September 30, 2003:

The truly confounding thing about the California recall insanity is why either party would want to run the godforsaken place at all. If the Republicans were smart they'd let the Democrats keep it; if the Democrats were smart they'd hand the state to the Republicans and walk away laughing. Trust me on this one: Whichever party takes the governorship will be held responsible for "fixing" the state, which will take twenty years of suffering if it can be done at all. That means that whichever party takes the governorship this fall will lose the governorship in '04 and the presidential vote as well.

I had thought for awhile that the Republicans were backing Arnold so that they would be sure to lose, but they're probably not that clever—and I was unprepared for the degree of support that an aging bodybuilder from Austria could garner out on the Left Coast. They're now in mortal danger of winning, heh. Politics just works that way sometimes, so if you're out there in California somewhere, decide which party you want to take the Presidency and the Senate in 2004—and then vote the other way in the Davis recall.
September 29, 2003:

I've been using PocoMail since March, and I'm quite happy with it overall. Outlook Express was just too weird and proprietary for me, and—egad—it stores its blocked senders list in the Windows Registry. Worst of all, OE uses IE for viewing messages, exposing people to any number of worm/virus script exploits that beset IE. As most of you know, I have very little tolerance for "executable documents." I want to look at information, not give it control of my machine. PocoMail uses its own "dumb" HTML viewer, which has no scripting abilities at all, and I like that.

About two weeks ago, I upgraded to PocoMail 3.0. So far, so good—though I expected more. I have not had time to fully explore its new scripting abilities, but it has the ability to strip out all HTML code, leaving behind only text. It can also strip out only IMG tags, allowing you to look at an HTML spam message without downloading images that can tell the spammer that there's a "live" address here.

I have been disappointed in the spam filtering, however. In particular, the partial subject line filtering does not seem to work. Putting words like "V1agra" in the subject line spam keywords list should snag a message with "V1agra" anywhere in the subject line, but it does not. Spammers have graciously provided us with a good many idiosyncratic spellings that would never appear in a legitimate message, and Poco can't seem to spot them. I may be doing something wrong, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what.

Overall, Poco 3.0 is a win, and I do recommend it. I suspect that I'll be able to figure out the subject line filtering at some point. The chickenboners who haunt my inbox seem to focus almost entirely on pills these days (whatever happened to "JLo's Pink Engagement Ring"?) including a lot of what I thought were tightly controlled compounds like Vicodin—er, V1codin. Subject line filtering will skim a huge number of them out of my hair, so I had better allocate some time to figuring it out. Let me know if you have any ideas.
September 28, 2003:

I have a fair number of telescopes, but only two really big ones. I was reflecting the other day that I had spent an immense amount of time building my 10" Newtonian, a project I began early in 1968, when I was 15, by buying an Edmund mirror-making kit from my friend George Hodous for $10. I spent that summer grinding and polishing the mirror at the Adler Planetarium Optical Shop in Chicago. Only after I finished the mirror did I begin constructing the rest of it, which took wobbly form early in 1970, and has been worked on in fits and starts ever since. The scope is shown at left, on its poured-concrete pier at our home in Scottsdale, Arizona, in December of 2002. The mount is machined steel, with bronze gears and self-aligning ball bearings, and the whole thing (not including the concrete pier) weighs in at over 400 pounds. (Many thanks to Emily Abrash—Michael's very talented daughter—for the photo.)

Whew. That's a lot of telescope to haul around. And because it is, I realized that I had used it a lot less than I had used my other big telescope over the years. I consider my 8" scope my cheap-and-scruffy instrument, because it's made of scrap lumber and pipe fittings, with no ball bearings and no least sign of machined parts. I started work on that scope when I was only 13, and finished it while I was a freshman in high school. It had a square plywood tube at first, changed to a length of aluminum vent pipe somewhere along the way.

The 8" uses a "turn on threads" mount, meaning that its "bearings" are just two pipe fittings screwed together loosely enough to turn freely, but with enough friction to keep a breeze or minor weight imbalances from moving it.

Although low-tech in the extreme, this system is extremely effective, and almost elegent in its simplicity.

It's not especially fragile. It's not especially heavy. (Even at 51, I can lift the whole thing and lug it short distances.) It comes apart with great ease, using a screwdriver and an Allen wrench. Because of all that, I realize I've used it probably ten times as much as the larger 10" scope, which (if you look at the photo above) is the yellow thing parked in a corner of the garage.

There's a lesson here: Keep factors like ease of use in mind when you build something, or you'll end up leaving that something in the garage while you use something else. Remarkably, I got this almost exactly right when I drew my little sketch at age 13—but never realized it until almost four decades later.
September 27, 2003:

I've been hearing rumors since midsummer, but until I actually saw it posted as a task group on the IEEE's Web site, I was unwilling to say much about 802.11n. Well, there it is, their first meeting is scheduled, and I would guess that we're off and running.

802.11n is "high-throughput" 802.11 wireless networking. What they mean by "high" has not yet been defined; I've seen media people cite values up to 320 Mbps. Most, however, suggest 100 Mbps, which isn't quite double the top rate of 802.11a and 802.11g. The task group schedule, which you can download from the IEEE's site, specifies an October 2005 date for publication of the standard, but that's pure speculation at this time. Rumor has it that, like 802.11b and 802.11g, the new standard will work at 2.4 GHz (a bad idea, in my view—that street's too crowded already!) but again, this has not been confirmed.

Apart from putting WLANs on par with 100 Base-T wired Ethernet, what is this good for? Consumers have bought hugely into 802.11g, even though no broadband Internet connection technology I'm aware of puts any strain on creaky old 802.11b. I have moved lots of files around our wireless network (mostly for centralized backups) but that's about all that most people use it for. However, when "wireless-n" hits the streets, I'll lay odds that it will be a huge success.

Part of that success will be simple ignorance of what that speed buys you, and part the ancient desire to have the latest and greatest. However, some small but not insignificant part of it will be driven by the file sharing underground. The relentless attacks by Big Media will force file sharing to go local, and a lot of that will be teens hanging out down at the mall, swapping songs among their PDAs. We already have 1 GB flash memory cards; by the time 802.11n hits the streets, most PDAs will have that much storage and more. A wireless connection with throughput (not bit rate) at the 50 Mbps level will allow typical MP3s to be transferred in a couple of seconds, and whole albums in less than a minute.

High-throughput 802.11 wireless will, I predict, bring 802.11's ad-hoc network mechanism out of obscurity and into the limelight. In my analysis, ad-hoc needs a lot of bandwidth just to manage a wide-open N-way connection among local machines. Give it more throughput (and some attention on the software side) and ad-hoc could become something truly useful, even if it ends up being Big Media's worst nightmare.
September 26, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Standard back view
(170K image)

With regard to "cat craziness" (see yesterday's entry) an amazing number of people wrote, saying, "I thought you were just being funny, but then I looked on Google and there may be something to it." Well, shucks: I thought I was just being funny (and didn't even bother looking on Google) but in truth, there may in fact be something to it.

Bill Roper sent me this article from the Toronto Star, which is short but at least gives the scientist's name and location. (Dr. Jaroslav Flegr, of Charles University in Prague.) However, Larry Nelson hit the jackpot by locating the actual article abstract in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Infectious Diseases. (I think you have to be a subscriber to get the whole thing, but unless you're also a medical professional, you're unlikely to need—or even be able to digest—the whole thing.) Michael Covington unearthed this older abstract that hints at the same phenomenon cited by Dr. Flegr. Michael also sent the CDC writeup on toxoplasmosis, which is very useful for getting some background on the disease in general. Michael also makes the savvy observation that reckless people and those who don't see personal hygiene as a priority are naturally more likely to contract diseases that can easily be picked up from cat crap and raw meat, so there is some question as to the direction of the cause/effect arrow. Some skepticism is in fact warranted, but sheesh—it makes you wonder what else may influence our behavior and psychology!
September 25, 2003:

The following item came in through Ken Rutkowski's email news aggregator, and I reproduce it in full here since he doesn't link to anything to support it. The parasite is real, but nothing I've found points to the studies cited:

If you're a cat owner and can't control your impulsive behaviour, there could be a surprising explanation - you might have caught it from your pet. Toxoplasma gondii is a common parasite of house cats. It's also found in rabbits and some kinds of raw meat and has been known to jump from cats to humans, with some startling results. Now, a new study has linked Toxoplasma infections to uninhibited behaviour in humans. An international team of scientists performed personality and behavioural tests on 300 volunteers. They also tested the subjects for Toxoplasma infection. Women who had evidence of Toxoplasma in their brains were likely to be more unreliable, brash, and reckless than those who showed no evidence of the parasite. They tended to be more promiscuous and spend more money and effort on their personal appearance. Toxoplasma infection in men was linked with feelings of jealousy and aggression. These men were more likely to be withdrawn, careless about their personal hygiene, and prone to moodiness. In both sexes, infection with Toxoplasma was linked to a 2.6-fold increase in the likelihood of being involved in a car crash. The parasite slows reaction time, contributing to an estimated one million road deaths annually. In previous studies, rats infected with Toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. It's thought that a similar breakdown of natural inhibitions is happening in the people surveyed. The scientists estimate that up to half the population of Great Britain is infected with Toxoplasma. In people with healthy immune systems, the infection usually doesn't produce any symptoms of illness.

I'll only be half-serious here (ok, maybe one quarter serious!) and suggest that the cultural revolution that happened in much of the West circa 1968 was peculiarly synchronized to the rise in popularity of cats in middle-class households. What we see here is nothing less than a possible explanation for the emergence of hippies, the crime explosion, and the sexual carnival. Now, back in the 50's and early 60's cats were not a middle-class thing, like dogs were. Come the mid-60's cats were suddenly very chic, especially among the intellgentsia and college students, who seemed to go off their collective nuts all at once in 1968.

Coincidence? Probably, but it's better than most of the conspiracy theories going around these days. I'll believe in feline parasites long before I'll believe in aliens, the Age of Aquarius, harmonic convergence, or contagious memes haunting the collective unconscious. Something caused the nuthouse we call the Sixties, and if you have a better theory than mine I'll hear it. (I won't promise not to make fun of it, but I'll hear it!)
September 24, 2003:
Apologies are due to the several Marines who wrote and reminded me that there is no such thing as an "ex-Marine." Once a Marine, always a Marine. (I've already corrected the 9/21 entry where I made the mistake, so don't go looking for it.) All I meant was a Marine who was no longer on active duty. (As one said, "I'm a Marine until I die; I just don't get paid for it these days.") Thanks guys, and just a general note to all who read this: Never hesitate to zing me when I get something wrong. I want to be right, and sometimes it makes for some interesting discussion.
September 23, 2003:

I haven't published a picture of the house lately because it hasn't changed much since the one I posted for 9/15. We've ordered the roof tile (a sort of greenish gray) and it won't be here for two weeks, so until that happens there won't be much top show you on the exterior. The action is all inside right now. Earlier today the house was swarming with plumbers, electricians, and HVAC guys, all putting the infrastructure together. We walked the house with the media guy, who installs the security system, cable TV runs, and network cabling. We've had to rearrange a couple of the heating vents, and we've caught some errors while they could easily be reversed, which is one of the reasons I'm willing to work so hard at this.

We've chosen our lighting fixtures, and that was enough to make us crosseyed all by itself. We happened across an amazing centerpiece fixture for the formal dining room, which I show at left. It's harmonious with the Mission/Arts & Crafts style in which we're decorating the house, and the photo doesn't really do it justice; it's dazzling.

So things move along. That's good; the seasons are starting to change here. (Seasons! What are seasons? Oh, yeah, it gets cold here sometimes!) The mountain is beginning to show some color on the locust trees, and the nights have a serious nip to them. (So far my min/max wireless outside thermometer has gone as low as 37°.) The contractor is trying to get the place weatherproof as soon as he can so that the finish work can be done in reasonable comfort. (Do we want carpenters with numb fingers putting up our crown molding? I think not...) Once the roof tiles are delivered and piled on the roof they can apply the exterior stucco and begin the interior sheet rock work, and it comes along quickly after that. We still intend to move in by Valentine's day. Christmas had been our hope for awhile, but we're not counting on it. The last 20% of the work truly does take 80% of the time.
September 22, 2003:

A short addendum to yesterday's entry: A number of my friends (primarily the fanatically liberal ones) were not happy with my move here. Some cite the "conservative culture" of the Springs (which, if it means personal responsibility, is fine by us!) but most also suggest that in a nuclear war, NORAD (which lies less than two miles from here) will be targeted early and heavily.

Perhaps. But targeted by whom? The Russians, certainly, but MAD, while not at hair-trigger ready anymore, is still an issue. Actually, any global power who could attack us here in mid-continent would be identified by satellite intelligence and then paved over. Any power that has the tech to reach us here has the smarts to know it's a suicide gesture. Those who are truly vulnerable to nuclear destruction are those who live close to the coasts and within easy reach of terrorists packing cruise missiles or simply static fissile devices in rusty cargo containers. The irony is that the coasts are "blue country"—liberal, in the new Brooksian color-coding—and are also at the greatest risk of nuclear destruction. (An excellent recent article in the September 2003 Atlantic on the anarchy that reigns in international waters is worth reading, though it's not yet online.)

It's always possible, though thoroughly unlikely, that terrorists could smuggle a device into the US, build it into the back of a delivery truck, and blow it up as close as they could get to Fort Carson or NORAD. But that's also true of millions of other targets around the country, and the soul of terrorism is to target civilians. I worry about terrorism, but no more than those who live in other areas.We're all targets—therefore location as a risk parameter mostly factors out.

Finally, if a genuine nuclear conflagration breaks out, I'm not sure I want to face the aftermath. Being vaporized along with NORAD would probably be easier than any other outcome. But let's just say that there are a lot more nuclear scenarios involving New York City than Colorado Springs—and that's yet another reason I'm here. Dubuque might be a hair safer, but Dubuque doesn't have mountains!
September 21, 2003:

Carol and I chose Colorado Springs for our new home after a month's analysis that involved a lot of hard thought, Web research, and spreadsheeting. One reason we chose it—as well as the neighborhood in which we settled—was its safety. There is some crime here, but it's not a lot, and it's not anywhere near where we live. As I've mentioned before, we're quite close to Fort Carson (currently less than a thousand feet!) and we hear their artillery practice from time to time.

Our street is pleasant, middle-class, and quite diverse in terms of race. In terms of culture, however, it's relatively homogenous: Most of the people living on our street are military living off-base (we are renting a house owned by an Army officer, in fact) or former military who liked the area and decided to stay. This, to us, is a fine thing: The military teaches responsibility—and marksmanship. As I like to say, there are a fair number of Marines and Army living here on Danceglen Drive, and I think the local thugs are smart enough to know that breaking into a Marine's house is a really bad idea.

Colorado is a concealed-carry state, and the advantages to that are less clear, but on balance I favor it. To get a permit you have to have a clear criminal record, pass a background check, and take a firearms safety course. When concealed carry is forbidden, criminals know that ordinary people are very unlikely to be armed. With concealed carry, crooks have to make that extra calculation: Is that balding guy a pushover—or a retired infantry officer? In the Springs, if a non-criminal is carrying heat, it's also quite likely that he or she knows precisely how to use it. The anti-gun lobby warned for years that concealed carry would mean an explosion of deadly domestic violence, but recent studies cited in the local paper showed that that wasn't happening, either here or anywhere else.

All that being said, I'll freely admit that I moved here in part because of all the guns—artillery and otherwise. I'll add that it was not the guns alone but the gun culture that tipped the balance—there's a gun culture on the South Side of Chicago that wouldn't have inspired the same confidence, heh. I'll also suggest, though I have no proof, that one of the reasons there was so little gun-related violence in the 1950s is that a far greater percentage of young men served in the military, and soaked up both the military culture of responsibility and the military attitude toward firearms. Although military culture is not for everyone, it seems to leave an indelible mark on those who complete a tour of duty successfully. I'm not sure how else we might expose our young people to that culture, but boy, we could sure do worse than try.
September 20, 2003:

My friend Pete Albrecht, who took the amazing photos of Mars I posted here in my August 9, 2003 entry, has trained his sights on Saturn, and an early snap is shown at left. This with a 12" Meade computer-controlled "go-to" scope, and a Phillips ToUCam webcam—I stand completely in awe of what such a setup can do. I can hardly wait to see what he does with Jupiter once it comes back around from behind the sun in another month or so.

The house project has kept us so busy in recent days that my postings here have suffered. Please bear with me. We're choosing a multitude of things, all at one time. Stucco, kitchen cabinets, positions of floor vents, and kitchen appliances have been nailed. We're still chewing on the roof tile color, cabinet hardware, floor coverings, trim paint, and the finishing touches on things like the entry to the dining room—and probably a few others that I'm too boggled to remember at 10 PM.
September 17, 2003:
As it happens, the Conairphone "Internet Telephone" (see yesterday's entry) is nothing more than a standard telephone handset. I figured that out by swapping it in to the kitchen wall phone and making a couple of calls. All the magic (what little magic there is) lies in the cable. At least one other company, Dialspree, sells a similar product with what looks like an identical cable, so I had some hope that the cable could be purchased somewhere as a separate item. So far no luck, but if you know of a source do pass it along. When I get some time I'll poke at the cable with my VOM and trace out the pinouts, then perhaps do a short Web paper on it. In the meantime, if you get on Skype somehow, give me a call. I'm interesting in comparing audio quality over different connections.
September 16, 2003:

While researching a paper I hope to present at the February '04 O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, I stumbled upon word of a brand-new free utility called Skype. It's best characterized as an IM client that does VoIP as well as text messaging. I think that that's been tried before, but this time the creators (who are the creators of the Kazaa P2P file sharing system) used a P2P mechanism for address lookup and routing around NAT firewalls. (I've read their FAQ but I'm still not entirely sure how they pulled that off. It's a damned good trick!) You look up people on the P2P network and add them to your local directory. The client does presence management; you can tell (as with IM) whether your party is online or away before making a call.

To test it, I dug around in my computer junkbox and pulled out this thing called a Conairphone Internet Telephone INT100CS, which a company called Riparius Ventures had sent to me at Visual Developer way back in 1998. I could never get the bundled software to work correctly, so it went into The Box of (Almost) No Return, and why I kept it all these years I have no idea. Still, it looks like an ordinary phone handset, and has two plugs and a jack coming off the end of its cord. One plug goes into your sound card's speaker jack, and the other into the mic jack. Your speakers (if you have them) plug into the cord's jack so that they will work as well.

I got it all installed this morning and was trying to figure out how to test it, but not long after that I heard a very convincing telephone ring from my speakers, and by clicking an icon on the popup window I "answered" the "phone." Begosh and begorrah, there was a young chap on the line who lives in Denmark. He had just installed Skype and chose me at random to test the system. He spoke near-perfect English. We talked for awhile, and then hung up, by clicking an icon rather than sticking the handset anywhere. It was eerie; I'm not sure what to compare it to. Maybe ham radio for the 21st century. "CQ Denmark!"

Now, the idea of an IM client doing VoIP isn't an astonishing thing in itself. What threw me back completely in my chair was the quality of the audio. It was better than PCS—there was utterly no comparison, no grittiness, no distortion due to packets arriving out of order. (How do they do that!) It was better than an analog phone. No, it was CD quality audio. Skype took virtually no configuration nor troubleshooting. I installed the software, filled out a couple of fields, and it just worked.

Now, I don't know how well Skype would work on a limited-bandwidth dialup (I will test it as time allows and report back) but for people with broadband, it represents an amazing way to keep phone bills down, if you talk to similarly connected but faraway people on a regular basis. (I wish to God I had had this while Carol was away at grad school in '75-76.)

Give it a try. You can use a headset with a boom mic; anything meant to work with a sound card.You can still buy the Conairphone handset from Riparius for $24.95, but because it has no batteries and the sound card provides no power, I suspect it's nothing more than an ordinary phone handset with a special cable. (I tossed out all my old phones when I left Scottsdale or I'd lash up a cable for one of the old handsets, just to check for sure.)

If you want to find my entry in the P2P directory, look for the nickname "Novilio." (I tried using "Jeff Duntemann" but the system won't accept spaces in the name.) Give a call. Sounds like the future to me.
September 15, 2003:

I finally got a copy of the 1992 edition of my book Assembly Language Step By Step to download from Overnet (see my entry for September 12, 2003) and sure enough, it was a pirated copy. (Sometimes publishers license books to online firms for publication as ebooks, and Coriolis did some of that, but I had never heard of Wiley doing the same for my assembly book.) Some guy took the scarifyingly large amount of time and trouble to scan and OCR all 450-odd pages and spin it all into a readable PDF. The most interesting part was a short note at the very end of the file:

Scannerís note: Itís been my pleasure scanning this and picking Jeff Dís wit and ASM.knowledge. He mentions in his latest version that one of the main reasons he wrote this is that so many Assembly tutorials out there are in some language, but itís not English. I donít know, maybe itís fooby, but I agree that a lot of the assembly tutes are so technical and decentralized itís impossible for a newby to gain anything from it. Iíve learned a lot about scanning as well as a good bit of beginning Assembly. I found a few of his typoís, and likely my OCR program left a few in. caveat downloader. This version is out of print, and I want to stress the point: I would not scan his present version of this book and I hope no one else does either- letís face it, Jeffís likely not going to get big movie rights bucks from his book, so he needs the dough. If you can learn enough ASM from this free scanned book to get your feet wet and want to further your learning, I strongly suggest you buy his latest version of Assembly Language Step-by-Step. That way youíve gotten interested in and learned Assembly for only $55, and youíve helped a good programmer do what heís trying to do- make a living at it.

What can I say? I had actually thought of doing this myself, or at least posting some subset of the book for free downloading as bait for the much-expanded (for Linux especially) 2000 edition. Now somebody else has done it for me. I guess I should be grateful. If I work at it long enough, I suppose I eventually will be.
September 14, 2003:

Ha! I uploaded an incomplete entry here to this date the other night, while I was half-dizzy with fatigue. It started to wander, so I'm setting it aside until I have some time to make the point in a coherent manner.

Sorry for the booboo.
September 13, 2003:
Our house is the last house in the near neighborhood to be built, however, about half a mile south, new construction continues apace, and while out walking in that direction the other day, I happened upon the construction dumpster shown at left. It may take a second to realize, but the big jagged thing with jaws on the left side of the container is supposed to be an "S". Not that that helps completely, since there really shouldn't be an apostrophe in the company name—unless they're so clever as to indicate that this is the dumpster belonging to Crapmas...sorry, Scrapmaster LLC.
September 12, 2003:

I've been trying to steal my own books, and haven't had a whole lot of success. (Reverse shoplifting my magazines was a whole lot easier, though it's hard to tell how useful it was.) Having been tipped off that all three of my most recent books were available for downloading on something called Overnet, (see my entry for September 9, 2003) I figured I'd better go take a look. I learned a lot in the process, though at times it's hard to tell just what.

Overnet is an interesting thing: It's a peer-to-peer file-sharing network with a rough resemblance to the original Gnutella network, and more resemblance to Sharman's Kazaa, which was the last thing I looked at in the file sharing universe, some months ago before it all got ugly. It's not well documented, and I had a lot of poke-and-puzzle to do after installing it. (I also had to surgically excise a lot of spyware it installed for me.) Overnet perfects what Kazaa (as best I know) introduced: Taking bits and pieces of the file from many different people who have it shared, so that the overall burden of file transfer is spread across many connections. The more who have a file in their share folder, the faster that file can be shared.

That much is plug-obvious. A less obvious and much more fascinating insight came to me when I actually found my book files and queued them up for download. Overnet looks for people who have the file shared, and attempts to connect to them. Four or five people each had shared my books, and one person actually had a copy of my novelette "Borovsky's Hollow Woman." However, all of those people were clearly maxed out on their uploads, because my requests were placed in their queues, with queue numbers like "1454." So nothing came down in the first hour. Or the first day. 24 hours after requesting the files, I had received nothing. Only during the second night did a couple of my requests float to the top of somebody or another's queues, and the data started coming down. Three days later, after much starting and stopping, I got an intact copy of The Delphi Programming Explorer, 2E. Assembly Language Step By Step (1992) is most of the way down as of this morning. I got 46K of Jeff Duntemann's Drive-By Wi-Fi Guide somewhere along the way, but nothing more. And "Borovsky's Hollow Woman" has yet to begin coming in.

I thought something might be wrong with my connection, or with the Net, and then tried downloading an e-book version of one of the Harry Potter books that we already have here. Hundreds of people were sharing it, and I watched spellbound as Overnet efficiently orchestrated the probing of those hundreds of sharers. First one, then three, then five, and suddenly twenty or thirty different people started sending me bits, and in less than five minutes, I had a 7 MB file. My assembly book PDF is roughly the same size (which in itself puzzles me) and it's still not all here, having been in process since late in the day on September 9.

This suggests something I call the Popularity Conundrum: The more popular your stuff is, the more vulnerable it is to file sharing, and the relationship is by no means linear. On the flipside, the less popular your stuff is, the more infuriatingly frustrating the downloading will be—and I can't help but think that by now, most people would have either given up or actually bought the damned thing from Amazon. It's almost as though the system were giving unpopular content a boost: We'll dangle it in front of the file sharing community when they search for it, but when they reach for it, snatch! No go! Unintentionally, Overnet is helping market obscure content (like mine) by allowing searches, but not downloads.

The big question, of course, is whether anybody who wants to steal my books wants them badly enough to guy pay for them through normal channels. There's no consensus on this, and I won't hazard a guess. But it's been fascinating to get a look at what all the shouting is all about, let me tell you.
September 11, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Standard front view
(94K image)

The framing and exterior sheathing of the house is finished, and by gully, it actually looks like a house, and a good one. They're putting in the stairway to the lower level today or tomorrow, and are about halfway through felting the roof, which makes it waterproof—just as the summer monsoon rains are coming to an end, natch.

Now the hard work begins—for us. Carol and I now have a universe of small decisions to finalize. We've known about some of them for a long time, and some decisions have already been made, especially those relating to gross structural aspects. (We chose the locations for the central vac ports the other day—a challenge entirely new to both of us.) Still, we have to choose a roof tile color by Monday, kitchen cabinet stain color by Tuesday, and have been put on notice that countertops, major appliances, and custom electrical outlet positioning will all need to be decided ASAP, whew.

This is not easy for two people who are not in any sense color intuitives, artists, designers, or æsthetes. And it's not like we've ignored the issues until now. We've been driving around the neighborhood for months (and sometimes driving all the way across town) staring at different houses for the sake of their roof tile, stucco, trim color and stone facing harmony, sometimes until we want to scream. The colors look radically different depending on the tenor of the light falling on the houses: A roof that looks green in soft light fades to gray in harsh sun. Shadow makes stone look darker; light washes out the subtle colors. Stucco always looks lighter on a house than on the one inch square samples they hand you to pick from. It's just nuts.

I keep telling myself that no matter what we choose (and we are choosing conservatively) we will have a great house that melds with the lot and looks good in an understated way. I was a little ostentatious as a young man, but all that has passed away. I now want comfort, coziness, and a sense of groundedness, and the design of the structure reflects that. So far so good. Now we have to get the decor correct, and I find the prospect completely terrifying.

Details as they happen. Keep watching the left margin.
September 10, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
View from behind
(184K image)
Great room beams
(161K image)
View from the north
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The Colorado Springs Gazette ran a feature a few days ago on Crayola Crayons, and one thing the author emphasized is how they smelled, and how that very particular smell is something that most people associate with the happier moments of their childhood. It's kooky, but I actually do remember that smell, and no, there is nothing quite like it. And what was even more interesting was almost immediately remembering a number of other smells from my extreme youth:

  • Wet dirt. We lived in Chicago, where the dirt is black and the weather is wet. Wet black dirt happened a lot, and I distinctly remember what it smelled like to dig a hole in the backyard by the garage and lie on the bottom with my nose next to the dirt. I've never really been that close to dirt since then, and the dirt I've been close to hasn't been anything like that black, nor did it smell anywhere near as good.
  • The air coming out of the garden hose while you were waiting for the water to come out of it after you yelled for your sister to turn on the water around the side of the house. In summer we filled the little inflatable pool from the hose, and the hose (which was green plastic, not like the ukky old black rubber ones) gave this wonderful smell to the air that was inside it, and (after the water worked its way through) to the water as well.(The strange, muted but ascending tone you could hear from the end of the hose while the water was passing through it was cool, but you always risked an earful of water.) Drinking from the garden hose was something of a dare and a treat, since my mother would yell at me if she caught me at it. After all, that hose had been dragged all around the same back yard that the dog had been crapping in all summer...
  • Old Lionel trains. After the fact I can describe it as the smell of ozone from the overworked motor and the smell of the plastic that they were made of.
  • Church. The old church at Immaculate Conception Parish had been built in 1923, and by the mid-1950s had accumulated this wonderful aromatic montage of incense, old wood, candle smoke, and stale perfume and aftershave. They built a big new church in 1962, but it never smelled nearly as good—in fact, it mostly smelled of carpeting if it smelled of anything at all. (The old church floor was nondescript brown linoleum.) They don't make churches like that anymore, nor do they make church smell like that either. One sniff of that, and I'm sure I would instantly remember all my altar-boy Latin. Sursum Corda! Habemus ad Dominem!
  • Paste. The white semisolid stuff that they don't sell anymore; Elmer's Glue (which, admittedly, has its own distinctive smell) drove paste to extinction, but I remember how good and strong it smelled the first time you twisted off the lid of a brand new jar.
  • Coal. Down on 31st Place on the south side, my aunt Anna and her family still heated their old brownstone 4-flat with big huge lumps of coal sitting in a bucket behind the cast-iron stove in the kitchen. Uncle Joe had a chisel hung on the wall from a loop of ratty twine, and he would use it to break up the head-sized chunks (well, the size of my head, at any rate) into pieces that would light a little more easily. Freshly broken coal has a smell unlike anything else—and I was in my thirties before I realized that Uncle Joe's chisel was a "cold chisel" and not a "coal chisel."
But Crayola crayons, wow. I remember melting the end off my Burnt Umber with a magnifying glass on a sunny day. I also remember wondering why "Cornflower" was blue. Corn was yellow! That is my earliest recall of a realization that life didn't always make sense. It wouldn't be the last.
September 9, 2003:

This morning, the news in all the media I monitor was abuzz with the RIAA's detonating their ultimate weapon: Hundreds of lawsuits against individual file sharers. (It was a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal.) The mainstream media was remarkably sympathetic, considering that 12-year-olds were being served lawsuits with potential copyright infringement judgments of $150M ($150,000 per song times a thousand songs). Not so on the geek sites, where people are swearing up and down that they will buy no more CDs from RIAA members. (And behind my grin I'm thinking, "dare ya!")

Some have cynically suggested that the labels are looking at lawsuit settlements as an alternate revenue stream, but that's nuts: Get one or two people to put up a fight, and they will easily eat anything the labels might rake in on $3,000 settlements. It's all hopeful legal theater, intended to frighten kids away from file sharing. (Responsible oldsters gave it up long ago.) What the labels forget is that kids do all kinds of crazy things, completely oblivious to possible dire consequences. Will kids who risk criminal prosecution and jail terms to smoke dope be deterred by something as abstract as a civil lawsuit? (As one said on one of the forums: "What are they gonna take? My car? They can have it—if they can start it.") There are millions of kids out there swapping songs. Even if they can't balance a checkbook, they can calculate the odds. The chances of any one of them being hit with a suit are vanishingly small.

I've expressed some modest sympathy for the labels in the past. They really are in a very bad spot—not bad enough to excuse their current legal excess, but bad nonetheless. What the lawsuit storm will certainly do is force file sharing networks to evolve, just as spam filters have bred much cleverer spam. Identifying file sharers on a primitive network like Kazaa is child's play. Finding out who's sharing files on Freenet may well be too difficult to pay off, for the RIAA or anyone else.

Even worse than Freenet, from the labels' perspective, is the spectre of file sharing going local. People laugh at me when I say that, but it's a natural consequence of MP3 files staying the same size while local storage media get vaster and vaster, and high local area bandwidth (think 802.11g and gigabit Ethernet LAN parties) gets ever more common. They now make 1 GB flash memory cards, and hard disk space is under a dollar a GB. When kids get together, they're just going to take everything their friends have that they don't already have, and sort it out later. Fifteen kids are going to pool their dollars at the mall, buy a couple of CDs, then go home, rip them, and share the files fifteen ways across an encrypted private network like Justin Frankel's wickedly clever WASTE. Kids will gather files from newsgroups, or over file-sharing networks from other kids who live in countries beyond the RIAA's reach, and those files will trickle around a multitude of local networks that are deliberately restricted to groups of people who know one another in a single local region. (Let's call them file-sharing speakeasies.) These networks cannot be tracked, and because so many of them rely on private network connections, they cannot be probed without search warrants.

It really is that grim, and laws won't help much. We'll have to be putting college kids away for ten years for trading songs, which (if it ever happens often enough to have an effect) will cause a political backlash that might erase all the recent laws that Big Media has bought for itself. Most parents hate the music that their kids listen to, and might be quietly glad to see the labels showing the signs of desperation that may precede a death spiral. Porn merchants know better than to complain about being ripped off on file sharing networks. I guess the labels don't yet realize that they're barely half a notch above porn merchants in most people's estimation. (If they wonder why, maybe they should listen to some of their own lyrics sometimes.)

I don't know if there's a way out. I would gladly pay 50c per song for the handful of popular songs that I might discover I like these days, and not share them—but I'm an un-hip and reasonably affluent 51-year-old who went to Catholic school. My MP3s are for the most part crappy rips from vinyl that never made it to CD—think the Peppermint Trolley Company. I stand completely outside the modern music business, except for the occasional classical disc that I still buy. Yet I will admit that the problem reaches into a lot of other areas, including some that cut quite close to the heart: An (unnamed) reader told me recently that all three of my most recent books are listed as downloadable document files on the Overnet file sharing network. I checked on Overnet's Web search client Jigle, and shee-it! There they are!

I would greatly like to know who went to the immense trouble of scanning them, since they were never released as anything but paper editions. And boy, us guys in the IP business are in for an interesting couple of years.
September 8, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
Standard front view
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If you've ever been a Boy Scout, you may recognize the track shown at left, with a soda can thrown in for scale. Nothing remarkable about bear tracks, except for where this one was: In the mud, right by the front door of my new (and very much under construction) house. As the builder later pointed out (he was unmoved by finding bear tracks on his construction site) the bear also left an immense pile of crap out behind our (future) back deck. It looked like dirt to me, but then again, I was last a Boy Scout almost 40 years ago.

I have never seen a bear without either a moat or some (considerable) steel between us, and I'm not sure I'm looking forward to it, precisely. We've seen a red fox across the street, and deer are ever-present, munching anything edible that they can find. On the other hand, I'd rather see a bear behind the house than a mountain lion, because the kind of bears they grow down here prefer eating garbage to small animals like bichon frises. I can keep the garbage in my garage, but the dog (once we have a dog—don't get excited yet!) we have to walk. We have never been big cat people. And I mean big cat people. The coming year should be interesting indeed.
September 6, 2003:
A little behind on my big consulting project, so I'll be brief, and it should be over by Monday. At that point, I can start being interesting again. Hang in there.
September 5, 2003:

They're going to begin mounting our windows in the house today, and if I get up there later and get some shots I'll link to them in the margin. In the meantime, I'm on the downwind leg of this big project so I'll be brief, but some new odd lots turned up this morning while I was shoveling spam and trying to shake a headache:

  • I hope this isn't a hoax—or maybe I hope it is—but according to this, somebody found Robert A. Heinlein's very first novel, which he write in 1939 and couldn't sell because it had so much sex in it. I guess I can believe that, and I hope it's true. Even Heinlein at his worst is better than most guys at their best, so I'll buy and read it if it's real. (Supposedly we'll see it off press this coming December.) I used to think that if I ever got really famous writing SF I would have to destroy a certain cardboard box in the attic, containing my 43 unpublished SF shorts, tons of incoherent fragments, and three complete novels that I wrote in high school. Alas, my trunk is safe...
  • Buried in somebody's post on Slashdot relative to the above, here's a handy summary of when copyrighted works pass into the public domain. Nice work, and the answer to a question I am asked fairly regularly.
  • This morning's Wall Street Journal published a short item on cold fusion, and how perfectly reasonable researchers at major universities (not nutcases like me in a basement somewhere) are getting anomalous readings from cold fusion lashups and can't explain them—but that the scientific community at large has already decided that there's "nothing there," end of story, move along now, nothing more to see here. Hey, this isn't how science is supposed to work, and it makes me want to write a novel about how Big Oil hired Pons & Fleischman to make cold fusion sound ridiculous so no one would ever pursue it again...

September 4, 2003:

I'm still blasting away on that big Evans Data analysis project, but I'm closing in on it and should be done by Saturday. In the meantime, some odd lots while I catch my breath and sip a Vanilla Diet Pepsi...

  • This morning's local paper announced that Vivendi, the world's largest music company, is cutting its music CD wholesale prices by up to 32%. This is nominally to combat piracy, but in truth, when nobody's buying for whatever reason, what else is there to do? Noted in the article is the fact that classical CDs will remain at their current (outrageous) prices. Nothing like screwing your customers who don't rip you off!
  • Slashdot pointed out this morning that while the RIAA's recent terror campaign against file traders has cut file trading traffic by 22%, CD sales accelerated their slide through the same period without any sign of a letup. Piracy is part if it, but not the major part of it. Will honest dialog ever happen in the music business? Or is popular music simply doomed?
  • Slashdot also aggregated an article about Universal's recent acquisition of the rights to the late SF series Firefly from its creator, Joss "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Whedon—and is going to make a feature-length film out of it! Yippie-yi-yo blast off! Cowboys in Outer Space will live again, by doggies, and the fan sites are going batshit. Hey, my take is simple: Keep the spaceship and Jewel Staite; all the rest is negotiable. But even without Jewel, I'll pay considerably more than a quarter for that!

September 3, 2003:
Jeff's House Coming?
View from behind
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I'm changing the standard view of the house that I've been publishing here: The view from the front now looks enough like a house that I'll be taking the "how's Jeff's house coming?" shots from that angle from now on. Before, all the action was below street grade, so I had to take photos from the north side to allow you to see much of anything at all. Now, with the house almost entirely framed and most of the way through sheathing, I can show you how it will look from across the street. (I'll publish other views as they seem interesting, like the view from down the hill which I've linked to in the margin.)

Now that you can get a sense for its real shape as a house, some people may be disappointed. It doesn't look as grand nor as peculiar as some folks expected, which makes me wonder what people actually think of me. The idea was to create a reasonably compact, cozy home with comfortable places to work and tinker for both of us, and a great room for good friends, good wine, and a roaring fire. (A gas fire. I've done wood heat—which is another story entirely.) One of my readers asked if I was going to build in a secret room. Not in the sense of a horror movie where you pull down just the right book on the right shelf and the fireplace rotates away—but I do have something else in mind which I can't tell you about right now. Yup, it's a secret...