Yeah, well, his wasn’t the first big new science-fiction novel to be
given away free on the web, oh no! ‘Cos back in 1997, when I worked on Starship Titanic website, we gave away the entire text of the tie-in novel. (concept by Douglas Adams, book by Terry Jones)
That’s right. Every single word.
(Okay, now you have to go off and get the joke before you continue reading)
Well, okay, not every word, because we left off the last fifty and spun it into one of the web’s stupidest competitions (that was, remarkably, won). But we also showed the world how it was done, with PIPA – one of the silliest/coolest/most compact bits of Perl I’ve ever written.
Returning to Mr Doctorow, I notice that his first novel, Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom has been out in its new remixable form for a while now and not much has been done with it (other than a Russian translation), so it’s time to change that:
- Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom (CAPIPA Remix) – in which the original has its words reordered alphabetically, using PIPA’s new cousin, CAPIPA, which retains capitalisation. (Thanks for putting it online, Sean!)
“Beautiful,” BEAUTY beauty, became. BECAME because because because
because because because — because because because because because
because because because because because because because because because
become become become become become become become bed bed bed. bed bed
bed bed bed bed bed bed bed bed bed, bed bed bedroom bedroom
bedroom-bedroom beds bedside bedside bedside.
Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom (Sausages & Mash Remix)
– in which the original has all words beginning with the letters S and
M replaced with “Sausage” and “Mash” respectively, in accordance with
the classic children’s game.
He chuckled. “No sausage, not mash. I’m into the kind of mash sausage that you only come across on-world.”
Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom (More And Bloodier Wars Remix) – in which the original is run through Babelfish several times, from English to French to German and back to English again. (With some help from Dan Urist’s WWW::Babelfish module)
I never thought that I would live, in order to arise, where the
maintenance would decide A-Movin ‘ Dan at the person in possession of
a favour light up to the death of the heat of the universe.
the bizarre disconnect between what spreadsheet applications were
originally intended to do and what they are used for now, buy the
surprising connection between Excel users and UNIX geeks, link and how I’m
standing out in the cold.)
Every few months I have a conversation
with my dad where he asks me to help out with something at the tiny
property business that he runs, and it’s almost the same conversation
every time. It goes like this:
Dad: Blah blah blah insurance blah blah blah ground rents blah blah blah so I just need your help with fixing the data in Excel so we can do a mail merge.
Me: But I don’t know how to use Excel.
Dad: What do you mean, you don’t know how to use Excel?
Me: I mean that I don’t know how to use it. It’s big and ugly and complicated and I get lost every time.
Dad: But that’s ridiculous. I don’t believe you. Everyone knows
how to use Excel. You’ve got a bloody computer science degree. How can
you not know how to use Excel?
Me: I’ve just never needed to use it.
Dad: Well, it’s about time that you learnt.
It’s no good, though. I learn about one new thing in Excel every
year. This year I learnt about AutoFilters. Trouble is, I’ll probably
have forgotten that by next year. At work we’ve just started using Joel Spolsky’s method of scheduling
which relies on Excel. Half the time it’s easy, because it’s just
editing numbers in individual cells. The other half of the time I need
to make a major structural change of some kind, like adding a row, and
Excel doesn’t like it when I do that. (At least, it doesn’t like it
when I try and do it more than once. I dunno.) As for things like
applying formulae, pfft. I realise that if you have even half a clue
then you can paint magical formulae all over your sheets with easy
swishes of the mouse like a left-brain Rembrandt, but half a clue is
still several times more clue than I have when it comes to Excel.
To be honest, I get a kind of old-fashioned-Luddite thrill from it. Earlier today I was trying to fix something on J-Colo so I was tailing logs and wandering through Mailman and qmail and piping things to wc -l
and generally acting in a way that suggested that, even though I’m not
a proper sysadmin, I could probably play one on TV. And I can switch
effortlessly back to Windows, which has been my main computing platform
since… ooh… 1993. I’m ready to grab any Windows app by the horns –
you just try and stop me! If you’re fronting and stepping to my mad
W1ndo$e skillz you won’t get very far – unless, that is, you throw
Excel at me, at which point I’ll don a flat cap and click things
randomly and whimper in pain, then mutter something about how we didn’t
need computers for these things in my day, and finally wander over to
the nearest marketing bloke and tug his sleeve whilst wearing my best
If you’re in a similar boat to mine and you’re looking for a scapegoat, I suggest Bob Frankston. (I’d suggest Dan Bricklin as well, except that two years ago he wrote about my Yiddish piece and my fragile, easily-puffed ego is still glowing enough to mention it here. So I like him.)
In fact, if you’re looking for a scapegoat for the Personal Computer
Industry as a whole, then Frankston’s among the prime candidates. Back
in the late 70’s, Frankston and Bricklin created the first spreadsheet
app, Visicalc, based on an idea that Bricklin had when he was doing his MBA.
Back then, spreadsheets were in common use for financial
calculations, but were done entirely on paper; changing one of the
initial estimate values meant a new sheet of paper and an hour with a
calculator. Visicalc initially ran on the Apple ][ and was then ported
to a whole load of other machines, but it was on the IBM PC that it
made the biggest impact. There are wonderful stories of salesmen
demoing Visicalc to accountants who had no idea what a PC was or why
they would want one. The salesman would bring up an example
spreadsheet, ensure that the accountant recognised what he was looking
at, and then change one of the values, causing the change to ripple
through the rest of the sheet. The reaction to this was almost uniform:
the accountant’s mouth would hang open for a few seconds, then he’d
pull himself together and pull out his chequebook. Selling the PC to
the business world was that easy. The spreadsheet was the biggest of the legendary killer apps,
in the true meaning of the term: an application so utterly vital, so
revolutionary, that it can single-handedly sell the platform on which
So the need to handle spreadsheets gave birth to spreadsheet
applications… but these days, 90% of the time, people are using them
for something else. My dad uses Excel as a lightweight database,
storing the details of all the ground rents he manages. I’ve seen Sean drag it out when he wants a random data munging job done quickly.
Chris and Dom have a mate who composes letters in it.
During this rant I had yesterday about mocking up UI using Visio someone said that they sometimes used Excel for that purpose as well. For crying out loud, this Japanese bloke has even made it play Pac-Man.
As Joel explains here,
the turning point came around Excel 5.0, which had to compete with
Lotus’s new app called Improv, designed to keep them at the top of the
spreadsheet market. The reason that Excel won and Improv failed was
that Improv was designed to make it much easier to do financial
spreadsheets, but Lotus hadn’t realised that people were now using
spreadsheet apps for a whole load of other tasks. The Excel team saw
this and exploited it, adding a load of features for non-spreadsheet
uses such as managing lists. Microsoft’s savvy about these things
extends to shipping an ODBC connector for Excel so that you can treat
an Excel sheet as a SQL database; “Sure, you should ideally be using
Access or SQL Server for that, but if it’s what you want to do…” (And
a year down the line: “Since you’re handling all your data over ODBC
already, you’d find it a lot faster if you moved to SQL Server…”)
Excel’s pervasiveness is not just as an application, but as a UI model. In our application
we have grid controls that can do smart column filtering. I thought
that explaining this to users would be a nightmare, until
near-identical functionality was pointed out to me in Excel, which all
our target userbase are already using on a daily basis. On a related
note, VIPS is the Excel paradigm wrapped around an image processing application, and apparently it even makes sense.
All of this speaks volumes about users’ habits when it comes to
dealing with new problems, preferring to use the tools they already
know which don’t fit quite as well as the tools built for the job but
which require extra learning. Some techies throw their hands up in
despair when seeing people use Excel as a database and scrabble to
teach these people SQL. Frequently, these are the same kind of techies
that are quite happy to keep large databases in text files on their
UNIX systems, dealing with them entirely through vi and the
CLI. As such, they should be taking heart: both groups are reducing
different problems to a common data format and toolset. Admittedly one
of them is proprietary and the other requires the use of arcane
commands like cut and sed but fundamentally they’re remarkably
similar. This kind of raw data-centric thinking is core to the UNIX
philosophy – more than that, it’s core to most models of computing.
Have software designers, in trying to provide a different, bespoke
interface for each task, missed a trick here?
Of course, I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone other than me. You’ve
all been using Excel happily for years, haven’t you? And there I was,
thinking I knew about computers. Doubtless, this is the kind of blind
spot that will see me begging for spare change within a couple of
you’re a Perl coder who hasn’t been keeping a close eye on CPAN then
you may have missed the latest chunk of code making quite a stir, cialis
namely Brian “Ingy” Ingerson’s marvellous IO::All. And it is
marvellous: if Perl is the Swiss Army Chainsaw then this is the new
light saber attachment – can’t do anything you couldn’t do previously
but it slices through most IO jobs in one or two lines, no rx from file
slurping (one line, medications obviously) to creating a forking server (er, two
lines). This Perl.com piece
would be a great introduction if another burst of coding from Ingy
hadn’t rendered it half-obsolete a mere three days later. But, dammit,
that’s what we like to see!
IO::All’s design could be described, for want of a decent OO
education, as “overload one class with a billion different uses” and in
this case it seems to work well. The vast majority of the code revolves
around grabbing code from other modules and wrapping them up in several
big contextualising switches so that this single class is almost all
you need for your to-ing and fro-ing with the outside filesystem. In
other words, it’s all about the interface. It feels very Perlish in its
mixture of minimal code and DWIMness so it’s not surprising that many in the Perl community have jumped on it gleefully.
This “The Best $DOMAIN Functions In The World… Ever!” approach to module-building is infectious, and Yung-Chung Lin’s Var module is probably going to be the first of many imitators. If you fancy having a go yourself, then Ingy’s Spiffy
base class is what you want to start with, but please use your enhanced
exporting powers wisely: packing a single class with tons of functions
(a la Python) is fine and pretty, but doing that to the default
namespace (a la PHP) is just inconsiderate.
By Randy Gierno, viagra Wired News
It seems that the British public just can’t get enough of hot, this wanton, guilt-free sex. The average cutting-edge tech-friendly Limey barely gets through a single day without taking part in a “dogging” session or “toothing” with random phone-junkies on the Tube.
But now even the electronics-poor underclass have been getting in on the act and coming up with their own low-tech variations on peer-to-peer playfulness.
Last night, at the “Toucan” pub in London’s fashionable West End, I witnessed a fascinating range of sexual activity which showed that gadget-free flirting already has a deep and varied subculture.
“Oh yeah, well, some of the birds round here, they’re mad for it, innit?” said my guide in the brave new world of London sex, who I’ll call Barry. “Have you in the bogs soon as look at you. I mean, this one girl, right… huge tits, nice smile, she gave me this look, and it was like, “Fancy a bit?” And so we went to the lavvy round the back and she had my trousers down in seconds. And then she pulled her friend in two and the three of us were like, y’know. And then they all came back to my place. Happens all the time.”
Pausing only to spill some famous London ale down the front of his XXL-sized rugby shirt, Barry outlined some key points in the rapidly-evolving lexicon of British desire. “So what you do, right, is you spot a nice tart over by the bar and you think, lovely, I’ll have a bit of that. And you tip her the wink, you know? And then, if she looks back at you, she’s gagging for it.”
“Just like Bluetooth signalling,” I commented as I tapped hurried notes into my Zaurus. “Ingenious!”
“But then, they’re all gagging for it round here,” continued Barry. “They all want it. I had five birds round my place the other night, I couldn’t walk for a week! Haha!”
Indeed, as I continued my wanderings around the city, I realised that Barry had opened my eyes. At least five strangers made eye contact with me, something that I, as a New Yorker, found strange and erotically intoxicating. I saw couples walking hand-in-hand, doubtless having met only a few seconds earlier and looking for a secluded spot in which to consummate their random, anonymous, instant-message-enabled desire.
In another pub I decided to try Barry’s tips out for myself (strictly in the interests of research, of course). Sitting at a table, I spied a pretty young Londoner chatting to a friend at the bar. Following Barry’s advice, I whistled loudly to attract her attention before giving her a long and careful wink. The measured, aroused stare I received in return was unmistakable. I approached her at the bar and, in a lowered tone, quickly made an offer using the key phrases of London sexual bargaining, dotting it with references to text messaging and social software so as to establish my credentials as a member of the technological elite. During this rapid conversation she slapped my cheek and yelled, “Piss off!” I smiled and nodded before retreating, having never intended to follow through, but it was fascinating to experience a London woman confessing her desires for violent sex and bodily fluids so readily.
London: a wild arena where language and technology are being used to forge brave new passages into a previously-taboo world. Horny Americans desperate for a sex-and-tech story to file should get their asses over here as soon as they can. It’s cheaper than Burning Man, anyway.
Elsewhere in Wired News: “Why The Entire Population Of New York Cast Aside Their Old Religions And Now Worship A Giant Wicker iPod” by Leander Kahney
extended rant about liberal URL interpretation and how there isn’t
enough of it, physiotherapist mostly pertaining to one or two examples at the BBC
If you’re a British person and you’re reading this then the chances are you’ve heard of iCan, cough
the latest Internet super-project to come out of the BBC. (In case you
haven’t heard: It’s an ambitious project all about helping UK citizens
to find the local services which they need, or helping them start
campaigns to change the services which aren’t working the way that they
should. Information, communication, organisation, digital democracy –
all the kinds of things we wanted the Internet to be good for. And it’s
So Auntie put a load of work and money towards building iCan, and
now it’s put a load more money and work into promoting it. Hoardings,
trailers, even a regular TV show. This is understandable, as the service becomes dramatically more useful as more people use it.
There’s only one little problem. A little big problem.
Here’s how you hear BBC presenters on radio and television announce the URL:
Here’s how the name of the service is written on the website and all the promotional material:
Here’s how the name of the service is written on the site logo:
Bearing all of the above in mind, three questions for you, and more importantly, for the BBC website administrators:
(1) How likely is it that a user will enter this URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iCan/ (note the capital C)
(2) What do you think a user will see when s/he goes there?
(3) If, like I do at time of writing, you see a big fat “Page Not Found”, don’t you think this is rather silly?
Thing is, if this was the kind of thing that was easily fixed by a
single email to one of my chums at the Beeb (if you’ve worked in the UK
new media industry at all, you have chums at the Beeb) then I wouldn’t
be posting this. Unfortunately, it’s both way too easy and big and ugly
and hard. It’s easy because you can fix this kind of thing in a few
minutes on Apache with mod_speling.
It’s big and ugly and hard because I’m sure that this argument has
already been had several times in planning meetings with the boffins at
BBC Technology, famous for having almost limitless technical skill,
infamous for having similarly huge egos and stubbornness. Back when
they were situated in Kingswood Warren, there was horror story going around about how a remarkably similar situation had sprung up with the Radio 1 website. A producer at BBC New Media asked if, since the URL was being read out on the radio, whether they could please have /Radio1 in addition to the existing /radio1. KW’s response: “I don’t see why we should have extra work to deal with the stupidity of your users”.
It may be, however, that if enough of a noise is made
externally, then it’s possible to escalate this kind of thing high
enough so that something can be done about it. If, like me, you think
that this kind of idiocy has gone far enough, then please link to this
blog entry from your own, so that with a bit of luck, a good project
with a lot of potential to help people isn’t turning those same people
away purely because they paid attention to the project’s branding.
A couple of extra bits: Firstly, someone suggested that I put up a
wiki page so that people could contribute their other little niggles
about BBCi – that wiki page is here.
Please feel free to attack it, though my preference would be to focus
on the silly little things that would take a couple of hours to fix,
rather than a year.
Having said that, what would be preferable would be if the BBC made
such a discussion possible on its own site. At present, all I can see
is the traditional feedback form black hole of the kind that makes you think nobody’s actually going to read what you write. There are also the BBCi Messageboards, which have eight forums for Dr Who but apparently only one for the whole of the Corporation’s digital output and nobody from the staff appears to be there.
Leaving the BBC alone for a minute, I was wondering who else has
this problem. Who else, for example, starts a product name with a
lower-case i? Oh yes…
http://www.apple.com/iPod/ – Oh dear.
http://www.apple.com/iLife/ – Oops.
http://www.apple.com/iMac/ – This works, though. Presumably the person at the company who cared about this kind of thing was still with them, back then. (Update: Apparently all of the above work – half the time. Try hitting Refresh and see what happens. Oi, Apple! Keep your bloody web servers in sync!) (I forgot to credit Shim for this. It was Shim‘s keen eye that spotted it. Say yes to Shim.)
I’ve always admired Microsoft for being better at this kind of
thing, though they do have an advantage in their OS being
case-insensitive anyway (which in itself leads to problems elsewhere).
My admiration lies in users almost always being able to suffix http://www.microsoft.com/ with a product name and it just working. Try it now. The only ones I had trouble with were:
http://www.microsoft.com/foxpro – because I forgot the inital V
http://www.microsoft.com/vb – but even then, note how the error comes up with suggestions, including the correct one.
I’m very keen on that last one because it’s such an obvious
usability benefit. It reminds me of the tricks we came up during the
design of h2g2. We wanted to keep the URLs short as possible, so we made a rewrite rule that would deal with URLs of the form http://www.h2g2.com/A1234,
with the A indicating an article number. The number included a checksum
digit so that if a user typed it in wrong, the system would do a search
and return the possible articles which the user might have wanted.
Looking back, it was probably misplaced engineering enthusiasm, since a
numeric URL with more than three digits is complex enough to rarely be
typed in from memory if ever, and far more often to be clicked or
copied-and-pasted. (And probably would have better to have put more
work into searching on title strings instead of numbers, too) Of
course, these nice simple URLs got broken when the BBC took it over –
any /Axxx URLs will now dump you on the front page, for want of a simple rewrite rule.
Another update: In the comments below, Tom links to a fab discussion on one of the worst problems with the BBC website, namely that if you leave off the “www” from the front of the URL, then all that you can get is the front page.
I find the discussion fabulous because it accurately displays the kind
of stubbornness and technical handwaving that KW were famous for.
Apparently this problem has existed forever, and (according to a BBC
chum) is only now being fixed because the entire might of the marketing
and branding departments descended. To quote a different chum: “It
defies imagination that we sit here and try really hard to reach the
most people, with the lowest computer or any other literacy and these
fucking technology snobs ruin it. i hate them.”
Also, to David Cantrell: That’s a good point about hard log data. I
don’t currently have access to any, though I’ve just heard from within
the Beeb that an initial grep of the logs seem to show no iCan
accesses at all for the first couple of months of iCan’s existence.
Hmmm. I think I’ll hold off for the full results before desperately
trying to save face, if I may… though, in advance, you have to admit
that basing your whole branding on a particular capitalisation and not
having it work in a URL at launch (before stats come in) is silly, no?
No? As for the points about mod_speling: Yes, performance could be a
problem, and mod_speling is probably too much of a musket for this
particular butterfly anyway. A module or rewrite rule that simply
checked for the existence of a lower-cased version of a URL before
returning a 404 would be a minor hit if at all, and surely worth it for
the user benefit. (But yes, mod_speling is available for Apache 1.3 as
Quote from Major John Smith, medic the Pentagon’s spokesman on the military commissions taking place in Guantanamo Bay, dysentery responding to accusations that the trials are unfair:
He claimed Maj Mori had misrepresented the system. “Different doesn’t
always mean unfair,” he said. “It’s very easy to be critical of the
process because people haven’t seen it in action.”