Thursday, December 24, 2009

My favourite times of day

23.11 (11.11 but in the dark)

something draws my eye to the clock at this time, I have no idea why.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

That ain't customer service

Today's tale of asshattery comes from Tesco's.

We're carless (not careless!) so we often arrange for grocery deliveries online. We booked in our christmas shopping delivery nearly a fortnight ago for this evening - a 7pm till 9pm slot. Assuming that they wouldn't turn up (because of the weather, slippy roads and other general slackness) we rang them up today at lunchtime.

"Of course we'll be delivering - in fact we're loading your food onto the van right now!"

did they turn up?

No. no they didn't.

But of course, they'll arrange for our delivery tomorrow, because we're ... well, one would assume that we're now a priority delivery, right? I mean, we've just had our order cancelled even though we checked that it was coming not 6 hours beforehand?

No. the best they can do is Tuesday (no good, we're out) meaning the earliest slot we can make is Wednesday.

Anyone care to bet on whether they'll actually turn up on Wednesday? because I'm assuming that they won't.

I understand that it's cold out. I understand that the weather is bad. That is why we rang up. If they'd had the decency to tell us that they were not going to deliver - If I had known that they wouldn't arrive - instead of helping the neighbours clear out the road (so that the van would have no problems getting to our house) I would have walked to the local Sainsbury's and got at least enough food to see us through till Christmas. It's an hour walk, but I had all day to do it.

Speaking to their customer service was the usual fruitless persuit. Sugary words and a "oh, well, terribly sorry" attitude do not help me. I need the items that I ordered, that is the only thing that matters to me. I don't want to hear apologies or platitudes, I want to hear how I will be the first customer in the queue to have my order satisfied, in preference to anyone who placed their order after me.

After spending 15 minutes getting more and more irate, my wife took over the call, and decided that we would rebook for Wednesday the 23rd. I'm probably going to get the shopping after work each evening for the next few evenings anyway, but we assumed that it couldn't hurt to take a Wednesday slot. Right? Right?

So, this is what we get greeted with when we check the delivery slot time.

First off, the time slot is Tuesday 5th of January. Nice!

Next, we see that the order is 30 pounds more expensive than the original order we placed a week or two back. So, we decide to take a stroll down basket lane, and spot that some of the fresh produce prices are a wee bit inflated.

That's right - 7 parsnips, £10.92. 3 Leeks, 5.94. And you really don't want to know how much the bananas and carrots cost.

Needs more polish, Tesco. Not shiny.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ikea Jenga

After moving house, my wife and I have made strident efforts to throw away the mountain of crap that we've accumulated with our consumerist ways over the last couple of years. The mountain is still huge, but boy, you shoulda seen it when we moved last time.

While the floor plans say otherwise, I'm convinced this new house is significantly smaller than our old place overlooking the sea, and there was no storage in the house when we moved in, so a trip to Ikea was required to furnish our new gaff. Being the type who likes efficiency, we planned to do the whole house in one trip - wardrobes, bookcases, computer desks, chests of drawers, DVD racks and a few other bits and bobs. Basically, enough boxes to fill half a transit van.

So, now we have a house half full of boxes of stuff, and half-full of boxes containing boxes that will contain the stuff from the boxes once I unbox and construct them. I now have some wierd matroska box situation going on where the only way I can make space to make the furniture is to stack boxes inside boxes, and carefully slide stacks of boxes from one place to another. It may sound like a fun game, but Ikea Jenga is going to kill me at some point when I get crushed to death by a load of old CDs.

Hopefully by the end of today, I'll have everything unboxed and constructed, and we can start putting our clothes and books somewhere where they will comfortably live until the next time we move.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sir Valence

It's quite incredible, the bond between our ruling elite and the media conglomerates. It's almost a chemical attraction. One has to wonder just how far you will let them go.

Finally, some MSM attention is being directed at the upcoming surveillance society that we're all being pushed towards. Virgin Media have announced publicly that they are going to inspect everyone's internet traffic in an effort to identify "unlawful file sharing".

Just to be clear, this means that if you're a Virgin customer, you're now paying to be spied upon by your ISP, and they have just given up any pretense of common carrier status. I'm sure other large ISPs will be next. Even if you are totally innocent and have never even considered file sharing, your traffic is being explicitly monitored.

Doesn't that make you feel all safe and warm inside?

Given that someone has stated that certain types of file sharing are unlawful (certainly not me or the majority of my peers, but someone somewhere) one has to wonder, what is the next thing they will determine is unlawful? How much money does one have to pay to move an activity (copying a file) from unlawful (I got this file from site A) to lawful (I got this file from site B)? What about "I already own this album, so I'll listen to it" (legal), back it up (dubious), download it from some website (illegal), or a torrent (here they come to disconnect your family internet connection).

The time has come to make a stand, and I'm standing up.

I will not purchase any more media that has been RIAA or MPAA or BPI certified. I will not vote for any candidate that believes these people have a right to dictate how my internet connection is used.

Make your voice and your wallet count. Join me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

To be, or not to be

My current internet provider is Be Internet. They're not super-cheap, but they're not insanely expensive either. I've been with them for nearly four years now, and they're bloody brilliant. This endorsement does not come with any kickbacks from them, although if you are persuaded then I'll be happy to formally introduce you.

The reason I raise this is because they've been in the tiny minority of people who, while moving house over the last month, have promised and then delivered. They gave me a date for connection, they connected me on that date, they sent me an email saying I was working, I plugged in my modem and I had a connection. Hallelujah.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


A big shout goes out to the owners of the open wireless access point somewhere in my vicinity. You've allowed me net access where Vodafone failed.

Given the near-magical turnaround on my land line, I've got high hopes that we'll be able to get a proper connection to the interwebs up next week, potentially even for my birthday. That would be a fantastic outcome. In the meantime, I'll undoubtedly make use of the local access point for some light surfing and email. Given that it's someone else's connection, I'll endeavour to keep the traffic low.

One may wonder if this activity is legal, and my current take is that it is - barely. Security of wireless systems is taken seriously by every third party provider in the country now. Every other access point in the area which is in a default configuration is locked down. This leads me to believe that anyone who has an open wireless access point has done so deliberately with the intention of being a good Samaritan for folks like myself. I intend to do the same when my network connection arrives, although I'll undoubtedly try and put in place some traffic shaping so that MACs which are unknown get a small slice of the available pie. Given that access is therefore implicitly granted, I'm not in contravention of the aforementioned act.

One has to wonder how society will react in future as connection to the Internet becomes more (and eventually, totally) pervasive. Being without a connection, even for a day, disrupts my usual routines - I'm unable to look anything up online, place food orders, check email. All of these things that are now comfortably second nature (not rationed, not carefully doled out) become glaring issues. I'm sure the same could be said of phone access over the last few decades, although that's mitigated somewhat with mobile phone access. I've purchased a 3G dongle to ensure that we have some form of connection across the 5 computers in the house, but when that fails to find a network we're back at square one. At least we can fall back to dial up now that the phone line is in place.

My child will be part of the first generation born where the Internet isn't just there - it's everywhere. How cool will that be?

BT phone home

I'm rarely in a position where the effort of a large corporation surprises me. I've had situations with various companies in the past where I've been left thinking, "Is this really how you treat your customers? Is everyone going through the same pain and problems using your service? remind me again what I'm paying you for?"

Today, the big corporation finally bit back. BT have connected me up to the phone network in a little over a week from my first request, and a little over two days from where my ire was noticed. This is nearly a fortnight faster than the previous date I was given. To say I'm gobsmacked would be an understatement, and I'm thoroughly impressed with their customer service.

As a technically savvy bloke, I'm probably more aware than most of what's actually required to connect up a phone line and transfer a number around. At the end of the day though, I really shouldn't care - all I want is to be able to pick up my phone and hear a dial tone, and I can do that now.

Big thanks to David and Colin, and to the BT engineer who arrived on my doorstep at precisely 8am this morning. Good work, fellas.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A new hope

After my obscenity-laden rant on Monday, I felt much better. I assumed that nothing would occur after said rant other than my blood pressure reducing to a sensible value, especially given that I have a regular audience of - well, not many people at all.

However, railing at the wind seems to work sometimes - especially when certain readers are able to talk to certain people who obviously have the ability to make things right.

On Tuesday afternoon, while traipsing boxes from one house to another, I had a call from an excellent chap called David at BT, and our conversation essentially boiled down to "how can we make this right". the order for December got cancelled, and a new order is now in place for the end of this week.

This is utterly fantastic, and I take back all of the hideous dark ranting in the previous post - it may have been justified and it may have got some results, but there's no need to lump everyone working for such a huge company in together. It's good to know that they can pull it out of the bag when it matters.

One can only hope that everyone who has similar issues gets a similar resolution. Oh, and also, one can hope that this time the date they've given us will actually stick.

Oh, and if my brother is reading - dude, you're a star. Add another one to the stack of favours you're owed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Useless bastards

Update, as of 19th of November - BT did good. please read the following posts for the details. I'll leave this post here as a reminder to myself that rude language is uncalled for.

That's right, BT. You are a bunch of useless timewasting bastards. If I could legally kill you all, I would.

If I didn't need your landline for a decent internet service, you know what? you could rot in hell.

So the story so far: I ring up the day after I confirm my house is in fact my house. Pretty stressful, but you know, I've been expecting a bit of stress - house purchasing is supposed to rank right up there with the best of them.

I get a very helpful chap who organises my phone move. Unfortunately for me, the phone line in the new house is still active, and they apparently need to give some legal notice period before we can switch from our old house to our new house. The kindly gentleman gives me a selection of new phone numbers to pick from, because I'm not able to take my existing number with me. We arrange a date, a fortnight away (26th of November). I ask for ex-directory, which is fine. The gentleman explains that if I can persuade the old house owners to disconnect their line, then we can simply ring up and confirm a new date. I am left with a not-too-disgruntled feeling.

So, the next day, my heavily pregnant wife rings up the old house owners, who confirm to us that they have indeed disconnected the phone line. Taking them at their word, I decide to ring BT back to arrange a newer date.

Oh, can't do that, says the new girl - Carla, from Leicester. Even though it's most likely someone from India, because BT don't actually employ anyone who LIVES in this fucking country, by the looks of it. So - can't do that, the engineers would have to cancel your order and rebook it. the earliest they could move it to is the 23rd, and it would be a load of hassle, so please, just fuck off and stop bothering us. Of course, that was not what she said word for word - the politeness and appeasement was simply dripping from the conversation, but in essense, that's what she means.
So I say, that's fine - three days forward is better than no days, right? please, cancel my order and rebook it for the 23rd. Oh, and can I have a reference number for this call please, CARLA. Thanks.

Oh, no, I can't give you a reference number. tell you what, sucker - I'll ring you back, she says. So I wait. Holy of holies, 30 minutes later, she does ring back - and she's even got a new booking number for me. Yes, your line is disconnected in the new property. I can't confirm the date, you'll have to wait for the engineer, but it should be around the 23rd. No, I can't confirm the number.

So I'm thinking ... bollocks. this hasn't been arranged, has it. She's basically lying to me.

Nicky gets a whiff that we're not getting anywhere, and decides to go to bat. She spends 90 minutes on the phone (so far we're up to about 3 fucking hours just to get our phone service moved from one house to another, which I KNOW FOR A FACT is as simple as entering two numbers in a database somewhere and pressing "activate".) They can't find any trace of the previous order number (surprise surprise) so we get a new one. And this guy promises point blank to my pregnant wife that we'll be connected on the 18th.


Or is it?

Of course it fucking isn't, this is BT we're talking about. Useless shower of bastards.

Today, email arrives. A new order number that we've never seen before. Our phone service will be connected on the 2nd of December (that's right, three weeks after I tell them I want to move house). A different number to the one I've been told about. And they haven't tracked that I want to be ex-directory.


seriously, if Virgin weren't so shite, you'd be down a customer, but they're nearly *nearly* as bad as you are, and BE internet are just wonderful, I'd hate to give them up.

There may be a short delay in service.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Life's a funny thing

First antenatal class this evening. Fairly informative, but the imagery left something to be desired. If I wanted to see pictures of naked women in pain, I could have got them for free on the Internet.

Still, if my other half learns enough to conquer her fear, then it's a good thing ;)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Three strikes?

"Lord" the right Honourable Mandelson.

Is he right? is he honourable? I'd like to propose that he's neither of these things. He's not right, in that he's totally wrong about his proposed three strikes legislation, and he's most certainly not honourable by any definition of the word other than "it's a word you can stick in front of your name if you are a Lord". If one uses the definition that one would expect - adhering to ethical and moral principles - then he's pretty much the opposite of honourable. I'd go so far as to say that he's a lying, cheating, unethical scumbag who takes backhanders wherever possible, schmoozes with the rich bunch, and uses his position for financial gain over and above any service to our country.

And don't forget that he is unelected - he's in a position of power that was gifted to him by Gordon Brown, who is also unelected.

But, to the matter at hand. Three Strikes legislation, at it's simplest, is intended to stop people breaking copyright legislation by cracking down on people who share files. If they are identified to have broken the law enough to be given three warnings, then they get their internet cut off. At first glance, this might not seem too ridiculous, but give it two glances, and the holes immediately appear. For one - who is supposed to spot this supposed lawbreaking? ISPs in the UK are legally protected from the implications of carrying third party traffic - they have no liability for the traffic over their network, and they achieve this by one simple rule - they don't look at what you do. It's equivalent to the royal mail not being required to open everyone's letters to see what's in them.

The only way to enforce such legislation would be to force ISPs to examine traffic and report "bad" traffic to some central authority. Of course, some people in government would love the right to do this, but as soon as you start enforcing examination of the data flowing over the network, then the ISPs will become responsible for every type of traffic they carry, and that's the thin end of a very large, very fat wedge. What happens when you post a picture of your children and someone considers that child pornography? Do you think it's reasonable for some third party to have the right to read every email you send, and listen in on every phone conversation you have? looking at what the Communications Decency Act proposed, and the legal response to that, it's exactly the end result that will inevitably happen as soon as you enforce examination of the contents of your internet traffic.

The proposal also fails to take into account personal liability and responsibility with regards to who owns or maintains the internet connection. What happens if my child gets three strikes on my line? does my internet business lose connection? What happens if the line is a shared or communal line? What about one strike each for three students using the same internet connection?

The real nail in the coffin is the idea that the traffic itself will remain visible and examinable. As soon as this legislation comes into effect, then the first thing that will happen is that people will switch to using software that forces encryption of their traffic, making it much harder (and potentially impossible) for someone to examine the traffic and determine that they are breaking the law. There's proof of concept software out there already that shows that this works, is real, and is viable- the only thing stopping people switching to use it is any real reason to move away from the software they are comfortable with. Having their internet disconnected would be enough of a spur for most people.

And what does Mandelson achieve by bringing this legislation into effect? Will it make people buy more media? Will curtailing copying put more money into the pockets of the creative industries? Virtually every third party survey and poll says no. People who consume media will often buy that media, so stopping them from consuming it will reduce sales, and stopping piracy does not mean that all of those copies would be converted into sales. The math and rhetoric simply does not add up.

One thing that will add up however, is Peter Mandelson's bank balance. I'm sure he'll enjoy discussing this with his friends once he pushes it through the commons.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

For Marek

One of my team at work died, last night. He was a splendid chap, very funny, always happy, and obviously deeply in love with his wife. He will be missed, by myself and all of the other folks who knew him. My deepest sympathy goes out to Virginia and his family.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Filtration system

Mass market media is often discussed in terms of being a filter on society. 50 years ago, when you could count the number of Television broadcast channels on one hand, and when most news came via newspapers published by a small subset of powerful media companies, I can see how that is relevant.

Society is comprised of individuals, and we each have our own stories. Filtered views onto this make a lot of sense - How could we possibly cope with the information overflow that would come with being directly exposed to hundreds of stories from other people's lives? How could we make rational decisions and be informed of pertinent world events when someone somewhere is dying right this second?

Except this is exactly what we are exposed to now, with social grouping tools like Facebook and Twitter and with story aggregation tools ranging from Google news to Fark. Media is no longer a filter, it's a multiplier.

The established mass media still fills a role, but that role has become less informational and more like a bragging teenager. This is understandable given that their audience has always been the buyers of advertising space rather than the consumers of the media themselves, but without the crutch of legitimacy that comes from being a relevant informational stream, many television channels, newspapers and radio channels are falling back on creating their own story streams, playing off the exposed lives of a tiny subset of the real world and creating a huge amount of noise around these people as though they should matter to the rest of us.

I find it terrifying that huge portions of our population really care about a pop singer dying (Michael Jackson or Stephen Gately, take your pick). Sharing the information once is relevant, constructing a story around that information is fiction. I find it terrifying that similarly huge portions of our population seem to think that the empty posturing of a has-been model and her washed out pop-star ex husband are deserving of such lavish media attention, when lives could actually be changed if any of a thousand other people had the same airtime to disseminate their knowledge and views. Where is the Johnny ball of the naughties?

So, we've lost that filter that mass media used to provide, and I think our society is being lead by the hand in the wrong direction by the established powers. However, their downfall has been at hand for long enough now to make them pretty much irrelevant, if you have the willpower and foresight to simply avoid them. Starting with Digg, Reddit and Wikipedia, you can construct your own filter, participate and weave your own stories. You don't need the mass media, you never did - it was always the other way around.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who's the boss?

A fantastic blog post about the hierarchy of The Office caught my attention today. I enjoyed the post and the author's writing style enough to branch out into his other posts, which is fairly rare for me. Look for Venkatesh's blog RibbonFarm in my list over to the side there.

Don't worry, I'll wait.

I occasionally (not often, I'll admit) worry about my place in the world, whether I'm doing the right job, whether I'm doing the right thing for my team, my company, and even Disney. It's interesting to see a deconstruction which implies that most people are either in this for themselves (it's all about the money, baby!) and where people who buy into corporate policy are effectively used as career fodder - where working at a company, devoting your time and effort to creating something, are seen as somehow less valuable than amassing wealth and climbing the ladder to the top.

I have always thought that the best thing to be doing is something creative. Creating something that myself or society can enjoy or derive value from (even if it's for a second, like a smile or singing a song) is more important than establishing a history or a position of wealth or power. It's a fundamental truth that you can't take that stuff with you, so you may as well enjoy the ride - and hell, if you're going to enjoy it, why not help the people around you enjoy it as well? If the joy you bring happens to last a lifetime (Say, you invented something cool like the internal combustion engine) then so much the better. Attaching the value of that thing to the concept of wealth storage seems to be the big flaw in this whole process.

I have been musing about this a lot recently, and I think I need to mull it over a bit more to get to the point where I can braindump in any form that will be a coherent read, so I'll leave it for now, but the gist of it is - it's not the love of money that's the root of all evil. The love of money is just the emotional response of people who can't see there is more to value than bartering chips. No - the root of all evil really is money itself, the separation of the intrinsic value of a thing from the thing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Where did all the money go?

some pretty interesting news over the last few days.

First off - american bank insurance.

the FDIC is, essentially, bust. It has enough reserves to cover a few more banks going bust, but given that over 100 have gone bust this year already, chances are they're going to run out of money. Who is going to stump up the shortfall? I'll give you a clue - it's not going to be the banks.

Second - gold prices.

It's been a fair set of up and down swings recently, but given the mind-bogglingly huge amount of money the US, UK and other central banks are printing and releasing into their economies, supply inflation was inevitable. Price inflation has been "negative" for the last year, but anyone who thinks that can continue given that house price falls have mostly been pegged by the governments and banks, and given that oil prices are double their lows from last year and moving up again - well, I think it's pretty safe to say that the combination of those three things only points one way, and that's big big inflation in the coming couple of years.

The governments will do everything they can to lie to the general public about the reality of this, and any business (take Nationwide as an example) that has a vested interest in green shoots, recoveries and the like will be tooting the "everything is fine" horn - but it's not. It's a long, long way from fine.

Lastly - the dollar as a world currency is beginning to show cracks.

The Chinese have a huge vested interest in helping maintain the value of the dollar, due to the massive amount of reserves they are sitting on. However, if the Fed continue to print money, China know that their stock of paper will dwindle in real value, and fast. They will have to shift from relying on exports to internal consumption to maintain growth, but given the poverty gap of the majority of their citizens compared to most first world countries, they can do that in spades as long as they can afford the energy. Which leads to the conclusion that they will most likely want to separate their dollar reserve value and their energy costs, and unless they cash in those paper reserves, the only other alternative is to stop buying oil in dollars.

Many other governments are talking about pricing oil in a basket of currencies, and if this doesn't happen soon I'll eat my gold.

Gold may be a pretty bad hedge in times of inflation (historically it's been good and terrible depending on circumstances) but there's one thing that's nigh-on useless in times of inflation, and that's cash in the bank.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reality check

One of the issues I have with the MWI multiverse theory is infinite state proliferation. Let's take some starting assumptions - reality begins with a single state, it progresses in a quantized fashion (it "ticks"), and the state change duration (the tick length) is equivalent to Planck time.

After a single tick, assuming every possible variant is explored (every "choice" that can happen does happen), you have three options, which really resolve to two possible subsequent potential states. Either the exploration of states collapses back to a single state, or every single possible state continues as a new existent reality (effectively an infinite number of new states), or a subset of that infinite set continues. Without any way to quantify the effective subset to some finite subset, that really leaves two options - one new reality, or an infinite number of new realities.

Bear in mind, that's after one tick - and you get roughly 10 ^ 44 of those every second. So the complexity of the possible choice sets (if the multiverse does not collapse to a single state after each tick) is a proliferation of an infinite number of choices for each starting reality, every tick, again and again.

If an infinite number of realities boggles the mind, how much harder is it to comprehend the vastness of allowing all potential realities to propagate, as would be required if the set of possible states did not collapse each time the state progressed?

And if the set does collapse back to one reality, what dictates the choice, and surely that precludes continued exploration of each of those infinite choices that have just collapsed, ruling out the opportunity of existing or exploring the multiverse (hopping realities, that sort of thing).

If one assumes that the complexity of the reality state is not actually infinite, but is in fact bounded by some finite but hideously complex state (as an arbitrary example, "counting up" all the available particles and extrapolating a finite state complexity from that) then that would suggest a comprehensible non-infinite set of reality choices, even though the complexity does still scale at a nearly mind-boggling rate.

However, if that's the case, then even if the multiverse is comprised of every possible alternative state that could have ever existed - it's still not infinite. That means that it's possible to rule out some hypothetical states from the actual set of available multiverse states, assuming that one states with an infinite number of possible hypothetical states.

If one takes current computational parallelism as a paradigm, it could be hypothesised that "running" the multiverse equates to execution of all available reality states each state change transition, followed by selection of the valid state. Parallels can be drawn with our current understanding of quantum computing although I wonder if the execution is speculative (leading to a collapse of the reality set) or continued. If the Copenhagen interpretation is to be believed, the observer is the fundamental cause of the collapse, but not given credit for the result of the collapse. However, given that the observer cannot be treated classically but any observation should be regarded in itself as a quantum phenomena, what does that mean in causal terms for the initial state split or propagation?

Just because I can't wrap my head around the vastness of it all doesn't mean it's true. Still, it makes my brain hurt.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moral lessons for my child part one

I've been thinking a lot recently about how I can bring up my child to be a moral person, without (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. Hyperspace being, in this case, organised religion.

See, I love many things about Christianity (specifically Church of England flavoured Christianity, as that was the faith I was born to). The architecture kicks ass. I like the smell of many of the churches and cathedrals I've visited. There is a sense of serenity and peacefulness that comes with being in those places. I'm also a big fan of many of the moral lessons taught both by extension of bible verse and by the community directly involved in, and surrounding, the machinations of the church.

I'm really not a big fan of the particular brand of fairy tales that they preach, however, and this is one of the two major turn-off points for me about most every organised religion (the second being the inevitable group of crazy fundies who kill, maim, hurt and oppress each other in the name of their god as though these things are good things). I just can't, in all good conscience, tell another human being (in this case, my child) that they should believe in something just because I do - and especially because in this case, I'm pretty certain that I don't.

My own faith (or lack of) aside, one thing that I can do is come up with my own, codified list of things that I do believe should be practiced by my child, ideally with use cases and justifications. I'm going to leave aside the majors like murder, theft and ox coveting for now; while I truly believe that they're great moral rules, there's no value in me listing them.

so, here we go.

1. Always be polite.

use case: When buying a bus ticket, or groceries in a shop, say "I'd like (my item), please". When presented with the item or exiting the bus, say "thank you" to the relevant person.

why: Politeness is social grease. Just like grease lubricates a mechanism, so politeness makes social interactions run smoother. It costs you only the time to say it, and could make a huge difference to the other person's day.

2. Tell the truth.

use case: Someone asks you if they look good in that dress. They don't. Tell them that (in your opinion) they don't look good. They then put on a different dress, and they look great in it. They ask you again. Tell them that they now look great.

why: Truth is your currency of trust. Trust is hugely valuable. If people don't want to hear the truth, then they shouldn't ask you the question - this is their problem, not yours.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

State of the nation

I've been watching the G20 pittsburgh summit with my usual synical eye, but the videos of students being teargassed on their own campus - it's disgusting. After similar situations in London, where peaceful protests lead to the death of an innocent bystander I'm beginning to fear that the inevitable result is an armed revolution at some point.

If the powers in control of these events continue to treat their own citizens as criminals, to the extent of suppressing any form of peaceful protests, what options does that leave civilians? Where is our opportunity to voice our concerns? How are people supposed to stand up and be heard when they are forcibly and violently suppressed whenever they try to do so?

In America, where carrying weapons is an accepted part of the culture, there's an often quoted phrase - "Soap box, ballot box, jury box, ammo box. Use them in that order." Given the history of rigged elections, state controlled lobbying and denial of peaceful protest, I'll be surprised if the move to ammo box doesn't happen in the near future. And at that point, the powers that be will only have themselves to blame, and will have very little recourse to open up a sensible discussion.

When the elite manipulate elections, the economy and people's right to assemble, how do you get your voice heard?

Friday, September 25, 2009


Myself and the wife have had another staycation week, and I'm loving it. We hired a car and visited the Isle of Wight and Canterbury Cathedral, and then I've spent a couple of days doing very little other than sleeping and housework mixed in with watching the latest american TV.

After all the recent globe trotting, I've come to appreciate just how wonderful our current house is (especially now the noisy witch next door appears to have melted). I'll be sorry to lose the view. I guess you have to give up something when you decide to spawn a new process.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ah, how times have changed.

Permit me to make a comparison which you might find interesting.

John Locke, 1689, epistle dedicatory contained in AN ESSAY CONCERNING HUMANE UNDERSTANDING.




This Treatise, which is grown up under your lordship's eye, and has ventured into the world by your order, does now, by a natural kind of right, come to your lordship for that protection which you several years since promised it. It is not that I think any name, how great soever, set at the beginning of a book, will be able to cover the faults that are to be found in it. Things in print must stand and fall by their own worth, or the reader's fancy. But there being nothing more to be desired for truth than a fair unprejudiced hearing, nobody is more likely to procure me that than your lordship, who are allowed to have got so intimate an acquaintance with her, in her more retired recesses. Your lordship is known to have so far advanced your speculations in the most abstract and general knowledge of things, beyond the ordinary reach or common methods, that your allowance and approbation of the design of this Treatise will at least preserve it from being condemned without reading, and will prevail to have those parts a little weighed, which might otherwise perhaps be thought to deserve no consideration, for being somewhat out of the common road. The imputation of Novelty is a terrible charge amongst those who judge of men's heads, as they do of their perukes, by the fashion, and can allow none to be right but the received doctrines. Truth scarce ever yet carried it by vote anywhere at its first appearance: new opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common. But truth, like gold, is not the less so for being newly brought out of the mine. It is trial and examination must give it price, and not any antique fashion; and though it be not yet current by the public stamp, yet it may, for all that, be as old as nature, and is certainly not the less genuine. Your lordship can give great and convincing instances of this, whenever you please to oblige the public with some of those large and comprehensive discoveries you have made of truths hitherto unknown, unless to some few, from whom your lordship has been pleased not wholly to conceal them. This alone were a sufficient reason, were there no other, why I should dedicate this Essay to your lordship; and its having some little correspondence with some parts of that nobler and vast system of the sciences your lordship has made so new, exact, and instructive a draught of, I think it glory enough, if your lordship permit me to boast, that here and there I have fallen into some thoughts not wholly different from yours. If your lordship think fit that, by your encouragement, this should appear in the world, I hope it may be a reason, some time or other, to lead your lordship further; and you will allow me to say, that you here give the world an earnest of something that, if they can bear with this, will be truly worth their expectation. This, my lord, shows what a present I here make to your lordship; just such as the poor man does to his rich and great neighbour, by whom the basket of flowers or fruit is not ill taken, though he has more plenty of his own growth, and in much greater perfection. Worthless things receive a value when they are made the offerings of respect, esteem, and gratitude: these you have given me so mighty and peculiar reasons to have, in the highest degree, for your lordship, that if they can add a price to what they go along with, proportionable to their own greatness, I can with confidence brag, I here make your lordship the richest present you ever received. This I am sure, I am under the greatest obligations to seek all occasions to acknowledge a long train of favours I have received from your lordship; favours, though great and important in themselves, yet made much more so by the forwardness, concern, and kindness, and other obliging circumstances, that never failed to accompany them. To all this you are pleased to add that which gives yet more weight and relish to all the rest: you vouchsafe to continue me in some degrees of your esteem, and allow me a place in your good thoughts, I had almost said friendship. This, my lord, your words and actions so constantly show on all occasions, even to others when I am absent, that it is not vanity in me to mention what everybody knows: but it would be want of good manners not to acknowledge what so many are witnesses of, and every day tell me I am indebted to your lordship for. I wish they could as easily assist my gratitude, as they convince me of the great and growing engagements it has to your lordship. This I am sure, I should write of the UNDERSTANDING without having any, if I were not extremely sensible of them, and did not lay hold on this opportunity to testify to the world how much I am obliged to be, and how much I am,

Your Lordship's most humble and most obedient servant,


2 Dorset Court, 24th of May, 1689

Facebook, 2009:

"Add Friend?"

Sunday, September 6, 2009

You can't handle the truth

It appears that this world runs on people lying, cheating and generally backstabbing anyone that they don't socially mix with, and occasionally then too.

It's starting to grind me down.

Is there anything wrong with assuming that your fellow man or woman is actually going to stick to their word? I've been using that as a strategy since I became an adult, and it's just getting harder and harder to go into deals and social situations with the mindset that the other party is being honest.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Massively multiplayer

With a baby on the way, and a house purchase in the works, I'm pretty busy at the minute. Not crazy busy, but it's rare I have a day (and in most cases, even an evening) to myself. It's times like these I wonder how I'm ever going to become insanely rich, and also how i'm going to make time to play all the MMO games I want to play without annoying my wife too much.

World of Warcraft sucked up much of '06, '07 and '08. Planetside did for 2003-2005. Asheron's Call saw in the century, and that was a lot of fun too. I've spent literally years of my life competing with other real people in virtual environments to achieve fake fortunes and accomplishments. It may seem sad, and it may have been a huge waste of time, but boy was it fun.

I'm wondering how applicable those skills i've learned are to the real world. I know first hand that the leadership experience I gained from ordering around 30 people every evening for two years was actually very valuable. The persuasion, snap decision making, strategic and tactical evaluation skills from Planetside actually translated incredibly well to leading teams of people in a business - obviously there's huge differences, but trying to keep a cohesive group of disparate personalities together and focused on a single objective (or set of complementary objectives) with tight timescales is pretty much half of my job these days.

In terms of translating fake economic skills (WoW auctioneering, crafting etc) into real world practice, I think the theory is good. Obviously there's a huge gap between theory and practice, but I have a feeling that when I finally put some effort into applying those lessons to real world economic models, there won't be a massive learning curve to deal with.

To that end, I'm about to start running some financial modelling. If anyone wants to get in on the fun, mail me. It doesn't get much more massively multiplayer than the real world, after all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I ride into and out of work most days. Boy, do those pedestrians get my goat when they walk on the cycle path. Even though it has pictures of bicycles on it every few yards, and it's bright red, some people insist on walking on it. I always assumed it was pretty damn obvious that you shouldn't be there if you are not travelling on a bike.

Today tho, I saw some chinese folks wandering down it, and I came to wonder ... maybe they think it's a lucky red path, just for them?

(Image courtesy of Simon Carey )

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tomato, Tomato

I speak english (or more precisely, the Queen's english) with a slight tinge of Geordie when I get angry. I sometimes say things that other english speakers fail to understand - either I pronounce words in a way they don't understand, or I use words that I think mean a certain thing when my conversational partner means something else.

It never fails to amaze me that we actually manage to communicate ideas and concepts to each other, given the opportunities for vagueness and overloaded meanings of words, both spoken and written. Lead, lead - one's a metal, one's where I guide someone. Edinburgh - but don't say "burg".

At my workplace, we have a set of words that are massively overloaded. Build - what does that mean to you? for me, depending on who I'm talking to and the time of day, it could mean building some code, building some data, the result of a lighting calculation, the latest version of the game, and a variety of other potential options. Pipeline and workflow suffer the same issues, and don't get me started on "Object", "Entity", "Component" or any of the other synonyms for "Thing".

The worst example I saw recently was an MIT video (Introduction to algorithms) where the presenter delves into formal proofs for complexity representation, and midway through one of his equations, makes a quick aside to the effect of "That equals sign - well, that really means definitely not larger than in this context". I have 30-something years of brain mapping that says the symbol "=" means "equal to", and he's using it to mean something different. Surely there's a better symbol for him to use? maybe even "<=" ?

This overloading and confusion crops up constantly, and it's a huge stumbling block whenever people need to collaborate. Sure, some of these issues could be resolved by being more precise when talking or writing, or establishing glossaries when communicating. However, I think the issue is much deeper than that.

Our brains are heavily wired into attaching a meaning (or a feeling) to symbols. Words, mathematical symbols, brand images, even blocks of raw colour evoke a response. Pictures really are worth a thousand words, and look just how important words are. Misusing a word or using a word in a different context is a problem when your brain is trained to respond to that word (or sound, or picture) with a preset response.

Another example that came up during my discussion with Joe was the symbols we use in calculus. When learning to differentiate at school, I had endless problems - not with the concepts, but with the notation. every time I saw "dy/dx" my brain was screaming at me - Divide! Divide you moron! You've done it a thousand times, what makes this time different? This problem never really went away until I saw Newton's notation (dots above letters; more dots equates to higher order derivatives) and Lagrange's notation. Seeing a way of expressing the concept where the very expression itself wasn't already mentally mapped to something else instantly removed that roadblock to how I thought about the process.

The same issues are also prevalent in UI design. Pictures on buttons - or if you drive an american car, english words on buttons - become ingrained from the moment you see them, and if you see a different image mapped to a familiar operation, or the same image meaning something else in a different program - you are instantly confused.

So, next time you strike up a conversation with someone, don't just say what you want to say - say what you want them to understand. If that makes any sense at all. Either you'll confuse the hell out of yourself, or you might just get your point across.

Did I mention that my tomato plant is doing really nicely?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Banging the rocks together

I had a revelation today, one of those moments when your mental jenga stack crumbles, and you have to enter the laborious process of building it back up a few blocks at a time. I was attending an "Inspire and motivate" presentation by Victor Antonov where he was discussing a new artistic project he's working on, and he mentioned using an abstract concept as a tool for defining how to achieve the required end result. I'll get to the details in a minute.

At that point in time, my brain jolted. Abstract concepts as tools? What the hell? My mental picture of a tool is ... well, stuff like hammers, bandsaws, straws, or software tools like Maya - they are tangible things that you interact with. I can grok picking up a hammer, swinging it, and hitting a nail - result achieved. How can I use an abstract concept as a tool? I can hear the jenga stack falling all around me right about now.

Building back up a new mental concept around something as simple as "what is a tool" takes a bit of work, so I'm going to lay out my thought process here.

1. This guy is saying he uses abstract concepts as tools, and he's achieved a result from that - I can see, looking at his presentation, exactly what he's describing as his hoped-for end result. (In this case, He was discussing reduction of scene complexity, including lighting and texturing, to get what he wants).

2. He's talking about using this tool in terms of what he wants - i.e. the end result - not in terms of how he interacts with it - i.e. how you swing it. This is my first disconnect point - my mental picture is normally all about the interaction, and this is the first thing I need to change. After talking to my friendly technical artist Joe, he's quite clear that the best tools are transparent in translating what an artist pictures in their head, and the end result. I've paid lip service to this, but i've never really got it.

3. He's expressing his end result in the simplest of terms - in this case, he's taking a theme ("Lighting defines mood") and establishing a spectrum or gradient ("one end is a single light which gives solid contrast and clear lines between light and dark with lots of shadow, the other end is large numbers of lights and soft ambient lighting which reduces contrast and minimises the clarity of shadow direction").

4. He's then mapping his abstract concept, the theme given above, as the tool that lets you tweak where you lie on the gradient. By tweaking where you lie on the gradient, you end up with a result. Bingo! The process is as simple as a volume slider - how it works is irrelevant, as long as it works.

Using tools is something pretty ingrained in the human psyche. It's been used as a discriminator between humans and animals for quite some time, even if we now know that many animals use tools regularly. As the hitchhiker's guide says, "We’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere … and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys." Still, it's a step away from using tools to manipulating your environment using abstract concepts, even though we do it all the time. I'm certainly not suggesting that i've never used an abstract concept as a tool, I'm just saying I've never really thought about it before.

The discussion with Joe lead us into the problems of language dissonance, overloading symbology and user interfaces - but I'll keep that discussion for another post.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Propping up the houses

So, looking at the latest results for Barratt the builders, everything looks pretty rosy. And so it should - given that they're obviously being fed money by you and me, via the council and government, to the tune of a couple of hundred million pounds. Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen - we're not only buying banks so that we can loan ourselves money, now we're buying land and houses directly so we can sell them - to ourselves.

See that last sentence there? "deferred terms"? that's right - it means that they're buying up land on a massive "buy now, pay later" scheme. And where is this land coming from? Correct - greenfield land that presumably must be gifted by councils. After all, they did promise the government they'd build houses, so it all makes perfect sense. Any sane builder knows that brownfield projects aren't worth the fake paper they're printed on these days, just look at how cheap town center 1-bed rabbit hutch apartments go for in these troubled times.

But wait! there's more! not only are we giving Barratt's the land to build on - we're also paying them over the odds for their houses! Yes indeed - while house prices fell around the country to the tune of 20% or so, Barratt sales to councils (social housing projects) increased on like-for-like properties to the tune of 12%. How's that for price inflation?

Well done, Barratt. It must have been a real struggle for you guys this year with all the money we're giving you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I should be so lucky

I'm an incredibly lucky man. Pretty much everyone I know to talk to is also blessed - with a lifestyle that didn't exist even a hundred years ago. Talking a few days ago with a friend, we discussed how human societies for the last few millenia have strived, fought and died aiming for the simple goal of trying to be the very people we are today.

Technologically, this is strongly evident. Even if we begin to take what we have today for granted, there is always something new on the horizon that jolts us out of our perceptions of what is possible - who could have believed even 20 years ago that I would be able to hold a realtime conversation with friends three thousand miles away as though we were in the same room, essentially for free? Who could believe that we would see videos of events on the other side of the world captured by ordinary citisens broadcast minutes later to anyone who cares to watch? Who would have believed that we would be able to look at the roof of our house, see our car in the driveway, all through a computer screen?

All of these things have been imagined by authors, of course. Most science facts are proposed in science fiction well before they occur in reality. That doesn't detract from the fact that we really can do all of the things in the list above - and they're not even strange to contemplate now, they're actually comfortable parts of our lives. Undoubtedly there will be advances in the near and far future that bring more of people's imagination to life, that change our capabilies as humans even further than we have already gone.

When you look outside technology, it seems less obvious, but it's no less stunning just how incredibly good we have it. I can walk to the shops, right now, and buy - well, just about anything. A new TV? no problem. Fruit that isn't even grown in this country? check. A pair of shoes, or the latest movie? Batteries? check, check, check. I have the library of the world's media at my fingertips, the produce from every corner of the world at my whim. We are the ultimate in opportunistic consumers, and we take it completely for granted.

What do we do with this incredible opportunity we have available to us? Do we use our time to good ends? Do we appreciate the fantastic opportunity that the entire rest of human civilisation has killed itself to give us? I can only answer that question for myself, as everyone in this world really is different, and I know there's some pretty solid yes and no answers out there, but stepping away from the black and white, I think this is the thing that defines whether you really are a good person or not.

We have time, love, thought and motion, all in limited quantities. Are you making the best of them? I know i'm not, but i'm beginning to think that if there is a point to our existence, it has to be putting them to the most use you can get out of them. Humanity, from the start till right now, has been about nothing else other than delivering you and me to this time, and giving us just about every conceivable tool, toy and list of instructions that any human before us could have dreamed of.

Time is something you can keep for yourself, or give to someone else. Both are valuable, if you make them - helping a friend decorate, teaching a new skill to your child, Learning a language - these seem like pretty good uses of time to me. Watching the "news" with the same recycled stories about interchangeable celebrities that i've never met, or the 100th in a series of celebrity cook-offs - these are starting to look like bad investments to me. I read a really interesting post about dedicating time to work and time to improve yourself recently, where the author thought that 40 hours working and 20 hours improving your skills was something to strive for, and I have to agree with him. I may disagree about the focus of the 20 hours, but the important lesson, I feel, is that you should be doing something useful with it not wasting it.

Love is free to give, and done the right way it's what makes being a human feel worthwhile. Something special happened to me this April that has made me begin to appreciate the loves in my life, and I can only hope that I give it back to the people who deserve it (and more) as I get older and wiser.

Thought and motion have been discussed endlessly by men and women far brighter than I could ever hope to be, but I like to do them both. I doubt it would hurt for me to put a bit more effort into the motion part of the equation, especially given that I aim to live forever - Maybe it's time to bring out the Wii fit again.

I had intended to write something about how obsessive i'm becoming about my time, and how some other concerns are starting to fade (power, money, celebrity). I had intended to post a diatribe about how most people seem caught up in the rat race, too busy killing themselves and each other stiving for what we've already got - but then, on the face of it, life is too bloody brilliant to waste it worrying about that. I think instead, i'm going to finish this post and go learn something that will make my wife smile. <3 to you all.

Monday, June 8, 2009

There's gold in them thar hills!

Well goodness to betsy. I spend years holding in the words, and the day after I write down what has been in my head, this happens:

Channel 4 intends to put a big fat chunk of their content on the internet, gratis.

Kudos to you, channel 4. I always loved your style.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sailing the digital seas

I have an imaginary friend, who I like to refer to as "my evil twin". Most days, my evil twin is dressed in black, performing evil ninja missions to bring down governments, or carrying vengeance to my imaginary enemies in the form of poisoned blades and curt japanese whispers.

Occasionally, my evil twin discards his ninja costume and instead dons the jaunty garb of a pirate, sailing the digital seas in search of digital ships to digitally plunder. "Arr", he cries, as he digitally stabs upstanding navy members while buckling his swash on the way to another stash of digital booty.

Of course, I'm not referring to real piracy - I'm referring to downloading TV shows and movies. Downloading content from the internet is about as far from real piracy as you can possibly get. For starters, there are no ships involved, unless you count the Pirate Bay logo. There's also no sea. There's also a distinct lack of stabbing, shooting, cannons, flames, wooden legs, parrots and (in these modern times) somali nationals. Last but not least, there's a complete lack of two things - the first is death, and the second is theft.

The concept of piracy is a strong one, with deep fabulous roots. The connotation of theft of tangible goods and murderous actions is a great thing to grasp one's attention. Tales of stealing and murder abound, including many real life examples such as Blackbeard and sir Francis Drake who while being renowned in English history as an explorer and a politician, was also viewed by the Spanish as a privateer, pirate and generally all-round bad guy. I guess your view of his actions depends on which side you're on, and I'd assume the slaves he took and the crewmen of the ships he sank would probably look on him with ill favour.

Watching TV shows on the internet is certainly not piracy in any traditional sense. Certainly, if I were to take the side of content distributors grimly hanging on to a distribution model based on physical movement of tangible goods, I can understand why I'd like to protect that business model by lobbying and P.R. efforts to draw parallels between theft, violent actions and other malicious behaviours and downloading. After all, that's much simpler to do and less scary than adjusting the business model to fit consumer behaviour.

The terrible thing about this stance is that it's simply bad business sense. The most recent independent surveys such as this one and the one referred to in this article suggest that capturing and monetising the audience who download content from the internet is actually the best way to make money - the very people being criticised and castigated are the best consumers.

While I myself would never in a million years think of downloading internet content for my television viewing pleasure, I do occasionally watch over the shoulder of my evil twin, and when I see something I like I have a habit of buying the BluRay. Oddly enough, I tend to not do this with shows that i've never seen before.

If only there was some way for me to watch this content, without annoying adverts, without warnings on the front intimating that I'm a criminal, on my own terms and timetable, on any device that I'd like to view on. If only there was a way, I would reward those content producers with some of my hard earned money.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Needs more polish

For the last 18 years, I've been making computer games. I've been lucky enough to be involved in just about every part of the process, from writing music and sound effects through to designing some pretty cool graphical effects. I've also played a lot of games - in fact, some would say a ridiculous amount of games. I feel comfortable saying - I know a good game.

And a good game needs polish. Every great game i've ever played shines when compared to the alternatives out there. Sometimes this is graphical, sometimes it's a gem of design, sometimes it's the hook behind the game, but there will always be at least one part of the product where you can see the love, time and attention - where someone has bent their back and applied pressure. Taking something rough and refining it until it is gleaming.

It's easy to spot when you look - it will be something that, upon close examination, improves in your estimations. Something you think is good, and then when you dig deeper, realise it's actually brilliant. Something that sparkles at you, drawing your attention in the first place. A good game will have a few of these gems, a great game will be liberally scattered with them.

I try and ensure that my work is polished, and I'm lucky to work for a company where the same is true of most of my colleagues. I've come to expect a certain attention to detail when work is complete; after all, we're in a highly competitive industry and you need to shine to be the best. Recently, I've had a startling revelation.

The rest of the world doesn't work like this. The majority of people are happy to just get by, happy for the fruit of their labours to be just good enough. I've had experiences recently with car salesmen, boiler repairmen, service in restaurants, estate agents; the list is pretty long, but the end result is nearly always some level of disappointment.

I've come to the conclusion that two things are for sure - I need to lower my expectations, and the rest of the world needs more polish.