The Year of the Toad

Went to Blijdorp zoo with Loes and was completely captivated by this beautifully ugly creature... Pipa pipa (common name: Surinam Toad). The photograph doesn't do the beast justice. Face to face it is a far stranger sight. Corpse-like it hangs motionless in its tank with its flattened and bleached body, flat triangular head and miniscule peppercorn eyes. It looks every bit like a piece of roadkill that someone has kicked back into the ditch.

It gets stranger. The female's eggs (attached to her back as in the photograph) disapppear--are completely covered over by skin within hours of being fertilized. Maturation and the tadpole stage occurs subcutaneously, and after 3 or 4 months minature adults emerge. In the Natural History Museum in Bergen Norway (visited January 1996) I saw a female specimen (preserved in formaldehyde) with dozens of little heads and arms poking from her skin. It just goes to show that life on earth can be as madly exotic as the best StarTrek episode.

Pipa pipa, the Surinam Toad


Went shopping for a salmon with a tape measure. fit my salmon poacher. Cooked a salmon for a dinner with Loes' family...


Discovered ! Shipping WAY CHEAPER AND FASTER than out of the US! Ordered Friedman and Felleisen's The Little Schemer.

Went to the introductory meeting with the participants of the Master Class at the Film Festival offices this evening.


As always it is good to be home. After 4 days away, I have 6 phone messages and 54 email messages waiting...

The 'I' word...

The first thing I did this morning (while still lying in bed) was look up the word INTRACTABLE (a word that I've been seeing a lot of lately). Here is the report that I got back from my OED after the query:

INTRACTABLE, adj. Not docile, refractory; (of things) not easily dealt with.

REFACTORY, adj. Stubborn, unmanageable, rebellious; (of wound, disease, etc.) not yielding to treatment; (of substances) hard to fuse or work.

And here's the report on it's opposite:

TRACTABLE, adj. (Of persons, rarely of materials etc.) easily handled, manageable, pliant, docile.

Future Patents

Loes sent me this tidbit from Jakob Nielson's Alert Box:

"With the Web, futurism has ceased being a luxury: regular visioneering projects are a necessary defense mechanism for anybody who wants to thrive in the network economy where your fundamental business and customer service become automated and thus patentable. Companies that don't claim their stake in the future will wake up in five years and discover that their competitors own all the patents they need to be on the Web."


Today I was planning to take another run at doing my taxes and catching up on my bookkeeping. Instead the morning got off to a distracted start with me fooling around with the Lisp interpreter on my Palm Pilot. When will bookkeeping achieve the status of art? Will the reading and writing of programs ever be viewed as literature?

Programming as an Intelligent Cultural Activity...

Here is a slightly edited excerpt from a post to the Squeak mailing list by Alan Kay (responding to Stefano Franchi and Jonathon Smith). It was posted about a month ago.

...This is true only if we hold fast to the analogy programming/~/writing. In fact what society seems to have decided is that the analogy is false, that computers are just a very sophisticated tool substantially analogous to cars, whose design and production should be left to the specialists, and that programming is as general purpose as mechanical drafting.

How do I hope to be proved wrong!

Stefano Franchi


...In a way you are right. The trend seems to be going against everyday programming. When I started math and science were what you did with computers. That has changed and continues to change. Increasingly computers are about communications, marketing, writing, art, and a little bit of accounting. No need for programming.

Perhaps things will go the way Donald Norman predicts and computers as such will become less visible and more part of the background infrastructure. Then no one will bother programming because, well, there will be lots of small information appliances around. No one will have a computer to program. (And perhaps that also marks the difference between the Smalltalk and Java design philosophies.)

I wouldn't bet on it. As much as I am very enthusiastic about most of Norman's ideas I think he does not seem to recognize the degree to which many people conceptualize their computers as an extension of their physical and social space. We have partially moved our households on to our hard drives and our networks. Our study room doors open out on to the World Wide Web. We use virtual information appliances in this conceptual space as much as we use physical appliances in physical space. The computer as space depends on fluidity and flexibility that can only exist if our computers continue to be general purpose programmable machines.

Ultimately the only way to take control of one's information space is by programming. (It may be called authoring, scripting, spreadsheet formulas and macros, dynamic web page design, simulation modeling, writing applets, math package notebooks, setting up shortcuts, or even organizing your bookmarks.) If there are good tools that can take someone from simple scripting all the way to exploring engaging ideas, some people will make that journey. Over time there will be a more interesting body of literature in the form of programs, and others will want to explore that literature.

Jonathon Smith

PS. My comments about Donald Norman's ideas come from reading only about half of his recent "The Invisible Computer." When I have more time I really should finish it.



Don Norman and I used to argue about this all the time, and, as usual, he completely misses the point. It's not whether a car will get you from A to B without you having to understand internal combustion, but whether (1) you can thus afford not to exercise, and (2) whether you can thus afford not to understand science and technology. There is a huge difference between what people "want" and what they (and civilization) "needs". (This makes a bicycle a pretty good piece of technology, since it still allows you to go flat out and it then amplifies THAT. This is why the old Apple mantra "wheels for the mind" with a bike as the associated image was a pretty good metaphor.)

Technology brings the need for new ethical systems (or at least extensions) because they bring new choices we now have to make that Nature used to take care of automatically (e.g. exercise via saber toothed tigers). This is just as true for intellectual tools as it is for those that give us new leverages in the physical world ...

Don can't separate out stupid user interfaces with gratuitously difficult properties (like most VCRs) from those in which the difficulties aren't gratuitous but eventually pay off big (like a violin). The same thing is true of mathematics, science, and other arts, and even reading and writing: we don't want gratuitous difficulties, but instead want (and need) difficulties that change us for the better when we learn to surmount them.


Alan Kay


... and as a way to understand the world

Who can afford not to understand evolution, dynamical systems, consciousness? Who can afford not to understand simulation, engineering and control? And who can afford not to understand artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering?

Is not 'understanding' simply another way of describing (aesthetic) appreciation?

Trashing NT

I came across this little 'bon mot' at and it made me laugh. ( is a declared bastion of 'open source' ideology):

'This is Linux Country. On a quiet night you can hear Windows NT reboot!'


Sustainability, Criticality Parties and the Mad Hatter

Nods and bows to Dr. Michael Thompson (who I met last week at the European Commission funded 'Integrated Visions for a Sustainable Europe' Conference) for turning me on to Alvin Weinberg, the maverick director of Oak Ridge National Laboratories in the 50's and 60's. Michael related the story of how Weinberg wanted to develop a series of 'learning reactors' which were built to fail but not before yielding sufficient data to build a better reactor. The old reactor would be sealed off and the next reactor would be built along side of it eventually resulting in a great deal of knowledge and a string of reactors spread across the desert (the entire string eligible as a National Monument!). Weinburg was a true visionary, called 'the master of the majestic concept' and famous for his 'Criticality Parties' -- bashes held after a reactor was fired up.

Michael's tale evoked an interesting vision of 'sustainable development': a long line of sealed off reactors, left behind like the dirty dishes at the Mad Hatter's Teaparty when the party moved up the table. Or seen from a macroperspective: why put energy into preserving the earth when we will (soon) move up to inhabit other planets? (Hopefully with a great deal more knowledge...)

Last year I called a similar radical principle 'Up the Entropy Slope' and 'The Evolution of Uranium-238' while musing on the implications of my own (so far unsuccessful) 'Nuclear Garden' project.

The Tribute to Alvin Weinburg Page:

Autobiography: Alvin M. Weinberg, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, American Institute of Physics, New York, 1994, 291 pages.


Psalm 23:4

Another close call. It was already dark yesterday evening when I rode my bike to Maurice Nio's office to check the prints for the Amsterdam 2.0 presentation in De Appel. At the last intersection before the office I became (hyper) aware of a car waiting to make a right turn. I passed. A few seconds later I heard a crash. The car had hit another bicyclist. The bicyclist was hurt.

This is the second time that an accident has passed me by in the last 6 months (see: Accident Angel, 10.06.98). Both times I felt the 'presence' of the accident before it occured. Spooky.

Took half a melatonin before I went to bed and slept very soundly.

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