Alphabet of URLs

Meme of choice, via doctorvee: Type “a” in your address bar and see what comes up, then “b”, “c”, etc. Here’s mine:

  1. Been searching for books of late
  2. I must load it at least 20 times a day
  3. I bought a Canon digicam recently, been chasing up the documentation
  4. Latest memes
  5. Careful scrutiny of my Wikipedia watchlist
  6. Been adding lots of photos of late (see c.)
  7. The Google Firefox search page (my homepage)
  8. Er…
  9. Ack, I’m becoming a closet Indie reader
  10. The blog of Lib Dem councillor in Birmingham
  11. An interview with Douglas Rushkoff
  12. Edinburgh University Library
  13. MoFi
  14. BBC News (does anyone not have this for n.?)
  15. My mobile phone provider
  16. Gossip etc., even though it’s been on the slide of late
  17. Ha! Ego or what?
  18. Checking to see what’s on telly
  19. Some good stuff lately on SBBS
  20. Well, I do work for them
  21. Checking maps etc.
  22. Validating updates to this site
  23.,1284,67300,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_2 A Wired article I kept loading
  24. Was checking some footy stuff of late
  25. Nothing, strangely – mostly because I never use Yahoo these days
  26. A t-shirt site, not sure where I got the link

Election Sweepstake!

Yesterday I was looking around the web, trying to find out if anyone was running a sweepstake on the election – not for profit, “just a bit of fun”, as Peter Snow might say. I couldn’t. So I made one. The election sweepstake is your chance to impress everyone else – pick the number of seats that you think Labour will win by. Whoever gets it right will be rightly lorded as all-seeing and all-powerful, and you will have the right to brag about it on your blog for all eternity. There’s no actual prize as of yet, though I might well toss one in if enough people join in.

The code is a bit rough and ready so bear with it if it is buggy in any way. And please no spam, I’ll notice it and then block your IP.

Minor update: 12 hours in, it seems that most of the bets are between 40 and 80, even though most opinion polls have Labour consistently in three figures… do we know better than they do?

Question Time

Wow. Question Time almost became car-crash TV – the moment Blair was hearing for the first time how GP surgeries work around the 48-hour waiting time targets set by government by forcing people when they could make their appointments, and Dimbleby asked “has anyone else had this problem?” and a chorus of “Yes!” came back; the look of incomprehension on his face was priceless.

Not that he had a much better time during the rest of the programme, although some of the audience flustered their lines somewhat (understandable), there were a lot of pertinent questions about Iraq; Blair shillied and shallied as best he could but didn’t answer many of the questions satisfactorily, banging on about “making tough decisions” again and again. The most awful thing (if I were currently a Labour supporter, rather than a lapsed one), was that when it came to a couple of tap-in questions on the economy and improvements in schools or hospitals – Labour’s allegedly strongest points – he failed, utterly, to get any point across at all. The Labour manifesto is stuffed with statistics – hell, I can remember some of them – dubious or not they sound good as an authoritative answer – but Blair forgot all of them. He had to resort to “well, I think they’re getting better” and personal opinions, without any facts to back them up – not even any anecdotal evidence. The one statistic on the reduction in cancer deaths was woolly and unsure (“er… ten thousand, I think”). With no numbers to back him up, the audience were able to tear him to pieces with their own personal accounts of health service failures in response.

IMO, Question Time was a disaster for Blair, even the friendly questions he managed to answer only passably, rather than positively and triumphantly like an incumbent on his way to a third term should. At the end he was audibly booed by some for chickening out of a proper debate (I suspect that he might regret this – he’d have preferred to spar with known quantities like Howard and Kennedy than a hostile and unpredictable audience). The rivers of sweat on his forehead at the end were reminiscent of Robert Hays in Airplane! Meanwhile, Howard got away fairly lightly, there were some quite angry protests from the audience but not many were coherent enough. Despite not actually saying very much of any merit whatsoever he wriggled through. Charles Kennedy managed to put himself across very well – he was sober, mindful of the facts and considered, even when rattled. He seemed more genuine than the other two, though he still can’t throw off that hint of dullness he has. It’ll be interesting to see the polls tomorrow – I reckon the Lib Dems could score a point or two more, the Tories one as well, with Labour losing out.

Why I don’t like Sudoko

When in London last week I encountered several people on the Tube doing Sudoku puzzles, introduced to these shores by The Times, and promptly copied by the rest. It’s described by one person as a “crossword for numbers”, which I think is a bit unfair to crosswords, for reasons I’ll go into later.

Anyway, the puzzle consists of a 9×9 grid partially filled with digits; the goal of the puzzle is to fill the entire grid, such that the digits 0-9 appear exactly once in every row, column and 3×3 subsquare within the grid. I had a go at a couple of examples on the web, and found them interesting and challenging. The only problem is that with geeks like me, we quickly tire of solving the problem and work on trying to solve the bigger problem – how to program a computer to do the work for you.

In this case it’s not too hard to do a simple helper program, working on purely deductive logic – I thought up the basics while queuing in Tesco’s just now. Each cell has a list (maybe a 9-length boolean array) of whether a particular number may be (true) or definitely isn’t. Every time a number is added all the cells in its row, colum and subsquare have their lists updated; if a list ends up with only one candidate (one true value and eight false in the array) then you have a definite, you add that number and repeat the process. Then I though if you have two cells in a row or column or block, each with the same two possibilities, then you can exclude those possibilities from all the others). And if you can do that with two, you can do it with sets of three, four, etc. Use binary arithmetic, and bitshifts & masks to do the dirty work, will help speed it up.

By the time I got to the front of the queue, I realised this is purely deductive and it may not be possible to solve a grid from the initial numbers given, so we may have to add an inductive element: introducing test numbers to see if they work in the grid, and retracting them if they don’t could be added. It would be a lot of fun to make a Flash applet to do it, and trying to get it to be as efficient as possible, if it hadn’t been done already by others.

An individual puzzle may be very hard and challenging, but I’d just “cheat” and make a program to do it for me. The challenge isn’t in the puzzle, the challenge I’d like is in making something that would solve the puzzle for you, as fast as possible.

Anyway, another Japanese puzzle which I was shown a few years ago by a friend is a little more enjoyable; having tracked them down on Google I’ve found they’re called Edel. Edel consists of a blank grid of squares, which can either be filled in or not (black or white). At the start of each row or column, there are numbers telling you the length of continuous blocks filled-in squares in that row or column, but crucially, not the spacing between them; it’s up to you to deduce which squares lying within are the ones filled in (this may be a shit explanation, the illustrated examples are better). This puzzle can be inductive as well as deductive, and the nice thing is that they are also artistic; finished solutions can create pictures or patterns (this final part may make it easier for humans to solve rather than computers, as we can do image recognition and inform our guesses by that).

Sadly, it’s not quite taken off in the UK yet, although with the Sudoku craze it may only be a matter of time before some newspaper puts them in as an alternative; I’ve been unable to find Edel puzzle books in the mainstream bookshops (though I’ve just thought it might be worth checking specialist Japanese shops).

Update: I’ve found out that Edel puzzles are also called Nonograms, and that some bright spark has come up with a nonogram version of Minesweeper, Nonosweeper. (via Kevan)

Still, even Edel may be universally solvable by a computer with some clever tricks and hacks, so eventually the fun may be brought out of that too. Which brings me on to crosswords – at Cambridge I was one of those who resided in the college bar for at least an hour every morning, avoiding lectures by drinking coffee and ploughing through the crosswords in the newspapers (first the Telegraph, then the Guardian, then the Times if I was feeling up to it), of late I haven’t kept up, though I stood over a complete stranger’s Telegraph shoulder in the pub last Thursday and did most of it for him (I feel bad – I ruined his challenge, and then he bought me a drink by way of saying well done!). Cryptic crossword clues are usually horrific (especially some Grauniad ones), it’s bad enough trying to parse them, let alone solve them, if you’re a human. I shudder to think how to teach solving them to a computer. Although computers can help us with anagrams and partially complete words, there is no way on Earth a computer today could be given clues and a blank grid and expected to come up with a solution. If they ever get anywhere near that smart, run for the hills.

Because no-one, least of all me, is likely to come up with a computer program that will be able to fully solve every crossword possible any time soon (although it would be fun trying to coach AIs and genetic algorithms to do so), cryptic crosswords are safe from the grubby grasp of silicon. While Sudoku, without a computer to help you, is just as challenging and intellectually stimulating, crosswords are on another level in terms of the mental approach taken; I can escape from logical restrictions into a different and artistic, but equally fun realm.

Hacking together an application to solve Sudoku in the fastest time possible is similarly artistic and demanding – it’s by no means a simple logical deduction and there are a wide variety of approaches. It’d be quite hard for a computer to write such a program straight away; it’s a talent that is still privileged to us rather than the machines. Which is funny to think about, for some, that writing programs is as much a proof of human creativity and artisanship as anything else you care to mention.

To sum up, I don’t like Sudoko. Though I don’t dislike it either, it’s just something that we can leave to the computers to do for us instead. There are much more fun challenges that we ourselves, and only ourselves, are able to do.

Goldsmith advice finally published

It’s taken a while, but finally Blair has been forced to publish Lord Goldsmith’s advice on the legality of the Iraq war (Full PDF version). Months of demands from those wishing to see it have finally been answered; what irks me is why it was withheld in the first place. The government can bleat all it wants about confidentiality between a client and its lawyer, but when the client is working on the public’s behalf then the public have a right to know. The ‘national security’ justification for withholding doesn’t really apply, this was a document analysing what legal support, such as UN resolutions and existing international law, were needed for the war to be legal, rather than the existence of WMD; besides, the government had already made much intelligence information available to the public.

But Blair was stubborn, he knew he was right; it didn’t matter to him whether the legal advice was full of caveats and equivocations. It was just a rubber-stamping of his intentions, and one he didn’t want to be subject to public scrutiny; it would all be forgotten about, he hoped, come the next election, so he decided not to make the advice public. Now we know the truth – the Attorney General wasn’t sure whether the war would be legal or not based on past resolutions, and it was dependent on there being “hard evidence” of WMD programmes – sadly for Tony this was not the case. With a delicious irony it’s come back to bite him on the arse now, a week before polling day.

Election leaflets – a review

Out here in Edinburgh East, one of the many seats in non-marginal land (i.e. 80% of the country), the parties can’t be bothered to advertise, let alone stick up posters in their windows. There might as well not be an election, as far as here is concerned. There are no people canvassing; even in a student-heavy population as mine, parties like the Lib Dems can’t be bothered to go round an knock on doors, which is a shame; venting my spleen at a hapless canvasser would be a good way of relieving the mild worry about my dissertation.

Instead, the parties get Mr Postman to do all the hard work for them; today with my Private Eye and some bills came a clutch of election leaflets, which was slightly reassuring, some sign that the candidates might actually care, rather than wait for the inevitable Labour win. More pleasingly, it gives me a chance to slag them off pass a discerning eye over them for both your and my own entertainment.

Labour (Gavin Strang)
A glossy A4 leaflet, folded into thirds. Big text. Red and yellow. Some dodgy stretching/WordArt effects. Could be a flyer for the local McDonald’s. No picture of Blair, but plenty of Gavin Strang, who with his scruffy hair and funny teeth clashing with his suit, looks like a dustman who’s in court over a minor driving infraction; mostly harmless, then. Makes much of the fact he voted against the Iraq war and top-up fees (though he doesn’t mention ID cards or foundation hospitals, which he did vote for). Quite internationalist (committed to action on climate change, AIDS, the developing world). Economy and public transport also mentioned. Let down by a seriously ugly use of Arial, in varying sizes and aspect ratios, throughout. Haven’t they heard of Gill Sans or Futura? Needs a more “forward, not back”. 5/10.

Conservative (Mev Brown)
Enormous A3 foldout, matte finish. Booms throughout: “Who Should Be Your Next MP?” it asks, before shouting the single word “Brown” over half of one side. All in capitals. Gratuitous use of Impact, and like Labour badly sized Arial (which lets down the otherwise excellent typesetting and production). Mev Brown looks like a younger version of John Reid, like someone who was released by mistake under the Good Friday Agreement. Very thin on text – two issues (taxation and Iraq) get about 100 words each. Quite pro-occupation (a picture of him decked out in his TA outfit, Gareth Keenan-style adorns the Iraq article). All in all typical Conservative, shouty yet remarkably thin on ideas. 4/10.

Liberal Democrats (Gordon Mackenzie)
Glossy A4 leaflet, folded into thirds. Let down by a seriously bad bit of Photoshopping of Charles Kennedy in front of a saltire. Gordon’s photo looks like an accountancy firm’s “employee of the month” mugshot. Consists partly of a “Dear resident” letter in a faux-handwriting font that looks pretty naff. Pretty standard Lib Dem fare – more police, scrap council tax. Has space for filling in your name & address if you wish to help out in his campaign, the ‘Name’ bit can only fit about three letters in though, presumably all Lib Dems in the area have surnames like Lee or Cox. On the whole, fairly inoffensive. Quelle surprise. 6/10.

Scottish Socialists (Catriona Grant)
Glossy A5 leaflet. Garishly yellow and red on one side; Gill Sans bold text promises scrapping council tax and prescription charges. Aiming much for the elderly vote by the looks of things. Ms Grant’s photo looks grainy and old, like she’s a missing person or something. The reverse consists of a “tick the boxes” chart that helps you choose whether you’re left, right or centre and which party to vote for; this isn’t a very good idea. Makes up for it slightly by calling the Lib Dems and SNP “fearty parties”. But still a bit too Spartist. 5/10.

Scottish Green Party (Cara Gillespie)
Matte A5 leaflet. The only leaflet on recycled paper. The best designed – pleasing shades of green and decent clipart. Sticks to the party’s “People, Planet, Peace” theme but mentions local needs a lot. Combination of Impact and Arial, but quite pleasingly done. Mentions food a lot, thank the Jamie Oliver effect for that. Candidate photo looks professionally done, unlike the rest. Friendly and optimistic in tone. 8/10

Scottish National Party (Stefan Tymkewycz)
The SNP didn’t send anything out in the post, but I got a “Newsletter” through my letterbox later. A3 sheet, laser printed, split into 4 pages. Really badly typeset, Microsoft Publisher stuff, this. Prints the Edinburgh East & Musselburgh Scottish Parliament result as proof that the SNP are the best challenge to Labour, which is misleading as the Westminster constituency is different. Law and order and firearms control are policies of the day, as is a campaign for a Scottish Sky News. Hmm. Carries ads on the back, one looking for a spare lock-up garage to rent. Can’t decide whether it’s a party newsletter or an election leaflet. 2/10.

Sorry if you don’t like the snideness, but there is a point to this – there isn’t much in the way of local campaigning (although EUSA have organised a hustings event on Thursday) and this bunch of leaflets represent the total sum of the parties’ attempts to reach me in the campaign; how much effort they go into producing them is pretty much the only indicator of how hard they’re working for my vote. The Greens win it (despite my own bias, it is by far the better one) by a long shot, while the SNP are the biggest losers. The rest all seem to have rushed out fairly mediocre ones; in a day and age of cheap high-quality publishing you’d think they’d have a bit more care about it. I’ve seen better flyers from the local kebab houses.