Posts Tagged ‘general’

Yu Ho Jin

Half of me wants to know how the hell he does that, and the other half wants, just as much, not to know, 'cause it doesn't want the illusion spoiled.

H/T: Richard Wiseman.

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Right. The last few posts have been of the ranty kind, so let's lighten up for a bit shall we, Gentle Reader? And talking of readers, hello to the several new followers I seem to have attracted over the last week or so. I know not what you saw in my inane blitherings, but thanks anyway, for voluntarily subjecting yourselves to more. You fools!


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An Illogical Endeavour

Been a bit busy the last few days, and not written anything, so here's another oldie, reposted from the old site.

First published, 08 June 11

Beautiful picture of the Endeavour’s last landing, over at Astronomy Picture Of The Day. Kinda sad, too, as an era draws to a close. But things move on, and that's not why I mention it. No, I have a quibble with the description:

“In a rare night landing last week, Endeavour glided onto a runway…”

My problem is with the word, ‘glided’. I know it's correct, but it doesn't sound right, like ‘hanged’. (Actually, I can’t think of a single time I've ever heard ‘hanged’ outside the context of capital punishment.) It’s perfectly logical, and really what I ought to be arguing for is the eradication of its illogical counterparts, like ‘slid’ and ‘hung’. Any child, or any adult new to the language for that matter, wanting to describe a friend's fall on some ice, but never having conjugated the verb ‘to slide’ before, would be perfectly justified in saying their friend ‘slided’. But to us who've grown up in the language, it sounds like a childish mistake. So yes, logically, I should be arguing for the removal of ‘slid’. But I'm not. I can’t help it. I did grow up in the language, and ‘glided’ sounds just as childish as ‘slided’, to me. They sound, to my ear, like childish simplifications; like the application of logic to an inherently illogical subject.

So here's my very own new past tense for the verb ‘to glide’:

I glid, you glid, she/he/it glid, we glid, you glid, they glid.

Much nicer, and kind of poetic-sounding too, I think.

And the plural of ‘fan’ is ‘fen’. Just ask any SF reader.

No, the past tense of ‘to side’ should not be ‘sid’. That'd be just plain daft…

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This is another post from the old site that I hadn’t planned on migrating to this one. Not sure why I changed my mind but I did, so, erm, well… here it is.

Though I’ve corrected a lamentably huge number of typos, I’ve resisted the urge to edit several overrun sentences and other grammar/style horrors. They reflect my mood at the time, so ‘let ’em stand’, I say.

Originally published: 01 June 11

I’ve not been around on comment-boards much, the last few days. Here’s why…

Been a busy few days for me. Saturday morning I got some hideous computer virus that played audio advertising at me, redirected my browser to pages full of adverts, and basically made the web unusable. Closing every unrecognised process in Task Manager worked for a couple of minutes, as did booting into safe-mode, but nothing I did got rid of it. So after a couple of hours of restarting, booting into Ubuntu, where I could at least look for suggestions online, and then back into Windows to try them out, I gave up. I reinstalled Windows.


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A Quick Note

To anyone keeping an eye on this blog, and especially to those who’ve subscribed. I’m still in the process of moving old posts, so there’ll be quite a lot of new posts appearing over the next few days. While I’m almost caught up with the ranty stuff, I’ve hardly touched the Tools & Tips, so expect to learn much more about how to play around with browsers and the Windows™ operating system than you probably want to…

It’ll be quite painless, and only last a few days, I promise!

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Follow The Money

Originally posted, 17 June 11.

Usually, when I start one of these rants, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to say, and how I want to say it. Then, as I write, side-issues and digressions pop into my head, and I just have to include those too. Which probably explains some of the many-claused and overlong sentences I end up inflicting on my readers. Sorry ’bout that! This time, though, I’m doing the opposite. I’m starting with a set of vague ideas—mostly stemming (unless I change horses midstream again) from a recent rereading of Marx and Engels’ Manifesto Of The Communist Party.

Before I start, I want to state that I am in no way a communist, especially as defined by those who point to the authoritarian regimes of Mao, Stalin and the like. That said…

The basic ideal of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ is, I think, a noble ideal to aim for, though probably unattainable. Various practicalities—which evidently escaped the starry-eyed intellectuals who flocked to ‘the cause’ between the wars—tend to rear their ugly heads. For starters, it treats all people as equal, when people most definitely aren’t. I don’t mean ‘equal before the law,’ which they are, or at least should be, I mean equal in outlook or desire. Some people, for whatever reason, crave power, riches, recognition or a host of other things, to a greater degree than the average person. Indeed, the very fact that we could (in theory) find an ‘average’ desire for (whatever) means that most people will be either above that average or below it. That’s why it’s an average, not an extreme. (Many people seem to forget this simple fact; especially, for some reason, when the questions of IQ and relative wealth are discussed.)

The ideal communist state would be one in which everyone did their utmost for the collective and only took what they needed. No one would try to play the system to get more out than they put in, or to ensure that their offspring got even more out while putting even less in, thus starting a dynasty of parasites. Nice. And also unrealistic to even the most casual observer of human nature. It might work in small communities, where those who don’t like the system are free to leave it, or those who play it for personal advantage can be forced to leave it. It’ll never work in country-sized communities, though, as the demise of Communist Russia showed (or the degeneration of China into capitalism in all but name). For starters, anything that big has to have administration, and for administration to be effective it has to have the authority to tell people what to do. And already we have an inequality. Those who exercise power will be those who want to exercise power, and it’s a truism that the thirst for power is never slaked, merely assuaged. And, of course, being in a position of authority, the subset of real megalomaniacs will be in the best place to make sure they get more of what they want. And to stop that happening, along with more traditional types of crime, you need a police force of some description as well as a system of judiciary, which gives us two more lines of access to power in one fell swoop. What then? Well, oversight committees, I suppose, but quis custodiet ipsos custodes? It’s turtles all the way down.

Nope, the whole thing’s a bust from the get-go. Human beings are not jellies, and won’t be forced into moulds. What you end up with is, in effect, not what would seem like a lefty’s wet dream, but the most oppressive state you can imagine.

And that’s just the obvious, gross effect. If we take the ‘to each according to need’ clause at face value, things get really interesting. Does that mean that my neighbour, or a total stranger, for that matter, can wander in one morning, enquire as to how far I have to travel, trump me with a longer distance and take my car; all without a by-your-leave? Or is there some official process they have to go through? (Back to power structures again!) In which case we both waste X-amount of time going through the red tape, only to discover that she doesn’t need my car anymore, because it’s too late for her to reach that urgent appointment. Or maybe the clause wouldn’t be taken to such extremes at all. But then, where is the line, and who draws it? Who enforces it?

Back here in the non-imaginary world, we also have our inequalities, and I don’t just mean in desire or outlook. And this is where Marx and Engels were, I think, right, though they dressed it up in pseudo-intellectual claptrap and, I have to say, some of the worst, obfuscatory and downright boring prose I’ve ever come across. (I’ve been told that they’re actually quite readable, compared to much modern philosophy. I wouldn’t know, and don’t particularly care to find out.) And the inequality in question is financial.

The top (in financial terms) few percent of western society ‘earn’ more in a week than most of us will see in a year. And the top few of those will likely earn more in a week or a month then most will see in a lifetime. You’ll have noticed the quotes around ‘earn,’ I assume. Just how is it that they ‘earn’ this income? They don’t produce goods or services; don’t even directly control those who do. Those at the very top manipulate abstracts. Abstract future profits, abstract money, abstract predictions of how they think a business or group of businesses ought to perform. They don’t even own Marx’s ‘means of production.’ They control the people who control the people who own the corporations who own the companies who own the factories which employ the people who produce the goods. And the people at the bottom who do the work, provide the goods, the medicine, the power, the education, the whatever, end up being laid off ‘because profits are lower than expected’, or worse, ‘are projected to be lower than we’d like’. Not ‘because we’ve made a loss’, or ‘will make a loss,’ you’ll note. Just that ‘we’ll make a £12 mllion profit instead of £14 million.’ Boo fuckin’ hoo.

People who could retire tomorrow, not take in a penny more—even in interest—for the rest of their lives, and still allot themselves more spending-money from their capital per week than we’d see in a decade, make decisions that force workers, or ‘downsized’ ex-workers, into situations where they have a choice between turning the heating on for a few hours or buying a loaf of bread. And you know what? Complain loudly enough, tell them they should contribute back to the communities of people who’ve been the bedrock of their fortune-making, and they’ll brand you a communist and a ‘big government’ authoritarian.

I’m not one of those who thinks the only ‘real work’ is that which gives you an aching back or blistered hands, but I wish these people could be made to put in a month’s work on a production line. Have to experience feet that ache so much that for the last hour or so of the shift they’re almost all you can think about. Ditto back-ache. Or made to take one paid ten-minute break and try to down a decently hot drink in that time. That goes double in any job where protective clothing has to be removed and put back on before and after the two-minute walk to and from the canteen; call it four minutes to cue up for, buy, and drink a hot beverage. Oh, you get a half-hour break too, to eat a meal in. Isn’t that nice. Pity it’s unpaid, and you’ll be penalised if you’re even a minute late back. Mostly though, I wish they could experience the total, abject, mind-numbing boredom of performing the same robot-like action, generally a few motions that take less than five seconds, over and over and over again, with the line constantly sped up to the point where you can only just keep up with it, all day, every day. For peanuts. Not because the person doing the job is unintelligent or unambitious, but because they have a family to feed and can’t afford the risk of failure if they try to move up the ladder.

The risk, I might add, greatly exaggerated by the speed with which those same financiers and their underlings will foreclose on a mortgage, or kick out tenants who can’t afford this month’s rent. Plus, of course, a pyramid has, by nature, more stones on the bottom layer than the second, more on the second than the third, and so forth. There just ain’t room for that many people to move up. ‘You don’t like it? Get off yer fat arse and improve yourself,’ we’re told, but woe-and-betide anyone who would point out that most of us simply aren’t paid enough to pay for any sort of meaningful training, or that there simply aren’t that many upward options available, even if we could. Christ, on the other side of the pond, in ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, Marx’s proletariat are having a hard time getting something as obviously beneficial-to-all as decent universal health-care, because that’s, you know…socialism. You think those who cynically block that really give a damn about the conditions the working class have to live in?

We were meant to be living in a golden age. Our medicines would seem quite literally miraculous to an earlier age. Through technology, we can talk to people all over the world in real time, keep our houses at year-round moderate summer temperatures and our food fresh for days or even weeks. Yet some people still have to scrimp for the price of something as basic as a loaf of bread, while others could lose the price of a bakery as well as the farm that produced the wheat, and still not suffer any more than a feeling of aggravation at the loss. And yet they tell us that they would be put upon by more taxes and more public spending.

I’ve no objection to some people being richer than others. I do have an objection to those who have never done more for their money than manipulate figures, or more likely paid someone else to do so, telling the people who provide the ultimate basis for that money’s existence that they deserve their poverty, the ease with which their lives can be ruined through no fault of their own, and their all-too-often hand-to-mouth existence.

As I said at the beginning, this is more of a collection of vague ideas on a theme than a thought-out, pre-planned essay, so we now leap sideways to percentages.

Percentages are, I think, used in a slightly underhanded way. They make things look much more equal than they are. We’re taxed by them, polled by them and get our pay-rises by them. Here’s my problem with them, though. They don’t equate to what we can do with the money we gain or lose by them.

Let’s say that someone earning £1,000 per month gains 1%, either by tax-cut, wage-rise or a combination of both. What does that get her?

£10, obviously. That’s roughly seven loaves of anything that I’d care to call ‘bread,’ as opposed to a mass of air-bubbles held together by limp dough-like structures. Not bad.

Now let’s say someone earns £2,000. She gains, with the same percentage, £20. Hey what d’ya know? She can afford margarine, a block of cheese, a pot of jam and possibly some marmalade too!

Assuming that such simple sandwiches are all we aspire to, food-wise, look what happens when they get the same rise the following year. We’ll assume inflation eats up the odd pound or two, so that in real terms they gain roughly £10 and £20 respectively, again.

The first person can now afford the cheese, jam, marge and marmalade too, but the second now has £20 to spare. She can save, buy luxuries, whatever.

Year three, and person A now has (in theory) £10 disposable, while person B now has £40.

Year four, and the gap widens still further to £20 versus £60.

See what I mean? The gain looked fair. One percent each. But in actual fact, and in terms of how much the gain can be used to improve lives, person B will draw further and further ahead.

But it gets worse.

The whole philosophy of capitalism can be boiled down to ‘charge as much as you can get away with’. In this case, that means you charge as much as you can for necessities, based on what the lowest earners can pay for them. Every time person A makes that one percent gain, her shopping bill is going to rise to match (which is all that pay-rises which match inflation are supposed to do, after all). Person A is, in fact—unless she’s lucky enough to find a better-paying job—stuck on what’s aptly known as the bread-line. Person B, on the other hand, is still making gains. At the slower rate of about £10 a month per year maybe, but still gains. Person B, in fact, will at some point have enough extra to pay for an evening class, gain a hopefully well-chosen basic qualification, and jump right ahead. Forget the training even. A slightly more expensive suit for the interview could be all that tilts the balance, or turning up in a vehicle that’s better maintained. Eat my dust, person A! Using wage increases by percentage to make real improvements only works if you’re not at the very bottom, which is, ironically, where you really really need them.

So next time minimum and almost-minimum wage earners are awarded that oh-so-generous inflation-matching rise, and the pro-forma complaints from the better-off come rolling off the press, just stop and think who’s actually gaining, when the ‘equal’ percentage-based pay-rise works its way up the pyramid. ‘Cause it won’t be the poor sods living on dry bread, I promise you that.

Nothing of the above is new, and others have phrased it better, but hell, I got it off me chest. And how do I feel now about Marx and Engels’ great work? Well they got the problem dead to rights, but any bloody idiot could do that. Indeed many before them had. Their solution, however, was ill-thought-out, wordy, pie in the sky rubbish. Unfortunately a lot of people listened, and many in Russia, eastern Europe, China, and many other places, have paid the price.

What is the solution? I don’t know. We live in a democracy, which kinda knocks on the head the idea of forcing people to do what we think they should without the process being mediated by politicians, most of whom—of all political colours—these days appear to be wannabe fat-cats in training, and wouldn’t seem to be willing to leave the gravy-train unless forced.

I offer no solution. Just a rant.

Oh, and in case you’re thinking I’ve strayed a bit from my usual anti-religious path, just who do you think finance the Tea Party and most of the other right-wing religio-political organisations? Who have the most to gain by financing organisations that want to keep those lefty, evolutionist, clean energy, evidence-following, equal-rights for all, socialist, climate-change pushing liberals out of power?



Alice Sprinklings

When I was in university (the first time), I had a friend who had these grandiose dreams and plans. One night, we all got sloppy drunk for Halloween and he was describing some scheme when a moment of clarity struck him, and he mumbled into his wine (he was Dionysus) , “It would awesome if it worked.” A heartbeat of sad reflection. “But it never works.”

That’s the feeling I always have about Communism. I get how great it would be if we could all live in harmony sharing everything, but that’s not how the fucking world works and we all learned that, or should have learned that, if not from the Russia example, but from the hippie communes (in the US, did you have hippies over there?) and all such things in the 60s and 70s. It never works. And it’s never going to.

As for the other, I don’t know. I wish I could see our way to Socialism, I’ve never understood the weirdly American viewpoint that we’d rather suffer alone than be well together. Is it the Puritan strain from the outcasts y’all sent here? There’s this quote that just about sums it up: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” – John Steinbeck


Yep, we had hippies here too, and they were just as delusional. Fortunately my generation had the punk movement, which was nasty-ish, but less pie-in-the-sky.

“…because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Good book that makes that same point, amongst others. Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. For some reason I ended up with the audio version and, though I’m not really a fan of audio books, I ‘read’ the whole thing in one sitting.

It’s a constant amazement to me that so many people can be persuaded to vote against their own interests. Mind you, I know over there a lot of it’s disguised as ‘Christian values’ and the like, so I shouldn’t really be surprised. Still am though.


Oops. Missed a bit.

Puritan outcasts. Very sorry about that. Not enough to take ’em back, mind, but sorry…

“Y’all” *Swoon* Tell Mr Alice if you keep using that, it’s gonna be pistols at dawn for your favours! (BTW, My sis totally agreed with him re the Belgariad.)

Alice Sprinklings

-adds that to the ever-growing list of books to read-

But someday when they’re millionaires, what they voted for will be in their interests! Plus, God said so and America Is A Christian Nation™!

He says you’ll have to queue up, there’s apparently a long line? (It seems there’s a fellow at work who idly wonders from time to time if we have an open marriage.) I think ya’ll are crazy. (See what I did there?)


And there’ll be pie in the sky, by and by…

*sighs and joins the back of the queue*

“I think ya’ll are crazy.”

Yep, I sawed what you didded! And you fish well, too…

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Originally posted, 16 Dec 10.

Three Remarkable Human Journeys

Footprints In The Sands Of Time

These ancient footprints were left about 3.5 million years ago, by two adults and a child believed to be members of the species Australopithecus afarensis, one of our direct ancestors. While clearly adapted for living in trees, they are also known to have walked upright much of the time. If you’re looking for ‘the’ link between humans and apes, and don’t want to worry too much about technicalities, I reckon this would be as good a stage of our ancestry as any to choose.

These footprints were left in the Severn Estuary, in south Wales, some 8,500 years ago, by a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer. Other prints found in the area dating to the same time period point to a good reason for him having been there. They include, along with other humans, red deer, pelicans and sheep. South Wales can boast a much longer human history than this though, remarkable as it is. The Red Lady of Paviland, discovered in 1823, is the ochre-coated skeleton of what turned out to be a man (well, it’s a mistake we’ve all made with kittens…), some 29,000 years old.

And, we couldn’t leave out the most famous footprint in history. Iconic in the true sense of the word, this is, of course, Neil Armstrong’s famous size 9½B. The last footprint left on the moon was that of Eugene Cernan, who also left his daughter’s initials scratched in the lunar dust. Cernan was also the last to drive the lunar rover, attaining a lunar land-speed record of 11.2 mph (18.0 km/h) as he did so.

The Might Of The Pen

This 5,500-year-old scrap of pottery, found in Harappa, Pakistan, may be the oldest piece of writing ever discovered. With rela­tively brief exceptions dur­ing the Greek and Roman periods, though, only the bureaucratic and priestly classes (often the terms would be interchangeable) would have any degree of numeracy or literacy, until well into the second millennium AD.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of the written word knows that Johannes Gutenberg was the first to use moveable type, right? Wrong. Unsurprisingly, we should look to the east, and 400-odd years earlier. Sometime around 1040, Bi Sheng in China was using wooden moveable type, soon replaced by more hard-wearing moulded clay letters. The first use of metal type is attributed to Choe Yun-ui, a Korean, in 1234. Not that this casts any shadow over Gutenberg, though — he’s surely not the first, nor the last, person ever to have independently invented or re-invented something. And, without a doubt, his moveable type, which he added to the already old technology of the screw-press, played a major role in the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, as well as paving the way to the spread of literacy and knowledge to the ordinary person. Indeed it’s hard to imagine that many of the social reforms since that time, from women’s rights to trade unions could have come about without some degree of literacy among the masses, which would surely be impossible without mass-produced, cheap books.

In 1989, Tim Berners Lee, working as a contractor at CERN, wrote a proposal for “a large hypertext database with typed links”. The problem he was looking at was that because of the huge variety of makes and models of computers used there, there was no practical way of sharing data, other than to print it off (reams and reams of it, for any typical experiment), and manually enter it onto the new machine, in a format it could understand. The project eventually became known as ‘The World Wide Web’. He built HTML, and HTTP, the first server-software and the first browser. Oh, and the first web pages. In August 1991, he made the code available for free, and without claiming any property-rights, on the internet. As of 16th December 2010, those few pages have grown to at least 6.98 billion. Quite what the social impact will be, no-one knows for sure. At the moment, I suspect the changes — not just in hardware but in how it’s used — are coming too thick and fast, with novelty-based bandwagon-jumping and banner-waving standing in for long-term trend-analysis, for anyone to really see the woods for the trees. The first picture ever posted on the WWW, if you’re interested was this one, of CERN-based parody pop-group, Les Horribles Cernettes “the one and only High Energy Rock Band”, which leads us quite neatly to…

Pictures Of Home

Taken in 1839, this is one of the oldest photographs in existence. The subject is photogra­phic pioneer, mathematic­ian, chemist and astronomer, John Herschel’s 48 inch telescope in the grounds of his home, in Slough. Son of noted astronomer Sir William Herschel, he named the seven then-known satellites of Saturn: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus, and the four then-known satellites of Uranus: Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon.

The first photograph ever taken of the whole Earth (the Wikipedia caption, displaying a some­what over-zealous sense of technical correct­ness, adds the words ‘by humans’), from the Apollo 8 space­craft, in December 1968. I’ve seen claims that this is the most reproduced pho­tograph ever, but I’d bet my money on the famous Che Guevara picture taking that record. That one though, merely served as an empty gesture of rebellion for disaffected teenagers and pie-in-the-sky Marxists, while this one had profound effects. Membership of eco­logy and anti-nuclear-weapons groups rocketed (pun unintentional) after the Apollo 8 flight. There was our planet, home to every living creature known to exist, alone in a huge black void. Suddenly the fragility (a word it seems impossible to avoid) of our home was shown for all to see. And no-one had even thought, ahead of time, to take it. The crew were supposed to take pictures of the lunar surface, and this one was taken purely on a whim! You’d think they’d have learned a lesson from that, but no…

This one wasn’t scheduled either! Not, at least, until Carl Sagan suggested it. It was taken in 1990 by Voyager 1, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles, as the craft was about to leave the solar system, and shows the Earth as what has become known as ‘the pale blue dot’. It seems only fair to leave the last words to Sagan: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
—Carl Sagan (he’s the brainy one), and Daz

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