Thursday, September 30, 2004

30 September 2004: Blair

Just a quick note on Tony Blair's conference speech and the follow-up interviews he gave to all and sundry in its wake.

Of particular interest was the Radio 4 'Today' programme interview with John Humphrys. The interview can be heard in full on the Radio 4 website (RealPlayer required), and on two points Humphrys made the Prime Minister feel particularly uncomfortable. Blair stated in his conference speech that although the intelligence was wrong, the decision to go to war was still right. Which is to say, even if he had correct intelligence that Saddam had no WMDs and was no imminent threat, let alone had any links to Al-Qaeda (remember Colin Powell's speech to the UN?), it was still right, in Blair's opinion, to go to war. I thought we went to war because of the imminent threat from WMDs, and we couldn't wait another 6 months for the inspectors to finish their work and the French and Russians to get on board with the idea of another UN resolution? Apparantly not. Humphrys pressed on this point, and Blair wasn't too forthcoming, except to say that well, isn't it better to have got rid of Saddam than to still have him there?

Humphrys made a very good second point though. What if, he said, we had to go to war again, and Blair had to present a dossier of intelligence to the House of Commons as part of the debate? He'd get laughed out, wouldn't he? All hypothetical, said Blair, and anyway it would depend on the intelligence, not on the person presenting it.

But would it?

Even if a much more sound dossier of intelligence was produced, the very fact of Blair presenting it makes it much more likely to be doubted by the House of Commons and the general public than if it was presented, say, by Gordon Brown, Charles Kennedy or even Sonic the Hedgehog. (Not Michael Howard, of course: he and Rupert Lowe are the only two people less likely to be believed than Blair.) If we needed to go to war again in even vaguely similar circumstances (for instance, if North Korea began targetting missles at London) we simply couldn't if Blair was in charge. We simply couldn't, because nobody would believe a word he said. Blair has been, as far as I can see, a decent PM on domestic issues, and his foreign policies outside of US collaborations have been generally fair and upright (mainly thanks to the likes of Robin Cook and Clair Short). But Blair's reputation is now tarnished in the area of trust, and for him to remain at the top for much longer is not just ungentlemanly, it's downright dangerous.

In other matters, a fair replacement for Tony Blair perhaps would be Bobby Cox, long-standing manager of the Atlanta Braves who took a worst-place team in 1990 to a first-placed team in 1991, and goodness me, they've won their division 13 (thirteen) times in a row since then. The Braves victory over the Mets last night gave Cox his 2000th win, only the ninth manager to accomplish such a feat. The joy will last approximately nine days. By the end of next week the Braves will have lost in the first round of the playoffs as usual, and the winter ahead will be one of depressing budget-cuts and start player departures. This year was a miracle - Cox should get manager of the year for making this scraped-together bunch of players a big-win team - next year it could be nigh-on impossible. Still, it's only a game.

Isn't that right, Tony?

Thursday, September 23, 2004

23 September 2004: Spinners

A few days ago my sister phoned to say that despite the ongoing turmoil of selling a house in York in order to move to Salisbury (some kind of Cathedral transfer deal, I don't really get it), she is finding solace in the novels of one Jasper Fforde. "They're funny," she said. "It's like reading Douglas Adams but without the science."


Having previously only come across the 'Ff-' beginning of a name in two places (Ffion, wife of the ex-Tory leader William Hague, and Ffergal, a dog belonging to one of my cousins), I wasn't sure whether I could indeed read the books without thinking what a daft name the author had. But yesterday I ventured into Waterstones next door and found the last remaining copy of 'The Eyre Affair', and began perusing its pages last night.

Yes, it's good. I admit that quite readily. An alternative 1985 where the rules of nature are slightly different is very imaginative, and our heroine (one Thursday Next) is very likeable as a secret agent being bounced from secret department to secret department within SpecOps, the Special Operations organisation who seem to employ a lot of people despite offering no career progression. The use of classic literature as a popular medium in the place of, at various times, popular music, religion and even reality, is ingenious, and other nice touches include the fact that certain advances haven't been made: the Crimean War continues, for instance, and the jet engine has never been developed.

But my ears kept burning as I read on. And here's why.

Six years ago, in a fit of boredom, I sat down at my computer keyboard, pulled up a blank document and typed the first thing that came into my head.
"Unfortunately, it was the wig that gave him away."

That sentence became a paragraph and eventually a four-part story called 'Spinners', shared with numerous people down the years but unpublished (except on my website). A tale of public relations, political intrigue and semi-skimmed milk, Spinners was set in 2011. It dealt with the then-burgeoning Spin Doctor culture of the recently-elected New Labour government, detailing a possible future if things continued in the same direction. It followed the exploits of a young government employee, Peter Mackie, as he was bounced from secret department to secret department in an attempt to figure out and eventually foil a plot by the media to overthrow the government and install the Teletubbies as heads of the executive. Mackie eventually has to stand for Prime Minister himself but is beaten by a late challenge from Bill Gates, returning from years of exile, who rigs the pay-per-vote election on the Democracy Channel.

The story is different - Ffffffforde at least has decent characterisation and a more-than-two-dimensional story. But the settings and descriptions keep bothering me. For classic literature I kept reading 'Green Spin'; the Baconions sounded to me like the Parsley Sellers; Thursday's work colleagues Boswell and Paige Turner felt a lot like Lenny the Mouth and the constantly-gender-reversing Shelby. Some critics have panned The Eyre Affair for its lack of decent plotting and its clumsy use of literary devices (at one point Thursday picks up a mirror, essentially just to tell the reader what she looks like), but the point is this: is it readable? Is it a page-turner, just like the character? William Gibson's plots are sometimes a little on the light side, but he gets around that because of his stunning observational and descriptive writing. Fforde gets by, like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, through sheer inventiveness. Is it readable? The answer is yes, and I will continue to read The Eyre Affair with great enjoyment. But there are times when part of me thinks 'hmm, I could have written that a bit less clumsily', and times when part of me thinks 'but I already wrote that'. I'm not sure quite how it makes me feel, but it does make me feel something.

The Saga of Spin remains available for public viewing. The glossary I am particularly pleased with.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

21 September 2004: Shortt

While much of the sports press were (rightly) diverted by the story of the death of the best manager the England national team never had, one Brian Clough, there was another sad loss to the footballing world yesterday.

Bill Shortt was one of the great Plymouth Argyle team of the early 1950s. Under the captaincy of Jack 'Jumbo' Chisholm, the team won Division Three South in 1952 and even reached the dizzy heights of the F.A. Cup Fifth Round, a feat not matched until the Semi-Final team of 1984. With Maurice Tadman leading the line up front, Gordon Astall and Alec Govan roving down the wings, this was one of the great Argyle sides. Indeed, Shortt himself was for a while the Wales first-choice goalkeeper and along with Astall playing for Scotland, it was one of the most-capped Argyle teams in history - at least until this 2004 season, where Crawford and Capaldi are already established internationals and Gilbert, Coughlin and co may not be too far off.

Always in with a shout whenever Argyle fans choose their 'greatest ever' team, along with the likes of Bill Harper, Geoff Crudgington, John Willie Sutcliffe and Jim Furnell - who won the latest vote for the 'team of the century' last season (I voted for Shortt) - Shortt is one of Argyle's all-time greats. He lived in Plymouth after his retirement from the game, ran the Golden Hind for a bit, and was frequently seen at Home Park for special events. The old bald blokes in the grandstand (they of "Bleddy Barlow, take 'im orff Kemp") spoke very highly of Shortt and indeed the whole of Chilsholm's team, and even Barbara remembers him very well from her days in the Spion Kop.

RIP Bill, you'll always be a legend in green.

Meantime, reports that the Motion Picture Association of America, in their vehement crusade to rid the internet of illegal movie downloads, are using automated systems to find dodgy-looking links. The only problem is, they seem to be using "blind keyword matching" which means that poor old Linux Australia have started getting rather ferocious "take-down notices", demanding they remove the content and take action against the people who put the content there. The content they have a problem with? A Python-based framework called 'Twisted', and a memory management tool called 'Grind' - both of which simply happen to share their names with movies. Linux Australia, for their part, have refused to take down links to their own software, and are beginning legal moves against MPAA under - ready for it? - spam laws. Because, in the end, that's all MPAA are doing here -- unsolicited, unwanted and quite hassling email sent by an automated system on the basis of keyword-matching on a website.

Spam laws are here to protect us not only from the phantom breast enlarger, but also from big companies trying to flex their muscles. I hope Linux Australia get, at the very least, an apology. But somehow I doubt it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

14 September 2004: Oxygen

There was me getting all worried about the car accident last week where the guy smashed into the back of me, and then all that business with Rob and the Council Tax. How petty! Some people in this world have far greater troubles. The US cricket team, for instance. Or Fabrice Fernandes.

And those outside this world have even more problems.

CNN reports that the oxygen generation machine on board the International Space Station has broken, leaving the two guys up there - a Russian and an American - without their main source of breathable air. CNN seems to delight in reporting that it is a Russian unit that has failed, but more worrying were the responses of the NASA spokespeople.

"It's nothing to worry about," said Rob Navias, Night-Shift Spin-Controller at NASA, "We're all fat on oxygen. Anyway, if we run out of oxygen, we're hopeful the two astronauts will be able to mutate into fish, and they'll be able to live in the enormous swimming pool we're putting into the International Space Station next week. Wibble wobble. Time for the orange pills, I think."

A better bet would be to send them into Furry Gelf Space and see if they can trade the Russian guy for a replacement unit, like they did on Red Dwarf.

Friday, September 10, 2004

10 September 2004: Breathe

Whales live under water, but breathe air. This means every two hours or so they need to come UP to the surface, BREATHE an enormous deep breath and DIVE again.

Installing Citeseer is a little like that. A dry run on my Fedora-powered laptop took about a week, as I figured out how to solve the little problems along the way. And then UP and BREATHE and DIVE again to install it on the big server where it will actually live. Many more problems there, most of which caused by the 64-bit architecture of the RAID machine ("recompile shared library with -fPIC and try again"), but it's more-or-less been wrestled into place now. Not so much fitting a square peg in a round hole, more like fitting a water-balloon through a sharp-edged metallic hole of any nominal shape. Hold in one part of the balloon and it expands somewhere else; touch the edges of the hole and the whole thing breaks. Still, it seems to have been wrestled into some sort of submission-hold, and the Citeseer Diaries (currently standing at five hand-scribbled pages of A4) should be ready for comsumption soon.

And UP and BREATHE...

But before I dive again, I was thinking about what I was doing a year ago. In the midst of the move from London to Southampton, a surprising amount of my spare time was being taken up with a most bizarre yet strangely relevant experiment. Sept 10th 2003 was the day Kamgod moved offices from his familiar abode across to the new building that we had all watched being built over the period of a few months.

For those of you initiated, those uninitiated and those still on the waiting list, a quick explanation: Trogdor (a person assuming the name of the dragon, not the actual dragon) discovered (burninated) a guy, nominally 'a professor' (actually he did have an honorary doctorate) who had set up a webcam in his office. No links to it, Trogdor found it by mis-typing an IP address (as we all do from time to time, often deliberately, just to see what's out there). The aim was this: purely through use of the camera (which we, the viewer, could control the movements of), we were to get his attention and get him to visit, and eventually to post a message on the William Gibson Board.

Took six months and we failed miserably, although I came very close at one point when a sequence of events known as The Fist Of Matey meant I got his attention but blew it by not zooming in on the keyboard quickly enough. Eventually we sent the guy a basket of goodies and told him what we were doing. He responded and left us a message on the WGB, and that was pretty much that. Apparantly, his niece got into the whole thing rather more than the professor himself ever did. But it would be wrong of me to divulge such information. As it would be to tell you that his real name was Bob.

The webcam was discontinued at the end of January. The thread discontinued on Feb 18 2004, and appropriately the final entry read "lol lmao". Summed up the whole thing, I think.

But it was good while it lasted.