An image of a green fedora hat, which serves as the logo for this site.Gordy's Discourse

Marble Arch Mound External link icon.

I read an article about the Marble Arch Mound with both amusement and bemusement. The deputy leader of Westminster City Council stepped down because it cost £6m rather than the £3.3m it was supposed to cost.

I'll stop you right there. Why would any council spend £3.3m on a small hill in the first place? The landscape across the country provides small hills for free.

The council had hoped the mound would:

Attract 200,000 ticket holders with millions expected to pass through the area to take a glimpse of the attraction before it is taken down in January 2022.

For this privilege they expected people to pay between £4.50 and £8.00.

One person told the BBC:

It's a bit weird you have to pay to walk up a hill.

Which sums things up nicely. They eventually let people walk up the hill for free. They said they did that because all the grass started dying, but I expect they didn't get many takers for the entrance fee. Maybe fewer insane people visited London than they expected.

I kept looking for other things that must surely be included with the ticket price. The chance to see a rare bird or a hippopotamus; the answer to life, the universe and everything atop the mound; maybe even just a cup of tea.

Alas no, it really is just a 25 metre mound of earth with some steps up the side.

Westminster City Council are conducting a review to find out what went wrong with the idea. I can at least save them some money there. It's quite obvious. They let a blithering idiot make an insane decision.

One company is enjoying the hill, though. A Dutch architect company called MVRDV was commissioned to design the hill, and they claim:

Doing nothing was never an option. So when the mound fully reopens in September, I hope that people will come and see it for themselves.

The mound may delight or divide views and that's OK, but we're confident that in the end it will fulfil its original brief - to get people back into the West End and remind them of why this is a world class city.

It's more likely to remind people of the sort of buffoonery councils get up to.

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.

The Rare Earth hypothesis in the age of exoplanets External link icon.

Twenty years ago a couple of scientists wrote a book that argued intelligent life is extremely rare in the universe. Since then we've discovered many exoplanets orbiting other star systems, and the authors have released a new book to reflect that, although nothing has moved them from their Rare Earth standpoint.

I'm always cautious about taking an anthropocentric point of view on these things. Absent any other information, the odds-on assumption is that we're on an average planet in an average star system. Yet the authors make some cogent observations regarding Earth. The ratio of water to land, the geological diversity, the particular constituents of the atmosphere, the happy accident of having a moon that's the right size to give us a beneficial tidal system; all these things are necessary for intelligent life as far as we know.

The authors are not arguing there is no intelligent life elsewhere, merely that it's rare. Then again, what is 'rare' in a galaxy of at least 100 billion stars and in an observable universe of at least 200 billion galaxies?

It's important for one of the numbers we'd plug into the Drake Equation:

N = R x p x e x l x i x c x L

The parts of that equation are as follows:

  • R: the average rate of star formation in our galaxy.
  • p: the fraction of formed stars that have planets.
  • e: for stars that have planets, the average number of planets that can potentially support life.
  • l: the faction of those planets that actually develop life.
  • i: the fraction of those planets that develop intelligent life.
  • c: the fraction of those planets with intelligent life that actually develop communications that can stretch out into space.
  • L: the length of time over which such civilisations transmit said communication. In other words, the length of time such intelligent civilisations exist before something wipes them out.

The Rare Earth authors are arguing that i, above, is very small indeed.

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.

Facebook Jeopardy External link icon.

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.

Cloudflare aims to remove CAPTCHAs External link icon.

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.

Could we discover Little Green Men in the next 20 years? External link icon.

One assumption scientists make is that advanced alien societies will need a lot of energy. There's something called the Kardashev Scale[1], which categorises potential alien civilisations based on their energy use:

  • a Type I civilisation, also called a planetary civilisation, uses all the energy that falls on its planet from the star the planet orbits (~10^16 watts),
  • a Type II civilisation, also called a stellar civilisation, uses all the energy of its parent star (~10^26 watts),
  • a Type III civilisation, also called a galactic civilisation, uses all the energy of the galaxy it's in (~10^36 watts).

For comparison, the civilisations on Earth use about 4×10^12 watts, which means we've got a few orders of magnitude to go before we become a Type I. We're still just mildly intelligent apes.

Diagram of what a Dyson Sphere might look like surrounding a star.
Possible Dyson Sphere.
Credit: Kevin M Gill via Wikipedia.
A Type II civilisation would be harnessing the entire output of its parent star. One way they could do that is via a Dyson Sphere, which is a load of solar panels surrounding the star to trap the energy it emits. This would be a massive technological undertaking and any civilisation that could do such a thing would be formidable.[2]

It is reasonable to assume we could spot a Type II civilisation by observing the means by which it harnesses the energy of its parent star, which means looking to see if it has a Dyson Sphere. The back panels of their Dyson Sphere would lose heat in the infrared spectrum, so we'd be looking for stars whose visible light is diminished — because the Dyson Sphere is blocking it — but which also have a strong infrared reading that cannot be explained in other ways.

Upcoming technologies, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, are thousands of times more powerful than the technologies we've used to date. Some scientists think there's a good chance we'll discover an extraterrestrial civilisation within the next 20 years, assuming there's one to be discovered in our galaxy.

I have my doubts to be honest.

[1]: Not to be confused with the Kardashian Scale, which measures the amount of celebrity one acquires in relation to the size of one's bottom.

[2]: And presumably their main source of telephone spam is from solar panel salesmen.

The main reason the European Super League stinks

Let’s face it, football authorities seem to attract corruption. The successful prosecutions of Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Then there was the strange decision to pick Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. It was originally planned to be held during the summer, as it usually is, when it would be 40C in the shade. Even self-respecting camels erect a parasol when it’s that hot. I describe the decision as ‘strange’ because I wouldn’t want to publicly libel anyone by suggesting backhanders had a role in sealing the deal. I wouldn’t dream of doing that.

So with all that going on, I should be embracing an organisation that decides to take on the establishment. And I would if it wasn’t for dreadful way in which the European Super League is going to operate.

There are plenty bits of the proposal I don’t like, but one particular part of it stinks more than the rest: the so-called founding members will never be relegated. It’ll be forever a closed shop. If someone was designing a new league for any reason other than merely keeping the (current) rich teams rich — at the expense of all other European clubs — participation would be based on merit. Any football competition without that is a sham. Certainly the word ‘super’ should be considering various injunctions over its inclusion in the new league’s name.

For that reason alone the idea must be squashed under the hobnailed boots of everyone with an interest in football. Participants — both clubs and players — should be banned from playing in the domestic leagues and cups, the Champions League and the Europa League, and FIFA should slap a ban on players playing for their international teams. Fans can do their bit by simply not watching it, either in person or on TV. It should be rendered irrelevant.

I’m sure a big reason the present authorities dislike it so much is the fear that they’ll lose some of their own power, but that’s quite handy in this situation. It means they’re almost guaranteed to resist the idea.

It’s a case of better the devil you know.

What the FLoC is going on?

Google has come up with a new way to profiles users in the absence of third-party cookies. They still don't get it, though. Or, more accurately, I expect they do get it very well, but their commercial interests trump user concerns over privacy.

Read more icon.

Wobbly muons and new forces of nature External link icon.

Muons are from the same family of particles as electrons, which is a family of particles called leptons. The difference is that muons are about 200 times heaver than electrons and they don't live very long.

Subatomic particles grouped into their families.

Muons have a properly called a magnetic moment, which is a measure of the magnetic field it generates, and the stronger a particle's magnetic moment the faster it will spin around its own axis.

A basic calculation using the standard model of quantum physics predicts a value of 2 for this magnetic moment. The trouble is, nature abhors a vacuum and so-called virtual particles are always popping in and out of existence. Virtual particles have a lot of the properties of real particles but they're extremely short-lived. These virtual particles can cause deviations in the muon's magnetic field and induce a sort of wobble with its spin.

Physicists can usually account for these virtual particles. If you know what real particles you've got, you know you need to account for their virtual versions. You can cancel out all the maths and go home for the day and put your feet up.

The thing is, things don't add up when it comes to the muon. This suggests there are virtual particles they can't account for; particles as yet unknown to physics.

Physicists have been measuring these muon 'wobbles' to try and pin down the discrepancy. This is called the 'g - 2 experiment'. The experiment first ran between 1997 and 2001 and the results were announced in 2006. They found that the muon's wobble was slightly larger than the predictions made by the standard model. Back then it was an exciting discovery but it wasn't pinned down accurately enough. Theoretical models have uncertainties and, coupled with experimental results that were not precise enough, it remained interesting rather than revolutionary.

Since then, theoretical models have tightened up and experimental apparatus has been improved, so more accurate measurements of the muon's deviation are available.

On April 6th, 2021 they announced they had tied this value down to an accuracy of 4.1 sigma. 'Sigma' is a measure of how likely the observed discrepancies are just due to a statistical fluke, and 4.1 sigma gives it a 1 in 40,000 chance of that. In order to claim something as a discovery, it needs to be 5 sigma (1 in 3.5 million chance). The experimental team is continuing to analyse the data in the hope of improving that 4.1 sigma value.

But it already points quite strongly to the existence of a new particle.

You may have read that this might mean they've discovered a new force of nature. Particles are divided into two major families: fermions and bosons. Fermions are what make up matter, and bosons are the particles that mediate the various forces between fermion particles. There are currently four forces: electromagnetism, which is mediated by photons (light), the strong nuclear force, which is mediated by gluons, the weak nuclear force, which is mediated by the W and Z particles, and gravity, which is mediated by the (so far undiscovered) graviton. There is also another boson particle — the famous Higgs particle. It arises in a different way and is less an actual force than a particle the mediates the so-called Higgs field that permeates space.

If the muon's wobble is due to an unknown boson particle then it could indeed be a new force of nature. All very exciting if you like this sort of thing.

Penguin keeps furlough cash

Screenshot of the BBC home page with headline about Penguin.
Copyright © BBC.
Typical. I have previously found that flightless birds are untrustworthy in general. Who can forget the emu of yore that attacked innocent TV presenters. And don’t get me started on ostriches, what with their necks and such.

Is coding a language function or a mathematical function? External link icon.

The titular question is important to answer because it may affect how we teach coding. Neuroscientists at MIT attempted to answer the question.

Since coding can be learned as an adult, they figured it must rely on some pre-existing cognitive system in our brains. Two brain systems seemed like likely candidates: either the brain’s language system, or the system that tackles complex cognitive tasks such as solving math[s] problems or a crossword. The latter is known as the "multiple demand network."

They hooked people up to an fMRI machine and watched their brains as they attempted to solve coding problems.

Their results showed that the language part of the brain responded weakly when reading code (the paper’s authors think this might be because there was no speaking/listening involved). Instead, these tasks were mostly handled by the multiple demand network.

But apparently only parts of the multiple demand network are activated and, notably, not the parts that process maths or logic problems. Coding therefore appears to be its own distinct process.

The thing is, a similar Japanese study found:

… that activity in brain regions associated with natural language processing, episodic memory retrieval, and attention control also strengthened with the skill level of the programmer.

This suggests to me that coding skills are distributed quite widely across the brain.

I wonder where the guesswork part of the brain is because I'm sure that was the part activated in my brain for most of my coding career.

Harry, Meghan and the BBC

What on Earth is the BBC doing? I'm talking about their coverage of this Harry and Meghan nonsense. I managed to take a screenshot where the drivel was consuming three of their top articles, and I swear it was taking up four of them at one point.

BBC screenshot of Harry and Meghan news.
To be fair there are a couple of front page slots the BBC didn't fill with Harry and Meghan.
Copyright © BBC.

I'm not particularly anti-royalist, although I sometimes wonder why we have such a stuffy institution in today's world, but I struggle to see how it's newsworthy enough to warrant three or four headline articles. At least combine it and put it all in one article.

Maybe I'm unusual here, but I'm simply not interested. I bear Harry and Meghan — or the Queen, for that matter — no ill will, but I just cannot fathom how anyone cares about this stuff. I must be wrong, though. Lots of people must be interested or it wouldn't consume so much of the BBC's output.

I suppose the one saving grace is that it saves the UK from having to sit through the torture of the Oprah interview itself — everyone knows everything they've said already.

Jack Dorsey and non-fungible tokens External link icon.

Jack Dorsey is selling his first tweet for $2.5m+ and I have to wonder if the world has gone completely mad. Again.

The tweet will remain publicly available once it has been sold to the successful bidder, and this has me wondering why anyone would pay such a sum for it.

But all is well because the successful bidder will also get a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) to prove they 'own' this publicly available tweet.

The buyer will receive a certificate, digitally signed and verified by Mr Dorsey, as well as the metadata of the original tweet. The data will include information such as the time the tweet was posted and its text contents.

Most of this information, however, is already publicly available.

I'm sure non-fungible tokens are extremely useful in an emergency, which explains why some idiot prospector is keen to fork out millions for it.

I wonder how much money one has to have before a non-fungible token costing millions becomes a desirable purchase.