A new SQL injection attack?

Against speed cameras?

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FAQ: The snake fight portion of your thesis defense

FAQ: The snake fight portion of your thesis defense.

Q: Do I have to kill the snake?
A: University guidelines state that you have to “defeat” the snake. There are many ways to accomplish this. Lots of students choose to wrestle the snake. Some construct decoys and elaborate traps to confuse and then ensnare the snake. One student brought a flute and played a song to lull the snake to sleep. Then he threw the snake out a window.
Q: Does everyone fight the same snake?
A: No. You will fight one of the many snakes that are kept on campus by the facilities department.

Spotted by Garrett Morris.




Happy April Fools, courtesy of Better Together

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10 things that put people off cycling

Sad to say, the photos above and below are not an April Fool. From yesterday's Guardian, 10 things that put people off cycling.



Cycling: Past, Present and Possible Futures

Spokes Spring meeting last week hosted Prof Colin Pooley, of Lancaster University, speaking about a detailed study of why people do and don't cycle. The standout lesson, from interviews and surveys, was that people don't cycle because they don't feel cycling is safe. His report concluded with a list of recommendations:
  • Fully separated cycle and pedestrian routes on all arterial roads.
  • Restrictions on traffic speeds, parking, access etc on all residential roads
  • Adopt ‘strict liability’ on roads to protect the most vulnerable road users
  • Changes to structure of cities to make accessing services by bike easy, and storing and parking bikes easy
  • Societal and economic changes to give people flexibility to travel more sustainably (flexi hours, school provision etc)
  • Change the image of cycling so that it becomes ‘normal’
The meeting was also attended by Andrew Burns, City of Edinburgh Council Leader (who reported it on his blog). The last question Councillor Burns was asked was whether he could remember the first recommendation on the list, but he could not. Which I think encapsulates the problem neatly.

The first recommendation is for separated cycle routes, as found in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and elsewhere. ("Copenhagenize" is now a verb.) To Edinburgh's credit, it has allocated 7% of its transport budget to cycling. How much of that is going to separated cycling routes, and the other recommendations on the list? Councillor Burns says segregated routes are planned for George Street and Leith Walk. I argued we need a more agressive plan. Listening to Pooley, the problems sound difficult, but all we really need are the money and the will. Let's construct a network of separated cycle routes covering the city. Build it, and they will come!

(Above: Edinburgh Links, one of the few segregated bike routes in the city, and my ride to work each morning. Below: Copenhagen.)

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Currency Reflections: The Legal Issues

Christine Bell has written an article on the currency debate that, for once, sheds more light than heat. She sets out home truths I've not seen stated elsewhere.

People ask the 'Yes' and 'No' camps to set out clearly what will happen, but this is not possible. A vote for 'Yes' is, and can only be, a vote to open negotiations.
It is not really in either side’s interest to tell voters that everything is up for negotiation. It is certainly not in the No campaign’s interests to tell people that Scotland has significant cards in its hand in any further negotiation over currency union. It is not in the Scottish government’s interests to point out how little it can lock down and promise about the economic future – or indeed many issues – in advance.
While both campaigns assert that this is about ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, Scotland becoming an independent country or not, in fact the situation is more complicated in our interdependent world.
An odd legal fiction decrees that if Scotland secedes from the UK, the identity of the former entity will reside with the remainder (abbreviated rUK, and sometime's pronounced "rump UK"). I have heard this applied to assert that Scotland will lose its EU membership, but I had not realised that it plays both ways.
Legally under international law the position is clear: if the remainder UK keeps the name and status of the UK under international law, it keeps its liabilities for the debt. The UK took out the debt, and legally it owes the money. Scotland cannot therefore ‘default’. It can be argued that international law does, however, contemplate that on dividing, the two resulting states share out assets and liabilities equitably. However, it has no hard and fast formula for what constitutes equitable division. Tangible natural assets such as oil go with the territory they are in. But other matters – in particular debt – must be negotiated. What is equitable will depend on the overall result and context of the negotiation.
Bell concludes with an intriguing possibility:
And instead of voting no, the people might simply decide to vote for ‘maybe’. For on most of the issues the people care about, the secret no campaign dare tell is: maybe is what a yes vote could be if that was what the people wanted.

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How nasty can you get? Grayling's ban on prisoners receiving books

Chris Grayling has banned sending of books to prisoners, a counter-productive act if ever there was one. It is hard to think of a nastier act from a government responsible for numerous nasties, from the bedroom tax to cutting legal aid. Thank goodness the Scottish justice system is devolved!

Yet another reason to vote for independence. Who would want to be part of a country that could do such a thing?

Spotted via Boing Boing.

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Facebook announces Hack

Julian Verlauget and Alok Menghrajani of Facebook have announced Hack, a gradually-typed variant of PHP. Hack is released open-source, features support for generic types and higher-order functions, and and compiles to HHVM. The core team for Hack features a number of the usual suspects, including Bryan O'Sullivan and Erik Meijer. Meanwhile, Simon Marlow and others at Facebook are pressing ahead with Haxl, a Haskell-based project.
However, Hack adds additional features beyond static type checking, including Collections, lambda expressions, and run-time enforcement of return types and parameter types.
Collections provide a clean, type-safe alternative to PHP arrays. We designed them specifically to work well with static typing and generics. The Collections API offers many classic higher-order functions such as map() and filter() to facilitate functional programming styles.
Lambda expressions give a concise syntax for creating closures. While PHP has closures, it requires the programmer to explicitly name the variables they need to use from enclosing scopes. With Hack's lambda expressions, we automatically infer these uses, saving you needless work. Lambda expressions make it more convenient to take full advantage of the Collections API.
Run-time enforcement of return types and parameter types (including scalar types like int and string) provides safety beyond what can be checked statically while type annotations are being gradually added to a codebase. Run-time enforcement helps programmers detect and diagnose certain kinds of problems more easily, and it helps HHVM's JIT produce more efficient code by making it safe to trust type annotations for optimization purposes.
Spotted by Shayan Najd.

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Edward Snowden speaks out

Edward Snowden speaks via Google Hangouts at SxSW in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Jim Bennett/Corbis, Guardian
Cory Doctorow for the Guardian covers Edward Snowden's first public appearance. Snowden has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. His closing remarks show why he deserves it:
“Governments have stopped talking about the ‘public interest’ and started talking about the ‘national interest’. When these diverge, something is wrong.
“Would I do this again? Absolutely yes. No matter what happens to me. I took an oath to support and defend the constitution and I saw it was being violated on a mass scale. The interpretation of the constitution has been changed in secret from ‘no unreasonable search and seizure’ to ‘any seizure is fine, just don’t search it.’ That’s something the public has the right to know.”

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Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship: TypeScript, The Next Generation

We are recruiting one PhD student to work on design and implementation of programming languages. The post is on the project TypeScript, The Next Generation, and is funded by a Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship.

There is increasing interest in integrating dynamically and statically typed programming languages, as witnessed in industry by the development of the languages TypeScript and Dart, and in academia by the development of the theories of gradual types, hybrid types, and the blame calculus. The purpose of our project is to bring the academic and industrial developments together, applying theory to improve practice.

Our project focusses on JavaScript, an ECMA standard, and its typed variant TypeScript, an open-source project sponsored by Microsoft. JavaScript plays a central role in web-based applications and the new Windows 8 framework, and TypeScript is seeing rapid takeup, with over 150 JavaScript libraries now provided with TypeScript declarations. Our project has two parts, one aimed at immediate short-term application, and one aimed at fundamental long-term research.
The workplan is likely to be too ambitious for a single PhD studentship. Which aspects are carried out will depend on which seem the most promising as our work develops, and on the abilities and desires of the student.

The successful candidate will join the ABCD team, carrying out a research programme investigating sesion types and web programming. The project is jointly supervised by Andrew Gordon of Microsoft Research Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh.

You should possess an undergraduate degree in a relevant area, or being nearing completion of same, or have comparable experience. You should have evidence of ability to undertake research and communicate well. You should have a background in programming languages, including type systems, and programming and software engineering skills.

It is desirable for candidates to also have one or more of the following: a combination of theoretical and practical skills; experience of JavaScript or web programming; knowledge of dependent type theory; or training in empirical measurement of programming tasks. We especially welcome applications from women and minorities.

We seek applicants at an international level of excellence. The School of Informatics at Edinburgh is among the strongest in the world, and Edinburgh is known as a cultural centre providing a high quality of life.

The successful candidate will receive a studentship covering tuition and subsistence. Students from the UK or EU are preferred. Consult the University of Edinburgh website for details of how to apply.

If you are interested, please send an outline of your qualifications to: Prof. Philip Wadler (wadler@inf.ed.ac.uk).

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Tariq Ali says independence would open a new politics throughout UK

I have a colleague who opposes independence, on the grounds that though it might be good for Scotland, it would be bad for the UK as a whole. Tariq Ali disagrees, as reported in Herald Scotland.
[Ali] believes the referendum could trigger the process of dismantling the British state. "At present UK politics are dominated by the extreme centre." A vote for Scottish independence would amount to a rejection of the extreme centre, and would open up the path for a "new politics" throughout the UK.
"England has been politically petrified since the Thatcher era." Although the Tories were soundly beaten by New Labour in 1997, Blair was the heir to Thatcher, he says. "An independent Scotland could also lead to something quite new in England; but not something nutty like UKIP."
He will tell his Scottish audiences that a vote for independence would " enable the rediscovery of hope of a better future, provide a much greater say for people over what their country looks like, and would finish off the decrepit, corrupt, tribal Labourist stranglehold on some parts of Scotland forever".
Ali is not much exercised by suggestions by businesses that would leave Scotland after a yes vote. "Large corporations are trying to frighten people,'' he said. ''But there are opportunities for investment from Scandinavia and the far east."
Ali's visit will not be welcomed by the SNP leadership. He will argue that an independent Scotland would need its own currency, and would require a state Bank of Scotland to be established. He says the new currency could be informally tied to sterling, but that all economic decisions would be taken in Scotland by a sovereign Scottish parliament.
Ali will be speaking in Appleton Tower, opposite my office, 3:30 Fri 14 March. Alas, I'll be in London that day, speaking at Functional Programming eXchange.

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Lady Alba — Bad Romance

Dead on and hilarious.

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Propositions as Types

Propositions as Types
Philip Wadler
Draft, March 2014
The principle of Propositions as Types links logic to computation. At first sight it appears to be a simple coincidence---almost a pun---but it turns out to be remarkably robust, inspiring the design of theorem provers and programming languages, and continuing to influence the forefronts of computing. Propositions as Types has many names and many origins, and is a notion with depth, breadth, and mystery.
Comments solicited!

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Blame, coercions, and threesomes, precisely

Blame, coercions, and threesomes, precisely
Jeremy Siek, Peter Thiemann, and Philip Wadler
Draft, March 2014
We systematically present four calculi for gradual typing: the blame calculus of Wadler and Findler (2009); a novel calculus that pinpoints blame precisely; the coercion calculus of Henglein (1994); and the threesome calculus of Siek and Wadler (2010). Threesomes are given a syntax that directly exposes their origin as coercions in normal form, a more transparent presentation than that found in Siek and Wadler (2010) or Garcia (2013).
Comments welcome!

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A formative day for Georg Cantor

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

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An obsession with targets and impacts is killing off the blue-sky thinking that helped Higgs to a Nobel prize

From the Guardian. "Higgs would not find his boson in today's 'publish or perish' research culture".

Also from the Guardian. "Peter Higgs: I wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system".

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The Truth About Numbers

From Tom the Dancing Bug. "That book is full of secular lies! Here's the only 'math' book you'll ever need!"

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Will Snowden be Glasgow University's next Rector?

From the Glasgow Herald. Spotted by Mitch Wand.
Chris Cassells, a member of the "Elect Snowden as Rector" campaign at Glasgow University, said a Snowden victory would be a gesture against surveillance culture
"Having Edward Snowden as rector would give us a megaphone with which we can project our views to a global audience particularly on the issue of state surveillance and the very valid and welcome role of whistleblowers in a democracy," explained the PhD student, 27.
"I think he has done a great service to citizens across the world in exposing the corrupt and immoral practises of the NSA and our very own GCHQ.
"Studying at the university is dependent on the free exchange of information and freedom of speech, and I think Snowden's revelations hit to the heart of that."

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Separate Scotlandshire may be susceptible to space storms, say scientists

As reported by Och Aye The News.
In a report published today the wholly independent UK Government boffins claim that, if Scotlandshire were to separate from England, it would be left with no cover against celestial peril. The tiny Scottish Defence Force would be unable to prevent a hail of meteors - which could fall from the sky at any time – from causing huge devastation and loss of life.

Dr Alisdair Allan MSP, the Scottish Government's Science & Education minister said, “While the conclusions of the LSE report are undoubtedly accurate, its authors fail to mention that there are no current means of shielding Scotlandshire from meteor showers.

“The kind of technology required to provide protection from celestial objects doesn't even exist. So, to claim that the danger would be increased by independence doesn't make any sense.

"You may wish to ask the UK government what steps they are taking to protect us from being lovebombed by comets, for pity's sake.”

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Off the Beaten Track 3: Proofs as Stories

A third talk of note at Off the Beaten Track was Languages for Computational Creativity: Generative Art and Interactive Worlds, by Chris Martens. Her talk included the most inventive application of Propositions of Types that I ever heard: Proofs as Stories. Later, she provided a citation to a longer work, Linear Logic for Non-Linear Storytelling, by some of her collaborators, which uses proofs in linear logic to describe alternative storylines for Madame Bovary. Thanks, Chris!

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Off the Beaten Track 2: Take FRP to the limit

A second talk I enjoyed at Off the Beaten Track was Kengo Kido's Integrability in Nonstandard Modeling of Hybrid Systems, because it might hold the secret to resolving a conflict that has bugged me for many years.

Elliott and Hudak's original description of Functional Reactive Animation carefully separated behaviours (continuous maps from time to values) from events (a value is supplied at a given time). However, many developments of Functional Reactive Programming (FRP) instead supply a stream of discrete values, casting out continuity and conflating the notions of behaviour and event. For instance, the discrete approach is taken by Causal Commutative Arrows and by Asynchronous Functional Reactive Programming for GUIs (the basis for Elm).

As I commented in a previous post, streams have the advantage of permitting feedback loops, which permit the definition of important functions such as integral, and relate to the categorical notion of trace: can we combine the advantages of feedback with continuity? Kido's paper suggests a way forward: use discrete streams, but let the time interval between them to approach zero in the limit, as in his language WHILEdt. It would be great to see someone work out the details.

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Union in Peril?

It's easy to despair if you favour independence for Scotland. Despite a small slant toward Yes, polls still show No well in the lead. So I found heartening a call to arms by Alan Massie in the Spectator, warning unionists that a vote for Independence is far from far fetched.

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Off the Beaten Track: False Starts

Saturday I had the pleasure to attend Off the Beaten Track, a workshop of POPL 2014.  Every single talk was introduced with the phrase 'And now for something completely different ...'

One talk, by Nada Amin and Tiark Rompf (delivered by Nada), argues that 'papers should expose the sausage-factory of designing calculi, and the minefields in the landscape'.

Ever since Euler (at least), papers in mathematics tend to present a polished solution at the cost of hiding the insights that led to the solution's discovery. Only rarely does one see papers that describe an approach that failed, even though, arguably, knowing what not to do can be as important as knowing what to do.

This leads me to make a suggestion. Every paper is expected to contain sections, where relevant, on
design, implementation, performance, theory, and related work. We should also include, where relevant, a section on 'false starts': research directions that failed to pan out. That is, 'false starts' should be on the checklist of what to cover when first organising a paper. Papers with such material exist, but they are rare; we should make them a common case.

What are your favourite papers that clearly explain a false start?

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Take a lawyer’s advice – visit the occupied territories

Even committed Zionists are beginning to understand that Israel is consistently violating fundamental human rights in Palestine. This article, by a lawyer, focusses on how Palestinian children fare. Spotted via JFJFP.
By David Middleburgh, Jewish Chronicle
January 17, 2014
I have just returned from a three-day tour of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, organised by the pro-Israel, pro-peace organisation, Yachad. The participants were all passionate Zionists and, were it not for some grey hairs and wrinkles, we could have been a youth group. In fact, we were all senior lawyers or individuals with a particular interest in the rule of law.
The purpose: to understand the legal context to the occupation. The centrepiece, a unique visit to the IDF military courts that maintain law and order (for Palestinians only) in the West Bank, unique in that we were the first organised group of British Jews to visit the courts. In the course of the tour we met a very broad spectrum of people from representatives of Israeli NGOs, a senior employee of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers, and a senior adviser to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Arrest of child
My conclusions? First, there is no substitute for finding out what is really happening on the ground by visiting and asking difficult questions. I had made numerous assumptions from both Jewish and non-Jewish media, which were simply wrong.
Secondly, those who consider that stories of systemic breaches of human rights under the occupation are an anti-Israel myth are deluding themselves.
We spent a morning at the military courts observing young Palestinian boys, aged 13-17, being processed, and speaking to their mothers. It is clear that children are invariably arrested in night raids by the army at gunpoint, cuffed and blindfolded and held, often for hours, in that condition, denied access to food, water and toilet facilities, interrogated without being advised of their rights, without a lawyer and without their parents.

Boy arrested by IDF, Nabi Saleh, 2011
Military Court Watch, an Israeli NGO, has carried out a detailed forensic review and they found over 50 per cent of children were arrested in night raids and 83 per cent of children blindfolded. All of the children we saw in court were in leg shackles.
There was a shocking passivity of the Palestinians we observed at court. Parents and detained children smiled and joked with each other and we did not see a single case of anger. That’s not to say parents did not care that their children were being imprisoned.

Israeli occupation forces detain a Palestinian youth in the West Bank city of Hebron on 22 September 2013, during protests against road closures for the benefit of Jewish settlers. Photo by Mamoun Wazwaz / APA images
But conviction rates are 99.7 per cent. The passivity bespeaks a people who have become resigned to their reality. They recognise there is no longer any point in fighting for basic rights. I felt that the court system was clearly a figleaf for a system of arbitrary justice where the guilt of the child is beside the point. The courts are part of a system that effectively keeps Palestinian society in a state of constant fear and uncertainty.
So why do the authorities bother with the expense of maintaining the pretence of justice? The answer is that without scrutiny it is possible to pretend that the system is fair. So, defendants are legally represented and proper rules of evidence apply.

Boy arrested on suspicion of throwing stones, Silwan, December 26, 2010. No further information

Arrest of boy, Silwan, 2011. No further information.

A much reproduced photo, for obvious reasons of a police swoop on young boys in Jerusalem, 2010. No further information.
Scrape away the veneer, and the charade is exposed with convictions routinely obtained based upon forced confessions and defendants facing remand without bail pending trial for periods in excess of sentences when pleading guilty. No sane defendant would plead not guilty in this Catch 22 situation.
I would argue that diaspora Jews who are true friends of Israel have a duty to visit the territories to understand the problem, and then to lobby friends in Israel to strive for a just end to this situation.
If we do nothing, can we complain if we awake one day and Israel has sleepwalked into the status of a pariah country?
David Middleburgh is a partner in the London firm of Gallant Maxwell solicitors

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Gagging Law---still a problem

I had the following e-mail from my MP, Ian Murray; reprinted with permission. Photo shows 38 Degrees lobbying Murray's office last December. He is 3'rd from right, I am 3'rd from left.

I'm backing amendments to the Lobbing Bill today

But the truth is that this terrible bill should be binned

Thank you for contacting me about the Lobbying Bill. While some of you have contacted me for the first time this week, I have been keeping the majority of you up to date throughout this process. We are nearing the end of the bill's progress now, as today we begin the 'ping-pong' of amendments between the Lords and the Commons.

I must praise the work of 38 Degrees and other organisations in campaigning so hard on this issue. More people have contacted me on this bill than any other since the election in 2010. I had the pleasure of meeting a small number of campaigners from 38 Degrees towards the end of last year (picture above). They handed me a petition of thousands of people from across the UK firmly against the bill.

Standing up for the wrong people

The government have got themselves in to a real mess with this gagging bill. After being forced in to a panic pause on part two they then had to grant a series of concessions. While those concessions make a bad bill slightly better, they don’t go far enough and the gag on charities and campaigners remains firmly in place.

That is why it is so important that the Commons votes to keep the two amendments that the Lords defeated the government on – the exclusion of some staff costs from the slashed spending limit, and the inclusion of special advisors in the definition of those who can be lobbied. I will be voting to keep those amendments in the bill and I will urge my colleagues to do the same.

Only David Cameron could present a Lobbying Bill that doesn’t stop commercial lobbyists influencing government policy, but could stop charities and campaigners from campaigning about it. No wonder people think he stands up for the wrong people.

This has been a bad bill from word go, and the government should’ve just gone back to the drawing board.

I have been leading for the Labour Party on part three of this bill, and have been pushing to make it a better piece of legislation. Unfortunately the government haven't listened to the thousands of people pushing to scrap this bill.

Thank you once again for getting in touch.

Yours sincerely,

Ian Murray MP
Working Hard for South Edinburgh 

The next day, I had the following update from 38 Degrees.

38 Degrees Logo
Dear Philip,

Here's a quick update on how it went today, with MPs voting again on the gagging law.

I’m afraid it's bad news. Most Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs chose to follow party orders. They reversed the main improvements made in the House of Lords.

This means they voted:
- to remove new rules limiting secret lobbying by big business
- to put back in key limits on what campaigners, charities, and voluntary groups can do to speak up on issues of the day [1]

It’s pretty depressing. But it’s not over. The House of Lords will now get another vote – probably next week. They have the option to refuse to back down, and force MPs to vote yet again.

The votes were quite close. A number of government MPs did rebel - thanks in no small part to all the petitions, leaflets, emails and events which 38 Degrees members like you made happen.

If 17 more Conservative or Lib Dem MPs had voted differently, we would have won. Maybe we can get some more to change their minds next time around?

Details of how each MP voted will be posted on the 38 Degrees website, as soon as they are published (probably tomorrow morning).

All of us will need to think quickly about what we do next to stand up for democracy and freedom of speech. Options could include:
- a fresh push to encourage the Lords to hold firm next week
- naming and shaming MPs who voted to make the gagging law worse again today and pushing them to change their minds
- looking at options for legal challenges to the gagging law’s provisions
- thinking through ways we can keep campaigning and speaking up on the issues that matter despite the gagging law

Today, there's lots to feel fed up about. Yet again we’ve seen MPs push through a law which the public have never voted for, and which has been heavily criticised by everyone from the United Nations to the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Women’s Institute to the Royal British Legion. [2]

But there are reasons to feel hopeful too. This campaign has brought together so many different organisations and so many people from all walks of life. [3] Together we're proving that whilst faith in politicians is at an all time low, passion for real democracy is alive and kicking.

If you have thoughts or suggestions on what we should do together next, or just want to share how you're feeling, you can join the conversation on the 38 Degrees Facebook page, here:

Alternatively, please reply to this email leaving the subject line the same.

I'll look forward to reading your thoughts.

Hopefully we can all agree on one thing, though. This definitely isn’t the time to give up. The kind of issues that 38 Degrees members choose to campaign on – like protecting the NHS, preserving our countryside, improving democracy and challenging tax dodging – are way too important to leave to politicians.

An alarming number of politicians seem to want us to shut up. But, I’m very glad to say, we’re just not going to!

Thanks for everything you do,

38 Degrees Executive Director

PS: On the subject of MPs wanting to shut us up, here's the story of the MP who called the police when 38 Degrees members visited him to deliver a petition!

And here's an MP saying it's "stupid" to email your MP!

PPS: MPs let us down today, but it isn't quite over yet - so please do share your ideas for what we could do next. Either by replying here or by posting on the 38 DegreesFacebook page:

[1] There were 3 big votes in the Commons today:
- On the vote to require Ministers’ special advisors to record their meetings with lobbyists 311 MPs voted to reject the change, and 258 voted to accept them.
- On the vote to reject Lords’ changes to how much staff costs count towards total spending limits, amendment 108: 310 MPs voted to reject the changes, and 278 MPs to accept them into the Bill
- On the vote to reject Lords’ changes to the scope of what activity counts towards constituency spending limits, amendments 26 and 27: 314 MPs voted to reject the changes, and 274 MPs to accept them

[2] The Guardian: Lobbying bill will tarnish Britain, says UN official:
National Federation of Women’s Institutes: Briefing page on the Lobbying Bill:
Citizens Advice Bureau: Lobbying Bill briefings:
The Royal British Legion: Lobbying Bill: Why asking politicians to back our troops could be stopped under this sloppy law:

[3] Over 130 NGOs, including 38 Degrees, and over 160,000 people signed a petition against the gagging law: http://civilsocietycommission.info/petition/

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Craftsman or Scientist?

More from Dijkstra (see previous entry), this time on whether computing is a craft or a science. Of course, it is both. Spotted by Sebastian Fisher.
My somewhat elliptic title refers, of course, to the programmer; so much you may have guessed. What, in all probability, you could not have guessed, is that I have chosen to use the words "craftsman" and "scientist" in a very specific meaning: they have been chosen to characterize the results of two extreme techniques of education, and this luncheon speech will be devoted to a (be it short) discussion of their role in the education of programmers, in the teaching of programming. For the transmission of knowledge and skills both techniques have been used side by side since many centuries.

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Dijkstra on Haskell and Java

A letter from Edsgar Dijkstra, written in 2001, argues that Haskell, not Java, should be used to teach introductory programming at the University of Texas. Blogged by Chris Done, spotted by Shayan Najd.
Colleagues from outside the state (still!) often wonder how I can survive in a place like Austin, Texas, automatically assuming that Texas’s solid conservatism guarantees equally solid mediocrity. My usual answer is something like “Don’t worry. The CS Department is quite an enlightened place, for instance for introductory programming we introduce our freshmen to Haskell”; they react first almost with disbelief, and then with envy —usually it turns out that their undergraduate curriculum has not recovered from the transition from Pascal to something like C++ or Java.

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A TED talk about what's wrong with TED talks

I enjoy well-presented talks---not least so I can steal ideas about how to present well for my own talks---and TED is a great source of these. My ambition is to present at TED one day. Nonetheless, this analysis points out an interesting problem with TED. My ambition is unchanged and I'll keep watching the talks, but perhaps with a more skeptical eye. Spotted via Boing Boing.




The Ziebell projection of the world: 30 people's sketches combined

Spotted on Boing-Boing.
Zak Ziebell, then a 17-year-old San Antonio senior, challenged 30 people to sketch a map of the world, then combined them into a vague smudge. Then he produced this unnervingly realistic map of the alternative Earth lurking in his subjects' collective memories.




My friends wonder why any intelligent Scot would vote Yes

David Donnison on Bella Caledonia presents a concise argument for independence that puts, far better than I could, my own views.
They asked me about many of the dilemmas we have been pondering in Scotland in the aftermath of our white paper – and most of them could not understand why any intelligent Scot would be voting for independence. It was an afternoon that compelled me to clarify my own thinking.
What matters most, I said, is not how an independent Scotland will fare. Independence will of course bring teething troubles of many kinds; but the Scots, if they choose to break away, will make their way in the world pretty successfully. What matters most, I said, is what you are doing in England; what kind of country you want to make of the UK; and whether we in Scotland want to be part of it.
The Scottish ‘political class’ assume that proposals for new policies should help to create a fairer and more equal society where there will be greater social justice. They assume that proposals for solving social problems should be prepared in active consultation with the kinds of people who experience these problems. Of course they do not always live up to these aspirations; but our political class assume that they will be generally accepted by Scottish governments, whoever wins our next elections. They are not contentious. None of that can be said of England.
I could give various examples of the impact of these divergent cultures, but one will have to do. When our first minister was taking questions at the press conference launching the independence white paper, a correspondent from the Daily Telegraph said (roughly speaking – I took no note): ‘Your plans for Scotland’s future are splendid. But in a country with high rates of unemployment and high proportions of pensioners, how can you pay for all this?’ To which Salmond replied: ‘That would indeed be difficult if nothing changes. But an independent Scotland will attract more young workers’. To which the Telegraph man – thinking he had a killer question – said: ‘You mean more immigrants?’. ‘Yes,’ said Salmond. ‘They make an important and creative contribution to our society and we need more of them.’ Could any serious English politician have said this? And if it had been said, would it have passed unnoticed, as it did in Scotland?
We shall all have to make our best guesses at England’s political trends when the referendum comes – eight months before the next Westminster election which may give us a few pointers. But if staying in the UK seems likely to mean living in a country that leaves the European Union (Miliband, if he wins the election, has not yet promised a referendum on that, but neither has he refused one); if it is to be a country that continues to impose increasingly punitive and humiliating sanctions on its poorest citizens who live on social security benefits (Labour spokespersons on this subject seem determined to show they will match the Tories’ brutalities); if the Human Rights Act is to be repealed (as our present home secretary promises); if the UK continues to have the most centralised government in the Western world (strangling local governments and killing off civic leadership); if ‘green’ policies are to have low priority; and if our armed forces are to remain mercenary outriders to American foreign policy; then I would rather get out, whatever the hazards of independence.
It’s a white paper, agreed by the main political parties, on the future plans and priorities, not of Scotland but of the rest of the UK, that I need. I guess I’ll have to place my bet without waiting for that.
Spotted via @cstross and @andrewdrucker.

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ADT and GADT implementations of simply-typed lambda calculus

Lennart Augustsson posted a nifty description of a compiler from a simple expression language to LLVM that included a conversion from expressions represented as an ADT to expressions represented as a GADT. The ADT requires a separately implemented type checker, while the GADT piggybacks on Haskell's type system to ensure expressions are well typed. However, Lennart's expression language does not include lambda abstraction.

Based on Lennart's code, I implemented ADT and GADT versions of simply-typed lambda calculus with de Bruijn indices, integer constants, and addition, plus the conversion between them, without the distraction of compiling to LLVM. The code was cleaned and improved by Shayan Najd, and made publicly available via github. Thanks to Josef Svenningson for the pointer to Lennart's post.

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Scotland, the UK, and the UFP

In response to a recent post, Josh Graham (@delitescere) tweeted
@PhilipWadler I'm proudly for Scottish identity but shouldn't our species look to the stars and remove borders, not remake old ones?
Good question. I approve of the United Nations and (alluding to @delitescere's wording) the United Federation of Planets. So why should I agitate to undo the 1707 Act of Union?

While my knee-jerk reaction is to support larger groupings,  upon reflection I realise that the issues are not so clear cut. In favour is the argument for peace: the UK, the EU, and the UN (not to mention the UFP) promote resolution of conflict by negotiation, avoiding warfare—clearly a good thing. Neither in favour nor opposed is the argument for trade: while removing trade barriers is a good thing, organisations like NAFTA and the WTO can impose the agenda of prosperous nations against the interests of the less prosperous. Opposed is the argument that democracy is more effective at a smaller scale: it is easier to make an electoral impact in Edinburgh that in Scotland, in Scotland than the UK, in the UK than in the EU, and in the EU than the world. Though my heart yearns for World Government (or a Federation of Planets), my head finds the issues more equivocal.

How do these arguments play out when considering independence for Scotland? On the issues of peace and trade, independence will have little impact. While there are many uncertainties concerning independence, none believe it will lead to war and it seems unlikely to seriously impair trade. It is the issue of democracy that I find most compelling in this case.

I want to live in a country that promotes education, provides for the health of its citizens, takes good care of its elderly, and eschews nuclear weapons. Scottish voters support free tuition for higher education, free prescriptions under the NHS, free personal care for everyone aged over 65, and oppose Trident nuclear submarines. The UK as a whole takes none of these positions. Britain faces grave economic decisions, and I trust Scots to make a better fist of these than I do the entirety of the UK. For me, it is the argument for local democracy that carries the day.

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A Tour through the Visualization Zoo

ACM Queue presents a handy survey of visualisation techniques. More compact than Tufte, if not as beautiful.

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A handy reminder of the real issue. Spotted on Bella Caledonia.

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Haskell in XKCD

Haskell appears in XKCD. Is this an auspicious sign for the New Year? Click through for the tool tip.

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Scots have nothing to lose going the ‘indy’ route

Iain Robertson presents a concise summary of the argument for Scottish independence. From The Japan Times of all places, and March 2013 of all times.
Under the current devolved settlement, Scotland has a parliament sitting in Holyrood, Edinburgh, which controls a paltry 16 percent of the country’s tax base. The game-changing economic and social policy levers remain in the hands of the U.K. government, leaving Scotland unable to properly tackle some of its social ills or take full advantage of its many natural resources.
Scotland’s union with England and the other parts of the U.K. is not offering Scots the best option. The current political landscape across the nations of the U.K. is one where Westminster is controlled by a Conservative-Liberal coalition government that was roundly rejected by Scottish voters at the last election; just one Conservative member of Parliament hails from a seat north of the border.
Recent figures revealed in “The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland 2011-12 Report” show that, rather than enjoying handouts, Scotland is paying more money in tax than it receives in U.K. public spending, to the tune of around £863 per head of its population.
Newspapers the length and breadth of the U.K. continue to run baseless front-page scare stories about independence. What many of these failing newspapers make clear is that the so-called “union” of countries is viewed by London as being one they control.
There is even more to Scotland’s economic potential as an independent country than its booming oil and renewable energy industries. It has a number of world- class business sectors; including food and drink, life sciences and a first-class education system. Scotland has much to offer — both to itself and the world.
There is even more to Scotland’s economic potential as an independent country than its booming oil and renewable energy industries. It has a number of world- class business sectors; including food and drink, life sciences and a first-class education system. Scotland has much to offer — both to itself and the world.
As Scots singer Eddie Reader retweeted: “indy (independence) gives us uncertainty with power, U.K. gives uncertainty without power.”

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American Studies Association joins academic boycott of Israel

Jews for Justice for Palestinians reports that on 16 December 2013, the American Studies Association voted, 66% to 33%, to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

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Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, and Scotland

As a Professor of Theoretical Computer Science, I have few qualifications that relate to the debate over independence for Scotland. But I do have one: like all who work in computing, I am familiar with FUD.

From The Jargon File:
FUD: /fuhd/, n.
Defined by Gene Amdahl after he left IBM to found his own company: “FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering [Amdahl] products.” The idea, of course, was to persuade them to go with safe IBM gear rather than with competitors' equipment. This implicit coercion was traditionally accomplished by promising that Good Things would happen to people who stuck with IBM, but Dark Shadows loomed over the future of competitors' equipment or software. After 1990 the term FUD was associated increasingly frequently with Microsoft, and has become generalized to refer to any kind of disinformation used as a competitive weapon.
Much FUD has been slung by the opponents of independence.

The opening salvo was Jose Manuel Barroso's announcement, in December 2012, that an independent Scotland could not presume admission to the EU. Really? As Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said, “No serious person can argue that it is anything other than in the interests of the EU to keep Scotland in continuous membership”.  Barroso's statement was pure FUD (or bunkum), prompted by Cameron and by Spain's concern that Scottish independence might strengthen Basque aspirations.

Another example is when George Osborne and Danny Alexander reiterated, in April and November 2013, that Scotland could not rely on England agreeing to a currency union. Really? Yet even Alisdair Darling, head of Better Together, had aleady admitted in January 2013 that “Of course, it would be desirable to have a currency union... If you have independence, or separation, of course a currency union is logical.”  Alexander's and Osborne's statements don't go so far as to rule out monetary union; their purpose is to trowel FUD over the future of Scotland.

And when the SNP released its White Paper this month, it was another occasion for opponents to cast aspersions. Danny Alexander immediately claimed a £1.6 billion gap in funding. Really? Finance Secretary John Swinney responded “The No campaign's numbers are all over the place. If we go back to September, they were alleging a £32bn black hole in the finances of an independent Scotland. That came down in November to £10bn and we have now got a claim of £1.6bn. When you look at the Treasury analysis there is no account taken of the positive impact on the economy of any of the measures we have set out to boost growth within the Scottish economy.” Critics of the White Paper need not engage seriously with its premises. Spreading FUD is more effective.

Which is not to say that the future is certain. Any large change such as independence of necessity makes the future harder to predict. But we can see some consequences of independence clearly. We will avoid the £25bn cost of Trident. We will maintain free tuition for students, free prescriptions under the NHS, and free nursing for the elderly, benefits Scots enjoy and the English are denied, and which without independence we will face pressure to revoke. We will be free to maneuver in an uncertain future based on the vision of the Scots rather than the conservatism of the Tories.

Let's examine our choices clearly, and recognise FUD for what it is: the way the Powers That Be, whether IBM, Microsoft, or the UK Government, seek to keep others from considering better alternatives.

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Fame, almost

My sister spotted my likeness on a loaf of organic bread.



Students support strike

Will Hutton, writing in the Guardian, described the situation succinctly: 
The real wages of academics have fallen by 13% since 2008, one of the largest sustained wage cuts any profession has suffered since the Second World War. 
University administrators offer 1% and refuse to negotiate. Faculty struck on 31 October and a second strike is called for 3 December.  As usual, our students put the case more eloquently than our union (the UCU, University and College Union). The leadership of EUSA (Edinburgh University Student Association) write:
Tensions are high within the University, as the second day of strike action draws nearer and many continue to work to rule. At such times we may hear the oft-quoted: “For the sake of students, don’t go on strike!”
We write on behalf of EUSA and our 32,000 members, to actively encourage you to take strike action. In the short term this will indeed affect our education, but the long term benefits are significantly vaster.
It is critical that students and staff struggle collectively. Not only to ensure that the sector continues to attract the highest calibre of people, but also so staff are able to focus on the job – not worrying about the rocketing cost of living. Needless to say, colleagues at the start of their career are hardest hit, including the thousands of EUSA’s postgraduate members who help teach.
The demands are reasonable, and the more effective the action now the sooner we can get back to the reason we’re all here – education.
It is for this reason that EUSA’s academic reps, who aren’t exactly our most radical bunch, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of actively supporting the on-going strike action. This decision has been met with broad approval from across the student body. Dozens of our reps and countless other students were out on the picket lines at 7am the other week, and have vowed to be there next time.We are actively encouraging our members not to cross the picket lines and to study from home.Education continues to be progressively marketised, fees continue to rise, power continues to shift away from ordinary staff and into the hands of the overpaid in Old College. At times like these it is vital that the university acts as a community and reasserts its stake over the corporate body. We do this by working together, and recognising that our struggles are in common.
So again, we implore you, on behalf of your students, not to undermine the strike. And hopefully we'll be seeing you on the picket lines!
In solidarity,Hugh, Nadia, Alex and KirstyThe EUSA Sabbatical Team
The photo above shows me picketing the Informatics Forum, surrounded by students during a previous strike in 2011.

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Amdahl's law for predicting the future of multicores considered harmful

The following will be the subject of a talk at Edinburgh on Thursday. I won't attend, because it's Thanksgiving, but it looks interesting.

Amdahl's law for predicting the future of multicores considered harmful


B.H.H. Juurlink , C. H. Meenderinck, ACM SIGARCH Computer Architecture News, Volume 40 Issue 2, May 2012, Pages 1-9.

Several recent works predict the future of multicore systems or identify scalability bottlenecks based on Amdahl's law. Amdahl's law implicitly assumes, however, that the problem size stays constant, but in most cases more cores are used to solve larger and more complex problems. There is a related law known as Gustafson's law which assumes that runtime, not the problem size, is constant. In other words, it is assumed that the runtime on p cores is the same as the runtime on 1 core and that the parallel part of an application scales linearly with the number of cores. We apply Gustafson's law to symmetric, asymmetric, and dynamic multicores and show that this leads to fundamentally different results than when Amdahl's law is applied. We also generalize Amdahl's and Gustafson's law and study how this quantitatively effects the dimensioning of future multicore systems.

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