Colins Blog 2008

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2008/12/14 Simplistic actions, unfair results

I admit that I enjoy watching the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. I wouldn't say I'm a fan, but I do enjoy it. But now I'm somewhat annoyed.

After last night's show, two of the couples were tied on three points from the judges, with another on only one point. The show finished, the vote started, and the live results program was later that evening.

And I thought:
"Tom only has 1 point, so he absolutely must be in the dance-off.

"I like Tom's dancing better than Lisa's dancing, and I think he would have a better chance in the dance-off against Lisa than he would against Rachel.

"If Rachel ranks above Lisa in the viewer vote, then Tom will dance against Lisa, and that's the best I can hope for.

"That means that if I vote, I should vote for Rachel."

Well, I didn't vote - I didn't, and don't, care enough. And it's just as well. Now it's announced that the vote got suspended, all couples are through to the final, and the votes will now roll-over to next week.

That's unfair, unjust, possibly immoral, and very likely illegal. If I had voted for Rachel, my vote would now count against my preferred winner. Surely I'm not the only one who analysed things in that way, and so the arbitrary actions of those in charge have now artificially boosted Rachel's chances of winning.

Good one BBC. Nice to see that you clearly have no idea.

2008/11/18 Simple tools, powerful results
I've been reading some of Paul Graham's essays again, and was struck by how inter-linked they are in some senses, but not others. You can find them here:

So I downloaded them, and looked at the html for links between the pages.

Hmm. Mass of data - how to visualise.

Then I fired up the GraphViz tool and drew the graph. Brilliant tool. Simple in conception, sophisticated in implementation, and fantastically powerful in action.

The original version was simplistic and used the page names rather than their title, and it wasn't clickable. I also thought there was going to be a better layout, so I've touched the problem again. The results are on Paul Graham Essays.

Click on a few - they'll repay your time.

2008/11/08 Did they think it through? Really?

I've recently travelled by air again, and I thought I'd give the new station at Liverpool South Parkway a go. It seems that from a regular rail station you can buy a ticket to the airport, then catch the train to Liverpool South Parkway, then any one of several shuttle buses to the terminal itself. Sounds like a great idea, and certainly beats taking the car and parking, or a taxi.

So I turn up at the station - slightly skeptical, and ask for a ticket to the airport. No problem.

Well, actually, small problem. It seems I can't buy a period return. They do singles, of course. Slightly less obviously they do day returns, just in case you want to visit the airport for the day. What they don't let you do is go today, and come back tomorrow.

That seems a bit daft. It's not often I want to go to the airport just for the day, but there you go.

So I buy a single.

You may see where this is going, but I didn't. It was, after all, morning, and I'm not at my best in the mornings.

So now I've returned, and I'm looking to buy my ticket to go home. Only I can't. There is no train station at the airport. It seems that I need to buy a bus ticket to a station, and only then can I buy a ticket for the train.

So all the advantages have suddenly evaporated. Why can't I buy a period return from my home station? Why can't a buy a single through ticket from the airport to home? Did anyone think this through?

Did anyone think at all?

2008/09/28 Celebrating Genius in the Small

I couldn't say it much better, and don't have much to add. All I can really do is highlight the point.

Theory is fine, theory is hard, theory is essential, but turning theory into practical and useful devices that make the difference to our lives is a rare gift, insufficiently celebrated.

2008/09/04 Pardon?

When I'm in a new country I always learn to say "I'm sorry, but I don't speak XXX" in the local language. It's important not to get the grammar or accent perfect, because I've found that the result is usually a reply in an incomprehensible stream of what you've just said you can't speak.


Anyway, I know how to say that I can't speak Swedish, and for some reason I can't reasonably explain I recently put it into Google's translation system The result was interesting:

Original text: (Swedish) Jag talar inte svenska
Translation: (English) I do not speak English

Not sure I can put my finger on exactly what's worrying me about this ...

2008/08/21 The Dilemma of History
I'm standing in the middle of a temple to Mithras as I write this. We're in the last stages of a holiday in Hadrian's Wall country, and we're somewhere near the wall in a rectangle of stone walls. The ground around is soggy damp, and there's an apologetic little stream flowing in beside the front doorstep, almost ashamed to be entering, and sidling up to join its friends in the small puddle.

There's a plaque that does its best to show what it was all about, and what it might have been like. It talks about the rituals as best they can deduce, and there is a picture of how it may have looked.

But it's actually all a little sad. The cows are in the field above, pulling up the grass and solemnly chomping away. The ground can't decide whether it's grass, bog, mud or what, and we're here, in the middle of a large expanse of nothing much.

What was it like? How can we remember it? Does it do it justice to see it like this? The purists don't want it rebuilt, or reconstructed, or otherwise touched, but is it really fair to leave it as hang-dog as this?

2008/08/20 Sense of Wonder

Visiting Alnwick (pronounced Annick) gardens (not the castle this time - that's a separate attraction). They have a fantastic water garden sculpture section - brilliant. Each sculpture is attractive in its own right, but most are inspired by, or clearly demonstrate, a scientific principle.

There's a "fountain" that uses the Coanda effect, a fountain that shows the principle of hydrostatic pressure, and one that's an exquisite example of a vortex. And more.

The kids, or course, didn't care. They were having a great time playing in the water - the principles and ideas going straight over their heads. But that's not the point. Exposing them to these effects now, letting them experience the way things work and making it part of their lives, means that they have some context should they choose to study them later, or some understanding of the ideas behind difficult questions like how aeroplanes fly.

Surely this is an unalloyed "Good Thing(tm)".

But then I wondered.

Suppose we experienced on a daily basis some of the minor miracles of physics and engineering. What would we have left to cause intrigue and wonder?

Suppose it was obvious that light is both a particle and a wave. Suppose it was obvious that things got shorter as they travelled faster. Suppose it was obvious that clocks went faster as you climbed a mountain. What would there be left to marvel about?

Kids I know take it for granted that Sat Nav systems can tell them where they are, and guide them to wherever they want to go. They have no idea how it works, and in many cases they simply don't care. Technology is becoming - has become - so ubiquitous that the sense of wonder is gone, and there is nothing left that makes them go "How does that work?" The answer is always just "It's a computer."

But where will we get the scientists, engineers, programmers and mathematicians of tomorrow? How can we create that sense of "Wow!", and not just from the ever increasing, and increasingly pointless, eye-candy of computer games and CGI "action."

How can we make kids interact with the real world, shape the real world, create the real world, and not just be passive passengers, experiencing, but never contributing.

Computers do everything these days, but how does a computer actually work?

2008/06/21 Truth from any source ...

Found in many places on the 'net, repeated often, frequently mis-attributed, and it's popular because there is truth.

14 Rules for the Real World by Charles J. Sykes

From some points of view these are going to sound pretty smug, really. But like so many things in life, don't dismiss them just because you can find flaws. Instead, try to learn something of value. Take the chance to become a better person.

2008/06/17 Maths in the Media

There isn't enough coverage of maths that presents a balanced view of the subject and its practitioners. All too often the demands of car-crash television results in programmes like "Dangerous Knowledge", which proposes the thesis that doing maths can, and often does, drive you mad. It doesn't hold water, but it's usually only the extremes of anything that get coverage. After all, they have to compete against Big Brother series 752.

That's why it was nice to see a well-structured, thoughtful, and above all accurate report on a maths event. Yes, it suggested that the people there were slightly kooky, but at least it didn't portray them as potential serial killers.

The Guardian:

2008/06/11 What should we teach?

"Curriculum" comes from the Latin for "racetrack, and as soon as you have a race you have winners and losers. Is that necessarily a good thing?
I've been having some discussions recently with some teachers over the question of the content of the ICT and mathematics curricula. I was suggesting that using VB6 was a bad idea, as it produces bad habits, and doesn't give the scope for what programming is really about. They were saying that it gets results quickly, and ticks the boxes for assessment.

Clearly this shows the two different points of view for the question:

For the teachers, the externally applied motivation is clear - good grades are everything. Getting good grades means the student feels good, gets their place at University, or that job, the school gets a good assessment, and so on. The externally provided motivation is entirely about getting good grades.

The hope is that good grades indicate genuine achievement. The perennial argument about A-Levels is exactly that - do A-Levels now give the same indication of underlying achievement as in previous years? But really the questions are:

And does the system of assessment give a true indication of that underlying truth?

2008/04/20 The Humble Programmer

Edsger W. Dijkstra wrote in his paper "Aims for a Young Scientist" (EWD1055A.PDF):

  • Raise your standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.
  • We all like our work to be socially relevant and scientifically sound. If we can find a topic satisfying both desires, we are lucky; if the two targets are in conflict with each other, let the requirement of scientific soundness prevail.
  • Never tackle a problem of which you can be pretty sure that (now or in the near future) it will be tackled by others who are, in relation to that problem, at least as competent and well-equipped as you are.
  • Write as if your work is going to be studied by a thousand people.
  • Don't get enamored with the complexities you have learned to live with (be they of your own making or imported). The lurking suspicion that something could be simplified is the world's richest source of rewarding challenges.
  • Before embarking on an ambitious project, try to kill it.
  • Remember that research with a big R is rarely mission-oriented and plan in terms of decades, not years. Resist all pressure -- be it financial or cultural -- to do work that is of ephemeral significance at best.
  • Don't strive for recognition (in whatever form): recognition should not be your goal, but a symptom that your work has been worthwhile.
  • Avoid involvement in projects so vague that their failure could remain invisible: such involvement tends to corrupt one's scientific integrity.
  • Striving for perfection is ultimately the only justification for the academic enterprise; if you don't feel comfortable with this goal -- e.g. because you think it too presumptuous -- stay out!

This paper implicitly exhorts people to have a degree of humility. It shows a healthy regard for the abilities of others, and requires that you work on something useful, for which you will be recognised.
Recently I've been have a "discussion" on-line with someone about being humble. He quotes a definition as: Somehow he concludes from this that to strive to be humble means to become low and inferior. Aim low - do not aim high. Do not aim for perfection. Just be nice, and let things slide.

As so often happens in English, "Humble" has several definitions. In encouraging people to show more humility we are not asking them to become low in station - that would be ridiculous. Taking "humility" to imply that you are striving for low standards is ludicrous. Clearly if someone is encouraging us to be humble they must have something else in mind.

Assuming there is meaning in the exhortation, another meaning of "humble" must be relevant. Here is a definition from the Concise Oxford Dictionary:

That sounds more likely. The exhortation is that everyone should recognise that others may genuinely be better - that is what it means to have a degree of humility. Accept that others may know more, and be smarter, and strive to convince them. In doing so you gain credence and reputation. To do otherwise, to criticize others and simply state things as if they are self-evident truths for lesser mortals to accept without question, is to start by alienating them. Then either you're wrong, thus losing status, or you're right, fostering resentment. In Dale Carnegie's book "How To Win Friends And Influence People" he talks about how to get along with people, and how to convey information in a way that makes them want to accept things that are right. The book is seriously dated now, but people haven't changed all that much, and the truths, although quaintly (and sometimes insultingly) expressed, are truths nonetheless.

Edsger W. Dijkstra was perhaps one of the most influential members of computing science's founding generation. A web site of his writings is here:

It is all good reading, some technical, some sociological, some ranting, but all informative, even if you don't agree with it.


I've been browsing YouTube ( ) a bit lately. A friend and I have been working on a puzzle, and now he's filmed it and put it up, here:

It's a really good puzzle - see if you can work it out.

Anyway, I went and had a look. Then I started following links, and looking at other videos, and on it goes. I'm sure you know what I mean. Even if you're a complete luddite you may have lost yourself for a time reading a dictionary or encyclopedia, perhaps especially if you're a luddite.

Sorry - "late adopter."

On 2005/06/14 I wrote this:

It has been said that the internet, and the World Wide Web in particular is a great leveller, a great equaliser. It gives pretty much anyone the ability to publish on a world-readable medium what ever they want to say ... what we've discovered upon giving everyone ... the ability to publish, is that most of them don't have anything interesting to say.

I should like to consider the folk song and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people. If professional song writers had written them instead, things might have turned out considerably differently
  • Tom Lehrer,
    • introduction to the song 'Clementine'
We've also now found that they can't even say it well. The spelling, grammar, production, accuracy and content are all, generally, utterly appalling.

It's a deeply worrying trend, actually.

News sites used to find their own news, report it as clearly and even-handedly as they could. Admittedly, many have, or had, a strong bias, some were downright one-sided, but at least what they produced was well-produced. Now stories are followed by poorly thought-out, poorly constructed, poorly phrased and content-free rants.

George Bernard Shaw said "People would sooner die than think. And most of them do." Why are we being subjected to the endless, mindless drivel.

The BBC news site says:

Help us make the news, with your pictures, views and stories.

Good writing is hard, and now, thanks to being swamped by the volume of value-free, well, let's just say twaddle, it's hard to find anything actually worth reading.

2008/03/04 Sight for sore eyes

The original

I knew I was coming fown with a colf.

I left work early and went home, and wasn't olooinf dorwaed to doing the trakj the next dat, Stukkm U didn;t reakky gave a choice.

On the way back I felt like I had a pueve of grit in my eye. Nothing seemed to hekp, and it was getting more and more blookshot.

Saturday evening it felt like it was full of grit.

Sunday morning was wrose, but it got a little better during the day. Monday it was bad again, so I went to the optician. He referred me to the eye clinic at Arrowe Park, where I saw a very nice man who toild me to keep my eyes closed.

In essence, the cold virus had taken hold in my eye membranes, and it was just a cold in the wrong place. Keep an eye on it, so to speak, but let it run its course. Keep my eyes closed, and it would sort itself out quicker. Open them only as necessary.

It's an interesting experience. How often do you try to do things with your eyes closed. Do you give any thought to how to make things easy for those with a visual impairement?

Interesting thing. As I was typing this, Windows produced a "popup" to ask me if I wasnted some action of other, and half my input therefore went to the wrong place. Interfaces that do that are funadamentally broken.

They;re also surprisingly common.

Admittedly I don't have anyt of the visual imparitment settings turned on, but even so . Why make it harder?


I knew I was coming down with a cold.

I left work early and went home, and wasn't looking forward to doing the talk the next day, Still, I didn't really gave a choice.

On the way back I felt like I had a piece of grit in my eye. Nothing seemed to help, and it was getting more and more bloodshot.

Saturday evening it felt like it was full of grit.

Sunday morning was worse, but it got a little better during the day. Monday it was bad again, so I went to the optician. He referred me to the eye clinic at Arrowe Park, where I saw a very nice man who told me to keep my eyes closed.

In essence, the cold virus had taken hold in my eye membranes, and it was just a cold in the wrong place. Keep an eye on it, so to speak, but let it run its course. Keep my eyes closed, and it would sort itself out quicker. Open them only as necessary.

It's an interesting experience. How often do you try to do things with your eyes closed? Do you give any thought to how to make things easy for those with a visual impairment?

Interesting thing. As I was typing this, Windows produced a "popup" to ask me if I wanted some action or other, and half my input therefore went to the wrong place. Interfaces that do that are fundamentally broken.

They're also surprisingly common.

Admittedly I don't have any of the visual impairment settings turned on, but even so. Why make it harder?

I was half surprised at how readable was the version that I created with my eyes closed, but also half disappointed. Perhaps I should finally learn to touch type properly.

2008/02/11 The Quiet Zone

I'm travelling again, and I've found myself in the "Quiet Zone".

I'm sure those of you who travel by train a reasonable amount have seen the idea. Just as some coaches used to be designated as smoking, and if you smoke you went and sat in those coaches, in this case it's "Being Quiet" that's banished to the special coach.

And the analogy is surprisingly accurate. Just as in the case of the smoking coach, if you didn't smoke you were still allowed to go in there. In the case of the "Quiet Zone", people who aren't quiet do, indeed, still go in there.

The sign on the window, indeed, on every window, says

Sit back and relax...

Please refrain from using mobile phones,
and creating unnecessary noise - thank you.
Quiet Zone.

The "Q" has headphones on, and the "i" is actually a mobile. Very sweet.

Great idea too. It means that people on long trips and having to get some work done - thinking style work - have the chance to do it without the distraction of mobile ring tones, loud conversation, and all that "unnecessary noise".

Which is, of course, right alongside "necessary noise". In the last 20 minutes I've heard nearly 30 telephone calls and text messages. Yes, I am sad, I have been counting.

So just as with the smoking coach, where it was still permitted for non-smokers to go, we have quiet coaches, where non-quiet people can go. The ticket inspector does his best, but people literally ignore him, too busy with their conversations to pay attention.

And unlike smoking, mobile phone noise is getting worse. And worse.

These days it's quite unusual for me to sit in the quiet coach. It's just as noisy as the others. You may wonder why I bother specifically to hunt out the non-quiet coaches if they are, indeed, pretty much the same. The fact of the matter is that they are pretty much the same, but at least the noise is expected, and doesn't make me so bloody annoyed.

2008/02/07 Moving to Broadband

Rachel and I are what are known as "Late Adopters". Although people think of us as incredibly good with technology, the truth is that we hate it, and only use it when we have to. The problem is that we've both used technology that really does work very well, so the vast majority makes us angry, frustrated, and generally ticked off.

Most of the time it doesn't work as well as it could. Perhaps as well as it should.

The reason is clear. Companies don't want to make you happy. Companies want to make money. They will do as little as they can get away with, reducing their quality of service until the money they save is less than the money they lose.

Because customers are generally loyal, and forgiving, companies can get away with reducing their services to a very, very poor quality indeed.

And that's what happens in a competitive market. Sod the customer, we have to compete, so we'll give them as little as we can get away with.

Cynical? Me? I prefer to think of myself as realistic.

We'll chart some of our progress on the Moving To Broadband page.

2008/01/17 All the letters

Most people are aware of the phrase: but many, perhaps most, don't realise
  1. Why it's interesting
  2. It's wrong.
OK, so it's interesting because it contains every letter of the alphabet. Except it doesn't. It's missing "s". So let's make it more correct, but slightly less "natural" sounding: Now at least it has all the letters, but it requires the present tense, and is therefore less natural when recounted.

It's also not that efficient. There are several repeated letters, including "e" and "o". Can we do better than the 35 letters? What about

That's 33 letters.

How about a complete change of theme?

That's 32.

We can play this game for a while, and it's instructive to do so. In fact, there were some villains from a remote valley village in Wales who found a funny symbol made out of some clear crystal. They thought it might be worth money, so they tried to work out how to steal it, but the task left them scratching their heads.

In fact, one might say this:

Well, perhaps not.

2008/01/10 Impossible to translate ...

On a recent business trip to Spain I was asked this question:

¿Cómo llamar a un ascensor en Inglés?

The answer expected is, of course, "a lift".

No. The actual answer is "Con su dedo." - "With your finger."

How can this be translated into English? The original question, when translated literally, is "How do you call a lift in English?" The answer now is obvious and unsurprising. The colloquial translation of the original is "What do you call a lift in English?", and now the joke doesn't work at all.

It simply doesn't translate.

Sometimes when I'm talking to people, trying to explain something, I can see that it's just not working. They aren't hearing what I'm saying - the thoughts from my head are just not getting there. They simply don't get it. This doesn't mean they're stupid, it doesn't mean they're incapable, it simply means that they don't have the same basis from which to work, and the "explanation", doesn't.

Language is an amazing thing, and the more you study it, the more you realise it simply can't work. The fact that we can communicate at all is quite stunning.

I finish with two quotations from Terry Pratchett. The first points out the different in attitude that perhaps is driven by the recognition that there are different languages, and lack of understanding is often down to the listener.

... a significant difference between Europeans and Americans:
  • A European says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with me?
  • An American says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with him?
The second, as Terry often does, says it all better than I ever could.
I think perhaps the most important problem is that we are trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language devised for telling one another when the best fruit is.

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