Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Over and Under

Over the western hills, the sun threw its last rays of daylight. Downtown, the skyline glowed red and pink beneath a darkening sky.

Over an arching, wooden-planked bridge, a young boy rode his bike, pushed by his mother whispering words of encouragement to him as he wobbled left and right.

Over the river, three Union Pacific diesel-electric engines pulled a line of freight cars north. They hummed and rumbled and snapped and rolled along the trestle, passing over the running trail by the shore.

Under the trestle, beneath the browning, fragrant cypress trees, alongside the crepe myrtles throwing down a carpet of red and yellow, hurrying runners raced the sun, trying to finish before the night set in.

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 Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Orion Rising

In the east the hunter gazed up into the darkness. Red-faced and cold, he shivered in the nighttime air. The stars about him shimmered and twinkled in the sky. A waning moon cast its dim light down on the land.

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For the Public Good?

From Instapundit, who saw it at Chaos Manor, there's this from the National Review:

The Founding Fathers wanted that term to be 14 years, with an additional 14 years if the author were still alive. After 28 years, they figured you'd had your chance to exploit your creation, and now it belonged to the nation at large. That way we would never end up with a system of hereditary privilege, similar to the printers guilds of Renaissance England [...]

In America, land of free ideas as well as free people, this would never happen, they said.

Well, it's happened. [...] The big media companies, holding the copyrights of dead authors, have said, in effect, that Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton were wrong and that we should go back to the aristocratic system of hereditary ownership, granting copyrights in perpetuity. To effect this result, they've liberally greased the palms of Congressmen in the form of campaign contributions -- and it's worked. [John Bloom/NRO]

The big media companies would have us think that this is simply a matter of theft, that they have a right to make a profit from the pictures and the words and the melodies they sell.

They would have us give up this quaint notion of ideas for the public good. Get over it. This is about profits. This is about the American Way. After all, how can a corporation be concerned for the public good!?

How indeed.

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 Monday, November 25, 2002

Half A Moon Ago

We sat in the growing shadows, under the bridge, near the trees, uphill from the river. We sat and stretched. The blue sky of the day became dark. The sun set behind the hills. The western sky glowed pink and red.

They gathered all around. Running across the bridge. Running along the path. Coming and going. Finishing a late afternoon jog. Starting an early evening one. They gathered all around, dozens of them. Warming up. Standing. Stretching. Cooling down.

I watched them come and go. I watched them starting and finishing. I tried to count them, but they wouldn't stand still. So I looked up at the sky out over the water, the darkening deep-blue-turning-black sky. And I watched a thin crescent moon pass behind the last lingering leaves on the trees as the warmth of the day was chased away by the coming cool of night.

That was a half a moon ago, and it has waxed to full and is waning now. And there's a cold chill in the air all day. Winter is upon us.

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 Friday, November 22, 2002

Red Rio

They grow a lot of citrus in the valley. And the grapefruit from down there is so good: red and sweet, you can peel it and eat the sections like an orange.

Sometime somewhere, I must have brought along some grapefruit from Texas when the family gathered. I seem to remember taking a big bag of Red Rio grapefruit one year at Christmas. Or maybe it was last April when lot's of folks came here.

Whenever it was, it must have left a great impression, because this year our instructions for Thanksgiving are simple. We are to bring the following things:

  1. pillows
  2. sleeping bags
  3. grapefruit

That's it.

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 Tuesday, November 19, 2002

For Posterity

Michael writes a weblog. Sometimes quick snippets. Sometimes long stories with substantial amounts of stuff to say. A different way of seeing the world. Sometimes uncomfortable, but always interesting to read. [*]

Once I asked him how he keeps his writing, where he collects his observations and stories for posterity. He told me how he archives his stuff, how the software he uses generates files containing all his previous posts.

Then he added, In the end of course, nothing survives.

Posterity is indeed a relative thing, I agreed. And I told him about a photograph that hangs on my wall.

I have a black and white photograph of my grandfather and his father and mother and siblings. It was taken in about 1908. My grandfather's father's father was a soldier in the Civil War. He and his father and his father are buried in a cemetery in a town where I spend time in the summer. That's posterity enough for me, I said.

I'd consider it a win if 94 years from now my son's children can read my rambling just as I look at that picture today, if they can visit my words just as I visit the cemetery.

Lovely definition of a win, Michael said.

[*] http://www.oblivio.com
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Centralized Control

Adam Engst at MacTidBITS has a great piece on CSS and DMCA and the evolving world in which we have less and less control over how we individually use the information we've bought.

In the end, Professor Gillespie argues that the true power of the DMCA is not so much related to its effect on copyright but these ways it weaves established organizations like large manufacturing corporations, research universities, and media conglomerates into what Professor Gillespie calls a regime of arrangement.

In otherwords: constraints on the use of information to ensure that the big boys at the center run the show and that there is no (legal) challenge to them from the fringes. Engst goes on to point out that recent trends are otherwise, suggesting that this effort to consolidate control is not coincidental but rather a direct reflection of the gradual erosion of central control in general:

If there's one theme we take into the 21st century, it's decentralization, and you can see it everywhere. The PC overtaking the mainframe, Napster changing the face of music distribution despite the recording industry's best efforts, DeCSS causing the movie studios conniptions, Linux successfully challenging the mighty Microsoft's server operating systems, even the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - all are examples of the power of decentralization and the ever-increasing clash between these forces of decentralization and the centralized power structures that control everything about our world.

And they've got the law on their sides -- because they buy the boys who pass the laws.

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 Monday, November 18, 2002

Low Brass

They sat in the back seat talking about their struggles to reach a low B-flat and generally lamenting the lot of low brass.

We just sit there and play the same note over and over for 21 measures! they both said. Ben plays the trombone. Clay plays the tuba. Melodies of Tubby the Tuba echoed thru my head.

It's not even that bad for percussion! They told us.

And there's this kid, Clay said.

He's so annoying, Ben added. Evidently he knew just who Clay was about to describe.

Clay continued, who has a weird haircut and always wants to touch my tuba.

Touch your tuba!? I shrieked. He wants to touch your tuba?

Trudy laughed out loud and turned to them in the back of the car and told them to tell me. She told them to tell me about that kid. She had heard the story before. Clay started over.

There's this guy. He plays the tuba, too.

And he's so annoying, added Ben. He is always quietly playing his tuba when he isn't supposed to. He turned and looked at Clay sitting next to him, I don't think Mr. Edwards knows. Clay nodded.

His hair is buzzed short on the sides and it's cut like this in the front. Clay held his fingers to each side of his forehead, trying to demonstrate something about uneven bangs. And he's always asking if he can touch my tuba.

The sixth grade band doesn't practice as a group, yet. They meet in sections, and it sounds like the low-brass fill the room. Twenty trombones. Some baritones. A half-dozen tubas. Even bassoons. (Yes, bassoons in low brass. Go figure.) And there's evidently this dynamic going on with the anxious kids sometimes playing their music independently while the director is focusing somewhere else. And there's this kid reaching over and touching other peoples' tubas.

I can't even being to imagine the scene. Or maybe I can.

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 Friday, November 15, 2002

They're Winning

Bill Moyers:

They win only if we let them; only if we become like them: vengeful, imperious, intolerant, paranoid, invoking a God of wrath. Having lost faith in themselves, they have nothing left but a holy cause. They win, if we become holy warriors, too; if in trying to save democracy, we destroy it; if we strike first, murdering innocent people as they did; if we show contempt for how others see us; exploit patriotism to increase privilege; confuse power for the law, secrecy for security; and if we permit our leaders to use our fear of terrorism to make us afraid of the truth. [NOW/Moyers]

In the article in which he wrote that, a year after 9-11, he saw reason to hope. Today, things seem quite different. Today it seems like they're winning.

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Sloppy Coder Talk

Edsger Dijkstra:

A programmer that talks sloppily is just a disaster. [Why is software so expensive, p.6]

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Joel's Lament

I read recently an excellent essay by Joel Spolsky on the leakiness of software abstractions. [*] The piece has been making the rounds on the net this week. In it, Spolsky observed that as hard as we try to package our work into crisp packages with slick interfaces wrapped around them, the innards still show thru.

To illustrate his point, he constructed a demonstration of how the Internet works (how TCP works) by appealing to an intuitive metaphor of people driving across country. It was quite effective.

Sadly, however, Spolsky seemed to be bemoaning this state of affairs instead of recognizing it as an inevitability. "Abstractions fail," he said. "Things go wrong." And in doing so, he missed the true profundity of his Law of Leaky Abstractions. It ought not to have been a lament.

The fact is, that the world is leaky. All of us have opened the hood of our cars several times, even those of us who probably shouldn't. Sometimes a hard drive starts working when you simply slap the box. Sometimes you just need some chewing gum and baling wire.

Slick interfaces and abstract simplifications are but starting points. They allow us to build mental models of the world around us without grappling with the immensity of the whole. Bundling things together into groups, categories, equivalence classes, is not a statement of absolute truths; it is a mere device to help us make sense of the incomprehensible chaos around us. And having made better sense of one part, we can move on.

Life is leaky. As long as we don't sink, why should it be any different with software?

[*] http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/leakyabstractions.html
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 Thursday, November 14, 2002

Telecommuter's Window

Golden elm leaves borne on the wind. A rising sun in the eastern sky. Bright blue overhead. Branches swaying in the breeze. Cats clawing tree trunks in the cool, crisp air. Birds singing in vacant backyards. Empty suburban streets. Kids at school. Adults at work. Leaves in the streets and on the lawns and in the gutters of empty houses with their curtains drawn shut.

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Keener Eyesight

William Saffire:

Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend -- all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database". ...

This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks. [Saffire-NYT]

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 Wednesday, November 13, 2002

In A Black Chadore

A woman dressed in black walked up. She had something to say. She found just the man to say it to. She was dressed in the traditional style. He was with the media. She had a few things to say about the student's complaints. She declined to give her name. The righteousness of her country's foundations echoed in her words.

[They] are questioning my country, my religion, and my beliefs, and I object to them. We respect freedom, until it violates the freedom of others.... Freedom of speech has its limits. [CSMonitor]

Freedom of speech has its limits. Let the students remember her words.

In Iran, a challenge to hardliners, Christian Science Monitor, 14 Nov 2002
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Agitation in Iran

If they can't kill the engine, they want to take out the high-profile actors that give people hope. [CSMonitor]

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Poindexter's revenge

From the New York Times:

The vehicle is the Homeland Security Act, the technology is Darpa and the agency is the F.B.I. The outcome is a system of national surveillance of the American public.
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Novels, Stories, and Worlds

The ever-interesting oblivio:

A novel is a world, while a story is... something less than a world, perhaps a fragment of a world, a thing which at best suggests the thing it belongs to.

Hmm... And the best novels push the boundaries of that world to such a distance as to not (or barely) be visible.
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At coolstop they point to Happy-Happy and My Happy and ask Happy?. I think not, but maybe I'm just being a pessimist.

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My Happy

Here is what would make me happy:

- light rail
- farmers' markets
- mass telecommuting
- cheap organic produce
- a stable middle class
- cheaper hybrid vehicles
- a living wage for workers
- hand-crank windows in my car
- emission control devices on SUVs
- sidewalks that go around the block
- rivers where salmon can freely run
- Pacifica Radio available in Austin
- Tru-Green staying away from my yard
- a Colorado River that flows to the sea
- grocery stores within walking distance
- greenbelts that grow as fast as cities do
- Democracy Now in Quicktime streaming audio
- a foreign policy the focuses on root causes
- a small house to live in for the rest of my life
- trains that run from San Antonio to Austin to Dallas
- to be allowed to criticize without becoming a suspect
- decent politicians who can speak plainly and tell the truth
- organic orange juice that isn't twice as expensive as Tropicana
- governmental openness, due process, and presumption of innocence

Shall I hold my breath?

(reposted from yesterday due to techicult difinalities)
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 Monday, November 11, 2002


Here is what will make them happy:

- cheap produce
- cheap cable TV
- cheap Big Macs
- cheap gas at the pump
- cheaper gas at the pump
- cheap electronic gadgetry
- big parking lots at the mall
- fertilizers for green-green lawns
- SUVs to drive to the grocery store
- magic foods that build strong bones
- big SUVs to drive to the soccer field
- enriched white break without the crust
- cheap mansions in golfcourse subdivisions
- happy stickers to plaster on their bumpers
- wide highways stretching from here to there
- antibiotic soap to keep the dirty dirt away
- antibiotic desktops to keep the dirty dust away
- bigger SUVs to keep safe from all the other SUVs
- wider highways stretching from there to somewhere else
- big honkin' AC units so they don't have to open their windows
- smart bombs so they can smoke those bad guys out of their holes
- big bombs so they can unload their frustrations on the rest of the world
- Homeland Security so they can turn their attention on the whiners at home

Happy-happy. That is what they want. They want happy-happy. And there's nothing they won't do to get it.

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 Friday, November 8, 2002

Keen Eyesight

Big brother is indeed watching, and his eyesight is getting keener...

Senator Orrin Hatch has some ideas about law and order. He want to add flexibility to the Homeland Security act:

According to a press release from [Hatch's] office, his amendment [to the Homeland Security Act] intends to provide greater flexibility to communications providers and law enforcement when necessary to prevent and protect against devastating cyber attacks. [wired.com]

The act as written would permit warrantless seizure of private communciation. Warrants provide accountability; that's their purpose. The act calls for none. However, it does define the conditions under which and ISP must comply to a seizure request:

reasonably believes that an emergency involving immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requires disclosure of the information without delay [wired.com] (emphasis added)

Hatch doesn't like this. In his view, law enforcment needs more flexibility. Can't have law enforcement handcuffed to some sort of outdated notions of privacy or accountability. His amendment replaces the reasonable belief condition with a good faith one. And it removes the requirement of immediate danger.

Make no mistake, this is not minor wordsmithing, here. With formal accountability thrown to the winds, this is a clear effort to further enable the government to do what they want to whom they want when they want and make it impossible for anyone to ever know it happened.

Got a problem with that? Well it's clear that we need to start watching you a bit closer, too. So you just watch what you say, buster. You just watch it.

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 Thursday, November 7, 2002

Proprietary Formats

I come from a family that keeps things. My grandparents had a barn with an attic that had more stuff in it than the barn should have been able to hold. Trunks and chairs and lamps and lights and picture frames and come-alongs and piles of books and papers gathered dust for years in that attic. It was my favorite place in the world. When I was finally old enough to be allowed to go up there alone, I knew that I had arrived.

So I like to keep things, too. Ask my wife. Look in our garage.

One of the things I keep is the things I write. Do you keep the things you write? Do they keep the things they write at the place you work? I'll bet I know what format those files are in.

So just what program are you going to use to read all those wonderful things you wrote when you sit down twenty years from now to read those old, dusty twenty year old files?

Companies and governments are in for a rude surprise when they discover twenty years from now that they can no more read their archived data than they'd be able to play an 8-track tape on their MP3 players (which of course won't be around then, either).

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 Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Yesterday on Congress Avenue

Along the sidewalk leading up to the Congress Avenue bridge yesterday, there were a half-dozen or so people in red and blue T-shirts holding up red and blue signs. They were waving their signs in the air and shouting at the rush-hour traffic as it slowly flowed out of town.

Woo hoo! they shouted. WOO HOO! And the red and blue signs went up and down and side to side.

Not many runners take that 5 mile route now. (It gets too dark too early for most.) But there were a few of us yesterday running around the clockwise loop or running the other way. As we rounded the turn and ran up the sidewalk to where the red- and white-shirted woo-hooers were shouting their shouts and waving their signs, they didn't even acknowledge us. As we ran by, they stepped to the curb with their backs to us and shouted again to the drivers in the cars, failing mostly to look at us, failing each one to say hello. We were together under a clear autumn sky on a three foot wide patch of concrete, and they chose to look away and shout.

That is what happened to the Democrats yesterday. They act as if it's enough to shout Woo hoo! and wave slick signs with bright-colored slogans. But I don't know what woo hoo means, and the slogans they chose didn't mean much to me.

I wonder if they got it.

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What Needs to be Done

In an interview with Bill Venners, Ken Arnold talks about design:

I think that comes from focusing on what the user needs to do, rather than what the user might want to do.

See also, Extreme Programming.

Resist that impulse [...] implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them.

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 Tuesday, November 5, 2002


In the back, in the corner, behind the compost bin, behind the pile of walnut leaves, under the branches of the hackberry tree, out of plain view, behind the safety of the chain link fence that keeps the barking dog at bay, a cat hangs out.

A cat hangs out there sometimes: white and black and grey, with a battle-worn look and a short bob-tail.

In the back, in the corner, in the shade of the hackberry tree, behind the leaves and compose pile, a flurry of feathers lies on the ground. The cat was there. And once upon a time, a bird was, too.

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 Saturday, November 2, 2002

Artistic License

You make yourself seem mean, she said to him.

What are you saying? he asked.

This stuff makes you look like a monster.

It does not! he objected, standing up and pounding his fist on the desk.

You see? That is what I'm talking about. You didn't pound down your fist. You never even stood up. And what table, anyway?

They sat there for a moment.

You know very well what I mean, she added.

Yes, I suppose I do.

I suppose you do.

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 Friday, November 1, 2002


The two of them had different ways of handling misbehavior. His high expectations led to stern, reproachful pronouncements. She was always warm and empathetic. To him, misbehavior represented a transgression, a broken promise. To her, it was a weakness worthy of forgiveness. His voice would become loud. Hers was soft and supportive.

When the doorbell rang, the misbehavior began, and when to door cracked open it escalated. As the costumed kids with new-found candy in their bags turned and walked back to their father on the hill, the dog dashed out the door and began barking and jumping at the man.

The two of them stood in the doorway watching all this unfold. She remained still. In abject horror, he spoke sternly about coming back inside. Neither technique worked. The man and his kids just walked away.

She turned around. He came walking out. The dog didn't bother to look up and instead dashed, head-down, to the doorway. But she was no longer there. Without even looking back, for he sensed that pursuit was close behind, the dog ran inside and slid around the corner, making a mad dash down the hall.

Pursuit was indeed close behind, unmistakably announced by a slam of the door and the candy bowl on the table. Clearly the dog heard both.

Now, if you were a dog; and if there was one in the family who was warm and forgiving and another with high expectations and a "reproachful manner"; and if you had just dashed out the door, knowing full well such dashing is not allowed; and if furthermore you had barked and jumped and generally misbehaved as you certainly knew you mustn't do; and if the warm and forgiving one was in the study sitting at the desk while the other was slamming doors and advancing down the hall, what would you do?

The dog made a frantic turn into the study.

Sliding around that second turn, he dashed to her side and began several desperate attempts to jump into her lap. But she was engrossed in her email and didn't notice. And of all the times when a small dog might hope that a lap-bound leap might succeed, this was not it, for each time he jumped, he missed her lap and landed back on the floor.

The stomping ceased, and a figure stood in the doorway. Having failed in his effort to gain sanctuary and seeing his pursuit arrive, the dog dashed under the desk, thinking that safety could be found in low places. His tail was between his legs. His eyebrows belied a trembling dread.

... and perhaps we should just end the story there.

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