Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rock, paper, scissors....

I had some recollection of "bigger" versions of the game "Rock, Paper, Scissors". What I was really looking for was a way of making it more than two player. Unfortunately, a cursory search fails to uncover any means of doing this. I did find some other interesting stuff, though.

For example, it was used in the USA as a means of dispute resolution (I have never sounded more QI). A copy of the relevant court order, quoted in Wikipedia, can be found here ...
Upon consideration of the Motion – the latest in a series of Gordian knots that the parties have been unable to untangle without enlisting the assistance of the federal courts – it is ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED. Instead, the Court will fashion a new form of alternative dispute resolution, to wit: at 4:00 P.M. on Friday, June 30, 2006, counsel shall convene at a neutral site agreeable to both parties. If counsel cannot agree on a neutral site, they shall meet on the front steps of the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse, 801 North Florida Ave., Tampa, Florida 33602. Each lawyer shall be entitled to be accompanied by one paralegal who shall act as an attendant and witness. At that time and location, counsel shall engage in one (1) game of "rock, paper, scissors." The winner of this engagement shall be entitled to select the location for the 30(b)(6) deposition to be held somewhere in Hillsborough County during the period July 11–12, 2006.
A five gesture variant is mentioned in The Big Bang Theory, apparently - "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock". The existing relationships exist between the first three items, but then defines relationships between Lizard and Spock gestures and each of the other three. Details here. For the game to be balanced, each gesture has to win against half the other gestures and lose against the other half (which means that there should be an odd number of gestures).

But this has been taken even further by someone who went on to create 7, 9, 11, 15, 25 and eventually 101 (!!!!) gesture variants. Yes, you and your opponent can pick any one of 101 gestures, and the winner and loser is defined in each case. You can buy a poster - you'll probably need at least that.

Now, given no multiplayer version exists, is it possible to make one, I wonder?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Buckingham Palace refurbishment

Various people accepted the indignant line being presented in some quarters about the renovations to Buckingham Palace. The Metro slants the story here, for example. This article gives a perspective that they may not have been aware of.
My feeling, for what it's worth ... I prefer the monarchy to most of the rest of the political establishment, as I think they have a long view, even if their powers are limited (I wish the whole UK government had a long view and limited powers....!). I think that Buckingham Palace represents a national asset, which a "lucky" family gets to live in, in return for surrendering pretty much their whole life to the country. There aren't many 90 and 95 year olds who aren't really given the option of just retiring. Buckingham Palace is part of the heritage of the country which brings in a lot of foreign money. The lack of renovation for 60 years (! Do you have a 60 year old boiler in your house? 60 year old wiring?) is poor form, and I think that to see the palace go up in flames for lack of proper maintenance would ... well, be oddly fitting in a country which is burning most of the rest of its things of value, but would nonetheless be a disgrace.
Furthermore, I think that even were it the government funding this, there is no way that the money would be directed instead in directions that we think it ought to go - that's not the alternative.
A relevant comparison - the refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament is estimated to cost around ten times this amount (estimates of cost vary between £2 billion and £7 billion pounds), and this will be funded by the taxpayer. And government departments don't have a good track record of securing value for UK taxpayers' money.

The angle on "doubling the funding for the Royal Family" is an interesting one. The crown currently pays tax of 85% on its income, which leaves a balance of about £40 million from which the Royal Family and their estates are funded. So if the Royal Family weren't there, the UK would have £230 million less income. For the next ten years, the amount of money taken from the crown's income will be decreased to 75%, to fund this refurbishment. It is true that the UK will have £370 million pounds less money over 10 years. But the sotto voce implication is that without the crown, we could use that money ourselves. In fact, over the course of that ten years, even with this refurbishment being paid for, the UK will expect to receive an income of £2 billion pounds from the crown. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Millennials and whining

I'm tired of it. Not the whining of the Millennials - people in their late teens and early 20s. But the whining about them, by older people. "They are so entitled, they think the world owes them a living." I think those people who are saying this ought to take a good look at what they had in comparison to the people they are grumbling about.

Oh, sure, a small number of the "older generation" can remember the impact of the Second World War, the effects of rationing and so on. But the ones who are whining are the people who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Before you grumble about how entitled the younger generation are, please consider the following ...

6 Harsh Realities Of Millenial Life Non-Millenials Need To Understand

  1. The final salary pension you took for granted will probably not be theirs. All the private ones are pretty much closed down. The state ones are much less generous (read "more realistic in their funding expectations") than they were when you started your career. A money purchase pension is as far removed from a final salary pension as a STEM degree is from an arts degree.
  2. They can't afford a mortgage. As in, they can't afford one. They don't have the necessary £50000 in equity (a year's income) and a joint income of £150,000. The problem here is partly that the rising property prices which secured your future as you climbed the property ladder made it harder and harder to get on the ladder - because ...
  3. "As a rule of thumb, you should not pay more than 30% of your salary in rent" but "Tenants in England spend half their pay on rent." Yep, the rent you are charging on your buy-to-let investment to boost your pension is preventing the entitled Millennials from getting on the property ladder at all.
  4. Some of you took early retirement on full pension (see 1) in your 50s - so your employer could employ cheaper people. In return, Millennials can expect to work into our 70s. I am not a Millennial. I was asked by someone who had retired by 50 when I might expect to retire. He was shocked when I told him that my retirement age was 65. I'm luckier than my children.
  5. When your generation graduated, you had the milk round and graduate salaries. When Millennials graduate, employers have found all sorts of dodges to avoid paying them anything at all. Millennials are expected to live at home and have unpaid internships. Forget the minimum wage: some Millennial graduates are paying to get the "experience" they need to be employable. It goes without saying that the company would have to pay someone to do the work that their interns are doing for free.
  6. You got your degree for free. Millennials will have deductions from their salaries for up to 30 years to pay for theirs.
And yet, despite the fact that society is stacked against them, the fact that they are the first generation poorer than their parents were at the same age, it's not the Millennials who voted for Brexit. Which means that it is not the Millennials who are soaking up the whining headlines of the tabloid newspapers, expressing resentment at the supposed tide of immigrants, the imposition of laws from Brussels, and the loss of national sovereignty.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

What does it mean 'to be grogged'?

From the BBC. Nothing to do with me.

Still, a bit weird when a word you have associated with yourself for years suddenly appears in another context.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Horses driving carts

Obviously commercial organisations are aiming to monetize their internet presence. However, it seems to be increasingly the case that they are more concerned with ad revenue than the experience of their users. Some of the stupidities ...


  • Mattel have a Scrabble game that connects to Facebook, and have aggressively chased off other companies that have produced games that are too similar. It is one of the most irritating Facebook apps. They have attached an advertising engine to it. For a long time, every time you played three moves, it would produce a black screen inviting you to buy their ad removal packages to avoid a seven second wait - in other words, it was advertising its own ad removal package.

    This pales into insignificance compared to the apps behaviour on a tablet. Here, particularly when playing against the computer, the same 30 second advert is generated pretty much between every turn, you can't exit from it, and when the advert ends, it shuts down the app.
  • AVG anti-virus have a well-established free antivirus, which aside from the fact that it kills performance of computers, does provide what seems like a pretty good level of protection. In Windows 10 it produces pop-ups, and today, it has started producing the same pop-up advert every few minutes.
  • The "click-bait" slideshows that you get to from social media, which sometimes suggest they have interesting content, now typically spread the text for one slide over three clicks - presumably to serve more ad views.
  • I remember reading a grumbly Guardian article a while ago about ads on the internet - whilst downloading animated adverts on the same page was grinding my browser to a halt.
  • One of the main suppliers of automated ads has this obsession with things that you have looked at or searched for. So you look for, say, Converse shoes on Amazon. Ta-dah! Every web page you look at for the next week has an advert for them. Now, think for a minute, Mr Ad Builder. The likelihood is that either 1) I bought the shoes or 2) I decided I didn't need to. That was a search I did two days ago - am I likely to want to do it again today?
These strategies are self-defeating. The reason Adblock gained traction was because of the increasing intrusiveness of internet advertising. If people find advertising intrusive and can't get round it, they will either block it or use different products - advertising on the internet drives people away more effectively than it promotes things.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Churchill and the EU

During the referendum campaign, I'm pretty sure I heard Churchill's name invoked on several occasions. I've just finished reading his Nobel Prize-winning history of the Second World War. There were a large number of interesting snippets in there, and it's well worth a read. I thought his thoughts towards the end of the last volume about his idea for a world order following the war were worth repeating.

I have always held the view that the foundation of a World Instrument [that is, a basis for organising international politics] should be sought on a regional basis. Most of the principal regions suggest themselves - the United States, United Europe, the British Commonwealth and Empire, the Soviet Union, South America. Others are more difficult at present to define - like the Asian group or groups, or the African group - but could be developed with study. But the object would be to have many issues of fierce local controversy thrashed out in the Regional Council, which would then send three or four representatives to the Supreme Body, choosing men of the greatest eminence. This would make a Supreme Group of thirty or forty world statesmen, each responsible not only for representing their own region, but for dealing with world causes, and primarily the prevention of war. What we have now [1953] is not effective for that outstanding purpose. The summoning of all nations, great and small, powerful or powerless, on even terms to the central body may be compared to the organisation of an army without any division between the High Command and the divisional and brigade commanders. All are invited to the headquarters. Babel, tempered by skilful lobbying, is all that has resulted up to the present. But we must persevere. (From Triumph and Tragedy, Chapter XXXVI)  
Lots of bits and pieces in there. But with regard to Europe, we can see that Churchill had in mind a "United Europe" - but one which did not include the UK. We can also see that the principal function of international politics, as far as he was concerned, was the prevention of war, rather than economic. This was obviously as the Cold War got under way, and on the back of forty pretty disastrous years for Europe.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Modern ticket touting

I heard a news article, probably on Radio 4, about the problem of ticket buying and reselling. Businesses use deceptive means (credit cards in false names, multiple addresses) to buy large numbers of tickets for shows when the sale opens, and then resell them at significant markups. The big ticket companies, like Ticketmaster, have a ticket resale wing, and this is used - much more anonymous than eBay with its rating system. Now, there will always be a reason why people need to resell tickets. Someone in a group might get sick, for example. People might decide they want to go for a date that's released later on. But that doesn't seem to be what's dominant.

We had the opportunity to see it in action today. We were tasked to try and secure a couple of
tickets in the presale for a Twenty One Pilots gig at Alexandra Palace on 11th November this year. Literally within minutes of the presale opening, possibly less than a minute, no tickets were available.

By 9.30, that is, just half an hour after the presale OPENED, there were over 270 tickets being resold on Getmein, the Ticketmaster resale website. The markup was £10 or more per ticket. The tickets on Getmein were all being sold at around the same price - presumably this is a fairly mature tour, so by now the people buying to resell have a pretty good feel for what the market will bear. Valuable societal skills right there.

Some bands and artists have already reacted against this. There are means of regulating it which would make it much less desirable to touts. For example, Getmein could limit ticket resale price to the purchase price - why should someone reselling tickets make a profit from the transaction? Who does that benefit? Or, especially given that the tickets aren't normally sent out until a few weeks before the gig, they could offer resales only a week before the tickets would be sent. The trouble is, at the moment, Getmein/Ticketmaster makes even more money this way - they end up getting commission for selling the same ticket more than once!!

Just to let you know, if this is how you run a business and you happen to be reading this, then you're a spiv and a parasite. You are making money off other people's work, whilst adding no value of your own and just ripping other people off.




Monday, June 06, 2016

A methodology for analysis of pop lyrics - problems

Song lyrics are typically divided into blocks of text, with the blocks corresponding to musical sections of the song – verses, chorus, bridge. These typically consist of more than one sentence, and thus are analogous in rank scale to paragraphs. The first, and possibly most obvious, problem, in analysing song lyrics is repetition - the repetitiveness is one of the distinctive features of song lyrics. It has the effect of significantly increasing the word count without adding to the semantic content. It also has the potential to distort and bias word frequencies, particularly in the case of the most repetitive songs. Previous researchers have adopted different approaches to the issue of repetition. Kreyer andMukherjee chose to keep them all; Petrie,Pennebaker and Sivertsen chose to eliminate the third and subsequent occurences. (Incidentally, that last one is a really interesting paper - "A linguistic analysis of the Beatles".) In my project, I downloaded lyrics from lyric databases, and the files I downloaded generally included all repetitions, as they are written in such a way as to permit people to follow the song from beginning to end. However, I decided to produce a corpus in which I deleted blocks of text that were repeated unchanged in their entirety. Where there were changes, both blocks were kept. The effect of this was to reduce the average number of words per "song" from 343 to 220, a reduction of 35%. The justification that underlay this was that I was interested in exploring linguistic features. Having noted the scale of the repetition, there was little need to explore it further.

A second issue is that the language used in song lyrics often diverges from "standard English", both in terms of word choice and grammar. This means that it's necessary to come to a decision about how to write it down. Should I write "ooh" or "oooh" or "oooooooooh"? Should I stick with the official version, and end up with a range of different versions of a word that is functionally the same? I didn't come to an answer in my original work. I think the best approach is to attempt to standardise as far as possible, but record the extent to which changes were made.

Another issue is that of "definitiveness". The definitive versions of lyrics are likely to be found either on a band's website, or if not electronically, on an album sleeve notes. It is much more common for bands to make their lyrics available in this way than it was thirty years ago. The downside of this is that it takes substantially more research to get hold of the lyrics, compared with raiding a lyrics database. However, most such databases are "widely collaborative" enterprises, with people contributing lyrics as they see fit, which may or may not be subsequently corrected by other people if they contain errors. For my project, I used a specific lyric database as a starting point. However, if the lyrics were unconvincing, I would then check it against other databases or the band's own website if one was available.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A methodology for analysis of pop lyrics - justification

During my OU degree, I chose to do short project looking at the linguistic characteristics of pop lyrics. I felt this was worthy of further study, and would like to come back to it. As part of the prologue of this process, it's important to work out how exactly the language is going to be analysed. I've extracted and edited what follows from the short paper that I wrote.

Music is a form of artistic expression that is produced in the context of a particular culture. "Pop music" doesn't have a single clear definition, but is typically represented by music made available as "singles" – single-track records, or individual downloads. For many years, it has reflected and also helped to define a certain strand of particularly Western culture.

Despite the cultural significance of song lyrics, they have largely remained uninvestigated from a corpus linguistic perspective. According to Kreyer and Mukherjee, they have "not been included in any of the standard reference corpora". Some preliminary investigations have been carried out, but little attempt has apparently been made to describe the linguistic characteristics of pop lyrics. Such an analysis would provide a reference point for considering the location of individual lyrics within the genre. Given the close relationship between pop lyrics and culture, it is possible that song lyrics might provide a proxy for measuring cultural phenomena. This was an approach taken by DeWall et al.

Linguistically, pop music lyrics have characteristics that are different from other forms of language use. The medium itself is focussed on music, particularly rhythm, melody and form, and the lyrics might be considered subordinate to this. Individual song lyrics tend to be highly repetitive and relatively short. Although songs are written, rehearsed and edited, which ought to result in texts characteristic of written modes, the choice of language is often colloquial, stylised and limited – this being more typical of spontaneous forms of language use, such as conversation. The choice of themes is conventionally narrow. However, song lyrics are widely quoted beyond the context of their song, frequently have powerful emotional resonance, and consequently have a cultural weight in sections of society that few other forms of discourse manage. This cultural significance makes song lyrics worthy of investigation.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The "feel" of the Narnia books

I've given links on this page to two books that Michael Ward has written, and a DVD based on them. He has a thesis, for those who aren't familiar with it, concerning  the seven Narnia books. Note that it does not relate to the films or the BBC productions - if that's your only exposure to C.S.Lewis, then you need to do some more reading before you will understand this post! The Narnia Code DVD was broadcast on network television, and became one of the most explicitly Christian things I've seen on TV. The book of the same name is accessible to children whereas Planet Narnia is quite a challenging read. However, both books effectively engage in literary analysis in an incredibly satisfying way - if your only experience is of deadly hours spent in GCSE English classes, then reading these books is an eye-opening experience. Good analysis like this doesn't kill the books, it makes them come even more alive. (That's what Bible teaching should do as well!)

His thesis is that the seven books each use one of the medieval planets to create the distinctive "atmosphere" of the book. The medieval planets are the sun and moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The medieval view of the planets was complex - they were bound up with the characters of the gods they were named after and different aspects of the world that characterised those gods. Lewis believed that myth expressed an underlying deeper "truth", was quite fearless in co-opting this medieval framework as being representative of an underlying Christian reality. To give a brief examples of that, The Horse and His Boy is the book which relates to Mercury. It is dominated by rivers, carrying messages and twins. The Silver Chair is Luna, the moon. So there is confusion, ambiguity, a sense of "descent", madness and ... silver, the moon's metal! You can guess which planet the warlike Prince Caspian and the creative Magician's Nephew represent.

Ward's understanding of what Lewis was trying to achieve is pretty convincing, and is now apparently widely accepted. What interested me about it was the extent to which people's preferences between the Narnia books were shaped by the mood of the book, so I asked briefly which of the books people preferred and why. I suspect that the "mood" of a book does indeed have some impact on people's preferences, even if they read and enjoyed all seven books.

For what it's worth, I think that my preferred book as far as mood was concerned was The Silver Chair, even though I suspect it is one of the seven that I actually read the least. If you want to learn more about how Ward makes and defends his thesis, and how that actually works itself out, you'll have to go to the books, or at least the DVD. But once you've got an idea of how it works, go back to the books and read them again!

Feel free to comment on which of the Narnia books you liked and why. It would be interesting to see how often "mood" or "atmosphere" crops up.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A just war

The BBC has a web page which summarises what a just war is. It is so concise and simple that it's hard not to quote the whole thing, although it does leave quite a few questions unanswered - what is a "just cause"? What are "good intentions"?

The UK government is debating launching air strikes against Syria. To me, if this is to be considered engagement in war, I strongly suspect that it fails to meet the fifth criterion given on the BBC page:
  • There must be a reasonable chance of success
How do you measure "a reasonable chance of success"? What even are the success criteria?

Two of the other criteria are also matters for debate:
  • The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.
  • All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
 And two of the remaining three require proper articulation:
  • The war must be for a just cause.
  • The intention behind the war must be good.
Even assuming that the idea of a just cause is not ambiguous, what is the cause for which we would be fighting? And what is the intention, and can we at least agree that it is a good one?

Let's assume that these matters can all be addressed. We then have to look at the conduct of the war. Can we be confident that "innocent people and non-combatants" will not be harmed, if our chosen way of conducting it is by bombing? If not, then the war ceases to be just.

People have said, "what should we do, then?" Personally, I think the cause is just - namely, to attempt to protect the people who are there. But the means of fighting is wrong. If it is agreed that the cause is just, then it is hard to argue with the logic that says we actually ought to be fighting there. This cause is less ambiguous than seeking regime change in another sovereign state, regardless of how much you have come to dislike it.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Who is a "first-time buyer"?

The government, in its spending review, is promising amongst other things:
  • £2.3bn paid directly to developers to build so-called "starter homes", aimed at first-time buyers, who will get a 20% discount on prices up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 elsewhere
 I want to talk briefly about those "first-time buyers", who will be benefiting from the government opening its purse strings. The phrase is a loaded one - in the same way that when you think of a pensioner, you think of this:

rather than this:
What you probably think of is a young couple, maybe starting a family, one in a worthy job - maybe a nurse or teacher or policeman a year or two into their career.

That's all wrong.

Take that £450,000 maximum pricetag for London. The 20% discount reduces this to £360,000. To afford to buy a property, these first time buyers need cash of around £40,000 for deposit and fees, and an income of around £90,000. So, let's assume this is a couple. Both are close to the higher tax threshold, which means they definitely aren't classroom teachers (unless several years into leadership) or policeman (unless close to inspector level) or nurses (below band 8).

A couple of things follow from this.

  • If this is where you need to be professionally to be a first time buyer, then something is wrong with the system.
  • Are these really the most needy in society, the people who the government should be directing billions of pounds to helping out? 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Expo 2015

There's still time to go.

It's in Milan, and runs till October 31. The theme is "Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life". We spent a couple of days there in July, and here are some reflections on it.

I went to my first Expo in Vancouver in 1986, travelling on my own. Then I took my family to Hannover in 2000, and then went back there for another short day later on in the summer. I've been wanting to get back to an Expo ever since. Milan seemed like a good opportunity, and it was just a matter of finding a block of days when we could get there.

It's hard to describe what it actually is. I think it has its roots in such things as the Great Exhibition. It is dominated by international pavilions - we think around 120 countries were represented there. These vary from 5x5 metre rooms with posters and (usually) a few products to buy to sophisticated walk-through multimedia attractions, with restaurants and arts venues. There are also commercial pavilions, parades and entertainments both lowbrow and highbrow. I think the name of Epcot in Disneyworld is no coincidence; it is a kind of theme-park, "Disney" version of Expo.

It has grown! In 2000, we pretty much broke the back of Expo in one day - with two children who weren't fluent walkers. We spent two pretty long days there this time, and only got around it by skipping most commercial pavilions and ones with queues, so I think a fifth had gone unseen. I suppose, given that the theme was Feeding the Planet, it is not surprising that many of the pavilions should showcase food and drink. We ate in Azerbaijan, Brazil and Chile, and bought a drink in Laos.

I was apprehensive about the heat of Milan in July, especially as Expo involves a lot of walking. As it turned out, it was me who came closest to succumbing to the heat, needing a fairly long mid-afternoon break on the second day, despite drinking plenty. The organisers have given consideration to the impact of heat. The heart of Expo is a covered boulevard around 1500 metres long. But you can't really avoid a lot of walking.

There are ethical issues raised by Expo. There were riots when it opened; it feels like an expression of globalisation. And it's very much the case that the countries and corporations present themselves as they wish to be seen. But on the other hand, there aren't many places in the world where you can get a glimpse of so many nations on their own terms at one go (North Korea, Sudan, Yemen, Laos, Ethiopia, Brunei...), and the subject matter does invite the countries to consider what they are doing about food security and sustainability, and the visitors to critically engage with these questions. I'd like to get back there and see more - failing that, the next Universal Expo is in Dubai in 2020 (though there's a smaller, specialised Expo in Astana in 2017 - just 100 countries represented ...)

Thursday, July 02, 2015

My blog list

There is no rhyme or reason to the blogs I've got links to. Just whatever catches my eye. Don't feel the need to reciprocate - you ain't gonna get much link traffic from me anyway. Conversely, you probably will have to comment somewhere on here if you'd rather I wasn't linking to you.