Long S is long

Posted on 17 December 2010 in Uncategorized

A bunch of people have been posting interesting searches on Google Labs' Books Ngram viewer. I heard about it from this tweet by @njrabit, but the tantalising link (don't follow if you don't like swearing) at the bottom of this blog post by S. Weasel, showed up something interesting. Why is it that of four swearwords, the one starting with 'F' is incredibly popular from 1750 to 1820, then drops out of fashion for 140 years — only appearing again in the 1960s?

Your first thought might be to do with the replacement of robust 18th-century English — the language of Jack Aubrey — with pusillanimous lily-livered Victorian bowdlerism. But the answer is actually much simpler. Check out this set of uses of that f-word from between 1750 and 1755. In every case where it was used, the word was clearly meant to be "suck". The problem is the old-fashioned "long S". It's a myth that our ancestors used "f" where we would use "s". Instead, they used two different glyphs for the letter "s". At the end of a word, they used a glyph that looked just like the one we use now, but at the start or in the middle of a word they used a letter that looked pretty much like an "f", except without the horizontal stroke in the middle.

But to an OCR program like the one Google presumably used to scan their corpus, this "long S" is just an F. Which, um, sucks. Easy to make an afs of yourself...

[UPDATE] with a bit of Python and a large dictionary file, I've generated a fun set of Google Books long S comparisons. I particularly like "cafe vs case" and "fame vs same"

[UPDATE] some scholarly discussion of related issues at Language Log, including the excellent funk vs sunk comparison. An article on the rules for the use of the Long S in various languages, updated with Google books data. And some research triggered by the strange fact that people only seem to have become interested in "pleasure" after about 1800.

I came for the article, I stayed for the comments

Posted on 9 October 2008 in Uncategorized

An OK but somewhat oversimplified post on short selling leads to a fascinating discussion on the topic from market practitioners. Well worth reading to the end, you'll wind up holding at least two irrefutable but mutually contradictory opinions about the issue...

A bit of fun

Posted on 29 September 2008 in Uncategorized

This week's unofficial meme on the Unofficial Planet Python seems to be to name the programming languages you've learned. Here's Eric Florenzano's list (hat tip) -- it looks like the meme was started by Corey Goldberg -- and here's my list:

  • BASIC (an odd ICL dialect, then Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad, BBC, and QuickBasic)
  • Z80 Assembler
  • Pascal
  • C
  • Hypertalk (remember that? Answer 'Are you sure?' with 'Yes' or 'No'. If it is 'Yes' then...)
  • Logo
  • Prolog
  • LISP
  • C++
  • ML
  • Modula-3
  • Neil (proprietary, probably still in use at IST)
  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • C#
  • Python

Hmm. It looks like I've slowed down. Time to pick up that Erlang tutorial again...

Off to BoS

Posted on 2 September 2008 in Uncategorized

Tomorrow I'm off to Boston for the Business of Software conference, organised by Neil Davidson of Red Gate software and... hosted? Branded? In some obscure way connected to? ...the inimitable Joel Spolsky. I'm particularly looking forward to meeting those two characters; I was lucky enough to sit next to Neil at a Cambridge dinner earlier this year, and had a very interesting chat, and Joel is someone whose blog I've been following since before I knew the word "blog". For added fun, Alex Papadimoulis of the Daily WTF will also be there -- I have to wonder whether he's looking for ideas for further commercialising that site, or if he's building up the business that is his day job...

So, good attendees -- and a fantastic set of talks, with speakers ranging from Seth Godin to Richard Stallman. It should be great.

Workaround for Vista stupidity

Posted on 1 July 2008 in Uncategorized

When I run certain command-line tools from a command prompt in Windows Vista, it displays the results in a separate window. This separate window disappears when the tool exits. This is the most mind-bogglingly stupid behaviour I have encountered so far in an operating system famed for its mind-boggling stupidity. However, there is a workaround -- you need to start a shell as the Administrator user (not just as an Administrator).

Here's some more detail:

  • If you are not the Administrator user (even if you are a member of the Administrators group) then when you run a command-line tool that requires admin privileges, you need to click on one of Vista's never-ending stream of "this program wants access to your computer" messages. This is pretty sensible, annoying though it can be.
  • It then opens a new command-line window in which you can interact with the program. I can see no value in this whatsoever; the window is not highlighted in any way, so it's not to make it clear to you that this is a potentially dangerous program. Potential reasons welcome in the comments.
  • The real stupidity, however, shows itself when the program exits. Because then the window closes -- taking with it all of the information the tool displayed for you. foo /help suddenly becomes totally useless. Error messages? Forget about them.
  • And to make it worse, if you try to redirect the standard output or error of the program to a file or to more or anything else, you get nothing -- it still goes into the disappearing window.

After spending quite literally hours trying to debug a problem with the Python easy_install script, which was quite sensibly logging the details of the problem into a window that Vista promptly closed, I discovered a workaround:

H:\>runas /user:Administrator cmd
Enter the password for Administrator:
Attempting to start cmd as user "DRX\Administrator" ...


And up comes a new command prompt. Anything you run in there will put the standard output and error into the command line it was started from, just as any sane user would have expected in the first place.

Making a fool of yourself in public

Posted on 6 May 2008 in Uncategorized

On the Business of Software Blog, Neil Davidson recommends using your fear of making yourself look stupid by failing publicly as a way to motivate yourself to work as hard as you need to work on your startup. Sounds right to me. When I was in my early 20s I saw the mortality rates for smokers and decided that I would give up at the age of 30. In order to make sure that I stuck to that, over the years I told pretty much every one of my friends that I was going to quit then, which meant that I really could not back down. The result is that on the night of my 30th birthday party I quit, and (bar one or two particularly drunken evenings) I've not touched a cigarette since.