March 29, 2002

Do I have a hero? You bet your sweet ass I do!

Charles Darwin is my hero. It's mind-boggling to think of the incredible genius it took for him to overcome centuries of bias and ignorance to come up with the theory of evolution. Doubly so, really, since he didn't really know what caused the "modification" part of "descent with modification". (It was genes.)

I just picked up PBS Evolution Boxed Set DVD, which I've so far watched two episodes of. So far, it's very good: I'd use it in the classroom if I were a biology teacher. It's comprehensive without being preachy, and seems very accurate. It got me to thinking of how biologists must still content with their pseudo-scientific counterparts in ways that almost no other science must. The chemists put the alchemists to rout; the astronomers relegated the astrologers to the back pages of the tabloids; but biologists must still deal with fools like those at Answers In Genesis or the Institute For Creation Research. America may be the strongest and most technologically-advanced nation on the earth, but we still have a mouthy contingent of religious loonies who manage to get taken seriously.

And this is part of why Darwin is my hero -- he had to contend with a whole edifice of religion and government that abominated his views, and yet he lived to see the vindication of his views.

Persistence of Memory

So I'm surfing over at Doc's site, and I see a link to an essay by Tommy Williams which purports to be some interesting thoughts about working for Microsoft. So I click on over, and Lo! the document has been pulled. Tommy says it was at the request of his wife (is she also a Microsoftie?).

Of course this gives the conspiracy-minded among us uncomfortable feelings -- did Microsoft apply pressure to get the essay pulled? Or was the pressure merely implied (why would Tommy's wife be concerned if she was not also a Microsoftie?). Disturbing.

But this episode raises another question about persistence of information on the web. When an essay is printed on realspace, it's out there: without heroic effort, it cannot be pulled back or expunged. But in the electronic world, a document can just disappear. And if Google hasn't cached the page yet, the document is (for all intents and purposes) gone.

If the Web is going to be of any historical significance whatever, there is going to have to be a way to reliabily archive its contents for posterity. And I don't mean for days or months either -- I mean for years.

March 27, 2002

Just When You Thought CEOs Couldn't Get Any Dumber

Let's all say it together: Eisner is a dimwit. Abe Lincoln? Ye gods and little fishes. This man is not competent to run a major corporation. This man is not competent to take a piss by himself.

More Pointless Murder

I don't normally blog "current events" stuff -- it's easy enough to get your newsfix from almost any other site -- but the continuing ballet of death between the Palestinians and the Israelis jus entered a new phase. Can anyone doubt that this latest attack will lead to vicious reprisals by the Israelis, in which more innocents will die?

I have no informed opinion of this situation -- I am neither Jewish nor Palestinian, and I can understand the anger and fear on both sides. I do think that Yasir Arafat is a clown, and that the Palestinians have no one but themselves to blame for placing their trust into such inept hands. This is not to forgive Israel their trespasses; their years-long humiliation of the Palestinians was bound to come back on them.

Ariel Sharon plays by what the journalist Thomas Friedman calls "Hama Rules" -- a vicious, ends-justify-the-means outlook that has little room or sympathy for the uncommitted. Hafez Assad of Syria killed tens of thousands of his own people, and almost leveled the town of Hama, just to wipe out some dissidents: this act of carnage has informed the attitudes of many in that region. I fear what will happen because, lest we forget, Israel is a nuclear power -- they are militarily powerful, but they are also small and isolated, and if they feel themselves threatened in a mortal way almost anything can happen.

March 26, 2002

Inadvertent Evil

It's hard not to feel somewhat apocalyptic about the state of life in the USA these days. It feels more and more that we are moving to an ultimate something that bodes ill for all of us. That something may very well be a de facto police-state.

Since I am both a writer and a computer programmer, my concerns lately have centered on the execrable DMCA and the equally noxious CBDTPA (espoused by none other than Fritz "Senator from Disney" Hollings). The DMCA is already the law of the land -- woe be unto all of us -- and unless something drastic happens, the CBDTPA will be also. I fear for us all when that happens.

I am afraid that I am seeing the death of the First Amendment right before my very eyes. Our government is letting the entertainment industry gut the spirit of the Constitution, all in the interests of perserving the profit margins of some of the most venal and corrupt companies the earth has ever seen. Consider Hilary Rosen and that vampire Jack Valenti: two people who live off the creative efforts of others, contribute nothing to the marketplace of ideas, and yet maintain control of much of our cultural artistic heritage. This is horrifying and ironic all at the same time.

It may come to civil disobedience: politicians (with rare exceptions) are nearly tech-illiterate and largely beholden to the big-money donors. They don't speak for most of us. We need to show them, in no uncertain terms, that they work for us, not for the media conglomerates or other Fortune 500 corporations. When they see millions of their constituents flouting a blatantly-unconstitutional law, maybe they will see the light -- even if only to save their jobs.

March 23, 2002

Linux Upgrades

I updated another old machine in my basement to run Debian Linux. In fact, I'm blogging from that machine right now -- an old Pentium II 233MHz machine with 128MB of RAM. Works pretty well!

Eventually I'd like to get all my machines (4 at last count, not including my laptop) tied together into a cluster, but I don't have much time for a project of that size right now.

March 20, 2002

I Am Not A Consumer!

I loathe the word "consumer". It turns the entire purchasing public into a gigantic organism that does nothing but eat and eat and eat. That's how the corporations see us: as a gigantic mouth into which any crap they produce is to be shoveled. We are not customers because customers must be respected, listened to, and accomodated. Consumers need only be fed.

I like peering apps like Gnutella and Freenet because they turn us all into customers of each others' content. We can aggregate into real communities of individuals, where each person has a face and a name, rather than some abstract "profile".

I experience the 'net. I think about it. I mull it over. I respond to it. It's both a destination and a diversion. The 'net is more than the web, more than codecs, formats, and graphics. The 'net is a meeting of minds, a playground, an arena, a concert hall and a theater of the absurd.

It is not a trough where pigs go to eat.

Another One Bites The Dust

It looks like TechTV is going the way of all media -- that is, giving up on interesting and topical content in favor of dull-as-dirt "consumer-oriented" programming.

March 19, 2002

Windows is calling me : Resist the Dark Side

Every so often, I get the urge to reload Windows on my laptop. Generally it's because of some driver or codec that I don't have, and thus cannot do what I wish to do at that moment in time. It's a testament to how far Linux has come that these urges come at longer and longer intervals these days. About the only problems that crop up nowadays have to do with video codecs -- of the Big Three video codecs (Windows Media, QuickTime, and Real), only Real has provided a Linux client (and it is closed-source). Furthermore, the Real client is a crashy, slow, out-of-date mess.

The sound codec landscape is much more enticing: Linux has stellar support for MP3, Ogg Vorbis, AIFF, and just about any other other audio format you can name.

And as far as browsers go -- yes, I have some issues with Mozilla, but it's far and away the best option available now right (and not just on Linux, either -- it beats IE into a cocked hat on conformance).

Writing Tools

Writing for the web is not the same as blogging, which is why my site tends to be word-heavy. I am a writer first and foremost; my page-design knowhow is limited at best. That's why Blogger is such a wonderful tool -- it lets me focus on what I do well, and still get a decent-looking site for a minimum of layout effort on my part. When most people think of writing for the web, they envision the graphics-heavy crap of the kind most seen on "media" sites. The words are almost beside the point.

One of the great things about blogs is that they make the words important again. The content is the words, not the fancy graphics or video clips. And the linky writing style gives the pieces a whole new dimension and immediacy that's lacking in traditional print. (An unfortunate side-effect is that blogs get stale pretty quickly because the links start 404'ing after a few months or even days.)

The Web has always had this nature -- in fact, the the word-nature of the Web was why Tim Berners-Lee created it. It was a way to produce more efficiently-read words. It's just a shame that it took more than a decade for useful writer's tools to make an appearance.

March 18, 2002

Selling Software for Profit - Is There any Money in it?

I found an article while I was surfing around this morning (courtesy of LinuxToday), and it got me thinking. Shawn Gordon of theKompany is probably not all that different from a lot of folks who are trying to straddle the open-source/commercial software world, and his frustrations are certainly not unique.

There was a similar thread on Slashdot this morning where the discussion focused on getting people to actually pay for shareware. My own personal feeling is that shareware is, and pretty much always has been, a bust; you never get as much out of it as you put into it. And there is so much really good *free* software out there right now that shareware really doesn't make much sense.

So I'm wondering if there is really any money to be made in selling software for profit any more. Even Microsoft, with their monopoly on desktop operating systems and their vast installed base, is having trouble getting people to upgrade and pay for new versions of software; this is the motivation behind their move to a subscription model. It's the only way to sell software at a profit nowadays.

I happen to believe that software is a commodity -- no one in the industry likes it, but it's a fact. Operating systems, word processors, games, databases...there's too much good free stuff out there to allow people to charge for only marginally-better (or even worse) commercial stuff.

Shawn Gordon can blame the GPL all he wants (and you watch who he blames when theKompany goes broke...), but the truth is that it is the times that have changed. This isn't the 1980's anymore, when companies could charge whatever they wanted for software and be sure of getting it because there were no real alternatives.

No one ever guaranteed software vendors a lucrative business. They chose to get into the bit-peddling business, and it's no one's fault but their own that their business models are no longer sustainable. In this they will share the same fate as the music and movie industries -- either adapt to the new marketplace or die.

March 15, 2002

Neat Multimedia Stuff

Check out GStreamer. An actual, honest-to-goodness multimedia API for *nix systems! It appears to be pretty well-designed too, which is kind of rare for open-source efforts of this kind -- although the Ogg guys did a bang-up job on their codecs.

March 13, 2002

More Books

I'm revisiting Ayn Rand's stuff this week: both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I can see why geeks like her stuff; the heroes of Rand's fiction are the kinds of people who say, "I'm the best at what I do, and if you don't like it, f**k off." In real life these people would be complete sociopaths, of course, which is why people who read Rand too literally scare me.


I haven't been doing enough writing. I've found that, for me, computer programming is death to any kind of creative literary output -- it takes a completely different mental state to write software than it does to write a poem or story.

I've been considering taking a week off from work and dedicating that week to doing some serious writing. I might even go the whole hog and do my writing the old fasioned, dead-tree way: pen and heavy-bond typing paper.

March 12, 2002

The Place(s) Where I Live

I live in two places: one is a house in a smallish town in Minnesota; the other is a place called the Internet. I don't spend as much time in my second residence as I would like to -- both work and marriage require me to be present in the non-virtual realm for the bulk of my time. But that doesn't mean that the Internet is any less real a place to me than my physical house.

But it's clear that the broadcasting monoliths, as well as the Feds, consider the 'net just a delivery vehicle. To them, it's just plumbing. There is no interactivity allowed in their worldview: they push stuff at us, and we consume it (for a price). The last two decades -- a nonstop orgy of consolidation, homgenization, and corporatization -- have turned both the AM and the FM airwaves into a bland, featureless glut of noise.

In my non-virtual house, I have few choices: all the "local" stations suck. But in my internet house, I have a plethora of really good alternatives. My internet place's radio is so much better than my physical place's radio that I've given up on AM/FM radio altogether. But if the BigCos and the Feds have their way (via CARP), they're taking my internet radio too. They want to me to eat what they shovel out, like a pig at a trough. I can have whatever I want, as long as it is something they're willing to provide.

It's the same with movies: it's certainly possible to get streaming video over the 'net, but the pinheads in Big Media are scared shitless of the 'net. Interactivity and sharing -- two cornerstones of the place called the Internet -- are anathema to these fools. They want the Internet to be just like TV -- a passive pipe through which they can throw pre-paid bits at us at their leisure.

The DMCA has given "content owners" an obnoxious amount of power over our lives. In effect, they are telling me what I can and cannot do in my own house. It makes no difference that one of my houses is virtual; I feel the same sense of anger and insult. I just hope that the battle is not already lost; I hope the DMCA is repealed, and that some sanity will prevail in the so-called "entertainment industry". But I doubt it.

Which means...

Burn It Down

Big Media (by which I mean entities like RIAA, the MPAA, and just about any media conglomerate you can think of) must die. Their day in the sun is long past. They are an atavistic throwback to pre-Internet days, but they are filled with frightened and brainless suits who would rather kill culture than forsake their accustomed profits. They are leeches, grown fat off the blood of the artists and creators for decades, and who now feel the blood beginning to thin and disappear. They produce nothing; they add no value. Their profits come at the expense of the people who actually create the music and movies we love, and of the people who love to experience these works.

It seems clear that these entities will not go quietly into their well-deserved graves. So we -- the people who create and experience culture -- must help them along. We must starve them. We must apply a virtual flame to their empire, and burn it down. Then, hopefully, something sane and fair will grow in that sanitized ground -- something that will provide artists and creators with a living wage, and at the same time turn all of us into interactive users of culture, rather than slack-jawed consumers of it.

March 10, 2002

Creative Commons

Larry Lessig's new endeavor, the Creative Commons, looks like a very interesting idea. It puts control of copyright back in the hands of the creators rather than the distributors. It lets creators select the right kind of license for them, which can only be a Good Thing.

This is going to be a watershed year (both politically and historically) in the annals of intellectual property.

March 06, 2002

It's Just Paradise

Radio Paradise, that is. If you like music, and hate the endlessly-recycled crap that clogs the radio nowadays, give Radio Paradise a try. They need support, so throw a few bucks their way. And while you're at it, spend some time at KPIG, which reminds you of what eclectic really means. Oink!

March 05, 2002

Light the end of the tunnel, I mean. The project at work is within a couple of months of being finished. Well, not finished; this project will never really be finished. However, we will finally produce a feature-complete package, so that's a good thing. I plan on taking some time off once that milestone is reached so I can rest my brain.

March 04, 2002

Classic Books

I just finished Richard Rhodes' The Making Of The Atomic Bomb, and am now reading the next book called Dark Sun which is about the making of the H-Bomb. Scary stuff, but Rhodes is an excellent writer and makes it all seem very interesting and vital. Highly recommended.