Formula E is now almost watchable

I saw the first Formula E race of the 2018/19 season last weekend. I’ve watched parts of races in previous seasons, but it’s always felt unwatchable due to the limitations of the cars. The new Gen2 cars are a significant advance on the original ones as the battery life is sufficient to last the whole race (45 minutes, plus a lap). No more mid-race car changes. The cars are also significantly faster, with a claimed top speed of 174mph.

Embed from Getty Images

Close racing is more likely than in Formula 1 as the cars are largely standard. However, as far as I can work out, the powertrains and software aren’t, leaving room for innovation. One innovation I’d love to see is a change to the noise that the cars make. They sound dreadful – like a drill with the wrong bit working its way through plastic. I assume that the annoying lift music used during replays is the broadcaster’s attempt to mask the sound.

Even with the new cars it’s a complicated and frustrating formula to watch. One gimmick – the so-called fan boost – gives a few seconds of additional power to five drivers. The fortunate five are selected by the viewers and to my mind this has no place in competitive motor sport. However, fan boost didn’t seem to give much advantage to the lucky drivers. F1 exile and fan boost beneficiary Stoffel Vandoorne demonstrated that he didn’t need a McLaren to run around at the back of the pack. Felipa Massa also suffered two retrospective penalties for using it incorrectly.

Other penalties (drive throughs – but not always) for technical infringements concerning energy use during the race were liberally applied and poorly explained to the viewer. There’s no question that these penalties affected the result of the race in Ad Diriyah, won eventually by Antonio Da Costa.

The other main gimmick – the attack zone – is better thought out and is a genuine test of a driver’s racecraft. By going off-line at one part of the track, the maximum power of the car is increased for four minutes. Drivers must go through the attack zone twice in a race, so timing is everything. One driver managed to lose a place while trying (but failing) to go through the zone; another activated it at the start of a safety car period.

Eurosport’s race presentation (using the FIAs world feed) was mostly dire, with the honourable exception of Dario Franchitti’s contributions. His co-commentator was generally poor. At one point he even seemed confused as to whether cars could pass each other under a yellow flag. Cameras often failed to follow the action and cut away just when something interesting was happening. The less said about Vernon Kay the better, but your mileage may vary I suppose.

The next race is on January 12th in Marrakesh. On balance I shall give Formula E another chance.

A hostage to fortune

I’m not necessarily known for the accuracy of my predictions. But having watched the coverage from Downing Street this morning while trying not to utter too many expletives, here’s my latest hostage to fortune.

I expect Theresa May to win the confidence vote tonight, with around 75-80 of her colleagues voting against her.

Not that it changes anything if she does win. It is all a self-indulgent side-show while the country burns – taking Derby with it. I hope that every member of the Conservative party is feeling a deep sense of shame.

The spectre of a “May’s Deal” or “No Deal” referendum

After this afternoon’s debacle in the Commons, I’m certain that the Prime Minister is trying to run the clock down towards March 29th 2019 so that MPs will have to eventually vote for her deal or risk crashing out of the EU with no deal at all. At the same time I think she’s trying to engineer a personal backstop of a new referendum, should her continuing attempts to blackmail MPs not work. However, I’m convinced that should a Theresa May inspired referendum happen, it would be of the ludicrously high-stakes “my deal or crash out with no deal” kind.

I don’t know how I’d vote in such a referendum. Actively voting for “no deal” is easy to rule out. I want politicians to stop wasting time on Europe, and focus on mending the rifts in our society, tackling poverty and promoting opportunity for all. I’d quite like my cancer drugs, food and power supplies to carry on uninterrupted next year. I want my 33+ years of pension savings to be worth something in retirement.

But to willingly vote for her xenophobic deal which ends free movement and reduces the life chances of everyone in the UK? I think – maybe – I’d prefer to spoil my ballot paper. I can’t decide at the moment if that would be the principled thing to do – or merely stupid. It’s a decision I never want to be forced to make.

A year ago (almost to the day) I wrote:

Kicking the can down the road
The Brexit can is still being kicked. We are all in it together. It’s about to go over the cliff edge with us to our collective doom.

Unless, of course, sane MPs on all sides of the house show some backbone and start to work together. They need either to cancel Brexit by withdrawing our article 50 notification, or ask the electorate to take that decision for them.

As we’re a parliamentary democracy, the first course of action should be the preferred one.

Cine film of grasstrack motorcycle racing, Hopwell Hall, 1951

I recently found a couple of Pathescope films shot by my father in the early 1950s. The more interesting one is of grasstrack motorcycle racing in September 1951.

Pathescope is a 9.5mm cine film format with the sprocket hole in the centre. It was introduced in 1922 and was most popular with amateur film-makers in France and the UK. Pathescope Limited was the subject of a workers’ buyout in 1959, but went bankrupt in 1960. In a precursor to the VHS/Betamax wars of the 1980s, an arguably superior format fell to the greater marketing muscle of Kodak and the far wider range of suppliers supporting the 8mm standard. The very late introduction of Pathescope colour film also didn’t help.

When I had the film digitised (+) I thought the location may have been Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire. In 1951 Kirkby Hall was still standing, but only just (it was demolished in 1952), after wartime use by the military. The British Championships were held there on 2nd September, and this film was processed on the 25th. Grasstrack racing was held at Kirkby Mallory up until 1956. It ended when a tarmac circuit – Mallory Park – was laid for the princely sum of £50,000.

However, a closer examination of the film plus a glance through his 1951 diary instead confirms the location as Hopwell Hall (-), near Ockbrook. The racing took place on Sunday 23rd September. There’s a couple of seconds of my grandfather midway through the film, which was an unexpected bonus.

Grasstrack racing at Hopwell Hall 1951
Grasstrack motorcycle racing at Hopwell Hall, September 23rd 1951. The hall was damaged by fire a few years later and subsequently rebuilt.

(+) By the excellent TVV Productions in Newcastle.

(-) Hopwell Hall was a Special School run by Nottinghamshire County Council (in Derbyshire) from the 1920s up until the 1980s/90s. In the 1950s, motorcycle racing took place in the surrounding parklands. It was converted into a £6m, 10 bedroom house in the late 1990s and has been privately owned since.

Chester in 1952 vs 2018

I spent the last weekend in Chester with friends. On Saturday morning we walked around the city and retook a series of six photographs that my father shot in 1952. Five of the locations were straightforward to find. The sixth location remains somewhat of a mystery (at least to me.) I’m hoping to be back in January for the Division of Occupational Psychology conference, so I shall take another look then.

River Dee, 1952River Dee, 2018

The River Dee from the Old Dee Bridge.

Queen's Park Suspension Bridge 1952 Queen's Park Suspension Bridge 2018

Queen’s Park suspension bridge.

Chester Rows 1952Chester Rows 2018

View from Chester Rows – The Grotto Hotel and Barlow’s in 1952. Tessuti designer clothing and a branch of Sta Travel in 2018.

Richard Grosvenor 1952Richard Grosvenor 2018

The statue of Richard Grosvenor, Second Marquess of Westminster, Grosvenor Park. The 1952 photograph is looking towards the park, but the picture I took on Saturday is 180 90 degrees out. (The original 1952 image was reversed – thanks for spotting it Jon!) It does however have a bonus pigeon.

St John the Baptist's Church 1952St John the Baptist's Church 2018

A view of St John the Baptist’s Church through the ruins.

St John's Ruins 1952St Johns Ruins 2018

The mystery photograph. It’s clearly a view taken in the ruins of St John’s, but I’ve either taken mine from the wrong spot or part of the ruins have been demolished since 1952. I can’t find any record of ruins being demolished (and the site is Grade I listed!) so it’s probably the wrong spot. However, the arch and steps on the left hand side of the 2018 photograph do seem to match those of the 1952 image. If you can help with the identification, please leave me a comment!

Update 4th December 2018: Mystery solved – the 1952 image (like that of the statue) was also reversed. If I retake the photograph from the plinth in the bottom right of the 2018 image, I’m pretty sure that this is still the view today.

St John's Ruins 1952

WordPress 5.0 – “Take no small slips”

Like many others, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of WordPress 5.0 and its new Gutenberg editor. The project, however, appears to have run into problems. The release date has been moved twice – it currently sits as “TBD”.

WordPress 5.0 Release Schedule
WordPress 5.0 Release Schedule

I’m hoping that the people running the project have read “The Mythical Man Month“. To get the release back on track, Brooks recommends:

  • “Take no small slips … allow enough time in the new schedule to ensure that the work can be carefully and thoroughly done, and that rescheduling will not have to be done again.”
  • “Trim the task … In practice this tends to happen anyway … only alternatives are to trim it formally and carefully, to reschedule, or to watch the task get silently trimmed by hasty design and incomplete testing.” (No-one in their right mind would want the last type of trimming to take place).
  • To not add more people into an already late project. “Brooks’ Law: Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

I’m looking forward to seeing WordPress 5.0 in the wild, but I’m happy to wait. In the words written on the menu of the Antoine restaurant in New Orleans:

Good cooking takes time. If you are made to wait, it is to serve you better, and to please you.

 

Brainchildren – Exploding robots and AI

I’ve recently been dipping into Brainchildren – essays on designing minds, by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. The essays in the book were written between the mid 1980s and 1998. There’s a whole section dedicated to artificial intelligence, hence my interest. It’s instructive to look at this topic from a philosophical rather than a pure technology perspective. It certainly makes a pleasant change from being constantly bombarded with the frenzied marketing half-truths of the last couple of years. I mean you, shouty Microsoft man.

Part of the cover of Brainchildren, by Daniel C. Dennett

My conclusion from reading Brainchildren is that many of the problems with AI, known in the 80s, have not been addressed. They’ve simply been masked by the rapidly increasing computer power (and decreasing costs) of the last three decades. Furthermore, the problems that beset AI are unlikely to be resolved in the near future without a fundamental shift in architectural approaches.

Exploding Robots – The Frame Problem

One such hard problem for AI is known as the frame problem. How do you get a computer program (controlling a robot, for example) to represent its world efficiently and to plan and execute its actions appropriately?

Dennett imagines a robot with a single task – to fend for itself. The robot is told that the spare battery it relies on is in a room with a bomb in it. It quickly decides to pull the cart its battery sits on out of the room. The robot acts and is destroyed, as the bomb is also on the cart. It failed to realise a crucial side effect of its planned action.

A rebuilt (and slightly dented) robot is programmed with the requirement to consider all potential side effects of its actions. It is set the same task and decides to pull the cart out of the room. However, it then spends so much time evaluating all of the possible implications of this act – Will it change the colour of the walls? What if the cart’s wheels need to rotate more times than it has wheels? – that the bomb explodes before it has had time to do anything.

The third version of the robot is designed to ignore irrelevant side effects. It is set the same task, decides on the same plan, but then appears to freeze. The robot is so busy ignoring all of the millions of irrelevant side effects that it fails to find the important one before the bomb explodes.

AI is impossible to deliver using 20th century technologies

Dennet concludes that an artificially intelligent program needs to be capable of ignoring most of what it knows or can deduce. As the robot thought experiments show, this can’t be achieved by exhaustively ruling out possibilities. In other words, not by the brute-force algorithms commonly used by chess playing programs and presumably by this fascinating system used in the NHS for identifying the extent of cancer tumours.

The hardest problem for an AI isn’t finding enough data about its world. It’s about making good decisions (*) – efficiently – about the 99% of data held that isn’t relevant.

Human brains do this qualification task incredibly efficiently, using a fraction of the computing power available to your average mobile ‘phone. Artificial “brains”, unless ridiculously constrained, simply don’t perform with anything like the flexibility required. My belief is that the key problem lies with the underlying computing architectures used for current “AI” systems. These architectures have been fundamentally unchanged since the 1940s. An entirely new approach to system architecture (hardware and software) is required, as the computational paradigm is unsuitable for the task.

 

(*) As good decisions, and ideally better, than a trained person would make.

Transplant +75: Carsington Water

Carsington Water is a pleasant 30 minute drive from home. It’s somewhere I enjoy going to think, especially when it’s quiet. It was very quiet this morning, as well as being cold and rather eerie in the winter sunlight. It’s a good job the 7 has a heater – however inefficient. At least it keeps my legs warm while the top half of me is wrapped in a fleece, scarf, snood, woolly hat, driving gloves and a big coat.

Andrew Frost's wizard sculpture on Stones Island, Carsington Water
Stones Island, Carsington Water

This was probably the last excursion for Gnu this year as the weather for the rest of this week looks poor. He’ll be safely stored away and SORNed by 1st December for a couple of months.

Carsington Water from Stones Island, looking towards the dam. The water is as low as I’ve seen it for many years

I spent some time walking around Stones Island and reflecting on the last year. It’s one I don’t want to repeat in a hurry. Chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant is no fun at all. Worse than the treatment was missing out on too many social occasions – including work. But I hope that I’m now through the worst of it and that any relapse is many years away. Maybe something else will get me first after all!

Andrew Frost’s sinister wizard sculpture on Stones Island, Carsington Water

Having made appreciative noises at the sculpture, my twenty-minute walk became too cold to bear. So I did what any sensible person would do and headed to the Mainsail restaurant. My sausage cob (breakfast is served until 2.30pm – very decadent) and pot of tea were a bargain at £5.25.

I’m cautiously optimistic about 2019 from a personal perspective. Maybe even my head hair will grow back soon. I hope this optimism is better-founded than my Old Timmy’s Almanac predictions were at the start of this year.

Spondon Home Guard

A conversation I had earlier on today reminded me that I have a photograph of the Spondon Home Guard. It was taken during World War II, outside the gatehouse lodge at Locko Park. I don’t have a key to the people in the picture, although my assumption is that there must be at least one Holyoake present. I can see a couple of possible candidates.

If anyone does recognise any of the volunteers, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Spondon Home Guard during WWII
Spondon Home Guard during WWII

Bulb Energy: Impressive customer service

I had this email from Bulb Energy today. Impressive stuff – particularly as I’d rung off before the call had been answered. As it happened, I’d found the answer I needed on their website while I was waiting. Such a different experience to the unlamented Iresa Energy, who were nothing but trouble in the year we were with them. Fortunately I’d managed to switch from Iresa to Bulb a few weeks before they went under.

Bulb £10 credit email

 

If you’d like to switch to Bulb, using this link will get you a £50 credit towards your energy bill. Full disclosure – if you use it and switch, I’ll also get a £50 credit.