March 31, 2001

Wow! A group of seven javalenas is ambling across my driveway, and up the little rise to where my telescope mount rests protected by an upended garbage can. I snuck out on the deck outside my office and snapped a couple of shots. I couldn't get them all in the same frame, but it's the biggest group I've yet seen here. "Javalena" is the local name for what is technically a collared peccary—related to domestic pigs without quite being pigs themselves.

These are not small animals; see the one standing next to the cinder block for comparison. The one standing beside the brown stone bowl (front) just wolfed down supper's celery greens that we had put out for the local bunnies not half an hour earlier. I'm glad this is a second-floor deck, too. Javalenas are snarly, grouchy things with mouths full of teeth and plenty of inclination to use them. (They eat prickly pear cactus, spines and all—I'm sure you'd be grouchy too.) We hadn't seen many here by the house until a few months ago, and now we see them regularly. All I can figure is that the subdivisions chewing up the desert all around us are sending the animals into "dirt road neighborhoods" like ours, where the lots are 2 1/2 or 5 acres and some natural vegetation remains. It's sad, really; I don't think our neighborhoods can sustain all these refugees forever. In the meantime, living amidst all this wildness is...wild.
March 30, 2001

Back when the Columbine tragedy first happened, I was saying in vain: It's the bullies, stupid. I said it a lot—but I was the only one saying it at the time. Now, finally, after the same damned scenario is playing out again and again and again until you want to just pewk, I'm starting to see mention of this in the media. They've begun to ask, ever so tentatively: Could it be due to bullying? Duhh!

Ask any high school nerd. You'll get the straight dope: There is a species of kid who revels in making life miserable for others, especially the small, the eccentric, the not athletically inclined. Why are such creatures tolerated in our schools? I've never understood this...but then again, maybe I do. I've begun to think that we can't crack down on bullies, because if we did, we'd soon discover that the entire culture of high school athletics is a system for manufacturing bullies, and in most places, parents would rather give over textbooks than team sports. Our schools set up a system in which sports stars become gods, with endless glory heaped upon them. They're constantly told that they're the best there is, and that the school can't do without them, rah rah rah and all that. Small wonder they come to believe that they're the lords of the Earth, and that everything in the school must make obeisance to them. Also small wonder that those kids who are indifferent to athletics (as I was) or worse, are heard to imply that sports is a pointless waste of time and money, get the crap beat out of them. Heretics are always persecuted, and in our high schools, the only religion allowed is team sports.

The solution is not zero-tolerance for bullying, as we've begun to see suggested. "Zero tolerance" for anything is the coward's way out, to shift the blame entirely to the kids (and cover adult asses) while doing nothing whatsoever to correct the underlying problem. To correct the problem, we will have to do some extremely unpopular things:

1. End team sports. Just end them. They are nothing but a sop to the testosterone-addled adults who come to the games to drink and (as happened this past year) kill one another over an umpire's call they didn't care for. Small kids who want to play are left on the benches while the big kids get all the field time. I've seen this happen. It sucks. Only the most successful get any exercise at all. The rest are shunted to the sidelines, or thrown off the team and called "spaz.". (This happened to me 35 years ago. I still resent it.)

2. Turn high school athletics into exercise and body building, with perhaps martial arts where it can be afforded. Require that all kids participate on an equal basis. The nerds won't like this (I hated exercise when I was spindly and short) but they need it—and if the big kids see that the little kids can kick their nuts in with the best of them, we may see a little more playground courtesy.

3. Fire—instantly!—any coach or teacher who can be shown to let bullying slide. If there is to be zero tolerance for anybody, let it be for the teachers. At my high school, the coaches were as often as not bullies themselves, who pampered the jocks and made life miserable for nerdy kids like me.

Until we take a hard look at what high school sports is doing to our schools and our kids, the schools will continue to become killing fields. Sooner or later, the media will begin asking these questions. It's just sad that it's taken this long.
March 29, 2001

Reader Frank Glover sent me a pointer to by far the best FAQ I've ever seen on nanotechnology. It's not Dummies-level stuff for a change, but actually addresses some significant questions like whether thermal fluctuations will damage nanoscale mechanisms. There is some math, but nothing an interested layperson can't muddle through, assuming you muddled your way through what passes for math in high school.

One thing I like about this FAQ (though it will doubtless irritate many) is that a good number of the questions are answered by the statement, "There is no answer to this question at the current time." Science is at its best when it is willing to admit what it does not know, and in regard to nanotechnology, what we don't yet know is a lot. The FAQ also includes a lot of valuable pointers to other Web-based resources in the field. I have some quibbles about the order of the questions (# 36, for example, should be much closer to the front of the list) but overall it's nicely done and deserves a bookmark in your list.
March 28, 2001

In the last couple of days, much news coverage has appeared on the Supreme Court's agreement to hear a case pitting freelance writers against publishers. There was a big audio discussion on NPR yesterday, and I saw several news items in my aggregators this morning. It's a knotty business, and as I have spent time on both sides of that fence (as both writer and publisher) I may have a better appreciation for the problem than most.

The problem is this: Publishing used to be simple. A writer wrote an article and a publisher printed it. The writer got paid. End of story. Contracts were simple, as there were only so many outlets for written material and photographs, all of them physically imprisoned on paper. Publishing is no longer simple. Straightforward terms like "out of print" are now meaningless, between online databases and print-on-demand manufacuring. The kicker is that the contracts executed for content written years back didn't crisply account for online publication and other novel publishing mechanisms. Writers see their stuff appearing in new venues without payment, and they're upset.

Legal precedents (as most legal precedents in this era of waffling judicial cowardice) are fuzzy. Publishers have a legal right to publish old material on microfilm without additional royalties due, and they feel that the Web and such are the inheritors of the ecological niche occupied by microfilm and fiche. The writers call the Web a whole new medium. Who's right? We won't know until the Supremes sing.

I can sympathize with the freelancers, and from that standpoint it sounds like they have the moral high ground. However, having heard some of the discussion on NPR, the writers seem to think they have an opportunity to hit up the publishing industry for billions of dollars of payments for old stuff now available online. They've engaged a lot of high-priced lawyers who are looking for something like a new asbestos or tobacco issue to make themselves richer. It's an emotional issue. Writers have been dirt for a long time, and they smell a chance to pay their oppressors back. As satisfying as that may seem, it's a very bad idea for writers to go down this road.

Here's why: The court will be ruling on old material only, and some sort of settlement will be reached. The publishers will cough up some money (less, certainly, than the freelancers will demand) in exchange for immunity from liability. However, that's not the part of this that matters. Copyrights are a question of contract, and the true import of this case is what happens going forward. The writers can insist on retaining digital rights in their contracts. The publishers, however, have the legal power to demand all rights in contract as a means of avoiding this kind of unpleasantness, and if the writers don't like it, well, that's business. There are way more writers than publishers, and by doing this the freelancers are simply making their own position worse for the future. Publishers will use less freelance material, and they will offer more draconian contracts (all rights in perpetuity, pretty much) for all future projects. When the dust settles, fewer writers will make less money than they ever did. Only the lawyers will go away happy.

Some people never learn.
March 27, 2001
Perhaps the most brilliant rainbow segment I've ever seen appeared out my home office window today at sunset, when a brief shower passed us to the east. I grabbed the Digital Elph, ran out on the deck and got this picture looking northeast. You can barely make out the second ring, to the left of the bright one. This photo doesn't really do the colors justice; I doubt any image ever really could. Note also the difference in sky brightness to either side of the rainbow. This is another optical effect, one that never fails to startle me when I see it.
March 25, 2001
Something must have snapped; I finally got a decent night's sleep last night. I didn't change much in terms of what I did or ate. But I slept. So I confess I've learned nothing from the chin-dragging-in-the-gutter fatigue I've suffered over the last several days. Then again, one good day isn't a trend. I'll call myself cured when I've slept well for a week. Until then, I remain nervous.
March 24, 2001
I had all of one and a half hours of sleep last night, and I feel like my head is running at the speed of my old 1 Mhz 8080 CP/M machine, on which I wrote my first several books back in the 1980's. And this is on top of the night before last, when I got about three hours. There's no good reason for this; I have quit caffeine entirely, haven't had a drink in some time, and do all the "right" things suggested in books like No More Sleepless Nights. Yet mostly I lay in bed and stare at the ceiling, for hour after agonizing hour. Popping a 3 mg melatonin before bed didn't help much the last two nights; I fell asleep but then woke after an hour or so and couldn't fall asleep again. If this doesn't stop soon I'm going to need to get myself looked at.
March 23, 2001

I've been having increasingly severe sleep disturbances in recent weeks, and to diagnose the problem I've decided to ditch all the caffeine from my diet. Horrors! Visions of jackhammer headaches were making me fret, but in truth, after a mild headache the first full day of cold-turkey abstinence, nothing else came up in terms of consequences. Of course, I never did guzzle caffeine like some people do, tossing back gallons of hideous Starbucks coffee that you could clean the exterior hull of a battleship with. For some years I've had one cup of instant coffee with breakfast, and then a Diet Pepsi with lunch. I've now switched to decaf instant coffee...but lunch is a problem.

Why? Well, if I'm here at home I can have a Diet Squirt or some other sugar-free drink, but out at restaurants it's virtually impossible to find a drink that is both caffeine-free and sugar-free. I've been avoiding sugar in drinks since early 1997, and I credit that change in diet with allowing me to drop my weight from 168 to 154 since late 1996. I can drink only so much water; it goes down way easier when it tastes like something. But I also refuse to go back to dissolved sugar, so water is mostly what I'm stuck with. Carol and I are going to start keeping a list of restaurants around here that have something that lacks both sugar and caffeine, and confine our lunches to those places. It's a pretty short list so far, gakkh.
March 22, 2001

As part of my ongoing renovation project of my big telescope (see my entry for December 30) I ordered a new focusing mount from Jim's Mobile, Inc., the peculiarly named but exquisitely skillful producer of large telescopes and telescope components. The focuser arrived today, and I realized that it had a feature I hadn't realized was there, in part because I had long since despaired of ever seeing it in a telescope focuser: Separate knobs for coarse and fine adjustment.

What a notion! I've been building telescopes since I was in eighth grade, and I have always been troubled by the "touchy" focusing you encounter on any scope faster than F8 or so. My big 10" scope is F6.7, and the slightest over- or under-focus means the difference between a glorious view of Saturn or a so-so, slightly fuzzy one. And the angular difference between perfect focus and imperfect focus is so slight that getting it bang-on with half-numb fingers in the dark of a cold night is well near impossible. It was all the more peculiar because the student-quality microscopes I used in freshman biology all had fine adjustment knobs, and it was possible to get exquisite focus even at the highest magnifications.

Enter the NGF (Next Generation Focuser) model DX-1. It has two knobs, like most focusers, but the knobs are not stuck on opposite ends of the same shaft. One turns the drive knob directly (it's not a rack-and-pinion mechanism but a nicely-tooled friction drive) and the other turns a reducing gear that gives you roughly a 5:1 ratio with virtually zero backlash. I haven't installed it on the scope yet, but I can't imagine that it wouldn't vastly outperform the simple rack-and-pinion focusers I've used since the scope saw first light in the fall of 1969.
March 21, 2001

Time-Warner's Aspect imprint rejected my SF novel the other day, and by great good luck my friend Bruce Schneier (he of Applied Cryptography and Counterpane Internet Security) provided me with an introduction to Patrick Neilsen Hayden of TOR Books, who agreed to read the novel without benefit of an agent. So I printed a fresh copy of the manuscript (which, double-spaced, runs to 680 pages) and packed it off to New York. Needless to say, it will be months before I can reasonably expect any reaction from TOR, but it was energizing just to realize that there was another move to be played in this game.

It's bittersweet to ponder that I got the idea for The Cunning Blood in August of 1997, began writing it in December of 1997, and finished it in April of 1999. I loved the task, even though it was enormously time and energy intensive, and in the process of writing it I learned an great deal about various technologies, including nanotech, fullerenes, and synchronous skyhooks. I also learned how to design solar systems that don't violate with what we know about planetary orbits and ecologies, and that may have been the best ride of all. My only regret (obviously) is that it will still be years before the story sees print, and I'm almost afraid to start another one without knowing that I have a contract and a pub date for the first.
March 20, 2001
Readers Roy Harvey and Bob Ball, WB1ESJ, write to tell me that my entry for March 16 is incorrect: Hoof-and-mouth disease is the very same thing as foot-and-mouth disease, and neither is remotely related to anthrax. Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a virus of the family Picornaviridae, genus Aphthovirus, whereas anthrax is caused by a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax is deadly to humans and animals, whereas foot-and-mouth infects only animals, though humans spread it by literally tracking it around on their shoes. (It can be spread easily by other means, including dust on the wind. The virus survives well outside the organism.) It often kills young animals, but healthy adult animals generally can shake it off. Whole herds are being killed not as a mercy to the animals but in attempt to contain the virus. Thanks, guys, for the correx. I'm not sure why I thought that "hoof-and-mouth" was another term for anthrax, but it's comforting (given the virulence of Bacillus anthracis) that I was wrong.
March 19, 2001

Sleep has been much on my mind lately, hence yesterday's entry. I've had a somewhat peculiar sleep problem for a couple of years that I have seen mentioned in print only once, in U.S. News & World Report for October 16, 2000 (from which I quote:)

Our ancestors, living before electric lighting, probably didn't get that sleep all at once. Waking with the sun and retiring for the day when darkness fell, they had plenty of time in bed, and historian A. Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found that they slept in two segments. References as far back as Virgil and Homer called it "first sleep" and "second sleep." In between was an hour or two of quiet wakefulness that our ancestors sometimes called "the watch." It was a time to ponder dreams and plot wars.

This is often my pattern: I'll turn in at 10:00 PM, sleep solidly until 4:00, and then lie awake for a full hour. The transition is strange; it's almost like someone flipping a switch. Sproing! I'm awake. I lie there, sometimes fretting but usually doing my damndest to think peaceful, boring thoughts. (I have yet to plot a war, and my dreams defy pondering.) About an hour later, the switch flips again, and just as suddenly, I'm sleepy. I can then sleep normally until 7:00.

The conventional answer is that I'm getting all the sleep I need, and when I "stretch" the night too far, it "breaks" in the middle rather than on either end. I respond that it doesn't always break, and I feel better during the day after nights when I sleep more or less without interruption.

What causes "the watch?" I'm looking for some good scientific explanation. If you know of one, I'd appreciate the pointer.
March 18, 2001

Carol and I spent yesterday attending a series of health seminars put on by the Mayo Clinic. Many of them were merely interesting (I am not likely ever to require a liver transplant) but one stood out illuminated by kleig lights in my mind: Lack of sleep increases your blood pressure. You never hear this, but the medical research is unassailable. If you scant your sleep, your blood pressure will rise, and you will be prone to all the fatal and disabling malfunctions associated with hypertension, including stroke and heart attack. There may also be links with obesity and diabetes. (These are less well established.)

We're pushing our children very hard these days (and practically killing ourselves) doing, doing, doing all day and most of the night. Sleep is the first to suffer—but only the first. All the rest happens in time.

So take it easy! Go to bed on time every night and don't try to "make it up" on the weekends. (Doesn't work. Sleep lost once is lost forever.) And if you won't spare yourself, at least spare your children. Hockey, soccer, and three musical instruments aren't all necessary for a fulfilled life. Choose one. (My unhumble suggestion: Don't choose hockey!)
March 17, 2001

St. Patrick's Day. I'm only 1/4 Irish, so I won't rhapsodize on the wonders of it all, a la Fr. Greeley. Being part Irish is a wonderful thing—note that I said being part Irish. The same is true of being part German, part Polish, and part French, all of which I am. (I may also be part Austrian, but this is currently unresolved, and doesn't keep me from being that most-reviled creature, the Northern European White Male.) The key is being part this and part that, the more parts the better. I'm a strong believer in hybrid vigor. Part of the reason (my reason being a hybrid as well) is that there is some genetic benefit in being a mongrel; the more diverse your genetic heritage, the less likely it is that damaging recessives will express. The other part is that taking an excess of pride (and an excess of identity) in where your genes came from appears to be a major cause of death and cruelty in the world today. Better to define what you are in terms of how you relate to the world and its people: Say, I am a builder, a teacher, a leader, an explainer, a caregiver, a researcher, or whatever channel into which you have poured your passion.

All that said, I will add that I am a great fan of Irish music, and that the Celtic cross is one of the two crosses that I consider emblematic of my spiritual life. (The other is the Cross Pommy.) I have drawn upon all my national traditions in being what I am, and am grateful for them all. To fight over any of them is to slander them, and betray the lives and labors of my ancestors, all of whom struggled against crushing odds to bring the flame of life down to me, here, in the 21st Century.

Your nationality is at best seasoning. What you are is how you serve others.
March 16, 2001:

This is a bad time to tour England: They've shut down Stonehenge because of its proximity to sheep and cattle grazing land where foot and mouth disease has been found. In fact, the UK government is doing its best to discourage all outdoor wandering along footpaths in rural areas, through any region where people may encounter farm animals. Foot and mouth (not to be confused—cripes!—with hoof and mouth disease, a.k.a. anthrax) does not infect humans, but can be easily tracked around in the dirt sticking to your shoes. Europe is in a lather over foot and mouth right now, fresh on the heels of more mad cow angst. Mad cow could happen here; if it did, we'd be in a world of hurt. We just cut off France's animal product imports, and it's unclear just what may come of all this. At very least, agricultural embargoes can worsen a weak economy.

There's a trend here in recent years: Diseases are getting nasty. I'm not the first to point this out, but it's worth remembering. Most people, responding to the hyper-politicization of AIDS, would say that AIDS is the most serious threat facing us, but that's insane. I get beat up whenever I say it, but AIDS is almost completely avoidable. Not so malaria, which kills twice as many people annually as AIDS, and is spread by mosquitos. If you're clueless about malaria, read this article from The Atlantic for August, 1997. Pretty scary. It's one reason I don't travel much in the wet tropics, and one reason I will probably always maintain a home in a mosquito-free zone like Phoenix. Probably the #1 reason malaria is our #1 global health threat is that nobody thinks it's anything close to being our #1 threat. Most people, according to The Atlantic's report, think it's a done deal, conquered, off the table. And so it's easy to object to mosquito control via pesticides, when abandonment of such pest control is a major reason malaria has come back to haunt us, after being for the most part under control fifty years ago.

Uggh. I gotta find something cheerier to talk about.
March 15, 2001:

Hard medical evidence is beginning to accumulate supporting the contention (long intuited in medical circles) that Alzheimer's Disease is less common among people who engage in intense and diverse intellectual activity through most of their lives. In other words, the more you use your mind, the less you're likely to lose it. We're still arguing about which is cause and which is effect, but it's looking like keeping your brain active in some unexplained way wards off dementia. One study and one research paper came to light here today, and both are worth a look. (All you can see of the research paper is the abstract, but that sums things up, and trust me, reading scientific papers is hard work and rarely worth it for casual research.)

This is great good news, since mental activity is definitely something you can control, and if you work at it, you can reduce your likelihood of developing AD considerably. (Couch potatoes were two and a half time more likely to develop dementia than people who had engaged in intellectual hobbies all their lives.) Read. Write. Design. Express. Build things. Use it or lose it!
March 14, 2001:
Sigh. I bought some Girl Scout Cookies, and I'm sad to report: There is less caramel in the Samoas than there used to be. Samoas are among the best things in the world (or used to be) and I would always pig out on them bigtime. I'll still eat the ones I bought (and enjoy them) but there's something missing. And I suspect that next year I'll still buy them (because Girl Scouting is a very worthy thing) but girls, ya gotta get those cookies back to their former standards of excellence!
March 13, 2001:

Additional notes on eliminating the estate tax (see yesterday's entry):

1. The common complaint that the estate tax forces the sale of family farms and small businesses is less true than often stated, and could be easily fixed. First, we should raise the bar to five million or more, which takes all but the largest farms and family businesses out of danger. For family-owned farms and businesses more valuable than that, require that the inherited entity incorporate, and then allow payment of the estate tax in stock, pro rata to the assessed value of the entity. The IRS could then auction off the stock to realize cash from the tax. (The law should state clearly, however, that the tax is paid according to the assessment, and not to the cash proceeds of the auction. If nobody wants to buy the stock, that's too bad for the government.)

2. The "puzzling" bipartisan support for the elimination of the estate tax (many Democrats want it eliminated as well) doesn't puzzle me at all. New money tends to be conservative. Old money tends to be liberal. Besides, if the money goes to the government, neither party can tap it to buy laws. If the money remains in private hands, politicos have a fighting chance of laying hands on it.

3. I found some amusing (and mostly liberal) commentary on the estate tax thing in Slate. Timothy Noah did a three-parter that's worth reading if this sort of thing interests you. Slate, being the disorganized thing that it is, doesn't link the three parts together in any reasonable way. So I'll do their linking for them, and direct you to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. (And to think they once tried to charge for this thing!)
March 12, 2001:

The normally sensible Wall Street Journal ran a kind of a nutty article by Melik Kaylan (March 6, 2001) proposing that the estate tax be eliminated because we need a class of superrich idlers to support the arts, build architecturally interesting country homes, and become a true American aristocracy. As Kaylan puts it:

"Why wouldn't these people leave as much money to their children as they could? After all, if I could pass on the kind of inheritance that would allow my kids to spend a lifetime visiting rain forests, collecting Rembrandts or redeciphering the Rosetta Stone, I most certainly would."

Would that that were all such people would do. My own fear, which has been curiously absent from the often-surreal debate on this issue, is that the children of the superrich will spend their lives (and their money) buying laws in harmony with whatever personal philosophies they have evolved. Money makes a beeline for politics, and most of what is wrong with the nation right now is the consequence of too much money going to all the wrong places and doing all the wrong things.

My friends in Seattle tell me that megabillionaire Paul Allen spent hugely on repeated initiatives until his ads finally persuaded taxpayers to build a sports arena. When the dust settled, Paul Allen got a taxpayer-subsidized sports complex, and still had enough money left over to send half of Washington State to visit the rain forests and spend the rest of their lives there, had he so chosen. But no, he's still a multibillionaire.

A certain amount of this is unavoidable; Allen at least worked for his money. (The argument that he lucked into it has merit but can't be proven or disproven. History only happens once.) As people become more distant from the connection between effort and reward, their thinking tends to get stranger and stranger. Certainly the rich value freedom—as long as it's their own freedom, and doesn't intefere with their views of the mountains. Their concern for the freedoms of the eccentric, the poor, and especially the middle classes (whom the superrich fear and loathe above all else) has not been frequently recorded down through history.
March 11, 2001:

Tennis star Bjorn Borg is apparently buying large, expensive ads in Swedish publications cajoling Swedes to have more children so that there will be somebody to pay his pension. (!!) The birth rate in northern Europe is way below replacement right now, and will lead to some interesting politics in thirty years or so, when the purpose of most Western governments will be eldercare and almost nothing else.

Population dynamics are an interesting thing. Bjorn may be on to something; I've seen articles here and there (including one in The Atlantic that I can't find, though I'll continue to look) speculating on a human population crash in another 70 years or so. Farfetched? Only a little. Depopulation works exponentially too, and when the birth rate goes way down, absolute numbers can plummet with tremendous rapidity. Add to that problems like AIDS (which could easily depopulate Africa in seventy years if nothing can be done) and you have some sobering possibilities for a global population of perhaps one billion in the year 2150. Is that good or bad? I guess it depends on whether or not your genes are among the survivors. Let us pray...

By the way, the only explanation I have ever seen for the predominantly heterosexual AIDS vector in Africa is in Scientific American for May 2000. "Care for a Dying Continent" describes specific sexual behaviors common in Africa but unknown in the West that will depopulate the continent unless someone persuades its people to stop doing certain things. This is a topic that apparently no one will touch in the mass media—and so Africa continues to die.
March 10, 2001:

The new solution-of-choice for the digital rights management problem is basically to take over the user's PC. Some ex-military guys in Austin are doing this, and Adobe has bought an e-book reader, Glassbook, that does it. Both put tendrils deep into Windows (NT and 2000 as well as 9x) and place remarkable restrictions on what users can do on their PCs while the software is active. (And you have to reboot to get rid of it.) This is a trend I don't care for, even though I am an author and could conceivably use such things to protect the copyrights of my work. I consider it unethical to turn a user's PC against him or her.

Besides, planting software bombs on user PCs is legally risky. If this software has bugs (hah! what a notion!) it could conceivably damage data and software unrelated to the protected item, and unleash a torrent of lawsuits upon its creators. Having installed Glassbook and seen what it does, I banished it forever from my systems. Don't go there.
March 9, 2001:

As I'm sure I've mentioned here a time or two, I'm learning book design (with Adobe InDesign) so that I can lay out my own books, and publish them using print-on-demand technologies if I choose. (For those who think it odd that the co-founder of Arizona's largest book publisher doesn't already know how to lay out books, I can only say that when we found that we needed to lay out books we hired professionals rather than inflicting our learning projects on the public. This may be one reason we have not only survived but prospered.) I'm getting close to finishing up my first major project: A collection of my SF short works, some previously published, some appearing in print for the first time.

The way print-on-demand publishing typically works, you create a PDF (Portable Document Format) file and store it on the publisher's server, which then manufactures one or more paper copies as they are ordered. So I had to produce PDFs, which required learning about things like font embedding, etc. etc. Learning new things is always a good time and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you'd like to see a sample of what the book will look like, check out this excerpt, which is a short story that appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine twenty years ago. Apart from the byline and copyright information, this is pretty much how the pages will look in the anthology.

As for who will publish it, well, I'm still not sure. But when Firejammer! and Other Stories is ready to ship, I'll provide the details in this space.
March 8, 2001:

More information has come our way on Dean Kamin's much-hyped "Ginger" invention, which was initially said to be everything from a personal fusion plant to antigravity. (See my January 12 and 15 entries.) A ZDNet story indicates that Ginger could be a scooter powered by some sort of hydrogen-fueled Stirling engine. (See here for a FAQ and here for a cool animation demonstrating the Stirling engine, which is clever but hardly new.) The powerplant is a separate issue from why it puts its wheels side by side instead of in-line along the direction of travel, which is not explained apart from some speculation that there is machinery to keep it balanced and upright on its own. Cool if it works...though I can't imagine it could be done economically, and the benefits delivered are pretty slim.

But the whole question of hydrogen "fuel" deserves some comment. Hydrogen is not properly a fuel, in the same way that coal, petroleum, uranium, and natural gas are fuels. You don't drill for hydrogen, nor dig it out of the ground. It isn't present in nature except combined with other elements, especially oxygen, in the form of water. To extract quantities of hydrogen, you must burn some other kind of fuel. Hydrogen can be produced chemically, and also by electrolysis, but in all cases you must expend energy to produce hydrogen. Some of that energy is stored in the hydrogen itself, and some is simply lost to entropy.

Hydrogen is thus more an energy storage medium than a fuel, and so its potential for trumping goblins like global warming must be considered very carefully. If you burn a billion calories' worth of natural gas to store eight hundred million calories of energy in the form of hydrogen, you're releasing plenty of carbon dioxide (from the burned natural gas) into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming both through carbon dioxide and waste heat. Only by using some energy source not based on carbon (nuclear, hydro, and solar are probably our only "big" choices; wind and geothermal are problematic) can we create a "hydrogen economy" that does not release carbon into the atmosphere. The advantage to hydrogen is that it can be stored easily and has an energy density greater than that of a storage battery. It could easily power a fleet of clean-running scooters (wheel orientation entirely aside) safely and efficiently. Where we get our hydrogen is still the killer question. Are we willing to pave over the desert with solar panels? Not so far. Are we willing to build new nuclear plants? Not hardly; nuclear has been declared Evil by people who know almost nothing about it. Environmentalists want to tear down hydroelectric dams for various reasons, most of them simply luddite. So Dean Kamin can create all the Gingers he wants. The real problem is elsewhere. It's about energy, stupid. It's all about energy. Almost nothing else matters.
March 7, 2001:

It's probably old news by now, but this is the first I've heard of it: Geocaching, a sport in which people hide waterproof Tupperware bins of odds'n'ends at odd points in the wilderness, known only by their latitude/longitude coordinates, and then dare adventurous GPS-equipped nerds to find it. When you find a geocache, you sign the logbook, take out one of its component oddments, and put another one of your choosing in its place. The collection thus changes over time, and becomes a sort of junk-drawer record of the odd souls who have visited it. Odd, indeed.

Geocaching is made interesting by the fact that a GPS receiver will get you at best within fifty or sixty feet of a location but no closer...and you'd be amazed how tough it is to find something well-hidden when you can only be sure you're within fifty feet of it. All the more fun, and some of the caches are in places extraordinarily difficult to reach. They've been graded on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the easiest to reach (easiest in terms of terrain and access) and 5 the most difficult. The main geocaching home page has a Web-based log for many of its listed sites. Here's the log for the geocache nearest to my own location. I'm not sure I'll head out to look for it, as I'd have to buy or borrow a GPS receiver, but it's not all that far and might be a good thing to attempt before it gets too hot outside. High-tech treasure hunt! Very cool. It is a wonderful time to be alive.
March 6, 2001:

I'm not sure why it's called what it is, but Suck has been around for a long time, publishing a new article every weekday since 1995, when hardly anybody even knew what the Web was. Mildly liberal and often a little too cynical for me, Suck nonetheless keeps me coming back from time to time. Not every day, certainly, but at least once per fortnight or so, or whenever I find myself intrigued by one of its articles aggregated in Plastic. Why? Pretty simple, though the insight took a while in coming: It's easy on the eyes.

Go take a look if you haven't already. Suck confines itself to a single narrow column of text, punctuated by idiosyncratic cartoon illos by Terry Colon. Sure, it leaves most of your screen a completely wasted whitewash, but all that blank space has a certain soothing, not-distracting effect on my middle-aged eyes. Newspapers and most magazines run fairly narrow columns; it's a time-honored way of keeping very small type from making readers go as walleyed as Suck's grinning fish icon. Most Web sites insist on packing every square centimeter of screen space with text, ugly graphics, banner ads, or animated GIFs of small dogs running back and forth. Not Suck. It has one banner ad at the bottom, and very little cross-linking, even into its own archives. A seven-day lookback summary allows weekly visits to avoid missing anything, but that's about it. Simplicity. Narrow columns. As few distractions as possible. Gosh, what a notion.
March 5, 2001:

Jim Mischel and Vince Kimball both wrote to tell me that Borland has expressed the intention of selling a $99 version of Kylix (see my March 3 entry) but with a profoundly different twist: Programmers will be compelled to make any software written with the Kylix Open Edition available under the GPL. For those coming to this page from somewhere other than nerdland, the GPL is the GNU Public License, an intriguing quasi-legal concept that flips copyright on its head and forbids the keeping of any GPLed software as proprietary. Software released under the GPL is free and must remain free. It cannot be protected under copyright laws.

I say "quasi-legal" because as best I know, the GPL has never really been rigorously tested in court...nor has any provision that software written with a particular tool must be released under GPL. Minor quibbles aside, this is all Very New Stuff from the standpoint of our legal tradition, and it'll be fun to see how it all plays out. It could be a brilliant move on Borland's part, though such a provision requires that it be possible to identify code written with the Open Edition. As any binary may be patched, this will not be a slam dunk. Let's watch, and hope for the best.
March 4, 2001:

I'm a big fan of the study of unintended consequences, in part because it indicts so much of our political system. Consider: A medicine cap that is child-proof is probably also granny-proof, especially if granny has the sort of bad arthritis that elderly women so often suffer. What we've found is that women with arthritis cease struggling with childproof caps after a while, and simply leave the caps off their drugs completely. These days, more and more families with small children share quarters with elderly grandparents, and up on top of granny's dresser is a row of medicine bottles without caps. It gets so bad sometimes that poison control centers have begun referring to the time after supper when young children tear around the house generally unsupervised as "the arsenic hour."

The more child-proof we make our medicine caps, the more children get poisoned. It's something to keep in mind the next time a politician suggests some sort of easy solution to a difficult problem. There are no easy solutions—except for mine, which is to make legistlators who vote for a bill (and executives who sign it) personally responsible for all that bill's unintended consequences. An unintended (perhaps) consequence of such a policy would be fewer laws, but much clearer and probably much narrower laws, which are always better than laws written in fuzzy language that cut too broad a swath.
March 3, 2001:

Borland just issued an email indicating that their Kylix product is available, and for the first time included prices. This is a wonderful thing—for a long time I was worried Kylix would never happen, and wondered if Borland had taken on something too gnarly to bring to completion. (You have to wonder, when something as obviously useful as a RAD programming environment for Linux has never been done, why it's never been done. His Royal Upside-Downness X Windows is doubtless a big part of it.) Here's hoping that a huge influx of Windows programmers to Linux will both civilize Linux and fill Borland's coffers with enough dollars to keep it in the game.

I have some concerns about that, however. There are two levels of Kylix product mentioned in the announcement: Kylix Server Developer, for $1799 ($1599 for current Delphi users) and Kylix Desktop Developer, for $999, with a $799 upgrade price. Something's missing here: The entry-level product. You can get a basic copy of Delphi for Windows for $100. Nothing like that seems to be on the horizon, which is a terrible mistake. People are quite likely to drop $100 on a much-anticipated programming product to see what it's about—but they won't drop $1000 for the same purpose. What they're likely to do is steal Kylix, which does nobody any good. We need a $100 Kylix entry product. So, guys, what's your next move?
March 2, 2001:

They say that when a woman is unhappy, she says, "Hand me a Kleenex" and when a man is unhappy, he says, "Hand me a wrench." Even men who have learned the First Commandment of Coexisting with Women (Thou Shalt Not Say, "Don't Cry") stumble over the subtleties of this disconnect, when they start trying to "fix" things that are bothering their ladies. Women often appreciate help at fixing things (at an appropriate time) but it's not what they want immediately when things go badly. First they want someone to listen and empathize, and perhaps a hand to hold or (when a relationship exists that can support it) arms to enclose them. When that step is done, the fixing (if fixing is called for) may begin.

It took me a long time (maybe 20 years) to figure this out. And having reached that enlightenment, I wish women would try a little harder to understand why men are this way: We are taught, most of us, from the time that we're small boys, that the world is a brutal place, that we must face it alone, that no one will do anything for us, and that if anything must be done, we must do it ourselves, no matter how nasty the job. (Does anybody remember Old Yeller?) We also learn quickly, as boys, that if we complain we're considered weak, and if the more sensitive among us dares to shed a tear, the sharks will circle and tear us to shreds. Small wonder that if something breaks within us, we say nothing and look for a wrench. And no great wonder that if a woman we love seems broken somehow, we cast about immediately for solutions just as we do for our own hurts.

It's very true that these days, women must face the same grim world that men do, and that when something has to be fixed, women are by no means off the hook. But girls are taught that it's OK to look for emotional support in times of need. Boys are taught that if they look for emotional support they're just as likely to get the shit beat out of them, or at very least be called a whiner or a pansy. Most of us manage to transcend this sort of brutality, but it leaves its mark. So, ladies, when your man attempts to fix the problems that beset you rather than simply listen, recall that in doing so he's simply trying to take care of you as he was taught to take care of himself.
March 1, 2001:
Just got the 2001 Small Parts Inc. catalog, and found it much enlarged and greatly improved since the last one I requested, back in 1997. (They're a little remarkable—and sensible—in that they don't send catalogs in great masses unrequested. You have to be a regular customer to get one unsolicited.) I mention it here because it's the ultimate mad scientist and basement inventor catalog: small quantities of interesting and peculiar materials, including titanium tubing, machinable ceramics, porous ceramics and plastics, low-temperature bismuth alloys, and many types of conventional metals and plastics; many types of fasteners in steel, stainless, and nylon (some of them extremely small); bearings, gears, clutches, and flexible couplings; tubing, valves, and O-rings; and most common hand tools for bench work on small projects. This isn't bargain surplus stuff but brand new, and thus it's not hamfest cheap, but much of what they carry I've never seen anywhere else. They have a Web site, and their phone number is 800-220-4242, FAX 800-423-9009. They have supplied some of the components for my low-vibration stepper drive for my big scope. Highly recommended.