From My Office to Your Computer

I'm having a virtual rummage sale as my fellow freelancers and I move to a new office space in Seattle. Are you looking for a used and funky LS-30 (CoolScan III) film/slide scanner with auto-APS/Advantix feed? Some cheap 10-port Ethernet switches? A rusty chain? Scratch that last one. Here are my current auctions on eBay, and I'll post more items that are useful, cheap, and full of rich functional electronic goodness.

Ant Farms, But Not the Kind You're Thinking Of

I remember reading about this in science books as a kid: ants milk aphids for honeydew which they return to the nest. I'm out in our garden where my fiancee is working hard pulling grass and cleaning up her plantings, and I'm avoiding some writing due next week. I look at the nascent flowers in one of the cardoons (artichoke relative) we have in the parking strip and I see a sight that makes me scream and recoil briefly: ants! ants! ants! and black dots! (I thought briefly I was in a Bu´┐Żuel film.)

I recover. I'm not that squeamish, but I didn't expect to see dozens of ants and hundreds of aphids four feet off the ground. The ants had their own farm going: they were pounding the hell out of the aphids using their antennae. The pounding causes the aphids to emit the processed material that the ants collect somehow (in their guts?) and return to the nests to disgorge. Super super cool. The linked article says the ants "encourage" the aphids, but it looked me like they were really whacking them with their antenna.

We have a good crop of ladybird beetles (ladybugs), but ants will apparently attack and disable ladybird beetles to keep their aphid-cows from being eaten!

Symbol of Hubris Collapses, Creates Dotcom Metaphor

No, not another blog entry on Worldcom, but rather a link to my review of ex-Amazon.com employee Mike Daisey's book on his experience. Regular blog readers know that I admire Daisey's transformation of a chaotic and insane experience into a hilarious one-man show (which I plan to see the off-Broadway version of during Macworld Expo in about three weeks). The book is quieter, but not gentler, and more wry and amusing than wrenchingly funny. There's more insight in the book than the play: the play is written for farce, the book for some reflection.

The symbol of hubris? The Kingdome. Not yet paid for, following an $80 million renovation, we blew the thing up. I mean blew the thing in. (Opposite of an explosion's boom? An implosion's "mooooob.") Daisey times the end of the book with watching the giant sucking sound from Amazon.com's HQ using his defunct corporate ID.

CEO Collapses, Thousands Killed

Worldcom's revelation today that they invented $3.8 billion in earnings, according to various news reports, is the latest and worst in a series of business fraud and incompetence. Every time I hear one of these stories -- Enron, Adelphia, Qwest, and so on -- I think, well, the outrage is there, but will there be the follow-through? Congress has hearings, laws are proposed, but fundamental changes don't show up. Does a CEO have to kill employees for sport and have accountants' help in hiding the bodies for the balance of power to change?

Boring People

Saying blogs are uninteresting is like saying people are uninteresting. You can't say that all people are, just some (maybe a lot). I've met a fair number of dull, self-absorbed people, but most people have stories about themselves and the world, and most people have interesting, sometimes terrifying stories to tell. Mike Cassidy needs to stop monolithicizing.

Monoliths and Their Causes

Axiom No. 1: Everything new appears monolithic.

Axiom No. 2: Nothing is ever monolithic.

Axiom No. 3: Time doesn't break monoliths down; understanding does.

Axiom No. 4: Journalists write about monoliths when they first appear, 2001-like, looming on the horizon because they lack the time to learn and the sophistication to understand, and predict their audiences won't understand either.

Axiom No. 5: If it's business or financial market related, Axioms 1 to 4 go out the window.

I've been troubled for years that fellow journalists tend towards writing about each new technology as if it's first incomprehensible (picture the apes in 2001), then monolithic (ah, it's a big rock), then, and only then - often much later - the subtletly emerges, much of which was there the day the rock started to glow.

In 1994 and into 1996, from when the commercial Internet began in earnest to when ecommerce became a commonplace word, I spoke to many, many journalists who couldn't mentally break the Internet down into its constituent parts to better describe it. Rather, the Internet had a capital I: it was one being, one entity, one group of long-time users (academics), one group of new users (newbies), one group of sophisticated newer users building businesses (dotcommers).

Of course, it was much more complicated than that in 1994, and it took a couple years before mainstream journalists would stop making howlers like claiming 1,000,000 hits meant a million people visiting a site, or that DNS propagates (that last one still comes up...hmm).

Meanwhile, of course, the subtlest new business point gets analyzed, reanalyzed, reported on, synthesized, suggested, editorialized. Axiom No. 5 should probably read: Business news is always worth figuring out the technical details of, while technology news can be wallpapered over, no matter how lumpy the wall.

This monolithic reporting comes up all the time with blogging. There are a few, very few, journalists who, without becoming bloggers themselves, have managed to express the breadth of the communities that blog: individuals with no connection, groups, sparking points, pundits, technolgoists, egoists, etc. There is little connection between most bloggers in terms of what they do or why they do it; the connections between bloggers are social and business links, which don't imply an actual relationship. (Take that, NPR!)

The reporters who get it right often focus on one aspect of blogging, like warbloggers or journalist bloggers, but they make it clear that they might be talking about a pool of tens or dozens of bloggers out of hundreds of thousands of blogs.

The ones who get it wrong see the monolith sending its scary signals into space, and they start smashing heads with thigh bones. You know the bones: Sullivan, Kaus, InstaPundit, etc.

Others see the monolith and become early rejecters: oh, yes, a monolith. Well, I'm sure it's a fad, and I'm sure that serious newspapers and books are much more interesting than the real voices of a hundred thousand people talking about what's important to them which tens of millions of people are reading. Yawn.

Lucas may have borrowed from Campbell in generating his Star Wars mythos, but The Force is still out here: the interlinkedness of all things on the Net, every day becoming more so, drawing us into a multilithic universe.

Open Letter to NPR Affiliate KUOW about NPR's Linking Policy

This is the letter I just sent to the station manager of my Seattle-based NPR affiliate, KUOW. I don't even want to think about how much money I have contributed over the nine years I've lived in Seattle, and they have my records.

To: jwhansen@u.washington.edu

Greetings,

I am not intending to brush KUOW with the same tar that NPR is getting for its Web site linking policy, but as a long-time contributor to KUOW (check your records on me), and a long-time NPR listener, I'm afraid my leverage is all local, not global.

If NPR persists in their nonsensical policy of not allowing links to their Web site without approval (although I realize they cannot enforce this technically, really), then I will have to reconsider my contributions to KUOW, tailoring them to specifically support programs that are not underwritten or sold by NPR.

I hope you will convey to NPR the depth of dissatisfaction by this one listener, at least, and I hope other listener/members have written to you as well.

NPR is misguided, and their ombudsman doesn't understand the issues. Linking to content at a site does not endorse the linking organization. No site on the Web, with the possible exception of Ticketmaster, has ever fought random links to their sites.

There are technological solutions to this problem, including using gateway pages which require a user coming from outside a site to listen to audio to view a page that describes NPR's relation to the outside linker (none) and to the content that follows (owner or licensor).

Thank you very much, and I intend to continue to contribute to KUOW -- just not to your NPR program funds (if that's possible, even) unless they wise up and learn about the issues before taking a stand on them.

Cartoonists Who Blog (NY Times)

It started as a blog entry itself: a few items about cartoonists who wrote blogs on their Web sites, in their own voices. It grew into a story idea that I pitched to the New York Times, which was interested. It took many interviews and weeks of writing to get the fix on this topic, because individuals are, well, individuals. The result is here with a typically great NYT headline.

Cartoonists have a mass audience, even if that audience is thousands, but the ones I spoke to have a desire to talk more personally, and less through a distanced filter provided by their syndicate or by a no-nonsense Web site. Cartoonists are, in my experience, serious, thoughtful people. The four-panel punchline is an expressive tool that would take pages of intense prose in the best case.

Machine Intelligence

This week, the computers are sick of me. What did I say? Last weekend, my fiancee and I came into the office to print something on our color printer. There are no drivers for OS X that work over the network with a shared Epson C80, so we used my officemate's machine. We boot it into OS 9.2: it crashes. I reboot my machine into 9. It crashes. We reboot my officemate's machine again; the mouse stops working. The machine to which the color printer is attached crashes. Reboot, reboot, reboot. Finally get it working.

But the computers talk to each other. In the wee hours this morning, the aging beeping (because of heat) box that runs isbn.nu gave up the ghost. It knew its time was coming: I'd bought a bigger, fancier case with five fans, and two AMD 1.6 GHz P5-like processors. Ah, yes, my pretty. So it gave up last night. All of today, since about 9 am, spent getting the new case to work (hadn't solved that problem yet), discovering that one of the two CPUs won't work with the current Linux installation I have, finding the backup tape wouldn't restore, figuring out that I had to reboot then immediately restore from tape, and then finding out the first restore didn't overwrite files that needed to be replaced.

I'd better buy the rest of the machines some candy. Was it the 90-degree days last week that caused all this mishegas?