Computer Folklore

Saturday I attended the Con José panel on “Computer Folklore: Tales from the Geekside,” featuring Eric Raymond, Chris Garcia, Tom Galloway, Brett Glass, and Corey Cole. Aside from a brief discussion of the first chain letter (an MIT student did it!) it wasn’t what I’d expected, though that’s OK. There are some good sources here, and even here. Computer folkore is, by the way, a genuine folkloric academic study, despite much of the humor involved.

The panel was well attended, and amusing, but I’d guess about a half hour was spent in geek nostalgia, in the form of “my hardware is older than yours.” The other version of this (and the two are often combined) is “my hardware is faster/more powerful/better than yours.” This gives me the perfect opportunity to post the ultimate riposte to both debates, gleaned from UseNet, and as far as I know first posted by Christopher Lishka in May 1993 to both rec.humor.funny and comp.sys.mac.???. Thanks Christopher, wherever you are.

Come on people: you are all missing the most obvious upgrade path to the most powerful and satisfying computer of all. The upgrade path goes:

  • Pocket calculator
  • Commodore Pet / Apple II / TRS 80 / Commodore 64 / Timex Sinclair (Choose any of the above)
  • IBM PC
  • Apple Macintosh
  • Fastest workstation of the time (HP, DEC, IBM, SGI: your choice)
  • Minicomputer (HP, DEC, IBM, SGI: your choice)
  • Mainframe (IBM, Cray, DEC: your choice)

And then you reach the pinnacle of modern computing facilities:


Yes, you just sit back and do all of your computing through lowly graduate students. Imagine the advantages:

  • Multi-processing, with as many processes as you have students. You can easily add more power by promising more desperate undergrads that they can indeed escape college through your guidance. Special student units can even handle several tasks *on*their*own*!
  • Full voice recognition interface. Never touch a keyboard or mouse again. Just mumble commands and they *willbe understood (or else!).
  • No hardware upgrades and no installation required. Every student comes complete with all hardware necessary. Never again fry a chip or $10,000 board by improper installation! Just sit that sniveling student at a desk, give it writing utensils (making sure to point out which is the dangerous end) and off it goes.
  • Low maintenance. Remember when that hard disk crashed in your Beta 9900, causing all of your work to go the great bit bucket in the sky? This won’t happen with grad. students. All that is required is that you give them a good *whack!upside the head when they are acting up, and they will run good as new.
  • Abuse module. Imagine yelling expletives at your computer. Doesn’t work too well, because your machine just sits there and ignores you. Through the grad. student abuse module you can put the fear of god in them, and get results to boot!
  • Built-in lifetime. Remember that awful feeling two years after you bought your GigaPlutz mainframe when the new faculty member on the block sneered at you because his FeelyWup workstation could compute rings around your dinosaur? This doesn’t happen with grad. students. When they start wearing and losing productivity, simply give them the PhD and boot them out onto the street to fend for themselves. Out of sight, out of mind!
  • Cheap fuel: students run on Coca Cola (or the high-octane equivalent — Jolt Cola) and typically consume hot spicy chinese dishes, cheap taco substitutes, or completely synthetic macaroni replacements. It is entirely unnecessary to plug the student into the wall socket (although this does get them going a little faster from time to time).
  • Expansion options. If your grad. students don’t seem to be performing too well, consider adding a handy system manager or software engineer upgrade. These guys are guaranteed to require even less than a student, and typically establish permanent residence in the computer room. You’ll never know they are around! (Which you certainly can’t say for an AXZ3000-69 150gigahertz space-heater sitting on your desk with its ten noisy fans….) [Note however that the engineering department still hasn’t worked out some of the idiosyncratic bugs in these expansion options, such as incessant muttering at nobody in particular, occasionaly screaming at your grad. students, and posting ridiculous messages on world-wide bulletin boards.]

So forget your Babbage Engines and abacuses (abaci?) and PortaBooks and DEK 666-3D’s and all that other silicon garbage. The wave of the future is in wetware, so invest in graduate students today! You’ll never go back!

And, just in case you’re looking, I do have some spare cycles before classes start again in October, and I have to teach.

Blog This at Con Jose

I went to the Con José “Blog this!” panel I mentioned here. The panel featured Lucy Huntzinger, Moshe Feder, Evelyn C. Leeper, Bill Humphries, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. My remarks are somewhat disconnected (and as opinionated as usual) since I only took notes when a specific point struck me. It was also cool because I got to meet Dori Smith and Tom Negrino, bloggers (Mac users!) and authors of the best Javascript book I’ve seen for people new to scripting.

Lucy Huntzinger has had an online journal since January of 1997. It sounds to me like she’s hand-coding the HTML herself. She talked about the effect the Open Pages web ring had on online diarists, in that it encouraged a sense of community among the diarists. She also hypothesized that “people who like the longer essay format tend to keep diaries,” rather than web logs. She also suggested that web logs tended to be more politicized, journals more personal. (This desire to differentiate the journalist/diarist from the web logger came up in Friday’s Live Journal SIG as well.) There was some attempt to make the distinction in terms of the underlying technology used by the two formats, with the suggestion that journalists lack a “comments” feature that is used in many web logs. I think that’s a misunderstanding, since certainly Live Journal offers a built in comments feature, and a number of web log systems don’t offer one (though it’s easy enough to use yaccs or other comment add-on tools).

Teresa Nielsen Hayden suggested that the attempt to define or discuss “what is a web log” should be moved outside of a discussion of the underlying tools. Bill Humphries and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
discussed the early history of web logs, and referred to their characteristically chronologically ordered posts. He referred to Robot Wisdom, and Dave Winer‘s early blogs. I think both have good points, but I’d suggest that in addition to chronologically ordered (most recent at the top) and time and date stamped posts, an emphasis on linking, and the presence of automated or at least publicly accessible archives are also important elements of web logs.

Towards the end of the panel, Bill Humphries said “The web log for me is a research tool,” and pointed (verbally any way!) to Cory Doctorow‘s reference to Dorie Smith’s explanation of her web log as her “Backup Brain.” Teresa Nielsen Hayden said “One of the reasons I have a web log is to keep track of all the things I find incidentally.” The Live Journal folk said the same thing, and so I’m going to point (yes, again) to the commonplace book as a close relative if not a distant ancestor of the web log.

More Con José Blogs

Bill Humphries, a Mac user and blogger, is also at the Con, and will be speaking on a blogging panel “Blog This! (or, Blogology Recapitulates Mimeography)” on Saturday 11:30am. The description reads:

What is Blogging and why should you care? This new form of online diaries has taken fandom by storm. The mainstream world is also adopting this very fannish style of communication and community. Will they revisit our common foibles and squabbles? How does the emergence of weblogs and other online communities compare to that of fanzines?

The panel features Lucy Huntzinger, Moshe Feder, Evelyn C. Leeper, Bill Humphries, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and looks interesting.

Cory writes:

I’m bringing down three wireless access points and plan to hook them up wherever I can find an Ethernet drop, so that bloggers at the con can post while they’re there. Meanwhile, Bill Humphries has set up a ConJose metablog, with a Movable Type TrackBack system that allows any bloggers posting about the con to ping him and get listed on the page (even if you’re not using MT).

ConJosé the World Science Fiction Conventon

Yes, that’s right, I’m doing something purely frivolous, I’m attending the World Con for most of this week. I’m going to try blogging as well—I figure why not? And I notice there’s a couple of other bloggers here, Cory Doctorow, and Eric Raymond, which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to link to his Cathedral and Bazaar for a while.

The Wyndham Hotel has a contract for an outside company, WayPort, to provide wide band over ethernet access. There’s supposed to be support for some wireless access at the convention.

WWDC 2002 Keynote

I thought I’d be able to report on at least the keynote, but Steve Jobs opened the WWDC 2002 keynote by saying everything we were seeing and hearing was non-disclosure stuff. Now, some of the folk here think he was being disingenuous, but whether or not he was, I take NDAs seriously. I notice that Apple has released several press releases so I can at least talk about those. Then there’s always the coverage by MacCentral.

The keynote featured, as Apple had announced, Jaguar, the next “big” release of OS X. The two things that I found most interesting are in the latter half of the press release—Rendezvous, and Ink. Rendezvous, also known as ZeroConf, or Zero Configuration Networking, is based on an open standard that relies on IP networking. What Apple has created for OS X 10.2 that’s noteworthy is an interface for IP networking that doesn’t require a user to lookup an IP address in a Preference panel and enter it in another Preference Panel—they’ve created a “smart” application in Rendezvous. Devices (not just computers!) with IPs can be “seen” by the Rendezvous application, and presumably, other third party applications that make use of the prorocol, and their users, who choose the device to share from a list that Rendezvous automatically lists. The release describes two users on separate computers in a home “sharing” their respective iTunes libraries. Notice that’s “sharing.” Not copying. It’s a nice idea. And yeah, the RIAA will be all over it, and I bet they’ll claim it’s “broadcasting.”

Ink, the built in handwriting recognition, has me salivating. There’s lots of potential for this—I hope it supports Japanese, Korean, Chinese and other double byte languages soon, if it doesn’t in the formal release. Think about teaching students to write Japanese using a graphics tablet and pen. Their awkward scrawls will be turned into Apple’s gorgeous Japanese fonts. Now, you still want students to learn writing the “old fashioned way” but there’s an inducement to write when you can start sending email to native speakers, who write back—and maybe even use iChat to send you iPhoto images, or short audio files.

The Universal Access support is long needed, and I’m very glad to see it (remember StickyKeys and CloseView? They’re baaack, and much better). Being able to Zoom in on a screen until it’s large enough for vision impaired users to really see, or to have the Mac read aloud text you point to, is very helpful, especially when it’s built in to the OS. I hope developers will take advantage of the opportunities Apple is creating for incorporating universal access. If these OS X apps work like the previous equivalents, then developers don’t have to do much beyond following Apple’s guidelines and the apps will just work.

I’m really pleased about QuickTime 6, and hope to see it soon. I already explained why I’m excited about QuickTime 6here, but you might want to pay particular attention to Broadcast, the free streaming server for “live” streaming.

The new features and apps in Jaguar that Apple is touting include the “iChat” AIM-derived instant message client, the revamped Address Book, and Sherlock III. iChat is a nice idea, and I like the fact that AOL/AIM and names work with it. It’s good that the Address Book is integrated with iChat and Mail in that you can “see” when a “Buddy” (I really hate the AOL jargon) of yours who sent you mail is online (yeah, AOL does that), and the way Sherlock will fetch a map for an address is way cool (by the way, anyone else notice how much Sherlock III is like Watson?). That’s not so cool, imitation and flattery references aside, it seems . . . odd.

One thing that struck me about all three of these apps (Rendeavous, iChat, Sherlock III) is that they are engaging in the sorts of information exchanging and fetching that Dave Winer at Userland keeps writing about. This sort of information finding and fetching is part of what I think is cool about Radio—and it’s called Web Services. Web services are a core part of Radio. Webservices rely on protocols like SOAP, and RSS, as well as XML, allowing a user (and I mean the ordinary user like you, or me or my mom) to gather the public information or news we want in a way that suits us, from a variety of sources, automatically. Once the information is gathered, nicely tagged and formatted because of XML, we can then “do stuff” with it. It’s Web services that makes things like the Google APIs Dave wrote about or the neat way you can get a Radio “feed” from the New York Times be displayed on your blog, web page, or web services savvy news reader.

I noticed a few weeks ago that Apple had quietly posted some really interesting Web Service AppleScripts, and have been meaning to get back to them. It looks now like those scripts were an indication of serious interest in web services on Apple’s part, and an interest in making things like Soap and XML easy for users and developers alike to use. The support in AppleScript is particularly exciting because it makes web services available for non-programmers.

Another thing that struck me is that there’s another level to the “Mac as digital hub” strategy that Apple has been promoting, a level that I, as a long term Mac user, have pretty much taken for granted.

Mac applications communicate with each other. They allow us to almost seamlessly swap data between applications—and we expect them to behave this way. I assume that if I copy some text from one application, or even the Finder (pre-OS X) that I can paste it in, with formatting, into pretty much any application. I expect that I can open a QuickTime Movie in my browser, email, or word processor. I assume that the images in iPhoto can be dragged and dropped into AppleWorks or MSWord. I just expect it to work. These new OS X/Jaguar applications and features, as the press release makes clear, are swapping data. iChat and share data, for instance. Address Book, via BlueTooth, (or SMS—Short Message Service) can communicate with other devices. That means that it’s easy for users to swap data too, data in the context of particular applications, even.

It strikes me that Apple’s underlying agenda, beyond that of the Mac as the digital hub, is “your data, where you want it, when you want it.” The basic functionality and ease of use of iPhoto (just plug in your digital camera, and it mounts on your desktop and your images are magically imported into iPhoto) or iMovie (pretty much the same experience for a Fire Wire enabled video camera) or iTunes and iPod certainly support the idea that Apple wants users to have control over their data. I’m not sure (yet) that Apple is also thinking about “your data, how you want it,” but I suspect they are.

Aside from the obvious problems for instruction—students IMing each other wildly, for instance—I’m not quite sure, yet, what all of this means for instruction.