Migration, URL poll, and comments

This coming weekend, I’ll be migrating the weblog to Movable Type.
Blogger has been a great way to get started quickly, but I always wanted the opportunity to play around with the form and the tools, and Moveable Type is more open.
Does anyone have an opinion about whether to go with http://www.alevin.com/bookblog or http://bookblog.alevin.com? Please send comments, or, if the comments engine is off, send me email at alevin [at] alevin [dot] com. For the curious, those urls don’t have anything there yet, and alevin.com just points you back here 🙂
By the way, I’ve turned the comments feature off for the last few days because enetation has been struggling to keep up with the server load. I hope that Rob is able to get enough money to keep the servers up and running because it is a very useful service.

More email/weblog discussion

In the conversation over at O’Reilly, Giles Turnbull writes that he simulcasts his mailing list as a weblog.
I like this idea, though my personal preference is the inverse of Giles; I try to keep the number of inbound mailing lists down to a critical few, and prefer going out and browsing a wider variety of blogs and list archives. Keeps the inbox cleaner and the guilt level down.
I was planning on writing a utility to generate an email version of the blog once the site goes live with Movable Type. The added wrinkle is that I want to set up the lists by topic, so people can subscribe to posts on personal updates, or complex systems, or technology, or politics.
In the weblog, Giles has an interesting proposal for a service that would convert mailing lists to newsfeeds and back, along the lines of Aaron Swartz’ rss2email utility, but operated as a web service accessible to non-hackers.
Nice idea, but vulnerable to the type of performance woes that afflict popular free services.

Google Usenet search is knowledge management.

Last weekend I was working on a little utility to post to MovableType via email. And I got stuck figuring out how to include files that lived in different directories. The instructions in the book and the PythonWin IDE were confusing and insufficiently helpful. So I turned to the source of all earthly wisdom.
A quick search of the Google Usenet archives found questions from several people who’ve been confused by the same problem over the last decade, complete with helpful and instructive answers. I followed the instructions that Python guru Tim Peters provided a newbie in 2001: no need to mess with the Windows registry; simply include the reference to the desired path in the header of your program.
Google Usenet search is incredibly useful for this type of question. Books don’t have space in 300 pages, or even 1200 pages to cover every conceivable implementation decision and configuration nightmare. FAQs are effective precisely because a patient editor has distilled the sea of knowledge into an elixir of Questions asked Frequently. By contrast, Google Usenet search isn’t bounded by page count or the patience of human editors. Someone, somewhere has encountered the problem that has you climbing the walls, and someone, somewhere has answered it.
Many person-hours of labor and numerous PhD theses have been devoted to designing sophisticated knowledge management systems, incorporating text painstaking tagged and cleverly autosummarized; employing expert rules and meticulously built case repositories. But my guess is that a really good search engine and a deep database of human conversation can beat fancy knowledge management a lot of the time, and most of rest of the time, the Google-Usenet approach wins on price-performance.
Once again, the intelligence in the semantic web is largely human; a person who asked a question, and a person who answered it; the machine merely serves to connect today’s seeker with yesterday’s guru.
Of course, to succeed with this approach, as David Weinberger points out, you need to know how to phrase a query that will retrieve the right antique conversations. “PYTHONPATH Windows” succeeded instantly at finding the answer to my question last weekend. The skill of phrasing a search query ought to be taught in middle school, around the same time kids get old enough to figure out that a paragraph should have a main idea.

Email-to-Movable Type

This weekend I wrote a small Python program to post entries to MovableType via email. I used Mark Pilgrim’s Python wrapper for the Blogger XML-RPC API, PyBlogger, and Mark Lutz’ examples of Python email programming. The ‘mailblog’ pulls mail from a pop3 email address used only for blog posting. The script also works to post to Blogger, but Blogger Pro already has the feature.
Benefits:

  • Post via email is the one indispensable feature that Blogger has and MT doesn’t
  • Mailblog lets you address an email post with a friend in the to: field and the blog email address in the bcc: field. Can’t do that with the Blogger feature. This exactly duplicates the intent I have in publishing the blog, which is to share with more people things that I was already writing via private email, without committing spam.
  • Drawbacks:

  • Need to manually trigger the script to pull the email into the CMS. This is not a big drawback. In some ways it’s more convenient than the blogger implementation, which apparently works by polling the mail server ever 5 minutes, so email posts take a while to show up. The “blogmail” script generates the post instantly. I could avoid the manual step by writing a server-side procmail script to instigate the post when the email is received. But first I need to learn procmail.
  • Pyra hasn’t yet published the API for the title field, so email posts need to be titled manually. MT doesn’t complain.
  • What I learned:

  • Mark Pilgrim’s PyBlogger is lovely. Written for other people to read and use, not just for the computer to interpret. The code is clear, the variables are words, and the comments/inline docs are lucid and unambigous. Docs and comments so often contain grammatically correct English sentences with more than one possible logical meaning.
  • PYTHONPATH. The biggest stumbling block was figuring out how to include files that lived in faraway directories. Mark Lutz’ directions and the PythonWin IDE were unclear. Fortunately for my self-confidence, numerous others have described the topic as confusing, including the esteemed Python guru, Tim Peters. The polite way to do this is add references to the required files in the header of your program, in this manner: sys.path.append(‘C:\\Program Files\Zope\lib\python’).
  • How about, market down for the year on fears of endless war?

    Mitch Ratcliffe picked up a Slate story by Daniel Gross, speculating that the stock market was up on Friday in response to Senator Wellstone’s death.
    Here’s what I posted to the Slate discussion board in response:
    It seems ludicrous to theorize about the market bouncing on Friday in response to Senator Wellstone’s death without also drawing a connection between the market’s terrible performance over the last year and business concerns about the prospect for war without end.
    If anything, it seems just as logical to attribute the market’s rise over the last few weeks to the apparent easing of the threat of imminent war. Polls show most Americans worry about the potential for war with Iraq to spread elsewhere in the Middle East, and fear that the administration hasn’t thought through the requirements and consequences of a long-term occupation. Seems only reasonable that Wall Street would reflect these worries.

    Yoga videos

    Just had a really nice time with this Ali McGraw yoga video, with Erich Schiffman as the teacher. I use props for some of the standing poses, and am a lot less flexible than the beautiful people getting sand in their toes and their tights in the White Sands Desert. I was able to concentrate, rather than to wish each pose would finish as soon as possible. Four years ago this tape seemed completely impossible. I’ve also been enjoying Rodney Yee’s power yoga for strength, which is labeled for beginners but isn’t, as the Amazon comments tend to say. As strength training, much prefer this to lifting weights. Lifting weights is dull, and yoga is not dull because of the concentration.
    I can’t help but think sarcastic thoughts when the teachers get schmaltzy. When the Yoga teacher to the Hollywood stars says, “surrender completely, love is what you have when there is nothing left” — I mentally translate “give me all of your money, and savor the feeling of inner peace.” If anybody knows that Erich Schiffman is really not, on some level, a phony, please let me know and I’ll stop making fun of him.
    Combine Eastern spirituality with Eastern European Jewish guilt and Misnagnish disdain for spiritual exhibitionism, and I feel kind of awkward and guilty writing about yoga practice. The Austin weather forecast calls for thunderstorms; if the house is hit by lightning I’ll know what happened.