30, 2005: The Genius of Wikipedia
It's become fashionable to dump on Wikipedia.
I've read several pieces in the last couple of months complaining
about one thing or another, and the temper of the writing suggests
severe envythough why someone would envy an online encyclopedia
escapes me. This
list of complaints is present in Wikipedia itself, and has been
abstracted from a great many sources.
What can we make of this? Let me answer a few of the most common
Complaint: It's impossible to enforce a neutral point of
view (NPOV) on all entries.
My Answer: There is no such thing as a neutral point of view.
Once you get past the atomic weight of Ytterbium, everybody has
an opinion. All encyclopedias have a point of view, generally
the consensus view of its body of writers. The
Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917 certainly has a point of view
(the Vatican's) and that doesn't diminish its usefulness. Actually,
because each entry in Wikipedia can be written and edited by multiple
people (as opposed to print encyclopedia entries, which are generally
the work of one or two people at most) the potential for a neutral
point of view is greater in Wikipedia than in a print encyclopedia.
Perhaps the single most important skill of an educated person is
to discern multiple points of view and evaluate them. This is why
we read hundreds of books in the course of our lives, and not five
Complaint: There's too much unimportant material in Wikipedia.
My Answer: Much that is in Wikipedia is obscure, but if even
one person goes looking for a block of information, that information
is not unimportant. People roll their eyes at the fact that
the Insult Comic Dog and Ed
the Sock have their own detailed entries, but to a student of
comedy (or a student of sock puppets) these things can be important.
The incremental cost of adding an entry to Wikipedia is basically
zeroso why is obscurity even an issue?
Complaint: Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies.
My Answer: Are these really inaccuracies? Or are they simply
things that you disagree with? I have yet to see an inaccuracy in
some verifiable, objective fact. (Again, things like the atomic
weight of Ytterbium.) Some things that might some day be considered
facts are still in dispute (did Pope Pius XII really collaborate
with the Nazis?) and a great deal of what we call knowledge is in
fact interpretation. (How important was the Wilson Presidency in
laying the groundwork for the formation of the United Nations?)
People have tested Wilipedia by inserting verifiable factual errors
via edits, and these errors have been caught very quickly. The rest
of what we call knowledge comes down to a kind of consensus of opinions,
and disagreeing with the consensus does not necessarily mean that
the consensus is inaccurate.
Complaint: The material on Wikipedia is too geek-centric.
My Answer: Geeks are the ones writing the material, and nobody's
paying them. Geeks, furthermore, are probably the bulk of the people
using Wikipedia, at least for the time being. The solution to this
problem (if it's a problem at all) is to rope in non-geeks to write
more entries in areas that have been neglected.
Complaint: People commenting on entries and editing entries
don't seem to accord any special respect to academic experts on
I could go on and on, but that's the most important part of it. Wikipedia
could perhaps devise a better system of moderation, based on votes
for "experience points" or something similar, in which Don
Knuth would have a score of 100, and Jeff Duntemann might have a score
of 6. I think that while that this sort of collective wisdom isn't
perfect, it may be the best that we can do. I believe in the genius
of motivated crowds, and that's where the genius of Wikipedia
comes from. It's precisely what I had in mind when I wrote "The
All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything"
in 1994. Wikipedia covers everythingand it allows input
from everyone. That's an experiment that's never been done
before. Maybe we shouldn't even call it an encyclopedia. Maybe we
should just keep on keeping on for a couple more decades and then
step back and see what we have. It may become an incoherent mess.
It may become The
World Brain, as H. G. Welles envisioned in 1937. Patience, patience.
We won't know until we get there.
My Answer: People on Wikipedia share the general Internet
cultural bias toward reputation over credentials. You can bet that
if Don Knuth wrote an article on some algorithm, people would respect
his work. But when J. Johnson Hokum III, Ph.D. pops up out of nowhere
and starts making pronouncements, people (rightfully) look at him
with suspicion. "Why should we trust you?" is the unstated
question. "What have you actually done?" The sad
state of college education today (grade inflation, rampant political
bias, arrogant celebrity faculty, and the granting of degrees in
marginal fields like "gender studies") has reduced the
perceived value of education and degrees alone. What matters now
is less where or how long you've studied than what you've actually
contributed to the field. A degree does not make an expert.
Wikipedians understand this very well.
28, 2005: Weeping Statues
people sent me pointers to a weird phenomenon currently underway
in Sacramento: A concrete statue of the Blessed Mother is weeping
tears of blood. (If you have the bandwidth, play the video clip,
which aired on local TV news.) A couple of weeks ago, the janitor
of a small Roman Catholic church catering to locals of Vietnamese
origins noticed streams of what looked like blood rolling down its
statue, starting at the eyes. He wiped the statue clean, assuming
it was the work of local pranksters, but the tears reappeared, and
since then the crowds of believers have been growing in numbers
and enthusiasm. The local Roman Catholic diocese is "looking
into it," but I suspect the poor Bishop starts his prayers
every night with, "Why me, Lord?"
Weeping statues and icons are not new, and far from being a rarity,
are perhaps the single most common miraculous event occurring outside
someone's head. Browse this
list and boggle. Some of you know that I have a special interest
in religious weirdness, and I have two shelves of books on the subject,
which embraces apparitions of Jesus and Mary, vials of clotted blood
that liquefy on a saint's feast day, and (among many other things)
that jump around, swing on cables, and weep tears of water,
oil, or blood.
Confronted with reports of such things, most people take one of
two general positions: That the events are miracles sent by God,
or else clever hoaxes. Certainly there have been a lot of hoaxes
down the years, and the Roman Catholic Church has (quite sensibly)
granted its imprimatur to a vanishingly small handful of "miraculous
events." My own position falls somewhere between the two, and
posits that moving, bleeding, and weeping statues (and other physical
prodigies associated with religious devotion) are a species of poltergeist
That won't help if you don't believe in poltergeists either, but
there's enough documentation to poltergeist phenomena to make me
think there might be something to it. A friend of mine, known to
be an educated, sane, secular person, sent me emails for several
years describing poltergeistish weirdnesses happening in his home.
He refuses to go public with them, and I see no reason why he would
make it all up to the tune of tens of thousands of words, just to
tell his three or four closest friends. Poltergeists are best known
for bodiless voices, knocking sounds, and other noises of no physical
cause, but the category also includes apports: physical objects
that move of their own volition, or vanish in one place and then
reappear simultaneously in another. My friend's poltergeist had
a fondness for teleporting coins and paper money, Post-It notes,
and Toosie Rolls, and also had a habit of "vanishing"
the beer from bottles without opening them.
Quantum reality allows for certain well-documented weirdnesses at
nanoscale, and perhaps those weirdnesses can happen at meter scale
as well. I'm not prepared to say that it's impossible. It's interesting
that a lot of poltergeist phenomena occur in households where there's
a great deal of sexual frustrationand sexual frustration is
a very Catholic thing, especially within the reactionary wing of the
Roman Church. Connection? Who knows? The universe is more marvelous
(read here: weirder) than we can possibly imagine. If you can swallow
superstring theory, heh, weeping statues are a piece of cake!
27, 2005: Commercial Grammar
I'm still recovering, and am surpremely irritated at how long this
thing has had its hooks in me. There's a great deal to do around
here, and my energy ran out today about 4:00 PM, leaving me feeling
like a zombie. I don't watch a lot of TV except when I'm sick, and
so I spent a fair part of the late afternoon and early evening channel
surfing while curled up on the couch.
In doing so, I noticed something that made me a little nuts: When
advertising agencies want to portray a doofus in a TV commercial,
they use a guy with a receding hairline, especially if he's a little
chubby. By contrast, The guy who puts the doofus on to the advertiser's
product always has perfect Hollywood hair and godlike features:
slim, sharp face, muscular. So "bald guy" is now commercial
cinema grammar for "clumsy idiot." Women are treated less
obviously in commercials, but when a female doofus is called for,
the agencies invariably cast a less attractive woman than the star,
who always knows where it's at or at least where to buy it. This
may not be news to some of you, but it was certainly news to me.
I didn't think I could dislike TV any more than I already did. Silly
boy. Hollywood will always find a way.
26, 2005: Odd Lots
- I just got home from Chicago, whew. I was flat on my butt most
of the time I was there with the most horrendous cold virus I've
picked up in twenty years. (I had a really ugly one in 1986.)
That would account for the gaps here, and the fact that I pulled
several "spare" entries out of the notefile to obviate
the need to be fully conscious, much less creative. I'm still
coughing a little and am not my usual peppy self, but every day's
a little better, deo gratias.
- Pete Albrecht made an interesting suggestion/prediction: That
businesses would begin painting their names on their roofs so
that people using Google Earth
and other satellite mapping services would see them. I recall
an office building or some small retailer near the intersection
of Peterson and Kedvale in Chicago doing something like that in
the mid-1960s, but I also remember reading somewhere that most
city zoning codes no longer allow it.
astrophoto was taken by an amateur astronomer with a 12"
telescope. It is to boggle. That's the sort of image we used to
expect only from Palomar. (Again, thanks to Pete for the link.)
is a German board game, translated rather unfortunately into English.
- I'd like to know what reviewers of novel-length SF and fantasy
you read regularly and agree with, whether it be online or in
print. I'm going to send a few more review copies of The Cunning
Blood out this week and am wide open for suggestions. Instapundit
News are already on the list, even though they're not technically
reviewers. Who else do you think would help me build some word-of-mouth?
23, 2005: The Real Enemy Is Literalism
Finishing off a thought I didn't quite finish yesterday: One problem
we have in getting a grip on the whole Creationism mess is that
the media have made such a hash of it. The only thing journalists
understand less well than science is religion. More than once I've
been explaining the Old Catholic Church to some bright young reporter,
only to have her respond, "But how can you be Catholic if you're
not under the Pope?"
Journalists are not good listeners, alasand that's
most of the problem with modern journalism.
Contrary to what you see in the knucklehead media, in dealing with
Creationsm we are not dealing with a religion, or a sect, or a tradition.
We are dealing with what amounts to an epistemological method. This
method is literalism, which is a means of extracting truth
from a body of data. In this particular case, we are talking about
Biblical literalism, which is a means of extracting truth from a
particular translation (the King James Version) of a particular
body of ancient writings. With a sort of willful ignorance, the
media often assume that Christian fundamentalists == Evangelicals
== Biblical literalists, end of story.
Whichever side you're on, that only makes things worse. I'm not
going to explain fundamentalism or Evangelicalism here, as that
would take a huge amount of space and isn't key to the point I'm
making. And although I have deep theological issues with both, I
do want to say that it's not fair to Christian fundamentalism or
the many Evangelical sects to assume that they're all setting
themselves up against science or Darwin's theory of Evolution. Biblical
literalism isn't necessarily a Protestant thing; there are Jewish
Biblical literalists (who limit themselves to the Hebrew Old Testament,
obviously) and there's nothing to prevent reactionary Catholics
from being Biblical literalists, though I haven't heard of any who
are. (Biblical literalism goes strongly against Catholic tradition.)
I'm sure there are Koranic literalists, and probably literalists
in every major religious tradition with a body of written revelation.
My point is that it's not science vs. religion at all. We are looking
at two competing epistemological methods of understanding reality.
Supporters of evolution (and the scientific method generally) understand
reality by recording and measuring what's out there and building
a model that explains what goes on in the universe. Biblical literalists
have a model, too: The King James Version. They understand reality
by looking at reality through statements made in the KJV. Basically,
in the literalist view, if something we see in reality doesn't square
with something in the KJV, there's something wrong with our vision,
and we have to keep looking until we perceive how reality aligns
with the KJV. One way of perceiving reality is open-ended and messy;
the other is closed, tidy, and not subject to doubt or questioning.
This appeals to many people of a certain fearful and generally un-confident
Note well that in neither case am I speaking about religion, which
is a way to impose meaning and a moral framework on human lives
lived here on Earth. Religious sects can embrace Biblical literalism
if they choose, but literalism is not a theologyit's
a way of understanding what we see around us. That's why Catholics,
Lutherans, Southern Baptists, agnostics, atheists, or anyone else
adhering to a religious tradition can stand together to support
the Theory of Evolution.
That's also why some people who should know better (including not
a few scientists) fall into the trap of defending portions of our
scientific model of reality as beyond all questioning. It's possible
to turn a physics textbook into an unassailable Sacred Writ or even
a kind of god, and that just moves the game into the other guys' stadium.
As Michael Covington put it in an email today, scientists have to
remember and acknowledge that science is science, just as religionists
must learn to look at what our Creator actually created, and not fence
Him in by the limitations of literal human language.
22, 2005: "It's Only a Theory..."
Perhaps the thing that irritates me most about the Creationists
is their constant mantra that evolution is "only a theory,"
as though all other scientific knowledge were a done deal and unchallengeable.
Not so. Everything in science is a theory. Everything. Even
those things we call "natural laws" are not necessarily
proven forever: In 1956, the
Law of Parity was detonated by brilliant experimental evidence
gathered by the NIST. (Since then we've been a lot more careful
about promoting theories to physical laws.)
It's pretty clear that the Creationists either know nothing about
science itself, or know damned well what a theory is and are using
the mass media to snooker people who are genuinely ignorant about
science, and think "theory" means "a dubious guess
pulled out of a hat." (This includes, alas, most media people,
who while pursuing their journalism degrees generally dodged anything
that had the word "science" in it.)
The problem here runs deep. The people who are pushing Creationism
(especially the young-Earth variety) doubt nothing. Scientists,
on the other hand, are trained and paid to doubt everything.
We only advance the state of our knowledge when somebody says, "I
smell a rat in this theory," and presents the pertinent evidence
that led to their conclusion. Then we revise the theory and keep
looking for rats.
A complex theory like evolution will always remain "just a theory."
The fact that this has become a point of objection (and the fact that
the doofuses who are supposedly leading the battle against Creationism
haven't called them on it) says something very sad: We no longer understand
or teach the scientific method in this countryand this plays
right into the hands of what some have begun to call Toxic Christianity.
21, 2005: Ave Maria Town
It's gotten a lot of press, so most of you have probably heard
of Ave Maria town, near Naples,
Florida. Tom Monaghan, the multibillionare founder of Domino's Pizza,
is doing something many fabulously rich people are drawn to: dabbling
in utopian communities. He's building Ave Maria Town, a planned
community where the plan and the lifestyle represent Roman Catholic
orthodoxy, and some papal pronouncements have the force of law.
By implication if not by declaration it's a reactionary Roman Catholic
stronghold, where it will be illegal to sell certain magazines (all
of them mentioned so far deal with sex; no mention of Soldier
of Fortune) and birth control devices and pharmaceuticals. I'll
state at the outset that I'm dubious, but I'll wait and see how
it turns out. (The project will be under development for another
ten years at least.)
Most of the press has dealt with Ave Maria University, the town's
centerpiece, which will be (assuming it happens) the first new Roman
Catholic university built in the US in over 40 years. Monaghan is
appalled at way Roman Catholic universities here tolerate (and sometimes
encourage) lax adherence to Catholic principles. Ave Maria University
will teach Catholicism as the Pope defines it; how that applies
to, say, history or sociology will be interesting to see. Science
should not be an issue. Once you get away from reproductive medicine,
the Roman Catholic view of science does not differ significantly
from the secular view. (All this flap over evolution comes from
the Protestant crackpot fringe.) Most of the controversy, in fact,
stems from the Ave
Maria law school, and the very subtle issue of the extent to
which Catholic principles should govern the practice of secular
law. I also wonder if open discussion of Catholic issues and history
will be suppressed within the university. Freedom of anything doesn't
seem to be on their short list of priorities.
The town's physical layout will supposedly be modeled on Medieval
university towns in Europe, where a gigantic church lies at the
center of not only the town but virtually everything that happens
in the town. The layout will be friendly to bicycles and walkers.
Small shops will be encouraged. For the most part this sounds very
cool to me; I like university towns and I go to church every Sunday
without fail. Alas, "planned communities" often obsess
on completely unimportant or even obnoxious things, like what color
your curtains can be and how many people can live in one house.
I haven't found any indication of how severe Ave Maria intends to
be in this regard, but my personal experience indicates that this
sort of "planning" often sets neighbor against neighbor
over trivia and completely destroys whatever feeling of community
might otherwise have emerged from the town's architectural plan.
All that being said, I remain troubled by the choice of things
that for the Ave Marians define "faithful Catholicism."
Is it only about condoms and girlie mags? What of the Scriptural
admonishment to welcome the stranger? Will they allow residents
to take in penniless refugees from disasters like Katrina? Will
they have a soup kitchen to help the homeless? Will some housing
be required to be rentals so that people of modest means can always
live there? The Catholic moral sphere embraces lots more
than just sex. In general, the Catholic tradition has not walled
itself away from the rest of the world, but has embraced and converted
the world, primarily by helping to create and sustain a culture
of religious observance that provides meaning to the lives of its
adherents and sacramental connection to an ineffable God. My great
fear is that Ave Maria will end up as a coercive gulag on the model
of Disney's dreadful Celebration,
full of the paranoid wealthy and absolutely empty of spontaneity
Perhaps the most serious problem with Ave Maria town as it has
been described is one I've seen no one else mention: That it
is in its very design it is an admittance of failure. Traditional
Roman Catholicism will have none of girlie mags or birth control.
Fair enough. But if you have to literally outlaw those things you
find morally repugnant, your moral system clearly does not have
enough traction with the faithful. If Ave Maria town were full of
authentic conservative Roman Catholics, Playboy and Penthouse
would not be sold because there would be no takers. An emphasis
on forbidding the sale of birth control materials to married couples
makes Ave Maria sound paranoid and on the defensive from the outset.
This is not a reflection of a faith tradition on the march, but
one already deep in eclipse.
Still, I'll give him a chance, and at some point I'll lay out here
what I think a genuine Catholic town would be like.
20, 2005: Microsphere Logic
This is an odd one: I was digging through six-year-old notes files
for The Cunning Blood, and found a short brainstorm item
I wrote about a possible near-future computing technology I called
"microsphere logic." Picture spherical logic elements
one or perhaps two millimeters in diameter, made of silicon or coated
with silicon. On the silicon surfaces of these microspheres you
etch circuitry. At the six antipodes of the spheres are contact
points, which take the form of either dimples or mating bumps. (I
call this the "dimples & pimples" method of interconnection.
It's been used in connecting stacked etched silicon dies, but I
don't know how widespread that use is. Alas, I had pointer to it
and lost it.) Each one of the contact points is split into four
separate electrical paths, providing 24 different routes to move
data onto and off of the spheres.
The spheres exist in a library of standard units, in the fashion
of our beloved 74xxx chips, only at VLSI complexity and trace scale.
By stacking the spheres in a three-dimensional matrix enclosed by
etched rectangular surfaces providing data buses and power feeds,
you could create a custom processor with hundreds of billions of
transistors in something the size of a fat ice cube.
Why go to all this trouble? Easy: You can blow air through it.
The really really big bottleneck in fast processors today
is heat dissipation. The new custom 3 GHz PCs that Pete Albrecht
and I assembled this past March went together in an hour or less.
The rest of the assembly time we spent on them was spent fooling
with fans and airflow to keep the processor logic from frying itself.
We had a terrible time getting the CPU heat sinks to make good thermal
contact with the CPUs themselves. With processor logic distributed
on the surfaces of small spherical elements touching at six places,
there is a coolant path right through the entire matrix that touches
every sphere across nearly all of its surface. A relatively simple
fan-driven manifold should be able to cool the processor easily
without Cray-style exotica like electrically inert liquids and heat
What I don't remember is how much of this I made up, and how much
(if any) I read somewhere. (These notes go back to 1999.) I have
some very vague recall of seeing a mention of an engineer who proposed
LSI logic on spherical foundations, but I don't remember any details,
and I haven't yet found anything on the Web. The kicker is that
I don't remember if I saw this article before or after I had the
idea. This is a bone I've been chewing for a very long time:
I first speculated about large-scale 3-D solid-state logic in a
story (never published) that I wrote at the Clarion workshop in
1973, and I've tinkered with the concept here and there for thirty
years. Having to compute strictly in two dimensions is like living
in Flatland; surely we can do better than that.
I'm not saying that it's practical, and in truth I'm not at all sure
how you would etch VLSI-scale logic on a spherical foundation. For
me, it was just an exercise in SF speculation. I'll keep looking,
but if any of you recall anything like this in the engineering literature,
do let me know.
19, 2005: Urgent CareIf You Can Find It
I started coming down with some sort of chest cold this past Monday,
and for the last couple of days it's gotten so bad that I've spent
most of my waking hours lying on my back in bed. To make matters
worse, yesterday afternoon I developed a bacterial infection in
my right eye that started to look really ugly after only a couple
It was interesting how difficult it was to locate an "urgent
care" place here in Niles, Illinois. These are stand-alone
medical clinics that take walk-ins without appointments and deal
with minor things that need to be handled promptly. I went to one
when I fell into a patch of poison ivy this summer (see my entry
for July 31, 2005)
and back in 1992 when a local lawyer's chow-chow dog attacked me
without warning in the middle of the street and tore up my left
forearm. (Why didn't I sue the S.O.B? Talk about an open-and-shut
case!) They were everywhere you looked in the Phoenix metro area,
and a fair number are in and around Colorado Springs, but I found
nothing in the local Yellow Pages under "emergency care,"
"urgent care," or "immediate care." I didn't
have Internet access from here in the house, and felt enough like
death warmed over not to want to schlep over to Panera's to start
searching the Web. I ended up just paging through the phone book
until I found a small print ad under "doctors."
The clinic people were wonderful, and gave me some antibiotic cream
for my eye and listened to my lungs to make sure it was nothing worse
than a chestcold. I'm wondering if such places are illegal or over-regulated
out of existence here in Illinois. What's a traveler to do if something
happens that needs attention but isn't life-threatening? I hate to
crowd the local hospital emergency rooms, especially after reading
how much hospitals resent that. I may have to chalk it up as yet another
reason not to live in northern Illinois, after stratospheric property
taxes and inept, totally corrupt local governments.
17, 2005: Human Factors and Depth of Experience
I've had run-ins with human factors experts in the last twenty
years or so, in some cases due to simple arrogance. ("I got
a degree in this and I know it completely.")
In the majority of cases the people in question are ordinary, experienced
professionals with egos well under control; however, a disagreement
on which of two competing UI mechanisms is superior often cooks
down to blank astonishment and empty air, followed by (after a few
uncomfortable seconds) "but....but...my way is easier."
In virtually every case, a little probing shows that what a human
factors expert supports is what he or she has been using for awhile.
This is especially true of human factors people who live on the
Mac platform and only visit Windows to study it, like a fly glued
to a slide under a microscope. I've cornered any number of Mac experts
on the issue of one- versus two-button mice. I originally learned
UIs on the Xerox Alto, which had a three-button mouse and used it
in a bewildering number of combinations. Windows is a good compromise
in my view: Left button to select, right button for context. Almost
invariably, a Mac expert will respond, "Well, Mac OS supports
two-button mice now." I'm sure that's true, but it's really
a dodge and actually doesn't matter. The Mac is delivered with a
one-button mouse, and it's taught with a one-button mouse. People
learn it with a one-button mouse, and Mac culture assumes a one-button
mouse. For Mac people, it's difficult to imagine what Mac work would
be like with a two-button mouse. And this is my point: It may be
impossible to separate ease of use from depth of experience.
One of the most user-hostile interfaces in the history of personal
computing was the text-mode interface for the early DOS versions
of WordPerfect. For a newcomer it was horrible: There were no menus,
no hints, nothing but a bewildering list of permutations of alt/shift/ctrl
function keys. Nonetheless, after a month or so at an office where
I was required to use it and used it all day (Ziff-Davis' PC
Tech Journal) I could work that thing like Pete Albrecht in
a Porsche. For the remainder of my tenure there, and for several
years thereafter, WordPerfect just lived in my synapses, and text
flowed out of my fingertips like fire at 80+ WPM. For me, it was
easybut by then I was an expert.
I've wondered many times since then: Is the best UI from a human
factors standpoint simply the one that's used the most and taught
the best? One problem with modern software is that people expect
to be able to sit down and just "figure it out." We can't
require (as we did with older software) that the user actually read
the manual or take some kind of course. That makes discoverability
probably the single most important element in software human factors.
I think discoverability is what people who are not human factors
professionals think of as "ease of use." The other major
issue in human factors is harder to define, but it's what I call
"expert friction." Once someone becomes an expert at a
piece of software, the software should not get in the way.
This means well-chosen hot keys, arrangment of menus for rememberability,
and a generally consistent and orthagonal design. (Think WordPerfect,
which was all hot keys.)
This makes the whole Mac vs. Windows thing pretty silly, kind if
like arguing whether a rotary lawnmower is better than a reel lawnmower.
Both cut the lawnmost of the difference lies in learning how
to handle them, and where the clippings go. I suspect that human
factors for software is no more complex than this: Software should
be discoverable by the newcomer, and once the newcomer becomes an
expert it should recede into the expert's synapses and cease to
lie between the expert and the work that he or she is doing.
The real challenge, if there is one, is turning newcomers into experts,
but that's a separate issue, which I will try to take up as time allows.
16, 2005: Why Not a Really Big Fan?
The effectiveness of a fan-based CPU cooling system depends on
how much air the fan can move past the CPU per unit time. A small
fan has to turn very quickly to move a lot of air, but a big fan
doesn't have to move that quickly at all. And since (all else being
equal) the faster a fan moves, the more noise it makes, maybe the
solution to quiet computing using fast (and hot) modern CPUs is
to use a really big fan.
My Antec Sonata case works as quietly as it does because it uses
a 5" fan. Still, I don't consider a 5" fan "big."
In this case, I'm talking about the biggest fan that can be mounted
on the broad side of a tower case. The full-size towers I have in
my lab could easily mount a 12" fan on the side panel, or even
a 14" fan designed specifically for the purpose. It would be
interesting to see if a 12" box fan could keep a 3.4 GHz CPU
cool while running at 150-250 RPM, at which speed they could run
without much noise at all.
I'm pretty sure that such fans exist, and if I were ever to get
into casemodding, that would be the first thing I would try. It
also occurs to me that in dry climates (like Arizona and Colorado)
a small swamp cooler (I envision a 6" cube) mounted on the
side or back of a case could bring down the temperature of the air
passing through it by twenty or thirty degrees. Cooler air can pick
up more heat as it passes through the machine, so that would be
something else to experiment with.
I have an empty Compaq full-sized tower case on the floor here in
Niles. I'm termpted to ship it home, sharpen up my tinships, and try
something a little "outside the box," heh.
15, 2005: Second Time Is the Charm
In hanging out with the SF crowd at Windycon this past weekend,
I had an interesting insight: I know a lot of people in second marriages,
but (at this time) none at all in third, fourth, or subsequent
marriages. (I limit this statement to my own age and social cohort,
that is, educated Boomers ages 40-60.) Some related observations:
- Most of the single people that I know have never been married.
Very few who have divorced have remained single for more than
a few years.
- Most of the single people that I know are men. (This goes against
national trends and may be a fluke. Beware of small sample sizes.)
- The most successful first marriages in my acquaintance were
not early marriages. Those who are still in functional
first marriages married when the partners were in their very late
twenties or older.
- In every successful early marriage I know about (which is not
many at all) the partners knew one another for a long time, sometimes
back as far as grade school.
Carol and I married when I was 24 and she 23, and have been very
happily married for 29 years, but we met as juniors in high school
and knew one another for seven years before marrying.
The conclusion I draw is this: The great tragedy in contemporary
marriage is not that we divorce too much, but that we marry too
easily to begin with. When you're young it's easy to marry for the
wrong reasons, because you just haven't lived enough to judge when
you're ready for a committment of that magnitude. When you haven't
known another person that long (and especially if you're young as
well) it's easy to mistake sexual infatuation for eternal love.
It's also easier to hide fundamental personality flaws if you only
have to be on your best behavior for three or four months. Once
you know a person for a couple of years, you're probably going to
have a pretty good idea of what they're really like.
I wish I knew what to suggest that young people be taught to improve
their chances of marrying happily and for life. "Know yourselfand
know him/her even better," would be my first guess. "Wait
until infatuation burns out," would be my second. None of this
is new, and I've discussed it here many times before. But things
may look worse than they actually are. The single statistic that
50% of all marriages end in divorce does not imply that half
of our people cannot sustain a marriage. I look around at my friends
in happy second marriages and figure that for some people, the only
way to learn about marriage is to try it, and for those who choose
partners unwisely, one pass through the divorce grinder is enough
to make the lessons stick.
A more revealing statistic might lie in what percentage of marriages
end in the death of one partnerbut I've never seen that one
published. If you spot it somewhere, do let me know.
14, 2005: Failures to Communicate
Back in Niles, Illinois. Today has not been an especially good
day. I tried to upload several Contra entries from the Crystal Lake
Panera Bread, but I had some hardware problems with my Thinkpad
X21 laptop, and ran out of time to mess with it before I had to
return to Niles. The poor thing is four years old now and has seen
a great deal of schlepping and bumping around, and I'm actually
astonished that nothing has ever gone wrong with it before.
There's another interesting thing about the Crystal Lake Panera:
They've plugged up all the outlets anywhere near any of the tables.
The Wi-Fi is free, but now you're limited to whatever time your
battery will allow, as there's no more refilling the electron tank
while you're inside the restaurant. For me, that's not very much.
My battery's getting old, and on a full charge may give me as much
as seventy minutes of uptime. The Wi-Fi card sucks quite a bit of
juice, but without that there's hardly any point in being there.
It will be interesting to see if the Niles Panera has done the
same thing. I know why the restaurants do that, and have a certain
amount of sympathy. I always buy something (at very least a cinnamon
crunch bagel and coffee, but lunch as often as not) while I'm there,
and try to limit myself to two hours or less. Other people do not
have that sort of scruples, and I read somewhere that people taking
up tables for five or six hours at a time while buying little or
nothing at all is a problem in some restaurants. Other places near
here (like Kappy's Restaurant at Harlem and Dempster) are now installing
free Wi-Fi, but because they block Port 25, getting email out the
door is problematic.
One thing this trip has made abundantly clear is that my laptop
is rapidly approaching end-of-life. A new battery would help, but
it's not very fast by my standards (700 MHz) and memory upgrades
are expensive. As soon as I get home I'm going to get the Lenovo/IBM
Thinkpad X41 Convertible. Carol will inherit this X21 as a compact
Web machine for the laundry room, which is her workshop and where
she does her soapmaking and other odd-moments pursuits. I'm looking
forward to learning Tablet PC Windows, and will report here as that
ISFiC Press now has lots of signed copies of The Cunning Blood,
and whereas their Web shopping cart is still under construction, you
can call Steven Silver and place charge card orders over the phone.
The number is 847-607-0776.
13, 2005: Windycon Wrapup
I just got back up to Crystal Lake (where Carol's sister lives)
after Windycon 32, and I'll wrap up with some odd notes about the
More later. I'm days behind here and need to get this stuff uploaded
and posted from Panera ASAP. Damn, I hate having to drive to
my broadband connection!
- Steven Silver (CEO of ISFiC Press) told me that one reviewer
to whom he had sent The Cunning Blood replied that she
did not review "libertarian science fiction." Apparently
waving flag underlying the other graphics on the cover is
a kind of code to some people, which is ironic, since the Interstellar
American Republic (whose flag it is) hardly fits the mold of the
libertarian stories a la David Drake and others.
- ISFiC did several thousand dollars' worth of business at the
convention, between Harry Turtledove's book and mine. I signed
cartons full of books, most of which were sold before the convention's
closing. I'm a happy guy.
- A panel we held on the future of computing raised a question
that had not occurred to me before: Are modern user interfaces
badly designed? Or just badly taught? Again, we ran out of time
before we could chase that thread very far, but it's a question
worth returning to here at some point.
- I learned a lot about the current state of electric bicycles
from British GTer Dermot Dobson, and will try to post a summary
here in coming days.
- I am already being asked: Will there be a sequel to The Cunning
Blood? Scary notion, as I'm of two minds about sequels, popular
though some may be. I have a sequel concept on ice called The
Molten Flesh, but in truth I'd rather write something without
the constraints of a "Volume 1." If I can get some traction
on The Anything Machine, you'll probably see that first.
12, 2005: Critter Crunch at Windycon
Science Fiction conventions are an odd mix: Goths, comics freaks,
SF gamers, and nerds of every stripe. Many or even most of us are
graying Boomers, but I was encouraged to see a fair number of younger
people, teens and 20-somethings, taking part and not just following
their Boomer parents around in a glazed-over state.
At noon I sat on a panel discussing whether religion and science
could co-exist, and even cooperate. There were too many people on
the panel (And I the least of them; I will not be so bold as to
Wolfe) and we had a hard time keeping a coherent dialog underway.
By the end of our allotted hour we had only begun. I had hoped to
introduce the alternative idea of a "Generous Designer"
who does His work with science, and not shazam-style Divine
magic, so that we can follow along and thus become partners with
God in divine creation. Alas, we ran out of time before I could
get a word in. (See my entry for June
7, 2005 for my original essay on the subject.) Fortunately,
in the final three minutes a young woman in the audience raised
her hand to suggest that God created science too and must have had
a reason for doing so, but there was no more time to explore the
issue. It was heartening that the attendees, most of whom were self-confessed
atheists, did not find the notion of religion itself disturbing,
but only religion that deliberately sets up science as its enemy.
It was also interesting that the group consisted mostly of two groups:
Atheists/agnostics and...Catholics. In fact, Brother
Guy Consolmagno from the Vatican Observatory was on the panel
with us, and that fact alone spoke volumes. I only wish that we
could have kept at it for the rest of the afternoon.
But there were other things worth seeing. One was called Critter
Crunch, which is the local expression of the trademarked Robot
Wars idea: On an 8-foot square plywood platform, remote-controlled
vehicles weighing two pounds or less strove to either flip others
over or push them off the edge of the platform.
Many of the robots entered were hacked Fisher Price toys, mostly
plastic bulldozers, and they did pretty well, especially given that
the #1 priority of a Critter Crunch robot is traction. However,
the top battlers were hand-designed one-offs, and the #1 champ robot
(see below) was in fact a creature constructed from a Vex
Robotics construction set, built and run by a 16-year-old boy
who was so shy I didn't even get his name. Tullio Proni's pyramidal
POP 3 bot did very well, as did 17-year-old Anders Wilson's hand-made
entry. Young people were prominent in the contest: A ten year old
girl was the operator of one Fisher-Price item with sandpaper treads
that did quite well. (She did not build the bot and had never run
one before, and with some practice will be absolutely deadly.)
I've seen Critter Crunch contests before, and if the time were available
I would tinker one together out of Meccano/Erector parts, of which
I have many. I may do it anyway, as building things has proven to
be very therapeutic for me, though I'll probably buy the remote control
systems ready-made. Besides, the magic is all in the drive train,
someone said, and they're probably right. I built a differential out
of Meccano set gears when I was 11 but had no idea what to do with
it. Now I do.
11, 2005: Launching The Cunning Blood
ISFiC Press, the publisher of my SF novel, rented a suite at the
Wyndham here in Rosemont last night, and at 9 PM the launch party
began. The party celebrated not only the launch of two new books,
but also the broadening of ISFiC's own charter, from a publisher
of convention guest-of-honor collections to a publisher of books
that will stand on their own and sell through mainstream retail
channels. This required a certain nontrivial amount of work on their
part, including the obtaining of a book of ISBN numbers, and the
establishment of relationships with firms like Amazon, Borders,
Barnes & Noble, and Baker & Taylor.
The interesting thing is that I know a little bit about book publishing,
hehand I am pleased to say that (without any coaching from
me) they did almost everything exactly right.
This is fortunate, because book publishing is not in a good place
right now. We are still shedding excess capacity in publishing that
came on-line during the go-go days of the late 1990s. Computer publishing
went to extremes in that era, but all categories saw huge growth
in sales prior to 9-11. Things have improved in the past four years,
but there are still too many books chasing too few readers, in SF/fantasy
as in everything else. Nonetheless, as my own Paraglyph Press has
shown, a small firm that aggressively reduces costs and tries hard
to stay in touch with its readership can not only survive, but prevail.
Big NY-style publishing has many more mouths to feed, a far more
rigid business culture (often run, as Rob Rosenwald has often said,
by people who don't read books) and lots, lots more to lose.
Given the way that the NY houses tend to treat their authors, I'm
happy going with a competent startup.
The launch party was a lot of fun. The two books being launched
Turtledove's new fantasy, Every Inch a King, and my hard
SF, rivet-studded yarn The Cunning Blood. Steven Silver and
John Donat stood behind the bar, not mixing drinks but selling books.
Harry and I sat at chairs, munching hors d'oerves and signing books
as needed while chatting with the gang who showed up and eventually
jammed the place, standing and sitting shoulder to shoulder so tightly
that it was difficult to move. We signed a lot of books between
9 and midnight, and as best I could tell everybody went home happyespecially
the ISFiC crew, who probably did over $1000 in business in those
I had feared that the crowd would be entirely focused on Harry Turtledove,
who has published dozens of books and won lots of awards, but not
so: People I had never met before were buying my book with enthusiasm,
and telling me that they want rivetslots and lots of
rivetsplus a storyline that moves quickly and presents interesting
new ideas. One guy who bought the book went into a corner and began
reading it, and returned some time later to grill me about the details
of my wholly imaginary chaos-driven Hilbert stardrive. Of course,
most of my old friends from the SF techie community (a loose group
called General Technics that I helped found back in 1975) bought the
book, and it was a happy mini-reunion for us. I've been away from
the SF scene for a long time, and had gotten somewhat bitter during
the five years I had tried to interest one of the major SF publishers
in the manuscript. Most of them wouldn't even return my emails. Now,
if the book's early reception is any indication, I can start writing
another one. When it's done, there will be readers ready for it. Time
to get to work.
10, 2005: Off to Chicago
Carol and I just got in to Chicago (with QBit under the seat) to
spend Thanksgiving with family (Christmas will be in Colorado this
year) and attend Windycon 32.
My novel will be unveiled tomorrow night, and I'm not entirely sure
what to expect or how to think about it. It's reviewed well so far
(see my entry for November 8, 2005) but
one always wonders how to interpret a single data point.
In between weekends we'll be doing some Christmas shopping and seeing
some hometown friends we haven't seen for awhile. My Net connection
will be spotty (think: Panera Bread) but I will be reading mail at
least once every dayjust not once every ten minutes. So if you
don't hear from me as quickly as you usually do, don't panic.
9, 2005: Tombstones
years ago, I was thinking about the future of computing, and decided
that eventually, personal computers would cook down to thin, flat,
rectangular things containing a screen, NV memory, and voice recognition,
with an external keyboard for the backward-looking. Having seen
Alto experimental workstation while I worked for them, I was
also convinced that computers would eventually stop trying to be
TVs and would switch around to portrait mode, in which virtually
all printed material is used. I coined the term "tombstone"
for this PC of the future, because it was a tall, flat vertical
slab with words on it. I've used that term in several stories, most
recently in my novel, The
In 1985 I bought an MDS Genius monochrome display. It's on the
desk above, in a photo of my office in California in 1988, while
I was editor of Turbo Technix. It looked a lot like an Alto,
and I used it for years and years under DOS with Word Perfect 4.
Alas, although I used both WordPerfect and Turbo Pascal in text
mode on the full 82-line screen, MDS never managed workable Windows
drivers for it, and they went out of business in the early 1990s.
I retired it with reluctance, and assumed that eventually I would
find something similar that would display a full-page portrait mode
screen under Windows.
took awhile, but the other day I got a smoking deal on a Samsung
213T LCD display. Samsung is retiring the model in favor of something
even bigger and wider, but I'd been watching the 213T for some time,
and I feel that getting a Best Buy display unit with a 3-year cart-it-in
warranty for $800 was as good as I was going to do. The unit looks
brand new, and it Just Worked.
The resolution is 1600 X 1200, and the display pivots 180°.
There's a driver that allows you to hot-key from landscape to portrait
mode and back at any time. Its display is almost unbelievably crisp,
and although I had to pull it toward me about six inches from where
the old CRT monitor was, I find it remarkably easy to read the inevitably
I don't recommend it for games of any type, not even puzzle games.
When connected to a Pentium 550, the Snood game runs so slowly I
couldn't deal with it. (I'm not even going to try running Doom 3.)
There's a little bit of jitter in the video, but that's in analog
mode. Once I bestir myself to buy a DVI cable (the 213T has both
VGA and DVI input jacks) I suspect the quality will be much
Working in portrait mode is inherently contrarian, but being a writer
it makes sense for me, and I remain convinced that human knowledge
works best in narrow columns. Note that I said knowledgemy
observation is that only entertainment (movies, TV, video games) insists
on landscape mode. Here and there you might find an application where
horizontal spread is important (spreadsheets, some database browsers)
but for the most part, when we compute we're modeling paper, and since
paper went from scrolls to individual sheets, it's been long side
up. (Ancient scrolls were oriented horizontally, so that the reader
could keep one spool in each hand.)
8, 2005: First Review of The Cunning Blood
Not long after I uploaded yesterday's entry I discovered that The
Cunning Blood had been reviewed
for the first time, and on The
SciFi Channel's Web site, no less! The book is only just barely
off press and not yet in the retail channel; scifi.com reviewer
Paul Di Filippo received an uncorrected proof about six weeks ago
when ISFiC Press kicked into high gear on the project.
I confess his review made me blush a little, but hell, I wrote
the book to be a crowd pleaser, and I'm hoping that it will fulfill
Not much new information concerning when the book will be available,
and where. As of ten minutes ago Amazon had not listed it, but that's
OKpallet quantities have not yet been delivered to the distributor.
(These things take time!) The publisher will be taking orders for
signed copies, but those won't be available until some time after
Windycon 32 this coming weekend. Hang in there; publishing is neither
as easy nor as fast as we would like it to be.
7, 2005: Odd Lots
- I apparently have several readers who are both over 30 and have
IPodsand if I have any readers of any age who subscribe
to XM or Sirius they haven't spoken up yet. Having sampled Sirius
(in a rental car I had for a week) I'm now confident in saying
that Satellite radio is like the Saturn 5 in 1969: Just the thing
for the time being, but we won't need it forever. The IPod or
someting very like it will be around forever, though we
may someday wear it as a piece of jewelry.
- Allan Heim pointed out something I actually saw on a peg in
Walgreens last week and then forgot clean about: The
smallest USB thumb drive yet. Jasco/GE is offering the Intelligent
Stick, which is a misnomer, since nothing that small should be
called a "stick." It weighs three grams and is an inch
and a half long. As Allan pointed out, losing these things is
beginning to be a serious hazard. Still, does anybody else think
that the PC pattern on the USB plug is extremely cool?
- Whatever you do, don't buy Teach Yourself PHP, MySQL, and
Apache, by Julie C. Meloni. (Sams, 2004.) I've seen worse
computer books (and I see a lot of computer books!) but
it's been awhile. Do any of you out there have a favorite LAMP/WAMP
book? Or am I gonna haveta write one?
- The Cunning Blood is off press, bound, and in the publisher's
warehouse. It will be unveiled this Friday night at a big party
at Windycon 32 in Chicago.
Amazon hasn't listed it yet because ISFiC Press is a startup,
and the listing can't happen until Amazon gets a physical copy.
Should be soon. More details on how to get it as I learn them.
6, 2005: The Ebook Killing Fields
I spent some time today cruising Planet
Ebook, which is an ebook portal, trying to get a sense for how
the ebook hardware reader market was going. What I discovered is
that the field is a boneyard. Most of the dedicated (i.e., keyboardless)
ebook reader companies are now simply gone, their hardware (if it
ever even existed) orphaned, their domains bought up by clicksquatters.
and others. I went to Franklin's
site, and they've abandoned their
ebook reader hardware, though they still sell a few ebooks for
it. That's a shame; I played with the EBookMan a little a few years
ago and it was a nice compromise in size, price, and readability.
A lot of this hardware was damned sexy, and some pretty expensive.
One item that still seems to be alive is the Estari
2-Vu, which is a sharp dual-screen tablet that opens like a
book, with a display both left and right. You can have one too for
It's not just the hardware. Adobe has already abandoned its obnoxious
Glassbook reader software as well as its Adobe
Content Server, and it's unclear what will happen to the server-side
DRM support once tech support is cut off at the end of 2006. This
is one of the best arguments against active DRM: If the company
that owns the DRM sinks, it may take your content with it.
The message is pretty simple: There is less money in ebooks than
people once thought, and in particular, people who are interested
in ebooks are not willing to pay big for dedicated hardware ebook
readers. Ebooks are not a killer app that will drive hardware sales.
Ebooks will have to find a way to live on conventional mobile devices,
be they phones, PDAs, tablets, or laptops. The only publishers who
would have bought something expensive like Adobe Content Manager
are the big New York guys who can't abide the thought of selling
ebooks for fear that someone, somewhere might rip them off.
That leaves the field wide open for small publishers who get a $20/month
hosting contract and install a gumball machine to accept money and
dispense ebooks. Gumball machine? Indeed. Let's talk more about that
in a day or so.
5, 2005: The Velocity of Books
Way back in the September 29 Wall Street Journal there was
a slightly surreal article (not available online, though here
is something similar) about the efforts of certain parties (mostly
big-name authors and agents) to regulate and take a slice of used
book sales. The article itself is fairly lightweight and presents
no hard numbers, but the gist is this: It has become so easy to
sell used books that many people are now buying a book, reading
it once, and then selling it on Amazon Marketplace for a steep discount,
even though the book may be in "like new" condition.
There has always been a market for used books, but in the past,
readers had to depend on local sources (basically, used bookstores
and garage sales) for used books, and finding any but the hugest
sellers was sheer luck. Trust me on that, I used to spend a huge
amount of time haunting used bookstores, wantlist in hand. Now,
with used bookselling database-driven and global in scope, I just
surf to abebooks.com and place my order.
Most large publishers take as axiomatic that used book sales hurt
new book sales, but the truth is probably a little more complex.
I don't borrow books very often, but in about half the cases, I
enjoy the book enough to later buy a copy of my own. Smaller media
companies understand that just getting your name out there is the
real challenge, and I know from personal experience related to me
in fan mail that used copy sales have often caused readers to go
looking for my newer books.
first-sale doctrine is ancient enough in the world of tangible
goods to make efforts to extort a commission on used book sales
from places like Amazon futile. What I see behind author and agent
complaints is the gradual shift in media industry consciousness
from the traditional sales model to the pay-per-view model that
music and film interests are trying hard to impose on the public.
And while the market for used print books is beyond regulation,
there is a real possibility that ebooks may become non-transferrable,
as much player-based music is now.
This has been true for some time in a
few textbook markets, where ebook versions of expensive college
and medical school textbooks are keyed to an individual buyer or
computer and cannot be resold as used to others. I think this works
for textbooks because textbooks are not marketed to students; they're
marketed to professors and students have no choice in the matter.
Such plans are defended as being necessary for the compensation
of authors (especially for big, difficult projects like fact-checked
textbooks) but in truth the larger publishers have themselves been
squeezing author payments rather than protecting them. Author royalities
as a percentage of cover price have been sliding for years due to
growing retail discounts, which are in effect passed on to authors
because authors are paid on percentage of net receipts, not cover
price. On top of that, the author share of book net sales has been
shrinking as well; the 15% of net that I enjoyed 20 years ago is
history, with 8-11% prevailing now. We're getting a smaller slice
of a smaller pie.
The WSJ article didn't even mention the globalization of
the remainders market. When books stop selling briskly enough to
merit shelf space in retail stores, publishers sell whatever stock
is left to remainder houses, which then sell them any way and at
any price they can, and literally recycle to pulp what they can't
sell as books. In the old days selling remainders was difficult,
because it was all done through local discount bookstores or "book
fairs" and such. Now, remainders are everywhere on the online
book sites. Such books are not required to be listed as "remaindered"
and are not stamped "Remaindered", but if you ever get
a book with a black felt marker stroke across one of the edges,
you've got a remaindered book. Remainders of books I wrote ten or
twelve years ago are still listed on Amazon; just now I saw The
New Netscape & HTML Explorer (1996) for sale at seventy
six cents. I'm not sure how they do it. Amazon sets the shipping
rates for Marketplace sales, so sellers can't give away the books
and just mark up the shipping to make a profit, as is done elsewhere.
Anyway. One way to sum all this up is to say that the velocity
of books is increasing. "Friction" in the book market
is vanishing as the Internet allows effortless search by title,
author, or even text. In this new world of book publishing, books
don't die predictably like they used to, marching into a pulping
mill by the numbers. Books may hang around and pass from hand to
hand for years, suppressing sales of new editions.
As an author I don't like it either, but I recognize what many of
my fellow authors don't: We're now seeing a genuine free market in
books. What we can get these days is what we always would have gotten
if the difficulties of finding and selling books globally had never
existed. We need to find a better way to create and sell books that
allows authors to make a living, and I don't see it yet, but you can
bet that I'm still looking.
4, 2005: Are IPods the Next Radios?
Sometimes I just feel old, and one of those times is when I try
and grasp the IPod phenomenon. These days, I play CDs in the car,
or MP3s when I'm down in the shop soldering resistors. I do my creative
work in silence. On the other hand, I remember having a transistor
radio (we're talking mid-60s here) and listening to it a lot.
My chunky little Japanese radio gave way to the Walkman, and later
on to various kinds of music players. Little by little, radio fell
by the wayside. (If it weren't for the iconic big-city two-hour
commute, I think broadcast radio would be dead by now.)
Back in my October
24, 2005 entry, I suggested that WiMax could become the next
radio, by reliably distributing CD-quality music and talk to mobile
devices. (I wasn't even thinking about video at that point, but
video will be a part of the mix.) The big question is: What device
will be the receiver? Car/desk radio? Cellphone? PDA? Or IPod and
- Car radios, probably. Size, power draw, and antennas are not
- Desk receivers, well, what about the PC that you already have?
A WiMax plug-in board and some software and you're there.
- PDAs, possibly, especially since they're dead silicon in our
pockets about 94% of the time. Why not put them to work as WiMax
digital receivers when they're not otherwise engaged?
- Cellphones, I don't think so. As I said before, all the wrong
people control the cell industry. Broadcasting is a business model
they don't grok and aren't likely to any time soon.
- IPods...now you're talking. They're already considered entertainment
platforms, rather than communications platforms. The people who
sell them understand things like music and video in ways the cellmongers
never will. There's plenty of room for additional electronics
inside those little boxes. Batteries, well, that's a tougher call,
but we'll find out eventually.
There are three additional reasons that IPods could be the ideal
platform on which to build a new, advertising-supported broadcast
- The listener demographic is hugely focused, and (better
yet) countable. IPod owners are young people, for the most part,
and young people who share a common culture. This is precisely
what advertisers want. Also, a station can count connections,
unlike conventional radio broadcasters, so advertisers don't have
to take a sales rep's or an auditor's word for the numbersthey
can demand to see the connection logs.
- Podcasts are already a familiar and popular mechanism among
the IPod crowd, and a commercial podcast is just a podcast put
on by grown-ups, with legal music and advertising to pay for it.
- Young people are very much into "free." This is why
I don't know anybody with a satellite receiver (Sirius, XM, etc.)
who's under 30. (I also don't know any IPod owners who are over
30.) Subscription models are only grudgingly accepted by the IPod
crowd. A "free" business model (i.e., ad-supported)
would drive subscription-based streamed music into the margins,
especially if DRM gets worse than it already is. In truth, legal
downloadable track-based music and broadcast music can coexist
and even coevolve, and I think they will. There's never been a
better way to promote a band than broadcast radio, and the music
industry knows this.
We may be a couple of years away from cheap mobile WiMax. That's
OK, since the IPod market has to grow and the technology has to
mature a little. But my money's on the IPod as the killer app for
mobile WiMaxand the return of broadcast radio from a very
On the other hand, I'm 53. If WiMax shows up, the kids will decide.
3, 2005: Moving MySQL Databases
Some months back, I manually entered a dozen or so Contra entries
into a MySQL database up on my hosting service, so that I'd have
something to display as I experiment with PHP. I have now installed
XAMPP on a machine here locally, and wanted the same data. I exported
the remote database from PHPMyAdmin, downloaded it, and loaded it
effortlessly into my local install of MySQL. I hadn't done this
before, and I took a close look at the .sql file exported from the
Who needs binary compatibility? The export file was a list of purely
textual SQL commands which, when executed, replicate my original
database on any database server that understands SQL. The exercise
answered my question about getting blog data from client to server
and back. SQL is a very strong standard, and for relatively
simple databases like a blog, I can't imagine a SQL-compatible database
that couldn't handle it.
I'm spending most of my odd moments studying the PHP/MySQL interface.
The tricky stuff, as always, lies neither in PHP (which is a very
conventional programming language) nor in SQL itself. The tricky
stuff is always at the edges where big things come together. Getting
data out of a SQL query and into PHP variables seems gnarlier than
it should be, and the books I have on the subject say remarkably
little on it, and what they say they say badly.
Other odd notes on the same subject: My hosting service had turned
off PHP error messages, which is why my
clumsy programs were bumping their elbows in silence. When XAMPP
installs PHP it leaves error reportiong on, and things have been
a whole lot better since then.
PHP Designer is very good, at least for simple work, and I recommend
it for people just beginning to write PHP code.
Damn, but this is fun!
2, 2005: WAMPin' with PHP Designer
I think I have the PHP coding environment covered, at least while
I'm climbing the learning curve. I installed XAMPP
on an old Pentium 450 downstairs, and it Just Worked. I deliberately
installed it in what I call Dumbass Mode, meaning I didn't read
any of the instructions at all, but just ran the installer. No problem.
If you're not already a server wizard and are interested in learning
(Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) or WAMP
(Windows/Apache/MySQL/PHP) which I call (for all platforms) PASQL,
XAMPP is a superb way to go. I mapped my learning directory onto
a network drive, and work happily from upstairs even though the
machinery is all downstairs. I firewalled the old machine to prevent
outsiders (not to mention my cable company) from attempting to access
the servers from the Internet. This one's just for me.
As for a PHP IDE, I stumbled across one yesterday that I hadn't
seen before: PHP
Designer 2005. It's the best of the freeware editors I've yet
seen, and while I'm intrigued by Zend, I want to explore PHP's farther
corners a little more before getting into anything that ambitious.
PHP Designer has a built-in FTP client, boilerplate generators for
PHP control structures and the more complex HTML elements, a snippets
library for storing your own custom boilerplate, a debugger that
I haven't needed much yet, autocomplete on common tags, and a lot
of other things, all wrapped up in a very polished package. My only
gripe so far is that the built-in preview pane requires IE and can't
be set to any arbitrary browser, but I know why the author did it
that way, and hope that he will eventually make the preview pane
a plug-in of some sort.
I did realize when I began writing PHP integrated with HTML just
how rusty I was on HTML. I'm actually spending more time brushing
up on HTML and (especially) CSS than I am writing PHP code. If I
do end up writing machinery like Aardblog that generates Web pages
on the fly, I want the generated HTML to be up to date and not full
of deprecated tags.
This highlights an underappreciated danger of using WYSIWYG Web editors:
You don't have to look at the underlying HTML markup, and thus you
don't learn it. In my case, it's been so long since I've looked
at HTML code in quantity that the HTML spec itself has evolved considerably
right under my nose. Toto, we're not in 1998 anymore, heh.
1, 2005: Odd Lots
- In response to yesterday's
entry about PHP development, several people suggsted installing
and using XAMPP
on a lab machine on my local network. XAMPP is basically an installer
that sets up Apache, PHP, MySQL, and a number of other things
(including the Mercury mail server) in one swoop, configuring
everything to reasonable defaults. I installed it last night and
will be poking at it today. With everything on one local machine,
I can program in PHP almost as though it were Delphi, and when
I have something worth putting up on my hosting site, that's easy
too. I'll report back after I've had some time to fool with it.
- That consummate loser Sony is doing a really really dumb
thing: They're installing Windows rootkits as part of their
latest music DRM system. Read
this. Having succeeded at suing 13-year-old girls for sharing
files, the record companies are now silently installing rootkits
on our PCs. Great way to make young people respect your property
- Pete Albrecht called my attention to Symbols.com,
which is an encyclopedia of symbols and ideograms emerging from
Western culture. Here's an
example; the old alchemists' symbol for vitriol. Fascinating
- A remarkable thing happened last night: I gave the last couple
of pieces of candy in the bowl to the last group of kids who came
to the door at about 8:30. Halloween over, bowl empty. For the
first time in living memory I won't be forced to finish half a
bag of malted milk balls, sigh.