Sunday, February 27, 2005

A teacher comes out with a very large glass jar. He drops rocks in it until there isn't any more room. "Is it full?" he asks the students. They agree that it's full. Then he takes out a bag of gravel, which he pours in the jar. "Now is it full?" They agree that it's full. He takes out a bag of sand, which he pours in the jar. They agree that now, at last, it's full. He takes out a jug of water, which he pours in the jar. Okay, now it's full.

"What's the lesson?" he asks his class. A student answers, "There's always more room."

"No," the teacher replies. "It's that you have to put the big things in first."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

A New Kind of City

Will the city disappear or will the whole planet turn into a vast urban hive?--which would be another mode of disappearance. Can the needs and desires that have impelled men to live in cities recover, at a still higher level, all that Jerusalem, Athens, or Florence once seemed to promise? Is there still a living choice between Necropolis and Utopia; the possibility of building a new kind of city that will, freed of inner contraditions, positively enrich and further human development?

- Lewis Mumford, The City in History

Thursday, December 09, 2004

An AP article carried on CNN presents the usual sky-is-falling problem of students blindly accepting information on the Internet. It takes a sideways swipe at Wikipedia -- "The credentials of the people writing grass-roots Web journals and a committee-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia are often unclear." -- but allows that, maybe, multiple reviewers and points of view just might be useful.

The article's kicker is a quote by Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future:
Referring to the 1903 Western "The Great Train Robbery," Saffo said audience members "actually ducked when the train came out on the screen. Today you won't even raise an eyebrow."
It's hard to know if the mistake is Saffo's or the unnamed AP reporter, but the movie that featured a training hurtling toward the audience was 1895's L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat, directed by the legendary Lumière brothers. ("The Great Train Robbery" did feature an outlaw firing a gun directly at the audience.)

In any case, this story of panicked audiences seems to be a myth, according to this article from the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

It seems that you just can't trust everything you read on the Internet.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Someone Call David Kay

I think eBay might have found some of those weapons of mass destruction.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Aspect-Oriented Software Development

I contributed a chapter on bytecode transformation to Aspect-Oriented Software Development, a honking big book with material by almost everyone who's doing interesting work in this field.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

This may be the greatest illustration in a scientific journal of all time:

Translating the Noise, Nature Genetics 31 (May 2002)

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The Unpredictable

Time was, science fiction was not only predicting the future, it could be about the idea of predicting the future. The central conceit of Asimov's Foundation trilogy is that through psychohistory, it is possible to predict sociopolitical events with high accuracy.

The 2003 nominees for Hugo Award for Best Novel do a complete turn-around. They are largely set in the future (except Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy Paladin of Souls), but they are all about the idea that the future -- or something -- is essentially unpredictable. Robert Charles Wilson's Blind Lake has been criticized for a weak ending, but it's the central message that what is going on is unknowable. Charles Stross' Singularity Sky contains it in the very title: this is a work (and a writer) consumed with the idea of the Singularity, the event which by definition cannot be seen past. Dan Simmon's Ilium is full of post-Singularity weirdness, and again, is surrounding a black hole of we-cannot-understandness. (The case for Robert Sawyer's Humans is weaker; I think we need to wait for the third volume of the series to fairly judge it.) I could even make a case for Paladin of Souls, where gods stand in for the Singularity. Describing gods to the mortal world is by nature impossible, and her characters from this series (more clearly in Curse of Chalion) go through such an indescribable experience.

This is a fascinating turn-around from the days of Asimov, and I think it reflects a social change in the belief of predictability as much as it does the scientific progress in the field of complex systems (which has done much to raise the respectability of unpredictability).