Archive for May, 2010

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Balisage contest: solving the wikiml problem

I wish I could say I had something to do with the planning of this: part of Balisage 2010 is a contest to “encourage markup experts to review and to research the current state of wiki markup languages and to generate a proposal that serves to de-babelize the current state of affairs for the long haul.”  To enter, you must propose a set of concrete steps (organizational, social, and/or technological) that will enable wiki content interchange, a real WYSIWYG editor, and/or wiki syntax standardization.

This pushes all of my buttons. It’s got structured documents, Web, parser geekery, writing, engineering, and standards. There’s a bunch of open source prior art, including PyXMLWiki, which I adapted from some fantastic earlier work from Rick Jelliffe.

Sadly, MarkLogic employees aren’t eligible to enter. Get your write-up done by July 15 and sent to balisage-2010-contest at marklogic dot com. The winner will be announced at Balisage and will take home some serious prize winnings, and also will be strongly encouraged (but not required) to give a brief summary (~10 minutes) of their winning entry.

Can’t wait to see what comes out of this. -m

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Martin Gardner will be missed

I first ran in to Martin‘s work in back-issues of Scientific American. He stopped writing his Mathematical Games column in 1981, but my mentor Virgil Matheson had all the older issues and had a free hand in lending them out, albeit one-at-a-time. From my mentor, I also got the best math book I’ve ever read, Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson. A newer edition of the book came out in 1998–and who came on board as the 2nd author to revise and modernize the text? Yep, that’s who. -m

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Geek Thoughts: verbing facebook

Facebook (v): to deliberately create an impenetrable computer user interface for purposes of manipulating users.

More collected Geek Thoughts at

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

XProc is ready

Brief note: The W3C XProc specification, edited by my partner-in-crime Norm Walsh, has advanced to Recommendation status. Now go use it. -m

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Geek Thoughts: no-fly lists and CAP Theorem

According to this article, a recent terror suspect almost got on a plane despite being recently added to the no-fly list. Why is it so difficult to administer a no-fly list? The CAP Theorem has answers. (Disclaimer: as always, this blog is apolitical–this isn’t about whether no-fly lists are a good idea or not, only a matter of technical interest)

Without stretching the imagination too much, one can think of a no-fly list as a distributed database. The list apparently changes frequently, and it needs to be accessible from thousands of airport gates and reservation desks. Thus CAP Theorem applies. In a nutshell, that theorem states that of Consistency, Availability, and Partition-tolerance, you can only pick, at most, two. Hit the link above for a much better, more complete description.

If there was one centralized list, the system would be Consistent and Available, but every time a name needed to be checked it would require an immediate network round-trip–should the connection to that central list go down, no further checks would be possible–no Partition tolerance.

Of course, the airline could set a policy that if said network connection goes down, no passengers at all would be able to get on planes. This would be a case of lack of Availability.

Or, the complete list could be periodically copied to each location that needs it. This provides good Availability and Partition tolerance, but fails Consistency, since it’s possible to miss out on late-breaking updates. Apparently, something like this is what happened.

More collected Geek Thoughts at