Maximum re-use

Our local pizza take-out, Oregano, closed down a few months ago.  Before its demise, the O of the big Oregano sign above the door fell off, never to be replaced.

Its premises remained activity-free until a few weeks ago, when some new occupants strated sprucing the place up, ready to open as…  Wait for it…  A pizza take-out.

I saw a couple of the workers at the new place a couple of days ago.  And they were sporting t-shirts printed Regano.  Ten out of ten for re-use.


I’ve wondered about hashtags in Twitter for a while now.  I’ve not subscribed to them, but maybe I’ll start.  Not in Twitter itself, because I don’t think it’s suited to dealing with them in a user-friendly way; but in Google Reader, where you can add a hashtag’s search URL as a feed.

Thinking about useful such feeds, it would be nice if people adopted hashtags to report issues with London buses (#tfl26 is my proposed hashtag for the 26 bus).  I would certainly subscribe to the hashtags of bus routes that affect me, checking in whenever I’m ready to embark upon a journey.


Newcastle relegated, I think

For whatever reason, BBC Sport chose the last day of the Premier League season to re-arrange its live updates page.  Its main new feature is that instead of appearing at the top of the main content area, the latest scores appear in the right-hand column.

While it looks fine and dandy on the web, the page has a fundamental flaw when viewed on a mobile: the right-hand modules, including these live scores, are nowhere to be seen.  So you have to follow each and every textual update in an attempt to figure out what the latest scores are.

Thankfully, the fact that Newcastle lost meant that I only had one score to concentrate on.

Please sort it out for next season, BBC.

Are you guilty? Yes/No?

I used simultaneous equations for what I think was the first time in my career last week, having learnt them as a teenager. It was to figure out a base cost c and the variable cost m where I knew three equations that should rightfully have satisfied the equation y=mx+c, x and y known in each of the scenarios.  Although rusty, my knowledge didn’t fail me.

And I resorted this week to a statistical technique that I remember learning back in 1992–3 while at university in Newcastle.  The technique aims to estimate percentages of people who share an attribute where the people sampled aren’t necessarily up for answering the question truthfully.

The question to which I wanted to know the answer was “Of those people accused of terrorism who walk free, what percentage were actually guilty?”

If you ask the freed suspects outside the Old Bailey “Did you do it?”, you’re unlikely to get a considered response, particularly from those that did.  Why not instead give them a die and ask them to roll it in secret.  If they get a six, they should answer the question dishonestly; if they get anything other than a six, they should be honest in their response.

If 70% (y) of respondents said they were guilty, then the estimated percentage of people that were guilty would actually be 80% (x).  Here’s the math(s).

0.8*(5/6) + 0.2*(1/6) = 0.7.  Or (5/6)x + (1/6)(1-x) = y

And here’s the English.  The estimated proportion of people saying they were guilty is:

The proportion of guilty people answering truthfully * the odds of them answering truthfully


The proportion of innocent people answering dishonestly * the odds of them answering dishonestly

But having conducted the experiment with a sufficiently large set of people, you know the y, so re-arranging and simplifying, the estimated proportion of guilty people is:


It’s quite a nice little solution.  If, of course, you can trust people to act honestly based on their rolling of the die.

For travel advice, call your colleague

The other day, my bus into work sat idly in a queue of traffic, occasionally stopping and starting where usually it would usually whizz down the bus lane, laughing at the queuing cars interrupted only by the odd twatting cyclist.  (The twatting cyclists are the ones that disobey all rules of the road.  Unfortunately, a seemingly law-abiding one on that very morning ploughed straight into a van that was cutting up the traffic, through no fault of the cyclist.  He was OK.  But still.)

The bus was standing room only, which made the snail-like pace all the more annoying.  I reached for my phone and searched Google News for the name of the troubled main road, hoping for some traffic update or the like.  No articles came back.  Not even one about the recent stabbing that had led to the road closure, nor anything about the big pile of blood and what appeared to be body-shrapnel (brain bits?) outside the road’s Post Office I saw the other month.

Maybe I should have searched Transport for London, but I didn’t think of that.  My belief was that their systems wouldn’t be geared to getting such news out so quickly to their customers.  And I also figured that while the Tube line is entirely under the remit of TfL, roads aren’t, so are less likely to receive the same level of focus as Tube issues.

So I called my colleague to inform him that my attendance at the 9am meeting was touch-and-go because of transport issues south of the river.  Without my asking or him looking up the information, he immediately told me of a RTA (road traffic accident) on said road that was bringing south London to a standstill.  He read the news somewhere at Victoria Station, apparently.

So my colleague knew, but the internet didn’t.  Or at least the bit of the internet that I was looking at didn’t.

How do we get this information into the hands of the public quickly and in a digestible format?  I should be able to click on a bus number and find out the latest.  Maybe I can, and am looking in the wrong place.  Or maybe it’s not there.

If it doesn’t already exist, we need a system that allows you to upload snippets of information based on your GPS location and to tag it as necessary with appropriate information—road names, bus numbers etc.

Does it exist?  If not, why not?  Does this belong in Twitter?

Bank Holiday weather

Typical Bank Holiday weather ahead.

Bank Holiday weather

Bank Holiday weather

Out of orifice emails

The Outlook interface for creating and editing your out-of-office email response is dreadful. In Outlook 2007, it constitutes a text-box four lines high, maybe 350 pixels wide for entering raw, unformatted text. Keep typing and you’ll get a vertical scrollbar.

And the interface does not allow for spell-checking.

The dreadfully constrained interface and the lack of a spell-checker make for out-of-office emails littered with typos and grammatical heathenry, an email that is sent to way more people than any other.  I would estimate that over half of those I receive contain at least one error.

Today’s examples:

Please.  Copy your email into Word.  Read it, check it and double-check it before turning your out of office on.  Thank you.

Wolfram Alpha

Well.  It seems that everyone else has written about it.  So it’s probably time I joined the bandwagon.

Wolfram Alpha.  It’s quite impressive isn’t it?  Type in some terms that it likes and it’ll tell you all about them.  Type in comparable items (apple and orange, for example), and it’ll compare them for you.  Enter a couple of cities, and it will tell you about the journey between the two and the relative times of sunrise in the respective locations.  And it’ll eat complex mathematical formulae for breakfast. *

* As long as lots of other people aren’t using the site at breakfast time, in which case it will apologise in a humorous way for its inability to deal with your request.

But where does it sit?  I’ve seen articles asking whether it’s a Google-killer.  (None believes it is, but many ask the question.)  While I also read one that instead suggests that WA will instead eat into Wikipedia’s traffic.

I don’t think either is true.  WA as a site is a flash in the pan.  Mathematicians and a few geeks will bookmark it; a tiny proportion of those will make it their homepage.

Yet WA uses a phenomenally powerful semantic technology.  It allows certain queries to be parsed quite beautifully to give pertinent, insightful, useful information.

But I don’t want to choose which search engine to turn to based on what I’m looking for.  (As an aside, I’d never go to Wikipedia to search for stuff—I rely on Google giving sufficient prominence to Wikipedia results for pertinent queries, such is the travesty that is Wikipedia search.)  I want something else to decide which search engine to use and return the results that are most appropriate to my query.

I want search to be good enough for the “I’m feeling lucky” button to be the default.  If I search for HMRC, don’t give me a bunch of results; take me straight to the website, maybe with a link in a header bar to its Wikipedia entry, or to wider search results.  If I search for y = sin x, take me straight to the WA results page, again with the option of going to the wider results if I so choose.

Google is best placed to integrate search in this way, with such dominance in so many markets and so many eyes looking no further.  Whether it develops its own Wolfram Alpha equivalent, buys up their technology, or merely links off to it as it does with Wikipedia remains to be seen.

(As an aside, it’s interesting that Wolfram has registered, but not managed to secure


If I follow you on Twitter but don’t know you or know of you, don’t d me; unless I actively invite you to do so.

And if you have a site that you want me to visit, don’t beg me to do so.  I’ll visit your site if I find the content sufficiently enticing.  Your begging is vulgar and rather pathetic, and detracts from what I otherwise consider to be worthwhile content.

And please don’t ask that I visit the homepage because you’re unsure whether it’s up.  (“Is anyone having problems with the my site’s homepage? Or had problems in the past?  Take a look.”)  Test it yourself—don’t patronise me with such a thinly veiled plea.

That is all.

House of pi

If I were to build a house from scratch (from the ground up, if you will), I’d like to think I’d have the balls to put a digit on each brick.  While building work would start at the bottom of the house, owing in the main to tradition and the effects of gravity, the design would be such that the front of the house would display the first digits of pi, reading from left to right, top to bottom, a three appearing in the top left corner, just under the eaves.  To its right, a unique “decimal point” brick.

To achieve the goal, the number of rows of bricks (m) and the number of bricks on each row (n) would need to be pre-defined.  And you’d work backwards from the (mn-2)nd digit of pi in the bottom right corner.

Is that a job that you’d trust to a brickie?

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