Saturday, 24 January 2015

why publishing is so expensive

So there’s this journal, which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, that recently sent me a paper proof to check and correct.

I had submitted my paper as LaTeX and BibTeX source, using their style files.  Said style files format numbered references, such as [42].  The proofs had the references set in Harvard style (author name, year).


I reformatted my submission using Harvard style, to make it easier to check the proofs.  That took me about 20 seconds (open file, change bibstyle, make new pdf).

On checking the proofs, I noticed a few issues: (a) a name in the text was not the same as the corresponding entry in the reference list; (b) there was still one numbered reference in the text; (c) an author’s name in the reference list was mis-spelled.

Wait: that means the Harvard style references in the proof weren’t generated from my source files, but manually keyed in.  Which presumably took significantly longer than 20 seconds.  It certainly took me much longer than 20 seconds to check, and correct, the proofs.


Friday, 23 January 2015

is Arrow fantasy?

I thought those guys in who catch arrows fired at them were just fantasy – until I watched this!

 [via BoingBoing]

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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Science in SF, with more authors

I’ve got a blog post in the Guardian on the science in science fiction.

I wasn’t trying to be comprehensive, but even so, a lot of the SF authors (including all but one of the women!) got cut in the final edit.  Here’s who else I mentioned who didn’t make it into the on-line version:

Justina Robson
Examples of other SF authors with science degrees: Julie Czerneda, biology; Greg Egan, mathematics; Ken MacLeod, zoology; Vonda McIntyre, biology; Linda Nagata, zoology; Larry Niven, mathematics; Jerry Pournelle, PhD Political Science; Hannu Rajaniemi, PhD mathematical physics; Justina Robson, philosophy and linguistics; Cordwainer Smith, PhD Political Science; Peter Watts, PhD biology; Liz Williams, PhD philosophy of science.

Joanna Russ
Examples of SF authors who are/were full time academic researchers: Gregory Benford, astrophysics; Jack Cohen, reproductive biology; John Cramer, particle physics; Joanna Russ, English; Carl Sagan, astrophysicist; Joan Slonczewski, genetics; Kari Sperring, Celtic history; Ian Stewart, mathematics; Vernor Vinge, mathematics.

Examples of SF authors who gave up the day job: Isaac Asimov, chemist; Arthur C. Clarke, engineer; Robert Forward, physicist; Paul McAuley, botanist; Alastair Reynolds, European Space Agency; Rudy Rucker, mathematician.

Ursula K, Le Guin
Examples of SF authors with arts and humanities backgrounds: Ursula K. Le Guin studied French literature; Jane Lindskold has a PhD in English Literature; Richard Morgan studied history; Spider Robinson has a degree in English; Neal Stephenson studied geography; Roger Zelazny studied English.

Jo Walton
Examples of authors with great blogs are: Diane Duane, Paul McAuley, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Jo Walton, Peter Watts.

Examples of SF author duos include: Eando Binder (one name; two people); brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; spouses Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth.  John Wyndham’s collaboration with Lucas Parkes on The Outward Urge is not an example however, the clue being in the author’s full name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris.

Material gets cut, so for the people who turned up in the comments asking why I didn’t mention X, Y, or Z:  I was edited, folks!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

circling, circling

So, I got fed up trying, and contacted the site asking whether there really was a problem their end (as it’s been going on for a while), or maybe my browser has issues.

I got an automated response: “You may find a quicker response to your query by logging on to your Subscription Account online.”  Not helpful: what I was trying to do was get a subscription account!


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Monday, 19 January 2015

now they tell me!

It’s all very well to apologise, but maybe you could have said that before I’d filled in 2 screens worth of information?

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success from "suboptimal facial hair hygiene"

A colleague sent me this cri de coeur:

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Hermione for lead!

If Hermione Were The Main Character in “Harry Potter”:

Now that’s more like it! 

(Up there with Sady Doyle’s  In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series)

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Sunday, 18 January 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time XXXVIII

The latest batch, lit by afternoon sunlight:

Amazon needs better review-checker-bots

I saw Orphan Black season 2 for sale on Amazon, so ordered it, given how much I liked season 1.  When it arrived, however, the cover text was in Dutch.  I didn’t want to break the seal to check the internal language(s), so I returned it, and got a no-quibble refund.

I said as much in my seller feedback:
Item was stated to be in English, but cover (at least) was in Dutch. Returned for a full refund.
I got an email from Amazon, titled “Important information about your feedback”.  Oooh, important!  It said: “We regret to inform you that your recent feedback has been removed”, because: “Buyer submitted a product review instead of seller feedback.”

Well, I thought it was a seller review: the stated product (English) was different from what was delivered (Dutch), but I got a refund, so I wasn’t too unhappy with the seller.  But maybe my use of the passive “was stated” rather than “seller stated” confused the review-checker-bot’s grammar rules.

So I reworded it.
Seller described item to be in English, but item was not as seller described: cover was in Dutch.  Returned for a full refund.
I got an email from Amazon, titled “Important information about your edited feedback”.  The bot still thinks it’s a product review, yet one of the fields in the feedback form explicitly asks: “Item as described by the seller?”


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

to keep, or not to keep, that is the question

Root Simple describes their algorithm for if they keep a book or not:
One of the first steps on Kondosans’ path to a tidy house is to go through one’s books. We managed to accumulate more books than our shelves could hold. An untidy and anxiety producing book pile had developed in the living room. It was time for a book cleansing.

My own algorithm for if I keep a book or not:
I keep it.

(When we accumulate more books than our shelves can hold, we build more shelves.)

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Monday, 12 January 2015

learning curves

Learning Curves for different programming languages.

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Sunday, 11 January 2015

book review: Agile!

Bertrand Meyer.
Agile!: the good, the hype and the ugly.
Springer. 2014

I’ve been a fan of aspects of Agile Programming ever since I first read about it. In particular the incremental style works very well in building software to support scientific research, where you really don’t know what you need to do next until you have run the prior experiments and come up with the next hypotheses; the discipline of YAGNI (“You ain’t gonna need it”) can save a lot of time and effort here. The “always have a working system” (continuous integration) part also works well for student projects, with their rigidly time-boxed hand-in dates. However, I also have a background in formal methods, so some of the more seemingly heretical and potentially “hacky” bits of the process do raise an eyebrow.

That’s where Agile! comes in. Bertrand Meyer is in the “strong software engineering” camp, strong on specification and design, and the inventor of “design by contract” in the 1980s, an approach of which I’m also a fan. What is he going to say about this new approach?

Unsurprisingly, he thinks some of it is bad; very bad. More surprisingly, possibly, he thinks some of it is not just good, but even “brilliant” (his term). He goes through the various components of the various Agile approaches, describing and critiquing them. He puts most emphasis on Scrum, with which he is most familiar (even being a certified Scrum Master), but also covers Crystal, XP, and Lean.

In summary, the ugly includes the lack of upfront specification and design (even allowing for the fact it will change later) and specifically user stories as the basis for requirements and test-driven development as the basis for design; the hype includes pair programming and collective code ownership; the good includes refactoring; the brilliant includes iterative development, continuous integration, and test first development (associating a test with every piece of functionality).

His argument for up-front specification and design includes the need for finding good abstractions, which will not automatically emerge from a test-code-refactor cycle. A specification is more abstract than a test suite, because it covers all the cases (thereby removing the problem of induction, or inducing the general from the specific). Similarly, he argues that user stories are to requirements what test cases are to specifications, including the same problems of lack of generality and completeness. We presumably need another aphorism to complement Dijsktra’s famous observation that testing can show the presence of bugs, but never their absence. Maybe it should be something like user stories can show the inclusion of functionality, but never its omission.

My only peeve about the book is some of the typography. Occasional paragraphs that are “asides” are set in a smaller font size. Every time, I initially parsed these as quotations, and had to backtrack. Notwithstanding this minor point, Agile! is an excellent thoughtful critique of Agile methods. Although Meyer introduces and describes all the concepts he critiques, I don’t think it is a stand-alone text, as those descriptions are somewhat brief. However, is should be required reading for anyone using, or about to use, an Agile approach.

At 170pp, it is a fast, if dense, read. I laughed out loud on several occasions. For example, he comments on the picture accompanying the agile manifeso:
p1. The sight of a half-dozen middle-aged, jeans-clad, potbellied gentlemen turning their generous behinds to us appears to have provided the decisive sex appeal. Personally, had I wanted to convey the suggestion of agility, I might have turned to something like the cover photograph of this book — which only demonstrates how out of tune I am with the times, since the above picture was successful beyond anyone’s dreams.

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sun, moon, what's the difference?

I was watching Bill Bailey in his 2013 show Qualmpeddler on TV last night, and “learned” this.
Chantelle Houghton: “Alex [Reid] was laughing at me earlier because I thought the sun and the moon was the same thing. Turns out they’re not!”
Wow.  Just ... wow.  (I particularly liked his following rant on her “Turns out, they’re not!” follow up.)

I have heard anecdotally that some people refuse to believe the moon is visible during daytime, even when it’s pointed out to them. (Their logic appears to go, the moon isn’t visible during daytime, that thing you’re pointing at is, therefore it can’t be the moon.)  But I don’t think even they believe this because they think it’s the same thing as the sun!!

Apparently there was a question on a quiz for youngsters that asked “does the sun shine at night? Yes/no”.  I cannot work out what answer was wanted in this case.  Of course it doesn’t; that’s what night means!  Of course it does; it doesn’t switch off at night, it shines elsewhere.  Now we have a further possibility: of course it does; it’s called the moon!

An atypical example of the sun and moon together in the day sky

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Saturday, 10 January 2015

compressing the world

Here’s an interesting take on the Matrix argument – can we compress the environment enough to support arbitrarily nested simulations? 

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Friday, 9 January 2015

Break one, a thousand will rise

Lucille Clerc, Twitter

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straight lines

Seeing is not believing. Phil Plait investigates the bulging chess board illusion.

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a temperature of 11 degrees

I have the BBC Weather app on my phone.  I noticed something amusing about the maximum and minimum temperatures for today:

The maximum and minimum are the same. (And also rather warm for January!)  So that means the temperature doesn’t change at all during the day.  Or does it?

Looking at the hourly forecast:

The temperature is steadily climbing through the day!

So what are those summary temperatures?  Some sort of average? Noon and midnight? Random numbers?

I had a rummage around in the menu options, but found no clue there.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

MPs keeping up with the times?

“We have all been there,” he said. “A short email comes in from a friend, colleague or company and we hit print and then we look in horror as page after page spews out.” 

Printing emails. How quaint.

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medicine from dirt

A possible new class of antibiotics has been discovered: if this pans out, it will be fantastic news.

But I’m skeptical of one claim:
The researchers also believe that bacteria are unlikely to develop resistance to teixobactin. It targets fats which are essential for building the bacterial cell wall, and the scientists argue it would be difficult to evolve resistance. 
Evolution eats the “difficult” for breakfast.

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fast charge

What if you could “fill up” an electric car in just 3 minutes?

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science fictional cat food

The pet-lover shadowing my SF interests strikes again.  First dogs, then birds ... and now cats.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

a taste for the other

A new look at Schelling’s segregation model shows, as before, that even a relatively small preference for self can lead to segregation. It also shows what could lead in the opposite direction: a small preference for non-self!

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Friday, 2 January 2015

petrified lace

Some friends from LA who are in the UK for a while visited us toady.  We took them to Ely Cathedral.  I’ve been there once before, albeit about 35 years ago, while it turned out that one of our visitors had been there a fortnight ago!  Nevermind, it’s spectacular, and there’s plenty to see.

Ely cathedral, in sunlight

The famous central Octagonal Tower

The decorated ceiling of the nave.  The lines across it are Christmas lights!

The view back down the aisle

Sunlight through stained glass

Co-opted pagan symbolism

Looking up into the Octagonal Tower

Superb stained glass: we need a camera with better dynamic range to do it justice.

"Seated one day at the organ, ..."

Bishop Peter Gunning looking very relaxed.

An explosion of fractal lacework in stone.
And that’s just a small sample: there’s the wonderful wood carving in the choir, the bright and airy Lady Chapel, the wrought iron staircase up to the pulpit, and more.

We also visited the Stained Glass Museum (no photography allowed), which had lots of interesting exhibits and history.

Well worth a visit.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

a year in the sun

We’ve had our solar PV system for (nearly) a year now, so here’s a review of 2014.  We generated just shy of 9000 kWh: that’s 9 MWh!

daily power generation by month

violin plot of daily power generation, showing notched box plots of mean (dot), median, quartiles, and outliers, overlaid on a density plot

You can clearly see the effect of the year: much more in summer than winter.  Interestingly, December, containing the winter solstice, was better than November, which, as usual, was a miserable month; December has some lovely sunny days.

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!
     — Thomas Hood, 1844

We can look at the energy generation across each day for the whole year, and can clearly see the changing sunrise and sunset times, and the darkness near the end of November.

Each pixel represents the energy generation at the sample point, one every 5 minutes. Time is in GMT throughout. The colour indicates the energy generation in the relevant interval: darker colours indicate more energy.

It’s even easier to see the effect of the seasons looking at the generation through the day.  The curve gets higher and much broader.

Energy generation over the day, averaged per month. Data is gathered at 5 minute intervals. 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. The line indicates the monthly mean, The number in the top right is the monthly mean generation in kWh.

Of that power generated, we use some, and export the rest to the grid.  In March we got an extra device to measure this, too.  (March was anomalous in that our hot water boiler was out of action for about a week, so we were using more electricity than usual.)

Energy usage over the day, averaged per month. Data is gathered at half minute intervals from the Wattson meter (which we didn't get until mid March. The horizontal time axis runs from midnight to midnight GMT/BST. The vertical axis runs from -8kW to 8kW. The region above the axis represents our usage: orange is generated usage, red is imported from the grid. The green region below the line is surplus generation exported to the grid.
In the plot above, when the green area below the line is greater than the red area, we exported more than we imported, so are nett generators (month name shown in green). There are days where we import more than we export, taking more from the grid than giving back: on “orange” months we still generate more than we import, but use enough of it that we are not nett exporters; on “red” months we import more than we generate, but even so, may still export a little during the day.

The situation is actually even greener than this implies: some of the orange usage of generated power is being used to heat our water, thereby saving gas consumption, too.  That is why there is such a large oragnge lump in December: nearly all excess power is heating the water for the central heating.  In the summer, the only water heating is for hot water, as the central heating is off.

Next year we’ll have data to compare across years, not just months.  I’ll need to write more Python scripts for that.  Great fun!