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Archive for May 2005

a wind over the world

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Oh, for a fat pipe at home. No, not a blunt green one, I mean a fat Internet pipe. I appear to have found my “killer app”: NASA World Wind. This is a program for viewing satellite imagery from different sources, and it’s all free.

Today (and yesterday) I had my laptop at work, occasionally viewing parts of the world. The way it works is: you start off with a fairly detailed globe, and zoom in on any part you like. Depending on the part of the world you’re looking at, the available detail varies, with rural or wild areas having the least detail, the USA having more, and then there’s the USGS Urban Area Orthographic data. This has some shockingly detailed images of US Cities: never mind “I can see my house”, more like “I can see your bald spot”. It also contains elevation data, and you can tilt the viewpoint to give a realistic 3D view of the scene.

There is also the “Rapid Fire MODIS” function, which lets you look up selected imagery of events, ranging from phytoplankton blooms to dust storms, fires and hurricanes. Some amazing shots, such as sand from the Sahara getting just about everywhere in that hemisphere.

Speaking of bald spots: I finally ditched the hippie look last Saturday. I have no idea what a good hairstyle for me would be, so I got something acceptable by telling the barber what I didn’t want:

  • not bald, or short-back-and-sides: I want to keep some length overall. The skinhead look appears to be “the norm” where I work, and I’m not buying it. Where’s the fun in that?
  • no hair in my eyes. I even tried gel to help with that problem, but it didn’t last, so I ended up with congealed logs of hair in my eyes;
  • no, no, no! Not a Mullet! I don’t mind losing the long back, if I avoid that particular pitfall.

The result can be called a civilized rock star look, with short “bangs”, some top, and a medium-length back. Boring, I suppose, but I can’t see it unless I look in a mirror, and it’s not often I do that.

Saturday was another of those “good days” I’ve written about before. Technically, it started on Friday evening, when I arrived home to find the camera parts I ordered, but I did the repair in daylight the next day. It was slightly fiddly, I had to use a found screw in one position (since I lost the original and none were supplied), but that was enough of a hassle to make the succesful result all-the-more satisfying. My camera is whole again, with almost no visible damage, and I don’t have to remove half the bottom screws to replace the batteries any more.

What do you do with a good mood? You ride it over normally unpleasant tasks, like housekeeping, so I got out the vacuum cleaner, etcetera. Then shopping, a meeting with friends for drinks, then finally a late movie: Kikujiro. Slow, but rewarding: I ended up recording it, and watching the last third the next day. I had to call it a day, and a Day it certainly was, with a capital D.


Written by brian t

May 31, 2005 at 5:35 pm

a load of nothing

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On the downward slope to a two-week holiday, in which I have no plans to go anywhere. What I could do, however, is hit the “Busarus” early one morning, and jump on a coach to somewhere else in Ireland for a day. Besides a short trip to Galway, 18 months ago now, I’ve stayed in the Dublin area exclusively for five years now.

Apart from that, very little has been going on here. The big news in Ireland is a bus crash that killed five schoolchildren; the bus was operated by the national long-distance service, Bus Eireann, the same one I’m thinking of climbing on next month – hmmm…

Written by brian t

May 25, 2005 at 5:59 pm

Posted in ireland

put foot

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Sometimes I read stories that make me think the world is becoming a better place. Today I read that women in Kuwait will be allowed to vote from now on; what is surprising is that the change was decreed by Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah back in 1999, but had been blocked by Islamic elements in the Kuwaiti parliament until today.

Then there’s this story on boing-boing today. A woman living in a hard-line Islamic regime, racing cars and beating men at their own sport? If it can happen in Iran, it can happen in Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes too.

When I visited Dubai, a fairly liberal Islamic country, I saw many women walking around in normal clothes, and not just visitors either. Yet a majority still wore the djellaba, even with full face mask. I’ve been told it’s a question of familiarity as much as law; it’s what they’re used to, and it has its advantages, such as comfort, secrecy and perhaps even voyeurism. (I can see them, but they can’t see me!)

Like the soft drink and sanitary towel commercials say: women, like men, can be free to do whatever they want. It doesn’t mean they’re going to go there, of course, but it’s important to know that the door is unlocked. If there’s one thing that Islamic societies can learn from the West, it’s that societies can be largely self-regulating. Imposing the kind of control they do can be self-defeating and disproportionate, since the majority don’t need written laws to behave themselves. If sex and the city was any guide, a New York woman’s bible is the latest issue ofVanity Fair, not any religious tract.

Think about the huge size of countries like South Africa, Russia, and the USA; in remote areas there are no police to tell you how to drive, what side of the road to drive on, what speed to go. For all practical purposes, remote roads are unregulated, yet the majority of drivers stick close to the rules. When the occasional driver goes low-flying down the freeway from Cheyenne to Spokane at 120mph, the chances of harm to anyone but themselves are low, and a properly-trained driver will know what not to do.

“Put Foot” was a bit of slang I occasionally heard in South Africa, one which came across clearly in Afrikaans too; the equivalent of “floor it” or “put the pedal to the metal” in the USA – it’s not just a driving reference, it’s an expression of a wider freedom. If I was in the USA I might be called a “libertarian”, though it’s a lot more complex than that, I think. We do need rules, and governments, to set a baseline of structure and support for the minority of society who can’t take care of themselves. You could call it a bell-curve theory of society.

Before modern governments and taxation, the Church fulfilled some of that function in the West, or Emirs and Chieftains in other parts. I’m not advocating a return to any archaic method; I’m saying there are things we can learn from the past regarding the self-sufficiency of societies without tight regulation. The idea of the “nanny state” is a relatively new one, and not entirely successful, if we can find three generations of a family, none of whom have ever held a steady job, in parts of the UK. I’ve written before about Germany’s problems, the way over-regulation has led to the current unemployment crisis.

This is why the current regime in the USA is the cause of so much concern; as expressed in the US Constitution, the power of the Federal government is clearly proscribed, yet it is now being expanded into areas where was previously excluded. The Department of Homeland Security is implementing Total Information Awareness processes, trying to break down the information safeguards that were in place between different government agencies (FBI, CIA, ATF, MVA etc) and the private sector (banking, insurance etc).

OK, there’s a long way to go before the US regime becomes as restrictive as Iran’s, but if Democracy is on the wane in the USA, what the hell are they doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Answers on a postcard, please…

Written by brian t

May 17, 2005 at 10:34 am

old blood-and-guts

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There’s only one proper way for a soldier to die: from the last bullet, of the last battle, of the last war.

I’ve just taken the time to watch the film Patton for the first time, the biography of the controversial US Army General, based on his memoirs and those of Omar Bradley. Bradley fought under Patton in North Africa, but later became his commanding officer; Patton’s career was hampered by an inability to think politically and a propensity for speaking his mind.

If the film is correct in its analysis, Patton was so feared by the Germans – one general describes him as a “glorious anachronism” – that his non-involvement in the Normandy landings, for political reasons, made him more useful as a decoy. He could not be kept back indefinitely, of course, and was soon back in action in command of the 3rd Army. The irony in the quote stems from the fact that Patton died, from injuries sustained in a car crash, before the end of 1945. The unpretentious “GI General” Bradley went on to become the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had a “fighting vehicle” named after him.

How many times have I been criticized, at work, for speaking my mind? For ignoring political considerations in favour of the realities of the situation? For neglecting the expedient in favour of the essential? More generally, how important is it to be liked? If you’re running for US President today, it’s crucial. That wasn’t always the case: just ask Abraham Lincoln, who said: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing”. He understood the distinction clearly, and once said about someone: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”. By the 20th Century, however, Adlai E Stevenson III could say “A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular”… and go on to lose two elections to Eisenhower (1952 & 56).

I guess that makes me an “unglorious anachronism”, then; someone all too aware of the advocracy* in which we live, where what we say is more important than what we do, where a gesture is more important than action. Yet I am tolerated, to a point, at least partly because I understand the importance of action; both by myself and those who come to me for advice. A more extreme example is the soldier, whose clash with modern civilzation is the subject of much modern debate and fiction, from The Red Badge Of Courage, through to The Seven Samurai and Apocalypse Now.

Nowhere do I see this more expressed clearly today than in Tom Clancy’s books, where lawyers and politicians practice “plausible deniability” while soldiers deal with the reality of force at the sharp end. His protagonist, Jack Ryan, has been occasionally forced to cross the divide, and take actions that haunt him later. By those standards I have it easy, and generally get on well with people without the need to resort to physical violence, though it can get a bit verbal at times.

My point is: politics may be defined as “the art of the possible”, with an emphasis on keeping up friendly relations with others, but if “the possible” is not enough, politics alone will not get the job done, and someone, somewhere, is going to be offended. To me this a crucial insight, with value in a typical business environment; it may be arrogance to think you know better than someone else, but if you do, then you need to have enough belief in yourself to go beyond the polite, and risk offence. If you get it wrong, there will be consequences, but get it right, and it’s worth the effort.

* advocracy: a society ruled by lawyers

Written by brian t

May 16, 2005 at 10:25 am

Posted in life, movies, politics

revenge of the myth

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Star Wars Silly Season is upon us again, probably for the last time – as if anyone on this planet can have failed to notice – with the coming release of Episode III. The RTE (Irish television network) are helpfully showing the first one today, and the next one next week.

One piece of dialogue just jumped out at me: Anakin’s mother saying “there was no father” – what, is she claiming a virgin birth? The Jedi are buying the story, anyway. That’s all we need – a pseudo-Christian “Son of the Force”?

I can hardly believe that Episode II came out three years ago, but the proof’s in the blogging. Opinion seems to be sharply divided; in the UK, last week , Guardian Unlimited Film carried an article entitled “Space Invaders”, with 40 reasons why “the franchise hails from the dark side”. George Lucas has a lot to answer for, particularly the mass marketing of the film, but my opinion of the series has remained constant over the years.

SF author David Brin has been particularly harsh on this topic – see his blog entry Star Wars Redux for a recent example. From an older essay of his, recenly reprinted in the same blog:

I concede the great attraction of the image that his Star Wars universe offers, while opposing it with all my power. (Especially the most evil elf ever depicted, that nasty, uncooperative, smarmy, patronizing, sourpuss, unhelpful, oppressively-secretive and cynically manipulative oven mitt… Yoda.)”

As I wrote before, the flaws are part of what makes Star Wars interesting – but not fascinating – to me. Beyond my disapproval of the overall mythology, I have more prosaic objections, like the impossible stunts I mentioned before. For example: one production report was that Lucas loves his spaceships, tweaking the sounds they make as they pass. The thing is, dear George, space is a vacuum through which sound can’t travel. Didn’t you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, eh? Unless the ship happens to blast some gas into your ears as it goes by. Hint: spaceships don’t fall out of deep space – how can something fall when there’s no “down” to fall to?

I’ll go and see it, but I ain’t joinin’ no queue, not even the one at the cinema where it is being shown. The people queuing at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood are now famous enough to be immortalized, for a limited time, in the LA Legoland replica of said theater.

Written by brian t

May 9, 2005 at 8:23 am

Posted in culture, movies

tag and be tagged

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A while ago I admitted being slightly bemused by the current Tagging fad floating round the Internet. A classic case of “can’t see the forest for the trees”: the wider question of “why” gets a good explanation under the following Wikipedia article: Folksonomy.

I started seeing links to pages on my site from, but visiting that site didn’t shed much light on what was actually happening. The answer is actually fairly simple in concept: it’s a “social bookmarks manager”; when someone creates a entry they are creating a bookmark, like you can do in your browser, but extended to be (a) public, and (b) tagged with your choice of keyword.

For example, I have several pages on this site relating to the Akai MPC1000 hardware sequencer/sampler, which I own, so I added a link to my main mpc1000 page on with the “mpc1000” tag. Others are free to do the same, and you can see the results at – a page generated “on-the-fly” from their database. The URI format is sensible – just replace the “mpc1000” tag with any other to bring up the relevant page. You can also get a RSS feed to add to your newsreader,

Since the “folksonomy” is ad-hoc and arbritrary, there is a lot of misplaced tagging, but the major tags are generally agreed on. Since I’m learning the Japanese language, can I pick out a page without searching, just by editing the URI? Let’s try a few:

Make too many queries in a short period, and they don’t like it – you get banned for 30 minutes!

Other strange referers I’ve seen include some sites that appear to “wrap” this site for some reason – I have no idea what a legitimate use for this might be. Examples include and I’m not going to link to them; my banner blocker goes into overtime on, and the one that got through was some soft porn commercial. Bloody bottomfeeders.

Written by brian t

May 6, 2005 at 12:08 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, web 2.0

a policy of uncertainty

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On Spiked Science there is a series of quotes from various scientists, answering the question: “if you could teach the world just one thing…”

I should teach the world that science is the art of doubt, not of certainty. Science is the antithesis of faith, and of the popular view that science provides immutable theories and fixed facts about the world in which we live.
— Frances M Ashcroft

If I could teach the world just one thing about science, then it would be how to think about the world and ourselves in the sceptical, evidence- and model-based manner. That is the main contribution of science, and is perhaps the greatest invention in human history.
— Alan M Kay

I should teach the world that science as the search for answers actually generates only more questions, and as a result, the amount of knowledge available to humankind continues to grow exponentially.

This is of no great value, however, unless we also develop systems of understanding to assimilate and act upon this information effectively, to prioritise it and understand its value, and to inform our decisions, drawing upon the diverse origins of the data in a consistent way. What we need to focus on, in the coming decades, is the development of wisdom systems – that is, our ability to use knowledge effectively, for the benefit of people and the environment around us.
— Dr Bob Bloomfield

The main thing to understand is that science is about uncertainty. Science teaches us to have a high tolerance of uncertainty. We do not yet know the answers to most of the important questions – nature is smarter than we are. But if we are patient, and not in too much of a hurry, then science gives us a good way to find the answers.
— Freeman J Dyson

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Addendum: a short article by Salman Rushdie, reprinted on Beyond The Beyond, Bruce Sterling’s Wired Blog: The Trouble With Religion.

Written by brian t

May 3, 2005 at 1:57 pm

Posted in atheism, science