Thursday 29 December 2005

A new thing.

It's been one hell of a busy Christmas for me, what with, well, Christmas, for one thing, plus lots of guests, plus middle-of-the-night runs to hospital, plus stuff. And it's not over yet. But, anyway, Merry Christmas to you all, and I'm sorry I didn't get around to saying that earlier.

I cooked a Christmas dinner for twenty, which I think was pretty impressive. There were only nine people there to eat it, but hey.

Anyway, a while back, I mentioned that I'd found this fantastic comic strip called Achewood. Well, one of Achewood's characters, Ray Smuckles, now has a blog. And damn fine it is too:

MOM: I've left you seven messages, Raymond!

RAY: Aww, mom! We gon' talk about that or are we gonna talk?

MOM: I just don't see why you can't call your mother back.

RAY: I am callin' you back! Right now!

MOM: Why didn't you return my calls?

RAY: I am, right now!

MOM: I called you seven times!

RAY: And I'm returning those calls!

MOM: I don't see why you can't call your mother back.


MOM: I just wish you'd call me back, is all.

RAY: Well, maybe I'll call you sometime!

MOM: Raymond! Did you just sass me?


Thursday 22 December 2005

Ignorance and arrogance.

Caught the first couple of episodes of NUMB3RS the other night. Very good, I thought.

Anyway, I like this:

The widespread ignorance among the general public of what mathematics is all about is testified by the fact that one of the criticisms of the new series after the first episode was screened on January 23 was that it defied credulity. Many TV critics, it seems, could not believe that mathematics could be used to help solve criminal cases in the way depicted in the program. Yet that first episode, like all the other upcoming episodes in the first season, is based on a real-life case. Not just loosely based on it, but closely so.

See, if I were a TV critic, before publishing my opinion on the incalculability of a statistical problem, I'd check with a mathematician. It's not difficult to do: five minutes on the phone to a university maths department: "Can it be done? Oh, it can? Gosh, how surprising. Thank you for your time." It would hardly have been difficult to find out, either, that the whole series was based on real events — and the maths was the same maths genuinely used to help solve actual crimes. But no. Instead, we get, "I have a diploma in punctuation and shorthand from the Columbia School of Journlism and, what's more, I can use Excel a bit, so I think I know better than these idiot TV producers, with their research and their academic advisors and their police experts, what can and can't be done."

This is why people think the Moon landings were faked. Because they're idiots.

My right eyelid will not stop twitching today.

It just will not stop twitching. Twitch, twitch, twitch. Twitchety-twitch twitch. Twitch. Aaaarrrrgh! Stop twitching! Just bloody stop with the infernal twitching, already! Twitch, twitch, twitch twitch twitch. Am I cursed? Hexed? Is that it? Twitch, twitch, shiver twitch twitch. Oh, for the love of God! Stop! Twitch. Aaaaarrrgh!

Needless to say, I am sitting quietly and calmly at my desk. My colleagues suspect nothing. I am keeping all this frustrated rage in check and internal. This is how killing sprees start.


Aaaaaarrrgh! Twitch. Aaaaaaarrrrghh! Twitch twitch. Aaaaaaarrrrrghhh!

Calm. Calm. Calm.

Wednesday 21 December 2005

A level playing field.

Natalie the Wise thinks that this is a bad thing:

Oxford University is considering changes to its admissions system as figures today showed the proportion of state school students this year has fallen.

The proposals, from a working party, would drastically reduce the role of the colleges in picking applicants and could prove controversial. Today's admissions statistics suggest Oxford is failing to widen access and still gets almost 44% of its intake from private schools.

Now, we all know that the Government are putting pressure on Oxbridge to let in more pupils from state schools, and that, the standard of a state education being what it is, the only way they'll ever take in as many state-educated students as the government want them to is by dropping their admissions standards. I'm not convinced that this is necessarily as bad a thing as some make out: Oxbridge are, I would have thought, so extremely good at teaching that they should be able to succeed with slightly less excellent students than they're used to. The only students likely to want to go to Oxbridge are the same ones likely to do well there. And, as long as the universities want to take money from all taxpayers via the Government, they can provide a service to all taxpayers according to the Government's rules. Fair's fair.

But all of that is beside the point. This report is in The Guardian, and, like all newspapers, they write according to their agenda. Note how those opening two paragraphs are constructed: the first contains two not-necessarily-related facts strung together with the word "as"; the second contains two not-necessarily-related sentences. There is nothing there to say that this working party who are considering changes to Oxford's admission system are doing so in order to get more state-school pupils in; in fact, there is nothing anywhere in the whole article that says so — and I would've thought that, if that were the working party's purpose, The Guardian would gleefully mention it. No, what the working party are trying to do is quite different to what The Guardian and the Government want them to do:

The report added: "It is supported by anecdotal evidence from schools — when they sometimes tell us that a candidate for a particular subject whom they regard as their most able fails to get a place at one college, whilst a candidate whom they regard as less able gets a place at another college. ..."

... his report admitted that many people inside and outside the university felt it still fell short of ensuring the very best who applied to Oxford were admitted, irrespective of college choice.

In other words, the problem, as Oxford sees it, is that they're failing to get some of the best students. Not some of the poorest, not some of the most disadvantaged, not some of the most working-class; some of the best.

"Though there is no systematic evidence that the college admissions system actually deters candidates from applying, feedback from pupils at schools with limited Oxford connections — most often in the non-selective maintained sector — suggests that they find our admissions arrangements confusing and opaque, particularly when making a choice of college."

It's tempting to place too much emphasis on that phrase "in the non-selective maintained sector", but look at what they're really saying here: they want to make sure that students get in based purely on their ability and not on their knowledge of how to play Oxford's admission system. Doing this will broaden access not only to a lot of state schools but also to those private schools that don't have connections with Oxford — soon to include a bunch of cut-price private schools, if that market expands as it's predicted to — and making access easier to pupils from those schools will be total anathema to The Guardian.

Onto the end of this report, which details, effectively, tentative moves by Oxford to stop the old-boys network getting less able students in, The Guardian stick this paragraph:

Among students who applied in October 2004 for entry in October this year the proportion of state school pupils admitted fell from 47.8% to 46.4%, reflecting a fall in applications from the maintained sector.

This is probably true, but has almost nothing to do with the rest of the article. It's spin. Ignore it.

Yes, the Government are trying to force Oxford to accept state-school students who probably aren't good enough to succeed there. Yes, Oxford may well give in to that pressure, sooner or later. But this news is not that event. This news is good news.

Tuesday 20 December 2005

Fools and money.

Whenever the National Lottery announces a rollover week, they sell more tickets. Lots more.

This means that many people out there will enter a competition when the prize is eight million pounds but don't feel it's worth bothering for a mere two million.

This bothers me.

More blogging about dogs.

Monty's tongue is too short. And he's a messily enthusiastic eater. So, after every meal, he's left with a dollop of dog food on his nose, which he can't remove. Well, not by licking, anyway; he can remove it using the living-room carpet. We'd prefer that he didn't.

So, after he's eaten, I have to wipe his nose. And it looks like I'll be doing so every day for the next dozen or so years. Ah, the joy of dogs.

Friday 16 December 2005

The most interesting thing I've seen in weeks.

As ever, it's Language Log with the fascinating stuff:

[Philip Tetlock recounts] an anecdote about an experiment that "pitted the predictive abilities of a classroom of Yale undergraduates against those of a single Norwegian rat". The experiment involves predicting the availability of food in one arm of a T-shaped maze. The rat wins, by learning quickly that is should always head for the arm in which food is more commonly available — betting on the maximum-likelihood outcome — while the undergrads place their bets in more complicated ways, perhaps trying to find patterns in the sequence of trials. They guess correctly on individual trials less often than the rat does, although their overall allocation of guesses matches the relative probability of finding food in the two arms very accurately.

Speaking as someone who used to keep Norwegian rats, this surprises me not at all. They're very clever. Although, as it turns out, it's not their cleverness that's enabling them to beat the humans on this occasion.

As usual, the true explanation is simpler as well as more interesting than the false one. It illustrates a beautifully simple mathematical model of learning and behavior, which accounts for a wide range of experimental and real-world data besides this classroom demonstration. And there's even a connection, I believe, to the cultural evolution of language.


The difference was not their interest in deterministic theories, nor their concern for their reputations. The difference was simply that the students got more information than the rat did.


But why does more information make for worse performance? We're used to seeing evolution develop optimal solutions to such basic problems as choosing where to look for food. So what's gone wrong here?


Thursday 15 December 2005

Pulling up the ladders.

HTML is one of the greatest computer languages ever created, for one simple reason: it's easy. Imagine if the Web had been created using a standard programming language, even one as easy (by programming standards) as Cobol or Visual Basic. It wouldn't have caught on. The only people with personal web-pages would be programmers and physicists; the only commercial sites would be large rich companies, not small businesses. That anyone with half a brain can learn enough HTML in a couple of hours to throw a slightly dodgy web-page together is the Web's greatest strength. CSS follows in the HTML tradition: it's very, very easy — arguably, it made HTML even easier than it already was.

Not long ago, there was no such thing as a professional web-designer: every web-designer was an amateur. Those amateurs built the Web. Now, we have lots of professionals. A lot of those professionals have moved into web-programming from other computer languages. Those programmers have certain ideas about how computer languages should work: they should be rigid, unforgiving; the absence of a mere comma should make all the difference between a program working and failing. And this type of thinking has, unfortunately, begun to exert its influence on the way the Web is built.

Web-designers often complain about the way some browsers interpret code. Some of these complaints are entirely valid — if I may speak technogibberish for a moment, Internet Explorer's notorious box-model bug is an utter pain, of which Microsoft should be deeply, deeply ashamed. But all too many of the complaints are of a different order entirely: programmers complaining that browsers are too lenient in their interpretation of the code. The classic example of this is the age-old complaint about inverted commas around numbers. Let me explain this clearly, for my non-coding readers.

Internet Explorer's box-model bug (no, you don't need to know what that actually is) is a big problem because it causes Internet Explorer to display web-pages differently to other browsers, making life more difficult for designers. When we web-designers build a page, we usually put in one lot of code that is correct, followed by a second lot of code that is technically incorrect but that will be interpreted correctly by IE, all surrounded by more technically incorrect code that tells the different browsers which bit of code they should be reading. It's an utter pain, and, because it exploits bugs in the browsers, it runs the risk of going completely tits-up at some point in the future when those bugs are repaired. Complaining about a bug like that (and there are plenty of others) makes a lot of sense — not least because it's making it more difficult for unskilled amateurs to create the Web. (I actually use a different method of dealing with it, which involves unnecessary code rather than incorrect code. It's still a pain, and it still makes life more difficult for beginners.)

The inverted-commas complaint is a different thing entirely: it is a complaint about an inconsistency that makes life easier for designers. This snippet of HTML is correct:


This bit isn't:


However, that doesn't matter, because all the browsers on the market forgive the error: use the second piece of code, and they interpret it exactly as if you'd used the first bit. Very nice of them, and entirely sensible. This mistake-forgivingness is one of the things that makes HTML even easier than it would be anyway, and hence one of the things that makes the Web great. And a lot of programmers seem to hate it, and have been complaining about it for years. They want the browsers made stricter. They want HTML to be more like traditional programming languages. They want, in other words, beginners and amateurs to have a harder time. They want small unimportant mistakes to be punished. And, sadly, they're beginning to get their way. Here's an example:


This is probably the simplest of several ways of making a link open in a new window. It's being discontinued. A piece of code that works exactly as it is supposed to and which has no known bugs is to be removed from the language. There is absolutely no good reason for this. The effect will be that people who did know how to do something will cease to know. It will be easier for professionals than for amateurs to adjust.


Since HTML began, that's been the code for a line-break. It's being changed to:

<br />

It's a small change, not a big thing to learn. But it's one of many small, pointless changes. Changing the language regularly means that people who don't spend their time reading articles about the latest HTML standards — non-programmers, that is — won't keep up, will find web-design more difficult. The more people unable to design their own sites, the more work for professional programmers — or, perhaps, the fewer sites. With the latest updates, we're already at the stage where putting one or two incorrect words in the code — the sort of thing that, a few years ago, would have just caused the page to display slightly incorrectly — can lead to the page being completely blank. This is not progress.

All of which is why you should join The Campaign To Keep Code Vague. Just as soon as I get around to founding it.

Tuesday 13 December 2005

Christmas hassle.

The thing about having lots of people round for Christmas is that it may require the acquisition of a bigger table than one currently has. In our case, that is the case. We are getting our table from Homebase, 'cause it's cheap and we're skint — and because they promised to deliver within two weeks. Three weeks ago.

So I rang up on Saturday and asked when it would be arriving, and they said the first week of January. They also said (because, presumably, they don't like their customers to think that their service is only slightly crap) that the salesman who sold us the table, whom we told it was for Christmas dinner, must have known at the time that it would not arrive till January.

So I went into the shop and asked not only for a refund but for compensation too, on the grounds that their lying to us had caused us a delay which now meant that we had no time left to get a table from anyone else. And the manager I spoke to agreed with me, which was nice, and sold us a much nicer table, which came with chairs (which we needed anyway), at an insanely low price. It was a very good example of how to deal with a complaint: he solved our problem, made us happy, gave us compensation, yet still got a bit of extra money out of us. Well done.

And the big thing about this new table, other than its bigness, its wooden niceness, and its coming-with-chairsness, is that it's in stock. We were promised it would be delivered today, and, now, it looks like it might well be. But not until after some bonus ineptitude on Homebase's part.

They were going to call us "first thing" to let us know when it would arrive. I call today, long after what I think is first thing, and they tell me that their delivery driver doesn't even turn up till ten o'clock these days. Hmm. So I ring again at about ten-thirty, and they have no record of my name, my address, my purchase, or the delivery. Bollocks.

To cut a long and thoroughly uninteresting story short, it looks like it's all sorted out now. What I really wanted to write about was their excuse for the mix-up.

The reason they had no record of the scheduled delivery was, they tell me, that the delivery driver already had everything on his truck. Got that? If they're delivering something, it's on the truck; if it's on the truck, they don't know they're delivering it. Presumably, the only deliveries they do have a record of are the ones that they aren't actually making.

Our table and chairs are, they tell me, "being loaded onto the truck now." These are the ones that were (see above) already on the truck.

If they get us our table, I shall choose not to care that they're lunatics.


The table did arrive. But the saga is not over.

It's a flat-pack, which, being a dab hand with a screwdriver, I generally don't mind. The bolts for assembling the table have allen-key heads, typically. One of them, however, just had the outline of a hexagon but no actual hole to put the allen key in, making it completely useless. (Remember the days when these things always came with a few too many screws and bolts, in case of loss or damage or mistakes? Was that really so expensive that flat-pack manufacturers can't afford to do it any more?) And one of the struts of the table was split. That's pretty bad quality control.

So I went back to Homebase last night to exchange the dodgy parts. Despite not quibbling with me at all, it still took them over half an hour to do. The first fifteen minutes of that was spent repeatedly calling one particular employee over the tannoy. It seems that he is the only one who can exchange parts; if he doesn't answer when called, all anyone can do is stand around helplessly. Great.

What is particularly annoying about the half-hour of dawdling is having to go through it again this evening, because I've since discovered one of the other bolts is badly bent. Oh, and part of one of the chairs had come apart, so I glued it back together — if I exchange everything that's wrong with this, it could take weeks, and, besides, it rather looks like I can do a better job of building furniture than they can.

The underside of the table has a couple of straps stapled to it for some mysterious packaging reason. The staples go so deep that attempting to remove them with pliers simply breaks them, leaving little needly spikes for us to pierce our fingers on whenever we try and move the thing. I've had to hammer them flat for safety reasons. One of the staples has been punched in by a careless person: it's been put in so close to the edge of the table that it's knocked a small chip out of the edge. I'm just going to sand that down and put up with the flaw, as the table-top is the big heavy bit that requires their delivery men and I simply can't be bothered with dealing with them again — can't take the time off work, apart from anything else.

But I shall be seeing if I can get a bit of money back off them for all this.

Homebase's customer service isn't quite as bad as Ikea's — that's a tough act to follow, contempt-for-customers-wise — but their quality control, amazingly, appears to be worse. Do not buy furniture from them. Ever.

Monday 12 December 2005

We'll never know.

It makes me a bit sad and a bit angry. We'll never know exactly why Monty was handed in to the dog pound or how he was treated by his previous owners, but there are some clues.

He's frightened to go outside unless someone goes with him. Which is a bit of a bugger for house-training.

Most dogs, when you give them a command and they get it wrong and you tell them "No", try doing other things until they figure out what it is you want from them. Monty does the same thing again, but with his tail between his legs and his nose to the ground between your feet — which, again, is a bugger for training, because as long as he's staring at the ground, you have no eye contact with him.

If you raise your voice to him, Monty cowers down on the floor as if he's about to be given a good kicking. He's clearly terrified. Perhaps the most depressing thing is that he doesn't even try to run away.

He's a wonderful, friendly, cuddly, affable dog. I'd like to give his previous owners a good kicking.

Vic got a new mobile phone the other day. Playing with the ringtones as you do, she came across one which was the sound of a small child laughing. Monty raced out of the kitchen and straight up to Vic, wagging his tail excitedly. He just loves kids. I suspect that the children in his previous home were the only ones who were nice to him.

Tuesday 6 December 2005

I wonder whether mine work.

Here's another interesting link from Inkycircus:

Special neurons in the brain stem of rats focus exclusively on novel sounds and help them ignore predictable and ongoing noises, a new study finds.

The same process likely occurs in humans and may affect our speech, and even help us laugh.

The "novelty detector neurons," as researchers call them, quickly stop firing if a sound or a pattern of sounds is repeated. They will briefly resume firing if some aspect of the sound changes. The neurons can detect changes in pitch, loudness or duration of a single sound and can also note shifts in the pattern of a complex series of sounds.

"It is probably a good thing to have this ability, because it allows us to tune out background noises like the humming of a car's motor while we are driving or the regular tick-tock of a clock," said study team member Ellen Covey, a psychology professor at the University of Washington.

Leave me in a room with a ticking clock and I start to go spare. The ticking — even the ticking of a very small, very quiet watch — drives me up the wall. It's like having someone chip away at my soul. I'm always aware of the noise of the engine when I'm driving, and tend not to notice when the engine noise changes slightly: as far as I'm concerned, it just always sounds like an irritatingly loud engine. I also have a major problem with making out one person's speech amongst the general hubbub of lots of other people speaking. I know I don't have dodgy hearing, because I can pick out tiny details of sound when I'm mixing or listening to music. So the existence of these neurons could explain a lot. I think mine are broken.

Perfect for catching roadrunners.

Well, the Wikablog project is ticking along nicely — 269 blogs registered so far, and more every day — and it's already got so diverse that it's pretty damn interesting. Today, I found Inkycircus, which appears to be rather excellent:

we are three science journalists, living in london and trying to start a magazine. a science magazine for women. mostly. it is hard and sometimes makes us want to cry. so we made this.

A science magazine for women is A Good Idea. I'd buy it. And I'm a man.

Yesterday, they posted a link to United Nuclear, who are selling stupidly powerful magnets:

The magnets listed below are very powerful, much more powerful then magnets most people have seen, and need to be handled with proper care. The magnetic fields from these magnets can affect each other from more than 12 inches away. Please note that these magnets are fragile. Even though they are coated with a tough protective nickel plating, do not allow them to snap together with their full force or they may chip, break, and possibly send small pieces of metal flying on impact. Our larger magnets can easily bruise fingers and even break finger bones as they attempt to connect together. ... If you or someone in your household has a PACEMAKER or another electronic surgical implant, don't even think of ordering these items.

That's just the little tiny ones — smaller than a coin. They also have Supermagnets:

If you really need unbelievably powerful magnets, here they are. Uses include magnetic steering of nuclear particles in homemade accelerators, levitation devices, magnetic beam amplifiers, scrap iron separators, etc.

Beware — you must think ahead when moving these magnets.
If carrying one into another room, carefully plan the route you will be taking. Computers & monitors will be affected in an entire room. Loose metallic objects and other magnets may become airborne and fly considerable distances — and at great speed — to attach themselves to this magnet. If you get caught in between the two, you can get injured.

Two of these magnets close together can create an almost unbelievable magnetic field that can be very dangerous. Of all the unique items we offer for sale, we consider these two items the most dangerous of all. Our normal packing & shipping personnel refuse to package these magnets — our engineers have to do it. This is no joke and we cannot stress it strongly enough — that you must be extremely careful — and know what you're doing with these magnets. Take Note: Two of the 3" x 1" disc magnets can very easily break your arm if they get out of control.


We can only ship these magnets by ground UPS — they cannot be shipped via air as it will interfere with the aircraft's navigational equipment.

United Nuclear have missed a great marketing opportunity by not calling themselves "Acme".

Monday 5 December 2005

The best idea I've seen in ages.

Another great letter in Mark Steyn's mailbox this week:

With the current news in Europe and elsewhere it reinforces my belief that the U.S. and other countries need to adopt the “Equity in Immigration Act” that I developed. It is relatively simple:

  1.  Men have a vested interest in keeping Third World societies in their dysfunctional state. The United States believes in the rights of women around the world. Women have the potential to be a powerful force for reform.

  2.  Given this, the United States will issue one immigration visa, of all types, for a woman for every man that immigrates from:
    a.  A country not determined to be a democracy by the State Department (basket cases).
    b.  A country that has a male to female birth disparity of over 2.5% (targeted aborters).

  3.  The numbers must add up every quarter or U.S. embassies/consulates will cease issuing visas until the numbers are equal for that quarter

I came up with this idea when I was running a Cuban migrant camp at Guantanamo Bay in the mid-90s. Because “families” went to the States first, women had all the power. The definition of a “family” was a group of Cubans that included at least one woman. I “married” and “divorced” Cuban couples on the personnel tracking computer all the time as the women negotiated for a better deal. I realized that women could be a powerful source for reform in their home countries if more of them could make it to the West and get educated and exposed to a more tolerant culture. Women could then take their experiences back and demand reform. I realize that this may result in a short term downturn in the number of visas issued but think that is the price of getting any system in place.

Mark Salas

I'd be fascinated to discover on what grounds the anti-Bush, neocon-hating Left will object to this thoroughly feminist idea. Maybe they'll pleasantly surprise me and not object at all. I doubt it.

Thursday 1 December 2005

Imaginary tax-gathering.

Raven has some fascinating thoughts on how to implement taxation in a role-playing game, which you should read. Yes, you should. And he goes off at a particularly good tangent:

The king is trying to keep roads in good repair, maintain a reasonable sized army against invasion from some nasty foreign types, and keep enough guards in the towns to suppress crime. But how can he be expected to fund all this? He has a reasonable tax rate, but one particularly tenacious bandit gang keeps on stealing the tax money. To make up the difference, and to have a chance of catching the bandits, he has to increase the tax rate to be able to hire more guards and manhunters. Meanwhile the citizens are deriding him and his employees for the evil high tax rate and for failing to protect them and for the roads falling into disrepair. He must be spending all that tax money on himself, the bastard! Robin Hood, on the other hand, is a lovely man because he gives the people free money. Everyone loves him. Sure, he doesn't repair the roads or protect people or anything, but nor does the guy who has all the tax money.


It's not Mr Gates's fault.

Look at this. I mean, just bloody look at this:

Microsoft Outlook includes a feature ...

A what?

Microsoft Outlook includes a feature that blocks attachments that are considered unsafe.

... Although Outlook blocks access to the attachment, the attachment still exists in the e-mail message.

This article discusses the methods to use if you have to open an attachment that has been blocked in Outlook.

Oh, OK. As long as there's a way around it. What do I have to do? Just change a setting in the options or something, like with opening Excel macros?

Use one of the following recommended methods to open an attachment that was blocked in Outlook:
  • Request that the sender post or save the attachment to a file share and then send you the link to that file share.

In other words, don't use Outlook; use some other software. Not ideal.

  • Request that the sender use a file compression utility that changes the file name extension.

In other words, Outlook can't do this very simple task; you need to use a workaround to compensate for Outlook's uselessness.

  • Request that the sender rename the file name extension and then resend the attachment to you. After you receive the renamed attachment, you can rename the file with the original file name extension.

In other words, here's another, slightly different workaround, again used to compensate for the fact that Outlook can't perform this very simple task. I'm beginning to spot a theme here. The two choices offered so far are: don't use Outlook, 'cause it doesn't work; or trick Outlook, 'cause it doesn't work. Remember, this is a "feature".

If the previously recommended methods do not meet your requirements ...

Frankly, I'm astonished that they meet Microsoft's requirements.

... use one of the following methods:
  • If you are in a Microsoft Exchange environment and your administrator has configured the Outlook Security settings, ask the administrator to modify the security settings for your mailbox.

Well, I am in an "Exchange environment" (why can't they just say "using Microsoft Exhange"?), and I'm working for a software firm: we obviously don't block programs in emails, since we are programmers. I know the problem here isn't Exchange, because I could receive attachments a couple of weeks ago, before I "upgraded". The problem here is Outlook's bloody defaults.

  • If you are not in an Exchange environment, modify the Windows Registry to customize the attachment security settings.

Modify the Windows Registry? Are you bloody kidding? That's the solution? Jesus wept.

For anyone who doesn't understand the full implications of this, Microsoft helpfully spell it out, repeatedly:

Warning Serious problems might occur if you modify the registry incorrectly by using Registry Editor or by using another method. These problems might require that you reinstall your operating system. Microsoft cannot guarantee that these problems can be solved. Modify the registry at your own risk.

In other words, there now follow some instructions on the only way to get Outlook to work properly. If you follow these instructions, which we are providing to you, you might break your whole operating system. If you do break the operating system that we designed and built by following the instructions that we're giving you, don't come crying to us. It's nothing to do with us. We weren't even here. We know notheeeeng. La la la, we can't hear you.

Now, don't get me wrong: Outlook's a brilliant bit of software. But every upgrade is a downgrade. Outlook used to do this; now it doesn't, and it's been deliberately engineered so that the only people likely to turn the feature back on are programmers and other IT-savvy types. It used to work for everyone, in the way that good software should. Now it's been crippled for the ignorant. And we all know why.

Because someone gets an email from someone they have never even slightly heard of which says

hi their !!  heres the file we discused  !!!!!!

and they think, "Well, I'd better double-click on this attachment as soon as I possibly can." When the warning pops up that tells them that, hey, this attachment might be a virus — you'd better be damn sure you know the person who sent it, they just click all the "Don't worry; of course I know what I'm doing" buttons. Then, when it turns out, quite astonishingly, to be a virus, they blame Microsoft.

I'm not one of those IT snobs who looks down on people who don't understand computers. I don't blame anyone for failing to spot, for instance, that an email attachment has two extensions. The problem isn't people who don't understand IT. The problem is people who simply abandon every last bit of common sense they ever had the moment they sit in front of a keyboard. If a total stranger walks up to them in the street, says "Hey, nice to see you again! Here's that package you wanted," and tries to give them a bag, they get the hell out of there and call the police. But when the same thing happens by email, it sets off zero alarm bells.

I always remember, a few years ago, listening to Radio 4's Today program the morning after that ridiculous anti-Microsoft verdict was announced. They read out some listeners' opinions, and one woman said

If this means I no longer have to use that awful Microsoft Word, then I'm all for it.

And people really think like that. Despite Microsoft hinting very heavily that use of Office is not compulsory by charging people a hundred quid for it, lots of users still think that they have to use it. This woman — and she's not atypical — thought that Microsoft had to be broken up into a group of smaller, separate companies by legal fiat in order for her not to buy a particular piece of their software. In much the same way, since Rover went under, I no longer have to buy and drive their cars. Which is handy.

I can understand Microsoft's exasperation with these idiots and their unfortunate need to cripple their own software to avoid bad PR. But I wish they'd bring out two versions of all their software: the current version, or perhaps one even more crippled and useless, and one that comes with a disclaimer you have to agree to that says "When I ignore sensible warning messages, the results are entirely my fault" and that does stuff.

Wednesday 30 November 2005

Yet yet more unintended consequences.

Many a good idea has been wrecked by dogmatism. Here's the latest:

THE drive for "green energy" in the developed world is having the perverse effect of encouraging the destruction of tropical rainforests. From the orang-utan reserves of Borneo to the Brazilian Amazon, virgin forest is being razed to grow palm oil and soybeans to fuel cars and power stations in Europe and North America. And surging prices are likely to accelerate the destruction


Rising demand for green energy has led to a surge in the international price of palm oil, with potentially damaging consequences. "The expansion of palm oil production is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction in south-east Asia. It is one of the most environmentally damaging commodities on the planet," says Simon Counsell, director of the UK-based Rainforest Foundation. "Once again it appears we are trying to solve our environmental problems by dumping them in developing countries, where they have devastating effects on local people."

Quoth Stephen:

You can ignore markets, but that doesn't mean that markets will ignore you.


Monday 28 November 2005


When I first read about this

a recent ICM opinion poll indicates that 1 in 3 of those surveyed believed that a woman was responsible for being raped if she was flirting.

... more than a quarter (26%) of those asked said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than a third (37%) held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say “no” to the man.

— I knew there was something fundamentally wrong about it, but just couldn't quite put my finger on it. I'm a firm believer that there's only one person responsible for any crime, and that's the criminal. If the death penalty were to be reintroduced, I would sooner see it used on rapists than murderers. So I know the problem isn't that I think rape's OK. And yet I'm also a firm believer in accepting the consequences of one's actions. Walking into a Rangers pub with a Tricolor on a match day and shouting "Fuck the Queen!" is the sort of behaviour that gets you hurt, and, if you do something so stupid, you are partly responsible for the pain you end up in — even though every single Rangers fan who kicks you is entirely responsible for their actions too, and should be punished for them.

All very confusing. Until that marvellous Solent woman went and explained it all properly:

Amnesty seems to share some of the same faulty and worrying assumptions about responsibility for rape with those whose responses to the survey caused such concern. The questions asked in the survey (asking whether a woman was "partially or totally responsible for being raped" in various circumstances) pushed the respondents into assuming that responsibility for a crime works like settling the liability for costs relating to a road accident: a pie chart where the responsibility is split between the two sides, where for instance Driver A has to pay 75% and Driver B 25%.

Amnesty's view is that the rapist should get 100% liability — but it still implicitly accepts the framework that the more the woman is blamed the less the man should be.


I see no contradiction between holding that the guilt of rape is not one whit lessened if the victim was drunk, or dressed in skimpy clothing, or has had many sexual partners — and at the same time holding that the woman in the case I mentioned was foolish. Being drunk in a city centre at three a.m. while wearing a miniskirt does increase your chances of rape, predictably so. We should work towards a world where women were as free in fact as they are in law to go where they like, when they like and dress as they like — but that world does not exist at present. One way of working towards it is to have severe penalties for rape and to denounce the view that rape can be excused.

I think my "there is no pie chart" opinion, or something like it, is fairly common. When doing surveys it often happens that none of the choices match what I think, so I just have to choose the least bad match.

I note that the Amnesty press release spoke of "blame" whereas the poll questions quoted spoke of "responsibility." There is a distinction. Personally, I don't think it's the right distinction to make. I don't like the "pie chart" model for responsibility or blame, but many of the respondents may have been trying to get across the point that in one perfectly defensible sense of the word "responsible", women should be responsible when it comes to the risks they take. If I am right these respondents are now saying angrily, "But I'd have answered differently if they had talked about blame."

Exactly. Exactly, exactly, exactly. Thank you.

Sunday 27 November 2005

A new friend.

We've been thinking about this for ages. The last couple of weeks, it's been getting higher and higher in our priorities. Finally, on Friday night — well, Friday afternoon, but it looks like night at this time of year — off we went to one of Northern Ireland's dog pounds. Like many these days, they upload photos of the latest strays to the Web, and we'd seen an old collie with a white face that we liked the look of.

As it turned out, the collie was lovely, but, we reckoned, a bit too frail and doddery to put up with the insane bounciness of Phoebe. But just look who we met:

We've called him Monty. He's about two years old, and no-one knows his original name, but he's picking up the new one quickly enough. He appears to be a Staff-Lab cross, though I think there may also be some bison in the mix. He's as strong as an ox; is slightly frightened of Phoebe, not seeming to realise that he could probably kill her with one blow from his mighty paw; is friendly and dopey and affable and just loves us. In fact, he seems to love everyone, including other dogs and small children. He snores like a train — even when he's awake — and drools everywhere. When he has a drink, he dribbles it over half the kitchen floor, walks in that, then walks over the other half of the kitchen floor. He's largely untrained — doesn't even know "Sit" yet — but he's eager to please and nowhere near as stupid as he is dopey, so he'll get there. And he's settled in with us like he's been here his whole life.

Why would someone get rid of such a lovely dog? We'll never know, but my theory is that someone wanted more of a butch attack-dog and got rid of him for being sedate and loving. He's got a lot of bites on his ears, so has been in fights. Seeing the way he behaves with other dogs, the only way that happened is that he was attacked. Repeatedly. Shame.

By the way, careful viewing of that photo will reveal the sternly disapproving face of Boris, my mother-in-law's black Lab, in the background.

Friday 25 November 2005


Anyone set up a new PC recently? I've just set up five, at work. Nice machines. XP's not as quite good as OSX, but it's still pretty damn good. But there is a slight problem with the Microsoft Windows Update site that they really need to address.

I run Windows Update and Internet Explorer opens up and tells me it can't view the page because it doesn't have the right software. OK, so it's the first time this PC has ever accessed the Windows Update site, so I wouldn't expect it to have the software yet. Fair enough. And the page is showing me a handy user-friendly install button, so that's fair enough, too. Nothing complicated or unreasonable here. So I install the software — only takes a few seconds — the page refreshes, and I get this:

Get the latest Windows Update software.

We've made improvements to our website. To download the new version of the software and begin using Windows Update, please click Install Now.

What the fuck? I just installed it twenty seconds ago, and you're telling me it wasn't the latest version? Why the hell not?

So I install the latest version. It takes a couple of minutes. And, finally:

Welcome to Windows Update

Aha! It's working. Now I have a couple of little install buttons to click. One of which I do.

Checking for the latest updates for your computer...

Yes? And?

To use this latest version of Windows Update, you will need to upgrade some of its components.

Oh, you utter plonkers.

Monday 21 November 2005

Another small step towards a Grand Unification Theory.

For many years now, my motto has been "The worst thing about being cynical is being right." This especially apples to one's interactions with other human beings, and so is occasionally reworded as "The worst thing about being paranoid is being right."

Anyway, my last post gave rise to a brief email conversation with a friend of mine about the nature of paranoia, and, thinking about it, I suddenly realised that my motto — let's call it Squander's Law — is itself a sub-class of Sod's Law. Sod's Law (known in the USA as Murphy's Law, partly because a NASA engineer named Murphy was the first to kind of formalise the law and partly because, to Americans, a sod is a big lump of earth) is usually expressed as:

If anything possibly can go wrong, it will.

It takes only a little thinking to see that Squander's Law can be stated as:

If anyone possibly can be out to get you, they will.

Since people being out to get you is a subclass of things going wrong, Squander's Law is therefore simply a special case of Sod's Law. QED.

Interestingly, experiments have shown that Sod's Law holds true except when you investigate it, at which point, of course, its failure to be true demonstrates its truth. Therefore, people will generally be out to get you unless you try to find out whether anyone's out to get you — at which point their failure to be out to get you is merely yet another way of messing with your head. The only time people aren't out to get you is when to be out to get you would be to prove you right. The moment you suspect nothing, there is everything to suspect.

So, there you have it: a rigorous scientific demonstration that paranoids are correct.

Do I get a series of Christmas lectures?

Friday 18 November 2005

Boom tish.

Probably an old one, but I hadn't heard it before.

You can learn a lot about paranoids, just by following them around.

Thursday 17 November 2005


Not a lot to say about this, other than that it happened and that it's awful:

Ralph Parker had shown signs of dementia before, but his condition worsened dramatically over the past week. Argumentative one minute, calm the next.

Alarmed, Parker's son left Idaho on Wednesday to get his 93-year-old father in a safe place, police said.

Before he could get here, his dad backed his gold Chevrolet Malibu out of the driveway and went for a drive.

It ended horribly. Parker hit a man crossing 34th Street S, severing the man's right leg, then drove 3 miles with the body stuck in the windshield.

When police asked Parker what happened, he said the body seemed to drop from the sky.

Parker thought it was December and that he was headed home to Pinellas Park, not south toward the Sunshine Skyway bridge, police said.

The case is an extreme example of a complicated and enduring issue in Florida and everywhere: When is someone too old to drive? Experts say there is no reliable test or quick answer.

The event contradicts those experts. Presumably, they mean there's no safe reliable test and there's no quick answer before the test occurs.

Last year, nearly 270,000 people age 85 or older were licensed to drive in Florida. Of those, at least 20 percent are considered "dementia drivers," with a mild to moderate condition, according to a 2004 state report.


Friday 11 November 2005

Food and sunlight.

Ramadan's just over, and it got me wondering. Islam seems to have spread to most corners of the globe; has it reached the Arctic Circle? If so, what do Muslims up there do when they have to fast during the hours of daylight and the sun doesn't set for two months? Are there special rules? Or do they fly south?

I have asked a Muslim friend, but she doesn't know.


The Pedant-General has one real-life answer. (There are probably hundreds of others.)

A fatwa followed that decreed that the sun could be considered to be below the horizon between 9pm and 3am, during which time the fast could be broken.

Call me suspicious, but that doesn't sound much like the word of God to me.

Wednesday 9 November 2005

My new favourite band.

The last gig of the tour was last Friday in Dunfermline, and I'm sure you've all been driving yourself mad with tenterhooks wondering how it went. So here's how it went.

Firstly, we got lost. That is absolutely the last time I trust So we were about two hours late for the soundcheck. Oops.

As it turned out, though, that didn't matter a bit. The promoters were lovely laid-back friendly people, and the first band were still soundchecking when we arrived and, indeed, were still soundchecking more than half an hour after we'd arrived. They had oodles of high-tech equipment on stage: they were running a huge rack of effects off a laptop which was warping the sound of most of their instruments in real time. They even had their own snare-drum mic, so that they could sod around with the snare sound live. How very tiresome. This is the sort of thing that big stadium bands can get away with but that bands on the local gigging circuit should avoid. Too much stuff to go wrong and too much time wasted during soundcheck, delaying other bands. And a waste of time, too: I've seen loads of electronic bands waste an hour or so setting up eight or nine keyboards just because they use them all at home, then make maybe ten different sounds, all of which are available on just one keyboard. If you're going to play live, put some thought into your set-up: keep it minimal.

At least, that's what I usually say. But I quickly took it all back, since the offenders on this occasion — Laki Mera, they were called — were quite, quite brilliant. They're the only band I've ever seen in a pub-size venue to use loads and loads of technology and to use every last bit of it to great effect. I was blown away by how good they were, and I just want to buy their records now. Which is tricky, 'cause they don't have any. They make atmospheric, murky, mournful, jazz melodies with clattering drums and odd riffs and a non-gratuitous cellist, sounding a bit like Lamb, a bit like Alpha, and a bit like Crustation — their singer sounds a lot like the great Bronagh Slevin — so that's like a mixture of three of my favourite bands ever, right there. Talking to them afterwards, I discovered that they haven't heard of any of those names, which made me feel a bit old: they must be listening to the bands that listened to Alpha, Lamb, and Crustation. I also discovered that their singer once did some vocals for Colin Bailey, our ex-bassist. Small world.

The other thing they told me was that, despite sounding absolutely fucking amazing to me, they thought the gig had been dreadful. We were shortly to discover why.

The sound engineer, Mick, was excellent. He knew the rig back to front and got a great sound for us at the soundcheck: superb out front, and great monitoring on stage. Then he went away, leaving his assistant in charge. We thought something might be wrong as soon as we went on stage, when we were asked to provide signals to check the levels. For the non-musicians reading, this is how a gig works: you soundcheck so that the engineer can get you sounding just right; the engineer takes a note of all the settings; later, you go on stage and the engineer need only read their notes and return the knobs and faders to where they were to give you the same sound. Having soundchecked earlier, it's highly unusual to be asked to provide levels again when the gig starts. The engineer should already know the levels.

In short, the great, near-perfect sound we had during the soundcheck was never to be heard again. After a couple of songs, it got even worse: the engineer removed all vocals from the monitors for some reason, so Donna couldn't hear herself — bad news for any singer. We asked in vain for it to be turned up again. Tsk.

Apparently, we played quite well. It's a shame we didn't get to hear it.

Anyway, Laki Mera, eh? Amazing.

Monday 7 November 2005

The putrid stench of death.

What is coffee-breath? Why are so many people able to imbibe huge amounts of coffee without ever suffering — or, more precisely, causing everyone downwind of them to suffer — from the condition, while a select few need only gulp a couple of mouthfuls of the stuff in order to smell like they've got a plague pit stuck between their teeth? Why do those people who do get coffee-breath not gag and suffocate on their own emissions, squirming to death? If they're aware of what's coming out of their mouths, why do they continue to drink coffee? And why do they always have something terribly important to explain to me in great detail?

Thursday 3 November 2005

Outdone by reality. Again.

I should have held back. No sooner do I mention a really stupid court case than a far, far stupider one comes along.

The True Stella Awards is an email newsletter run by Randy Cassingham, containing details of stupid American lawsuits. Randy believes that the American legal system needs reform, and the True Stella Awards are his way of encouraging Americans to discuss the issue, as he believes that widespread discussion is the best way to bring about sensible change. He's probably right, but — let's face it — for the rest of us, it's just a highly entertaining opportunity to laugh at America's stupidest people, all of whom have lawyers.

Enter Mr Christopher Roller, nutter.

There is some confusion about calling myself God (with big G). So I am going to call myself the Love God (with the need to breed), or Guide God, or God of Christopher — a messenger god (small g), a deity, who will guide us to heavenly salvation, guided/directed from above by God. Latest emails indicates the trend is calling me "idiot" and hope I burn in hell! I am truly loved. Take a poll of Chris Roller! Don't hate me for the wonderful Freak I am! If you don't like what I represent, then let me prove myself over the next few years. Watch as I create heaven here on Earth!

Mr Roller is suing David Blaine and David Copperfield, for obvious reasons. Here's his suit against Copperfield (the suit against Blaine is exactly the same):

David Copperfield has been using my godly powers to perform his magic. This is a labor dispute in accordance with Minn Statute 179.06 for past/future commission compensation. explains my life and my journey to godliness. I believe David Copperfield has been using my godly powers to perform his magic.

We've all seen clips of UFO videos. They dance around in the sky at the speed of thought. So we know that godly powers can coexist on planet Earth. Godly powers means using thought to control actions/results, usually defying explanation and laws of physics. I believe magicians have also been granted godly powers by me somehow, but they have been keeping it a secret and keeping the credits from me.

If David has godly powers, then he must be using my powers. That, or I need detailed explanation (in person) of how he does his tricks, performed/explained in the courtroom (complete confidentiality), and I will leave him alone if I'm wrong - i.e. tricks/illusions are done conventionally. I've politely asked David, via email, to show me how his tricks are done, with no response.

If godly, I want back-pay compensation - 10% past/future career earnings. Estimating 10% of past career earnings of over $50,000,000.

I particularly like the way he guarantees complete confidentiality in a public court.

Amazingly, it gets better. Oh, yes. How, you might wonder, did David Copperfield steal Mr Roller's godly powers? Easy to do if you already have godly powers (not that Mr Roller has managed to steal them back, mind), but trickier for a mere mortal. Think about it: you have no supernatural powers; you know of a man who is God incarnate; how do you go about stealing his omnipotence? You'll need help from an expert. An expert in religion, perhaps, and definitely an expert in theft. In short, you need the Mafia.

On May 19, 2005 if , I met the son of a billionaire mob boss, Doug, at karaoke. He told me he and his family has met David Copperfield at least three times. I don't think I'm reaching when I say that I believe David Copperfield has mob connections. In fact, I believe the agent who granted David Copperfield's powers (I talk about in my other memos) came via mob agents - Doug's dad perhaps.

Ah, Doug's dad: head of the notorious "Doug's family" Family.

Roller rightly highlights the dangers of this situation:

Now we all know the stereotype of the mob - they're evil and don't care about human life and humanity. I'd hate to imagine the mob philosophy with godly powers at their disposal - the powers they somehow acquired from me when I was young.

So would I; so, I'm sure, would we all.

You might be wondering if there's any proof of these allegations. Happily, there is. Mr Roller used a combination of subtle questioning, astute observation, and the blinding heat of sheer logic to trick Doug into giving this... well, confession. As good as, anyway:

In my talks with Doug, he mentioned he could have 10 of his boys show up if he needed. This was shortly before insisting I was not god.

You might be interested to know that Bill Gates is going to be Chris Roller's running mate in the 2008 Presidential Election.

Wednesday 2 November 2005

A crash.

I was in a car-crash a few minutes ago. Nothing serious — I can still move my arms enough to blog. Actually, there's no damage at all, which is kind of a shame, because the guy who caused the crash needs to learn to drive, and an accident that cost him nothing but mild embarassment probably isn't going to be the necessary incentive. On the plus side, it's nice not to have whiplash.

It was at traffic lights. I was sitting at the red light, handbrake on. Now, you're probably thinking that he was going too fast and didn't manage to stop in time. Nope. His car was stationary, too. So my car wasn't moving, his car was behind mine, not moving, and the car behind him wasn't moving, either — he didn't have the excuse of being shoved. Yet, somehow — I'm guessing through sheer tongue-dragging, gravel-eating idiocy — he managed to crash into me.

He seemed quite surprised, but then he's probably surprised when the sun rises every morning.

Monday 31 October 2005

I'm rich! Rich, I tell you!

According to this cunning little calculation thingy, this blog what you're reading right now is worth $28,791.54. Blimey.

However, as far as I can see, there is no way whatsoever for me to sell the thing. Damned dead capital.

An ass.

The law, that is.

The jury voted unanimously that the [building's owners were] 68 percent at fault for the bombing, while the terrorists who carried it out were 32 percent at fault.


A big new thing.

I've been meaning to post about this for a while, but... er... haven't. True story.

Anyway, this is The Wikablog. It was Tim's brainchild, Chris provided the hosting and has done a spot of programming, and I built the thing. What it is is a big wiki full of blogs. The astute amongst you will realise that this means it should really be called the Blogwiki or something like that, but Wikablog just sounds better, damn it.

The great thing about wikis is that they're edited and updated by their readers, which leads to an accumulation of knowledge, which leads to large amounts of helpful information. What better way to catalogue the blogs of the world? Go and have a look at the thing. If you have a blog, add it to The Wikablog. Add other people's blogs too, if they're not already there and you think they should be. If they are already there, add your comments about them. The idea isn't to have arguments — if you think a particular blogger is an utter pain in the arse, mention it in their comments or email them or insult them on your own blog — but to add description. So "staunch Christian fundamentalist" is OK, but "rabid fucking Bible-bashing lunatic" is not. But you knew that.

Chris has some things to say about it, and has even created a special Wikablog logo for you to put on your site. I really ought to get around to putting it on here at some point.

My entry's here, if you're interested.

So off you run then, and enjoy. You can ask me for help, if you need it.

Thursday 27 October 2005

Land's End to John O'Groats.

I was just looking at a map of the UK, and realised that I've been as far north as Dornoch and at least as far south as Plymouth. It seems like such a waste, somehow, to have travelled so much of the length of the country but not quite to have done the whole distance. So I'm going to do it. I don't know when, and I'm not going to try anything rash like walking it or cycling it, but I am now determined to see both ends of Britain.

I'd do Ireland too, but the drive from the border to Dublin is just so boring. No challenge is worth that.

Mystic cutlery.

Raven has eaten the secret ninja noodles. Yay!

Yet another sentence I never thought I'd type.

Wednesday 26 October 2005

Cenk Uygur is wrong.

Amy Alkon has linked approvingly to this little diatribe from Cenk Uygur. She says it's eloquent, and she's half-right. If true eloquence includes the ability to persuade people to change their minds, crap like this fails the test abysmally. But Mr Uygur does do a very good job of clearly and precisely explaining to us all just how much of an arrogant twonk he is. Come to think of it, his writing is almost good enough to turn me religious, but, that being the opposite of his intention, I don't think that puts any points in his eloquence basket.

We live in a twisted world, where right is wrong and wrong reigns supreme. It is a chilling fact that most of the world's leaders believe in nonsensical fairytales about the nature of reality. They believe in Gods that do not exist, and religions that could not possibly be true. We are driven to war after war, violence on top of violence to appease madmen who believe in gory mythologies.

These men are called Christians, Muslims and Jews.

He then makes the same point again and again for another million or so paragraphs. We've heard it all before: religion is stupid, religious people are stupid, religious leaders cause wars; if only we had no religion, we wouldn't have wars. Oh, and anyone who voted for George W Bush is stupid — because Bush is religious. Call me suspicious, but I suspect Mr Uygur doesn't think quite the same about people who voted for the Christian John Kerry, the Christian Al Gore, or the Christian Bill Clinton.

Anyway, speaking as a staunch atheist, I think that Mr Uygur is deeply stupid.

First off, applying today's knowledge to the beliefs of our ancestors is a very stupid thing to do.

Mohammed was a pure charlatan -- and a good one at that.


Jesus is said to have said on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Because Jesus was insane and the God he thought would rescue him did not exist. And he died on that cross like a fool.

And so on. Anyone who has ever claimed to believe in a god, thinks Mr Uygur, was stupid or insane or lying.

In all of mankind's history, we have come up with only two good explanations for biological diversity: the theory of evolution, and some form of god. Prior to Darwin's publication, atheism was the stupid option. Science is the search for explanations for the universe. To refuse to consider giving any explanation at all for the existence and variety of every organism on Earth is not the scientific approach.

But that's really quite a minor quibble. Mr Uygur's real idiocy lies in his insistence that the reason we have so many disastrous wars, genocides, and sundry atrocities is that most of the world's leaders are religious.

It is possible — common, even — to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Let's just remind ourselves of which side were the theists and which were the atheists in the Cold War. And how about World War Two? One of Churchill's reasons for his determination never to surrender to or compromise with Nazism was his absolute dedication to the moral code that he believed mankind had received from God. Pol Pot? Mao? Atheists both. We were hearing a lot a couple of years ago about how Al Qaeda would never work with Saddam Hussein because he was a secular leader. His alleged secularism doesn't seem to have turned him peaceful, does it?

What's important in a leader is how they believe people should be treated, not which metaphysical and unprovable phenomena they believe exist. I don't look to the Prime Minister to inform me about the nature of the universe. Would you rather have a leader who doesn't believe in evolution but does believe in opposing fascists, or one who understands genetics and microbiology and thinks that his economic theories are worth sacrificing millions of lives for? No contest.

Now, that's acting.

I can't stand Eastenders, arguably the worst program on British television, therefore don't watch it. But I caught a few minutes while channel-hopping the other night, and have to take my hat off to the writers for a masterful piece of irony. Imagine my surprise to see Barbara Windsor expressing anger and disgust towards an East-End gangster. Apparently, Ms Windsor's character, Peggy, thinks that men who have other men tortured for "not showing enough respect" are bad. I've never rated her acting skills up till now, but she was really quite convincing.

I'd just love to have seen her face when she first saw the script. I wonder whether there's a spot of backstage tension between her and the writers. Perhaps she had angered them in some way — by murdering most of her lines, for instance — and this is their revenge. Utter genius.

(Don't get the wrong idea. Doing this to Barbara Windsor is genius. The show's still pish.)


Edinburgh was OK. The venue, being a backpackers' hostel, was well attended by backpackers. Not a lot of people who came along especially to see us, though. And the sound was good out front but not the greatest on stage. That's perfectly normal, to be honest: we have a non-standard set-up and a singer prone to feedback, so engineers are less practiced at getting our kind of sound right than your average guitar band's. Anyway, what it meant is that we played perfectly well but that doing so took concentration, and that means no effortless and jubilant losing ourselves in the music like we did at The 13th Note on Thursday. But it was still fun, and the crowd cheered. The support acts, Asa and Replica, were both rather good. Asa were kind of William-Orbitish — never a bad thing — and Replica were like the late great Sputniks Down with vocals, which, if you ask me, is a Good Idea.

The poor car was seriously unhappy on the way back. I managed to stop it collapsing by driving most of the way at 60mph in third. We hired a van for Sunday.

There was some argument a while back about whether the drive from Dundee to Aberdeen is more or less dull than the drive from South Armagh down to Dublin. Concensus was that it was far more dull, which I found hard to believe. Well, having done it now, I still find it hard to believe. The drive up to Aberdeen has some boring bits, certainly, but nothing approaching the unbroken stretch of nails-in-the-brain tedium that is the road from the border to Dublin. What's more, it is relieved at regular intervals by some rather beautiful and dramatic bits of scenery, while the boredom of the drive to Dublin is broken up by industrial estates that appear to have been transplanted out of Belgium. Even the drive back from Aberdeen, in the dark, wasn't that boring.

The Aberdeen gig was great. Superb sound by Jenny the sound engineer, small crowd, lovely venue, nice people, and a couple of good support acts: Death By Dave and The Boy Lacks Patience. Death By Dave are entertaining and fun and a bit odd. The Boy Lacks Patience is just one bloke with a piano, and he deserves to become hugely successful — though probably by writing stuff for other people; I can't see him storming the charts. But you never know.

And now I'm back at work, paddywhackered. Yippee.

Dunfermline next week, and that'll be the lot.

Friday 21 October 2005

Ups and downs.

Well, St Andrews was a bit of a wash-out: we played to about a dozen people at the crowd's peak, more like seven for most of the gig. The Union, we were told by the gig's disgruntled organisers, hadn't bothered with the publicity. Idiots. Nothing's changed since I was there, then. (Might rant about that some other time.) Anyway, it was still quite fun, and the people who were there got up and danced, and we could do with the practice. Long way to drive for a rehearsal, though. Oh, and the car really wanted to break down on the way back, but I didn't let it. Got to bed at about four-thirty.

Then, last night, it was Glasgow. We only discovered on Wednesday that The 13th Note had billed this as Gig Of The Month, and we'd had a couple of favourable reviews in the local press. The two support acts had both pulled out at the last minute and the new support act that had been drafted in to replace them simply didn't turn up, so it was just us. But who cares? We don't need no steenking support act. We're the Gig Of The Bloody Month, we are. The place was packed.

There's no rational reason why any of us should be able to play better to a large crowd than a small one, but we did, of course. That's just the way it works. It was, I am told, one of the best gigs we've ever played. Ronnie turned out to be rather a good singer, and his performance helped make Given one of the highlights of the evening. John's settled in wonderfully on bass duties and was grooving away groovily. Donna's been taking jazz impro classes for months and is now an even better singer than she used to be — and she used to be brilliant. Alun's in fine form, and I hardly fucked up at all. Brendan O'Hare, lynchpin of Glasgow's music scene and nicest man in the world, was doing the sound and also did guest vocals on Mustard, which was a laugh. What with there being no support, we played extra songs and strung the whole thing out a bit. The crowd cheered a lot, wisely bought our CDs, and demanded an encore. A few old friends were there, and it was good to see them. It was just a fantastic night.

Alun is demanding that we start recording the second album immediately. I think we will. We're thinking of touring Ireland next year.

A day off today, then Edinburgh tomorrow. Can't wait.

Wednesday 19 October 2005

Life on the road.

Well, last night's rehearsal went pretty well, and we're all looking forward to the first gig tonight. John the new bassist seems to know what he's doing, and the rest of us have actually remembered how to play our songs. Most of them, at any rate. Looks like it won't be an utter shambles. That'll be nice.

That's all for now. More updates as we go.

Monday 17 October 2005

Far too bloody long.

Back in 1998, Esthero released one of the most beautiful albums I own: Breath From Another. It's pretty much the only Canadian Latin hip-hop jazz recording on Earth, and it's fantastic: a great selection of thumping beats and odd loops, lush sweeping string orchestras, and Esthero's perfect use of her perfect singing voice. Seven years on, and I'm still listening to it regularly.

And now there's a new album, with the exceedingly dodgy and ill-boding title of Wikked Lil Grrrls. Of course I shall buy it, but seven years? Seven bloody years for a second album? It'd better be good.

Sunday 16 October 2005


As every living organism now knows, Daniel Craig is the new James Bond. What interests me is that, at his first press conference, he told the world that his favourite Bond film is Goldfinger.

"Hi, Daniel. We'd like to offer you one of the best acting jobs in Hollywood, making you one of the most famous men on Earth and quite insanely rich. We picked you because you're the best. You're great. You'll be just perfect as 007."

"Thanks very much. It's an honour. You guys don't match up to your predecessors, by the way. The quality of your work has been going downhill for the last forty years, frankly, and I'll say as much in public. Cheers."

Monday 10 October 2005

A question.

If anyone's reading this who has driven from Aberdeen to Glasgow, could you tell me roughly how long it takes, please? I'm guessing about three weeks.

Thank you.

An observation.

Oddly enough, the only track on Coldplay's new album which doesn't sound like either James or U2 is the only one on which Brian Eno makes an appearance. It sounds like Snow Patrol.

Insanity and stuff.

The French are renowned for their post-modern philosophical performance art, but this, even by their standards, is just brilliant:

A Frenchman born under the sign of Aries who sued a newspaper for giving him an unfavorable horoscope was told he was wasting the court's time and ordered to pay 350 euros in legal fees.

Fined? There's no justice. They should have given him the Turner Prize.

He was actually rather subtle:

The man complained about a prediction earlier this year that Arians would "rediscover the emotions of adolescence especially in the field of love, where the desire to have fun will overtake the need to build something longer-lasting."

He told the court that he was a "serious father" and risked being typecast by employers as a "skirt-chaser" and therefore unreliable.

So his complaint wasn't even that the prediction failed to come true; rather, he was concerned that it would lead people who believe horoscopes to believe that he would cheat on his family. In effect, he was trying to sue the paper for libel. The more I think about this one, the more convinced I am that this man is some kind of genius. And that he should have won his case.

Meanwhile, in those crazy Netherlands, some TV producers are experimenting to see how many people they can offend and whether they can break the law on air:

The live Spuiten & Slikken show — which can be translated either as Inject & Swallow or Ejaculate & Swallow — starts on October 10 on the Dutch youth channel BNN, which last upset viewer sensibilities with a programme entitled This Is How You Screw.

"We're not setting out to shock, but to inform," said a show producer, Sjoerd van den Broek.

Yeah, I can tell from your choice of title.

(By the way, can I just say how fascinating it is that the Dutch use the same word for "ejaculate" and "inject". Wouldn't "shoot up" be a good translation?)

"The idea is to treat these subjects like a piece of theatre, to review them, if you like. There's been endless idle chat about these matters, but never an adult critique."

Main presenter Filemon Wesselink (26) is billed to go on a pub crawl, take heroin in the form of a pill, and try LSD at home on the sofa under the watchful eye of his mother. He will also retire into a locked room and try to establish whether oral sex is better from a man or a woman.

No mention of whether his mother will also be supervising the blowjobs.

Some Viennese artists have knitted a sculpture of a 200-foot-long pink bunny-rabbit that has fallen to its death from the sky and landed on an Italian mountain. And they've explained themselves using poetry:

The things one finds wandering in a landscape: familiar things and utterly unknown, like a flower one has never seen before, or, as Columbus discovered, an inexplicable continent;
and then, behind a hill, as if knitted by giant grandmothers, lies this vast rabbit, to make you feel as small as a daisy.

Yes, this is their America.

And, finally, a master criminal is stealing milk off doorsteps in Berkshire and leaving notes:

Do you like dry cereal? Hope so because we've drunk your milk.

Yours Sincerely,
Your Neighbourhood Milk Thief


Friday 7 October 2005

A good read.

That Mrs Solent has got all prolific lately, and she's on fine form too, which is good news, what with her being the Greatest Blogger In The Universe. I particularly like this post:

A lot of these people are very bad-tempered since the panda-lovers stole their initials, and have taken to using cosmetics in an immoderate manner. I do not know what the EU was thinking of, sending wrestlers round Europe to take people's blood.

Pure class.

And another.

Those few of you feigning interest in my upcoming musical goings-on will be thrilled — thrilled, I say — to hear that a fifth and final date has been added to the Squander Pilots Tour of Scotland: St Andrews Students' Union on the 19th of October. We're going to be playing in the Beer Bar, a place very much like Glasgow's 13th Note, only with higher ceilings. I haven't been there in nine years. Ah, memories. It was in the Beer Bar that I first kissed... ahem. Married now.

As perviously mentioned, Mr John Clarke, bassist with Kasino, will be playing bass with us for the duration of this tour. I initially mistyped "previously" in that last sentence, but the result kind of suits John, so I'm leaving it. John is funny, bald, wears loud shirts, and is a close personal friend of Franz Ferdinand. The band, not the dead Spaniard. The Glasgow music scene's just so insular. We all know each other. And a lot of us hate each other. But let's not start that rant. Water under the bridge now. Mmm.

Anyway, so here's the full run-down:

Wednesday 19th October:
    Students' Union, St Andrews.
This, apparently, is going to be a "jam session" with a proper band stuck on the end. It's very flattering to be called a "proper band". Anyway, you can probably only get in if you're a student at a Scottish university. We'll be on dead late, after the non-proper bands have finished their youthful jamming, so, by the time we're up, Alun should contain an entire cauldron of tea. If that ain't rock'n'roll, I don't know what is. Come to think of it, that's probably true.

Thursday 20th October:
    The 13th Note, Glasgow.
Ah, here again. We love this place, with its sticky floor, its gloomy darkness, its rickety old mended-with-tape stuff, and its general filthiness. Course, I've not been there in nearly two years, so, for all I know, they've painted everything white and hung some tapestries. But probably not. Sir Brendan O'Hare, undisputed Friendliest Musician in Scotland, will be on engineering duties. And Mr Ronnie Brown, former Squander Pilots bass-player, former Nibushi Shang Hong bass-player, and current player of bass with The Digerati, will be singing with us on our non-hit but critically acclaimed single Given. It'll be like a supergroup, but without the drum solos.

Saturday 22nd October:
    Caledonian Backpackers, Edinburgh.
What a silly name for a venue. Will there be any actual backpackers there? I don't know. What there will be is lots of electronicish music: Asa, Replica, some DJs, and us. The gig's being organised by Baby Tiger, an organisation founded and run by a man whom I met when his first band, Desert Rose, who were awful, played a gig with my first band, Psychic Disaster, who were even more awful, at the Beer Bar in St Andrews Union. Coincidence or dream?

Sunday 23rd October:
    The Tunnels, Aberdeen.
The furthest North we'll ever have played. Luckily, John's a highlander, so he'll be able to translate the lingo for us. But will they use the same money as us? Will they have telephones? Will they worship the same god?

Then a brief break while I DJ at my sister-in-law's wedding. Then...

Friday 4th November:
    Monty's, Dunfermline.
Our last gig this year is one of the new live shows from Is This Music?, the magazine dedicated to putting Dunfermline back on the pop-music map. An honourable vocation, I think we can all agree. Also playing will be Genaro.

And then I'll sleep till Christmas. Oh, hang on; no: I'll go back to work and sit in a dazed stupor, occasionally falling asleep at my desk and getting keyboard face.

Here are some posters. They're not that interesting.

This is going to be so much fun. And a massive pain in the arse, too, no doubt. But so much fun.

A strange sensation.

Last night, something very rare occurred: I got enough sleep.

God, but I feel weird.

In other news, I am now Google's top result for "strangle a manatee in the nude".

Thursday 6 October 2005

Fixing things which ain't broke.

What a frustrating experience. All I want to do is to put some vegetables in a bag, prior to taking them to the checkout and buying them. This used to be easy: tear off cellophane bag from convenient roll, put objects in bag. However, Sainsbury's, in their finite wisdom — that's the same wisdom that has led them to keep breakfast cereals in the freezer section — have joined Tesco in the Inconvenience Revolution and replaced the old rolls of bags with innovative new Pinch & Pull technology, sometimes known as Pinch & Pinch & Pinch & Pinch & Pinch & Poke & Pinch & Scratch & Tear & Shake & Pull & Pinch & Thump & Pinch & Swear & Scrabble & Pinch & Pinch & Screech & Give Up & Just Don't Bloody Buy Anything, Then. Why? Why, why, why, why, why? It's a bloody trademark, which means that someone has invented it and is making money out of licensing it, which means that a supermarket has made the decision to spend more money on something that gives them no advantage whatsoever and makes shopping more annoying for their customers. Other supermarkets, seeing this, have decided to follow suit. Just what the fuck is going on?

And don't get me started on bathplugs. "Look! It's so smooth and flush and neat and smooth and it lifts up magically when you pull this lever and there's no unsightly chain!" Yes, but it doesn't let the bloody water out of the bloody bath, does it? Aaaaargh!

It should not take this long to buy carrots.

Friday 30 September 2005


Not long ago, Mark asked me why on Earth I moved to Northern Ireland, what with it being such a deadly dangerous place.

Well, firstly, it isn't. You know all those riots you see on the news? On the news is where most of us see them as well. We get about the same exposure to all the crap that goes on over here as you do.

You know what was on the news last week? An old lady had her bag snatched in Newry. She refused to let go of the bag, and so fell over and was slightly hurt. Police, last I heard, were looking for the mugger. Now, Mark lives in one of England's few nice bits, and that sort of thing sometimes makes it to the news down there too. But if you're reading this from the Home Counties or Manchester or somewhere similarly barbaric, just think for a moment about what the chances are of that being reported on TV if it happened round your way. Newry's nowhere near here. This is the rough equivalent of it being reported in London that a woman had her bag snatched in Bedford. And, here, it is news.

Last Friday, I got home from work, got changed, got back in the car, and, five minutes later, parked next to this:

This picture doesn't come close to doing the view justice, but it'll just have to do.

Then I met Vic on the beach and we walked the dogs.

How could I not live here?

Monday 26 September 2005

We are not the state.

In the comments, Tom asks:

I can see that the whole island of Ireland belongs to the Irish at its most basic level

Everyone makes this mistake. Tom is confusing "belongs to" with "is run by the government of the nation-state of". The whole of this island does not belong to "the Irish" or to anyone else. For instance, I live in one small bit of it that belongs jointly to me & Vic. That's not a frivolous point.

Framing the dispute in terms of property stolen from "the Irish" by "the British" makes it all look quite cut & dry. It was stolen, so give it back. Except that that's not the type of society any of us live in anymore. When this all started, all the land in Britain was owned by lords. This is a gross oversimplification, sure, but the British Crown stole land from Irish lords and gave it to English and Scots lords, and those lords controlled the lives of their tenants in a very fundamental way that, now, is illegal. Your landlord can no longer tell you where you may work, who you may marry, or force you to fight in his army. If he were to claim your daughter as his rightful property for the purpose of sex, he'd end up in jail.

Nowadays, most of Northern Ireland is indeed owned by Irish people: Northern Irish people. They don't need a change of government in order to be given back their land, as they already own it. Those who don't own land wouldn't own land in a United Irish Republic either. Reunification isn't about giving any land or property back to anyone. What reunification is really about is a change of government, with all that entails: changes in tax law, policing, the school system, the health service, etc. And, even if you think the current Irish Government are a better one than the current British Government (and, right now, I'd probably agree with you), they're subject to the possibility of change at the next election. Nationalists — not just of the Irish variety, Scots and Welsh nationalists too — firmly believe that Irish people are better served by Irish politicians meeting in a building in Ireland, and that Scottish people are better served by Scottish politicians meeting in a building in Scotland. If this were true, the people of Lambeth, many of whom have a good view of the Houses of Parliament from their bedroom windows, would be rather well off. And the Scottish NHS would have improved since devolution. My aching sides.

Northern Ireland is not owned by "the British"; it is administrated by the British Government. There are, of course, lots of perfectly good arguments for having the province administrated by the Irish Government instead, but none of those arguments have anything to do with giving back stolen property, and such talk of stolen property emotively clouds the issue. Which is why Gerry Adams talks in those terms all the time.

Ownership by people and administration by government are such utterly different things that it's surprising anyone ever confuses them, but people conflate them all the time. And that conflation really screws up one's thinking. In the case of Ireland, let's face it: it's not that big a deal. I'm pro-Union, but, if the island were unified, at least I'd still be in a democracy — and I'd be allowed to leave. But people regularly speak about land owned by, for instance, "the Chinese" or "the Syrians" — groups of people who don't really get to own much because the tyrannies under which they live don't respect their property rights and barely even respect their right to life. At its most ridiculous, this way of thinking regularly causes people to identify Saddam Hussein with the people of Iraq.

Watch any Robin Hood film. Who represents the people of England? King John?

Tom also makes this other classic mistake:

I mean, just look at the map for heaven's sake.

This popular argument only works on small islands. It justifies not only giving Northern Ireland to the Republic, but also the German annexation of Austria, Belgium, and France; the Chinese invasion of Tibet; Saddam's invasion of Kuwait; and, should they ever feel so inclined, the American take-over of Canada. Funny how the IRA's allies in ETA never invoke it.