Category Archives: Miscellany

The wrong lizard might get in

Apropos of nothing, from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Chapter 36), HHGTTG:

[An extraterrestrial robot and spaceship has just landed on Earth. The robot steps out of the spaceship…]

‘I come in peace,’ it said, adding after a long moment of further grinding, ‘take me to your Lizard.’

Ford Prefect, of course, had an explanation for this, as he sat with Arthur and watched the nonstop frenetic news reports on television, none of which had anything to say other than to record that the thing had done this amount of damage which was valued at that amount of billions of pounds and had killed this totally other number of people, and then say it again, because the robot was doing nothing more than standing there, swaying very slightly, and emitting short incomprehensible error messages.

‘It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see…’

‘You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?’

‘No,’ said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, ‘nothing so simple. Nothing anything like to straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.’

‘Odd,’ said Arthur, ‘I thought you said it was a democracy.’

‘I did,’ said Ford. ‘It is.’

‘So,’ said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, ‘why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?’

‘It honestly doesn’t occur to them,’ said Ford. ‘They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.’

‘You mean they actually vote for the lizards?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Ford with a shrug, `of course.’

‘But,’ said Arthur, going for the big one again, ‘why?’

‘Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,’ said Ford, ‘the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?’


‘I said,’ said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, ‘have you got any gin?’

‘I’ll look. Tell me about the lizards.’

Ford shrugged again.

‘Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them,’ he said. ‘They’re completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone’s got to say it.’

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I love work

Do you know that saying from Jerome K. Jerome? He wrote Three Men in a Boat and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. He said “I love work. I can sit and watch it for hours.”

John Conway as quoted in Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway (2015) by Siobhan Roberts

 (also see: DNA on deadlines)

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Further to a recent discussion on natural language processing on the comp.compilers usenet news group, I was reminded of how the following sentence is grammatically correct in American English:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

As explained in further detail on Wikipedia, this sentence is an example of how homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) and homophones (words that are pronounced the same, but differ in meaning, and may differ in spelling) can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs. The above sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word “buffalo”; in order of their first use, these are:

  • a. the city of Buffalo, New York, USA, which is used as a noun adjunct in the sentence;
  • n. the noun buffalo (American bison), an animal, in the plural (equivalent to “buffaloes” or “buffalos”), in order to avoid articles;
  • v. the verb “buffalo” meaning to outwit, confuse, deceive, intimidate or baffle.

While the above sentence is syntactically ambiguous, one possible parse would be as follows — a claim that bison who are intimidated or bullied by bison are themselves intimidating or bullying bison (at least in the city of Buffalo):

Buffaloa buffalon Buffaloa buffalon buffalov buffalov Buffaloa buffalon.

Finally, there is nothing special about eight “buffalos”; any sentence consisting solely of the word “buffalo” repeated any number of times is grammatically correct (and is also a useful mechanism for illustrating rewrite rules). The shortest is “Buffalo!”, which can be taken as an imperative instruction (“[You] buffalo!”). Versions of this linguistic oddity can be constructed with other words which similarly simultaneously serve as collective noun, adjective, and verb, some of which need no capitalisation (e.g. “police”).

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Mathematical Relationships


I don’t think solving this problem will do much for Angela and Brian.

(see more excellent examples of the world’s finest academic writing at Thanks, Textbooks)

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Christmas computational complexity

While there are alternative explanations for how the naughty/nice list is generated, hashing is important: Santa could be using a Bloom filter, in which false positive matches are possible, but false negatives are not (i.e. a query returns either “possibly in set” or “definitely not in set”, thus it has a 100% recall rate).

And while we’re on this subject, remember Santa’s delivery route represents a nested Travelling Salesman Problem, compounded by the naughty/nice list changing every year…

(Merry Christmas…and watch out!)

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Arkell v Pressdram [1971]

In April 1971, Private Eye carried the story of how James Arkell, a retail credit manager, had dispensed with the services of two bailiffs who were on bail on charges of conspiracy to create a public mischief — despite the fact that he had for the previous year been in receipt of a monthly kickback from their company for putting debt-collecting work their way. It was not an especially spectacular story, but the subsequent letter from Mr Arkell’s solicitors Goodman Derrick and the Eye’s response set an important “legal” precedent which is often cited as Arkell v Pressdram:

Dear Sir,

We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd. His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issues of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory. We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter.

Mr Arkell’s first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.

Yours etc.

The Eye’s response:

Dear Sirs,

We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell.

We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you could inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.

Yours etc.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Private Eye immediately published the exchange, with the case soon falling apart and Arkell withdrew his complaint (“Mr Arkell has now, albeit belatedly, complied with the suggestion made to him at an earlier stage of the proceedings.”). The magazine has since used the dispute as shorthand when responding to threats e.g. “We refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v Pressdram”.

N.B. Pressdram Ltd is Private Eye’s publisher. Also, there was no legal “case”, despite the name by which the dispute is now known.

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/^ah{2,62}/ Coca-Cola

As part of The Ahh Effect advertising campaign, The Coca-Cola Company own the domains, and every one after that up to, and including, ‘a’ followed by sixty-two ‘h’s.

WHOIS entries:

(HT Popbitch)

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Dispatchwork: repairing dull and grey cities with Plastic Construction Bricks

This is part of the manifesto of the delightful Dispatchwork project, conceived by artist Jan Vormann in Belgium in 2010:

I don’t enjoy living in dull and grey cities. Do you? Have you noticed that toys for kids are generally very shiny and colorful? I wonder why that is, given that they are to be brought up to live in mostly dull and gray cities as adults. Since I lived in many of such cities, I am seeking to improve the appearance of public spaces in different ways, in terms of what I consider improvement. Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales, by inserting a very basic construction-material: Plastic Construction Bricks (PCBs).

It has since spread worldwide: here’s an example in Piccadilly Circus in London:




See more examples on the project website.

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To celebrate Douglas Adams‘ 61st birthday, please enjoy this little gem from The Meaning of Liff:

The feeling you get about four o’clock in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done.

(see also: Deadlines)

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Douglas Adams on belief

This quote from Douglas Adams‘ 2001 interview with American Atheists (subsequently reproduced in The Salmon of Doubt) perfectly describes my attitude towards belief and religion (see also: this quote from Alan Turing):

AMERICAN ATHEISTS: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist”. Is this accurate?

DNA: Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist”, some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god — in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.

Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know? Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.

I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” — then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

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2012: A Space Odyssey

What if 2001: A Space Odyssey was set for release in 2012?

It would clearly be a nightmare to market, not fitting into any of the big audience demographics. But what if it was turned into a bone-crunching, non-stop science fiction explosion of action fit for blockbuster season, with plenty of smash cuts and drum’n’bass…?

(HT Film School Rejects)

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A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

Chapter 12, Mostly Harmless, HHGTTG

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Apologies for the length

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Lettres Provinciales (Letter XVI)
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

or translated:

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
(literally: I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.)

(Such statements have also been attributed to Cicero, Mark Twain and T.S. Eliot, amongst others.)

Unfortunately, this is how I tend to feel about most things I write or pretty much every talk I give.

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Be an Optimist Prime

Optimist Prime

In light of recent encounters, I’ve decided to stick this on my office door; I also found some useful Optimus Prime quotes for the workplace.

(HT to Chris Booth and his Advice of the Day blog post from January)



I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

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Sunday afternoons

I agree with Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged (who has unlucky to have immortality inadvertently thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch and pair of rubber bands) regarding Sunday afternoons :

It was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, that terrible listlessness that starts to set in about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths that you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.

Chapter 1, Life, the Universe and Everything, HHGTTG

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