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Tuesday, July 29

hiatus

The more observant of my readers may have noticed that it's been unusually long since I wrote anything here. There's no major dramatic reason for this; I just haven't really felt like it. I have a feeling it may be a while till I do again, because it's now not long till I go to Cleveland, and I need to get on with doing things, rather than writing and talking about doing things.

I'm flying out on Monday the 18th of August, and I hope the flight will be less exciting than what one mad Austrian has planned. I think I'll probably pick this site up again once I'm in Cleveland, when I hope I'll have a bit more to say for myself. Until then there'll probably just be the odd link to funny stories, and maybe some more photos if I get my act together with publishing them.
posted @ 4:10 PM -

Thursday, July 24

File under: very cool

And it will even be useful to some people: a wheelchair controlled by thought alone.
posted @ 6:12 AM -

Grotesque, but necessary

It looks like America will publish pictures of Uday and Qusay Hussein's corpses in the next day or two. I'm sure they'll get stick for the macabreness of doing so, but it sounds like they have little choice. They were (perhaps naively) hoping to instantly capitalise on what is clearly a significant victory in the ongoing war against Baath with a reduction in attacks on US personnel, but the trouble is many people don't seem to believe they've actually got their men.

For all that I didn't want this war to happen, it is crucial now that it's started for it to be finished properly, and the blow to remaining Baathists' morale that proving two of their leaders are dead would provide would clearly help. Add to that the reduction in fear for Iraqis who didn't support the old regime and just want to get their lives back to normal, and the issue of respect for the corpses of two particularly disgusting men doesn't really feel worth losing sleep over.
posted @ 5:32 AM -

Wednesday, July 23

Liberia

National Geographic has an interesting article on the history of Liberia. Unsurprisingly, the full story is more complex and less appealling than the founded by freed American slaves soundbite that the media tend to use, and as context for the current troubles there it adds ethnic and historical tensions to what I had thought was purely a war over natural resources.

I am basically in favour of US intervention in Liberia, because unlike Iraq they seem to actually be wanted by most of the people, and with a relatively small force they could bring about a quick and dramatic improvement in the quality of peoples' lives. Having said that, it's always tricky being the one who stands in the middle, and I think they are probably right to be taking the time to work out how to do this properly. If they end up getting manipulated into supporting one side it will undo a lot of the good they could do.
posted @ 4:16 PM -

Heroinware

Apparently the Thai government has recently instituted a law banning access to online game servers overnight, in a bid to combat the Ragnarok addiction that is widespread among Thai youth. I don't know what it is about Thailand, but it seems particularly prone to these sorts of extremes of obssesive behaviour. Apart from the serious drug problem there, it's the only country where I've heard about people being killed over karaoke.

Still, even if this is developed to a particular extreme in Thailand, it's certainly not a phenomenon unique to that country. In much of Asia the development of internet cafes seems to be spurred more by online gaming than tourism, and I distinctly remember a place in Hong Kong which had particularly good facilities, but in which I couldn't stay for more than an hour or so without developing shell shock, such was the din of explosions. Actually blocking servers for certain hours seems like an unjustifiably totalitarian reaction though, and I'll be interested to see how much of a fuss the internet cafes kick up over their lost revenue.
posted @ 3:49 PM -

Tuesday, July 22

According to CNN, the Eiffel Tower is on fire. No information as yet about whether this looks accidental or like an attack.

Update: added the link as it appeared. From reading that it sounds plausibly accidental, but since the WTC attack I've been unable to hear reports like this without immediately thinking about far nastier possibilities. We shall see.

Update at 9pm: no-one was hurt, and it really doesn't look at all suspicious. If this had happened two years ago I wouldn't even have bothered writing about it.
posted @ 10:54 AM -

Monday, July 21

The man they couldn't scan

This morning I was due to have my brain scanned, as a subject for Sam's experiment.

We went through the practice tasks, filled out the tedious (but very clearly necessary) consent forms and questionnaires, and went through to the department where they have all the fMRI equipment. It's all very impressive, from the hotel-like lobby, through the French accent on the recorded messages in the lift, and finally to the actual control room. The machine looks expensive, but more importantly the control room looks straight out of a sci-fi flick, with half a dozen different monitors and a general assortment of important-looking machines.

There's a fairly lengthy procedure to get a subject ready for the scan, involving ear plugs and headphones (the machine is very noisy and the subject's head is right inside it), a heart rate monitor, an arrangement of mirrors to let me see the stimuli, and so on. Finally I was lying down, hemmed in by kit, feeling a little like Han Solo on the way to the carbon freeze, and it was time to do the preliminary scans. Unfortunately, I felt something very odd during the second scan; I can only describe it as feeling like there was pressure inside my eyebrows.

I wasn't even sure whether this was worth mentioning—it wasn't painful and I could probably have carried on with the experiment—but just as we were about to start the experiment properly I decided I had to say something, in case there was a chance, however tiny, that this was a sign of something untoward. Sam consulted the radiographer and they decided to err on the side of caution and end the experiment.

The most likely explanation for what I was feeling was that it was a sort of ghost pain, caused by the magnetic field directly stimulating the nervous system, in which case it was harmless, but there is some unknown level of risk involved. They clearly were right to be careful but I was actually quite disappointed that now I won't be getting pictures of my brain, and it's a shame to have gone through half of the process and used up expensive scanner time only to not be able to do the experiment after all. Still, maybe this means I can receive signals from outer space or something.
posted @ 3:14 PM -

Friday, July 18

Unwarping records

Does anyone know how to flatten a warped record without damaging it further? A few years back I was given a copy of a rather interesting spoken word item (the "Priest" they called him—a William S. Burroughs & Kurt Cobain collaboration) by an ex girlfriend, partly because she didn't have access to a record player and it was therefore no use to her. The only problem was that it had been stored too close to a radiator or hot water pipe or something, and was somewhat warped. It does still play if I increase the weight on the stylus, so I'm not willing to try anything that risks cracking the record, but it's a very pretty limited edition picture disc, so it would be nice to be able to return it to its original condition.
posted @ 6:16 AM -

Netscape RIP?

Judging by reports of AOL laying off Netscape developers, it sounds like the Netscape Navigator browser has finally been given up on and died. If this could have happened before they brought out version 4 it would have made the lives of web developers far easier for years, but version 7 (which I guess will now be the last) is actually pretty good, and now that browsers are finally starting to converge on standards I would prefer to see more competition for Internet Explorer.

Mozilla will presumably continue to be developed, and recent versions have been pretty good, but being Open Source means it's likely to stay a minority product, and Opera, which I think is the best Windows browser available at present suffers from being relatively unknown outside the geek community.

Of course it's some time since Netscape browsers amounted to any sort of competition either (stats here), but I do wonder how different that might have been if version 4, which once had around 25% market share, had actually been reliable. Never mind all the technical issues that annoyed developers (which, to be fair, often amounted to Netscape interpreting standards more rigidly than Explorer, and us not being used to such treatment), I'm pretty sure that it was the high frequency with which it made Windows crash that turned Netscape from respectable second place to minority product not worth paying a development team for. And all because they were afraid that if they took longer to bring it to market they'd lose out.
posted @ 3:55 AM -

Thursday, July 17

Anglo-American special relationship trivia quiz

A quick question: Tony Blair is apparently the fourth UK Prime Minister to address Congress. I know that two of his predecessors were Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, who also strike me as the most likely candidates. Who was the fourth? (or quite possibly first)
posted @ 2:19 PM -

Major Windows security hole

If you're running any form of Windows, it would be a good idea to update it now. Microsoft announced a major security flaw yesterday, along with patches to fix it.

Update: It looks like this is actually a much more serious issue than most of these security warnings, that there's a high likelihood someone will develop a worm to exploit it, and that such a worm could be pretty disruptive. Please update your system.

It's rather like innoculation against biological viruses—a certain proportion (the vast majority) of the population need to be vaccinated in order to keep outbreaks restricted.

Another update: I suppose I ought to post instructions on how to update your system. It's relatively easy to do automatically, though exactly how depends on which version of Windows you have. You may have a Windows Update link in your Start Menu, or in the Tools menu of Internet Explorer. Otherwise, use Internet Explorer (whether it's your usual browser or not) to go to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/. It will scan your system and come up with a list of critical updates, all of which are worth installing. Alternatively, if you just want to install this patch and do no other messing around, you can do so manually via Microsoft Technet.

Also, it looks like the article I linked to above was only available for a short time. If you want to know more about what the actual problem is, ZDNet have a story, and the group of Polish hackers who discovered the vulnerability have a little bit to say about it too.
posted @ 4:10 AM -

Tuesday, July 15

Are you sitting comfortably?

I'm going to rip off Mike's tagline for this one: Eventually your head will explode.
posted @ 4:03 AM -

A reason to watch Man U

Manchester United have just confirmed the signing of American international goalkeeper Tim Howard. Why do I care, when I've only even been following Brighton pretty half-heartedly of late and am in no way a Man U fan? He has Tourette's Syndrome. Obviously to have got this far he must be able to deal with his condition, but I'm waiting for the first penalty award against Man U, and I hope I get to watch it on TV somewhere.
posted @ 3:49 AM -
A list of gifts received by George W. Bush proves that the UK get better value out of our government than either Italy or Saudi Arabia, and appears to show that Mr. Blair has a sense of humour.
posted @ 3:23 AM -

Monday, July 14

I'm not sure what's more disturbing: the fact that someone's found this site by searching for chloroformed chinese girl, or that following their search seems to indicate that chloroformed schoolgirl is an in-demand genre of porn.
posted @ 9:19 AM -
Compay Segundo RIP. His songs have brightened many of my days.
posted @ 9:09 AM -
What do my friends do when they are bored on late night trains home? Well... one of them comes up with a revolutionary new account of how people became bipeds. Or maybe he just found a prehistoric document lying around in his living room and translated it for our benefit.
posted @ 7:31 AM -

Kasparov on computer chess

New Scientist are running a very interesting interview with Garry Kasparov, in which he explains why he regards the existence of very high quality chess playing computers as a positive development, rather than the death of the game. It strikes me that he has understood something most people outside the AI community are apt to forget—that the most interesting practical developments in AI tend to relate to the increasing richness of interaction between people and machines, as opposed to any real Sci-Fi dreams of intelligent machines.

I regularly find that if I describe what I work on as AI people respond with things like isn't that dangerous?, or aren't you worried that machines are going to take over?. I generally try and explain to them that what I worked on last year basically amounted to a system for arranging rectangles on a page, and what I'll be starting work on in just over a month is a system for catching multiple falling objects, which tends to take the heat off peoples' paranoia a little by simply not sounding too impressive. There's a more fundamental point here though: all I'm really saying by stressing the primitivity of existing AI is not yet, and it tends to shut people up if they haven't thought particularly deeply about the issue, but I firmly believe these are things not worth considering at all.

The point is that AI is a social human endeavour, undertaken by groups of rational human beings who hope to get something out of it. Creating substitute human beings is utterly pointless, because we already have an effective way of creating human beings, which I daresay is more fun than spending nights in front of a computer. There are two main reasons why people get into AI (and I'm motivated by both, in varying proportions from day to day, which I think is common to many researchers): a desire to learn more about biological intelligence, and a desire to build ever more useful tools. To learn more about biology from simulations we have to look at a relatively low level—this ball catching stuff I'll be doing isn't about solving the problem (it's easy enough to write a program that explicitly uses physics equations to intercept moving objects), but about using a simple, tractable problem to analyse the behaviour of a class of controllers that we don't yet understand very well. To make useful tools doesn't require mimicking of any of the unpredictable characteristics of human beings—we need machines that are good at what humans are not good at doing, and we already have billions of humans in the world to do things that humans do well.

The page layout stuff I worked on last summer was along these lines—it isn't supposed to be a fully independent system that would make graphic designers redundant, but rather a tool that would let graphic designers work on the creative parts of the job only, letting the computer deal with the drudgery of adapting individual pages to specific requirements. And this is where Kasparov's ideas struck a chord with me. He wants to see a new class of chess tournament in which man-and-machine teams play against each other, as opposed to simply pitting a man against a machine, because the combination of the strengths of both will lead to the next step up for the game as a whole. He sees this clearly in his particular domain of expertise, but I think it generalises much further: to everything for which computers are useful.
posted @ 4:02 AM -

Sunday, July 13

Can't handle the truth

Interesting seeing what happens when a Palestinian pollster has the gall to actually publish his findings rather than a politicised lie. Khalil Shikaki's organisation surveyed 4,500 Palestinian refugees and found that only 10% of them would actually want to return to within 1967-borders Israel if granted the right to, as compared to 54% who would choose to live in an independent Palestinian state. An angry mob (who presumably must have been representing that 10%) attacked him. I was pleased to read that he intends to publish the survey anyway, though at this moment it's not yet online.
posted @ 3:28 PM -

Saturday, July 12

Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.
Hermann Goering, Nuremberg, Easter 1946.

I don't really have to explain this one, do I?
posted @ 3:12 AM -

Thursday, July 10

Dealer, give me a new hand

Oh, and I forgot to mention: at 7 I went to the Chinese takeaway near the pub and ordered plain boiled rice. It took a while to convince the confused lady behind the counter that I really did want the blandest thing on the menu. I am reduced to this because my guts have been—to say the least—somewhat wobbly of late.

I'm seriously tired of this.
posted @ 5:36 PM -

Bastards

At 7pm I chained my bike to a lamp post. At 10pm I emerged from the pub, expecting to be home in about half an hour. The bike was no longer on the street. The fuckers had left my helmet behind but in the process of thiefing the bike they cracked the visor, making me think I probably shouldn't use it.

The police were very nice about it, but made it quite clear that it would be an unusual stroke of luck for the bike to be reclaimed, and that all I was really achieving by reporting the crime was giving myself a chance of making an insurance claim. Hopefully I can get the value back (after all this, unlike the two cameras I've lost in the past 12 months, was in no way my fault), but I get attached to machines I use as much as that bike. It had taken me around New Zealand, and it wasn't for nothing that I went to the trouble of bringing it back here, or that I was going to go to similar trouble to get it to Cleveland.
posted @ 5:21 PM -

Wednesday, July 9

The view from my grandmother's garden, Burgazada, Istanbul, Turkey

boats at anchor on the Sea of Marmara, with Anatolian Istanbul in the distance

July 4th 2003


This is where I've spent the past week, and where my grandma spends 4 months each summer.
posted @ 6:01 AM -

Tuesday, July 8

back in London

and tired. Turkey was good - will write more tomorrow.
posted @ 4:36 PM -
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