Arriva And The Bus Route Of Doom

Missed my bug this morning. It seems that Arriva carried out some changes to the local bus timetables at the weekend. This much I knew about. I also know that my bus would now be leaving the bus station at 0740 (rather than the 0750 I’m used to), so I arrived ten minutes earlier than at a bus stop it passes.

I was all in favour of this change. Throughout the day, the buses on the 531 route to Penrhyncoch have all left Aberystwyth at twenty to the hour… except for the aforementioned first one of the day, which leaves at ten to. For those of us who frequently alternate between these two times, it seems particularly not to have the first bus of the morning leave at the same minutes-past-the-hour as the rest: it’s only a ten minute difference. This is what I assumed they’d done.

Somehow, I managed to miss my bus, so I returned home and downloaded the new timetable.

It seems that not only have Arriva changed the start time of my service, but also it’s frequency, number, and even it’s route. The lightly-worded poster discreetly placed in my bus didn’t hint at the magnitude of the upcoming change (“a few changes to schedules”, it said). Bloody hell.

So now there’s no Sunday service, no late service, and an even harder-to-memorise timetable (with the first two and the last one bus either way now on a different schedule pattern than the rest). The only possible benefit to me is that the bus makes less stops: for example, it no longer stops at the bus stop I was waiting at this morning…

<sighs>

This isn’t a good start.

The Internet As An Art Form – The Infinite Cat Project

The Infinite Cat Project Just came across the Infinite Cat Project. The premise is simple: take a picture of your cat looking at the current picture on the web site, and send it in, and it will become the current picture. The first cat is Frankie: just click Next Cat to get to the next one.

I think this is a great use of the high-speed communication that the internet gives us in order to produce something truly artistic. Cool.

Troma Night Website Integrates With Abnib

Woo and indeed hoo! I’m really starting to enjoy programming RSS feeds into my web sites now. I’ve just done a little bit of recoding of the Troma Night website to allow the newly-relaunched Aberystwyth weblog aggregator, Abnib, to syndicate it. Now, Abnib will show the details of the next upcoming Troma Night… and not a moment too soon – if you’re viewing this post on Abnib, you’ll see the announcement of tonight’s Troma Night just below it. Yay!

Abnib’s Back!

Abnib - aggregated weblogs of Aberystwyth life

(much thanks due to Gareth)

Abnib, the Aberystwyth Weblog Aggregator (bringing you niblets of the best of Aber’s weblogs) is back online, after months of absence. Take a look and see who you recognise.

Haven’t quite gotten around to putting everybody’s ‘mugshots’ in there (as I’m having some difficulty with semitransparent PNGs), but Gareth’s made a good few to get us going. Yay! Hooray for Gareth! And Aberystwyth! And Abnib! And RSS!

Thunderbirds Are… NO!

I saw Thunderbirds at the cinema last night. Jeez; was that awful. Unlike Bryn (who’s complained at length about the film already), I’m not a long-standing fan of the original TV series, and so the film didn’t ‘ruin’ it for me (although I did notice several major inconsistencies). Nonetheless, I still found the film to be quite abysmal.

The whole thing feels like a bad re-make of Spy Kids. It’s riddled with continuity errors (where did that door opening switch go?), conveniences (suddenly an electronic lock becomes a mechanical one later in the film, so that Parker can pick it), plotholes (The Hood states that he was born with his powers, then later states that he gained them after the Thunderbirds failed to rescue him), false geography (I must take that trans-Thames monorail someday), false physics (you’re landing that rocket how?), bad sound effects (reminiscent of 60s cartoons, but no, not authentic to the style of the original series), awful acting (look; I’m scared – look; I’m concerned – look… umm), characters with no common sense (let’s all leave the base undefended during this period of suspicious activity, for no reason whatsoever – and – my being a Thunderbird is a secret, so I’ll be seen to exit a disaster scene with them… in my flying car)…

The best thing about the film was the subtle and less-subtle jokes they made about the original series: “Look at him, like a puppet on a string!” says The Hood, as he uses his mind control powers on Brains. In another scene, with a close-up of a character’s hand, strings can clearly be seen supporting it (in the original series, the characters were puppets but for close-up scenes real hands were used).

It’s currently averaging 4.5 on the IMDB. I’d give it a 3, and it’s only that high because (a) I’m not a Thunderbirds fan and (b) I’ve seen a lot ofawful films this last year.

How Google Could De-Throne AIM, And Other Geeky News

Joogle Messenger

There’s an article on how Google could overthrow AIM/ICQ, and perhaps even MSN Messenger, from their dominant positions in the instant messenger market, and improve internet standards usage and accessibility, by releasing thier own instant messenger tool powered by the (wonderful) Jabber protocol. It’s a lovely idea, but (sadly) not one which is likely to happen.

On similarly geeky news, there’s a new web site, BrowseHappy, which aims to help everyday users make the switch away from Internet Explorer to safer, simpler, faster, better browsers. If you’re still using IE, take a look. If you’re already enlightened, show it to your unenlightened friends. It’s a very approachable site in nice, easy language.

And finally, there’s apparently a new worm doing the rounds, “Peeping Tom”, which, upon infection, turns on the victim’s webcam and microphone, and begins broadcasting to the world. What a lovely idea for a novelty virus.

Thanks for listening

A.I. For Deluded Nutcases

Some goon (sorry: Californian counsellor) has patented Inductive Inference Affective Language Analyzer Simulating Artificial Intelligence (including the Ten Ethical Laws Of Robotics). It’s nothing but unintelligible babble, interspersed by (inaccurate) references to artificial intelligence theory. The author (who also writes a book on family values with a distinct evangelic slant, from which most of the text of the patent seems to be taken) appears to know nothing about A.I. or computer science. In addition, I find his suggestion that ‘wooly’ and ‘vague’ rules and ‘commandments’ are sensible choices for A.I. safeguards –

While a meaningful future artificial intelligence may be more than capable of understanding rules set out in a way that a human might like to express it – indeed, for some machine intelligences (artificial or not) this capacity to understand human speech and expressions could be a very useful feature – this is not the level at which safeguards should be implemented.

While I appreciate the need for ‘safeguards’ (the need is that humans would not feel safe without them, as even early machine intelligences – having been built for a specific purpose – will be in many ways superior to their human creators and therefore be perceived as a threat to them), I do not feel that a safeguard which depends on the machine already being fully functional would be even remotely effective. Instead, such safeguards should be implemented at a far lower and fundamental level.

For an example of this, think of the safety procedures that are built into modern aircraft. An aeroplane is a sophisticated and powerful piece of machinery with some carefully-designed artificial intelligence algorithms pre-programmed into it, such as the autopilot and autoland features, the collision avoidance system, and the fuel regulators. Other, less sophisticated decision-making programs include the air pressure regulators and the turbulence indicators.

If the cabin pressure drops, an automatic system causes oxygen masks to drop from the overhead compartment. But this is not the only way to cause this to happen – the pilot also has a button for this purpose. On many ‘planes, in the event of a wing fire, the corresponding engine will be switched off – but this decision can be overridden by a human operator. These systems are all exhibiting high-level decision-making behaviour: rules programmed in to the existing systems. But these are, in the end, a second level safeguard to the low-level decision-making that prompts the pilot to press the button that drops the masks or keeps the engine on. These overrides are the most fundamental and must crucial safeguards in a modern aircraft: the means to physically cause or prevent the behaviour of the A.I..

Let’s go back to our ‘robots’ – imagine a future not unlike that expressed in films like Blade Runner or I, Robot, in which humanoid robotic servants assist humans with many menial tasks. Suppose, for whatever reason (malice, malfunction, or whatever), a robot attacks a human – the first level of safeguard (and the only one suggested by both films and by the author of the “Ten Ethical Laws“) would be that the human could demand that the robot desist. This would probably be a voice command: “Stop!”. But of course, this is like the aeroplane that ‘decides’ to turn off a burning engine – we already know that something has ‘gone wrong’ in the AI unit: the same machine that has to process the speech, ‘stop’. How do we know that this will be correctly understood, particularly if we already know that there has been a malfunction? If the command fails to work, the human’s only likely chance for survival would be to initialise the second, low-level safeguard – probably a reset switch or “big red button”.

You see: the rules that the author proposes are unsubstantial, vauge, and open to misinterpretation – just like the human’s cry for the robot to stop, above. The safeguards he proposes are no more effective than asking humans to be nice to one another is to preventing crime.

Whether or not it is ethical to give intelligent entities ‘off’ buttons is, of course, another question entirely.

Additional: On further reading, it looks as if the author of the document recently saw “I, Robot” and decided that his own neo-Christian viewpoint could be applied to artificial intelligences: which, of course, it could, but there is no reason to believe that it would be any more effective on any useful artificial intelligence than it would be on any useful ‘real’ intelligence.

Burny Burny Firey Goodness

Fire 1Gareth came over this weekend, and he, Bryn, Paul, Claire and I decided to have a bonfire and a barbeque on the beach. Sadly, Matt – who’s in town for resits – couldn’t join us, as he’s busy revising (best of luck to you, Matt!).Fire 2

In any case, the food and the beer and the company was good, until it started threatening rain and spitting on us in short bursts, when we decided we’d better abandon the camp and go play some Super Monkey Ball. And I kicked arse. And then Gareth beat me.

It’s been a rich, full weekend: between a brief exercise in nudism, Troma Night (Indiana Jones-themed), Gareth’s visit, and the fire on the beach, it’s been great. And, better yet, it looks like next week won’t involve so many late work nights (fingers crossed).

What If Windows 98 Had Activation?

Or: Yet Another Reason Why ‘Activation’ Is Bad

There are already loads of articles out there explaining why ‘product activation‘, which made it’s first appearance in a piece of Microsoft software in their release of Windows XP, is a bad thing. Product activation, which you may already have experienced, works by making a ‘fingerprint’ of the unique hardware identifiers of your computer’s makeup. This fingerprint, and your unique serial number, are sent to Microsoft either over the internet or using an automated telephone service, after which Microsoft give you a response code that allows Windows XP to work normally. The theory is that this prevents software piracy – if you allow a friend to use ‘your’ serial number, Microsoft will see that the same serial number is now being used with two different ‘fingerprints’ and will deny your friend access to Windows.

Of course, this also means that if you repeatedly make significant changes to your hardware configuration, or you reformat your hard drive, you have to re-activate, and if you do this ‘too frequently’, you’ll look like a pirate, even if you’re not. The ‘activation’ system has come under fire for many reasons: that the ‘fingerprinting’ process being an invasion of privacy is a popular reason. That it doesn’t actually stop determined pirates, but imposes a great inconvenience on many honest users is another. But I’ve not yet seen an article anywhere that suggests a major issue with the system that I thought of while in the shower this morning:

What If Windows 98 Had Activation?

I have several friends who still use Windows 98. And why not? Apart from the fact that it’s still built on top of MS-DOS, it’s a reasonable and functional operating system. More to the point, it does everything they want out of an operating system, and it’ll serve them for years to come.

Microsoft were originally to discontinue support for Windows 98 on January 16, 2004, but this date has since been extended. But let’s pretend that, like all computer software, this particular version is no longer supported (it’ll happen). What then?

Well – that’s not actually a problem: my friends who use Windows 98 can carry on using it for the rest of their lives. If they have any problems with it, they can’t go whinging to Microsoft, ‘cos Microsoft won’t care (is this that dissimilar to their “supported” products?), but they can use it forever and ever for as much as anybody cares. But here’s the problem: suppose my friend needed to ‘activate’ his Windows 98 installation: what would happen? One day, he installs a new network card and it asks him to re-activate, but the internet activation fails. When he calls up the telephone activation service, he gets a recorded announcement stating that his choice of operating system is no longer supported, and he has to go out and buy a new one (and, probably, a new computer, too – on which to run it).

This is a scary thought. If I set up a Windows 2003 Server today (also requires activation), I want it to still be working in a few years time (upgrades aside). Perhaps I’m using it to deploy a centralised database for my business (I recently came accross a business who are still using a thirty-year old piece of hardware to manage their data, running an even older operating system) – with Windows activation: this kind of longevity is no longer an option.

And, of course, the scariest point: what happens if, in the future, Microsoft goes out of business. Do we all have to “throw away” our then-useless (well… I say then-useless) copies of Windows?

It’s all very, very scary.

Troma Night Becomes Locally Famous

While doing a few errands arround town, Bryn and I stepped into Pier Video to check whether Paul had already rented the three videos we’re planning to watch at this evening’s themed Troma Night: Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, and – if he hadn’t – rent them ourselves, ready.

We browsed the shelves a little to see if thier copy was still in stock, and, when the lady at the counter was done with the customers she was serving when we entered, we decided to quiz her, to see if she remembered renting out the three Indiana Jones movies to somebody this evening already:

“Hi,” I began, “This is going to sound like a wierd request, but some friends and I are having a themed video evening tonight, and I was wondering if…”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “Indiana Jones. He’s already taken them out.”

Scary.

This Weekend : Nudism For Dummies

Morfa Dyffryn naturist beach, photographed from the nearby dunesFollowing the theme of Parachuting For Dummies, last weekend, this weekend Claire and I spent the day at Morfa Dyffryn, a naturist beach between Barmouth and Harlech (about an hour and a quarter’s drive away – would be less, but Barmouth’s roads are comparable to Cambridge in thier narrowness and complexity).

Which was an experience. And no, it’s not all about sex (although women playing football naked is damned funny). It was actually good to be able to lounge around on the beach and sunbathe (and swim in the sea) without having to get changed, or errect shoddy windbreaks for privacy, or any such thing.

We also enjoyed a fabulous lunch (albeit a little expensive) at a pub called the Ael-Y-Bryn (pretty awful web site, though). If you’re ever driving past it, drop in.