Month: February 2003

Drupal

Drupal is a general-purpose content-management system (CMS) for running news-and-discussion sites like (to use the most obvious example) Slashdot, though perhaps not such busy ones. I’d been considering toying with something like this for some time, and finally got around to installing it today.

The only hitch in something like this is that you need to set up a MySQL database, which can be intimidating for non-nerds, and configure a file to find that database (which took me a while to get right, mostly because of my inability to follow instructions). But for the most part, installation is a snap. After that comes configuration. Drupal, like many of its ilk, is endlessly configurable, and has numerous add-on modules available. It gets a little tricky because it is based on some rather abstract and non-obvious mental models, and the docs are not as clear as they should be. But after some messing around, I started getting it to do what I wanted it to.

I’ve been using Movable Type for some time now, and that’s become my point of reference. MT is a very sophisticated tool for one kind of task: blogging. Individual content management. MT is narrow but deep. Beyond that, it can be used for wider purposes thanks to its flexibility, but it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up the farther you get from straight blogging.

Drupal, by contrast, is relatively shallow but wide. Blogging is just one module in it, although its blogs are not as sophisticated as MT’s. And in some ways, the customization threshold is higher. MT has its own HTML-like language of tags, so if you can write HTML, you can create your own templates in MT. With Drupal, it seems that you need to know some PHP in order to do more than shuffle around pre-made modules.

Blog Day Afternoon

The community of Austin Bloggers agreed to have a “blog day” today, where we’d all write about the same topic, being “what would you do with four free hours in Austin?”

When I think of things to do in Austin, I think of doing things outdoors. My ideal four hours would probably consist of a bike ride on 360, a little time hanging out at Barton Springs, and something to eat–preferably seated outside (though Austin has a relative paucity of outdoor dining venues).

Curiously, today turned out to be exactly the wrong kind of day to contemplate things to do in Austin: our weather was unusually cold, with freezing rain in the evening. In fact, today’s weather is probably in the top-five bad winter weather days I’ve seen in Austin.

This winter (such as it is) has been especially gray. Austin is known for its heat, but one thing that may be as important, but less noted, is its sunshine. I think Austin averages about 300 sunny days a year, and when we are deprived of the sun for any length of time, it tells on the residents. Everyone complains about how gray things are. The weekend just past was warm, bright, and sunny, giving us a break in weather that hasn’t been downright awful, just blah and gray. Everyone was out enjoying the respite. Today the blahs returned with a vengeance.

In three months, we’ll be ramping up for a typical summer under a hammer-like sun, and we’ll be downright nostalgic for weather like this. At the moment, though, it’s just depressing.

Patriot Act, the sequel

Read this now. This is a fairly brief and clear writeup on a bill being crafted by Ashcroft that will make the original USA Patriot act look benign by comparison. This abomination hasn’t been brought before Congress yet, but we must act so that when it does, it is shot down in flames.

Webberville-Manor loop

After too long off the bike, and a long run of foul weather, we had a nice day today, so DuShun and I agreed to go riding. I wanted to do something relatively flat, so we headed out towards Webberville. With the wind at our backs on the outbound leg, we made good time, hitting the Webberville convenience store 17 miles out at an average speed of 19.2 mph.

We stopped at the convenience store in Webberville. I was surprised to see a display-case full of bling-bling crapola in front of the counter. There was a large dog-run next door where some guys were training pit bulls to be attack dogs. What has happened out here? Webberville = gangstaville?

Anyhow, I thought it would be prudent to turn back at this point–after all, I hadn’t done a serious ride in a couple months–but DuShun must have been feeling his oats, because he pushed on.

We wound up putting in 42.5 miles. Our average speed at the end was…considerably lower. I was starting to wish the ride was over around mile 30, meaining I am badly out of shape. Which means I need to be doing this a whole lot more.

Blob blog

How do you like the new look? Thanks to the wonders of CSS, most of the work was in making the oval graphics, and that didn’t take long. That and tweaking a few CSS settings, but I was pretty much able to do this in my spare time over one late morning.

I’m guilty of one act of backsliding: the title logo is now text-as-graphic. Getting the effect I wanted using text-as-text would be terribly painstaking (it still isn’t exactly right), and would probably break in a bunch of browsers I don’t have access to. When CSS3 support is available, I’ll revert to text-as-text, promise.

Is Google too big?

Google’s recent buyout of Pyra set the whole blogosphere abuzz, but it also seems to have prodded some people to wonder whether we should worry about Google being too important, too big, too valuable, too secretive.

At Austin’s blogger meetup the other night, Prentiss asserted that private projects like Google and archive.org were too important to leave in private hands (archive.org is basically a hobby of Brewster Kale’s). He suggested that the Library of Congress should be given funding to develop and maintain resources equivalent to these.

Citing privacy concerns, the BBC’s Bill Thompson suggests that Google is “a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest,” and that the British Government should establish an “Office of Search Engines” (or to use his Orwellian term, OfSearch).

Both points have some merit, although both have weaknesses. Regulating a search engine strikes me as a potentially heavy-handed. And if privacy is an issue, I’d be especially unwilling to see the U.S. Government in its current form operating a popular and all-encompassing search engine–that could easily be a back-door to Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure. But I think that if Google (or to be exact, the services it offers) is too important to leave to Google, it’s too important to leave to any one entity. Better to seed the technology widely. The open-source community might be able to come to the rescue, if it could develop and disseminate smart search-engine code, and license it under strict terms that permitted a nonprofit organization to inspect the books at licensees to make sure they weren’t misusing data they captured, etc. Result-rigging could be caught be setting up a meta-search engine that compared results from different installations of the same engine.

[Later] So how do you come up with a good search engine? Obviously part of the problem is having the bandwidth to crawl the Net frequently and thoroughly. Part of it no doubt comes down to efficient indexing. But perhaps the trickiest is results ranking. I was speculating on ways to refine the matching algorithm, and perhaps a tournament approach would be the way to go.

Here’s what I mean: Develop a bunch of matching algorithms. By default, site users would just see whichever is the preferred algorithm du jour. But willing users could see a “tournament view” where results from two different engines were presented side-by-side. They could then express their preference as to which set of results seemed most useful. With N algorithms, there would be N2-N possible tournament combinations. With a large user base, it shouldn’t be hard to generate meaningful results. This could also be part of the feedback loop in a genetic-algorithm approach, although I don’t understand genetic algorithms well enough to really develop that angle any further.

Room to let

I’ve got a room to rent in my house. I’ve been having a hard time filling it: I’ve been advertising the vacancy for a little over a month. Usually doesn’t take this long to find a renter, and this time, I’ve had very few respondents to my ad (and fewer who are remotely appropriate). It makes me wonder whether the lousy local economy is causing an exmigration of people looking for greener pastures, though I’m not sure where that’d be. Well, I’ve always complained about Austin getting too big. Guess I’m getting what I wanted.

I did have one likely suspect at the end of last month. A tall, attractive woman in her late thirties. Self-employed, she had recently moved here from San Francisco hoping to find a new market. She liked the place, and after calling her references, I was satisfied with her. I offered her the room, and she said she’d drop off the deposit check the next day. She didn’t. She called me to tell me she was moving back to San Francisco instead.

A few days ago, another candidate came by. A tall, attractive woman in her late thirties. Self-employed, she had recently moved here from Tennessee. She was enthusiastic about the place. I checked her references and was satisfied. I e-mailed her, offering her the room. No reply for over a day. Then she writes back to tell me she was moving back to Tennessee.

Weird.

I’ve got a woman who just moved here from Houston coming by tomorrow…

As long as I’m on the subject…

Patrick Nielsen Hayden occasionally writes about the south with some very clear insights. It was on his site that I found the best counter-argument to the southern-apologist position that “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights.”

Right. The state’s right to do what, exactly?

The past and the south

“The past isn’t dead. The past isn’t even past.”

I’m not sure who said it–seems like something that Faulkner might have said–but there’s some truth to it. Certainly it’s silly to imagine the south is still the old south…but still, sometimes a story reminds you just how weird things can be in the south. The Economist is running an article about a bruhaha in Richmond over installing a statue of Lincoln. This isn’t new–Plastic had a lively discussion on the matter a while ago–but the Economist article quotes one of the opponents of the statue, Brag Bolling (how perfect is that?), who says that the statue is an “unnecessary slight to our state with a not-so-subtle reminder of who won the war and who will dictate our monuments, history, heroes, education and culture.”

In other words, he’s saying “Please let us live in our little fantasyland where the south never lost.”

A spendthrift of goodwill

This page points out how many people around the world came out to show sympathy with the USA 16 months ago, and how many came out over the past weekend to show opposition to the Bush regime’s administration’s current bellicosity.

Amazing how quickly George II managed to spend all that goodwill.

Thanks to Gwen for the link.

fire connections

A little while back, I posted some test results of different kinds of fuels in firedancing. I included a link to the vendor of biodiesel (fuel made from soy). Apparently, that created some business for him, because he offered to send me a gallon of a new biodiesel formulation, and mentioned “Thanks for all of the referrals – I feel like I am getting to know the ‘fire’ groups pretty well.” Funny how these things work out.

I also found a trailer for an underground movie directed by a friend from back in high school. It has firedancers. I wonder if I know any of them.

Firenight

Another Tuesday, another firenight. We had an especially good night last night. Four first-time burners, including the young Travis, who blew us all away. It’s been a while since I took pictures, but last night, I did (log in as “adamguest”, password “adamguest”).

Warbucks

war dollar back

war dollar front

Thanks to Bryan for these. Clicking on the small images above will pop up very large images that may take a while to load.

Living down to a reputation

In what comes off as a comical act of pandering to those hypothetical repressed middle-American kids who look through the magazine hoping to get a glimpse of titties, National Geographic, of all magazines, has published a swimsuit issue.

When I saw this on the newsstand, it was next to a tattoo magazine. The woman on the cover of the swimsuit issue was underwater, with the ripples tracing pale lines on her. At first I thought I was looking at two tattoo magazines.

Chimera…Camino?

Bah. I really like Chimera, and I like the name. Apparently they can no longer legally use it.

Mike Pinkerton says he doesn’t want suggestions for other names. Tough. If they can’t use Chimera, I suggest Kimera. Or maybe Ximera, which has a certain OS-X pun quality. But it looks awful on the page. Or maybe they can write it in Greek.

But not Camino.

Lego Vending Machine

Jeremy Hedley discovers this gem of automated commerce.

With all the weird and wonderful vending machines in Japan, its surprising how often, well, you can be surprised by them. You think you’ve seen them all, and then something like this pops up. Two stand out in my mind: A vending machine in an underpass, somewhere around Omotesando. It contained, among other things, a giant Pocky box. Jenny and I wondered “OK…is it a giant box of Pocky, or a box of giant Pocky?” We had to know. So we coughed up the ¥500 (or whatever) and found, to our delight, that it was indeed a box of giant Pocky, each one about 18″ long. The other was a Morinaga vending machine that had a 1920s design to it. I bought a box of caramels, and it played a creepily militaristic song.

More on reversible

One issue that Prentiss has emphasized in the past is the need for adherence to a controlled vocabulary when categorizing information. I’ve wondered whether categories could be an emergent outcome of smushing a lot of data together. Well, perhaps, but we ain’t there yet. The chaos at reversible is evidence of that (which I contributed to with my earlier experiment…sorry). Obviously the option exists to take advantage of a useful hierarchy of categories, but the obligation does not.

Preparatory to the appearance of RSS feeds that all the cool kids will want to link to, I’ve tooled up another CSS button:

reversibleTry Reversible: It’s confusing but fun

Later: Word from Joshua is that this will not duplicate Mark Pilgrim’s cool hack: it just makes it easy to create a sort of ad-hoc directory that points back to whatever pages you want. I haven’t asked him, but I suspect this is really almost a diversion he put together on the trail of something else.

FormMail

I was checking over my error logs recently, looking for problem pages that should be redirected, and found repeated attempts to load FormMail. Now, I do have a form-to-mail CGI on my web host, but not FormMail. FormMail is by far the most popular of these widgets. I was briefly puzzled by the request to load it: I’ve never had it installed, never had a link to it, so I couldn’t quite figure how it could be a bad link.

Until I read a comment on a story somewhere else mentioning that FormMail had a security flaw that made it available for hijacking by spammers. The flaw has been corrected, but it stands to reason there are lots of old installs of it floating around, ripe for the picking.