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 documentsome 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 easynot 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
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 superiorand 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.
30, 2005: Robots in Imax, Egad
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
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 isliterallya dishwasher
in aliterallygreasy 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 thatand if
you spot it on IMAX, well, it's a no brainer. Highly recommended.
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
cardsas I did a lot while writing my last bookbut 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.
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
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
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 MSnatchhas 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,
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.
27, 2005: Why Don't Roman Catholics Go To Mass?
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
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 waitthere's another wrinkle, which I'll
come back to.
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 inyou
guessed it1957.) 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
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.
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
- 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.
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
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 configurationand 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 tornor otherwise lostlong 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
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
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
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 wasteand 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:
- 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.
- 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 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 seatand no, that's not just
the spilled Jujubes!
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 needbut 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:
More than that, you can't do. The sun's out. Put down those zinc pills
and go ride your damned bike!
- Exercise moderately as often as you can. Do both aerobics and
strength training. Don't go nuts with either.
- Eat less of everything. We as a culture and a society
just eat too damned much.
- Get a little sun every day. (Emphasis on "a little.")
This is hard in places like Seattle, so catch it while you can.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Get yourself looked at now and then. Pay attention to your family
or ethnic vulnerabilities.
- Simplify your life. Then simplify it some more.
- 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.
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:
(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.
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
20, 2005: Odd Lots
- We opened the Spatburgunder Spatese last night (see my entry
for May 17, 2005) and I would call it...so-so.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 treeand a tree beneath a spring torrent
in the mountains might have been the perfect place to "web for
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
- 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" lawsand, as a bonus, allow courts
to invalidate laws for excessive vagueness. Laws should be razors,
- 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
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.
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:
So it has been. So it will always be.
- 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."
12, 2005: VirtualPC, Very Small Press, and the Dogcatcher
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 weeksand 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 brianmadden.com.
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
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.
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
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 GodHe can wait longer
than any of us.
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."
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
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 journalistsremarkablystill 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.
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
By nightwell, 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
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.)
7, 2005: Me and You and a Dog Named Q
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 Beda 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 huntingand 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.
6, 2005: Qbit. "Cupid?" No, QBit. "Cubit?" No.
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,
"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
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.
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.
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
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.
3, 2005: The Teenage Sex Gap
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 1990and 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 sexin their heads, expressed
through their culturewithout 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
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 madnessand 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,
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.
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.
Hiller Hornet. Ramjets on the rotor tips, just like Tom Swift's
tagboard drone, mounted atop an SR-71. The drone is the only
thing in military aviation spookier than the SR-71 itselfand
to think that they designed it in the tube era!
Gossamer Albatross. That guy must have had good legs.
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.
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
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?