Earth's black box

Earth's Black Box will record every step we take towards this catastrophe. Hundreds of data sets, measurements and interactions relating to the health of our planet will be continuously collected and safely stored for future generations.

A good idea. It looks ever more likely we'll be unable to avoid the impending environmental catastrophe.

However, a future generation hoping to learn from this will have to be very different from the generations we've had since civilisation began. Because so far we've just been repeating the same mistakes over and over.

We've been constantly at war and we've still got a lot of countries run by tin-pot dictators. We can't get away from the overwhelming desire to force our own ideological values on others, whether that's one country upon another or a country's leaders upon its people.

Parts of the world live in luxury while other parts of it starve to death. That can't happen if future generations are going to be wiser.

Power and money hold sway everywhere.

I've no idea how we get away from that, but we have to if we want to stop the cycle of repeating the same mistakes.

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Why is movie dialogue so quiet these days?

I used to be able to understand 99% of the dialogue in Hollywood films. But over the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that percentage has dropped significantly — and it's not due to hearing loss on my end. It's gotten to the point where I find myself occasionally not being able to parse entire lines of dialogue when I see a movie in a theater, and when I watch things at home, I've defaulted to turning the subtitles on to make sure I don't miss anything crucial to the plot.

I found the linked article interesting. I do have terrible hearing but I now use good quality hearing aids that are set to 40% volume. This works fine in almost every circumstance, other than for movie dialogue. Even setting my hearing aids to 100%, which endows me with bat-like hearing in normal life, doesn't help with movie dialogue.

Sound-effects, such as explosions, can be deafening, but dialogue is often too quiet.

I use subtitles by default anyway, but I still like to hear the dialogue if I can. The remote control is glued to my hand watching an action movie. I'm constantly raising the sound during the quiet parts in order to hear the dialogue, then lowering it during the action scenes to make sure my eardrums don't evaporate.

As the article indicates, it's not as simple as raising the volume of the dialogue at the mixing stage.

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Terry Pratchett's take on the Schrodinger's Cat experiment

I quite like Terry Pratchett's take on the Schrodinger's Cat experiment, which, if you remember, suggests that a cat is held in a quantum superposition of being both alive and dead until the box is opened.

In Pratchett's Lords and Ladies, Greebo, a one-eyed grey tomcat that appears in a few of his books, is held in a slightly more complicated superposition:

Credit: PngKey

Greebo had spent an irritating two minutes in that box. Technically, a cat locked in a box may be alive or it may be dead. You never know until you look. In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.

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Blackdown Hearing, Taunton & Somerton, Somerset — review

I had the pleasure of using Blackdown Hearing as for my audiology requirements. I offer a brief review of the company in this article.

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Hot ice cream sometimes freezes faster than cold ice cream

In 1961 a Tanzanian teenager called Erasto Mpemba noticed that when he put hot ice cream in the freezer it sometimes froze faster than when he put cold ice cream in the freezer.

Kudos to him for noticing this — no ice cream that comes into my house lasts long enough to be subjected to scientific experimentation.

Mpemba mentioned the effect to his teachers, but they didn't take him seriously. In 1966 he went to secondary school and had a chance meeting with a physics professor called Denis Osborne to whom he mentioned what he'd noticed. The physics professor did take him seriously and they authored a paper together.

It was thereafter called the Mpemba Effect, but the rest of the physics world was a bit dubious. Something that is hot has faster moving molecules than something that is cold. That's what heat is. Something that is hot therefore needs to do more slowing down than something that is cold, so it should take longer to freeze. This was the understanding at the time.

Nevertheless, scientists have since confirmed the Mpemba Effect is real.

The thing is, this movement of the molecules that creates heat is an average. Not all the molecules will be moving at the same speed — some will move faster than the average and some will move slower. Merely taking an average is insufficient in this case; the distribution of the various speeds within that average also needs to be considered. The outliers are significant. Statisticians have a term for this called Kurtosis.

Coming up with a precise theoretical description has been harder, but it's now thought it has something to do with the way the statistical outliers affect hydrogen bonding.

Either that or it's merely a ruse that allows scientists to order loads of tubs of Ben & Jerry's at the expense of the institutions that employ them.

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Channel 4's strange accessibility outage

I'm puzzled by Channel 4. I don't mean their programming output, which is always puzzling, but the recent outage that wiped many of their accessibility features such as subtitling and audio description.

Apparently a fire suppression system sucked all the oxygen out of one of their server rooms, which caused a 'sonic wave' that shut down their transmission servers.

That's quite weird in the first place, but what stuns me is that the quickest way they can recover the missing services is to write them from scratch again. Channel 4 said:

These services were irretrievably lost during the incident and we won't be able to restore them until we move to the new system we are building.

What happened to their offsite backups or their disaster recovery arrangements? I find it hard to believe they don't have these things, yet an Ofcom representative said:

We remain extremely concerned by the impact on people who rely on these services. Channel 4 did not have strong backup measures in place, and it should not have taken several weeks to provide a clear, public plan and timeline for fixing the problems.

So it's true, a company the size of Channel 4 simply doesn't have sufficient backups. Presumably their IT manager is Oliver Norvell Hardy.

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John Stewart Bell and the EPR paradox

Credit: CERN.

John Stewart Bell is one of my favourite physicists. His day job involved accelerator physics at CERN, but he also dabbled in quantum fundamentals, and it was via that dabbling that he settled a dispute that traces all the way back to Einstein.

It relates to quantum entanglement. This is where two (or more) quantum particles in close proximity entangle such that they are forevermore interrelated. If you now make a measurement on one of those particles, a measurement on the other particle will be instantly correlated, even if it's billions of light years away.

Hold on, said Einstein in 1935, this is nonsense, this correlation happens faster than light, which is a no-no. Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance" and, along with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, two other physicists, he released a paper that pointed out how ludicrous this was. It's referred to as the EPR paper, after the initials of the three physicists.

Einstein suggested that there must be hidden variables involved, and that these hidden variables in a sense travel with the entangled particles. Nothing travels faster than light. Instead the particles had other, hidden properties that are set at the moment of entanglement and that, when the particles are separated by billions of light years, they correlate because they've been correlated from the moment of entanglement. He therefore suggested that quantum mechanics was an incomplete theory, and it would remain so until they discovered and described these hidden variables.

Einstein favoured what is called the principle of locality, which holds that one thing affects another thing via some intermediary field that travels at a finite speed, and that the aforementioned 'spookiness' couldn't happen.

The quantum physicists in the 1930s said Einstein was wrong, that quantum mechanics was a probabilistic theory and that entangled particles had no predetermined properties until they were measured. This being the case, the correlation upon measurement must be instantaneous.

There was a stand-off. The quantum physicists were sure they were right, but struggled to prove it.

Then in 1964 along came John Stewart Bell. Bell was a big fan of Einstein, saying:

I felt that Einstein’s intellectual superiority over Bohr, in this instance, was enormous; a vast gulf between the man who saw clearly what was needed, and the obscurantist.

He would have preferred to prove Einstein correct, but his 1964 paper 'On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox' proved Einstein wrong. Bell made use of some clever statistics to show that if the hidden variables idea is true it would not match what is seen in quantum mechanics. What we observe could not be due to hidden variables.

Bell's theory, later refined by other physicists, has since been proven experimentally. There are no hidden variables and quantum mechanics is indeed non-local. The article I link to explains it in more detail.

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Mix and the push to appify everything

Mix.com was a site I used (sparingly) to save articles in collections for later referral. It was a quasi-social media site in the sense that you could share articles, comment on them and follow feeds.

The site still exists, but if you want to use any of the features it used to offer you now have to download the Mix app and use that instead. I won't be bothering as I didn't use it enough, but it does raise an issue.

In my opinion there's too much push to 'appify' things these days. I'm not against apps per se, and I have plenty of them myself. A native app is a far better way to do lots of things. You might want one for your task manager, or your writing app, or your journaling app, or for a whole host of other things.

But sometimes websites that work perfectly fine in a web browser — and are better suited to a web browser in my opinion — are 'appified' for no good reason I can see. PayPal, Reddit and others often pester me to download their apps, but I don't see any benefit in doing so. I already have an app that runs these things to my satisfaction: Safari.

The cynic in me just sees it as a way the company can get around the various security restrictions modern browsers provide, all the better to allow them to advertise to you and track you.

It's particularly disappointing when they don't create an app in addition to the website, but replace the website with the app, as Mix has just done. It's turning the World Wide Web into a collection of walled gardens rather than the large open landscape it should be.

I expect I'm in a minority with this opinion.

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Starkey Livio Edge 2400 AI hearing aids review

I finally took the plunge, went to see an audiologist and got myself some Starkey Livio Edge 2400 AI hearing aids. I review them in this article. There seems to be a shortage of consumer reviews for these things and I hope someone finds my article useful.

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What colour is computer code?

Somebody asked me why the code blocks in my articles are such an 'ugly' green, and why I didn't use one of the many Javascript plugins that style code blocks instead.

After intense counselling to help me come to terms with a part of my website being described as ugly, I realised the slur was because the accuser didn't start out writing code on IBM 3270 terminals.

If he had done so, he'd know the natural colour of code is green. Or at least it was before code evolved. It has since mutated into a multitude of colours to avoid detection by predators (i.e., programmers) who now have to use fancy IDEs to tame it. It's evolution in action, rather like the baboon's bottom.

Another characteristic of code relates to entropy. This is called code rot. It's the reason why code that used to work perfectly suddenly starts failing even though it hasn't been touched by anyone. Code simply rots away if you don't keep an eye on it. It's certainly not the programmer's fault.

I hope you've found this educational.

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Pandora Papers — hardly a revelation

A lot of fuss is being made about these so-called Pandora Papers, but I'm not so sure it's all that phenomenal. Who didn't know that rich people use all sorts of loopholes and fiddles to enrich themselves further? Who didn't know that despots and kings stash away money and investments while their people starve? Who didn't know that politicians use the system they maintain to better themselves?

Yes, one or two things in the papers may reveal outright illegality, but what we're mainly seeing is people who are using loopholes in the system to get a better return on their money. That's not illegal and you can't knock anyone for doing that. I use ISAs to lower my tax bill. You might say that ISAs are overtly permitted, whereas loopholes aren't, but neither are illegal.

You may think there's some mileage in arguing about morals, but that's a road to nowhere. Within the framework of morals defined by the law, we're all allowed to make our own moral decisions. It leads to some fairly despicable things, such as the wife of Sir Philip Green enriching her family while her husband's retail empire collapsed and ruined the livelihoods of his employees, but nothing illegal went on.

The blame should really lie with the system that permits these things. It's the same system that allows large corporations to pay a pittance in tax compared to their earnings. Politicians need to change these systems, plug the holes and make things illegal. The problem with that is there's little incentive for them to do so as they're often the beneficiaries of the loopholes in the system (I'm looking at you Tony Blair).

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Nuheara IQbuds Max review for the hard of hearing

A review of Nuheara IQbuds 2 Max for the hard of hearing. My hearing is screwed and this is one of the products I looked at to find a solution. I believe they'd work for milder hearing loss, but they didn't work for me.

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Great White - yet another shark movie

Great White. A fairly pointless waste of 91 minutes as far as I'm concerned.

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DVLA Gruppenführers

I just wanted to take a moment to have a pop at the DVLA. I am on three-yearly eye tests due to an eye problem called retinitis pigmentosa. This can cause blindness, but in my case it won’t. My consultant said I have it in a minor way and acquired it late in life, so unless I live to 170 it won’t be a problem.

Yet the DVLA insist on three-yearly eye tests anyway. I presume they like the pointless admin involved and enjoy inconveniencing me for no practical purpose. Either that or they’ve all done a decade of medical training and feel they can override a mere consultant.

I was due my latest test over 15 months ago but it was put on hold. This was partly due to Covid of course, which is perfectly fine, but largely due to the DVLA’s own ineptitude.

So I’ve been driving around without a license for 15 months, relying on Section 88 of The Road Traffic Act and my GP’s permission to remain legal.

Today I finally received the notice from the DVLA instructing me to go for an eye test. What astonishes me is their authoritarian attitude and impatience given their lax attitude to the previous 15 months. I must book the test within seven days or I’ll be tied in piano wire and hung from the rafters of their Covid-infested office. And I must attend the appointment within a month or I’ll be disemboweled and left out to be pecked to death by the office canary.

Their letter failed to mention the way they forced their staff into the office during Covid, which created a building-sized petri dish for the virus to breed in, needlessly inflicting Covid on many of their staff. They also failed to apologise to me for being 15 months late. Perhaps the apology will come in a second letter.

Anyway, rant over.

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Dominic Cummings' revelations

I've wondered what Dominic Cummings is trying to achieve with his recent attacks on Downing Street. That's not to say he's wrong, but he's telling us what we already know: the government failed with their Covid response and a lot of the cabinet are useless. It's hardly news to us. So it came over merely as petty revenge from someone who lost his job.

However, thanks to an article on the BBC, I can now see what he's after:

Mr Cummings published the alleged leaks on Substack, an online platform that allows people to charge for newsletters.

He has said he plans to charge subscribers for insider information on subjects other than the pandemic.

It makes more sense now.

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Facebook Jeopardy

It won't come as a surprise that a bunch of ill-informed Facebook posters jumped to an incorrect conclusion and started a baseless conspiracy theory. Such things are a regular occurrence. But it is notable that in this case it involved a contestant on the US TV show Jeopardy.

It's pattern social media behaviour. Someone posts a wild and completely incorrect opinion, a bunch of other someones stupidly decide to believe something posted on social media, then they're joined by the usual host of virtue signallers trying to increase their standing in the peer group. Before you know it you have a conspiracy theory on your hands, and a Jeopardy contestant is castigated for no reason.

To make matters worse, an organisation representing the people who were supposed to be offended by this said the contestant had done nothing wrong but, in true social media style, much of the baying mob refuse to believe the contrary evidence.

I sometimes wonder if computers should be licensed.

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Cloudflare aims to remove CAPTCHAs

Cloudflare is running an experiment that replaces its CAPTCHAs with USB-based confirmation that you belong to the human race. This sounds like a good idea because CAPTCHAS are extremely annoying. I have to really want to access a site to bother picking out grainy images of fire hydrants, crosswalks or buses. More often that not I don't bother and hit the back button instead.

Cloudflare is calling their new process Cryptographic Attestation of Personhood and they describe it as working like this:

  1. The user accesses a website protected by Cryptographic Attestation of Personhood, such as cloudflarechallenge.com.
  2. Cloudflare serves a challenge.
  3. The user clicks I am human (beta) and gets prompted for a security device.
  4. User decides to use a Hardware Security Key.
  5. The user plugs the device into their computer or taps it to their phone for wireless signature (using NFC).
  6. A cryptographic attestation is sent to Cloudflare, which allows the user in upon verification of the user presence test.

Cloudflare claims this will cut the average authentication time from 32 seconds down to five seconds.

This is all well and good, and it's definitely an improvement on CAPTCHAs, but it still suffers from an incorrect inversion of responsibility. I don't need to prove I'm human because I know I am (sort of), so I don't understand why I have to go through any process at all. It's Cloudflare that has the problem and they should be looking for ways to resolve it without wasting my time at all.

You might ask me how they're meant to do that, but that's not my problem either.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and it would be useful if people stopped bothering with CAPTCHAs or any other method of proving they're human. It's a bit rich that a computer asks me to prove I'm human in the first place. If we all hit the back button it would provide the motivation for Cloudflare (and other companies that use CAPTCHAs) to get a little more inventive. I reckon most people could live without 95% of the sites they access, they just don't realise it until they force themselves to do so.

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