Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Cardiff bus depot tour and a trip through the bus wash

Cardiff Bus held an excellent community open day on Sunday. Alongside face-painting and candy floss there was a small historical exhibit, vintage buses to admire and a double-decker ride through the actual depot finishing with a trip through the bus wash!

I got to try my hand at being a driver

One of the vintage buses

We also got to see inside the control room

And inside the depot

Where we saw what we were told was the busiest vehicle in the fleet: the breakdown van

I filmed the tour through the depot from the top deck. If you've got a spare six minutes, have a watch. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed filming it.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

First time in Spain - exploring Valencia

I was fortunate enough to travel to a conference being held in Valencia this week. It sounds glamorous but I spent most of the days I was there either in the conference rooms (no windows) or in my hotel checking work emails (at least I had windows).

Nice hotel though, right next to the conference centre

When I was working in my room the view wasn't bad

We mainly got to see Valencia by night, so I don't have any good photos of the architecture. This is the city hall.

And this is the North train station. Not bad for a train station.

After floods in the 70s they diverted the river around the city and turned the river bed into a huge sunken park. Whoever thought of that was a visionary. The old bridges still cross the park.

In the park you can walk under the bridges.

There's lots to see in the park and at the South end are some amazing buildings.

They don't miss an opportunity for some art - this big purple sculpture was on a roundabout.

The front of this building was covered in traffic cones.

This is one of the metro stations., I thought it was rather lovely.

There's lots of graffiti on the streets as well. Someone likes drawing these cute ninja dudes. They pop up everywhere.

Valencia is famous for its paella. They sell paella pans on the street alongside other souvenirs.

Paella goes nicely with cerveza. This is Valencia IPA (VIPA). It has a peachy aroma and tastes lovely.

It was a brief visit, made all the more brief by having to work at the conference. But I really like Valencia and I definitely want to go back.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Could Twitter be the venue for a real world Turing Test?

Alan Turing is in the news at the moment, but the thing I've been thinking about is the test named after him. The Turing Test is a way of assessing machine intelligence, with the mark of true machine intelligence being when it is indistinguishable from a human.

Two things about machine intelligence. I recently phoned up my credit card company and had a complete conversation with a very effective voice recognition system that said goodbye at the end of the phone call when all the things I wanted to sort out had been sorted. I actually said goodbye back before I realised what I was doing. The other thing was a game where you press the next word suggested by your phone's autocomplete function until you end up in a repeating loop (which you will). Several people (presumed humans) on an online message board posted their autocomplete paragraphs, all of which made some sort of sense up to a point. It read like people's attempts to communicate in another language, where the words kind of made sense but didn't really.

Spambots have been part of the Internet it feels like forever. Some of the spam comments that get posted on my other website are almost convincing. They steal text and manipulate it in mimicry of actual comments. Bots are also the bane of Twitter, fake followers, odd retweeters of old tweets, little unintelligent ghosts masquerading as real people. Recently, a guy I follow boasted that he set up a new Twitter account as an experiment and attracted 10,000 followers in a weekend - almost all of them bots. He then said that despite the bot problem, Twitter was still an excellent place for a "natter".

That got me thinking, we natter on Twitter to people we know, and to some people we only know through Twitter, and we know the difference between a real person tweeting and a bot. We can spot it and differentiate. But for how long?

The problem with Turing Tests is that if you knew you were being tested that would make you suspicious of the conversation you were having. You would look for clues that it wasn't a human on the other end of the conversation. But what if you weren't primed like that?

Twitter actually could be a real world Turing Test testing-ground. Set up an intelligent machine to interact with people and see if people did actually interact with it, thinking it was human. How long would it be before people worked out it wasn't?

There is a whole lot of information in the Wikipedia article about the Turing Test, including the question of whether people should be told whether they are possibly talking to a computer. But if you don't want people to know, I think Twitter will be the place to run it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Yes, you can polish a turd

Yonks back my very good friend, Matt, informed me that I was correct when I said you can't polish a turd, but, he went on to say, you can roll it in glitter!

Anyone who has spent any time in a communications department knows that sooner or later you will have to pick up the glitter and start rolling. That great idea for an ad campaign that the CEO has had in the shower that morning and now you have to make it work? Pass the glitter. That begging letter the head of finance loves because it's full of stats about how much it costs to run the charity for ten minutes? Pass the glitter. (True story - I wrote a letter that was a real heartstring-tugger which came back turned into something like a cross between a maths lecture and a shopping list. The letter bombed and a few months later I was out of a job.) Someone has had a great idea to do "something" on Facebook and "make it go viral"? Crap, we've run out of glitter.

"Roll it in glitter!" became one of my favourite catchphrases until I discovered it was possible to polish turds. If you leave it long enough. Corprolites are fossilised dinosaur poos. Over time, with a bit of pressure, the dino dumps have been turned into stone. You can find them for sale all over the web. And do you know what's special about these pleistocene plops? You can polish them. (as can be seen at the Poozeum.)

So there you go. Next time someone tells you that you can't polish a turd you have a couple of options. You can reach for the glitter. Or bury it for a hundred million years.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A review of Godless Morality by Richard Holloway

Over a decade ago I was reviewing books for the trade journal of UK Christian bookshops. I was sent a book by Richard Holloway, who had just left the ordained priesthood in the Anglican Church. He had stepped down from the role of Bishop, which is obviously fairly high up in that denomination, and was now embracing life after theism. The book I was reviewing had a write up of Richard that mentioned he was the author of Godless Morality - a title that intrigued me. So when I found a second hand copy recently I bought it to see what he had to say.

It's a short read and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he wrote. His basic premise is that because theologians and religious leaders can't agree definitively on what constitutes moral or immoral behaviour, this throws the legitimacy of basing morality on religion into question.

He points out that coercing moral behaviour by insisting people behave a certain way is often far less effective than if people consent to certain moral standards. That's a very important point when so many religious people seem to want to make laws for everyone else to follow. You could possibly change the way people behave but you will not make them want to behave that way by forcing them to.

Instead, Richard suggests that authority has to earn respect through the "intrinsic value of what it says", not because it can impose moral parameters on people and make them behave a particular way. The moral philosophy in the book isn't complicated. Richard makes a good case that morality based on preventing harm is pretty much universal and can therefore act as a base for a moral system that does not depend on religious revelations of what is right and wrong.

But harm must be evidenced - and the evidence for harm to the individual and to society is lacking for a number of things that are proscribed by religion. Ultimately, in Richard's view, many religious statements on morality come down to preference because they cannot explain why doing or not doing a particular action will cause harm. He is particularly critical of people ascribing their own preferences to 'God'; with people even sometimes admitting the course of action they claim is divinely mandated, and therefore 'moral', is unfair or defective, and yet because it is labelled as 'God's will' they will not countenance change.

Richard sums this up by saying identifying "transient social attitudes" with 'God's will' has in the past given religions great power, but is now what is frequently rendering religion irrelevant. Enshrining the mores of the past as eternal means that when society changes, religion struggles to keep up. It becomes a living museum of dimly-remembered attitudes that are seen as no longer useable in the world most people navigate daily.

That's all pretty sharp and is still very effective anti-fundamentalist thinking. Unfortunately, in the 17 years since this book was published, there has been a great amount of change in many of the ethical areas Richard looks at in later chapters. The commentary on human fertility has dated badly, while the legislation of gay marriage was not even on the agenda back in 1999 when the book was written.

But over all I felt there were still several important things in the book, particularly that idea of basing morality in a common universal ethic instead of competing truth claims within and between religions, and the idea that moral behaviour people consent to is more binding than behaviour that is coerced.

The book concludes with a 'look ahead' that depicts humanity standing on the cusp of a future that it shapes for itself, through gene technology and other triumphs over the natural barriers that prevent humans from achieving more. It is an interesting vision of the future from a churchman. It isn't the classic eschatalogical hope of Christianity, but it is hope nonetheless. Knowing Richard's trajectory, and how in a few short years he would formally reject the faith he was still ostensibly part of when he wrote Godless Morality makes this final section very interesting. It was also personally quite challenging to find myself agreeing with so much of what he wrote, given the path he was on in his faith.

Monday, July 04, 2016

USA & Canada 2016 - the long trip back to the coast and the last few days

This is my last post in the series detailing our trip to the USA and Canada. It was six weeks ago today that we arrived back in the UK.

As mentioned in the previous post, we crossed over the Rainbow Bridge next to Niagara Falls and started the 300 or so mile trip across New York State.

Before we left Canada we went to a rare Canadian IHOP, where I had the healthy breakfast. It had fruit on it and everything.

(Here's some proof it was Canadian - the Maple Leaf in the O of IHOP)

Our destination was Albany where we were going to stay the night before driving across Massachusetts the following day. Unfortunately the motel we had booked there was not a good place. It was the same chain we had stayed in back in Niagara, but in Albany the building and bedroom was filthy. We checked in and then we did something we had never done before - we checked back out again! There was another hotel across the road, and we got a room there. It wasn't great, but at least we didn't feel like we would wake up murdered.

We got out of Albany pretty quickly the following morning. We had quite a bit of driving to do. Cathy took a lot of photos out of the windows because there was always something to see. Whether that was the expanse of sky over the open country...

...or flame-decals on big red trucks.

We stopped at one of West Massachusetts's biggest tourist attractions: the factory outlet for the Yankee Candle company.

If you like Yankee Candles, then you need to go to Yankee Candle Village. Even if you don't, it's worth a visit. They have a year-round Christmas village full of decorations. O gauge trans run overhead in many of the rooms. They have a great toy shop, which includes this Lego model of  the 'Village'.

Eventually we got back in the car and drove back right through Boston and up towards Marblehead, a little town on the coast. We had much nicer lodgings here, in a B&B.

There isn't much in Marblehead.

But they do have a very nice headland, that is peaceful and scenic.

It has this oddly-constructed lighthouse on it.

There's also a fort and a harbour. There is a lot of history in the place. The first ship commissioned into the new United States navy after the declaration of independence was from Marblehead.

It's also just down the coast from Salem, which is of course famous for one thing - the witch trials. The town now is full of occulty shops selling witchy tat. It also has a statue of America's most loved witch, Samantha from Bewitched.

And it's not all witches. There were a number of churches too.

We had lunch at the sci-fi themed Flying Saucer Pizza Company restaurant. They did vegan pizzas. Their decor was all kinds of ace.

As was their signage.

The following day we headed back to Boston to the airport, stopping on the way on another headland called Nahant, where we got a view across the water of the Boston skyline in the distance.

Soon we were driving back into Boston. On the way to Marblehead we had passed this gloriously named place.

On the way back we saw this confusing signage that I'm sure had a deeper meaning.

We were leaving Wonderland and coming home. It had been an epic 17 days and it was all over far too soon.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

USA & Canada 2016 - Niagara Falls

I wasn't sure about Niagara Falls. But as we were kind of near, it felt silly not to go and see them. I didn't really know what to expect - would it be the slight underwhelming of the Grand Canyon? Or the unexpected brilliance of Monument Valley?

We stopped on our way out of Toronto at a mall which had a Pickle Barrel restaurant. I had pancakes. They were easily the best pancakes I had all trip. I will do another blog post about pancakes one day. I just wanted to mention them.

We arrived in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side), dropped our car at the motel and wandered down to the main bit of the town. Our first stop was the Skylon Tower.

It's very reasonable and from the top you get great views. (Probably helped by it being a lovely sunny day.)

The 'American Falls' are off to the left.

The Horseshoe Falls, which are the 'Canadian Falls' are off to the right.

You get to see how far in the boats go.

The boat ride was part of the plan. We bought the double-ticket for a daytime cruise and nighttime cruise with fireworks.

We began at this important stop.

Where we got our fetching 'one-size-fits-none' poncho.

You can upgrade to more substantial ponchos for a fee. Maybe we should have because as soon as you get out on the boat and into the spray the poncho inflates and the water flies up the sleeves.

The water-level view is great.

But close to the falls you can't see anything for the mist and spray. It's beyond noisy as well.

Back off the boat we took a walk up Clifton Hill, which is tacky beyond all reason, with souvenir shops, lazer tag, haunted houses (plural!), and other wet weather 'attractions'.

Up Clifton Hill is the Sky Wheel, right next to the rather ace looking Dinosaur Adventure Golf.

The views of the falls from the Sky Wheel are OK. But not as good as the views of the dinosaur golf.

Or the tacky bits of Clifton Hill.

The Canadians have the American tendency of building casinos next to big tourist attractions. One of the biggest casino hotels also had a Hershey's Chocolate Store. We posed for a selfie with one of their mascots.

Before heading back to walk along the promenade, looking at the falls.

You can get very close to the edge. Watching the water go over is hypnotic.

The spray coming off the falls means that near the edge it is permanently 'raining'.

Which means if the sunlight is at the right angle you can see a rainbow in the spray - a spraybow.

Here is a video of a complete spraybow. (It's 30 seconds long)

You can eat right at the edge of the falls in a fully spray-proof restaurant.

As dusk descends they turn on powerful searchlights to illuminate the falls.

And soon it was time for us to poncho up and head back out on the boat. We didn't go as far into the falls at night, and then stayed stationary mid-stream as fireworks popped brightly above us. It was one of those magical moments.

So what was the verdict? Niagara Falls was well worth doing, I think we did most of the best bits. There is a place where you can go down behind some of the falls and there are a few things on the American side. But considering we got there about noon, I don't feel we missed much by only having an afternoon and evening there.

We got to see the falls again the next day, as we crossed over the Rainbow Bridge to the US Customs point, re-entering America at the start of a mammoth two day, 450 mile drive across New York and Massachusetts. This was the final leg of our amazing trip and I'll blog about it next.