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Sunday, March 31

Apparently I share my birthday with Björk, Voltaire, and someone whose first name is 'Odd'.
posted @ 11:05 AM -
D'oh! Nuts.
posted @ 9:18 AM -

Friday, March 29

throwing out the ballast

I spent a few hours today going through all the stuff in my room in my parents' house, deciding what to keep there, what to throw out, and what to put into storage because I don't want to throw it away but also don't expect to have any use for it for years. It's amazing how much crap I have managed to accumulate. Highlights of the 2 dustbins' worth of paper that I'm recycling include the Youth Hostel Association Guide to Accommodation in Britain, 1995, the borrowers' guide for a library that isn't even open any more, and a book previewing Windows 95.... I've also succeeded in freeing up the 3 bookshelves I need, and set aside enough old clothes to make a well-stocked wardrobe, if only they fit me and/or looked nice, all of which will find their way to charity shops (hopefully soon), making way for the stuff I actually wear when I have to move it back from Brighton.

This has been a long overdue task, because for a few years I fell into the trap of postponing this because there was so much to do, which of course just allows more to build up. Once I got started I have to say it was quite satisfying; I have this feeling of having thrown out a load of excess weight that was serving no purpose.
posted @ 10:59 AM -

Philosophy essay titles

One of the 2 small(ish) bits of coursework I have to hand in before I can focus on the research project that I really want to get my teeth into is a 3,500 word essay for the Philosophy of Cognitive Science course I was on last term. It's one of these nice courses where I get to choose my own title, but of course that has a drawback - I need to pick one that will let me produce a decent piece of work. Unfortunately the most interesting ones also seem to be rather over-ambitious, considering the shortness of the essay and the fact that I only have a week or so to write it in.... Here are the ones I'm toying with at present; the general themes I want to focus on are self, world and the interface between them:

Where does "self" end and "outside world" begin?
do we locate ourselves in our heads, in our whole bodies, in body + personal effects, or not in physical space at all?
Why should I care if I die?
not to be written as a depressed person's manifesto, but as a serious approach to the question of why we value our own continued life even though none of the material that makes us will disappear when we die - an attempt to explain what creates our consciousness of 'self' - could be over-ambitious...
What is the difference between "experiencing" the world and "sensing" it?
as long as my eyes are open I receive a constant and un-ignorable flood of visual experience from the outside world. By contrast a robot samples and processes information from the world as and when its control program requests it to. How significant is this difference between my experience and that of a robot
I'm sorry. I was not myself yesterday.
considering that people who clearly are not afflicted with Multiple Personality Disorder say this, what do they mean?
How can we ever lose self-control?
if we take the idea of mind, brain and body being utterly entangled, how can we account for examples of poor self-control, ranging from poor bodily co-ordination to weakness in the face of temptation. Where do we locate agency in a fully embedded mind/body system?

I can see that this will be one of those essays that gives me a big headache for several days and then turns out to be really rewarding....
posted @ 5:18 AM -

Thursday, March 28

If you tolerate this then your children will be next

I went to the Spanish Civil War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum today. It's a well set out exhibition, with lots of historical information that I didn't know enough about beforehand, lots of great propaganda art, but more importantly a very hard hitting sense of the horror of what people will do to each other over an idea.

I left feeling completely numb, but I will definitely go back there (and by the way entry to the museum and all the special exhibitions is free) once I've recovered because it's a fascinating place.
posted @ 1:04 PM -

Wednesday, March 27

passover

Listening to the Haggadah this evening I was more keenly aware than ever of how inadequate it is. Partly because I've given it more thought than in previous years (when this was all just a hassle that I wanted to get over and done with), and partly because my brother's girlfriend was present (she's not Jewish and I was listening to her read about Hashem and about my ancestors who were not really her ancestors) things which bothered me about the service before became that much more salient.

The thing is that it makes almost no explanation of why we celebrate this night, and instead explains the minutiae of some of the symbolism, recounts long and boring theological arguments about whether there were 10, 40 or 250 plagues, and makes grovelling sycophantic reference to a God who I don't believe in. It's a real shame because it's a story that should be relevant to anyone, whether they are Jewish or not, whether they believe in God or not, and even regardless of whether they believe the story to be true (for the record I think there was an escape from slavery in Egypt, but I'm not convinced it amounts to a blow by blow accurate account of how the escape happened).

Maybe for next year I should write my own alternative based on these ideas....

oh yes, and while I'm on the subject of things Jewish, this took me by surprised: there is a community of Jews in Uganda who converted in the early 20th Century. There are not many converts to Judaism, and most people who do convert do so to marry a Jew, so it's very unusual to see a whole tribe converting in an area where there are no Jews to begin with.
posted @ 5:23 PM -

why is this night different from all other nights?

Tonight (sundown to be precise) is the start of Passover. I don't believe in God, I don't pray (it would be pretty futile), and I only normally go to the Synagogue for events of personal significance to friends and family (weddings and suchlike). I do, however, feel that my heritage is something important and worth commemorating, and Passover is one of the only two dates on the religious calendar that have significance to me beyond just being times when the extended family from around the world tend to gather in one place.

On the first night (and other nights for religious families, but my family normally just do this once) there is a special meal, with many symbolic foods and the reading of various set passages. One of the passages asks the question why is this night different from all other nights?. I won't go into the standard text, because I don't actually find its answer very satisfying, but I will try to explain in my own words, because I think it's very important that Jews and non-Jews alike are mindful of the significance of this commemoration.

This night is different from all other nights because it commemorates the ancient Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt. This is personally important to me because those were my ancestors, and it was the first in a series of lucky escapes to which I owe my very existence. It should also be important to everybody else because it can teach us something about our own lives - the importance of freedom, and of protecting freedom.

It's not enough to just eat the lamb, drink the wine and sing the service in Hebrew (all the worse considering how many of us don't speak Hebrew). There is a real point to these customs; we eat bitter herbs dipped in salt water to remind us of the bitter tears of our ancestors, and we drink the wine to celebrate that these days we can do such things when we want to. Yet how many of use really do anything meaningful to further the cause of freedom?

The point of telling this story, and of re-telling it every year, is to remind everybody that we must be free in our own minds, and we must support the freedom of others. Putting this into action means standing by one's convictions, and thinking through why we do things the way we do, not just following the crowd or the custom. This should be something that everybody does every day, but tonight is the night we make a particular fuss about it.

Because this night is when we celebrate that we are free and no longer enslaved
posted @ 9:02 AM -
someone has just posted an evangelical Christian newspaper through my door. I don't generally get offended by such things, but this one is called Good News and has a banner immediately under the masthead with the words Titanic disaster anniversary. Good news?!?
posted @ 8:05 AM -
Mice Eat Ballots in Thailand
posted @ 7:06 AM -

Mysticism and science

In reading around an essay I intend to write next week I have come across a particularly interesting paper, which may prove to be completely irrelevant to the essay (I have as yet to pick a title), but has provided an interesting diversion at the very least: What does mysticism have to teach us about consciousness?. The article tries to look at mystical experiences as consciousness distilled to its simplest form, just as we try to understand other problems in science by looking at simple instances. It risks opening a whole can of worms with the subjective nature of such things, but it's interesting to see mysticism taken seriously as a route to understanding one of the hardest problems in science.
posted @ 6:50 AM -

Tuesday, March 26

sports that might just not catch on worldwide

buzkashi is an Afghan game which involves teams of horsemen battling over a headless sheep or goat carcass, scoring points by dragging it to a chalk circle. The players want to see it exported to the rest of the world, but somehow I think they may encounter some difficulties....
posted @ 9:12 AM -

the barn door swings open

I read with considerable amusement the frequent articles about wireless network security, or rather the general absence thereof. I hadn't realised quite how widespread this problem really was, until seeing the International Chamber of Commerce's shocking statistics. In what seems to have been a more methodical study than most (they usually just involve driving through an area with a laptop and seeing what can be picked up, which means they will only get the very easiest targets) 94% of London businesses using wireless networks in their offices don't even have the basic security software that comes with the network enabled. That means that anyone who can pick up their radio signals (and at short range you only need a Pringles can and some basic electronics components, while with high quality receivers you can get a range of 25 miles) can use their network as though they were legitimate users.

On the one hand this is very funny, because it's a case of hacking being possible due to corporate IT departments' stupidity as opposed to hackers' genius. On the other hand it's not at all funny because sooner or later something important, like a list of credit card numbers or privileged legal documents will find its way into the public domain. I get the feeling that security won't be tightened up until something big goes wrong and gives people a scare....

[update at 5pm: there's also a story on ZDNet about this]
posted @ 4:12 AM -

moving out

Even if something does manage to go wrong with my planned move to Bristol, I know that I have spent my last winter (for a few years at least) in Brighton. Actually, if my plan to get to the southern hemisphere succeeds I won't see another winter for some time yet, but that's another matter. Anyway, I also know that whether I finish the MSc here or at HP my remaining coursework will consist of 3 pieces of work out of 4 possible subject areas. The upshot of this is that I no longer need my winter clothes or roughly a third of my personal library, so I'm starting to pack them up in order to ship them off to my parents' place for storage.

It's the first time in years that I've actually enjoyed the packing up and moving out activity, because it's the first time since moving to Brighton for the start of University that I've been planning a move for wholly positive reasons, rather than because I have to move out of my present accommodation. There is a tinge of sadness at the fact that I really am moving away from a town that I am very attached to, but it's far outweighed by the positive things involved.
posted @ 3:49 AM -

Monday, March 25

Hallelujah! Someone has actually found it in themselves to be cynical about the Oscars. I've had less exposure to the media than usual today, and I don't live in the States, and even so I'm sick of hearing about them.
posted @ 10:15 AM -

HP, take 2

It looks like I am going to Bristol after all. Having had my original plan thrown into confusion, I went back there on Friday to effectively re-interview, and just got a phone call an hour or so ago offering me a place on a different project. They are being understandably careful to make clear that there are still potential pitfalls, so I shall try not to get too excited until I actually have a piece of paper in my hand, but it seems like good news....
posted @ 9:46 AM -

worst web page ever?

Balancing Minerals has taken the concept of Mystery Meat Navigation to a new low. Do they actually want readers?
posted @ 8:31 AM -

swords into... keyboards

A Sierra Leonean expat is trying to set up a scheme to provide IT training to former soldiers in his country. I find this kind of thing quite inspiring, because this is the sort of aid that could actually help people put their troubles behind them, rather than just making them dependent on the charity of foreigners. There's also clearly a profit motive here as well - the scheme will be run by a company that intend to turn West Africa into a new hub of the IT industry - but far from being a problem this strikes me as a reason for optimism. It actually looks like a complete scheme that will provide both training and useful jobs, rather than the usual story of worthy individuals going off and teaching people things that they can't use, or big companies building a base in a country where they have to import all the workers due to lack of local skills.

It's all got me thinking - I'm supposed to be going off travelling after I finish the MSc, and I am pretty determined to leave this country for a few months at least, but maybe I could contribute something useful to a place rather than just being a tourist?
posted @ 6:55 AM -

Glastonbury

Having decided not to bother going to the Glastonbury Festival this year, I've changed my plans and will now be going. At the price (�100 for a ticket, lots of money to get there (unless I do end up in Bristol, but that's still uncertain), and I never manage to keep a tight budget within festivals) it seemed like poor value conisdering I could probably spend a week in Iceland at similar expense, but I've just been invited as the guest of a friend who will be working there. Now I have at least one good thing to look forward to during the summer, even if all other plans fall through....
posted @ 3:27 AM -

Sunday, March 24

football's coming home?

I didn't actually realise how serious this is until yesterday. ITV Digital are trying to dramatically reduce the amount they pay for League football rights. The trouble is they are contractually obliged to pay the current rate for another two years, so many clubs have started spending on the assumption that the cash would be there. Now, according to the Football League, half the clubs are facing bankruptcy if the money is reduced.

I can't help feeling that someone, be it government or the Football Association or whoever, will start to bail out clubs if it really gets that bad, but even so this is worrying. If a large number of clubs go to the wall the whole structure of English football would collapse, and while sport is trivial in a way, an awful lot of people do care, and football clubs also often offer a lot to their local communities.
posted @ 3:54 PM -

Altruism

The Economist is carrying an article about altruism and reciprocity which made very pleasant reading. Not only does it provide a model in which altruism that is neither directed at close relatives nor tied to an obvious return (so genuine altruism as opposed to be behaviour that just looks altruistic) can be explained rationally and has a believable evolutionary history (though evolutionary explanations are always 'just so stories' to some extent), but it also points to research that might be useful. By looking at a range of situations and seeing which produce public-spirited and which produce selfish behaviour, researchers are trying to come up with public policy reccommendations.
posted @ 3:41 AM -

Saturday, March 23

computer haiku

Various people have sifted through technical manuals with a syllable-counting program to find accidental haikus in them. There's one that seems to sum up my experience with all sorts of complex machines beautifully:

I suppose you have
to fiddle around a bit
to get this working
posted @ 3:58 PM -

Tory rebranding

Apparently the Conservative Party are rebranding as the party of the vulnerable and socially excluded, filling the vacuum left by Labour's transformation into the party of big business. I would like to believe them - after all this gap is more than a market niche, it's something that needs to be better spoken for in parliament - but there just doesn't seem to be any reason to. It's just the latest confirmation that politicians will say whatever their market research reccommends them to say, regardless of what they believe. And then they wonder why election turn-outs keep dropping....
posted @ 1:01 PM -

data paranoia

Worried about how secure your web hosting will be in the event of global thermo-nuclear war? Never mind, just use The Bunker
posted @ 11:09 AM -
stupid, stupid, stupid
posted @ 5:14 AM -
ABCNEWS.com : U.S. Will Hold 2,400 Warheads in Short-Term Reserve

I really thought the days of mutually assured destruction were behind us, but here's another announcement that makes it clear they are not....
posted @ 2:57 AM -

Thursday, March 21

Mobiles phones and driving

A new study reports what I've suspected for a long time - mobile phones impair peoples' driving severely. And people still consider it an infringement of their freedom when banning talking on the phone while driving is suggested....
posted @ 9:27 AM -
Someone's trying to do this to my computer. My firewall has managed to stop them from actually crashing the machine, but it's slowed my internet connection to a crawl, and I may just have to go offline and wait until I get a new IP address (usually happens if I stay offline for an hour or two and then reconnect). It's very very annoying.

Whoever it is, it's not big and it's not clever. It's the lowest of script kiddie attacks that doesn't prove the slightest bit of intelligence on your part, doesn't give you anything, and isn't even working the way it's supposed to. All you've managed to do is irritate me. Please stop.
posted @ 6:23 AM -

Rebuilding Afghanistan

Jack Straw is not generally my favourite person. He's not even my favourite New Labour politician, and that's saying something, but today I read an article by him which I was highly impressed by.

The basic premise is If the main challenge throughout the 20th century came from states with too much power, the chief problem of the 21st may be states with too little, from which he goes on to develop a strong argument for not just leaving Afghanistan when the war is over, but actually taking the trouble to rebuild the country. There's a key sentence which is the main reason why I wanted to link to the story: An engaged global foreign policy is not a salve to liberal consciences but a survival mechanism for all societies.

None of this is really news, but it's nice to hear it from the foreign secretary of my country.
posted @ 1:50 AM -

Wednesday, March 20

you say you want a revolution....

I've been to 2 absolutely fascinating communist gatherings in the past week. One was a presentation by 2 Cuban youth activists about Cuba and the US blockade, and the other was by 3 UK activists about their recent tour of the DPR Korea. I must admit I actually find it amazing that there are still revolutionaries in this country, considering that the late 80s saw the very public failure of most of the world's Communist regimes, but of course they have explanations for all that, and of course they are eager to paint as rosy a picture as possible of the remaining Communist countries in the world. How far I believe them is quite different for the two countries.

Cuba
I have a fairly high opinion of Cuba, in that I know several people who have been there themselves, and there do seem to be many good things to say about the country. It's not wealthy, but considering that the huge market on its doorstep is closed off by the absurd US blockade it's done pretty well, and more striking than that is the high standard of living in relation its poverty. On objective indicators like adult literacy and life expectancy (which I have always felt are far better measures of quality of life than GNP) Cuba is not that far behind the UK, in spite of the fact that its economic indicators are close to the other Caribbean countries (where life expectancies are barely over 50).

We were treated to an interesting talk about the place by 2 Cubans, which felt much more like "hey look at how proud I am of my lovely homeland" than any political indoctrination. Then there was a question and answer session, which was actually quite irritating, but I'll come back to that later. One of my friends asked what the Cuban's had to say about Amnesty's criticisms of Cuba over the imprisonment of dissidents, and the answers were not really very satisfying - US attempts to undermine Cuba were used as justification. If it wasn't acceptable for McCarthy to lock up commies (and I can think of few bleaker periods in US history) then it also isn't acceptable for Castro to lock up non-commies. The same standard must apply....

All in all I was left with a slight reinforcement of the positive image I already had of Cuba, but still some nagging questions. I'm 100% convinced Cubans are better off because of the overthrow of Batista and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, but would they have been even better off with a more open system of government? Freedom of speech seems to be regarded as a worthwhile thing to sacrifice in exchange for the achievements of the revolution, but is it really, considering that free speech and open government are the only long term restrictions on government excesses? What's going to happen when Castro dies - will someone emerge to be a Stalin to his Lenin, will the country gradually open up like China, or will his successor be a carbon copy like the two Kims in the DPRK? If Cuba is so great and that really is the whole picture, why do so many Cubans risk so much trying to get to Florida?

Democratic People's Republic of Korea
The DPRK is quite another matter. I have as yet to meet anybody from there, and the only people I know who have been there are themselves Marxists, so don't exactly amount to unbiased sources. I also don't know much about the place - these next couple of paragraphs will distil most of my knowledge, which you will probably agree is not very impressive. The impression I do have is that life is much harder for a North Korean than for a Cuban, and was that way even before the series of natural disasters in the late 90s that caused the dramatic food shortage.

The presentation was by a motley crew of local communists (up until 6 months ago I had never met anyone who would actually call themselves a communist) who had recently been to North Korea on a delegation. This of course means that they were hardly the most unbiased of observers, they couldn't really have that much of an idea of how living in the country feels (it's pretty clear from my own travels that a week in a country gives one some sort of flavour, but a limited one), and they would have been shown what their hosts (the government) wanted them to see.

They had some pretty good things to report, particularly about the DPRK's attitude to education - the central library (Grand People's Study House - picture below) Pyongyang which amounts to a far more genuinely open University than anything I've seen or heard about elsewhere. As well as a vast collection of books (including lots of books donated by overseas residents) and reading rooms, as any national library would have, there are open lectures, video-taped and TV broadcast lectures, and 'question-and-answer rooms' where authorities on particular subjects sit and wait for any individual to walk in and ask a question about anything, which they then have to do their best to answer.

the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang, DPRK


In general Pyongyang sounds (and looks) like a good place (I don't want to say anything stronger than that on the basis of a few photos and a few highly biased opinions), but it was pretty clear that the delegation had not been anywhere else in Korea. At the risk of being over-cynical, that does sound awfully like they were just allowed to see the showpiece capital, and how shall I put this? If I were to show a Korean the City of London and nowhere else they'd have a pretty distorted image of the UK.....

Communists in the 21st Century
What I actually found most interesting about both events were the people there. For starters there weren't many. I can't say I mourn the lack of interest in an ideal that has been tried and tested in living memory and found seriously lacking, but I do think it's a shame that people show so little interest in politics in general and in other countries' ways of life and ideas. After all, I wasn't there to hear things I agree with, I was there to educate myself about how a group of other people see the world.

I asked a question at the North Korea meeting (I wanted a simple clarification about the status of Korea between WW2 and the Korean War, just in terms of whether it was one country or two, but got a long lecture about how terrible life was at that time), and the chair pointed out (actually quite irrelevantly to the question, but just because he knows I don't share his beliefs) that he tends to assume the audience at such things consists entirely of Marxist-Leninists and sometimes he's wrong. Obviously he's not wrong that often, or he'd stop making the assumption....

This leads me on to my final observation, which is that people go to such things expecting to preach to the converted. Quite apart from being pointless, this lets people slip into really uselessly poor debating habits. The example that struck me most was when my friend asked about Amnesty's criticisms of Cuba. The Cuban delegate tried to answer his question, and while I wasn't very impressed with the answer I appreciated that the question had been addressed, and to some extent the disagreement was a clash of values. After that, the next half hour or so (until the chair finally banned further comments about Amnesty because they were such a dead end) was taken up by audience member after audience member (in spite of the small numbers - just about everyone felt they had to weigh in on this) criticising Amnesty, and targetting the criticisms quite personally at my friend. Not only were many of the criticisms plain wrong (they were very fond of using Amnesty's alleged refusal to criticise the US as 'proof' of Amnesty's non-neutrality, conveniently ignoring the fact that Amnesty frequently and vitriolically criticise the US), but more importantly they were completely irrelevant to the original point. Having been impressed by the presentation I was seriously fed up with the audience by the time the event finally wound up (I didn't want to walk out because it was as anthropologically interesting as it was irritating)....

I have loads more to say on these subjects, but I'm not convinced anyone else will even be interested in what I've written so far, this is possibly my longest post ever, and I'm losing patience with my computer, which crashed halfway through writing this, so I'll sign off now
posted @ 3:28 PM -
Ugandan testicle attack wife held
posted @ 6:54 AM -
am I going to Bristol or am I not? It's a little complicated now, because the project I should have been working on has been cancelled. I have to go back there on Friday to meet various people and see which of 2 possible alternatives appeals more. I think that I will get whichever I prefer out of these 2 (one of which definitely is interesting; I'm less sure about the other), but it's just a bit disappointing when I was sure I was going and now there is some uncertainty.
posted @ 4:40 AM -

Monday, March 18

HP merger

Of course I would choose my moment to go off and joing HP well, wouldn't I.... The shareholders will be voting tomorrow on whether the company should merge with Compaq, and only the interested parties are even claiming to have a clue which way the vote will go, while everyone else just concedes it will be a close run thing. I have no access to any privileged information about this - so far I've spent one afternoon at HP Labs, and the only people there who ventured any sort of prediction at all expected it to be as close as the last US Presidential ballot.

What I'm more interested in, seeing as the vote will be tomorrow and the results will be announced before I start work there (I'm still not sure of the exact date, but I'm expecting that to be 4-6 weeks away), is what either result will actually imply for the company. I'm only going there on a short term placement (finishing in early September), and HP Labs don't have an obvious duplication at Compaq, so I have little to worry about personally, but it will be interesting to see how this pans out. I have to say that the media are not optimistic: ZDNet reckon the whole process leading up to this vote has been damaging, The Economist couldn't disagree more about the process, reckoning the open-ness of debate to be very healthy, but is cautious about what a merger would actually achieve, and the Bay Area Mercury is totally set against the deal.

As for my own opinion, I really don't have a clue. I've read sensible sounding arguments about how the company needs to be bigger to challenge the likes of IBM, and I've read sensible sounding arguments about how the two companies will lose too much time over the actual organisation of the merger. In the end I'm as unsure about which would be the better result as I am about which will happen....

And as a postscript, while I was typing this I noticed another story from CNN Money, which implies that the vote-counting process will be even more complicated than for governmental elections, because each shareholder can send in successive different votes, each superseding the last, so the counters have to first make sure they only count the latest vote from each shareholder.
posted @ 9:59 AM -

is the web dragging down journalistic writing quality?

I'm getting increasingly annoyed by the shoddy standard of online journalism. I don't mean in terms of research or argument, because I don't think those are any worse online than on paper, but just poor presentation. There's lazy typography - subheadings in the same font and style as the body text - and generally appalling grammar and punctuation, not to mention spelling which is particularly inexcusable with the ubiquity of automated spelling checkers. What winds me up most though is when stories are just not finished properly, descending into the sort of note-form arguments that I would only expect to see at the end of exam papers.

Is it just me or is the general standard of writing and presentation in online news sources far worse than in newspapers?
posted @ 7:23 AM -

Sunday, March 17

well I was going to write more today but I decided that getting a good long night's sleep is actually more important. Must start snoring before midnight or else my carriage will turn into a pumpkin. Or something.
posted @ 3:54 PM -

the end of an era

well, for me personally at least. My last term of being taught at Sussex finished on Friday, so after 6 years I will no longer have another seminar there. I have pretty close to the mix of feelings I expected to have about this - there's loads of good things about the place that I will miss, and particularly a significant number of people I like enough to miss but don't know well enough to expect to stay in contact with, but at the same time my flying of the nest is a year or so overdue. I'm only just beginning to appreciate how good a break this could be, because I'm also only just beginning to recover from a hectic term followed by two nights of unusual decadence (by my fairly tame standards at least).

The coming week is mostly time off for me, because I need it badly. I also need to sort my general health out - I'm not unwell, but I could be much healthier than I am right now - so I'll be swimming every morning, going to as much kung fu as I can, and probably laying off the booze till next weekend. No dramatic measures, because there's nothing that wrong, but I just feel a bit fat and bloated and lethargic, and I need to reverse that before the lethargy increases to the point where it's difficult to fix. Meanwhile I do have a return visit to Bristol on the agenda, hopefully this coming week, and a day of 'cultural awareness' training (probably a waste of time, but if it has any substance it could be helpful when I go travelling and if I end up working or studying abroad) to go to. I'm also really really looking forward to fixing the photos section of this site, and processing more pictures. If I get everything that's waiting in the queue online there'll be about double the number of photos there....

I've got lots more to write, as I weigh up what the future now holds for me (a very different and somewhat better picture than a week ago), but I've also been neglecting my friends, so I think I'll intersperse phone calls and personal emails to people with further posts here.
posted @ 11:50 AM -

Wednesday, March 13

quick update: I got the place at HP (no I wasn't expecting to hear back from them this quickly, but hey, I'm not complaining), but I need to go back there pretty soon to meet someone who wasn't around today, to sort out which of 2/3 potential projects I'll actually be doing. This is very very cool.

Meanwhile I have lots to do for the next couple of days, so things may be a little quiet on this site for a day or 3. I guess my next expansive post will be on Saturday after a nice long lie-in....

Oh yeah, and my compulsive teeth-grinding while I'm hard at work has a purpose after all - chewing gum aids cognitive function
posted @ 4:35 PM -

Tuesday, March 12

manipulative sellers of widescreen television

This story broke yesterday and I wasn't very interested at the time, but that was because I hadn't realised the full strangeness of it. I think I'll let it speak for itself, so here are a few key extracts:

A mentally-ill gunman apparently unhappy with widescreen televisions has shot himself dead in an Amsterdam office building after a seven-hour siege.... ....A spokesman, quoting the fax, said he was angry that new television screens were being promoted as "better looking than normal screens".... ....During the day, the man admitted he had entered the wrong building...

I won't even pretend to understand.
posted @ 9:17 AM -

rhetorical retaliation

Having been a tad offended by the criticism of them in the recent US human rights report, China have decided to issue their own report on human rights in the USA. Perhaps unsurprisingly it makes some reasonable criticisms of the US while completely failing to convince me that the US' criticisms of China were unjustified. Still, in context the first paragraph or two of the press release read as a very good joke, as does China's 'shock' at being regarded as a threat by the US....

And in other China news, it looks like the Three Gorges Dam will need an IPO to raise capital. It doesn't sound like the most attractive of investments, so after the failure of all protests good old market forces may just be what decides whether this project actually goes ahead....
posted @ 8:22 AM -

the courage to refuse

The last week or two in Israel has become even more depressing and hopeless than the past few months have been. I don't want to say much about that, because I really have nothing to contribute, but I would like to draw attention once again to the group of reservists who are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, and a page I've just noticed on their site about why Judaism endorses their conscientious objections.

In a time of increasing polarisation I think it is important to remember that not all Israelis think with one mind, and not all Jews are Zionists. I am more worried than ever about anti-Zionists expanding from their dislike of Israel to a more general anti-Jewish prejudice, and I am seeing and hearing rhetoric that leans dangerously in that direction.
posted @ 6:18 AM -

we look before and after

This is my last week of tuition on the MSc. I have one seminar left on Friday, and then months of coursework to do on my own with no externally imposed structure. I have two relatively small pieces to do (a philosophy essay and a neural simulation programming project), then I have my main MSc dissertation to do, which will occupy me full time until late August.

This is a good time for me to reflect on the past year and a half and on where I am going now. First of all, I would like to say to anyone who is contemplating being a part time student - try to find and alternative if you can. I don't regret doing it this way, because what I've done with the other half of my time has been worthwhile, but it is much harder than being one thing full-time. It's also partly my own difficulty with task switching; when I start the day doing one thing I'm very bad at switching to another activity, and I waste huge amounts of time switching. Still I don't think this is the whole problem - I'm studying things I am passionate about, and it's intensely frustrating having to switch away from such things on a regular basis. From now on all my studying will be full time, whatever other sacrifices I might have to make to sustain this. That's not to say I won't teach - it would be great to get the chance to teach some classes at whichever University I do my PhD at - but I don't want to take on too much teaching work, and I want to devote very little time to off-campus work.

The teaching has been a very positive experience, and I think the difficulties of being a part time student have been justified by the fact that I've had the chance to do this. It's a fun job, it's a highly rewarding one, it's one that I got into entirely by accident and then discovered that actually I'm quite good at it, and it's a really good thing to have experience in, especially for someone who wants a career in academia. Looking back to 2 years ago when I was deciding how to approach this MSc, I wouldn't choose differently, and the teaching is the main reason for that.

Student politics has probably been the biggest disappointment of this year, though that's partly because between everything else I haven't been able to put as much time into being Postgrad Officer as the job deserved. I only started the job because no-one else came forward, so I have nothing to feel guilty about because I've done something rather than nothing, but it's the one sphere in which I feel like I have achieved very little this year. It's not just my lack of application behind this; student politics is a very difficult area in which to really make any difference, and the student body have rejected this year's less-apolitical-than-usual Union Exec, so in a sense inaction is appropriate representation for this group. Looking back to one year ago when I decided to take this job on I probably wouldn't do it again, but I can still honestly say I have learned from the experience.

Meanwhile the future has some interesting potential. I'm off to Bristol tomorrow to meet some people at HP labs, and see if I can arrange doing my dissertation there as part of the Biologically Inspired Complex Adaptive Systems group. It would be wonderful if this were to work out, not least because it would be the first time I could actually realise my ambition of being paid to do what I would choose to do with much of my spare time anyway. I also think it would be interesting to see a commercial research environment, having limited myself to academia until now, and commercial research is really the only future path I can see myself finding rewarding other than one in universities, so it has to be a good thing to see the inside of such a place now. This would also involve relocating to Bristol at fairly short (6 weeks or so) notice, but that would also be good. I'm getting increasingly itchy feet, because I've been in Brighton since leaving school, and while I still love the place and still think it's one of the best places in the world to live it's just been a bit too long in one place for someone of my (ahem) tender years. Add to this the fact that it looks like HP Labs have a nicer working environment than any university I've seen on this side of the pond, and that it would be much easier for me to keep my work seperate from the rest of my life (if only because a fresh start would help me change bad habits), and you can probably see why I've gone for this....

Longer term future is still fuzzy, but I will do a PhD, and I won't go straight into that this autumn, which is why I can afford the plan not to be too specific yet. I need to get some things out of my system before I finally set myself on a long term path; I need to travel a bit and I need to work full time for a while as well. I have a few months to put these things into place, but I'm looking forward even to making the plans.
posted @ 4:20 AM -

Monday, March 11

drinking and driving

I used to be fairly casual about drinking and driving. I don't think (though I can't be as sure as I'd like to be) that I've ever driven while over the legal alcohol limit, but I also always realised that the limit is high enough and I am enough of a lightweight that I can be unfit to drive while still legally allowed to. Then I spent much of the last year of my BA working on research into how drivers process and respond to visual information, and I became very strict indeed about alcohol and driving. Nothing I was working on was directly related to this issue (my own work had flaws characteristic of undergrad research, and if anything what it did demonstrate was that myopia is less of a handicap to drivers than I expected), but in the background reading I saw some frightening information about exactly how much drivers' eye movement patterns change after consuming just 1 unit of alcohol. Now some researchers have come up with a behavioural way to measure how drunk a driver is, by monitoring precisely these changes in their eye movements. Just one more illustration of why if I'm planning on driving anywhere (which is pretty rare anyway what with me not owning a car) I don't drink anything at all.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this, a story has appeared on my desktop news ticker about the danger of driving under the influence of drugs. This, along with the arbitrariness of a blood alcohol concentration based limit (I weigh twice as much as my daintiest friends, so I can drink twice as much as them without being over the limit, but this doesn't change the fact that I notice my own reduction in co-ordination and alertness after 2 pints) underlines the importance of introducing behaviour based tests for fitness to drive.
posted @ 5:46 PM -

Mr. Eaves and his magic camera

I've just stumbled across a funny story with some really lovely pictures. One day, Farrell Eaves dropped his camera into a pond. He decided to rescue it and repair it in a mysterious way, which made it take pictures again, but not in the camera-never-lies way we usually demand from such machines.

I like these pictures so much I'm wondering if I shouldn't try to resurrect my old camera, which was injured in active service when I tried taking it up a mountain in Canada at -10° or so. It too still takes photos, but very badly. I'm just wondering if by tampering with it (seeing as it's pretty useless in its current state, and would cost more to fix than it did to replace) I can make it do something interesting rather than just overexposing each photo.
posted @ 4:55 AM -

guestmap

I've just added a new feature to this site - the guestmap lets you mark your location on a world map so we can all see where my 3 readers actually come from. If it turns out I actually do have more than 3 readers this could be quite interesting....
posted @ 4:35 AM -

Sunday, March 10

...the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness

I had been looking for a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg for a little while on paper, and I've just stumbled across an online copy, as well as a surprisingly good pastiche - Howl.com.

How do I love Google? Let me count the ways....
posted @ 3:50 PM -

Zimbabwe

I find the voter apathy in the UK quite disturbing, but other people have tried to convince me that in fact it is a sign of a healthy country - many people just not being angry enough about anything to bother voting. Looking at the voter fanaticism in Zimbabwe this weekend makes me wonder if perhaps they are right. Just as Zimbabwean voters are fanatical about making sure they can vote, because things are so bad there that they appreciate the huge importance of doing so, UK voters don't care because ultimately political parties aren't doing things like beating up their families. Framed in that way I'm definitely happier to be in the apathetic country....
posted @ 3:22 AM -

control of information

A Bill currently before parliament threatens to give the government the power to require that people have licences to discuss potentially sensitive (defined in a very broad way) research with foreigners. Considering how much good research involves at least one of foreign students, foreign faculty or collaboration with foreign institutions, if the Bill were to go through in its current form it would make science and technology research completely unworkable, which is an unbelievably stupid move by the government, because it wouldn't stop such research at all, it would drive researchers abroad, which would just leave the UK less able to benefit from such work. We really badly need a government that actually understands science and does something to support the activity - this is one of the things America does best, and it's one of the biggest reasons why yhe US is so much wealthier than the UK (as well as a reason why I might well end up there for my PhD, but that's another story for another day)....
posted @ 2:47 AM -

no more Bush legs

Russia has just banned imports of chicken from the US. Depending on whose story you choose to believe, this is either retaliation for the steel tariffs or a genuine attempt to protect Russian consumers from unsavoury chemicals used in US poultry rearing, but even if it is the latter it seems implausible that the US import tariffs didn't have some influence on the decision, if only in sending out a signal that this is an acceptable way to do business between countries.
posted @ 2:17 AM -

Saturday, March 9

things I learned today

Beer is a far older invention than I thought, and some people suspect that beer making may have been the trigger for the ancient Sumerians switching from gathering food to cultivating it.

Speaking of which, I think I'll go out and drink some now.
posted @ 1:23 PM -

...stop worrying and love the bomb

I was absolutely dumbstruck today when I read the LA Times' articles about the US Nuclear Posture Review. For most of my lifetime the one positive thing about nuclear weapons seemed to be that the likelihood of them ever being used was decreasing, and now it seems Doctor Strangelove is alive and well. If this were a generalised risk assessment I think the review's shifting of the focus of American defence worries from Russia to various smaller states (the usual suspects) would be a pretty realistic response to changes in the world, but the whole idea of nukes is just so emotionally and politically charged that any talk of increasing their usability will just make countries jittery. That can't possibly be a good thing; jittery governments are more likely to develop weapons of mass destruction themselves (OK, so admittedly in some of these cases it means they will prioritise nefarious schemes that were already underway, but that's still bad), and much more likely to do stupid things.
posted @ 1:14 PM -

best toy ever?

The Incredible Rubber Band Machine Gun - I want one!
posted @ 8:15 AM -
Unsurprisingly enough, the government's positive steps about drug control were followed very soon by the Opposition accusing them of going soft on drugs. I do wish they would grow up and start considering what might actually be good for the country....
posted @ 1:26 AM -

Friday, March 8

I can, like, see the colour of the universe, man

it's beige
posted @ 2:30 PM -

Sven says yes

To a new stadium for the Albion. I know such decisions ought to be based on more substantial considerations, but I am more than a little suspicious that Sven Gøran Ericsson's endorsement has just guaranteed that we will get out nice new ground after all....
posted @ 11:16 AM -

Thursday, March 7

steel, steel, steel

Going back to my little rant about steel tariffs, there's (unsurprisingly) quite a lot about it in the press now. Of particular interest are a typically thorough backgrounder by the FT, and an opinion piece in the Independent that says what I was trying to say far better.
posted @ 9:53 AM -

why johnny joins the taliban

Yes, it's true, being a liberal has dire consequences. One case of a liberal parents' son doing something incomprehensibly bad proves it.
posted @ 9:26 AM -

drug control

Now this is promising. The government has just proposed a new drug safety plan that aims to make clubs into safer environments for people on illegal stimulants. For various reasons the UK looks like it could be on the verge of a fresh moral panic about drugs like the Leah Betts episode while I was at school. It's very easy in this sort of situation for a government to just jump on the bandwagon and propose more draconian laws, more misleading anti-drug publicity campaigns, and so on. Fortunately it looks like this time round they might not give in to that temptation, and might actually do something positive.

The problem with things like the Leah Betts story is that kids just aren't stupid enough for those sort of scare tactics to work. They just do what I did - when confronted with obvious nonsense being presented as the truth we just start to mistrust everything we are told. This leads to a dangerous sort of empiricism, where people don't believe warnings about anything unless they experience side-effects themselves, by which time it is clearly too late.

There's also a related issue of precisely what principles the law should be supporting. Prohibition is an example of the lawmakers telling individuals what to do to themselves, which I believe is utterly wrong. An approacch based on controlling the harm done by drugs, rather than their use per se, shows a different sort of concern - it's a (sadly isolated) example of lawmakers sending out a signal that they are concerned about peoples' welfare, as opposed to trying to impose their moral standards on all of us. Unfortunately it will still be some time before any government finds drug decriminalisation palatable, but this is a good start.

For more background information: the Guardian has a special report about drugs

And finally, as a contrast, the extent to which drug policy has not been dictated by genuine public health concerns so far is shown up by recent condemnation of the government for not doing enough about the two drugs that do the most damage to society - yes, you guessed it, alcohol and tobacco.
posted @ 6:41 AM -

Wednesday, March 6

there is a light that never goes out

...or at least not for a century. The town of Centralia, Pennsylvania has had an anthracite seam on fire for 40 years so far, and according to this report in the wonderfully titled Failure Magazine it could continue to burn for another 100.
posted @ 4:36 PM -

game for small sounds

First, hear the sounds. Then, read Paul Ford's page on the game to see why it sounds so.
posted @ 6:25 AM -

man attacked by weasels

Full story from i know what i know. i sing what i said
posted @ 4:07 AM -

royal samba

I saw this on the TV news yesterday - Prince Charles is on tour in Latin America, and he ended up dancing in the street in Brazil. Not hugely surprising, but what I was surprised at was that he actually looked quite good. Somehow I didn't expect a royal to be able to dance a graceful samba....
posted @ 4:04 AM -

principles

This is one link in a cascading chain of blogs - Andrea attempts to answer some unusually big questions on her blog, that were initially asked on another site. I think I'll attempt an answer a little later because they are interesting.
posted @ 4:00 AM -

free trade for us only

I can not comprehend the arrogance behind this. It's not OK for the EU to ban hormone treated beef, because that is considered a trade barrier against the US, even though there is a clear medical reason for keeping it out, but it apparently is OK for the US to impose heavy tariffs on steel. This is such an obvious case of the US having their cake and eating it, but because they are the US they will probably get away with it. If the US government is going to dictate laws to the rest of the world, shouldn't we all get to vote for it?

Things like this have been making me increasingly pro-EU as I realise that the world needs a power able to counterbalance US hegemony, and the only thing that can come close to doing that is a strong and politically united Europe. Euro-sceptics tend to argue that we are losing our precious British sovereignty to Strasbourg and Brussels, but I trust those institutions more than Washington, and at least there could be 2 authorities balancing out each others' excesses to some extent.

On a much happier note, the US State Department's annual human rights report has received a mostly positive response from human rights groups. There were fears it would be politically skewed, and these seem to have been unfounded.
posted @ 3:54 AM -

Tuesday, March 5

cold fusion?

Previous similar announcements have turned out to be either frauds or errors, so I wouldn't get too excited about this, but some researchers claim to have produced exothermic nuclear fusion in a desktop experiment.
posted @ 4:16 PM -

below and beyond

It seems to be the season for it - there's been yet another announcement of life discovered beyond what were thought to be the limits of the biosphere. The Ocean Drilling Program have disovered microbial life several hundred metres below the sea bed.
posted @ 6:28 AM -

Monday, March 4

partially cloudy,
82% chance of rain

I've just come back from a very short trip up to London to see magnolia. I don't want to write much about the film, because I went in knowing nothing about what to expect (beyond that it is long and emotionally intense), and I enjoyed it much more. What I will say though is that it is a fantastic film that will take me a long time to fully digest, and that I'm very glad that Alex (my flatmate) owns a copy on DVD because I think I'll be watching it a few more times.

On the way up I missed my scheduled train to Victoria, so ended up getting one to London Bridge and only just making it to the cinema in time. This all worked out perfectly though, because if I had caught the planned train I would have been even later due to a security alert and missed the first scene at least. Only a matter of chance?
posted @ 6:07 PM -

the wayback machine

That previous post just reminded me of a nice site I've been meaning to mention here. The web is almost the antithesis of the kind of enduring record that people are trying to create with things like the Domesday Project. It is easy to publish a page, and easy for it to disappear again, and it is a bit of a shame because printed matter automatically leaves a record of how it has developed over time. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine tries to do something about this, by keeping copies of pages as they looked at regular intervals through their history. No doubt one day I'll be laughing at the naïve design of this page; certainly I do laugh at my early efforts....
posted @ 9:48 AM -

how soon is forever?

There is apparently a 'crisis in digital preservation' in the world today, as exemplified by the obsolescence of the 1986 Domesday Project, even as the 11th Century Domesday Book still endures. The problems is technology, or rather our reliance on specific technologies. There is a team working on transferring the data from 12" laser discs that can no longer be read in up-to-date computers, but they are worrying about what to transfer it to that will have more permanence. Why should a desktop PC's hard drive be any more useful in another 16 years' time than these discs are now?

The article makes the obvious comparison with paper, and at first I thought they had a point - William the Conqueror's Domesday Book is still useable, and there are far older documents than that, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Predating these, there are archæological finds of inscriptions and paintings on stone that have survived far longer, and it's hard to imagine (for example) my hard drive lasting as long as these have done (or at least still being readable).

Natural forms have done far better even than this - a couple of years ago an American researcher discovered 250 million year old spores which he managed to cultivate in his lab. Those simple information-carriers lasted unimaginably long and still worked, while our newer technology has managed less than my lifetime.

To fuss about this is to completely miss the point though. What is important about most documents is not the physical medium they are recorded on, but the information itself. No historian of the future is likely to care all that much about whether they are reading the original Domesday Book or an nth generation clone, as long as it still contains accurate records of the same thing. In the same way I don't mind (beyond it wasting a little time) that I have to copy gigabytes of information when I buy a new PC, but if I couldn't copy that information I'd be pretty concerned. If I stopped bothering, the chances are no-one else would do it, but that's because I'm not important enough. What is important enough will be preserved in one form or another, in a sort of survival of the fittest.

Perhaps for our analogies from nature we should not look at spores preserved dormant in crystals, but at such things as the 12,000 year old creosote bush, whose survival is not measured in terms of years that the same matter is in the same place, but years of uninterrupted life, while its constituent atoms are exchanged freely with the surrounding world.

By coincidence I read a poem about exactly this this shortly before seeing that Observer article.
posted @ 8:59 AM -

compatibility update

I think I've now got the page looking reasonable in Opera - there are lots of IE-specific details that I don't think I can make cross-browser compatible, but none of them are important - the layout is almost right (one table slightly out of line - I'll live) and the background colour is more or less right; it's just that in IE you aren't stuck with a flat background....

Meanwhile it turns out that Netscape 6 now renders the page horribly. Very few people actually use this browser, but seeing as it is supposed to be a reasonably standards-compliant one I will try to fix it. Trouble is I don't know how just yet, but I'm working on it. I've also lost a minor detail (the border around the page) in the IE version, but I'll work out how to get that back soon enough.
posted @ 3:53 AM -

Sunday, March 3

people's front of judea

Monty Python's Life of Brian is on the idiot box at the moment, and it's depressing how much the colosseum scene reminds me of real life....
posted @ 2:43 PM -

new look!

All that hassle with changing hosts and then finding that some things don't work anymore has prompted to me to start that redesign I've been telling myself I'll do for ages. It will take me a while to change the other pages I want to change, but I've done this page without waiting, because it was rather overdue.

You'll only see it the way I intended if you use Internet Explorer (I've only tested in version 6 so far, but it ought to look the same in 5.5, and pretty similar in 4 and 5). I don't know how to do the same things without using IE-specific JavaScript, but I have tried to make the page easily usable to everyone else. If you use Netscape 6 or Opera (tested in v6 but should be similar in 4 and 5) then the layout will be pretty much the same, it's just the background and some subtle effects that are different. If you use an older browser than those then it will look pretty horrible. If you're using Netscape 4 then I apologise, but there is so much wrong with that browser that the only way I could make the page work there would be to either break it for other browsers or drop half of my ideas. If you're using a pre-version-4 browser then there's really no helping you. It may seem arrogant but I can't face designing for a tiny minority of users, who also won't see anything else on the web looking nice....

At the moment there are two things missing: comments and photo browsing (you'll get an error message if you try). I should be able to sort both out tonight.
posted @ 1:01 PM -

Friday, March 1

technical difficulties

I'm having some fairly serious problems with my domain name and web hosting at the moment. I think I may have just sorted this all out, but if you still find you have trouble accessing this page over the coming week please bear with me.

[update on Sunday 3rd of March: I think I may have sorted this out now, but I won't be sure for a few more days]
posted @ 7:11 AM -
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