Thursday, 25 June 2015

R.I.P. Patrick Macnee

(Not meant as frivolous):

But (along with The Avengers itself) it's still my favourite thing he did. Not a lot sums up the era quite like that.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015


The technology company, not the fruit.

Not that the apple (the fruit, not the vast rich technology company) isn't a fascinating subject, of course, but not one I've time to write about just now.

No, I'm talking about the megalithic corporation that is Apple, Inc. I'm sure their products are all very good and that, but I don't actually own any. I'm not a hater or anything, it's just that I've never seen the reason to buy any of them.

They've done extremely well for themselves, anyhow, and are now the biggest company in the world. There are some good reasons why, they released some innovative products at the right time, made them intuitive and simple for use and made people want them. And all their devices are compatible with one another, which is a big plus (provided you only own other Apple devices). So yeah, I can understand their continued success, but I don't really like or understand it.

A few of my problems:

- The good thing about PCs is that you can swap all the bits and pieces in and out, add RAM, get a better graphics card, etc. You can buy the bits piecemeal and build yourself a PC easily enough. Various PCs I've had over the years have been Frankenstein machines, which is only possible because you're not tied to any particular manufacturer and (unless the component is really outdated) old and spare components can be re-used, because there is compatibility across the industry. Apple on the other hand insist that everything goes through them. Attempt to modify the device invalidates the warranty.

- Any Apple product is automatically at least 25% more expensive than all of its equivalently capable rivals and the more successful the product becomes, the higher they push up that price point. I think the top of the range iPhone is getting on for 800 quid now, with all your contracts and crap, which - call me old-fashioned - is a fundamentally ridiculous price for a phone.

- Like most mega-corporations, they have partly grown so huge by the simple expedient of paying as little tax as possible - this article from 2013 - sums it up quite well (and as far as I know, still holds true). This has cheated governments all around the world out of billions of dollars

- Again, like other huge corporate manufacturers, Apple have all their products made in China, by workers in intolerable conditions (enforced 70-hour weeks, punishingly rigid output controls, very little time off, in fact no real workers' rights at all). They do this because everyone else does it and because they can. But that doesn't mean it's right. They make such vast profits and are sitting on such an enormous pile of cash, they are in an ideal position to change this system. Granted, they wouldn't make quite so much money, but they could easily afford to ensure that their workers are paid more and have better working conditions and rights than their rivals. If they were very publically seen to do this, then they could even shame their rivals into doing the same. But do they? No, they always wait until they get caught, then profess ignorance, launch investigations and promise to improve matters. And as Apple does this repeatedly, it's evident that no improvements are really made.

Plus various other stuff, in fact pretty much their whole corporate ethos and the way they do business. The latest story of course is the one about their impending music streaming service; having presumably done all the royalty deals with the record labels, they then announced that there would be a 3 month free trial but "forgot" to mention that during this period, they would be paying no royalties to the labels, and so nothing to the artists. Giving that they've got a pile of something like $230 billion stashed away, this seem a little bit stingy, not to mention duplicitous. Luckily Taylor Swift stepped in to save the day and they've reversed their decision and royalties will be paid during the trial period after all.

It just gets me that a company so big, so rich and so powerful are still trying to screw everyone else, their competitors with a seemingly constant stream of plagiarism lawsuits, etc., their customers by keeping all their stuff proprietory and non-standard (so you can't just charge their products with conventional battery chargers, for instance), and in general trying to lock them into using only Apple products and then screw them with long-term contracts, etc., further ensuring their loyalty...

I reckon that has to lie at the core of it, the customer loyalty. Once they've got you with one product, you're tied in and because their stuff is so expensive, I think people justify continuing their phone contracts and buying new Apple products because of that high initial outlay.

At least that's the only reason I can think of; a company that is well-known for restrictive business practices, tax avoidance, poor value for money, general evil, etc. doesn't usually inspire such fierce loyalty.

I'm glad I never got sucked into it, anyway.

Friday, 19 June 2015


Should it be renewed in full at a cost of £30 billion?

Or should there be a cut-down version coming in at roughly half that amount?

Or something else? Or nothing at all?

Growing up in the 1980s, the threat of nuclear destruction was still quite real; as a teenager I remember being totally freaked by "Edge Of Darkness" (wouldn't mind seeing that again) and then of course there was Chernobyl around the same time, plus Reagan had his finger on the nuclear button...

But how real a threat is it now? It would be insane for any country to launch a nuclear strike against any other, simply because the consequences would be far graver for the aggressor. There's enough nuclear weaponry in the world to destroy it several times over and surely anyone with half a mind would realise that initiating a nuclear conflict would not only be suicidal for themselves, but probably most of the rest of the world too, whether they liked it or not (probably not).

The UK hasn't got £30 billion to blow on a weapons system that will almost definitely never be used, so I say let's just pretend we've renewed it, and it's better than ever. Who's going to ever find out that it doesn't exist? No-one, that's who.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

England vs. Scotland

What to do, eh?

Today the Scottish Assembly voted unanimously to extend voting in local and Scottish Parliamentary elections to 16 and 17 year olds; coincidentally today a cross-party mandate to extend voting in the (eventually) upcoming Euro referendum to 16 and 17 year olds was roundly defeated in the Commons.

Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the Scottish independence referendum proved a success, I think, and certainly gave the lie to the assertion that young people aren't interested in engaging with politics - the turnout amongst this age group was upwards of 80%. OK, special case with high turnout all round but still, if 16 and 17 year olds can work, marry, join the armed forces etc. then why can't they vote?

I know this is becoming a bit of a theme, but England and Scotland seem to be moving politically in opposite directions (very generally) and since the outcome of the independence referendum, this process is without a doubt speeding up. Scotland is passing laws that can be generally described as "socially progressive" while England is passing laws that can generally be described in the opposite terms.

At the risk of becoming a conspiracy nut (I'm a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, but I don't believe most of them), I'd venture to say that this scenario has been engineered deliberately.

Prior to the Scottish Independence referendum, there was lots and lots of talk about how it might affect Scotland and the knock-on effects for the other nations (rUK as they came to be known) and was there enough oil and what if the oil price drops and ah! but there's more than just oil and ah! but but this is just based on supposition and forecasting and what if this happens etc. etc. Probably far too much talk really. But it certainly got a lot of Scottish people who wouldn't normally have even a passing interest in politics discussing what can be very complex economic and social issues. I would venture to say that the Scottish electorate is far more engaged and far better-informed than that of the rest of the UK at the moment.

Now, if I was David Cameron (or any other Tory leader since about 1970) I'd be desperate to ditch Scotland on purely electoral grounds. It would get rid of (at the time) about 40 Labour MPs at the cost of 1 Tory MP; how could he not want that? It's not as though he has a sense of social responsibility or anything, it's about WINNING.

But instead of that, Labour joined together with the Tories (and by extension, the Lib Dems) in the "Better Together" campaign to combat the SNP.

Why? I still can't figure it out. To anyone with a passing interest in politics, it makes no sense. The logical sides in the Scottish yes/no debate should have been SNP & Conservatives vs. Labour and everyone else. I can't believe that Labour were naive enough to buy Cameron's rhetoric about the Tories genuinely being behind the union (although it's certainly true that - as a Unionist Party - they must pretend to be). They must have been fucking furious that the Conservatives got involved, full stop.

I'm no prophet or seer but it was completely obvious to me that this would kill Labour in Scotland in the forthcoming General Election (it would have also killed the Lib Dems, but they'd committed electoral suicide in all areas four years' prior anyway by joining up with the Tories in a blatant short-term power-grab). Lo and behold, a year later, the SNP take 56 of 59 seats running on a broadly centre-left platform, while Labour lose 40 seats, retaining only 1.

Meanwhile, in England, the Tories, running on a broadly centre-right platform, are cleaning up in the old Lib Dem constituencies (no surprises there), virtually taking the entire South of England up to Stoke. London and the North of England, meanwhile, remain largely resistant to Tory charms and follow a voting profile more similar to that of Scotland (except there's no SNP to vote for).

Oh, I don't know where I'm going with this. Often I start things thinking that I have a point in mind but in the process of trying to get to the point, I forget what the point is.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

General Election 2015: General: (1)

I like data.

I like messing around with numbers and statistics and seeing how changing one small thing can have ripple effects that are often completely counter-intuitive.

As for elections, I love them as well. And with me going a bit mad when I did, it gave me the perfect opportunity to give it a good fucking going over. In particular I thought it would be a good time to have a look at the micro-parties and the number of voters they can attract and why, plus I wanted to get an idea of the proportion of people who would deliberately spoil their ballot as a protest, rather than simply abstain.

Except I just assumed my data was right on the night and it turns out it wasn't, I had all my electorate numbers mixed up and all sorts and am still trying to sort them out now. Did you know the actual electorate isn't confirmed until the day of the election? I didn't until this year, I thought it was decided well in advance by the Boundary Commission (which it is geographically), but the population within those boundaries is updated right up until election day...who knew, eh? Makes sense I guess.

Anyway, I'm now trying to get a grip on the spoilt ballots. It's a fucking pain in the arse, because while they're counted, they're never reported and you have to trawl through all the individual council websites to try to find them from the actual declarations. AND on top of that, some councils keep record of the number of ballot papers issued, but not a record of those returned, so it's all very confusing when the figures don't add up as they should; sometimes non-returned papers are recorded, sometimes they're not. Some don't bother mentioning the minor parties, some do, some don't give a figure for the active electorate, some do, some do give an electorate figure but no turnout figure, some do it the other way around and so on AND SO ON. I've had to infer a few, but with the sorts of numbers we're talking about (typically around 150-200 per constituency) that shouldn't make a deal of difference.

Mind you, I would like to get it as right as I can. I've split the Independent/Other votes into sections too (e.g. localism, electoral reform, etc.) and want to try to get a handle on that too.

While I'm still messing around trying to compile the data (did I mention that not all sources are consistent? No? It doesn't help) I don't want to post anything definitive. But I'm pretty confident that a party consisting of those on the electoral register who didn't vote, that party, yeah that party would win a majority pretty much every time.

[Edit: just done a quick & dirty run through and if a new parliamentary party had been set up at the last election and had 50% of non-voters randomly allocated to it in each constituency, it would have had over 7 and a half million votes and would be the third largest party by voter preference. But under FPTP, it would have just 5 seats.]

...and part 3

I forgot to mention...

...that Jeremy Corbyn, unlike the others, seems sincere and genuine and actually believes in what he's saying. I think some of the others just say what they think will get them the most votes, whether they believe it or not.

And he's refusing to slag off the other candidates. He wants to bring a mood of reconciliation to the debate and make it about ideas and policies rather than personalities and insults.

And I think the parliamentary Labour party may be quite shocked when they find out how much support Jeremy Corbyn has amongst the grassroots party membership. He'll not be popular with newer or more Blairite members, but if the party has managed to hold enough of its original, broadly "socialist" members, he might do a lot better than most people expect.

Finally, as a bizarre P.S., the papers are reporting that members of the Conservative Party are now joining the Labour Party in order to vote for Corbyn as a hilarious ruse! Presumably they, like much of the rest of the Labour side, think that electing Corbyn as leader would effectively end the Labour Party for good.

Fine, let them, the more the merrier. It proves that they are not afraid of a Corbyn leadership and I think that's a mistake. Granted, that's just my opinion, but from what I've seen, he wouldn't be afraid to denounce the PM and Chancellor's lies about the economy. And in general I think he'd make mincemeat of either of them on pretty much any subject.

Labour leadership race, pt. 2

Further to a few posts ago...

...and to be my surprise, Jerermy Corbyn succeeded in getting his 35 nominations (almost literally at the last minute), so will join Andy Burnham (odds 4/6), Liz Kendall (5/2) and Yvette Cooper (7/2) in the leadership race, albeit as rank outsider (20/1 on Ladbrokes when I checked last night). He's already acknowledged that he doesn't expect all his nominees to vote for him (he says some have already told him!) but wanted someone different in the race, which is some sort of positive sign.

It seems to be the prevalent view amongst both right and left that a Labour Party with Corbyn as leader would be electoral suicide. "No," they say, "you need someone who will blah blah blah" (much of which really means "you need someone more right-wing".

"Corbyn is hard left!" they cry. Really? He supports renationalising the railways and other previously sold-off areas of the public sector (very popular with the electorate), opposes the benefits cap (as it ignores the stupidly soaring rents in certain areas of the country and treats all cases as the same), opposes the renewal of Trident (as do the majority of the public), He resolutely refuses to pander to that small-minded sector of his party who were swayed away by UKIP at the last election, so opposes the draconian curbs on immigration that certain others (most Tories, some of Labour) are currently espousing. He (broadly) advocates rebalancing the economy through investment and GDP growth, rather than cutting state spending. He would like to see a redistribution of wealth from the very rich to the very poor. He voted against the Iraq war. I don't see any "hard left" policies there.

My point is that now that Corbyn is in the race, at least there can be some sort of meaningful debate prior to the leadership election itself. Without him, the other three would really just be arguing about nuance (except perhaps Liz Kendall, who comes across as a bit flightly to me and could be prone to wild swings of opinion).

Perhaps - as I've mused in earlier ramblings - it's me that's hopelessly out of touch. Maybe the politics of this country have shifted so far to the right that what I regard as sensible, fair, centre-left policies are now seen as rampaging Marxism. The perception by much of the media of Andy Burnham as left-wing speaks volumes I suppose. And in any case, he's still trying to wriggle his way out of his responsibility for the PFI deals set up when he was Health Secretary (I'm sure we'll hear more about that later). I don't see him as left-wing, Cooper and Kendall even less so.

I think there's been this collective buying-into the idea that government spending is bad, so cuts are inevitable, whereas I think there are other ways. At least now we'll get to hear the other side of that argument as well as the other three arguing amongst themselves about how big the spending cuts should be.

Probably the consensus is right, a Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn as leader would be unelectable, but a lot can happen in five years. Also, since the rules of the leadership contest changed (no block vote for the unions) to one member one vote, the power of normal members is surely increased enormously? I only need to pay £3 to become a voting member for the Labour Party...I might just do that, as I would definitely vote for a Labour Party that had Jeremy Corbyn as leader, rather than fudging about with Lib Dems and Greens.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Fear of automation

I don't really mean in the Luddite way, though.

Although there is an element of that; I've never used one of those self-scan things at the supermarket for instance. I'm sure they're great for some people, but each one gets rid of a checkout operator's job. It's logical for the supermarket - once the capital outlay of the self-scan machine is paid for, it's an ongoing saving of thousands of pounds each year - but I just don't think it's right. I think I do realise that it's here now and it's largely inevitable that it will proliferate, though, whether I like it or not.

There's been a couple of high-profile (Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk) folk warning about artificial intelligence lately and its threat to humanity. I can see their point; although genuine machine intelligence isn't really anywhere near yet, it probably will be some day (maybe when we understand more about how the human brain works) and there's definitely potential for evil there.

I'm thinking more about automated processes following algorithms that for one reason or another go wrong. There was a news story about this a few months back about a lot of Amazon sellers losing a lot of money. Most of the big Amazon marketplace sellers use an add-on program to monitor the sales, stock levels, prices, etc. of all their items; these programs also compare your price to everyone else's. If you wish, you can set the program to reduce your price to a penny below the cheapest available, or just to match the best price, or whatever, but crucially you would set a minimum price for each item (so as not to sell at a loss). Now I can't remember the name of the program used, but it went wrong for a couple of hours and during this period effectively reduced the price of every item to a penny (well, everyone selling on Amazon that was using this program, anyway).

The error was noticed pretty quickly by the sellers, but not before the damage was done. I'm not fully up on the consumer laws, but I'm sure most of the sellers that were affected were able to mitigate the loss in some way, i.e. those in control of their own stock, because they could come to some arrangement with the customers. The real problem was for the people that had signed up for the "Fulfilled by Amazon" service, which is effectively the next layer of automation. You sell your stock on the marketplace in the usual way, but the difference is that you've send the actual physical product to Amazon for them to pick, pack and despatch. Under this system, the processing of an order can be done in minutes, which is how one machine parts manufacturer lost something like a quarter of a million pounds, all his stock of £50, £100, £200, whatever items had sold at a penny each and Amazon had already automatically despatched the stock.

I dunno what happened with that in the end - I know Amazon argued that it wasn't their fault, rather a fault with an add-on program not within their control - but I'm getting off the point anyway,

So, along these lines, I am fascinated by the idea of self-replicating machines, which to an extent already exist, but can only operate under specific controlled conditions (most crucially, the availability to them of the appropriate building materials). But what if you could get a self-replicating machine that was able to successfully forage for the materials it needs to replicate itself?

I've a feeling that's all a bit muddled up. Maybe I'll come back to it later (unless the machines have taken over by then, of course).

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Full disclosure

I think I realised today that I'm holding too much back. 

When I started this thing, it was just to have somewhere to write down random stuff. I thought it might be interesting - if embarrassing - to read back at a later date. Plus of course, I find it really difficult to talk to people I know about personal things (oh, I don't know, another hang-up from god knows where) and thought that it would be more easily written in some sort of anonymous form. But I really need to be honest for that to have any value and there's a lot of stuff I've not mentioned.

That's not to say that I will; I might have said before that nothing can happen until you actually admit it to yourself (or something) and I'm not sure I have admitted everything yet. Thing is, I don't think I know what "everything" is yet. I know I need to talk to someone but I...can't at the moment.

None of that made much sense, but that's half the point I suppose; I made a vow (or was it a pledge, or lock?) to pretty much just write what comes naturally and edit only minimally, so I might as well stick to it. I've been guilty of over-thinking and over-editing things in the past, often to end up just deleting them, so I'll leave this one.

Friday, 12 June 2015

George Osborne - is he mad?

Or is he stupid?

(I'm taking it for granted that he is greedy, dishonest and self-serving).

I can't remember if I've ranted on about this already but what the hell. I just can't get my head around what he's trying to do.

First of all, he has pledged not to increase the rate of VAT, income tax or National Insurance during the lifetime of this parliament. Given that this represents two-thirds of government income, that's unnecessarily hamstringing himself (unless he can see the future, which he can't). I mean, he could do that, but why do it? It's bizarre. Why rule out your three main revenue-earners when you have absolutely no idea where the economy is going?

Next, he wants to put into law that the government must run a surplus every year, i.e. make it illegal for the government to have a spending deficit "during normal times" (which seems to me a vague enough catch-all to ensure that the question never comes up; all we know about this definition of "normal times" is that periods of recession are not "normal times"). Given that the government has managed to produce a surplus less than ten times in the last hundred years, I've a feeling that the definition of "normal times" might become a bit difficult to pin down.

OK, let's say he's adamant on those points, including making deficits illegal, what happens if - heaven forfend! - Georgie's fiscal forecasts prove nonsensical and he suddenly is faced with a shortfall of £100m? Where will he get it from? There'd ususally be other options here, i.e. grow the economy (but that's obviously not an option if he's faced with a shortfall) or borrow the money (like normal governments would) but that's illegal now, so it's either:

1. Make up the shortfall by increasing the other taxes. Corporation tax and business rates - the next biggest contributors to government income - no chance. So things like fuel, tobacco and alcohol duties would all have to seriously rocket.

2. Cut government spending like crazy. Where though? Not pensions. Not the NHS (unless he wants it to completely implode). Not defence, that 2% is already committed. Law & Order? Education? Transport? Even if he cut all three in half he'd get nowhere near the amount he needs. There's fuck all left in terms of public assets to flog to his City mates, which really only leaves Social Security.

I think he's backed himself into a corner here. All things considered, it's obvious that he intends to make slash in-work benefits, cap other benefits, etc. etc. I just wonder how he's going to square all the above without quite a lot of people dying.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Labour Leadership Contest

After his General Election defeat, Ed Milliband ran off to Ibiza.

Why, here's some definitive and by no means Photoshopped proof:

Ed largin' it with the Ibiza massive. Also in background: Mick Hucknall, John Shuttleworth)

As you can see, Ed's loving it over there. Look at the contented look on his face! All those election worries drained away!

Always the trendsetter, Ed takes to the wheels of steel to spin tunez so hot they've not been recorded yet!

Well, can't say I blame him.

But it does mean that he's out of the way for the upcoming leadership contest!

So, who's up for it? One person who isn't is Chukka Umunna, who announced his candidacy and became the early favourite, only to withdraw three days later, "uncomfortable" with the "added scrutiny" that came with being a candidate (read "I didn't jump, I was pushed", I think), but I couldn't speculate as to the reason. Maybe he just realised that he was actually a Conservative at heart and being Labour leader wasn't actually his main chance.

Anyway, the race is shaping up to be excruciatingly dull. Labour currently have 232 MPs and to be in the race, you need endorsements from at least 35 of those MPs, so that restricts the potential field to 6 for a start. Only three - Andy Burnham (60), Yvette Cooper (43) and Liz Kendall (37) - have them so far and of the others, Jeremy Corbyn (16) and Mary Creagh (7) might not even make it, despite there being 69 MPs yet to endorse anyone. And they wouldn't stand a chance in the election anyway.

Personally I'd like Jeremy Corbyn, simply because he's the only one who isn't buying into the whole austerity thing and - from what he says - seems to at least have some grip on how government economics work, rather than all the other candidates, who are all pro-austerity to one degree or another. At least the absurd story that the profligacy of the last Labour administration caused the world financial crisis seems to have been thoroughly debunked now. I don't claim to be an economic expert but this was absurd from the outset. I really still can't believe that Labour didn't strenuously deny this obvious lie until they realised it's what they should have done. And even now, the main candidates seem to be pushing the line that "yeah, we spent too much which is why we were unprepared for the recession", which I personally don't believe is true either.

If you look at the graph of government expenditure as % of GDP since 1985 (luckily, I have this to hand as I think of little else):

There's the obvious spike in 2008 when the banks needed to be bailed out, but prior to that I would describe Labour's spending as - to use a favourite Gordon Brownism - "prudent". He (Gordon) could've spent quite a lot more from 1997 to 2002 - "make hay while the sun shines" - and made little difference to the public finances in the long term.

He did make mistakes. ("Light tough regulation" of the banks and other financial institutions was never going to work, was it? Bankers are notoriously greedy and were obviously going to see this as an invitation to get away with any chicanery, manipulation or absurd risks they wanted. It was all fair game to them). So having these toxic fuckers around tossing billions of pounds of bank money into extremely risky ventures at absolutely no risk to themselves personally probably didn't help. And towards the end, when he was PM, he definitely went a bit mad. But at least he seemed to understand economics.

DRM and why it can never work

It can never work for audio, anyway.

When Sony/BMG (and probably other record labels, they were just the first one that came into my head) software on their audio CDs as a attempt at copy-protection, it was fairly quickly binned. I would have thought the flaws were so obvious that I'm amazed they attempted it at all. Aside from changing the actual product from an audio CD into a CD-ROM (deviating from the Red Book standards, which ensured that all players, regardless of brand, could play standard audio CDs), causing the obvious problem of people being unable to play them on their old CD players, it was so laughably easily bypassable that seriously, everyone involved with it at Sony should have been immediately moved to another of their divisions, as they clearly didn't understand audio.

As I pointed out at the time, ask the question:

Q:  Can I play this CD and hear the music on it?

If the answer is "no", then the product is not fit for use and if the answer is "yes", then I can copy it (because if I can play it, I can record a DRM-free version of the audio through any number of ways). Either situation it's lose-lose for the company.

I don't think it's used on CDs at all now (for that reason) but there are still some internet companies that are using it (Napster still do, Apple used to but don't any more) but the same thing applies: If I can hear it, I can copy it.

Probably the companies (sorry, that didn't sound sinister enough - "The Companies" - yes, that's better) are slowly realising that the future sales of pretty much all music will be in a digital format and for this to work to their best advantage, there needs to be a industry-standard format (which I suppose at the moment is DRM-free mp3 files). This means no more fucking around with futile attempts at copy-protection.

As for DRM for software (games in particular), that's a completely different kettle of fish, because the company can insist on always-on DRM (persistent online authentication), which means you need to be connected to the internet (presumably after entering some other authentication) and I don't see an easy way around that for those without the technical expertise to crack them. Once cracked, DRM-free versions can be distributed willy-nilly, but I wouldn't personally know how to do it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Quick one

What is the correct way to address Grant Shapps?

1. Mr. Grant Shapps
2. Dr. Grant Shapps
3. The Rt. Hon. Grant Shapps
4. Mr. Michael Green
5. Mr. Sebastian Fox
6. Dr. Sebastian Fox, Ph.D
7. Mr. Chuck Champion
8. It would depend on the circumstances
9. It would depend on the money
10. etc.

Unbelievable P.S.

It's almost too good to be true,

but (further to all that stuff I typed yesterday about Alberto Salazar) it turns out that one of the pacemakers that Lance Armstrong (who I've only mentioned so far in passing but there's plenty more of him to come) used to help him to a sub-3 hour time at the New York City marathon in 2006 (? - might have the year wrong, but it's easily searchable) was...

...Alberto Salazar!

The way this is panning out, it looks as though pretty much all the drug stories - from the systematic cover-up (by the athletics authorities) of major athletes' positive tests in the 1980s*, through the BALCO, Trevor Graham and Nike's various involvements (including their current Oregon Project) - are linked by certain individuals and organisations. And that's just the ones that have been definitively documented (or are about to be, aren't they Alberto?), I've not mentioned the whole Eastern Bloc programme in the 1970s and 1980s, whatever the hell Flo-Jo was up to or any of the other rumours that follow certain other names around.

*  My favourite story surrounding drugs and athletics - and I really wish I had some documentary evidence to back it up - is that in the summer of 1987, there was a rumour circulating athletics circles in Europe; basically this rumour was that the athletics authorities wanted to prove that they were catching the cheats and ensuring that the sport was clean. As such, an edict was sent out that an example was to be made of a high-profile athlete (by exposing them as a drugs cheat) at the following year's Olympics: the highest-finishing non-US athlete in the men's 100m final would be busted**. And we all know what happened there...

**  I imagine the men's 100m final was chosen because it could be guaranteed that without cover-ups, you could have busted anyone out of that race.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Alberto Salazar

The allegations about Salazar aired on Panorama last week are still dominating the (sports) news here.

There's a nice summary of it here (just ignore the survey question) but genuinely the only thing in that programme that surprised me was that Allan Wells had been using testosterone, I'd always assumed he was clean (not that I claim to be any sort of expert).

Anyway, I'll be very interested to see where the Salazar/Rupp (and by extension of course, Farah) story goes, as (1) I've had suspicions about his whole outfit and Nike and the Oregon Project for years now and (2) it's yet another of those subjects that I want to do a much longer post about (I'm going to have to set up a spreadsheet to keep track of those, there's so many).

I genuinely don't know if Salazar out-and-out dopes, but it's well-known in the sport - he practically admits it - that he exploits grey areas to the maximum possible degree. In particular, a surprising proportion of his athletes seem to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism, or suddenly become asthmatic, or (if they're male) have their testosterone levels found to be dangerously low, or whatever. Of course this means they are able to obtain the appropriate medication to "correct" these problems, and so also able to obtain PED (sorry, Therapeutic Use) exemptions accordingly. I don't know, but my instinct is that Salazar is working with Dr. Nick Riviera rather than Dr. Lionel Hibbert, if you know what I'm saying.

Shortly before all the Lance Armstrong revelations became public (late 2011?) I remember talking to my brother (who still didn't want to believe that Lance was a scumbag) and I definitely mentioned that I thought there might be something funny going on with Mo Farah, who earlier that year had joined Salazar's group and was rapidly improving his PBs across the board. Obviously I would love to put his amazing improvements down to the reasons that Salazar gives; better training, oxygen tents, altitude simulation, super-high-tech gadgets, hard work, more work, more better harder work with every possible technological advancement used maximally etc., but know.

Now, even within what is effectively a private diary, I'd better be careful what I type here...

This is how I see it playing out:

- Salazar denies everything and insists he always works within the rules
- Couple of days later, turns out all the Panorama allegations (and more) were true
- Everything looks bad for everyone connected with that group, frankly
- Something is contrived by which Salazar and Rupp take all the blame (i.e. Farah is "clean")

Why? Because a certain ex-middle distance runner who wants to be the next IAAF chief (who has described himself as a "good friend" of Salazar's for over thirty years) is now saying things like "Alberto will mount a stout defence" and "I'm not supporting him" and "Mo will have to make his own judgment about that [Salazar's defence]". It suggests some sort of get-out clause for Farah, unless I'm turning into some sort of David Icke-type conspiracy nut.

Monday, 8 June 2015

What do we really know?

I reckon: not as much as we think we do.

Just been reading a story about President Obama, Russia, Crimea, Ukraine, sanctions, that stuff, on the Guardian website. When you read the comments section, it's apparent that a lot of them are written by Russians. It's quite striking in fact. They are apparently posted by "Putin-bots" working in Savushkina Street (Google it if you don't already know) although I'm not really sure I believe that. They're always very pro-Putin, pro-Russia and anti-West, often quite virulently.

The Western view of Russia is something like: Putin does what he likes and only the State version of events is reported to normal citizens. Funnily enough, this isn't a great deal different to what seems to be the Russian view of the West - Obama and the EU do what they like and through propaganda, convince normal citizens that their version of events is right.

Let's assume Putin is (although I doubt he's had a clinical diagnosis) insane (in a kind of Bond villain way). However, I do think he's genuine - as in he believes that what he's doing is right - he didn't "annex" the Crimea or make moves into Ukraine (and who knows where in the future) for some power-grab, he did it because he sees these territories as parts of Russia to be reclaimed. His always-high approval ratings and constant re-elections (unless all that's rigged) suggest that most Russian people agree with him, too.  "Ah yes", they naysay, "but they only believe what they're told".

I'm not suggesting that the Russian view is right by any means, but I don't think their news is censored as much as we seem to think it is, especially for English-reading Russians. I just sometimes wonder if what we're being told is accurate, given that most of our media has an agenda of one sort or other.

Hopelessly out of my depth on this one, I think. You know sometimes you think you want to say something about something, then realise you don't really know what you're on about? You Are Here.

Auto-write 2

The more I think about this the more plausible it becomes.

Obviously you couldn't just do it like the old BASIC programs that would spew out endless nonsense along the lines of "The big strong man greased the fantastic donkey while a small dog sniffed a dangerously cool sky" and "the gorgeous tall woman mislaid the dirty cocaine because a heavy elephant guarded a furiously normal cat". I know those sentences read like I've copied them out of a Jackie Collins novel but I can assure you I haven't.

But that was when I was pissing about on VIC-20s and Spectrums. With today's computing power, getting a computer to write a "story" of some kind would surely be a lot more doable?

The principle would be the same - just a bunch of randomly-generated permutations - but you could make it a lot more complex. You couldn't just substitute words, it would have to be substitution of phrases (or even passages?) and would need a load of outlines or scenarios to begin with...yes, this could definitely be done. It would be pretty unlikely ever to produce anything worth reading but I think something could be knocked up.

I suppose the best you could hope for would be a machine for writing to a formula (this is how Barbara Cartland did it apparently, she wasn't even alive for the last twenty years. It's amazing nobody noticed, given how clownishly bizarre the animatronic figure looked whenever it was activated for public appearances, but hey, sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees).

More thought needed...


In the middle of the night is when I think of a lot of things.

I don't think that's unusual, it can be quite a peculiar time.

So I was thinking about the infinite amount of monkeys typing on an infinite amount of typewriters, that sort of thing, and those story-wheel things and random sentence constructors that I used to piss about with when I was learning BASIC programming. For some reason I then wondered if you could take a well-known passage from something, then randomise certain words and see if it would still be recognisable from the original.

My instinct is that it wouldn't take many substitutions before the passage became unrecognisable gibberish, no more than four or five substitutions, something like that. Bet someone's done some work on this. Can't be arsed looking it up now.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Chessboard And The Rice

When I was about eight or nine...

...I had one of those childhood illnesses - couldn't tell you which one, German measles I think - that can cause fever and delirium. Anyway, I think this is my only really clear memory of being delirious to the point of genuinely believing that something really bad is happening (even though it obviously isn't).

My dad was always into maths as a sort of hobby and one of the maths-related stories he told me was the one about the chessboard and the rice. It's a well-known fable and although details differ between versions, the one I remember goes broadly like this:

There is an Emperor of some empire or other (obviously) and an inventor. The inventor invents something so amazing - possibly the game of chess itself? - that the Emperor wants to give him a huge reward and asks the inventor what he would like. Effectively he is saying "name your price".

But instead of asking for a huge sum of money, or for lands, the inventor says that he would like his reward to take the form of grains of rice, arranged on a chessboard. On square 1 would be 1 grain of rice, square 2 would have 2 grains, square 3 would have 4 grains, square 4 = 8 grains, square 5 has 16 grains, i.e. doubling each time up to the 64th square. The Emperor laughs and asks the inventor why he is requesting such a paltry prize. "No," says the inventor, "this is actually many times more rice than the Empire can produce in a hundred years."

He was of course demonstrating to the Emperor how counter-intuitive a geometric progression can be. The actual amount of grains of rice (r) he would receive (were it possible) would be:

r = 2^0 + 2^1 + 2^2 + 2^3 + ... 2^62 + 2^63, so multiplying both sides by 2:

2r = 2^1 + 2^2 + 2^3 + ... 2^63 + 2^64, or in other words:

2r - r = (2^1 + 2^2 + 2^3 + ... 2^63 + 2^64) - (2^0 + 2^1 + 2^2 + 2^3 + ... 2^62 + 2^63)

r = 2^64 - 2^0

r = (2^64)-1

r = 18,446,744,073,551,615

which is a lot of grains of rice (according to Wikipedia, it would weigh a total of 461,168,602,000 metric tonnes and would make a pile the size of Mount Everest, which seems to assume that there are forty grains of rice to a metric gramme, which sounds about right). Whatever, it's something like a thousand times more rice than is produced in a typical year (these days, not in the times of this Empire - who knows, they might have been really mad on rice and everyone would be cultivating rice all the time - but the principle stands).

It's such a basic principle that it has innumerable real-life applications but that's not why I typed all that stuff about it, even though it was all very interesting and that and suchlike.

Nah, it was because when I had this childhood illness or whatever it was, I have this really clear memory of being in bed, recuperating I suppose, when I was suddenly convinced that the chessboard was real and it was right there and the grains of rice were being counted onto it RIGHT THERE AND THEN. I remember running downstairs in a panic because I had to tell someone that there was this existential threat - everyone was going to be suffocated! - and no-one was doing anything to stop it...

I don't recall what happened after that but on checking, no Mount Everest-sized piles of rice were reported in the northeast of England in the late 1970s or early 1980s, so I think it can be assumed that somebody must have calmed me down and told me it was all a dream. But I perceived it as very real at the time.

It actually ties into one of my genuine fears (I can honestly say I don't have many rational fears) but I've written enough bollocks for now. And anyway, I want to do a whole "thing" about it because it's such a fascinating subject that it deserves its own "thing". But not today.

That door shut ages ago.

One day I'll write a lot more (don't say you've not been warned) about this.

But for now, I'll restrict it to:

There are all kinds of noises being made about new laws needing to be passed concerning communication over the internet (I don't know what the fuck's going on with the Patriot Act and the Freedom Act and the yada yada yada, but let's assume they've got some covert internet surveillance going on - balance of past probabilities and all that).

The first problem with blanket internet surveillance (which unless I've misunderstood things, seems to be generally the way the politicians want to go) is that it probably isn't even possible; yes, it's possible to measure "internet traffic" but there's JUST SO MUCH OF can any reasonable person suggest that anything of use could be extracted?  You'd need literally millions of people working on it 24 hours a day just to keep up. If the government think that this is analogous to the reading of prisoners' communications, they're even more naive than I thought.

Anyway, here's a few flaws in the blanket internet surveillance argument off the top of my head (assuming the following):

- resources are available to accurately intercept all cyber-data;
- resources are available to filter the signal from the noise;
- resources are available to deliver any information deemed relevant to someone "in power".
- oh, and you'd have to be able to do all this in real time, too.

- Much of what is flagged as "signal" will be entirely innocuous under any scheme I can think of;
- Anything that might be useful as "signal" will almost certainly been sent in an encrypted form, so
- if it hadn't already been dismissed as "noise", it would still need deciphering and
- there are already any number of encryption methods that are effectively undecipherable,
- or, a entirely innocuous-seeming exchange could be prearranged to mean something completely different to those "in the know", and this arrangement almost definitely wouldn't have been made via the same channels
- and anyway, terrorisztz/paedophiles etc. tend not to broadcast their plans by whatever means, unless they're very stupid.

Got a bit confused there, but that's only because there's so many ways to shoot this thing down that it's difficult to know where to start.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Another meander down Solipsism Lane

Mental illness can be funny.

Both funny peculiar and funny ha-ha (I love that expression). I've long had an interest in it and went through a period at university when aberrant psychology absolutely fascinated me (given that I was studying medicine at the time, with a particular interest in forensics, there's an obvious direction that could have gone, but it didn't).

I think before you experience mental illness for yourself, it is a pretty interesting area, if you're into learning about things that is. The continued success (deserved too) of popular books about psychology - things like 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" and "The Power of Introverts" rather than stuff like "Think Yourself Thin!" and the rest of the self-help crap - is testament to this. But I guess while I'm here, why slag off self-help books, hell if the placebo works, don't knock it. Ah, you know what I mean.

Anyway as everyone says, the first step to treating depression is recognising that you have it. I'd always assumed this to be a cliche, but it is true (or at least it is for me). And that took a hell of a long time. So I'm past that bit now, which I guess has to be a relief. What next though? Fuck knows.

I suppose the mention of solipsism is because I've - at points during this...whatever it is - had moments where I can seem to be completely self-knowing. What I mean is that I can be on a train of thought that I know stems somehow from a mental aberration and even carry out actions according to those thoughts, even if they don't seem to make much sense at the time, whilst being completely aware that what I'm thinking and doing is part of the illness I've got. It's a very strange feeling, but not necessarily "wrong"; no, it can feel wrong but it's always logical. It's like studying your thoughts from the inside, if that makes any sense. I don't think it does really.

Christ, mental illness, you're a hard one to pin down, I'll give you that one.

Friday, 5 June 2015

FIFA saga continues...

Is there no end to this?

This whole FIFA thing is getting like a game of one-upmanship in terms of who can be the most corrupt. Latest news is that the Irish FA accepted a bribe (apparently) directly from Sepp Blatter himself of 5 million Euros not to take FIFA to court over that play-off know the one, Thierry Henry clearly prevents an Irish goal with the palm of his hand and then goes on to score for France, hence putting them through to the finals etc. etc.

The head of the Irish FA (if it was he) was probably quite pragmatic to accept; they mightn't've won the penalty shoot-out that would have been the normal denouement to that play-off match anyway. They mightn't even have won the court case against FIFA had it gone ahead as Blatter would probably have found some way to corrupt that too.

Anyway, enough of this for now I think. When Blatter's actually arrested I'll probably get back into it but for the moment it's really only filling in blanks.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Jack Warner

"Promises to reveal everything he knows".

This is more FIFA stuff of course. Now, given that Jack Warner is already implicated in god knows what (bribes for votes for and from anyone and everyone, dodgy ticket sales, doing dodgy deals with Chuck Blazer, etc.), the mind boggles as to what he's about to come out with.

He's saying that he can link FIFA to the outcome of the Trinidad & Tobago elections, which is...let's say...interesting.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Chuck Blazer!

Throw Jacket! Castaside Cardigan! Fling Overcoat!

Ah, I know it'll've been said a million times before, but Chuck Blazer really does have a great name, doesn't he? "The Adventures of Chuck Blazer" would be a great name for a young adult fiction novel.

Anyway, the Chuck Blazer under discussion here (longtime FIFA executive committee member and the one whose testimony much of the FBI investigation hinges) is now apparently blowing his whistle very loud and very long. Here we go:

"I agreed with other persons in or around 1992 to facilitate the acceptance of a bribe in conjunction with the selection of the host nation for the 1998 World Cup"

"in and around 1993 and continuing through the early 2000s, I and others agreed to take bribes and kickbacks in conjunction with the broadcast and other rights to the 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2003 [CONCACAF] Gold Cups" (the Gold Cup being the CONCACAF equivalent of the Euros, or Africa Cup of Nations)


"I and others on the FIFA Executive Committee agreed to accept bribes in conjunction with the selection of South Africa as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup"

and it's still ongoing.

If he's not bullshitting (why would he, this is a plea bargain) it looks even worse than I'd thought. I mean, I've always assumed that financial chicanery has been going on within FIFA and the IOC to a certain degree since the year dot, but this is making it look about as bad as it could be.

Edit: this Chuck Blazer blog must be some sort of elaborate hoax, mustn't it?

It's a Western Conspiracy!

Further to Sepp's resignation...

...which apparently means "carry on as usual until we can be arsed to elect someone else", Vladimir Putin has condemned the whole FIFA investigation as a "Western Conspiracy". I wonder why that could be? Nothing to do with the 2018 World Cup being fraudulently awarded to Russia then?

Vladimir Putin and Sepp Blatter are apparently good friends.

Sepp Blatter is under investigation by both the FBI and the Swiss authorities for various financial misdemeanours and I'm still sure that he's going to get "done" for something imminently.  I'm also sure that the Qatar World Cup will now not go ahead.

As for the 2018 World Cup, who knows? The Russian federation are almost certainly going to be found to be involved in voting shenanigans, but Putin will probably manage to ensure it goes ahead anyway.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Blatter resigns

Of course, it is for purely altruistic reasons.

Course it is Sepp. You've always had the best interests of FIFA, and football in general, in mind.

I wouldn't be surprised if he (not another of his deputies or stooges) is directly apprehended for fraud or misappropriation of funds within the week.

Charles Kennedy

Sad to hear of the death yesterday of former Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy.

He's always been one of the politicians I've both admired and liked and there aren't many of them.

I'll probably contradict something I've written before, but he was the one that made the Lib Dems a viable proposition and was why I voted for them in 2001 (it didn't help that Labour's enormous 1997 majority had enabled them to push through some...questionable policies). His opposition to the Iraq War (which as he reminded parliament, was also the view of the majority of the electorate) is well-known and has ultimately proved to be correct. And I think the way he was made to resign after admitting his alcoholism was disgraceful. Where was Nick Clegg's concern for those with mental illnesses then?

But as so many have already said, he still carried on, seemingly without bitterness or rancour.  I honestly thought he might be one of the few Lib Dems to hold onto their seat in the 2015 election purely through his personal popularity, but sadly not.

55 is no age, as they say. I wonder what he'd have done next, had he lived? Intriguingly, Alistair Campbell has written this morning that he had at some point close to the election, he had received a text from CK: "fancy starting a new Scottish left-leaning party? I joke not."

Monday, 1 June 2015

ZX Spectrum fun

When you think about it, the 48K Spectrum was a fucking amazing piece of hardware for its time.

I got mine in late 1983 as a combined birthday and Xmas present and I think it was £129.99, but it might have been reduced to £99.99 by then. Now I know that nowadays you could probably get them cobbled together in a Chinese sweatshop for about ten pence each, but at the time it was unbelievable value for money. 48 kilobytes RAM FFS! OK, only 41.5K was usable, but that was still more than the C64 (38K I think), which cost twice the price.

Anyway, I did loads and loads of programming in Spectrum BASIC - which is still an awesome programming language by the way - and have been trying to remember all the tricks I used to save on memory.  I mean, 41.5K seemed loads at the time, but it's very quickly filled, especially given the weird quirks of Spectrum Basic.

For instance, using a single digit number - such as 0, 1, 7 - used seven bytes of storage space.  But a single character variable only used one byte of space.  So, every time you can use a static variable rather than a number, you save six bytes.  So I would set up static variables for any number that was going to be very commonly used in the code, such as:

10  LET o = 0
20  LET i = 1
30  LET tw = 2
40  LET th = 3

But you could go further than that, because in Spectrum BASIC, PI was a defined in ROM, and that only took one byte of storage. Using the logical functions (one byte), I would instead do:

10  LET i = SGN PI   (five bytes saved!)
20  LET o = NOT i   (five bytes saved!)
30  LET tw = i+i   (four bytes saved!)
40  LET th = INT PI   (five bytes saved!)

and so on.

Actually I wouldn't even have done that, because each new line of code cost bytes (can't remember how many), so I'd have actually stuffed them all into a single line, separated by colons:

10  LET i = SGN PI: LET o = NOT i: LET tw = i+i: LET th=INT PI: ...

What other ones were there? I remember using bits of screen memory as RAM (which you could only do if you weren't displaying anything on it at the time, obviously) and I'm sure there was a way of using the UDG character set (all 168 bytes of it!) amongst other things.

I really should plan these things properly instead of just sitting down and typing; I've forgotten (and probably misremembered) a lot of it. Trigonometric functions, other logical stuff, etc.

Ah well.

[Edit @ 22/09/2016:  This isn't too bad.  It's actually readable and (to me, anyway) quite interesting. It's odd that I remember a lot of these posts as "mad" when they weren't really.]

Must get this place cleared up

I've always had a bit of a "thing" about keeping things.

Not in a weird Secret Hoarder way or anything, I'm not that mad.  But I do hang onto things "just in case" they might once again become useful.  It's not unusual, loads of folk are like this.  And sometimes it's justified, especially with old PCs, because of their largely modular architecture.  In fact, the machine I'm typing this on has definitely got some bits of the old ones in it somewhere - memory modules I think - but in the main it's just clutter.

There must be at least five old TVs up in the top room (most of this stuff hangs out up there), at least as many old monitors (I mean, why the fuck have I still got two - not one, but two - massive old CRT monitors with tiny 14 inch screens?), god knows how many empty boxes and boxes inside boxes (which may contain further stuff).  Then there's all the boxes of audio and video tapes, pieces of old furniture, appliances (lamps, kettles, toasters etc.) that don't work any more and so on.

Obviously the easiest thing to do would be to just get someone to clear it out and take it all away. But there's stuff there that I really do want to hold onto mixed up in it all somewhere.  I mean, I've got a collection of NMEs going back almost continually to about 1990, which apart from being historically fascinating to a nerd like me, would be worth a few hundred quid to someone, going by the prices on Ebay (and far more if sold piecemeal).  I'd be a fool to chuck them out, wouldn't I?  And I'd never chuck my original 48K Spectrum (which still works, 32 years on) or C64. Or the Amiga. Or the Speak & Spell machine etc. etc.

Ah, I'll get to it eventually.  It's a work in progress, let's say.

This behaviour extends as far as data, of course; even when I was programming stuff on the Spectrum and everything had to be stored on audio tape (I can't recall if solid-state storage was available for the Speccy in 1986, but if it was it would've been far too expensive for me), I very rarely taped over anything, because I thought I might need the old versions as backups (come to think of it, this is now regarded as best practise, so well done me).

But now (2015 I think it is) data storage is - if you make best use of cloud storage - effectively free. Even if you want an actual physical storage device, 3 terabyte hard drives only cost about fifty quid these days and as for 500Gb drives, I think they come free in cereal packets these days. That's my justification for keeping absolutely everything, anyway.  Including all my old emails, both sent and received, since 1997. That is a bit odd, isn't it? I don't know anyone else who does that.  But hell, they take up almost no physical space, so why not?  Why, it would be a fool not to follow my lead.