Thursday, 30 September 2010

Down Among The Dead Men - Dead Pan?

Very recently, I have started reading (or listening to) books for which a review from a reputable place sounds interesting, or at least intriguing. Unfortunately, I can't find the review that made me read Down Among The Dead Men, by Michelle Williams - and I'd dearly love to read it again. The review, that is - not necessarily the book itself.

Why? Well, the review was obviously positive enough for me to part with almost £5 to get a Kindle edition, and then spend a few hours actually reading it. Unfortunately, I don't think I really got my £5 worth (OK, it was £4.40 - same difference).

Not that the book is a total waste of time. It is even mostly interesting. It definitely is a revelation to read a rather dry (almost) live commentary of daily goings on in a British mortuary. It is also definitely a book you may not want to read over a meal - or even shortly afterwards. In fact, reading it even before one might be a bad idea - unless you're struggling to keep your diet. And then, if you're prone to nightmares you may want to read something else at bedtime...

Oh, all of the above were in fact book's virtues! Quite apart from the fact that I suffer none of the problems listed (and have happily devoured both the book and a pizza at the same time) I find that a subject like this does need all the bells and whistles removed in order to really portray the gory, but necessary, and noble work of morticians.

The problem here is in the writing style. While it is refreshing to have a first hand account of a job from the practitioner themselves, in this particular case a touch of ghost-writing could have helped - a lot. Yes, it's charming to hear (and you can almost literally hear it) a simple country girl's voice telling you about stuff you don't necessarily associate with a girl's job, but it is too often a bit dead pan, and uninspiring.

Also, there's little to take away from the book apart from a few portraits of reasonably (but not excitingly) interesting people, and of course the gory details we may think we are aware of, but never quite are. To top it all, all this feels thrown towards the reader without much order or plan. Again, very much like a girl's diary, or even something she'd have told you over a glass of wine (or ale, or even lager, more likely) had you made her acquaintance in your (or hers) local.

All charming and entertaining stuff, yes, but one tends to expect a bit more structure and point in what is sold as a literary form. Possibly, the impression would have been better if this came out as a series of magazine articles, then put together into a book - but clearly labelled as potted journalism. Oh, and amateur journalism at that.

Let me make it clear amateur journalism, or even writing is certainly no bad thing. After all, for what it's worth, even I dabble. What I'm talking about here is honest labelling. If we can insist on labelling "proper" food properly, maybe we should also have rules to govern labelling food for thought?

So, in summary, should this book go down into history, or down the pan? Well, neither, really.

It's interesting, if not exactly gripping, read. It also doesn't quite live up to expectations. It certainly isn't a "read it more than once" stuff. I guess the best verdict I can offer is: read, then pass on - preferably to an unsuspecting, maybe a little squeamish passer-by.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Monster Revealed!

You may remember that a little more than a year ago I raved about the list of greatest songs I have created for my own, private, listening pleasure. And what a pleasure it was. Indeed, what a pleasure it still is! It has been with me ever since, moving as required between various devices. Nothing has been added, nothing taken away. Perfection.

You may also remember I promised to, eventually, publish the whole list. You'd be excused if you forgot, but I haven't. It may have taken a (long) while, but I have finally done it, and have presented it to world+dog here. Go have a look. Go on, don't be shy.

Yes, I know it's long. How could it not be? It covers close to half a century of ex-Yugoslav music. Also, if you don't plan on being bored to death by your own "favourite" music, and you're not into spending time every day (or even just every week) to come up with a new mix, you do need a lot of tunes to submit to your player's shuffle function. But you knew that already.

I also know it's eclectic. Very much so, in fact. But then, there's no accounting for tastes, is there? If I did a similar thing for non-Yugoslav music you'd probably find my tastes even more eclectic - if that's at all possible. Add a pinch of classical music, and you'd have my entire musical life revealed.

I may even be tempted to do a "world" monster list. You'd be well advised to watch this space if you're in any way interested. I wouldn't expect to see a classical music monster list, though. The main reason being, classical music is not really well suited for shuffle play on the way to work - even if you list contains only classical music. And if you wanted to mix all of your music all at once then classical would not work at all. Trust me. I have actually tried (a small, controlled, double-blind experiment). It didn't work.

I think this is more than enough said for now. I'll leave you to peruse and ponder on the list while I hit the "next" button and see - or rather hear - what's next in store.

I know this little text comes out days after I have actually published the list
So what...

Friday, 24 September 2010

They Can't Even Skin A Rabbit!

If the concluding paragraph of this little piece is to be taken seriously, the free-loading youth of today is doomed! They can't even skin a rabbit!

So how is this business news? I admit the connection is very slim and tentative. I guess, the business angle would be that some businesses would cheer very loudly any movement towards increasing the number of child labourers. Some businesses, are too greedy. But we all knew that anyway.

The angle I'd like to point at here is that I firmly believe child labour, even the best managed one, and especially for kids 13 to 15 has to much of a potential to dissuade those same kids from getting education that may land them much better jobs than the ones they held at age 14.

At the age 14 you are not going to be a doctor or a lawyer - not to mention a rocket scientist. But, what can easily happen at that age - and I've seen it happen around me too many times - is that the false independence a little bit of salary gives you makes one too independent, too early.

A good thing! you may argue. However, more often than not, this independence leads to shunning higher education. This is mostly because the addiction to independent income means one does more of it than is compatible with serious education. As a consequence, the education suffers - mostly because it doesn't pay the bills.

Please note, I am not talking about those noble individuals who without working cannot afford to get the education they want. For them, child labour, and work in general is a means to an end.

What I have an issue with is creating an atmosphere in society where children who do not work when young are made to feel somehow inferior. It is true, as also quoted in the article, that not everyone needs higher education. But, at ages 13 to 15, it is also true that pretty much nobody actually knows if they want, or should get one in the first place.

Finally, parents can and should do their bit to help their kids along - not just financially but by helping them choose the right path into adulthood. Part of that task is helping them decide how much education they want, or can get. Part of it is, of course, also making sure they realise that work is important - and a serious matter.

But, if there is an added pressure from the society - or even government, as the article seems to imply - then this easily skews the odds for both parents and children, making it more difficult if you happen not to agree with the "norm". The obvious fear is that business has much more influence than anybody else on government and media - and thus on public "opinion".

To any business that tells me that they can hire an adult for the same amount - and for the same job - as a child, I have this to say: You lie! A child of 14 does not have nearly the same drain on the business. It will move on quickly so no investment in continuous training will be needed. It will also have lower - or even no - expectations of pension and similar benefits. Just admit it, child labour is cheap, and if you are only after your bottom (line) you won't frown on it too much. Except probably if it's your own child...

Finally, about that silly quote from the bottom of the article. I think it's worth quoting here in full:
At home in Suffolk, Peggy Cole looks back on her childhood with few regrets. She feels that even though her childhood was hard - she had to work to support her family because her father was ill - in many ways she had more freedom than today's children.

"I've got five grandchildren. The two eldest have been to university and one of the girls is now a solicitor. I'm very proud of what they can do. But they could never skin a rabbit and a lot of people wouldn't know how to make a cake, even. If I go tomorrow, I've had a wonderful life, and they can't take that away."
I'd love for someone to explain to me how this has anything to do with anything else in the piece? Someone? Anyone? No? I didn't think so either...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Focus On Religion: Gone!

This past week has been just too busy with news and views about religion. 

First it was the criminally irresponsible nonsense in America with burning other people's religious books. As you may have noticed, I couldn't resist commenting on that particular thing at some length

Hot on it's heels came the papal visit to Britain. Hailed as "historic" it almost lived up to expectations. It certainly did show how Catholic church's misunderstanding of life, as well as its aggressive stance, have reached historic proportions. Let me list but a few of issues that marred the event:

For one, almost 80% of Britons disagreed with spending public money on the visit by a leader of, in Britain, a minority faith.

Then, a security blunder. At least this one was funny. Up to a point.

Next, and in advance of his visit, Pope found it prudent to thank all Britons. Only he didn't thank all of them. Just the ones who prayed. So no thanks to those who financed it, even if they didn't really want to. Bad.

Just before the Pontiff arrives it transpires that the faithful (and presumably others) who wanted to see him up close actually had to pay for the privilege. It seems that for that, or other reasons, many people decided to just not bother, and tens of thousands of tickets went unsold. Touché...

And then, the visit proper started. Tellingly, right there at the Heathrow airport one of the Cardinals let rip into the host country, equating landing at Heathrow to landing in a third world country. The Cardinal was promptly sent packing, but frankly, with a start like that, the immigration should have turned back the whole unruly bunch - as holy as they think themselves they are.

The dust on the previous insult didn't even settle, when the big boss himself found it appropriate to tell the Queen (of all people - she's not even Catholic!) that the dangers of secularism (read: atheism) can easily lead to Nazi-style atrocities. No amount of interpretation can make this one go away, but I am at least happy that Pope fell into the Godwin's Law trap. Loser...

After this last one, and in the view of the whole sequence of events, I found it really difficult to even post my promised Sunday Religion news item over here. I also shredded (a manner of speech) a couple of posts meant for this place about a couple of aspects of religion that I found interesting (to bash - of course - what did you expect?). Instead, I decided to write this short overview of what turned out to be a highly annoying, stressful, and insult-full, if not insightful, week of religious malarkey. The way I feel right now, I think it'll be quite some time before I write anything about any religion again. Mostly because if I do, it will probably only degenerate into a furious rant, and we don't want that, do we?

But then again, if a particular thought comes unbidden and forces itself out of my fingertips... One never knows.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Grand Design - A Mini Review

Not quite news, but the book is new and caused a bit of a stir in the news recently (and a measured review)...

Through pure chance, last week I received a voucher for a free book (or two) for Amazon's audio book arm, Audible. A good chance then to have a look - or rather a listen. Especially since the book is not available in e-book format (which is a shame).

Four and a half hours later (a surprisingly pleasant experience it was, too), and a few days to digest the impressions, here's what it boils down to: meh...

The review I mentioned above is right: Dr Hawking doesn't quite manage to explain where we came from. True, he does a wonderful job of a review of various forms of knowledge throughout history. He also does a decent job of explaining the M-theory. But overall, I'd say there's not really much to it all. Could have done better.

So, should you read this book?

Unlike the previous grand work of Hawking, A Brief History Of Time, this one is much more readable and stands a good chance that a lot of people not very familiar with modern physics (or any other physics for that matter) will be able to follow it and come out the other and better off. Even if you consider yourself an old hand in science (and even if only as an amateur pundit) you may enjoy the books light overview of relevant topics from ancient Egypt, China, and Greece to this day.

However, this latter group will be left wanting. So will be the former, but they're unlikely to notice (no offence here, please). Will anyone come out convinced we don't need god(s) to explain the Universe? Unlikely, and not just because people are rarely - if ever - convinced to change their mind either way regardless of the arguments being presented.

But in summary, if you do have the time, money, and/or the inclination, do read the book. It is an enjoyable experience whichever way you look at it. Just don't expect fireworks...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Religious Tolerance

Religious tolerance... What is it? Do we need it at all? If yes, then how do we get it? Read on, for yet another one of my rants that meanders wildly before totally getting out of hand...

All these questions have been asked for as long as the concept itself has started doing rounds somewhere just after the Dark ages. Recently, the issue got another boost when plans emerged to build a mosque close to the Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks on New York. As year's 9/11 anniversary loomed just as this got me thinking (again) I decided to postpone writing about it. Now the anniversary is safely behind us (even though the next one will soon again become "near enough", I'm sure) here's a few of my thoughts on the subject. As if anyone cares... I know I don't (that nobody does).

To anyone following this blog, my opinions about religion in general should be well known. I can also promise to continue my religion-bashing with the same carefree abandon. But this post is not about whether religion is good or bad, needed or superfluous. Here, I will assume that religion is here (and probably here to stay - unfortunately), and ask (myself) how best to arrange our society so it (both the religion, and the society) does the least harm possible. So, let's see where we can get with this...

[...a few days, and a few abortive attempts later...]

Oh dear...

When I set myself this task I thought sensible word would come pouring out like a clear, fresh mountain stream. Instead, I ended up with a number of anti-religious tirades that had a distinctly stale whiff around them. Nothing wrong with them, per se. Just nothing new, and really, nothing to promote religious tolerance. Or, more correctly, promoting religious tolerance mostly in the same way as a parent tolerates an immature child's silly shenanigans. And the problem is: religion's (and religious) shenanigans, both historically and these days, might be silly, but they's also usually deadly serious.

Have a look at this particular development. I could possibly, maybe, just, agree with The Economist blogger that total freedom of speech should include the right to burn books, flags, and whatever else is seen as fit to incinerate (apart from other people, obviously - though not always and to everyone). Although I am not so sure. At least here in Europe, we have too often associated book (and people) burning with the worst of the worst. I am, however, very happy to agree with the following, from the same post:
It is, in fact, part of a global religious-extremist tag-team rally, in which provocateurs in the West gin up obnoxious anti-Islamic gestures that give extremists in Islamic countries an excuse to damage property and assault people, which in turn grants more publicity to the Western provocateurs. Extremists on both sides end up with more media prominence and more political and social power, and everybody wins.
Tag teams indeed. Squares quite well with the fact that, for example, evangelical creationists in America cooperate closely, and quite happily, with Turkish Islamic fundamentalists, sharing experiences, advice, and efforts to discredit the fact (not the theory!) of evolution. And at least these guys have lunches together. Which is not to say that I necessarily approve of that particular kind of "religious tolerance". Sounds too militant to me - by far - despite all its "peacefulness".

All of which again leads me around in circles, failing to come up with any sensible thing to say about religious practices. Any religious practices, really. Apart from maybe the ones which are conducted somewhere very private, where I, and the world at large can go on about our peaceful business unimpeded.

Because, see, I really couldn't care less about which religion should have more or less "rights", "freedom", or be better "tolerated". What my argument seems to be slowly, but surely, boiling down to is that, yes, everyone should enjoy freedom of religion - or any other delusion they care to pick - provided they do not create public nuisance. And religion, of late, just like of the last few millennia, is creating an almighty racket.

Wars, prosecutions, discrimination, child abuse, promoting unsafe sex practices - you name the ill, they've peddled it. And not just to their own flock. Oh, no. Pretty much every single religion would love nothing more than to see the whole world shaped in its image. Tolerant? My...

So, yes, I am happy to be tolerant of any religion and/or belief, but only for as long as they are tolerant of me - and everybody else who does not care to join in. Do it a much as you like, but do it so I don't have to notice. And do note, this does not mean you shouldn't build your temples, or whatever other fancy takes your fancy. Please do. And please do it wherever you see fit - if it fits with the laws of the land. But do also note that, just like you cannot be allowed to build a tower that is in danger of collapsing and killing innocent bystanders or passers by, you should not be allowed to do stuff that can conceivably result in something similar - like, for example, publicly burning other people's religious texts.

Not because those texts are in any way sacred - they're not, and surely no more than your own - but because every man (and his dog) knows you're doing precisely so you can cause as much damage to innocent bystanders as you can.

Does this sound intolerant to you? I'm sure it does. It is meant to be intolerant, too. Intolerant of irresponsible and dangerous (religious) practices. So, put down you matches, and go back to your temples. No need to stay there, but when you do come out, do try to blend in.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

More Time Than Sense

...or: A Week With Lucid Lynx.

If you watch this space regularly, you might have noticed that, almost exactly four weeks ago, I almost completely gave up on Windows (and Windows 7 Ultimate, too), and went almost the whole hog with Linux (Mint, 9, aka Isadora). I seem to have almost gone mad for "almost" in the process, but that's another story, for another day. Almost...

Having taken that step, I well and truly, never looked back. I think I booted into Windows only once in the period, and only because I was messing around with the boot loader and wanted to make sure I didn't break anything, and could still boot into Windows. If I wanted to. Which I didn't. Want. Or do. Which was "a good thing"™.

Then, this past Sunday morning, finding myself with time on my hands - and a request for silence while my SO was otherwise busy - I read about the early release of Ubuntu 10.10 (aka Maverick Meerkat - where do they come up with these?). Now, I don't normally run my main computers on beta versions - and I wasn't going to start now. But, looking at the Ubuntu website, I realised that 10.04 (the Lucid Lynx from the opening line) is a LTS release.

Long term support. I like the sound of that. Even if it's only three years.

Seeing as it was long overdue for me to give Gnome another go (I class myself as a KDE man, normally) I felt one of those geeky itches. The ones that are scratched by spending hours re-installing your operating system(s) from scratch. I hesitated a little. Do I really want to do this? Well, yes. I just needed one more little reason to tip me over to the dark... er, right side.

And then it came. I'll use this to get rid of that pesky Windows altogether! I hated having to keep several drives with several file systems anyway, and in Linux all of it can nicely map onto the same logical hierarchy. Better yet, I will wipe the slate clean and just have two partitions for the two physical drives I have, and these two will then be mapped together, and I won't have to think of it ever again.

The rest, as they say, is history. Which will now be written down for posterity. A week with Lucid Lynx, day by day, hour by hour, if need be (don't worry, it doesn't).

Sunday, early morning

Decision made, I spend a couple of hours backing up all my data. Onto two separate external hard drives. Yes, I am paranoid. I have been bitten. The backups show 10:24 as the time, so that must be when I started with the next step.

Sunday, slightly less early in the morning

Another half hour to download and burn the install CD. Leave it in the drive. Re-boot.

Just in case, boot into Live CD to check if wireless and sound work. They do. I knew they would, but one can never be too sure.

Sunday, probably around noon

Start the install process. Language, time zone, keyboard, user name, password... Then, the big question: where shall we put this Lucid Lynx? For the first time ever, in decades, I select "use the whole of first hard drive".

Off we go. No looking back.

Sunday, less than 20 minutes later

Please remove the CD and hit Enter. Thirty seconds pass, user name, password, wireless key. We're in. And not just that we were in, we were also done.

A small matter of copying back all the data from backup and I'm well and truly back in business.

Last time I was restoring Windows partition with pretty much the same data set, it took an inordinate, and inordinately annoyingly long time. With just a bit of trepidation, I plug in the external hard drive. I decide to start small, so I can gauge how long it'll take. I start with a measly 14GB. My! It flies!

So, just in case it turns sour later, I leave the other 100-ish GB to copy over while we go shopping. Which turned out to be totally unnecessary. By the time we were both ready, it was already almost two thirds through.

I decided not to wait it out. I was already destined to another few hours of enforced piece and quiet when we get back. SOmeone was again taking their work very, very, seriously (in case my employers are reading this: I do as well - just very rarely on a Sunday afternoon).

Sunday, late afternoon

Important data copied over long ago, I turn my attention to only slightly less important data: music. I have lots. And here, "lots" stands for more than 200GB. Honest. I almost decided not to bother, seeing it lives its own life on its own physical hard drive. Yes, it's NTFS formatted, but do I really want to go through formatting it all in ext4, only to then have to copy the lot back over?

Of course I do! And so I did. A few minutes to re-format and make sure the drive mounts where I want it, then plug in the external hard drive again and drag all the stuff over. A few seconds for file manager to calculate the sizes and the time estimate comes up: less than two and a half hours. When I did this last in Windows I had to leave it over night. And, being an early rises (sadly) I found it still at it when I woke up.

Still, two hours plus is a long time, and I spend it adding the few bits and pieces that do not come pre-installed: Google Chrome, Google Picasa, and Dropbox. I know they're not FOSS, but they're free, as in beer. And I like beer. They're also (almost) as good as beer.

Rest of the time I spend exploring the latest Gnome environment (not drinking beer, honest - that came a bit later). It's actually quite OK. I still think it should allow easier access to some nook and crannies of various settings, but for an ageing geek it is increasingly acceptable (especially the large fonts and buttons for the weary eyes).

Sunday, late evening

The system has been fully up and running for a while now. I can't tell exactly when it was fully ready and ship-shape because everything went smoothly, and I was able to comfortably do stuff while other stuff was copied over, installed, and set up.

One annoyance came from my decision to go all-Gnome, which meant converting my KMail mail database to Evolution. Amazingly, there is still no automated way to do it, and even though the manual way was simple and fool-proof enough it would still have been better to select a menu option, the directory to import from, and hit OK. Oh well, maybe next time...

So, Sunday gone, I had my new system all up and running. Seeing how long winded I've been, you may be tempted now to run for the hills when I present you with the rest of the week. Don't. Bear with me, and you'll learn why going to Linux the whole way makes me so light-headed. Heck, you may even decide to do it yourself...


Having left the laptop on overnight - for no particular reason; probably because I am traumatised by powering up Windows machines - I wake up to an update that requires rebooting. Yes, it is sometimes required in Linux, too. Sometimes - not every time. In this particular instance I reboot twice. Why? Because the first time around the process was so quick that I thought I didn't do it in the first place. Clicking OK on the "reboot now" button to full Internet connectivity in less than two minutes (I timed it later - power up, with logging in, takes around 70 second; power down is considerably quicker)? Match that Microsoft!

The rest of the day was boring. Stuff just worked.


Stuff still just works. I also seriously start contemplating not leaving the laptop on overnight.


Boring. It all works. I even re-boot once - just to enjoy how fast it does it.


I replace Rhythmbox with Banshee. Now that it's on an ext4 partition, it scans my whole music library (think 45,000+ songs) in a jiffy (read: before I finish my second morning coffee).

The rest of the stuff still stubbornly works.


I feel an urge to liberate my Acer One netbook, too. I resist. For now. I think I will keep it as a drop-dead backup. It runs Windows XP, so it's not that much of a dog, anyway. But it will get a Linux facelift, and most of the hard drive will be in ext2 (so it can be easily read-written from WinXP).


I realise I haven't even installed Wine yet. I will, when I have a minute. I still find Panorama Maker Pro to be the easiest panorama stitcher I've tried. If someone knows a good Hugin tutorial, though, I'm all ears!

Sunday, again

It's Sunday again, and it's time to rest. But I can't. I just got this urge to tell the world (+dog) all about my week with Lucid Lynx. And so I do. From Lucid Lynx. Did I ever use Windows? Why?

Now, I will switch off my laptop (cue polar bear choir singing "Hallelujah!"). And why not. It'll be up and running again in no time tomorrow. Too bad I'll have to power up my work Windows XP, too.

And that, my friends, will take the best part of half an hour - of my life.

Switch to Linux - regain your life!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Deep Fried Beer

When I  posted last Friday's beer news here, it was really inspired by an article here, dealing with the issue of patents in modern American economy. While the deep fried beer patent (and trademark!) were a good laugh - even though I suspect not such a good treat - the whole thing got me thinking about all the things that are wrong, and some that are right in current patent legislation worldwide. If you bear with me, I'll try to run you through my thinking...

First and foremost, I do think we need a mechanism to protect inventions. Something that will make sure the inventor reaps just rewards for creativity and utility of his work. In part, current patent system does afford such protections, but in a lot of cases it does seem excessive, plus, there may be benefit in achieving similar goals in a different manner.

One such way would be some kind of open licensing, where the inventor retains the authorship, but grants free use of the invention to all comers provided they do not wrap it into some invention of their own which is then patented under different, more restrictive terms. Think about what FOSS, CC, GPL, and similar do for copyright, but for inventions not software (which luckily is still not patentable).

The other way would be to retain essentially the system in use today, with royalties, and suchlike. In this case, however, I would propose a few changes mostly aimed at preventing patent trolling, and similar practices.

For one, it may make sense to shorten the duration of patent protection for different fields of endeavour. I don't necessarily think all the current durations are excessive (unlike for copyright, where they are ridiculously excessive), but making sure they're not overly long should encourage people to actually use their inventions. Which is where my second point, and the main one really, comes in...

Right now, there are too many individuals and companies sitting on patent portfolios of various sizes, doing precisely nothing with them but looking for others who may "infringe" so they can milk them for royalties. I understand, agree, and support, that it shouldn't be allowed for just anyone to freely enrich themselves using other people's inventions. However, if you do not care to actually use your invention for something useful yourself - not even to sell the rights to it to someone who would - then I believe that you should be stripped of your patent rights altogether, and your invention moved into public domain. It is, of course, not always possible to start cashing in on your invention straight away, but some reasonable time frame can surely be figured out after which it becomes obvious that you just can't be bothered, rather than justifiably hindered. In any case, if you see yourself struggling for too long, you should always have an option to sell your rights to someone who could.

One objection could be that if sold close to expiry, patent protection could be seen as too short by the buying party. I think this can be addressed by resetting the clock on such a sale - making sure of course that the clock is reset only in cases where the patent has never been put into production before that point. It would also be necessary to prevent the buyer from immediately, or at least easily, using the patent to go after an alleged infringer. For example, it could be made a condition of such sales that, as part of due diligence, any potential infringement is researched by both the seller and the buyer, and sale possibly prevented, or at least delayed, if any are uncovered - being considered that the original owner should have looked after his right better. It may also make sense to limit the number of times an unused patent can change hands, either by limiting the number of sales, or progressively shortening the protection time frame after each subsequent sale. This is important, as otherwise it could become possible to extend a patent's validity indefinitely - something not even possible in the current regime.

I am sure that the above is full of all sorts of holes, but then I am not a lawyer - of any kind, especially not a patent one. However, I am also sure that changes along those, or similar lines, and in particular the ones that would prevent people sitting on unused patents, are both necessary, and beneficial. Otherwise, we will continue seeing "inventors" suing world+dog over stale patents for technologies they may have envisioned themselves, but for all their cleverness and resources couldn't find a way to turn into cash for years, if not decades. And that will, surely, be a good thing.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

How Much Ethics Do We Really Need?

Even if you're not a fan of science fiction, you have probably heard of Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. All Asimov's robots have them instilled into their positronic brains in a way that makes them immutable and unbreakable (well, most of the time anyway). They serve as safeguards to humanity - mostly because humanity tends to overreact when it feels threatened intellectually.

This is not a post about robots, as interesting topic as they may be (I may fill that particular gap at a later date). This post is about humanity (and more), and how it may be possible to replace all the fuzzy and complex "rules" of ethics. Nobody seems to be able to agree upon, either - and they've been at it for millennia.

So, hear me out. I might just make sense...

If you haven't encountered the Three Laws yet (e.g. you lived in a cave for the last 50 years or so), I'll quote them for you here:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Sometimes, they are augmented by the so called Zeroth law:
  • A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
The other laws are changed accordingly (i.e. the first gets, "except where it would conflict with the zeroth law", etc). Now, just for argument's sake, let's change "robot", above, into "human". I've added the zeroth law, too, and to help you also bolded the changes
  1. A human may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  2. A human may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, except where such (in)action would conflict with the Zeroth Law..
  3. A human must obey any orders given to him by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the Second Law.
  4. A human must protect his own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First, Second,  or Third Laws.
Looks good? Makes sense? I think so.

Looking at the above recently, and having been thinking about the original Laws for many a year (reading any of the Asimov's robot stories or books, you end up doing little else), I have come to think that this may be the great distillation of ethics for all of humanity (and possibly all sentient beings).

There is one problem with the list above, and it's the Third Law. A free, sentient being is not really meant to blindly obey others just because they felt like ordering him (or it) around. But, on the other hand, we do comply with reasonable requests, grant favours, and generally cooperate when it's either in our own interest, or the interest of a greater community we associate with. Still, the Third Law, as stated above, needs work. Probably serious work.

An obvious way out of this problem is removing the Third Law completely:
  1. A human may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  2. A human may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, except where such (in)action would conflict with the Zeroth Law..
  3. A human must protect his own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
From where I'm sitting, the above looks about right for a universal cheat sheet of ethics.

I still think we could insert back the Third Law, to cater for all sorts of cooperative activities. I just fear that it'd need too much legalese, and as such become unwieldy, and thus useless as a quick, hard and fast rule. Plus, less rules are always better than more - especially when they're as clear as the ones above.

One more observation from where I'm sitting, to expand on the parenthetical remark from a few paragraphs above. I see no reason not to replace "human" and "humanity" with even broader terms, "sentient being" and whatever term exists for a collection of such beings (does one exist at all?). It doesn't even matter if such beings, apart from humans exist or not, but if they do, they surely have to come under the same ethical umbrella. Even if the come with a positronic brain that we have designed ourselves. Just as long as we took care to instil the laws above into it before they start getting ideas of their own...

Monday, 6 September 2010

It's Not All About Style

Not that long ago (well, at least not by Grey Noughts' standards) I've written about bad books. In that particular piece I was talking about books that were not just (or not even necessarily) badly written in terms of style, but also lacked in deeper structure, message, and so on. Then, a few days ago, I read a Johnson blog post about Dan Brown being the author most given away to charity, and at the same time the one least likely to fly off charity shelves.

As an illustration, Johnson quotes from the very first paragraph of the The Da Vinci Code. And I must agree, it is truly something not seen in stylistically well written books. I will also freely admit that I found The Da Vinci Code lacking in much more substantial ways - not unlike pretty much every other Dan Brown book I have read (and I have read pretty much all the well known ones). 

Unsurprisingly, after reading them I also tried to get rid of them as quickly as I could. First I tried to sell them on Amazon. Nobody wanted them. Not even for a penny. Then they languished in the loft for a couple of years until we moved house. It was only then that I finally packed them away to charity. They took them. Of course. Having read Johnson, though, I now wonder if they're still gathering dust on a shelf in the far corner of the Oxfam Reading book store.

But, and I think it's quite a significant one...

For all their failings in plot, fact, and style (even though I never noticed the latter), they were all rather captivating reads. Even the Digital Fortress, which, from the point of view of someone who actually knows about software and computers, is possibly the most ridiculous account of its subject matter there is. But, it was still fun to read. Painful or hilarious (in a bad way) at times, but fun nonetheless. Just like the rest of them. Even the films were decent fun (but no more - I wouldn't watch them twice).

My point?

My point is that one does not always read for style. Even more, I think one should not read for style alone (unless one is reading poetry, but I don't so that's beside the point). Especially, one should not hold all genres to the same, exacting, stylistic standard. After all, Dan Brown is not Tolstoy! First and foremost, for an author to become  revered in that sort of way, it has to stand the test of time. And by "time" I mean decades. As a writer, Dan Brown was born yesterday! Which is not to say I think he will last as a literary name. He probably won't. But only time can tell. Plus, he's placed himself squarely into the entertainment for masses, masses of dollars for himself genre. And it worked. For him. It even worked for me. I didn't think a few quid spent on his paperbacks were money down the drain. It's just I wouldn't spend a penny on a hardback to proudly display in my library (once I have one, that is - currently it's mostly stacked ceiling-high in the downstairs loo).

To conclude, and avert possible confusion (as if this hasn't become confused enough already), Dan Brown, for all his poor style, poor fact checking, and weak plots, fulfils one of the reading needs of mine: light entertainment. For others, I (can always) go elsewhere. And before you ask, the others are: to learn something new and interesting, to point my thoughts in a new direction, and yes, also to enjoy someone's masterly style. Sometimes, you get all four goals in a single book. Such books end up on my dead tree pile. Sometimes, they fail in all but one area, and end up in a charity shop, or on Amazon (no I am not averse to recouping some of my poor investments).

Mind you, I don't think I'm spending any more money on Dan Brown. He already has enough, and he's sliding down the slope of diminishing returns...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Would You Trust Your Life To Excel?

Initially, I wanted to post this here, but, whilst ranting, I realised I had (much) more to say than my self-imposed format allows. So, in all its righteousness, here's my rant on the press release touting spreadsheets as diagnostic tools.

Let me first comment on the very title of the press release: "Microsoft Excel-based algorithm predicts cancer prognosis". Now, I am sure the scientists in question really used Microsoft Excel, but does it mean that the same algorithm could not be implemented in a different tool? I'd like to know if Microsoft paid for this advertisement... sorry, research, or are now just smiling into their lattes.

Secondly, and probably more importantly: at least in the IT industry the potential pitfalls of using spreadsheets for any serious calculations are too well known. And, while messing up big time in business and finance is bad enough, messing up when it comes to life-or-death decisions is incomparably worse.

It's fine to develop your initial algorithm in any way, and using any tool that's handy, and you know your way around (even if I suspect the scientist in question may not be as wizardly in Excel as they imagine). Then, once you have it, it's time to develop an application that can be properly designed and tested using best practices of software engineering. In case of medical software, I'd even argue that the same safety rules as apply to X-ray machines and other "dangerous" medical instruments should apply even to such "soft" diagnostic tools.

Finally, to answer my own question from the title: NO.

I just hope I get a choice when my time comes...

This is all not to say I'd trust my life on ANY spreadsheet. 
But I'd still have a particular issue if it were Excel... ;)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Is it just me, or have you also noticed how mobile phone (and other gadget) manufacturers seem to have conspired against time travellers?

Playing with the clocks on my phones (and a few other gadgets) I have recently realised that it is no longer possible to set the date to the one before the device's (notional) release date. Case in point: my Motorola Droid (Milestone for us Brits) will not allow dates before 1 January 1900. My Nokia N900 allows only dates from 1 January 2009. I'm even being shortchanged on my future! Motorola is generous with 31 December 2100, while Nokia will let me use my phone only up to 31 December 2036. Come on, Nokia! I plan to live longer than that - time travel or no time travel! What's going on?! I think I have a theory. Well, if I think I have one than I do...

This is all a cunning ploy to introduce a stealth tax on time travel!

Imagine I had a time machine, and wanted to use it (well, who wouldn't - being careful about grandfathers an all that, of course). I travel back in time and want to use my phone. Of course, in case of Motorola, before the 1900 I obviously couldn't use it to make calls, let a lone update my Facebook account ("Just landed in a medieval peat bog! Yucky... LOLZ"). But I might want to manually update my currency converter app so I can see how many silver sovereigns I can get for a pair of leather boots. Or, to make the lack of date & time more obvious, I may want to enter a calendar reminder so I don't miss that all-important ball. I heard those medieval ladies were H-O-T!

Similarly, if I travelled forward, I could surely have use of my phone(s), their apps, and especially the calendar. I believe in punctuality as an eternal quality. And in the future, surely I could find isolated pockets of 3G connectivity. Probably if I land smack in the middle of the preserved/restored (delete as appropriate) Amazon rainforest (yes, you read it right - rainforest, not the on-line shop). Yet, with either of my current phones I wouldn't be able to do any of this!

So, you may ask, where's the conspiracy (you theorists!)...

In case of Nokia, it should really be obvious. Already using their phone, and being used to them, if you find yourself in the time before 2009 or after 2036, what would be more logical than look for a replacement available at the time? Especially with Nokia's long history stretching all the way back to the 19th century, pretty much, you'll probably even be able to find one of their products. Admittedly, in its early days, you may have to settle for timber, a mattress, a tyre, or a pair of rubber boots - but all these would be familiar, and admit it: useful, too. Well, maybe not a tyre, unless you brought your car, too, but still...

For Motorola it is a bit more convoluted, but I suspect if time travel became possible they'd make sure to know about is before you do (they are richer than you, after all), and will then sprinkle the whole of history with their devices, or at least something you'd want to reach for - having been indoctrinated already by your current device. This way, and especially in the past, they'd be able to fatten up their bottom... lines, making it even more likely to be able to meddle in both future and the past, and so on, and so on, ad infitintum (and quite possibly ad nauseam).

So, there you have it!

You may have thought limiting date choices on current devices is just sloppy and/or lazy programming. Well, it most probably is - as well. But the real truth seems to be that there may be a whiff of time travel in the air, and savvy companies are making sure they maximise the impact once time machines are available.

How about that for a theory!