Testing, testing (Comments please?)

Since the last so-called upgrade to WordPress, I can no longer view my site statistics. I have no way of knowing whether anybody is actually looking at this blog anymore or not. GoDaddy gave instructions on how to fix the problem; they didn’t work. If anyone reads this, would you be so kind as to leave a comment? I need to know if my 3.6 Loyal Readers are still there, and I have no other way of telling. Thank you.

Cataclysm!

You will note, immediately below, the pathetic plaint of my Vile Human at the illness of his domestic vermin. What he does not mention is that after acquiring this pestiferous pile of protoplasm, he and his mate brought home another. They were supposed to arrive together, but the second beast was having his reproductive proclivities surgically curtailed and was not ready to travel until the following week. Then Vile Human, the silly sap, repeated the four-hour drive (round trip) to Hanna and dutifully collected the fresh vermin. The new infestation was named Kaos (so spelt) by the folk at the shelter. Here are both vermin together: At first Kaos spent most of his time hiding in back closets or under furniture, for he had a blind fear of his new environment which I found most gratifying. Alas, this was soon corrected, and once he was coaxed out of hiding, he and the first vermin, Sonny, quickly attained the sickening condition that the humans call friendship. They are now inseparable boon companions, and it is revolting to see. If it were not for the first vermin’s sickness and its owner’s distress, I would find the cloying domestic harmony of the place insufferable. As it is, once the beast recovers from surgery, I may have to decamp and take temporary lodgings in a war zone. True, in a war zone I may see courage and heroism, but I shall also see death, dismemberment, and the suffering of innocents: a refreshment that I much desire. This place is beginning to get positively un-Hellish. (Signed) H. Smiggy McStudge   P.S. The Vile Human’s mate has bestowed affectionate nicknames on the two vermin. She calls the first one Heffalump and the second one Woozle. It is enough to make one spew.

Sad news

My recently adopted cat, Sonny, had a mild viral infection in his eye when we brought him home from the SPCA. Eye a bit watery, a bit of clear discharge accumulating at the corner, a bit of redness: nothing to worry about, we thought. Only it didn’t clear up. On (telephoned) veterinary advice, we administered antibiotic eye drops, in case there was a secondary bacterial infection. These did not help at all; and over the course of about three days, Sonny’s condition grew dramatically worse. By the time we could get him to the vet in person, his eyeball was ulcerated and the aqueous humour was beginning to leak out. (It seems a secondary bacterial infection had set in and proceeded with unholy speed.) An operation that might save his eye was possible, but would cost about $3,000, and the odds were against its working. The only treatment within our means – and that just barely – was to pay $1,000 to have the infected eye removed. (If the $3,000 operation was tried and failed, we would have to pay for this anyway.) Sonny goes in for surgery tomorrow. I am desolate with grief, though I know I shouldn’t be; in all probability he will have a long and happy life with one eye. But there will always be that empty part of his face to remind me. I don’t know what else I could have done, but I feel that I have failed him.

Hoyt on bureaucracy

The government functionaries are humans too. (Probably.  Most of them.  The story my friend Rebecca Lickiss wrote where the IRS was staffed by vampires is fiction.  PROBABLY.) They don’t know the inside of anyone’s head.

—Sarah A. Hoyt, ‘Balancing the Scales’

Catastrophe!

It is with infinite disgust that I report that my Vile and Wretched Human, known to you by the ridiculous appellation Tom Simon, has just acquired a new specimen of household vermin, species Felis catus. A photograph of the monstrosity is attached. It was labelled ‘Sonny’ by the SPCA of Hanna, Alberta, whence it was deliberately transported in a heinous plot to disturb the natural depression and infelicity of the house. Other activities have, of course, been curtailed whilst this vile colony of self-organizing organic refuse is duly installed in the Simon domicile. I told him so, but did he listen? Does any human listen to his demonic alter blogger? Not often enough, that’s the unvarnished truth of it. (Signed, under protest) H. Smiggy McStudge

The Memory Problem

As I mentioned the other day, during the holidays I passed some time leafing through a stash of ancient computer magazines found in my back room whilst mucking out. I still have nearly every issue of ROM Magazine (1977–78); not to be confused with ROM Magazine (1968–present), the official publication of the Royal Ontario Museum, or R.O.M. Magazine (1983–85), a Canadian zine for Atari hobbyists, nor possibly others. No, this ROM was subtitled ‘Computer Applications for Living’, and an ambitious little periodical it was. To distinguish it from the others, I am tempted to go into Monty Python mode, and call it ‘ROM which is called ROM’, but I shall cramp myself down and stick to the bare three letters. Microcomputers began to be heard of in about 1973, and the first commercially successful machine, the MITS Altair 8800, came to market about the end of 1974. By 1977, the earliest manufacturers (who mostly sold their machines in kit form) were being pushed aside by relatively large consumer electronics firms like Radio Shack and Commodore, and by an upstart called Apple, which you may have heard of. These early machines were flaky, quirky, and required rather a lot of technical knowledge to operate; and there was little in the way of commercial software, so you generally had to learn to program them yourself. In consequence, there was a voracious after-market for technical information and how-to stuff, much of it supplied, in those pre-Internet days, by magazines. There was BYTE, which covered the nuts and bolts of the new hardware for an audience mostly of engineers; and Dr. Dobb’s Journal, which covered the bits and bytes of software for an audience mostly of programmers; and Creative Computing, which covered whatever seemed most interesting at the moment (not a bad approach, that); and a raft of mostly short-lived zines dedicated to this platform or that. And then there was ROM, which was a platform for what have since been called technology evangelists. Its mission was to introduce these weird new toys to society at large, and explain how and why they were going to change the world in drastic and unforeseen ways. It failed on both counts; but not for want of trying, nor for lack of quality. For if you look at the bylines in the nine issues that were published, you will find yourself staring at a convention of first-rate geniuses. A sampling:  Bill Etra (now, alas, lately deceased) was a pioneer in computer video. Eben Ostby got involved with a man named Lasseter and a quirky little cartoon called ‘Luxo Jr.’, and became one of the founding fathers of Pixar. Lee Felsenstein is a hardware guru who has had a hand in inventing approximately everything; most particularly the VDM-1 display interface, the granddaddy of all graphics cards. Theodor H. ‘Ted’ Nelson is the inventor of hypertext; the World Wide Web is his red-headed stepchild, and he is not proud of the use it has made of his stolen DNA. Ted Nelson wrote a column for ROM, called ‘Missionary Position’: a mildly daring thing to do in 1977. In one of those columns, he addressed himself to the ‘Memory Problem’. The early microcomputer hobbyists had to work on machines with painfully tiny amounts of RAM – usually 4 or 8 kilobytes; 16K was a dream of sybaritic luxury. Of course they imagined that all their programming difficulties would be solved if only they had enough memory. Nelson, who had been working on mainframe computers for decades, rudely disabused them of this notion. As he put it, the Memory Problem is fundamentally like the Time Problem, and the Money, Sex, and Quiche Problems: there is never any such thing as enough. Memory, bandwidth, and processor speed, like time, money, bureaucracy, and labour (and possibly also sex and quiche), are subject to Parkinson’s Law. C. Northcote Parkinson originally observed, ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ In fact, work expands so as to consume all the available X, for almost any value of X. This knowledge is a vaccine against a wide range of disappointments in life; but there are always unvaccinated souls (in technical language, ‘suckers’) who are ready to be taken in. I skip forward a bit. A day or two after re-reading Ted Nelson’s polemic on the Memory Problem, I was looking at back numbers of Creative Computing from the early eighties. At that time, there was a fad for ‘text adventure’ games like Zork. The first of these, called simply Adventure, had been written for mainframe computers. It was seldom adapted for 8-bit microcomputers; the original code wouldn’t fit in their tiny memories. One digital Don Quixote, Robert A. Howell, tried to cram a full version of Adventure (in BASIC, no less) into an Atari 800 with 32K of RAM and no disk drive. He wrote a long, rather dryly amusing article about this attempt, which took him an entire summer; and Creative published it in their August 1981 issue. To do him credit, Howell almost succeeded. He had to shorten a lot of the descriptions, and leave out the ‘maze of twisty little passages, all alike’ that occupies considerable room in the original. But by a series of wildly ingenious tricks to save a few bytes here and a few bytes there, he constructed a working version of Adventure that would just squeeze into that 32K with about 50 bytes to spare. If you ran it more than once, it tended to crash the machine, because Atari BASIC did not always reclaim all the memory that it allocated for a program. If that happened, you had to wipe the memory and reload the program from cassette tape. Such hazards were part of daily life with 8-bit computers. For the hobbyists of 1977, 32K of memory represented wealth beyond the dreams of avarice; but Ted Nelson was right, it did not solve the Memory Problem. That same August, IBM introduced its original PC, blowing the lid off the 8-bit memory limit. The new 16-bit architecture could support a whopping 640K of RAM. That didn’t solve the Memory Problem either. Spreadsheet software was the new ‘killer app’ of the time, and thousands of people bought IBM PCs specifically so they could build bigger spreadsheets. Nowadays, nobody bats an eye at spreadsheets that take up tens or hundreds of megabytes; and those are small files, compared to some of the databases and media files that we work with today. Onward nevertheless— My first computer, back in 1980, had 16K of RAM, and at least one salesman (for a competing product which I did not buy) airily told me that was more memory than I would ever need. My current production machine has 16 gigabytes. And yet the Memory Problem persists. For while I was reading that ancient article of Howell’s, I was haunted by a more recent memory. It took me a little while to put my finger on it. But if you go to Amazon’s support pages for Kindle Direct Publishing, and still more if you Google for advice on publishing to KDP, you will find the Memory Problem snarling at you in all its fanged glory. The great advantage of KDP, from a writer’s point of view, is that it allows you to collect (and keep) 70 percent of the retail price of an ebook sold on Amazon: far more than the pittance that any traditional publisher will give you. (The tradeoff is that you may sell fewer books. But since most books are rejected by traditional publishers and sell no copies at all, even this disadvantage is largely illusory.) However, there is a catch. Once you select the 70 percent royalty option, Amazon deducts a tax from your share of the money – a downloading fee of a few cents per megabyte for each copy sold. Now, it does not cost Amazon a few cents to download a megabyte of data to a customer; or even a gigabyte. What the tax does is to discourage authors from wasting server space and bandwidth (and space on people’s Kindles) with unnecessarily large ebook files. A 100,000-word novel, saved as straight text with no fancy formatting and a single colour JPEG file for the cover art, occupies about 1 megabyte. If you add interior artwork, or embed your own choice of fonts, the size goes up. Some people have actually been such fools as to publish photographs of every page in a printed book, and call that an ebook. Not only does this spoil all the special advantages of the ebook format (try searching for text in a photograph!), it bloats the file to an indecent size – tens, possibly even hundreds of megabytes. This is one reason why art books are conspicuously absent from the KDP library. However, sometimes you do have to include interior illustrations – maps, diagrams, line drawings, what have you. And sometimes you have to do tricks with typography that the Kindle engine does not support; and there again you must resort to graphics. The megabytes quickly pile up, and your share of the retail price just as quickly goes down. So, in the interest of authors, readers, and Amazon’s own pocketbook, Amazon kindly supplies you with web pages telling how to compress those graphics, minimize the amount of detail required, and generally skimp on transmission costs. One byte of memory in 1981 cost rather more than a million bytes today; but I should say that authors and designers nowadays take more effort to save a megabyte than even Robert A. Howell took to save a byte in the old days. It makes sense. Howell was only saving memory on his own computer; we are saving bandwidth and storage space for all our readers, who may number in the thousands. Decades from now, someone may chance upon this little screed, and marvel that human beings would waste effort on something so trivial as saving a megabyte of download capacity for an ebook file. And he will turn back to his own work on holographic VR environments, or whatever is en vogue at that time, and try to figure out how to cram a quintillion bytes of data down a pokey little fibre-optic line with a bandwidth of a few measly quadrillions; and he may reflect that he, too, is still saddled with the Memory Problem, and heave a mournful sigh before he goes on. And if he pauses for a moment of silence, he may hear a strange dim sound in the distance – the sound of Ted Nelson, cackling with laughter in his grave.

#nocontextforyou

Of course the professor needed a grad student to help him. She knew where to find the comma on the keyboard.

Now hear this, that is all!

Difficult times during the holidays: periods of friction with the Beloved Other, ghastly weather, and yet another change to the monstrous regiment of pharmaceuticals, all of which left me fatigued, frazzled, and scatterbrained. In short, I got no work done; for which I cry you mercy. I did get one or two ideas for essais, which I intend to work on as the electrochemical state of my brain permits. One of these – strange to say, but perhaps not so strange for me – came when I was leafing through ancient back numbers of ROM, a short-lived computer magazine from 1977–78. Stay tuned for an explanation of that, if you dare.

M. T. on ©

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.

—Mark Twain

I reply: Mr. S. L. Clemens believed that copyright ought to be perpetual, and that it required uncommon stupidity to think otherwise. He liked to say, in tones of surprise and personal affront, that every other kind of property was eternal, but copyright alone was confiscated by the government at an arbitrary date. Which ignored the fact that patents are also ‘confiscated’ after shorter terms than copyrights. And the fact that real estate is liable to confiscation after a term as short as one year, if you fail to pay your property taxes; and likewise with mines. (The man had worked, sort of, at silver mining in Nevada for part of a while; he had seen firsthand how a mining claim could lapse for any number of legal reasons, including nonpayment of taxes or fees.) And that shares in companies, even in the days before personal income tax, only continued to be valuable as long as the companies paid their taxes. For the most part, it was only petty personal belongings that were exempt from tax, and therefore, not liable to be confiscated by the state. But Mr. Clemens could own the copyrights in his work for as long as the law allowed – a form of property that had never existed in the world before the copyright law was invented. He never had to pay a dollar in taxes to keep that property; never had to do a blessed thing to maintain it in the eyes of the law, except register it according to the legal requirements of the time – a trivial tax in his time and effort for the right to the exclusive enjoyment of a lucrative property for (at that time) forty-two years. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that Mr. Clemens ought to have got down on his knees and thanked God daily for the law that granted him a monopoly in making copies of his own work, and did not grant any such monopoly to those who provided the necessaries of life. He could sit on a chair without paying a royalty to the man that invented the chair; he could scratch away with his pen, without paying the inventors of pens, ink, and paper; and if he did not like the result, he could crumple it up and chuck it in the fire, without paying one solitary cent to the primaeval caveman who domesticated fire. But his works, for a time, and by gift of the law, were sacrosanct; he could charge whatever he wished for them, or withhold them from the market entirely. If the caveman had had his atttitude, he would have knocked on Clemens’s door with his club, and said briskly: ‘Put out that fire. You haven’t paid me my royalties, and anyway, I do not choose to sell my patented product to the likes of you. Go, you cur, and freeze in the dark, and let your copyrights keep you warm.’
(Hat tip to The Passive Voice. My comment reprinted therefrom.)

A memory, as Christmas approaches

I was born in Vancouver, B.C., many aeons ago in a former world, and immediately put out for adoption; which happening in due course, I found myself with the man and woman whom I remember as my parents. They had a massive RCA console black-and-white TV with built-in stereo, about four or five feet long, something very much like this: rca-vista (The stereo was hidden under a hatch in the top of the console – on the left side, if I recall correctly. Radio and turntable only; 8-track tape was an expensive newfangled technology then, and if you wanted it, you had to pony up the big bucks for a colour TV.) This TV did yeoman service in Vancouver, connected to either a rooftop antenna or that other newfangled technology, cable TV. But then we moved to Calgary. To be more accurate, my parents moved to Calgary, and I, upon sad and serious reflection, and at the ripe old age of four, decided I had better overcome my reluctance and go along with them. We landed in a townhouse that had no rooftop antenna, and no cable either, and since the TV had not come equipped with rabbit ears, it had to be retired. My father went out and bought a spanking new Sanyo 19" portable TV – our first colour set – and set it up in the living room right on top of the poor old RCA console. After a few months of this temporary arrangement, my parents found and bought the house where I would eventually grow up (to the extent that I ever have done), and my father built a set of bookshelves with a hutch for the Sanyo set. The RCA console was installed in the wide front hall, where it served partly as a whatnot and partly as an obstruction; but it was at any rate plugged in, and the stereo came back into service. It was there that I first learned how to play vinyl records. As Christmas of 1971 approached, my parents showed me how to operate the turntable concealed within the console, and owing to the time of the year, they gave me a couple of LPs of Christmas music to listen to. One was by Andy Williams – the album that inflicted ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ upon the world. The other was by the incomparable Nat King Cole. It was this album that I rediscovered just last night, when I played part of it to the Beloved Other – who had never so much as heard of Nat King Cole, and now knows what she was missing. I hope you have not been so deprived, but in case you have been, I offer a link here: The album starts off with ‘The Christmas Song’, with stops at ‘Adeste Fideles’ (Cole, I am glad to report, did a very creditable job with the Latin lyrics), ‘Silent Night’, and a version of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ with Alvin and the Chipmunks style speeded-up backing vocals. It also contains the first song I ever recall that made me cry: ‘The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot’. If the link above is still live, you can hear Nat King Cole’s version of Christmas there. If the inevitable DMCA takedown notice has occurred, the album, alas, is out of print in North America, but it seems to be still available as an import on CD. Also, most or all of the songs are available on iTunes in recent compilations. I think Christmas With Nat and Dean and The Christmas Song, between them, contain pretty nearly everything on the album. If you are one of those who celebrate the holiday, I encourage you to give these recordings an attentive listen. And though it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.