Info Tech

Inconvenient Ideas

Whenever Darwin encountered a “published fact” or “new observation” that contradicted one of his beliefs, he forced himself to “make a memorandum of it without fail and at once.” Why did Darwin do this? Because he had “found by experience that such facts and thoughts” – those inconvenient ideas – “were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones.

Whatever you think of Jonah Lehrer’s apology, this is a wonderful little tidbit. I wonder, though, if Darwin really did this “without fail”?


In his review of Google+ Farhad Manjoo compares their “Circles” feature to arranging wedding seating charts. Having to sort people into lists before you can interact with them online is annoying. But the problem isn’t lists. I like lists. I use lists. I might not be a typical user (Manjoo says that only 5% of Facebook users use this feature), but I think the problem is that there are two usage scenarios for lists and Facebook/Google emphasize the wrong one – and not very well at that.

The first scenario, the one that Facebook and Google think people want, is focused on privacy. You have baby pictures and only want to share them with relatives? Set up a “relatives” list and share your pictures with them while keeping them private from your professional contacts. The problem with this is that social networks are context specific. My sister’s boyfriend might be considered a “relative” for purposes of family dinners and sharing of photos, but not for talking about family finances and medical problems. Lists are simply too rigid and static to handle how we actually decide what information to share with whom and when.

Another problem with this scenario is the illusory nature of privacy. Like DRM on DVDs, online privacy is all about wishful thinking. Once you’ve posted something online anyone can share it with whomever they like. If you are a Congressmen who sets up a Circle of online girlfriends with which you share photos of your private parts, it is just a matter of time before someone reposts these to someone outside that Circle. It is better to treat everything online as if it was meant for public consumption. That way you are never caught by surprise.

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RIP Donnell Library

I wrote my first serious research paper in high school; about ethnographic film. In 1988 the only way to see many classic ethnographic films was on film. You know, the kind of thing which comes in big metal canisters and has to be fed through a movie projector. It would snap and break on occasion, in which case you had to splice it back together with tape. It was scratchy and noisy, and more to the point: incredibly expensive. I simply would not have been able to do such a project if it wasn’t for the Donnell Library across from the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan.

I remember the small viewing rooms, the helpful librarians, and the thrill of treating film like it was a book: rewinding, viewing scenes over and over, taking notes. Nothing you couldn’t do at that time with a VHS tape, but one rarely got a chance to handle a film reel in the same way. I was pleasantly surprised that the city of NY would allow me to do so. It allowed me to overcome the awe of being a spectator in order to critically examine these films in a way that, in those days, would not otherwise have been possible.

I read about the Donnell closing its doors nearly a year ago, but the above picture, taken by an archivist who worked there during the library’s last days, of those film canisters being packed up gave the story added poignancy.

(via BoingBoing)

In Sync


Two years ago I wrote a post about the various complicated ways I kept my home and office computer synchronized. Because my office computer recently blew up (really!) I have to think about how to get back up and running as quickly as possible, so I thought it would be a good time to update this list. A lot has changed in the past two years…

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Technologies of the Self

Things - task management on the Mac

If you google the letters “GTD” you’ll get seven million hits back. GTD stands for “Getting Things Done,” a time management book, method and philosophy promoted by David Allen which has spawned a huge array of self-help blogs and task management webservices. Wired magazine described it thus:

Allen’s approach is not inspirational. Instead, it is detailed and dry. But within his advice about how to label a file folder or how many minutes to allot to an incoming email there is a spiritual promise. He says there is a state of blessed calm available to those who have taken careful measure of their habits and made all the changes suggested by reason. Nirvana comes by routine steps, as an algorithm drives a machine.

I have personally found Allen’s approach tremendously beneficial. I don’t think I could get through the week without the Mac OS X application, Things. Things makes it a breeze to implement GTD without having read David Allen’s book. Before Things I relied on a variety of paper lists, my e-mail inbox, files on my desk and my computer desktop, bookmarked webpages, sticky notes, etc. to try to keep track of all the various tasks I was expected to do. Now I immediately file everything into Things and forget about it. Things allows me to distinguish between those tasks which are current, those which are due at some future date, delegated tasks, and tasks which can be put off indefinitely. Related tasks can be grouped into projects, but the design of Things prevents projects from becoming unwieldily. If you need a “sub-project” just create another project and group it in the same “area” or easily attach keywords (“tags”) to link them together.

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Firefox Reloaded


After spending one week trying to use Safari as my default browser, I decided to go back to Firefox. I was able to find numerous substitutes for my favorite Firefox plugins and features, but they never lived up to the real thing.

First of all, although Safari was generally faster, I assume that Firefox 3, when it comes out later this year, will catch up. And while Safari was generally kinder to my system, there were situations where it was actually worse. A few select web pages caused my entire OS to grind to a halt – something Firefox never does.

Second, although I was able to find substitutes for features like AdBlock Plus, Flashblock, Greasemonkey, Bookmarks, and Content Preferences, they just didn’t work as well. But most important, for research I needed tools like Switch Proxy and Zotero, which don’t exist for Safari. (See my previous post for a full list of substitutions.)

What finally allowed me to switch back, however, was the discovery of two very useful tools: FEBE and ProfileSwitcher. Over time one’s Firefox profile can get gunked up and it can slow down performance, even stop some extensions from working properly. Switching to a new profile helps, but you don’t want to spend hours reinstalling your extensions, reimporting your bookmarks, etc. That’s where FEBE comes in. Its a nifty tool to backup and export your Firefox profile. Its a little complicated to use, but if you are a hardcore Firefox user its definitely a must-have extension. Using these two tools together, I was able to create a lean-mean web browsing machine containing just those features I really need.

Below the fold is an image of the FEBE list of currently installed (and backed up) extensions. (Not listed is 1Password, which is added directly by the 1Password application.)
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Firefox vs. Safari

Apple - Safari 3 Public Beta - Mozilla Firefox

Firefox is much more than a web browser – its a platform. Numerous applications run on Firefox’s XUL framework, mostly as plugins. This extensibility gives you greater control over how web pages appear by blocking ads, turning off automatic flash animations by default, and offering site-specific customizations for some of the most popular web apps. It also allows you to better process that information by integrating with social software, storing local copies of web pages, syncing data between computers, looking up words in foreign languages, and identifying semantic content embedded in many web pages.

In short, if you spend a significant amount of your life online you don’t just need any web browser, you need Firefox. But here is the problem, if you are a Mac user you’ve probably noticed that Safari is faster, more responsive, and less likely to hog your system’s memory. But switching to Safari means giving up those all-so-useful extensions. (The same is true of Camino, a streamlined version of Firefox for the Mac.) Fortunately, some clever coders have found ways to replicate the functionality of some of the most popular Firefox extensions in Safari. Below is a list of my favorite Firefox plugins and the closest replacement I could find for Safari. I’ve assigned each a rating according to how well they replicate the features I depend on in Firefox.

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Gabe & Max’s Internet Thing

I don’t normally accept advertising here on Keywords, but I think Gabe and Max’s Internet Thing is too good a deal to pass up. I am constantly encouraging my readers to make use of the latest internet technology, and Gabe and Max’s 430 part system can really help!

UPDATE: Gabe and Max answer reader’s questions on BoingBoingTV

Gabe & Max's Internet Thing

I don’t normally accept advertising here on Keywords, but I think Gabe and Max’s Internet Thing is too good a deal to pass up. I am constantly encouraging my readers to make use of the latest internet technology, and Gabe and Max’s 430 part system can really help!

UPDATE: Gabe and Max answer reader’s questions on BoingBoingTV

High ISO

Fish Heads

When I was telling people I wanted a compact camera which could perform well at a high ISO, I think many misunderstood. What I really should have said is, I want to be able to take low-light pictures without a flash. This picture was taken using my DMC-LX2’s intelligent ISO mode, which selected an ISO rating of 250. There is no reason for me to have wanted to go any higher with this shot – especially with all lights in the night market. With a shutter of 1/125 and optical image stabilization, a remarkable amount of detail is still preserved, the most important being the expression on the woman’s face.

Flickr Photo Download: Fish Heads - Mozilla Firefox

Now, my old camera could do OK at ISOs up to 200, but it couldn’t go any higher. More importantly, however, the FX7 only took pictures at 100 or 200, while the LX2’s intelligent ISO setting fine-tunes the ISO at 125 or 250 etc. depending on the shot. It is smart enough to emphasize aperture speed for moving subjects and to lower the ISO for still subjects. This seems to be more important than the fact that the camera can theoretically do ISO 1600. Considering the noise you can already see in the above picture, I’d be hesitant to use anything above 300, but when you consider that most compact digitals on the market can’t do much more than 100 that’s pretty good, and even that extra 50 percent boost gives me a much wider range of options.

My guess is that 2008 will see much better ISO performance across the board, including the long awaited LX3, but if you bought your last camera a few years ago you will be pleasantly surprised and how much better the new cameras perform.

See previous posts here and here.

UPDATE: I rewrote the last couple of paragraphs after looking through my old photographs.

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