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Charles on… anything that comes along

Friday 19 July 2013

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:22 pm

Book review: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’: a story about love

Cormac McCarthy's book The RoadThis is a book about love.

I know: how does that make sense? How can a book which depicts the exhausted travel of a man (”the man”) and a boy (”the boy”) along and around a road somewhere unidentified in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic America be about love?

But it is. The man loves his son, the boy, born after the nuclear event whose occurrence we only get to guess at. The man loves the world, in its destroyed beauty, as one loves and longs for a departed lover who one knows will never come back.

And the author loves language. McCarthy has created such a beautiful work here. His decision not to use apostrophes or quotation marks is at first jarring, and then surprising, then intriguing, then fits perfectly with the exhausted tone of the characters. This is no time for the intrusively attention-seeking niceties of apostrophes and quotation marks. It’s a time simply for surviving.

The man and the boy have been walking for - how long? We don’t know. There are no clocks except the rising and setting of the sun and of the moon. The earth is an ember, ash its skin. Into this narrative McCarthy injects language that perfectly mirrors the strange timelessness the characters find themselves in: “jackstraw”, “harrowtrough”, words that sit at the edge of our knowledge, understood at our peripheral vision, but not when we look directly at them.

Yes, there are very dark events in this book. McCarthy is describing a world where it seems nature has given up, exhausted, where nothing new seems to grow, where the trees fall and only stir up ash. He’s conjuring up a world where humans still live, but barely get by. McCarthy can see the darkness that would lie in mens’ hearts, and the things they would do, to survive.

I loved this book. I read it in fear of what would happen next, but in awe of the skill with which McCarthy found the words to describe something most of us would shrink even from thinking about and then found the way to knit those words together to tell a love story.

The love of the father for the child is so deep, so enduring - it’s the central relationship of the book, of course (apart from the father’s weary desire for the lost world). To be a father with a son and to read this book (I’m in that category) is to feel the pain of impending loss - loss that might be around the corner, or might be years hence - yet also the joy of sharing everything with them, being almost cocooned in time. The father is never exasperated with the boy. Never impatient, never angry. There’s time, so much time, too much time, yet not enough time either because each cycle of the sun demands survival.

Ultimately, I think it’s impossible as a father of a boy to read this book and not ask yourself: would my love for my child be that strong? Could you make the right choices in a world that strips choice away?

Most of all, though, it’s a book that will leave you awestruck if you’re prepared to immerse yourself in it, to swim in its language. The power of McCarthy’s writing is exceptional; the simplicity of the descriptions belies the reality he’s describing.

You might ask where The Road will take you. The answer: where any road takes you: as far as you want to go, as far as it can.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:10 pm

Running a UK tech content site isn’t that hard. If you do it right

There’s a certain amount of, well, let me call it self-pitying whining going on in some quarters about how hard it is to run a tech content site in Britain. Oh, it’s expensive. Oh,

“£30,000 (my personal investment into this business) doesn’t get you very far in media.”

Well, cry me a river while I play the world’s smallest violin. (Let me also ask: where exactly has that ££30,000 gone? My understanding is that pretty much nobody who worked on the early site setup got paid, and that the continuing web hosting is provided at, well, generous rates.)

Because you know what? There are plenty of people who are making media, and tech writing, work in Britain. Yes, startup tech news sites in Britain. How do they do it? Not by insulting the people they’re writing about, or flying the most ludicrous (and proven-by-time wrong - now six months) stories, but by making contacts, understanding the market, and working hard, and being prepared for it to be a real slog.

Want some names? Stuart Miles, creator of Pocket-Lint - who is a fantastic journalist: first - as far as I know - in the UK with details about the Nokia Lumia 800 having a micro-SIM. about the iPhone 5 having a nano-SIM, about Orange/T-Mobile/EvEv having iPhone 5 with LTE. And that’s just off the top of my head; someone who knows the site’s, and his, output better could doubtless name more.

How did he manage it? By knowing people, knowing the industry, making friends, listening, talking. And all this while being a father to a young child too. (The latter is the really tough part.) Oh - and he didn’t hire people on vague promises of money. He just built the site until now it employs multiple staff. And is a charming guy as well as being very good at his job.

Or how about Tom Warren, creator of WinRumors? How on earth do you create a site writing about Microsoft and all of the wrinkles of Windows and everything else when you’re situated in the UK? By being determined, and prepared to slog away at it, that’s how. I haven’t met Tom - only know him through Twitter - but have been constantly impressed by the fact he could spot the nuances in announcements, or see the angle for his audience in something everyone was covering, or just get in there with a rewrite of something that was running, and get the story up. Was Winrumors a gigantic money-spinner, or money-sink? Neither, as I understand it; I think Tom was doing another job while running the site. Often, it’s just sheer determination to post that makes the difference in the modern world. Tom has since been picked up by The Verge, which is well-funded; but if anything were to go wrong, you can be sure another site would pick him up rapidly. Or he could do his own.

Or - there are tons of these - Rafe Blandford of All About Symbian? It’s an impressive-looking site - and he also grabbed All About Windows Phone when he saw which way the wind was blowing, Nokia-wise.

Want another? How about Electricpig? And not forgetting the granddaddy of them all, The Register, which started in 1994 (yes, really) when you’d only have broadband - or perhaps any internet connection - if you were in an office. It’s a good employer and quick payer (at least in my experience; I wrote for it as a freelance in 2005, and only have good memories of the experience).

Or of course Mike Butcher at TechCrunch Europe, who ran it pretty much as a one-man show (and before that had his own mbites offering) for a substantial time; it’s hardly as if Michael Arrington was leaning over his shoulder or pouring money into his bank account.

There are tons of sites like them - British tech journalists, doing stuff their readers want, making contacts, breaking news, remembering the adage that news is “stuff you care about, and/or stuff you want to pass on“. (Give me some more names in the comments, I’ll add them here.)

Which is why journalism is done best when it’s done with the readers in mind, and when it’s not trying to annoy for the sake of annoying but instead with the aim of shaking up the reader’s expectations. For while there are plenty of companies that find The Register’s style irksome, they can’t deny that it gets facts in front of readers. Lots of readers.

So yeah, it’s hard, but it’s not that hard as long as you don’t have delusions of grandeur, and approach it in the expectation that it will be really hard. I haven’t created a tech site - though as a freelance (twice) I’ve had a mortgage to support, and the second time kids as well.

Equally, starting a blog has never been easier. You just have to bring some quality to it if you’re going to make money at it.

Monday 18 June 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:48 pm

Review: Prometheus: don’t waste your money or time on this film (updated)

OK, so this is a review, and it contains spoilers. Though that raises the question of whether you can spoil a film that is irredeemably bad in the first place.

To begin:
I had high hopes for Prometheus. I love the original Alien film - as I’ve blogged here previously, its script and screenplay (and design and direction) are timeless marvels. The fact that it was made pre-personal computers (so that all the computer interaction is utterly clunky to modern eyes) is actually a blessing, because it lets you focus on the thing that is always fascinating in a good film - the interplay of the actors, the things they say and do, and the plot.

If you want a hilarious dissection of the first half-hour or so of Prometheus, do enjoy yourself by going over to Digital Digging, which starts by looking at it from an archaeologist’s perspective, and then just the perspective of someone who wants people to behave a little more rationally than just “that hole looks dark, I think I’ll stick my head in it and then turn the light on”. The comments (especially the dimmer bulbs transported over from Boing Boing) are worth a laugh too. Bear in mind, of course, that some day those people will be eligible to vote. You could also enjoy James Whatley’s post on the many WTFs in the script.

Focus, always focus

But I want to focus on those elements that Prometheus missed, which are the essential things of a successful film. In part it’s because I’d like to be able to imagine what a good screenplay would look like, but also because it’s only the very worst of things that shows you quite how badly things can be.

I now discover that one of the screenplay writers worked on Lost. Oh, the TV series that threw off loose ends and never bothered to tie them up endlessly, and sprawled over seven series before gasping over the line? Sure, that would be a discipline for writing a self-contained film. Not.

Not that a film has to answer every question. You can’t. In a screenplay, some things just have to be accepted: why someone is a stepchild, why they are rich, why there are a bunch of pods that seem to just be sitting there, where the blue light that plays over them came from. (Answer: from The Who, who were rehearsing in the studio next door. Sorry, did I spoil that?)

I knew in the first moments of Prometheus (which I watched in 3D at an Imax - I told you my hopes were high) that something was very, very wrong. Why? The music. Whereas the original Alien runs violin bows up your back, this was playing jolly major chords as though you’d just accomplished something. How can a film that’s going to discover the makers of the Alien going to be jolly? That’s all wrong.

Cut to a scene with SuperOffWorldMan drinking something and curling up and dying and his DNA all splurging into the already rather fecund streams around Iceland. Er, why? Why does he need to do this in order to seed the planet? Eh? This is not explained, and while it’s OK to have some things be mysterious, it would be nice to feel they fit into a broader picture. Later we learn (after being told “you can’t cast off hundreds of years of evolutionary theory”) that human DNA is a 100% match with mateybloke’s. Which raises the question rather forcefully of the whole animal kingdom and the preservation of DNA and genes throughout the entire phylogeny. Seriously: if you’re going to play around with science in a film, try not to insult those in the audience who might have even a vague scientific knowledge, because you’re going to piss them off. None of the science in the whole thing was the least bit convincing. None of it. It’s not even worth bothering writing why it wasn’t. None of it at all is how scientists behave - that is, thoughtful, rational, reflective.

Next moment I knew this was a wrong ‘un: Noomi Rapace, as an archaeologist, finds a cave (how? Not explained) and shouts down a Skye valley to another archaeologist. If you’ve ever gone anywhere in a valley of any description, then you know that you can’t shout down them and expect anyone to hear a damn thing. But, magically, blokey down in the valley does. Though by the time he’s made it up the valley, she’s tidied it all up and dated it. Uh-huh.

Space stupidness

Some space stupidness follows; my heart sank as I saw that the Prometheus spacecraft is meant to have a crew of 17. Seventeen people. Now, that might actually be what you need to run a spacecraft. However, for a film it breaks a key rule.

Rule No.1: how many characters?: people can only follow a story with a maximum of seven, perhaps eight, characters to worry about. Seventeen is a bus load. (Alien: seven people. Friends: six people. ThirtySomething: six people. Mad Men: six people, plus a few who come in and out - Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Bert, Pete, and the wives and some of the others.) Do not try to write more than six people into your script unless you absolutely have to have the seventh. (Stuff Magazine’s Mat Smith, who has been to see it twice - he’s a man of some taste - says that he still doesn’t know who some of the people are.)

Rule No. 2: pacing. This film doesn’t have it. There’s no obvious motor. Yes, we know that it’s an expedition, and we in the audience are all on edge expecting an alien to jump out; but that’s not the same as a motor, the reason why you keep watching. In thrillers, it’s called the Macguffin - the excuse for keeping you interested. (So in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol it’s the stolen Russian nuke codes, for example. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the film - you already understand that stolen Russian nuke codes are probably something you want to be unstolen, or grabbed.) In Prometheus, what is the Macguffin? What are you waiting to find out? You’re never sure, and that’s a key weakness.

Rule No. 3: tidiness. If you drop hints about events or people, don’t then drop them. So Idris Elba, having emerged from the sleep things, decorates a Christmas tree, because they’ve missed a whole load of Christmas parties. Aw. Except that’s the last reference to Christmas or parties. We don’t learn whether he’s a party type, or whether Christmas has some deep meaning, or what.

Rule No. 4: character. This is so important. Idris Elba again: he’s the captain of the ship. This should in theory mean that he can tell anyone what to do in order to keep the ship safe. If he can’t do that, then he’s just another Red Shirt. But we never find out which he really is, because he never has the sort of confrontation with Charlize Theron which would tell us what he thinks of their relative positions. Only that he would like (and gets, apparently) a shag with her, which doesn’t actually advance either of them as characters; although it does tell us that he’s perfectly happy to leave the bridge uncrewed while two of the crew are marooned off-ship, leaving them effectively without radio contact. So, basically, a completely crap captain. Except that at the end he then becomes big brave captain, prepared to try to wallop the departing alien ship. Why? What? When did that change come about? And how exactly did they choose him in the first place, if he’ll abandon the bridge like that? The character makes no sense. You can’t predict what he’ll do at any time - although I did realise after a while that it would always be “the utterly stupid thing”. Someone been attacked by an organism off-ship? Let them on! Someone attacking the crew down below at the ground hatch? Open the hatch a bit more so you get a good look - don’t want to close it off or anything. Hell no.
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Rule No. 5: consistency and plausibility. Cite above: Idris Elba and his wandering characterisation. (I blame this on the script, since his Luther and Stringer Bell were so powerful.) Cite 2: plausibility. Not explained: how do the archaeologists know that the star formation is… how the hell do they know anything, actually? Why does the “invitation” turn out to be a pointer to what we are led to believe (perhaps wrongly, mind) is a military dump?

And while we’re on the military dump thing: another part of the plotting/pacing/plausibility thing is that at no point do the characters get together and try to figure out what’s going on. In Alien, after the alien escapes, they gather and plan how to catch it; after Brett gets done, they gather again and plan what to do. See? Talking. A council of war. Some discussion of quite what they’re dealing with.

Update: Rule No. 6: script. I was reminded of this by this tweet (if you can’t be bothered, it says: “Ok, yes, Prometheus was awwwwful. What a disappointment. I feel like I need to scrub the black goo out of my brain by watching Contact.”

Damn, yes. Contact - the film in which we discover aliens beaming messages to us instructing us how to build a rather large and scary structure - has one single exchange which deals with questions about faith and belief and existence far better than anything in the whole of this film.

So the setup in Contact is this: Jodie Foster (rationalist scientist) is debating with a reasonable, but religious fella, about how you can “prove” things in religion, and whether science can prove everything (she maintains it can). Foster’s father, we’ve already learnt, is dead.

Religious fella: “Did your father love you?”
Jodie Foster: “Of course!”
Religious fella: “Prove it.”

What a line. It’s the sort of line that completely floors you. And of course it floors Foster. That’s great scriptwriting - create a situation where the viewer is drawn in, and then leave them in the same place as your main character.

Doesn’t happen in Prometheus.

What Hollywood wants

But no, that’s all ignored; instead Hollywood wants what Hollywood gets, which is a daft action movie, with loud noise and unscary creatures, unexplained motives (I couldn’t figure out what Fassbender’s android was meant to be doing at all) and a refusal to deal with stuff like plot in favour of stürm-und-drang. Kids might enjoy it, but I think that actually kids can tell the difference between lazy scripting and good scripting.

If I hadn’t been told this was an “Alien prequel” (which it can’t actually be, because it’s not the same planet - the number differs, there isn’t an astronaut in the pilot chair, it hasn’t been attacked by an alien, there isn’t a message warning people off) nor that it was made by Ridley Scott, then my expectations would have been much lower; I might have tolerated it, but I’d still have thought that it was crap, with stupid behaviour and cardboard characters who don’t do things real people do.

Let’s leave with this, from Red Letter Media, which asks most of the questions that I couldn’t be bothered to ask.

What was that black goo - was that different to the sparkly green goo… Why did Ridley Scott let his 12-year-old son do the makeup for the old man… How did the old man know where to point where the scientists were when he did the introduction…

And so on. There are tons of unanswered, and unanswerable questions.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:22 am

Where’s the Prometheus script, then? Or what the original Alien script teaches us about writing screenplays

(Oh, for the faint-hearted: there are NO PROMETHEUS SPOILERS here. As if.)


I don’t think I’d be much cop at writing screenplays - I’ve already discovered that getting through a book is quite a thing (I have a book! Digital Wars! Have you bought it? Paperback, Kindle; iBook Store) but screenplays have their own disciplines. You are writing for the screen, so you have to describe, and every scene has to carry weight. Every line has to be chosen to do its work.

You can go on wonderfully expensive courses in screenwriting, where you will learn these sorts of things. But you could also save yourself a lot of money (or get a good start) by studying the film of Alien, and then comparing it to the original screenplay for Alien, before Ridley Scott and everyone else got their hands on it, over at the Internet Movie Script database.

Formerly titled “Starbeast” and originally (if I’m parsing it right) given the treatment by Walter Hill who seems to have been involved in - whew - 48 Hours, Alien and The Getaway - he was up to direct it, originally - and David Giler, it’s up there in screenplay format.

It’s a really fascinating read, because you see many of the things that Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett got right (O’Bannon is credited with the screenplay that seems to have been the basis of Scott’s film). Let’s run over those (I’m assuming from here on that you’ve seen Alien):

- mining ship picks up alien message
- finds bizarre spaceship and long-dead “pilot”
- “spore” things

- adventurous astronaut who looks into.. DON’T LOOK IN THERE

- thing on face

- bursts out of chest (oh, er, spoiler alert)

- pursuit around the ship using electric prods and then flamethrowers

- picked off one by one

- blow up the ship

- no wait don’t blow up the ship!

- escape in the ..escape thing

- oh noooo!!

- blow it out and blast it with the engines

- phew.

Now let’s go over some of the things that are different.

• All-male crew. This seems, in retrospect, such an incredible mistake because it doesn’t allow for the tensions and little shows of emotion, such as the implied one between [captain] Dallas and [Sigourney Weaver’s] Ripley, for example. There’s something there when he moves to protect her in the sick bay after the facehugger reappears. Subtly done, just a hint that they had - have? - a relationship.

Instead you get lines - or actions - that look wildly out of place between male crew members:

Standard turns and looks at him. For a long moment, the two men regard each other, then STANDARD STEPS FORWARD AND SLAPS ROBY ACROSS THE FACE.

Maybe it’s just me, but - one asteroid miner slaps another? Seems a bit fey, to say the least. (Also, it’s the wrong dynamic: Standard is the captain and Roby is the Ripley-character who survives. It should be the other way around.)

The all-male crew also means that the downtimes - the slowing in pace so it can speed up again - doesn’t give you a chance to feel involved in the characters, because any emotion between them (which would help you empathise with them) seems a bit more than bromance. Look, the tagline isn’t “In space, nobody can hear you scream, sweetie.” It’s an alien killer thriller. No romance, dammit.

So why does adding women into the mix improve it so much? Well, there’s Ripley, of course - the first of Sigourney Weaver’s finest hours. And there’s Veronica Cartwright as Lambert (you knew that, right?). Her role doesn’t consist of much more than looking really worried and being petrified, and taking part in the worst scene in the film (where she freezes in front of the monster while Yaphet Kotto yells at her to get out of the way - which, when you examine the original screenplay, is basically a way to get rid of the two of them and leave Ripley alone).

But she is basically the high (or low) emotional note, the Psycho-screech of the horrified, against the less worried others. She’s you and I, confronted by the alien. (That thing is scary.) You need her at one emotional extreme, and Ripley at the other. The women bracket the emotions of the film. Adding them was a masterstroke.

• names. This might seem minor, but start here: the spaceship is called the “Snark”. Snort. The one used in the film, Nostromo, is so beautifully chosen: picked from a novel by Joseph Conrad, writer of “Heart of Darkness”, with its echoes of nothingness and nowhere.

The character names seem weaker to me, though that may be familiarity - a captain called “Dallas” rather than “Standard”, “Ripley” (another hat tip to a novel - Ripley’s Game) rather than “Roby”. As I say, it might be familiarity, but I think if you stack up Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, Brett, Kane, Ash, and Parker against Standard, Roby, Melkonis, Broussard, Faust, Hunter, the better name set is clear.

One other thing that’s clear: the real film has one extra character. (Go back and count.) Which leads us to…

• subplot: the Company. There’s no “The Company” in the original screenplay. Or at least, not as a malign actor in the background that manoeuvres the crew into their terrifying fate. There’s also no Ash, the science officer who turns out to be not exactly working in the interest of the humans on board. (He lets the alien onto the ship; he doesn’t try to kill it in the early stages; he doesn’t try to stop it killing the crew. It’s an open question whether it would treat him as a machine or a human if they met.)

Adding in the Company means that there’s room for subplot, which spices up the film helpfully because it creates extra tension between the characters, at the same time that they’re worrying about the alien.

Remember that this is a screenplay, so you can’t just add subplots in blithely. The time this subplot needs is taken, I think, from scenes on the planet - mostly stumbling around pyramids and stuff.

• The computer as a character. An odd omission in a sci-fi screenplay, but the only point in the original (as opposed to the film) where someone talks directly to the computer is right at the end, when Roby/Ripley is trying to get the reactor to cool back down. Otherwise? Dumb, deaf computer. Far more sensible to have it listening and talking back. The typed dialogue with the computer in the few scenes that are added (and particularly the one where Ripley discovers that Ash is protecting it) shows that the computer is part of the crew, if not always a particularly helpful one.

• Hiding the monster. This is huge. In the original screenplay, you see the alien when it jumps out of the spore, when the astronauts still outside try to get it off, when they get him to sickbay, when it comes out of Kane’s chest, when it goes into the food store, when it grabs Brett, when it grabs someone else, when it… I was getting pretty bored of seeing its gnarly name come up.

In the film, you get far less exposure. You get glimpses, threats, hints. That’s what makes it great. You don’t get to see the whole of it until the very end, in the escape capsule. That’s tension.

• Pacing The original film doesn’t contain the scene where Ripley (Roby) discovers Dallas (Standard) cocooned in the lower decks of the ship, though it’s in the original screenplay, and was brought back in the “Director’s Cut” (aka “way to make fans buy another DVD, or go to the film again”). That’s not a screenplay issue per se, but it is about pacing, which matters.

* And finally: the ending. It seems like a small thing, but it’s not. The original ending is a twist - you thought they’d escaped! (When I first watched it, that was the sort of twist I expected.) But wiser studio heads prevailed, I think, to suggest that if you’ve done the film right, you’ve put the poor audience through enough; let them file out in peace.

That’s pretty much it: a set of how-to lessons where all you have to do is read the script online, watch the film, compare the two, and then rewrite your script so that it eliminates all those sorts of errors! Simple.

OK, and to the Prometheus stuff. This is the blockbuster film that’s getting the whack promoted out of it (in bursts), which uses the same aliens, the same bizarre alien spaceship pilot… in some configuration. Is there a Prometheus script? There is! Oh, no, wait, it’s from Stargate.

Probably the original screenplay will surface a while after the film itself releases. That’s going to be a fascinating comparison in itself.

Oh, well. Shall we meet later and discuss the original screenplay for Blade Runner?

INT. TRAIN - NIGHT
No clickitty-clack of track-bound noise, it’s a long, insulated Pullman of contoured seats and low-keyed lighting, coloured to soothe,and empty, except for the passenger half way down.His eyes closed, head rested against the glass. Ten years ago, DECKARD might have been an athlete, a track man or a welter-weight.

Hmm. Get me rewrite!

Sunday 1 April 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:39 pm

Review: Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: a marvellous novel about dealing badly with slow change

Ageofmiracles uk

Ageofmiracles us

UK edition in hardback
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US edition on Kindle

When you think about catastrophes, you normally think about too much or too little of something. And it happens all at once, somewhere.

Catastrophes such as - an asteroid hits the earth. (Actually, London was lucky not to be hit by the 1908 Tunguska meteorite; it’s on about the same latitude. Only a few minutes or even seconds saved Britain’s capital from a totally different 20th century.)

Or aliens invade.
Or a gigantic tidal wave hits us. (Or indeed hits Japan.)
Or there’s a zombie apocalypse. (Isn’t it great that the Centers for Disease Control has got a plan for the zombie apocalypse? No, maybe not.)
Or a super-abrupt ice age.

We’re used to our catastrophes being big, sudden, an abrupt surplus or deficit of something in a particular place.

But what about a catastrophe that isn’t caused by a surplus or a deficit, and which it isn’t really sudden? What would that be like?

That is the premise of The Age of Miracles, the debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker. It’s an amazing book. It was sent to my wife by one of the editors at Simon & Schuster, which is publishing it this June, but I picked it up because I was intrigued by the idea, which is this: the Earth’s rotation (on its axis, not around the sun) starts to slow down. That’s all - just slows down. And keeps getting slower.

So - the days are longer, as are the nights. But no surplus or deficit. Look, there’s that extra hour in the day you wanted. Oh, and more time to sleep. Except - the rotation keeps slowing, though only very gradually. Perhaps a few minutes extra added to each cycle every time. In the book, they call it the Slowing. (They don’t use the capital, but I think you would.)

The story is told through the eyes of Julia, an 11-year-old girl living somewhere in southern California. It’s that age - when the most important thing at school is who you’re friends with, who’s in and who’s out and (if you’re an 11-year-old girl) whether that dishy boy is going to sit near you when you get on the bus.

You’re probably thinking, first: what difference would it make if the earth’s rotation slowed down anyway? And then: how could that happen, anyway?

First: the difference would be huge, but ever so slow. Gravity would change (less rotation, greater centripetal force means we’d feel heavier). And our circadian rhythms would soon fall out of kilter; as the day (and night) stretches from 12 hours to 15 to 20 and more, you just can’t keep adjusting.

So the government announces: hell, yes, we’re just going to carry on with the 24-hour clock. Though some people try to live on “natural time”, which is to say, by the sunrise and sunset.

And Julia carries on, even while the days and the nights lengthen - so that sometimes she’s waking up in darkness to go to her early morning school bus ride - being obsessed with who she’s friends with, and the boy who sometimes talks to her on the bus. The world is sliding into confusion but she doesn’t look wider. The birds begin to die (the gravity? Who knows?), the whales beach themselves, trees start to die… but what’s really important is who your friends are talking to and why that new girl isn’t speaking to you.

I assume that the location it’s set in is quite close to the equator, because there’s not much seasonal variation in the relative length of days and nights. (Or it’s not commented on.) I did wonder whether Walker had spoken to people from northerly latitudes about how they cope with almost endless darkness in winter, and almost endless sunlight in summer; although this isn’t quite about that.

It’s not about long days and short nights. It’s about long days and long nights too, winter and summer at the same time. (Think about how hot it would get with the sun up for days on end. Then think about how cold it would get with the night going on and on. Think about the effects on plants and photosynthesis.)

It’s a brilliant book; while the premise is impossible (well, almost utterly - see below**), this book isn’t really about the idea of the Earth slowing down. It’s about how we are as a species. At an individual level we’re powerless, most of all over slow change. We can deal with abrupt change - well, abrupt short-lived change - and hope to come out mostly unruffled. OK, abrupt, short-lived very localised ones such as tsunamis or hurricanes. Those, we can handle.

But very slow, yet enormously important catastrophes? We’re not very good at those. As individuals, as nations, as a species. We focus on the close-at-hand, the short-term. We argue with each other and basically ignore what’s going on around us.

Because I have to ask: can you think of any planet-wide changes that are happening ever so gradually which will have colossal effects (to which we’re perhaps even contributing) and which we’re mostly ignoring, or just paying lip service to, and carrying on as normal?

Yeah. That one. Thought you might be able to.

That’s what makes this book so subtly brilliant. It points out our Achilles heel: we’re so bad at dealing with the slow. We reckon we can deal (we hope) with the sudden - though if we’re honest we don’t know how we’d cope with an asteroid impact of any significance; or, come to that, the zombie apocalypse. But dealing with slow? We’re just frogs in the cooking pot.

You might be wondering whether the people faced with the Slowing would try to fix it: attach rockets to the earth and try to speed it up? But (even if they do that, except I’m not doing the plot here) that’s not what this book is about; it’s a changing world seen from the point of view of an 11-year-old. They tend not to know too much about the adult thinking going on over how to reseed the planet’s rotational momentum, apart from what they hear people talking about on TV.

Cleverly, the book is written in a sort of future present - “if we’d known then how it would turn out, we wouldn’t have concentrated so much on [some trivial thing]” - which gives you both the confidence that the Slowing is survivable, and yet contains an inkling that things don’t seem to have been solved by the time the narrator is writing. (And you don’t know how near or far ahead that is, either.)

It’s a book whose premise stays with you long after; I finished reading it weeks ago, yet when I drive home in darkness or light, I think of the people in that novel, and wonder about how it would be for the days or the nights to just continue, creeping on in this petty pace, not relenting. (The UK edition has a far better cover than the US one; it captures that tension of the sun, which you don’t want to go away and yet you don’t want to stay either after a day that has gone on and on.)

And even though the world is going to keep turning, there’s still the question of what happens when we slowly run out of stuff. That’s the topic of a TED talk by Paul Gilding - “The Earth is full” (here’s the video) which makes uncomfortable reading if you think about it for any length of time.

But of course it’s much easier to ignore it, carry on as before, assume nothing catastropic will happen.

Isn’t it?

Note that the book isn’t published until June 2012. You’ll just have to add it to your wishlist. Please do. It’s a fascinating read.

(**OK, to the issue of whether the earth could slow down. For this to happen, the planet would have to lose a ton of rotational momentum. The only way this could happen is if its centre of rotational gravity - if that’s a word - were to shift towards the centre of the earth. About the only way that I can imagine that happening is if the earth were to stray into the path of a black hole about the size of a dozen atoms or so, which was then trapped in the earth’s core, sucking everything in eeeeeevvverr so slowly. If I’m remembering my maths right, that increase in central mass would reduce the rotational momentum of the planet and so lead to it slowing down. Read up about micro black holes if you want to really do the maths. Of course, if there were a black hole at the centre of the planet large enough to eat its core, then we’d have rather bigger problems ahead than rotation. But that’s for another time. The theory, at Wikipedia, suggests it wouldn’t happen - such a tiny black hole would just pass through the planet without touching it.) //back

Sunday 12 February 2012

Filed under: — Charles @ 9:59 pm

Review: Star Wars episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3D: you sure it’s 3d?

Basically, it’s just as bad as it was in 2D, but some of the sequences are a bit more 3D-y.

But the bits that you really want to be more 3D-y - to take advantage of the (limited, but still not zero) possibilities that the three-dimensionality offers - aren’t.

Specifically, the pod race, which you’d think would offer terrific opportunities, if it was properly done, to give you those “oof” feeling in the pit stomach, is just the same pod race as in the 1999 version, but with just a shimmer of 3D-ness added. The stone pillars don’t loom at you, the tunnels and canyons don’t zoom out of the screen.

And the climactic fight between Gingerchops (Darth Maul to you) and the Linen Sack Wearers (Jedi Knights if you prefer) really wants to have some bullet time added. (The Matrix and this film orginally came out in the same year, 1999.) But of course they can’t. You’d need to call everyone back, redo the sets, and reshoot it.

However there’s a worrying indication that 3D is being used just as the CD was in its early years - for the industry to shore up its revenues and profits by redoing films that did well the first time. As we left the cinema (the boys had wanted to see it) I noticed an ad for something else from the past - so old I’ve already forgotten what - being re-offered in 3D.

It’s a bad trend. Star Wars might have its own fanbase who’ll go to everything (and a new younger audience who have never seen it in the cinema) but if the film industry tries to rely on 3D as its moneymaker, things are going to go badly.

Not that they’re going swimmingly as it is. There were ads for tons of rubbish films there - Prometheus (looks like nonsense), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (er, what?), Battleship (more Transformers-like nonsense). No doubt they’ll have 3D versions. Not worth the money, I’d wager.

In fact, besides Avatar (which I haven’t seen) is there any 3D film that really makes good use of the technology? Actually, is there any good use of 3D in normal cinema films?

Sunday 12 June 2011

Filed under: — Charles @ 2:49 pm

Secoh air pump stopped work? Fault’s probably the easily-replaced diaphragm

The following is written entirely for the benefit of Google, and you, dear reader, who probably like me has a Secoh EL 80 15 pump or similar that has stopped working. It may have been one year or it might have been three. (That’s what happened with us.) Maybe it’s powering a cess pit or a koi carp pond or whatever.

You’re thinking you might need to buy a new one. What!! TWO HUNDRED POUNDS!!

Don’t worry. The thing that goes wrong is the rubber-ish diaphragm that vibrates back and forth to pump the air around. You can buy spare parts for these. They’re much cheaper - about 60 pounds.

If the pump is a few years old, then you should probably replace both diaphragms - they’re arranged one each side of an electromagnet in the centre of the device.

Replacement isn’t hard at all. If you have a Philips (cross-head) screwdriver and about 20 minutes to spare you can do it yourself. Try not to do what I did and crossthread one of the screws so it breaks off when you’re doing the replacement. Gah.

You also have to change the position of the centre rocker so that it’s evenly placed between the electromagnet (you’ll find it’s on one side when you open the pump up - usually over to the diaphragm that’s intact. Shift it back to the middle).

You can download the manuals for Secoh pumps. Useful.

Hope that helps.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:59 pm

‘Steve Jobs would walk in, say ‘this is far too big’ and walk out…’ MusicMatch, the iPod and the Dell DJ (repost)

This is a repost of the post that appeared a couple of days ago over on my other blog, The Rivals, where I’m asking questions, posting stuff and so on for the book I’m writing about Microsoft, Apple and Google - to be published by Kogan Page, delivery date July. Let me know what you think, and contribute too over on the other blog.

In case you’re interested in how the book will read, here’s something that I wrote last night. It’s looking at one of the key stages in the iPod’s development: the very early stages. So here’s some draft content. It’s got notes and repetitions and things that need to be tweaked, and the name of the main interlocutor has been removed because, well, that’s for the book, isn’t it?

Comments welcome (eg “you left out the bit where…” or “just as important in 2002 was…”). And I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who:
- worked for/with Microsoft around the time it was trying to get Windows Media Player/Audio/Janus implemented

- worked for/with Microsoft on its “online services” system - MSN - while it was being passed by Google in 2002-4 for revenues and market share: what did Microsoft think, internally? (I’d be just as interested in talking to someone who mentioned this to Microsoft as an ex-Microsoftie.)

- worked for/with Google pre-IPO who could talk about its thinking over whether it wanted to confront Microsoft.

And pretty much everything else on Microsoft/Apple/Google. Get in touch, or tell the people you know who know and ask them to get in touch.

Text starts below. Nice picture!

Photo by Olivier Bruchez on Flickr. Some rights reserved

>>>
The launch of the iPod in 2001 intrigued MusicMatch, and soon they were talking to Apple about the possibility of tweaking their software so that the millions of Windows users - a huge, untapped market for the iPod - could use it with their machine. At the time the iPod’s iTunes software only worked on Macs, and required a high-speed Firewire connection - which every Macintosh since 1999 had, but which was comparatively rare on Windows machines. Even so, enough had it (because the Windows PC market was so big and various) that it made sense for MusicMatch to offer it.

In July 2002, Apple introduced its second-generation iPod, with up to 20GB of storage - and introduced “iPod for Windows”, which used MusicMatch’s software to connect to Windows PCs.

BBB knew that the relationship with Apple was on borrowed time: “we could see that if it took off then they would write iTunes for Windows and steamroller us,” he recalls. But the experience was fascinating, and there was always the possibility that MusicMatch might be able to engineer some way to hold on to Apple - or perhaps to get Apple to hold onto it.

He had a number of meetings which Jobs attended: “generally he would walk in, say ‘this is shit’, and walk out,” he recalls. “Or he would say ‘this is far too big. It’s too bulky.’”

At the time the music business was in flux. The original incarnation of the file-sharing network Napster had been downed in the courts, but that had led to a hydra-headed decentralised sharing system called Gnutella, which had no central index as Napster had had. The record labels had nothing to aim at.

Since they were unable to shut down those networks, the record labels’ logical next move was to prevent music being ripped from CDs onto computers; that would prevent new songs being uploaded and shared, and should tamp down piracy. “Sony had had success in Japan with the MiniDisc format, which prevented you from copying songs back and forth,” said BBB. “Together with Sony Music, they seemed to have the formula. And Sony Electronics was huge in those days.” So the labels pressed for similar copy-prevention technology - known in the business as “digital rights management” software - to be included in music players and ripping software, and separately on CDs.

BBB adds his own context to the labels’ drive to get DRM instilled everywhere: “in the record business, everyone feels that they got screwed in their last deal. So in the next one they’re always looking to get the best possible deal. Songs will have different publishing rights in different countries. And the record labels and the publishers don’t see eye to eye. It’s a recipe for disagreement.” And for stalemate.

But Microsoft was listening to the record companies’ calls. It was a company full of skilled programmers who would be able to write software that would implement DRM to prevent copying. It quickly devised a strategy: using its Windows Media Audio format (which “independent” tests suggested gave better listening results and smaller files than MP3 at the same compression ratio). Files ripped on PCs using Windows Media Player, the default system, would be transferred with DRM onto digital music players so that the songs could not be copied onto another PC. That would tie the player to its owner’s computer. And uploading WMA files protected in that way to file-sharing networks would mean they wouldn’t work on the PCs of anyone else who downloaded them.

It was a brilliant strategy, except for two things. First, CD-ripping was still a minority sport limited to people who understood how to do it and what its purpose was; that meant they were specialists who were wise to Microsoft’s machinations especially the DRM,. (The high profile of Microsoft’s conviction in the antitrust case had eroded user trust that it was really acting in their best interests, rather than the interests of its partners.) They instead downloaded other programs - such as MusicMatch - which could play WMA files but could also rip songs into MP3 format.

The second problem was Microsoft overcooked the software, says BBB: “it was just too hefty for the hardware. It didn’t quite work right. There would be glitches, and the drivers didn’t quite work right, and the transfer was really slow.” That was because they relied on USB 1.1, rather than Firewire, connections. Firewire was about ?20-40 times faster[how much faster Firewire than USB] and USB 2.0, the faster standard that was comparable in speed, wouldn’t arrive until XXX[when USB 2 released?] and would take some time to become widespread in consumer electronics devices - particularly digital music players.

Then there was the industrial design aspect. BBB recalls seeing the prototype for the third-generation iPod during a discussion with Apple executives; Steve Jobs made an appearance - “he would kind of drift in and out”, is how he puts it - to pick the prototype up and criticise it for being too thick and then walk out.

A month of so later BBB was at the headquarters of Dell Computer in Austin, Texas. Dell was eager to get into this burgeoning market: it reasoned that it could use Microsoft’s software, and design its own hardware (as it did with PCs) but that unlike Apple it would be able to use its buying heft to drive down costs and so undercut Apple. The market was there for the taking.

BBB was handed a prototype for the Dell DJ player, which like the iPod used a 1.8” hard drive. “Jeez, this thing us HUGE!” he blurted out.

It was indeed noticeably deeper than Apple’s existing iPod, and substantially more than the forthcoming iPod - which MusicMatch knew about but about which its team had been sworn to secrecy, on pain of extremely costly legal action. “One of the Dell designers explained that that was because the Toshiba version of the hard drive had its connector on the side, and the Hitachi one had it on the bottom, but because they were dual-sourcing they could get the price down by 40 cents,” BBB recalls. “That was the difference in a nutshell. Apple was all about the industrial design and getting it to work. Dell was all driven by their procurement guys.”

[NUMBER IPODS SOLD PREV QUARTER]
[AUTOSYNC IN IPOD]

In September 2003 Apple launched its third-generation iPod, supplanting the one that Dell’s engineers had been comparing their design against. This one was notable for two features: four touch buttons just below the screen, instead of being embedded into the scroll wheel - a feature that was abandoned in the next generation as unwieldy - and a proprietary 30-pin dock connector on the bottom of the device. That allowed it to connect to a Firewire or USB 2.0 port, via a cable. (The buyer had to specify which cable they wanted.)
>>>

more to come….

Thursday 13 January 2011

Filed under: — Charles @ 12:02 am

So anyway, those guns, Professor Spafford…

The hours after the Giffords shooting in Arizona were hardly the media’s finest hour; Giffords was declared to have been declared dead at the scene, then realised not to be. I was in the US at the time, and saw the news come up on my Twitter feed. Personally I found the story hugely upsetting; that someone can walk up to a stranger in broad daylight and fire a gun into their head from close range is awful enough; the fact that the victim was someone whose job is to be answerable and accessible to the public only made it worse. Add to that the other deaths that day, and I couldn’t bear it.

Predictably, this quickly turned into a “gun control - should there be some?” debate in some parts of Twitter. Being someone who finds the occasional spirited debate something not to be shied from, I found myself in a Twitter debate with Gene Spafford, who had posed the question: sure, guns kill people, but are they more evil than cigarettes, which after all kill more people?

Alex Howard had kicked it off: “Context: ~35 people die from firearm homicides every day in the US (CDC), http://bit.ly/i0Vem6 2007 NYT infographic. (I’ve turned the short links into proper links.)

Spafford then responded: “And approximate 1205 per day die as a result of smoking tobacco. Which is the one that is the bigger evil?”

You can see how the conversation developed via Aaron’s Twitter viewer (it’s great).

Me: “generally, smoking is done voluntarily last time I looked.”

Spafford: “One might argue that most homicides are voluntary, as well. And second-hand smoke is not always voluntary. ”

Me: “vast majority of those who die from smoking do so from own hand. Quite literally. Not so with.. you know.”

Spafford: “No single cigarette is fatal. Few people light one with the intent of it leading to his or her death. Few people drive a car intending to cause a fatal accident.”

Me: “but few people in western world can light a cigarette without knowing it could harm or kill them. Not others - themselves. the intent of buying a gun though is to threaten to harm others. So - which encapsulates more evil? I’ll let you figure it.”

Spafford: “the intent of buying a gun is no more to threaten to harm others than is buying a knife or a bow & arrow. Those who target shoot, for instance, have no intent on threatening anyone.”

Me: “‘threaten to harm others’ - not necessarily [of] own species. (Pace hunters.)”

Now, looking back and looking at Spafford’s feed, I’m inclined to think he’s not a gun-totin’ Second-Amendment-smokin’ guns-for-all promoter. I think, days later, that he’s trying to stir things up in a gentle way, from his academic position. (He’s a computer science expert, who discovered the Morris worm.)

However I felt that he might have got carried away with the idea of being a bit oppositional, a bit contrary, in the face of the awful events that had unfolded on the afternoon.

He then wrote a blog post, pushing the point again. He begins by acknowledging that the shootings are tragic, then continues:

The shooter is clearly the one who should be blamed. It appears (from what has been published so far) that he may have some mental problems. And there may well be some blame to assign to those who stoked his hate and fears.

A few people have been quick to claim that the fault is that the shooter had a handgun.

I agree that guns, used carelessly or in the hands of idiots and criminals are a bad idea. But I am equally convinced, after a lifetime of working with law enforcement, the military, and the others, that the problem is not ownership or regulation of guns per se. So long as there is a minimum standard of competency and criminal background check made on those who purchase a weapon, it is probably not a problem. People who buy diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate (to make ANFO) are also dangerous, as are those who buy axes! Yet there are many, many legitimate purchases and uses of those every day.

The shooter in this recent case was determined and attacked at short range. Without a handgun he might have used a suicide bomb (to worse effect), or run his car into the crowd. Someone with strong intent will make use of whatever means may be available.

There’s a lot more - CDC numbers, comparing drunk driver deaths with gun deaths, and so on. And near the end one of his points is:

People who aren’t around responsible users of firearms, and who haven’t been trained in their use tend to be skittish about them. That is understandable. The same is true about other things, such as corrosive chemicals, poisons, and explosives. Firearms aren’t toys. Neither is HCl nor cyanide nor C4 nor dynamite. They have their uses. They should be handed with care. Users should be trained. Their misuse should be punished. And there will be people who misuse them, especially people with mental problems.

So there it was. It was on a blog, and it had a comment box - which was open. So I wrote a comment.

Which wasn’t published. And wasn’t published. And at the time of writing, still hasn’t been published. I prodded him (on Twitter) about this: “any time you want to approve my comment on your blogpost is good. It’s been almost 24 hrs now.”

His response: “When I have time to adequately respond to your silly arguments, I will.”

Cue slight bit of tooth-grinding. Look, if they’re silly arguments, it shouldn’t take any time to knock them down, should it? And approving the comment takes pretty much no time.

So here’s the comment. As a preface, let me say that I’m happy for people to argue for ownership of guns as an a priori philisophical principle - the libertarian view that ownership of things shouldn’t be constrained. At least it’s honest, and you can see if you can try to fit a razor blade around the hermetic seal of their thinking. (It can be quite hard.)

But please, don’t tell me that owning guns is a sacred right because some white guys in wigs 200 years ago who were terrified that King George would come back with the heavies (or that someone would set up their own set of heavies) decided it was expedient at that time. The US Second Amendment is a crutch that’s used for lazy thinking; for not examining where social benefit lies.

So here is the comment that I wrote, which Spafford, as I said, hasn’t so far seen fit to publish. Have a read. If you think my arguments are stupid (some are exaggerated, certainly, for effect) then do tell.

As I said, I think that to some extent he was writing to provoke, though also, I think, setting out a position. If he wants to comment here, he’s welcome. Comments are open. Though (and I’ll reiterate this at the end) I’ll take the unusual step of using strikeout (not deletion, unless libellous) on comments I deem offensive or wacko. Just because I know how this debate goes. Which is, nowhere at all, sadly.

>>>
COMMENT

I’m sure it’s very satisfactory to write a blogpost where you can quote to affirm your prejudices, but I’d have thought someone as intelligent as yourself would take the opportunity to posit the possibility that their previous thinking is wrong, argue against it, and see how well they can break down their old thinking – in the form of thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

Let me try, coming from the opposite perspective. Let me accept that ownership of guns should be allowed; that it’s only the very few who abuse that right.

Fine. Well then, extend that right. Why does the US government get so snitty about ownership of radioactive materials? Isn’t it every American’s right to own as much uranium, plutonium, polonium, or whatever as they like? Didn’t the Founding Fathers have personal nuclear weapons in mind when they added that bit about “the right to bear arms”? If you allow the ownership of semi-automatic and automatic guns capable of killing multiple people who are foolish enough to be in the vicinity of someone with a grudge, or just poor control of a powerful object, then surely you must allow the ownership – concealed or not – of weapons-grade radioactives. It’s your right. Sod this nonsense about radiation in a public place. Only the irresponsible, and so undeserving of our sympathy, would carry such materials around without proper shielding. And you have something to protect you from would-be muggers and assailants. Or, indeed, hungry bears.

No? Why ever not? Is it because the harm that could be caused is out of proportion to the benefits of allowing ownership?

Let’s look at that CDC data. Top four causes of sudden early death: (1) cars (2) poisoning (of which 75% are suicides) (3) guns (4) falls.

Not much to be done about (4) unless we can repeal the law of gravity, but I doubt even the Tea Party has its eyes on that one. Nor (2) since we have to allow that Drano and headache pills actually do have a peaceful use – cleaning drains, easing headaches – and that we shouldn’t ban things which are misused in opposition to or orthogonally to their primary purpose. Drano is not sold as a suicide assist; it’s sold for cleaning drains.

OK, so (1) cars. What the hell use are cars again? Oh, that’s right, personal transportation. So drunk drivers don’t actually go out on sprees looking for people to run down, you say? They’re overconfident because of the depressant effects of alcohol? Cars have a primary use that is beneficial to the wider economy? We might have to make an allowance for them. Drunk driving is still wrong. A car could still be used as a weapon. You just don’t hear of many cases where it happens [that drunk drivers go on intentional killing sprees]. At all.

And so to guns. You wrote: “Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above.”

Okey-dokey, used for hunting. That’s why the murder rate is so high in Oakland and New York – damn trigger-happy hunters seeing a bear at every street corner.

Wait, no? It’s target shooters whose weapons slip out of their pocket?
No?

The argument about “many guns are never used to threaten another person” is so weak I’m astonished you attempt to make it. Are you seriously suggesting that 4+ million guns are sold in the US each year to people who want to go hunting and shoot targets? Really? Or might it be that they hope to persuade potentially harmful people not to threaten them, the buyers?

In which case the prime purpose of a gun is, yes, to threaten harm, and by doing so (you hope) deter it. A gun is a quintessentially different tool from a hammer, or even an axe, or fertiliser. Hammers and axes have primary uses that are not aimed at humans. Fertiliser is for, well, fertilising.

By contrast a gun is a fulfilment of every child’s God complex, to induce effect at a distance with the minimum of effort. Target shooters and hunters are actually the people who have gone beyond that level, who understand exactly why they use a gun. I’d contend that the vast majority of gun buyers and owners don’t truly know, psychologically, why they’re making the purchasing decision; they just know it makes them feel good (even if it might make their partners nervous).

I would bother dealing with the cigarette arguments if there were reports of people going on killing sprees with cigarettes, but they seem rare for some reason. As for suicide bombings, I think there have been, what, a handful of attempts in the US, all unsuccessful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism_in_the_United_States). If you want to replace gun shops with suicide vest shops, that seems to me a good idea; at least it would be a more honest description of what can happen from owning a gun.

Notwithstanding all the above, I recognise that the US’s longstanding policy on gun ownership means that it is nigh on impossible to alter the equation of gun ownership. You could try banning bullets, but they’re even easier to smuggle than guns. (In the UK, you can be arrested for carrying live ammunition. The UK really is hot on firearms control.)

But even with that said, to pretend that guns are somehow “safe” because they kill fewer people than cars only indicates that the debate has ceased to be a debate; instead it’s reached the religious level, where idees fixes have completely taken over the minds of adherents and detractors alike, and cannot be budged without the most enormous effort of will. To ask gun adherents to imagine an America without the Second Amendment is like asking a Christian to imagine a world without their imaginary God. From what I’ve seen, there’s a relatively large overlap there. Which ought to give pause for thought. Dogma is dangerous wherever it’s found.

COMMENT ENDS
>>

To reiterate: you’re free to comment. But I reserve the right to strike it out (it’ll still be there, just a lot less visible) if you’re offensive. Argument - reasoned argument, or explanations of where I’ve been silly are welcome. I can take it.

Monday 20 December 2010

Filed under: — Charles @ 2:31 pm

Remember how Britain took over the internet in 2000 by getting it all to run on Greenwich Electronic Time? No?

Something on Twitter reminded me of this. This was written for the January 27 2000 edition of The Independent.

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

Britain’s Greenwich meridian could become the new reference point for time over the Internet, after two rival groups of British businesses resolved their differences over whose measurement they should use.
Greenwich Electronic Time (GeT) will be a powerful brand which could guarantee that companies based in different countries doing business deals could be certain of when they happened.
With more and more time-sensitive data being exchanged - such as online stockbroking and consumer purchases - it is increasingly important to be able to confirm when transactions take place, said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group.
“Who owns a product at what time if you buy it over the Internet?” said Mr Roper. “If you don’t agree about what time it is, you could find that there is a time during which people think they own it - and if both of them then try to sell it you could have real problems.”
By using GeT as a single reference time, confirmed by a network of super-precise clocks around the Internet, Britain would be “at the forefront of Internet development,” said the Government’s newly appointed “e-envoy” Alex Allan, the former British High Commissioner to Australia.
Comparing timestamps of online transactions has already helped to track down fraudsters, said Ian Collins, managing director of Cybersource, which provides the software that powers many e-commerce Web sites. Extending GeT further would help to do that in future, he said.
Yesterday’s launch saw the unification of two factions that had threatened to split the initiative before it started.
The Prime Minister Tony Blair initially launched GeT on January 1 - but it did not then have the essential backing of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), which represents the major Internet service providers in the UK.
Linx, whose offices lie on the Greenwich meridian, had planned to launch its own Greenwich Net Time earlier this month - but was persuaded not to by lobbying from the Government and other industry bodies. Instead the two merged their efforts to produce the single brand.
The Internet already has a network of clocks which are meant to contact each other and confirm their time by connecting to other precision clocks, usually running on “Coordinated Universal Time”, a global standard adopted in 1982.
A key step in promoting the GeT “brand” will be the availability of free software from its Web site at www.get-time.org which will enable businesses and users to ensure that their computers are in tune with GeT, and to timestamp e-mails and Web transactions against them. That software should be available in the next three or four months, said Mr Roper.
//ends

—-

Great idea! (Well, inside the civil service it seemed great. I thought it was a pile of nonsense. After all, you already had UTC, coordinated via atomic clocks over the net.) What could possibly go wrong?

And then in August:

—–

BY CHARLES ARTHUR
Technology Editor

A high-profile scheme launched by Tony Blair in January to make Greenwich the reference point for “Internet time” has run into a dead end. It cannot work with Microsoft’s Web browser, used by the vast majority of Net surfers.
Now, the team behind the “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT) initiative are wondering if they will ever be able to persuade people to use their product.
“Overhyped? Er, that would be true and fair I suppose,” said James Roper, chief executive of the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), one of the scheme’s backers. “We have encountered a nightmare of problems that were so compounded we hardly knew where to start.”
Announcing the plan to create “Greenwich Electronic Time” (GeT), at the start of the year, Mr Blair suggested it would put Britain back at the centre of timekeeping in the new millennium just as the invention of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) did during the age of sail.
But the reality has proved rather different. The GeT team had suggested in January that within four months they would offer free software for PCs which would be accurate to 0.003 seconds against an existing world standard set by atomic clocks.
Instead, the project only last week produced the first version of its software - and The Independent found that it can display times on the same screen which are out of sync with each other by nine seconds or more.
The problem stems from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, used by more than 80 per cent of Web surfers. Computer code within the program behaves unpredictably, creating the differing time display. But the software giant shows no signs of changing its product to please Mr Blair or the GeT team.
“You would have to ask Microsoft why their version of their own software doesn’t do what their published details say it will,” said Keith Mitchell, executive chairman of the London Internet Exchange (Linx), who is exasperated by the mismatch. “I don’t know why it doesn’t.”
The failure is another embarassment for the Government’s repeatedly proclaimed desire to make Britain an e-commerce capital. Last week the House of Lords passed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which has been criticised by business and consumer groups for infringinging on civil liberties. A number of Internet companies have said they will relocate outside Britain to avoid the email and communications snooping that the RIP Bill allows.
The flaw in GeT is caused by differences between Microsoft’s version of a computer language called “Java” and the public standard created by Sun Microsystems. Microsoft is being sued by Sun for breaking its licence to use Java in the browser. No resolution is in sight.
The GeT team had hoped that their system - backed by a network of atomic clocks around the Internet - would rapidly become a reference point for all sorts of online transactions. which backs the scheme, suggested last week that it could be used to help people doing online share dealing, gambling and auctions: these, he said, could hinge on messages which would have to be time-stamped to an accuracy of less than a second from a central reference point. The Government’s “e-envoy” Alex Allan, said it would put Britain “at the forefront of Internet development”.
Instead, despite the non-appearance of GeT, electronic commerce has snowballed this year. Online gambling, sharedealing and auctions are all booming, used by millions of users worldwide.
“The world is muddling through,” insisted Mr Mitchell, “but the volume of transactions compared to their potential is still small.”
The same applies to GeT, though: its present network of atomic clocks could handle “tens of thousands” of users, said Linx. That compared with projects like Napster, which has an estimated 20 million people using its software.
The GeT project, meanwhile, was reluctant to publicise the release of the first version of its software in case too many people try to use it: there are fears that the atomic clocks would be unable to cope with a large volume of demands for the time.

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Oh God, you have to believe that I was just astonished at how bad that was. And how fundamental the mistakes were.

Still, we don’t have that sort of idiocy any more in the civil service or government. Do we?

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