3 September, 2011
Well. It's been a while.
When I last posted, in February, I was already drifting towards the dreaded 'hiatus', having dropped back from multiple posts per day at the blog's peak to a comfortable ~10 per month in 2008-9 and a half-hearted 2-3 per month.
As I may have mentioned (or not; I've always been reluctant to reveal particularly personal details here), it's not an overstatement to say my life changed at the end of 2009, and I'm not the person I was before: new, wonderful girlfriend; new, more intense job; new (first!) car and associated extension of mobility; and new focus of interests. For example, I haven't watched any broadcast TV for 18 months, but I have learned to cook 'properly' (but seem to have lost the time & energy to do so, in recent months).
That doesn't preclude maintenance of the blog at some level, of course, and the will's still there, but another change rather forced my hand in March. My ISP made various updates which rendered my blogging software unusable: I can't publish anything any more via Movable Type. I'm publishing this (or rather, writing it in the hope that I know how to publish it) by manually editing MT's output files: the blog entry itself, plus the archives, index page and RSS. I don't think I'll be making a habit of it.
I could set myself up with entirely new publishing software, but it's just so much hassle – my day job is Web Editor, so I'm disinclined to invest much of my own time in more of the same.
We'll see. I'm certainly not on Facebook, and haven't really taken to Twitter, but work permitting, I upload something to Flickr pretty much daily during the week.
20 January, 2011
Let your fingers do the cancelling
A BBC report about UK phone books getting smaller (it wasn't particularly interesting) happened to mention something that hadn't even occurred to me: that it's possible to opt out of receiving phone directories altogether.
I don't think I've used Yellow Pages since the mid- 1990s, and I doubt I've ever used BT's Phone Book. I don't even know (or care) what's inside a Thomson Local directory. Every year, each one arrives on my doorstep, prompting me to take the previous year's issue out of its plastic wrapper for the first time and drop it into the recycling bin unopened. Totally pointless.
According to Stop Junk Mail, opting out is as simple as sending an email to each provider (that site offers a utility to streamline the process), or a phone call if one prefers.
Of course, more could be done to combat the advertising industry: compulsory implementation of an opt-in system (no directories delivered unless one specifically requests them – as already done in Belgium) would be an excellent start, as would be charging producers for the disposal of countless tonnes of redundant phone books. Why should local authorities – the public – have to bear the cost, estimated as £7.5 million pa, according to the LGA last year?
Despite unsurprising industry opposition, Seattle seems to be enacting sensible legislation:
... the ordinance directs Seattle Public Utilities to set up a registry of residents who don't want to receive yellow pages, and requires distributors to honor those 'opt-out' requests and pay a license fee and fees for each book and each ton of books delivered.
It also requires distributors to "prominently and conspicuously" post on book covers how to opt out of future deliveries.
23 June, 2010
Minding own business
Note to self: don't, even in a spirit of friendly assistance, inform a colleague that he could be doing his job better. You won't be thanked.
In London this past weekend, I glanced through the 'what's on' leaflets shelved in the Tate Britain and noticed a flyer for an open day at a comparible (but not rival) HE institution. Good idea – why don't we do that?
Dunno, but it seems the question isn't of interest....
Pity. I work in web marketing and my colleague works in face-to-face marketing (recruitment), but we're both trying to sell the same product. A little shared innovation, presented discreetly (it's not as if I shamed anyone in front of senior management) should be a good thing, right?
21 June, 2010
Wait for it
Why does my employer's Twitter feed receive so many new 'followers' * with websites 'in preparation', 'nearly ready' or 'coming soon'? It's entry-level marketing to promote oneself via social media as well as by SEO, etc., but why not get the website ready first?
*: Fishing for return traffic? Hopefully not for reciprocal links, as that's certainly not going to happen....
8 June, 2010
A job advert for a Web Editor post at a HE institution in Edinburgh mentions that "if you do not have access to the Internet, you may request an application pack by contacting Human Resources".
That's Web Editor. Wouldn't an ability to find an internet connection be something of a core skill?
18 May, 2010
I haven't watched broadcast TV since mid/late March, nor bought a CD within the past 6-7 months. How did that happen?
My TV still gets used for DVDs, of course, but I simply haven't been inclined to use its broadcast receiver. My life has changed fairly radically since November (overwhelmingly for the better, though it's been tough), and I have even less time or intellectual vacancy to invest into passively consuming whatever crappy gameshows or partial, excessively-editorialised 'news' coverage happens to be available at a given moment.
I'd already been receiving a broader, multisource overview of the latest news, supplemented by 'raw' data, via the web; now that's virtually 100%. Less expected has been my total switch to watching TV on-demand via BBC iPlayer and its ITV equivalent: to date, every single programme I've particularly want to see has been readily available at a time of my choosing via my browser.
My apparent abandonment of CDs has been similarly unexpected, but equally explicable.
It's certainly not that I'm obtaining (entirely legally!) less music: I bought two albums yesterday, in fact. The difference is that I now prefer to download in non-DRM'd, low-compression or VBR .mp3 format (even though the CD of 'Powerslave' was cheaper than the download). The new album from Anathema is due out at the end of the month, and I went to the effort of hunting for a non-'special' edition without 5.1-mix DVD-A, digibook, T-shirt or LP (simple: try Amazon rather than Burning Shed) before acknowledging that I'd rather wait a little longer for a download edition. There's no rush.
It's difficult to overstate the balloon-puncturing effect of my disillusionment with 'special' editions: obscure formats in excessive packaging, glorifying 'the album as artifact' rather than the mere carrying medium of the only part important me, the music itself (artwork can be a bonus, but not at a premium). SW is by far the worst offender, but not the only one; it's a disturbing trend, which I'm not prepared to condone. I don't need 'things'.
There's a pragmatic reason for the shift, too: I don't even recall the last time I listened to music on CD. Everything I've bought in recent years has been immediately ripped to .mp3 anyway; my sole CD player is in my PC, so any alleged sound quality advantage of uncompressed .cda over >192kbps .mp3 is probably negated by the chip fan!
12 May, 2010
Hmm. Most of my friends are as old as the Prime Minister. Not sure how I feel about that.
27 April, 2010
Though I have 'perfect' vision in each of my eyes, they focus independently (i.e. their lines of sight don't converge correctly), so I perceive objects more than ~10 m away as very slightly blurred.
It's worsened as I've aged. I first noticed it in 1992 whilst working with photogrammetric lenses, when I happened to hold one to my eye and look out at an adjacent building, noticing for the very first time that it was brick-built. It's not that I couldn't see the bricks, merely that the surface pattern hadn't registered consciously. Once it had, it remained obvious even without the lens, confirming that it had been a question of perception rather than 'raw' eyesight.
Now I wear glasses I experience that less often, but it still happens: I can see things perfectly well without assistance, but don't notice them.
I've tried to explain that to people – particularly those who have tried my glasses and discovered they're nearly plain glass – but haven't been confident that they understand. Now I can offer an illustration.
Scroll halfway down this page, which reviews various disc editions of 'Zulu', to a sequence of screenshots comparing picture qualities: NTSC vs PAL, digital transfer vs. digital transfer, and DVD vs. Blu-ray. Find the first image depicting a red-coated soldier holding a Zulu shield, standing in a valley with a flat-topped mountain in the background. Then scroll a little further: my unaided vision is probably comparible to the second (PAL) screenshot: fairly clear but not quite there. Then look at the final, Blu-ray, image in that set.
If you're like me, you'll suddenly notice that there are numerous dead Zulus in the background. Scroll back up to the earlier images, and realise the bodies were visible there too. For me, that's an odd sensation: I must have seen them without proper awareness; I'd subconsciously presumed they were simply rocks on the floodplain and ignored them. Yet having noticed them, I continue to notice them, even at the lower resolutions.
And that, boys and girls, is why I wear glasses which have no effect for other people.
20 April, 2010
Just the facts, Ma'am
Writing in the Guardian, Malgorzata Górska explains how to succeed as a conservation activist, but the key advice appears in the article's comments.
The very concept of a self-righteous 'conservation activist' makes my fists itch, so as someone normally resistant to campaigners' whining, my key advice would be to stick to the measurable evidence: point out the verifiable scientific impacts of a road project, or the illegality of a mine. Never, ever, evangelise environmentalism, nor appeal to morality or the fluffiness of the poor little bunnies who'll be displaced. That may well be your personal motivation for getting involved, and that's fine. However, it's a particularly poor basis for campaigning to those of us who, whilst open to rational arguments and practicing fairly sustainable lifestyles, don't give a **** about the Green pseudo-religion.
[And no, that's not directed at Ms. Górska; just making a general point.]
14 April, 2010
Blaming the victim
Last week, a 'journalist' illustrated an online article with a copy of an illustration he found on the web. Without making any attempt to contact the artist for permission. Uh-oh....
When instructed to remove it, he did comply, but with an appallingly condescending comment suggesting that the artist – who happens to be a rather well-known professional – should welcome the exposure, and if he didn't, he should have implemented technological barriers to copying, such as visible watermarking; that "[if] you leave it in the clear, you're giving permission."
This idea that one must gain permission before doing what comes naturally on the Web has to end. You have the tools to stop it. Use them.
I wouldn't link to such rubbish ordinarily, but ignoring the original article (I didn't bother with more than a paragraph or two), enjoy
the stream of comments, in which the original author is thoroughly roasted for his ludicrous justification of theft.
Then read the comments accompanying a follow-up 'How-To' piece in which the author patronisingly attempts to educate readers far more knowledgeable than himself on how to protect images, only to receive a second roasting for misrepresenting the genuine issue. A highlight is when the site's own editor-in-chief joins in the criticism....
It's not for the content creator to protect a work, it's for a potential user to obtain permission: just because it's easy to copy online content, or that an artist hasn't specifically imposed barriers, doesn't mean it's acceptable to simply take it.
Extrapolating the 'journalist's argument, every car should be thoroughly locked and immobilised, or it'd be entirely reasonable for someone to just take it. And let's not even consider the 'she was wearing a short skirt' excuse.... (okay; excessive extrapolation.)
If one finds a wonderful image online and wishes to reuse it in one's own work, one is obliged to contact the artist and obtain permission. If one can't identify or contact the artist, one CANNOT use the image. Simple as that. If one can't contact the artist because he/she has failed to make contact details available, tough: one still can't use it.
When I say 'use', I'm talking about republication for profit, of course – if one wishes to take a personal copy of an image for private appreciation, that's entirely different. Personally, I'd include not-for-profit publication, such as by charities, too, as it's not merely about money: I wouldn't want to assist causes with which I disagree. I reserve the right to withhold my creative content from religious groups or animal rights activists, for example.
That's not to say I object to my content being reused at all; quite the opposite. Just ask first, and don't presume agreement. Only today, I agreed to make photos available to promote a conference in Lancaster. In fact, the only occasion I recall on which I declined is when I was asked to make images available, uncredited and for free, to a travel agent who'd receive commission from the content my photos would illustrate.
12 April, 2010
Seen on the 'reduced for quick sale' shelf in a shop on campus, neatly stacked between the nearly-stale muesli bars and cheesy Wotsits:
That made me blink a little, but the shop assistant, who happens to be an articulate PhD student, was rather animated about it all, in sociological contexts I couldn't quite follow.
17 March, 2010
Someone must be mistaken
Argh! Architect is not a verb!
That's from a consultant's pitch to which I was exposed this morning, about revolutionising the production of printed documents, using a CMS and file repository to gather and revise content for brochures and prospectuses.
After which I returned to my desk and an invitation to a conference on the death of the printed prospectus, "threatened by an increasingly digitised marketing mix and a profound generational shift in media behavior and consumption".
So which is it?
4 March, 2010
Just add sand & cement
According to a white van parked in my street, the owner isn't merely a humble builder.
Oh, no; he offers property solutions.
29 January, 2010
No ads, you twit
I've mentioned before that one of my responsibilities is to monitor who's following my employer's Twitter feed, eliminating follow-sp*ammers.
Quite apart from my personal animosity to all (and I do mean all) advertising, the institution simply isn't allowed to publish anything which could be considered a commercial endorsement, so if a feed is transparently and solely attempting to sell something, it's blocked.
The commonest offenders tend to be web marketing firms presumingly attempting to attract the attention of, well, me, and they succeed: I retain every 'new follower' e-mail Twitter sends, and I wouldn't knowingly give business to a company which has previously sent me sp*m (er, formal tendering procedures aside, obviously!).
Recruitment agencies comprise another category of frequent abusers, and again, if they're overtly just lists of job adverts, they're blocked.
Student-related sites are sometimes borderline; some seem genuinely useful, and some are relatively clumsy attempts to advertise non-commercial services; they present as adverts, but don't seem to have that intent. They're judged on their merits, and periodically rechecked.
And then there are the random sp*mmers: why would a student or academic in Lancaster, UK be remotely interested in cheap fence posts available in Alabama, USA?
A bit of free advice to advertisers wanting to pass the censor: offer a genuine Twitter feed, with genuine, personal content about a range of topics. Mentioning your services occasionally, and offering a link in your profile summary, is fine. Only feeds that advertise blatently (those in which every single update is an ad, with no personal content, and/or clearly have no relevance to Higher Education) get blocked. A key question I ask myself is "is this person interested in reading the University's updates, or does he/she just want to get a user icon and accompanying text displayed in our 'Followers' list?". In fact, the really good marketing agencies would understand that anyway, so that approach would actually be a better advert than something too overt.
All that is a digression from the point I meant to address: what about 'adverts' from campaigning organisations? Again, my personal views are irrelevant, but should my employer be 'endorsing' religious groups, political parties or, say, drug-legalisation campaigns? Should my employer be blocking links to such groups?
My own view is that if it's scrupulously even-handed, we should be declining such followers, but I'm finding it difficult to get a definitive view (policy decision) from management, and wouldn't be entirely comfortable about defending a block myself if challenged.
Maybe the foregoing paragraphs weren't a digression after all, and I should simply treat all varieties of adverts as adverts.
12 January, 2010
According to a student newspaper, the installation of two 2.1 MW wind turbines would "reduce the University's energy consumption by one third, equivalent to a cut of 72,000 tonnes and £8.1 million". How does that work, then?
How would the turbines reduce consumption, as opposed to meeting demand? Is it expected that overawed students will congregate to watch the huge shiny, spinny things for hours on end, thereby reducing usage of electricity?
And 72,000 tonnes of what? 'Energy'? Incinerated kittens?
28 December, 2009
Don't see it myself
Okay, I can see why piratical eyepatches are common novelties in christmas crackers, but why would a cracker contain two?
17 December, 2009
Bought a couple of weeks in advance, a rail ticket from Plymouth to Lancaster, via Birmingham, costs £124.
However, a ticket from Plymouth to Birmingham, then another from there to Lancaster, collectively costs £78.50, saving £45.50, or 37%.
And that's travelling on the same trains as the combined ticket.
16 October, 2009
"Children's cancer appeal, sir?"
Well, no, not really. Isn't that the whole point of charity collections?
29 September, 2009
Not playing this year
Before attempting to gather data on the sixty-odd million people in the UK, the Office for National Statistics is running a census rehearsal by sending forms to 130,000 households in Lancaster, Ynys Môn (Anglesey) and Newham.
Though I'm one of the recipients, I won't be completing the practice census; though I'll certainly participate in the compulsory one in 2011, as I consider national censuses very important, I couldn't imagine voluntarily giving the UK Government any personal information.
I suppose the ONS needs to know about potential response rates to the real thing, so in my own way, I am helping.
Besides that fundamental objection, a couple of specific questions are barriers to my involvement:
What is your country of birth?
[England/Wales/Scotland/Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland/Elsewhere (write in the current name of a country])
Until full independence is achieved, I refuse to accept the first four options as 'countries' – they are mere component parts of the country called 'the United Kingdom'
(the name's a hint). Hence, in 2011 I'll be selecting the last option, as I was born in the UK, rather than 'England'
What is your religion?
I am atheist, which definitely isn't compatible with the form's nearest option, 'No religion'
. Though I don't exactly think about it all the time, my approach to life is grounded in the knowledge – the faith – that there is no deity: that is
my religion. It's a profound belief in an absence, not a lack of belief, and that's not mere semantics.
24 September, 2009
Commercial TV executives have suggested that online catch-up services such as the BBC iPlayer should no longer be free, instead requiring users to make micropayments (though up to £2 a time isn't so 'micro').
"The BBC never thought it was appropriate to give away DVDs, so why should catch-up be free?" he said.
"Traditionally, licence fee payers have paid for access on a TV set - and only for the first transmission."
That's a non-sequitur: iPlayer and DVDs are entirely different concepts: one is a time-shifting mechanism, whereas the other is storage. The specific display medium (TV or PC) is irrelevant, too.
If I'm unable to watch a TV programme at the original broadcast time, as my TV licence allows, iPlayer enables me to watch it later. However, it doesn't give me a copy of the programme: I can only watch via the iPlayer interface and only for a limited period after the initial broadcast (I think it's a week or the duration of a series plus a week). There are illicit workarounds, of course, but rather more complex than simply linking a DVD recorder to a TV.
In contrast, if I buy a DVD, it's mine: I can watch it as many times as I like, for as long as the DVD format is supported by technology.
"The technology now exists that can make payment straightforward. Once you have your account you tell it to buy, it's easy - in essence it's quite attractive. At iTunes prices, I would pay."
Not merely to view once. If I paid (to access something I've already paid for via my licence, remember), I'd consider it a purchase, and would expect to keep the recording forever – just like a DVD.
27 August, 2009
Water for the wet
I can't imagine ever choosing to buy a bottle of spring water, but I've just been given one, left over from yesterday's University open day.
Apparently, a certain brand of water is "drawn from organic land". How pathetic.
Firstly, spring water tends to be pumped from deep underground – if there's soil water in it, something's gone wrong.
Secondly, water percolates into bedrock from a huge catchment area – the claim that an abstraction point happens to be on an organic plot is utterly irrelevant unless the entire district is certified as 'organic' too.
Thirdly, don't be so ****ing precious. It's water. Unless it's specifically contaminated and verifiably unfit for consumption, it doesn't matter.
14 August, 2009
Since I've taken responsibility for eliminating sp*m 'followers from the University's Twitter account, I've become a little concerned about Systems auditing my browser history.
After all, a "teen seeking education" could be genuine business, so if the user icon isn't obviously p*rn, I have to click the link.
21 July, 2009
Millennium hand and shrimp
Wh d' s'mn mms b'cm n'vsty p'trs? S'thr a dct'n t'st n't jb nt'rv'w?
I SAID: why do so many mumblers become university porters? Is there a diction test in the job interview? Yet again I've struggled through a conversation on context and intonation alone, having failed to interpret even a syllable of what was actually said.
Actually, the generalisation's untrue: though I've had the same experience at several institutions across the UK, seemingly more often than random chance, the other common variety of porter seems to be ex-army or -police, and hence particularly clearly-spoken.
Maybe there's a finite amount of enunciation in the profession, and some leach it out of others.
6 July, 2009
If you insist
Anyone else think it odd that the government's 'easy to remember' hygiene advice about swine flu begins with "Catch It"?
21 June, 2009
Yes, in my front yard's fine
I'm an individualist. You may have noticed by now.
I feel strongly that the state should exist to serve individuals, never the reverse; that government should be a service provider facilitating the lives of individuals, and that government should never force individuals to jump through (metaphorical...) hoops merely for administrative convenience. The job of the 'security' agencies is a difficult one, and should be.
However, none of this means I reject basic social responsibility: I also favour self-censorship ahead of freedom of speech, and consider that my right to behave as I wish, anonymously, extends only as far as doesn't affect others.
In today's Observer, David Mitchell, in his amusing but insufferably middle-class English way, writes about wheelie bin protesters. I agree.
A digression in the article's comments actually reinforces the point. Why do Daily Mail readers, stereotypical right-wing libertarians who constantly whine about 'the nanny state' and 'political correctness' (supposedly excessive attempts to avoid offending minorities), spend their entire lives claiming to be offended?
16 June, 2009
The BBC reports that schools in California (eh? so why's the BBC bothered?) are phasing-out textbooks in favour of "approved online learning materials". I'm not sure whether I have an opinion on the relative merits of paper-based and online learning (a bit of both seems sensible) but I do know I wouldn't be particularly influenced by sentiment or the sort of reminiscence provided by the BBC article.
In fact, an early paragraph startled me:
Covering graffiti-laden, handed-down textbooks with left-over wallpaper, sticky-back plastic or posters of the latest bands has been a start-of-term custom for secondary school pupils for years.
True. My sister used sticky plastic, but I couldn't apply it neatly so favoured wallpaper.
Purging books of any trace of their previous owners served to make them feel like ours, and signified reaching a landmark in an educational journey.
What? That never even occurred to me. The books belonged to the school; I neither felt nor sought the remotest sense of ownership. I simply wasn't interested in possessing objects* : a fairly major aspect of my personality now, but I hadn't realised that I've felt that way since childhood.
*: To restate: apart from particularly fine examples of design, I'm generally interested in books, CDs and DVDs as carrying/storage media for their content – words, music and films – not as physical artefacts to own for the sake of ownership. I do own a few ornaments, but for their tactile/visual appeal or for the memories they evoke rather than as mere status symbols. For example, I have a rubber duck beside my TV.
8 May, 2009
If a packet of crisps advertises its contents as 'NEW flavour', why does text elsewhere on the packet say 'same great taste'?
30 April, 2009
It seems teachers are still employing the old exercise of asking children to write about "what i did on holiday".
The difference, as demonstrated by my boss's ~8-year-old daughter's attempt, is that the handwritten, hand-illustrated efforts I (vaguely) recall have been replaced by Powerpoint presentations.
I suppose it's to the children's credit that they can do something I can't, but what about the opportunity for unstructured creativity?
I think I've slightly died, inside.
28 April, 2009
Oh, and a fancy hat
My employer's Press Officer has asked me to "deal with swine flu".
Right. I'll need an airline ticket, a respirator and pair of tweasers.
7 April, 2009
I just don't like superfluities
My bank's branch staff plainly think I'm a bit odd: as someone who declines to use telephone or internet banking and who has neither a car nor a mobile phone* for them to insure, I must conform to a certain profile, to which they may be trained to respond.
However, the subsequent discovery that I'm a web designer with a mortgage really confuses them; there's a certain schadenfreude in seeing an account adviser change mental gears.
*: Not one I carry daily, anyway.
2 April, 2009
I'm usually immune to marketing*, but I couldn't resist buying 'Time Control' toothpaste.
If it's good, it'll instantly restore my teeth and, particularly, gums to their prime a couple of decades ago (hmm... I wouldn't want that wisdom tooth back, though...).
If it's bad, one brushing will transform my teeth to a state typical of the 1740s: made of wood and stored in a location other than my head.
*: Ha! Or so I'd like to think....
4 March, 2009
Tests found wanting
According to the Guardian, Manchester Grammar School is to cease operating the mainstream GCSE national curriculum of age-16 exams, in favour of the International GCSE system.
The reason cited is that GCSEs are now considered insufficiently challenging and inadequate preparation for further stages of education. However, the final paragraph of the Guardian article mentions that:
The Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We do not agree that the IGCSE is in any way superior to the GCSE. It is aimed at international students and therefore does not major on English cultural or historical concepts and achievements.
Excellent! Reason in itself to abandon the 'Little England' spoon-fed propaganda in favour of something more meaningful and of wider relevance. Since I went though the system myself in the Eighties I've frequently regretted having been taught so little about the history and literature of Europe as a whole (including the UK, of course, but within the broader context) and so much parochial minutiae about English monarchs.
That's 'history' not only as the standalone subject, but in the framework of the whole curriculum; an insidious indoctrination of 'Britishness' at the expense of objectivity. For example, in science subjects, I recall British research receiving greater prominence than equally important discoveries by foreign scientists.
20 February, 2009
Watch the quiet ones
This afternoon I was informed that my beard looks less 'evil' than someone else's.
However, I've been thinking. Would a really evil beard advertise the fact?
14 February, 2009
Slogan on a poster advertising yoghurt:
Lick The Lid Of Life!
That may impress the proles (the sort of drones who'd consider the addition of dark chocolate-flavoured vegetable fat to cherry yoghurt as the height of luxury), but I prefer to consider my life to not have a 'lid'.
13 February, 2009
No more exams, ever
Wahey! My sister's a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, specialising in Trauma and Orthopaedics!
[The title is the aspect which seems to please her most.]
31 January, 2009
Correctly, Google Maps depicts the English-Welsh border with the country name in English on the English side and vice versa on the other. Well... not quite.
'An Bhreatain Bheag' is the Gaelic name for Wales. Great for any visiting Scottish people, but 'Cymru' would be slightly more appropriate.
29 January, 2009
What it says on the tin
Heh. A cryptic sign has appeared in my office corridor: 'Department Lists'.
It isn't hanging straight.
13 January, 2009
Top of the world - waa!
Since falling off my bike three times last month, painfully (it's debatable whether the bike or I sustained more damage), I've slightly lost my nerve.
I still cycle daily, not least because it's my only practical means of commuting, but I'm struggling to lean properly, I overreact to any slight irregularity in steering (those two points feed back into each other, of course) and I'm extremely nervous when descending frosty hills; on two occasions I've been close to panic and walking instead.
There's been a further, unexpected effect: I've been experiencing vertigo for the first time in my life – I suppose it's fundamentally related to balance, too. Discovering that whilst on the icy parapet of a dam, walking alone (okay, okay; being there at all was rather foolish), was... interesting. For a moment I couldn't move, even to shuffle around on the spot and retreat. It's been less severe since then, but even descending a steep flight of stairs has caused a little unsteadiness.
As the weather's improving and roads are reliably ice-free, I've become a little more confident on my bike. I certainly hope that also extends to my tolerance of heights soon.
9 January, 2009
As I mentioned, I was in Glasgow yesterday, visiting the office of a consultancy we may hire. This morning I returned to my desk and an e-mail from the MD "looking forward to reverting to you early next week to confirm things".
I don't think we'll ask them to generate copy for the website....
28 December, 2008
If a restaurant menu's description of a seafood salad mentioned 'fresh lettuce leaves' first, should I have realised it might indicate a scarcity of actual, y'know, seafood?
22 December, 2008
A different world
Heh. It's always amusing to see the different reactions when a topic from one social group is cross-posted to another.
For example, when BoingBoing posted about bondage vac-beds (as if they're a brand new invention... weird), one of the commoner initial reader responses was a 'Star Wars' reference, followed by numerous logical (but wrong) comments about mechanical functionality and usability. Valid issues, I suppose, but not foremost in the minds of typical users.
14 December, 2008
When I added the 1997 recording of Bach's 'Double Violin Concerto', performed by Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music, to my Amazon wishlist, why was 'Aliens Love Underpants', the 2007 book by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort, then recommended?
I mean; 'Dinosaurs Love Underpants' is a far superior work.
13 December, 2008
Note to self: if you think the pattern on a woman's party dress strongly resembles 'dazzle' camouflage, as used to disguise the shapes of 1940s-era battleships, don't tell her.
Don't worry; I didn't. But it did.
21 November, 2008
Disappointing news: my employer has 'achieved' Fairtrade status.
Better news: that was eight months ago, and no-one seems to have noticed.
18 November, 2008
Can you point to it on a map?
No, boss, The Philippines is not a member state of the EU.
17 November, 2008
My body is a temple
I'm not one at present, but I would consider registering as an organ donor in the current 'opt-in' system, whereby people are presumed not to be donors unless consent has been given explicitly.
If, as has been proposed, that situation is reversed and people are presumed to be willing donors unless specifically opted-out, I would opt out, on principle. No hesitation, no discussion. Presumed opt-in is unacceptable.
30 October, 2008
Someone else's problem
Looking at my recycling pile this morning, I estimated that unsolicited leaflets account for at least 70% of the waste paper, by bulk.
I'm registered with the MPS to avoid personally-addressed junk mail and with the Royal Mail to avoid the unaddressed junk they deliver door-to-door, but I'm not sure what can be done about hand-delivered takeaway menus, estate agent solicitations, ****ing-Green-Party 'news'letters.
Any suggestions? About how to prevent unsolicited hand-deliveries, I mean – I know I could request that the Greens shove their propaganda elsewhere, but if I do, are they obliged to comply?
29 October, 2008
We do the work, you do the pleasure
Not content with imposing an open-plan office on us, senior management have decided my work colleagues and I need to be restructured. I hope it isn't too painful – it's taken me almost 37 years to achieve this arrangement of intestines and sinews.
We are, but will cease to be, the Academic Division of the Central Administration; that's to be streamlined to 'Central Services'... as seen in Terry Gilliam's dystopian 'Brazil' which, co-incidentally, is also the source of this website's name.
Hi there. I want to talk to you about ducts.
25 October, 2008
I don't think I've ever bought condoms from Sainsbury's, so I hadn't expected to see stickers on the packs stating 'Security tag: remove before placing in microwave'.
'Microwave', eh? That's what it's called nowadays, is it?
15 October, 2008
I've been invited to a seminar! A free seminar! Excellent!
Only... it starts at 08:15. In London (~300km from here). And ends at 10:30.
Something tells me that'd be difficult to sell to my employer....
3 October, 2008
I usually manage to curb my natural pedantry, but when an institution's Press Office advertises that a logo is available for use in stationary materials and that a student is seeking flat mates, I really can't avoid commenting.
26 September, 2008
Cheap as raging infernos
The new students arrive tomorrow, a majority of whom will be 18-year-old school leavers. Without wishing to labour an overstated point, this'll be their first prolonged exposure to alcohol totally unsupervised by parents, and possibly the first time they've had control of their own kitchens.
So is it really a good idea for the campus supermarket to offer cut-price chip pans?
11 September, 2008
Out to pasture
Climbing Ingleborough in July, we found ourselves walking on proper rectangular flagstones, as a particularly boggy section of the popular Three Peaks route had been upgraded. All were cut into identical rectangles, and all were marred by 1-2 small holes, as if street furniture had been attached and removed.
It'd be pleasant to think that the old surface of, say, Leeds' Victorian city centre had been retired to the country.
10 September, 2008
In a press release advertising our role in CERN's LHC experiments, my employer boasts that our project will generate 30 million Gigabytes of data per year, "the equivalent of 600,000 top-of-the-range iPods, which would cover over 500 tennis courts."
But campus only has six tennis courts, so they'd be covered by over 83 layers of iPods, or to a depth of 63.5 cm, or 70% of the height of the net. Something of a handicap to players.
Besides, I thought the traditional unit for physics experiments was the squash court.
There's science popularisation, and there's patronising bollocks. This seems dangerously close to the edge.
8 September, 2008
Returning from Liverpool last night, I spotted a vaguely familiar face at Lime Street station.
I couldn't make the connection immediately; I briefly suspected he was a (evidently now retired) teacher from the school I left eighteen years ago, but by the time I got 'home' I'd recalled he was the head of the council division I worked for in university summer vacations 1990-93; my bosses' boss, with whom I only ever exchanged a few words. The 'waking edge' of first consciousness this morning brought back his name, too, though I'd have struggled to remember it months later, never mind after fifteen years. Did I mention I have a good memory for faces?
There is a point to this posting, beyond self-congratulation: don't work too hard, and don't live for your career.
I remember this person as a rather pompous manager, overconfident in his self-importance. Though generally considered ineffectual by his staff, he'd risen to become the director of a county council division (though it wasn't of anything as meaningful as Education or even Highways but merely Supplies), with the associated status.
Yet as soon as he retired, that would all have vanished: all that was left was a small man on a railway platform, with jowls and a pink shirt. Who cares now that he was once Director of Paperclips? Was it worth all the effort?
4 September, 2008
Sign o'the times
A local taxi firm has posted a flyer through my door, urging me to "book your school run, with safe, experienced, CRB-cleared drivers".
Now busy, busy parents can't even find the time to mollycoddle their little darlings themselves.
I hope it's expensive.
31 August, 2008
Three degrees of separation
I discovered last night that a York-based friend of an Oslo-based friend is engaged to the vocalist of a 'prog' band, er, of rather more interest to a certain Manchester-based blogger than to me, to be honest. Still, 'small world', and all that.
It's also interesting that each link is self-contained: apart from brief meetings in pubs, 'adjacent connections' don't know one another at all. Which is probably a good thing, if conversation accidentally turned to music topics or past relationships....
9 August, 2008
Just this once
Dilemma. If I decline to find biorhythm-calculating software for my mother, on the grounds that it's meaningless woo, I know she'll only go looking for herself, and innocently download spyware from a dodgy 'freeware' provider.
I suppose I'll have to knowingly peddle the pseudo-science – at least this sort of thing is unlikely to harm her, or her computer.
5 August, 2008
Could get crowded
For the past couple of hours I've been dealing with printers. Not the small items of office hardware, but actual, flesh-and-blood people who organise the production of, say, 20,000 prospectuses.
Hence, you can imagine my momentary confusion at the following e-mail about migration back to our renovated office space:
After consultation it has been agreed that we will take our current printers with us and these will sit on desks where possible. It is acknowledged that some big printers won't fit on desks and, in these cases, it may be possible to provide one low storage unit per section to put them on. However, this will be dependent upon the size of the printer and the space available.
4 July, 2008
This morning's junk mail included a leaflet from a PR firm offering:
Hot enquiries from journalists in your inbox!
Is that supposed to be a selling point? Sounds more like a threat....
Besides, why are there journalists in my inbox? Shoo! Shoo!
1 July, 2008
The deaths of 23 dolphins in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago was unfortunate, but also somewhat disproportionate: why did that event receive major media coverage, whilst human hardship goes unreported?
Zinnia proposes one very credible explanation:
I do wonder why we seem to find it so much easier to help animals than to help people. Perhaps because it IS easier: animals don't talk back, so can be anthropomorphised into grateful recipients of our attentions, while humans are vocal, opinionated and not always suitably grateful for the charity they receive. We don't give freely, we give to get, and animals can almost always be relied on to provide the cute, liquid-eyed, heart-melting feel-good factor that charitable donors want in exchange for their money. Humans, on the other hand... need I say more?
Follow that link for more, and for more links.
Here are a few of my own: which classes of charities I support, the non-existence of true selflessness, and one of my pet dislikes (no pun intended): slacktivism.
19 June, 2008
Note to cold-callers
When ringing an institution's web developer to sell content management 'solutions' ('just add water'?), claiming
- to have been referred by the institution's 'marketing team' and
- to have spoken to [name] yesterday
it's probably a good idea to verify
- that the institution has a 'marketing team' and
- that your call hasn't been put through to [name], who knows perfectly well who he spoke to yesterday. And it wasn't you.
19 June, 2008
I know what you had for lunch
I frequently wear a T-shirt (black, of course) depicting an anatomically-correct ribcage, spine and shoulderblades, as if x-rayed. Online, I've seen a cartoony version which also shows a cartoon fish skeleton in the approximate location of the wearer's stomach.
My colleague has had a brilliant idea: combine the concepts into two identical designs, one with a fish skeleton, one without (so technically they wouldn't be identical... you know what I mean, pedants). The wearer could swap shirts at about 13:00 and count double-takes.
If anyone actually implements it, the idea's © J.Norris.
16 June, 2008
So para boots may be almost fashionable, "after years in the wilderness".
Whatever. I'll still be wearing mine as normal, whether for conferences, concerts or concreting.
13 June, 2008
Pass the vacuum
I know what it means, but it's still strange to read that a colleague, a sedimentologist, is to chair an international working group on... dust.
13 June, 2008
Of those people publicly praising the ex-Shadow Home Secretary for resigning yesterday over the issue of detention without charge, most have commended his acting according to personal principles. For precisely that reason, I disagree.
In principle, a Member of Parliament is elected to represent a constituency: to consider the wishes of people in his/her designated geographical area, including minorities, then act according to those wishes, not solely his/her own opinions. Personal views may inform decisions, of course, but I don't feel it's legitimate for an MP to put moral convictions ahead of reasoned argument and constituents' opinions. A MP sits in Parliament as a representative, not as a private individual.
An even more obvious example was the ex-Prime Minister, who took the UK into an illegal war because he, personally, felt it was "the right thing to do". That may have been a justification for him, alone, to have bought a rifle and an airline ticket to Baghdad, but when speaking for an entire nation, his personal opinion was, well, not irrelevant, but certainly low in the order of priority.
1 June, 2008
Professionalism is all
Isn't it reassuring to see adverts in the local free newspaper inviting people to "Become a Psychotherapist/Hypnotherapist" ("Help others and earn from £45 per hour"), alongside the 'Earn £££ by stuffing envelopes!' and 'Taxi drivers wanted' ads?
23 May, 2008
Insert your own joke
Spellchecking 'Aberystwyth' (arguably the only significant town in western Mid-Wales), Macromedia HomeSite recommended 'A breast test'.
20 May, 2008
I don't do 'nice'
For many, "niceness" is a positive value to be striven for. A "nice" person is friendly, non-threatening, and not at all controversial. A "nice" meal involves digestible food, moderately pleasant surroundings, and a conversation that perhaps does not draw the attention of other diners.
For others, that's the reason that they despise "niceness".
And I'm one of them. Few things inspire my contempt more than such insipid cosiness. It carries connotations of unambitiousness: 'Be satisfied with your lot. Accept shallow happiness now rather than long-term achievement in the future. Just get by, don't excel. Conform.'
There are words I dislike and would never use, but I do happen to use 'nice' quite frequently, in three senses, one of which mightn't be clear:
- Faint praise.
- As Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett taught me in 1990, 'nice' also means 'precise' or 'discerning'.
Incidentally, the quote is from a BBC article
, nice in all respects: well-observed and entertaining, but ultimately a little trivial.
As is this comment.
19 May, 2008
I have a visceral opposition to suicide, bordering on incomprehension. Much the same applies to voluntary euthanasia, though I can understand (intellectually but not emotionally) how someone suffering a degenerative terminal condition might wish to take control, avoiding the worst final stages. If a friend or family member made that choice, I'd struggle to accept it, but couldn't condemn it outright.
I'm vaguely aware of a euthanasia 'community', of people with the skills to assist suicide and, more importantly, the professionalism to know when not to exercise those skills.
Jon Ronson, in an article for the Guardian and TV documentary for the BBC (to be broadcast this evening, 19 May), investigates two darker varieties of suicide consultants.
One seems a little too eager to send people on to 'a better existence', and assists those with potentially treatable mental health problems rather than terminal illnesses: people who are depressed enough to seek death, but who might respond to counselling.
Another does it for the money, seeing it as a way to pay the water bills.
At ~4,000 words it's a fairly long article, but I'd urge you to read it. I suspect some might use it as ammunition against the whole concept of assisted suicide, but that's far too simplistic; if anything it highlights consequences of voluntary euthanasia remaining taboo, underground and unregulated.
[Via Real E Fun – as always, sensitive yet challenging.]
14 May, 2008
Keep drinking the water
It must be summer if the 'plastic water bottles' hoax is starting to appear in my referrer logs again.
It seems the 2007-2008 round of the hoax contains an embellishment: that Sheryl Crow's 2006 breast cancer was the direct result of drinking water from a plastic bottle exposed to sunlight.
Look; it's utter rubbish, okay? Yes, even though it does namecheck a celebrity, normally an infallible indicator of accuracy. If you receive the 'warning' by e-mail, do not forward it to anyone or post it to your blog, as you'd be merely perpetuating a bandwidth virus and potentially scaring people unnecessarily.
Don't take my word for it: the issue has now been addressed at Snopes.
12 May, 2008
Oh dear. Apparently we provide an "integrative environment that is conducive to learning for a culturally and ethically diverse student population".
I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be 'ethnically' (then again, student ethics can indeed be questionable), but it's the 'integrative' which disturbs me.
29 April, 2008
Keep to the straight & narrow
My temporary office overlooks a grassed quad, with offices on two sides, student accommodation on the other two, and a large willow in the (boggy) middle. A pedestrian entrance in the south-west corner and a door to my building the north-east corner are linked by a tarmac path along the southern and eastern edges, but from my third-floor window I can see the tracks people actually follow.
As one would expect, there's a lightly-trodden path diagonally acoss the grass, but the greatest wear is just inside the south-eastern corner. It seems people tend to follow the surfaced path, but many turn in 2-3 paces before the corner, shaving an insignificant distance off their trips – the rebels!
I mentioned this to a colleague in Estates a while ago, who took my casual comment seriously. He's just sent me an extract from a planning document in which the phenomenon is acknowledged and countered by policy: for the past couple of years, all new/remodelled paths have had to incorporate rounded corners.
I'd have been inclined to consider landmines....
28 April, 2008
I wonder how many Cumbrian slugs are transported to other (sunnier?) parts of the UK, or even abroad, on the bottoms of campers' hastily-repacked tents.
I wonder how many 'Cumbrian' slugs reached the Lakes that way.
27 April, 2008
Usage note of the day
'Enervate' is not a synonym of 'invigorate', as I'd always thought – quite the opposite, in fact.
25 April, 2008
A few minutes ago, I returned from a meeting with my fellow web developers/admins, in which I noticed for the first time that three of the four of us are left-handed.
Coincidence or significant?
24 April, 2008
Why is my 'Recommended' page at Amazon trying to sell me these?
I mean; leatherette. Ew.
19 April, 2008
Why does sour milk smell like strawberries?
Immediately after it's 'turned', I mean; not the vomit-inducing smell which develops later. I can't think of anything worse than that odour – not even long-dead sheep (yes, really).
9 April, 2008
"This year's theme for the Staff Learning at Work Day is 'Sustainable Workplaces'"
We have a 'Staff Learning at Work Day'? How jolly!
It's 'themed'? Fancy dress, too?
The theme is 'sustainability'? Oh, **** off.
Yes, I'm far, far too busy to publicise this non-event on the corporate website. Besides, it's not in my remit. What a shame.
Seriously: I don't know why this 'inclusivity' rubbish infuriates me, but it does.
I come to work, do the job I'm paid to, then go home. I don't give a flying **** about the workplace or community of colleagues.
I wonder whether I can book County South quad for a tyre fire party that afternoon....
4 April, 2008
Pick a number, any number
What possible use is a University internal phone book which indexes all academic departments under 'D' for 'Department of...'? That puts, say, the Dental Clinic before Continuing Education, and Geography before the Finance Office.
'Centres' and 'Institutes' are treated likewise, so one needs to know in advance that Environmental Informatics (whatever that is) is going to be under 'C'. The only place one needn't look is under 'E'.
Oh, that's only if the typically-used name begins with 'Centre for', 'Department of', etc. – the Wordsworth Centre is under 'W', whilst Clinical Psychology, which for some unspecified reason doesn't use 'Department of', is under 'C'.
Hours of fun.
27 March, 2008
Price of fear
Eighty-four is a small number compared to the 'over 3,000' police officers employed by the Lancashire Constabulary, but I find it difficult to believe that, as my Council Tax demand alleges, sleepy Lancashire genuinely needs to recruit that many additional officers specifically to 'combat terrorism', over and above those officers already assigned to such specialist teams.
25 March, 2008
It's been a while since I last bought refined white sugar. I prefer 'golden granulated' unrefined cane sugar in my tea; it's not quite so sweet and I try to avoid overly-processed foods. However, it's gone the same way as bananas: apart from the 'mass-produced' white sugar, Sainsbury's now only sells Fairtrade sugar.
I strongly object to the supermarket making the decision for me – it's for the individual consumer to (literally) buy into slacktivism or not. And I definitely choose 'not'.
I've already discussed my opposition to Fairtrade, so I'm back on the white, at least until I discover whether shopping at Asda (on the far side of the river) is practical or whether I can start buying non-Fairtrade unrefined sugar from Booths on my way home from work.
Well... that was my immediate reaction, anyway, slightly mollified by the acknowledgement that Sainsbury's haven't imposed a 'feel good about yourself' premium, and the Fairtrade price is the same as had been applied to the non-Fairtrade product. On reflection, I have mixed feelings.
My primary objection to Fairtrade is that it's tokenism: a minority of well-meaning consumers might help a small number of selected farms, but the majority of the sugar, tea, banana, etc. industries continue as normal. It'd be far better to meaningfully reform the large-scale markets than make barely-noticable gestures.
Yet, contrary to my typically cynical expectations, that real change might actually be happening. Major retailers like Sainsbury's have massive purchasing power. The volumes of sugar they buy will at least assist large numbers of farms, and may influence governments and international markets. Obliging somewhat hostile consumers like me to participate, though of questionable morality, might be what's needed to achieve a critical mass.
It pains me to say it, but perhaps forced collective action is what's needed.
24 March, 2008
If you were planning to send out e-mail sp*m advertising mail-order degrees, wouldn't you think to filter out target addresses obviously affiliated with genuine higher education institutions – .edu, .ac.uk, etc.?
11 March, 2008
Run it up the flagp... no, don't bother
Amongst other, frankly half-baked, ideas in a review of British citizenship, an ex-attorney general has proposed that school-leavers be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country.
This is misconceived in several respects.
- Most profoundly, it just wouldn't be British. One of the fundamental, and best, aspects of the (mythical?) 'national character' is a quiet pride, free of demonstrative patriotism or reverence for symbols. As I've discussed before, the national flag isn't flown routinely or considered in anything like the same way as US citizens regard their flag. We don't have a 'national day' (though that's in Goldsmith's report, too).
- Secondly, the 'national character' is something of an anachronism: the UK isn't as united as it once was, and there are active campaigns to dissolve it outright. If people feel overt allegiance to anything (and see the previous point), it's possibly more likely to be to Wales, Scotland, England or another of the UK's constituent parts. For many, the UK, governed from Westminster, is a little too analogous to 'England'. Of course, that means the English are quite comfortable with the concept of 'Britishness', but not non-English Brits like me.
- The third reason is an irrelevance, or rather, regards an irrelevance: I don't know of anyone who'd be inclined to offer the remotest allegiance to the monarch. That's not republicanism; just indifference.
I'm me, an individual, loyal to myself, friends and family. Inasmuch as I consider nationality at all, I'm British, then Welsh, then European (depending on my mood, sometimes that order of priority is Specifically-Not-English then British, etc.). I don't regard myself as a citizen, with any loyalty to the state.
[Update 18/03/07: Having just returned to the country of pointlessly different money and driving habits (i.e. driving on the left) after a visit to Paris, I'm inclined to modify that order: individual, then European, then British, then Welsh, and still Specifically-Not-English. For passport purposes, European would be my preference.]
1 March, 2008
Out of touch
It was rather lucky that I did my Sainsbury's shopping today, as until I almost tripped over the temporary flower stall I'd had no idea that tomorrow is designated as 'Mothers' Day'.
I don't read newspapers (in print) and only watch specific TV programmes (typically video'd so I can skip the adverts), my wall calendar is in German, and I suddenly realised I haven't been in a high-street shop since something like last October, so I suppose I'm no longer exposed to the sort of ambient social environment which would have informed me sooner.
It doesn't matter in this case, as I feel the same way about Mothers' Day as about Valentine's (i.e. show your genuine appreciation at a time of individual significance – more frequently than annually – rather than on a day designated by greetings card manufacturers, and not merely by posting a piece of plasticised cardboard), so I don't acknowledge the synthetic 'occasion'.
However, I'll have to watch it – I really ought to be at least aware of popular culture. Working at a University, it's unsurprising that I know people who'd take pride in such ignorance, but I disagree – that's blatent pretension.
23 February, 2008
Caveat emptor, II
Repeated title, repeated message: when buying from unknown sellers via eBay or Amazon Marketplace, remember to check past feedback ratings first.
A few weeks ago, I bought two Sylvan albums, 'Posthumous Silence' and 'Presets' from an eBay seller – the sample tracks I'd heard at the Rogues' Gallery impressed me enough to try the CDs, though not necessarily enough for me to risk full retail (Amazon) prices. The listed Seller Location was in the UK, but something about the wording of the auctions hinted the goods could be despatched from elsewhere, so I wasn't worried when the package took a while to arrive.
However, I hadn't expected the CDs to come from Moscow, labeled "for sale in Russia, CIS and Baltic states only". There's nothing inherently wrong with such releases, of course, and I don't object to the distributor's preferences being ignored, but Russia is the primary source of counterfeit Porcupine Tree albums sold in Europe, so it's natural to be cautious. That minor doubt was slightly fueled by the 'Presets' case insert stating the wrong release year, but that too could be easily explained if this edition was released a little before the main EU & N.American edition(s), or perhaps the artwork was prepared in late 2006 for an early-2007 release and the date was overlooked. There's certainly nothing wrong with the quality of the booklet and CD.
The 'Posthumous Silence' case insert and booklet are similarly fine, but the CD is... absent. Again easily explained as an innocent mistake, and I've contacted the seller for a refund or replacement.
The problem is the cumulative effect: a UK seller providing Russian CDs without stating the source up-front (if I'd wanted the CDs quickly or if I'd been a collector specifically wanting the UK/EU edition, I'd have been annoyed) AND there being some doubt about the legitimacy of the releases AND a CD being missing – together, they inspired a little (inconclusive) research into whether there are any known scams involving Sylvan CDs.
Oh, and the packaging wasn't great: two CDs loose in a padded envelope with no additional padding to stop them banging together.
The point of all this is that had I looked at the seller's feedback ratings, I'd have known immediately that he/she/they sell Russian CDs and have a reputation for inadequate packaging, and I could have made an informed choice about whether to proceed. There's no hint there that their stock might be pirated or that others have received empty cases, so I've no reason to think they're fraudulent, but others have mentioned severe delays obtaining refunds for problematic orders....
Don't make the same mistake: check first. There's more to an auction listing than the seller's own text.
19 February, 2008
Lancaster University's nearest HE-sector neighbours are the University of Central Lancashire¹ in Preston and the University of Cumbria² in Carlisle and, er, Lancaster.
The University of Central Lancashire is commonly known as, even marketed as, 'UCLan'. However, I really, really must stop thinking of the University of Cumbria with the same sort of abbreviation. I must not blurt it out in a meeting....
1: Ex-Lancashire Polytechnic, ex-Preston Polytechnic, ex-Harris College, ex-Harris Institute, ex-'The Institution For The Diffusion Of Useful Knowledge'. I love that last one.
2: Ex-S.Martin's College, an associated institution of Lancaster University (i.e. graduates of S.Martin's received Lancaster University degrees) until August 2007. If nothing else, the name change resolved the particularly tricky matter of the College's plural possessive: was it S.Martin's' ?
11 February, 2008
What time is it, Eccles?
I've been working with printouts of screenshots today (I still prefer to perform initial page design offline, using pen & paper), but I think I've become a little too conditioned to the Windows GUI.
Each time I want to know the time, I glance down to the bottom right of the sheet. It's been '14:29' all morning....
1 February, 2008
Not just a name
I was surprised to discover that unlike Coca Cola, which hasn't literally contained cocaine since 1929, the traditional diarrhoea remedy Kaolin & Morphine really does contain morphine, the Class A narcotic.
0.0092% doesn't sound like much, but it's sufficient for it to be an 'under-the-counter' product and for the chemist to record my name and address before selling it to me.
Kaolin – china clay – accounts for a massive 20% of the formulation, alongside other oddly antiquated ingredients (some a little startling): purified water, sodium bicarbonate, sucrose, chloroform, 96% ethanol (0.45 vol %), black treacle, liquorice extract, ether, peppermint oil.
However, the really startling discovery that when vomited back after ~90 minutes, the chalky white liquid had turned greenish-black. Just what I needed to see at a vulnerable moment.
28 January, 2008
Hands that do dishes
"We don't want to throw out the baby with the dishwater".
Indeed, but should I inform Social Services about my boss putting babies in dishwater in the first place? Maybe she was confused by the outline of a toddler on the Fairy Liquid logo.
She's also quite prepared to "grasp the nettle by the horns", apparently.
26 January, 2008
Grr! Isn't it infuriating when a phone company offers free calls of up to an hour in duration, but then charges for the full period if one accidentally overruns?
For example, a call to K. in November apparently lasted 62 minutes. If it had been 59'59', it'd have been free, so it'd be understandable to have to pay for the extra 2'. Nope; I've been charged for all 62.
It's a trivial amount of money, of course, but it leaves a nasty taste, as if the company is trying to trap customers.
Oddly enough, that's my primary memory of the shopkeepers, ticket sellers, etc. I encountered in New York in 2004 – perfectly polite and professionally friendly but radiating an impression that they were waiting to pounce on an innocent error, to exploit some term or condition and hence fleece a tourist.
I'm not saying they were actively trying to cheat anyone, but there was a basic lack of goodwill: they'd let a customer pay an avoidable tax or let a visitor accidently invalidate a ticket, when it'd have been so easy for them to intervene beforehand.
I remember watching an attendant at the Empire State Building who in turn watched an elderly couple gradually wander towards then through the wrong door, clearly by mistake. He then (politely) prevented them from re-entering. There's no denying that the visitors were technically at fault, but a word from the guard could have prevented them ruining their experience. Yet he waited, then struck.
I've never been so constantly aware of caveat emptor.
25 January, 2008
What's that got to do with it?
I see from the local paper that Morecambe is to host this year's UKIP party conference, the UK Independence Party being an anti-European, 'England-first' ¹ offshoot of the Conservative Party. It's traditional for political parties to meet at the seaside², so if the major parties have conferences in Blackpool or Bournemouth, it's unsurprising that a minority-interest party would choose a second-rate resort.
The slightly disturbing part is that Phil Booth of NO2ID, an organisation I promote each time I write about my opposition to ID cards, is prominently listed amongst the speakers. If he's to attend in a personal capacity, that's fine with me – his own political affiliations are his own business – but I really hope it's not as an official representative of NO2ID.
I can understand a wish to band supporters together for a better chance at gaining representatives into positions of influence, but there has to be a close connection, absent in this instance. There's no causal link between the issues, nor even an especial likelihood that a supporter of one will regard the other favourably.
Opposition to interference into individuals' private lives by national government isn't remotely the same issue as opposition to European central government, so the campaigns should not be actively affiliated. I'm sure many UKIP members welcome ID cards as a means of excluding foreigners, so dislike Booth's organisation, whereas people like me object to the cards³ whilst actively seeking the break-up of the UK into autonomous elements within the EU so disdain UKIP.
For much the same reason, it's important that the public don't naturally associate one with the other. "Fighting ID cards? That's a UKIP issue, isn't it? I don't like UKIP."
It reminds me of the 1991 General Election, in which, at least in my constituency, Plaid Cymru (my party of choice) affiliated itself with the Green Party, in an attempt to get a Plaid MP into Westminster who'd then have to vote according to Green policies. Hence, though I've always wanted Wales to separate from England, Plaid lost my vote – I'd never vote Green. Conversely, one of my English housemates, an environmentalist who considered Welsh nationalism irrelevant, doubted a Plaid MP really would promote Green issues, so the Greens lost his vote too.
1: And yes, I do mean England, whatever UKIP might claim.
2: The Green Party (hardly a major party) seems to have settled on Lancaster for annual conferences. I can't decide whether they're breaking with the 'seaside towns' tradition merely to be characteristically perverse, or whether they're the only party to acknowledge the need to seek higher ground (certainly not moral – I mean above rising sea levels).
3: The National Identity Register, really – never forget it's about the data, not the pieces of plastic.
21 January, 2008
A slight problem with the current TV campaign to persuade people to buy free-range chicken (and eggs) rather than battery chicken is that it appears to be working.
On the last two occasions I've visited Sainsbury's in Lancaster, their meagre stock of free-range and organic meat has been totally sold out. Plenty of battery chicken, a veritable wall of the stuff, remains, but I've bought turkey instead.
I'll be fascinated to hear how the supermarkets react to this. I half-expect them to claim there's still a healthy market for unhealthy chicken, as people are still buying it, glossing over the fact some will be buying because the alternative isn't available.
Whilst paying for my free-range turkey, I noticed a, er, notice by the checkout, stating that "all our chicken, fresh and frozen, is sourced from the UK". Okay, I suppose that's good in terms of food miles, but it's a bit of a non-sequitur, rather dodging the fact that on the main issue, Sainsbury's only offers a genuine choice to the first few purchasers.
8 January, 2008
A few weeks ago, I was asked to advise on the scope of a two-day conference on Web 2.0, primarily aimed at policymakers rather than techies.
The topic I proposed was whether social networking sites have anything worthwhile to offer organisations, rather than individuals: whether an organisation can credibly use Facebook, YouTube, etc. to engage with (okay, and market to) customers (or in my case, potential students). I don't really know the answer – I was careful to use the word 'credibly' in the foregoing sentence, as I suspect credibility is the biggest risk.
This morning, I received documentation inviting me to attend a conference on 'harnessing social software applications and internal knowledge for effective working practice'. Stripping out the management bollocks ("internal knowledge"?), it's about the use of Web 2.0 apps/sites for collaboration within organisations, 'employee engagement', governance and streamlining working practices. The externally-facing aspect has been reduced to two 40-min sessions.
I'm just glad I declined to provide a session....
31 December, 2007
Design for life
My sister stores teabags and sugar in decorative tins with the 'paint pot' type lids one has to lever off with a spoon.
Fair enough, but imagine having to do that every time one wants a cup of tea. Not exactly convenient.
31 December, 2007
Grim up north
I might be overgeneralising from a too-small sample size again, but those people I've encountered in North Devon over the past few days do seem to be friendlier to strangers than I'm accustomed to in North Lancashire. I wonder why.
I don't mean shop staff or those otherwise involved in the tourist industry, either; just people in the street or countryside.
29 December, 2007
Modern houses are weird
Overstatement alert: I'm basing that statement on a single example, my sister's home. However, I do suspect it's representative of modern commuter-belt design in at least some respects.
It's a large house: a living/dining room, four bedrooms (three and a 'study'* ) and three bathrooms (one with a bath, one with a shower and one just a toilet & wash basin), all spread over three floors.
Yet the most striking element is a tiny kitchen: standing in the middle, I can easily touch all four walls. There's plenty of storage (actually, there's a lot of storage space) and it's more than adequate for a microwave user, but the working surfaces are minimal. The intended residents aren't ambitious cooks, plainly.
Two of the bedrooms are bigger than my living room, but oddly the 'master' bedroom isn't one of them, if that's the bedroom with the en-suite toilet & shower. There's enough floor space to access a double bed and two wardrobes, but little more; it's fit for purpose, but hardly luxurious. Could it be that more ostentatious use of space is reserved for rooms a visitor might see?
The garden is surprisingly large for a newly built estate (it's not on Google Maps yet; that new) i.e. it has one at all – most other dormitory estates I've seen have provided negligible outdoor space, even alongside family houses. Still, the rectangular lawn, gravel path and decking have the expected 'easy-clean' look.
I hadn't expected a three-bedroom house to come with three parking spaces (and with my mother's car, my sister's and a boat trailer, they're all in use).
In short, it feels efficient yet soulless. It's probably great for people who merely use a house to rest and refuel for activities elsewhere, but it's a bit too overtly utilitarian for (my) real comfort.
It's odd to see my sister's home anyway, as it's arranged so similarly to my mother's. The house itself is totally different (my mother's is a bungalow, for one thing), but the pots contain cuttings from the same plants, the souvenirs are from the same destinations and my mother's taste has influenced K's. Knowing where my mother keeps teaspoons, I found K's instantly.
In case you were wondering: no, the same doesn't apply to my house.
*: Actually, I'm told the 'study' was advertised as a second living room.
28 December, 2007
Not quite Big Brother
Driving to Devon today, we passed two of the RAC's regional control centres, in Birmingham and Bristol. The former is a large, modern building overlooking the busy M6 motorway, whereas the latter goes further, with a control tower watching over the M5.
I suppose they need substantial aerials to despatch and maintain contact with their fleet of roadside repair/recovery vehicles, and if they have such towers, it probably wouldn't be difficult to add 'crow's nest' features near the top, but I wonder whether they have a practical purpose. Why would the RAC need to see the stretch of road immediately outside each control centre? Or are these architectural features 'just' PR, giving the public (or paying members of the RAC, anyway) the impression 'we're watching over you'?
25 December, 2007
... opening one's christmas presents at 15:30 (it was more like 06:00 when I was a child), receiving, in total:
- Two pairs of walking socks (one grey, one black)
- Pair of chinos (black)
- Windproof/waterproof/breathable (and black) fleece
- £10 Amazon voucher
And being entirely happy with that haul.
23 December, 2007
We're SO sorry
Why, when informing passengers that a train will arrive at Warrington Bank Quay station twelve minutes late, does the pre-recorded voice sound like it's sorrowfully announcing the death of a puppy?
They ought to watch that – such concentrated insincerity will corrode the PA system.
And why is the message "I am sorry for the delay." – how can announcement-synthesis software express its own regret? Surely that should be "We regret..." i.e. a corporate statement.
Presumably there's a reason for it – a focus group decision, perhaps?
22 December, 2007
Ring to complain
New telephone directories were delivered to my street this morning, one per doorstep.
That's the day after the majority of people will have gone away for the holiday period, not to mention students who went last week.
Great way to help burglars: now they just need to wait until Sunday or Monday to establish which houses are currently unoccupied, with no-one present to have taken in the directories.
21 December, 2007
Never too early to surprise that special someone
21 December – Yule, aka midwinter.
Kind of early to receive an e-mail promoting a web store's 'Valentines Ideas' section....
12 December, 2007
My boss is in the middle of proofreading next year's prospectus, and is getting a little too close to her work.
The nameplate on her door states her name followed by an unnecessary full-stop. Which she's circled and annotated with a comment in printers' shorthand.
12 December, 2007
Why does cheap meat (especially catering bacon and sausages) smell so disgustingly sickly-sweet? I have to open the windows whenever J. has brought a bacon bun into the office for his breakfast, and it's deeply unpleasant to pass County Diner (Cartmel Coffee Bar, as was) each morning.
The Diner's extractor fan has been carelessly sited to output into the main entrance to County South's quad. The replusive effect is the absolute opposite of the smell of fresh bread emerging from a baker's: had I been tempted by the idea of a sausage bun, the smell would change my mind instantly. It must be even worse for vegetarians.
Seriously; why is it so repugnant – isn't the scent of frying bacon supposed to be extremely tempting?
The only reason I can think of is that the high water content of cheap bacon causes it to boil rather than properly fry. Oh, and that cheap sausages contain the parts other manufacturers don't mention....
11 December, 2007
Concept of the day
I learned a new word today: idempotence, in the non-mathematical context of 'that which has no lasting impact on the state of the universe'. Specifically, it's used rather grandiosely in explaining the difference between the HTTP 'POST' and 'GET' methods, but I wonder if I can slip it into everyday conversation somehow....
8 December, 2007
In an article titled 'What single breakthrough would best advance the fight against climate change?', the Guardian asks a range of 'leading thinkers' (and David Bellamy) for their opinions.
However, I'd have to question the very premise. Why would there be one single solution, a straightforward panacea for all (anthropogenic) climate change? The whole concept is pointless reductionism, serving journalists' desire for an easily-marketable soundbite rather than achieving genuine progress.
This is directly analogous to the argument of activists opposing speed cameras, that speed isn't the sole cause of road accidents so resources should be spent elsewhere. True on both counts: speed alone doesn't cause accidents, but it magnifies their likelihood and consequences, and resources should be spread widely, on cameras and greater driver education, and police issues, and other factors, as I've discussed before.
There's no reason to expect a universal solution to all traffic accidents, nor to all climate change.
7 December, 2007
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, apparently believes that the online encyclopedia is now reliable enough to be accepted as an academic resource citable by formal (student) projects.
Well, he would, wouldn't he?
His assessment is as valid as mine (which is that he's entirely incorrect), of course, but that's the point: a fully credible information resource can't operate on amateurs' interpretations and data selection. The 'wisdom of crowds' is simply inadequate, even when that nominal counterbalancing of opinions isn't skewed by a vociferous minority.
Don't misunderstand; I have been known to use Wikipedia myself, but only as a starting point or shortcut in cases that don't really matter. There is a lot of valuable information, but also a lot of half-truth & downright rubbish, and a reader has no way of knowing which he/she is reading at a given moment.
And hence, however well-intentioned, it's no academic authority.
4 December, 2007
The Guardian reports that graffiti artist Banksy is in Bethlehem again, to stencil artwork onto Israel's security barrier 'in an effort to revive the tourist industry and stir interest in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.'
I can't help wondering whether this is the best approach. Turning it into an artistic statement could, perversely, increase the world's acceptance of the illegal barrier, even encourage its preservation ("you can't remove that section – the artwork's worth hundreds of thousands of pounds!").
Better to leave it blank, to ostracise it as a scar on the community until tearing it down at the earliest (negotiated) opportunity. The last thing anyone outside the Israeli government would want is for people to actually like it.
Now I think about it, didn't a local tell Banksy precisely that in 2005?
2 December, 2007
So that's what it means
Product packaging in the EU, and presumably the rest of the world, bears a wide range of iconography relating to recycling; I suppose the triangular moebius loop is the main one. Some indicate the nature of the materials and hence the optimum processing technique, but one logo doesn't mean what I thought, and could confuse.
The Green DotTM (Der Grüne Punkt in its originating country of Germany) is a proprietory symbol which companies pay to use (its reproduction here for information purposes obviously isn't intended as infringement of trademark), the fee dependent on the quantity, nature and reprocessing cost of the packaging.
Hence it indicates that the producer has paid towards collection and reprocessing, a principle I applaud. The cumulative license fees also fund schemes to develop more-readily recyclable packaging and to minimise the use of packaging at all.
However, it does not indicate that the marked packaging is recycled, will be recycled or even can be recycled. This is important: unrecyclable items may bear the green dot.
In several countries, householders dispose of green dot waste separately for reprocessing or disposal at producers' expense, but the UK is not a participating nation at present, and the icon is not generally used on items produced here for the domestic market (in fact, my reading suggests there's a financial disincentive).
The obvious point of all this is that the green dot should not be used by UK households as guidance about how to dispose of an item. For example, this blog entry was prompted by my noticing that the green dot appears prominently on a shampoo bottle made of a blended plastic which Lancaster's doorstep collection scheme will not accept for recycling.
26 November, 2007
Seen on a pot of dried coriander leaf¹ :
New – Foil Fresh Seal
That's a glass jar with a plastic lid, sold within an anti-tamper plastic sleeve. Is an additional piece of metallised plastic really going to make a significant difference?
Sorry; one isn't supposed to think about marketing claims² .
1: I know; fresh is nicer, but the minimum quantity sold is more than I can realistically use before it goes off. Hmm. Maybe that needs some foil....
2: Of course, one could think too hard, and convince oneself that the pot contains a free marine mammal, pre-wrapped ready for cooking. But that'd be foolish. I mean, it's only a small pot.
20 November, 2007
I couldn't disagree more. A nation's armed forces should be for it's own defence. End of subject.
I cannot accept a moral justification for 'liberal intervention' into the affairs of other nations. If countries such as the UK don't like the way countries such as Iraq are run, tough – it is absolutely no business of the UK Government, which has no right to impose its views of democracy and human rights on other sovereign nations.
Monstrous, imperialist propaganda – how could the Guardian have considered it acceptable to give Powell a voice?
16 November, 2007
Some hope for understanding
Ben Goldacre has republished two articles at Bad Science today. One, for the Lancet, is a wonderfully clear and concise summary of why homeopathy is and is not of genuine use, with both risks and benefits. However, without wishing to patronise, I suspect its phrasing could be misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with key concepts of scientific methodology and statistics.
The other article, for the Guardian, is a rewrite of the same piece for a less-specialist audience, incorporating a very accessible explanation of those key concepts.
Both are very well worth reading, especially by supporters of homeopathy, who should at the very least accept the suitability of careful self-reflection.
Unfortunately, as a commenter at Bad Science suggests, that open consideration mightn't be possible, not necessarily due to vindictiveness or over-defensiveness, but because of an inability of anti-scientists to comprehend the value of scientific methodology:
The point I twigged after a while was that she cared not in the slightest about evidence. In fact she treated the whole issue of evidence as some sort of underhanded sophistry on the part of 'the establishment'. I think this is at the heart of the whole issue. We have managed to arrive at a point in our development as a species where large numbers of people actively prefer the irrational to the rational. Those of us educated in science or any evidence based discipline simply do not have the ability to understand that position, at least I know that I don't.
I don't think its is about insulting intelligence per se. Maybe it is about different types of intelligence. My dinner companion was certainly not stupid in her contributions to the conference or in lots of other ways. She just had a very specific approach to this subject. If I had not made the remark about quantum physics I would never have had any reason to question her intelligence.
As I said
a few days ago, I, er, believe
that mass-media have some responsibility in this, in devaluing specialist research by presenting everything as, at best, a debate between equals, and encouraging the idea that any reader/viewer's opinion on a topic is just as valid as any expert's evidence.
13 November, 2007
No, you can't have a go
Earlier today, Sal said that:
Personally, based on historical observations, I'm of the cautious opinion that the bulk of the observed global warming is sun-driven, or possibly core/mantle-driven.
Sorry to pick on Sal as an example of a wider trend, but it's slightly disturbing to read that people still have 'cautious opinions' about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It's established, peer-reviewed, unequivocable, scientific fact* , not a matter of opinion. What we do about it is certainly open to debate (couldn't agree more about the Greens, Sal – I know too many 'hippies-with-mortgages', and recoil from their pseudo-religion), but not the very fact of its existence.
I'd put this issue on a par with creationism - some people insist on expressing contrary (in multiple senses) fantasies, but in essence, the subject's overwhelmingly resolved.
No, that's not entirely true. Scientific issues are never neatly resolved forever, but the central point remains: that the state of established knowledge on AGW is such that it can't be reasonably refuted as a matter of opinion – that would take hard, verified, evidence, obtained by reproducible means. Personal belief is utterly irrelevant.
Not wishing to rant, but this is one of my problems with the mass-media, which insist on superficially covering both sides of a story, setting up an 'entertaining' adversarial debate even when there aren't two credible sides, then encouraging lay readers/viewers to decide for themselves.
Sometimes 'intellectual democratisation' (or whatever one wishes to call it) just isn't compatible with specialised study, yet the media encourage the idea that a newspaper reader's view is precisely as valid as that of a professor in the corresponding subject.
Elitist? No, just rational. Should brain surgery be performed by someone with years of training, both in the specialism and wider medical/surgical considerations, or a plumber who once watched a documentary? Isn't it elitist to value one person's opinion over that of the other?
This isn't 'Person A' versus 'Person B', opinion against equally-valid opinion. It's not even 'Professor A' vs. 'Layperson B' (and certainly not 'Haughty Prof. A', pillar of the Establishment, vs. 'Plucky Underdog B' – stop thinking like a journalist chasing the saleable narrative). It's evidence collected by 'Person A' versus cherry-picked conjecture by 'Person B'.
Nothing personal, Sal, but unless you're a professional climatologist, how can you hold a meaningful opinion on the causes of global warming?
*: 'Scientific fact' isn't absolute truth, of course, but nor is it just 'best guess', nor mere 'consensus opinion'.
9 November, 2007
Wishing to avoid contributing to the whole mess, I've avoided mentioning the hijacking of this year's 'Best Science Blog' Weblog Awards poll.
In short, a number of US right-wing political blogs urged their readers to vote for an AGW-denialist website, itself a conduit for a politicised point-of-view rather than anything one could realistically describe as genuine science. Irrespective of one's personal opinions on human-induced climate change, the simple fact was that the subject of an organised votestuffing campaign simply didn't meet the basic criterion: it's not a science blog – it could even be interpreted as anti-science.
Those who care about science, plus those wishing to discredit the denialist agenda responded in, in my opinion, the wrong way: by organising a rival votestuffing campaign. One site on the 'Best Science Blog' shortlist was selected, and people urged to vote for it, irrespective of whether they'd visited the site or had the vaguest interest in its content (astronomy, as it happens).
Skewing the results of a poll in order to protect real science may be tempting, but "they started it" is no excuse, and the effect is no less shabby.
Unfortunately, the organisers of the Awards seemed to love the publicity, actively promoting it as a 'right-wing vs. left-wing' battle and not seeming to care about organised contrived voting, so took no action against it. In my view, that invalidates the whole Awards exercise and devalues the Awards themselves. So, congratulations to Neil Gaiman and Randall Munroe for winning the 'Best Literature Blog' and 'Best Comic Strip' popularity contests, but they're kind of meaningless now.
Voting closed last night, so it's safe to mention, but the 'Best Science Blog' category has yet to be declared, pending investigation of voting irregularities (no; really?). The provisional results merely demonstrate that the rival factions are able to contrive comparible support: the pro-science lobby's chosen candidate received 20,683 votes to the anti-scientists' 20,638. That's of 54,995 votes, in a contest where other categories tended to receive less than 20,000 votes in total.
Whichever side ultimately 'wins', the other will complain about how that 'victory' was achieved, rendering the whole Award meaningless. No-one comes out of this well.
If there's any practical benefit, perhaps it's that the organisers might consider tightening their eligibility criteria – this whole situation could have been avoided if the pseudo-science blog had been disqualified from this category (it may have merits in a politics or philosophy category) in the first place.
Disclosure: two of those votes for Neil G. and xkcd (one each!) were mine, but I voted because I genuinely read and enjoy their work, not to prove a point. I did not vote in the 'Best Science Blog' category.
[Update 04/02/08: Belatedly, I checked back to see that the category was declared a draw.]
9 November, 2007
At a time when the Post Office is closing 2,500+ under-used branches* , it might be considered impolitic of them to introduce colour printers for mere receipts.
*: a process I fully support, incidentally.
2 November, 2007
Making a splash
Walking through the city centre this evening (a rare occurrence in itself for me, nowadays), I noticed a full-size billboard advert for canals. Not a specific location or event, just a generic consciousness-raising 'use your local canal' advert from British Waterways.
I wonder why. As Fi observed, the return on their advertising expenditure isn't obvious: where's the commercial benefit to British Waterways from more dog walkers and cyclists? Maybe they receive mooring fees from boat users, but the advert didn't depict narrowboats, just towpath activities. Maybe it's a political thing, to increase general usage, to prove canals are popular, to gain government funding.
Who knows? It seemed odd to me, anyway.
2 November, 2007
Cynicism at work
Staff-development course offered by a local employer (not mine!):
Management and persuading tools
I presume it's intended to develop non-confrontational leadership skills, but that's not quite what it says, is it?
29 October, 2007
A comma would help
I've often wondered: when the text on a pot of cottage cheese instructs one to 'stir well before serving', does that mean 'it is necessary stir the cheese well (i.e. thoroughly), at an unspecified time before serving', or 'if you choose to stir the cheese, do so well before (i.e. an extended time interval) it's needed, then let it settle before serving'.
It seems obvious that one would wish to mix the settled-out solid and liquid components immediately before serving, but I always have a nagging doubt that I'm missing something....
28 October, 2007
Security through obscurity
I was in Abbeystead earlier today; I took a few photos, but I'm not skillful enough to make good use of poor light, so mightn't publish more than a couple, instead referring you back to this earlier visit.
Abbeystead is a tiny hamlet in very rural Wyresdale, with scattered farms centred on a school, manor farm, phone box, postbox and noticeboard. Glancing at the latter, I saw a handwritten request that anyone who finds the described necklace hang it on the noticeboard for the owner to collect.
I doubt there are many places where one could do that.
26 October, 2007
Why does NatWest advertise the fact claim that it provides financing to wind power generation projects? Of what relevance is that to its core business as a high-street bank?
I could understand advertising financial probity or customer service, but promoting itself on the basis of its clients' activities? It's not as if NatWest is a sustainable-energy generator or owns wind turbines itself (in more than a loan-security sense), and there's no suggestion that the bank's involvement is philanthropic.
20 October, 2007
Last night, I received an e-mail circulated to alumni, informing us that our old school seems to be bankrupt, and railing against the governors' irresponsibility in reaching the stage of being obliged to auction the premises. Sad news.
This morning, an abjectly contrite retraction was in my inbox.
Promises. It's an auction of promises, a charity event. There's no known threat to the school (which is owned by the local authority anyway).
18 October, 2007
Now wash your hands
I already knew that one of the best ways to avoid catching colds and 'flu (apart from a healthy diet) is to wash one's hands regularly (but not obsessively). However, in an article explaining how to do that properly, Jim Macdonald observes that:
Soap does not kill germs in the time that the germs are exposed during hand washing. There's stuff that grows fine on a bar of soap. The surfactant action of soap helps the running water flush the germs away. That's how it works. It's purely mechanical. Antibacterial soap is a waste of time and money, and just helps breed antibiotic-resistant bugs.
That seems to be worded more precisely than commenters have appreciated, so it may be worth highlighting Mycophage's clarification
at BoingBoing, before slightly inaccurate information becomes an e-mail meme:
It's not true that soap is good at growing germs: if it were, there would be visible colonies all over the bar in your shower, especially if you let it sit for a few days.
Nor is it true that surfactant slipperiness is the only mechanism by which soap acts to kill bacteria: surfactants (also known as 'detergents' in technical parlance) disrupt microbial cell membranes, directly causing bacterial death.
It is true that antibacterial soap is next to useless, since the bacteria aren't exposed to the antibiotic for long enough for killing to take place. As [Macdonald] points out, these products are worse than useless, since the low-level antibiotic exposure does re-jigger the bacterial fitness landscape enough to encourage the evolution of antibiotic resistance.
15 October, 2007
Context is all
J. tells me that he attended a Nuclear Safety Culture course recently, at which the importance of "speaking up and not tolerating a bad safety culture" was stressed:
"I was given a pen with a sound bite of 'silence is consent', a rather worrying phrase if taken out of context. Try telling the Judge that '...well she didn't speak up...'."
15 October, 2007
I've been in the UK HE sector for seventeen years, yet until a moment ago, I had no idea that potential undergrads are now charged a fee merely to apply for a place at university. When did that happen?
I don't really have a fixed opinion on whether that's something individuals should pay (I support the principle of student fees, so shouldn't object to this one either), or whether the state education system ought to cover it (for UK applicants, anyway), as it did in the Nineties. It was just a surprise.
That's an application fee, of course, not an admission fee – there's no guarantee that applications will succeed.
2 October, 2007
Sign o'the times
On seeing the headline 'Amazon could be lost in 40 years' at the Guardian website, my first thought was of the online retailer.
28 September, 2007
J. has just startled me by asking which fabric softener I use.
I wouldn't expend a millisecond of thought on an issue as trivial as fluffy socks; it simply has no place in my consciousness.
Nor had it occurred to me that I might know someone for whom the subject held the remotest interest – I thought that was just for weak-minded proles, victims of marketing.
"But it's nice."
Don't be so pathetic.
I don't know whether I've adequate expressed it before, but I recoil from empty luxury like that. Such matters hold no value for me.
I'm not some ascetic, actively seeking minimalist discomfort, but I suppose I'm marginally closer to that end of the spectrum than someone who wallows in opulence for its own sake. Paradoxically, I'm even further from people who bother with tiny indulgences, such as fabric softener, to brighten their sad little existences.
27 September, 2007
Anyone know what (specifically) goes into bark chippings, as used in gardening?
A small corner beside the entrance to my office building used to be block-paved, featuring a smooth boulder¹ on a small plinth and a couple of benches. Following refurbishment, the area has been landscaped as a bed of shrubs/palms punctuated by pebble mosaics, with a central plinth still to be occupied².
The point is that the soil has been covered with bark chippings, which have a strong smell, which becomes less pleasant with distance. From a few metres away, the scent is of damp wood; no problem. However, the building's foyer reeks of overripe bananas, and there's a disturbing odour of vomit in the stairwell and upper-floor landings.
It's not the first time I've noticed this 'scent spectrum' effect. A couple of weeks ago, the smell of tomato soup experienced on the second-floor landing seamless changed to currant buns by the time I reached the first floor (I went back and forwards a couple of times, and couldn't identify a single point of transition), fading to the odour of burnt toast by the ground floor. I have no idea about the source of the smell, presumably on the third floor.
1: Actually a huge manganese nodule unearthed during the excavation of the Alex Square underpass. They're a common component of the local shale/sandstone bedrock, though the biggest I've found myself is about 10cm across.
2: I suspect the boulder will be reinstalled, but I vote for a larger-than-life statue of the VC in a Lenin-like declamatory pose, one hand gripping his waistcoat lapel, the other pointing to a brighter future (not that I have reason to think the VC would do that; it's just a compelling image).
16 September, 2007
How to cook rice
This may seem to be an odd topic to cover, but if I've reached my mid-thirties and only just achieved satisfactory results, perhaps it's worth mentioning to others.
This is for everyday cooking rather than for a special occasion; perhaps precise care over quantities would produce better results, but this is more than adequate for normal purposes.
- Firstly, use decent-quality rice. It doesn't need to be anything special, but avoid the very cheapest stuff or anything labelled 'easy/quick cook'. Personally, I don't bother with tasteless American long-grain rice either, and only use basmati. It's part of your meal, not mere packing material; it's supposed to have a flavour.
- Plan your cooking to allow time for the rice to rest before serving. This is very important. Ideally, have the rice ready and staying warm in a covered pan well before the other components of the course. Never seek to drain the rice and serve it immediately.
- Boil water in a pan. Don't add the rice to tepid water then bring it to the boil, boil first.
The quantity of water is debatable, and I've yet to get that quite right. Something like double the amount of rice (by volume!) seems to work. Ultimately, I doubt it matters if use slightly too much, as any excess will be drained off well before the rice is ready to eat.
A drop of oil is supposed to prevent the grains sticking together. I haven't experienced that problem, so omit the fat.
My view is that if an individual wants salt, he/she can add it to the served meal. I don't put any in the water.
For a change, I occasionally add a small amount of turmeric/saffron to rice intended to accompany an Indian meal, or a little five-spice for a Chinese meal. Use just enough for a subtle effect, as the intention isn't to mask the rice's own flavour or affect that of the main dish.
- Add an appropriate quantity of rice. The dry rice will tend to clump together as it hits the water, so stir it once (stirring liberates starch into the water), then put a tight-fitting lid fully onto the pan – don't leave an air gap.
If supermarket-bought, do not rinse the rice first. That's only necessary if it's dirty or poorly processed, containing husks and other foreign bodies. It is not necessary to wash the starch out of fairly fresh rice.
When the water returns to the boil and tries to bubble around the lid, drop the heat as far as it will go and let it simmer. My mother struggles with this stage, as her electric hob doesn't cool quickly enough. I'm not sure what to suggest; get a gas hob like mine?
- Cook the rice for a little less time than indicated on the packet; if the packaging says twelve minutes, try ten. Don't keep removing the lid during cooking, but when you think it's ready, test it by removing a little rice with a fork or spatula.
Visually, grains ready for the next stage should be slightly larger than when dry but roughly the same shape; if they're much larger and have splayed ends, they're overcooked.
In the mouth, the rice should be al dente: firm (slightly firmer than you'd want to eat – remember, it's not supposed to be ready to serve yet) but not crunchy. Soft is bad.
- Drain the rice. I hold the pan over a sink and pour until the continuous flow of excess liquid separates into drips; the rice doesn't need to be absolutely dry. Don't bother draining it in a sieve or similar, as it'd need to go straight back in the pan for the next stage. If there wasn't any excess water, well done!
- Put the lid back on the pan, and let it rest for five minutes, longer if possible. This is the key part, as the rice is still cooking, absorbing all the remaining liquid. However, rice which was already fully-cooked in the water will already be saturated, so this stage won't work. Drain it sooner next time!
Don't apply more heat, so turn off the gas or use a different ring of an electric hob (i.e. not the one still at over 100°r;C).
- When you're ready to serve the meal (or to start cooking fried rice), remove the lid and lightly fluff the rice. It really shouldn't stick together; any starch should have gone back into the grains, which should be absolutely dry.
[****, that sounds cheesy, but you know what I mean.
Whatever you do, don't add cheese to your rice.]
13 September, 2007
Our hotel in Vienna¹ was kind enough to provide basic toiletries, as is customary: shampoo, toothbrushes, etc.
One item was an 'individual shower cap'. Cue hours of gleeful speculation about the alternative: a communal shower cap.
1: Which was very pleasant². Thanks for asking.
2: Vienna, I mean, not the hotel, which was adequate but spartan.
30 August, 2007
I dopn't want to say 'I told you so', not least because I didn't, but I could see this coming. Despite the efforts of the NIMBYists, several areas of the UK do host wind farms, but due to piecemeal planning and excessive optimism by landowners, several are poorly located (it's as foolish as there being farms in places with low wind load factors), and some aren't even connected to the National Grid.
I support increases in the use of wind turbines as a supplement to nuclear power stations, but it has to be acknowledged that this lack of a coherent strategy is a gift to the 'anti-' lobby.
27 August, 2007
Off their trolleys
The website of Office Angels, a recruitment agency, operates surveys of working habits. Using a fake ID, I've just completed one on desk tidiness and holidays. It seems to be more in in a spirit of fun than rigorous research, so I'm not sure whether the conclusions of an earlier survey, reported by the BBC, are to be taken seriously.
The suggestion is that workers would welcome a return to elements of a 'traditional' working environment: a tea trolley, subsidised canteen and an annual works outing.
I can think of little worse.
I definitely wouldn't be 'motivated' by a break to buy tea and cakes from a trolley wheeled door-to-door. Why would I wish to pay to drink stewed tea at intervals determined by my employer – I'll drink my own, fresh, when and as frequently as I choose, thanks. My motivation comes from caffeine, consumed by the shedload whilst I work rather than whilst pretending to listen to a person of negligible significance witter about his or her spawn.
Okay, that last bit's hyperbole and I don't really work with such people, but the point stands: few of my colleagues particularly interest me on a personal level.
Similarly, my morale and productivity wouldn't be remotely boosted by eating in a canteen, nor in a pub for a 'team lunch' (I don't drink, never mind operate within a team) nor, least of all by being obliged to attend an annual office outing. WTF?
Office Angels' managing director is quoted as saying "employees should be encouraged to interact with each other". No, thanks. I work with these people, and on the whole the atmosphere is amicable, but that's the full extent of the relationship, which doesn't extend to prolonged small-talk or socialising.
I have a life, and I have a job. They don't mix.
24 August, 2007
Made of money
I'll be in London at the end of next month, for a one-day conference* on approvals procedures in web publishing; fascinating stuff, and evidently valuable, as the conference works out as £100 per hour.
Now the organisers have my postal address, I've started to receive junk mail from them. I'll stop it after the event, of course, but in the mean time it's an insight into a different world.
For example, I've been offered their annual report on developments in intranet management. They've been kind enough to offer me a £100 discount on the cover price, so I can obtain a copy for a mere £195 plus packaging.
£295 for a book which, by definition, will be obsolete within months, if not by the time it's printed. I'm in the wrong business.
*: Though I've blagged overnight accommodation and an extra day to be a tourist at my employer's expense.
24 August, 2007
J. has received an e-mail from an external organisation saying "we like your idea and want to think with you".
What does that mean?
22 August, 2007
In their article's headline, the BBC claims that "Barclays and HSBC happy with HIPs" *.
Yet the first line of the text itelf says: "Two big mortgage lenders, HSBC and Barclays, have denied that they are unhappy with the recently introduced Home Information Packs."
Not the same thing at all. There's a real difference between being 'happy' and not being 'unhappy' – the double negative conveys an important shade of meaning, and renders the simpler headline misleading.
*: Translation: that two major high-street banks are actively pleased with the new Home Information Packs scheme, in which the duty to provide documentary evidence about the condition and status of a property now falls on the vendor, not the buyer.
20 August, 2007
No accounting for taste
Just seen: a Land Rover painted black with violet sparkles (not metallic blue-black, which would be a paint uniformly containing fine metallic particles, but distinct metallic violet particles in an otherwise non-metallic paint), with lime-green roof and bonnet.
19 August, 2007
Excellent idea, though hardly novel. The presence of 'four-in-one' bins at S-Bahn stations was something I found particularly impressive about Berlin last year.
A slight problem is the culture of security in the UK. Following decades of Irish Republican/Loyalist troubles, including on the mainland, and now the alleged threat from al Qaeda, we don't actually have as many litter bins in crowded areas as we might. Litter bins were specifically removed from railway stations in the 1990s; not all were returned. Maybe a push for high-street recycling facilities would bring them back, but I suspect security concerns would veto the new bins instead.
For once, I wouldn't necessarily characterise this as security theatre – unlike the war on moisture, litter bins are a credible means of planting bombs which has been used several times in the UK.
18 August, 2007
The very concept of needing a licence to connect and watch a television is probably bizarre to non-Brits* , but I'd never really thought about one of the scheme's further oddities.
I could understand either paying a fee up-front or maybe even after one has received the service i.e. paying in advance or in arrears, but if paying by direct debit, billing is neither, or possibly both.
The bill I received today itemises the monthly payments I've already paid on the current licence, then states that "next year's licence will then be paid over twelve months (six payments before the licence begins and six after)".
For the record, an annual licence to watch colour television currently costs £135.50.
*: Licencing does make some sense if one considers it differently: as a compulsory donation towards the operation of the BBC, and hence access to ad-free TV, radio and web services. Yes, one still has to pay if one only watches independent (ad-supported) TV channels and yes, it's permissable to access BBC Radio and the website for free if one doesn't have a TV.
17 August, 2007
Stamp on it again
Remember that the opt-out from Royal Mail 'Door to Door' unaddressed junk mail only lasts for one year. If you registered when the issue suddenly entered public consciousness last August, it's approaching time to renew your registration.
Spread the word!
[An unconfirmed source reports the Royal Mail as saying registration now lasts two years, but it's unclear whether that applies to registrations submitted in August 2006 or only those submitted more recently. I'm not inclined to risk it.
Besides, if the Royal Mail are swamped by thousands of redundant renewal letters, that's their problem.]
16 August, 2007
Is it a good idea for a prestigious university to operate under the domain name 'Dur.ac.uk'?
9 August, 2007
Mv mrtgage? Kthxbai
Whilst moving my mortgage, I've needed to complete a questionnaire for the new lender's solicitors, in which I was asked whether they could conduct future stages via text messages.
Maybe that's normal, but it seemed odd to me. When tens of thousands of pounds are involved, I'd rather have some form of accountable paper trail.
8 August, 2007
Deviant now normal
Times change. Even quite recently the tabloids would be frothing in righteous indignation (though still publishing the pictures) if a wholesome teen-orientated band appeared in anything as self-evidently perverted (ahem) as PVC.
Seriously; would ABBA have been permitted to market themselves that way¹ on anything as mainstream as 'Top Of The Pops' thirty years ago? Tiffany, in 1988? Maybe it was considered less threatening by 1997 and, say, the Spice Girls.
Yet in 2007, there's no particular reaction² to the news that Girls Aloud wear glossy black catsuits in their latest video, just as Sugababes and All Saints did full-on latex earlier in the year³ . A degree of titilation, of course, but I doubt questions will be asked in Parliament.
If anyone's stunned that I made a reference to popular culture (I can, you know), I'd better explain that I heard about this via a slightly different angle: T. sent me a scan of the Daily Star article about the costumes, in which Girl Aloud's next album, is described as 'progressive'.
I hope this doesn't give Fish ideas.
1: I wasn't thinking of Benny & Björn. Or trying not to, anyway.
2: Apart from the Mail On Sunday, of course – that could whip concrete into a frenzy of moral outrage.
3: Not that I'm counting....
6 August, 2007
Within the next couple of week, the City Council is due to extend doorstep recycling collection and wheelie bins to additional areas of Lancaster; mainly the particularly hilly areas omitted from earlier phases of the roll-out.
(Wheelie bin roll-out? Oh, never mind).
'Coincidentally', I received an unsolicited leaflet from a certain bleach manufacturer today, hyping explaining the additional hygiene risks of fortnightly refuse collection and oh-so-helpfully providing a money-off voucher. The interesting part is that the text is clearly targeted at first-time recipients of wheelie bins.
I'm not sure how to interpret that. One possibility is that the Council informed the chemicals company of the scheme. If there's a need to disseminate public health information, that's for the government (local or national) to do, on a non-commercial basis. I don't think it's appropriate for a council to assist a multinational corporation in gaining a commercial advantage – I really don't think it's appropriate for the council to be paid for that service.
Whatever; I'm just speculating, and perhaps the Council wouldn't have even dreamt of that.
The alternative would be for the company to have contacted the Council, perhaps as a Freedom of Information request for the roll-out schedule. When that process extends to every council in the UK (as seems logical), one gains a grudging respect for the marketers.
I'm so impressed that I'm not going to throw the leaflet away immediately, as I would ordinarily.
Don't worry, I haven't totally abandoned my principles, and by definition I won't buy that product, because the company put a leaflet through my door. Instead, I'm going to save it, and as a mark of respect for the marketers' initiative, it will be the first item into my new recycling bin.
Oh; and one other thing: the leaflet also advertises an opportunity to win a weekend in... Helsinki. No disrespect to the Finns, but I doubt the average Lancastrian would be overjoyed by that prospect.
4 August, 2007
Heh. Allergy advice on a pot of pickled herrings:
Reeling from that shock, I was rather more concerned to read that 140 g contains 60% of an adult's GDA of salt. Good thing I don't eat them often (though I'd love to).
28 July, 2007
We have no bananas
It seems Sainsbury's only sells Fairtrade bananas now; it's no longer left to the customer to choose.
That leaves three options.
- I could buy slightly elderly bananas at a premium price from my local corner shop. I'd rather not, as I feel such shops occupy an obsolete market sector which I'd be happy to see slip out of business.
- Or I could condone counter-productive tokenism. I don't think so.
The third option? Ah, well; I didn't particularly like bananas, anyway.
14 July, 2007
Go on, guess
I'm not being anti-American (honest) but why, after one has typed 'York' into the search box at BBC Weather, doesn't it simply default to York, North Yorkshire, UK?
Instead it asks for further clarification: do I mean that York, i.e. the York, the original, or do I mean York, Pennsylvania, USA? This is the 'Weather' section of the website of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Which York am I more likely to be wanting?
13 July, 2007
I'm told that larger branches of Tesco (i.e. a UK supermarket chain) sell riding crops....
13 July, 2007
On paper, wasted
I seem to have been mentioning recycling a lot this week (blame the BBC) but here's one more.
My office has just received the flat proofs of a forthcoming publication from the printers, to verify that the output of the production presses is as we require, before actually making the print run of several thousand copies.
To summarise the standard ISO 'A' paper size system, A0 has an area of 1 m² and each subsequent increment is half the size of the previous, so a sheet of A0 sliced in half across its width would give two sheets of A1, each of which would give two sheets of A2, etc.
Presuming the printers use that ISO system, each proof sheet looks to be A0 and is printed with four double-sided double-page spreads, widely spaced. Each individual page of the publication is A4, so that's 4xA3 on A0.
4xA3 = 2xA2 = A1= ½A0, which means fully half of each sheet is blank, to be cut off – for every 16 pages of the publication, 0.5m² of high-quality paper is simply discarded. I don't doubt it's recycled, but paper can only be reprocessed so many times before the fibres disintegrate, and chalk-rich, slightly shiny paper, itself using fresh wood pulp rather than recycled, can't be cheap.
The obvious solution would to be for the client/designer to make the individual pages smaller, thereby fitting the same number of double-page spreads onto A1 whilst still providing a moderate amount of essential offcutting space, or for the printer to use non-standard paper sizes specifically accommodating ISO sizes plus offcut space.
Maybe they do, and these proofs aren't laid out as on a production run. I hope so.
12 July, 2007
Mentioning the differing recycling services offered by councils, I made the throwaway remark that "few accept plastics". That reflects my general impression, but wasn't based on any specific evidence.
Another BBC article addresses the point, offering a little greater optimism. Acceptance of certain plastics by councils, even via doorstep collections, has drastically increased in recent years (25% of all the plastic bottles in household waste are now recycled, compared to 3% in 2001). That's to be applauded, but only as a first step – it still means 75% of plastic bottles aren't recycled, and bottles are only one class of plastic waste; the article's opening paragraph claims that only 7% of all UK plastics waste is recycled.
One thing I hadn't appreciated is the range of plastics used in everyday product packaging, which complicates recycling. I did know that margarine tubs are problematic (blended plastics are difficult to reprocess), but not that yoghurt pots are made of polystyrene, unusable in the standard bottle-recycling processes. Maybe that's something for a later stage, if it makes economic sense to establish a national network of polystyrene-reprocessing plants.
Or perhaps the proliferation of different plastics is something for the packaging producers to consider. Do we need such a wide range of plastics?
I can appreciate that some might be unsuitable for use with food, and others unsuitable for use with domestic (yet still rather noxious) cleaning products, but I suspect there could be greater standardisation. If all, say, bleach bottles were made of the same plastic, I imagine that'd generate sufficient quantities of specific waste to support reprocessing plants, whereas a few thousand tonnes (nationally) of each of 10-15 different compounds mightn't be commercially viable.
Without wishing to sound like some Green Party ascetic, I hope relatively-obscure, difficult-to-recycle plastics aren't being used for mere presentational purposes.
8 July, 2007
Two ticks required
Amazon sends out each rental DVD in a slim plastic case, itself in a prepaid return envelope. If there's a problem with a DVD, there are tick boxes on the case label, which one can tick (with a pen – remember them?) to indicate one is returning an incorrect or damaged disc, and whether one wishes to be sent a replacement.
However, it's not enough to merely mark the label and return the disc (though there's nothing on the case to indicate otherwise), as there are corresponding checkboxes on the Amazon Rental website. My recommendation is to ensure you complete them too, as that guarantees, or at least increases the likelihood of the correct automatic procedure being instigated. If you don't, and the warehouse staff fail to notice the marked case, several problems can ensue, such as:
- Acknowledgement of receipt, but not that the DVD was flawed, requiring an e-mail to Amazon.
- Apology and promise that the replacement won't count against one's monthly total of discs rented.
- Logged total of discs rented increasing by one (because it's counted as the next item in the queue, not a second iteration of the earlier item), requiring an e-mail to Amazon.
- 'Replacement' disc arriving, and being precisely the same, still unplayable, DVD as was returned (because the flaw hadn't been logged, the disc hadn't been taken out of the system, and I was counted as being the next recipient in its queue), requiring an e-mail to Amazon and, this time, ticking the boxes on the case and on the website.
- Seeing the correct procedure instigated via the Amazon Rental website, and having a degree of confidence that it'll work now.
Not that I've received the replacement yet, of course (not their fault, as I only posted it back last night) – perhaps I shouldn't speak before the whole situation is resolved.
To their credit, Customer Services have been prompt and helpful, the problem seeming to be a result of inflexible automatic systems. I almost blame myself for not logging the flaw properly on the website in the first place. Almost, but not quite – as I said, there's nothing on the packaging to suggest that more is required than marking the label and visiting a post box.
[Update 12:40: Bugger. It seems Amazon don't agree with my logic (or I was surmising from incorrect data). They're not going to send a replacement at all, merely giving me a credit for a different DVD. But I wanted to see this one! :(
Not that it's relevant, it's the final two 'episodes' of Krzysztof Kieślowski 'Dekalog'. ]
7 July, 2007
Flood of angst
With a very few isolated exceptions, I've never been a fan of computer games. However, a friend at work recently lent me 'Halo' to follow-up a conversation we'd been having.
It's enjoyable enough, I suppose, if repetitive, and once I'd mastered the control system I soon found myself drawn into finding the optimum tactics, angles, etc., though I still don't quite 'get' FPS games – I prefer something more strategic or, well, intellectually-challenging. Yet I also found it somewhat disturbing.
The dominant feeling I was left with after each session was immense loneliness (not something to which I'm generally prone). Almost by definition, the only other entities in the game world were enemies, and the only interractions via a gun or grenade. It's all so... well, it goes beyond 'cold' or 'sterile'; I received an impression of massive emptiness.
This was the standalone 'narrative campaign' version, of course; there's also the networked 'player vs. player' mode, which is apparently the source of the game's true longevity. Somehow I think that'd be worse. I don't want to kill my friends.
3 July, 2007
Pass the hammer
I was already cultivating an intense dislike of Nigel Slater (or at least his writing persona) whilst he was describing the 'jolly' fun of messily eating crab; the very thought of braying middle-class ****s playing with their oh-so-exotic food made my teeth grind.
However, I didn't truly loathe him* until he used the ultra-casual, ****ing childish phrase 'tom-ketch' rather than simply 'tomato ketchup'.
Far too 'rugger-with-Tarquin-in-Tuscany' for my sensibilities....
*: metaphorically, okay?
2 July, 2007
Language of faith
Madeleine Bunting makes an interesting point in the Guardian (again) that in the absence of a secular 'language of morality', politicians turn to christian rhetoric. The most interesting point is that it may just be rhetoric: cultural shorthand rather than true religiousness. Atheists like me needn't worry that Brown is another Blair.
There are some good points in the accompanying comments, too – Mark Vernon's stands out.
2 July, 2007
Max Hastings in the Guardian: "the flurry of precautions after terrorist attacks are almost always charades".
26 June, 2007
I'm not a materialistic person (no.75), but in 2004 I lost one of the very few physical objects which really mattered to me emotionally: a small Swiss Army knife. I partly explained its significance in July 2005, but I didn't mention the tough times I'd experienced and survived with that knife.
In the process of hauling my old sofa out for collection by the Council, I happened to see inside it through a tiny gap in the upholstery. So many combinations of circumstances could have prevented that, but I was lucky: there was the missing knife, which had somehow passed through an unbroken sheet of fabric and lodged in the underlying frame.
It's difficult to describe my quiet pleasure at its 'return'; this really matters to me.
However, as I said in that earlier entry, I don't think I'll carry it regularly again and risk its loss.
19 June, 2007
I'm not sure about this. It'd be a nice idea to provide continuous footpaths along sections of the English coast, but if it came to a matter of routing a path through a private garden, I'd certainly support the individual's right to privacy rather than mere public, er, convenience.
I'm also concerned about the environmental/ecological impacts. Certain areas are valuable because they're undisturbed; because there is no public access. Daytrippers may like to stroll along a clifftop, but what about the peregrines nesting just below the new path? How about the rare plants being trampled?
I'd like to think I'm being unduly pessimistic, that agencies such as Natural England would take conservation into account, and walkers would understand, but I've encountered strange attitudes in some 'ramblers' who regard a right to roam as absolute, irrespective of consequences. There are places where conservation is simply incompatible with access. I hope planners have the courage to avoid compromise.
One more, overlapping concern: in order to meet public safety and accessibility legislation, would existing/new paths need to be developed? Regraded? Fenced? Tarmac'd? Steep clifftop tracks and rocky beaches aren't exactly wheelchair-friendly.
Never mind the expense, I feel that'd ruin the experience. Coasts are inherently hazardous places, with crumbling cliffs and slippery rocks, but that slight wildness is part of the attraction. It's a bit of a dilemma: is it better to permit the optimum experience, in which some can't participate, or provide access for all to a diminished experience?
Ultimately, I suppose I'm saying I would welcome increased access, but not if that reduced the British coast into a mere leisure amenity. It's too important for that.
[Update 16:08: The Guardian has addressed the same story, and increased my concern. That article mentions a footpath (which somehow conveys a sense of it being a homogenised, lowest-common-denominator, national resource) up to ten metres wide. Okay, that doesn't literally mean a 10m-wide belt of tarmac, but that's still a considerable land area to be de facto appropriated by the state.
The Environment Secretary is quoted as having said that:
"The success of the 'right to roam' on open countryside has shown that people are responsible about increased access and want to enjoy it in a mature way. That greatly encourages us to press ahead with opening up the coast."
I can't help thinking that's a flawed comparison. Almost by definition, Access Land is in unpopulated open countryside; where issues of access to private property arise, they're somewhat different.
A recent survey commissioned by the Ramblers' Association found that 94% of people wanted a legal right of access to the coast.'I want never gets'
. I'm sure I could conduct a survey to find that a majority of English people would want England to win the football World Cup, but that unsurprising discovery wouldn't convey any particularly entitlement to win. Just because people want to walk along the coast (or rather, a pressure group says they want that) doesn't mean they have an overriding right to do so. Surveys of public opinion carry no more weight than petitions
This isn't solely an issue of implementing whatever's popular with the masses (which is why vote-chasing politicians shouldn't be involved), it's at least as much a matter of protecting the coast – to be blunt, protecting it from
Thousands of property owners in England and Wales will be contacted by Natural England officials to negotiate details of the corridor
That won't exactly facilitate matters. Why the **** would landowners in Wales negotiate with Natural England
? Wales has its own agency, the Countryside Council for Wales.]
17 June, 2007
Somehow, a full fridge, containing sufficient food for over a week's meals, somehow conveys a sense of well-being. An empty fridge is depressing.
Seriously: if anyone (else) is prone to mild depression, bear this in mind.
12 June, 2007
I don't have a fear of spiders (though I wouldn't be a proper mammal if I didn't feel at least uneasy about huge, tropical, bird-eating varieties). It's quite normal for one or two spiders to live in my bathroom, and I only evict them if they get trapped in the bath.
However, the fourteen spiders in there at present, sheltering from tonight's thunderstorm, are simply abusing my hospitality....
11 June, 2007
The good book
Last week, I read of the slightly depressing case of a teaching assistant who left her job alleging religious discrimination.
A born-again christian, Sariya Allan had refused to listen to a child reading a Harry Potter novel because 'god had stated in the bible that witchcraft was "an abomination"' and 'author JK Rowling [is] a "real witch"... hearing the seven-year-old girl reading out spells from the story would leave [Allan] cursed'.
It's alleged that the assistant headmaster questioned the seriousness of Allan's objection, and took disciplinary action. Allan resigned.
Fine so far, but the depressing part was that I strongly suspected Allan's case would succeed; that a preposterous attitude to a childrens' book would be accepted as a legitimate expression of personal faith, to be respected by the employer. It seemed an extreme instance, but arguably within the remit of discrimination legislation.
Thankfully, I was wrong. The tribunal found against Allan, confirming that her handling of the situation was unreasonable, thereby neatly dodging the religion issue.
8 June, 2007
I'm not going to get back into rebuttal of electromagnetic radiation scaremongering (nor am I going to call it debate, as the anti-scientists have no valid case to discuss), but Ben Goldacre makes an interesting tangential point about 'rhetorical devices and new media'; specifically that "blogs can actually be more reliable than newspapers for some forms of information, and in particular for 'who said what' comment and discussion".
Online, if one claims to have said something, or that someone else did, one can immediately link to that earlier instance, allowing the reader to see for him/herself. In print, one has the advantage/disadvantage of needing a reader's trust that one's reference to the earlier instance is accurate representation; there's no direct link.
28 May, 2007
One of the corner shops in Moorlands, Lancaster sells small cartons of milk for 35p. The other, only a street away, sells them for 38p, so on the rare occasions I use my local shops, I tend not to visit that one.
However, I've just noticed that the latter shop sells milk in pint containers, unlike the conventional 500 ml (0.88 pint) cartons, so it's actually the cheaper source of emergency milk.
Is it really worthwhile to sell pints any more? I can't be the only one to have failed to read the labels, presumed they were more expensive, and therefore presumed that all the shop's stock would be correspondingly more expensive than elsewhere. It's certainly cost the owner several years of my (infrequent) custom, all for the sake of 68 ml.
24 May, 2007
Following the death of a farmer, which seems to have been related to confrontation over the siting of a wind farm in Norfolk, the Guardian offers a fairly long article about the siting of onshore wind farms in the UK.
For what it's worth, I'm very much pro-wind power generation (as a supplement to nuclear). I spent years working and more-or-less living within 1 km of a 10-turbine farm near Lancaster, so I'm fully aware of the noise impact (negligible unless one deliberately listens for it and unreasonably expects absolute silence) and I feel turbines generally enhance the landscape, not detract – I wouldn't welcome them in a National Park, but merely 'pretty' locations without that special status are entirely reasonable. As for preserving some fantasy of the countryside as a rural idyll: no. Just no.
10 May, 2007
According to the local free paper, there's a vast lake of spring water sitting on volcanic rock 60 m underground in the next valley over from Lancaster. Very H.G.Wells, or perhaps H.P. Lovecraft.
For anyone who knows the area around Quernmore, or more specifically the geology, the obvious question is 'where!?' – the Conder Valley is glacial till over Carboniferous sandstone. I'm certainly not aware of anything igneous (volcanic) this side of the Lake District, ~40 km away.
Whatever; I certainly admire the resourcefulness of a dairy farmer who can get 80p per litre for water rather than 18p per litre for milk.
I have a little less respect for his customers. If this entry's title is a bit cryptic, it's the reverse spelling of 'soft in t' 'ead', a fine Northern Lancashire phrase somewhat synonymous with 'naïve' which, spelled backwards, is....
8 May, 2007
I realise it might seem pedantic, but when an e-mail announcement says that a "... funeral will be at x followed by internment at y and then onto z....", that really does imply that the congregation will be dragged from the church to a prison camp somewhere, then once released will presumably take the deceased to the reception.
Internment: temporary imprisonment.
6 May, 2007
A few days ago, I bought 'Blade Runner' on DVD (I know; it surprised me too that I didn't already have a copy, though I have both versions on VHS). Inside the case, there was no leaflet offering further information about the film or chapter titles (frankly, the 'Director's Edition' available in the UK isn't a great package – there are no extras on the disc, either). There was an anti-piracy leaflet, though.
It seemed better than most, thanking me for "doing the right thing by buying this genuine DVD". Too often, industry messages seem to characterise legitimate purchasers as potential criminals.
However, the content of the other side was jaw-dropping.
Immigration Crime: By rejecting DVD piracy you're helping us tackle it.
It went on to provide details of the Morecambe Bay deaths in 2004, mentioning that those responsible also happened to be DVD pirates. It doesn't state
a causal link between DVD counterfeiting and the cockle-pickers' deaths, but that's the link implied by the non-sequiteur.
That's appalling. I wasn't personally involved, but the deaths occurred only a few kilometres from my home, so perhaps I'm a little more sensitive about the commercial exploitation of the tragedy than I might be otherwise.
Unfashionably, I support copyright and the rights of intellectual property holders, but for the industry bodies to express their legitimate concerns in such a way is totally alienating and hence counterproductive.
2 May, 2007
A Guardian article about 'blackspots' of isolation from the global internet and mobile phone networks mentions the statistic that:
The productivity benefits of being "always on" are almost purely illusory: one typical study, among Microsoft employees, found that they took an average of 15 minutes to resume their focus on a serious mental task after being interrupted by an email or instant message.
I'll have to gently point that out to my boss (a PhD in psychology, which means she's disinclined to be contradicted on such topics), who disagrees with my request for extended periods of uninterrupted focus.
30 April, 2007
The Scottish gamble
Evan Davis, the BBC's economics editor, examines the case for (and against) Scottish independence from the UK, in the context of the economic viability rather than the emotional and political issues usually discussed.
Sounds very promising to me.
30 April, 2007
Three random snapshots
A key pad lock has been fitted to the post room door in my office building "to allow 24 hour access". Wouldn't removing the lock improve access?
An 'off-topic' area of the unofficial Porcupine Tree Forum features a poll about evolution, as if it's something to be determined by popular acclaim.
Three scratches on the inner side of my elbow (barbed wire, Scorton, yesterday) are making the skin on the inner side of my wrist feel tight, as if it's healing there instead. It's an odd sensation.
28 April, 2007
Stick it in the bin
According to a survey by the Marine Conservation Society, there's an average of two items of litter per metre on UK beaches. That includes direct littering by visitors (34%), fishing debris (11%) sanitary waste (10%) and shipping litter (2%). I was surprised to read that the second most common item found was plastic sticks from cotton buds (84% of the sewage-related class), presumably the result of people disposing of them in toilets.
I hope no-one reading this would do that. Just don't. Use a bin.
However, given that it's happening, I wonder whether there's any mileage in the idea of using paper-based sticks.
25 April, 2007
Droit de seigneur
Several British towns have a tradition whereby eminent dignitaries are declared 'freemen of the borough'. It's usually merely honorary, though technically some carry obscure mediaeval rights such as a right to drive sheep through the town centre every third Thursday whilst wearing a satin hat and carrying a piglet. Or something.
It seems my own institution is no different:
The Council has use of the Common Seal of the University....
25 April, 2007
According to the local free newspaper, fish & chip shops in Lancaster and Morecambe are investigating the alternatives to cod and haddock in case stocks become too low for their economic use.
The proprietor of my local chippy apparently favours Thai giant catfish, pangasius, as the texture is sufficiently similar to that of haddock. A Morecambe shop owner disagrees, considering the taste to be too alien for unadventurous customers, and thinks South African (or Argentinian) kingklip would be a better analogue for the flavour of haddock.
Intuitively, I'm not entirely happy with the thought of transporting food halfway across the planet (unless these species could be farmed in the UK?), but if that's what's required to save European fish populations, perhaps it's necessary.
I suppose some would say there's another option: avoid buying fish & chips altogether.
Don't be ridiculous.
22 April, 2007
Not so altruistic
The terraced house backing on to mine is occupied by students. They're remarkably quiet, which could imply they're postgraduates, less giddy about independent life than undergrads.
I see that their landlord has suddenly installed a bench, table, large potted plant and two windowboxes, considerably brightening a bare yard. I briefly thought it was a pleasant gesture, maybe even an acknowledgement of the students' seemingly responsible attitude, but then my cynicism reminded me that this is the start of the period when postgrad students are viewing houses for next academic year....
19 April, 2007
Not a nice chianti?
Shelf sign seen in Sainsbury's today: 'family juice'.
I wonder what's in that. I'm afraid it had all sold out, so I couldn't check the ingredients. Presumably simply 'families'.
Unless it isn't actually shelved, and one has to discreetly request it, like the special meat.
3 April, 2007
150cm of unhelpfulness
Part of my job is to oversee the use of the corporate logo on departmental websites.
It's a red graphic on white, accompanied by mid-grey text on the left. The colours can't be changed, the relative orientation of the graphic and text can't be altered (the text can't go below or to the right, or can't be resized relative to the graphic), and both elements have to be present – it's not permitted to use the graphic alone without text. One section of the institution does use a different colour combination, but that was specifically authorised at the highest level, by senior management. If anyone else tries it, I need to be the proverbial tonne of bricks.
Arriving at work this morning, I happened to notice that the refurbished main entrance to my building (central admin) is almost finished. The wall has been painted a deep red and the logo has been attached. It's dark grey, and omits the text. Dark grey on red, just the graphic, and 1½ m high.
Now what do I do? How can I intimidate persuade departmental web maintainers to use the authorised format, when they can simply say "well, you don't"?
12 March, 2007
How come you cost so much?
I've been buying 'golden granulated' unrefined cane sugar for about a year, using it instead of standard refined white sugar in tea. According to Sainsbury's, it's simply raw cane sugar "with all the natural molasses of the sugar cane retained for full flavour and with no additives".
It's also an instance of a retailer pricing a product merely on the basis of perceived 'premium' status. If unrefined sugar has undergone less processing, it ought to cost less than white refined sugar. So why doesn't it?
10 March, 2007
Whilst in Sainsbury's I noticed the headline of the Daily Mail, the mildly xenophobic tabloid for middle-class people who wouldn't admit to reading a tabloid. Yesterday it was announced that the EU is to phase-out traditional light bulbs in favour of energy-efficient CFL bulbs.
The Mail's headline? 'Europe Turns Out Our Lights'.
10 March, 2007
Sainsbury's in Lancaster provides free parking. There is a ticket barrier, but I've only ever seen it in use at peak periods in December, presumably to deter those parking there for christmas shopping elsewhere.
It's mildly amusing, therefore, that the supermarket is introducing a pay & display system 'for the assistance of customers'. How does the imposition of a delay and the requirement to obtain a ticket assist customers, when previously there was no restriction whatsoever?
There may be a perfectly valid reason for the introduction, but customer convenience certainly isn't it.
6 March, 2007
Someone else's problem
Jeremy Paxman, once the nation's most incisive and dogged political interviewer (he still has his moments), attempts to explain the squalor of litter-strewn Britain, (by which I'm pretty sure he means London and its immediate surroundings).
One section of his article is particularly interesting, and states my own view of the underlying cause better than I could: basically, people don't respect communal areas.
The reason people throw their trash out of the window of their car is, obviously, that they do not want it inside. They do not want it there because that is space for which they feel personally responsible. 'Outside' belongs to someone else. Or, more likely, to no one. So the litter issue is about more than the uglification of Britain. It tells us something about the sort of nation we have become. People, like animals, do not generally foul their own nests. But they feel free to throw rubbish around for much the same reason morons feel entitled to vandalise bus shelters, smash park benches or use telephone boxes as urinals: they do not feel the public realm is theirs.
On the left the common coin is to see this sort of antisocial behaviour as the natural consequence of the 'no such thing as society' individualism that underpinned Thatcherism. I guard my things. Indeed, I demand respect from others for them, because they signify my achievement (even if, as often as not, the credit bills on which they were bought will long outlive their shiny consumerist showiness).
But it is too easy to blame it all on Margaret Thatcher. Whatever Blairism may be, it has done nothing to dim the obsession with the signifiers of success. The ludicrous 'respect' culture, that sees knife-fights start because someone fails to accord due deference to another person's trainers, is just the most extreme expression of a cast of mind that now seems universal.
The flipside is not merely increasingly frenetic attempts to persuade us to spend money on things we don't need to buy. It also encourages a belief that that which is not obviously personal property has no value. I might respect your trainers - but I couldn't give a toss about the park or the bus shelter that belongs to all of us.
27 February, 2007
Compete or die; either is fine with me
According to the BBC, the Royal Mail wants to increase the price of domestic postage stamps by 6p (an 18.75% increase on first-class, 20.7% on second class) to offset losses.
Those losses are currently partially met by charging more for business post, but the company wishes to be more competitive in that sector so wants to reduce industry's subsidy of domestic post i.e. charge consumers more in order to charge businesses less. They also want restrictions on lucrative junk mail to be repealed (which suggests they were hit hard by the discovery of their covert opt-out last year).
That's what the company wants. What's in it for consumers? It all seems a little one-sided to me.
The Royal Mail, or at least the BBC article, phrases this as an issue of the company's survival, but why the **** should I care? So long as a competitor can provide a comparable service, it wouldn't even slightly bother me if one particular supplier ceased trading.
It's an interesting coincidence that TNT has also announced today that they're to provide a door-to-door delivery service, the first to directly match the Royal Mail's.
If the Royal Mail wishes to be more attractive to the commercial sector, then it should stop pretending to be a service to the nation, and accept both the advantages and the exposure of the open market:
- Charge a full, unsubsidised price for stamps – fine: I'll have no hesitation in switching to a cheaper competitor.
- Charge businesses less – fine, though I'd be surprised if the Royal Mail could genuinely compete.
- Deliver junk mail – fine, though the Royal Mail should then be subject to the Mailing Preference Service, thereby having to check the opt-out database before delivering.
- Lose any remaining public support, fail to compete in an open market and go bust – absolutely fine with me.
- Retain the slightly misplaced public perception that the Royal Mail is something special, forget about commercial competitiveness, and stop complaining.
26 February, 2007
Two rail crashes in South East England in 2000 and 2002 were reported in terms of their specific locations, Hatfield and Potters Bar, despite those names meaning very little to anyone living or working outside the region. A crash in London in 1999 was even more specific, naming the station involved: Paddington.
Yet Friday's thankfully less devastating crash on the outskirts of Kendal, a place name probably at least recognised nationally, isn't being reported as 'the Kendal crash' but merely by the county in which it occurred: 'the Cumbria rail crash'.
I noticed that oddity in a TV news item last night, when a reporter signed-off as "[name], for the BBC, in Cumbria", and it seems newspaper coverage is settling on the same shorthand term. Where in Cumbria?
I'm not sure why the metropolitan media don't just admit they have negligible knowledge of, or interest in, anything beyond the Home Counties, and just report it as having happened 'somewhere in the North'.
Okay, 2001's rail crash in North Yorkshire, about as far from Selby as the 'Cumbria crash' was from Kendal, was reported as 'the Selby crash', which is an obvious exception to my suggested trend, but I think the general, and blindingly obvious point holds: news in SE England is over-reported, at the expense of anywhere much more than an an hour from Central London.
This isn't just 'Southerner envy' – important information is being withheld by sheer laziness. Imagine if someone with family in Carlisle or Penrith heard about the crash via one of these excessively vague reports. Imagine if someone else had a friend on that train, but who was due to have disembarked at Oxenholme. What use is 'train crash in Cumbria' in informing those people whether to be concerned?
[Update 28/02/07: And now, a word from our railways correspondent: Tim.
As he says, the Pendolino coaches survived a 153 km/h (95 mph) derailment remarkably well, and injuries were due to people being hurled around within intact cylinders rather than the vehicles themselves being wrecked. Despite skewed media reporting, rail remains a very safe means of transport.]
23 February, 2007
Well, now we have it in writing. The UK is not a christian country, despite the presence of church representatives in the House of Lords and the assertions of typically xenophobic newspaper bigots (that's columnists and letter-writers).
Responding to an ostensibly frivolous e-petition about legal recognition of "Jedi Knights as a religion on par with Christianity, Islam and other beliefs", the Government said:
The Government has no overarching role in regulating or recognising personal belief or faith. The UK has a long held commitment to freedom of worship and belief, and people are free to form religions and free to follow their own practices and beliefs provided they remain within the law.
The response went on to conclude:
May the Force be with you.
However, that doesn't diminish the core statement that the state officially does not recognise, and hence legislate on the basis of, religious considerations.
[Sort-of via Sal.]
14 February, 2007
Do you want spurious stats with that?
According to a press release from whichever organisation promotes National Chip Week (it's 12-18 February this year, as I'm sure you knew), "one in four of all British potatoes consumed in Britain are (sic) eaten as chips".
Who counted them all?
Who tracked every single specifically British potato (no grubby foreigners in this survey, thank you very much) that was consumed specifically in Britain, and ascertained how each was prepared?
That set me thinking of crack teams of Potato Inspectors, going door-to-door from Shetland to Cornwall, bursting in on terrified households to demand: "Is that potato British? What are you going to do with it? Eh? Eh? Step away from the chip pan!"
I can imagine the squads on cross-Channel ferries rushing about wildly, interrogating anyone suspected of chewing, then suddenly stopping for a cup of tea (each) as they'd crossed into French territory, where potato consumption goes unsurveyed.
I reckon there's at least a short story there. If anyone has a go, give me a credit, eh?
11 February, 2007
Ever noticed that there are structures – membranes and tubes – in supermarket diced chicken fillets which one can't find when jointing a whole chicken oneself?
It's as if they're derived from different creatures....
10 February, 2007
Almost exactly a year ago, I commented on Barclays Bank's intention to change the signage in their branches to make them 'more friendly'. For example, each cashtill was relabeled as a 'hole in the wall'.
However, I've just discovered that:
Hole in the Wall™ is a trademark of Barclays Bank PLC.
Can they do that? The whole point of their choosing the term was that it's a generic term in common usage in the context of cashtills
. This is like a company claiming 'vacuum cleaner'
as a proprietory term for their brand of hoover.
I presume they'll get away with it, so long as their cashtills aren't painted red
6 February, 2007
Not all there
Seen on the label on a pot of 'Salad Cress':
"INGREDIENTS: Rape, Cress (20%)."
Whose brilliant idea was that?
31 January, 2007
I've received an editing instruction from a client, presumably relating to an array of photos I produced a while ago. Unfortunately, it was a while ago, so the message goes a little beyond cryptic:
Delete mortar board - replace with windmill.
25 January, 2007
Note to southerners and other foreigners
I'm not saying the following pronunciation errors actually bother me, but I do notice them:
Carnforth, like similar northern Lancashire placenames, is 'Carnf'th', not 'Carn-forth', as the spelling might imply.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne is 'new-CASTLE', not 'NEW-castle'. I sometimes catch myself making that mistake, but I'm improving.
The Forest of Bowland is 'BOH-l'nd', not 'boh LAND', separated into two words. Admittedly, I've only heard one person say that: Princess Alexandra, the University's ex-Chancellor, who annoyed Bowland College officers and graduates at graduation ceremonies for forty years.
One more I'm less sure about: at least the way I was brought up, the 'ver' in 'Liverpool' is silent: 'Li'pool'.
23 January, 2007
Could be awkward
Must remember... must remember... Sybian and Debian are not the same thing.
19 January, 2007
Don't feed the vultures
Last month, the news broke that charges imposed by UK high-street banks may be excessive and hence unlawful. Tens of thousands of people have apparently made successful claims and received refunds.
Unfortunately, it also seems that commercial 'claims-handling agents' are exploiting the situation (look at the adverts accompanying a Google search for 'bank charge claim'), offering to assist claimants on a 'no win, no fee' basis.
It needs to be made absolutely clear that these companies are parasites, and should be totally avoided. One should never pay any intermediary to reclaim bank charges.
All information and documentation, including template letters, is available free, without registration, at consumer-action websites such as MoneySavingExpert, as is the support of groups like penaltycharges or consumeractiongroup.
13 January, 2007
I said: read the screen!
You may well be a skilled sheetmetal worker/welder/fabricator with over 17 years experience, mostly in general fabrication manufacturing and ducting (including isotemp). I'm entirely happy to believe you've worked in the nuclear industry and are qualified to City and Guilds 229 Levels 2 and 3.
I still can't help you find a job in Lancaster, and if you'd actually looked at it before writing, you'd have found nothing in this website to suggest I have any more contacts in the engineering sector than in the entertainment industry.
5 January, 2007
Century of the fruitbat
Lancashire County Council has announced that all of its primary and special schools are to be 'assessed with a view to either replacement or refurbishment'. The intention is to make at least 50% of the schools 'fit for the 21st century'.
27 December, 2006
Told you I was ill
I wasn't entirely happy about my weight in November (in the upper half of the 'normal' BMI range), and am glad to have lost a little, but ~5 kg (~10 lb) in six weeks, without actively considering my diet (nor increasing physical activity, for that matter)? That's after the seasonal excess, too.
26 December, 2006
Would anyone with a living room large enough for the huge sofas depicted in the TV adverts really choose to buy from a furniture warehouse?
In what sense can 'The Science Of Discworld II: The Globe' – a sequel – be considered "... a unique book,...", as stated in promotional text on the back cover?
Whose marvelous idea was it to invent (not-specifically-labeled) menthol shampoo? Mere seconds after applying it, my scalp felt cold, as if medical alcohol was evaporating off it. For I moment I wondered whether my mother had refilled an old shampoo bottle with something noxious.
22 December, 2006
What part of 'no' is problematic?
I've just received a mass-mailed e-mail from a certain cut-price airline, 'kindly' informing me I'm currently opted out of their mass-mailings.
13 December, 2006
I'm a little surprised to be ahead of the cutting edge* of fashion, but the Guardian suggests that the next big thing will be beards.
Though I've had one for about six years, I don't actually like beards very much (somehow my mental self-image doesn't include one): I'm not pro-beards, I'm anti-shaving. The aging effect of daily skin irritation can go without saying, but shaving just takes too long for me. As the article claims, the average man will spend six months of his life simply removing hair from his face. What a waste.
I'm obviously unfamiliar with modern shaving technology, so I hadn't realised that electric shavers are unpopular and being rendered obsolete by the latest generation of wet razors. The five-blade type (I thought those adverts were just spoofs...) allegedly cuts away hairs beneath the surface of the skin. Ew.
Why not try a beard? The enforced absence from work at the end of December might be a good time to experiment. It is best done in one's private time, as the period of growing one in can look scruffy and it has to be said that not everyone can grow a full beard – I doubt I could have done so before my mid-twenties and it's still slightly thin at the sides. There's little worse than studenty wisps, so be sure before you go out in public!
Incidentally, women should know that though stubble can be uncomfortable, the longer hairs of a proper beard are said to be much more pleasant. ;)
*: No. Don't say it.
30 November, 2006
The gospel according to Carol
A neighbour¹ tells me that I have a moral duty to put up christmas decorations, because "the bible tells us to 'deck the halls'".
Yea, and verily: 'fa-la-la-la-la, la-la la la'.
¹: Or maybe just a random² man in the street.
²: Very random.
27 November, 2006
I've just printed-off an e-mail from MS Outlook, and it's appeared as two pages. The only thing on the second sheet is a page number – if the pages hadn't been numbered, it would have fitted onto one sheet, which wouldn't have needed to be numbered.
It was an e-mail from the Psychology department, so one has to wonder whether this was pure chance, a standard Outlook annoyance, or someone playing games....
23 November, 2006
Tough on the causes of light
The Lune Millennium Park, the cycle path following the river from Lancaster to Caton, is lit at night, not only in the built-up areas but even in the remoter rural sections.
A Caton resident has written to 'The Citizen' to complain that the 'street' lights are now left on all night rather than being switched off at 22:00 as originally planned (later extended to midnight).
In principle, I agree with her argument that it's a waste of electricity, though I don't really see the point of complaining via the 'Letters' page. Is she trying to shame the City Council, or merely self-publicising? It's a radical suggestion, but I wonder whether she's considered contacting, say, the Council.
However, the end of her letter really caught my attention:
..., the Council should switch off the lights at 10pm when decent folks should no longer be using it.
'Decent folks', eh? Something tells me she's in favour of ID cards too. After all, decent
folks will have nothing to hide, eh?
People have the right to walk, cycle or ride horses along the route at any time of the day or night (so long as they provide their own light). There's no curfew, and moral guardians who'd like all compliant little sheep to be tucked up in bed by 22:00 can go **** themselves. With the lights off.
22 November, 2006
When friends are planning to stage a sex show, why am I the only person to consider public liability insurance?
14 November, 2006
Did you know that UK legislation already exists to prevent food manufacturers and retailers using excessive¹ packaging?
The Guardian mentions this almost as an afterthought in an article reporting environment minister Ben Bradshaw's sensationalist advice that supermarket customers should remove superfluous packaging from the goods they've purchased and leave it at the checkout.
Attention-grabbing, but somewhat confrontational, even childish. Action needs to be taken at-source, not after purchase, and though it's important for consumers to inform retailers that they (we) don't want pointless shiny wrappers² , I don't think stunts are especially helpful.
Another interesting throwaway (sorry) statistic in the article is that since introducing a rewards scheme Tesco claim that customers take 10 million fewer carrier bags each week. Imagine how many were being given out before, and how many still are.
¹: Define 'excessive'. There's the loophole.
²: You know what I mean, H....
8 November, 2006
You're not in the book
If your phone number was erroneously listed as that of a small commercial company, and you were receiving their calls, what would you do?
It seems that a private number was published on a website (to which I have editing access, but not daily fact-checking responsibility) as an alternative number for one of the businesses on campus; let's call it the hairdresser. Most callers dialed the main, correct number, but some must have used the incorrect one.
Hypothetically, after receiving a few misdirected calls I'd have rung the company myself and let them investigate the error, but that didn't actually happen. The owner of the incorrectly-listed number started issuing fake appointments....
18 October, 2006
M. tells me that in addition to placements, oral presentations and typed coursework projects, his Executive MBA involves a few written exams, which do have to be handwritten. It seems obvious now it's mentioned, but computers aren't allowed by University regulations, even for 'open-book' exams.
I seriously doubt I could do that any more. Holding a pen long enough to write a birthday card or a cheque is enough to cause me mild discomfort, but three hours of rapid, continuous writing? Barely conceivable.
Thirteen years ago, when I sat something like a dozen three-hour papers for my Finals, writing by hand was totally routine, but now I'd literally have to train for the event.
And, as the title implies, the result might be barely legible. Even I can't read my 'joined-up' handwriting any more; notes to myself need to be in capitals.
15 October, 2006
Some people visit pubs to get drunk. Others attend for the conversations. Fortunately or otherwise, drinking orange juice allows one to remember the unresolved topics.
Why is the last shot in a whisky bottle termed the 'heel tap'?
It isn't. The term refers to a small amount left in a glass after a toast, and which must be consumed before the next toast can proceed.
It comes from pre-17th Century shoemakers' (cobblers!) terminology: a peg removed as the final stage in assembling a shoe's heel.
Do most men find women's boots sexy? What is it about them?
I remember reading somewhere that of those men admitting to an overt fetish, most were drawn to female shoes. Amongst those of us less obsessed, I suspect a majority find them attractive, even titilating, though I'd be reluctant to speak for the general population, obviously.
Why are they considered sexy? I'm sure a specific psychological explanation exists, but I'm not aware of it. Speculating wildly, it could be that they combine a number of characteristics individually considered 'interesting' - heels, leather, laces, etc.
Who was the vicar of Lowgill, near Bentham, in the 1970s?
Technically it's Tatham Fell Church of the Good Shepherd rather than Lowgill Church, but beyond that, I'm struggling.
Why is the bar in 'The Britannia', Freehold, Lancaster so large?
It certainly seemed to be an anomalously large, bare space tonight, looking underpopulated even though the actual number of customers was probably respectable.
I'd guess that it was purpose-built as an events venue when the Freehold estate was first laid-out in the mid-19th Century. There are two other pubs in the locality, but they're literally public houses: drinking venues no larger than the neighbouring residences, unsuitable for meetings or dancing. Just a guess.
13 October, 2006
Shrink to fit
There was a time when innovation in electronics was all about miniaturisation.
So why are photocopiers still so huge, and apparently growing? The brand new one in Uni admin is too big for even the dedicated copier room, and has had to be installed in the corridor.
5 October, 2006
The skin on my hands occasionally hardens and painfully cracks; it's a variety of contact dermatitis or eczema. Hence, I keep a tube of moisturiser on my desk, currently Nivea Intensive Moisturising Creme 'for smooth and supple skin' *.
The plastic of the tube seems to have perished: it's become dry and brittle, and it cracked when squeezed. Great advert, eh?
*: shouldn't that be 'for dry skin', anyway? If I had smooth & supple skin I wouldn't need moisturiser.
26 September, 2006
Another fine mess
One of the wonderful things about publishing a blog is that one can share wisdom, hard-won though decades of life experience. It can be deeply satisfying to know that someone may benefit from knowing how I managed in a difficult situation; learning from my mistakes, even.
A prime example: if, like me, you have long hair, ensure it's out of the way before blowing your nose.
8 September, 2006
Packaging the curate's egg
Sainsbury's has announced an intention to switch from plastic to compostable packaging. Good news, in principle, but I'm going to be ungrateful* and focus on flaws in the scheme.
Firstly, the initial launch only affects niche products: ready meals (which I don't buy) and organic produce (which I certainly don't buy).
The former is a sector using excessive packaging anyway – it's good that the excess will be biodegradable, but it'd be drastically better to reduce the absolute amount of packaging instead.
The latter is somewhat patronising, as if sensible packaging is only an issue for the 'right-on' Tarquins & Cressidas who buy organic. Recycling and related matters are for everyone, and all classes (in multiple senses of the word) of product.
Besides, most vegetables come with integral packaging: their skins. Any artificial packaging is superfluous in such cases, biodegradable or otherwise. I've seen instances when products, perfectly protected by their natural outer coating, have been sold on polystyrene trays under cellophane simply to label vegetables as organic and somehow of 'premium' quality.
*: 'Ungrateful' is the wrong word – I don't owe a supermarket chain gratitude – but I can't think of a better one.
30 August, 2006
Readdressing door-to-door junk mail
A day is a long time in ad-fighting. Here are a couple of additional points and updates to yesterday's entry about opting-out of unaddressed junk mail delivered by the Royal Mail.
The company has restricted the opt-out routes. As I discovered yesterday, the e-mail address auto-responds with an attempt to dissuade the recipient, plus a form to print, complete and return by post – not by e-mail. The stated phone number has also stopped accepting calls.
Hence, follow yesterday's instructions to opt-out by post, remembering to state that you understand and accept the consequences. It'll cost you a postage stamp (which I rather resent – one shouldn't have to pay the Royal Mail to complain about the Royal Mail), but hopefully it'll cost them rather more in lost revenue as advertisers realise the target audience is declining.
Unlike the DMA's Mailing Preference Service opt-out from personally-addressed junk mail, the Royal Mail Door to Door opt-out only lasts for one year. Grrr.... Remember to repeat the process next year.
That mightn't be necessary, as the DMA is working on something more permanent, apparently. Mention of the Government's COI in that article implies that it might be possible to avoid commercial junk whilst still receiving official information leaflets.
On the whole, I'm not as hostile to the Royal Mail as these entries might suggest, but I approach all unsolicited communications with zero-tolerence – I'd kick a fluffy little kitten if it tried to deliver a leaflet, sp*m e-mail or banner ad, never mind a multinational postal company. A sp*mmer is a sp*mmer.
29 August, 2006
Addressing door-to-door junk mail
I'd like to think that anyone reading this in the UK will already be aware that it's possible to opt-out of receiving personally-addressed yet unsolicited commercial mail, by registering with the Mailing Preference Service (and associated phone & fax services). However, that still leaves all the unaddressed junk mail.
There's not much one can do about leaflets hand-delivered by the companies themselves, but I've discovered that it is entirely possible to avoid the unaddressed items delivered door-to-door by Royal Mail postmen. The Royal Mail remains legally obliged to deliver anything addressed to 'The Occupier', but the opt-out still covers quite a lot (about a quarter of all unaddressed junk mail, apparently).
Needless to say, the Royal Mail is paid to deliver leaflets door-to-door, so doesn't exactly advertise that the opt-out exists. I discovered it via a BBC report about a postman who produced his own advisory leaflet and delivered it to households on his rounds. Well done, Roger Annies, even if your bosses' response was to suspend you for misconduct.
The opt-out procedure itself is extremely straightforward. Simply write to the following address, stating your name, address (including postcode) and that you are asking the Royal Mail to cease delivery of Door to Door mail (that's their specific name for the service) to your address. Remember to sign and date your request.
Door to Door Opt Outs
Royal Mail Door to Door
Alternatively, send the same details in an e-mail to:
08457 950 950.
[See updates, below, and follow-up, here. Sending an e-mail will get you a printable confirmation form, which needs to be returned by post. I suspect a phone call would have had the same result, but the line has been closed.]
The BBC claims one has to complete a form, but the staff of my local post office knew nothing about that. Luckily, the postmaster is a reader of the Daily Mail (he seems quite rational otherwise) and told me that there was a form in today's 'newspaper'. I bought a copy (I hope you appreciate the sacrifice), but discovered that the Mail had composed its own form rather than duplicating something 'official', so a normal letter, e-mail or phone call should be entirely adequate.
A Royal Mail spokesman, quoted in the BBC article:
"Royal Mail's future depends on competing effectively in all parts of the market and that includes unaddressed mail, a service which is used by a great many firms and people, whose businesses depend on it."
If, like me, you don't give a **** about the Royal Mail's future viability as a sp*mmer, opt-out today.
[Update 16:37: The Royal Mail responded to my opt-out e-mail within 30 minutes, which was impressive in itself, but the message was a clarification and/or attempt to dissuade me.
No, I'm not "considering 'Opting Out' of receiving Door to Door items", I am opting-out.
The points they wished to bring to my attention are:
- This opt-out only relates to unaddressed mail. Items addressed to a specific name, to 'The Occupier' or to any other generic recipient will still be delivered, by law.
- It's not possible for the Royal Mail to distinguish between commercial advertising material and official communications from Central/Local Government & other public bodies [at present – see follow-up]. Opting out from Royal Mail Door to Door stops all unaddressed items.
- Self-evidently, the opt-out will affect all residents of the designated address – do they agree with this action?
These are all fine with me, so I returned the enclosed form by e-mail.
- The clarification e-mail came from an address which doesn't accept replies. Cunning....
Don't simply hit 'Reply:', but change the 'To:' address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I suspect that they're not going to accept my e-mailed reply, as the form seemed intended to be printed, signed and posted (in an envelope – remember them?). I object to paying the Royal Mail to transport my message to the Royal Mail, so sent the e-mail anyway. I'll let you know if it's rejected.
I presume that if you write or ring
to opt-out, the Royal Mail will want to send you a 'clarification' too. You might be able to short-circuit the process by stating in your initial communication that you "understand the implications of opting-out of receiving deliveries of Royal Mail unaddressed 'Door to Door' items to your address"
, and that you "understand that you may miss important information from local, national or government publications that are sent using this service."
[Update 17:01: I was right. Sending the completed form to that e-mail address resulted in my receiving the same generic response and a blank, printable form. Might as well just send a letter in the first place.]
23 August, 2006
"We're the little fish in [market sector], and have to find our feet."
You'd have been proud of me: I didn't even blink.
17 August, 2006
This morning's post brought an invitation for my boss to attend a reception at the House of Commons, London. Unfortunately, the deadline for accepting/declining was in mid-July.
And this was from a publishing company – if they can't produce and distribute their own communications in time, can they be trusted to get it right for clients?
15 August, 2006
Think for a moment
Of those people who somehow mistake this for the website of a UK government department (The UK hasn't had a 'Ministry of Information' since 1946), a surprising number ask me to verify whether the e-mails they've received, saying they'd won the UK National Lottery, are genuine.
The big question is the simplest: did you buy a ticket?
No? Then how the **** could you have won?
Maybe some countries' national lotteries work by randomly selecting members of the population (I doubt it, but maybe); but surely that'd be based on census data or otherwise limited to citizens/residents of that nation. What are the odds of, say, a US citizen being randomly selected as winner of, say, the Bulgarian National Lottery? How would the organisers have obtained that person's name and address? Would they have entered the entire US population in the Bulgarian draw? Why?
To be clear – here are a couple of points paraphrased from the official UK Lottery FAQ & rules:
- If you didn't purchase a ticket, you couldn't have won.
- It's not necessary to be a British citizen, but you do need to have been in the country in order to participate. To have bought a ticket in person you would have had to have been in the UK. To have subscribed via the web you would have had to provide a UK address (thereby proving residence in the UK) and paid using a UK bank account.
Therefore, if you haven't visited the UK recently, it's somewhat improbable that you have a winning ticket.
Another point, about which I'm not certain: so far as I know, the Lottery organisers don't contact winners, it's for the winners to contact the organisers. I do know that millions of pounds of prizes have gone unclaimed since the Lottery was founded in 1994.
Another clue is that if the 'notification' e-mail asks for money to process the claim, it's a scam – the UK National Lottery doesn't do that.
4 August, 2006
Well done, Tesco
Some supermarkets* have made efforts to discourage the use of one-use plastic carrier bags, but Tesco has introduced a scheme to positively incentivise reuse.
Many customers use loyalty cards to collect points as they shop, to be subsequently redeemed for money off future purchases. The plan, nicely obvious in hindsight, is to award additional points for each bag the customer provides, including Tesco bags reused from last time.
I'd also support the reverse, 'stick' model, whereby retailers charge for bags, but credit is due to Tesco for a 'carrot' measure which not only saves resources but also makes the customer feel good about helping – very important.
*: An exception would be Sainsbury's, who briefly offered a similar, cash-based, money-back scheme but inexplicably withdrew it last year.
31 July, 2006
When requesting a prospectus from a UK university, it's not strictly necessary to add four 'x' kisses after your name. Admission tutors might get the wrong idea.
30 July, 2006
Our representatives abroad
Wandering around the centres of national capitals, one tends to pass the embassies of other countries. Naturally, one tends to look at them, considering their architecture and what each says about the resident nation's prominence and attitude to the wider world.
In many cases, embassies occupy old palaces or 18th-19th Century office buildings; often, a flag or brass plaque is the only feature distinguishing an embassy from a corporate headquarters or apartment block. Prague springs to mind: In June 2005, I thought certain South-American and Baltic embassies looked particularly anonymous. The French and Italian Embassies were slightly grander, but still, there were no visible guards and one could approach the front doors. The Polish Embassy is a detached building surrounded by a fence, but the gates and the gardens were open to the public. The British Embassy is an exception, a modern vehicle barrier clashing with the older façade. The US Embassy is further out from the centre, so I only saw it from a bus: elegant enough, but behind a large fence.
The Diplomatic Quarter of Berlin is relatively well-known, possibly because many of the embassies were purpose-built afresh after 1945/1990 rather than occupying older, repurposed premises. Unfortunately, I didn't get an opportunity to wander the streets there last week, but I did notice the Scandinavian compound: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland have combined their embassies into one complex. The surrounding decorative fence/cladding is probably stronger than it looks, but the overall impression is of inclusivity.
Of the postwar Occupying Powers, the Russian Embassy is in Unter den Linden, the main street of the historical city. It's slightly set back from the road behind a walled courtyard, but there are no visible guards. The French Embassy is in a corner of Pariser Platz, diagonally opposite the Brandenburg Gate. A policeman is stationed outside, but until I saw the flag on the building, I thought he was watching over the tourists rather than the embassy.
The British Embassy is in Wilhelmstraße; with the Hotel Adlon, it accounts for one side of an entire block. At each end of this section of the street, at the junctions with Unter den Linden and Behrenstraße, the road is closed by modern-looking retractable bollards, each about the diameter of an oildrum. At the northern end of the street, there's a vehicle checkpoint staffed by at least five police officers; there are two at the other end and two more on the street itself. And this is the adjacent street, not the embassy itself, which is plainly custom-built as a fortress. Look past the 'fun' exterior and you'll notice there are no windows until the third floor, and that the front entrance is behind a 4m high metal gate & reinforced stone wall.
The USA is building a massive new embassy on the corner of Pariser Platz and Ebertstraße, right by the Brandenburg Gate. No doubt it'll be fortified to the same extent as the British one (in the next street – I wonder whether there'll be a common back entrance), but temporarily the US Embassy is in Neustädtische Kirchstraße, behind four emphatically non-retractable concrete roadblocks, a sixties-style vehicle checkpoint and a huge amount of wire. In a city physically divided from 1961 to 1989, the effect is somewhat tasteless.
Shouldn't one be grateful, even proud, that one's home country takes such exceptional and ostentatiously visible care of its premises and people?
Absolutely not. These defences are the direct consequence of the UK butting-into situations where it had, and has, no business, unnecessarily putting the UK's more fundamental interests – the welfare of the British – at risk. I feel profoundly ashamed to be a citizen of a country which feels a need to turn its embassy into an intimidating vault.
Well, I would, if I believed 'my' government actually represented me.
20 July, 2006
From today's local paper:
Thieves stole a stealth mountain bike...
How does anyone know?
17 July, 2006
I spent much of today dressing Bowland College for tomorrow, Graduation Day*. This is the one occasion each year for which I escape the computer in order to arrange tables, chairs & windowboxes, fix the bar's spotlights, (re)hanging banners and, amongst other mundane yet novel tasks, inflate 200+ balloons.
New latex has a particularly persistant odour anyway, but can anyone identify the powder used on/in Mexican-manufactured balloons to prevent them sticking together? It smells vegetable-based rather than mineral, and really binds to the skin. Eight hours later, having washed dishes, cooked with chili peppers and showered, I can still clearly smell oddly sweetened latex on my hands.
It's not pleasant; I just hope it's safe. Is it just a variety of cornstarch? Perhaps I should wear rubber gloves to handle the balloons....
*: I spent the rest of the day struggling with the webcasts of other Colleges' Graduation ceremonies; the high- and low-bandwidth Real streams were fine, but the high-bandwidth Windows Media stream was formatted as low-bandwidth i.e. a tiny postage stamp of video in a decent-sized window. Ultimately, I don't know what happened, but it had better work for the remaining fourteen ceremonies this week.
[Update 18/07/06: Returning to work this morning, we discovered that none of that batch of balloons had retained enough helium to remain buoyant, so I had an excellent opportunity to refresh my perfume. Wonderful.
I also needed to move four 'park benches' which were repaired and creosoted... yesterday. I can't imagine how Estates thought they'd be dry and suitable for contact with peoples' very best clothes within 18 hours.]
16 July, 2006
A really good cup of tea
Put the kettle on. Take it off, as it doesn't suit you and that's an awful joke.
Start heating water.
Place a little sugar, preferably unrefined brown cane sugar, into a large mug.
Add a little full-fat milk (yes, always milk before water).
As soon as the water boils, pour it into the mug, still bubbling.
Wait 2-3 minutes.
Swirl, squeeze and remove the... where's the teabag?
Pour the sweetened milky water down the drain and start again.
Enjoy the second attempt even more.
12 July, 2006
It looks as if Amazon UK has covertly changed it's policy on adding items to customers' wishlists, which makes items look cheaper than they really are and discourages use of the free postage facility. Don't be caught out!
As an example, Thom Yorke's new don't-call-it-a-solo album, 'The Eraser' costs £8.99 and is eligible for free delivery when in a combined order totalling more than £15. Adding it to my wishlist drops that to £7.41. Bargain!
Looking closer (i.e. only after having transferred it to the shopping basket) I notice that it'd be coming from Amazon Jersey, not Amazon UK itself, and hence isn't eligible for free delivery. Postage is £1.24, so the total price is £8.65; still cheaper than Amazon UK but bear with me for a moment....
If I want to buy Alain de Botton's book 'The Architecture of Happiness' at the same time, that costs a straightforward £10.78 plus £2.75 postage; Amazon Jersey doesn't sell it.
Bought together... well, I can't buy them together; Amazon treats them as two entirely purchases costing £8.65 and £13.53. Calculating the total for myself, that's £22.18.
Yet starting the whole process again, avoiding my wishlist and thereby specifying I want the CD from Amazon UK, I am able to combine the order, qualifying for free delivery and paying £19.77.
Sometimes buying two separate items from Amazon Jersey can be cheaper than a combined order from Amazon UK (a sample purchase of a DVD and a CD I won't bother to itemise would have saved 14p), but I want to make two points:
- Buying from Amazon Jersey should be an option for those who want it, but one should have to consciously choose it, rather than it being the unstated default.
- It should be made clear, up front, that one would be buying from Amazon Jersey, and potentially paying more than necessary, if one uses the wishlist.
4 July, 2006
I wonder if I'll ever become fully accustomed to the mobile phone culture.
Lying in the garden this evening, finishing 'Century Rain' *, I noticed someone nearby was talking on her phone whilst sunbathing. I suppose it's as valid a use of time as any, though I personally wouldn't have found it entirely compatible with relaxation.
Yet I also saw two people kicking a football about whilst using their phones (and men can't multitask, supposedly). I presume they weren't talking to one another.
Do people never put the things away?
*: Which turned out to be pretty good. I'm sure I'll try other books by Alistair Reynolds fairly soon.
3 July, 2006
There's a sign downstairs, directing delegates to a conference on 'aging parents'.
I understand soaking them in tea and crumpling their edges is a good technique. Or is that aging documents?
25 June, 2006
I was very nearly gratuitously rude to a stranger last night.
Two things you need to know: I dislike prog rock, reserving especial loathing for Yes, and I don't believe in expressing opinions from the protection of online anonymity that I wouldn't defend face-to-face.
I'm not exactly reticent in explaining that whilst I enjoy progressive rock (i.e. music which actively challenges genre boundaries, creating new music) I intensely dislike 'prog' rock (music of a specific, fixed genre which was genuinely progressive in the early 1970s but which ceased to progress). 'Progressive' and 'prog' are not the same thing.
There are bands I like which were part of the 'prog' genre when it was progressive, but which remained progressive and hence ceased to be 'prog'. There are also bands that stayed 'prog' and became a public and critical laughing stock – rightfully so. Unfortunately, that reputation unduly rubbed-off on the bands I do like. Hence my conclusion: that if crappy bands like Yes had never existed, bands I do like, such as Jethro Tull, would have achieved greater lasting critical and commercial success. Yes is an anathema.
All too often, I've witnessed, and occasionally been the target of, unrestrained verbal attacks of a cowardly savagery only possible because the arguments were online and the speakers had the protection of being thousands of kilometres from their victims. They tend to involve personal attacks, too, which are merely nasty and pointless.
Not that I'd be so childish anyway, but I operate under the basic principle of imagining I'm writing to someone in the same room. Debate might become heated, but it remains respectful and avoids the risk of being punched. To uncharacteristically use a football reference: 'Go for the ball, not the man'. As I said above, I also try to avoid making wild points online that I wouldn't feel able to support in a face-to-face conversation. I'm not perfect (no, really), but I generally achieve reasonable self-censorship.
I visited J & Fi for a meal last night (J remembered to cook – last time we ended up ordering a takeaway. Not that I'm complaining, and I rely on J recognising teasing!). They recently befriended one of their neighbours, and he joined us for dinner. In the course of the conversation, the subject of musical taste arose, and for some reason J. prompted me to confess a liking for 'Scandinavian prog'. Puzzled, I admitted slight embarrassment that there was a time when I quite liked the Flower Kings, but that they'd since joined my general dislike of the crap they were copying, such as Yes.
The neighbour had been sitting leant over the kitchen table, but at this point sat back, revealing a Yes t-shirt....
I could have backed off, and attempted to say something conciliatory for the sake of politeness. Actually, I couldn't; I can't think of anything favourable about Yes whatsoever.
Sticking to my principles, I could have elaborated on my dislike in full, with vitriol. For a moment I seriously considered it. However, that would have been unprovoked and unnecessarily rude. Being prepared to defend a position is one thing, but forcing a view on someone uninvited is ruder.
I was glad to find that in the split-second of finding myself in a situation where I might have to espouse a contentious online opinion 'in real life' (i.e. tell a Yes fan I wished his favourite band had never existed), I had the courage of conviction to do so. However, I was more glad that my natural reserve intervened, and I didn't instigate an avoidable argument.
I simply said "Ah. Right. I don't like Yes." and changed the subject. To my dislike of post-1995 Jethro Tull. But that is indeed a different topic.
23 June, 2006
What's on tonight?
Occasionally, BBC3's endless repeats can be useful.
I missed 'Doctor Who' a fortnight ago, as I was in Madrid. I was still there during the Sunday repeat. I even managed to miss the Friday repeat, shown whilst I was on the train back from Bath.
Yet I didn't miss it altogether: I've just watched yet another repeat, a full fortnight late.
Some might complain about this use of the licence fee....
27 May, 2006
Innovative utility bills
Thrilling subject, eh? Okay, okay; I'll keep it brief.
My father tells me that electricity bills in Norway now include a bar graph allowing one to compare current household usage to that from the same period last year. I think it's a great idea which would certainly encourage me to minimise usage.
I suppose this'd be easier to implement in a nation with a population of 4 million than one with a population of 60 million, but that's what computers are for, and I hope this reaches the UK some time.
Preferably soon - it took about a decade for 'chip-and-pin' debit cards to cross the North Sea....
24 May, 2006
It's surprising what one finds irritating.
Twice within the last month I've heard people describe shaggy reddish-brown cows with long horns as 'Aberdeen Angus'.
That's totally incorrect; the Aberdeen Angus is an entirely different, short-haired breed, and the more photogenic breed is simply called 'Highland Cattle'.
22 May, 2006
Last night, I had the appalling suspicion that I'm older than Doctor Who – well, David Tennant, anyway. That'd be quite a life landmark.
Thankfully, I'm not: Tennant is seven months older than me.
21 May, 2006
Remember getting lost as a child, temporarily mislaying your parents when they inconsiderately wandered-off? I still have a clear memory of suddenly being alone in the EPA supermarket in Stavanger, Norway, aged seven. It was near the shoes aisle. I think the first time I was announced over a PA system was in Chester's BHS branch. Ah; memories.
Now some busybody has devised ID bracelets for children – not invasive ID cards, but simply colourful bands noting the parents' mobile phone numbers. Where's the fun in that? Are future generations to be deprived of essential formative experiences?
Joking aside, it's a nice, simple idea. Pity about the way it's being sold, though:
Allowing children the freedom to explore, learn and develop, providing the child with the opportunity to let their intellect grow through self discovery.
A veritable thesaurus of buzzwords, and about as grammatical.
21 May, 2006
Isn't it odd that in 2006 British taxis are still called 'hackney carriages'? That's not a slang term, it's official, presumably the result of antiquated wording in the regulating legislation, and appears in inch-high letters on the doors of all City-registered taxis* in Lancaster.
Maybe it's an urban myth, but doesn't each London 'black cab' still have to carry a certain quantity of straw, nominally for the horse?
Incidentally, 'hackney' referred to the horse, not the London borough!
*: The variety permitted to pick up passengers in the street or from taxi ranks, anyway. The term 'hackney carriages' distinguishes them from 'minicabs', which must be prebooked by phone. A minicab driver who accepts passengers without a booking would be breaking the law, so don't necessarily criticise a driver who seems to ignore you and drives past – if the sign on the taxi roof only displays a phone number, it's a minicab.
16 May, 2006
I'm currently trying to book a hotel room in Madrid. Herself has left things a little late (we're supposed to be going next week...), so the obvious choices are fully booked. The remaining hotels are those which have resorted to promotional text worthy of an estate agent.
One highlight: "This attractive city hotel is located just 500 m from the centre of [an entirely different town]." It's 50 km from Madrid airport, itself not exactly within walking distance of the city centre.
Another hotel "is located around 3 km from the nearest lake". What?
15 May, 2006
You use what?
Surprisingly enough, I don't write scripts for Tim at 'Ctrl+Alt+Del'. Honest.
11 May, 2006
Live for today
Last night, my sister told me that though she was considering buying a mp3 player, she probably won't, as such devices mightn't catch-on, and/or might be superceded by some other technology. Seriously.
I think she's wrong, of course. How can anyone doubt that mp3 players have 'caught-on' already? I know surgeons can be a little other-worldly, locked away in their theatres, but c'mon!
Secondly, even if some other format does replace .mp3 eventually, I'm confident that it'll be digital rather than something physical like a disc, tape or card. Whatever the software format, it'll need a storage medium and playback interface... such as a repurposed mp3 player.
More fundamentally, I'm puzzled by her 'wait-and-see' attitude. It's a little like delaying buying a VCR in the 1980s because DVDs would replace them in the 1990s. Why not buy now, and enjoy a player while it lasts? It's unlikely to become totally obsolete within its reasonable mechanical lifetime anyway, so this is a non-issue.
Then again, I suppose a mp3 player would be a considerable financial investment for someone on a surgeon's salary. Yeah, right.
9 May, 2006
For reasons I needn't explain, I bought a rolling pin yesterday evening. When I got home, I read the label, to find out how to remove the label (nice paradox, eh?).
It wasn't much help, but I did notice that I'd bought a 'Rolling Pin – For Home'.
As opposed to what? Was a different, industrial-strength rolling pin also available if I'd looked more carefully? Is there something about a cylinder of finest, sustainably-harvested Polish wood that's optimised for use in private, but which breaches workplace health & safety regulations? Is there a special rolling pin for use away from the home – a telescopic one for camping, perhaps?
4 May, 2006
It seems that the BBC is to introduce a TV quiz show based on the premise that English punctuation, a topic presumably including grammar, is deteriorating. I'm sure they'll make it a little more thrilling than that sounds.
However, some indication of the seriousness with which the BBC regards the issue is provided by the fact that the quiz is to be presented by Julian Fellowes, an actor with a slightly pompous, slightly precious manner, who tends to be associated with emotionally sterile dramas set in a 1920s & 30s Middle England that never really existed. I can't avoid the expectation that the prejudice to be reinforced is that proper use of the language is a whimsical, antiquated concept, as relevant to modern society as an ability to conjugate Latin verbs.
If it at least raises awareness, I suppose that's something, but I just hope the topic isn't actively ridiculed.
Not that English is a static, dead language, of course. Coincidentally, whilst writing this entry, I noticed an article in the Guardian about the evolution of usage. Bizarrely, the first paragraph blames the 'internet culture' for inaccuracies, but it's only a conduit, one of several by which people communicate – the medium doesn't necessarily determine the message.
30 April, 2006
I'm not into caravanning*. My parents had a touring caravan (I think it'd be more accurate to say it was my father's, in hindsight), and I have a fairly clear memory of sitting in it on Anglesey in 1978 whilst my father explained we'd have to cut the holiday short as he'd obtained work in Norway. Again in hindsight, that was a life-changing event – nothing was the same from then on.
Throughout my teens, family holidays were taken in static caravans in the same location in North-west Wales, but I haven't been in a touring caravan since the age of about seven.
All of which is to make the point that I'm not necessarily abreast of recent developments in caravanning. I saw something whilst cycling today that was new to me, but may have been established years ago: flags. I don't mean little triangular pennants, but full-size rectangular flags, on (telescopic?) flagpoles.
I know that national flags are a prominent part of the culture in countries such as the USA and Norway, but one of the things I quite like about the UK is that we don't feel a need to visibly affirm or celebrate nationhood. It's just... not done. Not doing so is part of what makes the British British.
Flags fly from churches and town halls sometimes (not routinely), and people wave flags at royal occasions. The flag is prominent at sporting events, but I'd say garments in the appropriate colours tend to outnumber actual flags. Schools don't display the national flag, and it's rare to see one flying from a private house or garden.
So where have these caravan flags come from? What inspires someone to travel to a different part of the UK and visibly proclaim his/her Britishness (or, rather worse, Englishness), especially when he/she doesn't do so at home?
I wonder if it's that people feel less inhibited about making such a gesture amongst strangers than in front of their everyday neighbours. In which case, I suppose it's only a matter of time before the inhibition is defeated and flagpoles appear in gardens. Which I definitely wouldn't applaud.
That's not answering my question, though: never mind how this might develop, what inspired it in the first place?
I wonder whether it's significant that it's associated with caravanning – would those people who go camping, or those who visit hotels, have the same attitude to flags?
*: Yes, 'caravanning' is a word, though somehow one feels it shouldn't be....
25 April, 2006
Cycling and walking in the Lake District at the weekend, I was impressed by the amount of dead wood in the Coniston area. Though the National Park Authority, the National Trust and individual landowners do prune branches overhanging roads or otherwise causing hazards, the material is left to decompose in the immediate vicinity. Likewise, dead trees aren't routinely felled. This is immensely valuable to the semi-natural ecosystem (pity about the overgrazing), enriching the ground level of wooded areas and promoting true undergrowth.
Returning from work a few minutes ago, I passed two people leaving Williamson Park carrying sawn-off branches. It suddenly occurred to me that there's a major reason why rotting wood isn't left to enrich wooded areas in the city: as rapidly as City Council workers generate dead material through essential maintenance work, Lancaster's middle-class nouveau-hippies steal it for their wood burners. They probably even congratulate themselves on being Green.
25 April, 2006
Should treasure be hidden?
The major museums of most Western European nations (and the USA) contain numerous relics from other countries, typically as a result of wars and our colonial adventures. An article in the Guardian makes a useful contribution to the ongoing debate about whether to return artefacts to their source countries.
To summarise the central argument: there could be merit in making historical objects readily available to large numbers of people, with the full resources of modern curating and marketing, in places visited by large numbers of people ('world capitals'). At least in the examples cited by the article, the alternative is to display artefacts in underdeveloped and excessively exclusive museums in the countries which do indeed have the greater claim to ownership, but which aren't visited by anything like the same number of people.
My own (underinformed) opinion is that in most cases, the source countries have the most legitimate claim to ownership, but having acknowledged that, it'd be advantageous for those governments to make permanent loans to those nations best able to preserve and present key items. As the article says, the relics become ambassadors of their home nations, educating the world about those countries and potentially inspiring people to visit.
14 April, 2006
Perhaps I'm unaccustomed to the conventions of food labelling, but if 100g of Sainsbury's honey roast (surely that's 'roasted'?) Wiltshire ham contains:
- Protein: 21.8g
- Carbohydrate: 0.3g
- Fat: 8.9g
- Fibre: < 0.1g
- Salt: 2.8g
Then what's the remaining 66.1%? Minerals & vitamins? Phlogiston? Water?
Presumably the latter. The label says 'no added water', and that 111g of raw pork is used per 100g of finished product, but still, shouldn't the water content be stated?
It's not a big deal, and the quantity is entirely reasonable, but not specifying feels disingenuous, somehow.
Whatever; it tastes wonderful, especially after losing salt whilst cycling. Exactly what I needed!
11 April, 2006
Management term of the day
'Architect' as a verb:
Given that [x] is intended to be an interim solution only, it does not make sense to expend a lot of effort architecting it.
No. Just: no.
28 March, 2006
In an unfailingly positive article (pass the salt...), The Guardian reports that, according to the British Wind Energy Association (which, it has to be acknowledged, is likely to be biased):
Britain's wind energy is set to exceed expectations with 50% more wind farms powering British homes and industry by 2010 than predicted four years ago.
That'd be 6 GW; nearly 5% of the UK electricity supply and sufficient to meet the domestic demand of both London & Glasgow. It's also almost half of the government's renewable energy target.
If that's true and accurate, it's good news. On the whole, I support wind power generation, as part of a suite of technologies, emphatically including nuclear. I'm no Green, nor an extremist on either side of an unnecessarily emotive debate.
The main logical fallacy, exhibited by both sides, is absolutism: on one hand, that wind power generation isn't 'the answer' so shouldn't be pursued at all, and on the other, that wind power is always suitable and should be implemented everywhere it's technically viable.
No, wind power isn't the universal solution, and will never replace other generation techniques outright. Yet that's no reason to totally scrap wind farms and invest all resources in nuclear, or gas, or whatever. There needn't be one solution, and a mix of sources contributing to the overall result is entirely sensible.
It's a lot like speed cameras: the cameras alone won't catch uninsured or incompetent drivers (a common criticism), but whatever speed campaigners might claim, cameras aren't supposed to completely solve all aspects of road safety, they're merely one of several techniques that all need to be employed – it's not cameras or greater driver education, it's cameras and education, and policing issues, and other factors. Likewise: wind power generation and nuclear.
Conversely, there are situations where wind farms might be technically appropriate (i.e. windy locations) but socially unacceptable (i.e. especially beautiful locations or close to settlements) – I don't regard wind power generation as the ultimate good, overriding all other considerations.
I don't know the specific details, but it seems from the public enquiry that Whinash, near Kendal, was simply the wrong place for a large wind farm (though not for the reasons expressed by the anti-wind campaigners). However, that doesn't invalidate the very concept of wind farms, merely that specific proposal in that location.
So long as wind power is a rational choice supplementing other sources, I'm all for it. As soon as it becomes a moral or ethical issue, count me out.
23 March, 2006
DVD rental is dead; long live DVD rental
Though high street rental outlets such as Blockbuster deny it'll affect their viability, online services like Amazon's seem to be taking over the UK DVD rental business. Independent market research reported by the BBC suggests that shop-based companies are due to experience a sharp decline in their revenues.
Alistair MacRow, managing director of Blockbuster Online in the UK, insists that the online service will complement, rather than take business from, Blockbuster's physical stores.
"The online service is fantastic for major film watchers, but DVD rental is not a frequent habit for the vast majority of people who only rent a DVD about three times a year, and only make the decision within four hours of taking one out."
I'd have to question whether assumption of market inertia is the best basis for future planning in what is, I suspect, a growing sector. He may be right on his specific point, but I suspect the emphasis is wrong, and it's the high-street premises that'll supplement the core business: online rental.
Which, in my opinion, is a good thing.
17 March, 2006
Ha! The USA is apparently attempting to sell jet fighters to the UK, whilst retaining control of the operating software. I don't think so, and nor does the Ministry of Defence &ndash the deal's off unless the full source code is provided.
It's kind of scary that this would even be tried.
16 March, 2006
The motivations behind certain management decisions can sometimes be unexpected obvious. The print publications side of my department produces 54 subject-specific factsheets about the University, to be handed-out at presentations, enclosed with prospectuses and sent to enquirers.
Fifty-four are produced each year. Never 53, nor 55. If a new topic area arises, such as the provision of medical education, one has to be dropped.
Is this a carefully-conceived marketing strategy, the result of exhaustive focus group analysis? Nope. The magazine racks our reps take to HE fairs have 54 slots.
15 March, 2006
She doesn't have the same level of mainstream recognition, but it's arguable that Bettie Page had at least as much of an impact on post-1950s popular culture as Marilyn Monroe. Even if her name isn't familiar, the pin-up model's 'look' is, and has been massively influential. I could even use the word 'zeitgeist' in this context, but that'd be dangerously pretentious....
The LA Times, which credits her as having "helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s", provides an interesting article about her life. For example, it's paradoxical that the famous Irving Klaw bondage photos which cemented her fundamental role in fetish imagery are the only part of her modeling career she regrets, yet without them it's doubtful that she'd still be signing autographs at the age of 82.
14 March, 2006
No comment required
I've just encountered someone who believed a glockenspiel to be a breed of dog.
9 March, 2006
Shooting's too good for 'em
My ex-landlord's father farms pheasants for the Duke of Westminster, and I obviously don't mean for their eggs – the mature birds are released into the wild and subsequently shot for 'sport'. My personal opinion of that isn't relevant.
Point is, in preparing a few photos for publication, I noticed that the farm appears in the background of one image, so mentioned it in the accompanying text.
However, I've had second thoughts, and deleted that sentence. The risk that I might be inadvertently helping animal rights terrorists to target my friend's father (who also happens to be the father-in-law of a work colleague – Lancaster's a bit incestuous like that) is simply too great.
It's a pity I have to do that. ****ing nutters.
8 March, 2006
The naming experience
Our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for College, Staff and Student Affairs has been rebranded* as the 'Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Colleges and the Student Experience'.
At least it's not '... the Student Zone' or something else straining to be 'cool' and youth-orientated. Still, '...the [whatever] experience' is a hideous marketing cliché, aspirational yet empty, and to be avoided.
Why do I think the name was chosen by a management committee (i.e. amateurs dabbling in marketing) rather than the post-holder or real marketers?
They think they're web designers too, of course, and love flashing text. I wish I was joking.
*: And that's quite some branding iron.
5 March, 2006
Dr John Parkinson, politics lecturer at the University of York, makes an interesting argument for the retention of the House of Lords, the unelected 'second chamber' of the UK national government.
It's frequently suggested that the Lords should undergo fundamental reform, becoming an elected upper house, or should be abolished outright. Parkinson explains that this is the 'majoritarian' view of democracy
On this view, parties that win elections win a mandate to implement their manifesto promises without interference. Majoritarians think that anything else would be undemocratic: it would be to frustrate the free choice of the people.
Majoritarian doctrines about mandates are increasingly called into question. One reason for this is that elections give only general, all-things-considered judgments on a party's fitness to rule, not specific approval of particular policies.
Someone who voted for Labour for, say, their proposed reforms of the education system didn't automatically also support the presence of UK troops in Iraq.
An alternative approach is 'deliberative' democracy:
Deliberative democrats argue that legitimacy depends not so much on elections, more on the quality of arguments in inclusive, public debate. Ideas are good if they are publicly defensible, not just if the majority party in parliament believes they are.
Therefore, on the deliberative view, elections give parties the right to set the legislative agenda and command the loyalty of the public service, but not carte blanche.
Hence the role of a second chamber, able to scrutinise the government, oblige it to publicly defend its proposals, and to amend unjustified proposals. Parkinson suggests it's positively an advantage that those performing this function are not elected, neither having to conform to party ideology/pressure nor to please an electorate to retain their jobs.
This is a little idealistic, of course, and my perception is that the membership of the Lords is skewed towards particular world views.
In principle, I agree with Parkinson, that an unelected upper house has compelling advantages. However, I'm less convinced that the existing House Of Lords is that ideal upper house in practice.
Slightly tangentially, I'm afraid my cynicism pounced on the following statement:
The irony in all this is that a more deliberative, less majoritarian Britain is a stated goal of the present government.
Well, yes, that sounds extremely Blairite. "Of course there should be less of that annoying and trivial direct accountability to the people, okay, because we're right. Trust us; we'll look after you. Tony's never wrong, you know, and always has a heartfelt sense of the right thing to do. Go on; trust us. That's not a request."
28 February, 2006
Douglas Adams was right
As part of my 'Random Queries' thread ;) Neil links to an explanation of how to wear a shemagh (a Middle Eastern head wrap also popular with the British military). It's sad that looking 'Arabic' would be considered inadvisable in the current political situation, as I'd happily wear one for walking or cycling. It'd have to be a black one, of course.
The slightly creepy* Bellum.nu says that "Next to his rifle, knife and boots, the shemagh is probably one of the most useful pieces of equipment a soldier can have." In addition to protecting the head and neck from sun, snow, wind, sand and dust, the shemagh has many uses, including as a towel.
And, as any reader of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy' will know, everything's okay if you have your towel.
*: I'm not entirely comfortable about glorifying the military.
28 February, 2006
I'm not techie enough
..., I'm glad to say.
I've just received the following by e-mail:
"We will need to do a reccee to establish where an inject data point can be founding in Man School LT 1 for the coded output of the Osprey."
Eh? Is that supposed to mean something?
3 February, 2006
In a BBC article, bookmakers William Hill claim that the odds of willing the £125 million jackpot in today's EuroMillions lottery are 76 million to one; about the same odds as they're offering anyone who wishes to bet on the end of the world.
1 February, 2006
Print and be damned
In my view, the inseparable converse, even the corollary, of freedom of speech is the responsibility of self-censorship. One may have the right to say something, but one shouldn't deliberately and unproductively make a special effort to exercise it, knowing that it offends others, merely because one can.
Last September, a Danish newspaper offended Muslims by depicting Muhammad (at all, never mind caricatured as a terrorist) in cartoons. The issue grew and grew, to the point of affecting Danish national interests and even the personal safety of Nordic people visiting Islamic nations. Yesterday, the newspaper publicly apologised.
The BBC reports that a French newspaper republished the offending cartoons today, "to show that 'religious dogma' has no place in a secular society."
I suppose that in law, they have that right, but it's massively and unnecessarily disrespectful to exercise that right. It was a ****ing stupid thing to do, and the newspaper should take full responsibility for any consequences. I don't think it's overdramatic to expect that that might include violent deaths – all so some journalist can feel a frisson of self-righteousness about the freedom of the secular press.
One thing with which I do agree is that these are the actions of an independent press, not the responsibility of the Danish or French governments; I hope the distinction is remembered and the people of Denmark and France aren't blamed for the foolishness of individuals.
[Update 17:22: Bugger. That BBC article fails to mention that more newspapers, in Germany, Italy and Spain have republished the caricatures.]
[Update 02/02/06: The French newspaper, France Soir, subsequently apologised and sacked its managing editor "as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual".
It seems the Spanish and Italian papers only republished smaller versions of the cartoons in the context of reporting the story, which I do think is reasonable and not intended to offend.]
25 January, 2006
It seems my boss is organising a birthday party for her young daughter, as there's a stack of preprinted invitations on her desk, from a 'family pub' in Preston.
The invitations outline the pub's terms & conditions ('no sharp objects in the play area', etc.), a childrens meals menu, and a tear-off slip confirming parental permission for facepainting.
There's the expected disclaimer that facepainting isn't recommended for children under three years of age, but for some reason it's been phrased in reverse:
Facepainting is recommended for children aged three and over.
That's not quite
the same message, is it?
23 January, 2006
Less junk for Lancaster, please
I returned from work this evening to find a postcard from the Lancaster Recycling Forum (which I presume is a City Council project), inviting me to register with the Direct Marketing Association's Mailing Preference Service, and thereby opt out from 95% of UK mailing lists. The Recycling Forum takes the view that junk mail is a waste of paper rather than simply ****ing annoying, but it's great to see a proactive, citywide, stance taken against the direct marketing industry.
Needless to say, I'm already registered with the MPS, and have been for years. I'd encourage others to do the same, via the link provided above. The DMA enables one to opt out of fax and phone marketing, too.
21 January, 2006
While I'm on the subject:
The region encompassing North Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria is renowned for its dry stone walls: field boundaries constructed using irregular stones, typically cleared from the enclosed fields themselves, but no mortar.
Dry stone walls. They are not called 'stone hedges', okay?
I've encountered true 'stone hedges' (cloddiau) in North West Wales, but they're a very different thing: stone-faced earth banks, which become colonised by plants. Long-established vegetated embankments can look like ordinary, plant-only hedges, but one wouldn't want to crash into one!
In Cornwall, all such field boundaries, whether plant-only, stone-only or vegetated stone/soil embankments, are called 'hedges', but that's Cornwall, not Northern England.
Hopefully this'll clear up a few faulty search engine enquiries.
21 January, 2006
Didn't know that
Neil Gaiman informs (reminds?) the world that one of the words over-used by H.P. Lovecraft, 'Cyclopean' doesn't mean simply 'of giantlike proportions'. It refers to a prehistoric style of construction common in the eastern Mediterranean, in which huge, irregular boulders were carefully fitted together without the use of mortar.
Lovecraft probably meant 'ancient beyond recorded time', not merely 'big', though the latter applies too.
20 January, 2006
Designed to confuse, says pope
It's unusual for me to agree with the christian Church, never mind applaud it, but that's what I'm doing: the official Vatican newspaper has explicitly come out against 'intelligent design', acknowledging that it's not science and should not be taught in schools in the same context as evolution.
19 January, 2006
It's all there, alright
Sorting my childhood possessions a couple of weeks ago, I found this: 'Plantagenet Somerset Fry's Complete Book of Facts'.
I'm always grateful that my parents spent the extra for the deluxe edition; Mr. Fry's 'Incomplete Book of Facts' would have been rather frustrating.
"The longest river in Central Europe is... oh, that page is missing."
Seriously; wasn't it redundant to specify that the book is complete?
And doesn't 'Plantagenet Somerset Fry' sound like the sort of name a sp*mbot would generate?
19 January, 2006
Wear it with pride
I've tweaked my '100 Things' page (the nearest thing to an 'About Me' page I intend to offer) a little. A few weak or outdated items have been replaced (some still need work), but unfortunately, that's meant the removal of a link I still want to offer.
I had said:
I don't like male jewellery, and only wear an anorankh
pendant, only occasionally.
I haven't worn it since, well, probably around the time I wrote that, nearly two years ago.
However, I still like the very idea of the anorankh – buy yours today!
17 January, 2006
Work in progress
It's always amusing to watch students acquire their own individual fashion senses. For their first term at university, they're plainly dressed according to the sensibilities of their parents. Now, at the start of the second term, is the bizarre stage. Next term, or by the start of their second year, they will have conformed to the student 'uniform', just as conventional in its own way as anything their parents might have chosen.
Right now, though.... A few minutes ago I couldn't avoid noticing a girl wearing tights garishly decorated with molecular structures – circles and lines, anyway – combined with a tartan skirt and a stripey scarf: enough to give a chameleon seizures. I'd love to take a photograph, then present it to her 3-4 years from now.
16 January, 2006
Now will you try harder?
It's ungracious to say 'I told you so', but I did.
HMV and its subsidiary Waterstone's have reported the worst peak-season trading figures of any major UK high street retailer so far. HMV lost 9% of its sales in the 10 weeks to 7 January and Waterstone's lost 5%. The chief executive has resigned, citing a 'quantum leap' in online retailing, which he failed to predict. He also admitted underestimating the downloads sector. However, I suspect the latter reason is still missing the point: maybe there has been a partial shift from CDs to mp3s, but even within the CD/DVD sector, HMV simply sets it prices far too high, so is uncompetitive.
Coincidentally, I visited a branch of HMV on Saturday, but wasn't tempted to buy anything. Even the sale prices were little better than Amazon's usual full prices, and the same items as in the HMV sale are also in Amazon's, considerably cheaper again.
I was in Manchester anyway, but ordinarily it'd be reasonable to consider the transport cost of even getting to a high street store, compared to Amazon's free delivery to my doorstep.
See my earlier posting for my proposed solution. In summary: drop all prices, not in a one-off sale but as a permanent price realignment. Compete or close.
16 January, 2006
News rolling over
The Guardian reports that the UK's main 'rolling news' TV channels, BBC News 24 and Sky News, have abysmal market shares: the average News 24 viewer watches nine minutes per week, the same as a typical Sky News viewer sees of that channel. The suggestion is that web-based news reporting and presentation has rendered TV 'rolling news' obsolete.
The internet "... is faster, delivers instant depth and unrivalled interactivity". Additionally, and increasingly, the video content used by TV is simultaneously available to web editors. The only significant difference is presentational: a presenter sitting in a TV studio, speaking to a passive audience, and it seems the audience isn't listening. Conversely, web-based reporting can link through to supplementary material in a way even 'interactive' TV can't.
It's an interesting idea, though probably a little alarmist, but isn't to suggest that TV news itself is dead. Viewers still seem to value journalists' ability to analyse and contextualise current events rather than just report fragments of breaking news, and interviews with people of influence rather than merely uninformed eyewitnesses. Traditional news provision still has a role in these functions, though personally I think web-based news covers them too.
I scan the headlines at the BBC and Guardian websites, and read a few reports that catch my attention (though never editorials – I like the Guardian's reporting, but don't share its politics), but rarely watch TV news bulletins. However, I do acknowledge that TV has an advantage the web can't match: identifying unknown unknowns. Just occasionally, I watch Channel 4 News or Newsnight (very rarely the BBC1 News at Ten O'Clock and never ITV's News – that one's so dumbed-down it's offensive) and learn something new about a topic I wouldn't ordinarily have considered. One can't afford to get too insular, but user-led news provision on the web carries that risk.
11 January, 2006
Oi! Behave! (Not you, Tarquin)
Readers outside the UK mightn't be aware that the Prime Minister has launched 'the respect agenda'; in my view, the latest in a series of nebulous (vacuous?) government pseudo-initiatives intended to render the populace more compliant and to distract them from more important issues.
Whatever; the aspect I wish to highlight is one raised by Deborah Orr at the BBC website.
Contrary to the government's 'bottom-up' emphasis on policing an underclass, Orr sees a 'top-down' problem of the governing middle-class thinking they're somehow above social obligation. Those who have influence exploit it for personal benefit and to jump queues.
Outside a supervised playground at dusk recently, I watched as council workers, probably on very low wages, attempted to tell middle-class families that the playground had closed for the evening.
One by one the family groups demanded that an exception be made for them because they were special.
When dispensation was not forthcoming, two sets of pashmina-clad Kensington parents became angry and abusive in front of the children they claimed to be championing.
Orr's contention is that this becomes seen as the acceptable standard of behaviour, which trickles-down to the lower classes (a patronising concept, but probably fair), and that loutish behaviour is a symptom
of this, not the cause. Targeting 'chavs' won't eliminate the underlying selective morality.
There was a similar example in The Register last month: Bill Robinson bullied customer service reps ('troglodytes', in his words) until he'd jumped the 5-week queue to have Sky TV installed, then blamed Sky for his failure to meet the technical requirements (no phone line). He was rightly flamed to oblivion on the letters page the following week, primarily for his disregard for the queuing system.
Deborah Orr comes to much the same conclusion:
...putting others before yourself is despised as nothing less than eccentric and suspicious behaviour.
That's where the respect has gone.
Those who ought to know better, don't – to the awful extent that they're never happier than when blaming others for their own failings.
Isn't that precisely what I'm doing right now? I can't deny (somewhat distant) membership of a middle-class 'intelligentsia'. Aren't I being a bit hypocritical?
I don't believe so – I'm an individualist, but that doesn't mean I regard myself as 'special' or better than anyone else. I joke with H about 'the proles', but that is just a running joke (well, mainly...). I'm not reticent about asserting my right to space on the roads, etc., but I'm asserting equality, not superiority. I don't queue jump.
10 January, 2006
It really does. I can honestly say that correct grammar is second-nature to me, but as Sarah explains (in a more compelling manner than I could achieve), even if one finds grammar difficult, it is worth making the effort.
You don't have to know how to spell everything in the dictionary, and you don't have to have the serial-semicolon rule embroidered on a pillow, but if you have reached voting age in the United States, you need to know the basics of English usage, because if you don't, you look like an idiot. No, don't. Don't start with that "grammar Nazi" business. Don't get all "nobody gives a shit about that crap" and "it's so anal, who cares" and "well, you know what I mean." I give a shit about that crap. I know it's anal, but I care, and so do a lot of other people – people who respect you, but might respect you less when you dash off an email to the effect of "I'll meet you their"; people in a position to give you a job, who won't because you didn't proofread your cover letter....
Sarah even offers assistance with annoying common errors, though it's worth remembering she's working in American English, not English.
6 January, 2006
Couldn't resist it...
As an ex-employee points out, in objective terms, Apple is "a mid-sized company with a tiny share of its primary market... about the same size as Marks and Spencer in terms of annual sales." If a non-UK reader thinks 'Marks and who?', you get the point.
One of those firms is a leading UK retailer of pants. Which?
3 January, 2006
Funding the trough
I don't know how to interpret this, beyond being slightly repelled by the Guardian's gloating tone. To save people clicking the link immediately, the article reports that the Bush administration is not going to ask the US Congress to allocate further funding to reconstruction work in Iraq. The existing allocation ($18.4bn) will expire in 2007, leaving key Iraqi infrastructure projects far from complete.
I don't doubt that a proportion of these projects are to modernise and improve the pre-invasion infrastructure, and all credit to the USA for offering genuine assistance in re-establishing Iraq as a viable independent (well, sort-of) nation.
However, let's face it: a substantial amount of work is to repair damage caused by US armed forces – the US government is morally obliged to contribute to those costs.
There's another aspect: if the Bush administration* no longer feels able to pay for reconstruction, does that mean that US firms will cease to receive preferential access to engineering and resourcing contracts (c.f. Halliburton), allowing some of the profits to stay in Iraq? Yeah; right.
*: as opposed to the other branches of the US government, and indeed the USA itself – please don't misinterpret this entry as lazy anti-Americanism.
31 December, 2005
Screening out the provincial
Okay; I was wrong.
I've been critical of multiplex cinemas in the past, as being generally unpleasant and inferior to one-screen cinemas.
Morecambe's multiplex, the Apollo, has four screens, whilst the very traditional Regal in Lancaster has two and The Dukes has one. However, whilst The Dukes' is apparently the largest screen north of Manchester and the Regal's are of the standard size, the Apollo's are drastically smaller; from the usual viewing distance each is no more impressive than a large TV. The seats are uncomfortable and packed too close together, and the limited floor space is always sticky, presumably due to spilled popcorn and drinks. Even if they're not carelessly throwing refreshments around, multiplex audiences annoyingly rustle bags of sweets throughout films (a general question: silent packaging must exist – why don't cinemas use it?). I don't especially blame the people themselves, as their behaviour is a product of the environment. Stuffing oneself with empty calories is simply the done thing and I suspect that for some people popcorn is as integral to the cinema experience as whatever film happens to be showing.
In short, I prefer to wait for films to reach The Dukes (big screen, better seats, no food/soft drinks permitted), the Regal (reasonable screens, acceptable seats, minimal junk food-related disturbance) or failing that, to be released on DVD. Watching a film in a multiplex is very much the last resort.
Or so I thought.
It seems embarrassingly obvious now, but a multiplex in a dump like Morecambe is hardly a fair representation of the best that can be achieved, or even the baseline standard, back in civilisation. Last night, I saw 'The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe' at a real multiplex, in the Cheshire Oaks retail park, Ellesmere Port. It couldn't have been more different. There were eight cinemas, and perhaps we were in the largest (I doubt it), but the screen was full-sized, the seats were comfortable and well-spaced, and even sat slightly off to one side I experienced true surround sound (I don't know whether I ever have before). There was still a bit of audience rustling (heh), but somehow it wasn't too obtrusive.
The sole negative point was that admission cost almost double what I'd usually pay in Lancaster, though the experience wasn't doubly enjoyable i.e. I still prefer to see a film in the relatively austere Dukes for £3.50 than in the sumptuous Cheshire Oaks Vue for £6.45.
Whatever; I'm pleased to retract one of my prejudices!
24 December, 2005
I'll ride, thanks
My sister is also due to attend a workshop in Birmingham, then another in Edinburgh, so has been trawling obscure websites trying to book cheap flights.
A certain budget airline doesn't routinely operate seat allocation, but it is possible to book specific seats in advance (to guarantee a family will sit together, or similar). However, that costs £5 per person. £5!? I could understand a nominal admin fee (for, what, putting 'reserved' signs on the appropriate seats?) but when the cost of the flight itself, including taxes, is only £17, £5 seems punitive, even exploitative. Maybe that's the intention – deliberate discouragement.
Thing is, they'll carry bikes, for a surcharge of... £5.
24 December, 2005
Surgeons don't mess around. My sister is due to attend a workshop in Exeter in January, and this is the itinerary. I promise I haven't changed anything:
12 noon Shoulder dislocation
14:00 Muscle patterning
14:30 Examination of the shoulder
16:00 Shoulder ultrasound
After which I presume they all put their shoulders back in their sockets and head home....
17 December, 2005
Why is daylight so 'thin' at this time of year? I was in the Lune Valley today, and noticed that whilst objects in direct sunlight were brightly, even harshly, illuminated, anything out of direct sunlight was very deeply shadowed. The lee side of a typical hedge was downright dark.
The height of the sun is obviously rather important (at 54°N, five days from the winter Solstice, it's low in the sky even at midday), but there seems more to the quality of the light than that.
Could it be that in summer, atmospheric haze seems to diffuse the light and soften shadows, whereas the same haze in December merely blocks the weaker light?
Might the fact that solar radiation passes obliquely though more of the atmosphere than in summer affect the amount and spectral qualities of light reaching the ground?
5 December, 2005
Every time I see or hear that figure, I remember that it's the number of pathogens supposedly carried by the average housefly, 100 of them disease-causing. I don't know why, but that little fact seems to be embedded in my brain. It's like an contagion in itself.
Just thought I'd pass it on.
3 December, 2005
The European Hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus, is one of Britain's commonest wild mammals, and pretty much everyone in the country will have seen one, if only as roadkill. I nearly contributed to the statistics a couple of weeks ago, when a stone on the Scotch Quarry cyclepath suddenly strolled in front of my wheels (don't worry, I swerved). A few years ago, my father rescued several piggsvin from anti-bird netting protecting a neighbour's fruit trees in S.Norway and gave them food and shelter for a few hours to recover, but they were very much wild animals (I suppose I'd be a bit annoyed about being trapped, too).
The very ubiquity of the species might be skewing my perception, but I couldn't even conceive of a hedgehog being a caged house pet.
30 November, 2005
I don't want to sound too precious about the formality of universities, but there's a basic credibility issue in making an enquiry about required entry qualifications from the e-mail address 'email@example.com'.
[Address very slightly amended to protect the foolish.]
29 November, 2005
Another happy customer
I speak/read nine languages, but only 10-20 words in each (perhaps fifty or so in 2-3 of them, and rather more in English). In short, I don't think my language skills are adequate, and it'd be seriously cheeky of me to criticise others, or to mock a non-Anglophone's mangled attempts at written English.
That said, I can't resist quoting from a submission to the University website's 'Feedback' form. The visitor, apparently an existing student at 'Marchester University', found the site useful because "it creates a room for briliant students, it's a source of bright future [and] it educating the young one's".
immediatly i was told about your web site, i felt so elated and i could not waste any of my time, before i could remember have met my self at a cybercave where i send you all this messages to you over there
Which is nice.
25 November, 2005
Don't tell the tories...
The latest edition of Heist's higher education marketing magazine, 'EM' has appeared on my desk. One day I might get further than the front cover.
Whilst I'm on that page, the cover photo is of 1-Euro coins arranged into a map of Western Europe, illustrating 'the spreading cost of fees'.
The UK, made out of Euros? What would Kilroy-Silk say?
24 November, 2005
Old chestnut time
Michele Tollis became convinced that satanism had something to do with his son's disappearance.
"No one can contradict me when I say that heavy metal and satanism are closely linked. They're inseparable," he says.
Oh, come on.
Tollis' son was killed by a group of people who characterised themselves as satanists, and who also liked heavy metal music. Two separate facts. Fred West was a serial killer, and a builder. Should the building trade be banned? If he happened to have been a major fan of traditional English folk music (which can be stereotyped as tending to be about sex and death, often violent), should folk albums be withdrawn?
Varieties of metal may have a theatrical image, but there is absolutely no causal connection between the music and the murders. Haven't we been through this too many times before, with backwards-masked messages and the like?
Seems not. BBC2 is devoting an hour of spurious credibility to this sensationalist rubbish this evening.
14 November, 2005
The BBC reports the startling story that counterfeiters are threatening the lives of millions just for a quick profit.
Anti-malaria medications based on compounds from the Chinese plant Artemesinin are the only cheap medicines to which the most deadly malaria parasite has not developed resistance. Fake medicines containing only enough of the active ingredient to fool basic verification tests provide insufficient doses to kill the malaria parasite, but enough for it to develop resistance to the medication itself – reverse inoculation, in effect.
How could people even consider doing this? Can there be a fundamental lack of understanding of the consequences? To me, this total disregard for literally millions of lives is utterly inconceivable. It's so despicable as to be depressing.
I can't think of a way to prevent it. Enforcement rarely works: consider the world trade in recreational drugs. One solution would be for the pharmaceutical companies to drop the price of the real medication to a level at which counterfeiting simply isn't profitable, but that's hardly in the interests of the companies.
This could be the setting and backstory of any cyberpunk novel, socio-technological divide having been triggered by a pandemic ('post-apocalyptic' is more subtle in the post-Cold War era!), but it's real, and very, very serious. As Dr Facundo Fernandez of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who discovered the new counterfeiting technique two months ago, said: "This is no different from plain murder."
10 November, 2005
There seems to be a trend whereby one person in a neighbourhood decides to go 'all-out' on christmas lights, illuminating his (and, let's face it, this is a male thing) entire house. People from the entire area drive past to see the display, and sometimes there's a collection for charity. I can think of two examples in Lancaster alone. Very tawdry.
However, there's been a bit of a backlash in Berkshire: residents of a private road (which itself says something) are trying to pay a neighbour not to mount a display. They have offered to donate more than the £5,000 raised for charity last year if there are no lights this year.
Apparently it's not just 'snobbery' (not my choice of word – I'm definitely with the neighbours on this one). Police say that more than 1,000 cars drove past each night for six weeks last year, and 40 crimes, including vandalism, theft, violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour, have been directly attributed to the presence of the lights.
9 November, 2005
Wish I'd thought of that
In his e-mail signature, a colleague claims the job title 'Perception Administrator'.
That sounds wonderfully Machiavellian, and no-one can hassle him for not doing his job, because who the **** knows what that role actually entails?
8 November, 2005
Off to the law library
Maybe it's because I haven't been paying especial attention to the topic, but I hadn't appreciated the extent to which the Government's Terrorism Bill will affect legitimate levels of free speech*, and specifically the activities of higher education institutions. As the Guardian reports, academics and librarians are concerned that chemistry textbooks describing explosives or ethics seminars on political violence would have to be withdrawn, rather than face prosecution for aiding or glorifying terrorism.
"We would have to remove from our collections materials that we thought could incite terrorism," says Paul Ayris, director of University College London's library services. "Guy Fawkes was a terrorist. Am I meant to remove any reference to him? This bill could put librarians in the impossible role of moral gatekeepers."
Even if I thought universities had any role in conveying state-approved morality – and I don't – the suppression of reasoned discussion and properly-contextualised information is no solution.
* That's 'legitimate', or 'reasonable' levels of free speech (however that's defined). As I said almost two years ago, I don't even vaguely support the principle of 'totally free speech at any price'. To me, the responsibility to self-censor is more important, and in extreme cases, the state has to have some limited regulatory role. This defines one of my boundaries between primacy of the individual (normally my priority) and functioning of the state (for the collective benefit of individuals).
3 November, 2005
In case anyone didn't know, a red panda is also known as a firefox. I image it's fairly good at browsing, too.
1 November, 2005
The image on the new (to me, anyway) first class stamp is explicitly christian. I didn't know the Royal Mail was allowed to do that nowadays. Unless they're planning to claim that's a generic mother & child, celebrating the modern UK family unit....
'Seasonal' is fine – no-one would complain about a robin, reindeer or snowy fir tree, but I do find selective, overt religious references objectionable. Did I miss the stamps commemorating Diwali, Samhain or Eid ul-Fitr? Somehow, I doubt it.
When representing the state: all, or none. Preferably none.
1 November, 2005
'White van man' is UK cultural shorthand, referring to the (stereotypically aggressive) driver of a typical tradesman's/delivery van, as seen in their thousands on British roads. But why white?
Are there really more white vans than other colours, or is it just that having made the association, one is more likely to notice white vans?
If there is a disproportionate number of white vans, why? Do firms prefer white company vehicles? Why? Does it follow that more white vans are made than other colours?
The BBC says it's because:
white's the way vans leave the factory. Many smaller firms don't want the expense of painting them up in company colours.
However, I'm not sure that's accurate.
21 October, 2005
Dis isn't good
I've just learned a new word. It's a project management term:
If I ever use it, shoot me.
20 October, 2005
Are you sure?
Ravage is the name of a lingerie company?
From the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:
ravage (v): to cause great damage to something
ravages (pl. n): the damage caused by disease/time/war, etc.
Is that really
the intended brand image?
17 October, 2005
When I say I don't drink, that doesn't mean I don't drink.
Okay; try this, summarising an earlier entry*:
- I've yet to discover an alcoholic drink I actually like, that I'd choose to drink, simply for its flavour.
- I dislike being drunk.
- I resent wasting time on hangovers and basic post-alcohol lethargy.
It's certainly not remotely for moral or health reasons.
Consequently, I'm still more than happy to join friends for a drink, but it's solely for the social aspect (that makes it sound like a hardship!), I probably won't enjoy the drink itself quite as much as, say, a Coke or a good cup of tea, and one drink is more than enough – if I consume more than three pints, something's gone wrong....
*: Hey! That's precisely a year ago!
9 October, 2005
Because I say so
Where a proper name ends with 's', it seems the current grammatic fashion is to end the possessive with 'apostrophe-s' rather than the earlier style of just using an apostrophe. Hence, Sigur Rós's, not Sigur Rós'. This applies to modern names; an apparently arbitrary exception is made for ancient names (e.g. Achilles', Jesus').
It seems to be a matter of personal preference, and that neither is actually incorrect (whatever the BBC says). Therefore, a statement of intent: I don't use the redundant 's' here.
8 October, 2005
I've just discovered that a leading academic specialising in Gothic literature and culture (post-1830, but including contemporary fashion, film and culture) works in an adjacent building to mine. It's a subject area which somewhat interests me*, so I must find a way to meet her. ;)
I wonder if she needs a new website... let's see... ugh. Yes, but I'd have to redo the whole Department's site. Maybe not right now.
*: Some might find that patently obvious, but others might be surprised - hey, I did say I'm a compartmentalised person!
28 September, 2005
This may be incorrect (I overheard it in the queue in Spar), but apparently a popular chocolate bar in the UK is labelled "contains Brazil".
Anyone know which it is, and how that's achieved?
27 September, 2005
Yay! It looks as if the animal 'rights' terrorists who stole a woman's body from her grave have finally been arrested.
Hanging's too good, throw away the keys, etc.
Seriously, this disgusting action only served to discredit the extremists' cause (or would have done, if that cause had had any merit in the first place). Presuming the correct people have been arrested, I hope they can be charged with something substantial.
27 September, 2005
This sounds like dodgy sci-fi, but the Observer reports the, well, rumour that dolphins trained by the US Navy to fire 'toxic dart' guns at swimmers were accidentally released into the wild by Hurricane Katrina.
The alleged intention was to use the dolphins to shoot terrorists attacking military vessels, but it's possible they might now attack and immobilise any swimmer or surfer they encounter.
Before anyone panics, it's worth mentioning that these 'killer dolphins' mightn't even exist – the US Navy admits training dolphins for military purposes, but not that any are missing, nor the nature of the training. This might all just be a 'silly season' non-story.
23 September, 2005
Made it look easy
For those who don't know, the UK driving test is in three parts: a theory test, a hazard assessment (video) test, and the on-road practical test.
My colleague J. sat the first two yesterday, so on Wednesday I ran through a couple of mock theory tests with him. The pass mark is 30 out of 35; he scored 24 and 22 on two tests, which isn't entirely surprising: the day before his real test, he had yet to even glance at the test documentation, which recommended careful study of 'The Highway Code', 'Know Your Traffic Signs' and 'The Official Theory Test for Car Drivers'. In preparation for the hazards test, the same documentation recommended study of 'Roadsense: The Official Guide to Hazard Perception'. However, I now know that having not read that letter, J. arrived at the test centre unaware that there would even be a hazards test.
Yesterday morning, he rang me (having at least read 'The Highway Code'), to ask the time of his appointment and the location of the test centre. Good start. I was able to provide the former, as he'd left a 'post-it' note on his desk, and I offered to find the latter via the web and ring him back. He provided what he thought was his mobile phone number, though he wasn't sure.
Kind of shambolic, eh?
His score in the theory test: 34/35. In the hazards test, 62/70 (the pass mark is 40). A conclusive pass, but would you get into a car with him?
One could argue that if it's possible to sail through the tests with negligible preparation, this invalidates the lucrative market, preying on the nervous and gullible, for guidebooks (several from the HM Stationery Office...) and coaching services which prepare people for the tests.
I just hope he doesn't turn up for the practical test having never driven before....
20 September, 2005
RIP... oh, hi.
It's probably quite revealing, and less than flattering, that the first blog post about New Orleans to evince an emotional response from me is about a cat.
[Via Boing Boing, which only gives a misleading excerpt!]
8 September, 2005
Critical-faculties refresher (now with added science stuff)
Ben Goldacre, in his regular Guardian column (archived at his own site 'Bad Science'), offers an excellent thesis about the mass media's inability to report science stories meaningfully, and alleges an unarticulated agenda to belittle science.
There are too many valuable points to quote individually, but I really, really recommend you read the article, and without automatically accepting its content as absolute truth (that wouldn't be scientific), use it as a critical filter through which to absorb all media-reported stories.
7 September, 2005
Within the next few decades, the UK will have a major problem meeting rising demands for energy generation. We also already have a situation whereby farmers are paid to not use some of their land, to avoid contributing to overproduction. [I know; both statements are simplistic, but they're good enough for the purpose of this entry.]
How about combining the two?
The BBC reports a potential scheme to grow large quantities of 4m-high Miscanthus grass on otherwise unused land, providing a crop which can be burned (theoretically a carbon-neutral process) by power stations. It is estimated that devoting 10% of suitable land in the EU could fuel 9% of gross electricity production. Not a total solution to the overall problem, obviously, but certainly a significant contribution.
For comparison: it is thought that each hectare could yield 12 tonnes of dry, burnable matter with the same energy content as 36 barrels of oil.
3 September, 2005
No more e-mail
A certain retailer, which I won't promote by naming, has ~200 high street stores worldwide (most in the UK), a web store and a phone-based direct ordering service. The latter two have just withdrawn all e-mail contact addresses:
We've come to realise that e-mail is a very poor way to deliver customer service. Every question we receive could easily be answered more quickly, comprehensively and unambiguously over the phone.
2005, and no e-mail? Deliberately? That's a major backward step. What about those of us who don't want to use the phone? I prefer to write an e-mail and send it, then get on with other things, checking back later for the response. Why should I have to wait in a queue to speak to a 'customer advisor'? Is this about my convenience, or theirs?
I have actually used their phone service a few times, so realise the unstated part: this provides an opportunity for hard-sell. Whatever one's enquiry, or however specific one's planned order, a customer advisor will attempt to expand it. One has to be very firm to avoid spending more than one had intended, and end the conversation feeling oddly uncomfortable about having disappointed the (always pleasant) advisor. That isn't a satisfactory customer experience, and I simply wouldn't choose to use the service again.
They still offer a postal address, though. I think I have some stamps around here somewhere....
29 August, 2005
I've received a letter from my electricity supplier, informing me that their costs have increased, so prices are increasing. Fair enough, and unsurprising.
The new rates will be 10.32p/kWh + VAT (the logic of 'value added' tax on energy is an issue for a different entry...) for the first 200kWh of each quarter, then 8.17p/kWh thereafter.
Conceptually, isn't that the wrong way round? Shouldn't the first units be the cheaper ones, and subsequent ones be more expensive, as an encouragement to minimise energy usage? Under the current model, there's no especial incentive to switch off lights, etc.
I'm aware that my alternative would penalise those justifiably using more electricity, such as young families, but it couldn't be too difficult to establish a scheme whereby those able to prove the necessity could operate with a higher quarterly threshold.
23 August, 2005
Here's another example of under-publicised invasion of privacy.
Were you aware that if you buy a ticket for the UK National Lottery at 18:02 on 23/08/05 from Master's Mini-Mart, Moorlands, Lancaster, that information will be available to the police?
Camelot, the operator of the Lottery, boasts that:
Camelot can provide the police with the details about the exact time and place when a ticket was purchased.... This information can help the police place suspects in specific locations at an exact time and this has helped shatter false alibis [and] helped police to solve crimes including murders, muggings, armed robbery, burglaries and drugs rings.
Emotive stuff, but still unacceptable. Public surveillance is obviously more insidious than just CCTVs and ID Cards.
The purchasers right to anonymity should always be the priority.
22 August, 2005
The University's Travel Co-ordinator has just circulated an e-mail explaining that a gate linking the railway station with the adjacent cycle track has been locked since the London bombings because it isn't specifically covered by a CCTV camera.
Does this mean that every access route to every mainline railway station in the UK is now being watched? That it's impossible to get on a train in the UK without police surveillance?
22 August, 2005
'Piano man' discharged
I've often wondered what happened to the 'piano man', who was committed to a mental health unit in April after being found wandering on the Kent coast, distressed and unable to speak or otherwise identify himself but able to play the piano with considerable skill.
In case anyone else had been wondering, it's reported by the BBC that his condition has improved, he has revealed that he's German, and he's been discharged to return home.
Due to patient confidentiality concerns, the public is unlikely to hear more, but I wish him well.
19 August, 2005
This tip was buried amongst the responses to a slightly different issue at Metafilter, so I might as well isolate it here, for Google to catch:
If you accidentally write on a whiteboard with a regular [permanent] non-dry erase marker, all you have to do is write over that with a dry erase marker, and wipe it off.
18 August, 2005
The Royal Mail has announced that it's going to start charging according to the size and shape of envelopes/packages, rather than just by weight (the current system).
That sounds reasonable, but it might be difficult for individuals and companies to gauge the size thresholds. Fine; there will be templates in post offices.
What's the other major news story about postal services in the UK in recent years? Oh, yeah: the closure of hundreds of local post offices.
Anyone spot the slight problem?
18 August, 2005
The Peter Gabriel compilation album 'Hit' was £10.99 at Amazon UK until recently. Now it's £7.99 (wahey!) but with a £3 'sourcing fee'. Strange.
Having asked around (there's no information at the Amazon site itself), it's suggested that this is a stratagem to give Amazon preferential placement on price-comparison search engines, though for the customer, there's no difference between £10.99 and £7.99 + £3.00.
I hope that interpretation is wrong, as it'd be awful short-termism. Amazon might receive a few new customers, but I suspect the tactic would alienate more.
[Update 23/08/05: The price been revised to £7.97, with no supplementary fee.]
16 August, 2005
Confused lions 'hunt' small cars
A warning to the drivers of especially small vehicles, such as Minis or Smart cars:
Small cars driving through a safari park in Merseyside have been chased by confused lions who think they are prey.
16 August, 2005
A blow to sovereignty
Cannabis is all-but-legal in Canada. In the USA, dealing carries a minimum sentence of 10 years, even life.
The Guardian reports the case of a Canadian man openly selling marijuana seeds by mail order from Vancouver, untroubled by the police for years yet suddenly arrested this summer – on the orders of the US DEA. Because he sells to US citizens, the USA is demanding his extradition, for trial under US law and to serve a long prison sentence for an activity tolerated in Canada.
This is appalling. Canada is a sovereign nation, and a Canadian citizen doesn't have to even acknowledge US laws, never mind obey them. The US authorities don't like a Canadian dealer? Tough. The US authorities weren't asked, and indeed aren't 'authorities' beyond the US border. By all means stop the goods once they enter the USA, but until they cross, they're untouchable, as is the sender (before and after).
Needless to say, this isn't remotely about drugs. It's a simple issue of one nation (any nation) attempting to impose its will abroad, illegitimately.
The scary thing is that if the USA tried it in the UK, Blair would probably be happy to comply.
12 August, 2005
In May, the UK Met Office's seasonal forecast suggested that July and August might be warmer than usual. An appropriately cautious, vague statement from an experimental service suitable as a rough guide, but not definitive.
However, the tabloid newspapers took the central idea, elaborated on it (i.e. blatently invented 'facts'), and convinced the masses that today would be the hottest of the year.
It's not. It's currently sunny in Lancaster, but windy, and today's Met Office forecast is "Sunny spells, scattered showers, rain spreading into the west tonight".
Avoid trashy tabloids!
11 August, 2005
How do you spell ****?
It's a bit depressing that, according to unspecified 'reseachers' cited by the BBC, the newly updated Oxford English Dictionary contains 350 insulting expressions, but only 40 ways to compliment someone.
9 August, 2005
Psst! Want to buy an AONB?
The Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (one grade down from a National Park) is 802km² (312 square miles – the same size as New York City) of beautiful open countryside in Northern Lancashire (and part of Yorkshire), of international significance for its diversity of unspoiled landscapes and wildlife.
However, the word 'forest' is widely misunderstood, and doesn't necessarily involve a single tree; Bowland is mostly characterised by upland moors.
All bought by me on Saturday for £7.49. Bargain.
Incidentally, I know I said I don't buy from Waterstone's, but I didn't think Amazon sold OS maps (damn – they do), and I was in a hurry.
5 August, 2005
The 'Spar' shop on campus sells fly swatters, but only in packs of six. Why?
5 August, 2005
Obviously, UK banknotes don't feature overtly religious symbols, but I've only just appreciated the fact that the person illustrated on the reverse of the £10 note is Charles Darwin.
Heh. I wonder what Creationist/Intelligent Design believers think of that....
Note: that's rhetorical – I have no interest in their opinion!
3 August, 2005
'Evian' backwards is...
As the NY Times explains, the standard justifications for drinking bottled rather than tap water seem bogus, it's extremely expensive (250 to 10,000 times more so than tap water), and is environmentally irresponsible.
Read the article, reject the marketing, and leave the trendy herd.
2 August, 2005
Weather or not; definitely not
I've just followed a Geo-URL link to a privately-maintained weather station 5 km from my house, and discovered that it's affiliated to the US 'Citizen Weather Observer Program':
... a private-public partnership with three main goals: 1) to collect weather data contributed by citizens; 2) to make these data available for weather services and homeland security
And having read that, I don't particularly care about the third. I'm kind of tempted to sign up, to contribute bogus data.
I can see the attraction of logging weather conditions, and of sharing data with like-minded observers elsewhere, but why the **** would a British citizen want to participate in a programme which has the stated intention of materially assisting a foreign military agency?
1 August, 2005
Most unsolicited spam advertising is extremely blatant, but just occasionally, the boundary of legitimacy can become blurred, and cause problems.
Wikipedia has been spammed by a major clothes retailer, which has created an entry about a new subsidiary brand. It's written as if a standard encyclopedia entry covering a topic of information or historical record, rather than an overt advert, but it's perfectly plain that really it's the latter. It seems just as plain that it should be removed immediately (I won't link to it, presuming that it will be removed, leaving a dead link), but it's going to be interesting to see how, or even if, the Wikipedia moderators formulate a policy to justify that.
Where should the line be drawn? Should any entry about a commercial company be banned? I'd hope not, as some have genuine cultural significance, and entries about them seem valid. Harrods, for example, is a world-famous department store, and ought to be at least mentioned in Wikipedia. Marks & Spencer is literally fundamental to British culture, providing most of us with underwear. So long as an entry doesn't merely promote the company's latest style of pants, I think it should be allowed.
How about Gap? No – it's just a retailer, one of many, and of negligible wider significance (other than as a symbol of American neo-colonialism; I suppose it'd be worth mentioning in that context). A Wikipedia entry specifically about Gap would be a mere advert. However, would the company's executives, and their lawyers, agree? If it came to legal action, how would Wikipedia justify any exclusion?
[Bad example! Having written the foregoing paragraph, I checked, and found that there is an entry for Gap, and it's meaningful. Well, the principle applies, if not to this specific case!]
Common sense and good faith ought to be sufficient in deciding which Wikipedia entries are reasonable, but those 'virtues' aren't always compatible with business.
[Via Snark Hunting]
22 July, 2005
So THAT's how it works
There are some things one is expected to just know, without being expressly told, or by discovering through a 'coming of age' rite of passage – learning to shave properly is one. I haven't used a razor within the last six years or so, but I don't remember there being instructions on the packaging.
Likewise with mobile phones. This afternoon, nine months after buying mine, I grasped the concept of predictive text recognition, and learned how to use it. Thanks for the explanation, J.
As with shaving, once one knows, it becomes second-nature, and one wouldn't think to explain it to others, but that means that those who don't know are left ignorant. That certainly seems to apply to my phone's manual, which informed me that my phone has the capability, but didn't seem to think it necessary to explain the concept of predictive text.
Predictive texting just seemed to generate gibberish, so I'd always impatiently disabled it whenever composing a message, and entered text laboriously, letter-by-letter. In case anyone else is in the same situation, here's the essential point:
Imagine you want to enter the word 'fish'. With predictive texting enabled, press the '3' key (which covers the letters 'd', 'e' and 'f') once. The letter 'e' appears, but don't worry. Press '4' (which covers the letters 'g', 'h' and 'i'). The two-letter word becomes 'eh' – don't worry. Next, '7' ('dip'), then '4' ('fish'!).
If it's unclear what's happening, the phone is matching number combinations to the most likely words; the most probable word resulting from the sequence '3-4-7-4' is 'fish'.
What if one had wanted 'dish'? That's entered using the same number combination, but doesn't appear by default. Simply press the '*' key to scroll through alternative words; 'dish' is the second.
A revelation! Well, it's not that great; I don't really expect to make greater use of texting, but when I do, now it's drastically easier!
22 July, 2005
I've mentioned before that I'm unimpressed by the very concept of petitions. An opinion piece at Snopes covers much the same topic (specifically online petitions), but expands it to cover 'slacktivism', another subject attracting my contempt.
[It's defined as]... the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society's rescue without having had to actually gets one's hands dirty or open one's wallet.
It's slacktivism that prompts us to want a join a boycott of designated gas companies or eschew buying gasoline on a particular day rather than reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels by driving less and taking the bus more often.
Slacktivism comes in many forms, but its key defining characteristic is its central theme of participation at no cost, of achieving social change through little or no effort on the part of person inspired to participate in the forwarding, exhorting, collecting, or e-signing.
E-petitions are sexy even when they don't have a hope in hell of helping to accomplish their stated goals because they afford us an opportunity to bestow upon ourselves a pat on the back rather than continue to feel guilty about not doing our part. That nothing is really getting accomplished is almost beside the point; we believe we've been part of something worthwhile and so feel better about ourselves.
21 July, 2005
I may have received a slightly garbled message, but this is the situation as I understand it second-hand:
A new colleague visited the University's Staff Learning Centre today, and was given a test on general office working practices. It was a multi-choice questionnaire to assess the nature of assistance the SLC can offer him, not specifically mentioning software packages.
He was then told that his approach to various hypothetical problems revealed an unfamiliarity with MS Word, and that he should take a training course.
In telling me, he assured me that the tasks weren't specifically related to word-processing, but were more about his intellectual approach, the implication being that the appraisal identified a non-Microsoft mindset, to be corrected.
19 July, 2005
Да, Господин Президент
Do you realise how difficult it is to maintain focus through a 90 minute, fairly high-level, technical (in a management sense) strategy meeting with someone who looks exactly – to the extent that one is reminded every couple of minutes – like President Vladimir Putin?
19 July, 2005
The trip is over
'Magic mushrooms', containing hallucinogenic psilocybin, have always occupied a strange loophole in UK law. Possession of the fresh mushrooms has been absolutely legal, but since 1978, the very same mushrooms, dried, have been treated as a 'Class A' illegal drug, alongside heroin and cocaine; those convicted of possession could receive a seven-year prison sentence, or life for supplying.
However, the Drugs Act 2005 'simplifies' the matter: since yesterday, they're just plain illegal.
I know a few friends have the remains of last year's harvest tucked away, so it's probably worth spreading the word. Don't get caught-out. Man.
11 July, 2005
I received this suggestion via e-mail (twice), but it's also available online.
Many people carry a mobile phone 'in case of an emergency', but it seems 75% carry no details of who they would like telephoned following a serious accident.
A paramedic in Cambridge has made the excellent suggestion that everyone adds an emergency contact number to his/her phone's 'phone book', under the standard acronym ICE. Should the owner become incapacitated in an accident, the emergency services would immediately know who to call, rather than just guess whether 'Mum' is the most appropriate person.
It's hoped the ICE contact feature will be built into future phones. The main flaw* I can see in the basic plan is that a paramedic or police officer mightn't be able to access a PIN-protected phone book, but if ICE was stored separately, as a 'public access' function, that'd be simplified.
Incidentally, the campaign mentioned in the e-mails began in April, not a couple of days ago as a response to the London bombings, as the e-mails imply.
*: Well, the main flaw is that I very rarely carry a mobile phone....
5 July, 2005
An offer you can't refuse
I'm in the process of moving my mortgage (don't tell my existing provider). The company to which I think I'll be transferring has a rather odd slogan on its letterhead:
You're either with us. Or without.
Doesn't that sound a bit menacing?
Not to mention it being a truism presented as profound, using dodgy punctuation and smart-arse phrasing worthy of, er, me.
27 June, 2005
In the middle of 'From Hell' (which, incidentally, failed to impress) last night, Channel 4 showed an advert in which a woman was pleased to have split from her boyfriend, as it gave her material to compose a song, record it, and burn it to CD-R, with fame and fortune to follow.
The advert was for Windows XP, and irritated me.
Firstly, so far as I'm aware, WinXP doesn't include music authoring, recording and burning software as standard, and if it does, I doubt anyone would seriously use such applications rather than third-party packages. This means the advert was selling Windows on the merits of other companies' products, rather than saying anything particularly favourable about the operating system itself.
This is rather analogous to featuring arty shots of Prague and the copy: "Come to Prague! Prague's great!" in an ad actually for Manchester Airport, or perhaps for an aviation fuel company.
Secondly: a TV advert for a computer operating system? What's the point? Anyone who buys a Wintel PC will already receive WinXP. The tiny minority (heh) who buy Macs wouldn't need WinXP. The probably even smaller minority who'd consider using anything other than the OS which came with their computers... well, I'd expect them to be more inclined towards Linux than Windows!
So who were the intended audience of this ad? What was its real purpose? Mere consciousness-raising – as if anyone watching the film was unaware of Microsoft? I'm puzzled.
23 June, 2005
Who wants to know?
A Guardian article about Crown copyright (information owned by the state) contains the following statements:
Essentially, the deal is that information is free, so long as you register online.
Registration also creates a database about who is doing what with government information, though officials claim that no big brother monitoring goes on.
Firstly, I believe publicly-funded information should be freely available to that nation's citizens without restriction, so long as there's no compelling reason for it to be withheld (e.g. genuine, not contrived, issues of national security), and it's not reproduced for commercial benefit (I don't think independent companies should sell maps and weather forecasts based on Ordnance Survey and Met Office data, for example).
This is our property, held in trust for the collective, not the administrators' jealously-guarded property. Registration shouldn't be required; it's almost like having to ask permission.
Secondly; "no big brother monitoring"? And we're really expected to believe that?
Whatever; irrespective of routine practice, the state shouldn't have the ability to identify those accessing information.
The really scary part is that the journalist, and probably the typical reader, (unthinkingly?) accepts the 'authorisation' process ("So far, so good.") and moves on to a different topic.
14 June, 2005
£7.95 ($14.40) will buy you a bottle of spray-on mud (real mud, filtered to remove stones). Applied carefully, it'll give the impression that your massive 4x4 has ever actually been off-road.
[Insert your own mockery here]
That's 'applied carefully'. As a sculptor/painter of metal miniatures ('toy soldiers') and someone who studied sediment to PhD level (yes, it was as thrilling as that sounds), I know that realistically weathering a vehicle isn't as simple as just flailing about with an aerosol can. The location, proportional quantity and direction of spray all matter.
To be fair, I suspect it's really intended to be bought as a joke for, not by, drivers of urban 4x4s, but I'm sure it'll be used.
By definition, such drivers are unlikely to recognise real dirt, so I look forward to spotting their 'interpretations' of sediment dynamics. No doubt there'll be some vehicles looking as if they routinely travel sideways, or have been rolled.
11 June, 2005
Free list suspended
Whenever I read local cinema listings, I'm always mildly curious about the statement 'free list suspended' which seems to accompany every film shown at the mainstream cinemas in Lancaster and Morecambe. I asked the box office staff once, and was merely (and rather rudely) told "it's not for you".
For once, my casual curiosity has lasted long enough to try a Google search and discover that UCI say that:
... the use of vouchers may be restricted in the first 3 weeks of the release of a specific film – this is what is referred to as 'Free List Suspended'.
I can't comment on multiplexes, but Lancaster's mainstream cinema, the Regal, has two screens and almost never schedules a new film for longer than a fortnight. Hence, the 'free list' is permanently suspended for everything but children's and pensioners' matinees of older films, so far as I'm aware – they might as well just say "we don't take vouchers".
Unless this is something imposed by distributors, I suppose it's just marketing: the use of multiplex-style terminology implies the Regal is playing in the big league.
7 June, 2005
A health food company in the USA manufactures the 'Ezekiel 4:9' range of grain products (breakfast cereals, breads and pasta). The name is obviously biblical, citing:
Take also unto thee Wheat and Barley and Beans and Lentils and Millet and Spelt and put them in one vessel and make bread of it.
However, as Snark Hunting noticed, for some strange reason they don't continue the recipe on to verse 12:
And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight.
Not exactly conducive to a quick breakfast – I can never get dung fires to light, never mind hot enough to cook over.
It's not even funny. People have based religions and lifestyles on such pick-and-mix reading.
6 June, 2005
The government proposal to replace road tax (i.e. licence for a vehicle to be used on a public highway, even just parked – a 'per vehicle, per year' tax) and fuel tax ('per litre/gallon') with a pay-as-you-go tax on actual usage is an interesting one, but there are a few points which concern me.
It looks hideously complicated to implement and administer, even if no-one attempted to evade it (improbable!). I'd anticipate major teething problems, massive overspend, and then potential abandonment of the whole scheme. Cynical, or merely accustomed to government practice?
The fee would vary according to congestion, so that rural driving could cost as little as £0.02 per mile, rising to £1.43 per mile on the busiest roads (e.g. the M25 around London). Hence, it wouldn't be possible to merely measure the number of times a vehicle's wheels rotate (i.e. absolute distance), it would be necessary to also know where the vehicle has been.
If this could be stored within the vehicle itself and only transmitted to another body (e.g. the tax authority) with the knowledge and express permission of the driver, perhaps in tax bill disputes, I wouldn't particularly object, but if any external body (such as the police) could gain access to these records without the consent of the driver, and records were kept for more than a couple of weeks, I'd regard that as invasion of privacy, public surveillance, and unacceptable. It'd also be far too easy, and tempting, for a person's travel history to be linked to his/her entry on the national ID database.
The aspect that particularly confuses me is that we already have a usage-based, indirectly 'per mile' tax system, which also takes into account the relative fuel efficiency of vehicles. It's called fuel tax. I don't think it's broken, so why replace it?
1 June, 2005
Where did it come from?
So far as I'm aware, nut allergies were very rare when I was a child in the 1970s. It wasn't until at least the 1990s that I noticed foods labeled as 'may contain nuts', presumably as legislation was introduced. Now it's a routine warning on packaging. The impression it conveys is that nut allergies are a massive social problem, affecting a significant proportion of the population. Is that really the case, or is the scale of the problem inadvertently exaggerated by companies merely having to protect themselves against litigation?
A quick glance at the top results on Google informs me that the number of people reported as being affected by peanut allergies in the USA doubled between 1997 and 2002, from 0.4% of survey respondents to 0.8%. Not a huge proportion, but in absolute numbers, across an entire national population, quite a few people; a related article says peanut allergy accounts for 100 deaths and 15,000 visits to ER (UK: A&E/Casualty) departments each year in the USA.
Contrary to understandable parental fears, only three pre-teens are known to have died in the UK, over several years. Most fatal reactions seem to occur in teenagers and those in their early twenties, presumably due to less rigorous care with their diets.
I still wonder why the numbers seem to be increasing, though. Two of the reasons proposed in that first article are that peanuts have an increased allergenicity when roasted and that children are eating peanuts when their immune systems are immature, but both of those factors have always applied – children have been eating peanuts, roasted or otherwise, for decades.
Could it be that it's always been a problem, but diagnosis has recently improved? Perhaps, though I'm unaware of there having been huge numbers of unexplained anaphylactic reactions in the past.
Could it be that people are just more susceptible to allergies nowadays? Why? Atmospheric pollutants? Antibiotics in household goods?
Note I said 'scale' in the first paragraph, referring to the number of people affected, not 'severity', referring to the effects on individual sufferers. I don't mean to belittle the impacts on their health and lifestyles, I'm just questioning how many of them there are.
I think that's the problem when considering it from a sociological perspective: the number of people affected does seem to be very small, and even amongst them, the risk of death is slight, yet it could happen, so what amounts to overstating the risk may be a sensible response for those individuals.
Let's just avoid the perception that a quarter of the population are about to keel over at any moment!
20 May, 2005
Why is it that a road surface during/after light rain feels 'greasy' underfoot and is drastically more slippery than during/after heavy rainfall? Further rain onto this 'waxy' surface somehow improves traction, which isn't intuitive.
13 May, 2005
In my teens, I met Prof. David Bellamy, then a famous science populariser frequently seen on TV. On that occasion, he was narrating Britten's 'Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra' and Prokofiev's 'Peter And The Wolf' at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and somehow a friend of a friend (I remember! the clarinetist was my cousin's music teacher) invited my mother, sister and I to visit him backstage. That, and the fact he represented a career path to which I aspired, meant I've always regarded him with a degree of warmth.
However, I've just read an article in the Guardian, written by George Monbiot, who has attempted to retrace the chain of evidence behind some rather startling statements from Prof. Bellamy that many of the world's glaciers:
are not shrinking but in fact are growing ... 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980.
As Monbiot says, such a statement from so eminent a scientist carries disproportionate weight, and has been pounced-upon by those denying the existence of climate change, such as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
The problem is that the evidence for the statement just doesn't exist in any credible form, if indeed at all. The research cited by Prof, Bellamy (or rather, not cited, but teased out of him by Monbiot) was from a book vanity-published by an ex-architect and a journal published by a convicted fraudster and conspiracy theorist. The latter is allegedly based on data from a 1989 paper in a 'real' scientific journal – but there's no such paper.
This junk science is bad enough, but a key part of Bellamy's argument is that figure of '555 of 625 glaciers'. Monbiot:
While Bellamy's source claimed that 55% of 625 glaciers are advancing, Bellamy claimed that 555 of them - or 89% - are advancing. This figure appears to exist nowhere else. But on the standard English keyboard, 5 and % occupy the same key. If you try to hit %, but fail to press shift, you get 555, instead of 55%. This is the only explanation I can produce for his figure. When I challenged him, he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics".
So, in Bellamy's poor typing, we have the basis for a whole new front in the war against climate science. The 555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a 'fraud', a 'scam', a 'lie'. I phoned New Scientist to ask if Bellamy had requested a correction. He had not.
It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world's most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals. You must, if you are David Bellamy, embrace instead the claims of an eccentric former architect, which are based on what appears to be a non-existent data set. And you must do all this while calling yourself a scientist.
10 May, 2005
There seems to be an flawed assumption in today's Guardian report that:
Jessops profits hit as digital camera sales fall... The group said the digital camera market had unexpectedly run out of steam in February, hitting its worst level since digital cameras were launched in the mid 90s.
Is that really true? Has there been a sector-wide reduction in sales volume, or just in the number of people buying from Jessops?
I suspect it's mainly the latter, perhaps extending to offline vendors in general. Given the greater range of cameras, superior information provision and overwhelmingly better prices available from online stores, who would prefer to buy in person nowadays?
I can think of only two reasons to still visit a high street shop.
Firstly, having done one's research online, one might like to compare particular cameras 'for real'. I did that when buying mine last year: I visited a branch of Jessops to study the model I'd already chosen online, and spent some time assessing the weight, grip, interface layout and other usability concerns a website couldn't resolve so readily. Yet after 15-20 mins, I politely thanked the manager and left, as their best price was a full £120 greater than I'd already found online.
Secondly, one might need advice. Websites provide a lot of information, especially if one is willing to spend time reading around the entire subject, but some consider there's no substitute for talking to someone familiar with the photography market. On reflection, this added value not offered by websites may be the USP which could save high-street shops.
Paradoxically, this favours small, independent camera shops, staffed by experts, which had previously been out-competed by national chains such as Jessops, as the latter tend to be staffed by retail workers, not photographers. They may have skills in product display and customer service, but could be selling books, bras or baked beans – retail's retail, whatever the product. Generally, one has limited confidence in information or opinions expressed by such staff (no more than in information provided by a website, anyway), and Saturday staff, typically teenagers still at school during the week, are stereotypically useless.
Of course, having obtained advice, there's nothing to prevent someone leaving an independent shop and buying the recommended equipment cheaper online, but I suspect that someone seeking personal advice would be more inclined to want an ongoing relationship with a 'real' shop. Owner-managers might also have the discretion to offer a free case or memory card to secure a sale, reducing any on/offline price dispariety.
There's a third alleged reason: to support local shopkeepers, on principle. No. Absolutely not. If the retail model is dead, it's utterly pointless to feed a corpse – sentimentality can't be justified. So long as specialist shops are genuinely viable, great, but if the end is approaching for Jessops et al., tough.
8 May, 2005
Each year, Games Workshop runs an international competition* for those sculpting and painting fantasy/sci-fi 'toy soldiers', the Golden Demon Awards. I happen to have won twelve, plus the Slayer Sword for 'best-in-show' once.
Each year, some months after the event, GW publishes a feature article in their monthly magazine, 'White Dwarf', devoting ~20 pages to photographs of the winning entries.
A couple of years ago, the article was separated off into a paperback 'collectors'' booklet of its own, provided free with the magazine.
This year, the Golden Demon 2004 Winners booklet has been sold separately, for half as much again as 'White Dwarf' itself – £6 for something that's always been a freebie to purchasers of the magazine. It's not even as if GW generated the majority of the content themselves; that credit is due to the entrants, who each paid £25 to contribute. By that I mean it's free to enter Golden Demon, but in order to participate, one has to attend the Games Day 'convention', tickets to which cost £25 (it's boring as ****, apart from the opportunity to catch up with some of the nicest people I know: the other regular GD entrants and the GW designers).
I'd better also stress that GW have done nothing illicit: by entering, the winners automatically gave GW permission to publish photographs of their miniatures (no jokes, please; I couldn't think of a better way to phrase that). I just think it feels a bit exploitative.
*: There are several, in fact: Canada, three in the USA, Australia, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and maybe another I've forgotten, but the 'biggie', with thousands of entrants from several countries, is held in the UK, as GW are based here.
[Update 01/04/06: To their credit, GW didn't repeat the tactic: the 2005 booklet was free with White Dwarf 316.]
7 May, 2005
Just one more election-related entry – probably!
Last year, I complained that the postal voting system wasn't anonymous, and votes could be readily matched to voters. 'Musicandcomedy' commented that 'in-person' ballot papers have always been that way, and voting by post didn't change that. In my experience, that wasn't the case, and there had been no way to trace an individual ballot paper to a voter, only to a voting station.
In Thursday's election, 'Musicandcomedy' was proved right in Lancaster, but I'm still reasonably sure it's never been that way before, and my contact in election admin in North-East Wales reaffirmed that ballot papers there are nominally untraceable.
The issue is this: when one enters a polling station, a clerk checks one's name and address against the electoral register, and calls out one's register number. The other clerk removes a blank ballot paper from a book – and writes the register number on the counterfoil. This is the part to which I object, and I'm almost certain I'd have noticed if it had been done in previous elections. The counterfoil is printed with a serial number, which also appears on the back of the ballot paper. The clerk then punches the paper with a mark unique to the polling station. One votes in a private cubicle, folds the paper then returns to the table, shows the punched mark to the clerk, and drops it into a sealed box.
Hence, a paper with a unique serial number can be matched to a counterfoil featuring my register number, and a vote for 'Party X' can be matched to my name and address.
The serial number has indeed always appeared on the paper and counterfoil, but apart from telling an investigator that the paper rightfully came from a book issued to a particular voting station, confirmed by that station's punched mark, the vote was truly anonymous. In Wales (and, I'd presumed, here in NW England), one of the (several) reasons there are two clerks, one with the electoral register, one with the ballot papers, is that the clerk with the books of papers isn't allowed to have a writing implement on his/her person, specifically so that papers can't be marked.
Does it matter? See the earlier entry for my objections.
5 May, 2005
Bikes are best?
At least in the opinion of a self-selecting sample from a small, specific subset of the population (and other alliteration), the bicycle is the most significant invention since 1800, by a huge margin. Almost 60% of participants in a BBC Radio 4 poll (phone-in?) voted for the bike, the next most popular being the transistor with a mere 8% of the total:
Bicycle – 59%
Transistor – 8%
Electro-magnetic induction ring – 8%
Computer – 6%
Germ theory of infection – 5%
Radio – 5%
Internet – 4%
Internal Combustion Engine – 3%
Nuclear Power – 1%
Communications Satellite – 1%
This seems to exhibit exactly the complacency I'd expect from a Radio 4 audience, who apparently regard electricity generation and antibiotics as secondary to a jolly old cycle ride through the tranquil lanes of middle England.
A quarter said they'd like to 'disinvent' GM
foods, which is further than I'd go – I don't have an inherent problem with the concept of GM, just the way it's being implemented. Rather depressingly, 19% wished nuclear power had never existed, which merely displays ignorance, in my opinion.
30 April, 2005
Make my vote count
I don't read the Guardian for the columnists; I rarely agree with the opinions and politics of people like George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee, so usually just stick to the news reports (whilst allowing for potential bias in them too, of course). However, yesterday's piece by Ms. Toynbee does make some good points about a subject in which I'm becoming increasingly interested, perhaps even concerned: electoral reform.
I've been eligible to vote for 15 years, so the imminent general election will be the fourth in which I've participated, and the first in which my choice has been uncertain, and I'm far from alone.
Here in Lancaster, as in many constituencies, there's a negligible chance that a party I'd vaguely consider supporting could actually win the seat, whilst if I don't vote for a party I wouldn't ordinarily support, a party I couldn't conceive of supporting is more likely to win.
I'm trapped by the 'first past the post' system, whereas proportional representation (preferably the STV system; I'm less sure about AV+) would eliminate this negative voting trap, provide greater diversity of candidates, and lead to the election of candidates achieving genuine majorities. In the 2001 election, 57% of Lancastrian voters didn't vote for the winning party.
Hence, I've added a new link on the main page of the blog, to 'Make My Vote Count', the coalition campaigning for a more representative voting system.
In the mean time, there's always tacticalvoter.net, which has been described as "do-it-yourself proportional representation".
Note that though the first is a cross-party group, the latter is unashamedly partisan. Irrespective of whether you support their specific objective (i.e. coordination of the anti-Tory vote), I'd urge all voters, especially but not only those in the UK, to familiarise themselves with the alternative electoral systems.
25 April, 2005
If only this worked between the UK and Poland....
Actually, I'm not much of a mobile user anyway, so the current arrangement using e-mail and ordinary (if expensive) phones serves okay, and being rather independent people, I doubt H & I would welcome the intensity (extensivity, really, if such a word existed) of contact described in the article; the level discussed in a related Wired article is more usual for us (using e-mail, not IM):
"I've never been accused of being high-maintenance – just the opposite, I've been told I'm too self-maintained. But I recognize that I have a high desire for internet intimacy. It doesn't have to be sexual (well, not all the time), but it has to be something: an e-mail about [her] day, a new joke, an hour of IM before (or from) bed. Relationships nowadays are almost completely online [anyway]. With schedules as hectic as they are, and personal lives not meshing well with professional lives, most talking in a dating relationship, even in real life, is done over IMs throughout the day or e-mails in the evening."
23 April, 2005
Just curious: how easy is it to get a 'platinum' credit card?
Are they really considered a status symbol, or are are they just a marketing gimmick, as rare and as difficult to obtain as cheese?
20 April, 2005
Another eBay parasite is selling one of the unofficial concert recordings I put into free circulation. This one's even less subtle than most, as the auction is accompanied by an image of the back cover artwork (the original of which I can produce on demand), prominently displaying my signature and, in block capitals, 'NOT FOR SALE'.
I've reported such auctions before, and eBay haven't shown the remotest interest. I reported this one anyway, as it's so blatent even eBay mightn't be able to turn a blind eye, but the reporting procedure has been 'streamlined'. Previously, one provided the auction number and an description of the problem, but now one merely submits an auction number under a very broad complaint category, with no opportunity to explain further. A member of eBay staff giving the listing a cursory glance isn't going to spot the supplementary information I'd be able to provide. Hopeless.
As I said last time: If you've reached this blog entry whilst researching the item before buying it - do not buy it. Contact me instead.
Never, ever buy bootlegs. Anything a commercial bootlegger may offer at a price is always available for free (well, the cost of blank CD-Rs and postage) from a trader.
Paradoxically, the person who brought this to my attention has been a known bootlegger too, specialising in the same band – could they be turning on one another?
Update 21/04/05: The auction's been closed a day early; I couldn't say whether by eBay or the seller.
Incidentally, I've just noticed that the person who brought the matter to my attention is on the bootlegger's 'Feedback' page as having been the winner of an earlier auction for a copy of exactly the same item. He spent $26 for something I'd trade for free. D'oh!
19 April, 2005
None of the above
Yet again, it's anticipated that voter turnout will be very low in the forthcoming general election. Some of the non-voters will be acting deliberately, actively withholding their votes, rather than passively just not bothering to vote. Not Apathetic provides a non-judgmental* opportunity for them to state their motivations.
Incidentally, this entry's title is slightly misleading, but gives me an opportunity to mention that a spoiled vote is counted, so it is almost possible to vote for 'none of the above'.
I, almost certainly, will be voting, but I certainly identify with many of those posting at the site.
*: Okay, and an opportunity for other visitors to judgmentally question those motivations.
10 April, 2005
The core of this evening's meal was prawn fishcakes from Sainsburys. The packaging states:
Caught in the North Atlantic and Cultivated in Ecuador or Indonesia
Not 'processed', but 'cultivated', which implies that live prawns (31%) and/or hake (14%) were transported halfway around the world and er, cultivated before being turned into fishcakes and sent all the way back.
Explain, making use of maps and the the phrase 'food miles'. You may turn over the monitor now.
2 April, 2005
You're not doing it properly!
I've just discovered that a typical American teabag contains a mere 2.1g, whereas a standard British teabag (which doesn't have a superfluous tag and string) holds 50% more, 3.1g.
That explains a lot.
31 March, 2005
Get 'em while they're... too late
'Hot cross buns' are, well, currant buns with a dough cross across the top. At least in the UK, they're traditionally eaten (toasted and buttered) around easter.
'Hot cross pies' are a marketing gimmick invented by a certain exceedingly mass-market baker/confectioner. They're standard individual fruit pie cases simply filled with currants and with a cross cast into the pastry of the lids. The result is a less than tempting hybrid of mince pies (a specifically christmas tradition) and Eccles cakes (a Lancashire invention, comprising currants in puff pastry).
I'm not a major fan of confectionry, and tend to avoid the products of this particular manufacturer as I find their excessive packaging objectionable. A pack of six pies comprises a plasticised, foil-embossed cardboard box with a plastic window showing the product: six individual pies in individually-sealed plastic tubs. What a waste of materials, energy, time and landfill space.
However, I couldn't avoid noticing these 'hot cross pies', as the shop on campus has a mountain of them at the checkout, all about to pass their sell-by date. A popular product, then.
Incidentally, it's a pre-christian tradition to bake buns in honour of the spring goddess Eostre – in the same way as christians stole her name for their festival, they appropriated the buns, too. One story alleges that the early clergy, having failed to suppress the pagan bunmaking tradition, perverted it by blessing the buns and marking them with the cross. However, other accounts state that the cross had always been added anyway, in homage to the sun, seasons and femininity.
24 March, 2005
Banksy does NYC
I've mentioned before that I like the subversive art (often aka graffiti) of Banksy; his 3½ tonne bronze statue of Justice, skirt raised to reveal pvc thigh boots (not leather - c'mon, BBC!), was particularly good, and his stencil graffiti is inspired.
London is his usual canvas, but he 'hit' New York last week, installing his own exhibits unobtrusively alongside the 'real' ones in the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History on 13 March. The Met's was removed by staff that morning, MOMA's lasted three days, and at the time the Wooster Collective reported the event on 23 March, the remaining two were still in place.
As Green Fairy says: wonderful.
24 March, 2005
I so want to change the Psychology Department's FAQ page, entitled 'Your Questions Answered', to 'Your Answers Questioned'.
But I'm a professional and would never do such a thing.
23 March, 2005
The almighty boing
Spring has definitely sprung. By the calendar, the vernal equinox was last Sunday and, for once, seemed to coincide with the sudden onset of spring. On Saturday I noticed green in a hawthorn hedge in Caton which had been entirely bare the week before.
The weather is suddenly much milder, too. I'm keeping my waterproofs handy, but I'm no longer wrapping a scarf around my face for the ride to work, and have gone back to lightweight cycling gloves rather than heavier thermal ones. At home, I've turned off the central heating timer, just manually switching the boiler on for half an hour or so each evening as required. Less than a fortnight ago the house was as tightly sealed from the outside world as possible (i.e. not very!) and the heating was on full-time during the evenings and weekends. Now I'm sleeping with the window open.
10 March, 2005
That was quick!
I've been using Amazon's free delivery service, whereby orders totalling £19 or more are delivered within 3-5 days for free, for so long that I'd forgotten how fast the full-price (first class post) service can be. I ordered a CD yesterday for Fi's birthday (I'll take the risk of presuming she won't see this, and say it's Depeche Mode's 'The Singles 86>98', apparently for the track Marilyn Manson covered), but I've left it a bit late to risk the slower option, and paid for delivery. It arrived within twelve hours.
8 March, 2005
In December I noticed that because I always held my toothbrush in the same hand, I was applying less pressure to certain areas of my mouth, eventually resulting in slight discoloration. I immediately started to routinely switch hands halfway through, for even coverage. At first it was awkward, but this morning I realised that I can no longer remember which was the dominant hand (probably the left).
If there's any point to this entry, it's to record that it's taken less than three months of twice-daily practice to become ambidextrous in a simple, repetitive task.
6 March, 2005
And another Mothers' Day thing...
Am I the only one to think it a bit odd for a high-street window display to market nipple tassels as an appropriate Mothers' Day gift?
2 March, 2005
I discovered this Latin quiz at the BBC website a full month late, but it taught me something new: that 'a.m.' is the abbreviated form of 'ante meridiem'.
I knew it was 'ante', not 'anti' (which apparently confuses some people), but without really thinking, I'd always merely presumed that the second word was 'meridian', which, now that I have thought about it, plainly makes no sense!
Keep challenging assumptions....
1 March, 2005
Ugh. Teenage skin.
At present, I'm processing photos of the College JCR Exec (student representives, organisers of sporting/social events, etc) for posters and the website.
It's a fairly easy task, if time-consuming:
- Correct brightness (the photos were taken with flash, by someone who didn't know the flash range of the camera).
- Correct colour (brightness correction leaves an excessively pink cast to faces).
- Correct red-eye.
- Whiten teeth (not because they're discoloured, but because the flash had left odd shadows).
- Correct skin blemishes.
It's that last one which is the problem. Some of the JCR Exec are 18-19 years old, with the skin problems typical of that age. I can easily clean up each image, but should I? The subject of a photo would probably welcome my hiding a single pimple, but if someone has worse problems, a sanitised image might look odd, and merely emphasise that the real person's skin isn't so good.
I think I'll have to leave it.
28 February, 2005
What a way to go
Over the past week, parts of the UK have been experiencing "heavy" snowfall*, but here in Lancaster we haven't even received a light dusting. I believe it's partly due to proximity to the Irish Sea, but even if snow falls, it's extraordinary for significant amounts to stick. Elsewhere, though, there have been deaths. A man in Yorkshire died last week after sledging into a tree, and, bizarrely, a child died at the weekend after being crushed by a snowball.
A snowball weighing a quarter of a tonne.
*: I put "heavy" in quotes because in global terms the UK has received a trivial quantity of snow; it's just that our infrastructure and common sense simply aren't geared up to real winter weather, so a light dusting causes problems and a couple of feet brings everything to a standstill.
24 February, 2005
Blackfield, the collaboration between Steven Wilson and Aviv Geffen, have been obliged to abbreviate their planned US tour in March. Shows featuring the five-member electric band have had to be replaced with a smaller number of concerts given by just SW and Geffen, playing acoustically. The reason? Unexpected overwhelming difficulties in obtaining visas to work in the USA. The band have said that if they'd known, they wouldn't have booked a tour at all.
I've posted about this issue of visas for musicians before, but coincidentally, the Guardian covered it too last Wednesday.
One slight compensation is that the difficulties may be resolved in time for Blackfield to support SW's other band, Porcupine Tree at a few shows on their tour in May/June. Sources close to Porcupine Tree have stressed that this would only be at specific concerts, and that Blackfield wouldn't be supporting the whole tour.
Credit is due to them for not being deterred by the hostility of the US immigration authorities. Many others would have - understandably - decided not to bother with 'Fortress USA' again.
Incidents like this can only reflect badly on the USA. I know that I regarded the country... less than favourably until I visited New York last Oct-November and gained a little more appreciation of something I already knew: that the US people aren't the US government, and the former shouldn't be penalised for the activities of the latter. Yet from here in the UK, we only get to see the ugly external face, which is a shame.
18 February, 2005
The end of the world is nigh
They're going to stop selling Smarties in tubes!
The colourful sugar-coated chocolate oblate spheroids (eh? squashed spheres) have been in cardboard cylinders (closed with cardboard at one end, plastic at the other, with a lowercase letter on the inside of the lid. Collect them all. I didn't.) since before I was a child - since 1937, in fact.
Yet in order to "ensure the brand remains 'fresh and interesting' to youngsters", aka invent work to justify the marketing department's existence, Nestlé Rowntree is to replace the tube with a hexagonal (or six-sided, as the BBC adds helpfully) pack with a cardboard flip-top. Admittedly, dumping the plastic lid will have a slight environmental benefit, but "this is a sad day for British culture" (heh). Not only are the tubes simply regarded with affection by several generations, they've been instrumental in millions of craft projects and even charity fund raising activities.
Someone has commented at the BBC website that there should be a boycott of Nestlé products as a protest. Well, some of us do that anyway, over the baby milk issue, but it's an understandable reaction.
Note that this has nothing do do with the US Smarties, an entirely different product.
14 February, 2005
Ignore this entry; I'm just experimenting with Google and Movable Type, by checking the indexing of these earlier entries: Manchester photos 23 January and Manchester photos 24 January, in conjunction with the word 'haddock', for reasons I probably won't bother to explain.
12 February, 2005
Your call is very important to us
Quoted at This Is Broken [16/04/08: Site dead, so link removed], Paul Roub articulates a thought that's occurred to me a few times, but which I've always forgotten immediately afterwards.
When one rings a company and joins the queue waiting to speak to an operator, muzak is played. It's easily tuned-out, but is adequate indication that one is still in the system and hasn't been cut off.
Hence, there's no need for the muzak to stop every 15-20 seconds and a voice to say 'you're still on hold'. As Paul observes, one can proceed with another task whilst half-listening for the muzak to stop, but one has to give full attention to the recorded voice, just in case it's actually the operator responding for real. The muzak is okay, whereas the voice recording is unnecessarily obtrusive.
I also often think that being put on hold is a deliberate tactic to 'soften up' callers, and sometimes wonder whether there really is a queue of other people.
If the phone was answered immediately, I'd know what to say and how best to express it, but after fifteen minutes on hold, my mind has wandered and I'm probably less in control of the ensuing conversation. Likewise, an irate customer might be calmed by a long wait.
In a sense, it's in the interests of a call centre operator to let the phone ring for a while, irrespective of genuine workload.
8 February, 2005
Most accidents are in the home
The Guardian reports that the number of burns received by making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (today) may exceed those on Bonfire Night (5 Nov.), though obviously the likelihood of serious injury is less. Still, take care, eh?
21 January, 2005
There will now be a short interval
20 January, 2005
Don't stoop to their level
I don't remotely support the tactics, nor particularly the cause, of campaigning group (aka irresponsible, self-publicising idiots) 'Fathers4Justice', but the comments of Yvonne Roberts in the Guardian are deeply unhelpful.
In accusing the government of surrendering concessions to the campaigning group, she complains that:
Divorced mothers who defy court orders will be tagged and kept to a night-time curfew. They may be fined - a great help to children probably already reared on a much reduced family budget. Or ordered to spend Saturday afternoons doing community service while dad has the offspring.
Read that first line again: "... mothers who defy court orders..."
. Of course they should be penalised, then! If a court has found against them, they are obliged
to comply. Mothers aren't above the law.
The bulk of the article - which manages to at least mask her emotive bias - seems more reasonable (apart from a blatent misrepresentation of statistics), but that introduction can only alienate, as does her closing metaphor of "mummy in the stocks". Don't be so ****ing melodramatic. The last thing this issue requires is incitement to further hostility.
18 January, 2005
In case it's unclear, the Ministry is British, with Brit English spellings. I see from my logs that someone repeatedly searched the site for 'medieval history' this morning, and left unsatisfied, as the only references here are to 'mediæval'. Likewise, if you're looking for 'esthetic'', try 'aesthetic'. I can't think of others as I write, but I'll probably amend this entry to add others appearing in the logs, so future searchers at least find this entry, and know how to rephrase enquiries.
I don't think it's relevant to the blog (but it is to other Ministry departments), but all abbreviated dates are in the non-US form dd/mm/yy - never mm/dd/yy.
Hmm. 'Mediæval history' wouldn't have been found either. There seems to be a slight flaw in the MT search function: the ligated 'æ' isn't recognised. One would need to expressly use the html character entity, and search for 'mediæval'. I'll try to avoid it in future. More common accented characters e.g. 'é' are accepted.
Please also note that the search feature of the blog only searches the blog, not the other departments. They have their own Google Site Search (which searches the blog too!). Hence, 'bourée' (even misspelled as 'bouree') will be readily found via that search, but will return no results at all here.
There's minimal crossover between the blog and other departments, (negligible mentions of Jethro Tull here!), so on the whole, the necessity of excluding non-blog pages from the blog search isn't usually a problem.
17 January, 2005
Just as I start wearing a high-visibility jacket for cycling*, Jon Ronson suggests in the Guardian that dayglo garments have become ubiquitous in urban areas so are barely noticed.
To become practically invisible, wear a workman's safety jacket.
I'd agree, to an extent. It's not that one doesn't see the jacket, it's that the mind can readily categorise the wearer and switch attention to something else. However, that same argument weakens Ronson's closing presumption:
Throughout the early 1990s, cyclist and motorcycle deaths fell year on year. Then, from 1995, they began to rise. It isn't that cyclists have stopped wearing high-visibility jackets. The problem, perhaps, is that the opposite is true.
That's fitting a credible hypothesis to observed data, but it isn't necessarily causal. That is, the number of fatalities have increased, but there's no evidence of a link to jacket usage.
I'd suggest that a pedestrian sees and ignores a workman in a high-visibility jacket because he (or she, obviously) isn't directly relevant, whereas a driver sees a cyclist and pays more attention to a potential hazard - the cyclist is
*: I was a little dismissive of such garments when I first mentioned (sixth paragraph) the possibility of my getting one, but:
a) I don't (knowingly) let idealism interfere with pragmatism - cyclists shouldn't have to make an extra effort to assist car drivers, but I'd rather do so than visit Intensive Care.
b) I chose a sleeved jacket rather than a waistcoat, so I now have an extremely lightweight, supposedly showerproof jacket to carry in a pocket or daypack on summer cycle rides, 'just in case', when I wouldn't want to take a heavier jacket.
16 January, 2005
Something which annoys me disproportionately:
The off-road sections of cycle path between Lancaster and the University are shared use; pedestrians on the western side of the tarmac, bikes on the eastern. That's bikes on the left, pedestrians on the right as one faces the University, and vice versa facing the other way - bikes on the right, pedestrians on the left. It's not 'keep left' - pedestrians ought to keep to the same side in both directions. Bikes should only cross over to pass, then return to the bike side.
Okay, it's trivial - I did say "disproportionately" - but still, grrr!
25 December, 2004
Slime on weed
I'm a little surprised it hasn't happened before now, but one of the 'Ministry weeds', the unofficial concert recordings I 'remastered' (cleaned up the audio and indexed into separate tracks) and distributed for free amongst CD-R traders, with artwork prepared by a professional graphic designer (er, me), is being sold on eBay by some parasitic ****.
Thankfully, it hasn't received any bids yet. The asking price is £17.95, or $34.72 - as I said, I made it available for free, and continue to do so.
As copyright holder of the artwork, I've contacted eBay, but the auction will probably close anyway before they respond.
If you've reached this blog entry whilst researching the item before buying it - do not buy it. Contact me instead.
Never, ever buy bootlegs. Anything a commercial bootlegger may offer at a price is always available for free (well, the cost of blank CD-Rs and postage) from a trader.
20 December, 2004
Before going on holiday, it's advisable to learn how to use one's camera. It's also a good idea to check the camera is functioning correctly at the time the photos are taken.
It's less advisible to return with 110+ images of a foreign city, all captured using the macro setting (i.e. with focus fixed 10-20cm from the lens), then expect one's friendly neighbourhood Photoshop user to 'fix' them.
I can offer sympathy, but nothing else, I'm afraid.
19 December, 2004
Let me get this straight.
You receive a free personal audio player in return for my personal and financial details?
17 December, 2004
That kettle's not so white
Speaking of marketing, I was distracted by the claims of one company a while ago. I've mentioned before that I like Kettle Chips, which are sold under the slogan and ethos of "Real ingredients. Real taste" (and "No science. No fiction. Real.", whatever that means).
I have no reason to doubt their claims that they use all-natural ingredients*, without flavour enhancers (apart from salt and sunflower oil), and that the cooking vats are stirred and monitored by humans rather than machines (not necessarily a selling point, as far as I'm concerned. Why is automation a problem?).
The declared nutritional information on each packet reports that they contain significantly less salt and fat (especially saturated) than other types of crisps (US: chips).
However, these merits obscure a less favourable aspect. The Guardian reports that the US Food and Drugs Administration ranks them amongst the highest 1% of 700 foodstuffs tested for acrylamide.
Animal testing has shown acrylamide to be carcinogenic and able to cause nerve damage (at high concentrations - let's not panic. The article also mentions that an acrylamide derivitive is used in cosmetics, packaging materials, plastics, and grouting agents, but the same can be said of dihydrogen monoxide aka water).
The point is that acrylamide probably isn't A Good Thing to consume, and Kettle Chips contain 1,265 parts per billion, compared to 117-155 ppbn for chips (US: fries) from big-name fast-food restaurants.
The Kettle Chips marketing strongly emphasises health aspects, but that's not the full story. I have to confess it fooled me.
I tend to spurn mass-media news coverage for much the same reason: it's not necessarily untruthful (though I think it often is), but a partial story can be misleading too.
*: 'all natural' is a claim which deserves an entry to itself some time (I covered it broadly here), but to summarise, I regard it as over-emotive double-talk. Many harmful substances are natural, and many favourable natural ingredients can be synthesised; 'natural' isn't a synonym of 'good', and the converse.
16 December, 2004
Don't take it personally
Ha! Within a day of my commenting that US domestic politics might be of limited relevance to a UK musician, this blog's rating at BlogExplosion plumetted from '9/10' to '6/10'. Oversensitive readers, or downright vindictive? You decide.
That posting wasn't criticism, folks, just an acknowledgement that US affairs aren't at the forefront of minds outside the USA.
14 December, 2004
A thing of beauty
The BBC reports that the Millau Viaduct in southern France, the tallest road bridge in the world (23m taller than the Eiffel Tower), has been inaugurated, and will open to traffic on Thursday.
Some have criticised its imposition into otherwise relatively undeveloped countryside, but I think it's an elegant supplement to the landscape, certainly not a detraction.
7 December, 2004
Not broken, just different
This Is Broken [16/04/08: Site dead, so link removed] inadvertently highlights a difference in acquired visual shorthand between N.America (and to an extent, the UK) and mainland Europe (well, at least France).
The example given is of a French street sign, incomprehensible to those in the USA and to me in the UK, but utterly obvious, "even to little children" in France. The difference in perception is striking.
The reason, as Robby explains in the comments at 'This Is Broken', is that in the USA and UK, a line drawn across a symbol generally means 'no' or 'forbidden', whereas in France, the line is understood to mean 'end'. A sign displaying the word 'Paris' with a line through it would indicate one is leaving Paris.
A UK exception would be the 'national speed limit applies' sign, which could be interpreted as 'zone of previously specified speed restriction ends'. However, the sign itself, a black diagonal across a plain white circle, is non-intuitive anyway, so one would just have to know it, rather than be able to deduce it's meaning.
27 November, 2004
Since I happened to name several UK TV weather forecasters in an earlier posting, I've received quite a few visits via Google searches for their names (typically of the form '[name]+photos'). They seem to occur in bursts of several for a particular person in one week, then none for that meteorologist for a couple of weeks, then another grouping.
I've only just realised this probably corresponds to their duty rota! From the data, I'd say that Helen Willetts has covered the entire country for the BBC this week, whilst Northern England has seen outbreaks of Jo Blythe on ITV.
24 November, 2004
Promote literacy for free
For personal reasons it wouldn't be fair to publicise, I already support The Breast Cancer Site, even though it's USA-specific. I noticed today that there's an associated scheme, The Literacy Site, which helps to distribute books to children (the site is experiencing server flaws today, so I don't know where the books go). Just click to send books; visitors aren't asked for direct donations.
[Update 2/12/04: Link removed; see why.]
There are a number of charities I don't support*, but literacy is an issue I personally value, and which can often be overlooked in favour of more fundamental concerns such as food and water.
*: I feel it more appropriate to give a meaningful amount to a small number of charities I particularly support, than to give pennies to a wide range of causes, having a negligible impact on any.
Hence, I actively support certain medical charities, but will almost always decline to give to charities focusing on children, animal welfare or the homeless. Unlike the categories mentioned below, I don't oppose these causes, but I do feel one has to prioritise, according to one's own conscience and concerns.
I don't support charities addressing concerns which I feel should be addressed by the state.
I never support charities with religious affiliations e.g Cafod, Salvation Army.
I don't support the objectives, and certainly not the methods, of environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace or Friends Of The Earth.
16 November, 2004
Blair isn't Britain
I don't plan to comment on this extensively, but Urban Fox has gone to the effort of writing a reasonably fair summary of the current party political system in the UK, thereby saving me the trouble of doing so myself. It might be of use to non-Brits interested in our system.
Had I written it, it would have been in this context: the commonly-expressed view that the UK and USA have stood 'shoulder to shoulder' in Iraq, particularly in the run-up to the war, is a misconception.
As Urban Fox's text explains, the UK population don't directly elect the Prime Minister.
We vote for a Member of Parliament (MP), a local representative who nominally serves as our intermediary at Westminster. Last time, Lancaster elected Hilton Dawson, and Sedgefield elected Tony Blair.
Thereafter, the public don't get to vote on issues; our MPs do so on our behalf. However, MPs aren't free agents, they're affiliated to political parties.
The party with most constituency MPs becomes the Government, the party in second place is the official Opposition.
The leader of the governing party (him/herself a constituency MP, elected in exactly the same way as any other) automatically becomes Prime Minister (PM) and appoints favoured colleagues to ministerial posts.
Once Prime Minister, it is quite possible for an individual - one man or woman, alone (or with advisors, typically unelected) - to force through a policy. Blair controls Labour MPs in a way Bush can't control Republican Senators/Representatives.
If the PM decides on a policy, and presents it in a sufficiently emphatic manner, his/her MPs are trapped. They either reject it, and make the PM, and hence Party, look foolish in front of their political enemies and the public (and face internal disciplinary consequences, and discard any career aspirations they might have had), or vote the way they're told. Few choose the former. The Labour party has a clear majority in Parliament, so the PM's policy becomes law.
So, it would probably be fair to say Blair and Bush stand 'shoulder to shoulder', but that isn't automatically analogous to entire nations. The view of Parliament isn't always that of the people on specific issues, and in this case the actions of the PM don't necessarily represent the true will of Parliament.
I'm scrupulously avoiding an outright statement of my view. This might seem anti-war, to a reader with an agenda, but I definitely haven't said anything in this posting to justify that presumption.
I have no party affiliation and my own opinion simply isn't relevant here - I'm merely saying that it's unsafe to assume the UK population as a whole support current actions in Iraq, or ever did.
[Clarified and continued]
27 October, 2004
About a year ago, a major multinational company ran a promotional campaign. The title of the campaign, and a microsite at the company's website, was a fairly common everyday phrase; for the sake of narrative, let's call it 'Herding Cats', though that isn't the actual term.
I found the campaign interesting, and mentioned it in the blog. I used the phrase as the entry title, and it's in the URL of the microsite (e.g. www.giantcorp.com/herdingcats/), but the phrase didn't appear even once within the 153-word entry itself (purely by chance; it's so generic I didn't even think about it).
Last night I received an e-mail from a total stranger, an author in the USA (I'm in the UK) who alleges that the phrase is a registered trademark, that anyone would need express permission to use the phrase in a blog or other publication, and that I should remove the phrase from my website within five days or face legal action.
This is utterly ludicrous, in several respects.
It's a common phrase. A quick Google search finds 61,900 results for 'herding cats' and 678,000 results for the real phrase i.e. the real phrase is over ten times more generic than 'herding cats'.
I'm not remotely challenging anyone's copyright/trademark. Had I published a book with that title, or opened a shop with that name, there'd be cause for complaint, but all I'm doing is reporting someone else's promotional campaign. If there's any dispute, it's with the global megacorporation. I'm confident the lawyers of a major multinational would have checked this sort of thing in advance, and evidently decided they're able to use the phrase.
In that Google search, I see that the no.2 result is a book by the alleged trademark owner (though let's remember that I have no proof that such a trademark has really been registered, by the person claiming to have done so, nor that the sender of the e-mail really was that person). The no.3 result is that promotional microsite of the multinational. Yet the number one result is an entirely different book, by a different author, published two years before the complainant's. The no.4 result is an unrelated article using that title, in a UK national newspaper which happens to have a renowned legal team....
At no.13 is my blog entry. At no.14, the complainant's website. I must stress that this is just the way things worked out. I have made no attempt whatsoever to optimise my page for that search term; I used the phrase once in the title, it's in the link URL of the multinational, the blogging software (Movable Type) automatically used the entry title as the html page <title>, and one word of the phrase is used in the text, once, in isolation (the single word gives 24.7 million results at Google), but that's it.
The context is entirely different. If I'd used a trademarked phrase, even an everyday phrase which has become associated with a particular company (e.g. 'where do you want to go today?' or 'because you're worth it') to sell a competing product, okay; that's what trademarks are designed to prevent. I had never even heard of the complainant, the book or the website; their subject area is one in which I have no involvement.
Even if I had used a trademarked term (and I do not agree that I did) in a directly related subject area, even writing about the book itself, that's fair use. I wouldn't be claiming exclusive use of the phrase, it would only be for purposes of comment/review, which is permitted. In this entry, for example, I've name checked Google six times, but don't feel it necessary to have contacted the company for permission.
It seems this is merely an entirely spurious and extremely rude attempt to bully oneself to a higher Google page rank, not by optimising the website or link popularity, but by attempting to force everyone else off the Google database. It doesn't work that way.
The manner of the approach is also an issue. A polite e-mail asking me to modify my page (let's face it, the phrase is of no importance to me) might - might - have received a favourable response, but when the first contact is an threat and demand that I take certain action, I won't even dignify it with a response, other than writing about it here.
26 October, 2004
Dogs and masters
There's an ex-colleague I still see occasionally, at parties hosted by mutual acquaintances. In a work context, I've just spoken to his immediate boss. For a moment, I thought I was speaking to the employee, not the employer - they have an identical, abrupt mode of speech.
There's probably some deep sociological significance to this acquired similarity, but I don't have time to pursue it today.
23 October, 2004
Ambient, as I tend to use it in the blog, refers to a musical style characterised by textures but no beat, which aims to create a mood or atmosphere; an ambience.
As World Wide Words clarifies, this isn't really the correct modern usage of the word: 'ambient' refers to the conditions surrounding an object. Hence, supermarket items which do not need refrigeration (sugar, canned tomatoes, etc.) are known by food technologists as ambient foods (strictly, ambient temperature foods).
Consequently, a purveyor of fresh, unchilled fish can be called an ambient fishmonger.
24 September, 2004
Incidentally, I'm very aware that several recent entries may seem unusually negative, perhaps even aggressive. Though I stand by the content, apologies if the tone has been off-putting - it's been a tough week, and frustrations/depression may be showing.
I'm working through a backlog of photo entries as I find time, so there should be more pretty pictures soon!
22 September, 2004
Blizg is weird
With a mere six positive, two negative and one 'remove' vote (that's only for dead links, you idiot!), the blog somehow rose to no.8 of 8,618 in the Blizg index. That's flattering, but not especially meaningful. Hence, I wasn't upset to notice that an additional negative vote at the weekend caused the rank to plummet to something like no.52.
I've just looked again, and have dropped off the top hundred ranking altogether. Votes only last three months, so one of the positives must have expired. It's an odd ranking technique, but I suppose it prevents a minority of sites from continuously accumulating points and becoming permanent fixtures, and unfair negative votes aren't permanently damaging, either.
Needless to say, I wouldn't spurn positive votes ;) but I'm not exactly going to become paranoid about my position in such a volatile ranking. Perhaps it would be more relable if more people voted for (or against) more sites, reducing the impact of individual votes in a larger sample of true consensus.
As Blizg says:
If a blog is ranked higher, it doesn't mean it's 'better'... it just means more people voted it up. Please do not correlate Blizg rankings with worth. The two are not related. Besides, voting is just one aspect of Blizg. Using metadata to find blog relationships should be the real focus of this site.
13 September, 2004
Free delivery at Amazon
I suppose this is an advert in a sense, but it's also a useful piece of information I do want to pass on.
Amazon have dropped the threshold of their free delivery service, from £25 to £19 (odd figure), so one needs to order a little less in order to qualify. I had noticed that £25 was an awkward figure: two CDs might cost in the region of £20-22, and I'd usually have to delay an order until there was something else I wanted (I'm pretty sure I've never bought anything I wouldn't otherwise have purchased, simply to qualify for free delivery).
4 September, 2004
Laïcité - wassat?
As a couple of people have requested, a definition of the word 'laïcité', which I used a couple of days ago:
In France and some other French-speaking countries, Laïcité is a prevailing conception of the separation of church and state and the absence of religious interference into government affairs (and conversely). The concept is related to secularism, but does not imply hostility towards religious beliefs. [I don't think 'secularism' implies hostility either - NRT]
The term 'laïcité', in its current sense, implies free exercise of religion, but no special status for religion: religious activities should submit to about the same set of laws as other activities and are not considered above the law. The government refrains from taking positions on religious doctrine and only considers religious subjects from their practical consequences on the inhabitants' lives.
Laïcité does not imply, by itself, any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It is essentially a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences).
When it comes to individuals, the French consider religion a private matter whose ostentatious display is generally out-of-place.
Me too. I have no problem with other people having religious beliefs, so long as I don't have to hear about them.
Coincidentally, Anders quoted this same definition earlier in the week. I suppose it's not too surprising, as the subject is in the news at present. Or maybe we were both divinely inspired ;)
29 August, 2004
New Olympic sport?
Almost a quarter of a century ago, Dirk Van Loon wrote an indispensible guide to Small-scale Pig Raising. It's scandalous that pig lifting has yet to be represented in any major international sports tournaments, even as a modest demonstration event, as the title seems to suggest (unless there's an advantage to lifting pigs with a slight skin disease?).
Now, don't start.
4 August, 2004
Can anyone think of a Brit English word which is plural when spelled out in full, but singular when abbreviated (not counting acronyms)?
The example which sparked discussion at the weekend was 'mathematics', abbreviated to 'math', but that's US English, and in UK English, simply wrong.
Incidentally, to tie up that example, Mathematics is definitely a plural - it's the combination of the three mathematical sciences of arithmetic, geometry and analysis (algebra, etc.). There are individual mathematical sciences (though it's an uncommon phrase), but there's no such thing as a mathematic, so 'math' is meaningless, or at least idiosyncratic.
13 July, 2004
First rule of marketing
It's hardly a secret that photos are often heavily retouched before publication, but it's relatively rare that a source image is available, allowing direct comparison with the final version. Here's a particularly blatant example.
The image on the left is a studio photograph of Keira Knightley, taken for use in material promoting her recent film, 'King Arthur'. On the right the same photo is incorporated into a poster. I've slightly blurred the backgrounds, for clarity. Click the image for a larger version.
I don't know who holds copyright, but I found these images at a fan site after seeing lower-res copies elsewhere.
Some have expressed doubt that they really are the same image, or that only the head is the same, superimposed onto a different body. However, the reason I can quote precise angles of rotation in the following paragraphs; indeed, the main way I noticed some of the smaller details, is that I superimposed the source and end images in Photoshop and reproduced the transformations myself. There's absolutely no doubt that one image is derived directly from the other.
A few changes are uncontroversial: the image has been rotated through 4.3° to improve the overall composition. The colour balance has been reddened to provide a warmer, subliminally more exciting tone and to draw together the disparate elements of the collage. The photo itself has been neatened slightly: a stray lock of hair has been removed, as has her sword. Unflattering details (e.g. a shadow in her armpit) have been diminished, whilst flattering ones (e.g. eyes and mouth) have been accentuated. Warpaint, worn in the film but not for the studio photo, has been added subtly.
However, the main changes go beyond 'accentuating'. Someone has decided that the slim actress doesn't quite meet the Hollywood ideal physique, so her breasts have been enlarged whilst her waist has been narrowed; not to the point of caricature, but when the source and end images are seen together, the manipulation is very obvious.
There's a second, deceptively simple trick. The whole photo has been rotated 4.3°, but the vertical line of her modified abdomen alters the apparent angle of her hips (by 8.3°, if anyone's counting). On the left, she's leaning into the bow, with slightly rounded shoulders. On the right she's upright, with shoulders seemingly further back, changing the... emphasis of the original pose.
I'll let others decide on the aesthetics, ethics or even necessity of this manipulation.
9 July, 2004
Not a Googlewhack
Think of two words. Search for them as a single phrase at Google. If only one web page in the entire Google database contains both of those words, and hence the results page shows 'Results 1 - 1 of 1', congratulations, you've found a googlewhack.
There are a few rules, though: the words have to be found naturally rather than in a forced search for a phrase, so the search can't include "quotes", the search terms have to be real words appearing at Dictionary.com, and the terms have to appear in a page containing genuine content, not merely a list of random words.
Well, I don't have one (not that I've looked), but it seems the Ministry contains something similar. According to my access log, at 22:28 this evening, a visitor found that of the 4,285,199,774 pages currently indexed by Google, only one contains the specific phrase:
"Bee with a green Head"
Thank you. I'm so proud.
2 July, 2004
Does anyone else find it oddly offensive to receive an internal e-mail beginning 'Dear Colleague'? It's as if the sender has so little consideration for the recipient that he/she can't even be bothered to offer a greeting ('Hello' is perfectly adequate), never mind use the person's name. If an external e-mail began so impersonally, there's a good chance that I'd register it as apparently generic and delete it unread.
It doesn't endear the sender to me, and certainly disqualifies the request from priority treatment.
Or maybe I'm just tired and irritable ;)
11 June, 2004
Eggs $4 a dozen
Aftenposten reports statistics from Eurostat which show that Norway has the most expensive food in Europe, a typical grocery bill being 56% above the EU average.
Is this news? I understand it's partly due to the generally high cost of living, but also the limited competition between a relatively small number of retail chains. For a while, it looked as if that might change, as Lidl, the German grocery retailer, is trying to enter the Norwegian market with 65 new stores.
However, local authorities are using planning regulations in an attempt to block the new stores and only this week, Aftenposten also reported that the established Norwegian retailers are openly forming a distribution cartel. With a population of only 4.5 million spread across a country over 1500 miles (2400km) long, getting goods to customers is a very significant constraint.
If competition leads to fairer prices for consumers, great, even if that means Lidl is treated unfairly, but it's interesting to see such practices are so overt; in the context of international trade and the EU (Norway isn't a member, and the latest polls were still 48% "Nei til EU"), this somehow feels parochial, even outdated.
3 June, 2004
D'you want to think about that?
The price of milk rose on campus recently, but the barcode readers in Spar have yet to be adjusted. If one buys a pint, the till says 34p, but the cashier knows to ask for 35p. If one buys a couple of items, the cashier doesn't think to add on the extra penny, so the old price stands.
Who's the fool: the Spar manager, who loses a penny on each transaction, or the customer who buys more that she would otherwise, just to feel smug about 'saving' an illicit penny?
Names omitted to protect the gullible.
29 May, 2004
I can see my house from here
In addition to the usual maps, Multimap.com now offers aerial photographs. I'm not sure what practical purpose they serve, and image resolution is poor (deliberately - they sell high-res images, but don't give 'em away!), but just for interest, I've compared my home area of Lancaster, NW England, UK to the village where I grew up, Northop Hall (Pentre Môch), NE Wales, UK. I found it interesting, anyway, though it mightn't mean much to those unfamiliar with the places.
2 May, 2004
More disappointed visitors
Since I made one posting about a pair of novelty boots, my visitor logs have been showing slightly odd, and definitely related hits. I don't mean one or two, but a distinct trend.
Either the world of boot fetishists is very small* and a single comment stands out, or they're very diligent searchers!
*: I understand that isn't the case; a fairly recent newspaper article (I don't remember which) claimed that a shoe fetish is one of the commonest.
30 April, 2004
According to Deutsche Welle, Poland's planned restriction on economic immigration from the current EU won't apply to nationals of Eire and the UK, countries which have not imposed barriers on the movement of workers from the new EU member states.
Which makes Helen's status as a Warszawa resident more secure. Good news.
23 April, 2004
Be like that, then
A certain band with a talent for self-promotion has a discussion forum on its official website, as do many other bands. From my server logs, I see that a posting at the forum must have commented on something in this blog, as there was a sudden slight increase in traffic (~30 visitors) from the same source. Curious, I tried to sign up to the forum.
I've been a member of several such groups over the years, so am accustomed to sign-up procedures. I'm also accustomed to this band's marketing tactics, so knew to offer only the barest minimum of personal details. Typically, there'd be registration page, a verification e-mail to ensure that some joker wasn't signing me up without my knowledge, then I'd be admitted to the group immediately.
However, the verification e-mail took a couple of hours to arrive, and then astonishingly demanded my name and full postal address. Once I'd provided such details, a moderator would consider the application within three days!
I don't think so. I'm sure the forum software records the login details and IP addresses of participants in case of abuse, so there's no need to collect postal addresses too, unless for marketing purposes, which I consider unacceptable. I'm not aware of any other forum with similar requirements.
Merely having a discussion forum is a valuable promotional resource, and an opportunity for the band to interact with the fanbase; one would think they'd welcome new members rather than impose barriers and lengthy delays. Obliging potential members to help create a junk mailing list is going too far.
Since even criticism is publicity, I'm not going to promote the band by naming it here.
18 April, 2004
Heh. It's always amusing to find that someone whom one hadn't realised reads the blog, does.
17 April, 2004
I've just noticed that, at the time of writing, 500,100 pages have been served to 145,822 visitors to the Ministry since 28 November, 2001.
Thanks, everyone. I hope you've found it worthwhile ;)
15 April, 2004
Changed BT tariff
This may seem an odd topic for the blog, but might be useful for those who haven't read the small print of their latest BT phone bills: the prices of a couple of core services are increasing on 1 August, 2004:
- The cost of a call to the Speaking Clock will double.
- A new charge will be introduced for call return. When one dials '1471' for the number of the last caller, that'll remain free, but if one then presses '3' to return the call, there'll be a charge of 6p (plus the cost of the call). That's not much, but totally avoidable if one breaks the connection and simply dials direct.
14 April, 2004
Not that Firefox
Anyone remember this? The 'Firefox F-7' electronic game, made by Grandstand in the early eighties and resident of a cupboard at my mother's house since then. I remember playing it, but even at the time I thought it repetitive and fairly boring. I've never been a big fan of computer games. I wonder whether this game had an influence on that fact.
Growing up in the eighties, this really is the nearest I got to computer games at that time, apart from 'Centipede' or 'Space Invaders' on my father's PC when I visited him each year. I vaguely remember seeing a Sinclair Spectrum while I was in primary school (i.e. pre-1983), but never had one myself. There were a couple of BBC computers at secondary school, but apart from one 'taster' session for everyone, I think they were only made available to pupils studying 'A'-level Mathematics (that's 'Maths' in English, emphatically not 'Math').
I was fairly familiar with WordPerfect 7 and by necessity DOS (no Windows!) by the time I got to University, again self-taught on my father's PC, but that really was it - Lotus 1-2-3 and various statistics packages were new to me. I remember actually being more experienced than my Part I colleagues, and an introductory word processing course was a compulsory element of the course. Thirteen years on, that's almost unimaginable.
I don't remember my first exposure to Windows, but 3.1 was on my first home PC, bought in 1993 at the start of my PhD. I had access to a Windows machine on campus, but most of my research group were hydrological modellers, so relied on scary unix boxes which I never even managed to log into.
I discovered e-mail at about the same time, but there really wasn't a reason to use it until ~1995. Likewise, my office PC was networked, but I couldn't see the point of browsing the internet in Mosaic, so it wasn't until ~1996 and Netscape ?2? that the web seemed vaguely attractive.
Things have changed!
6 April, 2004
Since the Tull Tour History includes some 80 instances of the Jethro Tull song 'Pussy Willow', it's unsurprising that a few Google searches for porn appear in my referral logs, but when have I ever written about 'back-door doggie'? Ah; it's picked up the Tull songs 'Back-Door Angel' and 'How Much Is That Doggie...?', both part of the 1974 set. Maybe that's what the enquirer was looking for, or maybe it was a carpentry issue. Maybe.
31 March, 2004
It's not something I'd noticed, but Cliff reports that the signs at express checkouts in the Lancaster branch of Sainsburys are deliberately ungrammatical in saying 'ten items or less'. He wrote to Sainsburys and was told that:
"... the way we communicate as a brand is based on the use of real english, we want to be clear, friendly and honest - like in a conversation with a friend. While 'fewer' may be grammatically correct, we believe using the word 'less' fits this criteria in a more realistic way."
Ignoring the multiple grammatical errors in that response, I rather agree with their point, surprisingly.
29 March, 2004
Anyone know of a good e-mail discussion group?
No, I'm not looking to join one, I'm just wondering if such a thing still exists, or whether discussion groups operating exclusively by e-mail have been superceded by web-based discussion boards with threaded topics and additional features.
I was a member of a particular group for several years. Based at Topica.com, it was essentially an e-mail discussion group; merely a hub for the archiving and distribution of messages. Many members received individual postings as e-mails, others received the messages concatenated into daily digests and - the option I chose - others read messages archived at the Topica website, receiving nothing by e-mail.
With declining activity on the part of the band, conversation had understandably drifted into tangential topics such as flute playing tips, US weather and progress reports on members' business ventures, becoming essentially a general meeting place for people who just happened to have occasionally overlapping taste in music. This was mildly annoying to those less interested in off-topic discussion, but not a problem as one could read the subject headers of the archived messages and ignore, well, the vast majority of postings; I made a rough estimate last week that relevant messages accounted for 10-12% of traffic.
Last week Topica changed its policy and began funding discussion groups by including an advert in the footer of every posting distributed by e-mail. The web interface had included a header banner and another 'skyscraper' ad for some time, but they were easily ignored and presumably because the list owner had chosen the 'individual e-mails' option, that hadn't been considered a problem. However, within 2-3 days of the first adverts appearing in e-mail, the group had moved to a different provider; the Topica account has just been closed. Fair enough, and this wasn't even the first time it had happened; Topica was the group's second home.
The problem is that the new system is exclusively an e-mail distribution system, without archiving or a web interface, so it's individual e-mails or nothing. Regretfully, I've chosen 'nothing'. I could delete the majority of messages unread, but I'd still have to receive them first, and dialup isn't free. I somehow resent having to pay to ignore postings about vegetarianism in Houston (nothing personal, Kaz; that's just an example). Individually, it's trivial, but at up to 25 messages per day, of which I might read one or two, it's just not going to happen.
So, to return to the initial question, is it unusual to still be running a discussion group solely by e-mail? Was this an extraordinarily retrograde move?
20 March, 2004
Backpacking? Not me, mate
As I write this, Jason and Hedley will be on the train to Inverness, a trip of eight hours from Lancaster, to begin a walk from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh i.e. across the entire width of Scotland, covering 70 miles in a week. Good luck, and have fun, gents, but I'm staying here!
I don't often walk with J, because we seek rather different objectives from the experience. J prefers to go to rather bleak, anonymous wilderness areas, specifically to get as far from 'civilisation' as possible. He also tends to walk at times of the year when there are few people about, mainly because the weather is so unreliable or downright bad. J receives pleasure from 'pitting man against nature'; he seems to positively enjoy walking and camping in bad weather, but I don't see the fun of wandering along in driving rain, wet and miserable, spending a cold night in a damp tent then - worst of all - putting wet clothes back on for a second or third day of walking. J also tends to go on backpacking trips over a full weekend, travelling to, say, Ennerdale in the Lake District on a Friday night, walking for a couple of hours, and camping somewhere remote. He'll then do a reasonably long walk on the Saturday (walking for the experience of walking, without going anywhere specific, such as a particular peak or remarkable viewpoint), camp again that night, and return to Lancaster on the Sunday.
I'm very much a day walker. I prefer to pick a day when good weather is expected, travel to, say, Langdale, also in the Lake District, do a decent walk to a dramatic peak with stunning views, then return home the same day. My lifestyle is such that I rather begrudge surrendering an entire weekend, but a single day out is great.
I do enjoy camping, very much, but social camping is very different to backpacking. I prefer to reach a campsite (typically offering toilets and running water) by car, erect tents, and primarily relax, talking around a barbeque or fire; it's quality time with friends, not the hardship of surviving with minimal resources. On a typical trip, A. and A. are kind enough to give me a lift, and their little car is totally filled by three people, tents, sleeping bags, inflatable mattress (theirs), sleeping mat (mine), folding chairs, a lot of food and cooking gear, alcohol, and clothes, all for one night out. In contrast, J and Hedley have one heavy rucksack each, containing absolutely everything for a week away.
It's certainly not that I walk less than them: the last time I was out with them, I'm slightly embarrassed to say I became annoyed by their slow pace and frequent rest stops, so I abandoned them and reached the top of Glaramara (781m) a full half hour before them. J visits a gym a few times each week, but I suspect he concentrates on weights rather than leg strength and aerobic capacity. Hedley is wiry and lives on nervous energy - he walks in bursts but can't maintain that pace. I cycle everywhere, at a decent speed. Medical advice recommends 20 mins of vigorous exercise three times each week; I manage about 30 mins per day! This means that, boasting aside, J and Hedley can't match my sustained pace. I tire, and struggle on long, steep ascents, but the difference is that I keep going.
During my PhD research, I more-or-less lived on an open moor for much of a five-year period. I won't go into detail about laying literally three tonnes of hand-mixed concrete underwater in January, nor having to repeatedly cycle seven miles in thigh waders to work in the middle of the night, but it's sufficient to say I had my fill of tramping across bleak moorland. I've served my time struggling against the conditions of upland Britain, and I no longer feel any desire to endure hardship simply for recreation. It's a lack of inclination, not inability.
15 March, 2004
I see a new series begins on ITV* on Thursday (19:30), about dangerous drivers (I think). One of the presenters is Cary Cooper; presumably he'll be covering the psychological aspects of the subject, as in addition to being a TV presenter, he's Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School. Another of his roles is the University's Pro-Vice-Chancellor ('Director' might be a comparable title in business) for External Affairs, for whom I've recently produced a web page.
To be more precise, it would be fair to (respectfully) say Prof. Cooper BSc, MBA, PhD, MSc, DLitt(Hons), DSc(Hons), AcSS, FBPsS, FRSM, FRSH, FRSA, CBE is the most spectacular over-achiever of whom I'm aware ;)
In earning those 67 letters after his name he has been the author of over 100 books, and has been been an advisor to such UN agencies as the World Health Organisation. I'm not going to explain all the acronyms, but the last is 'Commander of the British Empire', a splendid title which I believe to be just short of a knighthood.
A colleague speculated about his ability to relax, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised if he's written award-winning self-help manuals on relaxation technique ;)
*: For non-UK readers: we have four analogue TV national networks, a fifth which has patchy coverage (it isn't received in Lancaster), and numerous digital ones; ITV is the more populist independent national analogue network.
8 March, 2004
Thanks to this avatar generator, here's NRT!
My beard isn't really a goatee, though it is a little pointy and thinner at the sides. My hair is considerably longer than this, though I rarely wear it loose.
Have a go - see how accurate your avatar can be.
3 March, 2004
A slightly odd statistic from Lancashire County Council's self-congratulatory newsletter, 'Vision':
"Lancashire's investment in its 23 Household Waste Recycling Centres...
Considering the geographical area (3050 km²/1178 sq.miles) and population (1.4 million) of the county, that's pitiful.
... is certainly paying off, with the amount of rubbish being recycled at these sites being amongst the best in the country.
In six months over half the rubbish taken to the sites was recycled."
I don't understand. Either that means that nearly half of the recycleable waste has taken over six months to process, or that of the recycleable rubbish received by the sites over a six month period, almost half wasn't recycled after all.
Remember, this is "over half of the rubbish taken to the sites" for recycling, not "over half" of all rubbish, which would be more praiseworthy. If people are going to the effort of cleaning, collecting and delivering recycleable waste to designated centres, only for the Council to sent it to landfill or incinerators anyway, that's appalling.
29 February, 2004
This isn't 'new' news, but it's only just reached court: a 55-year-old woman appeared at Lancaster Magistrates Court this week, charged with 69 counts of animal abuse. Several months ago (before I started this blog, or I would have mentioned it at the time), the RSPCA raided her home, removing - from a standard-sized house - a total of:
- 22 shih tzus, 19 dachshunds, 7 Lhasa apsos, 41 bearded collies, 28 Yorkshire terriers, 12 chihuahuas, 20 Pekinese, 37 poodles, a corgi and 57 mongrels: that's 244 dogs;
- 16 birds;
- 5 cats and 2 kittens;
- 1 rabbit;
- 1 chinchilla.
I don't think I need to offer any comment on that....
[Update 10/6/05: For various reasons, the woman only faced nine charges of animal cruelty, and was sentenced today, to three months imprisonment plus a lifelong ban from keeping animals.]
28 February, 2004
Rock buns recipe
As requested (overtly and by search engine hits from the '+rock+buns+recipe' term), here's the recipe I've been using (2, 3) to make rock buns. Credit for the recipe goes to Harriet O., with suggested amendments by NRT (me!)
- 8 oz (225 g) self-raising flour
- ½ tsp. mixed spice
- 5 oz (150 g) butter [I've found 4 oz (110 g) cooks better, but tastes less rich]
- 5 oz sugar
- 5 oz dried mixed fruit
- 2 oz (55 g) cherries and/or mixed peel
- 1 egg
- milk to bind
- Preheat oven to gas mark 7 (220°C/425°F) [I've found this too high - the outsides are ready whilst the insides are still raw. Try gas mark 6 (200°C/400°F)].
- Mix the flour and spice. Rub in the butter.
- Add the remaining ingredients.
- Mix well, then add just enough milk to make it stick together [I haven't needed this, as the butter and egg provide sufficient binding].
- Separate into 8-10 "greedy sized lumps" or at least 12 "diet portions" [I've found that even smaller buns are better for cooking thoroughly, and have made 15-17].
- Place on a baking tray and cook for 12 mins [that's at gas mark 7; at gas mark 6, I've found 15-17 mins appropriate].
- Leave for a minute then cool on a wire rack.
6 February, 2004
What's a cockle?
It's become evident during the day that non-Brits, or maybe non-Europeans, don't recognise the word 'cockle'.
A cockle, Cardium edule, is a common edible European bivalve mollusc, having a rounded shell with radiating ribs. Think of the logo of the Shell petroleum company, and you have the approximate shape from the side, but whereas that logo shows the flat shell of a scallop, a cockle's shell is domed. Each animal has two of these shells (bivalve: marine or freshwater mollusc having a soft body with platelike gills enclosed within two shells hinged together), and seen end-on, the overall shape is that of a heart. I presume that's the derivation of the scientific genus name: 'kardia' is Greek for heart. I'd say that if a cockle is an inch across (2.8cm), that's a little larger than usual.
Cockles live on open sandy areas of the intertidal zone, feeding in shallow water when submerged and burying themselves just under the ground surface while the tide is out. Hence, they are relatively easy to harvest with a rake and bucket.
I say 'relatively' because working in an extremely exposed location, in all weathers, often knee-deep in wet sand/mud, is hardly an easy way to make a living, especially considering the inherent dangers of intertidal sand flats, with shifting patterns of gullies and patches of quicksand, and tides which may advance at over 3 mph (5 km/h) in Morecambe Bay, covering a vertical range of 10m (33').
I can barely imagine the horror of fleeing from a rapidly-advancing tide, to find that it has already filled the gullies between the cockle beds and the shore with fast-flowing deep water; the hopelessness of having nowhere to go as the ground begins to saturate, fluidise, and become fatal quicksand.
Why harvest cockles? They're edible. Relatively few people eat them nowadays, but I'm certainly one of them. Pickled in vinegar, they're delicious; a sharp, acid taste combined with the firm, meaty texture of lobster. I cook with them, but can't resist just picking them out of the jar and eating them 'raw' (they're pickled, so chemically cooked; the bottling process probably involves boiling water, too). Mussels (the large blue shells common on jetties and piers) are also fairly popular shellfish, but I find their soft texture unpleasant.
There's a trick to eating British cockles, which is essential if one is to succeed: don't think about their diet. The cockle beds of South Wales are in the Bristol Channel, 'downstream' of the cities of Bristol, Caerdydd (Cardiff) and Abertawe (Swansea). The North Wales beds are 'downstream' of Liverpool, Chester and minor coastal resorts with limited sewage treatment facilities. The Thames Estuary is, well, the estuary of the River Thames, downstream of 8-10 million human intestines.... More significant are the heavy metals in their environment, but shellfish are periodically checked by government scientists, to check for E.coli and compliance with (ahem) "end product standard requirements as specified in Schedule 5 of the Food Safety (Fishery Products and Live Shellfish) (Hygiene) Regulations, 1998" and there is strict regulation of which beds are safe (in terms of the product being edible) to harvest and when, so I doubt 155g (5.5oz) every couple of months will harm me.
Not worth the deaths of exploited teenagers, though.
3 February, 2004
New Chancellor for the University
So, the new Chancellor of Lancaster University is to be Sir Chris Bonington CBE, taking over the role from HRH Princess Alexandra who has been the Chancellor for the full 40 years since the University was founded.
For those who don't know already, Sir Chris Bonington is Britain's best known mountaineer, having led and made 19 Himalayan expeditions, including 4 to Everest (which he climbed at the age of fifty in 1985), and having made many first ascents in the Alps and greater ranges of the world. He has written fifteen books and frequently appeared on TV. His existing connection to the University is an honorary doctorate conferred (by Princess Alexandra) in 1983, plus work with the University to promote the region, especially the Lake District.
To further clarify, the Chancellor is the titular head of the University; metaphorically the Chairman rather than the Chief Executive, a role held by the Vice Chancellor. The Chancellor's most visible function is to preside over degree ceremonies. So he's not directly going to be my boss!
On the whole, I'd say Sir Chris is a good choice. There's a certain cachet in having a member of royalty as Chancellor, but with Princess Alexandra's decision to retire from the post, the challenge was to find a public figure combining a degree of gravitas (few events are more formal than a degree congregation) with public recognition and popularity, without descending into populism. I think that balance has been achieved.
My personal distaste for snobbery makes me a little uncomfortable about this, but having a respected Chancellor is rather important for the prestige of the institution. The whole charade of Princess Alexandra visiting with her personal maid and toilet seat (yes, really), and wearing brand new white gloves in case she touches commoners, is somewhat distasteful, but hey, how many University Chancellors are in the royal succession? Sir Chris can command as much respect, but more for his manner and achievements. That said, those who care about such things will get a warm glow from his resemblance to Edward VII....
22 January, 2004
Logo design trends
An overview of fifteen current trends in commercial logo design; not only useful for inspiration, but also a warning of what's becoming passe.
8 January, 2004
No doubt the foregoing two posts (1, 2) will attract accusations of being anti-American, but that genuinely isn't true.
There's a disturbing absolutist view that everyone is either entirely pro-American or entirely anti-American; all or nothing. To be 'pro-American' is to accept the whole package without hesitation or question; to express doubts about a single policy is totally 'anti-American'. That's obviously ludicrous, and hopefully a passing trend. Nowhere is perfect, no administration is infallible.
To question is healthy, both for the state and individual, in a free country. Fortress USA is a free country, isn't it?
14 December, 2003
Is this a good thing?
When this information was circulated via e-mail at work, I thought it had the characteristics of urban myth, even including 'friend of a friend' references, but having checked the website of the system's manufacturer, it seems true.
For much of its route through Lancashire, the M6 motorway has recently received upgraded signage, including the latest style of variable message signs. It seems these units also feature speed cameras*. These operate in a way that was totally new to me.
'Ordinary' speed cameras detect someone speeding, photograph the number plate, and the DVLA (UK Driver & Vehicle Licencing Authority) database identifies the person to whom a fine or court summons should be sent. The UK also has a 'points' system; in addition to a fine, speeding adds 3 (I think) points to the offender's licence; collect a dozen or so points, and the licence is invalidated. There are various means to resist these speed cameras, mainly involving travelling past them at legal speeds. As A. pointed out to me last night, on a motorway these cameras would be too dangerous, as drivers might be distracted by the camera flash or suddenly decelerate when they spot a nearby camera.
The new (to me) SPECS system works differently. Every single passing number plate is recorded, whatever the speed of the passing vehicle. There's no flash, and since it's a passive system, speed camera detectors won't work.
Some time later, the vehicle passes the next camera, and is logged again. The controlling computer then calculates the vehicle's average speed over the known distance between this and the previous 1, 2, 4, etc. cameras. If this average means the vehicle must have been speeding, an offence is recorded and the normal fine/points penalty is invoked.
This is quite a conceptual leap: logging vehicle registration numbers, and hence potentially logging peoples' locations at a given moment, irrespective of whether or not an offence has been committed. Logic dictates that once they're no longer needed, the data are deleted, but it wouldn't be difficult for the data to be cross-checked against a list of those the police/'security services' would wish to monitor, diverting the information to a different database.
Some would say that's a good thing, keeping suspected criminals and terrorists under observation, but the key word there is 'suspected', not proven, and there's a long history of 'the authorities' illicitly watching entirely legal dissenters - political activists, investigative journalists, even hippies.
Oh; one of those 'urban myth' details that initially made me doubt the whole story: allegedly there's no limit to the number of speeding offences that can be recorded, so if someone blasts past several monitored road sections in a single trip, multiple fines/penalty points will be incurred. There's a story of a commercial traveller who left home with a clean licence and returned at the end of the day having lost his licence, and hence job.
*: to clarify: I mean the gantries include mounting points for the SPECS cameras, in plain view, not that the signs themselves contain concealed cameras!
5 December, 2003
Spell checker or randomiser?
When spell checking that last post, it was suggested that 'lactose-intolerant' should be replaced with 'lightgoldenrodyellow'. What?
2 December, 2003
PVC storage - be aware
Most online retailers state that PVC should be stored in a garment bag away from other clothing, but I think Stormy Leather is the only one to explain why.
1 December, 2003
Those magnificent men in their crashing machines
This story in The Guardian proves that the age of the British eccentric isn't quite dead - nowadays he (and it usually is a 'he') simply makes a documentary. One could easily transfer the whole account back a century - it has all the essential elements: a long-term obsession; journalistic interest in (to the journalist) a whimsical, even trivial subject; a project driven by enthusiastic (but certainly not in an excitable way) amateurs; a degree of patriotism; rigid understatement; and several silly names.
26 November, 2003
Follow up: Socialise, or...
In case anyone's been waiting with bated breath, the missing student has been found, at his parents' home. He's been struggling with his course, and plainly isn't getting the vaguest support from his flatmates, so ran away from it all. It doesn't look like he's returning, or if he does it's rather too late to change degree course, so he might need to take a year out and start something new next year.
I believe this is something on which the UK and US higher education system differs. In the UK, a potential student applies to study a specific subject, such as Physical Geography. If accepted, in his/her first year the workload is usually divided equally three ways, between his/her admitting subject and two others; the student gets to choose the secondary subjects (within slight limitations), but the course units in all three subjects are compulsory. Hence, someone registered to study Physical Geography, and also taking Part One Human Geography and Geology, can't take a course unit in, say, Fine Arts.
In Part Two (years two and three), the student drops two subjects (one of which could conceivably be the admitting subject) and studies one as Major. He/she chooses from a range of course units - but within the Major subject alone.
Some courses are more restricted; Medicine, for example, demands 100% of a student's workload in Part One, so there are no Minor subjects. Other Majors only permit relevant Minors.
The negative side of all this is that sometimes a student finds a subject just isn't for him/her, but can't readily switch. As I understand it, the US system is based on credits, whereby the student chooses individual course units, and builds a degree from credits attained by passing those courses. If a student finds a course unit isn't in a subject he/she wants to pursue, it only affects that unit, and the student needn't take any more in that topic area. Not so in the UK - undergraduates have to specialise.
So, the student is alive and well, if stressed and unhappy. That doesn't diminish my concern at his flatmates' attitude - he's okay, but he mightn't have been. Students do go missing; within the last couple of years a very similar situation concluded with the body of a missing student being found in a ditch, and the two suicides on campus within the last year are just those I know about.
To put it in formal terms, the University, and College, has a duty of care to its students, but the students also have a duty of care to one another.
3 November, 2003
Semi-random observation of the day
Rubber gloves, as used to wash dishes, are textured for a reason.
2 November, 2003
Private world public - and always was
I don't think I'd heard of loganberries until I was in my twenties. In case you still haven't, they're almost identical to raspberries, only longer and less sweet. I first heard of them when my father started to grow them in his garden a few years ago, as his grandfather had done. I presume his mother, a keen gardener, did so too, but I was too young to register them being other than raspberries. My point is that until today I thought loganberries were unusual and little known.
I've just eaten a Sainsbury's low-fat fruit yoghurt, presumably produced in the tens of thousands and supporting a significant proportion of the British fruit growing industry. The flavour of this pot? Loganberry.
29 October, 2003
Why do goths wear stripey socks?
It's not a joke; I just don't see the inspiration or reasoning. There must be a reason, right?
NP: Staind, '14 Shades Of Grey'. Second run-through, and I still wouldn't rate it higher than 'inoffensive'.
17 October, 2003
Who the hell are you to speak?
At recent 'solo' concerts on his 'Rubbing Elbows' US tour, Ian Anderson has made offhand comments critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq situation. Though it seems no-one has challenged these comments to his face, Anderson has been heavily criticised on a discussion board, seemingly because a) he's not professionally involved in the situation, so is unqualified to speak and b) he's a 'guest' in the USA, so should defer to Americans, restraining his right to free speech.
It's remarkable that those expressing this criticism immediately go on to express, at great length, the alternative view that Bush is entirely right in all his actions, despite not being remotely better qualified to speak than Anderson (the commentators, I mean, not Bush. Then again...). It seems it's okay for the ignorant to preach half-truths, so long as it's an American expressing them.
Which itself highlights the other half of their dual hypocrisy: if Anderson 'shouldn't' express views critical of the Bush administration to a US audience, how can it be okay for certain Americans to push the contrary view in an international forum, where their 'Go USA!' attitude can cause just as much offence to non-US readers as Anderson's brief comments seemed to annoy certain oversensitive Americans?
Note that this isn't at all a statement of my own view on Bush, I'm only pointing out the hypocrisy of these critics.
Incidentally, those same comments made by Anderson were just as critical of Blair and Yeltsin, even dismissing the latter as a drunk - but they're not Americans, so it seems that's permitted.
NP: The chip fan
14 October, 2003
Caring for Your Introvert
If you want to know me better, try this remarkably accurate article. It's one of those profound pieces that seem obvious afterwards.
9 October, 2003
Speaking of numbers...
...it seems we failed to notice a big one yesterday; the Ministry received its 100,000th visitor since 28 Nov., 2001, which would be something like 107,000 since the launch (different tracker at the start). At the time of writing, 100,271 (3 since I started this post!) visitors have accessed 352,421 pages over the last 22 months.