Reading, Writing, and ’Rithmetic

Yesterday was (depending upon who’s counting) the 16th anniversary of that thing we call the World Wide Web becoming a public entity. The Web is not to be confused with the Internet, which is much older, of course1. I’m talking about Tim Berners-Lee’s idea and implementation thereof. (I should not neglect to mention that this was done at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Europe.) His original posting (on the newsgroup alt.hypertext) proposing the structure can be viewed here, and here’s an extract:

The project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone. It aims to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups.

Reader view

The WWW world consists of documents, and links. Indexes are special documents which, rather than being read, may be searched. The result of such a search is another (“virtual”) document containing links to the documents found. A simple protocol (“HTTP”) is used to allow a browser program to request a keyword search by a remote information server.

The web contains documents in many formats. Those documents which are hypertext, (real or virtual) contain links to other documents, or places within documents. All documents, whether real, virtual or indexes, look similar to the reader and are contained within the same addressing scheme.

To follow a link, a reader clicks with a mouse (or types in a number if he or she has no mouse). To search and index, a reader gives keywords (or other search criteria). These are the only operations necessary to access the entire world of data.

What am I going to do to celebrate?

letter to anonSince everyday I celebrate the WWW by using it a lot, to commemorate the event I think I’m going to pay a visit to the (real, physical) library, then read a good old-fashioned book for a while, and then hand-write a letter. I used to write so many letters, long ago, and from time to time I try to stop everything and pick up a pen and write one. I got in the mood the other day while in Aspen, and went and found some letter-writing paper and envelopes, curled up on a sofa, and wrote for a good while, putting it all into an envelope and posting it the next day. It’s quite a feeling, letting your thoughts build up and sort of get bottlenecked behind your slowly working hand. My writing is now so slow and so unlovely compared to how it used to be. Typing on computers has diminished my writing skills somewhat. I actually still do a fair bit of writing by hand: Of course, my research notes on what I’m doing, the actual work of my computations, writing lecture notes, and so forth. I also sometimes write drafts of introductions to (and sometimes other sections of) my research papers by hand, which I understand is very unusual these days. Sometimes I’m just in the mood to do it that way. But writing a letter (that someone else will read) swiftly and steadily, by hand, is a different thing altogether.

Now I know that the appearance of the WWW really has nothing to do with the much earlier advent of email, which is what, along with the telephone, eroded the popularity of the art of letter-writing so much, but I still think of it as one of those things that has definitely eaten into that down time that we used to reserve for writing letters. Then of course there are blogs, which serve a lot of the purpose that the letter used to – catching up on what your friends and relatives are doing… So I’m not too off the mark.

By the way, some time ago I talked about letter writing in a blog post, and not long after, I got some letters and a card in the mailulam spiral from some very thoughtful readers of the blog! Thanks so much! They were an unexpected delight! There was one case where I could not acknowledge receipt to the writer (from New York) because I could not read their signature very well, so if you’re reading – thanks!

Oh. So I’ve talked about reading and writing, so what about the arithmetic promised in the title? Hmmm. Ok, on the right is an Ulam spiral2, and I’ll leave you to use the wonder of the WWW to learn exactly what one of those remarkable things is, if you don’t know. It’s a visual mystery about prime numbers.



  1. Here’s a history of the internet (by Dave Kristula) that I found just now on the web. I do not vouch for its accuracy, but it looks interesting. [return]
  2. I got it, at random, from here. [return]


Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Reading, Writing, and ’Rithmetic

  1. Yvette says:

    Hooray Ulam spirals! I wrote a short story a few months ago that was dubbed a “physics fairy tale,” where I took the liberty of having my protagonist figure out how they relate to the underlying structure of the universe. For me, they count as one of those things that make the universe a whole lot cooler just by knowing about ’em.

    As for pre-Internet life… I guess I was five years old when it was invented, and I remember at aged seven how my school got it in the computer lab, which was the Biggest Deal Ever. Except we never used it except once while I was in elementary school for reasons never quite explained… I still like snail mail though, and do a brisk trade in postcards through

  2. Elliot says:

    The history of the net you posted is somewhat incomplete. In 1989, “The World” out of Boston was the first dial up provider on the planet. This opened the network that was limited to academia/research to the “unwashed” masses. UUNet and PSInet soon followed. Non-academic access drove the net to commercialization (good or bad) and forever changed the nature of the enterprise. Barry Shein (founder of the world) got lots of negative mail from academics telling him he “ruined it”.


  3. Clifford says:

    That’s rather interesting, actually! Consider mailing the person who wrote that history and letting them know. It is possible that they did not know this detail and will be happy to add it. (I just pointed to it, I have no affiliation.)



  4. mollishka says:

    I also sometimes write drafts of introductions to (and sometimes other sections of) my research papers by hand, which I understand is very unusual these days.

    I do this sometimes as well. I find it really helps with unclogging a bad case of writer’s block.

  5. Clifford says:

    I find that my writing often flows much better when I just have a pen and paper and allow myself to scribble it out as I think. I suggested doing this to a class of freshmen last year, and my co-teaching colleague, a professional writer and a very good one (KC Cole) was visibly horrified by this suggestion!! Takes all types, I suppose.