Sunday, 21 April 2013

Soldiers Pay

A scale model of what Fishbourne Roman Palace may have looked like
During a sunny weekend away for my mum's birthday I found myself in Fishbourne Roman Palace.  A large estate, with many mosaic floors, a few graves, some plaster, a replica garden, but, due to the value of stone after the palace burned down, no walls.  This ancient act of theft turned out quite lucky for our tour guide, as the spaces where the walls where have been filled in with modern concrete and turned into special walkways for him to traverse the site on, while the rest of us untrusted public had to remain behind little barriers and look at small informational plaques.

Like many of these places where the remains of places of historic interest[1] are found, along with the historic find, a load of ancillary stuff has sprung up to make a visit a fun trip for all the family - a research facility with separate tour, a scale replica model of what the original site might have looked like (along with a ship placed in a now-known-to-be impossible shoreline), a museum, and (everyone's favourite!) a little shop!

A small self-indulgent digression, if I may.  I, like so many others, have a bad habit of collecting things.  Over time what I collect varies, but there is usually some class of thing (or sometimes, to the detriment of my bank balance, things) that I will irrationally want to acquire more of.  Also, interestingly, most of these collections can be fuelled by tat that is offered up in the little shops that support historically interesting sites.  Growing up it was glass marbles.  When they were lost I built up a massive collection of keyrings and keyfobs.  Much later, after finishing my degree, it was decks of playing cards.  Now, my fetish-de-jour seems to be acquiring dice games.  The collection is currently small, comprising Zombie Dice (plus expansion) and three sets of Rory's Story Cubes, but the Fishbourne shop presented the opportunity to buy "Tabvla" -- a Roman predecessor to backgammon played with three dice -- and I could hardly refuse such a generous offer for five quid.

An arch kit to keep kids (of all ages) amused :)
The museum at Fishbourne was well worth a look round.  For kids (henceforth classified as those under 30 years of age) there were practical things to do, such as building a Roman arch from lurid pink blocks and weaving bits of ribbon on some dodgy wooden contraption held together with string.  However one thing that really urked me was an informational board adorned with the title "Soldiers Pay".  It described how much a Roman soldier would earn, what they could or would likely spend it on, and their career prospects.  However I couldn't quite shake the feeling that something was wrong with this title.  Now I'm not about to turn into Lynne Truss on apostrophes -- my command of the little blighters is not one to be envied[2] -- but in my gut I feel like there should be one somewhere as there is some notion of ownership going on.  "A solider's pay", or "Soliders' pay", or somesuch.  "Soldiers pay" reads to me as though the soldiers in the Roman army had to pay for something.  I'm pretty sure I'm right in claiming this is at least ambiguous?

Anyway, I have a hard time letting irritating little things like this go, and over a burger at Byrons with a friend, I started to relate this tale of possible ambiguous apostrophe abuse.  However my diatribe was distracted when I noticed our waitresses' T-Shirt. "Today's special".  'You are or it is?' I thought better of asking when she asked us if everything was all right.  Looking round, the male waiters were instead decorated with the singular "medium".  The possible ambiguities here are great - cooked meat preference?  t-shirt size? or perhaps a secondary job skill that could provide hours of out-of-this-world tableside amusement during dessert?  I ordered a mint tea instead of finding out, shame on me.

[1] The importance of Fishbourne in Roman times is actually pretty unknown.  A rather interesting question posed by my father revealed that there no known written references to Fishbourne (as in, the Roman name for the location is unknown), despite it being (currently) unique in terms of size and scale in Britain.

[2] The number of its v.s. it's mistakes in my Ph.D. thesis was almost legendary.

Monday, 8 April 2013

London Design Museum

The London Design Museum. From [1].
A friend's birthday drinks near Tower Bridge provided me a nice excuse to tick off the London Design Museum from my list of unvisited London attractions (despite having studied, lived and now worked London for what feels like forever, that list is a fair bit longer than it should be - for example The London Eye is one really rather shameful entry...).  Located on the corner of Shad Thames and Butler's Wharf, the LDM is an unassuming white building, with two floors of exhibitions, a cafe, and a rather lovely (if not teeny tiny) shop.

On the top floor the Collection of Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things was a fun exercise in looking at the interesting side of really boring items.  The history of the design and uptake of chairs (wooden, tubular, plastic, vanity, useful), biros (with both transparent and opaque cases) and anglepoise lamps (with two or four springs!) was a bit random.  However, having only relatively-recently passed my driving test, I did find the section on British road signs really quite interesting.  A 1963 review of road signs (The Worboys Committee) had made several contraversial changes, for example the move to mixed (instead of all caps) type, and that the size of the informational signs is determined by content and fixed spacing rules - and is not a set of fixed sizes that the content is made to match.

On the first floor, one of the first things that hits you is this really irritating electronic chirping sound every minute or so.  Only after walking round for a bit do you discover it's an installation of a mobile (ahem, iOS) app called Chirp, which allows iOS devices to share content using sound.  Yup, that's the future - not content with bumping phones to share content, iOS people can deafen their neighbours and make their devices literally tweet!

Walking around, the first floor was a bit of a mad mix of really interesting things.  For example, products that took liquid plastic, mixed it with iron fillings, and applied magnets, moulds and movement in the right way to produce crazy looking stools.  Or, remember lego? k'nex? sticklebricks?  Wish there was a way to mix them together, so you can build super mega things?  Well thanks to 3D printers, it's now possible to home-print converter pieces for any combination of the above and about half a dozen other toys.

One other tid-bit I picked up was an insight into the redesign of Exhibition Road.  This is the main road that runs through South Kensington's museum district (and happens to be directly adjacent to where I work!).  Next to a rather lovely wooden model of Exhibition Road and the surrounding buildings the text description describes how the designer chose to remove all standard road signs to make an unfamiliar environment for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.  The intent of the unfamiliarity is to cause all shared-road users to pay more attention and take more care, while mingling together on a large pavement-road.  I'm not entirely convinced, but, to be fair, as a pedestrian I'm sure to be bloody careful when meandering down that stretch of concrete!

The final notable piece from the LDM was a superstitious fund -- an automated trading algorithim that buys and sells based on superstition.  It won't trade if the day is the 13th, or a full moon.  It also has "lucky" and "unlucky" beliefs that affect it's choices.  Ignoring the obvious statements about the randomness of markets and the place of "luck" on a trading floor, there was something that really struck me about the presentation of this piece.  There was a piece of explanatory paper on the desk that tried to explain the algorithms running this experiment.  On that paper was printed code - from what I could tell, it was a variant of C that actually was incredibly clear, mostly because the logic was reasonably straightforward set of "if condition then action" statements.  Unfortunately the code had been wrapped, as the lines were slightly too long for the columns that it had been forced into, making it (and the lovely comments it contained) appear really ugly and unreadable.

The code was also quite obviously assumed to be inaccessible to the exhibition goer, and was deliberately faded out and overlaid with some very simplistic boxes that crudely outlined some parts of the logic of the algorithm (e.g. do not buy if the date is the 13th, etc).  However there was no rhyme or reason to the boxes, their arrangement, and they didn't really clarify anything.  If only the code could have been made clearer, then everything would have been explained perfectly!  Sigh.

Actually, what really, really struck gets me while walking around the LDM was that many exhibits invoked computers as if they were "magic".  I came away with the feeling that "algorithms" are perceived to be like Dragons, with mystical abilities to do things that normal people couldn't - and must only be handled by skilled warriors lest the simple villager gets burned.  Maybe I took that too far, but the point remains. I know I've spent a long time immersed in code, computers and well formatted comments, but surely the ability to understand an algorithm can't be beyond the reach of, well, anyone?

[1] By Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 1 April 2013

Doctor Who, The Voice, Labyrinth and Jonathan Creek

Easter break - and I find myself at my parents, indulging in an unhealthy amount of TV and videogames.  After a full day of Tomb Raider (100% single player completion), two half days of the original Paper Mario (which, as far as I can tell, is basically Pokemon with mushrooms) and Uncharted (which is not being used as a Tomb Raider surrogate, honest), my attention turned to non-interactive media.

There was also some football on - I didn't really understand it...
I don't generally watch a lot of TV - certainly nothing live any more.   I think I'm only regularly tracking Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, Nikita, and Castle via the interwebs, but since there's a large flat screen TV here, it seems a shame not to take advantage...


Doctor Who (Series 7, Part 2, Episode 1 - The Bells of St. John)
The Doctor Hacking
Great joke at Twitter's expense
I love JLC

The Voice (Series 2, Episode 1)
Never seen before
Interesting twist, judges begging
I love Jessie J

Labyrinth (Special, ep 1 & 2)
French grail quest, past and present
I love Katie McGrath

Jonathan Creek (Special, The Clue of the Savant's Thumb)
Danse macabre
Mystery with nuns and chainsaws
I love Sarah Alexander