New definitions

Well, as of yesterday, we now have a new definition of evil:

The taking down of a country’s entire health network.

(Won’t link to it. It’ll only encourage them).

If we leave paranoia aside for a moment, I’m pondering the difference between artificial intelligence, learned processes, automation and the definition of life.

CGP Grey does a nice video explaining how the advert before youtube videos is chosen. It highlights just how badly the system works: I keep getting sent videos for pregnancy tests and there is no way it’s from my search history or perceived age. So that’s got to be something tallying off maths and getting it wrong, with no ‘thought’ or ‘learning’ otherwise I’d be sent something I’d actually buy. But all this tallying is set up within a framework and theoretically can’t spread beyond it.

Yesterday’s software also just kept repeating until it succeeded but it was also self-replicating and spread without human intervention – does that mean it’s alive?

It reminds me of why I actually think the House of Lords is a good idea. Hear me out on this one… When the laws were defined at the birth of embryology in the 1980s, the House of Commons debated the moment life began and the ethics involved as a bunch of lawyers, tallying against binary points. Then it went to the Lords, where it was debated by an Archbishop and a Professor of Microbiology, who had a lifetime’s ability to discuss the nuances. I would much rather that laws that could ever affect me are debated by people who have a far deeper understanding and appreciation than I do.

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Literary adaptations

We’re watching Poirot at the moment – I have got my hands on the boxset. What is striking after the first couple is that they only appear to have had access to a couple of 1930s houses, so various mansions are reused from different angles, which causes a bit of personal detective work to see how they did it. Most locations can be narrowed to West London before searching for them as that was in relatively easy reach of the studios and anything that striking would have had a preservation notice slapped on it years ago. I’m having a voyage of online discovery to find locations such as ‘The Hoover Building’, not to be confused with anything officious from across the Atlantic, but simply a building that in the 1930s overlooked the A40 and was full of people industriously making hoovers.

Osterley Park was in the last one. My Dad’s wedding ring is still somewhere in that lake.

We’re also listening to HG Wells, who very thoughtfully limited the length of his novels so that these days they can be turned into six CDs without needing abridgement. A problems with Pratchetts is that to shorten them to two tapes they were abridged by removing the jokes and chunks of plot, so we’re appreciating the HG Wells. We have read The Time Machine for the first time and now we’re on to The Invisible Man, which I read years ago but am now wondering about because we’re up to chapter 17 and I don’t remember any of it. Next we shall have War of the Worlds, for which I shall have Jeff Wayne’s Dun Dun Daaarn  in my head every time I hear the title.

And I have just finished reading ‘Wings’ the third in the Nomes trilogy of Truckers, Diggers, Wings. I’ve read them for the first time and in order. For some reason I didn’t get on with them when I tried reading them 20 years ago, possibly because the ideas were too new or they didn’t ‘fit’ with discworld characters. I think at the earliest opportunity I shall be inflicting them on small children.

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Much travelled

Earlier, I quoted Roald Dahl’s Matilda, saying that with a good book it’s possible to travel anywhere in the world while staying sat in your room. The same is true for audiobooks, but I do still plan to watch Palin’s ‘Himalaya’ as I have heard it and glanced at the book, but I feel that there’s  something lost by converting from live action. Like Monty Don’s ‘Around the world in 80 gardens’, it is another programme full of wonder, explanation and sights I won’t see round here.

But there are still sights that I’ll only see round here.

On Easter day the household visited Eltham Palace, the medieval hall that was renovated and made part of a state-of-the-art (central telephones!) art deco 1930s mansion. Controversial, but at least we now have both, whereas it was a ruin when it was done and the 1930s style was replaced elsewhere. We made the mistake of travelling with satnav, so I got a marvellous tour through the middle of London, past the Natural History and V&A museums, through the shining Portland stone of Knightsbridge, past Harrods, past the Wellington Arch and ‘Number 1 London’ Apsley Place, which I had to explain to the household is where ALL postcodes lead back to. We were amazed at how clean and bright everything was, we only saw anything with peeling paint or dereliction once we were through central London and on to the boroughs to the SE, which are still stuffed full of the beautifully preserved glazed tiles and architecture that are found nowhere else.

On the way back, as I like to cram as much into one trip as possible, we went via Chiswick House. This week we went back there to have a proper look. The house and gardens were renovated 2004-2010, the gardens replanted, the ‘eyecatchers’ (follies) redone according to the original plans, so that the cascade now works properly for the first time – it hasn’t since it was originally built. Chiswick is unusual in that the house is square but with a central octagonal, domed room with interconnected rooms off it.

Chiswick and Eltham have apparently simple designs but as they involve several geometric shapes overlaid they are full of hidden spaces and rooms to regularise the outside while keeping the novel shapes of the inside. One member of the household in particular, who isn’t entirely appreciative of art but knows a good bit of construction when he sees it, was fascinated at how the upper outside balcony doors work: the sash window slides up, the wall has a vertical 45o cut through it and folds inwards. I think he may be getting ideas…

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Retirement plan

Keep meaning to write, then get overtaken by life and forget what I was going to say.

In theory this should improve when I eventually retire, however that happens, but I suspect I’ll just get even busier. A colleague told me that too many people forget that whatever happens one day they will no longer be working. He is saddened when people become unwell through their work to the point that they can’t enjoy what comes after. He’s got a point. I plan one day, if I ever own a house, to have a placard up on the wall quoting Cicero, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

The aloe vera have been re-potted. This meant breaking them up and putting them into two giant pots with the idea that the rootless ones would die off. Not so far they haven’t. I now have two swarms (what’s the collective noun for aloe vera?) of robustly healthy greenery in the kitchen, daily decreasing in popularity. I think the noises in the night are probably them ambling about on their own looking for food.

It’s summer – we have ants again. Perhaps the aloe vera will eat them.

Going through things leads to all sorts of minor mysteries. We’ve managed to acquire elderly designer towels. No one in the household has ever bought any or been given any. They’re definitely here and well-worn.  We found them in the car, where we always keep a couple in case we have to transport something mucky or suddenly want to sit on the beach eating fish and chips in the sunset. But where they came from no one knows.

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Bargain books

This weekend I was taken to a place that is dangerous to time, space and wallet: Barter Books in Northumberland. It is a large Victorian railway station that has been converted into a dog-friendly second-hand bookshop, with café and reading places. There is a mural and other paintings, with a lively 2inch gauge railway whizzing about overhead. The smell of bacon sandwiches and fresh coffee drift through the building distracting, momentarily, from the wall-to-wall view of books.

The household, who visited alone and kept very quiet about their purchases, returned a day later with me and spent most of the time gently but firmly directing me through the shelving. No matter where we sat we were in line of sight of something I wanted to look at.

I was very good. I only left with one basketful. The pile of Giles Annuals for £3.60 each stayed where they were. The first edition hardback Pratchetts did not.

(I keep worrying that I haven’t seen my three signed Pratchetts for a while – I’ve only seen two. I really hope the third didn’t go to charity, but I did check them all first).

It’s possible to buy online and have things posted. They only catalogue about 10% of their stock, but take emails and phonecalls from which they actually go and check a shelf.

They also buy books to sell on – shall have to have a think about what to send. Such things should be encouraged!

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The sun is shining, so I am doing my best Roman impression. We don’t have a garden, otherwise I’d be sat outside writing this, so instead I’m doing the next best thing: relaxing in a makeshift triclinium, with my feet warming in the sun. My version may be laying on top of a bed next to a window, surrounded by paper, but that’s close enough.

This is the break before returning to the mayhem, after a conference up north. I enjoyed it immensely and met lots of new people who do overlapping research. It means I’ll have to have a think about what direction to go in, as well as update my online profile, which due to other considerations has always had to be a little vague. The question now is what directions to go in and which parts to let fall by the wayside temporarily to do it.

The only downside is that I have developed what I shall euphemistically call ‘Durham knee’. This is where, after 22 years of digging in gravel trenches, then several years of a different profession that requires only walking on the flat, I attempted to walk up Durham’s steep cobbled streets. Pain is one description. But with a bit more rest and practice it’ll all be sorted out. The next day we went to Holy Island, which is notorious for being a bit more flat.

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Fake but true

For my readers in forn parts (as Pratchett’s witches call them), here’s a sign that is fake, but ought to be true:

It put me in mind of a blogpost, that got the author criticised by those who just simply do not understand, which ran:

That’s Britain for you. Tea solves everything.
You’re a bit cold? Tea.
Your boyfriend has just left you? Tea.
You’ve just been told you’ve got cancer? Tea.
Coordinated terrorist attack on the transport network bringing the city to a grinding halt? TEA DAMMIT!”

The original title had been, “Right now, a million kettles are boiling.”

Apparently (according to the nice lady giving the lecture on tea at Down House), at the start of World War II, one of the first things that the government did was to seize control of the tea supply and begin rationing so that no one ran out.

I have no idea what they’d do now, especially as coffee is so popular. Perhaps they’d start relying on Real Ale?

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