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The Secret in Building 26

Dave writes an enthousiastic review of this book: The Secret in Building 26:

"I just finished reading The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of How America Broke the Final U-boat Enigma Code. What a fascinating read! I’ve written before about the UK’s contribution to code breaking during WWII (‘Neglect’ of Bletchley condemned and Bletchley Park Update), but this is the first time I learned about some of the details of the US contribution. I always thought the majority, if not all, of the work was handled by the British, but this book details how it was much more of a partnership between the British and Americans. Most of this stuff is only recently declassified, and most is still classified. However, the information available is a great introduction to the dawn of the electronic computer." (from: from Big Dave's Blog)

Government Data, Apis, and the tipping point

I've been discovering the mass of information that is created by the government and is very slowly making its way online. I will be posting my discoveries from time to time.

The process of making public information available online seems to go something like this:

  1. Law requires that information be collected and disseminated

  2. People submit forms etc recording such information

  3. Others then scan or otherwise process this information and puts it into a database "silo"

  4. The database is put online onto a "silo" web site

  5. Other NGOs or agencies then somehow get that data (often by scraping the web sites) and make it API accessible

It seems like there may be one or more years between each of these steps, and that different parts of government move at different rates, in fact right now, some of the total universe of government information is at a pre-1 stage while other parts may be at stage 5.

I've been slowly working my way through representative parts of these APIs to try to come up with a cogent way to describe it (or at least to meta-describe it, as "it" is constantly changing.)

In the meanwhile, I came across this interesting blog post which has relevance to this quest:

Is Data at a tipping point? In the blog post he says:

"[…]A similar phase transition has already occurred with regards to data inside business ecosystems. For the past several decades, an increasing number of business processes– from sales, customer service, shipping - have come online, along with the data they throw off.

As these individual databases are linked, via common formats or labels, a tipping point is reached: suddenly, every part of the company organism is connected to the data center.

And every action — sales lead, mouse click, and shipping update — is stored. The result: organizations are overwhelmed by what feels like a tsunami of data.[…]" (from Is Big Data at a tipping point?

[GEEKY] Foxmarks now supports Mac … one fewer reason to stay with Firefox

I read in Personal Technology (Wall Street Journal) today that Foxmarks, the handy, free utility that synchronizes my Firefox bookmarks between several computers, now works with Safari as well. Great. I tested it, and it does work just fine.

This blog post is being written with another handy firefox plugin called Scribefire, which lets me post to my blog directly from a page in the browser. It works really nicely and I use it frequently. I recommend it. Unfortunately they don't support Safari yet. So I am staying with Firefox, for now.

By the way, why am I even considering deserting Firefox? Overall it works very well and the new 3.1 Beta 2 seems very fast. There are two areas of discontent:

  1. On Mac, the Print dialog box is non-standard, and who cares about that, except that the standard Print dialog on Leopard displays a very useful preview of the pages being printed, something that I frequently miss in Firefox.
  2. For unknown mysterious reasons (I suspect Flash but I don't know) Firefox will go into a frenzy and eat up all my mac's compute cycles. It's annoying when I see my computer get slow, I have to check activity monitor and find Firefox the culprit. I am forced to exit Firefox to get my speed back.

firefox, foxmarks, wsj, flash, safari

The 7 deadly sins and 10 lessons of a failed startup

Check this post The 7 deadly sins and 10 lessons of a failed startup from Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing:

"Building a startup is the most difficult, and most rewarding, thing anyone can do. Sometimes you can even make some money at the end of it all. There are so many things that can go wrong it is a miracle when a startup actually makes it. It is important to celebrate our successes, learn from our failures, and value them equally. Failure is important…because success is a terrible teacher."

Originally posted on Jul 24, 2008. Reprinted courtesy of ReRuns plug-in.

[GEEKY] Built my first gem (Ruby Gem that is)

I've gotten interested in what is going on in the public sector, in particular in the world of non profits. I've learned a lot, met many people and been trying to define a project that would at the same time do something to better the world as be an interesting and fulfilling product challenge (notice, missing from that list is "make a lot of money")

I want to start posting some of the cool things I am figuring out but so far I haven't because I can't really figure out how to organize it.

One area that I have immersed myself into is the many diverse groups who are doing work promoting government openness and transparency by, among many other things, creating the technical bridges to allow information that is already being collected to be more easily accessible. There are many of them, and one of them is the Sunlight Foundation. They are doing some really cool work, both themselves, and sponsoring and granting others who share their goals.

Wow what a long wind-up.

Anyway, in digging deeply into their APIs and datasets I decided to learn by doing and created a Ruby Gem called govsdk with the following goals:

  • A simple and consistent sdk to all the various government (federal, state and local) APIs available.

  • Totally hide from the user of the SDK what those APIs are, what the networking and REST pieces are. Instead provide classes which represent the natural domain objects and behind the scenes accesses appropriate datasets and APIs.

  • Identify the 'current' best APIs for the various facts and figures so that the user need not do the work to learn each of the organizations and data models. When new ones come online or change, hide that as well.

  • Provide all this in an open source library, for free, with example code, documentation and test suites.

Version 0.0.1 of the GovSdk GEM (0.0.1 -- get the idea?) is implemented and available at GovSdk. Check it out, but expect it to change because this is still quite embryonic.

Subscribe to Pandora!

I've known about Pandora for ages, and the last month or so have been using it again, a lot. It's quite amazing: constant, free, music. Based on your interests.

How does it work? Well just go to Pandora, set up a free account, and indicate, for example, an artist or style you like. It begins playing songs, one after another which people who've liked what you like have also liked. You hear a song or artist you don't know, indicate with a thumb up or down how you like it. That's it.

I have discovered artists I didn't know, rediscovered some that I knew, or music that I loved and had not heard before. All for free.

One might ask, in a favorite theme of mine, how do they survive? Here is Pandora one of the most popular sites and applications on the web and on iPhones, giving it all away. And the artists, how are they surviving? It's a mystery isn't it.

Well not so much of a mystery. Apparently Pandora came close to having to shut itself down. No money:

Founder Tim Westergren has stated that the service is approaching a "pull- the-plug kind of decision" for the service. Why is this happening? Last year, web radio giants were hit with outrageously ridiculous fees by a federal panel for every song that would be played on their stations. This caused a lot of services to either shutdown, or go through what Pandora has been experiencing for the past year. In doing so, it seems the financial problems the music industry has set out to create in order to win the constant battle between rights, piracy, and copyrighted music, are working. (from Read Write Web)

I just did what I knew I should do.

I signed up for an annual subscription.

Yes it cost $36, not that cheap. About what perhaps you might contribute to a public radio station.

We can't expect that valuable stuff (newspapers? music? software?) continue to be created by passionate talented people without the prospect of being able get paid for it.

What Life Asks of Us

A column in the NYTimes that offers a very different perspective from what we might think of as the goal of a liberal education:

"Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values." (from What Life Asks of Us)

Sounds very common sense. I found myself nodding in agreement, feeling that this matched more or less how I saw things. But then he introduces a different view espoused in a book that came out last summer called On Thinking Institutionally (On Politics) by the political scientist Hugh Heclo.

"In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are." (from What Life Asks of Us)

Thought provoking. Read the article. I am ordering the book On Thinking Institutionally (On Politics)

brooks, newyorktimes, institutions

Going, going, gone…

You've heard me bemoan the death of magazines, newspapers, and other valuable things (radio? small software products) that we are killing by demanding and expecting them to become cheaper and cheaper, and eventually free. And after that, "gone".

Here's an interesting idea: make newspapers into non-profits, supported by endowments and fund raising, sort of like Public Radio and Television.

"Although the problems that the newspaper industry faces are well known, no one has offered a satisfactory solution. But there is an option that might not only save newspapers but also make them stronger: Turn them into nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities. Endowments would enhance newspapers’ autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down." (from New York Times - News You Can Endow)

newspapers, free, opensource

[GEEKY] Where are the east coast Rails / Ruby conferences?

"So yet another way you can help Ruby and Rails Activism is by attending
(supporting) a conference. Below you’ll find conferences coming up in
the next 6 months. If you think I’ve missed one, or if the information
is incorrect, please post a comment." (from Riding Rails)

If you look at the list of conferences and meetings, all looking interesting, there's nothing anywhere near Boston. Hey, whatup?