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Archive for May 2006


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En route to Copenhagen, about 20 minutes behind schedule. As we stewed at the gate, the Captain came on the PA and explained why our departure was delayed: there was a communications problem delaying the processing of our Airbus’s loading documents. It’s a flight from Dublin to Copenhagen, but the papers are processed in Bangkok, he said. A shining example of globalization in action?

I’m almost at the back of the plane, which is unusual for me. It’s not as bad, on this Airbus A321 “flying pencil” as I remember from the last time, on some old Boeing. It did make the takeoff unpleasant, though, and I’m not looking forward to approach and landing. There was a gusty crosswind that had the tail yawing crazily, and sent the plane wobbling almost to the edges of the runway as we passed V1.

I’m not overstating the case, this was evident on the cabin monitors, showing the gyrating view forward from the nosewheel. Another down-and-forward camera is now showing the thready Stratus over the North Sea. The monitor sometimes shows live position and speed data. (11280m or 37000ft up, 850km/h or 527mph ground speed.)

Otherwise, the experience of flying SAS is barely distinguishable from Aer Lingus last month: Flight Attendants come in all shapes and sizes, I was served instant coffee (€2), by a hirsute gentlemen who bent the floor as he went by. At least he offered a refill at no charge.


Written by brian t

May 30, 2006 at 12:20 pm

Posted in technology, travel

what am I selling?

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Simple question, eh? It is today, but might not remain that way for much longer.

I subscribe to a whole bunch of RSS feeds, as you can see by the “bloglines blogroll” list on the right. Some of those talk about blogging, with certain assumptions, and the foremost of those is that the blogger has something to sell, and that is why he or she is blogging. Over four years since I started blogging, and I’m only asking this question now?

Let’s start with the philosophical: in various discussions I’ve had with people on the topic of religion, I arrived at an interesting conclusion. All religions have an evangelical element to them, to different degrees. Even Buddhism, the least pushy religions I know of, has a subtle “grassroots” marketing element to it The thing is: I’m an atheist, a term derived from what I don’t believe in. I have no sacred texts to follow, no rituals to observe. No gurus to worship – much as I appreciate what the likes of Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Richard P Feynman or Arthur C Clarke offer to those with inquiring minds and a sense of adventure.

In other words, there is no such thing as “evangelist atheism”. Sure, I may express concern at the negative effects of religion, but what do I say to an individual? “You’re wrong to believe?” I don’t need to try that to know what to expect. Besides, the old cliche still applies: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. I’m not trying to sell my philosophy to anyone; there would be no actual benefit to me, real or theoretical, if anyone bought it.

What about money, or my livelihood? This is where things may need to change a little. I’ve been in steady employment for six-and-a-half years, here in Ireland, which is longer than I expected to be. By the end of this year, or even sooner, I should have a good idea of how much longer I will be keeping my job, since my colleagues and I are allegedly too expensive. Lower costs are the reason I was brought to Ireland in the first place, and will be the reason my job heads to India or China. Who knows where I will go?

The reboot 8 conference next month is a chance to immerse myself in the possibilities opening up under the heading of “web 2.0” – however you define it – and what, if anything I can get involved with. Where do I fit in? I don’t know. What I do know is: when I’m out looking for new employment I will need to focus on myself. Do a better job of identifying my key skills and enhancing them. Then I will have something to sell: an unpleasant prospect, but a nettle I will need to grasp.

As if that was not enough, I will have to consider the possibility of a limited public presence for myself. Not in any conventional media sense, but it seems to me that anyone with something serious to say in a technical field can’t do it behind a cloak of anonymity. The “brand of me” is something I’ve refused to countenance, and I still sneer at “celebrities” who are famous for nothing real or useful.

I’ve been an intensely private person all my life, and have always resisted giving out personally identifiable information. It’s been used against me in the past, by marketers, and by people turning up on my doorstep and making demands of me. Relaxing enough to use my own name in public is not going to be easy. I’m not even sure it’s possible, but enough time has passed to let me consider the possibility. Fear not: a career in politics is a very long way off.

Written by brian t

May 22, 2006 at 11:51 pm

Posted in atheism, reboot, web 2.0

bleeding hearts and artists

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I was asked, today, what a “bleeding heart liberal” was, in the context of a discussion on Manners. The first reference I thought of was that line from The Wall, one of Pink Floyd’s best-known works. At the Trial of Pink’s mind his schoolteacher excoriates him before the court, blaming “liberals” for allowing Pink to become who he became.

I always said he’d come to no good,
In the end, Your Honour.
If they’d let me have my way,
I could have flayed him into shape.
But my hands were tied.
The bleeding hearts and artists,
Let him get away with murder.
Let me hammer him today.

But it’s important to note how, after the Trial, outside the Wall, the same “bleeding hearts and artists” are there to support Pink, despite the damage he has done.

All alone, or in twos,
The ones who really know you,
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand,
Some gather together in bands,
The bleeding hearts and artists,
Make their stand.
And when they’ve given you their all,
Some stagger and fall.
After all it’s not easy,
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.

My personal definition of a true “bleeding heart liberal” is someone who tries to rationalize away any and all human behaviours. Whatever someone does, the culprit is not at fault, he or she is a victim. A man assaults a girl? His parents did not hug him enough. Woman shoplifts? Sexually frustrated. Boy puts a match to a school building? Parents not giving him enough phosphorus in his diet. (OK, bad example.)

My response to that might be: OK, I appreciate the need to understand the origins of behaviour, where feasible, but you have to recognise that that is not the same as fixing it. If your car engine stops, it might need to be opened up and fixed, or just cleaned a bit (plugs, filters), or just given more petrol. i.e. the reasons for a failure are important in deciding what to do, but knowing them is no substitute for action. Exactly what action to take is a whole ‘nother argument best left to experienced professionals in this field.

I also tend to focus on Ethics, which I’ve written about here before. The social model I prefer is that of any professional society or organisation, such as doctors or engineers, or even clergy: you agree to a set of rules that have been developed over time by your peers. These are not “handed down” or “imposed” by some authority beyond your reach – you could be an authority some day – but are nevertheless the conditions of membership in that society.

So, I view manners as the long-agreed-upon rules for membership in polite society. The “collective wisdom” gathered over millennia of social intercourse. If you want to belong to polite society, you will modify your behaviour accordingly, or be left out of a society that does not need you. So what if you can’t do exactly what you want… that is true of life in general, so suck it down and live with it!

I recently watched the movie Scarface (1983), and this point is perfectly illustrated 2/3 of the way through the movie. As Tony Montana becomes “a law unto himself” (or so he thinks), he gives up on the polite society he fought so hard to join, and retreats into his Miami mansion with a stockpile of cocaine. His last social appearance, in a posh restaurant, is marked by his gross breaches of manners: shouting at his girlfriend, the staff, and other diners as he staggers out. “It’s OK folks… the bad man is leaving!” 😮

Written by brian t

May 17, 2006 at 10:38 am

Posted in culture, music, philosophy

on knowable unknowns

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A forum discussion today, about astrology, Tarot cards and other charlatanry, brought out my pedantic streak with a vengeance. I had to water down what I was trying to say, but it’s still probably too much for the audience. I’ve had no time for any of this, haven’t had any since I learned some astronomy and cosmology, back when my shoe size was bigger than my age.

It’s important to grasp the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, about the universe we live in. In my experience people vastly overestimate the size and importance of the latter: if you start listing all the things we know we don’t know, you can usually find reasons why you don’t know: space-time, the limits on our vision, our capacity to absorb and process huge volumes of information, or just apathy – because the questions are not that relevant to our lives. These limitations make us who we are today, but it’s not necessarily going to stay that way.

If you haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, go out and get the first book (or radio series) at least. Man’s place in the universe – the illusion vs. the reality – is a key concept, from the first chapter, when the Earth is thoughtlessly demolished to build a hyperspace bypass. But the most relevant part to this discussion is the Total Perspective Vortex, a chamber that strips away all your illusions and shows you exactly how important you are in the scheme of things: i.e. not even slightly important. The universe does not know or care about you – no matter if you wish otherwise. Most egos do not survive the experience. *

Meanwhile, back down to Earth: our brains have evolved in to good “pattern matchers”. Our ancestors could examine the prints and signs left by animals, and build up a mental picture of the animals and their actions. An evolutionary advantage, since it made them better hunters. We still have this skill: our ability to project meaning from random events or vague signs is understandable, and even entertaining. People have written whole books about the meanings of Yes lyrics – words cobbled together by Jon Anderson to sound good (he happily admits)!

Our ability to spin meaning out of nothing may even lead to useful self-examination and insight, but does it tell us anything useful about the future? Enough to make us spend money, make personal changes, to make demands on other people? If you interpret your horoscope as saying “leave your partner”, do you listen to that, or to your partner’s wishes? Who wins, the vision or the reality?

All I mean by that is: as with religion, I can understand people looking for comfort and reassurance in any way comfortable to them; I just hope the people remember that it’s 100% personal, and confers no rights over other people, over their time and other resources. You say “jump”, I say “why?” Since I don’t believe in the stars, or the planets, or angels watching from above, those ideas have no authority over me, and neither do the people who do believe in them. Sorry.

* Yes, Zaphod, I heard you the first time.

Written by brian t

May 14, 2006 at 1:00 pm

Posted in music, philosophy


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This site, by design, is my personal blog, which is fine for what it is, but it hardly encourages disciplined writing. With that in mind I’ve started a new blog on the side, focusing on a single writing project, that will be written to higher standards. That’s the plan, at least.

It is called Margin, my term for a concept that is in some respects “obvious”, but one I intend to explore in more detail. From the “about page”:

Margin is a formalized way of saying that people are not perfect and can not operate at maximum capacity at all times. Call it breathing space, headroom, margin of error, literary ambiguity, or just plain Slack: the idea extends to all our works and activities, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, whether corporate, cultural, or personal. This blog is dedicated to exploring this concept as deeply as possible, with examples from fiction, ideology, and the real world.

I’ve created it as a WordPress blog, using the free service offered by the people who make the software this site uses (which is also free). It’s easy to use and powerful, but what I really appreciate about it is that it works well for both structured and unstructured writing. For example, the MPC1000 pages you see in the sidebar on the right have been placed into a hierarchy, but these blog posts are ordered only by date. (The Categories do not really provide any order, they are more like a filtering or tagging facility.)

It’s not going to be as academic or full-of-itself as it might sound from all that: it will still be a blog. Had I been an adult in the year I was born I might have been a hippy, pontificating about the meaning of life with a flower in one hand and a tambourine in the other. Where one generation used LSD, another Marijuana, another Absinthe, what is my drug, today? Coffee, I suppose. That, and the expansive possibilities for research and creativity opened up by the Internet. Hardly new or unique: the challenge is to be different, to write something that people will want to read in the first place. That takes time, effort, and discipline. Oh my.

Written by brian t

May 13, 2006 at 8:05 pm

Posted in life

safe harbour

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As long as I’m back at work, between holidays and travel, not much is happening on any front. I haven’t quite finished reporting on my trip to Portugal, so let me do that now.

After my last post, just before the train to Lisbon, there was not much excitement. I did go to the wrong platform at the station, the one that was to receive the train from Lisbon, but when a fast train pulled into another platform, there was plenty of time to waddle over and spot my mistake. After so long without any news I didn’t mind buying a Sunday Times at twice the normal price, with so much of interest that I hadn’t quite finished by the time the train pulled in to Lisboa Oriente, over three hours later.

The Lisbon Metro is undergoing engineering works, and I would have saved even more time had it been completed, but it was no real problem. I wasn’t quite sure which stop to use for my hotel, but Campo Pequeno turned out to be just right. I had deliberately selected a big, convenient “business” hotel (Holiday Inn Continental) for my last night, suspecting (correctly) that I would appreciate a little luxury after several days out in the sticks, and I was settled in on the 9th floor earlier than I had dared hope for. After a half hour rest, with a cup of coffee and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on CNN, I was ready to hit the streets again.

I didn’t have a map then, happy to rely on memory and the maps on bus shelters, but I’m going to need one now. From Campo Pequeno it was south along Avenida de Republica to Saldanha, then south-east along Avenida Castal Ribeiro into the Estefania district, south along Rua de Dona Estefania. This genteel district reminded me of Kensington in London – large townhouses, luxury cars and greenery.

Dr. Sousa MartinsI soon arrived at Campo dos Mártires da Pátria, a small park where the locals were chilling out; ice cream, coffee, kids in strollers and old folks playing chess. Why was I rushing? It was a Sunday, the sun was shining, and plenty of daylight was left. Seeing students with books had me wondering if this was a university area, and I later found that this was the historic City Campus of the University of Lisbon, home to several faculties including Law and Medicine.

There I found a most unusual statue; Dr. Sousa Martins was a famous physician in Lisbon, and his statue watches over the medical faculty of the university. Stacked under the statue are hundreds of little plaques, mostly marble, inscribed with prayers and thanks to the Doctor, a minor medical saint.

Rua da São Lázaro took me down the hill, through a maze of narrow streets of grimy houses, with kids playing soccer and washing hanging from the balconies – an almost stereotypical scene, but I was soon at the bottom, on Praça Martim Moniz which, despite ornamental fountains, was a arid plain of concrete and marble compared to what I had seen up the hill. I could have taken the old tram up the hill to Castelo de São Jorges, but it was full of tourists and not too appealing.

Dr. Sousa MartinsAfter that, I wandered through Alfama, an old district with unusually dense architecture to the centre, starting next to the sea at Praça de Comércio, up the Rua Augusta shopping district to Restuaradores. All the way, and up Avenida da Liberdade, are more familiar tourist areas, many statues of kings and revolutionaries alike. It was uphill all the way, back up to Saldanha and the hotel, tired but happier than I’d been all week (apart from the wedding).

Dinner, bed, breakfast, bus, airport, plane, bus, and home. After carrying my phone all week, I managed to lose my mobile phone on the bus back from the airport. Oh well.

Written by brian t

May 6, 2006 at 5:50 pm

Posted in portugal, travel