Wilkommen, Bienvenu, Welcome... Sziasztok!

Welcome to The Lotus Position, an intermittent collection of extempore navel gazings, ponderings, whinges, whines, pontifications and diatribes.

Everything is based on a Sample of One: these are my views, my experiences... caveat lector... read the Disclaimer

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter
Ponder, Scribble, Ponder (Photo Erdotahi Aron)

Guest Nutter/Kindred Soul: Bill Bailey


Friday, 31 August 2007

The Problems of Ontology

Never mind "What's Stuff?", what's a knife?

Easy peasy. A knife is... er... a sharp edged, hand-held tool for cutting.

Or, to quote the OED (hope this counts as Fair Use) "A cutting instrument, consisting of a blade with a sharpened longitudinal edge fixed in a handle, either rigidly as in a table-, carving, or sheath-knife, or with a joint as in a pocket- or clasp-knife..."

Do you see it? The wood?

The essential observation to make is that a knife is defined in no small part by what it does, how it is used, and not by intrinsic, objective characteristics: the purpose or application of a thing would seem to be a defining characteristic. I could sharpen the edge of a credit card and use it as a knife, but would it be a knife? Maybe. Certainly if I bind it soundly to a good, strong carrot.

What about a knife that has lost it's handle? Is it still a knife - a handle-less knife? What about a knife that has lost it's blade? How can I even refer to a blade-less knife?

[I pick these examples for several reasons, one of which is that I do recall a Radio 1 DJ running a phone-in for words defining things that don't exist (strangely high-brow for Radio 1, but it was a long time ago), and - although I can't remember the word that was coined - I do remember a definition: "A blade-less knife without a handle."]

The Ontology of Everything must take such things into account.

The military like(s) to talk about Capability - we have a Rapid Response Capability, a Persistent ISTAR Capability, a Nuclear Deterrence Capability, u.s.w. - but, alas, one cannot have (or not have) an unqualified Capability.

What one can have are degrees (qualitative or quantitative) of Capability, where Capability becomes the ability to achieve a certain specified result (or perhaps class of results) under specified circumstances (e.g. environmental conditions, available resources, etc.).

An example I have used before involves the comparison of a Knife and a Screwdriver in terms of their "Capabilities".

A (good) knife is good for cutting and probably stabbing too. A screwdriver is not only good for tightening or removing screws, it too is probably a good stabber. And for certain types of screw (usually small slot headed screws) a knife can be an acceptable screwdriver.

So, what do you need for a Stabbing Capability? There are (at least) two choices. And what differences between a knife and a screwdriver should or could be used to separate them in an ontology... or what similarities would put them in the same category?

It would appear that an Ontology of Everything would be hard to keep orthogonal.

How can one construct an ontology of Things when Thingness is so fuzzy?


Not telling (yet) But here's a clue: don't.

The Wastrel

August was a busy month, writing
Prose-poetry for the book, blogging
Random thoughts re Stuff, musing
On the unmuse-able.
Castro poured me coffee, hot
Chocolate and citrus'd soda, slaking
Thirsty thoughts with caffeine and lime.
Lightning surprised me... but then
It would. Wouldn't it?


All you need to be creative is inspiration (breathe it in) and a little creativity.

Some time back a certain Mr Bubley, who specialises in Disruptive Analysis, demonstrated his skill by disrupting my day with this Generic Limerick
There once was an X from place B
That satisfied predicate P
He or she did thing A
In an adjective way
Resulting in circumstance C
Nice. But I wanted more, and in the absence of more lying around (or anything satisfying turned up by Google) obviously I had to write my own...

So here they are.

The Generic Limerick Algorithm
Specify X, with a well defined locus
State a Property Y (may be bogus)
Say what X did, does or may
Add adverbial phrase
And conclude with a joke, as per modus
A Limeri
The art of the limerick's cunning;
And, well done, the result can be stunning
But fluffing your lines
And forgetting your rhymes
Can leave the reader a bit underwhelmed
An Uncertain Limerick
A success in a life-long endeavour!
I've quantised the joke! Well I never!
But the humour's uncertain
Beyond Heisenberg's curtain
Where it may, or it may not, be measured
The Kama Sutra of Quantum Mechanics
In quantum the fun is coition
Of momentum and spatial position
And as for the state,
That we cannot relate...
Up or Down? Or a super-position?
A Paradoxical Generic Limerick
A Limerick structure conundrum:
Line two has a rhyme, but it's humdrum
The format's not broke
But there isn't a joke
Ergo: Quod Non Erat Demonstrandum
And last - and probably least...

A Null Generic Limerick
Mathematically speaking of sets
The joke is in what we don't get:
If set B is in C,
Then their union's still C.
What else would you ever expect?

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Whaappen Bill Bailey arksent?

Just occasionally something wonderful pops out of the ether (apart from a Boltzmann Brain)...

Bill Bailey!

Oh...! He IS a BB!

(Dear Bill,

Looking forward to your Boltzmann Brain sketch...

All the Best,

Mr Stuff)

Ultrahegemonic logodaedalic obfuscation

I received an email from an agency this afternoon, seeking a consultant with, among others, "CHUI" skills.

CHUI? What does CHUI mean (apart from "leopard" in Swahili)?

Is it perhaps "Computer Human User Interface", which would be a grandiose, obscure and totally unnecessary extension of:
  • HUI, Human User Interface; which only makes sense if you hyphenate it thusly, "Human-User Interface" and still overlooks what the Human-User is interfacing with), related to:
  • HCI, Human Computer Interface (watch that hyphenation!); which is acceptably sensible - though how many people design interfaces for the benefit of goldfish, triffids, gorillas, etc.? No doubt itself a development of:
  • MMI, Man Machine Interface; which I presume was deprecated because it appeared to neglect the needs of female computer users.
No... it means "CHaracter User Interface", so it's either a book, a theatre seat or a keyboard... and thus yet another a totally unnecessary acronymised concept (see here for some other possibilities)

I hate such unnecessary linguistic aggrandisements!

Get a GRIP! (General Readability Interface Protocol)

By the way, the next time somebody asks me what my assessment of my own "interpersonal communications skills" is, I shall tell them that I don't know... I spend most of my time talking to trees.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Electric Squirrels - I Don't Believe It

According to the article A Lost Wilderness (dated 25/08/2007, so no April Fool story!) in The Daily Telegraph magazine...

"Squirrels are highly intelligent, agile enough to tightrope-walk along telephone wires, and poor conductors of electricity. Somehow they have realised that by biting through to the bare wires and short-circuiting the 50 volts that run through them into their own bodies, they can heat themselves up. In this way... each squirrel becomes a sort of low-voltage electric blanket - and will sit up on the wires with a stoned smile for hours."

Don't they run the risk of progressively electrolysing themselves? We must help protect them from themselves! If you can spare one, please put a spliff out with the peanuts...

Whatever next? Birds nesting in front of military radars to gently warm the eggs in the periodic microwave beam so they can spend longer looking for food?

NB I do like the idea that squirrels are notable for being poor conductors of electricity... I wonder where that idea fits within the Ontology of Everything?

Other little known facts about the natural world...
  • Frogs make poor impact armour
  • Alligators are largely opaque
  • Tuna are typically transparent to neutrinos

Stuff in All Generality - An Ontology of Everything

The discipline of organising Stuff into categories and saying such things as "Stuff B is a type of Stuff B" is called Ontology - particularly in the domain of computer science. [Of course if one is to be truly rigorous one needs to say also that "is a type of" is a binary operator relationship between "Types of Stuff"... which probably means that you have to say what Type means in order to define Type... is Type a Property of Stuff or... and before long a whole Chicken and Kettle of Fish Eggs Situation looms large...]

But, back to the beginning.

Because I had terrible trouble making sense of some of the MODAF, ISSE and UML models I encountered while dabbling in modelling and architectures for Peter Burge (before he became a god) and for Vega (who now provide the high-priests of the modelling/architecture temple that is - or was - Peter's ISSE Lab in Malvern) I decided to create an Ontology so that I could re-interpret the various concepts I was supposed to be working with and - hopefully - disambiguate and clarify them.

I like to think I was moderately successful, but it was only "Julian Stuff" so it has had little impact on the development of MODAF, which is I think a shame - because although MODAF can reasonably be described as "rigorous" (as indeed Ian Bailey describes it in the Wikipedia article), it is also in my opinion non-orthogonal - which is to say that definitions overlap and that you can create two models of the same thing (or two separate but related models) faithfully following MODAF and still end with descriptions that either look completely different or are generally incompatible (or both). Call it the inevitable result of design by committee.

To similise, modelling with MODAF (and I bet, DODAF and - to be fair - many other metamodels too in all probability) is a bit like writing in accordance with a grammar, but just because two authors can write grammatical English it doesn't mean that their writings can be merged seamlessly together. Unfortunately, since Enterprise Architecture (lots of coherent models created by a large number of independent modellers) is what MODAF is supposed to be all about, that's a shame.

Anyway, based on its relative success (it worked well in the very limited trial I was able to give it - almost but not quite a sample of one - and it seemed to accommodate the UJTL, METL's, JETL's, JTL and numerous other military Task Lists neatly), and had considerable utility for me in making sense of otherwise mutually unintelligible things, I thought it was time to start thinking about doing it properly and with greater scope in support of an absolutely wizard business idea, about which I shall be saying nothing more for the time being.

Of course, many have said that An Universal Ontology a.k.a "An Ontology of Everything" is impossible, and they may be right... but I shan't let that stop me trying, no siree!

However, I think I can say - without giving too much away - that the foundations of this Universal Ontology shall be Space, Time and Stuff...

... or is that the title of my autobiography?

Perhaps it should be Time, Space and Stuff... or Stuff, Space and Time? Careful with that comma, Eugene.

Who knows? I certainly don't.

Bograch - Stewed Concepts and the Concept of Stew

Sunday was visiting the in-laws day, in Erdotelek about an hour and a half from Budapest with the promise of bograch to look forward to!

Is the promise of bograch a good thing? Well, yes - it's a traditional way of cooking a stew outside in a large (in this case 22L) pan hanging from a tripod over an open fire - although I suppose the "outside" is optional if you are adequately prepared.

It's a wonderful traditional, social event. There can be collective preparation of the ingredients (mostly home grown yesterday) and collective fire-tending throughout the cooking process, though the men seem instinctively to prefer the latter to the former. In fact, I was so struck by the way in which the three men (self included) gravitated to the fire, scrutinised it carefully, adjusted the arrangement of twigs and branches that were feeding the fire and generally pampered it that I began to wonder whether there is a genetic element at work here it was so much like nest-building.

What a wonderful experiment to be done! Collect a large number of people and sort them according to the degree to which they assist the experimenter with keeping a fire (of course the experimenter must lie to them about the purpose of the experiment...) Divide the candidates into three groups - pyrophiles, pyro-neutrals, and "pyrophobes". Then do a genomic analysis of those most pyrophilic and compare the results with those who clearly couldn't care less about those lovely orangey flames.

Of course there could be some interesting implications if there were found to be a genetic element to this behaviour, such as the speed with which it our genome had changed to deal with fire - and the potential mitigating factor for arsonists. "M'lud, my client pleads Not Guilty! He is an innocent victim of his own homozygosity having an over-expressed FireStarter gene and thus not responsible for his actions..."

Does arson run in families?

Anyway while the bograch (left) was cooking, the garden was eerily haunted by something that sounded like a ring-tone through a megaphone. In hindsight, it probably was.

Whatever it was, the sound turned out to be the local equivalent of the English ice-cream van announcing the availability of flakes and ice-lollies, except that in Erdotelek they don't sell ice-cream, they sell candyfloss and kürtös kalács (right).

Kürtös kalács is, according to one randomly selected source (hence of unknown accuracy - but this seems to confirm the essence of it), "specific to the Székely Region of Transylvania...", Transylvania having once been a Hungarian domain, now part of Romania. It's a hollow, cylinder-shaped pastry (the edible thing, not Transylvania) with a variety of different coatings on offer - sugar, walnut, honey, etc. - and rather tasty.

Anyway, back to the strange ring-tone of the spheres... the source seemed to be moving quickly - and it was getting nearer! I dashed to the road in time to see the vending vehicle swoosh by - and to hear the sound clearly enough to be able to identify the ring-tone as... "We wish you a Merry Christmas".

So next time you are wished unseasoned greetings, take a peek outside to see if some tatty red estate car with a megaphone sticky-taped to the bonnet is doing the rounds... could be worth it (how's your Magyarul?)

Saturday, 25 August 2007

St Stephen's Day - Double Lightning

Again no pictures, but Budapest certainly knows how to do a storm. Much like last year.

[OK, here's one, but it's not mine... the bolts I saw were slightly wigglier and more parallel. Click here to see the picture on its own page alongside numerous other nice lightning images.]

This year St Stephen's day, on which Hungarians celebrate King Steven (Szent Istvan, Istvan Kiraly) and the foundation of the Hungarian state fell on August 20th - just like last year; except this year it was a Monday.

Thus Monday was to be the great day for the Red Bull Air Race finals (which I didn't bother to go and see) and the fireworks along the Danube - which I was not going to miss, having been unable to watch them because of the great storm last year.

Because it is hot and humid, we were not unsurprised to see the sky growing black on the 19th, hoping that by the time the 20th came all stormery would be done. (It was - the fireworks were great!)

The storm of the 19th wasn't as devastating as last year's vihar, but from the comfort of the apartment window there was a good show of lightning - including "one" strike of a kind I have never seen before.

I saw a double-strike directly in front of me: two almost but not perfectly straight bolts whose tracks - at arms length they were about a thumb's width apart and I could see about a hand-span of the path above the roof opposite - paralleled each other on the way down.. including the small wiggles that there were.

How can one have two simultaneous bolts in virtually the same place following the same shape of path?

Another item for the Cabinet of Curious Stuff.

Hot Saturns

Having formulated an hypothesis that could account for so called "Inflatable Planets" (albeit not without some difficulty - though probably less than assuming the planet is made of balsawood) in a previous posting, I thought I'd ask one of the team members about it.

It was nice to get an informative reply from Francis O'Donovan of the TrES team:

there are indeed several theories abounding regarding the possibility of a
rings around TrES-4. I have not investigated this thoroughly, but my
understanding is that in order to have an opaque disk that could lead to a
larger apparent size for the planet, you need to have a ring made up of
very small dust particles (unlike Saturn's rings), and this dust would
likely be blown away. As you suggest, it might be a more recently formed
ring, but again it is unlikely that we would happen to observe it at that

I look forward to seeing what the theorists have to say about TrES-4

And so do I - now that the Boltzmann Brains have been dealt with, Inflatable Planets are rising to the top of my watch list.

Boltzmann Brains - Problem? What Problem?

(You might want to read this post first... or you may not)

Don Page probably gets more headlines for his "ladies and gentlemen, the universe will shortly be ending so please finish up your drinks and put the paper bags provided earlier over your heads..." announcements ( as in "Is Our Universe Likely to Decay within 20 Billion Years"), but James Hartle and Mark Srednicki have a saner approach.

To recap (very loosely) the story so far.

We are not special, we are typical - if we're not, how can our observations be typical of the universe, how can we know anything, doesn't our very existence tell us something about the universe? (Copernican Principle, Anthropic Principles)

Sometime soon (soon in the cosmological sense of umptillion years being a lot less than an infinite number of years) the universe will be crawling with Boltzmann Brains just popping into existence, making an observation or (or two?) and pushing off again into the vacuum, without so much as a "by your leave".

And then we will be utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and hence not typical at all and can't possibly be learning anything sensible about the universe.

But, since clearly we are significant and know loads of stuff (and Stuff, I hasten to add), it follows that we can't be about to be invaded by Boltzmann Brains and hence that the universe will end shortly because that's the only way to stop them taking over.

[It would spoil the story to admit that there are other ways to deal with them pesky Brains... but there are, e.g. ..."Repelling the Invasion of the Boltzmann Brains" by S Carlip]

(And may I add as an aside how very short-sighted some physicists can be - even if they do have a way with catchy titles for their papers? What about some preventative measures? Surely it's not too late to take action! A Department of Home World/Galaxy/Universe Defense for example, the e-petition I mentioned in the previous post? Oh, what I wouldn't give to hear Dubya pronounce "These Bolts-men folk are un-American! We must fight their statistical evil!")

The argument up for ridicule is basically: if we are to remain typical we need to pull the plug quickly (or get cloning) - before we become atypical.

Of course it's complete tosh, the fundamental problem being "What do you mean by Typical?" and here Hartle and Srednicki have done a far better job than I ever could in their paper Are We Typical?.

I was going to waffle on about the fact that at least one observer (e.g. the first) has to be atypical, and that "being" is entirely different from "being randomly selected from a population of observers", and that since we see time as having an arrow ["Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana"] we should perhaps, at best, think of ourselves as typical observers of the now - Temporal Typicality as an eternal assumption probably leading to a Steady State theory (which seems unlikely).

Hartle & Srednicki's paper says it all very clearly and only needs the tiniest bit of maths (in the form of Bayesian Probability) to follow. They basically say that there is no basis other than prejudice (ideas that one likes or dislikes because they lead somewhere interesting) in the selection of the prior probabilities used in the Bayesian calculations; by all means assume what you like, but be clear about it and recognise that the choice is not scientific.

They also deal neatly with the whole Typicality thing: we are typical of what? Of things weighing between 10kg and 100kg? Of things with ten toes? And point out how silly assumptions can lead to equally silly conclusions.

Read it. It's worth it.

Conclusion: so what? Even if the universe will shortly be hosting The Great Boltzmann Brain Ball it doesn't affect us at all.

So, unless Boltzmann Brains are improbably more probable than they would seem to be a priori (in which case I suspect we have a different kind of problem) there's nothing to worry about.

Phew! I can sleep soundly now.

Ugh! What was that grey squishy thing I just sat on?

Friday, 24 August 2007

Nahuatl - Transliteration

OK, you can relax now... the answers are here under Transcription in the menu on the left hand side.

It's in French.

Huiquipedia - Nahuatl is Italian?

Yes! Wikipedia is also available in Nahuatl!

How did I discover this? Simply by Googling the word "uehcauh". Why am I Googling the word "uehcauh"? Tsk, tsk! That would be telling.

However, I got only 3 hits and this page was at the top.

Unfortunately, my Nahuatl is non-existent. Never mind, Google helpfully offers to "translate this page" for me.

Unfortunately, the result "was automatically translated from Italian" and so looked rather a lot like the original. I like the idea that Nahuatl is Italian though.

Unfortunately again, there are some words that look vaguely familiar - especially in the context of this page, which makes me wonder about the transliteration scheme I picked up from somewhere.

Oh, fie on it. I don't have time to worry about Nahuatl-English transliteration schemes....

Worrying... worrying... OK, it can't be all bad - axolotl is fine.

By the way, for future reference, just in case you need it - and you never know when you might need certain Stuff - the "-yotl" ending of Nahuatl looks as though it corresponds to "-ism"

I wonder if there is a Nahuatl-Basque dictionary...? Just a thought.

2nd October 2007... BTW - Two posts on Salamanders now! (See the other one here)

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Boltzmann Brains

Yesterday I decided to write about the serious problem of Boltzmann Brains*; I knew it would be a long post as it would have to take in - at least passingly -
and several other major topics.

However, in the course of doing some basic research - including reading various fascinating but obscure papers on one or more of the above (with such wonderful titles as "Repelling the Invasion of the Boltzmann Brains") - I became a little distracted by other things as The Sleeping Beauty Problem, Bertrand's Paradox, The Doomsday Argument - and Mike The Headless Chicken and it might take a little longer than I expected... There is Stuff and there is Deep Stuff - this is the latter.

Maybe I should do it in pieces?

Please return to this page again on 22nd August 1,000,0000,000,002,007 - or thereabouts - for an update.

What do you mean you already have?

*If you think the government should take action now to deal with the problem of Boltzmann Brains, why not start an e-petition? (My first attempt at this, to urge the PM to answer questions in a "more business-like manner", has so far attracted 7 signatories - so maybe I haven't quite tapped into the zeitgeist...)

Friday, 17 August 2007

Cancel or Allow

Yes... it does feel like this to have Vista.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Sziget in Pictures

Naughty silly people - English? Mais oui!

Doing the Ka-Mate haka

On location for Dr Who and the Attack
of the Saxophone Creatures

There were two of them... the Stuff of Nightmares

Sziget on Sea

Cheapskates: you had to pay to do wrestling in
chocolate elsewhere on site; mud wrestling you
can do for free...

The Magic Flute Ballet - with Segways... just what Mozart had in mind I'm sure...

Actually, they can be quite cool when used like this.

Flamenco ballet - now that was cool

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Sziget 2007 - Day 3 - Pink Wet Madness

On the third day we moved less and spent more time around the main stage.

We caught the last half of Gogol Bordello (Ukrainian fronted US band) whose lead singer heaped imprecations on the crowd to party harder "I was born just across the street - you're not fooling me!", then came Laurent Garnier- godfather of French techno.

He got off to a fine, banging start, semi-reluctantly agreed he had to play the old gold, such as "Crispy Bacon" which was excellent, then gave a metaphorical Gallic shrug and went his own way again; which is to say that after three pretty dull tracks Laurent and I parted company.

Pink put on a good show, but nothing to write home about.

However... Madness headlined tonight, and all though the crowd wasn't quite up to Chemical Brothers density, it was noticeably bigger than when Pink was on stage. Suggs now seems to look like Colonel Jack O'Neill in his cool shades - but alas I have no photos to support this claim, and Suggs' potential sang-froid in the face of a Gua'uld attack is largely irrelevant here.

Appearances notwithstanding the show was the Madness I was hoping for - and the rest of the crowd loved it too spite the fact that less than 1% of the crowd could possibly remember them from their heyday. There were plenty of the famous hits - Baggy Trousers, Our House, Madness, It Must Be Love, One Step Beyond, etc. etc. etc. - and plenty of energy, both on an off stage.

At the time, it was quite dry. I've always called Sziget "Glastonbury without the mud", but that is not always true. Yesterday the weather delivered on the BBC's 5-day forecasted "light showers" (sort of), but seemed to overlook any commitment to thunderstorms today... until sometime after midnight.

Noemi particularly wanted to see Eszenyi Eniko at the Dance and Theatre Tent around midnight. She (not Noemi - or the tent) is a 40-something Hungarian singer, who, as soon as she picked up the mic struck me as merely a would-be Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, and since we were in the standing-room-only area I decided to skip the tedium of listening to songs I couldn't understand and went outside.

Well, there was lots of laughter from inside; the Marlene Dietrich thing was just that - a Marlene Dietrich thing to start the show, which was full of hilarious songs mostly about the various shortcomings (and in at least one case longcomings) of men... or so I am told. She certainly wowed the crowd - just her and her piano accompanist - for nearly two hours.

Two long hours.

Two long and increasingly wet hours

I started outside with a coffee and a cigarette. It started to rain. I stood under a tree. It started to rain harder; people walked faster. There was a flash of light. Ah. Lightning. Tree. Not a good place to be standing.

So I wandered back to the small entrance shelter of the Dance and Theatre Tent. The planking above had a narrow crack which meant that the 1.5m of space that was sheltered was divided into two zones by a curtain of water. I chose the wider, front section.

More people jammed in. I gazed at the blossoming storm and did my "let's have some lightning over.... there" finger-pointing trick; but nothing happened... at least not immediately.

A short while later, just in the appointed place a real doozy of a lightning bolt flashed through the sky. It didn't zig, it didn't zag, it just came down - did a small left, right, right, left U-section and carried on with a lovely bright white and yellow neon flash. And then there was a loud bang. Woo hoo! The lighnting show was on!

Under the tent's porch, some sat on the metal scaffolding, arses on the rails, feet on the ground. Unfortunately I don't know enough Hungarian to be able to say "Lightning is dangerous" let alone "Although the metal will provide a low resistance path to earth, some current is still going to flow through you if you keep your feet on the floor", so I just tried not to think about lightning striking anywhere close.

Sometime later, I shifted my feet and they got wet. The earth beneath them had become a puddle about 4cm deep while I had been standing there and all had been well until I created a wave that over-topped the waterproof part of my trainers. Yeucch!

To escape the rising waters many snuck into the back of the tent where they just metaphorically kicked their heels while waiting for the show/rain to end or, in the case of one small group of Hungarians and one larger group of Americans, they talked loudly.

In the case of the Americans they talked very loudly. Archetypally loudly. So loudly in fact they were almost shouting to each other - I'm sure they could be clearly heard on stage - despite the fact that they could have used normal voices, and that anyone with any consideration would have been whispering even though a normal voice would probably have been OK, but for some a normal voice is clearly a loud voice.

I was tempted to go over and say "I do apologise - I missed the beginning of the performance. Would it be a terrible imposition if I were to ask you to start your conversation again?" But I had the feeling the Speech Volume and Irony Appreciation were probably inversely proportional.

So, I am now going to be very rude about the Americans who aren't my dear and wonderful friends because this bunch were arrogantly obnoxious (the Hungarians were, by comparison, merely annoying). It's strange - some nations are collectively as nice as they are individually, such as the Japanese, Welsh and French (as long as they're not Parisians), whereas others, unfortunately including both the English and Americans are just ghastly. Oh, let's not forget the Israelis as some of the loudest mouths on the planet either.

However, to return to the pizza-obsessed, loud-mouthed, inconsiderate cretins in the tent and others of their ilk...

What do you call an American without an arsehole? Shit for brains.

Yeah, I like that - stiletto humour: stylish, pointy, subtle...

What do you call an American with an arsehole? Mr Vice President.

I thank you.

The performance came to an end eventually, but the rain didn't. Noemi got the green cagoule, I got the mat to drape over my head. We got wet as we trudged back to the entrance to Obudai island (that's "Sziget" - sziget just means "island"), and wetter as we stood waiting for the bus, which however at least dropped us with a few hundred meters of home and a nice dry bed.

And it was also good.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Sziget 2007 - Day 1 - No Haka, No Power

This week I shall be mostly eating junk food and drinking beer - because Sziget is here!

I meant to write this immediately, but it's now Day 3 and already things are becoming hazy!

We arrived in time for the Maori dance workshop at 13:30 by the Afro-Latin stage, but they didn't. No surprise there - it is after all a long way to New Zealand and it only takes one airline hiccough to derail a carefully organised itinerary (lovely mixed metaphor!)

...and now, seven days later I can't remember a damn thing about today, except it was hot, I drank a lot of beer, and in the middle of a concert at the World Music Stage the power went out during Salif Keita's concert so it looked like this.

It came back in bits and pieces a few minutes later, but it was a bit flaky. It came, it went. One of the backing singers put on one woman show of dance while the band played acoustically, and eventually the lights came on again and Salif Keita returned.

He started singing but his mic wasn't working. So after a minute of frustration and (I suppose frantic back-stage activity) when no sound emerged he flounced off stage never to be seen again.

Turns out it wasn't just this stage - seems a lot of places on the island lost power. Rumour has it that there was a slight underestimation of the power requirements and a consequently a rather big blown fuse.

Sometime after midnight the late bus home; 300Ft to get dropped (if the driver is amenable) about 200m from home, or if not quite so amenable, about 400m... not bad.

That was it for day one. Must have done lots of other things but I have no idea what they were.

Sziget 2007 - Day 2 - Haka, Kaizers Orchestra and The Chemical Brothers

On the second day I fulfilled an ambition: I finally got the chance to do the Haka today thanks to Te Matarae I Orehu Maori Dance Group and Wetini Mitai-Ngatai, their leader - choreographer who has been helping to preserve Maori tradition and garnered considerable respect for his efforts - and deservedly so.

I've been to New Zealand numerous times (though not since 2000, now I think about it)- beautiful place, fantastic people. The first few trips were business trips (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch) but the rest were pure pleasure - though it was on the very first trip that I took a week off to drive back across North Island - stopping off at Rotorua, Mt Ruapehu, and so on along the way for thermal parks, spas and a spot of skiing.

Since then my interest in Maori tradition developed in the course of researching IT; I have a wonderful book called The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori by Elsdon Best in which the traditional knowledge of the "Whanau Marama" - "the children of light" (i.e. the heavenly bodies) was recorded at the beginning of the 20th century; sadly, even then much of the oral traditional knowledge was already lost.

As a tiny illustration of how central astronomical lore was to the Maori (due in no small part to its importance in navigation) consider this lullaby (Best, p5)

I haere mai koe i te ao o Puanga
I te Huihui o Matariki
I a Parearua, i a Poutu-te-rangi
Ka mutu, e tama, nga whetu homai kai ki Aotea

Translation: You come hither from the realm of Rigel, from the Assembly of the Pleiades, from Jupiter and from Poutu-te-rangi [Altair: Best p33]. These alone, O child, are the stars which provide food at Aotea [Great Barrier Island - see wikipedia]

Outside New Zealand, Haka, meaning "words of fire" or "fiery words" (Ha - breath, hence speech, words; ka - fiery), is probably best known by the intimidatory performance of a war haka by the All Blacks rugby team before the start of a game.

According to Wetini Mitai-Ngatai, the whole purpose of the eye rolling, tongue poking and face pulling is to make oneself appear as mad/hungry/fierce as possible - and thus "the uglier the better", so he was naturally very complimentary about my efforts.

What we leant was the Ka Mate haka - Wetini Mitai-Ngatai taught us the movements, the words and the story a piece at a time and so in the course of about half an hour we put it all together and finally performed the whole thing with members of Te Matarae I Orehu Maori Dance Group mingled among the great unwashed who make Sziget what it is. It was a fantastic 45 minutes.

So, after working up a bit of a sweat and getting the adrenalin flowing (we did some Maori martial arts practice games too) it was time to get on with the rest of the day...

Today's unexpected find was the Norwegian rock band Kaizers Orchestra on the main stage (direct links to MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube). They opened the show on the nagyszinpad but should have headlined on some other day instead in my opinion - they easily outclassed some of the other supposed top-draw artists.

Of course, by the time The Chemical Brothers were due on stage at 21:30 the space in front of the main stage was completely full - by which I mean completely full, and considering that it's a space of at least 40,000 square meters the crowd seemed easily 50,000 strong (it looked huge, but the whole capacity of the island is only 70,000 and they definitely weren't all there - just most of them).

Unfortunately, there had been a few of what the BBC had anticipated as "light showers" but which turned out to be short but torrential downpours during the day - necessitating periodic retreat to whatever tented beer pavilion was closest... bummer!) - so whilst not quite up to Glastonbury standards, the ground underfoot was a bit damp and squelchy in places by now. This meant rivers of people skirting large puddles on the way in and trying to keep to the metal sheet areas once they got there (or at least avoiding the major pools).

Excellent show of course. What else can I say?

We caught some Lead Zeppelin on the Blues Stage later - the lead singer looked a bit like a gay Dom Deluise but he had a pretty good Jimmy Page substitute voice.

We probably went to the Roma tent for some gypsy music, but I'm damned if I can tell you who we might have heard.

And it was good.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Inexplicable "Inflatable Planets" - Hot Saturns

Back in September 2006 New Scientist ran an article on "The riddle of the inflatable planets" in which Dimitar Sasselov said that the newly discovered planet HAT-P-1 was so light that it would float on water "like a beach ball."

Now New Scientist has reported today that another group The Trans-atlantic Exoplanet Survey (TrES) has found another particularly anomalous planet designated TrES-4, this one being "about the density of balsawood" [Balsawood! Does it have any uses other than model aircraft construction?]

Apparently, according to New Scientist, Travis Barman, a theoretician at Lowell Observatory, said, "This planet cannot exist.", i.e. there's no good explanation for how it could have become so large.

However, here's a hypothesis: the planet is not as large as it appears - the apparent size of the planet suggested by the observed dimming during transit could be due to a set of sufficiently dense rings. Saturn's rings are considerably wider than the planet, and they scatter quite a lot of light (though I'm not sure how much... I may be a geek but I'm not actually doing this research!)

I see two basic possibilities for the existence of rings around such "Hot Jupiters" (planets of Jupiter mass very close to their parent stars)

1. There could be a stable ring system. Intuitively this seems unlikely given, amongst other things, the considerable radiation pressure likely to be experienced so close to a star - dust would be driven off

2. There is a temporary ring system - it would wouldn't need to be stable, it could be recently formed. Perhaps if the planet had one or more moons, additional tidal heating from stellar proximity etc. might have expedited its disintegration and the formation of rings, in which case extended observation might record progressive dissipation of the rings and decrease in the dimming observed.

In either case, what would have been observed would be a "Hot Saturn" rather than a "Hot Jupiter", and the abnormally low density would be explained by the mis-estimation of the planet's size, i.e. mistaking the attenuation due to the ring system for attenuation due to the planet itself.

I wonder how this hypothesis could be observationally tested - actually I wonder whether it is viable at all... but that's what a bare hypothesis is: an idea for exploration...

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Blog, Blog, Blog, Blog Blog... Steganos

Victoria Satterly has been nice, so probably for that reason more than any other I decided to bite the bullet between the horns* and buy Steganos Security Suite 2007 which is "Vista Compatible" (hmmm... we shall see... well, we might have seen)

OK, enter existing product code for Upgrade price, enter card details, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and off we go to the Visa Secure site for verification. Visa Secure gives me the Secret Message I entered when I set it up, so I'm pretty sure it's them, and the site certificate is OK, so we enter the mystery characters from the impossible password and...

Back at the Asknet powered Steganos Shop - "The Payment Failed." But I'm in credit with Visa! Tried a few times more. No dice.

So I call Barclaycard (this is all taking place on a Saturday, by the way), and they can see no transactions and suggest I call the oneline people, but - wait for it! - this multi-billion $ operation's online department only keeps 9-5 Monday-Friday hours. Obviously parts of Barclaycard are run like a village post-office.

Anyway, I call on Monday and they can see only one transaction - which they approved but which the online shop declined! Eh?

Email to tech support at Asknet - they are prompt and helpful - at least up to the point of telling me that I "failed multiple risk-management rules". Bugger. Word about the bullion heist must have leaked out. OK I confess, I was hoping to scam myself a billion, $20 at a time...

What on earth are they on about??? Visa said, "Sure, here's the money," and they said, "Nein, danke, der risk ist zu fiel!"

The only other way of purchasing would be to use another payment method (I tried calling, but that just gets someone else to type things into the web form for you) - and what is the only other choice available? PayPal. Howls of derisive laughter.

So there you are. I strongly suggest that you try and remember whether Santa decided you were Naughty or Nice before trying to make a Visa purchase through Asknet.

Strangely though I found the whole experience calming. It inspired humility: it seems that there are things in this world that simply cannot be done no matter how hard you try - so get used to it.

* PS If you know of any more wonderful mixed metaphorical sayings like this (I heard this one with my own ears), drop me a line...

Why You Don't Want to be a Geek II

Because Geeks do things like this

(I'm not going to spoil it for you just yet...)

I am now fiddling with Chris Barker's PERL program Syllabify.pl, attempting to turn it into Visual Basic for Applications so that I can run it under Word and then do my own Flesch-Kincaid scores etc.. Unfortunately, I don't know PERL, but what the hell, I DO STUFF - shouldn't be too hard... ooh, er... grep... that's Unix stuff, a kind of Stuff I Do Not Do...

Hmmm... I feel a Dr Seuss moment coming on...


There is Stuff I love to do.
Do you like the Stuff I do?
Do you like my Kinds of Stuff?
Is my Stuff your Kind of Stuff?

I do Stuff that's odd and queer.
I do Words like There and Here,
And Hither, Whither, Whence and Hence,
And Protoplasmic, Turbulence.

Words are Stuff I like to do!
Do you do Words the way I do?

Do you make them twist and shout?
Do you turn them inside out?
Do you like to tweak their noses?
Do they feed your odd neuroses?

I do Stuff! It's Stuff I do!
Does doing Stuff appeal to you?
What Kinds of Stuff do you find nice?
Would you like finding rhymes for "nice"?

I would! I do! It's Stuff you see!
And Stuff is very good for me.
Stuff is endless; Stuff is great!
Except the Kinds of Stuff I hate.

Unix Stuff I Do Not Do.
Unix Stuff should be Taboo!
Access too is Stuff I don't!
Sociology I won't!

Apart from that, I'm cool with Stuff:
There never seems to be enough!
And Stuff is everywhere you look –
In every picture, every book!

Stuff is Why, and How, and When
And If perhaps, then maybe Then.
Doing Stuff is What I Do
I'm Mr Stuff - and who are you?

So what Kind of Stuff did I stumble upon in that very first link?

Haiku "discovered" in Linux documentation. My personal favourite was:
I suppose you have
to fiddle around a bit
to get this working
-- Werner Hauser, Linux Laptop HOWTO
It's a wonderful world!

PS According to Microsoft Word, The Flesch Reading Ease score for the above pseudo-Seuss is 100, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level is 0.7

Stuff is Easy!

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Why You Don't Want to be a Geek (The Flesch-Kincaid Formula is Wrong)

Well, I'm not sure if "Geek" is the right word - perhaps I mean "Nerd"? - but you can see the problem instantly: obsessing about the trivial. Does it really matter which word I use when, whichever I do choose, you know full well (or will do by the time you've read this, or other parts of the blog) that this guy...

a) Is Eccentric (I'm English; "eccentric" is not only acceptable, it is possibly even mildly flattering...)
b) Is Quirky (thanks for that one Gary)
c) Isn't Two Bricks Short of a Load - in fact probably has two loads of bricks, but doesn't know what to build with them
d) Is Weird

i.e. is, not to beat about the bush, more than slightly geeky, possessed of a high coefficient of nerdulence (let's make that my CoN for future reference)

The nicest reflection I've had on my idiosyncratic disposition is that "Julian doesn't just answer questions that no one else can, he answers questions that no one else even thought of asking."

Sadly the corollary to that is probably "Actually, he answers questions no one else thought worth asking," (some examples later) but...

Here I am, brain the size of a (dwarf) planet and it's full of Stuff! And useless Stuff at that.

Life, don't talk to be about life... (Actually, do talk to me about life - isn't it fascinating?)

However, about those sheep...

What prompts this (hitherto promised but thus far undelivered) piece of naval gazing?

The Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics, Reading Ease and Grade Level as implemented in Microsoft Word (hopefully as per DOD Standard MIL-M-38784B. Detail! The Geek or Nerd must attend to detail... which means, having finally tracked it down, that MIL-M-38784 of July 1995, superseding MIL-M-3978C of October 1990... still with me? ... doesn't in fact contain the Flesch-Kincaid formulas... at least any more. Maybe it did. Who knows?)

And what is the precise problem?

I had Word do the readability statistics for IT - Reading Ease 83.2, Grade Level 5.9. So far so good (in fact rather too good - I don't believe an 11 year old could read IT). But then I noticed that the formulae:
  • Grade Level = (0.39 * Average Sentence Length) + (11.8 * Average Syllables per Word) - 15.59
  • Reading Ease = 206.835 - ((1.015 * Average Sentence Length) + (84.6 * Average Syllables per Word)
would allow me, given the stats I had, to work backwards and calculate the average number of syllables per word (ASW), which is of course Trivial and therefore, almost by definition, of riveting interest to the Geek or Nerd.

So, I invert the formulae, plug in the values and uh oh! I get two different answers.

Check I've got the formulae right in Excel and then that I get the right answers for something (I used the Dr Seuss Green Eggs and Ham stats in the Wikipedia article on Flesh-Kincaid - advanced warning/plot spoiler: I think they are using the wrong formula at the moment) - which I do.

So, is Word miscalculating or is the problem that the ASL of 18.6, Reading Ease and Grade Level scores are all inappropriately rounded...?


Some time later...

Word says there are 18.6 words per sentence, but using its own figures for word count and sentence count the average appears to be 19.16 (2 S.F.). Aha! Word's Average Sentence Length is Wrong! But no, that doesn't fix it. Nor does undoing any rounding that may have occurred.

So what's going on? Beats me. I blame Microsoft.

Hastily, and erroneously it seems. I found somewhere else on the web a slightly different version of the Grade Level formula.. it should in fact be:
  • Grade Level = (0.39 * Average Sentence Length) + (11.8 * Average Syllables per Word) - 15.9
And then, once you've made allowances for rounding errors in Word's stats, everything seems OK at last (well, almost, to get precise agreement that constant has to become 15.96536ish - I think I'll settle for 15.9, it's close enough)

Except that the Word help files says they use the value 15.59.

But at least I can semi-reliably calculate the average number of syllables per word in IT. We'll talk about the ARI, Gunning-Fog and Coleman-Liau indices some other time...

Now wasn't that worthwhile? No. This is why you don't want to be a geek.

Now, as to the Meaning of Life as to be revealed in "IT", what is it - exactly?

Well, the answer is:

The Lotus Position has unexpectedly encountered an error. Connection Refused by Host Either you do not have permission to access the site, your password is incorrect or you have failed to understand the question...

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Triple Ball Lightning

Immortality beckons!

Actually, I just thought it was worth putting onto the memorious internet the phenomenon I witnessed many, many years ago... thereby ensuring that if anyone really digs for ball lightning eye-witness reports it might prove useful for its oddity value.

It was a summer's day in the south of France, in or around Juans-les-Pins near Antibes on a family holiday when I was 8-10 years old; I recollect my brother being with me, and since he is 3 years younger than I am, I couldn't imagine having taken a 4 year old with me, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't 11. To be explicit the year must have been around 1969-71. [Juan-les-Pins looks rather more developed according to Google Earth than I remember it, but this memory is now at least 36 years old, so no surprise perhaps!]

Anyway, there was a thunderstorm and suddenly out of the base of the cloud in front of us three equally spaced dots of light appeared and proceeded to travel in a straight, silent line towards the ground where they disappeared equally silently. Which is not to say they were absolutely silent because it was hard to tell how far away they were, and of course the rain itself was making some noise.

To see one ball of lightning is a once-in-a-lifetime event - to see three at once was (in mature retrospect) absolutely stunning; (my maternal grandmother said she had seen ball lightning - and she also said she saw "The Great Comet" "of 1908" - having specifically said she didn't remember Halley's Comet in 1910; I wonder if she saw Comet Morehouse, which had unusual tail structure - see also here.)

I have always wondered about their spacing and trajectory, particularly whether they were following the Earth's magnetic field; I (hazily) recollect the angle to the ground as being about 60 degrees but have never bothered to check the dip in the south of France. Nothing more to say really except that that they appeared as small dots (though not quite pinpoints of light) and not balls - I guess they were too far away.

Pity I didn't have a camera with me, but I would probably have missed the moment - they didn't take more than a second or so to travel from cloudbase () to ground.

The only specific conclusion I can draw from this is that the theory that says ball lightning results from a normal lightning strike on highly silicaceous soil is at best incomplete.

Alas I have never seen a UFO - let alone been abducted (though my plans are ready); I suspect Einstein, Newton and Pythagoras were right (in this respective ways) and that the Moon is not made of green cheese (for proof see Google Moon and zoom in to the max); and I know thanks to "Edmund" (?) that certain mental defence techniques are effective against most types of Alien mind-control (Greys, Nords, and, er, the other one) "but of course, not Reptilians" (How could I have been such a fool as to think I could go mano-a-mano with a Reptilian!)...

So I trust this report will be found credible