I was a little worried not everyone understood the analogy I was trying to make between gay marriage and interracial marriage. Thankfully Douglas Sadler has done a good job of clearing up any confusion I might have left.

"We don't believe they have the right to marry," Sadler said. "In fact, we don't think they have the right to exist."

Nothing clarifies a controversial political issue like unabashed hatred.

 

Jessica and (more so) her brother David have been writing a weblog called Rhetoric and Culture of Publics. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it's generally about political issues, and has a somewhat more interesting perspective than the standard "yeah us, boo them" slant.

For example, David recently wrote about the apparent end of the "intelligent design" "debate" with the US district court's recent rejection. He says I fear the fight is not yet over. Creationists are entrenched, they have a plan, and it will not be denied after this singular ruling. But I disagree. I think the fight was over a long time ago.

David mentions Pastafarians saying One strategy is to follow in line with Bobby Henderson and his Flying Spaghetti Monster and escalate the confrontation. But I think he misread the FSM. It didn't escalate the confrontation at all; it ended it.

In What You Can't Say, Paul Graham wrote:

No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad.

What the FSM does is make it clear that intelligent design is as ridiculous as 2+2=5, so we need not bother discussing it. Now that we recognize this, it's game over. If creationists want to continue their crusade, they will inevitably be touched by His Noodly Appendage and see the foolishness of it all. There is simply no way to win an argument with a devout Pastafarian in full pirate regalia.

 

In case you missed it, the President King broke the law by spying on Americans without legal oversight. Though some in Congress knew about it, they apparently forgot their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic when they decided not to tell America about it.

In other words, he has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. Or maybe it would be better to say he has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures. Or maybe the executive branch is just suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

This, after protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States and depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury and transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences. Also, he is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

Basically, it looks like he has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. Or maybe I'm thinking of a totally different George with plain, homely, thrifty manners and tastes.

 

Why are so many priests pedophiles? The official Roman Catholic Church explanation seems to be that the cause is homosexuals in the clergy. That explanation is awfully convenient as it rests on common prejudices and shifts the blame away from Rome's own policies. But more to the point, it does nothing to explain why priests are raping girls.

We might then turn to abstinence as the problem. After all, humans are wired to reproduce. However, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that [rape] offenses could be categorized as power rape (sexuality used primarily to express power) or anger rape (use of sexuality to express anger), [but] there were no rapes in which sex was the dominant issue; sexuality was always in the service of other, nonsexual needs. So apparently sex crimes have little to do with sex, and more to do with anger and power issues. So why are so many priests pedophiles?

I suspect the answer has a lot to do with the broken hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I haven't spent a lot of time in Catholic churches, but pretty much every one I know anything about is messed up, with people who want to do good being restricted by their position in an amoral or immoral bureaucracy. Case in point on Shelley's weblog. The inability to do good naturally makes people angry. The apparent discrepancy between God's will and the Catholic Church's will naturally creates power issues. And anger and power issues encourage sex crimes.

The attempt to mandate sexual orientation among abstinent priests is an ironic symptom of the problem here. It's not enough for Rome to control, to the point of elimination, the sex lives of priests; they also want to control the sex priests aren't even having. It's an unfortunate irony, a disease masquerading as a cure.

Ultimately, I think, priests are responsible for their own actions. But the Catholic Church is an apparent accomplice.

 

How appropriate.

 

The Guardian: the moral of King Kong is simpler still: "Don't pick a fight with nature." Letters to an Unknown Audience: The message of Narnia is clear: Don't ask questions. Trust the first person you meet and stick with it. Raise your ill-begotten sword for it. I haven't seen either, but I'm curious to what extent these morals are injected by the films' creators vs. viewers. I also think it would be an interesting thesis project to compile a list of morals as described by film critics over a few decades, correlate those morals to political party platforms with some sort of text similarity analysis, and then measure ticket sales against election results.

 

I find it interesting to paraphrase Iowans reactions to a lawsuit seeking equal rights:

The following are statements made about a lawsuit filed today in Iowa by NAACP Legal Defense Fund on behalf of interracial couples seeking the right to marry:

Camilla Taylor, staff attorney for NAACP Legal Defense Fund:

"This lawsuit is about fairness and equality. Interracial couples all over Iowa are devoted and love each. Since marriage is the way the government provides protection, support and respect for families, it is only fair that these couples be able to marry."

Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center:

"Defending Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act, and pushing for a marriage amendment has nothing to do with disliking black people. Studies across the spectrum, from liberal to conservative, prove that children do best in a home with two parents of the same race...We want what's best for Iowa's kids."

Senate Democratic leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs:

"I still believe that marriage should only be between a white man and a white woman."

"The current law is supported by most Iowans. In fact, an overwhelming majority of legislators ' both Republicans and Democrats ' have already voted for the state law that bans interracial marriages in Iowa. I am confident that the courts will uphold the current law."

Mark Daley, executive director of OneIowa, a nonprofit working to promote full equality of black Iowans:

"Denying loving, committed couples the basic rights, protections and responsibilities of marriage creates a second class in Iowa. Marriage is the only vehicle which offers interracial couples equal protection under the law. We applaud the leadership of NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the courage of these interracial couples."

Senate Republican leader Stewart Iverson, R-Dows, regarding a constitutional amendment that would ban interracial marriage:

"This gives the people the right to vote on this issue. And, it's a very very important issue and we think it is proper that the people of Iowa get to vote on it and I think most legislators will understand that and see it that way...I think it will have widespread support and bipartisan support."

Jason Morgan, 35, who wants to marry his partner of eight years, Charlotte Swaggerty, both of Sioux City:

"We feel that we deserve the right to be married. On an every day basis it is awkward and inadequate to describe Charlotte as just a friend or roommate, when she is more than that. Even partner doesn't really give the same weight as being able to say she's my spouse."

Pastor Jeff Bradley, Central Assembly of God in Des Moines, leads the pastor group for the Iowa Family Policy Center:

"I would never have dreamed that in the state of Iowa that we would have come to this place, where we needed to define the issue of marriage between two people of the same race."

"We firmly believe, as we believe that most Iowans do, that marriage between white people has always been the best way."

A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine. — Thomas Jefferson.

 

I received my first donation for Graphite last night, and that made me start thinking about it again, which I haven't done in a while. Turns out it is listed on Apple's Dashboard site, though under the "Networking Security" category for some reason. Oh well.

The reason I haven't been thinking about Graphite is that I hit a roadblock with my attempts to add zooming and scrolling to the graphs. Scrolling is all done, but it turns out that numbers and dates don't zoom well together. To keep the numbers somewhat readable in a small space, e.g. "90K" rather than 90,001, I can only zoom numbers by factors of ten. But for dates, the best zoom factor is two, and even that's not perfect: 1 month, 2 weeks, 1 week, 3 days, 36 hours, etc.

But last night I realized that rather than changing the values of the end points on the graph, I can just move the them until they match up with a more readable label. So if that graph goes up to 90,001, I can just move the top line down a pixel or two, and still label it accurately as 90K. Now that I've realized what probably should have been obvious a long time ago, I just need to implement it, which I will hopefully get done this weekend.

 

Though I said I wouldn't, I made a simple tool to mark trademarked words on a website, based on querying the USPTO, but it turns out to be not at all a useful measurement of corporate influence on a website for two reasons. First, it's incredibly slow. Don't bother running it on any site with more than a couple dozen words, because it will time out. The speed could be improved by saving the USPTO query results locally, but I'm not going to bother with that because of the second problem: nearly every word in the English language has been trademarked. Scary but true.

 

Dave Rogers has been writing about marketing within the frame of "Social Hygiene" here and here. At the end of the latter he wrote:

If we're going to have any hope of preserving some space for purely social interactions, where someone isn't manipulating us for the purpose of seeking a competitive advantage, we're probably going to have to make one. But I wonder if it isn't already too late?

One of the ways I reduce comment spam is to band certain words from being posted in comments. I was at first hesitant to do this, because someone might have a legitimate reason to mention propecia, for example. But then I realized that I don't want to hear other people's thoughts on propecia even if they aren't spam. So you can't comment on propecia here, depsite my ability to use the word three times in a single paragraph.

After reading Dave's post, I wondered if this technique couldn't be expanded to ban commerce from a social space. Here's how I would do it if I didn't already have far too many projects started:

Run all conversation through a filter. Submit each word in the text to the USPTO trademark search with a URL like this one for propecia. If any results are found, replace the word with [commercial product], and maybe give each user an anti-karma value like "pawn of the man" with a point for each time they use a trademarked word. So because I've used the word propecia five times now, my name would say: Scott Reynen [Pawn of the man level 5] or something like that. And then you could kick me out if my POTM level got too high over a given period of time.

I'm sure this plan could use improvement, but I think it's entire feasible to ban all trademarked terms from a social space, and I think it would be an interesting experiment, if nothing else.

 

I just sent the following to an email list that has recently been discussing various anti-spam technologies:

Spam is fundamentally a social problem, not a technological problem. No amount of clever technology can end spam as long as there are still significant numbers of people out there who indicate through their purchases that they want to receive spam. The BBC reports: According to a survey conducted by security firm Mirapoint and market research company the Radicati Group, nearly a third of e-mail users have clicked on links in spam messages.

Imagine it costs $100 to send a million spam messages (though it doesn't cost nearly that much), and each message is selling a product with a $20 markup. Only six of those million messages need to get through to a willing consumer to keep spam profitable. And those six people will never be using Bayesian filters or whatever other nifty tools we can come up with, because they don't even recognize a problem with spam. And those six people will also never self-identify, because they are embarrassed about their purchases.

So spammers can only reach them through mass emailing, and the rest of us suffer the consequences. I don't know of any current anti-spam technology that does anything to deal with those six people.

I'd like to see more economists and sociologists look at changing the factors that make spam the most desirable way to purchase certain products. Why do people buy propecia via spam rather than at their local pharmacy, and what could be done to change that? I think that's a more useful question to answer than how to quickly recognize "v14gr4" as a variant of "viagra."

 

I'm on an email list with a group of university friends, and one of my friends recently sent an email to the list asking for everyone's forgiveness techniques. I was the first to respond, probably both because I spend all day in front of my computer, and because of my short answer: I don't forgive; I forget. I don't forgive and forget; I just forget. I have awful long-term memory.

I'm sure many people have done many mean things to me over my life, but I honestly can't think of one right now. I can think of people who I don't trust, and I'm sure there are reasons I don't trust those people, but I generally have no idea what the reasons are. So forgiveness is not an issue that really comes up for me.

While I don't remember events such as, say, 1990, I gather most people do. And when someone did something hurtful in 1990, that hurt still lingers until it is forgiven. But what does that mean, to forgive?

Dictionary.com says to forgive is to excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon. I'd like to suggest that this isn't possible, that we are only fooling ourselves when we claim to excuse someone else's offense, that we can't help but hold each other accountable for our errors.

In She loves me She loves me not, Shelley wrote of her cat Zoë:

I woke her up, but she forgave me.

Or did she? Can a cat ‘forgive’? Some people say that animals aren’t capable of sophisticated emotions, such as love or sorrow or, in this case, forgiveness.

I thought about this, and I think I am one of those people. And not just cats — I don't believe people are capable of forgiveness either. I believe people can and do love, and feel compassion, even for people who have done them wrong. But I just don't think this love can excuse the wrong.

I sometimes imagine life as a pool table. We make choices about our direction and speed. If we're smart, we can anticipate the outcome of our decisions. In life, of course, this anticipation is made more difficult because the other balls have minds of their own. But to understand why I doubt forgiveness, I think the metaphor is useful.

The notion of forgiveness here is analogous to a pool ball being struck by another, rolling along, and then suddenly stopping as if it hadn't been struck at all. Pool balls just can't do that, and I submit that neither can people.

I know the idea that forgiveness does not exist seems pessimistic at first, but it need not be. In place of forgiveness, I offer a substitute: reconciliation. To reconcile, dictionary.com says, is to reestablish a close relationship between, to settle or resolve, to bring (oneself) to accept. The reconciling pool ball says "okay, you struck me and now I'm rolling towards the bank, but I'm going to slow myself down now and stop before I bounce off and hit you." This I think people can do.

We can acknowledge the hurtful decisions of the past, and move on from there, but I don't think we can in good faith excuse them. Excusing them implies the decisions were not really made, that they weren't really choices, that there was some other cause. Forgiveness implies that we can do wrong and not be wrong, but I believe we are what we do. Our decisions form ourselves, even when we'd prefer they didn't.

In the comments to my post on endocrinology, Kyle wrote: If you haven't seen it already, you may find this story interesting: Temple Gradin NPR interview.

I just listened to it, and it was interesting. Temple is an autistic animal scientist. In the interview, she talks about the similarities she sees between the autistic and the animal mind. Throughout, when she talked about animals, I couldn't help but consider how everything she said relates to people as well.

When she talked about how dogs need to know the social hierarchy to get along, for example, I wondered about how the lack of social hierarchy online might be a cause of the superfluousness of flame wars. Perhaps, like the dogs Temple discusses, people online are too often just testing each other until someone comes out on top.

But one part in the interview made me think about forgiveness specifically, and I want to try to transcribe it here, replacing "horse" with "[person]":

Let's talk about fear memories...Let's say a person abused a [person] wearing a black hat, and the [person] was looking right at the black hat. Now the [person] is afraid of black hats...they make an association...

She goes on to talk about how she helps the horse get over its fears by introducing them slowly and demonstrating that the associations are wrong. This is not forgiveness. This is reconciliation. And I don't see any reason to believe that people are any different in this respect.

Like horses, we get hurt. Like horses, we associate that hurt with something (or more often someone). Like horses, we don't recognize when that association is no longer valid. Like horses, we don't just drop the association, because we can't. Our brains don't work like that. Instead, like horses, we form new associations. We reconcile.

 

I promised myself I would never write about Lisp again after accidentally stumbling into a mob in search of a flame war. But Aaron Swartz's account of an irrational Lisp community sounded too familiar to ignore:

The idea that there is something better than Lisp is apparently inconceivable to some, judging from comments on the reddit blog. The Lispers instead quickly set about trying to find the real reason behind the switch.

One assumed it must have been divine intervention, since "there seems to be no other reason for switching to an inferior language." Another figured something else must be going on: "Could this be...a lie? To throw off competition? It's not as though Paul Graham hasn't hinted at this tactic in his essays..." Another chimed in: "I decided it was a prank." Another suggested the authors simply wanted more "cut corners, hacks, and faked artisanship."

So it's not just me. Turns out Reddit's post followed the same path as my own. It was posted on Lemonodor, without context, and with emphasis that spun it as a vehemently anti-Lisp post, and then it was picked up by Planet Lisp. I take back what I said about the problems with planet sites. It's not the aggregator, it's the writer that removes the context. John Wiseman is the author of Lemonodor. I want to paraphrase Jon Stewart and say to John Wiseman: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting Lisp.

By provoking unnecessarily emotional defenses of Lisp across the web, John is causing otherwise neutral people like myself to actively avoid the Lisp community, because it comes off as a bunch of irrational trolls. I know there are intelligent people using Lisp, but John's reposts distort people's actual views through half-truths and re-emphasis, and the result makes Lisp look like a language only ridiculous people use, people who say things like When you say that you've never spoken Chinese and have no interest in learning it, you are not being anti-Chinese, but you are being closeminded and parochial or My first reaction was 'say it ain't so'. Then I decided it was a prank.

This type of comment prompts reactions like I have never been on a lisp forum but the way the lispers here are reacting are sure to keep me off it too... True that.

 

So I took my newly acquired recording skills and applied them to a song I wrote way back in high school, Emily (lyrics, MP3). I'm pretty sure I recorded it previously, but I can't find any recording of it, so I made a new one, and added a new verse on the end that totally changes what the song is about. (Before Emily was the antagonist — now she's the protagonist.)

I'm sure there's more I could improve, but after spending over two hours on one song, I'm done with it for now. I could have played two dozen songs in that time and instead I just played the same one over and over and over. This recording stuff is hard work. I guess that's why pros pay other people to do it.

I don't think I significantly slowed the song down, but it ended up over seven minutes, so hopefully it's not awful, or it will be a whole lot of awful. I probably went overboard on the instrumentation: rhythm guitar, lead guitar, drum, harmonica, and voice. It's hard to listen to it after playing it so much, but I think it turned out okay. In any case, it's good practice, and maybe the next song won't take so long.

 

Seth Godin wrote on the removal of stock quotes from newspapers, because everyone who cares gets that information online. He titled the post "Classified are next" and asked when was the last time you looked something up in the classifieds of your newspaper? My answer: maybe a week ago. I spend all day online, and I don't buy a lot, but when I pick up a paper, I look at two sections.

First, I flip to the opinion page because it gives me a quick idea of 1) what issues local people care about, 2) what the mainstream (newspaper) positions are on the issues, and 3) what the alternative (write-in) positions are. This is all helpful for me because I don't understand people, but I fake it because people don't like people who don't understand people.

I suspect this has something to do with a vague suspicion that there isn't as much common to humanity as we like to imagine, hence mythology like the Matrix and Battlestar Galactica.

Okay, tangent time. A while back Shelley Powers wrote something about Battlestar Galactica, and in the comments I mentioned that I had no idea what was going on, and then Dave Rogers gave me an excellent summary of the show, and I wrote I’ve seen the show a few times before, but it never seemed as interesting as this was.

And I really thought Shelley and Dave were just making it sound more interesting than it really was because they were so into it. I've since watched the show from beginning to frustrating to-be-continued, and in the process realized that when Shelley and Dave were writing about Battlestar Galactica, the show I was thinking of was actually Babylon 5.

That's a clue to my general ignorance of TV in general, and SciFi specifically. But I really like Battlestar Galactica, and only wish that the plot itself didn't seem to preclude a long run.

Now then, back to the newspaper... the second (and generally last) thing I read is the classifieds, because local classifieds are often cheaper than eBay, because either the seller doesn't realize the actual market value, or shipping is prohibitively expensive, or they just want to get rid of something quickly and not worry about it.

For all of these reasons, free pianos will always show up in local publications. Because I want a free piano, I will always read the classifieds of the local paper. And because I and people like me are reading them, the classifieds will always be a good place to sell things. And because classifieds bring in revenue on both ends, they will last forever, or at least as long as local newspapers last.

Seth is wrong; classifieds are not next. Maybe TV listings are next. Or are they already gone? Then maybe movie listings. Hard to say, as I don't actually look at newspapers much. But something very timely, unpaid, and easily transferable to another medium will be next to leave the newspaper. Hmm... news is next? Maybe. A newspaper is one of the last places I'd look for news these days.

 

In other interesting neuroendocrinology news, Alzheimer's may be something like diabetes of the brain. It would be nice to combine research on the two, but so far it's just a largely unsubstantiated theory.

 

Hair's Breadth ( MP3, lyrics) is my first recording on my new used guitar.

It's a twelve string (with only six strings currently) Framus, which is a brand I'd never heard of before seeing this guitar. In the picture, you'll note some holes in the front of the body. That's where the pickup knobs are going to go once I have my soon-to-be professional luthier friend JJ put them in and do some other repairs to it.

I never had a pickup put into my six string Ibanez guitar because I dropped it in Taiwan, ironically while exiting the airport after a long trip spent worrying about my guitar getting damaged on the plane. So now it has an unrepairable dent in the back, and even though it plays fine it seems a waste of money to give it a pickup.

After I get a pickup in the new Framus, I'll just need a mic and I'll be ready to play out somewhere. And then I just need to find somewhere out to play. I recently discovered the Ritual Café in Des Moines, which is unfortunately lacking a website of any sort. It has vegetarian food, wifi, and according to Google, is host a lot of musicians I like. So that's my long-term music goal: get the guitar fixed up, get a mic, and get a gig at the Ritual Café.

Meanwhile, I have a bunch of songs to record. I just figured out how to use Tracktion to do real-time editing or whatever you call it where you twiddle the knobs and sliders while playing through the recording to have different volume or other settings in different parts of the song. So that should improve the quality of recordings a bit. Now I just need to learn how to keep time with a click track. I think I'll Ask MetaFilter about that.

 

The launch of Google Base inspired a bit of armchair quarterbacking about how Google might have done it differently. One suggestion, popular - of course - among the microformats community, was that Google could use microformats to remove the need for submission to their base and leverage the distributed nature of the web.

Personally, I suspect there's just not enough microformatted content out there yet to make it worth Google's cycles parsing it. Lucky for me, my own parsing cycles aren't so valuable. Microformat Base is my attempt at a microformat-based alternative to Google Base. It's slowly crawling the web looking for microformatted content, and adding it to a structured database, searchable by microformat class names. There are plenty of improvements to be made, but it's already functional in the most basic form. You can find several vcards for people named Tantek, for example.

If anyone's interested, it's open source and will eventually be open data in some form or another. I'm not looking to start a new public search engine — just demonstrate that someone with more time and experience than I and maybe an existing web crawler (*cough cough*) could do something like this. I suspect a decent search engine would inspire more microformatting, and may prove the best way to work around the chicken-egg adoption problem microformats currently face. Until someone else builds it better, I'll keep tweaking Microformat Base to that end.

 

Over two years ago I wrote "i don't believe there are currently any newsreaders that allow users to subscribe to an OPML file." Over a year ago, I repeated "i believe there are still no newsreaders that allow users to subscribe to an OPML file." I've mentioned this to NetNewsWire author Brent Simmons three times now. Still no subscribe-able OPML.

But now that Dave Winer mentioned the idea, it's being discussed more widely, and I expect it will be implemented by the third anniversary of when I first mentioned it. Sigh. Trickle-down idea economics. Oh well. Better late than never.

 

I have written before on both autism and synaesthesia, but I didn't realize until reading about autistic savant Daniel Tammet and doing some Wikipedia reading, that synaesthesia is a symptom of autism, which makes me wonder if autism isn't just an extreme form of the general case of people losing certain senses and gaining others. Only with autism, the gained sense is mental rather than sight, touch, taste, smell, or hearing.

Ray Charles is probably the most famous of many musicians who appear to have had an improved sense of sound and music due to a loss of sight. I found one mention of autistism on the anosmia Yahoo group, a study on "Co-Occurrence of Autism and Deafness", and page from the National Institute of Mental Health on "Autism Spectrum Disorders," which seems to suggest some correlation between autism and sense of sight. Autism is listed as one possible of cause of numbness, which is the best word I know of for a lost sense of touch, though I'm sure there's something more technical-sounding. I didn't find anything interesting mentioning both autism and ageusia, which is apparently the word for a lost sense of taste.

I don't know enough (or anything really) about human physiology to even know what I'm looking for. I just have a vague suspicion that there are more connections between autism and sense perceptions than I've heard about previously. Neuroendocrinology appears to be where these two fields of study meet. What I'd really like is someone to read the Journal of Neuroendocrinology, and translate where appropriate into something mere mortals can read.

I'd really like to learn more about how brains and bodies interact, and particularly around the fringes like autism and synaesthesia. But I don't have the time to parse a title, much less a whole article like Inhibition by Lipopolysaccharide of Naloxone-Induced Luteinising Hormone Secretion Is Accompanied by Increases in Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Immunoreactivity in Hypothalamic Paraventricular Neurones in Female Rats. Yes, that's a real article.

I guess what I'm looking for is "Neuroendocrinology for Dummies," but I don't expect that book will be published any time soon.

 

Earlier this month, Phil Rignalda wrote a post titled "Planetary Damage," the damage being that individuals like Danny Ayers don't feel the need to write about things that show up on sites like Planet RDF. I, like Phil, read Danny and Shelley Powers but not Planet RDF, so if Danny or Shelley don't write about something in the world of RDF, I don't read it. Planet sites run the risk of forming closed communities in which the only people reading about a technology are those already using it. And that's one form of planetary damage

I experienced another sort today when something I wrote (which I thought was about screencasts) made its way onto Planet Lisp. My comments on Lisp weren't altogether positive, and that brought the fanboys out to tell me how evil I am for hating Lisp. The thing is, I don't hate Lisp. I don't even care about Lisp. I know next to nothing about Lisp. I certainly don't belong on Planet Lisp. Planet PHP, maybe. Planet JavaScript would be a stretch. But Planet Lisp? That's just ridiculous. In this case, I wish the community were a bit more closed, with the only people writing about a technology being those who are already using it.

 

A friend of mine sent me a link to a 'wrongful life' court case filed by a disabled Australian woman. That alone is interesting enough, but here's my favorite part:

Studdert also cited rulings from foreign courts, including the United States, which addressed the esoteric difficulties of putting a dollar tag on "the value of non existence" as compared to the costs of living with a disability.

How much is non-existence worth? What a great question. Earlier I tried to explain my existentialist leanings. In the future I'll just point to this case. The woman apparently wants to live or she would have killed herself. Yet she's basically putting life itself on trial to demand that someone else take responsibility for her life's unpleasantness. It's an excellent formalism of bad faith. We all blame others for choices we won't bring ourselves to make. But few of us do it so honestly.

One of the random quotes on the front page is from Simone de Beauvoir:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

For this woman, however, life is an accident and, even though she knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation. It will be interesting to see if the Australian High Court agrees.

 

Jon Udell, who basically created the genre of screencasts, once wrote:

Now that it's almost trivial to make and publish short screencasts, can we expose our software-tool-using behavior to one another in ways that provoke imitation, lead to mastery, and spur innovation? It's such a crazy idea that it just might work.

Emphasis added because I just experienced the opposite effect. After watching a screencast demonstrating SLIME, or Superior Lisp Interaction Mode for Emacs, I have a much clearer idea of how much I want to use this technology: not at all.

Granted, I skimmed a lot of the fifty-five minute video on creating a morse code translator (and they say Lisp isn't useful). But when the narrator says, fifty minutes in, "this example is so simple that I can just look at it, and I know exactly what is going on," I think it comes very close to a perfect definition of irony. And then at the end, when he tries to quit and everything goes haywire, it's just pure comedy. I laughed, I cried (almost), but I did not develop any desire whatsoever to imitate what I was watching. Much the opposite.

UPDATE: Please read this post before commenting here. I didn't post myself on Planet Lisp, and I disclaim any implied understanding of or caring about Lisp that goes with showing up there.

 

I very rarely look at people. I've made efforts before to change this behavior, but they never last very long. Now I know why. Cognitive Daily (probably my favorite weblog of late) wrote about an experiment looking into what causes people to look away, which concluded: the reason for looking away is probably simply to reduce the overall cognitive demand and focus on the question.

"The question" in the experiment is one asked by a conversation partner, as it is for most people, who tend to look away mostly when considering an answer. I'm almost always looking away because I'm almost always thinking about something. I'm not saying I look away because I'm smarter than most people (though I am - and so are you most likely); I just think with more concentration, more constantly than most people (I think).

Sometimes this is a good thing, but it's not something I know how to control. I put as much thought into the answer to a rhetorical question as I do into a real problem, not because I don't realize it's rhetorical, but because I don't have an off switch for thinking. Sometimes less thinking would be better.

I think most of my music comes from answers to questions no one asked me. Which is good - I like my music. On the other hand, it makes it difficult for me to record music, especially with complicated recording tools. Bias Peak and Pro Tools are probably great recording software, but I can't play a song while looking at all those buttons. There's too much going on to keep my attention on recording. I want something simple, like Audicity, which doesn't tempt me to think when I should be playing. And even that has too much to think about. I'd like recording software that made the screen go black while recording.

And the same is true of looking at people. There's too much going on in a face to keep my attention on the question. I could look at a cartoon all day and think about something, but people are too interesting, and if I start looking at them, I'll start thinking about something, and then I have to stop looking at them or I'll lose my thoughts and never answer the questions.

I gather most people don't care so much about all these questions. And maybe they're right. Today at work I asked someone "if you hire a siamese twin, do you have to pay both of them?" (Yeah, I know, "conjoined twin," but that's not what I said.) That's not a question most people think to ask.

And that's just what made it past my filter. I spent a few minutes today thinking about how web browsers communicate a cancelled authentication attempt back to servers, and why Safari doesn't seem to do this, and whether anyone has submitted this as a bug report, or whether it is in a spec somewhere that this should happen. I didn't ask anyone else these questions because I know they are neither interesting nor amusing to most people. These aren't questions most people spend time thinking about. Instead, they spend time looking at people's faces.

Is looking at people more important than all these questions? That's a question I'll have to think about some more.

 

I've never watched much I Love Lucy. It was before my time. But I had a vague idea who Lucille Ball was. What I didn't know until just a few minutes ago, when PBS informed me, was that she divorced Desi Arnaz and bought his share of Desilu Productions, making her the first female head of a major Hollywood Studio. Under her leadership, the studio produced a lot of forgettable shows, but it was also home to the original Star Trek.

I Love Lucy ran 180 episodes. Star Trek spawned 6 different series of 726 episodes, ten movies, books, video games, an entire subculture, and it's not over yet. Star Trek has been wildly successful. A temporary page on Wikipedia, not yet included into the main article on Star Trek, gives a history of Star Trek in which Lucille Ball was pivotal to the series making it past a pilot:

NBC rejects the pilot as being too cerebral for 1965 television audiences. However, they like the concept enough to allow Roddenberry to film a second pilot. (This needs to be checked, but I believe "Inside Star Trek" indicates that the decision was the result of Lucille Ball playing hardball with the network regarding other Desilu productions and therefore championing Trek.)

If this is all true, it's especially odd that everyone knows Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy, but hardly anyone knows of her role in the much more successful Star Trek series.

 

What I like most about the web is how the anarchy of it all encourages niche groups that never would have formed otherwise. The most common example, I think, is the gay teen in Idaho who might have killed himself if not for some online gay teen community.

On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is Conservative Veggie: "for the veggie who's right." Discussion topics include "What Do You Think Of Alito's Investment in Slaughterhouses?" "Vitamin D 3," "Churches are Ignoring the Plight of Animals," and simply "Guns." I just love how the people have almost nothing in common beyond being vegetarian and voting Republican.

 

One of my pet peeves is declarations of what words mean, especially when such declarations dispute conventional wisdom. If most people think a word means something, that's what it means.

This morning Cory Doctorow was apparently in a bad mood, unleashing such scathing grade school recess-worthy rants as Westchester proposes stupid no-open-WiFi law -- stupid! As a general rule, if you find yourself using the word "stupid" twice in the same headline, you should probably wait until you've regained enough mindfulness to come up with a decent synonym before posting. (Dumb, moronic, idiotic, dense, ... there's no shortage.

But anyway, in the middle of this mood, Cory decided to play language police. In particular, Cory is pretty sure he knows what that word "WiFi" means:

The article's great, though inexplicably, the reporter feel sthe need to point out that WiFi is "short for wireless fidelity." Of course, this isn't true...

Fairly certain I'd seen WiFi defined as "wireless fidelity," I consulted Google, which offers ten defintions for "WiFi." Half of those offer the phrase "wireless fidelity" as the meaning of "WiFi." So I wrote in to point out that despite what Cory might want the word to mean, the reporter in question was actually offering a definition in common use, certainly not inexplicable. (I do not think that word means what he thinks it means.)

Apparently other people wrote similar comments, so Cory posted an update:

30,000 or so people have written in to quibble over whether WiFi stands for wireless fidelity.

And he went on to post another paragraph about why these people are wrong. But he's missing the point. It doesn't matter what you want a word to mean, or even what a word should mean. A word means whatever it can successfully communicate. If half the internet thinks "WiFi" means "wireless fidelity" then that's what it means. Cory can post updates for months, but the meaning of the word will still be found in its actual use. Because that's how communication works.

"Quibble" is a good word, because that's what Cory has done here. That's all anyone can do when they see a good word go bad. However much we might like to, we simply can't force the world to adopt our own definitions. I'm amazed that Cory, a professional writer, doesn't realize this.

 

I'm releasing my music under a Creative Commons license, which means you don't need to ask me to copy it, and you can even republish it, provided you're not selling it and you mention where it came from so others can copy it too. Last night I watched a short video by Nate Harrison on the "amen break". It's not really worth watching, but it's worth listening to. The amen break is a drum loop you've probably heard. For some reason, it's an incredibly popular beat to loop behind a wide variety of music. But it's form a song that wasn't especially popular.

I've been meaning to add license information to my music for a while, and haven't mostly because I can't license Los Vivos' or JJ's music, and the Creative Commons embedded license system is designed to do an entire work all in one shot. So I could either add it to the page, or add it to each individual track, which would take a while. But whatever. Anyone who's interested can figure it out form the CC logo and link above my music.

My previous interaction with Creative Commons has been all donation-purchases. I made a donation in exchange for an autographed copy of the Future of Ideas. And then I made another donation in exchange for a shirt that says "your failed business model is not my problem." A long time ago I bought a shirt that says "I'm the little sister," because I like to spread gender confusion in my free time, and many people would ask me what it means. It was a good conversation piece. I expected the "your failed business model is not my problem" shirt to serve the same purpose, but no one ever asks me what it means. It's a nice shirt anyway.

For my book and shirt, I think I've given about $40 to Creative Commons. So yesterday I received an envelope from Creative Commons. Inside were three pieces of paper asking me for more money. The envelope was stamped with 37 cent postage. So they spent about 40 cents to send a letter to me rather than emailing me for free. This would be silly enough for a standard non-profit, but Creative Commons exists entirely on the internet, is of interest mostly to tech-savvy people, and can probably reach as many, if not more, potential donors via email than mail.

But don't let the pointless tree killing keep you from sharing my music on BitTorrent, or whatever you kids are using these days.

 

I was looking at my server logs, trying to figure out what happened to overload my database this morning, and unfortunately (or fortunately?), I didn't see anything odd, so I've turned the database viewer back on for now.

What I did see, though, was a reversi game being played out in the logs. Because the reversi game sends the entire board in the query string, the entire game shows up in the log, which makes an interesting visualization (you'll need to scroll to see it all):

I intend to some day redo the reversi game with more of a split between client and server, to make it possible to play across sites. At the same time, I'll probably hide more of the moving parts behind the curtain, so games will no longer be visualized in my logs. But it's interesting to look at for now. Looks like X won the game.

 

I had some sort of trouble with the database earlier today, and I'm assuming some sort of bot got into the database viewer, ignoring the robots.txt instructions to stay out, which overloaded the database. Until I can figure out a way to throttle database access, I've taken down the database viewer.

 

I updated the source code tool, and it's pretty cool, if I do say so myself. Instead of submitting suggestions via a form that emails me, you can now submit them via comments. This means you can read what anyone else suggests, you can ask questions about the code, and you're not relying solely on my good word that I will, in fact, give attribution for contributions I use as everyone else could see if I were to pass off your ideas as my own (which, of course, I would never do).

Because it's not in a form anymore, the source is now using syntax highlighting, which is easier to read. You can also now directly download the source of any page as a text file, which makes it much easier to reuse something you find here. In addition to making the tool easier for others, this will hopefully save me some time as I will no longer need to package up files and email them to people.

Now here's the coolest part: Whenever a source file references another source file, the source tool automatically creates a link to the source of the referenced file. This will make it much easier to reuse tools that use multiple files. But wait, there's more! It will also recognize SQL references to database tables, and link directly to the table in the database browser I recently made (and to which I still need to add more tables). So now pretty much everything on this site except passwords is open for anyone to see, download, reuse and comment upon.

 

Last night Shelley Powers published a lengthy RDF tutorial, in which she wrote I’m focusing on what I call street RDF–RDF that can be used out of the box to meet a need ... I've read about RDF before, and I read about it again, but the needs RDF meets are still not clear to me. Today Danny Ayers wrote But the statements can be made available by techniques like mapping SQL database tables to RDF ... Fair enough. I've started making my database available via XHTML, and will add more tables soon. Now if anyone wants to convince me of the value of RDF, I invite you to explain to me how to represent my database as RDF, and show me how this helps me or anyone else.

 

In a comment to my post on microlending, Jessica asked what I thought about an organization that does what might be called microgiving, giving people animals that grow to be more valuable than they were when given. I'm all for charity in general, but there are several reasons why this would probably work better if the animals were replaced with loans. Loans are better than giving, despite the cliche about not borrowing and lending.

Local knowledge is better than a plan to save the world. Animals aren't the best use of money in all places at all times for all people. The theory behind microlending, largely proven in practice, is that people know what their local community needs, and they just need some capital to provide it. Maybe their local community needs animals. But maybe it doesn't. I remember a story - I don't know the source or if it's true - about a charity that gave cars to poor people, who then sold the cars and bought bus tickets. This ties into the next issue:

Shared responsibility is better than individual responsibility. If I give you a dollar, you are only responsible to yourself in how you spend that dollar. You may want to spend that dollar in the most beneficial way possible, but you may not know what that is, and even if you know, you might not be listening to yourself. You could easily be tempted to spend it on a short-term gain at the expense of a long-term investment. If I loan you a dollar, we have a shared responsibility for how that dollar is spent. We are both responsible to ourselves, but also to each other. Shared responsibility is multiplied, not just added. And when an organization stays around for a while, this responsibility gets multiplied even further over time. Which ties into the next issue:

Individuals are less likely to reinvest than organizations. Reinvestment is good. If I give you money, your wealth has grown. But you won't likely give money to someone else. If I loan you money, your wealth grows, and then you give the money back to me, and I can give it to someone else. And over time, I can give money to more and more people. Reinvestment build infrastructure which improves community. And now that I think about it, this is a problem with Kiva, the direct-microlending organization I wrote about earlier, because the individuals doing lending through Kiva are less likely to loan again than Kiva would be if it were handling the loans.

Another issue is the relationship created by giving vs. lending. We give down, to people who have less than us. We lend to peers and make them our partners in investment. This is a bit counter-intuitive, but I think it's true. Personally, I don't like to borrow money from people, but I like even less to take money from people. And then, of course, there's the cynical view that poor people are just lazy, which microlending preempts and microgiving doesn't.

So in general I think microlending is better than microgiving. That said, if you want to donate directly to people, go ahead. It couldn't hurt. I think microlending is a smarter way to redistribute wealth. But the world, in my opinion, is not currently lacking in smarts so much as compassion. I should also point out briefly that most of the principles I've described here don't hold true on a larger scale. I favor macro-giving over macro-lending, but I'll go into that some other time.

 

I recently added some advertising for a few charities to this site. One of the charities is the Grameen Foundation, a microlending institution. I have a BA in International Studies, and much of what I did to earn that degree was learning about various save-the-world plans and their pros and cons. After four years, I pretty much knew why the world would never be saved, because pretty much every save-the-world plan has some major problems. Except the Grameen Bank.

The Grameen Bank gives small amounts of money to people in developing regions, which they then invest in what they need to sustain themselves, and pay back the money. Just like any loan, not everyone pays back the money, but it's not a lot of money, so no big deal. And those who do pay back the money gain both capital and experience helping themselves, which is ultimately much more valuable. It's generally an excellent program, and you can contribute to it via the Grameen Foundation.

Today Seth Godin pointed to Kiva, which does the same kind of micro-lending as the Grameen Bank, only without the bank. Rather than give your money to the Grammen Foundation, you give it directly to the people who need it. I have mixed feelings about this.

At first glance, it appears this direct connection primarily benefits donors, who get to know exactly where the money is going. I also imagine this system requires more overhead than Grameen. But it's also more transparent, which is something all non-profits should strive for. And even if it does primarily benefit donors, that should bring in more donors and ultimately benefit recipients. I think I'll give Kiva a little more time to establish a history before giving it my coveted banner ad endorsement, but it's nice to see new activity in microlending.

 

At first I didn't like the results Google recently started inserting for searches I maybe should have made instead of what I actually searched for. I'm pretty smart, you see, and I don't need to be bothered by Google treating me like a fool, assuming I don't know what I'm looking for.

And that was basically my thinking up until I searched for something unfamiliar and wasn't entirely clear what I was looking for, and Google gave me some results for what I would have been searching for if I knew what I was doing. At that point I found the functionality very useful.

 

My profile identifies me as existentialist, and I've discovered over the years that this means many different things to many different people. Yesterday I was thinking about criticisms I've read of the Red Cross and about how such criticisms might give some cause to not donate blood. Personally, I don't donate blood because I was told not to. But I was thinking about people who have no reason not to give other than perceived problems with the Red Cross, and about how such people are very unlikely to give anywhere other than the Red Cross, and about how I make similarly cynical choices of inaction.

As I was thinking about this, I think I came up with a pretty good summary of what I mean when I call myself existentialist: All choices in life should be made between (at least) two courses of action. One should never choose between action and inaction because inaction is just too tempting, and almost always the wrong choice.

There are exceptions, I'm sure, and some rare people may have enough discipline to consider them. But just like we don't offer children the option of cotton candy for dinner, I think we shouldn't offer ourselves the option of doing nothing. We exist, so we should do something.

Indeed we can't help it, as even doing nothing is an action, and that choice makes up who we are like any other. But now I'm straying away from my simple summary. What I mean to say is, we are what we do and if we don't do anything, we aren't. No, that's not quite right ... it's really hard to talk about existentialism without sounding like Strong Sad. Well, I tried anyway, and I guess that's the point.

 

I gather most people involved in microformats are coming from a background heavy in more formally structured data, e.g. RDF, XML, relational databases. I'm coming more from the opposite background: scraping. Recently Phil Jones described a web in which metadata resides in scraping/parsing applications meaning documents need not be so descriptive, and Danny Ayers predictably responded with an argument for the Semantic Web, in which metadata resides in documents meaning applications need not be so smart.

In Danny's comments, I tried to point out the applications Phil predicts can produce the documents Danny predicts. I already do a small amount of this with all my scrapers. On Disemployed, I add location and time information to each job posting and publish that information in a regular format (HTML, RSS 1, RSS 2, or Atom). I could admittedly be structuring this information more formally to better encourage reuse, but the data is there, in any case, where it wasn't before. But this is relatively simple data to add. I know when I found each job post and where it came from, so my application doesn't need to be very smart. What are the limits of a smart application? Could a very crafty application actually make microformats unnecessary?

Let's take one microformat, hCard, and see how guessable the microformat metadata would be if it weren't there, on a scale of zero to ten:

  • fn (full name): this could at best be a guess. A name could feasibly contain pretty much any combination of letters. I'm sure someone somewhere has named a child "Asdf Jkl." Microformats are the easiest way to identify fn. 0/10.
  • n (name): same here. 0/10.
  • nickname: again, no easy way out. 0/10.
  • photo: here we have a winner, mostly. I'm guessing eight times out of ten, any image referenced within something identified as hCard information will be a photo. Depending on how lucky we feel, microformats could be dispensed with here. 7/10.
  • bday (birthday): this is a bit complicated. Dates follow very standard formats, and we could probably identify dates in a jumble of text with about 95% accuracy. But how do we know if a given date is a birthday? We can assume relatively safely based on proximity to words like "birthday." 9/10.
  • adr (address): I would have guessed this would be very hard to identify as a pattern, but Google is already doing this. Of course, Google is limiting to US addresses. 5/10.
  • label: at first, this appears to be as open-ended as names, but the variety in practice is likely very limited. I would expect a list of a few dozen words likely to occur in a label (e.g. home, domestic, etc.) would catch maybe 7/10.
  • tel (telephone): this is a bit complicated. Having an address makes it much easier to tell if a given set of numbers is likely a phone number. Capturing anything that fits the patterns (###) ###-#### or ###-###-#### would get many phone numbers, and I suspect more is possible. 6/10.
  • email: This one is easy. An email address must fit a defined pattern, so we can discover all email addresses with no microformat, as evidenced by the proliferation of junk email. 10/10.
  • mailer: At any given time, there are only so many known email clients. 8/10.
  • tz (time zone): There are only so many timezones, and not too many ways to describe them. 9/10.
  • geo: Latitude and Longitude information is pretty much useless if it doesn't follow a certain pattern (decimal numbers between -180 and 180), but that doesn't mean all numbers that follow this pattern are geo codes. 6/10.
  • title: Theoretically unlimited, but practically limited. 7/10.
  • role: Words ending in "er" would catch a lot. Check for proximity to words like "job," "work," or "professional." 5/10.
  • logo: Just like photo, only probably smaller. 7/10.
  • agent: I had to look this one up. Auto-discovery doesn't look good. 0/10.
  • org: Just like names, only worse. 0/10.
  • categories: Could be anything. 0/10.
  • note: Again, anything. 0/10.
  • rev: Dates near words like "updated" or "modified." 7/10.
  • sort-string: Usually last word in the name. 6/10.
  • sound: Sounds have defined formats. 10/10.
  • uid: Pass. 0/10.
  • url: First standard link. 7/10.
  • class: Pass. 0/10.
  • key: Keys follow patterns. 10/10.

Average: 5.3/10. In general there are some areas in which microformats are entirely unneccesary, some in which they are entirely necessary, and some in between. Of course, these are mostly rough estimates on the potential accuracy of intelligent scraping. The actual accuracy would need to be determined by writing a scraper and pitting it against some actual data.

In any case, microformats appear well worth the expense to capture that 47% (or however much) of the existing information. Even though email addresses are entirely identifiable without any microformat, as long as we're wrapping names in name tags, it makes sense to wrap the email addresses at the same time so a parser doesn't need to be any smarter.

While not the absolute simplest method, microformats appear to be the lowest common denominator of structured documents. So now I think I was wrong when I wrote that we're headed towards a "semantic web" in which the semantics are forced onto websites by browsers and other intermediaries. I still expect that will happen (as I notice it happening, and cause it to happen), but given the practical limits of the smart-application method of connecting the world of information, it will only work as a bridge to a semantic web composed of metadata-rich documents.

 

In other microformat news, over the weekend I made a draft version of a "Microformats Zen Garden." The idea, introduced on the microformats-discuss email list, is an obvious knockoff of the CSS Zen Garden, only the (X)HTML is full of microformatted information, and JavaScript is added to the mix. I spent a few hours working on this, and when I was done, I realized the concept was not just an application, but almost a platform - a small hint at the mythical web-as-operating-system. Microformats act as the documents, CSS handles the visual style, and JavaScript acts as the applications. The only important thing missing is the ability to save edited documents, but Mark Pilgrim is already working on using Atom for that. I'll be very interested to see how this all materializes.

 

I recently worked on a website for the Iowa Military Veterans Band for my day job. It's a static site, which is not my primary interest. Making static websites is more interesting to me than most other tasks, but I'd much rather be working on something dynamic and functional. So I made the site functional in ways no one will ever use.

If you take any page with contact or calendar information from the IMVB site and feed it into X2V, you'll get the relevant information as vCard or iCal, which you can then import into most address book and calendar applications. Which admittedly seems pretty useless at first given the unlikelihood that anyone would want to import such information into a desktop application.

I did this mostly to test out the usefulness of microformats. I had been reading about microformats for a few weeks, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to try it out. I probably spent about 20 minutes extra time adding and testing the microformats, which is relatively little given the enormous time savings for the first person who wants to import all ninety-some IMVB members into her address book.

And this is only what can be done with microformats today. I imagine a future in which X2V is unnecessary because microformat readers are built into browsers. Where Safari and Firefox today recognize syndication feeds and allow users to import that information into a suitable application with a single click, future browsers could do the same with various microformats.

Unfortunately, this future will likely be slow coming, as microformats suffer from the same chicken-egg problem that made syndication adoption so slow: nobody wants a reader application with no content, and nobody cares to produce content with no readers. But because microformats are starting mostly with existing formats like vCard and iCal (and soon Atom), perhaps the future won't be so slow to arrive. In any case, I've done my part to spread microformats and create a more semantic web, and I see no reason not to continue doing so in the future.

 

Graphite 0.5 is released. I added support for decimals, and removed the "beta." I'm going to submit it as widely as I can now. I've been putting this off in an attempt to catch bugs before most people ever use it, but I'm not getting much feedback anymore, so I need some more users. First stop: Apple's site.

 

So far I really like the Colbert Report, so I spent five minutes altering my Daily Show RSS feed and produced a Colbert Report RSS feed.

Some day Comedy Central will have useful RSS feeds. They already have a feed for the Daily Show on their RSS page, but it points to pages with completely unnecessary popup windows, which is just bad form.

 

I keep update notification on in NetNewsWire. Often it's more annoying than helpful. Tom Coates' links, for example, are updated every day, for formatting not content, but I see them all as new when they are updated. But every once in a while I see something valuable in the updates. Most often on BoingBoing, because they don't have comments, so they post selected comments sent via email as addendums to the the original posts. And often the comments are more interesting than the original post.

But today I got another kind of treat via update notification:

Screenshot

Someone at the DNC obviously said "change that to point out that Delay is the Republican Leader and get the word 'criminal' in there too." This is why I don't like the Democratic Party much more than the Republican. I don't have much sympathy for Tom DeLay, but I think the Democrats can let him dig his own grave and concentrate on something else. Maybe health care? Education? Equal rights? Peace? I really hope Democratic candidates in 2006 and 2008 have a platform beyond "Republicans are bad." I'm getting awfully tired of voting for the lesser of two evils.

 

Over the past few months I've made and eaten dinner while watching TV several times. It's a hectic experience. Tonight I am making and eating dinner while watching a TV show on DVD, and something occurred to me that maybe was obvious to everyone else. Time shifting technology brings with it speed shifting, which is so much more valuable.

The best feature of a Tivo (which I don't own, though almost everyone else I know does) is not the much-discussed ability to skip commercials, but the simple pause button which allows you to stop the show and do other things without worrying about getting back to the TV in time to continue the show. I don't even need to eat dinner in front of the TV now, though I will because eating alone at the table is less activity than I can handle. But having a TV show with time shifting at least makes it easier to slow down, which I think will be increasingly valuable as life becomes more hurried. I, at least, find it much easier to tune out commercials than to tune out the voice in my head saying "hurry up or you'll miss the show."

I think Tivo should release a commercial touting the pause button of the Tivo and using Simon and Garfunkel's "Feeling Groovy" as a soundtrack.

 

A few weeks ago, my company announced a new corporate discount for Sprint. I have a Sprint account, so I called up to get a free discount, nor realizing how much time it would cost me. The actual discount line only took a few minutes, and I thought I was all good. Just before hanging up, the Sprint representative said something about how I would get two bills - one under my old rate, and one with my discount applied.

In retrospect, I should have just said "no, never mind, I don't want the discount" right then. This was a clear notice that the discount program was new, and the billing system wasn't made to handle discounts. I might have guessed that nothing at Sprint was made to handle the discounts, especially given my previous experience trying to get an overcharge refunded by Sprint. But I was young and foolish then.

Several months ago I signed up for online billing through Sprint. I get notified by email whenever I have a new bill, and I go to the website and pay the bill. No need to pay postage or kill trees. So last week I got my email telling me I had a new bill, only when I went to the website, there was no bill. The website informed me that the service was "temporarily unavailable." After a few days of seeing the same "temporary" problem, I contacted customer service. I still have (I assume) a good three weeks before my bill is due, but I can already see the late fee I will no doubt receive for not paying the bill Sprint has made it impossible for me to pay.

Customer service responded that I don't have online bills because I switched accounts. They even gave me my old and new account numbers, which were two numbers I had never seen before, always referring to my account by the phone number. I wrote back that I was not informed I would lose online billing when I applied the corporate discount, and if they can't bring it back, I'm canceling my account altogether.

I got this account when Jessica and I both lived in Bloomington, but now I have a local Des Moines phone, so I'm only holding on to the Sprint account until Jessica moves here in December anyway. I figured Jessica could just get new phone a few months early if Sprint gave me reason to follow through on my threat to cancel service.

It turns out, I was told, I could pay online. A "specialist" would be calling me within 24 hours. Apparently the specialist doesn't specialize in calling people on time, as that was about 36 hours ago and no one has called me.

So I'm documenting this here for two reasons. First, so I have a record of what went wrong, as I have a suspicion it will go even more wrong in the future. And second, to warn others about Sprint's craptacular service. I'll be sure to post an update when I get that late notice for the bill Sprint won't allow me to pay.

 

Michael Barrish writes:

Today I made a friend cry by saying she's lying to herself if she thinks she's going to find the relationship she wants while continuing to sleep with her ex-boyfriend, who to his credit isn't promising anything more than he can deliver: great sex, false hope, and the occasional fix-it job.

I'm pretty ignorant about how people work, generally preferring to deal with more predictable computers, but I've learned a few lessons over the years. One is: never date an ex. Another is: never give someone advice on who to date. May those lessons serve you well.

 

Google has begun returning results for things you didn't type, but maybe should have. For example, if you search for "opera," you get a block of results for "oprah." It looks like it will benefit people who don't know what they're looking for, and probably annoy people who do. I don't like it yet.

I was testing this out with random words when I typed in 'search' and saw that Google returned itself as the top result. And then I thought it would be interesting to try a search for 'search' on various search engines. It turns out Google is the only search engine that returns itself as the top result for 'search.'

Search EngineTop Result
GoogleGoogle
AltavistaSearch.com
YahooSearch.com
Search.comMSN Search
MSN SearchGoogle
AOL SearchGoogle
LycosSearch.com
Ask JeevesLycos
DogpileAltavista
ExciteGoogle

Google is also the most popular search engine among search engines, just slightly ahead of Search.com.

 

From Wired, What Would Jesus Blog:

Topics included God bloggers' relationship with the traditional church, their growing influence on mainstream politics and how to manage outsiders' perceptions.

Just when I thought the gap between Jesus and Christians couldn't get any bigger.

 

My cousin David is working on a genealogy of the Reynen family. I'm hoping to convince him to move it off of Tripod onto my hosting, and eventually replace the static HTML with something database driven with auto-generated family trees and whatnot. He already has a lot of information and it's an interesting read for me.

 

Ha

 

I don't know a lot of Americans into Asian self-improvement practices such as Buddhist meditation or Yoga, but from the few I do know I have developed a theory. My theory is that self-improvement practices from distant lands more often than not act as a particularly effective placebo.

I used to be very interested in Buddhism. I got some books on the subject, even took a course in university, and some of it I found useful, but never life-altering. But one after another, I've listened to friends and acquaintances with major personal problems extoll the virtues of this or that Asian self-improvement technique after a week or a month of practice. The thing is, they're still just as messed up. They just don't realize it anymore because they've convinced themselves that Shiatsu, or transcendental meditation, or whatever has cured what ails them.

So I've developed this theory. Basically, I think some people with big problems start looking for some answer they never thought of before, because nothing they've done previously seems to be working. And they find some teaching from the other side of the world, and it tells them to do everything different, and they do, and their lives seem different. So they go out and tell everyone else about this great new thing.

Which is great, until everyone else realizes that the person hasn't changed at all. They're just as angry, only now they have mantras to recite about anger. They're just as unhealthy, only now they can lecture everyone else about healthy living. Maybe it's just me and the people I know, but the net result of all the eastern evangelism I've heard has been to make me want to stay as far away from a Tai Chi class as possible.

When someone starts telling me how great Asian cure-all X is, I have a game I like to play now. I replace X with "Ronco Food Dehydrator."

"I've been practicing Ronco Food Dehydrator for about a month now, and it's really helped me. I think you should consider trying it. There's a center in California that gives away free Ronco Food Dehydrator lessons. It will really change your life. I know you probably have a lot of bias from American culture about how weird Ronco Food Dehydrator is, but it's really easy to use."

And maybe Ronco Food Dehydrator really does amazing things to improve peoples' lives. But when I hear someone selling it so hard, I start to think they're not trying to convince me - they're trying to convince themselves that something has really changed, trying to make the placebo last. That's my theory, anyway. I wonder if it would translate into actual placebos. I wonder if giving people "herbal medicine" sugar pills would cure them more than traditional sugar pills.

 

Last month I tried to write about the potential problems with making decisions to hedge against the future. Joel Spolsky did this a lot better today in Set Your Priorities:

In fact when I thought about this later, I realized that for a long time, I had been doing dumb shit (that's a technical term) simply because I figured that eventually it would have to get done, so I might as well do it now.

That's exactly what I've been doing, only not so much with software as with life. I'm not saying I've been making a lot of bad decisions, but I think maybe making good decisions for bad reasons.

 

I discovered Dinosaur Comics today via Piehead News and I like it enough that I'd like to read it daily, so I scraped a feed.

 

0.4 beta fixed a bug in 0.3 beta that made nothing work (oops!).

I'm excited about the comments I've been getting over on the Dashboard Widget showcase. Even though that version is completely broken, the few people who went to the trouble to fix it themselves seem to really like Graphite.

 

I just posted Graphite 0.3. It makes the process of creating a graph about as simple as possible:

  • Open a site in Safari
  • Open a Graphite widget's info by clicking the 'i'
  • Click 'Discover URL' to get the URL of the frontmost site in Safari
  • Click 'Discover Text' to get a list of numbers on that site
  • Click the number you want to graph to get the approriate search text for that number
  • Click 'Done'

This is simple enough that I'm ready to start submitting Graphite to various widget sites. I think I'll hold off on Apple's widget list until I get some feedback and polish it up a bit.

 

You can now leave comments with limited HTML. Specifically, you can include the following tags: b, i, em, strong, q, blockquote, p, pre, and a. If you use a (the tag for links), your comment will not show up until I approve it. This is to keep the comments spam-free.

You can also now browse and subscribe to the weblog based on tags. If you're only interested in what I have to say about music, for example, you can subscribe to the music tag. Each post has a list of tags, and clicking on any of them will take you to the appropriate tag page.

 

Flickr changed format and broke my previous bookmarklet. At first I thought maybe they actually moved protected images to a protected server, but they just changed some variable names. So here's the updated bookmarklet that makes it (too) easy to get the full size version of protected images:

Get Flickr Original

 

I think Most of Mine (MP3, lyrics) is one of my best songs, if I do say so myself. Which makes it all the more embarrassing to admit that it was largely inspired by an episode of Will and Grace. It's the one where Harry Connick Jr's character and Grace are getting back together after he has cheated on her. That said, I hope the song has a bit more depth to it than a typical episode of Will and Grace.

 

Here's something I don't understand. Catholic teaching is that homosexuality is intrinsically wrong and objectively disordered. And now they're instituting a ban on gay clergy, even those who have vowed celibacy, which would seem to indicate a belief that homosexuality is a fixed condition. So some people are just born evil? Am I misunderstanding this, or is the Catholic church position really that God makes people gay and then condemns them for it?

Every time I read what some nut says about divine smiting, I remember what a modest mouse once said: God who'd wanna be such an asshole?

 

Yesterday I found myself drawn into a discussion I may have been wiser to avoid over on gapingvoid. I work as a web developer at an advertising agency, so I have a particular interest in how technology changes the advertising game, and until this discussion, I was watching what Hugh McLeod is doing from a distance and finding it interesting. But then he pointed to someone criticizing the whole thing, and the criticisms made some sense.

But I wouldn't likely have spent much time thinking about it if Hugh hadn't launched into the now cliché diatribe about how large organization X is just attacking the little guy because it knows technology is empowering the little guy and larger organization X is doomed. In this case, large organization X seemed obviously irrelevant to the conversation.

So I pointed this out, as did others, but Hugh didn't make any movement away from the ridiculousness, saying I'm being paid to piss Big Money off. I think this is just a few steps away from saying "if you don't like my business plan, the terrorists have already won." It's just dragging out a boogeyman to drum up support. So I lost some respect for Hugh there.

Tom Coates was involved in this conversation too, and writes:

I'm totally fed up of people standing up and waving a flag for the death of institutions based on sketchy information and a vague belief in the rightness of their cause - and I'm also slightly sick of more moderate voices being drowned out under the revolutionary fervour of people fresh with their first wave of excitement about user-generated content on the web.

Me too. But I'm not sure what to do about it, nor even how to avoid participating in the cycle myself. A few weeks ago I got involved in one of these discussions and found myself on both sides in different contexts. A friend of mine who is not particularly interested in technology started an email discussion about how she doesn't think new technology like Tivo is really improving anything. I don't use Tivo, but I pointed out how I think Tivo is part of a larger trend of empowering the audience to participate more and passively consume less, which I think leads to more niche marketing.

She was pointing out everything wrong with technology, so I started pointing out everything great about technology. The same day, Kathy Sierra wrote a post about how marketing is being improved by technology and I found myself taking the exact opposite position, pointing out that marketing remains a dangerous game even online. So in the same day I took opposing positions on the same issue, neither of which really represented my opinion.

If someone had asked me what I think about technology and marketing, I would have given an answer somewhere in between. I think technology is slightly altering the marketing game in ways which could be exploited to make large positive changes, but like any other tool, the responsibility lies with the users to make something positive happen.

But even something so neutral as this gets read as complete disagreement by both sides. Disagreement pushes opinions away from each other and we end up with extremes. I think I'm as tired as Tom of the drowning of moderate voices, but I don't see much floating in this sea of all-or-nothing discussions.

 

This morning I did a bit of rubbernecking at a disaster of a post on MetaFilter. The post, since deleted, managed to violate multiple style guidelines in addition to supporting a moral framework that makes me ashamed to be human. The argument goes something like this: 1) poor people are lazy and 2) lazy people deserve to die.

Amidst various suggestions that this may be the worst post to ever disgrace MetaFilter (not without much competition), there was an interesting comment by delmoi, who wrote Anyway, the problem with poor people is that they're not lazy enough. Seriously. They work long hours at shit jobs to provide food for their kids and they're too proud to take advantage of government programs because it's 'un-American'.

So I had laziness in mind as I rode my bike past a couple school kids. I started thinking about the future and how the kids were probably looking at me thinking how odd it is to ride a bike to work, yet I expect it will be much more common for their generation. And that's when I realized that I ride my bike to work because I'm lazy.

It's not the kind of laziness we commonly think of, sitting on the couch watching TV eating potato chips (though I do some of that too). It's a pre-emptive laziness, a programmer's laziness. And it's not just my bike riding that demonstrates this. Nearly everything I do is a hedge against the future.

I expect gas to be prohibitively expensive, so I bought a bike to prepare myself. I don't expect the world can keep up current meat consumption, so I became vegetarian to prepare myself. I think we're moving towards an economy of ideas, and away from agriculture, manufacturing, and service. So I'm a programmer to prepare myself. I expect a future with less wealth for everyone, so I'm frugal to prepare myself. I'm basically living in the future I expect.

Which makes me wonder what good all this preparedness is doing me. I wonder if I wouldn't be better off spending more time thinking about the present and less thinking about the future.

 

Dare Obasanjo writes on screen scraping, It seems Richard Macmanus has missed the point. The issue isn't depending on a third party site for data. The problem is depending on screen scraping their HTML webpage. An API is a service contract which is unlikely to be broken without warning. A web page can change depending on the whims of the web master or graphic designer behind the site.

I completely agree that screen scraping is an undesirable practice, but I think it's actually Dare who is missing the point. No one scrapes a site with an API, so comparing the two doesn't make much sense. Of course the API is better, but what good does that do us when we want data in a certain format and there is no API? Answer: no good at all. Not only does scraping not at all compete with APIs, it actually encourages development of APIs by establishing an existing market for structured data and creating a competitor for customers until the API exists.

Case in point: I scrape MySpace and provide RSS feeds. I don't even use MySpace myself, but I want to read the weblogs of my friends who do via RSS, so I made this scraper. When I put it online, I discovered there are many other people who want to use MySpace RSS feeds. When these people do a Google search for "myspace rss," they currently find a full page of results, begining with my scraper. Myspace.com only shows up on the second page. This is bad business for MySpace. They've lost control of the experience of these potential customers. They need an API.

And they got one. I don't imagine my scraper had much to do with it in this case, but I have scraped smaller sites who didn't provide a feed until my scraper was being used by a significant portion of their readers. This puts such sites in a position where they need to provide the structured data their visitors clearly want or lose those visitors.

Screen scraping brings an increased risk of breakage, as I've experienced a few times already with the MySpace scraper. But without an alternative API, the structured data is worth that risk for many people. Dare writes Web 2.0 isn't about screenscraping. I say Web 1.9beta1 is about screen scraping.

 

I posted an ad for musicians on Craig's List this morning. So far I've had one response. I'll let you all know when the new band starts playing out.

 

I've updated the MySpace blog and comments RSS feed scripts. You can now enter pretty much any site that even references the MySpace account desired and the scripts will figure out where the appropriate blog or comments are.

I tested parsing on several different blogs, but of course, there may be others that I haven't tested and don't work. If you try something and it doesn't work, let me know what account it is so I can try to fix it.

 

Kathy Sierra wrote an interesting post entitled You can out-spend or out-teach, which I think does a nice job of capturing the current Cluetrain-inspired thinking on how Everything is Different Online#8482;. I'm skeptically optimistic about the changing marketplace of ideas. I think Kathy does a fine job of articulating my optimism, so I want to focus on my skepticism here.

The title is a good place to start. Kathy explains the virtues of teaching over spending, but I think anyone who has spent a day in a classroom will tell you that if it were possible to buy learning, they would. Teaching is hard. Spending is easy.

And selling is also easier than learning. Kathy likes to talk about helping your users kick ass, but most users don't want to kick ass. Most people, most of the time, want to know what they're doing — not learn how to do something new. That's why we spend so much time watching TV rather than reading books. We want something easy. Buy this pill and everything will be okay. If I believed it, I'd buy the pill. And the temptation allows a lot of people to convince themselves, to deceive themselves, that it's true.

It's easy to blame the advertising agencies (though maybe not so easy for me now that I work at one) for selling us crap. It's easy to blame the Walmarts for stocking crap. It's easy to blame the ACMEs for manufacturing crap. But what about the customers? We buy the crap. We know it's crap, but we buy it anyway because crap is cheap. How do you teach someone who doesn't want to learn?

I hope this is changing. I hope people are gradually taking a more active role in their own lives, and shifting towards decisions and products that help them kick ass. But I don't see it changing fast enough to warrant calls for everyone to shift from out-spending to out-teaching. There's not a big enough market of students to handle all the would-be teachers.

Hugh McLeod was in traditional advertising and decided to try something new by doing word-of-mouth advertising through blogs, "blogvertising," he calls it. And it appears to be working for him. But he's selling fine wine and business suits. This is a very small niche market. Kathy is selling technology books. Another small niche market. I hope some day the world will be full of niche markets as we all explore the full diversity of the human experience. But Hugh is proclaiming (traditional) advertising is dead today. It's not. Traditional buy this because it's/I'm pretty advertising will not die until we all become more mindful shoppers.

So how do we get from now to then? I have no idea, but I strongly suspect we do so much more slowly than I see Hugh or Kathy suggesting. I see them both teaching the teachers of this new education-based economy, but who is teaching the students? That's the harder part because students are good at distracting. Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter, they say. Before you know it, you've condensed your out-teaching plan down to a pill form, available at their local Walmart in a variety of shiny colors.

But really, I'm optimistic.

 

It appears the citing of a real live reporter I mentioned earlier is not an isolated incident. Salon has a video capturing several citings of actual reporters. It almost makes me want to watch the news again. But I'm not holding my breath on this lasting long. Too soon, I expect, these reporters will return to their desks where they can comfortably forget about actual issues and get back to worrying about ratings and revenue.

 

I just read an email that says: I'm looking for a CMS system for work.

CMS, as you may or may not know, is an acronym for Content Management System. Presumably the person who wrote this email was not actually looking for a system of Content Management Systems (what a frightening concept), but rather just a CMS. I started to write a reply, but then I wondered if it wasn't already too late. I decided to investigate if CMS has already succumbed to RAS syndrome, which claimed such friendly acronyms as PIN number and ATM machine. It turns out RAS syndrome has even claimed JEB (John Ellis Bush) Bush! This may even call for an FBI investigation, but I'll do what I can as an average citizens concerned about RAS Syndrome.

The following is a comparison of Google results for acronyms in their redundant form, standard form, and the percent of redundancy:

PIN number2,540,000 PIN78,100,000 3.54% redundant
CMS system2,540,000 CMS78,300,000 3.24% redundant
ATM machine751,000 ATM35,700,000 2.10% redundant
HIV virus1,260,000 HIV119,000,000 1.06% redundant
RSS syndication2,370,000 RSS877,000,000 0.27% redundant
CSS style sheet179,000 CSS216,000,000 0.08% redundant
VIP person8,890 VIP32,200,000 0.03% redundant

Alas, it appears CMS system is too far along to save. It would be interesting to see a graph of these numbers as they change over time, and an acronym fades into redundancy. But probably only interesting to me.

 

I think it was just last week that I subscribed to Dave Roger's blog after he said some seemingly intelligent things over on Shelley Power's blog. Two days ago I saw that he had a new post and I went to read it, but after reading a few paragraphs, I saw that it was quite long and put it away. My mistake. Lucky for me, Shelley read the whole thing and wrote that It is by far the best work he has ever done, and one of the best writings I’ve read this year. So I went back and read the whole thing tonight, and I can now confirm that it is indeed well worth the read. Maybe it's just because it's so timely, but right now it seems not just one of, but the best writing I've read this year. It's called Change. Go read it. If you find your attention start to waver at the beginning as mine did, skip straight to When I was executive officer of USS JOHN HANCOCK (DD-981), I had to perform my first burial at sea.

 

As Brendan kindly pointed out in comments, MySpace has (finally) added RSS feeds for blogs, so there's no longer any need to use my MySpace feed scraping tool. Hopefully a Google search for myspace RSS will soon start returning MySpace as the top result (or at least on the first page!) rather than me. I'll try to get around to editing the tool soon so it redirects to MySpace's version of the feed, which seems to be pretty much identical.

Update: it turns out my aggregator was still showing me the previous content and MySpace's RSS feeds are a bit more limited than what I've been offering, so I might keep the tool running until they improve their own feeds.

 

Dave Rogers has spotted a creature rarely seen in America: a real reporter (video). Real reporters can be distinguished from the more common species of imitation reporters by their ability to hold government accountable.

 

You may notice I updated the weblog a bit. The URLs are now more readable, hierarchical, guessable, and generally more useful. You can go to a year, month, day, or title. Right now the year will auto-redirect to the first month of that year. I may later figure out something useful to show for a whole year's worth of posts. The month will show a calendar, and the day will show the day's posts if there are more than one, or redirect to the post if there is only one.

On the back end, everything is object oriented, and commenting all goes through a single commment page, both of which will make future changes easier. I removed trackbacks, as I don't see them ever becoming popular outside of geek circles. I hope to eventually allow links in comments to make up for the lack of trackback, but I'll need to implement some sort of moderation system before I do that. Right now, I get zero comment spam here because I've never allowed links in comments, so I don't show up on comment spammers' radars. But my experience with other weblogs suggests the annoyance of moderating comment spam is worth it for the increased connections of links to other sites.

Speaking of, I also added links for similar posts on the weblog as well as similar sites elsewhere, both based on tags. I added tags to the weblog posts a while back, though I haven't been tagging enough posts. I've also been importing my del.icio.us bookmarks pretty much since I started using del.icio.us. I'll have to go through and tag more of the old posts, as well as improve the tag search so it's based on relevance rather than date.

Let me know if you see anything broken or if you have any ideas about further improvements.

 

Today I listened to some radio shows I had recorded last weekend from the local NPR station. The shows are interspersed with short news updates from last week on topics such as problems with the new Iraq constitution, conflict between anti-war and pro-war protesters near Bush's vacation in Texas, threats of violence between Israel and Palestine, and of course the then-impending hurricane. I found myself feeling nostalgic for last week, when the most immediate problems were the thousands needlessly dying on the other side of the world. I look forward to next week when, I hope, the accountability will begin. It has to begin at some point, right?

...right?

 

If you've been having problems with the music server, it's fixed now. The problem only effected larger files (i.e. long songs) due to the way I was loading the entire file before sending it on. Now I'm sending every bit of the requested file as it is read. In addition to actually working for larger files, this will allow you to start listening to songs as they are downloaded, which is good for people on slower connections. If you have any future problems with the music server, please notify me.

 

Last night I learned how to play Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, a song I've only heard by David Gray, but which was apparently written by Marc Almond of Soft Cell. After that, I noticed a Bob Dylan song by a similar name that I'm not sure I've ever heard. So I played along with the chords doing my best Dylan imitation. Then I started writing a new song. Last night it seemed very Dylan-esque, and I was quite pleased with myself. I seem to have lost a bit of the Dylan this morning, but I think it's still a pretty good song.

This time I managed to play along at a steady tempo for a scratch track, so I recorded it in three separate tracks. I think the timing of the three may be slightly off due to a software buffer in my recording setup, and I think there are a few hiccups as I had other software running at the same time. But I think it's pretty good nonetheless. I even figured out how to make my guitar sound like both a banjo and a bass, so I can now imitate a three piece bluegrass band.

I'm sure I could spend all day improving it, but I say it's good enough for now. The song is called Melted All Away (MP3, lyrics), and I think it's sort of written from the perspective of one of the main characters in Dharma Bums, whose philosophical perspectives act as a convenient buffer against reality.

 

The 2004 election left me with an impression that Iowa was a focal point for American politics. Everyone knew who the Republican candidate was to be, and few cared about the other candidates, so all the action was in the Democratic primary, and the starting gate was Iowa. As Des Moines is the center of Iowa politics, I expected to see some serious political action when I moved here. But early signs are not looking good. Seems there is a lack of candidates for the Des Moines City Council. This is standard for cities across the country, but what surprised me is that the local daily paper sees the lack of candidates as a good thing because it will save Des Moines taxpayers $80,000.

Let's ignore for a moment the potential that an unchallenged city council will waste well over $80k with no worries about future elections. Seems to me $80k is a very small price to pay for a healthy democracy. Have we all just given up on this whole democracy thing with its inconveniently expensive and time-consuming elections and all those competing ideas that require citizens to think?

Thankfully not everyone has. Jon Gaskell wrote an article for the local weekly newspaper, the City View. I'd link to the article, but it will be moved next week. So instead I'll just quote so much of it that you have little reason to visit the City View website. (See how unstable URLs are bad business?) Jon writes:

Nevermind that approximately 65 percent of your property taxes go toward your local schools, the school board is inept, officials lied about how much would be raised by a local-option sales tax (and have the gumption to want to extend it after it failed to rebuild all of our schools as promised), our kids are fat and stupid, our teachers make no money and schools are closing right and left. The only way to ensure that people start giving a damn about who's running the Des Moines Public School System is to make sure someone on the ballot is gay.

But 10 years ago, when Jonathan Wilson put his name on the ballot as an incumbent for Des Moines School Board, you couldn't keep the people away, as nearly 30,000 voters showed up at the polls. Were the schools in trouble? Was the system corrupt? Were our kids' test scores dropping to record lows? Were property taxes going through the roof and beyond? Who cares? Wilson was one of those scary homosexual types, and high taxes and dumb kids or not, we needed to make sure a monster like that wasn't going to hold sway over our solid educational system. Disregard that Wilson's lifestyle had absolutely nothing to do with him being the last board member to actually have a grasp on how to run our school system, the haters wanted to make sure some fag wasn't chiming in. So they turned out the vote like only the haters can. And they haven't been back since.

Sigh. It's popular to blame politicians for our country's problems, and they certainly deserve much of the blame. But the voters have earned a fair share of the blame as well. Citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights. When we ignore the former, we lose the latter.

 

When you're in a car and you see you're about to hit something, it's important not to overcompensate and swerve too far in the other direction, else you might run into something else. It's hard to think about this rationally, though, when overcome by the fear of an impending car accident. Fear is a useful motivator in emergency situations, but the rest of the time it tends to cause problems. We can see recent evidence of this in Iraq and America. When we spend so much energy worrying about what might happen, we can easily lose sight of what is happening.

 

I just posted another song to the music server, Twenty Cents (MP3, lyrics). If I'm not careful, this could become a habit. This is another rough track done in one take. I don't think the vocals and guitar balanced quite as well as they did on the last one, and you can hear a police siren in the background on the second verse. But that just gives it an "authentic" sound, right? I spent a while trying to make a real scratch track by keeping a consistant tempo with a click track. But then I gave up and just recorded it, which took about half as long as fiddling with the tempo. And it was more fun. I have five or six more songs that I've never recorded before I have nothing better to do but improve the recording quality. Or write more songs.

 

I just posted Not Gonna Rain (MP3 , lyrics), a song I started singing in the car last week on my way to work after reading something about weather on Shelley's weblog and thinking about how complaining about rain is cliche, but complaining about dryness isn't. Of course, since then, it has rained a plenty. As Shelley said in her most recent weather post, weather is so wonderfully ironic.

I think this is slightly better recording quality than much of my recordings on the music server currently, but it's just a rough cut, done all in one take. It's the kind of thing I'd like to make the time to use as a scratch track to listen to while recording each instrument separately and then mixing them, raising the vocals a bit here and the guitar a bit there. Maybe adding some percussion and a soft accordion in the background. But for now, this is the recording I've done. I'm going to call this a release early, release often model for music, and hope that means I'll eventually get back to a better version of this and other songs.

 

Last week I bought a Specialized Sirrus bike. I've ridden it to work twice this week, and expect it to be my standard transport to work. With gas alone at current prices, I will need to save about 250 gallons before I pay it off savings. My tank holds about 15 gallons, so that makes about 17.5 fill-ups. At my standard of a a fill-up roughly every two weeks, that makes it about year before I'll break even. That's assuming I ride about 35 weeks a year, but that's also assuming gas doesn't go up. I expect those two assumptions to prove equally false.

In addition to saving money, I get exercise on my way to work. Gmaps Pedometer says I ride about five miles a day. It doesn't that seem that far, but that may be because the scenery is still new. I expect I'll eventually buy an iPod to entertain myself on the ride.

The bike was the third most expensive purchase I've ever made, after computers and cars (in that order). But I expect over the next year it will turn out to be a better deal than both.

 

Pandora is a neat tool. It creates a personal radio station for you based on the musical style of an artist of your choosing. You can then customize it further with feedback on individual songs it has chosen. I'd like it to do more to expand my musical interests rather than just continually focusing or shifting them. And I'd also like to see it incorporate non-label music. But as is, it's a great example of where radio is headed.

 

A few months ago I discovered that Flickr has no security for images. Flickr has a nice feature which allows users to assign variable levels of copyright protection on images, from full copyright to various Creative Commons licenses. Images with less restrictive licenses show an "All Sizes" link which will let visitors download the image in various sizes. Images with full copyright do not show this link.

But the copyrighted images are still freely available for everyone to download. Flickr is relying on obscurity over actual security to prevent downloads of copyrighted images. And it's not even very good obscurity at that. To find an image, we need to know which server it is on, the ID of the image, and a "secret" key that's added to the image address. A quick glance at the source of any Flickr photo page shows that this information is stored in JavaScript variables named "server," "id," and "secret" respectively. It would appear that they're not even trying to protect these images.

This isn't much of a problem as long as only people with enough technical knowledge to look at the source code of a page can find the images, but I suspect there will be a good number of Flickr users who be a bit upset when anyone can download their full-size copyrighted images with a single click. It is with my sympathies for these users that I publish the following bookmarklet that you can click when viewing any image page on Flickr to get the original full-size version of that image:

Get Flickr Original

My goal here isn't to facilitate the downloading of images that Flick users don't want downloaded, but rather to point out that Flickr has already facilitated such downloading. This is a public service announcement: Flickr has no image security.

 

®¤©: music now has a podcast feed that will include new music as I put it on the server. I now have a recording setup using an iSight camera and a Mac Mini, which works surprisingly well because the Mac Mini is so quiet and the iSight's mic is much better than one might expect. So if you subscribe now, you'll get my new not-terrible-quality recordings when I start making them over the next few weeks.

 

There was a robbery in Des Moines yesterday afternoon. Police are looking for a bald man, a woman with an eyebrow piercing, and a large green parakeet. No word on whether any of the suspects had wooden legs or hooks. They were last seen sailing — wait, there's no sea near here. What are pirates doing in Iowa?

 

Christians like murder. Pastafarians like full pirate regalia. The choice is up to you.

 

Phil is my soon-to-be new co-worker.

 

URLs are Uniform Resource Locators. They're the addresses for stuff on the web. They commonly start with "http://" and beyond that, they range widely in format. Uniform Resource Locators aren't very uniform. Part of the lack of uniformity comes from having multiple URLs pointing to the same resource.

To see why this is a problem, you can take a trip to Des Moines and try to find my house on 16th Street. You may end up on 16th Street in West Des Moines, or South East 16th Street in Des Moines, but mine is the one that intersects with Crocker, just off Martin Luther King. Only Crocker is named Cottage Grove where it meets Martin Luther King, which is also named 19th Street or Fleur at various points on the same street.

If you find my street, and then my house, you'll still have some trouble, as I live in a duplex, with two entrances in both the front and the back. I could tell you I live on the left side, but that may not be your left when you're standing in front of (or behind) the house. This would all be a lot easier if you could just go to http://www.scottshouse.com/. (Actually, you can, if you want to order some flowers, but that won't help you get here.)

Ideally, every resource on the web would have a single URL. Apple.com is good at working toward this goal. If you go to http://www.apple.com/tiger/ or http://www.apple.com/macos/, you will end up at http://www.apple.com/macosx/. Other sites are not so good at this. An interesting auxiliary benefit of URL-based tagging sites like del.icio.us is that we can easily see when a single resource has multiple URLs pointing at it. For example, at this moment, the del.icio.us popular page has three different URLs listed for the exact same article on slashdot.

This isn't a problem if the only site you visit is slashdot, for the same reason I don't have trouble finding my house. But if you're out wandering the web, and you come across a link to one of these URLs, and you follow it, and a day later you come across a different link to a slightly different URL, you will not have the visual cue most browsers and websites offer to tell you that you've already followed this link and seen this content, so you'll click it again and waste precious seconds of your life.

Many web developers may not particularly care about a random user roaming around the internet. But it turns out, as Shelley recently pointed out, that Google creates its index of websites by acting as a random user roaming around the internet. When Google happens upon your second or third URL pointing to the same content it starts to think "hmm...maybe this site is just spamming the search index with the same content over and over again." If you have a Google rank as high as slashdot's, Google will quickly dismiss this suspicion, but you probably don't want Google ever wondering if your site is spamming the search index. Not even (or maybe especially) if you are spamming the search index.

The irony is that smaller sites can least afford Google's suspicion or visitor confusion, but smaller sites can also least afford to clean URLs. One of the most useful tools in URL cleaning is Apache's mod_rewrite, yet few smaller sites have access to mod_rewrite's URL cleaning power. For those who do have access to mod_rewrite, along with a healthy (unhealthy?) knowledge of regular expressions, the task of cleaning URLs is relatively quick and easy.

I assume the creators of slashdot have both the access and the know-how to clean their URLs, so they're easy targets for finger pointing. However, I also have both the access and the know-how to clean my URLs, and you'll notice no shortage of cruft around these parts. So this is as much a self service as a public service announcement. Self and public: clean your URLs.

 

I made a page to show sample Graphite graphs. The two there now show that Firefox downloads continue at a steady pace, which doesn't surprise me, and Google's index of the web changes often and sometimes drastically, which does surprise me. It takes at least a few days for the graphs to get interesting, so I don't have a lot now, but I'll keep adding more, and if anyone else has any graphs to share, please send them my way.

 

I discovered a couple flaws in Graphite. One just resulted in ugly graphs, but the other was an infinite loop that slowed the entire system. Both only happen after running the same graph for over a month, which no one but I could have possibly done.

0.2 beta fixes two flaws in 0.1 beta. You should replace 0.1 with 0.2 to avoid problems.
 

Earlier, I wrote about how I'd like to see something that allows widgets to function more like standard applications, bringing web applications to the desktop. Turns out Amnesty does that and more, and was released a full month before I asked for it.

So here's my prediction: a future release of OSX will provide similar functionality in the OS itself.

 

Apple's Dashboard has a developer mode that lets you pull a widget off the Dashboard and onto the desktop, where it hovers over everything else, except another widget that has been selected more recently. It occurred to me today that somewhere Apple must be storing information about whether or not each widget is on the desktop, what layer each widget is on (relative to other widgets), the location of each widget, and more.

It doesn't take much more to make a window manager. If someone could figure out where this information is stored, and how to edit it, they could create a run time environment that allows widgets to be run as desktop applications. It seems inevitable to me that eventually the functionality of web applications will be build into the OS, but it would be neat to see someone give Apple a little push in that direction.

 

music.randomchaos.com is now being served from an iBook in my house, on a dynamic IP address at 7Mbps. This means everything on music.randomchaos.com will be slower, and occassionally it may go down altogether. In testing the system, I haven't noticed a big speed difference and it hasn't gone down once, but we'll see how it holds up under real traffic. On the positive side, I no longer have space limitations for the music, which means I can host as many songs as I want. It will also be easier to add new songs, as I can just stick them on my local iBook, and don't need to wait through slower FTP uploads. I hope this will result in my offering more music more often.

 

Interesting websites I've found via randomwebsite.com:

The last one links to a USA Today article about legal issues of podcasting radio stations, a bump in the road to internet radio I once suggested.

The signal to noise ratio on randomwebsite.com is suprisingly high with very few broken or boring links. I hope that lasts.

 

I finally finished the widget I've been working on:

Graphite is a free widget for Apple's Dashboard. You give it a website address, and some text before and after a number, and it will track and graph changes to that number over time.

If you are running OSX 10.4, please try it out and share your thoughts.

 

One of the best things my parents did for me as a child was not getting cable television. Since then, cable television has become more and more pervasive, so much so that the broadcast television is scheduled to die next year. But I have never paid for cable television. I would have been more likely to pay for cable TV if it was less pervasive, but why pay for it when everyone else I know has it? Not only can I watch it on other people's TVs, but I also have a natural filter of all the worthless television, because I never hear about it from other people. No one walks around saying "Did you see that show last night? It wasn't worth watching," though plenty of people watch such shows.

I think many in the FCC and the rest of the TV industry are assuming broadcast TV will be replaced, to whatever extent it hasn't been already, by cable and satellite TV. But Douglas Rushkoff says The "next big thing" in media will not happen on TV - or at least not primarily on TV. It will happen on or through the Internet. And I think it's reasonable to expect it will happen around the same time broadcast TV formally dies. And so cable TV will die soon after.

One can get a vague sense of this with the explosion of weblogs, and more recently podcasting. Participatory publishing is moving into higher-bandwidth media, and television is the next logical step. But why go with a vague sense when Open Network TV makes the future much clearer.

ONTV's beta release of a video aggregator is pretty bad. It has user interface confusion all over the place, and there's just not enough content yet. But still, it's better than the cable TV alternative, Current TV, for the simple reason that I can watch whatever I want with I/ON. That this is the future of television changes from a hunch to completely obvious after using this tool for five minutes. Imagining how much better I/ON would (and will) be with the resources that have been poured into Current TV, I think Al Gore made a big mistake.

Current TV's about page starts by saying Right now, at this moment in history, TV is the most powerful medium in the world. I think that moment passed already.

 

The weblog has been prettied up a bit. I'm going to do other sections one by one so I can check if the fixed width causes problems. Eventually, the whole site will look more or less like the weblog does now. The background is from squidfingers. The general look is from various styles at CSS Zen Garden.

 

I was going to write a rant about terrible customer service I've experienced recently, but instead I present an orderly table of information about the three companies that have overcharged me in the past two months:

Company: Qwest Sprint aplus.net
Amount ~$60 ~$250 $10.20
Hours spent resolving: ~15 ~10 ~2
Weeks from problem reported to problem solved: 6 8 1, so far
Level of disdain for company (1-10): 8 6 5 and rising
Lesson learned: Don't buy modems from broadband providers. They're just selling a modem someone else made, so buy it from that someone else, who can reliably ship and support it. Go to a physical store to get help. Customer service reps pretend to help, but don't. Sprint store employees don't pretend, because you know where to find them. Yell at people to get money. I'm normally more passive aggressive, but a dozen hours on the phone brought me to the discovery that customer service reps are more eager to give refunds to an unpleasant customer.

Okay, a bit of ranting at the end. If I could easily do so, I would drop my contract with all of these companies. But each provide a valuable communications service I can't conveniently find elsewhere.

 

What Business Can Learn from Open Source is the most interesting thing I've read in a long time. Here's one of many smart insights:

You can't expect employers to have some kind of paternal responsibility toward employees without putting employees in the position of children. And that seems a bad road to go down.

I think this part is a just a bit too broad, though. Not all responsibilities are paternal - some are just part of living. For example, it doesn't imply the same paternal relationship to say that employers are responsible for not harming employees. This is a responsibility we assign to everyone. Other than that, I think his point about the negative consequences of giving away responsibility applies equally to other contexts. Government and religion come to mind.

But this is just one small section. You should really read the whole essay.

 

Last month my company had a golf outing. I had never played golf, and I was relatively new to the company, so I went and did my best to fit in. I would have never guessed I'd be working at an advertising agency and going to golf outings.

Golf Outing

Nor would I have guessed the mohawks.

 

PiggyBank looks like an interesting tool, which bills itself as an extension to the Firefox web browser that turns it into a “Semantic Web browser”, letting you make use of existing information on the Web in more useful and flexible ways. It's just one step too many for me to actually install, but the description looks like something that might be more widely used if it were a bit more simple. At some point, I expect PiggyBank and other similar tools will be more widely used, and I wonder what will happen to the web then.

Given enough context, it's not difficult to force semantics onto any website. And if the context isn't provided on the publishing side, there's no reason the reader can't provide it. I know where the movie titles are on an IMDB page, even though it isn't marked <h1 class="movie_title">A Great Movie</h1>. This is a lesson I learned through working on disemployed, and I'm relearning through playing with tools like GreaseMonkey, my MySpace RSS feed tool, and the widget I'm working on (and hope to release within the next week). All of these tools use context to infer meaning from otherwise meaningless markup. There is more and more technology adopting this method, but where is this leading?

Forcing semantics onto a website will only work so long as the website maintains enough predictable structure to know where to put the semantics. When the structure changes, everything breaks. PiggyBank, for example, will require new scrapers nearly every time a target site changes structure. This isn't stable. It's also not scalable. There are billions of websites, and it's just not going to work to write and maintain custom scripts for each one to make it more semantic. At some point website developers will need to start participating in the semantic web for it to work.

But the current trend seems to discourage such participation in two ways. First, tools like PiggyBank and GreaseMonkey, as they become more popular, provide disincentives to change website markup. This is good for the stability issue I mentioned, but it's bad for the transition to a more semantic web. Second, as forced semantics tools get better and better at converting non-semantic websites into something semantic, there is little reason for the websites to themselves become more semantic.

Maybe I'm wrong, and website developers will look at something like PiggyBank, see the benefit of semantics to users, and decide to start using more descriptive XHTML or more RDF. But it seems to me more likely that we're headed towards a "semantic web" in which the semantics are forced onto websites by browsers and other intermediaries. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it isn't what most people have in mind when they talk about the semantic web.

 

I've decided to learn better design practices the old fashioned way: by stealing them. I'm playing around with a fixed-width design, which seems to be somewhat standard practice among pretty sites. In doing so, I ran into the problem of the page titles being too long for the width. So I replaced "randomchaos" with a pseudo-logo - ®¤© - created with glyphs. Not sure I like it yet, but I'm going to give it a while to grow on me.

 

Sam Ruby writes My theory is that most of the interesting metadata is in the content. Interestingly, he put <b> tags around the word "in," apparently to emphasize it. There are, as Sam no doubt knows, <em> tags for that specific purpose. But the meaning is clearly not lost without those tags. And this is a good illustration of what I think follows from Sam's theory.

There is no firm difference between metadata and content. Both are meaningless, and are only given meaning by the reader. We tend to give more specific meaning to metadata, because metadata tends to be read mostly by computers, and computers are intolerant of ambiguity. But as we use metadata more and more, we increasingly have multiple computers reading the same metadata and deriving different meaning from it. For example, see how Kevin Marks and Stowe Boyd interpret the meaning of rel="tag" metadata. They aren't discussing differences in how humans should and do read these tags; they're discussing ambiguity in how computers read metadata. With such ambiguity, suddenly metadata doesn't look so different from what we generally consider content.

I think this phenomenon extends beyond markup language to natural language. Jessica is studying high vs. low context communication, which I had previously studied when I was learning Japanese. She asked me if Japanese is high or low context. There was a time when I knew the answer immediately. Japanese is generally considered a high-context culture. But it's been so long since I had learned this that I found I had to think about it, probably for the first time. And I found I wasn't at all sure about the answer.

There is certainly a lot of communication in Japan that foreigners would not catch from words alone, but how much of this is due to the fact that there is more meaning in words than most foreigners realize? A Marin College business communication web page on the subject includes a quote from "a Japanese manager": We are a homogeneous people and don't have to speak as much as you do here. When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one. This would seem to indicate that Japanese text holds more meaning than English text. If Japanese is both high-context and the text itself means more, is everything much more meaningful in Japan? Perhaps, but it seems to me that "high-context" is very relative to what the text itself means.

I haven't thought this all through very far yet, but it's already clear to me that I need to learn more about out how meaning works. If meaning is anything approaching zero-sum economy, then all of this metadata we are adding is taking meaning away from the words. I think there's a real risk that while we are making things easier for computers to read, we are in some ways making them more difficult for people to read. At what point do the tags become the content? Some would say we're already past that point (Links are part of language). If so, is this desirable or should we maybe start reconsidering the value of metadata everywhere? Food for thought.

Update: coincidentally, the next day on Metafilter is a link to Semiotics for Beginners. Semiotics appears to be exactly the topic I was stumbling into. Hopefully I'll have some more firm thoughts on the subject after reading it.

 

Here's my plan for a useful Google maps tool: take the FCC's database of radio station information (e.g. stations in Des Moines), and figure the span of each station (like so) to provide a tool that allows people to click a location on a Google map, and get a list of radio stations and signal strengths for that location. Bonus points: 1) Search Google for each station's website, 2) Search each website for an online version of the station's audio, 3) Provide an interface for listening to each station.

Now, who wants to make it?

 

Way back before Google maps existed, I had this plan to mix tags, a la del.icio.us, with a map of a city. When .info domain names were being given away for free, I registered bloomington-normal.info with the intent of some day creating a site where users could create maps socially. I thought it would be neat to be able to pull up a map of all the poorly designed intersections, or all the bomb shelters in Bloomington-Normal. I also thought such a site could be used by door-to-door canvassing groups to mark houses as visited or unvisited. And more.

Then Google maps came along, and people immediately started playing with ways to interact with the maps. I figured it was only a matter of time before someone created something similar to my vague idea, only on a national or global scale. So I waited. But to my surprise, nothing came. Until now.

Tagzania is pretty much what I had in mind - del.icio.us meets Google maps. But I think there are a few things still missing. First, locations often have associated websites, and users should be able to pull these websites from Google, or (better yet) add these websites themselves. Second, photos of locations would be incredibly useful. Third, there should be some mechanism for aggregating a group of locations under a single name (e.g. by country, state, city, park, etc. Users are already trying to get this functionality with tags, e.g. spain, berlin, etc. But this is location data that rightly belongs on the map, not in the tags.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to draw a box around my house and name that box with my address. Then I'd like to place a pin at the front of my house, give that pin tags like "porch music," and assign a picture of myself playing music on my porch. Then I'd add a pin to the back of my house with tags "dog" and a picture of my neighbor's dog. Then maybe I'd tag the building as a whole with "rent."

This would allow people to find places where people play music on their porch (which I don't do, but might if I thought random people might come by looking for it.) It would allow people to find places to rent, check if they have dogs nearby, and if so, look at the dogs to see if they look friendly enough to consider renting. And these are just the possibilities with my house. A location where things are actually happening has much more potential. Throw in a standardized system for adding dates to locations, and a tagged event map is possible.

For yet another example, Ian is today participating in part of RAGBRAI, an annual bike ride across the state of Iowa, and he's posting photos to his Flickr account with the tag "ragbrai", which makes these photos join a group of ragbrai-tagged photos. This is neat, but it would be much cooler to be able to place those photos on a map and see where RAGBRAI is going.

I look forward to seeing Tagzania or something like it explore the possibilities of tagged mapping. Meanwhile, I'll be thoroughly tagging Des Moines.

 

Over the last couple weeks I've been working on a Dashboard Widget, which I hope to release some time in the next month. I've come up against a few snags that could have been solved more quickly by better documentation, so I want to document those issues here both to publicly complain about them, and in hopes that doing so will hasten the release of some wonderful Dashboard widget.

Lesson one: Widget JavaScript alert statements go to the console. I didn't discover this in Technical Note TN2139 on Apple's websiteuntil after I had already built an overly complex system to display feedback for debugging purposes. I assumed if such a useful development tool existed, it would be found in Apple's Guide to Developing Dashboard Widgets, which contains a code sample with an alert statement, but no mention of where that alert is going. This could be improved by Apple.

Lesson two: There is a developer mode for Dashboard. This is also mentioned in TN2139, a handy document that is currently (according to Google) mentioned on twelve different sites, none of them Apple. But I already complained about Apple not referencing their own documentation in Lesson One. What I want to complain about in Lesson Two is that within that documentation, there are instructions for how to pull a widget off of the Dashboard in developer mode, but no mention of how to return the widget to the Dashboard.

I suspect this was assumed to be obvious, that Apple didn't anticipate someone as foolish as me would kill the entire Dashboard process, and then restart my computer, only to discover the Widget still floating over everything else on my screen. If anyone else missed the obvious, the process of getting widgets back into the Dashboard is roughly the opposite of the process for taking them out: click and hold the widget, turn the Dashboard on, and let the widget drop back into the Dashboard. A simple mention of this on any of Apple's Dashboard development pages would have saved me a lot of time.

Lesson Three: JavaScript's parseInt function parses any string with leading zeros as zero. So, for example, when I was parsing the string "08" and expecting it to parse to an integer value of eight, it was actually parsing to an integer value of zero. This seems less than ideal to me (I prefer how PHP's intval function works), but no doubt it's too late to change it now, as JavaScript applications have likely been built around this odd behavior. So just beware.

Other than these minor complaints, my widget is coming along nicely, and it's fun to develop a pseudo-desktop application using web technologies. It's less complicated than standard desktop development for the same reasons web applications are easier to develop. But it's also simpler than standard web development, as there is really only one platform to consider.

 

A post today on BoingBoing does a nice job of summarizing nearly everything that annoys me about the site. The topic is tabloid material. There are no comments, so the post itself is updated whenever anyone manages to slip a comment through either the "suggest a site" form or the email of one of the contributors. And rather than taking the least bit of time to verify the factual information involved, completely false material is simply posted to the site and then later retracted. The only thing missing is the an ad for a product representing values BoingBoing's staff claim to oppose and completely unrelated to the topic at hand.

Yet BoingBoing continues to be the most popular blog of all, according to Technorati. If this is the new media, I might just stick with the old.

 

I have an old titanium powerbook that I picked up by the screen too many times. The hinges on the screen snapped, and the screen could no longer support its own weight. I could rest the screen against something, and use it as a desktop, but it was no longer easily portable. I continued using it as a desktop for the last two years, and made up for the missing portability by buying an iBook, and then another.

framed laptop

Last month I saw a tutorial for making a "walltop" computer from a laptop. In the tutorial, the laptop is actually taken apart and jammed inside a frame not much bigger than its screen. That looks nice, but I'm not especially good at taking things apart (without destroying them), so I just put the whole laptop in the frame. It turned out much nicer than I was expecting.

The laptop has a wireless card, so for most things, I can control it from another machine using OSX VNC (server) and Chicken of the VNC (client), both free applications. And in the few cases where I'll need to take it out, I just need to take it off the wall and turn a single piece of wood holding it in the frame. It's pretty ugly in the back, as my woodworking skills leave much to be desired. But I'm happy with my new digital picture frame.

 

I think many people who use PHP don't realize that on most installations, adding "s" to the file extension (i.e. file.phps) turns the file into a source file. I believe Bill Humphries may be one person who doesn't realize this.

 

I've posted instructions for the Wonder Wash, which have been requested by a few people in the comments to my previous Wonder Wash post. Thanks to Hanna Bachman for typing up the instructions and sending them to me.

 

iTunes willl support podcasts. del.icio.us has added postcasts for tagged MP3 content. Jon Udell is working on using del.icio.us tag overlap as a recommendation engine. When these are all put together, we will have customized listening channels (internet radio without the ridiculous license fees), with the ability to broaden our listening horizons at whatever rate we choose. I'm looking forward to that.

 

Over on the Los Vivos website, you can now download MP3 tracks of our first (and last) album of original songs. This is an album we were making to give to friends, family, and fans, as well as potential show locations. I sort of killed that last part by leaving the band before the album was complete. But they already have me replaced with a great guitarist, so I look forward to future Los Vivos shows, at which you will likely hear these MP3s, less my songs. I think the songs turned out pretty nice, and now they make a nice collectors item commemorating the Los Vivos that was.

 

I've been living in Des Moines and working at Integer for a few weeks now. I haven't written about my initial impressions, nor much of anything else here, mostly because I still don't have internet access at home. Qwest neglected to send me the first DSL modem I ordered, and has still not sent me the second. Monday will mark the second 'five business days' ETA, but I'm not holding my breath. I already strongly suspect they don't take their "Spririt of Service" motto very seriously. So my only internet access is at work, where I spend most of my time, well, working. I could probably find time to write weblog posts at work, as my schedule has been fairly flexible so far, but I haven't written much yet. I did write my previous post at work, as I came across the information while looking for OSX screen readers to test accessibility for websites.

That's a pretty good summary of the job so far: I get to make websites, worry about things like accessibility, and feel free to wander off now and then on tangents like the proper pronunciation of SQL and GIF. It's a fun job, and I look forward to Mondays, especially during this first month as I have little to do and little money with which to do it outside of work.

My first project was a database and interface for tracking postage costs at Integer and billing them to the employee or client as appropriate. I would point to it but it's an intranet site, plus it hasn't yet been implemented. I got to play with a neat auto-complete text field for that, which I'll probably clean up a bit and post here for others to use at some point, as I haven't seen the same functionality elsewhere.

I'm now working on the administrative side (not the side you can actually see) of the Pella Pressroom site, as well as a section of the Iowa Council for International Understanding site, which will be the first thing I do at work that anyone outside Integer can see.

The apartment is good too, as is the city, what little I've so far experienced. Right now I'm sitting at Java Joe's Coffeehouse, where I've been sitting for a few hours using their free WiFi and eating their only-moderately-overpriced food. Earlier today I was sitting on one of the benches near the Crusoe Umbrella and sucking up the surprisingly free, though somewhat flaky WiFi from a nearby hotel.

Once I get an internet connection at home I'll post more here on the weblog and fix up the site. Once I get an audio input box and find more space to store online recordings, I'll start posting more music. Once I get a new camera, I'll post more photos. In general, once I get out of the debt I went into through not working for a couple weeks and then moving, I will start to figure out how life is going to work here. But it's pretty good already.

 

With all the new features in OSX 10.4 Tiger, and now the controversy over Apple's move to Intel chips, few have noticed that Apple has quietly taken sides in some old technology debates: how to pronounce GIF and SQL. In brief, the debates are whether one should say "jif" (the peanut butter of choosy moms) or "gif" (like gift without the "t"), and "sequel" (like the second version of a movie) or "es cue el." The latter debate is a little more important (or a little less ridiculous) as it affects not only how you pronounce the acronym, but which article ("a" or "an") you use before, so it comes into play even if you never say "SQL" aloud. Out on the battlefield, Steve Olsen has obviously spent a lot of time expounding the virtues of "jif" pronunciation, while the SQL debate is largely muted by MySQL's declaration:

The official way to pronounce "MySQL'' is "My Ess Que Ell'' (not "my sequel''), but we don't mind if you pronounce it as "my sequel'' or in some other localized way.

During my interview for my new job, I became conscious of my own internal pronunciation when I referred to "my sequel" and everyone else had been talking about "my es cue el." But I managed to get the job anyway. And with the release of Tiger, Apple confirms that I was right. In the new VoiceOver screen reading utility's "Pronunciation" section, Apple has added pronunciations for "GIF" ("jiff") and "SQL" ("sequel") as well as "GUI" ("G U I" - not "gooey") and a bunch more. You can change these pronunciations, but you can no longer run "an es cue el server" or create "jiffs" on a factory Mac.

 

I woke up this morning and was minding my own business when Shelley threw not one, but two memes at me. It's been a while since I've encountered a formal meme. My original weblog over on blogspot was called MEME3, and to my surprise it's still there after years of neglect. I liked how the letters and numbers of "MEME3" were all pretty much the same shape turned, and at the time I thought ultimate truth or something would be found in breaking down false dichotomies. That was back in the days when I often read memepool, which is surprisingly still alive and kicking. So I have a special place in my heart for memes.

But this kind of thing has a bit of the feel of those "pass this around or you'll get cancer" type of chain emails, which I loathe. Jessica sent me one of those with a "person least likely to return this" question, for which she had thoughtly chosen me as the answer. Sure enough, I didn't fill it out. The questions this morning are interesting enough, and I've already read them enough to know my own answers. But let's not all make a habbit of throwing memes at Scott, okay?

Now, first question: Total volume of music files on my computer: This is a tough one. I have music scattered about three different computers right now. Some of it is my own recordings, which are of better quality, and so take up more space than a standard MP3. One computer has a radioSHARK connected, so that's full of NPR shows from the past few months. Another has a copy of NetNewWire running filled with only podcasting subscriptions. And my final machine has Indy running, which saves local copies of songs even if I only listen to five seconds. So I'm not sure what all I should be counting here. I'll just count it all now that I've made all those qualifications. I have, on those three machines respectively, 885MB, 6.97GB, and 3.25GB in my "Music" folders. By my math, that's over 11GB of audio. But I would guess only about 6 or 7GB of that is actually music.

The last CD I bought: I try not to buy CDs because I hate to indirectly fund lawsuits against music fans. I think the last CD I "bought" was actually an anti-Bush compilation from MoveOn.org. I think it was called "Rock Against Bush" or maybe that was a different anti-Bush compilation CD. I haven't listened to it much, but it was for a good cause (or against a bad cause), and it included a then-unreleased song by Elliott Smith, who I like a lot, though as I recall, the song wasn't that great.

Song playing right now: No audio is playing right now (Jessica is sleeping), but the last thing I listed to was "Between the Bars," by Madeleine Peyroux. It's a jazz cover of an Elliott Smith song, and JJ played it for me yesterday. I still have it in my head.

Five songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me: I was going to defer to iTunes here, but it turns out my most played songs are those I've listened to repeatedly while learning them for Los Vivos. I'm not sure those should count, but I'm also not sure how else to answer this. I'll just list five songs listen to a lot: XO by Elliott Smith, You Stay Here by Willy Porter, Cold Water by Damien Rice, Song for a Girl I Don't Know by JJ Hamon, and For Liberty by me, which I just now realize is not on my website for some reason.

Now, meme #2, books: You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be? The first few times I read this, I thought it meant "as which book do you want to be burnt?" and thought "what difference does it make?" It's been a while since I've read Fahrenheit 451. But I now realize that this is referencing the books that characters memorized so as not to lose the contents. Shelley said "when faced with a society that could condone the burning of books, truth has to matter more than beauty," and then went on to not really answer this one. But I think the book I've found most valuable in my life would be particularly appropriate for a world in which book burning was common practice: The Essential Writings of Mahatma Ghandi. That may not be the "ultimate book on truth" Shelley talks about, but there will be other people memorizing books, so I think this one is good enough to be worthwhile.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character? I guess. No one in particular, but I think I would be interested in the main characters in many stories.

What are you currently reading? In an attempt to understand the big deal about Hunter S. Thompson, I recently "borrowed" Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from someone at my old job who I will likely never see again, but I haven't started reading it yet. I recently listened to the audio book of John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Does that count? I think my last treeware book was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, but that was months ago.

Five books you would take to a deserted island? I would certainly not take any pleasure reading to a deserted island. I would probably start with the thickest botany book I could find, so that I could learn about the local vegetation and also have fire kindling if it came to that. Then maybe a boat-building book, a world atlas, a medical book, and a general survival guide. I wouldn't last a week on a deserted island, so my main focus would be to get back to civilization as soon as possible.

Now it's the fun part where I get to inflict memes upon an unsuspecting population. Bwahahaha... I'll pass to the two people I referenced here, who both conveniently have blogs: Jessica and JJ.

 

Rory is using my MySpace blog scraping code to keep a copy of his blog on his own server. I hadn't even considered that as a potential use. Good idea, Rory. It just took a few minutes to make the changes. That makes two features MySpace could be offering (and charging for): RSS feeds and off-site hosting. It's a shame they're not providing such functionality, but at least they haven't (yet) tried to prevent others from providing it.

 

Disemployed is hiring. With the new job, I don't expect to have time to do what I'd like with Disemployed, so I'm looking for outside help.

 

In the less than twenty four hours since accepting my new job, I have been offered two other jobs. Some of my friends and family think I should consider these offers, but I'm not. There's something wrong with an economy in which it's easiest to find new jobs when you least want or need them. I have no idea what that something is. I'm just saying it's odd. Kathy Sierra may be on to something when she says:

I would hope that all hiring managers everywhere will read this book and perhaps get a new (counterintuitive) insight into why they might actually get a better result by, um, lowering their standards. Although I don't think of it as lowering, since candidate A who has this different perspective but isn't, say, as young, high-IQ, or classically-trained as candidate B, might bring something even more valuable. In other words, what you lose in IQ points might be more than made up for by other things...

There seems to be a lot of group-think in hiring practices, probably because it's easier. Rather than actually research so many job candidates specifically, it's much simpler to just filter out a large chunk by assuming there's a good reason inexperienced or unemployed people are so. To see this in action, currently one out of every six job ads on disemployed contains the word "experience." Unfortunately, the end result of that practice is homogeneity, not only internally in a given company, but across the whole economy with each company doing the same thing.

Speaking of everyone at work being the same, today I discovered the blogs of my two new primary coworkers, Ian Leckie and Ryan Colley, both of whom have interests very similar to my own. But, in a bit of delicious irony I could not have scripted if I'd tried, one of us has a beard.

Though I would guess unemployed people more often have beards than the general population, beard quotas isn't really the trend I'm trying to suggest here. What I'm getting at is that everyone out there with jobs openings should stop offering so many to people like me who neither need nor want them, and start actively seeking candidates who are unemployed. It may even do more good for your company than the beard quota has apparently done for Apple or my new employer, Integer.

 

I have been searching for jobs for a couple months now, knowing that my contract with my employer was set to expire in August with no sign that I was any closer to doing what most interests me - making web applications. It has been with some pain that I have restrained myself from discussing job possibilities for fear that doing so could cause me to lose my job with nothing yet to replace it. And it has been particularly difficult to not discuss the job I accepted today, as I felt the job offer was becoming increasingly certain after the phone interview, and then the interview. I have told people over the past few days that I was about 80% sure I would get a job offer after my interview this past weekend. But that 20% of uncertainly about unemployment just isn't worth a juicy weblog post.

But now I have a new job. In late May I will begin working at The Integer Group - Midwest in Des Moines, Iowa. I will be a web developer working mostly on standards-compliant and open source-centric intranet applications for Integer's employees. But I may also have opportunities to do things like Dashboard Widgets, AppleScripts, OS X desktop applications and pretty much everything else I currently do for fun.

The actual work is just the tip of the great new job iceberg. The office sits on a hill with an excellent view in all directions, and is filled with natural lighting, food and drink, interesting people, pretty things, and everything else I imagined I would find in a dot-com job straight out of college before the tech bubble burst. The interview process involved several long, interesting conversations with people throughout the company, during which I was never once asked about my salary expectations. Instead I was asked things like what I learned in Taiwan, and how I managed to hit myself in the head with a boomerang. The interview was more fun than stressful.

I have little doubt the job will also be as much fun as work. But it will be a lot of work. And it will also be a lot of work to move and get started in a new town where I don't really know anyone. And it will be sad to leave my friends and family here in Bloomington, particularly Los Vivos. I may still play with Los Vivos one more time at the upcoming show at the Tremont Turkey Festival on June 11, but by then I expect to be pretty well settled into a new job, a new town, and a largely new life. And I'm very much looking forward to it.

 

If you're reading this from the future (or the past), there's still time to catch the time traveler convention at MIT (via BoingBoing). In January, 2000 I had a post-apocalypse party. I figured it was a no-lose proposition, as there would be reason to party whether or not the much-prophesied apocalypse occurred on 01/01/2000. We would either be happy we survived, or we'd be dead, as thus unable to consider the failure of the party. (We survived.)

This convention is similarly no-lose, as if you miss it, you can always go back later, assuming time travel is invented, creating some reason to go back. It will be interesting to see who speaks at this convention. The field of experts must be huge, as anyone interested can always go back and make themselves experts.

 

I made a comment over on The Diabetes Blog that has since caused further discusison, some of which seemed mildly offended at what I said. I'll reproduce it here in full:

I've had negative feelings about type-2s for a while now. But I think it's sort of like watching rich people waste money. I'd probably do the same if I were rich, but as I'm not, it's annoying to see them waste something I'd love to have. In the case of type-2s, that something is the opportunity to not be diabetic, which to me is more valuable than money. But it never occurred to me that non-diabetics might feel the same way because they also have that something I'd love to have, so I wouldn't think it would bother them so much to see it wasted.

Amy Tenderich quoted me, and a few type 2 diabetics have emailed me about this. I probably should have said that I realize that not every case of type 2 diabetes is self-inflicted. Further, I think I'm pretty good about not assuming I know what someone is going through just because they fit, or seem to fit, into some generalization. I have negative feelings about a lot of groups and individuals, but I still manage to respect them and remain on friendly terms with them.

That said, the generalization still stands as a generalization. Most type 2 diabetics are doing it to themselves, and the more I think about it, the more I think this should disturb not just type I diabetics, but everyone. For the record, I also do plenty of things that should disturb everyone, not the least of which is abusing my relatively mild diabetes with less-than-healthy diet and exercise. But the best I can do is not let my diabetes get worse. That's not true for most type 2 diabetics. They can get better, and they should.

 

From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:

Half of official Washington is here to see democracy's finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can't see at home. DEMOCRACY IN ACTION.

This was my introduction to the filibuster, and a reinforcement of the innocent idea that anyone can create change in this democracy. I'm surprised no one in the Democratic Party has thought to use this well-known movie to tie these two ideas together. I can't imagine a more effective defense of the filibuster than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, short of finding a new Bible verse that says "Jesus loves filibusters."

 
  • Morels tend to grow near dying - but not dead - trees, particularly elm and apple trees.
  • Morels generally grow in three phases, by color:
    1. Gray
    2. Yellow
    3. Black
  • These phases combined usually last a month or two.
  • Animals don't eat mushrooms.
  • Turkey hunting is restricted to certain hours of the day.
  • Deer poop looks like piles of pebbles.
  • Morels should be picked at the stem, so a stump remains.
  • Picked morels should be carried in a net bag, so spores can drop and plant new mushrooms.
  • Morels should be soaked in salt water, to encourage bugs to depart.
  • Morels have a subtle taste, so breading should be only lightly seasoned.
  • Black shirts should not be worn while breading morels (or anything).
  • Plastic forks should not be used near frying morels (or anything).
  • I should not be allowed near frying morels.
  • Even poorly fried wild morels taste pretty good.
 

Yesterday I watched on C-SPAN as a representative from Eli Lilly told a story of how their products helped a person with diabetes. The story was told to promote Eli Lilly's position on patents. I'm not clear on all that was said, but I gather the patent system will soon get worse, not better. The debate was largely over the process by which two companies should dispute a mutually claimed patent. I didn't see anyone suggest that there might be situations in which patents should not be held by anyone. I think allowing people to profit from the medical problems of others is something we will some day look back at and wonder how that could have happened.

I have no reason to believe that Eli Lilly is any better or worse than any other pharmaceutical manufacturer. I had a vague sense that pharmaceutical manufacturers are generally bad. Specifically, I suspected they often put profit ahead of the public good. It didn't take a lot of research to confirm this suspicion. Eli Lilly is a member of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which in 2003 petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "to make approval of generic biologics more difficult." To protect profits, Eli Lilly worked to prevent other companies from selling insulin to diabetic patients at lower costs.

When I was low on money a year ago, my health suffered because I couldn't afford medical supplies sold by companies like Eli Lilly. I was working full time, when I could find work, but that wasn't enough to afford the necessary medical supplies after rent. These supplies could be cheaper so people like me don't face such situations. Patents on medicine keep medicine artificially expensive at the expense of citizens. It's sad that the U.S. Senate held a hearing on patent reform in Washington D.C. yesterday, and not one person there stated the obvious: medical patent monopolies are bad for Americans.

 

I think Mac OS 10.3.9 is the first system update I've had that made my computer less functional. That's not something I can say of my experience with Windows (where I often lose functionality), so I guess I should be glad, but I'm a bit disappointed that Apple hasn't already released an update. If you've installed 10.3.9 and find some of your applications will no longer open, you can solve the problem by re-installing Security Update 2005-002. That worked for me, anyway.

Update: Apple has since released an update that fixes the 10.3.9 Java problem.

 

I hadn't looked at my server statistics for a while, so I was surprised to discover yesterday that about 80% of my bandwidth over the past month has gone toward the serving of the pope image. The image was being hotlinked - pulled from my server rather than copied - from hundreds of sites, including the popular fark.com and dozens of livejournal weblogs. This explains why this image is the first result for "pope" on Google's image search. Lucky for me, I have enough bandwidth on my account that the extra 4Gb or so didn't do any real damage this time. But I thought it better not to wait until the next time some image on my website becomes wildly popular, however unlikely that may be. So I started blocking hotlinking, and redirecting to an image that says:

Sorry, direct linking of images on randomchaos.com is turned off to conserve bandwidth; however, please feel free to make yourself a copy of this image and host it yourself. I recommend Flickr.com for free image hosting. Thanks, scott@randomchaos.com.

I hate to break context on a bunch of sites that will now be referencing this bit of text as if it were the pope, but I'm not willing to have my site broken or made more expensive for the cause of silly pope pictures. It's a great cause, but I have a few other things I'd like to do with my website.

 

Life tip: cut the tops off of half-empty bags of potato chips, bread, etc. I read this five days ago on Ask MetaFilter, and it has already saved me from two messes. In retrospect, it's so obvious.

 

MeetUp wants organizers to pay $9 a month to organize meetings. What a terrible idea. And that's the special introductory rate. I could create a specific website for a MeetUp group to provide the same basic functionality MeetUp offers for less than that. In fact, if anyone is interested, I will. I'll charge $8 a month for your own group-specific MeetUp website. Comment or email me if you're interested

 

Apple: Think Same

And that's how we discovered that the entire staff of Apple is composed of clones of Steve Jobs. But clones would be different ages.

 

You work for NBC, and you need a picture of the Pope for a news story about the Pope's continuing decline in health. There are thousands of pictures to choose from, but there are also thousands of stories on the Pope, and you want something a little different. So you decide to search Google for images of the Pope. The first result of your search is a standard picture of the Pope holding a cross - none too interesting. But the second picture has the Pope making a funny face, which is interesting, and you might like to use that picture. So you click through, and that's when you come to my website.

Today I discovered that my website is the second result for a Google image search for "pope." I discovered this after I got a message on my phone from someone at NBC, who wanted to know where I got the picture from. I got the picture from a friend, who I suspect has long since forgotten where he found it. But that's not the important point here. The important point is that out of 122,000 pictures of the Pope found by Google, mine is somehow considered the 2nd most relavent. There's a lot of topics I think I know a lot about, but the Pope is not one. There's something wrong with any search engine that points people searching for the Pope to me. I am not the Pope. I'm not even sure that picture is really the Pope.

 

I have taken to making chocolate covered foods in the past few months. I started with a recipe a coworker gave me for thin mint cookies. I most recently made chocolate-covered strawberries, which are the easiest thing I've made, but the most impressive to others. People at work went on and on saying "Wow Scott, you made these strawberries?! Great job!" as if I had actually grown the strawberries.

They liked the thin mints too, but were less enthusiastic, which is ironic since they are more difficult to make. Most of the work is in the dipping, and strawberries are easy because they come with a dipping mechanism (the leaves) attached, so they don't need to be completely covered. It isn't easy to completely cover something in chocolate while holding it. The trick is to put a bit too much chocolate on. That way when you remove whatever you were holding it with - I've been using a platic fork with the middle two prongs snapped off - the excess chocolate will fill the void it leaves.

melted chocolate

Another difficulty in making chocolate covered foods is melting the chocolate. If you want to melt chocolate, you should do it in a double-boiler to prevent it from heating too quickly. If chocolate is too cold, it won't run smoothly until it's heated, but if it gets too hot, it coagulates and it won't run smoothly ever again. I know this because I've done it wrong a few times. Yesterday I was trying to explain something to a friend of mine with whom I often have heated discussions, and it occurred to me that discussions heat like chocolate. If they get too hot, they'll won't run smoothly ever again. I know this because I've done it wrong a few times.

 

The discussion in Shelley's post about degrading gracefully prompted me to write my second Firefox Greasemonkey script. Degradr replaces the pointless flash-embedded images on flickr.com with plain images. I'm always wanting to copy images I see on flickr to use as desktop backgrounds, but the flash interface makes this too much trouble. (Maybe that's the purpose?) With Degradr, the images are just like any other image, so I can copy, zoom, and do everything else Firefox let's me do with images.

 

In a comment to my post about the RSS filter I made, Herr Theoretiker wrote I like this feature; however, would it be possible to create a filter that *includes* certain keywords instead of *excluding* them? I want to filter out the Homestar Runner feed to only include messages with "Strongbad email" in the title. I'm always eager to make stuff people will use, and especially so when I know they intend to use it in the pursuit of Strongbad emails. So I added what Herr asked for to the RSS filter. You can now do positive (must include) and/or negative (must not include) filters.

 

The Terri Schiavo case, the American Catholic Church's decision to more aggressively oppose capital punishment, and the seemingly endless abortion debate are all life and death issues that spawn passionate arguments on either side. But it seems to me the vast majority of these arguments focus more on the passions than the issues. So much so that one could easily hear arguments on both sides and conclude that they are talking about two completely different issues.

Consider a liberal understanding of conservative positions: they support life of something as abstract as a clump of stem cells, but betray those values when it comes to actual people accused of a capital crime. Conversely, the conservative understanding of liberal positions: they support the life of a convicted killer, but not that of an innocent baby. I think these are both misrepresenting the opposition. Misrepresentation starts as dishonesty, but in this case it's been going on for so long that most people actually believe it. It's moved from dishonesty to ignorance. Ignorance won't help win an argument, so both sides should have an incentive to better understand the other.

I personally take the liberal position on all of these issues, but I think both sides rest on basic convictions that are reasonable and generally ignored. A basic liberal position might be that anyone with the capicity to make intelligent choices about their own life or death should be free to do so. A basic conservative position might be that anyone with the capicity to make intelligent choices should be held responsible for those choices.

So convicted killers should be held responsible for their choices to murder through the death penalty, or convicted killers should retain the right to choose when they should die, from respective conservative or liberal perspectives. And women with unwanted pregnancies should be held responsible for their choices by being compelled to give birth, or they should be free to choose to terminate their pregnancies (so long as the fetus lacks the capicity for intelligent choice.)

These positions leave plenty of room for argument. There's the general argument: which is more important, freedom or responsibility? And specific arguments such as: how do we decide who has the capacity to make intelligent choices? But few are having these arguments. Instead, nearly everyone involved is attributing disagreement to pure malice and talking past each other. I suspect we will all come to regret this.

 

In a comment to my post about Myspace RSS feeds, michael asked How bout a rss feed for comments? You can now get an RSS (2.0) feed for Myspace comments on any user profile. Enjoy.

 

It seems all the cool kids are critiquing and/or getting rid of Google ads, but I'm holding out. I like the idea of targetted advertising, as it promises to add value to, rather than distract from content. For example, if I'm reading about a used Honda for sale, I would appreciate some links to companies selling related products, such as the used Honda parts ads I currently see on my Honda sale post (since sold). On the other side, of course, I like reducing my website expenses.

Shelley apparently had a problem with oil rig ads showing up in her post opposing drilling in ANWR. I only wish my ads worked so well. Too many of my posts display ads for weblog tools. The navigational text on every page seems to be overpowering the actual content in Google's topic-determination algorhythm. I'm going to revamp my weblog so that post titles are more prominantly part of the URL, and descriptions are more descriptive. If this doesn't make my ads more relevant, I'll consider getting rid of them. But I'm defining relevancy liberally.

I don't mind when pro-Bush ads show up in my anti-Bush posts. That's related, if ironically so. I have a faith that knowledge is ultimately good. That's why I regularly read authors with whom I regularly disagree. If I'm interested in an issue, I'm also interested in dissenting opinions on that issue. So this doesn't bother me as it apparently does others.

Nor do I think the internet is succeptable to the same corruption as the real world, as Jonathon implies when he writes I can hardly bear to watch as the Talleyrands corrupt something that was, for a while, magical. In the real world the corrupt have the power to change the rules for everyone else. Talleyrand, for example, used his power working under Napoleon to kill people. But the internet's structure makes analogous activities impossible. Not only could you not possibly kill me via the internet, but you can't even make me read something I find uninteresting. Every online transaction requires consent by everyone involved. If I don't want you reading my website, I can tell my server to stop responding to requests from you (so long as I can identify you). That's what makes AFP's lawsuit against Google ridiculous.

tornado

Likewise, if you don't want to see my ads, you can install a Greasemonkey script to block these ads, as Jonathon did. The only problem is that those who, like me, find the ads occassionally valuable don't currently have the option of adding them where they don't exist. So we are losing what to us is useful functionality when these ads are taken away. But I'm not about to tell, or even ask, website owners to add Google ads just to make me happy. Why would I, when I can do it myself?

I made my first Greasemonkey script, Add Google Ads, which adds Google ads to the top of every page (requires Firefox and Greasemonkey). For the curious, Jonathon's anti-Google ad post has Google ads for "Free Instant Ordination" and "Abbott Church Goods," while Shelley's has ads for "Directional Drilling" and "Rotary Steerable Tools." Hmm ... maybe this isn't as useful as I had thought it would be.

As they say, it don't take weather.com to see which way the wind blows. But what makes the internet magical for me is all the counter-currents. You can remove ads from my site, I can add ads to yours, and we can all be happy in this tornado.

 

Gabe writes:

Before we got to the final cordon of police surrounding us, we passed two young men in business suits. One man gave me his business card that read, "50% OFF: Mobile Protest Area (for 30 minutes, $5 for additional 30 minutes): EXERCISE YOUR RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH AT 1/2 THE COST: FREE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT PICKET SIGN RENTAL WITH THIS COUPON (or $3 for 30 minutes) -- Kids in FREE with Paying Adult -- [then in very small font] -- brought to you by Clear Channel.??" Then the other one produced a black box and pointed it at my head and took a Polaroid of my face and held it out to me shouting: "Commemorate your time here at this anti-establishment protest! Yours for only 8 dollars!"

I missed those guys. Probably around the same time I was reading a sign near the Libertarian demonstrator table. The sign had a phone number: "1-800-ELECTUS." I commented on how desperate that phone number seemed - no issues at all, just "elect us." Then we crossed the street to get a gander at the counter-demonstrators. When I saw the Libertarian counter-demonstrators, I felt sorry for the Libertarian Party, protesting against itself.

My favorite sign of the day was an outline of America with the words "Free Speech Zone" printed over it. As I was being pushed by a police horse into a crowd of people who weren't moving, I asked the officer standing next to me where exactly I was to go. He said "on the curb." I said "but the curb is full of people." He said "I know." I guess that's the bright side of the gradual restriction of free speech in America: the curb is always full of people, and the police know.

 

A few weeks ago I watched a Nova segment on mirror neurons, which are cells in our brians that activate both when we do something and when we see other people do the same thing. For example, when we smile certain neurons are active in our brains, when we see others smile, a different set of neurons are active, and those that are active in both situations are mirror neurons. These neurons are how we learn, how we relate to others, and largely the foundation of all civilization. So I was watching this with some interest when, towards the end, the topic turned to autism.

For nearly everyone I know, autism is defined as the condition Dustin Hoffman had in Rain Man. Some theorize that a lack of functional mirror neurons causes autism. The theory is that autistic people don't have enough working mirror neurons, so they have trouble picking up subtle social cues. When they see someone make a particular face to express some emotion, they don't learn what that face means. And eventually they grow to prefer activities they do understand, such as the Legos an autistic boy plays with in the Nova video I watched. There is a woman in this scene, presumably a scientist of some sort, watching the boy playing with Legos, studying him. When I saw that, I remembered a very similar scene from my own childhood, and suddenly I began wondering if I might be autistic.

There was a time during my childhood when a woman would regularly come to my house to watch me play with tinker toys. She would give me a pile of tinker toys, show me a picture of a completed object made of tinker toys, and then I would try to construct the object. The only object I remember was a ferris wheel, probably because it took me a long time to make.

It turns out that had nothing to do with autism. I called my mom and asked her about it, and she told me that the woman was doing some sort of study on how different parenting styles affect children. My mom was also rather dismissive of my thoughts that I might be autistic. She suggested I learn more about autism. My mother was a grade school teacher and has had a few autistic students, so I thought if she didn't think I might be autistic, it wasn't worth further investigation.

But then I started writing a new song, and it ended up being about an autistic kid. I started reading more about autism to finish the song. Then I came across a description of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night," a book Jessica happened to give me for Christmas because she thought I would enjoy it (I did). It turns out the narrator of the book is autistic.

As I read more and more about autism, I increasingly felt like I was reading about myself. Descriptions such as "prefers to be alone" and "little or no eye contact" (from the Autism Society of America) could probably describe any introvert. Many people who know me would say these phrases don't describe me. I think that's largely because I'm faking it. Almost all eye contact I make is a conscious effort to act normal. I know normal people make eye contact and I try to do the same. Most people make eye contact without thinking about it, but I generally don't.

Other descriptions of autistic behavior seem more specifically desriptive of me. For example, computer programming is popular among autistics, according to the Wikipedia article on autism, and I like to program. I think the "excessively lines up toys or other objects" characteristic, also from Wikipedia, is what really convinced me that I was on to something. My co-workers point out how odd it is that my thumb tacks are sorted by color, and my rubber bands by size and thickness. I don't know anyone else who does this.

Not everything is in its place in my apartment, but everything has a place. I can look at something and know where it should go. And it bothers me when Jessica is staying with me and there is suddenly stuff laying around that I am unable to put in a place, if only conceptually. I previously thought I was just strange in these ways, but now I have a name for this strangeness.

Initially, that name was "maybe autism." After too many comparisons to "Rain Man" I briefly tried describing what I thought was "very mild autism," but most people imagine autism is an either/or condition, rather than the wide spectrum that it is. It was suggested to me that I might have Asperger's syndrome rather than autism, and this is the current name I'm using. I choose this name not so much because I think it's more descriptive - I don't even know what the difference is between asperger's syndrome and "mild autism," though I gather there is one - but because it reliably avoids comparisons to "Rain Man."

I haven't yet spoken with anyone who seems to know more about this than I do. Nut like any good case of Asperger's, I trust the judgement of an automated computer program over a person anyway (just kidding ... sort of). I think I took the Wired AQ test when it first made rounds a few years ago, and I vaguely remember scoring just short of autistic and being surprised by this. I took it again recently and scored solidly autistic this time. I'm sure the score increase can be attributed to different expectations the two times I took the test, but both times point toward what I now strongly suspect: that I have Asperger's syndrome.

So what now? I've already found this bit of self-knowledge much more useful than previous bits. My Myers-Briggs classification is INTJ, which Michael Barrish recently pointed out is a nice way of saying "asshole." When I first learned that, I promptly forgot it until I recently went back to take a test and verify that I am, in fact, an asshole. And then there was the time I thought I had synaesthesia. Nothing has come of that. I guess time will tell what comes from my newest self-classification.

 

I'm using standard capitalization from here (or actually the previous post) on out. A few years ago I wrote about my reasons for not capitalizing: laziness. But these days I type enough in contexts outside of this weblog that it actually takes more effort to shift (no pun intended) myself into no-caps mode here.

This is sort of a mirror of my experience with hair. I ocassionally stop shaving or getting haircuts because I tire of the chores, but eventually the longer hair becomes more trouble than cutting it. I suspect there's some metaphor here for life in general, but I'm too lazy to formulate it properly.

 

Cory Doctorrow writes on boingboing:

As with last year, Slashdot's RSS server has banned the entire O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference from pulling its RSS feeds. There are about 400 geeks here running RSS readers that are pulling Slashdot's feed from behind the same IP address, as Slashdot's systems have interpreted this as one user repeatedly reloading it.

Why didn't any of those 400 geeks at the Emerging Tech conference emerge some tech (e.g. a local cache) in the past year to prevent this problem?

 

shelley kindly notified me that the comment forms were gone. a little investigation revealed that they weren't actually gone; they were just not showing up. too much time spent in further investigation led me to the conclusion that display:table was yet again to blame, and should not be used by mere CSS mortals like myself. however, i don't know how else to make pages with giant images look good, so i'm continuing to use it on a more limited basis. i'm sure i'll discover shortly that this is still breaking things, and give up on display:table altogether.

 

i thought my spring cleaning was going pretty well until i saw that shelley has returned and redesigned her site, reminding me that i have no idea what i'm doing with design. oh well.

 

here's a fun game for OS X people: create a text file with this line:

html { display: table; }

save it as fun.css, open safari's preferences, and add this file as your custom stylesheet. now go visit some webpages and watch as they melt and/or explode. you can also play this game in any application that uses safari's rendering engine and allows custom stylesheets, such as netnewswire. fun times.

 
i changed the style on randomchaos. it's been a while. i'm still adjusting to the relative lack of green, but i think i'll leave it like this for a while. i haven't done much work on the site in a long time. i'm going to do some spring cleaning around here now.
 

the baby name wizard is a neat visualization of baby name trends (which i spotted days ago on metafilter). i noticed a few trends: names that are popular today were unpopular in the 1960s, there are fewer names popular today, and the 60s names tend to start with vowels, Q, X and Z. i can't think of explanations for any of this, but the visuals make it appear to be more than mere coincidence. for example, compare "peter" and "patrick" with "oliver" and "owen" or "beth" and "becky" with "anna" and "abby." or just flip through the alphabet and watch which letters peak on the end(s) or the middle. hmm.

 

disemployed is reopen for job searches again. this time i'm focusing on small town jobs rather than the big search sites. i've also been starting with the general structure, which is pretty much done now. you can search jobs by keywords and locations, and subscribe to searches in the various XML formats or via email. now all it needs is the jobs. last time i started with the jobs, and the structure was sort of hacked together, so it was a lot of work to add more jobs. with a cleaner structure, it should be easier to add jobs now. that's the theory anyway. now it's time to see how it works in practice.

 

howard rheingold writes The results demonstrated that respondents were significantly more likely to vote for the candidate with whom their face had been morphed and then it might be possible for political candidates to juice up their persuasiveness in my household by morphing my driver's license photo into the image of their face. i suspect it will start with more general demographics, and very subtle morphing. commercials played in primarily hispanic voting precincts will make the candidate(s) appear slightly more hispanic. this practice will then continue to become more targeted and more blatant until someone catches it. i'm interested in a few questions: what year will this begin: 2008? 2012? or has it already begun? how long before the opposite is done (i.e. morphing an opponent's face ever so slightly with, say, hitler)? and how will voters react to this? surely if we were going to become upset enough about being manipulated by politicians to actually change our votes, we would have done so already, right?

 

immediately after the presidential election, john kerry started acting like a candidate i would want to vote for. i had already voted for him, but it was a compromise for me, not something i did with excitement. so when he started talking about issues like expanded health care coverage for children after the election, i wondered why. he was obviously trying to increase his viability for some future election, but if he thought health care or firing rumsfeld was a winning issue, why didn't he say so before he lost?

today i got an email from moveon that made it all clear to me. it turns out howard dean is almost certainly going to be the next chair of the democratic party, which was a wonderful surprise to me. this means dean will play a large role in determining who runs on the democratic ticket in future elections, which means he will have a lot of influence over john kerry's political future. also today, john kerry started pushing grassroots organizing of the democratic party, which sounds strikingly similar to what howard dean was talking about two weeks ago (and throughout his campaign). suddenly kerry looks like a cheap sellout who will exploit issues about which people care deeply solely for his own political gain. unless something convinces me i'm completely wrong about this, i'm not voting for john kerry again, even if his opponent is bush running for a third term.

 

yesterday the screen on my ibook went black. i restarted, and heard the sounds of a functional ibook, but no image on the screen. i expected i had just lost a recent $600 investment, but i used my other ibook to look for potential solutions to this problem, and quickly discovered that my ibook was one of a series with a known defect. i confirmed this with apple's support today and they are going to fix it free of charge. they originally told me that i had to drive thirty minutes to peoria to get this confirmed with an authorized apple service representative, but i thought i'd call the local apple store just to make sure, and sure enough, they are an authorized (though apparently unknown to apple) apple service representative. i am currently grabbing all of my important information off of the broken ibook, which i can only do because i had file sharing turned on. so i'm writing this both because it has worked out unexpectedly well so far, which makes a nice story, but also to encourage you to turn on file sharing on any macs you own, even if you never use it.

 

tiny mix tapes is a nice idea (pointed to by brad), but i've only read a few and i'm already wanting to point out what they so wrongfully neglected to include. i mean, how can you have a mix tape with a topic of I eat grapes by peeling off the skin and then I think about how the inside feels like an eyeball and not include the pixies' debaser, with the line slicing up eyeballs? oh the mix tape injustice...

 
 

i said earlier that i would write a review of my new wonder wash after using it for a while. i've been using it for about a week now, and i have mostly positive things to say about it. it has successfully achieved my goals of reduced water, detergent, electricity, and cost, as well as increased schedule flexibility and exercise for my laundry needs. the clothes are generally as clean as what i would get out of a laundry machine, and in the rare instances where they aren't quite as clean, i expect more closely following the instructions regarding amount of water and detergent would fix that. i've just been doing rough guesses so far.

my main worry before trying the wonder wash was the handle breaking, as the few comments i had found online indicating that might happen. but my handle is detachable, so i don't know how it could possibly break. another positive surprise has been how little time it takes to do a load of laundry. i can fill, wash, rinse, hand wring, and hang a load of laundry (about a day and a half worth of clothes for one person) in only about fifteen minutes. in general, i haven't had any real problem so far, and i would recommend the wonder wash.

Update: Wonder Wash instructions have been posted to my website, thanks to Hanna Bachman for typing them and sending them to me.

 

today, the bloomington-normal citizens for peace and justice held an alternative bush inauguration in downtown bloomington. we inaugurated a juniper bush. you can read the press release over on gabe's weblog. i wrote most of the speech that was read. here it is:

This bush has never betrayed our trust. It has never mislead us about weapons of mass destruction. It has never made hollow statements about protecting our environment while pushing laws to harm our environment. It has never promised to educate our children, and failed to honor its promise. Every word this bush has ever spoken was true. This is an honest bush. An honest bush is good for America. An honest government is good for America.
This bush has never killed. It has never put a single American in harm's way. It has never attacked another country without reason. This bush believes in the value of human life, and fights to preserve it, not destroy it. This is a peaceful bush. A peaceful bush is good for America. A peaceful government is good for America.
This bush improves the environment. This bush has a record of removing harmful carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. This bush knows global warming is a problem, and is working with plants and people around the world to solve this problem. This bush has no ties with the oil industry. This bush supports renewable energy sources. This is an environmentally friendly bush. An environmentally friendly bush is good for America. An environmentally friendly government is good for America.
This bush doesn't waste money. This bush provides resources for everyone. This bush does not support corporate welfare. This bush sides with working people over big business. This bush will provide for all, rich or poor, old or young. This bush has never spent more money than it has. This bush never threw itself lavish parties while ignoring those in need. This is a fiscally responsible bush. A fiscally responsible bush is good for America. A fiscally responsible government is good for America.
This bush believes in equal rights. This bush has never attacked a minority for political gain. This bush has never called for inequality to smear our nation's constitution. This bush treats all Americans the same. A bush that supports equality is good for America. A government that supports equality is good for America.
This bush is good for America. This is the best bush we know. We hereby inaugurate this bush.
An inauguration is a new beginning, an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to what we know is right. On this inauguration day, we inaugurate this bush, and with it we inaugurate the values that are good for America. We inaugurate honesty. We inaugurate peace. We inaugurate a healthy planet. We inaugurate responsibility. And we inaugurate equality.
 

shelley writes:

So it’s not surprising, though perhaps is ironic, to see that there is actually better representation of women and blacks and other racial minorities in the professional journalist circles than there is in the so-called ‘citizen journalistic’ ranks of weblogging, because there is no economic or social incentive for the citizen journalists to look outside of their ranks. At least, not at the moment.

i find that both interesting and suspicious. the interesting part is that the most famous professional journalists are, quite ironically, more diverse than the most famous webloggers. at the same time, i had this sneaking suspicion that the famous in either camp weren't actually representative of the wholes. so are women and minorities really disproportionally under-represented within "citizen journalism" (i.e. weblogging)? i have no doubt that they are under-represented within the so-called "a-list" of weblogging, but what about the other 99%?

i thought i read somewhere that there were more women than men with weblogs. turns out that was on shelley's weblog. so women, at least, would appear to be reasonably represented in weblogging. i'll assume the same is not true for lower-income people, as internet access costs money and time. and i have no idea about racial minorities, but i doubt the disparity is as great within weblogging as it is within professional journalism.

so what about the other 99% in professional journalism? how do the local markets fair in minority representation? within weblogging, it would appear that those with the largest audiences are the least diverse. however, the opposite seems to be true in professional journalism. see this table of data from "Minorities and Women in Radio News," a report by vernon stone of the missouri school of journalism:

____________________________________________

Table 1. Female and Minority Shares of the
Radio News Work Force -- 1994 
____________________________________________

                    Female   Minority     N

All stations         31.3%     11.3%     248

Major markets        32.9%     16.4%      35
Large markets        26.6%     16.8%      44
Medium markets       29.9%     10.0%      82
Small markets        28.8%      5.0%      90
____________________________________________

both women and minorities are less common in smaller markets. given the limited sample size, the date, and geographic area, that may not be representative of broader trends today, but i would guess that it is.

so what does a statement like there is actually better representation of women and blacks and other racial minorities in the professional journalist circles mean when there are, actually, proportionally fewer women and minorities in professional journalism as a whole? it means we are measuring representation by the top section of the medium, rather than by the whole. this is a common mistake, but we need to stop making it if we hope to improve any of this.

the problem is that resposibility and authority are intertwined. every time we assert that someone has a responsibility, we are assuming that they have - and implying that they should have - the authority to exercise that resposibility. that's okay when they should have that authority, not so good when they shouldn't but do have the authority, and downright bad when they don't even have the authority and we are demanding responsibility as if they do. specifically, unless we are willing to allow the "a-list" webloggers to rule "citizen journalism," we should stop demanding that they rule fairly. if we don't like what they are doing, we should ignore them before we don't have that option.

the same is true of professional media. this is a point i frequently raise within my local peace and justice organization. members frequently complain of an apparent right-wing bias in the local newspaper, yet when it comes time to do some advertising, we invariably send our money to the same local newspaper. and most subscribe to the same paper. and those who write letters send them to the same paper, despite the existance of a viable and friendlier alternative, "the indy".

there is, of course, a balancing act. the readership of the indy is an important factor in considering support. likewise, if you want an idea to be heard online, you probably don't want to completely disassociate yourself with everyone who has a sizable audience. but it's my impression that most of those i see complaining about by media, whether professional or weblog, don't even stop to seriously consider the possibility of ending all association with the media they don't like. i think ignoring is an under-used tactic for changing. and it may just be the best tactic where attention defines value.

 

one of my recent projects was a collective bibliography tool. it's pretty much del.icio.us with books and films added to the tagged mix. unfortunately, of about 120 users for whom i made accounts and announced this tool, i appear to be the only person using it. i'm not sure why i bother, but i continue to post everything i see recommended on this group's email list, hoping some day someone else will notice this nifty tool and start using it.

but that's not why i'm pointing you to it. you can't actually post items using this tool unless you are one of the select few who has an account, and odds are you're not. but you can see what a bunch of peaceniks are recommending to each other and appreciate what a great application i made.

 

i just ordered myself a "wonder wash," a hand-operated pressure washing machine. i wasn't able to track down more than a couple online reviews of similar machines, and both suggested that the handle might fall off, though both seemed to continue using it after that happened. it's only $50, so i thought it was worth the risk. i'm hoping this will give me more flexibility with where and when i do my laundry, give me a reason to get some exercise, and maybe even help the environment a bit. i'll try to post some sort of review up here after i've used it a few times for anyone else considering buying one.

update: see review, as promised.

 

Disemployed is currently closed. sigh...