Will.Whim

A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Monthly Archives: October 2005

Black Studies Professor Arrested

Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

I attended a geek salon at halflab, and several of the attendees started discussing The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel. Henry DeTamble has a problem: he has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time; unfortunately, he has little control over where and when, except he gravitates to significant points in his life, both past and future. What this does to his life, the life of his eventual wife (Clare Abshire), and their friends and family is handled intelligently and vividly, for the most part. More than one time paradox dei ex machina makes an appearance; one would have been interesting, but having several was a bit much. Niffenegger does a good job of tracking the different timelines and causal threads; she is a gifted descriptive writer, too.

It’s a love story and a time travel story. If it were a movie, it would be rated R for its sexual content and perhaps some of the violence that occurs. It’s mostly a redemption through love and sex story, I guess; but worth reading for the handling of the time narration and the descriptions. If you’ve ever lived in Chicago, you may especially like the reality of the local color (including Bookman’s Alley, in Evanston, which puts in a short appearance). I’ve never met anyone in Michigan, however, with three servants; although I suppose South Haven is where you would meet such a person.

Appropriately, I finished reading this around 2 a.m. this morning, at which time my Macintosh immediately switched its clock to 1:00 a.m.

RIP Rosa Parks

You have always been our hero, Rosa Parks.

Park on interop

I think Joyce, in her Zend conference presentation, was saying the same thing I was saying when I talked about how to have systems talk to one another; but as usual, she put it more succinctly:

It’s all strings, man.

I have to use words when I talk to you

Jim Waldo writes that it’s a good idea to send objects over wires (when doing IPC, etc.), and Tim Bray challenged him somewhat to consider sending XML instead. Waldo replied that you still have to define the semantics, and, of course, Bray agrees.

TANSTAAFL, of course. There has to be some kind of social agreement in place for the systems that people write to make sense of messages. Sometimes that agreement is to use natural language (English, etc.) tags that will help other people more or less understand what you mean. Sometimes the agreement is so strong you can use shortcuts–like sending bits representing programming language objects, with all of their implied semantics (class structure, types, role in a system, etc.).

In a system I’m writing at NASA, we send a UTM coordinate as a string like “[584180, 4142030, -20]”. If we store this in a definition file, that same coordinate looks like this:


<target>...
      <utm_easting>584180</utm_easting>
      <utm_northing>4142030</utm_northing>
      <utm_height>-20</utm_height>
</target>

Presumably, the later is easier to understand to a human reader familiar with UTM coordinates. But the key is agreeing to what a series of bits means. And it’s certainly easier to understand in general than inspecting the bit patterns underlying Java or Lisp or C++ objects. Strings (that is, sequences of characters) turn out to often be useful for communication between disparate systems just because they can be more easily interpreted by people. TANSTAAFL, but we can take advantage of several millenia of hard work at writing systems and maybe get a discount on dessert. (Using relatively ‘bare’ strings as the format for inter-process control is a lesson I learned from Jim Firby).

20 Tropical Storms

Mpeg video of the 2005 hurricane season, viewed as if from space. Fascinating. (via robotwisdom).

Hah, hah — aren't those Amish quaint?

Joel Stein: What’s Next … With The Amish.

I wrote this letter to Time:

I’m fairly appalled at the patronizing tone Joel Stein takes in his column ‘What’s next…with the Amish,’ as posted on-line Oct 17:

Stein could have chosen to ask how the Amish go about making decisions about new technologies rather than making fun of them or assuming that many are looking for ‘loopholes’ that would allow them to use cell phones and Rollerblades. He might have learned something about how a community can choose how and why to deploy new technologies. But he preferred to ‘taunt’ the Amish with his ‘little bit of reporting.’ (And I would emphasize the ‘little bit’ rather than ‘reporting;’ as far as I know, for example, Amish groups don’t forbid drinking Cokes or require ’28 layers of clothing.’)

Instead, the Amish are played for easy laughs. Sorry, Mr. Stein; ethnic and religious stereotyping is not “What’s next.” It’s an old, old story.

The day is past and gone

Really good Kalamazoo Sacred Harp singing yesterday. There were only six people when we began to sing, but with Roger Williams singing bass, Molly Williams on alto, and Ann Miczulski singing treble, and the always strong leading tenor of Samuel Sommers, we were well covered. We started with lots of minor plain tunes–Mear, Wells and the like. We sang Stafford, the object of some controversy because of its words, because some of us didn’t even know how it sounded (with some instructions on how to change the words, and explicit permission not to sing). It’s a pretty tune, but I’m not sure we gave it justice on what was basically a first singing for many of us. Sam Sommers led us though David’s Lamentation, singing it in 2/4 time as written–that is, about twice as fast as it is often sung, but the time signature given it by Billings, its composer. Opinions were somewhat divided as to whether this was a good thing or not. We finished with Evening Shade, and I choked up a bit at the words:

The day is past and gone,
The evening shades appear;
Oh may we all remember well,
The night of death is near.

We lay our garments by,
Upon our beds to rest:
So death will soon disrobe us all,
Of what we here possess.

because I spent much of the weekend with my father, Harold Fitzgerald, who had to go to the hospital on Thursday because of a bad infection he got at his nursing home.

Purty pictures…

… of complex networks at visual complexity. Via information aesthetics.

Funny, or horrifying, or both