Strange Strands

02 Feb 2007

The Gallimaufry of Whits

Back in November 2006, I started a site called the Gallimaufry of Whits, being a kind of short-post weblog. It for all intents and purposes has replaced Strange Strands, with its enormous posts that are difficult to write on a frequent basis. On the other hand, I've got some fairly large posts on Whits, for example even today I've been writing about installing Everson Mono and Code2000 and Gentium and Junicode. And last month, my posts on OLPC, dircproxy, and Search History RSS were pretty big.

Cody set up a similar weblog, The Flog, not long after and gave it an awesome style. The code that we're using (Whits code, Flog code) is pretty compact, and allows for really easy creation of posts. I, for example, just type "note" wherever I am in the filesystem, and it appends a timestamp to the Whits source file and puts the cursor in a position ready for editing. Morbus has recently migrated away from OmniOutliner to plain text, and is using some tricks in BBEdit to achieve a similar sort of effect.

One thing that Kevin Reid noted to me a while ago is that whenever I come up with a new weblog or project or something, I tend not to tell old readers of my other weblogs about it. Mostly that's down to the fact that I'm thinking forward, but also because I tend to think of them as very different things, even if they aren't. Anyway, at least the meagre Strange Strands readers will now know about the new place of action, even if the miscoranda readers won't yet.

Strange Strands, The Gallimaufry of Whits, by Sean B. Palmer
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14 Nov 2006

The Oldest Webpage

I love discovering things, which is why I'm into history. Of course, things can only be discovered once within popular memory, so when I find anything of the merest importance I'm very proud of the fact. One of the periods of history I'm most interested in is the early web, and I was therefore quite excited to read a news item on Slashdot at the moment called The Web Is 16 Today. It refers to the least recently modified web page known (Link.html from 13th November 1990), which is, in other words, the earliest HTML document on the web. This rang a bell with me because I'm pretty sure that I was the one who discovered it! So I went ploughing through some more recent history to find out whether I was really the first to find it or not.

The page that Slashdot cites is the W3C's History Timeline, which was created by the strangely accented synaesthetic early-web guru Robert Cailliau, but is apparently now maintained by Dan Connolly. I'm pretty sure, however, that TimBL has a hand in editing it, and I recall having mentioned Link.html to him some years ago. By searching the logs of Swhack, an IRC channel I set up with Aaron Swartz in 2001, I managed to find my original discovery, from the 12th December 2001. I also found the point where I mentioned it to TimBL and Dan Brickley on #rdfig, the Semantic Web Interest Group's old IRC channel, in March 2002. So was the W3C's History Timeline edited before or after I passed the Swhack discovery on?

At this point normally the Web Archive would come to the rescue, but sadly the W3C's robots.txt file disallows /History, meaning that it's impossible to find out when it was edited. There is, however, a copy of the page on CERN from 16th February 2001 (v.1.24), and the reference to Link.html evidently was not yet included therein. There's also a usenet message from 12th May 2003 which does include the reference, so it must've been added between these dates. Unfortunately I don't have a local copy archived, so I can't tell with any more accuracy.

Incidentally, I found Link.html by looking through hype.tar, an early tarball of the original website worked on by the CERN team. The first code, HyperText.m dates from 20th September 1990, as I wrote in my old essay an Early History of HTML. It also shows that HTML is descended from CERN's SGMLguid language, which is from Script GML and GML itself; the CERN SGMLguid language, which shows an amazing resemblance to HTML, is from at least 1986.

Note that though Proposal.html in the same historical directory as Link.html is intriguingly dated "12 November 1990" in its content, and though it may have been an HTML on that date, its headers sadly say that it was modified on the 7th October 1991 so we can't tell if it really is older or not.

Strange Strands, The Oldest Webpage, by Sean B. Palmer
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24 Oct 2006

Propinquities of Simple and Complex

I've said before that my natural inclination is to express an idea complexly first and then simply after, but that I'd prefer to do it the other way around. But Chomsky does it this way around, and he seems quite clear. On the other hand, Shelley does it the other way around, and he does so paradoxically: the simple idea is followed by a kind of essay seed, and once you resolve it in your mind you end up with the simple idea that he started with, and are a bit annoyed to discover that you forgot the simple idea after all and that Shelley got there first and was just teasing all along. But I suppose he wants you to prove it for yourself.

But perhaps I'm just imagining it. People write quickly... At any rate, I'm not sure how to collapse that superposition of simple and complex in prose now, when it becomes necessary. It's not as simple a subject as "Avoid gerunds and adverbs", and "Put the important parts of a sentence at its extremeties": I guess it's more a matter of style.

Strange Strands, Propinquities of Simple and Complex, by Sean B. Palmer
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21 Oct 2006

Bootstrapping a Collaborative Language

With the goal of trying to make conlanging both more fun and more like the way natural language actually works, I had an idea about a collaborative language project. I was discussing computational linguistics stuff with Pat Hall, as is very often my wont, and we started talking about Kalusa, the corpus driven conlang project that we both worked on back in May. Pat was lamenting about the prescriptivist nature of the participants and the fact that the process was unnatural as a result: people were focussing on the grammar more than the meaning and just getting a rough consensus. As a result, it was less fun.

He was thinking about linguistic games that people could do, to turn it into more of a shared activity, and also about blogging in Kalusa. Then it struck me: what if, instead of using a corpus to drive the language, we used blogging? In other words, a project where a list of registered participants each maintained a weblog on which they invented a language. The catch would be that none of them could use any English translations. Instead, for example, you'd all have use an initial miniscule bootstrap grammar and vocabulary and work from there onwards (similar to how the corpus started).

Your duty as a participant would be to once or twice a day come up with a new weblog post. It would just be a first words per post at first, some very rudimentary sentences. Jokes and so forth would be encouraged as much as possible, but the goal of the game, if you want to think of it as a game, is to communicate with a bunch of other people using a language that you all create together out of nothing. You'd have to read everybody else's posts and try to decipher as much of it as possible. Then in your next days' posts, you'd try to use what you've learned from the other people, and contribute your own new stuff back too.

Of course, this is just a thought experiment. It could be complete chaos when it's actually tried, but having said that, the original corpus experiment showed some very fascinating things. For example, it's possible to create a rudimentary language really quickly. It's possible to learn it and communicate with it and, most interestingly, come up with a shared culture really quickly. It just naturally evolves of its own course, as a microculture always does when you get a bunch of people together, only it gets expressed in the fabric of the language itself. Hopefully that would still happen with a blog driven conlang.

One of the motivations is that it'd turn the process from being one of competition into one of cooperation. With the corpus driven method of development, it's all too easy to get very defensive about your own words and grammar, and to basically compete for inclusion. It's more about generation than about understanding. This naturally attracted types of people who liked to be mavericks, to bring in their own already defined languages, who liked to add things to the language which weren't consistent with what's already there. With the blog driven method, it could still happen but it wouldn't matter: the people who didn't want to cooperate could be safely ignored. If there were arguments over a particular point of grammar, the language could be forked. It'd still likely be understood by the participants, which is the point. If you started to end up with mutually independent variants of the language, then you end up with a fork. But that all happens organically, and there's nothing to prevent the natural things from happening.

Moreover there's more of a motivation to do the opposite, to actually understand what's going on and try not to fork—because that's what makes it fun. The aim is to have a bunch of people chatting together as normal but using their new constructed language, so eventually it just becomes a kind of forum, only with a rather linguistic slant.

There are a couple of problems with the idea. The first is: how do you enforce the rule (that translations shall not be provided), or how to you punish people who infringe it? The second is how to stop people from colluding behind the scenes, which may include the first problem of people explaining what they meant. On the second problem, it seems that actually that would be a good thing to encourage. Even with the corpus based development process, there was some amount of that going on behind the scenes. It's just a form of cooperation, and it's quite fun. But the first problem really seems to be a thorny one indeed.

As for the operation of the project, all you'd need are two things: a page explaining the bootstrap grammar and vocabulary, and an OPML document listing the feeds of all the contributors. From there on, the main bulk of the conversation should take place on the weblogs. If somebody wanted to fork, they could just post new OPML feeds on their blog, though it's debatable as to how long it'd take for the language to evolve to such a point where that would be possible. Of course, before it's that complex you shouldn't need a fork anyway.

There are lots of other points that could be debated, such as whether comments on the blogs should be allowed, what language they should be in, and so on, but the idea is straightforward enough. Whether it'd work or not, or even be worth trying, is another thing!

Strange Strands, Bootstrapping a Collaborative Language, by Sean B. Palmer
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12 Oct 2006

Learning Languages

Here's how I learn a language: start with the orthography, pick up as much grammar and vocabulary as possible in two weeks, try to read a newspaper article, fail to understand much except perhaps a single sentence and a few other words, then lose interest as a result. It took me years to properly learn how the Semantic Web works, so I'm not always impatient, but I do normally expect to learn things fast. And when I don't learn a language to an intermediate level in two weeks, I find it hard to compel myself to continue.

So I've been thinking about compelling ways to learn a language—or fast ways to learn, or both; because speed comes from immersion, and immersion either comes from great perseverence or from being compelled. If I were forced to learn a language, one that I wasn't interested in if there is such a thing, I hope that I'd be able to persevere in learning it; but as it happens I only learn languages by choice.

The most exciting learning system I've used so far was actually rather accidental. It's the Kalusa method: a language which is constructed solely by a corpus which is anonymously contributed by interested parties and then voted on by the same. Anyone can make new words and new grammar, and anyone can rate existing sentences. Each new "entry" in the corpus is provided in the form of a line of Kalusa and the equivalent line in English, and then the words in the corpus user interface are hyperlinked to searches for those words.

In this way, it's very easy to look up how a particular Kalusa word has been used so far, and to find translations for English words. Two strongly related obvious weaknesses with this method are that i) idioms don't work so well, and ii) the English translations are very often far from literal so it's difficult to work out the structure. To counteract that I'd force there to be a literal translation nugget, and also give the opportunity for user notes. In any case, the general principle is the interesting thing: for some reason, working out the web of the words is very compelling indeed. It's learning and discovery in its rawest form. But coining new words and idioms and coming up with interesting new grammars is at least half of the fun.

It might not rescale to an existing language, but I can more or less envision a way in which it could be done. Sentences would be ranked by the abilities of the person entering them, either beginner (mistakes expected), intermediate (mistakes possible), or fluent (mistakes rare); there'd also be a feedback method allowing people to flag a sentence as being wrong and to suggest an alternative to it. This should encourage all kinds of folk to contribute. The main guideline would be to only illustrate one concept, that is one word or grammatical construct, per sentence. In other words, keep the sentences fairly child-like and unrealistic, for the sake of demonstration. I think that this is important when learning a language, because you're trying to find patterns and memorise huge quantities of new data. Keeping it simple and yet fluid at the same time is how children learn languages: so many modern language books are dedicated to teaching people how nouns are constructed and how adverbs work in a particular language. Kids don't know that; they aren't taught that until much later. It's interesting, but it shouldn't be the central method of teaching.

I'm also a very hands on learner, so I like to learn things in practical highly mnemonicistic ways rather than just reading and reading and reading. Reading is important, and in fact I'm only really thinking of reading comprehension when I mean learning a language, but I think that the linear aspect makes it hard to learn. Pictures, designs, motifs, situations, connections, art—all of this can be used in interesting ways to form more lasting impressions of words. It's harder to remember a word that's been used in a book than one which is printed in big letters on a sign outside your house, or one that's been said by a comedian on TV, or something like that. I don't remember genders of nouns very well if I'm just told to remember them, but if I underline the words with red and blue, or imagine the referent of a feminine noun as wearing a bow and skirt, suddenly it becomes that much easier.

So I've been designing some flashcards that kinda illustrate what I mean, by using as many quirks as possible to really make the words and phrases memorable. It's actually pretty hard to design things to be memorable, and it's hard to rate how memorable they are to since the more time you spend attempting to make something memorable, the more likely you are to remember it anyway just because you've spent a long time on it. You need independent feedback.

One technique that people use is to put Post It notes on things around their house with the names of things in the language that they're learning. I think that's a good idea. I've also wondered about putting posters of language things up in places where people spend lots of time: in the kitchen, above the TV, by the bed. Even if people don't focus on them especially, you get a kind of subliminal learning from them. Of course, this method doesn't necessarily make it more compelling, it's a kind of forced learning by locationeering, but it might help when you're already finding other methods compelling.

As for making it compelling when one gets to the intermediate stage, obviously communication with other speakers is the way to go. On the writing front, maintaining a journal could be a good idea; but what about a wiki or something a little more interactive? If you're learning a rare or dying language, then getting involved with efforts to revive it and make it more widely known are a good thing: and there'll usually be some other people who are avid about doing the same, so it can be a good community thing. On the other hand, I've heard that people can get quite competetive about it too.

So in summary, I'm just thinking about slightly more innovative ways of learning a language: by using more naturalistic methods such as you'd use to teach a child; by using lexicons and interactive methods with other adults such as wikis; and by making linear learning techniques less linear and more mnemonic by using various motifs and other ideas.

Strange Strands, Learning Languages, by Sean B. Palmer
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11 Oct 2006

The Milestone Moss

Kookily the syrruphic barrows flied. A maze alost in the wanton green ducks enquisitively with sparrow-blossom and marprelate eroticalisations. Collect a spiggot full of slaught and thy mane'll yield utchy a mink. Boldly exposive, may warblings continue withorough your hedgerose until the cows leave home. 'A may, I grant, a full exposition of The Great Paradigm of Tittleford Green deliver at the approbriated series in Eberdeen, but for the ycycles and many token pomperfests.

It's much less of a shrive than a real mise, and even when the tannel is aflame on Midsummer Night's Eve, had I our doghter's at a candle, they'd make federal finter-fanter into a herb surpassingful of all its truesome efflusiveness. What's more? Fiorentina. And a riverain, one who dwelleth on the banks thereof of a stream or badger's brook. The cake will come obstomping and suddenly it'll stake a claim in troy ounces. They'll stand there and be at least as boaky as an unthroughfaresom thing, I was assured by her princessty, The Queen of Mindovia's Daughter.

Jeeves took babies down to the riverside, and now hauntings occur all over the shop on the fridges and buckminsters and even up in the chimney with the duck egg blue trimmings and façadery. Port to the behest, starboard to the might, and Henry IV knows his part. On the wirral and marque, one can only say that goats have pheelings too; but concomitantly, the equestrienne forced a very good deal from the town hall committee. Badderlocks is the best of the esculent algæ when eaten raw, and I'm not sure that even a che vor ye in the cunctated prime will go ablash as much as a feather chime. Their prorogation continued, and almost misflue the twelfth unthwyuond which was not in fight but mightiful.

Debate not a squirrel on the combing of the geese, because magpies collect nuts equivotrently, and making waves on the impellitured môr will cheffel makefoals in the stabeular brons. Prejudge presumptuous paraqueets, make way. The king rides in raiment green, and dilsnoughfouses furkey a makeover of the widershins than the thinshins. Alack, for wright calls!

Would you fill a lake so full of swans that the meteors collide and good tinsel is driven ful drivenly by the snow along a ravine previously roofed by a theatre's thatcher and his comely wife? Nay, they'll put a brizzen on it. You can't even seal that with a countermanded principle these days, things have gotten that talialistic. You can't have a confidant in a postbox, and more than likely the postbox can't have a confidant in you! Their draughts of stepony, a kind of raisin wine with lemon and herbs added, were renowned through the empire of the turd. It's not surprising! Moreover, as with Darcie's Stephanophores, a justice system can only sustain itself with a trace of protomeroblastic onioning. And for that to becoming, being for the benefit of a box kite factory, we'd say that it was down to lygaeid bugs, or perhaps pyrgomorphid grasshoppers, wouldn't we? Or could we pinny the nursemaid up and send her to the train station before the two to two and two two too?

And so it is: the milkman delivered a speech saying that the moon could be taken pecificatively, or quidditatively, or superficially, or catapodially. But could it be taken to the cheese shop for Wensleydale hybridisement? Only Hutchingson, with his publication of The Monimolimnion, could really say, the critics have predictated.

Strange Strands, The Milestone Moss, by Sean B. Palmer
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07 Oct 2006

Foo the Bar

Through some story on Slashdot (even though I've been trying to give up reading news) I found out about Live Simplicity which is a kind of colloquial pattern wiki for life hacks. It's quite interesting but I wonder if a wiki would be more suitable for it, getting people to organise around FooTheBar style topics better rather than just opening up endless discussion threads.

The people contributing to the site seem to be fairly knowledgable, but without being experts of course. It's not really a disciplined field, so there probably aren't all that many experts on it (i.e. small scale convenience and organisation) anyway. Most people think in terms of productivity rather than convenience, which is disturbing since the latter is the cause and the former the effect. History started because of civilisation, not vice versa.

It seems that there is, to some extent, a conservation of knowledge amongst people. I hold to the theory that intelligence isn't transitive, but we still use transitivity as a model. I wonder if that relates to radial categories and the fact that they weren't "discovered" for so long because the radiality is not a smooth slope and it has to map onto discrete words. For example, a labrador is more like a greyhound than a tree, but it's still beneath the "I call that a greyhound" threshold. I love the folk etymology of the word threshold. It also occurs to me that I should give the clear examples before the handwavy mumblese, not after.

Anyway, conservation of knowledge. It's the theory that we all have similarish amounts of knowedge as one another, but in different fields: and it's the fields that are thought of as having a value, not the level of knowledge itself. So an expert in philosophy is thought of as more clever than an expert in cooking, even though the former is less useful than the latter. I wonder if it's because philosophy is something that only the convenienced can do, whereas good cooking seeks to make an inconvenience into an art. Note that IQ tests don't test for artistic intelligence (those shape diagrams are for logic aptitude).

I don't know which I dislike more, oversimplification or redundant complexity. I'm not sure whether social classes are part of the former or the latter. I guess they're more descriptive than prescriptive anyway, apart from the ack [sic] of radiality.

So today I read a review (ugh, The Guardian should use shorter URIs) about some book written by a grown up skeptic. I'm not much into philosophy and politics, but being a history and technology geek I find that history is often just politics and philosophy in disguise. In fact, it's whatever the subject matter is in disguise; that's why I like it. It's an interdisciplinary discovery process. Anyway, I started chatting about it with Christopher Schmidt, and we spoke about being too limited in fields. As he wonderfully put it, "There's so much to learn, see, and do: why should I stop when I've not done it all yet, etc."

I noted that I often try to make topic lists, and that probably my biggest problem is getting back to he middle of the art vs. science divide. But making topic lists suffers from the same generative problem that writing memoirs does: you can best think of topics and memories when some external stimulus or chain of thought reminds you; and then you're so caught up in what you're doing you have no time, and sometimes no means, to record it. That must be why Chesterton used to take notes fanatically—he'd stop in the middle of a road with traffic to take a note, sometimes.

So inasmuch as I know any philosophy at all, I don't find humanism and skepticism very compelling. Yet they're all around, it seems. It's like science in general, it seems to pervade things more thoroughly than art. Still, it's interesting that 71.75% of people listed their religion as the erstwhile compulsary Christianity on the 2001 England and Wales Census, and only 14.81% said no religion (7.71% didn't state). Wigan is one of the most religious, mainly Christian, places in the UK apparently.

My essaying style on Strange Strands is quite conversational for me, but it's interesting that it's only just now starting to become pigeonholed. With What Planet, I developed a style much quicker, and it was a much more interesting style. This is evolving slower, and I just write about boring things. I wonder if essaying is really descriptive, a reflection of what's on your mind at the moment, or prescriptive, giving one a rut to settle into and explore for a while. I suspect primarily the latter.

Just to elucidate one of my initial points, I like to avoid the news because it's pretty boring, but to counter that, most news sites deal with more wider issues and act like magazines. Pretty good magazines too, sometimes. I'd like more of the magazine aspect and less of the news, but that's rather tricky to achieve since the medium doesn't really allow for it at the moment. Current affairs bore me, but interesting debate about current affairs that have some lasting resonance is okay. Sensationalism is bound to triumph a lot, but at least there are usually a few sources that don't venture into that.

Strange Strands, Foo the Bar, by Sean B. Palmer
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06 Oct 2006

Power and Influence

There's an old adage that those who want power ought to be the last to receive it. But in computer science we often have "benevolent dictatorships" where, for example, the original creators of a programming language retain the most executive control over it, preventing forks and resolving issues. Most governments are structured the same way: there's one person at the top as a figurehead. Even in republics, there's often a person with overall control. When parliament got control after the English Civil War, they put Charles II on the throne because there was so much factioneering and infighting after the death of Cromwell, the military dictator.

The problem with dictatorships is when the dictator does more harm than good, and this situation often comes about because a) power is corrosive and easy to abuse, and b) because hereditary power will necessarily admit bad rulers. The situation can change very quickly. Elizabeth I was an awesome ruler, and so too James I. But Charles I, the successor to James I, created the Civil War by trying to take too much power, and through to his Catholic leanings which didn't go down too well in Presbytarian Scotland.

Someone as powerful a ruler as Henry VIII is able to create their own church. Of course this isn't the only method through which denominations are created, but it's the only way to get state backing. Common-or-garden folk can start religious movements, but it takes some perseverance. If one wanted to reform the protestant church today, would it be better to be King, Archbishop, or commoner? A king would be best placed as long as they had popularity, which is the same as it's always been except now decided more by commercialism and mass media than the vox populi. Taking control of the media is one of the first things on the DIY Dictator list.

Charles de Montesquieu was the first to suggest that the imperium, the Latin name for absolute political power, be split into legislative, executive, and judicial branches to keep it in check. The legislature appoints the executive and makes the law, the executive carries the law out and does the interaction, and the judiciary interprets the law and arbitrates. The power is supposed to be evenly distributed, and may be, but the most influence appears to lie in the executive. The executive can easily run away with itself, even in a democratic society because of media manipulation, the ignorance of the public, and the years that pass between elections. The executive can even accrue power.

Power is what follows influence, perhaps the other side of the coin from influence: since influence connotes some measure of the patient having a choice and being led under their own will, whereas power connotes a structure put in place within which the patient operates, perhaps against their will. So the most influential candidate will win an election, thereby becoming the most powerful. Perhaps the key to being a benevolent dictator is to retain influence without assembling unnecessarily rigid power structures. Don't trust your sons and daughters to rule, and be wary if they govern.

Strange Strands, Power and Influence, by Sean B. Palmer
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02 Oct 2006

Oracular Music

As I sit here, there's a mahogany coloured post over yonder, out the window, that goes in and out of view depending on how the rain hits the pane. If a droplet or rivulet is shaped one common way, the light from around the post gets bent in front of it. If there's not much water or it's a different shape, I can see the post just fine.

It's a funny thing that of all the art forms, music is probably the most commercial. People sell paintings of course, and literature is usually sold once it's written, but even the raggiest romance novel doesn't seem to compare to the emptiness of a really commercial music track; and moreover, it seems that all music is expected to be performed, packaged up, and sold. I don't like that point of view... I don't see how much different Dickinson's poems are from a diary, for example, so I'm not sure why this industriousness must necessarily apply to music as though it's some instrinsic universal feature of music, the medium, itself. It's not. I get to choose what happens to the music that I produce, just as I get to choose what happens to my paintings and words. Some stuff is personal, some is crap, some is publishable, and some is a rarified mixture of all three.

The subpoint, as the rain really comes down, is that music is as much a record of context as any other art form. Music, good music, reflects the mind or minds of those who create it, and crystalise somehow a feeling which may then be reinterpreted, refelt, the same way by others. Rarely. It's true with, say, the big city feel of Rhapsody in Blue. But more often than not the feeling is different in other people. That's what worries me qua artist, though not too much because at least the personal record aspect is always present. I'm not really a good enough artist to give some piece that transformative quality which is contextless, or somehow intrinsic and inalienable. It seems that my "115th Semantic Dream" essay is perhaps my only published piece which approaches that, but I don't produce much art anyway.

It's surprising that bustling minds can get so entrenched into the science art dichotomy and still be bustling, but they clearly can. Charles Darwin said that once he got more scientific, his joy for Shakespeare waned considerably. I've certainly been veering like a Mexican driver (some analogy that somebody used on Dick Cheney long ago, that stuck) towards the scientific side of the road, and I've been trying to calculate or devise an oracular system to nurture and promulgate more artistic endeavours. But just oracularising tends to eke out one's bustle; it doesn't direct the kind of bustle: it's the medium there which counts more for that. Once you start painting pie charts in oils, you know you're in trouble.

Still, it's all just convention really. There's no reason why people shouldn't paint pie charts, if they're going to produce pie charts anyway. So as long as it's not a sole painting activity, perhaps it's actually beneficial. And music is a very mathematical thing: I suppose it would be possible to encode many a rigid formula in music; and that might even help to expose why certain music makes us feel a certain way anyway. There hasn't been a great deal of investigation into that, probably not least because the chromatic scale is such an odd starting point.

I should note for convenience that the term "oracle" is borrowed from a friend's use to pertain to notebooks. With that in mind, I guess that the summary of all this is to make your oracles achromatic. Microtonalise those oracles!

Strange Strands, Oracular Music, by Sean B. Palmer
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29 Sep 2006


A while ago, Cody produced a font to look good at very small sizes. When he suggested that I name it, I almost immediately came up with Sansmotif. One of my fondest activities is searching out and assimilating new motifs and design styles, especially from history. For example, I've just been thinking about what I can use of The London Post from 1719, with the first serialisation of Robinson Crusoe. The newspapermen running delivering the news from Spain, the long s's, the sudden blackletter, and the inexplicable series of k's at the top... it all adds up to a certain vibrant madness that you don't get from publications these days. Look at the line above where it says "The PREFACE": it's nowhere near straight! Was the ruler invented in 1720? The whole idiom, the whole design, the whole gestalt of the motifs involved is utter joy.

The second level to it is the paper itself. It was apparently a real publication, but there's not a great deal said about it on the Web. The full title is "The Original London Post; or Heathcot's Intelligence", and there's an issue of it from 1722 for sale on for $56 (hmm, only ¦30, perhaps I should treat myself to it). Newspapers from the early 18th century, even The Times from what I've seen, often have a wonderful tongue-in-cheek dry sense of humour. For example, about a woman robber, the Daily Journal of 7th August 1724 says: "The Woman pleaded her Belly, but a Jury of Matrons being impannel'd, they found her not pregnant."

There are lots of very strong motifs like this in design and literature in antiquity, I wonder if it would suit us to have a Tropes and Idioms style wiki for them. The original TV Tropes & Idioms wiki was a wonderul display of the fact that one needn't confine the pattern language phenomenon to just architecture and computer software engineering. If there could be a TV version of BBC Radio 4 and I were controller of the station, I'd probably commission something that investgated the use of the tropes and idioms on the small screen: perhaps a two part series where first the various tropes and idioms are demonstrated, and then second a group of up and coming writers are challenged to make a show incorporating a random set of the idioms.

I've also been thinking about motifs in literature, reading Wikipedia on how romanticism became modernism and then postmodernism. The switch from epistemology (knowledge) to ontology (being) captures it quite nicely in an almost-slogan. This is all Larry Wall's fault for talking about slogans and about the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in his tenth State of the Onion talk. Wikipedia's article on the novel particularly is quite detailed and excellent: I'm surprised that it hasn't got a star yet. If some of the Shakespearean articles were up to that quality, that'd be quite something.

Whilst I'm on Shakespearean matters, there are plenty of motifs there too: in the biographies of Shakespeare. As an age, the details of the late Elizabethan playwrights' scene vanished within mere decades, but the scraps and morsels that they laid down have gradually been coming to light over the centuries that followed. People are still finding stuff. So it's like a jigsaw of a very beautiful work of art, for which there are only a few pieces but we do find another every decade or so.

If you're biographing an artist living in such a time that art just flowed from the walls, then you're entering into art criticism. As with all art criticism, the context of the criticism is as important as the criticism itself, but since biography is generally thought of to be static, a science and a way of discovering immutable facts, the context has to be rediscovered later too. There is, of course, a core body of facts: there are manuscripts giving us dates and tax defaultings and purchases and so on. But how these are ordered, linked together, and how the ramifications of the information are interpreted and presented... that's something which is dependent on the biographer.

So Shakespearean biography, perhaps most biography in general, is not a static thing. And it raises its own motifs which have changed over the decades, and which also might be worthy of documenting, though I suspect less than for, say, the design of 18th century newspapers.

Strange Strands, Sansmotif, by Sean B. Palmer
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26 Sep 2006

The Commonplace

One little poetry rule that I didn't realise I had until today is not to use the raven, or the crow. Poe could use them, but he was a genius and they weren't cliche then. Since I'm not, and they are, I can't, if you follow. Their gothicisation is abysmal anyway: a crow's wings are lustrous and iridescent in the light, shining with a thousand colours; and they walk, or hop, like tipsy comedians. Their calls are maybe a little harsher, and come in with winter, but there's something greatly familiar and settling about them too.

One can use the other corvines, of course, but they all have complex attributes. Putting them into simplistic settings just isn't smart; almost isn't cricket. Putting them into commonplace settings, on the other hand, is an angle to try. The amazing lies in the commonplace, as Shakespeare and Chesterton like to show.

Another way to deponcify poetry is to make sure there's no redundant crap in there. I showed William Loughborough a line from a poem that I wrote which started out, structurally, something like "the breeze it swirled". He immediately tapped at the "it" and asked what it was doing there. Obviously it was just propping up the metre, but it was also adding pretentiousness. It was also a lost opportunity at extra descriptiveness, so eventually I changed it to "the breeze swirled up", and even though it was only a miniscule change, in context it made all the difference.

The best poetry is written by the subconscious, which is I suppose why there is so much bad poetry around since the subconscious is difficult to engage in such matters: we call it inspiration and intuition and a gift and so on. But what about when you want to write poetry as an essay about some small but concrete question or thread that you're tracing? I've found that it's still best to engage the subconscious, even if you do stray off of the rails a bit. There really is just nothing literarily worse than strained or hollow poetry. It should just be words about stuff, bunged together in such a way that you're being more artistic than scientific; more beautiful than aesthetic.

One nice symmetry or analogy with prose is that really good poetry, like prose, is often very simple with a few scattered gems in it. But whereas with prose this usually takes the form of a loquacious but concise word thrown in unexpectedly, with poetry you get to take even greater liberties and invent new words, or new idioms, or do even more syntactically disregarding stuff. I suppose that's one of the main funs of writing it.

Strange Strands, The Commonplace, by Sean B. Palmer
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15 Sep 2006

Noting and Unnoting

I was going to write a miscoranda essay yesterday entituled [sic; I got that from a paper about Benjamin Franklin] "Doing and Undoing", but I can't remember exactly what it was about other than the fact that it was a little analogy. It was basically going to be on the subject of having not written much, and on the basic editorial function of performing a change being captured as a discrete thing that you can undo. I wrote a kind of almost working Palimpsest network editor implementation, but haven't released it yet, and the principle behind that is very strong on these atomic operations.

So anyway, one thing that I noticed today is that I can take notes more easily when I don't have to perform a series. I already knew that I find it much easier to write when people weren't watching me, e.g. writing to a weblog that I know nobody's subscribed to, but I thought that might be the only major factor. It turns out that even the style of a weblog is a hinderance to me writing. I think it comes partly from the fact that it's a write-once medium, so that entices me to get it right the first time, which means that I invest too much effort and overparticularise it. It stops me from publishing a very loose half baked idea with no text, since I don't feel that I can go back and make significant revisions to old posts.

I also feel that the whole idiom of writing serially causes a kind of mush of the output: when you have a discrete idea, you can go into DocumentMode to write about it. But weblogs are more like ThreadMode. ThreadMode is mushy and unordered. Most wikis tend to end up in ThreadMode even though DocumentMode is what they're really novelly good at (Wikipedia is a major exception of course, and proves just how excellent DocumentMode can be; and it seems that more and more wikis are doing the right thing as a result).

This is all pretty much apropos of the Taxonomy of Documents that I'm still working on. One of the categories is simply for low-grade text notes, modelled on a directory that I already have which is growing pretty fast. The idea is that each text file just captures some idea in at least a few words, so I can expound on stuff later. It doesn't matter if I later move it out entirely, or split files up, or whatever; and each file is published using a CGI script to append the last modification time and details about the author and where the text was originally from. It feels much more fun writing those notes than it does to write essays like these. There are useful things documented herein, but therein, in the rough text notes, is where I'm able to capture things in more of a DocumentMode.

Perhaps I need to be able to distinguish between minor and major edits, and revisit old files in such a way that only if they've been majorly revised they get published in the feed again; and that the old version is kept around somewhere, though I'm not sure how that'd work exactly. Of course, my Changes and Updates service covers the diffs and so forth, but I'd like to have good URIs for all of the content, as usual, and a user friendly and sleek interface to it.

The other big difference, of course, is that they're text. I've been thinking about a kind of hybrid of Text and HTML, using basically a very, very light wiki syntax that gets converted into HTML. The aim of the format is that one should be able to type up a document without really thinking about the syntax all that much, and it should still be convertable into HTML. It's like semi-directed text mining. But I'm having problems being able to decide how preformatted sections and headers especially will work. I even wrote a little statistical analysis script to see what the characteristics of headings were compared to short line paragraphs, and couldn't find much of a sensible match. Of course that doesn't mean that I couldn't come up with some sensible rules to conform to, but I'd like to have the syntax be as naturally derived, basically descriptivist, as possible.

Perhaps I should take all of the plain text files floating about on and try to write a huge and massively heuristic program that can convert all of them into nice HTML. Sometimes, the complex things are just that: complex, and you can't break them down into nice constituents. For example, HTML Tidy is pretty dense, crappy code, because it's dealing with dense, crappy tagsoup. Random text files present a rather similar problem, so they may have to be dealt with in a rather similar way. Text Tidy?

Strange Strands, Noting and Unnoting, by Sean B. Palmer
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13 Sep 2006

Taxonomy of Documents

I have a lot of notes, essays, articles, specifications, designs, ideas, drafts, code, thoughts, and scribblings that I haven't yet published because there's no suitable framework for doing so. The problem is organising them: I don't like to mix pieces of writing that are on a) different subjects, and b) in various stages of completion. Whenever I've tried to fix this before, I've usually tried to divide things up into as few directories as possible because of my dislike of classifying things. But now I think a much more discrete form of classification is necessary, having a lot of directories for a lot of files, and so I'm starting to work on getting a sense of the most important characteristics of this morass of documentation.

So far I'm classifying along the following guidelines: a) whether the input is in Text or HTML, b) the quality of the input (on a scale from * to ****), c) whether the content is about technology or about other things. There's also a separate couple of factors: i) very rough drafts which don't come into this taxonomy, and ii) essay series that are loosely connected but have a more central driving theme. So far I've basically been coming up with directories that fulfill each of the possible criteria: Text or HTML? *, **, ***, or ****? Technology or Other? Some of them overlap, so it's nice seeing which barriers I don't mind breaking; and others I've been keeping staunchly separate. One interesting thing is that I didn't create any superfluous directories yet.

One test of whether this classification works is whether existing documents fit into it well, and so far it seems that they do, but of course there's always the question of where you put a document that fits into more than one of the categories that you've defined, or one which shifts categories. Same old problem. For example, I had defined a directory for archiving pretty low quality old notes on particular subjects ("topic"), and a directory for higher quality encyclopaedic entries ("about"), until I realised that two of the articles that I'd pegged for the latter—an X-SAMPA table, and some notes about the songs of Robert Johnson—were actually more suited for the former, except I'd been using that as a kind of archival place, to put some existing stuff that didn't really fit elsewhere. It's a bit like the adverb of my classification scheme.

I'm also a little unsure about mixing Text and HTML, which always seems like a shoddy thing to do, but is absolutely necessary for a specifications directory, since most specifications are in HTML, except for Internet-Drafts and RFCs, which are in Text. And of course there's the possibility for PEPs and the like, which might even need yet another category.

Until this is worked out to a high degree of satisfaction, I can't publish any of this stuff, so it's fairly important. I've only really just started to figure out this very broad and discrete classification system; the only other part of it that I'd worked out to a medium degree of satisfaction is a kind of dated directory ("YYYY") thing for all the roughest of the files, the bits of ephemera that I accrue from shell program output and so on. That kind of stuff might be publishable long before any of the more polished stuff, which makes sense because in being less polished I have less to worry about in the manner of its publication.

Strange Strands, Taxonomy of Documents, by Sean B. Palmer
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12 Sep 2006

On John Donne

The title of this entry doesn't, in fact, rhyme as it might appear since Donne is pronounced as the word "done". This is evident in the last couplet of his poem To Sir Henry Wotton: "I thoroughly love; but if myself I've won / To know my rules, I have, and you have DONNE." This is the same piece from which comes the often misquoted line "Be thine own palace, or the world's thy gaol."

Wikipedia says that Donne was a "noumenous" poet, though that word doesn't exist; it seems to be based on noumenon, though I suppose the adjective for that would be noumenonous. I miss being able to middle click on the close tab button to restore them. I wonder if Donne had what Keats calls negative capability, of Gelassenheit... I wonder how many terms for this same quality there are?

Strange Strands, On John Donne, by Sean B. Palmer
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11 Sep 2006

Keyboard Chording

Since the Plan 9 editors, acme and wily, are very hot on mouse chording, I was thinking about how this could be extended to interfaces where chording is impossible, such as on a laptop. Though the biggest problem with editing is how to map the limited amount of keys to various functions (vi uses modes, emacs uses modifier keys), a secondary problem is that even solutions around this tend to be very limited. For example, vi has had to move into double commands such as gq, and emacs has had to use both Ctrl and Meta and double combinations of even those.

Enter keyboard chording. The basic idea is that you use a modal editing interface, and then two letter combinations for commands. But, and here's the novel bit, you a) require them to be two different letters, and b) allow them to be typed backwards. So for example, if "ij" were "paste clipboard", "ji" would do the same thing. This means that you can just hit at shapes on the keyboard and get it to do things. And because it's two character combinations, you get 26 choose 2, i.e. 325, command bindings to use.

As to how realistic this idea is, I'm not sure. In fact, I was thinking about it in the larger context of making editing as transparent as possible. I was thinking about how an editor could intuit what the user was wanting to do, such that flipping modes wouldn't be required. Of course, it's highly improbable that they'd be able to do so with, say, vi-like keybindings. Say I typed a word, and then was about to type the word "key", but then spotted a typo on the line above and wanted to move up to that line instead. I'd hit "k" and expect it to realise that I mean to go up... very implausible indeed. Even with some pretty fuzzy logic or some kind of software that learns, you have to doubt that it'd become that advanced.

So on the other hand, one of the nice things about the keyboard chording idea is that a lot of the pairs are probably going to be very uncommon in everyday input. You can think of it a bit like using the alphabetical keys as modifier keys. So, say, "hj" for back, "kl" for forwards, "jn" for down, and "km" for up... it could work. I suspect that there would be a bit of a learning curve, but with almost all advanced editors that's true anyway.

Beyond this, there's the issue of mapping the best keybindings to the best editing operations for the user. I think that this is something which should be studied more, across a variety of users. There are likely a great deal of shared operations, and a great deal of operations unique to particular users. Generally that's what builtin commands and macros try to cater to, but I doubt that much decent research has been done in the field.

On the other hand there are people like John Cowan, who calls himself an "ex troglodyte", which is to say that he uses the ancient line-mode editor called ex; basically vi without the visual aspect. The colon submodes of vi are what ex can do. This makes me wonder whether the most important factor of fast editing is to learn your editor really, really well; he's been using ex since 1985. But then again, I also wonder whether the simplicity of a line-mode editor has real benefits. I've been outlining a design for a line-mode editor, but I haven't really worked out the whole detail of editing complex documents yet: line-mode editing in general still seems very improbable to me.

Strange Strands, Keyboard Chording, by Sean B. Palmer
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