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Ned Batchelder
June 2002
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E. B. White on Walden

Wednesday 26 June 2002 (¤)

I love the essays of E. B. White. I happened upon a copy of One Man's Meat, his collection of columns about his moving from New York to a farm in Maine.

White is often compared to Henry David Thoreau, as a quintessentially American essayist. One of White's columns is called "Walden". It is a rambling letter to Thoreau about White's visit to Thoreau's home town of Concord. It begins with a characteristic wit:

Dear Henry: I thought of you the other afternoon as I was approaching Concord doing fifty on Route 62. That is a high speed at which to hold a philospher in one's mind, but in this century we are a nimble bunch.

(I still can't get over the fact that his century is now the last century). Later, White pokes fun at our love of technology:

There was a sign by the wayside which announced that the road had a "cotton surface." You wouldn't know what that is, but neither, for that matter, did I. There is a cryptic ingredient in many of our modern improvements--we are awed and pleased without knowing quite what we are enjoying. It is something to be traveling on a road with a cotton surface.

These passages are typical White: sly, witty, and clever, but also wise, knowing, and loving. One last quote from the same column:

It was June, and everywhere June was publishing her immemorial stanza: in the lilacs, in the syringa, in the freshly edged paths and the sweetness of moist beloved gardens, and the little wire wickets that preserve the tulips' front.

I could go on and on selecting choice sentences, but I won't: do yourself a favor and find a collection of White's essays (I bought a sixty-year-old copy of One Man's Meat, and the age of the hardcover adds something that a freshly minted paperback would lack).

White wrote about Thoreau's Walden,

It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest, and I keep it about me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief - for relief in moments of defluxion or despair.

I feel the same way about White's essays.

(One last factoid: White's wife, Katherine Sergeant White, grew up in the house across the street from ours.)


ILM Short: Work In Progress

Tuesday 25 June 2002 (¤)

Industrial Light & Magic has a great short on their web site: Work In Progress. Not only are the animation and rendering fantastic, but it's a neat little parable about the process of creation, and the forces that must be properly combined to produce success.


Wonderful Animated Type Video

Friday 21 June 2002 (¤)

The Child is an amazing little video. If you like type, or just different ways of presenting animated stories, watch it. It proves there is more to great animation than hyper-sophisticated 3D modelling and photo-realistic rendering. I saw this video a year ago, but was just reminded of it, and it made me smile again.


(via: typographica)

Toward a more accessible blog

Thursday 20 June 2002 (¤)

As a result of Mark Pilgrim's excellent "accessible blog" series, and in particular, his Day 6: Choosing a DOCTYPE, I put the effort in tonight to make these pages valid HTML 4.01, with a DTD and everything. I'm hoping to follow along with the other suggestions in the series.

Valid HTML 4.01!    Valid CSS!

I like the goals of Mark's series, and I like the way he's going about it. As a developer, I appreciate guidelines like this that explain what to do, and what I'll get for the effort. The explanation of benefits is especially important in this case, because many of the benefits are either "invisible" (since they don't affect the rendering of the page that most of us see), or are only visible to a small set of people.


NYC Bloggers

Wednesday 19 June 2002 (¤)

I find nyc bloggers oddly compelling, but at the same time, totally pointless. It's basically an index to bloggers in New York City, organized by subway stop, with a graphical map of the New York subway at its core.

It's compelling and pointless for the same reason: the web is completely separated from geographical concerns. I can read and relate to weblogs without having any idea where the person lives, how old they are, what their demographic background is, and so on. To suddenly be presented with specific geographical details about weblogs is like learning that two celebrities went to the same high school: it's a strange behind-the-scenes factoid that has a whiff of significance, but makes absolutely no difference whatsoever.

It's not like this grouping of blogs creates some sort of order out of the chaos: all it does is emphasize the unimportance of geographical neighborhood, especially in New York. For example, CamWorld and Cream Tangerine share the same subway stop. You won't find too more different blogs out there.

The other reason I'm interested in this is that I grew up in New York City (96th street on the IND was my stop).



Today is my Birthday

Sunday 16 June 2002 (¤)

I was born on this day in 1962, which makes me, let's see, borrow the 2, ... 40! Yow.


Copy And Modify

Saturday 15 June 2002 (¤)

I was contemplating a coding task for work. It was going to involve copying a chunk of code from another project, and modifying it for the problem at hand. This is a common strategy in writing software (please, no lectures about commonalizing the code, writing libraries, etc. In this case is wasn't an option: trust me). I figured there ought to be a catchy phrase for copying and modifying, something with either rhyme (like "walk and talk") or alliteration (like "cash and carry" or "nature vs. nuture").

My wife and I brainstormed for a bit, and the best was "clone and hone". Here's what we came up with:

clone and hone
pinch and paint
grab and grind
skim and trim
append and amend
sneak and tweak
swipe and stripe
take and shake
lift and sift
mooch and mash


The Philosophy of Punctuation

Thursday 13 June 2002 (¤)

The Philosophy of Punctuation is a short essay about the use (and abuse) of punctuation. I'm not sure I agree with everything he says (why must language be strictly linear?, for example), but I appreciate his appreciation of philosophical principles to guide even the small things (like punctuation).

I'm the same way: I examine many small, seemingly insignificant, details of my life, and settle on a philosophy for how they should be. For example, spoons should go handle down in the dishwasher, forks and knives handle up (so that sharp implements don't impale, but blunt implements get cleaner). I don't insist that others do it the same way, but I think it is better, so I do it myself, and am pleased by it.


(via: Blur Circle)

Description of a Project Gone Badly Wrong

Tuesday 11 June 2002 (¤)

I hadn't been following the progress of eSpeak, Hewlett-Packard's XML middleware project. Apparently it has ended. An engineer on the project has written a brutal and hilarious summary of the project.

I've never worked on a project that went this badly, but, like Dilbert, this has a familiar, if exaggerated, ring to it.


(via: Hack The Planet)


Tuesday 11 June 2002 (¤)

Xaos is a realtime fractal zoomer, which means you can fly around your favorite fractal. I don't know if this is old hat, but xaos does a great job of it, making the rendering and navigation quite seamless.

interesting segment of the Mandelbrot set

Xaos can render a number of different fractals, in tons of different styles, including after-effects like edge detection and 3D. It is also scriptable (in a simple ad-hoc way), and includes a tutorial about fractals that shows off lots of cool Xaos features. Also: My kids love it (they call the Mandelbrot set "the apple tush").

The home page is a little discouraging: the latest news entry is dated well over a year ago, and says, "We are alive again" (it reminds me of some half-forgotten Monty Python skit). But the software is great, and is the perfect thing to while away the minutes when you're on hold on the phone.



Sunday 9 June 2002 (¤)

Synaesthesia is the blending of two senses, for example, where certain numbers "seem to be" certain colors. I don't have that experience, but I do have a strong sense of the shapes of number lines and time sequences.

For example, the number line for me is not a straight line. It takes a left turn at 10, then a right at 20, then another right at about 80, and a left at 90. After 100, the 0-through-100 line repeats again, but for 200, 300, and so on, they line up like rows in a raster.

I was reminded of this because my local pool opened after a 10-week repair, and I had to print up a new weekly schedule for lap swims. To match my mental model of the week, I laid out the week like this:

MTWTF, with S and S across the top

This has the advantage of being intuitive (for me), and also fits nicely on a letter-size sheet of paper.

Other sequences have their own shapes: the months of the year, the years of the past two millenia, the hours in the day.

Most synaesthetic experiences seem to be about relating colors to words or letters. My wife strongly relates colors to months and sounds. This story mentions just my experience: shapes for time sequences.


Friday 7 June 2002 (¤)

I don't play many Flash games (twitchy shoot-em ups were not for me even before my hands starting feeling the effects of keyboards and mice). But I love the games at

They are cute and playful and original. OK, maybe they are too cute, but I admire Ferry Halim's creativity, and his attention to detail that make each of these feel like a finished product.


More of my brother's pictures

Tuesday 4 June 2002 (¤)

As I have said before, my brother Patrick is a freelance photographer. More of his pictures are up on a stock photography site: PhotoSourceFolio. Take a look. And if you happen to be an art director someplace, buy some pictures!

Paris, by Patrick Batchelder



Sunday 2 June 2002 (¤)

I was trying out Google Sets (you give it a few words or phrases, and it tries to find other words or phrases that belong in the set). Being of a geometrical bent, and having already tried Happy, Dopey, Sneezy (it got it exactly right), I entered "icosahedron, octahedron, dodecahedron". It came back with a very respectible list of polyhedra, including the surprise "teapotahedron".

fragment of rendered teapotahedron

The teapot is of course, prevalent throughout computer graphics circles, and even makes a cameo appearance in Toy Story (a factoid which earned me a mention in Rob Fahrni's weblog). But I had somehow missed the term "teapotahedron". It is used as part of the joke that the teapot is the long-overlooked sixth Platonic solid.

A little surfing through the Google results turned up Steve Baker's A Brief History of the Teapot, and Andrew Glassner's home page.


Info on Banned Books

Sunday 2 June 2002 (¤)

While writing the last blog entry, I looked up info on banned books, and found Fat Chuck's Banned Books Index. It's a pretty good list of banned books. He also includes a link to PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books In Schools), which of course presents the opposing view. The PABBIS site includes "offensive" snippets from banned books, which is hilarious when you consider that it makes their site one of the sites that would not be reachable with internet filtering.


The Federal Government Shouldn't Decide What We Can Read

Sunday 2 June 2002 (¤)

In this story, LawMeme covers the decision by Federal judges to throw out a law requiring federally-funded libraries to install internet filtering software.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this one. I think on the whole it is the right decision, but I also think there are a few hiccups in it. First off, I don't think the judge's claim that patrons might be "embarassed" if they had to ask to disable filtering is bogus. Yes, the patrons would be embarrased, but the first amendment does not guarantee against embarassment.

Second, I don't believe that every obstacle to access is censorship. Is it censorship for a library not to carry a particular item? No, of course not. The vast majority of materials are not available from any given library, and it isn't censorship. I think in this case it is close to censorship because the government is creating a blanket restriction that must apply to all public libraries, but even there, the materials are still available through other channels, and the publishers have not been prosecuted or prevented from publishing.

But the real thing that bothers me about the decision is the reasoning behind it. The reason the judges struck down the law was that it would prevent access to some legitimate materials (the canonical example is information on breast cancer). In other words, some of the sites "incorrectly blocked" are protected speech. This is a problem, certainly, but it is the easy way out. I wish the law had been struck down on the opposite reason: that some of the sites "correctly blocked" are protected speech.

I suspect that many people would disagree with judges deciding that the government couldn't prevent access to sexually explicit web sites. But what if the federal prudes had done a content-similar, but technologically-different thing? What if the federal government had decided that to get federal funds, libraries could not stock copies of certain books? What if they published a long list of books that could not be carried, or the library would lose its funding? Libraries couldn't have a copy of Fanny Hill on their shelves, or Fear of Flying, or Tropic of Capricorn, or The Kama Sutra, or Lolita, or Lady Chatterley's Lover. Would anyone seriously consider allowing the federal government to proscribe certain books? Of course not. So why did we even get this far on the filtering software? Why is it O.K. to block certain web sites when it wouldn't have been O.K. to block certain books? And why is the imperfection of the filtering the only reason to strike down the law?

The law was wrong for a simpler reason than the imperfection of filtering: it was the government deciding what people could read and what they couldn't read. The fact that they were reading it on screens rather than paper doesn't give the government more rights to meddle.


(via: LawMeme)