Sunday, 25 December 2011

Repost: Merry Christmas!

Hey, hey, hey! We thought you're a radical atheist! What's this now with Merry Christmas?

Slow down my dears... Despite the rumours you might have heard, even radical atheists can be polite, well mannered, and considerate of others. Even those others who have chose to live their lives in a state of delusion, filled with angels, demons, and ghost - maybe even ghosts of Christmases past.

So, while I still want nothing to do with, and could not care less for, any sort of Christian malarkey, I have absolutely no problem to wish anyone who does a very merry Christmas, and generally everything that goes with it. My wishes may also include one for my dear friends to rid themselves of the religious malaise, but I am wont to keep that one silent. At least for Christmas. There's plenty other days in a year when I can try my wicked ways with them, and their problems.

So, my dearest dears, the ones, at least who care about Christmas, have the happiest one ever! Just don't come complaining to me when St Nicholas turns not to be the one he claims he is. Not to mention he may even be a she.

Have fun!

PS
If you're wondering why a repost, well, aren't all Christmases essentially the same?

Friday, 16 December 2011

If...

Religious or not, you probably wondered at some time or other how it would be if you were a god, or rather, the God...

OK, if you ever wondered how it would be if you were that kind of god then I'll happily give you that it'd be cool, noodly, and most of all filled with fun and freedom lovin' pirates.

But that's not what I had in mind...


What I did have in mind is a deity not unlike the ones advertised by the major(ity of) world religions. The omniscient, omnipotent, and above all, benign entity. I am sure it's not difficult to imagine oneself being just such a person, er, god. What's more, I'll bet you the bottom dollar the experience is also a (very) pleasant one. And I'll bet you your other bottom dollar you played it at least once in your life.

So, with this clear, let's see what the "rules of engagement" look like.

You are omniscient

You know absolutely everything that goes on in your world, past, present - and future. Yes, I know it's quite a stretch for your average capability to suspend disbelief, but that's what major religion teach us. If you're in one of them - or plan on entering one (or more, why not?) - you have to realise this is an idea you'd have to live with.

Immediate problem I can see with this is the future part. If I knew exactly what is going to happen at any given point in the future I'd probably want to kill myself lest I die from boredom. But that is a problem in itself, too! If I were to kill myself I'd have to already know I was going to kill myself, which would make the whole thing even worse.

But, let's not dwell on this, and let's crack on to

You are omnipotent

That's, by the looks of it, the best part of being a god. You can do whatever you want. Whatever. Period.

One thing I'd use this for first would be to modify that omniscient bit above. I wouldn't want to know all of my future. Knowing which horse will win next year's Grand National would be cool. Knowing much more than that would be suicide inducing (see above).

While I go through the benevolence bit, I'll leave you to ponder on whether I would still be an omniscient god of various religions if I decided to deliberately limit my omniscience to lottery winning part.

You are benevolent

You know you're not, really. I mean, who is? Remember, various religions assume their gods are completely and absolutely benevolent. Even if they are doing apparently horrible things they are doing it out of the kindness of their heart. Like that burning in hell for all eternity. Your god prescribed so it must be both good for you, and at the same time, a sign (if not the sign) of their sheer and utter benevolence. Go figure.

***

Now, imagine yourself being all three of the above.

And now, imagine you were to create a world full of people.

What do you mean: nobody in their right mind would want to create a world full of people? You can't choose! If most religions are to be believed, their respective deities did just that. What's more, it would seem that not only they wanted to create a world full of people, but they didn't necessarily also want a world full of Martians ,or Andromedans, or Whateverans. Or maybe they did, but never bothered to tell us. But even if they did, and the religions are suspiciously quiet on this one, we are apparently the chosen ones - about which religions are shouting from the rooftops.

So, you have to come up with a world full of people, and those are your chosen people, the ones you love above all else. Live with it. You are a god, after all.

Now to the most important bit: if you were a god (omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent), and you had to create a world full of people, and for the people, and those people are your chosen people who you love dearly and would do anything for them (including torture and kill your own son) - would this world (and those people!) be anything like this world is and we - the people - are?

I submit to you that you would not. I'd even tell you that you couldn't!

How so?

Well, you are benevolent, aren't you? So why create a world in which your beloved, chosen people suffer? There's no need for suffering at all! You are, after all, omnipotent as well, so you could have easily crafted a world in which your chosen people would be always happy and content. And if you're going to tell me that your people will tend to spoil your gifts and create suffering themselves I will remind you that a) you are omniscient as well so you should have been able to foresee it, and b) you are omnipotent so you would be able to act and correct at any point - preferably the starting point, what with you being all mighty and all perfect, and all.

So, if you (or any god) are trully BOO, then if you really wanted a world full of people who are your chosen, cherished and beloved (BCC?), then it follows that world would have to be just perfect. No stupid and unnecessary suffering, pain, and what have you. That'd be just cruel, and you are such a benevolent god after all.

On the other hand, if we simply removed the benevolent bit then we'd all have a ball! Well, that's if we're all gods, that is. What fun could you (or even better, I) have being omnipotent and omniscient (to a point - remember that Grand National!). Of course, we'd probably create a bit different creature than your average human. Maybe something not after our own image, but something rather more pleasing maybe? And then, what fun could be had pitting those poor (but good looking!) creatures against each other (and maybe select animals, and even plants)!

What do you mean we already have that? Surely not! If we are to believe your average popular religion it is entirely impossible! Their god(s) are benevolent. They love their people (that's us to you and me). They're only doing it for our benefit and eternal life. Oh, and if we can't be forced into being "good" (for any given value of "good") then our deities, in their infinite benevolence, will make us suffer for an eternity. How terribly nice of them.

Therefore, I must suggest to you, regardless of whether there are any gods out there, most (all?) modern religions are, for want of a better word: bollocks. Crap. Utter nonsense. And that's even by their own standards of "proof".

And then, having realised most (all?) modern religions are really talking through their collective arses, you should be free to ask yourself: even if religions are wrong, is there really a god (or gods) out there? And if there were, would it make any difference to us?

I mean, when you look at the human lot, it is most definitely looking as if there's nobody watching, and certainly nobody watching over us. So, even if there were any gods, it seems they're quiet busy elsewhere. Why wouldn't they be. Being omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, they are busy playing with their people. Or, at best, busy watching us unhappy lot and making bets on what other stupid things bar religion we're going to come up next instead of getting off our collective arses and working hard (and urgently!) at improving our lot.

There may also be one other thing those putative gods are busy with:

Betting on next year's Grand National...



Friday, 18 November 2011

What's Wrong With Gnome 3

In a word: EVERYTHING*!

Oh, I know full that Gnome 3 is better from the point of view of  software development practices.

Of course it is.

But that is not - and should not - be the point. It is also not - and should not - be the point that it is somehow more approachable for new users. Which is not to say it should be outright hostile, either - of course. But surely it should also be sensible in the way it presents the common tasks and addresses the common needs - past the first five minutes one spends in front of it?

The case in point here is the new Activities view which replaces the old (and tried and tested, I'd say as well) way of having quick, easy, and obvious access to various things you are working with. What's wrong with having a string of buttons in a taskbar telling you which applications and/or windows you have open, all just a click away from being presented right before your eyes? On the other hand, I can tell you exactly what's wrong with the Activities view, which requires you to click on the Activities button to get the following view of the same set of things:


Can you already guess? No? Let me tell you:

I tend to already know, roughly, what I have going on in various windows. I do not have any need to have them all presented rudely into my face to be able to pick one I want to work with right now. There is no need to spend time and effort scanning the whole screen - which may be quite large - in order to pick out the desired window. Not to mention the content of the desired window may have changed in the background making it all the harder to recognise when presented as above. Also, what happens when there's a lot more windows to show than the five in the screenshot above? Do they overlap or are they reduced in size? I don't know as I gave up on Gnome 3 before I could try, but I can tell you that in both cases it becomes even harder to pick the one you want.

No, sorry. I would much rather stick with the taskbar and a list of buttons on it for each window I have open, with an option to have related windows stacked onto a single button. In practice it takes much less time and mental overhead.

And then, we have very iLike application menu:


Sure, it looks very cool. Very much like what you have on your (i)phone. But I'll bet you it is actually something you hate on your phone - the way in which you have to scroll and try to figure out which icon does what (a lot of them look very similar, don't you think?). Oh, there are application names there, too. But look how small and hard to notice they are? What on Earth was wrong with a nice hierarchical menu with small icons (to help you make out various applications visually) alongside relatively same sized application names (to help you ensure you're selecting the right thing)? 

Sure, these days you can have hierarchies and folders in phone-style menus, but there's a crucial difference: once you entered the sub-folder in such a menu you have lost the view of the level above. In a typical Gnome 2 - or even if you want Windows XP - style start menu, while you're browsing the sub-folder with apps you have the view of all the folders in a level above so if you make a mistake - and you will - you can move over to a different one in a single click. In a phone-like menu, you need to click a special button to go back, then hunt again for a different sub-folder. If that's not wasteful of your time I don't know what is.

So, the two things I am (and you are!) likely to do - a lot, are much more of a pain in Gnome 3. Yes, they look nice and modern, but, frankly, I value my time and effort much more than I value eye candy. And that is why I played around with Gnome 3 - and also with it's much improved variant in Linux Mint 12 - and promptly gave up.

My advice: XFCE is the way to go!

PS
I will continue to support Linux Mint in the hope of them either making good progress on LXDE and/or XFCE editions, or managing to wrestle Gnome 3 into submission and efficient way of working.


*EVERYTHING = things that really matter, stuff that you use day in and day out, most of the time you look at your screen.



Thursday, 10 November 2011

Tablet FAIL

OK, it's high time I listed all the reasons current (and foreseeable) crop of tablet computers is even more useless than a recent poll in the UK shows.

So, without further ado, let me take you through a number of use cases...

1. Watching Video

This is one of the most often cited things a tablet computer is supposed to be good at.

But is it, really?

If you want to watch video at home you are most likely much better off doing on a TV screen, no? I mean, it's much bigger, it's in front of a comfy sofa, you don't need to cradle it in your own arms... Need I say more?

Even if you want to watch a film in the loo your large screen mobile phone is probably better suited to the task - witnessed also by the fact that an alarmingly large percentage of them are already covered in poo.

I will give you that, if you are rich enough to travel First Class (which you may be, if you already own a tablet computer, and especially if it is an iPad), it may make sense on public transport. Excluding the Tube, of course, where you'd probably soon not have to worry about the space you need as your prized tablet will be stolen at the next stop.

So, no, sorry: not really something to give you your money's worth.

2. Listening to Music

Included here for completeness. Even the original Sony Walkman was decidedly tiny compared to any tablet computer you care to name (or own). On top of that, tablet computers do not make a good Ghetto Blasters either. Not for very long, in any case.

3. E-mail

Ah! You may say. What's wrong with doing your e-mail on a tablet computer? Surely it's good enough for that.

Well, if you said reading your e-mail I might have agreed (but see below). However, unless you are the only person in the world who has people writing to them, but does not need to reply with more that yes or no - ever, then I'm afraid you're out of luck. Just try composing any reasonably long and/or complex e-mail response on a keyboardless tablet. No? I didn't think so. And if the correspondence requires both reading and editing documents (text, spreadsheet, presentation) then you're doubly out of luck (again, see below).

Oh, I'm sure you can augment your tablet experience by adding a keyboard, maybe even a mouse, and a stand. But then is that a tablet any more? Sounds to me more like a decomposed laptop, but with the added pain of not really being able to compose it anywhere you like. I bet even long haul flights would whizz by if you had to assemble your tablet-cum-workstation, then tear it down again. Even in First Class.

4. Writing

If I were cruel, I'd say: see above. But I'm not. Going to say it. However, writing anything but a (very) short text message is a pain on a touch screen. You know it. I know it. And yet we may be trying (I know I am now and again, but only on the phone). Useless.

Period.

5. Reading

Aha! Gotcha!

Erm, no. Not really. Yes, the glossies may look way better on a colour LCD than on 16-shades-of-grey eInk screen. And most current e-readers do not handle PDF files very well. But you still read quite long books? Is it very easy to hold half a kilo of a tablet for as long as it takes to read a Terry Pratchett novel? Yes, I know it's over before you know it, in a blink of an eye, and you hold your breath the whole time. But then, if that were really true, you'd be very blue in the face (if not dead), your eyes would have dried out and look like prunes, and having finished before knowing it you'd probably miss all the fun, too!

So, just be sensible and get yourself a Kindle (plus, porn is better on a laptop, trust me - leaves both hands free).

***

And that, dear reader, is pretty much all I have to say on the topic of tablets right now. While I'm sure I could just as easily come up with at least another five use cases for which a tablet computer is a poor fit, but I'll leave that exercise for you.

However, I'd be very much amiss if I didn't also tell you what I think would be a tablet saviour. And, believe it or not, I think it is Siri. Well, OK. Not Siri as such. Something along those lines, but way more advanced. And I mean SF advanced. Advanced to the point where I could have spoken this whole post into my tablet computer, in my broken non-native speaker accent, telling it where and how to format it, and so on, and so forth... You catch my drift. If not, go watch Star Trek, or something.

Which is not to say I won't be getting a tablet computer before I am defrosted in 2525. It just means that I certainly won't be paying through the nose, and by various limbs, for the privilege of having a slab weighing too much and capable of too little. I may even tell you which one it is once I get it. Just don't hold your breath. Unless you're being frozen for posterity at the same time, that is...

PS
I am aware of Asus's valiant efforts with the Slider and Transformer. Still, all other non-keyboard gripes apply...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Apple Does It Again

I am never surprised by how silly, short-sighted, and short-attention-spanned people can be, but I am constantly amazed by Apple managing to fire up everyone with things which should really elicit only a "meh... not again?!".


First, there was FaceTime. If you were born yesterday and on top of that had your ability to read up on recent history surgically removed at birth, you'd think that video calling was invented by Apple, and if it wasn't that Apple's implementation limited to its own products and an internet connection was bee's knees the world has never seen. If, on the other hand, you managed to wrestle yourself from the Reality Distortion Field, you may have noticed video calling was available on 3G mobile phones for almost a decade, was not limited to a single manufacturer, and was available anywhere you had a connection to the mobile network, i.e. wherever your phone worked at all. Meh, indeed.

Now, with the latest iPhone 4S (and I think other iPhones which can be upgraded to the latest iOS 5), we have been again showered by Apple's magnanimity and, like manna from Heaven, have been given... wait for it...

Siri.

What is Siri, and why is it so hot at the moment?

As expected, it is much easier to answer the first part of the question: Siri is Apple's version of a voice control application for an iPhone. You tell Siri what you want to do, and it does it - provided it can figure out what you meant. Apparently, it works quite well, and can perform some quite clever actions. And that's all fine, good, and commendable. Nothing against doing things better.

The problem is, however, that it's one thing to do something better than it has been done before (which can only be praised), but another thing entirely when, reading reports and reviews, one gets an impression that it is, well, not necessarily the very first time in history it's been done (although some reports do leave you wondering), then that anything that went before was total rubbish, useless, or worse. Also, same as with FaceTime, one can easily get an impression Siri is a saviour of the consumer and revolutionises the way in which we use our kit.

Well, for those who had the surgery I described in the second paragraph, voice control of mobile phones has been available for even longer than video calling. It didn't even require an internet connection like Siri. Yes, you guessed it, it was built in. I should know. I used it, and more importantly, was marginally involved in the implementation of it way back in 2001 or so.

Oh, don't get me wrong. It was 2001, and it wasn't as polished as Siri is today (and for that matter, not just Siri: there are, in fact, similar applications for most any phone you care to name - and your PC). You also had to train it to your voice a bit more than you have to these days (if at all). But still, it was there, in poxy little GSM phones of yore. You could say "call Mum", and it would. Magic! But Apple Magic? Sorry, no.

To finish on a brighter note: I somehow suspect that Siri (and it's cousins on other phones), just like FaceTime before it, will die a quiet death of all technology fads that sound good only on paper - and even then only if there is a hype on the scale of what Apple can still whip up. Because, when was the last time you saw someone doing a FaceTime call? And for that matter, when was it last you ever saw anyone talking to their phone, rather than on it?

QED

PS
Also similar to FaceTime - and any video calling, for that matter - the user giving voice commands to his phone either looks a dork (take phone out of pocket; hold phone in front of face; tell phone "call Mum"), or is a dork (hands-free scenario: talk to a passer-by "call Mum"; talk to more passers-by "Hello Mum, you look lovely today!"). These are precisely the reasons why original video calling (a must have for a 3G phone at the time - we spent inordinate amount of time making it work well) and the original voice control (talking at your phone in public) never caught on. Technology did improve. Our needs, habits, and mores as people haven't, and I doubt they will for either FaceTime or Siri.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

We Are Everywhere



Now taking advance bookings for weddings and suchlike in enlightened jurisdictions recognising this certificate of ordination. The exact rites and fees agreed on a case by case basis. 

Preferred currency: spaghetti meatballs.

Preferred attire: pirate costume.

We Are Everywhere

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Judas's Priests

I should really know better, but I have been watching reality TV...

And, while I was at it, a particular turn of events got me thinking. A groom desperate to find a church - any church - to get married in opened all sorts of questions - to me, at least. In this particular case the religion is Catholic, but I am sure the thinking - and the problem - applies to almost any other religion you care to name.

Let's then see what is it that I have in mind here...

To add some flesh to the skeleton description above, we have a groom (and apparently a bride, too) who wants to get married in a church - any Christian church by the looks of it - but has a problem of never really having been to one (apart from probably his/her own christening as a baby). So, he phones the local priest and, after some toing and froing manages to book a church wedding. The priest plays a bit hard to get at first, but after a while gives in - for whatever reason. For the point I will (try to) make it doesn't really matter if it was just because he realised it's a propaganda opportunity (those religionistas never seem to have enough of wasting my time and money on the BBC).

OK, so let's look a bit deeper at what happened here...

We have a man, the groom, and a woman, the bride, who have never ever in their entire lives cared the least bit about the religion, Catholic or otherwise, but now want to get married in a church. So far so good you may think. A couple of people who, regardless how feebly, seem to have seen the light. And shouldn't priests be quite happy to get as many new converts as possible? After all, at least according to the Christian churches, once you have converted, repented, and whatever, you can hope for getting yourself into god's good books, and eventually into Heaven. So, a good thing happened, no?

Well, in fact, no!

Let's look what we actually achieved here: we have a couple who couldn't care less about religion - any religion - who agree to tell a few lies so they can get the visuals of their wedding just the way they want them. I am quite sure the last time they see the church - any church - and the priest - any priest - is going to be on their wedding day. So, if everything is just as the church is telling us (and them), they are actually on a one way street to Hell, with pretty much no hope of redemption. And, unless Catholic church has started recruiting only half-wit clergy, the priest who agreed to marry them knew that as well as I do.

So, if we develop this argument a little bit further, that self-same priest has knowingly pushed two people straight into Hell - straight into Satan's welcoming arms, as it were - two people who (had they not been baptised at all before might have had a bit of an easier ride in the Purgatory. The logical question stemming from this is: is this priest just a very mean religionista who has wet dreams about unbelievers burning in Hell, or is he in fact Satan's agent hunting for poor souls like these who may be misguided, but are by no means necessarily hell-fire material?

Obviously, being an atheist myself, I do not believe there is a Satan out there to work for, I think it's the case of a deluded priests trying to have some legal fun with their victims (as opposed to paedophilia which is - if you are a Catholic priest in particular - in fact illegal). Which, of course, does not make the behaviour any more noble (it probably makes it even worse, considering working for a real Satan may not be something one chooses of their own free will - Dr Faust excluded). 

What it does amount to, however, in either case is a horrible con, and one that actually works three ways. One, the poor couple are conned, for having been sold a church wedding but actually getting a ticket to Hell - and it can be hell once you realise the one who married you did it to hurt you, even if there is no Hell. Two, the church is conned since the marriage does not in fact deliver souls to Heaven. Finally, three, Satan himself (herself?) is conned, too, because the poor couple, in fact, do not believe in  him (or his counterpart god) - and if people don't believe in you you don't really exist, do you?

Therefore, a word of advice to all interested parties before I leave (Satan included): do try and find a cleverer way to get both into people's lives and on the BBC. OK? Because, the way these things are being done is really poor brand management. In fact, the best way to go about it would be to just give up and vanish into nothingness you are. The world will be a better place for it...

PS
If there really was a Hell for people who have been behaving in a criminal manner here on Earth, I would like to put forward and application in the name of one Nadine Dorries of the Tory party and other sinful pursuits' fame. The only worry is, she may be rejected for fear of displacing the big boss...



Saturday, 22 October 2011

exit 1;

I know it's been a while, but I have been busy (yes, it does happen on occasion).

And, while I was otherwise engaged, another luminary of the digital age has left us to continuously look for ways around this valley of tears we inhabit (and no, I do not mean the Silicon variety). To stop beating around the bush - and especially stop trying to mint horrible metaphors - let's all stop for a monet and reflect on dmr.

If you thought the death of St Steve left the world poorer for a giant then you either think the same of Dennis Ritchie - or you have well and truly lived in a cave (or care only about how shiny and Fisher-Price like is your tech kit). Because, and if you didn't know you should really look it up now, a huge amount of the computing kit and software we use today rests on the shoulder of another giant - Dennis Ritchie, dmr.

No need to say more, really, so let me finish with the canonical "Hello, World!" program written in correct C (unlike elsewhere):

#include <stdio.h>
int main(void)
{
    printf("Hello, World!\n");
    exit 1;
}
Oh, and if you are wondering why I chose exit value reflecting not everything went well with my little program, it is, of course, because there is something a little less well with the world with no dmr in it.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

RIP St Steve


Not much more to say, really. I never really liked you, Steve Jobs, but I have always respected you. I have also always appreciated immaculate design of all the various and varied kit you and Apple churned out over the years. Business practices? Not so much.

Still, hugely sorry to see you go.

Period.



Monday, 19 September 2011

Multi-Kulti

There's been renewed interest and some hot debates about multiculturalism recently and, as far as I can see, most have been misplaced. Or rather, I think that both (all?) sides to the current argument have it wrong, including (especially?) the PC brigade.

Here's what I see as options presented in most debates:


Pro (aka "Repeat after me: we are all individuals...")

This is usually peddled by the various religionistas, but also by some others who in particular should know better. Essentially, the proposal is that every single group who cares to do so, carves out whichever niche they seem they need, and in it practise whatever rules, rites, rituals, culture, and whatever else they deem defines them.

All this, of course, with more or less utter disregard to anybody else in society (bar gross - but not mild - breaches of legality). This is viewed as being OK mostly by virtue of generously granting everybody else the same right to do whatever they wish to do. As long as, of course, this does not somehow hurt "us" (for any applicable value of "us"), where it is (also of course) always assumed that "us" have somehow more right to be hurt by "them" than vice versa.

How any intelligent being can argue that such state of affairs is fair and beneficial to a multicultural society is anybody's guess. I regard this as utter silliness, and can't escape the image of an old saying where "they get along same as a bag full of horns". And that's essentially what you get in this system: a host of incompatible lifestyles all vying for equal space and place in society.

I am sorry to be the one to break it to you, but this just can't work.

Con (aka "Repeat after me: we are all 'insert name here'...")

This is, of course, the pet stance of all who are, in their heart of hearts, as much of a racist, religious fanatic, or whatever other label you think is appropriate. They keep shouting from the rooftops that everyone wanting to join in their party (as if it were a fun one, to start) needs to dress and behave the same as they are.

What these types (and they are no better and no worse than those described above) forget to notice is that it  isn't their party any more, and most likely never really was. Modern Britain (and medieval one, too, for that matter) is no more homogeneously Christian (for any given value of Christian) than is modern Serbia (and especially not the medieval one!) a homogeneous kingdom of Orthodox Christians. Nor is, of course - albeit sadly - no country (yet) a paradise of atheism. And so on, and so forth.

The simple fact is, you just cannot take different people with different cultures (and especially different religions), and mould them into a ball of unrecognisably uniform dough. It's not possible, it's not right, and taken to it's ultimate consequence, it doesn't do anyone any good in any run, long, short, or medium. If you don't believe me, go re-read your history books. Such a ball of dough sooner or later (sooner) dries out and disintegrates into it's constituent parts and you end up with the horns in the bag again.

I am again sorry to be the one to break it to you, but this won't work either.

***

Now, it'd be very bad form, and you'd be well within your rights to slap me, if I just slagged off the two positions above without offering any alternative. If you were also possessed of a good dose of humour, you'd also demand I present any solution I may think I have as an apt metaphor.

Fret no more: I shall now do both...

What's more, I shall also build on the metaphors I already used, of horns and dough balls. With those in hand, and with a little bit of magic I borrowed from my religionista friends (and maybe a whiff of evolution thrown in for good measure) I am proud to give you... a hedgehog. Or, maybe better if you are more of a sea-child like me, a sea urchin.

Bingo (aka "sea urchin/hedgehog solution to world peace...")

Some among you may have already guessed where I am aiming with this. Some (hopefully not a lot), may have also started thinking I'll propose yet another wishy-washy peace on the playground sort of things. Finally, I am sure a vocal minority will insist I have done just that regardless of what I actually say. To them I say: stop reading now, go join someone else's tea party...

For the rest of you, here's my rationale:

It is an inescapable truth that we are all different. Individually, and as part of any group you care to draw a circle around and name something. This is as natural as it is necessary. After all, where would progress in any field come from if we were all exactly the same, behaved the same, and had all the same ideas and urges. Barring divine intervention - and you will excuse me, religionistas, but you may believe there is one, but there just isn't - from a uniform mass of individuals no new idea can ever come. So, even if possible, such an environment would be barrier to human betterment. And I hope we agree, human betterment is a "good thing"™.

On the other hand, it is equally unlikely that a random hodge-podge of different people and groups all pulling in different directions is going to achieve anything useful in any given period of time. It would be just like expecting a cloud of randomly darting Helium atoms to spontaneously move the balloon towards the lock, then form itself into a key and escape the birthday party. That'd be just a silly expectation, so I don't really know how anyone can think a society will benefit from such and arrangement. Not to mention that Helium atoms at least are not hostile to one another for no good reason, unlike some groups of people.

Add to this inability to facilitate progress the simple (and hopefully obvious) fact that neither a dough ball, not a random collection of horns can defend themselves if the need arises, and I have maybe given you reason to believe that neither can truly and successfully be applied to a human society. It may also become obvious that a human society needs to be organised in such a way as to make progress (aka human betterment) not only possible, but also probable, and at the same time be able to defend itself from whatever comes its way (sadly, it is still mostly other human societies that we need defending from, but that's another story altogether).

And this is where horns and balls of dough come together into a rather efficient system that can actually accomplish sensible goals, evolve and improve over time and generations, and also have a rather effective self-defence system. Both a hedgehog and a sea urchin have quite uniform cores of "dough" that represent most of their inner urchinness and hedgehogness, the bit that makes them tick and is responsible for any progress they may make in their lives. On top of that, quite literally, they are studded with horns they can employ as defence when needed. These horns, especially in a sea urchin, are quite free to act on their own as they best see fit, but still all in pursuit of a common goal, the goal set out by the ball of dough that is at the centre of things.

In a hedgehog or a sea urchin, this ball of dough is made out of all the meaty bits and pieces and other similar stuff an animal needs. In a human society, I submit that the central ball of dough must represent all that is common to all people, regardless of their culture and background, religious or otherwise. And if you want to really look into what these common things are, you will find that they are myriad, and that not really a lot is left once they are separated out of what looks like an incompatible human mess.

What is left, the differences, the horns that would otherwise be trying to run the show and break out of the dark bag where they rattle randomly against all the others, these can now be gainfully employed as a protection. However, by protection I don't necessarily mean protection against another human society (another hedgehog), but protection against the unknowns that the future has in store for all of us. Protection against running up a problem each one on its own would be ill prepared to tackle, but which can be solved by either concerted action, or a better suited neighbour.

But, and this is at the core of what I'm trying to say, it is the massive ball of common human ground that keeps all of this together and gives it purpose. And as humans we have much, much more common ground than we have differences any way you want to look at it. You may think your religion (or your atheism, for that matter) runs to the very core of your being, but if you are you are fooling yourself.

If you carefully separate out things in your life that are directly affected by what you see makes you different from your fellow human, and than have a look at what's left - and if you're honest to yourself in the process - I am sure you will find that what's left is such a massive part of what you are that the "differences" pale into insignificance. Which they shouldn't, because we all need them so we are as a society better prepared for what comes next (and no, by this I do not mean the Second Coming, or any other religious silliness).

So, let's press our common doughness into a tight ball and protect it with our differences as horns. It can only make us stronger. Oh, and now I see that a hedgehog is a better metaphor here: unlike a sea urchin, a hedgehog can open its soft underbelly and embrace new things into its core.

Therefore, at the end of this post, I give you...

A fledgling hedgehog society!

 
(and a 50p coin)


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

SNAFU

I don't know WTF happened to my Blogger account, but for the past however many days this blog was only visible to a select list of readers. Not only that, but on inspection it turned out the select list was quite empty. I have a sneaking suspicion this happened at, or around, the switch to the new Blogger interface. Normal service has now been resumed, with Grey Noughts again being available for perusal by anyone (and their dogs). I can only apologise for what looks like Google's fault, and for not spotting the problem earlier. You don't expect me to eat my own dog food, do you?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

(Non) Working Mums

There's a certain amount of brouhaha in Britain this morning regarding child care costs.

One thing that's is undoubtedly true is that the cost of someone else looking after your pre-school child is, and I have no better word for it, ridiculous. In a smallish town where I live it ranges from £250 to £350 per week for under twos. This makes it well over a £1000 a month, a sum that is very obviously out of reach for all but the very well off. 

It is also quite easy to do the sums that will tell you (and many mums) that they are actually better off financially if they stop working and look after their children full time. The savings in child care costs alone would justify this for a lot of people, and when you add the tax and other credits offered to unemployed as well as stay-at-home mums, it is unsurprising a lot families find the decision for mum to stop working a no-brainer.

But, I'd argue that it is in all but very few cases a totally miscalculated and wrong decision. How so?

It should be quiet simple to see, really. A no-brainer, some may argue. True, in the short term, while you're looking after your kid (or even worse a few kids in sequence) you are saving money. A lot of money. Or so it seems. But what about future earnings? Do these ever enter the minds of both the "savers", their "advisors", and  the "critics"?

Let's see how loss of future earnings (and some other factors) should be seriously considered...

Let's assume that the cost of child care rises with inflation. Let's also assume that the wages rise with inflation, too. I know they neither of this may have been true over the last several years, but in general this is true. And you'd be excused for saying, look, these cancel each other out! And indeed they do: 

If you're earning exactly as much as you're spending on childcare as you're earning then your net income will be zero regardless of whether you work or not. If you earn a £1000 and pay a £1000, if next year costs rise to £1010 and your earnings follow suit to the same £1010, then working or no working you'll find your pockets empty. 

Obviously, if you would earn less than a £1000 (say, per month) working would actually net you a loss on top of before inflation one (e.g. your wages rise from £900 to £909 while your costs rise from £1000 to £1010, your net loss has risen to £101 from £100). 

But, at the same time, if you earn more than your child care cost outgoings, provided both rise the same in percentage terms, you will actually start having a bit of disposable income (£1000 vs £1010 for child care and £1100 vs £1111 salary will net you a cool quid). So, if you're earning at least as much as the cost of childcare you may be losing money every year, all other things being equal.

Now comes the next interesting bit. Vast majority of people, when working, are getting better at it, and many even stand a chance of promotion. This usually leads to salary increases above the inflation rate. This in turn makes the calculation above even more favourable for someone who chooses to go to work and pay for child care. So you may even earn yourself a cool two quid a month!

And now to the most interesting part of my argument...

Assuming you plan to return to work at some point after your child care duties are over you may find rejoining the workforce a bit deflating - at least when it comes to income. The best you can hope for is that your (re)starting salary would be exactly equal to what you had before you quit, possibly increased by the rate of inflation. And even if it is adjusted to reflect the inflation you will still have missed out on the chance of getting any performance related raises and/or promotions. 

Not only that, but you also start your hunt for more money, with the skills that may have been current a few years ago. If you're lucky, they may still be applicable and will need only minor updating that can be done on-the-job and with no serious loss of either pay or performance. If you're only mildly unlucky, you may need to slow down your first job while you get up to speed and thus delay your next chance of above inflation raise. Moderately unlucky, and you'll find you have to accept a job at a lower grade than your last one, thus landing a nice little pay cut. Even worse, and especially if you decided to have more than one kid's worth of break from employment, you may find you need to spend time (and hopefully not your money as well) on learning whatever passed you by in your absence, essentially prolonging your unpaid maternity leave.

Now, if these are not things one should seriously consider before quitting a job to look after the kids I don't know what are. Add to that the fact that kids attending pre-school usually end up better socialised and with a possibly better trained immune system, and the stay-at-home thing should look a lot less attractive. Who would easily pass on a chance of having a healthier and better adapted kid, and at the same time having more to spend on them (and oneself, of course)?

I know, I know. This whole calculation at some point seems to stop working completely for the poorest amongst us. But I'd argue that those same poor who find themselves either already unemployed or employed in really low paid jobs may be at an even greater loss. Why? Because they should be all the more eager to either find that first decent job and/or improve themselves (and their wages) on the one they do have. Adding another few years of continuous unemployment to your dole record is a very good way of never actually getting a job. And having to re-start ones career - whatever that career is - from scratch is a frustrating experience at any rate, and probably a demoralising one, too.

Last not before I conclude (and by no means unimportant!): I may have mostly referred to stay-at-home mums. However, the very same applies to dads as well. It is a different issue altogether that women are mostly the ones choosing to (or pushed into) being stay-at-home parents. Yet another issue is that men still tend to be paid more than women for the same jobs, thus exacerbating the potential loss of earnings while on paternity leave. So, now may be the time to re-read all of the above making sure to mentally replace avery "mum" (or "dad" for that matter) with a PC "parent".

Oh, and dads, do be fair to your mums and don't make them stay at home. It's probably going to hurt both of you (and your kids) in the long run...



Monday, 15 August 2011

Google's Not New Microsoft

Despite what a significant (or at least an influential) part of the tech press is trying to tell you, Google is not the new Microsoft.


If you're not old enough to remember the really bad old Microsoft days you may be excused for buying the argument you are presented with. After all, it is in fact mostly the older journalists who tend to forward it. And knowing they have been there and have seen it certainly gives their argument added weight. It also means they can craft their argument in a very deceivingly persuasive way.

However, and despite a lot of correct analysis they proffer, their final conclusion is wrong. For all its failings, mistakes, and blunders, Google is not, and never will be the new Microsoft. Yes, it has virtual monopoly over web search (and a good few other things). Yes, their promise of a "completely open" Android is misleading, to say the least. And yes, it does not always follow its creed to "do no evil".

And yet, there is a major difference between all these failings, and the way Microsoft ruled the computer world in its heyday. The difference should be blindingly obvious, but if you haven't live the "Microsoft years" you may miss it quite easily. And this difference can be summed up in a word. Or rather, two words: one for Microsoft, and the other for Google.

Let's hear them now, then: Microsoft, a stifler - Google, an enabler.

Yes, it's that simple. And here's how:

As the end user, ever since the days of MS DOS, I have always felt constrained by what Microsoft offered as "user experience". Yes, there were productivity gains, but they always came with a heavy dose of "you can't get there from here". There was always the sense that a better solution is possible, and may even have been available for a little while, until Microsoft arrived and offered its vision of how things should be done. And then, using its well known corporate muscle, it would just trample over superior products and ideas and leave the carnage in its wake, the carnage mostly having the shape of wavy windows...

On the other hand, from the word Go, Google has been an enabler. All the products and services it offered actually made me do things in a better and easier way. Most importantly, they made me feel liberated every step of the way. Switching to a Google product always felt the right thing to do, and the existing competition did not die for being small, but not being good enough. Even when it copied, Google added value. True, sometimes the added value was a bit intangible. Like, while I (may) have to buy my apps through Android Market (or not, there's alternatives), at least I can take them with me to my next device. Oh, yes: iTunes allows that, too, but with a difference: you are restricted to just one manufacturer who has only one product to offer. Sorry, but I prefer to be able to shop for a different phone every time I need a new one.

And so on, and so forth. If you allow yourself to think about things that really matter, you will likely find that your Microsoft experience (even now, but even more back then) well and truly stifles you. If a company is a new Microsoft today, surely it is Apple. At least for those who have decided to drink Apple's Kool-Aid, bless their little pleasures.

So, don't listen to just about anybody telling you how Google is new Microsoft. While it may yet has a chance to mess up, it has so far been a force for he good. If you are a phone manufacturer, you may not be happy that you need to compete on hardware rather than have users locked in by the OS, but then it's been a while since pretty much all software has become a commodity.

And, as a matter of fact, I don't think we'll see the like of the Microsoft of the yesteryears. Even if having massive resources is still quite essential for mega success, the bar for entry into the game has been lowered so much it is barely distinguishable from the ground you stand on. Got an idea? Got time and wherewithal to learn some light programming skills? Yes, and yes? Go ahead, shell out $10 on a domain name, only a little bit more for some entry level web hosting, and off you go. If you're capable and/or lucky you can even hope for making it all the way to the top on your own. If you're capable and/or lucky you will be gobbled up by someone bigger. Yes, you'll probably not enjoy the limelight alone, but you will succeed anyway, and your idea will become a part of the human heritage (even if it does little more than ... whatever).

Finally, from where I sit - and where I sat when Microsoft was the Evil Empire - it seems quite clear that Microsoft slowed the progress way down, while Google... well, it is in large part the enabler of it.


Monday, 8 August 2011

Food: Now With 25% More Tomatoes!

Hello there, and welcome back to these pages after a (not so) brief self-imposed hiatus. No, I won't tell you why I was gone. It's not important, and, more importantly, it's also not very interesting. To you, at least. Yes, I know it's patronising. But then that's why you come here, isn't it? To be patronised, or hoping to see somebody or other beign patronised. I know how you people are...

But anyway, back to the business of patronising...

I've recently bought a bottle of Hellman's ketchup. I think it was this one. Actually, on careful inspection, it is that one. You can just make out the breathless claim of having "over 25% more tomatoes".

What you may not make out, even if you hold the bottle quite close to your nose (which you may have to do if you're as short-sighted as yours truly, are the two little marks urging you to look for the fine print. There's a tiny little asterisk, and right next to it an even tinier cross. I'll ignore the fact the cross is the one Christians use as their fetishsymbol, and plough on on a different topic.

(Don't you just find it weird how Christians can use such a horrible instrument of torture as their symbol and something they treat almost as a fetish. Well, not almost - a lot. There's something morbid about idolising alleged pain and suffering of their chosen deity. But then religions are often like that. Weird. Anyway, back to tomato ketchup...)

So, the little asterisk tells you that the "25% more" claim refers to the fact that "normal" Hellman's ketchup uses 132g of tomatoes for 100g ketchup. Meaning, of course, that this new and improved one uses (fetches his trusty calculator) a whopping 165 grams. This, after some googling, tells me that one average sized tomato is used to get a 100g of new and improved Hellman's ketchup. Which sounds like a good deal. Or does it?

Let's look at it from another angle...

The bottle in question holds 430g of ketchup (don't ask why 430 and not 500 or at least a pound). This means that 4.5 tomatoes have been used to make it. Let's be generous and say five. Or, better, let's apply Hellman's own data and some maths and get to 710g of tomato going into a 430g bottle of ketchup. This still sounds like a reasonable amount. It's almost a kilo, and substantially more than a pound.

But have you actually seen what 700g of tomatoes look like? Well, by virtue of having a tomato addict in the house, I actually see all sorts of quantities and types of tomato all the time. And from that (not as traumatic as it sounds) experience I can tell you that 700g of tomato on a plate or in a plastic bag does not look like something that can reasonably produce 400g of quality ketchup, let alone 430.

Just try it for yourself. Go to your local supermarket, weigh, buy and bring home 700g of tomato. Remove all the green bits (one hopes Hellman's do, too). Put in a blender. Blend. Check consistency. Realise the stuff needs a lot of reducing over slow heat in order to come close to being considered a ketchup.

Now, Hellman's also boast their fare has no artificial whatevers. Which is good. But they still obviously had to add something to make the required amount out of the advertised quantity of tomatoes. And, while probably really all natural, I do wonder what is it that has been added to that "tomato" ketchup. My bet would be on flour. That's nice and thickening, barely detectable, and probably also can be made "vegan", too.

So, in conclusion, don't fall for headline advertising. Too often when you scratch the surface you find quite a lot of unflattering facts. Or at least facts which, while supporting the headline, don't really add up to an exciting improvement of the product in question.

Oh, and sometimes you will find, as I did with Hellman's ketchup, that the product itself leaves you a bit wanting. Yes, it may be true that Hellman's now has "over 25% more tomatoes". Yes, it may be that their ratio of tomatoes to ketchup is the highest in the industry (that's what that little cross tells you, if I remember correctly). But in the final analysis, Heinz ketchup wipes the floor with this one any day of the week.

Caveat emptor, indeed...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Beer: Too Much... And Not Nearly Enough

Contrary to what you may think I did not have too much beer...

As a matter of fact, I didn't have nearly enough of the brown nectar. This is mostly because I simply had too much to do. And, maybe surprisingly for some, I had too much to do in the office. Maybe it's good. Maybe I will manage not to bring yet another company to it's knees. But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel - and it's not a train. In fact, I know exactly what it is: RAAJ. It may be (a bit) more about the jazz than real ale, but Reading Real Ale And Jazz festival is a nice place to be. Better still, my ticket has already arrived through the post. So, here's to Thursday evening fun, and here's also hoping it doesn't rain.

I hope I'll see you there...

Introducing Grey Books

Ladies and gentlemen, children...

Grey Noughts is proud to introduce its new sibling. Very early this morning, way to early to tell you exactly when, our sister-blog Grey Books saw the light of day. Or, rather more appropriately, it saw a glimpse of a grey English summer dawn through the eyes still half closed.

Grey Books is really an offshoot of our Reading... page. As you can read in a bit more detail in the inaugural post, I felt that sometimes a few lines of an opinion about the book I've just read are not enough. To cater for such cases, and not clog these pages even more, I have decided to start a new blog, one dedicated entirely to ranting and raving about the books I read.

Will it be a success? Of course not! But at least it will avoid the pitfall of Grey Noughts which is a veritable mish-mash of everything and anything you can imagine - and then some. And I am reliably told that consistency of theme is a key to success in the blogosphere - and probably in life, too, but then is there life outside of the blogosphere?

Anyway, you should definitely hop over and check out Grey Books for yourself. Currently it only has the opening speech, as it were, but it will grow. I can even give you a little hint that a certain recently finished book will get a right old bashing, and very soon!

And with that, I give you... Grey Books!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Religion: Holier Than Thou

Our old friend vjack had a bit of  rant recently...

But no, this is not about how I felt the need to chastise him over his chastising of Richard Dawkins. Well, not really because he chastised him, but because - regardless of the riposte - he chose to see RD (just) as an atheist, rather than what he mostly stands for in this world. It is actually the whole of vjack's rant I want to address here. More precisely, I'd like to take issue with the whole concept of "rating" anyone's atheism. What I think vjack totally failed to see, even if his rant was almost on target, is that atheism is really a very discrete state. Binary, if you want. You are either an atheist - or you are not an atheist. It is not possible to not believe in god just a bit, or don't believe in god more than I don't believe in god. Such a notion is actually quite stupid.

Therefore, I submit that the whole vjack's rant is pointless, or rather, that it misses the point completely.

It is not at all about being more (or a better) atheist than someone else. The only thing that can be graded in this respect is how much one fights for the atheism and it's goals. In other words, you may (or may not) be a better atheist propagator. In that respect vjack's rant - at least when it concerns RD - is actually very wrong. For various reasons (but not one of them being that RD is a better person than vjack) RD is a better atheist propagator than both vjack and your truly. I think there should be no argument about that. And one of the main reasons this is so is precisely because RD is primarily an evolutionary biologist and an author - and a very good one he is, both author and evolutionary biologists. It is precisely these qualities which enable him to be more effective in his atheist propaganda. Bot vjack and yours truly still have to work very hard to equal - let alone beat - that.

So vjack, less ranting, raving, and rating, and more of the usual good work...

Monday, 11 July 2011

Business: Five A Day

As you can see below, there's no business like five-a-day...


Hot Cakes by =vlad-the-impatient on deviantART

Strangely, the more I look the more I want some, too...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Religion: Q&A

Via vjack and RagingRev, this gem of a Q&A...

If we came from apes,
how come there are still apes?

If we came from Europeans,
how come there are still Europeans?

That's just stupid!

Exactly!

I guess RagingRev won't mind if you used it yourself...

PS
It is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out which colour corresponds to an atheist and which one to his religious interlocutor. There will be no points awarded for also figuring out which one holds stupider beliefs or lack thereof...

Friday, 8 July 2011

Beer: Or Red Bull

Formula 1 introduced some changes to the rules this weekend...

And - surprise! surprise! - Red Bull team are not very happy about it. Yep, they're not going to be able to use their unique exhaust diffuser technology any more this year. Now, I don't know enough (or much, really) about this technology, and especially not whether it is what made Red Bull cars so invincible up until now this season. It may very well be that it's all up to Sebastian Vettel. It may also be that Formula 1 governing body is playing favourites here. But on second look, it's not that Red Bull are the only ones using this particular technology. It's just that there seems to be that they may have made it work best. There was no telling if some other team(s) might have caught up with it, maybe even for this weekend's British Grand Prix. So, even if I can appreciate Red Bull's worries about being treated unfairly, I'd say that at least rules are being applied to everyone in the same manner. Plus, if I spent some time on it, I'm sure I could find similar examples in the past. And, finally, Red Bull should be happy that Mark Webber topped today's first practice - even without the exhaust diffuser.

Whether that's something to worry Sebastian Vettel,
is another matter entirely...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Science: Of Imagin(i)g

I hope you'll enjoy this image...




'Cause, heck, can't be bothered to blog today either...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Monday, 4 July 2011

Business: CEO Weaknesses

BBC managed to serve up another waste of my money...

Lucy Kellaway apparently spent 15 years of her life studying CEOs. Which would be fine and well were it not for the fact that the BBC chose to let her enlighten us about the frankly useless part of her "research". Surprise, surprise, when asked a bog standard job interview questions, CEOs give bog standard job interview answers. This fact wouldn't be (and isn't) bad or surprising in itself, were it not for Lucy Kellaway's breathless interpretation of it as a discovery almost worthy of Pulizer, if not Nobel, prize.

No shit, Lucy: ask people what their flaws are and they won't tell.

No shit, Lucy: ask a high fliers the same question and...

What did you expect?

For you and me, Lucy, every single conversation may not be a job interview, but for a CEO it surely is. As a matter of fact, Lucy, even for you and me every single public conversation is a job interview. One thing everyone worth their salt knows is that when asked about a weakness in a job interview you carefully pick one or two which are really strengths in disguise. And you know what, Lucy, you just failed yours.

And as for the BBC, please be more careful with my money...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Technology: Profiling

I know exactly what I want for Christmas*: a Google Profile...

Well, actually, I'd like to have one right now. Heck, I'd have loved to have had one for quite some time now. Alas, we who throw all our lot with Google by signing up and diligently using Google Apps (for Domains, at least) seem to get a short shrift in this respect. No Google Profiles for us. At least not yet. Now, I am not all that mad about people being able to check out my particulars on such a profile. I'm not even sure I'd have made it public had I had one in the first place. What does really get to me is that not having one prevents me from using quite a few of other Google features. OK, the Buzz may not be very high on that list, but Google+ sounds just like the social network for the rest of us (i.e. us Facebook deniers). And there's more which are probably not worthy of mention. And yes, I could go and use my old (but still active) @gmail.com account, but that would mean juggling identities and if I was into that sort of thing I'd have been a spy, not an engineer. Even more sadly, as it is always with Google, the support is "coming" - just don't ask when. So, in that light, I can only express my utter discontentedness, and plead to Google:

Let Christmas come early this year...


* No, I did not suddenly started to believe in god or even Santa Claus (aka St Nicholas). I am just using a well known word to denote a well known date, especially in relation to the propensity of people to dish out nice presents on said day. So get off it. OK?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Beer: Too Drunk To Spell

No, it's not me. I can spell even when inebriated... Honest.

What it is is a cause for celebration (I'm thinking a nice pint of Dr Hexter's Healer if I can get to one). The celebration itself is for reaching #1 in Google's search result ranking! Yes, you read it right: there is a Google search that will spit out yours truly's blog as #1 result. As a matter of fact, your truly occupies both #1 and #2 spots for this particular search. Yes, yes, I even beat Publishing Industry News. Go try yourself: click here (or here, if you prefer .com). Sadly, as you can see if you closely examine the search term, this is mostly for the illiteracy of JK Rowling's fan base. A bit strange for people who either have or want to read some books.

Actually, very strange, because they tend to misspell the name of their (and the books') hero. Maybe it's just those who get their literary fix from the movies? But those would presumably have seen Harry Potter's name in much larger print than if they've bothered to read a book. Or maybe they were just drunk? I mean, there's more people enjoying Harry Potter than just kids who don't (OK, shouldn't) drink at all. If I were JK Rowling I'd be a bit worried. Although I don't think she is: she's got too much money now to really care about more that just more money. But I've said all I had about that in the post that made me famous (well, a temporary #1 in Google search results). And you don't even have to search for it:

Just click here...

PS
The search ranking may have changed between the time I write and you read this.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Politics: Of Higher Education

Reportedly, Labour considers current proposal for higher education reform as a "complete shambles"...

Now, I'm the last one to wholeheartedly embrace every single bit of what (mostly the Conservative part of) government is proposing, but one particular bit of the reform seems like an obvious winner and if Labour are against that bit as well then their whole attitude towards this issue is more about being seen as anti-government then being pro-student. Wow! After this monster of a sentence, here's the bit I particularly like: apparently, the employment track record of various courses is going to be made public. If you ask me, when I was a prospective student, I'd have killed for such information. Surely it is good for prospective students to guide their choice of where to spend their tuition fees by which course gives them the best chance to repay them as quickly as possible? American universities face similar reforms and students are increasingly able to avoid degree mills, which many online graduate schools are considered, and spending their money on degrees that will result in gainful employment. Surely it is also good for universities. Even the bad ones. It might just be the kick up their arse they needed to up their game - or abandon useless courses. What everyone needs is not more universities at any cost, but more graduates who are actually useful to both the economy, and by extension, themselves. And in the somewhat longer run the whole university ecosystem, too. So Labour, pull out the finger and try to come up with something that's actually a reasonable policy and not just "we don't like the evil coalition" moan. Otherwise you'll only preside over a decade of Conservative governments.

And we don't like Maggies offspring, do we now...

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Science: Of Green Energy

Very interesting find in Newcastle...

No, it's not beer. We knew about that already. What has been found deep (miles deep!) underneath the venerable city is hot water. Hopefully a lot of it. Because, if there's enough, it can be used to heat most nearby buildings in a very cheap, and very clean way. A side effect of the drilling exercise is also quite a lot of other scientific finds from various fields: geology and archaeology to name just a couple. But there's a wider thing to be noted here. Surely with the advances in deep drilling technology it will become increasingly possible to tap into energy of the Earth's core by literally tapping into reservoirs of hot water deep within the crust. Not to mention that one does not necessarily even need water to be present deep down. We can always pump down some of what we have in abundance above the surface to be nicely heated and the heat used where it can do useful work. As far as I understand there are plenty of sites where this could be done given adequate technology at an adequate price. But, for whatever reason (cost?) this particular way of producing clean energy gets nowhere near the coverage of solar, wind, and even tidal power. For what it's worth, my personal feeling is that geothermal will eventually trump them all.

Here's raising The Dog to seeing geothermal shine in my lifetime...

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Food: Wedding Cakes

Quite interesting article in The Economist on marriage statistics...

Apparently - and surprisingly, at least to me - better educated (and thus also better off) wed more and stay wedded longer. This, of course, boosts their wealth even more. By contrast, precisely those who are by definition much worse off, seem to shirk marriage. Not only that, but they also tend to claim they "do not believe they can afford it". Strange, to say the least, and quite contrary to what one might expect if people were rational agents. Which they aren't, of course. But one would still expect people to behave in adaptive way, and when you're strapped for resources the adaptive thing to do is to find a willing partner to pool resources with. Even just sharing residence must yield great savings. Strange.

The more I think about it, the more I think about that "can't afford" statement. Could it be that the society has become so infected by the need for grandiose weddings that the fact one cannot have a wedding cake posh enough, and the reception glitzy enough, prevents people from even trying? Or are under-educated so under-educated that they cannot see savings even in the simple case of marriage? What can be done to change this? Mind you, I think marriage in itself is not necessarily the only solution here. There's really nothing wrong with people just living together. This is about efficient use of scarce resources which will eventually greatly benefit any children, or even just partners' pension funds.

Research project: is this also the case in UK and Europe?

Monday, 27 June 2011

Business: Of Arse Covering

Microwave ovens have been with us for too long now...

No, I do not mean too long for our (or their) own good .I mean too long as in long enough for supermarkets to figure out at what powers the darned things come. In the decades that I've been acquainted with the life or at least time saving device I've only ever come across the 600, 800, and say 1000W variants. And yet, most of the ready made meals you can get in the supermarkets give cooking advice for 650, 750, and 850W models. Now, if one knows how the microwave oven goes about heating your food, and is also familiar with the volume of the food at hand, with a moderate amount of maths knowledge one can adjust cooking times for a 600ml of soup from 3.5 + 3.5 minutes in an 750W microwave to the 3.75 + 3.75 minutes required in the 800W microwave, but I suspect that there something much more sinister at play here.

Yes, as you may have by now guessed from the title, it is the venerable arse covering (or ass covering, as the good - and the bad, I guess - people from across the pond may say) that is at play here. If you give people instructions that are literally correct, but hard to follow if you don't have a degree what else can it be? I mean, it's hardly likely that most people know that microwaves work by exciting (no, not in *that* way) water (and metal, for that matter) molecules in food and that this is relative to the volume of the stuff at hand, so that you can then work out that two bowls of soup require twice as long in the microwave, even if they'd take exactly the same time on the hob if you poured them into the same pot. Not to mention the hard work of figuring out "if it takes X at 750W, how long does it take at 800". Finally, no I'm not calling for supermarkets to initiate graduate courses for shoppers, but surely they can look around - even their own shelves these days - and realise what wattages they need to cover in their microwave cooking instructions? After all, they do want what's best for their customers.

Or do they...

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Religion: Of Foxholes

I just came across a wonderful quote by Kurt Vonnegut...
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and this is a good argument against atheism. I think it's a better argument against foxholes.
It got me thinking. The argument Kurt so brilliantly smashes here seems to be that the existence of a god is proven by the fact that people in most horrible circumstances, when their options are non-existent or at least seriously limited, tend to wish for a "divine intervention", a deus ex machina, if you want.

It strikes me that this argument is essentially the same as the one never wielded by religionistas, and that is that the existence of lotteries is an argument against atheism, because surely a lot of people are watching their one in thirteen million weekly draw calling upon the almighty to get them out of the misery of their everyday hand-to-mouth lives. Even in UK where atheists outnumber religionistas. Unless, of course, it is only the religious who play Lottery. For which I am the counter-example.

Since even religionistas think it obviously silly to present the lottery argument in order to prove existence of their chosen god(s) I can only wholeheartedly recommend they also drop the foxhole equivalent. And while they're at it, they should also all do much, much more work on the second part of Kurt's admonishment, to wit, making it possible that foxholes (and their equivalents) are well and truly abolished and relegated to the dark past of human history.

Sadly, with religions' track record on wars, this is unlikely...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Technology: I'm A Pervert

No, I have not (yet) turned this blog into a sexually charged one...

I am just using the word "pervert" to indicate the one who perverts in general, the meaning of the verb "to pervert" being defined here. But what is it that I am perverting? Well, the title holds a clue, no? Yes, you got it right, it's technology. But no, I do not mean that I am perverting technology to achieve some nefarious goals. I do not even mean that I am using technology to feed my perversions (if any). What I want to say is that, yesterday, I have used a few pieces of technology in quite a perverse manner.

Case in point: use Amazon MP3 app on my Nexus S to buy and download 101 80s Anthems (OK, I admit, this may count as a perversion). Now, why I'd use a mobile phone app to do this when I was sitting (admittedly quite comfortably) only six feet away from my laptop is anyone's guess. I think that "quite comfortably" had something to do with it.

Having sated my hunger for (some) things 80s, I now desired to transfer the songs to my laptop so they can be safely archived. Now, one could do that by connecting the phone to the laptop using a USB cable. But that would be too much work, and see also the "quite comfortable bit above". So, as one does, one uses ones Dropbox app on the phone to upload all 101 songs which the Dropbox daemon on the laptop (if you remember I am using Linux Mint at home) will immediately pull down from the cloud. Later, when one finally sits at ones laptop again, one can easily move the files to their proper place (no, I am not paying for hundreds of GB of storage - not even to Dropbox).

Now, if the procedure above is not a perverted way of going about downloading and archiving a bunch of MP3 songs, I don't know what is. Even when there are some mitigating circumstances. To wit: all this went over my home wireless and ADSL connections. In no way, and at no time, I have abused my employer's mobile data connection in order to satisfy my perverse lust for 80s music or my no less perverse laziness. Plus, Murray was playing Ljubičić on Wimbledon Centre Court, and that is a treat I get out of couch for no-one! But, as I said, even given these few facts to my credit, even I will freely admit that what I did was at least a tad silly.

Which is a good thing. Silly is good...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Beer: Year's Supply Of

This morning I have won a year's worth of beer...

You may be excused if you got confused after clicking on the link above (if you haven't, do it now). What on Earth do London 2012 Olympic Games have to do with beer, and especially with a year's supply worth of it? Well, in case of these particular Games, and this particular blogger, quite a lot. As it happens, he - that is me, by the way - gloriously failed to get any Olympic tickets whatsoever. Not that I have not tried. I duly entered the first draw and selected a few events that were neither here nor there in terms of popularity, all in the hope to actually get tickets to at least some. Of course, I ended up in the two thirds (two thirds!) of applicants who failed - ingloriously. Ingloriously for the London 2012 games. And Lord Coe. For some reason I hold him personally responsible.

Had I won all the tickets I applied for in the first go I'd have been £400 down. That's four hundred British pounds for three sets of two tickets for mediocre events. This equates to roughly 300 pints of good real ale from the supermarket shelves. Or, if you insist, around 125 pints from a tap of a good real ale pub. But, you may ask, even the 300 is not a year's supply. Knowing your appetites for real ale, we'd expect you to imbibe a bit more. Let's say just enough to fill the recommended intake of 3-4 units, equalling, generously, two pints of medium strength ale a day. And you'd be right. And that's why you need to read on. So do read on.

OK, here we go with the rest of the story...

As it happens, all the failures from the first round of ticket lottery were invited to try again. We were given a week to apply, starting just this morning, bright and early at 6 o'clock. Ante meridiam. AM. Crack of dawn. Which wouldn't be half as bad were it not for the rules set out. And the rules were truly insulting. Here they are: you can apply for up to three events on a first-come-first-served basis; you are notified if your application is successful within 24 to 48 hours; if - that's if - your application went through and is successful you will be charged for your tickets by 4 July; until you are actually charged you don't know which, if any, tickets you have won. If you tried to make the process more demeaning you'd have a hard time figuring out just how.

Oh, and of course the tickets available ranged from women's fencing qualifiers, through Grec-Roman wrestling, and women's basketball early rounds. That's if you're not totally mad about football and are prepared to travel to Coventry to watch an early round, not knowing who actually plays. Let me make it clear: I've nothing against any of these sports. They're as worthy as men's 100m final. It's just that I'm not interested in any of them. At all. Some people may be. But I'm not. It makes no difference to me if there really are (were, by now, I guess) 1.7 million football tickets left. What does make a difference to me is that the choice we unlucky two thirds were left with is really just adding insult to injury.

Also, to be totally fair to the London 2012 ticketing, there was one event that we (that's be me and S.O.) sort of wanted to see even if we didn't know who'll actually play. This is, or rather was, the bronze medal game in men's basketball tournament. If we were lucky - and at least one of the ex-Yugoslav teams unlucky - we could have been in for a treat. Problem? Problem is that the only tickets left cost £225 a pop. That's £450 for the two of us, for a single game which may well feature teams we couldn't care less about. And no, the fact that we could probably also (or instead) get 60kg Greco-Roman wrestling men's bronze medal match tickets for close enough to peanuts it didn't matter, didn't matter. At all.

So there you have it: another £450 saved, bringing the total savings to almost £900 pounds. And that, my friends (and enemies) is as close to a year's worth of ale it really doesn't matter. If I spent it in the supermarket I could easily exceed the recommended alcohol intake. In a pub, while it may not exactly stretch to a year's worth of beer, one can probably count on being treated by some good Samaritans, this being an all the more likely case when one relates one's sad story of failed attempts at getting at least some Olympic tickets. Of course a little sang here is that there's going to be so many of us unhappy with London 2012 that it may become increasingly difficult to tell a good enough story worth a free pint. Which probably means one has to start practising one's storytelling as soon as possible.

As you have just seen, I have just started. Did you like it? Will I be able to talk a free pint of someone with this? No? Thought not. But there's still time. I don't really need to start spending the savings I made before the Games start. And when they do, I'm going to stock up on some good ale and take my free seat at a sofa and enjoy the games. Heck, most sports are better watched on TV anyway. Which reminds me: if I go easy (or cheap, or both) on beer I may also be able to upgrade my TV with all the money I didn't spend on crap live sport at crap London 2012 Olympic Games. Which can only be a good thing™.

Now, if only there was a way of stripping Lord Coe of his Lordship...


PS
In case London 2012 Protection Crack Team (or whatever they're called) intend to sue me for using the London 2012 Olympic Games logo, let it be know that it is being used here as part, and for the purposes, of fair use criticism and comment. Especially the former.


PPS
If the same crack team intend to sue me for using the number "2012" (eight times, I think) let it be known that they are a disgrace for even attempting to do so, even more than it was a disgrace to bully this nice lady. And if they still insist they have the right to stop people using "2012" I will offer them a fair compensation, at the same level supermarkets offer for vouchers and coupons if one wants to convert them to cash, i.e. I offer to pay 0.001p per mention. Which is 0.008 or 0.009p so far. Since I also insist on paying cash, and since the only truly legal tender in this country is £1 coin, I also promise to put it in my will that any descendants I may have are liable for this expense - once the inflation and accumulated interest brings it up to the value of £1. I leave it to my, and the descendants of the London 2012 Olympic Committee to calculate at what time in the future they can come and collect their quid. By which time I hope the disgrace of the London 2012 Olympic Games ticketing might just be forgotten.


PPPS
And no, I am not going to say anything about what the London 2012 logo reminds me of...