Thoughts

Spring 2008

Searching, for real

Site News / June 24th

When I launched Search a week or so ago, there were a couple of problems with it. Those have been corrected, along with a number of other bugs, most of which only pertained to me when I'm logged in. Regardless, I wanted to mention that it's fixed now, in case you tried it earlier and didn't get any results.

Digg widget

Site News / June 21st

I finally got around to figuring out how to correct the way the Digg widget on the Profile page displays in IE7, and made some improvements for other browsers as well. Sarah reminded me it was broken, with massive text that overlapped content. I got the DOM snapshot working in Opera 9.5, since their new developer console doesn't show that, and then I was able to comb through the html to find what I could add style to.

So it's looking a bit better, and I even managed to get the digg count to disappear, since that wasn't supposed to be displayed in the first place. It still has the stupid fixed height, leaving a bit of a gap under the text, but I can't make it smaller since a story with a long title will wrap. Oh well, it's definitely an improvement.

Hello, please hold

Personal / June 20th

By now we're all used to the fun of automated phone systems and waiting on hold for "the next available associate", but I was pretty surprised a few minutes ago when I received a phone call, and on answering the unknown number was greeted by a voice telling me all associates are busy.

Now seriously, what the hell? Who calls you up and puts you on hold? I didn't wait to find out and instead hung up the phone. Clearly if enough people are willing to be called in the middle of the day and placed on hold to then wait for someone to explain why they were called, more companies will do it. I'm irritated enough as it is by the calls where I say "Hello, this is Matt" only to hear a long pause on the other end, followed by "Hi, can I please speak to Matthew?". We will only be subjected to this if it works, if we put up with it. I, as a consumer, will not tolerate it, and I urge others to do the same. If some faceless corporation needs to get a hold of me, they can get someone on the other end of the line when they call me.

Searching

Site News / June 15th

I've gotten a new build of Spark --XeoMage's backend software-- online, bringing with it Search. This long-overdue feature means that if you want to track down a picture from sometime in the summer between 2000 and 2003, or a movie review that was who-knows-when, you can just type in a keyword and get right to it.

There's a number of other things in the new version, but that's the only one I really have implemented. I've got some plans to spend a bit of time enhancing XeoMage style and layout. The templates that make up the site have gotten pretty cluttered and I have a few adjustments that I want to make since the site doesn't render well in certain situations.

Speeding Bullets

Technology / May 27th

Following a series of links I got to planetary.org with an image of the Phoenix lander as it descended, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image itself is just black with two blobs of white from the lander and its parachute as they scream through the Martian atmosphere. The MRO also took a good shot of the lander after it landed successfully and deployed its solar panels.

What the image represents, though, is a bit more interesting when you consider that the MRO is a satellite that travelled for seven months to gets to Mars, entered orbit using aerobraking and now flies around Mars at 1900 meters per second. For comparison, a glock fires a 9mm round at about 350m/s. The Phoenix lander, having reached Mars after its own nine month journey, entered Martian atmosphere at 5800m/s. After aerobraking, the parachute was deployed as the lander slowed to about 500m/s, which is still faster than a bullet and the speed of sound (more than twice the speed of sound on Mars).

At this point, a 1900m/s robot orbiting another planet takes a photo of another robot flying through that planets atmosphere at 500m/s. Essentially, a speeding bullet took a picture of another speeding bullet. I guess it's ok that it's a bit blurry, huh?

Influence

Personal / May 11th

I've been thinking a lot recently about influencing people. For a long time I've held a somewhat laissez faire attitude that was equal parts live and let live and a belief that people have reasons for the things they believe. Somehow it isn't my right to try to change the way other people think. That I have my opinion and they have theirs, and that's as it should be. This concept has driven a lot of the way I interact with people, where I express my opinion and give my reasons for thinking, then listen to the other persons opinion for anything that is new information that I haven't factored into my perspective. My assumption is that others take a similar tack, though ultimately it's up to them.

However, having held this attitude for many years, I'm coming to a realization that if everyone took this stance perhaps the world would be fine, but many people don't. There are many people in positions both significant and not that influence those around them, that inspire in other people a desire to hold a belief. Sometimes this can be a powerful force for good, and other times that motivation can lead to fear mongering and manipulation. The media makes a lot of effort to appear unbiased while most elements are pushing a particular agenda. People gravitate to media that reinforces their beliefs and then guides those people to hold other beliefs, be it left wing or right wing.

I see the difference that it makes when you have people in positions of leadership that inspire others. I've seen how that can bring about incredible change, for good or ill. What gives these people the mandate or the right to direct the forces of public perception or bring about social change? The answer is that nothing does. They are in a position of influence because of their ability to influence. It is a reinforcing system that elevates to the top not those that make the best decisions, but those that can make the case for their decisions. When you look back at presidential candidates that didn't make it, at a teacher that bored you, a manager that didn't make you happy to come to work, or anyone in authority that you didn't listen to, didn't believe in, and didn't care about, they all failed to inspire. Perhaps they inspired some, but not enough to make a difference. Maybe they even got close, but someone else ultimately made a strong enough case against them.

What is the difference between a leader that lays out broad plans and everyone says 'yeah, right' and one that lays out a vision that everyone says 'let's get started'? It's not the words they use and it isn't the idea they have, though those are certainly factors. Some people seem to have a knack for being inspirational, others are cliched and trite, still others are focused on the wrong things.

There's a saying that you see on bumper stickers and in other equally banal places. It says "Be the change you want to see in the world". I like to think that the way I live my life reflects a lot of the attitudes and behaviors I'd like to see in others, that the way I treat other people and the way that I conduct my business is honest and fair. I think I give people the benefit of the doubt and look for the good in others, that I have integrity and good judgement. What I'm starting to realize is that it isn't enough. What I'm doing will not bring about change in others, and it won't lead to the world I want to see.

There are so many forces at work trying to pull people down, to make them see evil in others that isn't there, and to divide us along every line imaginable. All around the world are those that profit from fomenting discontent, those look down on their fellow man as if they have done anything to distinguish themselves, and those that prey on ignorance and beat back against progress with fervor and lies.

We all have our own lives, our own sphere of interest, and enough troubles and trials to fill our days. How many days will go by before you look back and wonder what happened, where you could have really made a difference in the world instead of just being a drop of water in the wave. I am thinking now about how I can influence others, about how I can inspire, and whether I can be a leader. I don't know where this road goes, or if it will be swallowed quickly by the world once more, leaving me to again regard others with some degree of indifference, and if they will do the same.

Images

Site News / May 11th

After roughly six months I have completed adding image support to Spark, and hence XeoMage. Today I ported all of the pictures in the Photos section into the new image management system. That included generating larger thumbnails (ooh, 70%!), fortunately not a manual process, followed by some cropping of existing photos to standardize all of my image sizes, unfortunately a manual process. However, I'm thrilled to say that after a rather long hiatus I can start adding new photos!

Regular readers may recall that I lost about a half terabyte of data to a raid array configuration problem, and as a result there will be a gap between what's on the site and the new stuff I add. However, I will try to make up for that with quantity. Adding photos was always a pain, involving a tedius process in PhotoShop, file naming, ftp uploading, and then posting to the site. That is now all handled by Spark in one fell swoop.

Homeless James Bond

Cool Stuff / May 7th

This is exactly the kind of thing I wish I had time to do.

Alligator Blood

Technology / April 19th

I thought the recent Physorg article on the potential medical benefits of alligator blood was really interesting. The idea is that alligators have a really well developed immune system, which makes sense considering they live in bacteria-filled swamps and often get into fights that expose them to it. For anything to survive in that environment it must have developed a pretty substantial immune system.

The alligator apparently has a novel compound in its white blood cells that kill a wide variety of bacteria and fungus, even those it hasn't come into contact with before. Essentially it doesn't need to develop antibodies to be effective against it. It even works against some of the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, like the Staph variety that's been killing people in hospitals recently.

Their hope is that this substance will yield a new array of drugs aimed at not just bacterial infections but the fungal growths that lead to amputation among diabetes sufferers as well as potentially HIV.