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Archive for April 2006

edge city

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Here’s a quick music recommendation: Edge City, by Nym, is an album available for MP3 download at excommence. I heard about it through a kind comment left by Nym on my Akai MPC1000 pages, since he uses a MPC1000 too.

Edge City is what I like to call a “late night” album. I first listened to it late in the evening, and it succeeds in creating a smooth urban vibe, skirting many of the usual cliched sounds and feels associated with urban music. Some tracks might make good rap beds, but there are no real vocals, and none are needed. Cracking stuff!

Written by brian t

April 28, 2006 at 7:26 pm

Posted in music

going south

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esposende lifeboat station 2Upstairs in the coffee shop at Porto Campanhã station, way too early for my train, the 11:15 to Lisbon. The travel arrangements were uncertain this morning, but the right bus arrived just ten minutes late, and I was in the middle of Porto in under an hour. I thought I would do a bit of wandering around the centre, but the heavy case, and the general ugliness of that part of town, sent me to the Bolhão Metro for the short ride here.

Apart from the wedding, the specific reason I came to Portugal, this trip up north has been the kind of mess that seriously puts me off foreign travel. I would never want to visit somewhere like Ibiza, which has been totally Anglicised, but Portugal seemed to me be an inconsistent mess of old and new, welcome and unwelcome, ancient and modern, and not in a charming tourist brochure fashion.

Prime example: the hotel, with its near-total lack of written information in any language. I missed breakfast on the first morning, because I could not tell where or when it was. There was nobody around to ask, and the dining room was totally deserted with no activity. Was I too early? No, as I found out the next day, when the receptionist grabbed me on the way out the door: there was a separate breakfast room, at the far end of the hotel. This is a good illustration of what I mean: if that information had been written down, in Portuguese, I would have figured it out. I even had a list of phrases including “pequenos almoços”, the Portuguese for “breakfast”.

How hard is it to type out essential information, so that foreign visitors do not have to struggle with verbal communication in a language where the slightest deviation in emphasis or accent renders you unintelligble? (Even reading directly from a list of phrases, with pronunciation, didn’t get through to the hotel receptionist, when I checked out this morning!) It doesn’t take long, and you only have to do it rarely.

esposende lifeboat station 1There’s a lot to be said for a region where a wedding party is a gourmet feast of local specialties, all the way to the vinho espumante; where the standard coffee is an evil espresso with lots of sugar, and where the government health campaigns against heart disease are in the form of painted human outlines on the sidewalks. Where it seems no-one ever paints a building; where subtitled movies on TV get a fanfare of publicity; but please spare a thought for the foreign visitor? Now, before the train to Lisbon, a final couple of photos from Esposende, of the old lifeboat station in the harbour.

Written by brian t

April 23, 2006 at 9:25 am

Posted in portugal, travel

exposed end

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esposende breakwaterThe beach at Esposende is over a kilometre long and, apart from a speck and a half at the far end, I have it all to myself this Friday morning. Definitely a good thing, since it will spare me a few blushes. I took the “high road” to the beach, clambering over the rugged breakwater jutting from the promenade, and managed to avoid killing or injuring myself, but succeeded in ripping a huge hole in my trousers.

I’m feeling a bit exposed in more ways than that; some discarded syringes on the beach here had me wondering about drug abuse here, except that they were not the type of syringe you’d expect – they were opaque with oddly long nozzles, not made for attaching a needle. A dead gull, washed up on the shoreline, brought the situation into focus; they’ve been inoculating birds against avian flu, and (I guess) didn’t get to them all.

esposende beachAt least the weather is good; the rain is gone for the moment, as are most of the clouds, though the steady wind off the Atlantic will keep my jacket on, even as it rushes up through the hole in my trousers. Looks like I’m going shopping this afternoon, weather permitting, after a Very Silly Walk back to the hotel to change.

Written by brian t

April 21, 2006 at 10:22 am

Posted in portugal, travel

tonguetried

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braga dandelion fountainIt’s raining in Esposende, so I’m indoors at the hotel, reading Iain M Banks’ The Algebraist, after a morning in Braga seeing the sights. Braga is famous as a religious centre, with no fewer than 11 churches, all Catholic, and a history of Papal visits. This was followed by a quick lunch, and some good espresso at a price that amazed me. The prices on everything are about half of the Dublin equivalent, except for housing, which was even better by comparison. I would have absolutely no problem affording a property here, if I just spoke the language.

It’s the language that has been the major issue so far. I had no problem navigating by signs, taking a bus from Lisbon Airport to Oriente Station, finding the platform and waiting for my train, finding my reserved seat and presenting my ticket to Porto Campanhã. Some potential confusion in buying a ticket on the Porto Metro, so they had information in English and ticket machines with an English mode – more than I needed.

No, the problems have really been here, in Esposende, starting with the guest house where there is barely a single word of English spoken. Checking in was a nightmare, even with a local (the bride-to-be) to translate: they had not logged my registration in their computer, only acknowledged it by email on a different system.

Then the receptionist wanted to photocopy my passport, which I refused for security reasons, and it turned out to be unnecessary, just laziness on their part. (Every detail you need to duplicate a passport on a convenient piece of paper – just add your own photo!) The end result, as usual, is that I look like a grumpy old nutcase for questioning such things – but could they answer the question on why they wanted to do that? Of course not.

The lack of English skills tells me I’m not in a Tourist area. I don’t hold this against them at all; it is my own fault for being a Tourist this week, something I usually try to avoid. It’s the reason I’m learning Japanese with a view to visiting (or even living there), and I would not make this kind of trip without a very good reason.

The wedding of a friend and colleague is such a reason, though the fact that I don’t drive is making it a bit awkward for my hosts. It’s a short walk from the guest house to the church, but the reception is at a villa near Barcelos, 10km inland, which I will be needing a ride to and from. Hope no-one’s drinking to excess..!

Written by brian t

April 20, 2006 at 3:55 pm

Posted in portugal, travel

weblarney

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Though I’m based in Dublin, Ireland, I’m not an “Irish Blogger”. The fact that I’m not Irish is only the half of it: I seem to have a completely different attitude to the “local” bloggers, starting with the concept of “local”.

For starters, I place very little importance on location and/or nationality. Of course these factors will be relevant to what I write, because they’re interesting details, but I could be in the UK, Europe, USA or Canada, for all the fundamental difference it makes to me. There are countries where location is a major influence – countries with reduced internet or press freedom – but Ireland is not one of those.

This is partly why I find the upcoming Web2Ireland conference amusing, but not terribly interesting. It’s got an Irish slant to it. It’s organised by an Irish government body, Enterprise Ireland. I’m not in the target market, as the blurb says:

Web2Ireland is for entrepreneurs, investors, software developers and for those in academia, politics and public policy.

Finally, and most importantly, my views on Web 2.0 would be completely out of place. I wrote a bit about this last week, but I would summarize my position as seeing Web 2.0 as an attitude that informs what you do and how you do it. It’s not a product, or a technology, or a standard, or anything else that can be neatly packaged in a form fit for sale to anyone.

While government is all about centralisation of power and resources, the web is about decentralisation, disintermediation, the removal of barriers between people and information. I see no need for any national government, Irish or otherwise, to try to “shape the agenda” or “help our country catch up”. It’s already here, because it’s already everywhere, it does not respect borders any more than Web 1.0 does.

Besides, how Web 2.0 is it to have a registration process that involves downloading and filling in a Microsoft Word document? Web 2.0 is as Web 2.0 does, people. This sends the message that your parochial little conference will be all talk, and no action. No thanks; I can wait for reboot at the beginning of June, my flights and hotel are already booked.

Written by brian t

April 18, 2006 at 12:58 pm

priced up the wall

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Last week a report was released by the AIB, one of Ireland’s major banks, on the property market here. While noting that the prices would increase by about 20% over this year and next, the salaries earned by people would not increase by half that.

The official inflation rate here is about 2%: this figure is used by the government in calculating its obligations to the European Union, and by employers when calculating salaries. This figure obviously does not include any consideration of house prices.

To put some perspective on the situation: the benchmark I’m familiar with is the multiple of your salary that you should expect to pay for a house. When I first investigated mortgages, years ago in South Africa, the general advice I received was that a mortgage should be no more than 3-4 times your salary; similar advice was used here, I read today, and banks used to limit mortgages to 3-4 times salary. Even today, an Irish online mortgage broker gave me several estimates, all around 4x my salary, yet this does not correspond with the incredible increase in mortgage amounts, and lengthening of mortage terms (up to 40 years!), in effect today.

In 1998 the average house price was 7x individual salary: in 2006 the figure is 11x. As a single person, My requirements are below-average, and once I factor in the deposit (from savings), home ownership was a possibility in 1998, the year before I arrived here. It’s not even remotely within reach today. My chances of owning a home in the Dublin area, already slim, are not going to improve.

I have serious objections with the concept of a property ladder – once I figured out what people meant by that, I was properly horrified. It assumes that it is natural to want bigger and bigger homes, as one gets older, which is not unreasonable; but it also assumes that the value of your current house will increase, by itself, and continue to do so. If there is ever a time when this ceases to be true, there will be a rush to get out of the housing market, further depression of prices.

The same AIB report talks, eupmemistically, about “reduced likelihood of a soft landing” for housing investors; in other words, there is the possibility of a crash. I would welcome this, both for my own sake, and as a salutary lesson for anyone silly enough to buy in to a bubble, which is what this is today. However, there are huge amounts of money floating around, with the maturity of government-backed savings schemes (SSIAs), I don’t see this to be likely. There is still a general perception of property as most reliable investment available, better than pension schemes; in my view it is short-sighted to invest all your equity in a single market.

With that, I should now spend some time on my current rented residence: it’s Spring, so we shall have Cleaning, starting now. I probably won’t finish today; why should I rush or exert myself unduly? I’m on holiday for the next two weeks.

Written by brian t

April 16, 2006 at 3:39 pm

Posted in economics, ireland

how many webs do we weave?

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Since I signed up for the reboot 8 conference in Copenhagen at the start of June, I’ve been looking at it as a “web 2.0” conference, but hoping it is more than that. What is Web 2.0? Wikipedia offers a useful summary of the history, current situation, and arguments for and against the use of the term. It also includes links to various commentary on the topic.

“Knowledge is organized information”: a motto that may sound simplistic, unless one takes into account the recursive nature of the process: by organizing information you are creating more information. When this process is able to run, and keep running, the results can be startlingly effective. Witness the rise of Wikipedia in the last year, the amount of time and effort that goes into it.

One criticism leveled at Wikipedia is that it is not an authoritative source: this is missing the point altogether. If anything, it is a reflection of the original idea I remember: the use of the Web to make connections between all manner of pieces or information, to let you find the authorative source. The differences in my view, is that it is centralized without (much) bureaucracy. Call it a “clearing house” for information on a topic: you may start there, but you won’t necessarily stop there, not if you are looking for anything authoritative. With that in mind, I’m not sure that it’s completely necessary to refer to Wikipedia as “Web 2.0” at all. Or, to put it another way, could Web 2.0 be seen as the realisation of some (if not all) of the promises (implicit or explicit), made by the World Wide Web, version 1?

One thing I am sure of: Web 2.0, whatever that is, is not a technology or set of technologies. It certainly isn’t AJAX, which I keep running in to whenever a web site refuses to work unless I allow JavaScript to run. (I have scripts blocked by default, because I got sick of all the gimmicks and invasive ads it’s more commonly used for.) No, I see Web 2.0 as a philosophy, or an attitude, that can be summed up in one word: Organization. If Knowledge is organized Information, what do you get when you apply organization to Connections, the basic currency of the Internet? The word I prefer is Context.

How Web 2.0 is Wikipedia? It doesn’t use AJAX, as far as I can see; the Wiki technology it uses is ancient by web standards, but that’s not what it’s about, if you ask me. A Wiki, in principle, is a web page that anyone can edit, a web publication under no strict editorial control. It takes advantage of the boundless brainpower, energy and goodwill offered by people passionate about a subject. Something’s missing or broken? We’ll fix it. It might not be right away – there’s no deadline imposed on me – but it’ll be done, probably quicker than you expect. The result, to me, screams Web 2.0, because it is all about knowledge and context, with added links to the authoritative content where possible.

Can I use the same principles at work? I currently work for a large US technology company, which makes various claims about its technology leadership. Yet, neither the people I work with, nor the company I work for, are remotely ready for Web 2.0, to be blunt. We spend so much of our available brainpower, in coping with the day-to-day stresses of our work, that gathering knowledge is a secondary consideration, and sharing knowledge still further down the list of priorities. I have been trying to encourage some knowledge sharing, using our internal Microsoft Sharepoint service, my colleagues are treating that as a place to post documents to read, and little else. I wish we could get into the relevance of the contents to us, and our work, and be able to summarize it.

Never mind Web 2.0: we’d be hard-pressed to call ourselves Web 1.0, given how hard we have to work to find the basic information we need to do our jobs, in any form, organized or not. The frustration is getting to us, and I’m clearly on the way out of my current role; that much would be clear, even if my job was not on its way to India. If the reboot 8 conference is to be any use to me, it will help me decide whether I have a future in the technology business at all, or if I should become a plumber or a teacher, or go and work with horses in a racing stable.

Written by brian t

April 9, 2006 at 7:11 pm