Tuesday, 31 January 2017

open letter sent to my MP

Dear Lucy Frazer MP

Parliament is debating the Brexit bill.

The referendum result is not binding on Parliament.  Parliament must do its job and vote in the best interests of the entire country.

The world is a very different place from what it was in June.  There is a demagogue in charge of the USA attempting to become a fascist dictator.  Some of the parallels with 1933 Germany are frankly terrifying.

Now is not the time for the UK to “go it alone”.  We need to stand with our European allies, not move towards appeasement of the next fascist dictatorship.

I urge you to vote for the interests of our country, and of the world.  This is not “going against the will of the electorate”.  That was then.  This is now.   The UK cannot afford to leave its allies and partners during the current state of this new broken world order.  Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.  Let us not repeat it.  In particular, let us not repeat it from the wrong side.

Yours sincerely

Monday, 30 January 2017

ridiculous hypotheticals

Trump is Wrong: Torture Doesn’t Work 
if a terrorist claims to have tied your baby to a timebomb, don’t “#torture” him. Start by asking yourself, “Wait…do I even have a baby?” And then remind yourself that ignorant men will use any ridiculous hypothetical to convince you to throw science and your humanity in the garbage. Don’t fall for it.

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Sunday, 29 January 2017

“I just showed that the bomb was there.”

Nerds enabling fascism?
Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself 
with a mere ten “likes” as input his model could appraise a person’s character better than an average coworker. With seventy, it could “know” a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes, Kosinski’s model could predict a subject’s answers better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves. 
The world has been turned upside down. The Brits are leaving the EU; Trump rules America. And in Stanford the Polish researcher Michal Kosinski, who indeed tried to warn of the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is still getting accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski quietly, shaking his head, “this is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I just showed that it was there.”

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Saturday, 28 January 2017

triumph and disaster are the same thing

Oh, so true
Fintan O’Toole: Brexit resurrects the English cult of heroic failure 
While everyone else is screaming “Stop! You’re headed for disaster,” the stiff lips part just enough to say, “Ah, but we will treat it as a triumph and never breathe a word about our loss.”

[via Danny Yee's blog]

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Friday, 27 January 2017

book review: Fundamental Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences

David C. Howell.
Fundamental Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences: 8th edn.
Wadsworth. 2014

This textbook on statistics is intended for students of the behavioural sciences. I have been co-teaching a module on statistics for a Masters programme in Human-Centred Interactive Technologies, and this is one of the recommended books. I used it as one of the texts to reference as I prepared my lectures.

Since it is a textbook, I have not read it from cover to cover. However, I have read considerably more of it than I originally intended. Each time I looked up a particular technique, and started reading, I just seemed to keep on reading. The book is very well written and extremely engaging.

It also has the right depth for students who are technically literate, but not mathematicians. Many statistics books can be either all theory, targeted at mathematicians, or all ‘magic’, targeted at those who want recipes rather than understanding. This book hits the sweet spot of formalism combined with pragmatism with great verve: providing background and context so that the workings of the various tests make sense, with sufficient technicalities to inform rather than confuse.

Some of the included vignettes demonstrate the care that is needed. There is one tale of a renowned statistician who had invented various tests, yet still got the number of degrees of freedom wrong on one of them. These precision tools are hard to invent (so probably best not to invent your own!), but once they have been, they can be taught and used with relative ease. This is how we progress.

Highly recommended.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

see their comment on their #1 lookup

Did a dictionary diss Trump team’s ‘alternative facts’?
Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration. 
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Monday, 23 January 2017

on the internet, nobody knows you're a god

This is a meme doing the rounds at the moment.

It is possible to be in both these states at the same time...

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Sunday, 22 January 2017

Saturday, 21 January 2017

film review: Arrival

The aliens have arrived, in 12 giant mysterious ships dotted around the planet. They are enigmatic, but seem to want to communicate. The Americans enlist the help of academic linguist Louise Banks [Amy Adams] and physicist Ian Donnelly [Jeremy Renner]. They gradually manage to establish communication, but does that important ambiguous word mean “weapon” or “tool”? Louise keeps having flashes of her life with her daughter Hannah, who dies tragically young: these images may hold the key to deciphering the aliens’ intent.

This is a very cerebral film, with a lot of talking about alien language and arguing about alien motives, with a small amount of misguided military action: the CGI goes into making the aliens nicely alien, not into swooping spacecraft and big explosions. The gradual increase in the protagonists’ language knowledge and confidence, and the sheer intellectual slog that involves getting that competence, are conveyed well. This description might make the film sound dull and slow, but the plot moves forward briskly and engrossingly. There’s the obligatory twist, which I am pleased to say I spotted before the reveal, but in truth it wasn’t that much before. It’s one of those interesting twists that might make you want to see the film again, to re-evaluate some of the events.

deciphering alien language

Despite the leading character being a woman, the film only barely passes the Bechdel test: her child is female, and they sometimes talk about things other than the father.

For a film about language and communication, there are a couple of places where that communication is a little opaque. Early on, the military is trying to enlist Louise, and threatening to go to another linguist if she doesn’t agree to their terms. She challenges them to ask the other linguist for the translation of the Sanskrit word for war. When they come back with the answer, it is given inaudibly against an overwhelming background of helicopter blades. I looked it up afterwards; it doesn’t seem to be germane to why they chose her over the other guy. The other communication incident, which is deliberate, is that a turning point in the film has Louise persuade a Chinese general to break off hostilities, by speaking a key sentence to him in Mandarin, and we get no subtitles. It works, even though we don’t know what was said. Again, I looked it up afterwards; the sentence is meaningful, but its content doesn’t actually matter, only that it works. In a sense, these two events seem more profound precisely because I didn’t know exactly what is said.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It is nice to see people solving problems with their brains rather than with their fists and guns, for a change.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

book review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Jodi Taylor.
Just One Damned Thing After Another.
Accent Press. 2013

Dr Madeleine Maxwell, known as Max to all, is an historian recruited by St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. St Mary’s have some time travel machines, allowing the historians to go back and observe historically significant events as they happen. This requires nerve, and training. Max has the former in spades; St Mary’s provide the latter. But there’s more at stake than Max realises.

This is a mish-mash of genres, involving history, time-travel, boot-camp training, romance, intrigue, tragedy, and more. It is a mish-mash in a good way, as Max, nobody’s fool and nobody’s patsy, powers her way through increasingly bizarre and traumatic incidents, including serving in a WWI battlefield hospital, dodging dinosaurs and more in the Cretaceous, and visiting the Libray of Alexandria under somewhat trying conditions.

Everyone at St Mary’s is eccentric and weird, but also competent, which is always good to see: competence makes eccentricity funny, rather than annoying. St Mary’s does seem to have a rather small staff for what it does (although significantly more than the Gerry Anderson school of staffing levels). And I never fully understood its original business model: the time travel is a secret, so how do the historians’ observations of past events contribute to currrent knowledge? No matter; by the end Max has come up with a new business model which is much more effective. If the villains let them pursue it. Which of course they won’t.

I initially dipped my toe in this series, buying only the first entry. But before I was half-way through this compulsively readable book, I ordered the next three.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

book review: The Last Dragonslayer

Jasper Fforde.
The Last Dragonslayer.
Hodder & Stoughton. 2010

Magic is gradually fading away in the Ununited Kingdom. And the number of dragons is decreasing. Jennifer Strange, a foundling sold into indentured servitude to a wizarding agency, finds herself in charge when its owner disappears, and is having trouble keeping the wizards employed. When a wizard has a vision that the Last Dragon will be killed by the Last Dragonslayer next week, her troubles are just beginning.

I came to this with high expectations, given how much I have enjoyed the clever craziness of Fforde’s other two series: Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes. I was sadly disappointed. Those other two series have a solid underpinning theme (books, and nursery rhymes, respectively) and the overlaying surreality feeds off these, rocketing off in marvellously unexpected directions. The Last Dragonslayer is all surreality, but with nothing underlying it. That removes nearly all the opportunities for cleverness, replacing it mostly with silliness.

A shame. I’ll leave this series, and wait for the next Thursday Next.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Tale of a New Machine

Just before Christmas, my old desktop PC died.  Well, actually only the main hard drive died, and I managed to limp through the Christmas break on the solid state drive alone.  However, it was 4 years old (my previous machine having died just after Christmas 2012), and the 120 GB SSD was constantly full and in need of management.  So I decided to bite the bullet and get a new machine, despite knowing what it would entail.

I ordered a new machine (Intel i7-6700, 4MHz, 4 cores, 8MB cache; 8GB RAM, 240GB SSD, 1TB HD; Windows 10; external DVD writer) and picked it up late on Wed 4 Jan.

I have since been reinstalling my life.  Many of the steps below took some persistent googling to find web instructions on what the problem was, and how to fix it.  Stack Exchange is a godsend!

  • install ZoneAlarm firewall and virus checker
  • connect to the internet
  • use IE to download Chrome
  • download and install Evernote – sync 10,000 notes, over the piece of wet string that is my home internet connection
  • download and install Google Drive – sync 15,000 files (10 GB), over said wet string
  • go to download Adobe Acrobat Reader DC, but discover it is already installed – yay!
  • download and install Notepad++ – now I can edit files
  • restore relevant files from previous machine backup
So endeth the first day.

  • download and install MS Office 365 (which I have access to via work)
    • 50 minutes to download.  See "wet string", above
  • download and install MikTeX and TeXnicCenter
  • download and install PaintShopPro X8 (via work)
  • download and install Power PDF (via work)
  • download and install Dropbox (more synching...)
  • download and install HP ScanJet drivers and software
  • download and install Python 2.7 
    • look at installing matplotlib, numpy and scipy – looks complicated, so pause for now
  • download and install 7-zip
So endeth the second day.

  • download and install Ace Money, my finacial software
    • plugged in the licence number from the original install, and it all works
  • get LaTeX to work...
    • fiddle with TeXnicCenter PDF profile to make it work with Adobe Acrobat Reader DC
    • add a new profile to work with Biber
    • discover the version of biber in MikTeX is incompatible with the version of pdflatex, despite have downloaded them in the same package
    • update MikTeX – except it will only update some parts
    • update MikTeX again – all now works
  • think about Python
    • decide to bite another bullet, and move up to Python 3, having checked that all the modules I use in my various bits of software (book review page generation, solar PV graphs, Trello backup code, etc) have Python 3 versions
    • WinPython apparently comes with matplotlib, numpy and scipy already, and allows both Python 2 and Python 3, so I decide to go for that
    • uninstall the “vanilla” Python 2.7
    • download WinPython 2.7
      • discover it isn’t actually fully supported, in that it doesn’t have matplotlib, numpy or scipy
      • decide not to install these separately, but just go for Python 3
    • download WinPython 3.5
So endeth the third day.

  •  install WinPython 3.5
    • use the Control Panel to associate .py files with WinPython 3.5
    • spend a LONG TIME trying to find what the path needs to be set to, to access all the different bits in different places; eventually go for
      • PYDIR =  D:\WinPython\python35\WinPython-64bit-\python-3.5.2.amd64
      • PYTHONPATH =  %PYDIR%\Lib\site-packages; %PYDIR%\Lib\site-packages\PyQt4; %PYDIR%; %PYDIR%\DLLs; %PYDIR%\Scripts; %PYDIR%\..\tools; %PYDIR%\..\tools\mingw32\bin; %PYDIR%\..\tools\R\bin\x64; %PYDIR%\..\tools\Julia\bin; %PYDIR%\Tools\scripts
      • add %PYTHONPATH% to system PATH
      • probably a bit over the top, but everything seems to work now
    • convert a couple of small utilities from python 2.7 to 3.5, using 2to3.py, and some hand tweaking
      • which went more easily that I had feared; main hand changes needed were removal of some code to handle Unicode strings...
    • convert the solar PV graphing utility to Python 3
      • some fiddling with csv file handling
      • strange warnings from numpy percentile function – which I will fix when I have time...
  • connect machine to home network
    • this requires updating the hosts file
    • can’t update the hosts file – being used by another process – but which one?
    • grovelling around on the web provides the culprit is ZoneAlarm
      • unlock in ZoneAlarm
      • update file
      • relock
So endeth the fourth day.

  • use mklink to recreate a symbolic link between the directory containg book cover images in my development directory, and in my website mirror directory
  • convert my book review webpage software to Python 3
    • main issue is the module to read the MS Access database
    • import pypyodbc module – “almost totally same usage as pyodbc” which I was using originally
    • download/install 32bit Microsoft Access Database Engine 2010 Redistributable
      • doesn’t work
      • apparently it need to be 32bit to match the MS Office, and 64bit to match the Python; hmmm
      • uninstall MS Office 365 32 bit, download and install MS Office 365 64 bit
      • uninstall 32bit Microsoft Access Database Engine 2010 Redistributable
      • download/install 64bit Microsoft Access Database Engine 2010 Redistributable
    • then need to edit the registry to allow it access to certain keys
    • then need to change to file location from bookdb.accdb to .\bookdb.accdb
      • sigh
    • then change every field access from row.Field_Name to row['field_name']
      • all the same functionality, but not necessarily in the same syntax
  • download/install WinMerge
    • to stop small differences in the output of the Python before and after porting...
So endeth the fifth day.

  • set up a VPN to access work stuff
    • download Pulse Secure app
    • poke the relevant holes in my ZoneAlarm firewall
    • discover from work support what I have to type into the userid box to get it to work – it’s not (just) my userid!
Normality has been restored

So endeth the sixth day.

So on the seventh day, I’ll be able to start working again!

If it wasn’t for the help of Stack Exchange, my home “sys admin”, and work support, this would all have been impossible.  I’m glad it happens only every four years or so...

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

TV review: Orphan Black, season 3

I am not your property 
Sarah Manning [Tatiana Maslany] and her clone sisters [Tatiana MaslanyN] continue to close in on the secrets behind their existence, as they discover there is a second set of (male) clones.

Once there are two of something, we need names to distinguish them: Sarah and her “sestras” are part of project Leda, while the male clones form project Castor. And through the series we learn the relationship between the two projects, the source material for each line, and much more.

Season 3 is, if anything, even better than the previous seasons: it keeps up the pace of revelations, and has so much history to draw on. One of the things I like about this series is its unpredictability. I am rarely able to guess an action before it happens, or quote a line of dialogue before it is spoken, unlike some shows I could mention. This unpredictability isn’t mere randomness: events usually makes sense in context later, but it makes for an absorbing tale. And the story isn’t at all linear: each of the Leda clones has her own agenda, her own life, even while they are working together to uncover the secrets.

The arrival of a second set of clones further highlights the massive talent of Tatiana Maslany. The Leda clones are all very different people, even when they are playing each other: Cosima giving a speech as Alison, Helena doing a drug deal as Alison, all excellent. Yet I had trouble telling the Castor clones apart. I don’t know whether this was a deliberate decision (highlighting that they were raised together as soldiers), or whether their parts are underwritten, but I do know Maslany deserves every award going. And the special effects are superb without intruding. There is one scene where several of the Leda clones are sitting around the dinner table chatting together: this is “just” a scene comprising several different people, not immediately obvious as a great special effect.

Roll on season 4!

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

Monday, 2 January 2017

why doesn't the arXiv provide this?

oooh.  This is useful!
arXiv to BibTeX

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Sunday, 1 January 2017

two cases of compare and contrast

Compare and contrast the message in the billboard and the state of the people below it, in this photo from a Facebook post:

actually, there are many ways to live
That's enough of a contrast by itself.  But then, compare and contrast the photo in the ad with the original:

spot the difference

book review: Essentialism

Greg McKeown.
Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less.
Virgin Books. 2014

Modern life offers us an abundance of opportunities; we cannot hope to say yes to them all, yet we often try to do so. We end up over-stretched, trying to do too much, so doing a lot poorly, rather than a little well.

McKeown’s mission is to help us all improve our lives: decide what is essential, what really matters, and say no to the rest. The aim is to do fewer things, but do them better, and enjoy them more, whether at work or at home.

There are two parts to this. The first is the decision. Everything is a tradeoff; everything we say yes to has an opportunity cost: doing X stops us doing Y, or makes us do Y less well. Which is more important? If we don’t make the choice, it gets made for us by default.

The second is possibly harder: learning to say no. We often agree to things because we don’t want to upset or inconvenience the asker. But saying yes, and failing to deliver, is more problematic. And saying nothing, and just going along with the flow, is a huge time sink.

How do you say no if the asker is your boss at work? Well, try saying “Yes, I’m happy to do X. But if I do, I won’t have time to do Y as well. Which one is your priority?” (Although I’m sure there are bosses that won’t work with!)

There’s more good stuff in the book, more steps in the process, more detail on how to execute the ideas, but these are the essential points. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to read it, or do something else.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.