All posts made in Dec. 2003:

Flags Of The World "is the Internet's largest site devoted to vexillology (the study of flags). Here you can read more than 20,000 pages about flags and view more than 38,000 images of flags." There's more: clipart, flag-flying days and startling amounts of background information (not just nations but organisations and more). The origin of the European Union flag is pretty entertaining.

Rulers "contains lists of heads of state and heads of government (and, in certain cases, de facto leaders not occupying either of those formal positions) of all countries and territories, going back to about 1700 in most cases. Also included are the subdivisions of various countries (the links are at the bottom of the respective country entries), as well as a selection of international organizations. Recent foreign ministers of all countries are listed separately." This is vast. Be sure to check out the chronicle of relevant events, eg December 2003, leadership changes from all over the world.

And on that subject: Electionworld lists the results of, what else, elections around the world.

(This is what the internet is about. Great stuff. But next, at a certain point you want to give these guys a CMS, get them producing structured data that can be syndicated outwards wherever it needs to be, and just see what happens.)

In The Image of the City, on how people understand and wayfind in cities, Kevin Lynch introduces the concept of imageability (how easy it is for a dialogue between the person and the environment to build into a good mental image) [notes], and five basic elements of these images: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks [notes]. The book is brilliant; Lynch introduces a whole vocabulary for those emergent properties of human wiring and social habitation, then applies and explains. It's going to be enormously useful in thinking about how people learn to find their way around websites (and semantic spaces of all kinds), how we relate to space in general, and, more, how that space is collaboratively created and moulded. This is a modest book, self assured but not declarative or over-confident, quiet. A joy to read. (I also have notes on the book design.)

The Phenomenology of Synaesthesia [pdf; via Cluster] -- fantastic paper summarising Ramachandran and Hubbard's research into how synaesthesia manifests: how the font affects letters being seen as colours; on martian tints and more. I love this sort of stuff. My notes.

Four found alphabets:

[all via boingboing]

The other day I added a line showing the number of stars in my light cone to Interconnected (the light cone being that ever-expanding volume of the universe that I could have affected or could have affected me during my time alive). Said LaughingMeme: "Can I get an RSS feed of celestial objects in my light cone please?" Your wish, sir: subscribe to your personal sphere of potential causality here.

I've had a few responses to my comments about the two M6s - two motorways with common origin and endpoint, and the same length, one being tolled and 45 minutes faster to drive - and spent some time trying to put a finger on the source of my discomfort. The result is some notes, M6 Toll unease, trying to figure out a little of my own folk (gut) politics.

I finished Reader's Block on the tube a couple of days ago. The style is unusual - a stream of dislocated assertations and questions - and two characters: Reader and Protagonist. But it's curious, the mind of the author (or the fictional author) becomes conflated with your own, and you're being guided what to think and simulating the bizarre leaps of thought that always happen but usually are immediately forgotten. It's difficult to tell who's thinking; it's the least frozen book I've ever read, the one which most acknowledges the provocations a text makes in the mind of a reader and works with that. This review explains more, but you can't convey the impression of a book that moves over twenty pages rather than two. There are barely perceptable rhythms, a beat at the edge of hearing, a tide that's really gentle (the best comparison I could make would be Vonnegut's later books, which are minimal sketches of huge and complex things, and heavily hyperlinked with both obvious references, and references you can't tell whether they're meant to be there or not); at the end I couldn't stop reading this list of facts, I wanted to know what happened even though nothing really does, it all happens in a shimmering almost-not-there image at the corner of your perception, and then it left me aloft and it was sad and I stared off into space for most of the day. Wonderful. Highly recommended.

"In general relativity, the future light cone is the boundary of the causal future of a point and the past light cone is the boundary of its causal past." From the moment of my birth, light [that I could have influenced] has been expanding around the Earth and light [which could influence me, from an increasing distance of origin] reaching it -- this ever-growing sphere of potential causality is my light cone. Today, this surface contains 29 stars, and is 4 months away from enveloping Pi-3 Orionis (Alpha Lyrae was passed 6 months ago). If you're using the brown skin of Interconnected, there's an automatically updating line in the flannel (see it) to count down to (and away from) new additions to my personal universe.

Data taken from the utterly excellent An Atlas of the Universe, which has maps from the solar system out to the the Local Group and beyond. There's a lovely 3d map of stars within 50 light years.

(Update. Whoops, my script has been showing the wrong number of stars. Fixed now -- 29, not 27 as earlier. By which I mean to say, there's a shell 5 light hours thick in which I'm wrong, expanding at the speed of light, and the wavefront of accuracy will never overtake it. Ah well.)

Thoughts about the Preamble (quoted earlier):

I like that it states that Europe is a continent of immigrants, and the long time-scale over which this has happened. The reference to humanism is also welcome, and that it's tempered by a mention of the important of religion in European thought. Two things that make me uneasy about this:

  • Most of the proposed amendments to the Preamble are about inserting references to Christianity. I don't like that: concentrate on the actual shared mindset rather than one of the models of such.
  • There are two ways of understanding "equality of persons". One is that people are essentially equal of ability and opportunity; the other is that people are essentially varied but are to be held as ethically equal. The second has generally been a European perspective and underpins socialism (and feels pretty French too, I think); the first is more American. The only way to tell the difference between the two is how the word "equal" is couched -- unfortunately the Preamble leans towards the first: this can be seen in the repetition of the individual and the State, but lack of reference to fraternity, community, intermediate, geographically distributed, multi-scaled networks of people.

The phrase "reunited Europe" is especially resonant, especially given that Europe has never been politically united (although various bits of it have at various times). Europe was last united in neolithic times, before the inseparable meshwork of land, people, community and trade separated into hierarchy, nations and cities. To force memory back to these times conjures an image of a diffuse Europe, an association or condensation of ideas, indivisible again into objects, but more like a topology: a landscape maybe, intertwined, with identifiable parts that bleed into one another, holistic; and it gives a future Europe a mythological base stretching across the whole of the Holocene. I wouldn't expect any less from a Convention chaired by a man from the country and generation that gave us poststructuralism.

Tying us back to the land is also good ("a continent"), and to the rest of the world is wonderful -- striving for people "throughout the world", and giving Europeans responsibilities "towards future generations and the Earth" (although I would have preferred small-e earth, giving us a duty towards the soil itself -- this would also give a hook for the ethics of information, which itself is an extension of environmentalism). Identification of "public life" as an entity which should have transparent nature is also a good step forward (both identification of it and the nature). I get the feeling there are many points of this constitution that we'll be able to (and other nations will be able to) point at in the future, and the shape this'll force on the Union is a good one (outward looking, respectful, modest and open hierarchies), or at least in general.

I'll admit that the language is clumsy in places, and parts could be read as bolshy. But Constitutions are supposed to be part descriptive, part prescriptive and part aspirational, so the tone suits me fine. The ponderous language goes hand-in-hand with a dense Preamble, almost every word of which carries fine European concepts, and this undertone is quietly spoken, and has the appearance of tough negotiation. So at least it's balanced and faces in all directions at once. Another European quality.

One last thing. Acknowledging "ancient divisions" and that we should "transcend" them is wise, and gives us direction. And reason.


Conscious that Europe is a continent that has brought forth civilisation; that its inhabitants, arriving in successive waves from earliest times, have gradually developed the values underlying humanism: equality of persons, freedom, respect for reason,

Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, the values of which, still present in its heritage, have embedded within the life of the society the central role of the human person and his or her inviolable and inalienable rights, and respect for law,

Believing that reunited Europe intends to continue along the path of civilisation, progress and prosperity, for the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and most deprived; that is wishes to remain a continent open to culture, learning and social progress; and that it wishes to deeper the democratic and transparent nature of its public life, and to strive for peace, justice and solidarity throughout the world,

Convinced that, while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcent their ancient divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny,

Convinced that, thus "united in its diversity", Europe offers them the best chance of pursuing, with due regard for the rights of each individual and in awareness of their responsibilities towards future generations and the Earth, the great venture which makes of it a special area of human hope,

Grateful to the members of the European Convention for having preparing this Constitution on behalf of the citizens and States of Europe,

Who, having exchanged their full powers, found in good and due form, have agreed as follows:

Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe [draft] [pdf].

The M6 Toll - the UK's first toll motorway - is opening this week. As Andrew pointed out [in conversation]: there are toll benefits purely because it's elitist. It's like a first-class section on a train or 'plane that has the same seating, the same worn carpets and the same buffet service as standard-class -- but people go there because other people can't afford to. It makes me uneasy. Two motorways side by side, one 45 minutes quicker to use and pay-for. At least universal tolls are democratic. (Although we could just go all the way and privatise the pavements.)

Was talking to Dan Hill at the office [the other day]. Apparently a good chunk of tv now, 50% in the early evening, is backgrounded -- people never used to have to tv on in the background, but now they just let it sit there.

We'd just been talking about, also, Group Listening and how that'd be really good for digital tv. It's slow chat. People would listen to the radio through their tv all the time, and listen to the same shows as their friend - with their friends, effectively - and send messages to them. But it wouldn't be fully immersive like a chat, it could be backgroundable like radio itself. You'd pop across the road to the shops, or vacuum the front room, and still carry on a slow conversation with people listening to the radio with you.

So: backgroundable EastEnders. What could we do with the medium (and these new expectations)? There's so much broadcast capacity now, instead of being half an hour you could have daily four hour episodes instead.

But the episodes would be more ambient. You'd see somebody's entire washing-up, or walking through the park, or going to work. Like the Big Brother live stream, said Dan. Viewers would phone each other up when something dramatic was about to happen (or happening). More than that, no need for flashbacks: you'd hear about events you missed because the on-screen gossip itself would be broadcast, even if the gossip wasn't part of the story, rather than just hinted at. It would be there to get you involved, so you go and gossip about it with your friends, and so on.

So, like Big Brother. This is true, but there's more than that.

There's a literary device where environmental features foreshadow/accompany the narrative. So it rains on someone when they've just been dumped, or there's a roll of thunder just before something dramatic happens. It's cliched now, but you could do it in a subtle way. A better way.

Ambient EastEnders is plotted, it's known in advance; this is unlike Big Brother. You could have effects like seeing somebody washing-up and the sun goes in outside just before somebody comes back who has lost their job. Or a person is walking to the pub (at which there's going to be a fight) and there's a mattress dumped on the pavement, fresh grafitti and so on -- it's all a bit grubbier.

These would be flags to get your attention. After all the slow drama, the gossip you don't need to really pay attention to, a half dozen cars stall in succession at the car lot, so you ring your friends and tell them to tune in because the car saleman's marriage is about to come to an unexpected halt in fifteen minutes.

It's building the runes in, making sure the animal entrials signify the next half hour of narrative.

It's the longest Upsideclown I've written, as yet, and it's also late. And like a few of my recent ones I wish I was a decent enough writer to give it a plot, characters and an arc up to ten thousand words or so. It feels too much like notes still, with not enough exploration of the consequences (human and otherwise) and lacking in the potential connections and necessary explanation. Oh well. It does mean that the piece is pretty dense with some of the things that have been going through my head the last few days (possibly this is good): what the world would be like without a diffraction limit (and the effects on economies, city structure and so on), the unknowability of history and different perspectives (cf Prague in 1989), the problems with our simplistic p2p models, what happens between the interconnected nodes in a node-and-arc network (which is a joke, really, because there is no "between": the network defines the space), and the idea that what happens on one network can happen on any other (which I don't really believe because abstraction layers are permeable and context is a property just like size or colour). Most interesting aspect which isn't there: the possible social and political structures we'd have if our virtual and real worlds were thoroughly matted; indeed, if they were the same. Reading it back, I can tell exactly (sadly) what my influences are in this case: the myth of Indra's Net; everything I've read by Greg Egan, and the concept of imageability in Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City (an incredible book; I'll post my notes at some point). And of course the more obvious ones (The Victorian Internet, Guns, Germs, and Steel and the Patagonians in Last and First Men). Reading my own writing is like going to see a puppet show where the strings are lit up.

Anyway. Go read The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia, fresh today at Upsideclown.

The myth of Indra's Net: "Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net's every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite."