Odd One Out?

While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:

Which is the odd-one out: gypsiesturkeysfrench fries, or the Kings of Leon?

Gypsies, a Turkey, a pan of French Fries, and the Kings of Leon
If you answer “turkey, because it’s the only one that’s a bird,” then you’re somewhat missing the point.

In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:

A ginger and white kitten.
Aww.

Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.

A Persian cat.
Interestingly, this Persian cat could easily be another candidate for the odd-one-out.

Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:

Gypsies

The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The migration of the Romanies
The migration of the Romanies. The arrows show that they stopped in France for some French Fries before continuing to Britain.

Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.

Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.

Turkeys

When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.

A wild turkey
Gobblegobblegobblegobble.

Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.

Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.

French Fries

As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.

Friet Museum, Bruge
They may find it hard to prove that they invented fries, but the Belgians certainly hold the claim to the world’s only museum dedicated to the food.

So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.

The Kings of Leon

For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).

The Kingdom of Leon (circa 1210)
Leon, sandwiched between the other kingdoms of the 13th century Iberian Peninsula.

The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.

The Odd One Out

The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.

The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).

And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.

The Hardest Hangman

What’s the hardest word to guess, when playing hangman? I’ll come back to that.

A game of hangman; SCAT_A_, wrong guesses are R, E, O, P, L, H.
Whatever could the missing letters be?

Last year, Nick Berry wrote a fantastic blog post about the optimal strategy for Hangman. He showed that the best guesses to make to get your first “hit” in a game of hangman are not the most-commonly occurring letters in written English, because these aren’t the most commonly-occurring letters in individual words. He also showed that the first guesses should be adjusted based on the length of the word (the most common letter in 5-letter words is ‘S’, but the most common letter in 6-letter words is ‘E’). In short: hangman’s a more-complex game than you probably thought it was! I’d like to take his work a step further, and work out which word is the hardest word: that is – assuming you’re playing an optimal strategy, what word takes the most-guesses?

A hanged man being quartered by his executioner.
The rules of hangman used to be a lot more brutal. Nowadays, very few people die as a result of the game.

First, though, we need to understand how hangman is perfectly played. Based on the assumption that the “executioner” player is choosing words randomly, and that no clue is given as to the nature of the word, we can determine the best possible move for all possible states of the game by using a data structure known as a tree. Suppose our opponent has chosen a three-letter word, and has drawn three dashes to indicate this. We know from Nick’s article that the best letter to guess is A. And then, if our guess is wrong, the next best letter to guess is E. But what if our first guess is right? Well, then we’ve got an “A” in one or more positions on the board, and we need to work out the next best move: it’s unlikely to be “E” – very few three-letter words have both an “A” and an “E” – and of course what letter we should guess next depends entirely on what positions the letters are in.

A tiny fragment of possible states for the tree of three-letter words, in hangman.
There are billions of possible states of game play, but you can narrow them down quickly with strategic guessing.

What we’re actually doing here is a filtering exercise: of all of the possible letters we could choose, we’re considering what possible results that could have. Then for each of those results, we’re considering what guesses we could make next, and so on. At each stage, we compare all of the possible moves to a dictionary of all possible words, and filter out all of the words it can’t be: after our first guess in the diagram above, if we guess “A” and the board now shows “_ A _”, then we know that of the 600+ three-letter words in the English language, we’re dealing with one of only about 134. We further refine our guess by playing the odds: of those words, more of them have a “C” in than any other letter, so that’s our second guess. If it has a C in, that limits the options further, and we can plan the next guess accordingly. If it doesn’t have a C in, that still provides us with valuable information: we’re now looking for a three-letter word with an A in the second position and no letter C: that cuts it down to 124 words (and our next guess should be ‘T’). This tree-based mechanism for working out the best moves is comparable to that used by other game-playing computers. Hangman is simple enough that it can be “solved” by contemporary computers (like draughts – solved in 2007 – but unlike chess: while modern chess-playing computers can beat humans, it’s still theoretically possible to build future computers that will beat today’s computers).

Pile of stones, and the text "the best word to choose in hangman is the word that your opponent will not guess"
Zen Hangman asks the really important questions. If a man has one guess left and refused to pick a letter, does he live forever, or not at all?

Now that we can simulate the way that a perfect player would play against a truly-random executioner, we can use this to simulate games of hangman for every possible word (I’m using version 0.7 of this British-English dictionary). In other words, we set up two computer players: the first chooses a word from the dictionary, the second plays “perfectly” to try to guess the word, and we record how many guesses it took. So that’s what I did. Here’s the Ruby code I used. It’s heavily-commented and probably pretty understandable/good learning material, if you’re into that kind of thing. Or if you fancy optimising it, there’s plenty of scope for that too (I knocked it out on a lunch break; don’t expect too much!). Or you could use it as the basis to make a playable hangman game. Go wild.

The hardest three-letter hangman words: xxv, xxx, wiz, oak, vex, vox, aux, fox, yuk, www...
The hardest three-letter hangman words. “Sly” is particularly… well, sly.

Running the program, we can see that the hardest three-letter word is “xxv”, which would take 22 guesses (20 of them wrong!) to get. But aside from the roman numeral for 25, I don’t think that “xxv” is actually a word. Perhaps my dictionary’s not very good. “Oak”, though, is definitely a word, and at 20 guesses (17 wrong), it’s easily enough to hang your opponent no matter how many strokes it takes to complete the gallows.

The hardest four-letter hangman words: xxxv, quiz, jazz, zinc, faux, foxy, hazy, jibe, quay, buzz, gibe, guan, huge...
Interestingly, “oaks” is an easier word than “oak” (although it’s still very difficult): the addition of an extra letter to a word does not make it harder, especially when that letter is common.

There are more tougher words in the four-letter set, like the devious “quiz”, “jazz”, “zinc”, and “faux”. Pick one of those and your opponent – unless they’ve seen this blog post! – is incredibly unlikely to guess it before they’re swinging from a rope.

The hardest five, six, and seven-letter hangman words, including jazzy, quaff, foxed, foxing, queued, favour, vaquero, jazzier, quizzed...
“Hazing foxes, fucking cockily” is not only the title of a highly-inappropriate animated film, but also a series of very challenging Hangman words.

As we get into the 5, 6, and 7-letter words you’ll begin to notice a pattern: that the hardest words with any given number of letters get easier the longer they are. That’s kind of what you’d expect, I suppose: if there were a hypothetical word that contained every letter in the alphabet, then nobody would ever fail to (eventually) get it.

The hardest eight, nine, and ten-letter hangman words, including quizzing, puppyish, picklock, jazziness, pollywogs, cufflinks, humbuggery, juxtaposed, bucketfuls...
Some of the longer words are wonderful, like: dysprosium, semivowel, harrumph, and googolplex.

When we make a graph of each word length, showing which proportion of the words require a given number of “wrong” guesses (by an optimised player), we discover a “sweet spot” window in which we’ll find all of the words that an optimised player will always fail to guess (assuming that we permit up to 10 incorrect guesses before they’re disqualified). The window seems small for the number of times I remember seeing people actually lose at hangman, which implies to me that human players consistently play sub-optimally, and do not adequately counteract that failing by applying an equal level of “smart”, intuitive play (knowing one’s opponent and their vocabulary, looking for hints in the way the game is presented, etc.).

Graph showing the proportion of each word of a given length that take a given number of "wrong" guesses to optimally solve.
The “sweet spot” in the bottom right is the set of words which you would expect a perfect player to fail to guess, assuming that they’re given a limit of 10 “wrong” guesses.

In case you’re interested, then, here are the theoretically-hardest words to throw at your hangman opponent. While many of the words there feel like they would quite-rightly be difficult, others feel like they’d be easier than their ranking would imply: this is probably because they contain unusual numbers of vowels or vowels in unusual-but-telling positions, which humans (with their habit, inefficient under normal circumstances, of guessing an extended series of vowels to begin with) might be faster to guess than a computer.

Word Guesses taken “Wrong” guesses needed
quiz 24 20
jazz 22 19
jazzy 22 18
quaff 22 18
zinc 21 17
oak 20 17
vex 20 17
vox 20 17
foxing 22 16
foxed 21 16
queued 20 16
fuzzy 20 16
quay 20 16
pinup 20 16
fox 19 16
yuk 19 16
vaquero 22 15
jazzier 21 15
quizzed 21 15
hazing 21 15
favour 21 15
yoking 21 15
quays 20 15
quark 20 15
joked 20 15
guyed 20 15
foyer 20 15
bumph 20 15
huge 19 15
quip 19 15
gibe 19 15
rump 19 15
guan 19 15
quizzed 19 15
oaks 19 15
murk 19 15
fezzes 19 15
yuck 19 15
keno 19 15
kazoo 19 15
Download a longer list
(there’s plenty more which you’d expect to “win” with)

If you use this to give you an edge in your next game, let me know how it works out for you!

Narrowboating

I’ve had a tardy summer for blogging, falling way behind on many of the things I’d planned to write about. Perhaps the problem is that I’m still on Narrowboat Time, the timezone of a strange parallel universe in which everything happens more-slowly, in a gin-soaked, gently-rocking, slowly-crawling haze.

Matt, JTA and Ruth tie up the narrowboat after our first day's travel.
The apparent haze in the centre of this photograph is not the result of gin, however, but of a scuff on the lens of the camera I was using; a fault which was not apparent to me until after I looked at the pictures, and so – now I’ve pointed it out – you won’t be able to un-see it in any of the other snaps, either.

That’s believable, because this summer Ruth, JTA and I – joined for some of the journey by Matt – rented a narrowboat and spent a week drifting unhurriedly down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal… and then another week making a leisurely cruise back up it again.

Matt takes a siesta atop the boat.
Symptoms of “boat-lag”, which is a result of spending any significant period on Narrowboat Time, include siestas, lounging, and a generally relaxed and laid-back attitude.

We picked up Nerys, out of Cambrian Cruisers, who also gave us an introduction to the operation of the boat (driving it, filling it with water, pumping out sewage, generating electricity for appliances, etc.) and safety instructions (virtually all of the canal is less than four feet deep, so if you fall in, the best thing to do is to simply walk to the shore), and set out towards Brecon. In order to explore the entire canal in the time available, we needed to cover an average of only five miles per day. When you’re going at about two and a half miles per hour and having to stop to operate locks (there are only six locks on the navigable stretch of the canal, but they’re all clustered towards the upper end), though, five miles is plenty.

Matt looks out over the Usk Valley, near our first mooring.
Time spent mooring up, casting off, refilling the water tank, and squeezing past other boats on the narrow canal willalso slow you down. But it’s still worth getting started moving on a morning, to ensure that you don’t need to compete for one of the more-beautiful spots to tie up at the end of your day’s travel.

The upper end of the canal is by far the busiest, with not only narrowboats cruising up and down but a significant number of day boats (mostly on loan from Brecon) and at least one tour boat: a 50-seater that you don’t want to have to wiggle past at sharp corner North of the Bryich Aqueduct. From a navigation perspective, though, it’s also the best-maintained: wide enough that two boats can pass one another without much thought, and deep enough across its entire width that you needn’t be concerned about running aground, it makes for a great starting point for people who want some narrowboating practice before they hit the more challenging bits to the South.

Dan and Ruth with a geocache.
The towpath is also a haven for geocachers. Ruth and I are here seen holding GC3698Y, “Jass @ Jammy”, which was hidden only a short walk from where we moored at the end of our first and third days.

Ruth was excited to find in me a driver who was confident holding the boat steady in a lock. Perhaps an expression of equal parts talent and arrogance, I was more than happy to take over the driving, leaving others to jump out and juggle the lock gates and lift bridges. Owing to Ruth’s delicate condition, we’d forbidden her from operating the entirely-manual locks, but she made sure to get a go at running one of the fancy hydraulic ones.

Ruth operates a hydraulic lock.
The hydraulic locks aren’t any faster than the unassisted ones, but they don’t take quite so much “pushing”.

After each day’s cruising, we’d find a nice place to moor up, open a bottle of wine or mix up some gin-and-tonics, and lounge in the warm, late summer air.

Matt, Dan and JTA enjoy wine on their moored-up boat.
Matt, Dan and JTA enjoy wine on their moored-up boat. Ruth, who of course can’t drink, is behind the camera.

As we wound our way further South, to the “other” end of the waterway, we discovered that the already-narrow canal was ill-dredged, and drifting anywhere close to the sides – especially on corners – was a recipe for running around. Crewmates who weren’t driving would take turns on “pole duty”, being on standby to push us off if we got too close to one or the other bank.

Moored up with a plank.
Another effect of the shallow sides was that we’d sometimes have to “walk the plank” to get ashore. On the upside, we could raise the plank at night and feel like we were isolated in our own little fortress, with its own little drawbridge.

Each night moored up in a separate place gives a deceptive feeling of travel. Deceptive, because I’ve had hiking trips where I’ve traveled further each day than we did on our boat! But the nature of the canal, winding its way from the urban centre of Brecon out through the old mining villages of South Wales.

A gentleman "pumps out" our boat.
Modern narrowboats have a chemical toilet that needs to be “pumped out”. Slightly icky, but probably less nasty than the distant historical alternative, presumably, of putting your bum over the edge.

The canal, already quite narrow and shallow, only became harder to navigate as we got further South. Our weed hatch (that’s the door to the propeller box, that is, not a slang term for the secret compartment where you keep your drugs) saw plenty of use, and we found ourselves disentangling all manner of curious flora in order to keep our engine pushing us forwards (and not catching fire).

JTA fishes crap our of the weed hatch.
Reaching into a dirty, cold, damp hole and pulling out gunky, slimy strands of crap isn’t the most-fun job. And you really want to make sure you’ve taken the key out of the ignition, too, assuming that you’re fond of your fingers.

Eventually, we had to give up navigating the waterway, tie up, and finish the journey on foot. We could have gotten the boat all the way to the end, but it’d have been a stop-start day of pushing ourselves off the shallow banks and cleaning out the weed hatch. Walking the last few miles – with a stop either way at a wonderful little pub called The Open Hearth – let us get all the way to both ends of the navigable stretch of the canal, with a lot less hassle and grime.

Ruth and JTA at Five Locks
Ruth and JTA at the head of Five Locks, the lowest remaining navigable point of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

It’s a little sad coming to the end of a waterway, cut short – in this case – by a road. There’s no easy way – short of the removal of an important road, or the challenging and expensive installation of a drop lock, that this waterway will ever be connected at this point again. The surrounding landscape doesn’t even make it look likely that it’ll be connected again by a different route, either: this canal is broken here.

Ruth and JTA look into the Cwmbran Tunnel.
The Cwmbran Tunnel is narrow, 87 yards long, and both ends are badly in need of dredging. Knowing our luck, we’d have gotten grounded in there if we’d have brought the boat that far.

I found myself remarking on quite how well-laid-out the inside of the narrowboat was. Naturally, on a vehicle/home that’s so long and thin, a great number of clever decisions had clearly been made. The main living space could be converted between a living room, dining room, and bedroom by re-arranging planks and poles; the kitchen made use of carefully-engineered cupboards to hold the crockery in place in case of a… bump; and little space-saving features added up all along the boat, such as the central bedroom’s wardrobe door being adaptable to function as a privacy door between the two main bedrooms.

Ruth and JTA set up Arkham Horror in the narrowboat.
In dining room configuration, we were even able (with judicious use of nearby shelves and the seats alongside us) to play a game of Arkham Horror. And we won, which was perhaps even more-remarkable.

On the way back up the canal, we watched the new boaters setting out in their narrowboats for the first time. We felt like pros, by now, gliding around the corners with ease and passing other vessels with narry a hint of a bump. We were a well-oiled machine, handling every lock with ease. Well: some ease. Unfortunately, we’d managed to lose not one but both of our windlasses on the way down the canal and had to buy a replacement pair on the way back up, which somewhat dented our “what pros we are” feeling.

Our final pass through Brynich Lock
Our final pass through Brynich Lock was slick and seamless.

Coming to the end of our narrowboating journey, we took a quick trip to Fourteen Locks, a beautiful and series of locks with a sophisticated basin network, disconnected from the remains of the South Wales canal network. They’ve got a particular lock (lock 11), there, whose unusual shape hints at a function that’s no-longer understood, which I think it quite fabulously wonderful – that we could as a nation built a machine just 200 years ago, used it for a hundred years, and now have no idea how it worked.

Our trolley full of shelves, in Ikea.
Our “big” trip to Ikea a few weeks later was significantly bigger, even, than this one, though.

Our next stop was Ikea, where we’d only meant to buy a couple of shelves for our new home, but you know how it is when you go to Ikea.

We wrapped up our holiday with a visit to Sian and Andy (and their little one), and Andy showed off his talent of singing songs that send babies to sleep. I swear, if he makes an album of children’s songs and they’re as effective as he is in person, we’ll buy a copy.

Andy, Sian, and baby
MiniRegz and parents.

Altogether, a wonderfully laid-back holiday that clearly knocked my sense of urgency so far off that I didn’t blog about it for several months.

Social engineering

GoldieBlox have been in the news (by which I mean the blogs) a lot lately because of their Princess Machine video. In case you missed the memo, GoldieBlox do engineering toys for girls, by which they mean a) they’re pink, and b) they’ve got stories, because girls need everything to have a story. Think I’m…

Dressing up

A few months ago now (OK, this post has sat in drafts for a while) when I came to pick my daughter up from nursery I found her wearing a pink ‘fairy skirt’ (something like a tutu). “Her trousers and her spare trousers both got wet and it was the only thing we could find!”…

Pen testing

This is not a blog post about pentesting, or any other kind of software-engineering inspired testing of pens. Nor is it a blog post about the kind of fascination some people have with pens and ink. Instead, this is a blog post about history and psychology.

Recently, JTA asked me what I do when I want to test a pen, and he was surprised with the answer. Before I tell you how I answered, I’ll tell you about what I learned from the conversation. And before that, I’ll tell you about the history of pen testing. And then, finally, I’ll tell you why I think it’s important from a psychological perspective.

Fragment of the Hebban Olla Uogala document, the oldest surviving Probatio Pennae.
The oldest surviving Probatio Pennae, or “pen test”, is of the Old Dutch words “hebban olla uogala”, and is stored in the Bodleian Library.

Historically, the “breaking in” of a new pen was called a probatio pennae, literally “pen test”, and would typically be a few lines of text or a short proverb: something that demonstrated the pen’s ability to write. For the entire mediaeval period, plus several centuries besides, the principle instrument for writing would be the quill pen: the primary wing feathers of a large bird such as a goose, often hardened in hot ashes, stripped of barbs, and cut down to size with an blade whose purpose lends its name to what we now call a “pen knife”. With such a tool, a scribe would want to be sure that the pen could hold an adequate nibful of ink without splashing or spraying, and – despite the high value of paper – it was clearly essential to write a whole sentence or two to be sure.

De Klerk, by Philip van Djik.
De Klerk, by Philip van Djik, contemporaneously shows a scribe cutting the nib of his quill pen.

A modern ballpoint pen has no such issues, but instead introduces some of its own: a plastic-lined inkwell can be gradually penetrated by the air, causing the ink to dry up; the ball can become stuck and will not turn freely; air bubble can develop within the tube (especially if the pen is stored, or worse-still used, the wrong way up); and, of course, the pen can run out of ink. This typically precipitates its disposal: your biro isn’t built to be re-used for anything except perhaps to perform an emergency tracheotomy, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t want to waste your time repairing it. As a result, our pen tests have become fast, designed to determine within a few seconds whether the pen we’ve got is working or, in the case of a stuck ball, can be made to start working with a sufficiency of scribbling. Our culture of disposal can’t spare the time for any more than a cursory test before we give up and grab the next one.

Comic: A customer stands confused, holding a toaster, outside Melvin's Throw-It-Away-And-Buy-A-New-One-Shop (formerly Melvin's Fix-It Shop)
Why keep a pen? Why keep a toaster? Why keep a computer?

So what do we write? What is the probatio pennae of our times? It’s been widely-reported (although I can’t find any decent citations) that, upon being offered a new pen to try out, 97% of people will write their own name. Now that statistic smells fishy to me (no good citations anywhere, and 97% of people use 97% as their “virtually all” number, for made-up statistics), but I’ve been testing the hypothesis among friends these last few days, and I’ve gathered enough evidence to convince me that it’s probably the case that many or most people will write their own name to test a pen.

Signing a cheque.
That’s not so surprising: in this computerised age, most times we’re given a pen it’s to sign our name. About 97% of the time, anyway. ;-)

Somebody had presumably asked JTA what he wrote, earlier in the day, because he took the time to tell me that when he tests a new pen, he typically writes the word “hello”.

Now I find that pretty weird. Maybe it’s the software engineer in me, but to me the mark of a good test is that it covers all of the possible cases, in the minimal possible effort. Writing your name is easy because it’s managed by what is popularly-called “muscle memory”: a second-season episode of Castle (correctly) used this as a plot point, when a man suffering from retrograde amnesia was unable to remember his name, but was still able to sign his name because the act of signing it had been rendered, by years of practice, into his procedural memory, which was unaffected by his condition. But writing a word, like “hello”… requires a comprehension of language. Unless he’s tested enough pens to have built a procedural memory of writing “hello” to test pens, JTA’s test has a greater number of neural dependencies, which – with apologies to those of you who aren’t interested in automated software testing – produces what we’d call an unnecessarily “brittle” test.

Animation of a hand using a pen to write a name, "hello", and a scribble.
A demonstration of a handful of ways in which people test pens, in Animated GIF format.

Me? I just scribble, which my quick survey (and several comparable ones online) show to be probably the second-most popular action to test a pen. Scribbling, to me, simply seems like the minimal test path: the single simplest thing that can be done with a pen that will demonstrate that it’s fit for purpose. I don’t need to test that a new pen can write words, because – to me – writing words in particular is not a function of the pen, but a function of my brain! To me, the pen’s function is simply one of transferring ink to the paper, and any semantic meaning coming from the ink is a product of my intellect, not of the writing implement.

So why is this important? Well: I have a half-baked hypothesis that the choice of what to write with a new pen might be linked to other aspects of our psychology. When I’m developing a new template for a website, for example, I use lorem ipsum text and dummy placeholder images as filler (just occasionally, I’ll use kittens, because kittens are adorable). That’s because the absence of meaning to the words that appear (I don’t read Latin, and even if I did, lorem ipsum is frequently mangled) has no bearing on my comprehension of the design: and, in fact, it can sometimes be a benefit to be deprived of the distraction of legible content.

A kitten by a mirror.
At last, a legitimate use in an otherwise un-kitten-related blog post to use a PlaceKitten.com image!

But I’d hypothesise that people who write words as a probatio pennae would be less-comfortable with illegible placeholder-text in a design than those who drew scribbles or signed their name. I have a notion, from my own experience, that the same parts of the brain that is responsible for judging the quality of a writing implement are used in the judgement of a piece of design work. Hey: maybe if that’s true, graphic designers should have their clients test pens out, in their presence, before they decide whether to use believable filler or lorem ipsum text in the designs they’d like approved.

Or maybe I’m way off base. What do you write when you test a pen?

Why You Should Never Use MongoDB

Disclaimer: I do not build database engines. I build web applications. I run 4-6 different projects every year, so I build a lot of web applications. I see apps with different requirements and different data storage needs. I’ve deployed most of the data stores you’ve heard about, and a few that you probably haven’t. I’ve picked the wrong…

The story of how the Diaspora social network adopted the hip new database technology without for a moment thinking about whether it was the right database technology.

The Ambassador’s Notebook (Murder Mystery)

Short version of the review: a few teething problems aside, we all had a wonderful time and we’d certainly consider a Daggerville game for our next murder mystery party. The characters were, on the whole, wonderful characters well-realised and fully-developed within the constraints of the genre, the twist was clever, there were moments of great hilarity (such as the point when we realised that there’d been a veritable conga-line of people stealthily following one another around the hotel), and the event built up to a fun and satisfying conclusion. I’d suggest that you all keep an eye on Daggerville in the future.

As implied earlier this week, this weekend Ruth, JTA and I had planned to host the latest in a long series of murder mystery party nights (a handful of which have been reviewed on this blog). Despite our earlier worries, we eventually filled the “missing” slots in our party with our friends Liz and Dean: exactly the couple we’d planned to fill it with in the first place, but they’d been painfully slow at RSVPing.

Liz and Dean
When they eventually turned up late, but still earlier than our other guests, Liz and Dean quickly found themselves back in our good books.

We’ve played a lot of murder mystery games over the years: we could probably be described as connoisseurs of the genre, and that might be worth bearing in mind when you read what we had to say about this particular event. To enumerate, there’s been:

That said, this latest party really had the opportunity to cross the board, with Liz and Dean having never been to a murder mystery night before and (other) Liz and Simon having been to only a few. And to top it all off, we were working with a completely new game from a creator of whom we’d had no experience. What could be more exciting?

JTA
See: even JTA’s excited.

You see: I was contacted a little over two months ago, via my web form, by a Martin from Daggerville Games, a new murder mystery party provider of the “buy-and-download” variety. Upon visiting their website, I was immediately struck by some of the similarities between their signup form (which asks for player names to be associated with characters, genders to be chosen for characters whose gender can be selected based on the gender balance among the players, and email addresses to which invitations will be sent) and a prototype one of my own design, used in the construction of my upcoming games Murder at the Glam Rock Concert and Murder on the Social Network, the first of which we hope to host in about a year’s time. I mentioned this to Martin, in the hope that they won’t think I’m ripping them off if I eventually put some of my pieces online for the world to play, too.

The players discuss the "Fingersniff", after mishearing a line.
One of the quirks of Daggerville is that they email fragmented scripts directly to your players, which they’re then welcome to read completely before they turn up (or not; whichever they prefer).

The Daggerville folks, perhaps anticipating that I would be likely to blog about the event in hindsight and thus provide them with some free publicity, offered me a voucher for a free game of my choice, which I accepted. After a little discussion, we settled upon The Ambassador’s Notebook, a 7-player murder mystery set in a rural 1920s hotel and revolving around the untimely death of a Mr. Sullivan, presumably related to a valuable journal that was in his possession.

Liz G ponders.
But who can the murderer be, Liz ponders, from her comfortable chair in the Accusing Chamber.

In order to keep the spoilers at the tail end of this blog post (there’ll be a nice big warning before you get to them, so you can refrain from reading them if you’re planning to someday play this game yourself), I’ll cut to the chase and first provide a summary of the night as a whole.

Dan Q
Right before I opened the “Deus Ex Manilla”, otherwise known as the “Miss. Marple Envelope”, in which the solution would be found, I – as usual – encouraged a vote on who we’d be turning over to the police.

We all had a fun time: as usual for these gatherings, there was good wine, great company, and spectacular food (Ruth had, once again, put together a wonderfully thought-out and thematically-sound menu): honestly, under these conditions we’d be pretty-much guaranteed a good night no matter what. The murder mystery itself was a scripted affair similar to those you’ll find in any off-the-shelf kit, but with a few quirks. For a start, as hinted above, everybody gets their fragments of the script (along with dialogue entry and exit cues) very early on: it’s possible, permitted, and even encouraged that players read their script before they arrive for the event. Some of us were concerned that this might result in “spoilers”, and a few of those of us who did pre-read our scripts said that they regretted doing so, so be aware: it’s a spoiler-risk.

Guests at the Murder Mystery
If you pay attention to following a fragmented script, you might lose track of a clue. But if you pay attention to the clues, you might lose track of your place in the script. It’s a challenge.

Unlike similar-styled games, though, players aren’t given additional information outside of the script, and we all felt that this made things challenging when it came to the discussion breaks. All that we had to go on for our deliberations was exactly what we’d all heard, just minutes before, tempered by our own speculation. Sometimes somebody would ask, or consider asking, a valid question after somebody’s whereabouts, alibi, or history, but no answer was forthcoming because all that we had, collectively, was the script. This caused additional confusion when, for example, Liz’s character mentioned JTA’s character by his first name, it was a surprise to everybody… even JTA, who had no idea to begin with that it was supposed to be his name!

Simon
The lack of “character sheets” did encourage imaginative ad-libbing, for example, such as Simon’s decision that his character had just come over from Australia.

None of the problems we experienced “broke” the game, and we found our way to a reasonably-satisfactory conclusion. A majority of us voted correctly, determining the identity of the murderer, and Ruth even managed to identify an important twist (albeit not based on anything more than speculation: the “flash” was a little subtle for us). There were a few anachronisms in the script, but they’re of the kind that only nerds like us would notice (the National Theatre is mentioned despite the fact that it won’t be founded for another four decades or so, and a character makes a reference to a frozen turkey, even though freezing of meat in the West wasn’t yet commonplace, for example). We’d have really liked to have each had a brief – even just half a page! – to tell us each more about our own characters (their names, for example, as well some of the secrets that they might be concealing and any established relationships they have with other characters), and if we knew that Daggerville were adding this feature, it’d make us far more-likely to buy their products in future.

The short review would be: a few teething problems aside, we all had a wonderful time and we’d certainly consider a Daggerville game for our next murder mystery party. The characters were, on the whole, wonderful characters well-realised and fully-developed within the constraints of the genre, the twist was clever, there were moments of great hilarity (such as the point when we realised that there’d been a veritable conga-line of people stealthily following one another around the hotel), and the event built up to a fun and satisfying conclusion. I’d suggest that you all keep an eye on Daggerville in the future.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Spoiler warning: reading beyond here could result in seeing spoilers. Don’t read on if you’re likely to ever take part in a game of The Ambassador’s Notebook.[/spb_message]

Aside from the lack of character “introductions”, another thing we found difficult in this game were issues in the script. The script for “The Neighbour” ended up one-number out of sync in the middle of Scene 2, where her ‘line 42’ indicated that a different person should be talking to what the rest of the scripts said. On another occasion, the script for “The Proprietress” seemed to be missing a line (although other characters had the ‘tail end’ of that line). The character of “The Journalist” can be played by a man or a woman, and although I selected “male” when I filled in the form, some of the scripts referred to the character as a woman! At first I thought that this might be related to difficulties some of us had had receiving the emailed scripts (Martin at Daggerville was incredibly helpful at sending out fresh ones, though), but we found at least one instance in which one person flip-flopped between referring to “The Journalist” as female or male!

(there’s a video I’ve put together of some of the highlights of our evening, but there’s possible spoilers in it)

Dean is accused of the murder.
Our traditional end-of-game shot shows the murderer, played by Dan, accused by the rest of the participants. (Ruth is behind the camera)

Personally, though, my favourite moment of the night came right at the start, as we all introduced our characters. One of the Liz’s, an American, had decided to play her character as an American, and introduced herself as such. “Oh,” said the other Liz, whom she’d just met, “Are you going to do an accent?”

Wanted: Two Murder Suspects

We’re hoping to have a mini-murder mystery this Saturday, 2nd November, in Oxford, and after a series of people who can’t make it, we’re in need of two people to come along and play. If you want to come then, basically, you’re in, and we’d love to have you.

The Ambassador's Notebook
We’ll be playing a scenario called The Ambassador’s Notebook, courtesy of Daggerville Games. But only if you turn up!

We’re looking for either two women or a man and a woman, but even if you haven’t got a “date” to bring, if you can make it then let us know and we’ll try to find somebody to fill the other gap. Just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!

Pocket Searching

Pocket dialling was bad enough. I once received a phone call from a friend whose phone called me – as the last number he’d dialled – just as he was putting on a harness in anticipation of doing a bungee jump. So all I got to hear was rustling, and shuffling… and then a blood-curdling scream. Nice one.

A cat on a mobile phone.
Hello? Yes, this is cat. Just thought I’d press some buttons and see who I got.

But in this age of smartphones, the pocket search has become a new threat. Thanks to the combination of touchscreens, anticipatory keyboards (I use SwiftKey, and I’m beginning to think that it knows me better than I do myself), and always-online devices, we’re able to perform quite complex queries quite accidentally. I’ve got a particular pair of trousers which seems to be especially good at unlocking my phone, popping up a search engine, typing a query (thanks to the anticipatory keyboard, usually in full words), and then taking a screenshot and saving it for me, so that I can’t later deny having searched for… whatever it was.

This morning, while cycling to work, I searched for the following (which I’ve reformatted by inserting line breaks, in order to transform it into the sort-of poem you might expect from sombebody both insane and on hallucinogens):

thanks again
and it all goes on
and I will Also
Also A bit LIKE THAT
THE ANSWER is
That you are looking at your Local Ryanair
and a ripening
and a ripening
I can assure are a BIT
and see the new template by clicking here
for
for YOU GUYS
GUYS HAVE YOU ANY COMMENTS
ON MY WAY BACK FROM YOU
And the other side and I will have the same
as a friend or relative
relative humidity
humidity
to you
you are here car
car
and
and embarrassing
embarrassing
the best thing is the first three years and over
over?

Maybe my phone is gradually becoming sentient and is trying to communicate with me. I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

The Family Vlog

Those of you who’ve met my family will probably already have an understanding of… what they’re like. Those of you who haven’t are probably about to gain one.

My sister devours a mango.
Did you did you… did you know that: Becky can eat mango, all by herself?

It started on a weekend in April, when my mother and I went to a Pink concert. The support act were a really fun band called Walk the Moon, who finished their energetic set with I Can Lift A Car, with its’ catchy chorus hook “Did you did you… did you know know: I can lift a car up, all by myself?” Over the weeks that followed, perhaps because of its earworm qualities, this song became sort-of an inside Rickroll between my mum and I.

A series of text messages from me to my mum, telling a story about separating large and small particulates of granulated agar, and culminating with "I can sift agar, all by myself" - a clear reference to "I can lift a car."
For example, this Bel-Air-meme style text message used a shaggy dog story to deliver a play on words.

At one point, she sent me a link to this video (also visible below), in which she is seen to lift a (toy) car. My sister Becky (also known as “Godzilla”) was behind the camera (and, according to the credits, everything else), and wrote in the doobly doo: “I think I’m gonna start doing family vlogs.”

She’d experimented with vlogging before, with a short series of make-up tutorials and a “test video post” on her blog, but this represented something new: an effort to show off her family (and guest appearances from her friends) as they really are; perhaps this was an effort to answer the inevitable question asked by people who’ve visited them – “are they always like that?” Perhaps that’s why she chose the name she did for the Family Vlog – “IRL”.

Becky and Sarah in the front of Becky's car, as seen in "IRL - Week 8". Sarah's boyfriend Richard, and my mother, can be seen in the back seats.
The essential Family Vlog (“IRL”) scene is the car scene, with the camera facing backwards from the dashboard. See also my second review…

At the time of writing, Becky (on her YouTube channel) has produced eight such videos (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight), reliably rolling out one a week for the last two months. I thought they were pretty good – I thought that was just because they were my family, but I was surprised to find that it’s slowly finding a wider reach, as I end up speaking to friends who mention to me that they “saw the latest family vlog” (sometimes before I’ve had a chance to see it!).

Me reviewing me reviewing my family, from Review 6.
As I was visiting Preston, I ended up featuring in “IRL – Week 6”. My review (click on the image for it), therefore, seemed to be equal in parts recursive and narcissistic.

Naturally, then, the only logical thing to do was to start producing my own YouTube series, on my channel, providing reviews of each episode of my sister’s vlog. I’ve managed to get seven out so far (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), and I’d like to think that they’re actually better than the originals. They’re certainly more-concise, which counts for a lot, because they trim the original vlog down to just the highlights (interrupted only occasionally by my wittering atop them).

The widget above (or this playlist) will let you navigate your way through the entire body of vlogs, and their reviews (or lets you play them all back to back, if you’ve got two and a quarter hours to spare and a pile of brain cells you want killing). But if you’re just looking for a taster, to see if it’s for you, then here are some starting-out points:

  • The best review? Probably five or six.
  • The best episode? My favourite is six, but number two has the most views, probably the keywords “lesbian foursome” are popular search terms. Or possibly “girls peeing”. I’m not sure which scares me the most.
  • Of if you just want to drop-in and have a taster, start from the latest review.

Update: the family vlog now has an official website.

Buying A House, Part 6

This blog post is the sixth and final part in a series about buying our first house. In the fifth post, we finally exchanged contracts with the sellers after a long-running disagreement about who was going to repair the front door…

A series of days flew by in a cardboard-box-filled blur, and suddenly it was the last Friday in July – the day upon which our sale was completed. I’d run out of spare days of annual leave, so I was only able to justify taking the afternoon off to pick up a van, scoop up Ruth and Matt, get the keys to the new house, and meet JTA there.

Ruth and Matt at the Europcar office.
The first mission was to collect a van from Europcar, so that we’d be able to spend the entire weekend going up and down the A34.

The estate agents were conveniently just two doors down from a locksmith, so we got some keys cut to what we believed to be the new front door, while we were there. It’s also sandwiched between a funeral home and a florist, which makes it sort of a one-stop street when somebody dies and you want to put their house on the market.

Dan is handed keys and a bottle of sparkling wine by Mark, the estate agent.
The great thing about getting champagne as a housewarming gift, from your estate agent, is that – unlike non-sparkling wine – you don’t need to unpack the corkscrew to open it.

We soon discovered that the “fix” that had ultimately been applied to the broken front door was simply to swap it for a different exterior door, from the inner porch. A little cheeky, and a little frustrating after all the fighting we’d done, but not the end of the world: we still had a perfectly good front door and – as we planned to use the annex as part of the main house, anyway, we were happy to take the door down and leave an open doorway, anyway.

JTA opens the door of Greendale.
We gave JTA the honour of being the first to open the door to our new home. After some fiddling with what turned out to be the wrong key, the door turned out to be already unlocked.

A vacant house feels big and empty. Our new – large! – living room felt enormous. Meanwhile, packing up our old house – with its painted walls and wooden floors – was beginning to sound echoey as it became emptier.

Ruth lies in the empty living room of Greendale.
Lounging in the living room. (or is she living in the lounge?)

We spent a long time working out which of the many keys we had fit which of the locks, as there were quite so many: there’s the front door, the inner front door, the other inner front door, the back door, the outer conservatory door, the inner conservatory door, the gate lock, the shed lock, the window locks, and a good handful of keys besides that we still haven’t identified the purpose of. It’s was like the previous owners just bought a pile of additional keys, just as a prank.

Stacks of boxes in the living room of New Earth.
Our old house – New Earth – became emptier and yet more-chaotic as the stacks of boxes were gradually loaded into the van.

We’d rented a van over a long weekend in which to do the majority of the move, and we’d hired some burly men with a bigger van to move some of the heaviest furniture, and to collect a piano that we’d bought (yes, we have a piano now; booyah).

JTA in the back of the van, in which a small mock living room has been assembled.
“Pack the living room into the van,” I said. “Okay,” said JTA, putting the kettle on.

Very helpfully, Alec came and joined us, and helped run an enormous amount of boxes and furniture down and out of the three-stories of our old house, and in and up the three-stories of our new house. Why do we keep torturing ourselves with these tall buildings? At least our new staircases are a better shape for carrying matresses up.

Removals men carry our sideboard out from the back door of New Earth.
Now that I’ve discovered that I can hire muscular men on-demand, I’m not sure that I’ll ever do anything else.

The weather stayed good, with only ocassional showers (and thankfully, never when we were carrying soft furnishings between a van and a building) and one brief but wild thunderstorm (that we managed to avoid only with a quick re-arrangement of the van contents, slamming the doors, and sprinting for cover), and we worked hard, and we ended up a day ahead of schedule before we were finished.

Alec tests the piano at Greendale.
Alec helped out with lots of heavy lifting, but also with ‘testing’ the piano. Which, before it had been tuned, wasn’t the best of experiences for anybody involved.

In order to minimise the amount of the deposit that we might otherwise lose, from our old place, and because we rightly anticipated being too exhausted from the move to do all of the requisite cleaning ourselves, we’d hired some professionals. By this point, we weren’t even able to think in terms of money like normal people – by the time you’re spending five figures on tax and lawyers, you find it pretty easy to shrug off the cost of a team of cleaners!

Matt filling his face with ice cream.
I’m pretty sure that the local ice cream van driver was following us around, because on each day of the move, he’d arrive on the scene right after we’d finished unloading a van and could really do with an ice cream break.

This did mean that Ruth and I had to each work from home, from the old house, for one last day while we let the cleaners, gardener etc. in. We left in the old house an absolute minimum of furniture: a single desk, chair, laptop computer, cup (for water), router, and cables.

Dan works from home on the final day of the occupation of New Earth.
One desk, one chair, one laptop, one router… in a five bedroom house. It’s a lonely life.

As I left the house for the last time, as empty and quiet as it was the day we first moved in, I felt a sense of serenity; a calm that came from a number of simultaneous realisations… that this was probably the last house move I’d have to do in a long while… that I finally lived somewhere that I didn’t (theoretically, at least) have to ask for somebody’s permission before I put a picture hook up or painted a wall… and that at long last I was paying off my own mortgage, rather than somebody else’s. It was the beginning of a new era.

Alec among furniture and boxes.
The first box that we unpacked was the one containing Alec, of course.

Changing tack from the theme by which our houses have been named since 2010, our new home is called Greendale. And yes, there’s a website (albeit a little sparse, for now). There’s always a website.

Matt and Susan on a bean bag as we rest at the end of the first day's moving.
Susan didn’t help much with the packing and moving, but I’m not sure I’ve put a photo of her and Matt online yet. So now I have.

There’ll be a housewarming party on 22nd September: if you’re a friend of one or more of us, you’ve probably received an invitation already. But if you haven’t – and it’s not impossible, because we weren’t sure of everybody’s best email addresses these days – and you expect you should have, let me know. It’s not that we don’t love you: we just don’t love you enough to remember to invite you to stuff, that’s all.