Software Unicorns


William Overington

The eighth story in The Eutotokens of Learning, which is a collection of stories speculating on a future infrastructure for free to the end user distance education on the internet.

Copyright 1998 William Overington.

A break has been taken within a meeting at Encouragement of Creativity and Invention Limited where plans for the open day are being discussed. Jane Hove and her assistant Michael Walker are attending from IFDEP and Edith has just escorted them to the refectory where they are now all enjoying cups of peppermint tea.

"Mmm" says Jane as she takes another sip of peppermint tea "I do think that you have the most wonderful refectory here Edith."

Edith smiles.

Michael Walker asks a question of Edith.

"Can you tell me of why eutotokens have a value of one femtopenny please?"

"Ah" says Edith "That is quite a story!" She continues.

"It is a confluence of several factors. The first factor is that there was originally a concept that authors of learning materials would receive a share in the publishing company as a result of authoring learning materials for free to the end user distance education rather than direct payment. That is, a share in the same manner as one can buy a share in a public company, except that these shares would be provided as a reward for providing creative work. However, the problem was that this would produce a question of quotas as the company would have to provide money to cover the cost of the shares. Also, there was the matter of the costs of sending annual reports and other legal notices such that it would not be financially sound to create a situation where lots of people would each hold just one or two shares in the company. So the size of such a shareholding, the funds likely to be available and the very important factor of not wishing to have quotas pointed away from being able to reward learning material authors with shares in the publishing company. The concept of a eutotoken was invented so that the reward was legally a token, of which the law provides only very basic rights, so that a eutotoken could, in fact, have attached to it rights significantly above that of the legal minimum for a token yet below those of a share. Well, I say below those of a share, perhaps I should say different from those of a share. Certainly, if one looks at just the rights which attach to shares, then a eutotoken does indeed have rights which are below those of a share. However, eutotokens do have rights attached to them which are rights which are not rights that typically go with shares. There is a legal reason for there being a value on the eutotoken, so that people are not mislead into thinking that it might be worth more than it really is worth. In practice it really makes little difference if it has 0.001p on it or one femtopenny, though we do have to put zero, point, fourteen zeros, one, 'p' on it in full. However, people know from that that there is no point whatsoever in collecting eutotokens in order to exchange them for their cash value, though a box full of tokens with 0.001p on them could perhaps be exchanged for money if some group started combining their collections. However, the important thing to remember is that eutotokens can be exchanged for goods and services, many of which are either unobtainable elsewhere or could only be obtained at disproportionate cost. You will remember that eight pence is available for each eutotoken in order to fund the provision of goods and services. The tiny formal cash value is because the intention is not to exchange the tokens for cash, but for goods and services. The fact that Encouragement of Creativity and Invention Limited has that money available as soon as the eutotokens are sold to the bulk purchasers means that funding is available for bulk purchases of goods and services without any commercial concerns as to whether the items purchased are commercially marketable. Naturally, care is taken to try to ensure that the goods and services selected are likely to appeal to collectors of eutotokens. However, the pricing in eutotokens does not work out at exactly one eutotoken for each eight pence of funding. There is a definite policy of making learning materials less costly in eutotoken terms than more ornamental items. As to why femtopenny, well, the notion is that there is enough capability for everyone on the planet to be able to participate within a notional total of one pound, and once one has that, one needs to choose a unit, bearing in mind that each person might gain several hundred eutotokens from their learning material authorship and some might gain considerably more. Given that, there were a few choices possible and femtopenny was chosen, partly because it was a suitable size but mainly because of the typographical consideration that the long sweeping letter f would look nice in a typeface such as Garamond Italic on documents."

"It sounds like a way of saying 'a drop in the ocean' to me" says Michael.

"Perhaps you would like to work out the ratio of the volume of a drop of water to the volume of the ocean?" smiles Edith.

Michael glances at Jane in surprise. Jane smiles at him. Jane wonders whether Michael will take the challenge thrown to him or whether he will dismiss it as a pointless exercise and miss out on the possibility of perhaps learning something along the way.

'We shall see' thinks Jane.

Edith continues.

"Have you ever heard the story supposedly about the person who invented the game of chess in ancient times? The story goes that the inventor was asked by the ruler of the land what reward was requested and the inventor asked for one grain of wheat for the first square of the chessboard, two grains of wheat for the second square, four grains of wheat for the third square, eight grains of wheat for the fourth square and so on for all sixty four squares of the chessboard."

"Yes" says Michael "I've heard of that. It turns out that after a number of squares that there would be more grains of wheat than exist in the whole world."

"Exactly" says Edith "Yet have you considered what if the request had been for one atom of gold for the first square, two atoms of gold for the second square and so on, doubling the number of atoms of gold for each square up to the sixty four squares? Would that have been a reasonably sized amount for the ruler to have given to the inventor?"

"I can't say straight off" says Michael.

"Well" says Edith "perhaps that variation on the problem will lead you to learn rather more than did the original problem. Anyway, the notion arose of one femtopennyworth of gold and of having a token made of bronze with one femtopennyworth of gold in it. It was then a creative writing step to suggest that if one could look inside the token and look at only the atoms of gold that they would be like a galaxy of as many golden suns as there are atoms in one femtopennyworth of gold."

"How many is that?" asks Michael.

"That is the puzzle!" smiles Edith.

"It would vary with the price of gold" says Michael thoughtfully.

"Yes" says Edith with a smile.

"It is said that in a virtual world such a token tumbling through the air would be seen as a galaxy." adds Edith.

"Is the answer published anywhere" asks Michael.

"How can it be?" smiles Edith "As you say yourself, it varies with the price of gold!"

Jane has observed this exchange quietly, for this is Edith at her best, in her dreamy utopian mood. She knows what David Albert thinks of all this femtopenny business. He tolerates it. Reluctantly, true, yet as he is concerned with getting the job done he tolerates it. As Jane thinks to herself that Edith will be onto software unicorns next and, sure enough, does so, Jane politely excuses herself and goes for a walk.

Edith is explaining to Michael that the term software unicorn refers to both a situation that is part of writing software and is also a mythical animal. Edith also looks straight at the camera and mentions that the software unicorn is not, at the time of her speaking, a standard parlance in the writing of software and that, whilst she hopes that it will become a widely used term, she is taking care to mention this aspect of the matter so as not to confuse any students who may be reading this book, yet also hoping that they will delight in the mingling of creative writing with the task of writing software.

Edith turns to Michael and continues her explanation.

"The origin of the software unicorn is related to the Esperanto language and the history of the internet. Here is an overview of the circumstances that led to the software unicorn being devised. It is important to remember that the situation that I will describe happened before the introduction of the world wide web, when most internet communication was in newsgroups."

Edith continues.

"Esperanto, the international auxiliary language, has six accented characters. In printing one needs twelve characters as each of the six characters is needed in uppercase and lowercase. These accented characters are c circumflex, g circumflex, h circumflex, j circumflex, s circumflex and u breve. These characters are unique to the Esperanto language."

"These six characters are not part of the seven bit ASCII code and so problems can arise."

"A system was devised, a system called steloj, pronounced to English hearing ears as if spelt "stel-oy", which means, in Esperanto, "stars". It has the advantages that Esperanto text can be expressed in machine readable form using only printing seven bit ASCII characters and that it can be decoded by a computer system as each character is entered without backtracking along a display."

Jane gazes at the reproduction Leonardo da Vinci painting. The artist has captured the texture of the fur. Jane smiles to herself. 'What if this were a combination of two pieces of clip art with the one piece ungrouped and the order of various parts of it being shuffled with respect to the other piece so as to be able to achieve the effect in the painting!' she muses.

Edith takes out her pen and takes a sheet of paper out from her folder. She continues.

"In the steloj system, a special character is used. This is introduced immediately after the ZZZSTELOJ command that introduces the text in steloj format. The character could be the underscore character or the percentage character for example."

"These particular cases would be introduced by




respectively, with a space between the J and the special character."

"All text on subsequent lines is then treated as being text in the Esperanto language expressed in the machine useable steloj format until the command ZZZEND is received. The idea is that a computer may use text in the steloj format to produce a page in ordinary Esperanto printing."

Jane is feeling cheerful. She will go outside into the garden.

Edith then explains that she will hereafter refer to the special character without being specific as to whether an underscore, a percentage or anything else is implied. However, in the examples, she will use an underscore character.

Edith explains that accented characters are signalled in one of four different ways in the steloj system. She explains that the first three rules are general rules. She explains that the fourth rule is related, as will be seen, to the concept of the software unicorn and how it came to be a mythical animal.

'Ah! Yes' thinks Jane. This is the famous formal garden paved out in the pattern of the rete of an astrolabe with a specimen of Davidia Involucrata at each star point. The trees are still fairly small and so the formal garden looks very open. This should be magnificent in the future.

"The first rule is that if the first or second letter of a sentence is accented then the first letter of the sentence is expressed as a lowercase letter. In decoding, the first letter of the word is capitalized and the first letter of the word that can be accented is accented. Thus the first or the second letter of the word could be the letter accented."

Jane walks across the patio and heads for the footpath.

"The second rule is that if the first or second letter of any other word in a sentence is accented then the space before the word is replaced by the special character. In decoding, the special character decodes to a space and the first letter of the word that can be accented is accented. Thus the first or the second letter of the word could be the letter accented."

As she reaches the start of the footpath Jane turns and looks at the building. Jane is an amateur artist and likes to paint watercolours.

"The third rule is that any letter after the second letter of any word which is accented is represented by the unaccented letter in the opposite case to that in which the second letter of the word is expressed.

Jane walks along the footpath and heads for the arboretum. She gazes at the Dawn Redwood trees, their soft green foliage swaying gently in the breeze.

Jane catches a movement in the corner of her eye. She looks and sees what looks at first like a white horse grazing peacefully. Yet the animal has clearly heard her and turns and looks at her. Jane sees the golden horn from the centre of the animals forehead and the large green stars powdering its white body and realizes that this is a software unicorn. In the movie this is all to be done with a combination of real life action of Jane together with animation for the software unicorn. Grazing peacefully, yes, for Jane has realized that the Dawn Redwood is a conifer yet it is also deciduous. Jane knows that if she were to prepare a database of trees she would not assume that because a tree is coniferous that it is necessarily evergreen! Most conifers are evergreen, yet not all! Jane smiles to herself.

"This system, due to the nature of how the accents are used in words works well except that it was realized that if a word commenced with unaccented u followed by an accented character, then this would be displayed as u breve followed by an unaccented version of the desired accented character. The Esperanto dictionary that was to hand at the time was searched to find such a word, that is a word beginning with u and c circumflex or u and g circumflex or u and h circumflex or u and j circumflex or u and s circumflex or u and u breve. With the dictionary used, no such word was found! Was the problem non-existent? However, it was reasoned, what if a full dictionary contains such a word or such a word is coined in the future? If the steloj system were to become widely used in the future and such a word were coined, the whole system would fail. So maybe the problem was non-existent or maybe it was not! It was decided to coin a word beginning with u and c circumflex and the combination of the letter u and the circumflex accent suggested the term software unicorn, with the three letter word spelt u, c circumflex, o to be a mythical animal, a software unicorn, white bodied, golden horned and hoofed and powdered with green stars. The concept is that a software unicorn is a situation for which one must devise software to be capable of dealing should it ever occur, even if one is not entirely sure that the situation could even theoretically occur, because one is not entirely sure that it could not!"

Jane muses to herself. 'Yes, I would use the name of the tree, be it Dawn Redwood or Horse Chestnut or whatever and then I would have fields for whether the tree were coniferous, whether it were evergreen and all its other characteristics!' Suddenly Jane sees the software unicorn shake its head and mane and starts to move forwards, though not towards her, yet at a gallop. Rear hooves kick into the air. Jane is somewhat startled by this and wonders what is wrong. She follows in the direction that the software unicorn has travelled and sees it standing, gently nodding its head at her, between two trees, which look to her the same. Jane approaches the first tree. She can see from its leaves that it is a horse chestnut. She approaches the second tree. This too is a horse chestnut. The software unicorn raises its head and neighs. Jane thinks hard. She walks over to the software unicorn.

"I will look in a book of trees about Horse Chestnuts" says Jane to the software unicorn.

The software unicorn gently nods then begins to graze peacefully.

Jane walks back towards the building thinking that perhaps there are two different trees with different characteristics, such as colour of flowers, which both have an everyday name of Horse Chestnut and that perhaps Edith has had a specimen of each planted in the arboretum to make the point that a database of trees should use the scientific name of the tree as the primary key so that the later adding of an extra tree at a later date will not produce problems!

'Would Edith do such a thing' thinks Jane. She gives herself a knowing look.

"In creative writing software unicorns have been imagined to be essentially wild yet to be greatly pleased when a programmer takes care to defend against their intrusion, for the programmer has recognized their existence and a software unicorn is pleased to have his or her existence recognized. They will graze peacefully and harmlessly outside strong defences, it is only when a weak point is seen that they will enter and cause havoc."

Jane returns. Edith continues with her explanation of software unicorns.

"The practical problem of defending the steloj system lest a software unicorn cause havoc, is that the fourth rule gently modifies the first two rules to add that where a word begins with an unaccented letter u followed by an accented letter, then the letter u is expressed in the machine readable steloj code by a letter y and that in decoding, the y is decoded as an unaccented letter u and the accenting effect is passed onto the second letter. This is a very strong defence against the three letter word spelt u, c circumflex, o causing havoc if it were to be expressed in the steloj system."

"The steloj system is a system that is theoretically interesting yet has, as Esperanto characters become more easily expressible on the internet and web pages and this trend will increase, probably no great practical future as a technique for sending Esperanto text across computer networks in seven bit code printing characters. As I mentioned earlier the steloj system was devised before the world wide web came into being. Yet the concept of the software unicorn remains and the mythical animal still exists to delight our imaginations and for us to delight in watching software unicorns peacefully grazing once we are sure that we have defended against their entering through the defences of our software and causing havoc."