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May 31, 2005: Linux UIs and the Baby Duck Effect

I have the two 'Ubuntus running side by side in Virtual PC vm's now, and as hard as I've tried to like Ubuntu, I just can't get into it as much as Kubuntu. The only serious difference between the two is the user interface: Ubuntu uses Gnome, and Kubuntu uses KDE. I don't think it's any serious deficiency in Gnome. I suspect it's nothing more than the fact that KDE seems more familiar to me.

This has been my contention for a long time now: In general, the differences among UIs are far less important than how familiar a given UI is to a given individual. I had to work a little to make the jump from Windows NT 3.51 (which had the Win31 UI) to NT 4 (which had the familiar Windows 9x/2K UI) but now Windows seems the most natural thing in the world. I have some quibbles (like Ctrl-A selecting the whole document—some village's UI is missing an idiot) but overall it does what I need, and I'm good at it.

I was also reasonably good at the Xerox Alto, and an ace at the Xerox Star. (I informally taught it to the rest of my department, in fact.) I haven't done a lot of Mac work, but when I first tried Bruce Schneier's Mac in his dorm room back in late 1984, it was relatively easy—not because it was somehow inherently superior, but because I had so much time in grade on the Xerox UIs that it was based on.

This may be another manifestation of the Baby Duck Effect, which is a form of preconscious intellectual imprinting: The first in a class of whatevers that you get good at is the whatever that you will always be good at, and consider to be the best. Pascal was the first language I was ever really good at, though I had worked in FORTH, APL, FORTRAN, 1802 and 8080 assembly, and some odd in-house Xerox languages before I first saw Pascal in 1979. Therefore I imprinted on Pascal, and doubt I will ever love anything more, even if I eventually come to (reluctantly) admit that some other language is technically superior.

Multiply this experience times the bazillions of people who now use Windows, and it cooks down to this: The best UI for Linux is something as close as possible (barring litigation) to the current Windows UI. KDE looks more like Windows than Gnome, so it's easier for me to use. It may not be objectively superior—and given that ease-of-use is probably more a matter of experience than Timeless UI Truths (ha!) that's all you have to say.

I am anxious to install and try Linspire, since it seems to be even more Windows-like than KDE. Problem is, the last two times I tried to order it online, the e-commerce system rolled over and died without even putting the damned thing in my cart. (There must be a computer industry village idiots' convention somewhere.) Maybe they have it at CompUSA.

May 30, 2005: Robots in Imax, Egad

I have a long history with robots. When I was a very small child, the two categories of imaginal creature that really interested and, in truth, frightened me were robots and mummies. (On the other hand, that was mostly what they showed in terms of SF/horror movies on Channel 7 circa 1957-58.) There's not much you can do with mummies except watch them on TV, but robots proved to be a very rich field indeed. I built them with my Meccano set and watched them roller-skate under clockwork power across my bedroom floor, and won the 8th grade science fair with a simple photocell/relay box that followed a white line or a flashlight beam. (It was from Popular Electronics: "Emily, the Robot with the One-Track Mind.") In the late 1970s, I built a relatively sophisticated wheel-based computer-controlled mechanical gremlin named Cosmo Klein, which got Carol and me some coverage in the ill-fated Look Magazine. Much or even most of my SF has involved robots or strong AI, which I far prefer to aliens.

So forgive me if I really, really love the animated film Robots, even though it took a shellacking in almost all published reviews. I saw it yesterday for the second time, on the enormous 5-story IMAX screen at the First and Main center. I still love it, and if you haven't seen it yet, definitely rent it once it breaks DVD.

The film is a goodhearted adventure set in an imaginary world where everything, and I mean everything, is a robot. The plot is conventional: A young, idealistic robot named Rodney Copperbottom strikes out from sleepy Rivet Town to the immense Robot City to get an audience with the legendary Mr. Bigweld, whose TV show advises young robot geeks to keep having good ideas: "Find a need, and fill it!" Rodney has built a remarkable little flying robot pet to help his father (who is—literally—a dishwasher in a—literally—greasy spoon restaurant) and wants to show it to Mr. Bigweld. On the way he runs into a gang of beat-up, unemployed robots led by the manic Fender (voiced by Robin Williams) and ends up rooming with them in Robot City's slums.

Alas, Mr. Bigweld has been coopted by the villainous megacorporate shark Ratchet, and kicked upstairs, where he absently topples strings of dominoes for amusement while longing for the Good Old Days of idealistic inventing. Ratchet wants to trap all the robots in the world with a monopoly on upgrades (hoo-wee! Do we smell metaphor here or what?) and send those who can't afford shiny new upgrade parts to a scrapyard owned and operated by his mother, who looks and acts like a mechanical Shelob in a grim robot hell full of diamond saws and furnaces.

Rodney incenses Ratchet by repairing broken robots so that they don't need upgrades, and it's ultimately Ratchet's scrapyard goons against Rodney and an army of mismatched, rusty, paint-chipped heroes in a wonderful climactic battle scene in the scrapyard.

It's not as clever as Monsters, Inc. or Shrek, but it's very engaging, and what it lacks in plot it makes up with one-liners flashing past with machine-gun rapidity. (A robot fireplug tells a robot dog: "Don't even think it!") Some of the humor is dumb, and I could have used a lot fewer fart jokes, but overall it was funny, warm, and probably more manic than any other film I've ever seen. Everything is constantly in motion, and on the immense IMAX screen, Rodney's early Rube Goldberg-style Cross-Town Express ride through Robot City made me dizzy. The whole robot world and everything in it are visually gorgeous in a sort of universal retro way; I read elsewhere that Rodney himself was inspired by a baby-blue Fifties Evenrude outboard motor.

After a long dry spell, robots are big again, thanks to TV shows like Robot Wars. If you like robots as a concept, you'll love Robots as a film, and even if you don't, it's superb kid fare. (No death, no cleavage, nothing beyond silly slapstick violence.) I remember being six years old vividly enough to be sure of that—and if you spot it on IMAX, well, it's a no brainer. Highly recommended.

May 29, 2005: Ending XP Hostage-Taking

I don't mind paying for software. What I don't like is software that takes my hardware hostage. This is why I can never use XP for my workaday computing, especially work that contributes to my income: Not only does XP require activation, it does a hash on your hardware setup, and if you change more than one or two things, the software locks up and you have to play an idiotic game of "mother-may-I" with Microsoft to get your hardware back. Don't believe me? Here's how it works, quoted from The Tulsa Computer Society:

If the user reformats the hard drive, and then attempts to reinstall XP, the activation process must be repeated. If the user upgrades the hardware on the computer, then Microsoft uses a “vote” system to determine if XP can continue to function. If almost any hardware component is changed, that is one vote per item, but replacing a network card counts as three votes; the “voting” is cumulative, in that the changes do not have to be made at the same time. Some of the upgrades that change the vote can be as simple as adding memory, installing a new CD or DVD drive, adding a hard drive, or installing a new video card. Once there are seven cumulative “votes”, then the XP must be reactivated with Microsoft by phone. Once reactivated, the codes are reset, and the voting process restarts. Users using the original builds of XP must activate immediately after reaching the “votes” when upgrading hardware, but if the XP Service Pack 1 has been installed, there is a three day grace period for reactivation before XP ceases to function. Obviously, those users who like to tinker with their hardware will likely find this reactivation process another annoyance.

(Heh. To put it mildly.) It's hard to figure why they continue to get away with this (corporatism will make me a Democrat someday if anything will) but it's unfair, unethical, and actually a theft of my time to have to go through this if I'm just fooling with network cards—as I did a lot while writing my last book—but nobody calls the FBI when Microsoft steals from us.

There may be a workaround for part of this problem: Buy a copy of XP and install it on a virtual machine using Virtual PC or VMWare. The trick here is that both products present a standard suite of virtual hardware to guest operating systems, irrespective of what's actually in your physical machine. In other words, even if you change out your video card, what the guest OS sees is a Trio S3 32/64 video card, and so on.

So virtualizing XP may prevent it from locking up when you swap out a network card, but the downside is that you're not really testing XP's interaction with that card, but only with an emulation of a much more generic Ethernet card. It might help me test software under XP, but not hardware. It does solve the problem of reinstalling the OS after a malware attack or some other massive failure: Just take a snapshot of the "fresh" install and stick it on a DVD somewhere. If you need to reinstall, just copy the snapshot over your damaged instance.

There are some wrinkles. Virtual PC apparently can tell when you install the same XP CD into more than one virtual machine, so don't expect to have multiple instances of XP installed at the same time. (Not sure if VMWare is similarly careful, and it's unclear how much I really want to know.)

But boy, the more I learn about XP, the better I like Win2K.

May 28, 2005: Xen, Hypervisors, and the Demotion of the OS

Every now and then I find myself off in a corner, playing with some new techie toy, unaware that that same toy is about to completely reshape the industry. It happened with Wi-Fi, and it looks like it's about to happen with OS virtualization. I bought a copy of Microsoft's Virtual PC, and found it fascinating enough to pick up a copy of its only serious competitor, VMWare Workstation 5. Hoo-boy! Suddenly I have six or seven virtual machines chewing up space on my hard disk (which, fortunately, has 200 GB for chewing) and with 2 GB of RAM to divvy up, I can have at least four of them running at once without any perceptible bogging. As I write this, in addition to my host instance of Win2K, I have Win98SE, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and a guest instance of Win2K, all playing nice in their own RAM sandboxes and apparently not running with scissors.

We're still deciding what to call them; the generic term for things like VirtualPC and VMWare Workstation can be virtualizer or virtual machine manager, depending on whom you talk to. Both install under Windows, which acts as a "host" operating system. "Guest" operating systems can then be installed "inside" virtual machines created by Virtual PC or VMWare.

There's another player that I find, in some respects, even more interesting: The hypervisor, which is a kind of meta-operating system, i.e., an OS for running and managing multiple OSes. A virtual machine manager requires a host OS to work. The key difference involves who does the hardware abstraction: VMMs use the host OS's hardware drivers, and create a second hardware abstraction layer over the OS drivers. Hypervisors do their own hardware abstraction. With one less layer for execution to wriggle through, hypervisors have the edge in performance, but there's a catch: There can only be one Lord of Ring 0. Protected mode operating systems are used to being at the highest privilege level. A VMM has to share that highest privilege level with the OSes that it's ostensibly managing. Doing so requires some low-level trickery that sounds dicey to me, though I will admit, the two VMMs I have running right now not only share Ring 0 with Win2K, they share it with one another as well. Wow.

A hypervisor demotes its guest operating systems to Ring 1, which is difficult to do unless an OS was written to surrender Ring 0 in the presence of a hypervisor. A fascinating open source product out of Cambridge called Xen is being created as this sort of cooperative hypervisor. (Some call it a paravirtualizer, but sheesh, do we need yet another new word?) Xen will work with OSes written to recognize and defer to Xen. So far, this is mostly versions of Linux and BSD, but major software vendors including HP, Red Hat, and IBM have indicated that they will create Xen-aware products. (Needless to say, Windows isn't on the list, because MS—natch—has its own server VMM and may build virtualization into Longhorn.) Xen uses the I/O in one of its guest OSes so it doesn't duplicate functionality. It's managed to stay very "thin"—only about 25,000 lines of code at this time.

Of course, without being able to hypervise Windows, Xen may be exiled to the server room, but in truth, server consolidation is where most of the market is. I've heard of a few other similar projects, like Stanford's Terra, and I'll report on them once I research them a little. In the meantime, if you're technically inclined, this slide show is a good place to start.

More later.

May 27, 2005: Why Don't Roman Catholics Go To Mass?

Is nobody going to Roman Catholic Mass anymore? And if not, why not? The conventional wisdom is that attendance at Roman Catholic Mass is in freefall in the US. Different parties have different explanations. There's a very funny book, Why Catholics Can't Sing by Thomas Day, laying out the theory that Roman Catholic culture has surrendered to a sort of 70s bad taste, in its church architecture, its liturgical music, and the liturgy itself. Day is a wry critic, but I've lived through the same eras that he has, and methinks he exaggerates a little. In truth, most Masses prior to Vatican II had no music at all, except for sung High Mass, which almost everyone avoided if they could. (To me, Latin sounds better spoken than sung.) The Mass music vacuum sucked up what it could when music became a commonplace at every Mass in the 1970s, and what was available was, well, so-so. Besides, the bad taste in Catholicism has pretty faithfully tracked bad taste in the larger American culture. It's a great book, at which most Catholics will grin (painfully) but what Day describes is not the core problem.

Catholic Traditionalists blame it all on Vatican II, which did away with Latin (making it illegal within the church, in fact, which was a terrible mistake) turned the altar around, and replaced a beautiful liturgy that nobody could follow with a clumsier one that everyone could follow. I understand why the Tridentine Latin Mass stood almost unchanged for 400 years. It is a work of brilliance. However, is it a good thing to have a liturgy that 95% of Catholics can't understand? For all the praise that the Latin Mass has received, in its heyday many people simply stood or sat when directed and said their rosaries or other prayers, oblivious to the words echoing around their ears. Beautiful, yes. Effective as liturgy, no. But wait—there's another wrinkle, which I'll come back to.

The problem with the Traditionalists' argument is simple: Mass attendance peaked in 1957, and began to decline from that year. Alas, Vatican II didn't begin until 1960, and its changes weren't in full flower until 1965. There was a large and very sharp drop in church attendance in 1968, right after the publication of the infamous anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae, but the plunge leveled off after 1975. Erosion of Roman Catholic Mass attendance has continued, albeit more slowly, to this day. Most of my numbers come from The Catholic Myth (1990) by Andrew Greeley, and Catholic Schools in a Declining Church (1976) by Andrew Greeley, William McCready, and Kathleen McCourt.

A more recent study by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, much circulated on the Web, dug a little deeper and found something interesting: The rate of Mass attendance, by individuals within the same age cohort, had remained fairly steady. Roundly and within certain limits, the older the cohort, the higher the percentage attend Mass every Sunday. The erosion appears to be caused by the inevitable deaths of older Catholics, and their gradual replacement by younger Catholics who do not attend Mass as often or at all.

The real question is therefore: Why do older Catholics attend Mass more regularly than those younger? I have a theory: Catholicism does not suffer rational analysis very well. The experience of sacramental worship is hard to describe and almost impossible to explain. People of my grandparents' generation, many of them Catholic immigrants from Europe (especially Poland and Ireland) received it as part of a culture that gave them little access to higher education. Many could barely read; few were interested in rationally picking apart their culture's theology. It's easy enough to call their Catholicism superstition (and parts of it were) but they had a genuine, preverbal sense for the ineffable that comes straight from the subconscious. (Not surprisingly, the people of my grandparents' generation began to die in great numbers in—you guessed it—1957.) I encountered this sense when I studied meditation, and I recognized it as the "essential ingredient" of the Catholicism of my youth. Fr. Andrew Greeley dubbed it the "sacramental imagination."

As Americans became ever more educated, fewer of them could square Catholic belief (which has its peculiarities, fersure) with a rational, scientific frame of mind. And Catholic belief really doesn't make the same kind of sense that physics does, because it exists with only one foot in the physical world. To really appreciate being a Catholic, you also have to have a touch of the mystic in you. Such a touch came through, if dimly, from our 1950s rosaries and our Latin Masses. Without the words to distract us, we freely accepted the sense of mystery that ties Catholic culture together. Today, we feel compelled to yank the covers off it all to see what's inside. That never works. Mystery is mystery, and it reflects a higher reality that words simply cannot capture.

As I've said elsewhere, most Roman Catholics today don't pay much attention to papal encyclicals, and solid studies show us that few left the Church over the recent priestly abuse scandals. To bring them back to Mass, we have to put more of the mystery back in. We probably don't have to go back to Latin, but we do have to go beyond the limits of words. My great fear is that we have forgotten how, and the sublime sense of Catholic mystery (quite apart from contentious encyclicals and other worldly quibbles) may be lost to us forever.

May 26, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Bob Halloran wrote to tell me that there is a variant of the Ubuntu Linux distro based on KDE rather than Gnome. It's Kubuntu, and the ISO is downloading even as I type. I'm going to put it in a Virtual PC virtual machine and compare it to its Gnome-based brother.
  • Jason Kaczor suggests that if you're really trying to virtualize instances of Linux under Windows and not other instances of Windows, you can use the open source CoLinux. I've not tried it, and it the 0.6.2 version number looks pretty early, but the concept of "cooperative Linux" is fascinating and probably allows greater performance from the several virtualized Linux instances. Reports welcome.
  • My interest in heraldry is linked to my interest in history and not a passion in itself, but Pete Albrecht sent me a link to Lord Kyl's Heraldry, which may be the best free index of heraldic terminology and symbolism on the Web. Here you'll find that a "mullet" is not merely a bad haircut, but also a five-pointed star. It's also the only place I ever saw a woodcut of a rabbit playing the bagpipes, which for reasons lost to history ended up on somebody's coat of arms. Much fun.
  • Several people wrote to tell me that my source for the description of the original "golden fleece" (see my entry for May 16, 2005) got it (mostly) wrong. The ancients would simply sink a sheepskin to the bottom of a shallow, fast-moving stream and keep it there somehow (big stones come to mind) for a period of time. Lanolin in the wool has a peculiar affinity for flakes of metal that it doesn't have for sand or stones, so bits of copper and gold tended to stick to the wool while the water carried sand and pebbles downstream. Something distantly descended from the sheepskin trick is used today to separate bits of metal from crushed rock, by mixing the crushed rock with a small quantity of stearates (the active ingredient in lanolin) and blowing air from the bottom of the tank. The stearates make the water foam from the injected air, bringing the greasy flakes to the surface in the foam, where they are skimmed off mechanically.

May 25, 2005: Rootless Linux

I've installed and used five or six different Linux distros so far, so compared to most Linux geeks I'm a distro neo. (And I admit, most of that experience was on SuSE 9.0.) Ubuntu Linux surprised me a little bit by doing something I had not seen in Linux before: It disables the root account, and does not allow you to log in as root. There is literally no root password. When you boot Ubuntu, you can choose from among any user accounts you have created, but you can't choose root. This is handy in one sense, because when you use a password rarely, you tend to forget it, or write it down where somebody can find it.

On the surface, this is all a good thing. Much of the trouble with Windows these days is that virtually everyone logs in as Administrator (basically, Windows root) and thus any malware that runs also runs as Administrator and thus can do whatever it wants with the machine, including installing itself in ways nearly impossible to remove. Few Linux users routinely run as root, and thus malware has a much tougher time getting to critical mass on Linux systems. Ubuntu makes it impossible to log in as root, as there is no root account. (Intruders who assume a root account will make themselves nuts trying to break in to an account that isn't there.) Users who need root privileges to execute certain commands must work through the sudo command, which asks for your user password and then gives you a 15-minute "ticket" to root privileges. After 15 minutes without executing a command through sudo, you lose those privileges and must enter your user password again to work as root. Bottom line, this means that root privileges will never be available "all the time."

Supposedly this makes Ubuntu a lot more secure. Or does it? When you boot Ubuntu (at least when you boot it in a Virtual PC virtual machine) the grub menu provides you with a menu item for the recovery console. Select that, and Ubuntu will boot into the recovery console, without demanding any password at all, as root. This page from the Ubuntu doc indicates that you must first enter su root and your user password to edit system files, but I edited system files and never saw a password prompt at all. I'm not sure if this is a bug, a consequence of using Virtual PC, or some misunderstanding on my part, but it makes me wonder. Any user can work as root simply by using their user password, and any user can (apparently) reboot into the recovery console and get root privileges without entering a password at all.

I'm researching this, but if I'm missing something obvious, do let me know.

May 24, 2005: Bungling Ubuntu

Microsoft's Virtual PC is a wonderful thing, and I'm having a great deal of fun with it here. It's uncanny seeing Windows 98 itself running in a window under Win2K, but useful: I don't have to dedicate a disk partition to Win98, and if I mess something up during a Win98 session, I can discard any changes made during the session by simply shutting it down without saving state.

There are several problems with virtualization, which as a technology is still in its infancy. (I'll have more to say about the broader issues in future entries.) The chief problem is that you're working with emulation of hardware peripherals (especially video boards) and not the physical hardware itself. No matter what video board you have plugged into your system, OSes running in a virtual PC see an S3 Trio. USB support is limited, and I had some trouble getting my printer to talk to operating systems in virtual PCs. Ironically, networking worked from the get-go and didn't give me any trouble. (That would be the first time!) A virtual PC requests its own local IP from the router and has its own MAC address, even though it's using the same Ethernet hardware as the host machine.

Virtual PC knows about all the various Windows versions (plus DOS and OS/2 Warp) and will give you the best hardware emulation it can without explicit configuration—and what it can do is actually pretty good. Get away from what it knows, however, and there are problems. I got stung today trying to install Ubuntu Linux in a virtual machine. There's a great site that explains which OSes run under Virtual PC and which won't, and it warned me that I had to change the default X11 color depth in Ubuntu from 24 bits to 16. (Why Virtual PC doesn't support 24-bit color remains a mystery.) I couldn't do this before install, and as predicted, X didn't display anything useful once the (2-hour+) install went to completion.

Now, I can get around Linux but I'm not a whiz at X11, and although I could open a console window, I couldn't change parms on X11 without shutting down the nonfunctional but running X server. I still don't know how to do that, and spent a great deal of time trying things. All I had to do was edit xorg.conf with pico, heh. And to do that I had to get a console window before X11 started up. Had I figured out that the recovery boot option in grub worked strictly in text mode (duhh!) I could have saved myself some virtual torn hair. (The physical hair was torn—or otherwise lost—long ago.) Alas, I can store only so many details about rarely used technologies in my head at one time.

Lesson here: Virtualizing operating systems is still deep geek stuff, especially once you jump the fence and get off the expected path. I have VMWare Workstation 5 in a box and will install that shortly. It's a little more mature and less Microsoft-centric, if not as easy to install and use. Look for a report in coming weeks.

One last thing: Ubuntu Linux is damned fine, and it's a good example of a Gnome-based Linux desktop. (Most of what I've worked with heretofore has been KDE.) Definitely give it a shot; if you know a little more about Linux than I do, you'll have no trouble at all, even under Virtual PC.

May 23, 2005: The (Whew!) Final Episode

Saw Episode III last night. Like we used to say in the Sixties, What a rush! A masterful 28-year cycle of storytelling has truly come to a close. Every time I think Hollywood can't top its previous imaginal CGI worlds, somebody else (often Lucas) comes up with better ones.

I hate to say too much about the film's details here, because it's only been open a few days. But there are some brilliant imaginal worlds to see, especially one on an intensely volcanic planet with literal seas of molten lava. Is that even possible? I don't know. I doubt that such a planet would have a breathable atmosphere. But I postulated just such a planet in my (still unpublished) novella Firejammer. It was cool to see somebody with resources and serious skill realize an alien world I imagined thirty years ago and wrote up in 1981. (I'm sure, once I publish Firejammer, that people will accuse me of ripping off Episode III. I guess it just goes with the territory. Those handful of you who have read Firejammer in manuscript will just have to defend me.)

Of course, there are utterly fantastic vistas, cities, starships, air skimmers, droids, battles, and wild-ass manic tearing around. The CGI is unprecedented and utterly convincing. Man, (like my old friend, physicist Bill Higgins always says) this is what computers are for.

So. What works? What doesn't? The background (as mentioned above) is always in motion and often overwhelming. That's OK. I didn't pay $7.25 to be lulled off to sleep. Obi-Wan is very good this time and has a lot more scenes with heart as well as testosterone.

But oh boy, the big star is Yoda. We learn a few things about the little green gnome, and in my opinion, most of the best scenes are his. We learned that he could spin a lightsaber with the best of them in Episode II. He has a few other tricks as well. Just go see it. It's not easy being green (and why does he walk with a cane?) but Yoda has just about become my favorite film alien of all time.

Downside time. Natalie Portman is a total waste—and it really is her and not merely the script. She can't act to save her life, and her scenes are painful to watch. The real problem is twofold:

  1. Hayden Christiansen is a lousy actor; at best half a notch better than Portman. When they were together on screen I generally had an uncontrollable urge to go buy sugar and make myself crazy.
  2. Worse, his transformation from Anakin to Darth Vader is absolutely unconvincing. Going from someone raised to have high standards of personal behavior to someone who can kill innocents without remorse takes (at minimum) a fair amount of time, and a lot more brainwashing than we see here. I just didn't buy it. Being a spoiled snot whose ass you'd pay big to kick is relatively easy. Being the galaxy's second-worst bad guy is not. World-class evil takes practice. No practice here. Just boom! and he's killing everybody in sight.

In some respects this was a profoundly odd film experience. Through most of the film, what I was doing was checking off line items from a mental list of loose ends that had to be tucked to make this film mesh with Episodes IV-VI. In terms of loose end tucking, Episode III has no rival in the history of film. I respect a guy who can do that; I tucked a lot of ends in plotting The Cunning Blood, and it was probably the toughest part of the whole effort. Once the twins were exported to their respective planets, well the ends were tucked and it was time to go home.

Don't let me dissuade you; I'd praise the film's internals in more detail but I don't want to post any spoilers this early in the game. Go see it. The (retch barf) love scenes between Padme and Anakin are good times to go hit the bathroom or buy sugar, but the rest of the time you will be nailed to your seat—and no, that's not just the spilled Jujubes!

May 22, 2005: Sunbathe to Beat Skin Cancer?

Sometimes you can't win for losing. Carol pointed me at some articles (of which this is the best) indicating that habitually staying out of the sun and slobbering yourself completely with sunscreen may actually increase your risk of skin and perhaps other cancers. Vitamin D (which the body generates mostly during exposure to the sun) has recently been shown to be a potent cancer preventive. Stay out of the sun and you don't generate much Vitamin D, which is notoriously difficult for some people to absorb from oral supplements. Don't get enough Vitamin D, and you increase your risk of various cancers.

Some people won't believe this because they assume that in health, good is always good, and bad always bad. (If sunlight is ever bad, it's always bad; if fat is ever harmful, it's always harmful, and so on.) It's not always that simple; in fact, my guess is that it's rarely that simple. Add to this my longstanding contention that we actually know very little about how the body really works and what consitutes healthy living (and are in denial about much that we learn; e.g. Atkins) and you have a recipe for the sort of "medical McCarthyism" described in the article quoted above. (A medical researcher was dismissed for suggesting that modest exposure to the sun may act against skin cancer.)

Me, I'm astonished at how vehement some of my friends are about how effective certain things can be in promoting health, and how in denial they are about the grim truth that you can do worse than your genes, but not better. No, it's not fair. Biology never is.

Worse, some diets and drugs work for some people and not for others. If you don't have enough testosterone, you will have huge difficulty building muscle through exercise. Many people are doomed (for reasons we utterly do not understand) to have high cholesterol absent large quantities of drugs that are brand new and not tested for rest-of-your-life side effects. Some people tolerate carbs better than others. Carbs make some people fat (me, for instance) and fat makes some other people fat. This is why I contend in contrarian fashion that all diets are total bullshit, as are all vitamin fetish programs. (I.e., "mega" anything.) If you have a deficiency, you'll know it. Get what you need—but get used to the fact that piling on more won't make you healthier.

My own 9-point program, distilled from 53 years of life and paying attention to how I look and feel, cooks down to this:

  1. Exercise moderately as often as you can. Do both aerobics and strength training. Don't go nuts with either.
  2. Eat less of everything. We as a culture and a society just eat too damned much.
  3. Get a little sun every day. (Emphasis on "a little.") This is hard in places like Seattle, so catch it while you can.
  4. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel. If you feel shitty after eating broccoli or whole corn, stop. Not all foods are good for everyone. I largely gave up sweets mostly becaue I feel lousy after I eat them. Ditto white bread, whole corn, cabbage, beans, and peas. I don't eat them (or eat them rarely; I like white bread!) and I feel better.
  5. Sleep at least eight hours a night. Don't say "I don't need that much sleep." You do. If you're too busy to sleep eight hours, you have a choice of simplifying your life or being healthy. Choose one.
  6. Find an emotional outlet. Journaling works very well for me, probably because I'm a writer. Support groups can help too. Just getting together to BS with close friends can be hugely therapeutic. Don't suffer in silence. (This can also help you sleep.)
  7. Get yourself looked at now and then. Pay attention to your family or ethnic vulnerabilities.
  8. Simplify your life. Then simplify it some more.
  9. Be connected. Have a loving spouse or good friends, have community, find a way to have meaning in your life. Mon dieu, consider going to church. Another way of putting this is: Belong to someone. Belong to something. Belong to Someone.
More than that, you can't do. The sun's out. Put down those zinc pills and go ride your damned bike!

May 21, 2005: Sunny Arabs vs. the Shelties in Bighead

Who hasn't done a spellcheck on a document and then (by mistake or naivete) told the checker to accept all suggestions? Yes, but that was so 1990s. (And early 1990s at that.) So what did I see in yesterday's Colorado Springs Gazette but the following text on their front page headline story, syndicated from the New York Times:

Even so, it was a gesture of warmth toward Iran, which has long sought formal recognition of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against it during the war, and underscored how the political landscape here has shifted, with Iraqi Shelties, many of whom spent years in exile in Iran, now running the government.

The statement is not likely to sit well with Iraq's Sunny Arabs, who ran the country for decades but have been largely left out of the National Assembly, which will draft the new constitution, since they boycotted national elections in January. Shelties control the government for the first time in modern Iraqi history, and Sunny Arabs, isolated politically, have begun to chafe under their rule.

Sunny resentment has hardened recently, with a leading Sunny cleric accusing a government militia, made up largely of Shelties, of carrying out mosque raids and killings. Thursday, two Sunny groups called for the temporary closing of dozens of Bighead mosques as a protest.

"People will not accept it," said Sale Mukluk, a member of the National Dialogue Council, a coalition of Sunny Arab political leaders, of the admission of responsibility for the war. Historians still debate the precise reasons for the start of the war in 1980. It began during the Iranian revolution, and some experts say the new Iranian leader at the time, Ayatollah Royally Khomeini, agitated for a religious war to incite Iraqis large Shate population to rebellion.

Others have accused Sadden of starting the war, saying he was seeking to capitalize on the chaos in Iran to overturn a 1975 agreement that fixed what he considered an unjust border in the Shate Al Arab, the waterway the two countries share at its southern end, and to seize the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzistan.

A U.N. inquiry after the war assigned responsibility for the start of the war to Sadden, said Frieda Fairy, a professor of Iranian politics at the University of Hawaii.

(The article can also be found here, as the NYT starts charging $3 a pop for its articles after they're a week old.) The main booboos are obvious, but poor Saleh Mutlak got his name turned into a poster for the first Wal-Mart in the Yukon, and Farideh Farhi became Frieda Fairy. The speller probably left things like Khuzistan alone because it couldn't think of any suggestions. Best of all, we have Sadden Hussein, without whom the world would have been quite as, well, saddened. Irony is where you find it, heh.

May 20, 2005: Odd Lots

  • We opened the Spatburgunder Spatese last night (see my entry for May 17, 2005) and I would call For a pinot noir (which is what "spatburgunder" means in German) it's bland and gutless, with far less fruit than a pinot should have, and a faint but annoying metallic tang in the background. It's about as sweet as the far superior native-Colorado Roadkill Red, which is to say about as sweet as your typical white zin, or maybe a hair sweeter. We've also tried Eclipse Red from the same winery, and while it was tasty we found it too sweet for anything but dessert.
  • In researching the Dove Foundation (see yesterday's entry) I found some evidence that exempt telemarketers (like political groups and charities) are buying Do Not Call lists and using them as verified phone lists, much like spammers compile lists of people who ask to be removed from lists. My view is that telemarketing should always be illegal, no matter who's calling. Why should charities or moron party flacks be exempt?
  • Pertinent to the above, when the Democrats call me, I feign cold, barely controlled fury and tell them I always vote Democratic but will vote Republican next time if they choose to disturb my evenings. When the Republicans call I say the same thing, only with the parameters reversed. I hope this rattles enough of the poor deluded phone drones so that they'll find better jobs, but no, I have no serious illusions that it will work.

May 19, 2005: Doves Are Not in Season, Alas

I got another call today from the mystery telemarketer who wanted to speak to "the lady of the house." (See my entry for May 4, 2005.) I tried to say "this is she" but the machine didn't buy it and said good-bye. I have to practice my squeaky Frankie Valli voice a little before the next one comes in so I can work my way through their telemarketer maze and get a sense for its extent.

However, to my astonishment, Caller ID said "Dove Foundation" and gave me the number from which they were calling: 616-361-2855. This allowed me to do a little Web research. The Dove Foundation ostensibly gathers funds to help sanitize TV shows and movies so that little kids can get all the violence they can slurp without the hideous risk of seeing anything remotely resembling sex. The "Benji" doof, Joe Camp, did something like this fifteen or twenty years ago, by carving up and re-releasing Fifties flicks like the innocuous and sentimental Martin/Lewis romp, Three Ring Circus (1954). Supposedly "re-edited for the family" what he mostly did (as a reviewer in the local free paper said at the time) was "cut out the cleavage." Alas, this made the film almost incoherent, which clearly matters less to people of Camp's stripe than the cleavage.

They're quite well-known as telemarketers, and because they're incorporated as a charity, they are immune to the legal restrictions of the Do-Not-Call list. (Read this too.) The Better Business Bureau does not consider them a legitimate charity. I'm not experienced in reading nonprofit financial data, but the BBB report shows zero dollars for fundraising. Does this mean that working the phones consumes all the money the rubes send them? If so, why isn't this considered a species of fraud?

It's nominally "Christian" organizations like this which make "Christian" a dirty word in many circles. The solution to this sort of nonsense is (what a notion!) to be a parent to your children: Check out movies before you take (or send) them, and keep an eye on what they're watching on TV. Letting a gang of sleazy telemarketers be a proxy parent to your kids says something about your abilities as a parent, and I'll leave it to you to discern what.

May 17, 2005: In Hock to German Wines

My sister gave me a little box of imported English candy the other day (we're still in Chicago visiting) called "wine gels." They're little gummy lumps in various fruit flavors with the name of a type of wine impressed on each one. The flavors themselves, while wonderful, are not those of wines. There's one marked "port," another marked "bordeau," another "claret," and so on. (No zinfandel, which is doubtless considered a yahoo yankee wine in England.)

What was interesting were the candies carrying the word "hock." I assumed it was a kind of wine, though one I hadn't heard of before. Sure enough, in British wine jargon, "hock" means German wine, though some definitions apply the term specifically to German whites. The word "hock" is short for "hockamore," which in turn is a corruption of "Hochheim," a town near the Rhine where shipments of German wine to Britain first originated. I'll have to look for some the next time I'm in England.

Speaking of German wines, I found an interesting German red at Vinny's Beverage Depot in Niles, Illinois. It's a spatburgunder rotwein spatlese, which can be translated literally as "pinot noir red wine late harvest." It's probably semi-sweet (I haven't opened it yet) as are nearly all late-harvest German wines, and I'm hoping it resembles the dornfelder reds that we used to enjoy and can't reliably get anymore. The wine comes from the Rheinhessen region in central Germany, and is imported by Winesellers, Ltd of Skokie, Illinois. Oddly, they don't list this wine on their Web site. I'll let you know if it's any good.

We're heading back to Colorado Springs tomorrow morning. I'll be very glad to get back into my own bed again. When I was young I could sleep on the floor with my wadded-up jeans for a pillow. Those days are gone.

May 16, 2005: Secret Origins of the Golden Fleece

There's generally a nugget or two of truth in even the weirdest legends, and last night I stumbled across an interesting explanation for what may have led to the legend of the Golden Fleece. In a book on an unrelated topic (the events and historical forces leading up to World War I) was a side comment that the ancient Caucasians (and here I mean people native to the Caucasus, and not generic white guys) hit upon a way to automatically capture flakes of gold out of mountain streams: They spun webs of sheared wool around sticks and mounted the webs under those occasional natural sluices where quick-flowing stream water shoots out over a void. Sand and small stones follow one trajectory within the water, and gold flakes, being much denser, follow another. So gold will tend to concentrate in one part of the web.

(This sounds almost reasonable, but I'm not good enough at fluid dynamics to be sure it would work. Must be touchy to adjust, but the potential payoff would be worth it.)

Assuming that this brilliant little gold mining system isn't itself a sort of legend, one can imagine an ancient Greek adventurer stumbling across an abandoned or fogotten web of fleece somewhere in the Caucasus that had been filtering gold from the water for some time and contained a lot of it. Tales grow in the telling, and before you know it, you have Jason and the Argonauts chasing around the world looking for the fleece of a golden ram. It's interesting that Jason found the Fleece hanging in a tree—and a tree beneath a spring torrent in the mountains might have been the perfect place to "web for gold."

May 15, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Still in Urbana for my older nephew's college graduation. The TV down in the lobby this morning was set to CNN, and amidst all the other ugly reports of Iraq and child murders and so on was a short mention of a medical study suggesting strongly that not getting enough sleep can make you gain weight. This might explain why people seem to be larding up so much in our modern world. Nobody gets enough sleep. The average American gets 6-7 hours today, compared with 9 hours a century ago and 8 hours a generation ago. Simplify your life and drop pounds. That's the one diet I doubt anyone here in the U.S. will even attempt.
  • On behalf of the late Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI waived the longstanding Roman Catholic requirement that a person be dead for at least five years before his or her cause for sainthood is opened. Basically, that means we can start making JPII a saint now and not later. Of course, I think that everybody becomes a saint sooner or later, but if they're handing out badges, I think Lady Julian of Norwich should get one first.
  • The U.S. Senate unanimously (yikes!) voted to impose sweeping new ID requirements on U.S. citizens. We're basically getting our black helicopter-colored national ID card, which bothers me less than the fact that there are few or no restrictions on what governments at all levels can do with the national database. The bill sailed through passage by being included in a completely unrelated spending bill. Why do we allow that? The next consitutional amendment should prohibit "multipurpose" laws—and, as a bonus, allow courts to invalidate laws for excessive vagueness. Laws should be razors, not hammers.
  • I'm having a lot of trouble receiving and sending email, and it looks like my hosting service is seeing currently recurring DoS attacks on their mail servers. So if you don't get a response from me on an email, don't panic. I'll get caught up as soon as I can.

May 14, 2005: More QBit

The message in the mail has been clear: More QBit pictures! Hokay, far be it from me to refuse. He's hard to catch at his cutest, but these two come close, and I'll post more as I get them.

May 13, 2005: Squirk!

Less than a year after we had met, I was very much in love with Carol, but, at 17, I had a lot to learn about what being in love entailed. Sometime in that first heady year, we got in a discussion about something difficult (I've long since forgotten what) on a Sunday afternoon. I had to be down at Resurrection Hospital washing dishes by 4 P.M. and we weren't getting anywhere. It looked like discussion was going to tip into argument at some point, and, seeing the way it was going, I was getting flustered. As the remorseless clock slid past 3:30 I was anxious to find a graceful way to suspend the discussion, but none presented itself.

At last, desperate, I tried to say "Let's-say-we-continue-this tomorrow-because-I have-to-get-to-work," but all that came out was the single agonized syllable, "Squirk!"

Carol, puzzled, said nothing for a long moment. Then, grinning, she replied, "Squirk squirk!" and we both dissolved in gales of laughter. With a quick kiss I was off to the dish machine dungeon, disaster averted. I'm not sure we ever continued the discussion, but I'm also pretty sure we didn't have to. From then on, "Squirk!" became a word in our private lexicon, which we had invested with the power to make us laugh through any minor moment of tension.

A month or so later, Carol presented me with something she had made: A little contrarian triangular smiley face glued together from purple felt, stuffed with a little cotton, with the word "Squirk" on one side and a grin on the other, at the end of a 6" loop of purple yarn. It hung on my rear view mirror for a good many years, until the sun made the purple felt fade to green, the yarn pale to gray and then crumble to shreds and dust. No matter. We have the word now.

Two lessons here:

  • Things are not always as grave as they may seem in the heat of the moment. One crucial thing to learn about love is how to put things in perspective. A sense of humor always helps.
  • Words can be blunt instruments that sometimes fail us, but we must never stop trying to communicate with those we love, even if it means banging out new words to do the job. Just as "e nagua" meant "In spite of everything, I love you," in the heroine's private language of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, for us "squirk" came to mean, "I love you enough so that small things can never come between us, and we can work out the big ones."
So it has been. So it will always be.

May 12, 2005: VirtualPC, Very Small Press, and the Dogcatcher

I'm boning up on PC virtualizers, and the first of several new books came in the other day. The Rational Guide to Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 by Anthony T. Mann is a decent book, but very definitely a newbie overview. It's competently written and organized, if a little thin at 106 pages. If you're new to PC virtualizers and you've just scored a copy of Virtual PC, it's a good way to curl up on your comfy chair for an hour and come away ready to install and go. It does not go for depth, but rather for clarity, and that's not a bad thing. Besides, it only costs $10. By the way, don't order it from Amazon unless you don't trust publisher shopping carts. Amazon claims it will ship the book in one to three weeks—and I got it in about five days direct from the publisher.

What's interesting about the book to me (as a technical publisher) is that it comes from a very small press that I've never heard of before. This seems to be a trend. I'm waiting for a couple of other books on VMware (Virtual PC's only serious competitor) one of which comes from Brian Madden is a well-known consultant on thin-client stuff and virtual servers, and now he's appparently cutting out the middleman and selling his expertise in his own book, published by his own operation.

This may be inevitable, as competitive pressures at retail put the squeeze on author revenues from niche books. Creating a technical book is now so easy and cheap that a guy who knows a lot and doesn't need to sleep much can do it in a few weeks without neglecting his day job, using his own material. When you mount a shopping cart on your site, sell at cover and keep 100% of the retail margin, you can sell a lot fewer books and probably make more money than you would as an author under a conventional publishing contract. Short-run presses can now create professional-looking books in 300-copy batches at unit costs that make direct sales not only possible but lucrative. Selling short-run books the conventionl way on Amazon is still marginal because they take such a huge cut. However, selling via Amazon Marketplace and eBay let you keep the retail margin and make a go of it. (I hope to go this route for my SF and some copyright-lapsed history books one of these days.) The kicker, as always, is how to generate awareness for your products. The answer to that, of course, is to be an active member of your reader community. I did that with my Wi-Fi book and it worked spectacularly well. My Old Catholic History reprints may work even better, since it's a smaller but far more focused (and thus findable) audience. I'll let you know how it works when I try it.

One final note on technical publishing: John Wiley & Sons has just purchased Sybex, a venerable tech publisher with almost thirty years' tenure. It's unclear that Sybex was in trouble, but they didn't seem to be doing well recently, and Rodney Zaks is now in his 60s and may be ready to retire. Wiley seems to be scrappping for the title of Buyer of Dead, Dying, or Stale Presses, having eaten Hungry Minds and several other struggling tech publishers in recent years. It's an ugly job (kind of like being the dogcatcher) but somebody has to do it.

May 11, 2005: Why God Hides So Well

Why does God hide so well? Why, if he really wants us to believe in Him, doesn't He just appear in suitable form five miles high over Manhattan?

Suppose He did. (Or seemed to.) How would you know it was Him?

Miracles are a mighty wobbly foundation to build personal faith on, for a couple of reasons. First of all, what was a miracle last year might not be a miracle next year. Suppose I could go back to the year 989 with a stadium-grade movie projector and the DVDs for The Passion of the Christ? At minimum, I could convince the rubes that I was an archangel, and with the proper costume I might pass myself off as Jesus himself on the backswing.

We still have this problem. Years back when I studied quantum physics, hoping to understand it (and I'm still far from sure that anybody really does) my first reaction was, Egad! It's an API for miracles! And so it is. Quantum reality is much rubberier than Newtonian reality, in a lot of really subtle ways. Edison or Steinmetz might have been convinced that superconductivity was a miracle. (Tesla would have been a harder sell.) The people who are shouting that the ends of physics are in sight are buffoons. In fact, the characteristic cry of the physics-is-over crowd ("weknowitall! weknowitall!") generally indicates that yawning new vistas of physics are about to open beneath our feet.

There is a related but more serious problem. We think of ourselves as mighty hot stuff, but there's nothing to preclude beings who are so far beyond us in knowledge and power over the physical world as to seem infinite and eternal, but are nonetheless finite and temporal. "Demiurgic" is what such (hypothetical) beings have been called in centuries past, and various religious groups falling into the category of gnostic dualists have been convinced that a demiurgic being or group of beings are holding us prisoners here on Earth. Such creatures might not be limited to our paltry three-dimensional physics if they happened to possess a fourth or fifth or even higher spatial dimension. (In Abbott's classic Flatland, a cube creates a "miraculous" apparition in 2-space that appears out of nowhere and then vanishes, by simply passing through Flatland entirely.) As someone (forgot who) once quipped, we might well be somebody's high school science fair project. A big somebody, fersure. But I'm not entirely convinced that immense yet finite beings cannot create matter or even entire universes ex nihilo.

The problem can be summarized this way: Even though they might seem the same to little bitty beings like us, the differences between really really really really big and infinite are fundamental. The first is demiurgic. The second is God. In terms of what we can see, feel, and measure here on our Earth in three-space, I doubt there is anything that God could do in terms of a miracle that couldn't be duplicated by sufficiently powerful demiurgic beings. If we were content to recognize God solely in terms of miracles, the gnostics' nightmare might come true, and we might place our faith in just another 17-dimensional parlor magician.

God hides from us because physical evidence of His existence is way too easy to duplicate. Faith requires a better foundation, of which there are several, but all are inner phenomena, not magic tricks. And given that God respects our freedom, He can't just make us believe; if He did, we would not be human beings but clever pets. He waits for us to get with the program. He's going to wait a while for some people, but then again, He's God—He can wait longer than any of us.

May 10, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Your new word for the day: pareidolia, which in this Age of Faith basically means, "seeing images of the Blessed Mother in salt stains on freeway underpasses." This happened in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and crowds of people had begun blocking underpass traffic before the city intervened and painted over the stains. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the pointer.) Because "pareidolia" is hard to spell, I call this the Sacred Rorschach Effect. If you look at enough expressway salt stains (or scorch marks on tortillas, or wood grain patterns on broken-off tree limbs) sooner or later you will find one that suggests the image of the Blessed Mother. (Jesus is, by comparison, a bit-player.) At that point, mass media does the rest, and in no time at all you get a flash crowd bringing flowers and saying prayers. (I'm glad I didn't get media coverage for the Exuberant Cross!) There is a fundamental theological/epistemological problem wiith miracles, which I'll cover here eventually. It's a shame that we seem so bottomlessly hungry for them.
  • Bill Higgins identified the turbojet flying platform I snapped at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. (See my entry for May 2, 2005.) It's the Williams X-Jet, created in the mid-1960s by Williams Research of Walled Lake, Wisconsin. Williams is best known for making small jet engines for use cruise missiles and such. This page briefly describes the X-Jet, along with a lot of other cool "flying platform" experimental aircraft. The X-Jet worked well, was easy to control, and could fly for half an hour at a time. (Hmm. Still looks topheavy to me!)
  • While we're speaking of flying platforms, Pete Albrecht also sent me some pointers to photos of early experimental helicopters, including the Austrian PKZ-1 and PKZ-2. As Pete put it, bailing out is not an option, heh.
  • My business partner Keith Weiskamp (with whom I founded both Coriolis and Paraglyph) found some old sales spreadsheets while degunking his machine, and after a little math realized that our two publishing operations have, together, sold over $100 million worth of books since 1994. Where did all that money go? (Hint: Why are big retail bookstores so plush and small publishers' offices so ratty?)

May 9, 2005: Playin' With Some Travelin' Broadband

Back in Chicago, and staying with relatives, as usual. The gnarly problem of staying connected on the road gets less gnarly each time I travel. I let my Boingo sub lapse. I don't go to Starbucks. (Their coffee is paint remover, sorry.) I rarely, in fact, pay for broadband at all.

And no, I don't steal it, as some online journalists—remarkably—still suggest. My secret? The AAA travel tourbooks. Always attentive to the needs of travelers, AAA tourbooks now have an Internet icon for their hotel listings, and the icon indicates whether the Internet connection is free or fee. On our last two trips, Carol and I have done a little research ahead of time and chosen hotels based on location and free Internet. At one of those increasingly common major exurban intersections having several inexpensive (and otherwise indistinguishable) hotels, the one with the free Net connection gets my business.

What we've found seemed inexplicable at first, but in hindsight seems obvious: It's the cheap hotels that are offering free broadband to guests. We're getting to the point where the near-flophouses are offering free broadband. And why not? Wi-Fi hardware is relatively cheap, and broadband itself is probably a $50 monthly cost to the hotel. What else can a hotelier do that is similarly cheap and yet such a big draw to business travelers?

The real secret is something that all the mavens seem to have have missed: Business travelers don't need blazing speeds. They need availability and reliability. I'm more than happy with dialup speeds when I travel because when I travel I'm pretty focused on email and a little news and Web research. If ten people are sharing a single cable or DSL connection at a hotel the packet speeds will be dialup or worse, but the packets will still get through. Assuming I'm not paying hugely by the minute for the connection (as I was on our Hawaii cruise ship last fall) I won't gripe if bringing down mail takes 90 seconds rather than 45. Poco Mail allows me to read the first few messages while the rest come down, so the extra time is not wasted at all.

Public broadband gets cheaper every year as competition broadens the base. At some point, nobody's going to pay even $10 a day for broadband (much less $5/hour) because it's free across the street. Add transaction costs to the business (that is, the cost to the business of collecting money from short-term broadband customers) and free Internet is an even bigger win.

The Holiday Inn Express where we stayed in Rensselaer used to charge $5 an hour for broadband. It's now free. The big question is how long it will be before metered public broadband collapses as a viable business model. Toss in Panera Bread and the occasional Dairy Queen (!!) with free Wi-Fi, and I think we're just about there.

May 8, 2005: Moody's Ghost Is AWOL

As I have reported elsewhere, Rensselaer, Indiana is, to me, ghost country. Late yesterday, Carol and I made two trips to the rural intersection where in August of 1971, I saw something inexplicable with three of my college friends. Our first trip yesterday was late in the afternoon. I wanted to see the place by daylight; the last time I was here, we arrived at 10PM and left around midnight. By day it's just farm country, with freshly plowed (and manured, whew!) fields either planted or about to be planted in corn.

By night—well, it's not especially ghost-friendly. 34 years ago, it just wasn't as bright out here after dark, nor were there as many 5-acre "farmettes" up and down the roads. Everybody has huge mercury vapor lamps out in front of their homes. If I were a ghost, I would be elsewhere.

Moody's ghost was elsewhere. Several people have written to me indicating the Moody's Ghost is nothing more than car taillights moving north on Indiana Highway 49. My primary mission on this trip was to test that hypothesis. In 1971 I didn't even own binoculars. This time I had my wonderful Adlerblick 7X50s in hand, and, sure enough, during the day, from the slight rise at the intersection of Moody's Road and Meridian, I could see Highway 49 in the distance, about 2.5 miles north of our location. In fact, as I watched, a car came into view moving toward me southward on 49, and its headlights were on and clearly visible (even in broad daylight) as two bright white spots, clearly resolvable through binoculars as a pair and not an isolated point.

We went back at 9:30 PM or so, after dusk was past and it was truly night. I had my laptop and GPS puck on the roof, with MapQuest telling my beautiful navigator precisely where we were at all times. Getting to the intersection was easy. Seeing ghosts would not be so easy, given the number of mercury vapor lamps north on Meridian, right along the path where we had once followed the ghost down the dark road at midnight.

No matter. The hypothesis was that Moody's Ghost was taillights on Highway 49. Carol and I stood beside the big tree on Meridian, a few hundred feet north of Moody Road, and scanned the vanishing point past the end of the road a mile and a half north of where we were.

I could clearly see taillights on 49, and headlights too. The problem was, those weren't what I had seen in 1971. Not even close. They were too dim, too red (or too white, for the headlights), and too motionless. The light ball I had seen and followed in my Chevelle was orange-ish, quite bright, and bobbed around to one side of the road and the the other. It also seemed much closer back then. The taillights on 49 were clearly at photographic infinity; the ghost (or whatever you want to call it) seemed no farther than a couple hundred feet away, and (to my astronomy-avid eyes) certainly nearer than the August stars.

Alas, though we hung around for 20 minutes, and followed the ridiculous ritual of flashing our brights a couple of times, nothing showed up that in any way resembled what we saw in 1971. I suspect that some people who have gone there (perhaps including those who brought a few beers along internally) have seen those taillights on 49 and figured it matched the legend. No way. I saw the real thing. I don't know what it was, but whatever it was, it had departed by 2005.

I took some photos of the area by day, and will write a separate, longer article about our brief adventure as time allows. (QBit slept through it all. Until a ghost shows up with liver treats, he won't be especially interested.)

May 7, 2005: Me and You and a Dog Named Q

The national Bichon Frise Specialty Show in Indianapolis is over, and Carol and I packed the car this morning and set off on a road trip across a little-known place (to us, at least) called Indiana. I've been driving, and she's been beside me with QBit in her lap, sometimes just him, and (more recently, see at left) QBit in what I call his Tupperware Bed—a vinyl storage bin with a couple of fuzzy rugs and some toys in the bottom. We've been laughing and eating bad food and commenting on how flat the place is, and feeling like a couple of college kids on spring break. (When we were college kids, people drove to Florida and didn't fly to Aruba or Cancun.) We don't need a beach as long as we have each other. As I do almost all days (but some days more than others) I remembered again why I fell in love with her, and why I will stand beside her as long as I can stand at all.

We've also discovered that QBit gets carsick. We stopped at the McDonald's drive-through late yesterday after the show closed for some chicken strips and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese (my once-in-a-great-while Guilty Pleasure) and shortly after finishing our very happy meal in the parking lot, QBit threw up in Carol's lap. Noonish today, we drove through KFC, and same deal. This time Carol had a piddle pad within easy arm's reach, and didn't have to mop up and change into fresh jeans.

We're not sure what his problem is; it may be the stop-and-go movements of city traffic, or it may be the delicious smells of bad food that we won't let him have. (Cheeseburgers are not on our list of Healthy Meals for Your New Puppy.) We know he's pouting a little at having to wear his stylish zebra-striped diaper in polite company (and in hotel rooms) but that's just part of the discipline of growing up, and he'll get used to it.

We got to Rensselaer an hour or so ago, and later on we're going to go ghost hunting—and again, QBit will be adventuring from his place on Carol's lap. This is an odd way to break in a new puppy, but I find it very satisfyingly contrarian. And as long as he gets a liver treat once in a while, QBit is just happy to look out the window and watch his new world roll by, ghosts optional.

May 6, 2005: Qbit. "Cupid?" No, QBit. "Cubit?" No. QBit!

Carrying around an 11-week-old puppy at a dog show is a great conversation opener. Puppies are always winners, and QBit will gladly lick any body part that gets within tongueshot. The trouble starts when they ask me his name. QBit.

"Little Cupid! That's so cute. Because he's such a lover, right?"

"Ummm. No, It's Queue-Bit, not Cupid."

"Cubit! Like in Noah's Ark and all the animals!"

"No. QBit. Q-B-I-T. Short for Deja Vu's Quantum Bit."

Long silence. "Isn't 'Quantum' a town in Virginia? That sounds familiar..."

Ahh, well. It's just for another day. QBit is definitely a geek dog, and once he's among geeks he'll be in fine shape and everyone will understand his name. However, the dog show circuit is not a physics geek venue, though many or most of the people here could well be considered dog geeks. Women who wear needlepointed Bichon moccasins are unlikely to follow the progress of quantum computing. We'll forgive them that; Carol and I could be years trying to trim and groom a bichon the way the show attendees (80% women, BTW) can do with one eye closed.

I'm about to scoop up the QBit under one arm and head back down to the show floor, where they'll be evaluating Best in Show in a couple of hours. No more geek jokes here:

"QBit! Because his favorite chew toy is a large prime number. Get it? Get it?"

No. Nobody gets it. I guess I'll wait until we get back home.

May 5, 2005: Behold QBit!

The famous Mr. Byte died in April 1995, just short of his fifteenth birthday. The not-so-famous Chewy left us in September 1998, after 16 years and four months. Ever since then, Carol and I have regularly said to one another, "We're going to get another Bichon someday." Late last night, a little after we arrived here in Indianapolis, breeder Karla Matlock placed a little nameless puppy in Carol's arms. It took until this morning, and a little bit of watching him poke around our room, but at some point it became obvious: This wasn't Henley, or Comet, or even Abergavenny. It was QBit. Smaller than a (Mr.) Byte, but packing more into that smaller container, QBit is almost always looking the other way when you click the digital camera button. Sometimes you can catch him at his best (as above) but never when you're sure the pose is perfect. In general, getting a good picture of him is a pretty unpredictable process. (The above shot was a complete accident.) Quantum indeed.

His kennel name will be Deja Vu's Quantum Bit, and he's now just under twelve weeks old. Like most puppies, he spends a little time romping around (especially with the other bichons at the national bichon show underway here at the hotel) and a lot of time snoozing. Karla got him started on paper training, and so far he's been good about using the piddle pad in the bathroom under the sink. He has a little apricot in his ears (like Chewy did) but apart from that is pure white, with very dark brown eyes and a coal black nose.

We're going to see the rest of the show here and then drive to Chicago on Saturday. As a bonus, if the weather remains good (it's gorgeous right now) we're going ghost hunting on Saturday night up near Rensselaer, where I last prowled 34 years ago, looking for Moody's Ghost in my Chevelle with Murphy and Harris. I'll report what (if anything) turns up later this weekend.

In the meantime, QBit is being cute, but I must resist: It's impossible to catch him when he's being cute. You have to keep trying, but his wave equation resists collapsing. I'm glad I have a 128 MB Flash card in the Canon. We're gonna need it.

May 4, 2005: "May I Speak to the Lady of the House?"

We were heading out the door this morning on our way to Indianapolis to pick up our new puppy when the phone rang. "Hello," said a pleasant male voice. "May I speak to the lady of the house?"

Hmmm. Obviously a sales pitch, but the audio was weird. Unlike the clatter and echoes of a busy call center somewhere, behind this voice was dead, cottony silence. A recording?

"Why don't you know the name of the lady of the house?" I asked. There were several seconds of silence. Then: "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you."

This was definitely a new technology for telemarketing. I had suitcases stacked by the garage door and no time to fuss, but just for jollies I thought for a second and then said: "I am disinclined to allow you any access to the lady of this house until and unless I receive some indication that you do in fact know who she is and that you are not some damfool recording." Silence. More silence. Then: "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you."

We have been on the Federal Do Not Call list since its inception, and if I get another one of these when I'm not on deadline to catch a plane, I may do what my friend Pete Albrecht does and pursue them. That will require playing along until a human being picks up the line. But at that point I may in fact begin practicing the ancient oriental art of I Su. We'll see.

May 3, 2005: The Teenage Sex Gap

In a widely discussed syndicated column, David Brooks (that Bobos guy) made the outrageous claim that, however trashy and horny-sounding their culture is, teens are not in fact having any more sex than earlier generations, and may in fact be having less. I really wish he would have provided some references for his numbers, but assuming he didn't make the statistics up, teen pregnancy and abortion rates are down by a third over the past 15 years. Fewer teen girls are giving birth. Half of high school boys are now willing to admit that they're virgins, up from 39% in 1990—and having listened to a lot of obviously bogus lunchtable conversations 35 years ago, my guess is that a lot more teen boys are virgins than will readily admit it, especially if other teen boys are within earshot.

So how do we square this good news with the ever-increasing raunch in pop culture? How do we square it with young teen girls wearing clothes that make them look like strippers or worse? What the hell is going on here? Brooks doesn't even try to guess, so I will: Teens are imagining themselves as sexual beings.

In a sense they're playing at sex—in their heads, expressed through their culture—without actually having sex. It's similar to the sorts of play that allow kids to imagine themselves in various grown-up situations and careers. I played astronaut a lot as a little kid and fantasized about it well into high school. I read books about space travel and talked endlessly about it with my friends. Knowledge put my childhood dreams into perspective, and by the time I got to college, I had lost any serious desire to ride a million pounds of explosives into orbit. I knew enough about space travel to know that it wasn't a role I could play in life.

There may be other reasons as well. One likely one is that we're no longer handing teens that idiotic line that sex is "chemistry" and a force beyond their control. The only two women I've ever met who became pregnant as teens were from extremely religious families that demonized sex as a kind of unstoppable madness—and so, when strong sexual feelings came upon them, they simply surrendered. Another is that far more than in times past, we are reinforcing our children's sense of being wanted. A feeling of worthlessness and being what I call "unchosen" (more on this in a future entry) can drive teens into having sex simply because it makes them feel like someone actually values them, illusory though that valuing might be. But I'm increasingly convinced that most of it is simply posturing, fantasies acted out in trash talk, music, and clothing, now that acting out those fantasies won't get them beaten to a pulp at home. I'm sure I'm cruising for a bruising by even making the suggestion here, and I want to emphasize again that it's about imagination, not action.

The supreme irony is that being able to imagine themselves as sexual beings when puberty happens (and not eight or ten years later) may well make them more functional and responsible sexually as adults. By not insisting that teens pretend to be sexless nine-year-olds until they're in college, parents can allow teens to integrate their sexual identities with all the rest of the personal growth that happens during the teen years. This integration doesn't actually require hands-on sexual experience. (Tom Clancy convinced millions of people that he was a submarine ace without ever having set foot in a submarine. He's a good imaginer.) Nonetheless, such integration is vital to their grounding as adults in adult society.

We won't know for a few years yet, but the result may be more balanced and sane adults. Dare we hope for better marriages and fewer divorces? I do. Support for unlimited abortion is already at its lowest among young women. Something is happening here. More study is needed, but the real numbers seem to be pointed in the right direction.

Parents need to keep teaching their teens sexual responsibility, even if the outward signs are unsettling. Good teaching, lots of acceptance, and a little bit of trust seem to work somehow. If the raunchy music bothers you, well, there's always ear plugs.

May 2, 2005: The Museum of Flight

While we were in Seattle a couple weeks back, we visited the Museum of Flight. It was the best display of aerospace hardware that I'd seen since we visited the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton in 1986. If you're ever out that way, don't miss it! Here are some highlights:

  • JFK's Air Force One. Wow. Dial telephones!
  • The Concorde. Mach 2 and teeny little windows!
  • A Moon Buggy.
  • A Hiller Hornet. Ramjets on the rotor tips, just like Tom Swift's Skeeter!
  • A tagboard drone, mounted atop an SR-71. The drone is the only thing in military aviation spookier than the SR-71 itself—and to think that they designed it in the tube era!
  • The Gossamer Albatross. That guy must have had good legs.

There are literally hundreds of other aircraft, spacecraft, and associated exhibits there, not all of which I could examine at length. (We had maybe an hour to do the entire museum.) The WWII gallery was spectacular, almost overwhelming, and provided some outrageous tidbits like the fact that women pilots were generally tapped to fly planes pulling targets for antiaircraft gunnery training. Just think about it: Guys who didn't know what they were doing were firing artillery at a mockup aircraft not a hundred yards from your tail...

And one other thing of note, which, alas, was a new exhibit and not listed in the flyer I took home. It's shown at left. It was an experimental hover platform consisting of a turbojet engine mounted slightly off-vertical in a tiny little trashcan-sized frame. The pilot basically had a jet engine between his legs, and I would calculate that the compressor vanes were less than eight inches from his cojones. I'm not sure I'd ride it, but I'd sure like to watch. (If anybody recognizes the device and can tell me what it is and what firm made it, I'd appreciate the update.)

The museum includes the original "red barn" building where the earliest Boeing aircraft were assembled, though it was closed for cleaning while we were there. I'll have to get back there at some point, but I did want to give it my highest recommendation.

May 1, 2005: Ghost-busting with Virtualization

Well. I now have a 3 GHz P4 with half a terabyte of hard disk and 2 GB of RAM. Less than15% of that hard disk space has been used, and it contains literally all the data I have, including everything I have ever written, numerous CD rips and a number of Norton Ghost images. It all seemed like wretched excess at first: What would I do with all that space and power? Simple answer: Virtual PCs.

Norton Ghost works well for rolling back whole OS partitions, but it's a relatively limited mechanism. Ghost basically takes a snapshot of a whole drive or a drive partition and writes it out on a different drive. (That's one snag right there: If you don't have at least two drives in the system, you have to use a network write or an optical disc as the storage target, neither of which are anywhere near as fast.) This is useful if you store a "base" image of a configured partition and are then hit by malware or suffer a scragged drive. You can restore the Ghost image right over the damaged partition or the new drive, and you're back at your base configuration point. You may lose some data, but not all of it, and you don't have to spend a day and a half wiping the drive and then reinstalling Windows and all your apps.

Platform virtualizer (PV) products like Microsoft's VirtualPC and VMWare's Workstation 5 do that and a great deal more. A PV creates a virtual hardware layer above a host operating system (like Windows 2000 or XP) and then allows you to install an entirely different OS over the virtual hardware layer. The combo of the hardware layer and the OS installed over that hardware layer is called a virtual PC. The virtual PC is extremely well insulated from the underlying host system. Software running on a virtual PC has no idea that its OS and hardware are virtual. (There are some clues in the timing of certain low-level hardware and BIOS calls, but how easy it is to use them is unclear.) The PV stores a virtual PC as a set of files on the host OS filesystem, and when you want to run a virtual PC, you choose a stored virtual PC from the PV console. The PV loads the files and runs them. This is way quicker than rebooting into a separate hard disk partition. Because virtual PCs are stored as files, they can be copied, just as a Ghost image can be. You can set up a virtual PC configured for some purpose and save it on your server. If you ever need to ditch a damaged virtual PC, you just nuke it, then bring down a copy of the saved one and start over.

A lot of programmers use PVs to create isolated OS instances on which to test really raw software that they're writing. A berserk app, utility, or driver may trash the virtual PC instance, but it won't effect the host OS beneath the virtual hardware layer. People who research malware create virtual PCs and then turn malware loose in them for study. Once the experiments are over, the virtual PC can be deleted, and it's just gone, and the malware with it. The underlying host OS is not affected.

Mac guys use the PowerPC version of MS VirtualPC to run MS software on their Macs. Alas, the flipside doesn't work, as you can't buy a copy of the Mac OS to install over a PowerPC. (Apple can choose between success and creating their own hardware. They've chosen to create their own hardware.)

Anyway. I'm having a wonderful time fooling with VirtualPC, and will summarize some of my research in future entries. Right now I have to go out and shovel snow. What month is this again?