February 01, 2008
May 08, 2007
They tell me that the latest phenomenon to hit the internet today is a blook. An online book. Not sure why the word book gains an 'l' - to me that implies that the word "blog" should be an online bog, which can't be true...
Nowadays you can go straight to Lulu and upload your blook. Anyone can download it and you can even charge to make money! Hurrah! All I need now is a book and somebody to buy it.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Lulu is the option to publish your book. That's right, for real, actual publishing. To me this seems like one of the most useful options. Suppose I've a massive pdf document and I can't be bothered to read it online. If I print it i'll end up with a right mess of pages falling apart. So instead I can upload it and order a printed copy, hardbound if I desire, and the rates aren't insane.
For a while I've had plans to try and compile a modicum of Change Ringing theory into a text. My lack of knowledge implies a selection of contributors may need to be chosen, but it's a relief to realise that the hard job of having the thing printed is actually quite a bit easier than anticipated.
The question now is whether anyone will want to spend £40 on a full-colour 500-page ringing textbook...
May 04, 2007
The cheeky people at Blogger have been updating their engine, temporarily breaking the beast which is Windows Live Writer. No matter, a quick journey to the writer home page, a seamless install and we're going again.
They do tell me that it's possible to blog from MS Word these days, though I'm quite happy with the writer so haven't really tried it out. I don't like editing anything other than documents with word because I like the "Print View" mode far too much. Messing around with web pages has an unfortunate habit of switching things to other views, which is incredibly annoying when I later come to edit a document.
The updates at Blogger are quite interesting. When developing applications or libraries it's usually reckoned that changing interfaces is a big no-no. You're free to modify the implementation of your system as much as you like, but it must talk to the outside world in the same way. Add new functionality if you must, but most importantly remain backwards compatible!
Blogger hasn't done this - they broke Windows Live Writer, and they also broke their own Word Toolbar, leaving just the simple message:
Note: Development on Blogger for Word has been discontinued, and is no longer available for download. We don't have plans to update it for the new version of Blogger. If you feel strongly about the loss of this feature, though, please let us know via our Feature Suggestions form. The following article applies only if you are still on the old version of Blogger and have previously downloaded Blogger for Word.
They won't have a problem, of course - they're offering a service people want for free. Who cares about the raft of applications which depend on the way it works? Is this just another big company trampling on the little guy(s)?
Of course keeping "the way it works" the same restricts the range of upgrades you can offer to your service. The choice to upgrade is difficult. Is it really necessary? What are the implications? I'm sure the guys at Blogger thought long and hard about this, and no doubt the upgrade will prove useful if I ever figure out what it offers...
I'd just like to point out that Madeira Cake is very high on the list of greatest cakes known to humanity. It manages to be luxuriously moist, proving far better than many inferior sponge cakes which generally prove to be dry and crumbly.
It's not quite up there with Mille-feuille, of course, which combines several of life's finer pleasures - Puff pastry, icing, strawberry jam and cream.
March 29, 2007
Unfortunately this seems to have coincided with an eczema flare up, and the great sage that is Wikipedia is advising:
The first and primary recommendation is that people suffering from eczema shouldn't use detergents of any kind unless absolutely necessary. Current medical thought is that people wash too much and that eczema sufferers should use cleansers only when water is not sufficient to remove dirt from skin.
Interestingly this seems to be serving me quite well. Cutting back on soap has spared me from spending the morning itching, a significant problem just a few days ago. The only problem now, though, is personal hygiene.
If you happen to be walking past me any time soon and I offend your nostrils, please tell me.
March 20, 2007
Linux - Is it the way forward?
I've spent most of today compiling packages aiming to produce a bootable version of Linux From Scratch. I've downloaded the source and compile it on the machine to produce a working Linux OS (hopefully).
It's quite exciting, although I'm not sure how much I'm learning just by typing in commands from the book. Two early observations are:
- Bash is really cool. For some reason I thought that DOS was quite good, but this takes the biscuit.
- Regular expressions really aren't. I've never seen something so confusing. One day, I suppose, I might get my head round the syntax.
Meanwhile I'm still compiling away. Unfortunately, I rather suspect that the experiment will end with nothing more exciting than a blinking cursor. Oh well, it beats doing work.
February 08, 2007
I enjoy reading student newspapers. Not only is there no real news in Cambridge worth writing about, but most of the writing is hilariously bad and over the top. I've seen plenty of apologies for erroneous and unbalanced reporting - most notably for an entire front-page spread in Varsity more recently. Most of the writing is, quite literally, intellectual masturbation; I am fairly sure there must be a competition to see which "journalist" can use the longest words in their articles.
Yet at the same time as deliberately obfuscating their meaning by hiding behind verbosity (look, I'm doing it too), they completely misjudge their audience. Yes you can use long words, but you've over-simplified most of the issues so much that they don't make sense anymore.
I'm afraid that was a bit of a rant, but here's a kernel of evidence to back it up. We turn to Varsity again, January 26th issue, page 6.
Binge drinking endemic in student culture
This is written by Rebecca Lester, "Investigations Editor," who frankly doesn't seem to be able to investigate her way out of a paper bag. I hadn't realised Cambridge offered degrees in "stating the bleeding obvious."
Here's the best bit, right there in the first paragraph:
The average Cambridge student consumes 28.4 alcohol units a week, a CUSU/Varsity survey revealed last week. This equates to nine units a night, far exceeding the recommended daily allowance of two units a day for women and four for men.
Now last time I looked, there were seven days in a week. So 28.4 units per week works out at something more like 4.06 units a day. This seems a little closer to their recommended daily allowance. Perhaps everyone's drinking exactly the right amount!
OK, I'm not that naive. But there is certainly something odd going on, their figures don't make sense. Additional statistical gems include:
177 - bottles of vodka drunk by the average student over course of Cambridge career
Hmm, I've probably had 1 or 2, but 177 sounds like complete and utter tripe. I know several people who don't like vodka at all. Does that mean some people are drinking 354 bottles? I suspect that 177 is the number you'd get if you totalled up the average student's drinking and expressed it in "bottles of vodka" units. Although they don't say how big the bottles are so it's quite hard to check.
31% of students have injured themselves while drunk
Now I've certainly injured myself while drunk. I've even come back with the odd cut and graze. I've also injured myself while sober. I suspect 100% of students have done the same. I admit I'm probably nit-picking on this point, but the statistic in itself is meaningless. It'd be far more interesting to know how the rate of injuries varies with sobriety. Perhaps a study for our beer-goggles scientists?
The most amusing thing about this article, however, is it's formulaic nature. There's nothing really very new here. We know that students drink a little more than is healthy. They always have - Byron et al. used to drink themselves silly on wine. I'm really not convinced that this subject is worth a two-page "investigation." It's as if our "investigations editor" sat down for three minutes brainstorming and decided to write about the first thing that came into her head.
The article is ringed by an advertisement for Jesus College's May Ball. Ah, the great Cambridge May Ball, what more blatant excuse for a solid night of drinking? That's what a May Ball is for. Ethical reporting indeed - if they really cared about student drinking they wouldn't advertise balls at all. They could have at least put the advert on another page!
Now admittedly this article is rather out of date. So what's made me write about it now? Well, it's the fact that this week's TCS has done exactly the same thing.
The dominance of alcohol in much social activity is hard to ignore.
Well, quite. But I don't care, probably since I'm drunk at the time.
My Software Needs
Now I've finally installed a release copy of an operating system, I have to go through the process of installing applications all over again. Here's a few thoughts on how my software needs have changed.
In the olden days one of the first things on a new computer would have been Winzip. This application allows you to collect and compress files using the popular zip format. I haven't installed Winzip for a while now, though.
The first thing that's changed is that there's no longer nearly as much need to compress data. There's piles of space on my hard drive. If I want to transfer a big file I burn it onto a CD. The internet is now plenty fast enough to transfer most files in an uncompressed form.
Not only that, but nowadays I've no need of specialist software to unzip downloaded files. Windows will do it for me - and has done since Windows XP (I think - it may be earlier). I'm afraid it means I no longer need Winzip.
Compression isn't dead, however. These days I make far more use of free software. This often comes in a compressed format, for example in RAR form or as a Tarball.
Acrobat Reader has stayed - and is even more useful. I now save my own documents in PDF format to transfer them around. Office 2007 lets me save directly into PDF, whereas before I had used a special printer driver.
The Internet has taken a larger part in my life as well. I transfer lots of data around via FTP and other techniques, using FileZilla. I first installed this only a year or so ago, but now find it indispensible. Putty comes in useful as a Telnet client. The more things I register for online, the more passwords I have. PINs lets me keep track of them all.
Perhaps the most obvious change is in the type of software I use. Now vast amounts come free from open-source developers as opposed to faceless corporations. One day I might even find enough time to improve them or make my own.
February 07, 2007
More tripe in the name of science
According to the Beeb:
There's even an equation given on the site to calculate your "beer goggles effect."
Scientists believe they have worked out a formula to calculate how "beer goggles" affect a drinker's vision.
The drink-fuelled phenomenon is said to transform supposedly "ugly" people into beauties - until the morning after.
A formula rating of less than one means no effect. Between one and 50 the person you would normally find unattractive appears less "visually offensive".
Non-appealing people become suddenly attractive between 51 and 100. At more than 100, someone not considered attractive looks like a super model.
Now I think that this sounds like utter tripe. So why on earth are researchers at Manchester University wasting time and energy on this sort of rubbish?
The research was commissioned by eyecare firm Bausch & Lomb PureVision.
Aha, all becomes clear.
February 05, 2007
Valentine's Day - Paper Rose Links
Some links again, I'm afraid.
Finally there's a totally different rose at this site.
February 02, 2007
The downside to being a beta tester...
Somewhat infuriatingly my Beta version of MS Office 2007 has died today. It expires on 1st February and refuses to do anything anymore. I'm allowed to look at my documents but not edit them.
Oh well, £100 spent at Amazon then...
January 31, 2007
Link clear out (79)
Link clear out (78)
January 30, 2007
Windows Vista Released
Windows Vista has now been officially released. It's available on Amazon for those who want it. There's been excitement around the launch, with dancers jumping around billboards in the US and other such fun.
To mark this event, PC World have reposted two articles, Windows Vista: 15 Reasons to Switch and Wait! Don't Buy Microsoft Windows Vista. The first article is a bit of a laugh, as the excitable reporter throws together a list of cool things about the newest OS around. The second article is desperate to rain on the parade.
1. Vista Is Incomplete
Microsoft is already planning its first service pack and seeking input from users on what to include. Vista probably won't be truly ready for prime time until that first service pack version, possibly later this year.
The hardware and software companies that make compatible products for Vista aren't all ready for the new OS. Many of those companies are scrambling to complete Vista drivers and updates. Most important, not all video and sound card companies are ready.
The article they link to is one of their own, which starts:
Vista Update Already Set
Even before launch, Microsoft is compiling items for the first service pack.
On the verge of the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft is already accepting orders for features to go in the operating system's first service pack.
Compiling Wish List
Microsoft is taking feedback from testers who are part of its Technology Adoption Program (TAP), which lets certain partners evaluate prerelease software, a Microsoft spokesman in London said on Wednesday. Service packs typically consist of a mix of bug fixes and new features.
Frankly, if Microsoft weren't collecting bugs to put into the next service pack then I'd be cross. Do they honestly think that all the Microsofties have been sat twiddling their thumbs since November 30th, when Vista was released to volume-license customers? Quite clearly they've been working hard to find the bugs which turn up and fix them, which I think is a good thing.
So clearly the article linked isn't particularly persuasive, but the important point is that most casual readers won't click on the link. They'll believe everything in the first article and never follow through. That seems to me to be a touch deceptive.
Admittedly, though, there's always been a school of thought which says that you shouldn't upgrade to a new operating system until the first service pack is out. The logic goes that all of the important bugs will have been ironed out by then and you've got a good chance of getting a working system.
I've gone off this idea, however. The software life-cycle is complicated, and inevitably means that bugs are left behind in release software; it really is impossible to find them all. There comes a point where the process of fixing bugs starts to generate more, and then you end up in a right mess. Microsoft released Vista at an appropriate point when everything was working reasonably well.
Now compare what people are currently likely to be using, Windows XP, with what they are reluctant to upgrade to. People moan that XP isn't secure enough and is susceptible to Viruses. Surely it's better to move to a more secure OS as soon as possible? Vista is not only more secure, but by its very newness won't have been compromised as much as XP.
The second plank of their argument, that hardware drivers aren't ready yet is partially true. Many hardware companies have been lamentably slow in developing drivers. I'm running on Microsoft drivers for my NVidia display card as NVidia haven't deigned to release any yet. But it's all working fine. Many Beta-testers have happily installed the OS. There doesn't seem a vast amount of point waiting.
The second reason not to buy Vista seems to be the cost.
2. Vista Is Expensive
The cheapest way for current Windows XP users to get a legal copy of Vista is to buy the upgrade version of Home Basic, which is $99. But you don't want the cheapest version.
First, the upgrade version will require you to keep your Windows XP CD for years. You do have a Windows XP CD handy, don't you?
Well, Vista is expensive, it's a fair criticism. But to go off on one about not buying an upgrade version because you'll have to keep the old CD is silly. Why criticise Vista specifically for a problem which affects any operating system upgrade?
3. Vista Wants a New PC
To get full value from Vista, you're probably going to want to buy a new, Vista-optimized PC. Many of the benefits of Vista require hardware your current PC doesn't have. ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive, for example, require special hybrid or flash drives. Windows Aero looks awesome, but only if your graphics card supports Pixel Shader 2.0. You can record high-definition cable TV, but only with a tuner card designed to take advantage of that Vista feature. You can enjoy DirectX 10 games, but only with a compatible video card.
To get full value from any computer you'll want the newest hardware. Vista works perfectly happily on lots of old hardware. ReadyBoost works perfectly well with a flash drive. This "special hardware" is, er, a cheap USB pen drive - the sort which companies give out for free at conferences. Hmm, not so special.
You can't record any TV on any computer without a tuner card, that's fairly obvious. And you'll need a newer video card to play the latest games, as any gamer will tell you. So what's the fuss all about?
4. Vista Is Time-Consuming
Installing any new operating system is time-consuming. You have to configure everything, load your data, install your applications, and get your peripherals working. Then, in the case of Vista, you have to figure out where Microsoft buried all the options, menus, and features, and get used to the ubiquitous Search boxes.
Yes, installing a new operating system takes time. Not as much time as you'd think for Vista - I was astounded at how fast the installer ran. Those "ubiquitous Search boxes" have saved me from trawling through the Start menu - I haven't used it for months. If I want to run notepad, I hit the windows key, type "note," and hit enter. Not only that but everything works quicker. Think long-term gains, people!
5. Windows XP Isn't Obsolete
6. Vista May be the Best Reason Yet to Buy a Mac
The first point is true. But give it time. When everyone else is rushing to upgrade you'll have your computer sorted out and running happily.
But it's the last point which reveals this journalists true thoughts. He doesn't like Vista because it's not a Mac! But let's look at Mac OS X:
Mac OS X 10.0 was a radical departure from the previous "classic" Macintosh operating system. Mac OS X was Apple's answer to the long awaited call for a next generation Macintosh operating system. Mac OS X 10.0 introduced a brand new code base, completely separate from Mac OS 9's code base, and all other previous Apple operating systems. Mac OS X introduced a new Darwin Unix-like core, as well as introducing a totally new system of memory management. Mac OS X is widely regarded to be the best operating system Apple has ever produced; however, Mac OS X 10.0 was a rocky start to the Mac OS X line, plagued with missing features and performance issues.
The System Requirements for Mac OS X 10.0 were not well received by the Macintosh community, as at the time the amount of RAM standard with Macintosh computers was 64 megabytes of RAM, while the Mac OS X 10.0 requirements called for 128 megabytes of RAM. As well, processor upgrade cards, which were quite popular for obsolete Power Mac G3 computers, were not supported.
The heavy criticism of Mac OS X 10.0 ultimately resulted in Apple offering a free upgrade to Mac OS X v10.1 to all Mac OS X 10.0 users.
So there we are. Vista isn't as bad as PC World think, and Apple is just as bad. But then I'd guessed that from the start.
Google Bombing - An End to the Fun?
We wanted to give a quick update about "Googlebombs." By improving our analysis of the link structure of the web, Google has begun minimizing the impact of many Googlebombs. Now we will typically return commentary, discussions, and articles about the Googlebombs instead. The actual scale of this change is pretty small (there are under a hundred well-known Googlebombs), but if you'd like to get more details about this topic, read on.
(with thanks to Matt Cutts)
January 29, 2007
Moore's Law is the empirical observation made in 1965 that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every 24 months. It is attributed to Gordon E. Moore (born 1929), a co-founder of Intel.
Intel have just seen a breakthrough in chip design which have ensured this will live on for a few more years. Here's some links:
As usual I've been accumulating a whole host of links in my feed reader without commenting on them. Here's a few to help clear out the pile.
Robert Scoble points out a post at the top of Techmeme. The post, by Yahoo!'s Jeremy Zawodny calls out Google for copying one of the splash pages on the Yahoo! site. It's quite amusing - look at the post itself to see how similar the pages are.
Google's Matt Cutts answers back, however:
Jeremy points out that Google had an IE7 promo page that looked remarkably similar to a Yahoo! IE7 promo page.
I can only speak for me personally on this. If Jeremy looked into it and says that it wasn’t a template from Microsoft, I believe him. That would mean that the Yahoo! page was used as a template for Google’s IE7 promo page. I can’t say why someone at Google would decide to do that, but to the Yahoo! UI designer whose page was copied: my apologies. In my personal opinion, it sucks when someone else copies a page layout without attribution.
It can take a lot of work to come up with creative HTML. I remember when Google did a bunch of UI research to decide on a distinctive look for AdWords. We decided to go with pastel boxes with a darker border on the right-hand side of the search results. Not too long afterwards, Yahoo! changed their side ads to pastel boxes with a darker border.
Click on the link to see the examples he offers.
It's quite amusing the fuss that's made in the computer industry about copying. Copycat software crops up all over the place as soon as one company has had a good idea. Apple and Microsoft have both spent years copying each other. The Open Source software movement relies on everyone building on each others work. In the same way as academics, you can only stand on the shoulders of giants if you can copy what they've already managed.
January 12, 2007
Sony fails to appreciate pornography
Has Sony gone mad? Prominent adult movie producer Digital Playground says it is forced to use HD DVD instead of Blu-ray, because Sony does not allow XXX-rated movies to be released on Blu-ray.
It does not matter how you stand to porn. It is here and it is a massive business. It is also an industry that is an early adopter for new media technology. VHS might not have won with out the adult film industry adopting it.
Robert further points out the parallels with the VHS vs. Betamax struggle.
When I worked at LZ Premiums in the 1980s, the Beta vs. VHS video tape formats were in full swing. Our store rented video tapes, including a fairly large selection of adult videos. Many many VHS sales were decided on because of the much greater availability of adult entertainment in the VHS format.
January 05, 2007
Today I'm eating a Sainsbury's Basics range Macaroni Cheese meal cooked in the microwave. It tastes of virtually nothing. Although it was stupidly cheap so I suppose that makes up for it.
Coincidentally I came upon this chap who has spent the month of November living on a food budget of only $30. That's about 50p a day for those of us over here.
My Macaroni Cheese Meal cost 86p, for a small volume of food, which tastes awful. The worst part of it was that I was quite pleased when buying it: "Wow, this'll save some money."
I've restored a little perspective on the situation now, though, and shan't be spending less than £2 on a ready meal ever again...
Gratuitous Wasting of Space
- "Merry Christmas"
- "Happy New Year"
- "You're all muppets, get out of my face"
December 14, 2006
Sony in trouble again
Apparently Sony has been trying their hand at viral marketing, although without a great amount of success...
Mind you, they do say that all publicity is good publicity.
For some peculiar reason I have become a compulsive shoe shopper, buying two pairs in as many weeks. As someone who is still wearing shoes he wore at school (they're nice and comfy now the leather is soft), this is a significant change. I've even gone so far as to buy a pair of brown shoes. These will match my brown jacket and jeans in order to form some sort of heinous colour-coordinated fashion statement.
Rumours that I shall be dying the hair brown tomorrow are as yet unconfirmed.
December 09, 2006
Links - Microsoft Powerpoint
I've been stockpiling links in Bloglines for a while now, but unfortunately barely have the time to read them, let alone make decent comments. Unfortunately I want them cleaned out, and so over the next few days will do just that. You'll get a link and a brief excerpt - nothing more.
To start, I'd like to introduce this essay by Edward Tufte:
PowerPoint Does Rocket Science--and Better Techniques for Technical Reports
Nearly all engineering presentations at NASA are made in PowerPoint. Is this a produce endorsement or a big mistake. Does PP's cognitive style effect the quality of engineering analysis? How does PP compare with alternative methods of technical presentation?
I've often been slightly discontented with the use of PowerPoint for presentations. It's often the first clue that your lecture is likely to be boring. Reading from slides is not an acceptable way to convey information to an (hopefully) intelligent audience.
Tufte argues strongly that the bullet-point style of displaying information disrupts coherent thought and logical flow. The lecturers who use PP often ignore the hard boundaries between slides, but I can imagine that this is harder in a business context. Can't explain your point properly? That's OK - just ignore most of the subtleties so it will fit on the slide.
The very interested can buy an essay in book form:
The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within
In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now "slideware" computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere. Early in the 21st century, several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint were turning out trillions of slides each year.
Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?
The Full Feeds Debate - some evidence?
This blogger has spent two years wondering whether to make the move to publishing his articles in full online via. feeds. Instead they published a short summary of each article, requiring people to visit their page to see the whole thing. Here's an exciting graph:
Growth in RSS Subscribers - We added more than a 1000 new subscribers in less than a month - thanks to full feeds.
I think that speaks for itself.
I like full feeds, and have discussed them at length before (unfortunately it was ages ago and I can't be bothered to find the link).
The Full Feeds petition is still going here.
December 07, 2006
November 28, 2006
Interesting Thoughts - and Dawkins
Exciting article here:
RICHARD DAWKINS IS RIGHT. His deicidal bestseller The God Delusion attacks the absurdities and cruelties, the contradictions and superstitions, the rip offs and fantasies of religion across the world and throughout history. I couldn't agree more. It's enough to make you wish Abraham hadn't been in when God called round.
The problem is, like other fundamentalists, Dawkins won't stop talking when he's finished talking sense. Rather than surveying the countless varieties of religion, weighing up their mixed record, and arguing that on balance we'd be better off without it, he is only willing to see the dark side, and writes off the whole thing, dismissing evidence that makes a monochrome worldview uncomfortable.
He sees the moral failures, but not the moral breakthroughs. He lists the atrocities and ignores the triumphs. He cuts through the supposed proofs of God's existence like a particularly moist sponge cake, but shows no conception at all of why people actually believe – other than that they're a bunch of morons who don't know any better.
There's a lot of sense there, but I especially like the line "like other fundamentalists." I still think that atheism is as much a faith-based position as theism. After all, you can't prove that my God doesn't exist. So atheists just have to believe it - they have to have faith. Just like mine.
November 23, 2006
A friend once said to me (we may have been drunk at the time), that he didn't think he'd have figured out how to have sex if he hadn't seen it somewhere else first. He didn't elaborate on where this "somewhere else" was, which may have been for the best.
Interestingly, though, it appears that Pandas have much the same problem:
After years of painstaking research, scientists say they have unleashed a baby boom among one of the world’s most beloved but endangered animals, China’s giant panda.
A bit of panda porn has helped too, they say.
“It works,” enthuses Zhang Zhihe, a leading Chinese expert, about showing uninitiated males DVDs of fellow pandas mating.
November 22, 2006
Reasons to like Windows Vista (58)
I'm currently preparing a presentation to discuss progress made so far in my 4th Year Engineering project. The project is to try and build a music transcription system. In essence, you pump a sound file into a computer, turn the handle, and the score comes out the other end. These sorts of systems have many potential uses.
Great jazz (if there is such a thing) often includes lots of improvisation and original work. How is the ordinary man in the street supposed to be able to produce similar sounds without spending years learning the art of improvisation? How much simpler it would be if a recording could be transcribed quickly and easily and the results published for anyone to play?
Sound files are massive, using lots of disk space. It would be far simpler to store a transcribed score of a recording. This could be played back using a digital synthesiser. Inevitably there would be a quality loss, but this could be made up by storing additional data such as vibrato and dynamics.
Finally imagine the potential for searching on the internet. Imagine if you could whistle a melody into a microphone and Google could find a recording of the piece it came from. This will only become possible when it is simple to transcribe recordings.
In order to illustrate this final point I produced the following picture:
The fact remains that Internet Explorer 7 running in Vista looks very, very cool.
Some time ago on a ringing email list there was a discussion about recordings. People generally found that when they listened to a recording of themselves, it sounded far better than they anticipated. The converse was also true - that when actually ringing people tended to be far more critical of themselves than when listening.
Interestingly I spotted this effect the other day recording some music. For Remembrance Sunday my voluntary before the service (Praeludium in g - Buxtehude) had to be quite tightly controlled timewise in order that I stopped in time for the 2 minutes' silence. I achieved this by recording my voluntary and writing time checkpoints into the score at various bars. I had a giant clock to compare the time with, and hoped that I'd be able to tell whether I was too slow or fast, giving me room to adjust and finish at the right time. Unfortunately this didn't quite work - the brass band refused to shut up and so I started a minute late, and the choir came in a few seconds early.
While listening to the recording I was slightly surprised at how good it sounded. At the first pedal entry in the Fugue I fluffed a little and made a few mistakes. While I was playing this I was really quite cross - what was played bore little resemblance to what was printed on the page and also sounded quite bad. In the recording, however, it wasn't particularly noticeable. It occurred to me that I was far better at recognising mistakes when playing than when listening. Part of this must be the fact that I had the score in front of me and knew when I was making the mistakes!
On Tuesday night I was grateful to be invited to join the Society of Cambridge Youths in a 12-bell practice at Towcester. [This link taken from Michael Wilby's excellent Rings of Twelve website which unfortunately uses frames and makes linking difficult.] I was quite disappointed by my ringing during the practice, making lots of striking errors and managing to go wrong during a simple touch (worrying about the striking you see). A recording of the practice has been made available online (I'll link to this if I get permission) and so I've been listening to this. A quick listening earlier this morning seemed to indicate the same effect - the ringing sounded far better than I remembered it. Without following too carefully it all sounded quite good.
This afternoon I listened again, this time following my bell through. Interestingly I noticed lots more mistakes this time - I was listening far more critically. Having the line in front of me meant that I knew what should be happening. If it didn't happen then it was immediately obvious. In the same way if I listen to the recording of the Buxtehude with the score in front of me then the mistakes leap out again.
I think there's two important factors working together here:
- When listening critically it really helps to know exactly what's going on. Without a copy of the score or line in front of you it's harder to pick out mistakes. In music somebody could make a mistake changing one chord in a piece - you might not notice unless you had a copy on paper or in your head already. Listening to ringing it's difficult to listen very carefully to the striking of one particular bell unless you can follow it through the changes.
- While performing one tends to listen far more carefully than when listening. There's a lot more concentration goes into a performance.
When I first started to learn the organ my teacher suggested that I should record some of my playing and then listen to it. He said I'd be amazed at how clear some of the mistakes were. Unfortunately I never did, but I'm fairly sure I would have noticed more mistakes. This is the opposite situation to the one I'm in now. I still feel one of my biggest steps forward as a musician was when I started to listen to what I was playing. It sounds like an obvious and simple skill, but it really isn't. This is especially true for the organ - while playing a particularly complicated passage it's difficult to find the brainpower to listen as well! After I started listening to what I was playing I found that I started to notice the mistakes - and began to correct them myself rather than waiting for my teacher to tell me.
I wonder if learner ringers see the same effect. I'm sure that most ringers could pick out which changes in a recording were struck poorly, but then they grab a rope and don't notice when they crunch and clip others. In the same way they must learn to listen to the sound they're making.
Comments always welcome - please add your thoughts.
November 21, 2006
A little Google Bombing
With thanks to this site. martinlutherkingdotorg is a racist site moaning about MLK. Perhaps you'll join me in posting these links to help knock the site off the top of the search engines.
November 20, 2006
Back to the Beeb
This article's quite good. It even has some numbers to back up my bland assertions.
What do the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ mean? Well, if you are the BBC, ‘left wing’ is a term used mainly in sport. Insofar as it is used in politics, it is used to describe the mainstream. ‘Right wing’, by contrast, is a term used to describe political fringe groups: racist, violent, and illegal groups.
The phrase ‘right wing’ is often accompanied by words such as ‘extremist’ or qualifiers such as ‘far right’. For example, the search ‘far right’ produces 142 pages while ‘far left’ only 54. ‘Right wing’ and ‘extreme’ generates 29 pages while ‘left wing’ and ‘extreme’ just 18. This is because the BBC links the term ‘right wing’ with the BNP and National Front, while the search for ‘left wing’ does not produce any early matches linking to stories about the Socialist Workers’ Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, or even Respect, a party which won a seat at the last general election, and which is dominated by the SWP.
November 16, 2006
Entering dangerous territory
Today's discussion point is rape. I have to be careful here, because one wrong word or bungled phrase could land me in serious trouble with all sorts of angry women. God forbid I should end a sentence with a preposition.
This article from the Beeb got me thinking, or (more specifically) this quote did:
The government said: "Rape is never the victim's fault."
OK. Fair enough. But let's try and remember that shades of grey exist in every scenario. It's very difficult to have a sensible debate about these sorts of issues without women's groups jumping all over. The BBC links to Women Against Rape, who I'm sure are very nice. They do rather dent their credibility in my eyes with their webpage however, which contains such gems as:
One in six women has been raped.
I really can't believe that to be true. Still, I'm male, so what would I know?
I'd like to suggest, just quietly, that sometimes rape may be the victim's fault. Let's go back to the BBC page:
The study - thought to be the first of its size into drug rape - involved the Metropolitan, Greater Manchester, Derbyshire, Northumbria and Lancashire police forces as well as the Walsall area of the West Midlands Police.
The findings also revealed 119 of the 120 alleged victims admitted they had been drinking alcohol and forensic tests discovered evidence of alcohol in 52% of cases.
"In most cases, the alleged victims had consumed alcohol voluntarily and, in some cases, to dangerous levels," an Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) spokesman said.
And Det Ch Supt Dave Gee, co-author of the report, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that 48% of victims said they had taken a combination of recreational drugs and prescribed medication, in addition to alcohol.
When I go out for a night's drinking, I am very much aware that drinking to excess causes all sorts of carnage. I've had my share of drink-related injuries. I've gazed in confusion at peculiar cuts and grazes discovered the next morning. Nowadays I try to make sure that I retain some level of coherence - it's useful for health and sanity. It's quite clear, however, that many people, including women, just don't.
It's not difficult to imagine a group of friends going out for a night out, and consuming enough quantities of enough things that they really don't know what they're doing, what they have done, or what they are about to do. It's not difficult to imagine that some of the male members of the group might take an interest in some of the scantily-clad female members. It's not difficult to imagine that all sorts of things might ensue.
The question is almost one of consent. The woman protests that she said "no." The man protests that she didn't. Neither of them can really remember. One has to remember what has led them to be in that situation. Most blokes would probably suggest that once they were undressed with a girl then she'd pretty much given consent. She's spent the night leading him on while dressed in a revealing top. Most women would probably still like to reserve the final decision for themselves until the final moment.
If this is too late - if the bloke is psychologically fixed onto one course of action - it's hard to imagine he'll be easy to stop. But is this entirely his fault? I'd suggest that it isn't quite as simple as the first quote:
Rape is never the victim's fault.
Maybe legally rape isn't the victim's fault - but often she's got herself in that situation. Perhaps a few less shots of Vodka would have saved all sorts of problems.
In a way, this ties in with my discussion last week of fundamentalism within Christianity. I think women's organisations do themselves more harm than good when they make statements like the one above. There are shades of grey in everything, and black and white statements which refuse to admit compromise undermine everything they stand for.
November 10, 2006
A new twist on the matter...
I have an enormous amount of faith in the cackhanded, blundering incompetence of the British state, and in the gormless, pen-chewing, internet-surfing idleness of its employees - some of whom may well be reading this right now when they should be getting on with being shadowy and malevolent; get back to work, if you are. I'm not particularly worried about the 4 million CCTV cameras in Britain either; that's 96 million hours of footage a day to sift through, and I pity rather than fear anyone unlucky enough to be lumbered with the job of watching it.
I'm not unduly worried about the inexorable slide of Blair's Britain into a cryptofascist Orwellian surveillance state, if only because that state would have to be administered by British public sector employees, and they'd be playing Solitaire or sending personal emails, waiting for 5 o'clock so they can naff off home.
Thought for the day
I've just thought of something, and unfortunately you're all going to have to hear it as well.
The average 17-year-old is actually 17-and-a-half.
There you are, don't say I never give you anything interesting.
November 09, 2006
Link Hoarding (2)
Ed Bott has been discussing the trends on his site for browser usage.
The last time I published these stats was on April 30, 2006. The share of visitors using Firefox or Mozilla has dipped roughly 1% since then, from 35.2% down to 34.18%. It’s still a bit higher than the August 2005 share of 33.2%, however.
Meanwhile, IE’s share crept back up by 1.5%, from almost exactly 60% to 61.47%. Not surprisingly, the percentage of people visiting this site using IE7 has more than doubled, from 6.53% last April to 14.52% today.
Five months ago, I drew this tentative conclusion and made a prediction:
"The easy gains for Firefox are over. I’ll be very surprised if Firefox is able to make any significant gains in share when I look at this snapshot six months from now. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that IE will gain back some ground during that time with the help of IE7."
I jumped the gun by a month, but the prediction appears accurate. And although Firefox 2 looks like a perfectly solid upgrade, it doesn’t offer anything that’s likely to convince IE holdouts to switch now.
For a while now I've been collecting links on Bloglines which I keep meaning to talk about. Unfortunately they're all out of date now, but you can still hear about them anyway. Here's an exciting one about the world of driving:
It is not speed that kills, it is inappropriate speed. Even then, speed is not even a contributory factor in three quarters of fatal accidents.
Cameras will do nothing to improve driver behaviour to reduce the massive 64% caused "driver error or reaction".
Cameras will not reduce the 19% of fatal accidents where "Driver distraction" was a contributory factor. Indeed 1% of that is due to "Distraction outside vehicle". Hmmmm.....
Cameras will do nothing to correct driver "behaviour or inexperience" (29%) either.
In short, plastering the entire country in speed cameras will do precisely nothing to prevent 88% of accidents that result in a fatality.
Most of us interested in driving were fairly sure of this anyway; it's nice to have the statistics to back it up.
CICCU on Sex - This should be fun
The Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union are an irritating thorn in the side of moderate Christians throughout Cambridge. And I don't think I'm being harsh, either. This week's TCS contains an enormous feature on what CICCU think about sex. Sex outside marriage, contraception, and homosexuality feature strongly. It's a hoot.
Ideally I'd give you a link to the article. TCS, unfortunately, haven't bothered to update their website since February 2005. So instead I'm going to have to type some bits.
So - Sex outside of marriage?
The heart of the issue is what the God who made the universe wants and what his stance is. As Christians we believe that God has spoken to us through the Bible and that in the Bible he has revealed what is best for us. He clearly tells any form of sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage is wrong. It is not wrong because it breaks a religious rule. Rather, it is wrong because it is rejecting our Creator and saying that we know best. The Bible has a high view of sex but says it is something precious and to be enjoyed within marriage.
The official Roman Catholic view- that using contraception is sinful - is unjustified biblically. Contraception is probably a neutral thing but in so far as it encourages extra-marital sex it is unhelpful. There may be perfectly legitimate reasons why a married couple may want to use contraception although it should also be noted that the Bible often links sex with having children - although not exclusively. It is a question of balance. Other tricky issues arise where the contraception is abortive and is therfore murder.
What about gay marriage?
The Bible teaches that marriage is only between a man and a woman and that marriage is the only context for sexual relationships. For someone of homosexual orientation, total abstinence would therefore be required. Further, the Bible is clear that any form of homosexual relationship is sinful - again because it is saying we know better than our Creator. We shouldn't single out practising homosexual sex as worse than any other sin. The Bible is clear that even lusting after another person is a sexual sin. God dislikes all sin equally because he is perfect. To anyone who says homosexuality is OK nowadays, God retorts in the Bible, "I the Lord do not change," and, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." God's moral standards do not change.
Now, I personally find lots of this rather silly.
The first and most blatant point I would like to take issue with is the simple one-dimensional viewpoint which the CICCU representative seems to have of God. "It is wrong because it is rejecting our Creator and saying that we know best." Everything's very simple, isn't it? Unfortunately this view of God requires a full-frontal lobotomy to take on board. Furthermore, I'm happy to believe God may know best - but I'd like to know how we're going to derive that from the Bible. The Bible in itself is an enormous tome written across a span of centuries by different people for different reasons. Many of the translations available to us have political motivations underlying their every word. I wonder how the Bible can be clear on anything.
The OED gives a definition of concubine:
A woman who cohabits with a man without being his wife; a kept mistress.
The Bible mentions the word concubine 36 times (according to Bible Gateway), admittedly only in the Old Testament. It does seem as if the practice of keeping mistresses was very common among early Hebrews. Not quite "The Bible has a high view of sex but says it is something precious and to be enjoyed within marriage."
They're right about the "high view of sex" part, however. Consider these verses from the Song of Solomon:
16. My lover is mine and I am his;
he browses among the lilies.
17. Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
turn, my lover,
and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag
on the rugged hills.
All this seems to stand in contrast to the hard line of our correspondent.
She knows better than the founders of the Catholic Church as well. "The official Roman Catholic view- that using contraception is sinful - is unjustified biblically." Thanks, that's nice to know. My first problem is here again - glib statements convince nobody. Luckily I've not had my lobotomy yet and like to think I am capable of argument and higher thought. I'm not going to stand and take these sort of points without some sort of evidence.
The official Roman Catholic view probably stems from this passage in Genesis 38:
8. Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother." 9. But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. 10. What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.
The difficulty comes when we try to decide which meaning is more appropriate. We can view this passage in two contradictory ways:
- Onan spilled his seed on the ground and was put to death. This was because he wasted his sperm. Therefore wasting sperm is a sin and contraception is, by extension, wrong.
- Onan spilled his seed on the ground and was put to death. This was because he failed to fulfill his duty to his brother's wife and produce offspring for his brother. This was the sin for which he was killed.
Arguments about this passage will rage on. Personally I choose to ignore the issue - there's no point worrying about doing the right thing when I don't know what the right thing is. Unfortunately CICCU have produced their own interpretation and will stuff it down the throat of anyone who'll listen.
My second big point concerns the changeability of God. Admittedly this quote exists in the Bible (Leviticus 20):
13. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
In fairness, however, this occurs in a long list of things one must and mustn't do. Leviticus 11 has a complicated set of instructions about what sorts of meat are clean - still kept to by Jews eating Kosher food. It's commonly accepted that this part of God's commandments was to do with keeping the populace healthy - don't eat pigs 'cause they're full of disease. If we aren't going to complain about Kosher food anymore then why should we worry about other things in the list. Surely God knows best about what we should eat, and we shouldn't defy Him?
Moving on, we come to the New Testament. The OT tells a story of a wrathful God who weighs in on the side of the Israelites, helping them slay their enemies in horrific ways. Jesus came to change all this. Originally we were sacrificed for our sins. But now God himself takes our sin upon Himself and becomes a sacrifice for us. Yet apparently "God does not change." The Bible is sufficient evidence that God's outlook on and involvement with humanity quite clearly has changed.
28. One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29. "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31. The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
1. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4. How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5. You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
Whether you think homosexuality is bad or not, you have no right to judge those who practice it. Love your neighbour as yourself - whatever you may think of them. Love appears sadly lacking in the quoted article. Later on it states that people deserve to go to hell for breaking God's commandments. Gee, thanks.
The problems I have with this interview are manifold, but the two main ones are thus:
- If you've been asked to give an interview to a Cambridge University student newspaper about your views, as a Christian, about sex, then there's a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. Making bland statements without any argument only reveals your lack of thought and understanding. Blind faith convinces nobody; what is faith without understanding? CICCU's mentality denies this, leaving no room for interpretation.
- Judging others is wrong. God dislikes sin, but came to earth as man to save us from it. Sin isn't an automatic ticket to hell, although it may be an invitation to be laughed at by some shallow-minded fools.
The sort of mental process required to swallow this swill is unacceptable to anyone at Cambridge - where I like to think we are trained to think critically. This form of evangelism is fundamentally wrong, and does ordinary Christians a fundamental dis-service. Articles like this make me embarassed to profess my faith in case I am associated with those discussed above.
I'll leave you with a quote on a more general form of evangelism from our College Chaplain:
There are CofE Churches I know of that make upfront evangelism their speciality, going overboard with door-knocking, street preaching and the Alpha method, but in doing so have lost all sense of what it means to be Anglican in their spirituality. "Evangelism" in that kind of pushy, recruiting way is really quite out of step with Anglican spirituality. You can have one or the other, but not both. I'm not saying it's wrong to recruit; just that the style of recruiting will affect completely what you are recruiting people to. It's still possible, I think, to have the doors of the Church wide open (metaphorically) without adopting a sales-and-marketing style evangelism.
Democrats take America?
Recent news tells us of how the balance of power has shifted in Washington with recent voting. The House of Representatives now has a Democrat majority, and the Senate has swung in their direction too UPDATE: There is now a Democrat majority in the Senate. Donald Rumsfeld has stepped down as Secretary of Defence.
What I found amusing, however, was last night's 10 o'clock news on BBC1. The news team were thrilled.
Unfortunately I can't access the programme online anymore, but some of the quotes I seem to remember:
This is an unpopular president and an unpopular war.
Oh, OK. Perhaps it would help if you had a source for that.
Now there's a new Secretary of Defence, he'll surely accelerate the plans to get the troops out of Iraq.
Will he? Unfortunately this is only a statement of the hopes of the reporter. Almost certainly the new chap will do no such thing. The link above contains the following line from another news source, referring to the intentions of the new majority in the House:
On Iraq, Democrats have said they would begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces and would require Iraqis to take responsibility for their country. They have also promised to double the size of Special Forces in order to track down and destroy terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda.
So let me get this straight, the Republicans want to stay in Iraq... and so do the Democrats. Hmm, interesting. Rather unfortunately, it's the opposite of what the BBC want.
November 08, 2006
Sometimes I think the Royal Mail ought to give up producing any seasonal stamps. They never seem to manage it without getting in trouble.
Stamp rage strikes again
The Royal Mail has a policy of alternating between religious and non-religious designs for its festive stamps. This year is a non-religious year, but that hasn’t stopped the Daily Express screaming that “Christ is dumped from Christmas stamps”, and phoning round the usual suspects for outraged “political correctness gone mad” quotes.
So the pattern we have is: Royal Mail follows traditional policy, Daily Express doesn't realise, Daily Express writes emotive and sensational story. Here's the start of their article:
BUNGLING mail chiefs were yesterday accused of taking the Christ out of Christmas.
And then the end:
The stamp controversy is a result of the Royal Mail’s policy of alternating between religious and non-religious designs each Christmas. A spokesman said yesterday the festive stamp collections had always alternated.
"It is about celebrating all elements of Christmas," he said. "It is something that we have always done. I think people will see this year’s issue of stamps as a first class set of Christmas stamps."
So if they new this, why the enormous headline and angry opening? Personally I think the "journalist" is hoping that nobody will bother to read to the end of the column. And they say the media is impartial?
November 03, 2006
More on that press conference
Unfortunately, being behind on the modern-day business lingo (since when has "teaming" been a word?) I struggled slightly to keep up with the conference. It does seem to me, however, that Microsoft has teamed up with Novell to help with two areas:
Both of these issues have been a problem and I think we should welcome any attempt to solve them ... cautiously.
Virtualisation is a process where you run a virtual machine on your computer. This virtual machine behaves like a blank setup and allows you to test other operating systems within it. Interestingly, Microsoft has been keen on this idea for quite a while, now releasing the 2007 Beta of Virtual PC for free, and guaranteeing that their Virtual PC software will remain free for evermore. An example of virtualisation in action - you could run Linux from inside a virtual machine on your Windows PC. This could be used as an XWindows client or SSH terminal to enable you to control another Linux machine.
Interoperability has been a major problem for a long time. Trying to use two different operating systems only works if you use open document formats which can be read easily on both systems. During the press conference, a Novell engineer announced that they would be building translators between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office. I think that this is a good thing.
However it's always worth remembering Microsoft's history - they don't like the Open Source movement. Here's an alternative spin on the situation:
The word on the street is that Novell had some deep patent dirt on Microsoft and went proudly to demand their bounty.
So how was it that at the end of the day they ended up affirming software patents (something Microsoft wants and Free software people hate), set a precedent that open source distributors owe Microsoft money, slandered GNU/Linux as derivative and encumbered, and much more?
It's a remarkable reversal of opportunity, all the more remarkable that the Novell participants smiled the whole way through what had clearly become a Microsoft event. They went in seeking a huge payout, and emerged with the payout, yes - but also with a commitment to pay it back in royalties on open source software they sell. This is not at all surprising; indeed, I've heard others say this is Microsoft's modus operandi, a ju-jitsu move that takes the weight of an attack and turns it back both on the attacker and the folks around them, usually without them even noticing (at least not to start with). I'd not want to say how closely I've observed it before...
Here's some more links for those interested:
November 02, 2006
Knock me down with a feather...
There's rumours on the Internet - and we all know what they mean...
Novell Shares Spike 20% As Wall St Journal Reports Microsoft To Start Reselling SUSE LINUX
In a move that caused Red Hat shares to tumble 3.2% and Novell's to surge by 20% in the same period of trading today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Microsoft is going to start providing support for SUSE LINUX and that it is working too on Microsoft-Linux interoperability.
The news is due to be broken at a news conference today being given by Steve Ballmer, Chief Executive of Microsoft and Novell's CEO Ron Hovsepian.
You can see the conference here. It'll be on at 2:00pm Pacific Time, i.e. 10:00pm here in the UK.
November 01, 2006
A Debate - Should there be an inquiry into the Iraq War?
Here's the start of a BBC article about yesterday's House of Commons debate:
At-a-glance: Iraq inquiry debate
Here are the key points from the House of Commons debate on the call for an inquiry into the Iraq war.
The Plaid Cymru MP opened the debate by saying the Iraq war was a "monumental catastrophe", which was about "the breakdown in our very system of government".
OK that's interesting. So there's going to be an inquiry, then? Reading down the article it certainly seems that way. Watching the 10 O'Clock News, however, we discover that actually there isn't. The MPs voted against one. How they did after the statement above I shall never know. Perhaps there were some other statements which the BBC didn't report.
Reactions in other sections of the liberal press have also been exciting. I bought the Independent this morning.
They were so upset about the results of the debate that they buried the news down at the bottom of the second page, choosing instead to publish what they have published repeatedly ever since the war started - a glorified article full of hyperbole complaining about it.
This reminded me about an entry on Black Triangle from September 4th:
Like the Daily Express, The Independent cannot be considered a newspaper. In fact, today’s Independent cover has even less news on it that the Daily Express, concerning itself with The World’s Greatest Green Inventions, or their glossy poster of birds in the electronic version, and the rest is concerned with the Independent’s raison d’etre: to prove that US and UK policies post-September 11th are wrong.
The examples used in the graphic on the front page are full of non-sequiturs and simplistic cause and effects - which is ironic given one of the charges made against Bush and Blair is that they hold a simplistic Manichaean view of the War on Terror. Nothing prior to 2001 is considered. All outcomes are seen as the result of US and UK policy. A terrorist lets of a suicide bomb outside a Shia temple? That’s Bush’s fault that is.
Read the whole thing. I think it's a real shame that the Independent, once a respected newspaper, is gradually turning into a total shambles written by hacks who spend their entire time pushing political agendas. The only problem now is what to read instead...
October 31, 2006
Full Feeds Again
The Full Feeds Petition seems to have reached stagnation. Please help the cause and go and sign it.
Captcha - the bug is catching
Over at Coding Horror, there's a big post up about Captcha effectiveness. I seemed to have developed an interest in these - I've discussed the issue before here and here. A Captcha is a "completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart" - one of those little images with mangled letters which you have to enter into a box on a web form.
I don't like them for a variety of reasons, including the following:
- They're difficult to use if you're partially sighted. Some Captchas are hard to use if you're fully sighted! They're impossible if you're blind.
- They're slightly less secure than you might think - laboratory tests can break lots of the easier ones.
- They waste my time.
The World Wide Web Consortium even agrees with me, which makes a change.
The correspondent at Coding Horror doesn't agree with me:
Although there have been a number of CAPTCHA-defeating proof of concepts published, there is no practical evidence that these exploits are actually working in the real world. And if CAPTCHA is so thoroughly defeated, why is it still in use on virtually every major website on the internet? Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, you name it, if the site is even remotely popular, their new account forms are protected by CAPTCHAs.
Interestingly, most of the Captcha-defeating articles and papers that I have read find the Yahoo and Hotmail Captchas fiendishly difficult. I'm happy to admit that the better Captchas will defeat computer attempts at deciphering. My problem mostly comes from the idea that the better Captchas defeat humans as well.
Aside from computer recognition techniques for Captchas, he also points to some alternative ways which have been suggested as ways to defeat the tests (these originally came from the Petmail Documentation).
1. The Turing Farm
Let's say spammers set up a sweatshop to employ people to look at computer screens and answer CAPTCHA challenges. They get to send one message for each challenge passed. Assuming 10 seconds per challenge, and paying roughly $5 per hour, that represents $14 per thousand messages. A typical spam run of 1 million messages per day would cost $14,000 per day and require 116 people working 24/7.
This would break the economic model used by most current spammers. A recent Wired article showed one spammer earning $10 for each successful sale. At that rate, the cost of $14,000 for 1,000,000 spam emails requires a 1 in 1000 success rate just to break even, whereas current spammers are managing a 1 in 100,000 or even 1 in 1,000,000 sucess rate.
Now that's a fair argument. It's well-considered on economic grounds, with some reasonable assumptions and estimates. Let's consider the other option highlighted:
2. The Turing Porn Farm
A recent slashdot article described a trick in which spammers run a porn site that is gated by CAPTCHA challenges, which are actually ripped directly from Yahoo's new account creation page. The humans unwittingly solve the challenge on behalf of the spammers, who can therefore automate a process that was meant to be rate-limited to humans. This attack is simply another way of paying the workers of a Turing Farm. The economics may be infeasible because porn hosting costs money too.
That's not a well-reasoned argument. "The economics may be infeasible because porn hosting costs money too." Quite possibly, but this fact is just as true for real porn. Porn hosting costs money - yet I believe there's quite a lot of porn out there on the Internet. This remains an entirely feasible way to defeat a Captcha.