Monthly archive

Haven’t you got better things to do?

keithlard activity update

It’s time for another highly concentrated information pellet, predigested for you by Montmorency the Internet Owl. I’ve been doing lots of web site work - with my Mum on and Cornish Ceremonies, and I just set up a new Go blog where I can waffle about my favourite game in peace, without interference, or readers.

I gave up Twitter and Facebook for Lent, which was surprisingly easy, and leaves me with a lot more free time to spend on things like polishing the car, sitting on the sofa, compiling my list of the best thousand Simpsons episodes, crisp research, walks investergating local ducks and coots, picking locks, drinking intresting beers, and looking out of the window to see if the car’s been stolen yet.

It also gives me more time for reading. Right now I’m enjoying Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind and George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1).

Man I am glad I do not live in a dystopic faux-feudal land of ice, war, incest, murder and betrayal. Finchley is exciting enough for me, especially if you try to get into Tescos on a Friday teatime, or the big kids who hang around outside the fried chicken shop mug you for your dinner money.

Lunch in Nepal

I had an exciting day out today in the pulsing conurbation of Reading, meeting my grate friend Steve for lunch. We went to a Nepalese buffet. How many of you can say the same, I wonder? Still the food was delicious and there was a lamb curry which kept jumping onto my plate by mistake.

Basically I ate a whole Nepalese lamb, so I had to be carefully wedged into my seat on the train home like some cheerful space hopper. Man that Nepal must be a great place. I do not think there can be too many all you can eat buffet restaurants though, otherwise the Sherpas would only get halfway up Mount Everest before rolling down again.

Whoever or whomever

I did one of those online quizzes, in the usual drunken flurry of angst and craving validation. It is called the Commonly Confused Words Test and I scored the result “English Genius”, which is overstating the case. You don’t need to be a genius to know the difference between “there” and “their” (although clearly the author of the quiz thinks so).

I didn’t score 100% though, so I was curious to know what was the one question I got wrong. Here it is:

35. She complains to __________ will listen.
a. whoever
b. whomever
c. Either a or b
d. Neither a nor b

I answered A, “whoever”. If you are a writer of any kind, the rhythm and flow of a sentence outvotes the dictionary, and even if whomever were technically correct in terms of a prescriptivist, 1950s-schoolteacher approach to syntax, it is ugly. You might write it in a letter to the 1950s, but otherwise it seems prissy, archaic and unnecessary, like wearing driving gloves.

The quiz author says:

Whom is always used when it is the object of a preposition. Who is used as a subject and when a pronoun such as I or he could replace who. Here is an easy little trick to differentiate between who and whom: Replace the questionable word with he or him. If you would replace it with he, use who. If you would replace it with him, use whom.

Quite true, but unfortunately she used the wrong example in the question. Whomever is correct when the person described is the object of the clause (“she complained to whomever she could find”). In this case, though, the person is the subject of an internal clause (“whoever will listen”) and so whoever is right.

Wiktionary says:

If an internal clause is the object of an external clause, the case of who(m)ever is still determined by its role in the internal clause, for example: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”. Here, the external clause is “Let X cast the first stone” and the internal clause is “whoever is without sin”. Whoever is the subject of the internal clause, so it is in the nominative case. Even though X in the external clause is the object (compare “Let him cast the first stone), it is the internal clause that decides whether whoever or whomever is correct. “Let whomever is without sin cast the first stone” is thus strictly speaking incorrect (although such constructions are widely encountered).

I didn’t know that, but I was sure I was right, if only because in any case whomever is becoming rapidly obsolete and is not usable in most contemporary writing registers (“In this week’s Take A Break: Jordan says ‘I’ll sleep with whomever I want’”). Needless to say, I had the last laugh.

I think this demonstrates the essential uselessness of such quizzes, or books such as Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” which empower people to gratify themselves by “correcting” what they see as the verbal mistakes of others. Language is fluid and democratic, and dictionaries and grammar books can only fossilise a more or less representative snapshot of usage which is by definition already out of date.

Some people are upset by the idea that there is no One True English (or any other human language). They feel instinctively that there must be some government department where these things are solemnly legislated (France actually has one, for all the good it does). I think this just betrays a lack of understanding of how language arose in the first place, and is forever reinventing and renewing itself. Or perhaps it manifests a deep insecurity of the kind targeted by the old “Shamed By Your English?” advertisements. “What I say may be trite, dull and inelegant,” they reason, “but at least it is syntactically correct”.

Unless it isn’t, of course.

A trip to the Lakes

Stanborough Lakes, that is, in Welwyn Garden City. I thought the Lotus was looking restive and needed an outing, so we burbled cheerfully through Hertfordshire on a wildlife noticing expedition. I had a super walk around Stanborough Park and noticed various different types of wildlife, eg a swan, some coots, cormorants, two moorhens having a punch-up outside a pub, some massive mallards tucking into the buffet lunch provided at the boating lake, and a lot of rabbits.

Also some trains, this is not technically wildlife, but quite interesting if you like trains.

So it was a lovely sunny day out, and that is the best type of thing to do on a Sunday. Except for going for one or two reflective pints at the local pub, which I will do now. It does not get better than that I am thinking!


Life is simple, at least in principle. You start with a grid of cells, each of which can be either alive or dead (on or off). Then for each cell you apply the following rules:

  1. If a living cell has less than two living neighbours, it dies
  2. If a living cell has two or three living neighbours, it survives to the next generation
  3. If a living cell has four or more neighbours, it dies
  4. If a dead cell has exactly three living neighbours, it becomes alive

The results are astonishing. From a randomised starting position, Life rapidly develops a rich, complex and structured behaviour. It’s a little like watching time-lapse movies of bacteria growing in a dish. Patterns sweep through the grid, collide, explode, intermingle, and die out. Static structures arise and remain fixed unless something crashes into them, in which case they often explode into another frenzy of activity. Constantly-moving structures (called “gliders”) soon appear which continue migrating in one direction forever (unless they hit something else).

Hundreds of distinct denizens of the Life universe have been identified and named, including boats, toads, blinkers, spaceships, gliders, loaves, beehives, puffers, scrubbers, revolvers, toasters, ships, mangoes, beacons and washerwomen. Although it looks random, Life is completely deterministic - the same starting pattern will always go through the same steps and end up in the same state, no matter how many times you run the program.

Some starting patterns very quickly die out or produce uninteresting static patterns (or oscillating patterns which cycle through some fixed states forever). Others produce enormously long and varied evolutions which sometimes seem to almost die out, then surge back into life with a coruscating display of explosions and recolonisation. Some rare patterns produce activity that never stops. It’s not intuitively apparent which starting configurations will produce interesting results and which won’t.

The point is that this game wasn’t invented, it was discovered. All of this complexity, richness and variety was lying concealed in the simple ruleset above, waiting to be found. If we ever meet aliens, it’s quite likely they will have discovered Life too, and they will be familiar with the same patterns and Life denizens that we are.

There is another mathematical game called Langton’s Ant which in a similar way produces remarkable complexity from almost the simplest imaginable rules, iterated repeatedly. At times its behaviour seems completely chaotic, and at others it settles down to produce straightforward, stable, repeating patterns that look “designed”.

Stephen Wolfram has written a whole book (A New Kind of Science) about such iterative systems, called cellular automata, in which he explores the space of all possible rulesets and what they produce. The interesting thing is that most cellular automata are not interesting. Pick a set of simple rules for the system’s development, and nine times out of ten you get a cellular automaton that just does nothing, or produces very boring patterns like straight lines or checkerboards.

Once in a while you hit on a set of rules that looks very similar to all the others, but inexplicably produces an enormous flowering of complexity and structure, in the same way that the endless beauty of the Mandelbrot set arises from repeatedly iterating a simple mathematical operation. John Conway experimented with several possible Life-like games before finding this one.

Similarly, the game of Go has almost the simplest rules possible for any game, and yet gives rise to a dizzying universe of tactical and strategic complexity which even master players are far from having fully explored. Yet if you try to alter the rules of Go slightly, you mostly end up with dull games like Tic-Tac-Toe which don’t show the same fascinating emergent complexity.

If you have access to a Life program which lets you alter the rules of the game, such as how a cell’s neighbours affect its life or death, you will find that almost any variation in the parameters results in something quite boring. So we have two surprising results:

  1. The universe can produce surprising (to us) complexity from small sets of simple rules, iterated over a long time. Our brains don’t intuitively see how that complexity can arise.
  2. The exact rules that you choose matter very much, as most of the resulting systems are not complex or long-lived enough to be interesting. Our brains can’t see an intuitive difference between the dull rulesets and the ones that have the “magic”.

This matters because many people look at the enormous variety of patterns and rich structure in the universe around us, and don’t see how it can have emerged without intelligent intervention (a Creator). This is quite natural, and stems from the fact that human brains are optimised for catching gazelles, not doing mathematics.

In fact, once you see the emergent complexity of Life or Langton’s Ant, it’s less puzzling. Electrons, photons and quarks are very simple entities, described by just a few numbers, and follow very simple rules for how to behave. Yet from that simplicity emerges a vast array of complex and highly patterned objects: stars, galaxies, flowers, ants, rainbows, computers, bacteria, the rings of Saturn, and mathematicians.

If the numerical parameters of particle physics were slightly different in various ways, they would lead to a very uninteresting universe: one where stars never form, or all the matter clumps into a cold undifferentiated mass, or you don’t have matter - you get the idea. In fact it’s very difficult to tweak the rules of physics even slightly and get a universe that can produce life, or even Life. Understanding why this should be (and consequently, why we should be) is one of the most important problems in physics.

Without doubt, if the rules of the Game of Physics didn’t have the “magic” that they do, we wouldn’t be here to speculate on them. But that isn’t an explanation, merely an observation (the anthropic principle). It may be that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes in which the rules and parameters take all possible values, and the vast majority of such universes are dull, or empty, or short-lived, or otherwise uninteresting. That being so, we naturally would find ourselves in one of the interesting universes. There might be even more interesting ones out there.

Alternatively, there might be a deep and important reason why things have to be the way they are (or very similar to the way they are) which we don’t know yet. I hope the reason is not that we are God’s screensaver.

No, I will not read your novel

NaNoWriMo is a programme which encourages people to write a novel in a month. Controversially, I’m against it. There is not such a shortage of bad novels in the world that we need a special nationwide effort to generate more of them. Even NaNoWriMo’s own web site says:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap.

The fact is, everyone is capable of writing crap, and so far from needing encouragement, most people need to be discouraged from doing it. Often with a stick.

Writing is a very pleasurable activity, of course, and one that’s generally undertaken in private. However, just as with many privately pleasurable activities, other people do not necessarily want to watch you doing it, or for that matter to inspect the results.

I recently had the privilege of being asked to read an acquaintance’s novel which was mysteriously failing to find a publisher. I’m happy to say I solved the mystery within a few minutes of reading. There are books which just need a little judicious editing, and then there are books which are acutely, fundamentally, hilariously unsalvageable. As Josh Olson puts it in I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

In the world of music, they say that a good composer is slowly discovered, while a bad composer is slowly found out. The author of this particular book, while perfectly able to string words together into sentences, is a bad writer in such a basic sense that if you cut him vertically in half with a bandsaw (which I heartily endorse) you would find the words ‘Bad Writer’ engraved on his heart.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful writer, of course - many terrible books are published every year and often sell in huge numbers. But the world definitely does not need more bad books, and so I propose a NaNoNoWriMo: National No Novel Writing Month - and I humbly submit the above as my entry.

Now, where’s my cheque?

A cry for help

It’s time to grow up and admit I have a problem. I may be clinically addicted to hash browns. Not anything drug related. Those frozen potato things.

Just as heroin addiction is treated with methadone, you need to control the problem by weaning the addict onto a less harmful substitute. That’s why I’ve volunteered for a hash brown dependency programme. With the help of my doctor, I’ll be gradually transitioning to a carefully monitored regime of prescription latkes.