Monday, 28 December 2009


Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
- Dalai Lama

The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.
- Albert Einstein

No wise man ever wished to be younger.
- Jonathan Swift

Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.
- George Bernard Shaw

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?
This is how I answe when I am asked - surprisingly often - why I bother to get up in the morning.
- Richard Dawkins

Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.
- Daniel Dennett

Except during the nine months before he draws his first breath, no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does.
- George Bernard Shaw

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
- Douglas Adams

There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living.
- Epicurus

You only lose what you cling to.
- Gautama Siddharta (The Buddha)

We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.
- Stephen Hawking

All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.
- Douglas Adams

Any fool can handle a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you down.
- Anton Chekhov

Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.
- Anon

Only the wisest and stupidest of men don't change.
- Confucius

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.
- Daniel Dennett

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Avatar and the virus with shoes

I really liked Avatar, in a kind of - "if we are going to have blockbuster movies, I'd rather they be like this" kind of way. Something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or I Heart Huckabees, or Memento or (insert your favourite thoughtful movie here) will always impress me more than a blockbuster like Avatar, but its still a very fine film and I'm impressed by Cameron's talents, which stretch from the very technical side right the way across to the artistic realm.

Everyone pretty much agrees that the visuals are amazing. Plot and story wise: although I knew quite a lot about this movie from watching the trailers and reading the various leaks over the last six months, and I pretty much knew how the story was going to play out (I mean, you can figure that out from the trailer) there were still lots of parts that made me think 'oh, thats a neat way of doing that'.

Something that hasn't got many mentions so far:


I knew this was a film where the humans were the invaders and the bad guys, but it took that concept to quite an extreme. The line near the end of the movie: "The Aliens were sent back home to their dying planet" ... think about that line and the implications ... the movie doesnt really spell it out, but it hints earlier on that Earth is in deep shit and Unobtainium is so valuable because its helping to solve that problem, or work around the problem. Avatar ends with Jake leaving his human body behind, and a couple of his scientist friends staying with the Na'vi. The rest of the humans are sent back to their wrecked planet, where presumably they will die as a species unless they find another planet like Pandora to exploit, or come back and try to take Pandora again. This film's happy ending is basically hinting at the end of the human race. Thats pretty radical for a blockbuster that millions of people will see.

I thought this film would be more like the humans and the na'vi coming to an understanding, learning how to co-exist in the universe, or something. But thats not how it ends.

Think about other big sci-fi films/franchises: Independence Day - humans win there, by being human. Sure, there are some bad humans in that film, but overall humanity wins through. Or, say, Transformers - the giant robots find some useful and spirited allies in some of the humans, and they fight on together. Star Trek - humans rock, in those stories. Doctor Who - the doctor admires the human spirit, and is generally very interested in protecting them.

Granted, the idea that humans suck as a species is not particularly original in Sci-fi, but its pretty unusual in big-budget blockbuster seen-by-millions Sci-Fi.

In the final confrontation with Quaritch, when he says "How does it feel to be a traitor to your race, Sully?", Quaritch is literally right. Its not just that he sees things differently from Jake, a political disagreement about the best way forward for the human race. It is literally true - Jake's actions, in getting the planet to unite against the humans, may well lead to the destruction of his (former) race.

Also, artistically, there's something obvious but powerful going on in parallel with this message - as a viewer you naturally identify more and more with Jake and the Na'vi, and enjoy the Pandora scenes much more than the grey, dull human scenes in the base. So at the end when you see your race being packed off home to oblivion, you totally go with it.

A lot of reviews have said that the movie has an environmental message - and thats true, but its sortof more than that. Its like a meta-environmental message: that humans are fatally flawed, will most likely mess up this planet, and then if the universe is really unlucky, they'll make it into space and start messing up other places too. Avatar, like Bill Hicks, views humans as basically 'A virus with shoes'.

I could go on about that for a while (like, is Cameron just choosing such a message because its topical, or has all his underwater nature study made him really believe that?). In a time when we real humans are struggling to make an agreement to (rightly or wrongly) limit Co2 emissions, which is a short step along a road we have to face someday - that is, learning how to live as a race on a planet with limited resources - and in a week where we failed quite badly to even make short steps along that path, this aspect of the film really affected me.

(originally a comment in this metafilter thread)

Monday, 23 November 2009

Useful Research Paper Phrases (With Translations)

I'm a great believer in the 'Scientific Method', however its important to remember that most of the value of the method is that it offsets the shortcomings of scientists and their weaknesses (making mistakes, jumping to conclusions, etc). So the Scientific Method can be seen as a check-and-balance against the human and psychological factors that get in the way of clear reasoning.

In that spirit, I present 'Useful Research Paper Phrases'. Variations of this list seem to have been going viral in research labs, stuck up on the wall with drawing pins, for at least 50 years.

Useful Research Paper Phrases (With Translations)

1. It has long been knownI didn't bother to look up the original reference
2. A definite trend is evidentMatlab will fit a curve to anything
3. Of great theoretical and practical importanceInteresting to me
4. While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to these questionsThe experiment didn't pan out, but maybe I can still get a publication out of it
5. three of the samples were chosen for detailed studyThe results of the others didn't make any sense
6. A careful analysis of obtainable dataSpilled beer on lab notebook, three pages illegible
7. Typical results are shownThe best results are shown
8. These results will be included in a subsequent reportI might get around to these some day
9. The most reliable results are those of Jones (1987a)He was my graduate assistant
10. It is believed thatI think
11. It is generally believed thatA couple of other guys think so too
12. Much additional work will be required before a complete elucidation of the phenomenon is reachedI can't explain these results
13. Correct within an order of magnitudeWrong
14. It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this fieldThis is a lousy paper, but so are all the others on this miserable topic
15 Thanks are due to J. Jones for assistance with the experiment and to S. Smith for valuable discussionsJones did the work and Smith explained to me what it meant

Friday, 25 September 2009

Global Finance System

It seems to me that the 'global finance system' is like a big stack of software entities, all interacting with each other, all written by different people and at different times, and with new patches applied often. No one can figure out the big picture of the whole system, but they have theories about parts of it. For a long time it has seemed to work and all hang together. Hackers and viruses exploit loopholes as they find them.

Then, about a year ago, we hit a blue screen of death. The illusion that the system was self-repairing was lost.

We managed to reboot in safe mode, but we're not sure when we'll hit the next big bug.

(and although this is meant as metaphor, bear in mind that large parts of the global finance system literally are software entities these days)

Thursday, 23 July 2009


(From Spaced Season 2, Episode 1, aired Feb 2001)

Daisy: "So how are you then, you big bloody man?"
Tim: "I'm good, I'm good ... I just ... I've had a few things to work through ... you know"
Daisy: "With Sarah?"
Tim: "No, with George Lucas"

(cut to scene of Tim in the forest in the dark, using a flaming torch to light a large bonfire labelled "Star Wars Stuff", while the slow Star Wars theme plays....)

(cut back to Tim in the kitchen looking lost, distressed)

Daisy: "Tim, its been over a year..."
Tim: "Its been 18 months Daisy ... and it still hurts."
Daisy: "Well, I didn't think Phantom Menace was that bad."

(zoom in on Tims face, looking increasingly angry)

- originally a comment from this metafilter thread

Monday, 11 May 2009


Two gems from Scott Adams in his May 7th blog post.

1 - The definition of Confusopoly
A confusopoly is a situation in which companies pretend to compete on price, service, and features but in fact they are just trying to confuse customers so no one can do comparison shopping.

Cell phone companies are the best example of confusopolies. The average consumer finds it impossible to decipher which carrier has the best deal, so carriers don't have normal market pressure to lower prices. It's a virtual cartel without the illegal part.
2 - Some Free Market pragmatism
... Before you call me a socialist, I don't have an informed opinion on national healthcare. But I also don't have an automatic bias in favor of a free market that gave us Enron, WorldCom, Madoff, derivatives, and mortgages to hobos. I think you have to look at the specifics.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Tea Rules

How to make a good cup of tea is a problem that has vexed our best minds for many years. George Orwell put forward his eleven rules of tea-making in the 1940s. The Royal Society of Chemistry published their own instruction for how to make the perfect cup of tea in 2003. One area that these two heavyweights disagree on is the old controvery of whether the milk should go into the cup before or after the tea.

Orwell puts it very well:
Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
However the RSC counters with:
Milk should be added before the tea, because denaturation (degradation) of milk proteins is liable to occur if milk encounters temperatures above 75°C. If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk.
Perhaps wisely, ISO 3103, the international standardized method for brewing tea, sits on the fence with this issue, stating that "milk can be added before or after pouring the infused tea".

However, I think its time for us to realise that times have changed, and perhaps there are more important problems to tackle in the world of tea. Consider this:
  • Most of the cups of tea made today are made with a teabag in the cup, not with a teapot

  • In a frighteneing number of instances, milk is going into the tea straight after the teabag
If that last sentence didn't strike fear into your heart, you've probably drifted off and need to go back and read it again.

Yes, milk is going in straight after the teabag. Even worse, the main perpetrators of this crime are the supposedly beverage-worshiping cafes that pretend to understand the importance of tea, and charge you £1.50 (or whatever) for sampling their expertise. Tea needs hot water to brew in. If the milk goes in right after the teabag, the water is cooled and you are left with a forlorn luke-warm teabag swimming in a pale tea of disappointment.

When you've got to the front of the queue and they are making your tea, when they ask you if you want milk, be careful what you say. I've found that 'Yes, but not yet' is quite a good answer. If you simply say 'Yes', you are in danger of ending up with tea like this:

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Arthur C Clarke predicts the Internet, sort of

Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick developed the novel '2001 - A Space Odyssey' in the mid 1960s, parallel with the screenplay for the film. I read the novel recently, and the following passage in which Arthur C Clarke imagines the future of newspapers caught my eye.

What he describes is a sort of mashup between a non-interactive internet, teletext and a zooming interface somewhat like the iPhone. The passage takes place when Dr Floyd is on his was to the Moon...

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest news reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word 'newspaper' of course, was an anachronistic hang-over into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the everchanging flow of information from the news satellites.

It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials - these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.