Entries for July 2002 (August 2002 »    September 2002 »    October 2002 »    Archives)


Homeland Security

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 31, 2002

Two men are beaten to death in Chicago after their van crashed into some pedestrians:

"Mixon told the Tribune she was at the window of her apartment across the street when she saw the van swerve toward the house and strike three women.

'It all happened so fast, it seemed like he floored it or something,' Mixon said.

She told the Tribune she called 911 and returned to see a crowd around the van, some of them helping the women. Mixon said she saw five or six men pull the driver and passenger out of the van and then punch, kick and beat them."

With fellow patriots like these, who needs al-Qaida?

Who hacked the server?

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 30, 2002

Next week on an all new Law & Order: the most secure server in the world has been hacked into and the police are hot on their trail. Here's a photo lineup of possible suspects from the show.


posted by Jason Kottke Jul 29, 2002

Here's a idea for an easy revenue stream for Google: replace the "I'm feeling lucky" button with a "Search Amazon.com" button. When a user clicks that button, it takes them to the Amazon search results page. Extrapolating from what my site earns me in Associates fees each quarter, Google would stand to make several hundred thousand dollars a quarter without devoting any people or energy into extra development. Since the button would have such prominent and permanent placement on the site in comparison to the Amazon links on kottke.org, the amount would probably be much higher, maybe a million a month or so.

Of course, what's more likely is that Google will create something akin to Amazon Light at shop.google.com or something, putting Amazon's database into Google's user experience. Google would probably be just as clever as Amazon in offering shoppers useful ways to browse merchandise...and they wouldn't have to deal with the order fulfillment or any of the other stuff. They'd just have to sit back and collect the Associates fees.

Quantum dishrag

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 27, 2002

I've convinced myself that the dishes are going to get done without me having to do them. I'm just going to sit right here in front of my computer busy with the day's tasks and when I turn around, they will be clean. This will not be a magical occurence. No siree. I'm far too practical to believe in hocus pocus. What I'm thinking is that a massive quantum improbability will occur in my kitchen, one that will spontaneously disassemble all the dirty dishes, including all the bits of food and grease, whisk the dirt into the trash, and reassemble the clean dishes on the drying rack. It would be nice if this process fixed the chip in the big green mixing bowl as well, but I'm not crossing my fingers.

Flying for the purpose of catch

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 26, 2002

My dream last night featured a kite. More specifically, someone was flying a kite with me attached to it. As near as I could tell from the content of the dream, the sole purpose of this arrangement was for me to play catch with a tennis ball with people down on the ground. Not anyone in particular, just any random person we encountered as the kitesman led me around.

Coming full circle via the downward spiral

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 25, 2002

Jack Saturn wants his old Pyra customer support job back even though they haven't paid him the money they owe him from the first time around:

"i contacted the CEO a few times in the few months after i was laid off, asking him when (if ever) i'd get my money. he told me about all the hours he'd worked without pay, about how the company was still losing money, and about how he'd pay me if he could. he was really working that starving artist angle, and it was a winner, i'll admit. i really had to hand it to the guy — he was playing the martyr/CEO duality thing to a tee, putting himself and his company before his 'employees' (whereas before we'd been more like partners), yet all the while playing that winning sympathy card. being a person who also values green dollar bills above all else, i could understand and relate to such a single-minded quest. so i told myself that he had won and called a forfeit on the game."

It's funny because it's true. Between this and the True Porn Clerk Stories, I'm laughing so hard that I'm having a tough time getting any work done today.

You can't get email from a turnip

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 25, 2002

I owe all of you email. Yes, you. Judging by the size of my inbox and the percentage of unanswered email within, every single reader of kottke.org (ever!) has sent me a piece of email that I have not answered. I owe.

It's not my fault this time, honest. All those other times, definitely my fault. But I've been doing work this week....you know, for money. As such, I feel a certain responsibility to do this work that I'm getting paid for rather than, say, correspond with you fine people. So there you have it.

(Oh, and thank you to the folks who took the time to write in about my spam overload yesterday. About 95% of my spam ends up in the Deleted Items folder, assassinated before it ever reaches my inbox. Love the SpamAssassin.)

The Compact Disk Database

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 24, 2002

The CDDB is a huge user-generated database of information related to music CDs: album titles, songs, artist information, genre, and about 50 other attributes. The CDDB has been around since 1995, an early example of what is now referred to as Web services. Most computer CD players will automatically contact the CDDB database when you play a CD on your computer (if you're connected to the Internet), allowing you to see song titles while it's playing. The CDDB information comes in especially handy when you rip MP3s from CDs: the newly minted MP3s are tagged with the CDDB info.

Since the CDDB server is contacted each time a CD is played on a computer, the database contains lots of information about what's being played. Gracenote, the company that controls the CDDB, publishes top 10 lists for several genres each week. For the most part, people are listening to the same stuff that you see on MTV's TRL.

To store all that information in a useful way, each CD needs a unique identifier in the CDDB database. Before I started poking around a little, I assumed that each CD was burned with a unique key parcelled out by an agency like ISBNs for books. What actually happens is when the information from a CD is placed in the CDDB for the first time, the CD's TOC is stored in the database as the identifier for that CD. The TOC contains the lengths of all the tracks as well as the starting sectors of each track. That means that TOC is not necessarily unique...it's merely almost unique, causing the occasional misidentification.

Love songs to pressed meat

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 24, 2002

When talking with friends about the vast amounts of junk email they receive in comparison to me, I always felt a little inadequate. Is my email address not worthy somehow? If I POP, do I not receive email? What gives?

Yesterday the spammers went to town on my inbox; I got about 100 pieces of spam in a 10 hour period. Pressed tight to the spammer's scented bosom, a feeling of acceptance washed over me. I belong.

Pioneer Space Plaque Redesign by Edward Tufte

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 23, 2002

Edward Tufte, well known amongst information & Web designers for his trilogy of ID bibles, puts a bit of magic into the possibility of Earth's first contact with aliens:

Since the principles of physics hold everywhere, magic is conceivably a cosmological entertainment, with the wonder induced by theatrical illusions appreciated by all, regardless of planetary system. Accordingly the plaque aboard the Pioneer spacecraft for extraterrestrial scrutiny billions of years from now might have escaped from its conspicuously anthropocentric gestures by showing instead the universally familiar Amazing Levitation Trick.

Who says information designers don't have a sense of humor?

Six degrees of a pain in the ass

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 21, 2002

In theory, the fact that any random person on Earth is connected to another random person on Earth by on the order of six links is amazing. Like the song says, it's a small world; everyone, more or less, knows everyone else. In practice, with smaller groups of people, all the interconnections wreak havoc with weekend party planning.

You obviously can't invite so-and-so and whats-his-name because they used to date but now they hate each other. Those two worked at the same place and had a falling out so we can really only invite one of them. Whats-her-bucket made disparaging remarks about something someone else really cared about. Whosits laughed at a joke he shouldn't have and we can't have any awkward silences as a result of that (oh, and his girlfriend can't come either then). She fired him and now he works at the same place with this other guy that recently divorced this woman that everyone else adores...can any of them come? A misunderstanding from three years ago festers still; two of the three involved will be uninvited.

Solving GRE logic questions are easier. Tom is Anna's sister's great-grandmother's daughter's stepson's cousin's aunt's neighbor's gynecologist's mistress's favorite football player. If Anna is Frank's second cousin thrice removed, what relation is Tom to Frank's dentist? Piece of cake compared with the matrix of possible party guest list permutations.

As a friend told me recently, "I'm too happy in my life right now to deal with all this." Amen sister.

The Pattern on the Stone by Daniel Hillis

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 18, 2002

A one-paragraph explanation of how a computer works from Danny Hillis's The Pattern on the Stone (which you should read if you're interested in how computers work but don't really know):

"The work performed by the computer is specified by a program, which is written in a programming language. This language is converted to sequences of machine-language instructions by interpreters or compilers, via a predefined set of subroutines called the operating system. The instructions, which are stored in the memory of the computer, define the operations to be performed on data, which are also stored in the computer's memory. A finite-state machine fetches and executes these instructions. The instructions as well as the data are represented by patterns of bits. Both the finite-state machine and the memory are built of storage registers and Boolean logic blocks, and the latter are based on simple logical functions, such as And, Or, and Invert. These logical functions are implemented by switches, which are set up either in series or in parallel, and these switches control a physical substance, such as water or electricity, which is used to send one of two possible signals from one switch to another: 1 or 0. This is the hierarchy of abstraction that makes computers work."

Reading Hillis's explanation reminds me of Ray and Charles Eames's classic Powers of Ten film. In the same way that the computer is able to function by abstracting levels of functionality, expanding or limiting our view of the universe helps us understand it better, dealing with it at different scales rather than all at once (you don't get very far in describing the our solar system in terms of individual subatomic particles).

Music to watch URLs by

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 18, 2002

WebPlayer lets you listen to what a URL sounds like so you can groove along while surfing your favorite sites (Shockwave player required). The creator says:

"Fortunately, I stumbled upon the serialist composers and their work - people who used strict mathematical formulas to structure their music composition, effectively generating music out of numbers. By implementing a similar process to the likes of Schoenburg, Messian et al, the output became structured, rhythmic and more musical in nature. The formulae that the webPlayer utilises are quite complex in nature, but fundamental to the process of its musical generation, so I have included a complete breakdown of them here."

A more complete description of the process is available. It would be nice to see an updated version of WebPlayer that introduces a bit more variation into the music...most of the sites I tried sound about the same.

A Tom Hanks Filmography

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 17, 2002

- Sleepless in Perdition (2002) - Michael Sullivan
- You've Gotten Stranded on a Desert Island (2000) - Chuck Noland
- Saving Mr. Jingles (1999) - Paul Edgecomb
- Sleepless in Cyberspace (1998) - Joe Fox
- Joe Versus the Nazis (1998) - Captain John Miller
- You've Got a Thing You Do (1996) - Mr. White
- Saving Buzz Lightyear (1995) (voice) - Sheriff Woody
- Sleepless in the Command Module (1995) - Jim Lovell
- Saving Lieutenant Dan (1994) - Forrest Gump
- Sleepless in Philadelphia (1993) - Andrew Beckett
- You've Got Meg Ryan As a Costar for, What, the Third Time Now? (1993) - Sam Baldwin
- Joe Versus Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell (1992) - Jimmy Dugan
- That Volcano You're Going to Throw Yourself Into! (1990) - Joe Banks
- That Dog Who's Your Partner! (1989) - Det. Scott Turner
- You've Got Larger Clothes (1988) - Josh Baskin
- Saving the Virgin Connie Swail (1987) - Pep Streebeck
- You've Got a Shitty House and You're Dating Diane from Cheers (1986) - Walter Fielding
- You've Got Hookers (1984) - Rick Ernesto Gassko
- That Mermaid You Had Sex With! (1984) - Allen Bauer

And here are some titles that didn't make the cut:

Saving Darryl Hannah
That Mail You've Got!
Sleepless in Normandy
Saving Hooch
That German You Shot!
You've Got Hooch
Sleepless in the Toy Chest
You've Got a Box of Chocolates
That Wish You Wished!
Joe Versus Hooch

Don't abstract your elders

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 17, 2002

Todd posted an account of his experience at Flashforward 2002 in NYC. During the Macromedia keynote, Kevin Lynch queried the audience about Douglas Engelbart; less than 2% of the 400 person audience knew who he was. Lynch went on to tell the audience about the man who had invented the mouse and had therefore made all their amazing Flash animations and applications possible. After playing a selection of Engelbart's demonstration of the mouse, Lynch launched a Flash application displaying a live webcam of the man himself from California, mirroring a similar application from the 1968 demo. A good reminder to those inventing the future that the past may have already leisurely been where we're in such a rush to go.

Amazon announces Web services

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 16, 2002

Here's some positive fallout from O'Reilly's Emerging Tech Conference: Amazon is now offering a Web services interface to their data. Jeff Bezos attended the conference and was apparently listening quite closely to all the hype about Web services (including Meg's talk on Web Services for the Real World). Like Google's API, it'll be interesting to see what people do with this.

(Amazon was offering some limited Web services before, but these are implemented in a couple of different ways with more features and is open to anyone who wants to apply for a developer's token.)

Hyperlinks should be seen but not heard

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 15, 2002

With all the underlines disrupting the flow of the prose, reading link-rich hypertext can be difficult, akin to reading some early desktop published newsletters or HTML email (I can use 4 different fonts at 3 different point sizes in 8 different colors? And italics? Then I shall do so!). All the underlines disrupt the flow of the prose and add extra emphasis to words and phases that might be unwanted in the context of normal text. The same problem occurs when setting hyperlinks in bold text. Making links a different color with no underlines is an option, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between text and links.

If possible, simultaneously reading hypertext and using hypertext should be simple. The text should be as readable as plain text but you should also be able to easily discern linked words. As with most design issues, balance is the key.

Over the past few weeks I've noticed a number of sites using CSS borders instead of underlines to designate hyperlinks (like this). As Martha Stewart would say, this is a good thing. Used properly (dashed, dotted, or with a lighter color), the CSS border techinique makes for a more subtle hyperlink; it reads easier but the reader can still tell where the hyperlinks are at a glance without undue emphasis on the linked words. The technique is a CSS hack**, doesn't work on some older browsers, and is probably not standards kosher, but it gives the Web designer more flexibility in designing their hypertext.

** Here's the CSS code for adding dotted underlines to your hyperlinks:

A:link {
    color: #000000;
    text-decoration: none;
    border-bottom: #666666;
    border-width: 0px 0px 1px 0px;
    border-style: none none dotted none;

Adjust the link color, the border color, the border width, and the border style (solid, dotted, etc.) to suit your specific needs. In order to not display the border on linked images, you'll have to specify the appropriate borders for the IMG tag in your stylesheet. That code can probably be consolidated some, but I'll leave that in your capable hands.

Salon weblogs

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 15, 2002

Looks like Salon is going to start doing weblogs at blogs.salon.com, either for Salon writers or for their readers (or both). (via rogers)

Update: Has their server been hacked already?

Covers and covers of covers

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 14, 2002

The Covers Project is a database of cover songs (no remixes please) while the knockoff*project details a bunch of copies of album covers.

Reading list

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 14, 2002

I'm not quite sure why, but I haven't been documenting what I've been reading for the past few months. Laziness probably...or too busy getting on to the next thing to read. In an effort to catch up a bit, here's a list of most of the books I've read lately:

- Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
- Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
- How to Write by Richard Rhodes
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
- Small Pieces Loosely Joined by David Weinberger
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Math Gene by Keith Devlin

I would especially recommend The Making of the Atomic Bomb and The Death and Life of Great American Cities, masterpieces both.

Paris to the Moon was my latest read. Gopnik is another one of those annoyingly talented New Yorker writers (along with Gladwell, Orlean, and Mead) that I just can't get enough of. His observations on living in Paris as an American are the exact opposite of crappy.

What books have you read recently?

Amongst the squares, ovals.

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 12, 2002

Southeastern Ontario is littered with ovals. At least that's how it appears from seat 14A at 35,000 feet. There are eight ovals currently in view outside my window, double or triple that if I squeeze my face right up next to the glass. At this altitude, I can't tell what all those ovals are for. I immediately thought of car racing. Meg thinks they're for horses. Are Canadians more likely to race horses or cars?

One of the ovals is quite large and is really more of a circle. The size and shape remind me of the cyclotron at Fermilab. Another large oval is part of a sizable complex comprised of several ovals and some non-oval circuits with hairpin turns, s-curves, and junctions. Go-karts? Moto-cross? Small cars on the small tracks, mid-sized cars on the mid-sized tracks, and big cars on the big tracks? From high in the sky, I can see traces left by ants, but not the ants themselves.

A change of heart

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 09, 2002

A would-be Palestinian suicide bomber has a near death experience:

"She wanted to be a shaheed [martyr], to blow herself up on an Israeli street and kill as many Jews as possible. The bomb was already strapped to her body. But on the way to the attack, she had a change of heart and returned home. Now the defense minister has come to ask her why: Why did she say yes at first - and why did she say no later? She looks into his eyes, searching for a hint of compassion."

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, oh, wait...

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 04, 2002

Can you list the 50 U.S. states in 15 minutes? I've always wanted to try that game and when Cameron posted about it on his site, I gave it a go. It took pretty much the full 15 minutes, but I got them all. Were you able to do it? (And no cheating!)

These colors don't run but they can fade

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 04, 2002

The people in the apartment across the street have had an American flag hanging outside their second floor window since the day after 9/11. Looking out my window this morning, I noticed that the bottom of the flag is tattered from waving in the brisk San Francisco breeze for ten months. The top red stripe is seceding from the rest of the flag, the wind gradually tearing it away from the other twelve.

I wonder if they've forgotten about the flag and the reasons they bought it in the first place, the respect they must have felt for it then and the disrespect with which they are treating it now.

Bombs away

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 04, 2002

David Gallagher posted a nice series of photographs yesterday.

Elastic, not sticky

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 03, 2002

Google now has this bit of text on the bottom of each of their results pages now:

"Try your query on: AltaVista Excite Lycos Yahoo!"

Click on Excite (for example) and it takes you directly to an Excite search results page for whatever term you were searching for. What's going on here? Google linking directly to competitors' Web sites? Have they gone insane?

What Google is doing here is instructive for most companies offering online content or services. Google knows their search results are good and displayed in a useful way. You want to wander off to Excite? That's ok because they know you'll be back soon. Google doesn't care about stickiness (which is a nearly unattainable goal unless you're AOL or Yahoo!)...they know that you're not going to spend all your online time at their site.

They care much more about making their site elastic: vistors aren't stuck in the site, but when they leave, Google knows there's a good chance they're coming back. Loyalty without lock-in. Elastic sites work well because they embrace the "Webness" of the Web...they allow people to interact and communicate with each other as they prefer to do in the real world. Human relationships are elastic in nature. Like a clingy friend, nothing is worse than a needy Web site sucking all of your time away and not letting you spend any time on other sites.

Weblogs are a good example of the effectiveness of elasticity; they continually direct people away from themselves yet people have very strong connections with the weblogs that they read and often come back for more. I can't possibly hold your attention here for more than a few minutes a day, but I'm fairly confident that if I am consistant in what I offer here in terms of quality and theme, you'll be back within the next week.

Many companies can't offer products or services with the quality or necessity of Google or the crack-like nature of weblogs, but they can stop worrying so much about fencing customers in like cattle and start dealing with them in human terms.

Major Minority Report plot flaw?

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 02, 2002

(Warning: there are some plot spoilers in this post...you might want to skip it if you haven't seen the movie yet.)

Reader Adam Z. from Dallas, TX wrote in with something interesting regarding a potential plot problem in Minority Report. Here's the questionable plot point:

Lamar (played by Max von Sydow) sets up a situation for John (Tom Cruise) to find with the idea that when John enters into this situation (where he's confronted with evidence of his son's death), he'll commit murder. The precogs predict the murder and John sees himself kill an unknown man on the Pre-Crime viewscreens. In the course of trying to clear his good name, John ends up exactly where the precogs predicted and Lamar intended, poised to kill his son's supposed killer.

Here's the problem: how did Lamar know that his setup would make the Precogs to predict murder and set the rest of events in motion? As Adam writes, "Cruise only finds the fake killer based on the precogs' subsequent images of Cruise killing that fake killer, which Sydow could not possibly have known for sure would be shown to Cruise, ever."

I need to see the movie again to make sure I haven't missed anything, but I have to agree with Adam on this one...that seems to be a huge hole in the plot. Short of assuming that Lamar tinkered with the precogs to ensure their prediction (which I don't think he did), there doesn't seem to be a simple way of resolving this. Does anyone have thoughts about this?

Reinventing the Wheel by Jessica Helfand

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 02, 2002

Nuclear Bomb Effects ComputerJessica Helfand's Reinventing the Wheel is my favorite kind of design book: one part lookie-L@@K-pritty-pictures, the other part explaining what it all means. The book is about information wheels — alternatively called wheel charts, wheel calculators, or volvelles.

Readers my age might remember the circular BAC (blood alcohol content) calculators distributed every three months or so in junior high and high school...spin the wheel to your weight and a certain number of drinks and it calculated how drunk you were. Fat lot of good that did me; I could have done with something a little more useful such as a wheel calculator that determined your attractiveness to girls based on GPA and where your mom bought your clothes ("3.9 and K-Mart? Not looking good...").

The BAC and Unfashionable Teen Boy calculators aren't featured in the book, but many other wheels are, including several from the 30s and 40s. My favorites are the Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer (for its complexity), the DeKalb Hybrids "What Your Corn Can Do to Help Win the War" wheel, the Wonder Bread Guide to U.S. Warships, the U.S. Navy Semaphore Signaling Guide (this one is really ingenious), and the colorful hand-made "Cercle Chromatique", and the surreal Puzzle Pets Letter Wheels.

Helfand has done a really nice job with this fun book. Definitely recommended.

"What on Earth!" by Kaj Pindal

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 01, 2002

I just saw the neatest short film on PBS, "What on Earth!" by Kaj Pindal. The mockumentary, made in 1966 and sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada Mars, details the life of a typical Earthling (an automobile) from the perspective of the Martians. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find it anywhere online.

An email from Ryan and Jacob

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 01, 2002

I just got an odd piece of email (full text). The email, sent by a person named Otello Danism (anagram?) starts out thusly: "There is something extremely wrong with every single person in this world. They seem to be part of a pointless simulation." The email then goes on to say that everyone in the world is a fake...except for the author of the email and a friend (Ryan and Jacob) and details a way to get in touch with them by searching for certain combinations of words on certain search engines.

A bit of research reveals that other folks have gotten similar emails: Jonah, Cam, Alexander West, and a bunch of people searching on Lycos.

After more digging, I came across Ryan and Jacob's Web site: eternalambition.com. More wackiness about logic and aimless existence. The site is hosted at Yahoo! and is registered by an Anthony Bourov, who appears to work for a Web hosting company called addr.com.

So what's going on here? A few possibilities:

- It's a hoax. This is probably the most likely explanation, a person or a group of people playing around with email.

- Ryan and Jacob actually exist and they actually write this stuff and mean it. This explanation is less likely, but still possible.

- It's part of a larger online game, perhaps for a movie or television show, a la last year's AI game. This is the least plausible explanation, but the one I want most to be true.

Deck chair rearrangement

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 01, 2002

You've probably noticed I've moved a few things around again. Posts now have titles and the date & time are located at the bottom of each post. Additionally, the time has come to say goodbye to some older browsers. I have no idea what kottke.org looks like in Netscape 4, and I really don't care. It works in IE 5+ and Mozilla on both the Mac and PC...that's pretty much what I'm shooting for. There are still a few tweaks to make here and there, but any bug reports or comments you have are always appreciated.

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