Google+ punditry

Google+ LogoSome loose reflections on Google+ vs The Rest of Social Media:

  • Why no Twitter integration? Maybe, just maybe, someone at Google noticed that Twitter integration made Buzz kinda pointless. The platform never got any momentum qua platform, because there was no reason for publishers to switch. G+ has (forgive me) exclusive content. It already feels like it has value. It already feels like a community.
  • Whither Facebook? Google+ is a data play. Revenue will come from smarter ads across the web. This means G+ can (and hopefully will) remain ad-free. I’ve been expecting Facebook to announce a demographically targetted, web-wide ad network for a while now. But they have a problem. Sure like buttons and comment widgets give them some tracking fu, but it’s puny compared with the data Google can access via their analytics (used on 40% of websites) and search products. A suggestion: FB’s app platform is the best thing it’s got going for it. They should focus on that.
  • Twitter? Twitter is remarkably resilient, but survival hinges on finding a way to monetize end-user experience without damaging their interop with other services. Tricky.
  • LinkedIn? Probably fine. They’ve got some unique, business-friendly features (recommendations and referrals) which G+ is extremely unlikely to replicate. Yes, I’m saying that making it slightly awkward to contact people outside your network can be a good thing.

Holiday books

Tunisia : Entry of the Great Mosque of Kairoua...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been reading Species of Spaces and Other Pieces a collection of Georges Perec‘s writing this week. It’s a perfect holiday book. It’s full of things to read and things to do. It’s a grown-up version of the summer annuals (Whizzer & Chips) I used to read in the car on the way to Pwllheli.

243 Postcards

One piece is called “Two Hundred and Fourty-three Postcards in Real Colour”. Dedicated to Italo Calvino; the title evokes JG Ballard. It is the combined text of 243 holiday postcards. This should be terribly boring, but by some sleight of hand it’s not. Here are the first five as a taster:

  • We’re camping near Ajaccio. Lovely weather. We eat well. I’ve got sunburnt. Fondest love.
  • We’re at the Hôtel Alcazar. Getting a tan. Really nice! We’ve made loads of friends. Back on the 7th.
  • We’re sailing off L’Ile-Rousse. Getting ourselves a tan. Food admirable. I’ve gone and got sunburnt! Love etc.
  • We’ve just done Dahomey. Superb nights. Fantastic swimming. Excursions on camel-back. Will be in Paris on the 15th.
  • We’ve finally landed in Nice. Lots of lazing about and sleep. Really nice (despite the sunburn). Love.
  • Postcards are ridden with clichés, but Perec’s holiday-makers know that and circumlocute them, finding syncopated ways to say the same old things. The effect is disruptive and wholly convincing. Darlings, I do it myself.

    Postcards are formulaic. Knowing a little of Perec, I suspect we’re looking at an exhaustive catalogue here. 243 = 3 * 3 * 3 * 3 * 3.  Perhaps these texts represent 5 decisions, each with 3 choices.

    Perhaps not. But the sense that a formula might be at play is irresistible: this feels like a system of co-ordinates. And that suspicion of regularity hyper-sensitises us to variation. Every phrase becomes a hook.

    Alone, each message is banal. Gridded together they become terribly poignant: telegraphic!


    Combinatorics crop up again in the essay (of sorts) “Think/Classify”. It’s a collage piece: a handful of  elegant paragraphs with little in common. Sure they’re about thinking. But what isn’t?

    Collage is a gentle, therapeutic art form. I’ve always been suspicious of it.

    Things — any things, even several copies of the same thing — go together. The choice can be arbitrary at least in so far as we’re capable of that. Things agree with one another and contradict one another to the same degree. It seems lazy.

    Paul Auster‘s strength, someone wrote is that “he simply rubs stories together like pebbles. They clatter, spark, and echo with a deepening mystery.” That phrase caught my ear. There’s profundity in setting things up together and (thereby) calling attention to the arrangement.


    I am suspicious of surrealism. Dali and Magritte are too slick. I prefer the muddy ones: Ernst, Carrington etc.

    One of Perec’s fellow OuLiPo-eans, Marcel Benabou invented a “machine” for producing Aphorisms. Like a language it has grammar and vocabulary. Sets of abstract nouns, preferably weighty ones, make up the vocabulary: war/peace, knowledge/science, morality/art etc. The grammar consists of template phrases: “A, like B, is largely a matter of taste”, “A wouldn’t be A, were it not for B”, “The true name of A is B” etc.

    I’ve made a web page that lets you explore a corner of this space: Aphorism Generator.

    “Where is the thinking here?” asks Perec. “In the formula? In the vocabulary? In the operation that marries them?” It’s in our heads, obviously.


    It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m not the first to make a computer simulate Benabou’s machine. Computers are combiners par excellence. Perec tells us that Paul Buffort wrote a program that could turn out “a good dozen [aphorisms] within a few seconds”. This is a charming reminder of how far we’ve come. Modern machines can generate aphorisms at a rate of knots.

    They are playing a game. They are playing at
    not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
    shall break the rules and they will punish me.
    I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.
    Knots, RD Laing

    In the introduction to Knots (incidentally another excellent holiday book) Laing writes that the patterns to which he’ll call attention could have been presented as “raw data” — presumably transcripts — or further distilled “towards an abstract logico-mathematical calculus”.

    Perhaps Laing was just being lazy. Or perhaps he knew that calculi can be stone cold boring. If there is a single thread to Knots, far better to show a few colourful examples of it. Or maybe Knots is a a salad. The Latin for salad, “satura”, is sometimes thought the ancestor of “satire”. I’ve never been convinced by that one.

    One person who did have a taste for abstraction was Early Wittgenstein. At the end of his Tractatus he famously says, “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”

    (I really don’t know what Laing was after with “logico-mathematical”.)

    Whereas big on archaisms, Late Wittgenstein got especially big on “shewing”. Shewing is something that you can do in silence, instead of speaking. The problem is roughly that there are certain things — thing that don’t exist, generally speaking — that can’t be talked about without missing the mark. This resulted in a very great number of little notes which were arranged into books after his death like pressed flowers.

    The Wittgensteins are the most important philosophers of the Twentieth century.

    A lot of Perec’s pieces don’t really have a proper ending.

    Fixing font file names

    The Characteristics of a Typeface (for widescr...

    Image by arnoKath via Flickr

    So you want to rationalise your font directory? Let’s face it, who doesn’t?

    I had a bunch of old CDs lying around with fonts scattered throughout them. Going through each in turn I copied all the font files into a single working directory:

    find -iname "*.ttf" -exec cp "{}" ~/fontwork

    I also threw my installed fonts into the mix:

    cp ~/.fonts/* ~/fontwork

    fontwork ended up containing 1300+ files. Many of these had awful names like “basd12.ttf”. Just awful.

    I decided to fix them up by extracting the embedded family and style information. Neither apt-cache nor google could find me an existing utility to pull out this info, so I quickly wrote one using the excellent freetype2 library. It’s imaginatively called fontinfo. I also wrote a little shell script to rename the font files and remove duplicates.

    You can snag both from my github repository.

    Restoring the Earth one tweet at a time

    A recent project:

    Environmental charity, Restore the Earth, today launched a new breed of web service encouraging people to take simple, positive actions for the environment. The campaign builds on Twitter using software developed by Edinburgh-based Artificial Intelligence consultancy, Winterwell. The campaign is being launched at the Live Nation concert with a video appeal voiced by Joanna Lumley.

    Restore the Earth encourages people to take positive steps. The cumulative effect of these “handprints” will help to reverse ecological damage happening around the world. “The Handprint symbolizes our positive and proactive relationship to the Earth, as opposed to the negative “footprint” concept frequently referred to in the media,” said Andreas Kornevall of Restore the Earth. . The new system builds on Twitter, the popular micro-blogging service. The service has garnered media attention thanks to high-profile users like Stephen Fry. Twitter users, known as twitterati, exchange text-message sized descriptions of their current activities. This makes it a perfect fit for Restore the Earth’s handprint campaign.

    But with Twitter’s popularity comes a problem: the campaign aims to generate thousands of handprints – far more than the Restore the Earth team can handle. So they asked Winterwell to build custom “chatbot” software to lighten the load. Founded by Dr Joe Halliwell and Dr Daniel Winterstein, Winterwell specializes in innovative intelligent software.

    “Our twitterbot engages with the public and tries to respond intelligently to the greetings, questions and handprints it receiveѕ,” said Halliwell. “We can’t anticipate everything that people might say so our software is designed to learn as it goes. Artificial intelligence can’t yet handle a real conversation. But we think it can do just enough to be useful.”

    You can get involved with the handprint campaign by following @rtearth on Twitter.