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Archive for August 2007

season’s close

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Earlier this evening, I walked out of the office after my last day as an employee in the IT industry. For now, at least, and for good if I have any control over my future. We had our “official” send-off in the pub two weeks ago, so today there was no fanfare, no send-off beyond a few handshakes, and electronic well-wishes from half-a-dozen time zones. That was how I wanted it; in most senses but the physical, I left long ago.

Tomorrow is the first day of orientation at University College Dublin, a day dedicated to we “mature students”. The main orientation starts on Monday, but I will not be involved until Thursday and Friday next week. The few days off were a welcome surprise that will come in handy. On the Monday after that, the real work starts; in the first year, my main worry is the Maths, since in my last years of school, the introduction of Calculus sent my marks in to a downward trend from A+ to B-. The same was not true of Physics and Chemistry, which I enjoyed all the way to my final A, and which forms a smaller part of my course.

The other side of the course is creative; it is a mixture of Engineering and Design, with the prospect of something more than mere numbers at the end of it. Outside the class, I’m looking for creativity in other fields too, and intend to get back in to playing music after too long away. I ordered a new Tune 4-string bass from Germany, earlier this week, a demo model at a knockdown price: I guess an amplifier is next: something portable.

I don’t expect to escape computers altogether, and I would not want to: I know they will be part of my future studies and work. If anything, not having to deal with a multitude of computer problems may rekindle some of my old enthusiasm for using them in creative ways, but I want and intend to live and work in the real world, once the studies are done. What I am leaving behind is the idea of computing for computing’s sake. Blogging is one example: it used to mean something, to me at least, but those days are over.

If a hunter shoots his gun in the forest, but there’s no-one there to hear it, did it really go off? In the real world, you can go and look at the hole in the squirrel tree, and you have the evidence that the gunshot really happened, and there were consequences. In writing this blog, I’ve been a poor hunter in a virtual forest, taking potshots at tempting targets, and never knowing if I actually hit anything. Today’s bloggers are more focused on a particular target; they know what they are doing out here, and wear better-fitting armour, but they are not much better at leaving holes in the real world.

As a hunting season ends when the majority of the hunter’s prey has migrated to warmer climes, my blogging season is now over; my reasons to be out here, in the chilly virtual evening, have flown away, so I am packing up my weapons and taking them home. There’s not much in my swag bag, but I did not go hungry. My pantry is well-stocked for the winter, and that will suffice. If a new season comes, will I step outside again, blunderbuss over my shoulder? I don’t know; that, too, must suffice.

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Written by brian t

August 31, 2007 at 11:59 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, life

wind-up or wind-down?

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giving up blogging - © hugh macleod 2006 A while ago I stated my intention to stop blogging, as soon as I started university. That eventuality is now one week away, and I still intend to go through with it. I’m viewing this move as one step in a larger set of life changes, nearly all of which have been under my control.

It’s well over 5 years since I started blogging, and I’ve seen it develop from a niche activity to a web standard. A process of commercialization is already under way, even if it is not obvious from a superficial standpoint. This is understandable in purely economic terms: anything with mass popularity will be ripe for commercial exploitation.

This blog is hosted by wordpress.com, which was set up as a host for the WordPress “content management” software developed by the same multinational team. It does not charge users for a basic account. They do charge for extras, such as extra storage space or (in my case) the use of my own top-level domain, but these are genuine extras, and I don’t know if they are big cash cows for the developers. I get the impression they are still doing this because they can, not purely for commercial gain, even though the costs of running wordpress.com must be somewhere between “stupendous” and “horrendous”.

Will we see “professional bloggers”? In some senses, we already have them. Blogs, and comments on them, are major weapons in the arsenal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) executives. We also have technology journalists and podcasters such as Robert Scoble and Adam Curry using these media to further their careers, even if stardom is not quite what they want. Me? I just enjoy writing, and found this blog a useful platform for stories about myself, my activities, and anything else that interested me.

Where I am going – for the next three years, at least – I will have plenty to write about, with little or none of it about me. In the remaining week, I may post a little more about the changes ahead of me, or I may not: they are not that exciting or unusual, and not all are guaranteed to take place. For now, I’ll resist the temptation to quote from Turn, Turn, Turn (by The Byrds), and enjoy the Debussy on the BBC Proms broadcast. This must be what old men get up to on Saturday nights.

Written by brian t

August 25, 2007 at 8:43 pm

Posted in blogging, internet, web 2.0

race of tralee

with 11 comments

It’s happening again: every year, the town of Tralee (co. Kerry) holds its annual Rose Of Tralee festival. Before I say anything else about it, I first want to quote what the official website I just linked to has to say about the festival:

The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage.

The official application form gives the following as one of the eligibility criteria:

Be born in Ireland or of Irish origin by virtue of one of her ancestors having been born in Ireland.

Am I the only person in Ireland who finds this just a little disturbing?

Reading between the lines, I see a claim of racial superiority: to be of ethnic Irish origin is something to be proud of, and celebrated. I had a hopeful suspicion that I might be wrong about this, and in previous years there may have been more ethnic diversity, but looking at this year’s International Roses was not reassuring. Each girl’s blurb details her county or counties of origin, and explains her surname when it is not obviously Irish. The hair colours were varied, but that was about all. They all just love Irish dancing, of course – at least the ones I looked at.

This is not some obscure provincial festival: for the next week or so the Rose of Tralee festival gets prime time coverage on RTÉ1, the main channel of the state broadcaster. (This is the same broadcaster who charges a license fee and shows advertising.)

In case it wasn’t obvious: I live in Ireland, but I’m not Irish. I’m Scottish, and knowing a bit of Scots history, that means there’s a fair chance that I have some “Irish blood” in me. I would not be concerned about that, however, mainly because I know there’s no such thing as “Irish blood”: Ireland was but one stop on a longer Celtic ancestral trail that goes back to Africa, possibly via ancient Egypt. “Irish origin” is, to be blunt, a transient delusion in historical terms.

More importantly, I don’t place much stock in one’s ethnic origin, not in this world of mass emigration and immigration. I’ve written before about my Scots heritage, which I identify as more of an attitude, or a way of viewing the world. It is the attitude that produced the Scottish Enlightenment, and I do not know or care whether David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns or James Watt were of “Scots origin”. I know that William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), was born in Ulster, but he made his home in Glasgow.

Why is it so laudable to be Irish? Wikipedia carries lists of Irish-Americans, created by its users. Everyone knows that John F Kennedy was of Irish Catholic stock – his father Joe made sure everyone knew – and the Irish papers are quick to latch on to any hint of Irishness in a celebrity. (It’s highly selective, naturally: legendary comedian Spike Milligan, and delinquent rock “star” Pete Doherty, were known as English with Irish parents, but which do you think has the Irish label attached in news reports?)

By way of contrast, how many Americans know that the steel magnate & philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity established Carnegie Hall and Carnegie-Mellon University, was Scottish by birth? Heck, even fans of the TV show Dallas – a Scots name, just like Houston and Austin – failed to notice the Scots ancestry of the Ewing family, despite the fact that the family patriarch was nicknamed “Jock”.

I don’t see what the Irish have to be so smug about: the shadow of Tammany Hall still darkens the mayorship of New York, and when director Martin Scorsese shifted his focus to Boston, in The Departed, he found stories of Irish organized crime to rival the worst Mafia excesses.

I can understand the need to celebrate Irish culture. It’s this celebration of Irish ethnicity, of Celtic racial purity, that offends me, by what it is, and by the way it is seen as harmless. In my view it is representative of the Irish government’s institutional racism, which reflects a superiority complex that the Irish have exported to all corners of the globe. I simply don’t see what they are doing to justify it.

Written by brian t

August 21, 2007 at 11:38 pm

loan piranhas

with one comment

The word subprime is hitting world headlines today, as the cause of a global stock market “correction”. I subscribe to various news feeds related to economics, including those belonging to authors Tim Harford (FT), Bob Sutton, and the authors of Freakonomics., so I’ve been hearing the rumblings for some time now. Business Week did a very good article on it, back in March, which is online here. I’d like to give my take on the situation, which should be prefaced with the standard “I Am Not An Economist” disclaimer.

A subprime lender is a financial institution that offers loans to debtors who have poor credit records. They might not use the word subprime here in Europe, but we have them too: the kinds of companies that put ads on cable TV, offering credit to people who have been turned away by banks. These are people who need credit more than most: you get a poor credit record because you took out too much credit in the past, since “too much” is defined as the amount that you can’t pay back.

Unforeseen circumstances can turn a comfortable financial situation nasty, so it’s normal to have insurance of different kinds, to “smooth out” the financial impact of unforeseen events. In the USA, however, many poorer people have been hit hard by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, and can not afford health insurance in particular. The federal Medicare scheme is inadequate, covering only the very poorest, and a middle class family can be bankrupted by a single car crash, even if they have health insurance.

The result is that you have more subprime borrowers than before, and subprime lenders are created to cater to them. The added risk to the lender is handled primarily through the application of higher interest rates, which is a double-edged sword: those who pay higher interest are those who can least afford it, meaning they are at even higher risk of defaulting on their subprime loans.

If a loan is secured on property – a standard subprime loan requirement – the bank can foreclose on the property, leaving the lender out on the street. This is not a theoretical exaggeration: in the poorer parts of the USA, it is happening with disappointing regularity, and the frequency is growing.

Why, then, is the crisis in subprime lending having such a global impact? The most direct effect is due to the fact that the subprime lenders re-sell the loans (or derivatives) to other financial institutions, including some in the Far East and Europe. The third-party exposure is limited, however: to quote the Business Week article, “the buyers of the loans started exercising their right to sell the bad ones back to the lenders at face value. The true value of these delinquent or foreclosed loans was far less than face value, but the lenders were forced to swallow the difference.”

In other words, the subprime lenders are carrying the can. Even if they can foreclose, the debtors often have bankruptcy protection, and the lenders lose money in the foreclosure process, rarely getting back the full loan value.

Indirectly, people in financial distress are a relative burden on an economy, simply due to their reduced standard of living. Property prices are being affected, with lenders making less on foreclosure, and less on new mortgages. On a wider scale, property prices and mortgage lending are key economic indicators, and the indicators in the USA are not good; the property bubble, that got a lot of mortgagees in to trouble in the first place, is deflating. This is similar to what happened in the UK in the early Nineties: they called it Negative Equity.

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Written by brian t

August 10, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Posted in america, economics

a change of scenery

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nom nomNo, I’m not moving: the scenery is being moved for me. This is a Bank Holiday weekend in Ireland, which means that they can close the DART line. Why do they need to close the DART line? Because the west stand of the Lansdowne Road Stadium is was built hanging over the DART line.

It meant an all-nighter: these photos were taken long after 2AM, with a tripod in my kitchen, which was an interesting challenge.Some came out really well, with interesting colours, and I may post one or two in my main photo gallery. It helped that I have a camera (Pentax *ist DS) with good sensitivity (ISO 3200), and a fast Sigma 70-200mm lens.

By this morning the stand was mostly gone, leaving nothing between me and the coast but a few low houses. I don’t quite have a sea view, because at that angle the coast is not that close. There are trees, which suits me just fine.

The scenery is changing in my office, too: on Friday I handed in my notice, kicking off a process that will occupy much of the next four weeks. I’ve already been heavily occupied in “knowledge transfer”, mostly informal “mentoring” so far, but I’ll be giving a presentation to colleagues on a particularly thorny product range.

I was going to say something about University, but the U key on my new keyboard is intermittent, so I’ll need to take a look at that, tomorrow. I was drilling holes in one of my guitars the other day, brass dust went everywhere…

Written by brian t

August 6, 2007 at 1:26 am

Posted in dublin, ireland, photography