World of Mathematics

February 28th, 2003 § Comments Off on World of Mathematics § permalink

Eric Weisstein’s World of Mathematics is an incredibly cool math encyclopedia “intended for students, educators, math enthusiasts, and researchers”. The entries cover a lot of subjects in the main areas of this beatiful science, and some of them are quite comprehensive.

The only problem I found with it is that I can’t stop reading the entries…

Star Trek: Nemesis

February 25th, 2003 § Comments Off on Star Trek: Nemesis § permalink

Last Friday, my wife and I went to the movies to see Star Trek: Nemesis. As I wrote before, I was waiting expectantly for this tenth installment in the movie series, especially considering that Star Trek is one of the things related to science fiction that I enjoy the most. Although I was a little afraid because of the bombastic failure of the movie in the USA box office, the movie didn’t disappoint me. » Read the rest of this entry «

Lost Horizon

February 25th, 2003 § 10 comments § permalink

Last week, I reread Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, one of the classical Utopias described in literature and also one of the most known of them. In fact, the place in which the story takes place, Shangri-La, became, partly because of a homonymous movie directed by Frank Capra, a synonymous of Utopia itself.

For those who never heard about it, the book tells the adventures of a group of four persons (three English citizens and an American one) who, while escaping a revolt in Indian lands, found that they have been kidnapped for an unknown purpose, and that they are being taken to a similarly unknown place. The flight ends when the plane crashes in the high Tibetan plateaus. The pilot dies and the four companions are left stranded in the snow to hope for survival and a return to civilization. They start seeking shelter just to be greeted by a mysterious Mr. Chang who invites them to visit a “monastery” in the vicinity. Lacking options, they agree to follow him, and a few hours later are presented to the idyllic valley of Shangri-La where they will find themselves involved in equally mysterious secrets.

To avoid telling more about the plot, I will just say the story is much more about the loss of a Utopia and the human contradictions when searching for such a condition than the usual sermon about the benefits of this kind of society. Even so, the book follows the typical pattern of describing an unknown culture in which a character belonging to the latter explains to the outside characters his civilization in deliberate infodumps.

I liked the book as much as when I read it for the first time, although its weak points are rather evident. The most obvious relates to the characters that seem too superficial. Also, the interactions that take place in the book feel unnatural sometimes. Hilton better handles the main character, Hugh Conway, but by the end of the history Conway is as one-dimensional as the others. To Hilton’s credit, however, he marvelously constructs Shangri-La’s atmosphere.

I’m going into details about the philosophy present in the book because I think each reader should take his own conclusions about them. Merely as information, I reproduce what Chang says about it at a given point in the book: “We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.”

In short, although the book has some weaknesses, it makes for a pleasant reading, and Shangri-La will likely remain in the reader’s mind for a long time. As one of the classical Utopias, it’s also a required reading for any book lover.

Tired

February 20th, 2003 § Comments Off on Tired § permalink

Posting has been and will be light for a few more days here. After a three week programming marathon across three different projects I’m utterly tired — especially considering the results. The first week was unsuccessfully spent trying to make an ActiveX work, but when it ended I had to give up and archive the project for another try in another time. The second weeks went for a web-based wizard that was discarded later because the specification had changed. And the last of these weeks was spent coercing a COM library into submission. It was a long fight, but at least I won.

In the next week I’m in a fourth project, and in the following week, judging from what I’m seeing, I will be in yet another project. Did I mention I hate such task switches?

Patriot II

February 18th, 2003 § Comments Off on Patriot II § permalink

Ben Hammersley points to a scary article about the legal ramifications of Patriot II, the sequel to the USA Patriot Act that granted broad powers upon the US federal government to fight against terrorism in the aftermath of September 11, but had a side effect of chilling part of the individual liberties of the USA population.

Hammersley says the article is probably the scariest thing he has ever read, and I agree. I’m impressed that a country considered the land of freedom is becoming increasingly similar to the dictatorial governments that plagued South America in the last 50 years. May God have mercy on the citizens of the United States.

Oddpost

February 18th, 2003 § Comments Off on Oddpost § permalink

Oddpost is an impressive webmail application, albeit being nearly an Outlook Express clone and working only in IE 5. In fact, it’s so nicely designed that you can almost forget it’s web-based. I’m not a fan of applications that run on browsers, but I know they’re necessary sometimes. What I definitely abhor are applications that are halfway between a web page and an application. Oddpost seems to be a good example of how good web-based interfaces should be done based on what its demo shows.

(via RTFM)

Google buys Pyra

February 16th, 2003 § 1 comment § permalink

In a move that surprised many people, Google buys Pyra Labs, the company behind Blogger and Blog*Spot.

As Google didn’t announce anything yet, there is a lot of speculation about what the news mean. I still don’t know what to make of it, but it’s obvious many things will change in the blogosphere in the coming days — hopefully, in a good direction.

Update: Cory Doctorow has posted some very interesting thoughts about the news.

Update: Nick Denton makes a proposal for Boogle.

Coverage around the blogosphere:

  • Nick Denton: A more interesting question: will Google use weblog links to improve Google News?
  • Matt Webb: Google are building the Memex
  • Ben Hammersley: It’s a distributed early warning system for Google’s spiders. One million zeitgeist monitors just signed on to Google’s staff. A bargain for them, whatever the cost.
  • Shelley Powers: Google + Blogger = What?
  • Karl Martino: Google is attempting to swallow the web. It will get a belly ache.
  • Anil Dash: Once Google’s plan becomes clearer, it’ll be possible to see whether Google’s adoption of part of the blogosphere is prescient or unfortunately incomplete.
  • Jason Shellen: Well, looks like someone scooped us on our own story.
  • Cory Doctorow: Holy crap!
  • Evan Williams: Holy crap!
  • Joi Ito: This is going to be tricky.
  • Jeremy Zawodny: Cool. Go Google!

Assorted news:

Hosting Problems

February 14th, 2003 § Comments Off on Hosting Problems § permalink

In the last two weeks this site has experienced some service interruptions. Three days ago, it was out for most of the night. I talked to the people who host the site, and they told me another client was running a script that was frequently going haywire and bringing MySQL down. They also told me they still hadn’t identified that person yet. I know it seems pretty strange, but that’s what they said.

Today I received an e-mail from them warning about an emergency maintenance starting today at 11 PM (I’m at GMT -02 now). It’s scheduled to end tomorrow at 6 AM. So, if the site doesn’t come back you know what happened…

DevEdge redesign

February 14th, 2003 § Comments Off on DevEdge redesign § permalink

DevEdge, Netscape’s Web technology portal, introduced a few days ago its redesigned layout based on XHTML 1.0 and CSS. The redesign is intended to be a showcase to help developers understand and apply new technologies to create cross-platform sites with rich markup based on the W3C Web standards.

The document that explains the design changes and motivations makes for a very interesting reading.

Blogs and 1984: anything in common?

February 13th, 2003 § Comments Off on Blogs and 1984: anything in common? § permalink

Randomly browsing the Web yesterday, I found this post in a blog:

A cool thing about blogs is that every blogger kind of assumes the same job of the central character of 1984, who works as a “manipulator of the past”, creating and undoing events that happened.

You go to a blog today and read something. In two days, that thing is not there anymore, almost as it never had been.

That’s an interesting idea: facts that only exist for moments, sentences easily undone.

(Translated from the Portuguese original.)

In my opinion, this is a false analogy. It betrays a lack of understanding about both 1984 and the blog phenomenon as it happens today. Even if the last sentence is considered to be referring to personal facts — as opposed to facts shared in a wider scale, whether socially or geographically — the idea expressed by the aforementioned text is still invalid.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a widely known book. I will risk saying that it’s the most known science-fiction book of all times, and certainly the most popularized Dystopia. One of its “characters”, the Big Brother, has found its home in the mankind’s collective imagination. The central character the aforementioned text refers too is Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party employed in the Ministry of Truth where he spends all his days rewriting the past under the orders of the IngSoc (the Party as a whole). One example of this rewriting is seen when the Party announces that the weekly ration of chocolate will increase to 20g and Winston must erase all previous references to a 30g quota.

In the light of this example, it’s easy to see why the idea shown in the text — that blogs are instances of manipulation of facts — doesn’t hold water. The very nature of blogs and related services tends to create stronger ties between reported events preserving not only the reality of those events, but also the personal reactions to those events and the chains of analysis, comments, and discussions around them.

A recent example was Trent Lott‘s resignation because of his thoughtless declarations. When the organized media was already starting to ignore the issue and deal with it as old news, some of the most influent bloggers in the blogosphere started to make a lot of noise around the topic and unearth more pertinent information about Lott’s words. Later, after Lott had resigned, many considered that the discussion that ensued because those bloggers didn’t let the subject die had played a huge part in the Senator’s downfall.

A blog, as a form of personal expression, denies the very goal of the Party imagined by Orwell in 1984, which is total population control. That was easily seen in the censorship imposed on Blogspot by the Chinese government a few time ago. As many people commented at the time, the undeclared intention of the censorship was deny access to the Western ideas about free thought to the Chinese people. To the Chinese government — which is a dictatorial government striving to follow in the steps of 1984’s IngSoc Party — the ideas blog bring represent a danger to its status quo. Also, at the time many people around the Internet offered to mirror Chinese blogs to preserve what they had to say, that is, those people wanted to do the exact opposite of what the author of the text mentioned says about blogs. If a sovereign State today reached the point of population control depicted in 1984, blogs would some of the first forms that would no longer exists by then.

Even personal bits of the sort “Where were you when [insert some fact here] happened” contribute to the aggregate of information that can be preserved for future retrieval. Also, the gradual spreading of information in the Web represents a safeguard against its destruction or corruption. From every angle you look, blogs are in direct opposition to the kind of manipulation Orwell described.

It’s noteworthy that the very existence of the concept of permalinks denies the volatility suggested in the text aforementioned. Permalinks ensure facts mentioned somewhere else survive in a universe where information is in constant movement.

A last point to consider is information retrieval. Blog archives, a default practice, represent another barrier to manipulation of information. They allow past events to be understood and validated long after they happened. Of course, there are occasions when archives will be unreliable or even disappear, but the very distributed nature of the Web serves to create new associations and new links that can preserve most of what really happened. The missing pieces can usually be found in other places. Obviously, manipulation can still happen, but those mechanisms just described will almost always contribute to avoid or correct it completely.

In short, contrary to the affirmations made in the text mentioned, blogs are in truth a relatively efficient system to preserve the report of facts that happened. Obviously, it’s not a perfect system as humans are behind it. Nonetheless, it’s pretty impossible to construe them as serving to the same manipulative practices depicted in 1984.

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