The Curse of the Exploding Knee Cap!

Here’s the latest image of the horrific growth on my top lip for #Movember - you can see why my wife complains of pogonophobia.

But it is worst than that - I’ve been struck by the Curse of the Exploding Knee Cap!

I’ve been having a few warning twinges from my left knee for a few weeks now and today this transmogrified into continuous pain - of course at exactly the point when I was furthest from home. Eight hours later and I have a very swollen leg. Damn annoying, since I’ve only been doing fractionally more mileage than normal.

Do I get extra donations if I hop the remaining 42 km of my Movember challenge?

Movember Donation Link

Science Shambles

The Movember challenge has encouraged me to walk a bit further each lunchtime and that has allowed me to make inroads into my podcast playlist. The backlog currently stands at 426 episodes - 388 hours and almost 30 GBytes of MP3s. So I need to do a lot more walking…

One series of shows that always get priority are the Science Shambles podcasts from the Cosmic Shambles Network. These are great examples of science public engagement, featuring leaders in a wide range of scientific endeavours talking about their work, or just taking part in fascinating Q&As about their subjects.

This year they have managed to involve four astronauts (Samantha Cristoforetti, Helen Sharman, Tim Peake, and Chris Hadfield) as well as luminaries such as Alan Moore, Sir Paul Nurse, and Jon Butterworth. They produce a Sunday panel Q&A session, as well as individual interview podcasts, and special events. The Sunday afternoon Q&A is broadcast live on YouTube and later published as an audio podcast. As the audio version is not heavily re-edited the sound quality can be a little dodgy at times but the content is always fascinating. The interviews and book review episodes are very professionally produced, so don’t be put off by the Sunday sessions.

The Science Shambles podcasts often share episodes with sibling Book Shambles and Genetic Shambles podcasts, both of which I can heartily recommend.

Traditionally the Cosmic Shambles crew do a series of live events through the year culminating in a Nine Lessons and Carols for Curious People show in December - a science-oriented variety show full of comedy and music. After more than 15 years in front of appreciative audiences, circumstances have meant that this year the show will be broadcast online as a live 24 hour event starting at midday on the 12th December 2020. At the time of writing over a hundred performers have been announced, ranging from Jim Al-Khalili to Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Dame Dr Jocelyn Bell Burnell to Lost Voice Guy, and from Chris Hadfield to Nitin Sawhney.

Nine Lessons and Carols for Socially Distanced People, as it has been renamed, is going to be free but they are running a Crowdfunder to support four charities*, server costs, and considerable amounts of coffee. It is well worth bunging them a quid or two.

If you like Science, give it a try - you’ll love it.

* Charities supported:

Movember Progress Report

So, more than a week into Movember and my wife (who doesn’t follow me on social media) has only just noticed that I’m growing a moustache… I’m not sure if she needs new glasses, or whether it’s just that she can’t bear to look at me. She claims the latter. Either way, I’m certain that it is nothing to do with the hair on my upper lip being rather whiter and perhaps a little sparser than previous years…

Movember Donations

Movember starts here...

First day of Movember and a quick photo to prove how lovely and smooth my upper lip is… what? Oh… OK… well it’s smooth anyway.

Movember strives to make a difference in mental health and suicide prevention, prostate cancer, and testicular cancer. Since 2003, it has funded more than 1,250 men’s health projects around the world. The impact of COVID-19 and the lockdowns makes the mental health aspect more important than ever. Raising funds by a little light moustache growing in November, or doing some sponsored walks or runs are easy ways to help fund research and support across the world.

Jonathan’s Movember page

Ni No Kuni Remastered: Wrath of the White Witch for the Switch is just £7.99 for the next few days

I’ve been tempted by “Ni No Kuni Remastered: Wrath of the White Witch” on the Nintendo Switch for sometime but at £50 I couldn’t justify another JRPG to add to the backlog, even if the animation was by Studio Ghibli. But until 01-Nov-2020 the download is available at 83% off in the Nintendo UK store - and I believe in other areas too. At £7.99 I couldn’t resist…

Five hours into this 40+ hour game and I’m finding it very enjoyable, humorous, surprising in parts, but not quite in the same class as Dragon Quest XI.

The animation is by Studio Ghibli and the first half an hour feels very much like watching one of their movies. Going by the style of animation and age of the main character I was expected a cute story and a simplified RPG mechanism, but I was soon dissuaded of that when early in the game a tragic event hits our hero with more realism than I was expecting.

The battle mechanism is an interesting combination of action and turn-based RPGs with a strong hint of Pokémon thrown in for good measure. Most combat is carried out by a “Familiar” that you throw towards your enemies at the start of battle. Familiars are creatures you have befriended and it looks like you can eventually carry around a collection of them and choose the most appropriate for a particular battle. They level-up in usual RPG fashion and can learn various “tricks” which cost MP. It sounds familiar, but that is no bad thing.

Leveling up is simplified, but there is still adequate stats, affinities, and equipment slots to keep things interesting. Of course the main character and his familiar start off with basic equipment and they have to buy or capture upgrades as they make their way through the adventure. Going by the sections in the “Bottomless Bag” there is also a crafting element, though that has yet to be introduced.

The main story is interesting, with some unusual ideas, and there are plenty of side quests in each location. Though the side quests do seem to mainly be of the “go and find three of these and bring them back to me and I’ll give you a present” variety. A “Wizard’s Companion” book, Creature Compendium and Progress report add around 700 screens of background information to the story, so there is plenty to keep you amused.

The visuals are beautiful with a detailed world to explore, but compared with Dragon Quest XI the Ni No Kuni towns have much simpler maps and there are few buildings you can enter. Approaching the door of a building results in 2 or 3 seconds of black screen before you are suddenly in the centre of the one room the building contains. But most jarring is that the hero has no ability to jump or climb, so a barrel at the bottom of some stairs is an impassable barrier and streets are just a row of house fronts without rooftops to explore. While in Dragon Quest XI it was easy to suspend disbelief, in this game the hero is repeatedly blocked by simple obstacles he should be able to jump over.

Normally “Ni No Kuni Remastered: Wrath of the White Witch” is £50 for the download and typically £30 for the cartridge. At that price I think Dragon Quest XI creates a noticeably more immersive world. But at £7.99 “Ni No Kuni” is a bargain, and I’m looking forward to another forty hours or more of great battles and amusing story.

Whenever! A Programming Language with Random Execution Order

Having spent the week being chased by project management over deadlines, I’m relaxing this weekend by trying to get my head around a programming language called “Whenever”. It’s a language that has no variables, no flow control, and not even a fixed execution order. All you can be sure of is that statements will be executed… eventually. Somehow it fits my mood.

Whenever has line numbers but these are only used for statements to reference each other, they don’t set an order of execution. After executing each statement the interpreter removes it from the listing and picks the next statement to execute at random.

When a statement is executed it can evaluate a boolean to decide whether to defer its execution, or can execute and then list itself to run again at some later time.

In the following program if line 1 is randomly picked by the interpreter it will execute and print an “N” and then disappear from the listing. When line 2 is picked for execution it will evaluate whether line 1 is still in the listing. If line 1 is still present then line 2 will defer itself to later execution.

So lines 1 and 5 will execute at random times, while 3, 4, and 5 will each defer themselves until a specific statement has executed.

$ cat newt.we
1 print("N");
2 defer (1) print ("e");
3 defer (2) print ("w");
4 defer (3) print ("t");
5 print ("*");

In fact lines 3, 4, and 5 will keep deferring themselves until after line 1 has executed. Line 1 and line 5 execute at random so we eventually get N e w t output, but with the asterisk appearing at a random place in the output.

$ ./whenever newt.we

$ ./whenever newt.we

Apart from the asterisk appearing at a random position the code is non-deterministic in the sense that you can’t predict how many times that lines 2, 3 and 4 will execute before they output their characters.

In the following listing line 1 evaluates a boolean (whether line 3 is still in the listing) and if true it adds another copy of line 4 to the listing. So as lines 1 and 2 are randomly executed they will add additional copies of lines 3 and 4 to the code. As an instance of line 3 or 4 is executed and outputs its message it is removed from the listing. Eventually all the copies of lines 3 and 4 will be executed and removed and the program will halt as there are no more statements to execute.

$ cat frog.we
1 again (3) 4;
2 again (4) 3;
3 print ("Ribbit!");
4 print ("Croak!");

Each execution produces a random sequence of ribbits and croaks.

$ ./whenever frog.we

Even though statements are executed in a random sequence it is possible to write deterministic programs. Fredrik Hallenberg’s interpreter (the one I used for these examples) comes with a Whenever program that outputs the first 51 Fibonacci numbers in ascending order - eventually!

The Orthogonal Universe of Greg Egan

I’m close to finishing the Audible version of Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan 📚 and have already bought the sequel. This is “hard” science fiction at its best. Egan has built a universe with remarkable properties simply by changing a minus sign to a plus in one equation that controls space-time geometry. As a result light’s speed varies with frequency, high speed travel causes travellers to age faster rather than slower, and plants emit light.

The physics has been worked out with great care and there is a lot of explanation in the book, backed up by Greg Egan’s website which has over 80,000 words of additional explanation, along with a hundred or more diagrams demonstrating how the orthogonal universe works.

However inventive the “Riemannian” orthogonal universe is, the book wouldn’t hold the reader’s attention without some interesting characters and an exciting plot - and it has those in spades. The dominant species in this “powderpunk” world are physically very different from us but have very recognisable cares, ambitions, and interests. (I was going to say “steampunk” but given the noticeable lack of any liquids in their universe this wouldn’t makes sense.) They are highly intelligent and appear to have no religion making their unique form of reproduction an interesting and rather disturbing social dynamic.

I’ve really enjoyed this book and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who likes some light physics with their entertainment.

Carers Trust survey

The Carers Trust are doing a survey in the UK about adults who provide unpaid care to family or friends. They will use the results in a future campaign to support unpaid carers. They particularly need more male carers to take part.

An encounter with a Pale Tussock Moth caterpillar

I nearly tripped over this attractive little fellow while out on my lunchtime walk in a London park a few days ago. It’s the caterpillar of the Pale Tussock moth (Calliteara pudibunda) and was about 4cm long. It was charging determinedly across the grass to the safety of a nearby tree.

At this time of the year they pupate to spend the winter as a chrysalis and then reappear in the spring in all their hairy goodness. The adults are large (up to 6cm wingspan) are furry, grey, and have distinctively forward-stretched front legs.

They are pretty common in the UK, though this is the first of their caterpillars I’ve found.

As everything moves to being online, it was only a matter of time: /dev/null as a service (and the prices look reasonable too…)

Sakhalin Island

I’m currently reading: Sakhalin Island by Антон Павлович Чехов 📚

I first heard of “Sakhalin Island” while reading Haruki Murakami’s excellent “1Q84”. For reasons that I’m still not clear about, Tengo reads an extract from Chekhov’s book to Fuka-Eri when she wants to be read to in bed. Murakami quotes an extended section about the Gilyak, the indigenous ethnic people from the North of the island.

I found the description of the Gilyak fascinating and so decided to dig out the Chekhov travelogue. I found a cheap Kindle edition which I dip into from time to time, whenever I get bored with reading fiction. Chekhov describes his journey in 1890 from European Russia, across the continent to Sakhalin Island, which is on Russia’s East coast, North of Japan.

At that time Sakhalin was a penal colony and the details of the journey across Russia, the conditions on the island, and the stories of the people he met paints a detailed picture of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

About 40% of the English translation is footnotes - both Chekhov’s and extensive notes by the translator. The latter are really interesting, providing a lot of background which would have been known to the original Russian readership. Most of the pages have multiple footnotes.

Unfortunately this ebook edition was cheap, because the formatters didn’t bother to link the footnote markers in the text to the footnotes - I can see it would have been a long and tedious job. As a result I either have to juggle bookmarks so that I can jump backwards and forwards between the main text and footnotes - or have the book open on two Kindles - one showing the main text and the other the associated footnotes. But it is well worth the effort.

Just watched the Montalbano episode “The Patience of the Spider” and in one of the scenes there is a screened off spiral staircase. I’m sure the same staircase turned up in the “Young Montalbano” - or are they common in Sicily?

“In another trouser leg, in another pair of trousers, in a different shop on a different planet” An excellent article in Discworld Monthly by Rachel Anthony-Rowlands gives the low-down on “The Watch” TV adaption.

Why I won't be watching "The Watch"

I’ve just seen the first trailers for “The Watch” and I have issues…

I first heard about “The Watch” from a post on Instagram by the script writer, Simon Allen, who thanked more than sixty people involved in the production, but somehow forgot to mention Terry Pratchett. Now I see why… this is not the City Watch we know and love. As Rhianna Pratchett says it shares no DNA with her father’s Watch.

For me the real joy of the City Watch is the characters, and the trailers suggest that the TV series is only paying lip service to the books by reusing the names without any understanding as to who the characters are. For example, one of the key attributes of Carrot is his enormous strength - he is described as “six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders”. He is not slim - he has the physique of a dwarf… but on a rather larger scale.

The raison d’être for Lady Sybil Ramikin is that she isn’t an action hero, but a rather substantial wagnerian aristocrat more interested in dragon breeding than… well, anything really. Casting a slim, glamorous actress as Lady Sybil entirely misses the point and the joy of the character.

To be fair I don’t think anyone could make a decent live action version of the City Watch books. Like Dickens, a good part of the pleasure of Sir Terry’s books is the language used, the turns of phrase, and the subtle allusions that will never translate to a screen of any size. For many a Discworld fan, who like me, have lived with the inhabitants of Pseudopolis Yard for three decades, any attempt to bring Ankh-Morpork to life is always going to be a disappointment compared with the great city in their mind’s eye. 📚