Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Few Minor Improvements

I've already mentioned elsewhere that Christmas is nigh, but let's see now what I'd really want for Christmas (and yes, it includes you, but no, it is not all about you). Admittedly, most of what I'll wish for below I'll probably only ever get on my death bed - if at all, but hey, not all the wishes can come true, can they?

One: a built-in wireless headset.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Career Climbdown

Another post inspired by something I (was asked to) read in that decent women's weekly glossy that is Grazia. I've no idea if you can read the article on-line. I haven't looked. In case you can be asked the title in the print edition is "Help! I'm having ambition comedown!"

As it would in a women's glossy, it talks exclusively of young women realising that climbing the greasy pole is no longer as attractive an option as they thought. Apparently, they are now looking for alternatives, and in droves.

Grazia having to make some money in the process seems to have opted for a relatively one-sided view of the phenomenon. Namely, they are not really describing women who are giving up on the greasy pole, but women who have got bored of one particular kind, and are now jumping over to the side to a different one. The money making comes from mentioning a couple life coaching companies, by name and website. I initially thought I'd do the same (I'm not allergic to money either), but after looking at their websites I realised one is poorly styled basic operation I wouldn't trust with my pet teddy's career, or life, and the other is a management bull-speak kind of leech company which you may want to hire for your underlings if you are a high flying manager who did not yet realise the pole is greasy...

Now, I have nothing but praise for people discovering "the right thing"™ to do at any point in their lives, giving up everything else, and pursuing their newly found raison d’être. Quite to the contrary. We most certainly need more happy people, than high flying management gurus. What I do disagree with when magazines like Grazia are pushing for it is the tacit suggestion that, while it's OK to turn your good ship around, it is not a desirable, or even viable, option to moor it in the waters you found comfortable and pleasing, the waters which, apart from the day-to-day job of maintaining your good ship (which is your career) may offer some nice diversions which otherwise may not be within such an easy reach. Yes, I am talking here at just applying the breaks - not just taking that junction and joining another fast lane. After all, the Peter Principle is not still considered broadly valid for nothing.

Finally, I must say that I have been advertising both options above to all who would listen for quite a long time now. More importantly, I think I have been taking my own medicine as well. I will not, however, claim that I have been wise from the crib. I have, too, let myself steer my career in the general direction of the top of the greasy pole. In the process some of the things I liked doing the best have, sort of, fallen by the wayside. Yes, I'm still in the general vicinity of them, but no longer on the coal face where I liked to be the most a decade ago.

Oh, I am still enjoying what I do. It's just that the distancing from the coal face, once I realised it happened, made me start to re-evaluate my career, where it's got to, and where it's going. And in this re-evaluation I have come to all of the conclusions of the Grazia article - and then some. I think I have now squarely put myself in the "having moored their good ship" group of people, and I can tell you the waters and the nearby shore are chock full of nice things to do, see, and experience.

Lastly (and unlike "finally" from a couple of paragraphs above this time I mean it), for those who may have an objection to an eternally static mooring, I have to say that it need not be so. It is perfectly possible - even desirable - to up anchor every now and then and choose a different mooring. The general business of running your good ship "Career" may not change much in the process, but the scenery will be new, and you'll get a whole new crew to make it all worthwhile. The plus is often that this new mooring can be quite close to the previous one, thus offering much the same extra-curricular diversions.

So, good people, by all means do evaluate where your own shipping lane is taking you, and change the lane, and its direction as you see fit. Just don't forget that there is one other option, and that is parking in a port for a while, or just dropping anchor by some eye-poppingly beautiful tropical island. Yes, I am urging you to consider just going fishing every now and then. And, if you like it very much you may even consider making it your new career.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

I Have Been Remiss

It is true that one needs to start cleaning from one's own house. But, this most  certainly does not mean one should never even try to point to a mess in the neighbourhood. And, especially when one claims not to belong to any one house in particular, that one is completely opposed to even a notion of a house and would much rather sleep under the moon and the stars (the young lady on the left notwithstanding), then one has absolutely no excuse in not pointing out failings in all houses.

Now, having made my excuse, let me tell you what all the prattle above actually means...

You must be aware that I have written excessively about religion - or rather, against it. However, looking back at my writings they are really very much one sided. Yes, I shout from the rooftops about my atheism - and very loudly - but I only ever seem to rant against Christianity. While I fully believe that all of that criticism is well deserved, I can also see how it may appear one sided. So, alongside the (non)excuse above, and another proclamation of my unwavering atheism, let me say loud and clear that the other major religion of our day, Islam, is not one iota better.

Most recent case in point: private weekend Islamic schools appear to teach their pupils some very unsavoury things. Teachings about hell fire awaiting homosexuals, and about how to best amputate a hand of a thief should not have a place in any modern society. I don't find it acceptable to even think of saying "not here in Britain" or "go teach that somewhere else". These sorts of attitudes have absolutely no place in this day and age. Even deeply religious countries should have by now moved on from medieval, or even thousands of years old teachings.

However, it would be also fair to say that teaching children these things in a very secular and modern country like Britain is not just a bad idea, but a criminal one, too. Criminal, because such children, indoctrinated by the seventh century ideas will either auto-segregate, be segregated, or worst of all, find it called for to try to convert or even punish the non-believers around them. Is that what their teachers have in mind?

Even if such children eventually move to countries where such beliefs are still held (or at least enforced by governments or religious leaders - or both) they will presumably need to communicate, trade, or otherwise work with the rest of the world not sharing their "ideals". We see that already when women travel on business to some Middle Eastern countries. Quite apart of all the limitations they face on the streets (e.g. not being allowed to drive, or wear certain kinds of clothes), they sometimes face discrimination in the business meetings when some of their Middle Eastern business partners refuse to address or even look at them.

Finally, I can't even imagine how an openly gay couple can ever manage to spend a satisfying holiday in some of these places. And anyone interested in making money should know that gay couples are the best consumers there is, usually having two incomes, no kids, and often flamboyant life styles.

But, back to the good old Blighty (or any other European country for that matter), there should be no excuse, and no way to be able to teach such discriminating ideas to anyone. Such textbooks, and such teachers, should be banned. Period. Everything they teach and represent goes against the modern idea of human rights, and humane society. We should all also remember that human rights are not just any idea. They are guaranteed by the European Union law, and also by United Nations charter. If someone can be found in breach of Human Rights Act by making a patient wait too long for a treatment, surely teaching that an adulteress should be stoned to death, or a thief should have their hand or foot cut off breaches, too?

So, from now on, please keep in mind that in my view there is no religion that is innocent of stupidity - or worse (often, sadly, much worse). I may again find myself ranting more about one than the other(s), but this will only be because I tend to hear much more about that one than the other(s). I honestly, and deeply, hold all of them in deep contempt. There is no place for such out of touch systems of ideas and teachings in the modern world. They may have had their value hundreds and thousands years ago. They may even be something that has been evolutionary selected in us poor humans, but what has also been strongly selected in us is plain old intelligence and a drive to better ourselves. Happily, the former enables us to see that the latter does not need religion any more. What's more it also tells us that now, the religion can only be a hindrance. Any religion, and without exception.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Boon, Bane, Both, or None?

I have been chastised for (ab)using my dual citizenship recently. In my Desert Island Discs post I used it to essentially double my allotment of things to take with me to a desert island. Apparently, that's an unfair advantage. Or is it? Let's see...

First, can having dual (or even multiple) citizenship can bring some perfectly legal advantages?

I submit that it can, and in fact does. Take travel, for example.

First, being a dual national you can travel to a set of countries that is a union (in terms of set theory) of the sets possible with either of the citizenships on its own (or at least do so without needing a visa). An unfair advantage? Maybe. Illegal? Not allowed? Sorry, but no. Second, imagine you, being a dual national, travelled abroad (i.e. to neither of your two countries of nationality). While there, something happens and you need your country's help and support. Being a dual national you can tap into either (or even both) of your countries' resources. An unfair advantage? Maybe. Illegal? Not allowed? Sorry, but no. There's surely more examples, but I think these two will suffice for now.

But, does having dual nationality have disadvantages? It sure does. First, if you are in either of your countries of nationality, you are unable to seek help from the other one. This surely is a disadvantage if one of them is "worse" in some respects - and you happen to find yourself in it with a problem (e.g. a military draft). Second... Well, I can't seem to be able to think about the second, but there must be at least one. Instead I will now concentrate on why having dual citizenship may in fact make you worthy of enhanced treatment...

Let's first have a look at the case of economic or political emigration. The case where you left your home country looking for a better life - whatever better life means. This implies that your previous (previous to emigrating) life was less than satisfactory - at least in the eyes of your home country, but also your new home. And, don't we all extend understanding, often even special treatment to those who have suffered? Most of the time we do. So, gaining a dual nationality by virtue of having "escaped" some form of hardship surely entitles one to some leeway?

Next, let's see if a similar argument can be made for those who gain dual nationality by a more pleasant route. Let's assume it is because they are seen as very worthy by their new home country for being very, very good at something. It can be science, it can be art, it can be sport. You take your pick. But, whichever one you choose, you are admitting that such an individual is somehow special and by implication deserving of special treatment.

Now, I won't claim that either of the two paragraphs necessarily describe my case, but surely by extension, even me, as a dual national, deserve at least a little bit of special treatment? Is it really too much to ask to take twice as much music and literature to a place as solitary and sad as even the most beautiful desert(ed) island must be?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Good Boys Don't Lie! Or Do They?

Let me tell you a little story...

Once upon a time there was a little boy. I like to think he was 9 at the time, but more likely he was 11. I don't know if it makes any difference, but in case it does, we're all safer assuming he was 11. You may also know that at 11 little boys are just that - little. Unlike little girls who seem to be 21...

But I digress - as I am wont to do.

Just bear with me...

This little boy had a birthday party, and many and varied little friends of his attended. As has always been considered good practice his parents were present as well. Well, most of the time. All the children being little (and presumed good) they did pop out for a short time. Not far, mind. Maybe just to the next door neighbours.

In their absence, a glass was broken. There may have been a little colourful spillage even. Nothing major in any case, but still something that would not go unnoticed. It doesn't really matter who did it, apart from the fact that it wasn't the little boy who was having a birthday party.

Back from wherever it was they popped out to, parents naturally noticed the broken glass and/or the spillage. Also naturally they inquired about it with the little boy. Unfortunately (or maybe not, as we shall see later), they chose to also inquire into "who" did it. Not in any menacing way, to be sure. Just a natural question, asked in a natural, not unfriendly tone of voice. After all, they were very good parents.

The little boy, having been brought up by very good parents was not only (generally) well mannered, but also took all their lessons to heart. Including the one which said that good little boys did not lie. They were always truthful - especially to their parents. So, naturally, and without second thought (little boys seldom have second thoughts, anyway), our little boy told his parents exactly who broke the glass. Simple question, simple enough answer, truth told, all was good.

Or was it? Because, what followed was our little boy being chastised for telling on his friend! Apparently, in this particular circumstance (although it was not said in so many words), the right thing to do was to tell a lie, and claim that it was him, our little boy, who broke the glass, thus saving his friend from embarrassment. Hmm. Strange.

Now, I said that little boys do not have second thoughts. And in fact, I still think that's true, and I don't believe our little boy had second thoughts about this strange event, at least not in the way us grown ups (or are we ever?) have second thoughts. Or analyse things. Or maybe the little boys mind worked a bit like mine does now (still?) and he arrived at conclusions in some kind of gestalt manner? Anyway, read on to learn what the little boy learned from the experience...

If you thought that one of the lessons is that to lie is perfectly OK, you'd be very much mistaken. For whatever reason our little boy realised - then or later - that to lie is truly bad in itself. Or rather - and I think the distinction is important - it is the best policy to tell the truth by default. For one, telling a lie tends to make one have to come up with further lies in order to cover the very first one. While doing this is quite possible, sometimes even necessary, it is hugely inconvenient, and requires too much mental work that could be otherwise put to better use (mostly for keeping the "story" consistent).

But, importantly, there are times when telling a lie is the best course of action one can take. This can be for many reasons - one obviously being to save someone we hold dear from embarrassment. Not that the culprit in the story above was necessarily worth the sacrifice.  However, one may need to tell a lie to save themselves from embarrassment. Case in point: our little story. If you are seen to be expected to be protective of others at your own expense you may safe both your and their face by not telling truth. What's best (worst?) one may even gain extra brownie points if it is obvious one lied to protect another - as convoluted as it may sound...

So, quite contrary to what most parents try to teach their children (i.e. that to lie is bad, period), lying is in fact OK, and may even be rewarded by the same people who on different occasions may tell you something very different. What's more, one can be seen to have lied by all concerned and still come out of the experience with one's social status not only unscathed, but in fact improved. As his mother used to tell his wayward son Albert: "All is relative, Albert, my son!". Indeed.

And now to some indirect, yet possibly more profound, lesson our little boy learned from the experience (or at least backdated the realisations to the incident described above)...

Probably the most important "take home" lesson (even though he was at home at the time) was that no lesson - ever - is to be taken literally and at face value. Regardless of who it comes from. Even the parents. Even the parents who one does not have one iota of a reason to doubt in any way whatsoever. Surely, the more trusted the source the less scrutiny may be required, but everything - everything - is to be questioned and played against all other knowledge and experiences. And - and this most certainly came only later - this exercise is to be repeated at regular intervals. This last thing should really be obvious: the knowledge and experience one plays one's lessons against change daily, thus necessitating re-evaluation of anything we decided based on their content in the past.

Were there more lessons in this seemingly small incident in a small child's life? Probably. One of them might have been that, while you may be required to stick your neck out to protect others (even if only with ulterior motives as described above), you should not expect others to do the same for you (our little boy's friend most certainly did not volunteer his confession). It's essentially a game of chicken, waiting to see if you'll be spared by someone's confession of guilt or whatever is in question. And games of chicken are stupid. So, what you do is try to play your hand first and try to get the most of it, however little trumps it holds.

Finally, could little boy's parents have done any better? I doubt it. It is difficult enough to instil the very basics of manners and social norms into your children as it is. To try to teach an 11 year old the nuances of sometimes lying vs always telling the truth is probably well nigh impossible. The best one can hope for is not to get into a situation where confusing messages may be sent. Taking our little boy's story one way of handling the situation might have been to not ask about the culprit at all - after all at parties things get broken, and nobody is ever really at fault. But, it is only human, and natural to instinctively ask "whodunnit".

So, in hindsight, our little boy never really held the incident against his parents. What's more, in due course he actually begun being thankful for the experience, however confusing for his little mind it was at the time. Luckily, his little mind proved capable of wrestling down this particular problem quite efficiently, and came not only on top, but richer and better for it. Luckily, because at age 11 there is not a parent in this world who can vouch that their child will not take exactly the wrong lesson from such an inconsistency. And, taking the wrong lesson can lead to much suffering later. Maybe even suffering caused by one being tied quite tightly to that horrible human invention that is an electric chair...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Desert Island Discs

As some of you may know, the Desert Island Discs is the BBC Radio 4 programme, created way back in 1942 by Roy Plomley, and currently presented by Kirsty Young. To echo its own web site: "... the format is simple: a guest is invited ... to choose eight records they would take with them to a desert island." I am fairly sure a similar programme used to run on one of the (better) Belgrade's FM stations when I was (much) younger. Whether that programme also included current enhancements to the BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs - one book, and one other "comfort" object - I truly don't know.

What I do know, however, is that - unlike current British deputy PM, Nick Clegg - I will probably never be invited to the show. Which, of course, does not stop me wondering what records (and the book, and the object) I might have chosen had I been lucky (i.e. famous and/or important) enough. Also, in the safety of my in inconsequentialness, I can also decide that I, in fact, through my dual nationalityness, deserve to choose two sets of records. To make this unfair advantage ever so slightly fairer, I will consign my self to one set of ex-Yugoslav (and I mean SFRJ) records and one set of "world music" records. I will extend the same rule to books, too, but I will stop at only one object. Fair is fair, after all...

Difficult as the choice is for records, it is much more difficult for books - what with having be allowed only one (each). It is, by extension, even more difficult for the object. Therefore, I shall start with it - the object. First, I will assume that the desert island is a "proper" desert island, i.e. one with no electricity, phones, or even Internet (I do hope it's still one with enough food, drink, and facilities for essnetial ablutions). Unlike Nick Clegg, I don't think I also need to assume that there'll be fire (his "object" was a supply of cigarettes - very controversial and brave choice in this day and age). After all, I could conceivably (and happily) live off veg, fruit, and sushi (it is an island, after all, so I assume ample supply of fish - maybe even shellfish). So, without further ado (but after much deliberation), my object of choice ,to keep me company in my loneliness, is... wait for it... a writing set. Having already succumbed to the delusions of self-importance, and never the one to lose hope, I would very likely want to write down a kind of a diary stroke life story stroke cry for help. And if I am not rescued before I drop dead then I could at least leave my story behind - peppered with (more than) a few choice words for my "rescuers".

The "object" (I know, I cheated - but then Nick Clegg asked for more than one cigarette) out of the way, we come to books. For the "world" book I briefly entertained the thought of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but as much as I love it, I think it would be very inappropriate on a desert island (and I assume it would be just me on the island, right?). Pretty much the same applies to No One Writes To The Colonel - even if I am not one. So, having been cheated by destiny, I decided to cheat a little bit myself and go for Dune, by Frank Herbert - all six of the original series. They do read like a single (master)piece, after all.

While the ex-Yugoslav book choice did not present such a conundrum, I still had to think long and hard. Do I go for Dorotej, by Dobrilo Nenadić - this being by far my most favourite book by a Serbian author, or maybe Igra s hudičevim repom ("A Game with the Devil's Tail") by Vitomil Zupan (Slovenia)? In the end, and again after (very) much deliberation the choice fell on S Krležom iz dana u dan ("With Krleža, day in, day out"), by Enes Čengić. I doubt the last one of the three was ever translated into any language, but if you happen to come across it (or the other two) in a language you can enjoy (no, it's not enough to just "know" it) do give it (them) a go. This, of course, applies to my "world" book choices, too!

And now, for something completely different...

Sorry. I got carried away a little. What's left to list are the records - not films, or TV shows. Although that would be interesting to do, too. But, let's stick to the format, and get on with the choices. At least with records I won't bore you with my uncertainties, and will just present you with two lists. And one caveat. Similar to the case of Dune, I have chosen to consider a double (or even a triple) album as a single record. I think that is very fair, seeing as you'd never accept coming back from the shop wiht just one record out of The Beatles' White Album, for example.

And now, here are the lists, the "world" one again being the first...

The "world" music Desert Island Discs:

The ex-Yugoslav music Desert Island Discs:

Right. I hope you enjoyed it. I also hope you'll try and find at least some of these (books as well) and give them a go. I know I do - often. Yes, I am the type who revisits favourite books every so often, and yes, I listen to my favourite music much, much more than every so often. Now, if only Kirsty Young invited me into her show...

I probably need to create another list of records: my favourite eight classical pieces. I will leave this exercise (no, not to the reader) for later, either as an update to this post or as a brand new one. For now, suffice it to say that my all time favourite classical piece is Mozart's Violin Concerto #5 in A Major (K219, or Turkish). 

Monday, 1 November 2010

Sir, Please Step Away...

A day or so ago, Slashdot pointed me to an interesting (or "interesting"?) article by Poul-Henning Kamp (PHK in further text) at ACMqueue. In the article PHK argues that programming languages should move on from being coded strictly in ASCII, and on to something more expressive, e.g. Unicode. While I may not have written much code in the last several years, I have written a lot of code in many more years before that - all in ASCII, of course. I also cannot claim to be any sort of expert, guru (or even "guru"), let alone visionary, but I do believe that I have a good enough overview of the dark art of programming to be allowed an informed opinion in this matter. Even one that is opposite, and not very flattering to the PHK's proposal. And, as you must have guessed already, I will now tell you all about it...

The first, and probably the most obvious objection to PHK's article is that it is not very rich in either good reasons for adopting a more complex way of coding, or in examples that may be seen as teasers to draw in support for his viewpoint. The former is generally expressed as the dichotomy between "poor" ASCII, with its miserly set of 95 characters, and the alleged richness on offer if we adopt Unicode or similarly complex and "rich" way of expressing computer code. The latter is expressed by quoting a couple of Unicode characters or strings, and even that is done in hexadecimal notation. There's also mention of colour, and a few other styles. This is very, very far from a strong case for a "richer" source code.

And now, a few much more substantiated objections from yours truly...

First, a non-programmer one: the natural language, in this case English. English language, as we should all know, needs but 26 letters, and a handful of signs of punctuation marks. With this meagre set outstanding literature was made possible, as well as science - including software engineering. It is unlikely that Chinese, with its thousands of glyphs, is any better (or worse, for that matter) for expressing human thought (and feeling, for that matter). It is equally unlikely that computer languages will be made any better by simply allowing them to be expressed with more than 95 characters (195, 11950, ... where does it stop?). If anything, it will make them harder to learn. Don't forget, a Chinese speaker (or rather - writer) may not need ever master every single one of the thousands of glyphs that form Chinese alphabet. On the other hand, a programmer, if he is to master the language he's using probably does need to learn every single little detail of its syntax - and that includes every single character available.

Next, while I will happily agree with PHK that character-only, black-and-white displays are a thing of the (ancient) past - and that it's good that they are - and that we may not all still use the (in)famous ASR-33 terminals, even PHK should be able to see that the keyboard in front of him (and me, and you) is, for all intents and purposes, the same one as on ASR-33! We may have a couple more modifier keys, a numeric keypad (which just duplicates some keys), and a row of "function" keys, but we all in fact still do use the ASR-33. What this means is that we (still) have to jump through hoops to enter any of the "special" characters outside simple ASCII. Your options are, roughly: assign (and remember) extra key combinations to existing keys - some of them may require two modifier keys, too (e.g., Ctrl-Shift-P for ¶); hunt for the desired "special" character in the Character Map-style applications (as I did just now for that ¶). There may be other (and slightly better) ways, but they would all have to somehow bypass the simplicity of the standard QWERTY keyboard. Or, we'll all (or at least all programmers will) have to buy new, as yet unreleased, special keyboards with much more than 100-odd keys. Goodbye, coding on a laptop!

PHK also calls for the line length conventions to be broken. With the large screens of today, why not let code stretch far more than a few dozen characters? Well, one good reason not to is that very long lines are very hard for a human to parse. For one, reading a very long line may (will?) require a person to turn their head from side to side - for each and every long line, row after row after row. So, reading code becomes not only a difficult mental task, but also physically demanding. Add neck injuries to the carpal tunnel syndrome! Alternatively - probably because he realised the previous problem, even if he didn't say so - PHK calls for extra width to be used to display subroutines alongside the code that invokes them - as if that was not already both possible and done. Every programmer's editor worth its salt allows you to open multiple windows and arrange them on screen in any way you wish (including the possibility for two or more windows to scroll synchronously). So nothing new there, then. A pointless point, if you will.

What's left then of PHK's arguments and suggestions?

Well, not having much of an argument for his case in the first place, what's left to comment on is the suggestion for use of colour (as in colour coding of syntax), and presumably other text attributes (bold, underline, italics, strikethrough, or maybe a combination thereof?). These are all (or at least most of them) already in use in any decent programmer's editor. I guess PHK would want them standardised, or at least standardised per every new "rich" programming language. Aside from the fact that applying such attributes requires extra keystrokes (and good programmers are lazy and dumb, as you probably know already), there would be an uproar from all the people who chose, and got used to, all the different styles of colour coding today. Oh, and PHK never says what sort of thing different colours or styles would denote: maybe a "stop" would make the code stop quicker, and in a less safe way than just "stop", or even "stop" (the last one maybe meaning "please stop? pretty please?")? And, what about all those colour blind people? How about dyslexics who already struggle with English alphabet?

Here is a good (cheeky) example of what new PHK-style code might one day look like. Maybe it will soon take place alongside all the other possible (and fun) renditions of the famous "Hello, world." program. That's all as may be, but I know a few things for sure. Or at least I have hopes that some things will never be coded in a colourful, Unicode-rich, a mile-long-line-of-code way. Would you trust your life to an auto-pilot, cruise-controlled car, or a robot surgeon if it was programmed in a language where "stop" is different from "stop". Or, a bit less (or more?) scarily, would you subject your child to a course of such a programming language? Even if it wasn't dyslexic or colour blind. I know I wouldn't...