June 2009 Archives

When engineers speak, we sometimes have vocabulary diffusion from one situation to another. These slips of phrases aren’t arbitrary; they make sense, but only if you know where the term comes from originally.

In this series of posts, I’ll attempt to explain one phrase you may have heard an engineer say before. (Many of these terms may be computer science-related, but I’ve caught myself using all of them around non-technical people.)

For our first installment of “terms of art:”

orthogonal |ɔrˈθɑgənl| adjective

The art

a fancy word for perpendicular; extends to other technical fields beyond math : these two lines are orthogonal.

Out of context

  1. at odds with each other; incompatible : the company’s forceful slogan was orthogonal to its otherwise wholesome branding.
  2. fundamentally different : this bug is orthogonal to the first issue.

Agree or disagree in the comments. Feel free to also suggest future terms of art!

P.S.: Since “orthogonal” means “right-angled,” does that mean an “orthogon” is a fancy word for “rectangle?”

♻ Innovator

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Let us not forget that Michael Jackson wasn’t just a performer, but an inventor.

He’s credited with creating “the robot” to go along with “Dancing Machine.” The infectious break starring the move starts around 60 seconds in:

Additionally, he patented the shoes that enabled him to do those huge leans in “Smooth Criminal:”

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Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion Michael J. Jackson et al

♻ Suspending the rules

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Hurricane Chris, the kid who brought us “A Bay Bay,” was honored on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives recently. The official proceedings are about as formal as they could possibly be given that:

  1. Hurricane Chris performed his new single, entitled “Halle Berry (She’s Fine).”
  2. The official commendation plugs his upcoming performances on the BET Awards and in Jamaica.
  3. Cake was provided following the proclamation.

Watch until at least 5:55, when instrumental unexpectedly cuts Hurricane Chris off. No, I’m not entirely sure the Louisiana House floor is “familiar with it.”

♻ Comparisons

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♻ Black, White, and Rea?d

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It really annoys me when people rag on newspapers for the medium they print on; the journalism is the crucial part. Too many blogs simply link back to newspaper articles (doing no actual investigation or reporting), providing no original content or analysis. It’s disgusting.

This is why I was angry when “The Daily Show” decided to rip into The New York Times. However, I was quite happy when the NYT responded with a great (content-rich) blog post that rips into the show’s “critique.” Check out both the TV and paper pieces over on the NYT.

Perhaps more infuriating is the existence of this tag. No, Valleywag, your blog is just a shitty newspaper.

P.S.: Yes, I realize that I just wrote a blog post that links back to The New York Times. That’s why this post is clearly labeled with a “♻.”

♻ How It's Shipped

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Wow, this is like Raw Video for geeks:

I didn’t know AT&T was trying their hand at the whole social media ish.

♻ Days of Risk

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After upgrading to Firefox 3.0.11, I clicked around the landing page they send you to. I really liked the look and content of the pages. Something on the security overview caught my eye, though:

This was a great chart showing how many days using IE put you at risk vs. Firefox. It has a message to communicate, and it does it well. I couldn’t help thinking about Edward Tufte’s advice, though, so I rewrote it a little:

One principle Tufte teaches is that one shouldn’t be afraid of showing a lot of detail in a graphic. It doesn’t have to detract from the message, and if it takes the same amount of ink, err on the side of more data. Therefore, I found the dates the calendars were based off of, and actually filled in the days.

But there was still a problem. We have duplicated information in the shaded boxes and those numbers at the bottom. Revising once more, we get the final product:

The colored “days of risk” act as a legend, so I kept them. A tally of the number of boxes isn’t necessary to communicate that IE is a less secure browser than Firefox.

Now the only problem with the chart is that it’s based off data from 2006…

♻ Kettle Booze

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A bag of Trader Joe’s Kettle Corn showed up at the office today. Sample:

The typeface immediately recalled Married to the Sea’s “booze time:”


You didn’t even know you had encountered Heisenbugs, Bohrbugs, and Phase of the Moon bugs before, but you have. Despite the Wikipedia article name, they’re not that unusual.

This reminds me of my favorite debugging quote:

As soon as we started programming, we found to our surprise that it wasn’t as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.

♻ Read the footnotes

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Here comes another jurist/comedian: Terence T. Evans. A sampling:

The trial transcript quotes Ms. Hayden as saying Murphy called her a snitch bitch “hoe.” A “hoe,” of course, is a tool used for weeding and gardening. We think the court reporter, unfamiliar with rap music (perhaps thankfully so), misunderstood Hayden’s response. We have taken the liberty of changing “hoe” to “ho,” a staple of rap music vernacular as, for example, when Ludacris raps “You doin’ ho activities with ho tendencies.”

[via David]

To see if Aardvark intentionally ignores “experts” in your close social circle (assuming you’ve already asked them directly), Ben and I ran a little experiment:

Ben: Does anyone know if/where/how ☃ is used?

aardvark: Wait — I need a little help: What’s a good category for your question?

(Please type any word or phrase, or type ‘cancel’.)

Ben: ☃

aardvark: Got it. I’m sending your question to someone who knows about .

Now, you may think that Aardvark would contact me, since I have ☃ in my Aardvark interests (it scraped it from Facebook), but no! Ben received this response:

Sometimes people use ☃ when they’re posting updates to twitter about snowmen.

And later, the anti-answer:

what is that? Is it a special ASCII character?

I have no idea how this person got selected to respond. This reply precipitated the following conversation:

Ben: train

aardvark: Was Charlie’s answer helpful? 1) Yes 2) Kind of, but not for me 3) No (Please type a number, or type ‘cancel’.)

Ben: 3

aardvark: Thanks for the feedback. I won’t send any more of your questions to Charlie.

Playing around with Aardvark more, however, I’ve concluded that it does not avoid experts close to you. Must have just not trusted me as a snowman expert.

♻ christhrash

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It’s finally here. On June 18th, San Franciscans will be able to see “The Rock-afire Explosion,” the documentary I’ve been anticipating for about a year now. Buy your tickets!

If it just lives up to its trailer, I’ll be very happy:

♻ supremecourtus

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The Supreme Court’s website cites web style guide precedent from 1991. It is time to fix it.

I’ve caught supremecourtus.gov down (for everyone) a few times. The Oyez Project is really the only way I can intelligently browse around Supreme Court cases (along with Wikipedia, of course).

[via Ben]

Another nerd/courts intersection: It’s always bothered me that the Supreme Court’s domain is supremecourtus.gov instead of supremecourt.gov when .gov is already exclusively for United States use.

I didn’t know Unicode needed so many plugs. Joel Spolsky’s quip stands out among all your favorite internet personalities’ quotes:

If you are a programmer working in 2006 and you don’t know the basics of characters, character sets, encodings, and Unicode, and I catch you, I’m going to punish you by making you peel onions for six months in a submarine.

♻ Box office missionaries

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I usually shy away from docs on political subjects, simply because I’m more interested in character-driven films. No, I haven’t seen “An Inconvenient Truth,” “King Corn,” or “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” Give me “Spellbound” over “Super Size Me” any day. I haven’t seen a lot of these movies, not because I don’t think they’re going to be good, but because I’d much rather hear about people’s problems rather than the world’s.

The trailer for “Reporter” is intense, but the film also looks to blend the political issue with the humans involved. Perhaps this will be an issue-based film that doesn’t spend every minute proselytizing. I will see this movie:

The last issue-based nonfictional film I saw that didn’t evangelize was “Lake of Fire,” one of the rare movies that was very good, but I just don’t want to see it again.

♻ Vark

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I started using Aardvark per Ben’s suggestion, and I’m liking it quite a bit.

Aardvark is a different kind of search engine—a social one. You tell Aardvark what topics you know about, and it learns which questions to ask you, usually over IM (aardvark@vark.com on GChat). Ask questions about anything. A sampling of mine that have had good results:

  • Q: What’s the most accurate geolocation (IP -> city, country) service? (A: Maxmind)
  • Q: I know Mozilla’s Developer Center has pretty good JS reference, but where is the best HTML reference online? (A: Google Doctype ain’t bad)
  • Q: What academic degree is abbreviated “P”? (I see someone’s signature is of the form “Jane Doe, P ‘12”) (A: Apparently, Parents of current students use this in some letters and append their kid’s graduating year. Come on now.)

When you’re asked a question, you see who asked it, where they’re from, and if you have any mutual friends. Aardvark figured out that when you’re asked questions about stuff you like to talk about, by people you want to help, you’re not being interrupted—you’re coming to the rescue. The answers are highly asynchronous (on the order of minutes instead of Google’s milliseconds), but if you’re asking Aardvark, you either want a human answer, or have exhausted your Google-fu.

I listened to this iinovate interview (a blog I finally felt vindicated for following) with the founders, and was interested to hear how the creators rigorously tested every aspect of the product, settling on IM as the most personal form of communication. They found that as soon “Aardvark” appeared in a chat window, people started treating it like a human instead of a machine (the intended result).

There’s quite a future for social search. The questions you ask of a product like Aardvark are different, but no less important than the Google queries you make. I’m reminded of the most insightful thing Mark Zuckerberg (the man you love to hate) ever said:

At the heart of it, Google and Facebook are really similar. We’re both giving you information you want to know about—we’re just good at different kinds of information.

Disclaimer: This is not a direct quote, but my brain’s memory of something I believe he said. I can’t find the source, even with Google’s help. Asked Aardvark—waiting on the results…

P.S.: I can’t believe I forgot to mention it, but if you’d like to try Aardvark out, here’s an invitation link.