links for 2005-12-31

The Genealogy of Math

I’ve never seen The Mathematics Genealogy Project until just now. It’s pretty incredible, covering the professional history of almost 100,000 mathematicians. I did some searches on the math PhDs I know and they were all there. The math greats are there and they even offer posters of anyone’s entire genealogy.

I love magnificent obsessions like this one — that someone went to the trouble to create it and that they keep it up to date (one math geek I know just finished summer 2005 and he was there), eventually creating this of math.


As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly coming back around to old cliches and sayings — stuff grandparents and parents and parents of friends’ would tell me back when I was 15 and I never believed a word of it. Some of it is profound, life-changing stuff that I ignored all those years ago.

Then it dawned on me: maybe I’ve already gotten all the great advice I would ever need in a lifetime.

People from all walks of life and every age have at one time or another given me their life lessons that gave them some understanding of how the universe works. It’s likely how one generation passes knowledge onto the next generation. The problem is I wasn’t mature enough or smart enough at the time to recognize it or understand it. I’m hearing myself say things my grandfater would say, and it gives me pause. It’s not the standard worry that I’m turning into my parents, but more a worry that I’ve let all of life’s truths slip through my hands when I was younger and I’m just now starting to catch them and pass them on. I hope my hunch is correct — maybe life isn’t a journey to uncover new truths in far off places, but instead to simply gain enough to experience to understand what is all around you, all the time.

Of course, I’ve got to remind myself of this when I start handing out sage advice to toddlers. They’ll be ignoring me until well after 2035.

Pave the Planet

I’m impressed with Google Earth. I hadn’t totally got what was cool about it until I built my first Google Earth app earlier today. The documentation is pretty slight (it’d be nice if they simply broke down which elements are required and which ones are optional) but they have a good demo file you can simply copy.

After about an hour of hacking and I had a nice kml file with nearly 4200 points on it, direct from the MetaFilter user database. It’s great that Google Earth launched the client with this robust API already in place.

The results are pretty cool. I’ve only offered lat/long values for a week or two, and already there are loads of people in far off places showing up. It’s a good feeling to give the old globe a spin and see points all around, and to hear stories of people getting to know each other offline as a result.

Ten Years

In spring of 1995, while using a borrowed computer (I didn’t own one myself) in the undergraduate lab, I noticed a new icon in the main window. It was a blue globe with a snake-like S shape around it. It was labeled Mosaic. It was an early version and you couldn’t type addresses in the URL field, so I took to just navigating from the start page, which was some generic NCSA welcome page. It was difficult to get very far, but eventually I found all sorts of things that interested me.

In Fall of 1995, I had a BS degree under my belt but felt I needed to know more, so I started work on a Masters. My parents bought me the first computer I’d had in many years, and with a Netcom dialup at home, I began to explore. Soon after, I felt I could do more than simply read stuff online — I wanted to create stuff as well.

About a week before christmas, I searched for HTML books and ended up buying Creating Your Own Netscape Web Pages for myself. On a lonely Christmas night, I cracked open the book at 11pm and began to read it while seated at my desk, in front of my computer. It was the only computer book I ever read every single page of, from start to finish, in a single sitting. It taught me HTML, the basics of FTP, Paint Shop Pro, and the Hot Dog Pro text editor.

There’s this moment somewhere around 3am on December 26, 1995 that I can recall vividly. I’ve only had a handful of moments like this in my entire life. I’m sitting there writing code for a couple hours. A bunch of special words bounded by greater than and less than symbols — stuff that seems meaningless. I press save, open a web browser, and suddenly it’s a rich and colorful page with all sorts of stuff on it. My first web page wasn’t a simple Hello World — I had graphics, backgrounds, colors, and loads of links. It took a few tries to get just right, but when it was complete, I was transformed.

I recall a similar moment the first time I used two-point perspective in a 9th grade art class. You follow some rules and go through some motions that feel mechanical and suddenly you end up with art.

By 6am that morning, I was exhausted and went to sleep. Soon after that night I remember telling a friend that I wasn’t sure I should be in grad school — that maybe this new web thing was taking off and I could somehow make a living building websites. I finished grad school, but soon after I got to quit my first job and do just that. Follow my dream building websites.

It’s now been ten years since that day and thanks to a mixture of luck, patience, and perseverance I’m in a wonderful place. I’m happy, content, and fulfilled. My personal and professional life are better than they’ve ever been.

And I’m still spending much of my day, every day, building web pages.

Most Improved, 2005

This is a long time coming, but I’ve really been enjoying Jalopnik the past few months. When Jalopnik and Autoblog and others like it launched, I was disappointed that these new car blogs were so boring. Cars are one of the most universal of hobbies, and you’d think it’s easy to find someone nuts about it that could write. And yet, the first year of car blogs was a blur of warmed over press releases from Detroit and Japan. Yaawwwwwn.

At some point this year, Nick Denton roped in a superfreak car geek that sounds like he wrote for magazines or covered cars for a newspaper or something. His enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge deep — he loses me sometimes but for the most part it’s still accessible for the average fan of cars. Me, I’m mostly into new car design and custom tuner cars, and the site doesn’t disappoint these days. I’d go so far as to say it’s the most dramatic turnaround I’ve seen in a blog, as it went from boring to must-read almost overnight by simply getting a new writer.

Slightly related — the one thing I thought was annoying about the new author is the fixation on posting a silly car video of the day. They’re usually a 30 second shaky short of some mulleted dork (the author calls them “hoons”) trying to do a burnout. Sometimes they’re funny. More often they’re kind of boring. But sometimes they’re incredible. I’ve come around on the “hoon” posts there too.

And while this is the intellectual equivalent of “Man Getting Hit By Football (in the nuts)”, Redneck Surfing just might be the greatest hoon video ever uploaded. Watch it about twenty times like I did today to understand what I’m going on about. It’s an instant classic.