Thursday, 28 January 2010

Game Changer? Really? Come on!

Yes, it's the iPad. It does look sort of nice. I'll give you that. It's just about the right size, offers just about the right storage. It certainly offers pretty much all connectivity options you may want (but no mouse!). Oh, and it is very pricey. But game changing? Give me a break!

It offers nothing really new. Wait. Let me rephrase that. It offers nothing new. At all. Nada. Zilch. Operating system - essentially an
iPhone or iPod Touch, and that also means no multitasking. Form factor - already available from others, and anyway an idea that no other than Apple themselves pioneered (sans St Steve even). Application and book stores - been there, done that.

See? Absolutely nothing new. But I'll give you this does not necessarily mean it's not a game changer. Is it then? Is it really?

I don't think so, and here's why...

The game has changed already. We are already in a world where a device just like iPad is inevitable. To be a game changer iPad would have to make everyone sit up and say: Ah! What a great idea! Why nobody thought of it before? But in iPad's case they have, and it's been done, too. Yes, it may not have been done so well in terms of design or integration into already successful ecosystem (
iTunes, I'm looking at you). But that's not game changing. That's leveraging success, fanatical user base, and the best design department tech world has ever seen.

I'm not even sure that many people need one, really. Especially with that price tag. Reading a newspaper on the sofa? Not one that weighs 700 grams and can't be allowed do slip down on the floor when you doze off (it cost you a fortune!). Reading a book? Yes, we're used to books being weightier. We may also be more engrossed, and the bed is a much safer environment for dropping stuff. Listen to the music on an iPad? Not me. Not with a cable sticking out of the top, distractingly (note to Apple: pocket devices - earphones on top, handhelds - bottom; now repeat after me...).

Oh, and as a handheld text entry device (you do want to reply to your e-mails, don't you?) it is likely not that good. On-screen keyboard is nice and large, but you only have one hand to peck at it. Unless you put your iPad down somewhere, and for that you have to be sitting down (I also wonder if it will rock on that rounded back when you hit the keys on the side). On a smaller handheld you can at least use a thumb of the holding hand, and keys are closer. I think iPad will be quite useless for text entry if not docked (that' more dosh, thank you very much).

Which brings us nicely to the issue of one-handed use. Even if most publicity photos show iPad being held in one hand, try holding a 700 gram slate in one hand for a while. You'd either have to swap hands, or try and support it from the bottom. Lying down or slouching you can rest it on you chest or lap. But there's that 700 grams weighing into you again. A portable, handheld media consumption device has to be comfortable to use being held in one hand for prolonged periods. If it also invites you to type in something every now and then, that has to be comfortable, too. I don't think iPad gives you that.

Another thing iPad does not give you is battery life. Ten hours of average use. Not good enough. I don't care about stand-by time (apparently three weeks - so what). I want tit to last through a day's travelling without letting out a ghost. And I don't even mean long haul. Just a bog standard 2-3 hour flight. Which includes an hour's drive to the airport, at least two hours for check-in and security, the flight itself, waiting for luggage, passport control, and an hour's drive to your destination. Easily 10 hours London to Stockholm, say. And that's without any delays. Now think London-Auckland. And you can't swap the battery either! Come on! Essentially, iPad is a home device (would you brandish such an expensive and desirable piece of kit ion the Tube?). And as such you probably don't need it.

Can it be fixed? Sure. Make the battery replaceable
and make it last at least a full day (that's 24 hours). Make it lighter, well below 450 grams. Make it multitaks. Do something about text entry (hey, I'm not a design guru!). Make it much cheaper. Move the headphones jack to the bottom. That should just about do it. In the meantime, don't give me that "game changing" schtick. Really. Just don't.

No, I'm not getting one, but yes, eventually, I will be getting one - like that. It most likely will not be made by Apple.

Typed on my
Nokia N900 whilst commuting to work, 25 minutes on the train, 15 minutes on a bus, while chatting, e-mailing, and listening to music. In a word, multitasking. That's doing more than one thing without the need to close one to be able to use the other. Oh, and I used real keyboard, too.

Oh, I know N900 is not competing with an iPad, but for me it does everything iPad can (including reading books), but it's pocketable, can be used with just one hand, battery lasts at least as long and is replaceable.

Did I mention it's also a phone?

Friday, 22 January 2010

What The Teachers Are For?

In the ever increasing tendency to shove UK towards a litigious, claim happy, someone always have to take the blame society (not unlike US really - not a good thing). To wit, the teacher's union will advise its members not to try to step into playground fights between the students. I wonder, who is then going to be responsible for stopping such fights? The police? Or maybe we can let the pupils fight it out until the bitter end. Fingers crossed it doesn't end in tears like this. Admittedly this didn't happen in the school-yard, but with nobody to stop it, what's the difference?

Also, a question begs: what is the role of teachers in this day and age?

Judging by this kind of (over)reaction, it seems that they'll be happiest if they could teach remotely, or maybe behind a bullet-proof glass? And who is responsible for maintaining order on a day to day basis within school premises? And those must certainly include playgrounds. Oh, maybe we should start employing private security contractors. It'll certainly help the unemployment figures.

This direction surely is wrong!

Oh, and don't even start me on that teacher who wanted monetary compensation for being hurt a bit by a pupil with special needs. With special needs, for crying out loud! Surely that kid cannot be held fully responsible? Surely, teachers in such schools should expect that their work, as well as their charges, is going to be a bit more difficult than elsewhere? Surely being a teacher is more a vocation than just another job? If for a person it isn't they probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

I've no more time to bang on about this, but you catch my drift. let's try and be sensible and sensitive enough about these things. It's much easier than it sounds, and much more worth than any monetary compensation ever will be, especially the meagre one of £2500.

Wings Of Desire

Surely you know the film? If your native language isn't English you may also know it as Der Himmel über Berlin. And no, it has nothing to do with whatever you thought of when you saw the photo to the left here.

I've been watching it (yet again) this morning (and will continue later today - it's amazing how well it suits the commute). It is, without a shred of a doubt the best film I have ever seen in my life. Yet. I keep an open mind, but they keep not coming. Better films, I mean.

So what's the reason for this post then?

It most certainly isn't going to tell you (a lot) about the film. That you have to find out for yourself. Go and see it. Seriously. You should.

And neither is it going to tell you an interesting story about one of the buildings (or its architect) used in the making of the film. I will, however, show you a photo of it, taken by Jan Suchý, of Prague. For the original, look here, and for the "monochrome" mess I made of it, here, just to the right. It will give you a much better idea about the film, trust me.

The actual reason for this post, then, is how a translation of a title can help or hinder a work of art like this one. Luckily, some art forms do not require this step, but film, drama, and literature do, and it is a very dangerous ground to thread on. Here again, drama and literature (at least the "artistic" one) benefit from their relative scarcity, as well as smaller, but choosier, audiences. Therefore, much more care and time goes into getting the translations right. Sadly, the film industry is so huge, and so commercialised, that things, like artistic verity and impact, often fall by the wayside.

Honestly, isn't the latter more likely to evoke images like the one at the top of this post? If it is, and I am quite sure it is, then you get a doubly negative effect. The people who would probably enjoy the film don't go to see it as it doesn't sound artistic enough (luckily, in this group there'll be lots of people who'll research a bit beyond the title, provided they have time for it). On the other hand, the people who most certainly would hate the film may well be tempted (especially since they are much less likely to research it), will go to see it, will come out seriously dissatisfied, then start spreading the rumours about how bad it was. Given enough those, and not enough thought on the part of the first group, this may disincline them further. The net effect is that the film fails at the box office, leading to much smaller likelihood such a film will be funded again. Everybody loses.

Now go and watch the film (warning: if you thought The Devil Wears Prada was great - don't, you'll be seriously disappointed). Having seen it, doesn't even my poor literal translation "The Sky Over Berlin" sound much better than "Wings Of Desire"? And I spent the total of five seconds coming up with it. I'm sure someone who does this for a living - in theatre, not Hollywood - would do so much better, and in turn make the world a better place?

Before I go, I have decided to give you a few clues about the film, after all. You'll still be none the wiser about it without seeing it, but it may just help in enjoying it, especially if you are young(ish).

I first saw the film as soon as it came out, in 1987. I was twenty then. I loved it. A lot. There was so much I could relate to in it. Then I saw it again about five years later. I loved it even more. There was much more I could relate to in it, too. And the thing is, the new stuff built up on the old. And it happened every time I saw it since (as you know, the most recent time being this very morning). If I ever get a clue as to when I am going to die, I think I'll try and arrange to see it as one of the last things I do. I think then I will be able to relate to all two hours of it. Even if there are no gods, angels, devils, heaven, hell, and all that malarkey.

So what are you waiting for?! Rent it out tonight. Even better, buy it! It's old, so it's cheap. Maybe you can even have it tomorrow morning if you hurry up. Both the DVD and the Blue-ray are dirt cheap, and you'll need to have it with you when your time comes...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


Today US Democrats lost "the Kennedy" seat in Massachusetts. Most, if not all, media took this as a huge sign of Obama presidency weakness. While it does show that there may be some (significant) backlash against Obama's presidency, I do not believe that the loss can be explained, or even attributed, only, or even just mostly, by that.

Why is that?

Well, if you know your (American) history, you'll surely realise that the Kennedy name most certainly bears much more weight than just another Democrat controlled Senate seat. It takes much more to defeat a Kennedy than any other Democrat you care to think of. And not just that. Whichever Democrat successor comes along will have a much higher mountain to climb than any challenging Republican. It is not easy to fill a Kennedy shoe, let alone shoes.

So, while Obama must certainly take notice of what happened in Massachusetts, there's at the same time more and less to it than most analysts ("analysts"?) would have you believe. Just give it a minutes honest thought, and you'll see what I mean.

Go on! Do it. Now...

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

20 Years!

And now one post that most certainly isn't grey! it should have really been posted yesterday, but I was in two minds about it. Still, as they say around here: better late than never!

So, what's all the fuss about then?

See, yesterday marked exactly 20 years since my lovely wife and myself got together! The most important date in our relationship, overshadowing the day we moved in together (2 April 1995), and even the day we got married (4 April 1998). In fact, unlike most couples we know, we've also been marking this day on a monthly basis ever since, even if only to acknowledge its passing. Counting back (or multiplying, to be exact, and on a calculator, just to make sure) it amounts to a massive 240 months! Go figure.

I even still remember what we did that night (of course I do!). We went to the cinema, and saw (most of) "When Harry met Sally". No, the subject matter did not have an effect, and no, neither chose this particular flick on purpose (I know I didn't, Jelena never claimed she did). It was simply coincidental. Not to mention that neither had e-mail then (something I rectified the very next year). What I think both had in mind that evening was that that was the night we got together. Later, much later, Jelena started adding "or not at all" to the previous sentence as a premeditated intention of hers. It certainly wasn't mine. Not that I would have tried again if that first open advance didn't work. But then, who knows...

Anyway, that was then, two decades ago, in the ancient year of 1990. In the meantime, we had quite a full and eventful life, not all of it planned, and a lot of it not really under our control. Let me try to list, in rough order of appearance, the major things we battled through together:

First and foremost, and intermingled with a few items below, was the long and sometimes arduous journey to our BScs in Electrical and Electronics engineering (these were recently upgraded to MScs, acknowledging the length and breadth of the courses we took). During this we also witnessed, and sometimes took part in various, and almost always hideous political events that shook former Yugoslavia. Some are: Milošević power grab, various civil wars around us, NATO bombing, various elections and street protests. Each and every one of those, as well as many others, each probably deserve a post, if not a book, of their own. Then, just as we graduated and started working, Milošević finally fell, and a breath of fresh air could be felt. That seemed to be a good time to up the stick, and in 2001 we ended up in United Kingdom, me with a job, and Jelena with a fear of not being able to find one. Of course, the fear proved baseless, and soon both our careers took off quite nicely, mine mostly within the same company, Jelena's more varied, and more stressful at times. Through all this we moved houses, bought houses, and will likely soon also sell one. Also something I think is very important and a great achievement: Jelena achieved a status of a Chartered Engineer. Jelena seems to not think too much of the title, but she's wrong. Oh, and another thing we value differently: we are now both British citizens (as well), something I am proud of, but Jelena mostly sees as a convenience (even if I'm sure that deep inside she must be at least a little bit proud, too - after all, she did shed quite a few tears at the ceremony). If this lot doesn't sound like much for the 20 years behind us then you've lived a sheltered life (or I failed to include some other important events - e.g. we went to Iceland for our 10th wedding anniversary... but I jest you).

What of the next 20 years, and the 20 after those? I don't know. You tell me. I intend to take them one day at a time, just as I did the previous 20.

And what of the secret of sticking with each other for two decades? Well, I think I already told you: take things a day at a time. But I feel generous, so here's a few more tips: never sleep on an argument, do not fall into a trap of spending every available second together, be supportive even if you don't agree with other's plans (as long as you don't think they're positively dangerous), have at least some interests that are yours alone, treat other's friends and family as if they're your own. I think that's enough. If I gave you more I'd have to charge you for it.

My last words here: happy anniversary to us!

Monday, 18 January 2010

No To Tax Breaks For Married Couples

Full disclosure: I am married, and would hence benefit from any such tax breaks.

So, why do I oppose such tax breaks, just like some other commentators? After all I would be quids in if any government decided to introduce tax relief for married couples. Furthermore, having no children (at least not yet), I'd be doubly rewarded, as I could spend all the money thus gained on my good self (a new boy's toy, anyone?).

This is, when you boil it down to its very essence, because I firmly in a few things: that all people should be treated equally (no caveats!), that less fortunate (through no fault of their own!) should be helped by the society, and finally that all children should be given an equal start in life. Believing in those three things, and taking the policy of tax relief for married couples to its ultimate conclusion, I find that I cannot support it. It is plainly unfair, and cannot be fixed in a real world (for how it can be fixed, in an idealistic world, please read on). For those who still have some doubts, here is my reasoning behind this, in greater detail:

Here I am assuming the current UK system as a starting point, mostly because this very issue has been revived here as a part of the, already heating up, election campaign. The system currently has no financial incentives for marriage, and has a fairly nice system of financial support for single parents. Conservatives are the challengers, and are bandying tax breaks for married couples as one of their election promises.

Now, with battle lines drawn, on to the battle itself!

In my opinion, even if tax breaks for married couples are, in real terms, equal to support single parents get, the system is arguably still unfair. On closer inspection, the reasons for this should be more or less obvious.

Single people only qualify for support if they have children. If married couples without children received tax breaks (i.e., state support by another name) it would amount to unfair and unequal treatment. Even if a married couple had children, and especially if one of them didn't work, it can be shown easily that they can easily arrange their lives so they spend less on child care than a single parent - kindergarten obviously not required if one parent is unemployed, and if both parents worked, they would likely earn more in aggregate, and thus find child care more affordable, than a single parent would, in most cases.

So, will the proposed tax breaks be means-tested, and dependent on the particular circumstances of every married couple, to make them fairer? Probably not, as that tends to make the system prohibitively complex and expensive. Once you start to analyse how to make the systems entirely fair it quickly becomes obvious it probably never can be, unless we had infinite funds and resources to run it. But then, if we did, we probably wouldn't need to help out anyone in the society, let a lone happily married couples.

Also, what about couples who live together as married, with or without children. Surely those would have to qualify for some tax breaks, too, especially the ones that did have children. And if a married couple divorced, and one partner married again, unless the single parent benefits kicked in and were equivalent to the tax break, it would mean that people could use marriage and divorce as a weapon against ex-partners (especially the ones without children, as they wouldn't even qualify for the single parent state support).

And so on, and so on...

I am sure there's lots of other holes to shoot through a system where marriage per se was rewarded by the state. Do note also, that I do not think single parent support should be given out unless means-tested. I believe that any such system of support, in the final analysis, has to have children's benefit at its heart, or in cases of extreme poverty the well being as a fellow human. if you agree that all children should have the same chances in life, and if you agree that all human beings deserve a minimum of well being and dignity, I do not see how you can support tax breaks designed to enrich only a certain class of people, and only as a reward for a personal lifestyle choice, a choice that in the first place does not benefit anyone else but themselves.

While a child support system that unfairly benefits single mothers, and especially those single mothers with numerous children if they're not employed, such a system can be fixed in the real world. There is some tweaking required, but it is eminently possible. But, as I said before, a system of tax breaks for married people, even alongside single parent support, cannot realistically be fixed in a society that needs such systems in the first place. Unfortunately, we still live in such a society. Our luck is that it is just rich enough to be able to help less fortunate. The last thing we need is for it to start benefiting the ones who are fortunate already.

This post is the expansion of a comment I left for The Economist short blog entry by Bagehot, already linked to at the top.

Burqa: What's Really Wrong With It, And Why It's Bad For Muslims, Too

This weekend in the UK a hornet nest has been poked yet again. The UK Independence party (UKIP) chief, Nigel Farage, called for a total ban of Muslim head gear which covers the face. Whether you call it burqa or niqāb, whether you think it's right or wrong, and for what reasons, you are likely to have opinion on this, too.

Well, so do I. But let's first recap what seem to be the opinions of the majority, one or another...

In the pro corner are mostly practising Muslims, who consider this type of robe as something desirable, if not mandatory, in order to live by the tenets of their religion. The exact reasoning behind this requirement are various, but not really relevant for this discussion. Alongside Muslims, there are some free speech supporters and libertarians who may support this as a person's free choice and/or self expression.

In the contra camp, the vast majority quote two issues: that forcing women to cover their faces is oppressive (even if they claim to do it of their own free will - then it's attributed to peer and society pressure and oppression), and to a somewhat lesser extent security issues (not unlike not allowing motorcycle helmets and balaclavas into banks). To a much lesser extent, and most likely to be on the wrong side of the argument are those who insist that Muslims in non-Muslim countries have to adopt an outer appearance as close to the hosts as possible.

As you may have guessed, I tend to disagree with all camps outlined above. In a nutshell, my position on this is that Muslim women are, of course, free to wear whatever they want (obvious security exceptions, to which they tend to bow anyway, notwithstanding), whenever and wherever they want. But, if they do, they really do it at their own peril. And no, I am not saying they should fear any sort of retribution. However, they should be prepared to be excluded, in a very soft and passive manner, from any society where hiding your face is not customary.

As I am pretty certain that what I just said will be easily misinterpreted, I'll have to flesh it out a little bit more. It will probably help if I spell out what I, personally, find is wrong with covering one's face where this is not usual practice.

Quite simply, in societies where people walk around with their faces freely visible to anyone who cares to look, people tend to become adept at, but also dependant on, being able to judge other persons' state of mind, mood, intentions by a quick glance at their face. Humans are very good at that, you know. We've been evolving for millions of years to be able to do it. Not to mention that even animals, and especially primates and apes are also very good at this. Remove this ability from someone who has spent their entire life (not to mention their species' history) perfecting this skill, and no wonder they become wary, even distrusting. Yes, eyes can tell a lot, but they are hardly enough (note that some Muslim head gear hides even the eyes). There's also the issue of voice almost certainly being muffled a bit by the cloth in front of the mouth.

So, without such vital clues, how is one to communicate with ease with someone covered by burqa or niqāb? I know I am always finding it more difficult, and always with a niggling feeling that there's something missing, something essential. The net result of this is that I try to avoid having to deal with covered women if I can help it. And trust me, this is not because I mistrust them, or think they they have something to hide, or anything like that. It is just because I feel uncomfortable not being to see any facial clues as to other person's state of mind, and not least because I feel the exchange is unfairly slanted against me, as my facial expression is freely available to the other side.

So, in the final analysis, as far as I'm concerned Muslim women can continue wearing whatever they want on their heads. If they do not feel oppressed by it, who am I to judge. Also, I do not fear that any of them are potential terrorists. Certainly no more are than their bare-faced male counterparts, Muslim or non-Muslim alike. No, the problem is, I feel something has been taken away from me when it comes to face-to-face (face-to-burqa?) communication, and what's worse, it's just me that's losing out.

Therefore, if a self-imposed exclusion from communication with otherwise well-meaning people is something Muslim women are happy with, then they should by all means cover their faces as much as they want. And all the while I will support their right to choose to do so, and all the while I will expect them to respect my unease and unwillingness to deal with people who hide their faces from me.

There, I said it. The shooting can start now...