This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

July 2009 Archives

July 28, 2009

Several open source projects I care about are doing major releases this week:

Django 1.1 has been released. Feature list.

Emacs 23 will be final this week. emacs-fu has as write-up of new features.

Movable Type 4.3 should be out any day now. The beta blog is covering some of the major new features, including a new entry asset manager and new documentation.

July 27, 2009

Palin's Resignation: The Edited Version. Vanity Fair's editorial, research and copy departments take colored pens to the transcript.

I love how editing invigorates writing with confidence. A lack of confidence is one of the chief causes of bad writing, whether it's lack of confidence in the statement being made or in the tools being used to make it. The needless words admonished by Strunk & White are there to comfort the writer at the expense of the reader, to reassure the writer that what they're trying to say is true and convincing. Omitting them is an act of honesty and bravery.

We're doing so well, my administration. My administration's accomplishments, they speak for themselves. We work tirelessly for Alaskans. We aggressively and responsibly develop our resources because they were created to be used to better our world, to help people. And we protect the environment and Alaskans, the resource owners, foremost with our policied.

Here are some of the things that we have done. We created a Petroleum [^ Systems] Integrity Office to oversee safe development...

It's amusing to read political criticism into these edits, but good editing is always this brutal, regardless of the subject or the author. The original is pretty bad, but under the editor's pen, it's just bad writing.

July 26, 2009

Building Walt's Dream: Disneyland Construction Timelapse Video. 50 minutes, narrated with trivia by actual Imagineers. Posted to The Disney Blog. (Via Boing Boing.)

July 24, 2009

Hey Apollo 11 fans, I'm not sure how this can be true given its awesomeness, but the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon is available as a DVD box set for $10. One reviewer claims that this set uses cropping to achieve a 16:9 aspect ratio when it was originally filmed in 4:3, which is a bit disappointing, but somehow I'm not distressed.

And there's always Ron Howard's Apollo 13, which, c'mon, is pretty great. I guess I should probably see The Right Stuff too, while I'm at it.

Flynn Lives. 0xENDGAME, whatever that means.

Strikethru on Ace Typewriter & Equipment Company of Portland, Oregon. The Red Electric on Ace Typewriter. Ace Typewriter has a website in progress.

Davis Bros. Typewriter Repair Guide. "Rule 2: Disassembly is NEVER the first step in any repair."

Short film of Bill Wahl of the Mesa Typewriter Exchange cleaning a typewriter [YouTube].

July 22, 2009

TypeWriMo is a brigade of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) participants that do their 50,000 words on typewriters, partly because when you type on paper, you're less likely to edit while you draft.

Several notable things about this blog entry about the script-type Hermes 3000 typewriter:

There was a script-type Hermes 3000 typewriter, and it looks great. (So much to learn about typewriters! Can't resist!)

There is a portion of the web population that blogs through scans of typewritten paper. They'd like to call them "typecasts," but that term is overloaded heavily on the web, mostly by the computer programming concept of that name.

There are people who want to call blogging through scans of handwriting "pencasts," but this term has been commandeered by LiveScribe to refer to videos of writing recorded by the LiveScribe pen.

Strikethru is a blog about typewriters, notebooks, printing and other makery. Via Strikethru, colorcasting is the practice of coating paper with crayon wax, feeding it through a typewriter with a blank page, and typing on the back without ink to cause the wax to imprint the page. No relation to typecasting and pencasting.

I'm too young to have used a typewriter (electronic or otherwise) for actual writing, though I have memories of big buzzing IBM Selectrics from my childhood, and I vaguely recall having access to a manual typewriter briefly at one point. I occasionally fantasize about getting and using a manual typewriter, though I worry about the dwindling supply of ribbon cutting the fantasy short.

myTypewriter.com seems designed specifically to play into this fantasy. Browse typewriter models by brand, by period, or by the famous authors that used them, then buy restored vintage models for large sums of money.

Cheaper and perhaps less notable typewriters are available on eBay. Check out the lovely product description by typewriter restorer Dean Jones on this 1960 Hermes. I can't find any more info on Jones beyond his eBay account ("writertypes," 142 positives, all typewriter related) and this one item, but the write-up is worth the Buy It Now price.

Typewriters.com is a more business oriented retailer and mostly carries electrics, but does carry the Olivetti MS25. This Olivetti and replacement ribbons are also in Amazon.com's catalog, fulfilled directly by Royal. Update: Check out these terrible customer reviews on that cheap plastic thing. Clearly this is not how you fulfill a fantasy.

I ran across this recent NY Post bit on how the NYPD still uses and spends money on manual and electric typewriters. A supplier mentioned in the article, Swintec, appears to specialize in supplying the federal government with typewriters. They also make clear typewriters for use by inmates in correctional facilities.

There appear to be enough ribbons available to entertain a contemporary manual typewriter fantasy, especially for more recent models. TypewriterSupply.com carries ribbon for a bunch of models I tried.

Poetic Typewriters has a list of The Top Five Portable Manual Typewriters.

Typewriter Man by Ian Frazier, from The Atlantic, November 1997.

The Classic Typewriter Page, maintained by Richard Polt. See also
The Collectors Weekly interview Polt.

Much to my surprise, I can't find anything on the 'net that'd tell me which make and model of typewriter was used in the movie The Lives of Others. It's mentioned prominently in the DVD commentary, but nobody has transferred this information to a web page, apparently. I'll update this spot if I find out, and do let me know if you know.

And lastly, if you have a portable manual typewriter model to recommend, leave a comment!

July 21, 2009

Using Lottery Effect to Make People Save. It's a great idea because it's motivating people to save by exploiting psychology: "I thought it was a good idea, because earning interest means you win anyway." This is a fallacy in a way, because "you win anyway" doesn't mean "it doesn't cost anything:" the cost of playing is the lower-than-usual savings rate, subtracted from a better rate you might get somewhere else by making the same investment. But players are unlikely to have saved money otherwise, and you lose more by not investing than by investing, so it's actually positive.

July 20, 2009

The original source code for the Apollo 11 Command Module and Lunar Module has been transcribed from scanned images to run in an Apollo Guidance Computer simulator. It's called "yaAGC." Love it.

Poor Michael Collins. Shortly after the lunar module Tranquility lands on the moon, where Neil and Buzz are in Tranquility, and Mike is in the command module Columbia:

Command Center: Tranquility, be advised there's lots of smiling faces in this room and all over the world. Over.

Tranquility: Well, there are two of them up here.

CC: Roger. That was a beautiful job, you guys.

Columbia: And don't forget one in the command module.

CC: Roger. ... Tranquility, Houston. We have you pitched up about 4-1/2 degrees. Over.

T: That's confirmed by our local observation.

CC: Roger.

Columbia: And thanks for putting me on relay, Houston. I was missing all the action.

CC: Roger. We'll enable MSFN relay.

Columbia: I just got it, I think.

CC: Roger, Columbia. This is Houston. Say something. They ought to be able to hear you. Over.

Columbia: Roger, Tranquility Base. It sure sounded great from up here. You guys did a fantastic job.

T: Thank you. Just keep that orbiting base ready for us up there now.

Columbia: Will do.

The complete Apollo 11 mission transcripts as searchable scanned PDFs.

I'm kidding, of course. Mike sounds in great spirits in the recording. NASA published a Q&A on NASA's website a few days ago, and the first question is:

Q. Circling the lonely moon by yourself, the loneliest person in the universe, weren't you lonely?

A. No.

"Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side."

This interview is pretty cute, actually. Later on:

Q. You are starting to sound a little grumpy. Are you grumpy?

A. At age 78, yes, in many ways. Some things about current society irritate me, such as the adulation of celebrities and the inflation of heroism.

Q. But aren't you both?

A. Not me. Neither.

Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: 'above and beyond the call of duty.'

Celebrities? What nonsense, what an empty concept for a person to be, as my friend the great historian Daniel Boorstin put it, "known for his well-known-ness." How many live-ins, how many trips to rehab, maybe--wow--you could even get arrested and then you would really be noticed. Don't get me started.

Q. So, if I wanted to sum you up, I should say "grumpy?"

A. No, no, lucky! Usually, you find yourself either too young or too old to do what you really want, but consider: Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin 1930, and Mike Collins 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and we were successful in them. But in my own case at least, it was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck. Put LUCKY on my tombstone.

How They Built It: The Software of Apollo 11.

Build Your Own NASA Apollo Landing Computer. John Pultorak spent 4 years researching, building and documenting a personal project to recreate the Apollo 11 guidance computer. All 1,000+ pages of his documentation are available for download.

Don't forget that today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and several great websites are doing live coverage to the second. The landing anniversary is at 4:10 pm EDT (1:10 pm PDT), and the walk is at 10:10 pm EDT (7:10 pm PDT).

We Choose the Moon (which I mentioned a few days ago) continues to live stream audio and CG renderings of the entire mission, and is a great place to be this afternoon.

Also, Jason Kottke has set up a recreation of the Apollo 11 live TV coverage with Walter Cronkite. Yes, you could watch it any time on YouTube, but as Jason notes, doing it live best fits the spirit of the original event:

I've watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I'm struck by two things: 1) how it's almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

July 15, 2009

Top O'Reilly Titles Now Available as iPhone Apps [iTunes App Store link]. A neat idea. I'm not sure I want to pay lots of money for new copies of technical books for my phone, but I might try one just to see how well it works.

Alright, Gates, I'll link: Project Tuva is a new web video player from Microsoft Research with some cool features, mostly notable because the demo is of 7 hours of Feynman lectures from the '60s, with transcriptions and annotations.

Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs, by Leonard Richardson. See Leonard's follow-up blog entry for some behind-the-scenes detail, including a deleted scene (contains spoilers).

From the blog entry:

The main trigger for "Awesome Dinosaurs" was a certain class of rejection letter that corresponds to about #11 on the Context of Rejection: "This story didn't quite grab me." Or its less positive sibling, "Nice story, but it didn't work for me." I get this rejection letter a lot, and at one point in a Jamsetji Tata-esque fit of pique (reference explained in Calca 1 below) I said, "I will write a story about dinosaurs who drive monster trucks! Maybe that will grab you!"

"Write what you know" is a common cliche, and writing what you know will get you a coherent story but not, I find, one that goes around grabbing editors. I find my stories do much better when I write what I love. I know a thing or two about politics and asteroid mining and secret societies, but my stories on those topics aren't selling, and I'm starting to think it's because I don't love those things as much as I love the Internet, or video games, or dinosaurs.

Leonard Richardson is also a software engineer and the author of BeautifulSoup, an HTML parsing library for Python, and co-author of the books RESTful Web Services and the Ruby Cookbook.

Weird Al's "Skipper Dan." Not Al's most clever lyrics or concept, but the little pluses add up to mega bonus points: the Divya Srinivasan animation, the late reveal of the chorus, the detailed Disneyland references, the truth. I know and love Divya Srinivasan from many They Might Be Giants music videos, and perhaps you do too.

(Via Drawn! The Illustration and Cartooning Blog, via waxy.)

July 14, 2009

Gazelle.com buys and sells used electronics over the web. During the iPhone 3GS launch week, their front page offered money for old iPhones, and they managed to score a mention in a NYTimes blog post, which is how I found out about them. I gave 'em a shot with my old iPhone and am pleased to say it was a good experience.

Details for the wary: You register, then describe to them your item for sale, its condition, what parts it still has. From that, they give you an "offer." When I did it a couple of weeks ago, for an iPhone 3G with all cables in "good" condition, they offered $210. If you accept the money in the form of an Amazon.com gift certificate, you get a percentage bonus, in my case another $10. For some items, especially iPhones, they send you a free shipping box in the mail. You pack your item in the box with some crumpled newspaper, apply the postage-paid label, and drop it in the mail.

You get confirmation emails throughout the rest of the process, including one saying they received the item, and one saying they inspected the item. The inspection is the scary part, of course: if they disagree with your description, they might make a new lower offer. According to their standards, my iPhone was not "good," it was "fair," and they explained they didn't like the scuffing on the back of the case. The new offer was $40 less. I could reject the offer and they would send back the item, but of course I just took the money.

Overall, it was a good experience, and much more convenient than eBay or hawking it at work. I can't think of a way the inspection process, a natural weakness of this kind of interaction, could have been improved. The solid design of the website and the free shipping box go a long way to build trust prior to the transaction, and that's much appreciated.

Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires, the old three-part PBS documentary by Robert X. Cringely on Microsoft and Apple, is (for the moment?) available for viewing online in its entirety.

July 13, 2009

We Choose the Moon, a big beautiful modern real-time re-visiting of the Apollo 11 moon landing, in honor of its 40th anniversary. Launching in T minus 55 hours from when I'm writing this...

Follow the mission on Twitter: capcom, spacecraft, eagle.

Jay Smooth: Dance You Into The Sunlight. (Via waxy.)

July 9, 2009

Two wonderful video projects by the University of Nottingham:

Sixty Symbols, short documentaries about symbols used in physics and astronomy. Includes YouTube annotations in a few cases. Accessible and delightful.

And: The Periodic Tables of Videos, short documentaries about each element in the periodic table.

(Via Jason.)

July 6, 2009

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, a documentary about documentaries. Very cool Flash-based website with lots of clips of interviews with documentary filmmakers. (Via Jason.)

July 5, 2009

bitquabit on software estimation arrogance. Benjamin is targeting people who snipe derisively in programmer forums about how easy it would be to build something that exists, but much of his point applies to a less malevolent hacker tendency. Hubris, one of the three hacker virtues, involves assuming hard problems are easy, to the point of not recognizing their actual difficulty at first. Hubris alone can be problematic, and while it rarely survives on its own in an actual software development scenario (a functional one, at least), it's easy to forget the other virtues—and the real world—while being snotty in a forum.

I liked Benjamin's essay because the virtuous form of hubris is one of my favorite things about software engineering, the habit of taking an exceedingly optimistic view of every challenge, and it's addictive to the point of forgetting to balance it with real world estimates. (And no, the other two virtues of laziness and impatience, do not necessarily offer this balance.) I also enjoyed his pejorative use of the word bikeshed as the act of declaring a decision unimportant just because you don't care about it, as a software engineer might about a detail of the user experience. Not its original meaning, but that's what it has become.

July 4, 2009

Music video for "Hibi no Neiro" by Sour, made with the cooperation of 64 fans of the group with webcams. (Via Waxy, via Aaron Meyers.)