Friday, October 20, 2006

Sometimes progress is progress

I've been chatting with a fellow-commuter on the Hampton Wick train, Caroline from Stylish Resorts, for a few years now, and it's pretty obvious that she really cares about the service they give to their clients going out to the Seychelles (where she comes from), Mauritius and Dubai.

Old-fashioned, personal service, you might think - just the kind of thing that is being destroyed by impersonal modern technology?

Well, Web 2.0 just caught up with Caroline - one of her clients gave her a rave review on a forum, some of her other clients joined in the fan club, and now her phone is melting down faster than a cocktail ice cube on an Indian Ocean beach. She didn't know where the new callers were coming from at first, but soon discovered not only what is, but also that their forum readers were more likely to conclude a deal than the regular callers. She also discovered that the competition were reading there too - or at least the competitions' headhunters.

Speaking as a techno-optimist, it's nice to see the dream materialising for once, and so close to home. I just thought I'd share the good news.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Francis finds Flickr

Finally started posting some of my snaps - I'm particularly fond of this one of Johnny on a swing which is one of those lucky snaps which just works. And when I say luck, it really was more fluke than judgement - my little Dimage X60 has a lag of around a second, so to get him mid-swing I had to press the button when he was just approaching the highest point and then pan hopefully as he swung forward again!

An old-timer returns

Two weekends ago my friend and former neighbour Beatrice came from King's Lynn to visit us here in Brixton - she bought well-chosen presents for Johnny and we all went to Franco's (as we old-timers call Eco) for some serious pizza, followed by a trip to the British Museum for their Byzantine money exhibition and some Greek and Roman glass.

I'd just like to report that the nice yellow flowers Beatrice bought are, to my astonishment, still blooming in their bowl by the window.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Coping with the Web

Two excellent links which reduced the gloom of starting yet another Monday morning at my desk - first, an article on Forbes magazine (from an ad in gmail - shaming naivete or sohisticated support for the Web 2.0 business model of a valued service?) Beware of Infomania - the point is not so much the common-sense tips as a couple of brilliant quotes:

The Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London conducted clinical trials with volunteer office workers to measure how a constant flow of messages and information affects a person's ability to focus on problem-solving tasks.

Participants were asked first to work in a quiet environment, and then while being inundated with e-mail, instant messaging and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to messages, researchers found their subjects' attention was significantly disturbed.

Instead of boosting productivity, the constant data stream seriously reduced the volunteers' ability to focus. The study reported that an average worker's functioning IQ falls 10 points when distracted by ringing telephones and incoming e-mails, more than twice the four-point drop seen following a 2002 Carleton University study on the impact of smoking marijuana.

Professor Hugh Heclo of George Mason University observes: "In the long run, excesses of technology means that the comparative advantage shifts from those with information glut to those with ordered knowledge, from those who can process vast amount of throughput to those who can explain what is worth knowing, and why."
which I think does rather illuminate the problem.

The second link, from the Juice Analytics blog, talks about the other side of the same coin - what to do with all this information, and they link to the amazing We Feel Fine project. All I can say is, load it and see for yourself.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Chinese activist "Beat himself up" - whatever next?

This could be farcical if Fu Xiancai hadn't been beaten up so badly - when returning home after being summoned by the police - that three vertebrae in his neck were broken, and he is unlikely ever to walk again.

His issue? He campaigned for people displaced by the Three Gorges dam. In effect he was hindering economic progress in the name of human rights - the property rights, presumably, of people to their homes and farms.

At the end of the 19th century The Economist famously forecast that the USA would overtake the UK as the world's leading economy in the next century. The equivalent forecast now is that China will overtake the USA in this century. It's hard to view this with quite the same degree of equanimity.

Whatever you might think of US conduct in Guantanomo (and I think it has undermined both the reputation of the US and respect for international law) and of the invasion of Iraq (and I went on two demonstrations to express my views on that) the fact is that having the USA as the world's greatest economy did, at least, show that being a society based on democracy, free speech and individual rights was compatible with economic growth and national success despite the temptation for incompetent and corrupt governments everywhere to argue otherwise.

Until or unless China is mature enough to have evolved a system of law which protects its citizens and their rights, I'm pinning my hopes that less-hyped dark horse in the economic growth stakes, India. What's more, I'll bet that if India does succeed in outgrowing China, it will be because of the greater social stability and freedom from expropriation provided by a free press and the rules of law, not despite it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Poetry and science

Came across this quote from my favourite poet, Philip Larkin, in The Week (itself quoting The Independent)
I search myself for illusions like a monkey looking for fleas.
Two days later I found myself browsing Edward Tufte on the Columbia disaster, where he quotes Richard Feynman's famous (and, it apears, sadly ignored) conclusion to his appendix to the Challenger commission report
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
Just one of those pleasing coincidences.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

This morning

I checked that Johnny was still cuddled up to Mr Monkey in his cot in the sitting room, and had a bath. Pulled on some clothes and went back in to the sitting room, have a look into the cot. Johnny's now wide awake, giving me his usual big smile from the bottom of the cot, both arms stretched out. As soon as his shoulders are off the sheet he straightens his back and legs to get on to his feet as soon as possible - this is new in the last couple of days, he's so keen on being vertical that he'll pretty well refuse to sit down or lie down. He sits in my left arm as I pull back the curtains. It's a London kind of day, nothing special, a bit grey, but as usual we inspect the world quietly for a bit, cheek by cheek. I like the way that someone normally so full of beans can appreciate the quiet moments too. Then it's time to switch on the radio (without letting Johnny grab the remote control), change a well-filled nappy, feed him, chuck him in bed with his sleepy mother, and head off to Brixton tube station.

Why am I writing this here? In case I should ever forget.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

and now for something completely different

Not sure this should be on the blog, but here goes...

Family life, raw and unedited. Enjoy.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Fire in the Embers

Went with friends to see Embers on Tuesday, to celebrate Eva's birthday. I was a little worried - the early reviews were mixed, emphasising the near-monologue second half as a challenge that Jeremy Irons either surmounted or failed, depending on the reviewer.

The other challenge of the play to an early 21st century English-speaking audience is that it Sandor Marai's story is, well, so un-English. It takes friendship, love and the betrayal of both seriously. Irony is used to intensify, rather than to diminish, involvement. And back we come to the fact that the second half is pretty well a monologue. Where the play succeeds so well is that it convinces us entirely that this intensity is not ridiculous but real, so much so in fact that someone behind me called on her creator at least a couple of times as the story unfolded.

Are we right to accept such high-flown drama? Isn't this the the slippery slope to melodrama and Victorian hypocracy? Not, I think, in case of Sandor Marai. Take a look at his US journal. I laughed at how the first line of the programme's entry on him started with the date he shot himself, and joked that was how all good Hungarian biographies started, but just read the journal. The intensity is all there - it is natural, it is moving and it is entirely real. I am not at all embarrassed to be moved by the play or the journal.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Calling out around the world

A nice surprise to be mentioned by Gail Ilagan in the Phillipines last week - especially from someone who not only has such sound views on Eowyn and Aragorn, but uses passion and reason to write truthfully and movingly.

I was gently lobbying her to get a blog so it would be easier for lazy folk like me to keep up with her pieces - like this, which as a new father, I especially responded to.

Her response - in effect, that the further into the rootless internet she moves from her on-line regional newspaper column readers, the more communication with readers tends to be polluted by ignorance, misconception or prejudice - is hard to argue with.

But I like to think that anyone (anyone - is there anybody out there?) reading my blog would probably be an exception to that rule. So I hope she'll forgive me tugging her into the blogosphere with this entry - after all, she proves what we all hope, that personal reflection can be of universal interest.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On the psychology of group incompetence

We watched Real Story: The Ripper Hoaxer last night. I hadn't expected it to be so moving - Beryl Leach in particular, describing the loss of her only daughter, gave back the human reality behind the "Ripper" headlines.

I also hadn't expected it to be a story about a massive police hunt being led astray by group-think. The police team were so convinced that the hoaxer was in fact the murderer that they had a policy of ignoring suspects (including Peter Sutcliffe, the real murdere, on nine occasions) who didn't have a Geordie accent or matching hand-writing. This despite there being little convincing evidence for the hoaxer's veracity, despite one of the ripper's survivors - who'd talked to him for half an hour - stating firmly that he had a Yorkshire accent, and despite two of the voice experts putting their reservations in writing - the reaction to this last was to lean on them to shut up.

Anyone who has read Norman Dixon's excellent On The Psychology of Military Incompetence will recognise patterns here. Everything he descrives in the context of military history is applicable to non-military organisations too, and seems to have happened in spades in this case. And anyone who's read Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's Waltzing with Bears will be asking themselves why the police didn't do a simple check to see if the hoaxer's supposedly unpublicised information (a reference to another murder as a potential ripper victim) had been - as it was in fact - published in the papers. Given the risks of over-committing to the hoaxer being real, a certain tolerance of skeptical thinking and a small investment in research would have been a reasonable insurance cost which might well have saved lives.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Time to start Getting Things Done

I keep an eye on Scott Hanselman's blog and a post yesterday finally got me off my backside and down to the local bookshop for a copy of David Allen's "Getting Things Done".

I've got an IT job in a small company, my own software and study projects, and Eva and little Johnny at home. I simply can't afford to keep spending time being disorganised.

So far the book makes a lot of sense. Right now my energy and confidence levels are rising, and I'm getting more done. I hope that this isn't just some kind of intellectual sugar buzz - I'm going to finish the book and try to adopt the habits, and I'm hoping for the best.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Darkness falling

I've been puzzled by how lightly our ministers seem to have been getting off when I hear them interviewed about the legalised kidnapping and torture that is extraordinary rendition. Chandra Sekhar has an excellent article on what is being done, and has ben done, and the laws that are being bent or ignored in the process.

And what is wrong with Extraordinary Rendition? Follow Chandra's link to the statement of Maher Arar...
a Canadian citizen, that a public enquiry in Canada has been found was tortured while in Syria, having been rendered by US agents in 2002.

(I'm not going to trivialise his words by doing some kind of executive summary. Read it for yourself.)

Everything is wrong with Extraordinary Rendition. The thought that we in the UK might be complicit in a process by which innocent people are effectively disappeared and (by any ordinary meaning of the word) tortured - which is what this Extraordinary Euphemism actually means - appals me. And the thought that our security services might be desparate enough to depend on the notoriously unreliable results of torture fills me with fear.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

When is a Web Service not a Web Service?

(Written while waiting for DB2 v. 8 to uninstall itself... )

Excellent post on almost-Web Services. I've been there, seen (and suffered) that. Using MQ Series is not a problem, I've done more with that than with SOAP (which tells you a bit about our market). But what is it about XML that inspires host developers with an insane urge to write their own XML parsers?

I've had messages going back where half the content was going to a system with a home-brewed XML parser that rejected XML-escape sequences like "&". We had to skip the built-in .NET serialisation, write our own pseudo-XML formatter and leave ampersands unescaped. We then discovered that the other half was going to a system with a real XML parser that naturally rejects unescaped ampersands. In the end we simply translated all "&" characters in user data into "+" signs.

( ...Oops - DB2 uninstall finally came back, and wants me to close firefox amongst other apps. Back to the grindstone.)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New year, new music - new model?

A brilliantly simple idea - one new Creative Commons single every day, selected by someone who cares about the music. Who knows if I'll enjoy them all, but it may stop my eardrums rusting over.