Thirteen years ago…

I was looking at an article on the history of interactive fiction, including the Infocom games (Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and its ilk).

The link in the original article was to a Java version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide game. There’s been a subsequent revision that doesn’t require Java and has some slight graphical blandishments to boot (which kind of spoils the fun).

Also ironically, the link to the original article is broken and was not preserved by the Internet Archive (and the hosts of the site were kind enough to claim that “Internet Archive generates us no value” in their robots.txt! Well, who’s laughing now?)

Learning from learning

In the spirit of owning my own words publicly, here are some thoughts I shared on a friend’s Facebook page about the value of my higher education degrees. My friend’s question: “Has anyone ever studied the attitudes of persons with bachelor’s degrees toward the value of a postsecondary education as it correlates with field of undergraduate study after 20 or 30 years? Are hard sciences graduates more likely than most to describe their undergraduate years as well-spent, or less? Liberal arts? Business administration?”

I am, in fact, a hard-sciences major with a liberal arts minor undergrad, and an MBA, so I am either supremely qualified or un-, depending on how you value the respondent’s ability to make up one’s mind in evaluating whether you want to listen to the answer.

Regarding physics, I have felt for the past twenty-five years or so a deep gratitude for what it taught me about approaching deep problems, learning by hypothesis and disproof, and the necessity of striking out beyond one’s comfort zone when it becomes clear that one has spent four years getting a degree whose value depends on one’s willingness to spend another twelve years in and post-school and embrace a life of poverty in government funded labs of uncertain stability. They don’t ask me to talk about the last one to modern SPS students.

Regarding my English minor, I believe it gave me a lifelong appreciation for the well-chosen word and for our bloody-minded language, as well as appreciation for history, philology, semiotics, and half a dozen other things I never studied but which were hinted at darkly among the edges of my curriculum.

And business? Little poetry in it, but considered as a sociological study for the alien tribes with whom I’ve spent my latter career, it’s been invaluable preparation.

So, no, none a waste of my time. But I’d argue that choosing any undergraduate major for preparation into a lifelong vocation is not only wrong-headed but shows a dangerous lack of imagination or a distressing naïveté, or both. (I really thought my father’s 30+ career at NASA was the norm when it came to the longevity of employment in the sciences.) But choosing majors that arm the mind with intrinsic skills for future battles—that’s different.

A syllabus for a history of Internet social and privacy issues

Paulina Borsook, Freedom to Tinker: Neophilia and Human Nature. After a well written illustration about how concern about Internet behavior and regulation is more “nothing new under the sun,” Borsook offers a bibliography that would make a fantastic syllabus for a college course on the roots of Internet culture, policy, and journalism.

Hacking the legal system for reputation repair?

Eugene Volokh and Paul Alan Levy, Washington Post: Dozens of suspicious court cases, with missing defendants, aim at getting web pages taken down or deindexed. Brilliantly slimy hack of the legal system and search engine infrastructure. Google won’t take down search results without a court order? Sue an imaginary defendant with a similar name, get him to settle, and use the settlement to get the pages taken down.

Smart thermostats, dumb market

One of the things I’ve been theoretically excited about for a while in iOS land is the coming of HomeKit, the infrastructure for an Internet of Things platform for the home that includes standard controller UI and orchestration of things like smart thermostats, light bulbs, garage door openers, blinds, and other stuff.

I’ve been personally and professionally skeptical of IoT for a while now. The combination of bad UX, poor software engineering, limited upgradeability, and tight time to market smells like an opportunity for a security armageddon. And in fact, a research paper from my company, Veracode, suggests just that.

So my excitement over HomeKit has less to do with tech enthusiast wackiness and more to do with the introduction of a well thought out, well engineered platform for viewing and controlling HomeKit, that hopefully removes some of the opportunities for security stupidity.

But now the moment of truth arrives. We have a cheap thermostat that’s been slowly failing – currently it doesn’t recognize that it has new batteries in it, for instance. It only controls the heating system, so we have a few more weeks to do something about it. And I thought, the time is ripe. Let’s get a HomeKit-enabled thermostat to replace it.

But the market of HomeKit enabled thermostats isn’t very good yet. A review of top smart thermostat models suggests that Nest (which doesn’t support HomeKit and sends all your data to Google) is the best option by far. The next best option is the ecobee3, which does support HomeKit but which is $249. And the real kicker is that to work effectively, both require a C (powered) wire in the wall, which we don’t have, and an always on HomeKit controller in the house, like a fourth generation Apple TV, to perform time-based adjustments to the system.

So it looks like I’ll be investing in a cheap thermostat replacement this time, but laying the groundwork for a future system once we have a little more cash. I wanted to start working on the next-gen AppleTV soon anyway. Of course, to get that, I have to have an HDMI enabled receiver…

Exploring EPCOT’s Horizons ride from the inside

I have a new obsession: reading the archives of the Mesa Verde Times blog. This pseudonymous walkthrough of a series of surreptitious behind-the-scenes tours of the late, lamented Horizons future ride at Disney’s EPCOT is fascinating as much for the old-school blogging as it is for the actual content. Which, don’t get me wrong, is plenty fascinating, as it consists of pictures of hidden areas of the ride’s sets and maintenance areas, Easter eggs left by the ride’s designers (you’ll never guess what the designers hid in the fridge of the Desert Habitat Kitchen, next to the sausages).

Start at the beginning and read up.

Gigapixel

Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O'Keefe
Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O’Keefe, Google Cultural Institute

Slashdot: Google unveils “gigapixel” camera to preserve and archive art. While certainly no replacement for museum visits, this project, which uses a robot to take hundreds of high resolution close-up images, then stitch them together into a single zoomable image, yields spectacular results.

This is what Google does best: bring the physical into the digital in new and innovative ways that make information accessible for everyone. I wish they’d stick to their knitting a little more. We could use more gigapixel art photos, digitized books and better search results, and less of some of the distractions we’ve seen from them over the past few years.

Librarians of note

There have been two interesting appointments (or proposed appointments) in the world of librarians recently, one at the Library of Congress and one at the University of Virginia. Interestingly, both appointments revolve around the transformation of libraries from physical to digital.

First, UVA’s selection of John Unsworth as the next University Librarian and Dean of Libraries (UVA Today, Cavalier Daily). Unsworth’s selection makes sense on a number of levels. Back when I was an undergraduate, he was a founder of digital library sciences and the use of digital technologies in research at UVa with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. More recently, as the dean of libraries at Brandeis he oversaw a large library system. Interestingly, from the CD article, it seems he’s stepping into a student-led debate over the role of libraries and the transition from physical to digital, with students protesting the sending of books from the stacks to long-term storage. I can’t think of too many other people I’d like to have thinking through the considerations in that debate.

Second, President Obama’s nominee for Librarian of Congress, Carla D. Hayden, got her Senate hearing yesterday (New York Times, Washington Post). As expected, the nominee’s bona fides as both a librarian and her capabilities in extending libraries into the digital future went unchallenged by the committee, though the relationship of the Copyright Office to the LOC was raised as a possible issue. Her smooth hearing was a nice update to her previous history in 2004 with the federal government, when in her role as head of the ALA she went toe to toe with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft over the library records provision in Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. In fact, aside from the usual partisan carping in right wing blog circles, there seems to be remarkably little argument with the position that Dr. Hayden is precisely the right candidate for the job.

Why do issues of digital literacy and concerns about transitioning to digital humanities figure so largely in both these selections? I’d argue that they are the right questions for all libraries and other professions which rely on data, which these days includes just about … everyone.

Never too late to have a happy childhood

Live action Pac-Man
Photo courtesy Chris Eng

It seems I’m falling into a pattern where at least one day a week, I will end up posting for two days worth of material. This is one of those days. At least I have a good excuse for not posting. It was Veracode’s Hackathon IX this week, and that means craziness.

Monday’s activity? Live-action Pac-Man. What you can’t see from the photos is that there is actually a player. Pac-Man was wearing an iPhone on his chest, connected to Webex, with the camera turned on and headphones in his ears. Someone connected to a WebEx gave instructions to Pac-Man on how to move through the maze.

The ghosts all had simple rules of how to move just like in a real video game. So the whole effect was very much like feeding quarters to Pac-Man machines as a 12-year-old. But it gave me a new appreciation for the life of the ghost—all left turns and no free will. It got, frankly, boring after a while… until random turns brought me in contact with Pac-Man.

It all reminded me of this:

naw…it's not that

RIP Andy Grove

Andy Grove, courtesy Esquire
Andy Grove, courtesy Esquire

CNN: Andy Grove, former Intel CEO and personal computing pioneer, dead at 79. It’s worth taking a second this morning to think about why we remember what Andy Grove did when other pioneers of silicon are mostly forgotten.

Motorola, Texas Instruments and others built chips. Andy built an ecosystem.

While Wintel may rightly be regarded as an example of a noxious monoculture, mostly because of the Windows side of the equation, Andy recognized the potential for personal computers and ensured that they would run on his chips. And he recognized that Wintel was only one ecosystem that could have been built with Intel as its foundation—witness his convincing Steve Jobs to shift the architecture of Macs away from PowerPC to Intel chips in 2006.

I had an opportunity during the 2001 MIT Sloan Tech Trek to meet Andy. He spoke with a bunch of MBA students for a few minutes, and took questions. He struck me as a long thinker, so I asked him a long thought question: how long could Moore’s Law continue to hold before the physics of small matter caused it to bottom out? He was airy as he said it was a “20 year problem.” And he was right: he knew that there was plenty of room to continue innovating on the silicon. He didn’t say it, but I suppose he was more focused on the business of the ecosystem; even then you could read the writing on the wall that the antitrust suit, a resurgent Apple, and mobile computing were about to take the wind out of Microsoft’s sails.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to talk to a more brilliant man (not counting Bill Gates, but I never got a chance to ask him any questions as an intern). Rest in peace.

“Has a Bacon number of 3”

I added a line to my Twitter bio recently that probably bears some explanation. Here’s my current bio:

Grammy Award winning product guy for Veracode, building the most powerful application security platform in the world. Has a Bacon Number of 3.

Most of this is self explanatory, as I’ve written about the Grammy and my employer before. But what the heck is a Bacon number?

Turns out, it’s an established measurement of celebrity that even has a (portion of) a Wikipedia article about it. The “Bacon number” of an individual is the number of degrees of separation he or she has from Kevin Bacon, where a degree of separation is usually understood as “has worked with.” You can use the Oracle of Bacon, online at the University of Virginia since the mid-1990s, to determine an individual’s Bacon number.

As for mine: I can justify it two ways. One is via former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine, with whom I share a few recording credits (including the Grammy), and who has a Bacon number of 2.

The second, and funnier, one is via the Soup Nazi, the Seinfeld character created by Larry Thomas. Larry Thomas has a Bacon number of 2, also, and he and I shared billing in Veracode’s trade show booth at RSA in 2013, when I spoke in the booth about application security. So there you go.

The author with Larry Thomas, Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, in 2013.
The author with Larry Thomas, Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, in 2013.

Flickr catch up

Snowstorm sunset

Back in the day before Facebook, we had to have multiple services for posts and pictures. I ultimately became a Flickr customer, but not without some wringing of hands about putting my photos in the service of another company.

These days, that concern seems incredibly naïve, considering how much of my writing and photography is currently behind locked walls at Facebook. Part of what I’m going to do with this new daily writing project is liberate some of the more interesting stuff that I’ve put into their walled garden and make it available on my blog, and on Flickr. I still have concerns about Flickr (especially in these days of angst for Yahoo, its parent), but it’s the best photo hosting service, hands down.

I just posted 20 new photos to my photostream, starting here. Go check them out!