Gettin’ Creative

I’ve spent a few days indulging my creative side (which is probably one reason I’m about a day and a half behind in writing for the site). Many props to “Esta” for graciously allowing me to make her story the front page on Friday.

Time Off

I spent the weekend hanging out with our good friend Shel in Portland, Oregon. She’s been there off and on since 1998, but we haven’t had the chance to visit her in her new element. It’s an appropriate word–she’s like a fish in water there. Portland is gorgeous, even more so than Seattle (albeit less dramatically situated), and feels … holistic somehow. It’s a city, but with lots of funkiness about it, one of the best bookstores I’ve ever been in, and huge greenbelts around and through it. Plus if you drive west about twenty minutes (and probably other directions too) you hit farm country!

We did some wine tasting in the Willamette Valley (some nice Pinot Noir), funked out at an outstanding little jazz club (Jimmy Mak’s), and hiked a bit along the coast. The last was quite dramatic. The winds were high and cold and the coast drops into the water precipitously, offering overlook views that look into lush forest and out to monadic rocks jutting up from the water like (Shel’s words) “sea creatures.” It was an excellent visit and kind of recentered me a bit.

Creative Language

One great thing I learned about Shel while I was down there. She’s growing her skill base beyond circuit and chip design and into software. So what computer language works for a seriously right-brained electrical engineer with a playful imagination and a highly developed artistic sense? Why, the only one with an Artistic License: Perl!

I’ve often considered computer languages as being equally valid for linguistic and cultural study as other languages. Computer languages are expressive and have their own semantic quirks. As I learn new languages I frequently find myself asking “How do you say this in Language X?”, where this is something I learned how to say in Language Y. And, just like real languages, I frequently find that the culture and usage of Language X, its creators, and its community, dictate how a particular thought and instruction are expressed.

Also parallel is the way that languages learn new ways to express ideas as they get exposed to new cultural artifacts. Perl has syntax to support object-oriented programming, something that’s about as far from its roots in sed and awk and other Unix command line arcana as you can get. I’m not a very good Perl programmer, and certainly don’t have a good grasp of the context of Perl language, but I think that programming object-oriented in Perl must be like speaking Pennsylvania Dutch to an “Englishman.”

The other thing I like about languages is that they support creative reuse. I’m sure that the Quechya people of the Andean regions of South America have no idea that a green skinned alien bounty hunter would be speaking their language to Han Solo (though I don’t know if “Boda, boda, Solo?” is Quechyan). Likewise, I’m sure that the Haya speakers of Kenya don’t know that they could have conversed with the pilot of the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi (though his grasp of the language, judging from the one line translated, seems lacking: “One thousand herds of elephants are standing on my foot” indeed!)

Way Down in the WELL

Musical note: today’s title is a nod to a Tom Waits song, “Way Down in the Hole,” that is covered brilliantly on the new album from the Blind Boys of Alabama. But today I’m talking about a well, not a hole. Specifically, the Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link.

I heard New York Times journalist Katie Hafner speak on Friday about the WELL, that seminal online community about which one must remember not to speak in the past tense. It’s an interesting story: founded as a technology experiment and as a way to extend the reach of the Whole Earth catalog and review, it became the quintessential online community experience. Never a particularly solid business, it was sold a few times and is slowly fading today. Yet it holds the same position in the history of the Internet today as the Algonquin Round Table holds in the history of 20th century letters. Internet luminaries such as Howard Rheingold cut their online teeth on the WELL. John Perry Barlow hung out there when he wasn’t writing songs for the Dead and ended up cofounding the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The part I wonder about is how do you recreate it today. It’s hard to find energy around online communities these days–there’s no “new WELL” springing up to take the place of the old, though people like Howard Rheingold have certainly tried.

I think part of this is the nature of community itself. Communities, to borrow a hideous analogy/phrase heard all too often in business plans and discussions about tech companies, do not scale. Above a certain point (by which I mean number of members), there’s no real way to build relationships between the participants that enable them to know each other, trust each other, have context around what the other person is saying, etc.

Also, there’s a problem of attention span. When the WELL was around, online destinations were monolithic. You went to the WELL and stayed there because there was literally nowhere else to go online. Today the problem is not that there’s not another community to visit, the problem is that there are too many. Every news site or content publisher has forums and places where you can “talk back” to the author or talk to the other readers. Even online comic strips have their own reader communities. But typically they’re small communities — 10 or 20 regular contributors, tops.

Then there are webloggers like me and my sister, and Dave Winer, and Doc Searls, and probably thousands of others. We develop voices online, and people come and read our stuff (sometimes). But except for very rare cases, there’s no public, user built community that grows up around these weblogs. How could there be? It’s all about our writing, our agendas.

It’s interesting. The WELL became a bustling online community at the same time that Americans in general were withdrawing from organizations in civic life. Are weblogs evidence of a further sundering of the fabric of community? Are we all calving away into individual isolated voices, floating alone in the freezing void of cyberspace?

All in the Family

Before today, this site has been badly named. It’s me, but I’m not the only Jarrett, and the site isn’t a house. I’m the only person writing and frankly I’m sure I’m boring people with all this stuff about XML-RPC and obscure world music.

Fortunately I’m not the only writer in my family. Starting today, my sister Esta will also be contributing to the site. You can always find her stuff here. This is a good thing on many levels, not least of which is that we’re practicing what we preach about keeping the Internet spirit of self-publishing alive. Welcome, Esta!

The site has been really slow recently. I’m thinking about moving to a more stable domain, but I’d have to pay money for that (unless MIT decides they want to set up a Manila server).

Emmanuel Kant: True, True

Those wacky guys at the Brickskeller are at it again. First they put up with the “Suspicious Cheese Lords” singing in the back room at our farewell dinner (including a Happy Birthday over a cell phone to Seth’s sister Cheryl). This summer they’re hosting evenings of philosophy and beer. Kant at the Brickskeller??? Makes me want to break into song:

“Emmanuel Kant was a real pissant
who was very rarely stable

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
who could think you under the table…

For a good discussion of the relationship between Monty Python and philosophy in general, check out the lecture notes posted by Gary L. Hardcastle, who was (at least in 1993) in God’s own state of Virginia (even if he was at the wrong school).

I don’t like Spam!

I’ve seen two items recently about preventing Spam that looked interesting. One was mostly only relevant to me and other web authors. The Email Address Encoder at West Bay Web turns a regular email address into HTML character entities to make it more difficult for spammers to pick your email address off your web page. (For those of you who don’t read Greek, a character entity is a command to the browser to display a particular character, either by using the common name of the character (e.g. eacute for é) or the number of the character in ASCII (e.g. 101 for e). So my published email address,, would render as (which if you view the source ACTUALLY looks like toj8 j@alu mni. virgin

Secondly, and far less geeky, CNET has an interesting article on behaviors that may result in spam. What surprised me was that posting on Usenet brought about more spam than most of the other methods. The article does not cover my area of concern, running your own website, but so far (knock wood) I haven’t gotten any serious amounts of spam by exposing my email address, even without using the character entity hack above.

History Repeating

Interesting press release from Microsoft about promotional media for the Windows XP launch. I guess there’s one member of the musical/artistic community who’ll be getting coal in his stocking from “Steve Jobs” this Christmas.

But wouldn’t you think that Microsoft would have learned from the Windows 95/”Start Me Up” controversy to read the lyrics before choosing a promotional song? “I’m eating and laughing and loving myself/I never watch TV except when I’m stoned…slip inside this funky house/Dishes in the sink/The TV’s in repair/Don’t look at the floor/Don’t go up the stairs…I’m achin’, I’m shakin’, I’m breakin’ like humans do.”

The radio edit version that’ll ship with the OS will replace those lines about watching TV with “We eat from our plates and we kiss with our tongues.” Oh, that’s an improvement… But it’s comforting to know that XP will still be “breaking like humans do…”

Sorry about the delay in posting today. In addition to work I was bringing a new contributing editor for the site up to speed. Watch for more news later.