Monday, May 30, 2005
One more, completely random thought for today. Actually it occurred to me yesterday. I read James Joyce's Ulysses over 10 years ago, and certain lines from the book just jump into my mind occassionally. One common flashback is the line "inelectuble modality of the visible". I never understood what the hell that meant. Then out of the blue, yesterday, a guess occurred to me. If you can see something, it is remarkably difficult to listen to it carefully. You have no choice, you can not elect to hear what you see. Maybe this doesn't make any sense after all.
K-means clustering is a compact, recursive algorithm for breaking a given dataset into a prescribed number of "clusters". One very difficult problem is knowing how many clusters to look for in a given data set. After reading this summary I started to think about how I visually look for clusters in a random array of points. I realized that I mentally envision a boundary around the points. Then I look for circular or elliptical sections that are connected by narrow necks to the rest of the group. The result is an intuitive number of groups. I wonder if there is an algorithm out there for finding peninsulas or narrow necks on a random closed-boundary shape.
I have to admit, I am not on the Ajax bandwagon. The era of the web application has outrun its useful life. Ajax simply preloads data into a browser to simulate rich applicaiton behavior. So it is a trick to create the impression of a live application. The system has a root limitation in its reliance on http/https. The web protocols are composed of atomic interactions. As explained in this infoworld article the point of Ajax is to smooth out the halts and pauses between these interactions, and let the user experience smooth updates and transitions in response to mouse clicks. Certainly, the problem being addressed is real and valid. Web applications, up until recently, were herky-jerky and shallow in user interaction. The primary benefit of building an application on the web was the speed of implementation, and the relative ease of deployment to many client platforms. It is pretty remarkable how much applications have become like documents -- easily published and easily consumed. When you play with tools like greasemonkey, you start to see that the real revolution is in the power of users to manipulate not jus the content they seek, but the functionality published with it. But the thing that just drives me crazy is the web wasn't made for applications. In fact, the whole active web, ajax included, is basically based on a glorified hack. So what do I prefer? Ultrathin client applications that only worry about painting pixels on the client, interpreting client behavior, but also provide the patron with the ability to manipulate the applicaiton. Having used remote desktop, go2mypc, citrix, and remote assistance, even the most well-designed of Ajax applications seem silly. First, your activity on the remote application is untethered from your connection. Disconnecting from these remote applications is like standing up from your desk. You can stop typing an email mid-sentence, disconnect, drive three states away, reconnect and continue the sentence. Because web applications must depend on session state, and must also keep some of the real data (data beyond the images on the screen) on the client, there is always the risk of loss or interruption. How many times have you filled out a web form only to lose all the data by hitting the back button, or your browser exiting? I am typing this in blogger's entry editor, which I consider a fine ajax application, but which has also destroyed several posts when I've been on spotty connections. Second, I've found remoting encourages me to use one machine for all my work. It used to be that when I got home, I would use my home PC. My laptop when I traveled. Friends home machines when I visited. Typically, I would either install some helper software (google toolbar, delicious plugins) on the machine I am using. Or I would spend time getting all the necessary session state information set correctly on the new machine. Every time I found a new tool, I used to install it in 6 or 7 different locations. As I've gotten older, while I still enjoy finding new software tools, I've come to hate maintaining them. Gone are the days when I thought it was fun to configure workstations. With remote desktop, I can always reach my own machine. So I only bother to keep the one machine updated with all my latest favorite apps. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the desktop metaphor follows me across the web now. Not only are all my applications installed and configured, but my data is there as well. All the artifacts of my work, my bookmarks, my cached files, my drafted emails, my notepad text notes, half finished spreadsheets, installers, and all the other files I have accumulated as I work are held in tact. This is clearly the future. I want my handheld, my home computer, my laptop to all present the same desktop, with the same harmony of applications and data that I maintain each day over years of use. So, I am bothered by Ajax because it feels like a step in the wrong direction. I'd prefer to see new applications pursue the delivery of ultrathin applications, and to see the desktop completely decoupled from the PC and the operating system. I'd like to see ultrathin applications that also draw on the best parts of web applications -- simple controls, addresses and bookmarks, an application platform (the browser), and easy creation/publishing. Maybe Ajax will end up doing all of these things, or maybe something more interesting will come along.
Monday, May 16, 2005
Sunday, May 15, 2005
Describing Venice is like trying to photograph a sweeping landscape -- the expanse and the detail overwhelm one another. The sprawl of the canals, the color of the lagoon water, tiny old women in silk scarves and black wool coats, and the heights of Ponte Rialto squeezed onto an artificial landscape slowly sinking into the shallows of the Adriatic. You can't show everything in any one frame. So, I took 150 pictures. There are no cars in Venice, and perhaps as a result, there are many dogs. Everyone walks or boats everywhere with everything. We watched each morning as boats ferried people, linen, garbage, gasoline, and food to our hotel. The hotel, San Clemente Palace, was located on an island in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon. San Clemente was a monastary in the 8th Century. Venice proper is a dense city; there isn't much greenspace. But San Clemente's grounds are a few acres of lawns and gardens. The island has a wall along its outermost perimeter. The brickwork rises about eight feet above the grounds, and runs down into the sea. To go from the hotel to the city, there is a private water shuttle. Boat is the best way to see Venice. Cruising up to San Marco is the only way to arrive. The train station is the most common, but it is on the western side of the city, crowded with people, buses, and taxis. The station is the only place you see cars. We had two major diversions while we were in Venice. First, my parents were in Roma at the same time, so the four of us staged a rendevouz in Florence, which was very roughly the halfway point. Florence, despite the rain and traffic, remained charming. We took in Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo, in addition to a few bottles of wine and some tasty food. Caitie and I had been in Florence about 8 years earlier, on a backpacking trip across Europe (college requisite). We were only there a day the first time as well. Looking back, I remember being more intimidated by the bustle of the city, and feeling of being "abroad". This time, Florence seemed quaint and ancient. There were still the throngs of people and the rush of finding trains, but my sense of scale has changed. I've met New York and San Franciso, Dallas and D.C. in the interim. So, Florence remains the same while the world has grown. The first time we went to Florence, we visited the David. I'm not much of an art afficionado, but I can not forget that first visit. I was simply overcome. The David perfectly represents a young man confronting his life's challenge. When I looked at it eight years ago, the timing was perfect. I was twenty years old, and anxious to go find my own life's work. At the time, I expected the magnum opus to fall into my hands and reveal itself. Eight years on, it hasn't, and I've realized that it may not. I think that perhaps a man's work, his purpose, only reveals itself in retrospect. So, I couldn't bring myself to go back to the David. I wasn't willing to risk this perfect memory of youth and expectation. So we ate well, we wandered about the streets, bought neckties, and I photographed n's old pensione and went back to Venice, humbled. When we returned to Venice, our old friend, Alberto, traveled up to see us. He lives south of Venice, but still on the coast of the Adriatic (a sea he seems to enjoy belittling, despite his obvious pride in living his whole life beside it). Alberto spent the day walking with t and I through Venice, navigating us through several meals, and talking about everything from politics (Italian and American, he was well-versed in both) to the utter necessity of eating three meals a day, with company and at the appointed times (9-9.30, 12-1, 8-9). We three hadn't seen each other in 7 or 8 years, when he and Caitie had been housemates (there were many other housemates), and conversation came easily and pleasantly. Like all Italians, Alberto paints his words in the air with his hands. He is a professional interpreter, so his english is perfect, but Caitie enjoyed pointing out that he needed to gesture to speak in either language. It was very interesting to interact with the Venetians who ran the restaurants and ferries, when in the company of a native Italian. You could see them relax, and you sensed a definite pleasure in speaking their own florid language. So while everyone in Venice seems to speak English, I got the impression that almost no one really enjoys it. Being Italian is, I think, like belonging to a very large semi-secret society. Italians seem to instantly recognize and appreciate one another. So, for a day at least and thanks to Alberto's social generosity, Caitie and I felt like guest members. To sum up, and to pretend to know a local phrase, our time in Venice was dolce fa niente. Which, assuming I got anywhere close with the phonetic spelling, means "happy do nothing". In the art of living, Italians excel above all others. They dress well, speak well, eat well and rest easy.
Hand fishing is a southern gentlemen's past time, on which I saw a documentary long ago. In one of the most memorable quotes, a local observer said of the sport: "Hand fishing on takes two things: a strong arm, and a weak mind." Okie Noodling seems to be a different movie on the same subject. I have to give credit to this guy's del.icio.us page. In a twist of folksonomy serendipity, I found that guy's web page from looking for people who also bookmarked the Mooseman Triathlon.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
Sunday, May 01, 2005
Wikipedia is pretty amazing, not only for its breadth of coverage, but for the vigilence of the maintaining community. When I first looked at Wikipedia, it was through an automatic link from trillian. I couldn't believe it was entirely public, so I tried posting something. I thought it would be funny if trillian linked references to fawce to the wikipedia, which would reference fawce.com. Apparently, the wikipedians didn't see the humor. Wikipedia:Votes for deletion/Fawce To be fair, I wasn't deleted, just moved to the wiktionary.