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January 18, 2006

'The Bug' — by Ellen Ullman

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First of all, a big thank–you to the reader who recommended this book to me after I'd raved about Ullman's memoir, "Close To The Machine."

Ullman is a singular figure in the computer world: a geek who can write beautiful prose.

As such, she can translate what she knows — the impossibly arcane–to–those–of–us–barely–able–to–post–in–our–blogs art and craft of programming — into language that, while it won't enable us to create the next Halo, does let us get a feel for how very, very difficult it is to create in the absolutely unforgiving language of bits.

Take me, for example: when I put a link in a post, the hyperlinked word is to be preceded by:

Aaaaaaaaaaa11111

Yet, about 25% of the time, even though I've typed in this combination thousands of times, instead I type:

Bbbbbbbbbb22222

That makes nothing happen, as W. H. Auden famously remarked about what poetry does.

But I digress.

    From "The Bug":

    Debugging: what an odd word. As if "bugging" were the job of putting in bugs, and debugging the task of removing them. But no. The job of putting in bugs is called programming. A programmer writes some code and inevitably makes the mistakes that result in the malfunctions called bugs. Then, for some period of time, normally longer than the time it takes to design and write the code in the first place, the programmer tries to remove the mistakes. One by one: find a bug, fix it.


    In his twelve years as a programmer, he had come to know debugging as nothing more than a normal part of his work. It began as soon as a piece of code got past the compiler — the program that translated his code into machine code, the instructions that could be understood by the microcircuitry of the chips. From the first easy bugs — the misplaced parentheses, missing brackets, counters not initialized to zero, ORs where there should be ANDs — to the deeper mistakes in design that meant a complete restructuring of the code, Ethan expected that the process of programming would be more or less equivalent to the process of debugging.


    The first run of any program is laughable: a parody of the author's intentions, a slapstick mockery of logic. Objects solemnly appear on the screen only to disappear in a fritz. The cursor runs around like a clown. Every second mouse click or text entry is answered with nonsense. Characters run rampant across the screen; beeps sound without stopping. If the programmer is lucky, the program will crash at once rather than continuing on in that humiliating state of malfunction. Then, in the next round of coding, a few small bugs are fixed, and the program runs again, only a little less stupidly this time. And the entire process is repeated over and over again — a wild run, a crash, another round of bug fixing, then another barely improved run. Until, slowly, iteration by iteration, the true face of the program becomes visible. Programming is like sculpting: the image of the running program appears incrementally, chisel cut by chisel cut, a dumb block of wood imperceptibly carved into human designs.


    So it was that Ethan knew that error was part of the process, inevitably. His problem was not to remove every error, but to remove the most serious errors he and the testers could find, knowing all the while that the process of finding errors was infinite. At some point the program would be declared "done"; it would be distributed to users around the world; but it would still be riddled with as–yet–undiscovered bugs. There was nothing to be done about it; this was just the way it was. The whole enterprise of computing — code embedded in the hardware, comprising the operating system, the network, the utility layers, the user interface, the final user–oriented application — was simply too complex for every last mistake to be found and fixed. The last bug would never come to light. There would only be reports of bug after bug after bug, appearing further and further apart in time in a limitless approach toward zero.


    He believed that a solution would come this way for the same reason he believed that his ecosystem would one day evolve — that he, like all living things in the world, was not a unity, a self, a mind controlling a body, but a collection of tiny, locally operating processes. What he called himself — Ethan Levin, this ridiculous gargoyle of a homunculus that lived in his brain — was not their master but merely something that had emerged out of the process–soup, their child not their father, an unintended but useful invention that helped keep the collection of processes alive.


    I noticed for the first time that he was left–handed, like so many of the programmers, far out of proportion to their appearance in the general population, which made me think that programming was indeed the product of some weirdly organized brain.


    I understand the world by telling stories; the human mind makes narratives, this happens then that, events given shape so we can draw a circle around them, see them relate, cohere, connect. We're built to tell these stories to one another, and be understood. But the computer was built to do, to run. It doesn't care about being understood. It is a set of machine states — memory contents, settings of hardware registers — and a program, a set of conditions that determines how to go from one machine state to the next. Nothing unfolds from anything else. Nothing is implied. Nothing is necessarily connected. Under certain conditions, events go one way; if not, they go another. You're here; or else you're here, each "here" discrete from every other.


    One pixel. A line one pixel wide beside and below each menu. Tiny dots on a screen with thousands of pixels, barely noticed by the human eye. A mistake so stupid that nothing terrible should have happened as a consequence. But as I've said, computers don't care about human intentions and perceptions. What seems small to us — tiny, insignificant, something we recognize as dumb and ignore — creates an altogether different state in the machine. If TRUE, go here; else go here. To a machine, all here's are equal.

********************
• Paul Valery, around the turn of the twentieth century, wrote, "A work of art is never finished — only abandoned." He anticipated computer programs perfectly.

• There's instant fame for any psychologist or sociologist willing to do a formal survey of programmers and handedness to confirm or refute Ullman's observation above: this study has Science or Nature magazine, CNN, USA Today, Slashdot and all the rest written all over it.

• I wonder what might've been had I grown up in Silicon Valley instead of Milwaukee, what with being left–handed and with mixed dominance. Next time 'round, maybe.

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Here's a link to a superb 1997 interview with Ullman that appeared in Salon.

Talk about someone who's got her pulse on the zeitgeist....

January 18, 2006 at 07:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chef's Knife Earrings

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Edgy.

Sterling silver.

1.5"H x 0.25"W.

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$65 here.

January 18, 2006 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Martha Rosler Library — A used bookstore where nothing is for sale

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Say what?

Here's what Roberta Smith wrote in the January 13 New York Times about this interesting space (above).

    Further liberties are being taken with the gallery form at the Martha Rosler Library, a tiny storefront resembling a used bookstore, where nothing is for sale.

    Crammed into creaky shelves are about 6,000 books owned by the artist eminence Martha Rosler - on art, architecture, science fiction, poetry, history and beyond - that form a kind of portrait of the artist's mind.

    Anyone can come in, browse, read and even photocopy a few pages - free.

    This functioning bibliographic tribute has been organized by the artists Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle, owners of e-Flux, a digital information service whose clients include about 400 art galleries and institutions worldwide.

    Their first project in the space was a free video rental, 500 videotapes by 250 artists, that ran for six months.

    Mr. Vidokle calls the library "a useful resource that doesn't have any commercial motivation" and cites as inspiration the former artist-run SoHo restaurant FOOD, an offshoot of 112 Greene Street, where diners paid what they could.

    The Martha Rosler Library is at 53 Ludlow Street, near Grand Street, on New York's Lower East Side; 212-619-3356; through April 15.

********************

Why am I so taken by this library?

Because it's something that doesn't do what it seems like it's supposed to.

I like transgressive art, people, fashion, you name it.

If it's wrong then it's all right by me.

[via Roberta Smith and the New York Times]

January 18, 2006 at 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Scratchless Open Air CD/DVD Mini Storage Tower

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Nice alien artifact styling.

From the website:

    No more sloppy piles of CDs!

    CDs out of control?

    Do your CDs or DVDs end up in a sloppy pile that slides around, resulting in scratches?

    This patented tower keeps up to eight protected from scratches and neatly stacked on your desk.

    Non-slip pads keep it in place and won't mar your desktop.

    Doubles as a paperweight.

***************

Might also serve nicely as the most stylish doorstop in your office.

A set of two (one each in black and blueberry) is $9.95 here.

Note: As best I can tell from the photograph below,

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the device appears to keep the discs from contacting each other simply by your precise placement.

In other words, if you just toss them on top like horseshoes I'm not at all certain they will level themselves off and provide separation between adjacent discs.

"No detail too small, no subject too large" — that's been my motto since the get–go (that would be conception — or birth, depending on your point of view...) and I'm sticking to my story.

January 18, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Why isn't the Video iPod a computer screen?

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This morning in an email about yesterday's post wondering why I can't use the MacBook Pro's screen as a stand–alone device, reader Joseph Olazabal lobbed an absolutely brilliant idea over the bookofjoe transom: it follows.

    They should use the new ipod as a screen for the mini or any other mac cpu in a pinch.

    Halo effect being utilized.

    Thanks,

    Joseph Olazabal

This idea is so breathtakingly simple and brilliant I'm gobsmacked that Steve Jobs didn't announce it at last week's Mac Expo.

Maybe after he and his buds in Cupertino read this they'll add WiFi capability to the next iteration of the Video iPod and free us all from the place–based bondage we currently endure.

While they're at it they should enlarge the screen and add a feature allowing you to instantly turn the on–screen material 90° when you want to go into computer mode.

Sure hope they don't sue me for talking out of school — honestly, Steve, I didn't get any secret information from anywhere; I don't know a single person who works for Apple.

Let my videos go!

[via Joseph Olazabal]

January 18, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Stainless Steel Kitchen Timer

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Made in Germany of high–grade 18/10 stainless steel.

Even if what you're cooking doesn't pan out you'll at least have something stylish signaling "game over."

Doubles as a paperweight and, I would suspect, a doorstop and — in the event — an implement of self–defense.

4.5 cm (1.8") high x 8.0 cm (3.2") diameter.

$29.12 here.

January 18, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

milliondollarhomepage.com hijacked

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21–year–old Alex Tew created arguably the most brilliantly innovative website of 2005 (at least it's the only one that I know of to be the subject of an admiring editorial [last Saturday] in the Financial Times).

According to James Fontanella, writing in today's Financial Times, "Tew was sent a demand for $50,000 by email by a hacker, believed to be Russian, and when he refused to pay, the website crashed."

"The transcript of the email, which was made exclusively [not this part!] available to the Financial Times, said in very poor English: 'Hello u website is under us atack to stop the DDos send us 50000$,'" wrote Fontanella.

The online edition of the Financial Times carries the headline under the paper's logo above; that in the U.S. print edition reads, "FBI to look into website ransom demand."

The story, which follows in full, is identical in both versions.

    Hackers blackmail milliondollar site

    The FBI is investigating the hijacking of milliondollarhomepage.com - the website that earned $1m (£566,000) for its British creator Alex Tew by hosting micro-advertisements - by hackers who demanded a ransom to restore the site.

    Mr Tew was sent a demand for $50,000 by e-mail by a hacker, believed to be Russian.

    When he refused, the website crashed.

    The e-mail, which was made available exclusively to the Financial Times, read: "Hello u website is under us atack to stop the DDoS send us 50000$."

    Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant, said: "DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack is a common way to block internet users accessing a site by flooding the website with traffic.

    "In August 2005 a US teenager was sentenced to five years juvenile detention for launching DDoS attacks against online sportswear retailers costing the company over $1.5m."

    Several gambling websites, as well as companies such as Microsoft, Ebay, Yahoo and CNN have also been victims of such attacks.

    Mr Tew first received a threat on January 7 from a body calling itself The Dark Group, demanding $5,000.

    He thought the blackmail was a hoax and took little notice.

    However, on Friday, Russell Weiss, president of InfoRelay,the internet server of milliondollarhomepage.com, told Mr Tew that the website was experiencing very high traffic and there was a risk that it could break down.

    On Wednesday when Mr Tew sold the final 1000 pixels on his site for $38,100 on Ebay, reaching his goal of earning $1m, the hackers intensified their attack and hijacked the website.

    The website should be up and running today after InfoRelay upgraded the security system.

********************

My visit to milliondollarhomepage.com 30 seconds ago found that, contrary to the optimistic final sentence in the Financial Times story, the site (pictured below

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as it appeared on October 27, 2005) remains down.

At least Tew got his money out before they crashed it.

I'm reminded of legendary stock picker Bernard Baruch's reply when he was asked the secret of success in the market: "I always sold too soon."

Think about it.

January 18, 2006 at 11:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Dining Room in a Box

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If a picture is worth a
thousand words then
here are three
thousand worth.

Made in Norway and
designed by Alet and
Dag Igland, the
principals of
Igland Design and
creators of, among
other things, the
Alet skateboard chair
that caused a big
kerfuffle when I
featured it here on
January 1.

They call their
latest creation the
Mealbox but I
like my name better.

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    From the website:

    Japanese-style
    dining-table
    with chairs
    that can all
    be packed
    in a box.

    Birch plywood
    reinforced with
    carbon fiber.

    Neoprene rubber
    seat padding.

    Table doubles
    as a coffee table.

    Assembled: 40cm x
    68cm x 77–233cm

    Boxed: 43cm x
    68cm x 77cm

You know you want it.

You'll have to contact
the designers —
iglanddesign@yahoo.no
and ask, "how much?"

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Tell them bookofjoe
sent you and see
what happens.

[via Erik Hatcher]

January 18, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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