25 December 2010

Crash Blossoms

There's a good summary of the concept in this NYT column by Ben Zimmer. When language is compressed in newspaper or web headlines, ambiguity results, sometimes with bizarre or comic effect. Confused readers step back and reset. There's a long and delectable tradition of such occurrences: ask your favorite search engine, e.g., about "British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands".  I experienced this the other day, observing a BBC headline of "Web attacks plague rights sites", with surprise that there might be a significant number of web sites devoted to plague sufferers' rights and that they'd become likely attack targets by the Web as a whole.  The full story made the context clearer.

17 December 2010

500B words can't be wrong!

I just discovered Google Labs' Books Ngram Viewer.  It presents a fascinating view into the words and phrases occurring in a corpus of scanned books, showing how their usage frequencies have evolved over time and displaying the results graphically.  Try, for example, this query comparing references to different communications media.  I thought it was illuminating to include both "telephone" and "phone" there; while both terms persist and describe the same thing, use of the shorter one accelerated sharply as of the 1960s.

12 December 2010

Unexpected categories

As noted previously here, I'm interested by questions of how best to categorize things.  I'm also intrigued to see how others arrange categories based on what they need to organize.  In this light, I recently returned from a large bookstore and was fascinated to see that there were two shelves designated for "Teen Paranormal Romance".  I wouldn't have thought that this was a sufficiently frequent occurrence to warrant such a volume of material, but there you go.  Similarly, I'd found it pleasantly surprising to visit a store devoted to party goods and to see that they were well stocked with decorative items denoted for 100th birthday parties.  Maybe there are more celebratory centenarians than I'd realized?

11 December 2010

Photos and metadata

For anyone who may be unfamiliar, metadata are data that describe other data. A digital camera picture presents a good example: the data represents the image itself, and metadata include other information like when the picture was taken and with what exposure. I've recently been putting a number of slides through a digitizer, which has reminded me that only limited and coarse metadata came along when film was developed. There was usually a stamp indicating the month when the film was processed, which clearly demonstrates that a picture wasn't taken later but doesn't say anything about how much time elapsed between the exposure and its development. There was also a sequence number designating a picture's position in a roll, but it may not always be obvious which roll it belonged to if several rolls were processed at the same time. (If my samples are indicative, different processing labs provided stamped annotations that differed in detail.) It shouldn't usually take much guesswork or puzzle solving to assemble a sequence, but having to do so contrasts with what newer technology provides automatically. As for exact time data, it's not normally available, except if there's an associated handwritten note, a clock in view, or (interesting special case) the image depicts a specifically noted event like an eclipse.

06 December 2010

Cables? Why not saddlebags?

In reading the ongoing WikiLeaks press coverage, my magnety detector from this earlier post sounded again. Isn't it curious that a set of contemporary electronic messages are described as "cables", which seem like lost artifacts that a Western Union delivery person might once have carried? Why not saddlebags, like the message containers the Pony Express would have used, or perhaps ancient receptacles for cuneiform tablets, assuming there's a name for such items? Excuse me; I must now also dial my telephone, though I haven't moved a finger in a circular fashion to do so for some time.

02 December 2010

Thoreau enchained?

To turn a phrase, I suppose I could say that I detect irony like a magnety. If there's something ironic to be seen or heard, I'm likely to notice. My detector went off when I visited Walden Pond and saw this statue of Henry David Thoreau, with chain looped around leg and adjacent tree.  I'm not sure if this is an anti-theft measure, but the image's symbolism seemed distinctly odd.

25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I decided to observe the holiday's dawn at the wildlife refuge, and saw this view as the sun came over the horizon.  Glad to be here.

24 November 2010

Electronic media eat others for lunch

The subject of today's featured Wikipedia article is a TV show episode, the pilot of House.  This seems strange, somehow, but I'm not exactly sure why.  Maybe something about the physical intangibility of both the source and object involved in the reference?

20 November 2010

TSA blogospheric bombogenesis

Unsurprisingly, Bruce Schneier has been involved and insightfully observant in the ongoing debate and, to adapt a meteorological term, bombogenesis regarding TSA security screening procedures.  Do check his commentary and links there.  I particularly liked the checkpoint action figures - who knew?

[Edited 22 Nov to add] Don't miss The Onion's feature on the fictional, aptly named, Franz Kafka International Airport.

19 November 2010

I like backups!

OK, I realize that this may be eccentric.  I find backup operations satisfying, at least as they're completed, checking off an item from an unwritten to-do list.  Maybe it's residue from an earlier era, when disks crashed more often, but I don't feel that I'm really done with a computer-based activity until I'm confident that there's another copy of the result somewhere. Whatever that activity might have been, it was or seemed important at least at the time, not something to be lost or repeated.  The vast majority of data copies I've made have fortunately lived out their days in write-only obscurity, often overwritten by their successors, but the occasional exceptions validate their existence.  If I experience some digital apocalypse, at least I can expect to be able to reassemble most of my accumulated bits afterwards.

13 November 2010

Overseen by raptor

You may walk below, human. I will observe from above.

11 November 2010

Two different cats

I consider myself fortunate to share my home with two cats, companions both for each other and for resident humans.  Particularly given that they're related to one another and from the same origin, and have spent almost all of their lives in the same territory, I'm intrigued to note how they've developed dramatically different personalities (felinalities?).  Partly, this seems to reflect human gender stereotypes.  Our male is larger, more assertive, and much more vocal.  Our female is quiet, reserved, and meows delicately and selectively on occasion.  She'll consent to his attempts to groom her, but sometimes with apparent reluctance.  Still, it's clear that they've established a close feline relationship, partly based on communication not fully apparent to the humans.  It may be imponderable just what to attribute to nature vs. nurture vs. developmental history, but I'll ponder it anyway.  Perhaps evolution has selected in favor of a randomness trait, so different individuals within a species won't generally become identical, thus allowing them to complement rather than duplicate one another?

10 November 2010

Have you contributed any knowledge today?

Open Mind Common Sense would like some.  (Registration required. OpenID accepted.)

07 November 2010

Explaining GUIs on the phone

As de facto IT support person for my household, I sometimes find myself on the phone trying to answer a question about how to accomplish a task within the GUI of a program or OS.  This often tends to be a frustrating experience, as successful GUI navigation often takes place by feel, unlike command lines that need to be known beforehand but can be directly quoted. I often find it necessary to bring up the same GUI myself, to locate and cite the right menu items, while asking "what are you seeing now" and hoping that our reference points are comparable.  Naturally, it's hard to describe "what you're seeing now" comprehensively and concisely by voice, particularly when focus can shift among multiple windows.  GUIs provide a rich (and, when successful, satisfying) context for interaction, but it's difficult to explain how to behave effectively with them when that context isn't available.

03 November 2010

Internationally known

This blog has now been live for just under a month, and I'm intrigued to observe its traffic sources.  The US generates the highest number, followed by Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Lithuania, after which point there's a sizable drop-off to lower-numbered entries from several other countries. I'm interested and glad to see dispersed interest, but wonder what aspects are attracting visitors from where.

30 October 2010

Accumulating and intersecting categories

As this blog evolves, I'm interested by the process of tagging its posts into categories and observing where they fit.  In essence, the tags reflect a taxonomy of interests, updated incrementally.  It struck me that the preceding post was the first one that qualified for three preexisting tags, demonstrating appeal (at least to me) in several distinct dimensions. I often think that the most intriguing topics to consider are those that are hard to characterize, or that could fall equally well into several alternatives.  This can be a problem in bookstores, where a finite number of physical copies must be placed into one (or sometimes a few) shelves with fixed themes, but can be easier to manage when it's possible to create and manage multiple tags.  Nonetheless, it's only effective if tags are selected usefully: too few, and they're not helpful; too many, and the tag space itself becomes hard to grasp.

22 October 2010

Bonzo election anthem recalled

It being US election season, it seems apt to (ir)reverently recognize a satirical icon for the political realm, the Bonzo Dog Band reunion single No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In, thanks to neilinnes.org. (Audio button follows lyrics there. Don't miss it. Headphones recommended.)

21 October 2010

Perhaps the oddest words ever set to music

From about :38 in at this YouTube link, per this NPR story broadcast today. (Warning: rather tasteless, but perhaps an archetypal example of cheerful exuberance applied to an incongruous subject.)

What does posting quantity imply about quality?

Many interactive forum systems prominently associate posters' avatars with counts of the number of posts their originator has made in that forum.  I'm not sure how useful this is, except perhaps to encourage authors' continued loyalty and output by conferring a form of accumulated status.  As a reader, it would be convenient to have a concise assessment of the quality of a commentator's posts, but the number of posts seems an arbitrary approximation.  If a world-class expert enters a forum to make a single insightful observation, his or her "1 post here" score would deprecate its value in favor of someone else with less expertise but more exposure in that community.  For me, I've been using email on a daily basis for several decades; as a very rough guess, I may have sent somewhere around 100,000 messages in this period. I'm not inclined, however, to add a message header with a counter that advances for each one to indicate my ongoing usage.  If I received such a message, I think I'd find it more obnoxious than indicative of substantive and increasing value within.

19 October 2010

TMBG: We Live In A Dump video

I hadn't been aware of a new They Might Be Giants video for a while, and so was entertained to discover this YouTube link. (Some tacky-for-effect images within, but I quite like the puppets.)

13 October 2010

Seeing for miles

I'm usually more of a walker, sometimes a "pedestrian" hiker, but look forward to an annual visit to Mt. Watatic in Central Massachusetts.  This year's air was exceptionally clear. There were visible mountains and ranges in most directions, as well as the Boston skyline roughly 40 miles to the ESE.  The peak towards the right is Mt. Wachusett.

11 October 2010

Evocative typography

I appreciate effective technology and design aesthetics, but often find one appearing without the other, as their experts often seem to live in parallel universes.  As such, I was pleased to note The Ubuntu Font, and interested to note that the simple fact of using a different combination of pixels to represent menu characters could confer a noticeably different user experience. At least to me, it seems evocatively British, providing a welcome transatlantic contrast to many user interfaces.

10 October 2010

Whoa, meter, you are wrong!

Looking up at this flower backed by a saturated October sky, it was clear that the metered exposure might be off.  I was impressed to see how much difference came from introducing less than a stop's worth of exposure compensation, from the meter's best guess of 1/320 @ f/10 up to 1/200 @ f/11.

09 October 2010

Privileges and principles

The Principle of Least Privilege is a well-established premise that designers employ in order to build secure systems.  In a mirror view, it occurs to me that their adversaries may benefit from an ability to assume a Privilege of Least Principle, limiting ethical constraints on their selection of attack methods and targets.

06 October 2010

Campaign signs

It's autumn in a US election season, and campaign signs are rising on lawns as leaves are falling.  I've always found this somewhat puzzling, as I don't believe that visibility or quantity of signs for a candidate has ever motivated my vote in that candidate's direction.  Perhaps more often, signs have magnetically repelled my vote, as when they suggest popularity of a candidate that I'm opposing and remind me of my ballot's importance, or if supporters block traffic in their enthusiasm.  I could be more likely to vote for a candidate if I were convinced of their ability to win, but polls (if available) seem like a better basis on which to make that assessment.

05 October 2010

A pleasant surprise last January

I didn't expect to see this bluebird when walking on a snowy day.

Yes, Virginia, an encrypted object can compress (in a special case)

Not new news, but a nice delighter to discover by experiment - when the rsync command (with -z compression and -c checksum options) transfers a TrueCrypt volume to replace a prior copy, following changes to selected files within the volume, it manages to do so without resending all of the encrypted volume's data.