Thursday, December 29, 2005

Last three books I've read

While I'm catching up, here are the last three books I've read and enjoyed.

border=0Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near took me weeks to read, and not just because it is over 600 pages (including notes). What made it hard was its extraordinary ideas. Every page had an insight -- the nature of consciousness, blurring of human-computer boundaries, the nature of a "self" and the impact of computing power limited only by physics. My mind kept wandering over the implications -- I'd read a paragraph and then find myself dreaming up a Philip K. Dick novel.

Kurzweil starts with a simple premise: the rate of progress is accelerating exponentially, which he backs up with some convincing evidence that extends back at least as far as the discovery of fire and invention of stone tools. He then carries on logically and methodically to show why, if that's true, we're much closer than we realize to some extraordinary advances, when progress will essentially proceed at an infinite pace (the "Singularity"). I think he underestimates the complexity of many of these problems, but that would only delay some of dilemmas that we'll face. Just to take one example: Kurzweil compares individuals to the shape of a river, with the water representing the atoms that make up our physical bodies. Because every molecule in our bodies changes about once a month, Kurzweil argues, what we are is a pattern of information, like the shape of the river. Every neuron, and every other part of us, can theoretically be modeled in a computer. What happens when computers get powerful enough to host all of that information? Is it a person? Why not? If Kurzweil is right, we'll be confronting questions like that faster than we realize.

Alastair Reynolds's Pushing Ice was a bit of a mental break compared with Kurzweil's book, but it still had plenty of insights. This is the first book I've read by Reynolds, who has a Ph.D in astronomy and works for the European Space Agency. The story starts in the second half of this century and evolves around a comet-mining ship that is diverted to chase what appears to be an alien vessel racing away from the solar system. Like the last Ken MacLeod book I read, Reynolds takes minimal liberties with the laws of physics. That leads to a problem: Going anywhere interesting takes months or years in space, which leaves conflicts aboard ship to provide much of the action. There's plenty of that before anyone ever encounters an alien, assuming they'd recognize it as such. As time drags on and the chase turns involuntarily into a long-term, interstellar mission, the crew has to struggle to survive.

As always, the science in this fiction isn't strictly necessary. The same story could be told about a ship rounding the horn of Africa in the 16th century. But Reynolds obvious grasp of the science adds to the gripping read. Unlike Kurzweil's book, I devoured this in a couple of sittings.

I'm only about half-way through David Pogue's Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, but it's a skimmer anyway. I'll be popping in and out of this book for quite a while since, as I've mentioned in a previous post, we got an iMac for Christmas. Although I've used Macs once in a while while working for PC Week, I haven't used one in earnest since college, when Apple's computers ran a totally different operating system. I've been pleasantly surprised on how similar OS X is to Linux (since it has a free BSD operating system underneath) and Pogue's book does a good job of filling in some of the blanks. The author's focus, however, is aimed squarely at the non-nerd, home computer user. I'm still struggling to get my head around the way OS X manages daemons and schedules tasks, which isn't something that will keep the average home user awake at night. It's something I worry about, though. It took me a week to get a daily backup working, which I finally managed by just piggy-backing on tasks that the computer already does on a daily basis. Perhaps I should try some of the other O'Reilly books on the Mac, such as the ones geared toward people who area already familiar with Unix.



I've apparently offended someone enough to be listed, next to dodgy drug sellers and loan sharks, in Splogspot' s list of spam blogs. I've not heard of this site before, and my initial impression isn't good. I used its method of appeal (a little link next to each entry that says 'not spam?'), pointing out that I would think a spam blog would have to be trying to sell something, or at least carry ads. I've heard nothing back in a few days and there isn't any other contact information on the site.

I understand that spam blogs (or splogs for short) are a big problem, but a heavy-handed black list, with little or no accountability, is a poor answer.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas presents

It must be a sign, but I'm not sure of what. Theresa and I ended up with the coolest gifts this year.

Theresa's main present was a fireplace -- our first in at about 16 years (Ailish was a baby the last time we had one). It puts out a lot of heat, easily heating most of the downstairs. And if I get carried away and stuff too much into it, we have to move upstairs or out in the sunroom for a while. (I'll eventually get my pyromania under control.)

New fireplace

What I especially like about it is that we don't watch the TV as much. It's more pleasant to just sit around the fire, listening to music or reading a book.

My main gift is a new 20-inch iMac. It's mostly for the kids, since I have a PC running Linux upstairs. But I get to play with it a lot, especially when I'm off a few days. (I'm writing this now on the iMac.)

My Christmas present

I've wanted a Macintosh since college, and a few days with the real thing has convinced me that Apple has the most advanced PC on the planet, by far. Windows can't touch this. (Nor can Linux, for that matter, but what do you expect for free?) Apple's decision to switch from the PowerPC processor to Intel has more recently given me pause. What tipped me over this time is that the kids' Windows PC is beginning to fall over and the thought of starting all over again with the battle to keep it upright against a determined kid attack was just too much. The Mac, like Linux, is far better equipped for life on the Internet, even (and especially) in the hands of children. Plus, the kids are now getting familiar with Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. They're able to sit down on any of them and be productive. That's got to be worth something. The Intel migration, I decided, wasn't much of a worry. A family PC has a 2-3 year life and, by then, Apple will have made the transition and it'll be time to start thinking of a new main computer.

I'm in the process of trying to get my head around Apple's version of Unix, which isn't very different from Linux. Still, it's the differences that are tripping me up. I've created a script to back up everyone's documents folder to Linux using rsync. This is native-speaking for Mac OS X, happily, except for telling it when to run (cron seems to be ignored). I've figured out that I need to use Apple's next-generation services interface via a program called launchd. It's still early days for that, however, and creating and managing services is a bit rough. You have to create an XML file and put it into a central place. I guess I thought "crontab -e" was difficult, when I first encountered it, so this will be no different. I found a good program called Lingon that made it easier to set up and schedule the tasks. I'll find out tomorrow morning if it works.


Another gift that will mostly be used by the whole family is a GPS (global positioning system) receiver. I wrote a post recently about our weekly outings to local parks and Dean Shareski added a comment suggesting we try geocaching. We're taking him up on it. The kids have already found a couple of caches nearby. The idea is that you use GPS to find containers (usually tupperware) hidden around the world. The boxes have little tidbits in them -- little momentos. You take one and add one. Sounds fun and it'll make walking Dude a little more interesting.

The kids? Well, they got the usual assortment: Nintendo DS, some Playstation 2 games (and the network adapter), and various loud toys. But I've barely noticed. I'm too busy playing.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

This Year's Christmas Tree

Finished tree

We put up our Christmas tree a little early this year, since Theresa and I will be working most weekends this month. As usual, it's virtually impossible to take a good photo of a Christmas tree. You either see the tree or the lights (and the latter fuzzily). Ailish, our family photographer, gets the right idea, as usual, snapping a photo of just one ornament:


Now, why didn't I think of that?

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving in London

Thanksgiving setting

We're living our eighth year in London, overstaying our "two-year adventure" by quite a bit. But even though most of the kids speak with English accents and we've all grown comfortable with the British variant of the language, we still celebrate Thanksgiving every year. It is, by far, the best holiday -- a mostly non-commercial anomaly in a marketing-driven world. No gifts, no cards, just food and getting together.

This year, unusually, we celebrated on the day itself. I took Thursday and Friday off, just for the heck of it, and our guests were also available. We have to make a few adjustments -- the local "stuffing" is a lot denser, for example -- but turkeys are abundant now as we get closer to Christmas. Kathy picked us up some canned pumpkin for making into pies at a store in Hampstead that specializes in "American" food, and we can even find cranberry sauce in the shops now. Either Theresa is getting better at finding the fixings, or the English are picking up on our tastes.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

How to Wake Me Up

crisp day

I worked one of my rare overnight shifts, from around 5pm Thursday evening until 2:30am on Friday. One advantage of doing just one, instead of a whole week's worth, is that you end up only working four days that week. I had the day with Theresa on Thursday, with plenty of time for a long walk with the dog and then lunch at a local Indian restaurant before I had to head into work. Today, Theresa is working, which theoretically should have given me a quiet house to sleep in.

The dog had other ideas. About five hours after I went to bed, he tried to drag me out. When that didn't work, he bounced on me a while, then barked his head off for about 15 minutes. I pulled the covers over my head and tried to catch another few minutes of sleep. Dude went downstairs, broke through a puny toddler fence we foolishly believe will keep a 70-pound boxer out of the kitchen and proceeded to sift through the bin for snacks -- old, rotten snacks, like egg shells and last night's pasta. Apparently, it took some effort to find just the right thing because the garbage was spread all over the kitchen in an even layer of stinking slime. The evidence suggests that he rolled in it.

That got me up. Sleep and I have a strained relationship anyway, so five hours is about par.

Dude and I had an exchange of words -- I yelled my head off and he stood there, wagging his stubby tail. "He must be saying 'it's time for your walk' in a very loud voice," thinks he.

No, he's not very bright.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Early Morning Walk

It's going to be a week for doing unusual things. This morning, since Theresa is working and so is our normal alternate dog walker, I got up at 5am to take Dude for a stroll. It's was a freezing morning, with a hard frost, no clouds, and no moon. The skies are as dark as it ever gets in the city -- dark enough for me to see my first shooting star in months and to make out six of the Seven Sisters without trying (seven, if I look out the corner of my eye).

I had a ball, but there was no point in throwing it. It would just get thrown once, and neither one of us would see where it went. But there was plenty to keep the dog running. It's the time of the morning when the foxes, Dude's arch-enemy, have the run of the neighborhood. Once he caught the scent, he was off and running. Fortunately, he's a mediocre hunting dog, at best, and has no hope of catching anything. But it keeps him entertained.

By the time we headed it home, it was just before 6am and the sky to the east was glowing very slightly. It's going to be a long, dark winter.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday Afternoon

Sunday Afternoon

We had an unexpected gap of free time this afternoon. Theresa was scheduled to work Saturday afternoon and evening, arriving home around 10pm, and then the early shift on Sunday, which would have had her home around 4pm. Not much time left, after dog walking, church, meals, etc. It was going to be a very quiet (read: boring) weekend. Instead, she ended doing the two shifts back-to-back, working continuously from 1pm Saturday afternoon until around 8am on Sunday. That meant she'd sleep through part of the day on Sunday, but we'd have a couple of extra hours. We spent it doing something we haven't done in months -- dinner out with the whole family.

We walked about 15 minutes, in cold but clear weather, to a small Italian restaurant in Eastcote that offers the best mix of choices for even the pickiest eaters among us. Most of the kids had pizza. I went for linguine Frutti di Mare, a mix of pasta, mussels, squid and prawns. Theresa splurged on a monk fish dish.

It was just what I needed. I woke up crabby and anxious already about the week ahead, which will include my own overnight shift on Thursday. The dinner took my mind off that and made me feel more like I've had a weekend. It also reminded me that we're heading into a nice stage with the kids. All of them are old enough now to have real conversations at the dinner table. We're not battling to keep them quiet out of fear of disturbing the peace. We still played 21 questions, as normal (answer: ice cube), and a staring contest (I remain world champion), but the atmosphere at a family dinner is getting more and more "adult" every year. I'll miss the youngster stage, of course, but not that much.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Learning GNU Emacs

I've been reacquainting myself lately with Emacs, which I've used off and on for nearly 15 years. The off part is because I occasionally think that it's ridiculous for a liberal arts-educated news editor to be using Emacs, possibly the most complex text editor ever devised and usually thought of as a tool for programmers. This monster of a program is dedicated purely to moving characters around, inserting them and deleting them. That's it. Nothing else. Yet it includes way more features than Word or even most professional publishing programs. It even includes its own psychoanalyst.

So once in a while I decide it's time to grow up and start using WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) programs such as Microsoft's Word, which I have to use it at work anyway, or OpenOffice on Linux. But that's equally silly. I can count the formatting attributes I care about on less than one hand -- italics, bold, centred and, um, that's about it. I rarely print, and in 20 years of reporting and editing, I've never cared what the output looks like, ever. Just give me a word count and off I go.

And nothing, with the possible exception of another editor called Vi, is more powerful at flinging words around than Emacs. It isn't very easy to learn, but once you do, it's easier and less distracting to use. I like how I can keep my hands on the keyboard at all times and jump anywhere in even the longest documents with a keystroke..

What got me back to Emacs this time was Tim Bray's ode to Emacs on the Mac, which I read after a long time exploring "Web 2.0" editors such as Writely. This time, I also picked up a copy of the latest version of O'Reilly's Learning GNU Emacs because I need a refresher and there's always something new to learn about Emacs. What I especially liked about this book is that it focuses on the aspects of the editor that are useful for any writer, not just for the programmer. The first two-thirds of Learning GNU Emacs is about writing features, such as the built-in outliner, searching, moving text around, and creating macros.

One side of Emacs that I haven't explored too deeply before is customising it. The book goes into the programming language that Emacs uses for customization, a variant of Lisp called elisp. Lisp isn't for the faint of heart. As the book points out, it's one of the oldest high-level languages and was designed when it was more important to be easy on the computer than on the programmer. The authors (there are several -- Debra Cameron, James Elliott, Marc Loy, Eric Raymond and Bill Rosenblatt) do an excellent job of walking through the basics of adding small features, customising the many "modes" that Emacs has and even developing your own mode from scratch.

I think I'll stay in Emacs for a while. For what I do, it still hasn't been beat.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005


It's 3:30 am and I'm still awake. Insomnia is a drag, and as I leave 40 in the distant past, the problem is getting worse. Now, even when I do sleep, it's fitful, never deep. I'm getting a tired of being tired.

I recently read probably the most unhelpful advice I've ever received for fighting insomnia: Don't. Just go to sleep when you're tired and wake up when you, um, wake up. Sounds heavenly. The idea is to reset your body's natural clock, to become in tune again with its circadian rhythms.

Unfortunately, it take weeks. I'm not independently wealthy, nor do I make a living at a job that could tolerate such flexibility. An author, in the middle of writing a long book, could maybe do that. Or a programmer working on a long-term project that doesn't need human contact for a while. But not me.

So instead I'm trying and failing to make myself tired by writing this. And in a couple of hours, I'll be sitting at a desk, pumping caffeine as quickly as I can into my system in an attempt to stay sharp, setting myself up for another fitful-at-best night's sleep. There's a circadian rhythm for you.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Guy Fawkes Day

Bonfire night, held every year on Guy Fawkes day in the U.K., is difficult to describe to our U.S. relatives. It's vaguely like Independence Day, commemorating when the English foiled a plot by Catholic conspirators to blow up Parliament. Had they succeeded -- and they very nearly did -- it would have been easily as devastating as 9/11. The plan was to blow up the building during the opening of that year's session, killing the king and every top noble in the country. The English celebrate the capture and burning of the conspirators every year on Nov. 5, or the nearest Saturday night.

Fortunately, the anti-Catholic aspect of the celebration has waned a bit. They hardly ever burn Catholics on those bonfires now. What they do instead is shoot off enormous quantities of fireworks, which are legal and cheap here. You can buy anything, up to and including the biggest chest-thumping rockets, at the local corner shop.

The noise begins a week or so before because the Hindu celebration of Diwali, which is also celebrated with copious amounts of explosives, falls at the end of October. The Asians are concentrated mostly a couple of miles away, closer to Heathrow, but the low rumble of thousand and thousands of fireworks in the distance adds to the illusion that we're near the front lines. In a week, the battle will roll through our neighborhood in its full fury.

For an American, where fireworks have been made illegal in most states, and expensive where they remain, the barrage is hard to imagine. Try to think what it would be like if every third or fourth house could put on a show equal to any managed by a small town on July 4th. On calm nights, the smoke hangs in the air like fog and you can hardly hear each other talk.

This year, like others, we trudged out in the drizzle and mud to try to watch some of the show. I took the kids and the dog to the middle of a large field, which gave us a view of several simultaneous displays. I had hoped we would be close enough to watch one of the biggest shows around -- a paid event in a park nearby -- but by 9:45pm or so, they hadn't started yet and the kids were getting cold and tired. We did manage to watch some kids diligently trying to blow each other up. At first, they were shooting their rockets up, like they're supposed to. When that wasn't entertaining enough, they started shooting them at each other. We moved before we became the next target.

We also had fun for a while making letters out of a flashlight for the camera. I put together Sullivan, above, but we made enough letters to make everyone's name, as well.

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Why Share?


There are several online conversations going on about the business of sharing. One dispute is over whether users should be compensated for the value they bring to sites such as Flickr and See Anil Dash, Catrina Fake and Ted Leung, for example. Another that's been going around is whether you should be giving these corporates your data in the first place . Keep it to yourself, some say. In other words, why share?

I think there are good economic, social and societal reasons behind sharing on the Internet.

First, I use Flickr (paid account) and because I get economic benefits from it. They provide storage and bandwidth. Instead of sending a multi-megabyte photograph on email, I just upload it once and then can use it in multiple ways with short bits of HTML. On, my Web bookmarks are stored centrally and accessible anywhere, and I can also repurpose them in multiple ways, such as on my blog. But we can, and should, join these services with open eyes -- they're making money off our content. Flickr, at least, gets some economic benefit from my photographs. When I send photos to friends and relatives who aren't Flickr members, they see advertisements. I'm not sure what's business model is, but I suspect its purpose is to be bought, which is a business model too. Either way, the benefits are worth it. That doesn't mean really good photographers shouldn't share in the revenue (see my post below about, but Flickr's business isn't necessarily wrong. If the trade off isn't worth it, don't use it.

The second benefit is social. What keeps me on even in the face of increasing competition from similar services, or on Flickr despite rivals with a simpler user interface or more features, is that I benefit from the work of other users. Thousands of people daily submit links to, making its popular links page one of the best places on the Internet to find really interesting stuff. And Flickr brings me photos, ideas, people and places every day that I wouldn't otherwise be exposed to. They're valuable because they're popular.

Finally, sharing makes the Internet a better place. The Web is like a public park or town commons. The fewer people who use it, the worse it gets. That's counterintuitive, but you see the phenomena all the time in a big city such as London. If a park isn't used, it quickly degenerates into a hang-out spot for vandals, bored teenagers or worse.

The photo above is of a fence around our local scout hut, which was burned down twice. And when they rebuilt it, it was quickly covered in graffiti. They've resorted to surrounding it with evil-looking spikes and a tall fence. Right next to it is a playground that used to be constantly covered in broken glass and the remains of equipment that the local yobs had been diligently trying to smash into smithereens for years. Frequent visits from the police did nothing. The solution was to put in new equipment. People started to bring their kids again, and the vandalism declined dramatically.

The same effect can be seen on the Internet, where the equivalent of the vandals are the spammers, script kiddies and phishers who have turned some previously valuable corners of the Web into neighborhoods you'd hesitate to walk through at night. But spammers are a minority, by a long shot. Most people are good. The more of the latter who use the Internet -- really use it, by contributing to it, not just consuming what the big media companies give you -- the more hospitable, interesting, pleasant and valuable place it becomes.

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Encouraging File Sharing for Cash

Revver is one of the most interesting attempts to make a business out of file sharing. Video creators upload their files, the company adds an advertisement, and then splits the resulting ad revenue with the creator. The files can be distributed everywhere, using whatever software, because the ads are embedded in the file itself. I spotted one today that was wonderful -- a video of a guy getting some amazing sounds out of a ukulele. Unfortunately, it's gone now.

A couple of problems: First, if the ads just measure views and not clicks, it could be considered spyware. There should be an option to just purchase the video, sans ads. The second problem is that I don't know how the ads work. I'm using Linux, and the only viewer I have for quicktime videos doesn't show me the advertisements. So, on Linux at least, I can't show my appreciation by at least clicking on something. Perhaps Revver should offer filmmakers the option to convert their videos into some more standard formats, or even flash, like YouTube does?

(Updated: The video I was pointing to has disappeared. Bummer.)

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Saturday, October 29, 2005


Creations, creators, and destructor...

Theresa's favorite holiday is Halloween. Christmas is an expensive pain and she works like a slave on Thanksgiving. But All Hallow's Eve? That's for having fun. She even held a murder mystery party for the kids and their friends this year.

I've never carved a pumpkin in my life and didn't even like candy that much as kid. Halloween always meant avoiding bullies, dodging flying eggs and acting nice to cranky neighbours -- all to collect a grocery bag full of stuff I mostly didn't like.

Thank God for Theresa. The kids are making much better memories.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rethinking Thin Clients

I've been tinkering with the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) over the last week or two and it's been changing my mind about thin clients, the low-powered computers that act as a terminal for a central, powerful computer.

The Linux distribution I use, Ubuntu, comes with the software built in. Getting LTSP set up took about an afternoon, and two messages to the support email list. The process is described here on Ubuntu's Wiki (which I've contributed to a little). But once done, my own moderately equipped Ubuntu PC (2.8GHz Celeron, 1GB RAM) could be used by three people simultaneously with good performance. I used an IBM Thinkpad and an HP Vectra as temporary clients.

The original idea of thin client computing, and the one most supporters still push, is that it's good for very large companies who want greater control over their users: Why give the cubicle dwellers real PCs that they'd only mess up anyway? But all that does is shift the cost. The companies have to manage several big servers with enough horsepower to run everyone's software and the clients aren't that much less expensive than full PCs. The two most expensive parts in your computer are the processor and the display, both of which are still needed by a thin client. So now you have two problems -- the cost of a big server room, and only slightly less pricey PCs. No thanks.

I think a better use is for home users. The most common computers you can buy cheaply now have more than enough umph to run handle several users simultaneously. Why not make use of all of those wasted cycles and let your kids surf the web or work on their homework at the same time you're checking your stock prices and reading email? Adding thin clients is easier for home users than just adding PCs to a home network -- there's only one hard drive to back up, for example, and one PC that needs protecting from viruses. You can even use your old clunker PCs as the clients.

Another good use for them would be in schools. Microsoft and its partners are ripping off many schools, preying on the ignorance of its administrators. Any of the computers at most schools (one per classroom, if they're lucky) can run at least two or three other thin clients. With a powerful PC, you could get something that looks like this, running Edubuntu, the version of Ubuntu aimed at students.

One big hurdle is that Windows is a lousy server for thin clients, compared with Unix-like systems such as Linux. But Linux takes too long to learn, especially for the busy school administrator or home user. It's going to be need to be much simpler.

Several years ago, companies like Oracle and Sun Microsystems were pushing thin clients as a Microsoft killer. They failed, utterly, of course. But I think that's because they were pitching it at the wrong crowd.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Dude Dancing

I finally managed to get a video of the dance Dude, our boxer, does when we have guests over and have to open the sleeper sofa. Dude considers it his, although it apparently needs lots of softening up before he'll use it.

For those reading this via a blog reader, the embedded video probably won't work. See the Dude Dancing video by clicking here.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Lifehacker Considers Dangers of Web apps

Ask Lifehacker Readers: Web apps hosting your info: "Call me paranoid, but what if Gmail goes down, or Google decides to stop being "not evil"? What if angry project management trolls hack 37 Signals and record my every to-do, building a too-personal-for-comfort profile of my every day activities? What if disappears? What if Flickr, who has photos of my baby nephews and the inside of my house, is really in the surveillance business?"
It definitely has occurred to me that we're taking a risk by moving to Web-hosted applications. And I do have a domain name ( that I'm not using, which could be the home of a Web app of my own, combining the features of Gmail, Flickr, and Writely, assuming one existed or I spawn a new self to create one from scratch. But then you also lose the benefits of scale with those social applications. Other Flickr members help me identify my best photos and categorize them. Gmail's millions of users refine its spam filters. subscribers recommend sites I never would have known existed.

Perhaps the best solution is to keep a personal copy of all of that data, so that you can go elsewhere quickly.

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WSJ's Walt Mossberg Gets on the Bandwagon - Personal Technology: "Companies have a right to protect their property, and DRM is one means to do so. But treating all consumers as potential criminals by using DRM to overly limit their activities is just plain wrong."
The pain of Digital Rights Management has hit the mainstream, with even the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg chiming in. There are many possible solutions that don't involve treating all of your customers as criminals. Why not -- just for an example -- brand (watermark) digital media with the name and address of the purchaser at the point of sale, along with an agreement that says you're responsible if stuff with your name on it shows up on a mass distribution site? I don't think that will happen, however, unless lawmakers step in. And we all know what side they're on.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

John Battelle's The Search

Internet search has made my job a lot quieter. When I first started out as a reporter, newsrooms were loud. If you wanted to know even the most trivial data -- the spelling of an executive's name, who came second in last year's election for the school board or the number of students at the local university -- you had to pick up the phone and call a human being. Nowadays, the phone gets used mostly just to break news that isn't already listed on a Web page somewhere, and newsrooms are almost as tranquil as libraries. Most of that run-of-the-mill information can be found with typing and clicking.

The effect of easy Web searching has been just as dramatic on my kids' homework. Almost every research project begins at Google's Web page and ends at a Wikipedia article or museum Web site. Remember when we had to buy expensive encyclopedias or go to the library?

It is hard to imagine that it has only been seven years since Google started. There were many search engines before it -- I was an enthusiastic user of Archie, Veronica, WAIS and Alta Vista -- but nothing has approached the impact of Google. We've become accustomed to being able to find out almost anything with a mouse click or two.

John Battelle's The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture doesn't focus just on Google, but the company dominates the book as thoroughly as it does the industry. Its origins in a Stanford University dorm room (the same school that spawned Yahoo!), its initial stumbles in the quest for a sustainable business model, its competition with other search companies, and the debt it owes its predecessors, are all well described.

Battelle, however, focuses on the most interesting side effect of searching: it's a gold mine of consumer intentions. By searching for "digital camera" on Google, Yahoo or MSN, we're screaming to the Internet, "I want to buy a camera!" Each search company has used that information in different ways, reflecting their varied origins. Yahoo, unlike Google, was ready and willing earlier to exploit that stream of information for commerce. Google took a more cautious approach, resisting banner ads and paid search placement, for example. But its laser focus on usefulness and staying out of the user's way have paid off.

The book also explores the not-insignificant privacy implications of Google's enormous database of our intentions. Its slogan may be "Don't Be Evil," but that means nothing in the face of the Patriot Act in the U.S., even more draconian laws in China and elsewhere or the mindless, remorseless march of commerce.

One potential failing of the book is that it's in danger of overstating its case. As impressive as search is, I'm not sure it has had the same impact on people outside of journalism, research or the technology industry. Even a tech geek like me found the latest Google Desktop software less than essential. I uninstalled it a few weeks after trying it out because I found I never used it. And there are limits to the usefulness of search, such as when you're not sure what you're looking for. For that, recommendation engines, blogs, tagging systems like Flickr and and even product suggestions on Amazon are more useful at ferreting out interesting information that I didn't even know I wanted, based on the collective judgment of people with similar tastes.

All of these challenges to Google's dominance are covered, but there isn't much discussion about how the company has been clumsy in its attempts to expand out of search. Blogger has changed hardly at all since Google purchased it, for example. Google Talk and the company's new blog reader are rudimentary at best.

The book is so current (just a few months out of date) that it's like a long and good article in Wired. You better read it fast. It may be as obsolete as last month's issue if the industry keeps changing at this pace.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Internet Stamps as Solution to Spam

ongoing � Internet Stamps: "When you allow people to add content to the Net for free, the economic incentives to fill all the available space with spam are irresistible, and fighting back is difficult, maybe impossible. This works because, while the payoff per unit of spam is low, the cost is zero. Well, we can solve all these problems at once. It wouldn't be free, but it would be cheap and it wouldn't be that hard. It's called 'Internet Stamps'."
This is a very old concept, and I remember it first as an urban myth. Then, if I recall correctly, the U.S. Post Office proposed something similar, maybe in the mid 1990s? It's an excellent idea that years ago faced almost universal opposition. But now even my parents and kids are so familiar with the concept of spam that it just might work.

I'd be willing to pay a small sum to post online. A penny is all that's needed. It would be just enough to take the economic incentive out of spamming and would be a relatively small hassle for individuals. It would be a larger hassle for Internet providers, however, which is probably why we'll never see this.

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The Blogspot Problem

Splogspot in the Splogosphere: "I love Google. I love Blogger. What I don't love is how Google hasn't done anything about the Blogspot problem."
I'm obviously a Blogspot user, but I'm feeling more and more embarrassed to be one. Spam blogs, or splogs as some call it, are poisoning the web. I gave up on trackbacks in the last few months because I couldn't keep up with the bogus links to gambling, pharma and sex sites. Now it's even affecting comments in this dusty, dark corner of the blogosphere. My wife and kids are seeing it on their sites as well, and they have even fewer regular readers.

The only thing that has ever stopped spammers is having to spend money. Perhaps Google should bring back Blogger Pro, give it a new domain and leave the free domain as a sandbox -- something to play with while you get the hang of blogging.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005


I had just managed to get my blog site to look slightly less than ugly when I realized I had broken the comment system entirely. If you had tried to comment in the last few weeks (all three of my loyal readers), I apologize. I've had to move back to one of Blogger's ugly templates. Mind your eyes, and perhaps you'd rather just read the feed in a blog reader. Believe me, it's better.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Kids and the Internet (or Thoughts on Yahoo)

Earlier this week, Yahoo buckled under pressure from everyone's favorite attorney general and banned anyone under 18 from their chat rooms, probably wiping away 90 percent of their users. My initial thought is that it was a gross overreaction. What's next, banning anyone under 18 in the school cafeteria or playground? There's a lot of talk about sex there, too, and the participants are mostly underage. I still feel that way, but when I try to think it through, the reasons are complicated.

I have five children, ranging in age from eight to 16. I can't say that I'm the most attentive parent, or even just a present one a lot of the time, but I do have a few guidelines that may work out in the end (we'll see when they all turn 30). First, I can't protect my children from the world. The world is made up of all sorts of people, from saints to sinners, with a few psychos thrown in. Second, I want my children to be able to function independently in the real world -- the way it is, not the way I wish it was. Finally, I subscribe to the nine-tenths rule, with variations: Nine out of 10 people in the world are wonderful, not just harmless (that's 99 out of 100), but truly wonderful. One of the most useful skills you can develop is openness to the nine and the ability to recognize and steer clear of the 10th.

Those guidelines have led me to raise my children in one of the largest cities in the world, albeit in the outskirts (I can't afford to house seven people in central London). I want them to experience the most diverse environment possible, and interact daily with people of all kinds. It also leads to me to encourage my children to participate in the even larger city of the Internet, for the same reason. My two older kids already have blogs (here and here ) and they all are fairly savvy users of the Web, multi-user online games and instant messaging (i.e., chat). As far as I know, they don't use Yahoo's chat rooms, though.

But I understand that the Internet has its unique dangers. Anonymity seems to bring out any asocial tendencies in a larger percentage of the population. Some people turn into blithering idiots when they hide behind a nickname in a chat room and are talking with people they know they are unlikely to ever meet in person. But you'll meet some of those same sorts of sub-folks at a car boot sale (U.S. translation: a mass, organized yard sale) or city park. Learning how to handle even these sorts of people (mostly by ignoring them or banning them, depending on the software) is a useful skill, and it'll only get more useful as they go through life, and as the real and online worlds blur.

Kids aren't automatically equipped to handle life, let alone the Internet. They need help, but not necessarily sheltering. Talking to your children -- I don't do this enough -- solves 90 percent of that problem. The rest of it Theresa and I handle the following way:

  • We tell our children not to give out any personal information on the Internet except to people they know very well. That means no addresses, telephone numbers, email address, skype names, etc.
  • We tell them that if anyone ever makes them feel uncomfortable or says something to them that they don't understand, tell us, immediately.
  • We keep the family computer in the living room, in plain sight. The second computer is in our bedroom. We ask them what they're up to occasionally or ask them to show us the games their playing and explain them to us. (A side thought: I'm not a believer in the theory that violent games make for violent people. Theresa may differ on this. As long as it's not gory or extreme, it's probably harmless.)
  • Suggest interesting sites, software or technology that may interest them, steering them toward safe, fun and interesting things to do on the Internet. This isn't easy, since "interesting" to me is often about as exciting as math homework ("Hey, kids, want to do some programming in Linux?"). But there are some very cool hacking (in the good sense of that term) sites on the Internet that do seem to attract them. I especially like the ones that prompt the kids to walk away from the computer and into the tool shed or outside.

Anyone else have tips? I'd love to hear them. Anyone disagree?

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Monday, October 10, 2005

My daughter, the Artist

Originally uploaded by ailishsul.

Ailish's photographs continue to amaze me. she really has an excellent eye. Check them out here.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Theresa and I just came back from watching Serenity, the film spawned from the failed-TV-series-turned-cult-hit Firefly. Yes, as some critics have said, it's a two-hour TV episode on the big screen, but it was a heck of an episode. Although you could watch it without having seen the series, I'm glad we were familiar with the characters and background. Much that was left hanging when the series came to an abrupt end was wrapped up. Unfortunately, I don't hold out much hope for more. It's opening weekend in the U.K. and a 9pm showing on a Saturday was only a quarter full. That doesn't bode well for a new series or film.

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

New Family Tradition

Balancing act

In the last few weeks, we've decided we're going to try out a new park every Saturday, weather permitting. This week the weather just permitted. It started pouring as we neared the car park on our way back from a visit to the Aqua Drome in Rickmansworth. It had two large ponds, full of swans and ducks, with a sailboat race going on and people fishing. It's one of the best things about the London area -- they don't skimp on the parks. There are wide-open, green areas every few miles. It'll take us a while to work our way through them.

For more photos of today, see here.

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Dave Winer Hates It

Dave Winer, the alpha blogger, isn't impressed with Google's new blog reader:
This is the second blog-related product they've come out with recently that appears not to have been touched by human beings before it was introduced to the world (the other was the ridiculous blog search). I think they need to start using their own stuff before releasing it.
I haven't used the reader enough to say, but it's not very fast. Before I make any final conclusions, though, I want to know what Google means when it sorts my incoming posts by "relevance." Is it trying to guess what I'd find interesting? If so, it might be more useful than it appears.

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Everyday Sites (and some unsolved problems)

Robert Scoble, Microsoft's corporate blogger, earlier this week wrote a post saying that he likes Web applications if he uses them less than 10 minutes a day and prefers Windows software if he uses them more often. I used to be like that (well, substitute "local" for Windows -- my operating system preferences are elsewhere), but my circumstances have changed so much in the last few years, and the Web has improved so much, that I'm finding myself spending most of my time on the Web. This is significant because, unlike several years ago, I'm a regular user now. My job isn't in technology. This should worry Microsoft.

First, the circumstances, some of which are unique to me:

  • I'm never more than a few steps from a broadband or wirelessly connected PC or device.
  • I work on several different computers. The one at work isn't mine and my employer barely lets me save anything on its hard disk. At home, we have a wireless network and I'm either using one of two desktop computers or a laptop. When traveling, I'm using Internet-cafe style computers or whatever happens to be on the desk at the local bureau. The implications of that is that a local application just complicates my life. A local blog reader, for example, couldn't easily keep track of what I've read and what's new. My email would be in pieces all over the place. The documents I'm working on would have to be kept in sync, laboriously.
  • A vanishingly small part of my output needs to be kept local. I'm a news wire editor -- the only thing that matters in my work is what gets sent to newspapers. And nothing spends long on my screen. I recently picked up a USB flash disk pen and I'm having trouble thinking of stuff I need to keep on it. I used to have a Palm Pilot, but gave it to my daughter because it was yet another thing to carry and was redundant. Since I stopped being a reporter, I'm rarely out of the office. When I travel, it's to another desk.

The result is that the Web is a more natural place for me to keep my data than a local disk. Within minutes of sitting at a new desk, everything I write, bookmark or photograph is available to me, without me having to do anything more complicated than open a browser and type in an address.

That's been true for a while, but the early Web applications were painful and awkward to use. That's changing. Whether you call it "Web 2.0" -- the current meaningless hype word -- there's no denying that the applications are becoming less of a joke. In the past, for example, I used Hotmail only in a dire emergency. Today, Gmail is my main email client and I like it. With a reasonably fast Internet connection, today's Web apps are responsive and feature rich enough. The key word is enough. I've been using computers for so long now that I'm jaded. I don't care if you have 80 features, compared with 74 at your rival. I just want to get my work done. The simpler, the better.

Here's the current list of sites that I find I use everyday. Crucially, every one of these works on every computer I use, Windows or Linux:

  • I've written many times about this before, so I won't spend too much on it. This is where I start, because it keeps track of all of my Web bookmarks. Mine are added here. In Firefox, I can even "subscribe" to different tags and they appear identical to regular bookmarks. So, for example, if I add a new news Web site at work, it shows up automatically under "news" on the bookmarks menu at home.
  • Gmail: Again, mentioned many times previously. In my opinion, it's the best Web client around right now, even compared with the admirable efforts at Hotmail and Yahoo to match it. It does force you to rethink how you use email a bit -- no folders, for example -- but once you get use to its methods, I think it's superior. It has an excellent spam filter, basically because you have millions of users refining its filters. You still need to be invited to get an account, as far as I know. If you want to try it, email me.
  • Backpack: I'm a notoriously disorganized person, which is one of the reasons I work in daily (or minute-ly) journalism. I have a difficult time managing long-term projects and am a terrible procrastinator. To-do lists help. Even though I know what I have to do next, checking it off a list keeps me moving. Backpack provides up to five free pages, which can contain just about anything -- notes, photos, etc. I just use three pages for to-do lists -- personal, work, and daily (stuff I have to do every day).
  • Writely: This is one of the most useful sites I've found in a long time. It's a word processor and document manager for the Web. You create documents in a simple, but very Word-like editor. You can also share them with anyone with an email address. One feature that I'm using a lot is its ability to post to a blog. I find Writely a superior editor for Blogger. You can write your post using the full screen, for example, rather than Blogger's puny little form. I wrote this page in Writely.
  • Flickr: Again, I've written about this loads of times, but Flickr is the best application right now for managing your photos. And the fact that it's on the Web is irrelevant.

Here's a few others that I use everyday, but are just candidates or in a bit of a flux.

  • SearchFox: This is an interesting new blog reader that I'm trying. I subscribe to around 80 blog feeds, which can be a bit hard to handle, especially if I'm busy and miss a few days. SearchFox watches what you read, what you mark as favorites, what titles catch your eye, etc., and orders the blog posts to show you first what it thinks you'll find most interesting. It's still a work in progress and invite only. (If you want an account, message with your preferred username and use my reference code xb17.) It still has a few drawbacks -- it doesn't automatically find feeds given a regular Web address like Bloglines does, for example, and it takes a while to learn your preferences well enough to become really useful. I have a high volume of blogs and it took it a few weeks to start picking out the real gems.
  • Yahoo Calendar: I use Yahoo for my calendar, but I'm not thrilled with it. There are lot of garish advertisements and it's slower and more complicated than I would like. It does have all of the features you'd want -- recurring appointments, alarms, ability to sync data with personal devices, etc. But it just doesn't thrill me. I'm still looking.

There are several drawbacks to using Web applications. Here are few:

  • Keeping track of all of those accounts. No one has come up with a good solution for this that works across platforms. I need it to work on both Windows and Linux, and the Mac would be a nice plus (because I plan on getting one of those soon). At the moment, I keep an encrypted file with all of my usernames and passwords and keep it in Gmail. It's an awkward system. The alternatives are less than secure -- using the same password for everything, or using only passwords that are very easy to remember.
  • They have your data. My data isn't earth-shaking important, but it's still not good to leave it exclusively in the hands of companies such as Google. My approach is to spread my data among several companies, try to keep the same piece of information in more than one place and only use services that provide a way to easily export it, so that I can take my stuff elsewhere if need be. Part of that is keeping my stuff in portable formats -- text, HTML, JPEG, XML. I avoid any kind of "digital rights management" or proprietary formats.
  • No one has come up with a good Web app for my most abundant data: music. I have 25 gigabytes of the stuff (all legal). At the moment, I keep it in portable MP3 format (I would have used a loss-less file format if I were forward-thinking enough, but I'm not), mirror the collection between two computers at home and keep another copy on my iPod. We need a Flickr for music, assuming someone has the guts to locate it on a deserted island and stand up to the record companies.
  • Finally, and this isn't exactly a drawback, but there are still applications that I prefer to use locally -- Skype, Firefox, Emacs.

Even with those drawbacks, my attention (a scarce resource) is being spent more and more on line. I read with interest everything Microsoft's Scoble wrote about the latest professional developers conference, where his company trotted out all the stuff it's planning on shipping in the next year (or three). But I wasn't excited about it; there's was no feeling of anticipation. I've had it with pretty animations, sculpted interfaces and pretty buttons. I just want to write things for the Web, share my photos, communicate and keep track of information. And these days, I can do that anywhere.

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Andrew Smith's Moondust: In search of the Men Who Fell to Earth

I was six years old when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. I must be one of the few people my age or older who doesn't remember it. I suspect my parents didn't let me stay up, or if they did, I didn't understand what was going on and it went over my head. I do, however, remember later landings. The nuns at my school brought in a TV and we got a break from schoolwork to watch some astronaut -- I forget who -- sing "Walking on the Moon One Day," while skipping along in low gravity. It seems like a dream, barely believable.

That dream-like quality of a unique period in history is the focus on Andrew Davis's Moondust -- a book-length essay about his effort to track down the remaining nine people on the planet who have viewed earth from deep space. Most, it turns out, were profoundly changed by the experience, which is unsurprising. What do you do after you've been to the moon? Neil Armstong became essentially a recluse. Alan Bean is spending the rest of his life trying to recapture the scenes on the moon with oil paints. Edgar Mitchell is pushing an almost New Age view of the universe. Buzz Aldrin is advocating a return to deep space. But that's just scratching the surface. Davis goes deeper and tries to understand what the race to the moon really meant, not just to the astronauts, but the rest of us as well.

A couple things struck me the most in the book: First, it's amazing just how seat-of-the-pants the moon trips were. The whole enterprise was incredibly dangerous. Armstrong was, NASA calculated, two-fifth of a second away from death during a test of the lander, for example, and barely wrestled control of a tumbling spacecraft in the Gemini program. Most of the landings would have ended in disaster if it wasn't for quick work by the experienced test pilots, facing situations they weren't trained for and that the engineers hadn't anticipated. Second, the whole program seems to have been designed as temporary from the start. At each stage, engineers abandoned more enduring technology -- even cheaper ones -- for expediency. "Spam in a can," is what the astronauts called the method NASA chose to blast humans into space on towers of explosives. They abandoned the promising X-plane program and used a lunar-orbit process (instead of an earth-orbiting launcher), for example. And all but one of the astronauts were non-scientists, so relatively little science was accomplished, nor intended. They say we no longer have the guts for a deep space program, but we didn't really have the guts then either. It was political, and once the politics went away, the moon program did too. What's left is a bureaucracy sustaining itself with projects of little purpose. We're doing good science these days, but with robots, not people.

At the same time I was reading the book, the BBC was running a series called the Space Race, which focused on the political battle between the U.S. and Russia. It reinforced the impression of danger, describing some truly horrific accidents in the Russian program that wasn't made public for decades. The U.S. has been relatively lucky. And it is luck -- the manned flights were done as soon as nerves of steel could stand, with barely tested parts wielded by incredibly brave people. But the TV series ended as sadly. The participants expected it to go on -- to Mars, colonies on the moon. Instead, we looked, and then ran home.

Cost is one, but not the only, problem. The nine years of the Apollo program cost less than one year of the Vietnam war at its height. The other problem is a lack of a goal. Why send people to such a hostile place? Davis, in Moondust, is a skeptic, but by the end he's won over in an unexpected way. (I'll leave you to discover that yourself.)

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Monday, October 03, 2005

On my way to Paris, then Brussels

It's ungodly early Monday morning and I'm at the Eurostar station at
Waterloo. I'll be traveling to Paris this morning, then switch to a
Brussels hotel tonight and spend the day in the office there tomorrow.

Theresa and I are in our periodic busy periods. She worked until late
last night and then will work two overnights when I get back, so we'll
barely see each other this week. We're still waiting to win the

Saturday, October 01, 2005

17 Years

Today is our 17th wedding anniversary. That feels both long and short. It seems like I've known Theresa forever. She's as naturally a part of me as my left arm, and her absence would feel as unnatural. But at the same time, it doesn't feel like 17 years, or the nearly 20 that I've known her.

Seventeen years ago today I was a cub reporter in New Hampshire, covering planning commissions, school boards and selectmen meetings in little towns along the I-91 corridor. Dead and dying villages, most of them, with enormous, empty, factory floors -- leftovers from a machine-tool industry that had moved to Asia. Theresa worked in one of the largest teaching hospitals in New England. By the time our first child was born, we had skipped over the Connecticut River and worked and lived in Vermont. For our second, third, fourth and fifth child, we were further down the Interstate, in Massachusetts -- me writing about computer trivia, while Theresa worked in Hospice and cared for families as they said goodbye to their dying husbands, wives, fathers and daughters. Today we're in another country entirely. Theresa's still caring for cancer patients, and I'm still moving words about, albeit of a slightly less trivial sort.

Laid out like that, it sounds like a lot. It isn't. It went by like a flash. I haven't spent enough time with Theresa, not by a long shot. She still surprises me almost every day. I'm looking forward to another 17 years of discovery.

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Thursday, September 29, 2005


The half-started and half-finished draft blog posts -- there's a difference, though subtle -- are beginning to pile up and looks like I'm not going to get another post on here unless I force myself. So here goes. This what I could write, on my Blackberry, with my two thumbs, in the time the time it takes me to get home. Pardon the typos.

Work is heating up, as it always does this time of year. I run a team of journalists covering courts in Europe and, with the exception of criminal courts, the news flow drops dramatically in the summer. It even stays quiet through most of September as lawyers reacquaint themselves with the half-finished (and half-started) cases -- "What's our defense, again? Oh, right, he didn't do it." -- and judges take practice swings with their swords of justice -- "Off with his head! Nah, just joking with ya." And both re-powder their wigs, at least in the U.K.

But suddenly, near the end of September, the mad dash starts and will continue to Christmas. I barely have time to go to the bathroom for the 14 hours a day I spent either in the office or traveling to or from. It doesn't leave much room for thinking, or spotting interesting articles, or talking with the family.

On top of that, I'm doing my (now traditional) twice-a-year dive into the Linux community. My flavor of Linux is Ubuntu (pronounced oo-boon-too), which gets upgraded, come hell or high water, once every six months. I find six months perfect for me. After that long, I start itching for a change in my computing environment -- new versions of software to explore, for example.

I get so much out of Ubuntu, though, that I feel a bit guilty. Free software such as this depends on volunteers -- not exclusively, since the core developers are paid, but it wouldn't be possible to put out a free operating system as powerful as Windows or Mac OS X without tender loving care from several hundred or thousands of others. And the truth is I give back very little. I just don't have time.

So the computer sits in a corner, dutifully running for months at a time, handling homework assignments for five children, backing up every file in the house each night, retrieving and distributing email for everyone, acting as our second TV for playing DVDs, playing our music and Internet-based radio stations and finally, and most taxing, acting as my personal play box for new software (also created by mostly volunteers) and programming languages (my version of
crossword puzzles).

(Later, I'm home now, and to wrap this up quickly...) So, to give at least a little back, about a month before the developers of Ubuntu put out a new version, I download and install the half-finished (not half-started) version and bang away at it, trying to find bugs and filing reports. I've even submitted one "patch" (a file that shows changes needed in source code that may solve a problem), although I submitted it in the wrong format and it was only for the most minor of cosmetic bugs. I also subscribe to the the user support mailing list and weigh in as much as I can to help new users solve at least the simplest problems. It may not be much, but it's something.

Anyway, 14-hour work days, tinkering with the computer and answering tech-support questions is filling up my time, just about all of it. Typing my thoughts into a Blackberry on the way home, however, might be a way to squeeze out just a little bit more.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Autumn weekend

Autumn berries
Originally uploaded by Eamonn_Sullivan.

It was a beautiful weekend, uncharacteristically sunny, with just a bit of rain over Saturday night. And for the first time in what feels like weeks, Theresa wasn't working.

Here's a photo taken during our walk with Dude yesterday. The autumn berries are out on the trees, the sky is blue. What else could we want?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Tree in the Forest

My wife Theresa has started blogging again, after a pause. She's, as usual, outdoing me by a wide margin, even writing some excellent children's fiction. Read her, encourage her, and suggest she get an agent, so that I can retire on her earnings.

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The Christian Paradox (

Someone in the newsroom passed me an excellent essay in Harper's, The Christian Paradox. It sums up better than I ever could the central paradox of religious conservatives everywhere, not just Christian ones.

The closer religion and politics get, the worse both become. As the two near, the hard bits of any religion start dropping away. Tolerance and prohibition against killing civilians in Islam, for example. In Christianity, "minor" details such as the Sermon on the Mount, "love your neighbor as yourself" and "Sell all you have and come follow me" fall by the wayside as the focus shifts to eliminating taxes on our inheritance and killing as many terrorists as we can. Even the traditionally social-justice-focused Catholics, of which I'm a poor example, have become more and more obsessed with one, and only one, issue. And it isn't social justice.

Bill McKibben, in the Harper's essay, argues that the precepts of the current religious conservatism movement in the U.S. and Christianity are at odds, and for good reason. The religion, at its core, isn't conservative. It couldn't be more radical:
Love your neighbor as yourself: although its rhetorical power has been dimmed by repetition, that is a radical notion, perhaps the most radical notion possible. Especially since Jesus, in all his teachings, made it very clear who the neighbor you were supposed to love was: the poor person, the sick person, the naked person, the hungry person. The last shall be made first; turn the other cheek; a rich person aiming for heaven is like a camel trying to walk through the eye of a needle. On and on and on—a call for nothing less than a radical, voluntary, and effective reordering of power relationships, based on the principle of love.
And this is true of other religions, as well. The major religions agree on an awful lot, much more than admitted. Much of what people hate religion for are politically expedient add-ons -- the subjugation of women, for example, or the battle against science -- all of which can be backed up if need be in the Torah, Bible, Koran... You can justify anything you want. You don't have to give up any of your prejudices, make any hard choices or give up any comforts, if you don't want to. But is that religion?

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ken MacLeod's Learning the World

One aspect of science fiction that puts me off occasionally is that you have to suspend too much science. Much of the fiction depends on developments that are, at best, unlikely.

The most common one of those, of course, is faster than light travel. The speed of light, to the best of our current knowledge, is an absolute. Nothing can, and ever will, go faster. That means travel to all but the closest stars will take at least decades and probably centuries, even to the people doing the traveling, let alone the ones left behind. That barrier also makes alien encounters statistically unlikely and probably cumbersome if they do occur. What's the fun of talking to an alien when it takes a couple of centuries to get a reply to a message?

Ken MacLeod's latest, Learning the World, shows it's possible to adhere to the laws of physics and still produce a gripping SciFi novel. In MacLeod's world, humanity has been expanding slowly, at sub-light speed, for 14,000 years. They move from system to system in enormous ships that spin to provide an artificial gravity for the passengers living on the sides and manned by a micro-gravity adapted crew in the center. Journeys take centuries, and are multi-generational. Humans have overcome current age limits and the "founders" of the ship will still be around when it arrives, along with their children, grand children, etc., all educated in the skills they'll need to transform the new system into home. After settling in, a new ship is constructed, a new founder group forms and the process starts over again. In all that time, humans have never encountered any extraterrestrial life more complicate than pond scum.

As the ship at the center of Learning the World approaches a new system, they start picking up radio signals from one of the planets and discover they've got a serious ethical dilemma. The encounter is told from several points of view, including that of a teenaged blogger and an alien astronomer who first spots what he initially believes is a new comet. Both sides are changed in unexpected ways.

I haven't read any of MacLeod's books before, so I'll have to add yet more to my seemingly infinite reading list. What impressed me the most about his writing, aside from getting around the light-speed problem, is that he's made a gripping novel out of relatively little action. Much of the book is politics, which in lesser hands would make for an effective sleeping aid. Instead I was so engrossed that I was frequently in danger of missing my stop on the Tube. I can't ask for much more.

The book is newer than the ones I'm usually picking up, and is available right now only in hardcover, but Amazon has it at a reasonable price. You can buy it here or by clicking on the book cover above.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

English Education

One aspect of living overseas is that we're constantly having to negotiate unfamiliar ground, literally and figuratively.

Our children's education is the figurative sort, especially for our eldest. Theresa and I didn't go through the English school system, so each year is a whole new vista. Our 16-year-old has started at sixth form college, which is roughly equivalent (in years) to the second half of high school in the U.S. and (academically) to junior college. At the end of it, the students take their A-Level exams. If they do well, they then go on to university, but usually only for three years.

The school is all of 3.3 miles from our home (according to Google Maps), but it's also on new ground for me (of the literal sort). The bus we took drove through Harrow School, through the kind of neighborhood where the homes have names ("Hedge House") rather than mere numbers, the Royal Mail boxes haven't changed since the 19th century and the local shops sell convertible Jaguars. Hugh Grant wouldn't look out of place walking down these streets. I've lived here for more than seven years, but have never wandered through this particular corner of outer London.

My daughter doesn't go to Harrow, of course. The bus kept going and dropped us off on the other side of the tracks, figuratively, but not more than a couple of hundred yards. Her college, St. Dominic's, is a bit smaller than her secondary school, with about 800 students. I can't say we got a good look, but I got a warm feeling about the place in our brief visit last night. The new headmaster looked competent, and obviously won't put up with much from any troublemakers.

I've been anxious about my kids' education. Most well-off people here send their children to private schools (which are, oddly, called "public" schools). The newspapers are constantly filled with articles about the inadequacies of the education system, but I think that's true anywhere.

What really worries me is that the English seem to be in a hurry. At 16, my daughter has to make major decisions about what courses to take and what to drop. In the U.S., Theresa and I took almost exactly the same subjects until the third year of university, even as she became a nurse and I became a professional drain on society.

We advised flexibility, suggesting to our daughter that she take as wide a range of courses as possible. She's taking both physics and philosophy, for example. I know a few relatives will bristle at this, but I do believe Liberal Arts have value. The world is changing so fast that the only real function of the education system is to teach you how to learn. And it isn't just science and maths, it's making ethical decisions, discriminating between truth and cattle manure and communicating effectively. I had no idea what I wanted to do at 16 (or 26), but a combination of a liberal arts education and a strong interest in anything technical has served me well enough. I can only hope it works even better for my children.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The View From My Bedroom this Morning

Autumn is here and it's starting to get darker when I get up. This is what it looked like around 6:15-6:20 this morning. Compared with family and friends back in the Boston area, ours days eventually end up shorter by about an hour on each end (two hours in total). We have an additional two hours of sunlight in the summer, but that seems a long way away.

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Charles Stross's "The Family Trade" and "The Hidden Family"

The part of Windsor Castle that made the biggest impression on me when I toured it a few years ago was the weapons room. It was filled from floor to ceiling with weapons for hand-to-hand combat -- every imaginable type of blade, hammer, mace and ax. It reminded me that the aristocracy got there because their ancestors were basically warlords, some of them equal in viciousness to any you'd find today in Somalia or northern Afghanistan. They were trained from an early age to kill, and the deadliest threat often came from within their own family. Fairy tales featuring princesses and Prince Charmings rarely mention the murderous in-laws in the happily-ever-after.

Charles Stross doesn't gloss over this aspect in his Merchant Princes books, The Family Trade and The Hidden Family. The main character, Miriam Bechstein, a high-tech journalist in the Boston area who was adopted as a baby , discovers that her birth family lives in an alternate universe, a more primitive version of our own, where kings still rule and her relatives are merchants who have recently joined the aristocracy. The Machiavelli-like mercantilists have a unique ability to walk between our world and theirs. They've grown rich by trading between universes and are muscling in on the traditional nobility.

Miriam is a believable character. Instead of being awed by her family, she quickly susses that they are a dangerous lot. Extracting herself and going back to her old life is impossible. Her only choice then is to remake the other world into something she can live with. The challenge is to drag her family into the modern world while dodging several factions who would rather kill her than change.

Stross doesn't play the usual comedy/tragedy-of-errors game. Miriam doesn't act like an idiot or miss (most) obvious clues. The dilemmas are convincing, her responses intelligent and the results convincing. Stross also has the journalist type down. As a former high-tech journalist from the Boston area, I recognized the type. There were very few false notes.

I'd recommend buying both books at once. They were originally written as one, and it shows. The ending of the first isn't very satisfying. You'll want to jump straight away into the second. (As usual, you can click on the book covers above to jump right to the Amazon page.)

What I find most enjoyable about Stross is that he's always different. The Merchant series couldn't be more different than Accelerando, and couldn't be more different again from Iron Sunrise or Singularity Sky. The only thing in common among these books is excellent writing.

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