tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Nov 30, 2005 9:14pm

things fall apart

I've been reading this brilliant essay by Philip K. Dick in small pieces all day: How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later. There's a lot of meaty conjecture on the appearance of truth in fiction, and Dick's own run-ins with quasi-religious coincidences arising out of his books Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and Ubik. It's a lot to digest, so I won't bother interpreting.

Q. What are science fiction writers "good at?"

A. Dick:

I can't claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?

Nov 26, 2005 12:32am

seceding from googlistan

While in Europe, I decided to secede from Google.

I'm starting to get creeped out by the volume of information they're hoarding, influenced by the rhetoric of the AttentionTrust, and doubtful of the longevity of the "Do No Evil" company motto. Someone smarter than I said: "When all the good-guy founders have left the company, Google still has your data."

I thought of a few ways to accomplish this:

  • Use robots.txt to disallow Google's search bots. This is the naive approach that relies on search engine trustworthiness.
  • Use some variant of khtml2png or ImageMagick to render all text content on my site as GIF text, making it opaque to bots but usable for humans. This is a more difficult approach that will work until the day Google merges their book-scanning project with their search engine.
  • Stop blogging.

Ultimately, I decided it was a silly idea. I don't get a ton of search engine traffic (except for "giant ass") and I don't much care. The stuff I write here is public by definition, and HTTP responses aren't an aspect of Google data retention I'm afraid of. What I'm really worried about is the correlation between searches pegged to my browser cookies, mail processed through the GMail account I don't use, instant messages transmitted through the Google Talk account I don't use, and usage information about my website culled from Google Analytics and Google Web Accelerator.

Meanwhile, the proprietor of WebmasterWorld has seceded for real. Black Hat doesn't get it. It sounds to me like Brett is trying a controlled experiment, to see how traffic on the site is affected by dried-up search engine hits. The site in question is a conversation forum, and I can imagine that it would be desirable to exercise some control over the kinds of people walking into your salon. If you want to keep the conversation on the level, you discourage casual participants and bias in favor of dedicated readers and writers. If I were in his position and made this decision, that might be my rationale.

Nov 24, 2005 2:45pm

strange decision from 37S

This is currently old-news, but I'm still playing catch-up after my travels. 37 Signals has disabled comments on their weblog. Can't say I'm their biggest fan, but I always made a point of reading their blog, mostly for the discussion in the comments. I do this with Slashdot, and I'm starting with Digg, too. Sites with vocal and frequent feedback are like the watering holes of the internet, useful more for the other visitors they attract than the inherent local value they provide. Given that 37S had just recently started up their Deck advertising network (...if you want to reach the influencers, buy a card...), I can't understand why they would remove a major traffic driver to their site. Now, there's nothing on the website that's not already in my RSS reader, and the quality of the Signals' own postings have show a marked deterioration lately anyway. I really don't have a reason to swing by anymore, which makes ads purchased in the Deck less valuable. Eric has also noticed that more NYTimes articles are beginning to disappear behind their Times Select "pay wall," another instance of forum owners sabotaging their own relevance.

Nov 21, 2005 10:46pm

drang nach oakland

I'm back home in CA.

Last week I had the good luck to attend Design Engaged in Berlin. It was a mind-expansively great time. Thirty-five designers from Europe, Asia and the U.S. converged on Andrew's second micro-conference. I heard so much good stuff about last year's Amsterdam event that I just had to beg or steal my way into this one. The reward was a weekend-long series of talks and directed conversations which covered a much wider range of topics than your typical tech/nerd conference. My own interest was piqued by design for our post-cheap-energy future (Adam read a little Jacobs and Kunstler), exercise machines as a joy (Dance Dance Revolution) instead of a chore (24Hour Fitness), mechanizing thoughtwork, metals which snap into liquid form at low temperatures, and Malcolm McCullough's musings on ambience and uniformity. I don't recall a single official invocation of wiki's, long tails, or anything-onomies (though Thomas was there).

My favorite aspect of the whole affair was the design of the conference itself. Despite an inauspicious beginning with chairs arranged in neat rows, the scheduled 20-minute presentations frequently evolved into conversations once Q and A got started. The conversation-starter sessions were overall the most engaging for me - these were talks on the short side that presented a few themes or arguments (or fun crafts projects) and then yielded the floor to the rest of the group. They had a call and response feel to them that I greatly enjoyed, with just enough structure to keep the thing flowing but not so much that I was ever forced to travel to the laptop-planet for a break. Two participants planned events instead of presenting - Matt designed a button-trading game which won us (Stamen) a Nokia N90, and Mike set up a series of neighborhood walks that bagged us (myself, Gem, Anne, Andrew, Joshua, Liz) a personal tour of Schoenburg from Erik Spiekermann.

I find it interesting that every time I detour to Poland, I fly back with another Norman Davies tome in tow. This time it's Heart Of Europe AND Rising '44, but I've only had time to crack the first. Adam's talk Design For Decline seriously hits home with me, because when I visit Wroclaw (the town, the book) I'm constantly made aware of the fact that 60 years ago the city was a Dante's Inferno of post-war terror. Buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Neighborhoods where family members live were attack vectors of the Red Army. Expelled Germans come back to check out their old homes. For all my good-O'Reillyite optimism about our Google-Wikipedia future, it's only been a few years since the last time Europe convulsed into total war. It's hard to trust in unfettered progress when you're from a country that blinks into and out of existence every few generations.

Nov 6, 2005 9:23am

polish podcasting

Right now, Polish radio station Tok FM is finishing up an informational broadcast about podcasting and internet radio. It's interesting (to me) that they make an effort to demystify the process - rather than the "for wizards only" take I often hear in American descriptions, they're getting into specific technologies, advantages and drawbacks of various streaming and distribution methods. I think it may be a result of all the English terms ("podcast", "stream") and the need to explain them without relying on existing metaphors.

Neat.

Nov 5, 2005 7:41pm

less is crap

What's with the glorified self-balkanization of software?

I'm in Poland, running through my feeds for the first time in a week. Half the stuff I'm reading from Paul Graham, 37 Signals and a million others is undigested "less is more" zen-of-development hoo-hah. It may just be that I'm tired and jetlagged and supposed to be sleeping, but this stuff is majorly rubbing me the wrong way. It's like job #1 for all these guys is gleefully cutting down their workload by proclaiming philosophical opposition to planning, preparation, or listening to their users. I realize this is a great way to get a wee startup out the door, but the approach has no apparent respect for software with more than ten users and developers. Some jobs, like disaster relief or administering a country or designing a car are big by nature. I'll never forget our two visits to BMW's design & engineering center in 2004 and 2003, when I witnessed for the first time a large, highly synchronized operation manned by hyper-competent individuals acting synchronously towards a central goal. It was poetry in motion, a sad counterpoint to the incompetent bumblefuckery of FEMA and other federal agencies botching wars and rescues.

The real problems of the 21st century are worlds-apart from the American business press' sudden obsession with autonomous smallness, agile and open source software. I'm curious to see the focus of small, distributed teams pointed at big problems with inherently big solutions.

Nov 1, 2005 12:59pm

arrrrgh, firefox (redux)

A few weeks ago, I decided to take the Attention Trust Recorder for a spin. The extension only works in Firefox, so I changed over from my beloved Safari for almost two weeks.

I had a few complaints about the switch from the start, some of which haven't haven't faded wih time.

  • I'm less flummoxed by Firefox's tab-switching keyboard shortcut. After a few days, I grew accustomed to the control-tab combination, though I still find it somewhat uncomfortable. It's definitely no longer alien to me.
  • I stopped noticing the Keychain lack after a few days of being bothered for passwords I couldn't remember. Fortunately, I use the same username/password combo for my unimportant accounts (newpaper logins, etc.) and Keychain provides a way to read my stored passwords. It would be better to keep these all in the system-level store (what do I do next time I switch browsers?), but for now it's fine.
  • I sort-of dealt with the stable browsing history issue by adding cache persistence headers to Reblog's output. Unfortunately, this causes the browser to fetch pages from disk instead of network, but makes no difference to the browser scripting engine's lack of stored state. I've seen a number of people write javascript libraries for storing Ajax state - I thought this was a ridiculous idea until I saw that Firefox made it necessary to engage in such repulsive hacks.
  • General "macness" is still a problem. Firefox feels like it's been brainlessly ported from Win/Linux land. Camino has more promise in this area, but I doubt it can use the same extensions that Firefox can. Meanwhile, a new annoyance crept up in Firefox focus handling: certain actions caused my browser to lose focus on elements or windows, especially when I did anything with tabs. I have't been able to discern a reproducible pattern, but I've started to develop a sixth sense around the browser quirks. I find myself engaging in technological coping behaviors, which helps the symptom but really shouldn't be necessary in the first place. Boo, Firefox.

Meanwhile, Ed from Attention Trust wrote a short post basically agreeing with my frustrations, so maybe we'll see a Safari version of the recorder. My personal preference would be to skip the browser consideration entirely, and write a local HTTP proxy that's browser-agnostic.

Back to Safari!

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