Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Garbage in garbage out

All small children are strange, and I wasn't less strange than most. When I was about eight I went through a phase of worrying that, if God woke me up in the night and asked me what I most wanted, like he did with Solomon, I would be too confused to say "wisdom" and would instead say "chocolate... no, no, wisdom!" but it would be too late and God would give me loads of chocolate but very little respect.

I told a friend about this childhood yearning for wisdom one evening as we sat at Combination on a Sunday night, after High Table in college. I can't remember what in the conversation led up to this, but I assume that the wines served with dinner might have had something to do with it. "Well," he said, "here you are." And gestured round at our surroundings. I laughed, and then had to stop myself quickly when I realised that he did actually mean it. We were sat around the table which doubles for use in governing body meetings, lit only by a couple of candelabra; not one but two port decanters were circulating to the left and the atmosphere was pretty convivial. High Table attracts a certain type of College Fellow, especially on Sunday nights after Evensong -- not religious, often very anti-religious, but traditional. I was usually the only woman there, unless the president or one of the guests had brought in a wife, and on the whole I was not much more than half the average age. At the time the college was engaged in a horrible and incomprensible dispute triggered by a newcomer taking up a senior position. One of the men around that table had recently told me that the incomer's (unspecified) behaviour could only be explained if he was truly evil; another was using the split to try to settle a long-standing score with an old rival, startlingly ineptly; the fellow who had started the whole thing with a formal complaint was someone whom I would still on the whole describe as sensible. It was very nasty at the time, and in retrospect I see it as a learning experience about human nature, like watching Big Brother. But that's why I laughed when my friend suggested that I had, by winning a place in that company, visibly achieved wisdom.

Nonetheless there was certainly a lot of intelligence in that room. (Especially if you define intelligence as a propensity to a certain sort of stupidity.) It would be fascinating to know how many of those middle-aged men would have agreed with my friend in equating the college's fellowship with wisdom, and how many would have found the concept intrinsically risible like I did. I've been reading up on artificial intelligence a bit recently, and what has startled me about it is the willingness of physicists to put forwards definitive theoretical pronouncements about the nature of human intelligence. I think I may now need to read up on ideas of what "intelligence" is, as a way of strengthening my mind against blind acceptance of their assumptions. But it's interesting, and a bit of a relief, that no one seems to be talking about artificial wisdom. What would it take to build a computer that could say comforting things to the bereaved? Could it be taught to do that, or would it have to learn, and would it first have to be itself capable of suffering?

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Some things from the internet

Look, if you've robbed a liquor store and shot the cashier and the police are stumped, you're a fool to yourself if you then get a detailed picture of the crime scene tattoo'd on your chest.

The difference between city life and country life.

Look at the young elk!

This was filmed by David Neils, and he has more on his website,

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Aunt-presenting dilemmas solved!

Have you got an excellent aunt in your life? I mean one of those sensible, intelligent, practical aunts, more of a Dahlia than an Agatha? Perhaps said aunt is coming up for a birthday, or you'd like to express your appreciation of her qualities in some tangible, easily postable form? Perhaps recovery from a minor operation is forcing her to slow down her usual activities and convalescence is hanging heavy on her hands? Luckily for you the solution is only a few clicks away! My aunt-targetted book Saint Margaret's Gospel-book is currently on sale at ten pounds instead of twenty-five, which was already a bargain considering the combination of hand-crafted text and lots of extremely excellent pictures.
'a gem of a book - it sparkles with interest' -- Henrietta Leyser, serious historian whom I don't even know
'if you liked Harry Potter you'll like this' -- a boy I used to babysit
Written by an aunt for aunts -- actually I wasn't an aunt at the time, but I did write it with my Aunt Cynthia in mind -- it's the solution to all your aunt-presenting needs. [Pdf of sale catalogue here.]

Also works on great-aunts, mothers (I dedicated it to mine), god-parents, friends of the family, and anyone who's interested in eleventh-century Scotland, Anglo-Saxon England, medieval manuscripts, royalty, saints, libraries, books, or women. Caution: has not been tested on uncles.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

An affordable trebuchet

I do love Kickstarter. If you haven't come across it yet, it's basically a way for people who have a cool idea to ask for people to invest in it. They make a video explaining what they're proposing to do, and give a list of options for investing, ranging from cheap to expensive. (The expensive one very often includes a meal out "if you're in the Bay area".) Usually your pledge equates to preordering a various amount of their proposed product. There's a funding target and a deadline. If there have been enough pledges by the deadline to meet the funding target then the project goes into production, and the people pay their money and get their reward. If the target isn't met then no one pays any money and that's that. I think the new version of Hucklebury Finn where they replace every instance of the n-word with "robot" was a Kickstarter thing, and the Robocop statue for Detroit. People also raise funding for short films and such, especially documentaries.

I've never actually invested in any of their projects yet but I'm very tempted by this desk-top trebuchet. It needs no glue or nails to put together. They're also going to subsidise ones for schools -- they're thinking of science classes but I think history classes might like them too. If my nephew were only a few years older I would definitely get one for him.

Another good project is this one for things which keep your coffee hot for longer. And this one for 360 degree video for the iphone 4 is pretty cool.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Everybody in the house of love

I really like this:

The real thing is not going to top it.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


I might even watch Eurovision this year, which makes me suspect that people who usually watch it won't like it so much. The UK has finally decided to make some sort of effort by getting our song sung by an actual pop group, though admittedly one that split up six years ago. Here's Sweden's entry, which is great. It's not actually by Bodies Without Organs (BWO) but it sounds quite like them, which is a good thing. (I got it off of popjustice, as ever.)

I decided to give up irony in 1994, because I noticed that even the Pet Shop Boys had moved on in favour of fun. They felt like taking all their clothes off and dancing to the Rite of Spring:

I told a friend of mine who I didn't know very well back then that I had given up irony, and he thought I was being sarcastic. If I ever write the sort of deathbed novel/memoir where you look back on the defining points of your life (like Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, which is brilliant) then that moment will definitely be included. Every now and then something happens to remind you that it's actually impossible to communicate properly with any other human being. But it matters less than you'd think, because we bridge the gap with kindness and goodwill.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A quick warning re: scam

Some months ago my mother was scammed over the phone. She sort-of knew she'd been scammed immediately, and was immediately repentant, and we stopped her credit card and sorted it all out. It upset me quite a lot at the time for two reasons: 1) I'm not ready for my parents to need protection from scammers other than their own common sense; 2) I wasn't quite sure at first what the scammers were up to. I just had a phonecall from the same people, who have phoned back quite a lot since then, and amused myself by keeping them on the phone for as long as possible, as an outlet for my annoyed feelings. I thought I'd post about this quickly just in case anyone who reads this blog finds themselves, like me, in the position of default IT support for their parents, and would like to warn them to be cautious.

The caller says that they're from "Windows Service Department" or something similar. They do their best to make you think that they're from Microsoft and are official Windows people without actually stating it. They say they have a report indicating that there are problems with your computer, and that it may be running slowly. (This is as far as they got today because I asked them why they were spying on my computer and they hung up.) From what happened with my mother, it seems that when you express concern they tell you to go to your computer, and talk you through running a diagnostic on it. This is where I was really worried at first because my mother couldn't describe to me quite what had happened, but it seems that what they tell you to do is a genuine inbuilt Windows diagnostic which lists all the issues your computer has had. They're relying on the almost certainty that your computer has at some point returned an error message, or even crashed. You tell them that there are error reports, and they persuade you to pay them money for software which is supposed to make it all OK.

I would never have expected my mother to fall for this. I would have expected her to stop at the point where they asked for money. When she told me about it I was really concerned that they might have already got spyware on her computer somehow before they called, but in fact it's just an aggressive selling technique, and they count on most of the people they call having a Windows computer. I uninstalled what they had got her to put on, and did some really long and thorough virus checks, so I hope her computer's OK now. At least she didn't give them remote access.

Links to other people being scammed:
If you read the comments to the middle article you'll see that my mother is far from being alone in being caught out. Worse than the sixty quid (which she did get back by telling the credit card people) was that she felt really stupid and worried about whether she's going doolally. Cue me spending lots of time googling the symptons of early onset dementia and worrying about her. It was all very unpleasant.

On the other hand if you do get a phonecall from them, here is an opportunity to be really rude to someone without feeling even a glimmer of guilt afterwards. So it's not all bad. I actually quite like it when they call now.

Wow I made it work

I mentioned in the last post a problem I had using a Javascript button to import a book into LibraryThing from its page. I have fixed it! Hurray for me! I don't know any Javascript, I just hacked it around a bit and compared the output with the input until it did the right thing. The button which you get from this LibraryThing page has this javascript:
I saw that there is a quick URL-based import using ISBN described on this LibraryThing page, so I altered it to this:
and it now works for me. I feel so good about this it's ridiculous.

So if you use LibraryThing and drag this link: Add to LibraryThing to your bookmark toolbar then you should now be able to use the bookmarklet. Wow I am so smug right now.

LibraryThing thoughts so far

Anna asked me how I find using LibraryThing, and I found my answer getting rather too long for a comment, so here it is as a separate blog post.

Basically I'm really enjoying using LibraryThing, and I love keeping track of what I've been reading, with the option of writing brief reviews to help me remember it later. Also it has a lot of side benefits I wasn't expecting, like being able to pull up a list of all an author's books very quickly. But this is with a big proviso, that I'm only using it for leisure books, not for academic ones.

When it comes to cataloguing, if you're dealing like I am with predominantly leisure books then you can get hold of a cheap barcode scanner and use that to input ISBNs. That's quite a quick way to proceed. Most of my novels and such have barcodes, and ones that have ISBNs but no barcodes are still pretty quick to input. It's the sort of thing you can do while listening to the radio or watching TV. LibraryThing sells the CueCat scanner very cheaply, just fifteen dollars even including UK postage. This is a scanner which was made in huge numbers and given out free some time ago by record stores and magazines, and although it's not made any more and the systems it was made for collapsed, there are vast numbers floating around for which people are finding other uses. It works with LibraryThing straight off, or you can easily install software to make it work with anything that can cope with text input. (I installed some software called CatNip to make it give me plain input and then used it to sell CDs on the MusicMagpie website.) Or apparently you can get your webcam or phone to work as a barcode scanner, but that's much fiddlier than you'd think, because the image has to be just right. Here's someone talking about doing this with an iPhone.

I have tried out the exporting feature but only out of curiosity, I haven't really done things with it. It doesn't have a lot of flexibility -- you choose between comma- and tab- separated and that's that -- but I think it should be adequate for most purposes. I can see the data going into Endnote without much fiddling, for example, and I have a lot of experience of fiddling with data to get it to go into Endnote. (Ever since I finished my PhD I have been employed to fiddle with the machine-readability of bibliographic data, which is such a depressing thought.) I have imported successfully, from a database I made using book cataloguing software some years ago. I had a barcode scanner then too but it was more expensive than the CueCat and it broke. The software was good; I suppose it's really LibraryThing's widgets that sold it to me, and it is interesting to see which of your books are rare. You can theoretically have private books, or make your whole library private, neither of which routes I have as yet taken, though I did feel a terrible pang when I started cataloguing the books in my parents' library which I have read and some of the first were by Jeffrey Archer.

LibraryThing's big competitor is GoodReads, and I read up on them both before choosing. LibraryThing is supposedly aimed more at librarians while GoodReads is more about social-networking, which is what decided me. Also lots of book bloggers I read, like Stuck in a Book, use LibraryThing.

I think there are basically two issues with LibraryThing. One is that it's a cheap system, and things like the Help literature are a bit ad hoc. It's basically someone's pet project continued. When dealing with commercial software you often think "I ought to be able to do this in this way" while with this sort of software you just have to adapt yourself to the way in which things have been set up to be done. There's a bookmarklet which is supposed to let you add books directly from their amazon page but I can't get it to work (I think because I'm going for not .com). It's not a problem, instead I just import books using the way they expect you to do it. And because there's an API maybe someone with actual programming knowledge will sort this out at some point -- like with Firefox, it's open for knowledgeable users to improve it themselves with browser addons and such and then share their work with others. There are some GreaseMonkey scripts, for example. I would love to be the sort of person who could write scripts for GreaseMonkey.

The second and bigger issue is to do with multiple authors. It lets you put in one author, and then add a further author or translator or editor or whatever as part of the additional information a long way down the book-description page. This is fine as a way of dealing with a collection of novels. Of course it won't do at all for my academic books, many of which have two or more authors who need to share equal billing. So I don't know if I'll ever move my academic books onto it. I need a proper catalogue of them, but I expect I'll do it in Endnote, where it would only involve adding keywords to existing entries.

There is no entirely adequate bibliographical software out there. Endnote is the nearest I can get, with advantages like widespread support and very flexible exports. I think maybe that if we could get at just why there is no OK bibliographic software when it seems like a reasonably straightforward thing to do, then we might at the same time solve the problem of what is wrong with academia.

I do like books

Book culture is quite interesting. In the US you can now get a cheaper Kindle if you don't mind having special offer adverts on the home page and screensavers. Since you can't customise the home page and screensavers anyway, so it's not like you can make them all nice like you want them, I don't think I'd mind having adverts for Visa instead. The crucial thing is that your reading is not interrupted.

I would guess that I now read about a third of my books on the kindle. I spend too much money on books, especially for someone with very little income, but not much of that spending goes to authors or publishers. A lot of what I read is old material, things I've seen recommended on blogs or want to read because I'm interested in their subject matter, and I can usually get hold of these for something between three and five pounds secondhand including postage. If there is a kindle edition available for a similar price I prefer that; but basically, there isn't. I'm hoping that publishers will catch up a bit with the idea of availability of the backlist, because I'd much rather that a proportion of the money I pay for a book goes to the publisher and author rather than a secondhand book seller. I'm currently reading Katie Whitaker's biography of Margaret Cavendish, Mad Madge, and enjoying it very much. I spent three pounds ninety-seven pence on it, including postage. If there were an ebook version available then Vintage, who presumably took the initial risk of paying an advance for the book and publishing it, and Whitaker, who actually wrote the thing, could continue to get a little trickle of income from its sale long after the actual physical copies have gone off to be remaindered or whatever. The book is out of print, but it was actually only published in 2004, which doesn't seem so very long ago to me.

Saturday, 9 April 2011


I went to help my parents set up at an alpaca show about an hour away up the M5. On the way back, as we drove over the Sedgemoor Drain, my father sighed miserably. My mother, who was driving, patted his knee, and asked what the matter was. She rarely asks that sort of thing, but then he had sounded quite depressed. "I was thinking what a shame it was that Monmouth didn't press on to London in 1685", he replied. My dad's a bit of a loony, but I do like that he's unexpected.

I don't think he's so much pro-Monmouth, by the way, as anti-Judge Jefferys.

Friday, 8 April 2011

QED nearly

Chickens, when they run, are funny. I've been trying to prove this recently using the video function on my cheap digital camera. Here's the best I've done so far, with the kind help of my mother, whom they love, or at least yearn to be near. But for the full effect you need to have them running towards you madly, with a glint in their eye that says "bacon rind?"

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Masters

One of the few things likely to make me feel proud of having been to Trinity is their Masters. Amartya Sen, who is just obviously great, was Master for most of the time while I was there. Now it's Martin Rees, who has just won some prize awarded to scientists by Christians and therefore controversial blah blah blah. Here is his comment on the "Hawking says there's no God" story that ran a while ago:
I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don't think his views should be taken with any special weight.
I just love the idea of "little philosophy and less theology" as the modern equivalent of Shakespeare's small Latin and less Greek. And I love it when people talk like it's obvious that there's meaning in the humanities. Go Martin Rees!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

I love you, Devon

Mystery object brings town to standstill. The people of Bridgwater aren't sure if it was a pig's head, a turtle, or just a stone. When the reporter returned to the scene the next day it had gone.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The world into which I was born

This clip was posted on boing boing but I only watched it because it's from the BBC news on the day I was born. It makes me feel illogically nostalgic.

We've had a similar slightly crazy posh old lady staying with us this weekend, an old friend of my grandparents from Kensington. When my nephew dropped his toy phone and the batteries fell out, she picked it up for him saying in cut-glass tones "Oh, it's absolutely maddening, I quite agree", and my brother and sister-in-law got the giggles.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Winter is coming

HBO have released twelve Sean-Bean-heavy minutes of their new adaptation of A Game of Thrones, the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which I read in February. I really want to see this. Watch out for the white-haired man with the impressive facial hair arrangement. Also, if you see the whole thing at some point watch out for no character being safe from a sudden violent death, even the main characters and the ones you really like.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Things I have read in March

Because it's Lent I am currently reading Augustine's Enarrationes in Psalmos, in a very good English translation by a hermit called Maria Boulding. It's not a quick read -- many of the Psalms have more than one commentary, and I've only just got onto the third volume, Psalms 51-72, even though I started the work last Lent. I'm not rushing through it because I'm enjoying it. It includes expected things and also unexpected things that make me stop and think, and jolt me out of an easy reading -- if it were an exam script I would give it a first. I love the feeling you get sometimes when you're reading something centuries old, either in the original or in a very fluent translation, that the author and the original audience are both totally alien and remarkably recognisable. The sermons were preached in North Africa, often in Carthage, to a people who were occasionally tempted away to the chariot races instead. I have never skived off church to go to see my favourite chariot racer. But in other ways it's strikingly germane. If I muster the energy I'll blog about the specifics of this at some point.

Lent means I have read less in March than in February and January, which is a good thing. I read the first two of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books with enjoyment, and marvelled at the way the series completely crashes and burns in book three. I enjoyed Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind, but had trouble quite understanding at whom it was aimed. Most of what she was saying seemed utterly self-evident to me, and a lot of my enjoyment came from a sense of relief that someone is actually saying it. But with her formidable mind and her extremely wide reading comes a tendency to rather opaque language which I'm not convinced is completely necessary. I suppose it's a dichotomy in the sources she criticises: some of them are aggressively aimed at everyperson, while others are couched in the polysyllabic sociolect of post-Theory academia. But her most telling points are against the former, but written in the style of the latter, which I'm not sure is going to do anyone much good. [Edit: in the middle of the night I suddenly remembered that this book was first given as lectures to just such an audience. Which accounts for the tone.]

I read two books with thoroughly depressing premises, Emma Donaghue's Room and Kazuo Ishuguro's Never Let Me Go. The first one transcends the horribleness by being through the eyes of a small child who loves his mother, while the second was just bloody depressing, though technically good, I suppose.

And I read Jenny Uglow's book about the first ten years of Charles II's reign. Bloody Charles II. Here's my review off LibraryThing:
This was quite good. I'm not totally convinced by it, though. The idea of Charles as a gambling king is a little forced, because surely no statesman has any choice other than to take the occasional risk. Also this only covers the first ten years of his twenty-five-year reign. It's hard not to suspect that this has something to do with Pepys' abandonment of his diary in 1669, though Uglow implies that it's because of Charles' last meeting with Minette in 1670, and his successful completion of his secret treaty with Louis XIV (*spits*). The way that this book splits things up into categories means it doesn't have a strong narrative, although this is more a problem in the first than the second half. And I have read a lot of other books covering the same ground. This book just didn't seem that engaged with the period, and although disengagement is a deliberate way of writing history, it's not very human. She's clearly on Charles's side, but failed to make me understand why. The King Charles who spent tens of thousands on his mistresses and laughed when his foully-behaved gallants tricked lower-class women into fake marriages and then abandoned them was the same Charles whose navy didn't pay its sailors, and who was offended when he found that one of his servants had stopped laying out paper for council meetings because he had not once been paid and could not afford to keep running up personal debts to provide the king with paper. Charles could not stand being dependent on the English parliament for his money to such an extent that he preferred to be dependent on Louis XIV for his money, making a secret treaty with the most dangerous despot of the time, and agreeing to convert to Catholicism for two hundred thousand pounds cash. We should have stuck with the kingless commonwealth, says I. Roll on the Glorious Revolution!
But I liked the Duchess of Newcastle's poem inspired by Lucretius on atoms:
For millions of these atoms may be in
The head of one small, little, single pin.
And if this small, then ladies well may wear
A world of worlds as pendents in each ear.
Also I didn't know that Charles' widow, Catherine of Braganza, went back to Portugal and was regent for her brother for a while.