Category Archives: Culture

Who is this for?


uhu-glue-advisor-500pxWho is this for? I’m genuinely interested. Is it an if-you-build-they-will come kind of a gig, or is there a ready-made community out there, all thinking “Oh, if only I could get a UHU glue advisor app for my smartphone”?

As J. B. S. Haldane so presciently observed, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.

My response to the Privacy and Security inquiry

I found out only today that The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is soliciting evidence for its Privacy and Security Inquiry. As this is one of the most important issues facing the UK at the moment, I made time to write a response, and if you’re British then I encourage you to do so as well. See also this excellent response from Glyn Moody.

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… Or maybe they’re doing web-site registration completely right

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that DeviantArt are getting web-site registration completely wrong by asking for the email address (which you can see as you type it) to be repeated, but not requiring confirmation of the password (which you can’t see).


A lot of people in the comments (both here and at Hacker News) pointed out that I was wrong.

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TalkTalk want £10 for a 13-month-old bill

I’m putting together my expenses for running the small home office where I do my work. One expense is my phone line. I went to the web-site of TalkTalk, my phone provider, only to find that they won’t show me the older bills unless I pay them £10:

Screenshot from 2013-10-29 12:00:52

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Turn up the volume!

Back in 2005, I won a first-generation iPod Shuffle at a conference for being the most engaged participant or something (i.e. for being a loud-mouth).


The Shuffle is a horrible piece of kit, of course. It has no display, no way to navigate between albums (only track-at-a-time), no EQ, only the crudest battery-state indicator (OK vs. not-OK), and Apple’s appallingly clunky proprietary disk format which means you have to wrestle it to the ground before you can add songs.

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My new favourite Unicode characters

For reasons that seemed good to me, I was leafing through The Unicode Standard, Version 3.0 — 1,040 pages of character-set goodness — when I stumbled across this pair of characters on page 520:

  • ≸ (U+2278) — neither less than nor greater than
  • ≹ (U+2279) — neither greater than nor less than

It moves my soul that both of these exist.

Dear America: you are insane

US schools weigh bulletproof uniforms: ‘It’s no different than a seatbelt in a car’.

That is all.


Things that Americans find incomprehensible about the UK

Lots of interesting thoughts on the previous post — thanks to all who commented. I’ll comment in that thread on the various clarifications of American culture. Here, I want to discuss some of the proposed oddities that have been suggested for Britain. (I won’t be addressing trivia like the lengths of TV series or the size of mains plugs, interesting though they are, because I want to focus on fundamentals.)


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Things that Brits find incomprehensible about the USA

There are things that we Brits find incomprehensible about the USA. And no, I am not talking about trivia like the popularity of bad beer, the funny accents in the South, or the the comical use of the word “pants” to mean trousers. I mean deep-seated cultural differences that make USA sometimes feel utterly alien to me. Here are three:

1. Heath Care

Americans live in a civilised and technologically advanced country, one of the richest in the world. Yet people die because of not having health insurance. To British eyes, that is utterly inexplicable. Barbaric. Inexcusable.

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Why armed guards in schools are a bad idea

I just saw this tweet from National Rifle Association (NRA):

On the assumption that this is a genuine query, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about some simple statistics and probabilities.


First, Wikipedia notes that four presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy) have been shot by assassins. For simplicity, we will leave aside the failed assassination attempts on thirteen other presidents (and the failed attempts on the lives of Lincoln and Kennedy before the successful ones). Let’s consider the time from Lincoln’s death to now (147 years from 1865 to 2012), and say that the chance of a president being shot dead in any given year is 4 in 147, or about one in 40. (The real chance is surely much higher than that — note that there have been attempts on the lives of all the last eight presidents.)

The population of the US is 315 million, of which 27.3% are under 20 years of age. Let’s assume that about half of those are school age (between 5 and 15), which is 43 million schoolchildren. In 2012, there have been seven notable school shootings, but “only” 29 children murdered as a result. So let’s say that the chance of schoolchild being shot dead in any given year is 29 in 43 million, or about one in 1,500,000.

There were 600 accidental deaths by gunshot in the USA in 2010. Somewhere in the range of 30-34% of adults own a gun. Given that there are 230 million adults in the USA (and assuming that the number of children owning guns is negligible), that means there are about 74 million gun owners in the USA. So the chance of any gun owner accidentally killing someone in a given year is 600 in 74 million, or about one in 123,000.

In reality, of course the armed guards who protect the president are the best of the best: very highly trained, and much less like to have accidents than the general gun-owning population. But even assuming they are no more competent than hypothetical armed school guards, here’s how it works out.

  • Giving the president an armed guard increases his chance of being shot, due to accident, by one in 123,000. Given that his chance of being shot is already one in 40, this is negligible.
  • Giving children an armed guard increases their chance of being shot, due to accident, by one in 123,000. Given that their chance of being shot was previously one in 15,000,000, it means they are now 122 times as likely to be shot.

These numbers are all approximate. I could easily be wrong by a factor of two or more. Even if I’m wrong by a factor of six, it still means that the president is much, much, much better off with an armed guard where as a schoolchild would be twenty times as likely to be shot.

I hope that clears things up.