Xenía in D.C.

Last month’s news but still worth thinking about:

It started about midnight on June 16 when a group of friends was finishing a dinner of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp on the back patio of a District of Columbia home. That’s when a hooded man slid through an open gate and pointed a handgun at the head of a 14-year-old girl.

“Give me your money, or I’ll start shooting,” he said, according to D.C. police and witnesses.

Everyone froze, including the girl’s parents. Then one guest spoke.

“We were just finishing dinner,” Cristina “Cha Cha” Rowan, 43, told the man. “Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?”

The intruder had a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said, “Damn, that’s good wine.”
The story gets even stranger, with Camembert and hugs.

I’m hoping that any of my Homer-reading students who come across this news item pause to think on the ancient Greek practice of ξενία (xenía), hospitality. The Iliad ends with an extraordinary moment of xenía, when Achilles as host treats Hector’s father Priam with respect and compassion. The two share a meal before Priam departs with Hector’s returned corpse. The Odyssey is a running display of xenía and its opposite: virtually every scenario in the poem hinges upon the practice or abuse of hospitality. And hospitality isn’t limited to better homes and palaces: the swineherd Eumaeus acquits himself as a perfect host by offering Odysseus that best that he has: food, shelter, and a cloak to stay warm (almost literally the shirt off his back).

What’s remarkable in this D.C. story is that one person’s quick thinking changed — in a moment, for everyone involved — a dismally familiar scenario into something far more humanly complicated. How odd this robber must’ve felt to be seen not as a terrifying monster but as a guest. And how odd his potential victims must’ve felt to be recognizing his need for affection (however chemically induced that need may have been).
Attempted robbery ends in group hug (Yahoo News, via Boing Boing)
Xenía in D.C.

nowMap: Full A4 Templates

Latest Update: I’ve attached the original OpenOffice Draw files to the bottom of the page now, too, so people can modify these for different paper sizes and such like.

This is a template for nowMaps - quick visual overviews of what’s on your mind. To find out what a nowMap is, and how to use the main section of this form, see the nowMap Introduction, which also lists other nowMap templates available.

This Form

nowMap Template - Full A4 Squared

(This is just a pic to let you see what the form looks like - keep scrolling for the PDF file if you want to print one out to use it. If you’re really stuck, and can’t use the PDF, click the picture, then click on “view original”, then right click the picture and save it - it’ll look pretty poor printed, but it should work ok.)

This is probably the one most of you will want - a full A4 sized nowMap, with no trimmings.

There are two versions - one where the main nowMap area is plain, and one where it’s squared. Pick whichever you prefer - plain for the free-form free spirit in you, squared to let your inner geek shine.

The PDF Download

Should be below, along with the OpenOffice Draw (.odg) files…

AttachmentSize A4 Full Plain.odg8.94 KB A4 Full Squared.odg10.11 KB A4 Full Squared.pdf50.02 KB A4 Full Plain.pdf38.74 KB
nowMap: Full A4 Templates

Leading journals reject Word 2007 files - ZDNet UK

If you were happy to find that the new Office 2007 equation editor is a lot more like LaTeX, and that equations didn’t look as bad in Word as before, think again.

Microsoft is pushing a proprietary markup language (OOXML) that clashes with what Nature and Science own typesetters use, so they will simply reject the paper. This might be a good time to read Dario’s own ode to the beauty of LaTeX.

Technorati tags: typesetting, latex, math, markup, OOXML

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Leading journals reject Word 2007 files - ZDNet UK

Changing the Past?

I’ve spend quite a bit of time over the years talking about the importance of making decisions, and how to keep to them. And today I want to return to the subject.

One of the problems most of us face is that we are so busy dealing with everyday decisions that we never take the time to make the strategic decisions that are really going to make a difference. Well here’s a little exercise in two parts to look at those decisions. Set aside a few minutes to do it.

** First Part

Think back to what you were doing five years ago 2002 and imagine that you had the power to go back and make all the decisions that you didn’t make then. What would you chose to change?

What you may realise is that the decisions you were making five years ago (or failing to make) have had a profound effect on the way you live now. They might have been decisions to sort out a relationship, or to change jobs, or to have a medical checkup, or to lose weight, or to give up smoking, or to learn a new skill, or to get fit. With any of these, if you had put them into effect five years ago you would now be reaping the benefits. How might yourlife be different now?

Second Part **

Imagine that you’re five years in the future in 2012 and you are looking back doing the same exercise. What are the decisions that you wished you had made in 2007?

Well, this time you CAN go back and make those decisions… you can make them right now!

Changing the Past?



The Trikke is a machine you ride and propel by wiggling your body in a way that’s Zen training on three wheels. It puts into direct use the conservation of angular momentum – if you carry a mass through a turn around a center with a radius that decreases while you’re turning, then your linear velocity will increase. You move the Trikke by leaning and ’S-turning’ your way through a succession of these turns. The Trikke manages to turn all this physics into a fun ride as well as a no-impact aerobic workout (good for aging skeletons).

It was a slow learn for me – took about a month – but skiers, rollerbladers, and almost any kid will get it right away. Adults who’ve forgotten some of the finer points of operating their bodies will take longer, but that’s one of the neat things about this no-pedal, definitely-not-a-scooter, tricycle: it will teach your body, all by itself, to make it go. You’ll learn faster if, unlike me, you keep your mind out of the process.

When you do finally get into the groove, the feeling is beguiling. You move in a sinuous carving motion gently S-curving your way along city streets or park paths on the flat, downhill, and (eventually) uphill at an average 8 mph. It never (not in 8 months, anyway) gets boring. It requires upward of 350 of your calories per half-hour for propulsion, so it’s damn good exercise. It involves 20 or 30 muscles from your neck all the way down to your feet, working in concert, so you don’t hurt or feel exhausted after a workout; you just feel the afterglow of a good generalized energy output.

You also look both weirder and cooler on a Trikke than a penguin on skis, so if you don’t like the idea of getting double-takes (and questions) from almost everyone you pass, that might be a reason not to ride one of these.

Trikke-Tech makes models with air tires and solid polyurethane wheels. For an adult, in normal city environments, I’d say air is the only way to go because of its natural shock-absorption. I have the sporty T-8 Convertible, the smallest adult-sized Trikke with optional air tires. The $500 T-12 is, apparently, the Cadillac of the line; according to Trikke obsessives, it gives the cushiest ride and is best for long cruises. Nevertheless, I’ve found the cheaper T-8 to be fast on its “feet” and very responsive, and it folds up into a package that fits into almost any car trunk.

– Craig Umanoff

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Trikke Tech, Inc.


Version Control: Use the caret (^) to manage file versions

caret.pngThe underused caret (shift + 6) is an excellent tool for managing file versions. If you’ve got several versions of a file to track and no full-blown version control system to use, just append the caret and a version number to the file name. Tech site WorldStart.com explains that this method of versioning makes it easy to locate file revisions by entering the caret as criteria into your search app du jour. How do you manage the various versions of your important documents? Share in the comments.
More On Carets [WorldStart.com]

Version Control: Use the caret (^) to manage file versions

Ontology Links

I recently had to make a presentation at work on ontologies–the basics, really, of what they are, how they’re used, and what the heck is OWL? I found the following links and sites helpful in creating my presentation, and thought I’d share them here.

The Basics

Advanced Material




OWL, Protege

Mental Accounting for Dummies

The Bank of America’s Keep the Change program freaks me out.   Every time you make a charge with your B of A debit card it rounds the figure up to the nearest whole amount and transfers the change to your checking account.  Commercials for this service are all over the television and radio - tagline: “you don’t even have to think about saving” - and every time I see one I feel the gulf between me and the rest of humanity widening (MR readers excepted of course).

Look, I can understand Ulysses tying himself to the mast, I can understand locking the refrigerator and I can understand Christmas accounts but I will never understand how anyone can increase their savings by taking money from one account and putting it into another.  I think I will write a book, I will call it Mental Accounting for Dummies:

The secret to saving more money is simple.  In your right hand is money for spending.  In your left hand is money for savings.  Now take some money from your right hand and put it into your left hand.  Tada!  Wasn’t that easy?

Millions have signed up for Keep the Change and the program has been written up by Business Week as “a radically different product that broke the paradigm."  Sigh.

n.b. It is true that B of A tops up the amount transferred but this part of the program, the only part that makes any sense, is hardly advertised at all.

Mental Accounting for Dummies

The economics of cats

Many people have been clamoring for this topic over at the secret blog.

My views are simple: we have too few cats in the world, relative to dogs.  Dogs, for reasons of temperament, can in essence precommit to being our slaves.  (As long as they are not Irish Setters.)  That makes us more willing to create or support an additional dog.  The quantity of dogs is nearly Pareto optimal, although their emotional slavery to us raises ethical questions about the distribution of power in the relationship.

A cat cannot “promise,” genetically or otherwise, that her kittens will become your slaves, if only you don’t neuter her.  The kittens never come about, or they meet a cruel fate rather quickly.

If you must support the life of either a cat or a dog, choose the undervalued cat.  This argument requires only that the cat gets some value out of being alive, and that value should carry some weight in our all-things-considered moral calculations.

More generally, you should go around helping the (undervalued) people who insult you, or the people who otherwise signal their independence from you.  The craven are already being helped quite a bit.

The economics of cats

Featured Windows Download: Add tabs to any program with WinTabber

WinTabber.pngWindows only: Freeware app WinTabber can add tabs to any program for easy grouping. Not only can WinTabber group multiple instances of the same program into tabs, but it can also group different programs together into tabs (as shown in the screenshot). Its possible uses abound, but grouping your applications based on purpose is one idea with a lot of potential. For example, you could create two groups of tabs: one group for work-related applications and one group of tabs for your non-work-related apps. WinTabber is a free download for Windows only.
WinTabber [via One Tip A Day]

Featured Windows Download: Add tabs to any program with WinTabber

Excessive Ovation Syndrome

There’s a malady sweeping the nation that’s highly contagious to concertgoers.  It doesn’t have a name yet, so let’s call it Excessive Ovation Syndrome (EOS for short).  Those suffering from it stand and applaud at performances that aren’t good enough to deserve such enthusiasm. In extreme cases, they shout “Bravo!” during events that are best forgotten.

The more people pay for tickets, the more susceptible they are to EOS, because ovations confirm that their money was well spent.  Even those in bargain seats can easily catch it from their neighbors.  The urge to stand and cheer may be irresistible if everyone around you is doing it.

Here is more.  Is the fear that too much costly clapping goes on?  I believe most of these people enjoy the pretentious show of approval.  A more plausible worry is that audiences, if they approve all performances, can no longer signal quality to performers.  Given that other and arguably more accurate signals remain in place (critics, bloggers, the conductor, etc.), I am not sure we should be concerned by greater noise in the audience signal.  After all, the very complaint suggests that the audience cannot be trusted to judge quality, so why not neutralize them?

And if the excess clapping gives the less musically sophisticated attendees a better memory of the show, that is arguably a benefit.  Are we not, after all, committed egalitarians?

Against my better aesthetic judgment, I am on the verge of endorsing Excessive Ovation Syndrome.

Excessive Ovation Syndrome

The Last Novel

Designer name to come

Today’s question: how would you design a jacket for a novel that desperately, aggressively, willfully tries not to be a novel – a book that “does away with most narrative conventions – plot, colorful characters, dramatic conflict,” using instead “a collage of very short anecdotes, apocryphal legends, aphorisms, (and) lurid gossip…run(ning) through (a) fragmented consciousness?” And one that begs comparison to Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Shakespearean sonnets, just to name a few? (Read the wonderful NY Times review, from which the above quotes are taken.)

Here’s the answer:

The debate begins…now.
The Last Novel

Book of the week: Hollywood screenwriter trilogy

In a previous post, I mentioned how I like to read about and study Hollywood because it makes my own industry look sane and rational. The people who create and run television shows and films cope with a level of chaos and randomness that would cause most high-tech entrepreneurs I know, myself included, to switch careers faster than you can say “the deal fell through”.

Writers in Hollywood are a particularly interesting species, in that they combine a primary creative role with practically no control over the finished product.

Three great books on the television and film business as seen through the eyes of writers are:

  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by the great William Goldman who wrote such classic films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride. I think it’s the best book ever written about screenwriting. Probably the most memorable part is Goldman’s assertion that “nobody knows anything” – Goldman argues quite thoroughly that Hollywood, after 80 years of institutional experience creating movies and television shows,is still completely unable to predict which projects will succeed and which will fail.
  • Billion-Dollar Kiss by Jeffrey Stepakoff, a professional television writer who worked extensively on Dawson’s Creek. This is probably the best book on the current state of the television industry – which has changed radically in the last several years, due in large part to the rise of reality programming – from the perspective of someone who writes for television for a living.
  • Conversations with My Agent by Rob Long is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Long was a young writer on the hit series Cheers and on top of the world, until Ted Danson punched the eject button and the show shut down. He then embarked on the entrepreneurial adventure of creating his own television show from scratch. The straightforward narrative of life in the TV trenches in the 1990’s is interspersed with marvelous screenplay-like interchanges between Long, his agent, and various other Hollywood denizens.

Book of the week: Hollywood screenwriter trilogy

Worse than Viruses

Public computer surfaces are reservoirs for methicillin-resistant staphylococci.

The role of computer keyboards used by students of a metropolitan university as reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant staphylococci was determined. Putative methicillin (oxacillin)-resistant staphylococci isolates were identified from keyboard swabs following a combination of biochemical and genetic analyses. Of 24 keyboards surveyed, 17 were contaminated with staphylococci that grew in the presence of oxacillin (2 mg l-1). Methicillin (oxacillin)-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), -S. epidermidis (MRSE) and -S. hominis (MRSH) were present on two, five and two keyboards, respectively, while all three staphylococci co-contaminated one keyboard. Furthermore, these were found to be part of a greater community of oxacillin-resistant bacteria. Combined with the broad user base common to public computers, the presence of antibiotic-resistant staphylococci on keyboard surfaces might impact the transmission and prevalence of pathogens throughout the community.

Thanks to Monique van Hoek for the pointer.

Worse than Viruses

Incidentally, it’s always seemed a bit curious to me that given what the Americans say they owe to the Separatists and the Pilgrim Fathers, and indeed it could be proved that they owe a great deal, the English are so often the villains and while we have people in America happy to be Afro-Americans and Irish Americans and Hispanic Americans, I have yet to meet anyone in the United States who has told me that he was an Anglo-American.
From Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter

Google File Search

Web pages are useful, but if you’ve ever wanted to find a specific file on the web, you noticed it’s not very easy. Fortunately, search engines like Google could be used for this tricky task.

Sometimes people create a web site, put some files in a directory, but forget to add an index file. So they end up with an unprotected directory that lists all of its files and subdirectories, when directly accessed from a browser. If someone links to the directory or submits it to Google, it becomes available to anyone who performs a search.

Because these directory listings are built using similar templates (depending on the web server), you can add to your query the most distinctive traits:

* The title starts with “index of” -> add to the Google query: intitle:“index of”

* They typically contain these words: “parent directory”, name, “last modified”, size, description -> you can add to your query “parent directory”, for example

* Since most sites use Apache servers, you could also add Apache, that appears in the footer of a listing for Apache web servers

To find the page from the screenshot, you could use a query like:
intitle:“index of” firefox 2.0 rc1 source

Of course, you could use this idea to find any kind of file from a PDF e-book to an MP3 podcast or song. Some of the files are shared by breaking a copyright law, so you must you use your judgment before downloading them.

But finding files using this technique is too complicated, you’ll say. First you have to enter a very complicated query, then visit all these strange-looking web pages and perform a new search in the current page to actually find the file. Then there are so many dead links and disingenuous webmasters that try to trick you with fake pages.

Some people with too much time on their hands built web apps that make it easy to search for files using Google. Briefli builds the query internally, loads the first results from Google and displays the links to the files on the same page. Moreover, the files that actually match your query are highlighted. To play the MP3s inline, you could add the del.icio.us bookmarklet to your browser and for Office files and PDFs, use Docufarm.

A site optimized for finding and playing MP3 files is mp3Salad. It lets you play all the MP3 files from a directory using a simple Flash player and even export the entire listing as a playlist.

The avalanche of file hosting sites brought a new to search for files: restrict the search results to one or more of these sites. Some examples of popular file hosting sites: esnips.com or megaupload.com. This custom search engine lets you restrict the search to 127 file hosting sites.

And then there are BitTorrent sites. Because they’re so many, this custom search engine is useful to search across the most popular ones.

Google actually indexes some of these files, mostly Office documents, PDF files, text files. You can restrict a Google search to a file type by using the filetype: operator in your query (examples: bash linux filetype:pdf restrict the search for [bash linux] to PDF files). This way you can search inside these files and not only in a listing of filenames.

For files residing on your hard disk, a desktop search engine like Google Desktop (Windows/Mac/Linux), Windows Vista’s search, Mac’s Spotlight are great and should be used before searching on the web.

Maybe one day Google will come up with a nice file search engine that indexes unprotected directories, FTP servers, file hosting sites, torrent sites. But probably the legal challenges outweigh the advantages of a such a search engine (Yahoo has a music search engine, but only for China).
Google File Search