Sunday, 19 October 2008

Blackadder lives

So, we're going to spend our way out of recession by commissioning lots of new nuclear weapons and battleships. Or, rather, the Government is, using our money. Brilliant, Darling! Even more cunning would be to conjure up a convenient new war so that we'd have to build even more of them. Watch out Iran (or maybe Iceland, or even Zimbabwe.) You may be about to pay dearly for the U.K.'s economic recovery.

Still, looking on the bright side, it would provide lots of new youth employment. Just a pity I'm slightly on the old side to be going over the top myself.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Figures of authority

Today's figure of authority is 500,000,000,000. The UK authorities tell us that this is the number of pounds required to rescue our banks from meltdown. The authorities in America decided that their figure was 700 billion, which (in dollars) is about the same amount. That sounds low to me; presuming that American banks are bigger than UK banks, you'd think they'd be in a bigger mess. But then, what do I know? Perhaps the US authorities pitched their guess low to avoid reaching the dreaded trillion dollar figure.

Albert Einstein said: "To punish me for my contempt for authority, Fate has made me an authority." Luckily, fate has spared me that punishment. I'm not an authority on anything. But I know what an asset bubble is, and that's what these multi-billion figures are about. An asset bubble is what happens when enough people agree to delude themselves that something is worth more than it really is. That something could be property, a dotcom company, or - 300 years ago - stock in the South Sea Company. A bit like believing you own (or could own, if only you could climb onto the first rung of the beanstalk) a goose that lays golden eggs. The delusion is complete when everyone believes that this asset can continue, magically, to rise in value.

You'd think that the authorities, who now pronounce on the bursting of this latest bubble, and who dream up these multi-billion figures they claim will be needed to clean up the mess, would have seen this one coming. I did. But the same authorities, only 9 months ago at the end of 2007, were reassuring us that, although our property wasn't doubling in value quite as rapidly as it had been, they were sure that 2008 would see, at worst, a gentle levelling-off of house prices. The goose might take a rest, but it wasn't about to expire.

So, either these authorities are as gullible as the rest of us, and really believe in these tooth fairy economics, or they know very well that it's a scam, but conspire to keep us deluded while laughing all the way to the bank.

I was going to end with another Einstein quote, but... what did he know about economics? By the way, a little bird tells me that, if you can actually prise some of your hard-earned cash away from the bank, the next big thing may well be something called Reality Cheques and other forms of Disappointment Futures.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Catastrophic numbers

Interesting, then, to be in at the end of Capitalism. If I'd been asked, I'd have guessed it might have staggered on for another decade or so, but... what do I know?

A few months before he died, in 1988, Richard Feynman said:

"You know, there are about a hundred billion stars in a galaxy - ten to the eleventh power. That used to be considered a huge number. We used to call numbers like that 'astronomical numbers.' Today it's less than the national debt. We ought to call them 'economical numbers.'"

Twenty years later, talk of trillions of dollars is common. That's a thousand billion dollars, the number of stars in ten galaxies. Maybe these ought to be called 'catastrophic numbers'.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Things fall apart, the Centrino cannot hold

Catastrophe in the forest. My laptop's frites. Well, almost. I can run it in emergency mode, with Windows operating at the very end of the autistic spectrum. Like an autistic Spectrum in fact.

This is quite a problem. I know I wanted to get away from it all for a while, but I didn't intend to cut myself off completely from what passes for civilisation. That's what it feels like though, with no access to the world-wide interweb.

So, I'll struggle on for a bit, but I may have to tactically withdraw (pardon my French) and regroup. Watch this space. It may be some time before another post.

Thursday, 22 May 2008


After many years of visiting France, and living here for two years, probably the most important advice I'd offer to prospective travellers in this fair land would be to avoid at all costs any foodstuffs contained in tins. Even if the contents of the tin, like the one I opened last night, are described as Filets de Poulet a la Normande at ses Petits Legumes, you can be sure that, after warming them through, you'll be left with an insipid vegetable broth, not dissimilar to Cuppa Soup, and some lumps of meat that could easily have originated in the same process that created my self-inflating camping mattress.

So, a big chapeau, I say, to the welcome global presence of McDonald's and its wonderful range of good, hearty food. Personally I'd recommend a tasty Croque McDo' and a portion of frites. And, after eating your fill of delicious food without a hint of escargot or the dreaded fromage de tete (a personal favourite of Anth Ginn), catch up with your email and keep your blog up-to-date with their generous free WIFI.

The only thing they don't do is decent cakes, but there's always that brilliant patisserie on the way home. That's where I'm going now. Here's today's pic from the forest:

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Online again

Sitting in La France Cafe, downtown F'bleau, marvelling at the wonders of WIFI. On the other hand, it's costing several Euros per hour for parking, plus 3 Euros per coffee while I'm writing this. I think I'll have to start composing posts offline and just connecting occasionally. Thus far, from the comfort of my camping chair outside my tent I've enjoyed the company of rabbits, woodpeckers, jays, red squirrels and, most fun to watch of all, little baby crows, pecking around at ground level under the watchful eye of their mum. It's been raining comme les chats et les chiens, so not much in the way of climbing so far. As soon as the sun comes out though...

Anyway, I'm signing off now before I spend all my money. A plus tard.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Lost in France

Occasional will be even more occasional for a while. I'm off to sling my hammock between a couple of trees in a French forest; I may be some time. Contact with the outside world will be courtesy of the strangely named Boingo, a roaming WIFI hotspot provider. So we'll see how it goes. I might be more prolific on my Facebook page. Meanwhile, from the days when racial stereotyping wasn't quite so frowned upon, this is good fun:

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Lost and found

Here's a little story with a happy ending, for a change. I lost my car keys yesterday. Well, to be accurate, it wasn't me who lost them, the real culprit knows who she is, but anyway, the keys were lost. Not a disaster on the scale of global financial meltdown, or the turmoil in Tibet, or Heather Mills' divorce problems, but inconvenient, and potentially costly. Keys aren't just keys these days, they're full of electronic wizardry, and expensive to replace, so we reported the loss to the police. Just a few hours later, on the same day, they phoned us to say they'd got them! Now I don't know how many officers they'd assigned to the case. Maybe they have sniffer dogs specially trained to locate them, or perhaps there was some of that DNA magic involved. Whatever, it was a remarkable piece of detective work, and I hope it goes some way in countering the negative press the police sometimes get these days.

Incidentally, I mentioned Heather Mills above. I'm not very much interested in her private life, but I notice that Mills has now joined the ranks of those, like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, who have become the acceptable subjects for jokes involving disability. It's a funny thing, humour.

And farewell then, Arthur C. Clarke, who once said "Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software." I hadn't realised that Clarke was an advisor on the 1950's Eagle comic's Dan Dare stories, some of my earliest reading. I imagine that many young boys were, like me, greatly influenced by him.

I've put a new widget in the side-panel. It links to some free songs at Calabash Music, a good World Music site, where I first heard the Belizean music of Andy Palacio, who also died recently. The video below shows him, with the wonderful Garifuna Collective, performing the title track from their album Watina.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Review Of The Year

A mixed year, I'd say, 2007. Ups and downs in unequal measure. Here are some of my annual awards.

Political Coup Of The Year: a closely fought contest that should have been won by elegant French President Nicolas Sarkozy for capturing the heart of delightful Italian-born chanteuse Carla Bruni (whose solo album Quelqu'un M'A Dit is one of my favourites).A masterstroke (perhaps literally), but Sarkozy's swapping of one ex-model for a newer one backfired with the French public, and his popularity ratings have taken a hit. So, instead, the award goes to King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand who, for some reason, decided to re-invent himself one morning in a fetchingly pink shirt and jacket.So impressed were his subjects that they too adopted the new style. Pink shirts became the season's must-have item, and crowds mobbed shops selling them.

The Have you tried switching it off and on? award goes to the documentation for my copy of Cakewalk's Sonar music production software. In the Troubleshooting section it offers the following helpful advice about the 6 available settings of the Mixing Latency control: "The default setting is 64 KB. Yours may work better with 128, 32, or 16. If those values don't help, try 256, 512, or move on to another remedy."

I was going to award the Reasons to be Cheerful prize to Barack Obama for his vision of an America embracing change and hope rather fear and belligerence. But the worrying possibility that voters might choose a man (Huckabee) who believes that the earth was created 6000 years ago, by an extraterrestrial creator... well, let's wait and see. The award goes instead to the BBC's Sky At Night program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. I watched the first program of 2008 last night. It's particularly cheering that there's no mention of podcasts, blogs or forward-slash dot nonsense. There's a newsletter, but you have to send a stamped and self-addressed envelope to Patrick's back garden observatory...

Rant Of The Year: no contest, really. Another BBC production, if you haven't heard Marcus Brigstocke's thoughts on religion from Radio 4's The Now Show, have a listen (audio only) at YouTube.

That's it for now, except for the Stairlift To Heaven award which, of course, goes to Led Zeppelin. Age shall not weary them...

Happy New Year

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Universal disasters

Poor old blog's been a bit neglected of late, so it's about time for some more witty and incisive posts. I've been busy converting my website to deliver its media content with Microsoft's new Silverlight platform rather than, as previously, with Flash. Not a trivial matter - in its current release, Silverlight programming involves an untidy mix of HTML, Javascript and XML - but worth it, for me, because Microsoft is offering several gigabytes of free streamed media hosting. I've been nibbling into this to serve up the audio on my sounds page.

So, what's been happening while I've been away? Well, not a brilliant week for English football, quelle surprise. My memories of half a century of World Cups and European Championships are of variations on the theme of "England can still theoretically qualify if..." involving unlikely combinations of Sweden beating Italy by at least 8 goals and Portugal invading Scotland. Bring back Glenn ("I have a number of alternatives, and each one gives me something different") Hoddle, I say. And Eileen.

Not the best of weeks at HM Customs and Revenue, either. The coverage I've seen about the lost CDs seems to me to miss the real point. It was obviously daft to entrust such sensitive data to Mr Postie, but the problem apparently arose because HMCR couldn't create a filtered dataset (i.e. the limited data as requested by the National Audit Office, with no banking or address information) without commissioning expensive, additional work from Capgemini (who manage HMCR's IT systems, at an estimated 10-year cost of £8bn). This raises many questions. Firstly, why has HMCR handed Capgemini such control over the database that HMCR can't even do its own simple queries on the data? And how could it possibly be an expensive operation for Capgemini to service such a request? How much work can be involved in something that should be as simple as changing a command that extracts all data from a database ('SELECT * FROM ...' in SQL, a standard database query language) to a filtered extraction ('SELECT Name, NumberOfChildren etc FROM ...' in SQL)? And if it isn't as simple as that, why not?

Anyway, football and security failures hardly matter if a report in this week's New Scientist is to be believed. Under the less than reassuring headline "Have we just sealed the universe's fate?" we're told that the future of the entire universe may now be at risk, as a result of our enquiring too deeply into its workings. According to a paper by Lawrence Krauss (who I mentioned in a previous post for his criticism of Richard Dawkins as being too emotive in his atheism) and James Dent, we have looked upon that which it would have been better not to have looked upon. As if the destruction of our own planet wasn't enough, it seems that we may have inadvertently tipped the universe into a state where it is more likely to spontaneously vanish. Which would be a bit of a shock, and a disappointment, for its inhabitants.

There is, apparently, something called the quantum Zeno effect; whenever we observe or measure something at the quantum level, we reset a clock in the observed system that controls when it is likely to decay into another state. So when, in 1998, we measured the light from distant supernovae explosions, thus gaining evidence of the existence of dark energy, little did we imagine that we might, in doing so, have reset the clock in the universe's false vacuum back to a point where it is less likely to survive. The end of the universe, and to think I used to be scared of Boltzmann Brains!

It's very hard to think logically about this, and other arguments along the same anthropocentric lines ("the universe only exists when we observe it", etc). For example, what would have happened if, in the experiment to measure the supernovae light, a fly had landed on the telescope lens and intercepted the light with its multisegmented eye? Would the fly's 'observation' of the light have the same disastrous consequences? Or, suppose that the experiment had been outsourced to Capgemini, who saved the results on a database but then didn't allow the scientists access to it? Could we still be said to 'know' about dark energy, thereby risking the survival of the universe? Perhaps we can take comfort from the Many Worlds model, which says that, if a wave-function collapses with one result, e.g. the disappearance of the universe, it will also produce a parallel result in which the universe doesn't disappear. And, via the anthropocentric principle, that non-disappearing universe will be the one in which we find ourselves.

Barmouth beach, NovemberIt's all very confusing. Thank goodness for the simple pleasures of the beach, even if it's a little chilly at this time of year. More later, if we're still here...

Monday, 8 October 2007

Can you keep a secret?

An interesting article by Henry Porter in Sunday's Observer. He writes about how, hidden in all the froth of electioneering and policy stealing, the government has quietly introduced the extended Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Alongside its ID Card plans and CCTV surveillance, this act increases the government's Stasi-like control over our privacy. Under the act, the police and security services can tap any British communication channel, including post, telephone lines and internet accounts; the phone companies and ISPs are required to keep track of every electronic move we make.

So, can you still keep a secret? Well, you can, but, if you insist, you may have to be prepared to spend some time in prison for it. Part III of the Act, in force from the 1st October, gives the Government and its agents the power to demand that you hand over the keys to any encrypted data they find on your computer. Refusal to comply can result in a prison sentence of up to 5 years.

On my computer there is an encrypted folder where I keep all sorts of stuff - none of it illegal - such as my internet banking details. This is encrypted so securely that it is, in practice, unreadable unless you know the key I used when creating it. This key isn't written down anywhere; it only exists in my head. Or, perhaps more accurately, it exists only as a memory in my brain, and can only be accessed by a thought from that brain. Under RIPA Part III, it becomes an offence for me to have such a memory and not to disclose it when ordered under what is called a Section 49 Notice. The thought police have arrived.

Of course, if the disclosure of such a key were to prevent a terrorist incident, it wouldn't seem such a bad piece of lesligation, and this, along with the usual "nothing to hide, nothing to fear", is how the Government justifies it. However, the same law can be applied in a range of suspected crimes, including financial ones, although the maximum sentence for non-terrorism related thought-withholding offences is only 2 years.

It's all very worrying. As Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti says: "This underlines the uncomfortable fact that the British public are the most spied upon people in the Western world."

Monday, 17 September 2007

That's Life

I've never had particularly strong feelings either way about Esther Ranzen, harmlessly entertaining us of a Sunday evening, exposing the dodgy double-glazing salesmen, and Cyril Fletcher with his allegedly humurous odes. Until today, that is. Don't ask why I was watching the ad-breaks on daytime TV this afternoon; it's a long story, but there she was, microphone in hand, with a studio audience just like the old days, urging anyone with a slightly stiff neck, possibly after a nasty incident at work that they'd almost forgotten about, to phone the Accident Advice Helpline immediately. Their claim would be handled by a team of lawyers dedicated to ensuring that their convalescence would be lucrative.

This advert is bad on so many levels. All concerned should be ashamed of themselves for assuming that "people's champion" Esther Ranzen would lend credibility to a business that is... well, let's just say questionable. Ranzen joins my Hall of Shame for people lessened, in my eyes, by taking the adman's dollar. She'll be joining, among others: Jane Fonda (see this Dead Ringers parody of her Anti-Ageing Cream ad), Penelope Cruz (another Dead Ringers target, and, parodying himself, the once-legendary Rolf Harris.

It's enough to make you weep. As is (but in a different way) the following video - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performing the title track from the wonderful "Time (The Revelator)".

I was going to say something about the sale of 4.4 billion pounds-worth of EuroFighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, but I think that's probably a subject best left alone. I'm sure the people of the Middle East will be sleeping easier in their beds tonight. All I'll say is that those Typhoons fly over here sometimes, tearing the air as they hurtle down the estuary and out over Cardigan Bay. An impressive display of sight and sound. If I had a spare $50 million or so I'd have one myself.