February website boycott

[Update 1/3/2015: This boycott is now over. During February I blocked nine domains altogether, averaging one every three days. Scroll down to see the list. I am now in theory unblocking all of those domains, although I reserve the right not to disclose the fact if I’ve decided to keep any of them permanently blocked.]

Autoplay audiovisual ads are a problem.

Online advertising per se isn’t going away, but the current environment — in which advertisers think they can get away with anything — is not acceptable. As a society we need to work out an informal contract between the advertisers and the consumers of the Internet. We need an arrangement that says: you may advertise, up to a point, but you may not cross this line.

One pillar of that arrangement must be our right to reasonable control over the number of stimuli that demand the attention of our senses. When I’m reading something online — or more rarely, listening to something — a random blast of noise (from either the same or a different browser tab) interferes with my ability to do so. I am forced to stop what I’m doing and take whatever measure is necessary to get rid of the offending advertisement. This is not an acceptable burden.

Imagine a world in which, whenever you turn the page in a newspaper, the radio automatically switches on. Or, the moment you’ve been listening to the radio for five minutes, the television automatically wakes up. But we don’t have to imagine that world — we are living it, and we want out.

So I’ve decided that I need to take some kind of action. Therefore, for the month of February 2015, I will boycott all websites on which an autoplay audiovisual advertisement appears, subject to certain qualifications, and I will name the offending sites in a list at the end of this post (to be updated as needed). Details follow.

  • First, I’m obviously well aware that online advertising is outsourced, and that individual websites are not responsible for the advertisements that appear. But … this is about not doing deals with the Devil. If the entity you outsourced your advertising space to did not offer you a choice as to whether autoplay audiovisual ads are acceptable, then we need to put pressure on them somehow.
  • Because I want to focus on the most egregious cases, some autoplay ads will be exempt. Advertisements will generally be exempt if they play within a feature video space on that web page (e.g. videos watched on Youtube or news reports consisting of a video followed by an article). But an exemption to the exemption is that even advertisements that play within a feature video space will trigger the boycott if the Pause button is unavailable or doesn’t function correctly while the advertisement plays.
  • At the end of February I will unblock all sites — unless I decide I’m better off without yours, which is my call. However, the list of offending sites at the end of this post will remain, unless I think of a reason to remove any.
  • The tool I’ll be using is the Minimal Site Block extension for Firefox. This could use a friendlier interface (you have to use wildcards, you have to include the “http”, and it’s unintuitive that you don’t need to press a button to update the blocked list), but it works, and is a good option if you want to manage your own boycott.

Obviously this is experimental. Hence the one month limit. Other people may have insights into better ways of taking action (whether a refinement of this boycott or a completely different approach), and one of my goals is to help start that conversation.

List of offenders so far:

  • www.science20.com
  • abcnews.go.com [absent Pause button: see bullet point 2]
  • www.newstatesman.com
  • www.latimes.com
  • www.dose.com
  • www.slate.com [will certainly unblock this one at the end of February]
  • www.mirror.co.uk
  • www.ibtimes.co.uk [not actually a 3rd party advertisement, but a video unrelated to the main article]
  • junkee.com

Vampire Women, a short story

I avoid sexual topics on this blog, for reasons best encapsulated in the phrase “more trouble than it’s worth“. I’d love to live in a world where a conversation about the diversity of human experience need not be approached with trepidation, but sadly, in the real world it does tend to bring out the irrational in people.

Today I’d like to lift the veil ever so slightly and share a short story I wrote in 2009. It includes the only sex scene I’ve ever written, and I’m actually quite proud of it. If you know me at all, you’ll expect a twist.

I published the story on Ficly.com, which I’ve written about before. Ficly was a site where people wrote stories in 1000 characters or less, but it has recently closed its doors — the archive is still there but you can no longer publish anything new. A new site, Ficlatté, has succeeded it, but it’s not much to look at so far.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fractal poetry, and other links

This post contains what purports to be a fractal poem. It’s not a bad poem in its own right, but the link to fractal geometry was too subjective for my taste. However, it got me thinking about what else a “fractal poem” might mean, and I was up till two that morning bringing my idea into fruition. I shared the poem I came up with in the comments, but a fuller explanation appears below.

I based my poem on a simple L-system. An L-system contains a set of rules, applied iteratively, for replacing one symbol with a sequence of symbols. For example, suppose we agree to replace “A” with “ABBA” and “B”, with “BA”. Then, starting with “A”, the first iteration gives “ABBA”, the second iteration gives “ABBABABAABBA”, the third “ABBABABAABBABAABBABAABBAABBABABAABBA” and so on. The connection to fractal geometry is that if we interpret the symbols graphically (e.g. “A” for “go forward” and “B” for “turn left”), we get a squiggly line whose squiggliness depends upon the number of iterations.

I used an L-system where “A” becomes “ABBA”, “B” becomes “BCCB”, and so on. (Using numbers rather than letters, this is: “n → n, n+1, n+1, n”.) After two iterations, we have “ABBABCCBBCCBABBA”, which is the structure I used for my poem, interpreting each letter as representing a line and requiring all lines assigned the same letter to rhyme. In other words, it had to be a 16-line poem in which lines 1, 4, 13 & 16 rhyme, lines 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 12, 14 & 15 rhyme, and lines 6, 7, 10 & 11 rhyme.

Here is the result. It has, I think, an interesting aesthetic quality when read aloud.

This doggerel does not intend
To satisfy the reader’s would
For art that is remotely good;
It will not serve to meet that end,
So don’t imagine that it could.
But in its rhyming structure you
Might find, if you are able to,
A pattern to be understood
That’s relevant to trees of wood
And clouds of water vapour, too –
The applications are not few –
For it possesses fractalhood.
Look closely, and you’ll comprehend
The secret pattern, bad or good,
Which, if this text were longer, could
By iterative means extend.

After a third iteration, the structure would be a challenging ABBA BCCB BCCB ABBA BCCB CDDC CDDC BCCB BCCB CDDC CDDC BCCB ABBA BCCB BCCB ABBA. Four iterations would give you an epic poem of 256 lines. You’re welcome to give that a go, or maybe you’d prefer to write your own variation on a shorter poem like mine.

Here are some more links that I found over the Christmas holidays:

  • The development of a foetus, animated.
  • Strong Language is a new linguistics blog about swearing. Mostly. Along the way it covers a variety of topics and is worth a look.
  • A well-presented and informative video on placenames ending in -stan.
  • A curious difference between the Andromeda Galaxy and our own.
  • All of the best arguments against vaccination together on one page. (No, it’s not blank, but you’ve got the right idea.)

As for the holidays themselves, I don’t feel like writing a report, but rest assured I had an excellent time. Here are two photographs that capture some special moments.


The photo on the left shows my niece and her parents (my sister on the left, pregnant with her second child) at the Christmas table as it is being prepared. Of note are the origami mangers, complete with jelly baby and paper straw, alternating with paper trees. The brown paper bags are what we used instead of crackers.

On the right is a framed photo set showing miscellaneous moments in Elke’s life so far. This was Rebecca’s Christmas present to me, and it is now hanging above the light switch in my bedroom.

Links: early December 2014

Here are some links that I think are worth sharing. It’s a short list, but you’re all busy getting ready for Christmas so that’s appropriate.

Links: November 2014

I decided to skip the Late October installment, and this Early November installment is late, but here it is now.

  • A curious coincidence concerning the planets.
  • Everything you wanted to know about goldfish.
  • Chimpanzees plan ahead when it comes to breakfast. (This gave me an idea for a card game, but it needs a lot of work.)
  • How humans, birds and grasshoppers breathe.
  • Einstein and the nature of reality: a brief history.
  • A very nice 3D video from Mars.

In personal news, I recently bought my calendar for 2015. The theme I’ve chosen is a collection of Rob Gonsalves paintings — illusionist paintings in the tradition of M. C. Escher. [Update: larger collection here].

I’ll be going to see James Randi on December 1st. (I decided against the “Meet and Greet” ticket, though; it’s about a hundred dollars extra which is more than I can justify.) In preparation, I’ve rewatched this video from 2010.

Photos from family weekend

I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday with my extended family, for reasons involving two birthday parties and a musical. I won’t go into details here, but we can talk about it in the comments if you like.

Here is a photo of my mother and my niece, Elke, who is now a confident walker, developing her vocabulary, and will be 18 months old later this month.


From later in the weekend: three generations of women on the marimba.


Left: My young relatives at play. Right: A community room in the town to which Dad has contributed dinosaurs.


I got some lovely photos of Elke with Leah, the middle child in my cousin Robert’s family. Here they are on the swing.



And here they are on the golf course.




And that’s all. It really was lovely to catch up with everyone.

Elgar’s intriguing scribble

I recently read an article on Nautilus about the Dorabella Cipher scribbled by Edward Elgar in 1897, before he became a famous composer. The cypher is made up of geometrically regular glyphs, and was given by Elgar to his young friend Dora on what seems to have been a whim. Some people claim to have decrypted it, but these solutions cannot be verified and there is no reason to expect that definitive decryption is possible.

My own thoughts and illustrations follow. It’s not that I have much to say, but a blog post is a good medium for integrating text and pictures. Also, all images embedded in this blog post are public domain, so if you want to play with the cipher yourself you’re welcome to make use of them.

First, the original cypher:

elgar original

As you can see, each glyph consists of one, two or three cusps, facing in any of eight directions. Four of those directions (left, right, up and down) I will call upright and the others (the diagonals) I will call slanted.

The geometric regularity is part of the intrigue, but when you start examining the cypher, you soon notice that Elgar’s handwriting is not exactly regular. It isn’t always clear which direction a particular glyph is supposed to be facing. For example, take the fifth glyph on line two, or the third glyph from the end of line three — in isolation these look mostly upright, but if you interpret them that way then other glyphs, ever so slightly more tilted, become ambiguous. No matter where you draw the line there are always edge cases, and I think the only solution is to document how you have interpreted the glyphs so that if other people want to change anything they can look it up and see precisely what to change.

Below is the cypher again, with the glyphs I’ve interpreted as upright in black, and the glyphs I’ve interpreted as slanted in red.

elgar interpretations

When I decided to play with the cipher, I began by replacing each glyph with a perfectly regular design, on the grounds that this might make any patterns become more obvious to the eye. I then compiled these designs into the following animation.


The outer circle represents glyphs with three cusps, the middle circle those with two cusps, and the inner circle those with one. The eight sectors represent the different directions the glyphs can face: the mapping is arbitrary, but I took the direction faced by the open side of the cusps and mapped it to the first sector clockwise from the corresponding line.

Here are the 87 frames in sequence (left to right, top to bottom, as you would read).

elgar all

The table below shows the number of times each element occurs. You should be able to translate these back to the original glyphs.

elgar tally

Of course it’s possible that Elgar’s scribble isn’t a substitution cipher at all. It could represent a piece of music, or dance steps, or the location of buried treasure. Music seems unlikely, though, as nothing in the tally suggests a pattern indicative of a bias toward dominant notes in the scale, or other regularities you’d expect.

The directions most often faced by the open sides of the glyphs — using the standard map convention — are: northwest (corresponding to the column where the numbers are 8, 11, 4), southeast, south, and then a tie for fourth place between north and east. Curiously, if we give precedence to north, then the most and least common orientations alternate in pairs (probably a coincidence but worth noting nonetheless). Below is the sequence of frames again, with the four most common orientations shaded maroon.

elgar top4

The first pattern I noticed after watching the animation you saw earlier is that a particular glyph often has either the same orientation as its immediate predecessor or the exact opposite orientation. This occurs 42 times (take note, Douglas Adams fans) out of a possible 86, whereas by chance it would occur a quarter of the time. But taking into account the distribution of the four most common orientations — which I had not tallied at the time — increases the chance prediction from 21.5 to 34 occurrences (I think), so the discrepency is greatly reduced. The 42 occurrences are highlighted below.

elgar transitions

Examining the above further shows that 23 of the 42 cases (more than half) involve the northwest and southeast directions. Of these, the most common are a northwest followed by a southeast (9 occurences), or a southeast followed by a northwest (8 occurrences). A northwest follows a northwest 5 times, and there is only one pair of consecutive southeasts.

That’s basically all I have. I just wanted to mess around with the cipher for a while, to see what I could make of it. I didn’t expect to make a historical breakthrough; I expected to have fun. I hope this has been fun for you too, and perhaps you are inspired to explore further.

Links: Early October 2014




  • I occasionally wonder if certain idiotic laws have been changed since I last heard about them. And then I find out they haven’t.


  • Last month I bought some origami-related material (instructional video & paper) as a gift for a younger relative. Noteworthy items I found in my research include these paper reviews and this video tutorial of a model that proved easy enough for me to make myself (compare with this even simpler one). I see potential for decorating this year’s Christmas dinner table.

Links: Late September 2014

A short assortment of links.

Links: Late August 2014

Here is a collection of links, several of which I bookmarked before my holiday in Sydney.


  • I include this article on quantum computers only because I once wrote an article of the sort it condemns as hyped and misinformed. Sorry. (I wrote the article as an undergraduate, and you can find it via this old blog post.)
  • Good and simple video showing how gravity works in general relativity. It represents my own level of understanding.
  • You have fingers for essentially the same reason that cheetahs have spots.
  • I found this nice tool for calculating apparent angular diameters. From a satellite orbiting 225 km above the earth (not quite high enough to be stable), the planet would have an apparent angular diameter of 150 degrees — the same as analogue clock hands at 7:00 or 5:00. From 2,640 km (comparable with the 2000 km outer bound of low earth orbit), it would be 90 degrees across. From 18,260 km (roughly halfway to geosynchronous orbit), it would take up 30 degrees. What else can you discover?


  • This mathematical question involving squares in conjunction with curves is largely solved but interesting to contemplate (and a good excuse to doodle).
  • Not delightful at all, but marking the end of something that is: I recently learned that the collaborative short story writing site ficly.com is closing its doors (but there’ll be an archive).