Thursday, 14 April 2005

The meaning of everything

Listening to:

Stan Getz & Dizzy Gillespie, Dark eyes.

Just read:

Simon Winchester, The meaning of everything.

This is an interesting narrative history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It starts with some introductory material on the world’s earlier dictionaries (Johnson’s was probably the first real dictionary in a modern sense, but it had predecessors going back to even the seventeenth century), before moving onto the long story of the OED.

It was a long story (70–80 years) because no-one seemed to appreciate quite what a massive task it was they were signing themselves up for. Moreover, the initial choices of staff weren’t ideal as far as getting people capable of keeping things organised. It was only when the project started to attract and appoint suitably geeky obsessives that things really got going. Obsessive is good for staying the course, and geeky is good for keeping things in reasonably organised piles. Both are bad for the tendency to perfectionism, and Winchester is amusing on the various ways in which these tendencies manifested themselves.

In addition to the main, central staff (who only moved to Oxford relatively late in the piece), the OED was built on the labour of many distributed contributors, from all walks of life. Winchester provides little biographies of many of these people. Indeed he came to write The meaning of everything because of his earlier book The surgeon of Crawthorne, which is all about one of the contributors (a particularly exotic one).

A diverting read, and it even has a little cameo by Tolkien, who apparently got to do lots of tricky ‘W’ words, including “walrus”.

Blogging responsibilities go by the wayside

The more alert among my readers (making the bold assumption that I have any), will have noticed that I have not been as regular with these entries as when I first began this whole web-log business. I offer no excuses (sheer laziness is basically as good as it gets), but do think I may increase entry-frequency a little over the next few months.

Perhaps holding your breath wouldn’t be advisable.

Thursday, 21 April 2005

Keeping it simple

Listening to:

Dinah Washington singing I could write a book.

The KISS principle in software

A group of us from my building regularly go to lunch together. For a while, the practice was for someone to wander ’round the building, knocking on people’s doors and saying “Lunch?” With up to about 10 people to check on, this was tedious. Further, I often seemed to be the person that broke first and started the process.

So I called, loud and tediously long, for a software solution to our problem. (I wasn’t volunteering to implement it, but had plenty of ideas on what the solution should look like.) Someone did volunteer to do it, and within just a few days (he did have a real job to do at the same time), we had a system that has proved to do all we need, and which is also appealingly simple.

People who want to be part of the lunch-group run a little client on their computers. It appears as a little sandwich logo. Then, at any point after 12:00, anyone can push the logo and cause their sandwich to start flipping (from right way up to upside down and back again). Simultaneously, the client sends a message to the server, which does nothing more than forward the message to all of the other clients (which register with the server when they start up). When a client receives a message, it also starts flashing.

And that’s it—there’s absolutely no state in the server.

There are all sorts of potential problems with this solution, but the point is that it achieves exactly what it set out to do. Having a little icon flashing in the corner of your screen is supremely distracting, so there’s no danger of missing the message. People understand exactly what the message means, and can choose to assemble outside the building for the trip to lunch, or not, as the fancy takes them.

Saturday, 30 April 2005

On not quite getting onto the Internet

Listening to:

The last desperate cries of many Japanese lung cells, screaming out in high-pitched voices as they become wild cancerous cells in the bodies of all the nearby smokers.


Forewarned is forearmed, so this little note is a reminder to my future self to set up a http tunnelling proxy on a machine I control. Then, when I find myself using a network connection in an airport that only allows http in & out, I will be able to forward real traffic (SSH to my home machines, for example) through the proxy and bypass this tediousness.

Given that Kansai International Airport has no bookshops on the air-side of immigration and customs, it’s not as if I will have anything else to do.