Monthly Archives: November, 2023

Taking things literally

John Naughton linked to a splendid post by my friend and erstwhile colleague Alan Blackwell, entitled “Oops! We Automated Bullshit.

I won’t try to summarise it here, or even discuss the topics he raises, because you should cetainly go and read the article. But I did like the aside where he questions his own use of the word “literally”:

Do I mean “literally”? My friends complain that I take everything literally, but I’m not a kleptomaniac.

Ye Olde Wordle

Rose and I have long enjoyed playing Wordle – we do it each evening after dinner, taking alternate lines, and then move on to do the same with Quordle.  (Quordle needs a bit more screen real-estate, so I recommend a decent-size iPad at least.)

Anyway, I was pondering the idea of more literary variations.  Suppose you had a Wordle where the only words allowed, both as guesses and answers, were in the Complete Works of Shakespeare?  Even if you’re well-educated, you would probably need a few more lines to solve it, but it might be fun!

I’ve done a quick analysis, and there are just under 3000 different 5-letter words in the Gutenberg plain text file of the Complete Works.   That’s more than there are in the normal Wordle game, though I haven’t stripped out proper nouns, so it’s probably a comparable vocabulary.

Glancing through them, though, I think there might be challenges.

When Henry VI says,

Her sight did ravish, but her grace in speech,
Her words yclad with wisdom’s majesty,
Makes me from wondering fall to weeping joys,
Such is the fulness of my heart’s content.
Lords, with one cheerful voice welcome my love.

for example, we know what the bard means, but he never uses the word ‘yclad’ anywhere else — I expect, frankly, he just invented it to maintain the pentameter — and I can’t guarantee that I would have guessed it before line six in the Wordle grid. I just don’t use ‘yclad’ often enough in day-to-day conversation.

So perhaps it’s a foolish idea.  


Instead, while we’re on the subject of words beginning with the letter ‘y’.  I shall content myself with pointing out an interesting fact about the title of this post, which is probably blatantly obvious to any linguistic scholars amongst my readership but, for the rest of us, might just help impress friends at the pub. 

When you see signs like ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’… have you ever wondered why it’s always ‘Ye’? Where does the ‘Ye’ come from?

Well, in fact, it never really was ‘Ye’.  It was ‘The’, but ‘TH’ was often written using the ‘thorn’ character originating in Old English, Old Norse and languages of similar vintage, now almost obsolete unless, I gather, you are writing in Icelandic.   A capital thorn normally looks like this: Þ, and a lower-case one like this: þ, but there are lots of variations, and in some scripts if looks more like a ‘Y’.  

A Wikipedia page gives these pleasing examples of Middle English abbreviations (and apologies, especially to those receiving this by email, if these don’t format well for you!):

  • Middle English that– that
  • Middle English thou – thou
  • Middle English the– the

With the advent of the printing press, a thorn character often wasn’t readily available and so a ‘y’ was substituted, as in this Blackletter example of an abbreviated ‘the’:

EME ye

And from there, it was but a short step to seeing signs wishing to convey a feeling of antiquity being written as ‘Ye olde…’.




Sunny suggestion for a student project

I think this would be a fun student project. I would certainly have enjoyed it.

Here’s a year’s worth of my solar-generation data. My roof is oriented approximately 5 degrees west of south.

  1. How close can you get to discovering where I live, from this data alone?
  2. How can you improve your estimate by incorporating other publicly-available data sources?
  3. What further information about the installation would help you improve your estimate?

Feel free to make suggestions in the comments about fun additions.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

“We are experiencing an unusually large volume of calls at the moment. We apologise for the delay.  Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in turn.”

My friend Andy Stanford-Clark was complaining about this on Twitter

“No, there are an unexpectedly low number of people answering the phones at the moment. Don’t blame your customers for your organisational inefficiency. Thank you.”

I’ve talked about this before: some organisations seem to have this as a standard disclaimer on the beginning of every call you make to them, which means it is blatantly untrue: how ‘unexpected’ or ‘unusual’ can the volume of calls really be?

No, what this really means is, “We consider our time to be more valuable than yours.”  Even though your call is really important to us.

(Sometimes, though, these automated messages can be helpful.   When they say, “This call may be recorded for monitoring and training purposes”, I say, “Thank you!”, and click the record button.)

Now I’m considering, when they do finally connect, playing a recorded message that says, “I’m experiencing an unexpected number of answers at this time. My call is important to you, so please hold, and a valued customer will be with you shortly.”  Repeated a few times, of course, but interspersed with some upbeat yet calming music.

Staying Dry and Stealthy

I’ve always been a little bit of a Gore-Tex skeptic.  While I have owned, and do currently own, several garments and shoes incorporating the fabric, I’ve always felt a little bit let-down by it.

“If this is both waterproof and breathable”, I would ask myself as I ascended the hill in a slight drizzle, “then why are my shoulders getting rather wet?”

So I was interested to come across this rather fun video by a Canadian biking gear company, which talks about the history of Gore-Tex, how it works, what it can and can’t do, and why even the manufacturer doesn’t really use traditional Gore-Tex any more.

A quick summary is that it’s waterproof OR breathable, but not both at the same time.  Which is fairly predictable… and still gives it an advantage over something that is, say, purely waterproof… but do watch the video.


This ties in with something I was told in a shop recently when buying a new jacket.  I was complaining about my previous one not seeming to keep me dry for very long, and wondered if I was affecting the waterproofing by washing it too frequently.

Actually, they said, it might come from not washing it frequently enough.  And that would tie in with the assertions in the video; it seems that the key to successful Gore-Tex use is to make sure the water beads up and runs off quickly, so it doesn’t have to be simultaneously waterproof and breathable. To do this, you need to wash it in something that will top up the water-repellent coating.

So if you do decide to pay the Gore-Tex premium, be prepared for the Tech Wash premium in the years to follow.

My favourite jackets, by the way, have been made of Ventile, which is also not cheap, and doesn’t claim to be completely waterproof, so it’s not necessarily ideal if, say, you’re heading for Wales!  It’s hardwearing and exceedingly comfortable, though, and popular amongst birdwatchers, because it doesn’t rustle like most other fabrics and give away your location.  

It’s probably useful for secret agents too, for the same reason.  I couldn’t possibly comment.  I pretend that I have mine for dog-walking.


A work of art is never finished

“A work of art”, so the saying goes, “is never finished, merely abandoned.”

This assertion rings true in many artistic spheres, to the extent that I’ve seen variations attributed to people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and W.H.Auden.

Paul ValeryThe site ‘Quote Investigator’ suggests that it actually originated in a 1933 essay by the poet Paul Valéry:

Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné …

 and they offer this approximate translation:

In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned …

My knowledge of French idiom falls short of telling me how significant Valéry’s use of the word ‘amateur’ is, though. Is he saying that it’s the professionals who really know when a work is complete?


Anyway, the same original core assertion is sometime used when speaking of software: that it’s never finished, only abandoned.

It’s rare that any programmer deems his code to be complete and bug-free, which is why Donald Knuth got such attention and respect when he offered cheques to anyone finding bugs in his TeX typesetting system (released initially in the late 70s, and still widely-used today).  The value of the cheques was not large… they started at $2.56, which is 2^8 cents, but the value would double each year as long as errors were still found. That takes some confidence!  

He was building on the model he’d employed earlier for his books, most notably his epic work, The Art of Computer Programming. Any errors found would be corrected in the next edition. It’s a very good way to get diligent proofreaders.

Being Donald Knuth does give you some advantages when employing such a scheme, though, which others might want to consider before trying it themselves: first, there are likely to be very few errors to begin with.  And second, actually receiving one of these cheques became a badge of honour, to the extent that many recipients framed them and put them on the wall, rather than actually cashing them!

For the rest of us, though, there’s that old distinction between hardware and software:

Hardware eventually fails.  Software eventually works.


I was thinking of all this after coming across a short but pleasing article by Jose Gilgado: The Beauty of Finished Software.  He gives the example of WordStar 4, which, for younger readers, was released in the early 80s.  It came before WordPerfect, which came before Microsoft Word.  Older readers like me can still remember some of the keystrokes.  Anyway, the author George R.R. Martin, who apparently wrote the books on which Game of Thrones is based, still uses it.

Excerpt from the article:

Why would someone use such an old piece of software to write over 5,000 pages? I love how he puts it:

“It does everything I want a word processing program to do and it doesn’t do anything else. I don’t want any help. I hate some of these modern systems where you type up a lowercase letter and it becomes a capital. I don’t want a capital, if I’d wanted a capital, I would have typed the capital.”

— George R.R. Martin

This program embodies the concept of finished software — a software you can use forever with no unneeded changes.

Finished software is software that’s not expected to change, and that’s a feature! You can rely on it to do some real work.

Once you get used to the software, once the software works for you, you don’t need to learn anything new; the interface will exactly be the same, and all your files will stay relevant. No migrations, no new payments, no new changes.


I’m not sure that WordStar was ever ‘finished’ , in the sense that version 4 was followed by several later versions, but these were the days when you bought software in a box that you put on a shelf after installing it from the included floppies.  You didn’t expect it to receive any further updates over-the-air.  It had to be good enough to fulfill its purpose at the time of release, and do so for a considerable period.

Publishing an update was an expensive process back then, and we often think that the ease which we can do so now is a sign of progress.  I wonder…

Do read the rest of the post.

Bureaucratic daftness

Bemused by two examples today of silly things that big organisations do:

  • A letter arrived from the NHS for a friend with information about an important and urgent medical appointment, which was sent by second-class post. “Please contact us on this number”, it said, “if you haven’t heard from the hospital by the 2nd November”.  It arrived on the 2nd November.  

  • A financial institution says it needs certified copies of three months of my bank statements.   That means I need to go and show them to a neighbour who will sign them to say they are true copies of the original, and then I can scan and send them.  But it’s been years since we received our bank statements on paper, so I will be printing out a PDF for them to sign.  Are they signing it to say that my printer hasn’t made a mistake?  In that case, what about my scanner?   But I checked, and yes, that’s really what the institution concerned wants me to do.

    So I will send both the scan of the signed printout of the original PDF asserting that it is indeed a true copy of the original PDF… and the original PDF.

Imagine if I actually had anything else to do, like earning a living…!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser