The Victorian Internet

As 2007 lurches to a close, it seems only appropriate to review The Victorian Internet, a book which hearkens to the past in two ways — most obviously, by talking about a significant technological revolution in the 19th Century, but also from its own time, very late in the 20th Century, before the dot-com bubble burst.

Tom Standage describes the birth and explosive spread of the telegraph network, the first technology to allow information to travel long distances faster than it could be physically carried. He begins with the optical telegraph in France, then moves on to the electric telegraph. The book doesn’t get very deep in the technology, but concentrates on the social effects, many of which were repeated 150 years later with the Internet (and some of which are occurring yet again with Web 2.0 and social networking — his description of the informal chatter of telegraph operators is very similar to what’s happening on Twitter right this instant).

Standage ends his story with the death of Morse (Samuel Morse, not the code, which is alive and well, even if it’s no longer a requirement for a ham license) — the telephone was poised to take over much of the telegraphy business at that point (almost anything which didn’t require written records), and chronicling a downward spiral is no fun.

It’s a short book, a bit dated, but still a good read.

Saint Clare Marlborough 2006 Sauvignon Blanc

Recently, I’ve been putting my wine notes on Cork’d. But I made a mistake with tonight’s wine and forgot to tell the system whether I was entering it to review, to add to my “cellar”, or to add to my wishlist — and then when I tried to fix the problem, it complained that the wine was already in the system but couldn’t find it. So I’ll review it here…and that means I don’t have to use the compressed 100-point scale, either. Not all bugs are harmful!

At any rate, the wine we had with dinner was Saint Clare Marlborough 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (probably purchased at Costco). Both Diane and I liked it (more than half the bottle vanished); it has a good bit of acidity, a medium finish, and lots of grapefruit notes (with a little kiwifruit mixed in). We had it with a spicy spaghetti sauce and Indian vegetables — it didn’t really hold its own against that competition, but it was still pleasant enough for a cool evening.

One more by Charles Stross: Accelerando

I came to Accelerando with a false hope, one I’ll disabuse you of right away. The back cover blurb from Vernor Vinge made me hope that this book would tell the story of the Singularity Sky Singularity, the one which created the Eschaton. It doesn’t.

And unlike the Eschaton, which is a deus ex machina which mostly stays offstage, the transcendent results of Accelerando‘s Singularity are very much a presence throughout the novel.

Well, it’s not really a novel. It was originally published as nine short stories in Asimov’s, and it shows — there is a good bit of repetition and reintroduction (though nothing as obtrusive as in Harry Turtledove’s series). So we get to meet our protagonist, Manfred Macx, many times, along with the other members of his dysfunctional family, as they play out their personal drama against the Singularity as it approaches, happens, and leaves them struggling with the results.

And that’s the weakness of the book — humans can’t comprehend the Singularity. Stross tries hard to show it through its effect on the human (and then post-human) characters, but in the end, it’s Just Another Damn Book Of Magical Stuff (sentient business models? I’d settle for sentient business modelers!).

The book was enjoyable — Stross has a nasty sense of humor at times, and I really enjoyed some of the allusions he threw in to other SF — but the last three chapters were effective at making the point that a post-Singularity world would be incomprehensible, by being rather messy themselves.

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

I’ve been reading Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series since the beginning and have found it quite charming. The latest installment, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive is no exception.

As always, the mysteries are minor, and the character development scant, but despite that, I enjoyed spending a couple of hours with Mma Ramotswe, Charlie the hapless apprentice, and the man for whom this volume is titled, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. If you’re not already a fan of the series, this book won’t convert you; if you are, you’ll enjoy it.

Two!

When we got home from exercising this morning, there was a ton of mail in the mailbox. Not all of it was ours (oh, well), and most of it was catalogs (wait…isn’t Christmas past?), but there were a few pieces of First Class Mail, too.

Two of them were for Jeff. And one looked interesting. He was in the shower when we got home, so we couldn’t hand it to him — but as soon as he finished, Diane hollered at him: “There’s a thick envelope here for you from Willamette!”.

Last week, he’d received a very thick envelope from another school he’d applied to, but it was just an acknowledgment and housing brochure — this time, it was the right kind of thick envelope.

So that’s two. He should also hear from the schools with rolling admissions fairly early in the new year — and then it will be silence until mid-March and the deluge of results.

Almost ready to fall off the GND wagon

I brought a bunch of technical books home for the holiday, with the idea of working on a web service to help me get things done. So far, I haven’t opened any of the books, nor have I touched the project.

Instead, I’ve been practicing GND: Getting Nothing Done.

That’s not quite true: I have managed to enter a couple of shelves’ worth of books into LibraryThing, I’ve read a few books (mostly not fiction) and have blogged about them, and I even spent a day adapting some code I’d written for my Temple to their new membership data system. And I’ve been going to the JCC a lot (and eating a lot of tasty food to make up for it). But, in general, I’ve been enjoying my downtime (and, very specifically, I have not checked my work email).

But I’m beginning to feel restless. I’m not quite to the point that Todd wrote about earlier today: “[Y]ou may have reached that consummate stage of holidaydom where you’re not enjoying your down time much — you know, the part where you’re bored out of your mind and need to get a technology news or general Web fix” but I could see myself there in another few days.

So it’s time to dust off the to-do list and start looking at it. Looking can’t hurt, can it?

Oxygen at work

I hate having to do research during dinner, but it was necessary tonight. We brought some wine with us to dinner, having been impressed with it on our previous encounter — but when we opened this bottle, there were purple crystals at the cork, and the wine was flat, lifeless, and raisiny.

A quick trip across the room to the computer, and the verdict was in: oxygenation. (And I bookmarked three more links on del.icio.us, too.)

I’ve reported the problem to the place we bought the wine; it’ll be interesting to see what kind of response I get.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

I wrote about some of the great events at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange back in April. But there were some other, more mundane, benefits of attending, too. One of them was the “TLE Bookstore”, which had a selection of technical and leadership titles available for the effort of filling out a paper form — a far easier process than our usual internal book-buying system. So, naturally, I picked out a lot of books, including the one I just finished, Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Goldsmith is an executive coach; he deals with people whose salaries have a zero or two more than mine. But that doesn’t make his ideas and advice inapplicable to me — far from it.

The McGuffin here is his list of 20 “transactional flaws” that one person can commit against others. I’m happy to report that I am not guilty of all twenty flaws, but I do see a few of them in myself, including #2 (adding too much value) and #16 (not listening).

Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t just help you identify flaws — he offers suggestions for ways to combat them, especially apologizing and thanking. And he also strongly suggests that you advertise your intention to change, and find a way of really measuring how you do (or don’t) change your behavior. He also points out that you only need to change those behaviors which cause problems with other people (so I’m safe in not working on my messy files at work!).

I will be returning to this book in the New Year and developing an action plan to obviate at least some of my flaws. Recommended.

Charlie Wilson’s War

When I was in 12th grade, we spent the second semester of our US Government class as a Mock Congress. At the time, the Democrats controlled Congress, and since I wanted to be in a position of “power”, I chose to play the role of a Democrat so that I could be Majority Whip. And because I wanted to do a good job, I researched the Democratic positions of the time and found, much to my surprise, that I agreed with them — and I’ve been a Democrat ever since.

That was an effective civics lesson.

Today, we went to see Charlie Wilson’s War, an even more effective civics lesson, and one based on a true story, with dialog improved by Aaron Sorkin. Charlie Wilson represented the 2nd Congressional District of Texas. He was not the kind of Congressman held up as a role model in my Government class — the film opens with him in a hot tub, with a couple of strippers and a Playboy model, along with booze and drugs. But somehow, he had sufficient concentration to watch a “60 Minutes” report on Afghanistan that happened to be on, and, since he also happened to be on the committee which controlled funding for covert CIA operations, he decided to do something to help the brave Afghan fighters.

That something involved trips into dangerous beds as well as dangerous country, wheeling, dealing, and probable violation of several laws — and, at the same time, he was being investigated on drug allegations.

I was completely consumed by the movie, even though I knew how it would end. I don’t think they’ll make the sequel — it would be too depressing.

Recommended.

Three more apps out the virtual door

Jeff is now, by definition, finished improving his Common App — he submitted it (along with supplements and *sigh* payments) to three colleges this evening. He still has three more to do (each of which wants its own essay), along with one more college which hasn’t Gotten With The Program yet.

I’m not sure if this is easier or harder for him than it was for me — certainly it’s much easier to apply to more schools, but then again, there are more people competing at each school, too. But if nothing else, he has the advantage of being able to fix typos and the like without retyping an entire sheet!

Two books by Charles Stross

Until this week, I’d only read one of Charles Stross’s books, Iron Sunrise, which I read in preparation for Hugo voting in 2005 (I didn’t actually vote on the Best Novel Hugo that year, but I thought about it…). I enjoyed it, and when I happened to be in the library earlier in the week and decided I wanted some SF in hand, so I picked up two of his.

Singularity Sky takes place before Iron Sunrise and introduces some characters who figure in the latter book, but it wasn’t critical to read them in the right order. I did something with Singularity Sky that I haven’t done in a long time — I read it in one evening. The story moves along briskly, with enough red herrings to keep me interested. This story is set, like Iron Sunrise, in a post-Singularity world where the Eschaton (which appears to be the transcendent computers of Earth) has scattered about 90% of the population of Earth across a few hundred light-years. There is FTL travel and instantaneous communication, but causality violations are Right Out…Or Else. The story opens with a weird infovore culture, The Festival, raining telephones on the New Republic, which has all the lovable characteristics of the Soviet Union of the 50’s and 60’s, but without the technology…except for the military. There are secret agents and wheels within wheels galore — strongly recommended.

I can’t say the same for Missile Gap, a short alternate-history-with-aliens piece. The McGuffin here is that, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which became a hot war), the surface of the Earth was picked up and deposited on a huge flat world in the Magellanic Cloud; there are, of course, many other continents across the ocean, and the US and Soviets are desperately exploring and colonizing. But…We Are Not Alone.

The premise was intriguing, but there were too many threads for so few pages, and none of the characters really came to life for me. It was a pleasant read, but no more.

links for 2007-12-22

The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling

I just finished reading The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, which Sacha had recommended to me in a conversation last week.

Many years ago, I’d realized that pure technical competence would only get a person so far — it was important to be able to talk with people and explain ideas. In other words, to be able to tell a story. And, every bit as importantly, to be able to listen to other people’s stories and help them tell them better. So I was very interested in reading what Steve Denning had to say on the subject.

I’m not sure I learned a lot that I didn’t already know — that’s not to say that the book wasn’t worthwhile, but there wasn’t much that surprised me. I was amused to read, yet again, the story of IBM’s embrace of the Internet (I was there, although not in the meetings in Armonk which were critical to making things happen — and that’s a valuable lesson: there’s no substitute for being in the room), but this time with a concentration on the role of persuasion and leadership (as contrasted with management).

I very much like the final chapter in the book, describing “interactive, Tolstoyan” leadership. I’ve worked for “Napoleonic” managers…and I haven’t enjoyed it. I’ve also worked for “Tolstoyan” managers, and it’s been a pleasure (and I’ve made stronger contributions in that environment, too).

I did not work through the exercises in the book (hey, I am on vacation!), so I’m sure I didn’t get the fullest benefit from reading it, but life is full of choices. And I can always go back to the book another day (though this copy has to go back to the library!).

Recommended.

Inbox Zero achieved!

I just got my Gmail inbox down to zero for the first time in nearly two years.

After Mom died, I left the last few notes she sent me in my inbox, even though they were just pointers to funny things on the web. But last month, I finally felt able to read and archive them. However, while they were in the inbox, I didn’t feel any pressure to keep it clear (there is a big difference between an empty inbox and one with even one item in it), and even after archiving them, it took quite a while for me to get around to processing everything.

Tonight, I took advantage of some free time and the new Remember The Milk plugin for GMail to get those last few items out of the inbox (and I actually took care of all but one!).

When I left work last Friday, that inbox was empty, too. I haven’t connected to work since then, so, as far as I know, it’s still empty.

If you can’t see the fnord email, it can’t eat you!

60 days — what a crock

My wife has an LLBean credit card. And, most months, the statement is accompanied by a sheet of “access checks”. She’s been trying to get them to stop sending then forever — without success. But now that BofA is behind the card (instead of MBNA), she tried again this afternoon.

Susan at the toll-free number tried to talk her out of it, claiming that their “zero liability policy” made sending the checks safe — but she reluctantly admitted that they could be “suppressed” but it would take 60 days.

Let’s see…they can authorize transactions in milliseconds, but it takes 60 days to stop sending something that the customer Absolutely Does Not Want? Tells you where their priorities are…

(If it weren’t for the free shipping from Bean, the card would have been shredded long ago on this issue — “zero liability” does not mean “zero hassle”)

Red Skye 2004 Ruby Hill Zinfandel

When I tasted this wine at the winery last weekend, I thought it would go well with beef. But we rarely have beef at home — basically, only when Jeff’s not going to be eating with us. Like tonight, since Jeff was out celebrating the successful conclusion of the production of The Tempest at school. We got beef brisket sandwiches from Sam’s, opened a bottle of Red Skye Zinfandel, and enjoyed.

The beef was nicely spicy, complementing the wine well — more of the bottle vanished than is our wont, too. Even more might have vanished if I hadn’t known I’d have to drive up to Palo Alto to pick Jeff up soon after dinner. Definitely worthwhile.

Waiting for XO

I ordered an XO laptop through the Give One Get One offer (still open through the end of 2007, for those of you looking for that perfect last-minute deduction). Mine hasn’t arrived yet, but Ed Yourdon’s has, and he’s posted a “first reaction” on his blog.

I’m not at all sure what I’m going to do with the machine once I’ve played with it a bit — I knew it was, by design, slow and memory-limited, so I didn’t plan to displace any of my normal computers, but I did have some hopes that it would be a good machine to give to an older relative who “doesn’t want a computer”. But the description of the keyboard in Ed’s review makes that seem unlikely, though I’m reserving judgment until I can touch it myself.

39 Degrees Lake County 2006 Sauvignon Blanc

So, after going wine tasting this afternoon, we looked at what was already in the wine fridge to accompany dinner (Indian take-out from Royal Taj) and found a bottle of 39 Degrees Lake County 2006 Sauvignon Blanc. It was a good choice — definite strong lemon aroma, reasonable acidity, medium finish, not much mouth feel. I thought it went better with the spicy vegetables than it did with the chicken tikka, though.

I’m pretty sure we picked this wine up at BevMo on their 5-cent sale; I’d buy it again.

Wine tasting: An afternoon at Silver Mountain Vineyards

A few months ago, the JCC had a wine tasting featuring local Santa Cruz Mountain wineries. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but, as I recall, there were no wine sales that day, only chocolates and other goodies. We did, however, sign up for some email lists — and one of those wineries, Silver Mountain Vineyards, had a tasting today. The weather was lovely, so after services and lunch, we left Jeff at home with his homework and headed into the hills.

We decided to skip the Chardonnay and the Rose of Pinot Noir, so the first wine we had was the 2004 Miller Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir. I’m not sure it was the ideal wine to start with — it was chewy, with lots of mouth feel and a very long finish. It went well with the Beemster XO Gouda they were serving, but by itself, it was rather overpowering.

The next wine on offer was the 2004 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. That was a different story — lots of fruit (plum, in particular), good by itself or with the munchies on hand, and very good with 52% cocoa dark chocolate slivers.

After that, we sampled two of their Bordeaux-style blends: Oscar’s Wild Red, which didn’t impress either of us very strongly, and the 2002 Alloy, which was pleasantly spicy, with a medium finish.

More cheese, crackers, and cashews were called for, and then it was time to hit the Zins. They had two available, both from the same vineyard in Lodi, the 2001, which was light and fruity, and the 2000, which was tarter and had some definite clove flavors.

More munchies followed, and then, despite our general disinterest in Chardonnay, we were persuaded to try the 2004 Chardonnay (I could hear John Cleese’s voice from Wine for the Confused suggesting it was not a good idea to tar all wines made from a particular grape with the same brush). I’m glad we did, because it was a very pleasant wine — slightly minerally, very soft, and nicely fruity.

We left with a mixed case (Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, the Alloy, both Zins, and four bottles of the 04 Chardonnay), and memberships in both their wine clubs. Fortunately, IBM’s alcohol policy has changed over the years, and I can have them ship the wine to work instead of having to drive up into the mountains to get it (the last mile, on Miller Cut-Off, was unnerving for someone who lives in the flatlands) — but if the release happens during good weather, there are worse ways to save a few bucks on shipping.

We probably shouldn’t visit too many more wineries for a while. But it sure is a nice way to spend a weekend afternoon!

Extending Jon Udall’s LibraryLookup bookmarklet

I routinely use three different public library systems (Los Gatos, San Jose, and Santa Clara County). Needless to say, searching all of them for a book is a real pain.

But today at lunch, a friend reminded me of Jon Udall’s “LibraryLookup” bookmarklet, which worked wonderfully, but still required three searches to check all three libraries. So I decided to extend the bookmarklet to do the work for me, and here’s the result:


javascript:var%20re=/([\/-]|is[bs]n=)(\d{7,9}[\dX])/i;if(re.test(location.href)==true){var%20isbn=RegExp.$2;void(win=window.open('http://146.74.92.11'+'/ipac20/ipac.jsp?index=ISBNEX&term='+isbn,'Santa Clara','scrollbars=1,resizable=1,location=1,width=575,height=500'));void(win=window.open('http://64.204.128.44'+'/ipac20/ipac.jsp?index=ISBNEX&term='+isbn,'Los Gatos','scrollbars=1,resizable=1,location=1,width=575,height=500'));void(win=window.open('http://mill1.sjlibrary.org/search/?searchtype=i&searchscope=1&searcharg='+isbn,'San Jose','scrollbars=1,resizable=1,location=1,width=575,height=500'));}

I’m sure there’s some easy optimization to get rid of all of the repetition in the JavaScript, but I’m lazy.

What I do wish I could do is have the bookmarklet open the results in tabs instead of popup windows, but I don’t think that’s possible without turning this into a Greasemonkey script or a real XUL plugin, and I’m lazy.

But if someone else has done it….

WorldCat would, of course, be a better solution, but it doesn’t seem to include the Los Gatos library (yet, anyway).

Jews with Swords

I just finished Michael Chabon’s latest, Gentlemen of the Road, which tells the story of two Jews with swords, Amram and Zelikman, as they roam the Kazakh Empire near the year 950 CE.

It’s definitely minor Chabon, but it kept me interested and engaged, despite the rather stunted character development and the predictable plot twists.