Thursday, September 29, 2005

Bush Invented the Internet

Call me old fashioned, but the other day I was browsing the shelves at my local library. I picked up a book called What the Dormouse Said, by John Markoff. The subtitle of the book is "How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry". According to the publisher's web site:
While there have been several histories of the personal computer, well-known technology writer John Markoff has created the first ever to spotlight the unique political and cultural forces that gave rise to this revolutionary technology. Focusing on the period of 1962 through 1975 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a heady mix of tech industries, radicalism, and readily available drugs flourished, What the Dormouse Said tells the story of the birth of the personal computer through the people, politics, and protest that defined its unique era.

Although I had to put it down after the first chapter, it is fascinating stuff. I will get back to it eventually.

One premise in the first chapter impressed me most of all. Markoff traces the beginning of personal computing to 1945 -- specifically to an Atlantic Monthly article called "As We May Think". The author, Vannevar Bush, begins the article with a question:
[World War II] has not been a scientist's war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?

Bush alludes to the necessary role scientists played in unleashing "strange destructive gadgets" during the war and challenges his colleagues to turn to more peaceful pursuits. After cataloging the technologies available in his day -- cutting-edge stuff like miniature cameras, microfilm and punch cards -- Bush proposes a concept called the "memory extender" or memex. According to Bush:
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which [one] works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material...Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things.

He goes on to describe how the owner of a memex recalls material and makes links between references. Although there are lots of differences, the whole concept is remarkably similar to how we use personal computers and the Internet today. It's amazing Bush dreamed it all sixty years ago.

Interested in more? To whet your appetite, take a look at this animation of what the memex might have been. And you can read the entire Atlantic Monthly article online too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

October - November Issue of Striding Along

There's a new issue of the Gate City Striders newsletter on the web. This issue includes coverage of last weekend's Lake Winnipesaukee Relay, a Fitness University wrap-up, previews of upcoming races, "clippings" from the Striding Along archives, a ton of race results and more. See it all on the newsletter page.

Friday, September 23, 2005

How to Pronounce Worcester

In response to this post on Bob's blog, some people have been commenting on the correct way to pronounce Revere, Gloucester, and other Massachusetts town names. Bob posted a link to How to Pronounce Massachusetts Town Names. I think it's mostly accurate.

But Worcester is not pronounced WOO-STAH. The correct way to say it is WIS-TAH. That's how people in GAAD-NA say it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends, by John le Carré, is a well written, gripping, ultimately infuriating book. It's the story of two friends: Ted Mundy, a British boomer born in Pakistan at the time of Partition, and Sasha, a radical German gadfly.

The book is roughly divided into thirds. The first part follows Mundy from birth, through a meandering adolescence, to the time he first meets Sasha in a 1960s West Berlin commune. Sasha is the intellectual leader of the commune. Mundy is a chameleon, trying on different ideologies. Although polar opposites, Mundy and Sasha form a strong bond. They are abruptly separated when one of their student demonstrations ends in violence.

The middle third of the book starts more than ten years later when Sasha reappears to draw Mundy into the Cold War espionage game. Somehow Sasha has become a member of the East German Stasi machinery. He enlists Mundy for a complicated double spy operation. I won't tell you who is really spying for whom.

The third act finds Mundy and Sasha together again after another separation of ten years. Both have been drifting since the Cold War ended, but Sasha has found a new patron, a mysterious billionare named Dmitri. Many reviewers have said Le Carré falters in this part of the book. Oddly enough, I think it is the most compelling part. The first and second parts are masterful set pieces describing 1960s West Berlin and Cold War espionage respectively, but the last part picks up the pace considerably. Mundy is drawn into a plot murkier than anything he experienced during the Cold War. Who is Dmitri? Is his scheme a front for a terrorist operation? Does Sasha know more than he is telling?

It's great stuff -- up until the last ten pages. I won't give away the ending, but it comes out of left field. Le Carré apparently contrived the ending to warn the dear reader about the true menance in our post-9/11 world. And Le Carré's politics are definitely left of center, if not left of Michael Moore.

Some reviewers have cited Le Carré's bias in dialog like this about the War in Iraq:
"It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America's post-9/11 psychopathy."
You certainly can't assume Le Carré believes that line of dialog. If he does, he picked a strange mouthpiece. The character who recites the line doesn't even believe it. However, throughout the book Le Carré implies that American leaders, particularly Christian American leaders, are the real extremists. And he certainly believes it is now Europe's duty to counter the world's lone superpower.

All in all, Absolute Friends is a brilliant book -- well worth reading. I just think Le Carré is worried about the wrong bogeyman. But I have the benefit of hindsight. Le Carré's book was originally published before the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Caution: Service Oriented Architects Ahead

The big IT players are all making a big deal about Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). Apparently SOA is the next gold rush. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and others have each staked a claim. The preceding links take you to the SOA welcome center for each company.

But what is SOA really? Is it, as Microsoft's Pat Helland asserts, the next step in the evolution of IT infrastructure? Or is it a swing of the pendulum -- a reaction to the shortcomings of Object Orientation? Or is it yet another attempt to wish away the essential difficulties of software development?

Don't get me wrong. I think there is a lot of value in Service Orientation. I also think there is a lot of value in Object Orientation. Both have their place. Neither is a panacea.

For more healthy skepticism, read Martin Fowler's Service Oriented Ambiguity and David Ing's Dude, Where's My SOA?.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Measure Running Routes with Google Maps

Google Maps is only about seven months old but it has spawned a host of cool mapping applications. Damien mentioned one recently. The Google Maps Mania blog has links to dozens of other apps.

Here's an application that's great for runners. Gmaps Pedometer lets you measure the distance of any running route. As you trace your route, it automatically places markers at one mile increments. Best of all you can turn your route into a "Permalink". Click on Permalink and then bookmark the page for future reference. It's pretty incredible the whole route can be encoded in a URL.

Here's a Permalink for Leg 6 of the Lake Winnipesaukee Relay. I'm going to be running leg 6 this year. Now I know approximately where the mile posts are.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Geek Runners

Is it just me or are lots of runners real geeks? Many runners I know are into gadgets. Some of them have been using heart rate monitors for years. These devices let you continually measure your heart rate during a run. If you are running too hard and you exceed your target heart rate, you can adjust your pace. Increasingly these devices include a GPS or other technology for measuring distance. Now you can continually track your pace and cumulative distance while you're running.

I have never been into extreme gadgetry, but I have kept a running log for a few years. I use the online log at Cool Running to record the distance of each run. The Cool Running log lets me keep track of my mileage for the week, month and year. Even better, it lets me keep track of how many miles I put on a pair of running shoes. Replacing shoes before they are too worn out is a key tactic for avoiding injuries.

There are lots of other online running logs besides the Cool Running log and there's plenty of desktop software for the same purpose. Now apparently many runners are using blogs to log miles, keep in touch with training partners, and wax philosophical about the act of running. The Running Blog Family Directory lists more than three hundred running blogs.

I've been browsing some running blogs lately. For me, one blogger stands out as the Ultimate Geek Runner (I mean that in a good way). Dave at Runningland has come up with a system for automatically uploading runs from his GPS watch and using Google Maps to display each run on his blog. Click here now for a sample of the result. Amazing.

Here's how Dave did it:
I wrote some Perl code to periodically check to see if I’ve cradled the watch in the charger. If it is detected, the most recent runs are exported using GPSBabel from the watch and converted to the Garmin logbook format and the Keyhole Markup Language (KML) for viewing in Google Earth. It then uploads the files to the appropriate directory on the web server. This allows me to simply insert the watch into the charger and simply go about my business. No buttons to push or programs to bring up. The next time the script runs I know the data from the watch will be processed.

On the web server, a process runs daily to produce the HTML file with my latest runs from the watch. It also creates an RSS feed of the most recent runs.
Is it just me or is that too cool?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

New Blogs

As you may have read elsewhere, Matt Hatem is blogging. I just discovered that Sami Shalabi and Maureen Leland are blogging too. Welcome, one and all!

The list of ex-Iris folks with active blogs is getting longer. In addition to the above, it includes Bob, Brian, Damien, Joe, Kudla, Ned, and Pete. Have I forgotten anyone?

I realize, of course, that Ray Ozzie has a blog. Unfortunately, Ray hasn't posted anything since March 2004.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Labor Day Parade

Labor Day is not typically associated with parades, but the Milford, New Hampshire Labor Day Parade is a long-running tradition. It's mostly about amateur floats, local marching bands, and antique cars. In an election year, there are lots of politicians there too.

This year the only politician in attendance was New Hampshire Governor John Lynch. Next year we'll see a dozen or more politicians running for local, state and federal offices. Two years from now, the parade will include a gaggle of presidential candidates preening for the first-in-the-nation primary voters.

Here are some photos from this year's parade.

Fire Trucks. The noise from the horns and sirens was deafening.

Governor John Lynch and Family.


Bektash. I don't know anything about Bektash, but the kids love these guys.

Local Civil War Re-Enactors.

Oktoberfest Band.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Live from New Orleans

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has seen flooding, loss of electricity, looting, and shortages of food, fuel, and potable water. This morning fires broke out around the city. Somehow The Interdictor is blogging through it all. He and his crew are camped out at the directNIC data center in the heart of New Orleans. They are managing to keep the data center running, and at the same time, they are posting first hand reports and lots of pictures. It is a great source of (mostly) unfiltered news.

(via Ned)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

$3.09 and Other Horrors

On the way home last night, I paid $3.09 per gallon for a tank of mid-grade gas. I think the price had jumped 20 cents from earlier in the day. What a pain, but pictures of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina surely put things in perspective.

Some experts are saying the nationwide average price for a gallon of gas could easily reach $4.00 soon. I understand the price of crude is rising and Katrina has reduced our refining capacity, but it still feels like OPEC and Big Oil are making a killing. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi have lost everything. Maybe I'll work at home for the rest of 2005 and send what I would have spent on gas to the American Red Cross.