Jul 24

Video on demand

I finally got around to watching the movie Serenity recently, and I was startled to find that it contained unmistakable references to Forbidden Planet. When I asked Ruth (our household’s most passionate Browncoat) if she was aware of this, she told me that she didn’t really remember FP. I had shown it to her at some point, but probably a decade or more ago.

Obviously, I needed to screen it for her again, but we didn’t have a copy on hand. Netflix didn’t have it for instant viewing, and to my astonishment, they didn’t have it in their DVD inventory either. A search of the DVD department of Wal-Mart also came up empty. And when I went to the local Blockbuster, they informed me that none of the stores in the area had this particular film.

As a last resort, I went to Amazon.com. They had new and used DVDs for sale, but it occurred to me that I should check their Video on Demand first. (Yeah, I know “digital downloads” is redundant, but that’s what Amazon calls them.) Bingo! Amazon has the movie as a download that you can either buy or rent. For $2.99, I was able to rent the movie and send it to my Roku player without getting out of my chair. Five minutes later, Ruth and I were watching it in our living room.

I know some people have been using Amazon VoD for a year or two, but this was the first time for me, and it was awesome. I love living in the future.

Mar 22

Dial S for Skynet

When I wrote a few days ago about how Arthur C. Clarke predicted the World Wide Web, I was not aware that he had actually inspired its creation. But since then, I have learned from multiple sources that Tim Berners-Lee cites Clarke’s 1964 short story “Dial F for Frankenstein” as a major inspiration for his invention of the Web.

I have read that story before (in fact, I just reread it; it’s only five pages long), and it has never occurred to me that it might have anything to do with the Web. It describes how the activation of new satellites unites the world’s telephone networks into a single global system that is as complex as a human brain. This global network becomes conscious, with dire consequences for humanity.

“Dial F for Frankenstein” does strike me as a prediction (or, possibly, an inspiration) of something that came decades later. But, with all due respect to Sir Tim, I don’t think it’s the Web. Anyone who has seen Terminator 2: Judgement Day will know exactly what I mean.

Mar 19

Prophecies: the Web

Arthur C. Clarke has died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. To commemorate Sir Arthur’s passing, I’d like to highlight yet another of his predictions that has come true: the World Wide Web.

In his 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Clarke describes a device called the home communications console, or Comsole for short. Its elements are quite familiar: “the blank gray screen, the alphanumeric keyboard, the camera lens and speaker grille.” But what does it do? In a diary entry, main character Duncan Makenzie describes how his daily routine begins with the Comsole: “I dial the Comsole for any messages that have arrived during the night — usually there are half a dozen. . . . Then I set the news abstractor to print out anything that’s happened in my area of interest, and scan the result.”

But that’s just a small part of the Comsole’s capabilities. A later passage provides an overview:

Duncan walked to the Comsole, and the screen became alive as his finger brushed the ON pad. Now it was a miracle beyond the dreams of any poet, a charmed magic casement, opening on all seas, all lands. Through this window could flow everything that Man had ever learned about his universe, and every work of art he had saved from the dominion of Time. All the libraries and museums that had ever existed could be funneled through this screen and the millions like it scattered over the face of Earth. Even the least sensitive of men could be overwhelmed by the thought that one could operate a Comsole for a thousand lifetimes — and barely sample the knowledge stored within the memory banks that lay triplicated in their widely separated caverns, more securely guarded than any gold.

On this particular occasion, Duncan is merely trying to locate an old friend who is somewhere on Earth, so he uses the online directory to look up her contact information and then uses the Comsole to call her and have a sound-and-video conversation.

We take all of this for granted today, but when I first read Imperial Earth 32 years ago, the first home computers — the kind you had to build from a kit — had just come on the market. The idea that personal computers would connect to a global information network and provide instant audiovisual access to everything and everyone was stunning, and utterly beyond anything I had previously read. Clarke even predicted when it would happen: “The home communications console — or Comsole — had reached its technological plateau in the early twenty-first century.” We haven’t reached that plateau yet, but the Web is only a little more than a decade old, and almost all of what Clarke described is already available.

Imperial Earth begins with an incident from Duncan Makenzie’s youth, as a ten-year-old living in an underground city on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Attempting to use his Comsole to call his grandmother, he enters the wrong number and ends up connecting to something else:

There was no ringing tone, and no picture. . . . Duncan guessed that he had been switched into an audio-only channel, or had reached a station where the camera was disconnected. In any case, this certainly wasn’t Grandma’s number, and he reached to break the connection.
Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. . . . He was listening to the voice of the wind, as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head. . . .
Somewhere — perhaps in an abandoned construction project or experimental station — a live microphone had been left in circuit, exposed to the freezing, poisonous winds of the world above. It was not likely to remain undetected for long; sooner or later it would be discovered and disconnected.

When I read those words in 1976, the idea of using a computer terminal connected to a global information network to listen to the sounds of wind in the atmosphere of Titan was pure science fiction. But less than thirty years later, I did exactly that. Sir Arthur was right on the money.

Mar 04

Drone monkey

I had never heard of Jonathan Coulton until a week ago. Last Saturday, I went to a gathering of friends at the Sealys’ house, and when I arrived, several people were in the middle of listening to various tracks from Coulton’s song “Code Monkey”, which he had made available for download by people participating in last November’s “Code Monkey” remix contest.

I didn’t pay very much attention to all this during the actual gathering, but I was curious enough to look up the contest winners page the next day and listen to the original song and the various remixes. The remixed versions didn’t impress me very much, but Coulton’s original version was instantly addictive, and I’ve been playing it repeatedly and singing it in my shower and my car ever since.

Today, I was checking the webcomics that I read every day, and saw these characters making a guest appearance in Freefall:

Hey, I recognize those robots! They’re drones from Silent Running.

Inevitably, I found myself reading the Wikipedia article about that movie. In the article’s trivia section, I read that Silent Running is “referred to heavily in John Hodgman’s compendium of fictional trivia, The Areas of My Expertise.” Wait a minute — John Hodgman? Isn’t that the guy who plays a PC in those annoying Macintosh commercials?

Yes, it is. And in the Wikipedia article about him, I learned that he has collaborated on various projects with Jonathan Coulton. Yes, the Jonathan Coulton who recorded “Code Monkey”. The guy I had never heard of before a week ago.

Is everyone else’s life as strange as this, or is it just me?

UPDATE: Minutes after posting this entry, I read a review of The Astronaut Farmer and learned that the cast of that movie includes Bruce Dern, who played the lead in Silent Running.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I later discovered that the first sentence of this article is incorrect.

Dec 19


I just received an e-mail informing me that I’ve won a large sum of money in a lottery. That’s the fourth lottery I’ve won in the last two days. I must be the luckiest human being who ever lived! Especially since I haven’t entered any lotteries.

Apr 11

The case of the missing sweatshirt

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s long and meandering, goes into unnecessary detail to an absurd degree, and ultimately turns out to be pointless. You should skip it if you could spend the time doing something useful. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A blog is born
When I first started this blog in October 2001, I used Blogger because it was simple, user-friendly, and free. At the time, Blogger was a financially-strapped one-man operation, and I wanted to contribute some money to help keep it operating. But, as I wrote in January 2002, there was no simple way to do so. Shortly after I posted those remarks, Blogger introduced a paid version of its service called Blogger Pro, which provided several extra features. (The ordinary version of Blogger didn’t change, and remained free). I signed up at once and paid the annual subscription fee.
Enter Google
In February 2003, Google acquired Blogger. The resulting infusion of funding and support staff not only ended my concerns about Blogger’s survival, but also produced numerous improvements in the service. Blogger’s servers were upgraded and a new and improved user interface was unveiled. Finally, in September 2003, Blogger announced that the Blogger Pro service was being discontinued — all of the extra Pro features were being rolled into the free version of Blogger! Every Blogger user was now effectively a Blogger Pro user whether they had paid or not.
To compensate them for having paid for features that were now free, Blogger offered to send each Pro subscriber a free hooded sweatshirt. You just had to go to a particular page on the Blogger site, log in with your Pro username and password, and fill out a form with your shirt size and mailing address. But when I tried to do this, I found that my login was not recognized. On September 11, 2003, I went to the Blogger customer support page, where you can report problems by filling out a form and clicking a Submit button. I used the form to describe what had happened when I tried to log in and claim my free shirt.
Dude, where’s my shirt?
The next day, I received an e-mail response from a support tech named Steve, who informed me that Blogger had no record of my Blogger Pro upgrade purchase. He asked me for the purchase date and the last four digits of the credit card I had used. I replied with that information on the 13th. I received no further response. A month went by.
On October 16, I went to the support page again and used the form to complain about the lack of response, attaching a copy of my correspondence with Steve up to that point. Steve replied that same day, saying that he never received my 9/13 note. I responded immediately, sending him another copy of the information he had asked for. I received no response. Another month went by.
At this point, I started to see a pattern. When I used the Web form to contact Blogger customer service, my messages were received. But when I tried to e-mail Steve directly, my messages did not reach him.
On November 13, I decided to try again. Thinking that perhaps the e-mails I had sent Steve from my home e-mail address were not reaching him, I tried sending a note from my work address. I received no response. Having run out of ideas, I gave up.
The free shirt wasn’t really all that important to me. (I don’t even like hooded sweatshirts.) What I wanted was to understand — and perhaps to solve — the strange problems I had encountered. Why was there no record of my Blogger Pro purchase? What was preventing my e-mail messages from reaching Steve? It didn’t make sense. But I had exhausted the available methods of pursuing the matter.
Cold case
Sixteen months passed. During this time, I converted my blog from Blogger to Movable Type, so I wasn’t even a Blogger user anymore. I completely forgot about the Blogger sweatshirt business.
On March 31, 2005, while filing and deleting old e-mail messages, I stumbled across my log of the correspondence with Steve. I decided to have another go at the problem. I sent a note to Steve’s address at Blogger, recapping everything that had happened in the fall of 2003, and asking for an update. My message was returned as undeliverable; Steve was no longer working for Blogger. I went to the Blogger customer support page and used the problem reporting form to describe the whole bizarre story, attaching a copy of my correspondence with Steve, and submitted it. I received no response.
On April 11, 2005, I went to the Blogger site and saw an announcement that the problem-report form was broken. Specifically, there was a field on the form where you were supposed to specify which of your blogs (you can have more than one) was affected by the problem you were reporting. My problem had nothing to do with any of my blogs, so I had been selecting “No blog in particular”. Blogger had now discovered that if you did that, your problem report didn’t go anywhere; it just disappeared. This explained why I had received no response to my March 31 report.
One last try
At this point it occurred to me that in the months since my last attempt to report the problem by e-mail, I had switched e-mail addresses. Instead of using my old Road Runner address, I was now using Gmail. Gmail is Google’s Web-based e-mail system, and Google owns Blogger. Surely, if I sent an e-mail query from my Gmail address, it would get through to Blogger customer support! I would be sending the message from one part of Google to another.
It seemed worth trying, so I composed an e-mail note that began with the words “Hi — I’m following up on a technical support issue that’s a couple of years old. No, really! I promise I’m not insane.” I went on to relate the entire story from September 2003 to the present. I included a copy of all of the previous correspondence. My message ended with the following summary:

At this point, we seem to have several unanswered questions:

  1. Were my e-mails to Steve from [my home address] and [my work address] blocked for some reason?
  2. If not, why didn’t they reach him?
  3. Why doesn’t the Blogger Pro database contain any record that I paid for a subscription?
  4. Am I still eligible for a free sweatshirt, or have I missed that particular boat? 🙂

If you get this note, please drop me a line and let me know what your thoughts are. Thanks!

I sent the note to support@blogger.com.
A response, but not an answer
To my utter astonishment, I received a reply on April 15. It read:

Hello Patrick,
Based on our records, all of your previous emails as noted in your email attachment (besides your most recent ones) had been received via your [home] email address. I also do notice that there was never any email correspondence received on our end from you back to Steve’s questions. Unfortunately, I would not know why emails you sent to us in reply were not received.
In addition, we’re unfortunately not sending hoodies out to our previously upgraded Pro folks anymore.
I apologize for the inconvenience.
Blogger Support

And that’s how the story ended. It wasn’t a very satisfactory resolution; it didn’t answer any of the questions except the last one (no, I wasn’t going to get my free sweatshirt). But at least I could finally let the matter drop.
What have we learned?
If there are any lessons to be learned from this, I suppose they are:

  • Sometimes computers just don’t work, and nobody knows why.
  • If I really want a Blogger sweatshirt, I should just go to the Google Store and buy it.
  • I told you this story was long and pointless.
Mar 04

Internet time

In early 1997, it was announced that Wizards of the Coast (WotC), publisher of the Magic: The Gathering card game, had signed a letter of agreement with TSR Inc., the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. WotC was planning to acquire TSR. This seemed like wonderful news to me, because TSR was on the verge of bankruptcy and hadn’t shipped any products to its distributors for over six months.

But on rec.games.frp.dnd, the D&D newsgroup, some participants reacted with hysteria, predictions of doom, and conspiracy theories. People wailed that WotC was buying TSR to liquidate it and eliminate the competition, or that WotC was going to make all sorts of changes that would ruin D&D. The newsgroup was filled with speculation and rumors, almost none of it based on any shred of factual knowledge.

In an attempt to stem the tide of paranoid drivel, I compiled a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list and posted it to the newsgroup.

A week later, I wrote the following essay.

June 6, 1997
8:58 a.m.

From time to time, I’ve seen statements in computer magazines that one year of real time equals some larger number of Internet years. The implication, I suppose, is that things happen much faster on the Net than they do in real life. It was never clear to me why this should be the case, but I can tell you now that it’s absolutely true.

One week ago, I got fed up with all the rumors and confusion about the TSR-WotC buyout and decided to do something about it. I quickly threw together a FAQ List about it, using only statements posted to the Net by TSR or WotC employees. I got them all from rec.games.frp.dnd and the TSR Web site. After maybe an hour of editing and formatting, I posted the result to rec.games.frp.dnd. That was on Friday, May 30.

On Monday, June 2, I learned of an interview with the WotC president that provided some new information. I updated the FAQ and posted it again.

On Tuesday, WotC and TSR announced the completion of the buyout. This required major changes to the FAQ. I updated and posted it again.

On Wednesday, I started receiving e-mail comments about the FAQ, which provided some new information. I also decided that it would be fairly easy to put it on the Web, so I added minimal HTML coding and uploaded it to my server space. By the end of the day, it was already linked to by at least one other Web page (and maybe more that I don’t know about).

On Thursday, I received a one-line note from Adam Conus of WotC Customer Service that read: “I just wanted to say that your unofficial FAQ is fabulous.” E-mail about the FAQ began to arrive from places like Italy. As new information came in, I updated the Web FAQ several times.

Today is Friday, and the Unofficial Buyout FAQ is one week old. I woke up this morning to find a note from a gentleman in Moscow who has translated the FAQ into Russian, and would like for me to put the translation on my Web site. And the day is still young.

I think I understand the concept of Internet time now.

May 25

German spam update

I just checked my Gmail spam folder and was astonished to find that the German spam has stopped. On May 22, the spam was still pouring in: 40 spam messages, 39 of which were German. But on May 23, I only received four spam notes — and on May 24, only three. All of those were in English. The German spam went from a torrent to nothing overnight.
I don’t know exactly what happened two days ago, but I can guess. I think somebody tracked down the zombie machines that were sending the spam, and either disinfected them or shut them off.

May 17

German spam

About two days ago, I started receiving numerous spam e-mail messages in German (courtesy of the Sober worm, according to news reports). This affected my old Road Runner account as well as my Gmail address. I don’t really care about the RR account, because it already receives tons of spam and I’ve stopped using it for anything important. But Gmail is my primary e-mail tool, and the sight of dozens of spam messages in my inbox was quite a shock. Gmail’s spam filter is normally very effective, and I’ve grown accustomed to having it stop virtually all spam. But German spam seemed to defeat the filter completely. Apparently it was scanning for key words or phrases in English.
Fortunately, this turned out to be a temporary problem. Gmail’s interface includes a feature that lets you select messages and then click a “Report spam” button. Doing so not only chucks the offending messages into your Spam folder, but also forwards copies of them to Google for use in refining the spam filter. I gave that feature quite a workout over the last two days, and I’m sure many other Gmail users did the same. By this morning, I could see the results. The German spam was still pouring in, but almost all of the messages were being automatically shunted into the Spam folder. The filter had learned.
A single German spam note reached my work e-mail inbox this morning. I was impressed that even one such note had managed to sneak past the industrial-strength filters that IBM uses on its mail servers. Sadly, its journey was in vain. I’m beta testing an anti-spam filter for Lotus Notes on my IBM desktop machine, and it also learns from experience — when you select a message and hit the spam button, a copy is forwarded to a central server and used to update the filter. By this morning, the filter was obviously aware of the German plague. It spotted the offending note and flung it into a spam holding cell without any prompting from me.
Auf wiedersehen, spam. Du bist kaputt.