Would you rather have a chauffeur or a Ferrari?

Dan Bricklin commented in a recent interview on how the expectations of computers from science fiction have not panned out. The point is not that computers are more or less powerful than expected, but that we have wanted to put computers to different uses than expected.

photo of red Ferrari

Fictional computers such as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey were envisioned as chauffeurs. You tell the computer what to do and then go along passively for the ride. Bricklin says it looks like people would rather have a Ferrari than a chauffeur. We want our computers to be powerful tools, but we want to be actively involved in using them.

I’d refine that to say we either want to actively use our computers, or we want them to be invisible. Maybe there’s an uncanny valley between these extremes. Most people are blissfully ignorant of the computers embedded in their cars, thermostats, etc. But they don’t want some weird HAL 9000-Clippy hybrid saying “Dave, it looks like you’re updating your résumé. I’ll take care of that for you.”

Update: See Chauffeurs and Ferraris revisited.

PowerShell browser toolbar

Shay Levy created an amazing browser toolbar for PowerShell. The toolbar works with IE and Firefox. It updates itself using data that Shay maintains. It lets you do Google searches tailored to PowerShell sites, lists popular PowerShell blogs, and has a menu for a wide variety of PowerShell resources. Shay released his toolbar back in June 2008, so this is old news to people more in the know than I am, but I just found out about it yesterday.

I’m not a big fan of toolbars. I installed the toolbar but will keep it hidden most of the time. But I’m glad I installed it just to see Shay’s list of resources.

Shay created his toolbar using Conduit, something else I’d not heard of. Looks like Conduit makes it easy to create other similar toolbars. (Easy in the sense of programming effort; I’m sure a lot of work goes into keeping the resource lists up to date once you’ve created the toolbar.)

How to grep Twitter

Twitter has an extensive search API. To build the URL for a query, start with the base http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=. To search for a word, just append that word to the base, such as http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=Coltrane to search for tweets containing “Coltrane.”

To search for a term within a particular user’s tweet stream, start with the base URL and append +from%3A and the user’s name. (The %3A is a URL- encoded colon.) See the search API page for other options, such as specifying the number of requests per page to return (look for rpp) or restricting the language (look for lang).

As far as I can tell, the API does not support regular expressions, but you could loop over the search results programmatically. Here’s how you’d do it in PowerShell.

First, grab the search results as a string. Say we want to search through the latest tweets from Hal Rottenberg, @halr9000.

$base = "http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q="
$query = "from%3Ahalr9000"
$str = (new-object net.webclient).DownloadString($base + $query)

Now $str contains an XML string of results formatted as an Atom feed. The root element is <feed> and individual tweets are contained in <entry> tags under that. The text of the tweet is in the <title> tag and the other tags contain auxiliary data such as time stamps. The following code shows how to search for the regular expression d{4}. (Look for four-digit numbers.)

([ xml] $str).feed.entry | where-object {$_.title -match "d{4}"}

In English, the code says to cast $str to an XML document object and pipe the <entry> contents to the filter that selects those objects whose <title> strings match the regular expression.

The search API limits the number of entries it will return, so it’s best to do as much filtering as you can via the Twitter site before doing your own filtering.

Related posts

Regular expressions in PowerShell and Perl
Table-driven text munging in PowerShell

DSLs in PowerShell

In an earlier post, I quoted John Lam saying that one reason Ruby is such a good language for implementing DSLs (domain specific languages) is that function calls do not require parentheses. This allows DSL authors to create functions that look like new keywords. I believe I heard Bruce Payette say in an interview that Ruby had some influence on the design of PowerShell. Maybe Ruby influenced the PowerShell team’s decision to not use parentheses around function arguments. (A bigger factor was convenience at the command line and shell language tradition.)

In what ways has Ruby influenced PowerShell? And if Ruby is good for implementing DSLs, how good would PowerShell be?

Update: See Keith Hill’s blog post on PowerShell function names and DSLs.

Negative space in operating systems

Unix advocates often say Unix is great because it has all these powerful tools. And yet practically every Unix tool has been ported to Windows. So why not just run Unix tools on Windows so that you have access to both tool sets? Sounds reasonable, but hardly anyone does that. People either use Unix tools on Unix or Windows tools on Windows.

Part of the reason is compatibility. Not binary compatibility, but cultural compatibility. There’s a mental tax for shifting modes of thinking as you switch tools.

I think the reason why few people use Unix tools on Windows is a sort of negative space. Artists use the term negative space to discuss the importance of what is not in a work of art, such as the white space around a figure or the silence framing a melody.

Similarly, part of what makes an operating system culture is what is not there. You don’t have to worry about what’s not there. And not worrying about something frees up brain capacity to think about something else. Having too many options can be paralyzing. I think that even though people say they like Unix for what is there, they actually value what is not there.