Archives: March 2005

Endian

I did not know this:

The names `big-endian’ and `little-endian’ are comic references to the classic “Gulliver’s Travels” (via the paper “On Holy Wars and a Plea for Peace” by Danny Cohen, USC/ISI IEN 137, April 1, 1980) and the egg-eating habits of the Lilliputians.

From the perlfunc man page discussion of the pack() function.

Endian-ness is one of those esoteric (or not) computer subjects that makes the internet work (or not). Basically, do you (or more accurately, your computer) count from left-to-right, or right-to-left. Little endian is left-to-right (1234) and big-endian right-to-left (4321).

The Baroque Cycle

Just finished racing through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, three novels set in the 17th century. As early modern European history was my undergrad major, and technology my current occupation, this series was a real treat (which can explain how I finished 3000 pages in 3 weeks).

Barbary Corsair pirates, the birth of the commodities markets, the debate over the origins of the calculus, defenestrations of all kinds. What a riot.

In Xanadu: A Quest

I liked William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain so much that I convinced my book club to try another of his travel books.

The short review: it’s not as good as Mountain but still worth a read. This is his first book, for which he became (justifiably) famous while still an undergrad. It feels a little “green” compared to Mountain — I’m chalking that up to Dalrymple’s relative youth and it being his first book. I hear traces of what will become excellent writing 10 years later.

The Unconquerable World

Jonathan Schell’s book was a Christmas gift a couple years ago. Took me some time to get through it. Not because it was poor writing (though it’s not particularly lyrical) but because it’s emotionally difficult to consider war when your country is mired in one.

I guess I should feel hopeful after reading it; maybe I’m too cynical, but I didn’t feel it. Maybe I just need to listen to less NPR news and take more walks in the woods.

The Philosophical Programmer: Reflections on the Moth in the Machine

My friend Lori read this several years ago, when she was a programmer and I was not. I ran across it at the library and thought I could do with a little rumination on my current occupation.

Daniel Kohanski offers a nice historical overview of the computer, some thoughts on writing beautiful code, and best of all, some observations on how the rigid and unforgiving logic of computers is changing the way we (programmers) think. There’s some good theology in there somewhere.

The most advanced work in computers today is in artificial intelligence, which is one way of saying, we’re trying to make computers a little more forgiving and a little more fuzzy. Take your PC out for a few beers; that’ll fuzzy it up.

My favorite excerpt:

At one job, I came up with a maxim henceforth to be known as Kohanski’s First Law of Programming: Something that has a one-in-a-million chance of going wrong will go wrong the first day we go live. To which was added Liff’s Corollary: It will either happen in the first five minutes or just after everyone has left for the day.

Ain’t it the truth.

Google

I use it. Don’t you?

But at what cost?

We spent a lot of time discussing Google in my library class last fall. Google is ripe fodder for librarian anxiety, because at first glance, it poses the single biggest threat to the future of real, live, paid librarians. From the Google email site:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible.

Sounds like a library mission statement, yes?

As a poet put it, in the information glut, poets are the ones who help discern knowledge from information. That’s what librarians do too. And usually with a little less opaqueness than poets.

But if the powerful Google aims to do the same thing, how can mere mortal librarians stand in its mighty path? Do they need to? Librarians use Google all the time, as a tool to help find relevant and authoritative information for library users.

It’s well known, however, that it is possible to buy and/or fool rankings in Google. And rank is the arbiter of authority, at least, to the casual user (ie., 95% of Google users).

So for now, librarians provide that vital service: helping weed what’s relevant and authoritative from what’s not. That’s what librarians have always done. Can Google replace that function? Can a machine replace a human being?

That’s a pretty stale question, I know. Perhaps a better point to make is that if we believe that a machine can replace a human being, then we will fail to fund things like libraries and librarians. If the popular mindset is that Google offers everything a librarian can, soon there won’t be a library to go to.

Jack Handy

Got this great spam last week. Part of the lastest spam trend: non sequitor emails intended to elicit a reply — just so the spammer will know they hit a real address. It’s like TV: free entertainment delivered right to my screen.

Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, “It is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true than to be selfish and worry about my liver.”
— Jack Handy

Beautiful.