A Different Approach to On-line Text

Maybe this is more amusing to people who have worked on search indexes, but I thought it was a worthwhile use of computer resources. Check out Starship Titanic: The Novel!. Click through all the intro pages, that is part of the fun. One of the index pages has a dead link, but there is remarkably little linkrot for something put on the web in 1997.

Don’t miss the colophon and contest page.

Query Box as Extensible UI

Yahoo’s Open Shortcuts is a nice simple extension to search implemented entirely within the query box. We’ve been able to do queries like wikipedia emma bull or zip code palo alto or weather baton rouge for a while, using the first word as a context command. Some of those (“wikipedia”) bias the results, while others display custom information above the results.

Open Shortcuts adds the ability to punch through to a different search engine (like !ebay dagor) and also to define your own contexts that go to your favorite spots.

It is easy to define a shortcut for any Ultraseek search engine. Here’s how to define a shortcut for ultraseek.com.

  1. Go to Create a Shortcut.
  2. Scroll down to the Search a Site section.
  3. Enter a shortcut name, like ultra.
  4. Enter this for the URL: http://search.ultraseek.com/query.html?qt=%s
  5. Click Set, then OK
  6. Try a search, like !ultra all terms and enjoy results direct from the Ultraseek site.

You can use this pattern for most Ultraseek-powered sites. Do a search to find the host with the search engine, then use that host with /query.html?qt=%s. Some sites may have customized pages with a different path. Check your browser’s location bar to make sure.

Nice work, Yahoo, and much simpler than A9’s OpenSearch.

Older than FORTRAN

But only by a few months. Today is my 50th birthday, and the most reliable “birthday” I can find for FORTRAN is October 15, 1956, the publication date for the FORTRAN Programmer’s Reference Manual (scanned PDF).

I wrote my first program in FORTRAN. To be specific, FORTRAN IV EMU from Eastern Michigan University, running on the IBM 1401 (I think) at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I was at Operation Catapult, a three-week program for high school juniors. Big fun, and I’m glad to see it is still running.

The program was a two-body simulation, with the paths printed in in line-printer graphics. I wonder if I still have a copy of that somewhere in the “closed stacks” at the back of the garage.

FORTRAN wasn’t my first computer language, that was BNF grammars. I was reading SF in math class because I was being taught logarithms for the third time, and I’d learned them before I was taught them the first time (got a slide rule for Christmas in seventh grade). The teacher noticed and had me stay after to chat. He sympathized, but asked me to at least read a math book during class. So, I found one on computer programming and churned through it over a couple of weeks. I still have a fondness for colon-equals as an assignment op.

PowerBook out the Window

No, I didn’t throw it and I’m not switching. Someone broke our window at 3:30 AM and grabbed my PowerBook off the table. Gone.

A window breaking is really loud. We thought that the kittens had manged to knock down a stack of cookie sheets with dishes on top of it until we found the broken glass by the table. The Palo Alto police were really nice, but it was hard to get back to sleep. The kids slept through the whole thing, of course. And all this two days before we left on vacation.

The IT department has been really great — my new IntelBook is already delivered, waiting for me to return from Maui.

I miss the data more than the hardware. I wasn’t very good about backups, but I did treat most of the laptop data as volatile. E-mail lives on the server and I’m religous about the digital photos being on two separate storage devices before I delete them from the camera. Code is all in CVS. Software keys are copied to the home iMac. Still, there are plenty of miscellaneous things that are just gone, like notes from the Patrol Leaders Council (time to trust the Troop Scribe to take notes).

Since I’m starting clean on the new machine, I’m open to recommendations for Mac software (especially backup).

Destructive Spidering

Reading The Spider of Doom on The Daily WTF reminded me of a similar story with Ultraseek from years ago, though ours had a happier ending.

Back in 1998 or 1999, we got a call from a customer asking if it was possible that the spider could delete pages from Lotus Domino. 10,000 pages had disappeared overnight, and the only thing they could think of was the evaluation copy of Ultraseek. After looking at the access logs, we figured out that they had a link to “delete this page” on every page. Also, they’d logged the spider in as Admin so that it could access everything. Oops!

I said there was a happy ending? They restored everything from backups, figured out that a link (GET) was a bad idea and changed it to a button (POST), and they bought Ultraseek because they knew that it could access every single page. On our end, we added a rule to never, ever follow that link on Lotus Domino. We all solved our problems and learned something, too.