Thirty pounds a day

I read an intriguing article in the Boston Globe (unavailable online to deadbeat surfers like you and me) about big pumpkins, the really gigantic pumpkins, 1000 pounds and more, that loll on groaning platforms as they compete for blue ribbons at the county fair. Late August is the peak growth time, and some of these monsters will pack on 30 pounds in one day (the equivalent of almost four gallons of water). The article pointed out that giant pumpkins (almost all of them are Howard Dill’s Dill’s Atlantic Giant® Pumpkin breed) are getting giant-er every year, with the record size growing at a remarkable rate. Curious? Check out (where else?) It occurred to me that this is a good example of how the web supercharges a community of hobbyists. Now big-pumpkin people from all over the world can get in touch with one another and instantly share their best techniques, brag in their Grower Diaries, and peek at one another’s Pumpkin Cam. I find web-induced optimization like this to be both exhilarating and terrifying. Things are moving so fast.

There are a thousand similar stories. Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire gives us another example of network of horticultural enthusiasts supercharged by the web (and other forces): marijuana. In this interview on the Borders site, A Conversation With Michael Pollan, he explains why “the drug war is probably the best thing that ever happened to the cannabis plant.”

Before the drug war, most of the pot smoked in America was very mild stuff from Mexico. The plant barely had a presence here. Then, at the behest of the U.S., Mexico started spraying its marijuana crop with paraquat, an herbicide, and President Reagan sent helicopters into Humboldt County, California, to rout the pot growers. The result? He created a domestic market for marijuana and drove the growers, and the plant, indoors, where it has thrived. The breeding work done in this country since 1980 has revolutionized the plant to the point where it is now five times more potent, half the size, and grows to maturity in two months under a high-tech regime that is truly a marvel to behold. Result: Cannabis now has a vast new habitat—the basements and closets across American where it now happily grows. When you look at the drug war from the perspective of natural history, and from the perspective of this plant, it appears in a whole new light.”

We think we have domesticated these plants; they are polite enough not to point out that it is in fact the other way around.

This one goes up to eleven…

A few months ago (June 16th, to be exact) I was observing that the Bose Acoustic Wave radio/CD player has a volume control that goes up to 100 in steps of two instead of going up to 50 by ones. You can’t dial in an odd number for the volume. Why?

Since then, the Rambles weblog has been tirelessly researching the issue. Actually, one of the usability specialists where I work went on a business trip to the Bose factory in South Carolina, and so I asked her to investigate. This she graciously did, and the answer, as suspected, is that from the designer’s point of view, a maximum volume of 100 arbitrary units is much better than the same maximum volume being assigned to 50 arbitrary units. But the software had been written to break it into 50 steps, so they just multiplied everything by two. The new maximum volume meant that the two-digit LCD volume display was no longer adequate, so they had to order a special display to manage the “1” in 100. I know this is how design works, but it seems particularly pointless in this case because nobody ever turns the volume ALL THE WAY UP TO 100. But if you make industrial design a top priority, as Bose has and as Apple has, this is the kind of price you pay. And in general it seems people are happy to pay it.

How long can you tread water?

From a highly-placed source (and good friend) deep inside EDS comes this cheerful reminder of Standard Business English in 2002.

EDS is going through a long term initiative called “Global Competitive Resourcing” which is corporate-speak for “If you are a staff-level software engineer, your job is going to India.”

I understand that in India they’re terrified that all their business is going to flee to Russia. So maybe your job will have a refreshing layover in Bangalore, do a little shopping, check out the local temple, and then hop a plane for Moscow.

Greatness brushing II

More about Levy’s Newsweek piece on blogs… In addition to the essay itself, Levy began his own blog (A Blog About Writing About Blogs) in order to illustrate his point. It looks like a toy that he won’t develop, but it links to two sites (codestore and Escribitionist) where people were blogging about being interviewed before the piece saw the light of day. If I were a journalist, it might give me pause to realize that all my interviewees were going to publish their version of my interview that same day.

My brush with greatness

I was interviewed by someone at Newsweek magazine for an article about blogs. Naturally, I pictured myself with a big splashy cover story, torrents of traffic headed my way, a quick round on the talk shows to promote my new book, and a second home in Tuscany (something quite modest, really, in a Tuscan sort of way). But they wrote back and said they didn’t end up using any of the [boring] material from my [boring] interview. I can’t wait to tell Jay Leno this story. He’ll get a kick out of it.

The article in question, by Steven Levy, just appeared today, and it’s a good one, despite its shortcomings in the interviewee department (I was gratified to see that the woman who interviewed me was credited in the endnotes as having helped). Levy makes a few good points. One is that blogs deliver on the initial promise of the Internet: publishing made cheap and easy. Because self-publishing by blog truly is cheap and easy now, there is an uncountable proliferation of blogs out there, “dark matter,” as he calls it. Most of them are not particularly clever, but as a social phenomenon they are knitting people together, lots of them, helping them connect with like-minded fellow-bloggers. As Levy says,

The genius of this scheme is that you can get going without any mental heavy lifting. “There’s a low barrier to entry,” says Hourihan, one of the Pyra cofounders. “You don’t have to come up with a whole essay.” In fact, even a simple link and a wry comment can get you started. The blog’s raison d’etre can show up late to the party. By your comments and links, you eventually define your interests and ally yourself to the cluster of the Blog-osphere where you’re likely to find others like you.

Working the network

I was touring around Wordsworth Books in Cambridge yesterday afternoon when I stumbled across
Linked: The New Science of Networks
by Albert-László Barabási. I don’t know about you, but I keep running across network theory everywhere I look, from biotech applications, to Internet protocols, to six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon style pop sociology. Networks are hot. Now is the time to learn about networks. Is this the book to learn from? The reviews on the jacket looked encouraging, but then, they always do.

Then I stumbled across a review of the book at He liked it. I bought the last book he recommended (“Word Freak,” a chronicle of the competitive Scrabble world), it was damn good. So I reckon I’ll get this one too.

Good books

A first! A noble, generous, and tasteful reader of the Rambles Weblog sent me a book from my Amazon wish list out of the clear blue sky. Now I can no longer complain that this site has never done anything to pay for itself.

And what was the book that arrived magically at my doorstep? It was R.A.C. Parker’s superb “The Second World War,” an everything-you-need-to-know-about-World-War-II-in-one-compact-paperback book. I recommend it without hesitation, particularly if you can get it for free. Read my (brief) review of the book at the Rambles Bookshop, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Paracelsus Rambles Weblog.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently playing around with the bookshop page. The backbone of it is an XML list that I manage by hand and then convert with an XSL stylesheet to HTML. The process works very well (although XSL is an oddball language to get used to), but I kept thinking there had to be an easier way than tedious data entry to get the author, title, and images all typed in. I figured someone had to have created a web service for this by now. A quick visit to gave me exactly what I was looking for in about three minutes. I don’t know who Cheeso is, but his book search web service did the trick. I wrote a little MATLAB code to format everything and resize the image, and presto, armed with only the ISBN number, I can generate a nicely formatted XML version of all the relevant book information plus a lovely little thumbnail. This is the first time I saw firsthand how valuable web services are going to be.

Tragedy of the Commons, circa 2002

Here’s an article at Salon talking about the perennial problem of how a common resource, in this case the music downloading network Gnutella, can be ruined by the greedy. Gnutella bandwidth bandits “This incredibly selfish behavior causes a flood of query traffic. Although it maximizes results for the local user, it impacts the network greatly. If every client behaved like Qtrax, Gnutella would surely fall.” I’m sure Atlantic Records would be so sad if Gnutella were to fail because of greedy assholes. A cynic might observe that thieves hate thieves.

I work on a program called MATLAB, and once several years ago on a business trip to Singapore, we stopped at a place called Sim Lim Square, notorious for pirated software and ultra-cheap computers. Sure enough, it was easy to find someone selling the very latest version of MATLAB (and twenty other programs on the same CD) for $5. In the same store, the owner had posted numerous signs bearing the words “SHOPLIFTERS WILL BE TURNED OVER TO THE POLICE.” And who can blame him?

Call me sometime

Has anyone ever told you to give them a call at 212-479-7990? That’s the number of the New York Rejection Line, a blow-off service provided free-of-charge to the New York community (or anyone untroubled by the 212 area code). Check out the tag line for “Someone won’t leave you alone?
Give them ‘your’ number: 212-479-7990.”
They’ve done a nice job of packaging up several kinds of self-serve rejection. You can preview them online here. As a rejectee you can opt to listen to a therapeutic comfort specialist, a sad poem, or a message that encourages you to cling to unrealistic hope.

I used to use

I used to use as my favorite notification mechanism. But no more. SpyOnIt looks very ill, ill unto death, sad to say. It was a good service, but then again, I never was clear on where their money came from. Now I’m using — sign up in the box at the bottom of the left panel if you want to be notified when the Rambles weblog is updated. Of course, I’m not sure how NotifyList makes their money, but why worry? Everything’s going to be fine, right?