What Happened to Fun and Educational Programming?

    Back in the seventies I became addicted to computer magazines. In the early sevenities I had studied computers, working with keypunch machines, greenbar paper and mainframes like the IBM 360, but then the microcomputer revolution burst on the scene and I fell in love Atari, Apple, Commodore, TI, Sinclair, Radio Shack and all the other little computers. I haunted the newsstands for issues of Byte, Compute! (in all it’s various incarnations), Dr. Dobbs, InfoWorld, On Computing, A+, A.N.A.L.O.G., Popular Computing, ST-Log and my favorite Creative Computing. I was so addicted to computer magazines I’d read magazines devoted to computers I didn’t even own. A common feature to all of them was the type-in program, which encouraged readers to learn to program. At the start of this revolution it was assumed that everyone would eventually have to learn to program and most secondary schools and colleges started introducing computer literacy classes. Then the revolution was networked.

    So what happened? I think most people learned that they hated to program. It’s a tedious activity that I took to. I made a career of programming. I’ve heard that interest in programming has fallen off so much that Bill Gates has to beg Congress to be allowed to hire foreign programming students. The big brouhaha is the claim that American kids aren’t smart enough, don’t know math and science, and would rather play video games than write them. That may be true, but I’m guessing there might be other reasons.

    First, there is little incentive to custom program when there are so many free programs around. How fun can a 200 line type-in game be compared to some million line monster that was produced like a Hollywood movie? The open source crowd has made a virtue out of volunteer programming, so that tends to remove the greed incentive. It’s a strange era we live in where the richest man in the world is a geek who climbed to the top of his pile of money by programming and the young people of today revolt against Gate’s model of success by advocating a commie paradigm of programming. That’s like refusing to join a gold rush and taking up alchemy. When I was young I foolishly protested the draft and the Vietnam War, but who’d have imagined later generations would grow up to protest against making money.

    There are other reasons why programming isn’t as popular as beer-can collecting or poetry writing. Home computers used to come with a programming interpreter built in, but now-a-days you have to have an IDE that takes the dedication of a Ph.D. student to learn, and to give away your masterpiece you have to convince your friends to install some massive runtime. Programming is no longer little. If kids put as much work into learning to play the guitar or singing as it would take to program they could be rock stars – that’s why there’s American Idol and not American Hacker on TV.

    The real reason why kids don’t want to program, study math or science, or become engineers is because those careers have no sex appeal. Even lowly desk jockies in The Office, appear to lead more exciting lives than someone who sits in front of a screen all day typing in keywoods. When hot women are interviewed on reality shows about the men they’d like to meet you seldom hear one wishing to hook up with a programmer. Not only is programming a male profession, but it appears to be for omega males. It’s lucky I snagged a wife before I discovered microcomputers.

    With the video game industry becoming bigger than the movie industry it’s a wonder that video game programmers aren’t as glamorous as movie directors or screenwriters.  (Even I can’t picture them being compared to actors.)  Since programs are now written by teams, why aren’t there programming cards like baseball cards, so kids could collect the Microsoft players, or the Apple players or the Linux players – hell the kids on Slashdot certainly argue over their favorite teams as much as any kid ever argued over football teams.  Unfortunately, programming is about as exciting as plumbing so its doubtful we can ever make it into a skill that kids dream of making it big in.  Sure there are millions of us who love to program and we can make more money than plumbers but the profession is just not going make kids want to study in school.  I wonder how many kids would want to be rock stars or movie actors if it required calculus?


 

    

“The Star Pit” – The Limits of Limitations

        Time was 1967 at Miami-Killian Senior High.  Sitting at the freak table in the cafeteria during home room, while listening to complex improvised percussions of the black guys at their table pounding out Afro-identity-rhythms with their hands, elbows and feet, I read a small digest pulp magazine called Worlds of Tomorrow.  I tried to concentrate on the story I was reading, “The Star Pit,” while the kid next to me was lecturing our table about his amazing discovery of shooting drops of heroin.  He normally shot speed but he and his buddies had a dry period and decided to experiment.  Although I wasn’t as dumb as this kid, I wasn’t beyond using chemicals to gain altitude, but what I really wanted was to be an astronaut and fly aboard a Gemini space capsule atop a Titan II rocket.

        “The Star Pit,” a novella by Samuel R. Delany, is one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories that I’ve reread every few years since 1967.  It is thrilling, inventive and most of all philosophical – and it has a theme that I never tire of contemplating.  It’s about barriers.  I like the think of an aquarium full of fish as an analogy to this story.  Some fish living in a tank swim around and accept their limited world, but there are always other fish that constantly patrol the glass looking for a way past the barriers.  As human we don’t bump into glass walls, but we’re all confined by invisible barriers.

When I first read “The Star Pit,” I did not know anything about the author.  I later learned Delany was black, gay and very young, about 23, when he wrote “The Star Pit.”  While I was in homeroom, Delany, nine years older than I, was already a big success in the science fiction world.  By then he had already published five novels, including a trilogy.  He grew up in Harlem, attended the Bronx High School of Science, married the poet Marilyn Hacker and started publishing novels by age 19.  These are all clues to understanding this beautiful story.   I could only imagine the ambitions that fueled Delany to write this story.  It is also important to understand what was happening in the world of 1965-1967, the most important being the space race and the Vietnam War, but New York in the sixties was something special too.

        If you can imagine a black, gay kid from Harlem wanting to be an astronaut with The Right Stuff, or even one of the guys who writes science fiction in 1965, you can begin to understand some of the barriers I am talking about.  It goes deeper than that.  All of Delany’s early work has reoccurring themes about being young and artistic – and especially about being original and always meeting other artists who where younger, more original and more artistic.  My guess was Delany was a prodigy who achieved much too much success too early and hit lots of walls.  I also expected he had lots of emotional trouble growing up.

        We all want success when we’re young and few achieve their dreams.  Most people settle down to accept life, swimming in the middle and never make a run at the glass anymore.  Others continue to bash their heads, or like me, who constantly linger near the barrier thinking, “Jeez, how am I going to escape?”  It’s now forty years later and I know I’m not going to be an astronaut.  Like Dirty Harry said, a man must know his limitations, but if you test them enough you begin to wonder if the barrier will give just a little bit.

        Living with confined desires changes your ambitions to adapt to the barriers.  The conventional wisdom says if a person is going to be creative, they’re going to succeed when they are young.  You might win a Nobel Prize when you’re old, but it’s for work your brain did when it was young.  Most of our limits are related to brain function, genes and the health of our bodies.  We know death is the ultimate barrier to ambition and that the odds are if we haven’t achieved success by thirty it won’t be at all, but some people refuse to ever throw in the towel despite all facts to the contrary.

        I know I’ll never get to the Moon or Mars, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t write a sci-fi book about such adventures.  Or is that being unrealistic?  Even when you compromise you never know what the real limitations are.  Take for instance a very tiny experiment I conducted.  Scientists have discovered that the brain can still grow new neural pathways much later in life than previously thought and suggest that it’s never too late to learn new tricks.  I decided to teach myself chess as a test.  I didn’t get very far.

        Like the Ratlit in “The Star Pit” who resents the Golden, those humans that can travel to other galaxies, I resent the young who can take up chess so easily while I butt my head against the 8×8 board.  I wasn’t expecting to be a grandmaster, but had the lowly ambition of just beating the computer at the easiest level.  I can’t even do that.  Even now I like to pretend I could still succeed if I would only apply myself and study hard thirty minutes a day for a couple years.  However, failing is teaching me something.  I’m learning that there are a whole host of barriers that keep me back from succeeding, even at my unambitious ambition.  Just to succeed at this tiny chess problem I suffer:

·         Limits of concentration

·         Limits of memory

·         Limits of effort

·         Limits of perception

·         Limits of logic

·         Limits of pattern recognition

·         Limits of age

·         Limits of ambition

·         Limits of language

·         Limits of knowledge

·         Limits of talent

·         Limits of skills

·         Limits of health

·         Limits of vitality

·         Limits of analysis

·         Limits of organization

·         Limits of intellect

·         Limits of overcoming limits

·         Limits of time

        That’s a lot of limits – and there are probably a lot more that I haven’t noticed since I’m so limited at observing my limits.  I can’t just say I’m bad at chess because poor chess playing is only a symptom of my real disease.  I could whine that I’m getting old, but I’m sure there are plenty of people decades older than me that can take up chess and beat the computer.

        The real research question here is whether or not I can do anything about my limitations.  Can I exercise my power of concentration and beat that limitation?  If I studied chess books and improved my skills and knowledge about the game, might I push back some barriers?  Yet, there are other barriers that keep me from doing that: energy, time, health, effort, etc.  So why?  Why don’t I just go swim in the middle of the aquarium and just watch television like the other fish?  Why, I wonder myself.

        You can read “The Star Pit” in Delany’s collection, aye, and gomorrah and other stories.  Every evening writing this blog I pound against the barrier that keeps me from expressing in words the things that I see and think.  “The Star Pit” haunts me with its frail characters fighting their hurricane force ambitions.  I have no idea if the story will succeed with you like it has succeeded with me.  It begins:

            Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.           

            But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium, with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down.  They put it out on the sand.

An ancient radio presentation of “The Star Pit” can be found here on MP3.

Guaranteed Classics – Music Just For You (To Buy)

If you searched the net you can find plenty of writers riled up over The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s The Definitive 200 list of CDs they want you to own. Since I’m a list maker myself, see The Classics of Science Fiction, I like to think about preparing a good list. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has essentially prepared a list of CDs that is based on sales from recent decades, rather than compiling a list based on artistic merit that I think most readers expected it to be. Of course, we could assume that hordes of buying fans represent good taste and the list does represent the best 200 albums any music lover should own. Maybe it’s like school where they make you read books that are good for you. The trouble is they recommend music from several musical genres that doesn’t necessarily match any single music lover’s taste.

Any list of all time great albums that leaves out Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan can’t be much of a list. (Supply your own missing album to make this paragraph more meaningful.) That’s my all-time favorite album, so I’d expect it to be on the list – it wasn’t. Do I have no taste in music? When I assembled the Classics of Science Fiction list I realized I couldn’t just tell people what I thought were the best science fiction books. I had to come up with a system that represented authority of opinion.

The Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Albums of All Time list is more to my taste, but then Blonde on Blonde was #9. Increasing the number of bests also helps to hit everyone’s favorite. However, the Rolling Stone list just feels more genuine to me. There is a lot of overlap with the R&R Hall of Fame list, especially near the top. You can spot the impact of sales on both lists by looking at the RIAA of Gold & Platinum Top 100 albums or Wikipedia’s List of Best-Selling Albums Worldwide. Studying these two lists shows how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made up their list. Every album I went “Huh!” over with great puzzlement and head scratching sold enough CDs to wallpaper Florida.

If I was going to make a list, I’d do something like what Time did for their All-Time 100 Albums. First, I would not rank albums. That should stop a lot of fights. Second, I would arrange the list going back in time, year by year, and list alphabetically what I determined through careful research were the best albums for each year. I would do what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did and put in muliple genres – but I’d add even more genres including World, Folk, Classical, and others they left out. This would be a massive job and one I’ll probably never work on, but I wish someone else would. Like the R&R HoF listers, I’d use sales figures but I’d also use critical reviews, awards, fan polls, books on music history and the test of time to figure out what albums really were the best for each year. I’m sure there are books that have done this, and maybe even web sites.

Metacritic has done something like this for the years back to 2000, but the list I want needs to go back through the 1920s, and maybe earlier to cover the entire history of pop music and the history of albums.

Now that I have Rhapsody Music, and can listen to almost any album I desire at the touch of a mouse for $9.95 a month, I’ll take these lists and explore what all the fuss is about. Hopefully, I’ll find some albums that I’ve never listened that’ll blow me away. Just because I lived through all those years since the 1950s doesn’t mean I got to hear all the best albums. And it really is exciting to discover great artists you totally missed.

Making PC Users PC – The Green Computer

        Ever since I saw An Inconvenient Truth I’ve been pondering ways to do my part to use less carbon.  Since I work with computers the first idea I had was to stop leaving my computers on 24-hours a day.  That isn’t easy since at work I manage four servers and have two computers for programming.  The best I could do was turn off my test computer when I wasn’t using it.  However, at home I discovered I could save about 20 hours of power a day.  Between those two computers I’m saving maybe 280 hours a week.

        It’s a shame that Microsoft promotes automatic upgrades at night.  Microsoft should tell people to turn their computers off when they aren’t using them and then develop programs that analyze usage patterns and run updates during the day.  Most business just let workers leave their computers on 24×7.  What a waste.  I work at a university and they leave all the lab machines and classroom machines on 24×7 so they can run patches, updates and changes at night.  But that’s wasting 16+ hours of energy a day per machine.  Even with power saving features these machines waste a lot of energy (as do TVs and other electronics that never shut off but go into a mode designed for a quick start).

        Simple solution – don’t run computers if you aren’t using them.  What about reducing the amount of power they consume while running.  I started googling around and found this ultra low-powered PC at Tranquil PC.  Tranquil claims it uses just 15-21 watts running Windows XP Home – about the power of a compact fluorescent bulb.   However, it uses a strange chip, the VIA C7-M that might be computationally low powered too.  Googling VIA C7-M I discovered a whole wealth of knowledge about Carbon Free Computing, a phrase that seemed new to me, which means the idea isn’t that popular since I read a lot of computer mags and websites.  Evidently seekers of the green PC are also aligned with the seekers of a quiet PC and solar power advocates.

        This computer I’m typing on is over three years old and I’ve been thinking about getting a new more powerful model.  The first decision I have to make is whether I should buy a new computer at all.   One quote I can’t locate the source says 80% of the energy related to the lifetime of a PC comes from manufacturing.  If that’s true then it has all kinds of major implications.  To gain the most energy savings means using a computer for as long as possible.  Second, if we want to further reduce that 80% factor, we have to convince manufacturers of PCs to work on lowering energy spent on making computers.  Third, succeeding at this endeavor will adversely impact the computer makers economically and indirectly hurt the economy.  Which is why you don’t see the President campaigning for the U.S. to become the international leader at reducing carbon production.

        Every economic decision becomes an ethical decision.  I have always noticed that the success of our economic system is based on a lot of inefficiency.  If everyone was honest and law abiding untold thousands of policemen and related professions would be out of work.  If everyone spent their money wisely how many people in the credit card industry would be out of work?  And it’s all interrelated.  The microcomputer has created millions of jobs since the 1970s.  Computer use has vastly increased energy needs creating more jobs in the power business and that impacts mining and manufacturing.  Becoming green and reducing carbon emissions means a new kind of economy.  Environmentalists have always countered this problem by saying new jobs and industries will be created, and that overall the economy will succeed.

        Will the world become green?  I don’t know.  I tend to think we will all continue on the same path because people don’t change until they are made to change.  This means our society will continue until it collapses and a new system will form out of the chaos.  To picture this just watch the news about Iraq – even there some kind of new order will eventually emerge.  Students of history know that civilizations come and go.  Personally, I’d rather make the hard choices now and remodel our current civilization so it survives.  However, I’m probably fooling myself.  I can’t even make myself lose weight when I know I’m approaching a health crisis.  Statistics show only one person in twenty, or five percent can lose weight and keep it off.  Does that mean only one person in twenty can make themselves into green people?

        Dieting makes a good analogy to going green.  To succeed we’d all need to watch our calories and carbon for the rest of our lives.  This will require discipline, attention to detail and dedication.  Which brings us back to the question:  Which is better for the environment – keeping my current PC or buying a new Green PC?  The same question applies to cars.  Which helps the Earth more, keeping my 6-cylinder Toyota Tundra or buying a Toyota Prius?  I don’t know.  If 80% of the carbon cost of a PC comes from manufacturing and the figure is similar for a car, then whatever we buy needs to be used efficiently for a long time.  The three year replacement cycle for cars and computers is carbon wasteful.

        Recently PC Magazine ran an article about building a green PC.  The whole focus was to reduce the amount of watts used.  The end results were nowhere near the efficiency of the Tranquil PC mentioned above.  And I have read elsewhere complaints about Microsoft causing increase energy use by pushing its new Vista operating system.  Most reviewers say Vista needs a discrete video card, a feature that often consumes more watts than the motherboard or CPU.  This brings up the idea of whether Linux, Windows or Macintosh operating systems are the best for the environment. 

To be fair, we have to consider use.  A gamer with a high powered rig using 650 watts will hate the Tranquil PC using 15 watts.  We can’t just say gaming is bad for the environment, so give it up.  Like the idea of carbon management and carbon credits, we have to give every individual the chance to save energy in their own way so they can spend it in whatever way they like.  For example, gamers could walk or ride bicycles for transportation so they can spend their energy credits on high-powered games.

For such energy/carbon credit systems to work we’d have to know what our energy allowance is.  I don’t know if anyone knows the answer yet.  Dieting only works when you know your daily calorie target and so we need to know how much energy we use now and how much less we need to use to save the world.  Each person on Earth causes X number of carbon molecules to be released in the atmosphere.  We could count up the total, divide by six billion and have the answer.  Then we decide what our diet should be and know how many carbon units we can use each day.  The trouble is that won’t work because people in Africa create far less carbon than someone living in the U.S.

While the Chinese are speeding along towards using energy like Americans, Americans should be working to use energy like the Chinese used to.  That’s not happening.

Cynical minded people will just say buy whatever kind of computer you want because nothing you do will matter.  Henry David Thoreau sat in his cabin by Walden Pond and saw progress barrelling down the track and knew it was going to crash into Concord.  Walden was the book he wrote warning the people of the time about the future.  No one stepped out of the way of progress.  Thoreau observed that we all have choices we can make in how we eat, where we live, how we dress, the work that we choose, and explained that these choices meant something.  Our times require that we all become Thoreaus, but I tend to doubt this will happen.

I think I’ll hang onto my present computer for awhile and continue to run Windows XP.  I’m going to study the Green PC and maybe build one in the future.  When I do, I think I’ll design it so it will last as long as possible and allow me to swap out parts, or even recycle parts from my present computer.  I’d also like to explore other energy saving ideas.  Is it better to play MP3 music through the computer or CDs through my stereo system?  Can I digitize all my paper using habits?  Are printers really needed?  Besides being green, these are interesting intellectual challenges.

 

Communicating Across Time

        I just finished reading Timescape by Gregory Benford and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the two books strike me as a perfect set for a meditation on time travel.  I doubt Henry David Thoreau ever thought about time travel, but any writer that produces a classic book is communicating across time, sending messages centuries into the future.  Imagine if Thoreau had some kind of magical book and we could send messages back to him sitting in his little shack by Walden Pond.  What would you tell him about life in the future and reading his book?  Timescape by Gregory Benford is about sending messages backwards in time, allowing the future to talk to the past.  Unfortunately, Benford tries to stick closely to a theoretical idea in physics which has limited application.  His story is timid by science fictional standards, but wonderfully ambitious by defying the traditions of the genre.

        I often want to communicate with the past.  I’m currently reading The Scarlet Letter and figure it would be great fun to show the Puritans an hour of MTV.  On the surface that sounds cruel, but I keep thinking if we could talk across the ages we’d realize new philosophical dimensions.  Of course we know about the tyrannical nature of religious societies just by watching the nightly news, but it helps to remember that Americans once wore funny religious clothes and treated women like Islamic fundamentalists.  The real test would be to have a time traveler show up today and let us know about the future and how our beliefs and actions are embarrassing to them.  Are the liberated women on MTV a step forward in women’s expression as individuals or are they freed women to act out men’s fantasies?

        The eight hundred pound gorilla in this essay is global warming.  Will the people of the future all lie in the beds at night wishing they could talk to us?  Benford’s story written in the 1970s and published in 1980 isn’t about global warming but another ecological catastrophe caused by the people of the 1950s and 1960s but which kills the people of 1998.  Yes, his future is now our past but that doesn’t make the book dated.  Timescape is #41 on The Classics of Science Fiction list – but it deserves to be higher.  The idea of sending messages to the past is just as original as any of H. G. Wells’ great primal science fictional ideas.

If you read the reader reviews on Amazon you will find most readers giving Timescape five stars but many giving it one star.  It’s a polarizing science fiction novel because it’s not a gee-whiz action story, but a quiet story about science and scientists.  Critics loved it but many fans didn’t.  I assume most adolescent readers would prefer a story about time travelers going back to hunt dinosaurs rather than read about a clever plot based on a theoretical sub-atomic particle called the tachyon.  I can also infer that most page turning readers don’t want to be burden by bad tidings from the future.

In Timescape a few 1998 people desperately try to get a message to a few scientists in 1963 hoping to save their world.  If the people of 1963 had listened to Thoreau message from 1854 the people in 1998 might not have ever needed to send a message backwards in time.  Walden is a timeless essay about paying attention to details and questioning the status quo.  Thoreau might be considered America’s original hippie, but he was a brilliant thinker, as was his friend Nathan Hawthorne who peered with nineteenth century eyes into the seventeenth century with A Scarlett Letter.  There are still puritanical threads woven into our twenty-first century philosophy.  The lessons of history have always been one way – think how dynamically philosophic history would be if we could tune in the future with tachyon radios.

I’m not shunning the Puritans when I mention them, they may have valid messages to send us too, points that we’re missing, and yes we’re still receiving their messages, for example, the current fad of Purity Balls.  The key is to study Thoreau and learn to discern the ecology of our thoughts like he studied the ecology of Walden Pond.  Are the Puritans four centuries away, or merely a few thousand miles?  Scattered across this earth are people living in situations that mirror all the times of history.  Every society might represent a different expression of innate programming to comprehend right and wrong – it may even be hardwired in our genes as Moral Minds suggests.  Classic books may be classic because they show characters at the cutting edge of ethical dramas.

Global warming will be the ethical issue of our times.  To overcome this obstacle we will all have to live life with the spiritual observational skills of Henry David Thoreau.  Science fictional books like Timescape illustrates that every casual decision we make today affects the people of tomorrow.  The emotional dynamics of how we judge our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter.  For years I have contemplated why some books become classics and others don’t.  I’m never sure how to define a classic, but I know if you are reading books that don’t make you think, that you can’t interconnect with the communications across time, then more than likely you are only reading for escapism and that book isn’t a classic.

Rediscovering the Page

The World Wide Web has revolutionized reading and research but it has many deficiencies, one of which is the destruction of the page.  People use the word “web page” but that really means a single web document referenced by a unique URL.  A web page may consist of one or more screens depending on the size of the document and the size of the reader’s screen.  Printed out, a “web page” may be one or more printed pages.  Because screen size can vary so greatly in both pixels and technology there is no way to layout a static page like we see in books and magazines.  This causes a problem in readability.

        I’m not sure if the generation that grew up after the web will understand this problem because they consider the status quo the norm.  Not only that but layout artists have moved web design ideas into the realm of print and corrupted magazine layouts destroying the page there too.  Readability is the science of designing text so it is comfortable to read.  This is not a simple task because vision varies greatly in the population.

        Web sites are supposed to be accessible to the handicapped, but I think they often fail for people who can see, as well as those who can’t.  Web pages have become a jumble of tiny print and NASCAR ad layouts, and very often the tiny print travels across long unscanable lines.  One of the major discoveries of the science of readability is the width of the scanline determines how readable the print will be.  That’s why newspapers use columns.  Imagine if newspapers were laid out like websites – tiny fonts that could ramble across the width of a whole tabloid page.

        One of the great hopes for computers was the idea of creating a paperless society.  The web is actually bringing this about but it is transforming the concept of documents from a collection of paper pages to a digital files.  A book can be a single text file, a .pdf file, multiple .html files, multiple .tiff files, and even audio .mp3 files.   But in terms of readability and the web, it’s the .html presentation that counts.  More of people’s reading time is moving to the web.

        The New York Times is responding to this problem with a program called The Times Reader.  Essentially, it’s a custom web application that has brought back the page.  It has removed scrolling from online reading, reintroduced the concept of newspaper style columns, and added the paper’s printed typeface.  This makes for an incrediable jump in readabiltiy.  I find the Times Reader to be better than both the web version of the NY Times but also better than the print version in terms of reading pleasure.  The programmers of this software have succeeded in melding the best of web layout with the best of print layout to create a new paradigm of screen reading.  Unfortunately they have caused a rent in the reality of WWW because the Times Reader exists off the web in a universe of its own.

        Whether you know it or not, the evolution of programming is moving towards making all programs exist on the web and fit within the universal window of a browser.  The Times Reader is a rebellion against this development and could cause a civil war on the Internet.  Most people think of the World Wide Web as the Internet, but it is not.  The Internet is IP traffic.  Before the web, people used a collection of programs to communicate, each working seperately.  You used a FTP program to transfer files, telnet to talk to other machines, SMTP to send email and so on.  All those protocols continue to work but most web surfers no longer notice the mechanics working under their browser.  Each function has its own port number, but the browser on port 80 has dominated the evolution of the Internet for many years now.

        What the NY Times programmers have done is to continue to use port 80 but reinvented the browser so the only pages their readers can surf are The New York Times pages.  The technology they use is Microsoft’s Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) which uses .NET Framework 3.0.  This means The Times Reader is currently limited to users of Windows XP and Vista.  Mac, Linux and UNIX users are out of the loop.  I think you can see why I’m suggesting this could be the beginning of a civil war.  Microsoft promises to roll out WPF/E in the future that will allow Macs, Linux and UNIX machines to join the rebels if they want.  But think about this:  What if the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Time, Newsweek, and all the other top publishers follow suit?  How many custom readers will you have on your computer?

        The old idea is one browser for all, although many users have both two.  Is there a way around this problem?  Yes – bring the page back to the generic browser, although that may not be possible.  Until you try the Times Reader you will not understand the advantages it has over the standard browser.  The Times Reader standardizes readability over a variety of screen technologies.  It is flexible like the standard browser, but it resizes and reforms its content to still layout a screen page.  Thus an article may be one page on a large 20” widecreen LCD and five pages on a 12” laptop screen.  The paradigm breakthrough is returning to paging and not scrolling.

        Interestingly enough I have discovered another publisher finding a lower tech solution that works with the web.  Tux Magazine formats its magazine to full screen Acrobat pages.  Readers have to download the .pdf file but when they open the document it springs out to cover the entire screen and the content is laid out in pages.  I’ve shown this magazine to people who create digital newsletters and they were impressed too.  It provides for impact and readability.

        This is an easier solution to roll out since most web surfers have Acrobat Reader installed.  Installing .NET Framework 3.0 is a big deal.  Both The Times Reader and Tux Magazine make for a much better reading experience because they both use columns to controll scan lines, pages to control layout and larger typefaces.  Browsers could improve readability by controlling the scanline and giving their readers larger typefaces to read.  However, that would require web publishers to change their habits of maximizing ad space over minimalizing readability and that might not happen.  Current web design seems to believe in cramming as much content on the screen as possible with little regards for the visitor who must read the page.

        In my daily browsing of the web I often find pages I’m anxious to read but the typeface is so tiny and the scanlines are so long that I just give up.  It really annoys me that some designers even design their pages so the browser’s built-in feature to enlarge the fonts won’t work.  Sometimes on pages I’m most anxious to read I will even copy the content to a Word document and reformat it for readabiltiy.  That’s why I admire the Tux Magazine people – they have used Acrobat to maximize my reading pleasure.  And their solution was so simple.  Create a document in landscape mode.  Format with columns, whitespace and large graphics and print to Acrobat with the setting “open in fullscreen” checked.

        The Times Reader improves on these concepts by adding a menu bar across the top of the page that leads to sections of the newspaper, a photo slideshow feature, font scaling, and flexible adaptation to screen sizing.  Both methods are weak for reading back issues.  However, by downloading Tux Magazine I get to add them to my digital library, which is nicer than the piles of physical magazines I have to deal with.  The web version of the NY Times is far better for looking up older articles.

        My guess is the Times Reader is a tool to prepare the public for subscribing to an online newspaper.  What I’m getting out of their experiment is the desire for web designers to lay out pages so they are comfortable to read on screen.  I’ve also rediscovered the value of the page.

p.s. 3/20/7

I got an email from the New York Times telling me the Times Reader beta is over at the end of March and I’ll need to subscribe if I want future issues.  I was shocked at how high the subscription rates are:  $14.95 a month or $165 a year.  As much as I like reading the NYTimes this way, I don’t like it $165 much.  This is a bargain compared to buying the paper edition.  I did pay the $49 to try the Times Select for a year, but I don’t plan to renew.  Paying $49 to read a couple columnists isn’t worth it.  I thought I’d take more advantage of researching their files, but I didn’t.  It’s hard to price a product that is essentially being given away in another location on the web.  If I got the whole deal, The Times Reader edition and the Archives for $49 a year, I’d consider it a bargain.  I might go as high as $99.95 a year if the software added aditional features that made it functionally a lot more than just a newspaper reader.

Twenty Years Ago the Classics Were Different

    Twenty years ago I wrote an article about the classics of science fiction for the fanzine Lan’s Lantern – and later made the essay into a web site at The Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike inspired the project when he asked me about my favorite science fiction books. I started reading science fiction as a kid in 1961, and then gave up SF in 1974 after dropping out of college to find reality. I returned to reading science fiction in 1984 after I had gotten married, finished college and settled down. By the time I wrote the essay in 1987 I had probably read well over a thousand science fiction books.

    Now looking back with twenty years of hindsight I’m not sure how many science fiction books I would consider classic. The final Classics of Science Fiction list wasn’t selected by me, but was assembled from the most frequently recommended books from 28 best-of lists and other sources dating back to the 1950s. Of the 193 books on the list, I’m not sure how many I would personally recommend today. I’ve read most of the books on the list, and still reread many of them. I’m currently seeking out and listening to audio editions of books from the list. This week I’m listening to Timescape by Gregory Benford, #41 on the list, and a book on 16 of the 28 recommended references. I think it is a classic of sorts, but it’s doubtful you’ll find it at your favorite bookstore. I was surprised that Recorded Books had an unabridged audio edition. [By the way, RB is the very best place to find audio editions of the SF Classics.]

    A few months ago I listened to Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I was appalled by how bad it was. I had forgotten most of the story. I had read the original Foundation trilogy back in the 1960s and accepted it then as a classic because everyone said it was so. Listening to it now it was obvious that it was a fix-up novel from a handful of Astounding pulp fiction stories.  Even though I considered it bad writing it had ideas that made me wonder if it had been inspiration to George Lucas for Star Wars. As far as I was concerned it was too simplistic and had nothing to offer the modern reader. The Foundation Trilogy is #4 on the Science Fiction Classics List and was recommended by 24 of the 28 lists. It is well loved, but not by me anymore.

    I wonder if the other fans, critics, writers and editors who created the original 28 recommendation lists still love all the books they once recommended Has the last twenty years changed them too? Here are the books I’ve listened to in the last five years:

#4 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov

#8 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

#19 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

#22 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

#29 – Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

#32 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

#37 – The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

#41 – Timescape by Gregory Benford

#48 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (abridged) by Philip K. Dick

#58 – Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

#61 – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

#67 – Startide Rising by David Brin

#87 – Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

#93 – Blood Music (novella version) by Greg Bear

#94 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I have more SF Classics lined up to listen to, like Dune by Frank Herbert, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and a few others. They are on my Recorded Books Unlimited queue. Most of the books I have listened to were very entertaining, but I don’t know if I would call them classics. Library of America, a company known for publishing classic books, will publish a volume called Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick in June of 2007. The four novels are The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969) – all but Stigmata were on the Classics of Science Fiction list.

Are these the real classics of science fiction? I don’t know. PKD’s books hold up well in their audio editions and many of his stories have been made into movies, but his books were never mainstream science fiction. PKD was one strange dude, maybe a Poe or Meville of the sci-fi pulp writers, and although he wrote some books set in outer space, he was never considered an inspiration to the space opera crowd. I am a huge fan of PKD and I’m overjoyed that LOA has selected his books, but I don’t think PKD represents science fiction nor do I think his books represent American literature. Personally, I think Robert A. Heinlein fits that role better, but I’m not sure I’d pick any of his books as classics of American literature either.  Many of Heinlein’s novels are my all time favorite books that I read and reread, but I don’t know if they represent America or its times.  I think Have Space Suit-Will Travel represents the 1950s in the U.S. in a very special way but will future readers see that.  Would nineteenth century New England want to be represented by Moby Dick?

The trouble is I don’t see any science fiction book becoming the Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations to the readers of the twenty-second century as those two books have become classics to us. Whether Jane Austin or Charles Dickens wrote accurate portraits of their times, their books do represent the times in which they were set for all future readers. Huckleberry Finn and Little Women will represent nineteen century America, like The Great Gatsby will represent the twenthieth century. Strange in a Strange Land is a 1960s book, but it will never be a book about the 1960s. Science fiction books will have to be classics like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are classics but I’m not sure how many science fiction books will appeal to the young readers of the future.

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The World of the Wars have become classic books read by children for a century. Are there any books from the Classics of Science Fiction list that will follow in Mr. Wells’ steps? Ender’s Game might. Not on the list, but a book that might have a chance is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It was recently made into a full-cast audio book and it holds up very well and doesn’t feel dated.  But I think it only has an extremely rare chance.  Dune might succeed since it has already had two film incarnations, which is a good indication. Fahrenheit 451 might have a chance since it is a timeless allegory about reading, but I don’t hold out much hope for The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s other classic that is so loved outside of the SF world. Flowers for Algernon has potential. Overall though, I don’t have much hope for any book on the Classic of Science Fiction list lasting another century and remaining popular.  I think Wells and Verne will fall out of favor – if they already haven’t. 

As many observers have noted, modern children prefer movies, video games and movies over books, so there’s always a chance that books won’t be popular in the future. However, I think hard-core science fiction readers will continue to seek and find the books on The Classics of Science Fiction list. The average science fiction reader will be content with the latest fad in science fiction and fantasy books. I think the desire to read science fiction is mostly based on the urge to find new and novel excitements – so the classic books that come from the 1940s and 1950s pulp magazines will feel old and quaint to them. Eventually, even the New Wave times of the 1960s and 1970s will seem old wave. Books from the 1920s and 1930s seemed quaint to me in the 1960s. I have a feeling that the most sophisticated science fiction written today will feel like a dime novel does to us when read by our grandchildren.

I guess my conclusion is science fiction goes out of date too fast to become classic. I wish I could live to be two hundred and find out the answer though.  I think there are other reasons why these books won’t become classics but those ideas will have to be explored in a future blog entry.  The main reason I think this is I’ve read many many great books in the last twenty years that I consider better than the books on the Classics of Science Fiction List.