Archive for the 'aswemaythink' Category

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Overcoming Anxiety

I’ve got a new book coming out. Check out some of the details in this short article.

Overcoming Anxiety

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Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Two free courses that improved my life

Check out this post at its new home on Writing Through The Fog.

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Virgil Matheson: mentor

I’ve mentioned Virgil Matheson in these pages a few times, but never made a full accounting. When I had my O’Reilly book published, I submitted a simple dedication in the manuscript:

for Virgil

But for whatever reason, it didn’t make it into the printed edition. This post is a small step toward letting the world know about someone important to me.

We first met in 1985 or thereabouts. One day while riding my bike through a back-alley, I stopped to look at an equipment rack set outside a spare garage. Virgil came out to give a get-off-my-lawn kind of speech, and somehow we ended up talking about electronics.  This led to discussions about crystal radios, and in a subsequent visit, we built one, he explaining the principles of operation. Virgil, it turns out, was a retired teacher at the North Dakota State School of Science, where he taught AC theory and thermodynamics. I was going through some rough times, and Virgil ended up being a much-needed role model.

Around that time, I had ttempted to build a Heathkit radio set, but couldn’t quite get it working. I brought it to Virgil, and we traced through the schematic diagrams, eventually getting it working. Along the way, Virgil introduced me to all kinds of electronic test equipment, including oscilloscopes and galvanometers that he had hand-wound in his younger days.

The next year, I needed a science project, and I had become fixated on Tesla Coils. Virgil had worked at Westinghouse (but not in overlap with the good N. Tesla) and found this project right up his alley. We used his wood lathe to turn a base for the coil, and a standard lathe to wind a primary and two perfectly-spaced secondary coils on PVC pipe, after which we sprayed them down with insulating paint. We built a high-voltage power supply out of a car battery, ignition coil, and relay-type regulator from the junkyard. The thing would turn out serious spark on the primary side, and at one point, I accidentally made contact with it, knocking me clear off the metal bench I was sitting on. We used a spark gap and high-voltage capacitors from old equipment to make a resonator, and got the coil working. It could light a fluorescent tube from my full arm-span away. It was a smash hit at the science fair, too.

For one so knowledgable about the foundations of technology, he was awfully curmudgeonly about it. He bemoaned the day students started showing up in his class with hand-calculators instead of slide rules. He would never answer the phone (but would speak on it, if you could get his brother to pick up).

We kept meeting on and off, and we would have epic discussions/debates about technology, thermodynamics, perpetual motion machines, higher mathematics, theology, building test equipment, and logic puzzles. He taught me, in short, how to think.

A non-exhaustive list of things he taught me:

  • How to build a crystal radio set
  • How to troubleshoot a conventional radio (hint–check for signal at the volume control–that will narrow down the problem to either the front-end or back-end)
  • How to compute resonant LC circuits
  • How to use a slide rule
  • How to pick locks
  • How to compute power factor and plot phasor diagrams for AC circuits
  • The value of good tools and how to care for them
  • How to build a Tesla Coil
  • How to debate
  • Respect for high voltage
  • The joy of back-issues of Scientific American
  • The trouble with Pascal’s wager
  • How to debunk perpetual motion claims
  • How (and why) to use a planimeter

On a recent vacation, I went to see Virgil again–now in his 90s. He’s still vigorous and feisty, though his memory is starting to slip a little. It was difficult to come to terms with the possibility that, given the frequency with which I make it to that part of the country, it may be the last time I see him. Since this is posted online, he’ll probably never see it. But if he could speak to each one of you, I think he’d offer advice something like this:

Cherish the people in your life. Treat every meeting as if it might be the one that sets you on a new course–one that you’ll look back at years later in wonder. Don’t worry what others think of you, and never stop learning.

Thank you, Virgil, for all you’ve given me. -m

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Geek Thoughts: statistical argument against link shortener sustainability

I’ve seen lots of discussion for and against link shorteners, but not specifically this line of argument:

Let me grab a random shortened link from Twitter. Don’t go away, I’ll be right back.

OK, that’s six characters in the domain, a slash, and six more characters. 50 years from now, if is still in operation, the URLspace will be rather more crowded, and the part after the slash might be eight or nine characters. This is a significant cliff, since most people have trouble remembering more than 6 or 7 things in their head at a time. Thus, one could conclude that 50 years from now, newly minted URLs will be less fashionable than those from newer link-shortening services, particularly if more short TLDs come online, which seems likely. In that scenario, fewer and fewer people will use, and it will become a resource-pit as costs go up (for more database storage, among other things) while usage drops, an economic trend that has only one eventual outcome, leading to the breaking all the external links relying on this service.

I’ve been picking on here, but the same principle applies to any shortener service. In fact, the more popular, the more quickly the URLspace will fill.

The moral: don’t use link shorteners for anything that needs to be more durable than something you’d scribble on a scrap of paper at your desk.

More collected Geek Thoughts at

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Passing the Turing Test

I want to write a program that uses TurKit to pass the Turing Test. Cheating, sure, but should be doable (other than time lag issues), right? -m

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Geek Thoughts: hard to find

Found this article interesting. Not too many hundreds of years ago, cutting-edge scientific research involved watching balls roll down ramps. Making fundamental discoveries seems to be slowing down, or at least getting harder. As a consequence, we should expect more big discoveries from the sciences where the relevant technology follows a Moore’s-Law-like exponential growth trajectory. There may be some hope yet for fundamental, game-changing discoveries in computer science.

Best of all, perhaps, is the word “scientometrics”.

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Microsoft’s new slogan

I wanted to say something snarky about Microsoft’s new slogan, but the comments on the linked article did a pretty good job already. Ahh snark, the unthinking-man’s eloquence. -m

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Newsweek should never have been free

Andrew Zolli argues in Newsweek that online content should never have been free. I’m probably not the first one to make this profound observation–but if it were not for the free online edition of Newsweek (and link aggregator sites like Digg) I wouldn’t have read a single word of Newsweek in years, nor would I be linking to it as my previous sentence does… Maybe Newsweek is OK with that. -m

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Geek Thoughts: this is the title of a post on self reference

This sentence describes a unique story by David Moser. This sentence reinforces the notion that the story previously alluded to is not only entertaining but also thought-provoking. This sentence is false. Some sentences can even refer to themselves without using the word “this”. This sentence concludes the post with a pithy and memorable flourish.

This line contains a link to more collected Geek Thoughts at

Friday, June 19th, 2009

VoCamp Wrap-up

I spent 2 days at the Yahoo! campus at a VoCamp event, my first. Initially, I was dismayed at the schedule. Spend all the time the first day figuring out why everybody came? It seemed inefficient. But having gone through it, the process seems productive, exactly the way that completely decentralized groups need to get things done. Peter Mika did a great job moderating.

Attendees numbered about 35, and came from widely varying backgrounds from librarian to linguist to professor to student to CTO, though uniformly geeky. With SemTech this week, the timing was right, and the number of international attendees was impressive.

In community development, nothing gets completely decided just because a few people met. But progress happens. The first day was largely exploratory, but also covered plenary topics that nearly everyone was interested in. Namely:

  • Finding, choosing, and knowing when to create vocabularies
  • Mapping from one vocabulary to another
  • RDBMS to RDF mapping

Much of the shared understanding of these discussions is captured on various wiki pages connected to the one at the top of this article.

For day 2, we split into smaller working groups with more focused topics. I sat in on a discussion of Common Tag (which still feels too complex to me, but does fulfill a richer use case than rel-tag). Next, some vocabulary design, planning a microformat (and eventual RDF vocab) to represent code documentation: classes, functions, parameters, and the like. Tantek Çelik espoused the “scientific method” of vocab design: would a separate group, in similar circumstances, come up with the same design? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you probably designed it right. The way to make that happen is to focus on the basics, keeping everything as simple as possible. If any important features are missed, you will find out quickly. The experience of getting the simple thing out the door will provide the education needed to make the more complicated follow-on version a success.

From the wrap-up: if you are designing a vocabulary, the most useful thing you can do is NOT to unleash a fully-formed proposal on the world, but rather to capture the discussion around it. What were the initial use cases? What are people currently doing? What design goals were explicitly left off the table, or deferred to a future verson, or immediately shot down? It’s better to capture multiple proposals, even if fragmentary, and let lots of people look them over and gravitate toward the best design.

Lastly, some cool things overheard:

“Relational databases? We call those ‘legacy’.”

“The socially-accepted schema is fairly consistent.”

“It’s just a map, it’s not the territory.”


Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Wolfram Alpha

The remarkable (and prolific) Stephen Wolfram has an idea called Wolfram Alpha. People used to assume the “Star Trek” model of computers:

that one would be able to ask a computer any factual question, and have it compute the answer.

Which has proved to be quite distant from reality. Instead

But armed with Mathematica and NKS [A New Kind of Science] I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable.

It’s not easy to do this. Every different kind of method and model—and data—has its own special features and character. But with a mixture of Mathematica and NKS automation, and a lot of human experts, I’m happy to say that we’ve gotten a very long way.

I’m still a SearchMonkey guy at heart, so I wonder how much Wofram’s team is familiar with existing Semantic Web research and practice–because at a high level this seems very much like RDF with suitable queries thereupon. If that’s a good characterization, that’s A Good Thing, since practical application has been one of SemWeb’s weak spots.


Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

Evernote: the final piece of “it’s the data, stupid” clicks into place

Evernote now has import/export (in an XML format), meaning it now passes the generation test for data availability and lock-in-avoidance, as I wrote about some years ago. There’s a server API, as well as client-side scripting. I need to look into the details more, but as a start it looks like a home run. -m

Update: looking at the actual export XML, I’m disappointed. Each note is CDATA-escaped XML? Why???

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

It’s the Data, Stupid: Evernote wins

My quest for a backup brain is (almost) at an end. Evernote flat out rocks. It runs as a great Mac app (on that other OS too, in case through some disaster I ever need it). It has a nice web interface, including a web clipper. It’s on the iPhone. Anything I put in there is immediately at my fingertips.

It only needs one more thing, one of several actually: ability to sync notes to the filesystem OR an API (which is reportedly on the way). Even a way to backup all notes would be a good start.

Check it out. -m

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Trying to read _Playing for Keeps_ on an iPhone

Mur Lafferty’s new superhero novel is making the rounds. She’s encouraging everyone to buy a printed copy on August 25 (buy it here) to make a nice impression in the bestseller lists. I’m a sucker for these kinds of promotions. The full text also recently appeared on the Escape Pod feed, under a Creative Commons license. It’s a whopping 35 megabytes, including illustrated comic book covers…a nice touch.

It would be really nice to have this with me to read during spare moments without the bulk of the printed book. Hmm.

My question is: how I can read it on an iPhone? Ebook support isn’t that great so far, especially for the PDF format. I know about the data:url trick, but it doesn’t work with 35 megs. Has anyone successfully set up an iPhone to read this book? What software and/or conversions did you use? Comment below. -m

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Happy 0x40 Anniversary, Mark I

It’s been 0x40 years since the dedication of the Mark I. Wired has some great photos and background information. Less than a year later, Vannevar Bush would advance the state of the art with his article As We May Think. A year-and-a-half later, ENIAC unveiled, and with it Turing-completeness. And things have been speeding up ever since. -m

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Reminder: SearchMonkey developer launch party Thursday

Reminder: Thursday evening at Yahoo! Sunnyvale headquarters is the launch party for the developer-facing side of SearchMonkey. In case you haven’t been paying attention, SearchMonkey is a new platform that lets developers craft their own awesomized search results. If you’re interested in SEO or general lowercase semantic web tools, you’ll love it. Meet me there. Upcoming link. Party starts at 5:30. -m

Update: The developer tool is live. Rasmus has a nice walkthrough.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Quote of the day

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them…

The prescient Vannevar Bush, who foresaw (among other things) the importance of hyperlinks. -m

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Google App Engine dwarfed

Thanks to chromatic for the link. Largely hidden,  largest app clusters of this particular platform can:

Control over a million computers and can deliver over a hundred billion advertisements per day.

However, “don’t be evil” is not a part of this particular platform’s strategy… -m

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Trying Evernote

Evernote looks like a cool application, and for at least a few more hours, you can get it for free via the Giveaway of the Day site. At first glance, this seems like the closest software I’ve seen to the original “Brain Attic” concept I’ve held for years.

My most pressing questions are (big surprise) around data storage. It seems that in the version 3 beta all the data is kept on a remote server, which makes me a little uneasy. In what format is the data kept? Is it some format that will be readable in 50 years? If the Evernote corporation goes offline or out of business, do I lose everything?

I’ll keep reporting back here with my discoveries and experiences. -m