Friday, January 12. 2007
Hypertext dictionary Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 23:04
I stumbled across this dictionary website today, after I installed a new 'dictionary search' Firefox extension. Once you've got to a word, double click on any other word in the definition to be taken to the definition of that word. A true hypertext system! Even more cool, you can install their script on your site to add the same functionality.
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...
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.
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"
Wednesday, July 26. 2006
The internet is stealing your brains Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 12:59
Does the practically unlimited access to information and opinion that the internet gives us expand our minds, or do we just filter out all the stuff we don't agree with to bolster our own confidence in our opinions? A very thought provoking article, I'm going to have to find some blogs I disagree with...
Friday, July 7. 2006
Top 50 Science Blogs Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 22:22
Thursday, June 1. 2006
Bite Sized Philosophy Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 14:49
Although this article is blatantly over-simplifying the study of philosophy, it does have some nice quotes
Monday, May 8. 2006
Toy Guns don't kill people, people ... Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 13:58
Google have been sued for profiting from child porn, generally it seems like a spurious suit. One thing that attracted my attention was that the politician who is backing the lawsuit is also behind a campaign to stop his local shops selling toy guns - I'm not at all sure what this is intended to achieve? It seems to be a widespread phenomenom in America, but the logic seems to be flawed. The problem seems to be that teenage children are going around holding up shopkeepers with 'toy' weapons, but apparently this is not the responsibility of the teenage children in question, or their parents, but a problem with toy manufacturers selling toy guns in the first place. If owning a 'gun' is such a big problem why are they attacking toy manufacturers and not the manufacturers of real guns and the laws which make them so pervasive in American society?
Tuesday, November 1. 2005
Could you be a British Citizen? Posted by robertc in Life, the Universe and Everything at 00:58
Apparently immigrants to the UK will soon have to pass a Citizenship Test before being granted a British passport. The BBC have assembled a short test from the 'Life in the UK' guidebook to the official test. Aside from an unhealthy obsession with Santa Claus and fighting in pub car parks, the first question presents the following three options:
A: "Respect laws, the elected political structures, traditional values of mutual tolerance and respect for rights and mutual concern."
In other words, do as we say, not as we do.
B: "Share in the history and culture of an island nation with a character moulded by many different peoples over more than two thousand years."
In other words, we're a bunch of mongrels. though considering that until about 300 years ago England was continually at war with the Scottish and until about 500 years ago England was continually at war with the Welsh, statements like 'an island nation' are obvious b*ll*x.
C: "be part of a modern European democracy, one with a tradition of sharing our ways with the world – and allowing the world to bring its ways to us."
In other words, we've invaded most of the planet, we got over it, and we're much nicer now.
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