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2014-12-28 (Sun) 13:26 - December days: Astronomy lectures
shamrock
ghoti asked me to write about the public open evenings at Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, which Judith and I have been going to since last year; they run during the winter in order that it's possible to observe the night sky without having to run ridiculously late.

Judith has been getting a lot out of these and particularly enjoys getting a chance to look through the big telescopes (one of which almost discovered Neptune - the then director of the Cambridge Observatory had observed Neptune prior to its actual discovery from the Berlin Observatory, but lacked an up-to-date star map and so didn't recognise it as a planet). The talks beforehand are generally well worth the time: recent ones have included an update on the Rosetta mission, an outline of dark matter and dark energy, and a talk on the large-scale effects of black holes. More often than not, cloud cover is such that we don't in fact get a chance to observe, so they put on extra talks instead from the Cambridge Astronomical Association (an amateur group); these are a bit more variable, some quite silly but for instance we've had CAA talks on volcanic activity on other bodies in the solar system (e.g. Enceladus) and on heavy water's origin in big bang nucleogenesis and the attempts to determine whether Earth's water originates from comets or asteroids.

A good part of the talks still go over Judith's head to some extent, since they aren't explicitly aimed at children. So, for instance, I found the recent talk on black holes to be fascinating: UCLA are doing amazing things using adaptive optics to observe our galactic centre, and apparently there's a correlation between some properties of galactic bulges and the masses of the black holes at their centres which suggests that the mass of the central black hole may limit the size of the galaxy; but I don't think Judith followed very much of it despite listening patiently. On the other hand, she came away from the "What is a (modern) astronomer?" talk and, unprompted, told ghoti about the astronomer who was sitting under an apple tree when he realised that the moon was always falling but always fell past the earth (a much more useful version of the story of the discovery of gravity than you usually hear, I think!). So I definitely think it's worth taking her and I'll continue to do so as long as it's practical.

ghoti got me a lovely lovely telescope for Christmas, so with any luck we'll be able to get some decent observation done at home too. I've been getting a little better at recognising features of at least the winter night sky, and it's a lot more interesting with a telescope.

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-27 (Sat) 13:24 - December days: P vs. NP
shamrock
On our date a couple of weeks ago, I found myself explaining to ghoti the basics of why P vs. NP is an interesting question. (Clearly, we have the best romantic conversations.) I'd like to explain this at a bit more length and to more people. You'll have to care at least a little bit about maths to find this interesting, but I hope I've managed to explain it clearly enough that it doesn't require any specialist knowledge. Note that I'm not actually a complexity researcher, just an interested person with some relevant background.

the essence of hard problemsCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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shamrock
As a follow-up to my post about my personal history of programming languages, cartesiandaemon asked me to expand on "which language(s) do you use most now (C and Python?) and what improvements would you like to see in them?"

from __future__ import deloreanCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me! This entry was originally posted at http://cjwatson.dreamwidth.org/15047.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
2014-12-25 (Thu) 12:15 - December days: Merry Christmas!
shamrock
I didn't actually expect to manage a proper December-days post today, so didn't schedule any prompts there. Last night we went to Midnight Mass; J was a bit overwhelmed by the volume during the carol service but otherwise it went well, and my "Creator alme siderum" solo after communion was well-received. (Best compliment: a choirmistress telling you that your diction was excellent and they could hear all the words.)

So far today we have risen late, opened stockings, and are now waiting for Jon to arrive before we start on opening big presents.

I hope you all have a lovely and relaxing day.

Nollaig shona daoibh / Frohe Weihnachten / Joyeux Noël!

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-24 (Wed) 11:25 - December days: Favourite carol
shamrock
For Christmas Eve, ghoti asked me to talk about my favourite carol.

Noël, NoëlCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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shamrock
I'm catching up on these postings a bit today after a lovely but busy couple of days, including going with ghoti to help to celebrate Chanukah over at [personal profile] liv's yesterday, lighting candles, acting out the story with [personal profile] jack and the children wearing home-made crowns and wielding plastic swords, eating doughnuts and latkes, and playing board games (which I don't think is quite required by the celebration but is clearly always a good idea anyway). Today so far I've mostly been clearing up at least a corner of our messy living room in an attempt to clear enough space to put up the tree; this is late for us, as my family tradition was always Second Sunday of Advent and we've normally roughly gone with that, but I don't actually think it truly matters overly much as long as it's up by the time Christmas itself starts.

It is indeed not always quite the most important thing to keep up with these memes, as a friend wisely observed to me yesterday; all the same, I'm quite prone to forgetting about this kind of thing if I'm not reasonably disciplined about it, so I'm spending a bit of time today getting back into sync. The Christmas season is coming up, but I do have a couple of those posts wholly or partially banked, so hopefully I'll still manage to keep up.

At any rate, badriya asked me about the experience of being an "incoming parent", coming into a child's life through a relationship with a parent. Thanks for this - it's a really good prompt!

stepdadCollapse )

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2014-12-22 (Mon) 13:41 - December days: Changing assumptions
shamrock
[personal profile] jack borrowed a prompt from elsewhere and asked me: "If you could change one assumption that people you encounter frequently make, what would you change?"

I find this a pretty difficult prompt, because for the most part either people tend to peg me pretty much correctly, or it's not something I mind. (Sometimes people assume that I'm broadly atheist/agnostic, but it doesn't come up that often, and to be honest I tend to feel that there are so many baseline culturally-Christian assumptions in our society that I find it hard to get too worked up about this.) By being straight, white, male, middle-class, cis, and so on I hit a lot of the defaults. Occasionally people mishear my accent as Scottish, but this hardly seems like something worth spending a valuable wish on correcting.

The best thing I can think of would be for people to understand introversion/extroversion better. A while back I ran across the "recharging" model, and have been finding it very helpful not only for understanding my own behaviour but for improving my model of other people's. Roughly, the idea here is that introverts sometimes need to spend time alone to recharge from social interaction, while extroverts sometimes need social interaction to recharge from time spent alone. In this sense I'm primarily an introvert: I sometimes need to go off and (metaphorically or literally) curl up with a book by myself in order to recharge my batteries. This doesn't mean I don't like or indeed love the people I'm not spending time with at that point, just that I need other things too. But a friend of mine described me (and himself to a lesser extent) as a "well-trained introvert": unlike the stereotype, I don't necessarily need to hide off in the corner in social situations, even though I might never be the life and soul of the party as such. I just need to have time to go and recharge afterwards.

It's not all a one-way street, though, because I wouldn't in fact really be happy if you put me in a log cabin with my family, a decent library, and an internet connection for the rest of my life; it would be just fine for a while but I do sometimes find that I get lonely (a thing that is mostly new since I started working from home, since now I don't generally have casual contact with other humans throughout the day other than my family) and need to chat to friends. Of course this isn't at all that I don't like and love my family, just that there are other people I also like and want to spend time with sometimes!

This has turned into more of a care-and-feeding-of-the-lesser-spotted-[personal profile] cjwatson than quite an answer to [personal profile] jack's original prompt as such, but hopefully it's helpful anyway. And I'm not at all sure I have this all figured out for myself either; it's something I've been thinking about recently.

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
This entry was originally posted at http://cjwatson.dreamwidth.org/14027.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
shamrock
As a follow-up to my post about programming languages, [personal profile] liv asked me: "can you talk about whether you're planning to teach your children programming, and if so how?"

I'd very much like to teach my children programming, yes, for a variety of reasons. One is that it's a thing I'm personally enthusiastic about that I want to share with them. Another is that it's an increasingly useful secondary skill in all kinds of other academic disciplines, whether that's for data analysis or driving complex machinery or whatever, and I'd like them to have that be accessible to them if at all possible. And of course I think it's a worthwhile skill in its own right, as computers become more and more a part of everyday life.

On the other hand, I don't want to teach them just single bespoke skills, such as just one programming language: what I really want to impart is the mental discipline of ordering your thoughts in order to instruct a computer accurately in how to do them, which I think is an aptitude that transfers itself well to all kinds of other things, even though doing that clearly involves learning the nuts and bolts of programming (preferably in more than one languages) and especially for children it needs to involve having fun along the way. There's no point trying to teach programming to children if they find it boring, or if it's too early in their development. (I tried to teach B how to program some years ago, but honestly I hadn't prepared well enough, it fell rather flat, and by the time we revisited it he wasn't really interested, so I definitely want to prepare better this time round.)

ghoti has been planning to start with a plan she'd previously started on while TAing at primary level, namely to start with Scratch (hmm, appropriately the top featured project there is currently a dreidel game) and move on to Rhodri James's Python course. I've generally been of the opinion that it will work better if we wait until J's reading is a fair bit more fluent, and so to be honest I hadn't yet thought much about the details yet; Scratch is more visual than a lot of languages but it still has a very significant textual component.

I think this is still an area where I very much don't think I have the answers and am listening for suggestions. My criteria are that I want them to be able to progress quickly to doing things that will interest them, I don't want them to get bogged down in syntactic vinegar, but I also want them to be using (if not necessarily as the very first step) a language that isn't a toy and that they can write real non-trivial programs in, and preferably one that won't get them stuck in particularly bad habits. Python seems like a pretty good thing to aim for with the support of some decent code libraries and teaching materials, so ghoti's plan generally seems sound here, but I sort of feel the need to work through it ourselves first to make sure we aren't caught by surprise along the way.

Does anyone else reading this have experience with teaching children (other than themselves!) to program? I'd be interested in hearing about what you did.

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
This entry was originally posted at http://cjwatson.dreamwidth.org/13584.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
2014-12-20 (Sat) 13:22 - December days: Holidays
shamrock
ghoti asked me: "if you had total free choice, money/time no object for a holiday, where would you go and what would you do?"

we're all going on a summer holidayCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-19 (Fri) 19:50 - December days: Languages
shamrock
[personal profile] angelofthenorth asked me to write about languages. I've already written about programming languages this month, so while I do believe that natural languages and programming languages have important common properties and that it's worthwhile for PL designers to think about concepts from natural linguistics, I'll stick to natural languages here.

tá m'árthach foluaineach lán d'eascannCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-18 (Thu) 13:55 - December days: Trouts
shamrock
I've had several days of prompts that involved really quite complex and thoughtful answers, so it's helpful that today I have a completely frivolous one: [personal profile] emperor said "I think you should write about trouts". Given the unusual plural, and the fact that I don't really know much about the fish beyond that they're tasty with butter and samphire, I'm going to assume that he in fact meant the silly IRC kind.

chatbotsCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-17 (Wed) 17:52 - December days: Music
shamrock
pentamer asked me to write about music. I briefly covered this in my post on art earlier in the month, but let's expand on that a bit.

do re miCollapse )

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2014-12-16 (Tue) 14:45 - December days: Filioque
shamrock
ghoti prompted me with "Filioque. Go!", because clearly my darling wife wants to give me nice easy prompts that don't require much research or thought, or for that matter that don't cause me to play the priest-on-Trinity-Sunday game of "let's see how long I can talk for before accidentally committing heresy".

so, there was this Cerularius, right, and he spilled our Humbert's pintCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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shamrock
[personal profile] liv asked me for "something that you've learned or discovered about yourself that surprised you", which is quite a tricky one and it looks as though I'm going to answer it at a bit of a tangent.

hmmCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-14 (Sun) 20:20 - December days: Good films/books
shamrock
sphyg asked me to write about good films/books.

Read more...Collapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-13 (Sat) 15:04 - December days: Programming languages
shamrock
ewx prompted me to write about programming languages, and said "be as specific or general as feels appropriate".

clicky clickyCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-12 (Fri) 14:54 - December days: Parenting tips
shamrock
sphyg asked me for parenting tips. Um, in general I'm not very confident in my abilities as a parent so take all this with a very large pinch of salt to the effect that I don't always do this stuff very well!

remembering how to keep tiny people aliveCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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2014-12-11 (Thu) 18:03 - PSA: Mobile phone repairs
shamrock
A while back I asked around for recommendations for mobile phone repair shops in Cambridge who could fix a cracked screen on ghoti's Nexus 4. At the time we didn't really get many good recommendations; we'd already tried Cambridge Laptop Repair on Arbury Road and been dissatisfied for various reasons; so I went into town on my day off on Monday and had a look around. Carphone Warehouse would have had to send it off somewhere else and quoted 14 days, but when I asked them for recommendations they said that Timpson on Petty Cury have started doing mobile phone repairs. I went there, they seemed helpful and competent, managed to get in touch with their supplies department to ensure they had the part despite it being just before 5pm, and we got it back today apparently now working fine. Not perhaps the cheapest possible (£140), but I'll take that for getting it done reasonably quickly and well. This entry was originally posted at http://cjwatson.dreamwidth.org/11237.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
2014-12-11 (Thu) 16:57 - December days: Food
shamrock
[personal profile] jack asked me to write about food.

yum yumCollapse )

This post is part of my December days series. Please prompt me!
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shamrock
Children's literature and television is distressingly full of kings and queens and princesses and princes, and Judith (6) has picked up rather too much of that for my liking. So, when she asked me something about that on the way home from astronomy tonight, I decided to seize the teachable moment and explain to her how most countries don't have kings and queens any more, and that this is because when you have just one person in charge then what happens if that person isn't very nice?

J: But the Queen is nice. She fixes cars.
Me: Right, but not all kings and queens of this country have been nice.
J (incredulous voice): Reeeeeally?
Me: Really.
J: Some of them didn't fix cars?
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