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
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
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/oldest
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.
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
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
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!
12 Oct 2006
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
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
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/learnlang
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
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/milestone
07 Oct 2006
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
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/foothebar
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/influence
02 Oct 2006
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
Strange Strands, Oracular Music,
by Sean B. Palmer
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/oracular
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
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 rarenewspapers.com 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
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
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/sansmotif
26 Sep 2006
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/commonplace
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
inamidst.com 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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/note
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/doctaxon
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/donne
11 Sep 2006
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
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/strands/keychord