09 Nov

Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos

I promise I don’t only read books that Katie gives me.

‘How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life': you have to admire the attempt to make inevitable title for the sequel to Alex in Numberland make sense. A more pedantic author would have gone with Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alex Found There, but then again, a more pedantic author would probably have written a more tedious book. Personally, I would have gone with Do the Fucking Maths, but that’s tenuous even if you place the stress where you need to.

Alex Through the Looking Glass seemed to be perfectly pitched for someone with my level of maths education. If this is intentional, it’s an absolute disaster. I got a good maths A-level without too much difficulty, but was sufficiently baffled by parts of my further maths course that I outright failed a paper and got an overall grade that my wife later advised me not to include on my CV. That further maths course was with a different exam board to my main maths A-level, so I studied some things twice and some apparently quite important things not at all. My level of maths education is not level at all. It’s lopsided and ridiculous. It’s impossible to believe that this book could have been pitched at me, so I think we can assume that seemed that way simply because it’s quite a good book.

Better yet, it cleared up a few of the things that I never understood from my further maths course, and it included a few amusing anecdotes that I would be looking for a way to drop into conversation if only I had a good enough memory to do so.

I recommend buying this book, and then taping it to your copy of The Knowledge to correct some of the latter’s clear and acknowledged omissions.

I have contacted OCR to let them know that I have filled the gaps in my understanding, but apparently this is not sufficient to bump my Further Maths A-level up a grade. I therefore award Alex Through the Looking Glass no stars.

☆☆☆☆☆

17 Aug

The Knowledge – Lewis Dartnell

Not about the streets of London. The Knowledge attempts to summarize the essentials for ‘rebooting’ civilization after a global catastrophe.

About three chapters into The Knowledge, I went to a picnic for science communicatiors and played a game of Kubb1 with the author that lasted so long it seemed entirely likely that civilization would have collapsed by the time we finished. Late in the third hour, despite some valiant cheating by Dr Dartnell, we lost.

The whole experience rather took the edge off the book’s sense of scholarly authority. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it. Dartnell’s explanations are clear and succinct in that way that not only makes new material easy to understand, but makes reading about things you already know strangely enjoyable. And the premise – that this is a world-rebuilding manual for the survivors of a global catastrophe – is a compelling framework for the reader and a wonderful playground for Dartnell’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Or at least, I thought so.

According to the Guardian‘s Steven Poole:

The conceit, then, that this is a handbook for rebooting modern civilisation is really just a cute way of framing what turns out to be something slightly different but arguably more interesting to a present-day readership. The Knowledge is a terrifically engrossing history of science and technology.

In the Telegraph, on the other hand, Tom Chivers complains:

The only jarring note is that sometimes it seems as though Dartnell is taking all this end-of-the-world stuff seriously[…]. In a discussion of how ferroconcrete mixes the tensile strength of iron with the compressive strength of concrete, for example, you are solemnly informed that “this final innovation really unlocks the potential of concrete for aiding reconstruction after the apocalypse”.

Both of these assessments seem a little off the mark to me. One of the book’s strengths is that it mines its premise for every bit of interest it can find. There are interesting lessons in what a postapocalyptic civilization could scavenge and why, for example, which a straightforward history wouldn’t teach. But these aren’t a cop-out or a diversion: Dartnell isn’t about to leave interesting material on the table, and once he’s taught you to scavenge he’ll explain what to do if you can’t. And it’s appropriate for the tone to be serious: the setting may be fanciful, but this is life-or-death stuff in the real world, too.

Indeed, some of the most interesting parts of the book explore how a rebooting civilization could take a different path to the same destination. Some of these are matters of necessity: the survivors of the speculative apocalypse wouldn’t be able to rely on easily-accessible fossil fuel reserves. Others simply reflect the freedom that clued-up rebooters would have from the haphazard way human knowledge has developed. Dartnell imagines wooden sailing ships finding their longitude using not intricate timepieces like those developed by John Harrison, but radio signals from the post-apocalyptic prime meridian – because if you know how to do both, radio signals are probably easier. A straightforward history could include asides on these alternatives, but it wouldn’t be so elegant.

The coming apocalypse also gives The Knowledge a very practical bent, which has left me with a real itch to make some soap. On the other hand, that practicality means that this is a manual for reconstructing a narrow slice of civilisation. Dartell admits that he doesn’t include any grounding in maths, and trusts the survivors to develop their own culture: fair enough, but there are technologies in both areas that could have fit nicely within the scope of the book. Perhaps that’s something for an appendix in a future edition. It’s certainly not a lack I felt when reading: it’s just difficult to read a book like this and not start looking at the world through its weird, post-apocalyptic prism. Which is to say, it provokes curiosity about how things work and how technology changes our lives, which I’m pretty sure the author would call a win.

Unfortunately, The Knowledge does not preserve the rules of Kubb for future generations, and so, with a heavy heart, I award it no stars.

☆☆☆☆☆


  1. If you’ve seen two groups of people standing in a park throwing bits of wood at each other, that was probably Kubb, unless it was low-tech gang warfare or LARPing. 

24 Sep

Will I get sued if I put ‘pho’ in this title?

My local Vietnamese resaurant has a brilliant name. It’s called Mo Pho. I’m not that into Vietnamese food, and while I’ve enjoyed every meal I’ve had there, I think their brilliant name has brought me more pleasure than their food.

But it might not have that name for much longer, because piddling behemoth Pho thinks the world is too stupid to tell the difference between this little café and their Leeds-bound empire.

I’m annoyed by this, but I can’t help but find it all quite funny, too. Pho’s real problem seems to be that, instead of thinking of a distinctive name, they have just named themselves after what they sell. They’re a pho shop, so they called themselves ‘Pho’, and now they’re upset that other people who sell pho have the nerve to put the word ‘pho’ in their names. Imagine a world where KFC had left ‘Kentucky’ out of their name and sent threatening letters to every fried chicken shop in your town.

Of course, everyone knows that keeping a trademark alive means defending it against every tiny infringement. That’s the defence Pho have been using to justify their bullying. They don’t want their inaction to allow ‘pho’ to become a generic term. Presumably they’re working on a time machine to make this possible.

Still, they have every right to make sure we don’t confuse the Vietnamese dish pho with the restaurant chain Pho. And I’m grateful: I wouldn’t want to boycott a whole cuisine just because of my newfound dislike of Pho With A Capital P. But it would be nice if they kept the pretence up all the time, instead of putting this on their website:


‘Pho is so gratifying it is hard to believe it’s legal’ – Miami New Times

That isn’t a quotation about their restaurants. It’s a quotation about pho that they can to pass off as being about their restaurants because they have given their restaurants such a generic name. They want to have their pho and eat it. And they can, because they own ‘pho’. Apparently.


Update: As I was writing this, Pho called off their nonsense, which means we can now all enjoy their ridiculousness free from worry about how it affects small businesses.

05 Apr

iCaster: Turning iPlayer into podcasts

Wouldn’t it be nice if the huge number of radio programmes on the BBC iPlayer were also available as podcasts? Well, too bad. They’re not. You get the BBC’s arbitrary selection of their programmes, and that’s it.

I’m forever missing episodes or series or getting annoyed that I can’t reliably listen on my commute, so I decided to rustle something up to pull BBC radio programmes into my podcast app. I call it iCaster, because it seemed the obvious thing to call it.

iCaster is written in Python, and it doesn’t do very much, because more competent people than me have already made most of the necessary tools to make this happen. I just had to tie them together with my own poorly-made string. It uses:

  1. get_iplayer, which can download TV and radio from iPlayer and has a handy PVR function.
  2. Mutagen, a Python library, to read the tags of the files from iPlayer.
  3. PyRSS2Gen, another Python library, to generate the RSS feed.

It works using three scheduled tasks:

  1. get_iplayer’s PVR function is triggered, to check for and download new episodes to the iCaster audio directory.
  2. iCaster runs, scans the audio directory, and builds an RSS feed out of everything it finds.
  3. Files in the iCaster audio directory older than 14 days are deleted so that my server doesn’t fill up with old episodes of Just a Minute.

Make sure the feed and the episodes are somewhere your podcast app can see them, subscribe to the feed, and away you go. So far it’s working delightfully for me, although because radio programmes are quite conservatively trimmed for iPlayer you still run the risk of accidentally hearing a bit of the Archers at the start.

Here’s the script; you’ll need to edit it to fill in a couple of paths before it will work.

If you have any questions or improvements, drop me a line.

08 Feb

A restraining order for @grauniad

My stupid Twitter bot, @grauniad, got its first complaints during the last couple of months. One of them expressed frustration that whoever was behind the account persisted in mangling the Guardian’s every tweet despite the result manifestly not being all that funny. This critic was under the impression that some poor fool was running the account by hand and was still incapable of coming up with anything amusing, a misunderstanding that I think is far funnier than anything the bot has ever tweeted.

The other complaint was a bit weightier: it came from someone who felt it was inappropriate for the bot to mangle tweets about the Sandy Hook shootings. I’m not sure whether this critic had the same mistaken idea about how the account worked, or why he hadn’t taken issue with any of the other tragedies @grauniad had tweeted about, but I don’t like to see people upset, so I gave it some thought.

I don’t moderate @grauniad, and I don’t intend to start. As well as being a lot of work for little gain, I think it would be self-defeating. At the moment, the account is a mindless automaton, and being upset by what it produces is rather like getting annoyed at your Scrabble rack if it calls you ‘dickhead’ for pulling out too many tiles. To my mind, moderation by a human can only increase its capacity to offend.

This only holds if seeing the bot’s tweets is opt-in, which it generally is, because that’s how Twitter works. The exception comes when @guardian mentions someone, usually the author of an article. I don’t want an unpleasant @grauniad tweet launched into the mentions of someone who didn’t ask for it. So from now on, @grauniad has forgotten how to use mentions, and will just tweet un-@ed usernames in whatever mangled form it decides upon. That means the only way you can see an upsetting tweet from @grauniad now is if you asked for it – in which case it’s your fault – or if someone else showed it to you – in which case it’s their fault.

Sadly, this change won’t make it any funnier.

06 Dec

Weird weird news from the Telegraph

There’s some very odd stuff in the Telegraph’s ‘Weird News’ section. By which I mean that there’s stuff that isn’t odd in the way it ought to be. The Telegraph describes this section thus:

From the unusual to the funny and the downright bizarre,
we bring you a sample of weird news from around the world,
along with cartoons, blogs and games… because news
doesn’t have to be serious.

Let’s take a look at what they mean by that.

Plans for new east London ‘mega-mosque’ rejected by local council

Those crazy Muslims and their mega-mosques! Those crazy councils and their planning decisions!

Duchess of Cambridge pregnant: all worth it in the end, says young mother

Downright bizarre!

Weather: motorists face extreme conditions

Homes left underwater as Britain hit by more flooding

Anything about extreme weather seems to make its way into this section…

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange ‘has chronic lung condition’

Julian Assange: ‘extremist’ politicians handing WikiLeaks ‘economic death penalty’

…as does anything about Julian Assange, apparently.

Cardiac arrest survival rates ‘dire’ and not improving

Because news doesn’t have to be serious.

Justin Lee Collins ‘pushed girlfriend in front of car’

Intimate partner violence: quirky!

Inadequate tests ‘sending disabled back to work’

How about that, eh?

Baffling.

26 Oct

Enduring Vague Curiosity

After seeing the new Bond film, I’ve just noticed on IMDB that Ben Whishaw, who plays Q, was in the film of Enduring Love, which also starred Daniel Craig.

This caught my attention mainly because I developed a very slight fixation with Enduring Love after seeing the trailer as a teenager. Fixation is of course a rather appropriate response to have to Enduring Love, but I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t have any lasting impression of what the film was about. Despite that, it somehow caught my attention, even as I completely failed to fix in my memory what it was called. I remembered the scene with the hot air balloon, and (entirely mistakenly) that it featured Jim Carrey in a rare serious role. The first of these might just have been enough for me to track down the film; the second neatly sabotaged my efforts.

Nothing came of this until I found a copy of the novel on one of my parents’ bookshelves. It had a balloon and a reference to a major film on the cover, which was basically enough to confirm that this was the book on which the film I had sustained a nagging interest in for a few years was based. By this time, that interest had decayed into curiosity about what the film was. The cover was enough to resolve that, and some rudimentary Googling was enough to disabuse me of my notion that the part of the mentally ill stalker was played by Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Some time later, I finally got around to reading Enduring Love, and found it OK.

I still haven’t seen the film, but this tiny coincidence brought it to my mind. That coincidence is of course slightly boosted by the fact that the plot of Enduring Love is driven by someone falling out of the sky. I looked up the trailer on YouTube. At the very start of it, Daniel Craig puts a lot of emphasis on the word ‘bond’, and then Rhys Ifans (who looks nothing like Jim Carrey) says ‘Everything happens for a reason’. I feel this final brace of coincidences, together with the manifest untruth of the latter statement, brings this minor obsession to a close, and I can safely never think about it again unless I decide at some point to actually watch the unremarkably-received film of a novel I enjoyed a bit.

Incidentally, the trailer I’ve linked above features the name ‘Rhys Ifans’ in large capital letters, and doesn’t feature the name ‘Jim Carrey’ in any letters at all. I have decided that this is not the trailer I saw.

18 Sep

A rubbish word game

This tedious challenge popped into my head the other day. How long a chain of words can you make by adding one letter at a time to a starting word? For example:

A > AN > PAN > PANS > PANTS > PLANTS > PLANETS
A > AN > CAN > CLAN > CLEAN > CLEANS > CLEANSE > CLEANSER > CLEANSERS

You’re not obliged to start from a single letter, but it provides some easy steps.

Alternative rules:

  • disallow pluralization
  • allow changing one letter, word-ladder style, but not twice in succession
  • allow removing a letter instead of adding one, without repeating words

Post your best chains in the comments – or don’t, because this genuinely isn’t a very interesting game.

25 Aug

Announcing the winner of my recycling

The world’s greatest short story competition came to a close at the start of this month, and after a long judging process that has mainly involved going to work, doing lots of washing up and having a cold, I have chosen a winner.

It was a difficult decision: the field was very strong, and the fact that I had the minimum number of entries required to hold a competition meant that there was less opportunity for a stand-out entry to take the prize.

The winner is Paul Kilbey’s story about H from steps drinking a lot of gin. I would justify my decision, but I don’t think the absurdity of Paul’s story can be expressed by anything other than the story itself. I am a little worried about him.

You can read more evidence of Paul’s loose grip on reality at Pleasure Notes/Pure Seal Tones. He also does sensible writing about music and things but I don’t understand that quite as much.

Paul wins one of my used index cards every month for a year, starting in September.