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Archive for January, 2011

What I’ve Been Up To

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Sorry. there’s been no posts for a bit. I’ve been nose to the grindstone with a new project.

I’ve always fancied that I could be a kind of eco-friendly Jeremy Clarkson. So I’ve been working on Northants Driver a website for drivers in Northants (no kidding). Others hailing from less exalted countries are also welcome.

So far I’ve come with;

An article about potholes and what to do about them.

Buying a used SEAT Leon

And Ten Top Tips for Better Fuel Economy

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Categories: Driving, Randomness

Citizenship, Part 1

January 14, 2011 1 comment

When a baby comes into the World it is a citizen of nowhere. Until somebody submits the details of it’s birth to a national civil register that child is a stateless person. When that submission happens, what is written on that single sheet of paper will have the greatest consequences of any event in it’s life. From the point of view of that child that process is incontestable, arbitrary and, by even the loosest definition of the word, completely unfair.

Which of the World’s 193 sovereign states we are born into greatly affects our life expectancy and our access to health care and education. It could mean we are born into an environment where we have complete freedom of worship and expression, or one where we are subject to forced indoctrination and subjugation. It greatly influences our ability to receive and create wealth. Above all, it restricts our ability to remove ourselves from places where we face negative outcomes. The greener the grass is over there, the higher the fences will be preventing us from getting there. The biggest roll of the dice we face happens when we have the least possible chance of influencing the outcome, and, without reference to our free will, could place us in a mud hut in West Africa, or in Beverley Hills.

How arbitrary and unfair this is can be illustrated with a couple of examples. If an ethnic Russian is born in the town of Narva, that person is free to travel throughout western Europe. In many countries, Britain included, that person could find work in whatsoever industry he fancied, in whatsoever capacity they are willing to employ him in. He wouldn’t have to have a language test, pay for expensive visas or deal with any bureaucratic machinations. An identically ethnic Russian born two miles away in Ivangorod would have to contend with all of these things. Even if that Russian were a Phd level scientist the UK immigration quotas may prevent him from taking a top level research job, whilst the Narva Russian can freely come without even the need to show a high school diploma. Why is this? You’ve probably guessed; Narva is in Estonia and being born there usually means being born into EU citizenship. Ivangorod is short walk across the Narva river, and in the Russian Federation.

Or, an example a bit closer to home for me, take someone born in Brazil to a French father. Her grandfather and grandmother on her dad´s side were both thoroughly French, so her dad should be French and, under French citizenship laws, she could have been registered as a French citizen. However before she was born, her grandfather failed to register her father. So in the eyes of an EU country’s immigration officials she is  ‘Brazilian’ and has to contend with the full extent of the restrictions placed on immigration. If her grandfather hadn’t made that omission, before she was born and way outside of her control, then, with no change in who she is, the immigration system would happily see her as ‘French’ and she could come and go with absolutely no restriction whatsoever.

What do you hate about other people’s driving?

January 12, 2011 4 comments

Here’s one of mine. Picture this; I’m on a two lane motorway  (freeway for Americans) like the M11 and I’m in a 40ft semi truck driving at the speed that my speed limiter is set at, so 56 mph. I’m gaining on three or four cars, led inevitably by a Nissan Micra, that are bumbling along at about 53mph. I reach the rear of this little queue, check my mirrors, it’s clear, I pull into the outside lane to overtake. At first I’m doing OK, a few speeders have caught up and are stuck behind me, but I’ll soon be past the Micra and out of their way. Then…

I’ll contend that if you are driving up the M11 at 53 mph in your Nissan Micra your mind is probably not on driving so much. You’re deep in conversation with your passenger about your grand-kids, or are enthralled by Gardeners Question Time on Radio 4. You are almost certainly not ‘looking in the mirrors’ in the accepted sense, but your outer periphery detects a change, maybe a simple change from the bright Essex sky to a big dark shape. This fails to imprint a concious thought on the brain (e.g. a truck is overtaking), but does manage to reach deep into the sub-concious and find a little used fight or flight reflex. “Could be danger” the reflex whispers “put distance between you and it”. So, without  thought, interruption in conversation or disruption in gardening information, the right foot moves down just a few millimetres.  The black shape fails to get bigger, the flight reflex is sated and sub-concious goes back to sleep again.

Back to me in the truck.  The Micra is now doing 56.2 mph. My overtaking has had the same sub-concious effect on the other bumblers, and they’ve bunched up behind it leaving me stranded out in lane two with now a long queue of Audi’s and the like behind, all no doubt cursing ‘the truck driver’ for holding them up. I can’t accelerate because of the limiter, slowing up risks dangerously bunching up the traffic behind even more. After waiting a bit to see if the Micra driver wakes up (some hope) I put my left indicator on and wait for one of the other bumblers to realise that 44 tons of metal wants to be the space he is and lets me in. The Audi queue flashes past shaking their fists at me and everything is flowing again.

Then the Micra slows back to 53 mph…

Categories: Driving Tags: , , , ,

Being Cory Doctorow

January 9, 2011 2 comments

A name I’d never heard of until I discovered I Write Like, a website where you paste in some of your text and it tells you which famous writer you write like. Apparently.

I must say that I have no idea how they work this out, and for me the results weren’t exactly consistent.  According to which piece of writing I put in, I could also be Dan Brown or Vladimir Nabokov (I don’t even speak Russian). But more than a couple of times it claimed I was Cory Doctorow.

And to see what he writes like, what better to read but his interesting take on the internet slush pile (here is mine), as published here at the Guardian.

The 2003 Euro Cycle Ride. Day 11 of 175

January 8, 2011 Leave a comment

In the spring, summer and early autumn of 2003 I embarked on a epic solo bicycle ride through Europe. The goal was to cross every border on mainland Europe, starting in Portugal and ending in Norway, 40 countries and 7,000 miles, all by ‘bike.

I’ve been clearing out my PC’s hard drive and found some stuff I wrote about it shortly afterwards

Here is a taster;

“Day 11 Andorra at last! What’s it like? Like Lakeside shopping centre with mountains. The shops are huge with an amazing amount of choice. Confusing for me after all those tiny Spanish village shops that appear to just sell oranges, dog food and a chainsaw. A good old ride to get here over a 1725m high pass. Tomorrow, France.

The camp-site wasn’t the most pleasant it must be said. It was next to a busy road and a fast running river. The weather wasn’t brilliant either with a bit of rain around and cloud wreathing the mountainsides. What was good was meeting some fellow Brits. Gerry and his wife Chris were heading south in an old VW camper and had stopped to stock up with food. They were the first of a certain kind of traveler I was to meet again; the sort who had cut the ties of property and family and were just adrift in the World. They worked at campsites in the UK, but only for as long as it took to save up enough to head off again. They were vague about where they were heading and kept talking about Morocco, but they had no real plan it seemed, and would go wherever their whim would take them. The next morning I had breakfast with them in their camper, and then it was time to do a bit of admin and steel myself for the climb ahead. I monopolized the radiators in the camp-site’s wash-room to dry my hand-washed clothes and brought as much food as I dare. It wouldn’t do to be carrying to much weight on the climb. Searching for an internet café meant I could have a look around Sant Julia de Loria and it was amazing what you could buy it what was quite a small town. Half price high tech mountain bikes anyone? Or a Ferrari at €10,000 off list? Maybe my next trip should start off in Andorra with all new kit purchased there.

 
Then quite late, after midday, I set off. It was a steep climb almost straight away. Andorra is basically just one big valley easily accessible from the Spanish side but leading up to Port D’envalira, the highest pass in the Pyrenees. The border with France comes shortly after that. Apparently Andorra has the highest life expectancy of any country (83.5 years), and I’d have to say any amount of walking, or cycling, here would give anyone a healthy heart. It’s all pretty steep.

 
Once past the Capital, Andorra la Vella, it became an almost constant low gear slog. The cloud seemed to ride up the valley so soon there was bits of cloud above and ahead, and bits of cloud below and behind. The patches of snow that were on the mountainsides above became patches alongside and I could see deeper snow by the roadside ahead. I saw my first skier, who looked a bit lost having come down the valley to find she had now run out of snow. I suppose she would soon have to climb, like I was. Up, up and up again. Saddle-soreness wasn’t going to be an issue, I was out of saddle all of the time and pumping hard. My knees held, my legs strained and I breathed deep. It felt exhilarating. If you don’t do much cycling that might seem a bit odd, most people seem to think of climbing as the worst bit. In fact it’s one of the best because of the challenge. And this particular challenge was always going to be the biggest of the ride. It was so early on, when my body hadn’t adjusted to daily cycling, it was easily the highest pass and the potential for bad weather was the greatest. By now the occasional spots of rain had became occasional flakes of snow and instead of supermarkets there were hotels and shops selling ski gear. Ever upwards. By the time I got to the tunnel into France the snow was quite thick alongside the road. It was fairly obvious that I wouldn’t be allowed to use the car choked tunnel, and who would want to when there are mountains to climb?“You must go that way”, said the policeman at the tunnel entrance, pointing almost vertically upwards. The road could be seen zig-zagging up through thick snow banks before disappearing into the cloud. Time to heave-ho and pump those pedals just a little longer. The snow banks were now as tall as me and flakes were starting to settle on my gloves and jacket. But the road was clear and I was generating enough heat of my own. After a while I could see the outline of a radio tower, then I came to a petrol station and it was pretty clear there was no more up to go. I stopped a while to add some layers of clothing and to reward myself with some chocolate. Then it was downhill towards France. A few days later the 2407 metre  pass was closed due to snow.

 
Despite the extra clothing I got an instant soaking on the descent. The speed picked up so quickly a couple of cars were seriously getting in the way on the first few hairpins. Pas de La Casa, and the obligatory duty free shops, flashed past and I was in France. Coming out of the cloud revealed a wider valley with the road still going steeply down. Poor brakes, and the bike weaving around because of the extra weight, tempered any speed craziness, but the computer still registered 75 kph (47mph) a couple of times. The 20 miles from Sant Julia to Port D’envalira had taken almost half the day. The 24 miles to Ax Le Themes had taken just 55 minutes.”

Blogging vs. The Village Pub

January 8, 2011 2 comments

“Everyone has a book inside them” goes the quote (for the life of me I can’t find who first said it). I suppose this could mean either a) everyone has their own life story, b) everyone has their own view of the World to contribute or, more likely c) a combination of both. And there does seem to be a need to not going silently through life but to get our personal stories out there.

It seems this need has always been with us, so in times gone by off we would go to a suitable public venue, like the village pub, and expound our views and stories to whomsoever was inclined to listen.

Then came scalability; our works having much greater effect for no greater effort. No matter how gifted an orator we might be, without the help of technology we can only directly reach those within earshot. If we can write, we can reach those who can buy every document we hand copy. If that can be printed (now we are getting really scalable), we can reach everyone who can buy the now much cheaper and easier to produce document. (You can’t overlook the extraordinary effect of the moveable type printing press; Martin Luther’s The Ninety Five Theses may be the first example of something going viral.) Now, if we can publish on the the internet…. 2 billion users and counting, no costs to your readers and no barriers to entry for you. Remember that; no barriers to entry.

We now live in a World obsessed with scalability. And that should be no surprise;  one moment someone is playing his guitar and singing in his local pub, the next he is winning the Xfactor and is destined for a life of wealth and fame, a woman thinks of some nice children’s stories whilst on a train then a few years later she’s signed a seven picture movie deal. Not only do we know the financial rewards can be immense, but we know that our artistic production and even our very thoughts can have mass validation.  Record downloads, book sales and web hits; the modern ways of saying “you’re doing all right”.

And it’s all right there at our finger tips. WordPress, Blogger, even Twitter and Facebook. We can put something up and know that the same day it could go viral. But surely many bloggers just post stuff for the consumption of close friends and family? Maybe some do, but there is evidence that ever so many are secretly hoping for a bit of fame, and even a sniff of fortune. I happened upon an on-line interview of someone who had one of the fastest growing blogs out there. And the subject matter of this blog? How to make your blog grow faster. Google “Ten ways to make your blog grow” or “secrets of a successful blog”  or any similar term and it returns plenty of sites that offer advice. And none of them seem to answer a fundamental question; where are all the readers for these super successful blogs?

Now, let’s recall barriers to entry. TV talents shows like the Xfactor have at the core a filter for the seething masses; only a few of thousands are going to even get public exposure. Likewise publishing houses only put to print a tiny fraction of the manuscripts submitted. So disdainful are they of the bulk of what they receive most don’t even bother counted them in. Figures from one company show that they only publish 10 of 4,000 annual submissions. Most end up on the unedifyingly titled ‘slush pile’ to be barely skimmed by a junior member of staff before being binned. Even if every book submitted was a potential Harry Potter, they still would only publish a fraction off them, because there are only so many readers out there. It makes more economic sense to have a few blockbusters, not a huge number of small and expensive print runs. The traditional media has to place barriers to entry, because each production must exceed a critical number of sales  for it to make money.

Now, new media and blogging. No barriers to entry. Nothing to stop the latent genius’. Nothing to stop the unreadable rubbish. Nothing to stop the self deluded. Nothing to stop the dreamer, hooked by the notion of scalability. So… hundreds of thousands, maybe soon millions upload in hope, waiting for the day when what they’ve pictured, sung or written is taken up by… well by whom exactly? It’s economics 1.01; a market can bear only so much supply. The cost of consuming in this market is time, not money. But for consumers time is still worth something, and look what’s been created here. What we have is basically the slush pile left out in the street. Image if you will going to the book store and for every book there were a thousand of no interest, and there was no means of finding the gems. Imagine a TV talent show where every one of a hundred thousand singers were performing twenty hours a day, seven days a week? You wouldn’t do it, you wouldn’t watch it.

Now we have a vast on-line community. Many members of this community have dreams, secret or otherwise, of what they do ‘making it’ so they are intent on production rather than consumption, apparently not noticing that all the ‘consumers’ are actually just like them, and not really looking for much content (at least not from unknown personal blogs). The fast growing sites that tell you how to make fast growing sites tell you that you grow by networking, ‘making friends’ , sharing links etc., which, if everyone is doing the same, is terminally illogical. Imagine this; a sealed sports hall full of mice. Hanging from the ceiling, out of reach, are bags of cheese, enough for only a few mice. The only way a mouse has a chance of getting the cheese is to form a pyramid of mice. With, naturally, him on the top. And he does this by being nice to the other mice so he can climb on them. It doesn’t work, does it?

Internet fame seekers are faced with a stark mathematical reality; just as we occasionally dip into a few select blogs, so others do the same with ours. Therefore we are unlikely to be able to share our personal book with more than a handful, so we may now have gone full circle. Maybe we are back to the village pub scenario. Except that close circle with whom  we share a bond enough to be interested in each others stories is on-line rather than down the pub. So, should we forget internet interaction, and just pop down to the local? Well, the common bond I have with those down the pub is merely geographic; the only thing we have in common is we live within walking distance. So I may not be so interested in their woes with their van breaking down, the sport they like or what they think of the Xfactor winner. On the other hand there maybe someone in Houston or Singapore with whom I share a more alike take on the World, enough for me to take a interest in their stories, and they mine. So I shall continue to pump my personal book into the void and hope it is discovered by kindred souls. Besides, it’s cold and wet outside, and the beer from the fridge is cheaper than the beer down the pub.

A Good Quote

January 7, 2011 Leave a comment

“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

Anne Frank

Categories: Randomness Tags: ,