WriteTheWeb: The writeable web: lather, rinse, repeat (an interview with NetNewsWire creator Brent Simmons). I’m a few days late picking up this item; the last time I went to look at it I couldn’t reach the website. But it’s still good reading on a bunch of levels: application developers, bloggers, Internet philosophy, and on.

I do want to call attention to Brent’s last statement:

Ideally writing for the web should be about as easy as writing something in TextEdit. Create it, write it, save it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Compare to this statement, made in these pages in October 2001:

I write this blog from an unaccustomed place: Apple’s TextEdit application. That I’m doing it from a text processor isn’t in and of itself unusual; normally I write my blog in BBEdit before uploading it to the web. The unusual part is that this blog will be published to the web without my opening a web browser.

This is what I started writing about in July when Apple quietly announced that they would make support for web services–web applications that can be addressed using either XML-RPC or SOAP–available in the operating system and accessible via AppleScript in Mac OS X 10.1. Yesterday I wrote a short AppleScript (available for download) that uses SOAP to call web services belonging to Manila, the publishing system that hosts this blog. The script takes the content of the topmost TextEdit window and makes it a story on my website.

Brent is right that writing for the web should be easy. That was the vision that drove me down the path of my first scripts, which allowed blogging from that simple text editor. Somewhere, though, it got complicated again. My Manila Envelope is not the most friendly writing UI I’ve ever seen. NetNewsWire’s blogging interface is the best so far I’ve seen, but it feels like an interface. Writing in a text processor feels different. Are we always doomed to have this layer of separation between us and the process of sharing our thoughts?


I heard a tapping this morning as I was getting dressed, coming from the north wall of the bedroom. I’ve heard this before this week, so I decided it was time to see what was up. I tiptoed around the back corner of the house, and there was a bird, not moving, watching me, parked under one of the soffit vents under the eaves of the house.

I’m not sure whether it’s broken through the screen and has built a nest or whether it’s just looking for food, but I know I can’t do a lot about it without getting a taller ladder. The soffit vent is almost two stories up, and there’s no attic from inside to access that part of the roofline.

I took a few pictures of our newest house guest this morning, but I forgot that Lisa has the USB cable I use to get pictures from the camera to the computer. It was a brown bird with a spot of bright red color near its beak—I couldn’t see the pattern exactly and it flew away before I could take the picture.

More Shape

Rogers Cadenhead does some snooping in Alexa and discovers (along with graphical comparisons of blog traffic) some interesting things about some of our favorite blog hosters:

Adam Vandenberg (aka Flangy) thinks his prominence is less due to merit than the fact that a lot of people are moving off EditThisPage. Au contraire. (Although there are certainly people moving off EditThisPage.)

And Dave wonders why his Slashdotting looks like 5000 reads, while Joel Spolsky’s looks like 400,000. Well, I can’t explain two orders of magnitude, Dave, but one order might just be a difference in methodology. The stats in Manila and Radio (and SiteMeter) present summaries of visits and page views, and don’t count things like graphics loads as hits (though Manila, at least, counts RSS downloads). I don’t know about Joel’s software, but if he’s looking at more raw web traffic data, he’ll see a hit for every image on his page in addition to the page view itself.

Finding the Shape

I have meant to blogroll Ross Mayfield’s weblog for a while, but it took his linking to me a second time (after I jokingly compared him to Gibson’s Gentry) to get around to it. Ross’s site is the best around for pointers to publicly accessible data about the shape of the Internet. These days if I have questions about how fast the Net is growing, how its users are distributed, what its mechanism of growth looks like I look to Ross first. This morning, for instance he points to a paper by NEC researchers that says that the old “power law” explanation for the popularity of web sites (the most popular attract more links than the newer entries) doesn’t hold across all categories. He goes on to suggest that the falling barrier to entry for web publishing may also be a factor.

A postscript to astroturf

The ombudsman of the Boston Globe wrote an interesting column today following up the “astroturf” (or should that be “chemlawn”?) about Bush’s genuine demonstrated leadership that I wrote about a week or so ago. Some interesting words:

Editors at dozens of papers have not been pleased to discover that they ran GOP form letters. Most papers, the Globe among them, want their letters page to reflect authentic local sentiment, homegrown views, not reworked press releases….[Globe Editorial Page Editor Renee Loth:] “Readers have a right to assume that what they read on the letters page is not canned public relations material,” she says. Thus, she has instituted a new policy to confirm original authorship on any letter that could be part of an organized campaign.

The Internet may be part of the problem, but it can also be part of the solution; I’d suggest adding regular online searches of key phrases in any suspect letter, to quickly identify already-published duplicates.

If the number of hits I’m getting from Google on “demonstrating genuine leadership” is any indication, editors are starting to do just that. Of course, Greg pointed out to me in a chat that “over the weekend … the AJC ran the ‘demonstrating genuine leadership’ letter again without realizing.” To be precise, it was Friday, and it was published signed by Robert Rahm of Snellville. Eternal vigilance is the price of an astroturf-free editorial page, I guess.

Heroic bloggers all around

Example #1: William Gibson, blogging his book tour. Gibson is on track to blog his entire book tour, which is shaping up to be a grand sweep through America, modern blogging culture, and his back catalog, not to mention super-rare hardcover first editions of Neuromancer.

Example #2: Julie Powell of the Julie/Julia Project, bravely bouncing back from a near total meltdown on Sunday to not only save the recipes she was working on but move ahead with total brave dedication.

Example #3: Moxie, aka Madison Slade, coming out of another unfortunate relationship and turning the angst into a really good short story.

There are a ton of other examples, including my family and friends. But I sometimes think that blogging is a metaphor for the larger human struggle: to reverse entropy, to make sense of the disorder that each of us face in our own lives, and to use the disorder to tell stories that explain it all.

Poulson Reed: Virginia Gentleman … and Curate

My old friend and mentor Poulson Reed was my first section leader in the Virginia Glee Club. I credit him with my early vocal realizations about the importance of listening and blending one’s vocal tone with the section around you, as well as just generally showing me that it was possible to enjoy (and participate in!) the hijinx of the Glee Club while still remaining a gentleman.

I had lost touch with Poulson since he graduated, so it was an unexpected joy to see this note from fellow alum Dave Ryan:

On January 18th, Christopher Corr and I had the distinct pleasure of attending Poulson’s ordination and installation as Canon of the St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, CO. It was an amazing and inspirational event, with many in attendance, and angelic choir and orchestral music.

You can see Poulson at his new gig on the cathedral’s staff page. Congrats and Godspeed (or something), Poulson.

Um, wow…

Just saw the link to my page from Tony’s blog (warning: NOT work safe, at least right now). It’s hard to miss, being in the top left corner right above Anna. I guess that’s confirmation that I don’t always need to write about software to write something interesting… Thanks, Tony.

On meeting William Gibson

Okay, so I apologize for leaving the approximately 4.5 people who read this blog daily in suspense about my mystery meeting with a blogroll person. The secret is out: William Gibson, or “Bill” as he was introduced to us, was a guest lecturer at the Very Large Software Company for which I work.

The room was pretty packed, and a few of us who arrived late were standing along the back wall. One guy I didn’t know standing next to me was loudly proclaiming that he would “definitely have paid $5 at least” to buy Gibson’s book in advance as a download rather than have to stand in line, which he refused to do on principle. Another guy came out of the room behind us and said quietly to the first, “You know he’s right behind that door, right?” So much for respect.

That was the only sign of disrespect, actually. Everyone there was a rabid fan, clutching new copies of Pattern Recognition, dogeared paperbacks of Neuromancer, or, in one guy’s case, a printed copy of the samizdat Alien III script Gibson wrote that was rejected. I felt better for not having printed out Gibson’s poem “Agrippa”; now that it’s freely available from his website, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story about how I downloaded the text from a newsgroup in the early 1990s.

Anyway, Bill came on, and it was a wonderful talk and reading. Some general notes:

  • He says he generally has avoided coming out and talking to computer people because he knows so little about computers (though he says that at lunch today, Greg Bear told him, “You know a lot more than you let on”). But he says that being so far behind the curve gives him a better perspective on its shape and where it’s going. (Strongly reminiscent of Gibson’s character Gentry, the mad artist/hacker who is obsessed with the shape of the “matrix,” of cyberspace. Which in turn reminds me of other things, other people.)
  • On how he got material for his early novels, when the only computer people had ready access to was the Timex Sinclair: he claims to have picked up much of his knowledge from eavesdropping in bars and at science fiction conventions around SeaTac. Unfortunately, he says, that means that he missed details, such as the fact that Microsoft was a company. This explains why in the Sprawl series, in Neuromancer particularly, a microsoft is a silicon wafer on which a program is written that can be jacked into the cranium to download knowledge directly to the brain. “Fortunately,” Gibson said almost straight faced, “Microsoft isn’t a particularly litigious company.”
  • The reading was the Forbes ASAP article, “Dead Man Speaks,” that Gibson published on his blog last Thursday. He introduced it as “an assignment to write 1000 words on whatever I wanted,” which turns out in retrospect to be the one of the first places that he worked out in writing ideas that appear in his latest novel.
  • In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked him where he eavesdrops now. He said, “On the Web. I don’t have to eavesdrop any more, I can Google.” He followed up by saying, “The Zen of search engines is that you are limited solely by what you can think to ask it for,” and compared much of what you find on the Web to the “invisible literature” about which he’s written before, “pieces you come across and ask, am I the first person to ever see this?”
  • I got the last question, somehow, and asked him, “A colleague of yours in SF and blogging, Cory Doctorow, just released a novel simultaneously in print and in free download. It appears to be working well for him. What do you think this says about the future of publishing, or the book business in general?” Which was in retrospect not the wisest thing to ask, since (a) I’m sure someone from his publisher was there and (b) I was almost inviting him to take a stand on DRM in front of a software publisher that does DRM. But hey, why not? —He replied, “Someone said to me, and it’s an idea that I’m sitting on but I’m not entirely sure I disagree with, that piracy is a tax on popularity; it’s only the guys who are already on the bestseller lists who get downloaded.” Which I think is a way of saying that whether books are downloaded or sold in hard copy, there is still the awkward question of fame to determine whether you can make a living from them. I think I need to think about it some more.

Afterwards I stood in line with my hardback first editions of Mona Lisa Overdrive and The Difference Engine. I felt bad about bringing two books until I realized (a) I was close to the end of the line, (b) there was a guy ahead of me with a shopping bag full of books, (c) Gibson said recently on his blog that The Difference Engine is his only book he’ll go back and re-read, because (since it was co-written with Bruce Sterling) he still has moments of discovery in it. So I was justified.

I stepped up with my books and thanked him for coming and for blogging during his book tour, as it gave me some real insight into what that process was like. He said, “Actually, blogging doesn’t feel like work at all.” I wanted to hug him and shout out, “Brother!”—but he looks rather frail in real life, being about 6’4″ and maybe a buck-thirty at the heaviest, and I didn’t want to scare him. But it made me feel happy, somehow, that here across this table, signing his books for me, was a man with whom I had at least this much in common.

Before I stepped away, I said, “I wanted to bring my copies of Isaac Asimov’s in which Count Zero was serialized, but I think I gave them to the library.” Yeah, he said, “those are pretty rare, most of them have crumbled to dust or been consumed by cockroaches.” If someone in the Psi Phi Club at Virginia is reading this, get out that stack of Asimov’s from the library and start going through them, and bring them to one of Gibson’s readings to get signed. I’ll buy them back from you for rather a lot of money.

A craftsman, I ain’t

So the conclusion of the “Tim with power tools” saga: I need a lot more practice. I made a few discoveries while working on the project to build a frame in which to mount the drawers and hang them from the bench:

  • It’s difficult to make straight cuts with a hand held jigsaw when it’s cutting from the direction of the floor up. I had no clamps, so I used my table vise (thanks to my father-in-law for buying this for me this summer) to grip the boards I was cutting. Only I couldn’t clamp them so that they lay flat, as the jaws weren’t quite wide enough. I had to clamp them standing on edge. The long boards were OK, but the six-inch cleats came out looking pretty deformed.
  • Assembly is always trickier than it looks. In this case, holding up the frame, even without the drawers, so that it made contact with the underside of the bench, while simultaneously hitting the pre-drilled holes with the lag bolts coming up from the frame, then holding the frame against the bench one corner at a time to wrench in the lags was almost impossible.

Somehow I got it done, and then collapsed. I had let the foiled pot roast overcook—only possible if there’s a hole in the foil, incidentally—and it was edible but on the dry side. Ouch.

Anyway. Today will be an interesting day at work, as I get to meet someone who’s on my blogroll that I’ve been dying to meet for a while. Details later.

Later: manual therapy

As some frequent readers may have guessed from the timestamp on my rambling Columbia eulogy earlier, I had just returned from taking Lisa to the airport. She has one last session of dental surgery with her Boston dentist, and had a 6:45 flight this morning. So I’ve been up since about 4:30. When I got home this morning I collapsed on the couch and started writing—I had to, to get my thoughts out, and the grammar shows it.

After writing, I read the paper and then decided to get busy. Making waffles has to be the most rewarding form of manual labor I know: a relatively small number of ingredients, no assembly or processing save stirring, and a quick hover over the waffle iron later, they’re all done. In the meantime between waffles I cleaned up the kitchen. Then I got a foil pot roast in the oven (it should be ready about 3) and headed to the garage.

The first order of business with Lisa out of town is to finish the loud projects in the garage that I’ve been postponing, namely starting with the drawers under the workbench. I had to rethink my initial plan a little bit: I don’t have any lumber that is both thick enough to support the weight of the drawers and tall enough to allow the drawer slides to be mounted near the bottom and still attach to the crossbraces at the top. So I cut six cleats, six inches tall, from a 1×4 board, mounted one each to the front and back of the drawer slides, and mounted both drawers’ slides on either sides of two cleats in the center. The next step is to bolt the cleats to supporting cross-boards at the top and bottom, then mount the top cross-boards to the workbench studs. By then the pot roast should be ready, and I can move onto the next step: gumbo.

What? Hey, I’m cooking for a week here. And besides, no matter how much of an escape it may be, there’s no therapy like building things with your hands.

The Shuttle, America, and me

I was unable to speak or think past my grief yesterday. I was on my way to a choral practice when I happened to switch on NPR and heard the news. During a break, I used the library’s computers and got the story from Dave. Of course the first thought that went through my mind was, did someone manage to get a bomb on board? But, even though some Iraqis are reportedly saying it was divine retribution, this tragedy seems to have had nothing to do with the looming war and everything to do with the sadness of entropy.

They say about fighter jets that they are thousands of spare parts flying in formation, underscoring both the burden of maintenance and the miraculousness that we can ever get such complicated machines off the ground in the first place. It is so easy to take this for granted, but the Space Shuttle is anything but routine. Stripped down to its airframe every few years and completely rebuilt (as Columbia was recently), the Columbia’s millions of parts not only had to fly in formation, they had to be rocketed into space, then glide to a controlled landing from speeds in the upper atmosphere of about Mach 18. At those speeds, the complex system that holds the craft together can be upended. Entropy is never eliminated, only held at bay, and when the guard fails it reclaims its place with sudden, shocking ferocity.

I couldn’t watch any of the TV coverage last night, so I switched to the New Yankee Workshop and watched Norm Abrams make a table, leg by leg, rounding the top with an ingenious pivoting mount that spun the table at a fixed radius past his saw. That our hands, whose most complex craft until about four hundred years ago was furniture, could have pieced together the assemblage called Columbia and hurled it beyond the clouds on a pillar of flame, to spin around our world and show us what we look like, to bring skilled mechanics to perform a heart transplant on a four story telescope, yes (oh god no) to lift seven souls into orbit and then to heaven.

And, twenty-eight flights and almost twenty-two years ago, after a two day wait, lifting to the skies for the first time before my eyes as I blinked sleepy excitement and mosquitos away and, holding my father’s hand, watched it climb from the wide flat expanse of green Florida wetlands toward the stars.

Requiescat in pace. Aspiramus semper ad astra.