Sunday, 19 April 2015

Where London stood

I like Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, but for all the wrong reasons.  I first came across it in Weber’s More Random Walks in Science.  In the article “Preparing scientific papers” by N. S. Haile (originally published in Nature), it is treated as a geology paper, with wonderful snarky referee comments such as:
I met a traveller2 from an antique land3
Who said: Two4 vast5 and trunkless legs6 of stone7 ...

2 Since this paper appears to be based on field observations by another geologist, we suggest joint authorship would be appropriate
4 This is the only quantitative statement!
and so on, then with a rewritten “improved” version, titled: Twin limb-like basalt columns (‘trunkless legs’) near Wadi Al-Fazar and their relationship to plate tectonics.

What I didn’t know then was that there is already another version, another poem with the same name and subject, by Horace Smith, written in friendly competition with Shelley.

I heard about that other version for the first time earlier this week, surfing some blog posts, and thought, “that’s interesting”, particularly with its post-apocalyptic science fictional ending (if somewhat risible “gigantic Leg”).

I heard about it a second time a day or so later, on a news item, and thought, “that’s a coincidence”.

I heard about it a third time today while reading a book, and thought, “FFS, enough with the Horace Smith version already!”

1329, and counting

I recently read Trade Secret, a science fiction novel, and noted in my review that it was the sequel to a book I had read 10 years previously, and all but forgotten.  There I say that part of the reason for not remembering may be due to the 480 fiction books and 185 non-fiction books I had read and reviewed in the meantime.

So how many books have I read and reviewed since I started my website nearly 20 years ago?  Well, running a quick query on my trusty database, it’s 900 fiction (not rounded!) and 425 non-fiction.

That’s a lot of books, and a lot of reviews.  (Well, some of the reviews are not exactly in-depth.)  I never thought when I started the website in order to learn HTML that I would still be keeping it up after all this time.  I find it a useful resource for making me think about the books I’ve read, and then later for reminding me about them (especially the non-fiction).

Forgetting a book I suppose is common.  What I find rather disconcerting is that on occassion I have reread one of my reviews that I wrote several years earlier, and not one single iota of recognition has sparked in my brain.  Ah well.

More worryingly, perhaps, is that I buy books faster than I read them, and currently have more than that total reviewed number on my unread stack.  That implies a further 20 years reading material, staring down at me from the shelves, even if I were to stop buying books today (I won’t; I can’t).  There’s so much more waiting to be forgotten!

Saturday, 18 April 2015

it's a record!

Today was a beautiful sunny day.  And we generated 56.03 kWh with our solar PV, the highest daily production since we installed the system in January 2014.  It was a nearly perfect day, just two tiny cloud blips:

The horizontal time axis runs from 3:00am to 9:00pm GMT. The vertical axis runs from zero to 8kW. The orange regions indicate the minimum, lower quartile, median, upper quartile, and maximum generation at that time, over the month so far. The line indicates the actual generation at that time.

Interestingly, the second highest daily production wss 55.91 kWh, on 16 April 2014: one year and two days ago!

(We had a long power cut on 24 April 2014, which explains the zero minimum line.)


A tree just down the road from us:

I think spring has arrived!

Friday, 17 April 2015

book review: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
online. 2015

I started reading HPMoR online nearly a year ago. Today, the last chapter, 122, was posted, and the grand saga concludes.

The premise is simple: What if you changed Harry, but all the other characters remained the same? The big change is that here Harry is an intelligent rational scientist (there are some other, but more minor, changes). And that makes all the difference: Harry the rationalist, confronted with magic!

It starts out a little weak, as Yudkowsky gets to grips with the writing process. It gets funny, as Harry gets to grips with the fact that magic exists, and that it works. It gets interesting when Harry’s rationality gets him sorted into Ravenclaw, and as he decides to bring Draco Malfoy under rationality’s wing. It gets clever when the Professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts starts teaching the students how to fight with magic. It gets dark when an appalled Harry discovers Azkabhan. And it gets devastating when [well, that’s enough spoilers for now].

When I finished reading online, I downloaded the pdf version. All 2007 pages of it. (Neal Stephenson, eat your heart out!) That much material, dense with foreshadowings, references, and allusions, read over several months, meant there were things I forgot, and things I didn’t spot. No matter, there's a whole TVTropes sub-site, to suck up another significant portion of my life.

The main story is only (only!) 1969 pages. There are also a few pages of mostly hilarious omake (extras), including some cut scenes and alternative scenes, and some scenes from alternative fictional worlds the rational approach is applies to (including Lord of The Rings, Narnia, Anita Blake (ahem), Twilight, Moby Dick, Alice, and, of course, Hamlet).

The key point, beyond being rational, is the characters Harry and Voldemort have very similar responses to the concept of death, but with one critical distinction (who’s death) which leads to their very different actions. I discovered after I started reading that Yudkowsky is a transhumanist, which certainly explains some of the underlying themes; it crucially makes for a reason for everyone to care about the Philosopher’s Stone.

As well as all the rationality, and plot divergences, there is general poking fun at some of the sillier bits of the original, particularly the scoring system in Quidditch. Overall, this is a fantastic read, particularly if you are a nerd with pretensions of rationalism. I really enjoyed it.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

over-personalised communication

It’s general election time in the UK, so we are getting bombarded with pamphlets from all the parties.

I found the latest one to drop through the letterbox to be startlingly over-specific.

Nice, though rather surprising, to know this candidate is securing an entire country’s future just for little old me.  But I think maybe there are other people who need the future secured for them, too, and probably moreso?  How about securing Britain’s future for everyone?

Okay, I know this isn’t actually just about me (yes, really!).  But I find it a really weird phrasing.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


A sparrowhawk in our garden.  Magnificent!  Although not so much so for the pigeon it is feasting on.  It spent a while chowing down, then flew off with the remains of the carcass in its talons.  All that now remains is a pile of pale feathers.