Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Logic circuits

I'm really interested in what my son did in Minecraft, which he has a video of....

In effect, he made a digital display within the Minecraft digital world, in much the same way as we might have been trying to make LED segments and so on display information thirty years ago.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A propos of the debate on IT/Computer Science ...

Finally thanks are due to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Thirty years ago they commissioned the building of the BBC Microcomputer to support the BBC Computer Literacy Project. Designed for school children, the manuals for this computer started with over 500 pages devoted to computer programming (from scratch) using BBC Basic. There were less than 50 pages at the very end of the second volume on how to use the computer as a word processor. BBC BASIC was a sophisticated, structured interpretive programming language that could create coloured graphics using simple commands, allowed recursive functions (one that can call themselves) and much else. ... All the graphics in this book were produced on [a BBC computer] with just ... four standard programs.
Daniel Dorling, "The Visualization of Spatial Social Structure", Chichester:Wiley (emphasis mine)

Friday, October 19, 2012

I scanned a book ...

... all of it, for the first time yesterday. It's a book called "Short Papers on Church History, Vol. 1", by Andrew Miller. The preface is dated 1873, and there are about 600 pages and no illustrations.

What's the point? For some years, I've been bugged by the fact that there is a vast treasure-trove of literature represented by books that are no longer available. Other people are addressing this in a more organised manner - Project Gutenberg prepares and makes available electronic versions of out-of-copyright books. I've done some "volunteering" for them, through the PGDP (Distributed Proofreading) website - I did the post-processing of "A Scout of To-day" and "The Captive in Patagonia", and I'm hoping I've done the post-processing of a 1920s Pharmacopeia sufficiently well that this will be published soon.

The Internet Archive is also endeavouring to scan old books from libraries and wherever else they can be find, and make the scans available - this is being used as a resource of books that can be OCRed for Project Gutenberg. Google are doing similar things - however, although they are grabbing information that is out of copyright, as a corporation rather than a public concern, they are less interested in making this publicly available.

Having volunteered for PG, I have a lot of sympathy with their aims and what they are trying to do. However, I also disagree with the approach they have taken in some areas. For example, the downside of leaving their output "open" is that there's technically little to stop people grabbing the text, chopping off the PG bits, and then "publishing" it as "their" e-book. There's not loads of money to be made from this, but neither is there any effort or real risk involved. PG could avoid this by publishing their own copies directly onto Amazon (for example), charging a token fee (which could be ploughed back into the foundation) and using their space on Amazon to highlight the care taken over their transcriptions. But since it was founded on a basis of "freely available" - a laudable principle - this is a direction that they are reluctant to move in. The consequence of taking themselves out of the marketplace unfortunately does them few favours.

I also think they are excessively careful in their process of text production. The ideal is for a text to go through three stages of proofreading - and this is done VERY thoroughly, followed by two stages where formatting is put back into the text. Finally, there is post-processing - here, HTML and TXT versions are generated. All well and good - but the fact of the matter is that this is being done far more carefully than the proofreading process by which the books were originally prepared. Thus, a significant amount of time in this process is spent wondering whether or not to preserve errors and inconsistencies in the original. This is an important aspect of paleography, as a friend pointed out yesterday - but less relevant in the era of large volume printing. Timewise, the process is thus dominated by large amounts of time spent scanning for minor errors - commas transcribed as full stops; digit 1s transcribed as letter ls, and so on. This is where new PGDP volunteers start, and unfortunately, large numbers never get beyond this. Whilst this is an important part of the process, the fact that so many of the people who are sufficiently interested in the process to volunteer don't last very long is a problem. The final issue is the "voluntary sector defensiveness" - my experience in conversations with people on their forums led me to see that the people immersed in the system rapidly got prickly when I made comments about issues that I saw. I understand this - it's as irritating as anything to have newbies telling you that you're doing things wrong - but at the same time, the failure of the website to convert large numbers of enthusiastic people into long-term volunteers is a big issue.

New OCR software is much more adept at recognising texts. My scanning of the book yesterday was in part to see how ABBYY FineReader 10 coped. The answer is, pretty well. From a couple of hours scanning, I ended up with a pre-proofread text of the whole book. Typically, it generated about 5-10 queries per page - this represents a substantial checking requirement, over 600 pages - and also obviously issues with formatting. However, as a proportion of the text it's low. It leads me to think that it would be possible to produce an electronic text from a scanned book in a manageable time-frame, without having to do it the PG way. Perhaps it won't come close to the perfection of PG books - see the challenge laid down by Michael Hart regarding Carroll's "Alice" books. But it would at least help to get the texts of old, obscure books into the public arena.

Monday, September 03, 2012


I've just updated my template. I don't know what effect this will have, or whether everything will work any more, or if it means I've just lost all the comments again. But I suspect the pros outweigh the cons.

The early bird

I'm still in a language place at the moment, although I'll be starting AA100 at Open University shortly, which means general foundation arts. One of the things that interests me is the process of translation - I've really enjoyed Bellos's book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything in this context, and subsequently Guy Deutscher's books "Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages" and "The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention".

In this context, I like playing with is the way in which idiomatic expressions transfer between languages. This morning, I plugged "The early bird catches the worm" into Google Translate, to see what it came up with. The French translation came up as "l'oiseau tôt attrape le ver" - very good, very accurate. I also discovered that Google Translate basically had a "slot" for the translation of "early ... catches the worm", and it is quite happy for you to plug any other noun in that place. If you want to say that an early pig, hope or friendship, they will simply be substituted. I managed to fool it by writing "abs" in place of "bird" - it then offered "au début des années abs attrape le ver" - a word it couldn't translate interrupted the "known pattern" of "early ... catches the worm".

Spanish was different. The translation immediately offered was: "Al que madruga, dios le ayuda." This is a dynamic translation - it's an idiomatic form in Spanish, which is broadly equivalent, the exact meaning of which is something like "The one who rises early, God helps." If you get Google Translate to convert the Spanish phrase into English, it also goes for the colloquialism as the translation, rather than a word for word equivalence.

This is interesting for several reasons. First, it highlights the difference between different forms of translation - what the ancient Greeks might have called metaphrase and paraphrase, or what we might distinguish today as dynamic and formal equivalence. Dynamic equivalence is designed to give the same sense to people speaking a different language - the substitution of a phrase like "The early bird..." with "Al que madruga..." gets across the sense of this being a "well known phrase or saying". The formal equivalent for the Spanish phrase is the one I gave above.

The other interesting reason is the fact that, whilst both the Spanish and English phrases broadly fulfil the same function in the language, they imply subtly different things. The sense of the English phrase is that "you are more likely to succeed if you're early" - self-improver. The sense of the Spanish phrase is "God is more likely to help you if you're early" - moral judgement. Or am I reading too much into it?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Funnily Enough" - Sophie Neville

The thread that took me to this book is quite long and thin. I love the "Swallows and Amazons" books, which led to me discovering as a grown-up Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk by Christina Hardyment, and also the film of "Swallows and Amazons". Then I wanted to know what the young Actors in "Swallows and Amazons" did next, and that took me to Sophie Neville's website, where I discovered that there was a book!

Neville has written about a year of her life when, after establishing herself in a career working for the BBC, she found herself suffering from Post-Viral Fatigue / M.E. It's not a book to read if you are looking for great drama, but it is full of perceptive and humorous accounts of gentle (and occasionally not-so-gentle!) domestic life observed by someone who was forced at times to be little more than an observer. Along the way, we also see her wrestling to find any effective treatment, and also trying to understand how to reconcile her Christian faith with the frustrations of her illness. There's also lots of information about otters (! - how's that for a teaser?).

If your life has been affected by M.E., or you want to understand what it's like for somebody, then this is an excellent book. But more than that, if you are interested in a picture of the regular comings and goings of a normal family, then you'll find "Funnily Enough" a delight to read.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

"Swallows and Amazons"

We went to see Swallows and Amazons, the stage version, at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury this week. The Marlowe has apparently been relatively recently refurbished, and is lovely, within easy walking distance of large numbers of car parks (though without its own dedicated parking, I believe), and Canterbury itself feels like a very safe place to be in the evening - a less busy version of York.

As a book, Swallows and Amazons presents itself as being quite "realist" - it's a story of children camping on an island in a lake in the Lake District, and not a lot happens. The people on the children's literature course that I was studying (EA300) who were reading the book for the first time often found it remarkably dull - which was quite shocking to me, to whom the whole series meant a huge amount when I was growing up. So it seems quite incongruous for the play to be presented as it was. For a start, it is a musical - a format which structurally cements a relationship with fantasy (how many people do you know that burst into a lyrically relevant new song to accompany significant events?). And then it has adults acting as the children. And then, rather than trying to use props and sets to realistically portray the events, it merely symbolises them. The picture above (from here) shows the Walker children sailing the boat Swallow. Roger (the ship's boy) is holding the front of the boat; Susan holds up the sail and John holds the back of it. The water is represented by other people in blue coats holding the blue and white ribbons.

This is all ingenious, and in fact demonstrates how powerful the imagination of the audience is. And this is significant because, as we discovered when studying the book, Swallows and Amazons is all about imagination. The children's imaginative play (the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blacketts' self-identity as pirates; the Swallows imagination of themselves as a naval commander, a homemaker or Robinson Crusoe) is the real heart of the story. In Peter Pan, James Barrie reluctantly accepts that children have to grow out of their imaginative world if they are to grow up. In Swallows and Amazons, the effect of the children's imaginative play is actually to transform the adult world - Uncle Jim/Captain Flint's book is saved from burglars, and he recovers his soul.

The play is thoroughly engaging. I got a little teary when I realised how it was evoking the story for me, early on. Towards the end, the cast venture more into the audience, and involves them directly with the battle on the houseboat and at the end, during the closing song, models of Swallow and Amazon are passed around the audience. I don't go to the theatre enough, and I love it when I do go, but I've not seen a play which is so capable of showing children the imaginative power of theatre, and indeed the power of imagination. This deserves great praise.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Reflections on "A Week in December"


I've only read one other book by Faulks - not Birdsong, unusually, but Human Traces. That book was remarkable, as a work of historical fiction, as well as the articulation of quite complex ideas. This had elements in common with it. Faulks continues to explore the idea of the voices that humans hear in their heads, this phenomenon which sets us aside from other creatures, now in a present-day context. There were also an abundance of intertextual references. The framework of preparations for a dinner party reminded me of Mrs Dalloway, there were references that I guess were fairly deliberate to Brave New World, and I suspect (though I haven't read it) that The Bonfire of the Vanities was thrown in there as well.

Faulks writes within the book: "Culturally, it had remained impossible for a realistic British novelist to transcend Leicester or Stoke; the place names alone seemed to laugh at the idea." This is, I guess, a postmodern touch (forgive my artlessness, I'm really not fluent in literature yet). Other significant playing was with the character of the narcissistic, bitter critic, R. Tranter, obsessed with wanting to find fame and yet not celebrity by any means. But unusually for a realist book, it seems that most characters found some redemption, even including Tranter.


What literary interest can there be in finance? Why should I care about it? Does it really tell us anything important about the human condition? Of course - it shapes our world. On the basis of The Devil's Casino, and All the Devils are Here, I'd say that Faulks has done a good job of trying to comprehend and then explain what exactly happened - better than the job done in these journalistic accounts, and without breaking the narrative! He highlights the underlying moral vacuum, but where I think Faulks goes wrong is in making his character John Veals, the hugely successful fund manager, so thoroughly unsympathetic. One thing which emerges from the journalists' analysis of the events is that people are people. You can't really have sympathy for the devil - but most times, it seems, he is actually in disguise. Had the banking industry said, "We are going to invent financial instruments that will bring down the economy of the Western world and bankrupt nations," of course everybody would have been appalled. But they didn't: they just promised to look after our savings and our pensions, and provide us with money for houses and the things we wanted.

The exit of the UK from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism should have been a wake-up call - or maybe by then it was already too late. Financial organisations made a killing betting against the wealth of a nation. The "market" by now no longer bore any resemblance to the place to which a farmer would take a cow to sell. It was a ravening beast, capable of devouring anything it felt like, including whole countries. Margaret Thatcher said, "You can't buck the market," apparently a statement of her philosophy, but in truth signifying the capitulation of Western political power to a more powerful force.


It's a brave author who goes into print discussing the Muslim religion, following the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Faulks has nonetheless done so. He accepts that mainstream Islam, as a religion, provides comfort, structure and identity. But he argues that its roots, like all such religious grounded in revelation, look more like the product of psychosis than something which transcends humanity. Gabriel, the unsuccessful barrister, compares the words of the Koran with those of his schizophrenic brother's delusions.

Unlike with finance, in the context of religion, Faulks' "devils" are in disguise. The driving force for fanaticism isn't the ranting of imams, but calm, gently-spoken and apparently normal people. Hassan, the young Muslim, finds himself in a group planning an appalling atrocity with the word jihad barely mentioned.

It's a stern portrait of the religion. Christians should take little comfort, however. In this "state of the nation" novel, the fact that Faulks has nothing of significance to say about Christianity constitutes a sterner rebuke.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mugging grannies

Now here's interesting ....

A lot of fuss has been made about the "granny tax" that the government has "imposed" in this budget. The Mirror went as far as to describe it as a mugging. (See here if you can bring yourself to visit their website.)

I certainly have issues with some aspects of the budget, but this, as it happens, is not one of them. The Financial Times has pointed out (free registration required) how relatively well-off the retired population are, certainly compared to the younger generation, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies points out that this "mugging" represents a loss of income of about one quarter of one percent in 2014. 50% of pensioners (the poor grannies that you have in mind, perhaps) don't actually pay income tax at all. The new process for increasing state pension guarantees that its value will increase at least as fast as inflation in future. And the "perfidious coalition partners", the Liberals, are seeking to secure a standard basic pension of £140 per person.

Furthermore, the way in which the government is approaching this - freezing the allowance available to pensioners whilst increasing the general allowance - can hardly be considered that painful; it's not as though extra money is being taken away. The previous Labour government froze the allowance for everybody - by this token, it could be accused of mugging the whole population. Of course, this doesn't make for quite the dramatic imagery evoked by talking about mugging grannies ....

For a more balanced perspective, see the BBC's Nick Robinson's comment here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Ryanair advertising strategy

From the BBC.
Ryanair advert campaign on Thomas Cook banned by ASA 

Ryanair in 'sexist ads' criticism 
Ryanair sorry for 'Pinocchio' ads 
Ryanair reprimanded over offers 

Ryanair breaches ad rules again
 17 Oct 07 |   Business 
Ryanair's Eurostar claim banned
 21 Aug 07 |  Business
Ryanair's green claims criticised
 18 Jul 07 | Business
Ryanair ad goes back into hangar
 08 Nov 06 |  Business
Ryanair advert was 'misleading'
 24 May 06 | Business
Terror advert 'was not offensive'
 09 Aug 05 | London
Ryanair advert dubbed 'offensive'
 04 Feb 04 | Business
Notice a theme here? Does it actually matter what you put in adverts, as long as it's noticed?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reflecting on "The Abolition of Man", by C.S.Lewis

[The schoolboy] is encouraged to reject the lure of the 'Western Ocean' on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can't be bubbled out of his cash. [His teachers], while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful and humane.
Is it surprising that Philip Pullman should have come up with the idea of intercision in Northern Lights and yet be so opposed to C.S.Lewis? My hunch is that when Pullman thought about Christianity, he assumed it was no more than the experiences he had rejected. Any more than passing interest in Lewis (or, for that matter, the Bible) would have revealed that there was more to it than that.