Debugging the writing process

July 19th, 2003

At the recent USENIX conference Neal Stephenson delivered a keynote address in which he drew some parallels between writing and computer programming. What's the best approach? Do you bash out version 0.1 quickly and go through lots of debugging cycles, or concentrate on refining your ideas until you're ready to go straight to Release Candidate 1?

I'm sure Stephenson wouldn't be so egotistical as to insist that every writer follow his advice, but it's still a neat perspective on the age-old problem of how best to write a novel.

[Via Scott Rosenberg's Links and Comment]

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July 18th, 2003

Only in Japan (but not a bad idea by any means): the ClicknJoy mouse/fan combo.

[Via Boing Boing]

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Split Bill

July 18th, 2003

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill is going to be released in two 90-minutes parts later this year. By contrast with the Matrix sequels, the films will be released within a couple of months of one another.

The implication that it's purely the first cut's three hour running time which prompted the decision to split the story in two is a worry. It's certainly a better option than forcing Tarantino to cut out 90 minutes of the story he wanted to tell, but would a three hour film really have been such a dreadful idea? I mean, if Kevin Costner could get studios to let him make 180-minute epics when his career was on the up, why can't a genuinely talented (and successful) director like Tarantino?


OS X Hints

July 16th, 2003

Apple have put up a page of Javascript bookmarklets for Safari. The most useful are the last two, which allow you to reset the size of a Safari window with a single click – handy when you want to jump back to your preferred window size after a popup window has messed with your new window size. (However, you should note the corrections for a syntax error pointed out by JackSim in the first comment in this discussion thread at macosxhints.

While I'm on the subject of useful tricks for OS X, this hint allows you to force to display emails in plain text by default if the email contains both HTML and Text versions of a message. Very handy indeed, even though it really should have been an option in a configuration dialog box.

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Bulwer-Lytton results

July 16th, 2003

This year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results are out. I wasn't impressed with the overall winner, but I did like this entry:

Winner: "All Creatures Great and Small" Category

His knowing brown eyes held her gaze for a seeming eternity, his powerful arms clasped her slim body in an irresistible embrace, and from his broad, hairy chest a primal smell of "male" tantalized her nostrils; "Looks like another long night in the ape house" thought veterinarian Abigail Brown as she gingerly reached for the constipated gorilla's suppository.

Paul Jeffery, Oxford, England

This Dishonourable Mention in the Romance category is pretty fine too:

"Although Sara could believe the brassiere she had found was from a mix-up at the laundromat, that the lipstick on Bill's collar really had been from a cramped elevator, that the stiletto heel was indeed something the cat dragged in, when she pulled Chloe's unmistakable prosthetic arm from under the bed, she realized she had been played for a fool."

Nicholas R. Eaton, Saint Charles, MO

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Smeagolian Rhapsody

July 16th, 2003

To be sung to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody: Smeagolian Rhapsody by Precioussss:

Isss this the real life?

Isss this just fantasy?

Caught in my dark cave

No escape from reality

Open our eyes

Look up to the caves and see

I'm just a poor Smeagol, we needs no sympathy

Because we's easy comes, easy goes

A little high, little low, gollum

Anyway the stream flows, doesn't really matter to us, to us


I'd love to see what the WETA Digital team could do with this. It'd make a great follow-up to Gollum's MTV Movie Awards acceptance speech.

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Paranoid? I don't think so!

July 15th, 2003

A "flyborg" has escaped from Professor Noel Sharkey's "colony" of intelligent robots in Rotherham.

<paranoia level="high">

I know they say it just got caught up by a strong gust of wind, but they would, wouldn't they? If this is the second attempted escape they've been forced to admit to, how many of the little buggers have had their escape hushed up? What happens if they start breeding in the wild? It's going to end badly, I tell you…!


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Di Another Day?

July 15th, 2003

Contrary to earlier reports, Marvel have decided not to recruit Diana, Princess of Wales to a mutant superhero team.

Can I just say that if they had decided to go ahead I sincerely hope they'd have changed the title of the storyline: "Di Another Day" indeed! Perhaps it wasn't a case of an intervention from Buckingham Palace which made the difference so much as the combined might of the Broccoli and Fleming estates.

[Via The Sideshow]

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July 14th, 2003

Prompted by a Sunday Times article suggesting that women and men think differently about how they want their gadgets and software to work, Dan Hon has written a first rate explanation of exactly why it's a mistake to assume that a program's user interface is complicated for no better reason that that it's had too many features bolted on. (I'm afraid that brief description doesn't do the post justice at all. Let's just say that if you're at all interested in the relationship between the usability and complexity of software, just go and read it.)

Talking of software and user interfaces, Danny O'Brien is very excited about dashboard, which is essentially a "remembrance agent" for Linux. A remembrance agent watches what you're doing with your computer and unobtrusively offers related information from other programs. For example, if you're reading an email from a friend, dashboard might display a link to the friend's web page, to your recent IM conversations, and the friend's address book entry.

Danny O'Brien comments that the user interface and functionality of most of Microsoft's software aims squarely at the US corporate market, with personal users an afterthought. Sure, they'll throw in the odd template for a birthday card, but ultimately they make their money selling software that meets the needs of businesses. He thinks this leaves an opportunity for Open Source software – and possibly Apple – to fill that gap in the market. I certainly hope so: I'd dearly love to see an OS X port of dashboard some time soon.


League of Ordinary Gentlemen

July 14th, 2003

Judging by the reviews, the film of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is as disastrous as expected. Douglas Wolk has written a decent analysis (NB: New York Times article – free registration required) of the yawning gap between Alan Moore's version of the characters and Stephen Norrington's:

When we first see Mr. Moore's version of Allan Quatermain, the explorer who searched for King Solomon's mines has become a helpless addict in a Cairo opium den, his spirit devoured by the temptations of the Empire. The comic's Captain Nemo is, as Jules Verne described him in "The Mysterious Island," an Indian prince who had rebelled against the British occupation; Count Dracula's victim Mina has been "ravished by a foreigner and all that," and flouts social codes shockingly — she even smokes. The threats the League faces are the deep anxieties of Victorian England that bubbled up through the technophilia and xenophobia of its pulp fiction: aerial bombardment, terrible scientific weaponry, uprisings by "Johnny Chinaman" and "Mohammedan rabble."

In the movie, which opened Friday, all of that delicious subtext is gone, replaced by blockbuster-standard clichés. Mina, for instance, is a terror not because she's a "fallen woman" who doesn't know her place, but because she's a vampire who rips her enemies' throats out with her fangs. And Allan Quatermain — played by Sean Connery, who is also one of the film's executive producers — is not just unambiguously heroic, he is annoyingly perfect.

He first appears rising out of an easy chair in a Nairobi gentlemen's club to slaughter a roomful of gun-toting attackers without breaking a sweat. When a British flag falls on one bad guy's impaled corpse, Mr. Connery mutters "Rule Britannia," perhaps momentarily forgetting that he is not playing his most familiar role.

I just hope nobody ever gets round to putting Moore's Watchmen on the big screen: I just couldn't take the pain.

[Via Lots of Co.]

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Biotech humour

July 14th, 2003

I couldn't resist stealing this joke from Betsy Devine:

If you pushed your naked clone off the top of a tall building, would it be:

A) murder?

B) suicide?

C) merely making an obscene clone fall?

You may groan now…



July 14th, 2003

Who needs a partner to snuggle with when you can have a weblog > Monday, July 14, 2003" href="">Hug-A-Pillow?

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July 13th, 2003

This BBC News headline says it all, really: Lightning strikes woman's tongue stud.

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Crime and Punishment

July 12th, 2003

Nick Davies has written a tremendously depressing article for the Guardian, charting in excruciating detail how an attempt to get different agencies within and without the criminal justice system to pool information, set priorities in each area according to the community's needs and come up with innovative approaches to tackling the causes of crime got bogged down in a never-ending stream of departmental reorganisations, budgetary hassles, top-down target-setting and short-termism.

There is a perfect glimpse of partnership life on the ground in a recent report by the inspector of probation, Rod Morgan, who looked at what happened when the government told the probation service to run the new drug treatment and testing orders (DTTOs), which allowed courts to order drug users to accept treatment. The order came through in June 2000. Probation set off in October without any infrastructure to run the scheme. By that time it was halfway into reorganising itself for April 2001 into 42 new areas, eight of which were amalgamations needing new budgets and plans. By December, the DATs, who were its key partners in the exercise, were also being reorganised – new teams, new boundaries, more new plans. In April 2001 probation was given £36m to run the scheme. Weeks later half of it was taken away from it and given to the new national treatment agency (NTA) which was to run the DATs. More new plans – but not until the NTA agreed who was going to spend what, and it didn't start work until the autumn. That dispute was still running in early 2002 when the entire national health service, which was delivering the key treatment for the drug users, was reorganised – more new boundaries and plans.

What comes across most strongly is the government's addiction to management-by-reorganisation. After all the restructurings described in Davies' article, perhaps a five-year moratorium on redrawing departmental boundaries would be in order.

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The Wire

July 12th, 2003

I do wish one of the terrestrial TV channels would pick up the rights to David Simon's The Wire. Every time I read a glowing review like this one from Heather Havrilesky (NB/: Salon article – non-subscribers are required to view a 15-second advert before accessing the article) I'm reminded of how much I miss Homicide: Life on the Street.


Giving a new meaning to the term "Open Government"

July 12th, 2003

Bob Cringely is not at all convinced that it's a good idea for governments to keep building ever larger repositories of surveillance and intelligence data about their own citizens. Quite apart from the question of whether we want governments to have all that data about us, there's the question of who else could be misusing it.

Consider this anecdote about CALEA, the system the US government has required telecoms companies to install since 1995 to facilitate surveillance of telecommunications data:

The typical CALEA installation on a Siemens ESWD or a Lucent 5E or a Nortel DMS 500 runs on a Sun workstation sitting in the machine room down at the phone company. The workstation is password protected, but it typically doesn't run Secure Solaris. It often does not lie behind a firewall. Heck, it usually doesn't even lie behind a door. It has a direct connection to the Internet because, believe it or not, that is how the wiretap data is collected and transmitted. And by just about any measure, that workstation doesn't meet federal standards for evidence integrity.

And it can be hacked.

And it has been.

Israeli companies, spies, and gangsters have hacked CALEA for fun and profit, as have the Russians and probably others, too. They have used our own system of electronic wiretaps to wiretap US, because you see that's the problem: CALEA works for anyone who knows how to run it. Not all smart programmers are Americans or wear white hats. We should know that by now. CALEA has probably given up as much information as it has gathered. Part of this is attributable to poor design and execution, part to pure laziness, part to the impossibility of keeping such a complex yet accessible system totally secure, and part because hey, they're cops, they're good guys. Give 'em a break. Have a donut.

This vulnerability is never discussed in public because it is an embarrassment to law enforcement and because the agencies that pay for CALEA don't want its vulnerability to be known. That might compromise national security. Alas, national security is already compromised by the system itself, and the people who might take advantage of the vulnerability have known about it for years. Only we are kept in the dark.

Perhaps the masterminds who implemented CALEA should move into the electronic voting systems market: they'd fit right in.

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The Natural World

July 12th, 2003

This week's MSNBC The Week in Pictures contains two really striking images. Fighting the foam depicts a bridge spanning what looks to be an alien landscape but is in fact a horribly polluted river in Brazil. By way of a contrast, Daisy chain presents a very much more pleasing image of a daisy, seen from an unusual angle.

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July 12th, 2003

Jeff Vogel has posted another volume in The Story About the Toddler. He's an evil, evil man:

The Little Pleasures That Make Life Worthwhile

I was taking Cordelia out of her car seat and she hit me. So I said, "No." And then she hit me again. And I said, "No!" And she swung at me again, missed, and smacked herself in the nose.

I suppose it is wrong for a parent to ever delight in the tears of their child. However, on occasion, I think it is all right to silently enjoy it when providence provides a little bit of unexpected justice.

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July 11th, 2003

I'm not going to sleep well tonight for thinking about this poor kid.

[Via MetaFilter]

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I feel dizzy…

July 11th, 2003

If you can look at this photograph without feeling a touch of vertigo then you're a better man than I…

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