January 2003

Random computing thoughts

There’s been a lot of excitement lately about different ways to get one web page to talk to another. To the uninitiated, this probably sounds incredibly weird, but it’s also a very powerful concept. This is accomplished using techniques with mysterious names like xmlrpc and REST. Unless you are an über-geek, the difference between the two doesn’t matter: suffice it to say, there are some pretty well-understood and standard ways of doing this. Sometimes a non-geek like me gets an idea for a way that xmlrpc (or REST, whatever) might be used, but I don’t have the technical chops to write the code. Now, this may be my naïveté (two umlauts and an accent in one post — that’s a record for me) speaking, but I suspect that it would be possible to write a generic universal xmlrpc processor that a non-geek could configure to send out/suck in data to suit. Perhaps even give it a pretty web interface for configuring. This would be pretty cool.

I’ve been teaching myself CSS, and have figured out how to do some pretty slick things with it. It’s very powerful. I can imagine ways to make it moreso, although this would probably drive the wonks at the W3C nuts.

A way for styles to alternate. The obvious use for this would be for alternating color bands in tables, but as long as its kept general, it could be used in all kinds of different ways. The syntax could get kind of hairy: I would propose defining each alternant as a separate style, and then gang them together under the catch-all style that will be alternated something like this:

.lightgrey {background-color: #CCC;}

.white {background-color: #FFF;}

tr:alternating {styles:.lightgrey .white;}

That would give you a table with alternating rows of light grey and white backgrounds. You might want to do it with three different backgrounds, or where you only alternated every second or third column. Simple — express it like this:

tr:alternating {styles:.lightgrey .lightgrey .white .white .yellow .yellow;}

Later:It seems they’re working on this for CSS3 the Nth child pseudo-selector

I’ve also been working with some very redundant CSS stylesheets, where there are many similar styles, the only difference being the style name and one number that could be generated algorithmically. If we could use mathematic expressions in the CSS, it would save a lot of redundancy and debugging. I imagine it might be possible to use Javascript or PHP to do this for me (if I were any good at coding either one), but the idea of rolling mathematical expressions into CSS strikes me as appealing.

[Later] How’d that get there? Right when I hit the “post” button for this entry, I noticed that the “URLs to ping” field in Movable Type contained “http://blog.mediacooperative.com/mt-tb.cgi/1293”. I tracked down mediacooperative.com, and it seems to be associated with Ben Hammersly, linked to at the top of the post in reference to getting web pages to talk to each other. I guess this is auto-trackback in action, somehow.


Gwen and I tried out Ruta Maya in its new digs last night, bizarrely located between a strip joint and a country radio station. Nice place though — it’s sort of a hodgepodge of two walls from an old industrial building that have been sandblasted to within an inch of their life, and bridged by the kind of insta-building architecture that usually house welding shops and the like. But it actually feels quite comfortable inside, though a little empty.

In less happy news, Flightpath has a problem.

I’ve been a regular at Flightpath for…a long time. Let’s say eight years for the sake of argument, but it might be nine or ten. It occupies part of what was once an auto-repair shop, When it first opened, it occupied a small chunk, with a large area in back left unfinished. Over the years, the previous owner, Terry, finished out the remaining space in a couple of phases, until Flightpath came to occupy its entire “slice” of the building.

Here’s the problem: The City of Austin mandates that all businesses have a certain number of parking spaces proportional to their square footage (the ratio depends on business type). When Flightpath opened, it was fine. But at some point, its square footage exceeded its available parking. This didn’t become a problem until someone who lives near Flightpath began bugging the city about Flightpath’s lack of parking. Flightpath is a popular place, especially at night, and evidently people were parking in front of this guy’s house. He didn’t like that, discovered that Flightpath was out of compliance with this regulation, and went on a crusade.

The current owners of Flightpath tried to make some creative accommodations for the city’s requirements, but evidently the squeaky wheel kept on squeaking. Last Thursday, an inspector said they had to wall off their back room by Monday. And so they did.

There is so much wrong with this picture that I don’t know where to begin.

  • I have always objected to the parking/floor space ratio requirements. It flies in the face of the city’s nominal policy of–and my preference for–urban densification. For a place like a coffee shop, it creates an added burden in terms of rent. For a neighborhood joint like Flightpath, it is also unfair in the sense that it gets more bike and foot traffic than other locations might. Mine was one of five bikes on the rack today.
  • I have never understood the objection to street parking. It’s a city. Of course people park on the street. It’s not illegal. If you don’t like it, move to the country. Or at least shut up and let us city dwellers live in a real city.
  • Although Flightpath now has about half of its floor space closed off, it is still paying rent on all of it. I don’t know how long it can manage.
  • Flightpath has become a very popular neighborhood hangout, but its ability to do business–and the ability of many neighborhood residents to continue enjoying it–is being threatened essentially by one crank. Flightpath is also noteworthy for being one of the first places in town to install free wireless Internet access.

Flightpath is going to be seeking a waiver on the parking requirement, and at some point, this post is going to be reworded and sent as a letter to the City Council.

Tinfoil hats, part 2

I wrote previously about the whacky conspiracy theories that the 9/11 inquiry, and the Bush administration in general, engender. I had another thought along these lines today.

With a budget of $3 million (compared to, what, $110 million spent on Whitewater?), it seems clear the Bush administration doesn’t want the inquiry to get ambitious. With Kissinger as the first appointee to lead the commission, it seemed all the clearer that Bush didn’t want to hear any unwelcome news.

Kissinger’s appointment became an issue largely because of an outcry from the blogosphere. This was reported in the traditional news media. Now we are seeing Kean, his replacement, generating some outcry in the blogosphere as well. Is it possible that the president is gaming the system?

The commission has an 18-month lifespan. Two months have already been shot. Could the administration effectively negate the commission by appointing a succession of controversial chairmen to it and exploiting the resulting outcry? Running down the clock? I know, crazy talk. I don’t quite believe it myself. But still…

Meanwhile, in related news, the Slacktivist has pointed to a brilliant, and disturbingly prescient passage in a satirical book about George I and Gulf War, Episode I.

A big part of the problem is that, since even before he took office, Bush has shown a contempt for the openness and accountability that allow a democracy to function. And why not? His entire life has been a finger in the eye of meritocracy. He has always traded on his name and gotten preferential backroom deals from backslapping buddies. Shoot, he didn’t even win the presidential race, exactly. So it’s no surprise he should be contemptuous. But his predilection for secrecy, old-boy networking, etc, apart from the damage it does to democracy, makes it impossible to resist seeing conspiracies.

Yet another browser

Some mad scientist has ported Phoenix to OS X. It’s still somewhat primitive, but it’s interesting to see. Funny that I ran across this news on the same day I read that Opera may be withdrawing from the Mac. No great loss there. At any rate, that leaves us with, what, four Mozilla-based browsers for OS X (Chimera, Mozilla, Netscape, Phoenix), Omniweb, Internet Explorer, iCab, Safari. Am I missing any?

Aren’t they visiting Japan or something?

Apparently not — though they did just return, evidently. Ben and Mena Trott, authors of Movable Type (and, apparently, cyborgs who don’t need to sleep) are revving MT again, this time to version 2.6. I’m glad to see them releasing early and often, but a bit chagrined that I just installed 2.51 on a new host. Oh well. I’m guessing the upgrade will be painless enough. There appear to be plenty of tasty features in this release, although the one I’m really looking forward to, user-customizable fields, ain’t there yet. I know it’s on the wishlist, though.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Saw Confessions of a Dangerous Mind the other day. Movies based on the lives of obscure celebrities may be turning into a trend: first Auto-focus, now this. (Next up: The Nipsey Russel Saga, Scott Baio — Behind the Scenes, and Tragic Mediocity: the Unravelling of Dana Plato.) I jest, but it was actually quite an engaging movie.

This is George Clooney’s first stab at directing, and it made me realize that there must be incestuous cliques in Hollywood. George Clooney and Julia Roberts appeared together in this movie and in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh is one of the producers of this picture, and (I suspect) had some influence over its look. Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell were together in this movie, as they were in Charlie’s Angels. Sam Rockwell and George Clooney were in Welcome to Collinwood, produced by Steven Soderbergh (I haven’t seen it either, I just checked). There are probably more overlaps and intersections.

Anyhow. Remember A Beautiful Mind? In that, John Nash, brilliant mathematician, had delusions of being an intelligence operative. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris (yes, that Chuck Barris) reports that he is a contract hit man for the CIA. The movie is based on Barris’ autobiography. The movie does not editorialize on whether the author is nuts, and hints that he might have been telling the truth. I’m skeptical.


Saw Baraka at the Paramount recently. Amazing movie. Very much in the same vein as Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, that is, no plot, dialog, or story: simply a succession of loosely linked images of nature and human activity, with a very good score running throughout. Some amazing locations, including Angkor Wat, the Highway of Death, Everest, the Brazilian rainforest, and so on.

Mail down

Due to a configuration problem, any mail sent to me between roughly noon Sunday (Jan 26) and 9:00 AM Monday (Jan 27) would have bounced. It should be working now.

Mesh networks


Locust World has developed the software and hardware to create mesh networks on the cheap (about $400 per box). This is potentially big. A mesh network allows one to extend a wireless network indefinitely — a signal will hop from one box to the next, until eventually finding one that’s got a landline connection. Obviously traffic could get backed up, but this makes all kinds of interesting things possible. via BoingBoing.


Still more news about GeoURL.

Joshua Shachter, who is responsible for GeoURL, has created a simple interface between it and Movable Type. This allows individual archive entries in MT to automatically generate the appropriate tags, and to ping GeoURL.

I’ve already begun putting this to work in a local blog-thing, so that local real-world places of interest can get in on the GeoURL action. Things are still very tentative and rough, but check it out: AustinURL.


Sometimes a bit of software just blows your mind iCommune is one. A seemingly mild-mannered plug-in for Apple’s iTunes music software, it turns iTunes into a streaming peer (that also, incidentally, allows you to copy MP3 files).

The weak spot is that the user must manually enter fellow peers to stream from/to: there’s no auto-discovery. But once they’re in there, your friends’ music is just as available to you as the music on your hard drive, through the same interface. The simplicity is very powerful. This may be part of the reason Apple forced the author to pull the plug-in. But if you can find a copy, check it out.

And let me know what your IP number is so we can share.


For whatever reason, people eat a lot of soup when sick. Especially the canned stuff, since the invalid is feeling too lethargic to put together real soup. Having just gotten over the flu, and with Gwen ping-ponging back and forth, there’s been a fair amount of soup consumption in our lives lately. A lot of canned soup.

But here’s the thing: it’s a terrible over-extension of the word “soup” to use it to describe both the stuff that comes in a can or styrofoam container, and the stuff you actually make yourself. The two things really have very little in common, I’ve decided.

As of last night, Gwen was still sick, and when she asked what I could bring over food-wise, she suggested we could have soup. I’m not much of a cook, but I’d be damned if I had another can of Progresso or whatever. Bleah. Off to Central Market, where I assembled ingredients for something vaguely Thai-like. Okay it had lemongrass and ginger and cilantro and shrimp, and some other stuff. That’s about as Thai as my unculinary Jewish ass can get. It wound up being pretty good. A damn sight better than anything coming out of a package.

The mouse that roared

We (as in “We the people”) have lost the Eldred v Ashcroft case before the Supreme Court. This fought the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of ’98, which was passed at Disney’s behest so that Mickey Mouse would not fall into the public domain.

Local metablogging

We’re on the cusp of something interesting with blogging in Austin, I can feel it.

I attended the first local blog meetup some months ago, and have gone somewhat erratically since. A result of that meeting was the Austin group blog, which hasn’t seen a great deal of action. There’s also a quirky index of local bloggers (some quirk has omitted me from it, anyhow).

More recently, GeoURL has blown things open, as local bloggers everywhere have been able to semi-automatically discover each other merely by registering themselves. This has created a rush of enthusiastic energy here in Austin (and quite likely elsewhere). It prompted Adina to put together a self-aggregating local blog that uses trackback technology to harvest entries from independent blogs. And I’m working on something that is not yet ready for prime time, but will use GeoURL as a way to create pins on a virtual map for local attractions. Next step will be to merge that with Adina’s project, somehow.

War and politics

I think the Economist is a great magazine, but man, when they’re wrong, they’re wrong

Or look at the looming war with Iraq. Mr Bush’s critics could not get it more wrong when they charge him with exploiting Iraq for domestic reasons; in fact, the easiest way to secure his popularity would have been to ignore Iraq and concentrate on al-Qaeda. If Mr Bush is right, and Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, then America risks huge casualties; if he is wrong, and Pandora’s box is empty, then he risks looking like a fool.

In no particular order: Bush risks looking like a fool every time he opens his mouth (whether to speak, or merely to eat a pretzel), so there’s nothing new there. I have written before that winning the war on al Qaeda is not a good way to make political points, since A) it wasn’t going very well, and B) success in this “war” is defined by an absence of news. It isn’t very impressive to report “no buildings blown up today.” In a war against Iraq, you can show clear results — which the military can completely stage-manage. Part of the problem here is that the “war on terror” is not a real war. If Iraq possesses WMDs, they still lack the delivery system to reach the USA, and so would have to use them on their own soil (which they’ve done before, admittedly). If they don’t, Bush will simply say they’re well hidden.

That’s a little too plugged-in

A lot of people use my favorite coffee shop, Flight Path, as their office away from home, as it were. They bring their WiFi-enabled laptops, their cellphones, etc, and set up shop (one guy brings a vase of flowers, even). Many people plug their headphones into their laptops to zone out to whatever they have cued up on winamp or iTunes.

Today, I noticed one such cyberdude, his sculptural little clip-on headphones in place, rattling away on his keyboard. His phone starts ringing. He can’t hear it.

Browser atomization

There’s a post at kottke.org, taking Apple to task for not integrating more specialized interfaces into its new browser Safari.

This got me to thinking. A few years ago, Netscape was predicting that the browser would become the OS. After all, you could run a Java app inside the browser and do almost anything, right?

Obviously it didn’t turn out that way. But more interestingly, things have gone the other way. Rather than one web browser that does everything, I have multiple different web apps. I’m writing this post in a specialized blogging program called Kung Log. It does one thing: post to Movable Type blogs. I read a lot of blogs in NetNewsWire Lite. Although I don’t use it much, I’ve got Sherlock for specific kinds of searches, and it has an excellent competitor, Watson I can read the funny papers in Comictastic. And I’m sure there are lots of other specialized clients out there for extracting and presenting a specific data type from the web.

And of course, I’ve got, what, four general-purpose web browsers on my hard drive.

The profusion of specialized tools makes sense in a broader picture. Each tool can focus on being good at one thing. With the availability of a reasonably fast and always-on Internet connection, the Internet becomes almost like a feature of the computer–like the CD drive or the mouse. Nobody says “if you’ve got one program that interacts with the CD drive, why would you need two?” Also, although this isn’t as polished as it could be, different applications can interact with each other so that separateness doesn’t necessarily need to get in the way of integration. And increasingly, that integration is actually between applications on different computers, communicating over the Internet. Pretty nifty.

More on GeoURL

I recently wrote about a new site, GeoURL. In the course of corresponding with that site’s instigator, I also wound up making up the little green badge you see in the obligatory badge zone on this page (and which is appearing in many other blogs, now that GeoURL has been slashdotted).

Some random observations:

There are a lot of interesting things that could be done with GeoURL. First thing that occurred to me is this: create a website where anyone can create a page (sort of like blog meets guestbook?). All they have to do is write up a description of a place in physical reality, give its coordinates, and ping GeoURL. Those places would then show up as links in a GeoURL “neighborhood report.” You could have categories like “park,” “restaurant,” “WiFi hotspot,” etc. Obviously there are problems with this. It would be easy to spam it, so either you’d need an administrator, or you’d need some kind of karma-point voting system (which could also be abused). And some kind of robot-thwarting scheme preventing more than one new entry from a given IP every, say, 10 seconds, and perhaps one of those “distorted graphic” reading tests to sign up. But apart from these implementation problems, this could make interesting things possible. If these categories were part of the tagging for each page, and GeoURL indexed those categories, then one could do a GeoURL search just for restaurants around my neighborhood (for example). This would allow you to bypass Citysearch-type sites with distributed/aggregated tools created directly by regular folks. Hmm. I think many of the tools needed for the front-end of this are probably available already — it’s just a matter of putting them together.

It’s an ego-stroke seeing my little badge being used.

I originally patterned the badge after the XML badge you see here, but I created it using straight CSS markup rather than as a graphic. Joshua (the man behind GeoURL) decided to make a graphic file version of the badge available, and it’s interesting to note that although this is less convenient to put on one’s web page, the majority of the sites using either one seem to be using the graphic. I suspect this correlates to how well their browsers render the CSS: “Oh, that’s ugly. I like the graphic better. I’ll use that.” Or possibly they look at the CSS code and think “Okay, I know a little HTML, but I don’t know what all that gobbledygook is. I’m scared and confused. I’ll use the graphic.” The graphic is actually a screenshot of the CSS, and the two are pixel-for-pixel identical on my screen.