Saturday, 31 December 2016

because you purchased Stonehenge

Another weird Amazon recommendation.

Maybe I could sharpen the blades on the large stones I seem to have purchased?

Friday, 30 December 2016

Artificial Epigenetic Networks

Our paper “Artificial Epigenetic Networks: Automatic Decomposition of Dynamical Control Tasks using Topological Self-Modification” has just been published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks and Learning Systems.  It has been available “early on line” for some time, but this is the official publication, with volume number and everything.
This paper describes the artificial epigenetic network, a recurrent connectionist architecture that is able to dynamically modify its topology in order to automatically decompose and solve dynamical problems. The approach is motivated by the behavior of gene regulatory networks, particularly the epigenetic process of chromatin remodeling that leads to topological change and which underlies the differentiation of cells within complex biological organisms. We expected this approach to be useful in situations where there is a need to switch between different dynamical behaviors, and do so in a sensitive and robust manner in the absence of a priori information about problem structure. This hypothesis was tested using a series of dynamical control tasks, each requiring solutions that could express different dynamical behaviors at different stages within the task. In each case, the addition of topological self-modification was shown to improve the performance and robustness of controllers. We believe this is due to the ability of topological changes to stabilize attractors, promoting stability within a dynamical regime while allowing rapid switching between different regimes. Post hoc analysis of the controllers also demonstrated how the partitioning of the networks could provide new insights into problem structure.
It is open access and can be found at doi:10.1109/TNNLS.2015.2497142

When I say it has been available on line “for some time”, I’m not kidding.  Look at the footnote on the first page:
Manuscript received February 17, 2015; revised October 19, 2015; accepted October 21, 2015. Date of publication December 24, 2015; date of current version December 22, 2016
The bibliographic information is:
Volume: 28, Issue: 1, Jan. 2017

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

reinforce the spots that don’t have bullet holes

Bruce Schneier on one aspect of security theatre:
Security Risks of TSA PreCheck 
PreCheck tells us that, basically, there are no terrorists. If 1) it’s an easier way through airport security that terrorists will invariably use, and 2) there have been no instances of terrorists using it in the 10+ years it and its predecessors have been in operation, then the inescapable conclusion is that the threat is minimal. Instead of screening PreCheck passengers more, we should screen everybody else less. 

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Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Carrie Fisher, 1956–2016

2016 ends as it began...
Carrie Fisher, Star Wars actress, dies aged 60
Long ago, but not so far away: I remember watching the first (and best) Star Wars (well before it was episode IV) back when I was a student.  Mind blowing then: yes, for the special effects, but especially for a heroine who did (some of) the rescuing.

60 is way too young to go, nowadays.

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Monday, 26 December 2016

cough cough coffee

Yes, English can be weird.  It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.

see le banana split for more like this

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Sunday, 25 December 2016

sequestering carbon, one Christmas at a time IV

Here’s the books we got each other for Christmas.  Lots of fun reading for the New Year!

Saturday, 24 December 2016

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXV

I had thought the previous batch was the last one before Christmas.  Actually, this one is:

More tomorrow!

Sunday, 18 December 2016

this is what novelists are for

What a marvellous speech, by Zadie Smith:
On Optimism and Despair 
If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

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Saturday, 17 December 2016

all change

I was reading a post where someone mentioned $1 seemed like a very small amount for an item in a story they had read.  A comment said this was set in 1966, and so would be about $7 today.

That seemed a very low inflation rate to me, having lived through the 1970s.  So I tried the linked inflation calculator.  £1 in 1966 is £17.46 in today’s money, which feels more plausible.  A combination of inflation and exchange rate changes.

(... although it will probably be more like £1746 in a few years time ...) 

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Friday, 16 December 2016

crossover heaven

laugh, and learn, at the same time!
SMBC : The Talk 
Shtetl-Optimized : The Talk

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Thursday, 15 December 2016

the Cost of Knowledge

The cost of signing the Cost of Knowledge pledge is ...

... essentially zero

Why I still won’t review for or publish with Elsevier–and think you shouldn’t either 
Elsevier is, of course, a large company, and one could reasonably chalk one or two of the above actions down to poor management or bad judgment. But there’s a point at which the belief that this kind of thing is just an unfortunate accident–as opposed to an integral part of the business model–becomes very difficult to sustain. In my case, I was aware of a number of the above practices before I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge; for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Elsevier’s unabashed support of the Research Works Act. While I certainly don’t expect any corporation (for-profit or otherwise) to actively go out and sabotage its own financial interests, most organizations seem to know better than to publicly lobby for laws that would actively and unequivocally hurt the primary constituency they make their money off of. While Elsevier wasn’t alone in its support of the RWA, it’s notable that many for-profit (and most non-profit) publishers explicitly expressed their opposition to the bill (e.g., MIT Press, Nature Publishing Group, and the AAAS). To my mind, there wasn’t (and isn’t) any reason to support a company that, on top of arms sales, fake journals, and copyright violations, thinks it’s okay to lobby the government to make it harder for taxpayers to access the results of publicly-funded research that’s generated and reviewed at no cost to Elsevier itself. So I didn’t, and still don’t.

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Monday, 12 December 2016

wrong either way

This shows the need to think things through before taking potentially irrevocable actions:
Irish courts to be asked to intervene in Brexit legal process 
Maugham’s claim will also question whether Brexit was triggered in October when Theresa May told the EU council the UK would be leaving. Since then the EU has appointed negotiators and has been behaving as though the UK is on a departure trajectory, Maugham says. 
If it has been triggered then the commission is in breach of its treaty duties through wrongly refusing to commence negotiations with the UK, Maugham says. If it has not, the council and Irish state are in breach of their treaty duties in wrongly excluding the UK from council meetings.

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Sunday, 11 December 2016

0333 88 88 88 88

Okay, this looks useful.  I’ll give it a try.  First use: on a web query form to British Gas.


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Saturday, 10 December 2016

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXIV

The latest batch, before the Christmas rush:

That puts the total count > 13,500

Friday, 9 December 2016

's truth

word of the day:

struthious : relating to, or resembling an ostrich ; bury one’s head in the sand

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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

it's not been a good year

Compare and contrast the composition.

Person of the Year 2016

Person of the Year 1938

Sunday, 4 December 2016

repeating an untruth makes it a truth

We need more like Grayling!

[Sorry about the ghastly buffoon-fest picture accompanying this – the stuff of nightmares!]
How you can turn a lie into a truth (according to the sinister Brexit playbook) 
I hesitate to use the term, but ‘coup’ comes to mind in relation to what has happened with the Brexit referendum. UKIP and the minority of the Tory party in Parliament knew they would never get a Brexit by Parliamentary means or at a general election; but at long last, having made life hell for every Tory Prime Minister since Edward Heath, they succeeded in getting one of their leaders to promise a referendum. And they then went to town with those manipulating lies and distortions – such as the £350million promise for the NHS, and massive misinformation about immigration – helped by their non-resident billionaire newspaper-owner allies. Having achieved a very small majority of votes cast on the day, actually constituting only 37% of the total electorate (26% of the British population), they have run with it as vigorously as they can, claiming it as an ‘overwhelming’ demand by ‘the people’ that both mandates and binds the Government to take the UK out of the EU. 
On the principle that repeating an untruth makes it a truth, they repeat and repeat their over-inflated claims about the support for Leave, trying to hustle everyone past the point of no return. The attempt by the Government to trigger Article 50 in haste without parliamentary debate is a stark indication of what coup leaders, who have been given responsibility for Brexit, are trying to do.

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Saturday, 3 December 2016

non-binding, advisory and consultative only

Three cheers for Grayling!

The reply A C Grayling got when he wrote to Parliament (and how he reacted) 
... the Government does not have a duty to implement the result of the referendum of 23 June. Briefing Paper 07212, sent to all MPs and Lords on 3 June 2015, in advance of debate on the 2015 Referendum Bill states unequivocally that the referendum is non-binding, advisory and consultative only, and imposes no obligation on the Government to act on its outcome. 
Likewise, the Referendum Act, which the Bill became, contains no clause obligating the Government to act on the outcome of the referendum.

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Sunday, 27 November 2016

Umberto Eco on Ur-Fascism

Charlie Stross recommends a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco on the original Italian fascism, and the underlying core features of fascism.  Over 20 years later, read it with a horrifying feeling of déjà vu.
Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric. ...
... The Fascist Party was born boasting that it brought a revolutionary new order; but it was financed by the most conservative among the landowners who expected from it a counter-revolution.  At its beginning fascism was republican. ...
... It was not that the men of the party were tolerant of radical thinking, but few of them had the intellectual equipment to control it.
...  think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
1. ... the cult of tradition. ... As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message. ...
2. ... the rejection of modernism
3. ... the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism ...
4. ... In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
5. ... exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
6. ... the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. ...
7. ... the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. ...
8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. ...
9. ... pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. ...
10. ... contempt for the weak. ... Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens ...
11. ... everybody is educated to become a hero. ... The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
12. ... machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). ...
13. ... a selective populism, a qualitative populism ... one follows the decisions of the majority ... There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
14. ... Newspeak. ... use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

[My bolded text]
Read the whole thing.  Lest we forget.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

an aberration and abomination

More journalists like this, please!
No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along 
You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions. 
I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.

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Friday, 25 November 2016

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Eliza has better conversation

A chat-bot recently passed the Turing test, but I don’t know how:
I think that countries will not do that to us. I don’t think if they’re run by a person that understands leadership and negotiation they’re in no position to do that to us, no matter what I do. They’re in no position to do that to us, and that won’t happen, but I’m going to take a look at it. A very serious look. I want to also see how much this is costing, you know, what’s the cost to it, and I’ll be talking to you folks in the not-too-distant future about it, having to do with what just took place. 
As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest. That’s been reported very widely. Despite that, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest anyway. And the laws, the president can’t. And I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have, I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, number one, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good. But I have to say, the partners come in, they’re very, very successful people. They come in, they’d say, they said, ‘Would it be possible to have a picture?’ Actually, my children are working on that job. So I can say to them, Arthur, ‘I don’t want to have a picture,’ or, I can take a picture. I mean, I think it’s wonderful to take a picture. I’m fine with a picture. But if it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again. That would be like you never seeing your son again. That wouldn’t be good. That wouldn’t be good. But I’d never, ever see my daughter Ivanka.
What is this I don't even

Read the whole thing, if you dare.

Despite it winning a recent competition, people have complained this chat-bot has too restricted a vocabulary.  But that’s not the problem.  The problem isn’t even the fractured syntax.  It’s the total lack of any semantics that means this bot should have failed. AI can do so much better than this in 2016.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

the cold in the cooler will get hotter as a ruler

An excellent paper on areas of small system thermodynamics that I hadn’t come across before.  Beautifully written, with oodles of intuition as well as the technicalities.
Equalities and Inequalities : Irreversibility and the Second Law of Thermodynamics at the Nanoscale
... the fluctuation theorem ultimately traces back to the idea that trajectories come in pairs related by time-reversal, and that the production of entropy is intimately linked with the probability of observing one trajectory relative to the other ...

[via John Baez’ Azimuth blog]

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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bravo, Nicola Sturgeon!

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Monday, 21 November 2016

Haskell yourself in the foot

"Shoot yourself in the foot" variant for Haskell programmers.
The Evolution of a Haskell Programmer

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Saturday, 19 November 2016

bronze, silver, gold

Seen on a walk today, in glorious crisp sunshine.  The calm before the storm (which is due to hit tomorrow).



Friday, 18 November 2016

Do bears dance in the woods?

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Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Triumph of Stupidity, redux

Bertrand Russell wrote The Triumph of Stupidity in 1933.

John Wilkins has lightly edited it to bring it up to date.

Compare and contrast the final lines, and weep.

Remember what happened after 1933, because:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. 
(George Santayana, 1905)

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

TV review: The Expanse, season 1

This SyFy series is based on the series of books by James Corey. The setting is the solar system, a few hundred years from now. There are colonies on the moon and Mars, and “Belter” space stations, on Ceres and elsewhere. Someone is trying to raise tension between all the groups, someone is blowing up ships, someone has disappeared, and something is on the loose.

There are two main plots strands, plus a few minor ones. First, world-weary Belter cop Josephus Miller is tasked by his boss to track down missing Earther Juliette, because her rich father has asked for a favour. Second, world-weary space freighter officer James Holden is one of only a handful of survivors when a mysterious cruiser blows up their ship the Canterbury; he sets off to find out what happened. These quests are unsurprisingly connected, and Miller and Holden eventually end up in the same place, and discover something terrifying threatening all the colonies.

I haven’t read the books, but, despite these ten episodes covering events in more than one book (so I am told), the pace is glacial. They have spent a lot of money on the futuristic sets and weightless SFX, and they want the viewers to appreciate that. Pity everywhere is so grim and grey, then. The actors are clearly depressed by the locations, as they mostly mumble their way morosely through the script.

Some of the world building is good: the dialect spoken by the Belters gives a feeling of language evolution (and is no harder to understand than Earth-standard, given the way everyone mumbles out in space). They get round the weightlessness on-ship with magnetic boots, and have Coriolis forces visible in their whiskey back home on the asteroids. Other little features in the world building are irritating, though. For most of the time, the Belters are complaining about desperate water shortages and rationing. Then, in the final episodes, everyone is fleeing through a maze of twisty little corridors on the asteroid Eros. To demonstrate how decayed and run-down the whole place is, these corridors have water streaming down their walls, and dripping from the ceilings. Right.

And then the season ends on an cliff-hanger, with essentially nothing explained or resolved.

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Monday, 14 November 2016

language lesson

Word of the day: kakistrocracy :  “government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens”. 

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

TV review: Arrow, season 3

My name is Oliver Queen. After five years in hell, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city. Now others have joined my crusade. To them I’m Oliver Queen. To the rest of Starling City, I am someone else. I am … something else.
The voiceover has changed from "five years on a hellish island" to "five years in hell", needed as we learn more about Oliver Queen’s past. Everything gets very complicated, as having a villain of the week to save the city from is no longer enough. A long complex arc involving Malcolm Merlyn’s time in the League of Assassins, Thea Queen’s rapprochement with then repudiation of Merlyn, the impact of Sara’s second death on Laurel and Quentin Lance, Oliver’s own run-in with the League’s leader, Ra’s al Ghul, and his daughter Nyssa, and more, leads to a shattering climax. Just who has betrayed whom?

Oliver still needs to learn that deceiving his friends about Important Facts in order to Protect Them is not a good way to engender trust. Will any of them ever trust Oliver again?

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Wednesday, 9 November 2016


I don’t want to live on this planet any more.

In the UK way of writing dates, today is 9/11.

Jo Walton has a way with words.

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Tuesday, 8 November 2016

view from a hotel window, pre-dawn edition

Just before dawn, looking east into the rising sun.  Note the contrail in the top left quadrant, glowing as it catches the sunlight from below the horizon.  There are a couple of other fainter contrails elsewhere: can you spot them?

7:14 am, GMT.  Some small marks are due to the grubby windowpane: I can’t open the window more than a crack to get an unobstructed view, unfortunately.

The weather forecast is for rain this afternoon.

Monday, 7 November 2016

5 great short videos

A brilliant set of 5 short videos about entropy, energy, and complexity.
Entropy and Complexity, Cause and Effect, Life and Time

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Sunday, 6 November 2016

stalker song

A Goose + Sting = One Great Vine

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Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thursday, 3 November 2016

sovereignty of parliament

A glimmer of hope?
Brexit court defeat for UK government

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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

book review: The Computer as Crucible

Jonathan M. Borwein, Keith Devlin.
The Computer as Crucible: an introduction to experimental mathematics.
A K Peters. 2009

The discipline of mathematics has many aspects. There is the process of exploration, “messing around”, spotting patterns, suggesting hypotheses and conjectures. Then there is the process of proof: going from the initial statement to the fully proven theorem, which in non-trivial cases will also involve significant elements of exploration. Finally, there is the theorem itself, a statement of mathematical fact, backed up by a rock-solid argument of the tidied-up proof. Often though, only that final proof, and none of the processes leading up to it, is made public. This can lead to an external view of mathematics as magical results of genius, rather than a process of creative hard graft.

In my discipline of computer science, there is some support for the process of proof, with a computer helping to make sure the steps really are rock solid, and not instead built on sand. Unfortunately, the computer is a super-pedant, even more so that the most nit-picking of mathematicians, and nothing but the most adamantine of rock will do for it. Valid short cuts such as “without loss of generality”, “by symmetry”, and “abusing the notation” are not allowed, making these tools somewhat exasperating to use at times (although they are improving all the time).

But what about that initial process of exploration? Experimental Mathematics augments that stage: using a computer to help “messing around”, taking away (some of) the tedium of exploratory calculations, providing more examples and help with pattern discovery.

This book provides an introduction to such Experimental Mathematics, with several examples, and suggested exercises if you feel inclined to pursue some of the ideas further. Many of the examples are of the form:
  1. Have a mathematical expression such as a series formula, or definite integral, from somewhere (maybe a previous round of exploration)
  2. Use a computer to get a good numerical approximation to the expression, eg, 3.1462643699419723423
  3. Use a program to suggest a possible closed form representation of that number, eg, in this case, √2 + √3
  4. Use that closed form as a conjecture for the actual value of the expression, and try to prove it (which may include further experimental mathematics)
There are several examples of increasing complexity, covering sequences, series, integrals, and more, with discussion of the discoveries of the results and their proofs. There is discussion about the famous formula that allows the calculation of the nth binary digit of π, without needing to calculate all the preceding n–1 digits. I also learned of “spigot” algorithms to calculate numerical values, which produce the digits one by one, cutting down on memory requirements.

The book definitely gives a flavour of the overall process, with enough pointers to suitable software resources for the reader to take up some of the challenges. However, I was left feeling that the flavour was somewhat weak. Okay, now we can calculate π to a bazillion digits, or find its gazillionth (binary) digit without calculating the earlier ones, and we have proofs of lots of closed form solutions. And yet, I didn’t come away with a feeling of much mathematical depth in these results. At most, in some cases the process suggests links between seemingly unrelated expressions. But I was hoping for more significant results. For example, the book finishes with a short chapter on “discovery by visualisation”, an area where the computer surely reigns supreme, yet surprisingly little is made of this. Maybe I am simply unaware of a vast existing industry in mathematics that is about proving such seemingly-pedestrian but actually important results, which has now become much more automated and hence more productive?

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Monday, 31 October 2016

mutual incomprehension

This article explains a lot.
And amid all the talk of red lines and not revealing your hand, there is ongoing speculation about how to interpret the signals coming out of Berlin. 
In fact, it's all quite simple. Merkel means what she says. And German politicians are getting increasingly frustrated by London not seeming to understand this.
And for translation in the other direction, see this chart.

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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Stepford mice

Just think about what it would mean if a human experiment were comparable to a mouse experiment. We would be using a population of nothing but 42-year-old white males that live in identical ranch homes in some small town somewhere with identical diets, identical wives, identical children, identical furniture; they eat the same thing every day for every meal, the thermostat is locked, and the gardener is an extremely scary-looking Tyrannosaurus rex that pulls the roof off their house once a week and destroys their Facebook account and all of their social information.
These are Stepford mice! It’s the only field of biology or psychology where we don’t recognise that variation is what makes us special, what makes us interesting – and what makes us ill.
It’s little use manipulating animals, by genetic engineering or otherwise, so that they simulate the symptoms of conditions they don’t really have.

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Saturday, 29 October 2016

TV review: Childhood's End, mini-series

Alien Overlords arrive at Earth, and impose an era peace and prosperity. But at what cost? Why do they stay hidden? And why does everyone start wearing blue pastel clothing?

This three part Syfy mini-series is based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1954 novel of the same name. I ranked the book 1 (unmissable) and this as 4 (mind candy). Why the difference?


Pacing. I could have re-read the book in less time than it took for this glacial production. Yes despite the slow pace, there was much left unexplained: why was drippy Ricky chosen as the spokesperson (there was some attempt to show him being good at this kind of thing, but it failed to be in the least bit convincing, either before and after the alien arrival); what was Wainwright up to other than blustering; why did everyone stop their conflicts (except when they didn’t for the plot; okay, we know that violence backfires, but not all conflicts are violent); why did all the scientists bar one just give up; and more.

Age. I read the book several decades ago, and its concepts were new, mind-blowing, scary, and exciting. I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction to it now, having read a lot more SF in the interim. I might even find it clichéd, and ravaged by the Suck Fairy. Watching the TV series with all that intervening SFnal background, I found it stodgy, unconvincing, and full of plot holes. (So, these all-powerful aliens can make something to cure Ricky, having recklessly made him sick in the first place, but have only one dose of it, despite having cured everyone else on Earth.) And Charles Dance’s Karellen make-up seems to be channelling Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness in Legend (with somewhat smaller horns) more than being truly scarily demonic. Maybe an eight-foot tall, bright red, horned, bat-winged alien would have terrified people in 1954, but by now we’ve seen much much worse.

Events from the book were updated for the TV series: global warming, oil crises, and more. But maybe the central premise just couldn’t be updated? Today we would be much more sceptical of mysterious concealed “saviours from space”.

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Friday, 28 October 2016

do this now

A nice arXiv paper “Good Enough Practices in Scientific Computing”, full of very sound advice, although I'd probably call it “The Theoretical Minimum Practices in Scientific Computing”.
Our intended audience is researchers who are working alone or with a handful of collaborators on projects lasting a few days to a few months, and who are ready to move beyond emailing themselves a spreadsheet named results-updated-3-revised.xlsx at the end of the workday. A practice is included in our list if large numbers of researchers use it, and large numbers of people are still using it months after first trying it out. We include the second criterion because there is no point recommending something that people won’t actually adopt.

[via Danny Yee’s blog]

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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

unreasonable ineffectiveness

Eugene Wigner wrote a famous essay on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in natural sciences. He meant physics, of course. There is only one thing which is more unreasonable than the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in physics, and this is the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics in biology.

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Monday, 24 October 2016

the horror of pie

This is lovely article about that horror of presentation graphics, the pie chart.
with Excel and several other products, you can now easily manipulate the transparency of the pie, creating utterly useless charts
Kill it!  Kill it with fire !!

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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

a bit fishy

Fact for the day: after a minute in the microwave,  a salmon steak explodes...

tasty, but trust me, don't microwave first...

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

there's plenty of beauty at the bottom

These are amazing!

Photography through the microscope: cells dividing, beautiful crystals, complex materials, compound eyes, insects with gears in their legs, and more.

the foot of a diving beetle, specialized to propel it through the water

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Monday, 17 October 2016

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Elon Musk is wrong

Another argument against us living in a simulation:
Every day that you aren’t bombarded with styrofoam elephants or teleported to a planet made of cheese is another day that a potentially infinite number of software engineers have  decided not to play with the awesome thing that they built. 

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Thursday, 13 October 2016

TV review: Grimm, season 4

This fourth season starts off with Nick having lost his Grimm powers, and coming to terms with that, as Trubel, not feeling ready yet, takes over his role. But of course that can’t last, and events mean he needs to get his powers back. But that is going to cost, more than they know.

The Scooby Gang is growing in size as finally, finally, Sgt Wu is brought into the team. If I were him, I’d be incredibly pissed off that it took the others so long to tell him the truth: Wu ended up in a mental hospital because of what he’d been through, thinking he was going mad. The moral of this series should be, writ large, that although keeping secrets from others might protect you (as Nick finds out to his cost), it hardly ever protects them.

When the series started, there seemed to be just a few Wessen, living in fear and secret. By now, every other major player seems to be either Wessen, or working against Wessen. How has that secret been kept so well?

The plot thickens as we discover more about the Royal Family, and Captain Renard’s mother, and Jack the Ripper, and various underground organisations of Wessen. Even Munroe and Roselee get into trouble with one of the latter, due to their unapproved marriage.

But the biggest upsets are Adalind’s second pregnancy (given just how well the last one turned out, and given who the father is this time), and the price Juliette, and consequently the rest of the gang, ends up paying to get Nick his powers back. The season starts with a seemingly insurmountable problem, and ends in tragedy with an even bigger one. I had two separate running theories of how they might fix things in the end: they did neither. What surprises will season 5 bring?

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Monday, 10 October 2016

abstract abstraction

Steve Easterbrook shows how to write a scientific abstract:
The first sentence of an abstract should clearly introduce the topic of the paper so that readers can relate it to other work they are familiar with. However, an analysis of abstracts across a range of fields show that few follow this advice, nor do they take the opportunity to summarize previous work in their second sentence. A central issue is the lack of structure in standard advice on abstract writing, so most authors don’t realize the third sentence should point out the deficiencies of this existing research. To solve this problem, we describe a technique that structures the entire abstract around a set of six sentences, each of which has a specific role, so that by the end of the first four sentences you have introduced the idea fully. This structure then allows you to use the fifth sentence to elaborate a little on the research, explain how it works, and talk about the various ways that you have applied it, for example to teach generations of new graduate students how to write clearly. This technique is helpful because it clarifies your thinking and leads to a final sentence that summarizes why your research matters.

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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Saturday, 8 October 2016


Visualising birdsong

[via BoingBoing]

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Tuesday, 4 October 2016

"a literary Sharknado of error and self-satisfaction"

I read and enjoyed Dan Everett’s book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes several years ago.

However, it seems some/most/all of his claims may have been a tad overstated.
One form of recursion that Pirahã appeared not to have according to Nevins et. al., was possessive recursion – not remarkable, in their view, because neither does German. But subsequent fieldwork conducted by Raiane Oliveira Salles (2015) recorded constructions like ‘Kapoogo’s canoe’s motor is big’. Once again, setting aside the points that, hey, I guess they have the concepts of tools and personal property after all, there is the key point that this is a possessive embedded within a possessive.
E.J. Spode’s review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech is a savage indictment of anti-intellectualism, and the post-fact society.
Wolf[e] is the long form master of the techniques that Trump has managed to distill into tweets.
I usually buy books like there’s no tomorrow.  Spode’s review has me suspecting that there’s one particular book that I won’t be buying.

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Saturday, 1 October 2016

criticism is essential for science

More on the issue of replicating and criticising potentially sloppy scientific results.
There is no “tone” problem in psychology 
I try to write papers as if I expect them to be read by a death panel with a 90% kill quota. It admittedly makes writing less fun, but I also think it makes the end product much better.

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Thursday, 29 September 2016

cooking v reading

Someone with the same approach to cooking as me.

But not the same approach to science fiction...

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Sunday, 25 September 2016

why why why

Feynman gives a marvelous “answer” to “why do magnets repel?”

[via Sabine Hossenfelder's blog]

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Saturday, 24 September 2016

noise mining

Damning indictment of statistically sloppy research:
What has happened down here is the winds have changed 
the authors’ claim that fixing the errors “does not change the conclusion of the paper” is both ridiculous and all too true

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Wednesday, 21 September 2016


Day two in Amsterdam.

I thought this was a lot of bikes:
suddenly bikes! 1000s of them!

until I saw this:

multi-storey bike park

My second day at CCS, and today I had lots of choice of what to go to, as there were 16 parallel sessions.  To expand my range, I chose the morning workshop on Fractional Calculus, followed by the afternoon workshop on Complexity for History and History for Complexity. Then it was the conference dinner: a magnificent Chinese meal on a multi-storey boat.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

if this is Tuesday, it must be Amsterdam

So I’m now in Amsterdam, for the Conference on Complex Systems.

The view from my hotel window this morning shows how convenient it is for the station:

maybe a little too convenient for the station?

Today was our second EvoEvo project workshop, with lots of interesting talks about the evolution of evolution, mostly in in silico models.

Monday, 19 September 2016

ambrosia in a small black bag

My flight from Edinburgh was delayed for an hour this evening, so I had a chance to investigate all the food outlets for something for dinner.  In WHSmith, I came across "bananas in raw chocolate".  It sounded intriguing, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Oh yes.  70g of heaven.

view from a conference centre window

I'm in Edinburgh, at the PPSN (Parallel Processing Solutions from Nature) conference.  I have learned about a new surrogate model optimisation technique: Kriging.

My room doesn’t really have a view from the (very high) window, so the standard photo doesn’t make sense.  Instead, here is a view from the conference centre itself, of a magnificent Scottish mansion: St Leonard’s Hall.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

book review: Constellation Games

Leonard Richardson.
Constellation Games.
Candlemark and Gleam. 2011

The back-cover blurb:
First contact isn’t all fun and games. 
Ariel Blum is pushing thirty and doesn’t have much to show for it. His computer programming skills are producing nothing but pony-themed video games for little girls. His love life is a slow-motion train wreck, and whenever he tries to make something of his life, he finds himself back an the couch, replaying the games of his youth. 
Out of the sky comes the Constellation: a swarm of anarchist anthropologists, exploring our seas, cataloguing our plants, editing our wikis and eating our Twinkies. No one knows how to respond – except far nerds like Ariel who’ve been reading, role-playing and wargaming first-contact scenarios their entire lives. Ariel sees the aliens’ computers, and knows that wherever there are computers, there are video games. Ariel just wants to start a business translating alien games so they can be played on human computers. But a simple cultural exchange turns up ancient secrets, government conspiracies, and unconventional anthropology techniques that threaten humanity as we know it. If Ariel wants his species to have a future, he’s going to have to take the step that nothing on Earth could make him take: he’ll have to grow up.
That back-cover blurb gives a fair overview of the content. What sets this apart from others in the “worst choice of human for alien first contact” sub-genre is the style: a combination of blog posts and alien game reviews. Discovering millennia of alien history through playing their video games provides interesting insights, but trying to do it essentially all this way is maybe a step too far.

The aliens are about as useless as the humans, too. They are in several minds (some more so than others) about what to do about earth: they were expecting to find the usual post-self-annihilation scenario, and are a bit bemused about the pre/ongoing-self-annihilation scenario they encounter instead.

Personally, I prefer “competence porn” style tales, rather than “loveable (allegedly) man-child and evil hapless bureaucrats bumble through world-changing events”. I never find the latter as funny as I am supposed to. There’s quite enough incompetence in real life thank-you-very-much; I read for escapism. However, things do pick up as Ariel begins to realise the seriousness of the situation and starts doing stuff. Although how effectively remains a question.

Despite their uselessness, I did nevertheless like the aliens. They are alien in many ways, both physically and psychologically; in fact, some of the physical descriptions had me flashing back to Sector General tales. Their “Constellation” idea for group working is intriguing; the eventual explanation of its genesis adding an unexpected layer. I also liked the fact that Ariel is effortlessly at ease with these aliens, unlike many of his earth-side relationships.

But all in all, I felt there was more interesting stuff going on behind the scenes than in main view. What was up with the Martian sub-plot? What were all the other aliens doing (we only see a handful)? What does the rest of the galaxy look like (these aliens are atypical)? Just what was the code Ariel wrote to reconfigure the habitat? Is the posed solution to uploading workable? And so on.

For the record, this is my one thousandth blog post!

Friday, 16 September 2016

going up!

Another brilliant, and terrifying, xkcd comic.  You know what’s coming, and it’s still a shock.
Earth temperature timeline

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Thursday, 15 September 2016

bird of the desert

It almost looks fake, because of the background (sand), and the amazing shape of the wings.  What a splendid shot!
Swooping pharaoh eagle-owl hunts in the desert

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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Bristol evening

I’m in Bristol for a couple of meetings.  I had a fascinating chat about soft robots and reservoir computing this afternoon with some Bristol robotics researchers.  Tomorrow is a bit more admin-oriented.  But for now, here’s the traditional view from a hotel window, here dominated by a magnificent tree:

I wonder if they built the hotel around the tree?
I took a short walk down on the waterfront, watching the setting sun:

beautiful clouds and water reflections
Around the corner, there was St Mary Redcliffe Church spire:

I love the quality of autumnal light
And so to dinner.

Monday, 12 September 2016

what's novelty?

Our paper “Defining and simulating open-ended novelty: requirements, guidelines, and challenges” has just been published in Theory in Biosciences.

The open-endedness of a system is often defined as a continual production of novelty. Here we pin down this concept more fully by defining several types of novelty that a system may exhibit, classified as variation, innovation, and emergence. We then provide a meta-model for including levels of structure in a system’s model. From there, we define an architecture suitable for building simulations of open-ended novelty-generating systems and discuss how previously proposed systems fit into this framework. We discuss the design principles applicable to those systems and close with some challenges for the community.

A full-text view-only version of the paper is available from the publisher.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

reversible computing

We have a new logic gate in our garden.

Here it is from the other side, highlighting the armillary sphere we got a few years back.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

check mate

British Airways passengers delayed by computer glitch 
Customers were encouraged to check in online before they reach the airport.
I’m sure they were.  So why does British Airways not allow online checkin until 24 hours before your flight?  And that is for individual flights, so you can’t even check in your return flight before you leave!

Get with the 21st century, BA.

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Tuesday, 6 September 2016

cognitive biases

A nice categorisation and summary of cognitive biases.
Cognitive bias cheat sheet

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Saturday, 3 September 2016

an easier target in Fahrenheit?

Seriously, BBC, WTF?

[BBC News item seen on my phone this morning]

There is a difference between temperature and temperature difference!

I blogged about suchnonsense a few years back, and even noted that I had once seen a similar statement in a newspaper.  I didn’t have a source.  I do now!

The BBC page has now been fixed to say just “rise in temperatures below 2C”; but why not “rise in temperatures below 2C (3.6F)”, or even “rise in temperatures below 2°C (3.6°F)”?

Friday, 2 September 2016

a new garden gate

A new piece of our garden is being erected:

(the large beach balls in the pond are a temporary anti-duck measure, to allow the water lilies to grow unnibbled)

Technically, such a feature is called a “moon gate” (although even more technically, there should then probably be a wall for it to be a gate through).

Calling ours the Moon Gate could fit with the various astronomical themes in the garden, but we thought a bit more.  We have a similar sized metal circle in the Time Garden on the other side of the house: that Time Gate allows you to pass from the present to the future.  The pond-with-spaceship area forms the Space Garden, so maybe this should be the Space Gate, allowing you to pass from here to there?

But on this side of the gate is a knot garden (to be in keeping with the Tudorbethan house), which has been partially destroyed by the visiting spaceship.  This area is therefore known as the Logic Garden.

And so the new gate has been dubbed … the Logic Gate, allowing you to pass from CNOT to NAND.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

open letter sent to my MP

Dear Lucy Frazer MP

On Monday 5 September, Parliament will debate the petition signed by over 4 million people on the EU referendum.

This may be the only opportunity Parliament will get to debate the UK’s EU membership status.  The Prime Minister has reportedly said there will be no Parliamentary vote prior to triggering Article 50. [1] 

If there is to be no Parliamentary vote, that would be an astounding denial of Parliament’s rights, responsibilities, and sovereignty.

There needs to be debate.  The EU referendum result is not legally binding; it is purely advisory.  Parliament must be given the opportunity to consider the result as advice, along with any other relevant information, particularly any not available to the electorate at the time.

The Electoral Reform Society has issued a scathing report[2] on the conduct of the process leading up to the EU Referendum, in stark contrast to that leading up to the Scottish Independence Referendum.  This casts the legitimacy of the result into considerable doubt.  Campaigners demonstrably lied, and so the outcome cannot necessarily be construed as the will of an “informed electorate”.

In your 2015 General Election leaflet you said that you were “Securing Britain’s future”.  The greatest constitutional change to affect the UK in over a generation should not be made hastily, and certainly not without Parliament’s informed debate and consideration.  Please do not miss the opportunity on Monday 5 September to start such debate, and to ensure its continuance, in order to secure the UK’s future.

Yours sincerely

[1] although that may not be legally possible, since the European Communities Act 1972 must first be repealed
[2] Electoral Reform Society. It’s Good to Talk: Doing referendums differently after the EU vote. Sept 2016.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

book review: Every Heart a Doorway

Seanan McGuire.
Every Heart a Doorway.
Tor. 2016

There are adventures to be had in fantasy lands. But what happens when you come back from Fairyland, or Narnia, or wherever? How do you readjust to Mundania? Can you readjust? Or will you break, fruitlessly searching for your lost life, your true home?

Eleanor West runs a boarding schools for those children who can’t readjust. Their parents think them damaged, or wayward, or mad. Eleanor knows better, having herself returned from a Netherworld. Most learn to cope, in the company of those who understand. A few, a very few, find their way back. But when new girl Nancy arrives, dark things start happening, and the school itself is threatened. Is Nancy the source, or the trigger, of these events?

Life After Fantasy has always struck me as an issue. The scene at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the Pevensie children return home after decades in Narnia, always horrified me: they had been adult royalty; how did they cope with being ordinary children again? Jo Walton tackles this issue in her wonderful short story, Relentlessly Mundane. Here Seanan McGuire tackles it differently, in a 170pp novella.

Despite wanting to go to Lewis’ Narnia (for the Talking Animals, if not for the sexism, racism, classism, bad theology, and shoddy plotting), and to Phillips’ Fairyland, I didn’t find myself attracted to any of the Netherworlds described by McGuire. (And I don’t think that’s just because there are no Pauline Baynes illustrations, or that I am half a century older than when I read the originals.) However, that lack of attraction is not a problem: it just serves to illustrate how everyone is different, and what is hearts-ease for one may be horror for another. But, consistently, Mundania is home for none.

This is not a typical school story, as it does not dwell on any lessons, except for some interesting Netherworld classification schemes. Nancy as new girl allows for some expository passages, but not that many. The tale focuses mainly on the deadly goings-on that threaten the school. And even there, we do not get a lot, since this is a novella. But McGuire does paint vivid pictures of the various main characters, and the very different homes they wish to return to. I wish this was a novel rather than a novella, and you can’t say fairer than that.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

maps lie

Map data plots usually lie – here are several approaches to plotting the same geographical data.

Brexit, Bremain, the world did not end so dataviz people can throw shade and color

This is not the best way to show the data (depending what you want to show)

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