Thursday, September 24, 2009

Moving to Tumblr

I'm going to give Tumblr a try as a blogging platform. I like it's easy ability to clip articles, add pictures, quotes, etc. Also appealing are the strong support for mobile blogging through their iPhone app and twitter integration. Using twitter, I find I enjoy being able to post short bits and pictures online, but sometimes I want more than 140 characters. We'll see how Tumblr works out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cloud vs. Distributed

We hear a lot about "cloud computing" these days, with some people saying it's the wave of the future, and others, notably guys like Stallman, saying that it's "worse than stupidity." I've run across two essays warning of the some of the pitfalls of the cloud idea, Khoi Vinh's cautious "A Cloud and a Prayer" and Jason Scott's profanity laden diatribe "Fuck the Cloud".

But cloud is not the only hyped-name idea floating around. You also hear a lot about "distributed" things. In particular, distributed version control systems have rushed on the scene in the forms of Git, Mercurial, et al. Beyond version control, though, you don't hear much about the distributed idea, but I think it's a bigger deal than the cloud.

Distributed systems bridge the gap between the open, adaptable web and closed p2p systems that were popular not too long ago. When it comes to DVCS, there is no server to maintain, everyone maintains their own copy. One can be the canonical branch, but it's functionally no different than any other branch. But distributed can be much more, and even much simpler than that. I think the real power of distributed systems is when you don't even need a webserver any more to have a web service. Obviously you'd need communication with the outside world, but the server may not need to be as all-encompassing as it once was.

An early example of this is Google Gears, and the newly launched beta of offline Gmail and Google Reader. Gears acts as a miniature private webserver whose job is to stay synchronized with the Gmail server, but the application itself runs locally. I think this kind of thing has the potential to be huge. One of the beautiful and powerful aspects of the web is the simplicity and the cross-platform-ness of developing websites. They can be as simple as raw HTML, or they can take advantage of one of a myriad of frameworks to do incredibly powerful things. But the weakness is that you always have to rely on a server. But what if you could host a website from your own desktop? These days you can, but you couldn't serve much traffic because of bandwidth issues. But what if the users downloaded the Gears app for your site and instead of requesting a page, you request just the data they need? This seems like the natural evolution of AJAX.

Another aspect of distributed systems is that you may only need a server to update changes, but at all other times simply use a local copy. Take, for example, the new Python documentation written in a framework called Sphinx. Sphinx takes raw source files written in reStructured Text and builds them into an HTML website or a LaTeX file for publication. Mostly it's focused on the HTML, and it produces a very nice result. So, you can download all the Python documentation, build it, and then use it locally just as if it was on the web. You can even search it easily, because at build time it indexes the document and creates a Javascript search tool. It behaves exactly the same when opened locally as it does when you view it over the web.

So, imagine that this kind of thing took off in other types of site. A news site could use this idea. You simply download the articles instead of the site itself. But how is that any different than an RSS feed? In some ways, not much, but what it allows the site publisher to keep control of the look and feel of the site, rather than give it up entirely to a separate reader app. For example, the NY Times website could look exactly the same, but when you hit refresh, instead of loading the new homepage, it updates the articles and the layout order of the page already stored locally. Or Wikipedia could become like this. You could download all of Wikipedia and run the server locally. In the background, it updates itself with new changes and articles. I wonder how much space it would take to download all of Wikipedia, or at least all of the text? Probably a lot, but who cares? Storage space is cheap and only getting cheaper. Serving it locally gains you several things 1) speed, 2) the ability to break away from the network and still be functional, and 3) it reduces significantly the burden on the hoster.

These kinds of distributed systems seem more empowering than the cloud, which is all about making your fast and powerful computers no more than dumb terminals, and leaving you at the mercy of the provider of the service. True distributed systems give you the data and the application, meaning you're not beholden to anyone to use it locally. If Wikipedia were to vanish tomorrow, you'd still have your last snapshot of it, rather than being left wondering where to turn to.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Hats?

Was it just me, or were there a lot of people rocking sweet hats at the swearing in? In addition to an unusual number of cowboy hats, it seemed like there were more fedoras than I had seen since the last Humphrey Bogart impersonators convention.

A New Dawn

As E.K. Franks used to say, "It's a great day to be alive!"

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Once you're inside airport security, why does TSA feel the need to blare through the PA on and on about what you can't bring through the checkpoint?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Heritage Hall defeats Chandler 37-7 to win Class 2A state title

Well done, gentlemen, well done.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Apparently NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is obstructing efforts by President-elect Obama's transition team to look into details about Griffin's pet project, the troubled Constellation program. From ANN, after Griffin had ordered his subordinates to not say anything critical of Constellation and to not give any alternative options, Obama's transition team was flabbergasted.

"Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood," Garver reportedly said.

"If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar," Griffin replied. "Because it means you don't trust what I say is under the hood."

From a leader at any level, whether a small manager or head of a major bureaucracy, that is unacceptable. Griffin should be fired immediately. Not just when Obama takes office; Bush should fire him now. Of course that's not going to happen because Bush isn't very fond of transparency, but if you can't handle an honest inspection of your work, you do not deserve to be doing it.

Deep Thought

One of the main justifications given for bailing out the auto industry instead of letting them go through Chapter 11 is that bankruptcy would kill their sales because no one would want to buy a car from a company in Chapter 11. But would anyone want to buy a car from a company that had to get a special bailout to avoid bankruptcy? Does anyone right now want to buy a car from companies that could fail by the end of the year? We're trying to retain confidence in the Big Three? Who are we kidding? That train sailed long ago.

Charger Pride!

Been way too long since I've posted, but it's time to get back to the blog. (Yes, I know that's exactly what I said in my last blog post, dated October 2007). Anyway, I had been out of the loop on Oklahoma high school football this fall, but Dad called last Friday to report that my alma mater team will be playing again for the Class 2A state championship, 10 years and one day from the first, and so far only golden ball for the Heritage Hall Chargers.

Thanks to the magic of the Instaweb, I just watched a number of highlight clips of this season on YouTube (btw, nice work to the guys putting that together). After watching about half the season of clips, I am just stunned. These guys are amazing. They haven't just won games, they have obliterated opponents. Wow. My hat is off. Now keep up the hard work, the focus, and the dedication. There's nothing like the sweet taste of victory on the football fields of Oklahoma.

Go Chargers!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Attorney General Confirmation Hearing

It's been a long time since I posted here, but I'd like to get back in the habit. I'll start with the nomination of Michael Mukasey for Attorney General. I woke up this morning to NPR's story about the confirmation hearings and am flabbergasted that this man is almost assured confirmation. So, I wrote all of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee as well as Arlen Spector this email (though I stupidly wrote it in a text editor without spell check, so they may think I'm an ignorant wretch) :

Reading about and listening to clips of the Attorney General confirmation hearing left me very disappointed with nominee Michael Mukasey. I ask that you vote against his confirmation.

Mr. Mukasey offered evasive non-answers to questions that should be fundamental to his job. As top law enforcement officer of our nation, it should be unquestioned that everyone in our country is under the rule of law and that the president does not have the authority to break the law. Mr. Mukasey wavered, citing the constitution, presumably for the dubious "unitary executive" powers granted nowhere in the document. Perhaps he forgot the 14th amendment, which clearly states that all citizens, president included, are equal under the law. If he does not understand that, he does not deserve to be the Attorney General.

Mr. Mukasey also offered unacceptable answers to questions about torture. After refusing to discuss the definition of torture, he then relied on that unstated definition to address its constitutionality. This kind of circular reasoning is absurd and should be rejected. As Attorney General, it is his duty to provide sound legal guidance to the Administration. If he cannot do so on such as simple, clear-cut issue as torture, he does not deserve to be the Attorney General.

I do not understand the assumption that Mr. Mukasey will be confirmed. If the last 7 years have taught us anything, it is that you cannot give the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt. They have abused that privilege too many times. It is not enough to aggressively question a nominee, express disappointment for his answers, and then vote for him anyway. Given the history of this Administration's cabinet members, it should be his burden to prove his worth as a nominee.

Is it too much to ask anymore for the nominee to be the chief law enforcement officer to categorically believe in the rule of law, that the president cannot break the law, and that torture is abhorrent? Is that setting the bar too high? It should make for an extremely simple, repeatable talking point. "If you send us a nominee who does not believe in the rule of law or disavow torture, we will not confirm them." Can it possibly get any simpler than that?

Please do no let this president continue to run roughshod over the Congress and the Constitution again and again. Stand up and demand that this nation return to the rule of law, starting with its Attorney General.