Feb 09 3 2009

Big Troll

Dan Bricklin, co-inventor of the spreadsheet, writes a good response to a silly (but all too typical) piece of Dvorak trolling — an attempt to deplore that the invention of spreadsheets.

Bricklin has an exciting new book coming in May: Bricklin on Technology .

Chris Mills and Halvord Steen discuss Javascript Debugging in A List Apart.

Agile pioneer and propher Kent Beck (who, astonishingly, is looking for a job) talks about Untangling Spaghetti: debugging non-terminating object programs. This is an unfortunate title, because spaghetti means “tangled control flow” while Beck explores how to disentangle mutual recursion between multiple objects. This kind of bug doesn’t happen all that much, but change management in Tinderbox views is inclined to exactly this mishap: when something changes, Tinderbox needs to update windows and agents and such, and this can lead to more changes, and more updates. If you are careful, eventually everything that needs to be updated will be updated; if things go awry, you can end up spinning wheels indefinitely.

Fortunately, there’s a good solution: instead of responding immediately to every change, you tell Tinderbox to stop, take a deep breath, and make a list of everything that needs to be updated. Look at each update, and make a list of everything that the update will change. Eventually, you've got a long list of changes; now, make them all, and clean the slate.

Beck mentions that these problems don’t seem to crop up all that often, but they can be tricky to fix when they do appear. I think it’s worse than that. Everyone learns to recognize infinite recursion: function a(){ a(); } That's easy. And simple mutual recursion is pretty easy too: A calls B(), and B calls A(), and off we go. When you have six or seven objects weaving back and forth, noticing the cycle can be tricky. I think we all have a certain fear that, someday, we’ll hit the fractal program that baroquely loops in a different pattern each time. It’s the modern programmer’s ogre in the forest.

Canadian writer Darren Barefoot asks the twitterverse what apps the cool kids use. He compiles an interesting list (including, I'm happy to see, Tinderbox).

Mac Net Journal has an interesting post about Tinderbox and InkSeine as transformational software.

Heinz Wittenbrink proposes NeoVictorian Media as a solution to the crisis of the media.

Jan 09 28 2009

Carried Away

Someone walked up to TechCrunch's Mike Arrington at a tech conference yesterday and spit in his face. It was the last straw; after verbal abuse, hate mail, and death threats, he's going to step back and think about whether this sort of tech journalism is really what he wants to do with his life.

But I can’t say my job is much fun any more. Startups that don’t get the coverage they want and competing journalists and bloggers tend to accuse us of the most ridiculous things. It hasn’t been worth our time to respond to these accusations; I always assumed that our work and integrity would speak for itself. But as we’ve grown and become more successful the attacks have also grown. On any given day, when I care to look, dozens of highly negative comments are made about me, TechCrunch or one of our employees in our comments, on Twitter, or on blogs or other sites. Some of these are appropriately critical comments on things we can be doing better. But the majority of comments are among the more horrible things I can imagine a human being say.

Roger Ebert has a nice essay on a Sundance contretemps between John Anderson, a film critic, and Jeff Dowd, an over-eager promoter known as “The Dude”. The promoter really, really wanted to get the critic to like Dirt. The critic, having written his piece, wanted to have a quiet breakfast.

Has this event influenced my opinion on "Dirt! the Movie?" How could it? I haven't seen it. It made the cut for Sundance, which is a good sign. Do I think John Anderson should have punched Jeff Dowd? No, I don't.

I think it was inexcusable, and considering the Dude wasn't fighting back, the fourth punch was just mean. You just can't go around doing things like that. In a way, he was threatening The Dude's livelihood. If The Dude had hit back and it got around that a publicist his size was capable of punching a film critic, he might become unemployable. If you are going to be a film critic and attend film festivals, you are going to have to deal with the Dude. That is a fact of life. Often you will enjoy it. He's better than some faceless intern stuffing your mailbox with press releases.

Update: people looking for the Big Break get carried away by the thrill of the inside game. Wiki pioneer and Freshbooks evangelist Sunir Shah describes a colleague who was prepared to spend a million dollars of her investor’s money if it would get her firm a Tech Crunch post, and arguyes that TechCrunch is not a marketing plan.

Jan 09 27 2009

Sitka & Spruce

Terrific dinner at Sitka & Spruce, a tiny Seattle eatery with an amazing little menu and lots of tasty plates. It recalls Avec in its size and small-plateness, and Canteen in simplicity and refined good cheer: great company! Highlights included taglietelle with black trumpets of death — terrific wild mushrooms — and wagyu hanger steak, beautifully seasoned. We had a very nice Bandol (Le Galantin), too.

by Dorothy L. Sayers

Ten years after the end of the Great War, Lord Peter Wimsey encounters a beastly case in which nearly every man lives in the shadow of the trenches. The Depression has not yet hit, though, and so it's not entirely clear whether everything has indeed changed, for whether everything simply changed for those who couldn't move on. Sayers' flair for minor characters and for capturing a historical moment (even if that moment happened to be her historical present) is much in evidence here; like Dreiser, she’s a historical novelist whose period happened to be contemporary. Also in evidence here are her penchant for overly elaborate plots, for brainy dark girls who resemble the author, and for plotting that counts on having God sit in her lap. Still, there's nothing like Wimsey.

by Max Wilk

I read a short, rave review of this chronicle of the making of the 1943 musical hit. I’ve lost the pointer, and with it the reason for grabbing this readable, if sometimes predictable, account of the making of a hit.

What I was hoping for, I suppose, was a fresh explanation of why this show works, and how it does it — something along the lines of John Lahr’s wonderful explanation of Show Boat. The Lahr explanation — the vital hint that the Broadway audience always had a large and economically vital core of New York Jews, and that many musicals that claim to be concerned with the plight of distant oppressed minorities (blacks in Showboat and Porgy & Bess, cowpokes in Oklahoma!, carnies and New England fisherfolk in Carousel) are indeed concerned with them, but are also allegories for generational tension in the midcentury American Jewish household.

I can’t find the Lahr piece, either.

Anyway, it was a great show. Ted Nelson’s mother was in it. Agnes DeMille did the dances, and they were tremendously influential. The music, the book, and everything else worked together; this was, in 1942, an innovation.

Jan 09 20 2009

What he said

Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.  It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.  Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.…
Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

In an hour, we’ll have a new president. America is leveling up.

Back in 2005, I wrote a long post. As we move ahead, it is worth remembering what we are moving beyond.

What Ended

(3 Sep 2005) What ended this week in New Orleans was not a city. The city will be rebuilt.

What ended this week was not the dream. Martin's dream still lives — not least in the outrage expressed throughout the country, from the redneck forests to the Berkeley waters, over the shabby negligence with which the victims of storm and flood were treated. And the big dream's still there, too. Somewhere in the Astrodome tonight, there's a little boy or girl who is tired and hungry and frightened, and who will grow up to be president. You can bet on it.

What ended this week was not a war, though its destined end in ignominy and failure is now assured. What ended this week a was not a presidency, though Katrina made George W. Bush, overnight, a lame duck.

What ended this week is the illusion that words can substitute for real work and real knowledge. This was the last, spectacular failure of the internet bubble, the final burnout of paper businesses that had no business and paper politicians who had no cause and paper experts whose expertise lay in their bogus credentials or in the wealth of their pals.

We'll know the details in time. We'll have years of investigations. We already know the answer. We filled key roles at the top with lawyers and promoters and press agents and cronies, and when we needed them to do their job, they held press conferences instead.

And we filled key roles on the line -- police and fire and public safety -- with too many people who weren't up to the job, or whose leaders weren't up to the job. Frightened by snipers and rumors, they sacrificed the lives of men and women and children in danger, lives entrusted to them, to save their own. They turned in their badges or grounded their choppers. Their duty was hard; they did not do it.

What ended, too, was the illusion that history is over, and the academic illusion that whatever clever argument we can make is equally good. In the last decade, arguing specious positions has been a route to funding and fame. You could argue that we didn't need better flood control in New Orleans. People did argue it -- just like they argue still for teaching intelligent design to our kids, just like they argue that global warming needs more study, that maybe the environment will take care of itself.

That's what ended. We know, now, that sometimes we need experts in jobs that require expertise. We need scholars in jobs that require scholarship. In jobs that require doing your job -- even in the face of discomfort and danger -- we need people on whom we can depend.

Most of all, we need to take responsibility to weigh the evidence, decide, and bear the weight of decision. No excuses. No press conference. No spin, because there is no need for spin.

What ended is the illusion that we can believe anything, however absurd, and make it true by insisting on it, by believing that such a nice man or such a committed woman will do a great job at FEMA or wherever. Or, if not a great job, one we can call "great".

We’ve piled our troubles high. Our challenges are many, our resources scarce, and time is not ample.

But we know, if we’re going to fix this, it will take hard work, determination, and intelligence. We don’t need a decider; we need to look at the problems, figure out what needs to be done, and get to work.

Guantanamo? Yeah, we can. Fix the economy? We can do make it better than it was. Fix our bank accounts? OK, we’ll get that too. Fix the Web? Good point — plenty to do, and it’ll help with the rest. Repair the planet? Fired up and ready to go.

Leslie Jensen-Inman, writing in A List Apart, offers some interesting ideas about teaching Web design at the university level.

Right now, web education is out of date and fragmented. There are good people working hard to change this, but because of the structure of higher education, it will take time. So while sweeping change can’t happen today, let’s challenge ourselves to do what we can.

She's an assistant professor at Tenessee; one of her recommendations is to “let go of the idea that professors in these disciplines must hold a master’s degree.” This is wrong, I fear, on two counts. First: wrong credential: a master’s isn’t really enough. If you don’t have a doctorate, you’re always going to be handicapped. (An exception might be made for an MFA if you’ve also got a clear track record of personal — not collaborative — accomplishment in your art.) And second, wrong strategy: if you aim to hire lots of people without degrees, they’re going to be adjuncts and instructors. What you need are tenure track people, people who will set policy.

Universities will never manage to teach Web techniques that are really up-to-date. That’s not the point. Universities should be preparing people to be able to pick up those techniques fast and to land running.

Inman interviews Greg Storey, who obseves that “students are used to having more time to complete projects than is required in business“. I think that’s inevitable. First, students don't know what they’re doing, so of course they take more time. Keep in mind, too, that students are likely to have three or four other courses to handle, and a job on the side to pay as well. Finally, a professional studio ought to be providing its employees with good facilities and great equipment; lots of students are going to be sharing a room full of three-year-old budget computers.

Jensen-Inman cites WaSP and the World Organization of Webmasters, but I suspect the ideal route for her crusade is Web Science. Web Science has the abstraction, the intellectual depth, and the interdisciplinary heft to find a central place in the university, not just as an odd corner of the arts but as a widely-understood and generally recognized tool for all the arts and sciences.

Jan 09 18 2009

Pantry Dinner

The snow, scheduled for late today, arrived last night. The football arrived at the scheduled time. Various writing projects are not on time. A good night, in short, for a dinner that doesn’t need marketing.

  • Thin slices of saucisson sec
  • Tarmasalata on wasa crisps
  • Niman Ranch Thai sausage, with oven-roasted squash
  • Goat cheese souflée
  • Meyer lemon cake

Basically, leftovers. But, if you have nice leftovers, you can make a nice dinner of them. Souflées are terrific for nights like this: warm, filling, and easy; McGee observes that all the scary things about souflées are old wive's tales, and that if opening the oven causes a souflée to fall, closing the door will make it rise again.

Bill Humphries makes a nice point about Eliza Blair’s “Friends In Need”.

Eliza Blair’s story reminds me of Cordwainer Smith. The language buzzes and crackles, full of invention and extrapolation.

I’d also thought about Cordwainer Smith, though I’m not nearly as well versed in SF as Humphries. Interesting bit of trivia: “Scanners Live in Vain” was his first published story — a hell of a debut! — just as “Friends In Need” was Blair’s first professional sale.

Tonight’s dinner was Boston Butt, braised in dark beer with garlic, shallots and bacon, served over home-made spätzle. I'd planned to bail out on the spätlzle and make some pasta — the Pork & Sons recipe gives you absolution in advance — but then I thought, “why not?”

And it turns out spätzle are incredibly easy. Flour, eggs, salt. Maybe a little water if needed. Slice or extrude into boiling water (I used a potato ricer), cook for a couple of minutes, dry on parchement. Just for fun, I sauteed them in a little butter before adding pork and tasty broth.

For dessert: tarte tatin. For wine: Home Grown Red, an inexpensive California blend said to contain barbera, petite sirah, and shiraz.

by Samuel Eliot Morison

Morison was a naval historian of remarkable breadth and talent, unequalled for telling a grand and vivid story and unparalleled for sorting out detail. No one was better, in this realm, for getting access; he was personally acquainted with every American president from Theodore Roosevelt through John Kennedy, and when WWII broke out he secured a unique appointment as naval historian that gave him carte blanche to go everywhere and see everything. In recounting the confused night action of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 13 November 1942, for example, he explains that the details of the ships’ logs cannot be reconciled and that he will recount each ship’s experience separately; of the cruiser Atlanta, he characteristically observes

Atlanta’s participation in the battle was brief. Japanese destroyers, ever ready to exploit torpedo opportunities, dispatched several salvos at the confused American column. One, perhaps two, hit Atlanta. Their explosion lifted her bodily from the water, then set her down shuddering and crippled. In the plotting room, fire control men watched the needle on the pitometer log (the ship’s speed indicator) slide down the scale until it rested against zero.

The footnote for this paragraph is, simply:

Engagement with Japanese Surface Forces off Guadalcanal Night of 12-13 Nov 1942 and Loss of USS Atlanta 20 No 1942; personal recollection

He wasn’t there on November 13 — I believe he was still in North Africa, where Eisenhower landed the week before — but he got to Guadalcanal not long after and no doubt he got plenty of straight dope. Few other Official Historians of a world war would remember the misery of trying to save wounded sailors on the Atlanta amid oil and blood and water and fires, or how everything was made worse because the spuds locker had been split open and people everywhere were slipping on “the treacherous tubers”.

I read the entire 14-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II years ago, back while I was writing Storyspace for Windows. Compilers were slow, the code was big, and the library across the street from Eastgate owned the set. The early volumes are slightly marred by occasional bits of jingo cheerleading; even in this fifth volume the Japanese are too often wily, tricky, or sly. Morison spent his career at Harvard when he was not sailing his beloved yacht (or recording a war for his friend Franklin), but he never gets bogged down on the bridge. If an action hinges on a clever improvisation by an engineer or a level-headed judgment by a machinist’s mate, he gives them the same attention he pays to the captains and admirals.

And....we’re back. With buckets of plot. Big buckets. Enough plot that we’re beginning to worry that the fleet could sink into the plot without a trace.

But faith manages: they’ll get us to port somehow.


Not to be missed in TEKKA is Cathy Marshall’s brilliant study, Do Tags Work? Tagging has been widely hailed as they key to folksonomy, a possible route to the semantic Web; see, for example, David Weinberger’s best-selling Everything Is Miscellaneous.

Bottom line: Marshall takes a painstaking look at all the tags applied to all the images of one particular sort of flickr image. One might expect to find an informal, emergent taxonomy; what we actually find is, pretty much, nothing we can use. The words people put in picture titles and comments are actually better tags than the words they use as tags.

The study could be repeated on more images, and in additional contexts. It might be bad luck. But if it’s a repeatable result — and I think we all know it is — then we’re going to have to rethink a lot of our Web 2.0 rhetoric. Folksonomy is an illusion.

Commentary: Sven Portst thinks it’s pseudo-scientific, but also correct. Mark Stoneman finds it “amusing and informative”. Paul Mison hopes that tags can be salvaged for personal use. Several good and thoughtful delicious bookmark notes, including Leslie Orchard (thinks Marshall wrong, but having trouble saying why); in fact, one of the better delicious collections I've seen.

Leslie Orchard then follows up, arguing that tags work for him in delicious, though he doesn't find them very useful on flickr or elsewhere. Repeating the study for delicious seems to be a natural direction, and that would be useful. He also suggests that delicious tags are more useful than flickr's because they're the only user-supplied metadata, where flickr also has title and description.

Apropos of The Journal Project in Tekka, Jon Buscall writes that specialized journals are invaluable to business. Lots of great ideas in a very useful essay.

  • Tracking Important Stuff
  • Keeping a journal teaches you about the work you do
  • Real life journaling

Also: Chris Fahey’s fascinating slides on Talking about Sketching about Interacting. His blog at is interesting.

Guantanamo is Simple
Hiram Powers
The Greek Slave

Lots of people seem to believe that closing Guantanamo is a complicated proposition. It’s not. Here’s the answer:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right.

If people have committed crimes, arrest them and try them. We have courts. If you cannot convict them, or if they merely want to commit crimes, or if they fantasize about the things they'd do if only they could do things, then you do not know that they have committed crimes and you have no business detaining them.

Pretending that some guy who says he wants to blow up America is therefore so dangerous that we cannot let him free is preposterous; this merely feeds the fantasies of our enemies that they are supermen, that a swaggering speech and a $25 pistol, wielded by a believer, will reduce hundreds of millions of Americans to frightened sheep.

What part of unalienable is hard to understand?

Simple answers to simple questions.

Rachel Cunliffe of cre8d Design offers her annual prognostication for Blog Design Trends in 2009.

  • Goodbye to Web 2.0
  • Blogs return from the shadow of MySpace and Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Black and white design
  • Handmade designs
  • Organic, local, ethnic
  • Wider screens
  • Richer templates and templating tools

Nicholas Felton is a 31-year-old New York designer. Each year, he compiles a gorgeous poster-size Annual Report that breaks down the things he’s done. THREE: pedometers purchases, TWELVE: most miles walked in one day, 38500 miles travelled (545 subway trips, 107 taxis, 38 chairlifts…)

Arguably the natural aspiration of The Journal Project.

Susan Gibb talks about planning, plotting, and fiction.

Carolyn goes into quite intricate diagramming of the story before it's written--and while she'd fight me on this likely, Tinderbox or Storyspace would be a delight to her organized mind.

Steve appears to like the involvement of even closer planning as he works in hypertext. Chris is trying out a new way

Jan 09 12 2009

En Français

My French is slow, plodding, and inaccurate. I have papers to write, and a Tinderbox beta to finish. So I’ll mention these very interesting blogs without further comment, and look forward to more careful study soon.

Cooking From The Market likes my salt-crusted baby sweet potatoes. Which reminds me that I need to make them. It’s the season.

This is another reason for The Journal Project. It's easy to get into a rut, to cook things that worked really well until you tire of them. I haven’t made these sweet potatoes just this way for ages, and yet they're good enough for a serious cook to like them. (If I'd taken my own advice, I'd be better off planning menus for my own dinners. As it is, I'm always worrying. “Duck confit? But did we have that the last time they came to dinner? ”)

The new SIHWEB newsletter includes an interview of Cathy Marshall (members only pdf).

Jan 09 11 2009

HMS Surprise

by Patrick O'Brian

One of the earliest, and best, of O'Brian’s wonderful series of Aubrey-Maturin novels, this is the first volume in which Captain Aubrey is fully himself, confidently master and commander. He is penniless — indeed so deeply in debt that he must resort to complex subterfuges to avoid arrest — but at sea he knows his business. From Gravesend to Calcutta, from Boccherini in D minor on the quarterdeck to the discovery of a new genus of tortoise, this wonderful tale never falter. Includes the memorable combat scene in which Captain Aubrey gives the order, “Let there be some turmoil.”

John Markoff writes an intelligent and sympathetic short profile of Ted Nelson in today’s New York Times.

Also in TEKKA, we’re putting together a series of project-oriented Tinderbox exercises called Working With Tinderbox . First up: The Journal Project explores all sorts of journals, from personal diaries and blogs to kitchen notebooks, customized customer relations tools, and crisis recording. Building on The Tinderbox Way, it’s all very hands-on without (I hope) being entirely mechanical.

David Golding writes about reading logs, including Andrew Bowie's Art and Kate Orman’s Books Read. Art Garfunkel’s goes back to 1968. Golding's 2008 list is great, too ( he really should have seen Karen MacDonald in Mother Courage at the American Repertory).

There’s been a good deal of chatter in the past year about books as status objects: is it permissible, for example, to have books in your living room that you haven’t read? To casually leave Ulysses lying about, or to put Krugman on your end table so your friends will know you’re the kind of person who reads Nobel-Prize economics, even if you don’t? But web journals seem refreshingly free of this controversy, and Golding is as happy to pan Henry V and Pepys was to deplore Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Also fascinating is Golding’s survey of five years of reading.

Liked Ok Didn’t Like
2004 28% 26% 26% 18%
2005 44% 27% 16% 11%
2006 31% 28% 22% 16%
2007 32% 40% 14% 12%
2008 31% 31% 33% 3%

Golding then asks, as one ought, whether the variations are statistically significant, or not. We know that the books are not themselves normally distributed: he's not reading books at random, and even if you did pick random books off the shelf, those books have already been selected by editors and publishers and librarians. And we know that Golding’s reactions aren't normally distributed, either: three of his four categories are favorable. Still, there should be some disciplined test that says, "you're right: 2007 is actually different". If you remember your statistics better than I do, Email me.

Update: The answer, of course, is chi-square, which doesn't assume that the data are normally distributed — only that the errors are. While the error curves here might not be strictly normal, they’re probably close enough for chi square to be a plausible estimate.

TEKKA is back. And for now, it’s free.

TEKKA is about enjoying new media. It explores software aesthetics. It’s something we need to discuss, and right now the cover charge is leaving too many people outside. TEKKA needs an income: terrific writing shouldn't be a mere hobby. But the old model wasn’t working, and too many web 'zines are looking at the new economy and giving up. We’ll work it out.

First up: an amazing short story, Friends In Need by Eliza Blair.

TEKKA: Friends In Need

One day, the dogs and cats woke up, and knew that they were strong.

Tom Geoghegan is running for Rahm Emanuel’s vacant Congressional seat. His book, Which Side Are You On? is wonderful:

A brilliant, fascinating look at the state of Labor in the U.S., or actually at the state of social justice, by a man who fell into Labor Law in the '60s and now wonders if it's been a sensible way to spend his career.

James Fallows, Rick Pearlstein, and Aaron Swartz have already written about him with high praise. We need expertise and intelligence in Congress. Consider donating (small contributions make a big difference in Congressional races), lending a hand, or blogging his campaign.

Jan 09 5 2009

A Reading Log

Morbus Iff (Kevin Hemenway) sent a link to his own reading journal, in a handy tabular format.

Do you have an online reading log? Email me.

Novelist Jeff Abbott has been writing a terrific series on The Organized Writer.

Roger Ebert: "Young people, heed this advice: Never marry someone who doesn't love the movies you love. Sooner or later, that person will not love you."

My year on screen:

  • 36 movies* (I'd seen five of these previously)
  • Best new movie: Let The Right One In
  • Also really good: In The Valley of Elah, In Bruges, Starting Out In The Evening, The Company, Kill Bill 2
  • Don’t miss: Two Days In Paris (terrific Julie Delpy), Prairie Home Companion (more seriously Altman that you might expect), Michael Clayton
  • Best TV: The Hustle, seasons 1-4; Battlestar Galactica

Notes*: I count a television season as one movie. These days, all my television comes on disc. I'm not making any distinction between new movies, old movies.

A cup of flour, a half teaspoon of salt, two eggs, and 12 ounces of milk. Mix, pop into the popover pan, pop into a very hot oven. Wait about half an hour. Take them out, enjoy them with real maple syrup.

Yes, get the real stuff. There’s a drought in Canada, so it costs more right now. Hint: lower-grade maple syrup is good — it just looks dark. Always better than imitation.

Over in the Tinderbox Forum, we’re having an interesting discussion on planning a new project, centered on keeping your notes attached to their sources.

The discussion promises interesting sidelights on teaching anatomy and on medical applications of Tinderbox.

Another thread that came up recently involved Alex Strick van Linschoten’s project.

Tinderbox users are interesting!

Hiker Philip Werner writes about Becoming A Naturalist.

So I was surprised when I felt myself beginning to take a keen interest in my surroundings during trips and I and started to spend much more time observing and photographing the plants, trees, animals and fungi that I saw on my expeditions. When I’d get home, I’d research what I had observed and began to teach myself natural history, biology, geology, and botany. Then, I started to write about it, as much to share it with others, as to cement what I had learned in my mind.

Gotta love a weblog that has reviews of adventure pants.

And Daily Kossack Devilstower writes about Steven Johnson's new biography of Joseph Priestley.

This was Joseph Priestley, formerly of Hackney, England, en route to his new home in America. At sixty-one years old, he was among the most accomplished men of his generation, rivaled only by Franklin in he the diversity of his interests and influence. He had won the Copley Medal (the Nobel Prize of its day) for his experiments on various gases in his late thirties, and published close to five hundred books and pamphlets on science, politics, and religion since 1761. An ordained minister, he helped found the dissenting Christian sect of Unitarianism. He counted among his close friends the great minds of the Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution: Franklin, Richard Price, Josiah Wedgewood, Mathew Boulton, James Watt, Erasmus Darwin.

Aaron Swartz jots down his 2008 reading list, with comments. He does this every year; it's a treat.

Tim Bray is playing with his new Android Phone by writing a phone app and blogging his progress. It’s an instructive exercise, even if you aren’t very interested in this particular phone right now. Some things I learned from Part VI:

  • Good minds talk about impressive things, but people of the first rank don’t mind talking about unimpressive things. The thrust of this article — let’s face it — is high school geometry. Bray is Director of Web Technologies at Sun and one of the top people in Web/XML technology. He’s not worrying what you’ll think, he’s worrying about getting the problem solved.
  • The problem in this case is drawing an aesthetically curved line between two points. (The points are places on a map; drawing a straight line might often obscure things you want to see — such as the road you want to take.)
  • Bray, needing a curve, reaches for a circular arc. My own tendency, these days, would be to grab a Bezier curve. I’m not sure which is better, though the Bezier is clearly more flexible, and I suspect that for points widely separated on the screen the arc will stray too far from the centerline. But I’d love to know why Bray reached for the arc in the first place.
  • Bray has a reflex to avoid extra floating point computation and is at some pains to optimize this code, even though it turns out to be plenty fast enough. Nice to know I’m not alone in this.

by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Emerson, above all, was a reader, and Richardson discusses just about every book that Emerson read. Drawing heavily on Emerson’s numerous notebooks and journals, this chronicle of a reading life forms amazing tour of an intellectual era.

What I miss here, despite the book’s magisterial size, is sufficient attention to Emerson’s material circumstances. Emerson played a vital role is funding people; he gave them money, rented them houses, gave them room and board. Richardson mentions in passing that, in some periods Emerson’s journal is filled with financial schemes and worries, but we hear few details. Many of Emerson’s successes and failures — his famous lecture series, the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial — were business startups, I'd like to know how they worked, whether the business plans made sense, how they stacked up to contemporary enterprises.

Jan 09 2 2009

New Ideas

Starting the new year, John Brockman asks a bunch of people to predict “what game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see.”

Oddly, many of the responses aren’t actually scientific ideas.

Nonetheless, there are lots of interesting speculations here. Some I especially enjoyed:

  • Kevin Kelley: a new kind of mind
  • George Dyson: interstellar viruses
  • Stephon Alexander: on basketball and science camps
  • Marti Hearst: the decline of text (resoundingly wrong, but interesting)
  • David Gelertner: tracks and clusters replace schools (though argued by assuming their success)
  • Brian Eno: the feeling that things are inevitably going to get worse (and this, you say, is new? Oy gevalt!)
  • Dan Hillis: a forebrain for the world mind

Via Kevin Kelly.