Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Sociology of Paper

Malcolm Gladwell has a popular article called "The Social Life of Paper". It argues in part that some of the most effective people are those whose "messy" desks are actually well-structured for finding information. Or rather, much of the knowledge work we do today is better supported by piles than files.

Yesterday Scripps Howard reported that a study by Pendaflex shows that the way people manage their desktop paperwork correlates with certain sociological or behavioral patterns. One interesting result: the messier the desk, the more education the person is likely to have. I don't know if "messier" is used in the underlying study; I'm using it as a placeholder for a pile-oriented desk versus a file-oriented desk.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Socrates and Google: Learning to Forget

Thought I'd share my post to the Humanist list (use of tech in
teaching and researching the humanities). The topic is needing time away from the computer, and our growing reliance on tech for memory.


[Hide Quoted Text]
> From: Steven D.Krause
> Subject: Re: 19.304 contemplation and computing
> Of course, the problem of technology and "critical thinking" (or just
> "thinking") has been a problem for thousands of years.
> [ ... Socrates on Theuth and Thamus ... ]
> Substitute "digital communication" for "letters" and I think you can
> see how these things fit together.

Thamus was right. The mnemonic powers of pre-literate (as in pre-writing) societies astounds us today. Who among us can recite a three-hour epic poem?

However, Thamus only looked at the costs, and not the benefits. For example, it's been argued that Western Civilization's success in science could not have occurred in a non-literate society, because observations need to be written down if they are to be trusted with the passing of time, and properly analyzed.

Similarly, we today enjoy amazing benefits from being able to tap into the global Googlebrain that all Web users are collectively growing through their individual accretion of factoids and comments. But I agree with those who have said that in another decade, people will feel hopelessly lost if their Web access is taken away. Lost in the sense of feeling they are no longer themselves.

It used to be only hard-charging workaholics who felt anxious without access to their email. More and more, that feeling affects everyday people; if you don't experience it, you likely know someone who does. A similar dynamic affects people's growing reliance on search engines for recalling simple facts, and the use of blogs and wikis (I like Backpackit.com) to maintain personal memory (both short-term and long-term).

> [T]hey will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing;
> they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing;

Quite true. Like Thamus, I lament that aspect. It's wonderful that the Web helps people to learn so much. At the same time, you never know if someone mailed you something useful/clever/obscure/intelligent because they are such an intelligent, well-educated, interesting person, or because they did a 30-second search on Google. And I do think my brain is learning to become lazy; either I'm just forgetting how to remember, or I subconsciously know I'll be able to look something up again in the future, and it gets thrown out.

Friday, September 23, 2005

75 Years of Incompleteness

On October 7th, we'll see the 75th anniversary of Godel's unveiling of his (first) incompleteness. I'm now reading Rebecca Goldstein's excellent "Incompleteness", which not only explains Godel's theorems in simple language, but also provides the context both of the history of mathematics at that point, and of Godel's personality.

The book raises some thoughts:

* If there were no WWI, there would be no Vienna Circle (or Schlick's Circle, as it was originally called; there were many discussion circles in post-war Vienna). The modernist movement in Vienna, attempting to rebuild all thought on clean, solid foundations, was in part a reaction to everything in past thinking habits and assumptions, habits that to some had seemed to lead to the war.

* The stark constrast between Wittgenstein's classic, tortured brand of genius, and Godel's quiet, hermetic brand. Goldstein suspects, but cannot prove, that Godel was spurred on in his work, subconsciously at least, by the idea of shutting up the arrogant Wittgenstein.

(Goldstein notes that the fact that Godel could use only mathematics to say something metamathematical, even metaphysical, is in complete opposition to what Wittgenstein maintained about the limits of sayable things in a language.)

* Wittgenstein and Russell were both aristocrats. I knew this of each of them, but never really noticed that it was true of both of them at the time they were interacting at Cambridge. I'm not sure if it means anything, or if it's just an interesting coincidence.

* When Godel unveiled his idea at a conference (Oct. 7, 1930, in Konigsberg), it went almost completely unnoticed. He spoke for perhaps 30 seconds, in a quiet, casual voice (judging by everything else in his life), and was only 24 at the time. Had not John von Neumann took interest and buttonholed him later, it might have taken years longer for Godel's theorem to take hold. (He had been sitting on the theorem since the previous year, and throughout his life his unsent letters and papers far outnumbered his actual publications.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Danny Hillis and Maxwell Smart

Wired has a piece about Applied Minds. Thinking Machines founder Danny Hillis clearly has a fondness for "Get Smart"; there's the phone booth as a hidden passage, the goofy passphrases, and even a Cone of Silence.

Co-founder Danny Hillis escorts me down a hallway that dead-ends into an old-fashioned red phone booth. The phone rings. He places receiver to ear.

"The blue moon jumps over the purple sky," he says, and hangs up.

Suddenly, the booth becomes a door, swinging out to reveal a vast, open room filled with engineers, gadgets and big ideas.

It's as if Willy Wonka's chocolate factory just yawned wide to welcome us. Only here, all the candy plugs in.

"This is where the secret laboratories are," Hillis says.

To our left, two employees chat behind a desk. Their conversation is a burbling, unintelligible stream. It's as if someone poured their words into a blender, then hit "puree."

That's because their speech has been scrambled by Babble, a gadget designed by Applied Minds, with office furniture company Herman Miller, for creating sonic privacy in workspaces without walls.

(John Battelle had a similar piece about Applied Minds a few days earlier.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Worst Graph Design In A While

It's been a while since I've seen a graph designed as poorly as this one.

Since the final UK price is roughly twice the US price, and since the final red dot is roughly twice as high as the blue dot, then we can conclude that three years ago, where the lines meet, both a UK house and a US house cost roughly... zero dollars.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Great Quotes

1. On Attention And Respect
"Why is yet another milestone. Why implies that the child understands causality. When why appears, it's very important to treat it with the respect it's due. It's very tempting to answer these onslaughts of questions with 'Because', or 'That's just the way it is.' This is a dangerous path. The child who hears 'Because' as answer to 'Why is the sky blue?' will be the child who will answer his parent's question 'What did you do at school today?' with 'Nothing.'"

- McGuinness, C. & McGuinness, G., How To Increase Your Child's Verbal Intelligence, 2000, p.83.

2. On Giants

You've probably heard Newton's epigram: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Here's a twist I only heard recently:

"If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders."

- Harold Abelson, MIT

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Print on Demand, and Hardcopy Copy Protection

You might be familiar with Print On Demand (POD) vendors like iUniverse and Lulu. They let you upload a document (say, a 300-page PDF) that customers can have printed into a softcover book on demand. The cost is only a little above the per unit cost of printing books in a traditional press run of 1,000 copies. This means you can print anything with essentially no overhead.

There's a subgenre of POD, called Variable Data Printing (VDP). This allows the document on the print server to be, in essence, "mail merged" with customer data from a database. So if John Doe orders a catalog from a company, the system can check John's previous order history and modify the catalog document just for him immediately before printing it. All customers can have a custom catalog.

So far, Variable Data Printing has not come to the well-known book publishers like iUniverse and Lulu. While it's not terribly practical for Lulu to host your company's customer database, there is a simple and useful form of VDP that they could provide; hardcopy copy protection.

Imagine that when you publish a book through Lulu, you also include in your book a reference to a web site that contains more information. For example, if you sell a cookbook, you might want to offer a companion web site with additional recipes, nutrition analysis, etc. You want this web site to require a code for entry, which you publish in your book, so that people must buy the book to use the web site.

Now, a normal book can only print one code. Well, a person could manually place a sticker with a code into the back of the book, but such a step breaks the efficiency model of iUniverse and Lulu; you have to use an automated system that requires no human intervention.

So Lulu offers you an option: along with your book document, you can upload a text file containing thousands of random-looking, unique codes. You edit your book document to contain a string like this: "###VDP:Code###". Whenever a customer orders a copy of your book, Lulu's system looks for the next unused code from your code file, and sticks it into your document wherever it sees the ###VDP:Code### string. Voila, you are now printing customized access codes, one per copy of the book.

(I concocted the ###VDP:blah### syntax because it's tremendously simpler than some full-bore XML solution. You only need to insert small snippets of text in the first place, and Lulu would want something that's both easy to implement and performs at high speed with large documents.)

Once Lulu can do this, they can offer other VDP possibilities, too. For example, ###VDP:Date### could be a placeholder for the date that copy of the book was printed.

Monday, May 16, 2005

On Seeing "Revenge of the Sith"

Yesterday I saw an advance screening of "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith" (RotS). There were several hundred game company employees and their guests, and I shared the general verdict that it was one of the better Star Wars movies. Lucas has tied the loose threads together reasonably well, I think, considering the corner into which he had written himself with the other five films.

While the scenery is visually stunning, there are also more emotionally-evocative moments than in all the other films. Lucas succeeds in doing something I didn't expect he could, or even should, do: he generates some sympathy for Darth Vader. Not just for Anakin Skywalker, but for Darth Vader (or rather, for the sliver of Anakin that remains alive in him). In that way, RotS actually elevates the original movie from simple Buck Rogers derring-do to a more substantial, emotional experience. I haven't watched Episode IV again yet, but I expect them to be powerful back-to-back.

The next paragraphs contains some SPOILERS. Since there are few surprises in the film as it is, you might want to skip this.




Greek Tragedy

This script has more classic elements of myth than the others, too. There is "Faust". There is "Frankenstein". Most of all, there is "Oedipus Rex". While there is no sexual theme as in "Oedipus", RotS is a Greek tragedy. Not only does hubris bring down the hero, but, like Oedipus, he needlessly brings on the prophecy he tries to prevent. (Note that this is much more specific than just saying he has become what he swore to oppose.) Specifically, his drive for power is largely fueled by fear that Padme will die in childbirth. But it is his turn to the dark side, and not anything else, that causes her to "lose the will to live".

The Republic

It's somewhat hard to believe someone would fall for Palpatine's arguments and lies. But Palpatine has been Anakin's friend for years, he is the venerable leader of the Republic, and Anakin is ruled by his emotions. And he's only 21 or so. It's more difficult to believe the Senate falling for Palpatine's tricks, but largely that's because we don't see the cumulative effect of Palpatine's spin campaign.

As far as the average Senator is concerned, everything is fine with the Jedi Order until Palpatine declares in an emergency session that 1) they have attacked him, 2) they must *all* be destroyed, and 3) he is declaring himself Emperor. Even with an ongoing state of war, that's a lot for a Senator to swallow. I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I actually wanted to see more of the machinations of the Senate. The Fall of the Republic is, after all, the real story. Apparently, in the novel and elsewhere, there are mentions of additional security regulations and militarization of the Republic, but nothing like that made it into the film.

However, I did like the battle between Sidious and Yoda in the middle of the Senate Chamber, a beautiful place to show the actual, final battle over the Republic.

Order 66

"Order 66" is Darth Sidious's command to the clone troops throughout the galaxy to turn on and kill the Jedi they are with. In a movie with surprisingly few plot holes, I didn't like the way that was handled. That is, I didn't think it would be a secret order from Darth Sidious; I thought it would be a decree from Chancellor Palpatine. For Sidious to show up in holograms to the clones, the clones would have to know who Sidious is, and work silently as sleeper agents for several years. Sure, they are genetically programmed to be obedient, but it's more believable that they defend the Chancellor from a declared "Jedi rebellion" than that they have knowingly colluded with Sidious, and hidden it so well from the rest of the galaxy.

* As far as the Kaminoans in Episode II were told, Jedi Master Sifo Dyas commissioned the clone army "for the Republic". So it seems unlikely the Kaminoans would have put in such a dangerous, subversive program to threaten the Republic, a decade before Palpatine declared the Jedi to be traitors.

* The clone troops were programmed to be entirely obedient. That's easy to do if the Chancellor suddenly says "New command! Do this!" But it's hard to do if you have conflicting orders, as they would have if they knew they were working for Sidious all along. It's hard enough for ordinary people to perpetrate long-term deceptions; I think it'd be harder for these docile clones.

* Lucas's whole thread about the fall of democracy is based on the ease with which you can fool the public about the real threats to freedom. This would be shown far better by having the clones "defend the Chancellor" against an alleged Jedi coup than by having them secretly do Darth Sidious's dirty work. Their action would then mirror (or be an extreme version of) the Senators' support for the new Empire.

It's just not necessary that the clones be "in" on the conspiracy.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


A very cool service just started. I got on their email list a few weeks ago, and today they launched their new service, Backpackit.com.

Go to http://backpackit.com and sign up. The "free" tier gives you plenty of services.

You can see the examples page for the kinds of things you can do.

It's for keeping notes, journals, to-do lists, email reminders, photos, files, etc. It can be for your personal info, or pages you share just with friends, or public pages for the world to see. It's very fast and responsive.

You can do cool things like email notes to a page. That means that if you have a project with a few friends, you can all email notes to the secret squirrel address for that page, and everyone's notes will automatically be added. Great way to collaborate.

As a programmer, I like that it uses dynamic JavaScript to keep everything snappy and real-time. No page reloading. Anyway, check it out. And sign up for an account so I can later invite you to private pages.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Cookie is the MacGuffin

Cookie Monster is being recast as a responsible monster; Sesame Street quotes Cookie as saying that cookies are now only a "sometimes" food. Everyone seems to be aghast, so I'll play the contrarian.

I don't know how many kids are cookie-crazy due to Cookie Monster, but I wouldn't be surprised if Sesame Workshop has researched it. A generation ago, they decided to out Snuffy's existence, witnessed up to then only by Big Bird. They had discovered that kids were learning that adults won't believe a kid (since they wouldn't believe Big Bird). So, assuming Sesame Workshop has something more than an anecdote or two behind the cookie issue, I can be in favor of this change, if Cookie Monster can still be funny.

Cookie Monster has long had to deal with situations where he can't get all the cookies he wants. Most of the time, he ends up eating something else (letters, salt and pepper shakers, his bib, lamp posts, etc.). It's this craziness that makes Cookie work as a character, not the cookie eating per se. It's what he will do to get a cookie. And it's this craziness that indicates to kids that Cookie is probably nuts to want to eat cookies all day, to begin with.

If he really now accepts that he can't have cookies all the time, where's the tension? Will skits now end with Cookie accepting the situation with grace. "Me no need to eat that cookie now. Dum-de-dum-dum-dum..." (He walks away. Cut to new skit. Huh?) If he's still driven to desperation, doesn't that still "say" that cookies are like a great drug? The Sesame/Muppet folks have written some great material (or they did in my day), so I'm open to seeing how they can make this work. But it seems like Cookie needs to have the crazy factor, so he'd have to be crazy in a different way.

Cookie is hilarious. Recently I got a DVD from the library: "Cookie Monster's Best Bites". Often you'll see him in a quandary, and he'll say something like "Hmm.. Me face moral dilemma."

I particularly like a skit on there where Cookie Monster has one cookie, and has to decide whether to share it with his monster friend. Cookie sings a song about friendship, while we see flashbacks to all the good times he's had with his friend. In the end, he gives over the cookie. "Hey", his friend says, "we can share cookie!" "No," says Cookie Monster, "friend should have cookie." Pause... "Me eat... everything else! Kowabugna!" (eats wall he is sitting on).

Really, it's the timing that's funny. The cookie is just a vehicle, a setup. Watch Cookie and Kermit in most of their skits together. Cookie Monster only eats cookies at the end (if at all). Are the skits unfunny until the end? Not at all. It's timing. Personality. Sophisticated expressions spoken like Tarzan. There's a lot to work with here; I hope they can write themselves out of this fix.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Foie Gras

Ron Reagan had a column on foie gras recently. Someone then pointed me to Guillermo's site, www.sonomafoiegras.com, as an example of the pro-foie gras argument. Sonoma Foie Gras describes how it lets ducks run around free-range, until they're old enough for the feeding tube. It also says that ducks naturally gorge themselves before migration, implying the tube is just an acceleration of that.

If you're going to market yourself to consumers who avoid cruelty, do it all the way. Let them run around free, and when it's time to bulk up, let them gorge naturally. (It would cost more, but then foie gras is already a luxury.) You could hang up "Bon Voyage" signs to heighten the ducks' sense of impending migration. Then, after they gorge themselves, to avoid being misleading, you'll have to put all theducks on a truck and drive them around the block a few times before they "return home".

Google Maps - Squished Satellite Images

I'm glad Google incorporated Keyhole images into Google Maps. However, if you're at close zoom levels, you'll see there is vertical distortion in the images, so streets don't quite match up unless you are looking at the center of the screen.

The images are not squished in the Keyhole app. They are only squished when they show up as the satellite photos in Google Maps. The problem seems to be that they don't quite vertically scale the image correctly for Google Maps. I thought it might be latitude-based. However, Miami shows as much vertical distortion as Seattle, so it seems to not be related to latitude after all.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Oh, I'm Blogging

I've decided to try blogging again, after a two-year hiatus. Old posts were in a content management system of my own, but I'll try Blogger for now. ...

Landsburg re: Schiavo

Steven Landsburg argues in Slate that Terri Schiavo essentially stopped living years ago, and that it's now "frivolous to care about what she might prefer."

His cost-benefit analysis shows no value in a husband honoring a wife's wishes: "while I'm alive, your promise to enforce those preferences is unlikely to change my behavior in any socially useful way." He makes the same argument about a spouse's wishes for treatment of her remains; a corpse is no more important than a toaster, the headline implies.

There are many obvious counters to this. Many of them are variations on the idea that Landsburg's approach devalues a person while she is alive (and conscious). If I promise my wife I would bury her in a plot next to her parents, and if that's an important thought that makes her life seem ordered and connected with those of her family, what would it say if I broke that promise after her death? It would say I had no respect for her.

Separate from such moral arguments, there are serious costs which Landsburg seems unable to notice. Namely, that if people routinely broke such promises to the ones they ostensibly love, and if society let them get away with it, then there would be a collapse of trust in family life. You'd likely see more people staying single, more couples divorcing, etc. It could easily have the same disruptive effect as Landsburg's example of failing to enforce wishes in a will.

But Landsburg wants to find a reason to prevent Michael Schiavo from preventing others from keeping Terri alive. He cannot find any "legitimate" (my scare quotes) economic basis for this (i.e., cost-benefit analysis). He just feels uncomfortable about people keeping other people from doing something that doesn't much harm them. His analogy is censorship; he recoils from it, although economically he can't argue against it.

Isn't this strange? When it came to Terri's life (she's still alive at this writing), and Terri's wishes and best interests, all of that can be thrown out as irrelevant to a cost-benefit analysis. But when it's something that Landsburg has an emotional (and non-economic) response to, his recoil is a sufficient argument.