Wednesday, 29 January 2014

safety first

The details are about the USA, but the overarching message is global.
54,000 Americans die every year due to work-related illnesses and accidents. This is the equivalent of 148 deaths each day; in terms of fatalities it is roughly a Boston Marathon bombing every half hour of every day. 
But while we spend more than 7 billion dollars a year on the T.S.A.’s national security theater in which over 58,000 T.S.A. employees make sure we are not carrying too much toothpaste or shampoo onto airplanes, the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is under $600 million per year. It seems that our threat assessments are flawed.

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Monday, 27 January 2014


Lovecraftian rant about the horrors of Blackboard
When I die, I want my whiskey-pickled body larded into a cryonic chamber, then buried deep in the earth. A thousand years from now, I want these loping, crookspined human gargoyles to dig me up and reanimate me. I will learn their language; I will amble to the profane horizon of their blood-gorged vernacular; I will force them at spear-point to build me a time machine; then I will murder them all with my bare hands. I will return to all of you then to bear witness, in a rapturous tornado of filth, to my contempt for that unholy system of course mismanagement software.
I couldn’t possibly comment.

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Sunday, 26 January 2014

fever dreams

wikipedia sneezes
There is an interesting article in this week’s New Scientist about how taking painkillers for flu increases the number of flu deaths.  I assumed this was going to be because the painkillers allow sick people to infect other people more easily, as they continue to drag themselves in to work.

Although that is part of the reason, it is actually more complicated than that.  As well as dulling pain, the pills also lower the fever.  The fever seems to be the body’s way of killing off the virus.  So lowering the fever results in more virus, and for longer, allowing sick people to infect even more other people.  A triple whammy.

Coincidentally, a letter in the same issue, from Steve Dalton, reminded me of a previous article, about how fever appears to help with some forms of cancer.  Dalton wonders whether the fever-reducing drugs are possibly increasing cancers.

I’ve heard before that the fever is the “body’s natural defence” against colds and flu, rather than just being an inconvenient side-effect of our immune response.  Are we making a mistake by intervening?  Now, I don’t think that “natural” automatically means “better” (smallpox, cholera and polio are all natural, after all), or that “unnatural” (whatever that even means) is worse.  But I do know a bit about complex systems, non-linear responses, and the law of unintended consequences, and that “but it’s more complicated than that” is the rule, not the exception.

So, before my next cold arrives: are there any cold remedies that just kill the pain, and don’t reduce the fever?

UPDATE (1 Feb 2014): a colleague says that codeine fits the bill. But we agreed that it’s not really a viable solution, given that it’s prescription-only, and seems a bit like overkill for a cold.

sequestering carbon, several books at a time XVII

The last of the 2013 purchases have now arrived.  The pipeline was getting a bit empty, but more orders were made over the weekend.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

names are arbitrary labels

Why does absolutely everything in maths have a person’s name attached to it?  It makes it incredibly difficult to remember what things are called (names are essentially meaningless). Case in point: I’ve always referred to this form of matrix product as “pointwise multiplication”, and never even knew it had two different people’s names attached, until today!

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turn off the bugs

Just in case you haven’t seen this yet:

How to configure Chrome to stop websites from bugging you with your computer's microphone and camera

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Friday, 24 January 2014

watch out

my watch
Early December, the battery in my watch died.  For a variety of reasons, it’s taken me until today to be in the vicinity of a shop that sells replacements.  Initially it was deeply unsettling not to be wearing a watch (it was even more unsettling to wear one telling the wrong time, though).  My right wrist felt distinctly strange (I wear my watch on the right, since I’m left handed).  Even now, several weeks later, my wrist still felt strange without a watch.

So I was finally in town, and popped into H.Samuel for a new battery, around 11am.  I was gravely informed that it would be a “next day pickup”, because they had so many watches already “booked in” for new batteries.  Well, since it had taken me nearly 2 months to get into town in first place, I thought it highly unlikely I would be in town again tomorrow, so I declined.

I went into a nearby jewellers.  They looked at the watch, and apologised that they didn’t have the right tools to take the back off, otherwise they would have been happy to replace the battery there and then.  They suggested I tried Timpson’s.

I tried Timpson’s.  They took my watch, took out a standard jeweller’s watch screwdriver (we have a set of these at home), unscrewed the four screws holding the back on, popped out the old battery, popped in the new one, screwed the back on again, all in about 90 seconds flat.

a very specialised tool, apparently

This made me wonder how many watch batteries H.Samuel were changing.  To be on the conservative side, let’s assume that they are a little slower, and it takes them maybe three minutes to change a battery.  Let’s also assume that there is someone in the back of the shop steadily replacing the batteries in all those “booked in” watches (because clearly none of the staff on the shop floor were engaged in such a task).  Let’s assume they were working from 11am (when I went in) until 5pm, with a one hour break for lunch.  That’s 5 hours, at 20 batteries an hour, or a total of at least 100 watches booked in in front of mine.  Good grief. That’s a lot of dead batteries all at once.  (Or maybe, just maybe, not?)

Well, at least I now know where to go the next time my watch needs a new battery.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

real flocks

Does your flocking algorithm do this?


 (via BoingBoing)

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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

shut that door!

Why walking through a doorway makes you forget

Happens to me all the time!

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Tuesday, 21 January 2014

nonsense on stilts

The Guardian article on a particular misuse of the Lorenz attractor is interesting, but Brown’s paper [pdf] itself, debunking some mind-blowing “mathematics”, is pure joy, on many levels.

Nick Brown, debunker of nonsense

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Monday, 20 January 2014

Spam found in fridge

Fridge sends spam emails

the obvious image

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Friends with the Doctor

Okay, that’s weird.

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Sunday, 19 January 2014

walk the walk

The need for complex systems thinking, and doing, in science:
It is this feedback of knowledge about the system back into the system that is necessary for our institutions to adapt. It requires a self-consistent scientific approach to institutional design, an approach that doesn’t exist and is nowhere near existence.

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Saturday, 18 January 2014

Thursday, 16 January 2014

don't you step on my blue suede shoes

Oi! Stop throwing things at me!

(Also, wait for the outtakes.)

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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

unintended consequences

How public money is being spent to cause flooding (in the UK):

Drowning in money: the untold story of the crazy public spending that makes flooding inevitable

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Monday, 13 January 2014

it's the law

Curtis’ First Law:
With several unknown keys in hand, one of which fits the lock in front of you, the first time you try all the keys, none will open it.

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Sunday, 12 January 2014

swallow swallows

Not man bites dog.  Instead, fish catches bird.  [Flash video]

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Saturday, 11 January 2014

cloudy afternoon

Here’s today’s solar PV electricity generation, from sunrise (8:05 GMT) to sunset (16:09 GMT), with data points every 5 minutes.  We generated 25.1 kWh in total.

vertical scale: kW; green line: total energy generated; blue line: energy generated from top row of 15 panels; brown line: energy generated from bottom row of 12 panels

Despite the weather forecast being for clear skies all day, there were large clouds this afternoon for the sun to hide behind.  So we were right to run the washing machine this morning.

Maybe it was hiding because of its spots.

Today’s sun, with its enormous spots. Image from NASA’s current solar images page

Friday, 10 January 2014

PV chart II

Here’s today’s solar PV electricity generation, from sunrise (8:06 GMT) to sunset (16:07 GMT), with data points every 5 minutes.  We were getting nearly 6kW at one point!  We generated 19.8 kWh in total, twice as much as yesterday.

vertical scale: kW; green line: total energy generated; blue line: energy generated from top row of 15 panels; brown line: energy generated from bottom row of 12 panels

The scaffolding was removed during the morning, and hence isn’t shadowing the lower row of panels in the afternoon.  So the brown line is closer to the blue one then.  It was sunny all morning, and a little hazy all afternoon.  We have a very sensitive sunshine detector!

Tomorrow’s weather forecast is for sun all day, so I’ll post one more chart, but that will be enough, as I suspect that they are really of interest only to us.  (There will probably be some monthly and annual stats, of course.)

book review: Reamde

Neal Stephenson.
Atlantic. 2011

Richard Forthrast is an ex marijuana smuggler, and now millionaire owner of Corporation 9592 that markets the massively multiplayer online game T’Rain, a world with accurately depicted geology and a massively detailed backstory, designed to incorporate earnings from Chinese gold farmers. A member of his extended family, adopted niece Zula, is kidnapped when her boyfriend accidentally infects a Russian gangster’s computer with the REAMDE virus, T’Rain-based ransomware that has encrypted the wrong files this time. But when the Russian gangsters collide with Islamist jihadists while searching for the virus writers in China, being monitored by an MI6 covert ops agent, things rapidly spiral out of control into bloody violence.

Like Cryptonomicon, this 1000 page brick is a techno-thriller with an SF vibe (but a lot more gun-porn). It seems to simultaneously run at breakneck speed whilst the plot advances with glacial slowness, due to the typical Stephenson-esque crazy eye for detail. This detail is rendered with an SFnal style, describing all the “alien” cultures, from urban China, via Oxford colleges, to backwoods Idaho. Stephenson also manages to make several of the characters more sympathetic than you might at first believe possible.

And Stephenson has mastered endings. Unlike earlier offerings, this doesn’t merely stop; it has a conclusion. The conclusion isn’t totally satisfying – there seem to be copious loose ends left in T’Rain, and several small guns left hanging on real-world walls. But the overall story ends.

What is for me the best part is the way everyone’s “best laid plans” are thwarted by the others executing their own best laid plans. There is no easy linear progression of the hero: all the different arcs interact to scupper, or sometimes support, each character’s intentions. And most of the characters are competent – even the mad guys and the bad guys – which is so refreshing after the usual issues of plans not surviving scrutiny by a 4-year-old.

Definitely worth reading. And best use of a Love Actually DVD ever.

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Thursday, 9 January 2014

time for a radical reform of the welfare state

Why we should give free money to everyone.
‘Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It's not about stupidity,’ author Joseph Hanlon remarks. ‘You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.’

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PV chart

We downloaded today’s data from the inverters this evening, and we can see the electricity we generated, from sunrise (8:06 GMT) to sunset (16:06 GMT), with data points every 5 minutes.

vertical scale: kW; green line: total energy generated; blue line: energy generated from top row of 15 panels; brown line: energy generated from bottom row of 12 panels

The top row of panels didn’t start generating until later, as they need a bigger voltage to kick their inverter into life.  It was cloudy and gloomy in the morning, but around midday, the low winter sun came out, and generation leapt to 4kW.  The afternoon stayed sunny, and the curve is essentially tracking the setting sun, with occasional cloud.

The brown line is somewhat less than 12/15 = 80% of the blue one, partly from shading from the scaffolding poles (due to be removed tomorrow), and partly from being lower on the roof.

That’s a total of 9.5 kWh generated on a winter’s day, when the sun was above the horizon for a total of 8 hours, and it was cloudy until noon.  So that’s about £1.30 due from the feed-in tariff.  Not bad.  Now we have to replan our electricity usage patterns to coincide with when the sun shines.

PV generating

Today was the first full day of PV solar generation.  We weren't particularly hopeful, as the forecaset this morning was quite gloomy

gloomy, but not as bad as the same forecast yesterday
It now being light, I had a chance to see the full installation.

all 27 solar panels installed
By noon, this lot was generating over 4kW, which is about 50% of total capacity.  That's not bad, given how low the sun is this time of year (which you can tell from the shadow of the soil stack in the middle of the roof), plus shadows being cast by the scaffolding.  Given our idling consumption seems to be around 1kW, we are now officially an energy exporter!

Also note the colour of the sky.  Blue, and clear.  At noon.  And it stayed blue and clear for the whole afternoon, until around sunset (4pm).  So much for weather forecasts.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

magnets are cool

Here’s a small plastic bag, containing a really really small magnet, with a pair of pliers for scale.

the magnet is the tiny grey square in the bag

Here’s that same really really small magnet, easily supporting the entire weight of the pliers.

PV installed

Our solar PV system took three full days to install, a bit longer than originally planned, because of some foul weather: wind, hail, rain, but finally some sun.

the “Sunny Boy” DC to AC inverters installed in the attic
The inverters have a Bluetooth interface, and we have downloaded the software that lets us monitor our total generation.  It produces charts, and data at 5 minute intervals in csv format.

Downstairs we have more devices to play with.  There’s the offical meter (to let the electricity company know how much we have generated), the Big Red Button to turn off the system, a small black box monitoring total electrical usage, and a box to send any excess generation into the immersion heater.

The other end of the total usage monitor displays how much electricity we are using from the grid:

we’re using over a kW, and we’re not doing anything! (4W of that is the box itself.)
And it displays how much electricity we are generating:

0W being generated: well, it is night time!

We did generate some electricity today, though.  The data downloaded from the inverter shows when this generation occurred, from system switch on around 14:50, until sunset:

no generation after sunset!

Tomorrow will be our first full day of generation.  Hopefully we will get more than a little blip on the chart.  But the weather forecast?  Cloudy, of course!

tomorrow: cloudy, with a hint of sun just before sunset

PV installation action shots

Here are a couple of photos taken during the installation.  These shots were taken for us by the installers: you wouldn’t get me up on that scaffolding!

6 panels installed so far on the battens.
Only 8 more to go!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Buying books. Like a boss.

I think they’re gonna need a bigger bookcase.

That’s a big box!


Another day, another cold call from some scammer.  But with a new arrogance:
Phone rings, is answered.
Them: “mumble mumble mumble.”
Me: “Have you heard of the Telephone Preference Service?”
Them: “mumble mumble mumble.”
Me: “Have you heard of the Telephone Preference Service?”
Them: “Yes, but no-one can stop us.”
Me: click
I think I refuted their claim.  But, really!

Monday, 6 January 2014

PV delivered

Our solar PV system has been delivered.  It will be installed over the next few days, provided the weather stays calm enough!

DC to AC inverters, plus other bits and bobs, being stored in our garage for now

27 solar PV panels, that won't fit in the garage, so are being stored outside

Sunday, 5 January 2014

I'll post this tomorrow

Some very useful tips: Structured Procrastination

(via Terrence Tao)

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The Night Watch

James Mickens has another great article.
When it’s 3 A.M., and you’ve been debugging for 12 hours,
and you encounter a virtual static friend protected volatile
templated function pointer, you want to go into hibernation and
awake as a werewolf and then find the people who wrote the
C++ standard and bring ruin to the things that they love.

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Saturday, 4 January 2014

Friday, 3 January 2014

enra Pleiades

Enra Pleiades

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Thursday, 2 January 2014

book review: Far From the Madding Gerund

Mark Liberman, Geoffrey K. Pullum.
Far From the Madding Gerund: and other dispatches from the Language Log.
William James. 2006

This is a collection of selected posts from The Language Log, a lively blog about grammar and more. Each entry is a short, pithy commentary on some aspect of grammar that has annoyed the authors.

For example, Geoff Pullum clearly has issues with Strunk and White:
pp.39-40. Strunk and White’s toxic little book of crap
p68. If you want to see what the very worst of the usage and style recommenders say, it is always a good idea to turn to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style first.
p322. Strunk and White’s poisonous little collection of bad grammatical advice, The Elements of Style
Many of the entries are examples of poor grammar advice, as delivered by people who don’t know the real grammar of English. There is some interesting discussion on how grammar can be descriptive rather than prescriptive (having rules derived from how people actually use the language, rather than having a bunch of made-up rules that few people follow), whilst simultaneously allowing for grammatical errors (the derived rules are based on patterns of usage, not just single idiosyncratic events).
p279. it’s not just the existence of ignorant authoritarian prescriptivism in this culture that needs an explanation, it’s also the level of anger that accompanies its expression.
Some of their advice I myself do not follow. For example, they talk of the “which-hunts”, where people are told that, for example, “the phone on the desk which is ringing” is grammatically incorrect, and should be “the phone on the desk that is ringing”. I’m not claiming that the “which” form is incorrect, but I do advise my students to use the “that” form, in order to clearly distinguish it from “the phone on the desk, which is ringing”. (The form without the comma indicates there are several phones on the desk, and I am referring to the one of them that is ringing; the form with the comma indicates there is a single phone on the desk, which, by the way, is ringing.) I advise my students to do this because many writers don’t seem to know that the comma in the sentence changes the meaning, and I think it is easier for them to get the right meaning if they consistently use “that” for one form, and restrict “which” for the other. But I don’t get angry about it.

Many of the entries here are quite technical, using grammatical terms that I wasn’t previously aware of. But it’s all written in a witty, trenchant style. It ends up with some entries on Dan Brown’s writing style, which I had come across before when reviewing the film of The Da Vinci Code, and was the main reason I bought this book (and didn’t buy the Dan Brown book!).

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part way to PV

We're in the process of having an 8kW solar photovoltaic panel system installed on our roof. This will take a few days.

Today, the scaffolding was erected.

the scaffolding truck: a bit of a tight squeeze down our narrow drive

scaffolding erected to provide access to our south-facing roof
Notice how blue the sky is?  The sun is shining!  But we're not generating any electricity yet.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

attacked by eagles

You couldn’t make it up.

from BBC World News
The 18 metre (50 foot) inflatable duck suddenly collapsed on Tuesday, only 11 days after it had been put on display in the port at Keelung

Organisers are unsure as to the cause of its demise, but one theory is that it was attacked by eagles.

The duck was designed by the Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman to be a giant version of a popular bath toy.

Last month a similar duck was damaged elsewhere in Taiwan, when an earthquake triggered a power outage that caused it to deflate.

A third Taiwanese duck was brought ashore in September because of an approaching typhoon.

If nature is deploying eagles, earthquakes, and typhoons in its defence, maybe this is a signal that we should rethink 18 metre yellow rubber ducks?