Burningbird Technology Weblogging

Drupal and PHP Safe Mode

I had asked about a new hosting company on Twitter. My main interest was cutting costs, but I’m also having problems with my current hosting company. Frankly, I think the problem is all of the Ruby-on-Rails applications running—database access almost comes to a standstill at times.

Regardless, the company also turned on PHP safe mode, which is going to cause nothing but havoc with my Drupal installation. I don’t have much choice about moving, now. I had a couple of suggestions for sites, including InMotion, which I’m considering. I’m concerned, though, about sites that offer unlimited bandwidth, and unlimited storage. These companies tend to oversell the severs. However, InMotion does have the advantage of being very inexpensive.

Any thoughts on InMotion? Any other suggestions? I need SSH, PHP 5+, ImageMagick, prefer cPanel, Drupal friendly, and also a host that doesn’t change things on the fly.


Wolfram Alpha

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Sheila Lennon asked my opinion on the Nova Spivack’s recent writing about Wolfram Alpha, and posted my response, as well as other notes. Wolfram Alpha is the latest brainchild of Mathematica creator, Stephan Wolfram, and is a stealth project to create a computational knowledge engine. To repeat my response:

First of all, it’s not a new form of Google. Google doesn’t answer questions. Google collects information on the web and uses search algorithms to provide the best resources given a specific search criteria.

Secondly, I used Mathematica years ago. It’s a great tool. And I imagine that WolframAlpha will provide interesting answers for specific, directed questions, such as “what is the nearest star” and the like. But these are the simplest of all queries, so I’m not altogether impressed.

Think of a question: who originated the concept of “a room of one’s own”. Chances are the Alpha system will return the writing where the term originated, Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, and the author, Virginia Woolf. At least, it will if the data has been input.

But one can search on the phrase “A room of one’s own” and get the Wikipedia entry on the same. So in a way, WolframAlpha is more of a Wikipedia killer than a Google killer.

Regardless, when you look via Google, then you get link to Wikipedia, but you also get links to places where you can purchase the book, links to essays about the original writing, and so on. You don’t get just a specific answer, you also get context for the answer.

To me, that’s power. If I wanted answers to directed questions, I could have stayed with the Britannica years ago.

Nova Spivack’s writing on the Alpha is way too fannish. And too dismissive of Google, not to mention the human capacity for finding the exact right answer on our own given the necessary resources.

Again, though, all we have is hearsay. We need to try the tool out for ourselves. But other than helping lazy school kids, I’m not sure how overly useful it will be. If it’s free, yeah. If it’s not, it will be nothing more than a novelty.

I also beg to differ with Nova, when he states that Wolfram Alpha is like plugging into a vast electronic brain. Wolfram Alpha isn’t brain-like at al.

The human brain is amazing in its ability to take bits and pieces of data and derive new knowledge. We are capable of learning and extending, but we’re really shite, to use the more delicate English variation of the term when it comes to storing large amounts of data in an easily accessible form.

Large, persistent data storage with easy access is where computers excel. You can store vast amounts of data in a computer, and access it relatively easily using any number of techniques. You can even use natural language processing to query for the data.

Google uses bulk to store information, with farms of data servers. When you search for a term, you typically get hundreds of responses, sorted by algorithms that determine the timeliness of the data, as well as its relevancy. Sometimes the searches work; sometimes, as Sheila found when querying Google for directions to cooking brown rice in a crockpot, the search results are less than optimum.

Wolfram Alpha seems to take another approach, using experts to input information, which is then computationally queried to find the best possible answer. Supposedly if Sheila asked the same question of Wolfram Alpha, it would return one answer, a definitive answer about how to cook brown rice in a crockpot.

Regardless, neither approach is equivalent to how a human mind works. One can see this simply and easily by asking those around us, “How do I cook brown rice in a crockpot?” Most people won’t have a clue. Even those who have cooked rice in a crockpot won’t be able to give a definitive answer, as they won’t remember all the details—all the ingredients, the exact measurements, and the time. We are not made for perfect recall. Nor are we equipped to be knowledge banks.

What we are good at is trying out variations of ingredients and techniques in order to derive the proper approach to cooking rice in a crockpot. In addition, we’re also good at spotting potential problems in recipes we do find, and able to improve on them.

So, no, Wolfram Alpha will not be like plugging into some vast electronic brain. And we won’t know how well it will do against other data systems until we all have a chance to try the application, ourselves. It most likely will excel at providing definitive answers to directed questions. I’m not sure, though, that such precision is in our best interests.

I also Googled for a brown rice crockpot recipe, using the search term, “brown rice crockpot”. The first result was for RecipeZaar, which lists out several recipes related to crockpots and brown rice. There was no recipe for cooking just plain brown rice in a crockpot among the results, but there was a wonderful sounding recipe for Brown Rice Pudding with Coconut Milk, and another for Crocked Brown Rice on a Budget that sounded good, and economical. I returned to the Google results, and the second entry did provide instructions on how to cook brown rice in a crockpot. Whether it’s the definitive answer or not, only time and experimentation will tell.

So, no, Google doesn’t always provide a definitive answer to our questions. If it did, though, it really wouldn’t much more useful than Wikipedia, or our old friend, the Encyclopedia Britannica. What it, and other search engines provide is a wealth of resources for most queries that not only typically provide answers to the questions we’re asking, but also provide any number of other resources, and chances for discovery.

This, to me, is where the biggest difference will exist between our existing search engines and Wolfram Alpha: Alpha will return direct answers, while Google and other search engines return resources from which we can not only derive answers but also make new discoveries. As such, Alpha could be a useful tool, but I’m frankly skeptical whether it will become as important as Google or other search engines, as Nova claims. I don’t know about you all, but I get as much from the process of discovery, as I do the result.

Nova released a second article on Wolfram Alpha, calling it an answer engine, as compared to a search engine. In fairness, Nova didn’t use the term “Google killer”, but by stating the application could be just as important as Google does lead one to make such a mental leap. After all, we have human brains and are flawed in this way.

As for artificial intelligence, I wrote my response to it on Twitter: It astonishes me that people spend years and millions on attempting to re-create what two 17 year olds can make in the back seat of a car.


Blank slates and new hard drives

The Apple folks were able to replace the hard drive in my Powerbook quickly, and I picked it up last night. I noticed that they installed Tiger, not Leopard, and when I asked why, since I had Leopard, they said that they could only update to what was originally installed on the machine. I can understand their point, but it still took 2 hours to upgrade to Leopard, and another 1 hour or so to do all of the updates.

The machine still feels sluggish, and I was tempted to keep it at Tiger. However, I have software that won’t run on Tiger, and when Snow Leopard releases later this year, Macports will only work on Leopard and Snow Leopard (most recent 2 OS versions).

Photoshop was surprisingly easy to reinstall. I had to dig out the old license number for the previous version, but there wasn’t any problem with me having to re-activate the application without deactivating a prior copy. Must be machine signature issues.

I also cheated on my iPod/iTunes recovery, by using a shareware application, Senuti to restore iTunes form my iPod. Nice little application, very easy to use, and fast, so it was a good $18.00 spent.

I’m good about backing up, but even so, you can feel the gaps left by losing the original hard drive. Little bits and pieces, not to mention having to set everything up again. This is the first time I’ve ever lost a hard drive—I know, pretty amazing, eh? I feel like I’m wondering around a familiar room, and someone has moved the furniture and turned off the lights.

I also discovered that it’s not a bad idea to completely dump your cookies, and other client-cached data from time to time. For instance, I found that Drupal’s caching does not work well when you’re using a resizable SVG image, but didn’t spot the problem until accessing my sites from a brand sparkly new hard drive. Not sure what’s happening, and will need to explore more fully. For now, caching is off.

I also found, and I feel very sheepish on this one, that my experimentation with OpenID actually left me without a way to log into my RealTech site. However, it was very easy to just move the module I had created, and here I am. I know—this was a classic painted-into-the-corner move. Bad me.

One area of concern I did have, is that Apple kept the old drive. However, I called this morning and was told that Apple shreds old hard drives to recycle the metal, and also to ensure that all the old data is gone. The recycling of the old hard drives is all handled in-house, too, and the company has never had a data breach because of old hard drives. So good-bye, old drive, I knew you well.

RDF Writing

Semantic irony

One of my books finally returns home.

(via David Wood)


Photo backups and hard drives

First my car, now my computer— I am not having the best of luck with working stuff lately. The verdict at the Genius Bar on my Powerbook is that the hard drive is toast.

No, I don’t really believe that Firefox caused my hard drive to fail. I don’t think any browser can cause a hard drive to fail; no, not even IE. However, the browser definitely gave the hard drive the coup de grâce.

Now the question is, what did I lose? Luckily I’m good at backing stuff up. I didn’t back up all my recent music purchases, but I get music from Amazon, which I can download again, so no loss.

I have some eBooks I’ll have to see about finding again. Some were free for a limited time, but I believe are backed up on one of my external drives. I lost all my email since I use a client-based email reader, but you know, old email is like old bread–you always think you’ll use it, but you never do.

I do all my web development on my server, or my older Powerbook, so nothing lost there. I had finished all my editing and writing work, so didn’t lose any work.

I have to go through the entire process of restoring my Macports installation, which is going to take time. And I have to prepare to argue with Adobe about the Photoshop license. GIMP looks better all the time.

The hard drive failure could have been worst. I had my recent set of photographs on the computer and hadn’t backed them up on external hard drive yet. Among the pictures were the last photos of Muchana, a gorilla at the St. Louis zoo who died last Saturday. However, I had developed a habit of not removing photos from my camera’s memory card, until I had the photos backed up on external hard drive. The photos are still safe on the camera’s card. A hint to the photographers among you.