Friday, July 30, 2004

30 July 2004: Sheep

One of the fun things about growing up in the country was the large number of cattle grids on the roads around the village. These are grills in the road designed to stop grazing animals wandering across from the common grazing land of Dartmoor into the village and, in particular, our pretty Devon gardens. Driving across a cattle grid was always a great deal of fun, a tame version of a fairground ride. Cycling across such a grid was yet more invigorating. But it seems, perhaps, that the days of the hoof-proof cattle grid are numbered.

The BBC today reports that sheep have the whole system figured out. They can't walk across the grid, so they've learned to roll across eight-foot-wide grids in Marsden, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire. Apparently they're also hurdling five-foot-high fences. No pictures of these events, I'm sorry to say (for goodness' sake, BBC - even UFO stories usually have some kind of photo, however fuzzy), so it may all be a load of droppings. Still, I can't help thinking there should be some kind of Olympics for sheep featuring such events. Maybe the sheep-centred theme park 'The Big Sheep' (tagline: ewetopia) in north Devon could take up the idea?

Meantime, Blogger's spell-checker continues to educate, inform and entertain. For the above paragraph, it suggested 'marketing' for 'Marsden', 'HUFF' (in capital letters) for 'UFO' and 'Ethiopia' for 'ewetopia'. A tagline I'm sure the people at 'The Big Sheep' considered carefully.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

29 July 2004: London

According to the BBC News website, London has overtaken Paris as the top tourist city in Europe.


It's true. Apparantly there was a 22% surge in visitor numbers between March and May this year, which is stunning enough considering the weather we've had so far in 2004. But it's even more amazing when you consider this statistic (one I had suspected for a long time but had never seen figures for): London is the second-most expensive city in the world. Only Tokyo beats it. Yet the people keep coming.

And what do they come to see? The London Eye is the highest-grossing attraction in the country (ok, it's impressive, but it's hardly Disney or SeaWorld, is it?), and of course the Tower of London. You have to pay over eleven pounds to do each of these. For less, you can see Buckingham Palace (from the outside!), Leicester Square and Parliament. You can ride a big red double-decker bus, take the tube, get a black cab home after a night in the West End. Big city bustle and fun?

I lived in London for six years (give or take travelling around the world for a few months), and never understood the attraction. It's a dirty, foul-aired metropolis, streets too small for the traffic attempting to get through (even with Uncle Ken's Congestion Charge scheme), a city of contrasts between ultra-wealth and extreme poverty, and an increasing gap between the two. It's a place of immense sadness in many ways, very very different from the rest of Britain and confused as to why it is so different. But it is different, which is why many overseas tourists fly in to London and never actually leave the city. What else is there? Stonehenge? (Less impressive than Niagara Falls and I wasn't impressed by Niagara Falls) Edinburgh? (Edinburgh gets only 10% the number of visitors that London gets).

My tip: yes, visit London, but don't do the tourist thing too much. A good day would be, yes, to do the London Eye, followed by a river cruise down the Thames (complete with sarcastic commentary from the driver) past the Tower and down to Greenwich, where the observatory and small markets provide a fully diverting afternoon. Back under the river through the foot tunnel and catch the DLR back to Bank. A short walk to Brick Lane for the definitive curry experience, followed by a stop at the 24-hour bagel bakery and lastly a drink and a game of bar billiards at the Owl And Pussycat on Redchurch Street. If you have more time, the Angel provides more food experiences than you can shake a stick at; Hampstead Heath brings the countryside to the city (it's huge: it spans zones two, three and four); the Comedy Cafe on Rivington Street in Shoreditch is always decent (ie cheap) on a Thursday night; an international cricket match at Lord's or The Oval is worth catching, as is, in winter, ice-skating at Broadgate, right in the courtyard of all those big international banks. But then leave. Go and see Devon, or the New Forest, or the Isle of Skye. The weather will be just as bad, but it's cleaner, quieter and, yes, cheaper.

Better still, go to New Zealand. They may have more sheep than people, but there's always the off-chance of seeing a Hobbit.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

28 July 2004: Sven

Bobby Williamson to be Next England Manager  

In a shock move designed to scare visting tourists, Plymouth Argyle and the Football Association today gave a joint statement in which they said that Plymouth Argyle manager, Bobby "Huggy" Williamson, would take over responsibilities for the England national team from the start of the new season.

Williamson, who only recently took over at Home Park following the departure of Paul 'Luggy' Sturrock to some other team, has shown the class and foreign-ness required for the top England post during his short stay in English football.

At a press conference, Williamson said he was keen to leave his mark on the english game. "Leave me alone, Duncan," he told reporters, "I'm eating ma mince and tatties."

Current incumbant of the England post, Sven 'Muggy' Goran-Eriksson, was unavailable for comment, although former England breast-carrier Paul 'Chubby' Gas-Coin said on Radio Five Live this morning that he "had heard Sven was good between the sheets".

The case continues.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

27 July 2004: Toaster

What is the mysterious object shown above?

My initial reaction, upon seeing Nick open the box in front of me here in Bay 10 yesterday, was that it was a toaster. And it could well be, except for the fact that it has USB and firewire connections, and nowhere to put the bread. Perhaps even, given its cost of £600 and the fact it was paid for by AKT (well-known for Artificial Intelligence innovations), it could be the legendary Talkie Toaster from Red Dwarf. As Nick plugged it in, I expected it to say... "Howdy doodly doo!"

But it didn't.

Instead it fired up, one by one, a series of internal disks, until after a short period of time there was, plugged into Nick's laptop, a removable hard disk of size one terabyte. What's a terabyte? The fact that you don't know how much a terabyte is just shows how big it is. It's big.  It's a thousand gigabytes, or a million megabytes, or over 1428 uncompressed music CDs. Uncompressed. And it's the size of a toaster.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly because you're bored (you wouldn't be reading this blog otherwise) and partly because of the implications for certain technologies. If I can fit one and a half thousand CDs on to this beastie - and lets face it, it's new, so from here on they're only going to get smaller, cheaper and increase in capacity - then this is the death of MP3, or MPEG movies, or any kind of compressed media format. You just won't NEED compression soon.

Of course, we're just going to be using it when I'm sent to Penn State University to get the Citeseer data and source code in a few weeks. Nothing like a mundane use of an exciting new technology to kill the imagination. But mark my words, this is the beginning of the end of compressed media.

Toaster kills MP3.

You heard it here first.

Monday, July 26, 2004

26 July 2004: Le Tour

Good to see Mr Lance winning his sixth Tour De France yesterday. Well, ok, let's be honest, I didn't actually see it: ITV, despite having the rights, decided not to show anything much of this year's Tour on UK network TV. I don't understand this: last year they had regular highlights and even live Sunday afternoon stages - the race up Alpe D'Huez was truly outstanding last year, and brought in plenty of viewers. This year they put it all onto ITV2. So I was left with the wonders of the internet - listening to the classic team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen in audio only from the (it has to be said, excellent) official Le Tour/OLN website. Maybe if they introduced Bob Roll and his 'Tour day France' to the UK audience, they'd get back on mainstream TV in no time.

So with that over, only a couple of test matches left and the baseball season into its second half, it's starting to seem like summer is almost over. Next thing you know the football season will be starting. And no doubt I'll be sent to Penn State Uni to coincide with one of Saints' home games. Talking of which, the Citeseer people are making quite a big show (on their own website, admittedly) of the fact that they've released, in OAI format, all the Dublin Core info plus the 'references' and 'is-referenced-by' data for all their records. I was greatly excited by this, but frankly a lot of it is just flat out wrong. In fact, the 'is-referenced-by' field data is so wrong as to be utterly useless (does paper number 99087 really reference every other paper in the database?! (No it doesn't). Must have been a bear to write it.) Makes me feel a little like Tony Bickford must have felt when he first got the Post Office Address File in his first attempt at making QuickAddress.

The difference is, I don't have a multi-million pound business waiting for me on the other side.

Finally, got the new Hillsong album ('For All You've Done') over the weekend: it's about the usual stuff for Hillsong (which is to say, pretty good and very sing-along-able), although not quite up to the standards of last year's 'Hope' album (which I still don't own, *sniff*). Most exciting was to see that Jonas from the London Hillsong congregation has co-authored one of the songs with Marty Sampson. I've only been a few times to the London Hillsong (I've been to the Sydney one more often, even taking the chicken pie into account), but have always been impressed by young Jonas and his songs! There's hope for us Brits yet, even if we didn't have even one entry in this year's Tour De France.

Maybe David Millar should try dodgy chicken pies instead of EPO.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

22 July 2004: Sneeze

Of great relief to me is the current 'instant poll' on Slashdot. For years I've wondered why it is that, when stepping out of, say, the depths of Bay 10 on Zepler Level Three out into the blinking sunshine of the Southampton University campus, I will walk approximately four steps and then sneeze violently.

Not only do 34% of Slashdot nerd-respondents suffer the same condition, but a link to the Wikipedia tells us that this is a genuine medical condition. The Photic Sneeze Reflex is real, caused by a "congenital malfunction in nerve signals in the trigeminal nerve nucleus." Just what I thought.

Apparantly, this condition has career-influencing effects: "people suffering from photic sneeze reflex may not fly combat aircraft". I don't especially worry about that, but it is a definite annoyance when driving down motorway, the sun comes out from behind a cloud and AAA-CHOOO, suddenly there's nasal fluid all over the windscreen. If you leave it a few days it congeals and sometimes becomes fungal. Yum.

28 June 2004: Edinburgh

Off to Edinburgh today. The six-monthly AKT workshop takes place this week so we're all off to Bonny Scotland to sit in seminars and talk about knowledge technologies. Much the same as a normal week, except my 'Declaration of Arbroath' tee-shirt might get a better reception.

Just as the weather is turning nice again, too. It rained most of saturday, which was a shame for Matt and Becky's wedding, especially since the reception was held in a big tent in a field. Dry cleaning coming up for my suit, I think. Yesterday was a little better, although since I spent most of it being very lazy and watching baseball, I don't think I'm fully qualified to say. Braves came back from seven-nothing down to beat Doug's beloved Orioles eight-seven, which is quite astounding given how utterly dreadful the Braves have been this year. Andrew Jones and Russ Ortiz going to the White Sox, says the rumour machine. Yes, that'll solve our problems, give away two of the few remaining star names. Hang on to them too long and we may turn in to Leeds United. Or Real Madrid. How awful would that be?

But I digress. Still, a good relaxant is necessary before a workshop week. I'm feeling all tuned up, ready to go, keen to add my (hopefully now worth something) opinions to the discussions. It's a simple enough proposition, I'm learning. Just mention something that's popular on the Internet at the moment, add the word 'semantic' in front of it, and bingo, everyone thinks you're a genius. Semantic Google, mmm. Semantic cookies, fantastic. So what could I come up with, I wonder? Semantic web-cams? Semantic viruses?? Semantic hamster-dance is the best I've come up with so far.

Maybe I can find some Semantic Haggis while I'm in Edinburgh.