All posts made the week commencing Sunday 23 Mar., 2003:

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

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.

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.

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).

Three book reviews:

  1. Diaspora by Greg Egan (at 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 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 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.

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.

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.)