Saturday, July 14, 2007

Everything is Detritus

Good afternoon from Amagansett, NY.

The weather outside is stunningly nice, the dogs are dozing and I am pondering what to write.

For starters, we moved last week from Brooklyn Heights to DUMBO. Now that's not all that far, not even a kilometer, maybe 800m. But it's a very different neighborhood with different vibe. It seems more "active" than our little section of the Heights, and no I can't decipher what I mean by that either. Our new place is slightly smaller than our old place, by about one room, which means we're going to be actively pitching stuff for the next month or so.

Physical Crap

I made an executive decision last week that I no longer needed any Sydney Olympic Games memorabilia. Also pitched a collection of 2400 baud modems (strange how I never found a use for them again), a SCSI initiator device circa 1989, an Apple //e (which was promptly scavenged), and a variety of other electronic odds and ends. It costs more to store some of this stuff than it ever was worth to me, or the (potential) expense of replacing it.

I think we've become too sedentary, staying in one place for a long time means we accumulate a lot of stuff which one might use some day but more likely we won't. We're getting fatter, not just physically, but all of the historical baggage and routine detritus of our lives is sticking around longer.

Moving helps to bring a sort of clarity, a sort of focus on that baggage.

In the physical world I think we see this is the growing spread of landmark districts in New York City. On the surface these seem wonderful: Let's save the historic buildings of a former era. Let's show off the architecture of our forebears. But I've come to think there's a darker side, there's a cost, an expense, that isn't accounted for when you landmark entire regions.

To be clear, I'm not against landmarking specific buildings. Perhaps a building is the archetypical structure designed by an architect. Perhaps a famous person lived there, or an historical act occurred inside. But more and more it seems to me than landmark districts have become solely a tool to prevent development. It's not that people want the warehouse — where countless bags of goods were stored and processed for decades (before its abandonment for decades) — preserved, they don't want it to be replaced by something (in Brooklyn this something is typically an ugly condo building). I guess it's easier to force preservation of an existing thing, than contemplate the value to the community of the potential new thing.

So we preserve entire districts, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Fulton Ferry are three nearby. The structures are (mosty) wonderful, retaining their 19thC. charms. But there's a cost to the community involved which isn't acknowledged, isn't accounted for. These three districts are the closest in Brooklyn to Manhattan, they're one, maybe two stops away on the subway, and they represent some of the most expensive real estate in the country outside Manhattan.

The increasing value of residences in these districts means that those with lesser means ("lesser means" in NYC is a typical middle-class income elsewhere in the US) have to live farther and farther out. It becomes a sort of redlining, we claim we want to preserve the buildings, but districts also get sold as a way to increase home values. Increase the home values and you ensure that only "certain" types of people will live in the area.

Now, Brooklyn Heights has a sizable amount of apartments for rent, in addition to the homes, condos and coöps. But I've also looked at the census tract data and it's also one of the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods in the city. And I blame this, in some part, on the landmark district.

Another cost which is not accounted for is the cost to the homeowner (whether it's a standalone home, condo, coöp or other structure). Sure, the home value increases by being landmarked, but you lose some control over what you can do with the structure. Want to replace the windows, even with visually comparably authentic 19thC. windows? Be prepared for a multi-year effort. Want to make structural changes to bring your 1875 era house into the 21st Century? Good luck. It's easier to move to a new home with the changes already in place than walk through the DOB and LPC bureaucracies. And you may be right, it should be hard to change a historic structure, it shouldn't be easy to destroy its historic value. Still, by blanketing entire neighborhoods with the landmark designation, by declaring all of the buildings to have historic value, I think that you cheapen the value of landmarking over all and diminish the value of truly historic structures.

Digital Crap

By declaring that everything must be preserved, I think we diminish the value of the individual things we're attempting to preserve.

How many people have all of their email? I do. Mostly. I certainly have copies of email I sent and received from 1988 or so into my time at Carnegie Mellon. I have some email from my CMU years, and fragments of email (mostly personal archives) from my first few years at IBM. But around 1993, 1994 the cost of data storage dropped just enough that I was able to retain pretty much all email I received and sent. With the exception of a couple of startups which I separated from, I have almost all email sent or received for close to twenty years. And for what purpose? It's in various formats, it's not indexed, it's not searchable. I didn't necessarily set out to save it all, it just happened. It was easier to retain it then sift through it occasionally to weed out the "truly valuable" emails.

So somewhere in that pile is the first emails I received from my parents, as well as the last emails I received from them. The first email I received from my grandmother (who's been AOLing it longer than Google's been around).

Many of these emails are truly, dismally, mundane:

From: (Ed Costello)
To: (Kathleen Costello)
Date:  Thusday, November 18 1999 11:29:05 +1100
Subject:  Flying back tomorrow, UAL 816 SYD-SFO

'm flying back tomorrow on UAL 816, arriving in San Francisco
around 6:30 a.m. PST and Chicago around 5:30 p.m. CST.  Can either
of you pick me up at O'Hare?

Actually, I'd wager that most of the personal email I have is that mundane, that routine. The business email I have (this is a reconstruction for reasons I'll get into in a sec) is also relatively routine and mundane:

From:  Ed Costello/Armonk/Company @ CompanyUS
To:  A Company Employee/Somers/Company @ CompanyUS
cc:  An Executive in my chain/Armonk/Company @ CompanyUS
Date:  some time in December 1997
Subject:  Re:

You wrote:
> We printed as the URL on 10,000 mugs
> which we are distributing tomorrow at a trade show.  I will
> have to escalate you if you do not approve this URL as we 
> have gone to great expense to create and distribute these mugs.

".java" is not a valid top-level domain.  There is absolutely
nothing I can do to make this domain work.  The only correct URL
for The Company's Java presence is (you can drop the "www."
if you want, will also work).  It isn't a question
of escalation, there is no ".java" domain.
-ed costello

My business mail archives are mostly like this. Occasionally there are a few gems like where I tried to work out a naming scheme for the nascent Global Web Architecture (I'd proposed where country-code reflected the hosting centre. We launched with that initially but eventually dropped the country-code entirely from the domain names for reasons I can go into over a nice consulting contract). Alas, my business mail archives have two problems:

  1. They are in Lotus Notes databases.
  2. They are in encrypted Lotus Notes databases.

So, while I do have them, they are practically unusable to me. At the moment. But yet I hold onto them.

One reason is cost: there's probably 2gb of email stored on all of three CDs. The cost to storing the CDs is practically zero. The potential value to recovering the data on the CDs is high, but only if someone (me, someone from IBM, etc.) finds value in it, otherwise the data have no value at all.

There's a third problem to the mail archives: they're stored on CDs, which are fading over time. I could transfer them to a hard drive but oddly, there's a cost to that. They're not valuable enough to me to have ready access to them (which would be impossible anyway since #1 my Lotus Notes id expired long ago and I can't decrypt the contents and #2 they're in Lotus Notes format, which only a mysterious band of elves from Westford, MA understand).

Since leaving IBM and mostly non-working for the past six years, I've managed to amass another 2-3Gb of email archives, in Microsoft's Outlook format. Now, as long as I use Outlook they're accessible and searchable (mostly: Outlook does not allow you to search across data stores, only within, which makes a search for an item of unknown timeframe to be a complete pain in the ass). And certainly there is a class of email which I have found incredibly valuable to retain: the myriad account creation statements, password statements, various receipts, etc. I mostly manage to remember to copy my "e-receipts" folder from year to year, but then forget to tell Outlook not to archive items older than this year and invariably discover than the emails are scattered amongst my year-by-year archives.

Why do we hold onto all of this crap?

In New York we have a legend about the Collyer Brothers. These were two brothers who lived in a brownstone in Harlem in the early half of the 20th Century. They were hoarders. They filled each and every floor of their brownstone with newspapers, books, furniture, all sorts of crap. They engineered their, for lack of a better term, filing system so that they had mazes within the house to prevent people from stealing their very, very valuable copies of the New York Herald and Collier's and what not.

The Collyer Brothers came to an end when Langley died after a newspaper tunnel collapsed upon him. Blind Homer, dependent on Langley for food and water, died after not being fed for several days. Homer was found first hours after his death, Langley nearly a month after Homer had died. All of those newspapers, telephone books, all of those items collected from life's detritus amounted to nothing of value to the Brothers, instead it killed them.

I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news.

Langley Collyer as quoted in the Wikipedia entry

When my mother died I spent nearly seven months clearing stuff from the old family home. There were boxes after boxes of bills and receipts. There were clippings of articles from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. There were many boxes of papers and research from her litigation with the Village of Downers Grove and 3M and some painting company. There was no key, no index, no table of contents. Other than a fast flip-through, there was no way I could read each and every document to discern what was truly important (either to me as her son, to me as the executor of the estate, or to her or my father. Oddly, when my father died in 2000 we found almost nothing of value to him. Some business records, other items, but he had thrown or given away much of what he valued).

So I threw almost all of it away. The remainder, a finely culled 16 boxes of papers, sits in a storage locker in Lemont, IL, waiting for me to again find the time to sift through. Most of these boxes contain the results of her years of geneology research and a few other odds and ends.

History is written by historians

My friend Alex Wright has a wonderful book out now: Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. I read a couple of draft copies last year and found it to be a fun survey of the history of managing information, the different schemes people have tried, the different directions electronic information could have flowed, the failures that have occurred.

We commonly hear that History is written by the victors. My American Civil War is a Southerner's War of Northern Aggression. One person's Six Day War is another's نكسة. One of the insights from Alex's book I learned was that traditionally the first thing the victors did was to destroy the library of the losing side.

Now, that is a horrible way to edit down the quantity of information saved from one generation to the next. But is necessary?

Everything may be miscellaneous, but everything is not valuable either. We don't need to retain every last bit of information, every last bit of paper, every last physical object or structure created over time. It leads to a stagnant, static, sclerotic society (I should trademark that, in case I could use it in the future).

I am going to disappoint the four or five people who have read this far, but I have no idea, no magic bullet, no ingenious business proposal to address this. I'm not even sure it is a legitimate "problem". How can you criticize individual acts to save mementos, personal treasures? Still, I think we are reaching a dangerous point as a society where we mass-landmark and mass-protect all sorts of things, buildings, personal items, information. History is filtering away. It's learning from experience. It's destroying the past and building something new. Sometimes it's better, many times it's not. But that's what we have done as humans for thousands of years.

I think that distorting society so that everything is valuable, so that everything must be retained, is dangerous because it cheapens the very value of the things we want to keep. Some buildings in Brooklyn Heights are historic and of value to succeeding generations. Some emails we send and receive, just like some letters of our forebears, have value, but many do not. We generate billions, trillions of chunks of information every day, and except at Enron, seem to save it all.

I guess what I'm looking for, what I'm interested in (and perhaps, here's the nascent insanely great business idea) is a method, a process to educate us in what to keep and what to discard, and how to do that in a non-elitist, non-classist, non-violent way, if at all possible. And perhaps it's not, perhaps we need the victors to come and destroy the libraries occasionally. After all, if we valued the contents, the catalogs of newspapers, books, knick-knacks, that tassel from the Benet Academy Class of '85, if we valued these things then we would "win" whatever the battle is, otherwise why hold onto it all?

e.p.c. posted this at 23:59 GMT on 14-Jul-2007 from Amagansett, NY.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 v4.1

I hate redesigns. Much as I acknowledge the need for them, they tend to drag out, getting all sorts of crap (see the recent posting Everything is detritus for my musings on digital crap) thrown in.

And yet we do them. You are, theoretically, reading this post in my "v4" design, if you're reading it off my website. If you're reading it through the feed, well then you're lucky, I guess. v4 in some ways is similar to my previous designs, but also a major change. Under the covers I'm using the Yahoo! UI Library. Implementing the structure of the design was quite easy using YUI. But getting the CSS right… well, that was a nightmare.

I have been coding CSS since, well, forever, and I still find myself getting tripped up by weird little things where sometimes it's enough to specify element.classname#id to apply a specific behavior to an element/class/id combination, and other times I have to specify a whole chunk of the DOM hierarchy. It's almost enough to drive me back to using <table>s, but not quite.

So I've been slogging at this for well over six months and decided to just push the damn thing out, even though it's not finished yet. See, over there, on the right? There's supposed to be what some people are calling an attention blog or tumbleblog or tumblelog. Well, it ain't finished yet so there. 'Sides, no one really cares to know when I'm walking the dogs, right?

The bottom of the page has all sorts of additional link things including all of my social networkingy links (except Facebook, which I have been assimilated into).

So, still a few kinks to work out but hopefully this holds. It's not like an Infoworld article will force me to do another redesign. Again.

Oh, and another thing: the site looks like Crap® in Microsoft Internet Explorer. I'm not quite sure why and I'm tired of trying to figure it out. If it bothers you, use a browser from the 21st Century.

e.p.c. posted this at 00:48 GMT on 18-Jul-2007 from Brooklyn, NY.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Your Search Results are not a Suitable Replacement for Navigation

I bought two Airport Extreme base stations this afternoon for use in our new apartment. I've been quite happy using Apple's WDS to relay connectivity around and wanted to add another AP for our bedroom. And, why add one when I could add two for twice the price?

The only problem with this plan is that I petulantly continue to use Windows, primarily because Apple is genetically incapable of producing a laptop that weighs under a thousand pounds, mostly because that's what's running on my Thinkpad x31. Apple does not (appear to) provide the latest version of the Airport Utility for Windows on their web site. Sure, I could use the handy-dandy CDs that came with the Extremes, if I had a CD reader.

With the previous Airports I've bought (two for us, three for someone else), I've been able to download all of the necessary software off, onto my stinkpad, and get going. Not so, not with the Extreme.

My frustration is exacerbated by the lack of an actual link off the Airport related pages to downloads specific to the Airports. Other links from the Apple - Support - Airport page zero in on Manuals, Specifications and other things relevant to Airports, but the "Downloads" link just goes to Apple's Download page, which is entirely driven by search results. Now, I could page through 10+ pages of results if I had all of the time in the world, but it's easier to vent here.

Searching on Airport Utility returns four pages of results. Apple leads off the results with its own sort of in-house ads including Download the latest AirPort update, which of course doesn't actually link to the latest Airport update, it links to the downloads page. The first page of results is all updates, all of which pre-req having the latest version of the Airport Utility, which is what we're hunting for.

The second page of results shows listing for the Airport Utility, from the days of 5 and 10Gb iPods. If I needed the Airport Utility 3.1 for Mac OS 9 I could easily grab it, but 5.1 for Windows is just not appearing anywhere.

I finally gave up and went hunting through the discussion forums, which reveal that Apple do not provide a downloadable version of the Airport Utility 5.1 for either Windows or OS X, which is just so 1990s. Next they'll start selling wireless phones which require cables to connect to your computer.

e.p.c. posted this at 04:54 GMT on 20-Jul-2007 from Brooklyn, NY.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On measuring engagement

This was intended as a comment on Registered users? Here's the stat I want to see… Growth of Engagement but apparently San Francisco has gone off the grid and I don't want to lose the thought.

In that post, Charlie O'Donnell noted that many sites report overall user registrations, which tend to be a nice large number, but not user engagement or growth of user engagement. This is actually pretty easy to track with cookies, but few sites do this, relying instead on a solitary cookie to track both account information for the user as well as the active session. If they do use session cookies, it's primarily to support the application, eg PHPSESSIONID, and not for audits and measurements.

What I wrote into the typepad bit bucket:

Many sites conflate their session cookies with their account tracking cookies, meaning they only can track when someone "logs in" and resets the cookie. Far better is to split the account cookie from the session cookie, and set the session cookie to expire every hour (well, some unit of time) and then extend the expiration time with each ensuing interaction of the user.

Now, this is sort of the thing that Google have recently come under criticism for (dropping their account cookie time down to a rolling two year period, expiring based on the user's last interaction with the site); however that was specifically an account cookie (containing all the information needed to track the individual) vs. a session oriented cookie (which should contain only the information you need to track an individual session, which you then may or may not want to tie to an individual user depending on your application and ability to gather and analyze the data).

e.p.c. posted this at 00:41 GMT on 25-Jul-2007 from Brooklyn, NY.


  • I neither bought nor read the latest Harry Potter book, keeping up a tradition going back a decade.
  • Still slogging through the after-effects of moving, unboxing various boxes and throwing much stuff away.
  • I decided I no longer needed the ticket stub from U2's 1984 appearance at the Aragon, or the stub from Yes' appearance at Poplar Creek in 1983.
  • In keeping with my weird rant Everything is detritus , I threw away hundreds of photographs. A hundred photos of my old family home, random photos of Poughkeepsie in the '90s, my Benet Academy Trouper of the Year award from 1984. Just. Not. Necessary. To. Keep.
  • Our Australia trip is still on. Frisket and Sailor will get dropped off in Boston around the 12th, we leave for SFO on the 14th. After a night in SFO we flap our arms madly for 14 hours to SYD on the 15th. After a couple of days in Sydney, we hit Melbourne for a week. Still looking for advice, ideas, cautions, etc. for Melbourne.
  • Finally got the new Apple Airport access points set up earlier this week after getting the new software installed. Apple seems to be taking the Microsoft approach to software with its Airport Utility (more complex, less useful). Biggest complaint: they removed the ability to bulk upload MAC addresses for use in access control. The function is still there in a limited braindead fashion, but I'm not manually reentering 30+ MAC addresses.
  • I did not buy an iPhone. Still mostly liking my Nokia E70 of which I shall post a review some day.
  • Both dogs were sick over the weekend. I will not go into details. They are both better now. I personally am glad to not have had to walk up and down multiple-flights of stairs all weekend.

e.p.c. posted this at 15:59 GMT on 25-Jul-2007 from Brooklyn, NY.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Piddling Downspout 3

Piddling Downspout 3
Piddling Downspout 3, originally uploaded by epc.

A downspout at the Empire Stores has a bit of a leaking problem.


Empire Stores Downspouts

Empire Stores Downspouts, originally uploaded by epc.

flickr posted this at 19:06 GMT on 29-Jul-2007 from Brooklyn, NY.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Water Street at Night

Water Street at Night, originally uploaded by epc.

Sailor peers south towards Manhattan.

flickr posted this at 05:16 GMT on 31-Jul-2007 .

Goodbye WSJ

Time to cancel my subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I've subscribed off an on since I was in college. The right-wing and conservative fantasy land of the editorial pages never really bothered me. The WSJ editorial board didn't try to hide its biases, but the biases were kept to the editorial pages. Given News Corp's approach to spreading its editorial biases throughout its "news" coverage, I don't see the WSJ continuing to provide value to me once News Corp takes over.

e.p.c. posted this at 19:21 GMT on 31-Jul-2007 from Brooklyn, NY. Source,

Slightly acerbic and eccentric dog walker who masquerades as a web developer and occasional CTO.

Spent five years running the technology side of the circus known as

More about me here.