The Laboratorium
June 2005

Damn Flat


I’ll be away until the start of July, visiting some of Europe’s smaller and more northerly countries, and pretty much unreachable. I hope to have some good pictures to share when I get back, though.

Do Full Right by N. Concerning This Matter … Or I Will


Do remember to check your credit card statements against your receipts and your recollections. (Online banking means you can strike while the memories are fresh.) Today, I caught one of the movie ticket web sites billing me for a ticket order that the site had told me couldn’t be completed. I wound up buying the tickets at the theater; seeing the two lines on my statement right next to each other was an immediate red flag that something was wrong.

I called up, and the representative on the phone was immediately able to confirm that my purchase hadn’t gone through successfully, so I shouldn’t have been charged. Instead of fixing things on the spot, though, she took my name and number and promised to have her supervisor tell the accounting people to fix it. (Five points off for not giving your first responders authority to fix obvious objective mistakes.) Similarly, a friend (unfortunately, a blog-less friend, or I could just link to the story) recently caught a waitress trying to chisel a bigger tip by changing the amount on the signature slip.

So, yeah, don’t just balance your checkbook; balance your credit card, too.

Getting Stranger All the Time


My dream-within-a-dream last night was in black-and-white. It appeared to be some kind of campaign commercial for Gerald Ford. He opened by proudly shouting “to the moon!” Then, music started playing, peppy upbeat campaign jingle music, and Estes Kefauver came out and joined Ford as they sang, er, what may have been a song about the moon program, or maybe not. The two of them were jostling each other for position, though it was clearly a Ford commercial.

Grdaually, the words got harder and harder to make out, the images got less distinct, and the audio faded in and out of static. Eventually, it turned into some kind of Soviet-style socialist-realist propaganda film. I was still clear that this was Gerald Ford campaign materials, but it consisted of nothing more than stirring but stately music under an endless procession of tracking shots of various landmarks from nearly straight above. Maybe “landmarks” is too strong a word; these were mostly billboards and other outdoor pieces of commercialism. I remember most clearly one of a bunch of giant beer bottles, but there were others.

At this point, I woke up into my regular dreams, and spent the rest of them trying to explain to people just how strange my dream had been. Interestingly, although my regular dreams were fairly eclectic, they were nowhere near as odd — lots of graduation stuff, and things that were basically plausible. I ran into people I knew (and told them about my fevered Kefauver dream) and dealt with an unexpectedly closed bookstore. I can see where these things came from. But the inner dream-within-a-dream? I have no idea.

Coming Soon to an Idiot Box Near You


Weeded Out: the reality gardening show.

Hey Microsoft, What Gives?


If I try to shut down my computer while Microsoft Outlook is running, it doesn’t work. Instead, I get a message box informing me that I need to close all Microsoft Office applications before shutting down Windows.

Hey Microsoft, what gives? You wrote Windows. You wrote Office. You wrote special-purpose code that detects (and aborts) a Windows shutdown while Office is running. Why not just have that special-purpose code, you know, just shut down Office for me? Yeah, that’d be great, thanks.

The sad thing is that I bet there really is some reason why not. Some corner that some sad coder got backed into, in which something dreadful would happen if the normal Windows shutdown sequence was able to run roughshod over Office. Some integration between Office and Windows gone horribly awry, I’d guess. And a dialog box that violates three or four different human interface guidelines was the least awful way out.

Programming is a tragic enterprise. No matter how good your initial intentions, the cruft of mortality always finds a way to sneak into the code.

Things Look Okay?


Just finished upgrading the software on the back end here. There were some moments of pure terror during the process when I thought I’d wiped out the installation completely, but hey, any software upgrade that doesn’t come with a few moments of pure terror isn’t worth doing.

Getting Better All the Time


Del.ico.us has been a useful part of my online life for a while now. But a recent design tweak has made it a positive pleasure to use. When you use the site to store a link, it now not only autocompletes tags as you enter them but also suggests tags you might want to use. Granted, I’m not all that creative in my tagging behavior, but still, I’m quite impressed at how good its tag judgment is. Most times, I accept at least one of its suggestions. Even when I supplement the tags it comes up with, it’s striking how good the list of suggested tags is as a spur to the memory.

Well done, del.ico.us!

Idea the Second


“Open source” bar review materials.

Imagine a site with bar exam outlines, study guides, and huge banks of sample questions, all on the Wikipedia model. That is, lawyers and law students would colletively and collaboratively produce the materials, which would be freely available, easily editable, and guaranteed free to reuse. With good enough content, self-study would become a viable option for far more law students, saving them each thousands of dollars, many hours of great boredom, and untold stress.

The key, I think, would be to have a slightly professionalized core. They’d do some basic moderation (though not very much) and would be the initial critical mass of high-volume contributors. As the site gathered users and authors, they’d work to create high-quality finished versions of those portions of the site that would most need to inspire confidence (e.g. the study plans, which for many students, would be the most stress-saving part of the site). If things went well, it might be possible to have the paid professional staff drop almost entirely out of the project. Their costs—and the hosting costs of the service—would be the sort of thing that it would be part of the natural mission of law schools to fund; the work in raising the quality of bar preparation among lawyers-to-be is also the sort of thing about which many law firms might well be enthusiastic.

Even a well-known central repository of past questions would be a great public service, but when you open your mind to the full peer-production possibilities, the sky’s the limit.

Idea the First


Google has the technology, the resources, and the name-recognition to make the the Web work the way it was supposed to.

I refer, of course, to two-way linking. Right now, linking is a one-way affair. As I wrote four years ago, “The web consists of a huge number of people shouting and pointing at each other.” When I make a link from my page to yours, I’ve created a relationship between those pages. The problem is that there’s no good way for you to reciprocate and deepen that relationship, and no way for me to keep the relationship flourishing even if you neglect it.

Trackback, I have asserted, is a major step towards getting this stuff right, because it leaves a trace of the link on the target end. More generally, the rise of good programmatic APIs and of standardized formats for pushing structured web data around make it more feasible for cooperating sites to have a genuinely dynamic back-and-forth of content. But progress has been oddly stunted. As exciting as the uptake in browser-driven standards-based dynamic-data web applications has been, I feel like the big leap in the linking structure of the web itself has yet to take place.

Google could make it happen, though.

Step one would be a dead-link repair button in the Google toolbar and Google Web Accelerator. If I click on a link that takes me to a 404, a site not found, or some other page that isn’t what I though the link promised to deliver, I punch the “repair” button and ask Google to fix things for me. Google looks at the page I came from and the link I followed, and then looks into its caches to see when that link was added to the page. It then pings the target URL in its cache, as of that date, and serves me up the page that the link’s author was linking to back when the link was live. Bam. Far fewer dead links.

Step two is step one, automated. Collaboratively filter user requests for prior, working versions—and offer them to me with a “did you mean” notice when the secret-sauce AI sees that other people have stumbled over the same dead link. And while you’re at it, ping the link’s author; she may want to update the link. Indeed, ping the target, too—she might very well want to fix up the link, or to confirm that what Google thinks the new target ought to be really is the correct target.

Step three is when Google combines this feature with the inbound-links search feature it already offers. A little good visualization, a good interface for reporting URL changes … and now I can change my site around without breaking inbound links. The idea is to become a protocol-standardizing middleman who helps site authors and web browsers coordinate with each other. People have never been able to make URIs invariant the way that they were supposed to be; perhaps the solution is to give up on the invariance and to figure out how to repair the damage caused by the inevitable changes.

Do all that, and the web will be, well, better.

Gender? Yes.


I’m filling out forms today. Lots and lots of forms. Some I’m filling out because I just moved. Some I’m filling out because in the run-up to the move, I kept putting off non-move-related tasks such as filling out forms.

The form of the moment is a fingerprinting application. They take this lawyering thing seriously, I suppose, seriously enough to make you have fingerprints on file when you take the bar exam. As I understand it, they take another set of prints when you show up, so that you can’t (easily) have someone else sit for the exam for you.

In any event, box 13 on this form is “Gender (select one).” The mutually-exclusive options are “Male,” “Female,” and “Both.” The form is dry and humorless in almost every other way, so that it’s striking to come across what reads like a sly bit of gender play. I find this amusing, in part because it’s not clear just how sophisticated the fingerprinting company is trying to be about its gender theory.