log (1999/12/03 to 1999/12/09)

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Thursday, December 9, 1999

In 1984, there was this tiny mat of Caulerpa taxifolia algae sitting on the bottom of the Mediterranean. It now covers more than 10,000 acres, and some ecologists are afraid that it's going to push out anything else that might want to live down there. See this excerpt from the book "Killer Algae" (which was reviewed in a recent New York Times Book Review).

I admit I'm a bit confused about just how ravaging this thing is (10,000 acres is considerably smaller than, say, a square five miles on a side, unless I've dropped a decimal place somewhere). But the neat thing about it is that the species is normally tropical, and doesn't thrive this far north. The entire population causing trouble in the Mediterranean is apparently made up of clones of a single mutant genotype that enjoys the cold, and spreads asexually. Now that's success, eh? Your genotype spread all over the Mediterranean.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Man, they don't make 'em like that anymore (Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening). The little daughter's class had to think about the poem for homework last night, and I was pleased to find I still know pretty much the whole thing.

So is no one going to tell me how memory works? C'mon, be bold!

GSM cellphone encryption cracked (requires annoying one-time registration; link from Ed Pring). Omnipoint spokesman says "Piffle!".

Let's confuse the owner of www.toast.com by giving his missing page lots of hits! www.intimidate.com is also memorable.

New issue (#33) of the quirky but contentful Meme Update (link from BrainLog).

This here log is now registerd with LinkWatcher. Void where prohibited, licensed, or taxed. Do not use near open flame.

Wednesday, December 8, 1999

Them mischevious folks at ®TMark have put up a clever (if not, ehem, entirely unbiased) site at www.gatt.org. Worth a look.

Currency counterfeiting is so twentieth-century! The real reason for the tracking codes in color copiers (see yesterday) is no doubt this sort of thing.

From memepool, an excellant essay by Chip Morningstar about a techie's study of po-mo jargon and practice:

It could be that there was truly some content there of value, once you learned the lingo. If this was the case, then I wanted to know what it was. On the other hand, perhaps there was actually content there but it was bogus (my working hypothesis), in which case I wanted to be able to respond to it credibly. On the third hand, maybe there was no content there after all, in which case I wanted to be able to write these clowns off without feeling guilty that I hadn't given them due consideration.

I have exactly the same feeling about corporate-speak; I have yet to decide which of the three alternatives applies there, although my current working hypothesis is the third, no-content, one (there's an essay called "Techies, Hackers, and Eliza Machines" that I really need to write someday). But I'm far from having as good an analysis of the language of Suit Meetings as Morningstar gives here for the language of deconstruction.

I've discovered the "radio channels" on mp3.com. Another Wonderful Mystery: I can get an unending stream of music in whatever genre I want (does it eventually repeat?), for just the cost of the bandwidth. No ads or nothin'! Must be a mistake...

You go into the livingroom to turn off the light. It was the only light on in the place, so it gets very dark. You're picking your way around the furniture, back toward the bedroom. Carefully, so as not to bump too hard into anything, but easily, because it's a familiar room.

If someone was reading your mind now, or an alien from dimension Z were to drop into your brain at this instant and be aware of what was happening in your consciousness, they wouldn't learn much about you. They'd know it's dark, that you're walking carefully, but not what your name is, your gender, your hopes and dreams, your telephone number, what you had for breakfast today or where you're going tomorrow, not even whether or not there's someone waiting for you back in bed.

There's no much that's around, but not present in consciousness at any given instant. The metaphor that first springs to mind is "The Well of Memory". I can reach down and scoop up, or summon, or otherwise access, my phone number and all that stuff, even though an instant ago it was nowhere in sight. Where does it come from? How does it all work?

And I don't mean how does it work neurobiologically; I don't care about that today. How does it work from inside? What do you do to remember something, to summon up something that you know, but weren't thinking about until just now?

Finished Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon, and posted this to Amazon:

Some interesting anecdotes (3 stars)

In good workmanlike prose, and showing a great deal of sympathy for his subjects, Heard tells us the stories of a number of people who believe odd things. Roughly eight different kinds of odd things, only very loosely held together by the theme of "Apocalypse".

"Apocalypse" is an ambiguous word, and the selection of odd beliefs in "Apocalypse Pretty Soon" plays on that ambiguity. There's no obvious tie between the folks who believe that Aliens will soon descend to Earth and give us enlightenment and cool technology, the supplement-megadose folks who believe that with the right pills they can live a real long time, and the Out of Body Experience folks who believe in astral travel. Heard gives us a few insights into (or guesses about) their characters that suggest some reasons people might believe these odd things, but he draws no general lessons and comes to no general conclusion.

It's an easy and enjoyable read, about some interesting people. It doesn't go beyond the anecdotes, and for that reason left me somewhat unsatisfied, but it's by no means a bad book.

I should post it to rec.arts.books.reviews, also; I used to do that with all my reviews, but for some reason I haven't been lately. (I haven't been updating my reviews page, either.) Shame on me!

Lots of activity here at the lab on the Babylonia virus. The Web site in Japan that the virus contacts for "plug-ins" has been closed down by its host (yay!), which is good, but the virus itself is still out there. As usual, don't run any programs or open any MS-office documents or HLP files from strangers, or even any that appear to be from friends but that you weren't expecting.

Isn't active content with no security wonderful?

Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Did you know that modern color copiers hide their own serial numbers in all the copies they make, so that if you use one to make fake money, the Feds have a better chance to track you down? I didn't! Here are some relevant links: J.J.Johnson, PRIVACY Forum, Google search on "Counterfeit Deterrent Marking" (which is what the industry seems to call it).

I'm no big fan of counterfeiting; on the other hand, how good is it that a random copy can be traced back to the copier that made it? Ick!

Slooey branoo, zipstein. Rita cracker-hubris biffling ap rumor-house pilgrim forelock tandry shomotie. Apa zon nose is on fire wheppa blanno morphy. Pierre the paddock, hilby renta forn Gomen Asobase; toofer orn quagga blee-bleen Fting.

"Chumble spuzz!"   *8)

Justin Fletcher's Diary, and Flutterby: remember clean web design?

Dead-tree media: the December 1999 Scientific American has (as well as the Damasio article on consciousness that I ranted about the other day) a piece by Hans Moravec about how now that computers are getting Real Fast, it won't be long before we have those robot servants that people have been mistakenly predicting for the last fifty years or so.

His argument is that the human brain can do (by a rough measure) 100 million million (ten to the 14th) instructions per second, a mouse can do about ten to the 11th, and computers are getting up there, too. Once the computers have enough MIPS, we'll be able to have them there smart-as-a-lizard forklifts, smart-as-a-mouse servants, and so on.

I'm not at all convinced that it's raw MIPS that's the problem, though. After all, the real real real fast computer that IBM's working on right now will be able to do a quadrillion (ten to the let's see now 15th) IPS, but IBM's planning to use it to simulate protein folding, and I don't think anyone expects that it'll be ten times smarter than a person!

Moravec makes a similar mistake, I think, to the one that Berners-Lee makes in Weaving the Web when he predicts that once we have the computers all hooked together and reading each other's cleverly-marked-up documents, they'll start to be smart and see connections and make generalizations and stuff. I mean, sure getting that many MIPS is hard and valuable, and getting all that stuff marked up and connected up is hard and valuable, but it's not the hardest part! We still don't have the software to run on the petaflop machine / semantic web that'll actually give it some sense. That's still far beyond us.

More from the dead trees: the December 1999 Journal of Philosophy has a review by Simon Blackburn of John Searle's Mind, Language, and Society. Blackburn takes Searle to task for "solving" the problem of consciousness by just taking some true-sounding statements from materialism, and some other ones from dualism, asserting them all, and declaring victory.

Since this is basically my own current approach to the problem *8), I might should take a look at the book. Of course, it would be disconcerting to find myself agreeing with Searle, given how odd-headed he is about things like intelligence.

Molly Ivins says some terribly sensible things about the WTO protests and the media coverage (cited on Medley).

Just like gLog only more together: metafilter. But I hate things that you have to sign up for and remember passwords and stuff...

Yet more reasons to be scared of IE, and for that matter to avoid any mail reader that obeys HTML.

Monday, December 6, 1999

(I must apologize for the SusieBright.com link yesterday; last time I went there, the site wasn't nearly as broken as it seems to be this week. Honest! There is still some good content in there, behind the broken links and non-reflowing text somewhere.)

We're gonna build a real fast computer! Real real real fast. It's always nice to see the Company do cool stuff (my Company homepage, for the curious, is here.)

Bliss! 500+ public domain pictures from American Political History. Use them everywhere! (from Bird on a Wire) Plenty of fodder there for the Theogeny splash page, if only I had the time to mess with it.

I find myself wondering if this here Log is a Weblog, or a journal, or just what. It's not really very diary-like at all, which is sort of odd since I first discovered the whole online-log thing via the Diarist community. On the other hand, it tends to ramble more than (I tend to ramble more than) the average Weblog.

Of course, the original idea was that everyone should just write whatever they felt like; so I should resist the temptation to find the Magically Correct Category, and just ramble on. By a complete coincidencde, that's also the easiest thing to do! *8)

We went up to Abel's Trees and cut our Christmas tree yesterday; then I put the lights on it, and M and the kids decorated it while I strung lights on the front of the house. A very happy, and utterly Suburban America, day. Prosperity is so seductive!

I was in the rocker in the little boy's bedroom, watching him play with Legos, and pulled out a random Calvin and Hobbes collection from the Comics shelf. Watterson's definitely a genius; C&H is right up there with Pogo (anyone have a more authoritative Pogo link?) in the list of Ultimate Comics. I'm told I should read more Krazy Kat!

So, what now?

Sunday, December 5, 1999

I did a micro-survey of the Web servers powering the sites of the top nine or so U.S. presidential candidates, hoping to find something clever and revealing (Democrats running Linux?). The server mix is pretty dull, though: a random swirl of Apache and IIS pretty much across all parties, with uninteresting exceptions.

I did notice two fun things: the "keyword" metatags on Gary Bauer's site seem designed to shout "I'm a kook" ("...Chinese espionage, Nuclear terrorism, Choose life, Bauer Power, Human rights, Combat readiness, Crisis pregnancy..."), and the HTML on Al Gore's site contains some hidden messages intended for techies viewing source. (They're kinda boring spin-doctored messages, but it's still sorta cool.) Feel free to tell Slashdot if they don't already know! *8)

Thanks to the reader who sent in this rather grim Something Interesting the other day:

Goldfish have an average memory span of 6 seconds (more or less). It takes a goldfish about 14 seconds to die when taken out of the water. Thereby, if a goldfish is taken out of the water, then for the last 8 seconds of its life, it thinks that all of its existance was spent gasping for breath, flopping around outside of its element.

I didn't tell it to the little daughter (nine-year-olds are morbid enough already!), but I found it interesting myself, in a tragic existential sort of way.

Hm! To end on a more positive note, I will give you a link to SusieBright.com, where you can read a smart person talking about sex, which isn't a bad thing to do on a Sunday afternoon...

Saturday, December 4, 1999

Digital Cameras: the reader survey, my Dad, and Phil Askey's site all seem to be recommending the Olympus D340-R for someone with my limited ambition. But your input is still most welcome! I generally dither around for weeks on any purchase over about a hundred bucks.

In yesterday's scenario, some of you were for heading East into the woods (perhaps after roasting an animal or two for lunch); this is quite plausible, as I hear the Crystal Mountains are lovely this time of year. But the winning entry takes us toward the sea, with this reader submission:

You head towards the sea, where you can hear the gulls singing their shrill songs. As you close on the beach, you see the waves lapping against the shore. The storms of the previous night seem to have left flotsam and jetsam strewn as far as you can see. The gentle off-shore wind whips at your coat. Helen stands beside you, gazing out to sea and lost in thought.

I wonder who this Helen person is? Another submission of which I'm quite fond:

Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy says: Rhyme, rhyme, rhyme; take your time; three hops for the Rabbit Bunny will be just fine.
Which pretty much sums it all up.

Friday, December 3, 1999

Bring me fruit and bring me wine,
Bring me Dr. Pepper.
I'm in Room 239
And I'd like a little supper.

Semiotics in the oddest places: the current issue of The Eater's Digest, a one-pager that Sodexho-Marriott gives out in the cafeteria, has this interesting snippet, right next to the list of spices that go with various national cuisines ("North African: Cumin, saffron, paprika, turmeric..."):

The wrapping of Christmas presents is also a fairly recent phenomenon in American life. It arose at the turn of the century, during a period when handmade presents were giving way to machine-made, store-bought ones. For both givers and manufacturers, this shift presented a problem because since the machine-made items were convenient, they represented less of the giver's personal attention than the handmade items had done; thus they were symbolically less intimate.

To disguise this loss of symbolic value, and to invest the manufactured items with a personal touch, retailers encouraged shoppers to have their purchases gift-wrapped. Gift-wrapping removed the presents from the "normal flow of bought-and-sold goods" and made them, for a single ceremonial moment, emblems of intimacy rather than commerce.

So now you know! [We're going to have to stop using that phrase, "the turn of the century", pretty soon now, eh?]

The next morning, the twins were delighted to find that Aunt Julie's necktie had been lying there in the middle of the rug all along.

The stuff from American Science and Surplus came. What fun! The kids played with their Can o' Ghosts all evening, and we stashed away the glow-in-the-dark rocks and the "red at one end blue at the other" pencils as stocking stuffers. (M thinks pencils are kinda silly as stocking stuffers, but she humors me.)

I got myself some ancient Star Trek fonts from BitStream (AS&S is great at ancient things); that's some of the glyphs over there to the left. I belonged briefly to the Klingon Language Institute a few years back. This Bitstream font definitely doesn't contain all the current Official Klingon Glyphs. But the price was right!

The main road turns west here, toward the sea. A narrow path leads east into the woods, and the forest slopes upward to the north. The day is clear and bright, and small animals rustle in the brush. There is no sign of the raven this morning.

The last thing in the AS&S box was my "five random RPG rules booklets for five bucks" package. Three of them were identical, but still it was a good deal. The "Windriders of the Jagged Cliffs" book by itself is normally $15. I love reading RPG rules for some reason. When I was in college back in the 1840's, I was heavily into Dungeons and Dragons for awhile, and I admit I liked the world-design aspects at least as much as the actual play and interaction with fellow nerds. (I wonder if there's still a Simulation Games Union at Princeton?)

For the little daughter's Something Interesting last night, I told her about Dungeons and Dragons, and RPGs in general. She was fascinated, and wanted to talk about it for hours. What have I done?! *8) I had to promise her that we could start running a campaign real soon, or she would never have gone to sleep...

I think I want a digital camera for Christmas. Not necessarily to replace our current film camera and piles of photo albums, but just to hack around with and be able to take lots and lots of pictures without having to pay to have each one developed. I also don't want to have to buy lots of accessories (a photo printer, a CD-ROM burner). Or spend more than about $500 (the less the better!).

I've looked at Phil Greenspun's advice, and the cameras on dcresource.com and B&H, and I plan to look at Phil Askey's reviews soon. But any of you lot have any advice?

I didn't see the debate, but I heard on NPR this morning that Orrin Hatch tweaked George W. Bush for the usability of his Website! How bizarre!

"Governor Bush, what is your position on the issue of cascading style sheets?"

Whew, that a lot of stuff! One final note: at lunch yesterday, I noticed that there was a little marker stuck in the potted plant on the cafeteria table. On the marker, it said (along with the name of the kind of plant, a white poinsettia):

Patent Pending -- Propagation Prohibited

Better register your own genes now, before Monsanto gets them!   *8)


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