Monthly Archives: April 2005


How do we know what we can do?

A friend of mine once related a story about a programming class he took in college. There was another student in the class who asked the professor on the first day: “This is all fine, but, how do we know what computers can do?”. The professor tried to give him an answer. But clearly the answer wasn’t good enough, because he asked the question each day for a few days, then dropped out of the class.

While one could have a little snicker about that story (I know I did :-)), it’s not that there was anything at all wrong with the question, it was just in an unexpected context. Had it been a philosophy-of-technology class, that would be the perfect way to lead off the semester.

Which leads me to my main point: that sort of simple question is worth pondering for oneself: “How do I know what I can do?”, or in a social context, “How do we know what we can do?”.

It’s not an easy question to answer, at least for me, but an important one, even if it’s only asked implicitly. I’m not likely to embark upon something unless, in some sense, I think it’s within the realm of possibility for me to do it. But how do I know what I can do? Having a clear understanding of where my confidence (and lack thereof) comes from would allow me to systematically probe the borders in different directions, rather than just waiting to accidentally get there by magic.

It occurs to me as I write that that the concept of confidence, and some ideas related to it, can be hollow if it is understood as some sort of a tank in a person that must be filled, but without knowing of what it is filled or how.

(Umm, this came out less well-formed than I thought it would, mainly because I’m learning about the topic as I write about it. Hope it was useful to you to read it…)


True X Gizmo settings

I take it back: it is possible to turn off almost everything but the focus-follows-mouse behavior in the True X Gizmo (that I mentioned earlier). Here’s a .reg that sets things the way I like ’em.


Consulting anti-patterns

For the lighter side of and more serious discussion of how to do consulting badly, may I suggest:
Huhcorp: We do stuff. and Compass Newsletter (see the “Naked Consulting” series).

The sort of stuff touched on on these two sites is a reason to avoid calling oneself a consultant. But I don’t have any better word yet for what I do and wanna do. I suppose, though, that if someone’s view of me is materially informed by a single word, then I’m already headed down the wrong path with that that person.


Marshall McLuhan audio

Some stuff I’ve started listening to: U B U W E B :: Marshall McLuhan. Always good to hear from ol’ Marshall. I had not previously been exposed to his sound-collage facet. Cool.


Lifestyle Entrepreneurs

Speaking of innovation and hence entrepreneurship, Lifestyle Entrepreneurs is a series of pretty interesting columns about people who have intertwined their entrepreneurship with their lives in general to get something that’s ‘not just a living’ (the title, by the way, of a book by Mark Henricks, the author of those articles (loc, amaz)).

That’s my goal with my consulting career, although there are times when that seems less possible than pithy titles would suggest. It’s nice, then, to see books and articles like these as a reminder that people can do this and also some details about how. I think there are still a few books to be written about this topic, because I haven’t been completely satisfied with any that I’ve seen yet.


The ‘magic’ of patents

I saw Jeff Lindsay giving a presentation called “The Magic of Patents” at ISU. Pretty entertaining to mix in some magic tricks, woven in in a way that actually made some sense to the presentation.

I’m still not sure how much magic there is in patents, though. The deepest feeling I had coming away from the talk was that patents were going to keep me from doing great things for the world. That feeling wasn’t permanent or well-reasoned, but it was still there. The fact that it’s so expensive and time-consuming to get a patent means that it would be hard for me to get one, yet (relatively) easy for some big company to come up after the fact, get a patent on something I’ve used successfully, then use the patent against me. I guess I just have to make sure to get some prior-art evidence documented for anything I think _might_ be patentable, then worry about all that stuff if it ever gets to that level.

But, like I said, the fear was not long-lived or necessarily reasonable. That’s the way I start to feel sometimes, though, when I hear legalistic stuff in its various forms. The sharp edges give my brain papercuts.

Patents are pretty interesting, though. That they’re (ostensibly) built around the idea of forcing inventors to divulge their work for the common good in order to get the incentive of enforced exclusivity for a period is a pretty neat idea in itself. Lindsay gives that idea credit for forming the core of the power of American innovation, and it’s hard to argue against that.

However, there’s still a big part of me that feels that there’s something not quite right about the way patents work. At this point, though, I can’t clearly articulate that, so I’ll just take comfort that it all seems to work pretty well pretty often as a component of an economic engine and a social structure that I can’t pretend to understand well enough to solidly critique :-).


Keeping in touch

I’m thankful for… communication networks. I wonder how different my life would be if I didn’t have ready access to such a vast variety of people and their works through a few simple portals like computers and phones.


True X-Mouse Gizmo/PyHook

This nice little free utility does something I like very much: it does the x-mouse thing but without the quite annoying tendency for some programs (MSDev, for example) to jump to the front when they get focus. I never thought it was possible :-).
True X-Mouse Gizmo for Windows
However, I don’t really like the other features, and you can’t turn them all off… [Update: I found a way to adjust it to my liking. I should have updated this before Nathan went to the trouble of explaining this all in his comment below.] I think it may be time for me to write my own. In that vein, I found PyHook which I should be able to use to rapidly prototype the basic algorithm in a nice language.


How to destroy the earth, but probably not

Here’s a pretty decent list of potential ways to destroy the earth (physically demolishing it, not just screwing it up so that various things can’t live on it). How to destroy the Earth

The thing that’s not discussed in detail in the “Eaten by von Neumann machines” entry is the logistics of the ever-growing hoard. It’s not hard to imagine the first couple of generations of the machines, but I think some serious consideration would have to be made to start thinking about generations past about 20. The problem is, you have to gather the necessary mix of raw materials. Assuming that you’ve designed your machine to require the right mix in the first place, the mix isn’t uniform throughout the entire planet, and just transporting each machine to where it needs to be to gather the materials requires fuel, which has to be present in the right mix along the way to the destination… you might see what I’m getting at.

It could just be that I’m missing something obvious, but I think it would get pretty tricky to coordinate this aspect of that scenario, and further, your machines have to be intelligent enough to follow the plan, or to evolve enough intelligence in the meantime…

I think this gotcha applies to the ‘gray goo’ scenario of nanotech, too, so maybe gray goo isn’t so likely after all…


Hamburglers – Happy Meal

You’ll dig this if you’re me. But you’d better hope you aren’t me. Hamburglers – Happy Meal