Thursday, August 31, 2006

Well, so much for that joke

I was going to do a comparative review of the various colours of toilet roll, thinking it would be funny and would highlight the sheer stupidity of the existing plethora of options.

Sadly, I discovered that the Pink (cowardly red) rolls are, in fact, softer than the other colours. Which kinda ruins the whole joke.

Oh well.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cartoon Heroes

Thanks to the combined efforts of Superted, Scooby Doo, Mighty Mouse and the Powerpuff Girls, the supply of bananas to little Eric has been restored. Apparently, Professor Chaos was behind it all, and he would have gotten away with it too, had it not been for those meddling kids.

Anyway, all is well with the universe...

or is it?

For my mid-morning snack, I ate a banana. Only to discover that it wasn't very nice. Instead, in order to hasten the ripening process, Tesco has had the bananas put under a sunbed and blasted with UV light. This has the effect of getting them to market sooner, but leaves them green at the top, and generally not very nice.

They have, it should be noted, done the same with other fruit at other times - try buying strawberries from them in March.

I can only conclude that this is all part of a deeper conspiracy. Professor Chaos must have had allies! Fortunately, intrepid reporter Clark Kent is on the case...

Monday, August 28, 2006


Alas, Saturday was not all that could be hoped...

I got to bed early on Friday night, having set my alarm clock. Then, as is my wont, I woke up just before the alarm went off, and struggled out of bed. 4:30 is not a good time to be getting up, and now its evils are compounded by the fact that the sun hasn't bothered to rise at that time yet.

Anyway, I had my breakfast, and went for my morning shower. It was then that things started to go wrong. The light in my bathroom has been a bit temperamental of late, and on Saturday it finally gave up the ghost, without even having the decency to don a white sheet. (I fixed it yesterday. In addition to being a musicial par excellence, a wizard in the kitchen, and knig of all dungeon masters, I am the greatest electrician in the world. Or, alternatively, it turned out to be a slightly loose wire, so I just tightened it up a bit.)

After showering in the pitch dark, I got dressed and left the appartment.

The journey to the competition was fine. Second breakfast was rather expensive, but also fine. (Well, not the best, it must be admitted. Dodgy cheeseburger does not make for the best morning repast.) We went for our pre-competition practice.

The practice was good. The band was sounding fine. We were ready to compete. So, we waited, knowing we were ready; we needed a quick tune of the pipes and we were on.

Except that the adjutant suddenly appeared, and we had to go NOW NOW NOW! No time for a quick tune of the pipes. We hustled to the ground, and rushed on.

It did not do our performance any good. The start was sloppy. The main body of the play was no better than okay, and the stop was really bad, with a trailing drone - a textbook mistake that no-one should be making at that level. (My own play was fine. But that was small consolation under the circumstances.)

So, we were out in the first round. And the worst thing was that we all knew we deserved to be out.

At this point it was 11:45, so a couple of us headed to the pub for a couple of pints. You might think it was a bit early, but remember that I'd been up for more than 7 hours by that point.

After that, I split from the group and went to get a pizza, fully intending on meeting up with them back at the bus. However, they didn't make it to the bus for quite some time. And, once I got back to the bus having had lunch (about 2:30), my exhaustion hit me. I had set myself the mental target of getting to the end of the competition, I'd done that, so I suddenly found myself out on my feet. Not good.

Anyway, the other half of the band returned about 5, and moaned at me because they hadn't been able to find me, and had been intent on taking me out for many many drinks. We proceeded to have a couple more drinks, this time from the epic carry-out that we'd all chipped in for, while mulling over the judges' remarks, which weren't too hopeful. And then it was time for the big parade, the finale to our day.

This was the point where things really started to go downhill. It was very evident that virtually everyone in the band was really drunk. (My own state was such that I couldn't have driven, and my balance was slightly off. Otherwise, I was fine. Annoyingly, alcohol does absolutely nothing for my inhibitions - I get really quiet when drunk.) So, the plan was to march the parade while wearing a succession of silly hats, masks, and false breasts that the band had purchased during the day. (I did find myself wondering if you could be done for "being in charge of a band while under the influence.")

That wasn't the bad bit. One of our drummers decided that it was "drunken challenge" time.

I've had to delete a large chunk of this post now. The subject of the drunken challenge, and quite why I found it so difficult to bear is something I still can't write about. So, it'll have to wait for another time. Suffice to say, it was just about the only thing that I just could not face, and even thinking about left me wanting to run away and hide. (Oh, and it was in no way illegal. Given that, there's virtually nothing that has that effect on me. I can and have sung in public, conducted a children's choir without ever practicing beforehand, and I deal with complex problems on a daily basis. I reckon I could probably take a decent stab at rocket science if I were so inclined; I could certainly learn to do it. But this? No, absolutely not.)

It would have been fine - I could just have ignored him - except that he just would not shut up about the challenge, and how he was going to win, and on and on and on.

After about 15 minutes of this, I was done for. I don't think I said a single word to a single person for the rest of the night - certainly nothing beyond "Yes, please" or "No, thanks". We did the parade, headed home, and I flopped into bed. I think it was 10:30 that I got to bed. I hoped to sleep for at least 12 hours; I woke up at 7:30.

Saturday was not a good day.

Friday, August 25, 2006


In order to not have to work yesterday morning without officially taking the time off, I had to work an absurdly long day on Wednesday (four or five whole hours!), followed by a late night yesterday, followed by an early morning today. So I'm quite tired.

However, it's nearly the weekend, so that'll be okay. I get to lie in tomorrow...

until 4.30 in the morning, that is.

My band are competing again tomorrow, and the bus leaves at 6 sharp. However, the taxi that will take me to the bus leaves at 5.30 sharp, and that means I need to get up no later than 4.30. Which is, annoyingly, just after my "don't bother going to bed" threshold, which is about 3. (Although I don't think I would survive without at least some sleep tonight.)

Anyway, my goal for tomorrow's competition is to try and get my band into the final, and then try not to come last.

One thing that concerns me a bit is that this is one of the biggest and most famous piping competitions in the world. Which means it's entirely possible that some of the members of my previous bands might be there. This is primarily of concern because when I left to go to Yeovil I actually faked my death, rather than saying goodbye, so they might be surprised to see me.

Perhaps if I happen to see one of them I'll quickly don a white sheet and run around saying "Wooooo!" a lot. I'll let you know.

Ah! The penny drops

For the past two weeks, I've had bananas on my shopping list. No great reason for this, except that I'd been getting a bit bored of my daily apple, so thought I'd have something different.

On neither occasion did the supermarket have said bananas, so I got apples instead. Since I visit the supermarket at 9pm on a Monday evening, I had assumed that this lack was due to them having run out, which is a common occurance at that time, especially for items that they restock daily, such as bread and fruit, so I thought nothing of it.

It now turns out that there is a worldwide banana shortage.

Anyway, I can only conclude that this is all part of some villainous master-plan to restrict the supplies of bananas to 29 Acacia Road. The reason someone would wish to instigate such a heinous act should be obvious to all.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A working broadband connection is a glory to behold

Or, so I've heard.

The engineer didn't show up.

Edit: Five minutes after I got to work, the engineer called to say he was about 10 minutes away. Sadly, the office is 34 minutes from home, so I had to tell him not to bother. It's a shame I need to not antagonise this guy, since he's probably going to come out to do the job when I reschedule, or else I would have told him exactly what I thought of this situation. I mean, honestly, just how hard is it to actually keep to an appointment you've made or, in the case where you know you're going to be more than an hour late, to phone the person and say so?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Saga Nears its End

The saga of my broadband rolls on. Two weeks ago, I placed a new order for broadband with a new ISP. Last Friday, my line was activated. It didn't work.

The problem was exactly the same as I saw before: the modem LED flashed on and off constantly, indicating that it was trying to gain sync with ADSL, but was unable to do so. One key difference, though, was that my new ISP had sent me a new modem, which I tried also, to the same effect.

Clearly, therefore, it wasn't an equipment failure - the odds of two sets of equipment failing in exactly the same way are fairly small. Likewise, it wasn't an ISP problem at all - the same problem from two providers, especially given that the line was actually ceased and reconnected in between, indicates that the fault lies elsewhere.

So, I got in touch with my ISP, knowing full well that that was a formality. As expected, after several phone calls and tests on the line, the determination was that the fault lies with the internal wiring in the flat. Since this isn't an ADSL problem as such I needed to contact BT to have them send out an engineer to fix the wiring.

In parallel, I contacted BT, whom I now name and shame for their role in this mess. My first step was to follow their automated menus to report a fault on my line. However, when asked if I was having trouble only with broadband, I foolishly said "yes", whereupon the system responded that since I wasn't a BT Broadband customer I had to contact my ISP. It then hung up on me. Never mind that the broadband problem is the symptom, not the root cause of my difficulty.

So, I went back through their menus and chose "no" this time. The system then did an automatic test of the line and concluded that there "might be a problem". An agent would phone me back. Fantastic, thought I. Surely it would all be sorted soon.

But no! This was Saturday, which is clearly far too soon for something so simple. The agent called back. I explained the problem. As soon as I mentioned broadband, she declared that it was an internet problem, and I had to contact my ISP. At this point I had a good rant at her about how that was utter nonsense, that my ISP weren't responsible for the internal wires in my appartment, and how the whole thing was a joke. She was not to be moved - I had to contact my ISP.

It wasn't until yesterday that confirmation came from my ISP that they absolutely couldn't help - it needed to be BT who sent out an engineer.

So, I called BT to sort this out. I spoke to someone in the Faults department, who said that would be no problem, but that the booking should be done through the Customer Care department. She put me through. The Customer Care department then apologised for this, saying that it was the Faults department I needed after all. The girl there put me back through to a different person in Faults. Who proceeded to explain that it was not their responsibility, and I absolutely had to speak to my ISP. Naturally, she would not be shifted from this position by my explanation that she was talking utter nonsense. (She did at one time try to persuade me that if she booked an engineer then it wouldn't help. According to her, BT only employ incompetent engineers. I found that a very interesting argument.)

So, I called back later. This time, I spoke to a very helpful guy who said I needed to speak to the Broadband department. He gave me their number. I hung up, knowing fine well that this was the wrong advice, but never mind. The Broadband department was closed for the night.

So, I called Faults again (fortunately, this was all a Freephone number). This time, I spoke to an Indian chap who couldn't hear me very well, probably due to my speaking just a bit too fast. Nonetheless, I seized on this to my advantage, and told him I absolutely needed an engineer out to replace the internal wires in my appartment, so people can hear me when I phone them.

So, the engineer is booked for tomorrow morning. This has the immediate effect of requiring that I somehow work 25 hours today, which is interesting.

More to the point, once the engineer comes out, I should be able to explain the problem to him, show him the substandard wiring, get him to replace the bits that need replaced and, hopefully, get broadband!

(My expectation is that the engineer will come out, take one look at the set-up, and know exactly what needs to be done. They're like that.)

Alternatively, he'll look at it and declare that since it's not a voice problem he can't help, and I need to speak to my ISP. Or, he'll decide he can't replace the wires for some reason. Or, he'll replace the wires and it won't make any difference. Or he'll just not show up. Or something.

In any event, the saga nears its end. By this time tomorrow, I'll either have broadband, or I'll be contacting my ISP to inform them that I have to cancel the contract. I'm not looking forward to tomorrow.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Clock Solitaire - the proof

Someone mentioned elsewhere that they would like to see this. Additionally, I have been musing on it for quite some time. So, here's the proof of the Clock Solitaire problem I discussed a couple of weeks ago...

The problem

The game of Clock Solitaire is played as follows: shuffle a standard deck of 52 playing cards, then deal them into thirteen piles, twelve of which represent the 'numbers' on a clock face, with the thirteenth pile in the centre. Each pile should have four cards.

Take the first card from the centre pile, and place it face up beside the pile corresponding to the number on the card (with Jack = 11, Queen = 12, King = centre). Then, turn the top card on that pile, and repeat the process. Repeat until you cannot turn a card over, because the pile is empty.

You win if and only if you turn every card over before stopping. (In fact, the last card you turn over will always be the fourth King. You win if and only if this is card 52.)

Since there's no actual skill involved, the game is entirely random, and so the probability of winning is fixed.

The problem is simple: what are the chances of winning?


Imagine a two-dimensional grid of nodes. In the first dimension, the nodes are numbered from 0 to 52, and represent the number of cards that have been turned over so far in the game. Naturally, the game starts with 0 cards turned over, and each time a card is turned over, this number increases by exactly 1.

In the second dimension, the nodes are numbered from 0 to 4, and represent the number of Kings that have been turned over. Naturally, the game starts with 0 Kings turned over, and ends as soon as the 4th King is turned.

Clearly, the game starts at node (0, 0), and ends at node (x, 4), where x can be any number from 4 to 52. The game is lost if x is less than 52, and won only if x is 52.

Now, if we are at node (x, y), and turn a card over, there are two possible outcomes. Either we get a King, and move to node (x+1, y+1), or we get not-a-King, and move to node (x+1, y). The probability of getting a King is (number_of_Kings_left/number_of_cards_left), which is known (4-y / 52-x). The probability of getting not_a_King is (1 - number_of_Kings_left/number_of_cards_left), which is also known (((52-x) - (4-y))/(52-x)).

Still with me? We're nearly there now.

The probability of a path through the nodes (always starting at node (0,0)), is equal to the product of all the probabilities of all the steps along that path. Furthermore, we can say that the probability of reaching a given node is the sum of the probabilities of all the paths leading to that node.

The probability of reaching node (0,0) is, of course, 1, since you always start there. And the probability of winning the game is equal to the probability of node (52,4).

The problem now is that that is a monstrously impossible thing to work out. The sum of all the paths from node (0,0) to node (52,4)? There are millions of them!

Except that we can break the problem down further using the lovely mathematical trick of recursion.

If we want to get to node (x, y), there are two ways we can do it. We can start at node (x-1, y) and turn over not_a_King, or we can start at node (x-1, y-1) and turn over King. But we know the probabilities of drawing a King and not_a_King. And we know how to work out the probabilties of getting to nodes (x-1, y) and (x-1, y-1).

The probability of reaching node (x,y) is, therefore (P(x-1,y-1) x P(King)) + (P(x-1, y) x P(not_a_King)).

Which means we can calculate the probability of getting to node (x, y). And we can calculate the odds of getting to node (52, 4), just by plugging in the right numbers.

(There are some edge cases to deal with. Clearly, any node (x, 0) only has one input - there is no node (x-1, -1), so that input path doesn't exist, and should be ignored. Likewise, there are no paths from (x-1, 4) to (x, 4), since the game is over by that point, so we can ignore those possibilities. Finally, you cannot have turned over more Kings than you have turned over cards, so nodes (0, 1), (0, 2), (0, 3) and (0, 4) all have probability 0 - they can't happen.)

It's still a nasty nasty sum. But, since all the steps are known, it's just a big sum. And computers excel at sums. So, we can now grab an Excel spreadsheet, plug in the formulae, and known probabilities (0,0) is 1, (0,1) is 0, (0,2) is 0, (0,3) is 0 and (0,4) is 0, and the spreadsheet will do the rest.

And, lo and behold, the answer is 1 in 13! Huzzah!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The End of All Things

I have the single greatest anecdote in the history of the world to tell today...

As you know, there are certain universal laws that must be maintained at all costs, or the whole of existence will be unravelled. Rules such as: you cannot exceed the speed of light, you can never encounter a new joke on Penguin biscuits (see my post "King Penguin"), and that all X-Factor winners will have a number 1 single, then release an album that some people buy, and then never be heard from again. And, crucially, Stephen does not eat fish.

Fish and egg, really, are the two main types of food I don't eat (caveat: I'll eat egg that's part of things, so will eat pancakes, mayonaisse, and so forth. But no boiled eggs, no scrambled eggs, and no fried eggs).

But, of late I've been reconsidering my stance on fish. There are two main reasons for this. As we know, fish is absolutely loaded with essential oils, and is really good for the brane. More importantly, every Thursday the canteen at work does fish and chips for lunch, and it always looks sooooo inviting.

It should be pointed out at this stage that I have eaten fish in the past. In a terrible crime against existence, my parents used to insist on serving fish on occasion, and requiring us to eat whatever was cooked. And, unlike Claire, I did not have handy shoes in which to hide the unwanted fish.

More recently, I ate fish, so the legend says, on Good Friday 2003, in the Netherlands (there was no choice - it was fish or nothing, and Mrs Barr brooks no rejection of food). And, in fact, I ate fish a mere handful of weeks before that in the Cadence canteen (in that case there was a choice: fish or egg. The vegetarian option was gone. And the girl behind the counter would have been terribly disappointed had I had nothing - and she was really nice - so fish it was. Naturally, she had no trouble laughing at me for taking the fish even after stating I really don't like it. But that's a whole other story).

Aware of the dangers to the universe inherent in my consumption of fish, I forebore. However, I've been particularly angry this week, and also ran out of sandwich fillings after yesterday (due to a miscalculation in my weekly shop, and my adventures with tacos on Tuesday). So I cast caution to the winds, and decided to have fish for lunch.

The morning dawn muggy, and all morning dark clouds gathered over my location, an omen of darker times to come. On the walk from the office to the canteen, I fancied I could hear angelic voices straining out in the manner of "O Fortuna". But I was not to be swayed. The universe had to go. I ordered the fish.

I sat down, having gathered my cutlery, the instrument of the destruction of the universe on a tray before me. I ate a chip, teasing the universe with death. Then, I cut a piece of fish, made my peace with all that is...

and it was at that precise moment that the fire alarm went off.

The events that happened next are somewhat of a blur. My understanding is that the Fish Inspection and Replacement Emergency Brigade were called, and arrived in a shiny red engine. An heroic must have swept in, replaced the fish of doom with some sort of mock fish, and saved the day.

That can be the only explanation. How else could the universe still exist?

Oh, and noticably, the weather has now cleared up, and once more there is blazing sunshine...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Apparently, this is my 100th post on this blog. And what better way to spend it than in poking fun at David Hasslehoff?

Apparently, he recently visited the set of Baywatch on Malibu Beach, which has now become a tourist attraction. Upon entering, the attendant failed to recognise him, and charged him the same $7 entrance fee everyone else pays.

That news really made my day, which just goes to show what manner of day I've had.

Not funny

In case you were unsure, when someone tells a really bad joke in public (such as the "write off" jape in my post below about the lost pen), there are three polite ways to respond:

1) Laugh politely or, indeed, with gusto.

2) Groan, and comment on how bad the joke was. This shows that you acknowledge the joke, and believe it worthy of recognition, if nothing else.

3) Ignore the joke. This has the disadvantage that the person may feel the need to tell it again, just to make sure you heard it. (By the way, I still haven't found my pen...)

Although you may be tempted to do so, it is not considered polite to threaten the teller with death should he dare to tell the joke again. As, indeed, Graeme saw fit to do over my wondering "squirrel ballet" jest of the weekend before last.

Fortunately, I laugh in the face of danger, and tweak the nipples of terror. Therefore, let me enlighten you to the punchline of my quip: "It was the Nutcracker Suite". The rest is context; you really had to be there.

Excuse me? Your agenda's showing.

I'm currently reading "The Science of Discworld III", which is about evolution (it's kind of a science-lite book for people who like the Discworld). In the first two books in the series, I recall having the impression that the authors of the science-y part of the book were distinctly atheist in outlook but that they were trying really hard to provide an objective commentary.

In the third book, I'm quite certain that they are atheists, look down somewhat on those of us who maintain such quaint notions as the belief in the existence of God, and are trying, but failing, to hide their prejudices. Which is unfortunate, since evolution is a fascinating subject, and the debate about it is really quite interesting. However, it is sadly ruined by a lot of muddled thinking on the parts of just about everyone in the debate, which makes any sensible discourse impossible.

Oh well.

The truth is, I have no interest in debating the existence of God. It cannot be proven (or disproven) by science, which means that the matter comes down to faith; you believe or you do not. The believer might choose to demonstrate the existence of God by pointing out the incredible richness of the universe; the sceptic can equally point out that it is entirely possible that this all came about by chance. (Some Christians have tried to provide a 'scientific' probability of the universe spontaneously forming. The odds are apparently 1 in a Very Big Number. Sadly, this just shows more muddled thinking, since (a) not all of the odds required in the calculation are even known, so the VBN is at best hideously inaccurate, (b) we don't know how many times the atoms in the universe have been scattered, which may not be 1, which makes the probability impossible to determine, and (c) in any event, unless the odds work out to exactly 0, all you've proven is that the universe was very lucky, not that it couldn't have happened.)

What's rather more interesting is a debate about the consequences of the existence or non-existence of God. However, that's a debate for another time.

I always cringe inwardly when science is brought up in church, generally to back some point made in a sermon. Usually, the science is referenced by people who don't understand it, and they invariably get it wrong. Which is a wonderful way to destroy the credibility of the point you're trying to make - if you back it up with idiotic science, that then implies that perhaps the rest of what you're saying is equally idiotic.

It seems I must now cringe inwardly whenever scientists (who are also sceptics) start discussing the existence or non-existence of God. It seems they are just as blinkered and foolish.

In the meantime, I'll take comfort in knowing that I can just about converse on either subject without routinely making idiotic mistakes.

(Oh, since I'm on the subject, about Creationism in American schools. I'll just say that Creationism most definately has a place in the American school system... in a philosophy class. It most assuredly is not science, and has no business being taught in a science class.)

Drinking Blood (Oranges, that is)

As we all know, the full list of all 'real' colours is as follows: black, black, black, red, blue, green, yellow, purple, brown and white. Specifically, orange is merely yellow with ideas above its station. It wants to be red, but doesn't have the courage to go all the way.

Consequently, it's somewhat disturbing drinking orange juice that is, in fact, red. It's almost like drinking tomato juice but pleasant, and that's a bit odd. What's more, since this is the yellow that has achieved its goal of becoming red, doesn't this make the source the most dangerous and badass of oranges? If so, am I not taking my life in my hands, something best done after the morning shower rather than before?

Still, I've now achieved my goal of reaching one portion of fruit for the day.

This post doesn't really have any point. However, I haven't posted for a while, and am working on a rant about pants, so thought it would be wise to get the world ready before unleashing my explosive vitriol.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Lost Pen - The Mystery Deepens...

I haven't yet found my missing pen. I suspect it might be a write-off.

However, the mystery surrounding my replacement pen has deepened considerably. Initially, I was under the impression I was given it at my Ada training course. However, yesterday I had to fill in a stupid questionairre at home, and the pen I used was definately the one I got at that course (It had the name of the organisers on it).

Which leads to a new mystery - where did I get the Millward Brown pen? The truth is, I just don't know. Millward Brown are, apparently, consultants who help companies build strong brands... but I'm neither a company nor do I have my own brand (wouldn't that be cool, though?). So, I don't recall ever dealing with them.

There is also a correction to the origin story of the missing pen. Apparently, the souvenir my sister got me was a twisty pen with the stars 'n' stripes on it. The missing South Carolina pen was, instead, the souvenir my mother got me when she came back after having visited said sister in the States (specifically, one of the Carolinas - if only there were some clue as to which...). This has no bearing on anything - but details are important.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In which I eat statistics for breakfast

Clearly, the best complement to a nice bowl of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes is a lively debate about probability. Allow me to explain...

The weekend just passed included my father's 60th birthday. Consequently, the family all went away together for the weekend. A good time was had by most.

Over the weekend, Richard had been "playing" Clock Solitaire. I say "playing" because it's actually a purely mechanical "game" with no skill at all - the cards are randomly shuffled, and if the random sequence is just right you "win". Otherwise, you "lose". There are no choices, and hence no ability to alter the outcome.

In case you aren't familiar with this fun and exciting way to pick up playing cards in random order, here are the rules:

Shuffle the cards well. Then, deal them into thirteen piles, with one at each of the positions associated with the faces of a clock (1 to 12), and the thirteenth at the centre. Then, pick up the top card in the central pile. Place this, face up, by the pile corresponding to the value on the card (with Jack = 11, Queen = 12 and King = Centre). Then turn over the top card on that pile, and repeat.

You lose if you find you can't pick up any more cards. Since each pile has four cards (except the centre), and there are four cards of each value, you lose if the fourth King comes out before the other cards are done.

On Sunday over breakfast, we discussed the following crucial question: what are the odds of winning?

The answer is 1 in 13. Proving it is really quite difficult, and beyond the scope of this blog. The short version is that you have a sequence of 52 cards, and win if and only if the last card in sequence is a King. There are 4 Kings, so the odds are 4 in 52, or 1 in 13. The difficult part of the proof comes with the "and only if" part of the statement above - one of the scenarios we postulated suggested having the '5' and '7' piles pointing to each others, and proving that that cannot happen while the King is also last in sequence is tricky.

The debate was held between myself, Richard, and our father. So, for those who are keeping score, that's two Maths/Computing graduates and a university lecturer in Maths. We got as far as our "problem scenario" before being distracted by another burning issue of the day (I think it was fruit & veg). I Googled for the rest.

Probably the most interesting thing about the debate was not the debate itself, but rather the reactions of those who were observing. We had two observers, one a primary school teacher and the other a student nurse (one of whom has objected to being identified here in the past, so they shall remain nameless). Neither has a particularly mathematical background. That's not an insult, nor a value judgement, merely a statement of fact.

Anyway, the reactions ranged from puzzlement, to a sentiment of "why can't we just play the game, like normal people?", to some mild hostility to so complex a subject before the first meal of the day.

I must say, I find such reactions interesting, although not surprising - I've encountered them before. The fact is, maths, computing and probability are all hard, complex subjects, and many of the conclusions one comes to are counter-intuitive. The simple fact is that without a certain amount of grounding in the subject it is simply not possible to understand some of the problems involved, never mind the solutions to those problems (the Clock Solitaire problem isn't one of the ones that the layman can't understand, of course). And, when confronted with a topic that they don't understand, people are going to react in a less than enthusiastic manner.

To briefly tackle the "why can't you just play the game" question, I should point out that there is no real game to Clock Solitaire. Once the cards are dealt, that's it. And, since the dealing of cards is random, the "game" amounts to just wasting time. Which sounds absolutely thrilling.

However, the question of what are the odds of success? Well, that represents an unknown, a mystery. What's more, unlike "Lost", it is a mystery with a definitive answer, and established means of working our that answer. And isn't that worth discussing? Personally, I found it fascinating.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I've already bought your DVD! Stop telling me not to steal it!

These days, it seems that whenever I put a DVD in my player, I'm treated to a five minute 'advert' from FACT encouraging me not to steal movies. Naturally, this advert can't be skipped. Likewise, every time I visit the cinema, there's an advert saying how great the cinema experience is, and how I shouldn't use cheap, low-quality pirate DVDs.

I think perhaps that might just be the stupidest use of time and money I've ever seen.

Let me break it down for those responsible: in order to put the DVD in my player, and therefore see your wonderful "don't steal DVDs" advert, I have to have bought the DVD in the first place (or, potentially, have rented or borrowed it). Illegal DVDs don't have the "don't pirate DVDs" adverts on them. Similarly, to see the cinema adverts about how great cinema is, don't I have to have bought a cinema ticket? Call me crazy, but I'm rather of the opinion that you don't need to tell me not to use pirate DVDs instead of real DVDs/the cinema when I am, in fact, in the process of using said real DVDs/the cinema.

What makes these things even worse is that the adverts aren't even accurate. Firstly, they insist on claiming copyright infringement is theft. This is, technically, inaccurate. Copyright infringement is a crime, to be sure, but it's not that crime. (In one of the few cases on this matter, the lawyers for the studios were called on this very issue by the judge involved. Exactness matters.) Secondly, the DVD adverts very helpfully include a list of things that it is illegal to do with the DVD. Some of these are specifically and explicitly legal under UK law. They are banned under the DMCA, which is an actual law - but it's a US law that doesn't apply here. Thirdly, the cinema adverts state that most pirate DVDs have extremely dodgy picture and sound, and images of people getting up to go to the toilet. Which is rubbish - most pirate DVDs these days are made from digital copies of the completed film that are leaked from the studios themselves, either by corrupt employees or by corrupt reviewers/academy members who are sent free copies for their troubles. As such, the quality, being digital, it little different from that of the actual DVD when it comes out.

(None of the above should be taken as an endorsement of piracy in any form. I don't own any pirate DVDs, and don't use them. Philosophically, I take the view that it is right to pay for the films and other entertainment we use, so I do. My personal preference would be to skip cinema, and just buy the DVD straightaway, especially now that 2 cinema tickets cost more than the DVD does, but that's not currently an option.)

While I'm on the topic, I really really hate these new and extremely long animations at the start of DVDs. We get the anti-piracy advert, then whatever adverts the studio want to force on us for their latest product (which look really dated a few months later), followed by the studio's intro to the DVD, followed by the pre-menu animation. After about five minutes of dead time, we finally get to the menu allowing us to (gasp!) watch the film. Which proved quite good last night, as I was waiting for the oven to heat up to cook my dinner, and it did that while the DVD got itself ready.

(And then, of course, there are those DVDs that don't wait for the user to choose his preferred option. Wait 2 minutes on the menu for "Deep Blue Sea", for one, and it'll start the film without you. Because DVD players have busy lives, you know, and just can't afford to wait for the user to catch up.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Case of the Lost Pen

While I was away, one of the pens from my desk "pot o'pens" has disappeared. Now, many of the pens in the aforementioned pot are entirely generic pens, distinguished only from the most common of pens in that I made sure they all worked before placing them in the pot. Naturally, though, the pen that has performed this vanishing act is not such a pen. Instead, it was my preferred pen, the one I actually used. Moreover, it was my "South Carolina" pen, which Claire brought me back from the States.

Naturally, this creates numerous problems. First and foremost amongst these, of course, is that without the pen, how will I remember that Claire went to America? I would write it down but, you know, doing so without the actual pen just seems wrong somehow.

Another issue is that I've had to find a new preferred pen, and I seem to have settled on my "Millward Brown" pen. Sadly, I don't remember how I came by said pen. I think it was probably the free gift from my Ada course, but I'm not sure. So, how can I regale people with the exciting tale of how I got that pen, if I'm not sure? And people do so love a good pen anecdote, it seems a shame that they should miss out.

The third issue is the vexing question of where the pen has gone. Has it indeed magicked itself into a parallel dimension, and will return one day with tales of beans? Did someone borrow it, and forget to return it? Was it kidnapped by ninja, and if so when will I receive the ransom demand? Did I take it home, and forget I'd done so? Did its Visa expire?

You! Go and find out!

Went on holiday, came back a snake

For reasons unknown to medical science, I now seem to be in the process of shedding my skin. This all seems quite strange.

Personally, I blame the sun. I'm sure it's not natural.

Five things I'm not allowed...

1. Pets. It's a condition of my lease. This is probably a good thing - the last pet I had didn't come to a good end, although that was some time ago.

2. Tropical Tango. Something in the additives makes me go hyper.

3. A camera-phone. I work on a secure site, and such phones aren't allowed on-site. Naturally, I'm not going to have two phones, one for work and one for not-work, especially since I barely use the one I do have.

4. A flying car. Apparently, they don't exist.

5. Broadband internet. My troubles in this matter are well-documented here. The latest twist is that my line is free, and I could order a new service, but Sky are about to start offering a service that sounds far superior to any other offer out there. Given that these contracts are invariably for 12 months, I can't get service in the meantime - I either wait for Sky to get their act together, or forget their offering.

Coke Zero

On the grounds that I didn't want to judge it unfairly without actually trying it, I felt I should try that new Coke Zero stuff. So, on Sunday, I did.

It is precisely the Coke equivalent of Pepsi Max. That is to say, it tastes exactly like Coke would if you removed from Coke all the things that make it worth drinking, leaving it a hollow shell of a drink.