Friday, 31 August 2007

Picture of the Week: #31

[taken during week running from 30/07 to 05/08]

Just in case the ribbons weren't enough of a clue, this is a wedding car. Not mine, I hasten to add - I'm still a number of stages away from that (read: all the possible stages) - but it's still appropriate to put it up here, as it seems to be weddin' season.

I've been to 3 weddings this summer, and several other people that I know have got hitched too. Exactly why the summer is so popular for getting married isn't clear, as the great British weather doesn't really guarantee that you're going to have a nice day for it anyway. What's considerably weirder is that most of the people who've been tying the knot (wonder how many more synonyms for marriage I can get in?) are around my age. Statistically, this is unusual (in 2001 the mean male age at marriage was 30.6 years), but the stats have got nothing on just how bizarre it is to see these people, at least one of whom I played with when we were both under the age of 5, doing the most grown-up thing that can possibly be imagined. Seriously, getting jobs, getting elected to political office, getting arrested...none of these would faze me quite so much. Having people around me who are husband and wife...well, it seems like they're this close to living in a small cottage with roses over the door, a cat on the doorstep and an unhealthy distrust of foreigners.

Paranoid? Perhaps. But it's no less disturbing for that.

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Thursday, 30 August 2007

Fish. Barrel. Gun. I'm all set here...

One of YouTube's latest inventions has recently gone live on the site - comment moderation, à la Slashdot. The mechanics of this are fairly simple - each comment made on a video also has little voting buttons so that site visitors can rate comments. The idea is that comments can therefore be promoted for insight or comedy, or alternatively buried if they're spam or offensive. And, so that you don't have to see these latter class of comments should you not wish to, there's a filter box at the top of the comments section that lets you see only those with a rating of more than -10 (very poor), -5 (poor), 0 (average), 5 (good) or 10 (very good).

In principle, useful. However, given that it's now possible to set the filter to "good", then go to almost any video on the entire site and see no comments whatsoever...

...well, it's already not very difficult to criticise YouTube commenters. I just can't quite fathom the site's rationale in making this easier.

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Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Good thing "Google" is only a moderately silly name, too. Microsoft would call it something like "Enhanced Dynamic Search Facility".

In the field of computing, perhaps more than anywhere else, it's weird how some things get noticed and others just don't. This applies mainly to products - I have no idea why Microsoft Office is quite so prevalent, given its problems (see venting of extreme rage here), or indeed why iTunes seems to be used by everyone on the planet. Yes, that includes remote South American tribes who have never seen a computer.

(For the record, I don't use iTunes, partly in protest at Apple's attitude to replaceable hardware, but mainly because I really dislike that style of music player. I'm going to lose some major geek credit at this point by saying that I have yet to find a better music player than Windows Media Player 10. Just don't get me started on the utterly awful version 11.)

It's not just particular programs that get unaccountably promoted or ignored, though - aspects of these programs do as well. In particular, features get promoted over interfaces and usability. If you've got Word (or any major word processor, in fact), hit the Tools menu and have a look at all the features there. If you're anything like me, you hardly ever use any of them, except for, perhaps, Word Count. And yet, pretty much every version of Word adds new features (AutoSummarize? Really? Did anyone ever use that?), without trying to tackle underlying interface problems, such as the fact that it's so much easier to directly change font sizes and alignments than it is to use the (theoretically) much more powerful Styles system.

Microsoft isn't the only offender in this regard, although they don't help the situation. Even major standards bodies end up causing big problems - for example, Web developers using HTML these days are encouraged to use stylesheets as much as possible, rather than old solutions like the <font> and <center> tags. The problem with this is that for some tasks, stylesheets are an appalling idea. It's much easier for me to make text bold by typing <b></b> tags than it is to use inline style, which would require me to type "<span style="font-weight:bold;"></span>" every time I wanted to add a little emphasis to my text.

With this in mind, it's refreshing to come across programs that concentrate on making tasks work as well as they can, in exactly the way that the users expect. At the risk of sounding like something of a fanboy, I have to say that Google's products buck the trend in a particularly good way. If you cast your mind back to the dim and distant past - all right, 1999 - Altavista, one of the biggest search providers online, looked like this. Then along came Google - looking like this. Nothing but the search bar, no huge graphics - remember, most people were on dialup back then - it's no wonder that it was a big hit. Even now, the main Google page is only complicated if you want it to be, and they are well on the way to becoming the first search engine to be a sovereign nation and issue its own stamps. (Probably.)

One of Google's lesser-known products is SketchUp, which I downloaded a couple of days ago. It's a 3D modelling program - this isn't a software genre with which I'm intimately familiar, but I know enough about it to realise that trying to draw in 3D while equipped with a 2D mouse and screen is immensely difficult. This is where SketchUp's "inference engine" is so impressive. Effectively, it looks at your mouse movements and tries to guess what it was you were trying to do, then does that. This is an approach that Google uses quite a lot already, as you'll know if you've ever misspelt a word when typing it into the Google search box, but I'd never realised the power of the approach until I saw it applied to a difficult problem like this.

Obviously the engine makes mistakes - if you're trying to do anything complicated it becomes an exercise in trying to make things as easy as possible for the engine to guess your actions. The lack of functions such as "fill in the region between these lines - well, just fudge it if it doesn't quite fit, then" gets a bit annoying too, and I'm yet to quite sort out how to navigate round my models effectively. That said, it is remarkably easy to get up and running, especially if you're playing with large or simple shapes. Being able to draw a house, then poke doors and windows into the walls, is a very powerful experience, and I've more than once had to suppress a maniacal chuckle at my new-found power.

Oh, and the models you make always look fantastic, too. Have a look at a few hours' work on my newest invention, the Space Catamaran.

Maybe this is a short-lived trend, and maybe Google, too, will sink into the morass of trying to do too much without making its products remotely fun to use. (If anyone can make Google Earth's new Sky feature work at all well, give me a call.) For now, though - software geeks of the world, rejoice, for Google will conquer all.

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Friday, 24 August 2007

Picture of the Week: #30

[taken during week running from 23/07 to 29/07]

Another Northumberland picture, but this is the last one - then we're back into the wilds of Essex and getting close to catching up. This photo was taken from the top of Linhope Spout, a waterfall that (rather uncharacteristically for the English countryside) tumbles quite a long way down a small valley in the hills. It's a fairly dramatic sight in itself, and this is helped by the fact that it's relatively inaccessible - if you want to get there you have to drive for miles along farm roads, then walk about 2 more miles.

There's really quite a lot of things like this - entirely unexpected, yet very exciting things - hidden around the countryside. Whether it's a waterfall, a prehistoric cave, a burial ground or just a stunning view, you'll frequently find something on the OS map that turns your assumptions of what the countryside should be like on its head. I do enjoy travelling outside this country too - whenever I manage to do so, that is - but really, there's such a lot that you can do while staying right here I'm not sure why so few people do so.

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Wednesday, 22 August 2007

When it comes to faith healing in the Peter Popoff mould, though...go Dawkins!

When it comes to the public face of atheism, there's no-one quite like Richard Dawkins. Although he's yet to achieve Robert Winston's ubiquity on TV biology programmes, he has done a couple of shows, the most recent of which was the Channel 4 documentary Enemies of Reason. This was his attempt to go to various mystics, alternative therapists and other less than scientific people, and show that what they were peddling basically didn't work. This follows on from his earlier show, The Root Of All Evil?, in which he argued that all religion is useless and harmful.

Although the two shows have generally similar premises, it's interesting that the focus has changed. Whereas Root Of All Evil attacked religions on the basis that they can't be tested, Enemies of Reason concentrated much more heavily on things which certainly could be tested and shown to be false. This new emphasis, which is inherently much more scientific than the first, sounds to me like a good direction in which to go. After all, Dawkins's position at the University of Oxford is the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, not the Grand High Railer Against All Things Religious - if he can demonstrate how the scientific method works and how things should be tested with it, that can only be a good thing.

It seems like Dawkins himself should be happy to have changed his emphasis in this way - at least, this is the suggestion that one gets from reading an interview with him in a recent edition of BBC Focus magazine. Dawkins states in this interview that he'd much prefer to be remembered as a biologist, rather than for his religious opinions, which made me warm to him considerably. The problem that I do have with him, though, is that his actions up until this apparent cooling-off seem to be completely out of proportion to his major thesis, which seems to boil down to one statement: Believing anything without any evidence is harmful.

Not surprisingly, I have very little trouble agreeing with Dawkins on this point, as do most of the Christians I know. If you believe something just because anyone tells you to, then you'll believe anything at all. The mistake that Dawkins makes, along with a lot of other people, is in thinking that this is what the concept of "faith" refers to. Faith is a complicated idea, and can result in widely differing actions (note the major differences of opinion among the various denominations of almost any religion or sect), so it deserves careful study rather than out-of-hand dismissal.

The Christian concept of faith (and I won't be looking at any other concept, due to my ignorance of how they're defined!) is most succinctly summarised in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." This statement gives us a few important things to think about, so let's break them down bit by bit.

1. Faith does not necessarily either include or preclude evidence.

Neither of the phrases "what we hope for" and "what we do not see" entirely precludes evidence being present - all they specify is that the evidence is not obvious. If I can see, say, a table in front of me, then I don't need faith to believe that it's there, because its existence is obvious. If I'm facing away from the table, though, it's no longer obvious that it's there - I can't see, hear or feel it. I have to use other, indirect evidence, such as some dude saying "hey, there's a table behind you", or seeing someone who was carrying a plate 5 seconds ago and is no longer doing so. This is still definitely evidence, and if I trust the aforementioned dude then I have no reason not to believe that there is indeed a table behind me. But it will be a matter of faith.

That said, using the Biblical definition, faith can also be present with no evidence, either direct or indirect. There's nothing stopping me from believing that there's a purple giraffe called Bilbo standing behind me if I want to. The difference between this kind of faith and the first kind, though, is that this kind is very weak, and will fall over as soon as any evidence is produced. Given the existence of verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:21 ("Test everything. Hold on to the good."), I'm pretty certain that this is not the kind of faith we're called to have.

2. Faith looks forward not back.

If faith applies to what we "hope for" and what we "do not see", it is surely applicable (for the most part) to the present and the future rather than the past. This means that people who denigrate faith on the basis of things like the creation story in Genesis are missing the point somewhat. Faith is, of course, based on the things that happened in the past, but when the Bible refers to people having great faith it is not complimenting them on their intellectual acceptance of statements. Rather, it commends them for what they were looking forward to. Take a look at Jesus' comments in Matthew 8 - the emphasis is on the centurion's trust in what Jesus will do, not what he's done.

3. Faith is about actions more than beliefs.

OK, this one's not quite so obvious from Hebrews 11:1. If you read on from it, though, it becomes obvious that the "Heroes of the Faith" throughout the chapter are overwhelmingly being commended for their actions. Beliefs are mentioned, but they take a back seat to the things that people used their beliefs for. This fits in well with the analogy of the fruit showing the tree's nature, as seen in Matthew 7; incidentally, this passage reflects back on the role of evidence, as Jesus' followers are instructed not to follow false teachers, who are identified by their actions. Faith, therefore, is not academic - it is active.

In keeping with the bit of 1 Thessalonians I quoted above, I hope that anyone who reads this will heartily ignore it if it's obviously rubbish. Hopefully, though, it will show that faith is not the simple, credulous concept seen in the opinions of people like Dawkins. There's a lot more to it - and if your thesis is that everything should be scientifically supported, then perhaps rejecting anything out of hand is not a consistent strategy.

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Thursday, 16 August 2007

Picture of the Week: #29

[taken during week running from 16/07 to 22/07]

Once again we're in Northumberland, and specifically at Wallington Hall. Northumberland, like much of England, has no shortage of stately homes, given the amount of ludicrously rich people who have lived there (and owned all the land). This does seem a mite unfair, or perhaps this is just my filthy pinko commie liberal hippie side speaking - when I'm going round the countryside, though, and I find a high stone wall several miles long, surrounding some of the most beautiful and fertile land in the entire county, it does strike me as, I don't know...perhaps slightly odd.

There are some good things about stately homes, though, and in this particular case the best thing was the gardens - the photo shows the way into them. They were an incredible demonstration of how sufficient money and manpower can change an entire landscape into something completely unrecognisable. Obviously this kind of power can be used for evil as well as for good, but fortunately whoever designed Wallington's gardens managed to turn away from the Dark Side and do a beautiful job. Now if only there was a way of getting that kind of result without stamping on the faces of the poor over several centuries...

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Tuesday, 14 August 2007

This concept was not stolen from any number of other websites. Oh dear me no.

A (Hopefully Not Too Spoilerrific) List Of Things I Learnt By Watching Die Hard 4.0

Including A Few Things That I'd Already Learnt By Watching Independence Day, But It's Always Good To Have Them Confirmed

  • Putting ".0" on the end of your movie title indicates that it is about something magical called the internet. It does a wonderful job of distracting the audience from the fact that the phrase "die hard" has never really borne that much resemblance to any of the movies in the entire series thus far.
  • Hackers are universally skinny nerdish types with no social skills/hygiene whatsoever. They are also universally male.
  • Petite Asian women are automatically experts in martial arts.
  • It is possible to put a handgun round the edge of a wall, shoot without looking and kill your adversary ten yards away with a single shot. For reference, this feat is approximately equivalent to scoring 180 in darts while blindfolded and facing the wrong way.
  • Washington DC drivers, in the midst of a major public emergency, are quite happy to drive at 60mph into a tunnel, despite being able to see traffic coming the other way in the same lane, and will neither slow down nor switch on their headlights should the tunnel lights suddenly fail.
  • The previously mentioned hackers are very easy to assassinate by sending them a bit of computer kit with a large amount of C4 plastic explosive inside, then uploading a virus to their systems which causes said C4 to explode. The hackers will not look inside this bit of kit (and will therefore not notice the C4, helpfully labelled "C4"), nor will they, despite being the kind of people who routinely break into other people's systems, have secured their own systems against viruses.
  • The people who are performing this assassination will not consider that maybe sending someone round with a gun might be a rather easier and quieter way of doing it, despite the fact that they have in fact sent many people round with guns as a "Plan B".
  • Despite having just blown up the hacker's computer, the assassins will then go and collect the computer's hard drive, which apparently still has readable data on it. The fact that hard drives frequently fail under almost perfect conditions, making it very difficult to get any usable data off them even if they haven't exploded, will not occur to the assassins.
  • All hackers, along with the FBI Cyberterrorism Unit and any group of bad guys using computers, use impossibly complicated graphical user interfaces, with windows sliding in all over the place and graphical representations of things that really don't need them.
  • Surprisingly, even though the said interfaces are so prevalent, no hacker, FBI agent or bad guy will ever, ever, use anything other than the keyboard to control his or her computer.
  • All major US governmental organisations, including places like the NSA and CIA, have all of their databases available on the internet, protected by approximately the same level of security that graces a Hotmail account.
  • Every computer and security terminal in the world has somewhere on it to plug in your PDA, so that you can use it to hack your way in.
  • If you wrote the encryption algorithm on a security checkpoint, it means that you can get past the checkpoint in seconds, despite the fact that you presumably wrote it specifically in order to keep out nosey individuals such as yourself.
  • The data networks in movie land can transfer 500TB of data in a few hours. 500TB is an amount of data that you don't normally see, so let me put that into perspective. It is 100,000 times the size of the whole of Wikipedia. The average network cable has a maximum data transfer rate of 100Mb/s. At that speed, which is far higher than that offered by any broadband service available today, it would take considerably more than a year to transfer this much information.
  • With enough computing power behind you, it is possible to break into any system remotely within about 10 seconds.
  • The main bad guy in any organisation must always wear a black open-collared shirt and a flesh-coloured headset microphone.

Lines Which, To My Pleasant Surprise, Did Not Appear In Die Hard 4.0

  • "You can't leave me, dammit! I LOVE YOU!"
  • "There's nothing for it, gentlemen. We're going to have to turn off the Internet."
  • "Don't worry, I know the guy who programmed this - I bet he left a back door into it."
  • "It looks like you are trying to bring down the government of the United States. Can I help you with that?"

And One Which, Unfortunately, Did:

  • "It's not a system. It's a country."

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Friday, 10 August 2007

Let's also not forget that this research is vital if personal flying cars are ever going to be produced.

I love space, me. Not in terms of "I need my space" (not really an option when you live in a house as small as mine anyway), but in terms of the huge, black, cold, silent expanse above our heads, below our feet and generally pretty much anywhere except here. There is something extremely cool about looking up at night at the minuscule specks of light glittering away, and thinking that each and every one of them is so many squillions of miles away that the distance is completely beyond human understanding. Oh, and they all look different to how they seem from here, because in the case of most of them, the light that we're seeing now began its journey before humans were even on earth. The fact that humans are capable of describing something like this with words like "twinkle twinkle little star" speaks volumes about the human capacity for creative stupidity.

There are many ways of appreciating the expanse of space more effectively, one of which is through the avenue of space exploration. NASA, being one of the finest organisations that the US government has ever produced, has made this very easy for us to enjoy at home - if you're on a fast internet connection, do tune in to NASA TV at some point. At the time of writing, the channel is showing live pictures from the Space Shuttle Endeavour as it heads towards the International Space Station (ISS) in order to dock with it. This is accompanied by the audio of the transmissions between the Shuttle astronauts and Mission Control, and by a commentator explaining what is going on and what is coming up later. For a science geek such as myself, this is immensely awesome.

If you're more of the "sit out in the garden with a telescope" school of space appreciation, you can join in too. Heavens Above is a site that delivers a frankly worrying amount of information, not only about stars and planets, but also about pretty much every orbiting satellite and piece of junk that's visible from the ground. Its killer function, however, is the service that will predict the exact position of these satellites at any point in time and from any point on the Earth's surface. It was because of this that I was able, last night, to stand outside and watch the bright dot of the ISS swoop silently overhead, followed a minute later by Endeavour as it slowly closed on the station's position.

Now, it may seem difficult to credit, but there are those in this world who, when confronted by all of this, will just complain that it costs too much and there's nothing out there worth exploring anyway. Given how much space exploration can cost (every servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope costs $150 million), this is a reasonable objection to bring up, so let's have a look at the figures. Every year, the UK spends about £200 million on civil space projects, as shown by this Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) report [PDF]. As also noted by the report, this is split between three areas:

  • astronomy and planetary exploration
  • observing the Earth from orbiting satellites
  • using satellites for telecommunications and navigation

Given that the third item has the least funding (30%), let's look at it first. Anyone who complains about the government spending money on satellites, but is happy to use the internet, watch TV or travel on any form of transport that uses GPS is a filthy hypocrite, quite frankly. Satellites are vital for all of these - yes, even terrestrial TV, which would be almost totally limited to material from within the country of broadcast without them. All phone networks, too, use satellites as a major help for communication, and in remote areas satellite phones are the only means of real-time communication.

Let's move on now to the second item in the list, which takes up an unspecified amount of funding from the remaining 70%. Earth observation is the key to accurate weather reports, to measuring the extent of climate change, and to accurate mapping projects (go and play with Google Maps for a few minutes, then imagine it without the vast majority of the imagery on board. Not so much fun now, is it?) Going back to the POST report, it appears that this same data is used to inform environmental policy and for coordinating disaster relief. Personally, these are things I'd rather not do without.

On to the remaining item in the list, then, and probably the one that's most controversial in terms of the "pointless/useful" debate: astronomy and scientific exploration. I'll fully admit that the things found out by these missions generally do not have a direct bearing on life down here on Earth. Does this make them useless?

Well, for a start, there are indirect spinoffs from pretty much everything done in space. Although the development of Teflon, the most-cited example of this, actually has nothing to do with space exploration (you'll note that NASA has to produce a page listing what the space programme hasn't produced, due to the number of things that it has), industry is full of advances that have been either sparked or entirely invented by scientists working on space exploration. The computer industry is one of those - the fact that NASA needed a computer small enough to go on a spacecraft, and which didn't require the use of punch cards and ticker tape, must have been a major boost to the development of microelectronics. Digital cameras, too, are a direct result of astronomical research - the CCD chip, as used in every digital camera, was invented for use in telescopes.

What's more, even if scientific research doesn't directly affect us, there is something to be said for acquiring knowledge for its own sake. Does it have any practical effect on the way we live to know that the Earth goes round the Sun, rather than the other way around? No? And yet, this is a fact that we expect every child to know, and we'd be horrified to learn that science education couldn't be bothered to cover it. In the same way, even if placing two remote-controlled rovers on Mars doesn't affect us down here, the vast amounts of data we're getting from them mean that we now understand our nearest planetary neighbour better than ever before. Oh, and if you're still not convinced, take a look at the Hubble Deep Field image.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that space exploration is extremely expensive, and this money could indeed be spent on other things. However, there's a few things to note. The first is that the space industry generates jobs and incomes, which find their way back to the government in the form of taxes. The second is that there are plenty of other areas of spending which, one suspects, are either just as "disposable" or vastly oversupplied. For example, the UK's defence budget in 2007 was a shockingly high £32 billion, as shown by this publication from the Treasury. The current governmental estimate for the price of the London Olympics in 2012 is up to £9.35 billion. In October 2005 the MoD estimated that the Iraq war had cost the UK £3.1 billion (goodness knows what it's up to now). I could go on. Essentially, expensive though space exploration is, these costs are as nothing compared to some of the things the government gets up to already.

One other thing - without this research, I am never going to fulfill my childhood dream of being an astronaut. Are you really going to take that away from me?

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Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Picture of the Week: #28

[taken during week running from 9/07 to 15/07]

Same photographer, different holiday...we're now in Northumberland on the Grand Tour of Catching Up With Photos, and what better way to celebrate the wonder that is Northumberland than with...a large lump of rock?

Ah, but not just any lump of rock. For this, you see, is a cup and ring marked stone. To paraphrase the Wikipedia article I just linked you to (which seems to be based largely on the terrifyingly detailed work done by one Stan Beckensall), these are various...well, large lumps of rock...with a whole bunch of prehistoric carvings on them. No-one has the faintest idea who made them, or for what purpose, or indeed precisely when - Bronze Age is about as close as most people seem to be able to get. This does make one wonder quite how the illustrious Mr. Beckensall has managed to spin the subject out into multiple books without descending into dramatised accounts of druids and so forth. For all I know, that's precisely what he has done.

Beckensall aside, the reason these rocks hold a special place in the hearts of my family is that this is the first time we've ever found one. This state of affairs is not for lack of effort on our part. We've been to Northumberland twice before, and I think both times we've seen the said lumps of rock labelled on the OS map (you can see some of them here if you're really interested) - however, neither of those times did our long searches through waist-deep damp bracken on the sides of gloomy windswept hills ever yield anything that looked remotely cup-and-ring shaped. This time, though, we went prepared, equipped both with a set of walkie-talkies and a printout from this very helpful, not to say obsessive, website.

And find them we did, allowing me to bring you the above photo. I sincerely hope that all those who see this will be grateful that they now also know nothing about why some Bronze Age vandal felt the need to carve circular grooves into a perfectly harmless piece if rock. It's a valuable service that I perform here.

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Monday, 6 August 2007

Only vaguely connected, but: Why on earth would anyone name their daughter "Paris Hilton"?

If I were to tell you that there existed an industry in the vast majority of cultures around the globe, one which involved providing temporary homes for people for amounts of time ranging from a few hours up to months or years, and which is entirely dependent on these people being away from their families and friends for reasons which do not involve financial hardship, I suspect you'd probably either laugh at me or at least give me a very strange look. If you knew me, though, you'd probably think I was asking you a trick question, so you'd probably think about it a bit more and realise that I was talking about the hotel industry.

As with so many other aspects of life, it's easy not to notice quite how weird the concept of a hotel really is. It's become less so in relatively recent times - in an age when you can be in almost any city on Earth within 24 hours, it's entirely normal to be away from home for long periods, and since the appearance of the species Businessmanus Jawdroppinglywealthi it's understandable that establishments can charge amounts that would make Solomon weep. But why should hotels (or inns, at any rate) have likewise appeared in mediaeval times, when hardly anyone lived more than a couple of miles away from the rest of their family and acquaintances? How about the inns mentioned in the Bible? Did they really subsist on the trade caused by the odd donkey salesman passing through? The universality of this concept is one that I find really puzzling.

Being one of the huge number of former students without an income, any time I need to experience the services of these establishments I'm forced to go down to the rather cheaper end of the spectrum. In the UK, this largely doesn't exist, but luckily if you go abroad there are more options. For example, the photo below is of Hotel F1 in the town of Beaune in the middle of France.

It's certainly not a beautiful building, and that impression is strengthened once you see the rooms - the overall impression I got was of staying inside an oversized Lego brick. All of the rooms were identical, holding a double bed with a single bunk over the top, a tiny desk in one corner, a TV suspended above it, and a sink in another corner. Toilets and showers were communal, and there weren't very many.

On the positive side, the whole place was kept very clean, and it was incredibly cheap - 27 Euros per room per night, regardless of how many people were in each room. (Within reason.) For real cheapness, though, going to Africa is the way forward. I think the cheapest establishment I found in Uganda when travelling alone cost 7,000 Ugandan shillings a night. In British terms, that's £2. And yet, a certain grubbiness and lack of TV (or any other technology) aside, the facilities were very similar to the Beaune offering.

I think this means that there's some kind of sliding scale of hotels. Within the middle band, paying noticeably more results in noticeably better facilities - maybe by measuring the number and value of complimentary items you get, you could produce some kind of linear relationship. Get near the top of the scale, though, and you'll end up paying vast amounts of money without anything improving all that much. There's only so much training you can give hotel staff - no matter how much emphasis you put on the customer's wellbeing, you just can't turn them into soulless automatons. (I'll resist the temptation to make a joke about McDonald's employees.) Likewise, things like solid silver swimming pools and chlorinated cutlery don't really add to the enjoyment as much as their cost suggests.

Similarly, down at the bottom end of the scale you get limited by the law. Given that you simply cannot put your customers on a bare patch of dirt for the night and charge them for it, there exists a lowest level of service possible, and no matter how little money you pay, you will receive that level. And, given that hotels, like any other business, will set their prices according to what people can pay, all you need do is go somewhere with almost no wealth in the general population, and you'll be paying rock bottom prices for the basic comfort level.

The fact that some people feel that they can't bear a level of comfort quite this low is, I think, their problem...

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Friday, 3 August 2007

Picture of the Week: #27

[taken during week running from 2/07 to 8/07]

We're still in France for this retrospective Picture of the Week, but not in Ampus - this one was taken in the town of Grasse, right down by the south coast. The same lazy atmosphere as is experienced in the small villages can be found in the big towns of the south of France, just to a lesser extent. This is probably because the towns have most of the main industries, but can also attract tourism - there's just more going on.

The architecture, though, doesn't reflect that so much. Everywhere you go in Grasse, the buildings tower up to 3 or more stories, the alleyways between them are thin enough to give a claustrophe nightmares for a month, and wooden shutters cover every window - all of these are ways of keeping the streets and houses cool in the ever-present heat. Escaping from the weather, in fact, is such a major concern that it's a wonder anyone ever comes outside. There are ways of getting around that, of course, such as the drinking water fountains (when was the last time you saw one of those on a street in the UK that was actually working?) and the beautiful tree-lined avenues. It's a lovely place to spend an afternoon, and the major industry of the town - perfume manufacture - means that it smells amazing too.

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Thursday, 2 August 2007

Can it actually be a utopia without hover-bikes, though?

One of the things I've been doing on holiday is catching up on my classic science fiction reading. (Incidentally, that's science fiction or SF, not sci-fi. Apparently they are very different. I have no wish to rouse the wrath of the world's collected nerds, so I will follow this nomenclature despite having no idea why it should be in place. Isn't social convention wonderful?) This has consisted mainly of reading a huge and chunky compilation of H.G. Wells's novels, Wells being one of those authors who I've always meant to read but have never quite got round to.

The compilation was very entertaining to read - I had no idea that Wells was capable of writing stories that are not only scientifically consistent (for example, if the story calls for time travel to be possible, a suitably hand-wavey explanation for it is concocted, but then every other element of the story remains consistent with the results of this explanation), they're also really well-written and very witty. The Invisible Man, for instance, concentrates very little on the title character, and far more on the people who have to deal with him on a day-to-day basis, giving Wells an excellent opportunity to focus on the absurdity of the events that they perceive. What's more, the stories are frequently applicable beyond themselves - Wells went so far as to explicitly say (in the introduction to the compilation) that he's been "talking in playful parables to a world engaged in destroying itself". Elements of this appear throughout the stories, whether it's in the form of the giant children in The Food of the Gods noting how strange it is that those with money just tend to sneer at those without, rather than helping them, or whether it's the startlingly lucid and cynical passage about the tendency of people to turn on their fellow man if it will help them that appears near the end of The War of the Worlds.

The most obvious place in which this preaching to the audience occurs is In the Days of the Comet, which is little more than a simple presentation of the world as it was when Wells was writing, followed by a presentation of the world as he thought it should be, tied together by a slightly laboured love story. In some places, Wells makes excellent points - his description of the crippling poverty and blatant social injustices suffered by the have-nots of the world is eye-opening, and suddenly makes it rather more obvious why Communism took hold in the popular imagination quite so firmly in the first half of the 20th century. Other aspects are, if not all that believable, at least interesting because of the time at which they were written - his vision of "the swift, smooth train" that he clearly thought would be the result of widespread access to electricity is a very similar concept to the flying car that I thought I'd be driving "in the future" for much of my childhood.

One of the most striking things that Wells does, though, is to change religion as well, in much the same way as it's being changed nowadays by popular opinion. Have a read of this passage, describing the narrator's mother in the new, changed world.

She kept to her queer old eighteenth-century version of religion, too, without a change. She had worn this particular amulet so long it was a part of her. Yet the Change was evident even in that persistence. I said to her one day, 'But do you still believe in that hell of flame, dear mother? You - with your tender heart?'

She vowed she did.

Some theological intricacy made it necessary to her, but still -

She looked thoughtfully at a bank of primulas before her for a time, and then laid her tremulous hand impressively on my arm. 'You know, Willie dear,' she said, as though she was clearing up a childish misunderstanding of mine, 'I don't think anyone will go there. I never did think that...'

Now, although I'd be the first to say that I really hope that Willie's mother is right in this regard, I would never go so far as to label the concept of hell as a "childish misunderstanding". It's far more serious than can be simply brushed away like that, and doing so betrays an underlying attitude that "religion is just what we make it" - an attitude that makes it worse than useless, as it suggests we're all deliberately fooling ourselves. Frank Herbert does something very similar in his classic Dune. From the appendix at the back of the book comes this little gem, placed in the mouths of the "Commission of Ecumenical Translators":
'We are here to remove a primary weapon from the hands of disputant religions. That weapon - the claim to possession of the one and only revelation.'

Not only is this a pretty blatant reworking of the "blind men describing the elephant" metaphor (and it's just as arrogant and internally inconsistent a concept as is that one - claiming that no-one has the single correct revelation is itself a claim to have that kind of revelation), it also instantly writes off religion as being human-created. Just in case Herbert's audience hadn't got the concept, he hammers it home a few paragraphs later by reporting that the Commission's work was said to be "filled with a seductive interest in logic" and that it shouldn't have tried to "stir up curiosity about God". The obvious implication is that the whole edifice of religion is based on irrationality and shouldn't be inspected too closely, lest it come tumbling down.

This is a theme that I'm planning to return to shortly, so I won't keep on at it now. I just think it's worth noting that utopias and "advanced" societies aren't always all they're cracked up to be, and that they seem to have a tendency to insist on humans being the only force that can influence their own destinies. It would be nice to see a little humility in this kind of fiction - if we're going to look at how humans could develop in the future or after a major event, why can't we sometimes accept that we're rather less in control of our own fate than we might like to think?

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Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Picture of the Week: #26

[taken in week running from 25/06 to 1/07]

For the first of my PotWs...from the past...(cue Twilight Zone theme)...we're in France. Specifically, Provence, and even more specifically, a little village called Ampus, perched on the side of a hill. It's so much your typical south-of-France village that it's just ridiculous - sandy-coloured buildings with terracotta-coloured roofs, wooden louvred shutters on all the windows, and a very strong overall atmosphere of contentment and ease.

No-one runs around here, it's too hot. Neither does anyone seem to get annoyed at anything. Or spend much time doing anything during daylight hours, come to think of it. This is the land where the siesta is king, where the church clock (and I swear I am not making this up) chimes each hour twice, with a break of a couple of minutes in between, presumably to confirm what you thought you heard earlier when it woke you up from your pleasant afternoon snooze.

It's not a place for bright young things with boundless energy and great plans...but then, why would you want that anyway?

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