Category: Geekish Tendencies


If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

Carl Sagan

So for work-related reasons far too boring to mention, I’ve been thinking about databases.  You’re excited already, I can tell!

Anyway what started me off on this post was this suggestion from IndieWebCamp that you shouldn’t use databases for web application data storage, but rather use the native filesystem.  Now while IWC seems to be heavily focused on blogs and other small-scale social stuff as far as I can tell, I think there is a general principle waiting to be drawn forth, but I don’t think it’s what the author(s) here intend.

The page refers to this post bigging up 2d text arrays as a means of data storage and it’s at this point that I had a little realisation.  More specifically where it starts waxing lyrical about the wonders of such intuitive, user-friendly tools as grep and sed, and I started wondering if I was reading the musings of a masochist.

But yeah, my realisation.  Yes, databases are a nightmare, but they needn’t be, they’re just a tool being used at the wrong level.  When the people at IWC talk about human-readable data, they forget that as soon as you start talking about computing, there is no such thing.  You can’t take apart your hard drive and have a quick peek at your appointments for next week.  It’s all in code.  The reasons we think of some codings as being human-readable is because all the infrastructure to convert that code into a usable form (all the way from magnetic charges on a drive to ASCII) is standardised and ubiquitously transparent.  We don’t have to think about how it happens, it just does, and until we can do that with databases, they will always be black boxes full of hardship and corruption, and we will not gain the full benefits of their powers.

So how do we get databases to the level of transparent ubiquity that ASCII files enjoy?  Well, one part (standardisation) may yet prove itself beyond the wit (or more specifically, the pride) of man, but I have a suggestion to begin with.

Consider: Filesystems are data storage…..Databases are data storage…..Can I make it anymore obvious?…..oh….well….I guess I can…

No-one (well, nearly no-one) talks about filesystems anymore as rampaging beasts out to devour your precious data anymore, like they do databases.  Filesystems are reliable, because they’ve had to be – everything relies on them, including databases!  If databases want to go to the next level, they need to be the new filesystem.  And I mean that literally, make a kernel driver and run your OS from it!  Then, and only then, can databases take over the world.

Choice v Circularity

Oracle: What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?

The Matrix

Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

2 Nephi 2:16

This popped up on my Facebook feed today.  While empiricial means are, by their very nature, insufficient to answer the question of free will, I am somewhat interested in hearing the philosophical arguments to see if there’s any wisdom to be gleaned.  As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I wasn’t impressed by what I found here.

GS: Right—now the deeper point cuts in. For suppose you do want to acquire a want you haven’t got. The question is, where did the first want—the want for a want—come from? It seems it was just there, just a given, not something you chose or engineered. It was just there, like most of your preferences in food, music, footwear, sex, interior lighting and so on.

I suppose it’s possible that you might have acquired the first want, that’s the want for a want, because you wanted to! It’s theoretically possible that you had a want to have a want to have a want. But this is very hard to imagine, and the question just re-arises: Where did that want come from? You certainly can’t go on like this forever. At some point your wants must be just given. They will be products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in. In other words, there’s a fundamental sense in which you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are.

The fundamental problem with this entire argument is actually that it’s just a long-winded exercise in question-begging.  It only works if you assume that decisions are determined simply based on desire.  I can see why people consider that a reasonable assumption, but it’s still merely an assumption, and more importantly it is, at the root, merely a rewording of the statement “people behave deterministically”.  It’s just the same old circular materialist assertion, with nothing that’s actually new or enlightening.

Things however take a turn for the predictably bizarre later on:

BLVR: Let’s talk about the objective attitude for a moment. In 1962 your father, P.F. Strawson, wrote a famous paper that continues to haunts anyone working on free will today. In the paper he claims that when you adopt the objective attitude towards another human being, you lose some essential features of interpersonal relationships. You’ll start to see this person as an object of social policy, a subject for “treatment”—some Orwellian scenarios come to mind—but you can no longer see them fully as a person. But if we’re going to accept the belief that there is no free will, no DMR, it seems we’ll have to take the objective attitude towards all people, including those closest to us. Are the implications of this as cold and bleak as your father suggests?

GS: No, I don’t think so. I disagree that regularly taking the objective attitude to someone means giving up on treating them fully as a person. In fact I think it’s essential to the closest human relations. I think that it is rather a beautiful capability that we have. It is deeply involved in compassion and love. I don’t think love is blind. I think love sees all the faults and doesn’t mind. It brings the point of view of the universe into our lives, where it is (as far as I can see) welcome. The point of view of the universe can be part of care, caring.

This is a completely nonsensical answer.  Whether treating someone fully as a person is essential to human relationships tells you nothing about whether taking the objective attitude means giving up on that treatment.  Nothing he says actually answers the charge, it’s all platitudes and hand-waving.  This approach is typical to everything I’ve ever seen on the “illusion” of consciousness.  “It’s not real, but it’s really, really important, honest!”  I just can’t take it seriously.

No, not that one…

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There are few things in this world more soul-destroying for me than trying to analyse my spending habits.  Not because I’m insolvent or anything like that, but because I’m always conscious the whole time that in order to get the kind of data I really want, would require spending so much time and effort that I’d never do anything else.  I’d need to be much worse with money to make it worthwhile.

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The main problem is that actually getting account data from a bank in a meaningful form is an exercise in torture.  This is something that banks in the UK have actually, believe it or not, been getting worse at over the years, mainly in the name of security.  It seems to be in vogue now for banks to try to supply customers with management tools as part of their online banking offering instead, as if they have a clue what it is I’m trying to do, and as if they are the only financial services provider I have.

When they do offer data downloads, it’s a laborious task, typically in a non-standard format that has to be converted, then interpreted (because the entries are usually not very helpfully described, nor necessarily consistently described), an error-prone, yet more labourious process.

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I still get paper statements, not because I like collecting and organising them, but because without them, I am entirely dependent on the bank to ensure that my account history is correct, and it will be whatever the bank says it is.  That’s not a great position to be in.

Digitally-signed e-statements would do the job, but computer says no.

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Same for receipts.  Far too many little pieces of paper.  With NFC coming, now is a great opportunity for storing receipts on your phone.  This system would also help record & track cash purchases, which, for me at least, could do with a bit more tracking.

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This all needs standards, an API infrastructure (including Authentication and Authorisation) and a not insignificant portion of vision.

It would be nice if there were one way to express identity. But the numerous contexts in which identity is required won’t allow it.

One reason there will never be a single, centralized monolithic system (the opposite of a metasystem) is because the characteristics that would make any system ideal in one context will disqualify it in another.

– Kim Cameron, The Laws of Identity

Domain names have become a minor bugbear of mine.  In many ways they behave like physical sites, especially in the way people squat and speculate on them.  This comes about because of the nature of the domain registration system which is very Home-Owner-Ist/Faux-Lib in its approach, complete with its own version of homesteading.  The root of all this is the way we identify websites.  As we’re not very good at remembering numbers which all internet traffic relies on, we assign names to these numbers.  Trouble is each name can only be used once, even though there is more than one McDonald’s, so the more obvious names become more valuable while costing a flat fee to maintain.  Cue much rent-seeking.

As the Laws of Identity point out, Identity is contextual.  The domain name system acknowledges this to a degree, but tries to impose its own contexts on users which aren’t necessarily meaningful (what *is* a .info domain anyway?), typically overlap (the company I work for have identical .com and .co.uk domains), and generally have come too late for anyone to care (are there any .tv domains? Any at all?).  Methinks there must be a way to make identifying websites more contextual to the individual user, but I’m not sure how it would work.  To an extent search engines have taken up this role, but it took till the end of the third page of google results to find any reference to McDonald’s that didn’t involve clowns, and besides, you need to be able to find the search engines too!

As a side note this was also a failing of the XRI naming system, which was even more non-contextual.  Anyone who happened to be called Drummond was out of luck from the word go.

It’s been several years since I first came across Kim Cameron’s Laws of Identity.  I think it’s about time I reviewed where the web identity revolution has got to.

Not far, it must be said.  Cardspace is dead, and to be honest, I’m not surprised.  Microsoft never really got fully behind it (I’m not aware that they ever bothered implementing support within Windows Live, for example), and Cardspace had a couple of design flaws that to me undid it’s usefulness.  Two spring to mind.

First, the very rigid fields.  Every card had separate fields for first and second names.  If I wanted a self-issued ‘Fraggle’ card, I couldn’t do it as, invariably, sites wanted both fields filled out, which isn’t meaningful when you’re using a pseudonym.

Second, optional info was an all or nothing deal.  If a site requested age and email info as optional, and I was happy to give out my email, but not my age, then I was out of luck.  You either gave both, or you gave neither.

What’s ironic about Microsoft’s abandonment of Cardspace is that while they have failed yet again to provide a ubiquitous online identity solution, their first attempt, Passport, has come back from the dead.  You’ve probably used it already, and you know it as Facebook Connect.  I’m sure there’ll be many theories about why Facebook Connect has succeeded where Passport miserably failed (I put it down to Facebook actually being vaguely useful), but it’s important to note that there is no essential difference between Facebook Connect and Passport.  One login to rule them all with all the info in one silo.  Once Facebook and Google get together, they’ll know pretty much everything about everybody.

So what *do* we have?  Well, we have OAuth, which ironically Facebook Connect leverages, which looks like it will take over the backend, but other than OpenID, I’m not seeing much by way of a frontend, and OpenID support is quite patchy.

Things really need to step up, though.  The Personal Cloud is coming, and it’s not gonna work if we can’t trust and secure it…

Here’s a joke…

A bus full of ugly people met an accident, all of them died. Before entering heaven, they have given one wish, the first said: “make me beautiful” and it happened. The rest followed the same wish, when it came to the last person he was laughing. The voice asked him: why are you laughing? what is your wish? The last person answered: make them all ugly again!

So what was your reaction? Continue reading

I guess the question is…am I really proud to be a geek?

And I guess the answer is no.  Continue reading

I had an idea for the box on the right that says “About me”. Continue reading

I’ve had this question bugging me since the end of Heroes about a month ago.  If you haven’t seen the finale yet look away now… Continue reading

As someone who generally doesn’t care about Formula 1 and as someone who doesn’t much care for Schumacher either, I would normally have had a chuckle at his misfortune.  I decided to watch the video though and started wondering what the problem actually was.  My conclusion is: nothing at all, and the stewards are flat wrong. Continue reading