Friday, 7 August 2020

The Ultimate Lockdown?

Now we all like IT stories of stupid users. We also like stories of weird and unforseen disasters. Finally everyone likes a good cautionary tale. Well this one is all three...and the stupid user was me.

A while ago my Microsoft Natural PS/2 keyboard went wrong. Luckily I had Natural Keyboards on both our PCs (because being a touch-typist I find them easier to work with). The second PC has now become my daughter's PC, and she let me swop her keyboard for a standard USB one while I sourced a replacement. She wouldn't let me keep it, because she is used to the "split" keys and like me, now dislikes the ordinary layout.

It appears that PS/2 Natural keyboards are almost impossible to find now, so I had to go for a brand new Microsoft Ergonomic USB keyboard, which I didn't like as much because it was black, and I can't see the keys as well. Ho hum. [Note the significance of USB]

Anyway, it looks like my department will be "working from home" for the foreseeable future, so today I dropped in and picked up my work keyboard (which happens to be a beige Microsoft Natural PS/2) and brought it back home with me. At last I could go back to a lighter keyboard that I can actually see. Yay!

So I plugged it in, and booted it up...and it didn't work. After much Googling I found out the reason. When you plug a new MS Ergonomic USB keyboard in, Windows 10 does two things:

1. It downloads a new version of the keyboard driver, to support the enhanced capabilities of the new USB Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard hardware.

2. It disables the old PS/2 keyboard by changing a Registry key from 1 (Start up at Boot) to 4 (Disable)

So now I knew the reason, and a tech discussion on a web page advised that all you needed to do was change the USB keyboard's setting to 4, and the PS/2 keyboard's setting back to 1, and then reboot. What could go wrong? A couple of Registry changes and I rebooted the computer. End of story.

Unfortunately it was not the end of the story. Can you guess what happened next? Of course you can. But I'll explain why. You see the new keyboard driver doesn't support the old MS Natural PS/2 keyboard any more, because it has overwritten the old driver (which did).

[Yes I know some of you may be thinking "I've swopped between PS/2 and USB keyboards before, I never had this problem!". It's the new USB version of the Microsoft Ergonomic (née PS/2 Natural) Keyboard that has this issue, not standard PS/2 and USB.]

Anyway, so what happens when Windows boots up? The USB keyboard is disabled, so it doesn't work. The PS/2 keyboard tries to load up, but fails because the new keyboard driver no longer supports it. So I'm faced with a Windows logon screen and no way to type my password into it. So I can't get into Windows to change the Registry settings back! I'm permanently locked out of the computer in the most stupid way possible.

Luckily of course there was a way out of it. Well actually two. If you have an old standard USB keyboard, you can plug that in and reboot, and you will be able to type, so you can reverse the damage to the Registry. I used the second method, which was to access the PC through a remote desktop session from another PC.

Of course if you have only 1 PC, and no spare're screwed.

Be warned!

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Why You Should Continue To Protest

Things are looking a bit shaky on the political landscape at present and for the first time in 40 years the prospect of a World War is crossing people’s minds.

Personally speaking I’ve been here before at least twice, both in the 80s with the Falklands War and in the 90s with the Gulf War (not forgetting those times when War seemed likely, but never quite happened.

What should we do when War seems very likely?  Well, we should protest. We should demonstrate. But does it ever do any good?  What do we reply to those people who say “What’s the point? It won’t achieve anything!”

What you do is, you tell them that protesting does produce results. For a start – Impact.

Everyone remembers the CND marches of the 60s, 70s and 80s; Poll Tax protests in the very early 90s; Greenham Common; the US over Vietnam.  The fact that we remember these examples at all shows exactly how much impact they had.

“Well yes,” say the detractors, “But they didn’t have any effect.”

How do you know that?  What proof do you have that protests don't (and never have had) any effect?  For all you know, things might have been worse if nobody had protested! We could be living in a World created by the influence of protestors. If nobody had protested against the Vietnam War, it might have ended much later; and I think it’s safe to say that if nobody had demonstrated against the UK Poll Tax, it wouldn’t have been abolished three years after. OK so the World isn’t perfect, but I think we can all imagine how it could easily be much worse.

And don’t tell me the sheer weight of opinion can’t affect the way Governments turn.  When organised protests start, the Media picks up on it, and tells the rest of the country.  But it puts a political swing on it for its readership, until eventually one side has overwhelming support...which causes more readers to change their viewpoint, and then MPs take note and start taking the same sides...and you’ve got the PM basically apologising to everyone, while taking a detour in policy.  Sound topical?

Things have changed though. We don’t seem to get quite as many physical protests now, and it’s easy to conclude that people are more apathetic, more satisfied with their lot, or basically just drunk on the opium that Governments feed us. But hang on, people are still protesting, and I think I know where they’re doing it.

Online. Social Media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You know longer have 40,000 people marching down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament, instead you have several million Tweets all criticising you. Protesting is still there, and it’s possibly stronger than ever.

Governments don’t like protesters, right? Well actually Governments love most protests. No matter how organised a Demo is, there’s a good chance it’ll eventually spawn or turn into a Riot, and then the Police will have to step in.  Once that happens the protest is lost, and the Government wins, because now it’s Rioting, and Riots not only lose Public sympathy but are easy to control - you send in the Police, and the worse the Rioters behave, the more sympathy you get.

However Governments absolutely hate Twitter, probably for three main reasons.

Firstly, they can’t control it.  No matter how organised a physical protest is, it’s still controllable in some way, because by watching it like a hawk, you can constrain it.  But because Twitter has no physical presence, there’s no chance of an actual physical Riot, and therefore you can’t send the Police in.

Secondly, because nobody’s rioting, the Government can’t force a change in Public sympathy.

Thirdly, when a political Twitter storm comes winging your way, you can attempt to fight fire with fire and respond,  but the fact that you are the Government automatically means you aren’t allowed to defend yourself without everyone assuming you’re either lying or “just saying that”.

And, like with the protests of the late 20th Century, the Media shark still waits in the shallows. But instead of thousands of people in Trafalgar Square, it now reports on large public changes of opinion.  The irony of this of course that Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) is all about posting links to news stories while surrounding them with pithy comment.  

So you and a million others Tweet. It gets reported in the Media.  You retweet the reports. This causes more people to agree with you and Tweet...which gets reported...

It’s a fantastically self-perpetuation, and you can quickly see how relatively easy it is to use the mechanism yourself.  The difference this time is the either side can start the ball rolling.  So remember next time you're tweeting your disgust at some social injustice...who's pulling your strings?  Are you working against the opposition...or for them?


Thursday, 29 March 2018

You are a Simulation of a Simulation

I've always maintained that human consciousness has evolved as a by-product (or "emergent property") of the way in which the human brain "models" other elements of its social environment in a kind of virtual world inside the head. 

This virtual world contains modelled copies of other people that we know and regularly interact with, and the better we know a person, the more detailed their model is. We use these models to try out social "dry runs" before we interact physically with the actual person. We know this is what happens because we can observe it in ourselves every time we anticipate meeting, or having a conversation with, someone.  Who hasn't run conversations through their head prior to such a meeting?  And how well the conversation goes (or how accurately it mirrors the simulated conversation we've already had) depends on how well we know the other person, and how detailed our model of them is.

The more detailed the model is, the better able we are to interact socially with them.  My contention has always been that the person we know the most about (ourself) is therefore the most detailed model, and in fact it is so detailed that it thinks it is alive.  This is the origin of the human consciousness.

However this means that that simulation of "you" that exists in your brain isn't a copy of the "real" you. It IS the real you.  The simulation is you. In effect making you a simulation of a simulation.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Man does not think...he only thinks he thinks

Okay, so we want to build robots, right? Proper autonomous-thinking robots. AI with arms and legs. The mechanics and electronics we’ll get by trial, error, and design; all we’ve got to wait for is the technology to advance, which it will do with time (technology always does).  But what about the brain? No, let’s qualify that, what about the Mind?  The brain after all is just more tech.  But a thinking mind, with Artificial Intelligence?

Well there’s advances there too, but mainly in complexity, not in the underlying logic of the artificial intelligence. That’s something we’re still having difficulties with, because the very thing we want it to be like, is the very thing we don’t understand - ourselves.  But perhaps that’s the part of the problem - we want our robots to think like we do.  At least that’s what we say. In actual fact what we mean (although we probably don’t realise it) is for them to act like we do, not think like we do.

Hang on, isn’t that more or less the same thing?  After all, we act on thoughts, so the way we think is the way we act?  Well probably not. It’s more likely that how we think about something is based on how we acted first, and a lot of how we act is instinctive.

Let me clarify that. Think about an instinctive act you’ve performed, and how often you perform it.  Somebody waves their hand in your face and you jerk back, ready for action. If we ask you afterwards why you did that, you will probably say something along the lines of “If I hadn’t moved, he would have hit my face”.  You’re not explicitly saying that you decided to flinch, but it’s kind of implied in the language, and let’s face it, don’t we feel that this was what happened? Trip on the kerb and put your hands out; grab a ball out of the air; all of these feel like conscious decisions, but they’re not. They’re the result of millions of years of behavioural evolution. The fact that these instinctive reactions are still here proves they’re successful, and they’re successful because they’re quick.  Much quicker than human thought; there’s no way we could have controlled those actions at anywhere the same speed.  That’s why they have remained as instinctive processes - Humans think too slowly.

The point of that last paragraph is that we are mostly instinctive, with conscious thought merely a kind of afterthought (see what I did there?).  So if we want our AI to think like us, we’ve got to make it act like us first.  So let’s make a start.

The previously-mentioned avoidance instincts should be simple to design, as they are really nothing more than a series of logical on/off decisions.  Does this fit this criteria? If so, then - followed by a final yes it does, so do this.  You could model any of these in a flow-chart.

But if most of our instinctive actions can be modelled and replicated, what about other functions of the human mind, such as deciding to eat because we’re hungry?  Well this is where we have to look not at what we are thinking when we behave a certain way, but what mechanism could have evolved to make us behave that way in the first place.  

Well the smell of food certainly stimulates the feeling of hunger, which causes us to seek food and eat it, and then the feeling of eating gives us the feeling of enjoyment, followed by the feeling of contentment from being full.  That’s simple enough, and in fact it’s pretty much acknowledged that this is a Reward System and that there’s actually no thought involved.  The stimulus prompts the human nervous system to offer or promise rewards.  Again our conscious thoughts are not the decisions that cause this action, but are after-the-fact results of  a decision already taken instinctively.

So could we model this too? Of course we could, because again it’s simple on/off decision-making – if feelings of hunger, then… But what about the actual reward?  How do we model the feeling we get when we achieve a result, gain a prize, avoid pain? How do we reward a robot, or even get the robot to acknowledge and seek reward? Again, simply by the same method. It’s easier to explain this with an example.

We have built a robot. Let's call him "Robert". Robert has a power cell. When it gets below a certain level Robert must seek a recharge. We could just put that in as a simple instruction, a yes/no test for certain criteria (power below a specific level), and probably robots today may already be designed this way.  However that’s not going to make Robert think and act like us.  After all, we don’t have a simple meter for our stomach contents, with an instruction to eat when it gets below a certain level.  Our system is a lot more Heath-Robinson. Yes there is a kind of level meter in action, but it’s the body’s chemical signals that supply the trigger.  Sugar levels in the bloodstream,  for example, cause cells to react when a certain level has been reached, and we don’t have conscious access to this decision-making.  However these systems do also produce other secondary effects (dry mouth, grumbling stomach) that we are consciously aware of, which we interpret as telling us that we’re hungry...and then we’re into a standard reward system again, where we eat to stop the unpleasant feelings and gain the pleasant ones.

Now we get to the crux. No matter how much detail we replicate in our AI, how do we get to that last I’ll do this because it makes me feel good?  Well in Robert’s case, what if we keep the Level meter, but instead of the trigger simply instructing Robert to seek recharge, we pop an extra step in?  We trigger an increment in some figure stored in a memory register.  We then instruct Robert’s system to “do what the trigger wants us to do” when it detects either a rise in the figure in memory, or (for a slightly more complex process) when the figure has got to a particular number.  The more Robert is discharging, the higher that figure gets, and this will cause Robert to follow the instructions in the trigger circuit - Recharge.

The beauty of this monitoring of increase of a figure (let’s call it the Reward Register) is that we can re-use it for any other scenario: Cold? That's bad for the electrics, so increase your internal heating and warm yourself up. Encounter an obstacle in front of you? Step over it (if small)/Remove it without damaging it (if bigger)/Walk round it (if very big).

Using the Reward Register (along with some very complex logic paths) for every example of decision-making Robert has to make allows for Redundancy, Design simplicity, and Adaptability.  We can make Robert a decision-making machine on a par with a human being, and who’s to say that with this structured system in place, Robert won’t evolve Consciousness?  After all, current neuroscientific thinking is that Consciousness may well be an Emergent property of the Brain’s processes anyway.

So in fact while we’ve modelled an Artificial Intelligence in this way, who’s to say that the human mind doesn’t already work like this?

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Where does the word “TARDIS” come from?

According to the very first episode of Doctor Who (“An Unearthly Child”) Susan “made the name up” from the initials for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. So if this is the case, why do the Time Lords also call them this? When TARDISes were invented, what did the inhabitants of Gallifrey call them, and why don’t they still use that word?

This thorny piece of continuity has frustrated Doctor Who fandom for probably 30 years or more now, with varied opinions from “it doesn’t matter” to wild theories involving Susan having been born at the very dawn of Time Lord history and therefore being the original coiner of the word “TARDIS.”

Well I’m here to tell you that’s all rubbish, and there’s a far easier way to explain the whole thing.

Firstly, the clues are all there. Susan tells us she has made up the word from the initials. Initials of English words. "TARDIS" is an acronym of words in the English Language, and Susan is speaking English when she says it.

Think of the word “CERN”. This is a French acronym, created in the French language from the French words "Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire". Now this translates into English as “European Council for Nuclear Research”, so why don’t we refer to CERN as “ECNR”? That’s what the English acronym made up from the initials of the English words would be. We don’t. Instead we have added an acronym made up from words in another language into our language – English.

So let’s assume the Time Lords have a word in their own language for the device that we know as a TARDIS. It could come from an acronym of Gallifreyan words for Time and Space Travel, or it could be a word similar to our own “Television” (which comes from the Greek for “Far Sight”), but it is irrelevant where the word comes from. Whenever Time Lords get together and speak in their own Gallifreyan language, they use this word, and Susan (being Gallifreyan) knows it as well.

But when we meet Susan she is speaking English, which (like the Doctor) she has obviously learned on her travels. (Hang on...what about the TARDIS translation circuits, I hear you ask?  Sssh! I'll get to that later!) So what word do we hear when she talks about the Time/Space ship that she flies around in?

Well she can just say the Gallifreyan word. Or she can translate it into the English version of its derivation, in the same way as an alien might translate our word “Television” into his own language version of “Far Sight”.

Or she can make up her own word, in the same way as we could have referred to CERN as “ECNR”. Which is what she tells us she has done. “TARDIS” is an English acronym made up from English words that describe the function of the Time machine invented by her race.

Let’s take another example. In the film Avatar, the N’avi use the word “Toruk” to refer to the largest airborne predator on their world, and they further say that this means “last shadow”. They are of course speaking English at this point, so we can assume that if you wanted to say “last shadow” in N’avi you would use the word “toruk”.

English characters in the film also use this word to refer to the creature, but let’s imagine a N’avi child that lives among humans and speaks English fluently. She might one day decide that instead of using the N’avi language word for the beast, she would like to make up her own word. So she comes up with the acronym “SWITSAY”, which she says she has made up from the initials of “Scary Wings In The Sky Above You”.

From then onwards everyone uses the word “Switsay” when referring to the great winged terror, including the N’avi whenever we see them talking about it.

Why is this? Why aren’t they using the word “toruk” anymore? Well there are a couple of reasons for this. The first is down to what we refer to in drama as “translation convention”. When we see people on TV or film speak in a foreign language (e.g. Germans in WWII movies) they are portrayed as speaking in that language, but we hear them speak English (often in a cod accent). So when the N’avi or the Time Lords talk amongst themselves, in their own language, we hear them speaking in English.

Thus when we see Time Lords on Gallifrey talking about their Time Machines, the only time we would hear them use the Gallefreyan word for something is if there doesn’t exist an English word for it that the script-writer can use. We have already established that there does exist an English word for the Gallifreyan Time Machine – Susan has told us it. "TARDIS". We can therefore comfortably assume that when we see Time Lords talking in their own language, even though they will be using their own Gallifreyan word, we will hear “TARDIS” in English.

The second reason is unique to Doctor Who. When the Doctor visits Gallifrey (or a Time Lord visits the Doctor) we hear them speaking English, often with one of the Doctor’s human companions included in the conversation. Are we to assume that all Time Lords have an excellent command of spoken English? But if so, how do they all seem to know the English word “TARDIS”?

They don’t. One of the more convenient functions of the TARDIS is that it telepathically translates all languages instantaneously (the script-writers’ way of getting round the fact that all aliens seem to speak English, a problem solved in a similar fashion by Star Trek’s “Universal Translator”). So whenever a human companion has a conversation with a Gallifreyan, they are both speaking their own languages, but the TARDIS is translating for both of them. We as viewers therefore hear what the companion hears (a translation convention) and so hear the Time Lord speaking English. And naturally the TARDIS provides the English language word “TARDIS” whenever the Gallifreyan one is spoken.

So there you have it. Time Lords presumably have their own word for “TARDIS” (one that existed since TARDISes were created and long before Susan was born), and this is the word they always use. However when we hear their speech translated into English, the word we hear is the English word that Susan made up.


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

So Who's "Your" Doctor Who?

I've always been intrigued by the "My Doctor" effect, which is that depending on your age you tend to have a particular Doctor who you regard as "yours".  Although it does depend on when in the year you were born, and when you started watching the programme, I think it can roughly be equated to the Doctor you saw the most of between the ages of 6 and 10.

For example, if you were 6 in 1970, Jon Pertwee would be "your" Doctor, since Tom Baker didn't arrive until 4 years later.  However if you were 6 in 1973 you would have had 2 years of Pertwee, followed by the next 3 of Baker.  Your Doctor would therefore be the 4th.

in my case (I was born in 1961) "my" Doctor would be expected to be Patrick Troughton, except we didn't get a TV until 1968 so I only saw two Troughton seasons, and since I was still watching Doctor Who at age 15 (but only just) Jon Pertwee is my Doctor.

I've even done a spreadsheet, and here are my findings.

  • If you were born between 1957 & 1958 (and assuming you began watching Doctor Who at roughly age six), your Doctor should be the 1st Doctor;
  • Between 1959 and 1961 it's the 2nd Doctor;
  • 3rd Doctor, 1962 to 1966;
  • 4th Doctor, 1967 to 1974;
  • 5th Doctor, 1975-77;
  • 6th Doctor, 1978-79;
  • 7th Doctor, 80-83;

The New Series revival in 2005 should be no different, with the exception that although the 9th Doctor might have been "your" Doctor when he was on, because it was only for a year he was quickly overshadowed by the 10th.
  • 10th Doctor 1997-99;
  • 11th Doctor 2000-2003 (although she remembers the 10th, the 11th is Amy's Doctor);
  • 12th Doctor 2004 onwards;

There is a similar correlation with "Cyberman Scariness".  Fans always argue about when the Cybermen were at their best.  I tend to think late '60s (when I was 7 or 8), and was quite disappointed by "Revenge of the Cybermen" in 1975 (when I was 14). Fans born between 1969 and about 1974 however, think "Revenge" was the scariest thing on TV at the time.  While those born after about 1975 think that "Earthshock" and "Silver Nemesis" are the absolute zenith of the Cybermen.

Of course anyone born prior to 1960 tends to think they were at their best in "The Tenth Planet" and it's been steadily downhill ever since.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Updating Firefox and Flash Plugin manually on Mandriva Linux


I am running Mandriva Linux x64 2011.0 with an LXDE desktop.  I run Firefox from an icon on the desktop that points to /usr/lib64/firefox/firefox.  Even though technically Mandriva uses RPMs, I prefer to update manually. This is the procedure I use:

  1. Firstly go here for the latest releases:
  2. Go to the folder for the next stable release.  For example at the time of writing that is 41.0.1.
  3. Locate the linux-x86_64 folder
  4. Locate the en-GB folder
  5. Download firefox-41.0.1.tar.bz2 to a convenient folder (I use ~/Downloads)
  6. Extract the archive to /Downloads/firefox
  7. Open root terminal and run command “nautilus” to get a gui
  8. Go to /usr/lib64 and rename folder  /firefox to previous version (e.g. /firefox 39.0)
  9. Copy /Downloads/firefox to /usr/lib64
  10. Firefox icon on desktop will now start v 41.0.1

Flash Plugin

Note: Firefox uses the symlink “” within /usr/lib64/Mozilla/plugins.  This points to the folder /usr/lib64/flash-plugin. This is the one you want to update. Do not copy to the Mozilla folder!

  1. Go to to check your current version
  2. Go to
  3. Go to “Your System: Linux 64-bit, English, Firefox
  4. From “select version to download…” drop-down box select “.tar.gz for other Linux
  5. Click “Download Now
  6. Save “install_Flash_player_11_linux.x86_64.tar.gz” to convenient directory (e.g. ~/Downloads), overwriting any copies of the file from previous downloads
  7. Extract “” from this archive to ~/Downloads
  8. Close firefox
  9. Open root terminal and run command “nautilus” to get a gui
  10. Go to /usr/lib64/flash-plugin
  11. Copy to /usr/lib64/flash-plugin, overwriting previous version (or rename previous version if you want a backup)
  12. Open firefox and go to to check latest version now installed