Delta relieves “gate stress” with new display for waiting passengers

John Udell writes about a new system that Delta has designed to give passengers waiting at the gate more information about the boarding process, like updates on how many people have checked in, and the state of the standby list.
Sounds really helpful for those times you’re standing there anxiously waiting to see if you’ll get on the flight.

Web, code, and Talmud

Reflecting on David’s puzzlement about the Jews and software meeting in Boston the other day, I recalled this Joel Spolsky essay on how reading code is like studying Talmud, in that it is best done in pairs, puzzling through and arguing about the meaning of the text.
When you think about it, the “link” form of the weblog has similarities to the classical Jewish form of text commentary. The blogger links to an article somewhere on the web, and then writes a commentary on the original text; then other commentators refer to the original commentator. In the traditional form, Jewish scholars wrote texts that commented on the bible or on the writings of earlier rabbis; and other rabbis wrote texts that commented on the earlier rabbis’ writings.
Because they didn’t have hypertext at the time, commentaries linked using chapter and sentence references; so when you study traditional texts, you wind up with a table full of books following the cross-references from book to book.
The form of the Talmud is similar to a recorded newsgroup or blog comments discussion. In the classical rabbinic academies, scholars discussed and debated a wide variety of topics, and those discussions were eventually edited into book form. The editors were concerned with representing the debate of ideas, not with historical accuracy — often, there are arguments between rabbis who didn’t live at the same time.
Its not that the Rabbis didn’t know how to write neat, logical, linear exposition. The classic rabbinic period was contemporaneous with the Hellenized civilization of the ancient world; they had the models of Greek thinking all around them, and they borrowed when it suited them — the Passover seder is modeled after the Platonic symposium. They looked at neat, logical, linear, hierarchical writing, decided that they didn’t like it, and wanted to write in weblog form instead.

On Data as Narrative

Intriguing Advogato essay by GaryM, sparked by David Gelernter’s NYT advertorial on the obsolescence of the file cabinet metaphor for organizing data.

“David Gelernter’s thinly disguised advertising piece Forget the Files and the Folders: Let Your Screen Reflect Life, for all it’s absurdities, is still something of a thread of a good idea in his “narrative file system” thesis: the idea of desktops, files and folders is a quaint retrieval from an office world very few of us remember and an organizational tool alien to the way people view their data.
No one organizes their home placing all items made by Scotts Tissue in one room, all Rubbermaid stuff in another, all Sony equipment on one shelf, Toshiba on another. We don’t even keep all audio tools in one room and leave all visual tools in another. How we actually use our data is determined by the stories and narratives we wish to experience and construct. It’s time we took the initiative to start building computing tools that recognize this.”

The article describes the problem nicely, doesn’t propose any useful solutions. Too bad.

The Airline of the Dalai Lama

Check out the list of titles in this British Airways registration form. It is too funny.
They serve people from many regions and cultures with different languages (Herr, Fraulein, Monsieur, Sheikh). There are special needs, such as serving Muslims on pilgrimage (Alhaji).
England is a class-conscious society, so they probably had customers wanting to register with their social and military titles. I can just see the secretary for some elderly Baron or Viscountess dressing down some poor BA functionary for not listing the correct title. I can see some web programmer throwing their hands up in despair, getting a book of titles, and including every last one.
Besides, the Pope and the Dalai Lama do fly fairly frequently with retinues. The field for “His Holiness” has probably been used.

At the bookstore….

… this afternoon, looking for a book on Perl, for some weekend entertainment that I’ll tell you about if and when it’s closer to working.
In the computer aisle, a retired gentleman approached me and asked me for advice. He did some hobbyist programming in BASIC 20 years ago, balancing his checkbook and doing calculations for a rather complicated-sounding home construction project (had to do with calculating the fluid volume in pipes).
He wanted to do some programming as mental exercise, and asked what I would recommend. I showed him the Microsoft VBasic.NET books, and Python, and PERL. Then I described the Computational Beauty of Nature, and his eyes lit up.
That was a good “neighbor moment.”

User Interface Decay

When good interfaces go crufty has lots of well thought through examples of user interface traits that are artifacts of obsolete design constraints.
One such example: applications use awkward little filepickers to open or save files because when the Mac was first designed, it wasn’t able to run the file manager and an application program at the same time.
Installed base dependencies and cultural habits can cause cruft to be highly persistent. Think about it — the school year in the US begins in September and ends in May, to allow students time off to help with the family harvest.
One nit — Internet Explorer’s lack of an exit menu item is a bug, not a feature. If you’ve got more than one window open, you need to close them, tediously, one at a time.
The essay was slashdotted, so you may have read it already 🙂

We’re looking for people who have almost everything

Please accept the most luxurious edition of Moby Dick ever published, for just $5.95! (Regularly $39.95)
Leather-bound and accented with pure 22-carat gold.
Imagine this Luxurious Volume on Your Library Shelves,
At a holiday party at the home of an executive, I once saw an astonishing library. Two full stories of shelves lined with books, with a rotating ladder to reach the upper shelves. The books were bound in leather, carefully arranged by color and height.

Lawn mower wisdom

This past summer I purchased a lawn mower for the first time in my life.
Like other acts of homage to the spirits of hardware, the search for a lawn mower was a learning experience.
At first I considered a manual mower. I don’t have that much grass, I don’t have big hills — it seemed like the simplest solution.
I hadn’t realized that manual lawnmowers had evolved from utilitarian garden implements to totems of yuppie nostalgia and sentimental patriotism.
Lawn mower of the past
Then I read that manual lawnmowers tend get stuck on twigs; and they can’t cut grass if it gets more than 5 inches high. So I looked further….
And found that advanced technology now can automate the lawnmowing process completely. You buy a little, round, red or yellow Pacman-like robot You install a wire around the edge of the lawn. The robot lawnmower then buzzes around the grass, munching away within the wire perimeter. They haven’t worked out the bugs yet — the algorithm doesn’t cut evenly and hit has some trouble with bumps and sticks. And it costs a bit more than I wanted to spend. So I searched on.
Lawn mower of the future
And I discovered that cutting the grass was no simple yard chore. Mowing the lawn is an opportunity to transcend the life of this world, and commune with the world of the spirit.
Lawn mower of the world to come
While I steeped myself in lawnmower lore and learning, I borrowed a gasoline mower from some friends to mow the lawn before the yard turned into a jungle. It was loud. It was smelly. And it was too heavy for me to lift.
I finally settled on the prosaic, best-selling Black-and-Decker electric mower from It’s quiet. It won’t explode. I can easily move it up and down stairs.
Lawn mower of the present

Computers won’t be reading Plato any time soon, Part 2

Thanks to Ed Nixon for a link to an interesting article by philosopher
John Searle, arguing against Ray Kurzweil’s contention that computers
will soon be smarter than people.
The strong part of Searle’s article is the argument that “syntax is not
semantics” — a computer that can calculate chess moves based on
pre-defined algorithms does not actually understand chess. Searle argues
successfully that Deep Blue is unintelligent in the same way that a
pocket calculator is unintelligent; it is simply manipulating symbols,
just as a human who speaks Chinese phrases using a transliteration is
manipulating symbols but does not understand Chinese.
Searle is right that Deep Blue is very far from being conscious. The
fact that a computer can beat a human at chess means about as much as
the fact that an automobile can move faster than a runner. Humans
designed the automobile; and human programmers chose the heuristics that
drive Deep Blue’s decisions.
Searle is less successful with the argument that a computer cannot have
intelligence, since a computer contains a mere model of intelligent
processes; and models are different from the physical things that they
Searle acknowledges that human intelligence is an emergent property of
neurons firing in the brain. This means, though, that intelligence is
based on circuitry, a pattern of information. Similarly, scientists are
gradually deciphering the informational patterns of genes and gene
expression. The lines between information and reality are not so clear
cut; it may be possible to develop living, even intelligent patterns in
some other medium.
Human intelligence probably has subtle dependencies on the biochemical
nature of the brain and the organism. Tom Ray makes this point
beautifully. But it does not follow that the only possible kind of
intelligence requires a body; it certainly does not follow that theonly
kind of intelligence requires this sort of body.
It may be theoretically possible for intelligence to develop in some
other medium. But despite Kurzweil’s optimism, there is little evidence
that we have any idea how to do this. Searle is right that just because
we can program computers to play chess does not mean we are anywhere
near creating computers with conscious minds.

& & & ! !

Have run into several pseudo-debates today about the relative benefits of websites and e-mail. The answer is both.
Mitch Ratcliffe cites an argument between Mark Hurst, who argues that email is better than weblogs, and John Robb over at Userland who argues in favor of weblogs.
Meanwhile, John Robb cites Ray Ozzie, who argues in an Infoworld interview that people ignore collaboration tools and portals because they aren’t as “natural” as phone, fax, and e-mail.
“Natural” has nothing to do with it. Right tool for the job has everything to do with it.
When you’re trying to reach another human immediately, you phone, fax, email (or IM). Why waste time browsing a web site when you just want to talk to Ed?
But when you want to talk to a person whom you haven’t spoken in a while, you probably look up their website first. You don’t call Ed and ask, “Ed, are you still working as Director of the Do-Gooders Coalition?” You look up the Do-Gooders’ coalition website first, and when you talk to Ed, you congratulate him on the success of their recent fundraiser.
Ratcliffe is respectful about Hurst’s advocacy of push email vs. pull websites but with all due respect, I think the point is ridiculous. Email is wonderful AND you don’t want all of the information in the universe piling up in your email box! Some things are important enough to deserve regular attention, and you want to receive them by email. Other things are interesting, but can wait till you go fetch them.
The tools work best together.

  • Email can be used for discussion and for immediate call to action.
  • Weblogs are good for keeping in touch on a daily basis
  • Websites can be used to support research and follow-up collaboration.
  • Both. And.