Monday, 31 May 2010

Happy Holiday?

Today is the Late May Bank Holiday. For many people this means spending the day in traffic jams trying to get home from a rainy long weekend somewhere nice, or rather somewhere that would have been nice if it wasn't for the rain and the other hoards of people.

I'm planning to spend the day in a more relaxing but productive fashion. Naturally I'll be keeping up with events in the Greek speaking world, but I have also decided I should be more familiar with Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte and I ordered a vocal score from Amazon which has just arrived.

You will doubtless recall that this is the one about "wife-swapping". Two young men are madly in love with (and engaged to) two sisters. The men are convinced that their girlfriends are completely devoted to them and that they would be eternally faithful. Their older, world-weary friend says this is impossible. All women are the same. Faithless, fickle and flighty.

Eventually the question is settled in the time-honoured fashion by a wager. The men agree to let the old man set up an experiment. This involves them pretending to be called up to fight a war, disguising themselves as exotic foreign travellers, and then trying to seduce their own girlfriends.

But it all goes horribly wrong when they manage to seduce each others fiances. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

I wonder how you're planning to spend the day? I suppose most of you will be going to work. If so, then think of me relaxing in my armchair.

One of you will, I hope, be doing something special today. Or at least getting some time to relax. After all, it is her birthday. I'd like to pretend that's why we're have this Bank Holiday, but apparently they were started in 1871, which I think is a few years before she was born.

Happy Birthday, Jean Knee!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

...In His Counting House...

Some of you may be wondering how I've been spending my time recently, especially all of those extra hours freed up by not writing blog posts. There are several answers to this question, and today I'm going to talk about the first one.

I've been counting money.

Now, I don't indulge in lotteries or other games of chance, and I haven't got any rich relatives, so I've not suddenly become a millionaire. Sadly the money isn't mine, or anyone else's.

Instead, I've discovered the book "Amusements in Mathematics" by Henry Dudeny, which has been lovingly digitised by the Project Gutenberg.

This book is a classic of recreational mathematics. It was published in 1917, and consists of hundreds of puzzles. These are arranged into sections, and the first one concerns money.

Here is an example of the sort of puzzle that we're talking about:

A man left instructions to his executors to distribute once a year exactly fifty-five shillings among the poor of his parish; but they were only to continue the gift so long as they could make it in different ways, always giving eighteenpence each to a number of women and half a crown each to men. During how many years could the charity be administered? Of course, by "different ways" is meant a different number of men and women every time.

As I said, the book was published in 1917, and Britain's monetary system was non-decimal. A pound was divided into 20 shillings, each of which was further divided into 12 pence. Each penny was worth four farthings. A guinea was worth 21s (£1.05 in today's money). You won't be surprised to learn that lawyers charged their victims in guineas rather than pounds.

As in present day America, they had names for many of their coins, which were presumably designed to confuse foreigners. Coins like tanners, bobs, florins and half-crowns. Interestingly, despite the fact that the whole system was abolished in 1971 in favour of decimalisation, the old shillings and florins were still in circulation until the 1990s, when they made some of our coins smaller. Presumably to save money. And I don't remember seeing any, but according to WIki, the sixpence coin (confusingly worth 2.5 pence) was legal tender until 1980.

Although the system sounds confusing, the British managed to use it for about 1000 years, and like imperial measures, it was more human than decimal. They probably had very little inflation, which would have helped.

Armed with a list of coins and their values, I've been working my way through the puzzles. They're not particularly enlightening, but they are fun. Many of them can be solved analytically (i.e. you just write out the equations and solve), but he has all sorts of traps for the unwary. For example, the fact that you only need 47 cuts to divide a 48-yard length of cloth into individual yards.

Although I begin with a pen and paper, and fill sheet after sheet with calculations, it's also really useful to have the computer around when you end up with multiple possible solutions to check.

Anyway, I've almost run out of money to count. The next set of puzzles is entitled "Age and Kinship". Hopefully they won't all be the kind where Aunt Agatha is twice Harry's age, and 2/17 of Uncle Cuthbert when you reverse the digits. Or whatever. If they are, I might get bored and have to start writing more posts....

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Sports News

One of the more embarrassing things about being British is the fact that your country invented football. It's a game that seems to have almost everything wrong with it. It's so boring that no-one wants to watch it, but this combined with it's relatively short length (90 minutes) leads to the so-called fans resorting to violence.

Look at cricket. It's just as dull, but a game takes 3 days. Consequently, the spectators know they're in for a long haul and bring ample supplies of food, champagne and condoms. Everything is very civilised, they have breaks for things like afternoon tea, and so no-one gets hurt. Apart from the odd pigeon.

Football, on the other hand, is so short that the only things the "fans" take with them are a 6-pack of lager and some home-made explosives. They've cracked down on the lager, so they drink all of them before they get to the match, which doesn't really help.

Now, however, the game is in the process of being completely turned around. They've managed to replace the players with robots. These robots are almost indistinguishable from their human counterparts, apart from the vastly increased speed at which their brains work. They bumble around the pitch, are as likely to kick each other as they are the ball, and they regularly fall over (this is known in football parlance as "taking a dive").

As you can see from the video, the robotic game is just as dynamic and exciting as the real thing. There's still a lot of work for the boffins to do, though. Now that they've got the players automated (saving millions on expensive salaries which are payed for by expensive TV deals, which in turn are payed for by people who adverts that are in turn payed for by the people who buy those products - beer and cars), they will have to make robot spectators.

This shouldn't be too hard. After all, if football players, who can earn between £1 million and £4 million a year, are not the sharpest knives in the drawer*, what about the spectators, whose average wage is around 2% of the players, and who are suckered out of £80 of it per match?

Think how many man-hours will be saved around the world by the complete roboticisation of football. It's not just the players and the spectators, but riot police and scarce hospital resources. Combined with cheaper beer and cars.


*An example of the kind of intellect the robot players are up against:

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Netbook Remix

Suppose you find yourself in a hotel in the West's most dangerous country. It's the weekend, and you've managed not to become a homicide statistic, despite the fact that you've not been in the state long enough to legally qualifiy for the AK47 that you need to protect yourself (that takes a whole week). More importantly, there's no prospect of getting home alive or dead, since someone's seen fit to let off a volcano in Iceland.

You're sure that unprovoked discharge of lava and ash must be in violation of International Law. Didn't they sign some treaty a few years back in Iceland? You can't remember, but it might have been one of those VALT (Volcanic Arms Limitation Treaty) things. Or was it? You could really do with internet access to answer these vital questions.

In addition, one of the local TV channels is showing hours of "Law and Order SVU" in the evenings, and (never having seen Law and Order before) you want to find out who that rather nice looking Assistant DA is.

Yes, internet access would be really useful. But wait... the hotel has free wireless. And one of those shops you passed on the way to the gun store was selling cheap computers. A place called Best Buy. It was full of geeky looking types, so it must be okay. You only hope they won't make you wait a week to get one.

Half an hour later, you're back in the hotel room with your new acquisiton. Half an hour after that you've gone back to Best Buy to get some headphones. Another 30 minutes and you're watching the Aimilia Hour, and you're learning to stop worrying and love the volcano. Or at least to not feel quite so isolated.

This is the EEE PC 1005HA. It's got 1GB of memory, and a 160GB hard drive. It's a lot easier to lug around than either a full-sized laptop or a dictionary, and it would have cost me about £200, but I got it for zero Pounds, because they let me have it for 300 of their Monopoly style funny money. They originally said it was going to be even less than that, but then they added tax. They like doing that. You can't even get a burger at the advertised price. I'm sure that taxing burgers is violating some Constitutional Right or something.

It came with Windows XP. This meant that before I could get onto the internet to check if my plane was flying and send hilariously witty emails to various people (apparently Bee laughed so hard she had to buy a new pair of jeans), I had to decide whether I wanted to update my system, whether I wanted to sit through a sales pitch for IE (the only options are to watch it now or later), whether I wanted to delete unused icons from my desktop, and delete the stupid popup box that informed me I'd just plugged in headphones (like I had done it in my sleep or something and needed to be told).

Needless to say, as soon as I was back home, I installed Ubuntu. They do a "Netbook Remix", which is designed to make better use of the small screen. I wasn't sure I'd want this rather than the normal desktop environment, but it's really rather good.

Now, if you'll excuse me I've got rather a lot of Law and Order box sets to get through (I'm still only on 1990)...

No doubt you're wondering about that volcano treaty. And what the US Constitution has to say about burger taxation. I was going to look it up after I'd finished searching for Diane Neal pictures... And I'm still intending look it up when I've finished...