Archive for the 'Asides' Category

The Imitation travesty

[link] Friday, December 5th, 2014

We went to see The Imitation game last night. It’s a well-made, entertaining travesty, distinguished by a terrific performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as somebody’s weird idea of Alan Turing, and marred by a few howlers — some malicious (like the idea that Turing was suspected of being a Soviet spy both in Bletchley Park and afterwards in Manchester), some merely absurd (like the idea that he christened the first Bombe ‘Christopher’ after the dead boy he idolised when they were at school in Sherborne), and some completely implausible (like the scenes in which the codebreakers have a map of the north Atlantic with paper markers setting out the positions of ships in a convoy).

Cumberbatch is clearly a great actor, and his performance is memorable. But the unsubtle, autistic Turing he portrays is substantially at odds with the Turing who, for example, was entrusted by the British government with the task of hoodwinking the American codebreaking community into thinking that the British were way behind them in breaking German ciphers.

What the film does convey powerfully, though, is the cruelty of Britain’s homophobic laws. Walking home afterwards, I was reminded of the courage of the MP Leo Abse and the hereditary peer Lord Arran, the first Parliamentarians to publicly accept the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, and of Roy Jenkins, the only liberal (small-l) Home Secretary in living memory, who ensured that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 made it onto the statute book.

Ironically, we saw the film the day after the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that the £42m Turing Centre would be located at the British Library next to King’s Cross.

Mean People Fail

[link] Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Interesting essay by Paul Graham.

It struck me recently how few of the most successful people I know are mean. There are exceptions, but remarkably few.

Meanness isn’t rare. In fact, one of the things the internet has shown us is how mean people can be. A few decades ago, only famous people and professional writers got to publish their opinions. Now everyone can, and we can all see the long tail of meanness that had previously been hidden.

And yet while there are clearly a lot of mean people out there, there are next to none among the most successful people I know. What’s going on here? Are meanness and success inversely correlated?

He concludes that they are.

Memory’s tricks

[link] Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

One of my favourite Mark Twain quotes is:

“The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened.”

What brings this to mind is an interesting OpEd piece in today’s New York Times

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, the astrophysicist and host of the TV series “Cosmos,” regularly speaks to audiences on topics ranging from cosmology to climate change to the appalling state of science literacy in America. One of his staple stories hinges on a line from President George W. Bush’s speech to Congress after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a 2008 talk, for example, Dr. Tyson said that in order “to distinguish we from they” — meaning to divide Judeo-Christian Americans from fundamentalist Muslims — Mr. Bush uttered the words “Our God is the God who named the stars.”

Turns out that Mr Tyson’s memory was faulty.

In his post-9/11 speech, Mr. Bush actually said, “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends,” and he said nothing about the stars. Mr. Bush had indeed once said something like what Dr. Tyson remembered; in 2003 Mr. Bush said, in tribute to the astronauts lost in the Columbia space shuttle explosion, that “the same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” Critics pointed these facts out; some accused Dr. Tyson of lying and argued that the episode should call into question his reliability as a scientist and a public advocate.

When he was first asked for the source of Mr. Bush’s quotation, Dr. Tyson insisted, “I have explicit memory of those words being spoken by the president. I reacted on the spot, making note for possible later reference in my public discourse. Odd that nobody seems to be able to find the quote anywhere.” He then added, “One of our mantras in science is that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.”

But there’s another twist to this tale.

Years before he misremembered what Mr. Bush said about 9/11, Mr. Bush himself misremembered what he had seen on 9/11. As the memory researcher Daniel Greenberg documented, on more than one occasion Mr. Bush recollected having seen the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center before he entered a classroom in Florida.

In reality, he had been told that a plane had hit the building, but had not seen it — there was no live footage of the plane hitting the tower. Mr. Bush must have combined information he acquired later with the traces left by his actual experience to produce a new version of events, just as Dr. Tyson did. And just as Dr. Tyson’s detractors assumed that he had deliberately lied, some Bush critics concluded that he was inadvertently leaking the truth, and must have known about the attacks in advance.

Mark Twain was right.

Diplomatic blogging

[link] Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Last night I was at the Irish Embassy in London to give a lecture about George Boole, the great Victorian mathematician and the first Professor of Mathematics at my alma mater, University College Cork. It was a gratifyingly packed house, but the most unexpected discovery was that the Ambassador, Dan Mulhall, not only runs a rather good personal blog, but that he is also a Joyce enthusiast. Here, for example, is the text of the lecture on the ‘Cyclops’ chapter in Ulysses that he delivered on Bloomsday at the York Festival of Ideas. It’s pretty good IMHO.

My only complaint is that — like an increasing number of people — he persists in using the term ‘blog’ when in fact he means “blog post “. But I suspect that I am on a losing battle on this. I’m beginning to sound like the pedants of the 1950s who objected to people calling transistor-powered portable radios “transistors”. Sigh.

What gets found in translation

[link] Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The New York Times has a nice obituary of the writer Raleigh Trevelyan, who died the other day and came from a long and distinguished British family. One of his ancestors was Thomas Macaulay. The obit contains this lovely snippet:

Mr. Trevelyan’s accounts of his forebears’ role in British history covered well-known historic episodes as well as obscure ones that were telling about imperial rule.

He recounted, for example, a 400-mile journey across the south of India by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and former secretary of war, traveling “on men’s shoulders.” The bearers kept up a chant, which Macaulay presumed to be “extemporaneous eulogies,” but which he later learned were something else.

Roughly translated, Mr. Trevelyan wrote, the bearers sang, “There is a fat hog, a great fat hog/How heavy he is, hum-hum/Shake him, shake him well.”

Which reminds me of the Lone Ranger, one of the comic-book heroes of my early childhood. He was always accompanied, you may recall, by his loyal native American companion-cum-servant, Tonto, whose stock response to anything the Ranger said was “Ke-mo sa-bee”, which of course I interpreted as “yes, boss” or words to that effect — an impression later reinforced by studio assertions that it meant “faithful friend” (radio series) or “trusty scout” (television series) in the language of his tribe.

Imagine my delight, therefore, to meet a guy years ago who had studied the matter and claimed that “ke-mo sa-bee” actually translates as “horseshit”.

As the Italians say, even if it isn’t true, it ought to be.

Seven rules for good interface design

[link] Thursday, November 20th, 2014

I like this essay by Erik D. Kennedy. The rules are:

  • Light comes from the sky
  • Black and white first
  • Double your whitespace
  • Learn the methods of overlaying text on images
  • Make text pop— and un-pop
  • Only use good fonts
  • Steal like an artist

It’s work in progress, so he will be adding to it as time goes on.

On this day…

[link] Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

… in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I often use Peter Norvig’s wonderful translation of it into PowerPoint to persuade students to think twice before resorting to ‘presentation’ software.

Facebook moves in on LinkedIn

[link] Monday, November 17th, 2014

Well, well. According to this BBC story (which itself is based on a Financial Times story), Facebook is moving in on LinkedIn’s territory:

Facebook is building a network for professionals to connect and collaborate on work-related documents, the Financial Times reports.

Facebook at Work will look similar to its existing social network, but users will be able to keep their personal profiles separate, the paper says.

They also would be able to chat with colleagues, build professional networks and share documents, people said to be working on it told the Financial Times.

This is a difficult one for some of us. I mean to say, I loathe and detest LinkedIn, which I think is one of the most obnoxious ‘social’ networks I’ve seen. On the other hand, I’m not too enamoured of Facebook either. But I’m not surprised that LinkedIn’s shares were down today after the news broke.

In a more detached frame of mind, there might be something interesting here in terms of network theory. For example, are the ties that bind Facebook users stronger or weaker than those that link LinkedIn users?

Obama gets some things right

[link] Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Obama’s stance on net neutrality is spot on. And if you doubt that, then this tweet from Steve Ballmer should settle the matter.


The text of Obama’s statement is here


[link] Sunday, November 9th, 2014


Tim Berners-Lee at the dinner in Balliol on Friday night, where he was the (deserving) recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oii. Technically, it’s a terrible picture (very low light in Balliol’s Hall), but it does capture his impish look. And in a nice juxtaposition, behind him is the portrait of Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, the remarkable woman who funded the Oxford Internet Institute.