Why twitter sometimes counts the Arabic words for “peace be upon him” as a single character

This video from the programmer and linguist Tom Scott points out something I’d never realised about twitter:

Essentially, what it counts as a character is not necessarily a letter or a punctuation mark. Sometimes Unicode, the system which is used to standardise writing across programs and website, will encode particular common combinations of letters with a single character. عليه السلام is apparently one of them.

Disclaimer: I’ve tried and failed to replicate this myself. However, I did manage something similar but less elegant with some English words.

It’s the SNP’s country and Scots are just living in it

The SNP rather than the Lib Dems or UKIP may be the third largest party in the next parliament

This presumably assumes a Uniform National Swing which is unlikely: there will be incumbency advantages and tactical voting. I also can’t vouch that whoever did the maths here got it right. Still if it’s remotely accurate then wow!!!!

The trashing of Russell Brand

I’ve not written about Russell Brand’s book. It’s not that I’m indifferent towards him. I despise his cod radicalism and wrote many posts laying into his early forays into politics. But I just can’t bring myself to spend £6.99 on his new book and then sacrifice several hours to reading it. And I think that even Russell Brand deserves to have his work read before it is mauled.

There are, however, masochists  people who have plunged into this pit apparent of fatuous fallacies and returned to recount to the rest of us the horrors therein. My friend has Robin McGhee has contributed to this emerging sub-genre with an article for Prospect. He compares (or rather contrasts) Brand’s book with a recently published collection of Noam Chomsky’s work:

Russell Brand’s new book is a brilliant, if totally unintentional, defence of the establishment. On the one hand, he proposes the bankruptcy of the current political system. On the other, he gives victory to the establishment by suggesting the only way to fix it is by not participating in politics. Worryingly, Brand’s so-called ideas have resonated with the public: the Newsnight sparring session between him and Jeremy Paxman has had over 10m hits on YouTube and his own news show, The Trews, is up to 44m views and rising. He is a master populist, who is restyling himself as an “alternative” leftist voice. On several occasions he has professed his admiration for alternative thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, despite Brand’s anti-voting stance directly contradicting his hero’s arguments. Chomsky believes the corporate media fabricates narratives to suit the aims of the governing elite. The media’s job is not to inform the public: it is to massage them into being apathetic so the privileged can run the country in peace. While this conspiratorial message has been much derided, if anything proves it, it is Brand’s latest printed tirade.

For me the highlight is the following:

Where there is humour, it is gratingly predictable. His act of the streetwise hedonist playing with literary and philosophical concepts is, as usual, the main source of comedy. (“Amazing as it is that the brain can conjure up these neurological illusions, which on some subtle level are a physical reality, like they must be made of an electrical impulse which has a charge or a weight, it’s a fucking drag when I can’t voluntarily stop it.”) Other attempts at humour come out as surreal meta-ironic puns. Chomsky is “Chomskerooney” at one point, while Thomas Picketty is described like this: “Dear ol’ Thomassy Piketts, ol’ Piketty, Licketty, Rollitty, Flicketty, has been given a right kicketty by the right wing for daring to suggest that we need transparency around the wealth and assets…” The effect, besides bafflement, is padding. Brand has more of an eye on the word count than the words—or less on the spellcheck as the cheque.


The trailer for the Minions is coming!

It’s due on Tuesday. There’s also a poster and a revised synopsis.

“The story of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s Minions begins at the dawn of time. Starting as single-celled yellow organisms, Minions evolve through the ages, perpetually serving the most despicable of masters. After accidentally killing off so many of them—from T. Rex to Napoleon—the Minions find themselves without a master to serve and fall into a deep depression.

But one Minion named Kevin has a plan, and he—alongside teenage rebel Stuart and lovable little Bob—ventures out into the world to find a new evil boss for his brethren to follow.

The trio embarks upon an adventure that ultimately leads them to their next potential master, Scarlet Overkill (Academy Award® winner Sandra Bullock), the world’s first-ever female super-villain. They travel from frigid Antarctica to 1960s New York City, ending in mod London, where they must face their biggest challenge to date: saving all of Minionkind…from annihilation”.

Which sounds encouragingly bonkaz!

Source: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/minions/32698/minions-artwork-synopsis-and-trailer-news#ixzz3HZeC83S1

Why a Lib Dem-Green pact is a bad idea

Our two parties have very different policy positions which spring from sharply contrasting ideologies. What is more I think voters have noticed and that will negate the political benefit of any pact.

So the BBC are reporting that Andrew George is calling for pacts between the Lib Dems and the Green Party to stop the Conservatives winning a majority:

Andrew George has been the MP for St Ives in Cornwall since 1997. His majority at the last general election was 1,719. The Greens took 1,308 votes.

Since then, we’ve had the European elections, with the Greens taking 16,000 votes across Cornwall. Given their poll rating touched 6 per cent this week (YouGov/The Sunday Times), it’s not surprising that Andrew George thinks his party should consider a “pact or arrangement”.

This is not the nationwide deal that Jacob Rees-Mogg MP has proposed between the Conservatives and UKIP. Mr George reminded me that local arrangements in Tatton in 1997 and twice in Kidderminster, in 2001 and 2005, resulted in the Lib Dems not running candidates.

He clearly hopes that if Brighton Lib Dems don’t stand against the solitary Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Greens might reciprocate in seats like his.

Now I see very little prospect of this happening. The Green leadership doesn’t seem interested and I doubt that the Lib Dem one would be either. And frankly that’s just as well.

Liberal Democrats are in the business of making the world a more liberal place. The Greens aren’t. In many regards they are actually less liberal than the Tories. The most obvious example of this is international trade. Before the Euro elections in May I observed that:

the era of globalisation has actually been pretty good for the world’s poor. In the decades after WWII, [poorer nations] generally pursued policies of self sufficiency of precisely the kind the Greens would advocate. And the results were disastrous: while the West and Japan stormed ahead, developing countries stagnated with their economies mired in corruption and inefficiency. As this failure became evident these countries slowly began reintegrating into the global economy. When Mao died in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping looked to the success of Singapore had had in using exports and investment from overseas to lift itself out of poverty. Following its lead restrictions on international trade were jettisoned to such an extent that companies like Boeing and Coca Cola were allowed to open factories in what remained notionally a communist country.India followed a similar path in 1991 when a balance of payments of crisis forced it to seek a bailout from the IMF. The conditions of this assistance were that India had to open up its economy. The results in both countries were dramatically higher growth rates that pushed down the numbers living in poverty.

In fact, the period since 1991 has seen the proportion of the world’s poor living below the World Bank’s official measure of absolute poverty has almost halved:

This is particularly striking when you consider that global economic growth during this period has actually been pretty anaemic. Throughout this time growth in the developed world has lagged behind the poorer regions of the world. Therefore, the supposition that our era of free trade is benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor flies in the face of the evidence. It has heralded not greater exploitation but the fastest reductions in poverty in human history.

Given these benefits to those in the Global South, I regard the Green Party’s opposition to the Partnership Agreements which reduce trade barriers between the EU and partner countries with horror. The developing world need the barriers to trading with world’s largest economy reduced not increased!

Even on the environment, the issue which George seems to see as tying our parties together, their our some important divergences. As Stephen Tall observes in a recent post:

The party’s environmental policies are, in my view, correctly pragmatic, rooted in science. We are now pro-nuclear as the least worst way to de-carbonise and combat climate change. We are cautious of fracking, but not opposed in principle. We have never been vitriolically opposed to GM foods. In rejecting expansion of airports, the party has maintained a ‘purist’ line, but it is one of the few issues where that’s the case.

I think that’s the right approach, but it is clearly a less rigid approach than the Greens’.

However, all of this is getting ahead of ourselves. Even if there were a genuine policy alignment between the two parties, pacts would only be worth pursuing if the result of one party withdrawing was that the other party’s vote saw a meaningful increase. One could think this was correct given recent polling showing that half of current Green supporters voted Lib Dem in 2010. However, this does not mean that in an absence of a Green candidate voters will support the Lib Dems again in 2015. I strongly suspect that they are largely drawn from that section of our supporters who were tribally anti-Tory and are now thoroughly disenchanted by our decision to go into coalition with them. So if they can’t vote Green, my suspicion is that they would plump for Labour, find another left-wing outfit to cast a protest vote for or stay at home.

The same calculation applies in reverse. The kind of 2010 Lib Dem voters most likely to vote Green – those attracted by socialist rhetoric, populism and distrustful of science and technology – have already probably fled the party. Those planning to back the Lib Dems now we’ve become a more explicitly centrist outfit eschewing populism are probably those least like likely to find the Greens attractive. So a Green strategist might reasonably conclude that the withdrawal of a Lib Dem candidate in Brighton Pavilion that the beneficiaries could actually be Labour or the Tories.

This is a proposal which doesn’t work at either a policy or a political level. I suspect that George knows this and is really setting out a pitch to potential tactical voters in his own constituency. Or at least I hope he does!


My thoughts on Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch Will Be Marvel's Doctor Strange

Image stolen from IO9

So it appears that Marvel have (finally) found their Dr Strange: Benedict Cumberbatch. Here are my thoughts:

1. Marvel and Cumberbatch seem like a good fit

He’s a good enough actor to do most things but he does some to like somewhat fantastical and over the top roles. And while I haven’t read any of the comics, that seems to describe Dr Strange pretty much perfectly.

2. This reduces the chances of Marvel screwing up

This is going to be a weird movie – the clues in the title – and rather removed from what Marvel has done before.

3. Expect Dr Strange taking on Loki to become the internet’s most ardent wish

Yes people are going to want to see Cumberbatch and Hiddleston on screen together. It’s already happening in the comment sections of the websites reporting Cumberbatch’s casting.

4. Cumberbatch is risking being typecast

This is the flip side of point 1. He’s doing quite a lot of stuff – 12 Years a Slave, the Imitation Game and Richard III – but the roles he’s going to best known for Sherlock, Khan and now Strange are a particular kind of arrogant but brilliant cerebral heroes/anti-heroes.

5. Hopefully this won’t mean we have to wait longer for the next series of Sherlock

Not that I’m obsessed with this particular topic or anything.

E-book Luddites might have a point

2013-10-17 01.08.11

I’m rather fond of my Kindle and am generally a big fan of the idea of e-readers. I like being able to carry a lot of book around with me and being able to adjust the print size. And I’ve been sceptical about those who claim that there’s something inferior about them relative to paper books. It seemed to me that people who thought this way were overvaluing what they were familiar with and conflating form with content.

Shows what I know:

A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

Our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page.

The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page. Mangen hypothesizes that the difference for Kindle readers “might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”

While e-readers try to recreate the sensation of turning pages and pagination, the screen is limited to one ephemeral virtual page. Surveys about the use of e-readers suggest that this affects a reader’s serendipity and sense of control. The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one’s sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.