Monthly Archives: December 2012

Where the Council of Elrond went wrong

Granted that “there is no smith’s forge in this Shire that could change it at all. Not even the anvils and furnaces of the Dwarves could do that […] nor was there ever any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, for that was made by Sauron himself.”

And let’s assume that the obvious eagle hack can’t be done, for some reason.


But what they could have done was to drop the Ring into molten steel, shape it into a solid sphere, and bid Frodo cast that into Mount Doom.

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I wish Jackson hadn’t ruined Galadriel’s speech

I bow to no man in my admiration of Peter Jackson’s fine trilogy of Lord of the Rings films (and indeed his ongoing Hobbit). I may not be able to disagree with any of the specific criticisms Andrew Rilstone makes in his fine reviews (Fellowship, Towers, Return), but I am a million miles away from agreeing with his downbeat conclusions. Yes, all the films are flawed; but they are mostly flaws of ambition, and so they are easy to forgive. And they are overwhelmed by the huge amount of good stuff. In fact, the three LotR films are arguably my three favourite films of all time.

That’s why this pains me so much:


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No, Peter Jackson is not doing a George Lucas

I’ve read a couple of reviews arguing that Jackson is making the same mistake in the Hobbit that Lucas did in the Star Wars prequels — filling in details that the original only hinted at (“the Senate has been dissolved”, “the Clone Wars”, etc.) with concretised versions that aren’t as interesting as what we independently imagined. But in the case of Tolkien the exact opposite is the case, and the “back story” is actually the primary story that the well-known parts were made up to sit on top of and, if you like, act as an advertisement for. By foregrounding these, Jackson is arguably being more true to Tolkien’s original vision than J. R. R. was himself in writing The Hobbit.

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.

Some thoughts on The Hobbit, part 1: An Unexpected Journey

I saw The Hobbit this afternoon with my family, and on the whole thoroughly enjoyed it. It certainly avoided the trap I’d most feared — that by being a two-and-three-quarter-hour film of the first third of a not-particularly long book, it would feel padded. Instead, the time was managed well and the slower-than-usual pace gave the film time to breathe.


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Pulled back into PlusNet after all

Well, what do you know? I left the phone ringing as I wrote the last post, and it did get picked up. I got through to a helpful man who was going to send a new MAC key, but managed to get me to explain why I wanted to move.

Beyond simple frustration, PlusNet simply don’t offer the package I need, which is unlimited bandwidth with a static IP address. Well, I was right: that package doesn’t exist. But they do have a package which gives me 120 GB per month rather than the current deal which starts throttling me to death around 30 GB. So for now at least, that’s good enough — it’s past the I Don’t Want To Even Have To Think About How Much Bandwidth I’m Using threshhold. (Because that’s the real issue. It’s 2012: I should not have to think “better not watch that on iPlayer this month, it might push me past the threshhold”.)

Not only that, I can have a static IP address with the 120 GB package for £5 a month, which is fine. It’s actually going to come to significantly less than I am paying now.

So I am staying with them after all.

But here’s the frustrating bit: I only found this out because I phoned. x There is nothing on that admits the existence of a 120 GB deal: it’s a closely guarded secret. Their site only shows 10GB and 60GB deals. And there’s nothing that says you can get a static IP address with either of these deals. In fact the whole site seems coy on the very existence of static IPs: for example, nothing in my account page admits that I have one under my current package.

You only find out that the 120GB deal exists, and that it can have a static IP address, if you phone up and are prepared to wait twenty minutes.

What’s that about?

Trying to escape from PlusNet

I’m trying to change ISP, because my current sorry excuse for an ISP (PlusNet) throttles my connection down to sub-modem speeds towards the end of each month as punishment for using too much bandwidth.

To move away, I need to know my MAC key. This, they will not tell me.

A sequence of four of five times around with the online support system resulted in their flatly refusing to tell me. In the end I had to write them a paper letter.

I did this, and they finally sent me a MAC address. Then other things intervened, and I only now return to that issue, ready to progress it. Now I find that the address they sent me expired after one month.

So I have to go through the whole wretched process again.

This time, rather than writing, I tried phoning the number they gave me. It took nearly two minutes to make my way through the auto-answering system. When I finally did, the automated voice told me that there would be a twenty-minute wait before I could speak to a human.

A twenty-minute wait. To obtain information that they could easily send me online. But won’t.

DEAR PLUSNET. THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO DO CUSTOMER RETENTION. What you need to do is make me want to stay with you, not make it hard for me to leave you. Because I will leave you, but I will do it kicking and screaming.

All eight Harry Potter films reviewed in 300 words

[I wrote this in response to a comment by Hal on my old review of the Percy Jackson movie. Decided it was worth airing on its own. You may or may not concur.]

I agree, Hal, that the Potter films can be stodgy and unimaginative in their literal-minded adaptation of Rowling’s prose. That can be particularly apparent in the adaptations of the longer and less well-edited books, and as you say the two-part Deathly Hallows really does feel like an exercise in grinding through every beat of the books. (Yet even then it manages to muff Neville’s big moment with the hat, which was pretty much my favourite part of the book.)

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Inclusive and Exclusive OR in informal speech

As good computer scientists, we know that there are two kinds of OR.

An inclusive OR, which is what we nearly always need in programming, is true if either of its branches is true: “exit this loop if we’ve processed 50 items OR there are none left to process.”

An exclusive OR is true if exactly one if its branches is true, but not if both are. “If player 1 is attacking player 2 OR player 2 is attacking player 1 (but not both) then inflict damage.” [This is a contrived example: that’s because it’s hard to think of non-contrived examples — they hardly ever come up in real programs.]


When we use “or” in informal speech, we nearly always mean exclusive or. If I tell you I’m going to the cinema to see Skyfall on Wednesday or Thursday, you understand that I will go on one day or the other, but not both. If I ask you what you want to drink and you say Abbot Ale or Ruddles County, you’d be surprised (but maybe not disappointed) if I brought you two pints.

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