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November 30, 2001

Update on the Hunt for

Update on the Hunt for Cheney

Al Qaeda spokesman Muhammed Qadir today said at a press conference that the hunt for American terrorist mastermind Dick Cheney is making “slow but steady progress.” Vowed Qadir, “Whatever suburban hellhole Cheney is hiding in, we will find him and smoke him out.”

Cheney is thought to have retreated deep into one of the hundreds of small towns within 100 miles of Washington, DC, with communication equipment and enough food and water to keep him and his entourage alive for an indefinite period. He was last heard from in taped comments a week ago in which he urged his countryman to “Fight the aggressor to the death in every corner of the world if necessary, including southwest Newport News, right across from Carl’s Sports ‘n’ Stuff store.” Al Qaeda believes that the remarks contained a coded message their cryptographers have deciphered as: “Send fabric softener; my shorts itch.”

“We are pursuing every possible lead,” said Qadir, refusing to reply to rumors that have placed Cheney in a basement rec room in Silver Springs, MD and in a converted garage in Roanoke, VA. Qadir said that the hunt would continue through the unpleasantly moist rainy season. “Make no mistake, Dick Cheney: no bumper pool table is large enough to hide you.”


Correspondingly true Mike Sanders yesterday

Correspondingly true

Mike Sanders yesterday responded to Doc Searls‘ response to Thomas Friedman‘s column in the NY Times with a blog entry that asks some of the basic questions about truth. Mike asks:

Is it true that the only truth is that there is no truth?

Is there such a thing as truth? If yes, where does it apply?

Is the truth what a given person believes?

When Is it important to determine truths?

How can we go about determining the truth in a given area?

Today he posts a bunch of responses. I’m a day late because I was on the road, but here goes.

I want to pursue this along two tracks.
First, Mike’s questions are so damn hard because the reigning theory of truth is problematic. We think of truth as a correspondence between a statement and state of affairs. This has gotten mixed up with a representational view of consciousness, that is, the view that we know the world by creating an inner representation of it. There are millions of examples of this way of thinking, starting with our view of insanity as having ideas in your head that don’t correspond to the world, but I happened upon some just yesterday in the book about Douglas Englebart, called Boostrapping by Thierry Bardin. Englebart wrote that language is “the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world into the concepts that his mind uses to model the world…” (p. 36). This view of consciousness and of our relation to our world is – IMO – insanely wrong, but it is the basis of our theory of truth.

Second, Friedman’s column says that the great world religions have to accept that none has the one and only truth. In particular, he chastises Islam for not yet accepting the validity of other religions. But Friedman is wrong, I believe, in lumping Christianity and Judaism together on this issue. Becoming Christian means accepting a body of beliefs as true. Becoming a Jew means having a Jewish mother. Jews are a people. That’s why Jews traditionally have not proselytized; suggesting that you ought to become a Jew is akin to suggesting that you ought to become Italian. And that’s why Jews have not maintained that their scripture needs to be accepted by everyone and that everyone needs to keep kosher. Thus, the “truths” of Judaism are different in type than the “truths” of Christianity and Islam: they are a set of practices more than a set of beliefs, and they are practices required only of those born as Jews. (I’m over-simplifying, of course. There are some practices – not killing, not lying, etc. – that Jews do hold are required of all.) Further, Judaism is thoroughly hermeneutic; it’s baked into the religion that scripture always needs to be interpreted. In fact, it needs to be interpreted not by individuals who randomly proclaim the Truth as they see it but by an historical community of thinkers and talkers. This multi-thousand year conversation among learned and thoughtful Jews is one of the truly distinctive marks of this religion.

So, where does this leave us with regard to truth? I’m going to state a position and not argue for it because: the argument is too long and complex for a blog and it’s too long and complex for the likes of me. Nevertheless, it strikes me as obvious. (Note: I didn’t make this up. I’m summarizing and interpreting a clump of thinkers that are generally called Continental Philosophers.) Truth is a way of uncovering the world. “Uncovering” is a good word to use because it implies that you are seeing what was there all along even though you weren’t aware of it. There are lots of ways of uncovering the world. Not all are equally good. Some are just plain stupid or loony. There are some tests that work for some types of uncoverings; science works real good as one way of uncovering the world. But there isn’t one killer test that can ride roughshod over all others: science works, but so does poetry. It’s important to recognize that we are not alone in our uncovering of the world. We do it together on the basis of a history of thought and art and stories and language that we cannot escape. Truth is not simply what anyone happens to believe. It is the way we – our culture and our history – have uncovered the world. It is not something in our head; it is the way our language allows the world to show itself to us.

Or, like, anyway, that’s my truth. Whatever. Dude.

Response from and to Tom Matrullo
The always insightful Tom Matrullo has responded to the above on his estimable site. After saying some nice things about my post, he concludes with:

…”the way our language allows the world to show itself to us” appears to remain, as they say, “inscribed” entirely within the realm of the eye, a system that seems ineluctably to entail a notion of truth as the relationship between a representational model and an underlying something that is real.

Or am I missing something here, David?

Is the problem that “show” sounds like it refers only the visual? My bad. The world shows itself to us through touch, sounds, and smells as well as through sight. But even if it were confined to sight, that wouldn’t mean that the model has to be representational. The Continental philosophers – more precisely, the phenomenologists – started from the insight (there’s that “sight” word again!) that the attempt to discern what was certain and knowable had led our philosophical tradition to over-emphasize raw perception. When you consider your relationship to the world in terms of perception, you are stripping out what’s meaningful in that relationship. We normally are not in the world as perceivers but as act-ers and care-ers. So, while we can seem to achieve a state in which we are forming mental images of an external world, that state is the exception and shouldn’t be taken as indicating the truth (there’s that word again!) of our relation to the world.

Tom, have I missed your point?


November 29, 2001

The Web vs. Computers Please

The Web vs. Computers

Please allow me to state the obvious: the Age of the Web is succeeding in part because it is undoing the excesses of the Age of Computers. With the introduction of the PC, we spent our days staring into a screen, manipulating data and composing words in clicking silence. With the Web, we spend our days staring into a screen looking at other people, or at least looking at how other people choose to present themselves.

But the Web runs through and on computers. The way computers have changed us persists in our online selves. Just as we can manipulate symbols and words with computers, we can manipulate our selves on the Web, if only because Web conversations are mediated through written language and thus can be drafted and revised. Even the immediate conversations – chat, IM – occur through keyboards, allowing us to compose ourselves as we compose our words.

We are writing ourselves into existence on the Web. Together.


Here’s a site I like: aggregates small, humble, useful apps. [Thanks to those of you who wrote to tell me I had the link wrong for most of the day. Damn!]

Mark Dionne points us to, a site about developments in AI. Glitzy but useful, even for those of us who are hugely skeptical about the claims made on behalf of AI. Even for those of us who are hugely skeptical about books like Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines.

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November 28, 2001

MiscLinks Gilbert Cattoire points us


Gilbert Cattoire points us to a sad, sad blog that monitors free services becoming fee services: The End of Free.

Something weird and possibly wonderful is happening at, which, despite its name, is not a sex site. Not that there would be anything wrong with it if it were. Instead, it’s an experiment in open uploading with a revolutionary’s commitment to messiness. Perfect for poking around.

CNet has an excellent article by Stefanie Olsen and Evan Hansen on Google the Good’s latest experiment. In beta, they are letting users give a thumbs up or down on a page, which will help position the page in its listings. Currently Google uses a variety of techniques, most famously, using the number of links to a page to help determine how far up the search results page it should be.


November 27, 2001

Slumping the Shark The always

Slumping the Shark

The always insightful Scott Kirsner devoted his column in the Boston Globe yesterday to the phenomenon of “jumping the shark” as applied to business. Here’s Scott’s explanation of “jumping the shark” a phrase promulgated by

In pop culture, jumping the shark is when something that was once very good – it could be a TV show, a band, or a series of movie sequels – makes a desperate attempt to remain fresh and relevant, and instead goes bad.

The origin of the phrase comes from the long-running TV show ”Happy Days,” which immediately went south following a gimmicky episode in which Fonzie, wearing water skis and his trademark leather jacket, jumped over a shark

Scott suggests CMGI’s paying $120M to get a football field named after it as a case of a business jumping the shark. That strikes me as apt. But, he next asks: “Did Lycos jump the shark when Wetherell killed a deal for the company to be acquired by Barry Diller’s USA Networks?” He also lists EMC’s founder leaving to become the ill-tempered ambassador to Ireland and DEC’s overspending on developing the Alpha chip. None of these are desperate attempts to stay fresh and relevant.

The problem is that most companies don’t get fresh, relevant, creative or silly when they get desperate. They get mean and conservative. They retreat to what they perceive as safe ground. Or, to follow the metaphor, they lower their center of gravity and let themselves be dragged around in the wake of the boat, heading as far away from sharks as they can. Slumping the shark? Humping the shark? Jumping the lark? Stumping the shark? Jumping at shadows? Mini-Bogus Contest: Come up with your own clever pun ’cause I can’t.

Whatever you call it, there’s no shortage of examples: Blue Mountain Arts moving from a funky and personal site to a typical Browsable Taxonomy of Sentiment. Ford backing off its pledge to provide every employee with a free computer and an almost-free Net connection. ThirdVoice reinventing itself a supplier of third-party links (and then completely de-inventing itself in April of this year). Zaplet moving from providing way cool mail applets to the public to becoming a boring “enterprise software and services company.” Gator moving from helpful sidekick to obnoxious, rude betrayer. Just about every company when it hits the 150-employee mark, and again when it nears $100M in revenues.

Sitcoms become outlandish when they’re frightened because entertainment depends upon grabbing our attention. Businesses become boring when they’re frightened because they prefer the risks they know over the unpredictable risk of being original. Different phenomena. Same tedious, self-defeating outcome.

* * *
Scott has replied via email that the phrase “jumping the shark” is broader than I’m crediting; it’s “being used to describe the moment at which things started going wrong.” More important, he nails the name for the counter-phenomenon of making a business go all boring when its original formula starts to fail: Jumping the Slug. Mark this mini-Bogus contest closed! We’ve got a winnah.

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November 26, 2001

C2C Screw B2B. Hell, screw


Screw B2B. Hell, screw B2C. It’s C2C – customer to customer – that’s actually making the difference.

Oh, I forgot that you know that already.

In case you’re looking for examples to show to your thick-as-a-board boss who’s insisting that you put up a site that trumpets your company’s wonderfulness in a blare that causes users to run away with their hands over their ears, here are some sites that are doing at least something right.

VolvoSpy is disappointing only because there’s no real spying going on there. Instead, Volvo owners (prospective and self-actualized) post questions and answers. Some of these folks know a whole lot about Volvos. At least one of them is a dealer who is willing to the tell the truth about everything including prices. And when one owner reports an odd burning smell, you can be sure that if it’s a problem of any girth, other owners will come forward also, thus turning a discussion group into a political action committee.

If you’re thinking of buying an appliance, garden tool or sofa, check in at ThatHomeSite where you will find out – from other customers – exactly why frontloaders produce less lint and how long it takes the particle board in IKEA furniture to chip.

Is it permitted to say a good word about Microsoft? Their online forums are really sort of great. You are very likely to get an honest answer to your flaming email about “WHY WORD SUXXXXXX!!!!!!!” It helps that the answers come from experts from outside of Microsoft, Inc. Many of them are “Microsoft MVPs“, a group of volunteers not officially associated with Microsoft. The frankness of their answers bears this out.

These C2C sites are everything the typical corporate site is not: honest, friendly, helpful, truly one-to-one.


November 25, 2001

Is the Open Source movement

Is the Open Source movement being suckered by the SSSCA?

There are many reasons the proposed SSSCA is an astoundingly bad idea. But would it kill the open source movement? It’s not obvious. In fact, it’s possible we’re being played for fools.

SSSCA is apparently aimed at providing a technological fix to the problem of copyright violation. It’s so easy to reproduce protected digits, however, that the fix requires taking a wrench to the very gonads of computing. This has raised fears that the SSSCA would have the unintended consequence of killing Linux and other open source software. Here are the fears I’ve found. (If you have more, please let me know.)

1. Slashdot:

“This legislation would make:

a) Building your own computer from commodity parts illegal.

b) Building your own OS illegal.

c) Programming your computer/hardware illegal unless: you only use the officially accepted libraries and agree not to even attempt reverse engineering any of them. “

2. Buzzcut:

“By making it a crime to reverse-engineer software to develop compatible open-source products, free software and access to source code may be in dire straits.”

3. Redhat

“Essentially, all devices and software that fall into this vague definition of digital interactive technology will have to include encryption so it can’t be copied. This could include VCR tapes, compact discs, and the devices that run them, as well as computers and open source software.”

Thus the argument goes. The Open Source folks argue against the SSSCA by pointing to deleterious consequences (see the ACM’s letter to Hollings for more consequences) while the entertainment industry says pish-tosh, the bill only aims at stopping the pirating of protected works. The language of the bill is astoundingly vague; according to an article in the The Register by Jack Bryar, Hollings isn’t answering questions as simple as “What’s a digital device?” and I couldn’t find anything on Hollings’ site about the SSSCA. But the bill is vague on purpose: it requires the owners of copyrighted digital content and the manufacturers of digital devices to hammer out a solution within 12 months (with a possible 12 month extension); all ties are broken by the Dept. of Commerce. Thus, the bill can fall back on its Noble Intentions, waving its little hands in denial when someone says that it will make it illegal to send a photo of Aunt Tilly to cousin Mark.

And that’s how we’re being suckered. We get in a lather about consequences the bill does not intend. The government and the Committee of Homeland Stranglehold the SSSCA establishes back off of the ludicrously stupid consequences. We shout and rejoice because we won … and meanwhile every frigging disk drive, CPU and piece of carbon paper gets a SSSCA Copyright Validator lock put in it.

There’s almost no chance that the SSSCA will shut down the Open Source movement in a way that the courts will uphold. Yes, we should be alert. Yes, we should write the letters and sign the petitions. But we should not let the SSSCA through even if it made Linux the 51st state.


November 24, 2001

Logophilia WordWays has about 250


WordWays has about 250 subscribers. I am one of them and have been, off and on, for fifteen years. It is among the Odd Journals of the World. (I’d send you to to sample it, but the site is usually down.)

The front cover says that WordWays is “The Journal of Recreational Linguistics,” as unlikely a topic as “amateur surgery.” Inside, however, you discover that it is a therapeutic for obsessive-compulsives who perseverate on words. Anagrams (deus ex machina = a man hid excuse, purchasing = ungrip cash) and palindromes (Was Islam in an ode, Kramer remarked, on animals I saw?) are as nothing to these folks. Susan Thorpe of Great Missenden in the UK imagines a 3×5 grid like the ones used to spell out numbers on an LCD display. Can she fill the grid with letters so that each number spells out a word? Why, yes she can, although she needs to resort to words such as “acropigments,” “terps,” pertuisan” and “piestrocranum.” Howard Bergerson of Sweet Home, Oregon, looks for words that approximate pi. He sums the value of the letters (A=1, Z=26) for the denominator; for the numerator, he takes the product of the letter values, factors the result into primes, and writes them as a product of prime numbers. Whatever. His “extensive research” shows that the word “universe” is English’s best approximation of pi. And Fred Crane proudly reports “I have a card file of bibliographies of bibliographies of bibliographies…” Talk about a guy it’d be fun to sit next to on a long flight!

For your four issues a year, send US$27 to Faith Eckler, Spring Valley Road, Morristown, NJ 07960.
If you’d like something a little less taxing (and less disturbing), sign up for Michael Quinion’s weekly newsletter, World Wide Words. He covers quirky words and the quirky origins of non-quirky words. I always look forward to it.

Disclosure: Not only am I a delighted reader of WordWays, I’ve actually been published there. But, believe me, I am not in their league.


November 23, 2001

If you can’t read this,

If you can’t read this, let me know

A persistent reader – oh, what the hell, it’s Mike O’Dell again, lord love him – informs me that on several browsers, this page – the one you’re reading – is a mess. It’s supposed to be a simple page with a white background and a three-column table in various shades of light yellowy-orangey-brown, reminiscent perhaps of a dusty popsicle left to melt on the dirty welcome mat of an adobe house. Something like that. Dark brown text. Red hyperlinks. That’s what it looks like in Dreamweaver where I design it, and that’s what it looks like in MS Internet Explorer. It is definitely not intended to be a blotch of blood red with text the same color but slightly more anemic.

But, while (according to Mike) Mozilla 5.0/0.9.4 does a good job, as does Galeon 0.12.1 which uses the same rendering enging, Netscape 4.7 seems to have an aesthetic sense that runs towards a far muddier mix. KDE Konquerer 2.1 (by far the most popular browser among Mongols) turns all hyperlinks invisible. Opera 5.0 doesn’t know when to end the red background of the headlines. Don’t you wish that by this point in the Web’s history we’d be past these incompatibilities? I know it will turn out to have been my fault, but it still stinks.

I’m not doing anything fancy here, folks, except using CSS. And I’m not going to stop, for declarative markup is a personal religion of mine. So, if you can’t read this, you have my deepest, most sincere-sounding apologies.

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November 21, 2001

Straining the Ol’ Credulity 1.

Straining the Ol’ Credulity

1. If this site is to be believed, John Freyer used eBay to auction everything he owned, and then set out on a trip to visit the items in their new homes. (Another list says that this is “way stale” since it was on memepool a while ago.)

2. Mike O’Dell forwards a site devoted to his favorite 70s cop show, Kresky. (If you want to learn the seamy truth behind the show, click here.)

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