Monday, January 31, 2005

Stigmergic Horting

There's little i enjoy more than learning a new word, so it's the rare day when i learn two new words serendipitously. I was doing a search earlier today on the topic of collaborative filtering and i found first, a paper that uses the word stigmergic; and second, a reference to a paper on something called horting. Neither word is likely to be used in any conversation among sane people, but they're fun to say. I'm not sure that horting could arise stigmergically, but i'm guessing that if it can it's probably the explanation for all manner of mysterious and profound phenomena.

Horting seems to be basically a way to build a network of connections between users based on the similarity of preference for various items (movies,books,songs,etc.). I particularly like horting, because hort could be used as a sort of transitive verb (e.g., i hort you), which would mean something along the lines of "i have enough in common with you that it's safe to say that if you like something, i'll like it about as much". Clearly the English language needs this word because it expresses compatibility without any sort of emotional connotation. I intend to use it whenever possible. Inevitably, somebody will create a parody song called Everbody Horts.

Iraqi Elections

I think this image from Fark sums it up for me.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Doomed To Repeat The Future

The company that i work for, which we'll call Big Giant Internet Company, has decided that it also wants to be Big Giant Media Company. It will accomplish this with "content". Content, you see, is extremely important because without content people would be forced to create their very own stuff to push around the internet. Content, on the other hand, can be owned; and if it's owned then you either have to pay for it, or you have to watch my ads before i let you experience my content. Content is also crucially important because it gives validity and power to all of the bullshit executives who get to make the decisions about which content is good.

To their credit the executives at Big Giant Internet Company understand that the internet experience is different than the television experience or the movie experience. They hope to give people the internet experience, whatever that might be. The internet experience is likely less passive, more interactive, but mostly it is more personalized. Personalized. You will be hearing this word more than you can stand.

This should excite me because ostensibly personalization is what i now do for Big Giant Internet Company. But i believe that attempting to personalize the internet experience by trying to become an uber-aggregator of content is missing the point. Like falling down and missing the ground but not, with apologies to Douglas Adams, thereby flying.

There are numerous trends on the internet that i believe bolster my argument. One is the blogging phenomenon itself. Although there's a lot of crap out there, there's also a lot of good stuff written by people who don't have to worry about edits to save column space or publishers who don't want to offend advertisers. Another is the increasing amount of existing material that's been digitized and indexed by the likes of Google. Another is the huge amount of on-line comics, videos, music and art that is produced by completely independent creators; and associated sites that glean through it and point you at the most interesting. Another is the almost universal acceptance of RSS-style syndication of content. Another is the increased use of shared bookmark managers like and associated tags.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that content is not the only thing that matters. Content, as a friend of mine put it, is soulless. Art, science, opinion, literature is only "content" to marketing droids who want to drape it with advertisements. I've got no problem with people making money by selling art, science, opinion, or literature on the web, because the web is also a marketplace. But it's not the existence of said content or the opportunity to buy it that provides the personalized internet experience. The internet experience is fundamentally an act of creation, even if it's simply the creation of your view into the world. That's what personalization should be. If you look at a sites like Findory or or Technorati, it becomes apparent that you don't need to be Big Giant Media Company in order to provide that experience.


My first post on this blog related an anecdote about my younger son Henry that gave this blog its slightly odd title. Yesterday, i came across a page on the web that describes a Peanuts cartoon that is almost identical to that story (Linus makes the "these are my feet" declaration). My son was about 3 at the time he said it, so i can state with certainty that he had not seen this cartoon. Still, it was very strange to read this. I haven't been able to find the actual cartoon yet, but it supposedly appeared in a book called Here Comes Charlie Brown, so i hope to.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


I recently added a Blogroll to my blog template, courtesy of I figured i'd describe the blogs i added and why i think you might be interested in them.

The Bleat: This is the blog of James Lileks, who's also responsible for some of the most diverting content on the web. See for example, the Gallery of Regrettable Food at the Institute for Official Cheer. His blog is journal-ish, although he manages to inject political and social commentary fairly deftly. His writing is much better than the average blog and often funny, which compensates for his unfortunate rightward leaning. Mr. Lileks is an example of a paradox: a thoughtful and reasonable Bush supporter.

Tracer Fire: The blog of James Wolcott, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Often when i read Mr. Wolcott's blog i feel as if he has reached into my brain and pulled out my thoughts and then written them down in a much more eloquent way than i ever could.

In The Agora: A conservative group blog. I cycle through several conservative blogs but i tire quickly of the barking moonbat variety. In The Agora is generally well written and well reasoned, with a focus on economics-based arguments. This is a level of discourse that could actually persuade people.

The Rude Pundit: If James Wolcott is transcribing my ego into more elegant prose, then the Rude Pundit is rewriting my id into funnier rants. Sometimes you need to read somebody who's willing to call a moron a moron, and the Rude Pundit will call them a fucking moron.

Postmodernes Sprachspielen: OK, i admit i'm not entirely sure what the title means or how to pronounce it. This blog is like nothing else i read. The posts are not quite like journal entries or punditry; but more like carefully crafted short stories. They are first person and seem very personal and intimate. Autobiographical one assumes, but not in the style of a typical biography that would emphasize major events and linear chronology. The author, who identifies herself as Postmodern Sass, is probably the sexiest woman i know of that i've never actually seen. My mental image of her is something like Claudette Colbert circa Midnight, though i'm not sure she would appreciate the comparison.

Life Among the Mammals: Posts on technology, politics, life in general. Very insightful, essay-like posts. Stuff that makes you think.

Ongoing: Tim Bray's blog. Bray is one of the originators of XML, but his blog is not all technology. To be sure, he does produce an amazing number of insightful technology posts and he must be among the most linked of technology commentators. However, his blog also covers everything from politics to music to pictures of his garden. In my opinion, the best blog in the current blogosphere.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson started on the Tonight Show about a year before i was born. According to my mom, i enjoyed Carson as an infant on those occasions when i wasn't asleep at the appropriate hour. I can't honestly say i remember watching him at that age, but i like to imagine that the Carson theme song is permanently burned somewhere deep down in my reptile brain.

When i was a kid that theme song signaled for me the beginning of the interesting part of the day. On Friday nights, i'd try to stay up late enough to catch the beginning of Tonight, at least to hear the monologue, because to me that was a singularly adult thing to do. In fact, i learned the word monologue from watching Carson. For years i thought that the minutes between Carson's appearance from behind the curtains through the inevitable banter with Doc Severinson were the coolest thing ever. Hey i was a farm kid from the midwest, cut me some slack.

By the time i reached college, Carson had reached the heights of banality. The jokes weren't often funny anymore, and Carson was more respected for the influence he'd had in bringing so many successful comedians to light. Still, when i came home for breaks during college, i'd grab a Coke from the garage fridge and sit down to watch Carson, usually all the way through until Letterman started. There was nothing provocative or penetrating about a Carson interview, but there was a sense that he'd be a good guy to sit down with and have a conversation.

Carson was apparently killed by emphysema that resulted from smoking; basically the same thing that killed my grandfather (my dad's dad). In all other respects they were about as different as two people could be; but the similarity in their deaths struck a chord for me for some reason. It occured to me that Carson was, like my grandfather, a model for what i thought it meant to be grown up. My grandfather was stoic and steady, he worked hard for most of his like on farms and in factories and he took care of his family as well as he could. Carson represented a certain type of success; an escape from the expectations that my family history imposed.

As a parting shot, check out this post from Low Culture.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

My Reading Addiction

The professor for one of my lit classes back in my college days had this saying that i liked, though i'm sure he got it from somebody else. It went something like this: "Show me somebody who reads and i'll show you somebody who's depressed; show me somebody who writes and i'll show you somebody who's miserable". By the transitive property of sweeping generalizations, it follows that somebody who writes about what they're reading must be freakin' suicidal.

Anyway, i've always been a fairly avid reader, at least by the standards of our post-literate culture. I don't really read for edification or education so much as just to experience things, however vicariously, that i probably won't experience otherwise. I also think reading has for me some of the same qualities as meditation. Under normal circumstances my brain multitasks pathologically. I think i have what Rands calls Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder (NADD), which is useful for people in my profession but which generates stress. When i read i'm able (sometimes) to focus on the text, maybe because the acts of parsing, interpreting, imagining, inferring that are required to read critically occupy most of the brain. Writing software and other intellectually absorbing activities often have a similar effect for me, but reading is the only one of these that relaxes me.

Lately though i've been combining my reading habit with my NADD. I used to be fairly strict about reading sequentially, one book at a time, but recently i've started reading multiple books. Not literally concurrently, but time-sliced. This began a couple of years ago when i got the idea of leaving a book in my car so that i'd have something to read while waiting for someone or while having lunch alone. That seemed fairly reasonable, and i'd usually have one fiction and one non-fiction book going so there'd be a clear distinction. But i couldn't leave well enough alone. At present, i'm in the middle of four different books. One is Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, which a friend loaned me. Another is Pain: The Science of Suffering by Patrick Wall. The third is Blink by Malcom Gladwell, and the fourth is The Day of the Bees by Thomas Sanchez. That's if you don't count Bob Roll's Bobke II, which i have in the bathroom along with Apollodorus's Library.

This might sound like pseudo-intellectual bragging. Oooh, look at all of the clever books that i'm reading. But really, i'm not at all proud of this. I don't have an orderly process for managing the books, or a method for keeping them mentally compartmentalized. The books occupy various physical places that shift a bit, though they tend to remain separated: the office, the car, my family room, my nightstand. I don't attempt to read a set amount or at a specific time. I just slip into them when it's convenient. Sure, it's not exactly like mainlining heroin, but i think it's perilously close to crossing the line between purposeful and compulsive behavior.

I'm tempted to attribute these new reading habits to the Internet. Obviously i've developed a taste for rapid context changing and bursts of monotone information. It's mood altering. I can get my blood pressure up by reading something that pisses me off, and then bring it back down by cruising over to RudePundit. More likely though i'm just undisciplined.

Monday, January 17, 2005

All That Jazz

At this time each year elementary schools across the country (except maybe in Mississippi, who knows) teach the kids about African-American history and the Civil Rights Movement. It's all a bit academic and bloodless, similar to the way that i was taught about the Civil War in elementary school back in the Cretaceous period. Nathan, my older son, who's in 5th grade, is starting to get some of the details now (they studied Brown v. Board of Education for example), but for whatever reason-- political correctness, fear of parental reaction, concern for the tender minds of the youth-- they leave out most of the ugly and complex.

I usually try to amend my sons' school material with some extras, so in the past we've bought books on black leaders and scientists, or we've watched shows on PBS or the History Channel. But this year, i got to help out in a way that was both fun and extremely satisfying. Nathan's class spent some time studying the life and music of Duke Ellington, so we spent an evening listening to music. We played several renditions of Take the A Train, Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Caravan; and we played several tracks from Blues In Orbit, one of my favorite CDs. We listened to 1956 Newport concert, including Paul Gonsalves's famous solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. We crossed over into some collaborations Ellington did with Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane so that we could expand the boundaries slightly. We also got out Andrea Davis Pinkney's excellent kid's book on Ellington, which we bought several years ago.

Fortunately, swing is innately fun music so this didn't turn into some sort of didactic chore. The boys were dancing around the family room most of the time. Since they both play piano, i think they like the fact that Ellington was a piano player who had to take lessons as a kid just like they do.

Living in southern California, my half-Filipino, half whatever-i-am kids are pretty much normal. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that race doesn't really figure into their notions of normalcy. They know other kids who run practically the entire spectrum of African-American, Latino and Asian mixes, even if our neighborhood does still skew a bit toward the white/blond region. Regardless of how much education they get, I hope that racism will always be an entirely incomprehensible concept for them.

Friday, January 07, 2005

What Is Security?

As a computer geek one of my sub-specialities is data security. The need for security of data in computer information systems stems from the real or perceived value of that data to its owner. It's fairly hard in reality to place a dollar value on data, though companies attempt it. For example, if the formula for Coke Classic fell into the hands of nefarious evil-doers who then started making a taste-alike product, would it hurt Coke's business? The data security answer would be "absolutely", while in reality who knows? Given that there are numerous similar products on the market, surely a large part of Coke's success is marketing. For data to have a value that's easily assigned in terms of a company's sales, it would have to describe a formula or process to make something that's valuable in the marketplace, otherwise unreproduceable, and unprotected by any legal means.

Placing dollar values on security is pretty hard in the more general sense too. Because of recent history, the focus of spending on security at the moment is primarily on national defense, by which i mean pursuing real or perceived terrorist threats. I don't dispute the value of that type of security, but i wonder if the almost exclusive emphasis on it detracts from real security. For instance, regardless of what means are used i would require that the result of security measures be, in this order, 1) the existence of my family, 2) the health and happiness of my family, 3) the existence and effectiveness of the social infrastructure (schools, roads, police, courts, commerce), 4) the integrity and safety of the nation. I recognize that these are not necessarily interdependent, that the safety of the nation might be a prerequisite for the safety of my local social institutions. But I'm not convinced that the current national security priorities are compatible with my own, since they're stacked toward fighting an essentially foreign war in order to cripple what are deemed to be terrorist organizations.

Again, it's hard to find a formula that determines where to place the security emphasis. I vaguely recall reading somebody who advocated pairing the likelihood of an event with the potential harm of that event to determine its criticality. For example, there's a fairly low likelihood of an individual being killed by a nuclear explosion in the United States (if you factor in the geographical size of the country); but the potential harm is vast, and probably calculable in a very rough way. On the other hand, the probability of an individual being harmed or killed in an automobile accident is significantly higher, but the effect is generally limited to a small number of people. So would the data support the War on Terror or the War on Idiot Drivers?

My opinion is the things that are worthwhile in terms of security are 1) better control of the immigration and visa process, 2) better safety measures for automobiles and highways, 3) better control of air and water quality, 4) R+D on national defense that emphasizes intelligence and troop preparation, and 5) investment in education and business innovation. In my opinion, the things that are not cost effective include 1) the war in Iraq, 2) the war on drugs, 3) the erosion of civil liberties in the name of information gathering, and 4) missile defense.

Probably the areas in which i differ the most from most liberals is in the realms of gun control and intelligence gathering. As for guns, i think that cat is already out of the bag. I'd probably support background checks or safety training (it seems like making a gun as hard to get as a driver's license is fairly reasonable); but outright bans on guns are pointless. Relatively few of the bad guys are buying their weapons at the WalMart as it is. Also, even though i know it's a contentious point, i don't think we ought to overanalyze the second amendment. I'm willing to concede that the 2nd amendment insures the right to own and bear arms, if gun proponents are willing to admit that the other amendments insure me the right to keep the government out of my private matters and evangelical Christianity out of our courtrooms. In any case, i don't think better gun control is going to address my stated security priorities in a substantial way.

Intelligence gathering is a tough one. I'm convinced that the current approach of trying to define categories of individuals to whom civil liberties don't apply (e.g., the "enemy combatants" sophistry); or giving police agencies broader latitude to circumvent privacy protections is misguided. Ironically, i'd use the same arguments that gun advocates use. Something like "when privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy". I'm fairly convinced that available encryption methods would make it possible for any careful individual to communicate securely if he or she wanted to. So the government would need measures such as key escrow to defeat this security. It might be possible for the government to mandate that some communications channels (the Internet, telephone land-lines, digital mobile communications) adhere to standards that make it easier for them to eavesdrop, but how would they extend it to radio or the postal system?

On the other hand, i have less issue with systems that monitor public records and attempt to make inferences (i.e., data mining). I don't have much issue with face recognition software, or even expert systems that attempt to identify individuals as potential security threats. If, and it's a crucial if, these things are backed by rigorous due process they seem to me like legitimate law enforcement and defense techniques. I believe that they could potentially serve the purpose of helping to identify the sort of anomalous behavior that the 9/11 terrorist exhibited, but which was only apparent after the fact. These systems will make mistakes, innocent people will be accused. But that's a problem with any police organization, automated or not. In principle, that's why we have due process in the first place.

I found the following passage recently, ironically on a gun advocacy web site:
Dr. Hatsumi was once asked to describe the essence of Ninpo [a martial art] and he replied that it was sitting on the porch of one's home and watching one's grandchildren play in the yard. That statement certainly doesn't seem to describe an art that is commonly portrayed as an assassin's art or at minimum a warrior tradition. Yet, it is the perfect statement to embody this and most martial arts. It is also the essence of why I am an owner of firearms. In Ninpo, as in Buddhism, one begins to change the world by first changing oneself. When I recognize the cause of suffering in my life and I follow the way to eliminate that suffering, I have taken the first step. However, I quickly discover that in order for me to be happy, I must help create a safe and happy environment for my wife and family. Then, I discover that in order for my family to be safe and happy I must work to ensure that my neighborhood is safe and happy. But in order to ensure that my neighborhood is safe and happy, I must work to ensure that my town is safe. This process of reasoning continues until I realize that the entire universe is connected and that my safety and happiness is inextricably intertwined with that of the other residents of the universe. Therefore, if I want to be able to peacefully sit on my porch and watch my grandchildren play I must ensure a safe world in which that may occur.
The logic of this seems irrefutable to me, though i'm not sure that i would thus conclude that gun ownership is essential. It is consistent with my own martial arts training though. We practice what we call "positioning". This is basically awareness of your surroundings. The need to use self defense techniques means that you have already failed at positioning. The only time at which you should use self defense, no matter how expert you are, is when you're in over your head. If you know that you will defeat your opponent easily, you're not a warrior, you're a bully.

So what is security? I'm not certain yet, and i'm not certain that it's possible to precisely define. But i know i'll have experienced it if i can sit on my porch and watch my grandchildren play in the yard.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Short Attention Span Theater

I wanted to blog something, but nothing has occured to me for a few days so i decided to just brain dump. Injure eternity, as our friend Thoreau might say.

Part I, Alias

I managed to sit through all of the Alias season premiere last night, mostly because it followed Lost, which i truly enjoy because it's basically Gilligan's Island for slightly more grown-up people. I've not followed Alias before, so i don't grok what the hell was going on; but one very, very important fact caught my attention: Angela Basset was on this show. Has Angela Basset always been on this show? Because i really, really like Angela Basset. It's hard to believe that Jennifer Garner could be the second most attractive woman on this show. I'd advocate as many Angela Basset-related story lines as possible.

I thought the show was exciting and well-paced, but these are some pretty lame super-spies. I'm pretty sure that i and a few of my friends could have pulled off the sword-stealing episode more neatly. That whole scene with Jennifer Garner trying to divert the attention of the Russian nuclear scientist was inane (though forgiveable, since it was also hot). The fighting bits were average. They use the same trick as most TV shows: they have close-ups of some slow, ineffective strike employed by the star that miraculously connects with the bad guy, then they cut away to a long view for a more impressive sequence that's obviously done by a double. Note to TV producers: if you're gonna make a character on a show be a super bad-ass fighter at least make sure that he can hit the heavy bag convincingly. This is the third show i've seen where one of the characters was hitting the bag with about the same intensity that you'd use to clear cobwebs.

Part II, Benford's Law

Have you ever heard of Benford's Law? I read about this in Mario Livio's book The Golden Ratio. The basic concept is that lists of numbers that seem like they are random often do not actually have a uniform distribution of digits. Rather the digit "1" occurs as the first digit with a much higher frequency than expected (around 30% as opposed to the expected value of around 11%). As unexpected as this is, it can be explained mathematically (see the link above). This phenomenon can be used to identify fraudulent tax returns and such because when fabricating data people tend to make up numbers with digits that are more uniformly distributed.

Part III, Music For a Ten Year Old

My older son Nathan got an MP3 player for Christmas so we've been experimenting with downloading and playlisting, etc. I struggle with how much i want to limit what he can listen to. I have no illusions that i can prevent his eventual exposure to all manner of strange and unsavory things, but that's not to say that i want to encourage it. So far his musical tastes haven't caused any major dilemmas. He likes the Gary Jules album "Trading Snake Oil for Wolf Tickets", mostly because of the cover of Tears for Fears' Mad World. I find that a bit puzzling given the bleak message of the song, but i can hardly fault him for a melancholy streak. We also got the latest Jimmy Eat World album "Futures". Nothing much offensive there, and it's a pretty good record i think.

Part IV, Alan Furst

I've mentioned my fondness for Alan Furst's books here before. I finally finished Dark Star yesterday, after a long hiatus to finish Imperial Hubris. Furst's novels are a combination of historical novel and spy novel, but really they're just very good novels. The setting for most of his books is the 1930s, generally during WWII. Furst apparently does a lot of research, and his evocation of 1930s Europe is incredibly rich. The protagonists of his books are complex characters with interesting motivations, instincts, and shortcomings. I think i also prefer the fact that they're not Americans. Good stuff.

Part V, Modulus Arithmetic

Somebody at work discovered that the modulus operator gives different results for negative numbers depending on the language used. The particular example was -3 mod 2. Some languages give -1, other 1. Apparently this is because of the way that remainders are treated in these languages. If you calculate the remainder as "subtract the number from the nearest multiple that's less, you get -3 - (-4) = 1. If you calculate it as "subtract the number from the nearest multiple with the smallest absolute value, you get (-3) -(-2) = -1. I think the first is more correct, but i'm not sure.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

New Year's Resolutions

Or is that New Years Resolutions? Seems like it should be possessive and so have the apostrophe, but i'm not certain. Here are mine anyway:
  • Learn to use apostrophes
  • More adventures. There's this bit in, i think, The Day of the Jackal, where Forsyth talks about how the assassin keeps in practice by stalking and killing something every day, even if it's just a fly on the windowsill. In a similar way, without the killing part, my goal for the year is to have some sort of adventure every day, which might be nothing more elaborate than standing in the rain or running a new trail. More big adventures though too.
  • Listen to the Drive-By Truckers song "Carl Perkin's Cadillac" until i get completely sick of it.
  • Get a better tan on my feet. I promise to do this every year, but i never quite achieve it.
  • More horizontal search, less vertical search. One of my favorite books is The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. In the book the main character, Binx Bolling, describes his personal effort to find himself in terms of a vertical and a horizontal search. His vertical search is, roughly speaking, a search for knowledge or an attempt to understand the fundamentals of the universe. The horizontal search is an attempt to place himself within his immediate environment, his neighborhood, and connect with it. As the character says "Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and i sit and read as a diversion". I figure i've got the vertical search covered, so it's time to wander seriously.