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December, 2008:

Mikogo Over Skype

Yesterday I discovered Mikogo, a Net meeting/remote desktop technology that would be a lot like VNC and the others I’ve played with, except that it can be configured to piggyback on Skype. There is a Mikogo Skype “extra” (what Skype calls its plug-ins) and I will be using it to give a remote lecture on Carl & Jerry to the Southwest Ohio Digital and Technical Symposium on January 10, with the help of Jay Slough K4ZLE.

Jay and I gave it a spin yesterday to make sure we could connect during the Symposium in January, and in addition to working well, Mikogo was mighty cool. You install the extra from the Skype Extras menu, and it comes down the same way that other Skype extras do. Once installed, you can create a 1-to-1 or 1-to-many connection with anybody else who has the Mikogo Skype extra running. Skype handles the audio, and where the connection is between two machines, the “presenter” (the machine that provides a screen echo to the other) can be switched back and forth at any time. Mikogo has a simple whiteboard feature that allows the presenter to draw lines in various thicknesses, colors, and shapes on the screen. It also has the option of remote control, so that the non-presenter can use the mouse and keyboard on the presenter’s machine. Pete Albrecht and I plan to try using Mikogo over Skype to allow me to control Pete’s big Meade telescope from here in Colorado, at least when it stops raining in Orange County.

I don’t have a great deal of experience with the Mikogo system yet, but after an hour or so of solid connections with Jay and with Pete, I can say that it’s well worth trying if you have any use for that sort of thing.

WordPress Tags and Categories

Contra is moving to its own domain January 1, and will become a WordPress install as of that date. (Posts there now are all test posts and will be deleted before it goes live.) I’ve been studying WordPress and configuring the install to do what I need it to do, and although it’s taken some time and some fooling-with, long-term it will save me a huge amount of effort, compared to the hand-editing I have done now for over ten years.

One of the interesting features of WordPress is that it supports both tags and categories. A lot of people scratch their heads over that, but when I saw it I understood it immediately. Tags and categories both apply a text string to a post. The differences from a content management perspective are minor: Categories are predefined and applied via a drop-down list, but you create tags “on the fly” at post-time. You can use tags and categories interchangeably if you want, but using them together allows an interesting sort of two-axis classification of posts. One axis (best handled by tags) describes what a post is about: politics, religion, publishing, Linux, Wi-Fi, and so on. The other axis (best handled by categories) describes the shape of a post, in the sense of a literary form: idea pieces, reviews, rants, travelogs, memoir, and so on. The increase in precision is delicious: Not all posts about wine are reviews—I’ve done at least one wine rant and will probably do more, and wine travelogs are possible—but if you’re more interested in reviews than in rants, selecting the “reviews” category and looking for the “wine” tag will get you exactly what you want.

Both categories and tags work best when used sparingly. Five hundred tags each used once or twice are not only not as useful as keyword search (which is available in WordPress) but less useful, because after awhile we forget what tags we’ve created and create new tags that are so similar as existing tags as to spawn serious search entropy. (I had this problem on LiveJournal more than once.)

Categories in particular should be few and distinct. I brainstormed with myself a few days ago, jotted down as many category identifiers as occurred to me, and then ruthlessly winnowed the list down to a predetermined limit of ten or fewer. The eight categories I settled on are these:

Daybook: Everyday activities; “Dear Diary:”
Ideas & Analysis: Commentary on news plus ideas and speculation
Memoir: My personal history
Odd Lots: Short items presented without much discussion
Rants: Complaints and other over-the-top material
Reviews: Evaluations of products or services
Travelogs: Where I went and what I saw/suffered/learned in going
Tutorials: How things work and how to do them

I also have a tags list that runs to a little over fifty right now, and includes all the expected keywords describing my many interests, like religion, publishing, ebooks, dogs, hardware, ham radio, psychology, and so on. I spent a sobering half an hour meditating on my accumulated tags list in LiveJournal and threw most of them out. I’m going to try to keep myself to fifty tags or fewer and don’t expect a great deal of difficulty creating the list. (I’ll post it once I consider it reliable.) This sort of thing is called a “controlled vocabulary” in information science circles, and the trick, of course, is to keep it controlled.

LiveJournal will continue to be a mirror. One unanswered question is whether I will attempt to import LiveJournal posts to WordPress. This apparently can be done, though I haven’t tried it and understand that it could seriously mess up my newfound tag discipline—and require me to categorize several hundred posts. I may import but only selectively. Research continues.

Scanning Some Personal History

We live in a wildfire zone, and there’s not much to be done but make it easy to run if we have to. That leaves everything we have to go up in smoke, and while most of it is replaceable, a good deal isn’t. The worst of it is our photo album set and our boxes full of loose photos and slides. I’ve been scanning them as I can, but it’s a slow business and may not be done for a long time.

It has been a good opportunity to look critically at the photos as they come to hand one-by-one, and decide which are worth keeping come hell or high water (or a wall of fire) and which are not. People rarely throw away the bad ones, even when they’re out of focus or virtually identical to three or four others on the roll. I’m so used to nuking lousy digital camera shots that I was surprised that so many bad slides remained in the boxes, including a few that were so out of focus or exposure that it was difficult to tell precisely what they were. I guess I figured that they were paid for and therefore could not be wasted, like the last few ounces of a huge pile of heavily spiced pasta that you can’t bring yourself to eat but can’t bear to put down the disposal.

In going through a box of slides, I realized that I was only scanning about a third of them. The rest were bracketed attempts at excellence that missed the mark or just plain booboos. (Having a small light table to preview the slides certainly helped.)  I had to smile when I realized that I only keep about a third of my digital camera photos too, depending on what they are. I do better at things that sit stock still than I do at QBit and Aero tearing around the house or trying to do tricks.

So in fits and starts, Carol and I are preserving an era of our history together that isn’t in the photo albums, because (for the first three or four years) we took slides almost exclusively. It’s startling to see myself as an adult with hair, given that it’s now a small and shrinking percentage of my life, basically, 1970-1985. (The photo here is from the backyard of our first house in Chicago, the summer of 1978.)

Sunrise Surreality

When the sun comes up, the eastern horizon is sometimes clear while the rest of the sky is overcast. This can make for some interesting color effects, especially on the tall pines immediately across the street from us. The photo here was snapped perhaps five minutes after the sun broke an unusually clear horizon.

Odd Lots

  • Carol and I just finished the bulk of our Christmas cards. The cards we bought this year had little sparkles glued (badly) to them, and as we processed the 70-odd cards going out, the cards began shedding, and sparkles are now showing up…everywhere. I’m looking down at my shirt cuffs right now, and they’re blazing like a disco ball. Next year: No sparkles!
  • Illinois’ illustrious governor will soon (we hope) be matriculating to the Governors’ Wing at the Joliet Correctional Center, and I am displeased to announce that he went to my high school. In fact, he was a freshman when I was a senior, and his sneaky little face is in the Lane Tech 1970 yearbook. Pete Albrecht was also a freshman that year, and narrowly missed out on the cooties inherent in having a future felon governor in your homeroom. Pete tells the story at greater length (with scans from the yearbook) over at InfoBunker. (Scroll down to the December 9, 2008 entry.)
  • David Beers passed along a link to what might be the absolute worst idea of 2008: Google Code’s research project aimed at allowing x86 native code to run in a browser. Hoo-boy. My question: If the Cloud is so great, why risk being pwned at native-code speeds? (And isn’t this what Java is for?)
  • Google Books has very recently posted back issues for a number of venerable magazines, including Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, CIO, Ebony, Jet, New York, Vegetarian Times, American Cowboy, and who knows what else. (I don’t see a master list of magazines.) The PM collection runs from 1905 to 2000, and isn’t just a scattering of issues, but damned near all of them. So what was PM’s cover story the month you were born? (Mine? “Mermaid Theater.” Wow.)
  • Alas, you can look at the Google Books magazine back issues, but you can’t save them to disk or print them out. Or can you? (I haven’t tried this yet.)
  • The wonderfully named Nevada Lightning Laboratory has managed to transmit 800 watts of power across five meters’ distance, besting the previous record of 60 watts across two meters, set by MIT. The technique is not new, and was patented by our boy Nikola Tesla 100 years ago. Very cool, but are my wire-frame glasses going to melt when I step into the field with my Tesla-powered laptop?
  • This Friday’s full Moon happens only four hours from Lunar perigee, and is the biggest of the year, 14% greater in angular diameter (not especially noticeable) and 30% brighter (way noticeable!) than the apogee Moon we saw earlier this year. That’s bright, it’s high, and if you’ve got snow all over the place, midnight will be knee-deep in moonshine. (Not that kind.)
  • 200,000 inflatable breasts got lost on their way from China (where there is evidently an inflatable breast factory) to Australia (where they were to be polybagged with a men’s magazine) and have only recently been found in Melbourne. Just thought you’d like to know.

The Algernon Conundrum

My previous entry on drug prohibition (December 5, 2008) triggered a great deal of discussion, and prompted someone to send me a link to a story on chemical cognitive enhancement. People are using a number of drugs and non-regulated chemicals to give themselves a performance edge at work or school, and the question of whether this is a good thing or not is complex. Caffeine tops the list of cognitive enhancers by popularity; I also have an intuition that certain “smart drinks” containing herbals like ginko biloba really work because they have more caffeine than Mountain Dew. Most cognitive enhancers are stimulants of some kind, and people who depend on them often lose sleep, which some research suggests is behind a great many health problems from obesity to hypertension. Other less obvious effects may exist. Caffeine is ancient but most other nootropic drugs are not, and we have no clue what they might do to the human system over an adult life of forty years or more.

However, someday we will know. The question then becomes: If we can improve brain function with chemicals that have no adverse effects, should we? And if those chemicals actually make human beings brighter, less angry, more social, or more effective in other ways, are there grounds for restricting their use? One could argue that life’s game is now all about brains and personality—brawn went out of fashion as a career choice a generation ago—and letting people “cheat” with pills or patches is fundamentally unfair to those who can’t afford the pills or patches or by some odd quirk of physiology do not respond to them. Beyond that, objections thin out pretty quickly. The benefits are immense, and if the costs were modest, we could make the enhancers available to anybody who wanted them.

The remaining objection is subtle: There are rarely any free lunches. Assuming that we can find cognitive enhancers without some sort of damaging side effects might be naive. Evolution made us as we are, and did so at the cost of billions of “bad throws” of the genetic dice. Making better humans may come at a cost, and the SF writer in me wants to ask questions like this: Suppose you could boost your intelligence radically using a chemical that cranked up brain chemistry at the cost of burning your brain out after forty years or so. I’m not talking about a little better detail recall or a little more personal energy to work through your do-it list. (That’s what people who use Ritalin or Provigil today are achieving.) I’m talking about being able to grasp and integrate massive amounts of information into your daily experience of life; of being able to hold dazzlingly interesting discussions with other people that range across all human knowledge; of being able to understand the ways that widely separated facts interlock and shed light on things that you would never have thought were related at all. Burning through a do-it list a little faster is just a temptation to add more drudgery to your life. But being able to kick back and your chair and Put It All Together, wow! That would tempt me. I’m not naturally prone to envy, but I confess to being a little envious of the dazzlingly bright people I’ve met in my life. Looks, eh. Wealth, eh. Power, yukkh. Brains, yeah.

Now, suppose that being such a person would reduce the length of my life from eighty-five to sixty years. Would I still be tempted? That’s a tough question, especially if the last twenty-five years of my life were assumed to be lived within a gradually deteriorating body. To have a dazzling mind while still having a body capable of making use of it—that’s the temptation. If the cost is early death, well…what would you do?

I call this the Algernon Conundrum, from Daniel Keyes’ seminal story and novel, Flowers for Algernon, which I read in high school and which affected me deeply. A mentally handicapped man becomes a genius through medical intervention, but the effect is short-lived, and discovered to greatly shorten the life of the lab mouse (Algernon of the title) that first underwent the procedure. Charlie soons reverts to his original self, with the implication that he will die far younger than his peers. The novel side-stepped the obvious question: Was it worth it? That was forty years ago, and I still haven’t decided. I doubt I’ll live long enough for it to be a choice I’ll have to make, but I often wonder how our grandchildren will deal with the difficult tradeoffs that medical technology will inevitably offer them. Drugs? Getting high, well, that’s going to be the least of it.

Rant: The Lesson We Haven't Learned

Prohibition of alcohol as a legal institution ended 75 years ago today. It was the second-worst thing that the United States has ever baked into its legal system. Slavery was far worse, of course, though slavery was not originally an American idea and came to us from far older cultures. Prohibition created the Mafia (see Colin Wilson’s The Criminal History of Mankind) and legitimized the sort of neighbor-against-neighbor suspicion and all-your-privacy-are-belong-to-us government overreaching that psychopathic idealism (in the person of Woodrow Wilson, the most evil man ever to hold the Presidency in the US) tried and failed to institutionalize earlier in the century.

Understanding Prohibition is tricky these days, and it took a long time for me to figure it out. It was a perfect storm of sorts, fed by the Industrial Revolution, the abject nastiness of big city life, and especially immigration. At the base of it, Prohibition was a cry of fury against the flood of Irish and southern European Catholic immigrants entering the country (legally) after 1880 or so. The lives of these people were uniformly and almost unimaginably miserable. Catholic immigrants were considered subhuman by mainstream Protestant Americans, who exploited them whenever opportunity allowed, and blocked their path into higher social classes by every means available, legal and otherwise. (My mother, the daughter of penniless Polish immigrants, said little about this, but what she did say was chilling.) It’s no surprise that immigrants took to drink. Cut off from their own birth cultures and living in a culture where Americans of (slightly) longer tenure actively and unapologetically hated them, they drank and drank wildly, sometimes drinking themselves to death. Immigrants were blamed for the coarsening of American life in every way, were condemned for not learning English, and for creating a criminal underclass. The weird stridency of Protestant anti-Catholicism (which still exists in some places, weirder than ever) pushed the movement over the top.

Prohibition gave us violence, police corruption, organized crime, and a justification for government intrusiveness that ultimately spawned the political division that gave us two Americas on the same soil: One feeling that government is the solution, the other that government is the problem. Only slavery damaged us more.

You would think that 13 years of Prohibition would have burned something into the collective American consciousness: This doesn’t work. But no: The states had to be bribed into letting go of Prohibition by being granted powers over alcohol that would have been struck down as unconstitutional prior to 1933. The unsated prohibitionist psychology then turned to psychoactive substances, and while the prohibition we now have on the books is less broad than the one against alcohol, its effects run much deeper. People resist (as they resisted Prohibition eighty years ago) and when people resist, we tighten the screws even more, creating a global, multiethnic network of organized crime, destroying young lives for minor infractions, and denying painkillers to people dying of cancer. (This may not happen often, but having watched my own father die slowly of cancer, I insist without qualification that it must not happen ever.)

The answer isn’t to eliminate all regulation of psychoactive substances. The answer (as always) is a little more complex than that. We have to honestly ask ourselves: Would things really be worse if we loosened up some? (Of course, there’s no way to know without trying.) But more than that, we need to put some serious time and money into researching why people abuse drugs and alcohol to begin with. Most substance abusers that I’ve known well were clearly depressed. I didn’t make the connection when I was younger; it wasn’t until losing my publishing company dipped me (lightly) into the bad water of depression a few years back that I grasped that depression is a form of pain that simply can’t be understood without experiencing it. It isn’t just sadness; it’s something far darker and stranger, a gray force that saps the will and dims the light of one’s own humanity. Depression and substance abuse are strongly correlated, and while causes and effects are still not clear, I intuit that many seriously depressed people reach for primal stimulation (sex, drugs, booze, gambling, risk-taking) simply to remind themselves that they aren’t dead. And when that doesn’t work, the next step is as obvious as it is appalling.

We can do better. Alas, because so little research is being done, we don’t know how much better we can do. Prozac is cheaper than prison (both financially and psychologically) but until we as a culture can get past the weird notion that depression is a mark of a weak personality (and treating depression a sop to childish intransigence) the drugs will flow, the violence will continue, and the flames of young lives will wink out under the pressure of an unnameable but unbearable pain.

FuzzyMemories of Classic Chicago TV

I have a lot of things on my mind (and plate) today, but I did want to pass along a pointer to a site that I received from Kevin Anetsberger: FuzzyMemories.TV, the Museum of Classic Chicago Television. What we have here is a large collection of short video clips from Chicago TV, the bulk of it from the 1977-1990 era. The clips are mostly short snippets of local TV shows, local TV station IDs and transitions, and especially commercials. I haven’t had the time to go through much of it, but the Empire Carpet Man is in there, along with Boushelle Rugs (“Hudson 3-2700” sung in that boomy, basso profundo voice) and clumsy pitches for a lot of other local companies, including McDade (now long extinct), Zayre (ditto, though not exclusively of Chicago), Jewel, Venture (gone), Kiddieland (still there), Victory Auto Wreckers, and lots of TV ads for Chicago radio stations, like “FM 103 and a half.” Plenty of kid stuff from Bozo, Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose, Svengoolie, Son of Svengoolie, and Gigglesnort Hotel. The clips that aren’t commercials often include commercials, and the site provides abundant evidence that 70s hairdos and clothes really were as bad as we remember them, and not just in Chicago. (WFLD news anchor Kathy McFarland looks better than most, but oh, those guys on Fernwood 2 Night…)

Carol and I left Chicago when I got a transfer to Rochester, NY in early 1979, so nearly all of this stuff dates from after my era, but there are a handful of things from the early 70s, and some clips from an early educational cartoon called “The Funny Company” from 1962. Home videotaping first became a big thing in the late 70s, and that’s probably why there isn’t much there from the 60s, as much as I would have liked to see it.

Here’s an interview with Rick Klein, FuzzyMemories.TV’s creator. The site is on my short list of things to spend some time on when I have time to spend, but if you’re in that space right now, go take a look.

The Future of Contra

Earlier this afternoon, I finally did something I’d been meaning to do for literally years: Configure a dedicated domain for ContraPositive Diary. It’s done, and I’ve pointed to the WordPress instance I created back in September on Fused Network. I’m still learning it, testing it and interviewing widgets and plug-ins, so although the domain and the blog are now live, there’s still not much to see.

That will change on January 1. On that day I will stop editing Contra entries by hand (as I’ve done since 1998) and begin using WordPress. Entries from 1998-2008 will remain pure HTML and be accessible as such. I’m going to copy them from over to, but the copies on will remain there until I kill the Sectorlink hosting account and move the domain over to Fused Network. I intend to keep my LiveJournal account, and use the LJXP crossposter plug-in to automatically cross-post anything I post on WordPress to LJ.

There’s a lot of other stuff on that has to go somewhere. The domain is begging for a new index page anyway, and I’m working on how to organize it. I do know that my Maker material on electronics, telescopes, and kites will all be rewritten using CSS and placed under my index. I intend to install a new instance of the Gallery photo manager there, and move the Tech Projects portion of over to Beyond that, well, I won’t know until next year.

Some conceptual issues remain undecided; e.g., should I continue to group short link citations into larger Odd Lots entries, or just post them as I find them as individual entries? The way I do it now is an artifact of how I create Contra entries generally: I keep a text file in a window and add short items to it until I decide it’s time to format them and post them as a group. That becomes unnecessary with WordPress, and I can streamline the whole process by just popping up Semagic (or something like it) and posting them Right Now instead of storing them locally until I have time to format them for uploading.

WordPress itself is an amazing thing. I’m still trying to figure out what all it can do, either by itself or with the jungle of plug-ins you can find for it. What I know it can do is save me time, which seems to be in shorter supply every year, and that, ultimately, is what the whole exercise is about.

Smart Bullets

A piece on Wired discusses the possibility of “guided bullets” that change course after being fired. Readers of my novel The Cunning Blood will recognize the concept: