All posts made in Dec. 2002:

"'No, no. No crime,' said Sherlock Holmes, laughing. 'Only one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles. Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal. We have already had experience of such.'" -- The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.

From The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which is available to read online, all 1000+ old-school paper pages of it, totally free.

This year, it's been a small world and getting smaller. Aggregating individuality. Abstracting complexity into tipping points and critical states. Clustering and power laws. Social response approximations. Bloody psychohistory almost. Next year, let's not do that. Let's be overwhelmed by the bigness of it all, the maximal complexity of the thisness. Wallow in it. Start arguments we can't win with people we don't share this groupthink vocabulary with. Be earnestly wrong. Oh yes. We can bring this to some kind of new year's resolution all right.

Samuel Pepys' weblog will be playing in realtime, over the next ten years. Phil Gyford's taken Pepys' diary (which is copyright free and made electronic by Project Gutenberg) and is running posts beginning 1 January 1659/60, starting on 1 January 2003. It's brilliantly footnoted, with characters and places hyperlinked (places are even linked to current-day streetmaps), and references to further information. Excellent work, like the www should be. More like this please.

"When we mount the face, we don't just celebrate our Saviour. We celebrate togetherness and the family, and every good thing he or others have done for us".

Don't forget what Christmas is really about. Read the Sermon on the Mount the Face.

Today is Quartidi, the 4th of Nivôse, Year 211. The French Republican Calendar was "a radical effort - it carried the ideals of the new republic directly into the daily life of every citizen. It was an artistic expression, an effort to make calendar names relate to the world of Nature, an attack on Catholicism (and religion in general), an effort to uplift and support a growing agricultural class, an attempt at decimal time and a basic functional calendar". New month names, new day names. What confidence! This was 1793.

In 1752 the British switched to the Gregorian calendar, remarkably just less than 200 years after the rest of Europe. Eleven days in September were skipped, and year numbering changed from being in March to January. Two consequences (that I heard on In Our Time a few days back): the financial year didn't change length, so the date of it had to change, hence it's now the beginning of April (the old year beginning, plus eleven days); whereas some festivals remained fixed relative to the seasons (Michaelmas is when apples ripen for example), other have fixed dates -- like Christmas, which is now earlier, and is why we associate Christmas with snow even though it doesn't get that cold until January.

Most impressively, the original Papal Bull switching to the Gregorian calendar (1582) and the original legislation introducing the French Calendrier Républicain (1793) are both online. The www is brilliant.

So, email is distributed with the operating system as a service now (Hotmail, .Mac). As is off-site storage; instant-messaging.

How about the marketplace? How about an application to help you run your marketstall: put items up for sale, find other people's items for sale, organise escrow, print out shipping labels, track the parcel as it goes. Broker a deal between buyer and seller and make a cut! Napster for classified advertising.

(This isn't quite the marketplace of Google and the Semantic Web. Close, but I'm talking more front-end, and more Q1 2003 -- if they wanted.)

Sidetrack. Here's the problem with online authentication. Real Life authentication cascades from trusted sources. Birth certificate begets passport begets driving license begets credit cards begets: tube pass, letters sent to your house. And everything based on authentication upstream, ultimately to the great philosopher who makes the mother/child dichotomy (um, cuts the umbilical cord) and signs a slip of paper. You can't fake that. Then further back, that's based on the authority of the doctor; your passport is issued by an authoritative source; and so on and so forth back through history. All of these systems interdependent.

But online authentication isn't like that. There's no history. So we need to bootstrap off RL authentication, when real life things are involved. And, since it's required, what better than iMarketStall, or MSN My MarketStall, or whatever they call it? If a thousand people say that your username accepts payments made to a Visa card in such-and-such a name, that's a pretty good start.

The memewave must be cresting. Like the distributed self-validation fad of 2000 only, uh, different, the latest craze is fully described by the names of two similar sites: Send Me Your Wound; and Show Me Your Wound. Thirty years of networking, affordable digital photography and people swap pictures of cuts? Now mark this. Inevitable next step: rate my wound .com.

A great thing about Greg Egan, apart from his science fiction (which is fantastic, and hardcore), is that his homepage is a mine of information, from biographies and links to $1 ebooks of his short stories, to Java applets illustrating weird maths, and lengthy essays and notes on the physics used in his work. Another great thing is that the technical bits are never foregrounded in the stories, but you come away with a crystal clear understanding of a system you never could've understood in any other way. Or at least, that's what Luminous did for me.

There's something beautiful about these pop fanfic snippets. They're vignettes of pop culture love stories that never happened, touchingly crafted portraits that, unusually for fanfic, stop before getting filthy. And even when they don't, it's in such a loving way. My favourite, Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe discuss people watching them get hurt. Oh, and Constellations. Sweet.

In Every Dream Home a Heartache, Britney/Justin fanfic, found while I was hunting for the lyrics.

Lilith... The Lilith myth crops up all over the place. That there was a woman, a true woman, before Eve, who offended Adam and god and was replaced by a woman born of man instead. Some myths say that the first human was Adam/Lilith joined, back to back, four arms and four legs; some say Lilith is cursed never to touch the Earth again, that she possesses women-born-of-man at the height of the menstrual cycle and then they become true women, that she was the snake in Eden.

The SliMP3 Ethernet MP3 Player plugs into the hifi amplifier and the network, and plays music from whichever computer is acting as a server (said server, by the way, being open and laudably hackable. Adaptively designed indeed). And mainly on the strength of this review, I bought one. Verdict: Very pleased. A recombinable knot in the fabric of the stuff that surrounds me. Pretty, too.

Gmane [via Play With the Machine] pipes mailing lists into newsgroups, where they're also archived (the gateway works from news to list, too). There's also Genecast, which pipes RSS feeds to newsgroups (intriguingly, this News Service is the first in "a series of products that establish your presence on the web, and keep you informed about someone else's"). Nice to see Usenet innovation again. Good to see the experience and work in building news readers (which are everywhere, command-line to mail client, and often using the same good code as developed to read and write mail) not going to waste.

So here's what happened today fourteen years ago, which was a Monday, and in the afternoon after school so about half past three, when I was ten. David said to me on the way to learn and play badminton at the Village Hall, Did I know there had been a train crash this morning, the 06.14 from Poole?, and I said that I didn't know, but that I thought my father caught the train at 06.50, so he wouldn't have been in it. That was the 06.50 from Brockenhurst however, but the penny didn't drop until much later, after badminton, when Francis one of mother's friends, came to pick me up. Which never happened, I'd always before been left to my own devices to try and meet the lift home, so I knew something was wrong and felt it in my stomach.

And here's what happened next. Mother was at Kathy and Andy's house, and she was about to leave for London to go to the hospital, and I wasn't allowed to watch the news that night at all.

And here's what happened then, on the next day, the Tuesday of 1988. I tried to go to school and my teacher talked to me, and he was very kind, and I still remember it now, but really school wasn't a good idea so Terry took me to the school he was headmaster of and I talked with kids with special needs all day and concentrated on their problems instead. One was there for throwing tables around the classroom.

But before that: Kathy gave me a cup of tea with sugar in, my first cup of tea ever, to help calm me. By the big glass window, a christmas tree; a cat; a joke about the two. This is vivid, this memory.

Since then. Francis left her husband, Terry went to prison for doing awful things, and Kathy died and did nothing wrong at all. How things change!

But before that, first thing that morning,

I came downstairs and saw mother sitting on the sofa ahead of me and to the right and I looked at her and she didn't say anything and I said "Is he dead?" and speaking about my father like that in the third person always seems kind of disrespectful somehow so I don't know why I said it like that but besides how did I know anyway, it just coalesced inside of me, into those words, bubbled up without me knowing, and even before she answered I knew I was right. And this is how she answered: she said nothing, and she looked at me and I looked at her. Maybe she nodded, a fraction, or maybe there was a tiny nod that didn't happen but we both could feel.

And I wanted to howl like a wolf and grow and smash everything up, and I wanted not to be there, stuck in this Now, and what I did was curl up and lie on the sofa and not speak and not cry until mother said "Are you alright?"

If there's any defining moment, any formative event that creates a person, which there's not and really I don't believe there is: That's it.

If everything about me can be traced back to an ultimate cause, if I'm an expansion from first principles, a condensation of a reality expanded from a single point, a tissue-rhizome of beliefs and values unfolded like a chinese puzzle, then my singularity was when I was ten, fourteen years ago today, which like I said, in 1988, was a Monday.

"A string of coincidences -- one of my graduate students spotting the same colour sequences in the rugs and the necklaces. An associate recognising another necklace with a pattern similar to ones she'd found in Spain. And, critically, the Neanderthal bead rug that could've languished forever in that basement in Prague if it wasn't for the 2012 floods. Without these, we'd never have started looking for commonalities in what we'd previously disregarded as simple craft".

I've got a new Upsideclown up today: Packet Loss.

(Admittedly I've taken more than the usual liberties in this piece. The Neanderthal people were roaming hunter-gatherers rather than village-dwellers. And although it's thought that they did mass-produce beads (and trade them?), the rest is fiction.)

Sh*thouse is very funny web comic [via iamcal]. This is the funniest.

Photographs from Monterey Bay Aquarium are now online, only six or so months after I took them. Monterey Bay Aquarium is a highlight of my San Francisco holiday, and has a quite remarkable collection of jellyfish, all very well turned-out.

Some photographs taken at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. What I love most about the V and A is that unlike other museums (the British Museum, say) which attempt to organise the collection as a cohesive, navigable whole, a directory rooted at the front gate, the V and A overwhelms the visitor with the vastness of the world. It's a maze to get lost in, more like a palace of memory than a filing cabinet, more like life. Best recollection: Walking down a dark corridor that had once been used for a stained glass exhibit but no abandoned, and spying through a hole in the wall where glass once was a courtyard filled with densely decorated three storey towers. And as close as we were, it took twenty minutes to actually find our way into it. A Gormenghast of a museum.

Soma FM is back! Wicked. Cliqhop, my favourite chilled out internet radio channel, is back in the new year. (Soma's been down during the copyright-royalty disputes.)

London feels on the edge, Unseasonal changes: "And a thought crystallised. London has a pre-war feel to it; not in the sense of rattling trams and fog, but in the sense of people fearing the worst, and knowing that the worst won't happen in Stow-on-the Wold or Motherwell but at a station somewhere on the Victoria line".

It's interesting, how the mood of a city changes. It'd be interesting to read more about Mass Observation, something mentioned in the article, a recording of the voice and everyday life of Britain in 1937, founded by Tom Harrison and Charles Madge.

"Trans-1's creator, IS Bely (1972-), said that he hoped the typeface would illuminate the richness of language, the interconnectedness, the nuance of the web. But instead, Trans-1 reveals language's poverty, its inadequate approximations, how a web is made of holes, how the river of words flows always away from us".

About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition [pdf] is a wonderful piece of short fiction by Jonathan Safron Foer published in The Guardian's Saturday Review.

Power laws have been coming up a lot recently. They're a property of many of the complex systems around us and basically mean there's a kind of self-similarity across scales. For example: For any given size city in the USA, there are four half its size. Or to put it another way, if there's one city with four million people, there are four with two million, and sixteen with one million inhabitants. Ubiquity by Mark Buchanan is about this, but I've also heard power laws come up in community sizes, and popularity of web sites (for any given website there are ten half as popular as it, say).

This is important because it means there's no typical size of a city, no typical popularity of a website, no typical size of a community. And that means trying to automatically cluster a social space is really very hard.

A quick example: You may have some data about how closely different weblogs are related to one another, and be attempting to see what groups or social clusters they fall into. This is easy if you can say "weblogs related a certain amount we'll class as friends" and everything falls out as neat clusters of friends. However!, if the social clusters obey a power law, these clusters are never going to fall out. In fact whatever scale you look at, there will be a mix of some tight clusters and some small ones you're not sure about. You're never going to be able to say "this is a social cluster, and this is a social cluster too" because there's no typical group archetype you can compare against.

Well, in that case you'd find some other way of doing what you wanted to do if you were fairly sure the social clusters were obeying a power law. Something the book Ubiquity doesn't address is when such power laws occur, but I've done a little experiment and from a first cut it looks like power laws are characteristic of randomly distributed values that come from a scarce resource (raw results). That is, if you have a system where values are unrelated (say, how tall people are), you won't get a power law distribution. But if the values are related (say, if a person chooses to live in San Francisco they can't live in New York), then you're going to get a power law.

Weblog community sizes draw from a scarce resource -- time a person devotes to one social circle is time that can't be spent on another social circle. So I'd expect social clusters in weblog space to obey a power law.

That means there's no typical size or typical type of weblog community. They're all different.

What next? This is just a handy rule of thumb that you'd be better off going elsewhere and finding some alternative to traditional ways of clustering and finding typical communities or typical cities. As to what the alternative is, I have no idea. I'm thinking about it.

I wish I'd know this when I spent two months of my physics dissertation attempting to find typical clusters across quasar spectra. I would've given up and tried something else.

Media definition: "Unlike a channel which is limited to a contiguous physical medium between the sender and a receiver of communications, media include the institutions which determine the nature, programming and form of distribution".

If you wear pulsar-map dog tags, extraterrestrials will always know where to take you home.

(Incidentally, the style of the Interconnected mailouts changes slightly from tonight to fix a few bugs. The urls are now not inline and should work in more mail clients, and they're all fully qualified. The formatting is also tidier.)

Sometimes spam is supremely worth it. Create a government according to your personal values: "Anybody may take the chance to create a government in the state of Bihar (East India) as easily as one can register a company".

The mail points to more details on coexistentialism. It appears that government is divided into two levels -- a meta government to look after the nasty things (defence, police, all the freedom-from issues maybe?) and to regulate the little governments; and any number of competitive non-territory dependent governments that citizens can choose between (socially life-enchancing, freedom-to issues). Odd. And wicked. Designing governments totally trumps social software.

Why is it that, no matter what sort of night club it is, there's always a bloke in a vest and a stupid grin clutching a beer bottle, dancing like a maniac at the bar, completely on his own?

In Metaphors We Compute By, John Lawler lists a few [aforementioned metaphors] (falling into the three categories of Deus Ex Machina; Mathematical Machines; The Pathetic Fallacy):

  • The computer is a servant
  • The computer is a race
  • The computer is a tool
  • The computer is a machine
  • The computer is a workplace
  • The computer is a filing cabinet
  • The computer is a toy

I think Reeves and Nass in The Media Equation (of which more at another time) would say that the computer is a medium containing one or more social actors, which users unconsciously perceive and interact with as being other people.

There's a passage in Babylon by Victor Pelevin (at on page 116: "As far as I am aware, the most profound revelation ever to visit a human being under the influence of drugs was occasioned by a critical dose of ether. The recipient summoned up the strength to write it down, even though it cost a supreme effort. What he wrote was: 'The universe is permeated by a smell of oil'".

I'm sure this is a reference and I've read it before. Eco maybe? It's bugging me.