Archive for the 'Miscellaneum' category

 | March 20, 2012 11:18 am

I saw this quote on Fountly and quite liked it:

"Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else."

It’s attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci.*


* I’m highly skeptical of this attribution and want to see a reference. Even better would be to see the quote in context. Most of Leonardo’s words of wisdom come via his notebooks, and that’s not usually how he wrote things in his notebooks. For the open source writing book, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the notebook translations, and this just doesn’t sound like Leo. Mostly because Leo didn’t seem to be that concerned with others copying him. He enjoyed being emulated. With all that said, I still like the quote. (Even though it is an error to map modern sensibilities onto our ancient role models.)

 | 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

 | January 11, 2012 4:33 pm

As part of the new year, my wife and I have been organizing our storage room (which we’ve traditionally referred to as the box room). After tidying a bit – which amounted to adding wedding gifts that we’ll be giving to others, organizing the assorted boxes and bags to be used for future gift wrapping, piling up Christmas decorations, shelving the book collections of two rather bookish people, sorting the supplies of someone who is expected to be “crafty” in her spare time,1 and cataloging a collection of stuffed bears spanning some thirty years– the old name no longer seemed to fit. So … we spent a bit of time brainstorming a new name. Here’s what we came up with:

The beautiful and bountiful boutique of books, boxes, bows, bowls, bags, balls, beads, basil, bears, and other beautiful beasties.

or, “the b14box room”, for short.


  1. The modern expectations of women seem rather unfair. Not only are they expected to be intelligent, sophisticated, and ruthlessly competent, but also must excel in all manners of other crafty endeavors. It somehow seems that being a physicist in one’s day job ought to suffice …
 | November 29, 2011 8:34 pm

Sometimes it’s important to be extremely fussy about otherwise inconsequential things. There’s a reason why people fight over the proper pronunciation of már ‘habitation in Quenya (the m takes on an mb sound), pirates versus ninjas, and the proper placement of footnotes. It’s not that any of these particularly matter, but when pronounced, understood, or typeset correctly, such miscellanea greatly enrich the world.

For months, I’ve been distressed about how LaTeX handles footnotes. (Which, to be clear, is much better than how Word handles them.) Notes are used for subordinate details, which provide additional information, insight, and wit. In that role, they provide an important supplement to the main text.

Depending on which type of note you choose to use – foot, end, or side – there are certain rules which govern how they should be typeset. Robert Bringhurst, author of “The Elements of Typographic Style” and the authority on book typography lays it out pretty well:

Footnotes are the very emblem of fussiness, but they have their uses. If they are short and infrequent, they can be made economical of space, easy to find when wanted, and, when not wanted, easy to ignore …

In the main text, superscript numbers are used to indicate notes because superscript numbers minimize interruption. They are typographic asides: small because that is an expression of relative importance, and raised for two reasons: to keep them out of the flow of the main text, and to make them easier to find. In the note itself, the number is not an aside, but a target. Therefore, the number in the note should be full size.1


Unfortunately, this isn’t how LaTeX does it. Instead of having a superscript in the text and a full sized numeral in the notes, it uses superscript for both.2 Not only is it wrong (as far as anything can be wrong in a war of opinions), but it’s really hard to change. Most of the document classes only give you one or two options for the footnotes, and they’re not generally any better than the default. Nor does the heavy of all footnote packages, footmisc, provide a fix. Which means, if you want to adjust the way that the number appears, you have to hack the class at a lower level. (Sigh.)

Unless, you’re using memoir, that is.

It turns out that memoir provides hooks to customize everything about the footnotes. This includes the style, the size of the font, and … the numerical label. (If you’d like, you can even use symbols.) The code below will give you properly formatted references:

  • superscript in the text
  • full sized numeral in the note
  • numeral out-dented into the margin by 1 em
  • note text typeset left flush


The \footmarkstyle macro is used to remove the superscript, \footmarkwidth is the size of the box containing the note label, \footmarksep is how much to offset the numeral from the text.


  1. The footnote is flagged by a superscript in the text, but the note itself is introduced by an outdented figure of the same size for the text of the note. (Taken from “The Elements of Style,” page 69.)

2 Which is, frankly, unsightly and distracting.

 | November 18, 2011 8:05 pm

Note: The entries in this series are adapted from a lectures I’ve been giving to my Apps101 course. It will also form the basis for a presentation that I plan to give at a conference next month. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them.

Every Sunday, my wife and I read stories to small children. It started as one of those strange opportunities that life sometimes presents and has grown to become one of the highlights of my week. There is something wonderful about kids. I’m not sure if it’s the innocence, the wide-eyed wonder, or the capacity for faith; but when a child looks at you, it’s possible to believe that a better world might just be possible.

Not to whitewash the whole thing, though. For all of their wonderful qualities, small children can also be difficult. Those wide-eyed moments of innocence are easily shattered. Small children scream, they cry, they tantrum; they hit, bite, claw, push, and shove.  They’re very good at taunting, alienating, and belittling others.

Which is to say, small children are much like adults, except … smaller. They have many of the same capacities for good and evil, creativity and destruction, kindness and cruelty. The seeds of the men and women they will become are all present, and you can see interests and passions already at work.

Small children are also notoriously distractible. They’ll move between games, toys, playmates [1], and activities. They’ll build, break, and bless. You’ll see moments of heartbreaking tenderness, comic relief, and dangerous volatility. A single play session can hold all of the drama and frivolity of a Shakespearean play.

There is one thing, however, which never fails to hold the children’s attention: story time. When the book is opened and the story announced, the effect is magical. The fussing screams quiet, the rowdy sit still, and the distractible engage. An entire room of two and three year olds will sit in a circle, and raptly listen while read to.

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.”


 | October 25, 2011 2:57 pm

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences, or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry (technology) haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

— Steve Jobs, Wired, February 1995

via Swiss Miss via Brain Pickings

 | October 11, 2011 3:08 pm


What more is there to say, really?

— via Retronaut

 | June 29, 2011 5:29 pm

I’ve always had a soft spot for contrarians and polemics. Yes, they can be obnoxious and reactionary. Yes, they champion laughable ideas in the name of controversy. And yes, they are frequently wrong — common wisdom being common for a good reason, in that it is grounded, demonstrated, and robust.

But for all that, contrarians and polemicists also play an important role. They require us to think deeply and broadly about topics that we might otherwise consider as simple. This can take us in unexpected directions and result in a deeper understanding of questions we might consider settled. What is string theory, after all, if not the ruminations of dissatisfied physicists who fought their way to respectability?


I bring all of this up, because, for the past several days, I’ve been interested in a contrarian response to a polemic statement. (No, I’m not sure that makes any sense.) Here’s what’s going on.

I’m a big fan of the NPR show, To the Best of Our Knowledge. Each week, they do a marvelous job of taking controversial ideas and then exploring them in an evenhanded and profound way.

(Notice I did not say fair or balanced. Trying to be fair and balanced — in a word, objective — in your reporting is one of the fastest pathways to stupidity I’ve ever encountered. It leads to pretending that there is two sides to every debate, and that both sides are worth covering.)

Some weeks ago [1], To the Best of Our Knowledge did a broadcast about “Losing Religion” where they interviewed Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman, a sociologist, recently finished a year-long effort to understand the religion of Nordic peoples (Swedes, Danes, etc.) and how those beliefs relate to the society in which they live.

In general, it sounds like a fantastic book and I have little doubt it will end up on my nightstand. Yet, as part of the interview, he said something that really got under my skin. Essentially, “that God doesn’t have to be present to have a moral society” followed by:

It’s a sociological assertion in a way. “We need to have a strong belief in God and this will result in a moral society.” Well, that’s something that we can go look at, we can go check it out. We can quote/unquote “test it.” The fact is, that in the world today, in places like Scandinavia and elsewhere where religion is marginal, these societies are quite moral, quite ethical, especially when compared to very religious societies such as our own (American Society).

Let me be clear here. I’m not disputing his primary claim: non-religious people can be excellent human beings. They can do good (nay, exceptional) things. For example, I greatly respect the work of militant atheists — such as Christopher Hitchen, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Philip Pullman (amongst others) — who force us to consider how religion and modern life intersect. Where I draw the line, however, is the claim that we can somehow measure and test the link between a belief in God and the ultimate morality of society.


This question, though fascinating, cannot be addressed by reductionist science. For starters, how do you measure a belief in God? Or, how do you assign a score to “spirituality?” As Phillip Pullman has said:

Religion is something that has existed in every human society that we know about and it’s an impulse every human being has in one way or another. I call myself a religious person although I don’t believe in God … Questions of purposes and origins — “Why are we here?”, “What is the purpose of life?”, “Why is good better than evil?” — are religious questions, and I ask them all the time. [2]

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we all do, whether we are prepared to call our search “religious” or not. (And even if we choke on the “R” word, choosing instead to go with a less historically laden equivalent — spiritual, connection, purpose —  it’s still religion.)

Second, how do you divorce religion from its cultural trappings? While the Nords may not revel in the “inner” nature of the religious journey the way Americans do (or vocalize their adherence to it in quite the same way), they still follow the outer trappings. In Sweden, for example: 7 of 10 are Christenized in the Church of Sweden (this statistic does not include other religious baptismal ordinances), 5 of 10 weddings take place in a church, and 9 of 10 have a Christian burial. This is despite the fact that only 1 in 10 say religion is important to their daily life. These sorts of trappings may not reliably indicate inner belief, but still influence behavior and conformity.

Third, there is a question of time and trend. Though we don’t often like to admit it, we are the beneficiaries of ten thousand years of human legacy. Our modern, interlinked, technological utopia (and I use that word quite deliberately and without sarcasm), is the result of generations of people trying to improve the lot of their children. The trends toward better health, improved nutrition, greater knowledge, and more thoughtful compassion span millennium. As an example, consider our move toward greater peace, which Steven Pinker discusses in the TED talk below.

In such a complex web, I defy you to control for the positive (or even negative) effects of religion (as compared to, say politics). Scientists may have excellent tools and statistical tricks which can tease out some relationships, but these only go so far. In some cases, the system is irreducibly complex. You may be tempted to point at elevated rates of murder and spousal abuse amongst the “bible states” of the American South and scream, “Religious Bigotry!” And … you would be wrong. Those increased rates of murder have at least as much to do with primitive farming culture — whether someone’s great, great, great, great grandfather chose to raise sheep or wheat — as they do with personal answers to the question of “What is the point of all this?” [3].


And so, I come to the point: sometimes we need to be contrarian about our polemic viewpoints. Good polemicists prod us toward improved understandings by forcing us to wrestle with complexity. Bad polemicists are just spoiling for a fight. Unfortunately, we often afford too much attention to the latter.

For the past few years, it’s become fashionable to use science to beat up on belief. I think that’s wrong [4] . Questions of religion, morality, and ethics are very complex, and sometimes they can’t be boiled down to valid, scientific assertions.  Science, certainly a versatile investigative tool, is ill-equipped to answer answer questions of motivation, purpose, or origin. It does a superb job of “How?”, but often chokes when confronted with “Why?”

Which is to say, “God (or religion) must (or must not) be present to have a moral society” is not a sociological assertion. It’s an ethical question, and though science may bring some identifiably interesting points to the discussion, it cannot provide a definitive answer. Religion (and for that matter, God) simply work at much too broad and personal a scale.


[1] This might actually be months or years ago. I tend to listen to the podcast and when I hear the program isn’t necessarily related to when it was originally broadcast.
[2] The whole of Pullman’s interview is worth listening to. A recording can be found at the To the Best of Our Knowledge website.
[3] For an introduction, see Chapter 6 of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (pages 161 – 168).
[4] I’m speaking to the larger questions of militant atheism, which attempts to directly demonstrate that “Religion Poisons Everything” (to use Christopher Hitchen’s tagline). I’m not sure that Phil Zuckerman goes quite so far, though he does rather strongly imply a similar point in his NPR interview.

 | June 20, 2011 11:13 pm

This video is the second in a series from a course (introductory and intensive) on web technologies that I am currently teaching. It shows how to validate an XML document using XML Schema. (The first entry in the series covers DocType definitions, DTDs.)

XML schema, like Document Type Definitions, are used to validate the structure of XML documents and web pages. XML Schema, though, is a much richer way to verify structure and data.

Like it’s older sibling, I am posting the video in the hope it will be useful to both students in addition to others that have lost themselves in the ether of XML Schema syntax.

Show me more… »