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Thursday, January 18, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Politics: An Ashcroft on my shoulders:

John Ashcroft believes in angels: he believes they walk among us and that we unwittingly interact with them, as it says in the Bible. And as Attorney General, John Ashcroft wants to be an angel on your shoulders, especially when it comes to morality and what you can and can't see with your own eyes or hear with your own ears.

The Theory of eBay: in my famous essay about eBay I say that the rational solution is to just bid whatever the object is worth to you, right away; that's true under certain simplifying assumptions. Here's a New York Times summary of a paper that studies the question in more depth, in particular taking into account the fallibility of the Web. (Try "fubar" as username and password if the Times wants one and you don't have one.)

What happens if you each bid $10 in the last few seconds of the auction? In this case, there's a good chance that one of the bids will be dropped by the server, leaving only a single bidder, who wins by default and must pay only the seller's reservation price of $2.

I'm not entirely convinced that this effect explains a significant amount of eBay "sniping", but it's interesting work regardless.

Freedom of Speech: Bomb-Instruction Sites Ignore Passage of New Federal Law:

In short, the law has been a dud. Federal prosecutors have yet to record a single prosecution under the statute, which mandates up to 20 years in prison for anyone who distributes bomb-making material knowing or intending that the information will be used for a crime. Web sites, chat rooms and online bulletin boards containing instructions for bombs continue to flourish.

Used Books: On used book stores, a sympathetic reader writes:

Thanks for your post on "the Bruised apple". I went there about 5 years ago, as I grew up in the wasteland of southern westchester, the land without literacy, and was completely delighted: the great books (including some fab out of print ones), the subculture that hangs there (cute hip teenagers trying to play chess), the café that was there then and the very nice owners. I'm so pleased it's still in existence! I'm going to go back sometime soon...

Maybe we'll run into each other!   *8) There's no café there now; maybe it was over where the records and CDs and videos are now. I do remember that when I first heard of the place years ago, the woman describing it mentioned the café and I thought that was the strangest and cleverest thing I'd ever heard. A café in a bookstore? This was before every McBooks had a McCoffee inside it...

I know you're all interested in how the four books I bought all those weeks ago have turned out! I'm greatly enjoying, a couple of pages at a time, "That Bowling Alley on the Tiber"; insights into the visual imagination, moviemaking, the genesis of narrative, and all that. I haven't seriously started "The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge"; it may turn out to be one of those books that just sits in the To Be Read pile, making me feel guilty. Or not.

"The Scheme of Things" was fun: good vintage SF, café table philosophy, the meaning of like, stuff like that. The ending didn't really resolve, but it didn't need to. I'm currently almost done with "The Scarlatti Inheritance", and I remember why I didn't read any more Ludlum after that first time years ago. It's a car-wreck: impossible to look away from (lots of action, swift prose), but not very pleasant (unsympathetic characters, a depressing picture of the world). Endearing in an odd way as rather grungy escapism, but I expect it'll be another few years before I read another one.

The Social Construction of Reality: Lots of the things that we do have their effect, get their meaning, because we (some significant group of those involved) believe in the effect or the meaning. People have thought alot about this stuff, and some of it is interesting. I seem to have stumbled across various bits of that thought lately.

One interesting question is to what extent the social construction of reality is being (more or less consciously) manipulated by certain powerful groups for their own ends. Much of the thought about this has unfortunately been done by modern Marxists and postmodern postmodernists and other people who have their own private vocabulary and grammar. For instance T. R. Young, "The Divsion of Labor in the Construction of Social Reality" is both thought provoking and painful to read:

The political task of dramaturgical analysts is to provide publics and groups with those analyses of social fraud or authenticity in order that individuals and groups can decide collectively whether to associate themselves with a given social paradigm, to change that paradigm, or to oppose it. These two tasks, one political and one scientific, underwrite dramaturgical analysis in an emancipatory mode.

I also stumbled on Law as Performance by Jack M. Balkin and Sanford Levinson:

Judicial performances depend on further performances by lower court judges and executive officials; the efficacy of their work often depends on acceptance by others: not only by other government officials, but by the people as a whole. The wise judge, like the wise director, understands the limitations and the interests of her co-performers and her audience, and tailors her interpretations accordingly.

which deals primarily with the analogy between performing "offensive" texts, and interpreting laws.

The Book on this subject, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge is now on the Amazon Wishlist.

There's a worthwhile page on this subject in the amazing shalizi notebooks:

In the first place, let's start with this idea of "society." It's a pretty harmless one, and an invaluable short-hand, but here it leads us into mistakes. We do not, pace Durkheim, ever actually deal with society; we deal with other people --- our parents, our playmates, our bosses, our enemies, our spawn, etc., etc.

which emphasizes not getting carried away with this "social construction" thing. John Searle apparently does the same thing in his "The Construction of Social Reality"; I haven't read the book, but I've read Jerry Shaffer's review:

Searle's second line of defense of Realism is to argue that any alternative to Realism assumes the very truth of Realism. (1) For example, to claim that an individual's world is a construction based on certain features of the brain is to assume that brains exist and have certain features. To claim that certain realities are socially constructed is to assume that there exist social beings coming to certain agreements.

I'm sure there are postmodern texts out there that claim that all of reality is socially constructed, and Searle may be doing Yeoman's Work by defending Realism against them. But I'm more interested in thinking about the parts of reality that are socially constructed.

So I guess I want to talk about the stuff T. Y. Young wants to talk about, but do it with the clearer prose and non-Marxist ideology of Shalizi or Searle...

There's a page of "Social Construction of Reality" links on the Media and Communication Studies site at aber.ac.uk.

Ms. Williams

On the speakers: Dar Williams:

You don't know how
  lucky you are,
you don't know how
  much I adore you.

Wednesday, January 17, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Doug Englebart gave a talk at the Lab yesterday; it was up in Yorktown so I saw it via live simulcast. He was sort of disappointingly vague and rambling. His main point is that if you have stuff that you use to do stuff, and you have stuff that you use to make the doing-stuff stuff better, you get the most leverage by using your limited resources to improve the meta-stuff. That is, improve your improvers first, so they can more effectively improve the stuff that actually does stuff. And it works best if everyone does it together, and shares their wisdom.

Kind of a cute point, but the only concrete project he seems to have going (assuming you don't count the lecture circuit) is an all-singing, all-dancing SourceForge project called Open Hyperdocument System, which aims to do all sorts of cool (and buzzword-compliant) stuff, but hasn't actually done a darn thing.

Compare and Contrast: Ted Nelson's Xanadu Project, and Doug Engelbart's BootStrap Institute. They really ought to do lunch.

Beth experiments with a GameBoy-controlled Singer sewing machine. Now that's appropriate technology!

If you're a big commercial Web business like say ticketmaster.com, you'd think you'd know enough not to just pipe obscure system error messages into your generated HTML. But noooooo....

I notice from the referrer logs that Sylloge has been blogging again. This is good! (I think I actually noticed this awhile back, but failed to really internalize it because his dates are in Finnish. Sometimes the littlest things will cause a failure to grok...)

Some good (if techy) security whitepapers at honeynet.org. The Know Your Enemy series is especially meaty and detailed.

All sortsa reader input! (With links and random boldfacing courtesy of yours truly.) Some of this was typed into last week's "What do you think?" box, and some wasn't.

The Bicycle Pedaling Frog is never ironic; but he is occasionally macaronic, exempli gratia.

Thanks for the examples to you, too!

loving you has made me bananas

A better question: What would you like to think about?

I noticed today in USA Today that education (which I think means schools, pupils, teachers, and the learning, etc. that goes on there) is the number one concern of the people in the US today. I'm curious what you think about the problems of education in the US. What should the goals be? How might these goals best be met? Who should pay?

Eeek, that's a heavy question for one of these ironicly-toned boldface days!

The goal of education should be happy and effective citizens. I'd like to see us experiment with various school-choice things to try to help that happen, although I'm very fond of the public school that my kids actually go to. (My main impression from observing kids and schools is that each kid needs something slightly different.) I tend to think that everyone should pay, since everyone benefits, but I don't have really strong feelings about the details. The worst schools are in the worst places; we should fix the schools as part of an effort to fix the poverty. But I don't know how to do that.

Anyone else have good answers to that one?

hey! do you want to "do it"?



I don't think you can get any useful data on margin of error in elections until you define error. If then.

Not too hard to define error: the error in an election is the difference between the opinions the voters intended to express and the votes as officially tabulated. That shouldn't be too impossibly hard to estimate? I'm sure there are people who know all about this, although I couldn't find any on the Web.

I think lots of things are more admirable than the ALA

Dear Rachel i joilfjdslk fjao;lkfjplfjsd[fs


itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini

Which I think sums it up nicely, at least for today. Exempli Gratia!

Tuesday, January 16, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

The little daughter came to work with me yesterday, and M brought the little boy in later on; that was fun. They like to draw pictures and crawl around under the desks and stuff (the kids, that is; not so much M). They had the day off, of course, because it was MLK Day.

Fame! So I was indeed a guest on Science Friday last Friday, as hinted at earlier. The Science Friday web page about that show includes a realaudio file, so if by some terrible misfortune you missed it live, you can at least hear it now. I'm very pleased by my performance; I uttered several sentences that were nearly comprehensible! Nothing really profound occurred, but we did tell a few thousand more people to take backups and use anti-virus software and stuff.

The two main things I learned were (a) when you're on live radio, an hour goes by Really Fast, and (b) during the breaks they take so that local stations can do station identification and commercials support announcements, they play really strange music (or perhaps really strange noiess) on the feed that the guests get over the phone. Most gratifying event of the hour: a caller plugged my IBM Web page.

More fame! In the recent New York Times article New Age Bidding: Against Computers, Humans Usually Lose ("fubar" for username and password seem to work if you don't have a Times account), I'm the person (well, the small group of pixels) sitting to the extreme right in the fisheye-lens photograph. I think. Anyway, I was one of the other humans in the experiment on the day that the reporter took part. It's a fun experiment; I keep urging Steve and Jeff and the gang to put it out as freeware on the Net.


Crypto-gram: lots of good stuff in this month's issue, including Bruce's thoughts on code-signing in Windows, and an account of an FBI hack that stole a mobster's PGP password. But the most interesting thing had nothing to do with computer security; this item about the problems with a cyberspace equivalent of Underwriters Labs (as the "Center for Internet Security" is trying to do) has a pointer to this nice piece about the real Underwriters Labs:

With creative testing methods, this place takes on a circus feel. You can almost hear the ringmaster touting the fabulous trick appliances: See the Vibrating Table Test! Watch the Flaming Potato Test! Listen to the TV Tube Implosion Test!

Deregulation? A libertarian perspective on the current electricity mess in California. Predictable enough, but interestingly different from the Standard Story (as usual). California Scheming: Don't blame deregulation for the Golden State's electricity snafus:

Could I have finally found a free market injustice, an instance where markets actually failed to deliver the goods (and services)? My copy of Human Action says such a thing is impossible, but the Invisible Hand seemed to be slapping around the good people of San Diego, where electric bills have been skyrocketing like the NASDAQ used to. I set out to get to the bottom of this.

Who killed Bill Gates? Citizens for Truth aim to find out the real story behind the tragic events in MacArthur Park

Dave Barry's summary of the Year 2000 even includes some computer virus stuff (amusingly misreported, of course):

Computer networks around the world are temporarily paralyzed by an Internet virus called the "Love Bug," which gets its name from the fact that it causes computers to mate with other types of office equipment. It is eventually brought under control, but not before spawning a host of Mister Coffee machines capable of playing world-class chess.

Immortality through magnetism! A skeptical but interested user of the magnetic immortality devices of Alex Chiu (warning: multiple annoying on-exit ad popups) has started a weblog about his experiences with the things. So we can see if he turns out to be immortal. Sort of. (Link from Michal Wallace.) Note that Chiu has at least one patent on his magnetic rings (although the patent doesn't seem to actually mention immortality).

Autogynophilia: from Medley, Women's Enews, "What news looks like when women matter". And for example Bush III: Will He Emulate Father or Grandfather?

I'd like to complain, by the way, about the tendency of the psychiatric community (or whoever it is that makes these decisions) to appropriate "-philia" to refer to sexual propensities. Shouldn't "paraphilia" just be a fondness for the odd? And "autogynophilia" just the potentially innocent pleasure of imagining one's female instantiation? We've certainly lost "pedophilia" as a word for simply enjoying the company of children. Other philias, on the other hand, remain innocent. I trust we don't suspect all Francophiles of carnal motives. And do bibliophiles actually have sexual feelings toward their books? Only occasionally! *8)

Monday, January 15, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

So this policeman hears something moving around in the dark, and he goes over and there's this guy on his hands and knees on the darkest part of the sidewalk, peering around.

"What's the matter?" says the policeman.

"I can't find my keys," says the guy.

"Is this where you dropped them?" asks the policeman.

"No," says the guy, "I dropped them back there", and he gestures back at the lighted circle under the last streetlamp.

"Then why are you looking here??" says the policeman.

And the guy says "Mu!"

Friday, January 12, 2001  permanent URL for this entry

Merchandise alert! A helpful reader writes:

A note to readers interested in ordering from your cafepress.com store: the shirts do shrink a bit on washing, so take that into account when selecting a shirt size.

(This presumably applies especially if you're on the upper edge of a size range; I haven't noticed the effect myself (being somewhere in the middle of XL).) Thanks for the advisory!

The biggest thing ever!

By reading the light from the fiery heart of unimaginably remote galaxies, astronomers have discovered evidence for an immense concentration of galaxies over 6.5 billion light years away in the largest known group of quasars, possibly the largest structure anywhere in the observable universe.

Genus of the day: Theobroma (the genus of Chocolate). Literally, "The Gods' Food". Read all about it!

Well, I threatened to tell you what I bought with my Amazon gift certificates from the holidays, and I think I will. You can't figure out from this how big my Christmas presents are, both because I got other stuff too, and because one of the gift certificates was actually left over from my birthday (Amazon very nicely sent me a note reminding me that I'd forgotten to use it; a lovely surprise).

To _____

Genome, by Matt Ridley. If there's one subject on which a really interesting popsci book could be written, this is it! The reviews and stuff lead me to suspect that this one may be a little technically underpowered, but taking risks is what spending gift certificates is all about.

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, by Ben Katchor. For my ongoing Sequential Art (i.e. comics) project. Narrative through drawing, without the caped superheroes.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt: Stories, by Aimee Bender. Recommended by Steve. Short-short and strange; that's how I like 'em! Haven't read Bender before, but expect to enjoy the experience.

The High House, by James Stoddard. Well, okay, it's not all about taking risks! *8) This was recommended in Fantasy and Science Fiction, and sounds like good solid interesting work in a genre I already know I like. We'll see a few more of these today...

The Engines of Dawn, by Paul Cook. A random bit of SF by an author that I don't know. Hey, you can never tell! (It was cheap, too...)

Noir, by K. W. Jeter. Recommended (or at least described!) by Bill, and mentioned positively elsewhere too. I seem to remember liking some other novel (Infernal Devices?) by someone with a similar name (K. W. Jeter? J. K. Jeter? someone else entirely?). By serendipity do I live.

Biting the Sun, by Tanith Lee. Another low-risk item; Tanith Lee does lovely powerful surreal strange stuff. I don't think I've read either of the two novels in this volume.

A Year with Swollen Appendices, by Brian Eno. I'm normally more interested in musicians making music than in musicians talking, but hey; this is Brian Eno. Risk factor moderate (I'll finish John Cage's "Silence" just any week now, I'm sure!).

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights, by Nadine Strossen. To some extent I'm looking for evidence to shore up my pre-existing ideas about the possibility of healthy pornography. But I did read "Woman Hating" the other year, so I can claim to be considering more than one side (I suppose I should read Dworkin's "Pornography" next). I don't expect anything life-changing here, but it should be interesting.

Stick up for yourself: Every kid's guide to personal power and positive self-esteen, by Lev Raphael et al. Assuming this turns out to be sensible, and not just another smarmy self-help book, I plan to leave it casually lying around where the kids might discover it. Aren't I subtle? (I suspect my parents did the same thing with "Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" when I was at That Age...)

Bouncing Off the Satellites, by the B-52's.

Who am I?
Where have I been?
Where am I going?
DO I need any luggage?

Words to live by...


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