2008-12-31

Own-Id featured on Asus Eee site

Hey, I've just noticed that Own-Id is featured on the Asus Eee site! They're missing a few fields in the directory, so I'll send those in...

2008-12-30

Badminton

Tatiana asked about badminton. Fair enough, I do list it on my profile. I'm not great at badminton, but I love playing. I organize the badminton club at work, every week we play at Bath Uni. It's good for keeping fit because you concentrate so much on playing that you don't realize you're actually getting a lot of exercise.

The shot I'd like to be able to play is a backhand from the back corner of the court that reaches right to the diagonally opposite corner, with the shuttlecock tracing out a high arc!

I usually have at least one game of singles with Paddy. I always used to beat him, but then he asked what he should do to beat me. I foolishly told him to always hit it high to my backhand. He did that and beat me for the first time ever!

Israel, withdraw now!

I'm lying in bed with a temperature. All day I've heard about the latest Israeli onslaught against the Palastinians, and it makes me angry.

Israel should end its occupation of Palastine, and withdraw to within its own borders. Israel should withdraw regardless of what the Palastinians are doing. The Israeli argument is that they are defending themselves against Hamas rocket attacks. But to the Palastinians it looks like Israel is the agressor.

If Israel withdraws, and the rocket attacks still persist, then a UN force should be deployed in Palastine to surpress the rocket attacks. I doubt if the rocket attacks would continue, because there's only public support for Hamas because they are perceived as resisting the Israeli occupation.

2008-12-26

Château Rembault

I well remember Christmas Day 2008. That was the time a gherkin landed in my glass of Château Rembault. At lunch, Doug suggested some amuse-bouches, a large jar of gherkins...

Meg

On Christmas Eve we went to The Canal Tavern. Even on the second busiest night of the year it was fairly empty! It was a nice surprise to see Claire and James's new puppy, Meg.

Meg

Springer spaniels are fantastic dogs. I really miss our Springer, Roger.

A good thing about Christmas Eve is that you see people you haven't seen for ages. Stu turned up, and it was like he'd never been away.

2008-12-17

Barry Lyndon

I've never seen a Stanley Kubrick film I didn't like, so when Matt suggested Barry Lyndon (which I'd never heard of) I tucked it away in my memory.

It was my birthday on Sunday, and I'd intended to visit the excellent On The Video Front, and leave with Dr Strangelove, but someone had beaten me to him, so I made a lunge for Barry Lyndon. It's the work of a perfectionist. Every part of every scene is meticulously composed. I love the huge amount of thought that went into the film. It's the sort of thing one can watch repeatedly. Especially if, like me, you generally find plots hard to follow!

I think my friends found it to be better than they thought they would.

Note to self: Must put cartons of orance juice etc. out on table, and not leave them hidden in 'fridge. Also, must leave bottle opener on table.

When Bill turned up for my previous film, he brought a hat and lots of warm clothes. It wasn't a joke, it's freezing in my house. I know it was the big gap under the front door that did it. On Saturday my dad helped me adjust the step to close the gap. I think it's working! This time the house was nice and toasty.

2008-12-16

This Alien Shore

From the writing style I could have sworn that C. S. Friedman was male. It's possibly a tribute to a writer to be unable to discern their gender.

This Alien Shore had some really good ideas, that were followed up by solid writing. I particularly liked the extracts from writings of that world that interspersed the chapters. The one called Natsiq was particularly good.

One thing bothers me about a lot of sci-fi, and this book is no exception: the structure of society is invariably medieval. In the case of individual books this is fine. What gets me is that nearly all sci-fi is like it. Can't we have a vision of the future set in a stable, liberal democracy? I think that's the book I'm going to write. Nobody will read it of course, but that's never stopped me from writing anything!

2008-12-07

B&Q&Thermal&Conductivity

I've written to B&Q:
Looking at Thermawrap General Purpose Wrap on your website, it says: Thermal resistance 1.455m²k/w in Wall Lining installation. Since its thickness is quoted as 4mm, this would give a thermal conductivity of ~ 0.00275 W/mK. Expanded polystyrene has a thermal conductivity of 0.033 W/mk, so are you saying that Thermawrap is a ~12 times better insulator than polystyrene?
I'll let you know if it's really true!

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

I visited Matt in Oxford last weekend. The day before he said, 'Tony, some friends are going to the cinema in the afternoon, are you up for that?'. It turned out to be his 5 year old god son's birthday party! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was actually very good. It's not something I'd have seen normally, but I'm really glad I did.

Comparing incomparable types

The Python 3 changes doc says:
objects of different incomparable types always compare unequal to each other.
I don't think this is the right way to go. If you try to compare incomparable types, a TypeError exception should be thrown. For example, at the moment if you write 9 == 'hello' in Python it'll return false, but I think it should throw a TypeError.

Rewarding imprudence

Willem Buiter has it right again:
The government’s proposal for subsidising those who took out excessive mortgages in the past, is a text-book example of bad economics. It is unfair, distorts incentives and does nothing to stimulate the economy. Zero out of three is bad indeed.

2008-12-02

Caper 2

Caper 1

Meta Math!

I'd approached Gregory Chaitin before, but it was one of his technical books, too difficult for me. I did learn a bit about LISP from it though. I ordered Meta Math!: The Quest for Omega from the library, and it was much more readable, although still difficult.

To use algorithmic information theory to review this book on AIT, the amount of understanding generated per word is very high. The Fabric of Reality is like that too. The problem is that some of the ideas are beyond me. If I could only understand both of these books completely; they're worth thousands of lesser books.

I don't want to sound too pessimistic. I learnt about the different approaches in proving that there are an infinite number of prime numbers. Chaitin also talks about Godel's incompleteness theorem implying that mathematical truth is partly something that is found by experiment. I liked his ideas about real numbers and digital philosophy. It supports my view on a digital universe.

Go and read Meta Math!, the guy brings proper maths to you!

2008-11-26

Free lunch and free software

The point at which the cost of copying information approaches zero is a milestone in the development of a civilization. After the advent of zero cost copying (ZCC), the economy divides into two, the money economy and the information economy.

For us I think ZCC occurred in the early 1990s. As I write, this is how the two economies are divided:

Information Economy
  • Software
  • Encyclopaedia
  • Dictionary
  • Scientific theories
Money Economy
  • Food
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Clothes
  • Land
  • Computers
Let's discuss some of things in those two categories, and then talk about things I haven't mentioned that are in transition. I'll then make a stab at saying what'll happen in the future.

Software. It used to be that you'd buy software as if it were property. You'd buy it in a box, and the vendor would be paid for each box she sold. If it came pre-installed on a new computer, then it was still as though the software was a physical appendage. You weren't allowed to give someone else a copy.

After ZCC everything changed for software. People started illegally copying software. Some of these were people who wouldn't dream of stealing anything physical and didn't think they were doing anything wrong, others were organized criminals. Into this chaos stepped copyleft software. Copyleft meant that copying wasn't illegal, in fact it was encouraged. This meant that the cost of copyleft software dropped to zero. Copyleft also allowed anyone to contribute and improve the software. Faced with this kind of competition, proprietory software went into a terminal decline. Thus software moved from Money to Information.

Encyclopaedia. It used to be that an encyclopaedia came as a book that you paid for, printed on dead trees. A proper book! Okay, you might go to the library, but somewhere along the line, someone had to pay for the book. There was no problem with copying because it would have probably cost more money to copy the book than to simply buy one.

After ZCC, yes, it all changed. Wikipedia was copyleft, instantly available and instantly up-to-date, and trounced the competition.

Money

Okay, what about all those good old-fashioned things that fall into the Money category. You can't copy food. If I've got an apple I can eat it or give it to you, but not both. You can copy a recipe, but not the food itself. That's why food is firmly in the Money category. There's no such thing as a free lunch. The same applies to cars. If I've got a car, you can't drive it at the same time. I think I've made my point.

Oh, one more thing. It's popular to talk about 'intellectual property', but this is an oxymoron. It's either an idea, in which case it falls into the Information category, or it's property, in which case it falls into the Money category.

Transition

Things only move from Money to Information, never the other way round.

Something that's in transition at the moment is music. I remember going into a music shop and buying a tape in the eighties. These days most people illegally download music. People think it's prissy of me to abjure illegal downloading. We're in the midst of a transition to something like Jamendo, where music is made available under a copyleft licence.

Future

In the short term, we'll see books, newspapers, films, music etc. make the transition from Money to Information.

At the moment, when you buy a product like a bike or a car, the total cost is broken down into the design cost and the manufacturing cost. With the coming revolution of RepRap, design will move into Information, and the cost of a bike or car will be dramatically brought down to the cost of raw materials and energy.

In the future, money will only be useful for buying energy, land and raw materials and transport. Within the home, it'll be possible to fabricate all the needed material things, from computers to food.

Look, look, there it is!

I've read several books and things since we last spoke. Distress is impressive. The author's voice comes through with a clear view of the world, and one that is similar to my own. Often I snort derisively at the TV, films and sometimes books. Egan's work has the opposite effect, I find that I'm reading the kind of book I'd write if I had the talent.

I watched Easy Rider with Matt and Bill. Matt mentioned that it was one of the first films to use the 'lens flare' technique. At first I didn't quite know what he meant, so the first bit of the film was taken up by him saying, 'look, look, there it is!', and then after I'd got it, I started exclaiming, 'look, look, there it is!' whenever it appeared.

I'd been meaning to read Norman Mailer for some time. Ever since I saw him in some old footage of a debate with Germain Greer in fact. The Gospel According to the Son is probably not a typical Mailer. I like the way that Mailer's Jesus has private doubts, but I did find the miracles and talking to God and the devil a bit hard to accept. He did get the biblical tone right.

The Baader-Meinhoff Complex is, I understand, a controversial film. What the Baader-Meinhoff gang did was wrong. Why? On a formal level I'd say it's wrong because they broke the letter and spirit of the law in a democracy. Do I think the laws against blowing people up are right? Yes. I believe the laws maximize the aggregate freedom of the citizens.

2008-11-25

The evolution of homosexuality

Toby at work pointed out an article in The Economist describing a new theory of the evolution of homosexuality. It's the best theory I've heard yet.

Software Patents - replies

Following my email on software patents, I got a prompt reply from my MP Andrew Murrison:
Thank you. The only remedy would be legislative so I'll write to the relevant BERR minister for his thoughts.
and a reply from Graham Watson MEP:
I am aware that there is growing debate as to the best way of protecting intellectual property with regard to software, but at the same time not stifling competition or the evolution of this technology. It has equally been suggested that copyright makes innovation more difficult as it allows companies like Microsoft to monopolise undefined areas of software, and that such copyright can only be challenged through the court system, unlike patents which are only granted after rigorous examination. Thank you for drawing this issue to my attention and I will certainly bear in mind your comments when this issue is next reviewed by the Parliament If I can be of any assistance in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.
I feel I should reply to Graham, as it seems he has some misconceptions. The problem is that I'm not an expert either. Well, here's my reply:

Graham, thank you for your response to my email about software patents. You write:
It has equally been suggested that copyright makes innovation more difficult as it allows companies like Microsoft to monopolise undefined areas of software...
How can copyright allow a single company to monopolise an area? Copyright doesn't prevent anyone from using the ideas in a piece of software, it just prevents them from copying / modifying / distributing the code for that particular piece of software without permission.

In the field of web browsers for example, the fact that Microsoft's Internet Explorer has copyright restrictions hasn't stiffled competitors such as Mozilla. In fact I'm using Mozilla to write this!

You add:
and that such copyright can only be challenged through the court system, unlike patents which are only granted after rigorous examination.
But Mozilla didn't have to challenge anyone in the courts in order to write their web browser. This is in contrast to patents. If Microsoft had been able to patent the web browser, nobody else would have been able to make a competing product and the world would be all the poorer.

So I say yes to software copyright, no to software patents.

Regards,

Tony Locke

Whitespace

One of the truly excellent things about Python is its use of whitespace to group statements. I think Lisp could benefit from the same treatment. Someone should write a pre-parser for Clojure to do it.

PEP 285

I think it was a good idea to add a boolean type to Python, but I don't agree entirely with PEP 285. Specifically:
4) Should we strive to eliminate non-Boolean operations on bools in the future, through suitable warnings, so that for example True+1 would eventually (in Python 3000) be illegal?
and
8) Should we strive to require that Boolean operations (like "if", "and", "not") have a bool as an argument in the future, so that for example "if []:" would become illegal and would have to be writen as "if bool([]):" ???
I say yes to both, but the BDFL said no. I say yes because it makes code more readable, reduces the chance of error, and doesn't seem to have any great disadvantages. In the example, instead of if []: I would write if len([]) > 0:. This approach would also solve the last of the 'resolved issues', because writing:

if x == True: ...

would mean the same as:

if x: ...

2008-11-21

Disreali Gears

I've become bothered by the pulleys on rear derailleurs. They sap your exergy! Here's a more efficient gear system for bikes.

When you change down a gear, the chain would get pushed onto a smaller sprocket at the front, and simultaneously it would get pushed onto a bigger sprocket at the back, and vice versa. The rear derailleur would work like the front derailleur in a conventional system. No pulleys needed, more efficient!

The pulleys on the conventional rear derailleur are there to maintain tension in the chain, because otherwise as you change to a smaller sprocket, the chain would become slack.

In the new system, the chain would always be at the correct tension because as you change to a smaller sprocket at the back, there would be a compensating change to a bigger sprocket at the front.

2008-11-08

Landshare

Claire just texted me about Landshare and I've signed up. The idea is that someone can use my back garden to grow vegetables, and I get a share of the produce. I think I need to get the soil tested as the land was the site of some pretty nasty industrial processes.

2008-10-13

The dead hand of software patents

I've been moved to write the following to my MP and some of my MEPs:
Andrew Murrison, Graham Watson, Neil Parish,

I was concerned to hear that the Court of Appeal has ruled that patents should be allowed on software.

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article4907993.ece

The reason that software patents are so bad is that it's so difficult, time consuming and expensive to avoid violating them. One has to hire expensive patent lawyers etc. This is in contrast to copyright, where it's easy to avoid copying someone else's work. So I believe that copyright is adequate for people who want their software to be proprietary.

Please deliver us from the dead hand of software patents!

Regards,

Tony Locke,
Trowbridge,

2008-10-06

Synthetic Biology

As well as Bill and Pascal, Jo and Phil went along to Monday's Science Cafe. Jo and Phil work for a pharmaceuticals company, so phrases like 'recombinant DNA' hold no fear for them!

The subject covers the spectrum from taking the basic molecules of life and using new variants to do new things, to using existing DNA and recombining it in different ways.

The speaker quoted Richard Feynman saying something like, 'to really understand an idea, you have to use it to build something'. So the lab is trying to understand biology by using it to build something new.

There's something that offends the religious in creating life. It's as though being able to create life is either an affront to God, or somehow shows that he doesn't exist. Creating life is nothing new, women have been doing it for years!

Lying

Some time ago I started reading a Wendy Perriam. 'The 50 minute hour ' I think it was called. I found I just couldn't get into it. Perriam was an author I remember my mum reading, so I thought I'd give her another go with Lying. I believe that Perriam has the reputation of producing aga sagas. Joanna Trollope is the queen of the aga saga. Didn't she bridle at that label, saying her work could be bleak and challenging?

Well, I'm divagating. One of the characters, James Egerton, explains that Saint Augustine thought that evil wasn't a thing in itself, but rather an absence of good.

I watched Capote yesterday, and the message seemed to be that Capote was wrong to manipulate the trial in order to suit his own writing. Of course this was wrong, but it's the kind of wrong that still gives me hope. I think the worst thing is nihilism, where nothing matters. Capote is better than that because he thought that something mattered (his book) but he just got the wrong thing.

2008-09-28

Credit crunch

Toby asked what I thought of a credit-crunch article in the Telegraph. The key bit for me was:
There is a pure free market position which holds that no financial institution should be bailed out – ever. If this approach was followed, people would factor much more risk into their behaviour and the world would be a better place – eventually. I have some sympathy for the intellectual purity of this position – but that is all. On balance, I think it would be rather a good idea, you know, if we did not repeat the Great Depression all over again.
I'm one of those that take the 'pure free market' position. I follow the Austrian School of thought on the Great Depression:

In the Austrian view it was this inflation of the money supply that led to an unsustainable boom in both asset prices (stocks and bonds) and capital goods. By the time the Fed belatedly tightened in 1928, it was far too late and, in the Austrian view, a depression was inevitable.

The artificial interference in the economy was a disaster prior to the Depression, and government efforts to prop up the economy after the crash of 1929 only made things worse. According to Rothbard, government intervention delayed the market's adjustment and made the road to complete recovery more difficult.

Axiomatic and The Ends Of Our Tethers

After reading Luminous, I was pleased when Janos plonked Axiomatic on my desk. I wasn't disappointed. Perhaps Axiomatic is the superior collection? Written in 1995, it's way ahead of its time. The sort of things Egan writes about, free will, the neurological basis for decision making, parallel universes, brain and body modification and consciousness, are all things I find myself thinking about.

I'm still getting to grips with the idea of short stories. Each one of Egan's short stories has enough meat on it to be a novel. Now I've allowed short stories into my life, they seem to just keep on coming. Prowling through the shelves of Bath Central Library I came upon an Alasdair Gray collection of short stories called 'The Ends Of Our Tethers'. Zoe had given me Poor Things and that and his reputation made me give Ends a try.

On reading the first story, some may think Professor Gray a bit pervy. Well, I think Gray has a unique voice. His scottishness is continually present, and his left wingery is put forth unashamedly. Actually, I do have an issue with his socialism. Socialists come in two flavours, those who propound a complete world-view and those that just take pot shots at free-markets and capitalism. The complete world-view types are more honest, but reveal themselves and socialism to be bonkers. The pot shotters are saner, but don't really have a viable alternative. Gray is a pot-shotter.

Don't go away with the idea that I didn't like the book. On the contrary, it was quirky and well crafted.

2008-09-20

The Infinite Book

John Barrow introduced me to Thompson's Lamp in his The Infinite Book, and I've been asking everyone I meet about it.

Katherine said, 'It's a divergent infinite series, so the question doesn't have an answer'. I was impressed!

My brother and Jonathan both came up with practical objections, my brother saying, 'You'd fuse the light!'.

Bill said, 'You can't do an infinite number of things in a finite time, so it could never happen'.

[Correction from bill: '.....if time is infinitely divisible, then you never reach the end point (1 minute), so the issues never arises. ......']

My answer was to say that the universe is digital, so there aren't an infinite number of states the universe can be in.

What do you think?

Btw, the rest of the book is equally thought provoking. Recommended. Interesting parallels with Freedom Evolves.

Campaign For Free BIOS

I support the Campaign for free BIOS and intend to buy AMD CPUs over Intel. Even though I don't buy computers very often, I'm sure I'll have Intel quaking in their sockets.

2008-09-08

Research Priorities

I've just listened to David King saying that we should switch our research funding away from fundamental research and direct it towards the practical problems we face, such as climate change, population growth and AIDS in poor countries.

I instinctively disagree with this. Thinking further, there are two reasons for disagreeing:

1. The issues that David is talking about are political problems rather than scientific problems. The solution to many of these problems is a world government, not a change in funding priorities.

2. Once you have good government, then science and technology is important to people's quality of life. With fundamental research, you never know where it's going to lead. Often there are practical applications that result. For example, would David have cut research into quantum mechanics? If so, he would have damaged the computer industry, and I wouldn't have been able to read his views on the BBC website, or be able to post this response.

2008-09-07

The Plague

At my aunt's house during Christmas 2000, not long after my mum died, I started to read l'Etranger. I never finished it, and I keep meaning to come back to it. It was different from anything I had read before, and I found that it both shocked and appealed to me.

When I saw Camus' The Plague at the library I pounced. The plague is obviously a metaphor for Nazism, and the resistance against the plague is the French resistance, which Camus was involved in. As I've said before I avoid allegory and metaphor like the plague. So I read it as if it were a real plague in a real town. The character I identified with was Cottard. I was a bit worried therefore when he went mad at the end and started shooting at people. Cottard actually liked the plague because it meant that for the first time, he was in the same boat as everyone else.

There was something else I meant to say, but it escapes me. Anyway, I've got to go and clean the house as I've got people coming round. See you soon.

2008-08-30

Joanna Trollope: The Men And The Girls

My mum always used to read Joanna Trollope. They were always lying about the house. I remember reading The Rector's Wife. Also, during my mum's illness I read another one whose title I've forgotten (was it Other People's Children?).

So, for holiday reading in France I thought JT should be amongst my books. I never used to understand what was meant by 'comfort food' but now I think that JT is the reading equivalent of comfort food.

The Men And The Girls was an easy and enjoyable read. An Aga saga, it's a tale of everyday life, and the inner lives of the characters, skillfully told by JT. Once thing I wondered was: why did they all put up with Leonard's bad behaviour?

I cheered was when Leonard and Beatrice agreed that there was very little to be said for old age.

2008-08-28

Freedom Evolves

Of my own free will, I've been reading Daniel Dennet's Freedom Evolves.

The later chapters of Dennet's book were more convincing than the first chapters, but the book was interesting all the way through. Dennet tried to convince me that even in a deterministic universe, things can be avoided, and the important features of free-will are preserved. I just couldn't go along with this argument. Surely, in a deterministic world, all events are pre-determined, and one doesn't really have freedom of choice.

The later chapters give a multiverse approach to crime and punishment. I really liked this idea. It says that if most of the nearby universes lead to a particular event, you shouldn't be held responsible for it. However, if there are thick clumps of universes nearby that don't lead to that event, then you can be said to be responsible. In other words, if you had done things a bit differently the thing wouldn't have happened.

Dennet doesn't call it a 'multiverse approach', and he doesn't describe it as I have, this is just my take on it.

With all this free will stuff going on in my mind, my interest was piqued by an article on determinism and subatomic particles. DDC has convinced me that indeterminism does not necessarily imply free will. This article seems to conflate the two.

Tesco: jars re-used as glasses

I've emailed Tesco about re-using jars as glasses:
Hello,

In France, jars of chocolate spread, mustard etc, are often designed so that you can re-use them as drinking-glasses when the contents are used up.

This seems like a good idea, so I was wondering why we don't take this approach in the UK? Perhaps jars are more expensive to manufacture if they are designed to be re-used.

I plan to publish this enquiry, and your response, on my blog. Let me know if that isn't okay with you.

Thanks for your help with this query,

Tony.
I sent this on 16th August, no reply yet...

2008-08-27

Upon The Dark Knight

I don't really know about acting, and I don't know the names of actors, but Heath Ledger as The Joker was brilliant.

This was a morally complex batman film. I saw it as an allegory of the 'war on terror' / war in Iraq, with The Joker as Osama Bin Laden and Batman as the US military.

The issue of torture arose, in the classic situation of a person refusing to say where the ticking bomb is. Batman resorted to torture, like water-boarding carried out by the US. I listened to The Moral Maze on torture, and was horrified to find myself agreeing that it was right to use it in certain circumstances. I can't remember the reasoning and if someone asked me now, I'd say torture is never justified.

Another part of the war on terror is surveillance. In The Dark Knight, batman hacks into everyone's mobile phone and builds up a sonar picture of the city.

Even the cold war comes into this film! In an analogy of the cold war, each ship can destroy the other at the touch of a button. To have the best chance of surviving, it's rational to press the button straight away.

Fate has ordained that the problem of free will occupy my mind. Batman has to choose between saving the life of the woman he loves, or the life of the man he believes can save the city from crime. Is his choice determined from the beginning of the universe, and even if not, does he have any real control over his choice?

It's a great film, but for me the moral choices are clear. Batman shouldn't go around breaking the law, he should respect it like any other citizen, no exceptions. Equally, the UK / US shouldn't have undertaken an illegal war against Iraq.

2008-08-24

Radio 1, Bebo and Grim Dog

Listening to Switch, I heard Nick 'Grimmy' Grimshaw, mention Bebo loads of times, without mentioning any other social networking site. It seems like Radio 1 have done a deal with Bebo; Grim Dog is promoting links to Bebo on the R1 site.

2008-08-16

The Boggle Elite

In France, I played Boggle with some really brainy people. They used an extra-large 5x5 version of Boggle, and only words of 6 letters or longer counted! Also, they don't allow adding an 's' to make a plural. (As a concession to me they allowed 5-letter words, phew.)

I think they may meet their match with Hannah and Charlotte, with whom I play 4x4 Boggle on Facebook. On average they get about 3x my score.

I want to play Body Boggle, which is a combination of Twister and Boggle. I might make a Body Boggle mat. Does anybody want to play it?

2008-08-15

Jars to glasses

One of the things about there being different countries / cultures is that it helps to reveal those things that are necessarily so, and those that are down to tradition or culture.

In France, jars can be used as glasses once the contents have been used up. This saves money, and is also less harmful to the environment than recycling the jars.

I might see if Matt Prescott would be interested in starting a campaign...

2008-08-14

What to do with a waterlogged phone

Claire read the previous post on getting my phone drenched and told me this top tip:
...stick your mobile in a bag with rice (uncooked) apparently the rice will absorb the water!!!
I didn't have to try it, as the phone suddenly started working all by itself. There were loads of messages and stuff, and I felt super-popular!

2008-08-12

Le Citoyen Blogueur: 5

It's been raining heavily all day, and probably much of the previous night. This afternoon I walked in the rain to Saint Barthelemy for my customary presion, and then back towards Chamblard. Now, the problem is that to get home from Chamblard I had to cross the stream, and the stream was in full flood because of the rain.

I hopped from the bank to a rock, lost my footing and landed up standing in a shallow part of the stream. I got onto another rock, then tried to wade across. I again lost my footing, but it was a deep part of the stream so I had to start swimming in the fast flowing water. I made it to the other side, but it was foolhardy to take the risk of crossing.

My mobile got waterlogged, and it's stopped working. I'm sure it'll get going again once it's dried out.

2008-08-11

Le Citoyen Blogueur: 4

In the Lamastre area, everyone is exceptionally friendly and polite. Cycling up to Col de St Genest, everybody I encountered said bonjour. Just before I reached the Col, I heard a disembodied voice hailing me. I looked up and there was a friendly bloke standing on the top ofhis flat roof, holding his young son. He said bonjour, and the son said 'hello', practising his English.



The view from Col de St Genest:

2008-08-10

One of those there

Successfully asked for 'one of those there' while pointing at a cake in a boulangerie just off the square in Lamastre:

un de ceux-ci-la
une de celles-ci-la

2008-08-09

Le Citoyen Blogueur: 3

Heard a spotter plane overhead. I sense the net closing in. Will keep sending reports to my superiors for as long as I am able.

Set out from la maison through the forest. Stopped at Saint-Barthelemy-Grozon for a Kronenbourg, and watched Pekin 2008. Here's the house as one sees it when emerging from the forest:

2008-08-08

Le Citoyen Blogueur: 2

Today your agent in the field has been playing golf with Charles and Blimp. Charles has constructed a nine-hole course in the grounds of the house. This is hole 5 I think.



If you get the ball in the hoop, it counts as getting it in the hole. This is the approach to the same hole.





The flag is just to the right of the tree in the centre. A divagation: the pylon in the top right hand corner supplies the house with electricity. A couple of days ago it was struck by lightening in a thunder storm (I was cooking a barbecue outside at the time) and the circuit breaker tripped and left the house without electricity.

Oh, and I won the game of golf.

Le Citoyen Blogueur: 1

I'm writing from somewhere in France. For obvious reasons my precise location cannot be disclosed. I'll file reports back to you at HQ for as long as I remain undiscovered. After that, the game is up.

Yesterday at the house, the pressure of the water supply lessened. I followed the pipe to its source in a stream. The problem was that the level of the stream had dropped below the level of the pipe, so no water was getting in. Charles and I dug a depression in the stream bed so the end of the pipe would be under water. This is how it looked after we had finished:



There's a storage tank half way down the hill, so there's always water when you need it:

2008-08-07

Luminous

Luminous by Greg Egan is a truly superb collection of sci-fi short stories. Egan confines himself to hard science, and doesn't shy away from giving technical details to his readers. Within that constraint of physics, he is a wellspring of ideas. As Janos said, other writers with such good ideas would make a whole book of them, with Egan they become a short story.

I've also been reading The Biographer's Tale. I remember enjoying Possession and so thought that another A.S. Byatt would be good. The Tale is a rather literary book, about literary people. I kept thinking the protagonist was a woman, even though he was actually a man.

I'm writing to you from France. Stay tuned for a picture story of sludge being excavated!

2008-08-04

Metaphrast

I've made a start with a Wiktionary entry for metaphrast.

Btw, just to let you know, I'm on holiday near Valence, France for about a week, leaving on Wednesday. Have you got any ideas for holiday reading?

I've really got to go and pack now...

2008-08-03

Home James, and don't spare the CPUs

One of my nephews is about 1 and a half years old. I commented to my brother that by the time the nephew is of driving age, most cars will be driven by robots. He strongly disagreed.

I now put this to everyone I meet:

By 2023, more cars will be driven by computers than by humans.

Everyone's disagreed so far. Including Toby, Jess and Janos at work. And Bill and Doug.

Please add a comment saying if you agree or disagree.

2008-08-01

Donnish

An old boss of mine described me as donnish in an appraisal at work. I looked it up recently in Wiktionary to check the spelling. It wasn't there, so I've added it. The entry probably needs improving, so please do if you're so inclined.

2008-07-27

Lyall Watson

Listening to Last Word I felt sad to hear Lyall Watson's name mentioned. He died on 25th June this year, aged 69. When I was a teenager in the 80s, LW meant a great deal to me. I read a few of his books at that time: Dreams of Dragons, Gifts of Unknown Things, Neophilia, The Romeo Error and The Nature Of Things. I was also heavily influenced by an interview with him in The Sunday Times. Then more recently I read Supernature and Dark Nature.

For me at that time, LW in his life and work gave me an alternative, a chink of light in the gloom. I had been brought up a Christian, but was learning science at school. Prayer, souls, miracles, heaven and hell didn't feature in physics.

The problem was that my entire world view depended on Christianity, and was being undermined by science. I was psychologically incapacitated for about a year and a half while I wrestled with this relentless doubt.

In the end I realized that science and Christianity were incompatible, and that current science offered the best explanation for how the world worked. I started to describe myself as an atheist.

LW was important to me because he was a scientist who seemed to offer some hope. I'm a bit embarassed to admit to having had a hero, but Lyall Watson was a hero to me.

2008-07-26

/var/lib/tomcat5.5/webapps

I've used GNU/Linux since (February?) 1999. I started with Slackware, and now I'm running Ubuntu. I think Linux is fantastic, but one thing always irritates me.

Whereas MS-Windows has a 'Program Files' directory with a sub-directory for each application, Ubuntu stores application files across the file-system according to type, eg. /etc, /var/log, /bin. I find the Windows approach much easier to work with. The Ubuntu method means it takes much longer to find where things are. For log files it may be easy, but where is the webapps directory for apache-tomcat?

2008-07-23

Science Cafe: Extra-solar planets

Last time it got to the end without me getting a chance to ask my question. This time at the Science Cafe, mine was the first question: 'What do you make of the Fermi Paradox?'. The speaker's answer was that there are other civilizations, but they're all too far away. I think that the various answers to the Fermi Paradox are interesting, but I find none of them convincing. What's your answer to the Fermi Paradox?

2008-07-12

Reversible computing

I'm trying to understand reversible computing. My friend Bill made the comment that it may well be of interest to academics, but it has no appreciable effect in the real world. So here's a rough calculation for the power an irreversible computer needs that's operating right at the Landauer limit. For each bit the energy used per switch is T * k * ln 2. Assume a 2 GHz processor, 5 GB of RAM, and room temperature:

power = 293 * 1.38 * 10^-23 * ln 2 * 2 * 10^9 * 5 * 10^9

~ 0.01 W

we can times this by 100 because k*ln 2 is just the theoretical minimum that can never be reached.

~ 1 W

So with Moore's law, this limit will become increasingly significant.

I've no idea if this calculation is correct, I just made it up to prove my own point! Can someone correct me please?

2008-07-10

Two-rate electricity meter (continued)

Good Energy have replied to my question about a two rate meter. I can have one for free if I commit to staying with Good Energy for at least two years. The only thing is that comparing the tariffs, the night rate is a lot lower, but the standing charge and day rate is a bit higher. Can someone who's good at maths tell me which is the cheapest?

2008-07-09

Trowbridge Central By-Election

I live in Trowbridge Central, and tomorrow there's a by-election for the Town Council and the District Council. Maybe I've not looked hard enough, but I couldn't find any info about the election on the Town Council website. I'd have expected to see a list of the candidates at the very least.

The parties themselves are very varied in the information they provide. The Conservatives had quite a long piece on their candidate, and a useful list of by-elections. The Liberal Democrats had nothing, and neither did the greens.

Please correct me if you know different.

Who am I going to vote for? I'd like to reward the Conservatives for actually communicating with the electorate, but I'll probably vote Liberal Democrat.

Akira and The Beach

These are two separate things, the film 'Akira', and 'The Beach' by Alex Garland. It's not like Jonah and the Whale.

I remember everyone talking about The Beach, and then there was the film and the song. I never seemed to read the book or see the film, but I heard Pure Shores on the radio quite a bit. My brother had the book and said it was good, but I remained a bit of a grumpy skeptic.

I then heard about Alex Garland having writer's block. Is this true? This actually pushed me slightly in the direction of reading TB. Then it somehow came up in conversation with Anita at work. She said it was one of her favourite books, she brought it in.

It really is enjoyable, and a bit shocking. Shades of Lord of the Flies perhaps? The protagonist is not someone I'd be friends with in real life. The narrator presents the tale as an allegory of the Vietnam war. I think Thomas Hobbes would have regarded it as a story of what happens to people in 'the state of nature' when there's no Leviathan. Or perhaps Sal is the Leviathan. You've got me confused now.

Let's move on to the Animated film Akira. Surely I can't go wrong with a cartoon. Can I? My highlight is when the hero has hallucinations. I don't think I've ever had an actual hallucination, but it seemed like you could show that bit of the film to people to give them an idea of what it's like to have a mental illness that grotesquely distorts reality.

Now I've got to return the book to Anita, and it's in a poor state after being carried round in my bag for ages. Hope she's okay about that...

2008-07-07

Two-rate electricity meter

I've written to Good Energy...
Hello, my friend has a day/night meter and gets cheap electricity at night. I've just got a single rate meter and so can't take advantage of the cheap electricity. I'm an existing Good Energy customer. What are my options?

2008-07-06

Renting my garden as an allotment

I'd like to see my back garden put to use. I have in mind an allotment. The problem is that I haven't got the interest or enthusiasm to actually do the hard work of growing vegetables.

So my plan is to rent out my garden as an allotment, through the district council. Apparently there's a shortage of allotments, and the district council already has a scheme set up. I'll let you know what happens.

I'm giving this the CO2 footprint label because:
  • I wouldn't have to mow the back garden every week, which causes CO2 emissions.
  • Food grown locally should be less CO2 intensive.

2008-06-29

Water softener

The amount of limescale on the heat exchanger in my gas combi boiler should be reducing now, after 5 years of steady accumulation. My hope is that the house will use a bit less gas, and emit a bit less CO2.

The other reasons why I installed a water softener are:
  • I intend to install solar water heating, and I don't want its heat exchanger to be impaired by limescale.
  • Less time cleaning the bathroom, and no money to spend on anti-limescale cleaners.
  • The washing machine and other appliances should last longer. In my previous house the loo stopped working because of limescale building up!
The model I had installed is a Kinetico 2020c. This softener doesn't use any electricity, it uses water pressure to refresh the ion exchange chamber with brine, so the only consumable is salt.

Regular readers (hey don't snigger, there's at least one actually) will remember I talked about getting a magnetic water softener ages ago. I decided against that because although I think they can work in some situations, I wanted something that would definitely work for me.

2008-06-19

Imprimatur 014

A bug-fix release of Imprimatur. Fixed a problem that has been there for ages. If you started Imprimatur with a file name only (no path) for the script file, and then referred to another file in the script file, there would be a problem. I fixed it using:

File file = new File(fileName).getAbsoluteFile();

instead of:

File file = new File(fileName);

Thanks to Jesse Pelton for reporting this bug.

2008-06-18

Imprimatur 013

The new release of Imprimatur has the following changes:
  • The response-code element was missing from the DTD, so that's been added in.
  • Now supports the PUT method.
  • Can set and check HTTP headers.
  • Added a body-file attribute to the request element which allows the request body to be retrieved from a file. There's a new example that shows this.
  • Removed 'enctype' attribute from the request element. If there's no body-file attribute, the content type is inferred. If there is a body-file attribute the content type can be set explicitly using a header element.
Thanks to Jesse Pelton for his suggestions for this release.

2008-06-17

Daphne du Maurier short stories (II)

After reading The Birds I went on to other du Maurier short stories, and found I enjoyed them even more than The Birds.

Monte Verita

This exemplifies many of the qualities of dM's writing:
  • The ability to create an air of the supernatural, but without anything supernatural actually happening. She never weakens her story by descending into supernatural explanations.
  • Insightful portrayals of male characters. I go as far as to say that dM is better at writing about men than women.
  • Great clarity of writing, including when writing about mysterious things. dM uses precise language and acute observation to convey emotions and an atomosphere that are subtle and elusive.
I particularly like the way dM evokes the world of the past. Here the protagonist talks of his stay with a friend:
...I had all the same comforts - cans of hot water, early tea, biscuits by my bed, cigarette box filled, all the touches of a thoughtful hostess.
The Apple Tree

I just didn't know what to make of this. Can someone help me and tell me what to think? Is he or his wife the baddie?

The Little Photographer

So convincingly rendered that I felt like I had committed the murder. It's funny, you hear a lot about computer games encouraging criminality, but you rarely hear Daphne du Maurier cited as a corrupter of the young.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger

Okay, well at least continue reading.

The Old Man

Genuinely surprised and delighted by this. I won't go into it 'cause I'll spoil it for you if you haven't read it. This story really stayed with me. Actually that's another thing about dM. She shows exquisite judgement in controlling the release of information as a story progresses. So much so that I'm sure that if you re-read one of her stories it would seem new.

2008-06-16

Trowbridge Central Elections 10th July 2008

I've just got my polling card for the Trowbridge Central Elections 10th July 2008 but I can't find a list of who's standing, so I don't know how to vote. Can anyone help?

2008-06-12

The price of (market) freedom is eternal vigilance

My friend Dave sent me an article and asked:
Tony - how do you as a fan of the free market address this issue - bankrupting farmer seems to be a structure consequence of your favoured global free markets?...Dave
Dave went on to give his view:
Basically the green revolution has bankrupted all the rice farmers in Thailand, and I guess the same pattern is repeated worldwide.

Much as the banks have bankrupted middle class people in the West, capitalism has done the same for poor farmers throughout the world, whereas they feed most people and are the most productive.

In Thailand, the fact that the middle men, the rice dealers and the millers are all chums with the politicians who allow them to bankrupt the rice farmers even while food prices are at an all time high, is openly discussed in the English newspapers in Thailand.

The same thing happens in the West but it is openly discussed.

Regarding agriculture, this seems to be an inevitable consequence of many indfidually weak farmers, who can be preyed about but a much smaller cartel of rice dealers.

The only way the Thai farmers have got the promise of a fair deal is to threaten to blockade all the major roads.

Dave
Free markets are a way to make a society as a whole richer. It doesn't mean that wealth will be distributed equally. If you want a more equal distribution of wealth, you have to tax rich people more, and give everyone a 'citizen's allowance'.

In Thailand the free market has worked, in that the country is getting richer. Richer doesn't mean happier of course. I could make more money if I had a second job stacking shelves in Tesco's, but I prefer to forgo the money and spend the time arguing with you, oh joy!

You talk about cartels of middle-men, but if these exist there isn't a fully free market. The government needs to improve regulation to break the cartels. You say that the politicians are unduly influenced by the middle-men. This is exactly what Adam Smith warns about in The Wealth of Nations. I'm afraid the only way round this is for individuals to campaign, unite, protest, denounce and vote! To paraphrase Jefferson; the price of (market) freedom is eternal vigilance.

The consistency of fat

I put up my hand at every opportunity, but to no avail. In the question and answer part of the Science Cafe, I didn't get to ask my question on whether instead of engineering our food to avoid obesity, we could tackle it from the other direction and genetically re-engineer ourselves.

We were shown a series of maps of America; one for each year from the early 90s to today, showing the level of obesity. It showed a dramatic increase. Much of the talk focussed on how to engineer food to taste fatty but not cause weight gain. Apparently we sense fat by its consistency rather than its taste.

The speaker did point out a problem with such food, in that anorexics might eat nothing but that type of food, when in fact they need more fat in their diet.

2008-06-10

To The Hermitage

Reading To The Hermitage was like listening to an extremely erudite raconteur who happens to have an obsession with Diderot. I learnt an awful lot about Diderot and the other Enlightenment figures, all imparted in a gossipy, conversational style. My ignorance of Diderot means I've probably missed some of the clever references in the book, but I've been inspired to read Rameau's Nephew, where the Moi and Lui come from.

2008-06-08

Second Life

I've just tried out Second Life and I was pleased to see they've got a Linux version. I was a bit shy and didn't actually talk to anyone. They get you to do a few exercises to make sure you've learnt the basics, and I've just completed those. Btw, if you want to look me up on SL, my name is Quintilian Luik!

2008-06-06

This blog and my wallet

This isn't metonymy, I'm not talking about the cost of blogging. I lost my wallet and a guy called Matt picked it up, found my blog by searching on my name, and emailed me! We arranged to meet at the place I lost it, and he returned it to me and I gave him a bottle of wine as a thank you.

2008-06-01

Heathrow airport expansion

As a member of Greenpeace, they emailed me asking me to support their campaign against the Heathrow airport expansion. I don't support the campaign, and here's why.

Let's assume that levels of CO2 are okay up to 450 ppm. Since there's an upper limit, it means we've got to use the CO2 emissions we're allowed, to their best effect. Perhaps UK air travel is the best way to use some of our permitted emissions? Or perhaps not.

The way to enforce a CO2 limit while making sure the emissions are used most wisely, is to raise the global cost of emissions through a carbon tax until the permitted level of CO2 is reached. The revenue from such a tax should be distributed equally amongst the world's population.

Then the climate change aspect of airport expansions is taken out of the equation, problem solved!

2008-05-31

Tradable

I really like contributing to Wiktionary. I've just added an entry for 'tradable'.

2008-05-20

What Good Energy should do next

Good Energy used to be the clear leader in green electricity in the UK. Now I get the feeling that this space is beginning to get competitive. Here's what I'd do if I were Good Energy and wanted to jump ahead of the crowd again.

Retire 100% of the ROCs

Toby at work showed me the Energy Watch comparison of how different tariffs treat ROCs and LECs. I would retire 100% of the ROCs and LECs. I realize that this would mean that the tariff would be very expensive, but hey, it's green!

Wireless Meters

In the UK most domestic electricity meters are manually read by a person in a van. A less carbon intensive method is to have wireless meters that are like a mobile phone stuck to an electricity meter. The meter is read by a computer ringing up the meter.

Half-hourly meters

Electricity is cheapest at night, and most expensive in the evening. I should be able to set my dishwasher to come on at one o'clock in the morning and pay half the amount! I can't at the moment because my meter can't tell the difference between night and day, and I bet yours can't either. A half-hourly meter measures the amount of electricity used every half hour. Good Energy should install a HH meter in one's house.

Google App Engine

I set out to port Own-Id to Google App Engine but failed because Own-Id relies on people being able to point their own host name to the Own-Id app. This only works because Own-Id has its own IP address. With App Engine it seems you're not assigned an IP address. If anyone knows how I can make Own-Id work with App Engine, please let me know!

While looking at App Engine, it seemed that one of its limitations is that the datastore doesn't support complex queries. It's a big constraint when one is used to SQL. Having said that, I love the fact that it supports Python and the whole thing seems really nicely done. When I come do do my next web app, I'll certainly look first at doing it with App Engine.

2008-05-14

Cars and CO2

A fine summer's evening meant a low turnout at the Raven on Monday evening, as the stalwarts gathered for the Science Cafe.

What sticks in my mind from the talk is the fact that CO2 emissions are proportional to the weight of the car, and inversely proportional to engine efficiency. Engine efficiency has improved enormously over the years, but today's Mini is twice the weight of the original, and I believe the same is true of the Fiesta. The result is that CO2 per km hasn't improved a great deal.

Much of the extra weight is a side effect of making cars a lot safer. Can we have low emissions cars that are safe? Surely we can.

My French friend Pascal gave a cheer when it was revealed that Peugeot / Citroen were the most likely to make low CO2 cars.

My bet for the future is on electric cars. The Tesla Roadster is already comparatively cheap to run, and with oil prices rising, I think the public will gravitate to the electric car.

2008-05-05

Own-Id 004

Just released a new version of Own-Id. Now gives more detail in error messages.

Incidentally, we now have 188 ids now on Own-Id. As ever, I'm always keen to hear about your experiences with Own-Id.

For testing Own-Id on my local machine, I use the MyId OpenId server which is great because it's so simple to set up, and it uses Digest Authentication which is a RESTful method that makes testing easy. For me, the one problem with MyID is that is uses a META tag to redirect the browser, but I find it easier for testing to have a HTTP 302 redirect, so I modified the source (just a simple change) to achieve this.

2008-05-01

The Singularity is Nigh

I agree with almost everything in this book, in fact if I were more intelligent I would have written it! Having said that, there are a few things I take issue with him on:

Intellectual property. Kurzweil says that as technology progresses, more things become information. This I agree with, but he goes on to say that it is important to protect the information so you have money to create new things. Here he's trying to perpetuate the idea of intellectual property. I believe that information can't be treated as property, and should be released as free content. You may then ask, how do you make the money to build new things? Well, free content is often available for no charge, but most of the inputs to creating knowledge is other knowledge, so substantially less money would be needed. Okay, but where do you get the small amount of money that is necessary? Well, advertising is the popular method. I'm sure Wikipedia could make an enormous amount of money if carried advertising.

Consciousness. I'm pleased that Kurzweil devoted some of the book to the problem of consciousness. Unfortunately nobody understands it yet as far as I can see. I think Kurzweil accepts that it is essential for our post-biological successors to be conscious. So until we understand consciousness and can recreate it artificially, I think it's difficult to make predictions.

The structure of society. Kurzweil quotes Hobbes, 'the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' to support his case that improved technology leads to a better standard of living. But Hobbes wasn't merely talking about technology, he was describing life in an unstructured society, an anarchy, or what he called 'the state of nature'. Hobbes' point was that for life to improve and for technology to develop, a structured society is needed.

So I'm disappointed that Kurzweil does not realize the importance of the structure of society. Indeed, Kurzweil talks of the military applications of nanotechnology, but this is like our ancestors talking of how in the far future, technology will be used to defend our village from attacks from other villages. Thankfully we have national Leviathans in the form of democratically elected governments that means that each village doesn't have to defend against its neighbouring village. I predict a global Leviathan, a democratically elected world government, so that countries don't have to worry about defending themselves against other countries.

2008-04-27

Ender's Game

Somehow I already knew the basic idea behind Ender's Game. The idea reached me by word of mouth; I was infected by the meme! Then one day I was discussing the meme with Janos, who knew the book and lent it to me.

Ender's Game did not disappoint. Perhaps the aim of sci-fi is to combine a brilliant idea with a gripping story. Ender's Game certainly did that, and it's lasting reputation is deserved.

One gripe I have when writing about books and films is that many of them aren't free content. I'm part of the free culture movement. I'm in favour of the idea of property for physical things, but intellectual property is an oxymoron. When you're talking about information, a whole new set of rules apply. You should be able to do anything you like with information; copy it, sell it, modify it, whatever. The only thing you shouldn't be able to do is remove these freedoms.

2008-04-20

Lars and the Real Girl

Moving, emotional, satisfying. I particularly like taking ideas seriously, and this film does that with the protagonist's outwardly odd behaviour. I know I always refer back to The Fabric of Reality, but Lars acts as if he's applying the approach of David Deutsch. I'll explain. Lars' mind has come up with the idea of the doll, and rather than dismissing it, he takes it seriously. In this way a resolution is inevitable, one way or the other.

Science Cafe: Feilden Clegg

'Exceeding expectations' is one of those new phrases. The architect from Feilden Clegg exceeded my expectations in his Science Cafe talk. He spoke with great intelligence, wit and depth. Here are the points that particularly interested me:
  • Heat Recovery Ventilation. I intend to install this in my house. My question was, 'what if there's a power cut in the night, will everyone asphyxiate?!!'. The feeling was that there'd be enough air in the house for everyone to survive, and then they could simply open a window when they awoke.
  • On-site electricity generation. In the Code for Sustainable Homes, there is a bias towards local generation. I'm disappointed in this. It may be more efficient to have a huge distant off-shore wind farm than numerous local turbines. Government should restrict itself to increasing the cost of CO2 pollution through CO2 TaxBack, and leave the detailed choices about generation to the market.
  • Grey water recycling. The speaker, an architect, said he used to be skeptical of grey water recycling as he hadn't yet seen it done properly. What changed his mind was the EcoPlay system. This costs about £1,500 and replaces the cistern in the downstairs loo. It fills up with water from the shower / bath upstairs, and then uses it to flush the loo. If the grey water hasn't been used after a certain period, it is discarded to avoid the water going bad.
  • Water softerners. I'm about to install a water softener in my house, and I wanted to know whether it was a good idea on environmental grounds. The speaker said he didn't know definitively, but he was installing one in his house for practical reasons.

Rising food prices

Food prices are rising, the poor risk hunger, what should governments do?

Some advocate price controls. The problem is that if prices are kept artificially low, the food business won't be so profitable and supply will decrease.

Some say that if your country's people are going hungry, it's madness to be exporting food, so food exports should be banned. The problem is that this depresses prices, which again leads to a decrease in supply.

I think the real problem is that some people are poor. In the UK we actually tax the poor, and I've heard it said that poor people pay more tax as a proportion of their wealth than rich people. All taxes that aren't related to income should be abolished. This includes National Insurance and VAT. How would this be paid for?
  • Ending agricultural subsidies
  • Legalizing prostitution
  • Legalizing drugs.
  • Abolishing the national minimum wage.
  • Freeing up trade by ending protectionism.
If we took these steps, then we could let food prices find their correct level, and be confident that people could afford to pay for it.

2008-04-06

Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation

According to Greenpeace:
[...] the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) will force fuel companies to include biofuels as part of their fuel mix. [...] 2.5 per cent of all petrol and diesel sold in the UK will come from crops such as palm oil and maize.
Here's why RTFO is a bad idea:

Say I take a (diesel) train to work, but I've adapted my house so that it is zero carbon. My neighbour cycles to work but lives in a draughty house. Even if our carbon emissions are the same, our penalties aren't the same. There's a higher price for emitting carbon by burning diesel than for the same emissions from burning gas to heat a house.

Okay, you may concede that the penalties for CO2 emissions aren't the same, but why is that so bad?

In the above example, you could say that I should live like my neighbour (I shouldn't have insulated my house and I should cycle to work) and then I wouldn't be paying a higher CO2 penalty. This would have a detrimental effect on my finances because a local job would be less well paid, and so would be detrimental effect to the economy.

In summary, having unequal penalties for different ways of emitting CO2 is worse for the economy than having single penalty rate for all types of CO2 emissions. Such a single rate system is CO2 TaxBack.

2008-03-25

The Star Fraction

Before I'd read The Star Fraction, I recognized the name Ken Macleod as a friend of Iain Banks. Reading the book, one can tell they might be friends. Birds of a feather one might say. Macleod goes in a bit more for clever word play. Banks' work has a more sweeping, elegaic quality.

There's quite a bit of ideology, or rather references to ideology and ideological positions. I imagine there's something of Macleod's own background here. Perhaps he attended meetings of socialist groups in his youth?

I understand this is his first book, I'm interested to see how his writing develops...

2008-03-24

Ogg Vorbis

'Why oh why BBC, must we continually...', thus it seemed all letters to the BBC began when I watched TV in the 80s. Now I too have reached the required level of exasperation to write to the BBC: here's my message.

Dear BBC,

Why oh why BBC, must you continue to use proprietary formats for audio on your website? Please would you switch to an open format such as Ogg / Vorbis without delay.

With an open audio format, anyone can write the software to listen to it, giving your listeners the maximum freedom. Proprietary formats are often opaque and encumbered with patent / copyright restrictions and can tie users in to particular companies.

So come on BBC, unshackle your brilliant content!

Yours expectantly,

Tony Locke

I'll let you know their reaction...

2008-03-16

Last Light

In order to cheer me up, Bob at work lent me Last Light by Alex Scarrow. The jacket read, 'they tell us not to panic...the lights will go out...people will walk the devastated streets...civilization will be at the point of no return'. If that's meant to cheer me up, I'd hate Bob to recommend me a depressing book.

The book's about an artificial peak oil scenario. Over the past few year, I've found myself circulating in a milieu of peak oil buffs, and their feeling is that global civilization could well collapse. I disagree.

As oil runs out, its price will increase. This will make alternative sources of energy steadily more attractive, and the world will switch to those.My detractors say, 'Tony, you can't just leave it to the free market. We need government intervention NOW!'.

Well, we'll see who's right...

Oh yes, and the book was gripping.

2008-03-09

Google Sites

I've switched my site over to Google Sites. I made the switch because I was fed up with the adverts for other wikis on Wetpaint. Here are my likes and dislikes about Google sites (or 'cheers and jeers' as they said on Family Guy). First the cheers:

  • Good that one can edit HTML directly, and the editor keeps the HTML exactly as you wrote it.
  • Clean design; little extraneous content outside one's own content boxes.
  • One can edit the navigation box.
  • One can add other boxes (I've added one for the content licence).

Now the jeers:

  • One can add sites eg. /mysite but one can't have a top level site. The top site is actually the log-in screen. I think one should be able to create a top-level site. In fact, if I was designing the thing, I'd just have one site.
  • It's possible to use one's own domain name, but there are severe limitations. I've set up http://www.tlocke.org.uk/ to point to my site, but this just redirects to the login page. Not much use if you're setting up a site for general internet use.
  • Google Sites allows one to to put pages in sub-directories. But one thing we've learnt about wikis is that all pages should be on the top level.
  • I always use the HTML editor. So there should be a setting to go straight to HTML view, rather than going through the hassle of entering the editor each time.
  • Does funny redirect thing to links.
  • I've compiled a general wish-list for things I'd like a wiki to do.

Well there it is.

2008-03-03

NHS Parking Charges

I've just heard about the absurd idea to abolish parking charges at NHS hospitals. If this were to be done, it would (if I remember correctly) remove £78m from NHS treatment, surely a bad thing.

The poorest people don't own a car, so parking charges don't affect them. If the rich are concerned about parking charges, perhaps they should take the bus?

2008-02-27

National DNA database

I find myself in favour of a national DNA database that holds a DNA record for every UK citizen. Isn't this an infringement of civil liberties? I strongly support civil liberties such as freedom of speech and due legal process, but I feel that privacy issues belong in a seperate category.

I personally don't mind being on CCTV for example, and I wouldn't mind my DNA being held on a database. Of course, it cuts both ways. I suspect that one would be thrown out of a shop if one started filming it, and the police probably don't allow people to film them. I support the principle that if they can film you, you should be able to film them.

2008-02-24

Web feeds that make you visit the site

I'm a subscriber to the web feed of Willem Buiter's blog on the FT website. They've recently changed it so that in the feed you only see the first bit of the post; to see the whole thing you have to click on a 'more...' link that takes you to the web site. This is presumably so that you have to look at the adverts on the page. I don't like this approach.

Fountainhead

I'd heard lots of talk about Ayn Rand, and I'd already read Anthem online, so I ordered Fountainhead from Bath Central Library using their online reservation system. The system worked really well. Ultimately of course, books will be like music, where you just download it. Hopefully books will be licensed under a free content licence.

Anyway, Rand uses the book to promote her philisophy of objectivism. I think that the book is good, and the philosophy is interesting but not something I can really adopt. Rand says that one should always act in one's own self-interest, she abhors altruism. Well, maybe, but then she goes on to elevate the lone genius, and denigrate working as a group. This clashes with my experience of life. I often swap ideas with other people, to mutual benefit. Cooporation, that's the word. She could have kept her idea of selfishness, because cooperation is often the most selfish option.

Does the philosophy work if you're not a genius? Rand doesn't seem to think much of ordinary people, and yet the book is widely read, so we must like her! I think the hero of the story, Roark, has a particular type of personality. In fact I know someone a bit like him. It's possibly not what Rand intended, but the book kind of says it's okay to be like Roark if that's your nature. My opinion is that it was wrong of him to dynamite the building.

Reading the book prompted the question, 'does not being a genius mean you get on with people better?'. Yes, because if you have a technical skill that's very much in demand, you can get by without having to learn how to get on with people.

The Power that Preserves

This is the last book of the first Thomas Covenant trilogy by Stephen Donaldson. I've written about the first two books previously. This third book continues the intense tale of relentless suffering and struggle. I must admit I've not always been in the mood for this trilogy, and have interspersed it with other, less emotionally draining stuff. (Bob at work agrees).

Donaldson has overturned my prejudices about fantasy books. I wouldn't compare him to Dostoevsky, but Donaldson deals with morality, innocence, guilt and suffering in a sophisticated way.

I've just started on a Malcolm Bradbury. Paddy shook his head when he saw it, saying despairingly, 'Tony, Tony..., that's the sort of book that old people read..'

2008-02-03

Trowbridge East by-election 2008

On Thursday there's a Wiltshire County Council by-election for my ward, Trowbridge East. I've done a little table to help me decide who to vote for. Don't rely on this table for your own information, look at the primary sources.







IssueTom JamesPeter FullerDavid McQueenMe
Local post office closuresOpposesOpposesI think that this is a commercial decision for the Post Office themselves.
Local hospital closureOpposesThe private sector should compete to provide health care, funded by central government, with patient choice at its heart. In the meantime, I don't know whether it's right to close Trowbridge hospital or not.
Doorstep cardboard collectionSupportsSupportsI favour doorstep collection, together with a disposal tax on products. The current administration isn't managing to collect cardboard even at the current collection points.
More pedestrian crossingsSupportsYes, as long as they're zebra crossings.
Affordable housingSupportsParticularly on brownfield sitesI'd like a building area tax.
Hilperton GapSupportsSupportsI support the preservation of this green space.
More school placesSupportsI'd like education to be privatised, but still funded by the state.

Actually I still don't know for whom I should vote. Okay, let's rule out Fuller because my direct experience of the conservatives' running of the cardboard recycling has been lamentable. Alright, I'll support the Green. I'm against his policy of subsidising public transport though.

Grandad's office on Mount Olympus

My dad's on holiday in Cyprus and in a postcard he mentioned he visited Mount Olympus, and said that Gilbert, my grandad on my mum's side, had his office there. That must have been when he was in charge of the generators at the British Army base. As Gilbert died before I was born, I like these little bits of information about him.

Cardboard recycling

I've said to West Wilts District Council:

Almost every time I take our cardboard to the recycling point (the one by Trowbridge College), the container is overflowing. This must mean that cardboard has such a low value that the District Council has to pay someone to remove it. On the other hand, cardboard must have a higher value than general household waste, otherwise there wouldn't be any point in collecting it seperately.

Therefore, by allowing the cardboard recycling bin to overflow, which means residents put cardboard in with the general waste, the District Council is increasing the council tax bill. Is this correct, or am I missing something?

I'll let you know what they say.

2008-01-30

Why feed-in tariffs are a bad idea.

I'm a member of Greenpeace. Have been since my teens. They've just sent me an email on energy policy in which they say call for a Feed-in Tariff (FIT). Bad idea, and here's why.

The problem we've got is the emission of greenhouse gases. Therefore we should make it more expensive to emit greenhouse gases, preferably using a carbon tax. The two main problems with the FIT are:
  • It only affects electricity consumption, which is not the sole cause of CO2 emissions.
  • It subsidises a particular solution (renewable electricity).

I believe that it's the job of government to increase CO2 emissions costs, and it's the job of the market to find ways of avoiding those costs (a complex mix of reduction and renewables).

2008-01-22

Own-Id outage

Own-Id was down from 2008-01-18 15:16 GMT to 2008-01-19 12:47 GMT. Sorry to everyone for this outage. The reason was that the Java VM ran out of memory. This means that Own-Id probably has a memory leak.

One of the problems was that it took a long time for me to find out that the server was down. I've now set up Montastic to send me an email if the server goes down again, they also provide a web feed of server status. This should mean that if there's another outage, I should know much sooner.

There remains the problem of finding the memory leak. I'll let you know how I get on!

2008-01-15

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those films you know a lot about before seeing it. Some would say, 'it carries a weight of expectation'. Well, one thing I can certainly say is that afterwards you really feel you've seen a *proper* film. I expect that Lawrence of Arabia would have the same effect.

Someone asked, 'what's the story?'. As I started to explain, I realized there were big gaps in my understanding (this happens a lot). My friend Jonathan has read the book and has a better grasp of these things than me, and set me straight on a few points.

The other question people ask is, 'what does the last bit mean?'. It seems to be aliens communicating with the human, and trying to find a common visual language. In short, I don't know what it means.

Each scene of the entire film is exquisitely shot; visually a pleasure. It's funny how much 2001 looks like the 60s though!

The film has an intermission. An intermission! Bring back intermissions.

Road pricing

I heard someone on the radio advocating road pricing. I'm in favour of this, so I've added an article on road pricing to the Political Manifesto. My twist is that the money should go to maintenance of the road network, and any left over should be divided up equally between the population.

2008-01-14

Cabbage juice

Well I was boiling some red cabbage and potato and I was about to pour away the juice. Then I thought, 'Hugh Fearnly-thingamygig wouldn't have thrown it away'. So I saved it to drink and it's actually really nice, and probably quite good for one.

2008-01-13

Nuclear power

The UK government has given permission for companies to build nuclear power stations. The government say that they will not be subsidised by the taxpayer. As long as they really aren't subsidised (including insurance) then that's okay with me, and I'll explain why.

Some complain that, 'the UK doesn't have an energy policy', or 'energy is too important to be left to the free market'. I think that the UK is doing absolutely the right thing in having a free market for electricity. There are two genuine problems in energy at the moment, peak fossil fuels and climate change.

With peak fossil fuels our free market means we're well placed to deal with the problem. As fossil fuels run out, their price will increase. As they increase, two things will happen: more renewable generation will become profitable and usage of fossil fuels will decrease. From Adam Smith we know that both of these will happen in such a way as to maximise the UK's wealth.

Unfortunately, peak fossil fuels won't happen soon enough to avoid climate change, and so we need a carbon tax. A tax on carbon doesn't mean we'll be abandoning our free market.

So back to the original question of nuclear power; this is simply the market working as it should and delivering the best bet in the long and short term.

By the way, I think the companies are mad to build nuclear power stations because:

1. Uranium is running out (peak uranium).
2. Other technologies are improving and look like they'll be more profitable than nukes, when you take into account the huge costs of building and decommissioning and storage of waste.

However, I could be wrong and it's their money they're wasting! And this illustrates the benefit of free markets; it doesn't depend on a single person or institution having all the answers.

2008-01-10

Blood Diamond

An excellent film that brought up all sorts of moral questions. Boringly, the solution to the problem of conflict diamonds is good regulation. Since the diamond trade is international, it covers many jurisdictions and this makes regulation more difficult. So the meta solution is supra-national political entities such as the EU, which can regulate accross a wide area. The best solution is a democratically elected world government.

The Illearth War

The Illearth War, the second book after Lord Foul's Bane is a bit more violent, but Covenent continues his tortured existence. I wonder if the author, Stephen Donaldson was beset by such angst? I think if I were in such a state I couldn't settle down and write a book, and if I wasn't I couldn't remember what it like in order to describe it properly. I suppose that's why I'm not a writer. Wordsworth said that poetry is: 'emotions recollected in tranquility'.

2008-01-06

Poundstone's back

An interview with William Poundstone convinced me to update the manifesto to say that my preferred voting system is Range Voting.

Btw, I remember William Poundstone from reading a book of his in the mid-eighties. Good book.

2008-01-02

Own-Id 003

I've made a new release of the Own-Id code. There's no single big change, just an accumulation of small things. At the suggestion of John Murray I've changed the 'about' page to a FAQ. Let me know what you think.

Own-Id fact: there are now 88 OpenIds on Own-Id.

2008-01-01

Lord Foul's Bane

Possibly the last time I read a book in the fantasy genre was at school in the 4th and 5th year when I'd go to the library to escape the rough bullying types, and congregate with the weedy misfits. David Eddings was one author I remember. From what I see in libraries he's still popular (do they take books off library shelves if they're not popular?).

I've always avoided fantasy subsequently. Gnomes and wizards just seem silly. I've never got on with Terry Pratchett or Harry Potter books.

It was by mistake that I picked up The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson at Bath Central Library a few weeks ago. I thought it was sci-fi, but then saw it was fantasy. Ahhh!

On the cover it said it was a classic from the 70s and for some reason that appealed to me. I know you shouldn't go by covers, but I do. The Chronicles is a trilogy, and I've finished the first book, Lord Foul's Bane. It was great! I like the central character, a reluctant hero. An anti-hero I suppose. The Donaldson dude uses a lot of unusual words; can I have the book in electronic form so that I can click on a word and see its definition please?