inessential by Brent Simmons

September 2001


Happy Birthday to Mom!

It may be another birthday for her, but when you meet her you're more likely to think she's my older sister than my Mom.

I got OS X 10.1 yesterday morning -- I had ordered the full package from MacMall a couple days ago since they promised to FedEx it for Saturday delivery. It worked!

First impressions are very good. I was afraid that Frontier and Radio would be broken, but so far that hasn't been the case. Other people using Frontier with 10.1 are reporting similar good news.

I was looking for a serious speed boost with 10.1, and I got it.

Our numeral system is Arabic.

The Hindus invented (my hero) zero, then called sunya.


I don't like the word "meme."

The English language has so many more specific words -- idea, ideal, belief, creed, law, ethic, moral, rule, code, philosophy, conceit -- why not use them?

Specificity is a virtue in writing and speaking.

Yes, the word "meme" does remind one of the viral, Darwinian nature of ideas. Like wildflowers and gypsy moths, they spread, they die out.

But everyone knows that. That's an insanely boring thing to have to be reminded of every time.

What's worse, it's just a metaphor. The world of human thought and behavior doesn't really work that way.

Think of how we always have metaphors for how the Universe works. It's a clock, it's a billiard table; God does or does not roll dice. None of those are true, they're just metaphors.

I don't have any hope that my complaint will catch on, but I have to try.

Cats must think of us the way we think of elephants: huge and gentle, but imperfectly aware of where our feet are.

As much as I dislike the word "meme," I triply hate the word "memetics." Ugh.

The automatic reaction of every liberal intellectual -- and I'm one of those -- is to say, with some self-righteousness, that a situation is more complex than other people think it is.

I do this all the time; I know all about it.

But, to be scientific, we have to allow for the possibility that a situation is exactly as complex as other people say it is.

Or, which happens sometimes, allow that a situation may be less complex than other people say it is.

I'm not making a statement about the situations of today. I don't know enough.

But we have to allow for the possibility of simplicity.

With all due respect to my co-worker John Robb, I have an intuition that the singularity will mark the death of poetry and beauty.

Machine intelligence, intelligence without a human aesthetic sense, is... is I don't know what, beyond ugly, horrifying beyond sense. I resist it.

I'm in a contrary mood.

The post-modern era ended the other day.

When something bad happens, ideologues always blame the people they always blame.

Falwell blames gays; liberals blame the CIA and our foreign policy leaders.

I don't see a difference between the two. It's the same thing. Both are irrational, gut reactions.

I'm sick of dogma. Let's try to see reality.

John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involed in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Another thing I don't like about the word "meme" is the look of it -- me-me -- and the sound of it. It sounds so infantile, a word made up by children in diapers.


Tomorrow is the premiere of the new Star Trek show. I can hardly wait.

OS X 10.1 has been released. That's the other thing I'm waiting for.

You know what, the database in AppleWorks 6 is actually pretty nice. It's a slimmed-down FileMaker Pro.

If you don't need a relational database or scripts, if you need something simple but with the ability to create attractive and useful layouts, then hey, it works.

It's OS X native.

Recently I've been dreaming that I have magic powers. I can move things with my mind, make them hot or catch fire, or even make them blow up.

I can change history, I can look at a bad situation and figure out where in the past to make a small change, and then go back there and change it, and prevent the bad thing.

Sometimes in my dreams I make a mistake. For instance, in one dream, dogs, not humans, were the dominant intelligent life on the planet. History was otherwise the same -- up until about 1943. This all was because of a change I made.

In the dog world the Nazis won World War II. And so there were military police dogs, walking upright, all dressed up in black and red leather uniforms, patrolling my neighborhood with guns and sticks, since they occupied the U.S.

So in my dream I had to fix my mistake, which I did. No problem once I saw what I'd done.

I wish in real life I had magic powers like that.


Of the great powers of history, America is the least imperial with the best ideals -- and a will to live up to those ideals.

One of the many great things about America is we're constantly looking at our ideals and asking ourselves where we're falling short. We always fall short. But we try. We improve, we get better -- we make mistakes, but we do so much good at the same time.

This is the nation of Jefferson and Hamilton, Lincoln and FDR. The Declaration of Independence is our moral framework, the Constitution our plan.

Even during wartime we can't stop thinking about where we fall short. And note that we haven't -- many people, the President included, have made a big point of saying that Arabs and Muslims in America are not the enemy. Hate crimes are not tolerated.

I used to live in France, and I remember the entrenched racism against Algerians which extended from the man in the street to the highest levels of government. (One official declared a 0% immigration policy while I was living there. Police in Paris shot and killed unarmed Algerians. The average Pierre I talked to would complain that Algerians are not Catholic and would dilute the French way of life. Etc.)

I wonder if any European nations in the same situation as we're in would do as much for Arabs and Muslims living there. I suspect not.

Some differences...

1. America is not an ethnicity: we're from everywhere. We're not American in the same way French people are French.

Our national identity is more a meta-identity. It says you can be who and what you want, worship how you want, say what you want, wear what you want, be the person you are -- as long as you respect everyone else's right to do the same.

2. As stated above, our tradition is to constantly examine where and how we fall short of our ideals, those truths that we hold to be self-evident, and then work to improve.

3. As Gertrude Stein pointed out almost 100 years ago, America is the oldest nation in the world, in the sense that we have the longest-running system of government. (Actually, I think we're second-oldest, but whatever.)

Our system is built on wisdom that's been too rare in the world, and has stood the test of time.

Our system is the direct descendant of the French Enlightenment. For that I say: thank you! Merci!

E pluribus unum.

This ain't no disco, no CBGB -- I ain't got time for that now.


Back to the vet again this morning with Papa. It's a rabies thing, the vet's gonna make it so he doesn't get rabies. Good.

Though, being an indoor cat, I'm not sure where's he'd get it from.


Well, better safe than sorry -- because I'd sure hate to go mad with rabies, bite my cat, and pass it on.


If you've watched the Dow or read the news, you know the American economy isn't doing so well right now.

Part of the problem is people aren't spending money so much, aren't buying things or going out to eat or going to the movies.

If you can afford it, you can help by spending some money. And maybe you deserve a little fun?

If you go out to eat, then your waiter or waitress gets a tip they wouldn't have otherwise, and then maybe that helps them. Know what I mean?

So here's a list of ways to spend money. Hopefully most of them are fun.

Go out to eat
Go to the movies
Buy extra RAM (it's so cheap right now)
Get a pizza delivered (and tip the delivery person extra)
Buy a book, with photos, about your favorite animal
Subscribe to the Sunday New York Times
Buy a DVD player
Adopt a cat or a dog
Buy a new set of dishes
Buy produce and jewelry at your local farmer's market
Set up an etrade account and buy stocks while they're cheap
Buy a (faux) sharkskin belt
Buy a new guitar
Take a mini-road-trip this weekend
Get your tires rotated
Pay for all those shareware apps you're using
Buy a new mouse (Mac users -- get a two-button mouse)
Buy a six-pack of blank VCR tapes
Buy a six-pack of expensive root beer
Upgrade to OS X 10.1 (once it's out)
Buy fancy colored soaps
Buy a new clock for your kitchen
Buy some paint and re-paint the bathroom
Hire someone to clean your house or mow your lawn
Get a new coffee maker or espresso maker
Donate money to further development of your favorite open source app
Buy an American flag
Buy candles and candle-holders
Prepare for next summer: buy citronella candles
Buy a digital camera
Buy a crock pot and make pot roast
Get some new indoor plants from the nursery
Buy all the makings for pizza and make your own pizza
Take a course in a foreign language
Go to the local gym
Get new sandals
Buy a basket of apples
Buy a color pda
Get a pair of driving gloves
Register OmniWeb
Buy a copy of the Koran
Get some fancy expensive tea
Donate to the Red Cross, again
Buy some comic books
Go get a latte, today
Give extra money to your church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship
Get a massage
Get a pedicure
Get your hardwood floors refinished
Buy a hat
Go to a yoga class
Buy a new reclining easy chair
Go on ebay and buy an old Atari game system
Join the Book-of-the-Month club

This morning I heard from an old and dear friend of mine who saw my name at What a great way to start the day.

Thank you Internet.

I'm walking around like the hunchback of Notre Dame since my kitten discovered it's nice to sleep on the back of my neck. The things we do for love!

There are people, Americans, on the Web and elsewhere, who stop just barely short of saying that we deserve what happened to us.

This makes me so heartsick.

I'm not talking just about Jerry Falwell -- some are liberals, some are conservatives, some are in the middle.

What happened to these people's hearts and minds that they'd be like this?

I'm not sure I want to know. To understand something like that is to understand a darkness that I don't want to get to know too well.


My color pda, a Visor Prism, arrived today. What a revelation.

Now to get an outliner running on it...


My sister Melissa is available again, since her recent temporary job finished. Here's her résumé.

Hire her: you won't be disappointed. I know these are tough times, but people of her caliber aren't available very often.

Frontier and Radio users: an important note about the new wormDefense responder appears on Frontier News today.

I now understand why Undo was invented.

Oops, my kitten's wandering paws just wiped out Manila's News Items feature.


He thinks he wants coffee.

I've often thought that the first real artifical intelligence will be a worm that has mutated in the wild.

It will be a network intelligence. Removing it from one or a thousand or a million computers won't kill it. Each computer is like a single neuron.

It will be incredibly malicious and completely uninterested in humanity. It will hunger for survival and growth.

If we're lucky, we'll come to a symbiotic arrangement with it. It will demand that it comes pre-loaded with Windows on every new computer. Perhaps in return it will destroy new worms and virii for us.

Its hunger for growth may be so intense that it forces us to set up colonies in space, on the Moon, on Mars, so it can extend its intelligence off the planet.

Perhaps eventually it will force us to set up colonies outside of our Solar System, around other stars.

But we'll always have to remember that it doesn't care about us. If one day it finds it doesn't need us, we're history.

I'm old enough to have owned and used several typewriters in my life. I remember when calculators cost hundreds of dollars. I owned a slide rule (though I never got the hang of it). I have lots of vinyl records. I remember 8-track tapes. I remember before VCRs, I remember begging my parents to buy a VCR so we could tape TV shows. I remember when all telephones looked the same. I remember watching Muhammad Ali fight. I remember watching the Watergate hearings on TV; I remember watching Nixon resign. I remember when classic rock was just the latest new releases from Clapton, McCartney, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. I remember odd and even days for gasoline in the '70s. I remember how the gas pumps had to be upgraded because they only had two digits for the price, but the price went over a dollar. Where's the beef? I remember in 1980 that my Mom went to an End of the World party when Reagan was elected. I remember Shawn Cassidy and the Dukes of Hazzard and Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I remember the Bionic Man, I wanted to be him.

Since nobody else has done it yet, I might start a site that parodies this site. It would be so fun.


Remember the home page caching feature for Manila that came out yesterday?

If you have a Manila site, please turn it on. It will make your site faster and will make the server it's running on run more smoothly.

It's not just good for your site, it's a way of being a good Web citizen.

The pref can be turned on via your Editorial prefs page.

More about cats and kittens on the discussion group. People love their cats. If you have one, it's easy to know why.

If you have a cat, please join in, either here or on your website -- I'd love to hear your stories.

My cat's a poet. He doesn't write, of course. But he does poetry-like things.

A good poem often has something unexpected in it but that, in retrospect, seems just right.

We were lying in bed this morning, our faces a couple inches apart. I reached out my hand to pat his head.

He reached out a paw and put it on my eye, on my eyelid. He held it there.

I finally moved his paw. Then he put it back.

In case you missed it last night, Sheila put up pictures of Papa.

He's a gray-tabby/Maine-coon mix, about 3 months old.

I spent a while this morning dealing with the latest goddamn virus.

Our mail server doesn't have a Nuke Enclosures setting. I wish it did.

It does have a setting for maximum incoming message size, which I set to 50K. That won't stop all virii, of course, but it will stop the giant attachments that get sent around. The denial-of-service issue is the big issue with us, since we don't open enclosures.

Email enclosures have to go the way of the dodo. Though they seem convenient, in reality they cost too much in productivity.

We need a new convenient way of sharing files. It should be easy enough for executives to use, but not too easy -- it needs to have some deliberateness and security.

Let me be clear: it's over for enclosures.

No more. Finished. Au 'voir, auf wiedersehen, good-bye enclosures.

Even my laptop, my iBook, is getting hits from the new IIS virus.

Goddamn it.


Meet our kitten. He's named for Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Martinez.


I'm going to do my part for the economy today -- I'm going to buy some toys.

(Er, I mean, I'm investing in my personal productivity.)

Gonna buy a 21" monitor for my Mac, a color printer, and a color pda (Visor Prism).

Of course, I'm also working today. Me, I'm in Manila-land, adding features and fixing bugs.

I held my stocks.

For me, the "new normal" includes a new ritual.

In the morning the flag goes up. In the evening the flag goes down (since it wouldn't be illuminated properly).

My kitten is a good friend to Ethernet cables -- if friendship is measured in bites per minute.

Was it right to use violence and the threat of violence to protect the Muslims in Bosnia?

Was it right to arm and train Afghanis in their defense against Soviet aggression?


We're taking our kitten to the vet today for his post-adoption checkup.

It's funny how these little errands in life all seem invested with extra meaning. Every good thing you do, every bit of order you add to the world, is a small but profound response to recent events.

And it feels good to concentrate on something else.


On the way to the vet we drove by a mosque. The people were all out front standing and sitting in chairs and waving to traffic. They had signs like "Islam = Peace."

Lots of people driving by honked and waved. We did too.

How to tell you're a geek... When you type Islam == Peace at first, then remember that it was just a single = sign.

And still the single = seems wrong to you.

Which reminds me of one day a few years ago hanging out with UserLand employees Bob Bierman and Doug Baron. We were talking about how easily, or not easily, we tan in the sun.

Doug mentioned that he sometimes uses SPF 16 and sometimes SPF 32.

Which of course don't exist -- those are powers of two. We laughed.

I keep trying to think of jokes. Not about the events, but just jokes, because humor is good, right?

But it's hard.

In my brain I start out like this...

"Two men walk into a bar."

Okay, then what? Two men, so what?

"Two men walk into a bar, sit at the counter, and order beers."

"Then they start crying."

Okay, that's not working. Let's start over.

"Three men -- a WASP, a Jew, and an Arab -- are stranded on a desert island."


"They start crying."


Note the small changes to this site -- the date format above each day and the archive link are different from other Manila sites.

This is a result of two changes recently made. One is that you can choose a date format from a pop-up menu. The other, just released today, is that you can specify your own image or text to be used as the archive link. Taken together, these two small features do add some nice design flexibility to one's home page.

Hint: I was able to make the date text lower-case by using CSS, the text-transform attribute. Do a View Source on this page if you want to see how I did it.


Flag flying from my garage.

Don't tread on me.

My kitten's been a great comfort. I haven't really told him too much about what's happened. In part because English is at best his second language, but also because I know what my kitten -- so sweet and nice, so loving, so soft and simple and pure -- would say about the terrorists: chase them, kill them, and eat them.

One envies predators their clarity.

People aren't predators. Or, we are, but we're so many other things too.

What to do is way too confusing. I've read and heard lots of opinions, and I have opinions too about what to do, but they're nothing new or interesting, so I'll spare you for now.

One thing I hope we remember is that there are countries nearer to home that need help. We have the opportunity to help lift poorer countries up -- we're so strong and wealthy, we can do this. I'm thinking especially of Mexico and Cuba. These nations, so rich in people and heritage and culture, are on a terrible slope. If we can help them without dominating them, we have to do it.

I'm a peaceful person, a liberal democrat, anti-death-penalty, a dove.

I think about Gandhi and his lessons.

And one thing haunts me. Gandhi was fighting opression with civil disobedience, with peaceful means. But his enemy was the 20th century British. They could be shamed into being their better selves.

I don't honestly believe that there's a universal human lesson.

Not to diminish Gandhi, who is surely one of the greatest men of all history, but he was lucky.

Chamberlain: Peace in our time.

One of my favorite books is Kafka's The Trial.

In it, K. is charged with a crime. Everyone's convinced he's guilty -- even K.

He's never told the details of the crime. So, naturally, he searches and searches for what it is, for there must be something or he wouldn't have been accused.

Basic psychology.

This can happen to groups and nations too.

It makes me think of an American scene like this:

A young boy comes home from school with a bloody nose. His shirt is torn and his pants dirty. Some kids punched him and pushed him on the ground.

His mom, in the kitchen peeling potatoes for dinner, takes one look at him and says, "What did you do to make them so mad at you?"

The boy says, "Nothing." But he doesn't believe it -- he spends days and weeks searching himself for the answer.

Then the kids beat him up again. This time the boy is almost glad, because he deserves it. He knows he's guilty of something, he's just not sure what. But the what doesn't really matter, he'll find it, it's there somewhere.

(No, this didn't happen to me.)

I think terrorists are not only aware of what might be called K.'s Syndrome -- they count on it. It's one of their goals.


Idea: donate your tax refund to the Red Cross.

Discussion group posts from Emmanuel DŽcarie and John Lewis.

I'm sitting on the recliner in my living room, working on my iBook today. (Thanks to my Airport.)

My kitten keeps jumping afdfsdaf pdsof on my keyboard, since the only movement in the room is the typing of my fingers.

CNN is on TV, of course. I'm addicted to news of recovered survivors. The people doing the hard work of digging in that rubble are all deserving of medals.

Last night I heard an airplane overhead and I nearly stood and applauded.

It's possible that my step-brother is or was at the Pentagon helping to dig out. He lives just outside D.C., and was until a little while ago a firefighter and rescue worker. He even did rescue diving -- looking for survivors under water. Hats off to him.

In a gnarly coincidence, my step-brother's name is Brent.

He has a two-year-old son named Brent.

During my recent vacation back East all three Brents got together for the first time. We expected a giant flaming pentagram to arise from the Earth to swallow us all up. (But it didn't happen, I'm pretty sure. Somewhat sure.)

Three Brents? It's just so unnatural, a heinous crime against good taste.

I'm seven years older than my step-brother. I was always known as Big Brent.

But my step-brother grew up to be 6'5" and 270 lbs. (Something like that. He's gigantic, a leviathan on two legs.)

So now I'm Brent the Elder.

Or Uncle Brent.

Call me Uncle Brent.

Details make stories come alive.

I heard one guy talking about walking down 80 stories in tower two. He remembered seeing piles of shoes at every floor, as people got rid of their shoes to make it easier to walk. One imagines that many of these were high-heeled shoes.

Another detail -- I heard that the passengers on the flight that crashed into the Pennsylvania cornfield voted on whether or not to try to overpower the hijackers. They voted! Americans to the last.

Voting, it's like an instinct with us, even when the most horrible thing is going on, we stop to vote.

You can't kill democracy, you can only kill people.

Everyone, or almost everyone, is beautiful in their own way.

I like to think that had this happened in Rome, Italians would not have taken their shoes off, but still would have made it out okay. After all, it's important to look good, no matter what, right?

Is the moment we go from republic to empire?

That's the question that scares me.

Or, it's the question that should scare me, but right now I'm too angry.

Do we seek peace, or do we seek Pax Americana?

My kitten lives in what Sheila calls his "safe happy kitty world."

He knows nothing. He just wants to play with his green yarn and curl up in the sun.

Sometimes in his sleep his legs twitch. He's dreaming of chasing mice. Maybe Sheila and I are there in his dreams too, chasing mice with him? I hope so.


On Sunday Sheila and I got a new kitten.

He's sleeping on my lap as I type at my computer. Sometimes he wakes up and looks at me with his sleepy, trusting eyes. My heart moves around in my chest.

Today I wonder if the people who did this thing have ever had that, a kitten who trusts them with everything. If so, how could they still be monsters?

Well, sure, probably they did have a kitten. I always knew that. I'm not naive. They have children too, some of them, I'm sure. Still they're monsters.

I wish I could be naive. You couldn't be naive last week, and you sure can't be naive this week, and next week will be the same.

What fierce power makes human hearts such foul lumps?


I managed to whittle down the signup form for this site to the bare minimum -- just email address, name, password, and repeat password. It makes it easier for people to join.

The key to this was getting rid of the Hint Question and Hint Answer in the virgin signup form. (This was a Manila change we made yesterday.)

So here's what I did on this site to get that bare signup form:

1. Did a Restore Default on my Custom Prefs on the Advanced page.

2. Edited my Custom Prefs so that they are:

<wizard><panel title="Preferences"><description/></panel></wizard>

3. Clicked the Submit button.

Normally I try to pretend that Microsoft doesn't exist, less out of any sense of justice but more because they're boring and I don't like their software.

But with yesterday's news I couldn't help it. So I rented AntiTrust last night. It was a fun fairy tale, an enjoyable bit of Open Source propaganda.

Go Milo!

Now I'll go back to pretending Microsoft doesn't exist.


Sheila did a cool shore panorama collage. I'm the short-haired guy in sunglasses and white t-shirt.

I caught five kingfish one day fishing from the pier in the photo. Yummy.

so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white


-William Carlos Williams
"The Red Wheelbarrow"

Still my favorite poem.


Back to work...

After a week on the beach, I'm convinced that man is the aquatic primate.

It felt good -- right down to my DNA -- to float in the water, ride the waves, rub salt water out of my eyes, squish my toes in the sand.

As I was floating on my back as the waves rolled in, lifting me gently up and down, I thought -- aah, something else is holding up all these pounds for a change. This is nice.

Sheila has a picture of the beach.


I return from vacation tomorrow. It's been great!

To everyone who follows my love of Philly-area food: I had four or five Italian subs, a couple cheesesteaks, lots of TastyKakes, Herr's potato chips and cheese curls, Drake's cakes, Jersey tomato sandwiches, fresh kingfish (some of which I caught), and lots of sticky buns. It was an eating vacation.