More slaw?

Moore’s Law has exerted a strange pull on the modern psyche for the past dozen years or so. What was once simply a statistical prediction has become a mythological imperative with the apparent force of physical law. For years it was an exciting harbinger of progress, but recently it has taken on a darker tone, as all gods eventually do. Exuberance has become fretfulness: we must keep up with it (it is a law, after all) and yet how, and to what end? It becomes a burden… what must we sacrifice to appease this pitiless law? And if we fail, how will we be punished?

And now even Moore’s Meta-Law is in danger of becoming obsolete. Moore’s Law, as you cannot fail to know, says that the computing power of a single chip will double every 18 months. Moore’s Meta-Law states that usage of the phrase “Moore’s Law” in the world press will double every 12 months. After years of solid predictability, there now appear to be both long term and short term limitations to Moore’s Meta-Law. A Google search this evening reveals a surprisingly feeble 143,000 documents that refer to the fabled law.

In the immediate future, we can expect to see continuing heavy impact from events in the Middle East as they drain the available reservoir of journalistic ink: more politics means less Moore. Is this the future you deserve? Don’t you deserve Moore? Working on exactly this principle, several House Democrats eager to revitalize the tech sector have proposed a “More Moore’s Law Law” that would legally coerce journalists to include more mentions of Moore’s Law in their articles in order to bring us in line with the prescribed trend, perhaps thereby vaulting the economy out of recession.

In the long run though, even if we pull out of the current downturn, we can expect to hit the true physical limitations of Moore’s Meta-Law before the close of this decade. According to some projections, by late 2008, every word appearing in print will be “Moore”, “Law”, or words that sound like them. Beyond this horizon predictions are sketchy, but we should remember that in the past researchers have always managed to overcome obstacles that seemed all but insurmountable. Dr. Leonard Chen of Lucent’s Bell Labs observes that “we may yet work out a satisfactory semaphore system, not unlike Morse Code, in which the dashes and dots are replaced by the words Moore and Law.” Armed with this “Moore’s Code” we could, in theory, stay on track for another three years or so merely by increasing the total output of published matter in the world’s press. Beyond this it’s anybody’s guess. But ingenuity has always kept us on track in the past, and if sacrificing meaningful communication is the cost of progress, then Moore’s Law Law Moore’s Law Moore’s Moore’s Law!

Bookmarklets to the rescue

As part of my cleanup work over the weekend, I was trying to untangle some Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) problems I was having with my blog. The problem goes like this: any element on your page, like a block of text, can inherit a property, like its color or its font size, from any of several style definitions that surround it. For simple style sheets, this is straightforward. But as the style sheets you use (particularly those you didn’t write) get more complicated it can be hard to deduce why the page doesn’t look right. Was the problem due to the <p> paragraph style or the <div> style or the <span> style or what? I figured there must be some diagnostic tools out there, and with the aid of Google I quickly found just the thing: bookmarklets.

Bookmarklets use CSS and JavaScript magic to instantly change your web page in useful ways. Jesse Ruderman’s amazing ancestor bookmarklet does exactly what I was looking for. Hovering over any element on your page will reveal the inheritance structure. For instance, the text below has the

HTML > BODY > DIV#content > > DIV.blogbody > BLOCKQUOTE

Try it! Click on this link, and then hover over this page somewhere. Believe me, this is marvelous information. Now go back to Jesse’s Bookmarklet page and check out some of the other cool loot, like the one that zaps cheap effects on cheesy web pages. There’s a lot of good stuff here.

Spring cleaning

Happy Memorial Day!

I’ve spent a some time in the last few days remembering and cleaning up a lot of old stuff around the site. Now all the styles should be pointing at the same style sheet for a least a modicum of consistency. Also, I have dusted off the page where I list all the writing I did before (and some after) I started the blog: Paracelsus Writes.

I started the Star Chamber website with three other guys in April of 1996, and between the four of us, we had something new up on the site once every week, more or less. This was, of course, before blogs were invented, so we were kind of making it up as we went. We wrote longer pieces and we posted them less often than your typical blog. If we were starting the same thing today, it would probably be a group blog. But hey! We kept it up for four years before we lost steam as a group. Now I’m the last one standing on the site, and it has largely been co-opted by my blog. But all the old files are still there. If you want to know more about the other members of the Star Chamber and what they wrote, look at the About the Star Chamber page. And if you’re really interested in getting a taste of the old site, a collection of Star Chamber writing is available via Peanut Press for convenient reading on your PDA or handheld computer. Check it out:
The Star Chamber: Writings from the Web

Is this a pipe?

I’ve always been interested in semiotics, but I find most discussions of it ridiculously abstract and off-putting. Then one day I’m searching for something random (“images of cartoon hands”) and Google lands me on this Semiotics for Beginners page. It is what it says: an introduction, lucid and enjoyable, to the quicksand world of semiotics. I particularly liked this section on modality and representation. In my essay on protein synthesis and the meaning of life, I talk about the general concept of meaning (what does meaning mean?) and the human urge to attach magical meaning to language. This is the realm of semiotics, and this website is a great introduction to the topic, including a discussion of Magritte’s famous painting of a non-pipe. As the author of the site, Daniel Chandler, says:

Any representation is more than merely a reproduction of that which it represents: it also contributes to the construction of reality… Even if we do not adopt the radical stance that ‘the real world’ is a product of our sign systems, we must still acknowledge that there are many things in the experiential world for which we have no words and that most words do not correspond to objects in the known world at all. Thus, all words are ‘abstractions’, and there is no direct correspondence between words and ‘things’ in the world.

What is amazing and wonderful is that any such correspondence arose at all.

Veni, vidi, wiki

The two most valuable new developments in internet software in the last five years are blogging and wiki. They are both fundamentally new forms that arise because publishing is now extremely cheap. Blogging gives a voice to one person, whereas wiki gives a voice to a community. Blogging is certainly the better known of the two, which isn’t surprising given that it is easier to coordinate the efforts of one person than those of a crowd. Even so, I have been surprised that wiki, which is so useful and widespread where I work, has not made more of a splash. The short course on wiki goes like this: anyone can add, edit, or remove pages from a wiki site. What sounds like a recipe for chaos is surprisingly stable. The New York Times put together a good article about it:
Business Is Toying With a Web Tool. As I mentioned, though, we have been using it with great success at my company for over a year. The grandfather of all wikis is the PortlandPatternRepository. If you’re curious about how a wiki really works, read this OneMinuteWiki page from that site.

Finally, shifting to blogs for a second, here’s another New York Times article about the quasi-public lifestyle that goes along with dating a blogger: Dating a Blogger, Reading All About It. It’s nice to see a blogging article that isn’t about Blogging and Its Impact on Modern Journalism. This is the more human, and decidedly more common, side of blogging.

Can’t … stop … gamba-ing

After I read JMike’s gambit comment here, I started poking around some more about the etymology of the word gambero. Gambero is the Italian word for prawn or shrimp, and gamba is the word for leg. I was convinced that it must derive from “that little feller with all them wiggly legs.” My web research turned up an Italian dictionary with an etymological entry that seemed to confirm my guess (my Italian, she is a no so good), but along the way I also found this dandy site on the etymology of anatomical words that mixes in famous paintings for good measure: Medical Etymology. It seems to be maintained by the clever and obsessive W. Wertelecki, M.D. His pages are long entertaining riffs on related words and how they fit together. On the subject of thighs, he points out the connection between gamba (Italian), jambon (French), jamon (Spanish), and ham (you know). Mmm, ham.

Was Shakespeare a Sulawesi Macaque monkey?


But as I learned from Mad Scientist Mike Onken, some Sulawesi Macaques at the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park have been employed to see if the reverse was true, putting to the test the old adage “Give a million monkeys enough time and they will write the complete works blah blah blah adf;j;as hbanana banaba.” They’ve even got a (publicity stunt) book you can buy: Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare by Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan (monkeys all).

Not to gloat, of course, but we have previously dealt with this very topic at length at the Star Chamber. Read this informative interview with Miles the Talking Monkey.

A better way to search

You really owe it to yourself to try this out: Dave’s Quick Search Taskbar Toolbar Deskbar

I originally saw this on the Joel on Software site where Joel was touting it as an incredibly cool and useful too. I downloaded it, and sure enough, it’s been the best addition to my computer in the last year. At first it just seems like a quick way to launch a Google search. “But I already have the Google Toolbar” you may say, and a fine tool that is. But the Deskbar goes way beyond that. It has a zillion built-in customized searches, so you can just as quickly and easily search for a book at Amazon or the weather for your zip code or a stock price. There’s also a cool tool-building tool called the Search Wizard that helps you create your own customized searches.

One of the best features is the fact that you can get to it without taking your hands off the keyboard, so you can do quick searches in the middle of other tasks in minimal time. Let’s say you’re on the phone, and somebody mentions the Viola da Gamba. Without missing a beat, you type Windows Key + S followed by “Viola da Gamba!” The exclamation point does a speedy “I’m feeling lucky” search, and voila (I mean viola) you’re looking at the Viola da Gamba Society of America website. There you quickly learn that Viola da Gamba means leg-viol, or violin played between the legs, and not “Shrimp Violin” (Viola da Gambero) as you suspected. Embarrassing faux pas averted… Dave’s Deskbar saves the day.

A model of tRNA

In my last entry, I mentioned that you can print out DNA for viruses and genetic programs. You can, for example, order genes printed to your specifications at Blue Heron Biotechnology. But you can also print out large 3-D models of molecules, avoiding the hassle of those crappy kits from organic chemistry class. Through the magic of rapid prototyping 3-d printing capability, you can make models of an ever-increasing array of interesting molecules.

trna.gifThis is a picture of my favorite molecule: transfer RNA. I like it so much, I had the people at 3-D Molecular Designs custom-build me a model. You can get your own for $30 these days. I paid a lot more than that because (A) I got mine last year and (B) because I asked for a particular molecule: 1yfg yeast initiator tRNA. You can read what David Goodsell said about tRNA in his Molecule of the Month column. But if you’re interested in understanding the meaning of life and how it relates to tRNA, read my new essay on the topic: The pen of Thoth and the meaning of life.