Nicholas FitzRoy-Dale's personal journal. I also write a programming blog and a tumble log. Contact me at or subscribe to my RSS feed.

Nov 17, 2019
British supermarket automated checkout loyalty scheme prompts, reviewed!

Loyalty schemes suck. They're another piece of plastic to cart around with you (more than one unless you're some kind of supermarket loyalist), and despite that fact that almost everybody uses them apparently they never remember to actually scan the cards, because every supermarket's automated checkout machine nags you about it. To save you the trouble of doing it yourself, I've ranked the big four in terms of tone and overall obnoxiousness on a 1-10 scale.

Tesco: "Scan your Clubcard to earn Clubcard points."

Great. Completely non-prescriptive. There is at least one way to earn Clubcard points, and that way is to scan your Clubcard. If you wish to earn Clubcard points, then you could do it by scanning your Clubcard. If you don't wish to earn Clubcard points, then do whatever the fuck you like. Tone is fairly matter-of-fact, perhaps a little sumptuous. The only thing better would be not saying anything at all. 9/10.

Sainsburys (new): "If you have a Nectar card, please scan it now."

Pretty good. A gentle reminder that doesn't impede your flow if you don't have a card. Loses points because you could have scanned your card at any time previously, and "now" is the last possible time, so the machine is assuming you've forgotten and/or is low-key advertising the scheme at you. Like Tesco, tone is neutral, though with a faint hint of the excitement to come if you actually do scan your card. 8/10.

M&S: "Scan your Sparks card and we'll donate to your chosen Sparks charity".

At first glance, very similar to Tesco, but worse because of the charity guilt trip. A far better way to donate to charity is just to, you know, donate to charity. You know we're here for the discounts, so cut the crap. Tone starts out okay, but it's such a boring and (relatively) long-winded sentence that it's hard to keep the lilt up all the way through. 6/10.

Waitrose: "Do you have myWaitrose card?"

A little pointed, given that you can scan your myWaitrose card at any time, and it makes you press "No" to confirm your guilt. How loyal are you, really? Are you even a myWaitrose member? Oh? Are you sure you didn't mean to go to the Tesco down the road? No idea of tone because it's displayed rather than spoken. 4/10.

Sainsburys (old): "Have you swiped your Nectar card?"

Terrible. Firstly, you know damn well I haven't. Secondly, if I forgot about it, I certainly don't want to be mocked by a machine. Given the fact that the machine already knows what you've done, it's impossible for it not to sound smarmy when it says this. M&S machines used to say a very similar thing. 0/10.

Oct 28, 2019
Cremorne Point walk

I'm heading back to the UK after a short stay in Australia. The flat I've been staying in, in Cremorne Point, has a very beautiful coastal walk nearby. Here it is, if for no other reason than to bring me a little sunshine when I'm back in Drizzletown.

It's scaled down by your browser, but if you embiggen you'd get 720p.

Jul 5, 2019
Lithium Batteries Do Not Have a Buddha-Nature

A little while ago, my Apple laptop stopped sitting properly on the desk. Some investigation revealed that the battery had done this:

Swollen lithium battery

As you can see, the battery, which covers the entire bottom half there, had formed charming little pillows in all six of its compartments. That's bad. (And weird. It wasn't that old.)

Apple will not replace this battery by itself, because it's glued to the case. Their solution is replace the case and battery in one unit, which means you end up paying for, and creating as waste, a new keyboard, trackpad, battery, and upper case. I like to pretend that this extremely user-hostile and wasteful design is the sole reason for Jony Ive's recent departure from Apple.

You can, of course, do it yourself. All you need is a pentalobe screwdriver, a Torx screwdriver, methylated spirits for the glue, a new battery, and a burning anger in your soul. Removal is not easy and basically involves dissolving enough of the glue that you can lift the battery up a bit in order to get more alcohol under it to dissolve more glue. Multiplied by six compartments. But I eventually did it. Look how pretty and un-puffed it looks:

IMG 3017

My favourite part about this picture is that the new battery, which is third party and thus always going to be used as a replacement, carries a large warning telling people not to remove it.

So now I had two batteries! A fresh new one in my laptop, and an old, puffed-up one, just sitting around. This wasn't as fun as it sounds.

The advice around lithium batteries online, over many sites, is always essentially the same and surprisingly bipolar. Everything starts by saying that modern lithium batteries are generally very safe and there is extremely little risk, and even when they’re removed and, you know, beaten up a bit, they’re not going to explode. Then there is always a dramatic switch in tone and you’re reminded that lithium plus oxygen and moisture is extremely flammable, battery technology is basically three or four failsafe mechanisms stacked on top of a small incendiary device and, oh, by the way, if they’re puffed up at all that means all the failsafes have failed except for the thin plastic shell, which is now filled with hydrogen gas.

When they’re in that state, to avoid what Apple calls a “thermal event”, you should not: charge the battery, rapidly discharge the battery, let anything contact the battery terminals, bend the battery, expose the battery to sudden shocks, be angry within 50 metres of the battery, hold any metal objects in the same house as the battery, or think bad thoughts about battery-kin. The number of ways you can cause an explosion is rather like this scene from Parks & Rec. Heaven help you if you actually touch it, let alone bend the fucking thing while digging it out of a computer case. You can't throw it in the bin, because spontaneous combustion, but also because it's poisonous ewaste. Apple and its authorised service centres won't dispose of it when it's not in a case, apparently because it's much easier to talk about your environmental record than it is to actually help your customers dispose of the environment-destroying chemical explosion bag which you sold them.

Anyway, as you may know, it’s possible to read the Internet too much. After a few of the above sites I had become, let’s say, rather cautious about my little bomb. I asked questions of myself like “what is the least annoying place to have a lithium fire?”, which is like those kōans in which the best answer is to unask the question. I’d been storing the battery on a metal tray either literally in the oven or at least on the hob. I had visions of the recycling centre people not only refusing the battery, but also arresting me on the spot for environmental pre-crime. I thought that the final resting place for this battery would be deep underground in an unmarked grave somewhere.

But, surprise! The paranoia was misplaced. The giant of a recycling centre employee took the battery into his hands and started folding it up, while affably telling me that I’d need to recycle my cardboard elsewhere. I left too quickly to see where he eventually put it, but as I drove away the centre did not burst into flames, so perhaps they know what they are doing.

My conclusion: I did the best possible thing, both for myself and the environment, and the computer shop guy who refused to do the repair for me on the grounds that it was extremely dangerous is a pussy.

(By the way, how do you recycle ewaste if you don’t have a car? Couriers are unsurprisingly disinclined to transport damaged batteries. Public transport, with the battery, to a station followed by a long walk? Maybe the attitude is that if you’re too poor to afford a car you shouldn’t be buying computers.)

Jun 27, 2019
We'll Never Penetrate The Interior of The Cosmic Mystery If You Keep Taking Yourself So Damn Seriously

A review of The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse

There are a lot of spoilers below, but if you're considering reading the book and haven't: This is a very entertaining satire of ivory-tower academia, and some other themes, by an excellent writer. Highly recommended. You'll enjoy it. Now stop reading.

Okay, now for the spoilers.

I've seen people wondering just how serious this book is. How much may we take at face value? Is there the remotest possibility that a human could churn out verbiage like "Unhampered by sudden revelations and indiscretions, the sublime process moved to its conclusion" without tongue lodged firmly in cheek? What is Hesse getting at here?

Well, I'm here to clear everything up. The entire book is satire, from stodgy academia to hallucinatory alternate lives. Reading The Glass Bead Game as satire is by far the more enjoyable alternative, doing so is the most charitable reading of the work (as I'll explain shortly), and the number of people who have taken the thing in deadly earnest is frankly disturbing. Sure, it may have changed your life when you read it at 14 with no life experience, but, if it's been a few years, read it again. It's funny. Laugh.

I actually picked this up after reading an opinion piece claiming that the modern always-connected lifestyle had destroyed attention, using as an example the columnist's inability to focus on books she used to enjoy, such as The Glass Bead Game. I'm afraid that the columnist's growing up and acquiring responsibilities probably did worse things for her attention span than her iPhone. But whatever -- with that piece in mind, I approached The Glass Bead Game with some degree of trepidation. But after the first forty pages or so, it became clear that this was only a problem for her because she took the thing seriously. By page 40 Hesse is writing of the hero, Knecht, that "His was the typical evolution of every noble mind; working and growing harmoniously and at the same tempo, the inner self and the outer world approached each other." As a sly parody of the way prodigies are heralded in media, appearing fully-formed, conquering all without effort, that's a hilarious description. As a serious attempt to describe Knecht, it's ridiculous. Worse, it's sloppy writing, effectively saying that Knecht was amazing without explaining how or why.

This is why the most charitable explanation of this book is as satire. It's the only excuse the writer could have for churning out what is brilliant as social commentary, but is dross otherwise. There is tell after tell after tell. The annual public Game being compared in majesty and religious solemnity to a performance of Bach's Passions (p 185). The way Knecht reproaches his friend's minor outburst "wordlessly, merely by a gesture of his finger" and later sends the Meditation Master to calm him down (p 208). The most ridiculously overblown description of a Purcel piece ever (p 293). Knecht's reflecting on literally the entirety of human knowledge and creation "if seen with a truly meditative mind" as "nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created" (p 105). I mean come on.

Oddly, this is the second book I've read about a genius game-player, and it suffers from the same problem as the first one (Iain Banks' The Player Of Games) in that the game being played is so complicated, and the hero is playing it at so high a level, that there is no way the author can actual describe it in text. Banks didn't even try; Hesse gestures weakly at Bach fugues and Leibniz.

Obviously, there is a serious core -- that's the point of satire, after all. Unfortunately the serious core is not very interesting. Knecht is an incredibly boring stand-in for the narrator, perfect at everything, overcoming his enemies with minimal effort. His youthful zeal for Castalia giving way to a chastened respect for the world outside academia and his vain and ill-conceived attempts to bring the two together are, as a life lesson, fairly insipid. Academia must be in dialogue with the world in order for both to flourish. Nobility owes a debt to the society that raised it up. Power corrupts. Yawn.

But, Nicholas, what of nuance? Couldn't Hesse have written in a pompous, overblown way to draw humorous attention to his serious ideas? Could Knecht's time in Castalia have been an actual ideal of Hesse's? I agree that it's possible, but I hope that it wasn't the intent: as a morality piece, it's not only weak, but -- cardinal sin, for writers! -- very boring. As satire, it's too long (his last book -- presumably his editor gave him too much leeway), but creative, interesting, and very funny.

Jun 23, 2019
Names for dust compartments found in portable vacuum cleaner ads on eBay
  • Transparent integration warehouse
  • Dust board
  • Garbage warehouse
Jun 17, 2019
My Goodreads Rating Scale
Not rated: Someone recommended I read this and I didn't like it, or it's such a classic that giving it stars seems stupid, or I didn't feel like it and/or want plausible deniability around option 1.

Five stars: Great. Something I want to re-read.

Four stars: I've stopped giving this rating because it seems like the (rounded) average of almost all books on Goodreads is four stars and I have to be different.

Three stars: I didn't hate it, but probably won't come back to it either.

Two stars: Disappointing.

One star: The Tao of Pooh.
Apr 14, 2019
What insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness

What I liked about this paper initially are the titles of the responses, which include "Insects cannot tell us anything about subjective experience or the origin of consciousness" and "Consciousness explained or consciousness redefined?" Actually, that second one is not so appealing: very unfortunately, the most interesting philosophical discussion on consciousness has spent an awful lot of time focusing on definition, and it seems that there isn't much more to be said. So cries of misdefinition aren't very satisfying unless the chosen definition is really outré, which this one doesn't appear to be.

In fact, the authors dive right in and attack the central issue, which is subjective experience. They argue that insects possess analogous structures to areas of the human midbrain which integrate sensory experiences, that the midbrain in humans is responsible for subjective experience, and that therefore these same structures in insects, having the same function, thus may give rise to subjective experience.

Obviously, subjective experience isn't purely a result of sensory integration, the classical objection being that if it were, that would bestow consciousness on such unlikely things as an automatic swimming pool pump or a thermostat. This is where the paper gets a bit lost, in my opinion. Nematodes, with their central nervous systems, are capable of sensory integration, but are denied subjective experience in this paper because it's not obvious that they are capable of using that integrated information in an "egocentric" way -- for example, to find food when hungry. Selective attention and the ability to create memories, both of which seem somewhat related to egocentric employment of sensory integration areas, are also referenced, but not given much discussion: "because insects clearly have a capacity for selective attention we may safely sidestep this debate for now".

A single paper could hardly be expected to completely address the issue of consciousness, and it's totally reasonable (in fact, it's a good thing) that this one doesn't attempt to. It makes a good case for the localisation of human subjective experience in the midbrain and for analogous structures in insects. It does quite well at avoiding what I've come to think of as "consciousness chauvinism", in which humans are obviously conscious but nonhuman display of what looks like consciousness is obviously just the stimulus-and-response patterns of a simple biological machine. It also makes the overall point that subjective experience is a useful trait for all sorts of creatures, not just humans. So perhaps the question shouldn't be framed as "do insects have subjective experience?" Instead, maybe we should be asking: if insects don't have it, why not?

Oct 1, 2018
Summary of London job advertisements from a recent Hacker News "Who is hiring" Thread
  • Jobs based in London: 19
  • Probably-interesting but likely low-paid startups: 5
  • Fintech: 4
  • Fintech AND blockchain: 1
  • Betting companies / human-misery optimisers: 2
  • Literally sales jobs: 1
  • Other: 6
  • Jobs advertising salary: 2 (both with a huge range)
  • Jobs not advertising salary: 17
Aug 1, 2018
Your choice of coffee chain is a political act in North America

... according to Robert B. Talisse, anyway. Though not, he adds, necessarily a conscious one.

This sounded ridiculous, but of these two American chains, which do you associate with liberals, and which with conservatives?

  • Starbucks
  • Dunkin' Donuts
And of these two chains?
  • Sam's Club
  • Costco

It was surprising to me, as a non-American who has never lived in America, that a) I immediately found that I did have strong conservative / liberal associations for the above chains, and that b) my feelings match those of the average American.

Talisse's point is that these allegiances are deliberately cultivated, and that this kind of tribalism is harmful to democracy.

Jun 26, 2018
Paper: Sporns: The non-random brain: efficiency, economy, and complex dynamics: February 2011

(New direction for this blog.)

“Modules (carefully defined) are important in biological brains for efficiency reasons”.

Older models of learning demonstrated the effects on random networks, but real brain networks are small-world networks (of some varying degree), with highly-interconnected hubs, for various reasons including metabolic cost of long-range connectivity (‘wiring cost’). It is therefore unrealistic to demonstrate learning on random networks.

“Random” has multiple definitions — random networks take one aspect of graph generation (such as number of nodes and average number of edges) and hold it constant while varying another aspect (e.g. the from and to nodes of the edges)

“Module” is overloaded. Modules definitely aren’t repeated neural circuits — there is a lot of variability in the actual wiring. Instead modules may be “characteristic patterns of ‘average connectivity’ that can inform dynamic models of local or large-scale cortical dynamics”.

Highly-connected hubs are association regions?

Dec 10, 2017
Snow in London!

Also featuring: the loneliest duck.


Sep 1, 2017
Youtube now pushes advertisements via Android notification

The Youtube app on my Android device just popped up a notification with a suggested video. Youtube monetises popular videos, like the ones in its suggestions list, by putting adverts at the start of them. So Youtube is promoting its popular advertisers via Android notifications. This is really trashy behaviour — and yet Google, while obviously all about advertising, is generally self-aware enough to realise that people object to having adverts pushed in their faces all the time. So it’s kinda surprising to see it, coming from them.

Jun 26, 2017
A sausage tale

There was once a German woman skilled at making sausages. She was intelligent and beautiful, and everyone wanted to date her, but she had one major flaw: she shared her home with a tame (but fearsome) monster, whom she’d found by the side of a lake one day and had befriended.


No man, not matter how much he loved good German sausages, could manage to live with the monster. And so the woman rejected them all in favour of the single life, because if you can’t handle her beast, you don’t deserve her wurst.

Nov 25, 2016
Lovelace and Babbage in the new British passport

I’ve just received my first British passport and am charmed to see these two computing pioneers in it.

(On the other hand, it’s ridiculous that Lovelace is one of only two women featured in the passport.)

lovelace and babbage, passport

Aug 24, 2016
Game theory in action
I just love this video, in which two gameshow contestants have to choose whether to share the money or to take it all, with the caveat that if both choose to take it all then neither of them get it. (Via Reddit.)
Jul 31, 2016
Review: The Dream of Rome
The Dream of Rome, Boris Johnson, 2006

Boris Johnson has a charming, avuncular style of writing, weaving hundreds of interesting stories of the Roman empire together to trace its history, through its apotheosis under Augustus to its decline. He always treats the reader as an intellectual equal, leading them gently through a complex tangle of issues, which he has dotted with facts in the same way that one might sprinkle dressing on a salad, to arrive at the conclusion that any reasonable person should make — i.e. the one which the author happens to be promulgating. This style is so fun to read, and so charmingly beguiling, that it’s easy to miss that half the time the author, by the end of the chapter, has started, apparently without noticing, to argue against himself.

The problem is that what could have been a very engaging history of the Roman empire is also interspersed with analogies to the current-day EU. These comparisons appear infrequently and unexpectedly, like dog poos in a public park, and one is left with the feeling that the Classics scholar felt compelled to demonstrate how much one can learn from history, but wasn’t really sure how to go about it.

There simply isn’t a lot of commonality between the EU and the Roman Empire. This causes Johnson problems in two ways. The first is that you can’t use one system as a model for another until you’ve demonstrated that they are sufficiently similar in the areas of interest. Johnson doesn’t do this, or even get close, so he is stuck with a sort of parody of comparison in which he points out the things which made the Roman empire great, and then points out that the EU does not have those things. He then leaves things there, presumably expecting the reader to make the obvious, but incorrect, logical leap.

Worshipping the emperor, for example, was one of the shared practices which united the Roman empire culturally. Nobody is going to worship any president of the EU, whose high-ranking members are so far the opposite of “charismatic leadership” that it sometimes feels that they were specifically selected for unpleasantness. That doesn’t, of course, mean that the EU is doomed to failure — it just means that it’s not like the Roman empire.

But Johnson’s failure to draw reasonable parallels between Rome and the EU causes a second problem, which is much worse: he ends up contradicting himself.

Take the issue of Turkey entering the EU, for example. This crops up near the end of the book, which has been busily occupied with teaching us that the Roman empire succeeded because it established a common, but loose, cultural identity — a common religion (but not an exclusive one); a common Roman architectural style, even an empire-wide favourite fish sauce. Part of the reason for its decline was that it spread itself too thin, and accepted local rule. With that act, a lot of the unifying Roman-ness disappeared. Without the egg-white in the cake, as Johnson puts it, the empire fell apart. The implication is of course that the empire should have avoided this if possible — retain a cultural identity; consolidate power in Rome; and so on.

But Turkey, with its Muslim population, is very culturally distinct from the EU. Some people, writes Boris, would argue that this means they shouldn't join it -- it wouldn't work, would dilute the common values, such as they are, and would weaken the union.

Miraculously, Johnson at this point attempts to turn his argument about on its head. The EU will never be the new European empire, he writes. There is no common culture! No common architectural style, no common customs. Certainly no common fish sauce. So why not give up on these half-baked ideas of commonality and let Turkey in? His reasoning is mostly based around security — better to have Turkey striving to align itself with the EU’s goals than working against them. I happen to agree with the reasoning, but it is an argument for increasing the cultural diversity of an already-very-diverse EU — rather oddly-placed in a book which has just finished making the case that too much cultural diversity and division of power destroyed the Roman empire.

The EU portion seems like a wash — the connections are poorly placed and never come together coherently. The history portion, however, is great — and, fortunately, that’s the majority of the book.

Overall, it’s a fun walk in the park if you watch where you step.
Aug 9, 2015
Android permissions show the "what", but we care about the "how"
Android permissions are in the wrong place, but the real problem with them is that they’re so far removed from what you care about. You don’t care if an app reads your data (or at least I can’t see why you should care) — what you care about is what the app does with that data. For example, if an app reads your contacts data and then does nothing with it, that’s totally okay (if strange). Likewise if it just uses the data to show birthday reminders within the app (for example). It’s only when the information is transmitted somewhere that (potential) problems arise. In other words, we don’t care what data are accessed as much as how the data are used. 

Rather than permissions revolving around (for the most part) personal information (contacts, photos) and potentially-personally-identifying information (location, device ID), it would be far more useful to have a dialogue which stated exactly what the app would do with that data. For example, “Transmits precise location and your device’s unique ID to”. Getting this sort of description right, and ensuring that apps are accurately described, would be difficult — but not impossible. More on how this might be done in the next post.

Aug 8, 2015
Android's permission request dialog is in the wrong place
Any Android user will be familiar with the problem: you decide you need an app, do a search for it, pick one you like, maybe look at the screenshots and read the reviews, and finally press “install” to be greeted by this:

Well, maybe a flashlight which requires “Device & app history” and “Device ID & call information” sounds a bit suspect to you, so you backtrack and find a better one which won’t obviously sell your personal information to advertisers. Or maybe you’re not entirely happy with the permission request, but by this stage you just want to start using your flashlight, so you go ahead and install it anyway.

In either of these cases, the problem is that the permissions request is positioned right at the end of the app-install flow, which runs something like this:

  • Launch store
  • Search for app
  • Select desired app from list
  • Press “Install” (if it’s free) or the displayed cost (if it’s paid)
  • Press “Accept” on the permissions request

By the time you get to permissions, you’ve made a mental commitment to the particular app, and reversing the process costs time and mental energy. Admittedly, these costs are very small, but they don’t have to be large — they only have to be more work than the alternative (going ahead with the install) to cause some people, some of the time, to give permissions to apps which they are not, in general, comfortable giving. 

Three possible solutions come to mind, but they are all dreadful.

Bad option 1: Allow the device user to choose which permissions they are happy with for a particular search. So for example you may never want to give your flashlight app access to your precise location, you indicate this to the store somehow, and you never see apps which request that particular permission. This is great in that it gives people control, bad in that most people won’t bother and that it would seem to discourage innovative apps which do interesting things but require more permissions to do them.

Bad option 2: The store itself ranks apps within a category according to their permission requests, and uses the rank to indicate positioning in search results. This removes the burden of permission-curation from the user, but gives it to a third party, which may not be beneficial. It also has the same innovation-stifling problem as option 1.

Bad option 3: The store displays a permission summary on, for example, the search results page. This could be very high-level, using (for example) icons to indicate access to personally-identifying information, device location, social graph, etc. This seems a little better than the first two options, but it’s hard to see how much useful information could be conveyed in a search result without overwhelming people. 

Ultimately, there is no good solution here because the entire concept of application permissions is flawed and somewhat useless. People don’t (or shouldn’t) care that an app has access to their data, they should care what the app does with it — the focus should be on data in motion rather than on data at rest. Nothing yet (as far as I know) does this. More thoughts on it in the next post.

Apr 26, 2015
Mini-est digital photo frame

Photo frame from a Christmas cracker (this was the best part), tiny LCD from iTead, generic Arduino. Next step would be wireless.
Jan 11, 2015
Poker solved by artificial intelligence
Okay, not all poker, but heads-up limit hold ‘em. Okay, not solved, but “weakly solved”, which means it is statistically extremely unlikely that a human would beat it (fair enough). And the strategy used, while cool and, classically, really AI, is an improvement on existing search-based techniques for game solving dating back to draughts.

It’s not that it isn’t a cool result. Drafts, Chess, Go, and so on are all perfect-information games, where players don’t have any information that their opponents don’t know. Poker isn’t, which makes play inherently probabilistic. The reporting of this is one was kind of atrocious, that’s all, with last-bastion-of-humanness-doomed headlines like the one above.

One thing I did find interesting, which has nothing to do with AI, is that several articles mentioned that it was strange that "inherently human" things, such as bluffing, are now being emulated by computers. Perhaps it’s just my background, but this is a really weird thing to write about. You see an opponent play a move which may be a bluff or may just be a bad move. Since you don’t know, you play as if it could be either. Ultimately the motive doesn’t matter. This has been the case in online poker for decades, where the only information available to you is the cards.

Heads-up limit hold’em poker is solved