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My first patent, which I filed during my time in IBM over the summer of 2005, is now available via Google patent search. It’s pretty dry, but that’s the nature of these things. :)

The web today is a-flutter with calls for new “standards” to fight back against the increasing problem of hostility in the world of blogging. This comes on the back of a spate of unpleasant, unprovoked attacks on various bloggers because of their politics or views on seemingly harmless topics.

Tim O’Reilly and Jimbo Wales have jointly put forward a proposal to tag websites with somewhat quaint badges, showing what level of discourse you can expect to see. This idea seems doomed to failure to me, despite the big names that are pushing it through. As they stand, the draft “Code of Conduct” has a number of problems. For example,

We do not allow anonymous comments.

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

Identity spoofing is ridiculously easy at the moment, so this recommendation just can’t work. At least until initiatives like “Identity 2.0” and OpenId take off.

On the badges, Jeff Jarvis writes:

[The blogosphere is not a medium.] It’s a place. And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do.

Indeed. I posit that the big win here will come from improvements in policy enforcement, rather than up-front policy declaration. Everyone already knows they’re not supposed to act like a jackass.

The NYTimes article linked above notes

A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors. They say that bloggers should also have the right to delete such comments if they find them profane or abusive.

The problem here is that deleting moronic or venomous comments does nothing to stem the tide of trolling that a particular post is going to attract. It merely hides the problem under a rug for a short time, before someone, on finding their comment deleted, decides to write something even worse, perhaps in a place where the original poster doesn’t have such sweeping editorial control.

Online discussions are entropic, and it only takes one misinterpreted or snide comment to transform the complexion of a thread into a chaotic flamewar of no merit. Chaos begets chaos, and maintaining the quality and order of a discussion requires both time and vigilance.

A few years ago I saw an interesting approach by Sam Ruby, very nicely illustrated through an anecdote here by Mark Pilgrim. The theory:

In social sciences, there’s a theory called the “broken window” theory. It states that a little ongoing maintanence — like fixing windows as soon as they get broken — can have dramatic effects. It also states that the smallest sign of destruction, if left untended, tends to bring about more destruction. Even in a “good” neighborhood, where normally people wouldn’t dream of being randomly destructive.

This is powerful thinking, and the most effective way to deal with the problem that I have seen. Passages in comments are selectively marked as “flamebait” by the site’s owner, which then appear as text with a strike-through to anyone reading the comments. This allows a site owner to Bowdlerise a comment in line with their site’s own (stated or no) comments policy, and leaves a tangible signifier to anyone else thinking of commenting that there is a single voice patrolling the comments and keeping order.

Things could be so different now
It used to be so civilised.

Jack Rebney, Winnebago salesman and all-American hero, having perhaps the worst day of his life. Brilliant. I’ve watched this video almost as many times as I’ve seen Tremors.

QuizletQuizlet is a tremendous little web application for helping you to expand your vocabulary or remember facts like dates and names. It looks particularly useful for learning words in a new language.

The demo video will get you up to speed on the main functionality. All very pretty and impressive, especially considering the site is the work of one guy.

Being as I am ebulliently tendentious about language (I keep a list of “words to use in a sentence before you die”), I’m very happy to have found this. Exultant, you might say.

A literature review is a standard part of any postgraduate’s endeavours, and usually makes up the majority of your first year or two. A good review sets up the landscape that you’re going to work within, saving you from duplicating effort and allowing you to identify the key players in your field. You don’t necessarily have to reel off a big document summarising your reading, but if you do it’s a fine head start on the first chunk of your thesis.

I had started my lit review last year, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of merely printing and filing papers without having read them. Then, in December at our second annual SRG-fest Joe gave an inspiring talk about structuring a literature review intelligently. Among his suggestions were to choose a handful of key conferences in your area and read every paper published in their proceedings for the last few years. For me, these conferences are places like InfoVis, ICAC, Pervasive and CHI.

Secondly he suggested building up a “mindmap” of the research areas that you’re actively engaging in. This has proven to be a very worthy excercise.

PhD topic mindmapMy (intimidating!) PhD mindmap

When drawn up like this my research interests seem both nicely structured but also worryingly broad. And I left out the stuff I’ll likely need to understand but currently have no interest in, like semantics, embedded systems and parallelism. My reading has been branching out a bit recently too; since I’ve started tracking my bookmarks on del.icio.us I discovered that I’m actually more interested in things like sociology and psychology than I thought.

If you imagine all the possible research that could be done in our field as a pie chart, the area I’m going to explore will end up being a thin sliver in that chart. Aaron always said that his job as my supervisor was to keep me anchored in that segment and not wander too far outside of it. Looks like he’s got his work cut out for him.

So Christmas arrived, and I managed to secure a Nintendo Wii (thanks Nikky). I’ve been a crazy Nintendo fan ever since that fateful day I got my first NES back in about 1989. I shamelessly wear geeky Mario-emblazoned t-shirts and have engaged in countless fruitless “which console is better” debates with friends and enemies. Shigeru Miyamoto is an idol of mine. And every new Nintendo console has been a special occasion.

Marko gets a drubbing Mark receives the thrashing of a lifetime!

Wii Sports is the very definition of a “killer app.” On the surface so simple, but containing surprising levels of depth and nuance. Once a friend has hit their first home run or cross-court volley, they’re hooked, and in most cases, go home wanting one. A number of times now a friend has taken a break from flailing their arms around to remark, wide eyed, things like “It’s amazingly accurate”, and “The speaker in the controller is a really good idea!”. Yes. I know.

While chasing my dog around today I was marvelling at her natural instincts to want to run around the whole time. It’s a game for her, and probably her favourite thing to do apart from tearing the house to shreds. The developing problem we’ve got as a species is that we got too goddamned good at building things that are even funner than basic locomotion. The Wii is a very smart move back in the opposite direction.

Almost eleven years after Mark Weiser’s classic paper, we’re beginning to see some real implementations of some of his suggestions.

Animator vs. Animation and its sequel, are both wonderfully imaginative pieces of Flash animation.

’Cause… breaking up is so… very hard to do. Due to the imminent destruction of the good ol’ Computer Science (…and Informatics) building, the SRG have upped and left to new environs this week. (Moving photos here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) Gone are our homely offices in favour of a new cubicled open-plan office space, the towering partitions between desks a few inches shy of the walls that encircle the Vatican.

An eagle-eye view of proceedings
Did anybody else come in today? Who knows!

Granted, at least they’re not pumping white noise in through the ceiling, and I can still look out the window and discern what time of day it is, which makes this a sight better than my time in IBM.

Crazy skies all wild above me now
Winter howling at my face
And everything I held so dear
Disappeared without a trace

Coming in 2003… Windows Longhorn. What’s strange about this tech demo is that it looks really, really impressive; far beyond what Vista is shaping up to become.

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