Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Faces in the Furniture: Bathroom Beats

 For some reason the paint on Mike and Jude’s bathroom wall flaked away leaving these shapes.

For some other reason (mainly to do with it being opposite the toilet) I would find myself staring at it and seeing all manner of things in its form.

These are the two I could be bothered to visualise:
There were more but I forget what they were. 

Now the wall is re-plastered and all I have is memories...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Captcha - Reading along the Lines

You know those little puzzles you get on some web sites that make you translate blurred and distorted pictures of letters and number before you can get whatever it is you are after...

...well there's more to them than meets the eye.

The most common variety is 'captcha' (as in capture). They have two words and look like this:

The puzzle checks to see that you are a 'real' person before allowing you to access the site. People are quite good at dechiphering them, computers aren't. And there are other people 'out there' who write programmes which log into millions of sites automatically to steal email addresss,  leave links, sell Viagra, break into your bank account, steal your children and generally make life difficult. But so far computers generally find this sort of puzzle too difficult and cannot enter the sites protected by these garbled guardians.

In an intreguing bit of double-think Google has come up with a practical use for this process.

You may be aware that Google are in the process of digitising a shed load of printed material including millions of books, magazines and newspapers.

All the books in the world in Google's shed...
The intention is to make them available online in an easily searchable form. They scan the pages of print and use OCR (optical character recognition) programmes to convert the pictures into words, sentences and paragrpahs. Sometimes the computers cannot come up with an acceptable interpretation of a particular word. This maybe because the text has been printed at a small size on absorbent paper, printed on a fold, scribbled over, or otherwise damaged.

Books damaged by a deluge of 1988 Chardonnay following
an accident in the basement of a restaurantnext to a
rare book dealer in the Charing Cross Road
Google has a 'captcha' application called ReCaptcha. It uses these garbled words as the fodder for its puzzles. ReCaptcha looks like this:

Every time we 'solve' one of these puzzles our answer is sent back to Google who use it to suggest a meaning for a word that their character recognition programme could not understand.

This is a nifty implementation of distributed computing (where a massive task is divided up between a load of people who all do a little bit each) but it does give rise an interesting scenario and one big question.

The scenario concerns what happens if the answers we supply are fed back into the character recognition programme so that it learns to decipher garbled words? This sort of feedback loop must be an irresistable temptation to the programmers. It is elegant in the extreme and will help speed up the process - but if the programme escapes and the bad guys will get hold of it they will destroy the  'is this a real person' test.

I expect the answer is 'We wouldn't do that' or alternatively 'It won't happen'. Hmmm, we shall see...

The big and more obvious question is: If they do not know what the word is, how do they know we have typed in the correct letters?

Of course they have thought of this. As noted above, there are always two words. The reason being that one word is known and the other is an unknown word from the scanning project. They work on the basis that if you get the known one right, the unknown one will be either right or nearly right. They will collect a load of suggestions for the unknown word and (probably) choose the most popular. An exercise in democracy in translation (discuss).

But as far as the 'is this a real person' test is concerned, only the known word counts. So next time you are having trouble with one of the words it is 50/50 at worst that you need to get it right at all. If fact the easier it is to read the more likely it is to be the one that counts. If it is a number, has accents or punctuation or is truly indecpipherable there is a good chance that you can type in just about anything and still pass the test.

Among the issues yet to be addressed is: Do they try to prevent rude and offensive words appearing? If so how?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

London 2012

Anyone who knows me will know that I am not a great sports enthusiast.  Sport is OK and good for one’s health (if done in moderation) but watching other people compete seldom does it for me. I am also immensely bored with the amount of coverage in the media.

You may have heard that London gets to host the Olympic Games this time around. This is not really the place to go into the rights and wrongs of spending billions on a couple of weeks running, jumping and standing still, let alone, the whole issue of justifying it by the legacy it will leave, and using the games as an excuse to ‘rejuvenate’ the East End (ask the people who used to live there and were shipped out to Essex or Siberia or wherever), and all the other fuss and nonsense – so I won’t. [You did. Ed]

But it does seem unfair that the Olympics have copyrighted the phrase ‘London 2012’. How can you copyright the place and date? Nonetheless that is what they have done so this blog entry’s title is in breach of LOCOG copyright – and proud of it.

I was in London at the beginning of February and among other things I visited the Stratford Olympic Park, part of which looked like this:

From left: McDonalds, the Orbit, main stadium, blocks of flats overlooking
the site, power plant chimney stack, park management offices.

The main stadium will seat umptillion people, and then they will take out the top level of seating to leave the lower level for the audiences who are expected to attend the venue in it's legacy role.

Stadium kit with removable non-legacy seating
They have had some test events to make sure every thing works. This is a very sensible thing to do. During one such event they discovered that BMXers were gettign blown off their bikes on one of the ramps and have redesigned the layout. The layout of ramps with regard to prevailing weather conditions is reasonably unpredictable and it is good to have an opportunity to test it before the serious business of competition kicks off. 
On the other hands they had a little bit of trouble in the indoor venues. "We did have some feedback from spectators that they couldn’t understand what our announcers were saying. So we upgraded the PA systems across all of our venues. In the indoor events that we’ve had, [the venues] were built for what they are going to be in legacy, so we hadn’t got the PA systems that we need."   
The need for an audible PA system is entirely predictable. The idea that they had fitted the legacy system in one venue is unfortunate and should not have happened. The idea that they had fitted inappropriate PA systems in all the venues is laughable. That's a shit excuse and looks like someone really screwed up. Lucky it was only feedback from the spectators.

Getting in was reminiscent of entering east Berlin before the wall came down, what with the concrete bunker style vehicle entrance and security staff checking the underside of vehicles with mirrors on sticks. I didn’t see any machine gun posts but I expect there are some.

The pedestrian entrances are full height turnstiles with biometric ID scanners cunningly disguised as hand dryers.

The park is home to the worlds largest McDonalds, an appropriate category of food, associated as it is with fitness, wellbeing and sporting prowess the world over (discuss).

Two chaps (left) clear snow from the roof of the three story McDonalds

And they have invented a new sport, screw a sign to a Heras fence.

Can you screw a notice to Heras fencing?
Yes men, it can be done.

Looks like Team GB are in for another Gold.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Confused: Knives

How long have you lived with a misconception picked up in your youth? I have a catalogue of them and they are still coming out. This partly because I was brought up to respect authority (no, really – but I am learning to overcome it) and because I tend to take things literally. Well, that is what language is for. English has many words for things that other languages see no reason to name. I have been brought up to value words and try to use appropriate words where possible. This can lead to a blind belief that other people use words with the same care - a dangerous belief as anyone who has ever read anything published by Microsoft will know.
In an attempt to coax more fallacious beliefs from my unconscious, I intend to share those of which I am aware with you. To find more, click on the ‘Confused’ topic/tag/category. Here is the first of what I am ashamed to say could be a long series which I hope may explain and/or excuse things which I have said and/or done in the past and which may have resulted in anything from mild misunderstandings to mega calamity and matrimonial strife. 


My gran, Meg, lived with us when I was young and was a fount of wisdom. I spent hours with her in the kitchen (her habitual domain) where I learned much as she scurried back and forth practising the twin arts of homecraft and confusing the young. 

One of the gems I gleaned from watching her wash up was that glasses go in first. The water is really hot and doesn’t have any grease or bits of cabbage in it. The glasses come out hot enough to dry themselves by evaporation. This means less work in the drying department and leaves them free from the smears which drying with a tea towel can sometimes produce. My gran loved a clean glass and had a great respect for economy.

She also laid down the law about washing knives. You do not wash knives in hot water. Being a bright lad I knew that knives were sharp, indeed for me this was their only significant characteristic. And this is why you do not play with them, hold them by the blades, put them in your mouth, run with them (especially on the stairs), nor do you hand them to anyone blade first. I had an internal argument with myself every time I was required to hand someone a knife as I tried to reconcile the instruction about not holding them by the blade while at the same time handing them over handle first.  I developed a technique of holding the blade between middle finger and thumb, right next to the handle, and with an elegant flick rotate the knife through 180 degrees so that the handle is facing away from me – but I digress.

My younger self associated Meg’s commandment to mean that hot water would make knives blunt. I could not see how this might be, but gran's word was law in the kitchen. As I grew older I saw others happily scrubbing away at blades in scalding water and despite there being no obvious deleterious effect on their cutting power, I silently thought 'you shouldn't do that...'.

I was wrong of course. I only found this out when I was much older. Gran had failed to mention the salient fact that the knife rule only applied to the bone and ivory handled knives, and which we had in abundance, because the heat melted the glue which held the handles on.

I still have a vague feeling of guilt every time I put a hand full of cutlery in the hot washing up water, but I am learning to live with it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Faces in the Furniture: Elvis has left (his mark on) the building.

Lauzerte has two bars in the square at the top of the hill, the Café du Commerce and the Puits de Jour.

The Puits de Jour is the first arch on the left
They have both been there for yonks. The Puits de Jour used to be called the Café Central. It has seen a lot of changes in the last few decades, but few of them are visible as you can see from this photo from taken sometime in the sixties. It could have been the 1860s (apart from the umbrellas).

The Puits de Jour is run by Mathieu and a staff which seems to vary by the day. Mathieu is a ‘muso’, that is to say that he has been in bands since for ever, and everything he does has a soundtrack. We all know people like him, in fact many of us are people like him - obsessed with music and seldom without a toon playing nearby. He has live music in the bar as often as possible. and puts on the occasional outdoor music festival. 

Here is Elvis pressing the flesh at one such event - well that's what I was told.

The bar is in a three story building (see photo above) and has a narrow gallery at first floor level. Looking up you can see the skylight for which the bar is named (puits de jour = well of light). I really should have taken some better pictures, maybe later…

ANYWAY…  the relevant point is that one day while having a beer I looked up to the gallery and there was Elvis, larger than life. I pointed this out to Mrs PJ but she did not recognise him. I took this picture to record the moment:

I have shown it to a few people but none have seen what I saw. 

Here is a clue:

Seemed obvious to me...

Uh, huh-huh.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hamming it up (or down?)

When you are airside at Toulouse Airport you can buy a wide range of snacks and drinks from taste’ n fly (sic).

They do a breakfast special, confusingly called 'lunch pack', comprising a baguette and a drink and all for only €7.10

I leave it to you to decide if this is good value and what time of day you should eat it.

For some reason they have decided to exclude ham from their wide range of fillings.


Answers in a comment box (below) please.

Clue - use your skill and judgement to work out the reason from analysis of the full price list:

Yeah, I know, you can't read it, time to move on.