Sunday, December 25, 2005

Newtonmass links

The Xianblogosphere is off today, so I thought I'd fill in with some random links:

Without him, apples wouldn't know how to fall and orbits would the result of some sort of Platonistic metaphysics.

The poles are melting and it's pretty much too late to do anything about it. Some are predicting sea-level rise of eighty feet.

The NYTimes does a piece on information overload, dead-trees-bound-in-cardboard holiday version. BTW I've been playing with both Delicious Library and the Web 2.0 competitor, LibraryThing, and am thinking the solution may be in compiling databases of books rather than actually reading them.

If you were wondering where the title of Syriana came from, here's an explanation, sort of.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

War on Christmas, Psyops Division

Bad Santas:
WELLINGTON, N.Z. (AP) - A group of 40 people dressed in Santa Claus outfits, many of them drunk, went on a rampage through Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, robbing stores, assaulting security guards and urinating from highway overpasses, police said Sunday.
Hat tip to Orac.

Monday, December 19, 2005


I've been contemplating Google lately (which hardly makes me unique) and trying to understand their economic model and what it means for the future, blah blah.

Here's the essence, in my view:
  • They extract value from massive amounts of freely available stuff. Doing anything massively requires a big computation infrstructure, so there's a barrier to entry.
  • They provide some added value for free to the community (search, tools for making more stuff). This brings them attention, the important currency of this economy.
  • They figure out a way to extract some money on the side (literally in their case, that's where the ads are).

Of course, that's the user's view. In reality the tail wags the dog, and the advertising part of Google is actually much bigger and more important than the first two points. Google puts much more effort into the advertising side than in the search side, which makes sense -- all those free meals and fancy buildings and jet planes have to be paid for somehow.

In the meantime here I am creating content for free using Google-owned tools.

Recently bhyde and others have commented that long-tail economics brings benefit only to the hubs, the filtering and aggregating services. I don't think that's quite right. Assuming Google as a paradigm, it actually does bring some benefit to small content creators who can run advertising and take a share of the money stream. The people who are going to get killed are the middle-sized middlemen. Economies of scale will produce a few massive hubs like Google or EBay, consumers and small producers on the edges will get some benefits, and the smaller aggreators (like the huge publishing house that I work for, or the small publishing house that my friend runs) will suffer.

Note: I do not actually have an Internet pundit license and may have no idea what I'm talking about.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

I'm shocked, shocked to find illegal spying going on!

I find myself somewhat out of step with the left blogosphere, who are all in a righteous lather over the revelation that Bush authorized the NSA to do some illegal surveillance. Perhaps I've been wearing tinfoil too long, but is this really a surprise? Does anybody really not believe that various government agencies are peeking in on citizens all the time, under varying degrees of surreptitiousness and illegality? The Bush administration did something illegal. Yawn.

That doesn't mean the lefties are wrong to act indignant and press the issue, now that it's in the open and acknowledged, but there seems to be an element of theater to the whole thing.


Max Sawicky at least seems to share my attitude:

For a red diaper doper baby (o.k., not really red, at least a light pink) like myself, it's possible to get very cynical about these revelations that the USG is flagrantly violating the law in its surveillance of U.S. citizens and treatment of foreigners. To me this is not news, it's always been done, it's the way this unAmerican American government works.

There is an important difference, however, in what you or I think and what everybody thinks. (More than one, actually.) Even when it's the same thing. The difference is timing, which hinges on what is commonly regarded as reliable reportage. The masses may decide what is true much later than you, and that point in time is an important political milestone. So cynicism (or as I prefer to say, realism) aside, now is the time to pump up the volume.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Chickens coming home to roost

Mike Davis' The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu has been on my list of doom books to read for awhile. Davis has always been something of a guilty pleasure for me; he writes so incisively about the intersection of politics, nature, capitalism, and general collapse that he makes it all very entertaining, and the connections he draws are remarkable (he was the first place I learned of the connecton between Aleistair Crowley and the Jet Propulsion Lab, although there is now a whole book about it). This latest one seemed packaged in an overly sensationalized way so I haven't gotten around to it. However, here's a favorable review in American Scientist that will move it up to the top of the doom pile, after I get through Collapse and Fifty Degrees Below.

[via 3quarksdaily:

"Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?"

"A: To cause a global pandemic."]

Keyword: doom

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

UML kills me

So I'm being forced to sit through a long and tedious course on UML, taught by a guy who probably hadn't started high school when I first began doing object-oriented programming. It's 80% tedium, 10% idiocy, and maybe 10% useful (if you accept that UML can actually be a useful communications tool, which I do).

So yeah, a standard visual notation for expressing software designs is a good thing. Nonetheless UML appears supremely braindamaged to me, for many reasons:

- the presentation of UML seems inextricably linked to a particular notion of software development process. Thus, you have diagram types that are sort of similar (concept and class diagrams) but whose main difference is that they are intended to be used at different phases of the process (analysis and design). Unnecessarily redundant, and they are close enough to each other to cause cognitive confusion.

- UML concepts are loose, vague, sloppy, and weirdly named. For instance, "attributes" and "associations". Both of these are (ultimately) links between an object and something else, but the first is used for primitive types and the latter for object-object relationships. Argh. But actually, when I quizzed the presenter about this, he said that associations turn into "association attributes" or maybe it was "Attribute associations". Double argh.

- UML is a visual language, but the tools used to create diagrams all suck like a black hole. OK, maybe they don't all suck, I haven't tried them all, but Visio and ArgoUML and Rational Rose do. They all have one or more of: lousy UIs, missing features, idiosyncratic notation (to pile on top of the built-in idiosyncracies of UML).

- Since the tools suck in different ways (for instance, ArgoUML is actually sort of OK but is missing some of the diagram types), it might be possible to compensate by using more than one and passing the UML between them. Ha. UML is a well-established industry standard, right? You'd think that as a standard, it might be possible to write out a UML diagram from one UML editor and read it in with another. You'd be wrong. There is NO established serialization format for UML. This I find amazing and hard to understand even taking UML on its own terms.

- Related, but getting more philosophical, UML constantly fudges the extent to which it is trying to be a formal language. On the one hand, we are just drawing pretty pictures so the marketing guys can see what we are doing. On the other hand, we introduce all sorts of details that suggest we are really writing code, like public/private indicators on attributes. And then everybody tries to make tools that can do "round trip engineering" and go back and forth from UML to code (I've never seen one of these work).

- There's some undefineable grating quality about all discourse surrounding UML. I think it's related to the above, its attempting to straddle the gap between actual code and something else. This something else might be "business" but if so it's expressed in some way I don't understand.

I guess I'm extra miffed because I actually like diagrams and visual programming, but it seems to be that we have a case of a poor standard sucking all the air out of the space of visual object oriented programming. Also, I completely agree with what I see as the main goal of UML, which is enhanced communication between engineers and customers/domain experts. Again, I just think this is an abysmal way to go about it. Object-oriented programming is supposed to do this in itself, without an extra layer of sloppily-defined cruft.

Maybe I'm just missing some sort of business-oriented DNA. I went through an experience some years ago, where I (and my cow-orkers) first encountered relational databases. Everybody there was from sheltered academic environments where we had never seen such a thing before, and we regarded mostly with hostility and didn't make very good use of it. Eventually I had an epiphany where I finally got the value of the relational model, and understood how real-world applications might actually be interested in data. Perhaps UML similarly has value that is just hidden from me due to my lack of appropriate background, although I doubt it.

Keyword: venting,
Google fodder: UML sucks