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It turns out that web-logging is to journalism as the New Economy is to the Actual Economy. While hardly news, this is apparently a surprise to many actual web-loggers. Here's a splendid rant about the ``'blogosphere''.
I've been thinking a little bit more about the whole Meg Pickard BIMBO review thing. For those who haven't seen them, the comments on Meg's site are quite instructive. Quite apart from opinions of BIMBO itself, many of the comments suggest some intriguing -- by which I mean `negative' -- conclusions about web logs and their readers. Naturally, this comes out sounding like a bit of a rant. For instance:
IOM, chris, you seem to struggle with the fine tune points of the english language.... re the difference between fact and opinion. is english your first language ??
... I've been actively arguing things out over the web since the late '80s....
I am impressed -- nay, astonished -- that this man has apparently been arguing things out over the web since before it was invented. (In a later email, he tells me that he meant JANet and X25. Go figure.)
Every time I find myself using a web comments system, it's like taking a step back into the past. The technological problem of sending somebody comments on their work via the internet was solved more than thirty years ago with the invention of email. And for public discussions, USENET dates from 1979; mailing lists are even older. If you spend any time communicating over the internet, it's likely that you've spent some effort on organising your working environment to be convenient for you to use.
Yet when you respond to somebody's ``'blog'' posting, it's de rigeur to type your message into a tiny box on some dumb web page which then goes off and reformats what you write in an unhelpful manner. And once you've submitted your comment, it simply gets appended to a completely unstructured transcript which really doesn't help the reader follow the conversation. And, of course, the designer has done their utmost to make the page unreadable to anyone using a high-resolution screen. I mean, pixel sizes in font directives? What are these people on?
While I appreciate that there's value in having the transcript of discussion near to its subject, the state of the technology is really lamentable. But there we are. It's the new reality. I guess the web enthusiasts are too busy trying to make everything XML to bother learning from the mistakes (and even the successes) of the past.
More generally... the `unique selling point' of the web and the web browser as its user interface is `unity of interface': the user has a single way to interact with all sorts of different services and information. So what do the providers of those services do? They go off and, each, individually, figure out how to provide their own different approach to whatever it is they're trying to do, almost as if they're trying deliberately to break the abstraction. Now, it's not so bad that people are reinventing the wheel all over the place -- we all do that -- but it's sad that so few of those wheels turn out round.
Though it's no great disaster that web comments systems don't use some preexisting standard like NNTP, that they don't use any standard at all means that each site has its own foibles, limitations and idiocies which the reader must learn about from scratch for every web site and web log in the world. If there were a standard for web comments systems, it would be possible to produce a program to interact with them in a sensible and intelligent manner, working around their limitations just as email clients are designed to work around the limitations of email. As it is, that's not really feasible.
In some cases there's a commercial imperative behind the technical limitations: you can imagine, for example, why Live Journal doesn't allow its users to link to people using other web log sites as `friends' on their journal pages. It's a reasonable guess that the Live Journal people believe that their interests are best served by trying to decommoditise `online diaries' as a medium. In the case of individuals... well, the incentive is less clear, and it leaves me baffled.
Like all arguments on the internet, this one degenerated into semantics pretty quickly. (Presumably if it had gone on any longer, we would have started on Hitler, but happily the argument was nipped in the bud before that.) I was, however, fascinated by the reverence in which the term `content' is held. I suppose that this is reflected in its overuse when describing things to do with the web. We have content management systems, content creators, rich content, content aggregators, multimedia content, and so forth. Everything, apparently, apart from actual content, which, as ever, remains in short supply.
Which is, of course, why BIMBO exists at all. Were I slightly more pretentious, I might be tempted to call it a `collaborative [content?] filtering experiment', but in fact it's patently obvious what it does, so there's no need for a buzzword-compliant mission statement.
What is it with peanut galleries and pseudonyms? A sample: SpunkyTheMonkey, Graybo, meesteryan, jj. Now, I expect that some of these are motivated by a desire to economise on keystrokes resulting from an unwillingness or inability to type accurately -- `jj', for instance, is the one who made the comment about my grasp of English reproduced above -- but others obviously don't. For instance, I don't think it can be substantially easier to type `SpunkyTheMonkey' than it is to type `Joe Dockrill', which is the name he gives on his web site.
So I'm guessing there's some other motivation here, but I can't see what it is. Given that hiding behind a pseudonym has the effect of making your statements look suspect, I presume there is some competing advantage which has eluded me. In some cases the intent is obviously to post anonymously, but that can hardly apply to those who are providing links to their own web sites along with their pseudonyms. I'd love to know what's really going on here. Send me an email if you have any ideas.
(Actually, I'm being a bit unfair to Mr. Dockrill. He's obviously pretty l337, since sometimes he spells his pseudonym l1|<3 Th15.)
What if Gordon Banks Had Played? is a brilliant and disturbing look at how the 1970s might have been. Originally posted to USENET group soc.history.what-if, but now republished by its author on the web, the story seems to be drawing towards a conclusion. Well worth a read.
I went to a talk by Matt Blaze about the security of locks. He didn't say a great deal that wasn't in his paper on the subject, but it was interesting to see the attack demonstrated using a small selection of padlocks and a special key-cutting tool bought from eBay. This contraption apparently cost about $150, and, with a small set of blanks, allowed him to perform the attack in somewhere between five and ten minutes. Apparently it's quicker without an audience.... His comment: he doesn't believe that the physical security of locks is any better than the electronic security of computer systems. Nice.
This week's futile letter of protest:
Dear Mr. Blunkett,
I understand from your remarks on the radio this lunchtime that, if the courts allow, you intend to overturn today's ruling on the rights of asylum seekers to humane treatment.
I am at a loss to understand why Her Majesty's Government is so keen to have the six claimants in this case -- along with many others -- turned out onto the streets without food or shelter.
No doubt there is a good reason. I hope that you will be able to explain it to me.
But it's all futile. I'm not sure whether the government are actually racists in the way that their policies suggest, or whether they're just playing up to public opinion. I suppose that it doesn't matter. It makes me -- I don't know... probably that word that Jamie Zawinski is looking for: `halfway between baffled and angry'.
``An interesting experiment, but doesn't really seem to get the point of half of the links they review, and places far too much importance in the personal whims of the reviewers. Mostly content-free.''
-- which, of course, is just as fair a comment as those she complains are `rude'.
Some of the other criticisms, though, may arise from features of how BIMBO works. For instance, she complains that marking ickle.org as `content-free' is ``bollocks'', or that marking The Mirror Project as ``pseuds' corner shite'' is `an opinion'.
Now, the first thing to remark about this is that the BIMBO idiom is that the rating is of the particular page linked to, not the site itself. So it would be perfectly reasonable to mark the `front page' of the BBC News site as `content free' because all it contains is a question about whether the reader is in the UK or not (you may not see that if you have a BBC cookie set, but that's what a first-time viewer sees). That's not a claim that the BBC News site as a whole is `content-free', nor should it be interpreted as such. In the case of ickle.org, the front page is pretty content-free -- when I checked it a moment ago, it consisted of a picture of a chocolate and some tiny text in the middle of a big white page. (Unless I looked at it in Links, in which case it's just a blank page....) Again, that's not a comment on whatever is linked to from the front page, but if no links to other pages on that site come BIMBO's way, the moderators won't see them.
The second obvious comment is that, yes, of course these are opinions. That's rather the point.
There's a little bit more information about the ideas behind the thing, which might be of interest.
Meg also complained that
For example, they followed a link to this explanation and background of the Be My Anti-Valentine project and then reviewed it as if it was the project itself:The cards are vaguely fun, but the metawittering is not (Chris Lightfoot).
Well, I voted that page up because I liked the cards. If another link to the project itself had been in front of me, I would have voted for that instead. But the idea behind the thing is to avoid having to trawl through endless pages to find which ones are fun or interesting. Instead, it presents a random selection to the moderators to choose from. (I'm also not sure I'd agree that I'd reviewed it `as if it was the project itself', either; for a start, it's probably going a bit far to claim that a fifty-six character comment constitutes `a review'.)
(Another comment is that `American or wildly parochial' should perhaps be interpreted with the or emphasised.)
The most interesting criticism is that the comments and votes don't address the context of the links. This is a good point, and one which has come up in discussion before.
Unfortunately context is quite hard to do. The moderators are presented with the option of seeing the context from which the link was drawn, but I don't think I'm prepared to present this to general readers, because it obviously has to work by caching the pages, and there are technical and legal Issues there. (It's obviously not good enough just to link back to the site from which the link was drawn, because (a) it might well have changed since the link was extracted from the page; (b) the page itself might be long and a context feature is useless unless it can find the original link in the text. There's no way to solve these without caching the pages.)
For information, here's an example screenshot of the interface which the moderators see:
All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.
-- how apposite, in these days of `anti-globalisation'.
(I notice that the orwell.ru site has a good chunk of Orwell's writings -- copyright be damned -- but no copy of My Ideal Pub. Pity.)
This seems to have come up in conversation from time to time, so anyway, here goes:
The march, doesn't really seem to have a defined aim with which I can agree. Are the protestors against any military action? Or against military action now? Or against military action without a UN resolution?
The Stop the War Coaltion web page seems very careful not to explain exactly what they are against, which does not inspire any confidence. There's a bit at the bottom of the home page which states that
The aim of the Coalition should be very simple: to stop the war currently declared by the United States and its allies against `terrorism'.
(It's not obvious to me that this describes the march itself.) Well, hmm. Sure, large elements of the ``war on `terrorism''' are a sham. And I've seen no evidence that Iraq has anything to do with terrorism either: do we really believe that secular tyrant Saddam Hussein, whose Ba'ath party is, so far as I understand it, an Arabised National Socialism, is supporting al-Qaida (or however it's spelled this week)? But I'm certainly not prepared to lend my support to a campaign for unilateral pacifism, which has never worked. Other aims of the campaign, such as
We are committed to opposing any racist backlash generated by this war. We will fight to stop the erosion of civil rights.
I couldn't agree with more. But those issues are completely decoupled from the campaign for pacifism and should be seen as such.
I understand that, for instance, the Liberal Democrats are taking the position that they can participate in this march but protest only against military action unless sanctioned by the UN, but is that how their action will be interpreted by the organisers of the march and the media? I shouldn't have thought so.
Historically, I don't think that popular pressure is a very good way to stop wars. Certainly, I can't think of an example (for instance, US involvement in Vietnam ended not because of peace campaigners but because the Americans lost the fight). Cynically, if our government wants to bomb Iraq, it will bomb Iraq, just like it has been doing this past ten years and more. And yes, of course it is deeply horrible that people will die -- probably in large numbers -- as a result. That's what happens, unfortunately, and while the `rogue states' thing is so much bullshit -- Iraq is a fully functioning country with roads and health care and everything -- bluntly it is the case that the world will be more stable if such countries had more quiescent governments....
We could go into some sort of complicated arithmetic about how many people would die in different scenarios and try to use it as a decision making tool, but that's a pretty dishonest thing to do, and anyway the decision isn't ours to make. In any case, history shows us that the tolerance of people in the West for people dying in far-away lands is almost endless.
It's not at all obvious to me that, if you care about suffering within Iraq, military action to depose Saddam Hussein isn't the best of a set of unpleasant alternatives. After all, sanctions aren't going to get stopped any other way, whereas if the US and Great Britain decide that the Iraqi régime needs `changing', we can be reasonably sure that they'll relax sanctions and supply aid -- to make it look as if their new régime is working out, perhaps, rather than from some genuine humanitarian need. But food and medicine are food and medicine, no matter what political point is being scored by supplying them.
``Régime change begins at home.''
Sure. But what's the alternative? I can't imagine that any of the protestors are going to consider replacing Tony Blair with Ian Placeholder Smith a significant advance, especially since the Conservative party supports action against Iraq anyway. Sadly, I don't think that we're likely to see a Liberal Democrat administration any time soon.
``Today's youth should be as morally upright as are the leaders of the free world, and should never consider violence as a way of settling disputes, regardless of provocation, any more than NATO does.'' (Dan Rutter)
Isn't it nice the way the, uh, Free World is being led by such responsible people? Here's United States Congressman Pete King having a bit of a Tebbit moment (Real Player format) on the Today programme this morning:
Pete King: Well are we looking at French culture? I mean exactly what are we looking for with the French? I mean... I assume the French would be capable of going with us into Iraq so they could be there to instruct the Iraqis in how to surrender.... but, um, I really am not that impressed with the French to be honest with you.
Jim Naughtie: This is pretty crude stuff, Congressman.
Pete King: I think it's pretty objective....
By comparison, the French Ambassador to NATO was a model of politeness and calm. I happened to notice in the supermarket this morning that the Daily Mail (no website worth shit, [un?]fortunately) had a front page with a photograph from the D-Day landings and the headline `Ingratitude' in enormous letters. Can somebody remind me of Turkey's involvement in the liberation of France? It must have slipped my mind....
And a bonus factoid: did you know that NATO has a hymn? They're sufficiently clueful to have it in MP3 format on their web page (bottom of page). Sadly it doesn't seem to have lyrics. Perhaps somebody should make some up....
This happened a while ago, but I guess in some sense it's worth reporting....
I was slightly amused by an incident at Cambridge station this evening.
I went to catch a train to London, and found on my arrival numerous police officers, sniffer dogs, and various expensive-looking cars around the station forecourt. When I got on to the platform, there were more police and well-dressed persons obviously expecting to meet somebody from a train.
This surprised me. I had not realised that `important' people travelled by train any more.
So, anyway, after a little while, the train gets in and the reception committee chase it up the platform. They return and in amongst the throng of the crowd I spot somebody who looks a lot like the Chancellor of the University. I am surprised, since I had assumed that royalty had chauffeur-driven limousines, helicopters, etc. to transport themselves around the kingdom and had no need to travel on WAGN. Curious, I head back out to the station forecourt and ask a policeman what was going on. He eyes me very suspiciously, then tells me that, indeed, Prince Philip had come through the station. I thank him and go to catch my train.
Later I realise that the suspicion of the constable had probably been aroused by the fact that I was wearing my POLICE STATE DO NOT CROSS t-shirt.
So-- the moral of the story? Well, I'm not sure. Some possibilities: even travelling by train won't save you from encountering `celebrities'; choose your clothing carefully before approaching a police officer; and the rather trivial `people are always shorter than they look on the television'.
Judge [to counsel]: Would you consider a region of the globe defined by a latitude and longitude to constitute a `place'?
Counsel: That, your honour, would be a matter of degree.
(Attributed, I think, to Henry Campbell-Bannerman, but I can't find the reference.)
Lots of people seem to have been thinking about geographical web searches. It won't surprise you to discover that I think they're all basically wrong. The various approaches they've been using fall into two rough categories:
Of these, the first is obviously bollocks. Apart from the fact that it'll never work, it doesn't even achieve what you want, since the purpose of geographical search is to find information about your area rather than just a list of the web servers which happen to be located there. About the only people likely to be interested in this are burglars and those setting up new colocation facilities.
The second is slightly more promising, but the problem is that it requires explicit support from search-engine operators before it can be used. And, of course, nobody will use it unless the search engines support it. Not good in the short term, though I expect that in the long term it will be used.
My idea is as follows: use (``leverage'') existing search engines by encoding geographical locations in text. Now, we can probably assume that people searching for web sites by location are going to want `pages in the vicinity of ...', so that's the only type of search we need to target.
It used to be the case that web search engines could query on word prefixes like `geog*', which would then match `geography', `geographic', etc. This suggests a really simple implementation: we write down the latitude and longitude of a location in some base which can easily be expressed in characters the search engines index (presumably the letters of the Latin alphabet), and we write down the location as (first digit of latitude), (first digit of longitude), (second digit of latitude), (second digit of longitude), ....
Then a user who wanted to search for pages which advertised a location in some vicinity could just put in as much precision as she wanted, append a wildcard and do a completely normal web search. (Note that there are some problems here; in particular, we search for things within boxes defined by constant latitude and longitude, whereas ideally we'd want to be able to search for `things within 100km of ...'. But I don't think that's a tremendous limitation.)
Unfortunately, Google doesn't support prefix searches. So to use this idea we'd have to encode the latitude/longitude information in words, and then search for a phrase which begins with the most-significant few digits of the position. There's a limitation here, which is that Google doesn't allow you more than ten search terms, but if we make the first word represent the first 1° box (so that it can take 360×180 = 64,800 values -- and need only be four letters long, though in practice we'd probably want to prefix it `lll' or something to distinguish them from real words) , then we've already narrowed things down to the nearest (approximately) one hundred kilometres, so the search-terms limit oughtn't to be too onerous.
'Course, I don't think that the readership of my ``'blog'' is large enough for it to be worth working this idea out in any more detail (in particular, choosing an encoding). And if I did, I expect the XML crowd would whine at me for not making it XML and standards compliant and all that shite.
I could do with an alarm clock like this:
This lack of autonomy is perhaps most strikingly demonstrated by the procedure for astronauts waking: their morning alarm consists of music sent over an audio channel from the ground, and the astronauts talk back to mission control just seconds later. It is difficult to imagine anything that would foster a greater feeling of dependence on the ground staff. Astronauts are being trained and conditioned not to think for themselves, but to refer all the thinking to mission control, who lead them through everything. This culture of helplessness needs to change.
Links from Kuro Five Hin:
How well can you image a satellite with a ground-based telescope? Rather well, it turns out, especially if you are prepared to apply cleverness. This MPEG movie of the Hubble Space Telescope is particularly cool.
This article by Gregg Easterbrook was published in 1980:
The external fuel tank, for instance, is full of oxygen and hydrogen cooled to -400°F to make the gases flow as liquids. Ice will form on the tank. When Columbia's tiles started popping off in a stiff breeze, it occurred to engineers that ice chunks from the tank would crash into the tiles during the sonic chaos of launch: Goodbye, Columbia. So insulation was added to the tank.
Officials from Nasa arrived on Saturday night to retrieve the helmet, which Mr Couch had guarded throughout the day. ``We had about 300 people come up here to look and I was told by the sheriff not to let anyone touch it, see. So I guarded it. But everyone was well behaved. I didn't have to get my gun.''
While searching for the etymology of the phrase asleep at the switch, I found this marvellous Idler's Glossary. It didn't tell me the answer, of course: that's in Brewer's, which is where I should have looked in the first place:
Asleep at the switch, To be. To fail to attend to one's duty; to be unvigilant. An American expression derived from the railroads. `To switch a train' is to transfer it to another set of rails by operating a switch. Failure to do this according to schedule might well lead to a catastrophe.
Still no news on screw the pooch, which Brewer's doesn't cover (and neither does the OED). A Google search for "screw the pooch" etymology doesn't get us very far, sadly. The phrase occurs in a bunch of dictionaries of military and naval terminology, and also in dictionaries of jazz terms -- bizarre. (Have a look at OneLook, which is some sort of meta-dictionary-search, which of itself looks quite useful, though it doesn't help much here.) Perhaps I need a better dictionary of slang.
This is classic-- George W. Bush as 419 scammer:
I WOULD BESEECH YOU TO TRANSFER A SUM EQUALING TEN TO TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT (10-25 %) OF YOUR YEARLY INCOME TO OUR ACCOUNT TO AID IN THIS IMPORTANT VENTURE. THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WILL FUNCTION AS OUR TRUSTED INTERMEDIARY. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MAKE THIS TRANSFER BEFORE THE FIFTEENTH (15TH) OF THE MONTH OF APRIL.
I went to see Catch Me If You Can the other day. A bit disappointing, though it's a pretty film with a very cool title sequence. My mistake was probably to read the book before seeing the film. The book is very entertaining -- it has to be, to compensate for the appalling journalese in which it is written, for which co-author Stan Redding may be to blame. But really, what induces anybody to write something like (picking at random)
[I] stuck a packet of the [forged] cheques in my coat and went out to buck the tiger.... The tiger, for me, was a pussy cat. I ironed out Vegas like a bed sheet.
Please. Even worse, the British edition of the book has clearly been translated from the American by the simple expedient of search-ing-and-replacing `check' with `cheque', with little regard for context. So Frank Abagnale forges cheques and occasionally goes to a supermarket checkout -- but from time to time we discover him chequeing something out. Gah. Hire a proofreader!
This is all done with wwwitter.
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