Category Archives: technology

LHC: in search of the God particle

Large Hadron Collider

by most accounts, we have just built the most complicated machine in human history: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). the startup on september 10 was met with accolades and cheers. the following shutdown was met with sadness and groans. regardless of when it comes back online, it remains the most exciting thing to happen in fundamental particle physics in decades.

so what’s all the fuss about?

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neologism nausea

i’ve been having some issues with a few neologisms that have hit the internet and blogosphere (ahem) lately.

it’s not so much that new words bother me (although some, like nucular, most definitely do). i came to the realization today that it’s their origins that can bother me.

take AJAX as an example.
i’m not talking about the popular cleaning product that guarantees it will get your sink and tub pearly white with little to no elbow grease involved. no, i’m talking about the term coined by a notable person at a design firm in san francisco (name and link withheld to avoid unnecessary page rank bloat).

it was coined in an effort to describe a collection of technologies that have been around for a long time (in Internet years, at least). people have been using these technologies for a variety of things (google maps, for example; or even microsoft outlook web access), but they’ve done so without the comfort of a name to say what it was precisely that they were doing.

and so this design agency author made one up. it’s an acronym, although he avoided the dreaded TLA (three–letter acronym) that is the focus of so many consultant jokes. it’s also memorable. kinda catchy. almost sounds like marketing.

and that’s what it is. marketing.

ever since i first heard the term, it was bugging me. it bothered me that they made up a new term for something that already existed. it bugged me that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, technically correct. it bugged me in general, but i couldn’t figure out just why. and then i realized why: because they stood to benefit financially from the creation of a new term, something that could become a meme in the internet world. something that everyone would pick up and say, "AJAX? oh yeah! that firm in ___ ___ invented it!"

bzzzzt. wrong. they didn’t invent it. they just knew how to market it and their ability to explain it — intelligently and in a ready–for–publication way. i don’t fault them for their insight regarding the patterns of usage of this particular technology combination. what i do fault them for is shameless self–promotion. one might say that they were just pointing something out for the benefit of the internet community, humanizing a technology to help it be better understood. i’ve been in this business long enough to know that’s about as likely as a beautiful snowflake in the molten pits of hell.

the other term that caused me to get all twitchy was folksonomy. this is a conflation of “folks” and “taxonomy,” meaning a classification system created by normal people (e.g., not librarians or those prone to organizing their socks by color, then texture, then projected lifetime). think of it as the dewey decimal system for crackers (a harsh and not–wholly–accurate analogy, but work with me here).

the idea is a very important one, but the term is just silly. just call it tagging and be done with it, ok? why was there a need to come up with a cutesy term?

if youre’ gonna come up with a new word for something, make sure your motives are pure. do it because there really needs to be a new word, in my opinion. otherwise, you just wind up looking like a linguistic poseur, and

we all know how much everyone hates linguistic poseurs.

the pain of cleaning computer slates

my new-ish computer (dual processor 1GhZ Mac G4, 1.2Gb RAM, two internal HDs, external HD, peripherals out the kazoo, yadda yadda yadda) started getting wobbly a few months after i brought it home. after an agonizing search for obvious hardware or software boojums, i finally concluded i had reached the point of last resort: complete system reinstall.

these words are enough to strike terror into most people who rely on magical boxes for their livelihood. i procrastinated for days, often sucking my thumb in the corner, rocking gently back and forth, before i summoned the courage to do it.

here, i recount the process of what was actually involved, if anything so that i can remember everything i did if i ever have to do it again <shiver>.

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brain surgery made easy!

"Yes! You too can be a brain surgeon, with the new Brain-O-Rama surgeon’s helper, a revolutionary new tool from the makers of the incredible Gung-Ho knife!! For just $49.45, you get the Brain-O-Rama scalpel, a rubberized dummy to learn your way around the skull, and complete instructions with helpful anatomical diagrams. You’ll be taking care of tumors in 30-days or less, or your money back!!!!!"

it seems like i’m being ridiculous. i am. and so are half the people trying to sell the latest [insert noun here] made easy products or books or tools or 12-day-tutorial-magic-or-your-money-back courses.

just because i know where your prefrontal cortex is, or because i’ve heard of broca’s area, you wouldn’t want me cutting into your brain with the best scalpel in the world. it wouldn’t make any difference, even if i had read the Dummies book and had seen "Extreme Autopsies" on FOX last week.

and yet people keep talking about making hard things easy, and others keep falling for it. books keep selling that demystify the mystical and show how, gosh, well, it turns out that brain surgery is easy after all, and we were just foolin’ ya so we could keep the money for ourselves (ha!).

i could make jokes all day long, but i believe this kind of behavior, and the thinking behind it, has consequences. it devalues the effort required to create things of value or utility, or to provide important services. in turn, it reduces the perceived value of the fruits of these labors. it cheapens the world and destroys our appreciation of people and the beauty they often create.

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look ma, no tables!

exclamations of the general form, "look ma, no [insert noun here]" are invariably followed by disasters of one variety or another (e.g., broken limbs, scraped knees, poked out eyes, hindenburg-style vapor cloud explosions). they indicate a certain hubris on the part of the utterer, and mother nature is not one to let these sorts of things slip by unchecked.

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being the hydrant for technology’s dog

some days you’re the dog, some days you’re the hydrant.
this piece of wisdom was passed on to me some time ago, and i’ve found it a useful mantra. it helps remind me about life’s little ups and downs.

for the past few days, it’s been technology that’s the dog, and i’ve been the hydrant. so i’m just gonna vent the old spleen a bit, and move on to smaller and better things.

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browser compatibility – theory and practice

the following entry is a (sanitized and expanded) version of an email i recently sent to a client explaining some of the issues surrounding browser compatibility and web developement. it’s amazing these issues persist after years of slowly grinding towards a world of web standards…someday, i hope these ideas will seem quaint: "oh, how cute! they used to have to worry about those things…"

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