Review of OxyBox

This review of OxyBox originally appeared on Google Maps. See more reviews by Dan.

Contrary to others’ reviews, we’ve always found OxyBox to deliver reasonably-priced food at perfectly acceptable speeds. Sometimes we’ve had to wait as long as 40 minutes, but they’ve always told us when this would be the case, and usually we get our food within half an hour. Their bundle deals are good, and on the one ocassion that they weren’t able to fulfil everything in it (they’d run out of prawn crackers) they were happy to substitute in a different, mutually-agreed side in their place.

And they’re always friendly on the phone, too.

Review of The Kings Arms

This review of The Kings Arms originally appeared on Google Maps. See more reviews by Dan.

A pub that’s like pubs should be. No television; no jukebox; just nice beers and friendly locals and hospitable staff and a dog. And a jar of pickled eggs behind the bar. If I’ve described your idea of pub hell, that’s fine: I didn’t want to see you there anyway. But for those of us who appreciate a pub that genuinely has a pair of older gentlemen playing dominoes in the corner at any given time, this is where you belong.

Teaching Kids to Code – Why It Matters

The BBC ran a story this week about changes to the National Curriculum that’ll introduce the concepts of computing programming to children at Key Stage 1: that is, between the ages of five and seven. I for one think that this is a very important change, long overdue in our schools. But I don’t feel that way because I think there’ll be a huge market for computer programmers in 13+ years, when these children leave school: rather, I think that learning these programming skills provide – as a secondary benefit – an understanding of technology that kids today lack.

Computer program that asks if you're a boy or a girl and then says it likes that gender. Photograph copyright Steven Luscher, used under Creative Commons license.
Ignoring the implied gender binary (fair enough) and the resulting inefficiency (why do you need to ask two questions), this is a great example of a simple algorithm.

Last year, teacher and geek Marc Scott wrote an excellent blog post entitled Kids Can’t Use Computers… And This Is Why It Should Worry You. In it, he spoke of an argument with a colleague who subscribed to the popular belief that children who use computers are more technically-literate than computer-literate adults. Marc refutes this, retorting that while children today make use of computers more than most adults (and far more than was typical during the childhood of today’s adults), they typically know far less about what Marc calls “how to use a computer”. His article is well worth reading: if you don’t have the time you should make the time, and if you can’t do that then here’s the bottom line: competency with Facebook, YouTube, Minecraft, and even Microsoft Office does not in itself demonstrate an understanding of “how to use a computer”. (Marc has since written a follow-up post which is also worth reading.)

Children programming on laptops. Photograph copyright Steven Luscher, used under Creative Commons license.
If the can of Mountain Dew wasn’t clue enough, these children are coding.

An oft-used analogy is that of the automobile. A hundred years ago, very few people owned cars, but those people that did knew a lot about the maintenance and inner workings of their cars, but today you can get by knowing very little (I’ve had car-owning friends who wouldn’t know how to change to their spare tyre after a puncture, for example). In future, the requirements will be even less: little Annabel might be allowed to ‘drive’ without ever taking a driving test, albeit in a ‘driverless’ computerised car. A similar thing happened with computers: when I was young, few homes had a computer, but in those that did one or more members of the family invariably knew a lot about setting up, configuring, maintaining, and often programming it. Nowadays, most of the everyday tasks that most people do with a computer (Facebook, YouTube, Minecraft, Microsoft Office etc.) don’t need that level of knowledge. But I still think it’s important.

A 2-year-old using a MacBook. Photograph copyright Donnie Ray Jones, used under Creative Commons license.
A future computer-literate, or just another computer “user”?

Why? Because understanding computers remains fundamental to getting the most out of them. Many of us now carry powerful general-purpose computers in our pockets (disguised as single-purpose devices like phones) and most of us have access to extremely powerful general-purpose computers in the form of laptops and desktops (but only a handful of us use them in a ‘general purpose’ way; for many people, they’re nothing more than a web browser and a word processor). However, we expect people to be able to understand the issues when we ask them – via their elected officials – to make sweeping decisions that affect all of us: decisions about the censorship of the ‘net (should we do it, and to what extent, and can we expect it to work?) or about the automation of our jobs (is it possible, is it desirable, and what role will that mean for humans?). We expect people to know how to protect themselves from threats like malicious hackers and viruses and online scams, but we give them only a modicum of support (“be careful, and install anti-virus software”), knowing full well that most people don’t have the foundation of understanding to follow that instruction. And increasingly, we expect people to trust that software will work in the way that it’s instructed to without being able to observe any feedback. Unlike your car, where you may know that it’s not working when it doesn’t go (or, alarmingly, doesn’t stop) – how is the average person to know whether their firewall is working? You can find out how fast your car can go by pressing the pedals, but how are you to know what your computer is capable of without a deeper understanding than is commonplace?

A simple program in Hackety Hack.
I first started to learn to program in Locomotive BASIC. My microcomputer was ready to receive code from the second it booted: no waiting, just programming. Nowadays, there’s a huge barrier to entry (although tools like Hackety Hack, pictured, are trying to make it easier).

A new generation of children tought to think in terms of how computers and their programs actually work – even if they don’t go on to write programs as an adult – has the potential to usher in innovating new ways to use our technology. Just as learning a foreign language, even if you don’t go on to regularly use it, helps make you better at your native language, as well as smarter in other ways (and personally, I think we should be teaching elementary Esperanto – or better yet, Ido – to primary school children in order to improve their linguistic skills generally), learning the fundamentals of programming will give children a far greater awareness about computers in general. They’ll be better-able to understand how they work, and thus why they sometimes don’t do what you expect, and better-equipped to solve problems when they see them. They’ll have the comprehension to explain what they want their computer to be able to do, and to come up with new ideas for ways in which general-purpose computers can be used. And, I’ve no doubt, they’ll be better at expressing logical concepts in mutually-intelligble ways, which improves human communication on the whole.

Let’s teach our kids to be able to understand computers, not just “use” them.


Secrets of Magic

When I was younger, I thought that magic was all about secrets. I’ve since changed my mind. Twice.

That the secret of magic is secrets isn’t an unreasonable assumption. We all know that magicians famously don’t reveal how their tricks work, so it feels like the secrecy is what makes magic… magical. When as a kid I watched Paul Daniels make an elephant disappear on his (oh-so 1980s) TV show, and I remember being struck by the fact that he must be privy to some kind of guarded knowledge, and my school friends and I would speculate wildly as to what it was. I saw the same kind of speculation when Derren Brown predicted the lottery a few years back: although the age of the Internet changed the nature of the discussion, making them more global and perhaps more-cynical (not helped, perhaps, by Derren’s “explanation”).

Paul Daniels makes an elephant disappear.
Given the quality of this VHS-grade recording, you ought to be told that the big blob is the tent, the medium-sized blob is the elephant, and the small blob is a lens flare caused by reflection off of Paul Daniels’ head.

But as time went on, I came to learn that the key to magic isn’t secrets.

That’s not to say that secrets aren’t important to the enjoyment of magic – they truly are. In the case of 95%+ of all of the magic tricks you’ve ever seen, you’d be considerably less-impressed if you knew how they were done! And that’s because, most of the time, the principle behind any illusion is something so simple that you just can’t see it for looking. As my childhood interest in magic grew, I acquired a small collection of props and books (one of which I rediscovered while removing things from my late father’s house, the other year), and my model changed: in an age when information is as easily-available as your local library, magic isn’t about secrets, I decided, but about practice.

A 125-trick Paul Daniels' Magic Set
Did anybody else have one of these wonderful, if plasticky, magic sets? I wonder how many contemporary magicians started out this way.

Practice, practice, practice. A magician’s art starts alone, possibly in front of a mirror. And then it stays there for… quite a long time. If they’re interested in doing anything beyond the most-basic card tricks, a card magician has at least half a dozen different moves and sleights to perfect, from which they’ll be able to derive a multitude of different effects.

(There’s an anecdote about a young magician who tells her mentor that she’s learned a hundred tricks, and asks how many he knows. He thinks for a moment, and then he replies, “I would say about nine.” If you feel like you ‘got’ the joke in that story, then you’re probably either a magician or else a Buddhist: there are some strange similarities between the two.)

If they want to learn how to link rings or rejoin cut ropes or make things levitate, then the same rules apply. But even while that’s true, and practice is absolutely critical… practice is also not the secret of magic.

Dan with the King of Hearts
“Palming” a card is difficult at the best of times. This particular King of Hearts might require larger hands than mine. Still, you know what they say about a magician with big hands…

The key to magic – the thing that’s even more important than secrets and practice is… showmanship. I’ll come back to that, but first, let me tell you how I lost and, later, rediscovered magic.

I loved magic as a kid, but my interest in it (as a performer, at least) sort-of dwindled in my early-to-mid teens. I can’t explain why; but you’d be forgiven for assuming that perhaps I was distracted by discovering, like many teenage boys do, a different kind of ‘one-handed shuffle’ that provided far more-instant satisfaction. In any case: aside from a few basically-self-working card tricks here and there, I didn’t perform any magic at all for almost twenty years.

Until Christmas of 2013.

Temporary tattoo showing the seven of diamonds
Is THIS your card? Damn… I probably shouldn’t have got it inked, then, should I?

At Christmas, Ruth‘s little brother Robin visited. And at some point – and I’m not even sure why – he said, “I want to learn a card trick. Does anybody know any card tricks?”

“I might know a couple,” I said, thinking back and trying to put my mind to one, as I reached for a pack of cards, “Here: give these a shuffle…” I can’t remember what I performed first: probably a classic like Out Of This World or the Chicago Opener: something lightweight, and easy to learn, and based entirely in muscle-memory manoeuvres and not in anything as complex as even a basic misdirection.

And somehow that act of teaching Robin a couple of beginner card tricks, and challenging him to take that knowledge and develop them some more… that simple act was enough to flip a switch in my brain. Suddenly, I wanted to jump headlong back into magic again.

Dan holds up a card for a spectator.
I’ve been performing at whatever opportunity presents itself: at bars, around the office, to passers-by in Oxford’s Covered Market. Basically – anywhere they haven’t thrown me out of, yet.

Since last time around, there’s not only books (and so many great books) but also DVDs from which to learn (and relearn) magical principles. I’ve been learning new sleights as fast as my brain – and my hands – can take it, and gradually building a repertoire of effects that fall somewhere between confusing and delighting. Because I’ve for so-long had such a strong belief in the importance of practice, I’ve been trying to find excuses to perform: to such an extent that I’ll spend some of my lunchtimes in any given week hanging around in Oxford’s public spaces, performing for random passers-by. Practice in front of a mirror is good and everything, but practice in front of a stranger is so much-more valuable… especially when you’re forced to think on your feet after a spectator does something that you didn’t anticipate!

I also accidentally ended up starting a local magic club: I joined a thread of people bemoaning the lack of a club in Oxford, on a forum on which I participate, and after I’d found a couple of other guys who felt them same way, suggested a date, time, and venue, and made it happen. Now it happens every month, and we few are the closest thing Oxford’s got to a magic society.

Evening event at the Ashmolean.
I tuned up at the Ashmolean Museum for their magic-themed event, in May. They’d hired some professional magicians, so I parked myself away from the main events and just spent a few exhausting hours performing for an endlessly-renewing crowd. A few people asked which of the entertainers (named on their brochures) I was, and I had to explain that no, I was just a guy who liked magic and had turned up. With props. Yes, really.

But yes: showmanship. If there’s a secret to magic, then it’s that. Any fool can find your card in the deck (even if you don’t know a way to do this – the “secret” – then I can guarantee that at least one of your friends does). Any magician can do it in several different ways (the “practice”), and thus keep you guessing by eliminating the options – how did he do it blindfolded? But a magic trick is only as enjoyable to watch as it is well-presented: like any entertainer, and perhaps more than many, a magician relies on their presentation style to make the difference…

This is an opinion that sometimes puts me at odds with some of the other magicians in the club. I’ll demonstrate a new routine I’m working on, and they’ll ask how it was done… and when I reveal that I used the cheapest, simplest, easiest or plainly cheekiest approach possible, they’ll be instantly less-impressed. There are plenty of magicians more-talented than I, for whom the artistry comes from the practice, and to see somebody achieve what is – to a layperson – the same result in a way that requires less sleight-of-hand or a less-subtle misdirection than ‘their’ way is apparently a little grating! They’d rather perform an illusion using their best moves and their most-sophisticated sleights than to simply do it “well enough” to get the desired effect (and thus, the desired reaction). Certainly, it’s desirable to have several ways to perform the same trick (just in case you end up performing it twice), but those ways don’t all have to be the most-complicated approaches you know: sometimes the magical equivalent of “look behind you, a three-headed monkey” is more than enough.

(For those with access to the Mega Man Lounge, I’ve kicked off a debate about this very topic.)

This video later inspired a video, which you can watch here.

× × × ×

Dan Q found GLFM84FT MarstonMystery5

This checkin to GLFM84FT MarstonMystery5 reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

It’s still there, folks! Glad I didn’t look at the logs before I started searching or I might have given up prematurely! My ‘cacher-sense was tingling as I approached the GZ: there is one really obvious hiding spot! After an unsuccessful search, though, I figured I must be wrong and deciphered the hint, which strongly suggested that the “obvious place” really WAS where I should be looking. I tried again, and sure enough, it’s right where it ought to be: you just need to keep looking for a while! Easy reach for any adult – don’t give up!

Excellent container in an excellent spot – FP awarded. Now off back to the Vic for a well-earned pint!

Dan Q found GLFM7YKW MarstonMystery6

This checkin to GLFM7YKW MarstonMystery6 reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

This one, labelled 4 (there’s definitely been a switcheroo somewhere here) was an easier find than I expected: my hunch was spot on! To think that I only lived a few streets over a couple of years back and never discovered this footpath! TFTC.

Dan Q found GLFM7WMW MarstonMystery4

This checkin to GLFM7WMW MarstonMystery4 reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Loved Marston Mystery 1 so much I decided to come back and bag a couple more on my way to a gathering of magicians at the Victoria Arms tonight. Hunted among the nettles at the wrong side of the path for a bit (and among some particularly fragrant wild mint which I never found but could certainly smell!) but the hint set me straight. TFTC.

Dan Q found GLFHD69V MarstonMystery1

This checkin to GLFHD69V MarstonMystery1 reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Found while cycling back from scouting out a potential future geocache hide. Log slightly damp: not problematic yet, but have added a couple of sachets of dessicant gel to try to reduce/prevent damage. Nice spot, TFTC!