Archive for September, 2002


Mandate Open Source? Don’t think so.

Tim O’Reilly writes: “The reason I don’t want to see legislators mandating open source is simple: if legislators can be persuaded to mandate open source, they can equally well be persuaded to mandate against it, and once that battle is joined, I’m pretty clear who will win.”


StarOffice 6

Sun has released StarOffice 6.0. Nifty. I so wish that there were a version for the Mac. I was going to install the OpenOffice 1.0 developer build for OS X but decided it looked too unstable to mess with. If I were working on the project, that’d be one thing. But I’m not, I’m just looking for an office suite for K.

The real trick would be switching to StarOffice or OpenOffice at work. Fat chance.


So you want to be an air traffic controller

LAX Internet Flight Tracking System, AirportMonitor. Follow the “LAX AirportMonitor™ – Internet Flight Tracking System” link.

Once you’ve read the background information and color key, you might want the direct link to AirportMonitor.

Java required.


Regular Expressions Rock

If you’re using a text editor without regular expression support, let me ask you: why?? Get yourself a better piece of software.

I was just handed a tab-delimited text file that needed to be converted to an Excel spreadsheet for a mail merge. Address fields were not properly separated by tabs, though, so the import into Excel wasn’t going smoothly. No problem! A quick regular expression find-and-replace, and bam! Problem solved. 4000 records updated to a usable format. Total time expended, including discovering the problem: 3 minutes.

Regular expressions rock.


What’s the problem with slang?

The New York Times: Nu Shortcuts in School R 2 Much 4 Teachers (registration required). This is an interesting convergence of two conversation threads I’ve been carrying on over the past couple weeks.

The first conversation deals with current IM slang, something I started wondering about a few months ago. I’ve been absently curious about how IM/chat slang has been changing over time. Someone recently pointed me to, which I doubt contains cutting-edge slang but that does include a dictionary of assicons that you might find useful. Or not.

The second thread has to do with slang in academic writing. K, an ESL teacher, has been working with her students to help them avoid using swear words in their academic writing. “She was all happy and shit” probably has no place in a paper for school.

Part of why her students write things like this is because foreign words do not carry the same emotional weight that words in one’s native language. The Japanese, for example, use English rather than Japanese as a polite way of saying “toilet.” I doubt very much that native English speakers would name a movie Fucking Åmål, but it seems to pose little problem for the Swedes. Since K’s students are non-native English speakers, and because they are teenagers, these words tend not to carry the same stigma as they do with adult native speakers.

It is also, I think, a question of learning to write differently than you speak. This is very much an acquired skill. I see evidence of this all the time in colleagues’ writing at work: colloquial usage worming its way into what should be a formal register. Some of you have quite likely noticed the conversational tone and grammatical structures that I use here, a deliberate decision that I know irritates some. It takes careful practice to learn to communicate using different registers, verbally or in writing.

Of course, K pointed out to me that she would love to have her students write the same way they speak, since their conversational fluency is impressive but their command of written English needs work. Come to think of it, this is by no means limited to ESL students.

These two running conversations come together in the NY Times article. It does take instruction and practice to learn to write differently for academic purposes. I’m not surprised that these students are using their IM slang in homework. I am pleased that some teachers are flexible enough to allow slang in early drafts, while expecting a switch to “standard” English while editing and revising, and using it as a springboard for discussion about language evolution.

My favorite part:

She realized that the students thought she was out of touch. “It was like `Get with it, Bova,’ ” she said.

This is great. What better demonstration of the evolution of the language than this use of “like” — despite what many detractors assert, a useful and by no means random discourse particle.

I remember when I first started to hear complaints about this apparent misuse of “like.” Didn’t understand what the fuss was about: it would either go away, or we had a new construct. Witness how English evolves. It has not gone away, and now I hear it all the time, even from those who used to attack it.

Don’t believe me? Still driving you crazy? Listen to this interview on NPR yesterday with someone who’s recently published a study of this new use of “like”.

Mind, it will be a while before I’m willing to accept this in most formal writing. Doesn’t fit the register. But in casual speech, it’s quite useful and so has become common.


Internet Filtering Found Damaging to Education

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Online Policy Group have released the preliminary results of a study of Internet blocking and filtering in schools.

Here’s a shocker: it doesn’t work and is harmful to education. The study, whose final results will be made available in October, found:

  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the least restrictive settings will block between 1/2% and 5% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.
  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the most restrictive settings will block up to 70% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.

As always, Andy Oram’s comments are worth a read.

Also worth reading is this press release outlining educators’ and librarians’ objections to federally mandated “filtering” software.

Rather than protecting children, CIPA diminishes educational opportunities for students nationwide by blocking tens of thousands of web pages related directly to the school curriculums developed after years of careful consideration and approved by educators and local and state school boards.

And yet somehow people aren’t up in arms.


EU Studies Free/Open Source Software

Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study, aka FLOSS. A large study of free and open source software, why it’s used, why developers work on it, etc. Among the most interesting of the findings: OSS/FS is often preferred for its stability and performance.

Andy Oram’s thoughts, a good overview.

Fascinating stuff. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight until I read this.


Mateine: caffeine or no?

Sometimes I wish I were a chemist.

Many years ago, a good friend of mine whose father is a doctor told me that the stimulant in tea isn’t really caffeine, it’s theine: a related compound that stimulates the brain more than the body, so tea is more conducive to creativity and Deep Thoughts than caffeinated beverages like coffee.

For some reason I believed this. For years.

It’s a quaint idea, if a hundred years antiquated, but it’s now generally accepted that no, the stimulant in tea is indeed caffeine.

Fast forward. You may have seen a beverage brewed from a plant called mate, sometimes sold as yerba mate or mate latte. “Caffeine-free!” the ads claim, usually glossing over the fact that it still contains a stimulant called mateine.

Hm. Tea has theine, mate has mateine. Any warning bells going off?

In The World of Caffeine, I read that mateine is caffeine. Exactly the same chemical, marketed under a different name.

Curious, I did a little research. Most chemical dictionaries list mateine (also spelled mattein) as a pseudonym for caffeine. I mentioned this to a local tea retailer, who checked with the Botanical Society of America or somesuch organization — and they insist that mate does not contain caffeine.

I don’t know what to think. I Am Not a Chemist. If I were, I would actually understand the resources I checked and could form an educated opinion. As it stands, I still don’t know.

Neither do I know why I care. It’s not like I drink the stuff, or avoid caffeine. And if I were avoiding caffeine, I wouldn’t go looking for other stimulants instead. Still, this has been bugging me.


Natural Laws

I’m sure you can all testify to M. Giant’s Law: The fastest way to find something is to replace it.

M. Giant’s law doesn’t come into effect unless the item has entered a state I call “good and lost.” Good and lost only happens when you’ve looked every reasonable place that something could possibly be, and then some more places. When you’re utterly flummoxed, when you honestly can’t understand where your objective has gotten to, when you’ve gotten to the point where you’re sifting through the catbox for the remote control or looking in the freezer for the tent stakes, then and only then will the universes decide that you’ve had enough. And they’ll still make you get a new one.

Amen, brother. I’m not sure that M. Giant would agree, but I think that sometimes it works to be going out the door to replace the lost item, firm in the conviction that you’ll buy a new one even if you break your toe tripping over the damn thing on your way to the car. That’s just to keep us humble.


Monastic XML

From Simon St. Laurent: Monastic XML, An ascetic view of XML best practices. is a look at XML from a different angle, focusing on what markup is best at rather than what markup can do to solve a particular problem or set of problems. While XML is powerful, developers seem insistent on using XML in ways which seem convenient for a moment but which cause much greater trouble down the line to both their projects and to markup itself.

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