2001 Notebook

Psychoanalyzing Superheroes

After watching the movie X-Men the other night, I had a thought. The movie's setting is a world in which 10% of the population has begun to develop superhuman powers. Now imagine that this change had begun over a hundred years earlier. How would Sigmund Freud have interpreted these powers? Would he consider them as coming from the ego, or the id? Since he interpreted dreams and actions as reflecting the inner workings of the mind, wouldn't these special abilities do so as well? What would a person's power imply about that person?

Hmmm, that could make for an interesting story. Somebody must have written it already, though.


Paradigm Rigidity

There's been some debate in the Macintosh community about the new operating system's inclusion of command line Unix. Some GUI proponents consider the inclusion of a command line tool a step backward. I don't agree. A GUI isn't the best tool for every task. (I can imagine how tedious generating complex regular expressions would be in a completely graphic interface.) Apple should be applauded for adding a powerful and completely optional tool to its OS, albeit one that violates the Mac's interface guidelines. The addition of a command line gives the user more power; why is this a step backward? Adhering to a rigid paradigm is fine if it offers benefits, but the cost of doing so should be considered as well.


The Marriage Penalty

There's been a lot of hoo-ha recently in Washington D.C. about eliminating the marriage penalty (the extra amount of taxes that married couples have to pay). The consensus seems to be that it's unfair to penalize people for getting married. Why is this so? Unmarried people don't make use of divorce courts.

As a matter of fact, there are plenty of privileges that are only granted to married couples: rights of visitation, survivorship, property, et cetera. It's not uncommon for a queer person to be denied visitation rights to a partner in the hospital, or for a surviving partner to be evicted from a jointly owned home by the deceased's family. And people call the marriage penalty unfair? Hah! Consider it the price of a hundred privileges that are taken for granted, and a low price at that.


Pick a Card

What would it be like to live in a world where library cards were used more often than drivers' licenses and credit cards?


Art for the Masses

A piece of conceptual art: a pile of money, neatly stacked. The amount of money in the pile varies: its owner is obligated to keep the pile's monetary value equal to the work's current market value.

A series of works could be created, with different currencies and update periods (daily, weekly, yearly, tied to the date of auctions at Sotheby's, etc.)


Not Leaving Well Enough Alone

This morning, NPR reported a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman. Is anyone else imagining the hijinks that will ensue? For example, is the marriage of a woman and a female-to-male transsexual legal? You'll get some conservatives frothing at the mouth no matter what your answer is. And what about pre-op transsexuals? And neuters? What a fun can of worms this could be.


Some Internet Jargon

  • egopot, n. A Web page containing the names of people its author wants to re-establish contact with. The page is intended to be found via egosurfing. (Combination of "egosurfing" and "honeypot".)

  • alter-egosurfing, v.i. Looking up one's name in a directory or search engine to find people with the same name.

  • cache mining, v.i. The act of retrieving from a cache information that is no longer available from its original provider. With luck, entire sites can be reconstructed from caches such as Google's. Differs from cache diving in that the former has a specific target, while the latter is purely exploratory. (Formed from "dumpster diving".)


Help Yourself

While browsing the public library's nonfiction section this afternoon, I wandered into the 100s (we're still Dewey in Corvallis). As I looked at shelf after shelf of pop psychology and self-help books, a thought hit me: Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is more of a self-help manual than any book bearing that designation.


Planet of the...

Tim Burton's "re-imagining" of the movie Planet of the Apes has come and gone in the theaters, after taking a critical drubbing. I won't comment on it, since I didn't see it. What I've been wondering, though, is whether choosing apes as a metaphor for the less savory aspects of humanity's nature was a wise move. After all, we're pretty closely related species compared to almost any other on the planet. The big difference in terms of brain structure is the amount of grey matter on the outside of the cortex.

Now, compare a human brain to that of a lizard. We retain the structures in a lizard's brain (the R-complex), but in human brains they form a nucleus enveloped by the cortex and neocortex. There is commonality, even if we do not choose to admit it. Apes made a good choice because they are close to us structurally and socially, but I can't help thinking that if we really wanted to be honest, we'd be thinking of our world as Planet of the Lizards.


Once Again, Class.

In the wake of terrorist attacks, there are calls to restrict the use of encryption. Have these people learned nothing? Have they ever heard of covert channels, codes, or steganography?

Here's a simple challenge which demonstrates how effective restrictions on encryption tools will be. It's simple; just identify which of these files contains a hidden message.

If you can't spot the message, here's a hint.


The Balkanization of the Web

Is it just my imagination, or is the Web starting to fragment into closed communities?

The primary example of a walled community is America Online, but they don't really count. They started as an isolated network, and have been slowly opening access. AOL users can make Web pages that link outside AOL. That really doesn't count as a walled community in my book.

What comes to mind is two communities I've run across in the past year: Everything2 and LiveJournal. The former aims to be a user-created encyclopedia, while the latter provides both free and paid online journal services. Each is a closed community, but in different ways.

LiveJournal provides effective tools for building their online community. A participant can define other journalists as friends, and LiveJournal allows a visitor to easily traverse the resulting Web of friendship. Doing so quickly orients one among the LiveJournal community. Also, journal entries can be commented upon. Not only does this encourage participation, but it encourages contact between those who shares similar interests.

Everything2 takes a different approach to creating community. Any participant can create or comment upon a page (which for some reason they call nodes). Links between nodes are dynamically rated by traversal frequency, so a visitor can instantly see how closely related two nodes are. There's also a moderation system to rate node content, although it isn't as highly evolved as Slashdot's moderation system.

While both Everything2 and LiveJournal have interesting ideas and content, I'm not going to participate in either. The reason is that they are closed communities. Only LiveJournal participants can comment on someone else's journal entries. It's a viral community; to participate you must be assimilated, even if you don't want to write journal entries. I've watched friend after friend succumb -- even those who have Web sites of their own. First they join just to post a comment; the next thing you know, content which would have been perfect for their Web site is instead posted to LiveJournal.

Everything2 is even more draconian. I didn't recognize this fact at first, but I ran across a node that changed my mind. Its author was obviously ignorant of the existence of something which, if he had known of it, would have changed his argument. The omission was frustrating enough that I investigated Everything2's rules for registration and participation, with the intent of correcting the omission in a comment. While doing this research, I discovered something surprising: it is impossible to create a link to a page outside Everything2. The only links allowed are between nodes. Even if a perfectly good -- or, in this case, canonic -- page exists outside Everything2, you can't link to it. This is intentional. (From their F.A.Q.: "We're a black hole. We assimilate.").

In LiveJournal's case I can understand why only members are allowed to comment on other's posts. However, Everything2's hermetic policy makes no sense. If a great resource exists elsewhere on the Web, why not allow a link to it? In the case above, the link would be to the canonic reference on the topic. Contrary to Everything2's intent, the document can't be brought into E2, since it's under copyright. Everything2's rules reveal how hollow its commitment to its stated intent ("to bring Everything in") really is.

[Of course, one could easily get around this restriction by typing in the URL as plain text. That would point out just how ridiculous the restriction is. How would you react to seeing every URL on this page spelled out, rather than being a link? The Web was designed to be a medium to link information together -- a goal which is directly opposed by Everything2.]

The real reason for the restriction, of course, is the same as that driving AOL and LiveJournal's walled community policy: finance. If any of these sovereign states opened their gates, they'd lose those oh-so-important visitors.

No sale. If I've got something to say, I'm not going to put it on a site that contributes to the Balkanization of the Web.


Postscript, 2001-12-18/2002-01-04. I was wrong; LiveJournal allows a user to choose whether to accept posts from people without accounts. That eliminates some of my beef against them. It does seem to be the case that people post there instead of working on their own sites, though.

This is a job for a...

For just a moment tonight, I thought the neologism hypertect would be appropriate for someone who designs the linking structure of hypertext documents. Then I realized it's probably been used, and so it has. Actually, though, most of its occurrences on the Web are misspellings of "hypertext".


Mein Bitte

Reading Christopher Alexander's books and Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, as well writing some code earlier this year, has me pondering this question: should you do something you love for money? When you have the opportunity, skill, and drive to make something elegant, something artful, something that enriches all by its existence, is financial reward worth the inevitable compromise?

Put another way... few people get the chance to design a house, or a computer program, from initial idea to completion. Those who are talented enough to do so professionally must feel torn in two, with the desire to create the best possible work fighting the stunting restrictions of Mammon.

Would it be a better world if everyone were amateurs at their specialty, doing what they loved because they loved it? Can you imagine a world with no professional artists, architects, or athletes?


Last updated 4 January 2002
All contents ©2001-2002 Mark L. Irons

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