People Places

What the folks say in the midwest

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I am not a very outgoing person. It’s uncommonly difficult for me to just start talking to strangers, not because I don’t like people, but because there’s a part of me worries that I’m encroaching—intruding into people’s personal space.

During the trip last week, I deliberately went out of my way to get into situations of talking to people I didn’t know, every day; at rest areas, at breakfast, gas stations, whenever the opportunity arose. We generally talked about weather, traveling, destinations, but occasionally the conversation would focus on the Middle East, Iraq, and the war on terror.

Almost all of the people I met were retired (hence traveling in September), and most were from the mid-west, though there were some exceptions, such as my flower children of a previous post.

There was a couple I met in the Roosevelt National Forest who were from New York. She was the one who told me to look out for the wild horses, with coloring unique to the area. She told me many things, her talkative nature matched by her husband’s absolute and complete silence.

They had flown out of New York before September 11th, because they didn’t want to be in the city. Their son had been in the World Trade Center the day of the attack, though luckily he had gotten out, but he still works in the general area. She talked with a friendly smile, but with a desperation as if she had to talk and talk and talk. And the more she talked, the angrier and more quiet her husband became.

I sat with another couple at breakfast in Wisconsin and we talked about Iraq. They had voted for George Bush and support him still, but are confused: they didn’t understand what the urgency is in going after Saddam now. They expressed concerns about how difficult this fight would become, and the potential loss of lives. I was particularly pleased and proud, though I’m not sure why, when I heard them say that they were concerned about the loss of innocent Iraqi lives. Not just our people, but people over there, too.

There was the elderly man at the rest area with his ancient mutt that he jokingly referred to as a miniature Great Dane. The puff of fur was no bigger than my last stack of pancakes, and it was hard to say who of the two was creakier when they walked but sweeter of disposition.

When the weather drove me to an early day in Rapid City, South Dakota, I chatted with a woman taking her two daughters to college in upstate New York. We were both thankful to have found a hotel room. I watched her as she walked off to join two daughters, two smaller boys, and a cat in a carrier. And she could still smile. Amazing.

In one combination gas station/restaurant I stopped to get gas and some coffee. When I walked over to the help yourself coffee pot, a group of farmers sitting nearby stopped talking, uncomfortable in continuing their conversation with a stranger in their midst. However, as suddenly as they stopped, they started talking again, as if aware that their silence said just as much about them as their conversation.

And in almost every inn and hotel, a television set was running with a story that seemed to continue round the clock: invasion of Iraq. It formed a backdrop for all of the conversations, sitting as a silent participant at the tables, walking along side the paths, mingling in the crowds — not heard directly, but felt.


Well FOAF you too!

Recovered from the Wayback Machine

It would seem that there are folks out and about playing with RDF, in particular FOAF,a Friend-of-a-Friend RDF vocabulary. Mark Pilgrim’s playing with it. So is Sam Ruby and Phil.

Phil had some problems with the original FOAF file generated for him by the FOAF-o-matic in that it includes blank nodes — equivalent to a subject-predicate-object (noun-property-value) that doesn’t have a specified subject. He provided his own ‘label’ to the nodes so that they then wouldn’t be blank.

Usually a blank node is used when a label doesn’t serve a purpose or doesn’t yet exist. For instance, I might use a blank node (these used to be called anonymous nodes) to represent a “location” object. I don’t really care about accessing the location, I want to access the location’s parts: the city, the state, the zip code. I only use an object to group these items schematically, but I’m not interested in actually accessing the grouping directly.

If I decide to have multiple locations and I do want to identify them individually, then I would add labels to the nodes for the locations and they would no longer be blank.

One assumes the FOAF designers didn’t see one accessing specific person’s as much as one would access those attributes of person: name, SSN, etc.

In relational database systems, the concept behind a blank node is analogous to dummy keys or auto-generated identifiers given to uniquely identify a row in a database table. This identifier is mainly used by the database system, rarely be applications built against it, and never directly by people.

Anyway, back to FOAF. Friend of a friend. The purpose behind FOAF is increasing our knowledge about people in a community according to an article by Edd Dumbill. I’m most interested in FOAF because of the possibility of using it to build a complex web of trust based on the idea of this person knows someone, who knows someone else, who knows someone else, who knows someone else, who knows you, and so on. If you know and trust me and I know and trust Phil and he knows and trusts Joe down the road, you’re more likely to trust Joe because of this indirect relationship then if you just found him by happenstance.

FOAF becomes more usable, as with most RDF, when data from the various FOAF files are parsed and merged into a common data source, and then the recursive querying can occur. Who knows this Joe? Well, Phil knows Joe. I don’t know Phil, so who knows Phil? Shelley knows Phil, and on and on. It’s handy being able to query for Edd’s email address and nickname with FOAF, but it’s handier knowing who Edd trusts.

FOAF files are easy to generate and fairly easily to consume with any number of RDF APIs and tools (in Perl, Java, Python, PHP, and so on).

It’s an interesting vocabulary with some potentially interesting uses. I’ll be curious to see what uses the weblogging community come up with in their current explorations.


“The Sportswriters” by Richard Ford: A review

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Though in the end, this is all I ask for: to participate briefly in the lives of others at a low level; to speak in a plain, truth-telling voice; to not take myself too seriously; and then to have done with it. Since after all, it is one thing to write sports, but another thing entirely to live a life.

No mad passion, no heights of glory, no sentiment, and no mockery — this phrase from the book is the most fitting description of the lead character, Frank, a late 30’s sportswriter recently faced with several life upheavals. And my choice of this phrase is one that I know would meet with Frank’s, and the author’s, approval.

The Sportswriter was not an easy read for me. For the first time in 40+ years I could actually believe that there are basic, fundamental differences between men and women that go beyond the mere physical; differences so strong as to make Frank seem alien to me. Outside of my comprehension.

When I finished the book, I didn’t particularly like Frank, though I appreciated the skill and talent of Richard Ford’s writing. However, during my road trip I would think about specific scenes — Frank first provoking and then delighting in a punch to the face, the car in the basement, meetings with X — and I found the character growing on me. If I couldn’t actually understand Frank, I could acccept him. There is something about Frank’s plainly honest assessment of what he is — his disengaged interest, the reluctant self-reliance, the lack of great ambition, and most of all, his ‘dreaminess’ as he refers to it — that is noble. And sad. And, ultimately, both foreign and familiar to me.

The book covers Frank’s experiences over an Easter week, beginning with the anniversary of his son’s death, and ending with other dramatic events. During this week, Richard Ford draws Frank into a series of meetings with people who are most likely quite ordinary, but with Ford’s skill, become transformed into something extraordinary. Every chance occurrence is an event, including Frank’s brief encounter and conversation with a store attendant who gives him float to help the pain of a bruised jaw and bloody knee:

“Did you ever like write about skiing?” she says, and shakes her head at me as if she knows my answer before I say it. The breeze blows up dust and sprinkles our faces with it.
“No. I don’t even know how to ski.”
“Me neither,” she says and smiles again, then sighs. “So. Okay. Have a nice day. What’s your name, what’d you say it was?” She is already leaving.
“Frank.” For some reason, I do not say my last name.
“Frank,” she says.
As I watch her walk out into the lot toward the Ground Zero, her hands fishing in her pocket for a new cigarette, shoulders hunched against a cold breeze that isn’t blowing, her hopes for a nice day, I could guess, are as good as mine, both of out in the wind, expectant, available for an improvement. And my hopes are that a little luck will come both our ways. Life is not always ascendent.

It was Ford’s ability to make even the most plain and everyday event into something interesting (not necessarily exciting, spectacular, life changing, or passionate) that make this book into an exceptional reading experience. Each person who reads this book will read something different in the actions and the thoughts and the characters, and the discussions resulting from these differences can be illuminating in their own right.


Though The Sportswriter is written from a distinctly masculine perspective, I would strongly recommend this book to all women over 40. No, better make that 35. It helps to know more about the aliens that walk among us.

Book: The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford. Published in 1986. Recommended by Jonathon Delacour.

Just Shelley

All things squid

I share with PZ Myers’ a love of all things cephalopod, though I tend to favor anything related to squids, giant preferably.

Ethan sent me a link to SquidSoap, which I’ll have to try out, of course. My thanks for Ethan for thinking of me.

Just a hint to others: If anyone comes across anything related to cephalopods in general and squid and giant squid in particular, please email me. I love this stuff.