Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace—Stephen Wolfram Blog

Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace—Stephen Wolfram Blog:

In other words, she basically proposed to take on the role of CEO, with Babbage becoming CTO. It wasn’t an easy pitch to make, especially given Babbage’s personality. But she was skillful in making her case, and as part of it, she discussed their different motivation structures. She wrote, ‘My own uncompromising principle is to endeavour to love truth & God before fame & glory …’, while ‘Yours is to love truth & God … but to love fame, glory, honours, yet more.’ Still, she explained, ‘Far be it from me, to disclaim the influence of ambition & fame. No living soul ever was more imbued with it than myself … but I certainly would not deceive myself or others by pretending it is other than a very important motive & ingredient in my character & nature.’

She ended the letter, ‘I wonder if you will choose to retain the lady-fairy in your service or not.’

(Via JWZ.)

Stephen Wolfram tries to unravel the mystery of Ada Lovelace, pioneering mathematician and computer scientist. Most of what’s popularly known about her accomplishments could fit on the back of a very nerdy (and highly desirable) trading card, and even that’s become sort of muddled.

Wolfram dives in to her research and writings by examining primary documents, including original letters between Lovelace and Babbage. It’s a lonnnng read (and to tell the truth, I’ve only gotten through half of it so far) but engrossing.

It helps to show the limitations of Google. It can only find things that are easy to keyword, and even there, it can only find things that have been made digital. Furthermore, the abstraction of the data into ASCII letters poured the content area of a webpage adds distance between the researcher and the person they’re researching.

I myself had had the profoundly satisfying experience of depositing all of my possessions except for an iPad into a locker and then being shown to a table in a research library, where bundles of 19th-century documents have been laid out for me. Even when I was looking at a letter whose contents I’d already read, nicely-formatted, in an academic journal, I lingered over it for a good while. Here was the actual letter, hand-written by the subject of my research, that marked a pivotal event.

From his hand, to my hands; it made history “real” in a way that clean, simple facts couldn’t.

Huh? Wuzzat?

Do I dare dream it?

Am I dreaming now?

Or is my blog finally back up and running?

No, I mustn’t believe it. I’ve had my heart broken before. I’ve had some false starts, made some hard decisions, learned some tough lessons, emerged with a soul that had been hardned in the hottest fire and with my eyes able to see clearer for the tears I had shed.

And even then all of the Comment links were 404.

But it appears to be working.

All of my images. Even all of my custom styles.

Huh.

Okay, well, clearly I’m going to post this and then a hand is going to reach out from the screen and do that thing to my face that Moe used to do to Larry. But I won’t find out for sure until I…

(Wait for it…)

Push the button, Frank…

Like Buttering An Ocelot

It’s not much of a title but it’s the best I can come up with after the past two or three hours. I wound up doing some productive goofing off tonight, though I use the term “productive” advisedly. If the purpose was to put off doing actual, paying work, then put me in a flightsuit and hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background as I stroll out to meet the cameras. If I was truly hoping that any of the WordPress-ey things I researched and installed would actually work, though…not so much, no.

I’m doing lot of research and that always involves a certain amount of outright stealing. “Hey, a ‘Most Popular Posts’ thingamabob in the sidebar!” I think, after drifting across a support page for something or other. “Cool, I’ll have that.”

So I look for a WordPress plugin and wind up installing the OWA Most Popular widget, which seems to be just the thing. Failure. Oh, right…I bet you need to install Open Weblog Analytics to make it work. Download and install OWA…and now the whole site’s spitting out fireball-like errors.

“Drat and blast,” said I, and I meant it. Were I a properly-licenced Londoner I would have added “With knobs on” for maximum effect.

Once again, I’ve been skeezixed by tool that claims to be zero-configuration, but isn’t. Some other night I might have time to figure out precisely what’s going wrong, but it seems as though I can score a cheap but very real victory by simply deactivating those new plugins but a win’s a win. I depart from the Admin page garlanded with glory.

It was dumb to consider OWA to begin with…my host has an analytics package already installed. I actually hadn’t ever used it before. I opened the correct URL and gorblimey! Despite my having published the URL to this test blog absolutely nowhere, lots of you seem to be finding the place all right. If Pets.com were getting these numbers, then the sock puppet wouldn’t be battling Gary Coleman for dumpster scraps behind the iHOP.

I’ve never had blog stats before. There were ways of figuring out how much traffic my AppleScript blog was pulling, but I was never interested in seeing the data. It seemed that if the numbers were too low or too high, it’d affect the experiment, so to speak.

But I can see that I’ve been missing out. Someone typed “philosophers are morons” into a search engine, and they landed here. I’m also pleased to learn that there are apparently a large number of Swedes reading this.

Howdy, Swedes! I don’t feel that there are enough people out there sucking up to your fine nation and soliciting your patronage. Allow me to correct that immediately. The next paragraph contains a valuable tip that will increase the performance of any PC or Mac by a minimum of 40%, via a simple four-minute installation of a component that can be purchased at any corner store for less than three dollars:

You will not be able to read the above text unless your IP address resolves to a .se domain.

Moving onward: I downloaded a WordPress plugin that’s supposed to work with my analytics package and no, that didn’t work either.

The rest of the evening was spent in matters of philosophy. A message board continues to be a good idea, but I might have to talk to the admin of my server to get that up and running because the instructions for installing bbPress (for example) make the whole procedure look like home dentistry.

But I think I need to start looking hard at what’s out there and settling on a board app because the more I think about it the better this idea sounds. I think an Ihnatko board would attract dozens of posts a month rather than hundreds or thousands, but it would make me feel good to know that I have message threads set up for people who want to get support for my books or have other kinds of interactions that can only clumsily be handled via podcasts, blogs, and emails.

And then I revisited the hoary First Page question. I think I’ve settled on a layout for this here blog. I have it all drawn up on a sheet of notebook paper and everything.

But it’s the same question I asked at the very beginning: when someone types “ihnatko.com” or “cwob.com” into a browser, do I want them to wind up right here? Or should I establish a sort of “lobby” that would appeal to first-timer visitors?

I’ve been leaning against the lobby (and told to move along by hotel security; apparently they have a serious “no riff-raff” policy). But while I was loitering there I’d sort of concluded that a separate front page would be a waste of space.

But tonight I saw some of the awesome design work being done by Mule Design Studio and it’s kind of turned me around on the idea. A front page like that — and the front page like the one they designed for All Things Digital — really sells the idea of having a powerful answer to the question “Just who the hell are you people anyway?” You see it and you want to come on in and look around.

Hmm. Yeah, a front page with a quick bio, a highlighted blog post, column, podcast, and Flickr photo, a promo for one or two of my books. That could work. But at this stage I dunno how that page would roll. Would I have to keep updating it manually, or would I have to build some PHP scripts to generate it automatically? Either way, that’s work. More work than not having a front page, anyway.

Okay, well, I’ve managed to waste even more time by blogging about how I’m wasting time. It’s amazing that I continue to claim that this blog is only in beta because it seems to me like it’s just passed the only credible test for a functioning blog.

Still, miles to go, miles to go.

Customizing WP Cutlines by Category

Andy –

Me again. You mentioned earlier that you prolly want to set up your new WordPress theme so that posts that fall into specific categories (like the Sun-Times columns) get their own special title treatments and stuff. This blog post explains how to do that.

Technically, it’s for a specific theme that these folks have put together, but it ought to work with any theme. Just thought you’d like to have this URL handy when you need it.

MIT Flea Market

I’ve just installed the EventCalendar plugin. It looks like it’ll do what I want…ie, automatically maintain a sidebar thingy that features the next three or four upcoming events that I want y’all to know about.

Hmm. Already I sense failure. I typed the simplest and most to-the-point explanation that came to mind…but maybe I should clarify things a bit. While I certainly do want you to know that you’re going to have to turn your clocks back for Daylight Savings soon, I intend to use this sidebar thingy mostly to spread the word on speaking gigs, books that will be coming out, TV appearances, etc.

The point I’m making here is that a life that centers upon this calendar and this calendar only will be a very Andy Ihnatko-centric one. I’m not sure you’re really up for that.

Take my word for it.

Well. Anyway. So the way this plugin works is that there’s supposed to be a new tool here in WordPress’ editing page that allows you to define an event and then slap it into a post. It’s much like the doohickey that lets you upload and attach JPEGs. When you click “Publish,” blammo: it adds a new event that links back to this same post.

Let’s kick things off by adding the next MIT Flea Market (and the final one of the year). I’m scrolling down now so I can add in the date (October 21).

I’m not seeing any sort of Event thingy.

Okay, now I’m headed back to the plugin’s documentation page.

Umm…

Have I failed to activate the plugin? Let me check…

No, they all appear to be active. I don’t need to download any additional support files, do I?

Nope, it’s all there.

Er…

Drat. Maybe it’s a problem with Version 3.11 of this plugin. It’s a release candidate, after all, designed to fix problems with WordPress 2.3. Which is what I’m running here.

Okey-doke. Let’s just stick a pin it this right here and come back to it later. Damn and blast.

(If you’re actually interested in hearing about the MIT Flea Market, it runs from 9 AM to 2 PM on the third Sunday of the month, at the corner of Main and Albany streets in Cambridge, MA. I’ll be there, furiously taking pictures. My Nikon is my nicotine patch, soothing my cravings while allowing me to leave the Flea without spending more than $400-$700 on geeky goodness.)

Update: Interesting…there it is now (now = “about two hours after I wrote this initial post.”) Maybe some sort of cron event had to happen before the Event plugin’s tendrils found its way into WordPress’ brainstem.

Okey-doke…let’s see if this works. Push the button, Frank…

Update(2): Cool. The title of the post becomes the title of the event, and it links back and everything. And it sticks a badge with the event date and time into the post. I’ll prolly have to re-style that via css, though.

Acesulfame K

Rrgh. For a test blog, I don’t seem to be doing a lot of testing, eh?

My apologies. This is the final week of production on my iPhone book and I’m using up every last second I have to make it The Best God-Damned Book Ever Written. “Moby Dick”? “Great Expectations”? “The King James Bible (Special Edition With All Of The Naughty Stuff Outlined In Purple)”? Forget ’em. Toss them into the recycling because “iPhone: Fully Loaded” will without any question become the standard by which all great literature is compared.

All great literature will fail by comparison, but it’s good that these other writers keep themselves busy and have some sort of goal. Don’t you think?

So there are two immediate priorities going on with the Celestial House of Binary (BETA):

1) Create a somewhat awesome new WordPress theme. Workin’ on it. I’ve found a couple of neat tutorials and starting points (thanks in part to a public call for same on MacBreakWeekly) that have given me a big leap on this. I’ll post links later.

I’ve also worked out the color scheme, based on a page of comic book art. I photographed the page, handed it off to Flickr Toys’ Palette Generator, and bango: I immediately had a CSS stylesheet with those colors all locked and loaded.

2) Figure out the best way to wire up the RSS feed. My homebrew blogging app has a long list of weaknesses. One of the biggest is that although it observes most of the ginchier web standards (like RSS) it’s still bloody invisible to the search engines and trackers and other mechanisms that folks use to find stuff on the Web. It’s off on its own island somehow and I’ve no idea why.

Case in point: I did my usual egosurf on Technorati and as usual, Yellowtext posts on the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth are nowhere to be seen. But posts here on the Celestial House of Binary pop up immediately.

This is discouraging for Yellowtext. Dammit, it’s been online and RSS-ified for something like five years now, and it’s been linked all over the place. Whereas Ihnatko.com has only been live for a few weeks, with no word-of-mouth at all.

So before I tell people to come on down to Ihnatko.com (for all your badland RV sales and service needs), I wanna make sure that the RSS system is as studly as it can to be.

Mmmmm…okey-doke. Then Feedburner, I guess? I’ve looked at this service as a technology pundit and I’ve looked at it as an author with a longstanding blog and now I’ve looked at it as someone starting up a new blog, and each time the site tells me the exact same thing:

“Feedburner has something to do with hosting RSS feeds. The thing that it does, whatever it is, will work out for you in the long run. Honest.”

Feedburner desperately needs an “elevator pitch.” That is, if you have an idea for a movie and you want to get George Lucas excited about it and you’ve got an hour of his time, well, awesome. But in reality,

(Yes. The reality of getting a chance to pitch a movie idea to George Lucas. I regretted that as soon as I typed it. If only there were some way of un-writing that before you all read it. I can only apologize and move on.)

…But in reality, the best you can count on is having ten or twenty seconds between the time you realize that the man standing next to you in the elevator is the guy who did “American Graffiti” and “THX-1138” and “Star Wars” and even “Radioland Murders”, and the time one of his goons pulls your sweatshirt over your face NHL-style and shoves you into a fountain in the lobby.

You can’t sell nothin’ without an elevator pitch: ten to twenty seconds that will engage enough of someone’s interest that they’ll want to hear the “real” pitch. FeedBurner’s site lacks those critical ten to twenty seconds.

Well, I’ll figure it out. Next week. When the book is done and the birds are singing in the trees and the bacon is once again hot, crisp and flavorful. Until then, I am stuck in my office, singing showstopping numbers from the classic musical “Showboat” and feeling like the most miserable bastard alive.

Sodium Benzoate (Preservative)

Sooo…any progress yet?

A bit, sure.

No. Not really.

I thought it’d be easy to set up WordPress so I can post from my iPhone (post via email, actually, but hey, details) but although I have yet to invest so much time and burn so many calories that it’s become an endless gavotte of pain and humiliation, we seemed to have missed the exit for Easytown quite some time ago.

The deal is that I just set up a Super-Duper Double Dog Dare Extry-Top-Secret Email Address for WordPress. The blog software logs in and checks for email from time to time and through patented Keebler Elf magic, any email sent to that address eventually becomes a blog post. I just need to give WordPress the login info for that account.

Naturally, I want this to be a brand-new address that only one person knows about. Otherwise, this blog would provoke most of you to wonder what, precisely, “C1al1s” is, and why I’m so excited to tell people that their prescr1pt1on for it is ready.

(Though maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty. People complain that I don’t update my blog nearly frequently enough. Using my spammy .Mac email address would solve the holy crap out of that problem.)

But it doesn’t seem to be working. What WordPress needs is a simple button there on the Options page marked “Check Address Now.” All’s I know is I’ve sent an email to MagicEmailAddress@YeahRightLikeImTellingYOU.com and it hasn’t turned up on the blog and I assume that WordPress checks for new stuff more than, say, once every 18 hours.

Garlanded in victory from that adventure, I enabled Flickr.com’s “Post To Blog” feature. I post a ton of stuff to my Flickr feed.  In fact, my experience with Flickr is one of the many things that pushed me to finally move past my homemade blog app; it’s close to being a “proper” blog and I found that I really liked the features.

Welp, that was easy as cake. A piece of pie. Whatever, I can click a button in Flickr named “Blog This” and by golly, it blogs this.

Still, the results are sub-perfect. There are only two size settings for the picture: too small, and too big. And the style sheet for Flickr’s built-in captions is somewhat diffle-binked because the line spacing is way too big.

That’s not a big deal.  Seems like the problem will go away if I unleash som Preying Monkey-Style CSS-Fu on it. And most of the work on this site will be about editing style sheets.

Indeed, that’s why I switched from the fancy-schmancy theme I downloaded from WordPress’ theme gallery to the arse-ugly default one. My final layout is going to be all custom anyway. Why pretend? Embrace the ugly.

So, yes: to get Flickr to post photos that fill the width of the column, all I need to do is redesign the whole thing so that the default width just happens to be the width of a Flickr JPEG. Simple!

First Tech & Creative Decision…

…Is “What do I want Ihnatko.com to point to?”

Hard to know. Right now, you hit that URL and it takes you right to this beta blog. But maybe it’s better if the top URL were more of a rolling answer to the question “Who the hell is this Ihnatko guy, and why does he insist that he’s ‘internationally-beloved’?” Because regular visitors will either subscribe to the RSS feed or bookmark the blog’s subdirectory, while first-timers (the ones who’d need a “welcome” page the most) are more likely to knock on the front door.

Assuming, of course, I want to use Ihnatko.com to begin with. One of the reasons why I built my previous site under cwob.com was because I wasn’t sure if I could count on people spelling my name correctly. Later, it became a bit of a boon because when I appear on podcasts it’s easier to say “CWOB.COM” than to spell out a name of Carpathian Russian origin.

The technical part is that you can’t just click a button in WordPress and stash it to another directory. There’s some server-fiddling to be done, followed by file-fiddling and preference-fiddling.

Another solution would be to keep things as they are, continue to hand out CWOB.com as the front door to my webstuff, and merely include a link to Ihnatko.com as my blog.

Hmm. Blank canvases truly are fickle mistresses, are they not?

Soya Lechthinin (an emulsifier)

Well, let’s just break in this new WordPress blog. Observe as I make blogging history by writing this sort of thing without invoking one of the (hang on, let me count ’em up) seven different phrases that normally must be invoked under such circumstances.

First off, you’re to be commended for reading this post. It shows a very unusual level of intelligence and problem-solving skills. If there were more people like you, it would be safe to walk the streets at night. My theory here is that statistically-speaking there’d be more people like you on the writing staff of “Family Guy” and thus fewer people would be crushed to death by defenestrated TV sets while taking the dog out for a wee.

No, no, I mean it. I’m not publicising this new site at all, which means that if you’re here and reading this, then either (a) it’s about a year from today and you decided to go back and read this entire blog all the way back to the very beginning, or (b) it’s about thirty seconds after I’ve clicked the “Publish” button and you just up and decided to see what would happen if you plugged “ihnatko” into your browser’s address field.

And even then, you wouldn’t have found this place unless you’d actually typed it correctly. I was twelve before I could do that, and I had the benefit of parents who refused to feed me for days if I ever got it wrong. So seriously, dude: kudos.

So why the secrecy? Because as I write this, the blog is still in its “skunk works” stage. This is my first WordPress blog and I frankly know little of what I’m doing. Metaphorically speaking, I want to go public when I start clinical trials on a miraculous new pill that prevents nine forms of cancer while rendering ladies’ legs self-shaving. I will “accidentally” allow people to discover it when all I have are computer models that look extremely promising.

But right now, my lab is a warehouse filled with nothing but hundreds upon hundreds of cages filled with baby ducks, suffering all kinds of inhumane and sickening horrors. This is not a time in the project when you want kids with video cameras sticking their noses in, you know?

It’s an interesting moment, really. I am among the most knowledgeable and experienced bloggers in the country. But I am also among the very least knowledgeable and experienced. I’ve been blogging since 1995, long before the word “blog” had even been coined and lonnnng before there were any tools for building and editing the things. So I had to write my own app from the ground up…and every time a new resource or technology or standard came down the pike — like RSS syndication — I had to learn about how the thing worked and then write new functions to support it.

Excellent. Spiffy. Damned impressive, right?

Be impressed, dammit. You kids today! Do you realize that when I was your age, my computer was made from twigs and dried animal skins? I’ve been alive forever, and I wrote the very first blog! I put the words and the HTML togeth…

Okay. Now you’ve got me quoting Barry (f***ing) Manilow lyrics, dammit.

(Manilow. “I Write The Songs.” “Copacabana”? Christ almighty. Forget I brought it up.)

The point is that when most people learned how to blog, they learned using awesome and mature tools, like MovableType and WordPress. Six months after building my blog, I had figured out how to convert text into HTML and upload it to a server. When an average high-schooler has accrued six months of stick time with WordPress, he or she is pretty much capable of designing and deploying the online edition of a regional newspaper.

My total hands-on experience in building a WordPress blog? Er, I’m nearly done writing my first post. Impressed?

No, me neither. But I’m excited to be learning.

In a future post I’ll discuss the grand history of YellowText, my first (and to date, only other) blog. As you can see, there’s really nothing about that blog that would make you think that it there’s anything unique about it. It does its job rather well; so well that I’ll probably open-source it at some point.

But my jealousy of WordPress blogs has transitioned from cartoon-like insincerity to wistful sadness to its current state, in which I realize that I must now either move to WordPress or set fire to every blog that uses it. If I went with the latter option, I’d be yet another 3 to 5 years behind state-of-the-art blogging technology by the time I was released from prison. Transitioning to WordPress is admittedly a more conservative play, but in my defense there’s also a lot less driving involved.

Anyway. I won’t do anything to prevent people from discovering and reading (and even commenting in) this blog. I intend to keep posting about my newbie WordPress experiences, both to keep my own head straight and maybe be a lamp unto the feet of future pilgrims.

But do me a favor? Don’t you go publicising this thing. I haven’t decided on a final template or layout, the masthead is only a rough draft, and once again if PeTA ever finds out what I did to that poor pig while trying to figure out if a static front page could be used to heal second-degree sunburn, man alive, that’ll be quite a setback for this project.

For now — and this is a moment of great ceremony, for I shall surely be writing this often in the coming days until I get bored and forget about this entire project forever — push the button, Frank.