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Barack Followup [07 Jun 2008|05:03pm]
In January, I endorsed Barack Obama.

As of today, Barack is the uncontesed nominee for the Democratic Party -- after the most suspenseful and knock-down, drag out primary in the history of, well, primaries.

What I said then is even more true now.


Some months ago, I had lunch with an ex- in the city, as we ate I asked what she thought of Obama (she's been a Democrat all along). She said something really pithy:

"I think that after the last seven years, America deserves something nice. I think he's it."

All I can say is: Hell Yes

If you read this and my advice means anything, go out there and help make it happen -- because we do deserve better.
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Endorsement: Barack Obama [25 Jan 2008|02:27am]
My blog is about ideas I find interesting. It almost never touches on politics, because I consider most political argument to be the result of the inward and pervasive rationalizations of the human mind projected onto the world at large. In this respect I find that politics is generally akin to religion; e.g., a war of self-perpetuating abstractions which spread through a blind, evolutionary assault on the fundamental design patterns that ensnare the rational parts of our brain.

Charitably, most political discussion is equivalent to debating the merits of your favorite sports team with a friend. More realistically, it's the crusades with slightly fewer swords. For reasons that will become clear, however, I am not a complete skeptic about the political process -- in thinking about how political ideas exploit human design patterns, I see the shapes of a deeper idea -- that it might be possible to design a system of governance which minimizes the effect of these human weaknesses.

As a historical example, I cite the United States, I see a society which has endured, flourished, and actually become more free over time, as the result of a system which recognizes human failings and actually converts them into productive checks on tyranny.

The American experiment should be exciting to everyone who studies it because it may represent a historical singularity in the theory of governance[1]. To see a nation spring into existence amidst a sea of monarchies, tyrannies, and oligarchies is confounding (even if we can trace its historical roots with the benefit of hindsight). To see this same nation, in the span of two hundred years, grow from a small and loosely coupled collection of colonies into the most powerful, most wealthy, and one of the most scientifically advanced in the world is breathtaking. As Americans, we take this as birthright, assuming that this is the default. To me, the fact that a country could adapt a style of governance from the ancient era, mix in with it the best of the common law traditions of its parent state, and enshrine the (then) radical notion of individual rights, and then have it all work is something of a political miracle.

Compounding this miracle is the fact that America has gone on to survive a bloody civil war, centuries of religious manias, radical shifts in population and ethnicity, numerous economic depressions, and survived the two bloodiest wars in human history to emerge as the most powerful nation on the planet. While doing this, we became the world's economic superpower, the world's *technological* superpower, and managed to generally outlive our Great Enemy, the Soviet Union.

I prefaced what I am about to say with praise because to the American reader, this image of ourselves as a chosen people and superpower is burned into our national identity. For most of our history, it served us well, but it is my belief that a time has come for America to understand that our calling, and our sense of uniqueness in history has a darkness to it that cannot be denied, and it has lead us to a place where we have a President who has gained and maintained power by (consciously or not) playing to this dark side to our nature.

I first knew we had taken the wrong course when the war in Iraq came.

I felt it again when I went back to my home town, five months after Katrina. I sat in a FEMA trailer, writing a eulogy for my deceased grandfather, listening to my mother telling me about how fortunate the town had been.

"We got our power back a lot sooner than the other towns on the gulf, and the water too. It happened right after Condoleeza Rice came to give a speech after Katrina, to tell us we should thank George Bush for giving us a credit after the hurricane."

I saw it again when I went back to New Orleans nine months after the storm, and I spent hours wandering through a middle class neighborhood, completely abandoned and left to run wild as the residents waited for FEMA to tell them whether they lived in a flood plain or not.

I never thought I would see a ghost town in America in our century.

I know we're still on the wrong course, because as I write this, the debate in Congress is over how much power to give a secret court to spy on its citizens, and whether the corporations who 'just followed orders' should be held immune. Or when the debate is over how many hundreds of billions of dollars need to be spent to continue the war. Or whether we should back the current dictator in Pakistan, or put in place a new one. The debate is not over whether we should have an empire, but how much.

I know it most of all when I see that the nation of Jefferson has secret detention facilities, where we retrace the grisly steps of Torquemada.

There has to be an end!


This is what I want from America's leadership:

* To recognize that by building and enforcing political policy on the basis of fear is a mistake

* To recognize that every day we torture, we take one step further away from what it means to be an American

* To recognize that the logic of Empire is a dead end; to end our role in any wars of aggression

* To recognize that just as the power of large government is rightly feared by the previous generation of conservatives, so too should we be wary when large, a-human institutions such as corporations begin to direct the reigns of government.

* To recognize that a government of lobbyists is not a government 'of the people', and will behave accordingly.

* To recognize that the rules of the game have to change. How many time to I have to listen to Republicans and Democrats rehash and refight the battles of the last century? I want a leader who can

* To recognize that while America is special and unique, assuming that we are and acting accordingly will end in tragedy

* To recognize that if there is no freedom of opportunity, there will one day be no freedom.

* To recognize that if we're going to use government as a tool to make a better world, that government must be tamed and held accountable for each and everyone one of its actions.

* To recognize that we cannot shut out the world without losing what it is to be America

* To recognize that markets have externalities; that just as a nation we cannot wall ourselves off from the political world outside of our borders, so too must our markets and industry realize that we live in a shared environment that we ignore at our own peril.

* To recognize the transformative power of the human mind and technology as a force for making our lives better and more free; the opposite of a luddite, and the inverse of the surveillance state.

* To recognize that after the last eight years, we need a little hope.

There's only one candidate who fits this bill for me, and that's why I'm endorsing Barack Obama.

I feel pretty strongly about this -- and I've put my money where my mouth is, donating to the Obama campaign because I believe this may be a chance to not only put right a lot of what's gone wrong since 9/11, but to make lasting and positive historical change.

If you're reading this, and you're a US citizen, please take my words to heart and take a look at Obama's interviews and speeches on YouTube -- and if you like what you hear, please vote in the upcoming primaries.

[1] The canny Swiss beat us to it -- their model of independent cantons with a limited federal government was one of the models looked to by the Founders.
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The Mother of All Demos [08 Mar 2006|09:40pm]
Biked for 40 minutes

I found this link today on Google Video, and it's pretty friggin' amazing:


This is the video from "The Mother of All Demos", where Douglas Engelbart showed off his operating system NLS, later to become known as 'Augment', inspired by Vannevar Bush's vision of a machine/software combo that would be an augment for human intelligence. To cement firmly just how cool this idea was for 1968, Engelbart managed to demo: the mouse, hypertext, audio/video conferencing, emailing, windows, hybrids of texts and graphics, and even real-time collaboration and sharing of documents.

Watch this video -- the passion this man shows for his operating system is inspiring, but more important is the fact that he manages to demonstrate features that some operating systems lack even today. That's crazy!

Well, crazy, or sad. The operating system used by most engineers where I work is one which is unimaginably powerful when it comes to being configured or programmed exactly as the user wishes -- but its interface is still more or less 10-15 years old. The current graphical "look and feel" is one made in imitation of Microsoft Windows.

This lack of focus on the interface -- the part of the operating system that makes it easier to do things with it, seems like a great loss, particularly if you're really, genuinely excited about your computer as being an "augment" to your own intelligence. Even when I look at my absolute favorite of modern operating systems (OS X), I always think: "We have to be able to do better than this."


The coolest part about the Augment video -- turns out Douglas Engelbart and some more modern web developers are teaming up to develop a working copy, emulated on the web:


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Eulogy: Crossing the Bar [18 Feb 2006|09:54pm]

When I was about ten years old, I first heard "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I liked it so much that I told everyone about it, including my grandfather. To my surprise, he'd heard the poem, and told me that it was favorite. So, I memorized the poem and recited it for him. I was still surprised though, because in my head, at the time, my grandfather and poetry didn't go together.

Now, in the fullness of time, I see things more clearly. Poetry was everywhere in my grandfather's life, if I only knew where and how to look.

I saw it when he held his grandchildren on his lap.
I saw it in the way you never could find a free sheet of paper around his house -- since every single scrap of paper was covered with drawings of boats.
I saw it when he drove those same boats over the water, and the way he laughed when he made them go just a little bit faster than he had anticipated.

Speaking for the dead... it's never easy, and there are a thousand things I could tell you about my grandfather. But instead, I'll let poem do the talking, since it says who my grandfather was better than I ever could.

Sunset and evening sky,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea

When such a flood as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and Evening Bell,
And after that the night!
And may be there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place,
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to meet my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

- My eulogy from the Funeral of W. P. Landry
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Spooky [29 Jan 2006|03:42pm]
Biked for 1 hour
Biked for 45 minutes
Biked for 45 minutes
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Biked for 50 minutes

A week ago, I was leaving work, and had a chat with this man in an elevator:



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Updated [06 Jan 2006|01:44am]
Biked for 35 minutes
Biked for 35 minutes
Biked for 30 minutes

I guess I should post since my topmost post isn't all mopey and despairing. Interestingly, I just read it, and thought I would write a post about cities.

My home is in Mountain View, a small little city which is right in the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Netscape was here when they were big. Silicon Graphics boomed and busted here. NASA is here, Microsoft, Lycos, and, of course, Google.

At the same time, it's a pretty small town -- about 50-70k people, depending on how you count. But because the town is sort of a tech hub, I get the impression that it's hyper-concentrated with educated people. Case in point -- last November, I had occasion to attend a city council meeting, and I was floored. Not only were the minutes of the city council (and a transcript) online, they videotaped and played every meeting on local TV. The city council and the mayor all seemed pretty clueful about the issues they were addressing -- even when they didn't understand something, they knew enough to say they *didn't* understand it, and they had technical staff on hand from the city to help answer questions.

As far as representative democracy goes, it pretty much kicked ass.

And yet... I'm subscribed to a mailing list for the people who live in Old Mountain View, where the city used to lie back when it was a farming community. [Silicon Valley was actually 'The Valley of the Heart's Delight' because it used to be all orchards... no foreshadowing of Apple intended or implied]. They're a good bunch of people, and certainly have what they consider to be the best interests of the city at heart, but neighborhood associations frighten me. In their own way, their goal is to completely shape and control the growth of a city, and in a very real sense define what the city is. ["Too many bars downtown! If they're a club, they have to be quiet, since they'd be right next to a loud one! The architecture has to match the neighborhood!]. Too often, though, this leads to a kind of stagnation -- where everything is historic, and any _change_ is something that has to be measured and approved over and over.

Ironically, these sorts of controlling neighborhood associations are very, very strong in Silicon Valley, which is not known for throwing up barriers to change in other places. People who disagree with this view are constantly pointed to the horror of the mega-sprawl in SoCal, and reminded of how important it is to support and develop culture. And yet.. I don't think culture is something you can force. The great cities didn't have urban planners, and they didn't have neighborhood associations. New York, London, San Francisco, New Orleans... all of these places had a character which was all their own before people began arguing what color you could paint your house downtown. Attempts to legislate this character, or to codify it, always seem like building a museum, and not cities.

Maybe there's a middle ground, but I guess I would rather have the place where I live grow than be planned.


Other interesting things I've found or been up to:

Cool sites:

http://www.hamachi.cc -- peer to peer vpn client which is really nifty.
http://www.memeorandum.com -- follow news and the conversations around news
http://persistent.info/archives/2005/12/23/greasemonkey -- killer greasemonkey scripts for Gmail
http://www.doxpara.com.nyud.net:8090/planetsony_usa.JPG -- Dan Kaminsky's graph of Planet Sony, where you can see the spread of who's phoning home because they have the Sony rookit. (Yikes).

Cool things I've been up to:


Google is providing a free, city-wide wi-fi network in Mountain View -- free as in beer, and I've been helping out with it.

Lately, I visited San Diego for the first time for LISA, and Key West for Christmas (my sister is in the coast guard there).

Verdict: If you're going to Key West, expect sunny beaches and touristy things. Don't go expecting anything else, and you'll be happy on Duval Street, which is like Bourbon Street but not quite as smelly, and not nearly as cool.
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The Death of a City? [02 Sep 2005|12:01am]
"Have we come full circle, now? Is every tragedy once again the result of bad actions?"

My best friend said that to me today, when the German environmental minister was trying to make political hay out of Katrina, implying that our failure to sign Kyoto was good evidence that "we deserved what we got".

If there's one lesson I would extract from modern society: from media, from politics, and from people, is that we should never lose fact of the fact that most of what we see is shaped by our desire for Story. We want a single, unifying thread to warp and weave through the chaos of the world, giving it structure. It's who we are, and it's what our brains are evolved to do. So my initial reaction was that it's too quick to make any sort of judgement, and that people should focus on fixing the problem.

But I've heard too much from friends, from people in New Orleans, from people in Baton Rouge, and in my time in New Orleans for me to think that this is just a random tragedy. What we see in New Orleans need not have been -- and intuitively I think people know this.


My freshman year of college, two friends of mine were waiting at a bus stop two blocks from campus, and they were mugged at gunpoint.

What happened?

They were waiting on their bus, and the local middle school left out. A kid, wearing a dress uniform, pointed a gun at my friends and demanded their wallets.

That same year, 471 people in the city were murdered. Near the end of the year, the city newspaper began running a count of the number slain, and you would see copies of the Times Picayune with the number in bold on the front cover. In a city with 500,000 people, you couldn't go a day without having a murder. Some days, you couldn't even make it to lunch before you had a murder.

The campus newspaper had a weekly crime reports section (the debate was over what to call it -- 'crime on campus' wasn't enough, since you also had to cover crime on students off campus). The scariest story I read concerned a young black man who was standing next to a dorm on the main drag through campus. It read: "a convertible stopped by the man, and a party of young men jumped ouf the car and began beating the young man. He was knocked unconscious and stuffed in the trunk of the car, which drove off before it could be identified"

My junior year, two blocks from where I live, a man was shot in the face on his front lawn.


Everywhere I went in New Orleans, it seemed like I could find a slum, if I stepped just a pace off the main drag. Every city has its poor areas, but New Orleans seemed excessive -- most of these places were where the shootings were happening, so it wasn't something that exactly encouraged exploration. I also saw warehouse after warehouse, abandoned and left to rot. When I asked, I was told that even though the city was willing to essentially *give* these places away, the requirement was they be restored to match their historical state. This was almost never worth the money, so these places lay fallow, more places for criminals and the homeless to congregate.


One of the first things I was warned about in New Orleans was the police. "Don't mess with them!" I thought, "Oh, they mean, don't break the law around them -- no problem!". In reality, stories of abuse and corruption by the New Orleans police department were legion. I heard stories of abuse, saw evidence of crimes covered up, saw minor infractions treated with abusiveness (particularly at Mardi Gras), and the year after I graduated, a 'cleanup' of the NOPD resulted in the chief and half the force being kicked off.


My sophomore year, a friend of mine told me how he'd heard this story from meteorologists: "The real worst case scenario would be a hurricane that hits New Orleans, then ends up dumping Lake Ponchartain into the city. Most of the city is in a bowl, so it would flood and then there would no easy way to get all the water out. There would be untold devestation."

The year was 1994.


Our President made the argument to us in an infamous state of the Union address that the safety of our nation depended on invading Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction were cited. Terrorism and links to 9/11 were invoked. Our success in the first Gulf War was recalled.

The President's Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that invading a country was like the most fragile items in a china shop. "If you break it, you buy it".

We invaded Iraq. Colin Powell resigned.

The total resources we have allocated to this war number in the hundreds of billions. The human capital is in the hundreds of thousands. The national guard is stretched thin -- thinner than it has been since the Korean War.


FEMA (The Federal emergency management agency) reported in early 2001 that the three greatest emergencies the US could face were as follows:

- A terrorist attack on New York
- A massive earthquake in San Francisco
- A catastrophic hurricane hitting New Orleans

Articles about the dangers to New Orleans were written:


Meanwhile, the budget to the army corp of engineers was slashed. Proposals to preserve (or restore) coastal land which had historically blocked the brunt of hurricanes were tabled owing to lack of funding. Meanwhile, the party of "small government" approved projects like a 250 million dollar bridge to an island with fifty people in Alaska.


Meanwhile, local government, representing the party of "large government", evidently had no plan for the city. There
were no buses chartered to evacuate the poor. There were insufficient police or officials to go door to door to convince people to leave. The evacuation order was not given until Saturday. The only real shelters were a handful of schools and the superdome, none of which were equipped to survive punishing windows or the catastrophic flood that followed.

Scant emergency supplies, no working evacuation plan, and absolutely no plan to deal with the levees breaking.


What I saw and heard of New Orleans this week was something out of a nightmare.

Roving gangs of looters roamed New Orleans' streets. Police looted. People in the 'evacuation' areas went days without food and water. People drowned as millions of gallons of water rushed into the city. That same water brings with it disease, chemical waste, and destruction that we have not seen in an American city since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

The heroes, the people risking their lives to rescue people from houses and to bring supplies into the city, were shot at.

Today, the Speaker of the House publically wondered whether we should rebuild New Orleans at all.


Can we really believe this tragedy "just happened"?

Didn't think so.
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More [23 Aug 2005|11:42am]
Biked for 35 minutes

If you need a reason to check out Greasemonkey, look no further:


Ultra slick add-on that adds a preview of a gmail message with a right click.
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An offense against theology and geometry [22 Aug 2005|02:55am]
Biked for 30 minutes

Having been writing things here, since I've been so busy and most of my ideas have been non-public.

Of note:

I finally, at long last, read a Confederacy of Dunces. How could more people have not recommended this book to me? Apparently, there's even a statue of Ignatius in New Orleans, but it's easy to see why you'd miss it -- the city is thick with statues, and really, it's easy to miss any particular one.

So many people describe the book as a comedy, a tragedy, or a tragic comedy.. to me, it was haunting. Haunting because I had been most of the places in New Orleans the book covered, haunting because the hints of the author's real life projected onto Ignatius were fleetingly sad, and haunting because he, ultimately, had no Myrna to take him away.


Old e-mail makes me wistful:

Thank you for shopping with Webvan.
The following confirms delivery information for your order.

Delivery Number: 00115474009

We will deliver your order on
Friday, May 25, between 7:00 - 8:00 p.m. to:

[More on e-mail archaeology later]


Freakonomics: If you haven't read it, do.
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Update [26 Jun 2005|05:56pm]
Biked for 45 minutes
Biked for 1 hour
Biked for 45 minutes
Biked for 35 minutes

So, I needed to take my mind off everything this weekend, and I wanted a short and sweet project. What I did was short, but I'm not sure if qualifies as sweet....

Since I got a NAS at home for storage, I've been systematically backing up all my old files off all my computers. Since this is the sort of thing you want to do well, I swore a mighty oath to *organize* all the things on my backup system. [Cynical observers will make noises along the lines of 'If only it were organized in the first place!', or 'I expected no better!']. Doing this involved invoking the ancient spirits of evil, and my box of old hard drives. In particular, I had a number of windows volumes to go through, which was proving to be particularly painful.

So, thinking about things to make this less painful, I remembered that my friend Sara had mentioned 'Skinning' her Windows XP machine to look like OS X a while back.

Sara wasn't around to pester about this yesterday, so I decided to do a little research on my own. In the past, I had been familiar with various 'skinning' attempts for various programs, and I was seldom impressed, since most of the time, they allowed for a change of the 'look' of a piece of software, but not the 'feel'. As it turns out, a lot of very obsessed Mac people, and Windows people without Macs, have done a lot to make this happen on Windows, and the result was absolutely amazing.


I recommend the following pieces of software to make this happen:

* Dock clone: ObjectDock [Close contenders were Yz'Dock and MobyDock]
* Mac bar clone: ObjectBar
* Expose clone: Top Desk [Quick and fast -- there are better clones, but I wanted to do this for free]
* Konfabulator: Mac dashboard functionality [Konfabulator actually predates the Dashboard]
* Registry tweaks to make the windows finder look more Mac-like
* Loading up Tiger icons
* Spotlight: Google Desktop Search [I docked it for quick searches]
* Quicksilver: Quicksilver's every line was dictated from the mind of some sort of Zen OS god. The nearest thing I could find was only a pale shadow of its power, but it's good for quickly launching apps. It's a little tool called AppRocket, and you can see it at the top of my screenshot.

My constraint for the effort was that these tools be no more than nagware, and not expiring shareware. Sure enough, they all meet the bill -- and if you wanted to pay for it, it'd run you about $50-ish all told.

So, frankly, I was amazed at what was possible. I feel like XP is tons easier to navigate through, and the GUI now has a sort of 'command line' feel to it where I can just start typing and fire up an app. It's also not measurably slower or memory-hogger, and I can get to important info a lot faster. It's worth doing if you have a lazy Saturday afternoon and you're a maniac.
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Currency [19 Jun 2005|03:15am]
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Biked for 45 minutes

My old friend Stephen is found of telling people, "If only we could use the enormous stone coins favored by the denizens of the Isle of Yapp, then we'd be set! There'd be no inflation, only owing to the finite size of the island and the enormous volume of the coins!"

Naturally, this lead me to ponder on the favored subject of lunatics and nerds, constructed currencies. Normally, these things are about as serious as constructed languages: Devotely followed by die-hards who go to great ends to construct what they consider to be newer and better ways to exchange money or the time of day. Not that we don't have a lot to learn from either endeavour, but they suffer from the fact that not only is their probably a 'natural monopoly' in both cases (i.e., the very nature of the thing means that once you have a clear winner in a given space, there are barriers to entry], you also have governmental or grammatical fiat. (Well, in the case of the French, you have both for language as well...]. So, while there are people who work really earnestly at using the Triganic Pu as currency, or Loglan as a language, they're not going to take off without some sort of serious outside stress.

Being a sort of lazy Friday afternoon though, I thought about turning the problem on its head. Suppose I wanted to have my own currency, what would be a good way 'infect' an existing currency with it? Certain nations, for instance, peg their currency to the dollar: You can always exchange X zorkmids for Y dollars, and that's what sustains their currency. The problem, of course, is that the entity doing the pegging might go away. You might also have zorkmids in the US, where people might be forbidden from doing business with your pegging authority. Or, there might be taxes, unfair exchange rates (Why would Bank of America bother with a fair price for Zorkmids, when only 30 people use them?).

I also had in the back of my mind an article I read the other day about how the Japanese sign their checks, and the problems they'd been having with fraud. In essence, they have a little stamp which encodes their name, and when you sign a check, you stamp it -- and the bank compares your stamp with the one it has on file, and it's more accurate that identifying a signature -- only, it's way more easily copied.

What if we did as follows:

* Let's call ourself the Mint of Brandonus, and declare our own currency.
* Every dollar bill has a unique serial number.
* Pick your favorite hashing function, h, which hasn't recently been broken by bored cryptoanalysts.
* Now, suppose we want to produce some currency from the Mint of Brandonus. We take some dollars bills, compute:

h(serial number, nonce, some other known info -- let's say, the date) = q

* Stamp q on a dollar bill in red ink

Now, let's let loose a lot of these stamped bills into circulation.

Now, given a stamped bill, an issuing authority can *tell if the bill is real or not*, provided that it isn't counterfeit _US_ currency, and your nonce hasn't been revealed. Given that you include date info, you can change your nonce on a day to day basis, or month to month, or year to year. Now, you can say: Ok, the valid stamped bills by the Mint of Brandonus are now the currency of a new group of people.

All of a sudden, this new currency has the following properties:

* It is *always* usable as US currency, since it is in fact US currency.
* The full force of the US government is devoted to ensuring the bills aren't counterfeit.
* You still have control of the supply of your own red-stamped bills -- you can even do things like giving out shared secrets to third parties you yield minting to for a limited number of bills, or any number of elaborate schemes. You can even say that certain bills become 'invalid' after time/on certain events, since you're revokation authority.

In short: Your currency is completely inflation proof, but also still enjoys all protection afforded the US dollar. Further, people are a lot more likely to think twice about doing things for your currency, since it's automatically valuable somewhere else.

I'm certain someone has thought of this before, but it amuses me endlessly. So much so, in fact, that I wondered:

What if you could hack a language in the same way? Somehow, to take the grammar or the vocabulary of a language, then use that to construct your own, 'inheriting' a portion of its authority or usage base.

It's a much harder problem, and not really doable, but imagine the following:

* A language that has English's vocabulary, but not its grammar
* A language that has French's pronunciation, but not its vocabulary or grammar
* A language that has both English and French's vocabulary, but its own grammar
* .. And so on, ad infinitum

What weird, freakish things could we do with these subversive languages?

I'm too tired to go through and add the links I should, but I'll do so in the morning.
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Hell freezing over: Part 2 [07 Jun 2005|12:46am]
Biked for 35 minutes

So, as expected, Jobs announced today that Apple would be moving to all x86 chips over the course of the next two years, and did so by running it on a p4 3.6 Ghz machine.

As he said, OS X had been leading a .. double.. life:


This little snippet is from the project manager from Marklar, who gives us a little bit of insight into Apple culture and what went into making it happen. Crazy to think that the project kept itself sustained over five long years -- kinda makes you sad we didn't see it sooner.

Also interesting is the reaction of various people: I thought it was a really neat thing that they were moving to a chip that could more easily run Windows apps, might be cheaper, allow for faster laptops, the possibility of hacking OS X to run on any old Intel system.... On the other hand, the big Mac people I knew were a lot more dubious, and worried about things like direct competition with Microsoft, Intel's failure as a 64 bit architecture provider, how no one will be able to hack their motherboard, how it will be awful for everyone porting apps, blah blah blah.

While some of those concerns are real, it seems like a lot of it is at least to some extent fueled by the sort of religious mania against Intel let flourish over the past decade.


In the interim, let me recommend a cool OS X tool which has really begun to impress me:


More on that later.
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Update [06 Jun 2005|12:15am]
Walked for 2 miles

A paltry tally, but I've been super busy.

A few notes:

I got a Mac Mini (1.4 Ghz process, 1 Gb RAM). Absolutely no processor problems with running things, and it even did some compiling in decent (if not exceptional) time. My only real complaint re: performance is that on a 24" monitor, expose is pokey pokey pokey. If only they had sprung for a 64 mb graphics card, instead of a 32!. Regardless, the Mini's engineering is a thing of beauty. It's so... so...

so cuuuuute.


Check out what Google is doing:


If you are:

(a) A student
(b) Into programming
(c) Think open source is a neat idea

You can apply to receive a grant from Google (to the tune of $4500) if you complete a project for one of a numerous collection of open source organizations. If you are these things, or who have a friend that is, let them know: the deadline is June 14th.


Now, for the big news:

Apple is going to announce on Monday that it's moving to Intel chips for its machines. Details are still sketchy, but this fact has been reported in Cnet, the WSJ, and now the NYT.

In short, hell has frozen over.

Lots of people have lots of theories, including:

* Intel will make PPC chips
* Intel will make Itanium or xScale/ARM chips for itsy bitsy Apple Mobile devices (video ipod?)
* Apple is going to use x86 for their laptops (cooler), but not for their Macs
* Apple is going to use x86 for their servers (since g5 sucks for web apps) for their servers
* Apple is going to use a bizarro combo x86 and g5 dual core chip (NeXt actually had plans for something like this)
* Apple is going whole hog with x86 everything. Modern emulation software will make running the software everywhere easy.

I'm not going to comment on my own opinion, but I did see this livejournal post bandied about:


Wooo, rumormongering!
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Wikinews update [27 May 2005|01:14am]
Biked for 45 minutes

Some posts ago, I talked about crazy citizen journalism projects. Chalk one up for WikiNews, which lets people request *press credentials* to do reporting. The criterion for getting the credentials? Help out on a few articles, and a vote of wikinews users.


The idea that you could just 'get' a press pass by popular acclamation is so delightfully subversive -- it's like if you could log onto your town's website, and ask to get made a deputy. You'd then print out your badge, laminate it, and there'd you'd be.
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The tiniest amount ever [25 May 2005|01:14am]
Biked for 10 minutes

I feel like I can comment with such a shameful entry because of the effort required. I woke up this morning with a brain-splitting headache (sadly not from drinking), and took three Aleve. I forced myself to bike for 10 minutes. I remember thinking, "Maybe it'll suck blood away from my brain and it will hurt less" in a sort of daze. I biked for 10 minutes (at a pretty nice clip.. I burned 100 calories), and then went to go nap to try to get the pain out of my head. I drifted in that not-asleep not-awake dream haze, then woke up, was sick, then slept some more.

I woke up feeling better, with no headache, and feeling like I'd been kicked by a mule. Also, I was starving, and it was 1pm. Naturally, I went to work. [Mainly because I needed to be fed, and since work feeds me 70% of the time, I have water and pickles in my fridge.]

We had oysters for dinner, but I was recovered by then, so they tasted like the best thing in the world.[1]


Techno-yumminess ahead:

I got this Dell 24" monitor, and it's God's Monitor. It's ~$500 cheaper than the comparable Apple Cinema display, and it's just *gorgeous*. I wish I could give you a screenshot to appreciate it, but the picture may be too small for the margin of your monitor to contain it. So, as a test, I plugged in my powerbook into it, and it was good. Playing around with it on my desk, I realized that I was one step away from complete Apple assimilation: I caught myself thinking, "Why don't I just get a Mini to plug into the monitor?"

It may be too late for me, but I can still warn the world.


But speaking of Dell: It took me 2-3 weeks to get this monitor, largely because their customer service sucks. I ordered it, got a notice saying I should expect a shipping notice, then nothing.

Four days later, I punched in my customer order number, and just got, "Your order has been cancelled". No explanation of when, why, or how.

I called up Dell, and they said, "It was cancelled. Check with your bank."

I called my bank, they said, "No, it was just fine. In fact, our records indicate you often buy electronics online and so this fit with the normal pattern." (Tell me something I don't know).

I called Dell back, "Well, it looks like it was flagged as being fradulent".
Me: "So wait, it was ok for my bank, but not Dell?"
Them: "We're not sure why."
Me: "So, I'll just reorder"
Them: "Oh no, it's better for us to re-run the card."
Me: "Ok then, whatever will get it done quickest." (Famous last words)

So, I was transferred to several offices, until I finally goto the "right" (I use that term loosely) place, where I was informed that "Of course we can reprocess your order. However, the price has gone up by $300. Also, I have this thick Indian accent and there's static on the line in order to better serve you!"

Naturally, at this point, I began to get surly. Words like "Bait" and "Switch" were used, and then they hurriedly admitted "Oh, we weren't applying the right discount! Let me transfer you there."

I was transferred to the main customer support switchboard for Dell, and prompted for an extension. The one I had been given was two digits two short.

I had to call up, and go through the same rigamarole again, then I ended up with a different person, who barely spoke English. It took me 15 minutes to give her my address, spelling very slowly and very carefully. At the end, I told her it was the worst customer experience I'd ever had with Dell.

Net time to get it taken care of: 1 hr 30 minutes.

By contrast, in early, pre-collapse 2000, a friend of mine at Exodus had called in a bad hard drive on his Dell laptop and asked for support. He was told a tech would call him back, and then an hour later, _MICHAEL DELL_ called him back and told him how sorry he was for the delay. Now, obviously this was just a gimmick -- Michael Dell would randomly pick customers to call (and who knows, maybe he picked high profile companies), but man, what amazing PR. Even if it was a gimmick, it showed that Dell was at least thinking creatively about how to manage customer pain. As a consequence, I'd always sort of thought of Dell's customer support as something decent.

Whatever changed between then and now, it was disastrous.

Some support pointers:

(i) Your operators should always speak the language of the person calling. This is not a negotiable demand.
(ii) Your system should minimize pointless transfers, particularly when you have to give the same information *Every time*.
(iii) Never keep your customers in the dark if you cancel their order, and don't make them go through shitty customer service just to get an answer.

That said, the monitor kicks ass. Buy one, all the cool kids are doing it.


[1] Unless, of course, you don't like oysters. In that case, every oyster has the consistency of snot.
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The Web and the Consensus Aesthetic [22 May 2005|01:44pm]
Biked for 1 hour

So, yesterday, I promised to talk a little bit about greasemonkey and platypus, which, despite their names, are not the title of an Aesop's Fable.

First off, what's Greasemonkey?

Greasemonkey is an extension for the web browser Firefox. One of Firefox's big selling points is that it is easily *extensible*. That means that developers can easily write little applications for it that do various add-on things. [Don't mind the technology behind this -- just know that it's a feature.]. Greasemonkey lets you write your own javascript that is loaded when you go to a given web page (or all web pages). This javascript can do everything the web pages javascript can do, *and more*, since you're running it on your local machine.

Again, sparing you the technical details, this means people have written Greasemonkey scripts for various web pages to make them (in the author's opinion) "better". Examples of things Greasemonkey can do:

* Add a 'trash' keystroke shortcut to gmail
* Make slashdot look less ugly (note: not hard)
* Remove irritating ads on a wide variety of sites
* Make Amazon super-easy to navigate
* Kill with a word (it's that good)

So, the only real downside about Greasemonkey is that you have to know javascript yourself to write the code, or you have to trust someone else's code, and the whole process is very much a bleeding edge thing.

Enter: Platypus

Platypus is a WYSYWIG web page "editor" that allows you to remove and cut/paste elements of a web page on the fly. In short, you can do things like highlighting a section of a page, hitting 'Ctrl-X', and then that part of the page *goes away*. You then 'save', and it pre-generates a greasemonkey script when you install by pressing another button.

Note: this is only version .2.

Now, let's think a little bit about this. What it means is that even people who aren't super computer literate can dynamically remove and change content on websites they visit.


What will be the end product of this sort of software?

It poses some fun (or shocking) visions of the future, where content is further abstracted from presentation. If you want to think of it in economic terms, this allows for a market not just in content ("Do I read AP or Reuters?"), but also one in style and usability. If you have a website, or even an abstracted information stream, and your canonical representation of that information sucks, people will change it.

To think about how weird this is, imagine if you had a daily subscription to a newspaper (How many people under the age of 30 still do this?). Only, before the newspaper gets to *you*, it runs through a little machine that copies and edits it to your preferences. Maybe you want to see the Comics on the front page, and the world news as section "B". Maybe you don't want classifieds -- or maybe you want *only* classifieds. Maybe you're a Democrat, and you want all the occurences of the word 'Bush' to have red circles around them. Maybe you're a Republican, and you want every instance of "rebel" to be replaced with "insurgent". Maybe you dislike the font they use, and pick your own. Maybe you're nearly blind, so you want your newspaper five times larger than your neighbor.

Now imagine that everyone has a little machine like this, and it doesn't just work on newspapers, it works on every single piece of information in the entire world. Maybe you download the 'Democrat' filter, and that is a lens that colors everything you see on the web or on tv. Maybe you have a 'California' filter, that flavors the appearance and content that you see so. More stories about the environment please, and let's have the colors be a little more soothing.

Naturally, this is the sort of thing that will drive content owners bonkers. Not only will they have to worry about people easily snipping out your ads, they'll also have to worry about people mutilating your content into such a form that they get an entirely different message out of it. What do you do? How do you fight this? Expect the Red Queen to preside over these fights, but expect to have even less luck than you have fighting things like spam or file sharing.

Maybe what will happen is that there will be a 'consensus' aesthetic[1], which is the weighted average of the way the world wants to view a given body of information. You'll agree to abide by it, since the crowd is wiser than you are, but will still keep your own, private filters for the things you consider *really* important. Or maybe there won't be a consensus, and everything will be presentation-level Babel -- you won't even be able to expect that a random person will see the world in the same way as you at all. Your friends might, but only because they use filters like yours. (Are they your friends because you share similar filter preferences, or do you share similar filter preference because you are friends?).

This sort of prognostication gives me a headache, because we don't really know how things will end up. The moment I saw these two programs, though, I knew they would one day be Big.


Bonus cool article:


"Why Ontology is Overrated"


[1] The 'consensus aesthetic' is a concept I encountered in a great far-future sci-fi novel named The Golden Age. There, reality and the perception of it are so blurred that what determines your perceptions of a given locale is the 'consensus' aesthetic about that region. (I.e., if the owners of an area choose to portray it as a Victorian mansion, out of politeness you would make your appearance change to match the milieu.)
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Socks-related [21 May 2005|01:34pm]
Biked for 1 hour

So, I didn't get to exercise this past week because the weekend before, I was picking up socks and managed to pull my back in a very odd way. So, I spent most of the weekend laying on my couch, and most of the week feeling weird twinges as my back got better.

Take-aways from this:

I can either:

(a) Don't pick up socks
(b) Get some sort of sock-picking up mechanical grabbing apparatus
(c) Hire a sock grabbing minion (the minion need not be human.. it could even be a sock-grabbing monkey)

My heart tells me (a), but my evil side says (c).


Revenge of the Sith: I had a great time with this movie, and was very pleased with it. If you're the sort of person who nitpicks every last detail of everything and therefore are consequently unable to enjoy anything good in life, my feelings for you are best expressed by General Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith:

"I'm so very sorry for you."

It is, however, telling, that my friends and I came to this conclusion after seeing the movie:

Why couldn't he have just made *this* movie? Were 1 & 2 even really necessary?


Anyone who's using Firefox (and if you aren't, you may be a bad person) should have these two tools:


I'll write more about them in my next post.
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Pitching a lobbying group? [11 May 2005|08:07pm]
Biked for 45 minutes

If you are any of the following:

* Someone who is a fan of Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons
* Someone who feels like the EFF needs all the help they can get
* Someone who thinks that the government does not exist to protect the business models of large media companies
* Someone who wants to live in a world where your Tivo, your mp3 player, and your computer's dvd burner aren't contraband
* Someone who thinks that we should make a modern day Library of Alexandria

You may be interested in:


Public Knowledge was instrumental in beating the broadcast flag, and they want a world where copyright is sane. I checked out their site when I read about their work, and I donated $100. Generally speaking, when I donate to something, I try to coordinate my charity giving with things I really believe in. If you think that the things above are important, Public Knowledge seems both ethical, smart, and *effective*.
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Update [06 May 2005|12:17am]
Biked 55 minutes
40 lb dumbbells x 10 curls

You might be a nerd if...

You see Donald Knuth at a party, and then think, "Man, if only I had my three volume hardback edition of the The Art of Programming for him to autograph!"

Extra points if you think, "But maybe I should wait until the fourth volume is out!"


We live in an age of wonders and miracles:

Contact lenses to improve the eyesight of athletes and a variety of related tasks:


Evidently, the ones for baseball players filter out 'visual noise' (aka, excess blue light), and the ones for golfers allow discernment of extremely subtle shades of green.

But can anything compare to the following discovery I made?

Transparent duct tape!


With this, we can challenge the gods. (I ordered a roll... I'll see if I've Transcended in a week and get back with you.)
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A few Godel sentences [02 May 2005|09:21pm]
Biked for 45 minutes

Yesterday I read a biography of Kurt Godel, the famous mathematician/logician who proved a series of revolutionary incompleteness theorems in the earlier part of the last century.

There's probably not space enough to explain his results here, but I'll give a brief summary:

One of the most powerful methods in mathematics is to 'formalize' things, by abstracting out the form of various mathematical facts and leaving behind the meaning. In particular, viewed this way, you do mathematics exclusively by *syntactical* operations. In essence, you do the following:

Take a few axioms, which are rules for producing and manipulating symbols
Apply these rules as necessary.

And that's it.

It may seem like a sparse mechanism for generating math, but in reality there was (and is) an entire school of mathematicians devoted to this, and it is in fact a great way to do math. You get all the rigor of logic, and all of the certainty of 'minimal' axioms. Furthermore, you've stripped mathematics of a necessary connection to any larger semantic world -- all of your problems are problems with *symbols*, not the things the symbols represent.

The question Godel answered was this:

Starting with a finite number of axioms, and a finite number of operations on these axioms, can you prove every true statement of arithmetic?

The answer is no.

That means that no finite number of axioms is sufficient to encapsulate the set of truths of arithemtic, and any more complicated formal system falls victim to the same argument. It was a big deal to the formalists, because it utterly destroyed their program of formalistically generating all of mathematics from a few, simple axioms.

It was even a bigger deal for Godel, who was a mathematical platonist, who believed that mathematical objects have their own sort of existence. The theorems he proved justified his belief, because they showed that the only way to correctly believe in the consistency of arithmetic was to believe that formal arithmetic has a *model* in the form of this semantic universe (which might be the natural numbers, as we know it.)

All this is extremely fascinating, and well worth understanding, but the interesting thing I learned in the biography was this: Godel was stark raving mad for the majority of his life, but he had a few, great friends, one of whom was Albert Einstein. Einstein was quite taken with Godel, and insisted that he had stayed on at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study for "the privilege of walking home each day with Herr Godel". As it turns out, for Einstein's 70th birthday, Godel presented him with a paper, detailing a novel set of solutions for his general theory of relativity: A *rotating* universe (rather than an expanding or contracting one), which has a number of bizarre properties.

Among them:

* At each point in the universe, all matter in the universe would be rotating around that point
* Matter would be homogenously distributed (roughly) throughout the universe
* Time would be cyclical

In fact, in the Godel-verse, you could actually travel backwards in time by getting in a rocket, and following a spatial direction which actually took you on a closed, time-like loop, to arrive where you initially began. Given, such a path would be in practice impossible for a rocektship (taking billions of years), but it would not be impossible, for instance, to beam a message at the speed of light to a nearby civilization, and the on to the next, around the perimeter of such a loop, and then receiving a message before you sent your own!

Einstein was touched by the gift, but also taken aback that the equations of general relativity would permit such an "Alice in Wonderland" universe to exist. (Einstein had great faith in the universe being causal and not a cruel and random place). It is interesting to conjecture what Godel thought of his toy universe -- if he really believed that equations reflected some platonic reality that existed beyond the sun, might he believe that somewhere, this universe might exist? It does not correspond to the physical reality of our universe as we know it, but it remains at least *possible*.

A good source on his paper is this article:


Godel's actual paper is available here at the American Physical Society's Website:


Of course, this paper costs $50.

Sometimes, I'm not sure how the American Physical Society sleeps at night.
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