December 11, 2015

How Ada Lovelace solved problems

Posted in Ideas at 06:02 by graham

Over 170 years ago, on Friday 21st July 1843, at 4 o’clock, Ada Lovelace was working on a mathematics problem, possibly on the first known computer program (it was written that summer).

Specifically she was writing extensive notes on her translation of a paper about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and she was collaborating closely with Babbage to do so. Had it been built the Analytical Engine would have been the first universal computer. Those notes include the first known computer program (and trace of it’s manual execution), which calculates Bernoulli numbers.

But at 4pm on Friday 21st July, she was stuck. It just wasn’t working. We know because she wrote this letter to Babbage:

My dear Babbage. I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire and botheration with these numbers, that I cannot possibly get the thing done today. I have no doubts it will all come out clean enough tomorrow; & I shall send you a parcel up, as early in the day as I can. So do no be uneasy. (Tho’ at this moment I am in a charming state of confusion; but it is that sort of confusion which is of a very bubble nature).

I am now going out on horseback. Tant mieux.

Yours puzzle-pate

That ever happened to you? It’s 4pm on a Friday, and it just isn’t working? You know it will be obvious in the morning. So what did Ada do? She went for a horseback ride!

The tagline of this blog is Solvitas Perambulum, Latin for “solve it as you walk”. I find it particularly charming that 172 years ago, the first computer programmer solved it by going for a horseback ride.

Pictures of the original letter can be found in Stephen Wolfram’s fantastic blog post: Untangling the tale of Ada Lovelace.

Happy walking.

September 8, 2012

John Cleese – Take micro creativity retreats

Posted in Ideas, Society at 23:43 by graham

John Cleese gives a great talk on creativity (embedded below). Here’s the summary:

Creativity is a practice, not an ability. It is not correlated to IQ, but is strongly correlated to playfulness.

We have two modes of operation:

  • Closed mode: “get stuff done”.
  • Open mode: curious, exploratory, playful, open-ended.

We switch between the two modes during the day, both are essential. Creativity however only happens in open mode.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 30, 2010

A quote from Richard Stallman

Posted in Ideas at 22:06 by graham

I have done most of my work while anxious about whether I could do the job, and unsure that it would be enough to achieve the goal if I did. But I tried anyway, because there was no one but me between the enemy and my city. Surprising myself, I have sometimes succeeded.

From this article about GNU HURD.

May 10, 2009

Micro-Zooids: A story

Posted in Ideas, Misc, Software, Strategy at 23:23 by graham

When I was 16, I wrote a computer game, called Micro Zooides. It was called that partly because on Windows .EXE files all start with the two characters MZ, and partly because it was about small creatures. Micro-Zooides was going to be about humanity’s progress, it was going to be Civilization, which didn’t exist yet.

The game had a splash screen of a Far Side comic, then a short video of me tromping through the woods like a Neanderthal, which my Dad filmed and which I digitized with a very early video capture card.

In Borland’s Turbo C++ 3.0 I wrote a basic graphics engine to display the tiles of the world, and an event loop so I could move the main character around the world. I drew sprites for a proto-human (the micro zooid), dirt, rocks and sticks. He could walk around the world, and pick up and put down rocks or sticks.

Then I took a break to plan. I have a proto-human, rocks, and sticks. How do I get to civilization?

March 21, 2009

Quote of the day: Congressman Mike Honda

Posted in Ideas, Society at 18:49 by graham

Congressman Mike Honda, D-San Jose, writing about opening government databases:

Instead of databases becoming available as a result of Freedom Of Information Act requests, government officials should be required to justify why any public data should not be freely available to the taxpayers who paid for its creation.

Wow, what an exciting time to be in North America.

From the O’Reilly Radar.

May 31, 2008

Passenger airlines will charge by volume and weight

Posted in Ideas at 00:38 by graham

Update: Five years after I wrote this, it is actually happening. Samoa Air boss defends charging passengers by weight on BBC News 2nd Apr 2013.

Update: Eight years after I wrote this, The Economist remarks In fact, on a purely economic basis, it makes sense to charge passengers by weight, since that is directly correlated with fuel usage, which goes a long way in determining flight costs in article 21st Oct 2016

When you send a parcel by air, the price depends on the volume and weight of that parcel. Volume, because you are buying a certain amount of space in the plane. Weight, because the heavier the plane’s cargo, the more fuel it takes to get it off the ground. You pay for the fuel to fly your parcel.

The pricing structure for air mail / air freight is closely linked to the costs faced by the airline.

When you travel with your parcels, a disconnect appears. You buy a certain amount of space – typically a seat for yourself, a small bag and one or two big bags. A bigger seat (‘business’, ‘premium’, etc) is more money. Extra bags is more money. But you’re not paying by weight – and I think that will have to change.

Read the rest of this entry »

May 9, 2006

Why your company needs a feed reader on every desktop

Posted in Ideas, Software at 22:37 by graham

A web feed is, to quote Wikipedia:

… a document (often XML-based) which contains content items, often summaries of stories or weblog posts with web links to longer versions. Weblogs and news websites are common sources for web feeds, but feeds are also used to deliver structured information ranging from weather data to “top ten” lists of hit tunes. The two main web feed formats are RSS (which is older and far more widely used) and Atom (a newer format that has just completed the IETF standardization process.) Feeds are subscribed to directly by users with aggregators or feed readers, which combine the contents of multiple web feeds for display on a single screen or series of screens

Aggregators and feed readers are widely used, but mainly by tech-savvy individuals. It’s time your company rolled out a feed reader on every desktop PC it owns. Here’s why:

Read the rest of this entry »

October 23, 2005

What is strategy

Posted in Ideas, Society, Strategy at 17:22 by graham

Strategy is the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy – Lidell Hart

Strategy must now be understood as nothing less than the overall plan for utilizing the capacity for armed coercion – in conjunction with economic, diplomatic, and psychological instruments of power – to support foreign policy most effectively by overt, covert, and tacit means. – Robert Osgood

Strategy is the theory and practice of the use, and threat of use, of organized force for political purposes. – Colin Gray

This section is sourced from Strategy in the contemporary world, An Introduction to Strategic Studies by John Baylis, James Wirtz, Eliot Cohen and Colin S. Gray. It is a book I highly recommend. Any miskates are my own.


Strategic Studies is the bridge between military means and political goals; it is a sub-field of Security Studies, itself a sub-field of International Relations which is a sub-field of Political Science. From the 50’s to the 80’s it was the dominant sub-field of International Relations.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but the NATO powers had barely had time to start re-appraising their military needs when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, followed by a decade of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, leading straight into the attack on World Trade Center, then the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The end of the Cold War has not brought peace to everyone, nor given strategic planners much more sleep.


The philosophical viewpoint of contemporary strategists is what they call Realism.

Realism is a clear recognition of the limits of reason in politics: the acceptance of the fact that political realities are power realities and that power must be countered with power; that self-interest is the primary datum in the action of all groups and nations – Gordon Harland

Realism has a pessimistic view of human nature, subscribing to the views of Thomas Hobbes that people are inherently destructive, selfish, competitive and aggressive, and that these destructive traits can never be eliminated. Strategists attempts to minimise the likelihood and severity of international violence, but do not believe in the possibility of permanent peace.

Strategic studies focuses on the relationships between states. Unlike domestic society, there is no authoritative government to create justice and the rule of law. Realists note that states reserve the right to use lethal force to achieve their objectives, a right that individuals living in civil society have given up to the state. Who wins in international relations does not depend on who is right according to some moral or legal ruling but purely on the balance of power.

Realists see a limited role for ‘reason’, law, morality and supra-national institutions in world politics. As there is no ‘world government’ to enforce international law, to promote a universal moral code, or even to enforce the decisions of organisations such as the United Nations, states will agree with the law, moral code or decree when it suits them and disregard it when it threatens their interests. Realists see supra-national organisations not as truly independent actors but as agents set up by states to further their national interest.


If you have read this far, you may well be thinking that the field of Strategic Studies is obsessed with conflict and force, insufficiently concerned with ethical issues, part of the problem, not the solution, and state-centric. These are the main points of criticism of Strategic Studies.

They respond by saying that yes they are interested in conflict and violence, in fact that is what they study, in the same way that computer programmers are interested in computers. They recognise that their field of study is only a sub-field of International Relations.

On the second point, they claim that they cannot let ethics interfere with their morally neutral scholarly detachment.

The third point, that strategists are part of the problem, not the solution, can be translated as: viewing military power as a legitimate instrument of policy helps to perpetuate a particular mind-set among national leaders and the public which encourages the use of force. Strategists respond that they reflect, rather than create, the reality of international relations. That most policymakers and elected officials tend to share their assumptions is because of the threats and challenges presented to them, not because of the strategists mind-set. They believe that conflict cannot be permanently avoided, but that effective strategy can mitigate it.

On that final criticism, that they are state centric, they say that they do concern themselves with intra-state conflict (Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya), but as the state is the main actor in world politics, that continues to be their main focus.

Laws should expire

Posted in Ideas at 14:24 by graham

In England in 1388 Richard III made a law stating that all men (or only ages 10-18, versions differ) must own bows and practice archery on Sunday’s and holidays. This law was finally repealed in 1960.

An 1888 law encouraging emigration to the colonies of unemployed adults and pauper children from the overcrowded cities of England and Wales was repealed in 2004.

The Internet abounds with weird outdated laws like these. A law is valid until it is repealed. As law makers (an elected assembly) make more laws than they repeal, we get more and more laws. Only a small section of them end up being relevant to the world we live in. There is a simple solution: Laws should expire.

I propose that every law passed should include its expiry date. 1 year for emergency legislation, 5 – 10 years for most laws, with probably a cap of 20 years. Laws forming part of a country’s constitution – i.e. the major ‘basis of society’ laws such as not permitting murder – could have 50 – 100 year renewable periods.

As the laws come up for review they can be modified and updated, for example to take into account new technology and new social patterns. In the case of emergency legislation the country will of had more time to consider the issue.

Regularly updating and revising laws would make them more directly relevant to our daily lives, easier to understand by non-legal professionals, and easier to apply and enforce. There would be less need for interpretation by a judge or jury, which would mean much smaller differences in how different people are treated for the same offense.

The maximum life-span of a law could be tied to how long it has already been in force, how long it was debated for, and how many members of the assembly participated in making it. This would prevent governments rushing laws through ‘in the middle of the night’ (The U.S.A. Patriot Act being a very good example of this). If the law was only presented (or amended) a few hours before the vote, and only a few people voted, then you are not representing the people. You should not be able to make a long-term law. If the law has already been in force for some years, or most of the assembly voted on it, then that is a more representative law and should live longer.

Prawn / Shrimp garden

Posted in Ideas at 14:23 by graham

People grow vegetables or fruit in their gardens, and may keep chickens or other animals. Indoors they may have a fish tank, but it is purely ornamental. How about an indoor Shrimp Garden ? An average sized fish tank should fit a good amount of shrimp. They are aggressive towards other fish, so you would keep them on their own. There must be a business in selling a tank with shrimp seeds and feed, exactly the way people sell tomato seeds and fertilizer – and you don’t need a garden to buy the tank !

Shrimp is a term used to describe about 2000 species of small aquatic animals related to crabs, lobsters, and crayfish. The site here might help pick a variety for growing indoors. Aquarium hobbyists keep shrimp to eat algae and detritus, but those species are not the eating kind.

They are already farmed commercially (see here) so it is possible and commercially viable – although they grow them in the sea / rivers rather than in tanks. They are even farmed organically. The genus they use is Macro-brachium. I saw a mention that they take about five months to grow up to eating size. The only question remains as to whether they can grow in a small aquarium.

Has anyone heard of this being done before ? Is there a good reason why this wouldn’t work ? What about crayfish ?

« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »