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

Apollo

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:

HEU QUAERIMUS UMBRAM

We pursue a shadow.