All posts made the week commencing Sunday 2 Feb., 2003:

My rolling list of recently browsed, Interconnected Mini Links (which you'll have seen if you're in the minority visiting the website with its default skin, rather than reading by email or feed), is now mini-archived. Also available as RSS.

Extremely cool (and extensive) Dictionary of Victorian London [via AnthroBlog]. (Would be cooler still if it worked in browsers other than Internet Explorer.)

A couple of articles looking at the way we program.

  • Coding from Scratch [via email from Matt Jones], in which Jaron Lanier makes the good point that programming languages can't handle variance, and if nature worked like this there'd be trouble. A scale problem: a single byte difference can have enormous consequences. The reason for this, he says, is that language design follows the metaphor of the telegraph. Passing variables to a subroutine is imitating the wire. And so he talks about phenotropic, pattern-recognition, computing as an alternative paradigm. Emit and collect?
  • They Write the Right Stuff [via ext|circ] is about how to write bug-free software in the current paradigm, in this case for the space shuttle. 420,000 lines of code with one error. The commercial equivalent bug rate would lead to 5,000 errors. How do they do it? Detailed design, many levels of testing and proofreading, and a culture unlike the commercial world: no pulling all-nighters, no sending out for pizza.

Two approaches to the same problem.

A list of XML Alternatives [via More Like This]. My problems with XML are twofold (although I'm happy to use it). Firstly, it's difficult to write programmatically or otherwise. Secondly, the path of least resistance is often wrong.

At least in the UK, on the back of most food packaging is a tiny helpline phone number. About a year ago I called up a few to find out what they did. There's something intriguing about customer care lines.

  • Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles
    Friendly. The sort of questions they get asked are: how much fat do pastilles contain? Are they vegetarian? (They aren't kosher.)
  • Sainsbury's jam
    Wouldn't tell me anything. When asked what sort of questions they get asked, became paranoid. "Who are you? Where are you calling from?" I was just interested, I said, in what sort of questions they get asked. "Who are you? We can't tell you that. It's a secret."
  • Flora
    Similar to Sainsbury's. Contents of questions to care line is secret. Happily sent me large amount of margarine propaganda.
  • Polos
    Very friendly. Bloke who answered customer care line based in a portacabin on the factory floor, near the Polo making machine. Asked to describe it, he said it was a like a six barrel machine gun, shooting mints. Loud.
  • Some premium marmalade company, jar obtained from Sainsbury's
    Customer care line number resolves to office secretary who obviously doesn't get these calls often. Refuses to believe my "what sort of questions to do you get" question is a real question. Demands to know my true purpose. Embarrassingly, I make up that I love marmalade and I'd love to know where to get more. "Tescos," she says, "or any supermarket," even more confused. Trying to get out of this hole, I claim I can't find it in supermarkets and I'd like to buy it direct. She takes my address, and later sends me their product list.
  • Tate & Lyle
    I ask how sugar is made. Customer care put me through to a sugar factory. I ask how sugar is made. Factory put me through to the technical department. I ask how sugar is made. Technical department put me through to a sugar engineer. I ask how sugar is made. Sugar engineer asks me how much time I've got. I ask for the overview. Lovely sugar engineer spends nearly quarter of an hour talking me through the growing, shipping, refinement and chemical processes. My favourite.

(This writeup prompted by a discussion in email where it turns out someone else used to phone Lucozade. It's not uncommon. My flatmate calls PizzaHut to thank them after we've had a particularly tasty pizza delivered.)

There's at least one startlingly good subeditor at the BBC. The page for A Strain on the System, on Radio 4 tonight, gives the subject of the second programme as "...the scientific and bureaucratic lessons learned in the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic". (note that last word). But on the (much more temporary) What's On listings, this has become: "In the second of three programmes assessing our preparedness in the face of national crises, Sue Broom investigates the lessons learned from the 2001 Foot and Mouth epizootic". Epizootic! What a word! gives the definition as "Of the nature of a disease which attacks many animals at the same time; -- corresponding to epidemic diseases among men".

That there are people who notice things like this and correct them, I am very happy. That is one person I would not like to play Scrabble against. Epizootic! Ha.

Okay, this is really cool: Clicks (a coin-operated project) runs on your computer, and "provides an ambient connection to other people's desktops by collecting and distributing desktop mouseclicks. Once collected, clicks are sent to a central server and each connected client is assigned a unique tone which is played in a physical location (currently installed at MLE), creating an ambient sound installation as an indicator of computer activity and use on a global scale". Would be cooler if the sounds played on my computer too.

Andrew has some good dreams: "My previous dreams had occurred in a non-dimensional universe. They had occupied zero time and zero space. They contained no physical presence and nothing actually happened. Instead, they were flooded with fundamentally important concepts I couldn't understand and which can't be expressed through any existing paradigm. They were intangible and impossible to describe physically. And yet, paradoxically, later in the night, after I rolled over and changed sides, the second dream was a perfect optical isomer of the first".

Oh, and. Dan hunted a fox in the snow. He makes me laugh. If I stop, he'll break my fingers.

A tetrachromat is a person who distinguishes four primary colours, not three. There have been reports of tetrachromats, mostly women. But there's a claim that the human is a blocked tetrachromat -- that is we all have the physical ability in the eye to distinguish four independent colours, but the wavelengths of one of them are absorbed by the physical stuff in the eye before it gets to the cones at the back [via Captain Cursor].

Tom Armitage on learning how to do cryptic crosswords (scroll down to the January 30th entry, Little prince and queen playfully flirt? (9)).

Turn The Page lyrics by The Streets. Too many good lines to pull any single one out. Review of the album, Original Pirate Material.

The Distribution of Variable-length Phatic Interjectives on the World Wide Web. Abstract: "If one uses a commercial internet search engine to search for increasingly long versions of variable-length interjectives on the web (e.g. 'whee', 'wheee', wheeee', etc.), the number of pages found containing these longer words falls off as a power law. The exponents for the length frequency distributions of different interjectives are not the same, although they may cluster around a few exponents. Surprisingly, the exponents are much larger than the -1 predicted by Zipf's Law. We believe that the restricted domain of variable-length phatic interjectives is an interesting subset of English that can provide an alternative simple model system of word length distributions" [via muxway].

This first bit is Matt Jones, in email: "'News' story as wiki - the world in wiki now, with connected rolling blogs by reporters and reading linked to the story node which show you the historical view as it builds".

The problem being, the world as wiki would be so large we'd have storage problems, problems over how to find things, problems about what's important in the long and short terms. Abstraction problems, data model problems. You might as well use thing-itself to represent the thing! It would be easier. You'd end up with a second Earth, a model of the Earth, that we could look at and examine, and a whole army of bloggers, journalists, etc, to filter the news/information etc stored on the WikiEarth.

But then with versioning and so on and so forth, the WikiEarth would be regenerated at every second, duplicated and recorded, so there'd be a chain of planets stretching outwards from the Sun, firstly the real Earth, then WikiEarth, then WikiEarth2, WikiEarth3, WikiEarth4, all representing the state of the planet at version-snapshot time periods into the past.

And on the latest planet would live the wiki gardeners, attempting to make some kind of sense out of this infinite chain of historical earths, but they themselves would be reflected in history and would stare at themselves, an infinite recursion.

So we'd need an ur-wiki to collapse this, a single planet on which all of history and all of space is represented at every single point, where the latest version snapshot overwrites all others but at the same time includes them, where every change is itself an encoding of the global memory. Where the density of ghosts doesn't obscure the now, but can be filtered by the current snapshot and self-corrected by re-evaluation of history, at every time; where the ur-wiki is also the map of the ur-wiki (there would be several such maps, as many as there could be), is also the map of the ur-wiki map, is also the map of the map of the map of the ur-wiki -- this ur{ur-wiki} all in a single planet, at a single, constantly updating now. Heated by the sun, I think, with grass, and blue sky with clouds, and cities, and in those cities, people living.

As long as we're talking about Network Solutions' claim that them paying compensation will herald the end of the internet, how about this: their parent company Verisign have broken the domain name system. What does this mean? Every domain with non-ASCII characters points to the same IP address, whether it's registered or not. At this IP address is a website that points you to a plugin specifically for Windows IE. So: this breaks knowing whether a domain exists or not so your application can give you an error message; anything on the internet on an international domain which isn't www will fail in bizarre ways (so if you make a typo, email clients will be trying to connect to the wrong machine, RSS aggregators will get 404s, ssh sessions will get connection refused -- instead of the appropriate, and consistent, "no address associated with hostname" error); you won't be able to trust DNS to give you an honest answer. There's more in this Slashdot thread. Messing with these deep levels of abstraction is really stupid. These are foundations that everything else uses, and it's pretty fundamental behaviour that's being altered, and in a non-trivial way. Unbelievable. Verisign, Network Solutions: they have to go.