Thursday, 31 December 2015

book review: Clear and Simple as the Truth

Francis-Noël Thomas, Mark Turner.
Clear and Simple as the Truth: writing classic prose: 2nd edn.
Princeton University Press. 2011

I recently read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. He discusses classic style, a particular style for writing clear, compelling prose, and recommends Clear and Simple as the Truth for those interested in finding out more. I was definitely interested, so bought it, read it, and am now reviewing it.

The authors describe this particular style, in use since ancient times, thus:
[p37.] The idiom of classic style is the voice of conversation. The writer adopts the pose of a speaker of near-perfect efficiency whose sentences are the product of the voice rather than some instrument of writing. … Classic style models itself on speech and can be read aloud properly the first time. In speech, an expression is gone the moment it is spoken, and has only that one instant to enter the mind and attain its place in memory. Since classic writing pretends to be speech, it never requires the reader to look forward or backward; it never admits that the reader is in a situation to do so. Each phrase is presented as if it has only one chance—now—to do its job. Of course, a reader may in fact go over a passage of classic prose many times. But the classic writer never acknowledges that possibility either explicitly or by implication.
Their whole book is written in classic style, becoming one large example of what they are describing. Try reading the quoted paragraph out loud. It is easy to do so; significantly easier than much writing one comes across.

Being easy to read, whether aloud or not, does not imply being easy to write. Thomas and Turner contrast two sentences, the first written in classic style, the second most definitely not.
[p15.] La Rochefoucauld’s sentence was of course difficult to write, but it looks easy. The writer hides all the effort. [Samuel] Johnson’s sentence was clearly difficult to write, and its writer wants to display it as if it were a trophy won through his personal effort.
Here we learn something not acknowledged in other books on writing style: style is not singular. There are different styles, each suited to different uses. Other books cover only the one style, implying it is the only one. This books acknowledges the existence of other styles; classic style is not style, it is a style.
[p67.] What Strunk and White recommend is meant as good advice for the one style they have in mind; what Williams and Colomb recommend is good advice for the one style they have in mind.
Style here means the style of deep structure of the prose, not the grammar police style concerned with relatively trivial surface marks. The authors have it in for Strunk and White in particular, repeating their withering paired sentence structure in a further contrast:
[p78.] The best-known teachers of practical style are Strunk and White, in their ubiquitous Elements of Style. The best teachers of practical style are Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb, in Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and a series of academic articles and technical reports.
This kind of sentence pairing is an exemplar of classic style, of assuming the reader is competent, and so can draw obvious conclusions without needing them hammered home.

As well as describing what classic style is, the authors characterise it by describing what it is not, by contrasting it with other styles. Classic style is not plain style, where the writer is addressing an audience, reaffirming simple unchallenged truths; in classic style the writer is speaking to a single person, and the truth, while clear, is sophisticated. Classic style is not the self-conscious reflexive style; in classic style the writing is a transparent window through which the reader regards the presented truth. Classic style is not practical style (although it is the closest) where the writer has the job of educating an audience, with the purpose of satisfying a need or solving a problem (a utilitarian style suitable for reports and instruction manuals); in classic style the writer is speaking to an equal, is presenting information for its own sake rather than to address the reader’s need, and their work cannot be skim-read. Classic style is not contemplative style, where meanings are presented as the interpretation of the writer, and the process of writing is a hesitant process of discovery; in classic style, the writer presents the unhedged finished product of prior thought as uninterpreted truth, or at least passes off their interpretation as such. Classic style is not romantic style, which is a mirror on the writer’s thoughts, sensations and emotions; classic style is a window on the world. Classic style is not prophetic style, which depends on abilities or insights available only to the chosen few; classic style expresses truths that can be verified by all. Classic style is not oratorical style, where a leader or candidate is unsubtly persuading an audience to an action or agreement; classic style is disinterested and nuanced.

Classic style is not perfection, however. Often the writer does have an agenda, and the truth is rarely clear and simple. Towards the end of the Essay section, the authors describe some “trade secrets” on how the classic stylist can cope with such situations, whilst maintaining the advantages of the style. They also dissect a Museum-full of samples written in the classic and non-classic style. But explanations and examples are not enough to gain writing proficiency.
[p189.] Once we had written the Essay and the Museum, we thought we had finished our book. Anyone who wanted to acquire the style, we assumed, had everything necessary at hand. All we had left out was the work involved in acquiring the style. Classic style pretends there is no work in writing, and we had happily skipped right over all the stages we had gone through ourselves in acquiring this most versatile and useful style.
This second edition includes a Studio section: exercises for learning writing in the classic style. Many of these exercises involve no writing, only speaking; the classic style is conversational, so the student is encouraged to learn the style through conversation, and only later write it down.

Writing in classic style does not make everyone sound the same. There is room for personal style within classic style. The Museum examples each have their distinctive voice. The Pinker that sent me here is in classic style, with a lightness of touch. Clear and Simple as the Truth is also in classic style, a smooth, relaxed read, and yet with an underlying thump-thump-thump to the prose. Apart from a few places, such as the Strunk and White put-downs, there is a monotonous tone to the work, and no sparkle. However, the prose is indeed transparent, and so the thumping is ignorable, and the lack of sparkle not an impediment. Nevertheless, Pinker is the better stylist.

My takeaway message: if you have to write a manual or report for a specific purpose, use practical style, and follow the excellent guidelines in Williams’ Style; if you want to write a piece for general interest, use classic style, and follow the excellent advice here.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 25 December 2015

full moon

Full moon on Christmas day
It’s the first full moon on Christmas day since 1977, and it won’t happen again until 2034.

It usually happens once every 19 years, but we skipped one.

See wikipedia’s “Metonic cycle” entry for an explanation (and enjoy the difference between sidereal and synodic months!)

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sequestering carbon, one Christmas at a time III

Here's what we got each other for Christmas.  Lots of reading for the New Year!

the centre cannot hold

I have just wrangled the larger-than-usual turkey into the oven.  Removing the neck from the body cavity always invokes Alien flashbacks.

Having a whiteboard in the kitchen is useful for the project plan.

I could program these individual times as a series into my phone alarm.  But that would be excessive.  Instead, I just update the single cooking alarm with the next scheduled event at each stage.

Some of the items are procured pre-prepared and so come with instructions.  On reading these instructions, especially for the stuffing and the sausages, which are marketed for Christmas dinner, I was amused to read in all of them: place on a baking tray at the centre of a pre-heated oven.  The centre, like most of the rest of the oven, is currently full of turkey…

Thursday, 24 December 2015

love is not transitive

Here’s a thing.  Whenever Jo Walton reviews a book or movie she loves, and that I love too, then her review brilliantly explains to me exactly why I love it.  But if in that review she mentions another book she also loves, that I haven’t read, and I go and read it, I often don’t like it as much as she does.

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A turkey isn't just for Christmas

Tesco’s had run out of “small” turkeys, so we had to go for a “medium” one.  Which claims it “serves 13”.  So it will last us 6.5 days, then…

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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LV

So, the last lot wasn’t the final batch before Christmas; a few more managed to sneak in under the wire.

A new Robin McKinley that I didn’t know about!  Yay!

And some classic Systems Theory books, second hand and hence afordable.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

book review: The Sense of Style

Steven Pinker.
The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century.
Viking. 2014

Steven Pinker has written several popular science books in his areas of expertise: language and cognition. These books deliver profound insights, and they are also tremendously readable, delivering those insights with style and verve. In this latest offering, he moves from presenting research results in a readable manner, to presenting advice on how to write readably, fittingly also in a readable manner.

Writing well is non-trivial. Pinker describes his own process.
[p76.] Most writers polish draft after draft. I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor, who starts another couple of rounds of tweaking.
The book is divided into six meaty chapters, each capturing a different aspect of good writing. This is not about picky little examples, held up by those anxious grammar police as the epitome of style; rather it covers the deeper structure and content of prose. This means that simple rules of thumb, such as "avoid the passive voice", should not be used indiscriminately: although the passive often has the effect of moving attention away from the guilty agent (such as yourself), sometimes it is needed to focus attention onto the important agent.

First, Pinker introduces good writing in general, dissecting examples of good, and bad, prose, pointing out where they work, and where they fall apart. I did not always spot which were the poor examples until that subsequent dissection made it clear; I am perhaps too used to reading inelegantly written text for it to sound out of tune to me.

Next, Pinker discusses classic style, a particular style for writing clear, compelling prose, eschewing obfuscation. He summarises it thus:
[pp28–29.] The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the readers gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
That passage itself, along with most of the book, is written in classic style. Pinker then takes many examples of convoluted, turgid academic prose, and shows how to rewrite them in a clearer, comprehensible, livelier style.

In chapter 3, Pinker covers The Curse of Knowledge: the writer knows a lot more about the subject matter than does the typical reader, and can bamboozle them if they are not careful. It is hard to get the right level, between confusing and patronising the audience. Pinker provides a few tips.

Next we get a chapter on an area of Pinker’s expertise: grammar. His aim is to show how an understanding of grammar can not merely make sentences grammatical, it can also help prevent grammatical ones from being difficult to parse and potentially ambiguous. From this chapter it is clear that English grammar has changed from what I was briefly taught in school many years ago. Then it was all nouns and verbs, sentence subjects and objects; now it appears that there are different categorisations, and finer distinctions:
[p86.] Modern grammatical theories … distinguish grammatical categories like noun and verb from grammatical functions like subject, object, head, and modifier. And they distinguish both of these from semantic categories and roles like action, physical object, possessor, doer, and done-to, which refer to what the referents of the words are doing in the world. Traditional grammars tend to run the three concepts together.
There are lots of good examples in this chapter, and Pinker uses grammatical theory to demonstrate why they are problematic, and how use of grammatical structure can improve them. With his usual lightness of touch, Pinker distinguishes ways to advertise a pair of panel discussions:
    1. A panel with four professors on sex
    2. A panel on sex with four professors
    1. A panel with four professors on drugs
    2. A panel on drugs with four professors
In the first case, formulation I avoids a potential mis-parse; however, in the second case, formulation II is the unambiguous one. There is no simple rote solution to be employed. This is the toughest chapter in the book, and Pinker occasionally falls prey to the Curse of Knowledge himself here.

In the next chapter, Arcs of Coherence, Pinker moves up from discussing single sentences to addressing the overall structure of a piece of prose. This includes advice about stating the topic early on, to give the reader something to hang the rest of the text on, and then to present the rest of the text in a logical order that makes sense to the reader. These potential platitudes are enlivened through a great choice of examples.

The final chapter reverts to grammar police style: rights and wrongs. Pinker subverts the usual prescriptive style, however, taking time to explain why most of the grammar police edicts are flat out wrong. But at the end, even he cannot resist his own list of preferred and problematic usages.

This is an excellent guide to clear writing, and I would recommend it, along with Williams’ Style, to all aspiring communicators.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 18 December 2015

It all depends on the spin...

The radicalization of Luke Skywalker: a Jedi's path to jihad 
Obi Wan — a religious fanatic with a history of looking for young boys to recruit and teach an extreme interpretation of the Force

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Thursday, 17 December 2015

spring is early

I’m not saying it’s mild here, but there’s a magnolia tree around the corner coming into flower.

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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Dead rat lures escaped owl roaming city

I saw a headline on the BBC news:
Dead rat lures escaped owl roaming city
(The text article has a less compressed headline.)

I had a hard time parsing this, as I kept wanting to make lures a noun, but then couldn't get any further.

grumpy eagle owl
I backed up a few times before trying lures as a verb, and realised the headline means: “a dead rat was used to lure an escaped owl which was roaming the city”.

But then I realised, I could parse lures as a noun successfully (albeit getting a different meaning): “lures made from dead rats were overlooked by an owl which was roaming the city”.

So now I feel happy.

more nice train food

In June I found some surprisingly great food for sale in the Brussels Eurostar departure lounge.  Yesterday I was there again, but they were sold out of that particular baguette.  Pity.

However, I can just as heartily recommend the individual-size bacon quiche.

The chicken and bacon bagel, not so much.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Finnish income

An experiment to watch with interest:
Finland considers basic income to reform welfare system

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Friday, 11 December 2015

perverse incentives

There is an article on the BBC News today about the huge number of sofas being thrown away, rather than reused.  In order for a second hand sofa to be sold, or even given away for use, it must have a fire safety label, demonstrating that it has been treated with fire retardant.

On the one hand, this is a perfectly sensible regulation: I remember horrific stories of people killed by the choking black smoke from burning foam in their furniture.

On the other hand, perfectly good, and fire retardant, sofas are being dumped, because they have no label.  People tear the label off.  The Beeb reports bemusedly that:
The labels often appear to be a haphazard afterthought, loosely and carelessly stuck in random positions, flapping about in a way which seems to almost invite customers to cut them off.
There’s also a quote from someone looking at sustainable sofas:
It’s clear that many furniture companies have not really given much consideration to encouraging a future life for their sofas once their customers have finished with them
I’m bemused by the bemusement.  Maybe the placement isn’t an afterthought, and maybe furniture companies have considered the future life of their products.  After all, what incentive is there for manufacturers to encourage reuse?  For every person who gets a second hand sofa, that is a potential loss of the sale of a new sofa.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

don't wreck the net

I've just filled in the EU survey on Regulatory environment for platforms, online intermediaries, data and cloud computing and the collaborative economy.

After slogging through it, even with the help of this linked website, I had to vent my frustration in one of the text boxes:
This is truly one of the worst designed questionnaires it has been my displeasure to complete.  Questions are loaded and poorly worded, options are overlapping, explanation boxes only exist for the "desired" answer. 
If this is the level of your internet/web/cloud technical competence, you have no business thinking of regulating others!

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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

hard SF

Another great James Nicoll-ism: his definition of hard SF:
SF that provides enough technical detail that the reader can be certain that various mechanisms and events couldn’t work the way the author has them working.

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Monday, 7 December 2015

learning experience

James Nicoll is famous in SF fandom both for his book reviews, and for his somewhat exciting and hair-raising anecdotes.  The latest anecdote had me in snorfling:
I don’t know if there are literally a thousand stars in the Thousand Stars or if a thousand stars is just the local version of “many.” I do know that if you get into a dispute with a teacher over whether the milli in millipede is literal or figurative, teachers want a heads up before you pour a bag of millipedes onto their desk so you can count legs together. I mean, I know that now.

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Sunday, 6 December 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LIV

The last batch before Christmas.  Brown cardboard covered parcels now entering the house are being hustled away to a variety of secret locations, awaiting the grand reveal later in the month.

Friday, 4 December 2015

peer review

Another great post from Sabine Hossenfelder.  Not about the content of science this time, but about the process of doing science.

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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Hawking radiation

Another nice post by Sabine Hossenfelder:
If Hawking’s book taught me one thing, it’s that sticky visual metaphors that can be a curse as much as they can be a blessing.

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Saturday, 28 November 2015


This is the group that’s surprisingly prone to violent extremism 
It’s hard to imagine prominent politicians or pundits making frightening sounding warnings about the dangers of letting engineers walk among us. Yet it’s no more ridiculous, given the evidence, than their fearful statements about Syrian refugees.

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

more delighted shepherds

15:59 GMT, looking west-ish

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

book review: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned

Kenneth O. Stanley, Joel Lehman.
Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: the myth of the objective.
Springer. 2015

Imagine you are lost in a maze, with thick dark hedges all around you. In the distance, poking above the greenery, you can see a tall post with a sign at the top saying EXIT. How do you get out of the maze? A naive approach would be to walk towards the sign as much as possible. This is a form of greedy algorithm: trying to solve a global problem by making a sequence of always-improving moves.

But a greedy algorithm fails for complicated problems: in your maze, you will initially get closer to your goal, but you will sooner or later get stuck in a dead end. To escape the maze, you will have to abandon your simplistic approach of heading directly towards the exit, and instead, you will need to move away from your goal in the short term. The path to success has many twists and turns.

More sophisticated search algorithms employ a combination of exploration (wandering around looking for a good approach and avoiding the dead ends) and greedy exploitation (finding something good and locally making it better). The skill is in balancing these two processes: too much exploration and you never achieve anything except by chance; too much exploitation and you get trapped in dead ends.

Stanley and Lehman are computer scientists who have taken this insight—that to achieve your goal, heading directly towards it is rarely the best approach, and in some cases may even be the worst approach—and applied it more widely. The real world is hugely more complicated than a puzzle maze, yet many management practices employ greedy algorithms: reach your (complicated, ill-defined, distant, changing) goal by moving directly towards it. Yet no matter how much you improve candlewax and wicks, you will never achieve electric lighting; no matter how many trees you climb, you will never reach the moon.

This slim book is one long discussion of why our current obsession with objective setting, with a pure greedy exploitation-only approach is not a good idea. We need more exploration in our management, research and education, if we are not to get stuck in dead ends, and the authors set out how this could be achieved.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

overcoming biases

How scientists fool themselves – and how they can stop
Some nice ideas on how to overcome biases in scientific research

[via BoingBoing]

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

airport tech

Windows 3.1 is still being used in a French airport!  Incroyable!

blast from the past

Be not the first by whom the new are tried, / Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
— Alexander Pope

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Monday, 16 November 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LIII

The latest batch of fiction:

Again, the unrelenting impression is of series.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

book review: Cakes, Custard, and Category Theory

Eugenia Cheng.
Cakes, Custard, and Category Theory: easy recipes for understanding complex maths.
Profile. 2015

The purpose of mathematics is to make difficult things easier; the purpose of category theory is to make difficult mathematics easier.

So argues research mathematician Eugenia Cheng in this excellent book. She starts off gently, with relatively simple mathematics, and oodles of real world examples, many based, unsurprisingly given the title, on cooking. These culinary examples serve both to illuminate the concepts, and to demonstrate her thesis: for example, finding out how much icing a cake needs is made easier using mathematics.

The first half of the book is about mathematics in general, and what it can and can't do. There are some lovely descriptions of the role of abstraction and generalisation, and the process of doing mathematics. By the end of this part we are confidently reading about axiomatisation. The second half then delves into the promised category theory. This covers the role of relationships and structure, along with a discussion of sameness. This is all achieved with a lightness of touch, whilst covering some quite profound ideas.

By the end, Cheng has explored an broad range of concepts, illuminating a lot about the philosophical stance of mathematicians, and the relationships of mathematics to the world. And now I want some cake.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

TV review: Orphan Black, season 2

One. Of a kind.
Sarah Manning [Tatiana Maslany] and her clone sisters [Tatiana MaslanyN] are closing in on the secrets behind their existence.

This is just as brilliant as season one. New levels of bad guys are revealed, characters we thought discarded return to play an important role, other characters are discovered to be not quite who we thought, and relationships between the clones get more complex. The plot twists and turns in interesting and novel ways. As just a small example, the scene between Alison's husband/minder Donnie, and escaping geneticist Leekie, in the car – and its knock-on effects – was totally unexpected. It all races and builds to another stunning revelation.

In a way, I feel a bit sorry for Tatiana Maslany: where will she ever get another role as great as this one? She gets to play street punk Sarah, pill-popping up-tight Alison, scientist Cosima, corporate droid Rachel, severly disturbed Helena, and more, all at the same time! Well, at least she's got season 3…

For all my SF TV reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 13 November 2015

it's baaaack!

The sparrowhawk returns:

Nearly three weeks since first spotting it, we saw our friendly neighbourhood sparrowhawk again today: in the exact same spot on our fence, and in almost the exact same single-footed pose.

Or is it the same one?  This time, the head looks a lot greyer.

But this shot was taken through an open window, rather than through glass, with a different (longer) lens, and in weaker sunlight.  Note that the fence looks greyer, too.  So I am assuming that all those compositional differences account for the colour difference somehow.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

magnificent trees

It was a glorious sunny autumn morning, so I went for a walk in the local rec.  The trees there are looking magnificent.

bare branches and sun-dappled trunk
still in leaf this mild mid-November

Monday, 9 November 2015

using Evernote for literature reviews

The Right Way to use Evernote for Academic Literature Reviews
I don't know if this is the right way, but it certainly looks like a good way, for taking notes on the academic literature.

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LII

The latest non-fiction batch:

Again, lots of archaeology, but not for me.  I’m looking forward to reading Artificial Chemistries; it’s a review copy, and I have to write a review soon, which means I have to read it soon!  There are also several books on research methods for Interaction Design, for a module I will be co-teaching next year.

Monday, 2 November 2015

what the FSM?

Reading a document.
See the phrase: the programming of electronic FSMs
Read it as the programming of electronic Flying Spaghetti Monsters
Pause.  Backtrack.
Reread it as the programming of electronic Finite State Machines
Continue reading.

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

summer, what summer?

Here’s the record of how much our solar PV system has been generating over the summer:
summer 2015

So, a monotonic decrease in the average energy from April all the way through to August; then September with a higher average than August; then plummeting in October.

Last year had a much more sensible shape:

summer 2014

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Calibri. Just say no.

Grant application rejected over choice of font
Research funders specify grant applications written in 11 point font because Small type size makes it difficult for reviewers to read the proposal.  Yes, as I age, I find small type more difficult.  But I can read it on screen and increase the size!

These same funders also specify a sans serif font.  Personally I hate hate hate reading large wodges of sans serif text, finding it harder on the eye than a serif face.

Why not just specify a word limit, and some form of markup, so that the reviewer can reformat the document to their own reading tastes?  (And then print it out, if that's what they want to do.)  I do believe this is the 21st century, after all.

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Friday, 30 October 2015

verbs, not nouns

Since becoming interested in “process oriented” models of the world, and liking Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s statement: “life is a verb, not a noun”, I’ve been on the lookout for examples.

This one meshes nicely with a current topic of discussion: praising learners for (actively) “working hard”, rather than for (passively) “being clever”.

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Mandelbulb rocks

Three minutes of complex fractal beauty.

View full screen for best effect.

[via BoingBoing]

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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

make up your mind!

typical cat!


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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

book review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Sydney Padua.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.
Penguin. 2015

The tale of a Pocket Universe in which Lovelace and Babbage live to complete the Analytical Engine, and use it to have thrilling adventures and fight crime (the crimes of street music and poetry, that is).

This starts off as a relatively straightforward account of Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and the never-to-be-completed Analytical Engine, the famous programmable mechanical computer, told in lovely graphic novel format. But that real life story ends unhappily, and too soon (Lovelace died at the age of 36, and Babbage never completed his masterpiece).

Rather than the book stopping at page 40, the fictional story begins, in an alternate universe, where the laws of time are a little more fluid, the engine is completed, and the super-geniuses Babbage and Lovelace, agents of The Crown, team up to fight crime, meet Wellington and Brunel, banter about computers, and have thrilling steampunk adventures, all gloriously illustrated, and copiously footnoted.

Those footnotes are there to point out the links (sometimes tenuous, often not) between what is happening in the tales, and what happened in reality. There is a lot of research behind these brief tales, with some footnotes having endnotes of their own, with more copious material; and some of those endnotes have further footnotes of their own. These tell of the (real life) events behind the (sadly so very fictional) scenes being illustrated.

Sometimes a page of research is captured by a quick joke, or a single panel. But one whole story depends on it: the visitor who distracts Coleridge when writing Kubla Khan is none other than that destroyer of poetry, Lovelace herself! The evidence is convincingly presented; only one tiny detail argues against it, scrupulously recorded by the author: “Some may object that she was born eighteen years after the composition of the poem, but this anomoly is easily explained”.

Overall, this is a delight, especially if you are interested in the Analytical Engine, and the history behind it. The individual stories probably do not stand on their own, but when supported by triply-nested footnotes, and superb illustrations, everything comes together brilliantly.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Monday, 26 October 2015


Seen perching on our garden fence this morning:

sparrowhawk looking for breakfast
(Photographed through the window, so as not to scare it away, and hence slightly soft focus.)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

book review: The Just City

Jo Walton.
The Just City.
Corsair. 2014

Having just finished Plato at the Googleplex, this seemed like the obvious next read.

The gods Athene and Apollo decide to set up and run a ‘Just City’, following the rules Plato laid down in his Republic. They find a suitably isolated island, and recruit a bunch of people from throughout history: ones who have prayed to Athene to live there. These people become the first rulers, and they buy cohorts of 10-year-old-slaves (with some rather unfortunate repercussions on the local slave economy) to become the first people actually fully raised according to Plato’s plan. They all settle down to being the best selves they can be, for the most part. Things are going along reasonably well, although the planned parenthoods, and enslaved machines becoming sentient, are causing some wobbles. Then they decide to introduce Sokrates to the mix...

This is a gentle novel with deep consequences. It has three point-of-view characters – a god, a ruler, and a child – as we see the Just City grow from its inception until the children reach adulthood.

I’m glad I had read Plato at the Googleplex just before this, as I am not as familiar with Plato’s philosophy as I could be. My only previous information was from reading Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies many years ago, and getting a rather less positive view of his philosophy.

Jo Walton’s novel of living in Plato’s Republic steers a course between these two views. There are certainly all the nasty totalitarian issues Popper rails against, from the Noble Lie downwards, but there are other problems in utopia. In particular, the use of robots instead of slaves to do all the scut-work initially seems to be a clever technological solution to a very real problem, but it turns out to have problems of its own. Most of the issues are experienced only second-hand through the viewpoint characters, who have been raised or trained within the philosophy, and are so less critical than we are. The initial nerd-wish-fulfillment educational aspects, even when confronted with Sokratic stirring, eventually have to give way to the underlying problems, however.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and am looking forward to the sequel: The Philosopher Kings.
Be excellent!

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

sequestering carbon, several books at a time XLXI

The latest batch:

Another Seanan McGuire, great!  There’s the published proceedings from the New Zealand conference I attended.  And a lot of archaeology, which I (almost certainly) won’t be reading (world enough and time).

Update 30 Oct 2015: It’s been pointed out to me that the title should read: “sequestering carbon, several books at a time LI”.  I've written 50-10+10+1 instead of 50+1.  Duh!  I’ve left it as it is (wrong) for posterity’s amusement.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

autumn II

My god!  It’s full of leaves!

Nearby driveway: I’m glad I don’t have to rake up all these!

Friday, 23 October 2015


I love autumn!

7:38am BST (and sunrise is 7:48 today)

Thursday, 22 October 2015


Just over half an hour after sunrise, the sunlight was hitting this tree horizontally, lighting it up against a dark background.  Spectacular.

8:21am BST

Saturday, 17 October 2015

book review: Plato at the Googleplex

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.
Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away.
Vintage. 2014

Why do research in philosophy? Wasn’t everything that needed to be said, already said by Plato? Hasn’t the time since then been spent by science filling in the gaps, and firming up the arguments?

This is the critique of philosophy that Goldstein is arguing against in this readable book. She brings Plato back to life and introduces him to the modern day: discussing the need for Philosopher-Kings and whether they could be replaced by computer AI, debating how to raise excellent children, giving relationship advice as an agony aunt in a magazine, being interviewed on cable news about science and philosophy, and finally, in conversation with a neuroscientist about mind v brain while waiting for a brain scan. Interspersed with these lively dialogues (an ancient idea, borrowed from Plato himself), Goldstein writes more traditionally-styled chapters, discussing the historical Plato and Socrates, and the cultural context in which their ideas were developed.

This is a fascinating read. I actually found the traditional chapters more informative, as the others are played for culture-clash laughs as much as for exploring the philosophical issues. What I found most interesting was the discussions of that cultural context: the explanation of precisely why those Greeks, insecurely looking back at their own Golden Age, found Socrates to be such an annoying little gadfly, and were so worried about the way he was corrupting their youth, that they were willing to democratically vote to put him to death.

The writing is lovely throughout, and I learned a lot, about Plato, Socrates and ancient Greece, about philosophy, and about the reason for doing philosophy (that is, for arguing a subject into the ground). There is a lovely passage near the end explaing why it is so important that we argue out all points, and that no ideas should get a free pass:
p377. There are strong—oh, so strong—reasons to affirm that yes, we ought to exclude privileged points of view as we seek to know the world. No claim to knowledge should be allowed a free pass, getting by without giving an account of itself, a justification, that can appeal to all who sign on to the project of reason, no matter the special features of their subjective points of view. It is not just a matter of the objectivity of reality that motivates the demand for objectivity of knowledge. Far more persuasive reasons arise from the obvious hazards of subjectivity, which is a breeding ground for prejudice, superstition, and egotistical self-aggrandizement. We are too prone to favoring our own particularity and, if we are talented enough, can raise up a cunningly convincing ideology that will shape all the world to fit our particular dimensions. It is a dangerous mistake to allow subjectivity to strut its stuff with such smug thuggishness. Exposing our most cherished beliefs to the rough treatment of multiple points of view—each of which is prone to see the world from the vantage of its own advantage—is our only hope for defeating the hazards of self-serving subjectivity—complacent at best, murderously certain at worst. And so philosophy … has typically been saying yes to the exclusion of privileged points of view ever since Plato himself set up perhaps the most powerful image in the history of thought, the Myth of the Cave…
Yet despite all this, I felt there was something lacking. In the very first paragraph of the Prologue, Goldstein says:
p3. A book devoted to a particular thinker often presumes that thinker got everything right. I don’t think this is true of Plato. Plato got about as much wrong as we would expect from a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago. Were this not the case, then philosophy, advancing our knowledge not at all, would be useless. I don’t think it’s useless, so I’m quite happy to acknowledge how mistaken or confused Plato can often strike us.
And yet, the majority of the book seems to be about what Plato did get right. The points Plato concedes in the dialogues seem minor compared to the overall point; the majority of the standard chapters are about Plato’s philosophical achievements, and relatively small improvements since.

I take it that the argument is that we still need new philosophy (so still need philosophy researchers), not just that we need to apply existing philosophical principles and approaches (that we only need philosophy teachers). So I don’t think this book achieves what it sets out to do: to demonstrate that philosophy research is relevant today (although I agree that it is). However, that doesn’t matter; what the book does deliver is very good: Plato in his historical context, and Plato coping with the modern world, at the Googleplex, and beyond.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

inflated savings

We had our solar PV system installed in January 2014, and we’ve seen a drop in our external electricity consumption since then.  But how big a drop?  Our electricity company provides a handy annual summary.  Here’s the relevant figures from the first year:

So we almost halved how much electricity we bought in last year (with PV) compared to the previous one (without PV).  Excellent!

But note the start date for the comparison: 9th October.  That means we had the solar PV for only 9 months of the period.  So it should be even smaller this year!  Here’s the relevant figures:

And yes, there’s nearly a 20% drop this time.  Great.

But hang on a minute!  The first chart says we used 4323 kWh last year, whereas the second chart says we used 5611 kWh last year!  That’s a difference of 30%, over the same time period. Huh?

I wondered if it was because the figure is an estimate, and maybe they underestimated our consumption last year (and by a lot), and now have better figures.  So I checked the electricity bills themselves.  But the bill dated 26 Sept 2014 is based an actual meter reading, not an estimate.  So they only had to estimate about two weeks usage.  (The bill from the same period a year earlier was an estimate, however.)

Because we have to send in quarterly PV meter readings to claim our generation tariff, we now make a note of all the different meter readings.  So I know that our actual consumption 10 Oct 14 – 9 Oct 15 was 4576 kWh, very close to their estimate (this year, at least).

We had a new electricity meter installed in March 2014, to cope with the PV system’s generation, but that was in place when last year’s figures were estimated.  The only thing I can think is the estimating system has got very confused somehow, due to our sudden change in usage pattern.  I will have to check next year to see if the figures are equally bizarre, or have settled down.

This is not the first time I have had perplexing information on electricity bills, though (for a different location).

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

totally ineffective $20M/yr

Joseph Stromberg and Estelle Caswell: Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless
Let’s stop using this outdated test — which has about as much scientific validity as your astrological sign — and move on to something else.

I'm pleased to say I’ve never had to do a Myers-Briggs test.

[via Danny Yee’s blog]

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Monday, 12 October 2015

ethics in computer science

Bertrand Meyer: Danke sehr!
Many months ago I accepted, perhaps too fast, a kind invitation to talk at the European Computer Science Summit, the annual conference of Informatics Europe, this week in Vienna. It came with a catch: I was not to choose my own topic but to talk on an imposed theme, ethics in relation to computer science.

A timely solution to a worrying problem :-)

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Sunday, 11 October 2015



18:28 BST

Monday, 5 October 2015

weird view

I arrived last night in Leiden, to spend the coming week at the Lorentz Centre meeting on An Emerging Technological and Societal Transition: Preparing for the Post-Industrial World. It promises to be very interesting.

Along with most of the delegates, I’m staying at the Van der Valk Hotel Leiden (I have the tune Eye Level running through my head a lot, for some reason).  I’m in room 410, which you might think is on the 4th floor.  But no.  Rooms 1xx are on the ground floor, rooms 2xx are on the first floor, rooms 3xx are on the second floor, and rooms 4xx are … in the basement. Surely that's below sea level here?!

So I saw a rather peculiar view from my hotel window when I opened the curtains this morning.

fake grass being grazed by a fake sheep

Sunday, 20 September 2015

David Hume and Buddhism

Alison Gopnik: How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis
As I was doing my research, many unfailingly helpful historians told me that my quirky personal project reflected a much broader trend. Historians have begun to think about the Enlightenment in a newly global way. Those creaky wooden ships carried ideas across the boundaries of continents, languages, and religions just as the Internet does now

 [via Danny Yee's blog]

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Thursday, 17 September 2015

Brassens in space

This is just the way I feel about it, too.

[Via Bad Astronomy]

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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

one thousand miles

I’m now back home in the UK, after a lot of sitting in planes.

Here is almost, but not quite, a map of the travelling I did while in New Zealand.

Google maps gives me a “route cannot be modified further”, so I cannot put in the precise route from Dargaville to Whangarei.

Now I didn’t actually drive all of that myself: the trip to Cape Reinga was in a coach.  But hey, I travelled about a thousand miles.  Well, plus the 20 thousand plus miles to get there and back!

I saw so many stunningly beautiful and amazing things.  And yet the map shows how little of the country I actually covered: less than half of North Island, and none at all of the larger (and I am told, even more beautiful) South Island.  Next time…

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Hamilton Gardens

Today was another relaxed day with my friends, breakfasting on duck egg and honey pancakes, chatting, then pottering around their smallholding.  In the afternoon we visited the nearby Hamilton Gardens.  This has a variety of different areas: we explored the Paradise Collection, the Fantasy Collection, and the Productive Collection, leaving the Cultivar Collection for another time (maybe!).

These collections were individual gardens in a variety of styles.  Interestingly, these gardens were not linked by a continuous path, but each was reached through a small "portal" area, which acted like a palette cleanser between one garden and the next.

Google Earth view of the various gardens.  The three "portals" are visible as walled circles (left, centre), and a hedged square (right).  The circular "snail" towards the centre top is the entrance to the entire collection.
First we went to the Paradise Collection, accessed through the square hedged portal.

portal area to the Paradise Collection
panorama: Japanese Garden of Contemplation
view through a ceramic bamboo screen: Chinese Scholars Garden
the 1.4m long, 250kg, bronze Celestial Yuan of Taihu
view down to the Chinese Scholars Garden
a riot of spring colour in the Indian Char Bagh Garden
Italian Renaissance Garden
The Paradise Collection also included an English Flower Garden (which brought it home to me more forcefully that it is barely even spring here at the moment), and a Modernist Garden (hmm, yes, well).

Then it was off to the Fantasy Collection, through its circular portal.

the Tudor Garden -- although it reminded me more of Portmeirion
pavilion: Chinoiserie Garden
There was also a Tropical Garden in this collection, but since I was in sub-tropical rain forest earlier in the week looking at massive trees, I was not as taken with it as the others.  Further gardens are being prepared, including a Surrealist Garden,  We glimpsed parts of this in skeletal form through a hedge; a suitably surreal experience.

Finally, the Productive Collection, through its circular portal.  This portal was rather interesting.

Google Earth view of the portal: there seem to be strange curved lines running across it.
the portal from the ground, showing the various curves in closeup
My friend asked me "do you know what this is?"  I stared at it for a while, and it was the asymmetrical figure eight shapes that gave it away, especially combined with the spike casting a shadow (out of view).  The figure eights look like analemmas, the shape traced out in the sky by the sun at a given time of the day over the year.  Here it's the path of the shadow cast by the sun.  There were three analemmas, for the path traced at noon, and at an hour before and after noon.  The long curves going across the picture are the paths traced by the shadow of the spike over a day, for several different days of the year.  What a wonderful concept!  An it might get incorporated into a future plan for our own garden, to complement the armillary sphere we got a few years back.

Finally, it was the Productive Collection.

traditional Maori productive garden: Te Parapara Garden
The collection included a Herb Garden, Kitchen Garden, and Sustainable Backyard, all interesting ideas, but probably better viewed in the summer, when there is more growing.

Then after dinner, the sky was dark, and clear again, so I went out to gawp at the alien stars. And tonight, it was even darker than yesterday, and I spotted both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds!  Perfect.