Archive for April, 2006

Young people today

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

For a really jarring post-modern experience, you want to read this while listening to this. They are both improbable translations of the same song.

If you click on the second link in an open-plan office, you will probably lose your job. You have been warned.


Sunday, April 30th, 2006

I was impressed by the arguments put forward on Language Log that the Harvard student whose novel with a silly name has been withdrawn may well be as innocent as she claims. The longest consecutive stretch of plagiarised words from the novel found by the Harvard Crimson appears to be about 14 words. Now, that can’t be chance, but there is no reason to suppose that it must be deliberate, and a great deal of evidence to suggest that it might not be.

This girl is the product of an elite education. This is a process that will require copying huge quantities of other people’s words before regurgitating them. She’s nineteen, and will have been doing this intensively for the last 12 years or so. It is one of the skills most highly prized by the system. The skill of passsing modern exams consists almost entirely of showing that you have read and remembered the required reading load by sprinkling your prose with checkbox constructions. I don’t think that fourteen word phrases, in such contexts, are regarded as plagiarism. The bar surely goes at whole successive sentences.

So she is trying to write a novel — which I take to be yet another sort of exam. She’s eighteen, so she has nothing to say, but an urgent need to say it, and a gift of elegance. What should be more natural than that the writers she has first absorbed should reappear in her work?

However, I then set out to find the original story, in the Harvard Crimson. It turns out that fourteen words is plenty for successive sentences. In Chicklit. As in Blair. And, if the passages themselves weren’t evidence enough, there is the author’s reaction when the paper phoned her:

When The Crimson reached Viswanathan on her cell phone Saturday night and informed her of the similarities between “Opal Mehta” and “Sloppy Firsts,” the sophomore said, “No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Anyone who reacts like that is guilty. Either you have no comment or you have no idea. But to lose both your opinions and your ideas simultaneously — on a subject of such overwhelming importance as your reputation — shows you have been overwhelmed by shame.

There is also the historical perspective from the glorious Geoffrey Chaucer blog.

Unbudget flights

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

It’s been years since I flew a full-price airline anywhere in Europe. This is partly because i live only about fifteen miles from Stansted, Ryanair’s hub airport; partly because the cheap airlines are so very much cheaper if they are booked in advance. But to Munich I flew British Airways from Heathrow, and suddenly remembered how pleasant air travel used to be.

Some of the difference was in the air. The seats are wide and comfortable in club class; the wine is free and pretty good. Starting from Row 3, you get off the aeroplane quickly. But the real value for money came on the ground. There were no queues anywhere. The new automatic ticket machines print out a boarding pass (and even offer a choice of seats) as soon as you shove in a credit card. Then there was one other person ahead of me in the line to be searched at Heathrow. It’s true that she walked off with my boarding pass, but she did return it quickly.

I can’t remember the last time I flew out of England so easily. In the last five or six years I have only flown to Israel and the USA outside of Europe, and foreigners have to budget at least three hours’ queueing time onto every journey to either of those destinations. El Al want you to turn up four hours before the flight leaves.

Not queueing makes an immense difference to the pleasure of flying. Given a reasonable seat pitch, I don’t really care when the meals come or what they taste like (an exception there for Air France, who serve decent food and wine even in steerage). It would be worth a reasonable premium over Ryanair prices. What’s hateful is spending hours shuffling in a dispirited crowd towards some robotic or humiliating interaction at a desk.

But the cream of the joke is that for this trip BA wasn’t even more expensive. The only competitor among cheap airlines was EasyJet, and by the time I needed to buy a single steerage ticket from Munich, the EasyJet price was more than BA’s — and, actually, more than half a business class BA return ticket bought a month in advance.

In Praise of OUP

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

The news that OUP have done a deal with British libraries1 to make their online reference works available made me rummage around for a piece I wrote in 1996 for British Wired,  when Oliver Morton and Sean Geer were running it. This was about Chadwyck-Healey, a wonderful company, which has vanished into the bowels of Microsoft, but which made stuff that was about the opposite of wikipedia: vastly expensive and thorough databases whose reliability was absolute. I still have their Bible in English, but I never did manage to blag the English Poetry one and save myself £25,000 (plus VAT). The other thing that strikes me, rereading this, is how little has changed in the last ten years of the web. Sure, we say "Google" now, and not "Altavista", and the numbers are bigger, too. But the bubble, though it inflated the universe of the web, did not change its geometry, or its essential qualities. That had already been set. The elements had emerged from the big bang.

Reading poetry on screen is an undeniably strange experience, with something of the strangeness that must have gripped the people who made the first great transition from hearing poetry to reading it on paper. Books, after all, can be read in a very physical way: paperbacks can be mashed open and margins scribbled; a small hardback gripped between the first two fingers and thumb in a gesture that seems as much a physical part of thought as smoking once did.

With computers, there is nothing for our bodies to do. Behind a screen profundity swims as inaccessible and pointless as a goldfish. Slowly, this merely physical strangeness wears off, to be replaced by a deeper one; anyone who loves books has read them in all sorts of ways and places. The deeper weirdness is not in the physical medium through which we study the text. It is the loss of borders..

There are no more front or back covers. The page extends in every direction. You can leap from anywhere in the library to anywhere else. Instead of being selected by publishers, or authors, or even printers, the "next" or "previous" poem is whatever you ’d like. This can be quite a subtle choice. If I want all seventeenth century sonnets mentioning trout the database will find them. But if you want to find all dedicatory poems ever published in Edinburgh by poets whose birthdate is uncertain, you can do that, too. Or a simple listing of all the speeches which any dramatist ever put in the mouth of Faust.

There are some books which are already almost databases. The Oxford English dictionary is the best example; I have never known anyone who has played with the CD-Rom willingly return to the paper version. The Dictionary Of National Biography, if it is ever finished, will be another. But poetry seems different, partly because it often is. The arrangement of poems in a modern book may well be meant to bring out a message; even their arrangement on a page may have this effect, and though a database can preserve spelling and line breaks, it cannot economically preserve typography. A poem in a database will look different, and so to some extent be different, to the same work in a book. Even when the look and typography of each page is preserved on CD-Rom as in the Chadwyck-Healey edition of Tristram Shandy, part of their eighteenth-century literature project, the effect on the reader is necessarily going to be subtly different. Each page, no matter how perfectly reproduced, is framed in a huge and echoing gallery of possibilities. "Until we made the database, the corpus of literature did not exist," says Steven Hall, the marketing director; and in a sense, he is right. There may have been libraries which had every poem in the database, but these would not have formed a coherent anthology or anything like one.

It may seem that this is something very similar to web surfing at the moment. Technically, the two are not far different. The big text databases share a common linguistic ancestry with the World Wide Web; they are both children of SGML, the standard general mark-up language, which was modified to become HTML by Tim Berners-Lee at Cern.

Yet the gap between Chadwyck-Healey’s shelves and the wider web could hardly be deeper, narrow though it seems. You surf the web; you swim in a database. The web grows like an algal bloom, covering everything in a brightly-coloured surface that cannot be controlled or classified. It is full of noise and colour and anything else that can be crammed on. As soon as someone works out a scratch and sniff extension to Netscape it will be all over the web. The pure text parts are often the least successful. The web is almost all surface. It will take you anywhere you like provided you don’t stop to think or ask. The characteristic experience of web surfing is a wild and uncontrollable careen from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica to some tourist board’s web site in Northern Canada and then on to an undergraduate essay, two broken links and the discovery that Altavista indexes 1,200,000 occurrences of the word "God" and only 42 of the phrase "being fucked by". At then end you may be dazzled, exhausted, even happier; but you will hardly be any wiser. The uniform unremitting easiness of it all is just too much; and everything on the web is either easy or impossible.

The other great contrast is that the Web is free, as near as makes no difference. Chadwyck-Healey’s disks start at £1,250 for the Bible set, and run up to £25,000 for English Poetry or the Patrologia Latina. There is something rather chic about four CD-Roms costing more than a four-wheel drive, but they will never become a mass-market goodie, however deeply we move into an information economy.

Yet the significance of the library deal is that they may well become accessible to the masses. I would never spend £195 a year for access to the OED online. But now that the Essex libraries have subscribed to it, I don’t have to. My council tax buys me online access to it, and to the Grove Dictionary of Music and the DNB, all from home. This is completely wonderful. I’m sure that this kind of arrangement, in civilised countries, will turn out to be te way to get markets in reliable information that can deliver it at a fair price. There has to be a middle way between the free and amateur Wikipedia and the authoritative but unaffordable English Poetry. Collective subscriptions, which means libraries of one sort or another, must be it.

1 Thanks. Rupert.

A better vat for the brain in your life

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

An astonishing story from the New Scientist: an engineer at the University of Illinois has built a prototype retinal cell out of silicon. The idea is to replace damaged cells in human retinae with something that is a lot better than nothing. People have played around for years with the idea of implanted surrogate sensory organs which would transmit signals to the nerves behind.

What’s enchanting about this one is that it doesn’t supply electrical signals directly. It is of course electrical but the way it works is that light deforms a piezo-electric crystal which is turn squeezes out a drop of neurotransmitter onto the nerve cells behind, and this chemical stimulation causes the other end to send an electrical impulse. So it turns out that all the science ficiton had things the wrong way round.

All this puts me in mind of Dennett’s essay, referenced by HEB some time back, about the man who is slowly turned into a cyborg: at what point does he stop being himself?

Ongoing improvements

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

Jeremy Henty asked in comments what was the God and Darwin conference. It’s at the British Academy, on Friday this week, and it is sold out. In fact, it was someone in the comments here who told me about it, which has significantly shifted the financial impact of this blog, by costing me an extra £165.00.

I shall have to gut the workers’ pension fund.

As part of the ongoing strategy to meet and surpass investor expectations, many of this blog’s opinions will in future be supplied from an anonymous warehouse in an industrial park on the A14, and facts will in future be collected by seasonal teams of Lithuanian students who sleep in tents and are only seen walking to work at dawn, smoking dark tobacco which leaves a sharp trail in the morning air.

Comments will only be accepted from people who have filled out a registration form containing information that will help us to personalise the information from carefully selected partners that will in future decorate the comment screen. By reading this comment you agree that World Domination Enterprises (who own the registration for this domain) may install selected software components on your computer, mobile phone, and other electronic devices, including but not limited to satellite navigation systems, washing machines, and ATM cards.

This software requires Microsoft Windows™. Windows™ will be installed, for those users without it. IMPORTANT. Mac users, please back up your system before reading this comment.

Emergency exits are located at the front and rear of the aircraft and over the wings. In the unlikely event of a 500 error, lifejackets are located under your seats.

Test …

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

this should be an entry on the sqlite backend.

Ha ha! Movable sodding type: consider yourself pwnzed. I strangle Mena Trott in the intestines of Larry Wall and I dance!

Some short silly links

Friday, April 21st, 2006
  • The man whose idea of fun is picking through slug shit to find what they’ve been eating. With his son.
  • The Peter McKay column in the Mail claims — I can’t find this anywhere online — that the in-house beauticians at a Miami hotel where Gianni Versace was shot “will dye the pubic hair of female guests ‘the exact blue shade of a Tiffany box’. A member of the hotel staff says: ‘We thought this might remind their wealthy husbands of where to shop fr their jewellery’.” This has the ring of untruth to me, and should perhaps be reported to Snopes, But it’s funny.
  • A man named Michael Hampson has written an excellent short book on how the Church of England is fucked. I was asked to blurb it, which is unusual. I did so happily. The thing that really struck me was that it was written in English: the clear and unforced language of a skilled and intelligent person trying to communicate. This may not seem remarkable. But it makes you realise what a very high priority is placed in most language about the Church, on not saying anything about some pretty obvious and important things. It’s called Last Rites, due out in October from Granta.
  • Fantastic comment thread on Pharyngula about the best ways to kill small animals in laboratories.
  • If ever there is a Campaign for Real Patriarchy, it has a new president for life, though he will have to receive the other officers in jail. This story reads like something out of PZ’s book of horrors: The defendant pleaded guilty to nine of the charges under a plea bargain. His lawyer, Harold Seet, told the Guardian that his client acted as he did “because he was troubled by financial matters and his daughters’ interest in the opposite sex”. Mr Seet added: “He said he would prefer to do the act with his daughters so they would not do it with any third parties.”
  • I have double booked myself and must pay a full single air far from Munich to London if I want to attend the Darwinian Religion conference on Friday next week. I blame the software. It’s the first bad thing that Ecco has done to me in ages — it won’t show multi-day appointments in a list view, so I could see, when I checked, that I had no meetings that do; I couldn’t see that I was not having these appointments in Germany.

small spam tweak

Friday, April 21st, 2006

It occurs to me that there is one very simple adjustment could be made to any spam filter: if a message contains “u” and “ur” as separate words, it’s not from anyone I know or want to know. How to tell Spamassassin this?

Final note on SQlite and MT

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

They are two wholly loathsome bits of software. I’m sure it’s possible to run a Movable Type blog on sqlite if you start from scratch, but once you have a couple of thousand entries, it’s impossible to copy everything over. Entries and comments can be exported and imported without to many problems; but all the templates, all the settings, and all the author details are also held in the database, and they are much harder to export and import. That’s MT’s fault.

UPDATED below the fold is the particular contortion I had to go through to get it working with Pair. But in practice the simplest way is to install on your own machine MT, mySQL, and the conversion script.. Since the conversion can take some time (the blogs here make a 7.4 MB file) and will certainly go wrong,1 it’s silly to do them on someone else’s machine where the process may be at any moment interrupted.

SQLite files (*.db3) can be pushed around with FTP programs. For transferring MySQL, the easiest way is to back up on one machine and restore to the other.

1 In particular, you will need to unlink linked template files before trying to convert the database; I also had repeated problems with log entries and had to purge them all.