Now blogging at diego's weblog. See you over there!

take off

I've had a great time these last few days (and I hope everyone had a great christmas!). So much so that even after that timid e-restart last week I simply tuned out again, not even turning the computer on. In a few hours I'm flying back to Europe, first to Madrid, where I'll spend New Year's Day, and then Dublin by the end of the week. Which means it's unlikely there will be much posting until then. Apologies for not replying emails, hopefully I'll get back up to date by the end of the week. Maybe if there was better connectivity through the trip... US airports might have WiFi all over the place, but that's not the case in Europe, at least not that I know of. Anyway. More on the other side of the Atlantic, 2003 ain't over yet!

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 30, 2003 at 11:40 AM

the internet in a cup

What do coffee houses and the Internet have in common? Today we might think of Internet cafes, but three centuries ago coffee houses where a primitive version of the cultural mechanisms that are so pervasive in the Internet today:

WHERE do you go when you want to know the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what others think of a new book, or stay abreast of the latest scientific and technological developments? Today, the answer is obvious: you log on to the internet. Three centuries ago, the answer was just as easy: you went to a coffee-house. There, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics.
The rest in this great article from this week's Economist.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on December 23, 2003 at 8:09 PM

tiptoeing back on to the grid

Hey, hey!

Yes, this appears to be yet another blog entry in which I blog about not blogging.

Well, actually, it's a bit more (just a bit). For the past two weeks it's been really more of a matter of not even reading much news or blogs at all. Not that it's a bad thing, but even though I thought I didn't want to do it it turned out I did want to do it. That is, get away from it for a while. Not just reading, but of course writing as well. Sure a couple of times I got the itch, but I could restrain myself in time. :) Inertia notwhistanding, by last week I was barely looking at news at all.

Was that last paragraph clear at all? A bit convoluted, no? Rusty fingers. Or rusty braincells. Or both.

And this was good how? Well, if a large part of work is now online interaction, then it follows that a vacation might actually benefit from cutting down on online interactions (d'oh!). And the last two weeks (and last week in particular) I've felt increasingly more relaxed. I'm actually beginning to feel as if I'm taking a few days off, which wasn't part of the original plan for the trip (the plan was, more or less, not to rest through the trip. Yes, I should have my head examined). In the end, it seems to have been good for me.

I've read a couple of interesting books recently, first: The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and The Final Solution by Mark Roseman, which is an analysis of the events leading up to and following a crucial meeting in the Nazi's plans for genocide. The book, brief but well written and documented, attempts to trace the path that educated people (mostly men) followed over the course of a few years to distance themselves so far from humanity as to get to the point of discusssing genocide over cigars and liquor. Must read.

The other book is Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which is a great book by Neil Postman (originally published in 1985, one of those still-relevant classics) on which I'll comment more in a few days when I'm done ... err.. "processing it". As I took some distance from weblogs, etc, I've spent some time thinking about the nature of the blogs, (thinking of blogs as epistemology, mirroring Postman's analysis on the book for TV and Media in general) and how this affects discourse through the blogsphere. Another of Postman's points, that it was Huxley (with Brave New World) who was right about the future, and not Orwell (with 1984), with comments like: "Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance." Okay, I'll stop now before I get carried away. But definitely more on this later.

Expect sporadic updates through the next few days as activity slowly increases. Plus, I have to get up to speed on my email. :)

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 23, 2003 at 1:53 PM

net-less

outtolunch.jpg
Trip was ok (thanks for the emails! -- sorry for the lack of updates). I've spent maybe 1 hour online during the past week, if that. I have Internet connection, I'm just not using it. Enjoying the change of pace. Very much so.

Hence: back in a few days! :)

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 12, 2003 at 2:03 PM

traveling

I'll be leaving in a few hours... so the last couple of days have been a mix of work and preparation.

The worst part is choosing which books to take. If it was up to me, I would just take them all. Sure, I'll read maybe one or two, but which two? Arrrgh!

ebooks are ok, but I still want books. Paper. Hardcovers. Not even fancy e-ink systems would do. But, for a trip, if I could just dump all my meatspace library into a single e-volume and take that, it would be great. Every book should come built-in with a digital version. So how about it? One of those 2.5 inch CDs behind every book's cover? Now that's multimedia that I'd buy.

That aside, I've got a good assortment of videos and music on the notebook, so I won't have to fear lame in-flight movies either.

More tomorrow, after the timezone change (transatlantic trips going west never fail to leave me a bit frazzled--on second though, going East as well :)).

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 7, 2003 at 2:36 PM

less PhDs -- in general or just in the US?

Well, one more thing I found notable. According to this article the number of new Science PhDs per year is still falling in the US. I wonder if this means that they are falling in general or simply that a lot of the people that would have got them in the US are just not doing that, choosing to do it in their home countries or elsewhere. Considering that more than half the engineering PhDs in the US are from foreign-born students (as the article notes), even a small dip in that number (due to less travel, tighter immigration laws, whatever) would definitely be noticeable.

Categories: science
Posted by diego on December 5, 2003 at 1:47 PM

quick mobi & java links

Erik is not feeling well hope you get better soon Erik! I've been fighting a cold for the last week, but I've kept it at bay. Hopefully going uphill now. Anyway, here's a mini-list of quick links, Erik-style. Paltry compared to the deep-wide filtering Erik does. It's good I don't do this every day. :-)

Ok. That's it for now. Back to work. :)

Categories: soft.dev
Posted by diego on December 5, 2003 at 1:34 PM

sam on atom

Sam posts his thoughts and plans regarding Atom and how he will maintain RSS support for his weblog. Thanks Sam! Every bit of information helps.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on December 5, 2003 at 1:15 PM

the atom discussion heats up again

I'm listening to Sunday Bloody Sunday Live at Slane 2001, and there's Bono saying "Compromise: Another dirty word. Compromise."

Ok, enough with the hyperbole. Here it goes...

I've been pretty busy through the day (damn, actually I just looked at the time and I should say yesterday), but just now I check and another blog-firestorm is developing. And once again, the discussion seems to be close to turning into a pile of rubble.

Deja-vu.

I've already been seeing some things that were not apparent to me when the Atom process started back in late June. And I think that Don's idea is good: given the current situation, it would be preferable if Atom adopted RSS as its feed format.

I know that many have said that Atom sacrificed backward compatibility for the sake of more flexibility in the future, but looking at the current spec I can't see clearly where is this additional flexibility obtained. I'd like to see an example of a feature that can be done with Atom but not with RSS 2.0. This would go a long way to make me (and I'm sure, others) understand more clearly why we should revise our position.

True, it is highly unlikely that RSS embedded in Atom will happen---positions seem to be too entrenched for that. Blogger will probably release soon. MT is sure to follow. But Don is right, at least we can make our views known. Of course, I contributed to this in my own small way. What can I say: my position in July might have been reasonable, but that's no longer the case. Here's why.

First, the background.

Things flared up again yesterday, when Robert pointed out that Evan had posted a link to his Atom feed, and he said "(generated by Blogger)" and nothing more. This led Robert to ask why a new syndication format was necessary, and why Microsoft shouldn't just develop its own. (This last thing was half in jest, as I understand it). This in turn created a major discussion on his entry, with lots of different participants, but very few posts by the major stakeholders in Atom. Then Don posted some thoughts and Dave put forth his opinion. I think, as I posted in the comments, that the issue was not necessarily whether the format was going to be used by Blogger or not, but rather that Blogger was not giving a context for what was happening or explained clearly what the path was (more on that below), which led to speculation and some fiery responses.

When Atom began I was for it: as I had noted the API situation in blogland was not good, and Atom pointed to a solution. I still think that a unified API would be a step forward, and I am protocol-agnostic (XML-RPC, REST, SOAP--I might have my preference but mainly I just care that everyone agrees to support it). Then it became clear that Atom would also redefine the syndication format, and I said that shouldn't be a problem (see here and here). But then, over the next couple of months, things changed.

Changed how?

  • The first thing that changed is that I noted that some people had enough time to spend in the Wiki to "out-comment" anyone else. At the same time, the format was quickly evolving, in at least one instance changing completely from one day to the next. There was no clear process to how decisions were made, and voting on different things was repeatedly delayed and in some cases (such as naming) ignored and/or set aside. I put forth my opinion more than once (example, here and here, and others, like Russ, expressed similar ideas) that someone should take charge and responsibility for the ultimate decisions made: as it stood (and as it stands), the process is opaque, and the Wiki didn't (doesn't) help matters. A mailing list got started, and though I did not subscribe to it I kept updated by reading the archives. The truth is that I didn't subscribe because (right or wrong on my part) I felt things were happening without me being able to contribute anything of value. Sam once pointed out to me through email that the spec was influenced by "running code" more than by words, but even though I was one of the first people to add Atom support to an RSS reader (as well as adding it later for other things, like the Java Google-Feeds bridge), there was no effect from that either, even if I was engaged in the discussion at the time when I was working on the code. It didn't matter one bit. This is not a question of me not "getting my way", but it's a question of civility and of giving real answers to questions, of giving real world examples instead of going off in theoretical tangents, and of giving reasons instead of saying "your idea is ridiculous" and leaving it at that.
  • Microsoft and others (e.g. AOL) are now in the game. Had Atom converged on a spec within four weeks, we might be talking about something different today. Instead, it's nearly six months after it started and the spec is still at 0.3 (although the newest "full spec" I could find is 0.2) with no clear reason of why has 0.2 been declared 0.2, what were the reasons for choosing A over B (which was supposed to be one of the pluses of the Atom process) and such. Blogger is coming out with 0.3, according to Jason (He mentioned this in the comments to Robert's entry). Robert's in-jest "threat" of "why shouldn't Microsoft do its own format" is a very real concern that anyone should have. There is a comment here that says: "When people ask "why Atom", Atom's answer should be "because we can". Microsoft could rightly say exactly the same thing.
  • One big concern of some Atom backers had was that Dave had control over the RSS spec (this is still being mentioned today) Dave disputed this all along, but right now it's irrelevant: this claim should have changed (but it didn't) when Dave gave control of it to Berkman (on which I also commented here). In fact, it's been said over and over that it was "too little, too late". But Atom feeds (note: feeds, not the API) don't provide anything that cannot be done today with RSS 2 (ie., including namespaces). If the Atom feed format is still at 0.2 or 0.3, and even that has taken 5 months to define, is that not "too little, too late" as well?
  • The Atom camp started as a genial group of people wanting to improve things. But it has turned ugly. Some of its defenders at the moment are resorting to anonymous comments that say that a) RSS is dead and b) you're either on the Atom bandwagon or you will be left behind in your little poor RSS world. Regardless of the truth of those statements, I find it worrying that constructive criticism or a clear-minded defense of a belief in a certain direction has given way to (anonymous) aggression. Instead of supporting inclusion for people like me, anyone who doesn't agree is attacked. But "evangelizing" is important as well as useful, communicating what's being done, etc, helps developers churn out better code and create better conditions for users, and it's difficult for this to happen if developers are attacked when they ask questions. This is not a recipe for friendliness from developers and users alike. Which brings me to my final point.
  • One might always find people who resort to aggression, and obviously anyone can lose it once in a while. But I think that if Blogger and MT where to clearly spell out their position, saying why they want another format, why (if) they'd like to replace RSS, and, perhaps more importantly, what is the evolution path that they have planned, then it would be easier to get above the noise. At a minimum it would be easier to, based on that position, take it or leave it. I tend to think that it's completely within a company's or an individual's right to scrap something and start again. I might not like it, but they should be able to do it and let the marketplace have a go at it. Maybe it works! But when there's an installed user base, and developers that have a stake on things, not giving clear information or plans makes, at least me, wary. By not saying anything, by not participating in the discussion a lot more than they do today, the main Atom stakeholders are allowing others to define what they mean, others that might or might not reflect their true intent. No one can speak for Blogger or MT, they have to do it for themselves. I pointed this out in the comments to Robert's entry, when Mark was giving some reasons that were fine in themselves (that is, you might not agree, but that's not the point) but they were Mark's reasons, not Blogger's. As it is, one side is asking questions but no one is replying on the other end.


I simply don't understand why, if we are building communication tools, it appears that there's a lot of talk back and forth, but no real communication is happening.

Things can get better. The question is, Will we try? Given how things are, I think that just having a reasonable conversation would be a big step forward.

Categories: soft.dev, technology
Posted by diego on December 4, 2003 at 1:28 AM

google advertises itself

Since Google was founded, I have never, ever seen an ad for it or for any of its services. That changed today, as I was reading the Wall Street Journal and came across this (partial screenshot):

google-ad.gif

Another sign of the "growing up" that has some have pointed out as necessary? Or is the word-of-mouth growth of AdSense slowing down? Regardless: it's interesting.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on December 2, 2003 at 1:18 PM

I second that emotion

Karlin talks about the main downside of working at home: DIY neighbors. Yep. In my case, neighbors (particularly the apartment upstairs) have sometimes been a pain, but the worst for me is Heuston train station (across the river from my apartment). They've been doing expansions and repairs to it for more than a year and a half and sometimes they use pneumatic hammers (is that the right term?) for long stretches, even at ridiculous hours like at one or two in the morning. This very morning I was woken up by the racket of concrete being smashed... or whatever it was. Good thing I don't sleep much anyway. All in all, however, the advantages make it worthwhile when you work on your own.

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 2, 2003 at 12:51 PM

surface and depth

In which Diego takes a philosophical look at perception and reality in our connected world...

A Japanese Karaoke party can be an unsettling experience for many people (me included--Brrr, shudder!): grown men and women, mostly in business attire, sometimes drunk to the point where speech disintegrates into babble, heartily singing to rehashed versions of popular songs re-recorded for that purpose. Behind the singer, a screen showing strange images supposedly synched to the music, and a crowd, cheering, singing along, each person waiting for their turn at the microphone.

On the surface, to a foreigner, it looks excessive, pointless, embarrassing.

The Japanese, however, know different: they understand that perceptions and surface are just that. The phenomenon of Karaoke or the exuberance of Tokyo are good examples of the Japanese attitude towards surface: something that would be considered corny, embarrassing or shameful in the US or Europe is accepted, even embraced. (In the case of "nights out" where Karaoke happens there are other factors at play, such as enabling communication that might not happen in the rigid environment of the office, but that's beside the point).

The Internet, pervasive media, fast and relatively cheap travel, the thirst of people everywhere to have access to information (regardless of the use to them, or its importance), have fueled the assumption that, since distance seems be fading in importance, culture has, too. This is pushing to new areas the limits of what is considered public, which in turn creates pressure -and fuels resistance-- for social and economic change, both locally and globally. Every weblog read, every vacation taken, every casual 5-second IM conversation, every business trip reinforces this perception both by the speed with which it is done as well as by the ease with which it happens.

Pervasive communications, media and travel make us dismiss geography and allow us to pretend that "there" is almost "here". They make us think that we can always give good solutions for other people's problems. Predictably enough, things are not that simple. To the superficial perceptions of a casual traveler two cities in different parts of the world might sometimes look pretty much the same; in reality they will always be anything but.

We've been gradually erasing the old concept of "borders", the change from a world perceived as a collection of cultures to a world perceived as a set of localized forms of capitalism. That has turned into a shift from a geographically-based state of tension (supported by ideology: two competing political, economic and social worldviews), centered around Berlin and spread throughout Europe and the world; to a purely ideologically-based state of tension: the layer of geography has been removed. Travel and communications seem to have both invalidated distance and reinforced history, creating the perception that only ideas matter. If before ideology expressed itself through geographical conflict at the borders, the fading of those borders is pushing the conflict back into the sphere of ideas, with ethereal battlegrounds like stock markets, exchange rates, corporations and the like--- and very real ones, as evidenced by the threat of terrorism, hunger and disease. Capitalism seems to have won the "war" against communism (notably, with currency and not bullets), but it's becoming clear that capitalism on its own is not the answer, simply because it tries to homogenize everything into a market, every person into a buyer and a seller, every culture into a culture of money, and many cultures are bound to resist that homogenization. Groups and organizations in powerful countries continue to assume that things that worked well in one place can work equally as well in another, which creates new problems every day, from IMF intervention in countries that are facing economic crises, to the intervention of external powers in local conflicts, such as those of Northern Ireland or the Middle East, which in turn is both reinforced and generated by the "export" of those conflicts through terrorism, war, trade, and even politics.

It is the Japanese, with their understanding of the difference between surface and depth, the ones that, in my view, have a culture that aligns better with this world of pure perceptions (and yet their cultural introspectiveness hinders them), a media-based society where careers can be destroyed by unsubstantiated rumors or wars have to be fought on television (or in the field of "public opinion") as much as in the battlefield. Or in other words: in a world where perception is treated as reality.

Language is an excellent reflection of a culture, and Japanese is one of the most context-dependent languages in the world, heavily dependent on situations to establish meaning. At the same time, Kanji is a polar opposite: ideographic, a literal representation of the concept that has to be communicated (the Kanji for "drunk", for example, literally means "9/10 Sake").

Similar trends are observable in other societies, for example the US. Maybe it's no coincidence that English as a language has over time (faster than, say, Spanish) incorporated Japanese-like features: Dependency on context, and thus on perception and appearances, and literal concept representations. Maybe it's no coincidence, if perceptions are being exacerbated in importance by the growing connectedness of the world and the subsequent growing impression that everything is the same.

"Are you flying home for Christmas?" Is an example of a sentence in English that is meaningless without the proper context--that traveling by plane is a common occurrence. In Spanish the same question would be phrased, in its literal translation: "Are you traveling home for Christmas?" Simply referring to the action (flying) would not do in general, since as we all know, humans don't fly. And while English writing has not turned ideographic and it doesn't appear to be doing so (although spoken language usually predates any change in the written language by a long time), it is full of examples where the representation of a concept in the language is literal. For example, the electrochemical device used in cars to produce a spark and ignite the explosion inside a cylinder is called just that, a spark, while Spanish has its own particular word for the device.

The idea of "politically correct" behavior has many parallels with the way Japanese society behaves on the surface. Still, many cultures today, unlike the Japanese, maintain a public pretense of morality every day and in all contexts, even though behind closed doors that is not the case, something (in)famously exposed in its most extreme example in the US with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Japanese businessmen read pornographic comic books on the subway, in full view. If Bill Gates did that in the US (assuming he could find a subway around Redmond!), it would be front-page news. The Japanese have contexts for things, and for businessmen a subway or a train is different than the office. Americans are always supposed to be businessmen, or pretend they are. While appearing to embrace the concept of surface as the main interface to our world, we are still reluctant to accept that context matters for judging behavior and that public and private life are not necessarily related, and, more importantly, we demand that they be.

I do think, however, that nowadays the Japanese mostly go through the motions, repeating behaviors learned long ago that have for the most part lost their meaning, and yet it is the distinction between surface and depth that underlies their behavior what will be, in my opinion, the key in the future to effectively deal with a world where it's sometimes easier to know what's happening on the West Bank than in a nearby town, or where a trip to another country can be faster than traveling to some parts of a person's own.

As geography slowly has given way to knowledge as the defining element of power and prosperity, allegiances have shifted from countries to ideas. Places have started to feel more and more alike, and many people have become less concerned about what should be done for each case and switched their interest about what should be done in general, in many cases based on the assumption that perception and underlying reality are the same. This has created a situation where there aren't many viable local proposals to achieve evidently worthy global goals.

The world, as connected as it seems on the surface, is actually, on a closer look, as divided as ever, perhaps because that illusion of closeness that is so easy to believe doesn't intrigue people to go further. Maybe if we learn to better understand and accept the difference between surface and depth we will be able to turn into a force for good the tools that technology and social evolution have given us: the key that will either unlock our understanding of each other, or open the doors to a more violent and chaotic world.

Categories: geopolitics, technology
Posted by diego on December 2, 2003 at 12:32 PM

I mean it this time

So I didn't stop with Microsoft as I said I would. I got carried away by conversation with other blogs, etc. But as I'm writing a reply to Robert's comment on my previous post about XAML, I just came to a simple realization.

I suddenly saw that what I was asking is sort of a pointless question. It's interesting to speculate, yes. It's also useless.

Yes, my point was... err... pointless.

When Longhorn ships, we might be able to look at this in a new light. Right now it's complete extrapolation, in this case on my part, guided by what I see and by previous MS behavior. Robert keeps saying (as I understand it) that MS is not out to "kill the web", etc. Many people (and to a degree myself included) think that isn't true, based on previous "attempts". Now, Microsoft may be trying for something different this time, or it might not. Either way, we'll see in a couple of years. In the meantime, talking about the potential market effects of a technology that hasn't yet been finished, running on a platform that won't be released for at least two years, with some components that don't yet exist, is an excercise in futility.

I can avoid jumping the gun by waiting until it is actually released and people start using it for actual applications. Until then, two words should be enough to stop myself going down this road further: "Netscape Constellation."

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 2, 2003 at 2:16 AM

mail server problems

I've just discovered that my mail server was being overzealous in rejecting messages... I've tweaked the configuration and things should now be ok. If you've sent me an email in the last week or so and you've seen rejects, please try sending again, this time it should work (otherwise leave a comment in this entry). Thanks.

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 1, 2003 at 1:08 PM

XAML and... Swing

Let's see. There's this new language+API. It is, in theory platform independent. It's pretty high level. Below the high-level description, it runs on top of a virtual machine. It's verbose. Some people say it will never work.

Gotta be Swing, right?

How about XAML?

On Saturday Sam commented on a XAML example. He makes a number of good points. Which jump-started earlier XAML-related musings.

XAML will be Windows-only, so in that sense the comparison is stretched. But this is a matter of practice, in theory an XML-based language could be made portable (when there's a will there's a way). XAML was compared a lot to Mozilla's XUL, and rightly so, but I think there are some parallels between it and Swing as well.

One big difference that XAML will have, for sure, is that it will have a nice UI designer, something that Swing still lacks. On the other hand, I think that whatever code an automated designer generates will be horribly bloated. And who will be able to write XAML by hand? And: the problem of "bytecode protection" in Java comes back with XAML, but with a vengeance. How will the code be protected? Obfuscation of XML code? Really? How would it be validated then? And why hasn't anyone talked about this.

And another thing: Sun has shown in the past few years that they've taken a liking to countering Microsoft announcements with some of their own. ie., MS comes out with Web services, they come out with web services. MS does X, Sun does it too, but in Java. One wish: that Sun would ignore XAML and just continue improving Swing, and create a simple, good UI designer for Swing. Supposedly Project Rave will do this... but here's hoping there won't be any course corrections simply to show up Microsoft. Please, pretty please, Sun.

On a related note, Robert says this regarding XAML:

[...] you will see some business build two sites: one in HTML and one in XAML. Why? Because they'll be able to offer their customers experiences that are impossible to deliver in HTML.
Come on, Robert, these days, when everyone's resources are stretched to the limit, when CIOs want to squeeze every possible drop of code from their people, when everyone works 60-hour weeks as a matter of common practice, are you seriously saying that companies will have two teams to develop a single website? Is this Microsoft's selling point? "Here, just retrain all of your people, and double the size and expense of your development team, and you'll be fine."

Of course not. Most companies will have one team, not two. Hence, logically, either people will use it or won't, without a lot of middle ground in between. That leaves two possibilities: 1) XAML will be niche and never really used a lot (think ActiveX, or, hey, even Java Applets!) or 2) XAML will kill HTML.

Which one do you think Microsoft is betting on?

Categories: soft.dev
Posted by diego on December 1, 2003 at 12:09 PM

timeless

My brain still is out to lunch, camping happily in code-la-la-land, unable to say much of substance (hence the lack of posting the last couple of days). In the meantime, my body's been fighting a cold. Everything hurts, etc.

However :) I've been thinking about a number of things. Let's see if I can mention a few today.

Starting with the obligatory reference to how quickly time passes: December! It's good that we have so many calendars in our computers. The same mechanism that lets us forget about time is an excellent system to keep track of it. It loses meaning though. Weekend is just a word. Night == day, and so on.

Okay, with that out of the way...

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on December 1, 2003 at 11:52 AM

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