Archive for the 'Cool Stuff' category

 | February 8, 2012 7:47 pm

Note: This morning, I came across a wonderful surprise. Retronaut published a series of eight illustrations of what London might look like if it were to sink below the level of the Thames and become flooded: a second Venice. While the images are lovely, though, the source article from which they come is even more so. It was printed in 1899 by Harmsworth’s Magazine, a monthly picture magazine. I’ve reproduced it below.

“Geologists say that the land upon which London is built has subsided 68 feet during the last 500 years. This doubtless is traceable to substratiform deposits, lunar attraction, or causes equally occult; but whatever it is, the figures 68 disarm suspicion. Assuming that the subsidence is still going on, one can imagine the metropolis some day sinking below Thames level and becoming a second Venice.”

— Daily Paper.

BUT didn’t you know?” asked my travelling companion.

“No!” I answered. “You see, I left England away back in ’99, and I have been virtually cut off from civilisation ever since. In Siberia the reading of newspapers is not encouraged, and letters, even if you have friends at home to write them, have a way of going astray unrivalled in any other country. Until I landed in Hull this morning, I had not had occasion to use the English language for years. So it is little wonder that what you say is surprising news to me.”

” Quite so,” continued the affable gentleman with whom I shared the first-class carriage, ” though we have grown so used to it by this time that we almost forget London ever existed in any other form. Let me see, it must have been in 1910 — the year of the floods — that the last subsidence occurred. It would have come about naturally in time, geologists said, but the climax was certainly precipitated by the Government’s action in allowing London to be undermined to such an extent when the new coal fields were discovered under the city in 1900. We had been steadily raising the embankments of the Thames, but the floods swept these away, and one morning we awoke to find our streets converted into waterways. All manner of remedies were tried, including a Royal Commission, which, by the way, decided only last week that nothing could be done, thus endorsing the public opinion of fifteen years ago. Of course the lower stories of all houses had to be abandoned, save as diving baths, but it was a simple matter to add others. Naturally the old street traffic almost vanished, cabs, ‘buses, and carts giving place to gondolas and steamboats. To begin with, we had to import gondoliers from Venice, to instruct our late cabdrivers in their new craft, at the same time adopting many other features peculiar to the Bride of the Adriatic. These, as you can imagine, have had considerable influence on our customs, our architecture, and even our language. English is still largely spoken, however.

Palazzo Degli Horse Guards

Hullo ! we’ve arrived. ‘Stazione di Pancras’ I think that gendarme called — formerly known as St. Pancras, if I remember rightly.

“Come! hand your bags to the servitori, and let me introduce you to the new London, the Bride di Middlesex, as we proudly term our city. You will stop at the Hotel Cecil, on the Canale, I presume. We shall find gondolas at the other side of this piazza.”

Somewhat bewildered, I alighted from the train and followed my friend, having heard him instruct a cut-throat looking ruffian regarding my luggage in a jargon I could not understand. He led the way across a large paved space on to a kind of quay. What he had described was true.

At our feet stretched a shimmering sheet of water, its surface, in our immediate vicinity, black with countless gondolas, the men standing up in them clamouring loudly for custom. My companion beckoned, and a score glided up as though we had pulled as many strings. Entering one, we took our seats in the cool shade of the awning. “Lago di Hyde, Canale del Regente, Lago di Piccadilly, Croce di Charing, and Grand Canal,” called my friend, and away we sped.

I was dumb with amazement. The dull roar of traffic that I had always associated with London streets had vanished as though it had never been. Save for the rhythmical splash of the oars and the low musical voices of the gondoliers as they passed each other or approached a turning all was silent as the grave.

Cathedral and Piazza Di St. Paul's

Here a prosperous city man, I knew the type — he carried his little basket of fish as of yore — was being whisked off to his suburban home in a fussy little steam affair; there a vision of olive-skinned loveliness, peeping coyly out from behind a fan, flitted past us all too fleetly; now the canals were so broad that even loitering Carter Paterson barges could not impede our passage; now they were so narrow that two gondolas could hardly pass abreast. The houses, flower-decked and sun-kissed, had nothing in common with the houses of my day, though many of them I knew must be the same. The ladies, sipping tea on balconies or tuning mandolins at open windows, seemed more daintily clad than any I had even seen before. Presently we passed beneath an arch that struck me as being familiar, and entered upon a vast expanse of water dotted with islets. Hundreds of other gondolas preceded and followed us. I looked at my guide inquiringly.

“This,” said he, “is the Lago di Hyde, Hyde Park that was in the dull old days, now the only place of its kind in the world. On the largest of the leafy islands that you see, bands play every afternoon and evening, and hither flocks all London — society in its private gondolas, and the people in personally-paddled parties at ten centesimi per head. Over there, that double line of posts marks what was once, I recollect, styled the Row. Tradition dies hard, and here fashionable men and maidens still take exercise in the early morning, now on water bicycles and water skates.”

Lago Di Piccadilly

On we went, threading our way between the islets and through many a quiet side canal, emerging at length into what was introduced to me as the Canale del Regente, but which I recognised as the Regent Street of old, and now undoubtedly rendered one of the most picturesque thoroughfares in the world. This in turn led to the Lago di Piccadilly (once Piccadilly Circus), from which we glided down the Rio di Haymarket, past the Teatro di Her Majesty, into surroundings that strangely recalled Trafalgar Square.

There were the lions, as of yore, save that they seemed to have developed wings, while on the north side was the old National Gallery, though my friend insisted on referring to it as the “Accademia delle belle Arti.” Nelson’s Column, I was glad to see, had been left alone. Leaving the Lago di Trafalgar we presently reached a much broader waterway than I had yet seen. Sheer out of it on one side rose the Houses of Parliament.

“The Canalazzo, or Grand Canal,” explained my companion, “formerly the Thames, Here are held all the water sports and races. This year America is sending over a gondola to compete for the London Cup against Conte Lipton.”

The next landmark recognisable to me was Somerset House, now styled, I learned, the Palazzo or Palace of the Doges; and then I saw the splendid Palazzo of the London County Council, from here being issued all regulations regarding the hours for bathing and the muzzling of the larger kinds of fish.

I had noticed that all the gondolas we had seen were painted black, only the ‘buses and other public vehicles boasted vivid colouring. In Old Venice, I recollected, during the fifteenth century a decree was issued ordering all floating things into mourning, the object being to favour espionage and political intrigue. In a black gondola on a black night the spies of the Government might travel anywhere without fear of detection. Only to ambassadors was given the privilege of decorating their gondolas in colours, and this in order that their movements might be the more easily followed. Some such edict had gone forth in London I concluded.

“The Council of Doges certainly did try something of the sort,” returned my guide in answer to my query, “though not with any great success. In the case of the gondola it wasn’t necessary. The Englishman who can afford to paddle alone is naturally of a sombre disposition, and would no more ride in a gaudy gondola than he would have patronised a yellow cab in the olden times. And as far as the ‘buses were concerned, the Doges’ decrees were as abortive as their attempts to restrict the language of the gondoliers, which, under stress of circumstances, remains a bright crimson as of yore.”

Anyone who has ever lingered in the vicinity of a canal must have realised what a marvellous influence such waterways have upon the rhetoric of skippers. Across the Rio at this moment was wafted to us the sound of voices–those of rival gondoliers holding sweet converse.

“Ten cents all the way to the Banco,” crooned one. “‘Igher up, there! ‘Ave ye bought the whole canal, Marco Giovanni ? Not so much splashing, Corpo Paolo, or I’ll smash yer bulkheads.”

“Garn,” replied the gondolier of a dazzling turn-out in green and gold — obviously a pirate –” I paddled a ‘bus before you eat yer first hokey. Git ‘ome to bed.”


With this pleasantry ringing in our ear we passed under what was pointed out to me as the Bridge of Sighs, but which looked suspiciously like the old Tower Bridge. Now we turned, and ere long we were in another spot familiar to me.

“Here,” said my friend, “you see the Palazzo di Royal Exchange, the Banco, and the Palazzo di Mansion House.”

“The Lord Mayor’s Show,” said I, “must be wonderful in these days.”

“Ah, yes; but you should say ‘carnival,’ and the head of the city is now known as the ‘Syndic’ — not Lord Mayor. It was suggested in some quarters that ‘syndicate’ would be more in keeping with the trend of the times.”

It was growing dusk now, but the most wonderful sight was yet to come. St. Paul’s, rising gaunt and spectral from its aqueous bed, the moon glinting on the lapping waters, the grateful silence, the quaint shadows that followed us down what was once Ludgate Hill, these things painted a memory-picture that will never fade.

One thing was puzzling me as we glided through the Rialto in what was formerly the Strand.

“Has cricket died out in London?” I asked.

“By no means,” was the reply; “on the other hand, we have improved it vastly, thanks to the introduction of water skates and floating wickets, and certainly rendered it far more exciting. I think we shall beat the Australians at the Lago di Lord’s to-morrow. It was very sad; their best bowler slipped on an oil patch and was drowned while playing at the Lago di Oval last week.”

I was not sorry when, shortly after, the gondola stopped at the Hotel di Cecil, and I stood on terra firma again. As I alighted the gondolier broke forth into song.

“Gondolieri drinka beera,” he chanted.

“What means he?” I asked.

“In the picturesque language of his class,” explained my fellow voyager,” he indicates that he will be glad to drink your health.”

” I will throw the lazzarone a lira,” said I, beginning to catch the atmosphere of the place.

*      *      *      *      *

“I think he’ll do,” someone said.

I sat up and gasped, “Is it out?”

I was in a dentist’s chair, recovering from gas — an overdose, I think. Even a normal amount induces strange dreams. My hands clutched a newspaper, and as I glanced at it my eye again caught the paragraph, ” Geologists say that the land upon which London,” etc.

Our photographs are by Messrs. R. Thiele and Co.

Collage of images showing how London might appear if it flooded like Venice.
How Her Majesty's Theatre Wold Look - If London Were Like Venice
If London Were Like Venice, Hyde Park Corner Would be Much Improved
The Banco and Palazzo Di Royal Exchange, If London Were Like Venice
Palazzo Degli Horse Guards
Cathedral and Piazza Di St. Paul's
Lago Di Piccadilly - Late Picadilly Circus
Stazione Di Pancras - the Late St. Pancras Station
Canale Del Regente - One Time Known as Regent Street

Collage of images showing how London might appear if it flooded like Venice.

How Her Majesty's Theatre Wold Look - If London Were Like Venice

If London Were Like Venice, Hyde Park Corner Would be Much Improved

The Banco and Palazzo Di Royal Exchange, If London Were Like Venice

Palazzo Degli Horse Guards

Cathedral and Piazza Di St. Paul's

Lago Di Piccadilly - Late Picadilly Circus

Stazione Di Pancras - the Late St. Pancras Station

Canale Del Regente - One Time Known as Regent Street

— Via Retronaut via Forgotten Futures

 | February 1, 2012 11:06 pm

In this series, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve looked at the basics of Subversion and talked about why you might want to use it for a writing project. We examined some of the advanced features, and how to dive into the history of your work. Then, we detailed how Subversion can be used for collaboration: the way locks help writers to own their ideas, how the log facilitates communication, and the way in which branches help to prepare drafts for review.

There is really only one thing left to talk about: conflicts, errors, and their resolution.

Show me more… »

 | January 30, 2012 2:30 pm

When I started talking about the ways which SVN can enable collaboration, my goal was to show how you can replicate some of the best features of a paper based workflow and then supplement them with the power of digital tools. We’ve already looked at some techniques for doing this, using file locks to promote idea ownership and leveraging the SVN log for communications. In this article, we’ll take a look at one more feature that makes it easier to work with others: using SVN snapshots (or branches) to facilitate the review of your work.

Here, I want to reiterate one important point: creating drafts that can be consumed by others is extremely important. It forces you as an author to find break points where you can send something definitive. Finding these points, where you can draw a line in the sand and say “draft …”,  causes you to solidify your thinking and take an important step toward completion. You may end up throwing the whole thing away because it was ineffectual, but that doesn’t mean the exercise was futile. The process of creating something, a draft, is an enormous step toward completion.  You’ll likely take many such steps, but each one results in a better manuscript.

SVN branches can be a huge help in drawing your lines in the sand.

Show me more… »

 | January 27, 2012 2:30 pm

After reading the previous article, you may have the impression that I think collaborative writing is a bad thing. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. When you write with others:

  • it’s possible to distribute tasks according to individual strengths, meaning that the finished product will (probably) be more than a sum of the parts
  • brainstorming is more effective, more people means more ideas
  • not only will you have more ideas, but as you discuss, challenge, and research the topic amongst the group, you will have different ideas than you might develop on your own
  • having many people working on a project gives it energy and focus, which is tremendously helpful upon entering the hinterland of any project commonly known as “middle”

Collaboration is good, but it is also complicated. It takes a great deal of work for a collaborative project to be success. You have to balance competing needs against one another. On the one hand, it is really important to provide an author the freedom and space required to own her ideas. At the same time, though, you need to make sure that everyone is clearly communicating about the project and where it is headed.

Making sure that everyone is on the same page and that efforts are coordinated is a complex challenge. It requires meaningful discussion happens; establishing a system for sharing documents and knowledge; and that goals, scope, audience, and purpose of the project are well defined. In many ways it shares much in common with another complex endeavor, coordinating the care of a medical patient.

Show me more… »

 | January 25, 2012 8:21 pm

Though they are wonderful tools that have transformed how we live and work, computers also cause about as many problems as they solve. We can see these problems in the way that work has crept into our private time via email; in the ways teenagers choose to socialize with their peers via text messaging and social networks, often to the exclusion of the world around them (and parents); and in the way that we prepare the written drafts of our work.

In each case, these problems aren’t the result of malicious intent. Rather, they were unforeseen consequences of a transformative technology. When it was originally developed, email was a great way to quickly exchange letters with friends and colleagues. Its original designers never intended it to become the way in which a large number of people organize their daily lives. Nor was the introduction of text messaging or social networks meant to cause teenagers (or adults) to socially withdraw into an online world, but to provide an efficient and convenient way to keep people connected. This is also true in the changes that word processors and communications software have brought to the process of writing.

Show me more… »

 | January 24, 2012 7:00 pm

If you’ve read parts one and two of this series, you should now have a pretty good understanding as to what version control is and how it can benefit you. You’ve seen how it can be used to keep a backup of your files, synchronize your work between computers, and ensure that you will never suffer the panic of losing your work.

But that’s really only the beginning. Hopefully, you’ve taken things to the next level and feel comfortable digging into the revision history to look at past drafts, make comparisons between documents, or to see how your work has evolved.

Mastering the basics of version control, followed by the finer points, is a fantastic way to be more productive as a writer. By relegating the job of backup and synchronization to a tool, you can spend more time actually writing (and who doesn’t want that). Having the ability to look at how you’re writing has evolved can make you more thoughtful. Both are powerful additions to the scrivener’s arsenal. If you can believe, it though, there is yet another level which allows Subversion to be even more helpful: using it to work collaboratively.

Show me more… »

 | January 20, 2012 4:30 pm

In the last article in this series, we looked at a few of the features that version control (specifically Subversion) offers to a writer, coder, or editor. These benefits include the ability to track all of the changes made to a file in a project, synchronize your work between different computers, and automatically ensure that everything is backed up. But though these are invaluable contributions to a writer’s workflow, they only scratch the surface of what Subversion is capable of doing.

In the next few posts, I would like to dive a bit deeper and take a look at a few of Subversion’s more advanced features, such as:

  • How to compare newer changes to older versions of a file
  • How to use Subversion’s collaboration features to work with others
  • How you can resolve errors that might arise from incompatible changes made to the same file

Though Subversion’s basic features are tremendously powerful, it’s the advanced options that make it indispensible. You know, the little things that live in the background most of the time, except when you really need them. This rest of this series is about how to leverage those. The first of those features we will look at is the revision history.

Show me more… »

 | November 17, 2011 4:58 am

The shot below was taken at Zion’s National Park in Southern Utah, above the Emerald Pools. In the vernacular of Mormon Pioneers who settled the region, Zion means “Place of Sanctuary.”


 | November 2, 2011 6:07 pm

Since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” several years ago, I’ve been really interested in the question, “What results in success?” Part of the interest is intellectual; the psychology of success is fascinating and surprising. Part of the interest is developmental; like most people, I want to cultivate habits that lead to achievement and impact.

Most of the interest, though, is personal. One of the hats I frequently wear is that of an educator. I’ve mentored medical students, engineering students, and computer science students; and I really enjoy it. More than that, though, I enjoy seeing people succeed. When someone comes up with an improved treatment, product, or idea; it improves the world. I know it’s corny, but still true.

For this reason, I’m fascinated by questions like:

  • What does it mean to be “world-class”?
  • Why it is that so many people never arrive?
  • Are there habits that can be cultivated, traits that can be taught, or ways to share knowledge that can facilitate the journey.

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that I read widely on the subject. This morning, I came across a marvelous article on the, which looks at several of the topics related to world-class success. As good as the article is, though, I really enjoyed the TEDxBlue video that the article linked to. In it, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth expounds on her theories about what makes world-class success.

According to Duckworth, it isn’t intelligence and it isn’t talent. She even argues that it isn’t self discipline, according to the common definition of the word. Rather, what matters is “grit.”

The video is about 18 minutes long and well worth the time.

Show me more… »

 | October 13, 2011 9:43 pm

Fender StratocasterCarefully engineered system or products have a beauty all their own. You can see it in the specifications, prototypes, and especially in the finished product.

I’m not just talking about the physical design. It’s easy to look at a Fende Stratocaster or a furniture design by Ray or Charles Eames and know that it was labored over. Such things are deliberately attractive, and as such, they’re easy to appreciate.

What I’m referring to goes deeper than that. It’s the beauty of a passenger jet, the flow of traffic at rush hour, the solidity of a bridge, the charm of a well-made hat, or the magic of an online purchase; the desirability of clever insights, intelligent choices, profound decisions, and (yes) aesthetics. In sum, it’s the allure of human craft, curiosity, and the desire to push at the impossible; the very distillation of human progress.

Because of this beautiful something, we have better ways to move, build, heal, and … destroy. In the end, it may even be the end of us all, our own Beautiful Apocalypse.

Or, at least that’s what I found myself thinking after watching the following TED video about the STUXNET computer worm. Even with near impossible challenges, some intelligent group of engineers found a way to elegantly wreak havoc.