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Monday, June 30

off abroad again

Tomorrow morning I go to Turkey, where I'll spend a week catching up with family I don't get to see very often. I'll probably check email occasionally, but I doubt I'll post here until I get back.
posted @ 8:28 AM -

Dedication to gaming

During my BA, my flatmate Ben and I set up an N64 through a splitter and two televisions back-to-back, so we could play two-player Goldeneye without seeing each other's screens. It made an already dangerously compulsive game even better, but many people didn't understand and just thought we were being extremely sad. I wonder what they would have made of this.
posted @ 4:42 AM -

Peace for the Congo?

Years of false starts in Israel have led me to be automatically pessimistic about claims like this, but it seems the government and rebels in Congo are hammering out important details on the way to turning their ceasefire into a reliable permanent peace treaty. If this works it would mean the end of the most lethal war since 1945, and make stability possible for a large part of Africa for the first time in years. We'll have to wait and see, but hearing good news from that part of the world is a refreshing novelty.
posted @ 3:18 AM -

Sunday, June 29

Land of the Free

There are many in Britain, who whenever they perceive that either our own government or the EU is infringing on our freedom start to lionize the USA. It seems they actually believe America's own rhetoric about being the land of the free. Perhaps they should take note of this: it has taken until last week for the Supreme Court to declare that what one adult does to another in the privacy of their own home is not the business of the law. Even now 3 of the 9 judges voted against this, with one declaring that this shows that The Court has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda.
posted @ 3:41 AM -

Thursday, June 26

Exerting our power as consumers

Maybe it's time we responded to the RIAA's consumer-hurting obsession with music piracy by boycotting their members' releases.

In an ideal world—a world in which I had access to unlimited pots of money—I would spend enormous amounts of money on music, for me to copy albums would be robbing their makers of income, and for me to avoid releases by the large number of labels who are RIAA members would deprive me of much music. However, we don't live in this ideal world, and I actually spend as much money as I can afford on music. That means that in a good year I buy 20-30 new albums, and at least as many cheap second hand records, whereas this year I have bought 4, and that could be my quota for the year (it's not been a bad year, but my money has been going elsewhere and my income has been less than huge).

I can't afford to buy more music, so if I copy music it isn't costing anyone anything, because it's not denying anyone a sale that they would otherwise have had. It also won't be that hard for me to find as many good albums as I can afford from non-RIAA labels. If the RIAA really were protecting their revenue I would be more tolerant of their efforts, but they are just persecuting fans, and I would like to do what little I can to make them pay for that.
posted @ 3:24 PM -

Some real football news

All that Beckham nonsense allowed me to not even notice the Confederations Cup going on. Today I happened to turn on the telly 30 minutes into the second semi-final; France v Turkey, and that was the first I heard about it.

There was some sad news: in the first semi-final Cameroon's Marc-Vivien Foé died suddenly of a suspected heart attack. Cameroon won the game, but I can't imagine they'll be celebrating tonight.

He has played in both France and England, so most of the French players would have known him, and some were his team-mates. I guess that if there had been time to discuss matters the second game would have been postponed, but it was scheduled for so soon afterwards that there was no chance. There was time to get the news across though, and several of the French players were in tears.

They were professional enough to get into gear pretty quickly, and the France - Turkey game was an outstanding piece of entertainment. France won 3-2, in a really fast game, with Turkey putting on lots of pressure and coming close to scoring a third several times. In the last World Cup they got some results and earned respect, but seemed like a slightly brutish side, playing a bit too aggressively, giving away free kicks unneccessarily, and not quite having the finesse that the likes of France have in abundance. This time they kept that strength and focus (until the last few minutes when there were a few lack-of-concentration mistakes) but a couple of new players (Tuncay being the one who really impressed) showed real style and a lightness of touch that the team needed. It makes them more fun to watch, and it also means that England have a lot to worry about when they go to Istanbul for their next World Cup qualifier.

It was also nice hearing the commentators talk about Turkey with a respect that wouldn't have been there two years ago. For a start they've started to learn how to pronounce Turkish names—they still get the vowels wrong, calling Fatih Fatty, but at least they've learned the consonants that aren't the same as English—but more importantly they expect good play from Turkey now. When I tuned in France were 2-0 up, but the commentators paid Turkey the compliment of sounding surprised by this. It's not long ago that Turkey would have been expected to just crumble against a quality side like France, but now they are recognised as a team to beat.
posted @ 2:12 PM -

Φυκδιφινω—or it's all Greek to me

My parents are both experiencing very strange problems with their mobile phones. Although the menus and suchlike are in English, as they want, certain functions are stuck in the Greek alphabet. I'm not sure exactly where this happens on my dad's phone, but on my mum's it is when she tries to enter new data into the phone book—having got as far as entering a new name using the latin alphabet, the actual data entry is in Greek, which is not very useful to say the least.

It can't be a straightforward bug in the phones, because the two phones are different; one is an Ericsson (pre Sony merger), and the other a Motorola. The only hint we have worked out of a cause is that although this didn't happen to both at the same time, both phones started to play up after visits to the Agean coast parts of Turkey, where foreign mobiles frequently switch between Greek and Turkish networks when roaming in marginal reception areas. If the phone language had simply switched to Greek altogether I would assume this had something to do with it, but what's happening is stranger.

My mum has tried switching the phone language into Greek and then back, and it hasn't solved the problem. My best guess is that this is some sort of virus—as part of the petty rivalry between Greece & Turkey (it's astounding how small a rock is considered worthy of flying a flag from in that region) some hacker (or possibly even the Greek phone network, but I would be very surprised if it were them) has found a way of subtly messing around with Turks' mobile phones—but I'm not satisfied with this explanation. For a start it just doesn't feel very plausible, but also it doesn't help us fix it.

Any ideas what might be going on here and what to do about it?
posted @ 6:39 AM -
Clearly many things are worse in Iraq than here, but they do have wittier vandals.
posted @ 6:29 AM -
OK, I'm going to stop hedging about the French. They must be evil, because Uday & Qusay Hussein listened to Charles Aznavour. QED.

Thanks Blather for picking up on that story for slightly different reasons.
posted @ 4:58 AM -

Abolish the CAP? No, we'll just water it down a little

So apparently the Common Agricultural Policy is being radically reformed. Or alternatively it's the biggest shake-up ever for European agriculture, which sets a benchmark for the WTO. I hope you can hear my sneering over the clatter of the keyboard.

As ever with the EU, the problem is not with the principle, but with the small print (I've deliberately avoided linking to Eurosceptic sites for those two). The intention was to reduce subsidies from their current level of half of the EU's entire budget and remove the link to production, so that rather than being paid to stock wine lakes and butter mountains those farmers still receiving subsidies would be paid to do more productive things with their land like not ploughing it up in the first place. I realise that sounds a little perverse anyway, but locally I think an EU budget for environmental stewardship is a lot more defensible than an EU budget for intensively farming produce that no-one will buy, and on a world scale this would make it far easier for third world farmers to compete and actually sell to the enormously lucrative EU market.

The problem, as always, is that reaching any sort of agreement required 15 people, each with their own special interest groups to protect, to be locked in a room overnight. So in the end we have an agreement that will continue to cost just as much to run, in which Member States may choose to maintain a limited link between subsidy and production, nothing will change in the next two years, and after that France (I don't want to join the ranks of those laying into France because they dared to obstruct George W., but on this particular issue they really are the worst of the sinners) get special dispensations and extra time to comply.

This is one of those special stories in which quotes like France satisfied with EU deal on farm subsidies are really bad news, being simply a sign that the deal was too timid, too watered down to be worthwhile.
posted @ 4:32 AM -

Wednesday, June 25

Wat Ratchaburana [I think], Ayutthaya, Thailand

the head of a Mediaeval Buddha statue, with the roots of a Boddhi tree slowly reclaiming it

December 7th 2002
posted @ 2:19 PM -

Tuesday, June 24

Americans and booze

I thought Americans were in general rather more uptight about drink than Brits. This may be true, but there are certainly some notable exceptions, as celebrated by Modern Drunkard magazine, which as well as sounding like quality entertainment seems to think that we in Britain might be about to get our licencing laws relaxed at last.

[Update: I've just got around to finding the magazine online. They have great articles on important subjects like the health benefits of getting lost on the way home and having fights with your friends]
posted @ 3:56 PM -

Visa obtained

I have a student visa, or to be precise I have approval for a student visa, and will receive the visa itself in a week or so. It was a monumentally time-wasting procedure, with roughly 4 hours spent waiting for a 5 minute interview, but at least it is over, and unless I end up taking more than 6 years over my PhD I should never have to bother with this again.
posted @ 2:09 PM -

Monday, June 23

Being smug

Tomorrow I have an interview at the US Embassy to decide whether they can give me a student visa or not. I'm not too worried—they interview all male applications, so it's not that I've been picked out or anything—but naturally a little nervous because if they do decide to refuse my application that's my future plans completely shafted.

Anyway, one of the pieces of information they need from me is a list of every country I have visited. This was considerable hassle to come up with, and it is still possible that I've missed out some visits to EU member states (because I have no stamps in my passport from them), but having put this together I think I can make myself feel a bit better by gloating over it. Here is the full list:
1993
USA, Bahamas, Czech Republic, France
1994
USA, Italy, France, Switzerland, Israel
1995
France, Germany, Switzerland
1996
Turkey, USA (Georgia), France
1997
USA (Massachusetts), France
1998
Turkey
1999
Turkey, Greece
2000
France
2001
Turkey, Canada, Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Netherlands, People's Republic of China
2002
France, Canada (twice), USA (transfers via New York & Chicago airports), Germany, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, People's Republic of China, Hong Kong SAR, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Republic of China (Taiwan), Australia
2003
New Zealand, French Polynesia, USA (CA, NY, MA & OH), Australia [and Turkey in July]
I just hope that the repeat visits to France are offset in the consular staffs' eyes by the repeat visits to the USA.

[Correction: I realise from the comments that I had forgotten to mention that it was only where I had been to in the past 10 years. I think the only way I could have compiled a lifetime list would be to go through my mum's meticulously filed and labelled collection of photo albums, but I remember working out that I had been to over 20 countries before setting off on the long trip last year. It's not so bad being me, eh?]

[Correction #2: added Israel in 1994]
posted @ 9:23 AM -

Why can't we have a rational environmentalist movement?

I am an environmentalist. I find the damage that humanity is doing to our surroundings one of the most worrying issues today. Yet I can't bring myself to support any of the main greenie groups, and I actually find the majority of greenies intensely irritating.

I can identify the exact moment when my disillusionment with those who do most of the speaking out on green issues came to a head. It was in my first year at University, when wandering around campus I bumped into one of my flatmates (Jake, for those who know him) handing out Greenpeace anti-GM flyers. I believe the flyers in question were the ones that used the phrase alien viral DNA, which is a phrase that has stuck in my mind ever since, because it's simultaneously literally true and ludicrous in its implications, and it summed up everything I despise about their approach.

Strictly speaking, some GM crops are created by the insertion of alien viral DNA into plant genomes. I don't know what proportion of genetic modifications involve the insertion of gene sequences that originated in viruses, but there was at least one (from the cabbage mosaic virus), and technically it is alien DNA, because it's from outside the original genome. But the phrase was obviously chosen for its sci-fi doom resonance (incidentally, if you do a Google search for the phrase, all you get are X-Files references, and one instance of someone quoting me quoting the flyer), because the whole intention was to scare people off eating GM food.

Just in case you were wondering, I am highly skeptical about claims that there is anything inherently wrong with GM food. Yes, we are creating new strains of plants, but that's what farmers have done for millennia (and if you have a problem with this, I challenge you to make a palatable meal out of pre-domestication maize or wheat, or, for that matter, show me how the entire surface of the earth could grow enough food to support 6 billion people using only unmodified strains). All that's changed is that the novelty is produced faster now. The 'alien' DNA is not substantially different, because all DNA consists of only 4 base proteins. Read that again: all DNA, whether animal or plant or viral in origin, consists of the same 4 base proteins in different orders. The 'viral' thing is irrelevant because we're not talking about growing corn with viruses in it (though we do inject viruses into each other when we vaccinate for various diseases), and besides no biotech company would be stupid enough to score the PR own goal of using material from a virus that infects humans; at least not until GM technology becomes very widely accepted.

Greenpeace (and other environmental groups in their wake, but I feel like Greenpeace pioneered this) were actually being very clever in their campaign. They realised that most people don't really care very much about this thing called 'the environment', because they don't understand that the environment is what all of us live in, and affects all of us directly (cycle through Beijing just once and it becomes impossible not to be aware of how directly urban pollution affects us, but because in the UK the local problems are nowhere near that bad, people don't think about it like that), but instead tend to think of cuddly pandas when one talks about environmental issues. This, in itself, is largely the fault of an even more irritating element in the greenie lobby—the hippies—who do immense damage to the whole movement by being seen as a lunatic fringe, remote from normal society, but in any case Greenpeace are on the ball enough to have realised it. To get around this, they were looking for a way to associate things to which they are opposed with visceral fear, and realised that making people think that GM food would poison them (or especially that it would poison their children) would achieve this goal admirably. It did, and there is now no GM food available to buy in the UK.

Greenpeace's unwillingness to let the facts get in the way of a good story turned me against them so powerfully, especially on this one issue, that I found myself rebelling by becoming a strident supporter of GM technology. When GM food was available on supermarket shelves, but clearly labelled, I preferentially bought GM products, as my small way of counteracting the de facto boycott that was not based on any genuine reason to fear GM products.

The trouble is, this fanatical support of GM is actually just as irrational as the mainstream greenies' dogmatic rejection of it. Because GM allows new crop varieties to be introduced to the world with unprecedented speed, each individual crop needs to be subject to a certain degree of scientific scrutiny. If there were no such process, then the determinant of whether a given crop gets into the market would purely be whether or not it is in farmers' short term interests to grow it, regardless of potential broader effects on the environment.

As I understand it, there are some GM crops which the world would be better off without. The most striking example is Roundup Ready maize; a Monsanto product the advantage of which is greater tolerance to Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller, so its use would allow greater agrochemical spraying. At the other end of the spectrum are products that would be beneficial to consumers (like the Golden Rice that produces vitamins which the diet of the poorest Asians tends to lack, potentially curing millions of people from malnutrition) reduce waste (like the tomatoes which stay fresh for longer, which greenies frame as being solely for the supermarkets' benefit, but clearly would reduce the amount of food thrown away, and be of benefit to consumers), or result in less agrochemical use, like the various Bt strains of crops, which produce their own pesticides, allowing less to be sprayed.

The trouble is, all of these things need to be evaluated properly, and I don't know where to turn for that evaluation. The popular media are no use at all , because they just fan the flames of these sorts of hysteria, so they can then report on a phenomenon that they helped create. Much of the scientific research into this is funded by the biotech companies themselves, and anyone with intimate involvement in research knows that even without out-and-out corruption, expectancy bias can lead to ambiguous results being interpreted to mean whatever the researcher was looking to prove, so scientists' dependency on biotech companies must be treated with caution. In an ideal world, I would look to government to provide 'ideologically neutral' funding, with a brief to examine whether or not there are risks with each new product, but the government (both here and in the US) is itself ideologically committed to supporting GM technology, for its own reasons.

What we need, but certainly don't have at the moment, and possibly can't ever have, is an environmental group that conducts and funds research themselves, without prior ideological bias, and then decides what to campaign on based on the findings of the research. Unfortunately, I have a strong suspicion that there are systematic reasons why this doesn't exist. There are two sorts of people who work for pressure groups (any sort of pressure group)—those who have a strong enough prior commitment to what the group stands for to give up substantial amounts of time for it, and those for whom it's just a job.

Taking the professionals first, it is in their financial interests to play up any possible issue that falls within their employers' remit, to keep the industry big. A Greenpeace employee who contradicts the Greenpeace line on how bad a particular issue is risks talking themselves out of a job.

As for the ideologues, there is an automatic tendency for them to be pre-selected out of the fringes of any debate. Because I have a broad spectrum of interests, and [I like to think] a measured approach to these sorts of issues, there is a limit to how much time I am willing to give up for each one. I've spent the best part of an hour writing this post, and that's already too much; had I expected it to take this much time I might not have started. This stops me from getting involved enough to set up the sort of group I would like to see, but the people who do have enough commitment tend to be those with more extreme and dogmatic views.

The result of all this is deeply sad. It is a world in which green groups who are at best uninterested in the real science have convinced much of the public that an innovation which has immense potential is bad and must be opposed. Yet at the same time, the manifest lack of concern these groups show for actually fostering an honest examination of the issues turn off people who know a little more, and has led the government to simply brush their opposition aside. In the end we are almost certain to get no-holds-barred legalisation of GM crops, in spite of the possible drawbacks of some, because the greenies' irrational campaigning has failed to convince the government, who have decided that GM is good.

How's that for an own goal?
posted @ 4:00 AM -

Sunday, June 22

Pottermania

If J.K.Rowling were to release Harry Potter novels Dickens-style, in weekly or fortnightly instalments, I wonder if it would create genuine permaqueues.

I actually have as yet to read any of the Harry Potter books, and I'm tempted to keep it that way out of sheer obstinacy, but I've heard enough people whose taste I respect saying how great the books are that I do feel I ought to find out what all the fuss is about at some point. They just aren't very high up my books waiting to be read list, and that list is very, very long.
posted @ 7:39 AM -

Saturday, June 21

Template preview

Now this I like. The new Blogger lets me preview what changes to my template will look like, before actually publishing the blog with modified template.
posted @ 6:05 AM -

New Blogger

Lately, I have been seeing the following:

Microsoft OLE DB Provider for ODBC Drivers error '80004005'


[Microsoft][ODBC Driver Manager] Data source name not found and no default driver specified


/functions/lookupBlogSettings.inc, line 11

a little too often. I guess it's because there's a new version of Blogger being slowly launched, so they're not bothering so much with maintenance on the old one.

Today I have just been upgraded to the new version—I see there are settings I need to change (it appears to have put me on San Francisco time for a start)—so hopefully this will improve. So far what strikes me is that they've managed to make it prettier at the same time as making it load faster, which is a good sign.

It doesn't appear to work in Opera though, which is a shame.

Update: there weren't many lost settings, so it's taken me about 5 minutes to get things back in order. It does look like the help system is incomplete, which is frustrating because I should now be able to do better things with the organisation of my archives, but I don't know how.
posted @ 4:12 AM -

England actually dominate a sport

The rugby just gets better—England have beaten Australia for the first time ever on Australian soil. I can't remember a world cup for any sport that I have ever expected England to win, but I'm really looking forward to the rugby one this autumn. Now I just have to find somewhere in Cleveland that shows it....

posted @ 3:54 AM -

Friday, June 20

Boeing 727 missing in Africa.

I was going to link to an African source, but between the headline and the first 2 paragraphs it identified the plane differently (747, 737, 727—quite different sized aircraft)
posted @ 2:37 AM -

Thursday, June 19

Do mobile phones really crash planes?

I have always been very skeptical of claims about the havoc mobile phones can allegedly wreak with aircraft. My reasoning is indirect, but very simple - on every full 747 there must be at least one passenger who has forgotten to switch their phone off, or whose phone has switched itself back on (mine does this, so these days if I really don't want to be disturbed I just take the battery out) in flight. Now there has been the occasional electrical equipment related crash, but these are very rare, and I haven't heard mobile phones implicated by investigations into any such incidents.

Now a newsletter that I receive (the 802.11 report from FierceMarkets) has taken a look. This week's issue carries an article by James Ryan (who is himself a pilot), title Claiming that the sky is falling does not improve air travel safety. Because there's no web version I'll quote from it extensively:
As a pilot and an airline passenger, I have followed the issue of cell phone safety on aircraft for several years. I have found that agencies such as the CAA have unnecessarily exaggerated the potential effects of cell phones on aircraft in order to support restrictions on their use. Also, the media (including your recent �Unsafe at any altitude� synopsis -- see FierceWireless, May 5, 2003) have tended not only to repeat this disinformation but further sensationalize it.

Despite several studies performed by the British CAA and NASA, no one has ever been able to show any negative effect on aircraft caused by passenger use of cellular telephones. I will leave aside the issue of cell phone use by the flight crew on the flight deck, which has been proven to be dangerous.

In particular, the British CAA seems to have an ideological bent against cell phones on airplanes. They released a similar report two years ago which was specifically pre-arranged to provide �proof� for their stance by using unusually high signal outputs and old avionics equipment built under lower interference standards.

I have actually read the new CAA report which you refer to in your newsletter. It does not warrant the �Unsafe at any altitude� headline. If you actually read through the CAA report, you will see the following important points:

1. Instead of testing avionics equipment used in jet airliners, they tested equipment used in small general aviation aircraft, citing �cost� issues.

2. They used old avionics equipment that was designed under older, less stringent standards for EM interference.

3. They used output signal levels at the highest end of what are commonly observed in cell phones.

4. Even with all of this �rigging� they could only produce instrument errors when the cell phone was 30 cm from the avionics equipment. No passenger could possibly get closer than a few meters from avionics equipment. Signal strength drops off rapidly with distance -- at one meter it registers 10 volts per meter, while the report states that at least 30 volts per meter is required to cause adverse effects.

The report makes an excellent case for pilots to turn off their cell phones, but with regards to passengers it proves the opposite -- that even if every passenger on an airplane was talking on a cell phone, it would be impossible for this to affect aircraft avionics. The popular announcement "cell phones interfere with aircraft navigation systems" is an outright lie.

As a pilot, I believe that passengers should not be allowed to use cell phones in flight as they can be distracting to other passengers and flight attendants. However, I think the flying public deserves the truth about aircraft safety. As the media picks up this story (without reading the actual report) and announces that �cell phones are �proven� unsafe to aircraft,� we are only stirring up irrational fears. For passengers who are already afraid of flying, false claims of cell phone dangers only exacerbate the problem. "If a cell phone can endanger an airliner, how safe can they be?" is the obvious question they will ask.

Further, by publishing misleading conclusions and leading the flying public to believe that scientific proof exists that cell phones can pose a serious danger to the safety of a jet airliner, we are creating the environment for potential inter-passenger altercations in the cabin. For example, imagine if a passenger forgets to turn off his cell phone and it starts to ring during takeoff. Now imagine that the passenger next to him, who is already afraid of flying, hears it and looses his cool. Such a volatile situation could develop quite easily. There have even been cases where passengers have been arrested for using cell phones in flight because they supposedly "endangered" the safety of the aircraft.

We owe the flying public the truth. Lying to them in order to control their behavior is a short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating strategy.
From the 802.11 report, for which you can sign up free at http://www.80211report.com/.

The newsletter also includes the CAA's response, which is to the effect of insisting that there is a problem, as summarised in: CAA Paper 2003/03: Effects of Interference from Cellular Telephones on Aircraft Avionic Equipment.

It's worth reading the full CAA paper for yourself if you're interested in the issue—it's not very long and it's clearly and accessably written—but it strikes me as being of a piece with some other atrocious pieces of misused scientific research, in that it uses conditions more extreme than would ever naturally occur, finds that under these conditions there is a problem, and then makes the leap of claiming that this proves the normal conditions are also unsafe. [the other examples that spring to mind are Arpad Pusztai's discovery that feeding rats a diet of nothing but GM potatoes makes them protein deficient, which any sane biologist would explain in terms of the lack of protein in their diet, but he claimed proved GM food is toxic, and the original 'mobile phones cause cancer' research, which showed that if you expose mice to doses of GSM-frequency radiation vastly in excess of what is legal to expose humans to, they get cancer]

What I find much more interesting than just debunking a particular flawed study is the discussion of the implications. On the one hand, Ryan (as quoted above) rightly points out the dangers of spreading unnecessary fear among people. What he didn't get around to mentioning is that scaring people off flying has a much bigger cost than scaring them off, say, using mobile phones without hands-free kits. A few years back there was an air crash in the USA (I think it was a ValuJet flight in Florida - perhaps someone might recognise the story and fill me in?) involving a cut price airline, and a controversy blew up about whether cut price airlines cut safety standards, and whether the FAA should impose higher safety standards. I remember reading a brilliant op-ed in Time Magazine which pointed out that every 1% increase such regulations put onto the cost of flying would make n more people drive instead, and the increased risk of death per mile travelled for driving as compared to flying meant that this would result in m more deaths per year. I can't remember the figures, but m was high enough that the aviation safety gain to ticket price ratio would have to be unattainably huge in order for extra regulation to result in less deaths rather than more.

On the other hand, that a given study is seriously flawed doesn't mean that what it purports to prove is not true; it only means that this particular study isn't relevant to the issue. A properly conducted test might reveal that there is some statistically measurable risk from cellphones being switched on in-flight, and to be discounted altogether the risk would have to be impossibly minute. To clarify quite how minute, I'll quote the one paragraph from the CAA blurb in the newsletter which says something not also in the report that's available online:
The message we must get across to the traveling public is that the evidence so far confirms that cell phones do pose a risk to aircraft safety and that restrictions are justified. It does not help to have pilots in denial of this risk even when presented with the results of a serious study to understand the problem. If you consider that civil traffic in Europe is about 25,000 flights per day, then the frequency of safety-related occurrences from specific risks needs to be kept to within very low limits. If a serious safety incident due to a cell phone occurred on average only once in 100,000 flights, most pilots would never experience the problem in their whole career, but such an incident in European airspace would occur on average every four days! The U.K. CAA does not have an �ideological bent� against cell phones, rather we see ourselves as a responsible authority performing its duties in the public interest.
From the 802.11 report, for which you can sign up free at http://www.80211report.com/.

So even a very small risk could account for a couple of hundred lives lost in an avoidable accident one day. And of course better research could inform the design of future aircraft.
posted @ 7:01 AM -
On the subject of American sports, Mark's just sent me one of those emails of silly mock-Chinese proverbs. One struck me particularly:

Baseball is wrong: man with four balls cannot walk.
posted @ 3:18 AM -

Please don't make me say soccer

I've been doing my best to shut out all but the most obviously tongue in cheek coverage of the Beckham transfer saga, though it's hard when every news source is utterly obsessed with it. However, today I saw a very interesting article from the Chicago Sun-Times (hey, come to think of it that will almost be my local paper in a couple of months), explaining the fuss about Beckham to an American readership. It's always nice seeing how they see us, but what I found quite telling in this one was how most of what the article sets out to explain is the international value of the Beckham brand.

I guess it's hard for Americans to get their heads round, because while their country has been outstandingly successful at exporting so many things, both goods and ideas, the only truly global sports (football, tennis, possibly golf—do any others belong in that category?) are all games that originated in the British Isles, and are no longer dominated by Brits; none of the American sports have expanded in any major way past a handful of countries.
posted @ 3:14 AM -

Wednesday, June 18

Ooh looky here! It's taken the Independent several days to catch up with our own correspondent in responding to the cotton subsidy story.

I'm pleased to see that they're covering it though. Although the article does contain some prize nonsense—like Katharine Hamnett's entirely point-missing exhortation to people to buy clothes made from fair traded and organic products (a cynic might be tempted to suggest that she's about to launch a line of such products)—it also backs up what I was saying about the damage done by subsidies with more hard facts than I could summon. And then they've put it together with two more reports backing up the general point about subsidies with specific cases.
posted @ 4:47 PM -
Wellington Harbour, Wellington, New Zealand

A shopping trolley.  No urban watercourse is complete without one.

January 10th 2003
posted @ 2:35 AM -

Tuesday, June 17

London suddenly feels a lot less vast

Yesterday evening, when passing by the National Film Theatre, I tried to remember what had last brought me there. Eventually I realised that the last film I saw there was It's a Wonderful Life, shortly before christmas back when I was an undergrad (in the last millenium, come to think of it). Then I was trying to work out who it was who dragged me along to see this film I knew nothing about (which incidentally I fell in love with and have seen most Christmases since). It was a girl called Anna, who I hadn't seen for something like four years, and whose orbit had passed far enough from mine (to the point that there seems to be no-one we are mutually in touch with now), but it put her on mind for the first time in a long while, and when I got home last night I was thinking I must ask ——— how Anna is these days, if he even knows.

This evening, I was out in central London again, this time with someone who didn't know Anna from back then. There was someone else present (not part of our party) who looked remarkably like this Anna who I hadn't seen for years but was suddenly thinking about. I kept telling myself that I was just seeing someone as her because I was expecting her to suddenly walk back into my path, as if I were living a film, but then she's quite a distinctive looking person (someone who really cultivates the air of being a character), and I couldn't stop staring. In the end I had to say something, because otherwise my continued staring at a stranger of the opposite sex was going to cause serious embarassment, at least to myself. It was the very same Anna.

I was used to this happening in Brighton. In fact, because of Brighton not being very big, and my mixing in various different (but each relatively closed) circles, it would have been very surprising to go several years without seeing any particular individual whose path had once crossed mine. London, however, has nearly 12 million people*, so to bump into anyone by chance is unusual and noteworthy. For this to happen but 24 hours after she was sprung back into my mind, after several years of not seeing her is actually quite unsettling.

Note: I know many people would quote a smaller number for London, but this source uses a broader limit for what counts as part of the same agglomeration than most official statistics do. I prefer its method anyway (really I think it's the number of people for whom tube zone 1 is a center of services and/or entertainment and/or work who count as the population of London, not those who live within the GLA's borders or any other arbitrary line), and it's certainly more relevant here, as it's a measure of the number of people from whom Anna happened by chance to be one of the 50 or so in that place at that moment.
posted @ 3:53 PM -

Severe Loss of Perspective Syndrome

On Sunday, Dunc sent me an email about SLOPS - Severe Loss of Perspective Syndrome. This afternoon, Mark H sent me a news story about a 9/11 survivor dying of SARS.

I was writing back to suggest that perhaps this isn't as freaky as it sounds, considering that there more than a handful of 9/11 survivors, and I started to think (yes that did hurt). This guy is only a 9/11 survivor in the sense that chance stopped him even going to the WTC that day. He didn't work there, but might have gone to a meeting there had his morning turned out differently. If you consider all such people, there must be at least 100,000 9/11 survivors. Meanwhile, 3,500 people died in the WTC collapse. Meanwhile, I've just read that the world has 35 million refugees. This Severe Loss of Perspective thing is starting to feel less like a joke.
posted @ 3:44 PM -

the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of ... unfettered speech

Though I tend to react against the reflexive anti-European prejudice in many quarters by singing the praises of many things European, I do often feel that European governments in general feel a need to pass laws that are at best pointless, and at worst damaging. Samizdata have picked up on a report of a particularly awful proposal regarding the internet.

The idea is to force all websites to institute a right of reply for anyone who claims to be insulted by them. To give a concrete example, let's say Tony Blair took offence at one of my more strident critiques of his actions; perhaps the one about exaggerating Iraq's WMD threat. He could (if the proposal were implemented in UK law) compel me to publish or link to his response.

It's worth noting that so far this is a draft proposal from the Council of Europe, a body with no direct power. So it's not about to become law, but if the draft stands it will have some influence over related EU policy. No need for me to find an anonymous offshore host just yet, just an unpleasant hint of something that might happen in the future.

You might ask what is so worrying about this proposal. After all, I already implement a limited right to reply in the form of reader comments on my posts. I do so mainly because it makes the site more interesting, but I also think it's good policy for any site that risks upsetting people to let people answer back either publicly or privately, as they choose, in the interest of fairness; if I had a large enough readership to consider this site important, then this fairness rationale would become more significant than the interest one.

As well as the existing comments, if someone mailed me a response to something I had written, and asked for it to be put online, I probably would, once again out of concern for both fairness and interest value. Certainly if Mr. Blair were to write to me I'd feel compelled to publish the reply, not least because I'd actually be pretty flattered that he could be bothered, and that in itself would make me rethink some of the things I believe about him.

The problem is not the principle - if all this proposal said were it would be desirable for online media to implement a right to reply I'd agree but wonder why the Council of Europe were bothereing to say something so obvious - but the compulsion.

The great thing about online media is that it is much more accessible to publish in than anything that existed before it. It really takes very little resources or knowledge to put a website together and write about whatever topic any individual feels like writing about. In fact, Blogger makes technical knowledge entirely unneccessary, and provides the hosting and its basic service free of charge. In main urban areas, therefore, all one needs is a spare quid or two and the time to get to an internet cafe and write. This makes online media importantly different from print and broadcast media.

If a newspaper were to slander me, and then refuse to publish my response, it would be very difficult to compete with them in getting out my point of view. This gives a certain rationale to forcing them to give that right to reply; a rationale which does not apply online. Because it is so easy to get my own little soapbox online, I don't need to force a website to give me some of their space. Admittedly there are vast disparities in readerships - if BBCi were to slander me, and I were to answer here, the original slander would get orders of magnitude more readers than the retraction... except that the web is extremely egalitarian - if people actually found what I had to say intereting enough my readership would inevitably grow, and if BBCi coverage (any publicity being, after all, good publicity) were to make people interested in me the result would be more traffic to my own site, even if they didn't link to me. On the other hand, if the Times were to do this, it would be very hard for me to get a response out in print to a similar number of readers.

So that's why the law is unneccessary. Now why is it bad? Well for starters any unneccessary law is inherently bad, and I think this is one of the failings of the European way of running countries - we are only too happy to pass laws for things that aren't worth legislating (but don't get me started by telling me how wonderful the USA are - they are the only country I know of that has tried to reduce paperwork with a Paperwork Reduction Act). Any law gives scope for malicious prosecutions, and in practice fear of prosecution can in itself change corporate behaviour in entirely wasteful ways, so no law should be passed without a good argument that something worthwhile is achieved by its existence.

More importantly, any successful action under such a law would actually make it harder for people to start their own online publishing. The best way to make the web effective as a free and egalitarian publishing medium is to do nothing at all. No regulations on content, no obstructions to access. Indeed, if there were higher financial barriers to getting a message online it could be argued that governments could make themselves useful by providing an equivalent to Blogger's free services, but seeing as the private sector is doing that just fine without any taxpayers' money, there's no need to meddle there.

In the end, I think US Judge Stewart Dalzell summed the issue up beautifully some years ago in his part of the Supreme Court's overturning of the Communications Decency Act (which was also the source of this post's title):
...the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion.
posted @ 6:46 AM -

Monday, June 16

There's a John Maynard Smith interview in New Scientist.
posted @ 7:38 AM -

I am at times very stupid

I've finally worked out what's been causing my problems with using website comments. At some point in the past month, I installed Norton Internet Security, and activated the option to stop pop-up windows. This was, strangely enough, stopping pop-up windows rather effectively. Of course, being a computer program, it had no way of telling the pop-up windows I wanted - i.e. the comment windows - from the nasty advertising ones.

Meanwhile, I had been able to suss out that it was Norton Internet Security causing the problem, but had falsely blamed the Firewall. I was just in the process of writing a rather lectureish email to them about how the firewall shouldn't be doing nasty things like this, when suddenly it occured to me that it might be because of something I had selected. Duh.
posted @ 4:43 AM -

Sunday, June 15

Hadd Pak Meng, Trang Province, Thailand

sunset on the Andaman Sea

December 10th 2002


Special dedication on this one - to Alick & Gemma, who left for Thailand today, and by my reckoning should be over Bangladesh or Burma by now.
posted @ 2:43 PM -

Saturday, June 14

Shock horror!

This is the sort of thing the anti-globalisation brigade ought to take notice of. An African leader requesting greater freedom of trade. His argument is fairly straightforward, and eminently sensible - that production subsidies in parts of the world rich enough that few people depend on farming are making it impossible for subsistence farmers in poor parts of the world to export their crops. He's actually appealing to the WTO not to get out, or radically change policy, but to do what it's trying to do more effectively.

The thing is, there are massive problems with the current world trade system, but the problem is not that we have too few barriers to trade. It's that the US & (especially?) the EU have a hypocritical attitude to trade, expecting developing countries to remove all import barriers,while maintaining subsidies at home that are only in the interest of the tiny minority of Europeans and Americans who actually work the land; damaging not only to developing countries but also to our own home markets and environment. The villain, of this particular piece at least, is not the WTO itself, but the countries on either side of the Atlantic who are determined to have their free trade cake and eat it.
posted @ 6:15 AM -

Egg-chasing update

I didn't even end up listening to the rugby, because I suffered severe insomnia last night (something I'm very glad I don't get often, because it's awful), so when my alarm clock went off only a couple of hours after I finally fell asleep, I just pressed the button and drifted off again. When I eventually woke up the news was good though - England won what sounded like a very close, tight game. As the review says, bring on the World Cup!
posted @ 4:20 AM -

Friday, June 13

Derivative Work vs Fair Use

I'm looking at covering the work on this site with a proper copyright notice and licence, of the sort provided by creative commons. At the moment the only part that is explicitly copyrighted is the photography section, but this won't do. Most importantly, I need to say something more explicit about withholding rights to the work hosted here that is not my own - there's my grandfather's treatise on Jewish history, and a couple of websites I host for past clients - though all of this stuff was published online by me, and most was designed by me (some was in collaboration, and for my grandfather's stuff the only part I can really claim is an as yet incomplete job of marking it up and annotating it), much of the content was not written by me.

For most of my own work, there is an appropriate licence ready-made in the creative commons' collection. It allows others to copy and distribute copies of the material, for non-commercial use only, and provided that I am clearly attributed as the originator. It also permits derivative works, provided that the derivative work is published under the same licence terms as the original. The trouble is, I'm not exactly sure what is considered a derivative work. Anything I can interpret it to mean is fine for the photography, and fine for the static bits of text, but I'm concerned about what it means with respect to this page. If someone quotes something I've written here, does that make their work a derivative work from mine, or is that sort of thing covered by the fair use provisions that are exempt from the usual licencing conditions?

It's an important distinction, because I don't want to stipulate licencing requirements for other people who want to quote me. To do so would inhibit potentially interesting discussion, without actually benefiting me in any way.
posted @ 3:28 PM -

Chasing eggs

Tomorrow morning (UK time) we will get a preview of the likely Rugby World Cup final - New Zealand v England. I've been looking forward to this for a while - these are after all the top two nations in the world rugby rankings, and from what I saw of the Super 12 while I was in NZ, the All Blacks have a very large pool of mighty impressive players to choose from. I find it hard to imagine anyone else (except possibly Australia, but they haven't been at their best lately) providing a serious challenge for the Cup, so I think one of these two will end up winning it. It looks like both coaches have name full strength sides, so this should be a good show.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to be able to watch it live. We don't have Sky Sports in this house, and while normally I'd prefer to go down the pub anyway, it's at 8am. If it were a football game of similar importance no doubt there would be the odd place somewhere in London (a Walkabout Inn being the obvious choice, but I phoned both the Islington and Covent Garden ones and neither were doing this) given a special licence to open early so they could show it. Because fewer people in this country are interested in rugby, the best I think I'll be able to do is listen live on BBC Radio 5, and then possibly catch a replay on the big screen at the Islington walkabout 4½ hours later.

This is a result of pointless UK legislation that I actually find quite annoying. Sports fans like to complain about events being restricted to subscriber TV, but I really don't see that as a problem (except when they go to digital only, because too few pubs even have digital). Sports federations make vast sums of money out of TV rights, and the TV stations have to recoup that outlay somehow - if it means we have to watch in the pub, so be it, and after all if this happened often enough I could always just shell out for Sky Sports.

What bugs me is when an anachronistic law removes the 'watch in pub' option. There could be an argument that certain pubs (like my local, which is surrounded by houses) would be disturbing their neighbours if they opened at this hour, but the Islington Walkabout Inn is on a busy, noisy road (Upper Street), between a couple of other commercial premises (restaurants or cafés; I can't remember exactly), which are unlikely to have anyone sleeping in them of a Saturday morning, and may even be open themselves. So why can't a bunch of people gather in one place and watch an event that happens not to fit into the 12 hour window in which it has been decreed that pubs may open?

Anyway, if you do get the chance to watch the game live do so, because it's bound to be quality rugby, and then make fun of me for not managing to myself.
posted @ 12:31 PM -
Slowly, slowly, the bad news seeps out of Iraq (Independent, Telegraph, Herald Tribune). Not much to say really, except that perhaps this might just possibly imply that not all of Iraq is pleased about their 'liberation'.
posted @ 7:23 AM -

Wednesday, June 11

New look

A redesign of this site is underway. So far only the front page has been touched. Tell me what you think. Obviously any technical problems are worth reporting, and the more information you can give me the better. I'm also not totally sure about the look of it myself, so if you hate it now would be a good time to let me know, seeing as I haven't yet invested all that much time in it, but am about to.
posted @ 5:20 PM -

What I've always wanted

A device to separate egg white from the yolk. In a spectacularly unappetizing way.

I was looking for daft domain names, and while fool.com turned out to be a financial services company (The Motley Fool - I should have known), I knew stupid.com wouldn't disappoint.
posted @ 4:40 PM -

More fonty goodness

Identifont helps you identify fonts by their distinguishing features, and lets you look up a font to see a sample and some more information, like related faces. Great if you happen to be trying to emulate the look of a particular old book, and then realise that the actual font it's set in is very obscure, so it's worth finding alternates to use for the web. Not so great is the fact that the first question in the identify a font expert system refers to the letter Q, and the book isn't about marsupials or olde English games.
posted @ 5:37 AM -

Tuesday, June 10

Hooray for Microsoft!

That took you by surprise didn't it?

However, Microsoft have a typography department. As befits such a department, they present their information in a far more agreeable way than most of the (rather cold) Microsoft website, but much more importantly, they have supplied a resource I've been looking for for years.

You see, when designing a website, it's easy to pick fonts that look great on one's own computer, but don't exist on the majority of readers' computers. If the designer does a thorough job, the font will get substituted with something at least of the same genre, which is not too ruinous, but it still messes up the exact spacing and proportions, and can make quite a big difference to the feel of a pageful of text. On account of this, I always try to avoid using obscure fonts for the web, because I like to be able to preview a page just as other people will see it. This is quite contrary to what I do when laying out documents I'm going to print, where I try to use unusual fonts so that my work looks subtly distinctive.

The trouble is, unless I deprive myself of the unusual fonts, it's very hard to keep track of which fonts came with my basic install of Windows (and therefore will be common across the web), and which I've acquired since (and will therefore be less common). Even worse, I have no idea at all of what fonts come with other operating systems. At last I've discovered this list of fonts installed by particular software courtesy of Microsoft Typography.
posted @ 10:52 AM -

Ambassador with these Tim Tams you are really spoiling us

Those of us with fond memories of Australia and/or New Zealand will be pleased to hear that Tim Tams are now available in the UK; stocked by Tesco in fact. I was particularly amused to read that the product launch was at the Australian Embassy - is this normal?

Now all we need is for Cookie Time, who produce the best cycling fuel ever (OK, so bananas are better in theory, but have you tried to get the smell out of a waterproof pannier bag after a banana squished in it?) to expand their UK distribution beyond one shop. Unfortunately, something tells me that if they get noticed outside NZ they might have to do something about the suspicious resemblance their deranged mascot bears to a certain Sesame Street Cookie Monster (who incidentally has been having a bit of a rough time of late).
posted @ 4:51 AM -

Forget Wembley

What we really need is a new national stadium for Black Pudding Throwing, a game which consists in trying to dislodge the most batter Yorkshire puddings from a 20ft high plinth on the pub's gable wall by throwing underarm a 6oz Lancashire black pudding.
posted @ 4:00 AM -
Don't ask me why. Found lying around on the rocks by Frank Kitts Park, by the harbour, Wellington, New Zealand

The harbour is an ironing board / Flat iron tugs dash smoothing toward / Any shirt of a ship any pillowslip / Of a freighter they decree / Must be ironed flat as washing from the sea

January 10th 2003
Click on the image if you can't read the words
posted @ 12:53 AM -

Monday, June 9

Note to self: get to Maine at some point to see this.
posted @ 9:02 AM -
Because quite a few people have either asked where Cleveland is or made clear that they are at least a bit confused about its location, here's a map with Cleveland as near the middle as I could get it.
posted @ 7:36 AM -
A young person's guide to weapons of mass destruction

Link courtesy of Greg, who also has some interesting reflections on trailers
posted @ 5:13 AM -

They seek them here, they seek them there

They seek those weapons everywhere.

I am every bit as surprised as my government claims to be that WMDs have as yet to show up in Iraq, because without the benefit of access to classified information I had always assumed that Saddam's behaviour implied guilt so strongly that he must be hiding something. Of course it is conceivable that this was his last laugh - to lead the US and Britain on a wild goose chase so that after his regime fell it could posthumously show them up - but I find it implausible that he would have planned in that way rather than planning for ongoing survival, as he always did in the past. One thing that could be said for him is that he was consistent over a long period, which was one of the reasons I maintain he could have been contained without there being any need to go and invade Iraq.

I still believe, as I said in my tediously long anti-war rant in March, that Iraq had a WMD programme, whether it had produced anything dangerous yet or not. Not having found anything doesn't prove it's not there, though it does seem to me to imply that there wasn't the huge evil arsenal that was claimed to exist. I also don't really care whether anything is found or not - finding it won't retrospectively justify the war, any more than a lack of WMDs would convince any of the war's supporters that it was unjustified.

What I am concerned about is all the rumblings that have been afoot about fabricated evidence. We were fed a picture of Iraq's readiness (both in terms of technology and intent) to launch airborne death at all and sundry which at the peak of their paranoia were close to rivalling the four minute warnings from when I was very little (but note the hugely important difference - the four minute warning was a response to a real threat). Never mind that WMDs haven't been found yet, Iraq proved the more dramatic predictions wrong simply by not launching any. And far from being a greater threat to the world than I had suspected, it showed itself to be even more of a spent force by collapsing quicker than I predicted.

Now if it were a simple matter of my government being wrong I could accept that. Sure, it's embarrassing, but their case for war hung on more than just this one issue, so if it were this simple it would be a cock-up that their credibility could survive. What concerns me is the likelihood that someone, be it the boss or a lowly eager-to-please civil servant compiling reports, has wilfully stretched evidence to support a weak case. Somewhere along the line it looks suspiciously like Saddam's political oponents say he has x, y & z or even just it would really suit us to be able to show he has x, y & z has been spun into yes, I can unequivocally state that he has z, y & z based on top secret documents that you can't see for yourself, but I assure you they are reliable. Being wrong is forgiveable. Deliberately misleading the country is not.

This is why in America there is talk of whether lying to justify a war constitutes grounds for impeachment. It's also why there is going to be a congressional inquiry into the matter. But here in Britain? The government do not see the need for an independent inquiry. What, precisely, do they not see?

Remember what I wrote, just a few paragraphs above, about why I still believe there was a WMD programme in Iraq prior to the war. If Saddam had nothing to hide, he would just have invited the UN in, made a very theatrical show of giving them access to whatever they wanted to see, and embarrassed his accusers, almost certainly averting his downfall in the process. Likewise with Tony Blair - if he has nothing to hide he can let the inspectors in.

So come on Mr. Blair, give the public our inquiry. Embarrass the Guardian, the Tory Party, the Liberal Democrats; embarrass me, by letting this inquiry prove your innocence, and then stand up and say well that was a waste of time and money, wasn't it? You should have trusted me all along.

Oh. You can't do that, can you?
posted @ 4:09 AM -

Saturday, June 7

Give the UN teeth

A frequent complaint by anybody wishing to sidestep the UN and take the sort of unilateral action that this body was supposed to prevent is that the UN is so powerless as to be irrelevant. On the face of it, they have a point. Ignoring all previous stories, there's a new one this week from Burma, where UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail is trying to get access to Aung San Suu Kyi with no success. His lack of success is unsurprising (and I don't even think he's surprised), and the reason for it is underlined by a sentence in the article:

Reports from the United Nations in New York say Mr. Razali has orders from his superiors to leave Burma if he fails to obtain permission to meet the detained pro-democracy leader.

You can just visualise the junta quaking in their boots can't you? Comply with us, or we'll go away! Surely what they really want is for the UN to leave them alone? It's like Monty Python's bloody Spanish Inquisition sketch - torture him with the comfy chair.

If the Burmese government is ever going to change, it won't be under the pressure of righteous indignation overseas, whether that is the righteous indignation of UN bureaucrats in Manhattan or of well meaning middle class hippies in Brighton. Military dictatorships respond to military force. It probably wouldn't even need the actual exertion of force, just a credible enough threat to scare them, because like all the nastiest governments around today (oil producers excepted) they rule over a poor country, and like most this stops the army they command from being a real threat to the world.

Unfortunately, the histories of both the UN and the League of Nations are so full of unfulfilled promises that it probably would take at least one UN-led military intervention - perhaps even a UN-led toppling of an evil dictatorship - to make the world take the UN seriously. The USA and the EU have the power to make this happen, but not by Lone Ranger Bush and Tonto Blair storming around in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests. If they were to operate as the enforcers of UN resolutions, rather than just deciding to ignore the UN when it doesn't do what they want, the rogue states of the world would actually have cause to fear the UN. Ultimately, that might even render the application of such force unnecessary.

An aside: Although I didn't support the war in Iraq, and I have no intention of joining the ludicrous boycott of all things French, the above does relate to my having considerable sympathy for Chirac's critics, and feeling that the most charitable thing that can be said about his role in that particular débacle is that he was shockingly incompetent for someone who wants to be seen as an elder statesman of Europe. I don't think that Iraq were exactly ready to co-operate with the UN anyway, but there would have at least been a chance that they might make an eleventh-hour turnaround out of fear, had France not effectively told the world that they would make sure the UN would never sanction force. While it was Saddam's own arrogance that led him to underestimate Bush's willingness to go alone, things might have turned out very differently if he had any reason to take the UN Security Council seriously.
posted @ 7:06 AM -

Friday, June 6

How the mighty have fallen

Once upon a time, the small Welsh town of Blackwood spawned the Manic Street Preachers, who at their peak1 recorded a couple of my favourite albums. Now it has a new famous son: the pants thief, who South Wales police have tactfully described as not the most well-prepared robber we have come across. [link courtesy of Need To Know]

1By at their peak, I mean their creative peak, which was of course before they were popular.
posted @ 8:57 AM -

Dese yoot dem talk batty

The prize for funniest news story of the day has to go to the Independent, who reported on a judge being unable to make sense of lines like shizzle my nizzle in a garage record. Apparently the judges listened to the record repeatedly at half speed. That must do strange things to their minds....

Update: The Telegraph piece on the same subject is more expansive. It sounds like the judge actually made quite a sensible ruling - that lyrics which are full enough of slang not understood by judges warrant the same legal treatment as texts in foreign languages, i.e. that they are only submissible as evidence if an expert witness is brought in to translate them or approve a translation. It does still have distinct comic potential when we are talking about bringing trendy yoots in as expert witnesses, as opposed to academics (and please tell me there aren't suitable academics for this job!), but it makes more sense than asking judges to rule on things they don't understand.
posted @ 5:32 AM -

Thursday, June 5

Even the graffiti here is upmarket

A Northern Line train, somewhere underneath London taaan

The Northern Line bit of the iconic tube map, with a subtle alteration.


And another.

May 30th 2003


Although clearly this shows that some people have too much time on their hands, I can't help but admire the focus of people who would make a set of stickers specifically to help them deface a unique class of map. Certainly beats the infantile approach of scrawling a tag in permanent marker.
posted @ 4:46 PM -

Victim of its own success

Apparently London's congestion charging scheme is in danger of not reaching its revenue target, because it has been so effective at keeping motorists out of the charged area that not enough people are paying.

(Thanks Sam for sending that my way)
posted @ 5:54 AM -

Spam spam spam spam

My @myrealbox.com email address has been found by spammers. Judging by the sudden increase in spam volume, I think I've made my way onto one of those 15 bazillion email addresses for a packet of fags CDs.

This is why I never put my proper email address on anything online; always a temporary mailbox that it won't hurt me to ditch. I will shut this account down fairly soon, but I'll have to give it a few weeks just in case anyone uses that address to contact me. If you have eldan@myrealbox.com as the contact address for me, please write to it now asking for my proper address, so you can replace it. An alternative will appear as the contact me link on the website soon, but that will also be a temporary address, so not worth taking note of.
posted @ 5:50 AM -

Wednesday, June 4

How did this happen?

'EU leaders agree' - image culled from Google News.

Letting the side down, that's what it is.
posted @ 6:45 PM -

Before they were popular

When I was a teenager, I fell hook line and sinker for a stupid piece of indie music inverse snobbery. Because I disliked the majority of really popular, commercially successful music, it became much harder to convince me that anything popular was good, and conversely anything obscure (unknown was far better than well known but disliked) had a certain automatic appeal to me. Andean nose flutes recorded on a tinny dictaphone good, Soothing sounds of the pan pipe bad, you get the idea.

In this warped version of music appreciation, there were only two acceptable responses to one's (after all, I was far from the only one doing this, and I bet the 'trenchcoat mafia' still do) pet obscure band making it big: either declare that their new stuff since they went commercial is bobbins (preferably without ever listening to it, for fear of reaching the heretical conclusion that it isn't), or play the I liked them before they were popular card. The former is sometimes true, but it made hard to admit that sometimes having real money to pay a decent producer and hire a proper studio with actually helps talented musicians put out better records (strangely enough). As for the latter, well it gets deeply sad when one spotty teenager tries to trump his mate's I saw them at 1 o'clock at the little tent stage of the Pretend We're in Bangladesh festival with Well I saw them busking underneath the arches with Flannigan and Allen back when they couldn't afford soap, and I like to think I grew out of that particular habit some time ago.

However, I'm having difficulty not doing this with Tatu. It's not quite a matter of liking them before they were popular, so much as before they were popular over here: I had heard some of their music in Russia, and it played a part in my acquiring a taste for Russian pop music. I was looking forward to getting my hands on some interesting music from countries whose music I don't know much about (so everywhere but the UK & USA really), and I didn't get around to buying any in Russia. So logically I should be pleased that Tatu are now big stars in the anglosphere, because it makes it much easier for me to get hold of their stuff. Yet somehow I find myself resenting the fact that the only Russian act whose name I can actually remember are one that everyone's now heard of (and not only did I like them before they were popular over here, but I liked them without even knowing that they were lesbian schoolgirls, so it was the music and not the gimmick - another requirement of indie cool), and thinking that the English language stuff isn't half as good as their Russian songs. Some of the Russian songs are exactly the same anyway (I think the whole English album is translations of things they had already released in Russian), but I have heard a few Russian things that don't seem to have English versions, including the song that was getting heavy rotations on Russian MTV while I was there, and I tend to like these ones better.

The thing that I can't work out is whether the Russian stuff really is better, the exoticism of listening to music in a language I don't speak, or just a residual unconscious desire to like something my friends mostly don't know about.
posted @ 7:35 AM -

Tuesday, June 3

Doublespeak of the day

From TheCounter.com, whose service I was about to cancel anyway, and who I'm pleased to see are still making their very handy global statistics available to the public.

Our members are always suggesting ways for us to improve our TheCounter.com service. In order to respond to those suggestions and continue developing TheCounter.com Premium Edition, we have decided we must concentrate on our premium service and eliminate the free service, effective July 31, 2003.

To retain your statistics you will need to upgrade ...
So... to improve their service to me, they are withdrawing the service that I use. How kind of them.

I'm interested to see how the withdrawing of the free service affects the global stats. When I used to teach web design I always recommended it as a place to check assumptions about which browsers people actually use (a few years back it used to be an important warning that outdated browsers still had significant market share; these days less so, but I wish Netscape 4.x would finally give up and go away), but there was always the proviso that this doesn't measure the entire online population evenly. Instead, it aggregates the statistics from every website that uses their service, so anyone who never visits a TheCounter.com customer site won't get counted, and anyone who visits more than one regularly will get counted more than once.

The hope was always that the enormous sample size would offset any random fluctuations, and the systematic sampling errors that could be expected (for instance a bias towards English-language sites, or at least sites with anglophone designers/webmasters/owners, because as far as I'm aware TheCounter.com don't offer interfaces in any other language) were not ones that needed worrying about (carrying on this example, I was introducing this to anglophone web development students, and even the few for whom English wasn't their mother tongue were hoping to work in the UK, and expecting to work in English). Removing the free service will definitely increase the systematic bias of the websites covered, because I can't imagine many personal homepages or blogs will update to the paid-for service, but I'm sure most corporates already have done. The question is, will it add systematic bias to the readership?

I'm not sure what sort of impact I should expect this to have though. On the one had, I expect corporate sites to have a larger proportion of low-tech readers (because people who read personal homepages tend to have friends who are interested in the web, and by extension are more likely to upgrade browsers and hardware - I get a disproportionate number of hits from Opera users, but that may be down to a small number of individuals who I know), but on the other corporate sites are more often guilty of producing designs that are only readable by current software, so they may in fact get fewer old browser hits, because no-one returns to a site they can't use. I'm also not sure where blogs fit in to this. Bloggers are definitely a more technically literate group than web users as a whole, and this used to be true of blog readers too (because most were also blog authors), but since the mainstream media have taken an interest in blogging as a phenomenon, I'm not sure this is still true.
posted @ 6:20 AM -

Monday, June 2

Are my comments broken? I don't actually get anything when I click on the comments links on my own blog, but I'm not sure whether this is specific to my computer. Could the first person who can post a comment please do so to prove that they work (I'll still see that a comment has been left even if I have to go via the YACCS console to read it), or if you have the same problem please email me, and also mention whether this has always been the case or just happened in the last few days.

Update: clearly the comments do work for other people. Meanwhile I can read comments on other sites that use the same commenting system as me, and I haven't changed anything on my site since it last worked for me. Strange.
posted @ 11:15 AM -

A 'city' fast becoming pierless

Brighton West Pier

I'm not exactly sure of the date of this photo, but in any case it shows the West Pier Before Catastrophes.

Summer 2000 (I think)



And this is how it looks After Damage (taken on Friday evening).

May 30th 2003

click on the images for enlargements, approx. 220K each


You can probably tell where I spent the weekend. Apart from the strange and not exactly pleasant emotional tenor of the pilgrimage to the pier, it was a very good weekend. My relationship to Brighton is still odd, hence why the pier pilgrimage meant so much to me, but mostly this weekend was about reconnecting with people, which was how I wanted it to be. Apart from one person who was out of town, I managed to spend some time with everyone who I had on my mental 'must see' list, and although it was mostly in groups of people (I was trying to see people individually, like a surgery as Mark put it, but it just got too complicated) it was small groups, so I was actually able to talk to people about things, not just vaguely be in the same noisy pub as them and a hundred other sweaty beerswillers.
posted @ 4:47 AM -
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