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Windows XP box

Wednesday 31 December 2003

Another case mod: Windows XP box, a computer built into a Windows XP software distribution box. It's a clever visual pun, but otherwise a straightforward computer case. Until you get to the end: the same computer can be put into a Linux software box, and thanks to a tricky tilt switch, it will boot the correct operating system for the box it is in!

Robot origami

Wednesday 31 December 2003

Devin Balkcom has built a robot that folds origami. Well, very simple origami at least. It's fascinating to see the efforts of robots at emulating human manipulations and to see just how clumsy they are. I would have thought machines could fold paper pretty well by now, but maybe not in a generalized way.

It's also eye-opening to see the academic thought process at work:

One interesting result to think about — an ordinary shopping bag cannot be folded flat without bending the facets. (The flat and open configurations are isolated points.) This might be considered a 'design feature'; the fact that the facets resist bending tends to keep the shopping bag open or closed. The fact that paper is not stretchy suggests that it may even be the case that bending the facets is not enough, and that some crinkling of the paper must occur.


Wednesday 31 December 2003

EasyBib is an online bibliography generator. I guess if you have to make bibliographies, it's a useful tool. I can't remember the last time I needed to (probably college). I'll be interested to see if these small web applications have a place, or if they will be relegated to novelties.

Also, when was the last time anyone cared what city a book was published in? Seems like it was only ever needed to find the publisher, but how long ago did books generally become published by well-known companies rather than individuals with print shops? I can't imagine needing to know the city of publication after 1850 or so, yet it remains ensconced in the bibliography standards, and now web applications are asking for that irrelevant factoid.

Browser as desktop ui

Tuesday 30 December 2003

Bruce Eckel has a detailed write-up about building a UI using a local webserver in Python. It's a good explanation of the technique, and provides a complete example. I didn't have the csv module, so I just commented out the code that dealt with CSV files, and the sample worked fine after that.

It can be daunting learning or even choosing a GUI framework, and if the app you need to build lends itself to the relatively poor interaction available in a browser, this kind of local web app can be a good way to go. I'm glad to see the technique wrapped up in a nice present like this.

Bob books

Saturday 27 December 2003

If you have young children just learning to read, you can't do better than to get them some Bob Books. They are short and extremely simple. The first page of the first book says just "Mat." Even the drawings are simple: they are minimalist line drawings, almost doodles, that help the child to feel that this book is somehow something they can manage.

Bob Books also gave my boys the sense that they could create books. Since the drawings, words, and even physical production are so simple, they saw that they could create similar books themselves. It's easy to let them draw a simple story, narrate the words that you write on the pages, then staple the whole thing together.

Bob Books

Livio De Marchi

Saturday 27 December 2003

Livio De Marchi is a sculptor from Venice whose specialty is creating things in wood that you wouldn't have imagined possible. For example, a wooden Ferrari that he "drives" around the canals of Venice, or an entire house that appears to be made of books, but is really carved from wood.

Nancy Bea Miller

Friday 26 December 2003

I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, which is not a fabulous computer science school, but it's not a bad one either. Over the years, the thing I realize about Penn is how interesting my classmates are.

One friend from college days is Nancy Bea Miller, who is a very good painter (below: Still Life with Kewpie). Coincidentally, she, like me, is the parent of three boys, one of whom is autistic. And she blogs these experiences, at Genre Cookshop. It is much more personal, and therefore meaningful, than for example, this blog.

Still Life with Kewpie

How to fold paper in half twelve times

Friday 26 December 2003

Yesterday my brother challenged us to fold a piece of paper in half eight times, claiming it couldn't be done, and we could not. We tried tissue paper, we tried large newsprint, but seven folds was all we could manage. I remembered a recent story about a high school girl who worked out the math for the problem, and managed twelve folds, by starting with a strip of paper a mile long or something: How To Fold Paper in Half Twelve Times. They don't give details on the paper used, and the photo of the eleventh fold doesn't look to me like she'll manage a twelfth with it, but she exceeded eight for sure.

Ben Folds: The Bens

Tuesday 23 December 2003

Ben Folds has been recording new music, and releasing it on five-song EPs. The first two, Speed Graphic and Sunny 16, are traditional Ben Folds recordings: strong thoughtful songs with strong piano. The third one has just been announced: The Bens is a collaboration with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, and is more of an eclectic mix.

You can order all three at Ben Folds' online store. The first two are also available at iTunes: Sunny 16 and Speed Graphic.

Newspaper terminology

Sunday 21 December 2003

One of the interesting things for me about blogging is that it brings journalism thinking to non-journalists. One of the side-effects of this is that it brings journalist-speak to non-journalists as well. For example, Mark Pilgrim, in his tutorial about cruft-free URLs, refers to the text label for a story as a "slug". This is newspaper jargon, of which there is much more. Jon Udell is the perfect crossover spokesman, being both a journalist and a blogger. He wrote a while back about Heads, decks, and leads.

Complex scripts

Sunday 21 December 2003

SIL International ("working for more than 50 years to study, develop and document the world's lesser-known languages") has some great information about complex writing systems of the world:

There's ton of other interesting stuff on the site about Unicode, font technologies, input techniques, type design, and so on.

Poll on homosexual marriage

Thursday 18 December 2003

The American Family Association is conducting an online poll about people's support for gay marriage. You can take a look at the latest results.

The AFA calls themselves "pro-family", by which they really mean anti-gay. I think two adults carefully considering their options and choosing to commit to one another can only help families. It's the mockeries of marriages that you find heterosexuals committing that truly weaken families.

It's especially galling to find that many of the sponsors of the Defense of Marriage Act are such poor examples of strong family values themselves: People Who Live in Glass Marriages.

Orac3 case mod

Thursday 18 December 2003

I have absolutely no hardware skills (true story: today I asked our IT guy if PCI was the right kind of card to plug into a desktop computer!), so I am astonished at what hardware weenies can do. Take a look at the Orac3 case mod. It's a PC on the inside, but looks like something from a science fiction movie on the outside, and the entire production process has been meticulously documented.

National film registry 2003

Thursday 18 December 2003

The Library of Congress has added 25 films to the National Film Registry, an archive of "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant motion pictures". Among such classics (?) as Gold Diggers of 1933, Princess Nicotine, and Matrimony's Speed Limit, I noticed that Tin Toy is on the list.

Tin Toy is an early short by Pixar, about a toy's terrifying view of a baby. It has echoes of Toy Story that would follow, with the toy emoting and reacting to the child's world around it, while living with the constraints of being a toy. It had earlier won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. You can watch the short on Pixar's site. Congratulations, Pixar.


Wednesday 17 December 2003

Prolific Ben Fry now gives us deconstructulator (he was mentioned last in the blog concerning proce55ing). It's a Java emulation of a Nintendo game, augmented with a graphic display of the internal graphic structures that support the display. In Nintendo's case, it's a simple sprite system. As game play progresses, you can watch the set of sprites change to accommodate the needs of the game.

It's part of a series Ben is working on about visualizing software. Check out his home page for more.


Sunday 14 December 2003

Searching today for a free-form outliner on Windows, I found wikidPad. It's a private wiki implemented as a Windows application. It augments the classic anything-goes wiki model with per-page attributes that aggregate up into structured views, creating a neat blending of the two worlds. As a bonus, the whole thing is implemented in Python (though it is not open source), and there are rudimentary hooks for extending it.

A similar product for the Mac is VoodooPad, though I've never used it, so I don't know what other things it does, or how similar they are.


Saturday 13 December 2003

SmoothTeddy is a 3D painting program by Takeo Igarashi with a nice do-what-I-mean feel to it. Draw an oval, and a 3D blob appears on the screen. Blobs can be merged, cut, mirror-copied, painted, rotated, and so on. I've never used any serious 3D modeler for any period of time because they were overwhelmingly complicated. SmoothTeddy doesn't offer nearly the precision or power, but lets you sketch without a bewildering array of baffling controls.

Igarashi's home page has a number of other projects in a similar vein.

Top ten databases

Friday 12 December 2003

Winter Corporation conducts a survey of large databases, ranking the largest in a number of categories. The top by total size this year is France Telecom with a 29-terabyte Oracle database. Most rows goes to AT&T with half a trillion rows in a Daytona database. There are lots of other categories. Surprising to me was how many off-brand databases are in the lists. Daytona? Teradata?

Link dumps

Wednesday 10 December 2003

The most popular page on this site these days is How to make business card cubes. Just this week, it got more popular, as a handful of link dump sites linked to it.

I made up the name "link dump", suggested by one of the sites. They are like minimalist weblogs: they are a long stream of links, usually to humorous or not-work-safe pages. They track how many people visit each link, and often have no content besides the link and the visit count. The five that popped up in my referrers this week are all European, I'm not sure whether that's a geographic coincidence, or whether these types of sites are more popular there:

Judging from the number of referrers I'm seeing, these sites are really popular.

Ubergeek.tv: Geeks in Love

Tuesday 9 December 2003

I had lunch with a friend today. He pointed me to ubergeek.tv, Chris Hill's comic and animation site. Much of it is techie stuff that would be at home on many of the slashdotted comic sites out there. His latest animation, though, is Geeks In Love, and is much more about love than geeks. It's sweet and touching in a very real down-to-earth way. I recommend it.

Chris is using the BitPass micropayment system. The animation costs $.25, well worth it.

Perforce merge sucks

Tuesday 9 December 2003

I really like Perforce as a source control system. It is clean, and solid, and has great support. But its merge tool blows giant chunks. It looks like a Win16 application, and uses an entire spectrum of confusing (and ugly) colors. I could deal with any of that, here's the clincher: it occasionally inserts newlines into the merged files! Identifiers get split across two lines, and the compile breaks. What's up with that!?

Search highlighting

Monday 8 December 2003

I've added a new search feature to this site. If you visit here from a search engine, the page greets you with a welcome box, and highlights all of your search terms on the page. Try it: sample easier joy.

The work is done by some JavaScript code that parses the referrer to determine the search words, then uses DHTML to style the words on the page. The code came from Stuart Langridge via Paul Ford's new Harper's magazine site. I added the welcome message (though I recall seeing it done somewhere before), and also multiple color highlighting.

I don't like the fact that the highlighting works within words rather than just on whole words, but I think it's still a nice effect.


Saturday 6 December 2003

I find it fascinating the way an information channel can be extended so that old receivers see no changes, but new receivers get more information. For example, color TV does not transmit RGB information, but luminance and chrominance, so that black and white TV sets would see just the luminance in the way they always had.

Text applications have a similar problem: suppose you have a receiver expecting plain text information. How do you add formatting information so that it is invisible to the plain text receiver, but can be decoded by richer clients? ProleText does it by adding trailing whitespace in specific ways to encode formatting information. Clever.

Dates on articles

Thursday 4 December 2003

D. Keith Robinson says we should attach dates to featured web content. He's right: it's one of those simple things that are easy to miss when creating content. Like many complex creations, building a web site can mean overlooking simple things while focusing on the complex. Thanks to Keith's prompting, I've added created and last updated dates to all of my non-blog content. Luckily, I've been capturing edit histories in my source XML files, so a change to my XSLT code produced visible date stamps.


Thursday 4 December 2003

Similar to BrowerCam, Daniel Vine's iCapture takes a URL, and returns an image of the Safari browser rendering the page. Great for us Windows types who give a crap about how our pages look to others. The service seems to be a bit overwhelmed right now, we can only hope for its safe return. (Now if only this page actually looked right on Safari: for some reason some borders are not displaying correctly.)


Thursday 4 December 2003

Mark Shuttleworth earned a fortune in the dotcom era, then became the first African in space. Now he has to find other sources of excitement, so he's paying bounties to finance open-source development. One of his first projects is SchoolTool, an open-source platform for school administration. It's written in Python, and seems quite ambitious.

There are parallels here with Chandler, although SchoolTool is more of a traditional open-source project, with dispersed (mostly) volunteer labor.

Behind the typeface: Cooper Black

Wednesday 3 December 2003

This will only cement my reputation as a type geek, but I really enjoyed Behind The Typeface: Cooper Black. It's a skillful parody of the VH1 series Behind The Music, about the typeface Cooper Black. Not only have they captured the style and breathless tone of the TV series, but they have all of their type facts straight as well. Full type geek disclosure: I laughed when I saw Hobo standing on the train tracks (before the caption came up).

The museum of HP calculators

Wednesday 3 December 2003

If ever there was a site that lovingly and obsessively detailed the history of a narrow slice of technology, it is the Museum of HP Calculators.

I can't blame them. I still remember the reverent awe of using the HP-35 at the calculator counter at Macy's as a school kid. During high-school I somehow bought (or was given?) an HP-41C. It had the form factor of a calculator, but had a one-line alphanumeric display, and was programmable with a rudimentary assembler-like language. I wrote a few interesting programs for it (generate pronounceable nonsense strings, test whether the axes of the three inscribed parabolas of a triangle are coincident), all of which are lost in the sands of time. I still have the calculator, and it might work if I found some batteries for it.

The museum is an amazing site, with history not only of every HP calculator, including pictures, technical specs, and manuals, but also earlier calculators and slide rules.

Perl advent calendar

Tuesday 2 December 2003

One thing Perl has going for it over Python is CPAN, the encyclopedic collection of Perl modules that do just about anything. CPAN's overwhelming diversity of options can make it difficult to discover its hidden gems. During Decembers, though, there's a new way to find unnoticed possibilities: the Perl Advent Calendar. Every day, a new flap is enabled, revealing an interesting contribution to CPAN. Clever, useful, and nostalgic, all at once, and there are even a few older calendars from previous years for the impatient.

Black ice

Tuesday 2 December 2003

I had the same experience as Bob with the commute this morning. It was remarkable to be absolutely stuck in traffic after less than an inch of snow had fallen, melted, and evaporated. Hoping the traffic would subside, I actually pulled into an office park parking lot and worked in my car for an hour before continuing on. The traffic was no better for the wait, but at least I got a break from the tedium, and I had a quiet uninterrupted hour of work.

Schema primer

Tuesday 2 December 2003

Maybe I once knew this, but I'd forgotten it. The XML Schema recommendation includes a readable introduction to the technology: XML Schema Part 0: Primer.

This is welcome on a number of levels. First, because I could use a gentle walk through the standard, but one written by a knowledgeable source, and not cluttered with ads for web hosting.

Second, because it is refreshing to see a standards body taking an interest in making their work understandable. I used to represent Digital at standards meetings and argued with people over this. The old hands in the meetings seriously believed that their documents didn't have to be understandable, as long as they were precise. They would joke about lucrative consulting careers explaining the standards. In the case of the SGML standard, one of them published a $50 hardcover book that was nothing more than an alphabetic index to the published standard!

Styling XML files

Tuesday 2 December 2003

These days, it's more and more common to find data files and little languages using XML as their representation. It's a reasonable compromise: the developer saves on tokenizing and parsing, and can focus on semantics, but the user has to read and edit XML files. There's no simple fix for the editing problem, but the reading problem can be solved nicely.

Using the same technique that's been going around for styling RSS, you can style any XML file, to present its contents both with more pleasing cosmetics, and with a more usable structure.

Create an XSLT stylesheet that produces the page you'd rather see than the raw XML. Then add a stylesheet processing instruction to the top of the XML file, referencing your stylesheet:

<?xml-stylesheet type="text/xsl" href="props2html.xslt" ?>

Now launching the XML file in a browser will invoke the stylesheet and render the transformed result. The stylesheet doesn't just have to provide nice cosmetics: it's XSLT, so it can arbitrarily transform the file. I recently did this for a hierarchical data file, and the resulting HTML page provided three different views of the data, with cross-referencing links.

Remember, any XML file will do this trick: RSS feeds, Ant files, XML Schema files, XUL files, and so on and so on.

Why pretend to care

Tuesday 2 December 2003

Philip Greenspun asks, Why pretend to care about others when we have professional therapists?:

A friend criticized me for being unsympathetic regarding a concern of hers that I thought was irrational. She believed that a friend ought to care simply because another human being is apprehensive, even if that apprehension is not justified. ...

But why bother pretending to care about another person's troubles when there are so many psychotherapists out there who actually do care, truly, deeply, professionally?

Philip: You shouldn't pretend to care. You should genuinely care. If this woman is your friend, and she is in some state of anxiety for whatever reason, you should care. Otherwise, what's the point of it all? You call this woman your friend, but you must have some other definition of the word. Friends aren't for amusement, that's what clowns and sitcoms are for. Friends are for making genuine two-way connections with other human beings.

I'd like to believe that Philip's post was one of those engineer thoughts, viewing the world dispassionately as an academic exercise. But it started because an actual friend accused him of being uncaring, so I don't think it is.

Update: As the comments on Philip's post now make clear, he was being ironic. His dead-on manner fooled me, and quite a few others.


Monday 1 December 2003

Bloglines is a web-based RSS feed reader. Many people don't like web-based interfaces, but I like Bloglines better than any of the other RSS readers I've tried.

For one thing, the main thing I want an RSS reader to be is really an RSS-aware bookmark manager. I much prefer to read blogs in their native HTML, because the different styles of the sites help me keep them straight, and make for a much richer experience. So I mostly use Bloglines just to alert me when blogs have been updated, then take a quick look at the RSS to see if it's a topic I'm likely to want to read, and head over to the site itself if it is.

But there are little things about Bloglines that make me appreciate it as well. It uses favicon.ico images for the feeds themselves (something I've been looking for), to help keep things from becoming too homogenized. And just this morning (via a comment at diveintomark), I discovered an extra nice little touch: when Bloglines reads your RSS, it uses an agent string that identifies itself as Bloglines (natch), but also includes the number of subscribers to the feed they are reading:

Bloglines/1.0 (http://www.bloglines.com; 44 subscribers)

Now this is a very slight thing, and only of interest to dorks who both publish RSS and read their server logs, but it is a pleasing bit of polish and it makes me appreciate Bloglines more.

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