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The Dirty Pair
Thursday, June 15, 2000  permanent URL for this entry

Went out and got the DC Comics edition of "Reinventing Comics" (see the other day). The disclaimer is as notable as rumored! I'd love someday to write a book that the publisher felt bound to disagree with in a disclaimer.

Being unable to resist comic stores, I also picked up a copy of the very silly "Dirty Pair: Biohazard", and the second and third numbers of the just as silly "Superman / Gen13 crossover" (apologies for DC's broken image). Comic fandom is another subculture that I've always thought it'd be neat to live a life or two in; it was fun to walk up to the desk and say "do you have number 2 of the Superman / Gen13 crossover?" just as though I'd been born into the jargon.

Speaking of comics, peterme and camworld and apathy and probably everyone else has been logging Scott McCloud's column in the latest Comic Reader. Looks like it should be a fun series. I do so envy visual people! (For obvious reasons.)

Annoying letters I've written lately:

To Vernor Vinge, after reading this interview:

In an interview sometime last year, you mentioned being in the market research phase on future books, and interested in knowing what people want to see. No doubt you're long past this phase by now, but I thought I'd write anyway. *8) I just finished "Deepness" last week, and it was sufficiently wonderful that I've been bopping around the Web reading more about it and "Fire" and you. (I read them in the order "Fire" -> "Deepness", so I can't tell you what it's like to read them the other way.)

I would vote for a novel set at the far edge of the High Beyond, dealing with odd mind-stretching things that come in from the Transcend, with how more-or-less ordinary human-flavor minds deal with these very odd things, and so on. Opportunities for both wild tech and reasonably deep thinking about humanity and purpose and stuff. Of course, this is probably what all us geeks are begging you for! *8) It wouldn't be an easy thing to write (but hey that's why you're big and famous). Vaguely (very vaguely!) similar to "Bloom" and "Vacuum Flowers", in the "humans dealing with something more" sense.

Anyway, thanks for the books, and I'll certainly buy your next one *wherever* it's set...

And to the Good Experience folks, after reading yesterday's entry (sorry, they don't seem to have per-entry URLs available!):

In the 2000/06/14 GoodExperience, you write:

"P.S. It's time for all of us to start looking at the customer experience of wireless devices. The usability of shopping carts inside the Web browser won't be such a big issue in a year or two!"

Death of the browser predicted! Film at 11! *8)

Whether or not a device has wires has no immediate impact on experience that the site designer can do anything about, of course; so I don't think you're talking about wirelessness _per se_. If you mean "the customer experience on devices with very-low-bandwidth connectivity and pathetic little ten-line low-contrast monochrome displays", then I disagree: I don't think *that* experience will ever be important except in a few smallish niches which are for the most part already filled (stock quotes, weather reports, the day's headlines).

No one is going to use a device with the limited I/O capabilities of a current PDA, let alone a cellphone, to do their clothes shopping or to buy groceries or a birthday present for Mom; nor will such devices ever play any significant role in B2B. We will of course eventually have wireless portable devices that *are* good enough to do this sort of commerce from, but I would be very surprised if they were using any derivative of WAP or WML. They'll just be running Web browsers, using HTML and Flash and everything else Web browsers use!

"The usability of shopping carts inside the Web browser" will be even more important in a year or two than it is now. That Web browser may in many cases be running on a wireless portable device, but it'll still be a Web browser. Just try comparing paint colors, or even reading book reviews, on a WAP/WML device, and the reason will be obvious! *8) I think it's very unlikely that the world of users will put up with a giant step backward in visual interface for the sake of portability. They (we) will want, as always, to have the cake and eat it to; and as always the tech will before long make that possible. IMHO current "wireless" protocols and devices are a short-term stopgap; potentially lucrative this week, but a dead end in even the medium term.

My two cents, and probably worth every penny,

That last note came out much stronger than I originally intended, by the way! I started out to write a moderate note about how "wireless" won't always mean "crummy interface", and I ended up sending a screed about how no one will ever shop via PDA (although, for all I know, millions of people are doing it this very instant). I find myself getting polarized like that sometimes; generally in email, but sometimes even FtF. Conversations would be duller without it, I suppose!

Today's GoodExperience entry, by the way, is about Scott McCloud's column in the Comic Reader. Small world!   *8)

Wednesday, June 14, 2000  permanent URL for this entry

I tend to take it as blindingly obvious that consciousness is essentially an interior thing; that it is in some sense prior to, or the foundation of, my knowledge of the external world and other minds. Sylloge has kindly put online Stephen Toulmin's "The Inwardness of Mental Life", which proposes to analyze the ways in which mental life, consciousness, might be an "inward" thing, and to suggest that in fact this inwardness is something that we learn as we grow, and that public external experience is in some sense prior to it.

I'm not sure yet if the notions of "prior" involved in these two different beliefs are similar enough that they are in conflict; I don't know if he disagrees with my notion of consciousness as "inner", or if he's saying something else that's at least potentially compatible with it.

Battling Russian Oligarchs. What do you say? Twenty (ten? five?) years from now, will this be the basis of a strategy game?

Recently Read (some pretensious reviews; I'd intended to be more chatty, but when my verbalizer goes into Book Review Mode this is apparently what happens!):

Vernor Vinge, "A Deepness in the Sky". Good stuff, thought-provoking as always. Not as grand and universe-spanning as "A Fire Upon the Deep": "Deepness" takes place entirely in the Slow Zone, the part of the galaxy where you can't travel faster than light or make really high-tech gadgets, and the time when AI and nanotech seemed possible is known as The Age of Failed Dreams. Many reviewers have noted the dramatic irony: a reader who has read "Fire Upon the Deep" knows why the dreams failed and progress always seems to stagnate, but the characters in the book (and readers who haven't read "Fire") can only wonder.

Most of the characters in the book are human. Even the non-human aliens, the Spiders, are awfully human in culture and psychology if not in body-shape; this makes it easier to have them sympathetic characters, but misses the chance to illuminate human nature by showing something else (in this respect "Deepness" reminds me of Robert Forward's annoying "Camelot 30K", in which the alien society is essentially medieval England).

I have one structural gripe with "Deepness": something Very Important happens at around page 350, and continues happening through most of the rest of the book, but we don't find out about it until page 700 or so, where it provides a rather jarring deus ex machina for Our Heros. I'll admit it was a fun surprise, but I'm not sure Vinge was quite justified in keeping it from us all that time.

But anyway, the aliens, the human trader culture (the Queng Ho, happy capitalists who travel from star to star doing whatever business there is to do) and the Bad Guy culture (the Emergents, smiling fascists with one Big Secret) are interesting in themselves, and they clash in insightul and convincing ways, and there is enough cool scientific and cultural tech to keep any geek happy. It's a very good book (including various fun things I haven't mentioned), and it's part of the development of a fascinating future history. (A direct sequel seems likely, as Queng Ho founder Pham Nuwen has to get himself frozen so he can show up millennia later in "Fire Upon the Deep", and the smartest Spider vanishes mysteriously and is (har har) presumed dead.)

Marion Zimmer Bradley, "The Heritage of Hastur". Either this isn't one of Bradley's best Darkover novels, or I just enjoyed her more in my youth. While there is plot, most of the book is spent ringing variations on the "well-intentioned people unable to communicate honestly even though they're all telepaths" theme.

I remember "Darkover Landfall" and some of the novels set earlier in the history of the planet ("Two to Conquer" for instance) as fresh and adventurous, introducing fresh ideas at a great clip. "The Heritage of Hastur" is more of a character piece, and for whatever reason I found I had little patience for the troubles of these particular characters. I mean, it's exciting when they fight the Big Mean Fire Spirit and all, but they spend most of their time embroiled in inner turmoil that would have gone away if they'd just sat down and had a good talk. Which was I suppose the point.

Psyche and Cupid

C. S. Lewis, "Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold". A Lewisian telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the viewpoint of one of Psyche's sisters, drawn as a very sympathetic character. As always, Lewis writes well, with insight into the depths and heights of human psychology, and with subtle allegory and a taste for grand and weighty endings. It's a good book, not ponderous but sometimes deep, easily worth the time.

Also as always, I have the feeling that Lewis has introduced some quiet saboteur memes into my brain, and that some day they'll all join together and I'll wake up and find myself a Christian. It hasn't happened yet, though! Perhaps, having been brought up on the Narnia books, I've developed some immunity...

Tuesday, June 13, 2000  permanent URL for this entry

New Notes and Recommendations from Phil Agre. He's still waxing vehement about various things, and I do sometimes miss the calm objective smartness that pervaded some earlier RRE's, but he's still very worth reading. He talks about Microsoft, does some close readings of some texts, and gives a bunch of good links.

We should congratulate the government on its clear-cut victory in the Microsoft case. The pundits have swung into action, of course, and they would have us believe that it's now illegal to be successful and have popular products. But that's silly. The great majority of successful companies are not facing antitrust suits, and the market is full of products that are a lot more popular than Microsoft's. That such arguments are even made tells us something.

Tons and tons of reader letters peer up at me quizzically from the depths of the mailbag!

In re yesterday's train comments, David Singer suggests the Rensselaer Model Railroad Club (he has a picture linked from here). And this reminds me of course that the Tech Model Railroad Club was one of the birthplaces of hacking.

In the design poll, about a dozen readers say there's no need to redesign, and one reader encourages me to do it just because it's fun. I have had fun doing new designs for the site; I've just never liked the end result more than the current design!

A cow-orker writes:

Hey! How dare you call me a "cow-orker"? I'm never flattering you again! What, anyhow, is an "orker"? Merriam-Webster swears that it's an abbreviation for "Orkney", where we took your picture of the bottle of Scapa (go ahead, explain *that* to your weblog audience!). So are you calling me a bovine inhabitant of a northern Scottish isle? I am either dreadfully insulted or kinda pleased at the obscurity of it all.

and someone else writes "Nice hyphenation: cow-orker!". I have to admit that I didn't make this up myself. What's a good word for "intentional typo"?

Various letters on Memorial Day:

I think that you probably had a much more fun Memorial Day than I have - partly because I didn't know it was memorial day, and partly because I've no idea what it is (sorry, I'm in the UK!)... Hope the kids had a good time anyhow :-)

why did you buy pop tarts? A more revolting (or downright dangerous) foodstuff I am hard pushed to imagine. Did you perhaps form them into water-repelling shields of some kind? And how do you know that the kids in question are the best in the Whole World? Did you check?

A solution to your Memorial Day Challenge. Put the plate of cookies in the kitchen and say in a loud voice: "Egad! There are a bunch of really yummy Toll House Cookies here just waiting for kids (without squirt guns) to eat them. When the kids rush in, sneak out, place the various squirt guns in the BBQ, and set them on fire. This nicely eliminates the problem of the leaky gun, neutralizes the apparent advantage enjoyed by the high-capacity gun, keeps the kids from freezing, makes moot the concern about playing with guns on Memorial Day and gets rid of the extra cookies. And, since the kids are "the best kids in the Whole World," they won't mind a bit. Then, smug in your problem-solving ability, you can sit back and read smarmy articles in your Good freaking Housekeeping, if that's what you do.

Yes, I remember the "pop tart" line too - but I can't remember where it comes from, either! I wanna say it was a magazine interview with some musician. But it was probably a book.

(Buying the Pop Tarts was entirely the little daughter's idea, BTW.)

On "What do you think?" and related subjects, we have:

I am unable to distinguish what you might call "thinking" from the routine neurological activity of my brain, ions pumping here and there, dendrites growing slowly, winding around their brothers. It is much like asking a car how it feels. Honk.

You know it's gotten out of hand when a computer virus has its own song.

That the USAan version of free speech gave the world the phrase "donate to the Phil Zimmerman defense fund", and the Canadian version gave the world the phrase "download the latest release from ftp.openbsd.org".

I have often thought that there were multiple pasts. Or have I?

Context! The comment "How should *I* know?" was in response to the question "What do you think?" Otherwise, it isn't funny. Or wry. Or silly. Or whatever it is.

I've never had an experience in my life

Well, you have now, eh?

What are you doing?

Reading your weblog while listening to the album "Let's Face It" by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones

Drinking the last of the water, I savor the drops and sit in the darkness, wondering when it will end. Then I fall asleep, but my hands are still typing. OH DEAR DEITIES who may or may not be listening to my plea, MAKE IT STOP! Oh, please. I twitch and fall silent, fingers no longer tapping, but mind still racing.... wondering if the present and past tenses of the previous sentences are/is/were/will be wrong.

29 Palms on the MP3 jukebox

Packing so that I can move to Cambridge for my new job...

avoiding work. I can't help it, your site is just too interesting.

This is what I like to hear!   *8)

On the recent spate ("spate") of clever and witty puns, two letters:

is there a word for this, where one word starts and another finishes? my pal colin and i used to call them bcws, for 'bizarre compound words', our favorite being 'officade' which doesn't really count because it would require the i to be both an i and an a, but it meant the way you act at the office...anyway. cool. judith

Okay, the lame word-combinations have got to stop. You're insulting your own intelligence, and we all know you're better than that.

To the latter letter, I say ha! Louisianarchy! Grillustrious! Hirsutensil! Deficitizen! Fetussel! Cervixen! (But I will be kind and not list the corresponding riddles; "cervixen" gives even me pause.)

And finally, miscellany:

There is some evidence that the person or persons who stuffed turnips into Dave's ballot box actually reside in western Michigan, perhaps in Kalamazoo. [turnip.com].

Q: What is the most frequently asked question on Ask Jeeves? A: Where can I learn about the mental health condition obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Idea about putting up a load of false answers to questions: That's cruel, nasty, against the idea of helping people and quite amazingly funny; I'm not tempted, but only because there's not really a place for it on my site :-)

It's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? Beanie Babies, I mean. They said they were going to stop producing them as of the end of 1999, didn't they? Yet here they are again. Even McDonald's is advertising them. It's nearly enough to make me lose my faith in trend-exploiting toy companies. "There are more toys in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

How do you "improve" a worm? By making it into a sort of antibody that immunizes a machine against the effects of its hostile ancestors?

Well, that latter (tempting as it sounds) turns out to be a bad idea in general: "anti-virus viruses" can be at least as troublesome as the normal kind. In the case of a purely consensual worm, though, improvements could be as simple as making the text rhyme...   *8)

Keep those cards and letters coming, folks, and don't forget to tune in again tomorrow for the next thought-provoking episode of "Sultry Jests of Intention"!

Monday, June 12, 2000  permanent URL for this entry

There's this place near my left hip where, a few times a week, I feel a drop of cold water on my skin. There's never any water, just the feeling. All the web references on "tactile hallucination" that I read are serious and dire, associated with dementia or psychosis. I'm rather fond of my little ghost, though. (business opportunity!)

The Great Train Store Inc has filed for Chapter 11 protection, and at least the store nearest us is closing. This is Sad; the little boy was obssesed with trains for a couple of years in there, and still has a huge collection of Brio and Thomas toys (and sheets, and books, and hats, and...), and we all enjoyed the stores.

I like the idea of trains, of people who build big realistic layouts, of people fascinated by railroad history. I'm not sure why; maybe it's that, because of when I grew up, railroads were at just the right temporal nostalgia distance to be both understandable and interesting. What will my kids feel that way about? Maybe television...   *8)

On the other hand, the little Handmade Belgian Chocolate store in a terrible location between my house and the Gym seems to be only sleeping. I've been there only once, and while I loved the store (a real chocolate machine stirring the thick brown stuff behind the counter, a rather gruff ruddy woman with strong forearms working that and the cash register, a lovely smell), I didn't actually like the chocolate much (rather dry and unambitious). They stopped being open weeks ago, but this morning on a whim I stopped and went up to the door to read the hand-lettered sign, and it says "Look for our new location in the fall!". So I hope that works out.

"And just what is that, Mr. Porter?"

"Something I came across on Vernata. Almost certainly a Transcendant artifact."

"Really? Any idea what it was?"

"Most definitely. It embodies a powerful semantic replicator, that entrains any intelligence with which it comes into contact, bending it to the device's own ends."

"Fascinating! Dormant, I assume?"

"Not at all; it seems to be completely active."

"How, um, how did you escape its, uh..."

"I didn't, Captain, and neither have you."


"I think it would be appropriate to call a staff meeting, don't you? To show it to your crew?"

As a youth (and still, when I have the chance) I would watch the local Spanish TV stations, partly because they had Sexy Ladies, and partly (or perhaps it's the same thing) because I couldn't tell what the voices were saying, so it was all interesting and mysterious. Some of my favorite advertisements are ones where you can't tell what's being advertised. Ian sends along a couple of links, with comments:

I have no idea what channel it is, or what programme they are advertising, but damn it's funny.


Warning: Requires QuickTime. Mild rude words within.

Also funny is another in the same series:


Warning: Still requires QuickTime. More rude words. Possibly offensive to patriots. The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot. Do not place head in path of band-saw.

AdCritic also has the Clinton: the Final Days spot, which is also very funny in an odd sort of way. Has someone got a URL for me that explains this? Certain People tell me that all the characters are just who they seem, and that the Prez himself made this as a gift for the press corps or something. A Collectible Fact if so.

What do you call a whole fleet of lady teachers? A schoolmarmada!!

Tiki tiki tiki!

We went to the Rainforest Café over the weekend (reminds me of the Tiki Room; very Disneyesque), and I overheard some interesting jargon; one of the waiters (well, one of the "people who escort you to your table") apologized to a couple that he was escorting, saying that "they gave me a table for you that was already seated". "What about that empty table over there?" the man asked. "Oh, that one's flagged", the escorter said.

Everybody's got their own jargon...

Friday, June 9, 2000  permanent URL for this entry

And the guys didn't believe me when I said it was van der Walls forces:

[S]cientists say the lizard can scurry across walls and ceilings because its feet are built to take advantage of subtle intermolecular forces. They found that hundreds of millions of tiny pads on the feet can create a bond 10 times stronger than expected. The grippers could inspire a new breed of reusable, self-cleaning "gecko tape."

An especially good couple of days on Apathy:

It's no longer nonsensical to me. I'm seeing these little invisible vibrating lines around everything including everyone. Read them and weep, it's all lies, but oh... gracious, they are singing to me.

I still haven't bought a digital camera! But I've found another site that offers so much information about so many cameras that I can easily use it to put off the decision for another few months: GoTo on digital cameras.

What do you get if you put pink cellophane over the end of your spyglass? A pastelescope!!

Them CERT guys have all sortsa down-to-earth security hoo-ha, including the current activity summary, their own RSS channel, and concrete advice for anyone faced with making a Win9x system plausibly secure:

This document is written for users of Microsoft Windows 95/98. The MS Windows 95/98 operating systems are not designed to be used with computers storing data that is considered critical to a project or that must be very securely protected.

In the wake of (look, I said "in the wake of" again) all these here recent email virus/worm things, people keep saying how important it is for users not to open random stuff that comes in the mail. That is very important, admittedly, but it shouldn't be. Here is a good short article about why not:

For technologists to suggest that foolish users who unwisely open dangerous attachments should be the focus of the community's attention in the wake of the recent virus attacks is disingenuous to say the least. To think that users should be able, by looking at the name and extension of a file, to guess whether it is safe to open it or not, is silly, and to suggest that the security of our systems should depend on users' intuition in this respect is irresponsible.

That's tellin' 'em.


Less seriously, a reader points out that among the other wonders at the Lileks site is "Art Frahm: a study of the effects of celery on loose elastic" (irony and odd sexism warnings apply):

Look at enough of these pictures, and something deeply creepy emerges. For starters, their entire premise is untenable: underwear simply does not fall down like this...

Religious leaders 50% off with this ticket: coupontiffs!!

So is "mizu shobai" simply Japanese for "red-light district", or (as I saw hinted in a back issue of some rock magazine the other day) does it mean more broadly "bohemian culture" or "underground"?


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