2009-12-30

The World Of Zero Privacy

Maude: What if Schmidt was right? Why don't we abandon privacy?

Agnes: But what if you'd bought a birthday present for me? I wouldn't want to know about that until I open it.

Maude: Well just because you could know, it doesn't mean that you'd have to know. The information about what I'd bought you for your birthday would be there to see, but you wouldn't have to go and look at it.

Agnes: What about bank passwords Maude? I'm not telling that to the world.

Maude: In the world of zero privacy, passwords aren't needed.

Agnes: Pray explain...

Maude: With no privacy, it's harder to lie about who you are. Your bank would have lots of information available to judge if the person accessing your account is you.

Agnes: Go on...

Maude: Using cookies, webcams, OpenId, typing analysis, analysis of search terms, emails, chat etc. your bank can differentiate between you and an imposter very easily.

Agnes: Maude you've convinced me. Publish and be damned!

2009-12-20

Rock 'n' roll


Here's Dave, and his notorious t-shirt. I'm in favour of the t-shirt. What's your view?

Chestnuts

Andy had the great idea of roasting chestnuts. It worked out brilliantly. I'm going to try it. Does anyone want some roasted chestnuts?

I helped by sawing the sticks.

Fondue photos

Here are a couple of photos from when we had fondue...

This was the first, and most successful fondue. I stood up and read the instructions from the fondue book. A culinary dictator.

I haven't included photos of anyone else because I'm not sure people like their photos on the internet. It's all about me!

Router

There's nothing more boring than hearing about somebody else's broadband problems. So, a perfect topic for this blog then.

I got a new router from TalkTalk, but browsing the web was still really slow. I did a broadband speed test, and the speed was fine. I thought it might be that DNS lookups were slow, so I followed the advice on the unofficial TalkTalk blog and set the DNS servers manually. Now everything works fine!

You can see from the picture that the router doubles as a photo frame. Also, I've got a feeling that it uses a lot less electricity than the old router, simply because the transformer and router don't get as hot.

2009-12-12

Digital Economy Bill


The Digital Economy Bill says that the government can cut off your internet access. Cutting off internet access to a household can never be justified, even if a person in the household has committed a crime that involved using the internet.

If someone commits a crime involving water, the government quite rightly can't cut off the water supply to their household. Likewise the telephone. The internet falls into this category, the government should never be allowed to cut off a household's internet access.

2009-12-10

Slaughterhouse-Five

When Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five writes that for the Tralfamadorians:
All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist.
He's anticipating the ideas of Julian Barbour, who argues that time doesn't exist. That view seems to be part of Max Tegmark's Mathematical Universe. The idea of the mathematical universe appeals to me, as it embraces the ideas of Barbour and also the idea of a multiverse, explained brilliantly in The Fabric Of Reality.


Anyway, back to the book. People who know about these things would say that it's post-modern. It refers to itself, the author appears, all sorts of things. Tristram Shandy I thought.

I must say that I can't stand stories that play these clever tricks. Vonnegut gets away with it this time because it's so brilliantly done, and because the subject suits it. Usually though, you can't beat a proper story. Just like Iain Banks writes.

Having said that, I find it liberating that one can write successfully in a variety of ways. Nietzsche wrote a book entirely of aphorisms. I hope that the important thing is having something to say, and the form can look after itself.

2009-12-06

Noaty Thing

My brother and I used to play Monopoly continually as children. Anticipating the banking crisis by several decades, we would borrow huge sums from the bank to spend on sub-prime mortgages. The sums were so large that we used the spare title deed card as a promissory note for a gigantic amount of money. (Incidentally, this is how we learnt from my dad what a million was.)

Our mum didn't like us engaging in this large scale lending because it made the game too harrowing. So we hid money and the promissory note under the board. That's why you can see in the top right hand corner it says, 'noaty thing'. It could mean 'naughty thing'. I think it means 'noughty thing', meaning 'thing with a lot of noughts'.

Martin Amis's Money


My cousin is training to be a hairdresser and I went along to the salon where he's working and he gave me a new hair style for practice. John Self, the protagonist of Martin Amis's Money called it 'having a rug-rethink'. Self is the ultimate consumer. At the time it was written, nobody used the word 'sustainable' like they do now. Self's life is unsustainable. Not just environmentally though, his life simply cannot carry on in the same manner for long. All the time you're reading it you just know it's all going to come crashing down.

Money is one of those books that's always appearing in the top 100 of this and that. Jim, a temp at work, said it's one of his favourite books. I noticed it on the shelf at my aunt's boyfriend's house. It just kept appearing.

The book is incredibly well written. It's just bang on with its rugs and socks. Brilliantly clever; the writing is just in a different league to most books. Very funny as well as clever. At one point Self is explaining how someone has a quick temper. He says, 'for him, every straw's the last straw. The first straw is the last straw.'

Amis makes highly effective use of italics. In homage I've used lots of italics in this post.

Smile came good after all!

Actually the haywire Smile episode wasn't as bad as I made out. They'd previously sent me a new card in the post and I just hadn't opened the envelope yet. I activated the new card and it worked fine. Thanks Smile!

2009-12-05

Haywire Smile


I was at Bath Farmers' Market and needed some cash to buy a tarte au citron. The Sainsbury's cash machine said, 'the card issuer has not authorized payment'. I rang my bank, Smile, and they said, 'the system has gone haywire! In the last hour and a half it started sending out new cards to people and canceling their current ones!' A bit like Skynet.

2009-12-03

Bath Film Festival 2009


Cold Souls did indeed remind me of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Paul Giamatti makes anything watchable. He reminds me of Woody Allen. Brainy, introverted and whiny. Cold Souls is a gentle, enjoyable comedy.

Un Prophete is a gripping story of a man who enters prison as the lowest in the pecking order, and climbs his way to the top. Rather than thinking, 'I must remember this if I ever end up in prison', it made me even more determined to avoid prison. I quite liked the subtitles, as it made it easier to work out what was going on. Convincing prison atmosphere is often at odds with clear diction. The final scene stayed with me. You know, the bit where the cars come round the corner one after the other. Cleverly done.

A Serious Man was the most mainstream of the films I saw at the festival. It does a fine job of evoking a particular world. I'm not a sophisticated film-goer, so the thing that interested me most was the serious man's brother. Particularly his 'mentaculus', a book to do with probabilities. It helped him win at cards, but it turned out that what he was doing was illegal. I wanted the mentaculus and the brother to save the day and everything would end happily. Okay, that would have destroyed the artistic integrity of the piece, but...


For me the best film by far that I saw at the festival was The Sky Crawlers. The first thing is that the music was outstanding. It seemed to capture the mood of the film perfectly. The emotional tone of the story, animation and music were all in concert. Crawlers showed the best of what a film can be. I was transported to a different world. The animation was in its rightful place as part of the film, rather than the film being a vehicle for the animation. Really, the film was driven by the story, which is the right way round. I find that few films deserve a second viewing. This one would. The best film I've seen this year.

A Right Twister

Doing maths is exciting, maths textbooks are boring, reading about the exploits of mathematicians is interesting. So what I enjoyed most about In Code was the human story of Sarah Flannery rather than the maths itself.

Flannery now works at TirNua.

2009-11-29

Checking NVRAM...


My laptop failed to boot, saying Checking NVRAM... I took the back off the laptop and removed the battery that maintains the settings when the computer is switched of. After a few seconds I replaced the battery. That reset things to the factory default and the laptop now boots!

Overdose

Yesterday I was walking back from the train station to my house, it was raining and gloomy. I noticed a man sitting at the bottom of the steps leading from the front of a house to the pavement. At first I assumed he'd just a had a bit too much to drink. About two steps past him I realized something was wrong.

I went back, bent down and asked if he was okay. As if in response he keeled over to his left. His shoulder hit the pavement, followed by a muffled thud as his head struck the pavement too. I got my phone out to call an ambulance.

I tried talking to him, and he responded by swearing at me in a slow, slurred voice. When the ambulance arrived I told the medic what I knew, and left.

I was in shock for the rest of the day, still am a bit.

A chapter of Dostoevsky's Demons ends with the words, 'I'll never forget the sound her head made as it struck the carpet'.

2009-11-11

Spooks and Energy



I've just watched Spooks.

First my standard plea that the BBC should make all of its shows OpenSource. The license payer has paid for them, so they should be available to view, download, copy, show publicly, adapt, whatever. Also, they should be published using an open format such as Theora or Dirac.

This episode had me tutting and snorting at the TV. The idea was that a gas processing plant had blown up and the nation had a week before the lights went out. The only way to save us was to do a deal with an unpleasant regime and turn a blind eye to them murdering a UK citizen.

If something like that happened, the government shouldn't get involved. Gas prices would rise, which would mean electricity prices would rise. People would use less gas and electricity as a result and a new equilibrium would be found. Other sources of energy would make a healthy profit, directing future investment towards them.

As a bonus nobody gets murdered.

2009-11-08

Raise The Roof


I've been asked to sign the Raise The Roof petition to raise the tax free allowance under the Rent A Room Scheme. I won't be signing it because I think that the Rent A Room scheme should be abolished. All income should be taxed at the same rate, otherwise government is effectively subsidizing some activities at the expense of others, picking winners and distorting the market, impeding the creation of wealth.

Atlas Shrugged


The first thing you need to know is that the 'Ayn' in Ayn Rand is pronounced to rhyme with 'fine'. Atlas is noteworthy as one of the few books where the heroes have Asperger's. I say hero rather than protagonist because the characters are heroic. Rand believes that humans can be heroic. Her morality casts a person as a trader. One should always act in one's own self-interest. A trade should not take place unless both sides gain. Charity and selflessness are dirty words to Rand. The Marxist slogan, 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their need', is anathema to Rand. She appeals to the evolutionary vigilance against freeloaders.

Dawkins' Law of Adversarial Debate says that when two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not lie half way between them.

So, in disagreement with Dawkins, Marx and Rand, I think people that create wealth should be allowed to keep most of it, but some should be taken from them to give minimal support to the whole population. A good start would be to stop taxing the poor.



Patents

On patents she has the baddies say that they want to end the monopoly that Reardon had on Reardon Metal. I agreed with the baddies on this!

But later on in Galt's prolix radio address he says, 'it is only the value of an idea that can be shared with unlimited numbers of men, making all sharers richer at no one's sacrifice or loss'. Hear, hear!

So Rand seems to be ambivalent on patents.

In that same address, Galt says that you can't be responsible for something you have no control over, and in this way convincingly demolishes the idea of original sin.

At times I found Rand's arguments embarrassingly one-dimensional, a real sixth form-ish style of argument, often falling into the straw man fallacy. However, Atlas is a polemic and so I forgive it for overstating its case.

Another beef I have with Rand is that she mainly avoids democracy. When she doesn't avoid it she's denigrating it. Come on Rand, democracy is a good thing, there's no getting away from it. Plato's philosopher kings? Gimme a break.

By instinct I'm a right wing libertarian, and so I have an innate sympathy for Rand's ideas. This book was really on my wavelength, we think alike. I 'got' what she was trying to say. On the other hand, this view has shortcomings which I can't and won't overlook.

Btw, all the characters smoke, which is always a breath of fresh air.

2009-11-01

Revelation Space

After reading The Prefect, I was looking forward to Revelation Space. I finished it in France, but have only just got round to writing about it.

The first thing that comes to mind is that Reynolds uses the word 'caul' too much.
Revelation Space is a space opera of vast scope, Prefect is more character driven. I prefer Prefect. I think I can detect Iain M. Banks' influence on a lot of sci-fi. Did he set up the Jeeves and Wooster relationship between AIs and humans? Also the ironic naming of ships.

Reynolds is to be applauded for giving some of his human characters technological modifications. We haven't gone far enough though. It's not going to be too much longer before humans will have changed beyond recognition. How this issue pans out in the future depends on the nature of consciousness. Perhaps consciousness can merge and separate? Perhaps it can't. Maybe there's a limit to the size of a conscious entity, maybe not. I think someone needs to make some guesses here and then see how it plays out in a story. I'd love to write a sci-fi story. The problem is that it would never be as good as Reynolds...

Free The Postcode


Here in the UK the postcode data set (the mapping between postcode and physical location) isn't freely available. Thankfully the Free The Postcode project are creating a free postcode database. It's easy to help, you just tell them a postcode and its GPS coordinates via the web form.

You can also submit postcodes using the nifty freethepostcode Android app, available from the marketplace. That's what I did last night while I was at a friend's house for Halloween, and from my dad's house today.

2009-10-18

Fussell's Balance Lock

My dad and I went to see Fussell's Balance Lock:

Okay, it's hard to make out from the photo, but the two deep bits on each side are where the canal boats would have gone up and down in the caissons.

Looking at this artefact of industrial archaeology prompted me to quote from Shelley's Ozymandias, 'look upon my works ye mighty, and despair'. My dad thought I'd just made it up.

We went for a walk around the area, and I mapped it on OpenStreetmap. This is a memorial shelter designed by Lutyens.


Below is a photo of me outside the local shop in Mells.

2009-10-09

Cul-de-sac

Dave asked me what the French call a cul-de-sac. I think it's an impasse:

Actually, this is my last blog post from France. I'm feeling sad to be leaving, in fact I haven't got my head around the fact that the holiday is ending.

I've been doing a bit of mapping on OpenStreetmap, and I'll post the results once they're visible. Tomorrow I'll take a few more GPS traces before catching my train at about 15:00. Once last lunch in Amboise I think.

Thank you for reading.

2009-10-07

OpenStreetmap Limeray

Here's the area around my gite on OpenStreetmap:

Over the next couple of days I'll try and fill in some of the missing bits. Actually, the scale might be a bit small to see any difference in a side-by-side comparison afterwards. I'll have to learn all the French words for various features, like ralentisseurs.

Polifesto Favicon

I've done a little icon for Polifesto:

It's the favicon that the browser puts in the address bar, tabs etc. What do you think? It's okay, you can be honest.

Apart from bugs and odds and ends, Polifesto is done for the moment. Also, the example manifesto La Licorne is finished for the time being. Let me know if you find any bugs or have any ideas for Polifesto.

2009-10-04

Gite La Licorne: 2


Fnarr, fnarr!!!


A view of the Loire, taken at Amboise.


There are huge corn fields. Walking in them you feel like you're in Signs.


Segueing neatly from Signs the film, to a sign for a public footpath. This sign means that to follow the blue path, if you're coming from the right stop, and turn right. These signs can be painted on trees, painted on the road, or embedded in dirt tracks. You go from sign to sign, like following spoor when hunting an animal.




The area that I'm in is filled with vineyards.


Grape picking is mechnised these days. The owner of my gite isn't a fan. She says that wine from hand picked grapes is superior.


The grape picking machine on the left is pouring the grapes into a truck.

You'll say that I've been watching too many sci-fi films, but this could be a scene on an alien planet, like the spice harvesters in Dune. The peasants following the machine, tending it like an elephant. Of course they're not really peasants, probably multi-millionare owners of a wine empire. I said bonjour to them, and they replied cheerfully. I've no idea what they said, I learnt French by reading Emile Zola.

I'm going for a jog now. Since I can't understand the signs, I just jog down any old track. I'm sure some of the signs say 'Keep Out', 'Strictly Private', 'Biohazard' etc. Some have pictures of slavering guard dogs, and I've no idea what they indicate.

At Claire's Birthday


The blur on the left is Meg running away after undoing my shoe lace.

Action Shot of Dad


At the swings with my nephews, there's this skate-swing thing.

Cocktail


Ages ago, Andy made a cocktail, with me choosing the ingredients, this was the result. Fantabulous!

2009-10-02

Polifesto 17

I've been doing some work on Polifesto, both the functionality of the site, and the content. Polifesto is a wiki of political manifestos. You can rate the manifestos and write your own. You can include policies from other manifestos. I've fleshed out a manifesto call La Licorne Manifesto.

The technical changes are:
  • Now uses the excellent GAE Utilities to handle sessions.
  • Fixed bug where the wrong radio button was checked that said what your policy rating was.
  • Corrected problem with logging out by using cgi.FieldStorage().
  • Fixed bug where rating radio button didn't stay checked when it had been checked.
  • I'm using Selenium for testing. This probably means an end to my own Imprimatur.
  • Fixed loads of other bugs.

2009-09-27

Jill

After reading Jill I looked it up on Wikipedia, and finding the article a bit sparse, I added the following synopsis:
The eponymous Jill is Kemp's imaginary sister, whom he invents to confound Warner. Kemp then discovers a real-life Jill called Gillian, the 15 year old cousin of Warner's friend Elizabeth. Kemp becomes infatuated with Gillian, but his advances are thwarted by Elizabeth and rebuffed by Gillian.
I wonder if my changes will stick, or get edited out?

Gite La Licorne: 1

Here's the electricity substation near Amboise that powered the train I arrived on. I took it because I know someone who works for EDF (that's you Sarah).

And to continue the theme of photos that are of interest to people I know who work for utility companies, here's a picture of the local water treatment works:

Having just got back from walking to Amboise, je suis tres fatigue. Or to translate an English idiom into French for humorous effect, I'm on my jambes dernière.

Looked at objectively, my trip to Amboise wasn't a success. I meant to buy basic provisions, but ended up going from cafe to cafe, unable to remember much after the first two chocolat chaud. I *did* get some bread and jam (no butter), so I won't starve. Tomorrow I really must get some proper food.

I'll leave you with a picture of a chateau that I have decided to take by force:

2009-09-20

District 9


This film sets a new standard for CGI, it was impossible to tell where real footage ended and CGI began. The story was great too. For me the only problem was that there was a bit too much shooting, in the Starship Troopers mold.

The Prefect

I complained to Janos that all sci-fi is based on feudal societies, dictatorships, monarchies, everything but liberal democracies. So Janos recommended The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds.

At times in the book I thought, 'Inspector Morse in space'.

Well written, would work as a detective novel without the sci-fi bit. But what makes it really good is that the technology, aliens and spaceships etc are brilliantly thought out.

There are plenty of moral questions raised, and dealt with in a mature way.

I thought that perhaps Reynolds could have made Aurora less evil. It would be more morally interesting if her only crime were to suspend democracy. How many lives would it be worth to keep democracy, if the alternative was a benign dictatorship?

Janos has lent me Revelation Space, which I'm looking forward to reading in France.

2009-09-03

Afterschool


I had a passable haddock risotto at the Watershed restaurant yesterday. We proceeded thence to Screen 2 at the Watershed to see Afterschool.

Some films convey their truth by smoothly omitting the everyday details of life, and some by showing 'warts and all'. Afterschool takes the latter approach. Soon into the film one is immersed in Robert's world of an American boarding school. As he tries to make sense of the world, one is also forced along with him to divine the motives and intentions of the various characters in his world.

Youtube is the lens through which Robert lives his life. When confronted by a real life event, he responds as though it were just another clip on Youtube. When Robert is alone with a girl, he falls back on his Youtube mentoring, and behaves inappropriately.

This is a difficult film to watch, in the sense that moral ambiguity abounds. Things are much easier if there are goodies and baddies, but then if things are clear-cut one feels shortchanged. This is nearly one of those films that bear a second viewing.

2009-08-18

Formal Methods

I don't understand formal methods. A group has claimed to have formally verified the L4 kernel. What does this mean? I suppose that this means that specification of the kernel has been written as a mathematical proof. Then it must have been demonstrated that the C code exactly matched the proof.

But if it's easier to write the specification than the code, that must mean that the programming language isn't very good. And yes! This is borne out by the sort of programming errors that are found when comparing the specification to the implementation:
  • Buffer overflows
  • Null pointer dereferences
  • Pointer errors in general
  • Memory leaks
  • Arithmetic overflows and exceptions
These are mostly solved by using a decent programming language such as Python.

Ben Laurie talks about this in his post on formal methods.

2009-08-09

Lisp

Like many others, I read Paul Graham's Lisp essays and thought I should give Lisp a go. I installed Clojure and wrote my first Lisp program:

(defn num_books
([dist]
(num_books dist 0 0))
([dist achieved nbooks]
(if
(>= achieved dist)
nbooks
(num_books dist
(+ achieved
(/ 1
(+ nbooks 2)))
(+ nbooks 1)))))

(println (num_books 1.5))


If you put a book on the edge of a table you can balance it so that it sticks out half a book length. Place another judiciously on top and it'll stick out 1/2 + 1/3 book lengths. You give the function above a number of book lengths you want the stack to stick out, and it'll return the number of books you need.

Coming from a Python background, wouldn't it make sense to use whitespace instead of parentheses?

defn num_books
[dist]
num_books dist 0 0
[dist achieved nbooks]
if
>= achieved dist
nbooks
num_books dist
+ achieved
/ 1
+ nbooks 2
+ nbooks 1

println
num_books desired_distance


Also, I'm interested to compare this function with its Python equivalent:

def num_books(desired):
achieved = 0
nbooks = 0
while achieved < desired:
achieved = achieved + 1 / (nbooks + 2)
nbooks = nbooks + 1
return nbooks
The Python one is shorter, how can this be? Okay a re-write of the Lisp version:
(defn num_books
([dist]
(loop [nbooks 0 achieved 0]
(if
(< achieved dist)
(recur
(inc nbooks)
(+ achieved
(/ 1
(+ nbooks 2))))
nbooks))))


Python 166 chars, Lisp 186 characters. What am I doing wrong?

2009-08-04

Where Angels Fear To Tread


Here's a painting of E.M.Forster. Note that his head is pointy at the back. This is believed to be source of his literary powers.

I was in a cafe and someone there recommended Forster, so I got Where Angels Fear To Tread from the library. It was his first novel, written when he was 26. I think this shows, in that he is careful to demonstrate his cleverness. He also deliberately uses terse, modern language, wanting to be fresh and free of pomposity. The economy of expression is a sign that he is afraid of losing the reader's attention. More experienced writers are less constrained and are a bit more expansive. For instance, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky uses seemingly redundant verbiage with abandon, yet his genius is that this has meaning in itself, and so is not wasted.

Thank you Forster, this is a very thoughtful book.

2009-08-01

Dell: Get the standard Ubuntu working

While I'm in the mood for sounding off, I'm not entirely pleased with Dell's behaviour. Janos at work bought a Dell Inspiron Mini 10v.
It comes with Ubuntu installed, but it's not the standard Ubuntu distribution, it's been tinkered with by Dell, mostly for the worse Janos found. So he installed the latest version of Ubuntu. This meant that the wireless network card didn't work. And here's my message to Dell:
  • Always use the standard Ubuntu distribution.
  • If the standard distro doesn't run, work with Ubuntu to fix the problem.
Luckily, Janos is interested in computers and managed to get it working. But as he says, this won't do for the average user.

I don't want to overstate the problem, I run two Dell laptops with Ubuntu, and they work really well. Much better than Windows! I'm really pleased Dell is giving users the choice.

Directed Identity

I read Glyn Moody's writings with interest, but with his post Why Single Sign On Systems Are Bad I think he's made a rare slip. Here's a note to Glyn on why I think he's wrong on this occasion:

You conflate single sign-on (SSO) and single identity. OpenId lets you have SSO and lets you have a separate identity for each web site you visit. It's called Directed Identity, and Peter Williams gives a good explanation of it.



Yahoo! implement directed identity. Anyone with a Yahoo! account that signs in to websites using OpenId automatically has a different ID for each web site. When you sign in to the web site you just type yahoo.com in the OpenId box, and Yahoo! magically works it all out.

I got that last paragraph wrong. As Will Norris explains, Yahoo! implements identifier select and can give an opaque URL, Yahoo! does not support directed identity. Google does support directed identity.

2009-07-29

Moon


We went to see this at the Little Theatre yesterday. It was a good film for a number of reasons:
  • It had the tension and excitement of a thriller.
  • The aesthetic of grubby hi-tech was well done.
  • The technology was believable.
  • Its characters were interesting.
  • The dialogue was well written.

There were flaws though. I had a sense that the plot was a shade unrealistic, or worse, fell short on integrity. For example, it wasn't clear exactly what was happening with the communications to Earth. It's probably that I didn't understand it properly!

As ever with this type of story, the robot is the most interesting character. I think this is because it forces the viewer to think about what it means to be human.