Here’s my thought for the year:
It’s much more important to read things with which you disagree than to read things with which you agree.
Here’s my thought for the year:
It’s much more important to read things with which you disagree than to read things with which you agree.
If, like me, you have been pondering linear algebra on a Christmas afternoon (and, frankly, who hasn’t?), or if you know anybody who is learning it for the first time, then I highly recommend Grant Sanderson’s YouTube channel, 3Blue1Brown where he makes all kinds of mathematical ideas easier to understand through some clever visualisations.
In particular, his Essence of linear algebra course is a wonderful presentation of the basics. Do you have vague memories of matrix multiplication and of phrases like ‘determinant’ and ‘eigenvector’ but have no idea why you learned them or what they did? Then this is the resource for you. Not only is it good revision, but it explains them in a different way from the way you might have learned them originally, which can help you get a better understanding than you had before.
Oh, and if linear algebra isn’t your idea of a fun way to spend Christmas, don’t worry. There’s Essence of Calculus as well.
Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini posed an interesting question in a talk this afternoon. Imagine a self-driving car faced with the option of having to hit one of two motorcyclists. One is wearing a helmet, and the other isn’t. Should it aim for the helmet-wearing guy, to reduce the risk of loss of life?
Philosophers must be having a field day with this stuff. They’re being invited to comment on the latest in sexy new technologies in a way that doesn’t happen very often. (Douglas Adams fans may remember Majikthise & Vroomfondel.) Much of the ethical discussion relating to autonomous vehicles, though, boils down to variations on the Trolley Problem, and the key thing about this — the thing that makes it an interesting ethical conundrum in the first place — is that there is no right answer. If deployment of the railways had required the Trolley Problem to be solved first, we would still be using horse-drawn carts.
The question is not, ‘What should a car do in this situation?’, but ‘How do we get to a point where society is comfortable that we’ve had enough discussion about this?’ Or, more precisely, ‘How do we get to a point where a large enough fraction of society is comfortable, that a party proposing to allow such vehicles on our roads would be elected to government?’
Many technologies, historically, have first been used, and then later have had restrictions placed upon them to reduce the risks which are discovered, with experience, to be the key ones: motorcyclists needing helmets, cars needing seat-belts, pilots needing licences, smokers needing to go outside.
What I presume will happen here is that societies who are less risk-averse will go ahead with greater degrees of autonomous driving, and the more conservative nations will watch with interest until they can amass enough vicarious experience to follow in their footsteps.
I imagine, however, that in 50 years’ time, we’ll still be debating the motorcycle question raised above. By then, though, it will be even more hypothetical, since we’ll have long-since banned motorcycles.
Every time I read something by Nevil Shute, I realise that this is something I should do much, much more frequently. He is truly brilliant, yet I have, so far, read only a few of his books.
The latest one is Pied Piper, which I’ve just completed in the unabridged audiobook version read by the (also superb) David Rintoul. (I’ve enthused about audiobooks here before – if you haven’t tried them, they look, individually, rather expensive, but an Audible subscription makes them about the same price as a book.)
Anyway, Pied Piper comes highly recommended, in whichever form you consume it.
We are amongst the many people mourning the impending departure of Lovefilm by Post – the DVD rental service which was absorbed by Amazon a few years ago, and which they recently announced would close at the end of October. A few years back, I looked at the list of our past rentals, and it was over 750 titles. They now truncate the history to the last 200, so I can’t see our current total, but I guess we must have watched in the region of 1000 movies. I’m not even going to calculate how many weeks of enjoyment that represents! We joined soon after the service started, which was also around the time we pretty much stopped watching live TV.
Lovefilm was clearly living on borrowed time: like Netflix’s original postal service in the US, on which it was modelled, we knew it would eventually succomb to the higher profit margins available from streaming. But Netflix and Amazon Prime – both of which we also use – don’t offer a fraction of the titles that we want to watch. If I look back at just a few of our recent rentals – not even particularly obscure foreign language ones, but things like Cadfael, or Humphrey Bogart’s Sahara – LoveFILM is, I think, the only way to get them without actually buying them.
Ian Dunt’s piece in the Guardian puts it nicely:
I’ve no interest in trawling through the movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It’s like the DVD bargain bin at a suburban petrol station. There are about five quality films on there, all of which you’ve seen, and then an endless black hole of celluloid mediocrity.
We also often enjoyed watching the directors’ commentaries and other extra features on the disks, which are seldom available from the online services.
So, strangely, this change will probably push us back towards the purchase and ownership of more physical media. Amazon may have realised this and decided it was to their advantage! But we’d better collect copies of our old favourites (and rip them) before DVDs, too, fall by the wayside.
It is interesting that, despite interesting offerings from people like Curzon, nobody has managed to offer a general streaming service that compares in the breadth and quality of the postal catalog. I’m guessing this is a legal and licensing problem, and that Lovefilm by Post was able to survive based on the tail-end of some historical agreements put in place for VHS rental shops.
But if anyone does work out a way, legal or technical, to offer a service catering to those interested in more than just the blockbusters, they will make a lot of money. From me, at least.
Lots of fun today at a family gathering at the Lea Valley White Water Centre. We were celebrating my parents’ wedding anniversary. They enjoyed watching us from the bank!
I’m on the port side – at the back in this one, where we’re paddling backwards to control our approach to the rapid:
And a bit further forward (and partially obscured) here. We did several runs down the Olympic course.
Just because we don’t have children, that shouldn’t stop us playing with toys, right? In fact, one of the benefits of our decision not to have children is that we arguably get to play with more toys. Yesterday, anyway, I tried one of these:
It’s an electrically-assisted cargo bike, which you could use for transporting the kids to and from school, if that’s your thing. But we were more interested in transporting groceries or spaniels around, while still avoiding parking & congestion issues, and making use of cycle paths and pedestrian bridges. The electric motor allows you to do so with no more effort than cycling a normal bike, regardless of hills, wind or weather.
It’s a splendid vehicle. Tilly was nervous at first, but seemed to enjoy sitting in it once we were zooming along a straight road at 15mph, with our ears flapping in the breeze, and we got lots of cheery comments from those we passed. Will have to come up with a good excuse to get one…
If you’re curious, it’s a Bakfiets Classic Short with Shimano Steps Electric Assist, model NN7STEPS, and it’s available, for example, from here. Not cheap in bicycle terms, but not bad when compared to a car, especially when you think of all the maintenance and tax savings…
One of the things that has always intrigued me about Elon Musk is that he’s not really a great speaker.
Most people who are leading the types of operations he’s leading, having the impact he’s having, are very confident, eloquent orators. Elon, in contrast, has these wonderful world-changing ideas and yet bumbles on about them in the sort of way that, perhaps, you or I might do. I think that’s part of what makes him so attractive. He feels like, well, one of us, but with just a bit more confidence in his gut feelings. Oh, and a few more billion dollars, but that isn’t the thing you notice most.
That’s not to say that his words, stumbling though they sometimes are, don’t have real nuggets of gold in them. It’s well worth watching this TED talk where Chris Anderson asks about his various projects, though with too little time to go into any one in any depth, alas. It’s all intriguing stuff, but the best bit is at the end:
Elon, it almost seems, listening to you and looking at the different things you’ve done, that you’ve got this unique double motivation on everything that I find so interesting. One is this desire to work for humanity’s long-term good. The other is the desire to do something exciting. And often it feels like you feel like you need the one to drive the other. With Tesla, you want to have sustainable energy, so you made these super sexy, exciting cars to do it. Solar energy, we need to get there, so we need to make these beautiful roofs. We haven’t even spoken about your newest thing, which we don’t have time to do, but you want to save humanity from bad AI, and so you’re going to create this really cool brain-machine interface to give us all infinite memory and telepathy and so forth. And on Mars, it feels like what you’re saying is, yeah, we need to save humanity and have a backup plan, but also we need to inspire humanity, and this is a way to inspire.
I think the value of beauty and inspiration is very much underrated, no question. But I want to be clear. I’m not trying to be anyone’s saviour. That is not the…
I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.
The one pound coin was introduced in 1983. I remember my excitement when I got my first one!
Well now it’s being phased out in favour of a shiny new one, launched last week and dubbed ‘the most secure coin in the world’. You can read all about it on www.thenewpoundcoin.com. The last one, of course, was a little too early to have its own website. I wonder what URL they’ll use when this one is replaced? But perhaps URLs and websites will seem very quaint and old-fashioned in 30 years’ time.
Anyway, over there, they tell you about some of its security features. Not all of them, of course – there is a much-speculated-about system — called, amusingly, iSIS — which supposedly allows genuine coins to be identified easily with a simple scanner, but nobody really seems to know yet how it works. Security, for the time being, through obscurity. It will be fun finding out its secrets in due course.
In the meantime, you have until October to spend your old ones…
Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. — Rita Dove
A good friend of ours, Glen Cavaliero, is a poet. An exceedingly good one, in fact, and highly-regarded among the cognoscenti. Over the decades, in addition to his academic books, he has published numerous slim poetry volumes but, now approaching his ninetieth birthday, he wanted to gather them into a more substantial collection; not quite a ‘complete works’, but something of that ilk.
Glen, however, owns no technology more advanced than a typewriter, and so one of our side-projects over the last couple of years has been to help him with the process of self-publishing this 500-page masterpiece, which finally saw the light of day towards the end of 2016.
If you or any of your friends are seriously interested in good poetry, I recommend The Flash of Weathercocks. Some of the poems are dark and gritty, some light and cheery, some funny, some melancholy, some deeply thoughtful, some highly accessible, others filled with subtle literary allusions. Very few of them are easy reading. But all of them are expertly crafted by a master of the language.
You can find it in:
Now, I’ve learned a few things in this process. One is that poetry is much harder to typeset than prose: even trying to ensure that page-breaks come in sensible places in the middle of verses was quite a challenge for the publisher, but to add to this, for many of Glen’s pieces, the careful indentation of each line is important…
The other revelation for me was a clearer understanding of the effect Amazon has on the publishing world, especially the self-publishing world. I’m a huge fan of Amazon in general, but the margin they take on books is pretty severe! In our case, the publisher charges 15%, so when people buy from the publisher’s site, the author gets 85% of the cover price to offset against his or her up-front printing costs. That is all very reasonable.
Amazon, however, charges a further 60%, so the author gets 25%. Or, to put it another way, once you’ve established the printing costs, you need to set your cover price to four times that amount if you are just to break even on Amazon sales. Since poetry, by its very nature, tends to involve small print runs with a high per-unit cost, this would make the cover price prohibitive for Glen’s book. And so, in fact, we had to pick a cover price where he will lose money on every sale through Amazon, and make money if people buy from the publisher or directly from him.
I created a spreadsheet where we could estimate, for various values of X, that X times as many people are likely to buy from Amazon as from elsewhere, and settled on a price where he should just about break even overall. Our job now is to publicise the non-Amazon links as much as possible!
Above all, it’s clear to me that, even if you have tributes from the likes of Sir John Betjeman on your back cover, poetry is definitely something you create for love, rather than for money!
But I do think this is a significant work of literature, and since there’s no way I’m ever going to produce one of those myself, I’m delighted to have been at least instrumental in helping it come into existence!
This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education…
— 1066 and All That
My curious mix of state and private education left me, to paraphrase Ben Jonson, with almost zero Latin and less Greek. Perhaps because of this, although I can be something of a language pedant, I would normally refer to, say, ‘the next item on the agenda’, and would only talk about ‘the next agendum’ in a spirit of playful fun. ‘Agendas’, however, would make me wince. I do know, deep down, that ‘agenda’ is a plural.
Similarly, even though I work with rather a large amount of data, I have almost never used the word ‘datum’ except in one of its specialist meanings. Indeed, for most science, if you have little enough data to think of each item individually, then you probably don’t have enough to draw useful conclusions!
And so, like most people, I think of data rather as a fluid substance, to be measured by the bucket-load — megabytes of data, like pints of milk or glasses of wine — rather than as a plural. Few people would say ‘there are a dozen data in this table’ unless they were classicists, who would never actually have to deal with it. So you’ll note that in the previous paragraph I said “if you have little enough data”. If I had instead opted for “if you have few enough data”, you would probably have assumed that I was making a point, one that wasn’t actually to do with the data at all.
Nonetheless, etymology has always intrigued me, and I love the fact that Norman Gray can write a long, sensible and interesting discussion of this very topic, which I can read over breakfast before going off to analyse a datum or two…
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser