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Turning technology from mumbo-jumbo into rich tasty gumbo



Published: 2013-03-15T17:03:10-08:00

 



An RSS Conversion Site

2013-03-15T17:03:10-08:00

I'm toying with building a site that would aid people who use RSS entirely for things that they scan through but don't need to read (nor care if they miss parts of) in transitioning from RSS.

The notion is that every site (exclusive of personal blogs, really) that has an RSS feed that updates regularly almost certainly also has a Twitter feed, potentially an App.net feed, or a mailing list, or some combination. Email lists stink for frequently delivered routine stuff, but many of the RSS feeds I follow, I'd be better off getting a monthly newsletter than daily headlines.

While I have problems with Twitter having clamped down on behavior that software clients from third parties can engage in, it's still very useful and there are many Twitter accounts that are effectively the same as the RSS feed. (The difference is really the preview, but I mostly scan headlines in RSS. Some Twitter clients did — do any still? — let you see a Web preview of anything included in the message.)

App.net isn't yet of a scale to replace RSS or Twitter feeds, but it added a free-by-invite tier perfect for announcement accounts, since the free accounts may have unlimited followers (but only follow up to 40 others). App.net allows robust use of its API for interaction, and thus I wouldn't be surprised if sites gear up for the slight expense or trouble of paying $100 per year for an App.net developer account and pushing out one or more RSS-like feeds there.

If I built a site, I would let people add mappings: Web site name, feed name, sub-site URL (main site if not a subsite), feed URL, Twitter account equivalent, App.net account equivalent, and a URL pointing to a mailing list.

Then people could upload OPML files or lists of feeds and this site would spit out the equivalents. Needs to be crowdsourced, although it's possible I could write a scraper that would pull down some of the information itself.

I'm not sure I have the chops or time to do this at the moment, as it requires a decent form front end to update data. (The back end, I'm solid on.) I'd also require moderation, so that people couldn't just post nonsense or overwrite good information with new, bad information.

Thinking on this.




The Sanctity of Logic

2013-02-28T13:26:22-08:00

I got into a long debate a couple of nights ago with a self-identified Catholic pro-lifer, Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue), who has an answer for every question as to why same-sex marriage shouldn't be allowed. None of them rely precisely on legal precedent; rather, they seem to stem from a specific set of historical values, a reading of what "natural" means, and an insistence on a property that only a pair of men and women can share. I spent hours engaged with this woman partly because I wanted to know exactly what people who maintain this line of reasoning are really espousing. Here's what I came away with. She was game, almost so much that I thought she might be a troll, making up stuff to confuse those of us who support the notion of government not intruding on personal decisions about who we love and how our children are raised in safe environments. I appreciate that we had a long and civil, if tense, discussion that ultimately involved dozens of other people, including a woman in a same-sex relationship who has given birth to five children, and another who lost the ability that afternoon to ever have children, and was outraged at Fortin's statements. Here's what I learned from her, if you're trying to understand the thinking of religious fundamentalists on the issue. This is apparently a bit of catechism among people who think like this and it starts with three principles. Complementarianism requires a man and a woman in marriage. Heterosexual monogamy is natural, while homosexuality is not. Procreation is the basis of marriage. The first is a complicated wrapper of things, and I didn't quite understand the term as she used it. It means that men and women were created differently by her supreme power and only when matched as a gender-differentiated set can a marriage be valid. (She left out in her discussion all the issues associated with this concept about men being "rulers" and women being suitable only for bearing children and household operations which is associated with this concept in theology.) @glennf @matthewperle @skennedy8975 Sexual complimentarity is always at the base. Homosexuals can't make kids or be mom and dad.— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 26, 2013 It's clearly and repeatedly the basis of a lot of dispute over the future of marriage as a secular institution, even though the principle is theological. If you either disagree about a creator god or you don't believe that one's private religious beliefs should be the test for how civil rights are handled, then it's irrelevant. Even if one finds legal precedent that cites it in America (or elsewhere), there are plenty of things one can find in old laws related to theology that have been ruled unconstitutional or that faded away over time. The second point is fascinating, as Fortin asserted repeatedly that male-female unions are natural. But her "natural" is about natural law. She links in her Twitter stream to this essay, which starts with the assertion of a specific (capital G) creator god, which is in this context the Christian God, and more to the point, her Christian God (not one of the many thousands of variant beliefs that involve Jesus). This is part of the religious notion that without a god, there is no morality, and thus we exist in a vacuum. Without a foundational principle, we will all act without any restraint as if we were all demons in hell. What's interesting here is that in our discussion, I pointed out that homosexuality is commonly found in nature, and that there is an increasing body of evidence that finds a biological basis for homosexuality (and other spectrums of body identification and blurred boundaries) in human beings. @glennf And killing progeny is found throughout nature too. Doesn't make it acceptable.— Suzanne Fortin (@Roseblue) February 27, 2013 But this is logically weak. She asserts that one form of coupling, to produce children (as if that is the only reason among animals and humans to copulate), is natural, while other strong bonds are not. Killing progeny is[...]



Silver Linings MacBook

2013-02-26T14:42:52-08:00

How geeky am I? Lynn and I went to see Silver Linings Playbook last weekend. I'd heard it was good, quirky, and raw at times. The first 15 minutes I was concerned that I might hate it. But then it all snapped together when Jennifer Lawrence appears. She and Bradley Cooper have great chemistry, and the film is full of both tropes (meet cute-ish, etc.) and anti-tropes (some very raw and honest moments in which truth is being spoken).

But the thing I found most amusing is that as the movie progressed, I was more and more confident that it was shot in 2008 and left in the can. The iPod generations shown and a house-wide iPod drop-in system that Cooper's friend installs. Lawrence's white MacBook and iPod speaker dock of that era. Nobody has an iPhone (which would have been mostly outside the socioeconomic and technical interests of the movie's main characters). People are still using flip phones.

They must have shot this in 2008 and left it sitting around, right? But why do the actors not look younger?

We leave the movie and I look it up. The movie was made from a book that tracked the football season and the Eagles performance in 2008. Of course. Lynn and I don't watch sports, so some of the events that year would be absolutely memorable to football fans or anyone who follows sports with anything like attention. The movie kept the timeframe the same.

We laughed at ourselves. At least half or more of the people watching the film would immediately have understood from the football what year it was. I looked at the tech!




Get the Name of the Bit

2013-02-06T13:18:58-08:00

I've written before about the concept of "get the name of the dog" in reporting. This is an oft-repeated maxim of Roy Peter Clark (who got it from the St. Petersburg Times). When you're reporting first-hand, details matter, and readers demand them. If you tell a story involving a dog and omit his or her name, they notice, and the story's incomplete.

I had a "name of the dog" moment while reporting on the Voyager missions recently for The Economist. I've got a piece going up online soon at the Babbage blog based in part on an interview with the mission's chief, Edward Stone, who has run the project since its inception in 1972.

He mentioned that the most recent true glitch was a "flipped bit" in the memory of Voyager 2. They dumped the core, downloaded it (a neat trick at 160bps and 18 billion kilometers), figured out the problem, and reloaded the software. This happens even on earth due to cosmic rays, silicon expansion, and other random facts. It's remarkable the Voyagers haven't had more of these.

But I realized when I got back to Seattle from Pasadena, I didn't know what state the bit had flipped between. Get the name of the dog. I found NASA's log on the matter, and, sure enough, they report that the bit flipped from 0 to 1. It's in the story.

Now, the state of a bit and the name of the dog aren't the same thing. But reading that a bit flipped from 0 to 1 is more specific and more concrete than reading that a bit "flipped." It also explains what happened to less technical readers: a value changed and they know what values were involved.

No, I didn't get the memory location. This isn't a 1980s BYTE magazine article.




A Million Podcasts

2013-01-10T14:00:00-08:00

Apparently, appearing on Jeopardy makes you podcast-popular. I appeared on seemingly endless podcasts from October to December.

Here are a few highlights:

The Incomparable: All about my Jeopardy run, along with discussions of the game-show genre, especially Andy Ihnatko's favorite, The Amazing Race.

The Talk Show with John Gruber: we talked Jeopardy, my job at The Magazine, Microsoft's Surface, Apple job shuffles, and more.

Horace Dediu, the smartest mobile industry analyst, runs Asymco, but has a podcast called Critical Path. He launched a second one with interviews called High Density starting with yours truly. I explained some of the economic issues with Jeopardy, told him what I know about how The Economist works, and discussed modern journalism.

Marketplace Tech Report had me on to talk about algebraic data packet oversampling (seriously), but they also quizzed me about my game show experience.

David Sparks and Katie Floyd invited me on to Mac Power Users, where we got into workflow and my favorite apps for getting things done — as well as Jeopardy.

Unrelated to all these, I launched a new podcast series, The New Disruptors, about how creators and producers use new technological means to connect with audiences. It's an eclectic show bound together by talking to people about making things and ideas for themselves. I've put out five episodes so far in the weekly series.

If you'd like to hear me quote Lauren Graham in this NSFW outtakes portion of The Incomparable in her role in Bad Santa, listen.




What a Year

2012-12-31T12:59:59-08:00

So many societies have myths that basking in one's good fortune will result in some kind of evil (or sometimes good) force bringing down hell and damnation and boils and plagues upon you that it worries me to recount what a great year 2012 was. But it was. And I can't resist. This year Ben turned 8 and Rex turned 5. Ben is a math whiz and in 3rd grade, and Rex started kindergarten (well prepped by his preschool), and learned to read. Ben and Rex are learning to swim, and Rex mastered a bike without training wheels. They are amazing fellows, great companions, and exhaust us thoroughly (as they should). Their sweetness cannot be measured in any units I know. Lynn and I had a really wonderful year, our 15th together and our 10th married. We continue to learn and grow together and explore new challenges as the kids get bigger and we need more outlets for our own distinct interests. She's become one of the best social dancers in Seattle, and helps organize regular dance events and support her dance friends in many ways. Lynn's brother Michael and his wife Kathy have the most delightful child anyone could imagine, and then they went and had another! Jordan, the older, welcomed Maggie, his little sister, in October. Lynn went to spend a week to help with Jordan before and after Maggie's birth, and I had the privilege of a trip in November taking care of the easiest baby in the world and her nearly equally easy older bro. I love them all to pieces, and am glad they are so close by. I started the year off interviewing my friend Susan Orlean on stage at Macworld|iWorld, the current name of the venerable Mac conference. She's a hoot and a good sport and a real techie geek at heart. (Also a fabulous writer. Get her Rin Tin Tin. It's not just about the dog; it's about how we lived in America. It came out in 2011, and it's a lovely book with lots of resonance, humor, and surprise.) I wrote some books this year. Take Control of BBEdit, about the program I live in most of the day for writing, editing, and programming. Take Control of Messages in Mountain Lion, the chat app that baffled everyone, and I tried to decipher. I also did a thorough revise of Take Control of Networking and Security (now covering iOS 6) and Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network. I wrote about 100 articles for the Economist's Babbage blog — not an exaggeration. I write twice weekly, and I think I'm above 250 since I started doing so in 2010. I also had a few in print in the Technology Quarterly section, notably a biographical sketch of Chris Soghoian. In February, I traveled east for a few days with several dear old friends from my time working at the Center for Creative Imaging. One of our number was bit by her dog just before her trip, and couldn't join us in South Portland, Maine. I also had a quick visit to Camden, where the Center had been located to see some other old friends. It was great to catch up and reminisce, drink wine, and eat great food. It's a sign of age when you realize you've known people dearly now for longer than the age you were when you met them. In May, I went to D.C. to see my friend, Matt Bors, an editorial cartoonist, receive the Herblock Foundation Award, the first time an alt-cartoonist had won. Matt won the Sigma Chi Award and was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer. He also later did a successful Kickstarter campaign (with, ahem, some advice from yours truly) for his first collection of cartoons and essays. While in D.C., I did interviews at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Library of Congress's audio section. On a later trip to Montréal, I stopped over in D.C. to take a drive out into rural Virginia to where the Library of Congress keeps its audiovisual materials in carefully maintained vaults and handles conservation. (The story I wrote about Matt was one of about 18 stories for BoingBoing last year, too. They picked three among their best stories of 2012.) [...]



Time Yells, and You Are There

2012-12-19T14:15:07-08:00

I didn't move to Maine in mid-1991 to take a job in which the art director of Time Magazine would call me up and scream impotently at me, but then we never know how life will play out, do we? Once upon a time, Kodak built a teaching center for creative artists and professionals in mid-Coast Maine, one of the most beautiful places in the country. People came to take classes to help them navigate the rough transition between analog media and new digital tools, like photography. My job was to keep 100 Macs and all the peripherals running and help design courses that served thousands of students a year. We also invited up well-known professionals for special, lavish events. One of them was a regular Time Man of the Year cover photographer, Greg Heisler. It's hard to recall now but Time and the defunct Newsweek were respected publications in the early 1990s, closer to The New York Times and The Economist, before they moved towards being like People without People's integrity and reporting skills. Time's Man of the Year was a press event in itself that made piles of money for Time with extra issues sold. Greg was an incredibly nice guy, and we loved him in part for his devastating shot of George H.W. Bush that had graced the January 1991 Men of the Year cover. Called "The Two George Bushes," Greg had arranged the shot meticulously "in camera" as two exposures with no digital work involved, to show Bush as a stinking liar. The White House was not pleased, and Marlin Fitzwater banned him from the press pool temporarily. The 1992 Man of the Year was Ted Turner, and Greg asked (and our director agreed) to come to the center and spend days, which turned into weeks, producing a digital cover of Ted and hundreds of video frames grabbed from news events covered by CNN, such as the Gulf War. These frames were made as photographic slides—that was state of the art in 1991, thank you very much. Greg's vision was of a globe comprised of gleaming TV screens cracked open to see the back-lit bodiless head of Turner emerging from within. With the help of one of my staff, Jessica Simmons, a 17-year-old prodigy who a couple years later joined a top-drawer Manhattan design firm, Greg scanned photos and started to assemble using computers that were state of the art and crammed with RAM in 1991; the cheapest digital camera sold today likely has 100 times its computational juice. I kept attaching more and more bread-loaf-sized hard drives that stored hundreds of megabytes each. It all seems ludicrous these days, how much we did with what seem like pocket calculators now. (Do kids still have pocket calculators? And vinyl records?) Several days in, Time's art director, who I will call "Bill," flew up from Manhattan to check on progress. He arrives in Camden, Maine, decked out head to toe in newly purchased L.L. Bean gear. I'm surprised price tags weren't still attached. He was a birder. He was delighted to visit and add to his life list. He took the three of us to dinner, which came to the whopping price of $80, and he paid with a $100 bill. Fancy. Seemed a nice guy. Was appreciative of us pushing the envelope. He flew back and started drumming his fingers on his desk awaiting the photo's completion. While Greg and Jessica worked nearly round the clock at a more and more frantic pace, the deadline to get the digital composite ready for offset printing grew ever closer. Bill became more agitated, apparently. Drives filled, software and computers crashed, files corrupted. The very real possibility that we couldn't finish the work before it needed to be on press started to emerge. And then I got the call. Bill had wrangled my number from the night watchman at the Kodak center, and phoned me at home. He had a large and choice vocabulary of words describing my incompetence and the state of things he had been talked into by supposed experts. He did go on. I was rattled, but not too [...]



Two Games!

2012-10-28T13:44:54-08:00

By now, the truth is known. I'm a two-time wonder, not a potential Ken Jennings. Playing Jeopardy was a hoot. I came away with (in four months' time, when they cut the checks) over $30,000, subject to taxes. The money is all allotted already to household and family things, including a trip to Hawaii in the summer.

But it was a memorable and once-in-a-lifetime chance to put my knowledge (and reflexes) to the test!




The Reigning Jeopardy! Champion, WOOOOOO

2012-10-19T22:15:12-08:00

At this moment, I am the reigning Jeopardy! champion! That may change, but I can't tell you if and when. For now, I am the champeeeennnn! And I get two extra days since it's the weekend.

I wrote about my studying prep for The Economist, the overall contestant experience at BoingBoing, and recorded a podcast with The Incomparable about being on the show.

Watch Monday! See what happens.




Know-It-All Has Opportunity to Show He Knows Some of It on Jeopardy!

2012-10-18T10:36:28-08:00

I'll be on "Jeopardy!" tonight! The episode was taped in August. I can't tell you how I did on this or any potential future episode. You'll have to watch and see. Check your local listings...




Rory (Spoilers from Angels Take Manhattan)

2012-09-30T15:52:42-08:00

Don't read if you haven't seen the Doctor Who episode, Angels Take Manhattan, and plan to.

[blank]

[blank]

[spoilers!]

Rory Williams is the boy who died…and died…and died again! It's almost a "you killed Kenny" running joke in the show. So much so that the Silence makes a joke about it in The Wedding of River Song.

I've tried to count his deaths in the "real" world and in imagined or faked alternatives, some of which were later collapsed.

Did I miss any? Angels is particularly amusing in having him die thrice.




Work for Free for Peers, Not for Owners or Bosses

2012-09-19T10:41:59-08:00

The Amanda Palmer kerfuffle over whether she is abusing artists by one of her bandmates putting out a call for volunteers to play brass instruments during part of her tour led me to a lot of thinking (and conversation). My friend Xeni writes a thoughtful post at BoingBoing about the inherent sexism in the terms in which the situation has been described (including from an epic troll) and some of the dynamic involved. What I've come down to is that while artists should always be offered payment for work, they should also always have the freedom to choose not to be paid. This plays out in the power dynamic among equal and unequal parties. As it turns out, I have this precise relationship with BoingBoing. I have known Cory Doctorow for many years, hanging out at many conferences a decade ago with him, and Mark Frauenfelder and Xeni Jardin I met a bit more recently, but have a many year history with. Rob Beschizza, the managing editor, I work with on a regular basis as a contributor. I love them all. I don't say that like, "hey, I love you guys," and it's not like we're always at each other's houses or something (nobody lives within driving distance). Rather, it's more like the feelings I have for these colleagues extends far beyond a professional relationship, because of the history of respect and mutual admiration that's developed. I have that relationship with many colleagues. A few years ago, Xeni asked if I wanted to write some guest posts. I did, with gusto, for a few months. I never asked about money. I didn't need to. BoingBoing is a great forum to write in, and I liked being in it. Money comes through the portal, but none of the editors is getting rich from it; they all have a variety of jobs and work that keep them and their families in kibble, including BoingBoing. (I don't have any knowledge of the finances, but it's clear how it all works based on a lot of observable factors.) Why did I write for free when I have rarely written for anyone for free even early in my career when I had no clips to my name? Because these are my friends, colleagues, and peers, and I trust them. They have enriched my life and my career, and I am happy to reciprocate, rising all boats at once. A bit ago, BoingBoing developed a budget to pay freelancers, and while I would refer you to them if you want to ask about rates and such, I'm absolutely pleased to receive any payment for work, and the payment makes it easier for me to schedule my time to write for them. They love writers' voices, and it's great to work in a forum that lets me write long and personally, and that's rewarded by them and by readers with their responses. But, you know, I'd probably still write for free (maybe a little less often) because of the kind of site it is. I shouldn't admit that, but the point here is knowing that, the editors and staff wouldn't use it against me or anyone. It's a cooperative effort in which some people are nominally in charge to make judgments and sort out finances, but in which there is no coercion or power relationship in play. I try to apply that to Amanda's situation. I interviewed her for the Economist, and it is amazing how much love and joy can pour over a phone. If you have followed her career, or read her Wikipedia page, you know that she was a long-time busker, and that her current level of fame derives from many many years of hard work on the street and then into music development and persistence. She told me, and I have heard this from others, that she has a passionate and intense involvement with her fans. She stays after every show. She answers email and forum posts. She kisses and hugs and sometimes poses nude for or with those who love her music. She's an incredible life force. (In the Economist, I described her Kickstar[...]



My Security Secrets

2012-08-10T15:42:58-08:00

What is your mother's maiden name? Ekborg-Millfloss.

What is the name of your first pet? James Tiberius Bunny.

What was the name of the first street on which you lived? Baltic Avenue.

What is your favorite movie? In-flight safety demonstration video on Virgin America.

Which Stooge do you most closely resemble? Dead Shemp.

How many fingers am I holding up? 1. Are you flipping me off?

You see a tortoise lying on its back. What do you do? Make soup.

What's a sin, Alex? What you're doing to Ludwig B!

How many roads must a man walk down? 42.

How many lights do you see? THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS.

What is the average airspeed of a swallow? African or European?

When did you stop beating your wife? N/A

What is mind? {cuts off student's finger}

What is your mother's maiden name? My mother? Let me tell you about my mother!




Crowdfunding a Book on Crowdfunding

2012-07-07T11:01:55-08:00

I'm writing a book about crowdfunding, and raising money to cover development costs through Kickstarter! Of course, I am.

It's a how-to book with case studies on how to plan to run a crowdfunding project.

Update: It didn't quite fund, and I'm retooling to try again.




Swirly with a Cringe on Top, or Unsalted Batter-y

2012-05-14T21:48:29-08:00

A friend and I stopped at a Pinkberry for frozen yogurt while I was in D.C. The notion there is that you pretend you're eating something healthy (yogurt) and then put a million toppings on to make it horrifying. (Fresh fruit is also an option.)

I looked at the few basic options, and as a fan of salted caramel ice cream, figured I'd just get a plain salted caramel.

Me: "I'll have a salted caramel."

Person behind counter: "Do you want salt on that?"

"No. Wait. I want the salted caramel."

"Right. Do you want salt on that?"

"It doesn't come with salt?"

"No."

"But it's called salted caramel. Why doesn't it have salt on it?"

"Some of our customers don't like salt."

"But it's called…ok. Yes, I'd like salt please."

She picks up a strange plunger instrument and depresses it several times on top of the froz-gurt. Fine salt comes out. It looks like table salt.

My friend and I went outside to sit. I started fulminating on the injustice of it. My friend pointed out that some people do, indeed, not like the salt.

"They should call it unsalted caramel, then," I retorted and took a bite.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Too salty."