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The Unicode 8.0: A Song of Praise for Unsung Heroes

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Unicode marks the most significant advance in writing systems since the Phoenicians
          James J. O'Donnell, Provost, Georgetown University

What is 11 1/8" x 8 3/4" x 2 1/4" and weighs 7.89 pounds? Among other things, the hardbound copy of the Unicode Standard 4.0, the Oxford English Dictionary of computerized language characters, numbers and symbols, contemporary and archaic, mainstream and obscure. The home of Khmer Lunar codes, Ogham alphabets and Cyrillic supplements. An alphanumeric expression of the means of human communication.
          Me, October 26, 2003, Savoring the Unicode

Two weeks ago, I got a call from a reporter who had stumbled on two pieces I wrote in praise of new releases of the Unicode, the first in 2003 (on the occasion of the release of Unicode 4.0, referred to above), and the second in 2006, two releases later. The reason for the call was the release of Unicode version 8.0 by its stewards, the Unicode Consortium.

Where I Was Then; Where we Are Today

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It seems easier to accept that it has been a half century since JFK was murdered than that most people now alive were then yet to be born. The enormity and impact of that event were so unprecedented that one feels everyone should somehow be able to remember where they were when those terrible shots were fired.

Like everyone who was old enough to grasp the fact of the young president’s assassination, I remember where I was when the news began to spread.  Just turned 10, I was sitting in my second floor classroom at the Hay School, a one class per grade elementary school in Easton, Pennsylvania. There was a knock at the door, whispering, and then more quiet voices as the teachers congregated, shocked and no doubt fearful, in the hallway.

Groklaw, Domestic Surveillance and the True Measure of Risk

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U.S. Constitution, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration and Wikimedia CommonsThis week, Pamela Jones announced that Groklaw would shut down – this time for good. The loss of this pillar of legal journalism provides an appropriate occasion for reexamining whether our commitment to the liberties upon which America was founded still holds true. And also to consider whether pragmatism in policy development has surrendered to illogical political expediency.

PJ’s final post (titled Forced Exposure) explains her decision, and is well worth your while to read. In brief, she has concluded that since she and her sources can no longer rely on the privacy of their communications, Groklaw can no longer function.  And so a site that has been repeatedly recognized for the contributions that it has made comes to an end after a decade of service.

Appreciating Steve Jobs

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It's impossible for anyone who has witnessed the personal computer and personal technology age from its beginning to separate Steve Jobs from that incredible odyssey.  From the start, he envisioned, created, and defined new platforms and categories of media experience. 

Sometimes he was not the first to invent, as with the mouse, the MP3 Player, the smartphone and the slate computer.  But when he turned his exceptional perceptions, sense of style and insistence on perfection to each of these tools, he exposed the limited vision of those who had first introduced these tools by reenvisioning, recreating, and redefining what those tools could be. 

Each time, his vision almost instantly prevailed. 

Six Lives and Counting

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Depending on your point of view, the daily news delivers up a glass either half empty or half full. In the short term, the negative impression can be particularly powerful, with disasters both natural and man-made arising with distressing regularity. But the glass can also be viewed as half full, and that can lead to a false sense of security.

The viewpoint to which I refer would lead us to believe that most, if not all, man-made disasters in the making will fall to new technological innovations, allowing us to continue in our consumptive and polluting ways without concern for tomorrow. As with the cat with nine lives, the disasters predicted by the prognosticators of doom, from Thomas Malthus in the 18th century to Paul Ehrlich in the 20th, have always failed to materialize.

Sarah Palin and Wikipediology

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Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

Courtesy of Therealbs2002, CCA-SA3.0Some time back, I wrote a blog entry called "The Wikipedia and the Death of Archaeology."  The thesis of the piece was this: archaeologists study periods as recent as a hundred years ago, because even with newspapers, magazines and photographs, a substantial percentage of everyday reality still slips through the historical cracks.  If that sounds bogus, consider the fact that several times in your life (at least if you're an American), you've read an account of someone sealing or opening up a "time capsule" intended to preserve everyday objects for about the same time frame. 

The humbling lesson is that much of our life is made up of trivial things - office supplies, flower pots, talk shows, you name it - that don't become the stuff of newspapers or novels.  It follows that if you lose the trivia, then you lose much of the texture and context that makes everyday life real and understandable, if not always exactly inspiring.  That's why archaeologists (or at least archaeologist lacking travel budgets) are wont to dig up such recent garbage - to recapture our trivia, in order to backfill our knowledge of who we were after the conscious memory has been lost.  But, as I pointed out in my earlier entry, understanding the realities of the past by counting peach pits in privies at best allows you to make guesses about a single home owner, and not about society writ large.

In Celebration of the Life of John H. Updegrove, M.D.

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Father’s realize certain things as they get older: unless you are a fireman or a high school teacher, your grandparents may never really understand what you do for a living. Few children ever appreciate the degree of skill you bring to your trade or profession, and needless to say, your average spouse is likely to wonder whether anyone that speaks kindly of her husband is really talking about the same person that sometimes forgets to take out the garbage. 

That was never a problem in my family, or at least perhaps less so than is often the case. One of my earliest memories is being asked one question over and over again: “whether I was going to be a doctor, just like my father and grandfather.” If the person asking the question was old enough, they might add, “and your great-grandfather, too.  He delivered me, you know.”  

Killing the Roach: The Incredibly Illogical, Fundamentally Odious — but Seemingly Ineradicable — Billable Hour

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The service the lawyer renders is his professional knowledge and skill, but the commodity he sells is time — Reginald Heber Smith, inventor of the billable hour

Both reviled and ubiquitous, the billable hour is the roach of the legal world — Douglas McCollam, writing in the American Lawyer

Let's imagine that you would like to have your dilapidated, wood-sided house painted. The southern exposure is peeling, the soffits sport dark Rorschach patterns of mildew, and more than a few window sills have that uncomfortably punky feel to the touch that whispers "we're rotting — you must help us." You know that you can't put off facing the music any longer, and hope that the impact on your wallet will be no more painful than absolutely necessary.

So you do what any rational homeowner would — you get some referrals from people you trust, call the folks they recommend, and tell each of them that you'll be soliciting several bids. While you're at it, you also call the painter who, as luck would have it, had dropped a flyer in your mailbox that very afternoon.

Over the next week each housepainter stops by after work, walks around your house, scribbles a few notes, and promises to get back to you with a quote. Within a week, most of them actually do. Like any homeowner would, you select the cheapest, failing to note that it came from the painter you found through the flyer. Soon, the job is done, and he drops by to collect the agreed upon amount. Pleased, you pay him on the spot.

What a nice, logical system, especially for the buyer. You know just what you'll have to pay before you commit to pay it, and gain the benefit of competitive bidding as well. You'd be crazy to take on such a large financial commitment any other way, wouldn't you?

Standards of Patient Care

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There are not a few commentators that would tell us that the latter half of the 20th century will best be remembered as the Computer Age, a time when advances in information technology truly transformed the way we live our lives. If medical science continues to advance at current rates, I believe that the first half of this century will as likely be recalled as the Age of Life Science — the time when our lives were transformed at the metabolic level. Indeed, on every front, whether it be genomics or oncology, neurology or stem cell research, reports of dramatic discoveries arrive almost daily, many suggesting the promise of cures that only a short time ago would have seemed little short of miraculous.

Inauguration Day - January 20, 2009

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I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.   Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries.   This can be such a moment.  

When I was much younger, still in school, I was fortunate enough to receive a ticket to a Presidential inauguration.  It was a good ticket, allowing me to stand not a hundred yards from the podium where the new president would stand as first he was sworn in, and then as he delivered his inaugural address..

Then, as now, it was a time of uncertainty, with wars both cold and hot raising tensions internationally and inflaming passions at home.  The campaign just ended had been divisive, as had the primaries preceding it.  There was much to weigh down the shoulders of a new president as he waited to take his oath of office, and many reasons to doubt his ability to deliver on the vision for the future that he would share.

The address that I heard that day was eloquent and high-minded.  In it the new President asked:

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