GNU Terry Pratchett

March 18, 2015 at 12:24 am (books, internet) (, , )

Every so often out of sadness comes a truly inspired idea.  The origins of X-Clacks-Overhead may just be one such moment in geek folklore.  It is very fitting that the name of Sir Terry Pratchett should live on in a very subtle manner following one of the ideas from his own stories – keep sending out his name as part of the actual machine overhead itself.  Forever.

For details, see

My own set of discworld books have faded covers, from many years on and off bookshelves, but are now being read once again.

GNU Terry Pratchett


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Google Earth Preserving a Small Piece of Film History

August 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm (books, interesting, places) (, , , , )

We’ve recently visiting the Warner Bros Studio Tour, which for now is geared up to show the Making of Harry Potter.  If you are a Potter fan and haven’t been, then I recommend it.  Being a film set, don’t expect to walk into shops in Diagon Alley or roam the corridors of Hogwarts, but do expect to see what lies behind the magic and be prepared for some amazing film scenery, models and props.

But what I thought was quite interesting was the fact that they had two houses from Privet Drive in the outside part, and we read about how they had build a small close of 10 houses for filming.  But what is even more interesting is if you look up Leavesden Studios on Google maps and turn on the satellite view, right now the picture is as it was before the Harry Potter Tour was built – you can still see the older studios, the remnents of the runway (it used to be an airfield) and three rather curious structures in the grounds.

If you look really closely, you can spot the Privet Drive set (near the top and the main buildings) – complete with houses with only half their roofs built – Hagrid’s Hut (centre left) and what looks very much like the one life-sized part of the Hogwart’s bridge introduced in the Prisoner of Azkaban (towards the bottom, centre).

I don’t know what the refresh cycle of Google maps is, so don’t know how much longer it will show this historical arial view, but it is still quite interesting to see the sets they used for the films visible.





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Harry Potter and the Inadvisable Reliance on Passwords

August 3, 2013 at 8:02 pm (books, security) (, , )

From time to time, especially since my last HP post, I’ve wondered about the various approaches to access control that have appeared in the books, especially the instances where passwords are used.

The most, ahem, common one being entry to the various house common rooms.  One thing I’ve never understood is how the system of students knowing the right passwords for entry gets bootstapped?  She won’t let anyone in who doesn’t know the password – we see a number of instances where the Fat Lady doesn’t let someone through if they don’t know the password, the most graphic being Sirius Black’s attack in the Prisoner of Askaban.  But when she changes the password, who does she tell first?  And then how is the password propagated around the house students?

Assuming there is a hierachy of trust in place, maybe she tells Professor McGonagall as head of Gryfindor house, who tells the house prefects who tell the students.  But this passing on can only happen by somehow recognising the members of the house and telling them.  In which case, I’m sure the Fat Lady would be quite capable of remembering students too – so when Harry doesn’t know the password once (as he was late arriving at school), why doesn’t she let him in?  She must know who he is – at least to the same level of trust as any of the students.

In fact, we know that this recognition method can break down anyway – we have an example from The Chamber of Secrets, when Harry and Ron drink polyjuice potion and get into the Slytheryn common room by following Malfoy.

And then of course, it would be entirely possible that someone could slip someone some veritaserum and get the password from them that way.  The only defense in this case being its probably too complicated for students to make.  But has a student never managed it?  In the entire history of Hogwarts?

And there is a very good example, again back in the Prisoner of Askaban, where supposedly increased security practises actually lead to insecurity.  It would have been a much better trade off to just tell Sir Cadogan to just remember Neville’s face rather than have passwords changing every week (or was it every day?) and let Neville write them all down.  In fact, how did Neville pursuade Sir Cadogan to tell him all the passwords anyway, and if he was trusted enough to receive them all, then he could have just been let in on visual inspection only!

Another interesting example of the folly of passwords for entry is Dumbledore’s office.  One can only presume that there is a password to prevent him being bothered by students – it would appear that the staff all know the password.  However, seeing as they don’t seem to worry about saying the password out loud in the presence of students, one would expect that over time the password would become well known anyway.

But he does seem to change it, possibly every year, but again some basic social engineering research gives the clues – Harry realised that Dumbledore’s weakness is using passwords based on his love of sweets.  So knowing that Sherbert Lemon was one password allows Harry, in the Goblet of Fire I think it was, to brute force entrance by working through other sweets until he stumbles upon Cockroach Cluster as being the correct password.

Good job too really, otherwise this highlights the other general problem of hiding access to the headmaster behind a password – if something really serious happens, only the staff would be able to tell him.

And dispite all these precutions we know eventually Hogwards security is compromised by an insider opening an unknown and unexpected channel to an outside place by way of a vanishing cabinet.

No, with all the possibilities available to those in the wizarding world, it seems very, well, muggle-ish to fall back on the use of passwords so much.

But then maybe its possible to over-analyse things too much 🙂


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World Book Day Diminished Reality

March 11, 2013 at 7:45 pm (books, computers, kids) (, )

I hope all of you with children have gone out and got your free World Book Day books.  World Book Day is great – I really like to see anything that encourages people to buy books – not that we need any more in our house!  This year they come with something a little extra – you can download the world book day ‘Books Alive’ app (iOS and Android) and when you point your device at the book you get neat things happening.

Or maybe not so neat.  The technology is called augmented reality and it has great promise, but I’m afraid the World Book Day app is a bit of a gimmick.  For the four books we have, they only recognise the front page and then just play a video.  For one of the books, the author reads the story, which is nice, but for the others its the author saying a little about the book.  But it’s really not implemented very well – if you wiggle and it loses the book for a moment it resets.  This makes the whole experience a little like trying to watch YouTube through a wired network connection that passes through a shaky hand game – one jiggle and the video resets and starts again

And I have to say that the same thing could have been achieved a lot more reliably by using a simple QR code that links to an online video that then just plays.

This is a real wasted opportunity.  We could have had a short loop of Alfie and Annie Rose playing whilst sitting on the cover of our book.  We could have had Horrid Henry saying ‘nah nah ne nah nah’ at an appropriate page.  We could have had a scene from the Diamond Brothers or an animated Tom Gates cartoon.

Alas what we have is some cool technology that has been used to pointlessly replace the capabilities of existing technology.  For many this will be their first exposure to the world of augmented reality and most will see this and consider it far more trouble than it’s worth and in this instance I have to agree with them.  This example hasn’t provided any augmentation of the real world.  It’s just added a pointless frustration to it.  It’s a real shame.  I actually think it has detracted from the experience, by raising expectations and then disappointing.

Is there a lesson here?  Well I’d say don’t use a technology because you want to seem trendy or cool or because others are using it.  You have to use a technology because it adds something of value.  This could have added a lot.  In the end I think it took away.

The only saving grace for this one is that the kids got fed up with the tech and then settled down to read the book instead.  Maybe that was the real purpose of the technology all along?  A secret ploy to send mobile and e-book readers back to the written, paper, word?  I could live with that – I still like my books.  But I hate to say technology wasted and hate even more giving a promising technology a large exposure to a new audience and then not showing it off well.

Maybe in a few years we’ll all be wearing Google Glasses and the whole thing will just be part of the background noise of everyday life.  But for me, today, this really didn’t work out too well.  A real shame.


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Oi, here comes my engine

September 25, 2012 at 7:01 pm (books, kids) (, , , , , , )

If like us you have train mad boys in the house, but are a bit fed up with the “Th” word, then here are a couple of nice kids books about trains that you might not have heard of before.

(Note – I quite liked the original stories from the Rev W Awdry … I just don’t really like how they’ve been cartoonified since … or the theme tunes they use on the videos!)

Oi! Get Off Our Train

This is one of those books that we’ve now had on the bookshelves for over 16 years (I’ve mentioned it before) … its a great story with a bit of an ecological theme.  It also has great illustrations.  If you’ve seen any of John Burningham‘s other books, you’ll recognise the style instantly.

One Christmas channel 4 played a half-hour animation based on the story.  We have a DVD copied from a video recorded off the TV version, which isn’t perfect. I have tried to buy it, but all I could find was an American version, where they decided to rename it “The Animal Train” – goodness knows why – Oi! is such a great title.

There is an even worse copy than mine on YouTube – – but it does at least give you a chance to listen to the song that was written for it (and works really well).  In fact the sound track is really good.

A great book with a serious message told in an interesting and sensitive way.

Here Comes the Train

Another regular in our household is Charlotte Voake (‘Ginger‘ is another book from 16 years ago that’s still on the bookshelves).

This book tells the story of a weekend adventure to a bridge over the railway to wait for and watch the trains as they whoosh underneath.  This book actually prompted a visit to a local industrial estate in a bid to find a similar bridge.  Of course, most rail bridges these days are pretty much closed in (at least the ones around me are anyway).

Engines, Engines

Apparently this is an Indian counting rhyme that Lisa Bruce has put together with Stephen Waterhouse’s very colourful illustrations to create this book.

This hasn’t been in the house quite so long, but has been a firm favourite of the boys since we’ve had it.  It manages to get quite a number of key landmarks from India into the rhyme as it counts from 1 to 10.

Amazing Machines – Terrific Trains

This last one is just a simple rhyming book with large cartoon illustrations.  There is a book for trains, one for rockets, diggers, and a range of other things too.

So if you would like a change from Thomas, Percy and friends, take a look at some of these.



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Write only memories

December 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm (books, computers, internet) (, , , , , )

I’m just reading the epilogue of Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”.  This book has generally changed my mind a little towards continued acceptance of social media by society.

One thing she is describes at the end is the contrast between when she herself went off to college, and wrote letters back to her mother from time to time, to today, as her daughter is off to college and they share texts, skype each other and otherwise stay in touch.

I always considered it a positive benefit of social media that people can stay in touch – friends after they leave school, parents with kids, etc – and it is, but there is a downside to this always on, always connected, always at-the-end-of-a-line communications too.

Will kids every really gain independence if mum is just a text away?  Will they ever develop empathy and social skills required for anything other than superficial social relationships if it is always mediated by a screen?  Some will, some won’t.  Maybe it is true that the communicators will be using these tools to communicating better while the recluses can now pretend to have a social life … I don’t know.

But what the epilogue was making me consider was more the recording and preservation of digital memories.  If you have a letter, it can sit in a loft to be discovered one day, to get out and cherish and give an insight into the writers mind at the time.  What will be the “hidden in the loft” letters of today?  An email buried amongst 1000s of other emails?  Ephemeral texts long since deleted?  How many of those picture uploaded to “the cloud” will ever be looked at again?

No, today it is possible to record practically everything, but that means that often nothing is ever singled out for posterity or special preservation.  We will get to the stage where one’s whole life is spent catching up on what contacts are doing today that there will never be time to look back over preserved memories.

Our digital archive will become an audit trail, to only be perused when something has to be checked.  Who will browse through 1000s of photos or emails or chat logs just to reminisce?  No, when you have 1 second of digital record for each second of your life, how many of those same precious seconds would you need to be able to read any of it again.

So whilst it is possible to have full-life recording in various forms, from a memories point of view it would appear to be a write-only memory.  Designed to benefit the holding companies by providing fodder for data mining.  In recording so much, we might be gaining nothing at all.

It will be interesting to see how society develops – will we see a return to older style activities – promoting selected digital records into preserved snapshots of life?  With so many photos, will people cherish a bit of time taken to print a few out for an old-style photo album?  And will we see a return to giving someone your full attention by composing a physical letter?

Interesting to see what happens and what the push-backs against always-on, always-connected, always-recording will be.



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The Voice of World Control

July 12, 2008 at 4:26 pm (books, computers, odds) (, , , , , )

I’ve just managed to get hold of a copy of “Colossus: The Forbin Project“, a film I’ve been wanting to watch again for some time. This is probably one of the earliest examples of a film on the theme of ‘supercomputer that takes over the world’, made in the 70s.

As a thriller this is an excellent film. As far as the computing goes, its all quite believable and plausible, albeit using 70s technology as the props, however like many films from the era, one thing no one seems to have predicated is the physical scale of things. This computer is sealed in a mountain, and the implication is that it actually takes up the space of a mountain. There is talk of a remake, so it will be interesting to see what a modern take on this would look like. Curiously, the original author of the Colossus Novel, wrote two other Colossus books too.

An interesting aside is that the first computer was also called Colossus – this is the classified one that was built at Bletchley Park during World War II to break the enemy codes.


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Contact – Carl Sagan and pi

November 12, 2007 at 10:04 pm (books, science, security) (, , , , , , , , , )

My previous musings about xkcd finally let me to read their whole archive … which means that I eventually found this one, which is possibly one of my favorites.

Got me thinking about Carl Sagan‘s novel, Contact.  Loved the book.  Film was ok, but I was really disappointed that the bit about pi never made it in.

Whilst browsing wikipedia about this subject, found a link to (currently unavailable though).  Struck me that this would be a good way to collect personal details about people (‘try it with your credit card number’ 🙂

Further browsing has turned up Pi-Search, which you can use to look for sequences in the first 200 million digits of pi.  Did you know that the sequence 12345678 occurs at position 186,557,266?  Well now you do.

The Feynman Point is also interesting.  Maybe one day, I’ll give both Richard Feynman and Pi an entry of their own.


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Arabel’s Raven

October 5, 2007 at 9:40 pm (books, kids) (, , , , )

I have a recording of Arabel’s Raven, by Joan Aiken, read by Bernard Cribbins.  This really takes you back to Jackanory days!  I do like the way he reads out ‘Never more’.

So, if you want to find out more about the bird that eats stairs, the rumbaloo line and 4-year old Arabel, then find a copy and have a read.


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Oi! Get off our train!

August 23, 2007 at 10:46 pm (books, kids) (, )

We’ve had a refresh of the children’s books that we read recently (got some more from the cellar up onto the book shelves) and one of the ones that has come out of hiding is John Burningham‘s ‘Oi, Get off our train!‘.

This is a simple, but great book.  Like all of John Burningham’s books I’ve come across it has a serious message tucked away – in this case about the environmental impact of our modern world on the habitat of animals – but it is a subtle theme to the main story.

The illustrations are wonderful, but simple, with a several different styles employed.  Some pages are just large illustrations with no words.

Several years back, this was made into a 30 minute animation and shown on the telly over Christmas.  We still have a copy on video.  The story was tweaked slightly, but on the whole it was very well done, keeping the overall feel of the style of the illustrations.  It ought to be due a fresh airing too.

Anyway, we like John Burningham.


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