Thursday, January 31


I just saw a wonderful comment about art on a random weblog I was reading. No further comment to make, just thought I'd share that.
posted @ 1:49 PM -

high noon at.... mandela hall

Today was the day of our big Students' Union meeting. We (I and two other Union reps) explained what is happening at our University to crowd of 200-odd bewildered and angry students, then the Vice Chancellor spoke, then one of the Deans (not one of the Deans I know). This was all OK, and all much as expected (the VC wasn't hugely convincing, but did make some good points at the same time as trying to use his stronger points as a smokescreen to distract from all the things we were right about), but what really worked beautifully was the question and answer session. The floor were very hard on the VC (rightly so), and almost all the things I wanted to say (but didn't because I needed it to be clear that this isn't a one-man campaign) were said unprompted by independent members of the student body.

There is now no possible excuse for any Sussex student not to know what is happening to their University, and no excuse for the senior management not to know how strongly we feel about all this.

In other news, I got a letter from Mencap today announcing that the China Bike Ride has raised over �226,000 for the mentally handicapped.

Today I feel more convinced than usual that I the space I take up on this planet is justified.
posted @ 1:47 PM -

best opening lyric

It's audience participation time everyone. What's the best first line of a song you've ever heard?
posted @ 1:33 AM -

Wednesday, January 30

so 90s

I forget where I found it, but I was passing time on a silly web trawl today, and found a not very impressive Flash animation. Anyway, the point is that my main criticism while watching it was that it was too 90s. A sign, presumably, that I've finally realised it's not the 90s any more, and yet I haven't even managed to accept a name for the new decade. "Noughties" is just so, well, 2000
posted @ 3:34 PM -

tomato soprano yell

Walking through the maths department today a small notice on a lecturer's office door caught my eye. It was the abstract of a spoof science paper, and I thought I'd probably find a copy online. I entered "tomato soprano yell" into Google, and sure enough found exactly what I was looking for (have I told you lately that I love Google?):

Experimental Demonstration of the tomatotopic organization in the soprano (Cantatrix sopranica L.)
posted @ 1:53 PM -

COGS Phoenix

It seems I definitely have achieved something with all the on-campus politicking. The Dean of COGS (my department) sent an email out today to all staff and students aiming to put together a working group to discuss the future of our activities. This is very positive because it is the strongest sign he could have sent out (so much business in our department is conducted via email that it is the most reliable way to contact every single member) that our opinions are valued, and now no-one has any excuse for not knowing what's happening. It's also positive for more complex reasons which I think I can learn from.

While I approached the central management of the University in a confrontational way (which I slightly regret, but it did achieve the specific effect I set out to achieve, and I'm not sure a nicer approach would have led to the big man himself addressing a student meeting, something he only does when he's very worried), I approached my own Dean in a completely different tone. This is partly because I feel far less aggrieved by his actions (he didn't initiate the changes I'm unhappy about, and he did make some effort to consult us about them last year), and partly because I know we broadly agree about what is to be done. I think it's fair to say that being more aggressive with him would have had a less productive result.

As for what the Dean is actually doing, our (he, I and the Students' Union) consensus is not to oppose the restructuring itself, partly because we don't really want to tilt at windmills, and partly because now that the changes are happening there is a vast amount of unspecified detail that will be the real determinant of whether the University changes for better or worse. The Dean is not only talking about listening to our opinions, but about actually forming a collective pressure group (faculty, non-teaching staff and all levels of student) to ensure that the sort of innovative cross-disciplinary research (and research environment) that COGS has been so successful at fostering continues even after the unit itself disappears.

This is what unionism should be about - not simply fighting against 'da management', but working together with anyone who has common goals because we can achieve so much more together. I am also beginning to understand, 6 months after starting, why I took this job.
posted @ 10:52 AM -

Tuesday, January 29

a brother from a different mother

It's been an evening of watching people confront racial issues for me. First of all the "Students For Peace" society showed Promises, a documentary about Israeli and Palestinian children, growing up literally within a stone's throw of each other, but living completely seperate lives. Then as I arrived home I just caught Trading Races, a BBC documentary in which a black man is made up to look like a white man, and a white man made to look black, and they discuss how it changes peoples' reactions to them.

I found Promises depressing; a view which other people who stayed around at the end to talk about mostly didn't share. It wasn't one of these conventional liberal documentaries about Israeli & Palestinian kids on a play scheme all getting on and saying how stupid the conflict is - it actually had the guts to interview people whose views were deeply ingrained and quite offensive (as well as others with more moderate voices). We listened to a Jewish child talking about the Arabs like vermin and about how the Jews can only be safe when the Arabs have been driven out of their land. Then we heard a young Arab saying what amounted to the same thing, except that the words Jew and Arab were reversed. Then we heard people on both sides of this divide talking about how God had promised this land to their ancestors; of course if one takes the Bible literally, they are both right - the promise was made to Abraham (Genesis XVII:8), and Abraham is supposed to be the last common ancestor of the Jews and the Arabs.

It wasn't all bleak - there was a range of views presented on both sides, and some of the kids were eventually talked into meeting each other. The actual meeting was wonderful, progressing from initial nervousness to comfortable communication, and a mixed group of Jews and Arabs were soon playing happily without any sign of partisan divisions. Then as they had their final discussion some extremely perceptive and conciliatory things were said by these quite young kids, but one of the Palestinians, Faraj, started to cry. He was asked why he was crying, and his answer was that the day had been great, but he knew that once the film-makers left it would all be forgotten and the Jewish kids would stop coming to visit them (the Palestinians couldn't visit the Jews because of the checkpoints, even though this was before the latest Intifada). The end was a follow-up 2 years later, and sure enough the kids had lost contact. It's deeply frustrating, because this seems universal - people try extremely hard to bring the two cultures together, but if it only happens on a small scale like this it just seems doomed in the face of the more powerful forces keeping them apart. It's a problem I just can't see a solution to, much as I hate to admit that.

Trading Races, on the other hand, was quite uplifting. A lot of the prejudice that the people expected was internalised, which was summed up for me by a story the black man told in an interview the other day. He decided to go to the dog races, which are probably one of the most white-dominated institutions in this country, to see what it was like when disguised as a white man (the make-up was actually really convincing, much to my surprise). At the races he went up to someone for advice on how to read the listings and place bets; someone he wouldn't have approached without the disguise because he was a big, white, tatooed skinhead. The guy was really nice, friendly and helpful, and after the documentary the black man decided to go back without a disguise. He approached the same punter, and got exactly the same response. He was left reflecting on how he had pre-judged the white man, by deciding not to approach him in the first place assuming he would be racist. When he did approach him he found out that there was no racism there at all. There is an upsetting lesson here, about how prejudice is self-maintaining, but also an uplifting one about how both the people in the documentary found less prejudice than they expected out in the world.
posted @ 5:06 PM -

elephant bigamy

What is the world coming to? Where have all our moral standards gone? It's all very well that an elephant is about to get married in a Thai zoo, but I find it disgraceful that he's already planning a second wedding shortly afterwards, and to mate 4 different females. Honestly, if these noble creatures set such a poor example what can be expected of us mere humans?
posted @ 6:32 AM -

Monday, January 28

What is this... brainwashing?

This morning's TV news featured an interview with the 2 brothers of one of the British men currently being held in Camp X-Ray. While I can only feel sorry for the family, especially when they pointed out that the Sun splashes photos around that are not even of their brother, I'm tired of people claiming that their loved ones couldn't possibly have done such terrible things and must therefore have been brainwashed. All the relatives of terrorist suspects who come out and face the media claim at least one of these things.

Shock is an understandable reaction, and it seems that if this person is guilty (which is a bit dubious, but he's not been tried yet in any case) there has been a strangely quick transformation from non-fanatic to fanatic, but I can't accept claims of brainwashing until someone explains what this process is. I think people have some sort of image of locking the victim up in a darkened room and magically turning them into a new person. There is no way to do this. If you torture people you can make them claim all sorts of things that are not true (hence some famous miscarriages of justice like the Guildford Four), and you can make them drop their resistance to thinks you want to do, but there is no way to actively replace someone's mind with a new one. I'm sure many organisations, and not just ones as sinister as terrorists, use subtle and effective techniques to convince people of their view of the world, but this is not brainwashing. In the absence of a magical way to re-program peoples' minds, all you can do is modify their opinions and behaviour, which will not make a terrorist of a pacifist or an evil person of a good one.

Brainwashing is also an idea that comes up every now and again as a reason not to learn about other peoples' religions. When would-be-evangelists knock on my door (hasn't happened for ages, but I used to live near a Mormon lodge) I like to invite them in and talk to them. The less intelligent ones provide comic relief with their inability to argue properly, and the more intelligent ones tend to have very interesting things to say for themselves. I haven't ever been convinced of anything that these people are trying to evangelise, but I have learned a lot about what they believe and why, and I think my life is richer for it. Yet somehow I'm supposed to be scared of them because they might brainwash me. Of course, if one of my mainstream Christian friends were to convert me it would be OK, but if they were from a fringe religion it would be brainwashing, scary and wrong. Why?

Convincing someone of something, however alien that something might be to their brothers, parents, friends or anyone, is not brainwashing. You have to start with a person's actual beliefs and emotions, which means that if their nearest & dearest thing they have been brainwashed all it really means is they didn't understand the person in the first place. Brainwashing is just a convenient excuse for families to make themselves feel better about the terrible things they have done, because they feel somehow responsible. People need to learn to accept that individuals can make individual decisions, and that it is not impossible for people to do things completely against not only their families' beliefs, but also against their families' perceptions of them, without needing to invoke brainwashing to explain it.

This freedom is not actually a bad thing either. While it does make it harder for well-meaning parents to keep their children on the path of virtue, it also allows people not to be bound by the family or society they were born into if there is something wrong with its values. What else was the story of Abraham breaking his father's idols supposed to teach us?
posted @ 12:55 AM -

Sunday, January 27

Israeli reservists refuse to fight for disputed settlements

I said I'd generally steer clear of politics, but I bet this story from the Jerusalem Post doesn't get reported in the mainstream UK media at all, because it doesn't fit into their nice over-simple picture of Israelis all believing one thing on one side, and an equally homogeneous mass of Palestinians on the other.

The gist of the story is that a group of 50 reservists (background info: in Israel every man and I think also every woman receives several years' military training after school, and is then a reservist for 40-50 years. Reservists are expected to serve for a few weeks every year - something hard for me in a peaceful corner of a peaceful land to imagine) have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. They delivered a statement aiming to make it clear that they are patriotic Israelis, some of whom have served for many years, and that they are willing to do their military service, but that they "will not continue to fight beyond the Green Line in order to rule, to expel, to destroy, to blockade, to assassinate, to starve, and to humiliate an entire people...".

As well as hoping that I would have the resolve to do as they did in their place, I think their actions underline the really important point that real conflicts like this one are not kiddie-cartoon battles between two sides that each think with one mind. There are plenty of Israelis who are not comfortable with what their government is doing to the Palestinian people, and some of them are prepared to take action like this. Especially as the UK observes Holocaust Memorial Day, I think it's important to celebrate people like this, who are willing to take personal risks to try and stop the wholesale oppression of a people, just as the Oscar Schindlers of this world did for the Jews when it was Jews who were being persecuted.
posted @ 4:07 PM -

pending redesign

in a few weeks' time, when I am less busy, I will be doing some redesigning to this page. I'm not sure if I'll come up with a completely new look or just add a few bits (mainly depends on whether I have any good ideas for a new look), but in any case now would be a really good time to tell me if you have any problems viewing the site, if there is any specific change you would make, and if there's anything else you'd like to see here. I have some ideas, but there's no point doing this without readers, so any reader feedback will be very welcome.
posted @ 6:12 AM -

Saturday, January 26

update on my on-campus concerns: I had an email from one of the other Students' Union officers today which made me a lot happier. As well as offering moral support and gratitude, which are always welcome but not that meaningful on their own, he announced that he had contacted some members of staff, one of whom is coming to our organisational meeting on Monday to help out, and that I will not have to be either the chair or the only Union speaker on Thursday. This is all a relief for me personally, and gives the campaign as a whole more credibility.
posted @ 3:30 PM -
An upgraded Blogger has just been released: Blogger Pro� - Power Push-Button Publishing. I am so spoilt with free stuff for my computer that I am highly reluctant to pay for any online service, but this might just have to change. On the one hand I think I'm about to shell out for my web hosting account, because I am already using the last free service I could find that supports the extensions I need (PHP) and doesn't add advertising to my pages, but they will stop the free service in a month. On the other, Blogger will continue to have a free service, but they've got me hooked and I think the paying service will be worth the small cost.

For me personally the most important things will be when I go off travelling in September. More sophisticated templates and titles for posts will save time, as will a guarantee of reliability on the servers. I don't intend to tour the web cafes of Europe and Asia, but I will want to write about what I see, so the quicker and easier it is to do that the better. I'll also be able to put the time & date stamps into local timezones and languages, which will be nice.
posted @ 5:22 AM -

poem in Farsi: click for a translation

I'm still a sucker for Rumi. I can't even read what I've pasted in above, but I've put it there because I find it visually pleasing, and I know it translates to something I enjoyed reading, and somehow feels appropriate at the moment.

I'm somewhat preoccupied at the moment, with big issues on campus. I won't keep on posting long rambles about that here, because it's pretty involved, and must be quite dull for people not closely involved, but I've spent the last few days trying to sort things out. On Thursday there will be a Students' Union public meeting at which the Vice Chancellor will try to justify the changes afoot on campus, and various others will explain why we are not happy. I am supposed to be chairing this meeting, but I need to change that.

At the moment, it must look far too much like all of this is a personal vendetta run by me, because I've also had to write an informational piece for the student paper. No-one else who has enough information (currently very few people) had the time apparently (hmm..... I'm a part time Union officer, I'm sure one of the full timers should have done it....), but this is not helpful. If it looks like my personal crusade on the one hand I look bitter and aggressive, and on the other the whole campaign loses credibility. Hopefully someone else will chair the meeting, and other people will also speak, because this is something that a lot of people are concerned about it.

Meanwhile a few things have the potential to make this all highly embarrassing for me personally, and even make it impossible to proceed. The Vice Chancellor has replied to my open letter, and amongst a few points which I don't agree with and will continue to argue, he was eager to state that I was wrong to complain about students not knowing what is happening to this University, because previous Union officials knew and (by implication) if they didn't tell the rest of us it's not his problem. The trouble is he's kind of right - my predecessors failed to tell either the student body as a whole, or the incoming Union Exec. I'm going to meet up with the only one of my predecessors who I can track down easily (most of the people in the know are no longer at the Uni; nothing sinister in that, it's just that the senior Union jobs that make one privy to such information generally go to people who have already finished their degrees), in order to find out how much she knew and why information wasn't passed on. At the very least this is going to make things more difficult.

My greatest fear though is that no-one will turn up to the meeting. Enough people are worried or angry enough about what is going on that we ought to be able to rely on a big turnout, in which the biggest problem would be stopping the VC from being heckled (I really do want him to say his piece), but I'm not convinced. Student apathy is so deep that however many people say they care and say they'll turn up, the spectre of a no-show still haunts me. If we don't get a big public display of support, for a start we will have to drop the whole issue, as we can hardly complain about students not being informed if students demonstrate a lack of concern, and it will really explode in my face. If we have a large turnout it should make it clear that I am acting responsibly on behalf of the students I'm supposed to represent, but the converse is also true - a poor turnout will make it look like I'm just pursuing this for my own reasons.
posted @ 4:39 AM -

Friday, January 25

More joy of Need To Know: I would not expect paris-charming-hotels.co.uk to be where to look for postmodernist poetry.
posted @ 9:55 AM -
Anyone fancy a job? This week's Need To Know has pointed out a very tempting advert for a Senior Bullshitter vacancy.
posted @ 9:50 AM -
sign of the times, or typing error? John Lewis lists a Palm m505 in the Kitchenware section of its website
posted @ 9:45 AM -
It's nice to see that the Glastonbury Festival is going ahead after all. When it didn't get a license last year I thought that was just the end of a great tradition, but it's back.

I don't know if I'll be going, because it sounds like they have really had to get serious about fence-jumpers, and that would take quite a lot away from the festival. Without them, for a start it would be half the size, and part of the appeal of Glastonbury is definitely the fact that it is absurdly huge and undisciplined, while other festivals are increasingly demure unsociable affairs. Unfortunately this is also part of the festival's problem - at the 2000 one it was pretty clear that the level of crowding was on the verge of being dangerous, and something had to be done to keep the event safe, so I'm not sure I can argue with what's happened.

It's really a victim of its own success, but I'm far happier to see a modified Glastonbury happening, even if a less good one, than no festival at all. Anyone got �100 and a lift to spare?
posted @ 2:12 AM -

Thursday, January 24

Yes, it's true, a scientific study has proved the ineffectiveness of counting sheep. Oh and while they're at it they quote a study about how hard it is to not think about polar bears.

Of course there was a serious point to all this - it was a test of a new technique to beat insomnia. The bad news for insomniacs is that the new technique wasn't very impressive either.
posted @ 12:33 PM -
A lorry has shed its load of wombles, causing chaos on the M1. This isn't some sort of joke - it's the travel news off the radio.
posted @ 1:51 AM -

Tuesday, January 22

Brighton Council accused of Falling flat on their arts by Julie Burchill. Sadly I find myself agreeing with her....
posted @ 5:47 PM -
Nasreddin Hodja on current world politics (writing 7 centuries ago, but wisdom is always wise):

At midnight Hodja heard a lot of commotion outside his window. He wrapped his blanket around himself and went outside to see what was happening. He saw two men fighting and tried to break it up. Without answering, one of them ripped the blanket off him, and both of them quickly ran away. So poor Hodja walked back into his house naked and returned to his bed.
"What was the fighting all about?" asked his wife.
"It was over our blanket. Now that they have got it, they have stopped fighting."
posted @ 5:13 PM -
Gerry Adams is apparently a treehugger
posted @ 3:56 PM -
"If they'd operated like a normal brothel and made sure they got the money before the sex, they would have been all right'

Europe's First Brothel for Women Goes Bust
posted @ 6:16 AM -
well.... it's been sent now, so I can't go back. I still have my doubts about whether this was the right thing to do, but here is the open letter I've sent to the vice chancellor:

Dear Vice Chancellor,

I am sure that you will not appreciate me going public with this before discussing it with you in private, but please understand that I have spent a month deliberating about the best way to proceed with this. The main part of this letter was written immediately after the Senate meeting that inspired it, intended for publication. I then decided to wait a while and consider sending it privately to you, but after some time realised that this is far more important than a private disagreement between two individuals who each have a personal stake in the University. It is an issue of the future of an institution that has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and will continue to be far more important as a whole than either you or I are as individuals, whatever we do to it. Therefore I think it is crucial that whatever debate we may have is entirely public, making us accountable to the people we are supposed to be serving. Please also be aware that any personal reply to me will also be copied to the Badger and the USSU Exec for this reason.

On Friday the 14th of December I had the privilege of attending the first Senate meeting of my term as an elected student representative. I found the occasion most illuminating, but I am afraid to say this was for very negative reasons. I do not wish to devote many words to the details of decisions I disagreed with, as I am sure you will agree that Senate itself was the place for that, but I was disappointed by the whole spirit in which the occasion was conducted and by the method.

I went to Senate in good faith, expecting that this large group consisting mainly of staff and with a handful of student representatives would be consulted, and allowed to make decisions. Instead I felt that we were expected to rubber stamp a number of radical changes to the organisation of the University, in spite of the fact that it was perfectly clear that there was a lack of information, that some key stakeholders were not happy with the plans, and that others (the students) had simply not been consulted. Repeatedly those people who would say things with which you disagreed were cut short and dismissed, and the Senate was instructed about how you would like us to vote. When this was not adequate to control events, and a vote was tied, you used your casting vote to decide this; not in itself an issue, but this was a _second_ vote granted to you. By contrast the Students' Union Executive rotate the chair, so that no person can consistently control meetings in this manner, and the chair may only cast a vote if everybody else present can not decide.

I feel it would be only fair to back up my general complaint with specific details, so I will return to how I feel you are riding rough-shod over any possibility of dissent about the grand plans for schools' reorganisation. Repeatedly points were made that could only really be answered in the light of the ongoing CPES review, and repeatedly BIOLS asserted that they would need more information (giving examples of specific reports that would help them), and you paid lip-service to the idea of not having an organisation in constant flux, but actually producing long term structures that could last untinkered-with for some time. Yet after all this when it came to decision making you pushed very hard for going ahead with what is envisaged right now, in spite of the flaws, in spite of the fact that your documents suggest that a different model (the 4 school system) serves the academic needs of the University better, and in spite of the fact that it is envisaged that Chemistry will probably need to move soon after the reorganisation, and Informatics will probably want to demerge from Physical Sciences in the near future. This is short-termism at its very worst - going with a plan that is acknowledged to be faulty, just because you are suspicious of attempts to improve it.

To give another specific example that I feel may be closer to the hearts of the Arts students, who are unaffected by what was being discussed as the mangling (or was that "restructuring") of their part of the University is already done and dusted (unbeknownst to most of them), I tried to raise the issue of student consultation. I pointed out that most students don't even know the changes that are afoot in their university, let alone feel that they have had the slightest hint of an input, yet they are the service users. My point was dismissed, first with a glib rebuttal of the wilder rumours that are going around campus (yes I already knew that Brighton and Sussex Universities were not planning a merger, but to seize on that was to deliberately miss my point), then (when I insisted) you stated that these discussions are not secret and are in the Bulletin; hardly a concerted effort to inform students, most of whom don't read the Bulletin, and many of whom don't know that any reorganisation is afoot. Finally I was able to squeeze a muttered admission from you that student consultation had been inadequate, but you made no suggestion as to how this was going to change in future (what sort of company radically reorganises its product range without asking CUSTOMERS what they think?), and moved discussion on as quickly as possible. I was left wondering what the point of my presence at this meeting was.

I left (after almost 5 hours with no break - an unacceptably long meeting that implies we ought to be holding them more than once per term) feeling that I had participated in a sham designed to perpetuate the illusion that decisions are taken based on consultation across campus, when in fact they are taken behind closed doors before the consultation takes place. There were several mentions of the idea of "ownership" of targets, aspirations, reviews &c. I think the point was rightly made that when individuals feel they own targets and reviews they are well motivated to achieve the former and make the latter work. In this case, a clear signal was sent out that Senate, even the Deans of the existing Schools, let alone such lowly beings as faculty members and students, do not own the process of change that will tear apart existing structures and replace with what looks awfully like the standard package of ACME University, UK, losing all that is distinctive and appealing about Sussex in the process.

I have often wondered why staff morale (and we all know this problem spreads across all schools, all levels and many non-teaching staff) is so low at University that has so much to be proud of and offers such a pleasant working environment. I feel that in Senate I began to understand part of the answer.

Eldan Goldenberg
USSU Postgraduate Officer
posted @ 4:38 AM -
More on Cyprus, this time from a Turkish source: the Turkish Daily News reports that Clerides and Denktas are holding their talks on the basis of "the pre-1960 status of the two peoples of the island". Pre-1960 means before the Cyprus Republic collapsed, before the military coup in Greece and before the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus. It also means that they are serious and that they might actually get somewhere.

The continuing setbacks and frustrations in the peace processes in the Middle East and Northern Ireland make me wary of expecting too much, but this certainly looks promising. Relationships between Greece and Turkey have been slowly improving over the last few years (more from the Turkish Daily News - they are finally negotiating over territorial waters, an issue that has been the cause of a lot of their tension), so maybe if Cyprus can establish itself as a united, independent republic again both of the interested powers could actually bring themselves to leave it alone now.
posted @ 2:51 AM -
You can now (from next summer to be precise) take a GCSE in Citizenship Studies. I stumbled across this while reading about the comedy of errors that one of the exam boards has been committing recently with GCSEs and A levels, and I must admit I'm pretty shocked.

Unlike a lot of people, I have no doubt that schools should be teaching this sort of material. Classes explicitly in "citizenship" are of dubious value, but the ideas they encompass should absolutely be incorporated in every other subject a school teaches. The trouble is that schools teach kids to take exams, and nothing else, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you can now take an exam in being a good citizen - suddenly there's something that will encourage schools to teach it. What a sorry state of affairs.
posted @ 2:09 AM -

Monday, January 21

How's this for a laugh: the University might be about to employ me to install Quake on their servers.

There's actually a good reason - we offer an MSc in Multimedia Applications & Visual Environments, and something like Quake provides a richly detailed visual environment with graphics, movement, characters, simulated physics and so on. Students on a one year course are not going to be expected to create something that extensive in solo projects, but providing them with an interface to an existing simulator lets them do the interesting bit with the groundwork laid for them.

Still, I can't help thinking that this will also mean we can all play network Quake after hours....
posted @ 2:27 PM -
please argue with me. It's lonely out here.

Seriously, I wish more people would talk back to me on this site, especially after I've written something as opinionated as yesterday's rant. It gives me a better idea of who's reading, and arguing helps me clarify my own thoughts about many things.....
posted @ 1:59 AM -

Sunday, January 20

The previous 7 posts are actually one long rant, but I had to break it down to make Blogger accept it. Sorry if this is confusing.
posted @ 3:24 PM -
Why oh why oh WHY do cretinous, breadcrumb-licking wannabe scientists feel the need to make ludicrously over-optimistic predictions about where their field will be in a few years' time? There is absolutely NO REASON to believe that robots will be taking GCSEs in 2010, as the latest in a distinguished line of AI nutters has predicted. I should know. This is the grand project of which my attempts at research are one small part.

There are an awful lot of people providing a hungry press with such predictions. They range from the simply ill-informed (actually the minority, they mostly repeat other peoples' predictions rather than making fresh ones) through the self-serving, such as the 'futurologist' in the article above, who is clearly trying to raise publicity for his company, to the completely insane.
posted @ 3:24 PM -
There's three reasons why I get so wound up about all this. The first is noble, the second a bit more selfish, and the third entirely self-centred:
  1. It involves the spread of blatantly false beliefs. This is a BAD THING inherently

  2. It risks fuelling a backlash against the sort of work I want to do. If people realised that our progress is quite modest they would be less scared than they are when they listen to Prof. Warwick's claims that robots will soon take over the world, and more willing to be interested in our work rather than wanting it stopped

  3. There is a slow cycle of AI funding. Every time the field has grown people have started getting carried away with their optimism, and making short-term dramatic predictions. 10 years later the predictions haven't come true, a backlash begins, and it gets bloody difficult to get funding for such research. Warwick started making his daft predictions in 1995 (before that he had 15 years of sensible research behind him), and I will be finishing a PhD and looking for research funding in 2006

This is particularly on my mind right now as last week's issue of the Sussex student paper (sorry - not online - I used to publish it online 4 years ago but when a few of us got too busy no-one stepped into the breach - makes us rather embarassingly backwards really) claims that "[the Soulcatcher 2025] microchip's future-tech design will mean that, when implanted in the skull just behind the eye, it will be able to record a person's every thought and experience". This is such complete, unadulterated bullshit (quoting someone from the same lab as the BBC story linked above) that they may as well suggest we look at each other's pineal glands to see each others' souls, but nonetheless the journalists (applying the same tried and tested standards as all student journalists) swallowed it hook line and sinker, and now more people will get paranoid about something that isn't even possible.
posted @ 3:23 PM -
Anyway, I feel I ought to provide a quick guide to spotting these obvious false predictions, but first a quick dissection of why the particular claims I've been prattling about are clearly wrong. Let's start with the "Robot passing GCSEs" one first. What abilities do we need to be able to sit exams?:
posted @ 3:23 PM -
Optical Character Recognition is good enough to read postcodes on letters, some of the time, but still requires human backup even for that very constrained task. Actually making sense of unconstrained text is still extremely difficult for computers, even when it is typed or printed.

Understanding what we read.
A quick glance at Microsoft Word's state-of-the-art grammar checker or auto-summarise feature shows just how useless these are, and the reason is that they do not understand the text they are processing in any meaningful way.

Reasoning about it
The AI world has had some notable successes in this field, but they have been highly specialised machines, like Deep Blue, the great chess player. The problem is that the chess playing machine wouldn't even be able to process information about GCSE History, and the very impressive factory fault detectors, aircraft auto-pilots, credit scoring programs (and so on) are all equally specialised. No one is anywhere near being able to produce a generalised knowledge processing system, except using the very ancient technology of sperm and ova.

Write the answers
Actually producing output is not a problem, even if we insist it must be hand-written - there have been impressive hand-writing machines for centuries (look at the "18th Century Automata" slides in these lecture notes from a course I took last term). The problem is being able to construct the prose to write. Again, there are some nice automatic prose generators, like this press release generator, but they too are highly specialised. We are nowhere near being able to computer-generate essays that even read well, let alone like a human student's work, without explicitly programming in so much specific information that it is really a human-written essay.
posted @ 3:23 PM -
Of course there is one reason why this prediction could be right - GCSEs become easier and more focussed on parotting of facts every year. Maybe by 2010 it will be possible to pass a GCSE just by spotting a few key words in the question and spouting some related data memorised from textbooks. Oh yes. It was in 1994 when I took mine, and today's computers can do that....
posted @ 3:23 PM -
Back to the mind-reading chip implant story. Here are a few questions that would have to be answered before I will believe that this is possible at all, let alone within my lifetime:
  • How will we read thoughts, given that we don't understand how the brain works in any detailed manner?

  • Why should we believe that all thoughts are transmitted through one place, like in a computer? The brain isn't like computers, and things aren't at all centralised

  • If there is such a place, why should it be outside the brain?
posted @ 3:23 PM -

How to spot charlatans in the AI community

or charlatans who wish they were in the AI community

The more of these you can tick off, the less you should believe what is being claimed:

The person making the claim is:
  • Called Kevin Warwick

  • An associate of Kevin Warwick

  • Willingly to publicly admit to being an associate of Kevin Warwick

  • Based at Reading University (because to not have executed Kevin Warwick by now is proof of their insansity)

  • Referred to as a "futurologist"

  • Employed by BT

  • Trying to scare you and/or whip up a moral panic in society

The person making the claim does:
  • Spend more time conducting interviews than research

  • Claim that detractors are just jealous

  • Publish more often in lay magazines and newspapers than the peer-reviewed scientific press

  • Publish in lay magazines before the scientific press

  • Publish things in newspapers that other people have already published in the scientific press

  • Want you to fund their work (unless of course you are a research council or their parents....

The claim itself:
  • Features things that no-one in their right mind would want to develop

  • Involves specific dates by which such things will allegedly happen, especially if they are within a decade
posted @ 3:21 PM -
I am about to post something in several parts, in reverse order because newest entries go to the top on this page. If you stumble across this in the archive it might be very confusing - jump up 7 posts and read them as one long one to make it make sense.

Sorry about this, but Blogger seems to crash whenever I try to publish the whole lot as one post.
posted @ 3:21 PM -

mountain forest in autumn - click on the image for more information

It's funny how whenever I have a sudden drop in workload I start to notice things I should have paid attention to months ago. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition has been at the Natural History Museum since October. It will wind up in March, and it's about time I paid a visit. I have a few trips to London planned over the next 6 weeks or so, so I'm sure I'll manage to find time....
posted @ 11:36 AM -
Guantanamo Bay - Base Housing
posted @ 11:16 AM -

Saturday, January 19

'For greater knowledge on more subjects use your library often!' - click on the link for an enlargement

This is part of an extensive (to say the least) collection of American propaganda posters. It's a collection of some styles of artwork that I really love, and though I still find Soviet equivalents that much more powerful, it's nice to see some about other subjects, particularly ones that I actually find myself wanting to support.

See, there are American things that I like....

(thanks due to Mena for finding this one)
posted @ 5:15 AM -

Thursday, January 17

hey kids - don't go looking at Egyptian relics in museums. It might land you in casualty.
posted @ 2:55 PM -
more strange microbes in extreme environments.
posted @ 11:40 AM -
After the military campaign, I think some positive things really are happening in Afghanistan. As I've said before, if Afghanistan ends up with a stable, freedom-supporting government I will actually be satisfied that there has been a benefit of the fighting there. Today a step was taken that will help: Treasury unfreezes Afghan money
posted @ 11:21 AM -
Apparently lots of Enron memorabilia is for sale on EBay. Sign of the times?
posted @ 3:03 AM -
I now know where the original source of the article about extreme-enviroment micro-organisms that I linked to last thing last night. It's in the latest issue of Nature, which unfortunately I don't have a subscription to online. I'll have a look at this in the university library; if you do happen to be a subscriber this link will take you directly to the article, and if you're not a subscriber you can still read the abstract, and you have the option of buying the one article.

Meanwhile, there is some more freely available information about this. The BBC website has a report on the same story, and it is a bit more thorough than the ABC news (as usual), and from their article there is a link to more information about archaea, which are the group to which these life forms belong.
posted @ 2:48 AM -

Wednesday, January 16

The discovery has just been announced of terrestrial life forms that do not use water, oxygen, carbon or sunlight, vastly increasing the number of other planets that could conceivably support life.
posted @ 3:57 PM -
I have been intentionally writing less about politics lately than I used to. This was a decision I made over christmas/new year, when I wasn't writing here. It's not that I don't wish to talk about politics, it's just that I don't have much that is original to say, and unoriginal comments ought to be confined to pub conversations and not actually published on the web. As for linking to news stories, I'll carry on doing that when I see things which are not widely known, but I've gone quiet on various things because I figure anyone who reads this page is either web-savvy enough to have already seen the obvious stories, or knows me personally and has probably heard it from my mouth in any case.

If you want to read more about politics I'll happily provide, but I don't really think I have that much to contribute, so I'm not exactly expecting begging emails....
posted @ 9:10 AM -
For various reasons I've only just got around to reading December's issue of the Economist Technology Quarterly, and I wish I'd done this earlier because it has some very cool articles in it. Particularly close to my heart (no pun intended) was one about computer models of human organs, which are intended to be used for in silico drug testing, as a substitute to the animal testing that normally happens before a drug reaches human trials.

I'm partly interested because it relates closely to my own field (and not least because I'm sniffing around potential PhD topics at the moment), and partly because it has huge potential real world benefits. Nothing will ever remove the need for human trials, with some degree of risk, before drugs can be fully released to market, but if innovations like this can remove the need for vivisection (and whatever the animal liberationists say, there is no practical alternative to vivisection in medical research yet), they remove a source of animal cruelty at the same time as making drug development quicker and faster. Looking beyond this, if the computer models are really good they will reduce the risk involved in the human trials phase, because one of the dangers comes from the fact that some things which are perfectly safe for rats, chimps and/or pigs (the main animal test subjects in medicine) turn out to be dangerous to humans.
posted @ 7:15 AM -
The leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus have started meeting regularly to discuss the future of their divided island. They seem quite eager and optimistic. It's nice to have some positive news to report for once....
posted @ 5:03 AM -
The real Cuban fisherman on whom Hemmingway apparently based the "old man" in The Old Man and the Sea has died, 50 years after the novel was published. He lived to 104, which somehow seems fitting for the protagonist of that particular story.

Thanks to moorishgirl for that story.
posted @ 3:10 AM -

Tuesday, January 15

Someone has produced a somewhat abridged Fellowship of the Ring. Maybe we'll see the Reduced Shakespeare company add this to their repertoire soon....
posted @ 8:43 AM -
Researchers at the university of Utah have managed to create a living Olympic symbol by coaxing nerve cells to grow in the 5-ring pattern.
posted @ 8:27 AM -
Picture this: you are a young Zambian man, you support the government passionately, and you believe (apparently wrongly) that your beloved president has decreed that women shouldn't dress suggestively. You then see women wearing mini-skirts or trousers. What do you do?

(a) Ignore it.

(b) Make them cover up.

(c) Strip them naked.

People can be very strange sometimes....
posted @ 7:11 AM -

Monday, January 14

I'm not quite sure how to respond to the notion that the collapse of Enron shows the 'genius of capitalism'. Is that the special genius that lets the decision makers commit fraud, and profit even in the face of failure, while the lower level staff who have no authority in such things and just take it on trust that their company is being well managed lose everything?

In defence of the status quo, it looks like there is going to be an enormous and prolonged uproar about this, and if the allegations of fraud &c. turn out to be demonstrably true the directors probably will pay a heavy price, but that's not the genius of capitalism, it's the value of state intervention, watering down pure free market capitalism. A truly genius system would be one that could prevent these sorts of things from happening in the first place.
posted @ 8:56 AM -

Sunday, January 13

Pointless discovery of the day: the origin of the name Pakistan. Knowing that "istan" means "land of" in many related languages (Turkish uses the istan ending for many more country names, for instance India is "Hindistan", 'land of the Hindus' in Turkish), I have been wondering where the "Pak" part comes from, seeing as there were no people called "Pak" or "Paki" before the country was founded. It turns out that PAK is actually an acronym of Punjab, Afghanistan (or arguably Afghania, the bit of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan) and Kashmir. It seems that the name also translates to "land of purity", but this apparently was not the reason for its coinage.

Next week's question: What is the origin of "Afghan"? The majority ethnic group is (for example) Uzbekistan are the Uzbeks, but the only use I've seen of "Afghan" is to denote person from Afghanistan, rather than an actual ethnic group. The main ethnic groups there seem to be Pashtun and Persian (Hazara), with a large array of significant minorities, so why is it called Afghanistan and not Pashtunistan or Hazaristan or something? There seems to be less on the web about this one.
posted @ 10:41 AM -

Friday, January 11

The English disease
posted @ 8:12 AM -
I don't really associate bankers with the idea of a sense of humour, but when Eugenion Domingo Solans, a member of the European Central Bank board, was presented with the ridiculous assertion that Euro notes are poisonous, responded in an appropriately absurd (and apparently accurate) manner: Euro notes are poisonous, if you eat 400 of them.

Oh well, back to my padded cell (I need to gather 250-odd data points, each of which involves leaving the program running for about a minute - long enough to be boring but not long enough to do anything useful - if my sanity appears questionable this is the cause)
posted @ 7:03 AM -
The Argus, our local paper, has managed to produce what must be its stupidest tag-line ever. Every day they have absurd super-condensed headlines on those boards outside newsagents, designed to make people feel they have to buy the paper to work out what the hell they are on about. Today's was a classic, evidently produced by writing their favourite words on bits of paper and pulling them out of a hat:


This is the actual story, about how Brighton isn't doing a great deal to celebrate our gracious Queenie's Golden Jubilee. Much ado about nothing?
posted @ 5:22 AM -

Thursday, January 10

This, apparently, is an old Russian saying: If you keep one eye on the past you are blind in one eye, but if you forget the past altogether you are blind in both.
posted @ 1:45 PM -
Finally. Brighton & Hove Albion's star striker Bobby Zamora has had an offer from a Premiership side. I'm very glad the club had the sense to turn it down, but it's nice to know he's that highly respected by people less biased than the fans.... And he's only 20! Not fair!
posted @ 10:54 AM -
Someone PLEASE explain this to me: I can go for a walk or a run outside for no charge, or I can pay $200 (probably the same number of pounds over here) for an "elliptical machine" that lets me do this walking or running at home. Why would anyone choose the latter?
posted @ 6:46 AM -
well the program works, and now it's gathering results (which means it needs my attention every 20 minutes or so), so I can start distracting myself. Really I ought to be writing the report on it, and I will start on that today, but right now this is much more interesting: a post-mortem of the absurd 1999/2000 internet business bubble. Without wishing to appear too smug, I always thought it was a fairly absurd business, breaking the basic principle of the no free lunch theorem (in case you're wondering it's a very simple theorem - there is no such thing as a free lunch), but I told myself at the time that I just didn't understand. Clearly I did, but a load of people no more knowledgeable than myself believed their own hype....
posted @ 5:16 AM -

Wednesday, January 9

Ironic that when I wrote my post about bugs in my own program I then discovered I couldn't publish it because Blogger is also sufferring from some sort of technical troubles. When you read this obviously that will have been fixed, but if it appears some time after it's dated that's why....

Meanwhile I've sort of fixed the problems in my program, but if it were a boat of the same quality I wouldn't go onto a small pond in it. Still it should do for my purposes....
posted @ 2:14 PM -
the bugs! the bugs! the bugs!!!!

It turns out that the changes I had to make were (in principle) fairly simple, and when I did my quick tests it worked fine, so I went ahead and started actually running my experiment, and the bloody thing keeps crashing. Up to the crash it records sensible data, but it never runs for long enough to be useful, and I can't for the life of me work out why. A number that should be between 0 and 15 keeps getting set to 28, and I haven't the foggiest idea why this is happening, or why it should be 28. I guess the actual number must be significant in some way though....

Anyway, I've written about programming too much already, it's just that right now there is little else in my life. One nice thing though - sunny guitar music from Africa keeping my spirits up courtesy of Viva La Musica on Totally Radio. Oh and one more thing - as I wrote this I put the TV on expecting to watch the news and spotted an episode of the Simpsons that I haven't seen before. Good excuse to stop debugging for 20 minutes.
posted @ 10:55 AM -

Tuesday, January 8

Programming can be very frustrating, especially when the specification is vague and/or wrong (my own fault - I'm not working for anyone else just now, so I can't pass the buck). I finished writing the program I had specified yesterday, and then realised for various reasons it's useless. Now I'm back to square 1 and I just have to hope that it will be quicker this time round because enough parts of what I've just done are still relevant.... sigh....
posted @ 7:28 AM -

Monday, January 7

I've just received an email (from my ISP, of all people) dated: Monday, January 01, 1601 12:00 AM

I wonder how Shakespeare's emails would have read?
posted @ 7:13 AM -
and the lion shall lay with the... erm... antelope
posted @ 6:30 AM -

Sunday, January 6

At last I can really report that work is going well. I think there must have points this evening when smoke was visibly rising from my ears, but I have mode more progress since the sun went down than in all of last week. I've also overcome what ought to be the biggest single obstacle. I can't be bothered to explain in detail here, and I can't imagine it would hold many peoples' interest, but I have managed to implement something which this morning I didn't even understand. Nothing like building your own version of something to figure out how it works....

I've not been entirely without distractions though: I've just seen that the new Lord of the Rings film has already started winning awards. Incidentally the first episode of the radio version was really rather good, though it seems that they aren't putting it on "listen again" so I can't link to it.
posted @ 6:01 PM -
After a week of messing around not working at all, and a week of working quite unproductively, I am finally starting to feel like I'm getting something done. I have a large programming project to do in what has now become quite a short time, and it has been frustrating me greatly (which is why I've spent so much time doing other things like cleaning my house (my own room was long overdue a clean so it's no bad thing - the rest of the house wasn't dirty enough to distract me for long) and obsessing over the Lord of the Rings.

There is a certain pattern to my programming, which comes up whenever I have a large program to write. It always takes me a while to even start in earnest (hence a couple of days of distraction activities), then there are a couple of days of seriously working but not making serious progress, then it starts to click into place. I don't have much of the program written yet, but I feel like a dam has broken and it can all flow again. It's a good feeling, not so much because I've achieved anything yet, but just because the frustration is evaporating. It's also a good reason to stop writing here, because I have a lot left to do, and I feel like I'll be able to use the next 4 or 5 hours well....
posted @ 1:49 PM -

Friday, January 4

As I read more about the Lord of the Rings on the BBC website I have found a couple of amusing typos in a short backgrounder about Tolkien. The Beeb's over-trust of computer spellcheckers appears to have created a new publishing house: "Alien and Unwin", and they have re-named the third instalment "The return of the Ring", which rather changes the point of the whole story (if you've read the book or seen the film you'll know what I mean, if you haven't I can't really explain it without spoiling it)
posted @ 3:58 PM -
no, the game isn't very interesting. It does offer the chance of winning some prizes though.
posted @ 3:51 PM -
Sod football. For the next 3 months my Saturday afternoons shall be differently used: BBC Radio 4 is serialising a classic reading of The Lord of the Rings between 2:30 and 3:30 (pm GMT).

You can listen online via this page, and if you miss it the chances are it will be available via the best part of the BBC Radio website - Listen Again.

They are also doing some sort of serialised game. I'm not convinced this bit will be any good, but I'm a sucker for tie-ins right now.
posted @ 3:45 PM -
hmmm.... just looked at my post earlier today about the Sydney bushfires. "brats" was not the right word. I'm not sure what would be, but let's just say that I had less contempt than usual for tabloid hyperbole when I saw that one of the Australian papers had called them "Lucifers"....
posted @ 3:10 PM -
Channel 4 showed a drama series about Ernest Shackleton this week, and it reminded me of an old dilemma (it has to be said also a dilemma that it's very nice to be able to think about, as plenty of people will never have this choice). To visit, or not to visit Antarctica?

The issue is that Antarctica is one of the last great wildernesses, and in many ways unique in the world. That is a strong reason for me to want to see it, but also a strong reason to keep tourists out. At the moment, tourist numbers are increasing, and no-one is quite sure how much of a problem, if at all, this is. Personally I think it is impossible for a wild place to be visited by organised groups of people without being marred by it. Even if the ecosystem and climate are not significantly disturbed, a place like that loses what makes it special once it no longer takes much effort to reach.

This leaves me with a difficult question to answer - since Antarctica is bound to be ruined, at least in terms of losing its appeal , does that mean I should steer clear, so as to play no part in its ruination, or visit as soon as I can to see it before it's too late?

I am open to suggestions....
posted @ 3:03 PM -
This will be ugly. And no worse than they deserve.

The brats who deliberately started a large proportion of Sydney's bushfires may be forced to confront people injured by them.
posted @ 5:45 AM -

Thursday, January 3

Since the collapse of the Taliban I have been haunted by questions, from anybody of vaguely right-wing political leanings, be they people I know or people writing in the press, about whether we naysayers still oppose the military action in Afghanistan. Somehow it has been forgotten that few people opposed this action because they thought the American army would lose (though I must admit I expected victory to be slower, more painful and cause more trouble for Afghanistan's neighbours), but we opposed (and still oppose) it entirely different reasons.

If we are to rampage through a sovereign country, however disgusting its government, and kill thousands of innocent people, there must be a demonstrable benefit, which outweighs the cost. So far all that I can see has been achieved is vengeance, and killing thousands of people won't exactly bring back the thousands who died in the World Trade Center. Yes, the Taliban have fallen, but that's not necessarily better for the people of Afghanistan - remember that they welcomed the Taliban at first as a respite from the chaos before them. Yes, some terrorists are now on the run, but it's pretty obvious that this has neither stopped them from being a threat nor scared other terrorists into some sort of conversion on the road to Damascus.

If in a year's time Afghanistan turns out to actually have a stable, freedom-supporting (I don't much care if they are democratic or not - there are democratic tyrants and there can be benevolent dictators) government, then I will feel that this war has achieved enough good to justify it. Terrorism will never disappear, but the more people are safe and comfortable the harder any lunatic fringe will find it to recruit, so what is good for the Afghans is also good for us.
posted @ 5:12 AM -

Wednesday, January 2

sorry about the prolonged silence here... I just haven't really felt like writing for a while. I spent christmas with my parents, came back home to supposedly get some work done but became hopelessly addicted to a computer game (which is now back with my parents because I really do need to get work done), went back to London for a disappointing New Year's bash, which was rather more low key than intended, largely due to my complete lack of effort in organising it, and came back here to finally start working.

as for the outside world, well I'm worried by the news from Sydney and from Kashmir, but I have nothing interesting to say about them, so I'll keep my dull and ill-informed opinions to myself

one thing possibly worth reporting - the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of film making, which I've already seen twice and may well see again. I'm re-reading the books, and it is clear that the scriptwriters took many liberties with the story - the order of events is changed and some parts are missed out altogether - but the result is actually a film that stands in its own right, whereas one that followed the book more faithfully would be either unbearably long or impossible to understand without having first read the books. I don't want to say more in case anyone reads this who has not yet seen the film and wants to....
posted @ 2:21 PM -
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