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