Sunday 13 November 2011

Bristol's Library Opening Hours

I use the Central Library quite a lot, but I can never remember when it's open until late, so I searched on the Bristol City Council website to find out.

You can imagine how discouraged I was when I saw the little bit of text under the search result...

Friday 11 November 2011

Silence in the Library

Today I was in the library when they observed the two-minutes silence for Armistice day. The start of the silence was marked by a bell. A man sitting nearby asked what the bell was for and it had to be explained to him. Once he knew what it was, he stood up for the duration of the minute.

The end of the minute wasn’t marked by the same bell, but I thought I heard a bell that rang very faintly in the distance but I wasn't sure. Of course, being in a library, it was hard to tell when the silence had ended. It was only when people were being served at the desk was I sure that we’d finished.

About half an hour later, the man who’d stood throughout the silence got up to leave. He balanced out his earlier respectful silence by knocking over his chair.

Friday 4 November 2011

Dog Translucent #21

A long time ago, someone commented on this blog about a Dog Translucent that they remembered but I hadn't put up. Well, I finally found it, so here it is.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Indian Summer

It's a hot Saturday evening in October, and the streets are full of people. It seems like everyone's taking this last chance to go out drinking and pretend it's summer before they're able to go out drinking and pretend it's Christmas.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Monday 15 August 2011

The Airship that wasn't there

People tend to interpret things in the skies according to what they expect to see there. Which is why atmospheric anomalies have been interpreted as alien ships, foreign airships or chariots of the gods at different times in history.

One example of a misidentification due to wanting to see something occurred in 1923. The French airship, Dixmude, went missing on a journey from Toulon in France to Algeria. The airship left on Tuesday 18th December 1923 and the last contact was on the 21st December in the north of Algeria. On that day she was fighting a storm and had little petrol left. In a telegraphic message she’d been told that the weather was too bad to return across the Mediterranean. A brief radio reply of acknowledgement from the ship was the last direct communication with the Dixmude.

This was France’s largest airship, and at the time held world records for flight distance and duration. It was widely reported in the British press, so I can imagine how much greater the coverage would’ve been in France.

A report in the Times on the 24th December writes that she’d been seen over the Gulf of Gabes. The Times records a report from the Ministry of Marine in which the Dixmude is described as “asking for assistance” and a steamship was dispatched to the Gulf to offer help.

The Times on the 27th says that on the 23rd, the Commandant of the Lansquenet received several reports of lights in the sky in the late evening, which were reported as possibly being the Dixmude, but without a clear identification, the Commandant was doubtful.

The Times of the 28th contains an article describing how, on the 26th December, reports came in that she had been seen drifting in the south of Algeria, around 200km south of Ain Salah. This caused two French patrols to be sent to contact the Dixmude and give aid in the event of a landing.

This last hope that the Dixmude was still okay was dashed the next day, when reports were printed that the body of the captain of the Dixmude had been discovered on a Sicilian coast. In the following days, more wreckage was found and there was a witness statement of some fisherman who said they saw two burning globes fall into the sea. The evidence pointed to the Dixmude attempting to turn back to France and being struck by lightning.

Which leaves us with a series of interesting sightings, some seemingly detailed enough that the ship’s signalling could be recognised, of a ship that had crashed hundreds of miles away several days before. A desire that one of France’s most famous airships remain safe is probably the main reason for people wanting to see it. And perhaps as reports changed hands they grew in detail, leaving the papers with some apparently reliable eye-witness accounts.

Monday 8 August 2011

Kimberley uses Copydex

Last weekend, I found a bunch of old photgraphs from my time at Stevenage College. While they brought back a few memories, there was only one photo that I liked as a photograph in its own right.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Missing house

I once made a mistake in writing my address on an order, and I accidentally put 484 as my house number. Once I realised my mistake, I went along to the house to see if they'd received it.

I walked along, keeping track of the house numbers, until I crossed a road. On the other side, the numbers had jumped by four. I crossed back and forth several times, trying to find the missing address, but with no joy.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Guessing ages at the check-out

Today I was in the Co-op, waiting in the queue, when there was a delay with the people in front of me. While this was being sorted out, I watched the guy on the other check-out as he worked. I was especially interested in the stuff that comes up on his screen, since that's something I don't normally see.

He was checking out this middle-aged woman's shopping and when it came to something alcoholic, there was a screen asking if the person was over 18, and also "What age does this person look?" The guy typed in 45, which was accurate I suppose, but I thought "Couldn't you compliment her? Say she's forty. I know she'll never find out, but there's no need to be so harsh."

And then I thought the next time I'm buying something alcoholic from Co-op, should I ask them what age they put for me? I'd be quite interested, but I think it might be a bit annoying for the check-out person. Basically, I'd be asking for a compliment.

Friday 15 July 2011

Grime City PD on YouTube

I keep forgetting to mention, but the sequel to Rocket Science - the animated short Sam Morrison and I wrote - is now up on YouTube. Hooray!

Tuesday 12 July 2011

The meaning behind the washing on the line

Next door have had a jumper out on their washing line for about a week. It's been there in both sun and rain with no sign of them taking it in. In fact, I'm starting to think it might be their flag.

Monday 11 July 2011

Amusing typo from Reed Recruitment

At least, I hope it's a typo.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Recursive nostalgia

I was thinking about the 1970s recently, and in particular about how it felt like science was about to send us into a new lifestyle. There were shows like "Space 1999" and comics like "2000AD" which promised us space exploration and jet-packs in only thirty years time. Thinking about that, I felt a bit sad that such promise hadn’t been fulfilled.

Then I realised I was being nostalgic for a time when people longed for the future.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Chimney stacks and rooftops

This morning I tried looking at some houses in Bristol as if I was a foreigner. I thought that someone in the world would find these ordinary houses exotic and interesting, and I wanted to see them in the same way.

I was in a fairly run down area of Bristol, and the houses were cheap and built by the council. The basic shape was always the same, and all the metal gates at the ends of paths and driveways were the same design.

The roofs on the houses were flat, so in that respect this was not an ordinary British street. But I noticed that the chimney stacks looked too tall. They were almost the same height as if they had sloping roofs. Perhaps they were supposed to have roofs, but at the last minute, someone decided they shouldn’t. And no one told the man who was building the chimneys.

There’s probably some health and safety reason for a smoke outlet to be a particular distance from a window, but I imagine the builders scratching their heads when they got the architect’s plans and seeing such tall chimney stacks.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Van Gogh in oils

While out walking I saw this bit of pollution in a puddle that reminded me of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Great sentences from Wikipedia

From the page "History of Naples"

"The greatly popular patron of the city, San Gennaro (St. Januarius), was decapitated in nearby Pozzuoli in 305 AD"

Makes you wonder what they'd have done to him if they hadn't liked him!

Thursday 5 May 2011

Everything underwater becomes interesting

When the very small approximates the very big

When out walking in a park, I found a couple of fairy rings on the ground doing a passable impersonation of the Hourglass nebula.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Me and Google agree

While looking on Google Maps for places in Japan I’d been to, I saw that a walk I'd done now had street view images. So I looked at it, and compared it to the photos I'd taken when I was their last year. I noticed the similarity between the two images below. Either the Google pictures were taken around the time I'd been, or that car's owner is very particular about how to park cars, or it hasn't been used at all.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Polite Police Notice

A couple of days ago I saw this sign up on a wall near Gloucester Road in sunny (for one day, at least) Bristol, and I found it quite funny. I thought it was from a bygone age when Dixon of Dock Green could fight crime by sternly wagging his finger.

But when I got the photo back home and zoomed in, I saw at the bottom a slogan: “Working with you, working for you.” This didn’t seem very old fashioned, so I did a quick search and it seems to come from a book by the Avon and Somerset Constabulary published in 1994. So nothing to do with the days of petty larceny and cheeky cockneys scarpering down the lane, more to do with community outreach programs and policing pledges.

I wonder if the sign worked.

Friday 15 April 2011

My first psi experiment.

You can hardly call the circumstances “controlled”, since I was being told the method as we went along, and I’d had three pints before we’d even started, but nevertheless Tuesday saw me take part in an experiment to detect psi.

The event was a skeptic(ish) meeting arranged by Jerome and the person being tested was Matthew Smith, the Million Dollar Psychic. He’s a skeptic who’s decided to see if it’s possible to become psychic. He was going to do a talk about his progress so far, and the reason behind the whole thing. Since he was there, Jerome wanted to try and test Matthew’s powers.

Matthew says he is best at psychometry – the ability to pick up information by handling an object that is often carried/worn by the person. While Matthew was out of the room, Jerome asked for rings from four men. These were put in numbered envolopes for Matthew to “read” later on.

I was quite interested in my own reaction to all this. I don’t believe in psychic powers, but during the test (when it was just me, Matthew and an observer) I considered trying to concentrate on a word and pyschically send it to him, to try and get him to say it during his reading. But then I stopped since I thought if I succeeded I wouldn’t know for sure if it was chance, and also I would’ve ruined the actual experiment. So I didn’t.

Also, as we found out the results, I was pleased to see that the first reading matched so well with the person whose ring it was. Maybe we were on to something, I thought. And maybe we weren’t, since we soon found out that the same reading matched even better for another one of the four men. And it matched pretty well for a third.

In the end, only one of the four readings was picked correctly by the person it was intended for, which is to be expected by chance. Then we asked everyone in the room – about thirty people – who’d heard the four readings being read out if any of them matched them. About five or six people put their hands up. Which was surprising, since Matthew had tried to stay away from generalities and be specific, but even then, there’s enough leeway for people to read their own life into a few random sentences.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub

On Tuesday evening I went to Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub to see Christopher French do a talk. The talk itself was good, but what I want to write about is a little episode of non-critical thinking on my part.

When I got there, I wanted a drink, but there were a lot of people at the bar, and only one bar tender who didn’t seem to be moving very quickly. I noticed that this bar sold Budvar Dark on tap, and I thought "The last pub I went to with Budvar Dark on tap had really slow service too!"

I don’t really think that the drinks on sale effect the speed of service at a pub (well, except for Guiness) but for a second, I thought I’d stumbled upon something.

Wednesday 23 March 2011


When I was young, one thing about adults that always impressed me was the number of keys they had. Keys for front and back doors, sheds, cars, garages, lockers at sports clubs, and any number of mysterious ones that never seem to be used but are important enough to be always to hand. It seemed like a terribly grown up thing. A symbol of importance and responsibility. People are relying on you to protect and allow access to certain areas.

Right now, I have three keys on my key ring.

I think the younger me would be somewhat disappointed.

Of course he’d be amazed at my tiny telephone, mp3 player, computer and Nintendo DS but, that aside, he’d be unimpressed by my lack of keys.

Friday 11 March 2011

Chess in 1K

Since it's the 30th anniversary of the ZX81 computer, I thought I'd write about what I think is one of the most amazing pieces of programming ever: 1K ZX Chess.

In 1983, David Horne wrote a program that would play a game of chess that ran on the Sinclair ZX81 computer using just 1K of memory. As one of the smallest versions of the game to have a visual display of the board, it stands as a remarkable achievement. If sculpture can be described as starting with a block and whittling away anything that doesn't "feel" like the thing you're trying to create, then David has done something similar to the ZX81's tiny memory. It's hard to believe that there's a single byte left in the program that doesn't have some element of “chessness” to it.

Of course, to fit the greatest game ever into such a small space necessitated certain limitations. The program always plays as white and only makes one of two opening moves, depending which side of the cassette was used to load the game... king's pawn to king's pawn three (van't Kruijs' Opening), or queen's pawn to queen's pawn three (Miese's Opening).

The artificial intelligence of 1K ZX Chess could only look one move in advance, and the program had no concept of the newer rules of the game (ie, after the sixteenth century) such as castling, en passant, and promotion of pawns. Nevertheless, within these 672 bytes of code lie the barest bones of chess, as if this is the absolute zero of chess and below this it cannot exist in any recognisable form.

Playing the game isn't that satisfying, as it has a fondness for moving the rook back and forth between a1 and a2. If you want to break this cycle then you have to attack the square a2, and only then does it turn its attention to other things. So it's possible for it to play a good game, but only if the human opponent acts as a kind of sheepdog, guiding it towards the right move. Or at least away from a really wrong one.

If it takes one monkey seventy thousand years to type “TOBEORNOTTOBE”, then how long before 1K ZX Chess accidentally plays like a grandmaster? Having no memory of the previous game to learn from, it would be a fleeting success, never to be seen again but is there at least the potential for this game to mimic the style of every master who ever studied the game? I hope so. In one game, it suddenly pushed its queen into the fray in what seemed like a very bold and romantic move. It didn't last, though, but for a moment I felt like Prof Higgins in My Fair Lady, and I wanted to call out “By George, I think it's got it!”

(Oh, and here's a blog post in which 1K ZX Chess goes up against a newcomer to the 1K chess world, Tiny Chess.)

Tuesday 8 March 2011

The Speech Puppet

Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) is perhaps best known as the designer of The Turk, an automated chess-playing machine which amazed the wealthy and the wise in late 1700s Europe. It was a fake, but nevertheless brought him a lot of fame during his life.

More impressively, he invented a machine that could speak. He began working on it in 1769, and slowly perfected it over time. Charles Dickens wrote about it (in 1870, so probably working from second-hand sources)

“Having combined the results of his researches, he constructed a head which contained the requisite wind-tubes and vibrating reeds, and a bust provided with some kind of bellows. Thus armed, his automaton could pronounce the words “opera,” “astronomy,” “Constantinople,” “vous etes mon amie,” “je vous aime de tout mon coeur,” “Leopoldus secundus,” and “Romanum imperator semper Augustus.” These words were spoken when the machine was wound up, without any player being required to press upon keys and pedals.”

A more contemporary source (although I forgot to note the source) records:

“When Widisch heard the device he said it answered ‘clearly and distinctly’ in a ‘sweet and agreeable voice,’ but that it pronounced the letter r ‘lispingly and with a certain harshness.’ He added, ‘When its answer is not perfectly understood, it repeats it slower, and if required to speak a third time, it repeats it again, but with a tone of impatience and vexation’.”

(A nice example of how people can read emotions into inanimate objects, by the way.)

These days, it seems that a full working model of Kempelen’s machine doesn’t exist, although on YouTube there is a reconstruction which needs to be manipulated by hand for it to work. It says little more than “mama” and “papa”, but perhaps given time and a little practice, some of Kemplelen’s lessons could be re-learnt and some dexterous operator could make the machine speak again.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Clever King

During the 1600s, it was thought that the touch of the British monarch had curative properties. It is said that Charles II touched a hundred thousand subjects during his reign (more than 8,000 in 1662 alone).

William III was rightfully more skeptical of his own role as a healer, and could be persuaded to touch only one sufferer during his reign, whom he advised "God give you better health and more sense."

Source: "Forgotten English", Jeffrey Kacirk, 1999

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Buried Alive Hoax, 1929

A man who called himself Marcel Clement, the Marquis of Champaubert (real name: Clement Passal) had been trying to sell his memoirs of his life of crime, but had met with little success so he struck upon a plan to make his biography more appealing. He invented a story in which he’d been kidnapped and tortured by a secret society, sending out letters from this society to newspapers in the hope they’d pick up the story.

The culmination of the plan was to have himself buried alive and for journalists to find him and disinter him, still alive. He and a fellow criminal, Henri Boulogne, successfully completed a dress rehearsal in which Clement had remained in the coffin (fitted with an air tube) for nine hours.

Despite the newspapers ignoring the letters they sent out, they decided to see the plan to its completion. At a rented villa near Versailles, Henri was given the letters to post and buried Clement in his coffin. However, exhausted by all the work, Henri then fell into a deep sleep and when he awoke he sent off the letters in a rush. Later on he went to check on Clement, but when there was no reply through the air tube, he feared the worst and ran away.

Meanwhile, the newspapers received the letters, informed the police and the body was exhumed. It was found that Clement had suffocated, and that the air tube fitted was not adequate.Henri was captured, tried and sentenced to three months in jail. The report from the Times, 7 October 1929, ends with:

“The grim irony of Passal’s fate is given greater prominence in the Press than has been accorded to any criminal event in recent years so that the vain desires of the psuedo-Marquis de Champaubert have been fulfilled. Unfortunately for him, even this measure of gratification has come too late.”

Source, The Times, 07/10/1929 and 05/12/1929

Sunday 20 February 2011

The Tale of Thomas Arden

I haven’t been writing any comic strips for a while, but instead of leaving this blog lying unused, I thought I’d just type up any curious bits and bobs that I find while looking around the library.

The first entry is about a man called Thomas Arden (1508-1551) whose wife needed seven attempts and ten conspirators to murder him. Thomas had married into a powerful family, and so when his wife, Alice, had an affair, he put up with it just so he’d retain access to her family.

1. She asked a painter from Faversham to concoct a poison, but although Thomas fell ill, he didn’t die.

2. John Greave (who had previously argued with Thomas over a property issue) offered a £10 bounty on Anne’s behalf to a man named Black Will (an ex-soldier). Black Will was to murder Thomas at St Paul’s, but there were too many people around.

3. Thomas Arden’s servant was asked to leave the back door open, so that Black Will could get in and kill Thomas in the night. But the servant, Michael Saunderson, was too afraid of Black Will and would not let him in.

4. Black Will was told to murder Thomas as he journeyed back to Faversham, but Thomas was accompanied by a number of gentlemen.

5. Alice tricked Thomas into going to see Sir Thomas Cheyne at Shurland. The plan was that Black Will and his accomplice George Shakbay would ambush him on the way. Unfortunately due to the mist they waited for him in the wrong place.

6. A man called T Morsby picked a quarrel with Thomas Arden, but he refused to fight.

7. Lastly they successfully attacked Thomas while he was at home, playing a table game with T. Morsby. Morsby, Black Will and Alice all inflicted wounds upon him. After the murder, they hosted a party for visitors from London, before hiding the body in the snow. The body was soon found, and Morsby and Alice were arrested.

Eventually, all conspirators were executed. Black Will, Morsby and his sister were hanged, Alice burned, and Saunderson was hung, drawn and quartered.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Captain Bartholomew Farthington-Smythe #1

... and his guide to Physiognomy!

Quick update: I'm still writing things, but I'm not really working on any comic strips at the moment. In the meantime, these ones that I did ages ago will fill the gap.