Category Archives: Challenges

Plein Air Pittville Park painting challenge

Last Sunday, in a manifestation of the arrogance for which I am known and loved, I entered a painting competition. For a £15 entrance fee, I went with a friend to Pittville Park in Cheltenham, and spent six hours painting. The competition brief was to paint anything inspired by what you see in the park, representational or abstract. Here’s the view that caught my eye:

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Consider a spherical, frictionless car of mass 1 …

A car of mass m drives at speed v towards a concrete wall. Its kinetic energy is ½ mv2, and all of that energy is dissipated when it hits the wall.

Now consider an identical car driving at speed 2v towards the same wall. Its kinetic energy is ½ m(2v)2 = ½ m4v2 = 2 mv— four times as much as the original car, since kinetic energy goes with the square of the velocity. I hope that up to this point, all this is uncontroversial.

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My new-year’s resolution: write a bad song every week

A little over two years ago, I cracked the problem of how to write a song: let go of the idea that it needs to be a perfect, precious jewel, such as Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell might produce. As I put it at the time: “write a bad song. It doesn’t matter. Just write a song.


So, needless to say, in the intervening time, I have written absolutely no songs at all.

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A short, practical, quiz: figure out where you stand on copyright

Here are a series of hypothetical scenarios. For each one, decide whether or not you think it’s morally acceptable. (Ignore, for now, the related but distinct question of whether it’s legal.)

Question 1 (easy). You buy a CD and listen to it on your CD player. Morally OK or not? If OK, continue; if not, go to Section A.

Question 2. You also want to listen to the CD on your iPod, so you rip it to MP3. You listen to the CD at home, and the iPod when out walking. If OK, continue; if not, go to Section B.

Question 3. You buy and rip not just a single CD, but 100. If not OK, go to Section C.

Question 4. You find the iPod so convenient that you also use it at home. You no longer listen to the CDs — they just sit there on the shelf. If not OK, go to Section D.

Question 5. You need to reclaim the shelf-space that the CDs are taking up, so you put all the CDs in a cardboard box in your attic and leave them there gathering dust. If not OK, go to Section E.

Question 6. Your attic is getting overcrowded and you realise that you’re never going to listen to the physical CDs again, so you take them down to the local tip and dump them in landfill. If not OK, go to Section F.

Question 7. You’re just about to chuck the CDs in the landfill when you realise that there are plenty of people who would still find them useful, so you take then to Oxfam instead and donate them. If not OK, go to Section G.

Question 8. None of the above happened. Instead, you simply pirated MP3 files for 100 albums that you never owned. If not OK, go to Section H.

Finally, if you’re still here (i.e. you thought all those scenarios were morally OK), go to Section I.

Before you read the interpretations below, please take a moment to fill in the poll — it will be interesting to see how public sentiment leans.

The interpretations

Section A. Buying and listening to a CD is wrong. Your position is surprising to me, but I guess it’s a free country.

Section B. Ripping the CD to MP3 is wrong. That is surprising, given that the entire enormous trade in MP3 players is clearly predicated on the ability to do just that. Evidently you believe that you should buy the same album twice: once on CD, and once as MP3s. (Incidentally, the legality of ripping your own CDs is complex. For a long time it was illegal in the UK, then it was made legal for a year or so; recently, I understand it’s become illegal again.)

Section C. Buy and ripping 100 CDs is wrong. If you think it’s OK to buy and rip one CD but not 100, then I think you must be mistaken. Surely morality can’t be a matter of quantity? If 100 murders are wrong, then so is one murder.

Section D. No longer using the CDs, just MP3s, is wrong. How can it be wrong to choose not to use your own property?

Section E. Putting the CDs in the attic is wrong. How can it be morally different to keep the same goods in one part of your house or another? How is a shelf more moral than an attic?

Section F. Dumping the CDs in landfill is wrong. But do we not have the right to do what we wish with our own legitimately acquired property? And how is there any practical difference between the CDs being ignored in an attic until they degrade, and being dumped in a hole in the ground to degrade immediately?

Section G. Giving the CDs to Oxfam is wrong. So we think it’s better to destroy a thing than to allow others to benefit from it? Isn’t that just as silly as thinking that it’s better for cafes to destroy their left-over food than to give it to homeless people? Destroying value is never appealing.

Section H. Pirating MP3s instead of buying CDs is wrong. And yet the practical outcome of this scenario is exactly the same as the previous one: you have MP3 files that you didn’t pay for. How can one of these outcomes be OK and the other not?

Section I. All of these scenarios are morally OK. That at least is a consistent position. But it does seem to imply that copyright can morally be completely ignored.


My position is a strange one. The more I think about this, the more I think that all of these positions outlined above are unsatisfactory. Some (like “Buying and listening to a CD is wrong”) are self-evident nonsense. Some (like “Putting the CDs in the attic is wrong”) are obviously nonsense. The final position — that it’s morally OK to simply ignore copyright — has a certain appeal, but my moral intuition doesn’t like it.

So what is the right solution? And why?

Why does my knee hurt? Someone must know

Five years ago, when I was at the 2010 SVPCA meeting in Cambridge, my knees were very painful. Walking was a trial, and going up and down the steps to the accommodation was pretty awful. I had no idea why my knees had started hurting, and neither did the doctor who I consulted. I also have no idea why they stopped hurting a little later. This whole episode makes no sense, given my generally good health.


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It’s impossible to melt a Cadbury Flake

I discovered by accident that it’s impossible to melt a Cadbury Flake — our son needed to melt some chocolate for school-related reasons at short notice, and the Flake was the only chocolate we had in the house. Although it tastes identical to other Cadbury’s chocolate, it simply will not melt, instead breaking down into a coarse chocolate powder.


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How to write a song (as told by someone who’s never written a song)

As long-time readers will know, I’ve been singing folk songs in pubs and clubs for a couple of years now. It’s great fun, and I highly recommend it: anyone who can strum a couple of chords and hold a tune really ought to look up what folk clubs are in their area and give it it a go.

But although I’ve built up a repertoire of more than fifty songs now, they’re all covers. (11 Beatles songs, if anyone’s interested; five Dar Williams, three Paul Simon, two traditional, two each by Richard Shindell, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Deep Purple and Crosby, Stills and Nash. All the rest are singletons.)

So my dirty little secret is that I’ve never written a song of my own. And in fact, on reviewing what I’ve written on here before about music, I see at least three different occasions when I’ve lamented this.

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How to run 5 km (aging, overweight people edition)

[A quick break from the Heavy Metal Timeline series. We’ll get right back to that after this announcement.]

I am no kind of athlete. Even as a kid, I was a slow runner. I loved football, but I was never a good player. Humiliatingly, I could never think quickly on the pitch, to spot the pass others miss — the one thing I might legitimately have expected to be good at.


And now I’m 46 years old, I weigh 104 kg, I have a BMI of 31.3 which makes me clinically obese, and my job is the most sedentary imaginable: I walk the five meters from my bed to my desk every morning and spend all day sitting in front of a computer.

That means that if I can run 5 km, so can you!

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The future of librarianship

I just had this discussion with my Index Data colleagues, and though the conclusion was worth writing up here. My boss, Sebastian Hammer, asked “So what is librarianship about in the 201Xs ?”

I gave three answers: one smart-alec, one practical, and one philosophical.

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Captcha gone crazy

I absolutely loathe Capchas, those stupid type-in-the-distorted-word puzzles that so many blogs challenge you with before they deign to accept your comment. My feeling is that if the site owner feels that strongly about keeping me out, then they can just manage without my wit and wisdom, thank you.

But this one, which I was challenged with just now, really took the cake:

Not acceptable, world!