Review: I Predict A Riot by Bateman

February 13, 2008

I have a horrible inability to put down a book I’m more than two-thirds of the way through. When it’s a slim P.G. Wodehouse, that’s not a particular problem. When it’s a 600-page monster like Harry Potter or Bateman’s I Predict A Riot, it does tend to lead to me being up all night reading, unable to sleep no matter how exhausted I am.

I Predict A Riot is great fun, no question. You might think of it as Rebus-lite, if you were so inclined: one of the central characters, “Marsh” Mallow is frequently a less dark, more Belfasty detective and likes his music and whisky (apparently on a more superficial level than Rebus).

It’s an odd book. The copy on the cover is all about mutilated corpses and an untouchable bad guy  yet you get thirty chapters in and it’s still a chuckly love story with Mallow as a minor character, also looking for love more than for a dangerous criminal… and yet you read on.

It’s hard not to like the main characters – Mallow and the ridiculous couple, Margaret and Walter, no matter how foolish and irrational they act. In fact, it’s difficult to hate anyone in the story: the bad guys are largely caricatures, and even the good guys are little more than caricatures with added foibles.

Despite the lack of characterisation, it’s a good read. The plot is admirably convoluted and, in places, utterly daft; in others, it’s so daft as to be plausible – rioting for the sake of rioting, a paramilitary with a twin brother who’s a priest (where on earth could that storyline go?), a mysterious office in the Department of Education… and it all gets neatly wrapped up, which is always a bonus.

Bateman doesn’t have quite the incisiveness of, say, Hiaasen or Brookmyre, or the darkness of Rankin, but he does pull off something  worth reading.

Another productivity post

February 11, 2008

Today’s new experiment has been to use a single index card to remind me of my to-do list. It’s divided into four parts by a horizontal line across the middle and a vertical line about two-thirds of the way over, so it looks like a flag for some minimalist Scandinavian country viewed from the wrong side. The top-left portion is for my Most Important Tasks – three things I really want to get done today, with ticky-boxes beside them. As it stands, I’ve abandoned one of those tasks, but the other two are nicely ticked.

Immediately below it are two themes – things that I want to be mindful of (this week’s themes are “Write the tests first” and “Watch what you eat”). They’re surrounded by boxes to highlight them.

To the right are regular and scheduled tasks. At the top, the things that are part of my daily routine (meditate, blog and generate ideas, plus run around on alternate days). Below the cut are appointments – for classes, library books due, interviews, that kind of thing.

I’ve used this system for one day, which is clearly not enough to determine whether it’s a workable system. However, it has kept me focussed on my themes (I did lapse and eat a doughnut… but then I didn’t have dessert after dinner, so I feel I made up for it), and been a constant reminder of what I wanted to get done. I think this one has legs.

The other thing is, it’s probably worth putting the card together the night before so you can get up and get running in the morning. Which is precisely what I plan to do now.

Meditative self-massage

February 10, 2008

I am no longer in possession of the body-ball I habitually use as a desk-chair. As a result, my posture has quickly degraded from “iffy” to “almost as bad as Richard III’s”. To make matters worse, TCB is an ocean and the bulk of a continent away so I can’t bug her to rub my aching, aging back.

So instead I’ve taken to trying to use powers of telekinesis to massage my own back while meditating. It’s surprisingly effective, and much less likely to result in the yelps of pain that attend any physical massage where the muscles are tight.

I’ve been meditating occasionally for years, but am trying to make a practice of it. Twelve minutes of mindful sitting, preferably daily. Of course, my mind wanders all over the place and it’s often hard to remind myself “this isn’t the time to be rehearsing the interview you don’t have, turn off”. However, it’s quite acceptable to mentally check in with every part of my body – methodically, starting with my toes. Lingering over any muscles that are tight, shifting slightly to relax them.

If nothing else, it keeps my mind off of the trivia that generally occupy it, and serves to soothe my pains a little. (It would be quite unZen to think of it as killing two birds with one stone). Naturally, it’s no replacement for a TCB massage, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

Want/Need + past participle

February 9, 2008

It’s a little unsporting of TCB to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. In any case, I have been demoted to a special circle of her grammatical hell for unwittingly (naturally) using the construction “needs turned in”.

To me, that’s a perfectly natural construction, and Bartleby agrees: REGIONAL NOTE: When need is used as the main verb, it can be followed by a present participle, as in The car needs washing, or by to be plus a past participle, as in The car needs to be washed. However, in some areas of the United States, especially western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, many speakers omit to be and use just the past participle form, as in The car needs washed. This use of need with past participles is slightly more common in the British Isles, being particularly prevalent in Scotland. To her, it’s how hicks speak – and sure, it’s not something I’d use in an interview (probably) – but in casual speech, of course, no question. I guess I’ll just have to mentally edit (are split infinitives ok?) myself from now on.

In other news, the fiction project is up, and called Ariadne. I’ve no idea how much load it will take, but I don’t figure that there’ll be a huge uptake. If you have extra ideas for rules, do let me know!

How much is a good night’s sleep worth?

February 8, 2008

So, I was sounded out for a job today, which – according to the ad – was perfect for me: needed strong maths qualifications, ability to do complex analysis and design algorithms, based in Cambridge, couldn’t ask for a nicer spec.

Unfortunately, it’s to design sensors for radar and would involve acquiring security clearance so I could work on UK defence projects. Leaving aside the question of whether they’d grant a hippy like me such a thing, the idea of working for the military seems utterly abhorrent to me.

But – I think it was Tom Stoppard said – every man has his price. I was wondering how much they’d have to pay me to force me to consider taking the job. I know I’d turn down £30,000/yr. But if they offered me £60k? I hope I’d still say no, but I’d have to think about it. Even though £60k is unlikely, what if they offered me £100,000 a year? That’s serious money, probably five times what I need to live on, and would likely set me up for life. Could I live with something I helped design being used for military purposes? Could I sleep at night? If there are moral philosophers around, let me know what you think.

Today’s big idea…

February 7, 2008

… is a collaborative fiction web. The idea is to create many different stories starting from the same point. If you don’t like the ending… write a new one. If you can see where the author’s abandoned an interesting plot twist… you can pick it up.

In principle, the web can grow in depth and in breadth as far as it likes – I imagine there’ll be a lot of abandoned threads and false starts that nobody picks up, but maybe there’ll be one or two viable novels that come out of the process. If nothing else, it can be a repository for stories that started but went nowhere, giving other people a chance to take over.

I’ve been thinking mainly about the implementation so far (for an experienced PHP dude, it would be straightforward, but there are a few quirks that I need to iron out myself) and a little about the rules. So far, I’ve got:

  • write your own work
  • release work under CC (by-sa)
  • play nicely
  • keep it as clean as is reasonable
  • 400-600 words per thread

Anything else I ought to include in the rules list? I was thinking of setting the ball rolling by posting my NaNo stories in 500-word chunks.

Squeezing every last mark out of the paper

February 6, 2008

You’ve slogged through the twenty-odd pages of your GCSE maths paper. You’ve got a good feeling about this one – you think you’ve got most of it right. And you’ve got ten minutes of the exam left. So what do you do?

When I was sitting my exams, the usual answer was ‘count ceiling tiles’ or ‘look for prime factors of my friends’ phone numbers’. I was an odd child. It turns out that the correct answer – as evidenced by my 99% mark for one paper in which I mis-measured a circle – is to check your work.

Believe me, it’s less tedious than counting ceiling tiles, and much more rewarding. There are many ways to check your work:

  • Look for a different way to do a question
  • Check that your answer makes sense – is your sale price lower than the original price?
  • Measure all the things you were meant to measure, twice.
  • See if you can get back from your answer to the numbers in the question
  • Read each question to make sure you’ve given the answer they asked for
  • Did you write your units down?

There are probably a dozen others I’ve overlooked – do you have any tips?

Polygon vocab: it’s all Greek to me.

February 5, 2008

Another cross-post to

Sadly, the maths GCSE seems to be almost as much about learning vocabulary you’re never going to need to use again as it is about learning to do maths (seriously, I’ve not had any use for the word ‘congruent’ in more than a decade of serious science, much of which involved geometry – it’s like the map of the cat). But, as with fractions, they have to be learnt, and, as with pizza, I’m here to make life easier.

Triangle is easy. Tri- means three (tricycle, triathlon) and -angle means corner. -Gon means corner too, which is where the word trigonometry comes from. Tri-gon-ometry: three-corner-measuring. There are three main types of triangle: the equilateral, (equal sides – in English, lateral is another word for sideways), which has three equal sides; the isosceles, which has two sides the same (iso- means the same, and -sceles comes from skelos, meaning leg); and the scalene, which has three different lengths of side (from skalenos, meaning rough. Apparently).

There are also right triangles, which contain a right angle (90º) and are either isosceles (if the other angles are 45º) or scalene (otherwise). The angles inside any triangle add up to 180º – check that it works for an isosceles right triangle.

Four-sided shapes have many more varieties. There’s the square and rectangle, of course, both of which have right angles at all four corners. Then there’s the parallelogram, which is what you get if you squish a rectangle so that opposite sides are parallel, but the angles aren’t 90º any more. A rhombus is a the same thing, but starting from a square. Then there’s the trapezium, which looks a bit like a trapeze: it’s got a bar, parallel to the moorings at the top, and the other two sides can be at any angle. There’s also the kite, which is a lot trickier to describe than you’d think. Take a pair of lines the same length joined together. Take another pair of lines the same length (not necessarily the same length as the first pair) and join them together too. Then join the loose ends of the two pairs together and bang, you have a kite.

A polygon (poly- = many, -gon = corner) is a shape with many corners (three or more). After four-sided shapes, polygons are always called (something-)gons. A pentagon has five corners (penta- unsurprisingly, means five); a hexagon six. Then heptagon (7), octagon (8), nonagon (9) and decagon (10). If all the sides are the same length, you can call them equilateral (again) or regular.

I think those are the main vocab words you need to know for polygons. If I’ve missed any, let me know.

Fractions bad. Pizza good.

February 4, 2008

 This is one of an occasional series of articles for my tutoring site: Do visit if you’re in need of maths tuition, or know somebody who is.

“Better cut it into six slices – I don’t think I could eat eight” – Yogi Berra.

Nobody likes fractions. Once you’ve figured out how to beat them senseless, perhaps they become almost tolerable, but even then remembering the rules and carefully applying them is the kind of thing the devil probably has lined up for when he runs out of other ideas.

Unfortunately, they’re on the exam paper. Always. Taking a GCSE paper at random – Foundation paper 2, June 2004 – 16 of the 100 marks (about a sixth of the total) have something to do with fractions. 16 marks could be the difference between a D and a B.

One big trick to working with fractions is to turn the ugly numbers into something you can easily imagine. I tend to work with pizza, because slicing it into bits is a natural thing to do, and also it tastes good. Another is to use your understanding of pizza to learn how to do some basic examples – so you can apply the method to more complicated questions.

I like to start with two quarter-pizzas. Adding together a quarter and a quarter is easy, you get two quarters (or a half, which we’ll come to shortly). 1/4 + 1/4 = 2/4. The size of the slices – the quarters – is the same for both of the fractions so all we have to do is add the top parts. 1/4 + 2/4 = 3/4 – a quarter slice and a half make up three quarters of a pizza. So far so easy.

Now, you might lose marks for writing 2/4 as your answer, because it’s not in its simplest form. Whenever you write a fraction down, you should look for a number that divides into both the top and the bottom. Here, you can divide the top and the bottom by two, making 1/2 – which is the same two quarters.

Why does this always work? It’s best to come at it from the other side. If you start from a half and divide it into two parts, you’ve doubled the number of slices (from 1 to 2) BUT you’ve halved the size of the slices (from a half (1/2) to a quarter (1/4). So now you have two quarters. You can do this with any fraction and any multiplier – if you multiply (or divide) the top and the bottom by the same number, you get another version of the same fraction. A half is also eight sixteenths (multiply the top and bottom by 8); 6/15 is the same as 2/5, if you divide the top and bottom by three.

This trick is really useful when it comes to adding slices of a different size. Let’s say I’m feeling greedy and want a half pizza, but you’re not really hungry and only want a quarter. Between us we eat 1/2 + 1/4. We know we can’t just add the things on top and on bottom – we’d get 2/6, which is a third, which is less than a half. That doesn’t make any sense. Instead, we need to add slices of the same size together.

What’s a good size of slice? Anything you can divide by 2 and 4. Eight is good. Four is also good (even better, because you don’t have to touch the quarter). But let’s do eight for the practice. We want to turn both fractions into eighths. That means we need to multiply the bottom of the half (2) by four. If we do that, we need to multiply the top by four as well, to get the same thing. 1/2 = 4/8. That makes sense. For the quarter, we need to multiply the bottom by two. To keep everything the same, we have to multiply the top by two too. A quarter is 2/8. Now we have both fractions the same underneath, so we can simply add the tops together – four slices plus two slices is six slices, and the slices are all 1/8 of a pizza. 1/2 + 1/4 = 4/8 + 2/8 = 6/8. And naturally, we can make that simpler – 6 and 8 are both even, so you can divide both by two to leave 3/4 of a pizza. Which is just what we’d expect.

So, next time you’re faced with a fraction problem (say, 1/2 + 1/3) – think about what you’d do to the pizza to make it all add up. I’ll leave that one as an exercise – as long as I can have the left-over slice :o)

Getting myself organised

February 3, 2008

I’ve been an organisational magpie for many years. Every so often I dabble with using a diary, either a paper-and-pen one or an online version, or stumble on a different to-do list manager online… and then fall out of the habit a week or so later. There are a squillion blogs (I counted) suggesting ways to keep yourself organised, most of them saying ‘this is how I do it… your mileage may vary.’

So, this is the system I’m working with at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry »