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Archive for the ‘Vaguely highbrow’ Category

This book won’t change your life

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

You know the sort of book I mean: Listography, Wreck this journal, This diary will change your life, This is not a book, How to Make a Journal of Your Life, The Guerilla Art Kit, Your love life in lists, … How to be an explorer of the world: Portable life museum …. Tear Up This Book!: The Sticker, Stencil, Stationery, Games, Crafts, Doodle, and Journal Book for Girls!

Those books that have a fun, wacky but cheap, activity for you to do every day in order to cure your life from the malaise of materialism, work and apathy that has engulfed it.

But, I wonder, how well do the writers of these books live up to the image.

Lisa Nola (Listography)

You can tell Lisa’s a hipster intellectual sort because… well, just look at her! And him. He’s Adam.

Another big giveaway that they’re that way inclined is that they have built up a not insubstantial body of work, or ‘project’, including several books, calendars and, oh yes, the website, around this listography concept of theirs:

Through list making, you can shape an autobiography. Therefore, your listography is a perpetual work in progress, a time capsule you can share, and a map of your life for friends and family.

Or you can never ever look at it again.

I list. I love to list, but if there is any joy in looking at an old list (and, to be fair, there can be) it will be because it was not intended to be looked at so far in the future. You’ll surprise yourself by finding that back in 1996 you rated Aswad as your favourite band. But devoting hours of your younger years to making hundreds of lists for the express purpose of looking back at them in years to come is just depressing. Evidence of how stultifying an activity this must be is indicated by the following helpful text from the website:

Try our list topic generator for further inspiration and reflection.

But the idea does however seem to have taken off, to the point where a chain reaction is starting to occur, and a listographer, Nola Russell, has published a book of her own lists. Call me cynical, but I reckon ‘Russell’ is a bit to similar to ‘Lisa’ backwards, and ‘Nola’ is a bit too similar to ‘Nola’ to completely rule out them being the same person.

So, what have we learned about Lisa and Adam? That when they grow up and their rebellious teenage son screams at them “I don’t want to make a list, Dad – I can remember this one thing without having to make another bloody list,” the reply comes swift and fast, “‘Eh oop son, thy’s talking gibberish. It’s lists that built this ‘owse, and don’t you forget it.”

Think before you list.

Dan Price (How to make a journal of your life)

It turns out hat Lisa Nola is not the only how-to-release-your-creativity-in-a-lo-fi-way author with a coherent multimedia vision. Other mainstay of the genre, Dan Price, has hismoonlight chronicles website to espouse the same philosophy as his book.

Dan seems a bit more for real than Lisa; again, the photo helps to illustrate this. He also lives in a hole, and lives life a bit like Thoreaux in Walden. I imagine he does spend lots of time creating things out of very little at all, and that he keeps a fascinating journal and finds beauty and intrigue in little things (sample). Thank God he’s published a little book teaching us how to see the world just like he does and release our frustrated inner artist.

Keri Smith (Wreck this journal, This is not a book, etc…)

The doyenne of getting adults to scribble in books that cost more than a tenner; she has published six books of this ilk. And, what is more:

Keri Smith is an author/illustrator turned guerilla artist

… according to her website, at least. Her books are more playful and destructive (childish?) than the other authors’, at least judging by their cover (and from flicking through). The byword here is ‘tearing’. Guerrilla whimsy indeed.

She’s published a blog for many years so I’ve tried to get a picture of whether she lives up to the ideals of her books.

i have actively entered into a period of not thinking.

My guess is that she does, although the rate at which she churns out these DIY artist books would suggest that she is, like some people I’ve met over the years, more interested in the idea of having an idea, than an idea itself.

At the end of this review, I should own up and say I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of these books (that creating your own fun is easy and why doesn’t everyone do it?) and I reckon the authors are probably fairly well-meaning. But the trouble is that a) being instructed to do something silly or creative is nowhere near as fun as thinking of it yourself, so b) nearly every page of every copy of these books won’t be read, and so c) these books in fact contribute to the problem they’re purporting to try and solve – people buying mindless tatt to entertain themselves with.

Still, they’re a pretty good get-out as a present for a difficult to buy for friend.


Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

This relates to something I will blog more at length about in the next few days, but I thought I’d ask this question first to see if anyone who reads this might know the answer.

I’m going to try and approximate, using the simplest way possible, an English language sentence. The method I’m going to use is to pick a number, N, and make my selection of words from random strings of at most N letters.

  • If N = 2 a sentence would look like this: d fo mh j e l tx df d
  • If N = 5 a sentence would look like this: gh e kj jegns tyu dfa o wdu tah ttauo kk

So here’s my question:

If I want to approximate the distribution of word-lengths in the English language, which value of N should I choose?

I know it won’t be a very close approximation, but it’s very quick and easy to generate the words using this set-up.

A chip off the old fox

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

I can’t understand why people have a problem with the BBC. Well, I can, but I have no respect for the point of view. The general argument goes thus:

The BBC has a state-funded huge budget stifling the market, which is bad for competition, news, programming … (never mind that the BBC actually concentrates a lot on very high-quality, balanced programming, raising the bar for everyone else, and actually welcomes strong competition).

But James Murdoch, son of Voldemort Rupert, now head of the Murdoch media empire in UK, and probable heir to the global monolith that is NewsCorp… James Murdoch, one of the most influential media figures in the world, has just had a pop. To comment on a few choice pieces:

This year is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. [...] It argued that the most dramatic evolutionary changes can occur through an entirely natural process. Darwin proved that evolution is unmanaged.[...]  The number who reject Darwin and cling to the concept of creationism is substantial.  And it crops up in some surprising places. For example, right here in the broadcasting sector in the UK.

I love/hate it when people misappropriate evolutionary theory. Darwin didn’t prove evolution is unmanaged, he merely examined evidence that evolution was happening and coined the theory of natural selection to explain how it happened. Below our Jimmy M displays his ignorance of what the theory of evolution says.

The consensus appears to be that creationism – the belief in a managed process with an omniscient authority -  is the only way to achieve successful outcomes.  There is general agreement that the natural operation of the market is inadequate, and that a better outcome can be achieved through the wisdom and activity of governments and regulators.

Now, Darwin said nothing about whether the results of natural selection are better than creationism (in fact, he’d maybe see it as a meaningless question), he only argued that natural selection is what happens. So whether creationism (what an absolutely absurd way for Jimmy to make his speech sound intelligent and relevant) or natural selection is the best way to manage the development of a system must be evaluated as a separate exercise, external to the system itself – defining what constitutes a good result and weighing up which method gets you closest to a good result. There is nothing in the theory of evolution that is anti-’creationism’ at all (other than that in the case of nature it dissolves the need for postulating a creator).

When I say this I feel like a crazy relative who everyone is a little embarrassed by and for sure is not to be taken too seriously.

No wonder.

Creationism penalises the poorest in our society with regressive taxes and policies – like the licence fee and digital switchover;

Still using the laughable creationism/evolution debate paradigm, J.Murd? OK – I’ll play along. There are plenty of examples (arguably most of the activity of government) where state control does the very opposite. Healthcare, education, rubbish collection – these are all examples where central control and collection of fees/taxes leads to all sorts of things being affordable by the poor. Without the licencing fee the money for the BBC’s high-quality output would need to come from somewhere, probably from subscription fees which surely would be at least about as high as the licence fee.

The study of evolution reminds us that  it is very difficult to predict the outcomes of events. [...]

Witness the international banana market.  In the 1950s the banana export industry faced a problem:  the then dominant Gros Michel – or ‘Big Mike’ – variety was being wiped out by a fungus called Panama Disease.  The industry took the decision to replace the entire world export crop with a supposedly disease-resistant variety called the Cavendish banana – the one we eat today.  Unfortunately it now appears that these bananas may themselves be vulnerable to a different kind of Panama Disease. Since Cavendish bananas are genetically identical sterile clones, they cannot build up any resistance.

There are important lessons here: attempts to manage natural diversity have unpredictable consequences and are more likely than not to fail over the long-term.

I do like the banana story, Jay-Mur. I find it whimsical. Though not entirely relevant. How’s about a better example: livestock have been bred over many, many generations to give better fleeces, milk and meat. Do you oppose that management of natural diversity? Of course not. Getting rid of all media channels in the world/UK except for the BBC I would of course oppose (though it’s no worse than having a Murdoch media monopoly), but that is not the situation being faced.

Fourth question.  Is this creationism good for investment?  No.  A heavily regulated environment with a  large public sector crowds out the opportunity for profit, hinders the creation of new jobs,  and dampens innovation in our sector.

This is far from true. The BBC contract out more and more work to independent companies, so there is still a lot of diversity. Because the investment comes from the BBC and not other largemedia conglomerates (let’s face it, the BBC isn’t the only bull in the TV shop) you could argue it protects diversity as the BBC has to spend money on innovation, minority interests, regional programming … diversity, in short.

We don’t even have the basics in place to protect creative work. Whether it’s shoplifting at HMV or pirating the same movie online, theft is theft. They are both crimes and should be treated accordingly.  The government dithers – dimly aware of what it has to do but afraid to do it.

Do you see other countries tackling it better, J-Mu?

As originally with news and sport, so now with the arts and drama.  Sky now offers four dedicated arts channels.  Original commissioning by channels that customers choose to pay for is expanding and will continue to do so, not just from Sky but from the likes of National Geographic, History, MTV and the Disney Channel, to name a few.  Sky alone now invests over £1 billion a year
in UK content.

Remind me – was your speech about how stifled the rest of the industry is by the BBC, or about how the rest of the industry is doing pretty well too? It’s begining to sound like you’re making a mountain out of an imaginary molehill. I would add to the above though that I’ve watched a fair bit of cable/satellite TV over the years and, while it’s difficult to define exactly what, they definitely don’t do some things like the BBC do them. I think subtlety is the lacking ingredient. Having a TV channel that doesn’t have to attract advertising for each programme definitely enables the production of programmes that aren’t so brazen about garbbing your attention. David Attenborough, Adam Curtis, The Royle Family, The Office – these might all have never come to light without an organisation that isn’t always searching for more bang in order to get more buck.

And now I’ll stop quoting as this post is getting ridiculously long, but you get the jist: Jammon has quite an axe to grind against a country whose citizen’s don’t mind paying a public body to produce a lot of good quality TV and other media because it’s unbalanced, stifling, power grabbing… sinister, even… nothing like his dad.


Thursday, May 21st, 2009

I have always meant to read the American constitution. Now, thanks to, I have fulfilled my ambition, and was underwhelmed.

I was always under the impression it was a classic of political literature, guided by Rousseau and inspired by Voltaire, but I’m afraid to say that it’s more of a classic of bureaucratic literature. Nearly all of it – including most of the amendments – concern themselves mainly with the internal machinations of the federal government. Not that this is a bad thing; I remember at the time of the rejection of the European constitution various political pundits opining ‘why couldn’t it be more like that classic of elegant state building, the American constitution’  (though I think it’s a bit idiotic to suggest that a constitution for how a number of complex, fully formed states in a modern world could be as simple as one drafted in a different age and for new states keen to break with the past).

So not that it’s a bad thing, but it really offers very little guidance if you want to learn about freedom, democracy and all the things America is supposed to embody. Indeed, all of the more ideological amendments – freedom of speech, right to bear arms etc.. – didn’t even apply at state level at first, and have only gradually made their punctuated way in to law that applies to everyone in any state (right to bear arms still hasn’t, and probably never will). The constitution was never really intended as something which spells out the relation of individuals to the state, but more about the relation of federal government to the individual states. The right to vote isn’t even included!

So that was an afternoon well-spent.

God’s sticky fingers

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I’ve written on my old blog about the Google adsense dilemma, but I think it doesn’t apply during the first days of putting Adsense on a site as you need to click an ad once or twice just to convince yourself it’s working properly (not that Google actually pay you any money (if you’re me) for something ridiculous like an ad being clicked on). My choice of ad I did find genuinely intriguing, one linking to the magnificent sounding Cosmic Fingerprints website, and claiming it could prove to me that God exists using :

Тhe Atheist’s Riddle: So simple, any child can understand; so complex, no atheist can solve it.

Which sounds like fighting talk to me. I don’t generally get involved in debates like these – I know where I stand and if people believe in God I don’t really think they really should be swayed by things such as reason and proof as that really misses the point of religion. But this site, published by a guy called Perry Marshall (who knows a thing or two about search engine optimisation) annoyed me as it gives contact details (a forum) and invites you to let him know if you think you can prove him wrong… but these contact details are no longer valid. So essentially he’s presenting something as an ongoing debate he is still winning, when it is anything but. I wouldn’t mind so much, but he’s actively advertising his site!

I must’ve been in a very militant mood at the time as I decided to subscribe to his 5 part emailed proof of God’s existence (Essentially running as follows: Only minds can create codes. DNA is a code. Therefore a mind cretaed DNA, and that mind is God’s) simply in order to get an email address to respond to, and then replied with my counter argument. Which he hasn’t replied to, so I will post it here:

  1. A code can be produced by a human mind
  2. The human mind exists in the universe, and is made of the same stuff as anything else in the universe (albeit arranged in a very complicated manner)
  3. So there exist systems in the universe capable of creating a code
  4. DNA is a code
  5. So there could exist a system in the universe capable of making DNA
  6. The existence of DNA does not prove God exists

So there!

Here are a few other counter arguments I like, particularly the first one:

ps -  Week’s holiday in Riga, if you wondered why the extended silence.

More pizza squabbles

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

The other day I ruminated on whether going for the smallest slice of pizza initially will result in your getting more in the long run than going for the biggest first, and concluded that I should try and write a computer model of it, which I have now done (bear in mind the page is a bit slow to load), to a degree.

The graphs below, plotting number of pizza slices vertically (increasing as you go down) and number of people horizontally (increasing to the right), and average over 100 trials per slices/people combination, show that there is a small area, when the number of people is roughly equal to half the number of pizza slices, and the number of people is not too big, where taking the smallest available slice on the first go pays off. But an even better strategy under these circumstances is to take the smallest of the N largest slices, where N is the number of people.

Graphs of pizza slice taking strategies

Graphs of pizza slice taking strategies

There are lots of alterations I’d like to make to the model, as it’s not quite a true reflection of reality.

  1. Add the ability to have people eating at different rates.
  2. At present the sizes of the slices are chosen randomly (and then normalised to make sure the total size is equal to the number of slices). However, the distribution in real life pizza slice sizes is far from random; they will probably have roughly a normal distribution, with very few extra big slices and very few extra small ones. Because the size of one slice is not independent of the sizes of other slices, they are likely to follow a more complex distribution, but it’s probably beyond me to work out what it is.
  3. The colours are nowhere near contrasting enough. I’ve done a bit of a fiddle on the greens to bring them out a bit more, but it’s a bit of a cheat that probably won’t always work. There are regions in the graph where one strategy is consistently slightly better than the other, but it doesn’t show. A high contrast version (below) does show this info (and in fact also showing that most of the time you’re better off wtha smaller slice first strategy if more than two slices per person), but I think it’s important to show the subtleties too.
  4. The slow loading is an issue.

For the record, now that I know how OOP works in PHP I used my new skills to write the model, and it was most useful. Much easier to keep track of what values you’ve written to where.

How to get the biggest slice of pizza

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

It’s always a battle trying to eat enough pizza when it’s being shared between friends. It’s believed, in fact, to be the cause of the Crimean war.

But is there an optimal strategy to make sure you get the most pizza you can?

To date I have always followed a “take the biggest piece that’s left” strategy, but ruminating on this has led me to the following conclusion: taking the biggest piece still on the plate isn’t necessarily the best way to maximize the amount of pizza you eat.

Suppose a pizza, P, is sliced into n Slices, s1, …,  sn, ordered such that their areas a1, …, an form a decreasing sequence.  Also assume that the time taken to eat a slice is proportional to its area, i.e. tn = can. Further assume that everyone eats at the same speed and that there is a set polite interval – T – between one person taking a slice and the next person taking theirs.

We will concentrate on the smallest remaining slice and the largest.

Assume you take slice k (the largest remaining). Then the person who took a slice before you (presumably the largest available slice, if they play the traditional pizza game) has time tk + T = cak + T to finish his slice in order to guarantee he finishes before you, and therefore get to pick a bigger slice than you next time. The time it takes them to eat their slice is tk-1 = cak-1. So for him to get a bigger next slice than you:

cak-1 <cak + T
ak-1 -ak < T/c

However, if you take the smallest slice available instead of the largest this changes to

ak-1 -an < T/c

which, if the difference in size between slices is great,  is considerably less likely. Therefore you would be considerably more likely to get to choose before your predecessor next time, and thus securing a bigger slice should you show wish. Now you would have eaten slice an and picked another slice before he’s finished his first.

This strategy won’t always pay off though, and it’s difficult to judge when it would be effective. For instance, say there are very few slices available; If all slices are taken before you finish slice an then you lose out but, on the other hand, if you are the only person quick enough to finish their first slice in time to grab the one remaining slice after the first round, then you win.

It may be worth trying to write a computer model of.

The portable atheist

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, by Christopher Hitchens

Essential Readings for the Non-Believer

Sounds a bit like an atheist’s bible to me.

I bet Hitchens doesn’t see the irony.

Is stackoverflow a chaotic system

Friday, April 17th, 2009

As I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice, I have been reading Deep Simplicity by John Gribbin. At the same time I have become severely addicted to participating in the riot of discussion over at, the new, and hopefully, self-organised clutter free forum for programmers.

Part of what feeds this addiction is that sometimes you get loads of votes for a mediocre answer, and sometimes hardly any for a great answer, and it becomes a mission… a quest, if you will… to master the beast and always receive great feedback.

Luckily I’ve now managed to get my addiction under control, and it’s all thanks to Deep Simplicity. You see, there is order, where everything is predictable, and there is chaos, where nothing is predictable, and in between there is a thing called (though I don’t think this is quite the official term) self-organised non-equilibrium on the edge of chaos, which is where interesting patterns emerge; things like some regularity in how often ice ages occur, stock market crashes, earthquakes…  loudness of music! When events of a particular size will happen cannot be known, but roughly speaking the log of the frequency of the event is proportional to the log of its magnitude.

The important factors to create a system like this are the following:

  1. Positive & negative feedback mechanisms
  2. The existance of thresholds which, once the system/part of system crosses it, its state suddenly changes in a disproportionate way to the size of the movement across the threshold
  3. A constant soure of new energy (or whatever the equivalent might be. For physical systems it’s energy, but that could mean mass, radiation, motion…)

So the question I ask myself is this: Is Stack Overflow a system on the edge of chaos, where answers getting lots of votes will happen rarely, and getting few votes will happen often, but as to precisely which answer  will get which number of votes… well, that cannot be determined in advance. In particular, if you could have an objective measure of the quality of the answer, this would not indicate it will get a lot of votes; big up-votes just happen at a particular rate to whichever answers are around.

So what qualifies stack overflow as a nearly chaotic system (from the point of view of a user’s movements through the rankings, not individual questions, though the user is the sum of questions and answers):

  1. Positive & negative feedback mechanisms
    If one person votes an answer up it goes up the page, is more visible and gets more votes, and vice-versa. Also the reputation system adds to this.
  2. The existence of thresholds
    If a question gets enough votes it will appear in more places in the site. the same I think is true of answers (this is perhaps tenuous).
  3. A constant soure of new energy
    New users join all the time

I will hopefully not forget to see if I can put together a log plot of the number of users versus their reputation score.

Modern deism

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Earlier today I was reading an article on agnosticism with relation to God (itself a response to a better article on how Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk are annoyingly agressive in how they promote atheism/put down religiosity (incidentally, Hitchens’ book “God is not Great” has possible the worst written opening paragraph I have ever read – it just screams “I am a twat”).

One comment on the article linked to a site called modern deism, which tries to encourage people to believe in God without believing in religion, essentially making up their own God as they go along. Quite what the point of this is I don’t know. Also, they claim to be in tune with modern thought, incorporating science and all that, but their inspiration for believing in God is that:

The Deist looks at existence and infers that this wonderous thing could not have been an accident.

Which is pretty much the opposite of what a lot of modern science points towards.

Anyway, I was going to quote liberally and try and be funny, but failed at the funny side. But I will leave you with:

Therefore, Deists have a common belief in God based on Reason but the view into the nature of God varies among Deists as this nature is generally unknown to us at this time.