Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, Bless Them

Traffic was bad this evening; my commute was long; I emerged from the bus nauseous. That happens when the commute goes too long: stare at the laptop screen too long while on a moving vehicle, don't look up. My inner ear decides it's going to have one of its moods. I'm stumbling homeward dizzy and grumpy.

Then Yar says "Hey", because, as it turns out, I am walking in front of Yar's house, that is to say the house of a couple of people in Coed Astronomy, a Game team that's running a game soon. So we exchange a few pleasantries.

Then as I kept walking home, I didn't think about the icky bus ride anymore. I thought about

...and I was happy again. Yar, harbinger of joy, reminded me that I have good things to look forward to. (Well, at least one good thing. I'm only registered in one of these games. But you get the idea.)

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Book Report: Nickel and Dimed

I've been having a good time this weekend, hanging out at social gatherings around various in-town out-of-towners. I guess I should report on a happy book, but instead the next book in line is Nickel and Dimed.

The author, Barbara Ehrenreich works some entry-level jobs and lives on the cheap. The next time someone tells you that we don't need to roll back welfare reform, tell them to read this book. Better yet, tell them to live this book. Move to a new city with a car and about $1500. Bootstrap your way to a life, pretending you weren't a college graduate: find a place to live, find a job. Don't run out of money. Good luck.

Ehrenreich writes about this stuff well. For me, the most eye-opening chapter was the one in which she worked with a cleaning service. What did I learn? Not only do many people treat cleaning ladies poorly--but also some cleaning services don't even do a good job of cleaning. That is, the service specifically tells their personnel to use methods that don't work well. Reading about the dirt and bacteria left behind... oh man, I was about ready to go all Howard Hughes.

The safety net is gone; some assholes get a kick out of ordering menial labor towards no purpose; we are doomed. There are funny bits, there are sad bits. It's a good read. Check it out.

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Milestone: 11 Million Hits (plus gratuitous Taft domain pestering)

Wow, it's the site's eleven-millionth hit. - - [20/Feb/2008:06:20:03 -0400] "GET /anecdotal/hunt/15/darcy_ian.html HTTP/1.1" 200 853 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1)"

If you look at this hit in isolation, it looks like someone is browsing a page with a photo of Darcy & Ian of Team Taft on a Raft (more about that team later). But this "someone" is probably a robot. If I look at other hits coming from the same IP address, there are a few of them per second; this thing moved faster than most humans would click. It loaded many photo pages--but not the accompanying photos.

OK, that hit's not so interesting, but it gives me an excuse to talk about webmasterly stuff. Since the last time I hit a million-milestone, Microsoft Live Search created a site for webmasters where we can glimpse what Live thinks about our site. It's pretty cool. (This is probably one of those times when I should mention that my opinions are mine; I don't speak for my employer.)

Their site is new, still "finding its legs." I find it confusing (but figure it will improve in the months to come). It says that they indexed 19,500 pages on my site--but my site has less than 3000 pages; less than 8000 files. I asked about this on their support forum, but never got an answer. OK, that's confusing, but overall their site is really useful!

They give a list of the top five pages on my site:

  1. New
  2. Comment: All of the Comments
  3. Seattle/Vancouver Road Trip Travelog
  4. 36 Views of Seattle's Pier 86 Grain Terminal
  5. New: the Book Reports

I'm not sure how "topness" is measured here, but this is an interesting collection of pages. It might measure how many people choose to visit those pages from a Live Search--many people visit that "All of the Comments" page (but I think they go away disappointed... at first they're so happy to find a page that mentions both "St Louis" and "wh*res", but then they find out that those phrases came from totally separate emails...).

What else does this Webmaster site let me do? I can provide them with an email by which they can alert me to problems with my site. I appreciate this feature very much. If evil spammers take over my site, I want to know. Heck, the taftraft.com domain expired a few days ago, and now it's just showing boring rafting ads. Wouldn't it be nice if MSN live had some way to tell Team Taft on a Raft about that? You bet it would. (I mailed Ian at his berkeley.edu address, was there a better thing to try? Can I renew a domain for someone else? I am not enjoying the rafting ads.)

Especially interesting was a list of top sites that link to me:

  1. Graphic Novel Review » Realism/ Slice of Life
  2. Graphic Novel Review » Literary
  3. Vishwas M S Curriculim Vitae
  4. Divided Review Project: Page-by-page Review of Prank the Monkey, the ...
  5. Graphic Novel Review » Autobiography
  6. Graphic Novel Review » Fantagraphics
  7. Graphic Novel Review » Elsewhere on the Web
  8. Graphic Novel Review » Elsewhere on the Web: The Squirrel Mother and ...
  9. Graphic Novel Review » Megan Kelso
  10. Piaw's Blog

Most of these are the result of one blog post in Graphic Novel Review. In this article, the author points out that I am a philistine for not properly appreciating Megan Kelso's comic book "The Squirrel Mother". Which just goes to show that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Thank you for reading!

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Book Report: Better

You think I read this book because of my recent hospital visit, but I swear it was already on my to-do list. And it's not just about medicine. Sort of.

This book, by Atul Gawande, is sort of about medicine, but if you work on anything where quality is important, you'll probably see some things that echo with your experience. Doctors have a tough job. They face many problems, some of which have no solutions. It's not always easy to tell if what you're doing is helping or hurting--if you try some procedure, you'll always wonder if things might have worked themselves out on their own. And yet they do feel their way towards solutions. This book talks about maintaining hygiene; about medicine in a public hospital in India; about measuring your own performance; about stranger things.

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Book Report: Making Globalization Work

This book is worth reading. That's unfortunate; it has about 30 pages of interesting material scattered amongst 300 pages of verbiage. It's a book about Globalization--mostly about opening up markets between nations and about international aid. The author, Stiglitz, was on the IMF, but he's dour about how globalization has proceeded so far. What went wrong?

Protectionism and corruption.

This example is vague and hand-wavy and I'm getting the details wrong. I'm too lazy to slog through that book again to pick out the correct details. Nevertheless, here goes: Some treaty comes along "opening up markets" between the USA and some developing nation. There is much fanfare. Someone paying close attention will notice that the USA hasn't agreed to open up all markets, just 97% of markets. Well, that's mostly an open market, right? Except that the 3% that the USA leaves closed is... the small intersection of the USA's industry and the developing nation. Under the treaty, Bangladesh can import anything to the USA except cloth... which is the only thing Bangladesh makes that's also made in the USA. The USA's open-ness towards the fanfared "free trade" is lip-service.

He mentions USA cotton as a protected industry. That's pretty sad--cotton farming has been pretty bad for California, gobbling up the precious fresh water of our desert state. Shutting down California cotton water subsidies sounds like a fine idea to me. Importing cheap textiles from Bangladesh sounds like a fine idea to me. But that won't happen as long as politicians can be bought.

He also pointed out a hole in my don't-worry-about-kleptocracies-privatizing-government-because-kleptocracies-are-screwed-anyhow thinking. It doesn't make much difference if a kleptocracy sells an industry or bleeds it for cash over several years. But what about a short-lived kleptocracy? If they can sell off the national assets for quick short-term gain, they will. After the thieves retire to their dachas on the Black sea, that stuff is gone. If those thieves had just skimmed government funds instead, then when they were chased out, the government wouldn't be hurting so hard.

Anyhow, the gist of the book is to please slaughter all:

  • Protectionists;
  • People seeking to extend copyright
  • People and organizations who loan money to developing nations only if those nations are willing to shut down all services that help nations develop

...only I don't think he used the word "slaughter".

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Book Report: Uncommon Carriers

I'd read most of these John McPhee essays already, and it was nice to read them again. This collection includes the essay about riding in the hazmat truck. That essay is darned good.

Look, not all of these book reports can be multi-day multi-page epics.

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Book Report: Beautiful Code Chs 30-33

(If you're reading these posts in reverse chronological order, be aware that this Book Report is the last one of a series. This book report is for Beautiful Code, a book of essays. Rather than try to review all of the essays at once, I chunked them into blog posts, a few chapters each.) (If you're reading these posts in forward chronological order, you reached the last one! But you probably already figured that out.)

When a Button is All that Connects You to the World / Arun Mehta

I didn't know what to make of this chapter. It's a HCI exercise, inspired by Stephen Hawking: how would you design a computer UI for someone who can just press one button? But Stephen Hawking doesn't use their software. It's not clear that anyone uses this software.

Emacspeak: the Complete Audio Desktop / T.V. Raman

Every so often at work, I see a message on a distribution list from this software developer, T.V. Raman. It's usually about how to use some API for some Web2.0-ish page. At first, these messages surprised me. I suppose I was prejudiced. I kept thinking, Wait, how did this blind guy even notice that this totally visual page had useful information on it? How does he make as much progress around the web as he does? I asked him for some background once, and he gave me an answer that didn't make much sense: it sounded like he'd set up the Emacs text editor to browse web page, screen-scrape useful information out of them, and speak it. But that couldn't be right, could it? Surely I was misunderstanding? But that's what he did.

In this essay, Raman gives us a glimpse into his Emacs configuration, how he put it together, how he's built it up. He talks about the early days of the web, before pages got all visually fancy. He talks about why he likes some parts of Web2.0: the APIs. They reveal data--unadorned with presentation. He knows how to program Emacs to fetch, parse, and speak the data he's interested in. In this article he talks about how he uses Emacs' advice feature to add text-to-speech support. I think I understand it now. I think I understand how this guy bootstrapped his system, turned Emacs into his window to the world.

Code in Motion / Laura Wingerd and Christopher Seiwald

Ha ha, folks from Perforce, a revision control system, wrote this essay about writing code so that you can understand it when you need to revise it years later. That's cute. This was a fun essay.

Writing Programs for "The Book" / Brian Hayes

This essay was pretty cool, though it's not clear how mere mortals are supposed to put its method into practice. Hayes was working on a geometry problem: testing three points for collinearity. He tries a few methods that don't work. So then he tries the best method: he posts to his blog, asking for help. Soon, he gets tons of advice, including one really great set of lecture notes which has a good solution.

How many computational geometers read your blog? Yeah, maybe I have one, but I don't know that he reads often. I'm not sure that Hayes' method would work for me.

The best part about this article was when I recognized the name of the author. Brian Hayes wrote the article about Markov-chain-generated text that inspired my Daily Nonsense page. Nowadays he has a blog. So I spent the rest of the day catching up on two years of archives on that. And I subscribed to his blog. I'm not a computational geometry expert, but maybe he'll be stumped by some Japanese ska trivia someday and I can help out.

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Site Update: Contact, more XFN than you can stand

I've been marking my internet territory. That is to say, I've been federating my identity. That is to say, I added more rel="me" links to the Larry Hosken contact page.

Do you remember my ramble about XFN a few weeks ago? Or the follow-up ramble about how XFN-like links might ease the burden of finding your friends on a social network service you just joined? Or how I set up that FOAF profile back in 2003 and then whined because no-one else had a FOAF profile so I had no-one to link to?

I hope you don't remember those. They were ranty and rambly. Which is too bad, because this stuff got more interesting recently.

Here's a summary.

Probably more than one web page represents you. Maybe you have a blog, a flickr page and a twitter page. Wouldn't it be nice to specify that those pages were all associated with the same person?

You can--if you can edit the page's source code. You can add a rel="me" to the link. If your blog links to your flickr with rel="me", you've "claimed" your flickr. If your flickr in turn links back to your blog with rel="me", that confirms the claim. If you can't edit the page's source code, then you might still get a rel="me" link, if the service lets you specify your web page and then automatically supplies that rel="me link. LinkedIn does, flickr does, other services do, too.

You can identify your friends. By adding rel="met", rel="met acquaintance", rel="met friend", or similar attributes to a link, you can say "The web page at the other end of this link is a person who I met/liked/whatever". (For a list of the words you can have in the rel, read the XFN spec).

A while back, I added rel="met" to various links on my friends-links page. (I didn't try to add further qualifiers like friend or acquaintance because... I dunno, it just seemed a little too high-school.) Social networks sites can use these, too. LiveJournal annotates friends links with rel="friend"... uhm, in some places. Not on my LJ page, apparently. But on some other people's LJ pages.

So, what's new? What got me excited about this stuff again?

This info just got easier to use. Google crawls the web. Google recently started keeping track of these XFN links (and FOAF profiles, but... this "summary" is already getting long.) Google is making this info available to programmers via an API and to humans via a sample program that uses that API. The API is Socialgraph.

Yeah, that information is easily accessible now. A programmer who wants to use it doesn't need to set up their own crawl. Yay, Socialgraph! I also like the fact that it uses data from more than one source: FOAF in addition to XFN. I'm not super-fond of either standard; it's good that Socialgraph is flexible enough to work with either; presumably it will work with other, better standards that come along. Oh, and the docs have pretty diagrams showing how a social network could use this info to solve the new-member-wants-to-find-already-subscribed-friends problem.

Full disclosure: Yeah, you know where I work. I hope that doesn't bias me in favor of Socialgraph, but you never know. My opinions are, as always, mine. I don't speak for anyone else.

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Book Report: Beautiful Code Chs 26-29

Labor-Saving Architecture / William R. Otte and Douglas C. Schmidt

This is a fun essay, talking about issues that arise if you have a distributed network of computers and you want all of those computers to be able to send their logs to one central log collection server. They talk about different ways you might want to implement that server. You probably want to think about concurrency. Ideally, the client machines wouldn't care so much about how the server is implemented. They mentioned in passing some project called ACE that they've worked on. It wasn't clear how much of this essay came from ACE. I'm still not sure what ACE does. But this essay still got me thinking.

Integrating Business Partners the RESTful Way / Andrew Patzer

Can something partly elegant and partly quick-and-dirty show up in a book about Beauty? Ah, who cares, this was a fun read. Part of the fun: business clients who want the latest greatest buzzword w/out understanding what it means. This essay even had J2EE, but I still enjoyed reading it.

Beautiful Debugging / Andreas Zeller

Brute force debugging. Made me think. In the end, I don't think I much like the approach. Still, it's good when something makes you think.

Treating Code as an Essay / Yukihiro Matsumoto

Matusmoto "Matz", a programming language designer, thinks that programming languages should allow code to be clear and expressive. Then again, every language designer thinks that programming languages should allow code to be clear and expressive--but they can't agree on the details: which code is clearer? This essay talks about some of the issues around language design, but I've already heard these issues as I shielded my ears against various "my favorite programming language is better than yours" religious arguments over the years. I wish he'd chosen something more specific as his topic.

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Semi-Irony in some Library Mail

This came in the mail:

We're sorry, but your LINK+ request has been cancelled. Please contact your local branch library for more information.

Reason: Not on shelf.

AUTHOR: Jones, William F., 1952-
Keeping found things found : the st
CALL NO: HD30.2 .J664 2008
San Diego State Univ

It isn't as good as the previous one, but every collection of "We can't find our books about findability" notices has to start somewhere.

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