Thursday, February 26, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer dies

One of my favorite old science fiction writers, Philip Jose Farmer, has died. I fell in love with his writing when I was a teenager and for awhile I collected everything by him that I could. I have given up most of those books by now, but I remained fond of him. Some of my favorites: the first two "Riverworld" books, the "World of Tiers" series, his novella "Riders of the Purple Wage," the collection "The Book of Philip Jose Farmer."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Gary Farber, your Internet cause of the day

Gary Farber, the well-known blogger (and also a longtime member of SF fandom) has been booted off Facebook. Details here. If you are not a spammer or a troublemaker -- and Gary is not -- this is kind of cruel, as Facebook is a useful tool for keeping up with friends. If you are on Facebook, please consider joining the group, "Why Has Gary Farber's Account Been Disabled? Please Explain and Reverse!"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Gmail adds offline feature

(My latest Internet column for my old newspaper, The Lawton Constitution).

I've long been a fan of Webmail services such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail.
I change Internet providers all the time, but I've been able to keep the same e-mail addresses for years. Someone who writes to me using an e-mail address that's five years old will likely get me.
There's one disadvantage to using Webmail. You can't use it when you are disconnected from the Internet. You can use an e-mail program such as Outlook Express with Gmail and other Webmail services, but you can't use the service itself.
Until now. Gmail has just launched a new service, allowing its users to work with their Gmail even when disconnected from the Internet. It seems very promising, although it still has a few bugs.
The offline version of Gmail works by loading a Google software program called Google Gears, which is an add-on for the browser you use to look at Internet sites.
Google Gears can be used with both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It allows users to save information for Google applications so that they can still use them when you aren't connected to the Internet.
Google Gears was deployed first for Google Reader, Google's online tool for reading blogs. It then made Google Docs available offline. (Google Docs at is an online office suite that allows users to create or read text documents, spread sheets or slide shows from any computer connected to the Internet.)
Using Google Gears for Gmail only started a few days ago.
To try offline Gmail, click on "Settings" when you are logged into your account, then click "Labs," where Gmail keeps new, experimental features. Click "enable" for Offline, then click "Offline" while you are in your Inbox.
Google will walk you through what you need to do. It will put a Gmail icon on your desktop, which you'll click to log in to your e-mail when you are not connected to the Internet.
You can read your messages offline, compose new messages and do anything else you would normally do while connected to the Internet. Then, when you connect again, what you did offline will be synchronized with your online Google account.
It took Google awhile to figure out how to use Google Gears with Gmail, despite the obvious demand for offline e-mail, and there are still a few bugs with the service. When I tried it the first time, the offline feature someone got switched off, and I had to enable it for my account again. I've also encountered delays trying to synchronize my account, even when I appear to have a good Internet connection.
I generally have the Internet connected all the time at work and at home, but the offline service would be useful when I know I can't be connected for awhile — when I'm on a plane, for example. It would also be a way to "get by" for people who are on the road or can't afford an Internet service. You could work on your mail offline, then synchronize when you go to the library or a coffee shop.
It does work, but if you want a service that works flawlessly, it might be a good idea to wait a few months for Google to get the bugs squeezed out.
File storage. Speaking of Gmail, here's a simple idea for file storage. E-mail documents you want to store online to your Gmail account, and you have an archive that's searchable. You also have an online storage site that's unlikely to disappear soon. (XDrive, a free online storage stie that was run by AOL, shut down last month.)
I got the idea from an author named Susan Wise Bauer who is writing a history of the world in several volumes. She mentioned in her blog that she backed up the first volume by e-mailing copies of the chapters to her Gmail account.
Watching the lawmakers. The Oklahoma Legislature has just begun its new session. You can track the bills you are interested in by going to (Or go to and follow the bill tracking link.)


Friday, February 13, 2009

New version of AntiX Linus released

One of the best reasons for using Linux is that it can make an old computer useful again. The light versions of Linux use the latest version of the operating system and have the applications you need, but use window managers that run faster on an old computer than the latest version of Windows or Ubuntu.

My wife has given me an old IBM Thinkpad 600X for my birthday (256 MB of memory, 12 GB hard drive) and I've already installed my favorite light Linux distro, AntiX Linux (the light version of Mepis Linux). A new version was just released today. As with past versions of AntiX, it appears to have many more applications right 'out of the box' than other light distros, and installing it was fast and easy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tourism in Madagascar not for wimps

My brother-in-law, Kevin Kerns of Kent, Ohio, has a degree in biology. He is in the middle of a several week trip to Madagascar, a large island off the coast of Africa, looking at the animals and plants. Kevin tells me that the flora and fauna is very interesting, more akin to what's found in Asia than in Africa.

Since he's arrived, two people have been struggling for control of the country, and at least 25 people were shot dead outside of the presidential palace over the weekend. Here's Kevin's e-mail, sent to us Monday:

Wow! Just unbelievable! I've been in El Salvador and Guatemala during their civil wars and in Nicaragua just after the Contra counter-revolutionary war. Those were some screwed up countries. But Mada beats them all hands down!

The Malagasy people are known for their politeness and orderly lines. They don't raise their voices or show visible anger. But through their history they have been known to erupt and lash out.

Just as I was flying out to the most remote part of Mada, the mayor of Antananarivo decided to make a coup attempt against the president who had dismissed parliament. The people erupted with looting, burning and killing in the two largest cities: Antananarivo and Toamasina.

Fortunately I was in a part of Mada that was unaffected except for bank closures and canceled domestic air flights. I'm fine but I've seen the roughest travel that I've ever seen in my entire life.

If any of you have four wheeler ATVs and can't find places to ride them, I've got good news for you. Mada has hundreds, thousands of miles of the wild roads (no these aren't roads). Bring plenty of spare parts though: Tires, axles, wheel hubs, gas cans, tools because you'll need them. While you're at it you'll need to hire porters to carry (I'm not kidding) your ATV or moto across some really rough stretches.

Land transport here is by a vehicle called a taxi-brousse. It's usually a midsize Toyota pickup with extra heavy suspension, modified double 4-wheel drive transmissions. The beds are then welded shut and then a steel frame is welded around it to make a heavy duty conestoga type cargo vehicle. They load these things with thousands of pounds of freight: Mostly agricultural goods and crops. After the freight is loaded in go the people: Three in front, four or five on a bench seat behind the driver, and as many as fourteen in the cargo area.

Now come the roads! The Route Nationale Nu. 5 would be hard for a horse. Nothing can get through this but taxi-brousse - and only if it's dry. It often isn't. At best you achieve top speeds of ten mph. More often it's walking speed. As a matter of fact you frequently have to get out and walk because of the danger of flipping, getting stuck, or careening onto the rear wheels. Often one of the two front wheels leave the ground for distances of two to four meters.

The ruts can be eight feet (not exaggerating) deep. You drive over boulders, around washed out bridges, and through holes that would swallow in one bite a regular car. The road south of Mananara, where I flew, takes twenty or thirty hours to trasverse a distance of about 100 miles. Inside the Taxi-brousse passengers hang onto whatever they can for this entire journey or they ride standing on the rear bumper. That sounds fun untile after about thirty minutes your arms are so fatigued you can't hold on. It is physically punishing!

Once I rode this thing back from the south on a return to Mananara. I expected to get in and see some very grumpy and exhausted people. To my utter amazement these Malagasy were singing and joking like they'd only been in it for twenty minutes, not twenty hours.

South of Mananara I visited a park called Mananara Nord which protects one of the very last lowland rainforests left in Mada. Its a UNESCO World Heritage site. I didn't see many animals but the half day of hiking through the rainforest was stunning. The water thqt runs from streams here you can drink without treating - just delicious.

The political situation mens that internal flights are delayed or cancelled so I had to take (you guessed it) a taxi-brousse to Maroantsetra which is a town on the inside of that thumblike peninsula on the Mada northeast coast. Our ride, two taxi-brousse, and thirty some passengers had to wait eight and a half hours to leave. We had to time the tides!

The route is fairly flat north of Mananara but there is lots of loose sand and several rivers. On every river crossing we had to all get out and walk. There were a couple ferries but most big crossings were done on rafts. That's right, they would put the vehicles on rafts and use poles to push the raft across the rivers. Mostly, the rafts were big enough. On some crossings low tide left a brief time window where the taxis could just race through the river but loose sand on the banks made pulling each other out a necessity. These were the good crossings.

The remaining bridges were made of local timber and many were collapsed. After dark the taxis would illuminate bridges with only a few single planks left so we could balance our way across in the dark. Then the taxi-brousse operators would take pieces of what was left of these collapsed bridges and rebuild by hand in the dark the first portion of the bridge.

They'd then drive the vehicles onto the bridge. You could hear the wood breaking and snapping and occasionally the headlights would move as a wheel dropped through. Then they'd disassemble the bridge from behind the taxi, carry it in front, and create new(?) bridge to continue. They did this three times. It was simply amazing - and sheer lunacy!

I made it to Maroantsetra to see the last extensive jungle left in Mada, Parc Nationale Masoula. The problem with banks owing to the political unrest meant however that I was beginning to run low on cash. This is a big area. It's very remote and rugged. To do things here means cash - lots of it because you need to hire boat transport everywhere. You also have to hire compulsory guides in all Mada parks.

Three or four days of taxi-brousse was a non-starter. Air travel was suspended until further notice. This must be Africa! The only option was to walk 63 miles north to the town of Antalaha. At least I would see a small portion of the Masoula wilderness this way. But missing doing major portions of it is the single largest disappointment of my trip here. The Masoula really had caught my imagination.

I hired the obligatory guide and we set off. First was an hour long trip by dugout canoe through swamp areas and then by foot for the next sixty miles.
The Masoula wilderness was always within sight but we only skirted small parts of it. Nevertheless I was grateful to be there even if from afar.

The first day was short and we stayed in villages of palm thatch and woven bamboo. The next two days we covered 25 miles each day. Major portions were spent climbing boulders and crossing rivers. It was really tough going. I'm a pretty tough hiker. Ask anyone who's been out in the woods with me. But this was about pain. My feet were always wet and after such abuse they were in shreds by the time we finished. I was one of the fastest trekkers my guide (his name is Ramiandry) had ever been with.

I'm back in civilization, such as it his here in Mada, with recovering feet and relative comfort in a place called Sambava on the northern northeast coast. I look forward to writing again.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Munger on the stimulus bill

Here's a wonderful interview with Duke professor Michael Munger on what's wrong with the stimulus bill. (Via his Kids Prefer Cheese, one of my favorite blogs. The other guy who blogs there is pretty great, too.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Cramps' lead singer dies

Lux Interior, lead singer of new wave rockabilly band The Cramps, died Wednesday at age 62 in Glendale, Calif., from a heart condition.

I saw the Cramps perform in Norman, Oklahoma, shortly after I was out of college (it would have been 1978, 79, 80, something like that.) I thought they were one of the best concerts I'd ever attended. The line consisted of Interior on lead vocals, two beautiful women who played rockabilly electric guitar (one of them his wife, Poison Ivy), and a drummer. The few records I ran across by the band left me a little underwhelmed, but it sure was a great show.

My friend Brett Cox loved the records, too, and he has a nice appreciation here, with useful video links.

Lux Interior was from Stow, a city near Cleveland where my sister and her family used to live. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's John Petkovic has a nice article about Interior here, with interesting information about the band and its Cleveland roots.
Doctorow's outstanding 'Little Brother'

I've been reading novels that have been nominated for the Prometheus Award, the literary award for science fiction handed out by the Libertarian Futurist Society. I'm on the committee that's charged with sifting through the nominees (13 so far, I think) and coming up with a list of five or so for a finalist ballot that the general membership will vote on.

I've just finished Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother," one of the nominees. It's a really fine book, one of the best books I've read in months, and I recommended it to anyone who wants to read a good novel, learn about Internet and computer technology as it relates to privacy, or is concerned about civil liberties and politics. It was written for the young adult market, but it's really a book for everyone. Everyone else on the committee seems to like it, too; at the very least, I think it's almost surely going to be a finalist.

The book also includes an afterword by Bruce Schneier, who also contributed an afterword to one of my other favorite books, "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson, which was a finalist for the Prometheus some years ago.

Doctorow at his Web site is his usual mix of rampant egomania and breathtaking generosity. He has a post urging everyone to nominate him for the Hugo Award for his latest batch of fiction. He also has free downloads for "Little Brother" and a new book of essays, "Content," which I'll tackle when I finish the various Prometheus Award nominees.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Internet column: Spiralfrog

(I've decided to start reprinting the Internet column I write for The Lawton Constitution here on my personal blog, as a courtesy to readers who have trouble finding past issues of the column. Here's the first one:)

Any site that offers tons of free music can't be all bad.
I am referring to, a site that despite offering plenty of music has generally earned bad reviews because of its use of DRM, or Digital Rights Management technology, which seeks to prevent pirating but also limits what honest users can do.
I am not a big fan of DRM, either, and I found it prevented me from doing everything I wanted to do with SpiralFrog. Nontheless, I am rooting for SpiralFrog to succeed. I hope it survives the current economic downturn and I urge you to give it a try. resembles services such as Napster-To-Go, Yahoo Music Unlimited or Rhapsody. All of the latter are subscription services. In return for paying a modest monthly fee, the user can "borrow" a huge number of music tracks, downloading and playing them on a computer or an MP3 player. As long as you are paying the monthly fee, the songs work. If you quit paying, you lose the music., however, is supported by advertising and is free. As long as you log in once every 60 days, its service continues.
Now, here's the bad news. SpiralFrog works only with Windows XP or Vista, so if you use Macintosh or Linux computers or an older form of Windows, it won't work. You have to have a recent version of Windows Media Player on your computer. And if you want to be able to put the tracks on a portable music player, you have to use one that uses Microsoft's "Plays for Sure" technology. SpiralFrog won't work with the iPod or the Zune.
I signed up for SpiralFrog and downloaded a couple of albums. I found they played fine on my computer. But when I tried to transfer them to one of my MP3 players, I only got error messages.
Admitted, my rather cheap players aren't on SpiralFrog's list of compatible devices. But the site says that's only a partial list, and I thought one of my players, compatible with Windows, should have worked.
I was all set to write a bad review of SpiralFrog. But you know what? That classic Tom Petty album I missed, "Let Me Up I've Had Enough," sounded fine on my computer.
And when I searched for other artists, I found SpiralFrog has a truly impressive music library. There's lots of Tom Petty, including many entire albums. There's plenty of Rolling Stones. There's a good deal of jazz and classical.
Whatever kind of music you like, you can find it here. The country section includes George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith and many others. There's no Beatles, but lots of Paul McCartney, including live albums in which he plays many Beatles songs. There are gaps -- no Brad Paisley albums, and the many Miles Davis albums seem to be limited to his 1950s period -- but what's available is more impressive than what's missing.
And I found that although the music only played on my computer, a little creativity would allow it to be heard in other parts of the house. I plugged an FM transmitter into the headphone jack of my computer -- one of those little devices designed to let your MP3 player broadcast on a car radio or anything else with an FM tuner -- and I found I could listen to SpiralFrog albums in my bedroom. if I used my best radio.
If you have the kind of computer (and the kind of portable device) that SpiralFrog allows, give the site a try.
More music. Here are a few of my favorite music sites, all of which work with a wide variety of computers. Imeem streams music only rather than allowing free downloads, and it does not seem to have many entire albums. But it has an awful lot of songs and you can put together playlists. It works fine on Macintosh as well as Windows computers.
Slacker is an awesome collection of Internet radio stations; if you don't like any it offers, you can build your own. It's meant to sell an apparently cool portable music device, but works fine as a free offering on your computer.
MediaMaster will stream any music you upload, to any computer. It's another free service and works well, although it says that someday it will charge a fee.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

'Hyperion' novels to be filmed

Variety is reporting that the two Dan Simmons "Hyperion" novels, "Hyperion" and "Hyperion Cantos," are being made into a movie to be directed by Scott Derrickson.

Initial reaction seems to be negative, but I think the "Hyperion" books and the "Endymion" sequels are a great SF epic, one of the best works of fiction ever produced in SF. Any attention a movie could draw to those books would seem to be a good thing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Hey, shouldn't the losers get the prizes?

The Shirley Jackson Award, an award that honors top horror and suspense stories, is raising money with an appropriate vehicle: A lottery!

This is a lottery you'll want to win, though, if you're a horror fan, because it means you get various nifty stuff, including books autographs by the likes of Neil Gaiman, the right to have a character named after you disemboweled by devils in an upcoming literary work, etc.

You can get all of the details you need by clicking here. Because remember, on the Internet, everyone is just a stone's throw away.