Adina Levin's weblog. Mostly for conversation about books I've been reading. Other stuff too.

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Thursday, October 31, 2002

Migration, URL poll, and comments
This coming weekend, I'll be migrating the weblog to Movable Type.

Blogger has been a great way to get started quickly, but I always wanted the opportunity to play around with the form and the tools, and Moveable Type is more open.

Does anyone have an opinion about whether to go with or Please send comments, or, if the comments engine is off, send me email at alevin [at] alevin [dot] com. For the curious, those urls don't have anything there yet, and just points you back here :-)

By the way, I've turned the comments feature off for the last few days because enetation has been struggling to keep up with the server load. I hope that Rob is able to get enough money to keep the servers up and running because it is a very useful service.

More email/weblog discussion
In the conversation over at O'Reilly, Giles Turnbull writes that he simulcasts his mailing list as a weblog.

I like this idea, though my personal preference is the inverse of Giles; I try to keep the number of inbound mailing lists down to a critical few, and prefer going out and browsing a wider variety of blogs and list archives. Keeps the inbox cleaner and the guilt level down.

I was planning on writing a utility to generate an email version of the blog once the site goes live with Movable Type. The added wrinkle is that I want to set up the lists by topic, so people can subscribe to posts on personal updates, or complex systems, or technology, or politics.

In the weblog, Giles has an interesting proposal for a service that would convert mailing lists to newsfeeds and back, along the lines of Aaron Swartz' rss2email utility, but operated as a web service accessible to non-hackers.

Nice idea, but vulnerable to the type of performance woes that afflict popular free services.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Google Usenet search is knowledge management.
Last weekend I was working on a little utility to post to MovableType via email. And I got stuck figuring out how to include files that lived in different directories. The instructions in the book and the PythonWin IDE were confusing and insufficiently helpful. So I turned to the source of all earthly wisdom.

A quick search of the Google Usenet archives found questions from several people who've been confused by the same problem over the last decade, complete with helpful and instructive answers. I followed the instructions that Python guru Tim Peters provided a newbie in 2001: no need to mess with the Windows registry; simply include the reference to the desired path in the header of your program.

Google Usenet search is incredibly useful for this type of question. Books don't have space in 300 pages, or even 1200 pages to cover every conceivable implementation decision and configuration nightmare. FAQs are effective precisely because a patient editor has distilled the sea of knowledge into an elixir of Questions asked Frequently. By contrast, Google Usenet search isn't bounded by page count or the patience of human editors. Someone, somewhere has encountered the problem that has you climbing the walls, and someone, somewhere has answered it.

Many person-hours of labor and numerous PhD theses have been devoted to designing sophisticated knowledge management systems, incorporating text painstaking tagged and cleverly autosummarized; employing expert rules and meticulously built case repositories. But my guess is that a really good search engine and a deep database of human conversation can beat fancy knowledge management a lot of the time, and most of rest of the time, the Google-Usenet approach wins on price-performance.

Once again, the intelligence in the semantic web is largely human; a person who asked a question, and a person who answered it; the machine merely serves to connect today's seeker with yesterday's guru.

Of course, to succeed with this approach, as David Weinberger points out, you need to know how to phrase a query that will retrieve the right antique conversations. "PYTHONPATH Windows" succeeded instantly at finding the answer to my question last weekend. The skill of phrasing a search query ought to be taught in middle school, around the same time kids get old enough to figure out that a paragraph should have a main idea.

From Diego Duval, of the Abort, Retry, Fail weblog.

Open source, license to be determined. He says its working and will be posted for download next week.
It's written in pure Java2, we'll see how it works on my limping Win98 laptop.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Tim O'Reilly wants to send email to his weblog too.

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Email-to-Movable Type
This weekend I wrote a small Python program to post entries to MovableType via email. I used Mark Pilgrim's Python wrapper for the Blogger XML-RPC API, PyBlogger, and Mark Lutz' examples of Python email programming. The 'mailblog' pulls mail from a pop3 email address used only for blog posting. The script also works to post to Blogger, but Blogger Pro already has the feature.


  • Post via email is the one indispensable feature that Blogger has and MT doesn't

  • Mailblog lets you address an email post with a friend in the to: field and the blog email address in the bcc: field. Can't do that with the Blogger feature. This exactly duplicates the intent I have in publishing the blog, which is to share with more people things that I was already writing via private email, without committing spam.

  • Drawbacks:

  • Need to manually trigger the script to pull the email into the CMS. This is not a big drawback. In some ways it's more convenient than the blogger implementation, which apparently works by polling the mail server ever 5 minutes, so email posts take a while to show up. The "blogmail" script generates the post instantly. I could avoid the manual step by writing a server-side procmail script to instigate the post when the email is received. But first I need to learn procmail.

  • Pyra hasn't yet published the API for the title field, so email posts need to be titled manually. MT doesn't complain.

  • What I learned:

  • Mark Pilgrim's PyBlogger is lovely. Written for other people to read and use, not just for the computer to interpret. The code is clear, the variables are words, and the comments/inline docs are lucid and unambigous. Docs and comments so often contain grammatically correct English sentences with more than one possible logical meaning.

  • PYTHONPATH. The biggest stumbling block was figuring out how to include files that lived in faraway directories. Mark Lutz' directions and the PythonWin IDE were unclear. Fortunately for my self-confidence, numerous others have described the topic as confusing, including the esteemed Python guru, Tim Peters. The polite way to do this is add references to the required files in the header of your program, in this manner: sys.path.append('C:\\Program Files\Zope\lib\python').

  • How about, market down for the year on fears of endless war?
    Mitch Ratcliffe picked up a Slate story by Daniel Gross, speculating that the stock market was up on Friday in response to Senator Wellstone's death.

    Here's what I posted to the Slate discussion board in response:

    It seems ludicrous to theorize about the market bouncing on Friday in response to Senator Wellstone's death without also drawing a connection between the market's terrible performance over the last year and business concerns about the prospect for war without end.

    If anything, it seems just as logical to attribute the market's rise over the last few weeks to the apparent easing of the threat of imminent war. Polls show most Americans worry about the potential for war with Iraq to spread elsewhere in the Middle East, and fear that the administration hasn't thought through the requirements and consequences of a long-term occupation. Seems only reasonable that Wall Street would reflect these worries.

    Saturday, October 26, 2002

    Reactions to the death of Senator Wellstone
    AP Wire story

    from Andrew Sullivan

    Senator Wellstone acted according to his convictions, and had the respect of friends, allies and adversaries.

    Baruch Dayan Emet.

    Friday, October 25, 2002

    On Wolfram
    For folks who got here from Dave Weinberger's weblog and landed on the front page, the Wolfram-related entries are Kurtzweil on Wolfram and Weinberg on Wolfram.

    For other entries on complex systems, browse at your leisure. This weblog will gain a subject index shortly.

    Thursday, October 24, 2002

    Yoga videos
    Just had a really nice time with this Ali McGraw yoga video, with Erich Schiffman as the teacher. I use props for some of the standing poses, and am a lot less flexible than the beautiful people getting sand in their toes and their tights in the White Sands Desert. I was able to concentrate, rather than to wish each pose would finish as soon as possible. Four years ago this tape seemed completely impossible. I've also been enjoying Rodney Yee's power yoga for strength, which is labeled for beginners but isn't, as the Amazon comments tend to say. As strength training, much prefer this to lifting weights. Lifting weights is dull, and yoga is not dull because of the concentration.

    I can't help but think sarcastic thoughts when the teachers get schmaltzy. When the Yoga teacher to the Hollywood stars says, "surrender completely, love is what you have when there is nothing left" -- I mentally translate "give me all of your money, and savor the feeling of inner peace." If anybody knows that Erich Schiffman is really not, on some level, a phony, please let me know and I'll stop making fun of him.

    Combine Eastern spirituality with Eastern European Jewish guilt and Misnagnish disdain for spiritual exhibitionism, and I feel kind of awkward and guilty writing about yoga practice. The Austin weather forecast calls for thunderstorms; if the house is hit by lightning I'll know what happened.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2002

    On hybrid forms
    There's a current of creativity flowing in communication and collaboration software, where people are blending aspects of weblogs and wikis, email and aggregation.

    In the last few days, I came across a couple of examples of people discussing and experimenting with such things.

    Anil Dash recently posted an essay on the "Microcontent Client." The concept is a desktop tool that will organize all of the information fragments in one's web experience; something that takes all of one's RSS feeds and google searches and bookmarks and weblog entries, categorizes them, and weaves them into an organized pattern.

    One of the ideas I like is having authoring and search built into one's basic desktop toolset -- personal html authoring tools seem pretty underdeveloped these days. (A friend just recommended TopStyle Pro and Dreamweaver MX).

    I'm ambivalent about the notion of a managed "personal information space" with lots of aggregation feeds, nicely organized bookmarks, etc. The world is a big sea of information with a few islands of things that one pays close enough attention to organize; what feels missing is not the organizing tools but the time and attention to organize more things!

    Overall, the design philosophy of the Microcontent Client feels a too "robot web" for me. Anil writes that "the passive authoring of the microcontent client creates content that even the 'author' doesn't yet know they want to read", and "users running the client will find unused processor cycles being tapped to discover relationships and intersections between ideas."

    I suppose what he means is a sort of personalized Google News or personalized Pilgrim context links; but idea of AI discovering insights while you sleep sounds sci-fi and somewhat creepy. (For the Pilgrim links, see Further Reading on Today's Posts, below the blog entries:

    Anil alludes to the reinvention of Usenet in the weblog context; but he doesn't talk enough about the nouns and verbs of usenet -- people and conversation. And therefore, I think, misses key areas of functionality, to support people having conversations and remembering what was said.

    In another experiment along these lines, Bill Seitz is working on a weblog that is based on a wiki platform and is integrated with the wiki collaboration space.

    I like and understand this concept better; which is to integrate the chronologically organized thoughts of weblogs with the linked, topic-organized thoughts of wikis.

    One of the things that I like here is the complementarity between the weblog material that is "published", however informally, and the wiki matrix, which is a soup of thoughts in varying levels of completeness.

    The form seems well-designed to facilitate "gardening" where contextual elements are organized to support some blog topic. Google auto-links would be a nice addition. Perhaps this is what Anil meant, too; but the emphasis here is on the person, helped perhaps by the machine.

    One thing that still seems unfinished in Bill's implementation (which is brand new!) is integrating the more structured, graphical publishing of the weblog with the unstructured whiteboard of the wiki.

    One benefit of weblogs is that they are conceptualized as a publishing tool; and therefore have functions for graphic presentation and structured navigation which help readers find their way around. The navigation design of a weblog is so basic that you barely notice that it is there; yet there is a set of structured conventions: the ubiquitous date-formatted posting, and also typically a title, author bios, comments, archives, and links.

    Wikis have a text-editor sort of glorious simplicity, which may be wonderful for the author, who has the navigational structure in her head, but is somewhat hard on the reader who is swimming without lane markers in a pool of links. Bill has added navigational bread crumbs, and coloring for entry dates, but that's still not enough navigational structure; I still feel rather dizzy.

    Good food for thought, more toys to play with.

    And as for already extinct creatures....
    A few weeks back, I wrote about programs that model the development of plants. If you change the parameters of the development algorithm you generate shapes that resemble different types of plants.

    Following that thread, I recently read Shapes of Time: The Evolution of Growth and Development. This is a fascinating book that looks at the mechanisms of development in animals, and how those mechanisms affect evolution.

    Like the plant models on screen, developing embryos in real life follow a program, where small changes in key parameters generate major changes in shape. There's not one program, but several; during the first phase of growth, parameters are controlled by the egg, later on by the chemical environment in the embryo; still later, by hormones, and by the ratio of cell growth to cell death. In all of these stages, changes in the quantity and timing of key parameters create changes in development.
    • In the fruit fly, the "bicoid" gene within the fertilized egg
      controls the creation of a modular body. "A gradient of
      decreasing concentration of the protein from head to tail controls
      the pattern of segmentation (p. 50)." Where the protein is found
      in high concentration, the head develops; where the concentration
      is moderate, the thorax develops; where the concentration is low,
      the abdomen develops.

    • Next, the concentration of the bicoid protein activates Hox genes,
      which control body segment development by changes in the position,
      timing, or level of their expression. For example, Hox genes
      control a protein that inhibits limb development; turn up the
      concentration of that protein, and the number of limbs declines
      from many in early arthropods to six in modern insects.

    • In a later stage of development, the chemical environment in the
      cell controls development. Increasing the concentration of one
      molecule by 1.5 times causes the molecules to develop into muscle
      cells rather than skin cells.

    • Later on, hormones control growth. The pace of growth and timing
      of of life stages affects animal size and behavior. In ants, for
      example, the timing of exposure to hormones controls the emergence
      of different castes of ants. Ants that are exposed to more
      juvenile hormone grow for longer, and become large, fierce
      soldiers instead of smaller, more docile workers.

    • Another mechanism is the reduction in the rate of cell death.
      Fingers and toes arise because of the rapid death of cells between
      the digits; a slower rate of cell death results in webbed feet (as
      in ducks and turtles).

    Changes in the developmental program may help to explain the emergence of new forms - for example, the evolution of four-legged creatures from fish, according to one recent hypothesis. Fins and limbs arise from the same underlying structure, but the growth parameters are controlled differently. A limb bud has both mesodermal cells (which evolve into flesh and bone), and ectodermal cells, which evolve into skin. In fish, the ectoderm rapidly folds over, halting the growth of mesoderm, and further growth is the skinlike tissue of a fin. In lobe-finned fishes, which represent an intermediate evolutionary step, the mesoderm grows for longer before the ectoderm folds, resulting in a fin that has a stub of flesh and bone, and an extension of fin. In tetrapods, the mesodermal growth continues for much longer, creating a long structure of flesh and bone; with a remnant of nail, claw or hoof at the end.

    Changes in the developmental program enable organisms to adapt to new niches. In western Australia, along the sloping bed of the ocean shelf, there can be found fossil brachiopods that become progressively younger-looking as the gradient ascends. The pedicle (sucker-foot) is larger relative to the rest of the body in younger creatures; a slower growth rate would result in adults who were better able to stick to the rocks in wave-wracked shallow waters.

    The application of this theory to the evolution of humans is quite fascinating, but this post is quite long enough; read the book if you're interested; or ask me and I'll summarize :-)

    There were two main things about the book that were interesting to me.
    • First was the concept and the illustration of the algorithm of
      development, from egg to adult organism.
    • Second is the implication of these algorithms for evolution. It seems
      pretty surprising that small mutations and genetic recombinations can
      generate large change in a relatively short time. It's less strange when
      you think about the development process, where small changes can have
      big effects in the resulting organism; and changes that result in
      competitive advantage are passed on.

    That's what I liked about the book. The author's interests were less computational -- the main thesis of the book is about a debate in the field of biology that has been raging since Darwin. The debate is about whether evolutionary development represents "progression" from simplicity to complexity, or "regression" from complexity to simplicity.

    Ernst Haeckel, the 19th century biologist who coined the term "biology", theorized that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." According to this theory, development retraces the steps of evolution; embryos of mammals pass through developmental stages that resemble worms, then fishes, then reptiles, then the ultimate mammalian stage. The theory was influenced by an ideology that saw evolution as progression to ever-greater levels of complexity, with humans, of course, at the top of the chain. This theory reigned as scientific orthodoxy until the 1930s.

    The problem with the theory is that there is plenty of evidence that contradicts it. In the '30s, biologists Walter Garstang and Gavin de Beer advocated the opposite theory, pedomorphosis. This theory proposed that as organisms develop, they become more like the juveniles of the species. There is plenty of evidence showing this pattern. For example, some species of adult ammonites have shapes that are similar to the juveniles of their ancestor species. According to this theory, human evolution is the story of Peter Pan; we are chimps who never grow up.

    Following Stephen Jay Gould, McNamara thinks both sides are right; and he supports Gould's thesis with troves of evidence from many species across the evolutionary tree. Organisms can develop "more" than their ancestors, by growing for a longer period of time, starting growth phases earlier, or growing faster. Or organisms can appear to develop "less" than their ancestors, by growing for a shorter period of time, starting growth phases later, or growing more slowly.

    McNamara romps through the animal kindom, from trilobites to ostriches to humans, giving examples of evolution showing that a given species has some attributes that represent extended development, and others that represent retarded development compared to their ancestors. Not being socialized as a biologist, the debate has no charge for this reader. It makes perfect sense that the development program has parameters that can be tuned both up and down!

    McNamara's academic specialty is fossil sea urchins, while his day job is a museum of paleontology in Australia. I suspect that the pedagogical impulse of the museum job shows in the book. He's not a populist on the Stephen Jay Gould scale, but the book its decently written (though it could be better edited), and provides enough context so a non-specialist reader can read it quite enjoyably.

    I liked it a lot, and plan to follow up with more on related topics, perhaps:

    If you're familiar with the topic and have tips for a curious reader, let me know.

    Monday, October 21, 2002

    Let the dinosaurs die
    An open letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell explains why the government shouldn't prop up the ailing telecom behemoths.

    Telecom companies bought expensive network technology with long bonds. That technology has been made obsolete by gear getting faster and cheaper all the time by Moore's law and Metcalfe's law. The telecom companies are asking for the equivalent of a bailout for their investments in sailing ships after the advent of steam.

    The way to speed the deployment of broadband to homes isn't to prop up businesses based on old technology, but to let uncompetitive businesses "fail fast", and let new competitors play.

    Read it; and if you agree, contact your legislator and pass it on.

    Sunday, October 20, 2002

    Movable Type, Mitch Kapor and the semantic web
    I've been a little slow on reading for the last couple of weeks, working on code instead. Learned CSS last weekend, and installed Movable Type this weekend. The MT software lets you categorize entries, so people who want to catch up on my life don't have to slog through essays on complex systems, and vice versa. The code is available, which raises all kinds of intriguing possibilities for nifty hacks, involving email and the Amazon API and comments.

    The technology industry is in a depression, and the big boys and girls wonder if the days of innovation are behind us. But there's plenty of creativity going on in the open source world.

    A couple of years ago, open source hackers were working on OS kernel implementations, web servers, and development tools. Reliable, heavy-duty carpenter's tools; software of, by, and for professional technologists, intent on improving the machine, and more power to them.

    These days, there are also communities working on tools for publishing, collaboration, communication. Creative applications using the Amazon API, the Google API, RSS syndication. And I just read on SlashDot that Mitch Kapor and Andy Hertzfeld are working on an open source competitor to Outlook, using bits and pieces of Mozilla, Jabber, and Python. The current wave of open source software development is in tools and applications for people.

    Some thoughts about this trend, in several different directions:

    1) During the boom, Jerry Michalski, an industry visionary and highly decent human being, used to talk about how the internet would provide tools for people to communicate and collaborate. And he'd talk about the potential for Yahoo and Amazon and AOL to be new platforms. But the economy went south, companies slowed innovation, and focused understandably on paying the bills. The good thing is, there's no reason to wait for a Yahoo or Amazon or Microsoft to provide the tools. People are coding happily away in kitchens and living rooms.

    2) Despite the fact that Mitch Kapor's project seems to attack Microsoft in an area of towering strength, his business isn't as crazy as it sounds. IBM is building a big business implementing open source software; there are similar services opportunities downmarket of IBM. IBM would be quite happy to deploy armies of professional service people to deploy an open source messaging system.

    The Kapor announcement is vaporware; it may or may not go anywhere. The niche might be filled by some other project, some other year. But open source poses a threat to Microsoft's dominance of the email market, just as it does in operating systems.

    3) Tim Berners-Lee and various other very smart people have described a vision of the "semantic web." According to Berners-Lee's view, the Semantic Web would be for machines what the World Wide Web is for people, a uniform way to see and use vast amounts of formerly hidden information. The classic example is a robot secretary that will scour the web and schedule your airfares, hotel rooms, and meetings, using metadata published according to standards, and discovered via automated search and publish/subscribe notification.

    Open source hackers and software companies are building a semantic web today, and it's different from Berners-Lee's vision. In the robot version of the semantic web, the nodes of the network consist of information, nicely categorized according to standard XML taxonomies. The links consist of protocols and tools to traverse the network, and automated processes to make calculations and execute transactions; to find the shortest travel time at the lowest cost.

    In the version of the semantic web exemplified by, Daypop and Google News, the nodes of the network are people. The links of the network are relationships among people; who are reading books, selecting stories to publish, selecting sites to link. Google News, which is marketed as a replacement for human editors, depends thoroughly on humans; editors and bloggers, who select the stories to cover to begin with, and readers around the world, who chose which stories to read. The semantic web doesn't replace human intelligence, it multiplies it by connecting people.

    Despite the Nasdaq, tech innovation surely isn't done.

    Saturday, October 19, 2002

    Who's paying the bills?
    There's an ongoing weblog conversation about whether bloggers need to disclose who's paying the bills when they express an opinion on a subject, just like other journalists, pundits, consultants, and miscellaneous public figures.

    The debate was sparked by Mobius, a PR event to tout Microsoft's latest PDA technology. Recognizing that bloggers influence opinion, Microsoft invited bloggers to the event.

    As I wrote in correspondence to Mitch Ratcliffe, who's been ranting on the topic lately, "Of course bloggers are subject to influence by whoever's paying the bills!! Anyone who thinks for a moment should realize it-- marketers have been co-opting grass roots movements for decades. What product was John Lennon's Imagine used to shill again? Remember the Pepsi Generation? Who is sponsoring the latest Extreme sports competition?

    For a historical perspective on the co-option of grassroots movements by marketers, take a look at Commodify Your Dissent!

    Disclosure: I've seen and heard multiple reviews, articles and interviews by and about the Baffler crowd, but I haven't read the whole book.

    Thursday, October 17, 2002

    How People (Really) Make Decisions
    A conversation yesterday with Pete Kaminski brought to mind one of the more interesting books I've read in the last few years.

    The book is called Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, by Gary Klein, a social science researcher and consultant. The book is badly named. It's not a neo-Machiavellian business manual; it's fascinating social science research on how people (really) make decisions, in contrast to how we think people make decisions, influenced by our mental models of people as computers.

    Spoiler: people make and share decisions with stories

    Klein started out looking to find experimental evidence for the way people make decisions, based on long-established academic work on decision theory. The conventional theory predicts that people compare alternatives, and make a rational choice among alternatives. The conventional wisdom is bolstered by a mental model of the brain as a computer, which methodically compares choices in a decision algorithm.

    Klein's group did fieldwork among experienced professionals who make frequent life-and-death decisions as part of their job -- intensive care nurses, fire-fighters, military tank commanders. What they found, to their suprise, is that people's decision-making process is nothing like the textbook model.

    Klein made two interesting discoveries -- about how experts make decisions, and how they communicate with co-workers.

    Expert decision-makers don't analyze and evaluate alternative options. Instead, they visualize a picture of the situation in their minds eye, envision a single course of action, and run a mental movie carrying out the action. If the scenario plays out, they quickly act. They never consider a second alternative. If there is a problem with the mental scenario, they visualize a second course of action, and implement it instantly if the mental movie plays through.

    The experts mental images are very rich; an experienced fire-fighter will imagine the structural stresses on various parts of the building based on the appearance and sound of the fire. An experienced intensive care nurse will visualize a diagnosis based on few clues about a baby's skin color, breathing, and vital signs. When the experts visualize the image, they don't think about the components, one-by-one; they quickly identify "points of leverage" -- what aspects of the system are most subject to change.

    Post-mortem analysis shows that the "first-choice" decisions by experienced experts are most often right; the second-best choices identified in case study analysis are less good than the expert's first choice.

    Klein's group found that the rational, comparative method of decision-making was followed, not by experts, but by novices first learning the field. Despite the fact that novices were following a more analytical method, the highly considered choices of novices were more likely to be wrong than the expert's first choice.

    When experts troubleshoot a problem, they also diverge from the textbook model. Instead of analyzing the components of the problem, they tell a story to explain the various facts. When expert mentors teach novices, in the field and by the water cooler, they communicate their lessons by means of stories.

    I particularly liked the way Klein summarized the difference between computerized decision making methods (define a closed-problem space, break the space into sub-spaces, search the sub-spaces) and human decision-making (pattern-match based on experience, simulate scenarios using imagination, use an iterative process to reach goal, change the goal if necessary; and communicate learning using stories.

    However, there is a significant limitation to Klein's observations.

    The decision-making methods that Klein describes enable experts to make quick, effective decisions under pressure. But those skills support preset strategies. The commander of a fire-fighting unit can save the lives of his team and extinguish the fire; but he can't say whether the Forest Service should have a fire-suppression policy in the first place. Sometimes the intuition of experts can lead them astray, when the situation calls for a truly novel response.

    By the way, I was referred to the book by my friend David Blank-Edelman, the author of Perl for System Administration, who used the book's concepts in a conference presentation on the similarity between network administration and veterinary medicine.

    Wednesday, October 16, 2002

    Austin Blog Meetup
    Went to the Austin Blog MeetUp tonight. It was good to meet fellow bloggers; Kathryn, Adam Rice, Prentiss Riddle, David Nunez.

    There were several interesting conversational threads....

    * On blogging and personal disclosure. We talked about Mark Pilgrim's
    moving blog-published story of addiction and recovery, which got him
    fired from one job and hired at the next, and about Kathryn's experience
    with friends who reacted very badly to blog entries causing a conflict
    that hasn't yet been resolved.

    As for my thoughts on the topic: I am not much of an exhibitionist. Part
    of this is wimpiness; I don't want to write things that I wouldn't want
    potential employers to read. Part of it is concern for you, the reader;
    my private fears, worries and doubts are compelling to me, but I don't
    imagine they would be interesting to anyone I don't know in real life.
    Part of it is a desire for security: it feels safer to share personal
    stories, in person, with people I know well and trust.

    * On maintaining social norms in online community. There seems to be a
    continuum starting with small discussion groups where people use their
    own names, in which people maintain face-to-face social norms; to larger
    mailing lists, where people sometimes flame, but social norms can keep
    misbehavior in check; to large forums that use automated tools to help
    implement social norms (SlashDot moderation); to large, anonomyous
    forums which devolve into incoherent hostility (Usenet, Yahoo messages).

    * On blogging and community. We talked about using comments and log
    reports to get a sense of feedback from blogging, and brainstormed a
    couple ideas to increase blog-related community. It would be wildly cool
    to be able to aggregate blog comments into a distributed threaded
    discussion. I was thinking about how to implement this last weekend; and
    found that that the MoveableType crew is working on it. It should be
    some combination of talkback and RSS syndication/aggregation. That way,
    people who happened to be reading the same book at the same time could
    share a conversation. Prentiss suggested a sort of LivePerson IM for
    blogs; where a reader could click a "talk to the blogger" button and
    chat. That would need to be implemented with IM-style controls:
    invitations to indicate to readers when the blogger was available, and
    "keep out" features to repel antisocial visitors, so that a "hey baby
    wanna" visitor would go away instantly and permanently.

    * On Moveable Type and CSS. Adam kindly explained some subtleties of
    about using CSS elegantly to support the structure of your information.
    I spent last weekend learning basic CSS, and plan to spend some time
    this weekend playing with MoveableType, the better to categorize the
    blog for people who are interested in some topics much more than others.

    * On MeetUp. The revenue model for MeetUp is to make referral fees from
    the venues where people meet; so MeetUp suggests a ballot of places to
    meet, and visitors vote. This time round, MeetUp suggested a Starbucks,
    a bowling alley, and a video arcade. Not as bad a ballot as "Saddam
    Hussein", or "slow, painful death from torture", but still not great.
    Two venues wholly unsuitable for the group, and a chain coffeeshop in a
    city with plenty of fine independents. Hopefully, MeetUp will accept
    suggestions for independent businesses.

    Despite the flaws in the venue selection, it was a good and useful
    service; helped people find each other based on a common interest, and
    automated some of the labor-intensive aspects of organizing a meeting,
    like sending out reminders, with location, address and phone number.
    What with the bust, people downplay the internet; but there are
    plenty of ways still that the internet provides helpful new tools for
    people to connect and the interenet.

    And a couple of reflections on the meeting.

    * You know you've been in Austin too long when the weather is perfectly
    pleasant (mid-60s), yet you go out underdressed.

    * MeetUps need colored table tents to attract people who don't know each
    other. Prentiss and Kathryn, and Adam and I met separately, and we
    didn't meet each other until David Nunez showed up, whom I recognized
    from EFF Austin.

    * I know better than to have caffeine at 9pm. It was cold outside, and they
    were out of decaf, so I ordered a chai latte for the warmth, and it's 2am now.

    Monday, October 14, 2002

    Fake people
    Microsoft is getting a lot of well-deserved mockery for its astroturf ad campaign about a person who switched from Mac to Windows. Unfortunately, the woman in the phony testimonial looked suspiciously like a certain PhotoDisk model.

    For some reason, web hosting services seem to be especially drawn to the use of fake people in their marketing. I was looking for a new host for, and noticed that many hosting services seem to advertise their discount plans with pictures of cheesy, fake-looking people . Meanwhile, there is no information to be found about any real managers or tech-support humans at the company.

    Why does anyone think people are fooled by this? Whenever I see pictures of fake people, I imagine surly, disheveled employees in a basement somewhere, surrounded by cigarette butts in cups of day-old coffee scum.

    By the way, I signed up with Cornerhost , which has the advantage of being run by a real person.

    Sunday, October 13, 2002

    Lessig explains the Eldred arguments
    Prof. Lessig explains in his weblog about the legal issues that the Supreme Court will consider in deliberating on the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case (about whether Congress has the legal ability to extend copyright protection ad infinitum). Lessig's explanation is far more helpful than most of the journalists and citizenbloggers who covered the arguments like a sporting event.

    I hope that the decision in the spring comes out in favor of Eldred and the public domain. Either way (as I wrote on the comments page of Prof. Lessig's blog), this is just one battle in a long war, with battlefields in the courts and congress and the press and the public.

    If the Justices understand the problem, and Lessig felt they did, that's one step forward. If technologists understand the problem, that's a step forward. If a few politicians start to understand the problem, that's another step forward. If the mainstream press starts to understand the problem, another step forward.

    Pardon the rhetoric, but this is one of the major issues of our time. The rise of the internet has the potential to return to ordinary people the power to contribute to culture; a power that has been greatly diminished in modern times by the dominance of mass media. The entertainment industry would like to preserve its oligopoly on cultural expression, and is trying to use technology and the legal system to stifle our rights to culture.

    This is a subject worth understanding and a fight worth fighting (assuming we don't start World War 3, rendering the legal and cultural struggles of our society an academic subject for future archeologists.)

    Saturday, October 12, 2002

    Why girls don't like computer games
    Here's an interesting explanation for why most girls don't like computer games, backed up by experience and research. And it's not just that "boys like shooting; girls like shopping."

    Girls tend to find repetitive shoot-em-ups boring. Girls like solving puzzles more than competing, and enjoy reaching goals rather than scoring points.

    This explanation sounds plausible and certainly resonates for me.

    Wednesday, October 09, 2002

    Two really cool book metablogs
    Both of them scour the Recently Changed list at and pick up links to books.

    Weblog Bookwatch has lists of recently reviewed books, shows you which weblogs have reviewed the books, and which other books those blogs reviewed. Bookwatch collects links to Amazon, Powells, and Barnes and Noble.

    AllConsuming.Net does a similar search, but prioritizes its lists based on recently mentioned books, so it's more of a zeitgeist-tracking tool for those who want to keep up with blog fashion. Also lets you publish a pretty list of books to read, with pictures.

    For hours of surfing delight. I've been addicted for years to Amazon surfing; start with a subject, look for related books based on recommendations, reviews and lists; and build a list of books to read. Then again, I've been addicted for many more years to libraries and bookstores; the vice hasn't changed, only the medium.

    Tuning out the customer
    It is nice to see the mainstream press discussing music industry policies as anti-customer rather than repeating the industry's piracy message.

    And it's also great to read Jerry Michalski saying it, since he's been thinking and talking about these issues for years now.

    Perhaps is helping to change the terms of the debate. The recent Boucher and Lofgren bills describe their goals as protecting the rights of customers to traditional fair use of media.

    The good thing about using the term "consumer" in this context is that an individual hears the word and thinks "that's me", and my rights to things that I have in my house are being taken away. It becomes an area where politicians can take a populist stand. It takes the discourse out of the realm of abstract and technical legal principles and rights. It's great that there are lawyers fighting these issues in the courts, and more power to them. But the language of lawyers doesn't get people to identify and take action.

    What the term "consumer" leaves out is Jerry's "co-participant" message, which the Fortune article quoted but didn't seem to understand. Personal music sharing, fan sites, etc. are ways for individuals to participate in the creation and sharing of culture. People's desire to contribute could be embraced into media business models, instead of repelled as invasions into the territory and property of the media industry.

    It is also pretty weird to read the characterization of Jerry as a "cyberspace libertarian" -- he just doesn't fit that image of a scruffy maladjusted coder who rants in favor of guns and drugs and abolishing the government!

    Monday, October 07, 2002

    Steven Weinberg on Wolfram
    Physicist Steven Weinberg writes about Steven Wolfram's A New Kind of Science in the New York Review of Books.

    Mostly he writes about why particle physics is better than other kinds of science: "although these free-floating theories are interesting and important, they are not truly fundamental, because they may or may not apply to a given system; to justify applying one of these theories in a given context you have to be able to deduce the axioms of the theory in that context from the really fundamental laws of nature."

    Weinberg disclaims this opinion, but he repeats it often enough that it's clear which side of the flamewar he's on. Weinberg thinks science should offer one fundamental theory of the world. He is not interested in the idea that there might be different levels of organization in the universe, so that the algorithm that modeled plant growth, say, was different than the algorithm that modeled competition among species in an ecosystem.

    In fact Weinberg doesn't seem convinced by the idea of modeling. "Take snowflakes. Wolfram has found cellular automata in which each step corresponds to the gain or loss of water molecules on the circumference of a growing snowflake. After adding a few hundred molecules some of these automata produce patterns that do look like real snowflakes. The trouble is that real snowflakes don't contain a few hundred water molecules, but more than a thousand billion billion molecules. If Wolfram knows what pattern his cellular automaton would produce if it ran long enough to add that many water molecules, he does not say so."

    The whole trouble with complex systems is that they are programs that you need to run fully, with identical initial conditions, to get the exact result. If a model can be used regularly to make predictions about a real-world system -- even if the model doesn't duplicate the system -- it seems to me that model is worth something.

    The most interesting thing Weinberg says that Wolfram should do but doesn't, is to offer a definition and measure for complexity. A very clever, erudite and witty person named Cosma Shalizi claims to have done this in his doctoral dissertation. Which I have not read yet, and my undergrad-level math may not be sufficient to understand.

    The US public shows signs of sense
    According to this CBS/New York Times poll:

    "The public overwhelmingly wants to get the United Nations' weapons inspectors back into Iraq and allied support before taking any military action. Americans also want a congressional vote before acting - and think members of Congress should be asking more questions about the implications of war with Iraq."

    "Americans are concerned about the wider implications of war with Iraq. They believe such a war will result in a long and costly military involvement; they believe it will lead to a wider war in the Middle East with other Arab nations and Israel; and that it could further undermine the U.S. economy."

    Given President Bush's approval ratings, it's nice to see that American's haven't become completely foolhardy and bloodthirsty; people want our government to think about the consequences of its actions.

    Another good sign of this comes from some non-scientific polls from the Wall Street Journal.

    The self-selected respondents in Journal audience are typically moderate-to-right-of-center, and are more than willing to have partisan opinions about things like whether the Democrats can replace Toricelli in New Jersey.

    But they're cautious about Iraq, too. As of a few weeks ago, respondents to the Journal poll didn't think that the administration had made a good enough case about invading Iraq.

    Saturday, October 05, 2002

    Handy PC Utility
    FreeRAM XP Pro from YourWare Solutions. Automatically frees memory on Windows machines, enabling them to work somewhat longer before inevitably crashing.

    Of course, I ought to upgrade to Windows XP or 2000. But that would mean setting aside the time to troubleshoot the upgrade; so I live with chronic Win98 memory leaks, and use FreeRam as a palliative for the symptoms.

    Kurzweil's take on "A New Kind of Science"
    A few days ago, I wrote about Tom Ray's neat dispatch of Ray Kurzweil's contention that computers will soon be smarter than we are. To give Mr. Kurzweil his due, here's a link to a lovely essay critiquing Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science.

    Wolfram's book became a controversial best-seller based on the author's claim that computational methods enable a revolutionary approach to science. Many people have criticized the book because Wolfram is an egomaniac who claims to be smarter than everyone else on the planet; because he doesn't go through the traditional scientific peer review process; and because the sprawling, self-published 1192-page tome really could have used an editor.

    Kurzweil ignores the gossip and the copy-editing, and deals with the ideas. Kurzweil's essay analyzes two of Wolfram's revolutionary claims: that computational approaches based on cellular automata can explain life and intelligence, and that they define physics.

    A quick definition: cellular automata are a type of logical system composed of simple objects whose state is determined by following simple rules about the state of fellow objects; like junior high school girls who will wear tomorrow what the popular girls wore today. The results of many cellular automata are quite boring. Either they fall into a steady state, where nothing changes (class 1), or a simple pattern repeats tediously (class 2), or they twitch forever without any detectable pattern (class 3) But some cellular automata (class 4) are much more interesting. A class 4 automaton generates a complicated pattern that, in Kurzweil's words, "is neither regular nor completely random. It appears to have some order, but is never predictable." A class 4 automaton can be used to convey information, and hence can be used as a "universal computer."

    Do cellular automata explain life?

    Wolfram argues that because cellular automata can generate behavior of arbitrary complexity, they therefore explain living systems and intelligence. Kurzweil neatly explains that just because cellular automata can generate complex patterns, doesn't mean that life and intelligence will automatically follow.

    In Kurzweil's words, "One could run these automata for trillions or even trillions of trillions of iterations, and the image would remain at the same limited level of complexity. They do not evolve into, say, insects, or humans, or Chopin preludes, or anything else that we might consider of a higher order of complexity than the streaks and intermingling triangles that we see in these images."

    As discussed in this essay on artificial life, the software for life is based on a layered architecture with many components and layers: evolution, growth, metabolism, ecosystems. Just cause we can program computers -- using CAs or any other method -- doesn't mean that we know how to build every kind of software in the universe.

    Do cellular automata explain physics?

    Wolfram claims that cellular automata provide a better model for physics than traditional equations, and more than that, the universe itself is one big cellular automaton.

    Kurzweil puts Wolfram's claims about physics into context, as part of a school of thought whose advocates, including Norbert Weiner and Ed Fredkin, argue that the universe is fundamentally composed of information. Particles and waves, matter and energy, are manifestations of patterns of information.

    The way to go about demonstrating this hypothesis is to use cellular automata to emulate the laws of physics, to see if this generates equivalent or better results than the existing sets of equations. The mapping is apparently easy for Newtonian physics; workable but not particularly elegant for Einstein's special relativity, and potentially an elegant and even superior way to represent quantum physics, because CAs generate patterns that are recognizably regular, whose details are impossible to predict.

    In summary, Kurtzweil thinks that Wolfram's thesis regarding physics is plausible, but it has yet to be proven, and Wolfram hasn't proved it.

    One thing I don't understand about this hypothesis is why it proves that the universe IS a computer. If you prove that computation is a better model for physical phenomena, how have you proven that the model is reality itself? A equation can predict where a ball will land, based on the speed and direction of its flight, but the ball itself isn't an equation. Some day, I'll take a look at Kurzweil's book The Age of Intelligent Machines, which covers this topic, and see what I think.

    With Kurzweil's synopsis as a guide, I'll take a stab at reading Wolfram's tome. Not because I think it will contain the answer to every question, but because I expect an interesting exploration of cellular automata, and an interesting take on the information hypothesis to physics.

    Thursday, October 03, 2002

    A couple of congresspeople have proposed laws to restore customers rights to make copies of digital media for personal use, to share with a family member or friend. The bills repeal restrictions on the rights of "fair use" imposed by the DMCA's draconian enforcement of copy protection policies.

    There's a sensible discussion of the bills on SlashDot. The level of SlashDot discussion about these issues has improved greatly in the last few years, from knee-jerk antigovernment libertarianism and simple ignorance of government to a greater understanding of how laws are made and how to influence the legislative process.

    The bills are being proposed at the end of the Congressional session, so they are unlikely to get passed this year -- but that's ok -- I hope they spark more press coverage and good discussion. I hope the SlashDot conversation can coalesce into an advocacy group of tech-savvy people who influence the creation of more sensible laws. I hope these ideas become mainstream common sense, so politicians can be populist about making sure ordinary people can lend a recording to a friend, the same way we can lend a book to a friend.

    Tuesday, October 01, 2002

    Tree trimming
    There are guys outside pruning the very big trees that shade my house. They climb the trees with ropes, looking something like Tarzan, but fully clothed and carrying chainsaws. The hyperlink has a picture.

    Machines won't be reading Plato any time soon
    Tom Ray wrote a very nice essay critiquing Ray Kurzweil's argument that machines will soon be smarter than we are.

    The first point is plain logic. Kurzweil observes that following Moore's law, computers will have more processing power than the human brain within a couple of decades. Ray points out that the power of software is not improving at anywhere near the same rate. There's plenty of evidence that complicated software is outstripping our ability to design and maintain it effectively.

    The second point is more subtle. Kurzweil argues that it will be possible to implement human intelligence in silicon, simply by reverse engineering the brain and mapping its neural connections into software. Ray notes that there are many aspects of human intelligence that depend on subtle properties of chemistry, for example, the delicate balance of hormones that influences temperament and mood, shaping our decisions, communication, and art.

    It may be possible to create AI. Ray, who created the "Tierra" artificial life ecosystem, believes that the most promising method is to create digital a-life systems and let them evolve on their own. If such intelligence evolved, it would be different than human intelligence, depending on the very different properties of its technology and environment.

    At any rate, the mechanisms to create artificial intelligence aren't obvious, and there isn't any reason to believe that it will happen any time soon.