Saturday, December 30. 2006
I saw on the front page of the Evening Standard that the government is proposing new laws whereby men will face jail for rape if women are 'too drunk' to consent in bed. Initially I was shocked by this proposal - a typically male knee jerk reaction I suspect - why the special treatment? Having had some time to think about it, however, my initial reaction was probably incorrect. I still think it's the wrong solution to what is clearly a major problem, but it's not completely wrong headed.
First up, there is the issue of rape, until I started doing some research last night I had no idea how bad the situation was in this country. Only around 5.6% of rape cases result in a conviction, this sorry figure compares to 9.7% conviction rate for 'serious woundings' and 8.9% for robbery. None of them are particularly impressive figures, but a woman has a 40% better chance of justice if she gets robbed instead of raped.
Clearly something needs to be done, especially when judges are handing out rulings like this. It seems to me, though I have no evidence to back it up, that yesterday's proposal is a direct response to this case - where a woman was so drunk she couldn't remember whether or not she'd given consent. If you read down to near the bottom of the first page Jennifer Temkin, Professor of Law at Sussex University comments on the current law:
She said: "At common law it has been recognised for over a century that there is no consent where a woman is unconscious through drink."
Given this, I find it hard to understand how the case in question was ruled the way it was. It's also not clear what the proposal would add to the current legal situation other than adding in a load of baggage related to drunkenness. I think we'd be better served by judges who enforced the law as it stands rather than adding more laws which are saying, "that law we already have, this law just indicates we really mean it."
Friday, November 10. 2006
The most entertaining restaurant ... Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 19:09
Highly entertaining, but not quite enough to convince me to spend $320 on dinner...
Friday, September 29. 2006
Today I updated to the latest version of SY9 (an update long overdue). It was relatively painless, as usual, but I did come across an issue with the Atom Feeds. Anyone else using Serendipity might want to check out my solution.
Thursday, September 14. 2006
David Brin has written an article on Salon, 'Why Johnny can't code' (click on the advert link to read the full article) in which he bemoans the lack of an accessible, built in basic interpreter, with low level hardware access, on modern computers. His specific issue is that his son has a number of (maths) text books which include BASIC examples to help the student, and these examples, which would have worked just fine on any home computer as recently as ten (maybe fifteen) years ago (not an unreasonable timespan in school text book land) are now basically useless to the average school kid in modern times. This will of course lead to a generation of children who don't really understand how computers work, leading to the eventual decline and fall of (American) civilisation.
There are a number of flaws (I think) in his argument, but first I want to address the flaws in the responses (some of which have already been dealt with by Mr Brin, but hey...). Predictably there are a number of responses along the lines of: "BASIC!? He shouldn't be trying to learn that, learn a reasonable language like Xxxx." Where 'Xxxx' is equal to any number of currently cool scripting languages. As if it's the text book's fault for using BASIC in the first place and then not having a sensible upgrade solution in order to keep up with the pace of home computer technology, and schools would devote their meagre funds to buying a whole new set of books each year just so they could be compatible with Python 2.x. A lot of folk, including a large subset of those in the previous section, seem to think this is an issue about teaching kids to program - no, it isn't - it's about teaching kids maths using the program as a dynamic way to explore the concepts while simultaneously teaching them about the procedural logic which is at the heart of computers. Not that BASIC is required to do that, mind you. Others have said: "Just Google for it - here's a long list of BASIC interpreters you can download and install." Of course, these are probably the people who, much like David's son, were/are conscientious children and were willing to go that little bit further just to make sure they fully understood their maths homework - they would be quite happy to download a few, translate the examples into the particular dialect of BASIC and try and make them work. Meanwhile, I've already done my homework and am sitting watching the telly...
Now onto the article itself:
BASIC was close enough to the algorithm that you could actually follow the reasoning of the machine as it made choices and followed logical pathways.
This, I think, is a misunderstanding of what an algorithm is - an algorithm is more abstract than an implementation in BASIC rather than 'more actual' as he seems to be implying (ie. algorithms are usually much more cleanly expressed in higher level languages rather than the other way around). Though this is apparently a syntactic issue rather than a problem with his argument - which seems to be that BASIC is close to how the computation is translated into machine code or assembler, and this is almost certainly not true (my very poor understanding of compiler/interpretor technology notwithstanding).
Those textbook exercises were easy, effective, universal, pedagogically interesting -- and nothing even remotely like them can be done with any language other than BASIC. Typing in a simple algorithm yourself, seeing exactly how the computer calculates and iterates in a manner you could duplicate with pencil and paper -- say, running an experiment in coin flipping, or making a dot change its position on a screen, propelled by math and logic, and only by math and logic: All of this is priceless.
This is where his argument is weakest, and where he gives an opportunity for the language zealots to leap in - of course there are other languages which can do (something like) this. Forgetting, for the moment, my previous point that the BASIC version isn't showing you 'exactly how the computer calculates and iterates', there are several other languages that offer a similar experience - FORTRAN, Pascal and Logo just off the top of my head. His point shouldn't be (and, for the most part, isn't) what a great teaching language BASIC is (because, as we all know, the hardest people to teach computer science to are the ones who think they know it already because they wrote a BASIC program on their VIC-20), but that modern computers should provide a backwards-compatible learning environment which allows children to experience computation, and they should provide it installed by default, and it should be capable of doing useful things.
Of course, his ultimate solution was to buy a second-hand Commodore 64 off eBay - and if that was a satisfactory solution then why didn't he just install an C64 emulator (or this C64 emulator, or this C64 emulator and this C64 emulator which actually let you type in BASIC programs from a web browser - not much is simpler to set up than that, or any of these C64 emulators) in the first place?
Finally the most useful comment I think was the guy who said that if schools (and text book writers) wanted a simple (but low level) programming for schoolchildren then they should set about producing one themselves. Almost certainly attempts are underway already, but this post has already been a long one so I'll save that for another day.
Tuesday, September 5. 2006
Been meaning to post about these books for a while now. Having ripped through The Liveship Traders, followed by The Farseer Trilogy and then The Tawny Man Trilogy basically as fast as I could afford to buy the books, I was quite keen to read the new novels. Note to others who follow in my footsteps (ha!) - I read the three trilogies out of order, mainly because I had the first book in the Liveship trilogy sitting on my shelf for about five years after acquiring it 'on special offer' from a BCA membership.
I got Shaman's Crossing a few months ago and I finished the sequel, Forest Mage, last month. I was all set to write up a review and link it in to some insightful remarks about Hobb's rather aggressive attitude to fan fiction, but then she went and replaced the rant on her site with one about books to movies and that took the wind out of my sails somewhat.
OK, so I'm all ready now! First off, the fan fiction thing. I read the rant and, while I can empathise with her feelings that other people making her characters do things she never wanted them to is kind of disgusting, a sort of combination between masturbatory 'fiction porn' and being forced to do something very horrible indeed against your will, I wonder if her feelings on the subject are so strong because 'Robin Hobb' (real name Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) is herself a fictional creation? Despite my (probably very unfounded) opinion of her underlying motivations I did find myself agreeing strongly with her sentiments that, as a fledgeling writer, you're much better off trying to write in your own world with your own characters then trying to steal someone else's. Whatever her opinions, it doesn't seem be stemming the tide much - the Robin Hobb Yahoo! Group has in the tagline 'Fan fiction always welcome'.
So, now the Soldier Son Trilogy. This has, it seems, excited a certain amount of controversy among diehard Hobb fans, some have claimed to hate it, others have claimed to really enjoy it, and still others have been a bit guarded saying, it'll get better when we have the whole trilogy to read. The comments on Amazon about the first book are really quite entertaining - ranging from one to five stars and with varying degrees of vitriol, here are some (negative) outtakes:
I suppose it just goes to show that the well of creativity for some writers definitley runs dry.(J. P. Nowlin)
Out of hundreds upon hundreds of books I have read I have only not finished a book twice, this one being number 2. Highly disappointed. (Jon Corbett)
I wonder if Robin Hobb is embarassed that she wrote this book. ( Shannon B Davis)
I think a lot of people are concerned about the nature of the competing factions in the story - basically the 'environmentalists' are the bad guys, which is fairly unusual in my experience of the F&SF genre. This is a typical quote:
It created quite a dilemma for me - although the main character survived and saved his friends, I found myself wishing that the "bad guys" had won, and been able to keep their land and forests free from logging, etc. ( Shannon B Davis)
I think this highlights the central issue here - people are obviously not reading to be challenged, to look at things from a different perspective, but to have their current views encouraged and endorsed. It also seems to be a very common opinion that the whole plotline is some sort of parallel to the way fledgling America dealt with the Indian tribes - personally I think this is a bit of a reach, the story of a nation cut off from it's own harbours turning inland to battle an indigenous people that they've lived with, basically peacefully, for centuries, in an attempt to rebuild their own natural resources is not really analogous to a bunch of foreigners turning up on the coast and then using a combination of military muscle, betrayal and disease to exterminate a race they'd never met before through the course of three hundred years (in fact, in the book, even the disease is backwards). If it seems the same in some people's heads I suggest that's more to do with what's in their heads than what's in the book.
The other common criticism is that the protagonist is, well, a bit dull. In this case the criticism is a little more fair, but I personally didn't have too much trouble seeing him as a product of his upbringing, and I'm sure I didn't find him nearly so tedious as many others have claimed. In fact, I'm inclined to agree with this reviewer:
Excellent first book, if a bit too subtle for some readers ... I think that some of the delight of this book (and I suspect this trilogy) is watching his perceptions change as he is thrown into the "real world." (A. Galaitsis)
Overall, I liked both books, certainly I had no trouble finishing them like some of the above critics, though I also didn't stay up late into the night to read 'just one more chapter' like I'd been doing for the previous nine Robin Hobb books I'd read.
PS. What's with Amazon and this 'Real Name™' mularky? I have a real name, it doesn't belong to Amazon, why would it be a trade mark?
Thursday, August 31. 2006
Why not to buy Sci-Fi and Fantasy at ... Posted by robertc in The Ranting Category at 14:34
Today at lunch I was trying to buy the new Novik book, Temeraire: Throne of Jade. I went to my usual place, but it was mysteriously closed due to 'unforeseen circumstances' (a very LUL-like non-explanation) so I thought I'd have a look in WH Smith instead, since it's the only other place in Putney which sells books. I looked in the 'Science Fiction and Fantasy' section but couldn't find it, but with a little perseverance I did discover the paperback of the first book of the Temeraire series in the 'General Fiction' section. I'm not quite sure of the logic involved, after all An Instance of the Fingerpost, a largely historically accurate novel, was in the SF&F section, why would Temeraire, a novel featuring dragons as a major plot element, be in the general section?
Mind you, I did end up buying a book at WH Smith, a new collection of Murakami short stories, so it still won out over the Ottakers which wasn't even open...
Thursday, August 17. 2006
Tesco - what's this intraweb thing then? Posted by robertc in The Ranting Category at 00:12
Tesco are an excellent supermarket, they seem to really struggle with the web though. I have a Tesco credit card and I've in the past attempted to sign up to their online service (just like I have done for my bank and all my other credit cards) but was stymied when, half way through the application process, they asked me to print out a form, fill it in and post it to them. Right, I'll send that the next time I'm in the post office then...
Two years later, I still didn't have the online access setup.
However, some weeks ago I saw an advert which indicated they'd made some improvements so I thought I'd give it another go. I did manage to get signed up without recourse to the post office or the telephone, but I wouldn't be allowed 'full access' until I'd typed in a code off a letter they were going to send me. This is still an improvement, at least it doesn't require me to leave the house.
So tonight, I tried to gain 'full access' by typing in the code. It was not a fun experience. After searching for some way to let them know how much fun I was having I finally hit upon a 'Contact Technical Support' form, here is my rant:
I have been trying to setup online access to my credit card details. For some reason you cannot give useful help at any point in the process. For example, selecting a password - the help is as follows:
It remains to be seen if they respond. In case you were wondering, this is the Tesco Credit Card Online FAQ.
Of course, now that I seem to have 'full access' I discover that what this really means is - 'click here to have us send you a letter or phone you'.
Wednesday, August 16. 2006
Sixteen Common Myths About Atheists Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 19:09
It looks like quite an interesting blog all round, but his 16 Common Myths About Atheists post is certainly inspiring some comment, ranging from fairly insightful through the flame bait "where do you get off claiming these are the sixteen most common myths" to the clearly religiously motivated. I was surprised at how civilised at all seemed given the current US political climate.
Also entertaining - the ads, I went to a post about agnosticism where I discovered I could "Buy Agnostic on eBay", handy to know in case I'm ever running short of it... I'm starting to think about the comic possibilities of a post entitled "Several Million Common Myths About Sarcasm"
Saturday, August 5. 2006
I get a lot of spam, usually I don't pay much attention to it and most of it gets auto-filtered by Thunderbird but one this week caught my eye:
you have pissed of being obese, or not being able to fit into your clothes
Now, bad grammar aside this strikes me as being particularly derogatory - not only implying I'm obese (and, to be fair, there's more than an element of truth in that) but also that I'm too stupid to realise it and keep buying clothes that don't fit me. Why would I do that? Mind you, if I was stupid enough to be doing that I might also be stupid enough to click on the link in the email...
Thursday, August 3. 2006
Frustrated of Oxford Street Posted by robertc in The Ranting Category at 17:54
I've just spent a thoroughly demoralising hour trying to buy clothes on Oxford Street, I should really have learned by now that they just don't have stuff in my size, but I'm always an optimist... The really frustrating bit was trying to find a pair of size twelve shoes in M & S. They have this little system where the top shelves are labelled 'Sizes 11-12', the next shelf down is labelled 'Sizes 9-10' and so on, this is in departure to their usual strategy of putting the largest clothes on the lowest shelf - thus making all the big people bend right over to search through them, which is a stupid way round if you think about it. Anyway, I wandered into the shoe department and was delighted to see that all the top shelves were full - "Plenty to choose from!" I thought to myself. However, fifteen minutes of wandering round examining all the shoes on the top shelf revealed that all those shoes on the '11-12' shelf were mostly size 10, with a few 11s and one pair of ugly (brown) 12s. If they'd just organised the shoes liked they claimed I could have saved quarter of an hour of becoming increasingly annoyed (I may even have devoted that time to buying more stuff). To compensate I had to leave the shop immediately and spend an hour wandering round bookshops instead...
Oh, and afterwards I bought all my clothes online...
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