Tuesday, February 27

I am, frankly, impressed.

Phoebe the dog, as remarked previously, is highly intelligent. She may be one of the cleverest dogs I've ever met, in fact. She has proven this twice recently.

A few days ago, some milk had gone off, so I poured it down the sink. Phoebe shot out through the dog-flap immediately. When I looked to see why she was in such a hurry, she was lapping up the milk from around the drain. That's right: she knows what happens to stuff when it's poured down the sink. The sink is invisible from the drain, and vice versa. Pretty clever.

Nothing compared to what she did today, however. Monty the stupid bad dog decided to raid the kitchen bin yet again, and strewed its contents all over the kitchen floor. Not only did Phoebe bark to alert Vic to what had happened, but she also did exactly what we'd have done. Vic came downstairs in response to the barking to discover... well, a huge bloody great stinking mess, obviously, but also to discover Monty sitting out in the yard looking sorry for himself. Now, this is unheard of: Monty doesn't think of himself as the outdoorsy type, and will avoid going outside unless he absolutely can't hold it in a second longer, returning to the warmth and comfort of indoors the very second he's finished. If it's raining, as it is today, he just clenches harder. He would never sit out in the yard if he could avoid it, not while there were humans to be slobbered on indoors.

That's right: Phoebe had punished Monty by, somehow, chucking him outside and refusing to let him back in. Saving us the trouble.

They used milk, you know.

The death of the great Betty Comden gives Mark Steyn another opportunity to roll out my favourite theatrical anecdote of all time:

Arthur Freed, the pre-eminent producer of musicals in the post-war era, had started out as a lyricist in the Twenties. One day in 1953, he called Comden and Green into the office. “Kids, I want you to take all my old songs and make a picture out of them. We’re gonna call it Singin’ in the Rain.”

“All we knew,” Comden told me, “is that somewhere we’d have to have a scene where it was raining and a guy was singing.”

“In it,” added Green.


Next time some tortured artist tells you that money corrupts art, remember that: the greatest musical of all time was created for no other reason than to boost the royalty take on some old songs.

Excellence in error messages.

An HP 3550 just told me:

Jam inside front door.


Made my day.

Friday, February 23

A man who tells lies merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.

Apparently, everyone who signed the anti-ID card petition on the Downing Street website has received this email from Mr Tony Blair:

The petition disputes the idea that ID cards will help reduce crime or terrorism. While I certainly accept that ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages or crime, I believe they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism. More importantly, this is also what our security services - who have the task of protecting this country - believe.

So I would like to explain why I think it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity to use biometrics such as fingerprints to secure our identities. I would also like to discuss some of the claims about costs - particularly the way the cost of an ID card is often inflated by including in estimates the cost of a biometric passport which, it seems certain, all those who want to travel abroad will soon need.

In contrast to these exaggerated figures, the real benefits for our country and its citizens from ID cards and the National Identity Register, which will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card, should be delivered for a cost of around £3 a year over its ten-year life.

But first, it’s important to set out why we need to do more to secure our identities and how I believe ID cards will help. We live in a world in which people, money and information are more mobile than ever before. Terrorists and international criminal gangs increasingly exploit this to move undetected across borders and to disappear within countries. Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. One in four criminals also uses a false identity. ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.

Secure identities will also help us counter the fast-growing problem of identity fraud. This already costs £1.7 billion annually. There is no doubt that building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder.

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

The National Identity Register will also help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children. It should make it much more difficult, as has happened tragically in the past, for people to slip through the net.

Proper identity management and ID cards also have an important role to play in preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. The effectiveness of the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa. What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.

These then are the ways I believe ID cards can help cut crime and terrorism. I recognise that these arguments will not convince those who oppose a National Identity Scheme on civil liberty grounds. They will, I hope, be reassured by the strict safeguards now in place on the data held on the register and the right for each individual to check it. But I hope it might make those who believe ID cards will be ineffective reconsider their opposition.

If national ID cards do help us counter crime and terrorism, it is, of course, the law-abiding majority who will benefit and whose own liberties will be protected. This helps explain why, according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.

I am also convinced that there will also be other positive benefits. A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity. Over time, they will also help improve access to services.

The petition also talks about cost. It is true that individuals will have to pay a fee to meet the cost of their ID card in the same way, for example, as they now do for their passports. But I simply don’t recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports. This is both unfair and inaccurate.

As I have said, it is clear that if we want to travel abroad, we will soon have no choice but to have a biometric passport. We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards. The additional cost of the ID cards is expected to be less than £30 or £3 a year for their 10-year lifespan. Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair


As Gary says:

You know, I can’t make up my mind about this. Most of the time I think it’s not orwellian, and that the ID thing is just the latest demented product of a government in thrall to IT firms that tell it technology is a magic wand to fix all the world’s problems. Then I read a book such as Stephen Poole’s Unspeak, which does a fantastic job of covering linguistic double-speak and political slipperiness, and I start to get really scared and hide under the desk.


Quite. On the one hand, never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. On the other, never ascribe to incompetence what can be adequately explained by malice. I am perfectly ready to believe that the eejits in our Government genuinely don't comprehend the problems with their ID Database scheme and are creating a disaster by mistake. But there is nothing mistaken about this persistent telling of half-truths — far worse than mere lies, in my opinion. For a group supposedly obsessed with spin, they don't half do a good job of making themselves look guilty.

OK, so, one at a time, then.

they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure


This is true. However, remember that this is a British scheme for British citizens; foreigners will not have ID cards. So the cards could conceivably make an important contribution in, for instance, preventing known British soccer hooligans from leaving the country during the World Cup. In other words, they could help make our borders more secure in the sense of keeping people in. They can make no conceivable contribution to keeping people out. We have passports for that. Blair knows full well that that's what he means, but seems happy to word it in such a way as to imply some sort of security benefit to the British.

He does it again here:

Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. ... ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.


British ID cards which contain biometric recognition details of British subjects and which are linked to a British National Identity Register will not be issued by the British Government to young Somali men living in Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The British Government have announced no plans to refuse entry to the country to any foreigner not in possession of a British ID card.

Come to think of it, this does raise the interesting possibility of British citizens bypassing the requirement for an ID card simply by claiming to be foreign.

ID cards and the National Identity Register ... will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card


This is true. A store card records all your purchases; over a few years, this can easily come to thousands upon thousands of individual items, along with their prices, whether they were on special offer, the date you bought them, etc. It's a hell of a lot of information, none of which is particularly important — do any of us really care that a hacker could find out that we find two-for-one offers on pineapple juice rather tempting? The ID Database, on the other hand, will contain relatively little information: just the one DNA profile, a mere ten fingerprints, two retina scans, a single signature, one or two car license plate numbers, a cross-reference to our medical records... hardly anything, really.

the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice.


This is true. The National Identity Register will help the police to convict all sorts of people. No doubt some of them will be guilty of crimes, some of which might be serious.

They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register.


This is true: they will. The fact that they won't need a warrant is one of the criticisms of the Database, not a selling-point.

Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.


OK, that one's not true, but, handily enough, highlights a real problem. The only thing that can improve the flow of information is good communication. Biometrics might arguably improve the quality of the information, but we've seen time and time again that the flow is buggered, that the police have trouble getting simple paper rap-sheets faxed to the right force in the right country at the right time. The classic example is the late Jean Charles de Menezes. Two days after he was killed, his death was one of the most important and pressing issues facing the British Foreign Office, yet the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary still didn't know whether he'd been in the country legally or illegally. If the authorities can't communicate extremely simple information effectively, what makes them think that more complex information will improve matters?

The effectiveness of the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.


This is probably true. I have no reason to doubt it. Yet again, though, he's talking about foreigners — if they weren't foreigners, there'd be nothing illegal about their trying to enter the country. So this is a statement about biometric technology used on passports, not on ID cards. As far as I'm aware, no-one has handed a petition to Downing Street requesting the abolition of passports.

One might also point out that the thing about a trial is that, while it's running, it's the exception, not the rule. People caught in this trial didn't know that they were going to need fake biometrics; they were caught out by a scheme that has not yet been introduced in the UK. Once it has been introduced, we can expect criminals to routinely take measures to get around it.

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa.


This is all true. And entirely, utterly irrelevant. Not only is none of it in any way related to the matter at hand, but none of it is any way related to the sentence that ends that paragraph:

What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.


I take my hat off to whoever wrote that sentence, I really do. It looks like it means something, it sounds like it follows on properly from what precedes it, but it is in fact little more than a glorified full stop. Genius.

according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.


This is true. It is also the biggest half-truth of all, the thing that pisses me off the most about the whole debate. ID cards have, for many, many years now, been a handy Government smokescreen. Back when Howard was Home Secretary, whenever there was a dodgy bit of crap to foist on the public, they'd trot out the ID card idea again, secure in the knowledge that civil libertarians would kick up enough fuss on the news to distract attention from the crap. This had the additional benefit of making civil libertarians look like tunnel-visioned single-issue loons, since we only ever saw them on our screens denouncing this one issue, which — let's be fair — most people just don't give a damn about. Whatever the detailed political reality of life in France, most British people have been there and spent some time amongst a people who have to carry ID cards and seem, well, much the same as us, except with better cakes and bigger noses. In fact, British people are constantly emmigrating to France for the care-free lifestyle. Even I don't have much of a problem with ID cards. I'd rather not have to carry one, and I agree with the objections to them in principle, but hey, they're not particularly high up the list of threats to liberty. As Mark Steyn has pointed out, whatever the ideal, in practice, we already have all sorts of ID cards. Given that, we may as well have a minimum standard of unforgeability.

The genius of that bastard David Blunkett was that he figured out that he could use ID cards as a smokescreen to distract attention from his ID card plans.

The big problem with the Government's current plans is not that they intend to force us all to carry ID cards. That's a minor problem; in most people's minds, it's no problem at all. The big problem is the Database. If they were to scrap the cards completely but keep the Database, we would still be facing every bit as nasty a threat to our liberty. The Government know this full well — they might not think of it as a threat to liberty, but they know that the Database is the big deal, of which the cards are merely a small detail. Yet, whenever they ask the public for their opinion, they always ask them the question they know will spark little controversy in the interviewees' minds: "Are you for or against having to carry an ID card with you at all times?" They never ask them "What do you think of our taking a sample of your DNA, a scan of your retina, and your fingerprints, and keeping them all on a database so that the police can investigate you for any crime at any time without a warrant, and cross-referencing it with satellite tracking of your car, and plugging it into facial-recognition software attached to every CCTV camera in the country, and giving access to this database to every police officer and a long list of civil servants?" I wonder if that would get the same response.

A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity.


This is true. And, again, it's one of the problems with the scheme, not a plus. The fact is, someone will forge one of these things. When they do, they will need nothing else whatsoever to prove their false identity. I'm sure the likes of passport control will use a little extra diligence, but most people, thanks largely to the Government's overblown claims about how unforgeable these cards are, will accept a green light on the card-reader as absolute proof. I am willing to accept that the cards might lead to less identity fraud, but they won't wipe it out, and what identity fraud there is will be more effective and more difficult to stop.

I simply don’t recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports.


Mr Blair has spent half this missive talking about biometric passports and ID cards as if they're the same thing, happily citing the good things about biometric passports as evidence against the anti-ID-card arguments. When it comes to cost, however, he wants you to know that they are two completely separate things.

We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards.


That's the cost of the combined passports and ID cards whose cost, he tells us, should not be combined.

Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.


This is true, for a given value of "benefits". From the point of view of a British subject, the benefit of biometrics in passports is that it can help prevent illegal immigration. The key thing about illegal immigration is that it is something that only foreigners can do. Enforcing immigration law involves treating British subjects differently to foreigners: foreigners have to prove they're allowed in the country, while British subjects have a right to be here. The point of the ID card scheme is to force British subjects to prove that they're allowed in the country. Treating all British subjects as if they're suspected illegal immigrants is not of benefit to them.

It is of enormous benefit to the state, though. I think that's what Mr Blair was referring to.

Thursday, February 22

To business.

I'm looking for Web design work again. Or, if you live near Belfast, landscape gardening work. You never know.

Yeah, the Web design's more likely to get a bite, isn't it? Daisy has settled in nicely and I once again have a proper bit of spare time on my hands to get some work done. Here's a sample of me work:

serali.co.uk
eisenhowers.co.uk
squanderpilots.net
rcmh.org.uk

I integrated a mailing-list-sending thing and discussion forum in to the RCMH site, by the way. They both work.

Oh, and there's another site that I've just finished but that hasn't been unveiled yet. You'll just have to take my word for it that it looks pretty damn good. Oh yes.

Prices are negotiable depending on exactly what you require. For a typical site with a handful of pages, I charge £300 plus £60 per page. I'll come up with a lower rate if your site has hundreds of pages, and I'll charge you a bit more if you want hundreds of graphics, discussion forums, wikis, blogs, etc.

Or £12 an hour for the gardening.

If you're interested, please do get in touch. If you know anyone else who might be, do please let them know about me.

Thanks very much.

Wednesday, February 21

Blogging about blogging.

This blog is hosted by Blogger. It's a popular choice with people who are just starting out, but most techy types and blog experts slag it off incessantly. They hate it. And I can't figure out why. I love it. And, the more experienced I get in these matters, the more I love it.

It's simple, which means not only that it's dead easy, but also that it's flexible and therefore capable of absorbing anything. It'll hold any design you're capable of coming up with — if you're capable of little more than typing, it just works; if you're a Web genius, you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. You can host it on your own webspace or they'll host it for you. Either way, if it breaks down, they fix it for you. And I was particularly impressed when my site went down and I was able to get the blog up and running in a few minutes by simply flicking a switch in the settings.

Over the last couple of years, I've done the occasional bit of maintenance and set-up work for Moveable Type and Expression Engine blogs. Both of these platforms are supposed to be much better than Blogger. And they certainly are a bit better in some ways. But they're worse, too.

Fixing a problem with Moveable Type is a monumental pain in the neck. You need to have devoted a significant amount of time to learning about Moveable Type itself. If you've got a job supporting a number of people's Moveable Type blogs, that investment is worth it. But just for your own site? Why bother, when Blogger requires no such mechanical expertise?

Expression Engine, I have to say, is brilliant. I am very, very impressed with what it can do. But here's the thing. It doesn't do it all for you. It doesn't write code for you. It doesn't have a simple GUI interface where you just click on the red button to tell it you want your text to be red. What it is is an extremely flexible and powerful tool for taking your blocks of code and arranging them into webpages exactly as you wish. Great. But it's a Catch 22: in order to get a great site out of Expression Engine, you need to be good enough at coding HTML and CSS that you don't need Expression Engine — if you can handle Expression Engine, then you can get a great site out of Blogger. Most of the advantages offered by the more complex blogging packages are the sort of advantages that are needed most by people who do not have the necessary expertise to use those packages.

There's a big gap in the market out there for something, but I'm not quite sure what it will look like when it arrives.

And look at this: I've recently added a new Reviews page to the Eisenhowers site, and it works through Blogger. It doesn't even look like a blog, but the site's owner can just log into Blogger and add new reviews and remove old ones and change the order they appear in. It's exremely easy for him to maintain, and he needs to know nothing at all about the background software — and doesn't even need to know someone who does know — in order to keep it running. The News page works in the same way. Adapting the site's existing design into a Blogger template was not a huge or complicated task. This is just a great little tool.

Admittedly, Blogger's commenting system is shite on toast, but hey, HaloScan are good.

Tuesday, February 20

Happy days are here again.

Well, it's that time again: the elections loom. Well, I say "loom". They squat, frankly. From time to time, they sprawl a bit.

Here in Northern Ireland, we have for many moons been assailed by a particularly annoying advertising campaign. "What do non-voters think about Northern Irish politics?" asks the voiceover, before a lot of non-voters, hilariously, find their mouths covered in red duck tape. See what they did there? You can always rely on politics to bring out the best in an advertising agency. The point is, they tell us, that, if you don't vote, you don't have a say in how you are governed. There are plenty of objections to this in principle — it is, frankly, just plain wrong — but forget the principle and look at the facts on the ground: let us remember, this is Northern Ireland. Here, it's even wronger.

Northern Ireland is governed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (currently Mr Peter "Git" Hain, a man who tries to compromise between the two sides by opposing Orangemen while being, technically, bright orange). The Secretary of State is appointed by the British Government, usually by the Prime Minister. Not one voter in Northern Ireland has voted for the Secretary of State. Ever. Not one voter in Northern Ireland has voted for the Prime Minister. Ever. And, since Northern Ireland is the only place in the world whose residents are refused membership by the British Labour Party, not one voter in Northern Ireland has even voted indirectly for the current Secretary of State or Prime Minister by voting for their party or their government. Ever.

We do, admittedly, get to vote for members of the Northern Irish Assembly, a body with no power and no remit that has no discussions about anything other than whether they should have a discussion. Every few years, they have a big meeting, it quickly degenerates into a fight, and the Secretary of State steps in, smacks their wrists, and tells them that he's going to run the province himself until they agree to stop fighting. They then spend a couple of years telling journalists that it was them other bastards what started it, so it was. For this, we pay them. For some reason.

It is undoubtedly true that, if we don't vote for one of the players in this Punch and Judy show, we have no say in how we are governed. What I have trouble comprehending is the implication that we somehow have less say than those who do.

I have not registered to vote, and don't intend to. I mean, look at the choice. We've got the Terrorism Party, the Inefficient At Discouraging Terrorism Party, the Inefficient At Fighting Terrorism Party, the Staunchly Opposed To Terrorism But Frankly Some Of Us Are Bigotted Maniacs Party, and the Nobody Can Remember Why We're Called Conservative Party. Oh, and don't forget UKIP, a party opposed to being ruled by dictat from afar, who have, according to their website, set up their Northern Irish headquarters in Devon.

Spare me.

Genius.

I am increasingly convinced that Joel Spolsky can write no wrong. Yesterday, he published one of the best articles ever written about customer service, including, though he doesn't put it this way, an explanation of what "The customer is always right" actually means:

When an irate customer is complaining, or venting, it's easy to get defensive.

You can never win these arguments, and if you take them personally, it's going to be a million times worse. This is when you start to hear business owners saying, "I don't want an asshole like you for a customer!" They get excited about their Pyrrhic victory. Wow, isn't it great? When you're a small business owner you get to fire your customers. Charming.

The bottom line is that this is not good for business, and it's not even good for your emotional well-being. When you win a victory with a customer by firing them, you still end up feeling riled up and angry, they'll get their money back from the credit card company anyway, and they'll tell a dozen friends. As Patrick McKenzie writes, "You will never win an argument with your customer."


I've said this a million times: To be brilliant at customer service is extremely easy. You need just two things: common sense and empathy. The reason good customer service is so rare is that most people have neither.

Forgetting why I started blogging.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me why I started blogging. The answer is that my comments on other people's blogs were getting so big it was embarassing, so I thought I'd start putting them in my own territory. Despite that, I keep commenting on other people's blogs, arguably far too much, while, increasingly, forgetting to post anything here. Oops.

So, anyway, here's a comment that I really should have put — and am now putting — here, because it's terribly important. See, someone by the name of Billg (which, in my head, I can't help but pronounce "Bilge") came out with this:

Resources — of all kinds — are always limited. Everything we have means someone else doesn't have it, regardless of how altruistic we might be.


It is exasperating that so many people believe this. Those who do believe it don't even realise that there's a discussion to be had about it; they see it as self-evidently true that resources are limited.

But they aren't. The belief that they are stems from a misunderstanding of what "resources" means. People think it means "stuff". It doesn't.

Matter is limited. Energy is limited. (Though both are so huge that no mere human is ever going to get near those limits.) But resources are something else. To get resources, you take all the available matter and all the available energy, add them together, and then multiply the result by ingenuity. And ingenuity is infinite.

Here's a simple example of what I'm on about. We can extract more energy today from one cubic metre of air than our recent ancestors could get out of a ton of coal.

Because coal isn't a resource per se; it's just stuff. It only becomes a resource when it is combined with the human ability to control fire — or, perhaps, the human whim to build houses out of coal, should the fancy take you. A hundred years ago, air was only a resource when combined with the human need to breathe or when making fire. Now, it is also a resource when conducting nuclear fission.

It is highly unlikely that anyone, right now, has the faintest clue what will be our most important resource in another couple of centuries.

Saturday, February 17

Body parts and nightwear.

The following three phrases mean the same thing:

"The bee's knees."
"The dog's bollocks."
"The cat's pyjamas."

This bothers me.

Friday, February 16

Beauty tips for the undead.

As you've probably heard by now, Gillian McKeith has been found quite thoroughly guilty by the Advertising Standards Authority and has been ordered to stop using the title "Doctor" in adverts on the reasonable grounds that she isn't one. To get a real idea of the extent to which she is losing this battle, just look at this:

"As far as I am concerned, because of the hard work I have done, I will continue to put PhD after my name and I am entitled to use the word Dr as and when I choose," she said.

Max Clifford, her PR representative, said McKeith's degree had not played a part in her career or popularity. He added: "Personally, I wish it had never been mentioned. She never needed it and it's done nothing but cause her embarrassment."


That's right: she's paying Max Clifford a fortune to do her PR, yet even he doesn't agree with her about this. I'm not sure I've ever seen him effectively rebut one of his clients' opinions before. Blimey.

Tuesday, February 13

It just works.

Here's how I use a standard dial-up modem on Windows XP:

Click Start.
Click Control Panel.
Click System.
In the System Properties window, click on the Hardware tab.
Click Device Manager.
In the Device Manager window, right-click on the computer's icon and click Scan for hardware changes.
Wait for the system to detect — sorry, to "auto-detect" the modem.
Close the Device Manager window.
Close the System Properties window.
Actually bloody use the bloody modem.

We have a variety of different dial-up modems in this office, and they all require that same procedure, so no, it's not just me.

I quite like XP. No, really. But this is not one of its best features.

Money and stupidity.

As Jackie points out, Lauren Booth is a bloody idiot:

Of course, I'm hopeful [my Valentine's Day gift will] be thoughtful and expensive enough to take my breath away.

Yet, as I gaze in silence at the antique book, bracelet or ring, I won't be feeling as grateful as perhaps I might.

A voice in my head will be repeating a mantra that I must try extremely hard not to say out loud. 'Gosh I wonder how much all of this cost . . . me.'


Lauren doesn't seem to understand the whole what's-mine-is-yours part of a marriage.

You see, I am a Breadwinner Mum, the sole earner in a household of four. So when my beloved hubby spends weeks picking out the perfect gift, regardless of the exorbitant cost, it is - perversely - me who picks up the bill anyway. Does it rankle? Sadly for us, it does.


And she seems to have no idea what the point of buying someone a present is. If the point were the cost, we wouldn't buy presents; we'd just give each other money. The point is the choice of gift. I wonder if she gets similarly riled when her daughters buy her presents? I got a Christmas Card from my neice last year. She's four. I strongly suspect that she didn't earn the money she spent on the card, yet I find myself strangely unbothered.

As Jackie points out:

Stop saying that your husband is not contributing financially. He contributes financially by looking after your children (who, from the sound of it, absolutely love having him around - which I suspect is what really bothers you). He is also, as you point out, adding value to your real estate by converting your barn into a five bedroom house all by himself.


She's right, of course. Housewives contribute to marriages financially. Therefore, so do househusbands.

Yet there's something deeper here. So many couples get far too concerned with whose money is whose. Ms Booth and her husband have a joint bank account. Is the point of that not that the money is pooled? Yet she feels resentful and embarassed about handing him some cash when he needs it. Weird.

Vic & I, on the other hand, have never taken out a joint bank account; we still have separate accounts. And it never even occurs to us to think of the money as "mine" rather than "ours". We move money back and forth between the accounts depending on who needs what at the time. There are times when I have more and times when Vic has more; there have been times when I've earnt more and times when Vic has earnt more. And we both know that whichever of us has less can rely on the other for help. Why would anyone want to screw up their relationship obsessing about status? Honestly, some people.

And then there's this:

The most frustrating element in my experience is that the maternal breadwinner still ends up doing the lion's share of the work around the home. Not to mention the paperwork, the PE kit, the jabs, organising playdates, and on and on.

Indeed, one of the most intriguing emotional battles in a relationship like mine is over the housework and other domestic chores.


As many feminists and people with common sense have pointed out, this is a real problem. A lot of men feel that, even if the woman's the earner, housework is still women's work. Those men are stupid lazy misogynist bastards. But, while that may be true in the general case, I'm not so convinced that it applies to Ms Booth's life.

The truth is that when you are a woman and you have been away doing something exciting and fulfilling, you simply don't have the heart, when you return, to nag a man for failing to empty the dishwasher.

Perhaps a working woman carries an innate guilt that her bloke is at home clearing out the bin while she has left her children with him to go out and enjoy a stimulating career.

I know I overcompensate when I get back from a business trip. I return to a house that is hardly what you might call spotless, and, tired or not, I just roll up my sleeves and get cleaning, doing the homework and so on.


Reading that, you get the impression that Ms Booth goes out and slogs her arse off at work while her husband has an easy life of sitting around and not pulling his weight. Except, as she has already pointed out, he spends his days single-handedly building a five-bedroom house. Not only will that house, when it's finished, earn them a ton of money, but it is also bloody hard, back-breaking, exhausting work building it. Unlike, say, journalism.

To recap. Lauren Booth spends her days doing a job that involves sitting down and reading and typing. Her husband spends his days doing a job that involves moving tons of stone and brick and timber around; he also looks after their two children, often for days at a time. Because he does not always do the dusting or empty the dishwasher, Ms Booth is resentful that she does all the hard work.

She may like to tell herself that the reason for the tensions in their marriage is their income disparity, but I suspect her total lack of respect for her husband might not be helping matters.

Overfamiliarity breeds contempt.

What strikes me the most about this report of Daniel Craig's rudeness is that it appears not to have occurred to Johann Hari that Craig might have called him a "fucking fool" in response to anything other than the (admittedly fucking foolish) comment Hari had just made about Craig's shorts. It's not at all unlikely that Craig might have read some of Hari's work.

A new low.

Eddie Izzard once said that there's a very fine line between extremely cool and totally stupid. Example: one toothpick in the corner of the mouth — cool. No-one knows why; it just is. But add an extra toothpick and have one in each corner of the mouth — stupid. (A couple of years later, presumably to prove his point, he started to wear fake breasts.)

Hip-hop records tend to contain a lot of swearing. So, for radio play and pre-watershed television, they blank the offending words out. Fair enough.

Then some bright spark finally realised that these records with every third word missing just sounded like the rapper had a rather odd stutter, or perhaps hiccups, and they started filling in the gaps. Eminem decided to use a DJ to scratch-mix in distorted and unrecognisable recordings of the offending lyrics. This is pretty cool.

Then The Pussycat Dolls had the inspired idea of beeping out words, but using a really loud and in-tune beep and making it an integral part of the music. This is very cool indeed.

And now there's Lily Allen, taking it to the next step. She has obscured the "offending" words in her new record, Alfie, with comedy brass fills. So, for instance,

My little brother's in his bedroom smoking weed


becomes

My little brother's in his bedroom smoking [Parp! Wooooooop! Honk honk!]


(Because "weed" is a very, very offensive word, you see.)

Ms Allen must be the only person ever to have responded to the spectacle of one clown pouring whitewash into another's trousers while the trombone plays "Wah... wah... wah... waaaaaaaaaaah!" by thinking "What fantastic music. I must try and incorporate that into a hit record."

An even better idea.

So, what have you come up with this time?

OK. You'll like this.

We were quite surprised you didn't want to go with plan A, to be honest.

But, hey, it wasn't the right image for you.

And we understand that.

Yes, we do.

And we had no idea it'd been done before.

None at all. So, anyway, this is good. You'll be impressed.

And it's totally original.

Oh yes. Like nothing else out there. We're thinking we go with some upbeat pop music. Energy, youth, funkiness, cool...

But nothing alienating.

No, it's got to have wide appeal. Kids and grandmas. And at the same time, it has to really say something about your product. So what we're thinking is...

This is so good. You'll love this.

We'll use I Believe In Miracles by Hot Chocolate — but with different lyrics!

....

What do you think?

Saturday, February 10

Topical as ever.

Continuing my series of totally up-to-the-minute observations on the hot issues of the day, I've just stumbled across this rather interesting piece by Martin Geddes from nearly two years ago. It's ostensibly a review of the marvellous Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, but also has some quite interesting things to say about why Nokia, a phone manufacturer, took the rather surprising step of releasing a beautiful little gadget like the 770, which obviously could have had a built-in mobile phone, with no built-in mobile phone.

The 770 is also significant because it partially separates connectivity from the hardware. Obviously, you need to provide your own Wi-Fi signal. You'll need to use a Bluetooth modem to work on a cellular system. But it springs Nokia free from the design and distribution constraints that the carriers usually impose. Or as El Reg puts it:

It's an open platform, and unlike its phone range, there's no built-in DRM or similar shenanigans to cripple the user experience. ... The 770 will be available through general electronics retailers or direct from Nokia's website.


These two things are not unconnected. The smartphone market is somewhat of a poisoned chalice to handset makers. The more features there are the greater the likelihood some meddlesome operator will want to break or customise them, ruining your already thin volumes and fragmenting your base for developers. The operator urge to make smart networks peppered with toll booths, and use device subsidy to push people towards higher-charging monthly plans, reduces the perceived value of the product to the public and re-allocates the profit pool towards the carrier.

The 770 is an attempt to break this cycle, and recapture the value of the "smarts" that a smartphone would offer, but in an enlarged form factor that is cheaper to make, better to use, and potentially offering high margins. ...

Constrain the handset innovation with a smart network and complex pricing and the innovation goes elsewhere. I look forward to more devices that signal to the market "this is what we can do when the handcuffs are taken off".

How much value will be left in those expensive mobile carrier-owned retail stores if the best devices start being distributed via other channels? How come a hit personal, portable data and media-centric device like an iPod doesn't fit into the distribution network of a mobile carrier? The stores scream "we sell stuff that meets the sales needs of Vodafone and Cingular to pay for their network", rather than "we sell stuff that meets your user needs when you're out and about". Supplier-centric, not user-centric. Not an obvious model for retail success.


I'm struggling to figure out whether Geddes has been proven right or proven wrong by the iPhone. Perhaps a bit of both. He certainly helps to make sense of Nokia's new strategy of building both wi-fi and VoIP into their top-end phones, which shows they feel they have enough clout to ignore the demands of the network providers. My phone, the E70, can be used to make calls via the Internet when I'm at home (and regularly will be, just as soon as I get my shiny new router properly configured), and can even make VoIP calls with reasonable sound quality over a 3G mobile Internet connection, potentially far cheaper than paying the standard network rates. Combine phones like this with the new flat-rate unlimited Net access deals that 3 are offering, and we could see some major changes to the mobile phone market. Perhaps VoIP will be where 3G really comes into its own — perhaps having the networks specialise in handling voice traffic will turn out to have been a mere brief phase: in the future, they'll just connect you to the Net and leave you to it.

Anyway, it looks like both the 770 itself and the ethos behind it were successful enough for Nokia's liking, because they've now come up with the N800, which is the same only even better. It has a built-in phone, but not a cellular phone: it's VoIP only. At the very least, this constitutes a major thumbing of Nokia's nose towards the networks.

They must be doing something right, 'cause I want one.

Thursday, February 8

You could nick some off the roof.

Mr Rob Hinkley, Finder of Nutters has found The International Alchemy Guild, who appear to be either unaware of or disdainful towards those jumped-up upstart "scientists" and their so-called "periodic table".

The alchemists' grasp of science is displayed quite concisely in the first few sentences of their front page:

The last building used by the Guild from that era still stands and is shown at right.


The photo's on the left.

Anyway, what do you get if you join up?

All new members receive a gilded Certificate of Membership (suitable for framing) which assigns you a license to practice alchemy


Rob has rightly noticed the absurdity that one can get a license for this, but has failed to point out the even greater absurdity that the certificate is gilded. Surely a more effective system of licensing would be to give members a plain paper certificate and only allow those with gilded certificates to practice.