Wikipedia on Slashdot

Wikipedia is one of the wonders of our age. It just keeps getting bigger, and I often find now that when I google to learn more about a topic, the first or second item returned is a very good article on Wikipedia. All free, built from nothing by everybody in less than three years.

Slashdot hosted a question-and-answer format with Wikipedia founder Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales. Slashdot | Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales Responds. Here’s an excerpt that captures his philosophy in a nutshell.

It is my intention to get a copy of Wikipedia to every single person on the planet in their own language. It is my intention that free textbooks from our wikibooks project will be used to revolutionize education in developing countries by radically cutting the cost of content. … Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.

Basically what I think works in a wikis is to trust people to do the right thing, and trust them as much as you can possibly stand it, until it hurts your head and makes you scared for what they’re going to break. Because that is what works.

The next boom

Between Google’s IPO, its Gmail venture, Wikipedia, and the rise of a vigorous blogging culture, I believe we are entering the next period of go-go Internet excitement. A lot of good stuff is happening, and if I were Microsoft, I would be concerned. The next big trends, by and large, are online services that you can do through a basic browser (i.e. not a proprietary Microsoft rich client). Starting with email, Google has an excellent platform to eat at the edges of the Microsoft empire one Office product at a time.

And things are finally happening again in the browser world, with the momentum shifting to free yet innovative products like Firefox and Mozilla. Read Ben Hammersley’s article on the Guardian: The second browser war.

Bloglines uber Alles

I’m a big fan of Bloglines, the free online newsfeed aggregator. I keep talking about how aggregators are a big deal, and as time passes I believe this more and more. And aggregators are a natural fit for an online service like Bloglines (as opposed to a downloadable client like FeedDemon), because they can benefit from a sort of “super-aggregation” across all Bloglines users. I get good recommendations on new blogs to subscribe to, and of course I can use the exact same setup at home and at work. Here’s my current personal newsfeed list.

Here’s an example of why aggregators are so damned useful. I wanted to follow the Tour de France, but I’m not a huge cycling fan; I was just hopping on the Lance Armstrong bandwagon. So I wanted to have a quick and easy way to check the cycling headlines every day. I found the page I wanted on the BBC’s site: BBC Sport | Other Sports | Cycling | UK Edition. From my Bloglines account, I subscribed to the RSS feed for this page, and voila! I had a simple but effective headline news about exactly the story I was interested in. No need to scan through the sports pages. And now that Lance has picked up trophy number six, I can unsubscribe and stop paying attention to cycling news.

It turns out that Jon Udell also likes Bloglines. Check out his comments here.

Racing to the Moon


This book is built around the very human stories of the engineers (we’ve heard enough about the astronauts) who built a machine that took men to the moon and back. In less than eight years, they built a great big machine that took people to the surface of the moon and back. The authors have a real flair for digging into the details that make the stories and the people come to life, underscoring this is how it really happened. All engineers should read this book; it’s immensely entertaining, but it’s also a real sourcebook of stories about how to get extraordinarily complex engineering projects done on time and on budget. Caldwell Johnson, one of the lead designers of the Apollo vehicle, sums it up well:

After a while, you really become appalled that you’ve gotten yourself involved in the thing. At first, it’s an academic exercise. And then the first thing you know, there’s people building these things, and they are really getting ready to do it, and you start thinking: Have I made a real bad judgment somewhere, and the damn thing is just not going to work at all?

Star Chamber reference: July 21, 2000.

Superlegitimate Japan

Nick Currie, a.k.a. Momus, is a musician who lives in Japan and keeps a clever blog called Click Opera. I came across his excellent entry on Japanese-ness recently: Superlegitimacy. He makes a number of sharp observations about the differences between East and West, beginning with his reverie about the strange behavior of his train conductor.

At each station he made an immaculate white-gloved gesture — a series of florid manual curlicues more like the gestures of an orchestral conductor than a train driver. He pointed at the TV screens in his console showing the doors, then pulled the train away with both gloved hands on his accelerator lever, uttering as if by compulsion his ecstatic falling cry: ‘Kkkkyyyyyoooooooo!’

Did the conductor have Tourette’s, or a mild form of autism? No. He was Japanese. He was at peace and at home. He was superlegitimate. When you feel superlegitimate, it’s hard to go wrong.

Sundials by computer

Suppose you wanted to build your own sundial. Where would you start? If you know how to use MATLAB, I can tell you exactly what to do. As part of my day job, I work on an online community called MATLAB Central. Recently we’ve added the ability to upload web pages there that have been published from MATLAB files, thereby allowing a nice mixture of prose and algorithm. Here is a document I created called Building Sundials. All the code demonstrated was derived from code I found on De Zonnewijzerkring, a real treasure trove of material on sundials.

Sundials have historically shown an appealing blend of art and science. Computation shows you where the sun will go, but the form presented can be quite beautiful. Sundials dating back to antiquity are often adorned with mottoes, exhorting the viewer to carpe the diem or reflect on the passage of time. One of my favorites is also one of the briefest:


We pursue a shadow.

Paris besieged

The Fall of Paris

This is the first of Horne’s trilogy about Franco-German mischief; the other two are about the World Wars. I hadn’t realized how much the Franco-Prussian war set up World War I. If the French are to be chastised for their harsh terms at Versailles in 1918, then the Prussians must answer for what they squeezed out of Paris in 1871. The triumphant unification of Germany actually happened at Versailles even as France was on the verge of surrender. The subsequent removal of so much territory in Alsace and Lorraine virtually guaranteed future conflict. Even an unphilosophical reader must feel a certain poignancy when pondering the endless misery that was being sown for future generations. Furthermore, the Paris Commune that followed the capitulation taught Karl Marx important lessons that were later applied with great success by Lenin. I didn’t know much about French nineteenth century history, but this weird little war is so singular it makes a compelling read.

Computer phages

The similarities between the computer viruses and “real” biological viruses are getting more profound all the time. There’s already a good case to be made for the fact that the Internet is a true ecological space, a virtual hothouse inhabited by rapidly mutating organisms. Just this week CNET reported on a worm that sleeps to avoid detection. That is, it has a virulent phase when it causes mischief and a quiescent phase when it lays low to avoid being seen.

This struck me as remarkably similar to the behavior of the much studied lambda phage, a virus that infests hapless E. coli bacteria. Under certain conditions (look here for a full explanation) the wily phage goes into hiding in the bacterium’s DNA, where it waits for a trigger to make it nasty again. So we have the same pattern of virulence and quiescence. Are virus authors actively copying Mother Nature? I doubt it. But a sound evolutionary idea is a sound evolutionary idea. What else can we conclude from reviewing several billion years worth of biology? This: viruses are not likely to go away anytime soon.

Fast DNA duplication

The New Scientist reports on a novel DNA duplication technique called helicase-dependent amplification, or HDA, that promises to speed up and simplify the process required to duplicate (amplify) small amounts of DNA so that you do useful stuff with it. If this works out, DNA-based technologies will start to invade our lives in more and more obvious ways. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the current technique used for identifying trace amounts of DNA. PCR was worth a Nobel prize back in the day, but it’s time to turn up the heat.

Crime forensics will benefit dramatically when DNA testing becomes as easy as dusting for fingerprints. And diagnostics for viral infections will become commonplace. Doctors have always been able to culture bacteria (like strep) to see if you have the infection in question, but you can’t really culture viruses. Because of this, viruses are almost always diagnosed by elimination. But something like HDA makes it easy to “just look” and see if the virus is present. The porn industry already uses PCR to test for HIV. HDA may permit cheap diagnostics for various strains of flu and the common cold. This in turn may let us prescribe less antibiotics; you don’t need an antibiotic if I can tell you for sure that you’ve got a virus.

This all underscores one of the main reasons I’m optimistic for rapid progress in molecular biology. What we’re trying to understand, the living cell, is a already a competent information processing system. We just need to learn how to talk to it. Don’t blow up the natives and pick through their remains trying to divine their thoughts. Just walk up and ask.