All posts made in Mar. 2003:

19:34, Monday 31 Mar., 2003

The promise of web services and OS-level scripting? Soybo is "a cross-platform and device independent technology that allows applications to publish their functionality as web services, accessible by any Internet-enabled device". Plug-in based and open, it seems to comprise a a collection of scripting hooks to expose applications and services, and b a collection of client applications to make use of those hooks in a pretty way. Incredible potential-filled screenshots. Kind of like Watson in reverse, or a high-level X Windows. [via Mac Net Journal.]

Interconnected

A weblog by Matt Webb, CEO of BERG, makers of BERG Cloud and Little Printer.

Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo.

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16:51, Friday 28 Mar.

National Statistics Social Capital project: UK government papers and ongoing work on social capital. Much goodness.

16:22

Trying to remember where I saw an article about redesigning calculator user interfaces... Parts I recall: Removing the '=' key and moving to an RPN-ish stack. Using '+', '-', 'x' and a kind of reverse-multiply as single-press buttons (all for integer based maths). Another set of four keys provided more complicated functionality. Using little triangles at the top to indicate whether the number is negative, or at the bottom for a decimal point. Has anyone else seen this?

Asking because of a create-a-calculate competition. What I've already tried: Installing Blogsearch to search my local www copse. No beans.

10:35

Social Capital: A Discussion Paper [pdf] (by the Cabinet Office, part of UK government) covers the concept of social capital, as popularised by Robert Putnam. There are four main topics covered: what social capital is and why it matters; what evidence there is and what the consequences are; the future trends of social capital in the UK; what the government can do to influence this. It's short (ish) and easy to read. And there's a brilliant graph in the introduction: The Exponential Growth in References to Social Capital in the Academic Literature, 1985-2000.

And later in the paper, when discussing possible ideas to stimulate social capital, there's this (paragraph 169): "Mobile telephones could have emergency help keys or codes that would activate the nearest five phones to indicate the holder is in trouble and needs assistance".

See also: my notes on the Cabinet Office document; another review of Social Capital: A Discussion Paper.

11:16, Thursday 27 Mar.

Here's the plan. Special double-length car numberplates that cause a buffer overflow when read by the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system and let us place a back door into the Congestion Charge central computers. Then we can control all of London's traffic!

Related: Subverting CCTV and facial recognition by wearing, infront of the cameras, specially constructed tribal masks that don't correspond to the expected parameters for face characteristics (eg, a nose a precise amount longer than normal that overflows the nose-length buffer and writes code into an executable area).

19:34, Monday 24 Mar.

Three book reviews:

  1. Diaspora by Greg Egan (at Amazon.co.uk). I read this in two days. At the end of the first day I didn't want to put it down. The only reason I did was because the book had peaked, it'd snuck ideas into my head that I didn't know I could have, so I stopped reading because I couldn't think any more. This is a book about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and the nature of distance. On the second day, I finished the book in the morning. Egan has the concept of bridgers -- a long chain of translators, each pair having a way to communicate, so two mutually unintelligible ends are bridged, able to communicate. That's what day two was: extending the bridge of consciousness, of being human, of being itself. Stretching to extremes these things, probing in all directions to distill being to its purest form. By the end I was shattered, emotionally exhausted. I could barely talk for the rest of the weekend. And my conception of what's important about us, what makes us human, real, what loss means; these things have all changed.
  2. All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland (at Amazon.co.uk). In a way Coupland's as sci-fi as any of the greats: take a world like our own, perturb it in a single, controlled way, and see what happens. Girlfriend in a Coma, which I loved, was the extreme of that. But where the worlds in previous books in which the event occurs have been as close to normality as possible, this one represents a shift. The point of a story is that there's a story worth telling. So All Families are Psychotic doesn't go out of its way to shout that it's a book. It doesn't need to... because it's definitely a story worth telling. That's a step forward, I think. And Coupland's themes - that people are always just people, what happens when people encounter magic - are still there. But this is all just a bridge to what happens after the book, which is all in your head, and where the best things happen.
  3. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (at Amazon.co.uk). It's not really possible to say as I'm 20 pages and less than a single chapter into the book. But judging by the oohs and ahs to the fireworks those 20 pages have already set off in my brain, it's going to be a good one. In fact, it's best descibed by one of Kuhn's points: that a new discovery doesn't just stand as an addition but instead, the discovery has had its effect when "[the scientific community has] altered its conception of entities which which it has long been familiar, and, in the process, shifted the network of theory through which it deals which the world".

I'm idea foraging. The above are placed as landmarks.

15:08

Michael Sippey: Notes on the Embedded Media coverage in Iraq. Great notes! Particularly incredible is this Rumsfeld quote: "And what we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq. We're seeing that particularized perspective that that reporter, or that commentator or that television camera happens to be able to see at that moment. And it is not what's taking place. What you see is taking place, to be sure, but it is one slice".

That information flow is so cheap we can afford to see snapshots/ That reporting and analysis+synthesis have been decoupled/ That we've acknowledged this is the case and changed reporting appropriately/ That this organised (or maybe gardened?) war is so complex is can't be grasped sufficiently to understand by any person. Like a hair to long to see both ends of, but if you stand back to see both ends: too thin to see at all. How to report that?

(That Rumsfeld is thinking like this... the www worldview (biological, diverse, complex, ungraspable) intruding on the controlled, everything classifiable (Classical Physics) view. A worldview that can handle ambiguity? To an extent.)

Counterpoint: Unembedded journalism has a different view. We need all types.

20:03, Sunday 23 Mar.

The names of the planets in different languages [via languagehat]. Actually, the whole Nine Planets 'site is pretty good -- facts and mythology. (Now, I recently had a conversation on the topic: If you had to get rid of one planet, which one would it be? On my last visit, the London Planetarium managed to miss out Mercury from their nausea-inducing green laser wireframe tour of the solar system. I wouldn't like to do that, given its connections to general relativity. Venus and Uranus would be high on the list, although it'd be a shame to get rid of any of them.)

16:54, Friday 21 Mar.

Concept: Use the technology behind Newsblaster (What is? It "automatically collects, clusters, categorizes, and summarizes news from several sites on the web") at Amazon. Make use of the recommendations system (based on your purchases) to see which reviewers are most like you, and the reviewer reputation system; add in the story merger, and create: A unique single paragraph review, customised to your tastes, on every single item on the Amazon site. And then use the same system, only on Punternet.

13:40

Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell recalls the Second World War, in A horror too deep for tears [thanks Paul B], which is the sort of wordy, learned, quite probably pseudy article that only Sewell could write. "In 1942 the man who had shot my dog married my mother and made me go to school. The torments there could have happened at any time in the earlier 20th century, but the war added a certain zest to the possibilities of indiscipline. We sabotaged almost all attempts to teach us during air raids by removing the light bulbs from the shelters, and in the dark we spent countless hours engaged in mutual masturbation, occasionally whole days of it, infinitely preferable to mathematics".

13:27

The Economist on A possible explanation for conspiracy theories [via Epeus' epigone]: "This curious observation is the basis of Dr Leman's hypothesis that there is some underlying process in human psychology that assumes that the bigger the effect is, the bigger the cause must have been". Yum.

10:16

Gulf War II? ffs. Roman numerals like it's World War II. Like it's a continuation. Like it fits in to the grand sweep of history. Branded, already. "Gulf War II", not "Gulf War 2". A phrase with a comfortable heft. A memo of the past. Harks back to a quick, painless (for the West) war. Reassuring. Serious. A handy shortcut to talk about it. Dignified. Stops you thinking about what's actually going on. At least Channel 4 news last night had the decency to call it the "war on Iraq".

I'm ambivalent on the subject of war on Iraq. But it's like being rudely told to clean your room when you were going to anyway. If there's any justice, it would've been that the respective governments of the US and the UK didn't get their way, just for treating the people who voted for them with so little respect. But, since we're there, let's do this properly, and with the minimum of pain. And don't be lazy, and don't use words to forget what this really is.

17:44, Thursday 20 Mar.

Cosmic rays find uranium. To demonstrate the power of this technique: "Scientists in New Mexico have shown that this inexpensive and harmless technique can detect a small block of uranium concealed inside a truck full of sheep". Sheep. Gosh.

21:45, Tuesday 18 Mar.

How do knots form in things, without you trying? Random perturbation results in a move towards a stable configuration. What is it about the construction of the system and its environment that makes this possible, and probable? The science of knots will be important some day. We'll want to design in - or out - spontaneous knotting. Like power laws happen in city size and earthquakes and newspapers, what sort of systems encourage them?

I've had this a couple of times recently, taking off my shoes. Whatever I do, the knot gets worse. Usually when I'm drunk. I have to tug the shoe off and tackle it in the morning.

Another excerpt from The Blank Slate, this time a quote from a letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"You and I should not not pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut."

21:34, Monday 17 Mar.

":)"

19:57

Slipping gently into the age of ubicomp... Check out the Ambient Orb [via paranoidfish links]. A coloured globe fed by mobile phone infrastructure providing you with an ambient view of the stockmarket, of your inbox or any piece of information you can grab over the www. Ambient Devices don't just do the orb. The Ambient product catalogue mentions a key fob that glows when the traffic's better than usual to reduce commute time. This is what future was supposed to be.

And of course there's Microsoft SPOT -- running over a national (uh, American) FM network, it's a bunch of wristwatches squirting birthday reminders at your from your Outlook calendar. Um. Dan Hon already said this: closed gardens are rubbish. Give each device a url and let it accept events. Let everybody send events to devices for free if the service is free, or if it's a commercial service then Microsoft can take a cut. The problems when a single company owns the infrastructure and the service... I mean come on! Grow the market! Enlightened self-interest!

The future would be cooler - the future would be wicked - the future would be now - iff people weren't so fucking stupid.

Three tangential thoughts.

  1. It's a tedious refrain I know, but we appear to be converging on the right kind of model to think about this selective-broadcast model used by SPOT: emit and accept. Emit information without any thought to destination. Accept in your news aggregator which has an RSS shaped hole, data shaped list RSS; in your orb which has a stockmarket level shaped hole, data shaped like market level. And so on. And so forth. But like Sam Ruby says: "RSS aggregators may quite possibly be pushing the limits of the Internet by implementing a polling architecture on top of HTTP GET", so what to do? Maybe we'll end up implementing a distance-like metaphor on the network; maybe we'll implement clouds of virtual particles around data sources and sinks to negotiate connections before exchange bosons are swapped. Whatever.
  2. Actually this verbs thing springs another thought. Object orientation. Games especially, where a NPC or an object is its own code chunk, complete with methods. Or even events. I'm not sure this is a good model. In the real world, do objects really take verbs? A verb is a negotiation between me, the object and the environment. Where's the intelligence to choose the verb kept? It's the telegraph model again: signals, wires, connections, nodes-and-arcs. Not sure about that. Is communication really that narrowband? Isn't the only reason we use verbs to interact with computers that processing power places limits on the input bandwidth? A hammer doesn't take verbs: when I pick it up communication between me and it is wideband full-on surround sound hi-fi. Come to that, it's pretty human-centric to think that the skin is the outer boundary of complexity and it's all semaphore inbetween independent brains. Can't communication be just as information rich as people themselves? Stacks of bad metaphors all over the place here, holding us back.
  3. Dancing Bluetooth robots [via Gizmodo, thanks Matt Jones]. Which is so damn cool, so damn script them to dance when I get email, so damn walk around my desk and stand by my diary when it's a birthday and eat that you closed garden SPOTwatch, so all of that that it needs to be said again: Dancing Bluetooth robots! Soo damn dance in the garden like there's honey nearby and FUCK WITH THE BEES DUDE, FUCK WITH THE BEES.

Braindump over.

09:53

The widening domains of BBC search meets weblogs: Searching the BlogSphere (includes source) [via Gotzeblogged]: "Search the Web/ Search my Blog/ Search Blogs I Read". Spot on!

(I really rate the way the BBC search works -- if you search at BBC Food then it looks closest to that first, then all the BBC, then the www at large. And gives a great interface to it. It's changed the way I use on-site search engines: I now go to Guardian Unlimited, navigate to the section I know the article I'm looking for is in, then use the search engine. But does it give me closest results first? Nope. But it should take advantage of those clues I give it! This would be a way for the Google Toolbar to be improved, over-and-above the Google site itself. Use current site and the relatedness/distances implicit in the Google map (maybe recent navigation too) to push up results that are close by. It'd work wonders for the Guardian.)

09:31

Last week's AIGA London event on The Aesthetics of Code was excellent. Copious (paper) notes were taken.

Processing particularly grabbed me. It's an environment (a small API and a custom IDE) made especially for sketching interactive and generative art (so the programs are extremely short and it's fairly easy to understand what's going on). The pieces produced with it are pretty, but much more impressive is the work put into the social aspects: the reference material is slim and accessible; there are copious examples for learning. Oh and: when you export the applet, it encourages the View Source mentality. Nice touch. (I've put my first Processing piece [Java] online. It's quite lame.)

15:17, Saturday 15 Mar.

Various extracts from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (at Amazon.co.uk), as a way of noting ideas that trigger other ideas, mainly.

one | The inherent logic of morality is pointing at the internal consistency of numbers and saying the same may be true in ethics. In non-zero-sum games where participants are capable of formulating a strategy, does our conception of morality simple follow? (Makes me think of morality ladder functions, to move from person-to-person to social rules, as in the science mentions in Starship Troopers.)

two | The portions of the mind: a tentative list of the mind's instinctive cognitive faculties and the intuitions on which they are based. In summary, Pinker contends that the following ship with every brain (intuitive versions of each):

three | A quote from the Pope on converging discoveries, which is as good a way as any to define a successful theory.

four | A lovely passage on nonrival goods, which suggests two very fruitful ways of thinking:

(Thoughts so far about The Blank Slate: I found the first three parts - the first half of the book - a little tedious, but it's picked up now the rebuttals and justifications have ended. It's not a book with which I agree entirely (the inherent logic of morality is particularly shaky given what lengths Pinker goes to to make everything else robust. And we'll not mention his sloppy thinking around direct genetic modification. The rest convinces me far more than not), but it's challenging and thought-provoking. Which is the important thing.)

16:56, Friday 14 Mar.

Hypertext links having weight [via Joho the Blog]. Links as vectors complete with magnitude. Your browsing has a direction and momentum that carves out a space. So if you always follow link-then-link then the subsequent link will be in the same direction. We need a topology that fits over the screen that affects your mouse cursor, so some links (in the same direction) are easier to move towards than others. (Example: Clicking a link is like propelling yourself in a certain direction with a certain velocity. This direction/velocity is determined by the link author and your own behaviour. On the target page, you retain your browsing momentum. Links in a different direction are harder to move towards. This is attained by putting a third dimension over the page which changes how easy it is to move your cursor. Perhaps.)

11:47

Thought experiment. Imagine there's a fifth dimension in which senses can flow, but physical structures can't be built. That is, line-of-sight isn't impeded by walls, and doors don't work (for blocking sight/sound). How would society be different? Containers would be indicators only; a building would be a hint to other autonomous beings not to intrude (how would this change evolution? Would the moral structures to support this become hardwired at a low level, a tacit agreement to ignore the fifth dimension becoming encoded in the genes? Or would it become an arms race? Or maybe it'd be gamed?). Walls are invisible, like forcefields. Or maybe like a topology: traversing a landscape of buildings is like crossing chasms and scaling cliffs. You'd have to be aware what was on the other side of a wall, space would be leaky. Or rather, the environment would be more insistant. Privacy becomes a question of distance. (Two similar thoughts: If you could see Paris from here, how big would it be? And: If you were on Europa, Jupiter would hang in the sky about twenty times the width of the Moon, or four palm-widths held at arm's length.)

18:14, Thursday 13 Mar.

The behaviour of highly meshed systems is why I'm unsure about direct genetic modification. Change by selective breeding uses the mechanisms that have evolved to change the genome by environmental feedback (set methods?) -- the data return path from the phenotype to the next iteration. New GM methods play with the genome itself, editing private variables. Who knows what they're used for.

18:02

Scientists develop brain prosthesis for rats: "Scientists do not know exactly how the hippocampus works. So the Californian team simply copied its behaviour. Slices of rat hippocampus were stimulated with electrical signals millions of times, until scientists could be sure which input produced a corresponding output. Putting the information from each slide together, the researchers were able to devise a mathematical model of a whole hippocampus. The model was then programmed on to a chip".

09:43, Monday 10 Mar.

Today's fresh Upsideclown is on the sameness of things: "Over the top of my laptop I look out the window, trying to think whether the people walking down the pavement in ones and knots of twos and threes look like the pattern of buses arriving, birds settling on a wire, the global tempo of earthquakes. Or maybe just people, walking". Read Climax state.

21:39, Sunday 9 Mar.

Three articles:

Is there a world for the study of the behaviour of abstract machines?

21:17

It seems Homo sapiens have recently been through a period of very small total population, which has caused low genetic variability among the species now. From The Genetic Archaeology of Race: "...sometime in the period 100,000 to 200,000 years ago our ancestors went through a severe genetic bottleneck. Perhaps an environmental change drove ancient people to the brink of extinction. A more likely scenario, however, is that a relatively small group, numbering fewer than 20,000 at times and probably living in eastern Africa, was isolated for many thousands of years from the many groups of archaic human beings scattered throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. The people who emerged from this genetic bottleneck had traits never before seen in human beings. They had lighter builds, new ways of interacting among themselves, and perhaps a greater facility with language".

There are a number of possibilities of how the Homo sapiens bottleneck occurred, with a number of expansion models. (And what is a human, anyway?)

21:05

Schrodinger's wave equation is used to model particles as waves -- waves of what it's not known, but probability is related. Although the meaning behind this equation (and all of quantum physics) isn't really understood, it's enormously successful. And knowing it, and knowing how simple it is, is an odd feeling -- an awe being able to see the universe at a number of levels.

A history of the wave equation: "Classical physics -- that is, Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism -- seemingly accounted for all observed natural phenomena. It was a deterministic universe. The planets, eternally whirling with their inscrutable precision; the ebbing and flowing of the sea's tides; the oscillations of a pendulum; the way bodies exchange energy and momentum; waves of light propagating through space -- do they all not obey a deterministic model? Some claimed that given the initial conditions of the universe, all of its future behavior could calculated. Alas, as so often occurs in science, a crisis arose that was fatal in nature to classical physics: it failed to account for certain important phenomena. This was the ultraviolet catastrophe".

75 years of the Schrodinger's wave equation (which is rich in links) celebrates the Erwin Schrodinger too. It seems he was a wide thinker: "While in Dublin, Schrodinger also published 'What is Life?' where he claimed that cellular function may be explained according to the laws of thermodynamics; he wrote that the basis of life could be understood through chemical and physical properties. (Although this major aspect of his discourse was later proven to be incorrect, 'What is Life?' still became an intellectual component of the groundbreaking work regarding the function of DNA performed by Crick and Watson.)"

20:53

These 3d animations of Linux kernel development [via Slashdot thread] show the growth of sourcecode and dependencies like nothing else. The guided tour of Linux-2.4.5 gives a great intuitive picture of the comparitive complexities of different portions of the code -- Lion's Commentary on Unix is a good complement to this (reading the surprisingly tiny piece of code responsible for a file node or the boot sequence gave me an emotional response similar to learning about Schrodinger's wave equation).

Better is the animation of the growth of Linux from 1.2.0 to 2.4.1. You can really see where the complexity comes in, which portions of code are similar to which others. Incredible. And even if all of this makes no sense, the animations are still beautiful to watch -- to have this kind of data available to model for other systems!

17:13

What are the differences between a vocabulary, a taxonomy, a thesaurus, an ontology, and a meta-model? [via Catalogablog]

17:08

This page of links about muds and online game design (collected by Raph Koster) is particularly good, and points to a number of studies about the early multiplayer online game, Habitat.

Stewart Butterfield has Koster writings and more massively multiplayer online game links.

Piles of excellent reading material.

20:50, Saturday 8 Mar.

Universals, Human Nature and Anthropology (Donald Brown). Not encoded in the genes, but emergent from what we all have in common: the environment, physics, anatomy. Here: A list of the universals of human nature.

18:00

There's something very cyberpunk in the way Windows root kits change the virtual reality of the computer at such a fundamental level.

09:58, Thursday 6 Mar.

On a multiplayer online game from 1986, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat: "Habitat is built on top of an ordinary commercial online service and uses an inexpensive - some would say 'toy' - home computer to support user interaction. In spite of these somewhat plebeian underpinnings, Habitat is ambitious in its scope. The system we developed can support a population of thousands of users in a single shared cyberspace. Habitat presents its users with a real-time animated view into an online simulated world in which users can communicate, play games, go on adventures, fall in love, get married, get divorced, start businesses,found religions, wage wars, protest against them, and experiment with self-government" [via Phil Gyford's Creating a 1980s virtual world].

09:57, Tuesday 4 Mar.

The future of web publishing, Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought [via HyDeSign]. Briefly: Recombinant knowledge, cognitive barter, and the evolution origins of oral culture. The addition of literary culture, then the emergence of online, interactive written communication. And then using innate biological features to work better with this new medium.

A good book on oral and literate cultures is Walter J Ong's Orality and Literacy (at Amazon.co.uk). By good, I mean: Simple enough for me to understand without having any background in the subject; I've seen it referred to in lots of other places.

17:54, Sunday 2 Mar.

Significant dates in early science [also via Robot Wisdom]. 540 bc sounds like a good year: "Xenophanes (Colophon, 570-475) can be said to have been the first to formalize the hypothetical nature of what we now know as Science, differentiating between the World and its truth (alhqeia) and Models of the World (doxa)".

13:17

Reading the sequence of human evolution [via Robot Wisdom] (starting 500 million years ago), I'm startled that about 2.5 million years ago the sequence split into two branches: the robust Authralopithecus (which went extinct) and the Homo Habilus line (which became modern man). And the Robust Line took over a million years to go extinct. That's a long time. What drama there must have been!

14:41, Saturday 1 Mar.

I still don't know what it means to be in London.

The present encodes the past. London as a city of reused parts, of pieces accidentally left. But that bits of it are old isn't what defines it.

The cross marks in curbstones, indicators of which stonemason cut it, or of a parallel city. A turf war we can't understand, conducted between invisible forces with the power to engrave rock with their fingers.

London worn smooth, channels carved by flows of people.

Except it's not worn smooth. Not all over. I'd say London is constantly renewed, or in flux, or changing. But it's not. Not really.

It's not a city of contrasts. Ancient tradition doesn't sit next to futurist corporation. Skyscraper is shaped into something this fits, and ancient is internalised by the Now.

And it's wrong to talk of Londoners as a shoal or as ants. In each face, again, the present encodes the past. I see people I recognise around Hammersmith. Not because we share a routine, just they're around. People move in small circles.

But sometimes they don't.

People aren't especially different. They aren't especially the same. London isn't ancient, or modern, or even a contrast of the two. It isn't bustling, isn't urban and unforgiving. It's not tangled. The tiny hidden Londons aren't nestled or hiding. They're just between things, waiting for people to look closer.

London's not a village. But it's not overwhelming with the mass of humanity. It's not a beehive, and it doesn't feel like it's an infinite expanse of little boxes full of people. It doesn't sprawl. London sits easy with itself.

When I cross the city, I'm not swimming through concrete and I'm not wading through an urban landscape. I'm not lost. But I am travelling, London does change from place to place.

This is all I can say about London:

There's no one thing that defines London. London is an ecology; forests, tundra, rolling hills with still lakes, rocky coasts with crashing waves. Jungles, deserts.

There is no average London. I can't say that every piece is joined to every other -- every piece is joined to some. It's irreducible. Self-sustaining. Eternal. A maximally complex meshwork, and that complexity includes both noisy and barren areas, meshed together across both space and time.

London has achieved the climax state.

And we walk this city. There's no way to make generalisations, except sometimes. There's no way to know how complex or simple a place will be, except sometimes. There's no way to extrapolate, except sometimes. You get to know London, and it gets to know you. Sort of.

London right Now is just London. The most perfect, most complex, the social Hebb-reflection of humanity's reality. The is-london. The archetype that other cities - including past and future Londons - are just slices of.

I'm off to Balham for the afternoon.

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