey), plenty of sight gags, and some of the most amazingly detailed hi-res CG animation I've ever seen. Highly recommended—and you can get there late without missing much.
June 29, 2004:

I just finished The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and I'm not entirely sure what to say about it. I haven't read a "mainstream" novel in a long time, and many of the things that are wrong with this book are the reason: It's too long, it's too lit'ry, and promises way more than it delivers by the end.

The premise is clever enough, though reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five: Henry DeTamble was born with a genetic mutation that gets him un-stuck in time. His mind manipulates quantum reality somehow and he periodically—and unwillingly—leaves his primary time stream to spend a few hours or days in the near past or near future, within fifty years or so. The worst of it is, his subconscious is clearly at the steering wheel. He generally goes to times and places that have deep meaning for him: His mother's gruesome death in an auto accident, and his wife's farmstead while she grows from childhood to maturity.

This is the gist of the book: Henry is caught in a kind of strange loop: He loves Clare deeply, and so his subconscious sends him back in time to visit Clare as a child and teenager, and over time comes to love Clare deeply. She loves him back, too—and their relationship is punctuated and weirdly shaped by these involuntary trips through time. He also visits with himself, sometimes at the same age, and other times creating another weird loop by teaching his younger self how to get through the time-jaunts without more damage than necessary. He arrives naked and famished, so he teaches his nine-year-old self how to pick pockets and steal clothing so that he won't freeze or starve. He always bounces back to precisely where he left in spacetime, so he doesn't travel via ship or plane. (Think about it!)

The first half or two-thirds of the book does a lot of good things with this very clever setup. Alas, I think I've been where the author finds herself halfway through, and I've abandoned more than a few novels for simply not knowing what to do next and how to tie it all up. I expected some profound reflections on the nature of time and free will and got virtually nothing. There were a couple of scenes that seemed to be setups for interesting developments: Henry appears to develop psychokinesis in one scene, which is then dropped and never revisited. Clare has unpleasant sex a couple of times with her best friend's husband for no detectable reason and without any detectable role in advancing the plot. More and more people learn about and accept Henry's weird condition at face value as the book goes on, and the Men in Black never show up to ask him how he does it. He vanishes from police cells and never makes the evening news—I don't think so.

At some point the book sort of peters out and simply stops. Nobody seems to learn much or even change much, except for growing older and grimmer. While it was a love story I enjoyed it, since I like love stories and wish I could write one. Once Henry and Clare begin trying to conceive a child, the whole tone of the book changes, and what was a warm and eccentric love story becomes mostly painful, in many different ways, none of which shed much light on the characters themselves.

Having come up through short fiction, I prefer to read (and write) fiction where every scene, every line of dialog, every impression related to the reader, however minor, has a role in moving the plot along. What we have here is a lot of what we used to call "slice of life," most of which does nothing to advance the plot and little to build our understanding of the characters.

All that said, I'll admit that I finished it and enjoyed much of it, especially the first two thirds. If you don't mind "slice of life" and reams of irrelevant detail, the story will come off better for you than it did for me. Cautiously recommended.
June 28, 2004:

Some odd lots while waiting for the concreter, or someone like him:

  • To those who have asked in recent months: That big honking rock resting precariously on one edge (see my entry for December 27, 2003) has been tipped onto one side by someone (a big someone riding an even bigger something, I suspect) and is no longer in any danger of rolling down the hill and leveling someone's townhome.
  • We woke up this morning to hear that a Richter 5 earthquake hit only 75 miles west of Chicago. I haven't heard from my sister or any of my Chicago friends yet, so I suspect it was easily missed at 1:10 AM. It is, however, a reminder that there are in fact earthquakes in the American Midwest, and one series of them, the three monster New Madrid quakes of 1811-1812, may have been the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. If something as big as New Madrid happened today, millions might die and damages would be upwards of $50B. (As if we needed anything else to worry about.)
  • A couple of my Jewish readers wrote to tell me that there is tradition in Orthodox Judaism that, once written down, any of the names of God should never be erased or destroyed. This is why some people write "G-d," since it is not a complete transcription of the name of God and thus not subject to this restriction. (See my entry for June 26, 2004.) Apparently a recent ruling from a body of Orthodox rabbis who deal with such things concluded that erasing a computer file with the word "God" in it does not constitute desecration of the name as it would for a paper or other physical transcription. This is all interesting, though I'm still not personally convinced that "God" is the name of God.
  • The Register reports that a rather stupid crook tried to extort $17M from a patent research company by locating unprotected Wi-Fi networks and using IP impersonation to avoid being traced when he transmitted his demands via email. It almost worked...until the guy sent a note asking that the check be made payabole to himself, Myron Tereshchuk. Non compos mentis, the cops say. And turn WEP on already, willya people?

June 27, 2004:

In one of those occasional "Aha! Insight!" epiphanies we all have at times (and usually wish we had more of) it occurred to me last night that the numbers we have been citing (myself included) for POPFile's accuracy at identifying spam are flawed. As with most things involving statistics, we need to be careful and look a little more deeply.

As of this morning, POPFile's overall accuracy stands at 99.63%. That sounds pretty dazzling, but it's not the only statistic that POPFile provides. Since June 15 (the last time I reset the statistics) POPFile has processed 504 "real" messages and 5,025 spams. That's an average of about 380 spams per day. In that same time period, POPFile recorded 7 false positives (real mail identified as spam) and 13 false negatives (spam that got into my inbox.) A utility that allows only .26% (note the decimal!) of spam slip past it is fine by me. Occasional spam in my inbox is instantly recognizable and not a serious problem.

On the flipside, however, we have a true false positive rating of 1.4%, and what we might call an inbox accuracy of 98.6%. False positives are much more serious, because they force me to scan POPFile's history display carefully, rather than just letting it do its thing unwatched. 98.6% accuracy is not too bad, truly, but we can't allow the massive quantities of spam that pass through our inboxes to distort that part of the statistics that matters most.

Another, related issue: POPFile is not quite finished. It needs to implement a new type of magnet, a magnet that "pulls" a message to one side or another, and teaches POPFile to recognize similar messages the same way. Right now, POPFile's magnets are pure overrides that pull a message to a particular bucket without teaching the statistical model anything about the messages acted upon by the magnets. This can be useful, but it's not quite enough. I want a magnet that says to POPFile, "Any message from Keith goes to my inbox, and add its statistics to the inbox part of your model." POPFile needs a whitelist, and it needs to learn from its whitelist. With that feature in place, it would be truly deadly.
June 26, 2004:

Here and there in my Web wanderings I have seen people write the word "God" as "G-d." If this is an expression of reverence it's a puzzling one, since "God" is not God's name. (I went looking for a discussion of this issue, but found that Google will not search for the string "G-d". Try it!) The name of the Hebrew God is a topic of some complexity, as this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia bears out. At their first meeting, Moses asked God what His name was, and God replied, "I am that I am," and I always took away a sense that God was adding between the lines, "...and that's all you need to know, rube." Back in the time of the ancient Hebrews, pagan magick was a very big deal, and a lot of pagan magick depended on knowing someone's "true name." Knowing a pagan small-g god's true name implied a certain amount of control over that god, or at very least a sense of obligation on the god's part. If God had a true name, the last thing He would do would be to hand it to a bunch of stubborn and mostly faithless desert wanderers. (God Himself refers to His chosen ones as "a stiff-necked people" on more than one occasion.)

Yahweh, the supposed proper name of God, is a compression of a Hebrew phrase meaning, "I am that I am" or something close to that, and is either a dodge to avoid revealing God's true name, or a statement that, because there is only one true God, He doesn't need a proper name to tell him apart from all the other gods. It's interesting that the vowels we see in "Yahweh" are a guess. The Tetragrammaton (YHWH, which is how the name is given in the Torah) lacks the vowels present in most Hebrew words. The vowels were originally there, but the Hebrew priests in the time of the Temple refused to write them down, because (as I understand it) humans were not worthy to know how to pronounce God's name. Maybe I'm a little off on this, but as it was explained to me, you can recognize a Hebrew word without its vowels, but you can't actually speak it. Maybe this is an echo of the Hebrew priests' abhorrence for pagan magick, which relied upon "words of power" to be effective. Supposedly the vowels were known by the priesthood and were pronounced during certain Jewish rituals within the Holy of Holies, but when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, the Jewish priesthood came to an end and the vowels were forgotten.

My guess is that some people write "G-d" to allude to this ancient tradition of reverence (if that's what it was, and not simply a precaution against pagan magickal practice) but it just comes off oddly to me. The logic may well be that "God" is as close to a name as God needs, and we should be careful what we do with it—but somehow, knocking out the vowels so we can't even pronounce it seems a little extreme. I suspect that if we all started our evening prayers with "Hey Big Guy," sooner or later somebody would begin writing it "Hey B-g G-y." My guess is that God Himself would probably advise, "Call me whatever you want—but just call me."
June 25, 2004:

Just got the July 2004 issue of Nuts & Volts, and was amused to see that Maxwell Technology has announced of a 2,600 farad capacitor. This may mean nothing to most of you, but forty years ago, my electronics geek friends and I used to joke about loading up 1 farad capacitors with 600 volts and throwing them against metal walls to see the explosion. Of course, 1 farad capacitors didn't exist in 1964, and in fact I'm not sure they were in general use until the mid-1980s. Now we have something fully 2,600 times as capacious (for electric charge) as the monster capacitors we fanatasized about in the 1960s.

The farad is the unit of measure of the ability to store electric charge. It's slightly freaky in that it is extremely large for everyday work in electronics. Most of the capacitors that you buy today have values from 1000 microfarads on the high side to 1 picofarad on the low side. A microfarad is a millionth of a farad, and a picofarad is a millionth of a millionth of a farad. Most capacitors can only hold a little charge, and internal leakage causes that charge to dissipate fairly quickly. A 1 farad capacitor can hold enough charge to act like a battery, and run things like small solar LCD calculators. A 2,600 farad capacitor is big enough to compete with substantial rechargeable batteries. The Maxwell BCAP0010 isn't even as big as a beer can, and safely delivers 600 amps at 2.6 volts for five seconds, at which time it needs to be charged again. On the other hand, there are times when you need 600 amps, but only for a little while. (Accelerating DC motors quickly comes to mind.) Capacitors this big compete favorably with rechargeable batteries in another way: They can be recharged very quickly without damage. My guess is that some of these Maxwell units might be star performers in regenerative braking systems, in which an electric vehicle slows down by engaging a big DC generator to its wheels. The generator converts kinetic energy to electricity (which can be stored) thus slowing the vehicle without completely turning its forward velocity into waste heat.

Interestingly, one of the smaller Maxwell units (with capacitance of "only" 350 farads, again, at 2.6v) is the size and shape of an ordinary D cell. (See photo at left.) Supposedly, the SRP of this unit is about $20. A device like this suggests all kinds of interesting gadgets. Hand-held railgun, anybody?
June 24, 2004:

The IEEE finally approved the 802.11i standard today, after what seemed (to me) like an extraordinary amount of fooling around. 802.11i is about security, and lays out a new security/authentication layer for 802.11 devices based on 802.1X and AES encryption rather than the simple, fast, and easily broken RC4 cipher. Current Wi-Fi security is vulnerable to several different types of attacks, most of which depend on the volume of traffic passing over the link. For sparsely used networks (like most in consumer settings) the existing Wi-Fi security system called WEP is actually pretty strong stuff. For a saturated network in a corporate environment, however, WEP fails far too easily to be relied on, and at most major corporations, Wi-Fi deployment is mostly on hold pending new gear that incorporates 802.11i. If 802.11i is as strong (and as robust) as its proponents claim, it will allow people to abandon the use of VPNs within the corporate campus.

Most people feel that the full 802.11i spec is too compute-intensive to be added to existing Wi-Fi gear, and I'm guessing that a new and more expensive tier of hardware will have to be designed to support it. It's long overdue, and if the demand is there, the hardware will follow.
June 23, 2004:

Catching up on the odd lots file:

  • My spam count, having dipped as low as 342 in a single day, is now back up to the 375/day level and appears to be rising. This is well below its peak of 600/day, but it simply shows that there are few permanent victories in this war, and no easy ones. I will be changing my primary email to something new toward the end of summer, once I finish Degunking Email, Spam, and Viruses. It'll be an address in the copperwood.com domain so that I can turn off the duntemann.com mail server entirely for a few months, and see if the spam count sent to my primary address goes down after an interregunum that bounces everything.
  • A friend of mine connected to his dialup ISP for a few minutes a week or so ago, and in that time a worm found his laptop and basically wasted it. I'd like to recommend that dialup users buy a dialup router, even if they don't have a home network—but I have yet to see one for less than $100. NAT (Network Address Translation) is pretty strong protection against automated exploits like worms, and aren't subject to buffer overflow exploits like Black Ice was recently. I never thought that dialup users would be that much at risk, and there's definitely a place for a NAT appliance in the dialup world. If any of you know of a (cheap) one, I'd like to hear of it.
  • Bill Higgins just informed me that Thomas Gold has died, at age 84. He had been a tireless contributor to the world of physics for a great many years, even if some of his theories (like the steady-state theory of the universe) have gone into eclipse. I admire him most for standing up for his theory that coal, petroleum, and especially natural gas may have little or no fossil component, and instead are formed from hydrocarbons that have been part of the Earth's crust since its formation. (See my entry of June 7, 2001, on his book The Deep Hot Biosphere.) He gathered some intriguing early evidence, which no one is apparently pursuing, because "everybody knows" coal, oil, and natural gas are dinocarbons and can't possibly be anything else.
  • Depending on who you talk to (or believe) the venerable Comdex show has either been postponed for a little rehabbing—or just canceled as no longer viable. I haven't been to a Comdex since 1996, even though I used to go almost every year since 1985. My thought is that the computer industry has just gotten too big to showcase in one place at one time. To see any part of it in sufficient depth, you have to attend one of the many niche-specific trade shows. This is good; too much of Comdex got to be OEM PC components after awhile.

June 22, 2004:

In 1958, when I was six, my parents took us to a drive-in movie (I think the one at Harlem and Irving Park Road in Chicago) to see the Danny Kaye film, Merry Andrew. We went in the maroon-and-gray 1955 Nash Rambler Ambassador that my father had just bought used, and I remember digging around under the back seat, hoping to find pennies and finding old popcorn instead. Clearly, drive-in movies were a big deal in the Fifties.

The movie was great silly fun, and although the plot was difficult for me to follow (British schoolmaster gets involved with a woman in an Italian circus camped out on a meadow where he's searching for a lost statue of Pan) but one thing stuck very hard to the inside of my head: A cheerful song where Danny Kaye's character goes riding down a peaceful street on his bike, singing, "Everything is diggity-boo, diggity-boo, diggity-boo!" I'm far from sure I've ever seen the film since that one time in 1958, but I can hear that song in my head as though it were just yesterday.

Except that I heard it wrong. I have gone looking more than once for the lyrics, typing "diggity-boo" into Google, and, finding nothing, assumed the film has never made it to TV, much less DVD. So it was with some surprise that, in random discussion with my sister Gretchen the other day, it comes out that the term in the song is in fact "tickety-boo," which apparently is British for "all right" or what we used to call "copacetic," though that would make for a lousy lyric. Sing "everything is copacetic" and at least half of humanity would hear, "Everything is so pathetic." "Diggity-boo" is tickety-boo by comparison, heh.

Gretchen, in fact, has the movie on tape, and I'll be able to see it again the next time I'm in Chicago. And on top of that, there really is no such thing as "diggity-boo" though there jolly well should be! So it's mine, and I can work it into a story one of these days. I love it when things just drop into my lap, even if I have to wait 46 years for the dropping!
June 21, 2004:

I just heard that Burt Rutan's Space Ship One has gone to 100 km (62 miles) and come back intact, though there were some unexplained lumps and bumps along the way. My guess is that Scaled Composites is thus almost a shoo-in for winning the X-Prize, which will go to the first team that can fly a crew of two from Earth's surface to 100 km and back again, and repeat the stunt within two weeks.

I was also most pleased to read that the test pilot, Mike Melvill, is 63 years old. I won't make the Moon, but I might still make orbit. We'll see. Old guys who take care of themselves can still rock.

I was even more pleased to read that the whole thing was done for about $20M of Paul Allen's money. Lordy, I much prefer it when billionaires advance human knowledge rather than buy elections that hand sports arenas to billionaire team owners, paid for by the public. (I mostly hate sports, apart from baseball—but I hate crooked politics way worse.)

All that said, well, what do we have here? Basically, a cheap X-15, which can be useful all by itself. On the other hand, there's been some griping that space flight isn't really space flight without making orbit, and although making orbit is relatively straightforward, getting back down again without burning up is not. (I touched briefly on this in my April 22, 2003 and May 3, 2003 entries.) A lot of the problem is coming up with a braking system that doesn't rely on ablation or simple heat resistance. Burning off orbital speed always seemed dicey to me.

I know little about orbital dynamics, but it seems to me that you could do something on the order of a two-stage re-entry: The vehicle to re-enter docks with what is basically an unmanned rocket brake, and the brake uses its own fuel supply to kill as much orbital velocity as possible while the vehicle is still above the atmosphere. The brake vehicle then detaches, rotates 180, fires again, and returns to orbit and (presumably) refueling at a space platform of some kind. The return vehicle is now dropping quickly into the atmosphere, but moving slowly enough relative to Earth that atmospheric heating can be handled without brick armor, and kills what remains of its orbital velocity with its own engines, after which it glides to an airstrip on Earth.

Could this work? Any opinions? Losing Columbia left a sour taste in a lot of mouths for "glowing brick" re-entry. We really have to come up with a better system.
June 20, 2004:

A lot of people think that the genocidal mania of the Nazis and their talk of "superior races" came out of nowhere, but it's not true: Eugenics was an extremely popular idea in the first four decades of the 20th century, and might have remained popular a bit longer if the Nazis hadn't put the whole notion of superior genes into permanent eclipse. Nor was it simply eccentrics who pushed eugenics: Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrell argued strongly for eugenics in his 1936 book, Man the Unknown, which was otherwise a pretty reasonble confession of how little we knew at that time about how the mind and body work

Perhaps most astonishing of all is the fact that the single most avid group of eugenics proponents were liberal clergy. Both Jewish and Protestant leaders thought that it was our God-given responsibility to husband the human gene pool the same way we would would weed a farm field, and thus increase its produce for the good of humankind. Liberal Catholics more quietly supported eugenics as well, at least until Pope Pius XI soundly condemned the concept in an encyclical in 1930.

The (usually) unstated assumptions behind eugenics were that intelligence and adherence to European ideas of culture and governance were what genetic culling should strive to promote. When the same Pope condemned artificial birth control, also in 1930, the liberal Catholic publication Commonweal cheered, explaining without any apparent hesitation that if birth control became a commonplace, light-skinned people would use it more than dark-skinned people, and Europeans would gradually become a minority in the world.

All that passed away with World War II, and we have buried that corpse so deeply that no one wants to admit that we are now beginning to acquire the basic tools to engage in eugenics preemptively and anonymously, by the creation of microorganisms that sterilize based on genetic tags, without otherwise harming the infected person. I've mentioned this here before, and my main gripe is that people roll their eyes at me and say, "Oh, that's impossible. Shut up already." The point I'm making now is simply that burying an ugly concept so deeply can bite us: No respectable person allows him or herself to think about anything even remotely related to eugenics, and so genetic terrorists, if they exist, can operate without fear of being searched out, because (obviously) "it's impossible. Shut up already."

Maybe it's just an eccentric phobia that I have. On the other hand, maybe we should train ourselves to speak of the unspeakable now and then, so that the unspeakable isn't inadvertently forgotten. We don't have to endorse the unspeakable. But we shouldn't forget that it's there. Forgetting evil doesn't make evil go away.
June 19, 2004:

I've been familiar with Randy Hyde's online book The Art Of Assembly Language for several years. Recently No Starch Press brought out a paper edition (finally!) and I'm pretty impressed. It's a well-organized tutorial on assembly concepts...or is it?

There's a lot of argument about that, as anyone who lurks on alt.lang.asm will attest. TAoAL is centered around an interesting creature indeed: HLA (High-Level Assembler) which Randy Hyde created and maintains. HLA is free and lots of fun, and if you have any interest at all in how programs work "under the skin" you should get it and work with it. HLA gives you a canned I/O library and numerous high-level constructs like IF, WHILE, REPEAT, FOR, and even TRY for exception handling. HLA is completely brilliant, and I confess it's way more fun to use NASM, which is my favorite assembler.

So. Is HLA really an assembler? This argument hinges on the fundamental difference between the ways that Randy and I teach assembly: I start from an understanding of the underlying silicon and work my way upward. Randy starts from high-level language concepts and works his way downward to the silicon. This reflects our disparate backgrounds: Randy is a university professor and I'm an electronics geek who got started in computing by using the COSMAC microprocessor (two, actually) in a robot. Cosmo Klein was featured in Look Magazine in 1980, though the photo they published is a little embarrassing. I was much younger then!

So who's right? I'm not sure, though if I didn't think I was right I wouldn't have written Assembly Language Step By Step as I did. My objection is simple: If you begin by framing an assembly program using high-level constructs, you're unlikely ever to get a genuine gut-understanding of how assembly programs really work. Shortcuts will always be taken, and, once taken, always shape the understanding of the person taking the shortcut.

Some years back I considered and abandoned a concept for a book to teach assembly language by using inline instructions framed within little Delphi programs for that reason: The method I had in mind taught instructions, but not the gestalt of program organization, and certainly not the linchpin concept in assembly coding, which is how the CPU addresses memory. Learn memory addressing, and you're halfway to anywhere you'd ever want to go in assembly. Fail to learn it, and all you have are a hatful of machine instructions and some flags. I can't swear that students won't learn assembly down to the silicon if they begin with HLA, but I have sincere and serious doubts.

So why do I like HLA? Simple: Randy Hyde has created what the C language should have been. People sometimes call C a "high-level assembler" but it's nothing of the sort. C is way too far from the silicon to be an assembler, and much too lexically difficult to be a useful high-level language. In my language choices, I go either all the way to the bottom or all the way to the top. Hanging out in the middle gains you nothing and wastes a great deal of your time with no corresponding return on effort expended.

Don't let any of this scare you off of the book: Get it. I'm particularly fond of his coverage of data representation at the assembly level. The book is not as elementary in approach as my book, and if you've already gotten your gut-sense for the way the x86 silicon works, there's nothing wrong with greasing the skids with some high-level constructs. Just never lose track of the ultimate goal in assembly work: To master the machine by understanding it completely. If that's not a priority, stick with Delphi, Java, or C#.
June 18, 2004:

David Beers sent me a link to a very cool $60 gadget: The Linex USB FM broadcaster. It connects to a USB port on your PC, and it will broadcast MP3 files on a selectable frequency at the top end of the FM broadcast band. This is yet another way to make your MP3s play on your home FM receivers. Linksys and other firms have released Wi-Fi media adapters, which basically allow you to use a Wi-Fi connection to send digital audio (and on some models still images too) to a Wi-Fi media adapter that connects to a TV or stereo system and converts the packetized content back into analog signals.

Geek toys like this (and a lot of even newer stuff now coming over the horizon) suggests to me that we're on the edge of a new glory era for pirate radio. Forty years ago, UK fans got their rock'n'roll from pirate radio stations based on rusty old semiretired freighters anchored in international waters. Pressure from UK offshore pirates loosened up the BBC's hammerlock on British broadcasting. I envision a new kind of pirate radio once WiMax hits the market: Floating file-sharing nodes in international waters with directional antennas pointed at LA, San Francisco, and Seattle. WiMax has range that (with good omni gain antennas) could bridge thirty or forty miles. Articles like this one argue that it will take years for WiMax to come into general use—but that's only for ISP-shaped fixed-location point-multipoint applications. If the price point on the gear comes down quickly, other uses will emerge from the tech culture's perpetual creative ferment.

It doesn't have to be offshore, and the first WiMax pirates probably won't be. Imagine a sort of ice cream truck pirate station consisting of WiMax gear in a van that cruises the streets selling ice cream or tacos or something, and also makes a monster hard drive full of MP3s available to anyone with a WiMax client. Or an ammo can file sharing node parked up on top of a building somewhere for a few days and then taken down before authorities can find it. A lot of them will get caught, but that's always been the case with pirate radio, and it adds to the thrill.

A lot of this stuff could be done (and is being done, according to some reports) with ordinary Wi-Fi gear. WiMax adds greater power and range at high throughput. Even in a dense urban area, a WiMax node can be heard for several miles, especially if it's somewhere up high. Finding pirate transmitters isn't especially hard, but it takes time to make civil authority take action, and if the pirates move the node every few days, well...the war between Big Media and the file sharing underground will be a long and difficult one.
June 17, 2004:

Holy outsourcing, Godman! Jason Kaczor sent me a link to an article in the New York Times (registration required, but I've had it for years and haven't seen any downside) indicating that, with Roman Catholic priests in such short supply, the Roman Catholic Church is sending Mass intentions and prayers for the deceased to Roman Catholic priests in India.

As most Roman Catholics but few outside the Church know, Masses are reserved with an honorarium, usually $10 to $20. The point isn't to "buy a Mass" (as some harried Catholics sometimes find themselves saying to their chagrin in the chaos immediately before a loved one's funeral) but to make a charitable contribution in the deceased's name, to be remembered in a Mass said...somewhere. Indian priests don't make a lot of money, so the honoriarium is a form of charity to help alleviate their poverty...

Does any of this sound dicey to you? It sure does to me. I've beat up on the RCC more often here than I should, so I won't go farther, but sheesh, guys. Dump celibacy and start ordaining women and you'd have more priests than you could deal with, and we wouldn't be sending prayers overseas like they were Oracle database projects.
June 16, 2004:

One problem with a Bayesian spam filter like POPFile is that it can only filter by building a statistical model for how spam "looks." Alas, if you get something that looks like spam but really isn't, POPFile can't read your mind, and the spam-like material will join all the real spam in your spam folder.

This problem is acute with email newsletters, which many spammers try extraordinarily hard to emulate, specifically because email newsletters are (usually) commercial mail that you want to receive. POPFile offers a feature to get around this problem: Its "magnets" are a way of overriding the statistical model using simple keyword matching on the From: or Subject: field. You can set a magnet up with the name of the newsletter or its sender, and the magnet will "pull" the newsletter into your inbox every time, irrespective of what POPFile's statistical model thinks of it.

A lot of people misunderstand how this works—as I did, when I first started using POPFile. I thought that a magnet was "automatical classification" rather than an override. In other words, I thought a magnet automatically sorted a message into a category, and added its text to the statistical model. Not so: A magnet is simply an override. Pull a message with a magnet, and POPFile learns nothing from that message. So if you're in terror of false positives and provide a magnet for each of your crucial email insiders (your spouse, your boss, your close friends) you will lose no mail from those senders—but by the same token, POPFile will not learn anything from the messages you value the most, and thus will gradually lose its ability to recognize those messages absent the magnets. This is a problem because a lot of your second-tier correspondents probably resemble your most valued email senders, and when POPFile learns how to recognize mail from any of your legitimate senders, it gets better at recognizing mail from all of them. You really need to teach POPFile what all legitimate email "looks like" except for legitimate mail that looks like spam.

POPFile's documentation says very little about its own magnets feature, and I figured them out reading articles like this one from about.com. I only use magnets for the handul of email newsletters I receive, and let POPFile pass judgment on all the rest of my mail. I therefore leave myself at risk for false positives from people I value, but as I said in yesterday's entry, POPFile has been very good at avoiding false positives. As always, it helps to understand what the machinery is doing in there, but in this case, the creator of the machinery hasn't done an especially good job explaining its inner workings to us.
June 15, 2004:

POPFile is working very well indeed for me, and once again, if you're plagued by spam and need a quick fix, it's as good as it gets right now. After a few thousand messages pass through it (and keep in mind, I get about 350-380 spams per day) it gets very good at spotting the good stuff amidst all the crap. I'm currently seeing an accuracy of 99.62%, which is amazingly good.

Better still is the fact that while I get an occasional false negative (a spam message that POPFile treats as legitimate mail) I haven't gotten a false positive in a long time. That's the way I like it; an occasional false negative in my inbox is easily spotted and deleted, whereas losing a real message amidst the slathering hordes trapped in my spam folder is a nasty problem that is not easily solved except by scanning your spam folder, which is depressing.

Interestingly, although several email client vendors are building Bayesian spam filters into their products, nothing I've tested so far has worked especially well. The Bayesian filters in Mozilla Thunderbird are at best so-so, and the brand-new Bayesian system shipped with Poco Mail 3.1 misses almost a third of the spam that comes through. I keep thinking I must be doing something wrong, since the documentation is sparse to the point of being imaginary, but I'll keep watching.

In the meantime, POPFile is free, and while it hangs occasionally and must be quit and restarted, that's acceptable given its accuracy. Once again, highly recommended.
June 13, 2004:

I hope you'll allow me to brag on my younger nephew Matt a little more here, after originally mentioning his graduation from Marian Central High School in my June 4, 2004 entry. I forgot to take my digital camera's USB cable on my trip, and was unable to pull pictures out until I got home. Here's Matt with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend Justine, outside the slightly bizarre church in which their school held the graduation. (It was bizarre because it was a bland modern building studded with beautiful artifacts scavenged from much older churches. I've seen this before, and it doesn't work. You can't go home again, in architecture as in many other things.)

Seeing Matt achieve adulthood with considerable grace (and irrespective of pressure) made me wonder whether I would rather have had a son like him, or one more like me. Well, Matt wins this one. I was short, shy, and although blessed with considerable brains, I was completely lacking in confidence. I was tormented not only by bullies but by corrosive doubts about how to fit into the world and function normally. I just saw everything differently from everyone else, and although that sounds romantic and very Sixties, it was mostly a pain in the ass and I spent at least thirty years getting over it.

On the other hand, how much of my success was due to my unconventional outlook and methods? Could I have done what I have done without the doubts and the eccentricity? Would more confidence have made me less capable? Is there really a flaw in Green Lantern's lantern? We'll never know; history runs only once. Still, I'll place my own bets: Matt has never let us down. My great prayer is that he will achieve all that I have achieved and then some, without the pain and the doubts. Note well that it's not only a prayer but a wager...and I only bet when I know I'm going to win.
June 12, 2004:

While I'm quoting the Wall Street Journal, I'll mention another Page 1 article they ran in the June 8 issue. Apparently, all is not what it seems in the "fair trade" movement, which basically fixes farm commodity prices at a level sufficient to give farmers in third world countries enough money to lift themselves out of poverty. This started out in the coffee industry, and has recently spread to other tropical and subtropical staples like bananas.

So far, so good. What is happening, however, is that retailers are using fair trade programs as excuses to raise prices phenominally while suggesting that most of it goes to the farmers, when in fact virtually all of the markup goes to the retailer. UK supermarket Sainsbury's recently quadrupled the price of fair trade bananas to where it was 16 times what the growers themselves receive. That, and they began patting themselves on the backs for being good corporate citizens of the world.

Gag me with a spoon.

Price fixing is a dicey business at best, and for the most part I oppose it. I'm willing to let fair trade groups set price floors on commodities, but I would also demand price ceilings at the retail level, and a standard label spelling out what part of the pie every interested party is getting. In other words, if there's going to be price fixing, it has to be limited, documented, and out in the open in the public eye, at every level from farm to supermarket.

The fair trade groups shouldn't let retailers get away with this sort of thing, because if they do, the whole notion of fair trade will eventually be seen as just another scam by consumers, and nobody will pay extra for coffee, bananas, or anything else under the assumption that the farmers don't see any of the extra money. On the other hand, my guess is that if retailers are forbidden to set their own retail prices for fair trade goods, they simply won't carry them. Perhaps the fair trade groups should allow retailers who stick with the program to display some sort of symbol in the front window; a sort of "Good Bananamongering Seal of Approval." (Alas, does anybody know what "monger" means anymore?)

At issue here is how to implement idealistic goals in a market-driven economy. Is it better to keep Wal Mart away from small towns in order to keep higher priced local retailers in business? Is there really such a thing as "sustainable agriculture" in the sense of guaranteeing price floors for farmers? (I'm doubtful there, given the history of farm price support corruption here in the US. Somebody other than small family farmers invariably get all the goodies.) Can "economic ecosystems" like those of small towns be protected? Should we even try?

My friend David Beers is a real live economist, and I need to talk to him about these things. More later if any insights come out of the discussion.
June 11, 2004:

As Brook Monroe told me in a message once, "I just hate it when I'm right." He was (as he usually is) and in another recent case, so was I. A story in the June 9 Wall Street Journal reported the reality of something I had suggested in my entry for April 4, 2004: Move IT jobs to the American sticks rather than the Indian subcontinent. The WSJ article profiled several large firms who had moved their call centers to small towns in the heartland and some parts of the mountain West. They had not cut costs quite as much as a move to India would have, but they cut costs a lot, and avoided the sort of backlash that prompted Dell to move its tech support call center home from India some time back. Given its name, USBank feared a PR firestorm if it moved jobs out of the country, so they moved to rural Idaho instead. To their great surprise, it worked.

This is so obvious to me that I would expect anyone but an orangutan would think of it after only a little meditation on the problem. That American execs have not thought of it suggests that they don't think of the flyover states at all. I have an intuition that coastal execs used to seeing people pay $400,000 for a bungalow in southern California don't know—or perhaps don't believe—that they can buy the same bungalow in a lot of tidy little midwestern towns for well under $100,000. If you have lived with the crushing costs in or near major cities all your life, it may be impossible to get your head around the economics of living and doing business in small towns. If you can do it in Bhopal, you can do it in Goodland, and it's a whole lot easier to manage.

After I posted my April 4 entry, a couple of my regular coastal readers frothed at me for suggesting that life can be anything but stultifying in a small town—and dared me to do some time in Goodland before I condemn them (both are furloughed ITers from California) to life there. In some respects it's a fair objection. I did, however, put in six years over in Rochester, New York, which is not as small as Goodland, Kansas, but was quite small when we lived there (20-25 years ago), had everything we needed, and was dirt cheap compared to what we had known in Chicago. Easy sex, drugs, and monster rock concerts have never been a draw for us, and there were plenty of interesting restaurants and shops in Rochester, as well as interesting people much like ourselves.

That may be key. The culture of a small town emerges—and can emerge quickly—from the culture brought in by the people who live there. If an IT crowd invades Hometown USA, the dominant culture in Hometown will rapidly shift toward what ITers favor, whatever that might be.

I feel strongly enough about this to suggest that people with money to invest do some research and buy property in selected small towns. We're doing nothing to control immigration, so the population will continue to grow rapidly here, and people need someplace to live. Over the next fifty years, all the action will be in small towns. Just you watch. (I hate it when I'm right!)
June 10, 2004:

I flew from Chicago to Denver yesterday, and on a lark put my laptop on the back seat and ran NetStumbler. I don't have my topside Wi-Fi antenna with me (the cable is stiff and bulky and doesn't pack well) so I knew I wasn't going to get even half of what I might get on a conventional wardrive. And that turned out to be the case: The pickins were slim between DIA and my hotel, so when I got down here to Aurora I just closed the laptop and stuffed it in my briefcase without shutting it down. My briefcase honked when I walked in the door (Netstumbler plays a distinctive sound whenever it logs an access point) and soon after, while I was walking down the long second-floor hall to my room, it was going honk...honk...honk...every ten or twelve steps. Volume was set at max (to shout down road noise while wardriving) and anybody who was watching me would have heard it loud and clear. Lord only knows what they would have thought.

There are at least thirty APs in this hotel. But then again, why not? APs are cheap, and a quick check with the laptop later on showed that the entire hotel is enveloped in a top-rate field. There are no dead spots, or even weak spots. I could connect from my car out in the lot, and from anywhere else inside, by the pool, or out in the empty lot across the street. Since it's a fee-based system, my guess is that they'd blanket the entire neighborhoood if they could and be glad for any connections they could bill.

There's a worm in it, though. The service here is $10/day, and I wouldn't mind the cost except that their DNS servers are severely overloaded, and the damned thing can't resolve a domain name half the time. Jason Kaczor sent me a link yesterday that I haven't been able to get to yet; maybe you'll have better luck than I. I have to try to download mail three or four times before Poco can resolve duntemann.com. So it's better than nothing, but only a little.

The lesson is simple: Public network access is more than just access. There are several crucial infrastructure issues to be considered, of which DNS is simply the first. I've used hotspots that were so busy I might as well have been on a 14.4 dialup. The invisible (and dull) machinery in the routers and the servers gets little press, but it will be the choke point on public access in the future.
June 9, 2004:

I'll be heading off to Denver later today, for the Convergence 2004 conference (it's a church conference, not a technology conference) and then home to the Springs. Yesterday I took a spin around the neighborhood where I grew up, something I hadn't done in a few years. We always want our home towns never to change, which is stupid, really. Almost everything is different, which means that the neighborhood is very much alive and vital. There are a handful of new houses, doubtless on the sites of some teardowns, and the twiglike trees everybody planted in the late 1950s and early 1960s are now 70 feet tall and two feet in diameter. My old house on Clarence Avenue has new front windows and a deck out in back (I snuck up the alley) and I watched a preteen boy watching me through the front window, as I had watched the world go by 40-odd years ago.

Only Bill's Barber Shop and Talcott Hardware are still there on the little commercial strip at Talcott and Canfield; I got my lumpy head trimmed at one and bought Hi-Flier Kites and pipe fittings at the other. Bill is long dead, and the new owner is no relation; I suspect it was just too much money to buy a new neon sign. But Talcott Hardware is now owned and operated by the children of Bud Maday, the son of the original founder, who ran it when I was a kid, and a quick duck inside proved that it has changed remarkably little.

From there I went down Talcott to Harlem Avenue, where Immaculate Conception Parish was and is. The "new church" built in 1962 has gotten kind of shabby looking, which puzzled me a little. If it had been brick or stone it might simply look weathered, but tile and paint and, well, Sixties ticky-tacky don't age gracefully in our minds, even if they're still water-tight and structurally sound. I guess it was an ugly church in 1962, and hasn't gotten any prettier. The Seventies came early to the Roman Catholic Church, which still hasn't entirely shed them.

In front of the church is the 12-foot-tall white stone statue of Mary the Mother of God, which local wags have dubbed Our Lady of the Boot. Instead of the traditional sandals or bare feet, Our Lady is depicted wearing some square-toed and rather masculine boots. I've been told a story that may be an urban legend, that the sculptor had second thoughts about the agreed price for the work, and when he delivered the statue in 1962, the pastor immediately objected to the boots. The sculptor replied that carving toes was a lot of work, and would cost the parish another $100. The church building was already hugely over budget (that's a fact; they begged money from my poor parents for many years to pay it off) so the pastor decided nobody would notice. Alas, the statue is so tall that the easiest parts to see are Mary's feet, and the boots are among the first things that any passerby notices.

I doubt that on the Last Day anyone will stand before Jesus Christ and say, "Your mother wears army boots!" but in front of at least one church in Chicago, it's the gospel truth.
June 8, 2004:

Some final notes on Book Expo America, the largest American book publishing trade show, which happened this past weekend in Chicago:

  • Genre fiction was almost entirely absent. Mysteries, being something close to mainstream, were seen here and there, and a couple of small publishers (like Rob Rosenwald's Poisoned Pen Press) were enthusiastic, but little was on display from the majors. Science fiction was virtually absent, and fantasy only slightly less absent, if I may murder the phrase. Harlequin had a little corner of its conglomerate's booth, but apart from that (and Ellora's Cave, which offers "erotic romances") romances were not in evidence, nor were westerns. I'm not sure why this is so, though my sister Gretchen suggested that genre fiction has its own conventions, which are cheaper to attend and exhibit at.
  • Not much new publishing technology was shown at all, and big technology vendors who had exhibited in the past (like Microsoft) were absent. Nobody had brought in any print-on-demand systems, though Lighting Source had some demo books on display and some reasonably knowledgeable people answering questions.
  • What publishing technology there was had come from small companies and hopeful startups, and nearly all of that was ebook-related. I had a chance to look at several ebooks stored on a Siemens SX-56 PDA/smartphone combo, and that was an eye-opener. PDAs are being absorbed by smartphones, and with a big enough display, text-only ebooks can be read on your phone without generating splitting headaches. My next phone will be one of those, though it may not happen this year.
  • A lot of small companies are selling ebooks with virtually no DRM at all. None of them are particular concerned about piracy (one calling it "unauthorized PR" with a grin) and all of them that I talked to are making money on ebooks and intend to expand that part of their businesses. Again, while the big guys are paralyzed with fear, the little guys are slowly laying the foundations of a whole new part of the publishing industry.
  • One poor guy at BEA was selling Oreck carpet sweepers. He didn't look especially happy. I guess the recession is about more than just books, eh?
I have a lot of technical literature to digest, and I'll report on individual ebook technologies in upcoming entries, along with reviews of books that I took back from the show. Stand by; lots more to come!
June 7, 2004:

One of the delights of attending Book Expo America is coming home with a suitcase full of free books. Publishers ship cartloads of books to the show to display and hand to reviewers, librarians, foreign translators and other potential customers, but by the final day of the show, the giving is quite free—and by the last hours after noon on Sunday, it's hard to visit a booth and not be handed books without even asking. Shipping books home costs money, and reinserting them into inventory back at HQ costs even more, so it's actually cheapest just to give them away. Keith and I gave away a couple of cartons of Degunking Windows and Degunking Your Mac, asking recipients to review them on Amazon or anywhere else that they can. Most assured us that they would, and if they do, it will be wonderfully cheap PR.

One of the things that Keith and I were laughing about (see yesterday's entry) is how much the show starts to look like Halloween come noon on Sunday. Show diehards, often dressed oddly or even, ahem, peculiarly (I haven't seen an electric blue business suit since the early 1970s) go from booth to booth with canvas shopping bags, and exhibitors are only too happy to fill them. Exhibitors are rumored to start saying things like "Take this book or I'll throw it at you!" by two-thirty, putting an ironic twist on the ancient concept of trick-or-treat.

I don't ask for review stuff at trade shows, even when I know the value of the goods is low and the vendors desperately want to unload them before the closing bell. I want to be able to review a book without guilt (and say what I actually feel about it) and that's easiest when I paid for it with my own money. On the other hand, I found myself accepting copies handed to me, unless (as with publishers like Ellora's Cave; see yesterday's entry) I know I'm not anywhere near the audience demographic. I'm currently packing a box to ship home, containing a book on depression, another on cleaning and fixing household items (Degunking Your House?) a thriller about a damaged jetliner stuck in a category-five hurricane, the well-received contemporary fantasy The Time Traveller's Wife, a book on building HO trains with Lego blocks, and several computer books from No Starch Press, including the remarkable Art of Assembly Language by Randy Hyde. I'll review some of these books here in coming weeks.

I was handed a travel guide to Wales by a young Welsh woman at the booth of an association of Welsh book publishers, this after asking her if she knew if any books had been published on the Welsh town of Abergavenny. She confessed puzzlement and asked why a middle-aged American would single out one second-shelf Welsh town from all other others (especially given that I had never set foot in Wales in my entire life) and I was forced to sing the first two verses of the whimsical 1969 pop song "Abergavenny" to her. She almost fell off her chair, and after chatting for awhile longer, she gave me the travel guide and a thanks just for the companionship. (Doing a trade show alone in a foreign country is "bloody awful," as another, less polite person from the UK told me last year.)

It's expensive, and we eat too much and sleep too little and our feet get sore (many women had abandoned "sensible shoes" for exotic flip-flops this year; is that a win?) but we keep coming back. We write and publish less because we want to than because we must, and BEA is just one of many attendant rituals. I feel good about publishing again. I was worried there for awhile. The wheels turn, and our spoke is rising. All will be well.
June 6, 2004:

What did I learn at Book Expo America this weekend? Hoo boy, it's hard to pin it down into a coherent statement. Let me begin, then, with some observations gleaned from talking with various small-press attendees:

  • A man who is running for Congress in Kansas has written seven or eight short books on American governance, taxes, and other historical/political subjects. He orders them from short-run printers, and as he gives speeches on the campaign trail, he hands out copies of his books, targeting the audiences individually. In other words, if he's speaking at a meeting of a tax protest group, he hands out his history of the US income tax. If he's speaking at a meeting of black citizens, he hands out his biography of George Washington Carver. None of the books say, "Elect Bill." But all of them, I would guess, leave their readers with a much more favorable impression of Bill than attack ads on TV would. Besides, TV ads last thirty seconds. A book lasts forever.
  • Ellora's Cave, a publisher of women's erotica, is having a banner year. Much more polished than the nutcases who were running around last year in LA dressed like whores, holding up signs reading "Show us your sex books!" they have found the sweet spot between Harlequin Romances and hard-core porn. Women are responding in huge numbers.
  • There is an emerging publishing niche catering to the black middle class. These are not books about black issues so much as black people living ordinary lives in America. One woman, who has made a great start toward her first book, plans a series something like Jan Karon's Mitford books, only focused on wealthy blacks living in a suburb of Atlanta. As she put it: Imagine the possible, and it's easier to achieve.
  • A researcher in biology feels he has an answer to the question, "Why hasn't homosexuality been bred out of the gene pool?" but after several years of seeking a home for it, he's found that no publisher will touch his book. (This strikes me as odd, because the book and the man are both supportive of the gay rights agenda.) He laid it out, had it printed, and has begun selling it himself, and has been surprised at how well he has done.

Ok. Contrast this to the situation at the big New York houses: Weary, burned-out looking staffers stand around, afraid for their personal futures and unable to summon the kind of energy they used to bring to book publishing. The big houses have had huge layoffs, and the survivors are generally called on to do the jobs of those who have been let go, on top of their own. Keith and I know a lot of people at places like Harper Collins and John Wiley & Sons, and when we went to the big booths to visit, we were astonished to see people who look like they've aged ten years in the last two. Hemmed in by restrictions imposed from above ("by people who don't read books," as one of them cogently remarked) they are unable to take risks of any kind, and are just publishing the same stuff as last year and the year before, knowing that they can't succeed that way.

On the other hand, I was poleaxed by the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism at the small press tables, compared to the accountant-flavored black clouds hanging over the big presses. Ever-cheaper short-run printing and a surfeit of furloughed publishing talent hanging out contractor shingles has allowed small and very small press to create books more cheaply than ever before, and the Internet has allowed them to find their customers without having to take out full page ads in the New York Times Review of Books. A specialty publisher who sells direct from his Web site told me that if Borders never takes one of his books he won't cry a tear, because they demand 55% discounts and the right to return unsold books at any time. A book sold direct to a customer, he says, goes at 0% discount and never comes back. He's profitable, paying himself and three other people decent salaries, and has no illusions about getting rich. "What would I do if I was rich?" he asks, giggling. "I'd just get in trouble trying to publish too many books!"

That's the central paradox I saw at BEA: The big presses who have enough money to do anything are so afraid of losing money that they can do nothing, while the tiny presses with little money and thus nothing to lose are taking chances, making money, and defining the future of book publishing. This contrast has always existed in the background within the publishing industry, but now it's gone to its logical extreme. And of course, as always, a lot of those tiny presses are just dreaming, but an amazing number know that the product has to be dazzling these days to stay in the game, and their stuff is well designed and solid between the covers.

The lesson? Sometimes it's better to be small. (Maybe more than sometimes.) Keith and I were sitting in our cramped half of the Paraglyph Press booth (which we shared with the formidable Bill Pollack of No Starch Press) talking about the state of the industry and its current ironies, and we were laughing our butts off over it. The woman at the next tiny booth leaned over to us, and said with eyes sparkling (she's doing well too): "You know, you guys are having just way too much fun!"

Yeah, baby! And long may it wave!
June 5, 2004:

At Book Expo America at McCormick Place, in downtown Chicago. I've been attending this show for almost ten years now, and back in the mid-90s it was an immense to-do, occupying two full levels of the huge McCormick Place complex. This year is the smallest the show has ever been, with only about two thirds of one level sold to exhibitors. I managed to walk past the entire show in just a couple of hours.

It's easy too blame the show's high costs and low attendance on notorious union featherbedding, but it wasn't a great deal bigger last year in freewheeling LA. One of the nonobvious problems is that bookselling is less and less a matter of connecting local publishers with local booksellers, which was the original purpose of the show. Three or four monster retail chains now sell almost all books that aren't sold online, and they establish their own relationships with large publishers and large distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. A lot of foreign rights are sold at the show, but less than in years past, as large book publishing shows in other parts of the world (primarily London and Frankfort) take over the foreign rights markets. So you have to wonder (and a lot of people have clearly been wondering, and not in a positive way) why the show exists at all.

Paraglyph attended, and split a Small Press table with No Starch Press to keep costs down. We go more to strobe various relationships within the industry to keep them alive, some dating back to our book-publishing origins at Coriolis. We gather intelligence on what our competitors are doing, and we try to scope out future trends. We eat bad food (and some good food) drink a little, and laugh a lot with our compatriots. We remind ourselves that a lot of other people are out there in the book publishing world, and there is something to be learned from each of them. I learned a few things today, and after I finish up tomorrow I'll try and break it all out for you. It's not what you think; hell, it's not what I thought either, and it makes me a lot less worried about the future.
June 4, 2004:

My younger nephew Matt graduated high school earlier today, out in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago. The graduation was like a great many I've been to, and the rituals haven't changed in the 34 years since I graduated high school myself: School administrator admonishes people not to applaud individual graduates, and then certain graduates (but only some) are greeted by applause, catcalls, or weird shouted greetings that doubtless made sense to the graduates but made no sense to anyone else. When it was over, some of the kids threw their mortarboards into the air, and there was much hugging and mugging for cameras and (I'm sure) a certain measure of relief among school administrators that this class was gone, not that the next one in line will be any different.

I was a little surprised that the Catholic high school Matt attended tolerated some of the dresses worn by the girl graduates. Maybe I'm just a little too old, but some of the girls (including the valedictorian) looked a lot like strippers to me.

As for Matt, well, he's a brilliant, sane kid, who earned a full scholarship to the university of Illinois. He works hard and ultimately he gets what he wants. We're not worried about him.

The graduation made me worry a little about the Roman Catholic Church, however. The Bishop of Rockford insisted that the graduation be held in a Catholic church, but the only church big enough to hold everybody at once was half an hour's drive from the high school, and the bishop was the only one who wanted to be there. (All the families would have preferred to be closer to home and the pending graduation celebrations and barbecues.) He was a dour-faced, humorless man who handed out diplomas looking by turns bored and irritated. Almost as soon as the last graduate had filed out the back of the church, he was out the door as well, and his waiting limousine whisked him away with barely a word to anyone. Carol (who always tries to be fair) suggested that he might have had another graduation ceremony to supervise, but that's unlikely. It was already after 9 PM by that time, which is a little late to be starting another 2-hour ceremony. He seemed to care so little about the graduates that he should not be surprised when the graduates grow up caring little for the Roman Catholic Church.

Some time back, Carol and I attended a confirmation ceremony in the Episcopal Church, and the bishop was an energetic, charming man who milled around the crowd after the ceremony, taking photos with the teens being confirmed, introducing himself to everybody and sounding like he really was glad you were there. This isn't hard, and it works. The Roman Catholic Church is often dismissive of its own people, and sometimes terrified of them. They've tried every attitude toward the laity but respect and affection. No wonder the laity is drifting off into other churches or vanilla-flavored "spirituality." People know who loves them, and the Roman Catholic clergy is not on that list.
June 3, 2004:

In Chicago. I took a walk last night just after sunset, and I was amazed at the difference in how Illinois smells vis a vis Colorado. When I wasn't walking down Harlem Avenue and breathing diesel fumes, it was amazing how clearly I could smell the flowers, the grass, the pine trees, even the soil. Of course, there's been a fearsome amount of rain here in recent weeks, and everything's pretty soggy, with all plant life growing like crazy. But for fifteen years now I've been living in arid climates, where most of the year the air doesn't smell like anything at all, absent the occasional skunk and those hard-to-avoid diesel fumes. I've gotten used to simply not smelling anything outdoors, just as I suspect that people who live here all the time have probably gotten used to a moist climate's characteristic smells and don't notice them anymore either.

I wonder if it was some explicit evolutionary adaptation that one of our senses is mostly used only when something changes: before dinner goes on the stove vs. after it's cooking, or (in my case last night) when moving from one ecosystem to another. Before 1965 or so, almost everyone smoked, and nobody (even nonsmokers) noticed the reek of tobacco after awhile. (Today, it makes people leave the room.) Perfume and cologne, and even scented deodorant, are now going down the dodo path, and in response, our noses seem to be opening up to those scents that come and go in the background. Once we eliminate the smells that are always there, other smells can be discerned—at least until they become so familiar that they go into eclipse as well.

The only things we can smell are those things that can't be smelled all the time. It's an odd question, but one worth remembering: What are we missing by slobbering ourselves up with artificial smells? Take a shower, then talk a walk, and inhale the world you had probably forgotten!
June 2, 2004:

I'm off to Chicago to attend Book Expo America, the big book publishing trade show here in the U.S. I used to have cable modem service at Carol's mom's house, where we stay when we're in the area, but after awhile I cancelled it simply because it was a lot of money to pay for something I used a handful of times in a year. I have a dialup account, but this trip, I'm planning on seeing how well I can manage by using free public hotspots. There's a Panera Bread hotspot very near here, where I suspect I'll be a lot this trip, and I'm using the JiWire hotspot index utility to spot others. (Finding one near downtown Chicago may be more of a challenge.) Two years ago, when Boingo was first implemented, I had a miserable time even locating hotspots at major hotels. (Asking the desk clerk, Do you have Boingo? got me a lot of really odd looks.)

I had an interesting idea on the plane earlier today, on how to create a ubiquitous metropolitan-area free network with wireless connections open to all, one (furthermore) that pays for itself: Open the network to anybody willing to install a cycle sharing utility, and then sell time on the network to people who require massive parallel computation. (I envision this as a Wi-Max network with mile-radius nodes on top of buildings rather than conventional short-range Wi-Fi hotspots.) Some people will probably call it spyware, but it's not, and certainly shouldn't be hidden under one guise or another. Call it what it is, and put an icon in the tray that can be opened to see how many cycles have been put to use. It would certainly be possible to offer bandwidth proportional to the cycles contributed, and that would be an interesting wrinkle: People willing to contribute 50% of their cycles (perhaps of a 3 GHz laptop, where losing 50% of your cycles still leaves you with more cycles than 99% of humanity) would be able to download a lot more stuff than those only willing to contribute 10% or 15%.

I think people would use it. I certainly would. Reading mail and doing Web research doesn't take all the compute power of even this aging 2001 IBM laptop. Most of what it does simply feeds entropy. Why not feed the urban network instead?
June 1, 2004:
The brand-new 3.1 release of Poco Mail has a Bayesian filtering system built-in, and I installed it early today to see how well it would work compared to POPFile. POPFile has made all the difference in the world on the spam front, but it still has its problems, particularly with unpredictable lockups, where it simply hangs while the browser tells me it's waiting for I fed Poco's filters the morning's 120-odd spams and 6 genuine messages, but it needs more training before the filters actually begin to work. I'll keep you posted, but built-in Bayesian technology is the coming thing. Mozilla Thunderbird has it, and The Bat has a free Bayesian fiilter plug-in. I'll be a heretic and state flatly that CAN SPAM may actually be doing some good, but we still have a long, long way to go, and Bayesian filters seem to be the only thing that may actually get us there.