Some etymologies

Dubious, but hilarious. The town name ‘Baldock’ is apparently a corruption of ‘Baghdad’, and the result of exotically-minded Knights Templar settling there in the 12th century.

Then ‘catamite’, a word which seems to be cropping up everywhere in my set texts, is derived from Ganymede. Ganymede? Catamite? There’s an intermediate latin stage of Catamus, but that doesn’t really explain it.

10 things I’ve done that you may not have

Yoinked from whotheheckami

1. Been interviewed on a South African radio station

2. Kept pigs

3. Got a free vacation in the USA by playing Dungeons and Dragons

4. Had an essay published in a book with Kurt Vonnegut and Naomi Klein

5. Taught English in a building opposite Red Square

6. Been analysed in a writing course at an American university

7. Worked for a Count, shared an office with a Lady, and been to a party in a room previously occupied by Byron, Andrew Huxley and James Clark Maxwell (not at the same time)

8. Translated the newswire for the (now privatised) former Soviet ministry of propaganda

9. Caused a security alert at a US military base, and been praised for it by a dozen MPs

10. Carried an artist’s portfolio for a month, as part of a tenancy agreement

Scholarly jabs

Ryan writes about the lost art of academic jibes. He’s a little pessimistic – take this recent gem of a footnote from Richard Drayton’s recent book Nature’s Government

‘”I owe a particdular debt to Mr. Desmond for rescuing me from writing the more parochial history of Kew which would have followed from the publication of my doctoral dissertation. He read and commented on it in 1994, but failed to cite it since, he later advised me, he had ‘put it aside’ before writing. I take encouragement from the fact that Desmond was able so often to agree with the patterns and periods I had described for Kew’s history”‘

Linguists and journalists

Today’s earth-shattering revelation is the similarity between journalists and comparative linguists. The both bug an assortment of subject experts, then string together garbled misinterpretations of the responses, and publish to acclaim from the ignorant.

In a less huffy mood, I might have some good things to say about interdisciplinarity and spreading information.

Uncertainty, confusion and deniability

Iranian protesters have a nice method to escape prosecution: they encourage people to do things which might, or might not, be protests. For example , they might call for people to drive into the city centre. The protest succeeds if the traffic is obviously heavier than usual, but the police can’t sift the dissidents from the commuters.

I’m wondering what other systems – for protest, or for anything else – do, or could, use the same kind of deniability system. It’s probably dealt with smewhere in the security or politics literature, btu of course I have no idea where.


Yes, I do already have a webpage, and a livejournal, and I’m starting a politics group-blog elsewhere, and a blosxom private blog/note-collection, and have strewn plenty of debris elsewhere on the net. Why another one?

  1. because I want somewhere to write about social software and other technology without boring everyone else. Livejournal is for friends, tran is for hacks, blosxom is for me and me alone.
  2. To respond to other blogs – to ‘participate in the conversation’, as the jargon du jour would put it. To have somewhere I can trackback to posts, without baffling all comers
  3. To stop writing off-topic comments. I keep writing comments on other people’s blogs that are only tangentially connected to the original post. It isn’t fair on them to keep begging forgiveness for going off on detours. Now I can digress on my own time.

So that’s the plan. I’m sure it won’t work out as neatly as all that. Either this blog will die, or it will go somewhere I didn’t expect it to. That’s life.

From notes to books

Writing words is easy. Writing books, or writing essays, is hard. Steven Johnson writes about how he hops that gap by using software that helps him plagiarise his research notes when he’s writing essays. (via Joho)

A lot of good things over the past decade have worked on lowering the barriers – practical, financial, social – between rough and polished. Blogs let you publish thoughts that are too lightweight to do anything else with. National Novel Writing Month forces participants to focus on quantity rather than quality. And the internet itself removes most of the barriers (money, minimum audience, and the approval of others) that stop people publishing on paper. Each one has its own angle on quality vs. quantity:

  1. The NaNoWriMo lesson:

    Writing is a good thing in itself, even if nobody reads it
  2. The blog lesson:

    Niche audiences can justify anything
  3. The internet lesson:

    Write it, release it, and when someone needs it they’ll find it

Johnson (who updates his argument here and here) is talking about a fourth lesson:

  1. The Johnson lesson:

    Write it as it comes; you’ll find a use for it later

That makes sense. Some notes just aren’t ready to do anything with, no matter how far you can lower inhibitions by blogging, or by putting out essays as food for google. Over the past year, my computer has gathered 120,000 words of notes. Blosxom lets me give them some minimal ordering and viewability, but it’s still a pretty dire state. And yet, I can often chain a few of them together into something worth reading.

Which is where the software Johnson mentions comes in:

Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

More to follow later on exactly what I’d like to see this kind of software do. For now, I’ll stick with a big

I like it!

Google sanskit

Google Sanskrit. The mind boggles.

It turns out there’s also a latin version.

Will be at the Calling later; see some of you there.