Monthly Archives: February 2006


Bits from the OSDC:
Didn’t get to see much of day one – Larry Wall’s first talk (familar to what you find online, except here you can hear the intonation when he snarks about other languages), a laboured (but educational) talk about GNU Arch (supposedly about version control systems in general, but not really), and the begining of a promising talk about Darcs. Then I had to rush off and take the most curcuitous route possible to Rehovot, via Kfar Natar and Even Yehuda. Luckily, the meeting I was hurrying to was actually 15:30, not 13:30. Urf.
Day two – saw Audrey Tang’s Pugs talk, followed by the lightning talks (including two more by Audrey; all on the web, but well delivered). The most impressive was Kobi Zamir’s talk on HOCR: he seemed so disorganized and confused I felt sorry for him, and then he opens his GUI program, and BAM! converts a scanned image of a poem into Hebrew text, complete with nikud. The crowd applauded. Asaf gave a talk on the open problems in building a backend for project Ben Yehuda, which seemed to garner some interest. I opined that a five minute talk is just enough time to present either a trivial solution or an interesting problem.
Saw the second half of a good talk on mod_perl’s guts, where the presenter amused me by saying that a certain concept (“bucket brigade”, the Apache API metaphor for output filter processing) is also commonly used in “Brick and Mortar” applications – by which he meant “in Physical Reality”.
Next was an interesting talk on AGI, an API for working with Asterisk, which is an open source package that lets you build automated phone applications, like “For the Hebrew menu, dial 1. If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time. ” Apparently, you can do this all with PHP scripts.
In the break I joined hamakor, which seem to offer all the fun of Amuta politics, but implemented as Open Source.
A guy from Yahoo gave two solid talks, first on Ruby and then on Rails; when asked if Yahoo use Ruby, he wistfuly(?) said it was not really feasible for production systems, and was best for internal projects. He did mention that programming with Ruby’s GTK bindings is pleasant, which encouraged me to download Yet Another Widget Set I’ll Probably Never Touch. Oh, and apparently Ruby doesn’t have destructors (you can bend it’s arm to fake something like them, but you should probably use blocks with yield instead for resource management.
Then there was another somewhat low-energy Perl 6 talk, which I cut out out of in order to rush home and be stood up by a plumber.
Also got chewed out by my boss for skipping out on work for three straight days. Well, bollocks. Tomorrow, more Wall, Catalyst, and maybe Ofer Brandes and the quest for the holy grail of programming by visual logic modeling. Or the plumber.

The Evolution of Blondinity

Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun – the Sunday Times talks about research into the origins of blonde hair and blue eyes:

“Human hair and eye colour are unusually diverse in northern and eastern Europe (and their) origin over a short span of evolutionary time indicates some kind of selection,” says the study by Peter Frost, a Canadian anthropologist. Frost adds that the high death rate among male hunters “increased the pressures of sexual selection on early European women, one possible outcome being an unusual complex of colour traits.”

Frost’s theory is also backed up by a separate scientific analysis of north European genes carried out at three Japanese universities, which has isolated the date of the genetic mutation that resulted in blond hair to about 11,000 years ago.
The hair colour gene MC1R has at least seven variants in Europe and the continent has an unusually wide range of hair and eye shades. In the rest of the world, dark hair and eyes are overwhelmingly dominant.

Then, after comments from blonde celebs, they note:

A study by the World Health Organisation found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202.

One of The Great Bull Loons

Every book I read is about breakups. Or maybe that’s just life.

I finished Years of Rice and Salt sometime in January, on the first week of Suzie’s current visit. It does drag down the further along it goes, a relentless march of set-pieces and lectures and characters bubbling up through each other’s lives on their myriard reincarnations. The final movement is awash in lectures and echoes, including even an alternate-reality version of the book itself, written by “old red ink” from Samarkand, rather than Kim Stanley Robinson (there must be a pun there, but it eludes me). But it caught me, with its intense reflection on the life of a revolutionary-turned-history teacher that had time to see all his life’s achievements – politics, family, personal goals – grow hollow and without efect. And suddenly, reading of him and thinking of me, I felt myself being washed away into oblivion in the torrent of history, but yet somehow embedded in it. Life is meaningless only if you’re the one living it.

This Saturday I finished E.R. Eddison The Worm Ouroboros (apparently you can read the whole thing online at Sacred Texts, but I think it’s worth getting the book). This is one of those great antecedants of modern fantasy, a pre-Tolkien work by one of the writers Walter John Williams calls The Great Bull Loons, writers who were pursuing mad, beautiful ideas long before fantasy was anything you’d call a genre.
Eddison writes prose the likes of which has not been seen since the Seventeenth century (as the introduction puts it). I’d call his language “Shakespearean”, but actually it would be more correct to point to John Webster as his influence (according to this review at Wizards of the Coast, of all places, which does contain a big spoiler). I first read examples of his text in Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays The Language of the Night, in particular in a great essay where she talks about how “proper” high fantasy needs to use suitably high language; the Lords of Elfland do not speak like politicians in Washington DC, she says. Her examples of “how it’s done” were Dunsany, Eddison and Tolkien, and Eddison is probably the least inimmitable of the three: his descriptions, dialogue, and written texts (complete with authentic-style irregular spelling!) don’t contain a single false note, and his gorgeous, tangled sentences just urge you to read on. Near the end, I was seized, as when I read Dunsany, with the desire to read this text aloud: this is prose that should be declaimed, not read in silence.
The actual story, once we dispense with an awkward framing device, is about the struggles and mighty deeds of the lords of two great kingdoms, Demonland and Witchland. While the lords of Demonland are clearly the heroes, they are too perfect to really be interesting. However, Eddison’s villains, the king of Witchland and his lords, are delightful, mixing nobility and venality, tragic heroism with basest treachery. The Demons, as they themselves realize, are only really interesting when fighting the Witches.
I found this a surprising and delightful book, despite some flaws (the plot seems to meander a bit, and Eddison loves his descriptions, of landscapes, weather and ornately decorated palaces, as well as long, long rosters of names, far more than any reader would).

And then I put down that book, and picked up Valis.
I’m still adjusting to the cluture shock.