The scientific value of being wrong

This post is also a part of a forum discussion.

Fred Hoyle commented that it makes more sense to be unorthodox than orthodox in science. I fully agree with that. If a thousand people are looking in one direction and you are looking in another, more will be found in the orthodox direction but you have a much higher chance of discovering something yourself.

The reason why scientists and wannabes goes “oh no, not again” whenever a pseudo-scientific idea crops up is that there are so many of them, the idea is so nebulous, and the proponents are almost incapable of admitting to themselves that they might be wrong no matter the argument or method. This reaction is perfectly natural but in excess it is damaging. It doesn’t help that to successfully promote a scientific theory you have to be pretty thick-skulled, and that doesn’t go well with admitting defeat. Like other human beings scientist tend to cling to their convictions until they die.


Newsspam: The Yahoo and Opera stories

Early in December a Yahoo story spread quickly across the web, MAN DATES GAL ON INTERNET FOR SIX MONTHS — AND IT TURNS OUT SHE’S HIS MOTHER!. Yesterday, almost three weeks later, the story was published unchecked by Dagbladet, Norway’s third largest newspaper where it became the most widely spread and read story that day. The only problem was that this story wasn’t true and it wasn’t intended to be true either.

Writing infective stories is largely to follow a formula. One such story with a seemingly reliable source is all that is needed for it to pass. The source of the Yahoo page was Weekly World News, but the apparent origin was Yahoo! Entertainment. Until the WWN Yahoo stories are better marked it will lower the trust in Yahoo News! (or for that matter Dagbladet) as a reliable newssource.

A few days later a blog came up with the story that Google could buy Opera. That story was just about believable as a rumour. The blogger had connections, and while you could wonder why the anonymous source would spill the beans, but a titillating rumour all the same. The story made the rounds and within a couple days had mutated into that Google actually had bought Opera (but to my great disappointment nobody told us what our price was). That the original was in French added mystique and frisson to the story.


Power plug and play

A weekend in Glasgow. Scotland is neighbouring Norway and a direct flight from Oslo (though this being Ryan Air the bus ride to their airport takes longer than the plane trip itself).

The physical and cultural closeness makes it easy to forget that they live by different standards than we do. The difference is slight, phones work, they use 230V, they even switched to metric. All is fine until you try to put your round pegs in their square holes.

The phone is fine, but the laptop is getting progressively more needy. All for competing standards in the user interface.

Watch this spacer

It was natural to start off a series on web elements with a vilified element that never made it into any web standard and never will, the spacer. Often elements are made for minute details that nobody, man or machine, are interested in. Should abbr or acronym be used? Who cares, except the poor web developer confused by reading the literature and trying to do the right thing.

spacer is an element signifying nothing, containing nothing, and displayed as a rectangle of nothing. It is a pure layout hack. You know the the drill. The correct and proper element to use is object, or use img if you have to for compatibility reasons. The spacer is not to be used. And this is a pity. The wonderful thing about spacer is that you know it is a hack and that it is completely devoid of meaning.

When we do Small-Screen Rendering or a voice representation of a page the goal is to remove the useless stuff and present the useful stuff as well as possible. But what is useless? If a tiny image is stretched horizontally or vertically we assume it is a spacer element and remove it. We are practically always right, but still it is guesswork. For all we knew we could have removed useful information. If that img had been a spacer instead we could have removed it with no remorse.


Free as in competition

Now that Opera is feeling free, inevitably the question of open source comes up. There is nothing wrong with open source, even if I sometimes wonder about some of its evangelists, but still we have opted for having the Opera source code closed.

Could Opera benefit from being open source? Yes. Does it benefit from not being open source? Yes. To us the benefits from being open source are small, the benefits from not being open source large. For other products, maybe one of ours if we had any, the bottom line might be different. This is a commercial decision and not one of ideology. Maybe we are netheads with a cause but fundamentally we are in it for the money, and not to promote purity of thought. If we don’t make money from producing a browser, we will do something else.

One reason an open source Opera wouldn’t be such a good idea is that there are already two healthy open source browser projects out there, based on the Gecko and KHTML layout engines, and three would be a crowd. If we all were the same browser under different names, there would be no variety or competition left except for the respective marketing departments. It is real, open competition we need (something that has been hard to get on the Windows platform).


Circle-squaring standards

Shortly before Opera Software was founded, Håkon Lie wrote what was to become the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) specification. I read this paper a few months later when working for the government and was thrilled. A decade later, with CSS finally mainstream, the promise of what CSS can do is still exciting.

The usefulness of separating presentation from content should be known by now. But even more revolutionary was the cascade, the idea that the user had a say in how a document was presented, not just the author. Intriguingly the initial proposal had the concept of a compromise for numeric values. So if you had a preference for 16px text and I for 12px, the page might be displayed as 14px. How Scandinavian, how TeX, and how scrapped it was by the final spec. In the current cascade a rule either applies or it doesn’t, but there is a priority hierarchy with the user ultimately on top.


Opera Software: 10 Axelsson: 31

There is something bombastic about round numbers. Opera Software just celebrated 10, a long time in Internet years. Half that time I have been working here, while Opera in turn has been around almost half my Internet life, which has been close to half the fifty-sixty years lifetime I expect the Internet to have as a project. It will garner as much interest to speak about the Net in the 2020s as it would be to speak of electricity today.


Du store verden så liten den har blitt

With a weekly release of some Opera product I have almost stopped paying attention to ourselves. But once in a great while something huge happens. Yesterday was one such time. I do of course refer to the limited release of Opera Mini, limited to Norwegians that is, not limited in scope.

This is huge for a number of reasons. It affect a huge number of devices, the hugest number really except for TV sets, of which there are twice as many in the world.

The download size is great too. A standing idle question we have had since the beginning is: How small can we make Opera? And the answer is: The size of a normal MMS message, at around 55 KB. That is way smaller than the floppy disk Opera 3 fit into.

It also introduced our first TV campaign ever, featuring a quirky set of ads from where this title is stolen.

What I really liked about this release is that the distribution was the way I would want it to be. All you do is send a SMS (Opera to 1984) and you’re an Opera user. In theory at least, as different operators, different handsets with different telephony integration and versions of Java, different settings for WAP or web have conspired to make the process not quite as transparent. But compared to the normal discovery and installation process this is a huge improvement. You have a phone, you want the Internet, you got it.