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Archive for July 2004

dubairony

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Well, I made it to Dubai without much fuss, though it was a good thing I allowed plenty of time for the trip to the airport through Dublin traffic. The Aer Lingus plane to London took off 25 minutes late for no apparent reason, and no explanation was given: we just sat there, myself surrounded by seriously overweight ladies on nearly all sides. That was a short flight, thankfully, followed by a bizarre assault course dash, across Heathrow to Terminal 4, that led to the right plane in plenty of time. The 7-hour Dubai flight was much more pleasant, food was nice (if a little bland), and the pretty Indian girl in the next seat, on her way to university, snuggled up in her sleep… but her mother was there too, also asleep. Never mind: she was – literally – half my age.

My work in the IT business has given me an appreciation of Irony, so it was no surprise when my first evening, after landing in Dubai from Dublin, was spent at an Irish-style pub. The “Irish Village” is the best Irish Pub in the Middle East, if they are to be believed; and it’s not like there’s much competition in that field. My friend Mark took a bunch of his workmates out to “wet the baby’s head”, and wet it we did, though I was extremely cautious, since by the end of the evening I had been up for 36 hours with less than two hours sleep. After the pub I had my first experience of temperatures in excess of 40° at midnight, courtesy of a hot breeze from the general direction of Oman.

Yesterday, Friday, was the designated “sightseeing day” and we joined the other “Friday Drivers” on the less-packed roads. I don’t drive at all, but if I ever moved to Dubai I would have to learn, since taxis are the only public transport that serves the residential areas. The roads… where do I start… they’re big, and in generally excellent condition, though many roadworks are in evidence. But the drivers… think L.A. at double the speed, with the concept of “lane discipline” as well-understood as that of as signalling.

Big cars are the order of the day, just in case some al-qafir cutting across three lanes sends you off into the overpass pillars. (Mark’s Jeep Grand Cherokee is currently in for a major service, and we’re in a little Toyota right now, so I can see why he went for the Jeep.) Fuel is about a quarter of the price it is in Europe, so gas mileage is not a priority. Navigation to a new area involves a map, and you had better not lose track of where you are, because most streets are numbered, not named, and the numbers are duplicated in different, even neighbouring suburbs. “31st St? Is the 31st St. in Jumeirah 3, Bur Dubai or Jebel Ali 2?”

My friends are in an inland area called Mirdif, a new development of villas. I didn’t believe the word “villa”would be apt, but it really is. I forget whether they have five bathrooms or six, but all four bedrooms are “master en suite”. I have my own luxurious accommodations, and the rest of the place is equally huge and luxurious: it even has a lift betweeen the two floors, just in case that shopping is heavy. Which it was yesterday, in preparation for another party today, a “shower”for the ladies only.

It seems to me that shopping is a way of life here: big air-conditioned cars transport you between big air-conditioned homes and big air-conditioned malls, and the places we went to yesterday – Friday, the Muslim equivalent of Sunday – were heaving. Now, after midnight, I’m still awake enough to update these pages. In nearly two days here I’ve been out of air-conditioned areas for about 15 minutes, total, and I think I’m catching a cold. But the next couple of days will be quieter, I should get some time to sit outside – in the shade – and sweat it off…

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Written by brian t

July 31, 2004 at 6:02 pm

Posted in dubai, life, travel

pack muse

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Am I expecting too much from this holiday? I hope not. There should be plenty of time to chill out, do nothing at all but relax and shoot the breeze. We should be playing a few games of Civilization III, and it strikes me as being a particularly sociable game: the turn-based nature allows you to take your time, plan strategy, and walk away and do something else for a bit, knowing it won’t fall apart while you’re away getting dinner.

This time I have built up a comprehensive checklist of things to do before I leave tomorrow. Only a few of those items are essential, but the rest will contribute to the smooth running of the holiday. All the usual stuff: out-of-office messages on my phone and email, things to pack, points to remember, like getting everything – and I do mean everything – in the one small case, or I won’t be permitted to take it on board with me.

Tomorrow is a half-day at work, and I don’t expect I’ll have much time to update this, so my next entry will probably be from Dubai, and probably not before the end of the month. Unless my plane goes Kersplash, in which case this site won’t get updated. Sayonara…

Written by brian t

July 27, 2004 at 5:12 pm

Posted in dubai, life, travel

whuffonomics

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When I heard about GMail, the new email service from Google. It didn’t seem that relevant to me, since I moved to the Spamcop service last year, since the spam (spam, spam, spam, spam) on my previous email.com account was totally out of control. (For at least the last year, I had to mark all mail for deletion, then un-mark the few that I might actually want to read. Forwarding all that mail to my work address was totally out of the question.)

Yesterday, on a whim, I put a request up on gmailswap.com, and had a response in a few minutes. I’ve agreed to send a small Irish souvenir to North Carolina. At least, I think it’s North Carolina, since I don’t have my correspondent’s address yet, but she has a publicly accessible website, like mine, complete with a weblog and photos. So I’m happy that I’m dealing with a real person who will keep up her end of the bargain, and she can feel the same about me, since we both have virtual reputations at stake here.

The way GMail has been launched, as an invitation-only public beta test, has revived debate in the USA and elsewhere about the idea of reputation and reliability in the online world. There have been several attempts to codify shch a thing and get a head start, but none have been truly successful so far. I took a look at two on Friday: Friendster and Orkut.

Friendster is a self-registration service: it asks for a bunch of demographic and marketing information from you, and also the names and contact details of friends you wish to register with the service. It supposedly operates on the “friend of a friend” idea, to offer a trail of friendship or reputation that (supposedly) guarantees a bit more than you would get from a total stranger. Orkut, however, is invitation-only, a closed community developed by and named after a Google employee. I only heard about it thanks to a warning on GMailSwap, that Orkut invitations were not permitted for exchange for a GMail invitation. It aims to maintain that elusive aloofness, out of reach of the average wannabe.

In both cases, it is not at all clear what I would get in return for the handing over of valuable personal information that would turn me in to a target market. Even something as simple as my GMAT results have alredy been spread around the world: I have emails asking me to consider taking a MBA in Singapore. So, I won’t be signing up for one of these services, I am already spread thinly enough, thank you. As I’ve noted recently, I don’t need to reach out to internet strangers: I fight to keep them from kicking my front door down.

Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which you can also download and read, uses a system called “whuffie” as a measure of a person’s worth that has crossed over from the virtual world to the real world. Anyone can “ping your whuffie” and get an instant measure of your worth, a worth not acquired financially, but through good and useful actions. Just how much an action is worth is not specified; it appears to be ad-hoc or collectively bargained. When your whuffie runs out, whether it’s your fault or not, well, that’s where the Down and Out part of the title came from.

The idea of whuffie is attractive, on the one hand, as a more meritocratic measure of worth, one not tied to physical assets directly; indirectly, of course, the greater your physical assets, the better you can help others. The drawback, from my viewpoint, is the way it ties you to other people; not just friends and acquaintances, but random strangers. Like the novel’s protagonist, you can find yourself and your livelihood at the mercy of irrationality and whims, or even political manoeuvring.

I hesitate to mantion Ayn Rand in this blog, in case Google marks it down as another “Randroid” site, but I have to agree with an important point she made about Civilization:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
— The Fountainhead (1943)

Today, rightly or wrongly (a personal value judgement), worldly success is measured financially, and if I had the money, I would live in a penthouse or secluded mansion. People who enjoy that luxury today have largely cut themselves off from society; but not totally. They can decide to go and take part in society, and dictate the terms on which they do so, knowing who their friends really are. I must not be a Socialist, then, since I find that prospect thoroughly appealing, and I have long been making choices about who I associate with, within the limits imposed by my circumstances. (Consider it a compliment – or vice versa!)

I am not much of a Rand scholar, and have read only bits of her work, but controversy is never far away when you mention her. Part of the confusion, to me, seems to stem from the apparent hypocrisy in putting forth a comprehensive philosophical position, but one that encourages people to think for themselves, even if means rejecting her philosophy. Yet, at one point, her ideas were striking enough to capture the attention of Hollywood, who turned The Fountainhead into a film staring Gary Cooper. I have a book called The Ayn Rand Reader, an anthology of her writing, which I have read only bits of, but in picking it up today, I went straight to the end, to a reply to a fan letter in 1971:

I hope that you will understand and accept my philosophy fully and—if I understand you correctly—that you will never give up the values you had once held.
You ask me about the meaning of the dialogue on page 702 of Atlas Shrugged:

‘We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?’ she whispered.
‘No, we never had to.’

Let me begin by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book … the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man’s existence here on earth, are the meaning of life — not the pain or ugliness he may encounter — that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering — that happiness matters, but suffering does not — that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life — that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain.

Why does that resonate with me? Because “escape from pain” alone doesn’t actually contribute anything to your life, or the lives of others, does it? I don’t mean physical pain: you can take painkillers for that. But what about existential pain? The feeling that your whole life is in an injured state? The direct escapes from such pain are negative: drugs, alcohol, suicide. But you can work on your pain by looking outside yourself, helping others. Life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game: we can choose to make more of it, a decision only we, individually, can make. It won’t happen naturally – evolution favours only the best, brightest and most privileged – you must do it your self. Just watch out for those waiting to take advantage of your optimism..!

Written by brian t

July 24, 2004 at 11:20 am

first do no harm

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My trip to Dubai is one week away, and I’m still looking forward to it: but the situation has become a little more complicated for my friends. I won’t go in to details here: I will just say that it’s the kind of thing that, historically, has been interpreted in different ways by different cultures, and has brought out the best and the worst in people, sometimes both at the same time. Yet, I think it is genuinely crucial that all involved put their best face forward and approach this with a positive attitude. I will certainly do my best when I get there.

On the one hand, I wish I could see my friends even sooner than next week; but on the other hand, I had to consider the possibility that it would be better for them if I didn’t go, on the “first do no harm” principle. On balance, though, I hope “being there” will be a good thing to do, and I think I can do more good than harm, and so the trip is still on unless I hear otherwise.

Sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone is to let them do something for you.
– John Steinbeck

Written by brian t

July 21, 2004 at 11:28 am

Posted in life

reverse gear

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A wise person once said: the only difference between men and their boys is the size of their toys. The BBC Top Gear gang seem determined to demonstrate this maxim in no uncertain terms. In previous editions, the guys have played “car darts” and “car bowls”, using whole cars and a gas-powered cannon of the kind used in movie car stunts. This week they borrowed a Boeing 747-400 from Virgin Atlantic, and used it to test how well various cars resisted crosswinds. “Not Very Well” is the answer, in the face of crosswinds like those from just two of the 747’s 55,000 lb GE Turbofans. At last they’re not afraid to make fools of themselves.

After bragging that he’s acquired one of the 28 Ford GT40s that will be sold in the UK, Jeremy Clarkson was subjected to a typical car park situation: the car’s doors overlap on to the roof, which means he can’t get in if there’s another car parked less than two feet away. (Cue shots of his rear end on the steering wheel, unable to turn around.) The way he drove while testing it, the car did about 4 miles per gallon (mpg) which, by their calculations, isn’t enough for Jezza to get from home to the Top Gear studios – just 76 miles – on one tank. Not that he cares: he’s been licking Ford’s boots since he tested one last year, and now he’s the cat that got the cream.

Aren’t I awfully enthusiastic about cars for someone who can’t drive at all? Just let me get settled, with a workshop of my own, and a few ideas I have bubbling around may end up on the road. They involve electric (or hybrid) cars, where I don’t think current DC motor models are efficient enough at getting power to the road: there are A.C. concepts I learned about years ago that are not being used today. I have some ideas for putting those into practice, but I can’t say any more until I actually try them.

Written by brian t

July 18, 2004 at 9:28 pm

tense verbs

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I’ve been doing my Japanese homework, and the topic should give you some idea of the level I’m at: “What I Did Last Week”. The results are pretty mundane at points:

げつようび ごご きうじ に にほんご じゅぎょう から うち で かえりました それ から テレビ で C.S.I. みました その しんしつ で ねました。

On Monday evening after Japanese class, I went home, then I watched C.S.I. on television.

Note that it’s Hiragana (with bits of Katakana and English): I could have used the computer to convert to Kanji where required, but that’s not what’s being tested here. Besides, neither I nor any of my fellow students are currently able to read the results of that conversion. The spaces between words are not normal, either. No, we’re really testing if I use the verb tenses correctly, as in the following example:

書く kaku (かく) to Write: dictionary form
書きます kakimasu present affirmative
書きません kakimasen present negative
書きました kakimashita past affirmative
書きませんでした kakimasendeshita past negative

It’s also an example of something any Western Japanese student really needs to get his or her head around, in the long term: if we take the verb for writing, we can see that the common component in all these different forms (and there are more to come!) is the bit reperesented by the kanji 書 – which if we look it up, does mean “to write”. Fair enough – when written correctly.

But when spoken, this core component is “ka” (か) in all these forms. Could I hear a spoken word, figure out that it’s a verb (from the suffixes), then look it up in a dictionary? Not reliably, not yet anyway. I know “kakimasu” means to write, but look at these possible interpretations of “kakimasu” from spoken Japanese:

書きます write
描きます sketch, compose
画きます draw, (brush stroke)
掻きます scratch, rake, comb
欠きます fail, fall short

These five different Kanji are those returned by the Microsoft Windows XP dictionary when I type “kakimasu” in – there may be more. My main Japanese tool, JWPce, isn’t as good at suggesting meanings for spoken Japanese from what you actually type in. (It only seems to handle Dictionary verb forms correctly, and seems to assume you can do the conversion yourself from spoken Japanese.) To be fair, the first three are related, and possibly the fourth, since writing Kanji correctly in a formal sense does imply some artistic skill…

Written by brian t

July 18, 2004 at 3:36 pm

Posted in culture, japan, language

ankle damage

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A quiet Sunday, sort-of. I’m not doing much, but there is plenty of energy in the air, courtesy of my copy of Sylvian/Fripp’s Damage live album. It’s about ten years since the album was released; the actual date wasn’t given, but the liner notes say December 1993. That was the final stages of the Road to Graceland tour, and I have good reason to believe it was from the Royal Albert Hall on December 16.

I was at that concert, late due to a badly-sprained ankle from earlier in the week. I missed part of Michael Brook’s amazing opening set: one guy, a bit of sequencer, digital delays, and the Infinite Guitar* he designed and built. Filling the Royal Albert Hall with music was a tall order, but he managed it with no trouble at all. (I was rather pleased to hear one of Brook’s solo pieces, Ultramarine from Cobalt Blue, on the soundtrack to the film Heat.) He was even playing for free, since he was also the “glue” of the main Sylvian/Fripp band, with long-time Fripp collaborator Trey Gunn on bass, and “new boy” Pat Mastelotto, who is still working with Fripp today, in King Crimson.

Mastelotto’s introduction into this community is the stuff of (minor) legend in the music community. Mastelotto had pop success in the 80’s, in the band Mr. Mister, but had been doing session work with the likes of XTC and The Rembrandts since the Misters broke up. (When The Rembrandts re-recorded “I’ll Be There For You” as a single, after Friends took off, that’s Pat on the drums, but he’s not on the short version used on the show.) Sylvian & Fripp had to audition for a new live drummer, since the drummer on the studio album The First Day, Jerry Marotta, couldn’t or wouldn’t tour, possibly due to his Peter Gabriel commitments. Pat heard they were auditioning, from a friend of a friend, got Trey Gunn’s number, badgered Trey into getting him an audition slot, cashed in his frequent flyer miles, crashed on a friend’s sofa in London, then headed out to Real World studios.

Robert Fripp was conducting the auditions himself, which would be enough to put anyone off, the way Pat describes it. At one point he seemed to walk out, but then turned up behind Pat, critiquing his technique. Still, it worked out well, and Pat arrived back in Austin TX to find his wife jumping up and down after the phone message from Robert. He’s still working with Fripp today, but has clearly stamped his musical authority on King Crimson and related projects. He’s also got various projects on the go, including BPM&M, which remixed various KC and related session material and released it as the groundbreaking XtraKcts & AtrifaKcts.

* The general idea behind the Infinite Guitar, if not the exact implementation, was since commercialized as the now-defunct Sustainiac, and can now be found as the Fernandes Sustainer. A circuit in the guitar amplifies the signal from a normal pickup and feeds the energy back in to the strings, via a separate pickup. The result is “infinite sustain”, but it needs skilful control if it’s to be used musically. The most famous recorded example of this is U2’s With Or Without You, the high keening sustain in the verses. This used the second of only two Infinite Guitars built by Michael Brook, a Canadian guitarist and sound engineer who’s worked with everyone from the B-52’s to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (in one of Peter Gabriel’s Real World projects). It’s more common to see a handheld string energizer, the E-Bow, today, but Reeves Gabrels was the most famous user of the Fernandes Sustainer as David Bowie’s main collaborator throughout the 90’s.

Written by brian t

July 18, 2004 at 2:39 pm

Posted in music