Hideous moustache day!
Originally uploaded by viralbus

Nearly a month ago, I wrote on Facebook: “I’ve decided to try a variation on Movember: Instead of starting with a clean-shaven face and then growing a moustache, I’m starting with a normal one (after removing the bottom half of my goatee) and will try to make a beautiful Dalí-style one out of it during November.”

It’s St. Andrew’s Day today, which marks the end of Movember, so my moustache will disappear at bedtime tonight.

At least I managed to make it curly, but I’m afraid it’s not nearly as impressive as Dalí’s — I guess that takes much longer to achieve. I could probably have made it longer if I had known exactly how to grow it, though — I erroneously trimmed it too much in the middle and too little on the sides. At least I’ll know next time! 🙂

Anyway, the amount of bonding that happens amongst Mo Brothers is amazing, so if you’ve never tried it, please do so next year.

bookmark_borderThe spirit was willing but the flesh was weak

When I was a linguistics fresher back in 1990, we were told a well-known anecdote about the early days of machine translation: When the sentence “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (an allusion to Mark 14:38) was translated into Russian and then back to English, the result was “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten”.

I vaguely remember trying out this sentence in the early days of Google Translate, with amusing result.

However, I recently decided to try it again, and imagine my surprise when I realised that Google Translate can translate this exact phrase into any of the available languages and back into English without making a single error.

The obvious explanation is that Google must have added Mark 14:38 to the training corpus to ensure that nobody mocks them for getting it wrong.

It’s only this specific sentence that it handles this well. As soon as you start moving the words around or adding extra words, the quality of the translation decreases. For instance, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” becomes “Ånden er rede, men kødet er skrøbeligt” when translated into Danish, but “The spirit in the bottle is willing, but the flesh in the box is weak” becomes “Ånden i flasken er villig, men kødet i boksen er svag”. I’m not saying this translation is bad, but I find it interesting how it suddenly becomes unable to add the neuter -t to svag, although it managed perfectly well to add it to skrøbelig.

It’s quite interesting to investigate how Google Translate handles the individual words in this sentence. For instance, in the case of translating “spirit”, it appears the singular normally triggers the soul sense, whereas the plural triggers the alcohol sense. The result is that “The house of the spirits” gets translated into Danish as “Huset af spiritus” (“The house of alcohol”) rather than the expected “Åndernes hus”.

bookmark_borderMore devolution will never happen

The Scottish Parliament
Originally uploaded by mariancraig

Sometimes you find interesting articles in unexpected places. For instance, The Sun carried a piece yesterday called “Why promise more devolution when it will never happen?

In it, Andrew Nicoll argues that Scotland has only ever got more devolution to fend off the SNP, so after a No vote to independence there’s no chance anybody will give Scotland any more powers:

[I]t seems to me that every step along the way of devolution has been fired and driven by the threat of the SNP and a drift towards independence.

Take that threat away and there really is no reason to concede anything else.

Let’s look at the history books. Harold Wilson talked about devolution but nothing happened. Ted Heath promised it but nothing happened.

Then the SNP won a third of the vote in Scotland and, all of a sudden Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was determined to deliver.

But Mrs Thatcher said we should vote No and she would offer something better. The 1978 referendum failed, the SNP vote collapsed and Mrs Thatcher changed her mind — not a thing she did often.

Then Labour lost three elections on the trot. Scotland kept voting Labour and kept getting a Tory government. One more heave looked less and less attractive. Suddenly devolution was back on the cards.

And, when devolution finally came, nothing much happened until the SNP ended up as the biggest party in 2007.

Then, suddenly, we had the Calman Commission offering new tax powers to Scotland.


Why would the Tories give Scotland more devolution powers after [a No vote]? Is it because we will stop voting for the Tories if they don’t? It’s too late, we’ve already stopped.

Why would the Lib Dems give us more powers? Is it because they said they would, like they did over university tuition fees? Do you think there is a single thing the Lib Dems would not give up if it meant they could find themselves in government again?

Why would Labour give us more powers? Is it because we might stop voting Labour?

Well, who else are you going to vote for? Vote for who you like, but you won’t be voting for independence any more.

There won’t be more devolution because there is no need. Just like there will be no need to keep giving Scotland more cash than the rest of the UK.

I must say I agree with this. If Labour, the Tories and the LibDems are serious about giving Scotland further powers after a No vote, they need to pass a law before the autumn of 2014 that gives Scotland those extra powers starting from 2016 or so. If we vote Yes, the law will just never have any effect, but it’s the only way to guarantee that a No vote won’t become the beginning of the end of Scottish devolution.

bookmark_borderFractal architecture

Ornate ceiling
Originally uploaded by subblue

Everybody knows fractal images (such as the Mandelbrot ones). They are normally two-dimensional, but three-dimensional versions do exist, too.

With the emergence of 3D printers, it has suddenly become relatively easy and cheap to print out such three-dimensional fractal shapes.

I can’t help thinking that if you use the largest 3D printers that are designed for printing houses, it would suddenly become feasible to get computers to design and build fractal houses.

I’m not sure anybody would really want completely fractal rooms inside their house — I would certainly prefer a smooth floor and a window in every room — but I’m sure the technology could be used for making houses that at least on the outside looked much more organic. There would be no reason to build smooth concrete surfaces when the house printer could just as easily create beautiful details everywhere.

I imagine it would be slightly similar to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, which is also full of endless details.

bookmark_borderWinner of Best Design at SWEdinburgh

Team Yavaly at SWEdinburgh
I decided to take part in Edinburgh Startup Weekend (also known as @SWEdinburgh) over the weekend.

The idea is that you pitch a lot of ideas, pick the best ones, form teams and then develop the ideas into viable businesses over the weekend.

I was part of the Yavaly team (to be precise, I was the main developer). Our aim was to create a novel way to match tourists with providers of holiday activities, and we actually managed to create an amazing website over the course of the weekend, together with a really impressive business plan.

We won the prize for best design, which feels wonderful.

We need to do some more work before we can release the website to the public, but I hope that will happen soon.

It’s definitely worth going along to one of the startup weekends — there’s bound to be one near you soon.

bookmark_borderTweeting in many languages

Most of the people I follow on Twitter tweet in English, and so do I most of the time.

However, I often retweet stuff written in other languages, and I do also from time to time tweet in Danish and occasionally Spanish myself. This shouldn’t cause any issues for those of my followers who know the same languages as me, but if you only speak English, it must be a tad annoying to see your Twitter stream filling up with gibberish.

In theory I could set up separate Twitter accounts for all the languages I’m likely to tweet in, but that would be a complete mess. Not only would I need to flit back and forwards from one account to another, but it would appear that I had fewer followers than I do, and many people would only follow one of my language personas, even if they would be capable of following more.

I think Twitter should consider adding languages to the user interface, even if it would make it slightly more complex. This would involve adding language capabilities to the user profiles (allowing you to list the languages you can read) and tagging each tweet with a language (presumably everybody would have a default tweeting language). Twitter would then hide tweets written in languages that you cannot read.

I think this would really make life easier for the multilingual twitterers out there.

bookmark_border¿Sería aceptable la independencia del Reino de Aragón?

Ayer leí que el embajador español ha dicho que Escocia y Catalunya sean completamente diferentes:

Los antecedentes históricos y constitucionales de los dos casos no tienen tanto en común como puede parecer a primera vista. […] Escocia era una nación independiente y ha sido parte del Reino Unido desde el parlamento escocés decidió libremente a unirse en el siglo XVIII. Por el contrario, Cataluña era parte del Reino de Aragón y en general ha sido una parte integral de España desde su creación, hace más de cinco siglos atrás.

Escocia también ha sido una parte integral de otro país desde su creación, y por eso no estoy seguro que la diferencia es tan importante como dice el embajador.

Pero si el problema para los unionistas españoles es que Catalunya no fuese un reino independiente al tiempo de la formación de España, me pregunto si aceptarían la independencia del Reino de Aragón, es decir la independencia conjunta de Aragón, Catalunya, Valencia y las Islas Baleares.

No creo que esto es lo que quieran los catalanes ahora, pero me interesa si esta solución sería aceptable al estado español.