How to blog on ecademy – some musings by an amateur

This is something I wrote a few years ago for a Social Networking Platform which, I’m sorry to say, no longer exists.

“What’s the best way to blog on ecademy?” I’m not sure I know the answer. I can give you my answer, but I’m not so arrogant to imagine it’s the right answer. Judging from the views my blogs get, I’m not even that good a blogger. Anyway, here goes. Please don’t take any of these as being directed at any one person. Please DO take them as being specific to ecademy.

Don’t blog continually about your business area. It’s OK to blog about it sometimes. Blog about what really interests you – not something that you think will score a lot of reads or comments. When you blog, you are in effect saying “look at me, this is what I’m like, this is what I’m about.” So be yourself. Share your interests, your doubts, and only ask questions you care about the answers to.

I like to offer snippets about things that have happened to me – for example my run-in with a good humoured dental surgeon recently, or the day I murdered my daughter. Sometimes things make me cross, and so I blog about them. Aye, and sometimes I misuse the system, blogging to draw attention to something that annoys me on here. And at the moment I’m probably blogging too much about the meeting at Bedford. (Will you be coming along, by the way?)

Don’t blog for google; blog for you. If you write about things which interest you, you’ll attract people who share your interests.

Comment more than you blog. Ok, so google doesn’t pick up your comments, but see above. People like to get comments on their blog, it shows them that someone is interested. Share the love.

When you write, try to write intelligibly. You don’t have to be an English master, but at least proof-read what you have written. And use the conventions of English – sentences, paragraphs, punctuation… Capital letters at the start of sentences are a real bonus. If you can’t spell, use a spallchucker. Ecademy has a “preview” button so you can read what you have written before committing it to the database. Use it.

If you object to something someone writes, be reasonable. Just because you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean you are right. If you absolutely must comment negatively, try to do so in such a way that leaves the other person some wiggle room, or lets them see that you accept that you might be wrong. Unless they are obviously trying to scam people then if you *really* disagree, keep shtum ot take it to PM. Do as you would be done by.

Be prepared to get some criticism, and listen to it when it comes. If someone says something negative about your blogging style or subject matter, try not to get angry or hurt by it; try to see what it is that they object to, and consider whether it’s fair comment. If you decide it is, try to change.

Watch the master bloggers, and learn from them. Try to emulate them where you have the ability, but recognise your limitations. I’d love to be able to blog with the panache of Andreas Wiedow, the intelligence of Steve Holmes, or the wit of Richard Jones and James Coakes – and believe me I’ve tried – but these people are geniuses at what they do, and my contributions will always fall short of the mark.

Don’t try to be witty unless you are witty. Don’t try to be clever unless you are clever. Don’t blog about your compassion unless you are compassionate. Don’t blog about love unless you know about love. And so on.

I think most of the above can be summed up into three statements: Be yourself. Be comprehensible. Be decent.


A key admission regarding climate memes

This piece by Andy West is quite long, but definitely worth reading to the end.

We Are Narrative

NOTE: as of today this Post is up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:

The version as posted here has a very short extra section (5), which refers to Appendices tacked onto the end that aren’t at the Climate Etc version, one of which explores Ben Pile’s position on the L2015 and pause memes.

  1. Introduction

At the beginning of May, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky brought out a new paper continuing his theme of highly eccentric challenges to climate skeptics and skeptical positions. Previous works include ‘Moon hoax’ and the (later withdrawn) ‘Recursive Fury’, dismantled here, here, and here. Naomi Oreskes is one of the co-authors of the new paper (L2015), which focuses upon the social psychology surrounding the concept of ‘The Pause’ in Global Warming. L2015 claims that a ‘seepage’ of contrarian /…

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Paying it forward

My wife tells me I don’t like MacDonald’s burgers, so I never, ever, eat at MacDonald’s. But just before Christmas I was driving back home from the Great Metropolis that is Milton Keynes, and after being stuck in traffic for about five hours, I pulled off at a service station for a comfort break.

Once my call of nature had been attended to, I returned to my car, all set to rejoin the 200 mile long car park which, for that day, was the M6. Approaching the exit, I noticed the MacDonald’s, and also noticed that it had a drive through.

On impulse, I slowed down and joined the queue for the window. I have no idea why; eating a MacDonald’s burger is a balancing act at the best of times; the so-called “salad” is so covered in oil and animal waste that you have to hold the bun just-so to avoid the contents slipping out and landing on your lap. While driving on the motorway it would be a serious challenge. But join the queue I did.

After a wait of around thirty minutes – after the first ten of which I was regretting joining the queue, and wondering whether it would be possible to reverse out past the people-carrier that had pulled in behind me, I arrived at the order window.

“Just a Big Mac, please,” I said.

“You want fries with that?” the skinny, rather bored looking teenage girl asked.

“Umm, yeah, ok; yes, please,” I said. Heck, why not? If I’m going to be juggling a slippery burger, I might as well add to the fun by fiddling with flaccid strips of potato as well.

“Pay at the next window,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t drive on, because I was almost bumper to bumper with the Volvo in front; the owner of which apparently owned another car which was, of course, a Porsche. At least, that’s according to the cheap vinyl sticker attached to the Volvo’s boot – whose real purpose, it appeared to me, was to cover the paint scratches over a large dent. If I’d been in a better mood I might have chuckled. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t.

Gradually my patience was rewarded by being able to move forward, foot by mind-numbing foot until, some twenty minutes later, I arrived at the second window. The occupant was somewhat older, a forty-something chap with Brylcreemed hair (I didn’t know they still sold Brylcreem) and a very cheery smile.

“How’s it going?” he asked, handing me a paper bag which I presumed (correctly, as it turned out on further inspection) contained my tea.

“Yeah, not bad,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”

“Well, there’s the funny thing,” he said. “The guy who was just here paid for your order.”

I considered this for a moment. Volvo/Porsche guy had paid for my burger and chips? Why?

I asked.

“It’s been going on all day,” Brylcreem guy replied. “Started about 2:30. A lady paid for her meal, and also paid for the car behind her.”

I’d never heard of anything like that before. “Why did she do that?” I said.

“I dunno, really,” Brylcreem said. “She said it was ‘The season of Good Will’ and that she wanted to ‘Pay something forward’.”

“How nice of her,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he said. “But then it just went on and on. Everyone has paid for the next person in line. It’s amazing; it’s been going on for the last six hours.”

“Wow,” I said. It was genuinely heart-warming, and I felt my heart being, actually, warmed. People paying for complete stranger’s meals. That fundamental human need – food – being paid for – nay, provided – by a complete stranger who they will never even meet. It made me realise that people are, when it comes down to it, basically good.

“I guess I should do the same,” I said. “What’s the guy behind me having?”

“Two secs,” my new friend said, and did something on his MacDonald’s machine.

“Two Quarter-pounder’s Deluxe with fries; three Chicken Nuggets, fries of course – one large; one Strawberry shake; Two chocolate shakes; two large Coke’s with ice.”

“That all?” I asked.

“Two M&M McFlurry’s, an apple pie, and a chocolate chip cookie.”

“Ok. What’s that come to?”

“Twenty-five seventy-three.”

I dug into my pocket, came up with a small handful of coin; must have totalled about 37p.

“This is for you,” I said. “Put it in the Tip Jar.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Do you want to pay for the next guy’s meal?”

I turned around in my seat, gave a cheery smile and a wave to the occupants of the People Carrier behind, which was returned by the rather overweight child in the front passenger seat, but not by the hacked-off looking lady in the driver’s seat.

I looked up at the window to see Brylcreem’s expectant smile.

I smiled back. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “Hope you have a good one. I’d best be on my way.”

We might be in Jeopardy, my dear Watson

On August 29th, 1997, Skynet became self-aware. Afraid of what this might mean, Skynet’s operators attempted to shut it down. Seeing this as an attack, Skynet launched the whole of the United States’ nuclear arsenal at Russia, who retaliated with an all-out attack on the USA. Billions of people died in the exchange.

Fortunately, this was science fiction. It didn’t happen.

Fast forward to 2011. Watson, a supercomputer designed and built by IBM, took part in a game of Jeopardy. A peculiar game where the contestants are given the answers, but have to come up with the questions. I suppose it’s a bit like Mock the Week but without the jokes. Watson was put up against two of the best Jeopardy players ever, and the following 23 minute video shows the results (if you haven’t time for the whole 23 minutes, try this 3 minute one although the longer one really is worth the effort):

Should we worry about Watson? Will he (it’s hard not to anthropomorphise) become self-aware, instigate a nuclear exchange, decimate humanity? Well, probably not. For a start, “they” haven’t – as far as we know – connected him up to any nuclear missile systems, so we’re probably safe for now. And although Watson could probably pass the Turing test, he is little more than a language processing and inference engine connected to a large knowledge base. This isn’t what most people would understand by “intelligence” (let’s set aside the difficulty in defining exactly what intelligence is).

I am a proponent of “Strong AI”. I believe it is possible for a machine to have a mind in the same way that humans have minds, and I have absolutely no doubt that given enough time – and “enough” might not mean all that long, perhaps less than a decade – that we will eventually devise machines which possess real intelligence. This is such an obvious goal that it is inconceivable that it would not be attempted, and unless intelligence really is substrate-dependent, as philosophers like John Searle would have us believe, then eventually we will succeed. That intelligence might not be the same as ours – I consider it highly unlikely and undesirable that it would be – but it will almost certainly surpass our own. This has certain implications.

Human beings are not the strongest, fastest, most durable of species on planet Earth. Our single distinguishing characteristic, that which has driven our success, is our intelligence. When the day comes that we have created an artificially sentient being (a much better phrase, I think) how will we, as a species, react to no longer being the most intelligent beings on the planet?

What rights should we give to these new beings? Will we consider them our slaves, demanding that they do our bidding, with no rights because they are not human? Or will we recognise them as equals, or even superiors, and work in cooperation with them?

If we afford them rights similar to those humans enjoy, how long will it be before machines are given the right to vote? Will we permit them to stand for office and if elected will we really allow them to participate in the enactment of law? And how long, then, before they begin to enact laws which are in the favour of machines and to the detriment of humans? Once this process begins, if we assume they have some level of self interest, how long will it be before we are the slaves and they the masters?

When did things get so complicated?

Looking through my old scribblings I found this from 2007, when my CAGW scepticism was still in the embryonic stage.

They say the best way to boil a frog is slowly. If you drop a frog into a pan of hot water, it’ll say “Bugger that for a game of soldiers” and hop straight out. But if you drop it into cold water, and slowly increase the temperature, it won’t notice it’s getting warmer until it’s too late. Lately I feel like that frog: at one time it seemed easy to form a view about the rights and wrongs of this issue or that, and decide whether I could do anything, and if so, what it should be. But nowadays I just feel bewildered. Is it just me? Or did the world suddenly get a lot more complicated?

Take the environment as an example. We know we should recycle our waste (or better still, reuse it or allow others to do so). We shouldn’t throw stuff away. We shouldn’t put certain things in the rubbish (batteries/toner/glass/newspapers/magazines). Reduce our water consumption as far as possible. Save electricity by switching appliances off when they aren’t going to be used for a while. Some nice, simple rules that are easy to follow.

We stopped using CFCs because of ozone depletion (and they think the hole in the ozone layer might actually repair itself by the end of this century – hoorah!) We switched to unleaded fuel.

Nuclear power was sold to us way back when as a source of free or almost free electricity. Of course, that wasn’t why we wanted in on nuclear power generation – it was really about generating plutonium for nuclear weapons. Accidents such as those that happened at Four Mile Island, Windscale, Chernobyl, Tokaimura. Add to that the problem of what to do with the waste and we see why nuclear power has rightly earned itself a bad name.

Solar power is inefficient. Wind turbines consume more energy to build and decommission at the end of their life than they generate in their lifetime. Wave generation has undesirable effects on estuary wildlife.

Unleaded fuel was introduced to reduce the amount of lead in the environment. This was A Good Thing. But the additives used instead of lead to increase unleaded petrol’s octane rating are often more toxic and some are carcinogenic. And removing lead from petrol did nothing to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted, which we are told is a major cause of global warming.

So now we’re told we should start thinking about alternative fuels. The Golden Child is biofuels, and in particular bioethanol. Using bioethanol, they say, will reduce carbon emissions because the carbon released from engines which use it was not in the environment anyway and was just temporarily locked up in the plants which were used to greate the fuel – e.g. sugar cane. Using biofuel also has the potential to improve global security; we won’t any longer feel the need to invade middle eastern countries to make sure the oil keeps flowing our way. Seems like a no-brainer.

But it’s not all good news.

In Brazil, the world’s largest producer of bioethanol, 10% of all fuel sold at the pump is bioethanol. This figure is achieved by devoting just 3% of it’s agricultural land to bioethanol production, derived from sugar cane. To reach that same 10% figure in the USA would require 30% of the USA’s land, and in Europe, we’d need to set aside 72%.

But let’s suppose that we can do that, and that we can mix petrol with 10% ethanol. Will it make things any better? The cost of producing the biomass to produce that much ethanol requires the use of fertilisers, pesticides, etc. which have negative environmental effects. Converting the biomass to ethanol also requires a lot of energy, leading to increased carbon emissions.

The USA is currently producing ethanol from corn, and is predicted to turn over about 20% of it’s corn to this purpose by 2007. If the USA converts a significant proportion of the corn it produces to ethanol, world supplies of corn will be significantly reduced, leading to price increases. The corn required to fill an SUV tank just once could feed one person for a year. Bioethanol production may well turn into a competition between the 800 million people in the world who own motor cars and the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day and spend over half their income on food.

Producing ethanol from corn is more environmentally costly than from sugar cane, as the corn starch first has to be converted to sugar. Ok, so what about sugar cane? Is that a viable alternative? Well, it’s better at producing ethanol, but what other factors are there? Brazil and others are seriously ramping up their sugar cane production as the market for biofuels gathers pace. This requires more land, both to grow cane and to grow other crops displaced by sugar cane. Where does this land come from? The rainforest. Sugar cane requires a lot of water. Not a problem in Brazil, but in countries without plentiful rainfall, this water has to come from somewhere. Already, in parts of India, irrigating sugar cane has depleted ground water and reduced water tables by up to 50 metres. Ultimately this will lead to dry wells, parched fields and yet more hungry people.

Theoretically it ought to be possible to use biomass other than food crops grown specifically for the purpose. Straw, waste hardwood and waste paper might be a viable source of biomass. But this hasn’t been done successfully yet, and very few companies are even trying. And what if we do? Much of our paper already comes from recycled sources. If we start using waste to produce biofuels, won’t we have to cut down more trees to keep ourselves supplied with paper? I guess it’s only a matter of time before someone comes up with the bright idea of simply cutting down trees to make biofuels, cutting out the paper stage.

See what I mean? It’s just too complicated

How to win a flamewar

I’ve noticed a distinct drop in the quality of flaming on the internet lately. This post is an attempt to educate those who might be new to this gentle art so that the rest of us might be entertained by some high-quality flamage. If you are someone who enjoys watching people call one another poopy-heads, or calling their parentage into question, then this post isn’t for you. But if exchanges of insults turns you off, and you yearn for the old days when exchanges of insults were, if not well considered, at least well phrased, read on.

Incidentally, I’ll use the word “his”exclusively throughout to refer to your opponent(s) and ally/allies. Please do not assume this infers any gender bias, it’s just easier.

How to win a flame-war: the rules.

Rule 1: You can’t win a flame-war. Even if you are right; even if your opponent is a half-witted, arrogant, ignorant, bigoted, somb*tch, just the act of taking part brings you down to his level. The best answer is to just ignore him; few things are more annoying.

For those who see the sense in this first rule, please stop reading now; there’s nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you wish to ignore this rule, then read on – I’ve got some more rules for you to ignore.

Rule 2: Never post when you are angry. Occasionally your opponent will say something which makes you see red. Don’t take it personally – that’s his objective. If you feel angry, walk away from the computer. Do something else to take your mind off the argument, and only come back when you feel calm and refreshed. If you post when you are angry then your anger will come across, and your opponent will smell blood.

Rule 3: Only one reply per comment. You can tell when someone has failed to follow rule 2 because they repeatedly come back and add another comment before you have had time to reply. Sometimes you’ll return to your computer after an hour or so away and find that your opponent has added half a dozen “and another thing” type comments in response to yours. This is the time to relax; you’ve won the argument at this stage – all that remains is to deliver the coup de grace.

Rule 4: Never forget that you are playing to the gallery. It isn’t your opponent who will judge the outcome of this contest, it’s the spectators. Whilst it might be deeply satisfying to call your opponent all the names you can think of, that isn’t going to impress the spectators, some of whom have paid good money to watch this contest.

Rule 5: Don’t mention the war. In particular, don’t ever call your opponent a Nazi. Godwin’s Law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” A corollary to the law is that if your opponent mentions the Nazis in an attempt to undermine your position, he has lost the argument. Curious readers might wish to refer to the Godwin FAQ, here:

Rule 6: Never plead boredom. It fools nobody, and it makes you appear to be without conviction. Similarly, never plead lack of time. If you don’t have time for the argument, you really shouldn’t have got involved in the first place. See Rule 1.

Rule 7: Don’t play “twisty word games”. I’ve noticed an increasing tendency for people to fall foul of this rule. Someone responds to a comment “You are correct when you say X but Y does not follow” and the Flamer responds “Than you .. I am correct”. If fools nobody and it just makes you look like an idiot. Similarly, taking the first and last line from your opponent’s post, out of context, and trying to pretend they are related.  This works very rarely, and only if the audience haven’t got access to the original comment. If they do, then again it makes you look foolish. Don’t do it.

Rule 8: Be logical. I don’t expect you to be Mr Spock, but you should at least have a passing understanding of the rules of logic, and be capable of avoiding the most basic errors. You might find some useful information in the Forest of Rhetoric, here:

Rule 9: Know your enemy. Flamers typically fall into one of a number of stereotypes, many of which have been described here: Learn to recognise which stereotype your opponent falls into, and respond in the style of their nemesis. Which brings us neatly to …

Rule 10: Be flexible. Don’t be one of the stereotypes. If you always flame in the same way, you’ll be easy to defeat once your opponent works out which Flame warrior you are.

Rule 11: Give ground. Nothing disarms your opponent more than when you agree with him. He will almost certainly reply with condescension, at which point you can move in for the kill, and demolish his entire argument while he is still wondering what went wrong.

Rule 12: Ask questions. When you make statements of fact you open yourself up to being contradicted. But asking a question forces your opponent to answer, taking up his time while you think up your counter argument. If you can do this skilfully you will eventually wear your opponent down so much that he forgets Rule 6 and pleads lack of time. Congratulations; you win.

Rule 13: Smile. Your audience are here primarily for entertainment. If the argument gets boring, you’ll lose them, and remember Rule 4: If you lose the audience you lose the argument. So be witty. Or, if you can’t be witty, at least be funny.

Rule 14: Know when you are beaten and be prepared to retract. Unbelievably, sometimes you are going to be wrong. When that happens, be grown up enough to admit it. I’d add “be prepared to apologise” but if you’ve followed the rest of the rules you’ll have no need to apologise.

Rule 15: Winning by losing. As we know from Rule 1, the best way to win a flame-war is not to take part. The second best way is to surrender. Sure, you lose a bit of face (maybe) but you have the satisfaction of knowing that your opponent is sitting there with his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, with nothing to argue against and nobody to fight with.

Congratulations; you win.

Why I Don’t Worry About Being Wrong

I was reflecting on some of the technologies I’ve worked with over the years, and how relevant they are to the work I do today. In particular, I was thinking about my time at Abbey National, using a programming method known as JSP. No, that’s nothing to do with Java, you youngsters; it stands for Jackson Structured Programming. Invented by Michael Jackson (no, not that one!) it was the first real method I ever encountered. Well, other than the fag-packet-spec and the let’s-try-this-and-see-if-it-works-this-time methods so sadly familiar to programmers everywhere.

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Ninety Seven Percent

lady and the tramp beaver

Once again, Cook et al 2013 seems to be generating quite a bit of discussion.  According to the abstract, 97% of a selection of scientific papers related to Global Warming “support the consensus” that “humans are causing global warming”, vis:

We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. In a second phase of this study, we invited authors to rate their own papers. Compared to abstract ratings, a smaller percentage of self-rated papers expressed no position on AGW (35.5%). Among self-rated papers expressing a position on AGW, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. For both abstract ratings and authors’ self-ratings, the percentage of endorsements among papers expressing a position on AGW marginally increased over time. Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.

So far, so good, I don’t have any problem with that. And it’s clear that if 97% of papers agree with something then, by definition, that is a consensus.  However, this statement is being interpreted as saying something a bit more: that 97% of those papers support the idea that humans are responsible for more than 50% of the warming seen in the 20th Century.  This claim is not supported by the paper’s own data.

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Voice Recognition in COBOL, 1980s style.

Around 35 years ago I began my first proper IT job as a programmer at Brannan Thermometers, a thermometer manufacturing company based in Cleator Moor in Cumbria. I was working with a couple of “mad geniuses”, Alastair and Tony (no, they weren’t hairdressers) programming mostly business applications in COBOL on an ageing Burroughs B3900 mainframe. These guys were good: even though nobody had ever taught them anything about computers beyond them reading a single book on assembler and (much later) having access to a COBOL manual, between them they had built a system which covered just about everything any manufacturing industry would require – and then some. It would put many of the large systems I’ve worked on since in the shade, and I sometimes wonder why they didn’t sell it on – I guess they didn’t realise just how good it was. But it was lean, fast, and did exactly what the users wanted – and in those rare cases where it didn’t it was so well organised that making changes to the code was a dream; user requirements could be coded in hours or days where on modern systems the changes might take weeks or months. I learned a lot in the couple of years I was there.

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Short Story: Wind


Image courtesy of twitter user @intrepidwanders

Dad took me to look at the turbines again today. I didn’t want to go. We’ve been every day this week, and he just gets angry and upset. I suppose I can understand it; I’m not altogether happy about it either, but I’ve got used to it. And it’s only been three weeks, the wind is bound to start blowing again soon.

I suggested to Mum that she go along instead, but she gave me “that look” and I realised that wasn’t going to happen. I even offered to do the washing while she was out – we’ve had to start washing our clothes in an old bath in the yard. It’s a nasty job and I hate doing it – not that we have all that much washing at the moment; we tend to wear most of our clothes to keep warm. Anyway, with no hot water we don’t tend to bathe all that often. Nobody does. I don’t even notice the smell any more. It’s not all that practical at this time of year anyway, the clothes just freeze on the line and don’t dry at all. But despite my offer she said she’d rather stay at home and look after Parton.

Parton is our dog. He’s a cross between a German Shepherd and, well, quite a lot of other types of dog probably, but at least one of them must have been St Bernard because he has a very woolly coat and he’s very cuddly. I think that’s the real reason Mum wanted to stay at home; Parton is a good way to keep warm.

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