May 31, 2003:

I'm back from dinner and going home tomorrow. For me at least, Book Expo America is over. I saw a few interesting books, a lot of boring books, and a handful of genuinely useful things—though most of them weren't books at all. At right is a very cool book stand from Dainoff Designs that I may order. It comes with steel pegs that you can insert into a matrix of holes, to keep books of almost any size and shape open securely to any page. I've wanted something like this for years, and alluva sudden, there it was. I need it to hold ancient books open while I proof my scanned-and-OCRed text files. Surely it has to be gentler than the chunk of scrap metal that I use now.

But to sum up: What did I learn? Primarily, this: In the computer book realm, at least, we've seen a catastrophic collapse of the middle over the last couple of years. Companies in the $10-60M bracket have vanished to liquidation or assimilation, leaving behemoths on the high end and micro-presses (which includes Paraglyph, and other low-key publishers like Bill Pollack's excellent No Starch Press) on the bottom. The big guys are taking fewer risks, and everybody is publishing way fewer books.

Y'know, I'm reminded of that old line from the day-glo Desiderata poster: "And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should." The imperative in all industries is to grow, and book publishers often try to grow by publishing books that nobody needs nor wants. There's only so much demand, and at some point there probably has to be a shakeout. We're in the midst of a nasty one, brought on by the burst of the dot-com bubble (technology companies used to buy a huge number of computer books, and there are far fewer such companies now to do the buying) and aggravated by incredible overcapacity in the industry. For the good of book publishing, a whole lot of people really ought to go over into real estate or something, and as best I can tell, it's happening.

Down here at the bottom, small and extremely small companies (often companies consisting of a single person) continue to test the waters, try new approaches, and bid to get sufficient attention to grow into that huge bare spot in the middle. Some are doing well: Ellora's Cave, the company across from Paraglyph in the BEA Small Press dungeon, is making steady money selling "horny romances" for women, almost entirely over the Web. Rob Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press is having a banner year selling print-on-demand mysteries, through the Web and a retail store in Scottsdale. I'm not sure yet why these companies are succeeding and others are not. I have some ideas...but guys, I'm wrecked. Let me get a good night's sleep and we'll pursue this further tomorrow.
May 30, 2003:

At Book Expo America in LA. The show this year is smaller, quieter, and in some difficult-to-define way, grimmer. Publishing is in recession, especially on the technology side. There is a yawning dearth here of both new publishing technology and books about technology. The demonstration of print-on-demand machines was the same one we've seen for some years now. E-book technology was exiled to a hard-to-find backwater, and it was a graveyard, perhaps literally as well as figuratively.

The most remarkable technology I saw had nothing to do with books whatsoever: A Segway scooter that some company was using to promote, of all things, a $50 handlebar catchall, ostensibly for PDAs and e-book readers. (Read an e-book while you ride! Yeah, right...) The Segway was the first one I had ever seen in meatspace, and although it was cool in a very eerie way, especially with no one standing on it, I still can't decide if the damned thing is actually useful. (Lord knows I've long since decided that it isn't worth five grand!)

I didn't see a lot of really clever books, and only a handful that interested me. I requested a couple of review copies from Copernicus, the Springer-Verlag imprint that published books like The Deep Hot Biosphere, which I reviewed in my June 7, 2001 entry. They have three new books that intrigued me: one on prions, one on the Fermi Paradox, and Bruce Schneier's newest book on security, Beyond Fear. I'll try and review them all here in coming weeks.

Apart from that, sheesh, there wasn't much. I saw only three SF imprints exhibiting, all of which have already rejected my novel. There was almost no SF on display at all, and astononishingly little in the line of computer books. (Most that were there were from John Wiley & Sons.) Some conventional fantasy was on display, along with a good many graphic novels, and a lot of fantasy paraphernalia, including a real leather replica of the Harry Potter sorting hat, manufactured by a company in Colorado Springs. Harry loomed large over the show, not that more than a handful of companies would benefit from the release of Harry Potter 5 in a few days.

The overall mood was down, but people were eager to talk about their own projects and products, and as often as not I had to say, "no thanks" when they tried to press things into my hands. (I really don't need a topiary how-to, nor political screeds from people I've never heard of.) There was a surprising amount of pornography (weirdly dressed women were marching around holding signs reading "Show us your sex books!") but that may simply be because all the other genres are so badly off.

A lot of people were casting about for jobs. Earlier today, a young woman came to the Paraglyph table offering her services as a computer book designer without fully understanding whom she was talking to. "I designed over 20 books for The Coriolis Group!" she announced proudly. "Good to see you, Jean!" I replied, and she almost freaked when she finally read my name tag and then Keith's. (We had never met in person.) Clearly she had been delivering a canned spiel to every computer publisher on the floor. I only wish I had had some work to give her.

Anyway. I just got back from an interesting dinner at a grubby but amazingly good Armenian restaurant somewhere in LA, and I'm tired. More tomorrow.
May 29, 2003:

In LA for Book Expo America, the largest single book publishing trade show in the United States, but not the world. (That honor falls to another show in Hannover, to which I've never been—and, judging by survivors' tales, don't wish to.)

Pumped by several cups of surprisingly good coffee (considering the condition of the place where I breakfasted) I stormed in the front entrance of the Los Angeles Convention Center, and was immediately accosted by an attractive woman of about my age, with a sash over one shoulder reading "1970." She handed me a promo piece for a new book celebrating fifty years of Playboy Magazine, which launched at the end of 1953. "I was there," she said, and grinned.

I grinned back, at a loss for words, and from a vantage point a little further in, looked around to see half a dozen women wearing similar sashes, a few bearing years going back to the 1960s. Some were overweight and others had soaked up a little too much sun in the past, but clearly we were seeing something the world rarely sees: Playboy centerfolds in their middle years.

Wow. Milling around BEA were fantasy girls, my fantasy girls, from my college years in the early 70s. They were wearing plain black pantsuits, nothing flashy, and all had winning smiles. They had battled the years like everybody else, but the smiles had won, and there was something very satisfying in that.

I haven't bought a Playboy in a lot of years, but every so often I pick one up and flip through it (remarkably, they can still be found in barber shops, where a great many boys of my generation first saw a photo of a naked woman) to see how collective male fantasy has evolved. Folks, it's ugly. Centerfolds of the 21st century are nothing like those of the 60s and 70s. Modern centerfolds scowl, leer, sneer, and writhe. They are blatantly, almost laughably slutty. There is no least hint of the "girl next door" image that Hugh Hefner had tried to convey in past decades. It's hard, in fact, to detect much humanity in them at all. They might as well be photorealistic CG cartoons.

I remember the first Playboy I ever had, which my high school friend George had purchased for me at the grubby little newsstand under the tracks at the Logan Square elevated terminal in Chicago, where everybody's money was welcome and the old man behind the counter didn't care how old its bearer was. The centerfold was a girl named Lorrie Menconi, and while portions of her were "out of scale" (as we used to say in model railroading) she looked like a real girl who just happened to be naked. As a 17-year-old high school kid I would have been terrified to approach her for fear of being brushed off, but I wouldn't have been terrified of her—and that's a crucial difference. I had been terrified that Carol—who was (and is!) every bit as lovely as Lorrie Menconi—would reject me out of hand the first time I met her, but I wanted her to be my friend, and so I persevered. The nameless blonde bombshells in modern Playboys are not the sort of women who engender longing for friendship, or even fantasy. They cut to the chase and offer simple lust instead.

Sorry, Mr. Hefner. That's not the same product, and if Playboy isn't the force in publishing that it was thirty-odd years ago, I have to wonder if this isn't the reason.
May 28, 2003:

I bought an old book for a dollar, and with the book came a new friend. This has happened before, but I don't recall ever feeling it quite as keenly now. The book is C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves, which is one of his lesser-known works that I've been meaning to read for years. The book itself is superb, as you might expect from the man who may well be (a thousand years hence) recalled as the best writer of the 20th century.

The book is a keen dissection of the idea of love, which Lewis divides into four types: Affection, friendship, eros, and charity. (By eros he means romantic love, not necessarily lust or even infatuation.) I found myself shaking my head in amazement as I read. Once again, the great man had it all nailed. It's a short, easy read (I did it in under two hours) and I powerfully recommend it. (The link to the left is to a current edition, available on Amazon.)

The new friend was a man who had once owned the book. I don't know his name; the flyleaf bore no inscription nor bookplate. But here and there throughout the book are underlinings for emphasis and marginal comments. He was dead-on about the emphases. In most cases, seeing an underlined passage, I could only say, "right on, brother!" I would have underlined that too. Some of the written comments were were perhaps debatable; when Lewis quotes The Imitation of Christ at one point as saying, "The highest does not stand without the lowest," my new friend wrote in the margin, "The highest includes the lowest." I hadn't thought of that. I'm still thinking about it. I would not have thought of it on my own—but that's what friends do: Challenge you to think in new ways.

Later on, while discussing romantic love, Lewis says this: "Eros enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganising, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country. It may have taken over many others before it reaches the sex in him; and it will reorganize that too." My friend had underlined the passage, and in the margin had drawn a little star, beneath which he had written the name Wendy.

I thought back to the first years I knew Carol, and it was like that: The growing love I held for her reorganized a lot of very messy institutions in my young soul, and when the time was right, sex fell into place as well. The hand printing "Wendy" is a very young hand, and I wondered how well it had gone for him. Did she love him in return? Were they still together? By his emphases throughout the book I knew him to be essentially sane and probably more mature than I was when I had met my Carol in 1969. I hope for the best for both of them, together or separately, and somehow knowing that I will never know doesn't bother me. As Lewis indicates in the portion of the book describing friendship, friends don't have to stare at one another and talk incessantly. They simply need to have a passion in common, and the rest will take care of itself.

Good luck, my friend, whoever and wherever you are. Thanks for writing.
May 27, 2003:

(Continuing the thread begun May 25, 2003...) Things start to get difficult now. When my sister Gretchen and I were kids, we would half-listen to my mother and her sister Josephine talk about all the weird things that happened in their family over the years—prophetic dreams, religious visions, confrontations with unseen but evil forces, communications from the dead, especially the mysterious Aunt Phyllis, their oldest sibling, who had died in childbirth as a young woman in 1930. We rolled our eyes at it all—the influence of our father, the fully rational engineer, was strong in us—and went on with the serious business of growing up. I never gave much thought to any notion of the paranormal...

...until some of those "weird things" started happening to me.

I hate to disappoint you, but I'm not going to present you with a bulleted list. I'm very tired of people telling me these events were meaningless because they couldn't be documented or repeated, or (much worse) that I "must have been mistaken." Some of them, furthermore, involve painful family matters I don't feel like making public. Whether or not I can make you believe them isn't pertinent to this discussion anyway—this isn't about what you believe; it's about why I believe.

What matters here and now is that I am convinced that the materialist/reductionist view of the world is, um, dead wrong. There is a dimension to human experience (ok, my experience) that transcends time, space, and sense. I have torn at this tarball for ten or fifteen years now, trying to decide how to interpret it. As I mentioned in my entry for February 8, 2002, it's entirely possible that there is an afterlife but no God. But having had some contact with what I can only call a supermaterial realm (there are a lot of ways to say "weird shit going on") I really hope that it includes laws and a Boss. Jim Mischel suggests that a God would not have to be infinite to be acceptably powerful compared to human beings, and that's a notion that's worth some thought all by itself, especially since that's how the Gnostics thought of Yahweh, the grumpy God of the Hebrew Old Testament. Certainly, if my mother and my aunts are to be believed, my Aunt Phyllis (after whom I would have been named, had the sex bit in my chromosomes gone the other way) was not the sort of person you messed with—especially after she died. (I have some reason to believe that they were right.) So none of this points directly to the existence of God, but hey, after seeing the future, hearing from two of my dead aunts, and staring down some sort of evil force standing next to my bed, how much of stretch is it to believe in God?

Ok. I'll have to stop this for a few days. I'm heading off to Book Expo America in LA shortly, to see first hand just how grim the book publishing industry has become. There's more to be said in this thread, and the most difficult stuff of all is yet to come, but I'll be otherwise engaged for a bit. Stand by.
May 26, 2003:

(Continuing the thread begun in yesterday's entry...) Back in 1972, when I was in college, I took a literature course from a bitter old man who had little good to say about anything. He was a rabid existentialist, and took it ill when I challenged some of the bullshit he was laying on all of us. (See my entry for May 24, 2003.) Existentialism (at least as he positioned it, and many writers in my experience align with him) is in fact a species of intellectual cowardice—and spectacular, almost laughable arrogance. As he put it, to believe in any reality not amenable to the senses (or to our instruments, as extensions of our senses) is to commit "intellectual suicide." Strongly implied by my prof (though not spoken plainly) was that this included belief in God.

And this was at a Catholic university, sheesh.

I was only a sophomore, and once I figured out what the game was, I apologized, shut my trap, and took my A at the end of the term. Since then I've read a lot about rational approaches to faith, and dismissed them all except for one. I came up with it independently as I barrelled through my forties, but the formidable Michael Covington pointed out that what I had developed had been anticipated centuries ago by Blaise Pascal, and that it was called "Pascal's Wager." (Now I know what I missed by ducking philosophy classes.)

The short form is this: Absent any rational proof of God's existence, it makes sense to live as though God is really out there. That way, you cover both sides of the bet: If you die and go out like a light, well, that's the end and there are no consequences to consider. On the other hand, if God does exist, He may well expect certain standards of behavior of his creatures, at least those who inherited that much- maligned knowledge of good and evil.

The details remain fuzzy: If God does exist, what would He want of us? Some people who embrace Pascal's Wager profess faith in Jesus Christ to meet the wager (though I wonder if this could be considered genuine faith) while others simply pursue a life of gentleness, generosity, and love...and figure that any God who matches the template will be content with that. I used a turnabout of Pascal's Wager in my SF novel, The Cunning Blood, to allow character Jamie Eigen to take control of a rogue nanocomputer living in his bloodstream. It's a peculiarly effective argument to pose to people (and there are many) who claim to be completely rational in all things. I've driven more than a few people (including some existentialists) half nuts with it. The surer you are that God's existence cannot be proven (and the more you understand that proving nonexistence is way tougher than proving existence) the more compelling it becomes.

Pascal's Wager is the intellectual underpinning in my own belief in God. There are logical complications, as I reflected in my entry for February 8, 2002: What if there's an afterlife but no God? What if God is no more inherently good than we are? (Now that's a scary thought!) As a piece of logic, Pascal's Wager isn't watertight, but it comes as close as logic can come. It's safer to for me believe in God than not. So I stopped fighting.

Still more tomorrow.
May 25, 2003:

Here and there down the years, I'm heard from people (especially since I started ContraPositive) who say something like, "You're obviously not a crackpot. How can you possibly believe in God?" The questions are usually courteously put and (I believe) sincere. This certainly says something about the way religion is practiced today, but the real question has little or nothing to do with religion. A few weeks ago, a good friend asked the question of me again, in great detail, and requested that I work out the issue here for him and other interested people. So be it. Note that this will be a multi-parter and may take awhile to finish, as I have real work to do and a house construction project to supervise. Do be patient. This isn't quite as easy as explaining how Wi-Fi gear operates.

Note well that I will make no attempt to prove that God exists, nor to persuade anyone away from any personally held beliefs. What follows is simply the path I have taken while chasing the idea down inside my own skull.

To begin: Humanity in general seems to be hardwired with an affinity for transcendence. Some of us have it more than others, and I probably have more than my fair share. All of us, however, have it. I have never met a person who was not moved in a peculiar way in the presence of great natural beauty. Why is it that the giant redwoods move us so? Why does everyone want to live near the ocean? Why do we like to look at mountains? Mountains, in particular, are not easy places to live, so there's no evolutionary advantage in yearning for mountains. Why do we prefer a long view to a short one? What's going on here?

Big Stuff impresses us. We see significance in it (I don't like to call it "meaning," though many do) that simply isn't there in any rational sense. You can say, "It's just a pile of rocks," but damn, you'll pay extra to be able to see it from your front door. Telescopes are more popular toys than microscopes. We identify with, admire, and desire Big Things.

Gather things together, and you see patterns in them. Gather big things together, and you see really big patterns. Meditation in some forms is an attempt to climb atop all patterns in all things, and achieve an almost literal transcendence. I've done this, and as good an explainer as I am (and I'm damned good!) I come up completely empty in striving to capture the experience in words. Transcendence just Is.

I accept the objection posed by many that we are symbol-making creatures, and that the affinity for transcendence is just a side-effect of our evolutionary hard-wiring for preverbal communications. This is true enough: Back in Scottsdale, there was a disturbance in the plaster on our bathroom wall that looked like a smiling cricket to me, and another that looked like an Assyrian warrior. Underneath all of our carefully cultivated rationality is a screaming deep vortex of symbols that shape our perceptions of events in our lives and the things that we encounter.

We can deny their significance, but denying that these symbols exist is a perilous business if we aren't to begin lying to ourselves. I didn't take a picture of the smiling cricket, but I can show you another example. The first morning after Carol and I moved into our rental house here in Colorado Springs, we opened our bedroom door to see a striking pattern of light on the living room wall. Low-angle sunlight was hitting the light fixture over the front door and making a multicolored figure on the wall that I immediately christened the Exuberant Cross. The photo doesn't do it justice; it is much more striking than I can capture. I was open-mouth startled to see it. As I've mentioned elsewhere in Contra, the Cross Triumphant is a very powerful symbol for me (see my entry for April 15, 2001) and here it was in dazzling color on my living room wall on the first morning I lived in Colorado: A cross not only triumphant, but veritably jumping up to embrace the new day. You want gonzo optimism? Damn, I'll show you gonzo optimism, straight from the collective unconscious!

By any sort of rational thought, the whole thing is silly: The Cross is, after all, an instrument of torture. But into the symbol on the wall were tied a whole raft of ideas: Transformation, nay, transfiguration of that instrument of torture; hope, enthusiasm, energy, new beginnings, and a weird feeling that after a couple of bad years, everything would just work. I felt good all day after that, and I feel good every morning that I see it.

My point? Simple: We are hardwired to see significance in things, and that significance points toward the very large rather than the very small. The infinite draws us more strongly than the infinitesimal. It is easier for me to believe in God than not. So I stopped fighting.

More tomorrow.
May 24, 2003:

I find politics depressing (hence my reluctance to talk about it) but demographic trends fascinate me. It's from a demographic perspective that I send you to this article on the New York Times Web site. You have to register for it, but there's no charge and for the occasional story it's worth it.

The Times story on "Hippublicans" (wretch!) highlights something few (especially on the left) are willing to admit: That today's pervasive liberal politics was born with the Boomers and will die with the Boomers. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, today's college-age and 20-somethings are way more conservative than their parents. I've thought through a few theories on this but don't embrace any of them. My best guess is that young people internalized much that their liberal parents taught them that was not about politics, but instead the Mr. Rogers message of simple honesty, tolerance, and integrity. What they did not internalize was the (often subliminal) message "always vote Democratic; do not challenge Democratic party icons." Nor do they accept without question the intolerance and vicious partisan crackpottery that now dominates liberal thought. As the Times article points out (without realizing it, I think) lefty academics are now being hoisted by their own petards. Every generation has a tendency to consider the older generation fools; it's part of establishing your own identity apart from your parents'. Campus conservative organizations take sly advantage of this, and encourage students to roll their eyes at academic lefty ideology. (This is actually not as new as most people think; I got in trouble in college in 1972 for suggesting in my contrarian fashion that the protagonist of Camus' The Stranger deserved precisely what he got, and stated colorfully that I was right there in the crowd at the book's conclusion, howling for his execration. I was scolded for "disrupting the class." It was one of life's delicious moments.)

The kind of conservatism the article describes is lacking in the racial and sexual bigotry that often stains the right. It's a kind of compassionate libertarianism, and I don't think the Democrats understand what a potent threat it is. Unless the Democrats can put their vicious left wing in a crate and hide the crate in a closet somewhere, the young will continue to flee, and in another ten or fifteen years the Democrats will have a filibuster-incapable minority in the Senate and no chance of electing a President.
May 23, 2003:

I heard from a lot of weird people in the early years of PC Techniques; most of my inner circle has heard the "dead brother" story a few too many times. In 1991 or so I met another interesting reader: A shortwave pirate radio broadcaster. He built himself a 300 watt AM transmitter having four 6146Bs with 900 volts on the plates, then drove out into the national forest with some friends in an RV, threw some wires up in a tree, and spent a long weekend broadcasting death metal music and drinking beer. They sent postcards to a lot of pirate radio BBSes announcing the time and the frequency (somewhere around 9 MHz) so people would tune in and hear them. They did this a number of times and as best I know (it was, of course, highly illegal) never got caught.

I'm not sure if anybody still does pirate radio on the shortwave bands, but we may be seeing the rise of a new generation of pirate radio fanatics, with an entirely new spin on the topic. People are sneaking Wi-Fi gear into rock concerts, and transmitting packetized audio of the concert to accomplices outside, who then feed it live out onto the Internet. I've heard of other interesting ideas as well, and won't say where—it sounds like a great way to get into trouble, and I'm not going to help them get into that trouble by naming names. But here's a scenario: A guy sits on a park bench in Chicago's Grant Park reading a book, his briefcase at his feet. In the briefcase is a laptop or perhaps a custom Mini-ITX lashup with a very fat hard disk, and a high-bandwidth 802.11g Wi-Fi access point. The hard disk contains 100 gigabytes of MP3 audio files. Alerts were posted in strategic places a few days before, indicating that a wireless MP3 download station would be live in Grant Park a few days later. Up and down Michigan Avenue, people open windows from offices and aim Pringle's cantennas at the park, scanning for music. (The smarter ones use spaghetti sauce cans.) People wander the park with laptops, connecting and sucking down illicit music. W00t w00t! Pirate radio returns!

As I said in my entry for April 18, 2003, high-density data storage may well be as subversive a technology as ubiquitous networking. The server box itself need be little larger than a CD player, and it can be run off a single solar panel. Sneak it up to a high, sunny place in an urban setting, and see how long it will run before the RIAA can find it. A Mini-ITX model could be built for under $600 now with all new parts, and way less using scavenged P-133 components sealed in a water-tight ammo can. The device itself could almost be considered expendible, and since it has no Internet connection, there's no way to tie it to any particular person or organization. RIAA-baiting is getting to be an Olypmic sport in certain circles, and boy, this would be the equivalent of three triple-axels in fifteen seconds.

Now, ask yourself: What if WiMax hardware (range: 30+ miles!) got cheap? (See my entry for May 21, 2003.) You could park a creature like this on top of Skull Mesa north of Phoenix and serve illicit MP3s to the north half of the city, and just getting to the gadget (assuming you could zero in on it) would be to risk life and limb, especially in the summer. (They don't call it "Skull Mesa" for nothing!)

You want subversive? Ha! Nothing beats Wi-Fi! (Not even a ratsnest 6146B AM lashup on 9 MHz!)
May 22, 2003:

I've been thinking the unthinkable recently: Going back to school, to get a masters in technical communication, or maybe even a PhD. An MA would be no extreme challenge, but a doctorate would require a thesis, and a thesis requires a topic. That had been a head-scratcher—or it was until today, when I discovered l33t-speak.

I've seen the term "pr0n" for some time; it's how techies discuss pornography on listservs without having their messages nuked by spam filters. More recently, I've started seeing people use terms like w00t and especially l33t. Some of it is clear from context; "w00t w00t!" basically means, "hot damn!" The term "l33t" (pronounced, I discovered, "leet") took a little more sleuthing, but, as it happens, it's the key to the whole thing."L33t" means "elite," and has roots in the pre-Internet BBS culture, in which "elite status" allowed BBS insiders to create a shadowy board-behind-the-board, with access to pirated software, insider chat rooms, and (of course) pr0n.

Other leet-speak terms include warez (pirated software); haxor (hacker); h4x0r3d (haxor-ed; i.e., hacked); n00b (noob; i.e., newbie) and so on. There is a version of Google in l33t. There is a leet-speak generator. (It's not very g00d, in my l33t opinion...) And a much better leet-speak translator called Bleet. The raw material for analysis and th3sisizing is everywhere there are young techies communicating textually.

Why didn't I know about this before? Guys, I'm 50 years old. I don't do chat rooms, except for an occasional visit to #oldcatholic on DalNet, where people are way more clueless than I. Hip I am not, nor young. On the other hand, this may be the perfect perspective from which to create a PhD thesis on techno-synthetic languages, like leet-speak.

(Yes, I'm kidding. Good God, get a life, people!)
May 21, 2003:

Shucky darns, I shoulda looked again at the IEEE's 802.16 task group site (see my entry for May 19, 2003) because they have already launched a task group to work out the details of mobile 802.16 operation. Precisely what 802.16e will be used for still escapes me a little—as I read it, WiMax is a point-to-point technology for distributing bandwidth to client stations under circumstances where wired or fibered connections aren't profitable. (Read here: Too far apart to justify the cost of burying the wire.)

More interesting, perhaps, is pondering the possibility of really cheap Wi-Max hardware—the central access points will reportedly cost over $10,000 in their first incarnation, which is beyond the profitable reach of anybody but a substantial WISP. If the cost of a WiMax access point falls to $1000 or less, however, some intriguing things happen. One is the possibility of bandwidth discounters for hotspots; in other words, a small-scale WISP specializing in bandwidth for coffee houses and bookstores etc. If all of the business is public-access hotspots, the WISP could do some back-end things specific to that kind of business, including billing, authentication, and security measures that guard against spamming. It would thus be a sort of local Boingo, and could be handled as a cooperative among independent businesses in the same general area, within reach of a single WiMax AP. Such an organization might even be able to support some innovative marketing mechanisms associated with bandwidth. ("Have a bite. Get a megabit.")

More interesting still is the possibility of home-school cooperatives that set up a WiMax AP to distribute bandwidth and content to home-schooling families. Given the collapse of our public school system (which has already happened, in my view) the role of home schooling will only increase in the future, and this would be one way to counter criticisms (invariably mounted by teachers' unions) that home schooling short-changes students on the technology side.

Of course, we won't know what WiMax will be used for until clever people start pushing its limits and trying different things. Wi-Fi has been shown to have nonobvious consequences (more on this soon) and WiMax, given its greater range and power, can only have more.
May 20, 2003:

JungleScan must have been having a bad day the day I tried it (see my entry for May 17, 2003) but reader Michael Davis wrote this morning to tell me he had successfully gotten in and listed my book for monitoring yesterday. I successfully created an account there this morning and had a chance to look the site over carefully.

Fascinating stuff, especially for people with roots in book publishing. In addition to being able to track individual books, you can see what Amazon's top-ranked books are, and the bottom-ranked. You can see which books have come up or fallen down the stack most radically. (This morning, a book shot up the tree by 10,000 percent!) I grinned to see that the lowest-ranked book is Taxonomic Revision of the Lysorophia, Permo-Carboniferous Lepospondyl Amphibians, which hovers at Amazon's lowest position of #2,565,383. Hey, when you're at the bottom there's nowhere to go but up, right? (Only a few notches up from the bottom, Cream of Wheat Advertising Art climbs hopefully.)

There is a discussion board, but lord knows I spend too much time on discussion boards as it is.

I should also mention another similar system I discovered on the 18th: The Books and Writers Rank Monitoring Service. It's a less ambitious version of JungleScan, and simply emails you a short note periodically to tell you what your selected books are doing.

Both of my current books are in four-digit country, which is nice to see. My assembly book is at #7,613 this morning, which isn't bad for a book that's been out there in three edititions for fourteen years!
May 19, 2003:

There's a new emerging IEEE wireless standard to watch, as it comes to completion later this year: IEEE 802.16, or WiMax. In a fashion parallel to Wi-Fi, 802.16 is the IEEE specification, and WiMax is an interoperability certification program to ensure that everybody's 802.16 hardware works with everybody else's 802.16 hardware.

802.16 is a standardized solution to the "last 30 miles problem" which beset me in Scottsdale: I was so far out in the sticks that there was no cable, no DSL, no broadband at all—until a small company named SpeedChoice created a two-way wireless system based on non-standard proprietary microwave hardware. SpeedChoice was eventually picked up by Sprint to become Sprint Broadband, and I used it very happily for several years.

Rural deployment of broadband is limited by the capital cost of laying data conduits, which are expensive in proportion to their length. Eliminate the need to lay cable or fiber or any kind of physical data pipe, and you're suddenly in a potentially paying proposition, even if potential subscribers are thousands of feet apart.

In a Wi-Max deployment, a central (and rather muscular) access point serves bandwidth to hundreds or even thousands of subscribers, each of whom have a matching client data radio and antenna on the roof. The technology is not inherently "mobile" in that it's expected that the client radios will not move around once installed. (There is talk of an IEEE task group to define how 802.16 mobility might be handled, but given the high microwave frequencies at which 802.16 operates—as high as 66 GHz—this will be no easy "task.")

802.16 is one answer to the problem of providing broadband out of the boonies. The other is a mesh network, in which each subscriber has a peer node up on a pole, forwarding packets along a la the ancient FideNet. Mesh networks are more intriguing, but have their own set of problems. It's generally easier to point client antennas at the top of a hill or tall building or water tower than at the guy down the street, especially at high microwaves, where water-rich trees might as well be made of sheet metal. Someone will eventually make an all-in-one mesh network controller, and it would be cool to have an IEEE task group defining that sort of rural broadband solution. Will it happen? Dunno. Will report if I see anything.
May 18, 2003:

As I've written here before, I find parts of the Bible perplexing in the extreme, including some parts that are pretty (as it were) fundamental. The best example goes all the way to the start of things: In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve get in God's hair by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (GEN 2-3.) Ok, let's think about this for a second: Before eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve had no knowledge of good nor evil. How, then, could they have any genuine perception of the nature and consequences of their actions? It's like shooting a dog the first time he knocks over the garbage can. More than that, without any knowledge of the difference between good and evil, how can we honestly say that they were human? Clearly, Adam and Eve are absolute innocents, and innocents have no idea whether they're doing right or wrong.

As with most things in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) interpretation is everything. My own personal interpretation will probably get me tarred and feathered in some circles, but so be it: The story told in Genesis 2 is a metaphor for the transition between animal and human. Just as GEN 1's resounding "Let there be light!" is a striking metaphor for the Big Bang, GEN 1-3 fit quite well with what we know of evolution: That from simple organisms came more complex organisms, and ultimately the primates, which are the most complex of all. So while Adam and Eve were doubtless the pinnacle of the animal world, without the knowledge of good and evil they were still (at least as we today define them) animals. Somewhere along the way, our species took a radical turn on evolution's path, and became something other than just the boss primate. Suddenly there were new elements in the human mind: moral choices, guilt, and the great heavy weight of knowing what perfection is (God, in other words) and knowing that one is nowhere near perfection.

Creatures like the chimpanzees and the gorillas remained in the Garden, untroubled by the knowledge of good and evil, past and future. We left, and took the consequences. Having seized knowledge of what perfection is, we must strive for it. Genesis is pretty clear, in a passage that doesn't seem to get as much press as all the rest:

"And the Lord God said: Behold, the man is become as one of us, [my emphasis] to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken." (GEN 3:22-23)

The torment of being human is the torment of knowing what we could be but are not. Perhaps God in His mercy would have preferred (for our sake) that we remain innocent primates and not suffer over cosmic issues. On the other hand, the downside of freedom is that sooner or later, the free choose all possible paths. I can't imagine that the Fall was not inevitable, because an innocent who is free has no reason not to choose all paths, even painful or destructive ones. Rather than be stuck forever in our state of half-assed godhood, God withheld physical immortality, and granted us death (which Tolkien's God-figure Eru created as a gift for Men) to force us to continue on the long and obscure path to perfection and true companionship with God. Ultimately we'll all get there ("All manner of thing will be well," thank you Lady Julian) but the journey will be pure hell.
May 17, 2003:

I've been watching the Amazon sales rankings with interest, as my Wi-Fi book whipsaws up and down, from the 2,200 region down to the 15,000 region and back again. I'd love to be able to track that and record its movements, and I vaguely recall that someone had written and posted a little free utility that allows you enter one or more Amazin ASIN numbers (a unique identifier for products sold on Amazon) and let the program poll Amazon every hour (or however often you specify) to record an ASIN's rank in a log file.

This would be damned handy, and while I suspect I could write it in Delphi with some study, I have some other more pressing projects in the cooker right now. (Primarily Aardmail.) Has anyone out there seen such an Amazon rank tracker? I looked around but didn't find anything. Do send me a pointer if you know of one.

Mid-Day Update: I just stumbled across JungleScan, which looks slick, but I have been unable to make it work for me. It's a Web site (which I hadn't looked for—duhh!—I just scanned the software download sites!) which tracks Amazon rankings. It would be great if it wouldn't abort each time I tried to list my book. I'll keep trying. Still no sign of a client-side app to do the same thing, though I'm sure one exists.
May 16, 2003:

Carol I went to an early showing of A Mighty Wind today, down at Tinseltown. Wonderful stuff! We elbowed our way past throngs of multiply-pierced young people waiting in line to see The Matrix Reloaded, and found ourselves alone with a handful of older baby boomer couples, most of them with long gray hair.

A Mighty Wind is Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy's latest showbiz sendup. Guest is most famous for hatching This Is Spinal Tap with Rob Reiner, though Carol and I think he outdid himself with Best in Show, a 2000 outing that lampooned the dog show circuit so well that I can't watch a dog show without expecting to see Levy running the ring with Winky the cairn terrier.

They've done death metal and dog shows, and this time it's the folkies' turn on the hotseat. It's the same exact cast as Best in Show, with a few newcomers, and all of them are comic aces. What plot there is runs like this: An elderly music impresario who helped put folk on the map in the 50's and 60's passes away in 2003, and his son wants to gather a reunion of his father's best acts for a memorial concert in New York. The three acts are lampoons of the Kingston Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, and (sort of) Peter, Paul, & Mary: Levy and Catherine O'Hara play Mitch & Mickey, a folk duet that broke up in 1974. They were the terrier couple in Best in Show, and at the end of that movie had become a duet singing dog songs; one wonders if that's where the idea came from.

Describing the comedic approach itself is almost impossible. It's a species of gentle loopiness, without any hard edges I could see, done in Guest's now-signature mock-documentary style. The Folksmen (sending up the Kingston Trio) earnestly describe being shoved down the music industry food chain to a record label so small and poor they couldn't afford to punch holes in the middle of their records. The two leaders of The New Main Street Singers are members of WINC (Witches In Natural Colors) and worship the spectrum. Mickey's new husband is a catheter salesman, and Mickey reignites her musical career singing catheter songs at a medical supplies trade show.

It's hilarious in a strange, courteous way, respecting the memory of the folk era and those of us who loved it. But what astonished me the most was how good the all-new songs were, and how well they captured the folkie feel of 1966. The melodies are wonderful, the harmony something you almost never hear anymore. The lyrics are occasionally over the top, but for the most part they are faithful to the genre. In "Old Joe's Place" we hear:

There's a puppy in the parlor and a skillet on the stove
And a smelly old blanket that a Navaho wove.

There's popcorn in the popper and a porker in the pot,
There's pie in the pantry and the coffee's always hot.
There's chicken on the table but ya gotta say grace...
There's always somethin' cookin' at old...Joe'!

Is this really any sillier than "The Man Who Never Returned"? Hardly. The folk era liked to laugh, much more than music does today, except perhaps for country. (Another song, "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon" is much, much sillier.) There are seven or eight completely original folk songs in the film, and every one is a winner. The final number, in which Mitch and Mickey finally get past their decades-old differences and reach a rapprochement through their song "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" brought tears to my eyes.

Best film we've seen in quite a while. Here's the site and the trailer. Don't miss it.
May 15, 2003:

Linux is getting scary good. I bought Red Hat 8 when it came out, and failed to install it on my E-Z Go mini-machine, because the manufacturer appears to be in Microsoft's pocket and absolutely refuses to support Linux or allow anyone else to. So that's now my XP lab machine, and that's cool, for while I don't use XP on a daily basis, I need to understand it and have it available to test things on, especially wireless things.

But I digress. I spent an hour on the Gnome Web site today, reading up on the recent 2.2 release. Linux itself has long been mature enough to satisfy me. What stands in Linux's way these days is the desktop, and if the desktop gets good enough, the whole shape of the industry will change. Well, I think the change may be starting. It's a rare day that I don't hear of some third-world government moving over entirely to Linux, and not just for the local ubergeeks, but also for ordinary government clerical types, who aren't famous for their willingness to learn new things or difficult things, or (lord knows) difficult new things.

The last time I tested Gnome, I called it a damned good start. Several things bothered me about it, foremost of which was its stone-age font support. Fonts matter to publishers, and without good font management Gnome was at best a curiosity for me. That was then—now there is what looks to be stunning font support, and Bitstream has apparently donated the Vera family of fonts for distribution with Gnome. What's in it for Bitstream is obscure, but that it's a good thing for Gnome is fersure.

Other Linux-enhancer product/services like Red Carpet (an automatic updater utility and subscription service) intrigue and impress me. I started to itch to try it out, but I'm going to have to wait for a bit. Carol needs a new machine, and once I get around to migrating her to a new Dell, her old box will become my new Linux box, with RH8 and Gnome 2.2. This is a poorly understood but hugely important issue: Keeping a Linux system current is non-trivial, so having a service that updates it automatically is a fine thing indeed. (That assumes it works well. Keep in mind I haven't tried Red Carpet yet. I intend to.)

We are getting perilously close to the point when Linux/Gnome becomes "good enough" for what a great many ordinary people use computers for. Commercial software houses are developing apps and utilities for the platform, which is something many people doubted would ever happen on a large scale. It's still years away from being my primary platform, but that said, it's still come way farther than I ever thought truly free software could.
May 14, 2003:

Some odd lots for Wi-Fi:

  • In response to several requests for advice on the subject, I've written and posted a how-to for making Wi-Fi directional gain antennas from Swanson's soup boxes. The generic term for the soup box is a Tetra Brik (does anybody remember those cool tetrahedral Tetra-Pak milk containers from the Sixties?) and it just happens to be of a size suitable for acting as a waveguide antenna at 2.4 GHz. You don't need the specific Swanson's box I show, but they're the most common Tetra Briks in US supermarkets.
  • If you haven't already seen my wardriving FAQ, it's here.
  • Esther Schindler sent me a pointer to this news story about how the recent megatornado that trashed Jackson, Tennessee also trashed the only North American Pringle's Potato Chip factory. The only other Pringle's factory in the world is in Belgium. Horrors! Procter & Gamble isn't saying when they will re-open the factory, and admitted that they only have a 6-week supply on hand.
  • In honor of the above tragedy, I bought a can of Pringle's potato chips, and discovered that the can is radically different from the one I dissected last summer. It has a real foil lining that I can test with an ohmmeter. That means that (unlike last summer's can) this one will function as a waveguide antenna. I finished the chips—urrp!—and will tinker up a test unit in coming days.
  • Something a lot of people don't understand: Any Wi-Fi gadget that includes 802.11a support cannot have a detachable antenna. This is in the FCC regs for the 5 GHz NII band; the lowest third of the band is reserved for short-range indoor use, and removable antennas are thus banned. The upper two thirds of the band may be used for point-to-point work, but as the entire band is available for standard AP-client communication, those devices intended for AP-client communication will not have removable antennas. This will include the new dual-band tri-standard units that include 802.11a, b, and g functionality. If tri-standard takes over the market, much of the fun we're having with home-made gain antennas will become a lot more difficult.
  • Jim Mischel mentioned seeing a Web site (and I think I saw it to) describing a wireless mobile router that can operate in a car, connecting to compatible nodes as it comes into range, picking up and dropping off packets during the connection. This sounds a lot like a wireless version of the ancient Fidonet dialup system, but neither of us can remember what it's called nor what it's made of. If any of you recognize the concept, please send me a pointer. That's something I'd like to try.
  • I'm looking for metallic saucer sleds of the sort we used to use back in Chicago. (Remember Chevy Chase's wild ride in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation?) Needless to say, they don't sell a lot of sleds in Arizona, but now that we're back in snow country I'm curious to see how well such a sled would act as a focusing reflector on 2.4 GHz.

May 13, 2003:

Thirty years ago today, I was first licensed as WN9MQY in Chicago. I strung some #22 wire between the two chimneys on our (peculiar) house, and I was off and running, with all the RF power a ratty home-brew 50L6 could muster. Working Indiana was easy; working Ohio took some work, and I almost messed my pants when I worked Rhode Island. Funny how the real reason almost nobody answered my desperate CQs was that I had a T-5 signal, which means that the 60 Hz AC buzz was about as strong as the 7 MHz carrier. Once I got a real transmitter I worked 38 states in no time. Since then I've worked all but a couple of states (Wyoming eludes me) and 18 countries, and have held calls WB9MQY, KB2JN, KI6RA, KG7JF, and now K7JPD. I would probably have worked over 100 countries and all states by now, but for me the joy in ham radio has always emerged more from building radios rather than just using them.

Ham radio is in kind of a doldrums right now, caught between the pincers of boredom and deed restrictions. Boredom, because today's radios are so good that they require virtually no skill to use and are utter black boxes internally; and with virtually all new residential construction covered by deed restrictions that prohibit not only antennas but (increasingly) use or even ownership of "transmitters" (hey, is that a cell phone on your belt, neighbor?) people just get tired of fighting. The FCC may eventually find the backbone to preempt deed restrictions, but defeating boredom may be a much more nettlesome challenge.

Radio itself remains fascinating. In particular, there is now software radio, in which (ideally) a single piece of hardware can handle all frequencies from low audio to some high-frequency ceiling that grows higher each year as processor speeds increase. The software handles waveform generation, frequency conversion, and modulation; the hardware simply funnels radio signals to software-controllable ADCs.

Slashdot recently aggregated a story on a company's new Linux-powered software radio prototype, which is an interesting compromise between true generality and economic practicality. I'm studying it, but I have an intuition that software radio is a technology that will have a great many nonobvious consequences over the next twenty years. If you can basically download a transceiver from the Web, the FCC will have a great deal of trouble regulating radio communications by granting or witholding type acceptance. I know so little about it yet that I can't say a great deal more than that, but it's well worth watching.

30 years ago, tubes were still predominant in radio transmitters. Today, we're close to the point at which electronics itself becomes incidental to radio technology. That is a mind-blower—at least to minds that first learned to love radio in the 1960s.
May 12, 2003:

I have some history in robotics, though that history is getting a little old these days. In 1966 I won my 8th grade science fair with a 1-transistor robot that could follow a line on the floor or a flashlight beam pointed at it. In 1980 Carol and I were in Look magazine with Cosmo Klein, my 1802-powered robot with an animated TV face and motorized gripping arm. I loved building robots and keep meaning to get back to it. Once I get settled in my new custom-designed mad scientist's workshop (wait'll you guys see it!) I'm intending to start a new one.

Robot books have recently exploded into prominence after decades of sleepy persistence on the market. I picked up Tab's Robot DNA book on drive trains recently and I'm quite impressed. Much nitty-gritty on gear ratios, servos, DC and stepper motors, and multpod locomotion, including H-bridges, pulse-width modulation, and feedback loops. This book would have helped me a lot back in 1978 when Cosmo came together.

I credit Robot Wars with putting robot construction on the map, even though I've always dreamed more of an autonomous crawler that can avoid obstacles and solve simple problems rather than a radio-controlled weapon system. That's tough, though, as even Marvin Minsky has begun to admit. I have to grin when people express surprise at this—why did anyone ever think it would be easy? Hey, tell me first how human intelligence works, and then we can wonder why nobody can replicate it in the lab. The truth is, we have no least clue how the really interesting parts of intelligence function, and those are the parts that most separate us from our fellow animals.

I'll leave that problem and all its attendant arguments to guys like Marvin Minsky. Drive trains are easier. I'm sketching out a creature I call the Artful Dabbler, and someday I may have something to show you. Gotta get the house built first, but it'll happen.
May 11, 2003:

Mother's day. Victoria Albina Pryes Duntemann (1924-2000) gave me a shove and started me on my journey fifty years ago last summer. I honor her here by reflecting that we often remember our parents as old, and frail, probably ill, and very likely suffering, because that's typically how we last see them. That's not fair at all, to take 76 years of vigorous life and recall them at their literal worst. So I'll post this photo, taken about 1927 or 1928, to remember her as her family remembered her, as "little sissie," the baby of a large Polish immigrant family. She is the youngest child shown, in the front row beside my grandmother, looking fretful as she often did. Only two of the souls shown here survive: Benjamin, sitting beside my mother, and Josephine, the girl standing behind Benjamin. At the far right of the top row is my legendary Uncle Louie, and at the far left is the mysterious Aunt Phyllis, who died in childbirth in 1930 and speaks to me on occasion in my dreams. (You can believe that if you want, or not—just don't give me flak for believing it. It's my skull and I'm the ultimate judge of any weird things that happen inside it.)

People, like families, are not places frozen in time, but processes: This sad-faced toddler became a beautiful woman (see my entry for May 13, 2001) who was an artist and a nurse and a spouse and a mother, always a Catholic (though it was a weird and problematic dialect of Catholicism, fersure), rooted in both her ancient culture and her modern country, and courageous in the face of everything except God. (God has already straightened her out on that issue, I'm sure.) And for a short moment in that process she was confused, and silent in her suffering—but that was just one rough stretch along the road from infancy to infinity that we all travel. Better to remember her at many points along the road, because—surprise!—I find myself passing all those points myself, which is a form of kinship that no time, no separation, and no suffering can ever erase.
May 10, 2003:

Some odd lots pertaining to electronics and "junkbox engineering":

  • Michael Covington sent me a pointer to The CK722 Museum, a celebration of 50 years of the first inexpensive transistor sold into the consumer market. I used to build radios with unmarked "floor sweeping" CK722s and 2N107s bought in little bags at Olson Electronics, down at Six Corners in Chicago. Half the time the transistors were bad, but enough worked to keep me from total discouragement. While leads me to:
  • Olson Electronics' monthly sales paper was devoured by preteen electronics geeks in Chicago in 1964, who would read every line because of Olson's brilliant marketing gimmick: Sprinkled here and there throughout the paper, in very fine print, were little notices like "Joe Nobody of Cicero gets $5 of free merchandise." We kept hoping to see our own names there, though I wondered after awhile if all the names were fictitious. Probably. But we still bought lots of parts, and used and re-used them all endlessly, down in the basement. Which leads me to:
  • Just when I had despaired of seeing kids ever build things again, the "Robot Wars" phenom has kids back in the basement bolting motors to odd pieces of junk. I was going to rant against this concept of "robot"—it's basically an armored radio-controlled car—but what the hell. They're in the basement bolting pieces of junk together. That's enough for me. And it leads me to:
  • Floppy the Robot! You can build something like a robot using an unwanted (but functional) 3 1/2" diskette drive. Take a look, guys, it's freaking brilliant. And to close, I point you to:
  • The Semiconductor Museum, which speaks more broadly of 50's transistors and the culture surrounding them. The only thing that can make a Boomer feel older than remembering some of these gizmos is realizing that there is still a hatful of them somewhere out in the garage...

May 9, 2003:

Our great experiment with cell phones as our sole telecomm mechanism is over. We had a landline installed this week. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Cell phones are lousy. We had connection dropouts, scrambled audio, and fidelity so bad it wanted to give me headaches. Plus, if anybody calls us we pay for the airtime. That's just nuts.
  2. I've started to schedule radio interviews in connection with my book, and I need a real phone to call from. Radio producers agree with me on how lousy cell phones are, and will not put a guest on the air from a cell phone.

I remain puzzled how some people can walk through their livelong days with one of these damned things glued to their ears. We're keeping ours—they do have their uses—but we will be using the landline whenever possible.

By the way, if you're in LA, listen for me tomorrow morning on the Digital Village Radio show, with Ric and Doran. It's on KPFK radio, 90.7 FM. My portion of the show begins at 10:30 AM Pacific time, on Saturday, May 10. It's the first of four radio appearances over this weekend. Later tomorrow, I'll also be on Andy Taylor's show TechTalk Radio, on KTKT 990 AM, in Tucson. TechTalk Radio has a Web site where you can hook up and stream the show to your computer no matter where you are. I'll be on at 2:35 PM Pacific time.
May 8, 2003:

Today is the feast of the original gonzo optimist, Lady Julian of Norwich, my patron saint-without-the-badge. (See my entry for May 8, 2001 for more on her, or this site.) The Roman Church denied her sainthood because she dared to suggest that God was profoundly and fundamentally merciful and would ultimately save everyone. In addition to her much-quoted insistence that the universe would have a happy ending ("All manner of thing will be well") she weighed in against the sin of scruples, and perhaps shines a little insight on the most peculiar battle of Faith against Works that has darkened so many people's vision of Christianity since the Reformation.

A passage from David Allan White's massive Anglican Sacramentary and Gradual is worth considering. People as fundamentally sane as C. S. Lewis have driven themselves half-nuts worrying about whether they were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, basically turning the Christian path into a minefield. David writes:

She [Julian] was concerned that sometimes when we are faced with a difficult moral decision, it seems that no matter which way we decide, we will have acted from motives that are less then completely pure, so that neither decision is defensible. She finally wrote: "It is enough to be sure of the deed. Our courteous Lord will deign to redeem the motive."

In other words, Do your best to act in a Christian manner, and don't fret the details. Why we perform good works is much less important than simply performing them. Scruples destroyed my mother, and tormented many others in her family. We can never be perfect—we must, nonetheless, continue to strive, and that's all God expects of us.
May 7, 2003:

Back in 1986, I had my two big telescope mirrors realuminized at a small aluminizing shop in Baltimore. The guy who ran the shop did a lot of work for "unnamed government agencies" and seemed pretty flush for somebody with probably 900 square feet of crufty workshop behind a cigar store. He spent his entire day with a respirator on, because his job was vaporizing aluminum, and he didn't want to inhale the inevitable aluminum dust. His big fear was that aluminum causes Alzheimer's Disease.

We have no idea what actually causes Alzheimer's, but we have noticed a correlation between Alzheimer's and aluminum. The brains of autopsied Alzheimer's patients are loaded with aluminum. the aluminum concentration a cause or an effect? We simply don't know.

This is a major problem in medical science today, and something that I think the public should be educated about: Correlation does not imply causation. For decades we've been told that eating fat causes arteriosclerosis, because there are fatty deposits blocking the arteries of heart disease sufferers. The assumption was that fat inevitable settles out in your veins if you eat fat, so for those decades we've been told to erase fat from our diets, and subsist on bread and pasta. (Go look at your "food pyramid," which basically directs us to eat grains plus debris.) I shook my head yesterday walking down the aisles at the local Wild Oats, a health food store that should rename itself CarbMart.

There is clearly a correlation between fat and arteriosclerosis, but where's the causation? I'm reading more and more research indicating that the root cause of arteriosclerosis is inflammation of the cardiovascular system. (Here's a concise summary of that view, with some details from the Merck manual.) We're coming to the conclusion that such inflammation causes (for reasons not fully understood) fatty plaque to collect inside arteries. No inflammation, no plaque, and all the fat you can eat won't affect your arteries. Vegans do generally better than beefeaters not because vegetarian diets prevent heart disease, but because they just have less fat in their systems to settle out into inflamed arteries. On the other hand, vegans whose blood sugar gets too high get it anyway, because high blood sugar levels cause inflammation. (Sorry, no meat, but please pass the corn syrup!) Another big artery-inflamer is cortisol, the stress hormone. Type A's may get heart attacks because they insist on living at the leading edge of everything, and bathe their veins in cortisol 24/7.

There is a maddening tangle of interwoven causes and effects at play here: Abdominal fat stresses the pancreas and causes stubborn high blood sugar levels, diabetes and ultimately arteriosclerosis, but the problem is less the fat than the inflammation caused by high blood sugar. Exercise may prevent heart disease by lowering cortisol levels—and so can meditation. The much-slandered Atkins diet (and related regimens like The Zone and Sugarbusters) probably indirectly prevent heart disease by keeping blood sugar low.

Yes, it can make you nuts, but it's reality: We know far less about medicine than we claim. I'll readily admit that it's entirely possible that inflammation is a correlation but not a cause, and the real cause runs even deeper. Still, I'm taking a baby aspirin every other day and waiting for better science.
May 6, 2003:

Although the general reaction to my Wi-Fi book has been enthusiastic, a couple of people have grumbled that I unnecessarily diss a) the Pringle's Can antenna, and b) Yagi antennas in general. On the first objection, well, you can put a quarter-wave injector spike into the side of a Pringle's can and it will radiate, assisted by the metal bottom of the can to act as a reflector. However, the can itself is cardboard. It cannot act as a waveguide, and any tin can of a suitable diameter will leave a cardboard can in its dust. This isn't an opinion of mine. It's physics. Live with it.

As for Yagi antennas, well, the whole idea in this particular book was to maximize Wi-Fi signal gain per unit of newbie workshop effort out in the garage, and for that you can't beat a tin-can antenna. Yagi antennas have a disadvantage that I've seen very little about on the Web: They're balanced antennas, and the coaxial pigtails used to carry Wi-Fi signals are unbalanced feedlines. To feed signal from coaxial cable into a Yagi antenna requires the addition of a gizmo called a balun (from "BALanced to UNbalanced") between the coax and the antenna. (Yes, you can use a gamma match as well, but that's no less work.) Making a balun, like making a Yagi antenna itself, requires a lot of hacksaw work, measurement with an accurate caliper or micrometer, and filing and sanding to get things to size (generally within a millimeter of their calculated dimensions) before soldering it all together. You can build a sloppy Yagi that is somewhat less work, but it's also a lot less effective.

In short, I understand and respect Yagis, but this wasn't the book to explain how to make them. I'm considering writing such a book, but it'll have to wait until I get my workshop out of boxes. I'm interested in putting a string of directors ahead of a biquad radiator to see how well that will work, but that will take real tools and my (currently buried) drill press. In the meantime I may fool with aluminum foil coated cardboard to increase the effectiveness of Tetra Brik soup box antennas, as I've seen others try on the Web. At least that doesn't take a lot of odd metalwork.

It's an interesting conundrum: People who like my books often gripe at me because they want the books to be something other than what I intended them to be. I can only put so much between two covers, so patience, patience. A Wi-Fi antenna book is definitely in my crosshairs.
May 5, 2003:

I learned something odd yesterday: the etymology of the term "hocus pocus." This still-current term for trickery or (at best) prestidigitation goes back to the Protestantizing of the Christian Church in England, and is a mockery of the Latin words for the Consecration: Hoc est enim corpus meam. ("This is my body.") In Catholic theology, on the intonation of these words during the Mass the bread of the host becomes the Body of Christ in a mysterious way that does not alter the physical characteristics of the bread. A naïve understanding of this transformation (known as transubstantiation) that was common among ordinary people during the Renaissance fed the accusations that the priests of the Roman Church were engaging in some sort of occult magick. Rome, rather like today's Republicans, did almost everything exactly wrong in response to its Protestant accusers, and so lost its 1500-year hold on all of northern Europe.

First the Latin went out of the Mass, and then the Mass went out of the Church, not to reappear in England for some time, and then only in High Church Anglicanism. Much of this could have been avoided, had the Pope done a little more discussing and a lot less stonewalling. Carol and I have been surprised at how like the Catholic Mass the worship services at the higher-church Episcopalian and Lutheran communities has been. Irrespective of how various parties understand the words used in the liturgy, the words are still there, and to us down in the pews, the words still have their beauty. It's almost as though the several churches have met in the middle along the way without anyone noticing, but sometimes progress happens like that—no hocus pocus required.
May 4, 2003:

I hadn't intended to do another entry on spam for awhile, but I got a couple of spams this afternoon from what look like the same chickenboner, even though the AOL addresses were different. Here's the literal text from one of them:

Me,n it is time to g1ve y0ur lad1y what sh.e wants
s1,ze d0'es

I had to grin: Spam is clearly starting to go e. e. cummings. The obvious question for spamkillers is this: Does some new spammer tool insert odd substitute and various breakup characters at different positions for each run? If so (as I suspect) then these idiosyncratic spellings will never appear in quite the same form again, and it's useless to try to filter on them. Again, as I've mentioned before, we must start filtering on the Web sites to which these messages point, in this case The real challenge, then, is not how to filter on embedded URLs (which is half a hair less than trivial) but how to gather and distribute spammer domains to users of a filtering system.

Ok now, no more spam postings for awhile.
May 3, 2003:

Odd lots gathered since we moved to Colorado:

  • Water boils at 191° in Colorado Springs. (6200' where we live.) Carol measured it with our mercury lab thermometer yesterday.
  • The air is so clean here that the El Paso County government is considering (with the Feds' permission already in hand) suspending emissions testing on vehicles to save money. There's almost no "smokestack" industry in the Springs, and the cars are mostly new. Or maybe it's just good luck. Or something.
  • The water in Colorado Springs is in the top 5 best in the country among major cities. I can drink it right out of the tap. Haven't been able to do that since we lived in Baltimore in 1986.
  • Reader Kyle McAbee tells me (as I suspected) that you can still get what amounts to a Northgate Omni keyboard (see my entry for May 1, 2003) from Creative Vision Technologies. $150, whew!
  • Nice article on Boardwatch summarizing some of the issues in the music sharing conflict. Not mentioned: If the RIAA kills Kazaa, that system's users will jump to Freenet and bring Freenet to a critical mass, and Freenet has been designed specifically to avoid attacks of this kind. Suppressing Kazaa will be difficult, and suppressing Freenet may well be impossible.
  • I remember using a Delphi component once that was an edit field bound to a pic button so that when you clicked on the button, a file browse dialog appeared, and when you selected a file, its full path and filename would replace the text in the edit field. I can't find it anymore, and it must have been several releases of Delphi ago. Does anybody remember what that component was and where it came from? I could use it in something I'm building.
  • Reader George Ewing reminds us that popping up to 65 miles altitude may get you to space, but it doesn't get you to orbit—and orbit is where all the interesting things happen. So "pop-ups" like Burt Rutan's Space Ship 1 (see my entry for April 22, 2003) are much less useful than they may seem on the surface. Worse, getting into orbit isn't have as tough as getting out of it—alive. Delta-v is a heartless bitch. Gets you coming and going!

May 2, 2003:

Arguably the weirdest and most difficult concepts in all theology (and perhaps in all philosophy of any kind) is that of free will. My intuition tells me that it is the lynchpin attribute of humanity, and I have driven myself half-nuts trying to figure out what it is and what it means and all that it implies. My personal position (supported mostly by that intuition) is that our free will is radical. Only be postulating radical free will can I accept the absence of God's direct action against evil without falling into despair.

In short form, it runs like this: God allows us to be free, even when all of us sometimes use that freedom badly, and some of use it as a tool for terrible evil. God also allows the created world its freedom, which is why diseases, tornados, earthquakes, and rattlesnakes cause injury and death. Why does God do this? That's a nutcracker of a question, but (again) my intuition is that God wants friends or even (dare I say it?) lovers, and not just pets. I want to sit on a comfy chair across from God and talk about Cosmic Issues, not just sit in His lap and purr. Maybe that's naive ambition. On the other hand, I feel it as a genuine desire: I love this fine creation; I'd love even more to hang out with the Guy who put it all together.

I differ most radically from many of my Christian brethren in believing that God didn't create us whole and perfect, a state from which we fell after conversations with a crooked stockbroker. ("Perfect" is actually a term I have trouble applying to anyone but God Himself.) God created us innocent and rough, like a slab of marble torn out of the Earth, and He is gradually polishing us toward perfection across countless ages and worlds unknown and currently unknowable. This is why I believe in Purgatory, but not Hell: I believe that there is a process underway, through which we are passing whether we understand it or not. Christ came to us to make the whole thing possible and show us the path, but we have to choose the path and go that whole awful distance by our own free will. There can be no transformation of a human soul that does not ultimately come from within, otherwise free will is a myth and a cruel joke. God beckons, but we have to follow.

If there was a Fall, it was something entirely different. Perhaps eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a metaphorical way of saying that at some point in our dim prehistory, some primate who had been born an animal, free in obliviousness, faced an interesting choice: To be aware of his/her own conditions and actions—and their (sometimes bloody) consequences. After that, notions like "right" and "wrong" suddenly had meaning, and we were off on the long and painful road toward our places on God's comfy sectional couch, where the conversation is always good and the chips don't clog your veins.

We are free to pursue or to reject God's process, but God waits patiently, knowing (as we do not) that there is, from the standpoint of eternity, an interesting consequence of radical freedom: Given enough time, we will try all modes and all paths, and sooner or later (some of us sooner, some of us way later) we will choose God's way, all of us. Then the real party begins. See ya there!
May 1, 2003:

May day! May day! My keyboard is filthy! (Well hey, c'mon: It's May Day and my keyboard is filthy! Did I say it was an emergency?) I looked down in disgust at my keyboard the other day, as I have periodically over the past year or so, and I decided that I wasn't going to take it anymore. The top row of keys, in particular, were veritably coated in greasy black stuff, which I confess is just ten years of accumulated Jeff skin oil and Arizona dust. The photo of my humble "2" key doesn't quite capture it somehow. It was gross. Like, man, really gross.

So I've begun spring cleaning. The Northgate Omni 102 keyboards came with a little implement, something like a potato whipper with too few loops, for pulling off the key caps without destroying them. So one by one, typically as something else is going on (like printing the Turbo Power FlashFiler documentation) I yank the dirty caps, run them under the faucet, put some SoftScrub on the ball of my thumb, and rub them until they're clean. Then I rinse them thoroughly, blow the water out from underneath, and snap them back in place. So far, everything still works. On the other hand, this is a Northgate Omni.

The wild part, I guess, is that I've been using this same keyboard for almost ten years. (My records show that it'll be ten years in August.) I've become so attached to the Northgate feel that I have two more in boxes in the basement, awaiting the day when this one dies. This one, however, simply will not die, and I'm fine with that. And even if they all died (and if history is any guide, I expect this one will outlast me) there's a company making an equivalent, though I'll have to search to find the URL. And they're available on eBay, and probably always will be. Supposedly there are still NOS (New Old Stock) keyboards out there for sale. I'm surprised they haven't sold out years ago.

Maybe I shouldn't be. Last year, when Michael Abrash and his family were visiting us out in Arizona, his teenage daughter Emily did some work at my computer, and commented on how odd the keyboard felt, and asked why anyone would put up with such a thing. Michael and I, of course, understand completely: We learned how to type on something called a typewriter, which you young-uns have never seen, but I suspect there may be pictures on the Web somewhere. (Use Google.) Fewer and fewer of us typewriter-weaned oldsters remain, and so the appeal of the Northgate diminishes, even as the keyboards themselves move into the second decade of what may be an extremely long life.