and the number one reason you should fear bats is...



everything's all busticated

I'm deeply dissatisfied with how the internet works these days.

Don't get me wrong, I think things are better now than they were before: every day, there more interesting stuff out there than the day before. There are more voices, and by Sturgeon's Law 90% of them are crap, but that other 10% continues to increase in raw numbers, and that's great.

But it sure was a lot easier to manage stuff back when it was all just email and USENET. There are two pretty basic ideas that have all but vanished in the interfaces we use to acquire information, and those are "subscription" and "mark read."

<lj-cut text="--More--(10%) . . . . once I start, I just can't stop.">

There are dozens of web sites and alternate blog systems out there that I would read if I didn't have to poll them: if I could just sit down in front of my Appliance (mail reader, news reader, web reader, whatever you want to call it) and be presented with all the things that are new since last time.

The way it works today is, I have to click on each of my bookmarks in order, and look: nope, nothing new there. Nope, nothing new there. Livejournal is like that too, to some extent, and it's especially infuriating when there's an interesting thread going on in the bowels of a comment on someone else's journal: if I want to see updates, I have to keep clicking back there to see if anything has been added, and scan through the entire thread while hoping to spot any new entries that happened to appear in the middle of the page. Slashdot has the same problem, but at least there it's easy to momentarily turn off threading and sort by Most Recent First.

There are a bunch of sites out there that implement "URL watchers" that will notify you when the modification-date on a page has changed, but that results in a pretty lame interface. And it doesn't do anything sensible with the message-oriented sites. It's impossible to do anything about it, because every web site invents their own navigation system from first principles: there was no convention for them to follow. It's as if instead of having SMTP, we just have one big directory full of text files, with every author making up their own naming convention to encode topics and recipients.

I'm tempted to write my own URL watcher, but I know that it will end up sucking as much as all the others. And my experiences with webcollage have shown me the futility of doing "screen scraping" and trying to parse HTML generated by other people: the effort of chasing that moving target far outweighs the payoff.

There are lots of folks out there who have journals that I enjoy reading when A: they have updated them and B: I remember to check, but I don't read them very often because it's not easy (which, today, means "they aren't on LiveJournal.") But clearly "everyone should use LiveJournal" is not the right solution. Cool though LiveJournal is, that doesn't scale. What we need are applications that are able to present a common front on all the disparate sources out there.

For example, I enjoy Brunching Shuttlecocks, and always read the new items -- but that's only because it has a Slashbox. If it didn't, I'm sure it would be on the long list of sites that I like but rarely read.

Some people will tell you that RSS/RDF/XML/whatever-they're-calling-it-today will save the day here, someday. Maybe it will, but from what I've seen of it, I can't imagine how, since there still doesn't seem to be any convention to distinguish between headline feeds, like the DNA Lounge Slashbox, and full-content feeds, like this one of Boing Boing. From what I've seen of it, RSS is really good for headline-lists like Slashboxes, My Netscape, etc., but not for much else. There's still no notion of individual messages and threads: there's still no way to have it omit things you've already seen, and show you the things you haven't yet seen, even if their hierarchical and chronological orderings are totally different.

Headline lists are inherently about publishing rather than conversations, which is what makes them simpler. The one editor, many readers model is easier to manage and present than the many-participants model.

I still can't decide whether, when I write DNA updates, I should just link to them from here, or paste the HTML and duplicate it in both places. Neither is really the right thing. brad mentioned that they're working on a way of making it so that someone on LJ could subscribe to an RSS version of another site and have it presented as a regular journal entry, so maybe that's a better way to go than either posting a link, or pasting the text. I think that to make this work requires coming up with a new RSS-based convention for all participating websites to conform to. Maybe there is one already and I just don't know about it.

It's especially frustrating as I spent so many years working on mail/news readers, thinking about these problems and fine-tuning interfaces to make it easier to deal with vast quantities of information... and now the most interesting information out there is in a form that mail/news readers can't touch at all! All that thought and effort by all of those smart people is suddenly inapplicable. On the one hand, we have a class of applications with decades of effort put in to making it easy to manage large numbers of messages in them. And on the other hand, we've got ten zillion web sites full of messages, all in a format that no message-handling-program can come anywhere near.

I think I'd be happier if every single comment on every single journal in the world got emailed directly to me; then it would sit in a folder somewhere, threaded, until I chose to read it or delete it. (Though USENET is obviously a better model for making this scale than email: the model I'm thinking of is one where every message-oriented web site could be viewed as a newsgroup, or something analagous.)

brad also mentioned that the LJ crew are working on a notification system that will let you, e.g., set things up so that you get sent mail when someone makes a new post to a thread you found interesting, which will help, but it's still rather halfassed: it will send you a message to let you know that there are new messages. Presumably it will even be able to append those messages: but still, you end up with a mail folder full of messages from, instead of the messages themselves. Your good message-handler informs you that there are updates in this other halfassed message-handler over there.

And don't even get me started on the travesty the world has become when people think that Yahoo Mail is a mail reader, and Google Groups is a news reader. That's like comparing a Vespa to the Space Shuttle.

How can the content get continuously better, while the tools to manage it get continuously worse?

It's all quite mad, I tell you.

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New DNA Update, in which I argue with myself about the worthwhile-ness of our webcasts.

We saw The Scorpion King today: that movie is a lot of fun. Oh man, it is so much better than Episode II. (Though I will concede that Ep2 will spawn the better toys.) rzr_grl would groan every time there was a chain-mail-bikini moment, but I think it helped when I reminded her that she was supposed to be communing with her inner 13-year-old boy to properly enjoy a film like this. It was not as good as Conan the Barbarian, but hey, you can't touch the classics.

I'm enjoying the new friends-of-friends hack way more than I can explain.

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I am just a fucking wreck today. This whole webcasting thing is seriously bumming me out. I haven't been this depressed since we were deep in the throes of noise abatement, and it was looking like there was a good chance that we were never going to be able to open at all. I'm rapidly approaching the point where I just say "fuck it", turn off the webcasts and sell the computers. I've got a longer rant brewing in me about it, but I just don't feel like writing it down yet.

I never know whether stuff goes here or on the DNA site (another symptom of my life-long inability to separate work from non-work.)

There's this total pain in the ass bug in webcollage (the screen saver version): apparently Alta Vista changed their HTML again, and so webcollage is scraping URLs out of it wrongly now, and ends up requesting images from other sites with random crap like &rpos=X appended on the end. So now I'm getting a stream of love letters from people bitching at me for filling up their error logs with 404s.

So, I've fixed the bug, and it'll be in the next release of xscreensaver... and maybe in six months, everyone will have upgraded, and these people will stop seeing the 404s.


The latest version of Mozilla is crashing on the club kiosks, and some of the Mozilla folks have been trying to help me reproduce it in a way that will let them figure out why, because otherwise it'll be pretty embarrassing at their party when their product won't function on the club's computers. But hey, not my problem. I had about five minutes of stress about this the other day before I realized, "wait, this is so not my problem, and hasn't been for years."

And we still don't have a June flyer for the CODE because we still have no idea who's playing on the 13th.

There are people who have livejournals -- who look like grown-ups -- who were born after I graduated high school. This is deeply and fundamentally disturbing.

And I have a headache.

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Current Music: Concrete Blonde - When I Was A Fool

Download show cancelled

I'm sorry to report that the Download show on June 20th has been cancelled.

The band's representative had signed the contracts and webcast agreement, so we thought we were done: we went ahead and announced the show and started selling tickets. Two days later, they came back to us and said, "by the way, no webcast."

We webcast everything here at the DNA Lounge: it is one of the primary reasons this club exists. We never would have booked a show with a performer who was not ok with that (most of them see it as a benefit!) So the fact that we found out about it so late doesn't change that: no webcast, no show.

We're very sorry that we found out about this so late in the game. We didn't mean to get your hopes up unnecessarily. We really had every reason to believe that the deal was done, and the show was on.

I'm furious and depressed and went into a little more detail on the new DNA Update.

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Current Music: ClockDVA - Virtual Flesh


New DNA Update. And guess what it says? Why, I'll repeat it here for good measure:

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Current Music: Underworld - Pearl's Girl (Tin There)

New DNA Update.

I'm still spending 14 hours a day reading mail and hacking on screensavers. Ph33r my rockstar lifestyle! I'm still working on the Lavalite one that I mentioned a few days ago. baconmonkey had a few suggestions for how to speed it up, which I haven't gotten around to trying out yet, but I think I've finally gotten all the rotation stuff worked out. Now all my 3D screensavers react to the mouse: you can drag around in the window to rotate the objects. Lavalite is a little different in that the lights move with the object: it took me a while to wrap my brain around how you accomplish that, while still having the mouse-spinning thingy work sensibly. I ended up adding a few more features to my silly little LightLab program, which mostly exists as a side-effect of me figuring out how to do things in screen savers (kind of like how Nerds only exist as a side-effect of Skittles production, or something.)

This is one of the coolest things I've read in a while: DNA seen through the eyes of a coder, or, If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I really enjoyed this excerpt, too: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (of Boing Boing fame.) It reminds me a bit of John Varley. I wish more writers reminded me of John Varley. He was kind enough to pass along a copy of the not-yet-published book it's an excerpt from, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet...

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Current Music: Cop Shoot Cop - It Only Hurts When I Breathe

red hot lava!

Well it took long enough! I've been wanting to write a Lavalite screensaver for at least ten years, and I finally figured it out, thanks to more mining of Paul Bourke's fine pages. (Of course, it also helps that computers have gotten 30x faster in the intervening time.)

This is a combination of metaballs (alternative explanation here) and marching cubes. Basically, each bubble of lava is a few (4) overlapping spherical metaballs of various sizes that are following similar but slightly different steep, slow parabolic arcs from the bottom of the jar to the top and back. They are "30% fuzzy", so as they get near each other, they deform and combine. Then, for each frame, I generate a surface by running marching squares over it: basically, for each point in an NxNxN grid, you ask "is this point inside, or outside an object?" and from that, you can generate a lattice of triangles.

It's really slow. Just like real lavalites. Of course, if I wanted to do a proper simulation, I'd have it just sit there doing nothing for the first three hours after it started up. Somewhat surprisingly, the slow part is generating the scene, rather than rendering it: usually with 3D programs, it's the other way around.

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Current Music: Cabaret Voltaire - L21ST


I spent today reading about mega-long-term engineering projects. I'd read about most of this stuff years ago, but I checked it out again because of a recent Slashdot article about the plan to come up with a way to decorate the nuclear waste depositories in the desert with messages that will still be understandable in 10,000 years. Keeping in mind that the whole of recorded history only stretches back 6-8,000 years. The Salon article that prompted the Slashdot reference was idiotic: the bozo writing it obviously didn't actually read anything about the project, and chose to just make fun of it based on his preconceptions and what little some PR flack told him over the phone.

Anyway, there are some excerpts from the report here: I don't think I'd seen this level of detail before. (The full PDF report is here.)

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

Some of the designs are genuinely spooky. It's really interesting reading: neat potential solutions to a really hard problem: how do you communicate with someone who may know nothing of your language or iconography? Who might assume that your spooky-faces are there because you are hiding treasure?

There's more about this in Gregory Benford's Deep Time: he was a part of the group brainstorming about these ideas, and goes into more detail. (Beware of the weird duplication: whoever put that document up had a weird cut-and-paste mishap or two in the middle.)

A history of media, from prehistory to now: Media History Project. (No wonder I can't write floppies for this old Mac...)

On a less depressing topic, there's the 10,000 Year Clock: a giant clock that will keep correct time for 10KY, ticking once a year. Because they can, and because nobody builds to last. I first read this page in 1995:

When I was a kid, three decades ago, the future was a long way off -- so was the turn of the millennium. Dates like 1984 and 2001 were comfortably remote. But the funny thing is, that in all these years, the future that people think about has not moved past the millennium. It's as if the future has been shrinking one year, per year, for my entire life. 2005 is still too far away to plan for and 2030 is too far away to even think about. Why bother making plans when everything will change?

That really rang true: even four or five years before the millennium, the catch-phrase of the talking heads on TV was still "by the year 2000..." Are we in the future yet? Have we passed that asymptote? Well, they've built the first version of the clock, and are working on a larger one...

And I think this is the third time I've linked to this one in the last couple of months, but it's been on my mind: one of my favorite rants ever, The Past Sucks by Douglas Coupland:

Say to these annoying people, "Hey kids - the past wasn't like a trip to Waikiki: the only sure thing about the past is some ghastly disease, carnage, toil that defies all description, starvation, and boredom of a sort that makes waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles seem like Disneyland on heroin."

From the folks who brought you the clock, The Rosetta Project is trying to build a modern Rosetta Stone, preserving samples of the same texts in a thousand languages on an object that will last thousands of years. It's a really nifty design: the text begins at the outside rim of the disk, and quickly shrinks as it spirals inward, until it is microscopic. Which is an example of the kind of implicit communication these kinds of projects have to do: the shape of it says "there is more here, get a magnifier to see it." If it was all small, nobody would have noticed! But even without recognizing any of the letters, you can tell what's going on.

Reading about engineering things to last millennia gave me another nerdy thought. I'm a fan of the TV series "Stargate SG-1", whose villains are a parasitic alien race who live tens of thousands of years, and like to impersonate gods. Even though they have FTL travel, they tend to build things out of stone, using armies of human slaves. And after reading about the difficulties of truly long-term engineering, that starts to make a lot more sense!

This last one is just strange: The Mystery Pit of Oak Island: something was buried in a booby-trapped pit at least 160' deep hundreds of years ago, and over the centuries, a number of people have died trying to dig it up.

Somewhere in one of the above documents, someone used a phrase like "the abyss of time" and when I read about the Oak Island pit, I saw it as an analogy for the march of history: looking back at our own past over these vast spans of time is like trying to see into the murky depths of some un-plumbable pit. And if you think about constructing things to last thousands of years, you can't help but realize that you are down in that pit, and more muck is being piled on top of it forever. And you're trying to make something that glistens just enough that people up at ground level can see it: until they too get buried in the ever-darkening muck.

I think it was Woody Allen who said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying."

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Current Music: Leftfield - Original

physics mystery


  • a microwave that I've had for 6 or 7 years;
  • a set of plates and mugs that I've had for longer;
  • the statistical impossibility that all of these plates and mugs have not gone through this microwave many, many times.

Ok so how is it that sometimes, I'll nuke one of these vessels for the usual amount of time (say, 1:30 for tea, 5:00 for frozen food) and sometimes, the food/liquid will come out the temperature to which I've become accustomed... but the plate or mug will feel like it's been in a kiln for an hour. Like, it's so much hotter than normal that I've lost skin.

I wasn't able to determine if it was just one plate that behaved this way, since they all look alike, and it happened infrequently. But yesterday it happened to a mug for the first time. So today, I nuked it again (same contents: tap water) and it did the same thing. So my theory now is that somehow, the material these things are made of have gone though some kind of state change, and are trying to kill me.

Other theories include:

  • Plates have been abducted by aliens and replaced with super-soldier alien hybrid plates;
  • Experimental nanobots have escaped and rewritten the plate DNA to turn them into superconductors;
  • Neighbors' time-travel experiments have gone awry, causing some of my plates to be travelling forward more slowly, thus, the plate spends more time in the nuker than the food.


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Current Music: Veruca Salt - Shutterbug