July 23rd, 2008

A quite note from Philip Greenspun on teacher’s pay:

[A school administrator] explained that school teacher salaries are set by unions and governments so that teachers of all subjects get paid the same. The current salary is much more than necessary to attract qualified social studies teachers. At current salaries, she could find qualified replacements for all of the non-math/science teachers in her school system within a week or two. People who understand math and science, however, find the current package of salary and working conditions unattractive and find work elsewhere…

It’s a virtuous circle. A lack of math and science teachers creates a gap between the availability of folks with a strong interest and aptitude for the subject and its demand. As the divide widens, those individuals can command higher and higher salaries, meaning fewer and fewer will accept teaching positions.

Meanwhile, there’s at least five-hundred English literature majors just begging for the opportunity to teach your kids how to write. Course, they’re just killing time till they finish their novel.

July 22nd, 2008

Apparently the standards for naming genes are less than strict:

Maybe this started with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus giving their genes interesting German names based on their phenotypes when they are mutant (which is how most genes are named upon discovery, minus the German part). Well, more likely it started with Thomas Hunt Morgan, who named the gene that confers eye color white because when mutated they are white.

Of my favorites:

sevenless and Bride of sevenless

one-eyed pinhead

Jordan element

half stoned

Vimeo will no longer accept simple screencasts or walkthroughs of video games, since the videos aren’t exactly creative:

Vimeo was created with the intent of inspiring creativity and providing a place to share video with friends and family. The Vimeo staff does not feel that videos which are direct captures of video game play truly constitute “creative expression”.

Video-sharing isn’t hard to do programmatically. With the right mind and a few searches, you can find every component you need pre-made, all bright, shiny and ready to go. Which might explain the plethora of “YouTube but with…” sites and startups. For a while, it seemed like a new one sprung up every day.

Vimeo is a made-for-your-thesis example of a site that is technologically boring but editorially fantastic. Well designed, unique, and focusing not on serving everyone in as many ways as possible, but on serving everyone in the right ways, as best as possible.

They are a site dedicated to original, personal creations and they are willing to enforce that idea by alienating large blocks of users who feel otherwise.

Bravo.

Ryan Maher, a Jesuit priest, on why the divide between the west and the middle east isn’t just what we believe, but how we believe it:

(The) template for discussing religion and faith is fundamentally flawed. It presumes that different groups of faithful people approach their religions in the same way football fans approach their favorite teams. A person of Muslim faith and a person of Christian faith engaged in honest conversation about religion are not like two fans pulling for their respective teams. They are more like two men in love with the same woman, each trying to express, safeguard and be faithful to his relationship with his beloved.

Love brings with it complexities that football does not.

How the rising cost of food trickles down to New York’s pizza and hamburgers.

Federal and state agencies are experimenting with paying primary-care physicians enough that they actually spend time with their patients:

Under the various payment experiments, family doctors are encouraged to hire additional staff to help monitor patients’ treatment and follow-up, and to help patients stay ahead of problems by sending reminders when they are due for preventive tests like mammograms and colon exams.

May the long tyranny of emergency rooms and four-hour waits despite an appointment made two months ago come to an end.

Ann Smith spends her days making little robotic like figurines from broken electronics and machine parts”.

Tacky.

July 21st, 2008

Talking about your blog is the social equivalent of talking about your dog. It’s a dull conversation for everyone but you.

Yet, an entire industry exists built around nothing more than bloggers, talking about blogging to other bloggers via their blogs. It’s a trade show for people who run trade shows. A instructional video on making instructional videos. Cyclical and cheap, yet undoubtably useful to the right type of consumer.

Why the industry exists is understandable. At the top most tier of the web exists a loose cadre of individuals who have carved out a niche of either quality or topic. Sponsored and professional, they’re miniature rock stars whose opinion holds weight, often for good reason, though just as often not; How precisely Mike Arrington continues to have a readership is a mystery, and trust me, I’ve studied the topic.

Oh, what a fanciful world it would be to be one of those glittering diamonds. What a wondrous ideal. The day someone offers me a living wage for doing nothing other than writing is the day I strip naked, pee on a conference table, and dance about the office like a stripper on a coke binge.

But it seems that the best of them would never deign follow the advice espoused by articles such as “How to stop being invisible” or sites such as Problogger. These are the web equivalent of informercials. Lowest-common-denominator thinking. One guy getting rich off telling you how to get rich. And fuck me sideways, they have more readers than I’ll likely ever have.

Write top ten lists and whore yourself on as many other sites as you possibly can. Don’t be thoughtful, long-winded or interesting. Don’t write about what you love, unless what you love is popular on Digg. And for god’s sake don’t even think about writing about more than one topic.

Whether their strategies work or not is slightly beside the point. It’s cheap. It’s marketing driven, instead of content driven. It’s the type of thinking that leads to a sequel to the movie Garfield.

There are only three requirements I’ve ever sussed out from reading excellent sites. Write well, write often, and write with passion. It seems if you can manage that, you’ll find an audience.

Despite the utter-bullshit so much of Anderson’s long tail has proven to be, the core idea that everything finds an audience should be held up and remembered. Clung to fastidiously; A life raft for the ignored, for the invisible.

If you’re worth reading, someone will read you. If you’re worth watching, someone will watch you. If you’re worth hearing, someone will listen.

And if all else fails, give advice.

It’s remarkably easy.

A clever animation and completely silly story from the Brothers McLeod using popsicle sticks.

The bizarre story of how a legal defense created by white supremacists, insane and thick with conspiracy, came to be adopted by drug dealers in Baltimore on trial for murder:

The fleshand- blood defense, they discovered, came from a place far from Baltimore […] Its antecedents stretched back decades, involving religious zealots, gun nuts, tax protestors, and violent separatists driven by theories that had fueled delusions of Aryan supremacy and race war in gun-loaded compounds in the wilds of Montana and Idaho. It was the ideology that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in the nation’s history, and now, a decade later, it had somehow sprouted in the crime-ridden ghettos of Baltimore.

I’m not sure whether to laugh, or stare in befuddlement at the brilliant irony of it.

Danielle Fong explains cosmology in roughly eight minutes.

She says ten, but I read fast.

Why are the sensors in the middle of computer mice, when they should be in front?

(M)oving just the forefinger — not the whole hand, or bunching all the fingers, but just the forefinger — actually makes the mouse rotate, particularly for left- and rightward movements. If the sensor is up the front of the mouse, that rotation of the mouse will give the user the desired outcome: the cursor will accurately move to the left or right, or back and forth.

James Grant asks a question I’ve been asking myself. Given that the credit crunch and the ensuing economic mess it has caused is almost entirely the fault of bankers and traders, why is there so little populist outrage aimed at Wall Street?

Wall Street is off the political agenda in 2008 for reasons we may only guess about. Possibly, in this time of widespread public participation in the stock market, “Wall Street” is really “Main Street.” Or maybe Wall Street, its old self, owns both major political parties and their candidates. Or, possibly, the $4.50 gasoline price has absorbed every available erg of populist anger, or — yet another possibility — today’s financial failures are too complex to stick in everyman’s craw.

Grant doesn’t quite answer question, but at least he asks it, and gives anyone reading the article a great run down on why they should be pissed.

Virginia Hefferman struggles with how she should excerpt the strange, abbreviated and incoherent ramblings found in comments posted online:

Nothing works more Frenchly and merrily this way — shape-shifting at a rapid pace — than Internet language, which morphs from standard English (a dialect of which has become the Web’s lingua franca) to other languages and dialects to slang and emoticons and acronyms and phonetic miscellany.

Personally, I just avoid quoting poorly written comments. Not to lambaste meme-speak, but it’s often so hard to decipher, so open to interpretation, that even attempting to quote it will only add confusion to whatever it is I’m writing.

When in doubt: paraphrase.

Charles Eames in 1956, discussing how he never designed to fit in a fashion, along with a nice introduction video for the Eames Lounge Chair. Via DesignObserver.

July 18th, 2008

The surprisingly dark world of door-to-door magazine subscription crews:

In the eight months the Press investigated door-to-door magazine sales across the country, the industry has seen at least three murders, one rape, two attempted rapes, one stabbing, one attempted murder, one vehicle fatality and one attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl.

While I would never deign to hold any company responsible for the actions of obviously troubled individuals employed in low-skilled jobs, the article will not improve your opinion of the publishing world:

If the MPA is unaware of dirty canvassing, then its only other choice is to somehow believe that door-to-door companies are the country’s single-biggest employer of college athletes in the marching band whose parents are dying of cancer and who are competing for a scholarship to study theater in London.

Years ago, 17 and sitting idle in Kansas City’s Westport neighborhood, more than likely looking homeless and drunk off my gourd, I was approached by a crew manager for a group not unlike those described in the article.

The pitch was perfect for who he probably thought I was. Free housing, food, travel. I think he gave me a pack of cigarettes and offered to buy me a coffee. After explaining I was a network consultant, on his day off, the manager shuttled off down the street to the coffee house where numerous less-than affluent less-than ideal citizens congregated.

I’m beginning to wonder whether I missed out on a great, regrettable adventure. Which are really the best kind.

A recruiter sends a job offer to 416 developers, mistakingly putting each developer’s name in the To field of the email, instead of BCC. Boom, instant community, complete with name and logo:

It is such a fascinating thing to watch. It’s like a flash mob, except the surprise is on us, the mob participants. It’s like we were all beamed into the same virtual room by one single person who chose the group of us, and left us to figure out what to make of the situation.

The resulting list was named Pradipta’s Rolodex, after the recruiter.

This story is about Ryan:

Four decades ago, filmmaker Ryan Larkin produced some of the most influential animations of his generation. Years later, plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse, he was destitute on the streets of Toronto.

Larkin passed away in February of 2007 when the cancer in his lungs spread to his brain.

You can see his award winning 1968 short, “Walking”, here.

Matthew Hudson asked several of his fellow authors at Psychology Today:

What psychology experiment would you love to carry out if neither ethics nor practical reality stood in your way?

Of all the answers, many of which would be interesting to see the results of, Joshua Knobe’s “Experience Machine” seems the most appealing:

I would create an “experience machine” that gave people the illusion that they were living a vibrant and exciting life.

Philosophers have long wondered whether people care only about their own feelings of happiness or whether they truly do want to be accomplishing something meaningful in their lives. If we could offer people the choice to go into this machine, we would at last have a good way of figuring out what the answer really was.

Though, at some level, I fear World of Warcraft partially answers this question for him. Given a similar choice, millions are choosing to be Orcs instead of say, computer programmers.

A similar question was posed at Research Digest.

July 17th, 2008

For Jason Santa Maria, the soon-to-be-retired Polaroid represents the visual metaphor for a photograph:

That little picture window, framed in white with justthismuch more spacing on the bottom so you can hold it. The fucking thing was begging to be held, passed around, shared, pinned up, torn, and written on. It’s a triumphant visual institution. The humble visual of a Polaroid picture, practically synonymous with the idea of photography …

I get the feeling the icon of the Polaroid will stay with us as a culture for a good deal longer than others. It’s too perfect to fade quickly.

There is something both desolate and optimistic in Daniel Fell’s photography.

His photos of Chicago remind me why I love the city, and why I’m so excited to move back.

Speaking of overlooked essays by great comic authors, Neil Gaiman’s essay easter-egg in SimCity 2000 is absolutely marvelous:

Occasionally I idle time away by wondering what cities would be like, were they people. Manhattan is, in my head, fast-talking, untrusting, well-dressed but unshaven. London is huge and confused. Paris is elegant and attractive, older than she looks. San Francisco is crazy, but harmless, and very friendly.

The leak of the trailer for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen reminded me of this essay from Alan Moore that was included in the V for Vendetta paperback, specifically the introduction:

There’s one at every convention or comic mart or work-in or signing, always one nervous and naive young novice who, during a lull in the questions-and answers session will raise one fluttering hand aloft and inquire, tremulously, “Where do you get your ideas from?” And do you know what we do? We sneer.

The reason why we have to do it is pretty straight forward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we’re scared that somebody will find out.

Learning where the character of V started from, how the process of collaboration transformed him from something dull and perhaps too simple into someone as marvelously complex as he ended up being, always helps to remind me how important it is not to become too attached to any one perspective.

If you’re already there, you’ll never find out where you could have been.

Julian Schnabel’s Berlin:

For five nights in December 2006 at St. Ann’s Warehouse Brooklyn, Lou Reed performed his masterwork about love’s dark sisters; jealousy, rage and loss.

More here:

With Julian Schnabel’s new film of the concert … audiences are again compelled to ask, what makes this album so unnerving? And why do we continue to listen?

I humbly present the catapult spoon.

Arm your child with one today.

The cinematically gorgeous trailer for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harakiri.

And yes, it’s available on Netflix.

NPR has released an API, providing developers with access to their archive of 250,000 articles. Some restrictions apply:

The API currently only includes stories from programs that can be found as part of the NPR.org archive. This currently excludes stories from other NPR programs, such as The Diane Rehm Show, Radio Labs, Fresh Air and Car Talk. Other non-NPR public radio programs, such as This American Life, Marketplace, and A Prairie Home Companion, are also not included in this offering.

Biologist Olivia Judson wants to get rid of the term Darwinism:

I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed.

Touchy, touchy.

The story of gifted educator Seymour Papert, inventor of the Logo programming language, as he struggles to recover from an accident:

Nineteen months ago he was struck by a motorbike in Hanoi and suffered a brain injury so severe he was comatose for a month and couldn’t walk, talk, or read. The man widely considered to be the most important living thinker about the way children learn is struggling with an unreliable memory and an uncertain grip on words. And his wife and his caregivers are using insights from his theories about learning to help bring him back to a normal life.

Particular taken with the passages regarding his speech, and its disconnected construction. Buried in its nonsense and non-sequitur there is genius, but its as though his thoughts are being garbled by a poor translator.

July 16th, 2008

Bertolt Meyer enlightens and disputes my post Grok:

I would contradict Jack’s original claim that two folks who collaborate well, who can finish each other’s thoughts, share a pattern language. I would say that these two individuals share a task-relevant mental model. In research, such mental models have been operationalized (measured) as knowledge networks (graphs), in line with von Rauchhaupt’s concept of a network of organized information. For example, Mathieu et. al (2000) elicited team members’ mental model with a structural knowledge elicitation technique similar to my AST.

It turned out that teams in which the resulting knwledge graphs were similar, i.e. in which mental models were similar, performance was higher.

I’d like to say I disagreed with Meyer, but he’s clearly operating on an entirely different level.

Richard Belzer as a muppet:

(C)heck out this Sesame Street parody of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from a few seasons back. It’s a little shocking that the folks at the Children’s Television Workshop were willing to reference a show about sex-crimes as source material for kids programming.

Merlin Mann, via Twitter:

If you’re really worried about your “branding,” try to stop thinking about life as a press release and just focus on making something.

That’s how I roll, motherfucker.

A thread by spammers at Black Hat World figuring out how to crack Craigslist’s phone verification requirements, which is now being infiltrated by BoingBoing readers.

Don’t stop there though, read through other topics and threads. This is the dark underbelly of the web, and I could spend hours here, locked and in deep focus, learning how these guys seek to game, infiltrate, manipulate and exploit every system to their advantage. And how they’re succeeding.

While I’m not normally a fan of turning myself into a walking billboard, I may make an exception for The Insound 20, a collection of shirts and posters designed by Jason Munn for Insound.

Stunning, clever and iconic work.

(via Cool Hunting)

Grok.

July 16th, 2008

Chances are, you didn’t understand.

People are fairly terrible at explaining themselves, and even worse at understanding. Language, context, tone. Things get in our way. It’s not our fault. It’s something inherently broken in the way the human mind works. We’re nothing more than pattern machines, but the patterns are personal. Non-absolute.

If you ever meet two folks who collaborate well, who can finish each other’s thoughts, chances are they share a pattern language. When one says “lightbox it”, the other knows exactly what he means. At some point, the two agreed on what a “lightbox” was and what applying that to something meant. It might have been a project in their past, or a conversation they had over drinks. Either way, some bit of history created a shared pattern between those individuals. An inside joke you’re not privy to.

Matching pattern sounds more complicated that it is. Hell, the phrase “matching pattern systems” is a bit fucking Gladwell-esque, and I’d rather not be using it. But it’s important to remember that it’s the key to figuring out what someone means or wants. Recognizing that our language is not absolute, that labels are open to personal interpretation; Slap whatever label you’d like on it, I’ve found no better way to think of it than in the term of patterns.

Internally, we all have these bits of short-hand. Mental labels for actions, ideas and approaches. Culturally, there are thousands of them. Think of the phrase kafkaesque. If you know the author, if you’ve read his work, you immediately understand that when something is called kafkaesque it means that the thing has a senseless, disorienting, menacing complexity to it. Hearing the phrase kafkaesque immediately conjures in your mind a series of images, events or words. A list of other things that you found Kafka-like. A pattern of Kafka, all stored inside your head and triggered by a single word.

If there is a trick to understanding a new idea, or a new expression, it’s in matching its external pattern system to your own. My idea of “lightbox” might match your idea of “fancyzoom”. They both represent the same basic pattern, but they do not share a label. Even the common vernacular can be vague.

The best way for me has always been to repeat back whatever idea I hear in my own words and try hard only to use terms I know I share with the person. If someone says they want a “patriotic” logo, I immediately say, “So something with red, white, and blue, maybe stars or stripes in it?” Maybe that’s what the person was thinking. Maybe not. He might have been thinking of something airy and old, with black-letter type and dark brown hues. That could be patriotic to someone who thinks of the Constitution, and not the flag, as patriotism itself. He’s no more wrong or right than I am in my definition.

But oh, what a dick I’ll look like when I turn in that blue logo with the star. The client will think he’s chosen the wrong designer, that I didn’t understand his business at all; Worse, that I didn’t listen to him. That’s the first thing everyone thinks when there’s a mismatch. They blame you and think you didn’t listen. Even if you listened perfectly. Even if you took detailed notes. Everyone always thinks it was a lack of effort on your part. That you’re somehow dense, or dumb.

It’s frustrating, embarrassing. You walk in confident you’ve done exactly what was asked for, only to have your legs pulled from under you when told it isn’t even close. A sourness pervades the rest of the task.

It’s important to remember that it is, at least to some extent, your fault. Few people know what patterns you understand and what patterns you don’t. You don’t walk around with a Rosetta stone dangling around your neck that folks can use to figure out your internal language. They’ll learn from trial and error, but that may take months, even years.

I try not to leave any direction or idea left untranslated. I might be fantastically annoying about it. It might make me appear stupid, or hard of hearing, or dense. That’s just dandy. I’d rather get it right than nod my head and smile.

It’s a mental exercise I do as often as possible. When reading a new idea, I immediately start trying to explain it in my own words. I borrow from my own collection of patterns to construct a suitable definition. I reduce it, configure it, parse and re-parse until its patterns match my own; The idea becomes, to some extent, mine.

Often, the only time I really gain interest in a thing is after I’ve described it to someone else. Rambling over the idea in my head, as it reaches my lips I’ll light up with more enthusiasm on the topic than I ever felt privately. The act of translation provides ownership and with ownership comes enthusiasm.

Try it for yourself.

And if I’m wrong, let me know. Chances are, I just didn’t say it well.

Computerworld on how CAPTCHA, those little boxes that ask you to type the words you see, are not only failing, but being gamed by spammers:

“I think my view on this now is that time is definitely running out for current CAPTCHA systems; already they are not as effective as they once were,” says Wood. “It’s already becoming more difficult for real customers to use them successfully, and they continue to come under increasing pressure from spammers.”

The embrace of CAPTCHA as a verification technique is a personal puzzle. As a rule, if one computer spit it out, another computer will eventually figure out how to understand it. Large sites, which were often the first to begin using the technique to prevent spammers from abusing their services, are going to face a dedicated army of crackers intent on breaking their little voodoo wards.

I’d love to have a conversation with a developer from a large site on just what measures they’ve tried, what measures have failed, and why they failed. From the outside, it often seems like the problem is being solved with an increasingly failing pattern that can’t be improved.

It’s a bit like comment spam. When nearly everyone runs the exact same blog software, which spits out the exact same HTML structures, and stores the POST processor files in the the exact same place, of course spammers are going to develop bots capable of peddling their payloads across millions of sites. The homogenous is the vulnerable.

If your comment form has a field called “comment”, you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

Last time I tackled this problem, we used numerous random, hidden fields along with randomized field names to make it impossible for a bot to easily post to the same URL over and over again with the same payload. It didn’t solve the problem 100%, but it eliminated all bots not specifically tailored to cracking the site. Although, given enough incentive, any scheme we develop will eventually be cracked.

The great wheel just keeps on spinning.

The great myths of organic food:

They’re not healthier or better for the environment – and they’re packed with pesticides. In an age of climate change and shortages, these foods are an indugence the world can’t afford…

I’d never given much thought to the myths surrounding organic food until this year. My mother has been living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for a few years now, and during the summer helps to run a produce stand in the excellent farmer markets around the area.

The tales of how the increasing demand for organic food has been crippling farmers in her town are unnerving. The stories about the vague, expensive and draconian requirements for organic certification; The lost revenue and hardship; The push of feel-good pseudoscience by high-volume manufacturers. For a movement that often wraps itself in the cloak of the family farm, it was astonishing to hear just how often the practice damns their pretended benefactors.

Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga discuss neuroscience, psychology, status, and free will over at Seed Magazine. While the discussion is worth devouring in whole, I got a particular kick out of this bit from Gazzaniga:

There is a very clever little experiment that you would be amused by, run by my colleague Jonathan Schooler. He has a bunch of students read a paragraph or two from the Francis Crick book, Astonishing Hypothesis, which is very deterministic in tone and intent. And then he has another group of students reading an inspirational book about how we make our own decisions and determine our own path. He then lets each group play a videogame in which you’re free to cheat. So guess who cheats? The people who have just read that it’s all determined cheat their pants off.

The Onion AV Club has published a handy guide to the supposed controversy over Pixar’s WALL-E.

I’m having a hard time deciding who’s more ridiculous: the conservatives who rebuke the film’s leftist-propaganda or the liberals who embrace it.

OK. The conservatives. But it’s a quantum finish.