Archive for June, 2009

Michael Jackson Spam

Friday, June 26th, 2009


I’m already getting Michael Jackson spam in the comments for this blog. Those guys are quick. One day, we will get all our news from spam.

burning up huge amounts of carbon dioxide

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I read the Guardian every day. I don’t think that I will ever have the stomach to take without feeling a little nauseous. The self-loathing of middle class lefties and defeatism inherent in an ideology that holds that levelling down is a price worth paying for aiming for equality makes me feel more than a little bit sick.

Another problem with the paper is that it’s not always very accurate. In this article:

the writer complains about “air conditioning systems burning up huge amounts of carbon dioxide”. How much does this guy know about climate change, electricity production or even high school level chemistry? If a/c systems burned up CO2, then climate change could be solved in about five minutes. We would simply need to turn them all on, burn up the excess CO2 and not worry about the coal power stations belching out CO2. The only conclusion that I can draw from this article is that the journalist knows next to nothing about chemistry and has probably read very little on climate change, the science, as opposed to climate change, the social phenomenon. However, we read articles by such people arguing about draconian measures to combat climate change. Such measures might have a drastic impact on the quality of life whether we take them (in terms of lost productivity) or if we don’t (in terms of environmental chaos). If we get our news from such uneducated fools, what hope have we?

Metcalfe’s Law and the Hydrogen Economy

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a telecommunication network is proportional to the square of the number of users. If there were only one fax machine in the world, it would be useless. Two fax machines can have some use, but three allow twice as many connections as that, and so on.

A more modern example is that of social network sites. One’s choice of social network site is not determined by the colour scheme or the correctness of the technical implementation but by the number of friends that one has on the network. One result of this is that social network sites are forced to be free to use in order to drive adoption. This results in a rather curious business model: give away the product for free, hope that there is explosive growth, pray that you can somehow make a little money from your millions of users once they are in place.

Fuel distribution has a parallel problem. It might be possible to replace petrol and diesel cars with ones fuelled by hydrogen, methane, alcohol, ammonia, compressed air, electricity, deep-fat-frier oil or even cow dung. The problem is that drivers will not buy cars that uses one of these fuels, unless they can buy that fuel ubiquitously. Conversely, nobody’s going to finance the fuel distribution network, until there are the cars to burn the fuel.

A new car company, Riversimple, is trying to break this chicken-and-egg problem by leasing their cars.

Leasing certainly makes more sense for a customer entering a market that has no guaranteed future.

On top of this, part of the design of the car is being released as an open source project:

The hope seems to gain an economy of scale and allow the car to adapt to local conditions. The company is working with BOC, who presumably would do very well from a hydrogen economy. The situation is similar to Google, Mozilla and Chrome. Google want to make money from increasingly sophisticated web applications, so they finance open source projects to build better browsers. Financing a closed source browser would not achieve their aims as efficiently. What is more, as soon as they pulled the plug on a closed source browser, the project would finish. Opening up the source provides a multiplier effect. I imagine that BOC are hoping for a similar multiplier effect with open source fuel cells.

Bingo Card Generator

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

I’ve put together a bingo card generator:

It’s a response to the Bingo card generator at

I’ve been using the Teach-nology generator for a while for making bingo cards. My generator makes a few improvements to the way that the user operates. In particular, the user doesn’t have to hit ‘Shuffle’ and print for each student.

My kids tend to enjoy bingo. I let them play a game as a reward after a test. It’s more suited to less experienced learners, especially ones learning to match sounds to the words that they read. With more experienced learners, one can say the definition of the word, draw a picture on the board or do a charade instead of just saying the word.

Is there an algorithm for Wikipedia?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Google’s latest offering,

is rather fun, but I’m not convinced that I will use it very often.

Compare search results like this:


The page on Wikipedia is much more useful. It seems that humans are better at making tables of data from diverse sources of information that computers are at this point. Will it always be this way?

Wikipedia has strict guidelines on how articles are written and how propositions should be backed by reliable sources. Could these guidelines be further formalised and pave the way for an algorithm that could write something like Wikipedia from scratch? Google seem to be attempting to build a system that can produce the pages on Wikipedia with names like “List_of_*”. For all I know, Google might have looked at all the articles on Wikipedia whose names match that pattern and used them to get their tables started.

Sport is a popular subject. It’s safe to say that there are lot of people who are willing to give up their free time to collate data on the subject. If some joker changed the Wikipedia table to say that Manchester United were relegated at the end of the previous season, this error would be corrected quickly as there is no lack of people who care deeply about the matter.

During a presentation for Wolfram Alpha, Stephen Wolfram was asked whether he had taken data from Wikipedia. He denied it and said that the problem with Wikipedia was that one user might conscientiously add accurate data for 200 or so different chemical compounds in various articles. Over the course of a couple of years, ever single article would get edited by different groups. The data diverged. He argued that these sorts of projects needed a director, such as himself. However, he said that his team had used Wikipedia to find out what people were interested in. If the article on carbon dioxide is thousands of characters long, is edited five times a day, has an extensive talk page, is available in dozens of languages, and has 40 references, it is safe to say that carbon dioxide is a chemical compound that people are interested in. This is true regardless of the accuracy content of the article. It would be pretty trivial for Google (or any Perl hacker with a couple of hours to spare and a few gigs of hard disk space) to rank all of the pages on Wikipedia according to public interest using the criteria that I just listed.

In many ways, an algorithmic encyclopaedia is to be preferred because of the notorious problems of vandalism and bias. However, tasks like condensing and summarising are not straightforward. The problem of deciding what to write about could analysing Wikipedia, as described above, and tracking visitor trends. Is there going to be a move to unseat Wikipedia in the coming years? How long before humans can be removed from the algorithm completely?