Reposted Refactored Reciprocity

Reciprocity he knows: tit-for-tats, quid-pro-quos. He tallies up each debt repaid; strives to keep a promise made, costs defrayed, his options weighed; does the work to make the grade; and always couples “free” with “trade.” The duple logic of his mind would let no beggar go unfined.

Should disputations come to blows, he always bloodies nose for nose. Should passions wane, he has a knack for handing failing friends the sack. And so he tightens up the slack, he fills the crack, he pays them back: a balance monomaniac, settling each debt or grudge, he tests the scales and weighs the judge.

Blocks of granite in repose have no choice but to oppose pressures delicate or coarse: granite’s something he’d endorse. Basic physics is his source in seeing life as countered force: matter, elbowed from its course, elbows back—in Newton’s writ—equally, and opposite.

An exegesis would disclose the life he chose: like Latin prose, fixed, decided, preterite. That ethics of exchange admit no novel coin, no counterfeit—he’s sure of it. And sure he’ll sit, sunk in his inertial pit, by no assault his ramparts split, by no new star his heavens lit, by no means willing to permit his thralldom to be manumit. No will, no wish to overcome endless equilibrium.

First Walk

A fine mist on the river, the kind you can only see looking up or downstream or out of the corner of your eye. Fall came abruptly this year. The air is crisp and all the trees on the opposite bank turned the same shade of yellow at the same time. Our puzzle-loving dog spent five minutes getting her ball into and out of a snag. The blue heron and great egret are elsewhere this morning.

Cognitect: a Clojure Merger

Relevance, the Clojure-centric custom software development company, has merged with Metadata Partners, makers of Datomic, the Clojure-based distributed database and implementation of Datalog. Justin Gehtland is now the CEO of Cognitect, Stuart Halloway is president, and Rich Hickey is CTO. Jennifer Hudson is the CFO and Mike Nygard and Tim Ewald are Cognitect VPs. Listen to Justin and Rich explain the logic behind the merger and what ahead for Cognitect.

Yahoo’s Logo: Not a Good Sign

OK, so Yahoo redesigned its logo. Perfectly understandable, given that its CEO is refocusing the company to try to keep it relevant and profitable. Oh wait, not that CEO, this CEO. Anyway, logo design is always a big deal for the company involved, and some genius designers have come up with some truly inspired logos to represent companies. But it doesn’t usually inspire quite this level of kibitzing. Yahoo’s logo was always kind of goofy looking, but arguably charming. The latest version is still goofy, but without the charm, might be the general sentiment. The CEO explained the thinking behind the redesign, and that may not have been such a great idea. Glenn Fleishman came up with what I think is the clearest analysis of what’s wrong with both the logo and the process—and what it implies about Yahoo’s ability to reinvent itself.

In the Moment

You know that feeling when you’re out with friends and you’ve had a few and you need to visit the bathroom and you thread the path through the tables like Mick Jagger on stage and you’re conscious of how your feet are gripping the floor and how soon you have to think about turning in order to make that corner and you feel as alive as an Indy 500 driver dodging a pileup and you nod knowingly to a server on the way and you know she had to be thinking how cool is he but you are entirely focused on the mission and you find the room flawlessly and turn the knob on the first try and you’re in and to the appointed spot with an absolute minimum of steps and execute perfectly and you think I know it’s just going to the bathroom but nobody’s ever done it better than I just did and isn’t it really about the present moment and you think I wonder if I can explain this to my friends at the table? Well you can’t.

Rock Garden

The world is white and intricate on these morning walks. Beneath the frosted branches, the path down to the river is strewn with gleaming points of red, blue, green, as though the dew has frozen in droplets so tiny that each one can reflect only one color of the spectrum. Frost heaves have ruffled the ground, bringing rocks to the surface, stony buds breaking the earth, betokening some cycle other than the seasons.

It Just Floated In

Today’s my birthday.
Yesterday morning, as is our custom, Nancy and I walked out to the far end of the farm to feed the chickens and the compost pile and to play catch with the dog. I saw something unusual across a field and asked, “What’s that shiny thing?”
We investigated and found that it was a foil balloon filled with helium and printed with “Happy Birthday” in royal blue against a colorful background. It was just lying there looking lost.
Nancy brought it in and tied it to my chair and it immediately perked up and stretched its string to the limit. It’s still here above my right shoulder now.

At the Overlook

Nikki shifted her weight to one foot, deployed her pen and pad, and blew a vagrant curl back from her cheek.
“Hi, Nikki. Are you still serving breakfast?”
“Till two. Black coffee?”
“And eggs. Several eggs. Sunny side up. Tell Arno I want them to bleed when cut. And bacon. And grits. You have grits? I never have grits. Right, make it grits, swimming in butter. Grapefruit juice. And whole wheat toast, dry.”
“Toast, right.” She slipped the order book in her apron pocket. “Been my experience that when somebody orders a breakfast like that, he always leaves the toast.”
“Don’t know what that means. Just think it’s interesting.”
“Coffee now, conversation later. Sorry, Nikki, but you’re dealing with a desperate character here.”
“Don’t I know it.” She drifted off and returned almost immediately with the coffee. Customer service is the heartbeat of the hospitality industry.


I was spoiled as a child. My parents gave me wonderful experiences.

I don’t know what year it was when the black limousines started coming into the neighborhood. It was probably the year that Kenny Dooley was five, but I realize that doesn’t place for anyone but me.

Kenny didn’t look five, anyway. What he looked like was a Raisinette. Just going by height you might have guessed him at four, but only until you looked in his eyes. Or until he opened his mouth. How anyone that small could have such a tough, gutteral bass voice I don’t know. Or how his typical glare could look both innocent and outraged at the same time. When he’d call my mother “Barb,” it was a resonant bass note.

I don’t recall it ever being voiced, but it was generally understood that the black limousines were delivering the Black Muslims missionaries. It didn’t seem odd that our neighborhood would be the target of missionaries. The Pentacostals had their tent and the Mennonites came through every summer with a bus, right behind the ice cream truck, recruiting children for vacation bible school. They got me one summer.

The black limousines were scary, but the way we figured it was, Black people had the right to be scary. And when my friend Mantan came over to shoot hoops, the only mention of fear was our standing basketball joke. Mantan would hit some crazy shot with his eyes closed or behind his back and he’d ask, all false innocence, “Did I hit that, Mike?” And I’d say, giving it all the misery I could fake, “I’m afraid so, Andrew.” I could never bring myself to call him Mantan. And he’d laugh and say, “Don’t be scared, Mike!” But black limousines were never mentioned.

We always left our doors unlocked. I don’t think we had locks. And once a week the whole family went shopping. One night we returned from a shopping trip and Kenny was sitting on our kitchen table looking (figuratively, of course) green.

We started unloading grocieries and my mother paused, noticing some extra intensity in Kenny’s usual glare. What I couldn’t help but notice was that he was completely surrounded by empty raisin boxes.

“Barb,” he said, fixing her with as intense a look as I’d ever seen, “don’t buy no more raisins.”

Kenny’s mom, Queenie, was raising him on her own, and he pretty much roamed the neighborhood at will. But that’s misleading. There was a large extended family to keep Kenny home, and it wasn’t enough. Mostly he hung out at our place. Queenie’s brother King was two years ahead of me in school and he was a basketball star. Without doubt the best player the school had produced in years. He was also the most polite, deferential person I’d ever known. I was shamefully clueless in those days, but I think I sort of got the connection. The better he was, the more steps back he had to walk. Thinking now of the rage in five-year-old Kenny’s eyes, I can’t imagine what King must have been holding in. And it never, ever came out.

Kenny didn’t hold it in. One day, I think it was a day after a visit from the men in the black limousines, Kenny sat on our kitchen table, eating something other than raisins, and lecturing my mother on how terrible White people were. Mom was enjoying it immensely. I wish I had my mother’s appreciation for the absurdity of life. I would have expected her just to soak up the delicious irony of Kenny’s lecture, but on this occasion she apparently decided it was time for Kenny to grow a little.

“But Kenny,” she said, “We’re White.”

She’d found something that could shut Kenny up.

I suspect that what Mom takes away from that episode is richer than what I got out of it. But all I’ve got is my take. What I take away is Kenny’s reaction. He didn’t handle it like any other five-year-old I’ve ever known. He shut up. He thought about it. He went home. And he never said anything bad about White people in our presence again.

And Mantan and I keep shooting hoops.

So, what I’m trying to say is, I was a pretty lucky child.

Praise for Fire in the Valley (2nd ed.)

Fire in the Valley is the memory lane of personal computing’s early years… Reading like a high-tech Three Musketeers, but with characters out of Dickens by way of Popular Electronics… A book not to be missed, just plain good reading about the drama of the kids next door turning their dreams into millions.”
New York Times

“Swaine and Freiberger capture the communal spirit of the early computer clubs, the brilliance and blundering of some of the first start-up companies, the assortment of naivete, noble purpose and greed that characterized various pioneers, and the inevitable transformation of all this into a major industry. Must reading.”
Philip Lemmons, editor-in-chief, BYTE Magazine

“A complete and authoritative history. Great reading.”
John C. Dvorak

“Much of the book could also be called ‘Those Magnificent Men and Their Computing Machines.’ Their portrait is of creative and caring people whose sense of adventure and curiosity weighs heavier than their pursuit of profit.”
Los Angeles Times

“The first book to chronicle not only the technological innovation, but also the social legacy created by the true ‘fathers’ of the personal computer… a very human, sometimes funny and always articulate story of the industry’s otherwise cloudy origins. The pages are filled with the people, the projects, and the frenzy that built the personal computer industry.”
Computer Currents

“Like indulgent gods, Freiberger and Swaine seem to love all of Silicon Valley’s children, but their hearts are clearly with the hobbyists and hackers, gifted weirdos and insanely curious oddballs, the ones they show us most clearly.”
The Industry Standard

“I couldn’t put it down.”
Steve Wozniak

Poverty on Parade

This radio play first appeared in Dr. Dobb’s Journal in a different form.


RUSTY PALADIN: radio announcer, host of “Poverty on Parade”
HOBART FLURN: unemployed 22-year-old slacker

A radio station.

This is a pure homage to, or rip-off of, the old Bob and Ray routines, and should be played as such.

(RUSTY and HOBART are discovered on opposite sides of a table on which sit paraphernalia suggestive of a radio broadcast, including a large microphone and styrofoam coffee cups. Of course, the audience doesn’t see any of this, because this is radio. But I mention it in case of Method actors.)
(Sappy theme music up and out.)

Welcome to “Poverty on Parade,” the radio show that asks the question, “Is there life after dot-com crash?” I’m your host, Rusty Paladin, and today we have with us Mr. Hobart Flurn, whom we discovered at Recession Camp, a trendy gathering place for recently laid-off dot-com workers in San Francisco.
Mr. Flurn, it’s obvious from your scruffy appearance that you haven’t found work yet. So thank you for coming all the way to Grants Pass, Oregon, by Greyhound bus to share your miserable story with us.

That’s okay, I enjoyed the ride. And it’s not like I had anything better to do.

How poignantly true. I would imagine. Unemployment must be quite a letdown from the adrenaline rush of being a highly paid programmer in a high-flying dot-com.

Well, I was in tech support, so I don’t know about the adrenaline part.

Still, it must have been stimulating to breathe the charged atmosphere of a web-based startup in the height of the dot-com boom.

Not really, not until the sheriff’s deputies came in and escorted everyone out. That was sort of exciting.

And after those heady days, you’re hitting the unemployment line?

Actually, I’m spending most of my time sponging off friends and watching the Cartoon Network. It’s just hard to imagine starting over again at 22.

I suppose you lost a lot of money when the company shut down?

Oh yeah, I lost everything. My $1.5 million house in Atherton. My Jag XJ-6. My Vespa Obsession. My Handspring Visor. The orthodontist repossessed my bridgework.

Yes, I thought you were talking sort of funny.

The ironic thing is, I didn’t even need the bridgework. But everybody else was getting it done. Oh, my dog ran away. I’ve been reduced to using a 56K dialup.

All right, all right. I imagine you harbor a lot of resentment toward, the company you used to work for?

Actually, I can’t do that.

Beg pardon?

I can’t do that.

You can’t feel resentment toward the company that laid you off?

No, you see, they outsourced responsibility.

Outsourced responsibility? Is that possible?

Oh yes, you can outsource pretty much anything these days. They contracted responsibility to a free-lance human resources consultant by the name of Delmer Clupferer, of Walkerton, Indiana, wherever that is.

So you resent Clupferer then?

Well, I have to.

Because he’s responsible for your being laid off.

Right, because the company –

– outsourced the responsibility to him.

Right. I don’t feel very good about it, though. Clupferer seems like a darn nice guy.

I suppose he was well compensated, at least.

Not really. The company went Chapter Eleven before it had paid the contractors anything, so I don’t believe Clupferer ever saw dime one.

That must make him angry.

If so, he’d have to be angry at himself, because outsourced responsibility to him.

Yes, you said that. Look here, I really wanted to ask you about Recession Camp. It’s quite an interesting concept, a combination support group and trendy club. Are you a regular there?

No, I only went that once and they asked me not to come back.

Was it your complete lack of social skills?

That, and my trying to borrow money from everyone there.

I can see their point. Well, thank you again, Hobart Flurn, for sharing your pathetic experience with us here on “Poverty on Parade.” So until next…

Aren’t you going to say that you have some lovely parting gifts for me?

No, we don’t do that.

Well, do you validate?

Yes, but you don’t have a car. So until next time, this is Rusty Paladin for “Poverty on Parade,” saying, “Write if you get work — or better yet, if you don’t!”

(Sappy theme music up and out.)

The Juice of the Bean

(To be recited at a steadily-increasing pace and pitch, reaching a manic screech at the end.)

I need that first shot of the morning caffeine;
It helps get me up for my daily routine.
I’m not really fit to see or be seen
Till I’ve had a hit from the coffee machine.

I churned out, one morning, by seven fifteen,
On eight cups of coffee, the verses you’re seeing.

And throughout the day, why I drink it then too
For all of the crises it helps float me through.
And when I’ve more work than one person can do,
I’ll drink it fresh-brewed or as thick as old glue.

You may think it debased, or a tad libertine;
But let me indulge in my vice of caffeine.

I’ve tried to swear off but I keep coming back.
Just when I feel cured then I have an attack.
I know that you think that it’s courage I lack,
But I say it’s coffee, please, I take it black.

It makes me alert while it makes me serene,
So make me a cup from that coffee machine.

While coffee’s the niftiest sin that I’ve seen,
As vices go, verses are almost as keen.
But this one must end ’cause—you know what I mean:
It’s just about time for my klatsch to convene.

So grind up the berries, fill up the tureen,
And brew up a slew of the juice of the bean.

Conundrum Equilibrium

(To be read pretentiously and pedantically.)

Reciprocity he knows:
Tit-for-tats. Quid-pro-quos.
He tallies up each debt repaid;
Strives to keep a promise made,
Costs defrayed, his options weighed;
Does the work to make the grade;
And always couples “free” with “trade.”
The duple logic of his mind
Would let no beggar go unfined.

Should disputations come to blows,
He always bloodies nose for nose.
Should passions wane, he has a knack
For handing failing friends the sack.
And so he tightens up the slack,
He fills the crack, he pays them back;
A balance monomaniac,
Settling each debt or grudge,
He tests the scales and weighs the judge.

Blocks of granite in repose
Have no choice but to oppose
Pressures delicate or coarse:
Granite’s something he’d endorse.
Basic physics is his source
In seeing life as countered force:
Matter, elbowed from its course,
Elbows back—in Newton’s writ—
Equally, and opposite.

An exegesis would disclose
The life he chose: like Latin prose,
Fixed, decided, preterite.
That ethics of exchange admit
No novel coin, no counterfeit—
He’s sure of it. And sure he’ll sit,
Sunk in his inertial pit,
By no assault his ramparts split,
By no new star his heavens lit,
By no means willing to permit
His thralldom to be manumit.
No will, no wish to overcome
Conundrum equilibrium.

Shell Game

Lottie played Luigi’s game,
Paid in queer and split for Maine.

Brady was Luigi’s shill.
Took ’is pay in phony bills.

When ’e saw the bread was phony,
’E sent it off for alimony

To ’is old lady,
Lottie Brady.

Loveless and Baggage

From a proposed take-off on the burlesque British history 1066 and All That tentatively titled 6502 and All That:

Ada Loveless invented female programmers. Before her time, while there were no programmers, they were all male. This was a Good Thing, however, because during WWII all computers were female. In America, many of these computers were wax, while in Britain they were usually wrens found belching in the park.

Ada Loveless was the daughter of the famous author and entrepreneur H. P. Loveless. When he was not writing horror stories, H. P. Loveless was busy founding HP, a Packard dealership and garage just off Woz Way in Silicon Valley. HP was famous for getting its Way. Anyone who prevented HP from getting its Way was forced to donate several hours polishing the cars backwards. This was known as Reverse Polish Donation, and was a Good Thing.

Ada Loveless was British, and so of course was close friends with Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Charles Bronson (of the literary Bronson sisters, Charles, Emily, and Ann), and Charles Baggage, an engineer on the Jacquard-Turing Line.

Baggage was famous for not inventing the computer, which he didn’t do twice. He didn’t invent the computer so well that today he has a museum named after him, called the Computer History Museum. He also invented steampunk and talking about technology at cocktail parties, so not inventing the computer was perhaps a Good Thing.

Here’s a link to 1066 and All That. If I get around to it, I guess I could provide links to the following things, to explain all the references:

Ada Lovelace, first programmer
Women as computers
WACs and WRENs
Bletchley Park
Ada’s father
H. P. Lovecraft
The HP Garage
The HP Way
Steve Wozniak and Hewlett-Packard
Woz Way
Reverse Polish Notation
Charles Babbage
Dickens, Darwin, and Babbage’s soirees
The Jacquard loom
Alan Turing
Charles Bronson (the British one)
The Bronte sisters
The Computer History Museum

On Writing: Appropriate

I love this time of year. This holiday season. It makes me feel warm and comfy to know that I’m part of something larger than myself. I am a Consumer.

And it is a holiday season, not just a succession of holidays dominated by one big noisy day appropriated by Christians from the Romans and Celts and then appropriated again by the Merchants. Here in the US, at least, we’ve developed a whole set of rituals that tie the season together into one thematic whole.

It all begins with Turkey Day, which starts our Consumer juices flowing by celebrating Gluttony. The spirit of the day is appropriated from the Roman Saturnalia, but they didn’t have football or Underdog. Turkey Day is followed almost too quickly by Black Friday, when the Consumer rises from the couch to do ritual Battle for Bargains. Then there’s the exciting Countdown of Shopping Days, the frenzied Orgy of Paper Ripping and another Celebration of Gluttony, the somber and reflective Post-Xmas Week of Returns and Regrets, and finally the absolving New Year’s Eve ritual of Bingeing and Boasting when you forget the past and make outrageous promises that will haunt you all the next year.

It’s good to have traditions.

There’s a lesson in this holiday season for writers. Appropriate others’ good ideas. But appropriating is not the same as stealing. Appropriating will not trigger alarms when the product goes out the door. Appropriating means making it your own. You change it, repurpose it.

I recommend misreading. Sometimes the path to appropriation starts with not exactly understanding something that you read. I often see where I think an author is heading and set the book aside to follow what I take to be the author’s thread, only to discover when I take up the book again that where I went isn’t where the author was going at all. When that happens, I find myself with an unplanned child idea, misconceived, malformed, and yet my own. I love those motherless babies.

By now it should be clear that the title of this post is a verb. Feel free to appropriate anything you find useful here.

Microsoft Buys a Verb

Remember this one from PragPub? It’s by John Shade, a writer I discovered in a dark place.

Columnist John Shade casts a jaundiced eye on Microsoft’s latest attempt to out-google Google.

Can Microsoft really challenge Google on its own turf? And why would they even try? John Shade casts a jaundiced eye at Bing, Wolfram Alpha, and other attempts to transcend Google.

Microsoft is an agile company.

You doubt me? I can understand that. I’m pretty sketchy at the best of times. You probably figure that being agile is one of those lean and hungry things, while Microsoft is more of a fat and bloated thing. You get no argument from me. After the first billion dollars or so, any company can pretty much forget about being described as lean, even by its most loyal sycophants. But I’m standing my ground on hunger: no matter how huge and bloated Microsoft gets, it always stays hungry. Hunger got inside Microsoft when it was just a greedy leer in Bill Gates’s eye. Microsoft has hungry DNA. Hungry, paranoid, and quintessentially nerdy DNA.

Yes, nerdy. I hate to tell you this, but as long as there is a Microsoft you will never get rid of the popular stereotype of a computer nerd. Microsoft makes the stereotype true. Microsoft as a company is killer smart, socially inept, and wears orange socks.

This is mere common knowledge.

But agile, you ask? Yes, agile. The Microsoft agility mantra is Agility through Paranoia. Bill Gates—or the spirit of Bill Gates that is the twisted soul of Microsoft—has always been motivated by the certainty that someday some bright young hacker will come along and redefine the market, rearchitect the platform, rewrite the rulebook, move the cheese, or somehow change some fundamental something and rip the rightful riches from Microsoft’s jewel-encrusted belly.

Technically it’s always two bright young hackers. Andreessen and Bina, Filo and Yang, Page and Brin. Why two? Think Gates and Allen: Microsoft itself was founded by two bright young hackers who changed the game, so they know how the game-changing game is played. That’s the Microsoft corporate view of pair programming, as a matter of fact: some pair of programmers somewhere is at this very moment plotting our destruction. You probably didn’t know that.

What Microsoft Wants

So I ask myself, what does Microsoft, in all its bloated nerdy paranoid agility, want? Easy, it wants what Google has. It wants a verb.

The verb “to google” is in the OED. The OED! People who’ve never used The Google talk glibly about googling their acquaintances. Google has attained to the holy pantheon of Verbed Brands. It’s up there with xerox and slashdot and twitter and tivo on Brand Olympus. Even Apple and Sony aren’t verbs. Once you’re verbed, you’re forever. You can’t buy cred like that.

Unless you’re Microsoft.

Microsoft would like to buy a verb. Microsoft has never had a verb. Nobody words a letter or excels a budget. Some people use powerpoint as an epithet, but it’s not the same. Microsoft wants to buy a verb, and the verb it wants to buy is bing. If Microsoft has its way you will soon be binging left and right. You’ll tell your friends to just bing it, you’ll assure your boss or client, hey no problem, I can bing that. You’ll confess to spending all afternoon binging. You’ll become a hardcore binger.

Bing, as you know unless you’ve been living under a hype-blocking rock, is the name Microsoft has given to the latest version of its Live Search technology. I liked Live Search. The name, I mean, not the search tool. Live Search was a straightforward name; it had no personality, but it had character. But Live Search suffered from two problems. First, Google owns search. Second, Google owns the word for search. Live Search? Is that something you use to google things? See? It doesn’t work. It’s quixotic to try to compete with the company that owns the category, but it’s flat-out stupid to try to compete with the company that owns the word for the category.

But Microsoft can’t walk away from search any more than it could walk away from the eyeball battlefield of the 1990s that was hilariously miscalled the browser “market,” and for the exact same reason. The hive mind that is the Microsoft brain trust lives in mortal fear of those bright young hackers who change the rules of the game. And Page/Brin is the new Andreessen/Bina. In the 1990s the emerging center of the galaxy was the browser window; in the 2000s it’s the search engine results page. The SERP.

So Microsoft has to compete with Google but it can’t compete with Google. What’s the solution? Easy: redefine the category. Declare search dead and christen its replacement. Break a bottle over its bow and call it Bing.

Here’s how it’s intended to work: Google owns search and the name for search, but search is just a service. The SERP, though, is concrete. It’s the internet’s prime real estate. That’s what you need to own, and if you can peel that away from Google, you win. So you just need to bribe people to come to your SERP and somehow get them to stay. Then you monetize the heck out of it. Flog those eyeballs for all they’re worth.

OK, you see the flaw in this plan, I suppose. To get people to hang around on your binging SERP, you’ve got to make it sticky. Well, even I know how to accomplish that: the page just needs to be extremely well designed, focused with laserlike intensity on function, rich, simple, and elegant. That’s all. And you just know that Microsoft’s natural inclination is to chintz it up with five flavors of gingerbread and dress it in orange socks. If anyone can create a non-sticky SERP, it’s Microsoft.

The BitTorrent of Search

To see how you might go about end-running around Google with a better SERP, take a look at Cuil. I’m sure Microsoft did. Cuil indexes massive amounts of data, analyzes the context of discovered search terms, and presents the results as a sort of newspaper front page because, hey, nothing says 2009 like a newspaper. Cuil usually figures out that your search term has several meanings and offers the opportunity to dig deeper in any of these meanings in a sidebar, sort of like a Wikipedia disambiguation page.

The key is to claim that you’re doing more than just search. Semantic Knowledge Discovery through Relevance-Intuiting Neural Network Algorithms. I just made that up, but it’s more or less the template. Feel free to steal it. Chances are, I did. Yebol, in fact, promises smarter search through neural networks. Wowd wants to be the BitTorrent of search. Hakia and Clusty do clustering: grouping semantically-related results into categories for further search. So does Cuil, it seems to me. So does Bing. So, in fact, does Google, but we’re not talking about Google here.

The one thing you absolutely must do is to refer to Google’s SERP as “ten blue links.” Because, you know, blue is so 2008.

Or if you’re a super-genius you can skip search entirely and just compute the answers people are looking for. That’s what Wolfram Alpha claims to do. After reinventing science, super-genius and Mathematica language developer Stephen Wolfram retreated to his secret lab in an undisclosed location at 100 Trade Center Drive in Champaign, Illinois. Wolfram is so brilliant that he powers light bulbs, so you just knew he was working on some radical project destined to stun the world.

Now after seven years he has emerged, and the world is well and truly gobsmacked. Turns out the polymathematician inventor of A New Kind of Science has been working on a search engine. Or rather, A New Kind of Google. Or maybe A New Kind of Interface to Wikipedia.

Wolfram Alpha is the eponymous answer engine, capable, according to its inventor, of parsing English-language queries and not merely looking up but actually computing the answers using the awesome computational power of Stephen Wolfram’s brain channeled through Mathematica functions and crunched on multiple supercomputers, ultimately to be displayed as glorious Gif images.

As soon as Wolfram Alpha, or WA, as I like to call it, went online, I was there to poke it with some pointed questions.

What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?

Wait, wait, I know this.

I’m wai-ting.

Assuming any type of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder | Use McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, plain or McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with cheese instead.

With cheese, please.

McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with cheese: serving size 1 sandwich (185 g), total calories 460, total fat 24 g, saturated fat 9 g, trans fat 1 g.

Argh. And in France they call it—?

France: country, calling code +33.

Maybe we should try something simpler. Try this: how many ounces per pound?

Result: 0.0625.

Not in my kitchen it isn’t.

Bing: Google, Embraced and Extended

So how terrible is Bing? Now, now that’s not a healthy attitude. Just look where that kind of cynicism has gotten me. The fact is, Bing is “much better than expected,” to quote one reviewer. That’s the kind of treatment you come to expect if you’re Microsoft: “We assumed it would be crap, but it’s not half bad.” Bing is not half bad. Here are some of the areas where Bing is clearly superior to Google:

Shopping. For example, when you’re looking for things to
buy, Bing has a cashback program. (Microsoft will bribe you
to use Bing.)

Travel advice. Bing gives good advice on airline travel
using the Farecast service Microsoft bought. (Bing excels at
promoting Microsoft properties.)

Video. When Bing finds a video, it doesn’t just give you one
of those blue links, it plays the video for you right there
in the SERP. (Testing the video copyright waters for the
rest of us.)

Protecting you from your nasty self. If you live in India,
you won’t be troubled with inappropriate sexual offers
because Bing won’t let you search for “sex.” (That’s what
Craigslist is for.)

Danny Sullivan, the Seymour Hersh of search engines, complains that Bing clutters up its fine collation of travel, shopping, and local results with paid listings. I think Danny misses the point. Microsoft spent eighty million dollars promoting Bing. (And that was without Jerry Seinfeld.) It’s got to get that eighty million back some way. That’s why Microsoft has redesigned MSN to funnel visitors into Bing. Because they’re not going to And it’s probably why they’re hawking all that Bing bling. Although Microsoft being Microsoft, I’m not sure whether Bing coffee mugs are intended as a way for Microsoft to make money off Bing or to spend money on Bing.

Because Microsoft isn’t stopping at a mere eighty million dollars. The company’s sitting on umpty billion in cash and doesn’t know what to do with it. Trying to take on Google in search is really a brilliant idea if your problem is how to burn through a few billion fast. So maybe they plan to broadcast those Bing tchotchkes on the breeze like AOL CDs.

Then again, Microsoft doesn’t have to outrun the bear. You know the old joke:

Two lawyers are hiking through the woods and spot an unfriendly-looking bear. The first lawyer pulls a pair of sneakers out of his briefcase (in this joke, lawyers carry briefcases while hiking through the woods, OK?) and puts them on. The second lawyer stares at him and says, “You’re crazy! Bears can run like 35 miles an hour! You’ll never be able to outrun that bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the first lawyer says. “I only have to outrun you.”

It wouldn’t have to be two lawyers, of course, but almost any joke is improved by putting a lawyer in it. OK, just to be repulsively obvious, lawyer number two is Yahoo. And Bing did indeed outrun the second lawyer during Bing’s honeymoon period.

Google’s response to all this sincerest form of flattery? Why, Google Squared, of course. If they’re going to raise the pot we’ll double down, Google says, mixing its card-playing metaphors. Google Squared is a Google Labs project that present search results in tabular form because the dazzling success of Wolfram Alpha and Cuil and Bing and the rest has convinced the Google gang that what you really want on your SERP is structured search result data, and, well, putting it in a spreadsheet makes it structured, right? Right.

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.

Looking at early tests of this project, I have to conclude that this turkey is not the exception to the no-fly rule. In fact the only explanation I can see is that Google Squared is snarkware. It’s Google’s way of making fun of the competition. They’re such a fun-loving crowd.

But the one shining and enduring truth of all search engines is this: most of what they give you is irrelevant, useless, or wrong. For all its computational power, Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know how many ounces there are in a pound. Clusty and Hakia and Bing and Cuil know, but they get other things wrong. Google gets it right with its first blue link: “1 pound = 16 ounces.” Yay, Google. But for its second blue link it quotes Yahoo Answers: “I thought it was 12, but it may be 16, I don’t know.” Woohoo, Yahoo.

You rarely get such refreshing honesty from a search engine.

About the Author

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions failed to enlighten him so much as a foot-candle. Today he frets away the idle hours wondering if you got the light bulb joke.

Reprinted from PragPub

The Age of Mobility

Remember this one?

Embracing the future, Mike goes mobile, as long as his wrists hold out.

More mobility. Must have maximum mobility.

The yoga’s helping, and of course the finger-stretching exercises, but despite all my efforts, the smaller joints are still a tad tight.

The more one embraces mobility—in the form of mobile phones, portable computers, sub-notebook computers, in-car computers, personal digital assistants, MP3 players, pagers, beepers, and other forms of pocket, lap, wrist, head-mounted, strap-on, wrap-around, and surgically implanted technology, the more need one has for mobility—in the form of flexible fingers, willing wrists, and forgiving forearms.

We are tearing headlong into a mobile computing future while leaving our wrists behind, a tortuous image for a torturous technological trend, and that doesn’t even touch on the psychic trauma.

Jacqueline Landman Gay first tagged deja vu as a repetitive motion injury, but I’ll take credit for first identifying the syndrome of psychotechnological whiplash, caused by being rear-ended by rapidly advancing technology.

Mobile computing in its many forms is careening out of control around the cloverleafs (cloverleaves?) of the information superhighway, shaking up the PC and Web development industries like tourists in the Space Needle during Seattle’s recent quake, and provoking even more far-flung figures of speech than these.

Mobile computing calls into question the venerable concept of the desktop personal computer, a concept on which rests an uneasy multi-billion-dollar industry. It raises daunting questions for Web developers, mostly along the lines of: how can I possibly design a reasonable Web page for display on a cell phone? (It would be prudent for us not to dwell here overlong on the fact that the original concept of HTML was that all pages should be display-size independent; it’ll only make us feel bad.) Plus, it gets you in the joints.

Even the language of mobility tests the tendons, although that’s a tendency it shares with pre-post-PC technology. One just gets the PC acronyms memorized and now there’s a whole new set of mobile acronyms. HTML, make way for WML; and wrist get ready to wrap around WAP because acronyms, especially unfamiliar ones, twist the typing hands into painful poses.

Which I’m willing to put up with as part of the cost of the mobile experience. And boy do I want that mobile experience. I want to integrate my voice browsing and audio content aggregation with big honking alerts. I want roaming wireless access, instant connection with everything around me, I want BlueTooth on a BlackBerry. I want streaming video, streaming audio, streaming smells. Give me streaming pixels, unleash the streaming text.

I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade into your enfilade, cast your multidimensional browser spell my way, I promise to go multi-D. But do I go thence on Mike Rosen’s CubicEye browser, which displays five Web pages at a time on the inside walls of a virtual cube? Or do I ride the BroadPage browser, with its tabbed and tiled multi-pane views that let me juggle 100 Web pages at a time? Neither sounds like it would be much fun on a cell phone screen, though. I had a really twisted witticism to insert here about jugglers and flexible wrists, but my editor said it was too much of a stretch.

My desktop computer is a laptop, my LAN is wireless, my office roaming. I’m ripping my britches on the cusp of the curve, beyond the present reach of ergonomic design. And there’s the rub (on the heel of my left hand). The reams of recommendations on the proper position of the ergonomic desk, the shape of the ergonomic chair, the ergonomic posture, the ergonomic forearm angle, are all grist for the shredder when the computer sits on your lap. Time to revive the child-care books? Probably not; not everything that sits on your lap deserves to be treated like a child, just as not everything that sits on that rickety table on the plane deserves to be treated like a barf bag.

Airlines aren’t going to be much help regarding the proper ergonomic placement of that laptop in flight, either: these are the same people who think that it’s perfectly all right to attach the table you eat from to another passenger’s tilt-back seat.

Yet we do more and more of our work in moving vehicles. Trains, planes, and automobiles are the offices of the Twenty-first Century. The offices of Century 21, especially: no realtor really needs to go into an office any more, and other professions are becoming similarly mobilized.

As are we all. I can hardly wait until I get one of inventor Dean Kamen’s revolutionary gyroscopically-stabilized scooters that are going to end pollution and postal worker disgruntlement in our time. We’ll all soon be able to get mobile without Mobil—or Chevron or BP—but Dean, where am I going to put my laptop?

(Enfilade? Obscure, I agree. It’s defined here.)

Reprinted from Dr. Dobb’s Journal.

About Mike

I’ve been writing about technology full-time since I helped launch InfoWorld back in 1981. I co-wrote the seminal history of the personal computer and was editor-in-chief and then editor-at-large of Dr. Dobb’s Journal forlikeever. I now edit books and the magazine PragPub for the Pragmatic Programmers. My partner Nancy Groth and I live on a wild and scenic river in Oregon.


Magazine Writing, Editing, & Management

Editor, PragPub, Pragmatic Bookshelf software developer magazine, 2009-.
Book Development Editor, Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2010-.
Editor-at-large, Dr. Dobb’s Journal, 1988-2008.
Editor, Southern Exposure Magazine, food/wine/tourism magazine, 2003-2008.
Editor, Unix Review, software industry magazine, 2000-2001.
Editor-in-chief/Associate Publisher, Dr. Dobb’s Journal, 1984-1988.
Senior Editor and member of launch team, InfoWorld, 1981-1984.
Co-author of the 20,000-word entry “History of Computing” in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Columnist/contributing writer/editor/editorial consultant, various publications in the United States, Germany, and Italy, including San Francisco Examiner, Upside, Farmer’s Almanac, MacUser, UnixReview, PC Magazin, Business Software, Whole Earth Catalog, Southern Oregon Magazine. Helped launch a book line and a number of magazines and newsletters. 30 years of magazine editing and writing with more than a jillion published articles.


Fire in the Valley: the Making of the Personal Computer, McGraw-Hill, 1984; 2nd Edition 2000; 3rd Edition from The Pragmatic Bookshelf, imminent; selected by Business 2.0 magazine as one of the 100 best business books of all time, made into a movie.
Visual Quickstart Guide: RealBasic for Mac, Peachpit Press, 2003.
Dr. Dobb’s HyperTalk Handbook, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Other Media and Ventures

Co-author of book for movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, TNT, movie nominated for 5 Emmys, 1999.
Writer and model for comic strip character Max Netroom, Investigatore Virtuale, published by the Italian company WebEgg, 1998-2002.
Co-owner, Summer Jo’s Organic Farm, Restaurant, and Bakery, Grants Pass, Oregon, 1999-2013.


MA, Computer Science, Indiana University.
BA, Psychology, Indiana University.

Contact Information

Michael Swaine
Email: mike at swaine dot com
Twitter: @pragpub or @mswaine

Where I Live

I live in Southern Oregon, on a wild and scenic river on the edge of the town of Cave Junction.
Most of Southern Oregon’s nearly 300,000 residents live near Medford, Ashland, Grants Pass, and Jacksonville, in the folds of land along the I-5 corridor and the valley of the wild Rogue River. Here a series of sheltering ridges divide the region into distinct communities and microclimates. A banner across the main street in Grants Pass declares, “It’s the Climate,” and the locals know that’s true—the climate, the access to nature, and the pace of life.
Tourists come here for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the Britt Festival’s music in the historic gold-mining town of Jacksonville, or to raft the Rogue out of Grants Pass.
To the west lie the coastal communities of Bandon, Gold Beach, Brookings, picturesque towns framed by high bluffs and sea caves and broad balmy beaches that justify this area’s nickname as Oregon’s Banana Belt.
Where I now live, in between the valley and the coast, there’s pretty much nothing but a million acres of wilderness, with breathtaking canyons, wild rivers, and hidden resorts inaccessible by car.
It’s beautiful and rich country, where you can navigate class V rapids in the morning and attend a performance of Twelfth Night in the evening.

A Few Solicited Testimonials

“Mike’s a wonderful person and writer. He’s funny and insightful, and he writes about complex subjects with great clarity. His Dr. Dobb’s column “Swaine’s Flames” has delivered software industry insight with wit for over two decades. His book Fire in the Valley is the real source for most of the articles you’ll ever read on the early days of the personal computer revolution. He’s one of the few technology writers who is universally respected by programmers.”
Rich Seidner, President, Silicon Valley Virtual, Inc.

“Michael is a brilliant thinker and witty writer about issues related to application development, the IT market, and life in general. His insights as the long-time columnist for the legendary Dr. Dobb’s Journal are a major reason Dr. Dobb’s will remain a legend.”
Mark Hall, Editor in Chief, Miller Freeman

“Michael has in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the high-technology industry, gained through decades of covering that industry. He is the consummate writer and would be a great asset to any employer.”
Eva Langfeldt, Chief Copy Editor, Infoworld

“Michael Swaine is a long time friend and associate, dating from the point when he joined the editorial staff of Doctor Dobbs Journal and wrote Fire in the Valley, the quintessential history of the Silicon Valley. Michael is one of the best technical journalists: knowledgeable, perceptive, articulate, personable, and possessed of a charming sardonic sense of humor. He is one of the best.”
Dennis Allison, Co-Founder, Board Chair, Peoples Computer Company

“I’ve known Michael for over a decade now, and I knew of him well before that. He’s an excellent and very knowledgeable writer. He also runs a great restaurant!”
Alan Oppenheimer, President, Open Door Networks

“I’ve been reading Mike Swaine’s work—magazines, books, and on-line—for longer than I can remember. He manages to be both thought-provoking and smile-provoking at the same time, and I learn something every time I read his work.”
Mike Morton

“I had read Mr. Swaine’s work for many years before I met him, and so felt honored when he contacted me for an interview. I was even more impressed with the way he conducted the interview. The technology I work on is abstruse and difficult to understand, and all too often I have to patiently handle some, shall we say, introductory-level questions, but Mr. Swaine quickly grasped the thrust and substance of my work, asking questions that were at times uncomfortably penetrating. The interview did not feel like the typical questions-and-answers routine; it felt more like a discussion of the problems and potential of a radically different technology.”
Chris Crawford, Legendary Game Developer and Owner, Storytron

“Michael is an icon in the computer publishing business and I was lucky enough to encounter him early in my writing career. I learned a lot from him about many aspects of writing and publishing—both from personal contact and just from following his writing over the years. Perhaps the thing I envy him most for is his writing style. It’s witty without being condescending or corny. Yet he can still drill down into the most technical material with ease. His writing is entertaining, but it isn’t just entertainment. There’s a lot to envy with Michael. His work for Dr. Dobb’s is, of course, well known. Fire in the Valley remains a fascinating peek behind the scenes of the golden age of silicon valley. The breadth of his personal network of people in the computer and publishing world is astounding. I can unreservedly give Michael the highest possible recommendation as a writer and an editor.”
Al Williams, Contributing Editor, Dr. Dobb’s Journal

“In addition to Michael’s many editorial talents, he has real vision about the tech industry. He’s also an extreme pleasure to work with.”
Lissy Abraham, Apple Computer