Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Web comics of interest

Now that I am working full time, I have been spending a sizable amount of my day online. Between answering emails and patching servers, I tend to drift to various sites that keep me entertained while I'm confined behind a desk. Most of them are listed under the links on the right hand side, but I thought I would share a few of the web comics with you in more detail in case you had not stumbled upon them yet.

The first and one of my favorites is xkcd - "A web comic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." It gets updated 3 times a week, and is geared towards geeks and nerds, although many of the comics are applicable to a much larger audience. The comic does come with a warning however - "Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)." I advise viewing a dozen or so random comics to see if it fits your sense of humor or not. Here is an excerpt from a few days ago (click to follow to main page):

The next site of interest is Questionable Content, or QC for short (and because I'm lazy). QC is a web comic about a group of friends finding their way through life and love. It started out with heavy overtones of independent musicians (aka.. indie bands), but now days the story fills most of the material and there are only occasional references to bands that nobody has ever heard of. The artistic style has changed a lot over time, but the images are drawn very well, with a lot of detail given to each character and the backgrounds. I must warn you that the storyline can be very addictive. I know more than one person that has spent an entire day (or night) reading QC to try and catch up to the current release. The comic is update 5 times a week, but I find it more enjoyable to only check the site once or twice a week, as one a day is hardly enough to get your fix. Highly recommended for anyone that is looking for a good story with great character development.

The last comic is Homestar Runner, or more specifically the Strong Bad Email section. This comic has been around for quite some time, and is more of a cartoon than a comic since it is based in flash animation. The premise of the cartoon is that Strong Bad answers emails sent in by users of the website, making sure to berate them for any and all spelling mistakes or grammatical errors along the way. The episodes are usually funny as the cast includes many unique characters ranging from a depressed little brother (Strong Sad) to the gluttonous King of Town, who has his very own poopsmith. The emails are always from different users, so there aren't any real themes to the content other than the fact that he ends up blowing up his computer every once in a while. You can scroll through the list to see if any of them tickle your fancy, or I recommend the following episodes: Miniature Golf, Pet Show, 12:00, and best of all... Virus!

So there is the list. Between those three sites, - "News for nerds, stuff that matters" and Google Finance I can pretty much waste away an entire day. Speaking of which, I have to work tomorrow, so should probably be getting to bed.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Video Reviews

Having recently moved into my own place and finished school with a Computer Engineering degree, I have had a lot of free time in the last few months. Rather than waste that free time watching television commercials, I have started spending more time watching online videos about subjects that I find interesting (That... and I bought a Wii :-). There are plenty of videos online that are even more of a waste of time than TV, so I thought I would use this space to help highlight those that I find informative or funny.

The Google Tech Talk videos are always a good candidate because they are usually high quality and recorded by someone with more than just a web cam an a few hours of free time. Google will fly in experts from various fields to present their research or topics of interest to the Google employees. Lucky for us they record the sessions and upload them to Youtube. Some of the videos have the same entertainment value as a masters thesis dissertation, but they are usually very informative and a great way to spend an hour of free time with out turning off your brain. Occasionally the speakers even manage to lace in a bit of humor, although it probably is best classified as geek or nerd humor and not the some-guy-getting-hit-in-the-groin type of humor appreciated by the general public.

I've watched a half a dozen videos so far, but wanted to highlight two that give a unique historical perspective of the development of computers and the World Wide Web. Both of these events happened before my time, and while I have a deep understanding of how things work today, I do not have any knowledge about how these things came about. If you have any interest in these subjects or just need something to help pass the time, I give both videos two thumbs up.


Turing's Cathedral
Google Tech Talks - April, 9 2008
Speaker: George Dyson (scientific historian)

Video summary:

The video talks about John von Neumann building one of the first computers at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ over 60 years ago. The initial goal was to run calculations for building the hydrogen bomb, but the machine they built has had a direct impact on many different fields and is an ancestor to the computer architectures in use today. The video quality is actually pretty bad, as there was an open window in the background and changes in sunlight due to the cloud coverage makes it difficult to view the speaker or the screen (try the link to the high quality video at the bottom, seems to work a bit better). The speaker can drone on a bit, but it is fascinating to see how computers came about and the different problems that they had to deal with. Also, there is a very interesting discussion about artificial intelligence and computer consciousness, which the speaker relates to the work of Alfred Smee in the late 1800s. According to his definition, computers may already have obtained consciousness. He also mentions that if they become smart enough, they might never present themselves to the public at large (à la Jane, my favorite character from Orson Scott Card's Ender series).

Text not available
Principles of the human mind deduced from physical laws; By Alfred Smee


The Web That Wasn't
Google Tech Talks - October, 23 2007
Speaker: Alex Wright (author, information architect at the New York Times)

ABSTRACT (from YouTube)
For most of us who work on the Internet, the Web is all we have ever really known. It's almost impossible to imagine a world without browsers, URLs and HTTP. But in the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee's world-changing invention, a few visionary information scientists were exploring alternative systems that often bore little resemblance to the Web as we know it today. In this presentation, author and information architect Alex Wright will explore the heritage of these almost-forgotten systems in search of promising ideas left by the historical wayside.The presentation will focus on the pioneering work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart, forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays like Brown's Intermedia system. We'll trace the heritage of these systems and the solutions they suggest to present day Web quandaries, in hopes of finding clues to the future in the recent technological past.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mission Statement

I have never been fond of introductions, but I do crave structure, so I feel that the best way to start things off is with a mission statement of what this space will be used for. The hope is that with a few guidelines in place I can prevent things from going terribly horribly wrong and maybe stumble upon a formula for success in the process. So without further ado and in no particular order (although still numbered to appease my OCD), I give you my rules for writing:

  1. Be entertaining and informative - at least 20% of each post should make you laugh or teach you something new. Otherwise, what is the point to writing?

  2. Don't reinvent the wheel - let others do the talking if their words match my opinion.

  3. Refrain from using absolute words such as Always and Never. They rarely speak to the whole truth and are an indicator that you have not thought about all possible options.

  4. Start with a neutral point of view - If you can't at least acknowledge both sides of an argument, how can you come to an informed conclusion?

  5. Strive for perfection, but settle for 80% - True perfection is very difficult to obtain, and in many complex systems that involve computers, humans, or a combination of the two it may be impossible to reach. My opinion is that 80% is a more reasonable goal, although constant improvement should be included so that your first derivative is in the positive direction.

  6. Efficient communication is key - Check and double check each post to make sure that grammar and spelling are correct. I am not an English major, but if I can program a computer I should be able to converse with other humans.

  7. KISS - If you can't describe something in simple terms, you probably don't know enough to be explaining it to others. A true expert could explain it in terms their grandmother would understand. For a great example and an inspiration for starting this blog, check out this video.

  8. See the big picture, but don't loose sight of the little people - If you can't bring it back to reality, the idea is not fully formed or logically sound. One of these days I'll understand the meaning of the universe, but until then it is just a theory.

  9. Cross pollinate knowledge - I am a member of many worlds but a slave to none. Not all of the topics that I write about will be of interest to you, but they are of interest to me and of great enough importance that I feel others would benefit from hearing about them.

  10. Keep things brief - While in this space I am technically am a content generator, I prefer to see myself as a content aggregator, highlighting the work of others that I find informative and injecting my opinions when appropriate. While I do have my occasional rants and raves, I will do my best to keep things brief and on topic. If a random comment does appear, check to see if a cat is near by.

I welcome feedback and hope you will add your voice to the discussion. Ask questions if you don't understand something and want more information, or feel free to explain why I am wrong. Just remember, in this realm I am god... omnipresent and omnipotent.