Friday, 31 March 2017

train mondegreen

Announcement on the train the other morning: “This is your 9.17 Cross Country service to...”

The word “nine” was pronounced something like “noyn”

So I heard it as “this is your annoyin’ 17 Cross Country service to ...”

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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

view from a college window

I’m at a two-day workshop on Biocomputation, hosted at St Chad’s in Durham.  The view from the window in my room is rather more picturesque that the usual car park or city street.

Monday, 27 March 2017

dodecagonic cash

Spot the difference:

the new £1 coin released tomorrow   -- v --   the old thrupenny bit (3d = 1.25p)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley.
The Geek Feminist Revolution.
Tor. 2016

The Geek Feminist Revolution collects over 30 of Kameron Hurley’s non-fiction essays, on a range of topics: being a geek, being a feminist, being sick in the US, being a writer, being a woman SF writer, being a copy writer, sexism, sexism in SF (both in the community, and in the literature), being trolled. Some of these pieces are from her blog, one is her magnificent Hugo award winning essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” (reprinted here with added illustrations), some are new to this collection. All are worth reading.

The essays cover a wide range of topics, yet there is a common theme running through many of them: that of writing; from being a writer (including the value of sheer persistence, which here has to be read to be believed), to reviewing and critiquing the literature and community, all from an unabashedly feminist perspective. As always with books about writing, I look to see how well they take their own advice. Here, the prose style is admirably transparent, punchy, and readable. And the content is passionate, insightful, and well-argued. These essays make fascinating, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading. Recommended.

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Friday, 24 March 2017

signs of spring

Frog spawn in the garden (zoom in to see the individual eggs)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

down the rabbit hole that is Google

I was reading an article on mitochondria, and it mentioned HIIT could boost their energy output.

I didn’t know what HIIT was, so I googled it: High-Intensity Interval Training.  It mentioned burpees.

I didn’t know what a burpee was (and the picture didn’t really help), so I googled it: How to do a burpee (video): it’s a combination of a squat thrust (I had to google that, too), a pushup, and a jump.

Google furthermore let me find a better graphic:

More like, how to do a burpee

The HIIT page says: Do as many burpees as possible in 20 seconds.

So, that would be zero, then?  Sounds do-able.  Not sure how it helps the mitochondria, though.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Interesting article on emotions, and how we can train them.
Emotions are not universal – we build them for ourselves 
Japan has arigata-meiwaku, the negative feeling when someone does you a favour that you didn’t want, are perhaps inconvenienced by, yet must still be grateful for.

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Update 23 March 2017:
A commenter says this article is behind a paywall. I didn't realise, as I subscribe to New Scientist.

So I'll provide a few more representative quotes.

Emotions are not hard-wired and universal:
If you look at the literature on facial expressions, most studies that support universality use a kind of psychological cheat – experimenters might force subjects to pick from a small set of emotion words when shown a facial expression, or unwittingly train subjects in the appropriate emotion concepts. 
My lab and others have shown that if you remove these cues, say, by asking subjects what a face means without a list of words to choose from, the whole effect falls apart. 
Thinking that they are causes damage to people:
The example that really gets me is the training of autistic children to recognise the stereotyped expressions stipulated by the classical view. This training is supposed to improve children’s social functioning. But nothing changes for these kids because these facial expressions don’t generalise outside the lab. 
Huge amounts of money are being spent on technology rooted in the idea that facial expressions are universal. For example, the US Transportation Security Administration spent $900 million on a method of reading faces and bodies that is rooted in the classical view. It didn’t work.
It's an incorrect stereotype:
... this stereotype is extremely damaging – there is evidence that when you refer to a woman as emotional, it usually means too emotional. So there’s a catch-22: if a woman is emotional, she’s seen as childish or out of control. If she’s not emotional enough – she defies the stereotype – she’s seen as a cold, untrustworthy bitch. For men the rules are not so strict. This is a real problem in courtrooms. There are people who can’t get a fair trial because jurors – and judges – accept the stereotype and believe that, generally, emotions can be easily read.
Reconstructing our own emotions can help us:
a student preparing for a test will be in a high arousal state. They might experience this arousal as anxiety, but they could learn to recategorise it as determination, which research shows will allow them to perform better on tests. This recategorisation can reduce stress, so they feel physically better too.
And there's a book:
Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions are Made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017 

Monday, 20 March 2017

when laziness and idealism coincide

Excellent boycott suggestion:

I will not log in to your website

Two or three times a day, I get an email whose basic structure is as follows:
Prof. Aaronson, given your expertise, we’d be incredibly grateful for your feedback on a paper / report / grant proposal about quantum computing.  To access the document in question, all you’ll need to do is create an account on our proprietary DigiScholar Portal system, a process that takes no more than 3 hours.  If, at the end of that process, you’re told that the account setup failed, it might be because your browser’s certificates are outdated, or because you already have an account with us, or simply because our server is acting up, or some other reason.  If you already have an account, you’ll of course need to remember your DigiScholar Portal ID and password, and not confuse them with the 500 other usernames and passwords you’ve created for similar reasons—ours required their own distinctive combination of upper and lowercase letters, numerals, and symbols.  After navigating through our site to access the document, you’ll then be able to enter your DigiScholar Review, strictly adhering to our 15-part format, and keeping in mind that our system will log you out and delete all your work after 30 seconds of inactivity.  If you have trouble, just call our helpline during normal business hours (excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays) and stay on the line until someone assists you.  Most importantly, please understand that we can neither email you the document we want you to read, nor accept any comments about it by email.  In fact, all emails to this address will be automatically ignored.
Every day, I seem to grow crustier than the last.

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Sunday, 19 March 2017

unread books

tsundoku: n.
buying books and not reading them; stockpiling books

Via Danny Yee’s ever-interesting and pathologically polymathic blog, I recently came across the following article:
There’s a word in Japanese for the literary affliction of buying books you don’t read 
So many books, so little time. In the age of media binging, too often we end up buying books we never actually read. 
The moment goes something like this: Skim fascinating book review online. Buy on Amazon with 1-click. Scroll down. Buy two other titles with 1-click. Leave books on bedside table. Repeat two weeks later. Scold yourself for killing the trees. 
It’s an affliction so common that there’s a word for it in Japanese, and a support group on Goodreads.
I don’t know what’s worse about this article: the use of the term “affliction”, implying there might be some sort of problem with this behaviour; or the thought that one so afflicted could make do with the storage space provided by a bedside table.

I belong to a different demographic where books are concerned.  I much prefer the philosophy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as expounded on the very first page of his book The Black Swan:
a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.

I will continue to buy faster than I read; I will continue to commit tsundoku: it’s my pension fund.  It also provides a pleasing two-stage book choice process: what am I going to buy next, and then, given what I’ve bought, what am I going to read next.

This is nothing like my own to-read pile.  It’s possibly the right size, but I shelve mine much more tidily.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.

Why would GCHQ spy on Trump?  Their job is to gather intelligence.

GCHQ dismisses ‘utterly ridiculous’ claim it helped wiretap Trump
“Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

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Friday, 17 March 2017

the future's orange

Faith in humanity restored (for now).

Dutch election: Wilders defeat celebrated by PM Rutte
my, what big hands you have!

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Thursday, 16 March 2017

not even pseudoscience

Sabine Hossenfelder nails it again – an argument against the simulation hypothesis from physics – but a much better one than usual.  The usual one tries to extrapolate physics from our universe to the “outside” one, which doesn’t work: they need not be the same.  Sabine argues about the physics of our universe within our universe: how hard it is to get consistent explanations, and why the hypothetical external programmer would have difficulties keeping up with our (simulated) scientists poking their noses into everything.

She’s a little grumpier than usual:
No, we probably don’t live in a computer simulation 
All this talk about how we might be living in a computer simulation pisses me off not because I’m afraid people will actually believe it. No, I think most people are much smarter than many self-declared intellectuals like to admit. Most readers will instead correctly conclude that today’s intelligencia is full of shit. And I can’t even blame them for it.

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Monday, 13 March 2017

visualising complex continued fractions

Thomas Baruchel's beautiful plots of complex continued fractions.

[via John Baez]

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

book review: The Rook

Daniel O'Malley.
The Rook.
Head of Zeus. 2012

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park surrounded by bodies, with no memory of who she is, or how she got there. She needs to find out in a hurry, as unknown people are trying to kill her. She has three advantages: letters from her previous hyper-efficient self explaining the situation, a senior position in a sinister secret organisation, and superpowers no-one believes she can use.

It is difficult to categorise this, but I enjoyed this immensely. The puzzle of what is going on, explained in turns by the letters and Myfanwy’s own investigations, is interesting. The sarcastic tone of the protagonist as she encounters her colleagues’ attitude to her previous timid self, and the increasingly bizarre situations and revelations, make this in turns intriguing, a little scary, very funny, and occasionally a bit gross (in a good way).

The single off note for me is that this is written in the third person, but from the style I kept feeling it should be first person. But I assume the author knows best.

Just as I was finishing this, I was delighted to discover a sequel had just been published. Reader, I bought it. On the one hand, I don’t have to wait the five years that readers who discovered The Rook in 2012 have had to wait. On the other hand, can O’Malley keep up the clever and bizarre content? I do hope so.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

binary chop to the rescue

I spent most of an afternoon this week deleting a comma.

Well, first I had to find the comma.

And before that, I had to find that I needed to find a comma.

BibLaTeX could do with better error messages.

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F for ’vescence?

We have an extractor hood over the hob.  It has a single 7-segment display, to indicate fan speed.  The other day it started flashing an “F” while we were burning some sausages for lunch.

Scrabble around to find the manual.  Oh, it means the filter needs cleaning.  The manual says this should be done once a month.

We’ve had the hood for 17 years, have never cleaned the filter, and this is the first time it’s whinged...

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Friday, 10 March 2017

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LXVIII

The latest batch:

Amazon second hand is useful for finding some otherwise expensive books at reasonable prices: Catalyzing Inquiry at the Interface of Computing and Biology is £46 new, but I paid £3.99 second hand (including postage); The Social Face of Complexity Science is about £45 new, but I paid £3.48 (again, this includes p&p).  I would almost certainly not have bought either of them full price.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

which we are not supposed to call a septic tank

The Catholic church is ‘shocked’ at the hundreds of children buried at Tuam. Really? 
Catholic Ireland always had abortions, just very late-term ones, administered slowly by nuns after the children were already born

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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

y2k bugs?

So, I’ve been interviewing some students for our next undergraduate intake.  The application forms include date of birth.  Many were born in 1999.  So next year’s interviewees ... oh dear!

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Monday, 6 March 2017


Seen in a hedgerow near home this morning:

It was clearly sufficiently sheltered to survive yesterday’s hail.

Sunday, 5 March 2017


Picture from a few minutes ago:

taken through glass, so some artefacts visible

From this, it’s just possible to see it’s a double rainbow: there’s a very faint outer bow, which I didn’t even notice until I looked at the photo.

Although given what the weather was doing, it’s more strictly a double hailbow.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

life on hold

AWS “down”

Means Trello is down.

Means I can’t do any work...
(or rather, I don’t know what work to do...)

Oh the joys of cloud-living....

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