Category Archives: off topic

Why statues weep

I have written articles for a range of different magazines and periodicals over the years. Many of the articles were related to software, but by no means all. A long-forgotten article I wrote for UK-based The Skeptic magazine some time back in the 1990s recently resurfaced when I was asked for permission to include it in a ‘best of’ compilation of 21 years of the magazine. Sucker that I am for seeing my name in print, I jumped at the chance.

The article ‘Myths of Secret Powers’ combines my long term interests in martial arts and skepticism and discusses whether the martial arts are able to unlock mystical secret powers unknown to western science  (executive summary: no). I am flattered that my name appears in print alongside many of the great and good in the skeptical movement, including: Richard  Wiseman; Susan Blackmore; Chris French; Ray Hyman and interviews with magician Paul Daniels and writer, broadcaster and ‘national treasure’ Stephen Fry. Other articles in the book cover a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Cryptozoology.
  • False memories.
  • The predictions of Nostradamus.
  • the Turin Shroud.
  • Alien abductions.
  • Alternative medicine.

There is much to interest anyone who thinks there is merit in taking a rational, evidence-based approach to understanding the world we live in. It is certainly a refreshing tonic to the tidal wave of woolly thinking foisted on us by a credulous and lazy media.

You can purchase the book from Philosphy Press or through Amazon.

Surely no amount of execution can save this idea?

Things have been a quiet here as I have been on holiday in New Zealand for the last 5 weeks. I tell you this not merely to gloat (it was lovely, by the way) but to explain how we happened to be in Hong Kong overnight looking for somewhere to eat, when my wife spotted the ad below.

That’s right. A toilet themed restaurant where “Food is served in mini toilet bowls” and the dessert looks like a, well, see for yourself. The ad was in a tourist brochure and they have a website, so it appears to really exist.

I was curious about what the real toilets in this restaurant look like. Not curious enough to eat out of a toilet bowl to find out though.

How to build an igloo

We have had loads of snow here in the UK. Loads by UK standards anyway (I don’t think a Scandinavian would be very impressed). So I decided to take full advantage of the flexibility my job allows and build an igloo. It was my second attempt and it turned out much better than rather wonky one I did a few days ago. This post is a quick overview of the modest amount I have learnt about igloo building, in case you are inspired to build your own.

how to build an igloo

First of all, building materials. The snow needs to be the sort you can squash together to make a snowball. If it is too powdery to stick together, forget it – you won’t be able to make a worthwhile igloo. Try again tomorrow.

Next you need to mark a circular base for your igloo. If you don’t then it is hard to get a decent overall shape. Two twigs and a bit a string is all you need to draw a circular outline. Don’t be too ambitous though, it takes a surpising amount of snow to build an igloo and the amount goes up fast as you increase the diameter. 1.5 to 2 metres diameter is plenty for a first attempt.

Then you need to have a bucket-shaped receptacles in a range of sizes. I used a household bucket as the largest, 2 different sizes of flower pot and a child’s bucket as the smallest. Start with the largest receptacle. Use it as a mould to create ‘snow bricks’. Pack the snow into the mould tightly to make strong bricks. Lay a circle of these bricks as close together as possible, leaving a gap for the door. Then place the next layer of  bricks on top, interleaving them like standard brickwork. Pack the gaps between the bricks with loose snow like mortar in brickwork.

Every few layers you need to swap to a smaller mould. Each layer needs to curve inward a bit more than the previous one to form the dome. It is quite surprising how easy it is to build an arch out of snow. It is stronger and stickier than you might think.

It took 3 adults a couple of hours to complete the igloo. I don’t think the Inuit will be offering us a job anytime soon, but it was very satisfying. Considerably more satisfying than the several hours I spent this morning failing to work out how to get rid of a maximise icon in Mac OS X.

A YouTube video of a similar approach using stacking boxes

Brain teaser

Amongst my Christmas presents was a book, “Einstein’s riddle, paradoxes, puzzles and conundrums” by Jeremy Stangroom. One of the first puzzles in the book is this logic problem, attributed (almost certainly incorrectly) to a young Einstein:

There are 5 houses painted in 5 different colours. A person with a different nationality lives in each house. The 5 owners each drink a certain type of beverage, play a certain sport and keep a certain pet. No owners have the same pet, play the same sport or drink the same beverage.

  1. The Briton lives in the red house.
  2. The Swede keeps dogs as pets.
  3. The Dane drinks tea.
  4. The green house is immediately[1] on the left of the white house.
  5. The owner of the green house drinks coffee.
  6. The person who plays football rears birds.
  7. The owner of the yellow house plays baseball.
  8. The man living in the centre house drinks milk.
  9. The Norwegian lives in the first house.
  10. The man who plays volleyball lives next to the one who keeps cats.
  11. The man who keeps the horse lives next to the man who plays baseball.
  12. The owner who plays tennis drinks beer.
  13. The German plays hockey.
  14. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
  15. The man who plays volleyball has a neighbour who drinks water.

Who owns the fish?

Whatever its origins, it is a cracking puzzle. It took me the best part of an hour to solve it. If your brain is under-stimulated from Christmas TV but you are forbidden from programming, I recommend you give it a go. The answer is here (no peeking!).

Normal service will be resumed on this blog soon.

[1] See Atul’s comment below.

Free computer wallpaper

I got bored of looking at the standard Windows and Mac desktop wallpaper, so I decided to re-purpose some of the photographs I have taken on my travels. I have created standard and widescreen versions. They should be high enough resolution even for most developers’ monitors. Happy Christmas.


You can freely use these images as wallpaper on your computer. However they may not be modified, used for any other purpose or distributed (except via without my explicit written permission. I retain the copyright and all other rights to these images.


Left click on a thumbnail of the appropriate size/aspect-ratio for your monitor.

Right click on the full-size image and select:

  • FireFox: Set as desktop background
  • Internet Explorer: Set as background
  • Safari: Use image as desktop picture

1920 x 1200 wallpaper

These images are suitable for wide screen monitors (aspect ratio 8:5) including:

  • 1920 x 1200
  • 1680 x 1050
  • 1440 x 900
  • 1280 x 800

Stirling Falls, New Zealand.

Window reflection.

Peak 43, Nepal.

Palm, Queensland, Australia.

Lenticular clouds near Mount Sefton, New Zealand.

Kalahari sand at sunset, Namibia.

Heron Island, Queensland, Australia.

Waves, Hawaii.

A MiG-29 Fulcrum performing the 'cobra' manoeuvre.

Dead Vlei, Namibia.

Dead Vlei, Namibia.

Boyd Falls, New Zealand.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Aquarium, Plymouth, UK.

1600 x 1200 wallpaper

These images are suitable for standard monitors (aspect ratio 4:3) including:

  • 1600 x 1200
  • 1152 x 864
  • 1024 x 768
  • 800 x 600

Stirling Falls, New Zealand.

Window reflection.

Peak 43, Nepal.

Palm, Queensland, Australia.

Lenticular clouds near Mount Sefton, New Zealand.

Kalahari sand at sunset, Namibia

An MiG-29 Fulcrum performing the 'cobra' manoeuvre.

Boyd Falls, New Zealand.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Aquarium, Plymouth, UK.


Creating wallpaper wasn’t as easy as I thought (nothing ever is). You need images that are in landscape format, are not too saturated, contrasty or busy and are cropped and resized to exactly the right width and height. Thankfully I had some tools to help – I used PicCrop to do the cropping, BatchPhoto for batch creation of the thumbnail images, Xplorer2 for batch file renaming and Photoshop Elements for everything else. Some of the images are only available in wide screen format as they didn’t work as well in a 4:3 format.

All the photographs were taken by me with a Minolta Dynax 7D digital camera or scanned from slides taken by me with a Minolta Dynax 700si. Goodbye Minolta cameras, I miss you.