Thanks for the memories, Softpro Books

Before moving to Denver 17 years ago from Silicon Valley, I used to spend hours every weekend at the Computer Literacy bookstore in San Jose.  I was a student and this store embodied a world of possibilities.  I’d thumb through, and often buy, books about what was then still unselfconsciously called AI; or books about numerical methods, graph theory, UNIX, C, Smalltalk, or Perl.  Before blogs, Google, Stackoverflow and eBooks, books were an important part of learning.  At least, they were for me.

Computer Literacy was on the (very short) list of things I knew I’d miss about the Valley.  Imagine my joy at discovering Softpro Books within a week of moving to Denver.

softpro books

I feel like we grew up together, Softpro and I.  I bought dozens of books there every year, even when I couldn’t really afford it.  It was an investment in my craft.  At first it was C++ and more UNIX, then the Web started eating the world and there was HTML, ASP, PHP, MySQL, Python and Java.  And there were always the books from the “esoteric” section, my favorite section at Softpro.  These were books on genetic programming, neural nets, data mining, and machine learning.  I don’t think I finished many of them, but as a favorite professor of mine used to say, you can get a damn fine education by reading the first few chapters of a lot of books.

When I ran out of space in my office, I gave away books to make room for more.  Out with you, Oracle Performance Tuning and XSLT!  Make room for Lucene and R.

Computer Literacy closed in 2001.  Next week, Softpro will be closing its doors.  There will still be an online presence at softpro.com, but this is the end of the browse-and-buy era.  The last 17 years have seen amazing changes in how we use and program computers, and in where we get information and learn.  I feel just a little bit old, but I also feel very lucky to be in this business and hungry to keep learning.  I’m sad I’ll have to do that without Softpro.

Jim and Eric – you’ll be missed; thanks for being there all of these years.

iWeb to WordPress.com in 45 minutes

Apple sent out another round of emails today about iWeb and MobileMe shutting down on June 30th.  That’s slightly annoying, but good for Apple to recognize that this stuff is not core for them, and for communicating well about the approaching sunset.

My sister has a site on iWeb for her portfolio of drawings.  I decided to help her move it to WordPress.com.  The whole thing took about 45 minutes, including downloading and then uploading images, picking a theme (Linen FTW) and adding some image galleries (which use the beautiful new carousel feature).

Here is her new site on WordPress.com, what do you think?

Carrying the Fire

This summer, I picked up a copy of Mike Collins’s memoir Carrying the Fire at the Barnes & Noble in Melbourne, which is on Florida’s “Space Coast”. I’m a sucker for books about local happenings, even more so when there’s an adventure or geeky angle (or both, as with this book).

I just finished the book and recommend it highly to anyone interested in flying or America’s space program or Apollo in particular. Collins tells the story of America’s ambitious race to the moon from a personal perspective, and there’s lots of test pilot talk throughout the book.

Goodbye LaCie, Hello WD

I’ve been using LaCie drives for years, but after no fewer than 3 cases of burnt-out power supplies in the past couple of years, I’m trying something new.  LaCie has always replaced the power supply under warranty, but they shouldn’t keep burning out, especially since I have them plugged into a line conditioner.  So I bought a Western Digital MyBook Studio Edition II for Mac, the 4TB model.  It claims to be green’ish (by using less power, generating less heat etc.).  It’s also quieter than my LaCie.  I resent a little that I have to install software to modify the RAID configuration (no hardware switch) of the MyBook, but in return the status bar item tells me temperature and RAID status, see screenshot.  So far, so good, hope this one lasts a while.  WD also includes several cables (FW800-FW800, FW800-FW400 and USB).

WD Drive Manager

Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search

Well, it doesn’t run in the browser, but it keeps itself to a single directory and runs from the command line, which is the next best thing.  The GIMPS project has been around since 1996 and harnesses the “power of 1000’s of small computers like yours” to discover new Mersenne primes, which are primes of the form 2p-1.  46 Mersenne primes have been found, the largest having 12,978,189 digits.

The project was featured on NPR recently.  There are prizes to win for discovering the next prime (give it a few hundred Ghz-days and I might pay for the Mac Pro with this), but best of all, it doesn’t do creepy stuff like create groups and users on your system.  You just start it up the executable from a command line when you’re in the mood to hunt some primes and heat up the office.  Finally something to keep the Mac Pro’s CPUs busy:

mprime exercising mac pro

Windows Half-Live?

Windows Live looks like Microsoft’s tardy and half-baked answer to My Yahoo! It’s a customizable portal, with placeholders for weather and news and feed subscriptions etc. According to Bill Gates’ announcement today (video at CNET), Windows and Office are not required to use Windows Live. But try it from Safari on your Mac, and you’ll get just a fraction of the page (only an MSN search box). On Firefox (at least on Mac) you’ll see this:

Firefox support is coming soon. Please be patient 🙂

You know, a garage startup can maybe get away with this kind of thing. But this is Microsoft! And the announcement was a major event, not some leak of an internal research project. OK, so it works only in IE, and I guess Windows Live is destined to be the home page for millions of unsuspecting users of the next version of IE. But if Microsoft wants the rest of us to pay attention and if it wants to be taken seriously in its efforts to catch up with the new realities of Web-as-Desktop (call it whatever you want, but don’t call it Web 2.0), then it has to demonstrate that it’s a) adding some value — that’s TBD for Windows Live — and b) not going to make a fool of itself by trying to bring its insidious embrace-and-extend practices to Web content. That would be fun to watch, though. Never a dull moment … [nor a productive one].

Tagyu

Now this is cool. Tagyu is an “auto-tagging” service of sorts, created by Adam Kalsey. You paste in some text (or submit via their REST API) and it suggests tags, using some kind of a similarity metric between your text and already tagged texts in Tagyu’s index (gathered from del.icio.us etc.).

So far, I’ve tried a few different texts, and about half the time the returned tags are great. This is impressive, because this is not an easy problem to solve, but 50% precision is not quite enough for prime time. If someone (sploggers?) unleashes Tagyu to auto-tag a large volume of posts that feed back into the del.icio.us and Tagyu system, that would be detrimental to improving precision of the system, unless you could assign some kind of a score to the quality of tags (yes, that’s a chicken/egg thing).

Maybe we need some kind of a large-scale tag-quality feedback system. Some clever piece of javascript that lets you click “this tag is right on” or “this tag is a cruel joke” when reading someone’s blog or feed. Of course, if you’re an idiot at tagging, you’re not going to install that piece of javascript. An aggregator might be the best place to do that, where attention.xml lives (eventually).

This is the first service of this kind that I’m aware of, and there are lots of applications of this kind of thing in blog search. There could be an ad-matching app in there, too. And, an intermediate step in Tagyu is matching content to other content (and then to tags). I hope Adam Kalsey keeps up the R&D effort on this. Tagyu has a super-clean looking site. Very nice.

btw, for this post’s text, Tagyu returned the following tags: tagging del.icio.us tools. Looks good to me.

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(Via BuzzMachine)