Joho the BlogAugust 2012 - Page 2 of 2 - Joho the Blog

August 22, 2012

When php will only read itself

Some little apps I’ve written for myself over the years refused to work on a Mac with Lion that I’ve started using at work. The problem was that any php invoked via Ajax would return only itself — that is, the return value would be the lines of the php script itself. This is not helpful.

I poked around a lot on the Net and couldn’t find anything relevant. The closest was the observation that this can happen if you begin your PHP scripts with just a <? instead of <?php, which seems awfully persnickety. Unfortunately, my scripts didn’t begin with the abbreviated form.

After getting some help by posting at Stackoverflow.com, it seemed that the machines that my scripts have worked on have PHP v.5.3.8, whereas my Lion computer for some reason was at PHP 5.3.1. So, I upgraded the php to 5.4. This page has easy instructions for doing so: http://php-osx.liip.ch. (If you want to know what version of PHP you have, in a terminal window type “php -v”.)

I’m not 100% sure that it was the PHP upgrade that did it and not some random other change or a change in the phase of the moon. But it’s working. And if you’ve been having the same weird problem with PHP, maybe it will work for you.

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August 19, 2012

Man in the street = Editor in the studio

Maybe I’ve been unlucky, or maybe I’m just more sensitive these days, but I think I’m hearing more NPR interviews with ordinary joes and janes. For example, they just ran interviews about the election with seniors. We learned that there’s this one old guy who likes Ryan because he has good values and likes America. We learned that there’s another old lady who is worried that the Republicans will weaken Medicare. Then, we learned that there are other old people with other opinions.

That is, we learned nothing. There was no statistical significance to the interviews. There were no particular insights. The most significant lesson we could learn is about what the editors at NPR think are interesting, balanced sound bites.

There are three levels of badness of “man on the street” interviews. At level one, they are journalism at its laziest. At level two, they’re ways to smuggle in opinions that the journalists are afraid to express. At level three, they’re conscious attempts to manipulate opinion through selective editing.

NPR’s interviews are “balanced,” and thus are probably only Level 1 offenders. Maybe Level 2. I wish all forms of journalism became Level 0 offenders.

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August 16, 2012

Authors don’t scale. Topics do.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Richard MacManus’ post at ReadWriteWeb about where Web publishing is going. In particular, I think the growth of topic streams is pretty much close to inevitable, whether this occurs via Branch + Medium (and coming from Ev Williams, I suspect that at the very least they’ll give Web culture a very heavy nudge) and/or through other implementations.

Richard cites two sites for this insight: Anil Dash and Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Excellent posts. But I want to throw in a structural reason why topics are on the rise rise: authors don’t scale.

It is certainly the case that the Web has removed the hold the old regime had over who got to publish. To a lesser but still hugely significant extent, the Web has loosened the hold the old regime had on who among the published gets attention; traditional publishers can still drive views via traditional marketing channels, but tons more authors/creators are coming to light outside of those channels. Further, the busting up of mass culture into self-forming networks of interest means that a far wider range of authors can be known to groups that care about them and their topics. Nevertheless, there is a limit within any one social network — and within any one human brain — to how many authors can be emotionally committed to.

There will always be authors who are read because readers have bonded with them through the authors’ work. And the Web has enlarged that pool of authors by enabling social groups to find their own set, even if many authors’ fame is localized within particular groups. But there are only so many authors you can love, and only so many blogs you can visit in a day.

Topics, on the other hand, are a natural way to handle the newly scaled web of creators. Topics are defined as the ideas we’re interested in, so, yes, we’re interested in them! They also provide a very useful way of faceting through the aggregated web of creators — slicing through the universe of authors to pull in what’s interesting and relevant to the topic. There may be only so many topics you can be interested in (at least when topics get formalized, because there’s no limit to the things our curiosity pulls us toward), but within a topic, you can pull in many more authors, many of whom will be previously unknown and most of whom’s names will go by unnoticed.

I would guess that we will forever see a, dialectic between topics and authors in which a topic brings an author to our attention to whom we then commit, and an author introduces a topic to which we then subscribe. But we’ve spent the past 15 years scaling authorship. We’re not done yet, but it’s certainly past time for progress in scaling topics.

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August 13, 2012

Hummingbirds live in The Shire

I’ve been watching hummingbirds at our feeder, and took a moment to read up on them a bit more. Hummingbirds.net has a lot of interesting information, including about their impossible migrations. (These migrations are proved by the Internet and reported by people like you and me.)

But what really amused me was this straightforward and presumably accurate description of their nests:

The walnut-sized nest, built by the female, is constructed on a foundation of bud scales attached to a tree limb with spider silk; lichens camouflage the outside, and the inside is lined with dandelion, cattail, or thistle down.

Undoubtedly tended by singing dragonflies that feed on unicorn tears.

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August 11, 2012

[2b2k] Knowledge’s typeface

AKMA points to an experiment by Errol Morris that confirms AKMA’s long-held theory that typeface affects credibility. At the low end, unsurprisingly, is comic sans. At the high end: Georgia…which happens to be my favorite font. This is part of AKMA’s larger hypothesis that “‘the meaning’ of a claim is not separable from its appearance.”

My conclusion: Your brain is not your friend.

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August 10, 2012

[email protected]

On August 11, 1987, Apple genius Bill Atkinson — and this was before every kid in a clean shirt was a candidate for Apple Genius — held a press conference at MacWorld to unveil HyperCard. I was there.

example of a hypercard stack

I watched Atkinson’s presentation as a PR/marketing guy at a software company, and as an early user of the initial Mac (although my personal machines were CP/M, MS-DOS, and then Windows). As a PR guy, I was awestruck by the skill of the presentation. I remember Atkinson dynamically resizing a bit-mapped graphic and casually mentioning that figuring out on the fly which bits to keep and which to throw out was no small feat. And at the other end of the scale, the range of apps — each beautifully designed, of course — was fantastic.

HyperCard was pitched as a way to hyperlink together a series of graphic cards or screens. The cards had the sort of detail that bitmapped graphics afforded, and that Apple knew how to deliver. Because the cards were bitmapped, they tended to highlight their uniqueness, like the pages of a highly designed magazine, or etchings in a gallery.

Atkinson also pitched HyperCard as a development environment that made some hard things easy. That part of the pitch left me unconvinced. Atkinson emphasized the object-orientation of HyperTalk — I remember him talking about message-passing and inheritance — but it seemed to me as a listener that building a HyperStack (as HyperCard apps were called) was going to be beyond typical end users. (I created a Stack for my company a few months later, with some basic interactivity. Fun.)

Apple killed off HyperCard in 2004, but it remains more than a fond memory to many of us. In fact, some — including Bill Atkinson — have noted how close it was to being a browser before there was a Web. A couple of months ago, Matthew Lasar at Ars Technica wrote:

In an angst-filled 2002 interview, Bill Atkinson confessed to his Big Mistake. If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different.

“I missed the mark with HyperCard,” Atkinson lamented. “I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I’d grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser. My blind spot at Apple prevented me from making HyperCard the first Web browser.”

First of all, we should all give Bill A a big group hug. HyperCard was an awesome act of imagination. Thank you!

But I don’t quite see HyperCard as the precursor to the Web. I think instead it anticipated something later.

HyperCard + network = Awesome, but HyperCard + network != Web browser. The genius of Tim Berners-Lee was not that he built a browser that made the Internet far more usable. TBL’s real genius was that he wrote protocols and standards by which hyperlinked information could be displayed and shared. The HTML standard itself was at best serviceable; it was a specification using an already-existing standard, SGML, that let you specify the elements and structure of particular document types.. TBL went against the trend by making an SGML specification that was so simple that it was derided by the SGML cowboys. That was very smart. Wise, even. But we have the Web today because TBL didn’t start by inventing a browser. He instead said that if you want to have some text be hyperlinked, surround it with a particular mark-up (“<a href= ‘http://pathname.com/page.html’></a>”). And, if you want to write a browser, make sure that it knows how to interpret that markup (and support the protocols). The Web took off because it wasn’t an application, but a specification for how applications could share hyperlinked information. Anyone who wanted to could write applications for displaying hyperlinked documents. And people did

There’s another way HyperCard was not Web minus Network. The Web works off of a word-processing metaphor. HyperCard works off of a page-layout/graphics metaphor. HTML as first written gave authors precious little control over the presentation of the contents: the browser decided where the line endings were, how to wrap text around graphics, and what a first level heading would look like compared to a second level heading. Over time, HTML (especially with CSS) has afforded authors a much higher degree of control over presentation, but the architecture of the Web still reflects the profound split between content and layout. This is how word-processors work, and it’s how SGML worked. HyperCard, on the other hand, comes out of a bitmapped graphics mentality in which the creator gets pinpoint control over the placement of every dot. You can get stunningly beautiful cards this way, but the Web has gained some tremendous advantages because it went the other way.

Let me be clearer. In the old days, WordPerfect was unstructured and Microsoft Word was structured. With WordPerfect, to make a line of text into a subhead you’d insert a marker telling WordPerfect to begin putting the text into boldface, and another marker telling it to stop. You might put in other markers telling it to put the same run of text into a larger font and to underline it. With Word, you’d make a line into a subhead by putting your text caret into it and selecting “subhead” from a pick list. If you wanted to turn all the subheads red, you’d edit the properties of “subhead” and Word would apply the change to everything marked as a subhead. HTML is like Word, not WordPerfect. From this basic decision, HTML has gained tremendous advantages:

  • The structure of pages is important semantic information. A Web with structured pages is smarter than one with bitmaps.

  • Separating content from layout enables the dynamic re-laying out that has become increasingly important as we view pages on more types of devices. If you disagree, tell me how much fun it is to read a full-page pdf on your mobile phone.

  • Structured documents enable many of the benefits of object orientation: Define it once and have all instances update; attach methods to these structures, enable inheritance, etc.

(It’s disappointing to me that Google Docs document programming environment doesn’t take advantage of this. The last time I looked, you can’t attach methods to objects. It’s WordPerfect all over again.)

I should mention that the software company I worked at, Interleaf, created electronic documents that separated content from presentation (with SGML as its model), that treated document elements as objects, and that enabled them to be extended with event-aware methods. These documents worked together over local area networks. So, I think there’s a case to be made that Interleaf’s “active documents” were actually closer to presaging the Web than HyperCard was, although Interleaf made the same mistake of writing an app — and an expensive, proprietary one to boot — rather than a specification. It was great technology, but the act of genius that gave us the Web was about the power of specifications and an architecture independent of the technology that implements it.

HyperCard was a groundbreaking, beautiful, and even thrilling app. Ahead of its time for sure. But the time it was ahead of seems to me to be not so much the Age of the Web as the Age of the App. I don’t know why there isn’t now an app development environment that gives us what HyperCard did. Apparently HyperCard is still ahead of its time.

 


[A few minutes later] Someone’s pointed me to Infinite Canvas as a sort of HyperCard for iPhone…

[An hour later:] A friend suggests using the hashtag #HyperCard25th.

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August 5, 2012

Open Access facts from Peter Suber

I’m enjoying my friend Peter Suber’s small book Open Access. He’s a very clear and concise writer, and of course he knows this topic better than anyone.

Here are some facts Peter mentions:

  • In 2008, Harvard subscribed to 98,900 serials. Yale subscribed to 73,900. “The best-funded research library in India…subscribed to 10,600.” And, Peter points out, some Sub-Saharan universities cannot afford to subscribe to any. (pp. 30-32) Way to make yourself smart, humanity!

  • “In 2010, Elsevier’s journal division had a profit margin of 35.7 percent while ExxonMobil had only 28.1 percent.” (p. 32)

  • The cost of journals has caused a dramatic decrease in the percentage of their budgets research libraries spend on books, from 44% in 1986 to 28% now. “Because academic libraries now buy fewer books, academic book publishers now accept fewer mauscripts…” (p. 33)

Peter’s book will help you understand better why you already favor Open Access.

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August 4, 2012

More friends than fans

From a post by ireadfaux at Reddit.com:

So a couple of days ago Bieber’s album ‘Believe’ went platinum. Twitter blew up about it and millions of his followers were congratulating him – as they do….

But here is an interesting thought….

A platinum album is 1 millions sales….

Bieber has 25 million twitter followers….

So only 4% of his supposed fan base have bought the album.

If you look at his facebook fans, he has 45 millions, so thats only 2.2% of those that have actually bought it.

But why would he care….he is a youtube partner and has had over 2.7 billion views of his videos….paid at an average of $1.25 per 1000 views for youtube partners…. thats 3.3 mill from just youtube views.

Just thoughts.

Pre-Net, a lot more people would have said they liked an artist than would have bought the latest album. You would listen on the radio or watch when they came on TV. So it’s hard to know if much has changed, if only because as far as I know we don’t know how many people liked, say, Elton John, versus how many copies of his LPs sold.

Nevertheless, the current statistics are puzzling. Are fans getting their fill of The Biebs on YouTube? On Spotify et al.? I somehow doubt that 24M fans torrented the album. Is “Liking” Beieber more of a tribal identification thing? Compared to pre-Net, is the fan-performer relationship basically the same, radically different, or somewhere in between?

I dunno how to explain these Bieber stats. And I don’t know how to know.

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Ethanz on culture’s shaping of technology

I wasn’t sure how to title this post from a few weeks ago by Ethan Zuckerman. His own title is also inadequate: “Kenya, Power, and Questioning My Assumptions.” It’s not so much that the title is bad as that the post is too, too rich.

Holy cow, Ethan is a good writer. And this piece is superb in every direction. It’s structured around assumptions of his that were overturned by his visit to an “upscale slum” in Nairobi, exploring what might be needed from a power generating business he is involved in. (No, he’s not turning into a utilities baron.) In the course of the post, we learn at every level possible: about technology, economics, communities, Nairobi, and the persnickety ways culture shapes technology.

Ethan is special. If you know him or have heard him you already know that. So I would never want to generalize based on him. But he’s engaged in a style of writing that we simply would not have been able to find in the past, which meant that people didn’t bother writing it. Thank you, Internet!

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August 2, 2012

Three vendors and/or products to love: Computer parts, music, electric toothbrush

I wanted to replace the smashed screen of a white MacBook, and found what seemed like a very good price from Wegener. The new screen arrived very quickly, and was exactly as described. But when I started to strip down the MacBook, I discovered I had ordered the wrong screen. It’s surprisingly easy to do.

So, I sent an email to Wegener and quickly got a reply, followed by a phone call. The support person said they are happy to send me the right screen, for which I have to pay a little more because it’s a more expensive part. They’re sending it even before I return the old one. So far, the experience has been terrific: Quick responses, friendly people, good return policy.

Then they told me that in the carton for the replacement part I’ll find a postage paid mailing label. I reminded them that the problem was entirely my fault, and thus there’s no reason for them to pay for shipping. Yikes, that’s some good customer service! (I went ahead and returned the first screen on my own dime.)

It’s amazing how powerful an experience it is to be treated like a human being by a business.


HumbleBundle is a fantastic way to sell indie games and music. You name your own price, you can divvy it up among the creators and among charities, and today I got a message that they’ve added more songs for free for anyone who purchased the most recent bundle.

Yo, Humbles, I already bought the product. You don’t have to entice me any more. On the other hand: You’ve made me love you even more, and you’ve helped some musicians spread their music just a little wider.


I thought it had been 6 months since my last dental check up. Since I now routinely multiply any past intervals by two, I figured, correctly, that it’s really been a year. Usually, the hygienist has to put on waders and go at me with a pickaxe and a trowel. This was the first time in my life that a dental hygienist has marveled at my teeth. Gums are strong. No tartar, except for a little around a couple of teeth. Some healing of a couple of “pockets.”

There’s been one major variable that I know of: I switched from a Braun electric toothbrush to a Philips SoniCare.Why? Because the Internet told me to. I believe that the correlation is not accidental (see what I did there?), but of course it is just one data point.

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