Sunday, 30 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #38

[taken during week running from 17/09 to 23/09]

I take a lot of photos of sunsets, although I'm not entirely sure why. It could be because I'm so rarely awake in time to see the sunrise, I suppose, and the fact that they're so often really beautiful must also be a factor. This photo was taken on what was, technically, the last day of summer, and the weather obliged with some lovely golden sunlight in the late afternoon.

It's also possible that sunsets are so popular as photographic subjects because of their mythological/metaphorical connotations. The idea of the sun leaving us maybe makes us want to pay more attention to it as it sinks; its use as a metaphor for practically anything else ending is pretty widespread, too. Given the amount of attention paid to the sun throughout history - look at this handy list of sun gods - maybe it's become culturally ingrained to look at it and its effects. Just hopefully not literally looking at it. I'm pretty sure no culture has ever had a god of retinal scarring.

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Friday, 28 September 2007

Ever read H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon?

Ever since Multimap arrived on the Internet, with its ability to switch into grainy aerial photos, looking at familiar things from the unfamiliar perspective of directly above has become startlingly popular. Google jumped on the bandwagon nice and early, and drove it relentlessly forwards with Google Earth and Google Maps. (Which included images of the Moon, for some reason.)

Microsoft, in a burst of originality (by which they seem to mean "let's do what Google are doing right now, but do it with a slightly shinier interface and with less cross-platform compatibility"), came up with a similar offering, Microsoft Virtual Earth. Presumably this was so-named because it was "virtually" their idea. Anyway, this means that the online map and image service is booming, so it wasn't really surprising that eventually the same obsession was going to capitalise on Google's moon photos and go off-planet.

All of which brings us neatly to today's NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day. The APOD is usually a visual feast anyway - this one is quite a good example, but this famous one is even better, not to mention this one. Today's offering, however, rather than being beautiful, is a little scary.

Obviously, we know that there's nothing down there. Yeah, it's a huge dark hole with immensely sharp edges that reveal the crust at that point to be so thin you could nearly put your finger through it, and you can't see what might be hiding just below the surface because it's dark, so dark, so incredibly dark that anything might be lurking down there, it might be about to creep out of the hole and we'd never know what was there, never, right up until the potential future missions to Mars go ahead, and our astronauts may be sitting in their spacecraft, congratulating each other as it touches down, and never have any idea of the horrors that lie just beneath their feet, ready to take them down, down into the dark silent hellish interior of that frozen, barren planet...

Hmm? Oh, sorry, I got sidetracked for a moment there. Nice picture, though, isn't it?

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Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #37

[taken during week running from 10/09 to 16/09]

The weather's turned, and we're heading straight into autumn. Although I took this picture during the Indian summer a couple of weeks back (and it was a nice reminder of what summer could have been like, had the weather been up to it), the fields show that it was already coming up to Harvest Festival time.

Harvest, although it's a beautiful festival to witness, does seem like it's rather less applicable nowadays than it used to be. For a start, a much lower proportion of the population are farmers than in pretty much any time before the present, so that "bringing in the harvest" means that much less to most people. Then there's the fact that there's generally something being harvested at all times of the year. And let's not forget that the world is so small nowadays - transport and preservation being what it is - that we get all sorts of produce from all around the world at all times of the year.

Given the fact that Harvest Festivals as we know them have been going on in this country for barely 150 years - a blink of an eye in British historical terms - it would appear that there's a good case for dropping them entirely. There are, though, a few reasons why Harvest maybe should stay. First, it gets people into church. Whether or not they believe what they're being told, they get exposed to Christian teaching - and more people deciding whether to accept that can only be a good thing. Secondly, as with so many traditions, there have been changes - now, there's a major element of charitable giving included in most Harvest festivals, and it would be unfortunate to lose this.

And thirdly, it's a very healthy idea to have a specific time set aside for thankfulness. The Americans have the right idea about this - their Harvest has turned into Thanksgiving, which, despite it being something of a gluttony-fest, promotes thankfulness about all aspects of life. When you think about the emphasis on profit prevalent in today's society, and the concentration on getting all you can, then surely it's an excellent idea to remind ourselves to turn around, stop and remember how we ended up where we are.

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Monday, 24 September 2007

Or we might just get 200 million new Myspace accounts. WHO KNOWS?

It's finally looking like the One Laptop Per Child project is getting into its production and distribution phase. For those of you who haven't heard of OLPC, it's aiming to provide sub-$100 laptops to children in the developing world in order to help in education - not only IT education, which is going to be increasingly important in the years to come, but also because this increases internet access for general education purposes. (Feel free to insert jokes about how they'll be highly educated in poor grammar, Youtube videos and porn here.)

I've thought for some time that OLPC was an excellent idea. Admittedly, $100 is a lot for a family, or even for a school, in countries where the average daily wage is under $5, and there are countries where providing food is rather more important than providing internet access. However, given the explosion of new technology in a lot of terly brilliant. I've recently been struggling with getting computers to talk to each other over a wireless network and share an internet connection, but it's remarkably difficult. The fact that only one laptop on the network needs to have this connection for all connected machines to have access - and the fact that this all apparently just works, with no fiddling around with settings - sounds like some kind of technological nirvana.

Then there's the power supply. The number of times I've had to plug my laptop in after its embarrassingly short battery life failed it yet again makes me want a wind-up computer so very, very much. It's not just wind-up, either - one way of powering the computer is to use a foot pedal. Any computer that can make you feel like you're using a vintage sewing machine gets my vote for sheer hilarity. Oh, and the laptop has minuscule power requirements in the first place, and has an ultra-low-power display mode that lets you see the screen in full sunlight. These aren't just excellent inventions for developing countries - I want one of these computers so much already.

There's one further innovation on these machines that I think is going to have a major impact, and it's not one that you might expect. On the keyboard (the waterproof green rubber keyboard, to be specific), there is a key that has been labelled the "geek key". Its effect? Well, if you're using Firefox at the moment, press Ctrl+U. (IE users, go to View -> Source.)

What you're now looking at, if you followed the instructions, is the source code behind The Beautiful Hypothesis, so you can see exactly what Blogger and I did to produce the webpage that you're currently looking at. When a student presses the XO's geek key, the source code for the program that they're using will automatically be displayed. And, because the laptop includes the tools to edit that code, and because kids learn by trying out new things more than anything else, they will rapidly produce new versions of the software they're using. Oh, and because all the software on the laptop is open source (see a couple of posts ago for excessive enthusiasm about open source software), this is not only legal, but encouraged.

The practical result of this is that many of the recipients of these computers will rapidly become extremely good at tweaking code and writing their own - in other words, these supposedly less-developed countries will produce a huge flurry of software developers, very possibly kickstarting their respective countries' IT sectors. If there's a faster way of bringing in profit and foreign investment (short of finding oil and being friendly with the USA), I don't know of it. This could be a very exciting time.

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Sunday, 23 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #36

[taken during week running from 03/09 to 09/09]

Once again I've been rather lax with taking photos, so I've had to invent some more history for myself. For the record, although I do play bass, it doesn't have two necks and I've never played it with Bon Jovi. That's just in case you were wondering.

For those of you whose curiosity has been piqued by the concept a double-necked guitar, they do in fact exist. For the most part, according to Wikipedia, you'll find 12 strings on one neck and 6 on the other, or sometimes a 6-string/bass combination. That's by no means the only combination, though, and the double-necked bass has been sighted outside the realm of Spinal Tap. Definitely something of a niche market, though, and I reckon I'll stick with virtual ones for now.

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Saturday, 22 September 2007

Which one am I in? That's easy - Currently Not Driving Because Of Far Too Much Rage

In 2004, according to National Statistics Online, three-quarters of households in the UK had access to at least one car. That works out to one heck of a lot of cars - over 26 million, in fact. And, obviously, that means that there's a lot of people driving those cars, all of whom have passed their driving test.

Given how legendarily difficult the driving test is (how many people do you know who passed first time, and how much did it cost them?), it seems entirely bizarre that there's such a wide range of driving abilities and attitudes on Britain's roads today. Luckily for the purposes of bureaucratic pigeonholing, all of these drivers fall into one of several easily-definable categories. Let's look at them here.

The Nervous Driver
Nervous drivers can come from any section of the population, but all have one thing in common - being behind the wheel is a thoroughly terrifying experience for them. Every other driver on the road is a threat to them, every corner a death trap. They can be spotted quite easily - not only by their speed (approximately tractor speed on most roads, increasing to a truly brave 45 mph on dual carriageways), but also by their hands rigidly clasping the steering wheel, eyes wide and staring, and jaws firmly clenched together to try and prevent themselves screaming.

The Office-On-Wheels Driver
Some people are busy. Some are very busy. And some are apparently so busy that they cannot let up from their working day even for a second. This means that while they are driving in to the office, they will be constantly on the phone - sometimes handsfree, but not always - setting up meetings, scheduling brainstorming sessions, dictating reports and very possibly conducting job interviews. All of these people are waiting patiently for that day when speech synthesis and output have advanced so far that they will be able to fit a laptop into their car and carry out any work-related task while on the move. This kind of driver is to be pitied. After all, if they are really this busy, then presumably their every waking hour is spent on their job. Even when little Jimmy wants to play out in the garden, the response must be "no, my poor deprived son. I must finish my fiscal analysis spreadsheets."

The Perfect Driver
Perfect drivers know that they're perfect. They don't speed (much), they don't do too much in the way of showing off on the roads, and they're very aware of their fuel economy and vehicle maintenance. Their only problem is that this makes them painfully aware of the shortcomings of every other driver on the road. Do your best not to be a passenger of this kind of driver, as you will quickly tire of the pitying and weary sighs emitted every time another car creeps too close, or stays in the wrong lane for a microsecond too long.

The Mercy Dash Driver
I wasn't aware that there were so many pregnant/grievously wounded/horribly infectious people in the UK outside the range of the ambulance service, but I suppose there must be. How else can we account for the vast numbers of drivers who have no option but to carve a further half second off their journey time by cutting you up on the motorway, tailgating to within an inch on a country road, and tearing towards green traffic lights in a do-or-die attempt to get through before they turn red? Or perhaps they know something we don't. Maybe the lights are never going to turn green again. You just never know.

The Driver Who Does Know There's A War On
Although there's no age limit for this kind of driver, a suspiciously high percentage of them learned to drive back when rationing was still in force. As such, they feel very uncomfortable using too much of anything, and this includes the road. If they find themselves in the middle lane of the motorway, they will stay there until the Apocalypse, if necessary. No point in using the whole road, is there? That's just greedy.

The Grateful Driver
On the other hand, some drivers are just so thankful to the road designers (or maybe they are the road designers) that they feel they have to use every single feature of the carriageway on every journey. These are the people you'll see changing lanes every 10 seconds in a heavy queue. Don't be angry at them - they're just trying not to insult the people who've made such a nice road for them.

The Driver Who Claims He Likes His Car To Be "Pimped" But Doesn't Apparently Know What It Is That Pimps Actually Do
My goodness, I do like your car. Are those shiny chrome rims on your wheels? And blue neon lights on the underside? Oh, and the sound system. Those speakers...didn't I see those onstage at The Who's last gig? Hmm. I see you've made the gearstick very twinkly as well...oh, sorry, "blinged". And the seats too, which must have taken the best part of an entire cow to cover. So how much are all these modifications worth? Really? And, tell much did you spend on making sure no-one can simply break the window and nick the lot?

The Drunk Driver
Although thankfully a dwindling race, there's still far too many of this type around. The ones who "can handle a drink". The ones who "enjoy their food" (I'm looking at you, people who have half a bottle of wine with their lunch and think it won't affect them at all). Although you wouldn't think it, they actually have a lot in common with the above-mentioned Office-On-Wheels driver, in that they do something that they think won't affect them much because they're used to it. Four times greater chance of an accident, guys. Deal with it. Still, this type of driver isn't as bad as they come. For that, we must enter the lair of...

The Entitled Driver
OK, here we go. This type is, hands down, the most objectionable type of driver you will ever encounter. These are the people who think that, because they paid for their car, the fuel and the road tax, they therefore have a divine right to the road that no-one, no-one, is allowed to infringe. This is the kind of driver you'll find ranting about being caught by a speed camera and blandly asserting that "they're just there to make money". They're definitely the kind who believe that they are the sole effective judge of a safe speed on the road, regardless of the posted speed limit. (Don't believe me? Read some of the...interesting...articles on Safe Speed.) And these are also the type of drivers who treat motorcyclists, cyclists, horse riders and...well, actually, everyone except second class road citizens, and will think nothing of roaring straight past them at top speed, regardless of safety. Stay as far away as possible.

Everyone else. Oh, you're in this category? Really? Are you sure?

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Friday, 21 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #35

[taken in week running from 27/08 to 02/09]

Even though this is indeed a beach photo, it's not really beach weather, is it? This was taken at Frinton-on-Sea, a small town on the Essex coast famous for being full of old people and never, ever changing anything. It was here that there was a terrible fuss over opening a pub and a fish and chip shop. Not because of any design problems with them, you understand...there is simply a feeling that it's not what we do here in Frinton. It's not hugely surprising that the rather cruel slogan "Harwich for the Continent, Frinton for the incontinent" was devised, given the circumstances.

Anyway, I took this photo not to show off Frinton's beautiful beachfront - as you can see, it's not really anything to write home about - but to show the bizarre colours that you can get in and over the North Sea. It wasn't great weather, but even so, if you painted a seascape like that you'd be told that those colours never really appear. I remember, back when I was much younger, watching the waves come in and thinking that it looked as though someone had poured a massive jar of set honey into the sea.

The really weird part is that the rest of my family had just gone for a swim in that sea...

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Thursday, 20 September 2007

I considered including Linux, but that one's a bit obvious, isn't it?

Open source software has a lot going for it. The transparency of the whole process means that different sections of the same program are much more likely to work with each other, and also means that it's much easier to extend the functionality. Security holes are also therefore patched much more quickly, as they can be fixed by anyone, not just a centralised system. It's also generally free, which always helps.

And, of course, sometimes the software is very good on its own, regardless of any other factors. With that in mind, here's a short list of open source software that I'm particularly keen on. Click the pictures to go to the official websites.

Mozilla Firefox

Let's start with probably the best-known piece of open source software. Firefox is my personal browser of choice, and its market share is steadily growing. It's fast, very easily extensible (almost infinitely, in fact, if you take things like Greasemonkey into account), and statistically much more secure than Internet Explorer. There's the odd issue with website compatibility, but really, if you're designing websites in the full knowledge that they won't work in a major browser, the problem is with you rather than the end user. Oh, and there's a portable version which runs off a flash drive. Ideal, really.


You may be less likely to have heard of Inkscape, but when it comes to open source graphics programs, it's something of a gem - certainly better than the more famous GIMP, which I've never really got along with. Essentially, Inkscape does the same kind of thing as Adobe Illustrator - it produces very smooth vector graphics files which can be resized infinitely with no pixelation. Its ability to convert raster graphics (JPGs, GIFs and so on) to vector ones is also excellent - unless you really need an industry standard package, this will see you through.

Despite apparently including a domain suffix in the official name of their product (I don't care how "21st Century" you think you are, it just looks silly), is a very impressive office suite. It's not really featherweight, coming in at over 90MB for the whole suite, but that's not bad compared to Microsoft's lumbering behemoth. And if you set it up right, it is almost indistinguishable in performance from any other office program available. There's one or two things which aren't quite the same (apparently going backwards through a presentation behaves slightly differently to Powerpoint), but that's more than made up for by the lack of the Office Assistant.


Now we're getting into the really good stuff. Audacity isn't just one of the best open source projects I've come across, it's also hands-down the best audio editor I've ever used. It's easy to use, packed full of tools (the speed and tempo controls can be hilarious when used right) and tiny to boot (this is another one that easily runs off a flash drive). More importantly, its usability is superb. Need to move a snatch of audio back a bit in the file? Just highlight it and drag it along the timeline. That may sound obvious, but I'm yet to come across another program that will do it so simply.

The LAME MP3 encoder

Now here's one you might not have heard of, but if you've ever worked with MP3 files you've almost certainly used it. LAME is one of the most reputable methods for creating MP3s around - it certainly works well, and is used in all sorts of places. The official site claims that it's probably the only MP3 codec still under active development - not a bad idea, as MP3s have recently seen a resurgence with format wars on the horizon. (As far as the end user is concerned, that means it's one of the only formats that plays on your iPod. Motivation for further development, right there.)


I just downloaded this one last night, and I've already spent ages simply playing with it, fascinated. It's an astronomy program, but not like any of the usual planetarium software. Rather, it gives you a 3D, almost fully explorable model of the entire Universe. Quite an ambitious goal, you might think, and you'd be right, but it's been realised very impressively. Any software which lets you zoom from the surface of the Earth past the limits of the observable Universe in about 10 seconds counts as a good piece of software as far as I'm concerned. Just don't play with it for too long, or you'll start to get spooked when you go off to investigate an interesting-looking galaxy and can't find the Sun any more...


Remember back when Windows didn't have native support for ZIP archives, and you had to use WinZip? And how it would nag you to buy a licence every single time you started it up? And how, even after you'd ignored it, it ran like a rhino through treacle? 7-Zip is like that, just without the nagging. Oh, and it's blazingly fast. So not very much like WinZip, in fact. If you need more control over archives than Windows offers, or you need to open different types of archive, this is the place to go.


Another one that you may not have heard of, but you've definitely used it. Python is a programming language, and rather a powerful one at that - the reasons why get a bit technical, but suffice to say that it makes programming impressively straightforward. And, being even more easily extensible than Firefox, almost anything can be done with it - have a look at Blender, a program that nearly found its way into this list, to see what's possible. And what did I mean by saying that you've definitely used Python? Well, Google runs on it.

Even after that lot, we've barely scratched the surface of what the open source community has come up with. Look at this list to get an idea of what else is on offer. Essentially, no matter what you do with computers, there's something free and open which will do much the same thing. Looks worth investigating, wouldn't you say?

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Monday, 17 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #34

[taken during week running from 20/08 to 26/08]

This week's photo comes from near Taunton, at the silver wedding anniversary of one of my friends. I talked about the large number of weddings that have been happening a couple of PotWs ago - well, here's what happens when they work. 25 years down the line, and a whole bunch of people who barely know each other - if at all - descend on a little village in Somerset in order to dance the night away. It's another one of those odd traditions with which Britain is so blessed, but in this case it's a fantastic one - barn dances (ceilidhs if you happen to be either a competent dancer or Scottish) are much more fun than one might expect.

You do, however, end up both completely exhausted and whistling "Lord of the Dance" for the next day and a half. Clearly, the concept could use some work.

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Saturday, 15 September 2007

Mmm, financial turmoil is tasty!

I would be the first to admit that I have absolutely no idea what on earth is going on in the global financial markets at the moment. This is because finance - once it gets past the concept of "here is your money. We will keep your money safe and pay you interest" - becomes completely opaque to me.

What, precisely, does it mean for a company to be "worth" a certain amount of money when that money is actually tied up somewhere in shares and can't be used? If share prices go up - and the company is therefore worth more - where did that extra value come from? Money surely can't be created out of nothing, so if I'm a CEO who's become an overnight millionaire, who's just lost out? And how can that value just as suddenly vanish, taking people's money with it?

Things get even more bizarre once you get into very high-level finance. At this point, you don't just get banks giving or lending each other money, they also trade risks, insurance, and even debts. How can you buy someone else's debt? And why would it benefit you to buy the right to pay someone else?

It's not very surprising, really, that us mere mortals who just don't understand the city end up finding other ways of treating the recent news. So, with that in mind...who else has noticed that "Northern Rock" and "Credit Crunch" both sound like you should be able to buy them in a sweetshop?

chocolates image by gracey taken from Morguefile

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Thursday, 13 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #33

[taken during week from 13/08 to 19/08]

Another slightly cheaty picture to cover over the embarrassing lack of photos a few weeks ago. This one displays something that I end up doing all too frequently - namely, Photoshopping. Or "manipulating photos using Adobe™ Photoshop™ software", as I'm sure Adobe™ would prefer me™ to say. I'm not exactly brilliant at this, although I'm pretty pleased with the outcome of this particular effort. Compare it to the experts' work, though, and you'll see that I've got some way to go before being properly competent with it.

It's slightly worrying that Photoshopping is so easy nowadays. At least it used to be the case that you had to be, you know, incredibly powerful and/or evil to edit history like this, so it was easy to spot the people doing it. Now, any schmuck with a computer and a digital camera can put together a version of his own reality - and if the result is reproduced at low quality, it can often look utterly convincing. You could almost call it the democratisation of history...if you didn't mind sounding completely pretentious, of course.

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Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Pointless milestones are always fun, aren't they?

It may be difficult to believe it, but this is my 100th post. Only a few short months ago, I moved over here from my late and not very lamented Windows Live Spaces blog. Windows Live has a number of problems - by the time I eventually closed the blog, it was having severe difficulty opening the post editor in either Firefox or Internet Explorer. And when a Microsoft site refuses to work properly in IE, you know you've got a problem.

Here, though, things have gone much better. The total word count on this blog - including titles but not counting the current post - is 44,683 words, taking up 67 A4 pages in Word. For comparison, that's not much below the average novel. I've also posted 32 weekly pictures (for a given value of "weekly"), gone through two designs, and steadfastly refused to embed any autoplaying music. Spend 30 seconds on Myspace if you think that isn't an achievement.

I'm marking this auspicious occasion by doing a minor redesign - the Facebook badge has gone (it didn't really fit), to be replaced by a tag navigation box. Oh, and since I've started posting a bit more to Ficlets, I've put a link to my account there in the sidebar too.

Here's to the next 100!

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Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Picture of the Week: #32

[picture taken - well, kind of - during week from 06/08 to 12/08]

Yeah, OK, this is kind of cheating. Unfortunately, though, I managed not to take any photos at all during the week in question, so I'm going to have to give you a picture you've already seen in miniature - my latest profile picture.

If you're wondering who that particular Simpsons character is, then don't worry, it isn't one - it's simply the output of the Burger King marketing initiative called Simpsonize Me. The idea of the site is that it takes a photo of you, then produces a Simpsons version of it. In practice, pretty much all of the details get put in during the long "manual tweaking" section, but it's still a fun service, and I think the final result really does look quite like me.

I'm never really sure what to think about campaigns like this. On the one hand, it is a cynical attempt to drag as much money as possible out of customers, even those who have hardly ever been to Burger King (hello, that's me!) and don't really have any intention of going. I'm not sure I want to support something like that. That said, it does provide you with something pointless yet entertaining, for free, and maybe it's a good thing to support that kind of effort.

And maybe it's possible to entirely overthink this. For goodness' sake, it's just a cartoon picture...

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Monday, 10 September 2007

If he'd had a flying car to begin with, of course, this could have been averted

Now that we live in the future - which we do, despite the stunning lack of flying cars and women with short skirts and swoopy haircuts - it's tempting to think that computers can do anything at all. Even though sometimes they do remarkably stupid things (no, I don't want that paragraph in blue - a curse upon you, Microsoft Word), the fact that we have a world-wide network of machines that can swap all kinds of information between themselves for any number of purposes is pretty amazing.

Sadly, there are some tasks that computers just can't do. This is a problem that must be solved before we can fully reach the future, and get our flying cars. In the meantime, though, we can just use humans to do the tricky tasks. Tasks such as finding a plane-shaped object among millions of square metres of scrubland.

The story behind this is as simple as it is worrying. Steve Fossett, world record holder and explorer, went missing this time last week. He's the kind of man who certainly knows what he's doing with a plane, so the fact that no-one's found a trace if him since then is worrying. And, given that the search area being covered is approximately 10,000 square miles, it could take a while.

This is where the Amazon Mechanical Turk comes in. Amazon (yes, the same Amazon of online bookshop fame), having realised that humans are much better than computers for many kinds of tasks, have set up an infrastructure in which people can perform these tasks, a little bit at a time, in return for payment. And this is the perfect kind of mechanism for scrutinising 10,000 square miles of satellite imagery.

The site isn't difficult to use. If you have an Amazon account and ten minutes to spare, please do visit the site and search a few of the images. It may help to find an extraordinary man...and it's one more step toward bring our flying cars to reality.

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Friday, 7 September 2007

Australia vs Japan is tomorrow. That one should be fun, in a "merciless steamroller" kind of way.

The Rugby World Cup is under way! Join with me in great rejoicing!

What do you mean, you're not really into sports? No matter! I'm not either. The concept of watching footballers run round a pitch for 90 minutes, collapsing to the ground and whining every time someone makes the slightest contact with their shinguards in the hope of getting a cheap penalty, does not fill me with joy. Neither does the concept of watching cricketers get slowly fried and/or bored out in the sun. But give me a decent rugby game, and I'm right there.

The reasons for this are many. For a start, rugby is one of the very few sports where a match with more at stake results in a better spectacle. It's no coincidence that two football World Cup finals have ended in penalty shootouts - if one goal is the margin between winning and losing, you're always going to hang back and defend your goal rather than pushing forward. Similarly in cricket, a Test match lasts so long that you'll frequently see otherwise brilliant players carefully swatting the ball back up the wicket, with no intention of running.

In rugby, though, the only way to score is to attack, and to attack hard. Moreover, the roles of attack and defence being clearly delineated means that you don't have any option over whether to play an attacking or defending game - if you've got the ball, you attack, it's that simple. This means that a better team will not only completely cream their opposition, they'll generally do so with some beautiful running and passing, and big games usually have a quite respectable scoreline.

Rugby is also fun to watch because something is happening all the time. I have to confess, I do quite like watching Match of the Day; however, this is because MotD compresses an entire football match into five minutes full of moments of genius. All the failed attacks and the passes back to the keeper (what is the point of that tactic, anyway?) get cut. In rugby, though, you have no chance of getting any points unless you're well into your opponent's half, long penalties aside, and the only way to score highly is to reach the very end of the field. In practical terms, then, territory becomes extremely important, and every action on the field is also important. If you're in a hurry, though, the highlights still look great - a slow-motion try always looks fantastic.

I could go on, but I'll just mention a couple more things. Any sport which includes a "blood replacement", the mechanism for which includes the implicit assumption that the player who just staggered off with about three gallons of blood pouring down his shirt is going to be returning to the field within ten minutes, must be a good sport. Then there's the opportunity for people with unconventional body shapes to take the field - the front row of a scrum, even though they are athletic in their own way, do not look "sporty".

And, lastly, we have some of the individual players, who you can watch for their moments of brilliance, or just for their silly appearance. I've just watched the opening match of the tournament, and (look away now if you haven't seen it yet oops too late) it was a good one - excellent play from both sides, some very nice creativity, and a deserving win for Argentina. And, of course, a chance to look at Michalak (I wonder if his mummy knows he's out there), David Skrela (greatest moody teenager haircut ever), and...Sébastien Chabal.

Yeah...are you going to tell him he looks silly, or shall I?
Image modified from one nicked off the BBC. Might count as fair dealing. Please don't sue me.

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Thursday, 6 September 2007

In case you were wondering, I'm pretty much bluffing through most of the politics in this post.

(Hmm. Been a while since I posted here. I can blame this on a number of things, but the only one that will actually be true is that, in a rather petulant and arrogant way, I didn't really feel like posting. So there we go. The upshot is that I now have several half-formed blog posts swilling round my brain, so there may be a sudden flurry of not-very-well-written posts in the very near future. For this, I apologise.)

A few days back, everyone's favourite murderous and quite possibly insane African dictator, Robert Mugabe, decided that his mangling of Zimbabwe's economy ought really to be put to a stop before the entire country implodes. Sadly, the method that he chose to do this, rather than something sensible - opening up the country to aid, better employment practices, perhaps some token attempt at stopping the breathtaking levels of corruption - seems to have been taken straight out of a big book called "Ideas that would make Chairman Mao and Nikita Khrushchev say 'Ooh, that's not very well thought through, is it?'" (Snappy little title, that.)

What Mugabe chose to do involved a number of things, possibly the daftest of which was a complete ban on wage and price rises. No-one seems to have told Mugabe that the economy just doesn't work like that. As if that wasn't enough, the government has tried some more handy little tricks to try and halt the raging inflation, such as devaluing the currency. Given that all this does is suddenly make everyone's banknotes worthless, it can't even be called a stopgap solution. Other tactics have included forcing price cuts in certain commodities. Even if this didn't make producers run for the hills (hint: it does), the way it's been applied (quite literally changing on a minute-by-minute and shop-by-shop basis) just adds to the chaos. Oh, and of course, it doesn't help that Mugabe has promised to print more currency should government projects require it.

I find it immensely difficult to believe that anyone can be shrewd enough to remain in charge of a country, and yet be so incredibly thick that he doesn't realise he's sending that country into inevitable ruin. Of course, it's happened before - the previously-mentioned Mao and Khrushchev were masters of hare-brained schemes that never stood a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. What puzzles me is why, in the face of so much evidence, does this kind of thing continue?

Bloody-mindedness is probably a major reason. If you can see that everything is going a bit pear-shaped, perhaps there's a tendency to dig in your heels and stubbornly proclaim that you can do it, you really can. Perhaps, too, there's a certain amount of self-delusion. Mobutu, the colourful, homicidal and definitely insane former dictator of Zaïre, certainly had this trait, refusing to believe, even when the tanks were rolling through Kinshasa, that he was finished. And there might be a certain amount of naked self-interest there too, a determination to take whatever he can before the country crumbles.

I don't know. When Mobutu fell, it was supposed to herald a new age, a time when the "big men" of Africa realised that they weren't invincible any more, that they could be toppled. It's been part of a pattern in which dictators fell (Amin and Taylor, to name but two) to be replaced by the people that could actually do something about the problems. And now...Mugabe shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. Museveni appears to be moving onto the road from saint to despot with startling rapidity. It might be part of a new, and far more depressing, pattern.

Let's just hope not.

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